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 Playdays

THE BEST CHINA SAUCER.

Sarah Orne Jewett

     This is a story with a moral, but I will not keep you waiting to hear it until you come to the end. I will put my moral at the beginning. It is --

     Mind your mother, -- unless, of course, you are perfectly sure she is a foolish and unwise woman, and that you are always the more sensible of the two.

     My friend, Miss Nelly Willis, was a little late at breakfast one morning, and as she took her chair she found the rest of the family talking over their plans for the day. Papa was going to his business, and Tom to his school in the city, as usual. Mamma was going to do some shopping, and lunch with a friend, and said that she should not be home until late in the afternoon. And Maggie, Nelly's elder sister, was to spend the day with her aunt, who lived a few miles away, farther out in the country.

     "So we shall leave the little girl all alone," said Mrs. Willis to Nelly, "and what does she mean to do? I wish there was some one near who could come to play with you."

     "Mamma, dear," said Nelly, "just this once can I have Jane Simmons for a little while? I won't bring her into the house, and we won't go out of sight, or carry out the best playthings, or do a bit of mischief. I don't see why Mrs. Duncan stays away so long. I do miss Grace and Georgie so."

     "Nelly, dear," said Mrs. Willis, "I am very sorry to hinder any pleasure of yours, but I don't wish you to play with Jane. I wonder why you ask me, when I have told you so many times. She is a very naughty girl, and always teaches you bad words and bad manners, and tries to make you disobey me. I will tell you what I am going to do, though I meant it should be a surprise. I have asked Alice Russell to come out with me from town and make you a little visit." (Alice was a very dear friend of Nelly's.) "Now I think you had better put the play-room in order, because you will be there to-morrow, and you know Alice keeps her playthings looking very nice. I shall not be worried about you, for I am sure you will be good while I am gone."

     Just then the carriage was driven around to the door, and there was a great hurrying and running up and down stairs, and in a few minutes everybody had gone, and Nelly was left to her own devices. She went back to the breakfast room and had another saucerful of strawberries, with a great deal of sugar on them; then she watched Ann while she cleared away the table and washed the china and silver, shut the blinds, and pulled down the curtains, and hung the linnet's cage and the parrot's out on the west piazza, in the shade. Then our friend went up to the play-room, but unfortunately it was in better order than usual, so she did not find much to do. She had been dress-making the day before, and had left her work scattered on the floor, by one of the windows, but it does not take long to roll up pieces of cloth and put them into one of the doll's trunks. Some she carried out to the rag-bag, and then went out to bring them back, thinking that she might wish some time to alter the over-skirt she had been making for Dora Mary. She dressed all the dolls in their best clothes, because some of Alice's family would be sure to come, and they were dolls who thought a great deal of dress.

     All this did not take long, and Nelly sat down in her rocking-chair in front of the doll-house, and wondered what she should do next. She thought of dressing herself in her mother's or Maggie's clothes, and parading about the house in great majesty with her long trains. She was very fond of this; but where would be the fun to-day, with nobody to see her? She had some worsted-work in which she had been interested, but she had used up all the worsted, and her mother was to buy more in town that day. She called to Susan, who was putting Maggie's room in order, to ask if she wouldn't tell her a story. Susan's stories were always so interesting. But Susan said, "Bless you, dear! I can't stop to talk in the middle of the forenoon. I promised to hurry with my work so as to help Nancy, -- she's dreadful busy; but I'm coming up by and by to sew, and perhaps I'll think of a story then."

     Nelly was disappointed, and looked out of the window, and drummed with her feet against the chair. Anything was better than sitting there, so she went to the doll's house and took dear Amelia, who had a very fair complexion and light hair, and looked so faded that Nelly always said she was ill. Poor thing! she had to take such quantities of medicine, and go without her dinner and stay in bed half her time. When she sat up it was only in an easy-chair, with pillows behind her and one of the largest doll's blankets wrapped around her; and when she went out, she was made into such a bundle with shawls that I am afraid the fresh air did her no good.

     "I think I will carry you out for a while, dear," said Nelly, and poor Amelia was dressed warmer than usual, just to take up the time. She even had to wear a thick blue and white worsted scarf around her face and throat. They walked up and down the garden some time, but it was stupid, and when they went down by the carriage-gate to hunt for a bird's nest which Tom had said was near there in the hedge, whom should they see coming up the street but the Simmons girl. Nelly was delighted, and thought, "I'll call her in for just a few minutes, and then I can go into the house and leave her; she doesn't dare to come near the house." Then she remembered what her mother had said that morning, and with a great effort turned and walked away up the avenue. She had not gone far when she heard the little side-gate open, and looked back to see Jane coming in and bringing her brother with her. Jane looked unusually dirty that morning and very naughty. She was carrying her mother's parasol, and the brother, who was never called anything but "The Baby," was unbecomingly dressed in an old shawl, folded as small as possible; because he was so very short it trailed several inches upon the ground, and there were some little sticks and several burdock burrs tangled into the fringe. Jane had put a cast-off Shaker bonnet of her own on his head; there was a great crack in the top of it, through which a tuft of hair showed itself, and fluttered in the wind. He had the dirtiest face you ever saw, and it always seemed to be the same dirt. Nelly hated The Baby. "What made her play with Jane?" Oh, I'm sure I don't know. If Jane had not known any better, it would have been different; one would have pitied her; but she did know better than to be so naughty and so careless. There was certainly nothing to hinder her being good and kind and honest and clean, except that she would not take the trouble. In her heart, that day, Nelly was glad to see Jane, but she did not say much at first. "You're p'lite, ain't you?" said Jane. "See me coming and made believe you didn't. I saw all the folks riding off to town a while ago, and mother said I might come over and play."

     Nelly always tried to be polite, and this was not without effect. "What will she say if I tell her to go home?" she thought. "Mamma never tells her visitors to go home, even if she doesn't like them," and here there came a thought of how sorry she had been after the last time Jane came, and what sad mischances there had been. "But perhaps I had better keep her a little while and be pleasant to her, and then tell her I must go into the house, and that I am never going to play with her any more." "I don't see what made you bring The Baby, though," said she, aloud.

     "Oh, dear!" said Jane, "I have to lug him everywhere. Long as he couldn't talk I wasn't bothered with him, for if worst came to worst, I used to tie him to the lilac-bush and clear out, and only be sure to get back in time to unhitch him before mother came; now he goes and tells everything, but he is real good to-day, and you needn't mind him. Going to play dolls, aren't you?"

     "No, I'd rather do something else," said Nelly. "I have just finished clearing up the play-room, and I'm going to have company to-night."

     "Well, ain't you got company now? You didn't use to be so 'fraid of your old dolls. I thought we would have a real nice party, and I've brought something splendid in my pocket that my aunt gave me last night. I've been saving it."

     "Poor thing!" thought Nelly. "It would be so cross in me not to let her have a good time. Mamma said I must always be kind to her. She's very pleasant, and perhaps she is trying to be good, after all. ["]Here; you take care of Amelia and I'll go in and get the tea-set and one or two dolls. Amelia is my sick doll, you know, and you must be very careful of her."

     "Yes'm," said Jane, meekly, and as soon as Nelly was out of sight, she looked at poor Amelia's clothes and robbed her of her flannel petticoat, which was prettily embroidered and new only the week before. When Nelly found out a few days later that it was gone, the doll was at once taken very ill, and did not sit up much for half the summer. One of the rooms in the baby-house was kept dark, and the dolls took turns in sitting up with her at night.

     Nelly soon came back, carrying the tea-set box and the little tea-table, and a doll beside under each arm. "Here's the table-cloth in my pocket," said she, "and I brought a piece of pine-apple; there's sugar in the sugar-bowl that we can put on after we have sliced it. It shall be your party, and you are Mrs. Simmons and must sit at the head of the table, and I am Mrs. Willis come to spend the day with you."

     This pleased Jane, and she was as good-natured as possible, and they set the table, while The Baby sat quietly on the ground and poked up ant-hills with a little stick.

     "Now," said Mrs. Simmons, when the table was ready, "let's see what you have in your pocket."

     "I!" said Nelly, with surprise. "Why, I brought out nothing but the pineapple. It's your party, you know, and I thought you had your pocket full of something that your aunt gave you."

     "So I have," said Jane, "but I guess I'm not going to let you eat it all up."

     "I'm not a bit hungry," answered Mrs. Willis, "I had a splendid breakfast. I don't want any of your candy, or whatever it is. Mamma will bring me some from town."

     Mrs. Simmons was very angry. Her breakfast had not been "splendid," though she had had enough of it, and she had counted on Nelly's bringing out a quantity of good things, as she sometimes had before.

     "Oh," thought Nelly, "now she's going to act, and be cross. I wish I had thought to hide when I saw her coming. I must bring out something to eat, or nobody knows what she will do." And off she went to the house again, while Mrs. Simmons asked her to look for some cake with sugar on it.

     She hunted in the china-closet and on the sideboard and could find no cake at all. Nancy told her there was not a bit in the house; Mrs. Willis was to bring some out from the city. "You're not hungry again so quick as this?" said Ann, who came into the dining-room just then. Nelly did not dare to tell them that a tea-party was going on, or who the guests were, but after some search she carried out some macaroons and some plum-pudding, which she had not eaten at dinner the evening before, and was saving for her lunch that day. "It's too bad to let her eat this all up," thought Nelly. "Perhaps Nancy had some more put away. I've a great mind to tell Nancy to go out and send them home," and all the time she was hurrying so Nancy would not call her back or follow her. Foolish child!

     Mrs. Simmons was satisfied when Nelly showed the pudding, and while they finished arranging the table she told of a shop she was going to open in her wood-shed the next week, with wind-mills and darts and fly-boxes, and all sorts of delightful and useless things made of paper, besides molasses and water, at five pins for a drink in a toy tin dipper or one cent for a large mugful. Jane liked to get cents, and Nelly almost always had some in her pocket. "I'll take down a whole paper of pins," thought Nelly, "and buy ever so much." Jane was so friendly and quiet that her heart warmed toward her. "Poor thing!" she thought, "she doesn't know any people but bad ones, and no wonder she swears, and throws stones, and does all sorts of things." Just now Mrs. Simmons happened to come closer to her, and Nelly saw for the first time a most shocking and heathenish decoration. "Oh, Jane!" she cried, "what have you been doing to those poor flies, you horrid girl?"

     "Want me to string you some?" said Mrs. Simmons, with a grin. "I did every bit of this this morning, before I came over. I'll bring you one that will go round your neck twice, to-morrow, if you will give me two cents."

     It was a necklace of flies, on a long piece of white thread, to which the needle was still hanging. Oh! those dozens of poor flies. Some were dead, but others faintly buzzed.

     "Jane Simmons," said Nelly, "you can eat the pudding, and then you go right straight home, and I never will play with you any more. How could you be so awful. Hurry up, or I will call Nancy."

     "I was going pretty soon, any way," said Jane. "I guess there are flies enough left; you needn't make such a fuss. They let them stick on papers and die, in your house. You're an awful little 'fraid cat. Who wants to play with you, any way?"

     Nelly sat down on the grass, and would not say another word, and Jane ate the pudding as fast as she could. The Baby had not been satisfied with his share of the feast, and as she laid the best china saucer down he snatched it, and also the little cream-pitcher that belonged to the doll's tea-set, and ran away with them.

     "Oh, please stop him!" begged Nelly, and Jane tried to catch him, and (how can I tell it?) stepped on his trailing shawl. The Baby fell down and rolled over and over in the gravel, and the best china saucer and the cream-pitcher were both broken.

     "What will mamma say?" said Nelly. "O Jane! it is one of the very best saucers that she likes so much, and I heard her tell Mrs. Duncan, the other day, that she couldn't get any more, for she had tried a great many times."

     If Jane had been at all sorry, Nelly would have considered her only her companion in misfortune, but instead of that she seemed to think it was a great joke, and said something very provoking. Nelly shouted at the top of her voice for Thomas, forgetting that he had gone to get Maggie's saddle horse a pair of new shoes at the blacksmith's. But Jane, for a wonder, was a little frightened, and seizing The Baby's hand, she hurried him home. She expected a messenger from Mrs. Willis for several days, and kept watch, whenever she was at home, so that if she saw anybody coming she could climb the fence behind the house and run.

     Poor Nelly was very miserable. She gathered up the bits of china carefully, and put them in her pocket, and then sat down and cried a little, for it was such a dear cream-pitcher, with a blue and gold flower on each side, and a slender black handle.

     There was nobody in the garden, and nobody saw her. It was very lonely. The dolls, in their best dresses, sat around the tea-table, and Nelly was almost provoked with them for looking just as they always did, and sitting up so straight and consequential when such a terrible thing had happened. Amelia, at least, ought to have been sympathizing, for was she not regretting the loss of her new petticoat? The corners of the table-cloth waved cheerfully in the wind, and some bright leaves from a red rose-bush near by came fluttering through the air, and a few lodged on the table among the tiny china dishes.

     Just then Nelly happened to see The Baby's Shaker bonnet lying on the grass at a little distance, and she jumped up, and taking it by the end of one string she ran to the gate and threw it as far as she could out into the street. When she came back she took the dolls and the tea-set box and the table in her arms, and went into the house. She hid the pieces of china down under some stockings at the back of one of her bureau drawers, and felt very guilty and sad. After a little while she had lunch alone and then she tried to play with the dolls; but it was no fun at all, even though two had scarlet-fever, and the black tea-poy was doctor, and usually had a good deal to say. But Susan told a story after a while as she sat at her sewing, and Mrs Willis came home earlier than was expected, bringing Alice with her. It was very naughty of Nelly, but she did not tell her mother what had happened, and all through the evening she was miserable whenever any one went up-stairs, for fear they might go to her lower drawer and find the broken china. Still, she had a good time, for her sister Maggie had brought home a young lady to spend the night, who was very bright and funny, and she sang and played for the children to dance in the evening.

     "Has Nelly been a good girl to-day?" Mrs. Willis asked Susan.

     "Indeed, yes, ma'am," said Susan. "As good as a kitten, playing with her little dolls in the garden, and I told her a story this afternoon while I was mending the ruffles on her blue dress."

     And Mrs. Willis smiled at Nelly in a way that made her feel like crying.

     She and Alice had not seen each other for several weeks, and had a great deal to talk about and laugh about, so it was late before they were quiet. Alice went to sleep first, but Nelly was awake awhile, for she was so worried about what had happened. What would her mother say? and how sorry and grieved she would be to find that her little girl had done exactly what she asked her not to do, just before she went away. And Nelly wondered why she had played with Jane, and she remembered the fly-necklace with a shiver, and after a long time she went to sleep. Then she had a sad dream, and it was such an odd dream that I must tell you about it.

     She thought that she heard a great rattling and clinking out in the hall, and she got up to look out and see what the matter was, and noticed, on the way, that the lowest bureau drawer was open. The moon was shining in brightly through the large hall windows, and Nelly dreamed that she saw the funeral procession of the best china saucer.

     It was plain that he had been a favorite in the china-closet, for there was such a large attendance. Even the great punch-bowl had come from off the side-board, and that was a great honor. The silver was always locked up at night, but one tea-spoon was there, which had been overlooked. The dead saucer was in a little black Japanese tray, carried by the cruets from the castor, and next came the cup, the poor lonely widow. It is not the fashion for china to wear mourning, and she was dressed as usual in white with brilliant pictures of small Chinese houses and tall men and women. After her came the rest of the near relations, walking two and two, and after them the punch-bowl, looking large and grand, and as if he felt very sorry. It was a large elegant company, and reached from Nelly's door far along the hall, to the head of the staircase, and how much farther than that she could not see.

     "How will that clumsy punch-bowl go so far and get down the stairs again without cracking himself?" thought our friend, and wondered what they were waiting for.

     But in a few moments the play-room door opened, and out came the poor, sad little doll's tea-set. The tea-pots first, and then the sugar-bowl, and the cups and saucers, and the plates, all walking two by two, and then the little glass tumblers. It was remarkable that the cream-pitcher was the first of the family who had been broken, but Nelly had been very careful. There was one little plate badly cracked, and how dreadful if it should fall down the stairs and die on the way!

     It worried her terribly, the thought of this, as foolish things do worry us in dreams. And next she thought, what if some of the other china should trip and fall, or if one of the heavy soup-tureens should go crashing down among the rest. She did not dare to watch any longer, and when the doll's tea-set came up, and the great procession began to move, she rushed back to bed and opened her eyes to find that instead of moonlight it was morning, and Susan had come in to wake Alice and herself, and help them dress. Nelly did not wait until Alice had gone, to tell her mother, as she had meant to do the evening before. Mrs. Willis was very sorry indeed, you may be sure of that, when she heard Nelly's story. "Poor Jane!" said she. "I am sorry for the naughty little girl. I wish I could have done something for her; I tried, but she always made you naughty, and I am afraid you cannot do her any good."

     This was the end of Nelly's playing with Jane, at any rate, for the Simmonses moved away the very next week. The Duncans came back soon after, and they were Nelly's best friends, so she was no longer solitary, but she always has wondered what it was that Jane had in her pocket for the party.


Notes

"The Best China Saucer" first appeared in The Independent (24:3) on 6 June 1872 and was collected in Play Days, from which this text is taken.  If you find items needing correction or annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Shaker bonnet: Founded in England in the eighteenth century, "the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, also known as the Millennial Church, or the Alethians, came to be called Shakers because of the trembling induced in them by their religious fervor." Under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee the sometimes persecuted Shakers set up communal villages in the United States, beginning in 1776. (Source: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).The Shakers are known for simple, yet beautiful design in clothing and domestic furnishings.
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paper of pins: Straight pins were sold in a "paper" in which they would be stuck for storage and display.
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scarlet fever ... tea-poy: Scarlet fever is  bacterial infection related to strep throat, usually affecting young children and frequently fatal before the use of antibiotics. A tea-poy is a small table used in serving tea.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.


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