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Chapter 21 – Cupid’s Last Appearance

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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A picnic supper on the grass followed the games, and then, as twilight
began to fall, the young people were marshalled to the coach-house, now
transformed into a rustic theatre. One big door was open, and seats,
arranged lengthwise, faced the red table-cloths which formed the
curtain. A row of lamps made very good foot-lights, and an invisible
band performed a Wagner-like overture on combs, tin trumpets, drums, and
pipes, with an accompaniment of suppressed laughter.

Many of the children had never seen any thing like it, and sat staring
about them in mute admiration and expectancy; but the older ones
criticised freely, and indulged in wild speculations as to the meaning
of various convulsions of nature going on behind the curtain.

While Teacher was dressing the actresses for the tragedy, Miss Celia and
Thorny, who were old hands at this sort of amusement, gave a "Potato"
pantomime as a side show.

Across an empty stall a green cloth was fastened, so high that the heads
of the operators were not seen. A little curtain flew up, disclosing the
front of a Chinese pagoda painted on pasteboard, with a door and window
which opened quite naturally. This stood on one side, several green
trees with paper lanterns hanging from the boughs were on the other
side, and the words "Tea Garden," printed over the top, showed the
nature of this charming spot.

Few of the children had ever seen the immortal Punch and Judy, so this
was a most agreeable novelty, and before they could make out what it
meant, a voice began to sing, so distinctly that every word was heard, –

"In China there lived a little man,

His name was Chingery Wangery Chan."

Here the hero "took the stage" with great dignity, clad in a loose
yellow jacket over a blue skirt, which concealed the hand that made his
body. A pointed hat adorned his head, and on removing this to bow he
disclosed a bald pate with a black queue in the middle, and a Chinese
face nicely painted on the potato, the lower part of which was hollowed
out to fit Thorny’s first finger, while his thumb and second finger were
in the sleeves of the yellow jacket, making a lively pair of arms. While
he saluted, the song went n, –

"His legs were short, his feet were small,

And this little man could not walk at all."

Which assertion was proved to be false by the agility with which the
"little man" danced a jig in time to the rollicking chorus, –

"Chingery changery ri co day,

Ekel tekel happy man;

Uron odesko canty oh, oh,

Gallopy wallopy China go."

At the close of the dance and chorus, Chan retired into the tea garden,
and drank so many cups of the national beverage, with such comic
gestures, that the spectators were almost sorry when the opening of the
opposite window drew all eyes in that direction. At the lattice appeared
a lovely being; for this potato had been pared, and on the white surface
were painted pretty pink checks, red lips, black eyes, and oblique
brows; through the tuft of dark silk on the head were stuck several
glittering pins, and a pink jacket shrouded the plump figure of this
capital little Chinese lady. After peeping coyly out, so that all could
see and admire, she fell to counting the money from a purse, so large
her small hands could hardly hold it on the window seat. While she did
this, the song went on to explain, –

"Miss Ki Hi was short and squat,

She had money and he had not

So off to her he resolved to go,

And play her a tune on his little banjo."

During the chorus to this verse Chan was seen tuning his instrument in
the garden, and at the end sallied gallantly forth to sing the following
tender strain, –

"Whang fun li,

Tang hua ki,

Hong Kong do ra me!

Ah sin lo,

Pan to fo,

Tsing up chin leute!"

Carried away by his passion, Chan dropped his banjo, fell upon his
knees, and, clasping his hands, bowed his forehead in the dust before
his idol. But, alas! –

"Miss Ki Hi heard his notes of love,

And held her wash-bowl up above

It fell upon the little man,

And this was the end of Chingery Chan,"

Indeed it was; for, as the doll’s basin of real water was cast forth by
the cruel charmer, poor Chan expired in such strong convulsions that his
head rolled down among the audience. Miss Ki Hi peeped to see what had
become of her victim, and the shutter decapitated her likewise, to the
great delight of the children, who passed around the heads, pronouncing
a "Potato" pantomime "first-rate fun."

Then they settled themselves for the show, having been assured by
Manager Thorny that they were about to behold the most elegant and
varied combination ever produced on any stage. And when one reads the
following very inadequate description of the somewhat mixed
entertainment, it is impossible to deny that the promise made was nobly
kept.

After some delay and several crashes behind the curtain, which mightily
amused the audience, the performance began with the well-known tragedy
of "Bluebeard;" for Bab had set her heart upon it, and the young folks
had acted it so often in their plays that it was very easy to get up,
with a few extra touches to scenery and costumes. Thorny was superb as
the tyrant with a beard of bright blue worsted, a slouched hat and long
feather, fur cloak, red hose, rubber boots, and a real sword which
clanked tragically as he walked. He spoke in such a deep voice, knit his
corked eye-brows, and glared so frightfully, that it was no wonder poor
Fatima quaked before him as he gave into her keeping an immense bunch of
keys with one particularly big, bright one, among them.

Bab was fine to see, with Miss Celia’s blue dress sweeping behind her, a
white plume in her flowing hair, and a real necklace with a pearl locket
about her neck. She did her part capitally, especially the shriek she
gave when she looked into the fatal closet, the energy with which she
scrubbed the tell-tale key, and her distracted tone when she called out:
"Sister Anne, O, sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?" while her
enraged husband was roaring: "Will you come down, madam, or shall I come
and fetch you?"

Betty made a captivating Anne, – all in white muslin, and a hat full of
such lovely pink roses that she could not help putting up one hand to
feel them as she stood on the steps looking out at the little window for
the approaching brothers who made such a din that it sounded like a
dozen horsemen instead if two.

Ben and Billy were got up regardless of expense in the way of arms; for
their belts were perfect arsenals, and their wooden swords were big
enough to strike terror into any soul, though they struck no sparks out
of Bluebeard’s blade in the awful combat which preceded the villain’s
downfall and death.

The boys enjoyed this part intensely, and cries of "Go it, Ben!" "Hit
him again, Billy!" "Two against one isn’t fair!" "Thorny’s a match for
’em." "Now he’s down, hurray!" cheered on the combatants, till, after a
terrific struggle, the tyrant fell, and with convulsive twitchings of
the scarlet legs, slowly expired while the ladies sociably fainted in
each other’s arms, and the brothers waved their swords and shook hands
over the corpse of their enemy.

This piece was rapturously applauded, and all the performers had to
appear and bow their thanks, led by the defunct Bluebeard, who mildly
warned the excited audience that if they "didn’t look out the seats
would break down, and then there’d be a nice mess."

Calmed by this fear they composed themselves, and waited with ardor for
the next play, which promised to be a lively one, judging from the
shrieks of laughter which came from behind the curtain.

"Sanch ‘s going to be in it, I know; for I heard Ben say, ‘Hold him
still; he won’t bite,’" whispered Sam, longing to "jounce up and down,
so great was his satisfaction at the prospect, for the dog was
considered the star of the company.

"I hope Bab will do something else, she is so funny. Wasn’t her dress
elegant?" said Sally Folsum, burning to wear a long silk gown and a
feather in her hair.

"I like Betty best, she’s so cunning, and she peeked out of the window
just as if she really saw somebody coming," answered Liddy Peckham,
privately resolving to tease mother for some pink roses before another
Sunday came.

Up went the curtain at last, and a voice announced "A Tragedy in Three
Tableaux." "There’s Betty!" was the general exclamation, as the audience
recognized a familiar face under the little red hood worn by the child
who stood receiving a basket from Teacher, who made a nice mother with
her finger up, as if telling the small messenger not to loiter by the
way.

"I know what that is!" cried Sally; "it’s ‘Mabel on Midsummer Day.’ The
piece Miss Celia spoke; don’t you know?"

"There isn’t any sick baby, and Mabel had a ‘kerchief pinned about her
head.’ I say it’s Red Riding Hood," answered Liddy, who had begun to
learn Mary Howitt’s pretty poem for her next piece, and knew all about
it.

The question was settled by the appearance of the wolf in the second
scene, and such a wolf! On few amateur stages do we find so natural an
actor for that part, or so good a costume, for Sanch was irresistibly
droll in the gray wolf-skin which usually lay beside Miss Celia’s bed,
now fitted over his back and fastened neatly down underneath, with his
own face peeping out at one end, and the handsome tail bobbing gayly at
the other. What a comfort that tail was to Sancho, none but a bereaved
bow-wow could ever tell. It reconciled him to his distasteful part at
once, it made rehearsals a joy, and even before the public he could not
resist turning to catch a glimpse of the noble appendage, while his own
brief member wagged with the proud consciousness that though the tail
did not match the head, it was long enough to be seen of all men and
dogs.

That was a pretty picture, for the little maid came walking in with the
basket on her arm, and such an innocent face inside the bright hood that
it was quite natural the gray wolf should trot up to her with deceitful
friendliness, that she should pat and talk to him confidingly about the
butter for grandma, and then that they should walk away together, he
politely carrying her basket, she with her hand on his head, little
dreaming what evil plans were taking shape inside.

The children encored that, but there was no time to repeat it, so they
listened to more stifled merriment behind the red table-cloths, and
wondered whether the next scene would be the wolf popping his head out
of the window as Red Riding Hood knocks, or the tragic end of that
sweet child.

It was neither, for a nice bed had been made, and in it reposed the
false grandmother, with a ruffled nightcap on, a white gown, and
spectacles. Betty lay beside the wolf, staring at him as if just about
to say, "Why, grandma, what great teeth you’ve got!" for Sancho’s mouth
was half open and a red tongue hung out, as he panted with the exertion
of keeping still. This tableau was so very good, and yet so funny, that
the children clapped and shouted frantically; this excited the dog, who
gave a bounce and would have leaped off the bed to bark at the rioters,
if Betty had not caught him by the legs, and Thorny dropped the curtain
just at the moment when the wicked wolf was apparently in the act of
devouring the poor little girl, with most effective growls.

They had to come out then, and did so, both much dishevelled by the late
tussle, for Sancho’s cap was all over one eye, and Betty’s hood was
anywhere but on her head. She made her courtesy prettily, however; her
fellow-actor bowed with as much dignity as a short night-gown permitted,
and they retired to their well-earned repose.

Then Thorny, looking much excited, appeared to make the following
request: "As one of the actors in the next piece is new to the business,
the company must all keep as still as mice, and not stir till I give the
word. It’s perfectly splendid! so don’t you spoil it by making a row."

"What do you suppose it is?" asked every one, and listened with all
their might to get a hint, if possible. But what they heard only whetted
their curiosity and mystified them more and more. Bab’s voice cried in a
loud whisper, "Isn’t Ben beautiful?" Then there was a thumping noise,
and Miss Celia said, in an anxious tone, "Oh, do be careful," while Ben
laughed out as if he was too happy to care who heard him, and Thorny
bawled "Whoa!" in a way which would have attracted attention if Lita’s
head had not popped out of her box, more than once, to survey the
invaders of her abode, with a much astonished expression.

"Sounds kind of circusy, don’t it?" said Sam to Billy, who had come out
to receive the compliments of the company and enjoy the tableau at a
safe distance.

"You just wait till you see what’s coming. It beats any circus I ever
saw," answered Billy, rubbing his hands with the air of a man who had
seen many instead of but one.

"Ready! Be quick and get out of the way when she goes off!" whispered
Ben, but they heard him and prepared for pistols, rockets or
combustibles of some sort, as ships were impossible under the
circumstances, and no other "She" occurred to them.

A unanimous "O-o-o-o !" was heard when the curtain rose, but a stern
"Hush!" from Thorny kept them mutely staring with all their eyes at the
grand spectacle of the evening. There stood Lita with a wide flat saddle
on her back, a white head-stall and reins, blue rosettes in her ears,
and the look of a much-bewildered beast in her bright eyes. But who the
gauzy, spangled, winged creature was, with a gilt crown on its head, a
little bow in its hand, and one white slipper in the air, while the
other seemed merely to touch the saddle, no one could tell for a minute,
so strange and splendid did the apparition appear. No wonder Ben was not
recognized in this brilliant disguise, which was more natural to him
than Billy’s blue flannel or Thorny’s respectable garments. He had so
begged to be allowed to show himself "just once," as he used to be in
the days when "father" tossed him up on the bare-backed old General, for
hundreds to see and admire, that Miss Celia had consented, much against
her will, and hastily arranged some bits of spangled tarlatan over the
white cotton suit which was to simulate the regulation tights. Her old
dancing slippers fitted, and gold paper did the rest, while Ben, sure of
his power over Lita, promised not to break his bones, and lived for days
on the thought of the moment when he could show the boys that he had not
boasted vainly of past splendors.

Before the delighted children could get their breath, Lita gave signs of
her dislike to the foot-lights, and, gathering up the reins that lay on
her neck, Ben gave the old cry, "Houp-la!" and let her go, as he had
often done before, straight out of the coach-house for a gallop round
the orchard.

"Just turn about and you can see perfectly well, but stay where you are
till he comes back," commanded Thorny, as signs of commotion appeared in
the excited audience.

Round went the twenty children as if turned by one crank, and sitting
there they looked out into the moonlight where the shining figure
flashed to and fro, now so near they could see the smiling face under
the crown, now so far away that it glittered like a fire-fly among the
dusky green. Lita enjoyed that race as heartily as she had done several
others of late, and caracoled about as if anxious to make up for her
lack of skill by speed and obedience. How much Ben liked it there is no
need to tell, yet it was a proof of the good which three months of a
quiet, useful life had done him, that even as he pranced gayly under the
boughs thick with the red and yellow apples almost ready to be gathered,
he found this riding in the fresh air with only his mates for an
audience pleasanter than the crowded tent, the tired horses, profane
men, and painted women, friendly as some of them had been to him.

After the first burst was over, he felt rather glad, on the whole, that
he was going back to plain clothes, helpful school, and kindly people,
who cared more to have him a good boy than the most famous Cupid that
ever stood on one leg with a fast horse under him.

"You may make as much noise as you like, now; Lita’s had her run and
will be as quiet as a lamb after it. Pull up, Ben, and come in; sister
says you’ll get cold," shouted Thorny, as the rider came cantering round
after a leap over the lodge gate and back again.

So Ben pulled up, and the admiring boys and girls were allowed to gather
about him, loud in their praises as they examined the pretty mare and
the mythological character who lay easily on her back.

He looked very little like the god of love now; for he had lost one
slipper and splashed his white legs with dew and dust, the crown had
slipped down upon his neck, and the paper wings hung in an apple-tree
where he had left them as he went by. No trouble in recognizing Ben,
now; but somehow he didn’t want to be seen, and, instead of staying to
be praised, he soon slipped away, making Lita his excuse to vanish
behind the curtain while the rest went into the house to have a
finishing-off game of blindman’s-buff in the big kitchen.

"Well, Ben, are you satisfied?" asked Miss Celia, as she stayed a moment
to unpin the remains of his gauzy scarf and tunic.

"Yes, ‘m, thank you, it was tip-top."

"But you look rather sober. Are you tired, or is it because you don’t
want to take these trappings off and be plain Ben again?" she said,
looking down into his face as he lifted it for her to free him from his
gilded collar.

"I want to take ’em off; for somehow I don’t feel respectable," and he
kicked away the crown he had helped to make so carefully, adding with a
glance that said more than his words: "I’d rather be ‘plain Ben’ than
any one else, for you like to have me."

"Indeed I do; and I’m so glad to hear you say that, because I was afraid
you’d long to be off to the old ways, and all I’ve tried to do would be
undone. Would you like to go back, Ben?" and Miss Celia held his chin an
instant, to watch the brown face that looked so honestly back at her.

"No, I wouldn’t – unless – he was there and wanted me."

The chin quivered just a bit, but the black eyes were as bright as ever,
and the boy’s voice so earnest, she knew he spoke the truth, and laid
her white hand softly on his head, as she answered in the tone he loved
so much, because no one else had ever used it to him, –

"Father is not there; but I know he wants you, dear, and I am sure he
would rather see you in a home like this than in the place you came
from. Now go and dress; but, tell me first, has it been a happy
birthday?"

"Oh, Miss Celia! I didn’t know they could be so beautiful, and this is
the beautifulest part of it; I don’t know how to thank you, but I’m
going to try – " and, finding words wouldn’t come fast enough, Ben just
put his two arms round her, quite speechless with gratitude; then, as if
ashamed of his little outburst, he knelt down in a great hurry to untie
his one shoe.

But Miss Celia liked his answer better than the finest speech ever made
her, and went away through the moonlight, saying to herself, –

"If I can bring one lost lamb into the fold, I shall be the fitter for a
shepherd’s wife, by-and-by."

 

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