Chapter 12 - The Twenty-Second Of February
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: -
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,
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.