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"Ann! Ann! Have you been home yet to feed the chickens?" The call came from the doorway of a big old farmhouse, where a pleasant-faced woman stood looking out over the October fields.
The answer floated down from an apple-tree near by, where a ten-year-old girl sat perched among its gnarled branches. She had a dog-eared book of fairy tales on her knee, and was poring over it in such blissful absorption that she had forgotten there were such things in all the world as chickens to be fed.
"No'm, Aunt Sally, I haven't done it yet, but I'll go in a minute," and she was deep into the story again.
"But, Ann," came the voice after a moment's waiting, "it is nearly sundown, and you ought to go right away, dear. Lottie says that you have been reading ever since you came home from school, and I am afraid that your mother wouldn't like it."
"Oh, bother!" exclaimed Ann under her breath, shutting the book with an impatient slap; but she obediently swung herself down from the limb, and went into the house for the key. The little cottage where Ann Fowler lived stood just across the lane from her Uncle John's big brown house, where she was staying while her mother was away from home. Mrs. Fowler, who had been called to the city by her sister's illness, had taken little Betty with her, but Ann could not afford to miss school and had been left in her Aunt Sally's care. The arrangement was very agreeable to the child, for it meant no dish-wiping, no dusting, no running of errands while she was a guest. Her only task was to go across the lane twice a day and feed the chickens.
As Ann came out of the house swinging the key, her aunt called her again: "Mrs. Grayson was here to-day. She came to invite you and Lottie to a Saturday afternoon romp with her little girls to-morrow. She's asked a dozen boys and girls to come and play all afternoon and stay to tea. Her oldest daughter, Jennie, is going to give a Hallowe'en party at night, but she'll send you home in the carryall after tea, before the foolishness begins."
"Didn't she invite us to the party too?" asked Ann, who had heard it discussed at school all week by the older girls and boys of the neighbourhood, until her head was full of the charms and mysteries of Hallowe'en.
"Why, of course not," was the answer. "Jennie Grayson is fully eighteen years old and wouldn't want you children tagging around."
"But we can't work any charms in the afternoon," said Ann, "They won't come true unless you wait till midnight to do 'em. I found a long list of 'em in an old book at home and gave them to Jennie. I think she might have asked me. I'd love to try my fate walking down cellar backwards with a looking-glass in one hand and a candle in the other. They say that you can see the reflection of the man you're going to marry looking over your shoulder into the glass."
"Why, Ann Fowler!" exclaimed her aunt in a horrified tone, lifting up both hands in her astonishment. "I didn't think it of a little girl like you! Don't you go to putting any foolish notions like that into Lottie's head. Fate indeed! It would be more like your fate to fall down cellar and break the looking-glass and set yourself on fire. No, indeed! Lottie shouldn't go to such a party if she had a dozen invitations."
Ann hurried away wishing that she had not spoken. She had an uncomfortable feeling that her aunt considered her almost wicked, because she had made that wish. As for her aunt, she was saying to her husband, who had just come in, "Well, well! that child has the queerest notions. Her mother lets her read entirely too much, and anything she happens to get her hands on. And she sets such store by her clothes, too. I believe if she had her own way she'd be rigged out in her Sunday best the whole week long. I'm glad that Lucy isn't like her."
No one, judging by the appearance of the resolute little figure trudging across the lane, would have imagined that Ann's besetting sin was a love of dress. She was such a plain old-fashioned little body, with her short brown hair combed smoothly back behind her ears. But the checked sunbonnet, the long-sleeved gingham apron, and the stout calfskin shoes were no index of Ann's taste. They were of her mother's choosing, and Ann's mother was not a woman whose decisions could be lightly set aside.
In a bureau drawer in the guest-chamber of the little cottage was a dress that Ann had been longing to put on for six months. It was of dainty white organdy, made to wear over a slip of the palest green silk, with ribbons to match. And carefully wrapped in a box, with many coverings of tissue paper, was a pair of beautiful pale green kid shoes. Ann had worn them only once, and that was in the early spring, when she had gone to a cousin's wedding in the city. Many a Sunday morning since, she had wept bitter tears into that drawer, at not being allowed to wear the costume to church.
"Just see how beautiful they are, mother," she would say tearfully, touching the beribboned dress with admiring fingers and caressing the shoes. "By the time I have another chance to wear them in the city they will be too small for me, and I shall have to give them to Betty. I don't see why I can't wear them out here."
"Because they are not suitable, Ann," her mother would answer. "You would look ridiculous going through the fields and along the dusty roads in such finery, and among all these plainly attired country people you would appear overdressed. I hope that my little daughter is too much of a lady in her tastes to ever want to call attention to herself in that way, especially at church."
"But, mother," the little girl would sob protestingly, and then Mrs. Fowler's decided voice would silence her.
"Hush, Ann! Close the drawer at once. You cannot wear them." That would settle the matter for awhile, but the scene had been repeated several times during the summer. Now it was next to the last day of October, and no suitable occasion had arrived for Ann to wear them.
As she stood scattering the corn to the chickens, a daring plan began to form itself in her busy brain. The trees suggested it; the trees of the surrounding woodland, decked out in their royal autumn colouring of red and yellow, that the sunset was just now turning into a golden glory.
"Even the trees get to wear their best clothes sometimes," she said to herself. "They look like a lot of princesses ready for a ball. Oh, that's what they are," she exclaimed aloud. "They are all Cinderellas. October is their fairy godmother who has changed their old every-day dresses into beautiful ball-gowns, for them to wear on Hallowe'en. I don't see why I couldn't wear my best clothes too, to-morrow." Then she went on, as if she were talking to the old white rooster: "I'd rather be dressed up and look nice than to play, and I needn't romp at all. If we were to begin trying charms after supper, Mrs. Grayson would be almost sure to let us stay until after Jennie's party begins, and then all the big boys and girls would see my lovely clothes. Nobody out here knows I've got 'em. And then if I should go down cellar with a looking-glass and candle and somebody should look over my shoulder, I'd be so glad that the first time he ever saw me I was all in green and white like the Princess Emeralda, with my beautiful pale green party shoes on."
Alas! Aunt Sally was right. The flotsam and jetsam of too many sentimental stories and fairy tales were afloat in the child's active mind. A few minutes later she had gathered the eggs and put them away in the pantry. Then she stepped into the sitting-room, awed by the solemn stillness that enveloped the usually cheerful room. How strange and dark it seemed with all the blinds closed! She groped her way across the floor, and tiptoed through the hall as if she were afraid that the great eight-day clock in the corner might hear her and call her back. Its loud tick-tock was the only sound in the house, except her own rapid breathing.
Throwing open a western window, she pushed back the shutters until the guest-chamber was all alight with the glow of the sunset. Then she clutched the handles of the bureau drawer with fingers that twitched guiltily, and gave a jerk. It was locked. For a moment her disappointment was so great that she was ready to cry, but her face soon cleared and she began a search for the keys. Under the rug, in the vases on the mantel, behind photograph frames, into every crack where a key could be hidden, she peered with eager brown eyes. It was not to be found. Finally she climbed on a chair to the highest closet shelf, where she came across something that made her give a cry of delight. It was the box that held the green kid shoes.
"I'll wear this much of my party clothes, anyhow," she declared, scrambling down with the box in her arms. Then followed a fruitless search for the silk stockings that matched them. They were not in the box with the shoes, where they had always been kept, and a rummage through the drawers showed nothing suitable.
She heard her Aunt Sally's cook blowing the horn for supper before she gave up the search. That night after she and Lottie had gone up to bed, she took her cousin into her confidence.
"Mother hasn't left a thing unlocked but my school clothes," she said. "I can't find a stocking except my red ones and my striped ones and some horrid old brown things. She hasn't left out a single white pair for Sundays; I don't see what she could have been thinking of." Nowadays little girls might not think that such a distressing matter, but twenty-five years ago no stockings but white ones were considered proper for full-dress occasions.
"I'll lend you some," said Lottie obligingly. "I have a pair of fine white lamb's wool that will fit you. They are a little small for me, and ma put them away to keep because grandma knit them herself after she was eighty years old. But I know she would not care if you wore them just once."
"Then let's get them to-night and not say anything about it until after to-morrow," said Ann. "She might say I ought not to wear the shoes, and I'm just bound to have my own way for once in my life."
When Ann's dark eyes flashed as wickedly as they did then, Lottie always submitted without a word. Opening a big chest in one corner of the room, she began fumbling among the pile of neatly wrapped winter flannels it contained, while Ann held the candle.
"I saw ma put them in this corner," said Lottie. "I am sure. Oh! here they are," she exclaimed, and as she unfolded them she sneezed so suddenly that it nearly put out the candle. "It's the red pepper," she explained. "They're full of it, to keep out the moths. Hold them up and shake them hard."
Several shrivelled red pods fell out as Ann obeyed, and so much loose pepper that they both began sneezing violently. Lottie's mother presently called up the stairs for them to hurry to bed, for they surely must be taking cold.
The next afternoon when Mrs. Grayson's carryall drove down the lane Ann was waiting in front of the cottage, and climbed in before her Aunt Sally came out to the gate to see them off.
"Tuck the lap-robe around you well," she called. "If I had known it was so cold, I'd have gotten out your hoods instead of those sunbonnets. It really begins to feel as if winter is on the way."
It was a dull gray day with a hint of snow in the air. Several flakes fell before they reached the Grayson farm, and Ann pulled aside the lap-robe more than once to peep at the light green shoes with secret misgivings as to their appropriateness. The wool stockings made them such a tight fit that they pinched considerably, but the pinching was more than compensated for by the shapely appearance of her trim little feet. Besides there was a vast amount of satisfaction to the wilful child in the mere knowledge that she was having her own way.
Under ordinary circumstances Ann would have looked back at that afternoon as one of the merriest of her life. She loved the woods like an Indian, and usually was the leading spirit in such exploits as they ventured on that day. They were off to the woods with baskets and pails as soon as they had all assembled. But for once the late wild grapes hung their tempting bunches overhead in vain. The persimmons, frost-sweetened and brown, lay under the trees unsought by Ann's nimble fingers, and the nuts pattered down on the dead leaves unheeded. While the other children raced down the hills and whooped through the frosty hollows, Ann followed gingerly in their wake, picking her way as best she could through the rustling leaves and across the slippery logs that bridged the little brooks. It was too cold to sit down. She was obliged to keep stirring; so all that miserable afternoon she tagged after the others, painfully conscious of her fine shoes, and a slave to the task of keeping them clean.
"Hi! Ann, what's the matter?" called one of the boys as he noticed her mincing along at the tail-end of the procession instead of gallantly leading the charge as usual. Then his glance wandered down past the checked sunbonnet and the long-sleeved gingham apron to the cause of her leisurely gait.
"My eyes!" he exclaimed with more vigour than politeness. "What made you pull your shoes so soon for, Ann? They ain't ripe. They're green as gourds."
"Mind your own business, Bud Bailey," was the only answer he received, but from then on what had been her greatest pride became her deepest mortification. For some unaccountable reason, after awhile her feet burned as if they were on fire, and before the afternoon was over the pain was almost unbearable. Lottie found her sitting on a log behind a big tree, with her arms clasped around her knees, rocking back and forth, her eyes tightly closed and her teeth clenched.
"It must be the red pepper in those stockings that burns you so," she said sympathetically. "Come on up to the house and take them off. Lucy will lend you another pair."
But Ann sprang up, fiercely forbidding her to mention it to any one, and dashed into the games with a Spartan disregard of her pain. It was the only way to keep from crying, and she played recklessly on at "prisoner's base," not stopping even when a pointed stick snagged one shoe and a sharp rock cut the other.
It was nearly dark when they went up to the house. Bud Bailey swung his baskets over the fence and turned to help the girls, but after his unfortunate speech to Ann, she scorned his gallantries. Scrambling to the top rail by herself at a little distance from his proffered hand, she poised an instant, and then sprang lightly down. Unfortunately, she had not looked before she leaped. Bud's basket was in the way, and both feet sank into a great pulpy mass of wild grapes, that instantly squirted their streams of purple juice all over her light shoes. They were splotched and dyed so deeply that no amount of rubbing could ever wipe away the ugly stains. They were hopelessly ruined.
Alas for the Princess Emeralda, who that night might have learned her fate in the charm mirror! It was a Hallowe'en she could never forget, since its unhappiness was both burned and dyed into her memory. She sat through the tea, her feet like hot coals, too miserable to enjoy anything. Afterwards, when Jennie's guests began to arrive, she shrank into a corner, with her dress pulled down far as possible.
It seemed weeks before the carryall was driven up to the door, but at last she was jolting along the frozen road beside Lottie on the way home. Out in the starlight, within the protecting privacy of her sunbonnet, she could let fall some of the tears she had been fighting back so long. Neither of the children spoke until the carryall turned into the home lane. Then Lottie cried out; "Oh, Ann! There's a light in your house. Your mother must have come back sooner than she expected. Yes, I can see Betty at the window watching for you."
At the gate Ann climbed over the wheel and then turned to exclaim savagely, "I know what you're thinking, Lottie Fowler, even if you don't dare say it. You're thinking you're glad that you are not in my shoes! But I've had my own way, anyhow!" Then with her head high she marched up the path to the house.
But in spite of her brave speech, when she reached the door-step, she stopped to wipe her eyes again on her apron. The carryall drove away, and still she stood there saying to herself with a little sob, "Oh, I wonder if the Prodigal Son was half as much ashamed to go home as I am!"
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