Morning-Glories and Other Stories/Shadow-Children
NED, Polly, and Will sat on the steps one sunshiny morning, doing nothing, except wish they had something pleasant to do.
"Something new, something never heard of before,—wouldn't that be jolly?" said Ned, with a great yawn.
"It must be an amusing play, and one that we don't get tired of very soon," added Polly gravely.
"And something that didn't be wrong, else mamma wouldn't like it," said little Will, who was very good for a small boy.
As no one could suggest any thing to suit, they all sat silent a few minutes. Suddenly Ned said, rather crossly, "I wish my shadow wouldn't mock me. Every time I stretch or gape it does the same, and I don't like it."
"Poor thing, it can't help that: it has to do just what you do, and be your slave all day. I'm glad I ain't a shadow," said Polly.
"I try to run away from mine sometimes, but I can't ever. It will come after me; and in the night it scares me, if it gets big and black," said Will, looking behind him.
"Wouldn't it be fun to see shadows going about alone, and doing things like people?" asked Polly.
"I just wish they would. I'd like to see ours cut capers; that would be a jolly new game, wouldn't it?" said Ned.
No one had time to speak; for suddenly the three little shadows on the sunny wall behind them stood up straight, and began to bow.
"Mercy, me!" cried Polly, staring at them.
"By Jove, that's odd!" said Ned, looking queer.
"Are they alive?" asked Will, a little frightened.
"Don't be alarmed: they won't hurt you," said a soft voice. "To-day is midsummer-day, and whoever wishes a wish can have it till midnight. You want to see your shadows by themselves; and you can, if you promise to follow them as they have followed you so long. They will not get you into harm; so you may safely try it, if you like. Do you agree for the day to do as they do, and so have your wish?"
"Yes, we promise," answered the children.
"Tell no one till night, and be faithful shadows to the shadows."
The voice was silent, but with more funny little bows the shadows began to move off in different directions. The children each knew their own: for Ned's was the tallest, and had its hands in its pockets; Polly's had a frock on, and two bows where its hair was tied up; while Will!s was a plump little shadow in a blouse, with a curly head and a pug nose. Each child went after its shadow, laughing, and enjoying the fun.
Ned's master went straight to the shed, took down a basket, and marched away to the garden, where it began to move its hands as if busily picking peas. Ned stopped laughing when he saw that, and looked rather ashamed; for he remembered that his mother had asked him to do that little job for her, and he had answered,—
"Oh, bother the old peas! I'm busy, and I can't."
"Who told you about this?" he asked, beginning to work.
The shadow shook its head, and pointed first to Ned's new jacket, then to a set of nice garden tools near by, and then seemed to blow a kiss from its shadowy fingers towards mamma, who was just passing the open gate.
"Oh! you mean that she does lots for me; so I ought to do what I can for her, and love her dearly," said Ned, getting a pleasanter face every minute.
The shadow nodded, and worked away as busily as the bees, tumbling heels over head in the great yellow squash blossoms, and getting as dusty as little millers. Somehow Ned rather liked the work, with such an odd comrade near by; for, though the shadow didn't really help a bit, it seemed to try, and set an excellent example. When the basket was full, the shadow took one handle, and Ned the other; and they carried it in.
"Thank you, dear. I was afraid we should have to give up our peas to-day: I'm so busy, I can't stop," said mamma, looking surprised and pleased.
Ned couldn't stop to talk; for the shadow ran away to the woodpile, and began to chop with all its might.
"Well, I suppose I must; but I never saw such a fellow for work as this shadow is. He isn't a bit like me, though he's been with me so long," said Ned, swinging the real hatchet in time with the shadowy one.
Polly's new mistress went to the dining-room, and fell to washing up the breakfast cups. Polly hated that work, and sulkily began to rattle the spoons and knock the things about. But the shadow wouldn't allow that; and Polly had to do just what it did, though she grumbled all the while.
"She don't splash a bit, or make any clatter; so I guess she's a tidy creature," said Polly. "How long she does rub each spoon and glass! We never shall get done. What a fuss she makes with the napkins, laying them all even in the drawer! and now she's at the salt-cellars, doing them just as mamma likes. I wish she'd live here, and do my work for me. Why, what's that?" And Polly stopped fretting to listen; for she seemed to hear the sound of singing,—so sweet, and yet so very faint she could catch no words, and only make out a cheerful little tune.
"Do you hear any one singing, mamma?" she asked.
"No: I wish I did." And mamma sighed; for baby was poorly, and piles of sewing lay waiting for her, and Biddy was turning things topsy-turvy in the kitchen for want of a word from the mistress, and Polly was looking sullen.
The little girl didn't say any more, but worked quietly and watched the shadow, feeling sure the faint song came from it. Presently she began to hum the tune she caught by snatches; and, before she knew it, she was singing away like a blackbird. Baby stopped crying, and mamma said, smiling,—
"Now I hear somebody singing, and it's the music I like best in the world."
That pleased Polly; but, a minute after, she stopped smiling, for the shadow went and took baby, or seemed to, and Polly really did. Now, baby was heavy, and cross with its teeth; and Polly didn't feel like tending it one bit. Mamma hurried away to the kitchen; and Polly walked up and down the room with poor baby hanging over her arm, crying dismally, with a pin in its back, a wet bib under its chin, and nothing cold and hard to bite with its hot, aching gums, where the little teeth were trying to come through.
"Do stop, you naughty, fretty baby. I'm tired of your screaming, and it's high time you went to sleep. Bless me! what's Miss Shadow doing with her baby?" said Polly.
Miss Shadow took out the big pin and laid it away, put on a dry bib, and gave her baby a nice ivory ring to bite; then began to dance up and down the room, till the shadowy baby clapped its hands and kicked delightedly. Polly laughed, and did the same, feeling sorry she had been so pettish. Presently both babies grew quiet, went to sleep, and were laid in the cradle.
"Now, I hope we shall rest a little," said Polly, stretching her arms.
But, no: down sat the shadow, and began to sew, making her needle fly like a real little seamstress.
"Oh, dear!" groaned Polly. "I promised to hem those handkerchiefs for Ned, and so I must; but I do think handkerchiefs are the most pokey things in the world to sew. I dare say you think you can sew faster than I can. Just wait a bit, and see what I can do, miss," she said to the shadow.
It took some time to find her thimble and needles and spools, for Polly wasn't a very neat little girl; but she got settled at last, and stitched away as if bent on beating her dumb friend.
Little Will's shadow went up to the nursery, and stopped before a basin of water. "Oh! ah! ain't this drefful?" cried Will, with a shiver; for he knew he'd got to have his face washed, because he wouldn't have it done properly when he got up, but ran away. Now, Will was a good child; but this one thing was his great trouble, and sometimes he couldn't bear it. Jane was so rough. She let soap get in his eyes, and water run down his neck, and she pinched his nose when she wiped him, and brushed his hair so hard that really it was dreadful; and even a bigger boy would have found it hard to bear. He shivered and sighed: but Jane came in; and, when he saw that the shadow stood still and took the scrubbing like a little hero, he tried to do the same, and succeeded so well that Jane actually patted his head and called him "a deary;" which was something new, for old Nurse Jane was always very busy and rather cross.
Feeling that nothing worse could possibly happen to him. Will ran after his shadow, as it flitted away into the barn, and began to feed the chickens.
"There, now! I forgetted all about my chickeys, and the shadow 'membered 'em: and I'm glad of it," said Will, scattering dabs of meal and water to the chirping, downy little creatures who pecked and fluttered at his feet. Little Shadow hunted for eggs, drove the turkeys out of the garden, and picked a basket of chips: then it went to play with Sammy, a neighbor's child; for, being a small shadow, it hadn't many jobs to do, and plenty of active play was good for it.
Sammy was a rough little boy and rather selfish: so, when they played ball, he wanted to throw all the time; and, when Will objected, he grew angry and struck him. The blow didn't hurt Will's cheek much, but it did his little feelings; and he lifted his hand to strike back, when he saw his shadow go and kiss Sammy's shadow. All his anger was gone in a minute, and he just put his arm round Sammy's neck and kissed him. This kiss for a blow made him so ashamed that he began to cry, and couldn't be comforted till he had given Will his best marble and a ride on his pony.
About an hour before dinner, the three shadows and the children met in the garden, and had a grand game of play, after they had told each other what they had been doing since they parted. Now, the shadows didn't forgot baby even then, but got out the wagon, and Miss Baby, all fresh from her nap, sat among her pillows like a queen, while Ned was horse, Polly footman, and Will driver; and in this way she travelled all round the garden and barn, up the lane and down to the brook, where she was much delighted with the water sparkling along and the fine splash of the stones they threw in.
When the dinner-bell rang, mamma saw four clean, rosy faces and four smooth heads at the table; for the shadow-children made themselves neat, without being told. Every one was merry and hungry and good-natured. Even poor baby forgot her teeth, and played a regular rub-a-dub with her spoon on her mug, and tried to tell about the fine things she saw on her drive. The children said nothing about the new play, and no one observed the queer actions of their shadows but themselves. They saw that there was no gobbling, or stretching over, or spilling of things, among the shadows; but that they waited to be helped, served others first, and ate tidily, which was a great improvement upon the usual state of things.
It was Saturday afternoon: the day was fine, and mamma told them they could go for a holiday frolic in the woods. "Don't go to the pond, and be home early," she said.
"Yes, mamma; we'll remember," they answered, as they scampered away to get ready.
"We shall go through the village, and Mary King will be looking out; so I shall wear my best hat. Mamma won't see me, if I slip down the back way; and I do so want Mary to know that my hat is prettier than hers," said Polly, up in her little room.
Now Polly was rather vain, and liked to prink; so she got out the new hat, and spent some time in smoothing her braids and putting on her blue ribbons. But when all was ready, and the boys getting impatient, she found her shadow, with a sun-bonnet on, standing by the door, as if to prevent her going out.
"You tiresome thing! do you mean that I mustn't wear my hat, but that old bonnet?" asked Polly.
The shadow nodded and beckoned, and patted its head, as if it was all right.
"I wish I hadn't promised to do as you do; then I could do as I like, and not make a fright of myself," said Polly, rather sulkily, as she put away the hat, and tied on the old bonnet with a jerk.
Once out in the lovely sunshine, she soon forgot the little disappointment; and, as they didn't go through the village, but by a green lane, where she found some big blackberries, she was quite contented. Polly had a basket to hold fruit or flowers, Ned his jackknife, and Will a long stick on which he rode, fancying that this sort of horse would help his short legs along; so they picked, whittled, and trotted their way to the wood, finding all manner of interesting things on the road.
The wood was full of pleasant sights and sounds; for wild roses bloomed all along the path, ferns and scarlet berries filled the little dells, squirrels chattered, birds sang, and pines whispered musically overhead.
"I'm going to stop here and rest, and make a wreath of these pretty wild roses for baby: it's her birthday, and it will please mamma," said Polly, sitting down on a mound of moss, with a lapful of flowers.
"I'm going to cut a fishing-pole, and will be back in a minute." And Ned went crashing into the thickest part of the wood.
"I shall see where that rabbit went to, and maybe I'll find some berries," said Will, trotting down the path the wild rabbit had gone.
The sound of the boys' steps died away, and Polly was wondering how it would seem to live all alone in the wood, when a little girl came trudging by, with a great pail of berries on her arm. She was a poor child: her feet were bare, her gown was ragged, she wore an old shawl over her head, and walked as if lame. Polly sat behind the ferns, and the child did not see her till Polly called out. The sudden sound startled her; and she dropped her pail, spilling the berries all over the path. The little girl began to cry, and Polly to laugh, saying, in a scornful tone,—
"How silly to cry for a few berries!"
"I've been all day picking 'em," said the girl; "and I'm so tired and hungry; 'cause I didn't dare to go home till my pail was full,—mother scolds if I do,—and now they're all spoilt. Oh, dear! dear me!" And she cried so hard that great tears fell on the moss.
Polly was sorry now, and sat looking at her till she saw her shadow down on its knees, picking up the berries; then it seemed to fold its little handkerchief round the girl's bruised foot, and give her something from its pocket. Polly jumped up and imitated the kind shadow, even to giving the great piece of gingerbread she had brought for fear she should be hungry.
"Take this," she said gently. "I'm sorry I frightened you. Here are the berries all picked up, and none the worse for falling in the grass. If you'll take them to the white house on the hill, my mamma will buy them, and then your mother won't scold you."
"Oh, thank you, miss! It's ever so good. I'll take the berries to your mother, and bring her more whenever she likes," said the child gratefully, as she walked away munching the gingerbread, and smiling till there were little rainbows in her tears.
Meanwhile Ned had poked about in the bushes, looking for a good pole. Presently he saw a willow down by the pond, and thought that would give him a nice, smooth pole. He forgot his promise, and down he went to the pond; where he cut his stick, and was whittling the end, when he saw a boat by the shore. It was untied, and oars lay in it, as if waiting for some one to come and row out.
"I'll just take a little pull across, and get those cardinal-flowers for Polly," he said; and went to the boat.
He got in, and was about to push off, when he saw his shadow standing on the shore.
"Don't be a fool; get in, and come along," he said to it, remembering his promise now, but deciding to break it, and ask pardon afterwards.
But the shadow shook its head; pointed to the swift stream that ran between the banks, the rocks and mud on the opposite side, and the leaky boat itself.
"I ain't afraid: mamma won't mind, if I tell her I'm sorry; and it will be such fun to row alone. Be a good fellow, and let me go," said Ned, beckoning.
But the shadow would not stir, and Ned was obliged to mind. He did so very reluctantly, and scolded the shadow well as he went back to Polly; though all the time he felt he was doing right, and knew he should be glad afterwards.
Will trotted after the rabbit, but didn't find it; he found a bird's-nest instead with four little birds in it He had an empty cage at home, and longed for something to put in it; for kittens didn't like it, and caterpillars and beetlebugs got away. He chose the biggest bird, and, holding him carefully, walked away to find Polly. The poor mother-bird chirped and fluttered in great distress; but Will kept on till his little shadow came before him, and tried to make him turn back.
"No, no, I want him," said Will. "I won't hurt him, and his mother has three left: she won't mind if I take one."
Here the mother-bird chirped so loud it was impossible to help seeing that she did care very much; and the shadow stamped its foot and waved its hand, as if ordering the young robber to carry back the baby-bird. Will stood still, and thought a minute; but his little heart was a very kind one, and he soon turned about, saying pleasantly,—
"Yes, it is naughty, and I won't do it. I'll ask mamma to get me a canary, and will let this birdie stay with his brothers."
The shadow patted him on the shoulder, and seemed to be delighted as Will put the bird in the nest and walked on, feeling much happier than if he had kept it. A bush of purple berries grew by the path, and Will stopped to pick some. He didn't know what they were, and mamma had often told him never to eat strange things. But they smelt so good, and looked so nice, he couldn't resist, and lifted one to his mouth, when little shadow motioned for him to stop.
"Oh, dear! you don't let me do any thing I want to," sighed Will. "I shall ask Polly if I tarn't eat these; and, if she says I may, I shall, so now."
He ran off to ask Polly; but she said they were poisonous, and begged him to throw them away.
"Good little shadow, to keep me safe!" cried Will. "I like you; and I'll mind better next time, 'cause you are always right."
The shadow seemed to like this, and bobbed about so comically it made Will laugh till his eyes were full of tears. Ned came back, and they went on, having grand times in the wood. They found plenty of berries to fill the basket; they swung down on slender birches, and got rolls of white bark for canoes; they saw all sorts of wild-wood insects and birds; and frolicked till they were tired. As they crossed a field, a cow suddenly put down her head and ran at them, as if she was afraid they meant to hurt her calf. All turned, and ran as fast as they could toward the wall; but poor Will in his fright tumbled down, and lay screaming. Ned and Polly had reached the wall, and, looking back, saw that their shadows had not followed. Ned's stood before Will, brandishing his pole; and Polly's was flapping a shadowy sun-bonnet with all its might. As soon as they saw that, back they went,—Ned to threaten till he broke his pole, and Polly to flap till the strings came off. As if anxious to do its part, the bonnet flew up in the air, and coming down lit on the cross cow's head; which so astonished her that she ran away as hard as she could pelt.
"Wasn't that funny?" said Will, when they had tumbled over the wall, and lay laughing in the grass on the safe side.
"I'm glad I wore the old bonnet; for I suppose my best hat would have gone just the same," said Polly thankfully.
"The calf don't know its own mother with that thing on," laughed Ned.
"How brave and kind you were to come back and save me! I'd have been deaded if you hadn't," said Will, looking at his brother and sister with his little face full of grateful admiration.
They turned towards home after this flurry, feeling quite like heroes. When they came to the corner where two roads met, Ned proposed they should take the river-road; for, though the longest, it was much the pleasantest.
"We shan't be home at supper-time," said Polly. "You won't be able to do your jobs, Ned, nor I mine, and Will's chickens will have to go to bed hungry."
"Never mind: it's a holiday, so let's enjoy it, and no bother," answered Ned.
"We promised mamma we'd come home early," said Will.
They stood looking at the two roads,—one sandy, hot, and hilly; the other green and cool and level, along the river-side. They all chose the pleasant path, and walked on till Ned cried out, "Why, where are our shadows?"
They looked behind, before, and on either side; but nowhere could they see them.
"They were with us at the corner," said Will.
"Let's run back, and try to find them," said Polly.
"No, let 'em go: I'm tired of minding mine, and don't care if I never see it again," said Ned.
"Don't say so; for I remember hearing about a man who sold his shadow, and then got into lots of trouble because he had none. We promised to follow them, and we must," said Polly.
"I wish," began Ned in a pet; but Polly clapped her hand over his mouth, saying,—
"Pray, don't wish now; for it may come to pass as the man's wish in the fairy tale did, and the black pudding flew up and stuck tight to his wife's nose."
This made Ned laugh, and they all turned back to the corner. Looking up the hilly road, they saw the three shadows trudging along, as if bent on getting home in good time. Without saying a word, the children followed; and, when they got to the garden-gate, they all said at once,—
"Aren't you glad you came?"
Under the elm-tree stood a pretty tea-table, covered with bread and butter, custards, and berries, and in the middle a fine cake with sugar-roses on the top; and mamma and baby, all nicely dressed, were waiting to welcome them to the birth-day feast. Polly crowned the little queen, Ned gave her a willow whistle he had made, and Will some pretty, bright pebbles he had found; and Miss Baby was as happy as a bird, with her treasures.
A pleasant supper-time; then the small duties for each one; and then the go-to-bed frolic. The nursery was a big room, and in the evening a bright wood-fire always burned there for baby. Mamma sat before it softly, rubbing baby's little rosy limbs before she went to bed, singing and telling stories meanwhile to the three children who pranced about in their long nightgowns. This evening they had a gay time; for the shadows amused them by all sorts of antics, and kept them laughing till they were tired. As they sat resting on the big sofa, they heard a soft, sweet voice singing. It wasn't mamma; for she was only talking to baby, and this voice sang a real song. Presently they saw mamma's shadow on the wall, and found it was the shadow-mother singing to the shadow-children. They listened intently, and this is what they heard:—
"Little shadows, little shadows,
Dancing on the chamber wall,
While I sit beside the hearthstone
Where the red flames rise and fall.
Caps and nightgowns, caps and nightgowns,
My three antic shadows wear;
And no sound they make in playing,
For the six small feet are bare.
"Dancing gayly, dancing gayly,
To and fro all together.
Like a family of daisies
Blown about in windy weather;
Nimble fairies, nimble fairies,
Playing pranks in the warm glow,
While I sing the nursery ditties
Childish phantoms love and know.
"Now what happens, now what happens?
One small shadow's tumbled down:
I can see it on the carpet,
Softly rubbing its hurt crown.
No one whimpers, no one whimpers;
A brave-hearted sprite is this:
See! the others offer comfort
In a silent, shadowy kiss.
"Hush! they're creeping; hush! they're creeping,
Up about my rocking-chair:
I can feel their loving fingers
Clasp my neck and touch my hair.
Little shadows, little shadows.
Take me captive, hold me tight,
As they climb and cling and whisper,
'Mother dear, good night! good night!'"
As the song ended, the real children, as well as the shadows, lovingly kissed mamma, and said "Good-night;" then went away into their rooms, said their prayers, and nestled down into their beds. Ned slept alone in the room next that which Polly and Will had; and, after lying quiet a little while, he called out softly,—
"I say, Polly, are you asleep?"
"No: I'm thinking what a queer day we've had," answered Polly.
"It's been a good day, and I'm glad we tried our wish; for the shadows showed us, as well as they could, what we ought to do and be. I shan't forget it, shall you?" said Ned.
"No: I'm much obliged for the lesson."
"So is I," called out Will, in a very earnest, but rather a sleepy, little voice.
"I wonder what mamma will say, when we tell her about it," said Ned.
"And I wonder if our shadows will come back to us at midnight, and follow us as they used to do," added Polly.
"I shall be very careful where I lead my shadow; 'cause he's a good little one, and set me a righter zarmple than ever I did him," said Will, and then dropped asleep.
The others agreed with him, and resolved that their shadows should not be ashamed of them. All were fast asleep; and no one but the moon saw the shadows come stealing back at midnight, and, having danced about the little beds, vanish as the clock struck twelve.