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The Prize Girl of the Harnessing Class by Susan Coolidge

 

It was the day before Thanksgiving, but the warmth of a late Indian summer lay over the world, and tempered the autumn chill into mildness more like early October than late November. Elsie Thayer, driving her village cart rapidly through the “Long Woods,” caught herself vaguely wondering why the grass was not greener, and what should set the leaves to tumbling off the trees in such an unsummer-like fashion,—then smiled at herself for being so forgetful.

The cart was packed full; for, besides Elsie herself, it held a bag of sweet potatoes, a sizable bundle or two, and a large market-basket, from which protruded the unmistakable legs of a turkey, not to mention a choice smaller basket covered with a napkin. All these were going to the little farmstead in which dwelt Mrs. Ann Sparrow, Elsie's nurse in childhood, and the most faithful and kindly of friends ever since. Elsie always made sure that “Nursey” had a good Thanksgiving dinner, and generally carried it herself.

The day was so delightful that it seemed almost a pity that the pony should trot so fast. One would willingly have gone slowly, tasting drop by drop, as it were, the lovely sunshine filtering through the yellow beech boughs, the unexpected warmth, and the balmy spice of the air, which had in it a tinge of smoky haze. But the day before Thanksgiving is sure to be a busy one with New England folk; Elsie had other tasks awaiting her, and she knew that Nursey would not be content with a short visit.

“Hurry up, little Jack!” she said. “You shall have a long rest presently, if you are a good boy, and some nice fresh grass,—if I can find any; anyway, a little drink of water. So make haste.”

Jack made haste. The yellow wheels of the cart spun in and out of the shadow like circles of gleaming sun. When the two miles were achieved, and the little clearing came into view, Elsie slackened her pace: she wanted to take Nursey by surprise. Driving straight to a small open shed, she deftly unharnessed the pony, tied him with a liberal allowance of halter, hung up the harness, and wheeled the cart away from his heels, all with the ease which is born of practice. She then gathered a lapful of brown but still nourishing grasses for Jack, and was about to lift the parcels from the wagon when she was espied by Mrs. Sparrow.

Out she came, hurrying and flushed with pleasure,—the dearest old woman, with pink, wrinkled cheeks like a perfectly baked apple, and a voice which still retained its pleasant English tones, after sixty long years in America.

“Well, Missy, dear, so it's you. I made sure you'd come, and had been watching all the morning; but somehow I missed you when you drove up, and it was just by haccident like, that I looked out of window and see you in the shed. You're looking well, Missy. That school hasn't hurt you a bit. Just the same nice color in your cheeks as ever. I was that troubled when I heard you wa'n't coming home last summer, for I thought maybe you was ill; but your mother she said 'twas all right, and just for your pleasure, and I see it was so. Why,”—her voice changing to consternation,—“if you haven't unharnessed the horse! Now, Missy, how came you to do that? You forgot there wasn't no one about but me. Who's to put him in for you, I wonder?”

“Oh, I don't want any one. I can harness the pony myself.”

“Oh, Missy, dear, you mustn't do that! I couldn't let you. It's real hard to harness a horse. You'd make some mistake, and then there'd be a haccident.”

“Nonsense, Nursey! I've harnessed Jack once this morning already; it's just as easy to do it twice. I'm a member of a Harnessing Class, I'd have you to know; and, what's more, I took the prize!”

“Now, Missy, dear, whatever do you mean by that? Young ladies learn to harness! I never heard of such a thing in my life! In my young time, in England, they learned globes and langwidges, and, it might be, to paint in oils and such, and make nice things in chenille.”

“I'll tell you all about it, but first let us carry these things up to the house. Here's your Thanksgiving turkey, Nursey,—with Mother's love. Papa sent you the sweet potatoes and the cranberries; and the oranges and figs and the pumpkin pie are from me. I made the pie myself. That's another of the useful things that I learned to do at my school.”

“The master is very kind, Missy; and so is your mother; and I'm thankful to you all. But that's a queer school of yours, it seems to me. For my part, I never heard of young ladies learning such things as cooking and harnessing at boarding-schools.”

“Oh, we learn arts and languages, too,—that part of our education isn't neglected. Now, Nursey, we'll put these things in your buttery, and you shall give me a glass of nice cold milk; and while I drink it I'll tell you about Rosemary Hall,—that's the name of the school, you know; and it's the dearest, nicest place you can think of.”

“Very likely, Miss Elsie,” in an unconvinced tone; “but still I don't see any reason why they should set you to making pies and harnessing horses.”

“Oh, that's just at odd times, by way of fun and pleasure; it isn't lessons, you know. You see, Mrs. Thanet—that's a rich lady who lives close by, and is a sort of fairy godmother to us girls—has a great notion about practical education. It was she who got up the Harnessing Class and the Model Kitchen. It's the dearest little place you ever saw, Nursey, with a perfect stove, and shelves, and hooks for everything; and such bright tins, and the prettiest of old-fashioned crockery! It's just like a picture. We girls were always squabbling over whose turn should come first. You can't think how much I learned there, Nursey! I learned to make a pie, and clear out a grate, and scour saucepans, and,” counting on her fingers, “to make bread, rolls, minute-biscuit, coffee,—delicious coffee, Nursey!—good soup, creamed oysters, and pumpkin-pies and apple-pies! Just wait, and you shall see!”

She jumped up, ran into the buttery, and soon returned, carrying a triangle of pie on a plate.

“It isn't Thanksgiving yet, I know; but there is no law against eating pumpkin-pie the day before, so please, Nursey, taste this and see if you don't call it good. Papa says it makes him think of his mother's pies, when he was a little boy.”

“Indeed, and it is good, Missy, dear; and I won't deny but cooking may be well for you to know; but for that other—the harnessing class, as you call it,—I don't see the sense of that at all, Missy.”

“Oh, Nursey, indeed there is a great deal of sense in it. Mrs. Thanet says it might easily happen, in the country especially,—if any one was hurt or taken very ill, you know,—that life might depend upon a girl's knowing how to harness. She had a man teach us, and we practised and practised, and at the end of the term there was an exhibition, with a prize for the girl who could harness and unharness quickest, and I won it! See, here it is!”

She held out a slim brown hand, and displayed a narrow gold bangle, on which was engraved in minute letters, “What is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.”

“Isn't it pretty?” she asked.

“Yes,” doubtfully. “The bracelet is pretty enough, Missy; but I can't quite like what it stands for. It don't seem ladylike for you to be knowing about harnesses and such things.”

“Oh, Nursey, dear, what nonsense!”

There were things to be done after she got home, but Elsie could not hurry her visit. Jack consumed his grass heap, and then stood sleepily blinking at the flies for a long hour before his young mistress jumped up.

“Now, I must go!” she cried. “Come out and see me harness up, Nursey.”

It was swiftly and skilfully done, but still Nurse Sparrow shook her head.

“I don't like it!” she insisted. “'A horse shall be a vain thing for safety'—that's in Holy Writ.”

“You are an obstinate old dear,” said Elsie, good-humoredly. “Wait till you're ill some day, and I go for the doctor. Then you'll realize the advantage of practical education. What a queer smell of smoke there is, Nursey!” gathering up her reins.

“Yes; the woods has been on fire for quite a spell, back on the other side of Bald Top. You can smell the smoke most of the time. Seems to me it's stronger than usual, to-day.”

“You don't think there is any danger of its coming this way, do you?”

“Oh, no!” contentedly. “I don't suppose it could come so far as this.”

“But why not?” thought Elsie to herself, as she drove rapidly back. “If the wind were right for it, why shouldn't it come this way? Fires travel much farther than that on the prairies,—and they go very fast, too. I never did like having Nursey all alone by herself on that farm.”

She reached home, to find things in unexpected confusion. Her father had been called away for the night by a telegram, and her mother—on this, of all days—had gone to bed, disabled with a bad headache. There was much to be done, and Elsie flung herself into the breach, and did it, too busy to think again of Nurse Sparrow and the fire, until, toward nightfall, she noted that the wind had changed, and was blowing straight from Bald Top, bringing with it an increase of smoke.

She ran out to consult the hired man before he went home for the night, and to ask if he thought there was any danger of the fire reaching the Long Woods. He “guessed” not.

“These fires get going quite often on to the other side of Bald Top, but there ain't none of 'em come over this way, and 'tain't likely they ever will. I guess Mis' Sparrow's safe enough. You needn't worry, Miss Elsie.”

In spite of this comforting assurance, Elsie did worry. She looked out of her west window the last thing before going to bed; and when, at two in the morning, she woke with a sudden start, her first impulse was to run to the window again. Then she gave an exclamation, and her heart stood still with fear; for the southern slopes of Bald Top were ringed with flames which gleamed dim and lurid through the smoke, and showers of sparks, thrown high in air, showed that the edges of the woods beyond Nursey's farm were already burning.

“She'll be frightened to death,” thought Elsie. “Oh, poor dear, and no one to help her!”

What should she do? To go after the man and waken him meant a long delay. He was a heavy sleeper, and his house was a quarter of a mile distant. But there was Jack in the stable, and the stable key was in the hall below. As she dressed, she decided.

“How glad I am that I can do this!” she thought, as she flung the harness over the pony's back, strapped, buckled, adjusted,—doing all with a speed which yet left nothing undone and slighted nothing. Not even on the day when she took the prize had she put her horse in so quickly. She ran back at the last moment for two warm rugs. Deftly guiding Jack over the grass, that his hoofs should make no noise, she gained the road, and, quickening him to his fastest pace, drove fearlessly into the dark woods.

They were not so dark as she had feared they would be, for the light of a late, low-hung moon penetrated the trees, with perhaps some reflections from the far-away fire, so that she easily made out the turns and windings of the track. The light grew stronger as she advanced. The main fire was still far distant, but before she reached Nurse's little clearing, she even drove by one place where the woods were ablaze.

She had expected to find Mrs. Sparrow in an agitation of terror; but, behold! she was in her bed, sound asleep. Happily, it was easy to get at her. Nursey's theory was that, “if anybody thought it would pay him to sit up at night and rob an old woman, he'd do it anyway, and needn't have the trouble of getting in at the window;” and on the strength of this philosophical utterance, she went to bed with the door on the latch.

She took Elsie for a dream, at first.

“I'm just a-dreaming. I ain't a-going to wake up; you needn't think it,” she muttered sleepily.

But when Elsie at last shook her into consciousness, and pointed at the fiery glow on the horizon, her terror matched her previous unconcern.

“Oh, dear, dear!” she wailed, as with trembling, suddenly stiff fingers she put on her clothes. “I'm a-going to be burned out! It's hard, at my time of life, just when I had got things tidy and comfortable. I was a-thinking of sending over for my niece to the Isle of Dogs, and getting her to come and stay with me, I was indeed, Missy. But there won't be any use in that now.”

“Perhaps the fire won't come so far as this, after all,” said the practical Elsie.

“Oh, yes, it will! It's 'most here now.”

“Well, whether it does or not, I'm going to carry you home with me, where you will be safe. Now, Nursey, tell me which of your things you care most for, that we can take with us,—small things, I mean. Of course we can't carry tables and beds in my little cart.”

The selection proved difficult. Nurse's affections clung to a tall eight-day clock, and were hard to be detached. She also felt strongly that it was a clear flying in the face of Providence not to save “Sparrow's chair,” a solid structure of cherry, with rockers weighing many pounds, and quite as wide as the wagon. Elsie coaxed and remonstrated, and at last got Nursey into the seat, with the cat and a bundle of her best clothes in her lap, her tea-spoons in her pocket, a basket of specially beloved baking-tins under the seat, and a favorite feather-bed at the back, among whose billowy folds were tucked away an assortment of treasures, ending with the Thanksgiving goodies which had been brought over that morning.

“I can't leave that turkey behind, Missy, dear—I really can't!” pleaded Nursey. “I've been thinking of him, and anticipating how good he was going to be, all day; and I haven't had but one taste of your pie. They're so little, they'll go in anywhere.”

The fire seemed startlingly near now, and the western sky was all aflame, while over against it, in the east, burned the first yellow beams of dawn. People were astir by this time, and men on foot and horseback were hurrying toward the burning woods. They stared curiously at the oddly laden cart.

“Why, you didn't ever come over for me all alone!” cried Nurse Sparrow, rousing suddenly to a sense of the situation. “I've be'n that flustered that I never took thought of how you got across, or anything about it. Where was your Pa, Missy,—and Hiram?”

Elsie explained.

“Oh, you blessed child; and if you hadn't come, I'd have been burned in my bed, as like as not!” cried the old woman, quite overpowered. “Well, well! little did I think, when you was a baby, and I a-tending you, that the day was to come when you were to run yourself into danger for the sake of saving my poor old life!”

“I don't see that there has been any particular danger for me to run, so far; and as for saving your life, Nursey, it would very likely have saved itself if I hadn't come near you. See, the wind has changed; it is blowing from the north now. Perhaps the fire won't reach your house, after all. But, anyway, I am glad you are here and not there. We cannot be too careful of such a dear old Nursey as you are. And one thing, I think, you'll confess,”—Elsie's tone was a little mischievous,—“and that is, that harnessing classes have their uses. If I hadn't known how to put Jack in the cart, I might at this moment be hammering on the door of that stupid Hiram (who, you know, sleeps like a log) trying to wake him, and you on the clearing alone, scared to death. Now, Nursey, own up: Mrs. Thanet wasn't so far wrong, now was she?”

“Indeed, no, Missy. It'd be very ungrateful for me to be saying that. The lady judged wiser than I did.”

“Very well, then,” cried Elsie, joyously. “If only your house isn't burned up, I shall be glad the fire happened; for it's such a triumph for Mrs. Thanet, and she'll be so pleased!”

Nursey's house did not burn down. The change of wind came just in time to save it; and, after eating her own Thanksgiving turkey in her old home, and being petted and made much of for a few days, she went back, none the worse for her adventure, to find her goods and chattels in their usual places, and all safe.

And Mrs. Thanet was pleased. She sent Elsie a pretty locket, with the date of the fire engraved upon it, and wrote that she gloried in her as the Vindicator of a Principle, which fine words made Elsie laugh; but she enjoyed being praised all the same.