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HOME > Short Stories > Half-A-Dozen Housekeepers > CHAPTER IV—A WINTER PICNIC
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YOU may think that Lilia’s “mortification” was quite an excitement in this enterprising young household; yet I assure you that never twenty-four hours passed but a ridiculous adventure of some kind overtook the girls. The daily bulletin which they carried over to Mrs. Carter at the Winter Farm kept the worthy inmates in constant wonderment as to what would happen next. Sometimes there was a regular programme for the next day, prepared the night before, but oftener, things happened of themselves, and when they do that, you know, pleasure seems a deal more satisfying and delightful, because it is unexpected. Uncle Harry was in great demand, and very often made one of the gay party of young folks off for a frolic. They defied King Winter openly, and went on all sorts of excursions, even on a bona-fide picnic, notwithstanding the two feet of snow on the ground. The way of it was this: On Friday, the boys—Hugh Pennell, Bell’s cousin, Jack Brayton, and the young schoolmaster—turned the great bare hall in the top of the old Winship family house into a woodland bower.

By the way, I have not told you much about Geoffrey Strong yet, because the girls of the story have had everything their own way, but Geoffrey Strong was well worth knowing. He was only eighteen years old, but had finished his sophomore year at Bowdoin College, and was teaching the district school that he might partly earn the money necessary to take him through the remainder of the course. He was as sturdy and strong as his name, or as one of the stout pine-trees of his native State, as gentle and chivalrous as a boy knight of the olden time; as true and manly a lad, and withal as good and earnest a teacher, notwithstanding his youth, as any little country urchin could wish. Mr. Win-ship was his guardian, and thus he had become quite one of the Winship family.

The boys were making the picnic grounds when I interrupted my story with this long parenthesis. They took a large pair of old drop curtains used at some time or other in church tableaux, and made a dark green carpet by stretching them across the floor smoothly and tacking them down; they wreathed the pillars and trimmed the doors and windows with evergreens, and then planted young spruce and cedar and hemlock trees in the corners or scattered them about the room firmly rooted in painted nail-kegs.

“It looks rather jolly, boys, doesn’t it?” cried Jack, rubbing his cold fingers, “but I’m afraid we’ve gone as far as we can; we can’t make birds and flowers and brooks!”

“What’s the special difficulty?” asked Geoffrey. “We’ll borrow Grandmother Winship’s two cages of canaries and Mrs. Adams’ two; then we’ll bring over Mrs. Carter’s pet parrot, and altogether we’ll be musical enough, considering the fact that the thermometer is below zero.”

This suggestion of Geoff’s they accordingly adopted, and their mimic forest became tuneful.

The next stroke of genius came from Hugh Pennell. He found bunches of white and yellow everlastings at home with which he mixed some cleverly constructed bright tissue-paper flowers, of mysterious botanical structure. He planted these in pots, and tied them to shrubs, and behold, their forest bloomed!

“But we have finished now, boys,” said Hugh, dejectedly, as he put his last bed of whiteweed and buttercups under a shady tree. (They were made of paper, and were growing artistically in a moss-covered chopping-tray.) “We can’t get up a brook, and a brook is a handy thing at a picnic, too. Good for the small children to fall into, good for drinking, good for dish-washing, good for its cool and musical tinkle.”

“I have an idea,” suggested Jack, who was mounted on a step-ladder busily engaged in tying a stuffed owl and a blue jay to a tree-top. “I have an idea. We can fill the ice-water tank, put it on a shelf, let the water run into a tub, then station a boy in the corner to keep filling the tank from the tub. There’s your stagnant pool and your running streamlet. There’s your drinking-water, your dish-washer, your musical tinkle, and possibly your small child’s watery grave. What could be more romantic?”

“Out with him!” shouted Geoff. “He ought to be drowned for proposing such an apology for a brook.”

“I fail to see the point,” said Jack; “the sound would be sylvan and suggestive, and I’ve no doubt the girls would be charmed.”

“We’ll brook no further argument on the subject,” retorted Hugh; “the afternoon is running away with us. We might bring up the bath-tub, or the watering-trough, sink it in an evergreen bank and surround it with house plants, but I don’t think it would satisfy us exactly. I’ll tell you, let us give up the brook and build a sort of what-do-you-call’em for a retreat, in one corner.” After some explanations from Hugh about his plan, the boys finally succeeded in manufacturing something romantic and ingenious. Two blooming oleanders in boxes were brought from Uncle Harry’s parlor, there was a hemlock tree with a rustic seat under it, there was an evergreen arch above, there was a little rockery built with a dozen stones from the old wall behind the barn, and there were Miss Jane Sawyer’s potted scarlet geraniums set in among them, all surmounted by two banging baskets and a bird-cage. With nothing save an airtight stove to warm it into life (the ugliness of the stove quite hidden by screens of green boughs), the cold, bare hall was magically changed into a green forest, vocal with singing birds and radiant with blooming flowers.

The boys swung their hats in irrepressible glee.

“Won’t this be a surprise to the people, though! Won’t they think of the desert blooming as the rose!” cried Hugh.

“I fancy it won’t astonish Uncle Harry and Grandmother much,” answered Jack, dryly, “inasmuch as we’ve nearly borrowed them out of house and home during the operation. Old Mrs. Winship said when I took her hammer, hatchet, chopping-tray, house plants, and screw-driver, that perhaps she had better go over to Mrs. Carter’s and board. The girls will be fairly stunned, though. Just imagine Bell’s eyes! I told them we’d see to sweeping and heating the hall, but they don’t expect any decorations. Well, I’m off. Lock the door, Geoff, and guard it like a dragon; we meet at eleven to-morrow morning, do we? Be on hand, sharp, and let us all go in and view the scene together. I wouldn’t for worlds miss hearing and seeing the girls.”

Jack and Hugh started for home, and Geoff went downstairs to run a gauntlet of questioning from Jo Fenton, who was present in Grandmother Winship’s kitchen on one of the borrowing tours of the day, and extremely anxious to find out why so much mysterious hammering was going on.

While these preparations were in progress, the six juvenile housekeepers were undergoing abject suffering in their cookery for the picnic. It had been a day of disasters from beginning to end—the first really mournful one in their experience.

It commenced bright and early, too; in fact, was all ready for them before they awoke in the morning, and the coal fire began it, for it went out in the night. Everybody knows what it is to build a fire in a large coal stove; it was Jo’s turn as stoker and tirewoman, and I regret to say that this circumstance made her a little cross, in fact, audibly so.

After much searching for kindling-wood, however, much chattering of teeth, for the thermometer was below zero, much vicious banging of stove doors, and clattering of hods and shovels, that trouble was overcome. But, dear me! it was only the first drop of a pouring rain of accidents, and at last the girls accepted it as a fatal shower which must fall before the weather would clear, and thus resigned themselves to the inevitable.

The breakfast was as bad as a breakfast knew how to be. The girls were all cooks to-day in the exciting preparation for the picnic, for they wanted to take especially tempting dainties in order that they might astonish more experienced providers. Patty scorched the milk toast; Edith, that most precise and careful of all little women under the sun, broke a platter and burned her fingers; Lilia browned a delicious omelet, and waved the spider triumphantly in the air, astonished at her own success, when, alas, the smooth little circlet slipped illnaturedly into the coal hod. Lilia stood still in horror and dismay, while Bell fished it hastily out, looking very crumpled, sooty, shrunken, and generally penitent, if an omelet can assume that expression. She slapped it on the table severely, and said, with a little choke and tear in her voice:

“The last of the eggs went into that omelet, and it is going to he rinsed, and fried over, and eaten. There isn’t another thing in the house for breakfast. There is no bread; Alice put cream-of-tartar into the buckwheats, instead of saleratus, and measured it with a tablespoon besides; Miss Miranda’s cat upset the milk can; the potatoes are frozen; and I am ashamed to borrow anything more of Grandmother.”

“Never,” cried Alice, with much determination. “Sooner eat omelet and coal hod, too! Never mind the breakfast! there are always apples. What shall we take to the picnic? We can suggest luncheon at high noon, and no one will suspect we haven’t breakfasted.”

“Let’s make mince pies,” cried Jo, animatedly, from her seat on the wood-box.

“Goose,” answered Bell, with a sarcastic smile. “There’s plenty of time to make mince-meat, of course!”

“At any rate, we must have jelly-cake,” said Lilia, with decision, while dishing up the injured omelet for the second time. “We had better carry the delicacies, for Mrs. Pennell and the boys will be sure to bring bread and meat and common things.”

“Oh, tarts, tarts!” exclaimed Edith, in an ecstacy of reminiscence. “I haven’t had tarts for a perfect age! Do you think we could manage them?”

“They must be easy enough,” answered Patty, with calm authority. “Cut a hole out of the middle of each round thing, then till it up with jelly and bake it; that’s simple.”

“Glad you think so,” responded Edith, with an air of deep melancholy and cynicism, as she prepared to wash the cooking dishes and found an empty dish-water pot. “I should think the jelly would grow hard and crusty before the tarts baked, but I suppose it’s all right. Everything we touch to-day is sure to fail.”

“Oh, how much better if you said, ‘I’ll try, I’ll try, I’ll try,’” sang Bell, in a spasm of gayety.

“Oh, how much sadder you will feel when you’ve tried, by and by,” retorted Edith. “Is there anything difficult about pastry, I wonder? Look in the cookbook. Does it have to be soaked over night like ham, or hung for two weeks like game, or put away in a stone jar like fruit-cake, or ‘braised’ or ‘trussed’ or ‘larded’ or anything?”

“No,” said Patty, looking up from the ‘Bride’s Manual,’ “but it has to be pounded on a marble slab with a glass rolling-pin.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said Bell, “Tarts are nothing but pie-crust. This village is situated in the very middle of what is called the New England Pie Belt, and the glass rolling-pin and the marble slab have never been seen by the oldest or youngest inhabitant. I know that bride. When she makes pastry you can see her diamond engagement ring flash as she dips her turquoise scoop into her ruby flour-barrel. Look up soft gingerbread, Patty.”

“Four cups best New Orleans molasses—”

“The molasses is out,” said Jo; “find jelly-cake.”

“Jelly all gone,” said Bell; “where, I can’t think, for there were seventeen tumblers.”

“The boys are awfully fond of it with bread,” said Alice, reminiscently. “How about doughnuts?”

“All right,” Bell answered, “of course you’ll go to the store for more eggs and a pail of lard.............
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