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THE BLUE PLATTER.
"Merry it is in the green forést,
Among the leavés green!"
Thus sang Hildegarde as she sat in the west window, busily stringing her currants. She had been thinking a great deal about Bubble Chirk, making plans for his education, and wondering what his sister Pink was like. He reminded her, she could not tell why, of the "lytel boy" who kept fair Alyce's swine, in her favorite ballad of "Adam Bell, Clym o' the Clough, and William of Cloudeslee;" and the words of the ballad rose half unconsciously to her lips as she bent over the great yellow bowl, heaped with scarlet and pale-gold clusters.
"Merry it is in the green forést, Among the leavés green, Whenas men hunt east and west With bows and arrowés keen,
"For to raise the deer out of their denne,-- Such sights have oft been seen; As by three yemen of the north countree: By them it is, I mean.
"The one of them hight Adam Bell, The other Clym o' the Clough; The third was Willyam of Cloudeslee,-- An archer good enough.
"They were outlawed for venison, These yemen every one. They swore them brethren on a day To English wood for to gone.
"Now lythe and listen, gentylmen, That of myrthes loveth to hear!"
At this moment the door opened, and Farmer Hartley entered, taking off his battered straw hat as he did so, and wiping his forehead with a red bandanna handkerchief. Hilda looked up with a pleasant smile, meaning to thank him for the raspberries which he had gathered for her breakfast; but to her utter astonishment the moment his eyes fell upon her he gave a violent start and turned very pale; then, muttering something under his breath, he turned hastily and left the room.
"Oh! what is the matter?" cried Hilda, jumping up from her chair. "What have I done, Nurse Lucy? I have made the farmer angry, somehow. Is this his chair? I thought--"
"No, no, honey dear!" said Nurse Lucy soothingly. "Sit ye down; sit ye down! You have done nothing. I'm right glad of it," she added, with a tone of sadness in her pleasant voice. "Seeing as 'tis all in God's wisdom, Jacob must come to see it so; and 'tis no help, but a deal of hindrance, when folks set aside chairs and the like, and see only them that's gone sitting in them." Then, seeing Hilda's look of bewilderment, she added, laying her hand gently on the girl's soft hair: "You see, dear, we had a daughter of our own this time last year. Our only one she was, and just about your age,--the light of our eyes, our Faith. She was a good girl, strong and loving and heartsome, and almost as pretty as yourself, Hilda dear; but the Father had need of her, so she was taken from us for a while. It was cruel hard for Jacob; cruel, cruel hard. He can't seem to see, even now, that it was right, or it wouldn't have been so. And so I can tell just what he felt, coming in just now, sudden like, and seeing you sitting in Faith's chair. Like as not he forgot it all for a minute, and thought it was herself. She had a blue dress that he always liked, and she'd sit here and sing, and the sun coming in on her through her own window there, as she always called it: like a pretty picture she was, our Faith."
"Oh!" cried Hilda, taking the brown, motherly hand in both of hers, "I am so very, very sorry, dear Nurse Lucy! I did not know! I will never sit here again. I thought--"
But she was ashamed to say what she had thought,--that this chair and table had been set for her to tempt her to sit down "in a kitchen!" She could hear herself say it as she had said it last night, with a world of scornful emphasis. How long it seemed since last night; how much older she had grown! And yet--and yet somehow she felt a great deal younger.
All this passed through her mind in a moment; but Nurse Lucy was petting her, and saying: "Nay, dearie; nay, child! This is just where I want you to sit. 'Twill be a real help to Farmer, once he is used to it. Hark! I hear him coming now. Sit still! To please me, my dear, sit still where ye are."
Hilda obeyed, though her heart beat painfully; and she bent in real distress over the currants as Farmer Hartley once more entered the room. She hardly knew what she feared or expected; but her relief was great when he bade her a quiet but cheerful "Good-day!" and crossing the room, sat down in his great leather arm-chair.
"Dinner'll be ready in five minutes, Jacob!" said the good dame, cheerily; "I've only to lay the table and dish the mutton."
"Oh! let me help," cried Hilda, springing up and setting her bowl of currants on the window-sill.
So between the two the snowy cloth was laid, and the blue plates and the shining knives and forks laid out. Then they all sat down, and the little maid-servant came too, and took her place at the end of the table; and presently in came a great loutish-looking fellow, about one or two and twenty, with a great shock of sandy hair and little ferret-eyes set too near together, whom Dame Hartley introduced as her nephew. He sat down too, and ate more than all the rest of them put together. At sight of this man, who gobbled his food noisily, and uttered loud snorts between the mouthfuls, the old Hilda awoke in full force. She could not endure this; mamma never could have intended it! The Hartleys were different, of course. She was willing to acknowledge that she had been in the wrong about them; but this lout, this oaf, this villainous-looking churl,--to expect a lady to sit at the same table with him: it was too much! She would ask if she might not dine in her own room after this, as apparently it was only at dinner that this "creature" made his appearance.
Farmer Hartley had been very silent since he came in, but now he seemed to feel that he must make an effort to be sociable, so he said kindly, though gravely,--
"I see ye're lookin' at that old dish, Huldy. 'Tis a curus old piece, 'n' that's a fact. Kin ye read the motter on it?"
Hilda had not been looking at the dish, though her eyes had been unconsciously fixed upon it, and she now bent forward to examine it. It was an oblong platter, of old blue and white crockery. In the middle (which was now visible, as the "creature" had just transferred the last potato to his own plate, stabbing it with his knife for that purpose) was a quaint representation of a mournful-looking couple, clad in singularly ill-fitting aprons of fig-leaves. The man was digging with a spade, while the woman sat at a spinning-wheel placed dangerously near the edge of the deep ditch which her husband had already dug. Round the edge ran an inscription, which, after some study, Hilda made out to be the old distich:
"When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Where was then the gentleman?"
Hilda burst out laughing in spite of her self.
"Oh, it is wonderful!" she cried. "Who ever heard of Eve with a spinning-wheel? Where did this come from, Farmer Hartley? I am sure it must have a history."
"Wa-al," said the farmer, smiling, "I d'no ez 't' hes so to speak a hist'ry, an' yit there's allays somethin' amoosin' to me about that platter. My father was a sea-farin' man most o' his life, an' only came to the farm late in life, 'count of his older brother dyin', as owned it. Well, he'd picked up a sight o' queer things in his voyages, father had; he kep' some of 'em stowed away in boxes, and brought 'em out from time to time, ez he happened to think of 'em. Wa-al, we young uns growed up (four of us there was, all boys, and likely boys too, if I do say it), and my brother Simon, who was nex' to me, he went to college. He was a clever chap, Simon was, an' nothin' would do for him but he must be a gentleman.
"'Jacob kin stick to the farm an' the mill; if he likes,' says he, 'an' Tom kin go to sea, an' William kin be a minister,--'t's all he's good fer, I reckon; but I'm goin' ter be a gentleman!' says Simon. He said it in father's hearin' one day, an' father lay back in his cheer an' laughed; he was allays laughin', father was. An' then he went off upstairs, an' we heard him rummagin' about among his boxes up in the loft-chamber. We dassn't none of us tech them boxes, we boys, though we warn't afeard of nothin' else in the world, only father. Presently he comes down again, still a-laughin', an' kerryin' that platter in his hand. He sets it down afore Simon, an' says he, 'Wealthy,' says he (that was my mother), 'Wealthy,' says he, 'let Simon have his victuals off o' this platter every day, d'ye hear? The' ain't none other that's good enough for him!' an' then he laughed again, till he fairly shook, an' Simon looked black as thunder, an' took his hat an' went out. An' so after Simon went to college, every time he come home for vacation and set down to table with his nose kind o' turned up, like he was too good to set with his own kith and kin, father 'ud go an git the old blue platter and set it afore him, an' say, 'Here's your dish, Simon; been diggin' any lately, my son?' and then lay back in his cheer and laugh."
"And did Simon become--a--a gentleman?" asked Hilda, taking her own little lesson very meekly, in her desire to know more.
Farmer Hartley's brow clouded instantly, and the smile vanished from his lips. "Poor Simon!" he said, sadly. "He might ha' been anythin' he liked, if he'd lived and--been fortunate."
"Simon Hartley is dead, Hilda dear," interposed Dame Hartley, gently; "he died some years ago. Will you have some of your own currants, my dear?--Hilda has been helping me a great deal, Father," she added, addressing her husband. "I don't know how I should have got all my currants picked without her help."
"Has she so?" exclaimed the farmer, fixing his keen gray eyes on the girl. "Waal! waal! to think o' that! Why, we sh'll hev her milkin' that cow soon, after all; hey, Huldy?"
Hildegarde looked up bravely, with a little smile. "I will try," she said, cheerfully, "if you will risk the milk, Farmer Hartley."
The old farmer returned her smile with one so bright and kind and genial that somehow the ice bent, then cracked, and then broke. The old Hilda shrank into so small a space that there was really very little left of her, and the new Hilda rose from table feeling that she had gained a new friend.
So it came to pass that about an hour later our heroine was walking beside the farmer on the way to the barnyard, talking merrily, and swinging the basket which she was going to fill with eggs. "But how shall I find them," she asked, "if the hens hide them away so carefully?"
"Oh, you'll hear 'em scrattlin' round!" replied the farmer. "They're gret fools, hens are,--greter than folks, as a rule; an' that is sayin' a good deal."
They crossed the great sunny barn-yard, and paused at the barn-door, while Hilda looked in with delight. A broad floor, big enough for a ballroom, with towering walls of fragrant hay on either side reaching up to the rafters; great doors open at the farther end, showing a snatch of blue, radiant sky, and a lovely wood-road winding away into deep thickets of birch and linden; dusty, golden, cobwebby sunbeams slanting down through the little windows, and touching the tossed hay-piles into gold; and in the middle, hanging by iron chains from the great central beam, a swing, almost big enough for a giant,--such was the barn at Hartley Farm; as pleasant a place, Hilda thought, as she had ever seen.
"Waal, Huldy, I'll leave ye heer," said the farmer; "ye kin find yer way home, I reckon."
"Oh, yes, indeed!" said Hilda. "But stop one moment, please, Farmer Hartley. I want to know--will you please--may I teach Bubble Chirk a little?" The farmer gave a low whistle of surprise; but Hilda went on eagerly: "I found him studying, this morning, while he was weeding the garden,--oh! studying so hard, and yet not neglecting his work for a minute. He seems a very bright boy, and it is a pity he should not have a good education. Could you spare him, do you think, for an hour every day?" She stopped, while the farmer looked at her with a merry twinkle in his eye.
"You teach Bubble Chirk!" he said. "Why, what would your fine friends say to that, Miss Huldy? Bubble ain't nothin' but a common farm-boy, if he is bright; an' I ain't denyin' that he is."
"I don't know what they would say," said Hildegarde, blushing hotly, "and I don't care, either! I know what mamma would do in my place; and so do you, Farmer Hartley!" she added, with a little touch of indignation.
"Waal, I reckon I do!" said Farmer Hartley. "And I know who looks like her mother, this minute, though I never thought she would. Yes!" he said, more seriously, "you shall teach Bubble Chirk, my gal; and it's my belief 'twill bring you a blessin' as well as him. Ye are yer mother's darter, after all. Shall I give ye a swing now, before I go; or are ye too big to swing!"
"I--don't--know!" said Hildegarde, eying the swing wistfully. "Am I too big, I wonder?"
"Yer ma warn't, when she was here three weeks ago!" said the farmer. "She just sot heer and took a good solid swing, for the sake of old times, she said."
"Then I will take one for the sake of new times!" cried Hilda, running to the swing and seating herself on its broad, roomy seat. "For the sake of this new time, which I know is going to be a happy one, give me three good pushes, please, Farmer Hartley, and then I can take care of myself."
One! two! three! up goes Queen Hildegarde, up and up, among the dusty, cobwebby sunbeams, which settle like a crown upon her fair head. Down with a rush, through the sweet, hay-scented air; then up again, startling the swallows from under the eaves, and making the staid and conservative old hens frantic with anxiety. Up and down, in broad, free sweeps, growing slower now, as the farmer left her and went to his work. How perfect it was! Did the world hold anything else so delightful as swinging in a barn? She began to sing, for pure joy, a little song that her mother had made for her when she was a little child, and used to swing in the garden at home. And Farmer Hartley, with his hand on the brown heifer's back, paused with a smile and a sigh as he heard the girl's sweet fresh voice ring out gladly from the old barn. This was the song she sang:--
If I were a fairy king (Swinging high, swinging low), I would give to you a ring (Swinging, oh!) With a diamond set so bright That the shining of its light Should make morning of the night (Swinging high, swinging low)-- Should make morning of the night (Swinging, oh!).
On each ringlet as it fell (Swinging high, swinging low) I would tie a golden bell (Swinging, oh!); And the golden bells would chime In a little merry rhyme, In the merry morning time (Swinging high, swinging low)-- In the happy morning time (Swinging, oh!).
You should wear a satin gown (Swinging high, swinging low), All with ribbons falling down (Swinging, oh!). And your little twinkling feet, O my Pretty and my Sweet! Should be shod with silver neat (Swinging high, swinging low)-- Shod with silver slippers neat (Swinging, oh!).
But I'm not a fairy, Pet (Swinging high, swinging low), Am not even a king, as yet (Swinging, oh!). So all that I can do Is to kiss your little shoe, And to make a queen of you (Swinging high, swinging low), Make a fairy queen of you (Swinging, oh!).
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