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THE DESERT ISLANDERS.
Sarah Orne Jewett
They were called Roger, Tip, and Polly, though if you were to look in their books, or on their pocket-handkerchiefs, you would discover that Tip had been christened Agatha, and Polly's real name was Mary. They were spending the summer at their grandmother's place in the country. They had an elder brother, a most delightful young man, who told them stories by the dozen, played with them by the hour, and from whom they learned a great deal. They saw very little of him, for he was most of the time at college, and just now he had gone to the mountains with some friends, but he was expected at Riverbank in a day or two, and there were long talks over what should be done when Alex. came, for no plan of any consequence could be carried out until then. The children had a young lady sister, who had a friend visiting her, and their father was with them at Riverbank, but he was nearly always writing or reading in the library, and they did not see him much. Their mother had been dead for a long time. Tip could not remember her at all, but Miss Alice and their grandmother were very good to them.
At the time my story begins it had been rainy weather for a week, and the children were tired of it. They were tired of playing hop-scotch in the barn and of swinging, and even of jack-stones; they had read all the new books they had brought down from the city with them, and could think of nothing more that could be done until pleasant weather. It seemed as if the sun never would shine again. The fog rolled in in great clouds from the sea, which was not very far away, and the east wind blew drearily. The straight walks in the old-fashioned garden looked like little canals; even when the rain stopped for a while the trees kept on dripping, and the rose-bushes scratched against the parlor windows from morning until night, as if they were cold and tired, and wished they could come in. Saturday morning, after it had rained since the Tuesday before, Roger followed his sister Alice to her room, after breakfast, and sat down disconsolately by the window. "Oh dear," said he, "I wish I knew what to do to-day. I wish I had some boys to play with."
"Well, my friend," said Alice, cheerfully, "you see there aren't any boys, so you'll have to make the girls answer for another day. Grandmother thinks the wind is changing, so it may clear off by and by. I think you have been very patient, Roger dear, and very kind to Tip and Polly. I have noticed you often. I wish I could remember better myself that it is not everybody's business to entertain me, but that I must try to do something for the rest. I know it has been tiresome and stupid for you, and I am so glad to see you try to make things pleasant for the little sisters. I think some boys might have been cross to them."
This pleased Roger very much. Alice was tying up some letters and putting them away, and he watched her until Miss Bessie, her friend, came in, and he knew they were going to read aloud from a book he thought very dull, so he said he would go. "Don't you know some book Polly and I could read together?" he asked.
"Have you read 'The Swiss Family Robinson,' lately ? You used to be so fond of that."
"No," said Roger. "How jolly of you to think of it, and I saw that old one of yours in one of the little closets in the library yesterday."
He found Tip and Polly in the dining-room, with their arms round each other's waists, looking sadly out of the window. They had not seen the dear old book for a year, and were delighted, and it was soon decided that they had better go out to the carriage-house, and sit in the big carriage, which had a seat for the coachman outside, and two seats inside, facing each other. They pulled it forward nearer a window, so it would be lighter, for the two girls wished to make some worsted mats they had begun the day before. Tip's was red and yellow, and Polly's was blue and white, and they meant to finish them in time for their grandmother's birthday. Roger read aloud, and everybody was contented for a long while. But when they reached the part of the story where Fritz and his father were talking about the cocoa-nut, Tip said it was a splendid book, but she was so sleepy that she could not keep awake another minute, and she must go into the house.
"No," said Polly, "let us make believe we are at sea, and this is a state-room. You can go to sleep on the back seat, and Roger and I will read to ourselves. I don't wish to crochet another stitch, any way."
So she put the mat into her pocket and went to sit by Roger, and they read together a good while, and Tip slept soundly in the berth opposite. One would have thought she had spent the night before in dance and revelry, by her going to sleep at half past ten in the morning, but she had been asleep from half past eight until seven o'clock. She was fond of having naps in the day-time, and her friends used to laugh at her; but she was wide awake and funny enough when her eyes were open to make up for any lost time.
"O Roger!" said Polly, after a while, "don't you think they had the very best time in the world? Wouldn't you like to have been little Francis, because they were all so good to him and he was always so pleasant? He must have had such fun. I wish we could live on a desert island some summer. Wouldn't it be fun to play we were shipwrecked and have some one come and take us home when it began to be cold weather? Don't you wish Alex. would take us with him when he goes off trouting and camping out in the woods?"
"He told me that perhaps I could go next year," said Roger, "but I don't suppose grandmamma would let you and Tip go. When it stops raining I am going to build a big hemlock house out in the woods, and we can stay all day." Polly said yes, and they went on reading until she suddenly started up and clapped her hands delightedly.
"I've thought of something we can do! I know they wouldn't care, it would be so near. Can't we go and live on Spring Island a little while? We could carry something to eat, and make a house for ourselves out of branches; and there is water to drink, and we could have a fire and catch cunners off the rock where we always fish, and I would cook them. We could have potatoes to bake, too. It is such a little way from the house that nothing could happen to us, and they could send for us if it rained hard."
"What did make you think of that?" said Roger. "Why didn't we ever do it before? We might wait until Alex. comes, but it will be better fun to have the house all ready when he gets here, and we will invite him over to dinner the first day. Let's wake up Tip and talk about it." And just then Tip's eyes opened of their own accord.
"I suppose you are most through the book, aren't you?" she asked sleepily. "Is it lunch-time yet? I had a splendid dream or I should have waked up before. I wanted to see what became of it. I was living on a desert island, and there was a dog there, too, who knew how to talk, and he said he knew grandmamma when she was a little girl."
At any other time the others would have insisted upon knowing all the rest of her adventures, for, as Polly had told Miss Bessie a day or two before, Tip's dreams were funnier than Alice in Wonderland.
They talked over the plan until lunch-time, and grew so interested in it that they were sure they could never give up going. And this half of the morning went by even faster than that did while Roger and Polly were reading, so they were much surprised when the bell rang for them to come in.
"Alice, dear," said Roger, "we have made a plan and we want you to ask papa about it."
She listened to the story and went at once to the library while the children waited impatiently. It was good news when she came back, and yet there was bad news, too. They might go, but they must not stay all night. Michael could take them over in the boat soon after breakfast, and bring them back at six o'clock. Roger must leave his pistol at home, but they could have a fire, and do anything they pleased that was reasonable, though they must not go until it had been pleasant weather for two days, because the ground would be so wet. Roger had thought more of staying all night and carrying his pistol than of anything else, but he gave up both with only a little scolding. And as for the girls, Tip was afraid of the pistol, and Polly had wondered what kind of wild bugs and spiders would walk over them if they slept out-of-doors, so neither lamented this part of the message.
It stopped raining at three o'clock that very afternoon, and the next Tuesday morning the American Family Robinson set sail for its island. Roger had been to the carpenter's shop over in the village to have all their knives and his own hatchet made very sharp, and they were all dressed in very old clothes, which might be torn and wet as much as was necessary. They wished to be as much like ship-wrecked mariners as possible, and finally decided to carry no provisions except a tin box of biscuit, a bag of potatoes, and some butter in a little pail. Roger said that it wasn't at all proper of them to have butter, but little Tip insisted that she should starve without it, for she must have some on both the potatoes and the biscuit. Grandmamma begged them to accept some cold roast chicken, but the castaways insisted that they were going to fry some fish, and went away without it. It was no wonder they did not see the need of providing a good dinner, for they had all three eaten so much breakfast. They carried with them Roger's hatchet and their knives, a large ball of strong twine, three fishing-lines and some spare hooks, some matches, a tin pail and a mug, a little fryingpan, three plates, and some knives and forks. "Poor children," said their tender-hearted grandmother as they rowed away from the boat-house, "we must have a good supper for them."
"I wish I had told Roger not to try to finish the house to-day," said their father. "They will be so tired to-morrow morning that their fun will all be over with."
But the Desert Islanders would have been much astonished if they had known they were being pitied. They reached the island very soon; it was not a long voyage. Michael helped them unload their goods, and as he pushed off his boat he sent a plump little red lobster flying through the air. They did not wish to hurt Michael's feelings, so they thanked him and carried it over with the rest of their provisions, which they put together in the shade of a large rock. There were no trees large enough to live in, as the Swiss Family lived in Falcon's Nest; but there was no need of following their fashions exactly. The island was not at all large, but still there was room enough. It was quite high in the middle, and along this ridge grew birch-trees and several large hemlocks, and on either side the ground sloped down to the river. They began to build their house on the farther side, partly because it was cool and shady there then, and also because they did not wish the people at the house to watch everything they did. "We might as well have built it in the garden as on that side," said Roger.
There were two or three birch-trees which grew a little way out from the rest, and this spot was chosen at last for the hemlock hut. First they drove two long stakes into the ground, and then they tied other stakes from the tops of these to two birches. Then Roger cut some other small birches and trimmed off most of the branches and laid them on for rafters, and after they had fastened these so they would not slip, they tied others from corner to corner to make the walls, and the frame-work was done. Then they all went to get hemlock boughs, and after they had each cut several armfuls and had brought them over, they found themselves very tired and hungry. They had taken so many short walks, that they counted up into one very long one. Their arms ached too, especially Roger's, for he would not let Polly use his hatchet, and had done all the chopping and driving himself. It was about eleven o'clock, somewhat early for dinner, but when should one eat, if not when one is hungry? The girls hunted about and very soon had a good pile of dry sticks and dead grass for kindling. They rolled two or three stones together, as they had seen Alex. do, and put the sticks on top, and soon had a blazing fire. Tip was opposed to using common matches to light it with, for Desert Islanders always rub two pieces of stick together, but the others were sure it would take too long. They did not stop to cook any fish, and indeed they could not easily catch any, for the tide was so low; but they cracked the lobster and toasted some biscuit, and when the potatoes were baked, which was not until they had waited more than half an hour after eating the rest of their dinner, they had those for dessert. They said they had had a very good dinner indeed; but the potatoes had hard places in them, and the biscuit they toasted were a little smoky, so they ate the rest cold. There never was a better lobster, though, and there was not a claw of it left.
After dinner it did not take half so long as you would suppose for them to thatch the house with hemlock branches and fasten them with twine up and down the sides, and when this was done they brought several armfuls of the small soft boughs and heaped them up in the house either to sit upon or to lie upon, just as they liked. They found some wide shingles which had been left by the tide, and fastened them by strings to the walls, and so made convenient shelves, which they admired very much. They also made a closet outside by leaning some long branches against the house, and here they put their cooking apparatus and the rest of the twine and the hatchet, and the flag which they had agreed to show as a signal of distress, or if anybody wished to go home. There were a great many little things to do in the house, -- such as trimming off the stray twigs, which made the walls too rough inside. The house was open on the side toward the river, and it was all done some time before they were ready to go home. Their father and Michael, who came over at night, said they were wonderful carpenters, and they were so tired that they went to bed not a great while after supper.
The next day they went to housekeeping in fine fashion. They carried over some books and some dolls, and there were several other things from the play-room, which they pretended they got in the wreck, for you know both the Swiss Family and Robinson Crusoe used to go out to the ship for almost everything they wanted. The dolls sat round the house looking very happy, but then they always did that, even if one left them out in their best clothes in the rain. Tip had brought over a tin heart and round and star, which she had begged from the cook, and was very busy for an hour or two making mud pies, and after she had left a long row to bake in the sun, she went to sit down in the house. She had brought with her that morning a little accordeon, which had been given her not long before, and after Polly and she had taken turns at playing it, they chose two dolls apiece and went for a walk, accompanied by Roger and his hatchet. They pretended that they were exploring, and gave high-sounding names to many well-known places. After stopping to have a drink at the spring, which gave the island its name, they went back to the house. Roger and Polly played as usual that they were Tip's father and mother, and pretty soon they began to think about dinner, so they took the fishing-lines, as the tide was fast going out, and went down to the end of the island where there were some rocks, and began to fish for cunners, keeping a careful watch for savages all the time. They had very good luck; even Tip caught three, but she did not like at all to touch them.
They gathered a large pile of wood, for they would want a hot fire to-day, and the grass and twigs and chips they had used the day before had burned out too quickly. There was a good deal of small dirftwood lying high on the shore which had dried in the sun. After a while Polly put the frying-pan on the hot stones, and took some slices of pork from a strawberry-box which also held some Indian meal. Roger had spent too many weeks by the river and at the sea-shore not to know how to clean fish nicely, and by the time Polly was ready for them they were cut in pieces and covered with the meal, all ready to be fried. Then they pulled some of the hot coals and ashes out at one side, and covered the clean little new potatoes to be baked. As for Tip, she had kept the fire burning, and for some time they all sat round and watched. When everything was nearly ready, Tip triumphantly brought from a hiding-place under the trees two lemons and a paper of sugar which she had smuggled in the morning, and which it had been a hard struggle not to say anything about. She had been so useful in tending the fire and going on errands, and now enough couldn't be said in her praise by the other two; they didn't know what they should do without her on the desert island. They brought some fresh water from the spring in the little tin pail, and Roger squeezed the lemons, because his hands were strongest, but Tip herself put in the whole of the sugar and stirred it, and dealt it out generously in her china mug, which had "Be a Good Boy" on one side and "Affection's Gift" on the other, with a beautiful red handle and blue edge. It was one she had drawn at a raffle and she was very fond of it.
That was such a good dinner! Polly did credit to the lesson in cooking she had taken that morning, and they even enjoyed washing the three plates and the knives and forks down at the river. Then they went back to the house, and Tip worked busily at a worsted chain she was making with a spool which had four pins in the top of it. The worsted was wound round and poked over with another pin. It was to be made into a mat, I believe, and there were a great many colors in it already. The long bright cord looked so pretty as it trailed over the hemlock sofa. Tip was much interested for a while, and then said she was sleepy and laid herself down in the corner like a kitten, first putting her little handkerchief over her face to keep off the flies as she had often seen her grandmamma do, though there did not seem to be many flies on the island.
It was very pleasant in the hemlock house. They could look out anywhere, for there were so many zigzag windows in the green walls. The birch-trees rustled a little over their heads, and the water made a plashing once in a while among the rushes and pebbles on the shore. Over toward the other side of the broad river a schooner was going down with the tide, and they could hear the sailors laugh and sing and shout to each other. There was a little row-boat trailing after it at the stern, and the children wished it might get adrift and float ashore to them. After some time a small hemlock cone fell on Tip's nose and waked her, so she took up the accordeon to give her friends a little music, while Roger pulled a paper of candy out of his jacket pocket. Bessie had given it to him that morning before he came away and he had forgotten it. Cannot one see from this what enjoyment there is in being a Desert Islander?
Soon it grew too sunny and hot to be comfortable, so the girls took two little bits of tin pails, with beads in them, and some needles and thread, and all went over to the other side of the island in the shade, to spend a quiet afternoon. It seemed so pleasant there that at first they were a little sorry that the house was not on that side, but after all they could not watch the boats go up and down in the channel, and it was much more like a desert island than if they had been in full view of the house.
"Oh," said Polly, with great satisfaction, "I wish we could live here always."
It was delightful on the island towards evening, and they were very sorry to see Michael pushing off the boat to come after them. They longed to stay all night and thought it was such a pity that they could not. However, supper was to be thought of, and it was great fun walking up the garden and having everybody come to meet them as if they had been away for a long visit. Tip and Polly had, beside their housekeeping, strung some beautiful bead necklaces for themselves, and Roger had whittled some remarkable jack-straws.
"To-morrow," said he, "I think we shall ask some of you to come and dine with us. Polly is a splendid cook. Anybody may come who likes fried cunners and baked potatoes. It was such a dinner, and we were just as hungry as anybody you ever saw, grandmamma!" But when tea was ready grandmamma wondered if either of the three had really eaten a mouthful all day, they had such ravenous appetites.
It proved that nobody could accept the invitation to dinner. The children's father went away at daylight to take the earliest train to town, and Alice and Bessie drove off soon after breakfast in the phaeton, to stay until the next afternoon with a friend who was spending the summer several miles from Riverbank. Grandmamma said that she was too old to camp out, so the dinner party was postponed until another day.
About eleven o'clock Michael came over to the island with a basket of provisions and a message that the children had better not make a fire or stay out in the sun any more than they could help, for it was too hot. They came home early in the afternoon. Polly, who had the sharpest eyes, noticed that the carriage-house doors were open, and then she saw the carriage in which her grandmother always rode pulled out into the yard. Then Michael came down to the shore, pushed off the boat and rowed over to them to say that Mrs. Denfield was going to Doncaster to see her sister who had been taken ill, and she wished to have them safe at home before she started. She was in a hurry, so she only stopped to kiss them good-by and tell them to be good children. Old Nora, who had always taken care of them, was left in charge, and she gave them their supper early and sent them all to bed before eight o'clock, which they did not mind, as there was nothing to do and nobody to talk to and they were tired.
Roger could not go to sleep; the moon was very bright, and he could see everything almost as well as if it were day. It would be such a capital chance, he thought, with everybody away, and Nora would not come to their rooms again. That morning they had taken some carriage blankets over to the island and had forgotten to bring them back. It would be such a jolly story to tell the boys when he got back to school that he had slept out-of-doors on an island. The temptation was too great, and he dressed himself again in a hurry, went across the hall to knock at Polly's door, and found her awake too.
"Don't you wish we could go over and stay all night in our house?" said the naughty boy. "You aren't afraid, are you? It will be such fun and nobody will care, for it is so hot we couldn't possibly get cold. It will be low tide pretty soon and we can wade across, for it is so light we cannot help finding our way. Papa is so foolish to think we shall get hurt. What shall we do in a day or two when it is low tide just before supper and Michael can't come with the boat? I wonder if they will send John with a carriage! It will be such fun to shout to Mike when he is working in the garden early, and tell him to come over and bring us back to breakfast."
Polly couldn't resist, and said at once that she would go, only Roger must write on a piece of paper where they were gone and leave it where it could be found, because everybody would think they were stolen. When Tip was waked she didn't think it would be good fun at all, at first; but she was not the girl to be left at home alone, so she put on her clothes in a hurry. Poor little Tip! they were all buttoned wrong. Roger went down-stairs and filled his pockets with cookies in the dining-room closet. He could hear the servants laughing and talking in the kitchen, but nobody heard him. Nora had gone to bed early with a headache, and he was sure no one would know whether he was in the house or out of it.
Tip was frightened when she found herself walking down to the garden. It looked so different at night, and she almost wished she had stayed at home by herself; but it was too late now. So she hugged the beloved rag-baby, who was always her bedfellow, and the wicked little procession walked on solemnly and in a few minutes reached the bank of the river. It was not far to the shore of the island, but the riverbed was muddy and full of sharp stones. Luckily neither of them fell or hurt themselves in crossing, but what if little Tip had fallen into one of those black pools of water by the great rocks and had been drowned.
At first they did not feel afraid on the island, the moonlight was so bright and the lights at home looked very near. They were so glad they had thought of coming, and they walked around the shore to their house instead of going directly across. When they reached it it wasn't quite like being there in the day-time, for the trees shaded it and made it look dark inside and very lonesome. Roger himself was almost afraid to go in, for what if some drunken sailors had landed there since they came away. Once in a while people stopped to get water at the spring. However, everything seemed to be just as they had left it, and they went in and sat down. Tip was tired and sleepy, and she was silent, for she was more and more unhappy. But the others were in high spirits and kept talking about what they would do next day. And she was ashamed to say that she wished to go home. So she bravely said she was going to bed, and all three laid down on the hemlock boughs, covered themselves with the blankets, and tried to go to sleep. They found the time went very slowly; the mosquitoes heard they were there and bit them as fast as they could, and it was so still, and the broad flats of the river looked dismal enough even in the moonlight. And every time the branches crackled a little under them or they heard any noise on the river, it made poor little Tip shiver and shake like the old woman in Mother Goose. At last she could bear it no longer, and sat up in the hardest bed she ever had slept in and said, "Oh, it's so dark, and I'm so afraid! Let's go home, Roger."
But when they reached the other side of the island, oh, sorrow of sorrows! the tide had turned and was coming in. There was a good deal more water already than when they had come over, so they could not possibly tell where it was safe to walk. They shouted, but the lights were out in the house, and I am afraid at any rate nobody would have heard them. There was nothing to do now but to go back to the hemlock house and stay all night. "After all," said Roger, bravely, "it won't do us a bit of harm. Don't cry, Tip, dear; this is just what Alex. does when he is camping out. We will cover ourselves all up and go to sleep and it will soon be morning."
"Let's say our prayers over again," said Polly, and they did, and though Tip cried softly for a little while, she was comforted by having Polly's arm round her and Roger's also, and, though it may seem surprising, it was not long before they were all sound asleep.
It really was two or three hours, but it seemed to Roger as if he had just shut his eyes, when he opened them again suddenly to find the moonlight gone. The wind was blowing and the river making more noise than he had ever heard it make before. It was almost like the sea. It was terribly lonely. There was going to be a great storm, certainly; they would get wet, and perhaps Polly would have that dreadful sore throat again and die, and it would be all his fault. He started to go over to the other side of the island and call again for some one to take them home, but it was so dark he could not see, and when he groped his way back into the house he stumbled over Polly, who waked in a great fright. Then Tip asked what was the matter and the three poor little souls sat in the damp darkness and held each other's hands and cried. They never had been so frightened before in all their lives.
"Oh, if it's going to be a thunder-storm[,]" said Tip, sobbing aloud, "I should most die. O Roger! I wish we had stayed at home."
Soon it began to rain. They heard the big drops coming slowly at first on the birch leaves, then faster and faster, until presently the hemlock roof proved a very leaky one, and the water dripped through on the blankets. It was very forlorn and miserable. Roger tried to pull a blanket over the roof and that made it a good deal drier, but there suddenly came a flash of lightning, not very bright, though the children had never seen anything half so frightful, and the peal of thunder that followed a minute afterwards made them hide their heads.
"Roger! Roger! Polly! where are you?" shouted some one, and they all answered at once and felt as if they had been saved from something very horrible. "O Alex! how did you find us?" Roger ran toward his tall brother, who was looking around almost as frightened as our friends themselves. And in another minute he was standing by the little play-house, which was too low for him to enter, but his light shone in upon the two pale little faces of Tip and Polly, who rushed out and hugged and kissed him until he shouldered Miss Tip, rag-dolly and all, in self-defense, and marched away in the rain, followed by Roger, who carried the lantern, and Polly, who cried for joy. Michael was waiting with the boat, and though they had to go to the farther landing-place, it was only a little while before they were warm and dry again. They sat by the kitchen fire, very silent, and poor frightened Nora gave them something good to eat and something hot to drink, and could not take enough care of them. Alex. had come home unexpectedly, late at night, and found the garden door unlocked, and the children's beds all empty when he had looked in, a little later, on his way to his own room. On Roger's pillow was a notice: "Gone to the island;" but nobody saw it for some time, and then it was raining fast, and who knew if the crazy little creatures had not all been drowned in trying to get across?
Nobody had the heart to scold the miserable and penitent little Desert Islanders. They might do a great many naughty things in the course of their lives, but they were sure never to run away at night any more. Alex. went over soon and spent a long delightful day with them, and showed them a great many ways to make their island-life a great deal pleasanter than it had been before.
The little tin pails of beads, and the dolls, and most of the playthings had been carried home and were not injured, and grandmamma kindly bought Tip a new accordeon, of a larger size, to take the place of the one that had been spoiled by the rain.
"The Desert Islanders" first appeared in The Independent (24:3) on November 14, 1872, and was collected in Play Days. This text is from Play Days. Apparent errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Alex.: In this story, "Alex" is always followed by a period.
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jack-stones: any of several children's games played with jacks.
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The Swiss Family Robinson: A popular novel about a family wrecked on a desert island, The Swiss Family Robinson (1812-13) is by Johann David Wyss (1743-1818), a Swiss clergyman..
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cunners: a cunner is a small, salt-water food fish found along the coast of eastern North America.
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Indian meal: course flower made with Indian corn; corn meal.
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Alice in Wonderland: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by “Lewis Carroll,” Charles Dodgson (1832-1898).
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jack-straws: probably slender pieces of wood used in a children’s game, sometimes called “pick-up-sticks.”
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Doncaster: almost certainly a fictional town.
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old woman in Mother Goose: From The Real Mother Goose, "The Old Woman and the Pedlar" begins with these three stanzas:
There was an old woman, as I've heard tell,
She went to market her eggs for to sell;
She went to market all on a market-day,
And she fell asleep on the King's highway.
There came by a pedlar whose name was Stout,
He cut her petticoats all round about;
He cut her petticoats up to the knees,
Which made the old woman to shiver and freeze.
When the little old woman first did wake,
She began to shiver and she began to shake;
She began to wonder and she began to cry,
"Lauk a mercy on me, this can't be I!
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
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