Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
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SARAH ORNE JEWETT.
There was a good deal of talking to be done before it was finally decided to admit a new member to the Forest family. Down-stairs the cook and the two maids had found much to say against it, but old Thomas the butler had hardly known at first which side to take. He was sure that it would be a great trouble to have a boy in the house, and he feared that such a person would be more hindrance [hinderance] than help. Still, the truth remained that Thomas was growing old and stout, and that he disliked to be always hurrying up-stairs to answer the front door bell, and half the time the errands were but foolish ones. Either the parlor fire wanted mending, or Mrs. Forest wished to have a letter posted, or Miss Alice was obliged to send for a carriage, or the street door would be besieged half a dozen times within the half hour just when Thomas was busy arranging the table for dinner, and at such times Susan and Bridget, who were good-natured girls enough, were sure to be at the top of the house and of no use whatever, and Thomas puffed and fumed and thought nobody in the city had so much care as he.
But when Mrs. Forest had suggested that they might find a young lad useful in the household there was an alarmed feeling in the kitchen, and, as we have seen, even Thomas himself could mention objections.
To tell the truth, it was an imaginary boy who was so much dreaded; a wicked boy, who never could be found when he was wanted, who broke everything he touched, and who made muddy boot-tracks all over the clean floors of the basement. A boy with a fabulous appetite, who darted selfishly at the choicest morsels of food, who used bad language, and who would steal if he had a chance, and lie inexcusably and continually; whom the cook must cook for and the seamstress sew for, and whose muddy tracks and clutters of whittlings and upset pockets the other maid must be forever sweeping up, and whose unaccomplished duties would be added to poor Thomas's already crushing burden. In short, a cloud seemed to overspread the whole sky; but when Mrs. Forest made up her mind to a thing it was sure to be done. And so, though she was the kindest of mistresses, there was a silent rebellion, and the good people down-stairs looked upon themselves as being a little removed from martyrdom and went about their work for the next few days with unhappy faces.
It luckily happened that Miss Alice Forest went out one morning to see a poor old woman who had formerly been well-to-do, but who, through long illness and increasing age, had become unable to work. She had long since come to the end of her own savings, and, as the cold weather came on, it seemed to her and to the kind people who had taken an interest in her, that she could no longer take care of herself. Her chief anxiety seemed to be her little grandson, of whom she was very fond. She could not bear to be separated from him, but he had been at school, and at work in his play hours and vacations, earning only a small amount of money from a very hard master. It seemed, even to her, that he could have a more comfortable home elsewhere. She could no longer cook for him, and the poor soul tried to stop the tears that fell from her eyes with her bent and stiffened fingers. Alice Forest remembered the little fellow very well, though it happened that she had not seen him lately, and a sudden thought made her eyes shine with a new light.
"Mrs. Kaley," she said, "I know just the right thing. I wonder I have not thought of it before. Mamma and I have been saying that we must have a younger person to help Thomas. He can't go up and down-stairs so well as he used, and many of our friends find a boy in buttons the greatest comfort in the world. You know a boy doesn't get tired with the running about, and Mamma and I so often have notes to send, and lately I have had to depend upon messengers."
"Thomas always was one that liked to save himself," said old Mrs. Kaley, looking cheerful again; and they both laughed a little.
"I will hear Dan's lessons myself," said Alice, who grew more enthusiastic every minute over her new plan, "and you know that Mamma is sure not to let him be over-worked. We will get some clothes for him and see that he is well taken care of, and if you are in the Old Ladies' Home he can often go round to see you."
"I'm only afraid he is too small to be of much use to you," said Mrs. Kaley, crying again. "But there was never anything that was such a comfort to me. Often I've said to myself, if Thomas were giving up the place and Dan were an older lad, there's nothing would let me die so happy as to know the poor boy was so well placed as with Mrs. Forest. His poor grandfather was Lord Westland's valet when I married him, and never a man knew his business better. I'm sure some of it must be in his children, though poor Danny is all that is left me now out of all my family. Dear, dear, I always hoped I would get back to England, and lay my poor bones with my own people there. But indeed it's [its] joy that makes me cry now, Miss Alice; it is indeed. I have been waked these many nights with trouble of mind about Dan."
So, one morning, a few days later, Thomas, and Nora, the cook, who happened to be in the kitchen together - heard a light, quick step coming down the stairs, and looked quickly round to see a little fellow, in dark green clothes, fastened and trimmed with rows of small, shining silver buttons. He looked from one to the other, and all fears which she had conjured up of this type of all boyish wickedness fled from Nora's motherly heart. Dan looked a little pale and thin and a trifle sober, but his hair was so curly and his face so clean, and he looked so harmless and so lonely and so afraid they might not be going to like him that, before Nora had time to lift the corner of her apron to her eyes, Thomas had said, in his most condescending fashion: "I suppose we see the Lord High Admiral, now; don't we, Nora? and it's I myself will give you a welcome, my little man."
And Dan lost the blown-away look he had worn at first, and smiled cheerfully, and sidled into a chair, very shy, but quite disposed to like his new surroundings. Nora asked for his grandmother, who was an old friend; and Thomas fairly bustled for once, he was so anxious to impress his young aid with the importance and circumstance of these new duties. Dan thought it was quite confusing and tremendous. Miss Alice was going to have a lunch party that day, and he had already been told about waiting at the door. His grandmother's housekeeping seemed nothing beside this; and it gave him great comfort when his young mistress's big dog came along wagging and friendly and smuggled its nose into his idle hand. "Laws, he'll take care o' the dog for us, any way," said Susan, who now made her appearance. And Dan smiled again and stroked the creature's silky head as if he could think of nothing pleasanter.
Even Thomas liked this dog; though Towser was still very young and full of pranks. He was hardly three quarters-grown, and though gentle Mrs. Forest had wondered if it were possible to keep him in the house, her daughter had begged so hard for her pet that she had consented to bear his company. He never succeeded in taking so long a walk as he wished, and he went bounding up and down-stairs to make up for his loss of out-door exercise. But he was a delightful, affectionate creature, and had already won everybody's heart, and it was not surprising that little Dan, or Buttons, as he must now be called, was his willing servant from the first moment of their meeting.
It was like entering a new world when Buttons came to a knowledge of his duties that day; but he was quick and ready to learn, and shrewd Thomas noticed that his fingers were strong and sure, and that he handled the glass and china in a way that did not promise much breaking. He liked to see the pretty things, and he soon knew a great deal about the house. He was not the less likely to prove useful because many of his ancestors had had long and careful training to just such business, and by the time he began to open the street door to Miss Alice's friends, he had a sense of pride and possession and of belonging to the pleasant house which was now to be his home. He wondered deeply at a great deal that went on, and meant to ask his grandmother many questions. In the hurry of serving the lunch he had little to do except to watch what was being done; but he was told he would have more part in such ceremonies for the future. He perched himself in the kitchen in a wide window ledge, with his ears wide open to catch the sound of any bell that might ring. His new buttons shone in a delightful fashion, and when two or three of his cronies came down into the narrow area by the basement window and made faces at him, he felt it to be a matter of small consequence, and turned manfully away, not even resenting the spectacle of Jim Harris's tongue, which was being extended to its fullest and most derisive length.
There was a good deal of excitement when the little feast was over; one of the young ladies could not find her muff, though she was sure that she had brought it with her. Buttons was appealed to, but could not tell if he had seen it, though he tried very hard to remember, and got down on his hands and knees and crept about among the chair-legs and foot-stools in the little reception room, which was already growing dark in the short Winter day. He felt very sorry for pretty Miss Dean, and listened eagerly to whatever was said, and wished he could find the muff, which had just been given to her for a birthday present. She was sure that she had put it down on one of the chairs near the grate; but at last she was persuaded that she must have dropped it as she stepped from the carriage, and she went away feeling much grieved. Dan's grandmother used to sew furs sometimes for a fur dealer, when she was well, and he knew that they were often worth a great deal of money. It seemed to him as if this unhappy event ought to make a great excitement; but to his surprise everybody seemed to forget about it after a little while, so many important things were continually happening in this interesting new world.
For a week or two everything went smoothly. The other servants praised their new comrade to Mrs. Forest, and she was much amused to see the good effect of so much youthful spirit upon old Thomas, who seemed determined that nobody should think there was such a great difference between Buttons's age and his own. The women said that he gave them no trouble, and was always ready to help, which was, indeed, true; but after a time the first bloom of his enthusiasm was a little faded, and there came a day when he stayed out-of-doors very late in the afternoon, on his way home from an errand. Jim Harris and some other friends had waylaid him, and they had been coasting together and time had flown faster than usual. Mrs. Forest had said more than once that Buttons must have a play day; but it was most unfortunate that he should have chosen an afternoon when Susan was already out and Thomas also; and although Bridget was very busy with some important sewing up-stairs, she and the unwilling cook had to share the duty of waiting upon the door. There were an unusual number of callers that afternoon, for one reason and another, and when naughty Buttons came in, with his eyes shining and the reddest cheeks in the world, he was shocked to find himself in deep disgrace. And when he was asked what he had done with Miss Alice's little leather belt-bag, which she had left on the table in the hall, he had not the least idea.
Mrs. Forest sent for him and spoke very kindly. She said he had been a very good boy and quick at learning, but he must be careful to know about his work, and to ask if he were wanted before he made plans with his playmates. She should take care that he had an afternoon to himself now and then; and he must remember what he saw, too, and must take charge of the hall whenever he was in it. They were afraid that the man who had come just after lunch to beg had stolen Miss Alice's pretty bag. There was money in it, and some concert tickets which she had taken great trouble to get. The little chain had broken that held the bag to its belt, and Miss Alice had taken it off, meaning to carry it down town to be mended when she went out again in the afternoon. Buttons must not let such people in. It was quite unsafe. "I do not wish to turn deserving people away," said the good woman, "but, if you will come to me, I will send a message so they can go to the proper place for work or help. And as for those who would rather beg than work, we have nothing to give them, Buttons." But Buttons hardly understood. He wished he had come in sooner, and he knew that he ought not to have let the bag be stolen. He was very fond of Miss Alice, who was always so kind to him, and he went scampering down the kitchen stairs again, for fear she would appear. Towser, the good-natured great puppy, jumped and whined as if he wished to say that he ought to have gone out-doors to play that afternoon; but as for Nora she would not turn her head to look at little Dan, and he went softly to the place where his house clothes were kept and began to put them on.
"'Tis all along of that Harris boy," said Nora. "He's a young thief, that'll come to the gallows yet." And Dan thought she spoke of him, and flushed angrily; but as he went back to the kitchen he noticed that he had lost one of his shining buttons already, and he felt both guilty and penitent, and made up his mind not to make so much trouble again. They were all very good to him; only that morning Nora had baked him the best turnover he ever ate in his life.
It was the very next day that, while Dan was eating his dinner, the dining-room bell was rung as if somebody were in a great hurry.
"Where are my overshoes?" Miss Alice asked, as the boy made his appearance; and Buttons went confidently toward the hall closed.
"No, Miss Alice," he said, looking a little frightened. "I forgot to clean them and put them away. Thomas wanted me, and after I pulled them off and you went up-stairs, I put them down for a minute, right here by the chair, and then I forgot them. I did not mean to. Perhaps Thomas took them down-stairs."
But alas, Thomas knew nothing about them, nor any one else, and Dan's young mistress was in a great hurry to go out. It seemed to him that the witches must have had a hand in it; and since Miss Alice was late he was sent up to the corner of the street to call a cab for her, and he felt exactly as if he were going to cry, and did not feel happy again even when the good-natured driver asked him to get up on the box and drive back to the house.
That evening Mrs. Forest and Alice were sitting by the library fire, and after a while they let their books lie idle in their laps while they had a serious talk about Buttons. He was such a merry-looking little fellow, and so willing and eager to help, and so entirely to be trusted in many ways, that it seemed a great pity he should be so careless; and, worse than that, it was not thought in the kitchen that he told the truth.
"I shall be so sorry to let him go away on his grandmother's account," said Alice, gravely. "Boys will be boys, Mamma, and I think if we have a little patience" -
"The worst thing about him is his playing with a Harris boy, Nora thinks," said Mrs. Forest. "She believes that these things which we have missed have been taken away and sold. Old Mrs. Kaley used to work for a fur shop, and I am afraid Dan knew the value of Mary Dean's muff only too well. The child has such honest eyes, though, it seems hardly possible he should have been such a little rascal; but if the older boy is bad he may have dared him to it. It was the very first day Dan came, you know."
"I can't believe it," said Alice, indignantly, "and Nora always takes the worst view of things. I heard her muttering this morning about having a little longears waiting round to hear every word that she said, and you know she professed great affection for Buttons at first. The Harris boy snow-balled her once, last Winter, Susan says, and she has never forgiven him. She was coming home from a funeral, and her best bonnet was quite ruined."
"We will do nothing about it for a week or two," said Mrs. Forest, laughing a little at poor Nora's mishap. "We will take pains to keep the child, if possible. He is already very useful, and saves everybody a great many steps, and you say that he is doing well at his lessons. Poor little man! We will not turn him adrift, if we can help ourselves; for, if his grandmother dies, he has not a friend in the world who could really take care of him; and that is a hard matter, when one is only a dozen years old."
But the next morning brought a story of further misdemeanors. It seemed that Nora had baked, and afterward frosted, a cake for lunch, and had put it aside to cool, and it had disappeared within half an hour. Buttons had been very angry when he was accused of the theft, and had been sulky, and, for the first time, a little saucy; at least, Nora felt that she had by no means been treated with respect. A little later, one of her slippers vanished. She had left them near the range when she had gone out to early service, and had not thought, in her hurry after she came in, to take off her best boots. It was not a happy Saint's day at all; and she came up to Mrs. Forest with a tale of woe.
Mrs. Forest was very busy with some letters, and was quite disturbed when Nora, who was an excellent cook, and had lived with her contentedly for many years, announced her intention of leaving after a fortnight, rather than be troubled by mischievous monkeys like Dan.
Luckily Susan appeared on the scene at that moment with the luncheon cake, which was half eaten already, and altogether spoiled. It had a strangely battered look as if it had been gnawed and rolled about the floor. "I found it in Buttons's room, beside the bed, ma'am," said Susan, much excited, and I would never believe anything against the child till now."
"And I that was cosseting him with every choice mouthful that was mine to give him," said poor Nora, raising her voice and the corner of her apron at once, "being a growing lad, and with a look like my sister's son that died. For an ungrateful young thief I never saw his match; and he up to his tricks every hour in the day."
"What in the world is Towser about under the sofa?" asked Mrs. Forest, suddenly. "What is he eating? Can you see, Susan?"
"Bless my heart," said Susan, who had knelt down promptly to get a good look at the dog. "If I live, it's your slipper, Nora; but its small use you'll ever have of it again." And she produced it, much mangled and defaced, to the great sorrow of its owner.
"It's a common trick with young dogs," said Susan, apologetically; for she was very fond of Towser.
"But I wonder if he has not been the plunderer all the time!" said Mrs. Forest, suddenly. "I remember now that I have often seen him playing with something or other. Do you think he could have carried away any of the other things we have been missing, Nora?"
All hatred of the Harris boy and suspicion of Buttons vanished at once.
"I believe myself that it was the dog and nobody else," cried the excited Nora. "Come away, Susan, to Danny's room, and we may find more beside the cake. I'll hunt the house over sooner than suspect an innocent lad." And presently the story was brought back that naughty Towser had crumbled his stolen cake all over the floor under Danny's bed, and that one of Miss Alice's overshoes and a glove had been found behind a clothes-basket in the entry.
Buttons listened placidly to this explanation, and was grateful for an uncommonly good supper, by means of which Nora made her apologies. And it was several days before the muff came to light from behind a shavings barrel in the furnace cellar. It was not very much hurt, though Towser had evidently meant to have a great deal of fun with it later. Either he had forgotten it altogether or was saving it for a special holiday. The little bag was found, too; but he was not guilty of that; for it had been somehow pushed overboard and had gone down behind the heavy hall table into a crack which all the family said looked entirely too narrow to hold it.
Buttons thought everybody was very good to him. He still played with the Harris boy whenever he had the chance, for, if the truth must be told, Jim was not a bad boy at all. And Dan watched Towser faithfully, as an added duty and responsibility, and the dog grew steadier and wiser a great deal faster than any one would believe he could. Since he loved Danny better than he did anybody in the house, it is well he never knew how his friend was scolded and suspected for his own wrong doings.
"Indeed, 'tis a lesson to us all to be careful how we condemn the innocent," said Thomas that night at supper, and Buttons looked at him gravely, as if he meant to lay the lesson to heart as much as any one.
"Buttons" appeared in The Independent (36:27-8) August 7, 1884. Probable errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets.
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Saint's day: The story does not seem to make clear what day this is. Possibly it refers to All Saints Day on November 1, but it could be any particular saint in the Roman Catholic calendar of worship. Nora appears to be an Irish Catholic.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
Main Contents & Search