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Chapter 5 – Secrets

Louisa May AlcottNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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There were a great many clubs in Harmony Village, but as we
intend to interest ourselves with the affairs of the young folks only,
we need not dwell upon the intellectual amusements of the elders.
In summer, the boys devoted themselves to baseball, the girls to
boating, and all got rosy, stout, and strong, in these healthful
exercises. In winter, the lads had their debating club, the lasses a
dramatic ditto. At the former, astonishing bursts of oratory were
heard; at the latter, everything was boldly attempted, from Romeo
and Juliet to Mother Goose’s immortal melodies. The two clubs
frequently met and mingled their attractions in a really entertaining
manner, for the speakers made good actors, and the young
actresses were most appreciative listeners to the eloquence of each
budding Demosthenes.

Great plans had been afoot for Christmas or New Year, but when
the grand catastrophe put an end to the career of one of the best
"spouters," and caused the retirement of the favorite "singing
chambermaid," the affair was postponed till February, when
Washington’s birthday was always celebrated by the patriotic town,
where the father of his country once put on his nightcap, or took
off his boots, as that ubiquitous hero appears to have done in every
part of the United States.

Meantime the boys were studying Revolutionary characters, and
the girls rehearsing such dramatic scenes as they thought most
appropriate and effective for the 22d. In both of these attempts
they were much helped by the sense and spirit of Ralph Evans, a
youth of nineteen, who was a great favorite with the young folks,
not only because he was a good, industrious fellow, who supported
his grandmother, but also full of talent, fun, and ingenuity. It was
no wonder every one who really knew him liked him, for he could
turn his hand to anything, and loved to do it. If the girls were in
despair about a fire-place when acting "The Cricket on the
Hearth," he painted one, and put a gas-log in it that made the kettle
really boil, to their great delight. If the boys found the interest of
their club flagging, Ralph would convulse them by imitations of
the "Member from Cranberry Centre," or fire them with speeches
of famous statesmen. Charity fairs could not get on without him,
and in the store where he worked he did many an ingenious job,
which made him valued for his mechanical skill, as well as for his
energy and integrity.

Mrs. Minot liked to have him with her sons, because they also
were to paddle their own canoes by and by, and she believed that,
rich or poor, boys make better men for learning to use the talents
they possess, not merely as ornaments, but tools with which to
carve their own fortunes; and the best help toward this end is an
example of faithful work, high aims, and honest living. So Ralph
came often, and in times of trouble was a real rainy-day friend.
Jack grew very fond of him during his imprisonment, for the good
youth ran in every evening to get commissions, amuse the boy with
droll accounts of the day’s adventures, or invent lifts, bed-tables,
and foot-rests for the impatient invalid. Frank found him a sure
guide through the mechanical mysteries which he loved, and spent
many a useful half-hour discussing cylinders, pistons, valves, and
balance-wheels. Jill also came in for her share of care and comfort;
the poor little back lay all the easier for the air-cushion Ralph got
her, and the weary headaches found relief from the spray atomizer,
which softly distilled its scented dew on the hot forehead till she
fell asleep.

Round the beds of Jack and Jill met and mingled the schoolmates
of whom our story treats. Never, probably, did invalids have gayer
times than our two, after a week of solitary confinement; for
school gossip crept in, games could not be prevented, and
Christmas secrets were concocted in those rooms till they were
regular conspirators’ dens, when they were not little Bedlams.

After the horn and bead labors were over, the stringing of pop-corn
on red, and cranberries on white, threads, came next, and Jack and
Jill often looked like a new kind of spider in the pretty webs hung
about them, till reeled off to bide their time in the Christmas
closet. Paper flowers followed, and gay garlands and bouquets
blossomed, regardless of the snow and frost without. Then there
was a great scribbling of names, verses, and notes to accompany
the steadily increasing store of odd parcels which were collected at
the Minots’, for gifts from every one were to ornament the tree, and
contributions poured in as the day drew near.

But the secret which most excited the young people was the deep
mystery of certain proceedings at the Minot house. No one but
Frank, Ralph, and Mamma knew what it was, and the two boys
nearly drove the others distracted by the tantalizing way in which
they hinted at joys to come, talked strangely about birds, went
measuring round with foot-rules, and shut themselves up in the
Boys’ Den, as a certain large room was called. This seemed to be
the centre of operations, but beyond the fact of the promised tree
no ray of light was permitted to pass the jealously guarded doors.
Strange men with paste-pots and ladders went in, furniture was
dragged about, and all sorts of boyish lumber was sent up garret
and down cellar. Mrs. Minot was seen pondering over heaps of
green stuff, hammering was heard, singular bundles were
smuggled upstairs, flowering plants betrayed their presence by
whiffs of fragrance when the door was opened, and Mrs. Pecq was
caught smiling all by herself in a back bedroom, which usually was
shut up in winter.

"They are going to have a play, after all, and that green stuff was
the curtain," said Molly Loo, as the girls talked it over one day,
when they sat with their backs turned to one another, putting last
stitches in certain bits of work which had to be concealed from all
eyes, though it was found convenient to ask one another’s taste as
to the color, materials, and sizes of these mysterious articles.

"I think it is going to be a dance. I heard the boys doing their steps
when I went in last evening to find out whether Jack liked blue or
yellow best, so I could put the bow on his pen-wiper," declared
Merry, knitting briskly away at the last of the pair of pretty white
bed-socks she was making for Jill right under her inquisitive little
nose.

"They wouldn’t have a party of that kind without Jack and me. It is
only an extra nice tree, you see if it isn’t," answered Jill from
behind the pillows which made a temporary screen to hide the
toilet mats she was preparing for all her friends.

"Every one of you is wrong, and you’d better rest easy, for you
won’t find out the best part of it, try as you may." And Mrs. Pecq
actually chuckled as she, too, worked away at some bits of muslin,
with her back turned to the very unsocial-looking group.

"Well, I don’t care, we’ve got a secret all our own, and won’t ever
tell, will we?" cried Jill, falling back on the Home Missionary
Society, though it was not yet begun.

"Never!" answered the girls, and all took great comfort in the idea
that one mystery would not be cleared up, even at Christmas.

Jack gave up guessing, in despair, after he had suggested a new
dining-room where he could eat with the family, a private school
in which his lessons might go on with a tutor, or a theatre for the
production of the farces in which he delighted.

"It is going to be used to keep something in that you are very fond
of," said Mamma, taking pity on him at last.

"Ducks?" asked Jack, with a half pleased, half puzzled air, not
quite seeing where the water was to come from.

Frank exploded at the idea, and added to the mystification by
saying, –

"There will be one little duck and one great donkey in it." Then,
fearing he had told the secret, he ran off, quacking and braying
derisively.

"It is to be used for creatures that I, too, am fond of, and you know
neither donkeys nor ducks are favorites of mine," said Mamma,
with a demure expression, as she sat turning over old clothes for
the bundles that always went to poor neighbors, with a little store
of goodies, at this time of the year.

"I know! I know! It is to be a new ward for more sick folks, isn’t it,
now?" cried Jack, with what he thought a great proof of
shrewdness.

"I don’t see how I could attend to many more patients till this one
is off my hands," answered Mamma, with a queer smile, adding
quickly, as if she too was afraid of letting the cat out of the bag:
"That reminds me of a Christmas I once spent among the hospitals
and poor-houses of a great city with a good lady who, for thirty
years, had made it her mission to see that these poor little souls
had one merry day. We gave away two hundred dolls, several great
boxes of candy and toys, besides gay pictures, and new clothes to
orphan children, sick babies, and half-grown innocents. Ah, my
boy, that was a day to remember all my life, to make me doubly
grateful for my blessings, and very glad to serve the helpless and
afflicted, as that dear woman did."

The look and tone with which the last words were uttered
effectually turned Jack’s thoughts from the great secret, and started
another small one, for he fell to planning what he would buy with
his pocket-money to surprise the little Pats and Biddies who were
to have no Christmas tree.

 

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