FictionForest

Chapter 18 – May Baskets

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

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Spring was late that year, but to Jill it seemed the loveliest she had
ever known, for hope was growing green and strong in her own
little heart, and all the world looked beautiful. With the help of the
brace she could sit up for a short time every day, and when the air
was mild enough she was warmly wrapped and allowed to look out
at the open window into the garden, where the gold and purple
crocuses were coming bravely up, and the snowdrops nodded their
delicate heads as if calling to her, –

"Good day, little sister, come out and play with us, for winter is
over and spring is here."

"I wish I could!" thought Jill, as the soft wind kissed a tinge of
color into her pale cheeks. "Never mind, they have been shut up in
a darker place than I for months, and had no fun at all; I won’t fret,
but think about July and the seashore while I work."

The job now in hand was May baskets, for it was the custom of the
children to hang them on the doors of their friends the night before
May-day; and the girls had agreed to supply baskets if the boys
would hunt for flowers, much the harder task of the two. Jill had
more leisure as well as taste and skill than the other girls, so she
amused herself with making a goodly store of pretty baskets of all
shapes, sizes, and colors, quite confident that they would be filled,
though not a flower had shown its head except a few hardy
dandelions, and here and there a small cluster of saxifrage.

The violets would not open their blue eyes till the sunshine was
warmer, the columbines refused to dance with the boisterous east
wind, the ferns kept themselves rolled up in their brown flannel
jackets, and little Hepatica, with many another spring beauty, hid
away in the woods, afraid to venture out, in spite of the eager
welcome awaiting them. But the birds had come, punctual as ever,
and the bluejays were screaming in the orchard, robins were
perking up their heads and tails as they went house-hunting, purple
finches in their little red hoods were feasting on the spruce buds,
and the faithful chip birds chirped gayly on the grapevine trellis
where they had lived all winter, warming their little gray breasts
against the southern side of the house when the sun shone, and
hiding under the evergreen boughs when the snow fell.

"That tree is a sort of bird’s hotel," said Jill, looking out at the tall
spruce before her window, every spray now tipped with a soft
green. "They all go there to sleep and eat, and it has room for
every one. It is green when other trees die, the wind can’t break it,
and the snow only makes it look prettier. It sings to me, and nods
as if it knew I loved it."

"We might call it ‘The Holly Tree Inn,’ as some of the cheap
eating-houses for poor people are called in the city, as my holly
bush grows at its foot for a sign. You can be the landlady, and feed
your feathery customers every day, till the hard times are over,"
said Mrs. Minot, glad to see the child’s enjoyment of the outer
world from which she had been shut so long.

Jill liked the fancy, and gladly strewed crumbs on the window
ledge for the chippies, who came confidingly to eat almost from
her hand. She threw out grain for the handsome jays, the jaunty
robins, and the neighbors’ doves, who came with soft flight to trip
about on their pink feet, arching their shining necks as they cooed
and pecked. Carrots and cabbage-leaves also flew out of the
window for the marauding gray rabbit, last of all Jack’s half-dozen,
who led him a weary life of it because they would not stay in the
Bunny-house, but undermined the garden with their burrows, ate
the neighbors’ plants, and refused to be caught till all but one ran
away, to Jack’s great relief. This old fellow camped out for the
winter, and seemed to get on very well among the cats and the
hens, who shared their stores with him, and he might be seen at all
hours of the day and night scampering about the place, or kicking
up his heels by moonlight, for he was a desperate poacher.

Jill took great delight in her pretty pensioners, who soon learned to
love "The Holly Tree Inn," and to feel that the Bird Room held a
caged comrade; for, when it was too cold or wet to open the
windows, the doves came and tapped at the pane, the chippies sat
on the ledge in plump little bunches as if she were their sunshine,
the jays called her in their shrill voices to ring the dinner-bell, and
the robins tilted on the spruce boughs where lunch was always to
be had.

The first of May came on Sunday, so all the celebrating must be
done on Saturday, which happily proved fair, though too chilly for
muslin gowns, paper garlands, and picnics on damp grass. Being a
holiday, the boys decided to devote the morning to ball and the
afternoon to the flower hunt, while the girls finished the baskets;
and in the evening our particular seven were to meet at the Minots
to fill them, ready for the closing frolic of hanging on
door-handles, ringing bells, and running away.

"Now I must do my Maying, for there will be no more sunshine,
and I want to pick my flowers before it is dark. Come, Mammy,
you go too," said Jill, as the last sunbeams shone in at the western
window where her hyacinths stood that no fostering ray might be
lost.

It was rather pathetic to see the once merry girl who used to be the
life of the wood-parties now carefully lifting herself from the
couch, and, leaning on her mother’s strong arm, slowly take the
half-dozen steps that made up her little expedition. But she was
happy, and stood smiling out at old Bun skipping down the walk,
the gold-edged clouds that drew apart so that a sunbeam might
give her a good-night kiss as she gathered her long-cherished
daisies, primroses, and hyacinths to fill the pretty basket in her
hand.

"Who is it for, my dearie?" asked her mother, standing behind her
as a prop, while the thin fingers did their work so willingly that
not a flower was left.

"For My Lady, of course. Who else would I give my posies to,
when I love them so well?" answered Jill, who thought no name
too fine for their best friend.

"I fancied it would be for Master Jack," said her mother, wishing
the excursion to be a cheerful one.

"I’ve another for him, but she must have the prettiest. He is going
to hang it for me, and ring and run away, and she won’t know who
it’s from till she sees this. She will remember it, for I’ve been
turning and tending it ever so long, to make it bloom to-day. Isn’t it
a beauty?" and Jill held up her finest hyacinth, which seemed to
ring its pale pink bells as if glad to carry its sweet message from a
grateful little heart.

"Indeed it is; and you are right to give your best to her. Come away
now, you must not stand any longer. Come and rest while I fetch a
dish to put the flowers in till you want them;" and Mrs. Pecq
turned her round with her small Maying safely done.

"I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do even so much, and here I am
walking and sitting up, and going to drive some day. Isn’t it nice
that I’m not to be a poor Lucinda after all?" and Jill drew a long
sigh of relief that six months instead of twenty years would
probably be the end of her captivity.

"Yes, thank Heaven! I don’t think I could have borne that;" and
the mother took Jill in her arms as if she were a baby, holding her
close for a minute, and laying her down with a tender kiss that
made the arms cling about her neck as her little girl returned it
heartily, for all sorts of new, sweet feelings seemed to be budding
in both, born of great joy and thankfulness.

Then Mrs. Pecq hurried away to see about tea for the hungry boys,
and Jill watched the pleasant twilight deepen as she lay singing to
herself one of the songs her friend taught her because it fitted her
so well.

"A little bird I am,

Shut from the fields of air,

And in my cage I sit and sing

To Him who placed me there:

Well pleased a prisoner to be,

Because, my God, it pleases Thee!

"Naught have I else to do;

I sing the whole day long;

And He whom most I love to please

Doth listen to my song,

He caught and bound my wandering wing,

But still He bends to hear me sing."

"Now we are ready for you, so bring on your flowers," said Molly
to the boys, as she and Merry added their store of baskets to the
gay show Jill had set forth on the long table ready for the evening’s
work.

"They wouldn’t let me see one, but I guess they have had good
luck, they look so jolly," answered Jill, looking at Gus, Frank, and
Jack, who stood laughing, each with a large basket in his hands.

"Fair to middling. Just look in and see;" with which cheerful
remark Gus tipped up his basket and displayed a few bits of green
at the bottom.

"I did better. Now, don’t all scream at once over these beauties;"
and Frank shook out some evergreen sprigs, half a dozen
saxifrages, and two or three forlorn violets with hardly any stems.

"I don’t brag, but here’s the best of all the three," chuckled Jack,
producing a bunch of feathery carrot-tops, with a few half-shut
dandelions trying to look brave and gay.

"Oh, boys, is that all?"

"What shall we do?"

"We’ve only a few house-flowers, and all those baskets to fill,"
cried the girls, in despair; for Merry’s contribution had been small,
and Molly had only a handful of artificial flowers "to fill up," she
said.

"It isn’t our fault: it is the late spring. We can’t make flowers, can
we?" asked Frank, in a tone of calm resignation.

"Couldn’t you buy some, then?" said Molly, smoothing her
crumpled morning-glories, with a sigh.

"Who ever heard of a fellow having any money left the last day of
the month?" demanded Gus, severely.

"Or girls either. I spent all mine in ribbon and paper for my
baskets, and now they are of no use. It’s a shame!" lamented Jill,
while Merry began to thin out her full baskets to fill the empty
ones.

"Hold on!" cried Frank, relenting. "Now, Jack, make their minds
easy before they begin to weep and wail."

"Left the box outside. You tell while I go for it;" and Jack bolted,
as if afraid the young ladies might be too demonstrative when the
tale was told.

"Tell away," said Frank, modestly passing the story along to Gus,
who made short work of it.

"We rampaged all over the country, and got only that small mess
of greens. Knew you’d be disgusted, and sat down to see what we
could do. Then Jack piped up, and said he’d show us a place where
we could get a plenty. ‘Come on,’ said we, and after leading us a
nice tramp, he brought us out at Morse’s greenhouse. So we got
a few on tick, as we had but four cents among us, and there
you are. Pretty clever of the little chap, wasn’t it?"

A chorus of delight greeted Jack as he popped his head in, was
promptly seized by his elders and walked up to the table, where the
box was opened, displaying gay posies enough to fill most of the
baskets if distributed with great economy and much green.

"You are the dearest boy that ever was!" began Jill, with her nose
luxuriously buried in the box, though the flowers were more
remarkable for color than perfume.

"No, I’m not; there’s a much dearer one coming upstairs now, and
he’s got something that will make you howl for joy," said Jack,
ignoring his own prowess as Ed came in with a bigger box, looking
as if he had done nothing but go a Maying all his days.

"Don’t believe it!" cried Jill, hugging her own treasure jealously.
"It’s only another joke. I won’t look," said Molly, still struggling to
make her cambric roses bloom again.

"I know what it is! Oh, how sweet!" added Merry, sniffing, as Ed
set the box before her, saying pleasantly, –

"You shall see first, because you had faith."

Up went the cover, and a whiff of the freshest fragrance regaled
the seven eager noses bent to inhale it, as a general murmur of
pleasure greeted the nest of great, rosy mayflowers that lay before
them.

"The dear things, how lovely they are!" and Merry looked as if
greeting her cousins, so blooming and sweet was her own face.

Molly pushed her dingy garlands away, ashamed of such poor
attempts beside these perfect works of nature, and Jill stretched
out her hand involuntarily, as she said, forgetting her exotics,
"Give me just one to smell of, it is so woodsy and delicious."

"Here you are, plenty for all. Real Pilgrim Fathers, right from
Plymouth. One of our fellows lives there, and I told him to bring
me a good lot; so he did, and you can do what you like with them,"
explained Ed, passing round bunches and shaking the rest in a
mossy pile upon the table.

"Ed always gets ahead of us in doing the right thing at the right
time. Hope you’ve got some first-class baskets ready for him," said
Gus, refreshing the Washingtonian nose with a pink blossom or
two.

"Not much danger of his being forgotten," answered Molly; and
every one laughed, for Ed was much beloved by all the girls, and
his door-steps always bloomed like a flower-bed on May eve.

"Now we must fly round and fill up. Come, boys, sort out the green
and hand us the flowers as we want them. Then we must direct
them, and, by the time that is done, you can go and leave them,"
said Jill, setting all to work.

"Ed must choose his baskets first. These are ours; but any of those
you can have;" and Molly pointed to a detachment of gay baskets,
set apart from those already partly filled.

Ed chose a blue one, and Merry filled it with the rosiest
may-flowers, knowing that it was to hang on Mabel’s door-handle.

The others did the same, and the pretty work went on, with much
fun, till all were filled, and ready for the names or notes.

"Let us have poetry, as we can’t get wild flowers. That will be
rather fine," proposed Jill, who liked jingles.

All had had some practice at the game parties, and pencils went
briskly for a few minutes, while silence reigned, as the poets
racked their brains for rhymes, and stared at the blooming array
before them for inspiration.

"Oh, dear! I can’t find a word to rhyme to ‘geranium,’" sighed
Molly, pulling her braid, as if to pump the well of her fancy dry.

"Cranium," said Frank, who was getting on bravely with "Annette"
and "violet."

"That is elegant!" and Molly scribbled away in great glee, for her
poems were always funny ones.

"How do you spell anemoly – the wild flower, I mean?" asked Jill,
who was trying to compose a very appropriate piece for her best
basket, and found it easier to feel love and gratitude than to put
them into verse.

"Anemone; do spell it properly, or you’ll get laughed at," answered
Gus, wildly struggling to make his lines express great ardor,
without being "too spoony," as he expressed it.

"No, I shouldn’t. This person never laughs at other persons’
mistakes, as some persons do," replied Jill, with dignity.

Jack was desperately chewing his pencil, for he could not get on at
all; but Ed had evidently prepared his poem, for his paper was half
full already, and Merry was smiling as she wrote a friendly line or
two for Ralph’s basket, as she feared he would be forgotten, and
knew he loved kindness even more than he did beauty.

"Now let’s read them," proposed Molly, who loved to laugh even at
herself.

The boys politely declined, and scrambled their notes into the
chosen baskets in great haste; but the girls were less bashful. Jill
was invited to begin, and gave her little piece, with the pink
hyacinth basket before her, to illustrate her poem.

"TO MY LADY

"There are no flowers in the fields,

No green leaves on the tree,

No columbines, no violets,

No sweet anemone.

So I have gathered from my pots

All that I have to fill

The basket that I hang to-night,

With heaps of love from Jill."

"That’s perfectly sweet! Mine isn’t; but I meant it to be funny," said
Molly, as if there could be any doubt about the following ditty: –

"Dear Grif,

Here is a whiff

Of beautiful spring flowers;

The big red rose

Is for your nose,

As toward the sky it towers.

"Oh, do not frown

Upon this crown

Of green pinks and blue geranium

But think of me

When this you see,

And put it on your cranium."

"O Molly, you will never hear the last of that if Grif gets it," said
Jill, as the applause subsided, for the boys pronounced it "tip-top."

"Don’t care, he gets the worst of it any way, for there is a pin in that
rose, and if he goes to smell the mayflowers underneath he will
find a thorn to pay for the tack he put in my rubber boot. I know he
will play me some joke to-night, and I mean to be first if I can,"
answered Molly, settling the artificial wreath round the
orange-colored canoe which held her effusion.

"Now, Merry, read yours: you always have sweet poems;" and Jill
folded her hands to listen with pleasure to something sentimental.

"I can’t read the poems in some of mine, because they are for you;
but this little verse you can hear, if you like: I’m going to give that
basket to Ralph. He said he should hang one for his grandmother,
and I thought that was so nice of him, I’d love to surprise him with
one all to himself. He’s always so good to us;" and Merry looked so
innocently earnest that no one smiled at her kind thought or the
unconscious paraphrase she had made of a famous stanza in her
own "little verse."

"To one who teaches me

The sweetness and the beauty

Of doing faithfully

And cheerfully my duty."

"He will like that, and know who sent it, for none of us have pretty
pink paper but you, or write such an elegant hand," said Molly,
admiring the delicate white basket shaped like a lily, with the
flowers inside and the note hidden among them, all daintily tied up
with the palest blush-colored ribbon.

"Well, that’s no harm. He likes pretty things as much as I do, and I
made my basket like a flower because I gave him one of my callas,
he admired the shape so much;" and Merry smiled as she remembered
how pleased Ralph looked as he went away carrying the lovely thing.

"I think it would be a good plan to hang some baskets on the doors
of other people who don’t expect or often have any. I’ll do it if you
can spare some of these, we have so many. Give me only one, and
let the others go to old Mrs. Tucker, and the little Irish girl who
has been sick so long, and lame Neddy, and Daddy Munson. It
would please and surprise them so. Will we?" asked Ed, in that
persuasive voice of his.

All agreed at once, and several people were made very happy by a
bit of spring left at their doors by the May elves who haunted the
town that night playing all sorts of pranks. Such a twanging of
bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the
dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or
girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps
on the sly; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and
friendly feeling – it was almost a pity that May-day did not come
oftener.

Molly got home late, and found that Grif had been before her, after
all; for she stumbled over a market-basket at her door, and on
taking it in found a mammoth nosegay of purple and white
cabbages, her favorite vegetable. Even Miss Bat laughed at the
funny sight, and Molly resolved to get Ralph to carve her a
bouquet out of carrots, beets, and turnips for next time, as Grif
would never think of that.

Merry ran up the garden-walk alone, for Frank left her at the gate,
and was fumbling for the latch when she felt something hanging
there. Opening the door carefully, she found it gay with offerings
from her mates; and among them was one long quiver-shaped
basket of birch bark, with something heavy under the green leaves
that lay at the top. Lifting these, a slender bas-relief of a calla lily
in plaster appeared, with this couplet slipped into the blue cord by
which it was to hang: –

"That mercy you to others show

That Mercy Grant to me."

"How lovely! and this one will never fade, but always be a
pleasure hanging there. Now, I really have something beautiful all
my own," said Merry to herself as she ran up to hang the pretty
thing on the dark wainscot of her room, where the graceful curve
of its pointed leaves and the depth of its white cup would be a joy
to her eyes as long as they lasted.

"I wonder what that means," and Merry read over the lines again,
while a soft color came into her cheeks and a little smile of girlish
pleasure began to dimple round her lips; for she was so romantic,
this touch of sentiment showed her that her friendship was more
valued than she dreamed. But she only said, "How glad I am I
remembered him, and how surprised he will be to see mayflowers
in return for the lily."

He was, and worked away more happily and bravely for the
thought of the little friend whose eyes would daily fall on the
white flower which always reminded him of her.

 

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