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Pink and Scarlet by Susan Coolidge

 

“It's the most perfect beauty that ever was!”

“Pshaw! you always say that. It's not a bit prettier than Mary's.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, indeed, it isn't.”

The subject of dispute was a parasol,—a dark blue one, trimmed with fringe, and with an ivory handle. The two little girls who were discussing it were Alice Hoare and her sister Madge. It was Madge's birthday, and the parasol was one of her presents.

The dispute continued.

“I wish you wouldn't always say that your things are better than any one else's,” said Alice. “It's ex-exaspering to talk like that, and Mamma said when we exasperated it was almost as bad as telling lies.”

“She didn't say “exasperate.” That wasn't the word at all; and this is the sweetest, dearest, most perfectly beautiful parasol in the world, a great deal prettier than your green one.”

“Yes, so it is,” confessed candid Alice. “Mine is quite old now. This is younger, and, besides, the top of mine is broken off. But yours isn't really any prettier than Mary's.”

“It is too! It's a great deal more beautiful and a great deal more fascinating.”

“What is that which is so fascinating?” asked their sister Mary, coming into the room. “The new parasol? My! that is strong language to use about a parasol. It should at least be an umbrella, I think. See, Madge, here is another birthday gift.”

It was a gilt cage, with a pair of Java sparrows. “Oh, lovely! delicious!” cried Madge, jumping up and down. “I think this is the best birthday that ever was! Are they from you, Mary, darling? Thank you ever so much! They are the most perfectly beautiful things I ever saw.”

“The parasol was the most beautiful just now,” observed Alice.

“Oh, these are much beautifuller than that, because they are alive,” replied Madge, giving her oldest sister a rapturous squeeze.

“I wish you'd make me a birthday present in return,” said Mary. “I wish you'd drop that bad habit of exaggerating everything you like, and everything you don't like. All your 'bads' are 'dreadfuls,'—all your pinks are scarlets.”

“I don't know what you mean,” said Madge, puzzled and offended.

“It's only what Mamma has often spoken to you about, dear Madgie. It is saying more than is quite true, and more than you quite feel. I am sure you don't mean to be false, but people who are not used to you might think you so.”

“It's because I like things so much.”

“No, for when you don't like them, it's just as bad. I have heard you say fifty times, at least, 'It is the horridest thing I ever saw,' and you know there couldn't be fifty 'horridest' things.”

“But you all know what I mean.”

“Well, we can guess, but you ought to be more exact. And, besides, Papa says if we use up all our strong words about little every-day things, we sha'n't have any to use when we are talking about really great things. If you call a heavy muffin 'awful,' what are you going to say about an earthquake or tornado?”

“We don't have any earthquakes in Groton, and I don't ever mean to go to places where they do,” retorted Madge, triumphantly.

“Madge, how bad you are!” cried little Alice. “You ought to promise Mary right away, because it's your birthday.”

“Well, I'll try,” said Madge. But she did not make the promise with much heart, and she soon forgot all about it. It seemed to her that Mary was making a great fuss about a small thing.

Are there any small things? Sometimes I am inclined to doubt it. A fever-germ can only be seen under the microscope, but think what a terrible work it can do. The avalanche, in its beginning, is only a few moving particles of snow; the tiny spring feeds the brook, which in turn feeds the river; the little evil, unchecked, grows into the habit which masters the strongest man. All great things begin in small things; and these small things which are to become we know not what, should be important in our eyes.

Madge Hoare meant to be a truthful child; but little by little, and day by day, her perception of what truth really is, was being worn away by the habit of exaggeration.

“Perfectly beautiful,” “perfectly horrible,” “perfectly dreadful,” “perfectly fascinating,” such were the mild terms which she daily used to describe the most ordinary things,—apples, rice puddings, arithmetic lessons, gingham dresses, and, as we have seen, blue parasols! And the habit grew upon her, as habits will. When she needed stronger language than usual, things had to be “horrider” than horrid, and “beautifuller” than beautiful. And the worst of it was, that she was all the time half conscious of her own insincerity, and that, to use Mary's favorite figure, she meant pink, but she said scarlet.

The family fell so into the habit of making mental allowances and deductions for all Madge's statements that sometimes they fell into the habit of not believing enough. “It is only Madge!” they would say, and so dismiss the subject from their minds. This careless disbelief vexed and hurt Madge very often, but it did not hurt enough to cure her. One day, however, it did lead to something which she could not help remembering.

It was warm weather still, although September, and Ernest, the little baby brother, whom Madge loved best of all the children, was playing one morning in the yard by himself. Madge was studying an “awful” arithmetic lesson upstairs at the window. She could not see Ernest, who was making a sand-pie directly beneath her; but she did see an old woman peer over the fence, open the gate, and steal into the yard.

“What a horrid-looking old woman!” thought Madge. “The multiple of sixteen added to—Oh, bother! what an awful sum this is!” She forgot the old woman for a few moments, then she again saw her going out of the yard, and carrying under her cloak what seemed to be a large bundle. The odd thing was, that the bundle seemed to have legs, and to kick; or was it the wind blowing the old woman's cloak about?

Madge watched the old woman out of sight with a puzzled and half-frightened feeling. “Could she have stolen anything?” she asked herself; and at last she ran downstairs to see. Nothing seemed missing from the hall, only Ernie's straw hat lay in the middle of the gravel walk.

“Mamma!” cried Madge, bursting into the library where her mother was talking to a visitor. “There has been the most perfectly horrible old woman in our yard that I ever saw. She was so awful-looking that I was afraid she had been stealing something. Did you see her, Mamma?”

“My dear, all old women are awful in your eyes,” said Mrs. Hoare, calmly. “This was old Mrs. Shephard, I presume. I told her to come for a bundle of washing. Run away now, Madge, I am busy.”

Madge went, but she still did not feel satisfied. The more she thought about the old woman, the more she was sure that it was not old Mrs. Shephard. She went with her fears to Mary.

“She was just like a gypsy,” she explained, “or a horrible old witch. Her hair stuck out so, and she had the awfullest face! I am almost sure she stole something, and carried it away under her shawl, sister.”

“Nonsense!” said Mary, who was drawing, and not inclined to disturb herself for one of Madge's “cock-and-bull” stories. “It was only one of Mamma's old goodies, you may be sure. Don't you recollect what a fright you gave us about the robber, who turned out to be a man selling apples; and that other time, when you were certain there was a bear in the garden, and it was nothing but Mr. Price's big Newfoundland?”

“But this was quite different; it really was. This old woman was really awful.”

“Your old women always are,” replied Mary, unconcernedly, going on with her sketch.

No one would attend to Madge's story, no one sympathized with her alarm. She was like the boy who cried “Wolf!” so often that, when the real wolf came, no one heeded his cries. But the family roused from their indifference, when, an hour later, Nurse came to ask where Master Ernie could be, and search revealed the fact that he was nowhere about the premises. Madge and her old woman were treated with greater respect then. Papa set off for the constable, and Jim drove rapidly in the direction which the old woman was taking when last seen. Poor Mrs. Hoare was terribly anxious and distressed.

“I blame myself for not attending at once to what Madge said,” she told Mary. “But the fact is that she exaggerates so constantly that I have fallen into the habit of only half listening to her. If it had been Alice, it would have been quite different.”

Madge overheard Mamma say this, and she crept away to her own room, and cried as if her heart would break.

“If Ernie is never found, it will all be my fault,” she thought. “Nobody believes a word that I say. But they would have believed if Alice had said it, and Mary would have run after that wicked old woman, and got dear baby away from her. Oh dear, how miserable I am!”

Madge never forgot that long afternoon and that wretched night. Mamma did not go to bed at all, and none of them slept much. It was not till ten o'clock the next morning that Papa and Jim came back, bringing—oh, joy!—little Ernie with them, his pretty hair all tangled and his rosy cheeks glazed with crying, but otherwise unhurt. He had been found nearly ten miles away, locked in a miserable cottage by the old woman, who had taken off his nice clothes and dressed him in a ragged frock. She had left him there while she went out to beg, or perhaps to make arrangements for carrying him farther out of reach; but she had given him some bread and milk for supper and breakfast, and the little fellow was not much the worse for his adventure; and after a bath and a re-dressing, and after being nearly kissed to death by the whole family, he went to sleep in his own crib very comfortably.

“Papa,” said Madge that night, “I never mean to exaggerate any more as long as I live. I mean to say exactly what I think, only not so much, so that you shall all have confidence in me. And then, next time baby is stolen, you will all believe what I say.”

“I hope there will never be any 'next time,'“ observed her mother; “but I shall have to be glad of what happened this time, if it really cures you of such a bad habit, my little Madge.”