Ella was a capital mimic, and imitated the nasal tones of the Vermont woman to the life, with a doleful pucker of her own blooming face, which gave such a truthful picture of poor Miss Almira Miller that those who had seen her recognised it at once, and laughed gayly.
"Just as I was murmuring a few words of regret at her bad luck," continued Ella, "a sharp voice called out from a back room, 'Almiry! Almiry! come here.' It sounded very like a cross parrot, but it was the old lady, and while I put on my hat I heard her asking who was in the shop, and what we were 'gabbin' about.' Her daughter told her, and the old soul demanded to 'see the gal;' so I went in, being ready for fun as usual. It was a little, dark, dismal place, but as neat as a pin, and in the bed sat a regular Grandma Smallweed smoking a pipe, with a big cap, a snuff-box, and a red cotton handkerchief. She was a tiny, dried-up thing, brown as a berry, with eyes like black beads, a nose and chin that nearly met, and hands like birds' claws. But such a fierce, lively, curious, blunt old lady you never saw, and I didn't know what would be the end of me when she began to question, then to scold, and finally to demand that 'folks should come and trade to Almiry's shop after promisin' they would, and she havin' took a lease of the place on account of them lies.' I wanted to laugh, but dared not do it, so just let her croak, for the daughter had to go to her customers. The old lady's tirade informed me that they came from Vermont, had 'been wal on 't till father died and the farm was sold.'
Then it seems the women came to Boston and got on pretty well till 'a stroke of numb-palsy,' whatever that is, made the mother helpless and kept Almiry at home to care for her. I can't tell you how funny and yet how sad it was to see the poor old soul, so full of energy and yet so helpless, and the daughter so discouraged with her pathetic little shop and no customers to speak of. I did not know what to say till 'Grammer Miller,' as the children call her, happened to say, when she took up her knitting after the lecture, 'If folks who go spendin' money reckless on redic'lus toys for Christmas only knew what nice things, useful and fancy, me and Almiry could make ef we had the goods, they'd jest come round this corner and buy 'em, and keep me out of a Old Woman's Home and that good, hard-workin' gal of mine out of a 'sylum; for go there she will ef she don't get a boost somehow, with rent and firin' and vittles all on her shoulders, and me only able to wag them knittin'-needles.'
"'I will buy things here, and tell all my friends about it, and I have a drawer full of pretty bits of silk and velvet and plush, that I will give Miss Miller for her work, if she will let me.' I added that, for I saw that Almiry was rather proud, and hid her troubles under a grim look.
"That pleased the old lady, and, lowering her voice, she said, with a motherly sort of look in her beady eyes: 'Seein' as you are so friendly, I'll tell you what frets me most, a layin' here, a burden to my darter. She kep' company with Nathan Baxter, a master carpenter up to Westminster where we lived, and ef father hadn't a died suddin' they'd a ben married. They waited a number o' years, workin' to their trades, and we was hopin' all would turn out wal, when troubles come, and here we be. Nathan's got his own folks to see to, and Almiry won't add to his load with hern, nor leave me; so she give him back his ring, and jest buckled to all alone. She don't say a word, but it's wearin' her to a shadder, and I can't do a thing to help, but make a few pinballs, knit garters, and kiver holders. Ef she got a start in business it would cheer her up a sight, and give her a kind of a hopeful prospeck, for old folks can't live forever, and Nathan is a waitin', faithful and true.'
"That just finished me, for I am romantic, and do enjoy love stories with all my heart, even if the lovers are only a skinny spinster and a master carpenter. So I just resolved to see what I could do for poor Almiry and the peppery old lady. I didn't promise anything but my bits, and, taking the things I bought, went home to talk it over with Mamma. I found she had often got pins and tape, and such small wares, at the little shop, and found it very convenient, though she knew nothing about the Millers. She was willing I should help if I could, but advised going slowly, and seeing what they could do first. We did not dare to treat them like beggars, and send them money and clothes, and tea and sugar, as we do the Irish, for they were evidently respectable people, and proud as poor. So I took my bundle of odds and ends, and Mamma added some nice large pieces of dresses we had done with, and gave a fine order for aprons and holders and balls for our church fair.
"It would have done your hearts good, girls, to see those poor old faces light up as I showed my scraps, and asked if the work would be ready by Christmas. Grammer fairly swam in the gay colors I strewed over her bed, and enjoyed them like a child, while Almiry tried to be grim, but had to give it up, as she began at once to cut out aprons, and dropped tears all over the muslin when her back was turned to me. I didn't know a washed-out old maid could be so pathetic."
Ella stopped to give a regretful sigh over her past blindness, while her hearers made a sympathetic murmur; for young hearts are very tender, and take an innocent interest in lovers' sorrows, no matter how humble.
"Well, that was the beginning of it. I got so absorbed in making things go well that I didn't look any further, but just 'buckled to' with Miss Miller and helped run that little shop. No one knew me in that street, so I slipped in and out, and did what I liked. The old lady and I got to be great friends; though she often pecked and croaked like a cross raven, and was very wearing. I kept her busy with her 'pin-balls and knittin'-work, and supplied Almiry with pretty materials for the various things I found she could make. You wouldn't believe what dainty bows those long fingers could tie, what ravishing doll's hats she would make out of a scrap of silk and lace, or the ingenious things she concocted with cones and shells and fans and baskets. I love such work, and used to go and help her often, for I wanted her window and shop to be full for Christmas, and lure in plenty of customers. Our new toys and the little cases of sewing silk sold well, and people began to come more, after I lent Almiry some money to lay in a stock of better goods. Papa enjoyed my business venture immensely, and was never tired of joking about it. He actually went and bought balls for four small black boys who were gluing their noses to the window one day, spellbound by the orange, red, and blue treasures displayed there. He liked my partner's looks, though he teased me by saying that we'd better add lemonade to our stock, as poor, dear Almiry's acid face would make lemons unnecessary, and sugar and water were cheap.
"Well, Christmas came, and we did a great business, for Mamma came and sent others, and our fancy things were as pretty and cheaper than those at the art stores, so they went well, and the Millers were cheered up, and I felt encouraged, and we took a fresh start after the holidays. One of my gifts at New Year was my own glove-case,--you remember the apple-blossom thing I began last autumn? I put it in our window to fill up, and Mamma bought it, and gave it to me full of elegant gloves, with a sweet note, and Papa sent a check to 'Miller, Warren &; Co.' I was so pleased and proud I could hardly help telling you all. But the best joke was the day you girls came in and bought our goods, and I peeped at you through the crack of the door, being in the back room dying with laughter to see you look round, and praise our 'nice assortment of useful and pretty articles.'"
"That's all very well, and we can bear to be laughed at if you succeeded, Miss. But I don't believe you did, for no Millers are there now. Have you taken a palatial store on Boylston Street for this year, intending to run it alone? We'll all patronize it, and your name will look well on a sign," said Maggie, wondering what the end of Ella's experience had been.
"Ah! I still have the best of it, for my romance finished up delightfully, as you shall hear. We did well all winter, and no wonder. What was needed was a little 'boost' in the right direction, and I could give it; so my Millers were much comforted, and we were good friends. But in March Grammer died suddenly, and poor Almiry mourned as if she had been the sweetest mother in the world. The old lady's last wishes were to be 'laid out harnsome in a cap with a pale blue satin ribbin, white wasn't becomin', to hev at least three carriages to the funeral, and be sure a paper with her death in it was sent to N. Baxter, Westminster, Vermont.'
"I faithfully obeyed her commands, put on the ugly cap myself, gave a party of old ladies from the home a drive in the hacks, and carefully directed a marked paper to Nathan, hoping that he had proved 'faithful and true.' I didn't expect he would, so was not surprised when no answer came. But I was rather amazed when Almiry told me she didn't care to keep on with the store now she was free. She wanted to visit her friends a spell this spring, and in the fall would go back to her trade in some milliner's store.
"I was sorry, for I really enjoyed my partnership. It seemed a little bit ungrateful after all my trouble in getting her customers, but I didn't say anything, and we sold out to the Widow Bates, who is a good soul with six children, and will profit by our efforts.
"Almiry bid me good-by with all the grim look gone out of her face, many thanks, and a hearty promise to write soon. That was in April. A week ago I got a short letter saying,--
"'DEAR FRIEND,--You will be pleased to hear that I am married to Mr. Baxter, and shall remain here. He was away when the paper came with mother's death, but as soon as he got home he wrote. I couldn't make up my mind till I got home and see him. Now it's all right. and I am very happy. Many thanks for all you done for me and mother. I shall never forget it My husband sends respects, and I remain Yours gratefully, ALMIRA M. BAXTER.'"
"That's splendid! You did well, and next winter you can look up another sour spinster and cranky old lady and make them happy," said Anna, with the approving smile all loved to receive from her.
"My adventures are not a bit romantic, or even interesting, and yet I've been as busy as a bee all winter, and enjoyed my work very much," began Elizabeth, as the President gave her a nod.
"The plan I had in mind was to go and carry books and papers to the people in hospitals, as one of Mamma's friends has done for years. I went once to the City Hospital with her, and it was very interesting, but I didn't dare to go to the grown people all alone, so I went to the Children's Hospital, and soon loved to help amuse the poor little dears. I saved all the picture-books and papers I could find for them, dressed dolls, and mended toys, and got new ones, and made bibs and night-gowns, and felt like the mother of a large family.
"I had my pets, of course, and did my best for them, reading and singing and amusing them, for many suffered very much. One little girl was so dreadfully burned she could not use her hands, and would lie and look at a gay dolly tied to the bedpost by the hour together, and talk to it and love it, and died with it on her pillow when I 'sung lullaby' to her for the last time. I keep it among my treasures, for I learned a lesson in patience from little Norah that I never can forget.
"Then Jimmy Dolan with hip disease was a great delight to me, for he was as gay as a lark in spite of pain, and a real little hero in the way he bore the hard things that had to be done to him. He never can get well, and he is at home now; but I still see to him, and he is learning to make toy furniture very nicely, so that by and by, if he gets able to work at all, he may be able to learn a cabinet-maker's trade, or some easy work.
"But my pet of pets was Johnny, the blind boy. His poor eyes had to be taken out, and there he was left so helpless and pathetic, all his life before him, and no one to help him, for his people were poor and he had to go away from the hospital since he was incurable. He seemed almost given to me, for the first time I saw him I was singing to Jimmy, when the door opened and a small boy came fumbling in.
"'I hear a pretty voice, I want to find it,' he said, stopping as I stopped with both hands out as if begging for more.
"'Come on. Johnny, and the lady will sing to you like a bobolink,' called Jimmy, as proud as Barnum showing off Jumbo.
"The poor little thing came and stood at my knee, without stirring, while I sang all the nursery jingles I knew. Then he put such a thin little finger on my lips as if to feel where the music came from, and said, smiling all over his white face, 'More, please more, lots of 'em! I love it!'
"So I sang away till I was as hoarse as a crow, and Johnny drank it all in like water; kept time with his head, stamped when I gave him 'Marching through Georgia,' and hurrahed feebly in the chorus of 'Red, White, and Blue.' It was lovely to see how he enjoyed it, and I was so glad I had a voice to comfort those poor babies with. He cried when I had to go, and so touched my heart that I asked all about him, and resolved to get him into the Blind School as the only place where he could be taught and made happy."
"I thought you were bound there the day I met you, Lizzie; but you looked as solemn as if all your friends had lost their sight," cried Marion.
"I did feel solemn, for if Johnny could not go there he would be badly off. Fortunately he was ten, and dear Mrs. Russell helped me, and those good people took him in though they were crowded. 'We cannot turn one away,' said kind Mr. Parpatharges.
"So there my boy is, as happy as a king with his little mates, learning all sorts of useful lessons and pretty plays. He models nicely in clay. Here is one of his little works. Could you do as well without eyes?" and Lizzie proudly produced a very one-sided pear with a long straw for a stem. "I don't expect he will ever be a sculptor, but I hope he will do something with music he loves it so, and is already piping away on a fife very cleverly. Whatever his gift may prove, if he lives, he will be taught to be a useful, independent man, not a helpless burden, nor an unhappy creature sitting alone in the dark. I feel very happy about my lads, and am surprised to find how well I get on with them. I shall look up some more next year, for I really think I have quite a gift that way, though you wouldn't expect it, as I have no brothers, and always had a fancy boys were little imps."
The girls were much amused at Lizzie's discovery of her own powers, for she was a stately damsel, who never indulged in romps, but lived for her music. Now it was evident that she had found the key to unlock childish hearts, and was learning to use it, quite unconscious that the sweet voice she valued so highly was much improved by the tender tones singing lullabies gave it. The fat pear was passed round like refreshments, receiving much praise and no harsh criticism; and when it was safely returned to its proud possessor, Ida began her tale in a lively tone.
"I waited for my chore, and it came tumbling down our basement steps one rainy day in the shape of a large dilapidated umbrella with a pair of small boots below it. A mild howl made me run to open the door, for I was at lunch in the dining-room, all alone, and rather blue because I couldn't go over to see Ella. A very small girl lay with her head in a puddle at the foot of the steps, the boots waving in the air, and the umbrella brooding over her like a draggled green bird.
"'Are you hurt, child?' said I.
"'No, I thank you, ma'am,' said the mite quite calmly, as she sat up and settled a woman's shabby black hat on her head.
"'Did you come begging?' I asked.
"'No, ma'am, I came for some things Mrs. Grover's got for us. She told me to. I don't beg.' And up rose the sopping thing with great dignity.