Carroll Watson Rankin.

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Still hopeful, the girls ran to Mrs. Bennett.

"Mercy, no!" exclaimed that good woman, with discouraging emphasis. "I'm
not a bit of use in a strange kitchen, and there are reasons - Oh! I mean
it's your party and it won't be any fun if somebody else runs it."

"Shall we ask your Aunty Jane?" asked Bettie. "We don't seem to be
having any luck."

"Yes," replied Marjory. "She loves to manage things."

But Marjory's Aunty Jane proved no more willing than the rest.

"No, _ma'am_!" she said, emphatically. "I wouldn't do it for ten
dollars. Why, it would just spoil everything to have a grown person
around. Don't even _think_ of such a thing."

So the girls, feeling just a little indignant at their disobliging
relatives, decided to get along as well as they could without them.

At last, everything was either cooked or cooking. The table was
beautifully set and decorated and flowers bloomed everywhere in
Dandelion Cottage. Jean and Bettie, in the freshest of gingham aprons,
were taking turns watching the things simmering on the stove. Mabel,
looking fatter than ever in her short, white, stiffly starched apron,
was on the doorstep craning her neck to see if the guests showed any
signs of coming, and Marjory was busily putting a few entirely
unnecessary finishing touches to the table.

The guests were invited for half-past six, but had been hospitably urged
by Bettie to appear sooner if they wished. At exactly fifteen minutes
after six, Mrs. Crane, in her old-fashioned, threadbare, best black
silk and a very-much-mended real-lace collar, and with her iron-gray
hair far more elaborately arranged than she usually wore it, crossed the
street, lifting her skirts high and stepping gingerly to avoid the dust.
She supposed that she was to be the only guest, for the girls had not
mentioned any other.

Mabel, prodigiously formal and most unusually solemn, met her at the
door, ushered her into the blue room, and invited her to remove her
wraps. The light shawl that Mrs. Crane had worn over her head was the
only wrap she had, but it was not so easily removed as it might have
been. It caught on one of her hair pins, which necessitated rearranging
several locks of hair that had slipped from place. This took some time
and, while she was thus occupied, Mr. Black turned the corner, went
swiftly toward the cottage, mounted the steps, and rang the doorbell.

Mabel received him with even greater solemnity than she had Mrs. Crane.

"I think I'd better take your hat," said she. "We haven't any hat rack,
but it'll be perfectly safe on the pink-room bed because we haven't any
Tucker babies taking naps on it today."

Mr. Black handed his hat to her with an elaborate politeness that
equaled her own.

"Marjory!" she whispered as she went through the dining-room. "He's
wearing his dress suit!"

"Sh! he'll hear you," warned Marjory.

"Well, anyway, I'm frightened half to death. Oh, _would_ you mind
passing all the wettest things? I hadn't thought about his clothes."

"Yes, I guess I'd better; he might want to wear 'em again."

"They're both here," announced Mabel, opening the kitchen door.

"You help Bettie stir the soup and the mashed potatoes," said Jean,
whisking off her apron and tying it about Mabel's neck. "I'll go in and
shake hands with them and then come back and dish up."

Jean found both guests looking decidedly ill at ease. Mr. Black stood by
the parlor table absent-mindedly undressing a family of paper dolls.
Mrs. Crane, pale and nervously clutching the curtain, seemed unable to
move from the bedroom doorway.

"Oh!" said Jean, "I do believe Mabel forgot all about introducing you.
We told her to be sure to remember, but she hasn't been able to take her
mind off of her apron since she put it on. Mrs. Crane, this is our - our
preserver, Mr. Black."

The guests bowed stiffly.

Jean began to wish that she could think of some way to break the ice.
Both were jolly enough on ordinary occasions, but apparently both had
suddenly been stricken dumb. Perhaps dinner parties always affected
grown persons that way, or perhaps the starch from Mabel's apron had
proved contagious; Jean smiled at the thought. Then she made another
effort to promote sociability.

"Mrs. Crane," explained Jean, turning to Mr. Black, who was nervously
tearing the legs off of the father of the paper-doll family, "is our
very nicest neighbor. We like her just ever so much - everybody does.
We've often told _you_, Mrs. Crane, how fond we are of Mr. Black. It was
because you are our two very dearest friends that we invited you both - "

"Je-e-e-e-an!" called a distressed voice from the kitchen.

"Mercy!" exclaimed Jean, making a hurried exit, "I hope that soup isn't

"No," said Bettie, slightly aggrieved, "but _I_ wanted a chance, too, to
say how-do-you-do to those people before I get all mixed up with the
cooking. I thought you were _never_ coming back."

"Well, it's your turn now," said Jean. "Give me that spoon."

Bettie, finding their guests seated in opposite corners of the room and
apparently deeply interested in the cottage literature - Mr. Black buried
in _Dottie Dimple_ and Mrs. Crane absorbed in _Mother Goose_ - naturally
concluded that they were waiting to be introduced, and accordingly made
the presentation.

"Mrs. Crane," said she, "I want you to meet Mr. Black, and I hope,"
added warm-hearted Bettie, "that you'll like each other very much
because we're so fond of you both. You're each a surprise party for the
other - we thought you'd both like it better if you had somebody besides
children to talk to."

"Very kind, I'm sure," mumbled Mr. Black, whose company manners, it
seemed to Bettie, were far from being as pleasant as his everyday ones.
Bettie gave a deep sigh and made one more effort to set the
conversational ball rolling.

"I'm afraid I'll have to go back to the kitchen now, and leave you to
entertain each other. Please both of you be _very_ entertaining - you're
both so jolly when you just run in."

Bettie's eyes were wistful as she went toward the kitchen. Was it
possible, she wondered, that her beloved Mr. Black could despise Mrs.
Crane because she was _poor_? It didn't seem possible, yet there was
certainly something wrong. Perhaps he was merely hungry. That was it, of
course; she would put the dinner on at once - even good-natured Dr.
Tucker, she remembered, was sometimes a little bearlike when meals were

Five minutes later, Marjory escorted the guests to the dining-room, and,
finding both of these usually talkative persons alarmingly silent, she
inferred of course that Mabel had forgotten - as indeed Mabel had - her
instructions in regard to introducing them. Marjory's manners on formal
occasions were very pretty; they were pretty now, and so was she, as she
hastened to make up for Mabel's oversight.

"Oh, Mr. Black," she cried, earnestly, "I'm afraid no one remembered to
introduce you. It's our first dinner party, you know, and we're not very
wise. This is our dearest neighbor, Mrs. Crane, Mr. Black."

The guests bowed stiffly for the third time. Practice should have lent
grace to the salutation, but seemingly it had not.

"Aren't some of you young people going to sit down with me?" demanded
Mr. Black, noticing suddenly that the table was set for only two.

"Yes," said Mrs. Crane with evident dismay, "surely you're coming to the
table, too."

"We can't," explained Marjory. "It takes all of us to do the serving.
Besides, we haven't but two dining-room chairs. Sit here, please, Mrs.
Crane; and this is your place, Mr. Black."

Mr. Black looked red and uncomfortable as he unfolded his napkin. Mrs.
Crane looked, as Marjory said afterward, for all the world as if she
were going to cry. Perhaps the prospect of a good dinner after a long
siege of poor ones was too much for her, for ordinarily Mrs. Crane was a
very cheerful woman.

Although both guests declared that the soup was very good indeed,
neither seemed to really enjoy it.

"They just kind of worried a little of it down," said the distressed
Marjory, when she handed Mr. Black's plate, still three-quarters full,
to Jean in the kitchen. "Do you suppose there's anything the matter with

"There can't be," said Bettie. "I've tasted it and it's good."

"They're just saving room for the other things," comforted Mabel. "I
guess _I_ wouldn't fill myself up with soup if I could smell roasted
chicken keeping warm in the oven."

Although Mabel had asked to be spared passing the spillable things, it
seemed reasonably safe to trust her with the dish of escalloped salmon.
She succeeded in passing it without disaster to either the dish or the
guests' garments, and her apron was still immaculate.

"Why," exclaimed Mabel, suddenly noticing that the guests sat stiff and
silent, "the girls said I was to be sure to introduce you the moment you
came, and I never thought a thing about it. Do forgive me - I'm the
stupidest girl. Mrs. Black - I mean Mr. Crane - no, _Mrs._ Crane - "

"We've been introduced," said Mr. Black, rather shortly. "Might I have a
glass of water?"

A pained, surprised look crept into Mabel's eyes. A moment later she
went to the kitchen.

The instant the guests were left alone, Mrs. Crane did an odd thing. She
leaned forward and spoke in a low, earnest tone to Mr. Black.

"Peter," she said, "can't we pretend to be sociable for a little while?
It isn't comfortable, of course, but it isn't right to spoil those
children's pleasure by acting like a pair of wooden dolls. Let's talk to
each other whenever they're in the room just as if we had just met for
the first time."

"You're right, Sarah," said Mr. Black. "Let's talk about the weather.
It's a safe topic and there's always plenty of it."

When Marjory opened the door to carry in the salad there was a pleasant
hum of voices in the dining-room. It seemed to all the girls that the
guests were really enjoying themselves, for Mr. Black was telling Mrs.
Crane how much warmer it was in Washington, and Mrs. Crane was informing
Mr. Black that, except for the one shower that fell so opportunely on
the Milligans, it had been a remarkably dry summer. The four anxious
hostesses, feeling suddenly cheered, fell joyously to eating the soup
and the salmon that remained on the stove. Until that moment, they had
been too uneasy to realize that they were hungry; but as Marjory carried
in the crackers, half-famished Mabel breathed a fervent hope that the
guests wouldn't help themselves too lavishly to the salad.

To the astonishment of Mabel, who carried the chicken successfully to
its place before Mr. Black, who was to carve it, Mr. Black did not ask
the other guest what part she liked best, but, with a whimsical smile,
quietly cut off both wings and put them on Mrs. Crane's plate.

Mrs. Crane looked up with an odd, tremulous expression - sort of weepy,
Mabel called it afterwards - and said: "Thank you, Peter."

It seemed to Mabel at the time that the guests were getting acquainted
with a rapidity that was little short of remarkable - "Peter" indeed.

Then, when everything else was eaten, and Marjory had brought the nuts
and served them, Mrs. Crane, hardly waiting for the door to close behind
the little waitress, leaned forward suddenly and said:

"Peter, do you remember how you pounded my thumb when I held that hard
black walnut for you to crack?"

"I remember everything, Sarah. I've always been sorry about that
thumb - and I've been sorry about a good many other things since. Do you
think - do you think you could forgive me?"

"Well, I just guess I could," returned Mrs. Crane, heartily. "After all,
it was just as much my fault as it was yours - maybe more."

"No, I never thought that, Sarah. _I_ was the one to blame."

When the door opened a moment later to admit the finger-bowls and all
four of the girls, who had licked the ice-cream platter and had nothing
more to do in the kitchen since everything had been served - there, to
the housekeepers' unbounded amazement, were Mr. Black and Mrs. Crane,
with their arms stretched across the little table, holding each other's
middle-aged hands in a tight clasp, and both had tears in their eyes.

The girls looked at them in consternation.

"Was - was it the dinner?" ventured Mabel, at last. "Was it as bad as - as
all that?"

"Well," said Mr. Black, rising to go around the table to place an
affectionate arm across Mrs. Crane's plump shoulders, "it _was_ the
dinner, but not its badness - or even its very goodness."

"I guess you'd better tell 'em all about it, Peter," suggested Mrs.
Crane, whose eyes were shining happily. "It's only fair they should know
about it - bless their little hearts."

"Well, you see," said Mr. Black, who, as the girls had quickly
discovered, was once more their own delightfully jolly friend, "once
upon a time, a long time ago, there was a black-eyed girl named Sarah,
and a two-years-younger boy, who looked a good deal like her, named
Peter, and they were brother and sister. They were all the brothers and
sisters that each had, for their parents died when this boy and girl
were very young. Peter and Sarah used to dream a beautiful dream of
living together always, and of going down hand-in-hand to a peaceful,
plentiful old age. You see, they had no other relative but one very
cross grandmother, who scolded them both even oftener than they
deserved - which was probably quite often enough. So I suspect that those
abused, black-eyed, half-starved children loved each other more than
most brothers and sisters do."

"Yes," agreed Mrs. Crane, nodding her head and smiling mistily, "they
certainly did. The poor young things had no one else to love."

"That," said Mr. Black, "was no doubt the reason why, when the
headstrong boy grew up and married a girl that his sister didn't like,
and the equally headstrong girl grew up and married a man that her
brother _couldn't_ like - a regular scoundrel that - "

"Peter!" warned Mrs. Crane.

"Well," said Mr. Black, hastily, "it's all over now, and perhaps we
_had_ better leave that part of it out. It isn't a pretty story, and
we'll never mention it again, Sarah. But anyway, girls, this foolish
brother and sister quarreled, and the brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law
and even the grandmother, who was old enough to know better, quarreled,
until finally all four of those hot-tempered young persons were so angry
that the brother named Peter said he'd never speak to his sister again,
and the sister named Sarah said she'd never speak to her brother
again - and they haven't until this very day. Just a pair of young geese,
weren't they, Sarah?"

"Old geese, too," agreed Mrs. Crane, "for they've both been fearfully
lonely ever since and they've both been too proud to say so. One of
them, at least, has wished a great many times that there had never been
any quarrel."

"_Two_ of 'em. But now this one," said Mr. Black, placing his forefinger
against his own broad chest, "is going to ask this one - " and he pointed
to Mrs. Crane - "to come and live with him in his own great big empty
house, so he'll have a sister again to sew on his buttons, listen to his
old stories, and make a home for him. What do you say, Sarah?"

"I say yes," said Mrs. Crane; "yes, with all my heart."

"And here," said Mr. Black, smiling into four pairs of sympathetic eyes,
"are four young people who will have to pretend that they truly belong
to us once in a while, because we'd both like to have our house full of
happy little girls. You never had any children, Sarah?"

"No, and you lost your only one, Peter."

"Yes, a little brown-eyed thing like Bettie here - she'd be a woman now,
probably with children of her own."

"It's - it's just like a story," breathed Bettie, happily. "We've been
part of a real story and never knew it! I'm so glad you let us have
Dandelion Cottage, _so_ glad we invited you to dinner, and that nothing
happened to keep either of you away."

"Peter and I are glad, too," said Mrs. Crane, who indeed looked
wonderfully happy.

"Yes," said Mr. Black, "it's the most successful dinner party I've ever
attended. Of course I can't hope to equal it, but as soon as Sarah and I
get to keeping house properly and have decided which is to pour the
coffee, we're going to return the compliment with a dinner that will
make your eyes stick out, aren't we, Sarah?"

"Oh, we'll do a great deal more than that," responded generous Mrs.
Crane. "We'll keep four extra places set at our table all the time."

"Of course we will," cried Mr. Black, heartily. "And we'll fill the
biggest case in the library with children's books - we'll all go tomorrow
to pick out the first shelfful - so that when it gets too cold for you to
stay in Dandelion Cottage you'll have something to take its place.
You're going to be little sunny Dandelions in the Black-Crane house
whenever your own people can spare you. But what's the matter? Have you
all lost your tongues? I didn't suppose you could be so astonishingly

"Oh," sighed Bettie, joyfully, "you've taken _such_ a load off our
minds. We were simply dreading the winter, with no cottage to have good
times in."

"Yes," said Jean. "We didn't know how we could manage to _live_ with the
cottage closed. We've been wondering what in the world we were going to

"But with school, and you dear people to visit every day on the way
home," said Marjory, "we'll hardly have time to miss it. Oh! won't it be
perfectly lovely?"

"I'm going to begin at once to practice being on time to meals," said
Mabel. "I'm not going to let that extra place do any waiting for _me_."

These were the things that the four girls said aloud; but the joyous
look that flashed from Jean to Bettie, from Bettie to Marjory, from
Marjory to Mabel, and from Mabel back again to Jean, said even more
plainly: "_Now_ there'll be somebody to take care of Mrs. Crane. _Now_
there'll be somebody to make a home for lonely Mr. Black."

And indeed, subsequent events proved that it was a beautiful arrangement
for everybody, besides being quite the most astonishing thing that had
happened in the history of Lakeville.

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Online LibraryCarroll Watson RankinDandelion Cottage → online text (page 11 of 11)