"'Across the little covered bridge, and then along the village street about quarter of a mile.' Do go on, mother."
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Pidgie Mullen looked up at her pale mother with a sweet, flushed eagerness, which brought her a trembling kiss, as Mrs. Mullen answered, "You know the story better than I do now, dear!"
"Yes," said little invalid Belle from her pillow on the lounge, "and then you turned up the narrow north road—a very, very shady, cold road—and went up hill, and up hill, and up hill. Oh, you tell it, mother, you make it so much nicer!"
So the tired little mother, working hard from day to day for her fatherless young brood, waited a few moments before lighting the evening lamp for her sewing, and told the girls for the five-hundredth time the lovely story of how she used to go "May-flowering" when she was a little girl. Just as she was closing, a light step was heard on the stairs, and in came Cherry. Cherry was fifteen, and she took care every day—coming home at night—of the children of Mrs. Lester, in the big house around the corner.
"I heard you before I opened the door," she began, laughing, and kissing her mother. "I knew it was the same old story, and that you had just about got to the place where you fell into the brook, and the arbutus went sailing off down stream. I declare I'd enjoy hearing it over again myself."
"Not to-night," said her mother, smiling. "I must go to work now, and you will have to rub Belle, and give her her medicine, and put her to bed."
The short hour of rest was over, and Mrs. Mullen turned wearily again to her sewing. Pidgie took up her books and began to study, and Cherry and Belle went into the little bedroom close by, where Cherry gently undressed her feeble little sister.
"Oh, Cherry," said Belle, who, though only two years younger than Cherry, was no taller than ten-year-old Pidgie, and not nearly so heavy—"oh, Cherry, it seems as though if I could only go up to that dear little village where mother used to live, and get some May-flowers, and smell them, and the fresh earth! Oh, Cherry!"—the tears streamed down the child's thin cheeks—"I wouldn't tell mother for the world, for I know she would feel so badly; but I'm so very, very tired of the city, and I seem to grow sicker and sicker."
"It isn't very nice up in the country in this April weather," said Cherry, cheerfully. "The roads are muddy, and there's lots of rain and snow. Mother says it's often horrid."
"Only," interrupted Belle, "when there is a pleasant day, it is perfectly splendid."
"Yes," said Cherry, doubtfully, "but I fancy they don't come more than once a week or so."
"Oh yes," cried Belle, deprecatingly, "oftener than that."
"It costs nearly four dollars a ticket to go up there, too," continued Cherry.
"Yes, I know"—Belle spoke a trifle crossly and impatiently, she was so tired, and so weak, and so seldom "had anything"—"I know I can't go, but it must smell very sweet up there; and oh! I'd love to go."
"Dear little sister," said Cherry, tucking her in tenderly, and setting a tumbler of water and a call-bell and the camphor bottle on the little stand by the bedside, "maybe we'll have things some time." She kissed Belle softly, and then went back to sit by her mother. Soon her needle was flying fast too. Cherry was a good girl, and they all depended a great deal upon her.
"Your story reminds me, mother," said Cherry, as she sewed, "that I saw some bunches of May-flowers for sale when I was out walking with the children to-day."
"Did you?" said Mrs. Mullen, in some surprise. "They are very early this year."
"Yes," said Cherry, absently. "I asked the woman how much they cost, and she said twenty-five cents, but that they would be ten by a week more."
"I wish that we could pick a few bushels from the great banks of them that stretch along by the brook that I have told you about."
"Are there so many as that?" Cherry's voice was full of astonishment, and Pidgie looked up from her book, and began to grow interested.
"Oh yes," said her mother, "and back on the hill there are banks more that open later."
Cherry thought hard that night until she fell asleep. The next day she had a long conversation with Mrs. Lester, and at night she had another one with her mother.
"Dear Cherry," Mrs. Mullen said, as Cherry rose at last to cover the fire and go to bed, "if you can get the money, and if you feel sure that you can take the whole charge of Belle and all, why, I'll write up to my old school-mate, Mrs. Rogers—how I'd love to see her again!—and I'm sure that she would keep you; but I don't see how you'll ever do it."
But in less than a week after this conversation, such was Cherry's business-like promptness, a hack came to the door and bore Cherry and pale little Belle, in whose tired eyes a new light was shining, to the railroad station; and late in the afternoon they alighted at the door of the big, old-fashioned mansion in Clearpond, where Mrs. Rogers lived, and where they were very near the house in which Mrs. Mullen had lived twenty years before. Alas! the dear grandfather and grandmother and the uncles and aunts were all dead or scattered now!
Belle had borne the journey wonderfully well. It is amazing how much happiness will help us to bear!
The secret of all this was that Cherry, as you must have already suspected, had determined in her own quick, brave little mind, to take Belle and come up into the country to pick May-flowers!
Early the next morning, having fixed Belle up as well as she could, and promising to bring her some May-flowers by noon, Cherry set off to see what she could see.
"Across the little covered bridge," just as her mother had said, "about a quarter of a mile through the village street, then a sharp turn to the right, then up the narrow, cold north road."
A steep tug for half a mile. Then into the pastures. Ah! how lovely it was! Cherry looked off, and saw the river below, and beyond it the mountain that her mother had so often told her about. The day was one of those rare sunny ones that Belle had hoped for. The sunlight seemed to sift through the air in even, kindly measure upon everything. Cherry sat down upon a big stone, and warmed and rested herself after her long, cold journey up "the very, very shady road." Then she fell to work: Alas! alas! she found the green leaves of the arbutus, which she knew very well, all about—by poking for them under the brown covering of last year's twigs and foliage—but though there were green buds in profusion, she found only half a dozen tiny half-opened fragrant blossoms.
"Well," thought Cherry, bravely, but, after all, with a sinking at heart, for she feared that the flowers wouldn't open for a week, "it's better to be too early than too late, and Mrs. Lester has said that I might stay a month—but I do wish that they were open now."
As she walked down the quiet road she felt very lonesome.
"How nice it would be," she wished, "if Belle would only get well enough to climb the hill with me!" But Cherry sighed. She feared that dear little Belle would never get well enough to climb such a hill as that. Altogether Cherry felt a bit blue. As she neared the pretty village, however, she remembered the myriads of buds that she had left behind her, and how happy Belle was, and before she had taken her hat off, these thoughts, and the sunshine, and the sweet spring smells that were blowing all about her on the soft spring breezes, had brought a color to her face and a gayety to her manner that quite overcame little Belle, waiting with almost pathetic eagerness at the window to welcome her return.
"I tried to lie down—I really did, Cherry," she said; "but I thought I'd walk out into Aunty Rogers's garden—she says always call her Aunty Rogers—and see her daffodils, and I did."
"You did!" cried Cherry, her cup of delight overflowing. "What! after that journey, and everything? Why, it's splendid! But I'm afraid you've overdone."
"Oh no." Belle's happy voice did not sound at all alarming.
"See here," said Cherry, drawing out a spray of arbutus from her basket. "Almost May-flowers, Belle. Just smell of them." The half-opened little buds were indeed as fragrant as though they were in their prime.
The sick girl's face flushed. She ran to the lounge, and hid her face in the pillow.
"Oh, Cherry," she cried, looking up a moment later, tearful but smiling, "if mamma were only here, I should be perfectly happy!"
Just then Aunty Rogers came in to call them to supper.
"Well, well," she said, pleasantly, "I can't see what folks dew think so much o' them little May-flowers for. I'm sure my daffies is a great deal handsomer. But then they be sweet-scented, May-flowers be, and I'm glad they're here, seeing you like 'em."
That night the little spray was placed in a vase by Belle's camphor bottle on the table.
"I don't believe I'll want the camphor to-night, Cherry," she said; "the May-flowers'll be all I'll want. If I wake up in the night, I'll smell of them." And, at the risk of anticipating my story a little, I must tell you that the camphor bottle was never put back again.
The next day was a warm and showery one, a hot sun blazing out between the quiet little rains. Cherry did not go up on the hill at all. In fact, young and strong as she was, and soundly as she had slept on Aunty Rogers's plump feather-bed, she was a trifle lame after her unaccustomed exertions of the day before.
"If it's May-flowers you want," said Aunty Rogers, as she looked out at the April weather, "this'll fetch 'em quicker'n anything else, an' there'll be more'n a fortnit of 'em, countin' in them that's back on the hill. They're dretful late."
It was only five o'clock the next morning when Cherry Mullen stepped briskly up the "cold north road." She carried with her two big market-baskets. Aunty Rogers had assured her that if she only looked "long-side o' them clumps o' laurels that's scattered on the west side, across from the old Thayer place," she would find plenty of arbutus after such a day as the one before. So Cherry felt very comfortable in the bright morning, as she marched along, munching a big slice of bread and butter with great zeal.
She went home at ten, and though she had to take one market-basket empty—for she was still a little hasty in her expectations—the other was quite full of such delicate, fragrant, rose-tinted arbutus as grows only, I believe, in Clearpond.
Once home, you would have thought that Cherry would have thrown herself on the lounge to rest, for she was pretty tired; but she did no such thing. On the contrary, she sat down with a pair of scissors, beside the mass of pink fragrant blossoms, and industriously culled and clustered the brightest among them, under the delighted supervision of dear little Belle, into dozens of sweet little bouquets, each with its sprig of "running pine," and its bright furbishing of partridge or checker berries. These she sprinkled, and bringing out from her trunk a mysterious roll, which Belle had inquired about several times, she cut off a generous allowance of cotton batting, dampened it, and carefully surrounding her precious little nosegays with it, she put them into a box, tied it up, and sent it by the noon train to "Miss Pidgie Mullen."
The train reached the city at four o'clock, and a bright, modest little girl was at the station to welcome it, and to bear away the box as soon as the express agent could hand it to her. Cherry had told her just how to do it.
Then catching a car, she was soon at a certain prominent street, where she got off. The gentlemen and ladies who were sauntering along this street presently saw such an array of fresh spring blossoms before them that very few of them felt that they could resist buying, for ten cents, a bunch of the lovely things, and by a little after six Pidgie's boxful was entirely gone.
Then she ran home, and up the narrow, creaking stairs her light step passed more lightly and joyously than ever.
"I meant to save one for you, mamma," she cried, excitedly; "but a gentleman came along just as I was starting for home, and he said, 'None left?' 'Only one.' I told him I was going to take that to my mother. 'Won't this do just as well?' he said, and he held up a silver quarter. 'Oh, it's only ten cents,' I told him. 'But if I take your mother's,' he said, 'of course I ought to pay more,' and he took the bunch—it was such a sweet bunch, mamma!—and tossed me the quarter. And just look here!" and Pidgie emptied her porte-monnaie, full of shining silver pieces, into her mother's lap.
This kind of life was continued by the Mullens for nearly a month. The grand event of that month up in the country was the celebration of the 1st of May, a week after Cherry and Belle had arrived there. This consisted—as the 1st of May was one of the very sunniest and most delightful that ever was seen—of a kind of picnic, in which Aunty Rogers and her husband participated, and which was actually attended by Belle. She was carried up to the pasture in Mr. Rogers's wagon, scrambled out to the arbutus beds on her own little feet, with Cherry's help, and finding a seat on a big warm rock beside the little brook, ate some of Aunty Rogers's nice sandwiches there with a relish which a week before was quite unknown to her.
Then there was a surprise. Mr. Rogers had built a fire, hung a kettle over it between some crotched sticks, and was soon stirring with a long stick a mass of golden-colored liquid, which gave out an odor that Cherry declared was almost as good as that of her beautiful flowers. Before long Mr. Rogers conducted her and Belle to a cool, shady place, just on the edge of the woods, where the sun had spared, as in several other similar spots, a great solid snow-drift. From this the top was scraped smoothly away, leaving a shining hard white surface, on which Aunty Rogers dropped spoonful after spoonful of the clear, fragrant syrup, which hardened as it touched the snow into delicious maple wax. The girls had never eaten anything so nice before, and they thought that they never had enjoyed themselves quite so well as in the sunshine of that exquisite May-day, picking sweet flowers, watching the swift, sparkling little brook, and eating the delicious sugar that had been made only the March before from Mr. Rogers's own maple-trees. Belle said that she gained a whole pound of flesh that day, and indeed perhaps she did. She certainly gained several pounds before the time came for them to go back to the city again.
For that time did really come, just before the May glided into June. Nearly every day during the delightful four weeks of their happy visit Cherry had trudged early up to the pasture with her baskets, coming back in time to make up her sweet bouquets for the noon train, and resting through the long pleasant afternoons; and every day in the city, when school was done, a merry, tidy little girl hurried down to the express office, and back to the busy streets laden with the fresh pink nosegays, for which the frequenters of those streets soon learned to watch with interest, and which they bought generously. Indeed, Pidgie's demands, like Oliver Twist's, for "more,"[Pg 420] grew so urgent, and her reports of her profits were so encouraging, that Cherry had to employ one of the neighbors' boys to go up in the pastures with her every morning during the last ten days of her stay. But she did not have to get any one to help her "make them up," for Belle, under the longed-for country air and sights and sounds, grew able to help her herself, and before she went home she could do quite the lion's share of that work.