"Come down here--we're down by the river!" called Mrs. Burgoyne, from the shade of the river bank, where she and Mrs. Lloyd were busy with their sewing. "The American History section is entertaining the club."
"You look studious!" laughed Mrs. Brown, coming across the grass, to put the Brown baby upon his own sturdy legs from her tired arms, and sink into a deep lawn chair. The June afternoon was warm, but it was delightfully cool by the water. "Is that the club?" she asked, waving toward the group of children who were wading and splashing in the shallows of the loitering river.
"That's the American History Club," responded Mrs. Burgoyne, as she flung her sewing aside and snatched the baby. "Paul," said she, kissing his warm, moist neck, "do you truly love me a little bit?"
"Boy ge' down," said Paul, struggling violently.
"Yes, you shall, darling. But listen, do you want to hear the tick- tock? Oh, Paul, sit still just one minute!"
"Awn ge' down," said Paul, distinctly, every fibre of his small being headed, as it were, for the pebbly shingle where it was daily his delight to dig.
"But say 'deck' first, sweetheart, say 'Deck, I love you,'" besought the mistress of the Hall.
"Deck!" shouted Paul obediently, eyes on the river.
"And a sweet kiss!" further stipulated Mrs. Burgoyne, and grabbed it from his small, red, unresponsive mouth before she let him toddle away. "Yes," she resumed, going on with the tucking of a small skirt, "Joanna and Jeanette and the Adams boy have to write an essay this week about the Battle of Bunker Hill, so I read them Holmes' poem, and they acted it all out. You never saw anything so delicious. Mrs. Lloyd came up just in time to see Mabel limping about as the old Corporal! The cherry tree was the steeple, of course, and both your sons, you'll be ashamed to hear, were redcoats. Next week they expect to do Paul Revere, and I daresay we'll have the entire war, before we're through. You are both cordially invited."
"I'll come," said the doctor's wife, smiling. "I love this garden. And to take care of the boys and have a good time myself is more than I ever thought I'd do in this life!"
"I live on this bank," said Mrs. Burgoyne, leaning back luxuriously in her big chair, to stare idly up through the apple-tree to the blue sky. "I'm going to teach the children all their history and poetry and myths, out here. It makes it so real to them, to act it. Jo and Ellen and I read Barbara Frietchie out here a few weeks ago, and they've wanted it every day or two, since."
"We won't leave anything for the schools to do," said little Mrs. Brown.
"All the better," Mrs. Burgoyne said, cheerfully.
"Well, excuse me!" Mrs. Lloyd, holding the linen cuff she was embroidering at arm's length, and studying it between half-closed lids. "I am only too glad to turn Mabel over to somebody else part of the time. You don't know what she is when she begins to ask questions!"
"I don't know anything more tiring than being with children day in and day out," said Mrs. Brown, "it gets frightfully on your nerves!"
"Oh, I'd like about twelve!" said Mrs. Burgoyne.
"Oh, Mrs. Burgoyne! You wouldn't!"
"Yes, I would, granted a moderately secure income, and a rather roomy country home. Although," added Mrs. Burgoyne, temperately, "I do honestly think twelve children is too big a family. However, one may be greedy in wishes!"
"Would you want a child of yours to go without proper advantages," said Mrs. Lloyd, a little severely, "would you want more than one or two, if you honestly felt you couldn't give them all that other children have? Would you be perfectly willing to have your children feel at a disadvantage with all the children of your friends? I wouldn't," she answered herself positively, "I want to do the best by Mabel, I want her to have everything, as she grows up, that a girl ought to have. That's why all this nonsense about the size of the American family makes me so tired! What's the use of bringing a lot of children into the world that are going to suffer all sorts of privations when they get here?"
"Privations wouldn't hurt them," said Mrs. Burgoyne, sturdily, "if it was only a question of patched boots and made-over clothes and plain food. They could even have everything in the world that's worth while."
"How do you mean?" said Mrs. Lloyd, promptly defensive.
"I'd gather them about me," mused Sidney Burgoyne, dreamily, her eyes on the sky, a whimsical smile playing about her mouth, "I'd gather all seven together--"
"Oh, you've come down to seven?" chuckled Mrs. Brown.
"Well, seven's a good Biblical number," Mrs. Burgoyne said serenely, "--and I'd say 'Children, all music is yours, all art is yours, all literature is yours, all history and all philosophy is waiting to prove to you that in starting poor, healthy, and born of intelligent and devoted parents, you have a long head-start in the race of life. All life is ahead of you, friendships, work, play, tramps through the green country in the spring, fires in winter, nights under the summer stars. Choose what you like, and work for it, your father and I can keep you warm and fed through your childhoods, and after that, nothing can stop you if you are willing to work and wait."
"And then suppose your son asks you why he can't go camping with the other boys in summer school, and your daughter wants to join the cotillion?" asked Mrs. Lloyd.
"Why, it wouldn't hurt them to hear me say no," said Mrs. Burgoyne, in surprise. "I never can understand why parents, who practise every imaginable self-denial themselves, are always afraid the first renunciation will kill their child. Sooner or later they are going to learn what life is. I know a little girl whose parents are multi- millionaires, and who is going to be told some day soon that her two older sisters aren't living abroad, as she thinks, but shut up for life, within a few miles of her. What worse blow could life give to the poorest girl?"
"Horrors!" murmured Mrs. Brown.
"And those are common cases," Mrs. Burgoyne said eagerly, "I knew of so many! Pretty little girls at European watering-places whose mothers are spending thousands, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get out of their blood what no earthly power can do away with. Sons of rich fathers whose valets themselves wouldn't change places with them! And then the fine, clean, industrious middle-classes--or upper classes, really, for the blood in their veins is the finest in the world--are afraid to bring children into the world because of dancing cotillions and motor-cars!"
"Well, of course I have only four," said Mrs. Brown, "but I've been married only seven years--"
Mrs. Burgoyne laughed, came to a full stop, and reddened a little as she went back busily to her sewing.
"Why do you let me run on at such a rate; you know my hobbies now!" she reproached them. "I am not quite sane on the subject of what ought to be done--and isn't--in that good old institution called woman's sphere."
"That sounds vaguely familiar," said Mrs. Lloyd.
"Woman's sphere? Yes, we hate the sound of it," said Mrs. Burgoyne, "just as a man who has left his family hates to talk of home ties, and just as a deserter hates the conversation to come around to the army. But it's true. Our business is children, and kitchens, and husbands, and meals, and we detest it all--"
"I like my husband a little," said Mrs. Brown, in a meek little voice.
They all laughed. Then said Mrs. Lloyd, gazing sentimentally toward the river bank, where her small daughter's twisted curls were tossing madly in a game of "tag":
"I shall henceforth regard Mabel as a possible Joan of Arc."
"One of those boys may be a Lincoln, or a Thomas Edison, or a Mark Twain," Sidney Burgoyne added, half-laughing, "and then we'll feel just a little ashamed for having turned him complacently over to a nurse or a boarding school. Of course, it leaves us free to go to the club and hear a paper on the childhood of Napoleon, carefully compiled years after his death. Why, men take heavy chances in their work, they follow up the slightest opening, but we women throw away opportunities to be great, every day of our lives! Scientists and theorists are spending years of their lives pondering over every separate phase of the development of children, but we, who have the actual material in our hands, turn it over to nursemaids!"
"Yes, but lots of children disappoint their parents bitterly," said Mrs. Brown, "and lots of good mothers have bad children!"
"I never knew a good mother to have a bad child--" began Mrs. Burgoyne.
"Well, I have. Thousands," Mrs. Lloyd said promptly.
"Oh, no! Not a bad child," her hostess said, quickly. "A disappointing child perhaps, or a strong-willed child, you mean. But no good mother--and that doesn't mean merely a good woman, or a church-going woman!--could possibly have a really bad child. 'By their fruits,' you know. And then of course we haven't a perfect system of nursery training yet; we expect angels. We judge by little, inessential things, we're exacting about unimportant trifles. We don't want our sons to marry little fluffy-headed dolls, although the dolls may make them very good wives. We don't want them to make a success of real estate, if the tradition of the house is for the bar or the practice of medicine. And we lose heart at the first suspicion of bad company, or of drinking; although the best men in the world had those temptations to fight! But, anyway, I would rather try at that and fail, than do anything else in the world. My failures at least might save some other woman's children. And it's just that much more done for the world than guarding the valuable life of a Pomeranian, or going to New York for new furs!" They all laughed, for Mrs. Willard White's latest announcement of her plans had awakened some comment among them.
"Mother, am I interrupting you?" said a patient voice at this point. Ellen Burgoyne, rosy, dishevelled, panting, stood some ten feet away, waiting patiently a chance to enter the conversation.
"No, my darling." Her mother held out a welcoming hand. "Oh, I see," she added, glancing at her watch. "It's half-past four. Yes, you can go up for the gingerbread now. You mustn't carry the milk, you know, Ellen."
"Mother," said Ellen, flashing into radiance at the slightest encouragement, "have you told them about our Flower Festibul plans?"
"Oh, not yet!" Mrs. Burgoyne heaved a great sigh. "I'm afraid I've committed myself to an entry for the parade," she told the others ruefully.
"Oh, don't tell me you're going to compete!" exclaimed Mrs. Brown.
"Well, we're rather afraid we are!" Mrs. Burgoyne's voice, if fearful, was hopeful too, for Ellen's face was a study. "Why, is it such a terrible effort?"
"Oh, yes, it's an appalling amount of struggle and fuss, there's all sorts of red tape, and the flowers are so messy," answered the doctor's wife warningly, "and this year will be worse than ever. The Women's Club of Apple Creek is going to enter a carriage, and you know our club is to have the White's motor; it will be perfectly exquisite! It's to be all pink carnations, and Mr. White's nephew, a Berkeley boy, and some of his friends, all in white flannels, are going to run it. Doctor says there'll be a hundred entries this year."
"Well, I'm afraid I'm in for it," said Mrs. Burgoyne, with a sigh. "I haven't the least idea in the world what I'm going to do. It isn't as if we even had a surrey. But I really was involved before I had time to think. You know I've been trying, with some of my spare time," her eyes twinkled, "to get hold of these little factory and cannery girls over in Old Paloma."
"You told me," said Mrs. Brown, "but I don't see how that--"
"Well, you see, their ringleader has been particularly ungracious to me. A fine, superb, big creature she is, named Alice Carter. This Alice came up to the children and me in the street the other day, and told me, in the gruffest manner, that she was interested in a little crippled girl over there, and had promised to take her to see the Flower Festival. But it seems the child's mother was afraid to trust her to Alice in the crowd and heat. Quite simply she asked me if I could manage it. I was tremendously touched, and we went to see the child. She's a poor, brave little scrap--twelve years old, did she say, Baby?"
"Going on thirteen," said Ellen rapidly; "and her father is dead, and her mother works, and she takes care of such a fat baby, and she is very gen-tul with him, isn't she, Mother? And she cried when Mother gave her books, and she can't eat her lunch because her back aches, but she gave the baby his lunch, and Mother asked her if she would let a doctor fix her back, and she said, 'Oh, no!'--didn't she, Mother? She just twisted and twisted her hands, and said, 'I can't.' And Mother said, 'Mary, if you will be a brave girl about the doctor, I will make you a pink dress and a wreath of roses, and you shall ride with the others in the Flower Festibul!' And she just said, 'Oo-oo!'--didn't she, Mother? And she said she thought God sent you, didn't she, Mother?"
"She did." Mrs. Burgoyne smiled through wet lashes. Mrs. Brown wiped her own eyes against the baby's fluffy mop. "She's a most pathetic little creature, this Mary Scott," went on the other woman when Ellen had dashed away, "and I'm afraid she's not the only one. There's my Miss Davids' little sister; if I took her in, Miss Davids would be free for the day; and there's a little deaf-mute whose mother runs the bakery. And I told Mary we'd manage the baby, too, and that if she knew any other children who positively couldn't come any other way, she must let me know. Of course the school children are cared for, they will have seats right near the grand stand, and sing, and so on. But I am really terrified about it, you'll have to help me out."
"I'll do anything," Mrs. Brown promised.
"I'll do anything I can," said Mrs. Lloyd, modestly, "I loathe and abominate children unless they're decently dressed and smell of soap--but I'll run a machine, if some one'll see that they don't swarm over me."
"I'll put a barbed wire fence around you!" promised Mrs. Burgoyne, gaily.
Mrs. Carew, coming up, as she expressed it, "to gather up some children," was decidedly optimistic about the plan. "Nobody ever uses hydrangeas, because you can't make artificial ones to fill in with," she said, "so you can get barrels of them." Mrs. Burgoyne was enthusiastic over hydrangeas, "But it's not the fancy touches that scare me," she confessed; "it's the awful practical side."
"What does Barry think?" Mrs. Carew presently asked innocently. Mrs. Burgoyne's suddenly rosy face was not unobserved by any of the others.
"I haven't seen him for several days, not since the night of my dinner," she admitted; "I've been lazy, sending my work down to the office. But I will see him right away."
"He's the one really to have ideas," Mrs. Brown assured her.