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CHAPTER XVIII SARA RAY HELPS OUT
We all missed Aunt Olivia greatly; she had been so merry and companionable, and had possessed such a knack of understanding small fry. But youth quickly adapts itself to changed conditions; in a few weeks it seemed as if the Story Girl had always been living at Uncle Alec's, and as if Uncle Roger had always had a fat, jolly housekeeper with a double chin and little, twinkling blue eyes. I don't think Aunt Janet ever quite got over missing Aunt Olivia, or looked upon Mrs. Hawkins as anything but a necessary evil; but life resumed its even tenor on the King farm, broken only by the ripples of excitement over the school concert and letters from Aunt Olivia describing her trip through the land of Evangeline. We incorporated the letters in Our Magazine under the heading "From Our Special Correspondent" and were very proud of them.
At the end of June our school concert came off and was a great event in our young lives. It was the first appearance of most of us on any platform, and some of us were very nervous. We all had recitations, except Dan, who had refused flatly to take any part and was consequently care-free.
"I'm sure I shall die when I find myself up on that platform, facing people," sighed Sara Ray, as we talked the affair over in Uncle Stephen's Walk the night before the concert.
"I'm afraid I'll faint," was Cecily's more moderate foreboding.
"I'm not one single bit nervous," said Felicity complacently.
"I'm not nervous this time," said the Story Girl, "but the first time I recited I was."
"My Aunt Jane," remarked Peter, "used to say that an old teacher of hers told her that when she was going to recite or speak in public she must just get it firmly into her mind that it was only a lot of cabbage heads she had before her, and she wouldn't be nervous."
"One mightn't be nervous, but I don't think there would be much inspiration in reciting to cabbage heads," said the Story Girl decidedly. "I want to recite to PEOPLE, and see them looking interested and thrilled."
"If I can only get through my piece without breaking down I don't care whether I thrill people or not," said Sara Ray.
"I'm afraid I'll forget mine and get stuck," foreboded Felix. "Some of you fellows be sure and prompt me if I do - and do it quick, so's I won't get worse rattled."
"I know one thing," said Cecily resolutely, "and that is, I'm going to curl my hair for to-morrow night. I've never curled it since Peter almost died, but I simply must tomorrow night, for all the other girls are going to have theirs in curls."
"The dew and heat will take all the curl out of yours and then you'll look like a scarecrow," warned Felicity.
"No, I won't. I'm going to put my hair up in paper tonight and wet it with a curling-fluid that Judy Pineau uses. Sara brought me up a bottle of it. Judy says it is great stuff - your hair will keep in curl for days, no matter how damp the weather is. I'll leave my hair in the papers till tomorrow evening, and then I'll have beautiful curls."
"You'd better leave your hair alone," said Dan gruffly. "Smooth hair is better than a lot of fly-away curls."
But Cecily was not to be persuaded. Curls she craved and curls she meant to have.
"I'm thankful my warts have all gone, any-way," said Sara Ray.
"So they have," exclaimed Felicity. "Did you try Peg's recipe?"
"Yes. I didn't believe in it but I tried it. For the first few days afterwards I kept watching my warts, but they didn't go away, and then I gave up and forgot them. But one day last week I just happened to look at my hands and there wasn't a wart to be seen. It was the most amazing thing."
"And yet you'll say Peg Bowen isn't a witch," said Peter.
"Pshaw, it was just the potato juice," scoffed Dan.
"It was a dry old potato I had, and there wasn't much juice in it," said Sara Ray. "One hardly knows what to believe. But one thing is certain - my warts are gone."
Cecily put her hair up in curl-papers that night, thoroughly soaked in Judy Pineau's curling-fluid. It was a nasty job, for the fluid was very sticky, but Cecily persevered and got it done. Then she went to bed with a towel tied over her head to protect the pillow. She did not sleep well and had uncanny dreams, but she came down to breakfast with an expression of triumph. The Story Girl examined her head critically and said,
"Cecily, if I were you I'd take those papers out this morning."
"Oh, no; if I do my hair will be straight again by night. I mean to leave them in till the last minute."
"I wouldn't do that - I really wouldn't," persisted the Story Girl. "If you do your hair will be too curly and all bushy and fuzzy."
Cecily finally yielded and went upstairs with the Story Girl. Presently we heard a little shriek - then two little shrieks - then three. Then Felicity came flying down and called her mother. Aunt Janet went up and presently came down again with a grim mouth. She filled a large pan with warm water and carried it upstairs. We dared ask her no questions, but when Felicity came down to wash the dishes we bombarded her.
"What on earth is the matter with Cecily?" demanded Dan. "Is she sick?"
"No, she isn't. I warned her not to put her hair in curls but she wouldn't listen to me. I guess she wishes she had now. When people haven't natural curly hair they shouldn't try to make it curly. They get punished if they do."
"Look here, Felicity, never mind all that. Just tell us what has happened Sis."
"Well, this is what has happened her. That ninny of a Sara Ray brought up a bottle of mucilage instead of Judy's curling-fluid, and Cecily put her hair up with THAT. It's in an awful state."
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Dan. "Look here, will she ever get it out?"
"Goodness knows. She's got her head in soak now. Her hair is just matted together hard as a board. That's what comes of vanity," said Felicity, than whom no vainer girl existed.
Poor Cecily paid dearly enough for HER vanity. She spent a bad forenoon, made no easier by her mother's severe rebukes. For an hour she "soaked" her head; that is, she stood over a panful of warm water and kept dipping her head in with tightly shut eyes. Finally her hair softened sufficiently to be disentangled from the curl papers; and then Aunt Janet subjected it to a merciless shampoo. Eventually they got all the mucilage washed out of it and Cecily spent the remainder of the forenoon sitting before the open oven door in the hot kitchen drying her ill-used tresses. She felt very down-hearted; her hair was of that order which, glossy and smooth normally, is dry and harsh and lustreless for several days after being shampooed.
"I'll look like a fright tonight," said the poor child to me with trembling voice. "The ends will be sticking out all over my head."
"Sara Ray is a perfect idiot," I said wrathfully
"Qh, don't be hard on poor Sara. She didn't mean to bring me mucilage. It's really all my own fault, I know. I made a solemn vow when Peter was dying that I would never curl my hair again, and I should have kept it. It isn't right to break solemn vows. But my hair will look like dried hay tonight."
Poor Sara Ray was quite overwhelmed when she came up and found what she had done. Felicity was very hard on her, and Aunt Janet was coldly disapproving, but sweet Cecily forgave her unreservedly, and they walked to the school that night with their arms about each other's waists as usual.
The school-room was crowded with friends and neighbours. Mr. Perkins was flying about, getting things into readiness, and Miss Reade, who was the organist of the evening, was sitting on the platform, looking her sweetest and prettiest. She wore a delightful white lace hat with a fetching little wreath of tiny forget-me-nots around the brim, a white muslin dress with sprays of blue violets scattered over it, and a black lace scarf.
"Doesn't she look angelic?" said Cecily rapturously.
"Mind you," said Sara Ray, "the Awkward Man is here - in the corner behind the door. I never remember seeing him at a concert before."
"I suppose he came to hear the Story Girl recite," said Felicity. "He is such a friend of hers."
The concert went off very well. Dialogues, choruses and recitations followed each other in rapid succession. Felix got through his without "getting stuck," and Peter did excellently, though he stuffed his hands in his trousers pockets - a habit of which Mr. Perkins had vainly tried to break him. Peter's recitation was one greatly in vogue at that time, beginning,
"My name is Norval; on the Grampian hills
My father feeds his flocks."
At our first practice Peter had started gaily in, rushing through the first line with no thought whatever of punctuation - " My name is Norval on the Grampian Hills."
"Stop, stop, Peter," quoth Mr. Perkins, sarcastically, "your name might be Norval if you were never on the Grampian Hills. There's a semi-colon in that line, I wish you to remember."
Peter did remember it. Cecily neither fainted nor failed when it came her turn. She recited her little piece very well, though somewhat mechanically. I think she really did much better than if she had had her desired curls. The miserable conviction that her hair, alone among that glossy-tressed bevy, was looking badly, quite blotted out all nervousness and self-consciousness from her mind. Her hair apart, she looked very pretty. The prevailing excitement had made bright her eye and flushed her cheeks rosily-too rosily, perhaps. I heard a Carlisle woman behind me whisper that Cecily King looked consumptive, just like her Aunt Felicity; and I hated her fiercely for it.
Sara Ray also managed to get through respectably, although she was pitiably nervous. Her bow was naught but a short nod - "as if her head worked on wires," whispered Felicity uncharitably - and the wave of her lily-white hand more nearly resembled an agonized jerk than a wave. We all felt relieved when she finished. She was, in a sense, one of "our crowd," and we had been afraid she would disgrace us by breaking down.
Felicity followed her and recited her selection without haste, without rest, and absolutely without any expression whatever. But what mattered it how she recited? To look at her was sufficient. What with her splendid fleece of golden curls, her great, brilliant blue eyes, her exquisitely tinted face, her dimpled hands and arms, every member of the audience must have felt it was worth the ten cents he had paid merely to see her.
The Story Girl followed. An expectant silence fell over the room, and Mr. Perkins' face lost the look of tense anxiety it had worn all the evening. Here was a performer who could be depended on. No need to fear stage fright or forgetfulness on her part. The Story Girl was not looking her best that night. White never became her, and her face was pale, though her eyes were splendid. But nobody thought about her appearance when the power and magic of her voice caught and held her listeners spellbound.
Her recitation was an old one, figuring in one of the School Readers, and we scholars all knew it off by heart. Sara Ray alone had not heard the Story Girl recite it. The latter had not been drilled at practices as had the other pupils, Mr. Perkins choosing not to waste time teaching her what she already knew far better than he did. The only time she had recited it had been at the "dress rehearsal" two nights before, at which Sara Ray had not been present.
In the poem a Florentine lady of old time, wedded to a cold and cruel husband, had died, or was supposed to have died, and had been carried to "the rich, the beautiful, the dreadful tomb" of her proud family. In the night she wakened from her trance and made her escape. Chilled and terrified, she had made her way to her husband's door, only to be driven away brutally as a restless ghost by the horror-stricken inmates. A similar reception awaited her at her father's. Then she had wandered blindly through the streets of Florence until she had fallen exhausted at the door of the lover of her girlhood. He, unafraid, had taken her in and cared for her. On the morrow, the husband and father, having discovered the empty tomb, came to claim her. She refused to return to them and the case was carried to the court of law. The verdict given was that a woman who had been "to burial borne" and left for dead, who had been driven from her husband's door and from her childhood home, "must be adjudged as dead in law and fact," was no more daughter or wife, but was set free to form what new ties she would. The climax of the whole selection came in the line,
"The court pronounces the defendant - DEAD!" and the Story Girl was wont to render it with such dramatic intensity and power that the veriest dullard among her listeners could not have missed its force and significance.
She swept along through the poem royally, playing on the emotions of her audience as she had so often played on ours in the old orchard. Pity, terror, indignation, suspense, possessed her hearers in turn. In the court scene she surpassed herself. She was, in very truth, the Florentine judge, stern, stately, impassive. Her voice dropped into the solemnity of the allimportant line,
"'The court pronounces the defendant - '"
She paused for a breathless moment, the better to bring out the tragic import of the last word.
"DEAD," piped up Sara Ray in her shrill, plaintive little voice.
The effect, to use a hackneyed but convenient phrase, can better be imagined than described. Instead of the sigh of relieved tension that should have swept over the audience at the conclusion of the line, a burst of laughter greeted it. The Story Girl's performance was completely spoiled. She dealt the luckless Sara a glance that would have slain her on the spot could glances kill, stumbled lamely and impotently through the few remaining lines of her recitation, and fled with crimson cheeks to hide her mortification in the little corner that had been curtained off for a dressing-room. Mr. Perkins looked things not lawful to be uttered, and the audience tittered at intervals for the rest of the performance.
Sara Ray alone remained serenely satisfied until the close of the concert, when we surrounded her with a whirlwind of reproaches.
"Why," she stammered aghast, "what did I do? I - I thought she was stuck and that I ought to prompt her quick."
"You little fool, she just paused for effect," cried Felicity angrily. Felicity might be rather jealous of the Story Girl's gift, but she was furious at beholding "one of our family" made ridiculous in such a fashion. "You have less sense than anyone I ever heard of, Sara Ray."
Poor Sara dissolved in tears.
"I didn't know. I thought she was stuck," she wailed again.
She cried all the way home, but we did not try to comfort her. We felt quite out of patience with her. Even Cecily was seriously annoyed. This second blunder of Sara's was too much even for her loyalty. We saw her turn in at her own gate and go sobbing up her lane with no relenting.
The Story Girl was home before us, having fled from the schoolhouse as soon as the programme was over. We tried to sympathize with her but she would not be sympathized with.
"Please don't ever mention it to me again," she said, with compressed lips. "I never want to be reminded of it. Oh, that little IDIOT!"
"She spoiled Peter's sermon last summer and now she's spoiled your recitation," said Felicity. "I think it's time we gave up associating with Sara Ray."
"Oh, don't be quite so hard on her," pleaded Cecily. "Think of the life the poor child has to live at home. I know she'll cry all night."
"Oh, let's go to bed," growled Dan. "I'm good and ready for it. I've had enough of school concerts."
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XIX BY WAY OF THE STARS