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Chapter 17 – Down At Molly’s

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

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"Now, my dears, I’ve something very curious to tell you, so listen
quietly and then I’ll give you your dinners," said Molly, addressing
the nine cats who came trooping after her as she went into the
shed-chamber with a bowl of milk and a plate of scraps in her
hands. She had taught them to behave well at meals, so, though
their eyes glared and their tails quivered with impatience, they
obeyed; and when she put the food on a high shelf and retired to
the big basket, the four old cats sat demurely down before her,
while the five kits scrambled after her and tumbled into her lap, as
if hoping to hasten the desired feast by their innocent gambols.

Granny, Tobias, Mortification, and Molasses were the elders.
Granny, a gray old puss, was the mother and grandmother of all the
rest. Tobias was her eldest son, and Mortification his brother, so
named because he had lost his tail, which affliction depressed his
spirits and cast a blight over his young life. Molasses was a yellow
cat, the mamma of four of the kits, the fifth being Granny’s latest
darling. Toddlekins, the little aunt, was the image of her mother,
and very sedate even at that early age; Miss Muffet, so called from
her dread of spiders, was a timid black and white kit; Beauty, a
pretty Maltese, with a serene little face and pink nose; Ragbag, a
funny thing, every color that a cat could be; and Scamp, who well
deserved his name, for he was the plague of Miss Bat’s life, and
Molly’s especial pet.

He was now perched on her shoulder, and, as she talked, kept
peeping into her face or biting her ear in the most impertinent way,
while the others sprawled in her lap or promenaded round the
basket rim.

"My friends, something very remarkable has happened: Miss Bat is
cleaning house!" and, having made this announcement, Molly
leaned back to see how the cats received it, for she insisted that
they understood all she said to them.

Tobias stared, Mortification lay down as if it was too much for
him, Molasses beat her tail on the floor as if whipping a dusty
carpet, and Granny began to purr approvingly. The giddy kits paid
no attention, as they did not know what house-cleaning meant,
happy little dears!

"I thought you’d like it, Granny, for you are a decent cat, and know
what is proper," continued Molly, leaning down to stroke the old
puss, who blinked affectionately at her. "I can’t imagine what put it
into Miss Bat’s head. I never said a word, and gave up groaning
over the clutter, as I couldn’t mend it. I just took care of Boo and
myself, and left her to be as untidy as she pleased, and she is a
regular old – – "

Here Scamp put his paw on her lips because he saw them moving,
but it seemed as if it was to check the disrespectful word just
coming out.

"Well, I won’t call names; but what shall I do when I see
everything in confusion, and she won’t let me clear up?" asked
Molly, looking round at Scamp, who promptly put the little paw on
her eyelid, as if the roll of the blue ball underneath amused him.

"Shut my eyes to it, you mean? I do all I can, but it is hard, when I
wish to be nice, and do try; don’t I?" asked Molly. But Scamp was
ready for her, and began to comb her hair with both paws as he
stood on his hind legs to work so busily that Molly laughed and
pulled him down, saying, as she cuddled the sly kit.

"You sharp little thing! I know my hair is not neat now, for I’ve
been chasing Boo round the garden to wash him for school. Then
Miss Bat threw the parlor carpet out of the window, and I was so
surprised I had to run and tell you. Now, what had we better do
about it?"

The cats all winked at her, but no one had any advice to offer,
except Tobias, who walked to the shelf, and, looking up, uttered a
deep, suggestive yowl, which said as plainly as words, "Dinner
first and discussion afterward."

"Very well, don’t scramble," said Molly, getting up to feed her
pets. First the kits, who rushed at the bowl and thrust their heads
in, lapping as if for a wager; then the cats, who each went to one of
the four piles of scraps laid round at intervals and placidly ate their
meat; while Molly retired to the basket, to ponder over the
phenomena taking place in the house.

She could not imagine what had started the old lady. It was not the
example of her neighbors, who had beaten carpets and scrubbed
paint every spring for years without exciting her to any greater
exertion than cleaning a few windows and having a man to clear
away the rubbish displayed when the snow melted. Molly never
guessed that her own efforts were at the bottom of the change, or
knew that a few words not meant for her ear had shamed Miss Bat
into action. Coming home from prayer-meeting one dark night, she
trotted along behind two old ladies who were gossiping in loud
voices, as one was rather deaf, and Miss Bat was both pleased and
troubled to hear herself unduly praised.

"I always said Sister Dawes meant well; but she’s getting into
years, and the care of two children is a good deal for her, with her
cooking and her rheumatiz. I don’t deny she did neglect ’em for a
spell, but she does well by ’em now, and I wouldn’t wish to see
better-appearing children."

"You’ve no idee how improved Molly is. She came in to see my
girls, and brought her sewing-work, shirts for the boy, and done it
as neat and capable as you’d wish to see. She always was a smart
child, but dreadful careless," said the other old lady, evidently
much impressed by the change in harum-scarum Molly Loo.

"Being over to Mis Minot’s so much has been good for her, and up
to Mis Grant’s. Girls catch neat ways as quick as they do untidy
ones, and them wild little tykes often turn out smart women."

"Sister Dawes has done well by them children, and I hope Mr.
Bemis sees it. He ought to give her something comfortable to live
on when she can’t do for him any longer. He can well afford it."

"I haven’t a doubt he will. He’s a lavish man when he starts to do a
thing, but dreadful unobserving, else he’d have seen to matters long
ago. Them children was town-talk last fall, and I used to feel as if
it was my bounden duty to speak to Miss Dawes. But I never did,
fearing I might speak too plain, and hurt her feelings."

"You’ve spoken plain enough now, and I’m beholden to you,
though you’ll never know it," said Miss Bat to herself, as she
slipped into her own gate, while the gossips trudged on quite
unconscious of the listener behind them.

Miss Bat was a worthy old soul in the main, only, like so many of
us, she needed rousing up to her duty. She had got the rousing
now, and it did her good, for she could not bear to be praised when
she had not deserved it. She had watched Molly’s efforts with lazy
interest, and when the girl gave up meddling with her affairs, as
she called the housekeeping, Miss Bat ceased to oppose her, and
let her scrub Boo, mend clothes, and brush her hair as much as she
liked. So Molly had worked along without any help from her,
running in to Mrs. Pecq for advice, to Merry for comfort, or Mrs.
Minot for the higher kind of help one often needs so much. Now
Miss Bat found that she was getting the credit and the praise
belonging to other people, and it stirred her up to try and deserve a
part at least.

"Molly don’t want any help about her work or the boy: it’s too late
for that; but if this house don’t get a spring cleaning that will make
it shine, my name ain’t Bathsheba Dawes," said the old lady, as she
put away her bonnet that night, and laid energetic plans for a grand
revolution, inspired thereto not only by shame, but by the hint that
"Mr. Bemis was a lavish man," as no one knew better than she.

Molly’s amazement next day at seeing carpets fly out of window,
ancient cobwebs come down, and long-undisturbed closets routed
out to the great dismay of moths and mice, has been already
confided to the cats, and as she sat there watching them lap and
gnaw, she said to herself, –

"I don’t understand it, but as she never says much to me about my
affairs, I won’t take any notice till she gets through, then I’ll admire
everything all I can. It is so pleasant to be praised after you’ve been
trying hard."

She might well say that, for she got very little herself, and her
trials had been many, her efforts not always successful, and her
reward seemed a long way off. Poor Boo could have sympathized
with her, for he had suffered much persecution from his small
schoolmates when he appeared with large gray patches on the little
brown trousers, where he had worn them out coasting down those
too fascinating steps. As he could not see the patches himself, he
fancied them invisible, and came home much afflicted by the jeers
of his friends. Then Molly tried to make him a new pair out of a
sack of her own; but she cut both sides for the same leg, so one
was wrong side out. Fondly hoping no one would observe it, she
sewed bright buttons wherever they could be put, and sent
confiding Boo away in a pair of blue trousers, which were absurdly
hunchy behind and buttony before. He came home heart-broken
and muddy, having been accidentally tipped into a mud-puddle by
two bad boys who felt that such tailoring was an insult to mankind.
That roused Molly’s spirit, and she begged her father to take the
boy and have him properly fitted out, as he was old enough now to
be well-dressed, and she wouldn’t have him tormented. His
attention being called to the trousers, Mr. Bemis had a good laugh
over them, and then got Boo a suit which caused him to be the
admired of all observers, and to feel as proud as a little peacock.

Cheered by this success, Molly undertook a set of small shirts, and
stitched away bravely, though her own summer clothes were in a
sad state, and for the first time in her life she cared about what she
should wear.

"I must ask Merry, and may be father will let me go with her and
her mother when they do their shopping, instead of leaving it to
Miss Bat, who dresses me like an old woman. Merry knows what
is pretty and becoming: I don’t," thought Molly, meditating in the
bushel basket, with her eyes on her snuff-colored gown and the
dark purple bow at the end of the long braid Muffet had been
playing with.

Molly was beginning to see that even so small a matter as the
choice of colors made a difference in one’s appearance, and to
wonder why Merry always took such pains to have a blue tie for
the gray dress, a rosy one for the brown, and gloves that matched
her bonnet ribbons. Merry never wore a locket outside her sack, a
gay bow in her hair and soiled cuffs, a smart hat and the braid
worn off her skirts. She was exquisitely neat and simple, yet
always looked well-dressed and pretty; for her love of beauty
taught her what all girls should learn as soon as they begin to care
for appearances – that neatness and simplicity are their best
ornaments, that good habits are better than fine clothes, and the
most elegant manners are the kindest.

All these thoughts were dancing through Molly’s head, and when
she left her cats, after a general romp in which even decorous
Granny allowed her family to play leap-frog over her respectable
back, she had made up her mind not to have yellow ribbons on her
summer hat if she got a pink muslin as she had planned, but to
finish off Boo’s last shirt before she went shopping with Merry.

It rained that evening, and Mr. Bemis had a headache, so he threw
himself down upon the lounge after tea for a nap, with his silk
handkerchief spread over his face. He did get a nap, and when he
waked he lay for a time drowsily listening to the patter of the rain,
and another sound which was even more soothing. Putting back a
corner of the handkerchief to learn what it was, he saw Molly
sitting by the fire with Boo in her lap, rocking and humming as she
warmed his little bare feet, having learned to guard against croup
by attending to the damp shoes and socks before going to bed. Boo
lay with his round face turned up to hers, stroking her cheek while
the sleepy blue eyes blinked lovingly at her as she sang her lullaby
with a motherly patience sweet to see. They made a pretty little
picture, and Mr. Bemis looked at it with pleasure, having a leisure
moment in which to discover, as all parents do sooner or later, that
his children were growing up.

"Molly is getting to be quite a woman, and very like her mother,"
thought papa, wiping the eye that peeped, for he had been fond of
the pretty wife who died when Boo was born. "Sad loss to them,
poor things! But Miss Bat seems to have done well by them. Molly
is much improved, and the boy looks finely. She’s a good soul,
after all;" and Mr. Bemis began to think he had been hasty when
he half made up his mind to get a new housekeeper, feeling that
burnt steak, weak coffee, and ragged wristbands were sure signs
that Miss Bat’s days of usefulness were over.

Molly was singing the lullaby her mother used to sing to her, and
her father listened to it silently till Boo was carried away too
sleepy for anything but bed. When she came back she sat down to
her work, fancying her father still asleep. She had a crimson bow
at her throat and one on the newly braided hair, her cuffs were
clean, and a white apron hid the shabbiness of the old dress. She
looked like a thrifty little housewife as she sat with her basket
beside her full of neat white rolls, her spools set forth, and a new
pair of scissors shining on the table. There was a sort of charm in
watching the busy needle flash to and fro, the anxious pucker of
the forehead as she looked to see if the stitches were even, and the
expression of intense relief upon her face as she surveyed the
finished button-hole with girlish satisfaction. Her father was wide
awake and looking at her, thinking, as he did so, –

"Really the old lady has worked well to change my tomboy into
that nice little girl: I wonder how she did it." Then he gave a yawn,
pulled off the handkerchief, and said aloud, "What are you making,
Molly?" for it struck him that sewing was a new amusement.

"Shirts for Boo, sir. Four, and this is the last," she answered, with
pardonable pride, as she held it up and nodded toward the pile in
her basket.

"Isn’t that a new notion? I thought Miss Bat did the sewing," said
Mr. Bemis, as he smiled at the funny little garment, it looked so
like Boo himself.

"No, sir; only yours. I do mine and Boo’s. At least, I’m learning
how, and Mrs. Pecq says I get on nicely," answered Molly,
threading her needle and making a knot in her most capable way.

"I suppose it is time you did learn, for you are getting to be a great
girl, and all women should know how to make and mend. You
must take a stitch for me now and then: Miss Bat’s eyes are not
what they were, I find;" and Mr. Bemis looked at his frayed
wristband, as if he particularly felt the need of a stitch just then.

"I’d love to, and I guess I could. I can mend gloves; Merry taught
me, so I’d better begin on them, if you have any," said Molly, much
pleased at being able to do anything for her father, and still more
so at being asked.

"There’s something to start with;" and he threw her a pair, with
nearly every finger ripped.

Molly shook her head over them, but got out her gray silk and fell
to work, glad to show how well she could sew.

"What are you smiling about?" asked her father, after a little pause,
for his head felt better, and it amused him to question Molly.

"I was thinking about my summer clothes. I must get them before
long, and I’d like to go with Mrs. Grant and learn how to shop, if
you are willing."

"I thought Miss Bat did that for you."

"She always has, but she gets ugly, cheap things that I don’t like. I
think I am old enough to choose myself, if there is someone to tell
me about prices and the goodness of the stuff. Merry does; and she
is only a few months older than I am."

"How old are you, child?" asked her father, feeling as if he had lost
his reckoning.

"Fifteen in August;" and Molly looked very proud of the fact.

"So you are! Bless my heart, how the time goes! Well, get what
you please; if I’m to have a young lady here, I’d like to have her
prettily dressed. It won’t offend Miss Bat, will it?"

Molly’s eyes sparkled, but she gave a little shrug as she answered,
"She won’t care. She never troubles herself about me if I let her
alone.

"Hey? what? Not trouble herself? If she doesn’t, who does?" and
Mr. Bemis sat up as if this discovery was more surprising than the
other.

"I take care of myself and Boo, and she looks after you. The house
goes any way."

"I should think so! I nearly broke my neck over the parlor sofa in
the hall to-night. What is it there for?"

Molly laughed. "That’s the joke, sir, Miss Bat is cleaning house,
and I’m sure it needs cleaning, for it is years since it was properly
done. I thought you might have told her to."

"I’ve said nothing. Don’t like house-cleaning well enough to
suggest it. I did think the hall was rather dirty when I dropped my
coat and took it up covered with lint. Is she going to upset the
whole place?" asked Mr. Bemis, looking alarmed at the prospect.

"I hope so, for I really am ashamed when people come, to have
them see the dust and cobwebs, and old carpets and dirty
windows," said Molly, with a sigh, though she never had cared a
bit till lately.

"Why don’t you dust round a little, then? No time to spare from the
books and play?"

"I tried, father, but Miss Bat didn’t like it, and it was too hard for
me alone. If things were once in nice order, I think I could keep
them so; for I do want to be neat, and I’m learning as fast as I can."

"It is high time someone took hold, if matters are left as you say.
I’ve just been thinking what a clever woman Miss Bat was, to make
such a tidy little girl out of what I used to hear called the greatest
tomboy in town, and wondering what I could give the old lady.
Now I find you are the one to be thanked, and it is a very pleasant
surprise to me."

"Give her the present, please; I’m satisfied, if you like what I’ve
done. It isn’t much, and I didn’t know as you would ever observe
any difference. But I did try, and now I guess I’m really getting
on," said Molly, sewing away with a bright color in her cheeks, for
she, too, found it a pleasant surprise to be praised after many
failures and few successes.

"You certainly are, my dear. I’ll wait till the house-cleaning is over,
and then, if we are all alive, I’ll see about Miss Bat’s reward.
Meantime, you go with Mrs. Grant and get whatever you and the
boy need, and send the bills to me;" and Mr. Bemis lighted a cigar,
as if that matter was settled.

"Oh, thank you, sir! That will be splendid. Merry always has pretty
things, and I know you will like me when I get fixed," said Molly,
smoothing down her apron, with a little air.

"Seems to me you look very well as you are. Isn’t that a pretty
enough frock?" asked Mr. Bemis, quite unconscious that his own
unusual interest in his daughter’s affairs made her look so bright
and winsome.

"This? Why, father, I’ve worn it all winter, and it’s frightfully
ugly, and almost in rags. I asked you for a new one a month ago, and
you said you’d ‘see about it’; but you didn’t, so I patched this up
as well as I could;" and Molly showed her elbows, feeling that such
masculine blindness as this deserved a mild reproof.

"Too bad! Well, go and get half a dozen pretty muslin and
gingham things, and be as gay as a butterfly, to make up for it,"
laughed her father, really touched by the patches and Molly’s
resignation to the unreliable "I’ll see about it," which he recognized
as a household word.

Molly clapped her hands, old gloves and all, exclaiming, with
girlish delight, "How nice it will seem to have a plenty of new,
neat dresses all at once, and be like other girls! Miss Bat always
talks about economy, and has no more taste than a – caterpillar."
Molly meant to say "cat," but remembering her pets, spared them
the insult.

"I think I can afford to dress my girl as well as Grant does his. Get
a new hat and coat, child, and any little notions you fancy. Miss
Bat’s economy isn’t the sort I like;" and Mr. Bemis looked at his
wristbands again, as if he could sympathize with Molly’s elbows.

"At this rate, I shall have more clothes than I know what to do
with, after being a rag-bag," thought the girl, in great glee, as she
bravely stitched away at the worst glove, while her father smoked
silently for a while, feeling that several little matters had escaped
his eye which he really ought to "see about."

Presently he went to his desk, but not to bury himself in business
papers, as usual, for, after rummaging in several drawers, he took
out a small bunch of keys, and sat looking at them with an
expression only seen on his face when he looked up at the portrait
of a dark-eyed woman hanging in his room. He was a very busy
man, but he had a tender place in his heart for his children; and
when a look, a few words, a moment’s reflection, called his
attention to the fact that his little girl was growing up, he found
both pride and pleasure in the thought that this young daughter was
trying to fill her mother’s place, and be a comfort to him, if he
would let her.

"Molly, my dear, here is something for you," he said; and when she
stood beside him, added, as he put the keys into her hand, keeping
both in his own for a minute, –

"Those are the keys to your mother’s things. I always meant you to
have them, when you were old enough to use or care for them. I
think you’ll fancy this better than any other present, for you are a
good child, and very like her."

Something seemed to get into his throat there, and Molly put her
arm round his neck, saying, with a little choke in her own voice,
"Thank you, father, I’d rather have this than anything else in the
world, and I’ll try to be more like her every day, for your sake."

He kissed her, then said, as he began to stir his papers about, "I
must write some letters. Run off to bed, child. Good-night, my
dear, good-night."

Seeing that he wanted to be alone, Molly slipped away, feeling that
she had received a very precious gift; for she remembered the dear,
dead mother, and had often longed to possess the relics laid away
in the one room where order reigned and Miss Bat had no power to
meddle. As she slowly undressed, she was not thinking of the
pretty new gowns in which she was to be "as gay as a butterfly,"
but of the half-worn garments waiting for her hands to unfold with
a tender touch; and when she fell asleep, with the keys under her
pillow and her arms round Boo, a few happy tears on her cheeks
seemed to show that, in trying to do the duty which lay nearest her,
she had earned a very sweet reward.

So the little missionaries succeeded better in their second attempt
than in their first; for, though still very far from being perfect girls,
each was slowly learning, in her own way, one of the three lessons
all are the better for knowing – that cheerfulness can change
misfortune into love and friends; that in ordering one’s self aright
one helps others to do the same; and that the power of finding
beauty in the humblest things makes home happy and life lovely.

 

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