Under The Lilacs

Louisa May Alcott

Chapter 20 - Ben's Birthday


A superb display of flags flapped gayly in the breeze on the September morning when Ben proudly entered his teens. An irruption of bunting seemed to have broken out all over the old house, for banners of every shape and size, color and design, flew from chimney-top to gable, porch and gate-way, making the quiet place look as lively as a circus tent, which was just what Ben most desired and delighted in.

The boys had been up very early to prepare the show, and when it was ready enjoyed it hugely, for the fresh wind made the pennons cut strange capers. The winged lion of Venice looked as if trying to fly away home; the Chinese dragon appeared to brandish his forked tail as he clawed at the Burmese peacock; the double-headed eagle of Russia pecked at the Turkish crescent with one beak, while the other seemed to be screaming to the English royal beast, "Come on and lend a paw." In the hurry of hoisting the Siamese elephant got turned upside down, and now danced gayly on his head, with the stars and stripes waving proudly over him. A green flag with a yellow harp and sprig of shamrock hung in sight of the kitchen window, and Katy, the cook, got breakfast to the tune of "St. Patrick's day in the morning." Sancho's kennel was half hidden under a rustling paper imitation of the gorgeous Spanish banner, and the scarlet sun-and-moon flag of Arabia snapped and flaunted from the pole over the coach-house, as a delicate compliment to Lita, Arabian horses being considered the finest in the world.

The little girls came out to see, and declared it was the loveliest sight they ever beheld, while Thorny played "Hail Columbia" on his fife, and Ben, mounting the gate-post, crowed long and loud like a happy cockerel who had just reached his majority. He had been surprised and delighted with the gifts he found in his room on awaking and guessed why Miss Celia and Thorny gave him such pretty things, for among them was a match-box made like a mouse-trap. The doggy buttons and the horsey whip were treasures, indeed, for Miss Celia had not given them when they first planned to do so, because Sancho's return seemed to be joy and reward enough for that occasion. But he did not forget to thank Mrs. Moss for the cake she sent him, nor the girls for the red mittens which they had secretly and painfully knit. Bab's was long and thin, with a very pointed thumb, Betty's short and wide, with a stubby thumb, and all their mother's pulling and pressing could not make them look alike, to the great affliction of the little knitters. Ben, however, assured them that he rather preferred odd ones, as then he could always tell which was right and which left. He put them on immediately and went about cracking the new whip with an expression of content which was droll to see, while the children followed after, full of admiration for the hero of the day.

They were very busy all the morning preparing for the festivities to come, and as soon as dinner was over every one scrambled into his or her best clothes as fast as possible, because, although invited to come at two, impatient boys and girls were seen hovering about the avenue as early as one.

The first to arrive, however, was an uninvited guest, for just as Bab and Betty sat down on the porch steps, in their stiff pink calico frocks and white ruffled aprons, to repose a moment before the party came in, a rustling was heard among the lilacs, and out stepped Alfred Tennyson Barlow, looking like a small Robin Hood, in a green blouse with a silver buckle on his broad belt, a feather in his little cap and a bow in his hand.

"I have come to shoot. I heard about it. My papa told me what arching meant. Will there be any little cakes? I like them."

With these opening remarks the poet took a seat and calmly awaited a response. The young ladies, I regret to say, giggled, then remembering their manners, hastened to inform him that there would be heaps of cakes, also that Miss Celia would not mind his coming without an invitation, they were quite sure.

"She asked me to come that day. I have been very busy. I had measles. Do you have them here?" asked the guest, as if anxious to compare notes on the sad subject.

"We had ours ever so long ago. What have you been doing besides having measles?" said Betty, showing a polite interest.

"I had a fight with a bumble-bee."

"Who beat?" demanded Bab.

"I did. I ran away and he couldn't catch me."

"Can you shoot nicely?"

"I hit a cow. She did not mind at all. I guess she thought it was a fly."

"Did your mother know you were coming?" asked Bab, feeling an interest in runaways.

"No; she is gone to drive, so I could not ask her."

"It is very wrong to disobey. My Sunday-school book says that children who are naughty that way never go to heaven," observed virtuous Betty, in a warning tone.

"I do not wish to go," was the startling reply.

"Why not?" asked Betty, severely.

"They don't have any dirt there. My mamma says so. I am fond of dirt. I shall stay here where there is plenty of it," and the candid youth began to grub in the mould with the satisfaction of a genuine boy.

"I am afraid you're a very bad child."

"Oh yes, I am. My papa often says so and he knows all about it," replied Alfred with an involuntary wriggle suggestive of painful memories. Then, as if anxious to change the conversation from its somewhat personal channel, he asked, pointing to a row of grinning heads above the wall, "Do you shoot at those?"

Bab and Betty looked up quickly and recognized the familiar faces of their friends peering down at them, like a choice collection of trophies or targets.

"I should think you'd be ashamed to peek before the party was ready!" cried Bab, frowning darkly upon the merry young ladies.

"Miss Celia told us to come before two, and be ready to receive folks, if she wasn't down," added Betty, importantly.

"It is striking two now. Come along, girls;" and over scrambled Sally Folsom, followed by three or four kindred spirits, just as their hostess appeared.

"You look like Amazons storming a fort," she said, as the girls cattle up, each carrying her bow and arrows, while green ribbons flew in every direction.

"How do you do, sir? I have been hoping you would call again," added Miss Celia, shaking hands with the pretty boy, who regarded with benign interest the giver of little cakes.

Here a rush of boys took place, and further remarks were cut short, for every one was in a hurry to begin. So the procession was formed at once, Miss Celia taking the lead, escorted by Ben in the post of honor, while the boys and girls paired off behind, arm in arm, bow on Shoulder, in martial array. Thorny and Billy were the band, and marched before, fifing and drumming "Yankee Doodle" with a vigor which kept feet moving briskly, made eyes sparkle, and young hearts dance under the gay gowns and summer jackets. The interesting stranger was elected to bear the prize, laid out on a red pin-cushion; and did so with great dignity, as he went beside the standard bearer, Cy Fay, who bore Ben's choicest flag, snow-white, with a green wreath surrounding a painted bow and arrow, and with the letters W. T. C. done in red below.

Such a merry march all about the place, out at the Lodge gate, up and down the avenue, along the winding paths, till they halted in the orchard, where the target stood, and seats were placed for the archers while they waited for their turns. Various rules and regulations were discussed, and then the fun began. Miss Celia had insisted that the girls should be invited to shoot with the boys; and the lads consented without much concern, whispering to one another with condescending shrugs, "Let 'em try, if they like; they can't do any thing."

There were various trials of skill before the great match came off, and in these trials the young gentlemen discovered that two at least of the girls could do something; for Bab and Sally shot better than many of the boys, and were well rewarded for their exertions by, the change which took place in the faces and conversation of their mates.

"Why, Bab, you do as well as if I'd taught you myself," said Thorny, much surprised and not altogether pleased at the little girl's skill.

"A lady taught me; and I mean to beat every one of you," answered Bab, saucily, while her sparkling eyes turned to Miss Celia with a mischievous twinkle in them.

"Not a bit of it," declared Thorny, stoutly; but he went to Ben and whispered, "Do your best, old fellow, for sister has taught Bab all the scientific points, and the little rascal is ahead of Billy."

"She won't get ahead of me," said Ben, picking out his best arrow, and trying the string of his bow with a confident air which re-assured Thorny, who found it impossible to believe that a girl ever could, would, or should excel a boy in any thing he cared to try.

It really did look as if Bab would beat when the match for the prize came off; and the children got more and more excited as the six who were to try for it took turns at the bull's-eye. Thorny was umpire, and kept account of each shot, for the arrow which went nearest the middle would win. Each had three shots; and very soon the lookers-on saw that Ben and Bab were the best marksmen, and one of them would surely get the silver arrow.

Sam, who was too lazy to practise, soon gave up the contest, saying, as Thorny did, "It wouldn't be fair for such a big fellow to try with the little chaps," which made a laugh, as his want of skill was painfully evident. But Mose went at it gallantly; and, if his eye had been as true as his arms were strong, the "little chaps" would have trembled. But his shots were none of them as near as Billy's; and he retired after the third failure, declaring that it was impossible to shoot against the wind, though scarcely a breath was stirring.

Sally Folsom was bound to beat Bab, and twanged away in great style; all in vain, however, as with tall Maria Newcomb, the third girl who attempted the trial. Being a little near-sighted, she had borrowed her sister's eye-glasses, and thereby lessened her chance of success; for the pinch on her nose distracted her attention, and not one of her arrows went beyond the second ring to her great disappointment. Billy did very well, but got nervous when his last shot came, and just missed the bull's-eye by being in a hurry.

Bab and Ben each had one turn more; and, as they were about even, that last arrow would decide the victory. Both had sent a shot into the bull's-eye, but neither was exactly in the middle; so there was room to do better, even, and the children crowded round, crying eagerly, "Now, Ben!" "Now, Bab!" "Hit her up, Ben!" "Beat him, Bab!" while Thorny looked as anxious as if the fate of the country depended on the success of his man. Bab's turn came first; and, as Miss Celia examined her bow to see that all was right, the little girl said, With her eyes on her rival's excited face, -

"I want to beat, but Ben will feel so bad, I 'most hope I sha'n't."

"Losing a prize sometimes makes one happier than gaining it. You have proved that you could do better than most of them; so, if you do not beat, you may still feet proud," answered Miss Celia, giving back the bow with a smile that said more than her words.

It seemed to give Bab a new idea, for in a minute all sorts of recollections, wishes, and plans rushed through her lively little mind, and she followed a sudden generous impulse as blindly as she often did a wilful one.

"I guess he'll beat," she said, softly, with a quick sparkle of the eyes, as she stepped to her place and fired without taking her usual careful aim.

Her shot struck almost as near the centre on the right as her last one had hit on the left; and there was a shout of delight from the girls as Thorny announced it before he hurried back to Ben, whispering anxiously, -

"Steady, old Man, steady; you must beat that, or we shall never hear the last of it."

Ben did not say, "She won't get ahead of me," as he had said at the first; he set his teeth, threw off his hat, and, knitting his brows with a resolute expression, prepared to take steady aim, though his heart beat fast and his thumb trembled as he pressed it on the bowstring.

"I hope you'll beat, I truly do," said Bab, at his elbow; and, as if the breath that framed the generous wish helped it on its way, the arrow flew straight to the bull's-eye, hitting, apparently, the very spot where Bab's best shot had left a hole.

"A tie! a tie!" cried the girls, as a general rush took place toward the target.

"No, Ben's is nearest. Ben's beat! Hooray shouted the boys, throwing up their hats. There was only a hair's-breadth difference, and Bab could honestly have disputed the decision; but she did not, though for an instant she could not help wishing that the cry had been "Bab's beat! Hurrah!" it sounded so pleasant. Then she saw Ben's beaming face, Thorny's intense relief, and caught the look Miss Celia sent her over the heads of the boys, and decided, with a sudden warm glow all over her little face, that losing a prize did sometimes make one happier than winning it. Up went her best hat, and she burst out in a shrill, "Rah, rah, rah!" that sounded very funny coming all alone after the general clamor had subsided.

"Good for you, Bab! you are an honor to the club. and I'm proud of you", said Prince Thorny, with a hearty handshake; for, as his man had won, he could afford to praise the rival who had put him on his mettle, though she was a girl.

Bab was much uplifted by the royal commendation, but a few minutes later felt pleased as well as proud when Ben, having received the prize, came to her, as she stood behind a tree sucking her blistered thumb, while Betty braided up her dishevelled locks.

"I think it would be fairer to call it a tie, Bab, for it really was, and I want you to wear this. I wanted the fun of beating, but I don't care a bit for this girl's thing and I'd rather see it on you."

As he spoke, Ben offered the rosette of green ribbon which held the silver arrow, and Bab's eyes brightened as they fell upon the pretty ornament, for to her "the girl's thing" was almost as good as the victory.

"Oh no; you must wear it to show who won. Miss Celia wouldn't like it. I don't mind not getting it; I did better than all the rest, and I guess I shouldn't like to beat you," answered Bab, unconsciously putting into childish words the sweet generosity which makes so many sisters glad to see their brothers carry off the prizes of life, while they are content to know that they have earned them and can do without the praise.

But if Bab was generous, Ben was just; and though he could not explain the feeling, would not consent to take all the glory without giving his little friend a share.

"You must wear it; I shall feel real mean if you don't. You worked harder than I did, and it was only luck my getting this. Do, Bab, to please me," he persisted, awkwardly trying to fasten the ornament in the middle of Bab's' white apron.

"Then I will. Now do you forgive me for losing Sancho?" asked Bab, with a wistful look which made Ben say, heartily, -

"I did that when he came home."

"And you don't think I'm horrid?"

"Not a bit of it; you are first-rate, and I'll stand by you like a man, for you are 'most as good as a boy!" cried Ben, anxious to deal handsomely with his feminine rival, whose skill had raised her immensely in his opinion.

Feeling that he could not improve that last compliment, Bab was fully satisfied, and let him leave the prize upon her breast, conscious that she had some claim to it.

"That is where it should be, and Ben is a true knight, winning the prize that he may give it to his lady, while he is content with the victory," said Miss Celia, laughingly, to Teacher, as the children ran off to join in the riotous games which soon made the orchard ring.

"He learned that at the circus 'tunnyments,' as he calls them. He is a nice boy, and I am much interested in him; for he has the two things that do most toward making a man, patience and courage," answered Teacher, also as she watched the young knight play and the honored lady tearing about in a game of tag.

"Bab is a nice child, too," said Miss Celia; "she is as quick as a flash to catch an idea and carry it out, though very often the ideas are wild ones. She could have won just now, I fancy, if she had tried, but took the notion into her head that it was nobler to let Ben win, and so atone for the trouble she gave him in losing the dog. I saw a very sweet look on her face just now, and am sure that Ben will never know why he beat."

"She does such things at school sometimes, and I can't bear to spoil her little atonements, though they are not always needed or very wise," answered Teacher. "Not long ago I found that she had been giving her lunch day after day to a poor child who seldom had any, and when I asked her why, she said, with tears, 'I used to laugh at Abby, because she had only crusty, dry bread, and so she wouldn't bring any. I ought to give her mine and be hungry, it was so mean to make fun of her poorness."

"Did you stop the sacrifice?"

"No; I let Bab 'go halves,' and added an extra bit to my own lunch, so I could make my contribution likewise."

"Come and tell me about Abby. I want to make friends with our poor people, for soon I shall have a right to help them;" and, putting her arm in Teacher's, Miss Celia led her away for a quiet chat in the porch, making her guest's visit a happy holiday by confiding several plans and asking advice in the friendliest way.