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A Nursery Tyrant by Susan Coolidge


It was such a pleasant old nursery that it seemed impossible that anything disagreeable should enter into it. The three southern windows stood open in all pleasant weather, letting in cheerful sun and air. For cold days there was a generous grate, full of blazing coals, and guarded by a high fender of green-painted wire. There were little cupboards set in the deep sides of the chimney. The two on the left were Barbara's and Eunice's; the two to the right, Reggy's and Roger's. Here they kept their own particular treasures under lock and key; while little May, the left-over one, was accommodated with two shelves inside the closet where they all hung their hats and coats.

No one slept in this nursery, but all the Erskine children spent a good part of the daytime in it. Here they studied their lessons, and played when it was too stormy to go out; there the little ones were dressed and undressed, and all five took their suppers there every night. They liked it better than any other room in the house, partly, I suppose, because they lived so much in it.

Barbara was the eldest of the brood. It would have shocked her very much, had she guessed that any one was ever going to speak of her as a “tyrant.” Her idea of a tyrant was a lofty personage with a crown on his head, like Xerxes, or King John, or the Emperor Nero. She had not gotten far enough in life or history to know that the same thing can be done in a small house that is done on a throne; and that tyranny is tyranny even when it is not bridging the Dardanelles, or flinging Christians to the wild beasts, or refusing to sign Magna Charta. In short, that the principle of a thing is its real life, and makes it the same, whether its extent or opportunities be more or less.

This particular tyrant was a bright, active, self-willed little girl of eleven, with a pair of brown eyes, a mop of curly brown hair, pink cheeks, and a mouth which was so rosy and smiled so often that people forgot to notice the resolute little chin beneath it. She was very good-humored when everybody minded her, warm-hearted, generous, full of plans and fancies, and anxious to make everybody happy in her own way. She also cared a good deal about being liked and admired, as self-willed people often do; and whenever she fancied that the children loved Eunice better than herself (which was the case), she was grieved, and felt that it was unfair. “For I do a great deal more to please them than Eunie does,” she would say to herself, forgetting that not what we do, but what we are, it is which makes us beloved or otherwise.

But though the younger ones loved Eunice best, they were much more apt to do as Barbara wished, partly because it was easier than to oppose her, and partly because she and her many ideas and projects interested them. They never knew what was coming next; and they seldom dared to make up their minds about anything, or form any wishes of their own, till they knew what their despot had decided upon. Eunice was gentle and yielding, Mary almost a baby; but the boys, as they grew older, occasionally showed signs of rebellion, and though Barbara put these down with an iron hand, they were likely to come again with fresh provocation.

The fifteenth of May was always a festival in the Erskine household. “Mamma's May Day,” the children called it, because not only was it their mother's birthday, but it also took the place of the regular May Day, which was apt to be too cold or windy for celebration. The children were allowed to choose their own treat, and they always chose a picnic and a May crowning. Barbara was invariably queen, as a matter of course, and she made a very good one, and expended much time and ingenuity in inventing something new each year to make the holiday different from what it had ever been before. She always kept her plans secret till the last moment, to enhance the pleasure of the surprise.

It never occurred to any one, least of all to Barbara herself, that there could be rotation in office, or that any one else should be chosen as queen. Still, changes of dynasty will come to families as well as to kingdoms; and Queen Barbara found this out.

“Eunie, I want you to do something,” she said, one afternoon in late April, producing two long pieces of stiff white tarlatan; “please sew this up there and there, and hem it there,—not nice sewing, you know, but big stitches.”

“What is it for?” asked Eunie, obediently receiving the tarlatan, and putting on her thimble.

“Ah, that is a secret,” replied Barbara. “You'll know by and by.”

“Can't you tell me now?”

“No, not till Mother's May Day. I'll tell you then.”

“Oh, Barbie,” cried Eunice, dropping the tarlatan, “I wanted to speak to you before you began anything. The children want little Mary to be the queen this year.”

“Mary! Why? I've always been queen. What do they want to change for? Mary wouldn't know how to do it, and I've such a nice plan for this year!”

“Your plans always are nice,” said the peace-loving Eunice; “but, Barbie, really and truly, we do all want to have Mary this time. She's so cunning and pretty, and you've always been queen, you know. It was the boys thought of it first, and they want her ever so much. Do let her, just for once.”

“Why, Eunice, I wouldn't have believed you could be so unkind!” said Barbara, in an aggrieved tone. “It's not a bit fair to turn me out, when I've always worked so hard at the May Day, and done everything, while the rest of you just sat by and enjoyed yourselves, and had all the fun and none of the trouble.”

“But the boys think the trouble is half the fun,” persisted Eunice. “They would rather take it than not. Don't you think it would be nice to be a maid of honor, just for once?”—persuasively.

“No, indeed, I don't!” retorted Barbara, passionately. “Be maid of honor, and have that baby of a Mary, queen! You must be crazy, Eunice Erskine. I'll be queen or nothing, you can tell the boys; and if I backed out, and didn't help, I guess you'd all be sorry enough.” So saying, Barbara marched off, with her chin in the air. She was not really much afraid that her usually obedient subjects would resist her authority; but she had found that this injured way of speaking impressed the children, and helped her to carry her points.

So she was surprised enough, when that evening, at supper, she noticed a constraint of manner among the rest of the party. The children looked sober. Reggy whispered to Eunice, Roger kicked Reggy, and at last burst out with, “Now, see here, Barbie Erskine, we want to tell you something. We're going to have Baby for queen this time, and not you, and that's all there is about it.”

“Roger,” said the indignant Barbara, “how dare you speak so? You're not going to have anything of the kind unless I say you may.”

“Yes, we are. Mamma says we ought to take turns, and we never have. Nobody has ever had a turn except you, and you keep having yours all the time. We don't want the same queen always, and this year we've chosen Mary.”

“Roger Erskine!” cried Barbara, hotly. “You're the rudest boy that ever was!” Then she turned to the others. “Now listen to me,” she said. “I've made all my plans for this year, and they're perfectly lovely. I won't tell you what they are, exactly, because it would spoil the surprise, but there's going to be an angel! An angel—with wings! What do you think of that? You'd be sorry if I gave it up, wouldn't you? Well, if one more word is said about Mary's being queen, I will give it up, and I won't help you a bit. Now you can choose.”

Her tone was awfully solemn, but the children did not give way. Even the hint about the angel produced no effect. Eunice began, “I'm sure, Barbie—” but Reggy stopped her with, “Shut up, Eunice! Everybody in favor of Mary for queen, can hold up their hands,” he called out.

Six hands went up. Eunice raised hers in a deprecating way, but she raised it. “It's a vote,” cried Roger. Barbara glared at them all with helpless wrath; then she said, in a choked voice, “Oh, well! have your old picnic, then. I sha'n't come to it,” and ran out of the room, leaving her refractory subjects almost frightened at their own success.

Two unhappy weeks followed. True to her threat, Barbara refused to take any share in the holiday preparations. She sat about in corners, sulky and unhappy, while the others worked, or tried to work. Sooth to say, they missed her help very much, and did badly enough without her, but they would not let her know this. The boys whistled as they drove nails, and sounded very contented and happy.

Presently Fate sent them a new ally. Aunt Kate, the young aunt whom the children liked best of all their relations, came on a visit, and, finding so much going on, bestirred herself to help. She was not long in missing Barbara, and she easily guessed out the position of affairs, though the children made no explanations.

One afternoon, leaving the others hard at work, she went in search of Barbara, who had hidden herself away with a book, in the shrubbery.

“Why are you all alone?” she asked, sitting down beside her.

“I don't know where the others are,” said Barbara, moodily.

“They are tying wreaths to dress the tent to-morrow. Don't you want to go and help them?”

“No, they don't want me! Oh, Aunt Kate!” with a sudden burst of confidence, “they have treated me so! You can't think how they have treated me!”

“Why, what have they done?”

“I've always been queen on mother's May Day,—always. And this year I meant to be again. And I had such a nice plan for the coronation, and then they all chose Mary.”


“They insisted on having Mary for queen, though I told them I wouldn't help if they did,” repeated Barbara.


“Well? That's all. What do you mean, Aunty?”

“I was waiting to hear you tell the real grievance. That the children should want Mary for queen, when you have been one so many times, doesn't seem to be a reason.”

Barbara was too much surprised to speak.

“Yes, my dear, I mean it,” persisted her aunt. “Now let us talk this over. Why should you always be queen on Mamma's birthday? Who gave you the right, I mean?”

“The children liked to have me,” faltered Barbara.

“Precisely. But this year they liked to have Mary.”

“But I worked so hard, Aunty. You can't think how I worked. I did everything; and sometimes I got dreadfully tired.”

“Was that to please the others?”


“Or would they rather have helped in the work, and did you keep it to yourself because you liked to do it alone?” asked Aunt Kate, with a smile. “Now, my Barbie, listen to me. You have led always because you liked to lead, and the others submitted to you. But no one can govern forever. The rest are growing up; they have their own rights and their own opinions. You cannot go on always ruling them as you did when they were little. Do you want to be a good, useful older sister, loved and trusted, or to have Eunice slip into your place, and be the real elder sister, while you gradually become a cipher in the family?”

Barbara began to cry.

“Dear child,” said Aunty Kate, kissing her, “now is your chance. Influence, not authority, should be a sister's weapon. If you want to lead the children, you must do it with a smile, not a pout.”

The children were surprised enough that evening when Barbara came up to offer to help tie wreaths. Her eyes looked as if she had been crying, but she was very kind and nice all that night and next day. She was maid of honor to little Queen Mary, after all. Eunice gave her a rapturous kiss afterward, and said, “Oh, Barbie, how dear you are!” and, somehow, Barbara forgot to feel badly about not being queen. Some defeats are better than victories.