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Chapter 12 – The Twenty-Second Of February

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

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Of course, the young ladies and gentlemen had a ball on the
evening of that day, but the boys and girls were full of excitement
about their "Scenes from the Life of Washington and other brilliant
tableaux," as the programme announced. The Bird Room was the
theatre, being very large, with four doors conveniently placed.
Ralph was in his element, putting up a little stage, drilling boys,
arranging groups, and uniting in himself carpenter, scene-painter,
manager, and gas man. Mrs. Minot permitted the house to be
turned topsy-turvy, and Mrs. Pecq flew about, lending a hand
everywhere. Jill was costumer, with help from Miss Delano, who
did not care for balls, and kindly took charge of the girls. Jack
printed tickets, programmes, and placards of the most imposing
sort, and the work went gayly on till all was ready.

When the evening came, the Bird Room presented a fine
appearance. One end was curtained off with red drapery; and real
footlights, with tin shades, gave a truly theatrical air to the little
stage. Rows of chairs, filled with mammas and little people,
occupied the rest of the space. The hall and Frank’s room were full
of amused papas, uncles, and old gentlemen whose patriotism
brought them out in spite of rheumatism. There was a great
rustling of skirts, fluttering of fans, and much lively chat, till a bell
rang and the orchestra struck up.

Yes, there really was an orchestra, for Ed declared that the national
airs must be played, or the whole thing would be a failure. So he
had exerted himself to collect all the musical talent he could find,
a horn, a fiddle, and a flute, with drum and fife for the martial
scenes. Ed looked more beaming than ever, as he waved his baton
and led off with Yankee Doodle as a safe beginning, for every one
knew that. It was fun to see little Johnny Cooper bang away on a
big drum, and old Mr. Munson, who had been a fifer all his days,
blow till he was as red as a lobster, while every one kept time to the
music which put them all in good spirits for the opening scene.

Up went the curtain and several trees in tubs appeared, then a
stately gentleman in small clothes, cocked hat, gray wig, and an
imposing cane, came slowly walking in. It was Gus, who had been
unanimously chosen not only for Washington but for the father of
the hero also, that the family traits of long legs and a somewhat
massive nose might be preserved.

"Ahem! My trees are doing finely," observed Mr. W., senior,
strolling along with his hands behind him, casting satisfied glances
at the dwarf orange, oleander, abutilon, and little pine that
represented his orchard.

Suddenly he starts, pauses, frowns, and, after examining the latter
shrub, which displayed several hacks in its stem and a broken limb
with six red-velvet cherries hanging on it, he gave a thump with
his cane that made the little ones jump, and cried out, –

"Can it have been my son?"

He evidently thought it was, for he called, in tones of thunder, –

"George! George Washington, come hither this moment!"

Great suspense on the part of the audience, then a general burst of
laughter as Boo trotted in, a perfect miniature of his honored
parent, knee breeches, cocked hat, shoe buckles and all. He was so
fat that the little tails of his coat stuck out in the drollest way, his
chubby legs could hardly carry the big buckles, and the rosy face
displayed, when he took his hat off with a dutiful bow, was so
solemn, the real George could not have looked more anxious when
he gave the immortal answer.

"Sirrah, did you cut that tree?" demanded the papa, with another
rap of the cane, and such a frown that poor Boo looked dismayed,
till Molly whispered, "Put your hand up, dear." Then he
remembered his part, and, putting one finger in his mouth, looked
down at his square-toed shoes, the image of a shame-stricken boy.

"My son, do not deceive me. If you have done this deed I shall
chastise you, for it is my duty not to spare the rod, lest I spoil the
child. But if you lie about it you disgrace the name of Washington
forever."

This appeal seemed to convulse George with inward agony, for he
squirmed most effectively as he drew from his pocket a toy
hatchet, which would not have cut a straw, then looking straight up
into the awe-inspiring countenance of his parent, he bravely lisped, –

"Papa, I tannot tell a lie. I did tut it with my little hanchet."

"Noble boy – come to my arms! I had rather you spoilt all my
cherry trees than tell one lie!" cried the delighted gentleman,
catching his son in an embrace so close that the fat legs kicked
convulsively, and the little coat-tails waved in the breeze, while
cane and hatchet fell with a dramatic bang.

The curtain descended on this affecting tableau; but the audience
called out both Washingtons, and they came, hand in hand, bowing
with the cocked hats pressed to their breasts, the elder smiling
blandly, while the younger, still flushed by his exertions, nodded to
his friends, asking, with engaging frankness, "Wasn’t it nice?"

The next was a marine piece, for a boat was seen, surrounded by
tumultuous waves of blue cambric, and rowed by a party of
stalwart men in regimentals, who with difficulty kept their seats,
for the boat was only a painted board, and they sat on boxes or
stools behind it. But few marked the rowers, for in their midst, tall,
straight, and steadfast as a mast, stood one figure in a cloak, with
folded arms, high boots, and, under the turned-up hat, a noble
countenance, stern with indomitable courage. A sword glittered at
his side, and a banner waved over him, but his eye was fixed on
the distant shore, and he was evidently unconscious of the roaring
billows, the blocks of ice, the discouragement of his men, or the
danger and death that might await him. Napoleon crossing the
Alps was not half so sublime, and with one voice the audience
cried, "Washington crossing the Delaware!" while the band burst
forth with, "See, the conquering hero comes!" all out of tune, but
bound to play it or die in the attempt.

It would have been very successful if, all of a sudden, one of the
rowers had not "caught a crab" with disastrous consequences. The
oars were not moving, but a veteran, who looked very much like
Joe, dropped the one he held, and in trying to turn and pummel the
black-eyed warrior behind him, he tumbled off his seat, upsetting
two other men, and pulling the painted boat upon them as they lay
kicking in the cambric deep. Shouts of laughter greeted this
mishap, but George Washington never stirred. Grasping the
banner, he stood firm when all else went down in the general
wreck, and the icy waves engulfed his gallant crew, leaving him
erect amid a chaos of wildly tossing boots, entangled oars, and
red-faced victims. Such god-like dignity could not fail to impress
the frivolous crowd of laughers, and the curtain fell amid a round
of applause for him alone.

"Quite exciting, wasn’t it? Didn’t know Gus had so much presence
of mind," said Mr. Burton, well pleased with his boy.

"If we did not know that Washington died in his bed, December
14, 1799, I should fear that we’d seen the last of him in that
shipwreck," laughed an old gentleman, proud of his memory for
dates.

Much confusion reigned behind the scenes; Ralph was heard
scolding, and Joe set every one off again by explaining, audibly,
that Grif tickled him, and he couldn’t stand it. A pretty,
old-fashioned picture of the "Daughters of Liberty" followed, for
the girls were determined to do honor to the brave and patient women
who so nobly bore their part in the struggle, yet are usually
forgotten when those days are celebrated. The damsels were
charming in the big caps, flowered gowns, and high-heeled shoes
of their great-grandmothers, as they sat about a spider-legged table
talking over the tax, and pledging themselves to drink no more tea
till it was taken off. Molly was on her feet proposing, "Liberty
forever, and down with all tyrants," to judge from her flashing eyes
as she held her egg-shell cup aloft, while the others lifted theirs to
drink the toast, and Merry, as hostess, sat with her hand on an
antique teapot, labelled "Sage," ready to fill again when the
patriotic ladies were ready for a second "dish."

This was much applauded, and the curtain went up again, for the
proud parents enjoyed seeing their pretty girls in the faded finery
of a hundred years ago. The band played "Auld Lang Syne," as a
gentle hint that our fore-mothers should be remembered as well as
the fore-fathers.

It was evident that something very martial was to follow, for a
great tramping, clashing, and flying about took place behind the
scenes while the tea-party was going on. After some delay, "The
Surrender of Cornwallis" was presented in the most superb
manner, as you can believe when I tell you that the stage was
actually lined with a glittering array of Washington and his
generals, Lafayette, Kosciusko, Rochambeau and the rest, all in
astonishing uniforms, with swords which were evidently the pride
of their lives. Fife and drum struck up a march, and in came
Cornwallis, much cast down but full of manly resignation, as he
surrendered his sword, and stood aside with averted eyes while his
army marched past, piling their arms at the hero’s feet.

This scene was the delight of the boys, for the rifles of Company F
had been secured, and at least a dozen soldiers kept filing in and
out in British uniform till Washington’s august legs were hidden by
the heaps of arms rattled down before him. The martial music, the
steady tramp, and the patriotic memories awakened, caused this
scene to be enthusiastically encored, and the boys would have
gone on marching till midnight if Ralph had not peremptorily
ordered down the curtain and cleared the stage for the next
tableau.

This had been artfully slipped in between two brilliant ones, to
show that the Father of his Country had to pay a high price for his
glory. The darkened stage represented what seemed to be a camp
in a snow-storm, and a very forlorn camp, too; for on "the cold,
cold ground" (a reckless display of cotton batting) lay ragged
soldiers, sleeping without blankets, their worn-out boots turned up
pathetically, and no sign of food or fire to be seen. A very shabby
sentinel, with feet bound in bloody cloths, and his face as pale as
chalk could make it, gnawed a dry crust as he kept his watch in the
wintry night.

A tent at the back of the stage showed a solitary figure sitting on a
log of wood, poring over the map spread upon his knee, by the
light of one candle stuck in a bottle. There could be no doubt who
this was, for the buff-and-blue coat, the legs, the nose, the attitude,
all betrayed the great George laboring to save his country, in spite
of privations, discouragements, and dangers which would have
daunted any other man.

"Valley Forge," said someone, and the room was very still as old
and young looked silently at this little picture of a great and noble
struggle in one of its dark hours. The crust, the wounded feet, the
rags, the snow, the loneliness, the indomitable courage and
endurance of these men touched the hearts of all, for the mimic
scene grew real for a moment; and, when a child’s voice broke the
silence, asking pitifully, "Oh, mamma, was it truly as dreadful as
that?" a general outburst answered, as if every one wanted to cheer
up the brave fellows and bid them fight on, for victory was surely
coming.

In the next scene it did come, and "Washington at Trenton" was
prettily done. An arch of flowers crossed the stage, with the motto,
"The Defender of the Mothers will be the Preserver of the
Daughters;" and, as the hero with his generals advanced on one
side, a troop of girls, in old-fashioned muslin frocks, came to
scatter flowers before him, singing the song of long ago: –

"Welcome, mighty chief, once more

Welcome to this grateful shore;

Now no mercenary foe

Aims again the fatal blow, –

Aims at thee the fatal blow.

"Virgins fair and matrons grave,

Those thy conquering arm did save,

Build for thee triumphal bowers;

Strew, ye fair, his way with flowers, –

Strew your hero’s way with flowers."

And they did, singing with all their hearts as they flung artificial
roses and lilies at the feet of the great men, who bowed with
benign grace. Jack, who did Lafayette with a limp, covered himself
with glory by picking up one of the bouquets and pressing it to his
heart with all the gallantry of a Frenchman; and when Washington
lifted the smallest of the maids and kissed her, the audience
cheered. Couldn’t help it, you know, it was so pretty and inspiring.

The Washington Family, after the famous picture, came next, with
Annette as the serene and sensible Martha, in a very becoming cap.
The General was in uniform, there being no time to change, but his
attitude was quite correct, and the Custis boy and girl displayed the
wide sash and ruffled collar with historic fidelity. The band played
"Home," and every one agreed that it was "Sweet!"

"Now I don’t see what more they can have except the death-bed,
and that would be rather out of place in this gay company," said
the old gentleman to Mr. Burton, as he mopped his heated face
after pounding so heartily he nearly knocked the ferule off his
cane.

"No; they gave that up, for my boy wouldn’t wear a night-gown in
public. I can’t tell secrets, but I think they have got a very clever
little finale for the first part – a pretty compliment to one person
and a pleasant surprise to all," answered Mr. Burton, who was in
great spirits, being fond of theatricals and very justly proud of his
children, for the little girls had been among the Trenton maids, and
the mimic General had kissed his own small sister, Nelly, very
tenderly.

A great deal of interest was felt as to what this surprise was to be,
and a general "Oh!" greeted the "Minute Man," standing motionless
upon his pedestal. It was Frank, and Ralph had done his best
to have the figure as perfect as possible, for the maker of the
original had been a good friend to him; and, while the young
sculptor was dancing gayly at the ball, this copy of his work was
doing him honor among the children. Frank looked it very well, for
his firm-set mouth was full of resolution, his eyes shone keen and
courageous under the three-cornered hat, and the muscles stood
out upon the bare arm that clutched the old gun. Even the buttons
on the gaiters seemed to flash defiance, as the sturdy legs took the
first step from the furrow toward the bridge where the young
farmer became a hero when he "fired the shot heard ’round the
world."

"That is splendid!" "As like to the original as flesh can be to
bronze." "How still he stands!" "He’ll fight when the time comes,
and die hard, won’t he?" "Hush! You make the statue blush!" These
very audible remarks certainly did, for the color rose visibly as the
modest lad heard himself praised, though he saw but one face in
all the crowd, his mother’s, far back, but full of love and pride, as
she looked up at her young minute man waiting for the battle
which often calls us when we least expect it, and for which she
had done her best to make him ready.

If there had been any danger of Frank being puffed up by the
success of his statue, it was counteracted by irrepressible Grif,
who, just at the most interesting moment, when all were gazing
silently, gave a whistle, followed by a "Choo, choo, choo!" and
"All aboard!" so naturally that no one could mistake the joke,
especially as another laughing voice added, "Now, then, No. 11!"
which brought down the house and the curtain too.

Frank was so angry, it was very difficult to keep him on his perch
for the last scene of all. He submitted, however, rather than spoil
the grand finale, hoping that its beauty would efface that ill-timed
pleasantry from the public mind. So, when the agreeable clamor of
hands and voices called for a repetition, the Minute Man
reappeared, grimmer than before. But not alone, for grouped all
about his pedestal were Washington and his generals, the matrons
and maids, with a background of troops shouldering arms, Grif and
Joe doing such rash things with their muskets, that more than one
hero received a poke in his august back. Before the full richness of
this picture had been taken in, Ed gave a rap, and all burst out with
"Hail Columbia," in such an inspiring style that it was impossible
for the audience to refrain from joining, which they did, all
standing and all singing with a heartiness that made the walls ring.
The fife shrilled, the horn blew sweet and clear, the fiddle was
nearly drowned by the energetic boom of the drum, and out into
the starry night, through open windows, rolled the song that stirs
the coldest heart with patriotic warmth and tunes every voice to
music.

"’America!’ We must have ‘America!’ Pipe up, Ed, this is too good
to end without one song more," cried Mr. Burton, who had been
singing like a trumpet; and, hardly waiting to get their breath, off
they all went again with the national hymn, singing as they never
had sung it before, for somehow the little scenes they had just
acted or beheld seemed to show how much this dear America of
ours had cost in more than one revolution, how full of courage,
energy, and virtue it was in spite of all its faults, and what a
privilege, as well as duty, it was for each to do his part toward its
safety and its honor in the present, as did those brave men and
women in the past.

So the "Scenes from the Life of Washington" were a great success,
and, when the songs were over, people were glad of a brief recess
while they had raptures, and refreshed themselves with lemonade.

The girls had kept the secret of who the "Princess" was to be, and,
when the curtain rose, a hum of surprise and pleasure greeted the
pretty group. Jill lay asleep in all her splendor, the bonny "Prince"
just lifting the veil to wake her with a kiss, and all about them the
court in its nap of a hundred years. The "King" and "Queen"
dozing comfortably on the throne; the maids of honor, like a
garland of nodding flowers, about the couch; the little page,
unconscious of the blow about to fall, and the fool dreaming, with
his mouth wide open.

It was so pretty, people did not tire of looking, till Jack’s lame leg
began to tremble, and he whispered: "Drop her or I shall pitch."
Down went the curtain; but it rose in a moment, and there was the
court after the awakening: the "King" and "Queen" looking about
them with sleepy dignity, the maids in various attitudes of surprise,
the fool grinning from ear to ear, and the "Princess" holding out
her hand to the "Prince," as if glad to welcome the right lover
when he came at last.

Molly got the laugh this time, for she could not resist giving poor
Boo the cuff which had been hanging over him so long. She gave it
with unconscious energy, and Boo cried "Ow!" so naturally that all
the children were delighted and wanted it repeated. But Boo
declined, and the scenes which followed were found quite as much
to their taste, having been expressly prepared for the little people.

Mother Goose’s Reception was really very funny, for Ralph was
the old lady, and had hired a representation of the immortal bird
from a real theatre for this occasion. There they stood, the dame in
her pointed hat, red petticoat, cap, and cane, with the noble fowl, a
good deal larger than life, beside her, and Grif inside, enjoying
himself immensely as he flapped the wings, moved the yellow
legs, and waved the long neck about, while unearthly quacks
issued from the bill. That was a great surprise for the children, and
they got up in their seats to gaze their fill, many of them firmly
believing that they actually beheld the blessed old woman who
wrote the nursery songs they loved so well.

Then in came, one after another, the best of the characters she has
made famous, while a voice behind the scenes sang the proper
rhyme as each made their manners to the interesting pair.
"Mistress Mary," and her "pretty maids all in a row," passed by to
their places in the background; "King Cole" and his "fiddlers
three" made a goodly show; so did the royal couple, who followed
the great pie borne before them, with the "four-and-twenty
blackbirds" popping their heads out in the most delightful way.
Little "Bo-Peep" led a woolly lamb and wept over its lost tail, for
not a sign of one appeared on the poor thing. "Simple Simon"
followed the pie-man, gloating over his wares with the drollest
antics. The little wife came trundling by in a wheelbarrow and was
not upset; neither was the lady with "rings on her fingers and bells
on her toes," as she cantered along on a rocking-horse. "Bobby
Shafto’s" yellow hair shone finely as he led in the maid whom he
came back from sea to marry. "Miss Muffet," bowl in hand, ran
away from an immense black spider, which waggled its long legs
in a way so life-like that some of the children shook in their little
shoes. The beggars who came to town were out in full force, "rags,
tags, and velvet gowns," quite true to life. "Boy Blue" rubbed his
eyes, with hay sticking in his hair, and tooted on a tin horn as if
bound to get the cows out of the corn. Molly, with a long-handled
frying-pan, made a capital "Queen," in a tucked-up gown, checked
apron, and high crown, to good "King Arthur," who, very properly,
did not appear after stealing the barley-meal, which might be seen
in the pan tied up in a pudding, like a cannon-ball, ready to fry.

But Tobias, Molly’s black cat, covered himself with glory by the
spirit with which he acted his part in,

"Sing, sing, what shall I sing?

The cat’s run away with the pudding-bag string."

First he was led across the stage on his hind legs, looking very
fierce and indignant, with a long tape trailing behind him; and,
being set free at the proper moment, he gave one bound over the
four-and-twenty blackbirds who happened to be in the way, and
dashed off as if an enraged cook had actually been after him,
straight downstairs to the coal-bin, where he sat glaring in the
dark, till the fun was over.

When all the characters had filed in and stood in two long rows,
music struck up and they danced, "All the way to Boston," a
simple but lively affair, which gave each a chance to show his or
her costume as they pranced down the middle and up outside.

Such a funny medley as it was, for there went fat "King Cole" with
the most ragged of the beggar-maids. "Mistress Mary," in her
pretty blue dress, tripped along with "Simple Simon" staring about
him like a blockhead. The fine lady left her horse to dance with
"Bobby Shafto" till every bell on her slippers tinkled its tongue
out. "Bo-Peep" and a jolly fiddler skipped gayly up and down.
"Miss Muffet" took the big spider for her partner, and made his
many legs fly about in the wildest way. The little wife got out of
the wheelbarrow to help "Boy Blue" along, and Molly, with the
frying-pan over her shoulder, led off splendidly when it was
"Grand right and left."

But the old lady and her goose were the best of all, for the dame’s
shoe-buckles cut the most astonishing pigeon-wings, and to see
that mammoth bird waddle down the middle with its wings half
open, its long neck bridling, and its yellow legs in the first position
as it curtsied to its partner, was a sight to remember, it was so
intensely funny.

The merry old gentleman laughed till he cried; Mr. Burton split his
gloves, he applauded so enthusiastically; while the children beat
the dust out of the carpet hopping up and down, as they cried: "Do
it again!" "We want it all over!" when the curtain went down at last
on the flushed and panting party, Mother G – – bowing, with her hat
all awry, and the goose doing a double shuffle as if it did not know
how to leave off.

But they could not "do it all over again," for it was growing late,
and the people felt that they certainly had received their money’s
worth that evening.

So it all ended merrily, and when the guests departed the boys
cleared the room like magic, and the promised supper to the actors
was served in handsome style. Jack and Jill were at one end, Mrs.
Goose and her bird at the other, and all between was a comical
collection of military heroes, fairy characters, and nursery
celebrities. All felt the need of refreshment after their labors, and
swept over the table like a flight of locusts, leaving devastation
behind. But they had earned their fun: and much innocent jollity
prevailed, while a few lingering papas and mammas watched the
revel from afar, and had not the heart to order these noble beings
home till even the Father of his Country declared "that he’d had a
perfectly splendid time, but couldn’t keep his eyes open another
minute," and very wisely retired to replace the immortal cocked
hat with a night-cap.

 

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