Authors: Carol Ryrie Brink
“Tom, he’s past ninety. He’d be worse than no one if there was any trouble.”
“But trouble, Mother?” protested Caddie. “What kind of trouble would there be?”
“I don’t expect there would be any,” Mother said sensibly, “but Mrs. Nightingale is a tiny little thing, and she’s always lived in town. That’s why they hated to move out here, because the doctor’s gone so much at night and she’s afraid to be alone.”
“A doctor oughtn’t to live in the country,” said Tom, “unless he wants to be a farmer.”
“Hark at you!” cried Mother. “Maybe you don’t remember the days when we had to do our own doctoring here in Dunnville. Indeed, I don’t wish those days back again! I’m proud and glad to think a doctor’s bought the farm next to us, and so should you be!”
They knew that they were wrong and Mother was right, but it did not alter the fact that they felt strange and uneasy with their new neighbors. Dr. Nightingale was well enough, a tall good-looking man with muttonchop whiskers and a kindly dignity. But there was something almost witchlike about his tiny wife, with her nose like a beak and her shiny bird-black eyes. Did she but sing, Nightingale would have been a fitting name.
“If it weren’t that Charley is coming for me—” Clara began. “I don’t know how I could get word to him at this late date.”
“Why couldn’t a boy go as well as a girl?” asked Caddie. “Tom would be more protection than any of us.”
“Golly!” cried Tom, with a sudden enthusiasm for the woodpile in the back yard. “I never split that wood Father told me to!”
As he disappeared out the back door, Hetty said suddenly, “I’ll go.”
The rest of them looked at her in astonishment.
“Well, bless my soul! Why not?” cried Mother. “Such a tempest in a teacup as you’ve all been raising.”
“Oh, Mother,” Caddie said, “of course I’ll go. I’m sorry I made a fuss, but Hetty’s much too little.”
Hetty stood tall.
little,” she said in a dignified voice, “and any way I’m not afraid. I guess that’s the main thing, if you go to keep a person company.”
“Hetty shall go,” said Mother, “and the best of luck to her. It’s company Mrs. Nightingale wants, and Hetty’s the chattiest one of you. Besides, if there’s a message to carry—”
This was not the first time Hetty had sped across the fields toward the doctor’s house with her mittens flying behind her by their blue strings and her cap all crooked on her red hair. She had gone to tell them the day their cow got into Father’s meadow, and she had been the first to let them know when the circuit rider brought the new preacher. But she had never been inside the house, and now as she sped along she had her own misgivings. Maybe, if Mrs. Nightingale really did not like children, she would be angry to see Hetty come instead of Clara or Caddie. She
almost wished for a moment that Minnie, who had begged to come with her, had been allowed to do so. But then she saw that that would have been even worse. If Mrs. Nightingale did not like one little girl, she would dislike two little girls twice as much.
Hetty’s usually rapid pace gradually slackened. She sat down in a corner of the rail fence which separated Fathers place from Dr. Nightingale’s to think if she could remember why it was that she had said she would come. Perhaps it was just because the others had squabbled about it, and suddenly she had felt sorry for somebody whom no one else wanted to be with. There had been so many times in the past when she had wanted to be with Tom and Caddie and Warren and they had not wanted to be with her. It was not that way any more. Since the time they had played the tricks on Annabelle and she had told Mother, Caddie and she had been closer friends and she did not often feel left out. Still she knew how to sympathize a little bit with the doctor’s strange small wife.
Hetty sat for a few minutes longer in the fence corner. She opened the little bag which Mother had given her for her things and checked over the contents. A clean outing-flannel nightgown, a hairbrush, her own towel and a square of Mother’s homemade soap, and some salt in a twist of paper for washing her teeth. Having a bag with her own things in it—it was like traveling to St. Louis to visit Uncle Edmund! She was on a real, grown-up adventure, no matter how badly it should turn out.
She stood up, put her cap straight on her head again, and
climbed over the fence. Before she knew it, she was flying along once more with the mittens standing straight out behind her like very small blue wings.
Mrs. Nightingale came to the door in answer to her knock.
“Was there something you wanted, little girl?”
It was not a very good beginning.
“Maybe you don’t remember me,” said Hetty, suddenly thinking to put on her mittens just when she might have been taking them off, “but I am one of the Woodlawn girls.”
“Oh,” said the doctor’s wife, “then you’ve come to stay the night. And which one are you?”
“I am Henrietta,” said Hetty, standing as tall as she could.
It helped to make her feel grown-up, to call herself Henrietta, and really she was as tall as Mrs. Nightingale when she held herself very straight.
“Well, come in, Henrietta.”
“Maybe you think I might not be very good if Indians came or the house caught on fire or something,” apologized Hetty, “but Mother thought I’d do.”
“You’ll do very nicely,” said Mrs. Nightingale. “I’m not really afraid, you see; only, after Papa goes to sleep and when the doctor’s away, sometimes the house gets very, very quiet.”
“I see,” said Hetty.
She and Mrs. Nightingale looked at each other. It was very strange to look directly into a grown person’s eyes without having to tip one’s head and look up. Suddenly she
felt as if she really had traveled—not just across two fields but into a different sort of place altogether.
“Lay off your wraps,” said Mrs. Nightingale, “and then we’ll go and see Papa. Supper’s nearly ready.”
A very sweet, little, round old man sat by the stove in the dining room. He had on large green carpet slippers, and all around his face and in front of his ears he had a fringe of white hair like a frame.
“This is the little girl we were expecting, Papa,” said Mrs. Nightingale in quite a loud voice, for it seemed that the old gentleman was deaf.
“Well, well! Indeed?” said the old gentleman. “And what is the little girl’s name?”
“It’s Henrietta, Papa.”
“How do you do, Henrietta? I’m glad to see you.”
“Sometimes they call me Hetty.”
Hetty’s voice was quite loud and clear so that he could understand her. She was beginning to feel at home.
“Yes, yes, indeed,” said the old gentleman, smiling as if he were far away in his thoughts or knew some kind of secret which the others did not share.
His eyes were so kind that Hetty knew at once that she would like him and yet, like everything else connected with Mrs. Nightingale, he was somehow surprising.
“What should I call him?” Hetty asked Mrs. Nightingale.
“Just Grandpa, I think,” said Mrs. Nightingale.
There was a bustle now of getting the last things onto the table, and it seemed very odd to Hetty to sit down to table with only two other people when there were always
so many around the long dining table at home. When they were seated at the table, Grandpa and Mrs. Nightingale folded their hands and bowed their heads; and Mrs. Nightingale nodded to Hetty to do likewise. It was as when Mr. Tanner came; only, instead of making a long, earnest blessing, Grandpa sang a very short one in a high quavering voice. Then he opened his eyes and smiled at Hetty as if he were a little surprised to see her there.
He took up a knife and fork in a businesslike manner and said very pleasantly, “And now, Amanda, will you have sliced ham or a little cold chicken or both?”
Hetty looked around to see where Amanda was, but Mrs. Nightingale nudged her and said, “He means you, my dear.”
“Oh, both, please,” said Hetty very loudly and hastily.
The plates they ate from were all different. Hetty’s was pink with three kittens in a basket painted on the center. It seemed a pity to cover them with ham and chicken and potato hash. Mrs. Nightingale’s plate showed a scene from Queen Victoria’s coronation, and Grandpa ate off a ferocious-looking American eagle with the Stars and Stripes clutched in one claw and a bundle of arrows in the other.
The bread was in a wicker basket, and there were three kinds of jam and jelly in little dishes shaped like various kinds of fruit. There was honey, too, and it came in a pot shaped like a bee hive with flowers painted against the sides of it and a china bee poised on the cover by way of handle. At home there was only one kind of meat or one kind of jam at a time. Hetty sampled everything, and it all tasted just as good as it looked. Hetty had tea, too, which
she never had at home. It came in a cup with violets on it, and it was mostly cream and sugar.
“And where are you going next, Louella?” Grandpa asked kindly.
“It’s Henrietta, not Louella, Papa,” said Mrs. Nightingale in a loud but at the same time gentle voice. “Don’t you remember? She’s come to stay with us tonight.”
“Bless my soul! Of course!” said Grandpa, laughing. “Henrietta, of course!”
After supper, which Mrs. Nightingale called “tea,” Hetty helped her hostess with the dishes. The kitchen was hardly like a kitchen at all. There were wonderful colored calendars and almanacs all over the walls. Mother would have thought one calendar enough, but Mrs. Nightingale seemed to put them up for art’s sake and not to keep track of the day or month. There was only one of which Mrs. Nightingale had not quite approved. It was a picture of a lady in a low-necked gown, and Mrs. Nightingale had cut out a large bunch of red roses from the illustrated seed catalogue and pasted them over the lady’s bare neck.
Everything was as neat and clean as a pin, and the tea towels were embroidered with cabbages and turnips.
When the dishes were done up they joined Grandpa, who was sitting by the dining-room stove knitting purple wool into afghan squares. Hetty had never seen a gentleman knit—even such a very old gentleman as Grandpa. She stood and watched him with her mouth a little bit open. Mrs. Nightingale explained it to her.
“He doesn’t see very well to read, but he likes to have something to do with his hands.”
Grandpa was knitting afghan squares
“Come in, Mildred, and have a chair,” said Grandpa hospitably.
Mrs. Nightingale looked at Hetty and smiled just a tiny bit, and Hetty smiled back. It was nice and friendly now that everybody understood about Grandpa’s bad memory for names, and Mrs. Nightingale did not try any more to tell him that the little girl’s name was Henrietta.
“I’m going to show her the cabinet, Papa.”
“The cabinet! Oh, yes! Yes! By all means!”
“Come, Henrietta. The cabinet’s in the parlor.”
They lighted an extra lamp and went into the front parlor. It was chilly in there without a fire, and Mrs. Nightingale gave Hetty a Paisley shawl to wrap around her so that she should not catch cold.
Hetty had never seen such a wonderful parlor. It was crowded with all sorts of extraordinary things, and on a small sofa beneath the window sat a very large and marvelous doll with a china head and china hair done in the most elaborate fashion and real earrings in her ears.
But, as if all of this were not in the least strange, Mrs. Nightingale led Hetty directly over to the cabinet.
It was a wonderful glass and mahogany cabinet, and in it were many things. Mrs. Nightingale opened the cabinet door reverently and Hetty sank to her knees beside it, her eyes wide with delight.
“Papa collected most of these things when he was younger. I knew you’d like to see them.”
“Oh, yes!” said Hetty.
There were birds’ eggs and peacock feathers, picture frames made of shells and necklaces made of seeds, pieces
of petrified wood and glass globes which contained snowstorms when turned upside down. Mrs Nightingale took things out one at a time and allowed Hetty to handle them. There was a tiny full-rigged ship in a bottle, and the great white egg of an ostrich. There was a jumping frog made out of one of the vertebrae of a turkey, a rubber band, and a bit of tailor’s wax. You held it on the palm of your hand a moment until the wax grew warm, releasing the rubber band, and then the “frog” jumped. There was a little china ballet dancer with a china skirt which looked exactly like lace, and a pair of china dogs with round calico spots and golden collars.
There were many other things, but finally Mrs. Nightingale came to the climax of the exhibit. She took out a large magnifying glass and a very tiny box, and bade Hetty look into the box through the glass. Hetty obeyed and saw two minute figures dressed in foreign costume.
“Fleas, dear,” said Mrs. Nightingale. “Yes, really. They are fleas dressed up. Would you ever imagine such a thing? But now I’m going to show you something even more astonishing. Keep holding the glass, and take this pin in your fingers. Don’t prick yourself—it’s just a common pin—but now read what it says on the head of it.”
Suddenly the head of the pin grew large under the magnifying glass, and there was writing on it.
Our Father which art in Heaven …