Under The Lilacs

Louisa May Alcott

Chapter 9 - A Happy Tea


Exactly five minutes before six the party arrived in great state, for Bab and Betty wore their best frocks and hair-ribbons, Ben had a new blue shirt and his shoes on as full-dress, and Sancho's curls were nicely brushed, his frills as white as if just done up.

No one was visible to receive them, but the low table stood in the middle of the walk, with four chairs and a foot-stool around it. A pretty set of green and white china caused the girls to cast admiring looks upon the little cups and plates, while Ben eyed the feast longingly, and Sancho with difficulty restrained himself from repeating his former naughtiness. No wonder the dog sniffed and the children smiled, for there was a noble display of little tarts and cakes, little biscuits and sandwiches, a pretty milk-pitcher shaped like a white calla rising out of its green leaves, and a jolly little tea-kettle singing away over the spirit-lamp as cosily as you please.

"Isn't it perfectly lovely?" whispered Betty, who had never seen any thing like it before.

"I just wish Sally could see us now," answered Bab, who had not yet forgiven her enemy.

"Wonder where the boy is," added Ben, feeling as good as any one, but rather doubtful how others might regard him.

Here a rumbling sound caused the guests to look toward the garden, and in a moment Miss Celia appeared, pushing a wheeled chair, in which sat her brother. A gay afghan covered the long legs, a broad-brimmed hat half hid the big eyes, and a discontented expression made the thin face as unattractive as the fretful voice, which said, complainingly, -

"If they make a noise, I'll go in. Don't see what you asked them for."

"To amuse you, dear. I know they will, if you will only try to like them," whispered the sister, smiling, and nodding over the chair-back as she came on, adding aloud, "Such a punctual party! I am all ready, however, and we will sit down at once. This is my brother Thornton, and we are all going to be very good friends by-and-by. Here 's the droll dog, Thorny; isn't he nice and curly?"

Now, Ben had heard what the other boy said, and made up his mind that he shouldn't like him; and Thorny had decided beforehand that he wouldn't play with a tramp, even if he cut capers; go both looked decidedly cool and indifferent when Miss Celia introduced them. But Sancho had better manners and no foolish pride; he, therefore, set them a good example by approaching the chair, with his tail waving like a flag of truce, and politely presented his ruffled paw for a hearty shake.

Thorny could not resist that appeal, and patted the white head, with a friendly look into the affectionate eyes of the dog, saying to his sister as he did so, -

"What a wise old fellow he is! It seems as if he could almost speak, doesn't it?"

"He can. Say 'How do you do,' Sanch," commanded Ben, relenting at once, for he saw admiration in Thorny's face.

"Wow, wow, wow!" remarked Sancho, in a mild and conversational tone, sitting up and touching one paw to his head, as if he saluted by taking off his hat. Thorny laughed in spite of himself, and Miss Celia seeing that the ice was broken, wheeled him to his place at the foot of the table. Then, seating the little girls on one side, Ben and the dog on the other, took the head herself and told her guests to begin. Bab and Betty were soon chattering away to their pleasant hostess as freely as if they had known her for months; but the boys were still rather shy, and made Sancho the medium through which they addressed one another. The excellent beast behaved with wonderful propriety, sitting upon his cushion in an attitude of such dignity that it seemed almost a libertyto offer him food. A dish of thick sandwiches had been provided for his especial refreshment; and, as Ben from time to time laid one on his plate, he affected entire unconsciousness of it till the word was given, when it vanished at one gulp, and Sancho again appeared absorbed in deep thought.

But, having once tasted of this pleasing delicacy, it was very hard to repress his longing for more; and, in spite of all his efforts, his nose would work, his eye kept a keen watch upon that particular dish, and his tail quivered with excitement as it lay like a train over the red cushion. At last, a moment came when temptation proved too strong for him. Ben was listening to something Miss Celia said; a tart lay unguarded upon his plate; Sanch looked at Thorny who was watching him; Thorny nodded, Sanch gave one wink, bolted the tart, and then gazed pensively up at a sparrow swinging on a twig overhead.

The slyness of the rascal tickled the boy so much that he pushed back his hat, clapped his hands, and burst out laughing as he had not done before for weeks. Every one looked round surprised, and Sancho regarded them with a mildly inquiring air, as if he said, "Why this unseemly mirth, my friends?"

Thorny forgot both sulks and shyness after that, and suddenly began to talk. Ben was flattered by his interest in the dear dog, and opened out so delightfully that he soon charmed the other by his lively tales of circus-life. Then Miss Celia felt relieved, and every thing went splendidly, especially the food; for the plates were emptied several times, the little tea-pot ran dry twice, and the hostess was just wondering if she ought to stop her voracious guests, when something occurred which spared her that painful task.

A small boy was suddenly discovered standing in the path behind them, regarding the company with an air of solemn interest. A pretty, well-dressed child of six, with dark hair cut short across the brow, a rosy face, a stout pair of legs, left bare by the socks which had slipped down over the dusty little shoes. One end of a wide sash trailed behind him, a straw hat hung at his back, his right hand firmly grasped a small turtle, and his left a choice collection of sticks. Before Miss Celia could speak, the stranger calmly announced his mission.

"I have come to see the peacocks."

"You shall presently - " began Miss Celia, but got no further, for the child added, coming a step nearer, -

"And the wabbits."

"Yes, but first won't you - "

"And the curly dog," continued the small voice, as another step brought the resolute young personage nearer.

"There he is."

A pause, a long look; then a new demand with the same solemn tone, the same advance.

"I wish to hear the donkey bray."

"Certainly, if he will."

"And the peacocks scream."

"Any thing more, sir?"

Having reached the table by this time, the insatiable infant surveyed its ravaged surface, then pointed a fat little finger at the last cake, left for manners, and said, commandingly, -

"I will have some of that."

"Help yourself; and sit upon the step to eat it, while you tell me whose boy you are," said Miss Celia, much amused at his proceedings.

Deliberately putting down his sticks, the child took the cake, and, composing himself upon the step, answered with his rosy mouth full, -

"I am papa's boy. He makes a paper. I help him a great deal."

"What is his name?"

"Mr. Barlow. We live in Springfield," volunteered the new guest, unbending a trifle, thanks to the charms of the cake.

"Have you a mamma, dear?"

"She takes naps. I go to walk then."

"Without leave, I suspect. Have you no brothers or sisters to go with you?" asked Miss Celia, wondering where the little runaway belonged.

"I have two brothers, Thomas Merton Barlow and Harry Sanford Barlow. I am Alfred Tennyson Barlow. We don't have any girls in our house, only Bridget."

"Don't you go to school?"

"The boys do. I don't learn any Greeks and Latins yet. I dig, and read to mamma, and make poetrys for her."

"Couldn't you make some for me? I'm very fond of poetrys," proposed Miss Celia, seeing that this prattle amused the children.

"I guess I couldn't make any now; I made some coming along. I will say it to you." And, crossing his short legs, the inspired babe half said, half sung the following poem: (1)

"Sweet are the flowers of life,
Swept o'er my happy days at home;
Sweet are the flowers of life
When I was a little child.
"Sweet are the flowers of life
That I spent with my father at home;
Sweet are the flowers of life
When children played about the house.
"Sweet are the flowers of life
When the lamps are lighted at night;
Sweet are the flowers of life
When the flowers of summer bloomed.
"Sweet are the flowers of life
Dead with the snows of winter;
Sweet are the flowers of life
When the days of spring come on.

(1) These lines were actually composed by a six-year old child.

"That's all of that one. I made another one when I digged after the turtle. I will say that. It is a very pretty one," observed the poet with charming candor; and, taking a long breath, he tuned his little lyre afresh:

Sweet, sweet days are passing
O'er my happy home.
Passing on swift wings through the valley of life.
Cold are the days when winter comes again.
When my sweet days were passing at my happy home,
Sweet were the days on the rivulet's green brink ;
Sweet were the days when I read my father's books;
Sweet were the winter days when bright fires are blazing."

"Bless the baby! where did he get all that?" exclaimed Miss Celia, amazed; while the children giggled as Tennyson, Jr., took a bite at the turtle instead of the half-eaten cake, and then, to prevent further mistakes, crammed the unhappy creature into a diminutive pocket in the most business-like way imaginable.

"It comes out of my head. I make lots of them," began the imperturbable one, yielding more and more to the social influences of the hour.

"Here are the peacocks coming to be fed," interrupted Bab, as the handsome birds appeared with their splendid plumage glittering in the sun.

Young Barlow rose to admire; but his thirst for knowledge was not yet quenched, and he was about to request a song from Juno and Jupiter, when old Jack, pining for society, put his head over the garden wall with a tremendous bray.

This unexpected sound startled the inquiring stranger half out of his wits; for a moment the stout legs staggered and the solemn countenance lost its composure, as he whispered, with an astonished air,

"Is that the way peacocks scream?"

The children were in fits of laughter, and Miss Celia could hardly make herself heard as she answered merrily, -

"No, dear; that is the donkey asking you to come and see him: will you go?

"I guess I couldn't stop now. Mamma might want me."

And, without another word, the discomfited poet precipitately retired, leaving his cherished sticks behind him.

Ben ran after the child to see that he came to no harm, and presently returned to report that Alfred had been met by a servant, and gone away chanting a new verse of his poem, in which peacocks, donkeys, and "the flowers of life" were sweetly mingled.

"Now I'll show you my toys, and we';; have a little play before it gets too late for Thorny to stay with us," said Miss Celia, as Randa carried away the tea-things and brought back a large tray full of picture-books, dissected maps, puzzles, games, and several pretty models of animals, the whole crowned with a large doll dressed as a baby.

At sight of that, Betty stretched out her arms to receive it with a cry of delight. Bab seized the games, and Ben was lost in admiration of the little Arab chief prancing on the white horse, - all saddled and bridled and fit for the fight. Thorny poked about to find a certain curious puzzle which he could put together without a mistake after long study. Even Sancho found something to interest him; and, standing on his hind-legs, thrust his head between the boys to paw at several red and blue letters on square blocks.

"He looks as if he knew them," said Thorny, amused at the dog's eager whine and scratch.

"He does. Spell your name, Sanch;" and Ben put all the gay letters down upon the flags with a chirrup which set the dog's tail to wagging as he waited till the alphabet was spread before him. Then, with great deliberation, he pushed the letters about till he had picked out six; these he arranged with nose and paw till the word "Sancho" lay before him correctly spelt.

"Isn't that clever? Can he do any more?" cried Thorny, delighted.

"Lots; that's the way he gets his livin', and mine too," answered Ben; and proudly put his poodle through his well-learned lessons sith Such success that even Miss Celia was surprised.

"He has been carefully trained. Do you know how it was done?" she asked, when Sancho lay down to rest and be caressed by the children.

"No, 'm, father did it when I was a little chap, and never told me how. I used to help teach him to dance, and that was easy enough, he is so smart. Father said the middle of the night was the best time to give him his lessons; it was so still then, and nothing disturbed Sanch and made him forget. I can't do half the tricks, but I'm goin' to learn when father comes back. He'd rather have me show off Sanch than ride, till I'm older."

"I have a charming book about animals, and in it an interesting account of some trained poodles who could do the most wonderful things. Would you like to hear it while you put your maps and puzzles together?" asked Miss Celia, glad to keep her brother interested in their four-footed guest at least.

"Yes,'m, yes,'m," answered the children; and, fetching the book, she read the pretty account, shortening and simplifying it here and there to suit her hearers.

"I invited the two dogs to dine and spend the evening; and they came with their master, who was a Frenchman. He had been a teacher in a deaf and dumb school, and thought he would try the same plan with dogs. He had also been a conjurer, and now was supported by Blanche and her daughter Lyda. These dogs behaved at dinner just like other dogs; but when I gave Blanche a bit of cheese and asked if she knew the word for it, her master said she could spell it. So a table was arranged with a lamp on it, and round the table were laid the letters of the alphabet painted on cards. Blanche sat in the middle, waiting till her master told her to spell cheese, which she at once did in French, F R O M A G E. Then she translated a word for us very cleverly. Some one wrote pferd, the German for horse, on a slate. Blanche looked at it and pretended to read it, putting by the slate with her paw when she had done. 'Now give us the French for that word,' said the man; and she instantly brought CHEVAL. 'Now, as you are at an Englishman's house, give it to us in English;' and she brought me HORSE. Then we spelt some words wrong, and she corrected them with wonderful accuracy. But she did not seem to like it, and whined and growled and looked so worried, that she was allowed to go and rest and eat cakes in a corner.

"Then Lyda took her place on the table, and did sums on the slate with a set of figures. Also mental arithmetic, which was very pretty. 'Now, Lyda,' said her master, 'I want to see if you understand division. Suppose you had ten bits of sugar, and you met ten Prussian dogs, how many lumps would you, a French dog, give to each of the Prussians?' Lyda very decidedly replied to this with a cipher. 'But, suppose you divided your sugar with me, how many lumps would you give me?' Lyda took up the figure five and politely presented it to her master."

"Wasn't she smart? Sanch can't do that," exclaimed Ben, forced to own that the French doggie beat his cherished pet.

"He is not too old to learn. Shall I go on?" asked Miss Celia, seeing that the boys liked it, though Betty was absorbed with the doll, and Bab deep in a puzzle.

"Oh, yes! What else did they do?"

"They played a game of dominoes together, sitting in chairs opposite each other, and touched the dominoes that were wanted; but the man placed them and kept telling how the game went. Lyda was beaten, and hid under the sofa, evidently feeling very badly about it. Blanche was then surrounded with playing-cards, while her master held another pack and told us to choose a card; then he asked her what one had been chosen, and she always took up the right one in her teeth. I was asked to go into another room, put a light on the floor with cards round it, and leave the doors nearly shut. Then the man begged some one to whisper in the dog's ear what card she was to bring, and she went at once and fetched it, thus showing that she understood their names. Lyda did many tricks with the numbers, so curious that no dog could possibly understand them; yet what the secret sign was I could not discover, but suppose it must have been in the tones of the master's voice, for he certainly made none with either head or hands.

"It took an hour a day for eighteen months to educate a dog enough to appear in public, and (as you say, Ben) the night was the best time to give the lessons. Soon after this visit, the master died; and these wonderful dogs were sold because their mistress did not know how to exhibit them."

"Wouldn't I have liked to see 'em and find out how they were taught! Sanch, you'll have to study up lively, for I'm not going to have you beaten by French dogs," said Ben, shaking his finger so sternly that Sancho grovelled at his feet and put both paws over his eyes in the most abject manner.

"Is there a picture of those smart little poodles?" asked Ben, eying the book, which Miss Celia left open before her.

"Not of them, but of other interesting creatures; also anecdotes about horses, which will please you, I know," and she turned the pages for him, neither guessing how much good Mr. Hamerton's charming "Chapters on Animals" were to do the boy when he needed comfort for a sorrow which was very near.