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A Bit of Wilfulness by Susan Coolidge

 

There was a great excitement in the Keene's pleasant home at Wrentham, one morning, about three years ago. The servants were hard at work, making everything neat and orderly. The children buzzed about like active flies, for in the evening some one was coming whom none of them had as yet seen,—a new mamma, whom their father had just married.

The three older children remembered their own mamma pretty well; to the babies, she was only a name. Janet, the eldest, recollected her best of all, and the idea of somebody coming to take her place did not please her at all. This was not from a sense of jealousy for the mother who was gone, but rather from a jealousy for herself; for since Mrs. Keene's death, three years before, Janet had done pretty much as she liked, and the idea of control and interference aroused within her, in advance, the spirit of resistance.

Janet's father was a busy lawyer, and had little time to give to the study of his children's characters. He liked to come home at night, after a hard day at his office, or in the courts, and find a nicely arranged table and room, and a bright fire in the grate, beside which he could read his newspaper without interruption, just stopping now and then to say a word to the children, or have a frolic with the younger ones before they went to bed. Old Maria, who had been nurse to all the five in turn, managed the housekeeping; and so long as there was no outward disturbance, Mr. Keene asked no questions.

He had no idea that Janet, in fact, ruled the family. She was only twelve, but she had the spirit of a dictator, and none of the little ones dared to dispute her will or to complain. In fact, there was not often cause for complaint. When Janet was not opposed, she was both kind and amusing. She had much sense and capacity for a child of her years, and her brothers and sisters were not old enough to detect the mistakes which she sometimes made.

And now a stepmother was coming to spoil all this, as Janet thought. Her meditations, as she dusted the china and arranged the flowers, ran something after this fashion:

“She's only twenty-one, Papa said, and that's only nine years older than I am, and nine years isn't much. I'm not going to call her 'Mamma,' anyway. I shall call her 'Jerusha,' from the very first; for Maria said that Jessie was only a nickname, and I hate nicknames. I know she'll want me to begin school next fall, but I don't mean to, for she don't know anything about the schools here, and I can judge better than she can. There, that looks nice!” putting a tall spike of lilies in a pale green vase. “Now I'll dress baby and little Jim, and we shall all be ready when they come.”

It was exactly six, that loveliest hour of a lovely June day, when the carriage stopped at the gate. Mr. Keene helped his wife out, and looked eagerly toward the piazza, on which the five children were grouped.

“Well, my dears,” he cried, “how do you do? Why don't you come and kiss your new mamma?”

They all came obediently, pretty little Jim and baby Alice, hand in hand, then Harry and Mabel, and, last of all, Janet. The little ones shyly allowed themselves to be kissed, saying nothing, but Janet, true to her resolution, returned her stepmother's salute in a matter-of-fact way, kissed her father, and remarked:

“Do come in, Papa; Jerusha must be tired!”

Mr. Keene gave an amazed look at his wife. The corners of her mouth twitched, and Janet thought wrathfully, “I do believe she is laughing at me!” But Mrs. Keene stifled the laugh, and, taking little Alice's hand, led the way into the house.

“Oh, how nice, how pretty!” were her first words. “Look at the flowers, James! Did you arrange them, Janet? I suspect you did.”

“Yes,” said Janet; “I did them all.”

“Thank you, dear,” said Mrs. Keene, and stooped to kiss her again. It was an affectionate kiss, and Janet had to confess to herself that this new—person was pleasant looking. She had pretty brown hair and eyes, a warm glow of color in a pair of round cheeks, and an expression at once sweet and sensible and decided. It was a face full of attraction; the younger children felt it, and began to sidle up and cuddle against the new mamma. Janet felt the attraction, too, but she resisted it.

“Don't squeeze Jerusha in that way,” she said to Mabel; “you are creasing her jacket. Jim, come here, you are in the way.”

“Janet,” said Mr. Keene, in a voice of displeasure, “what do you mean by calling your mother 'Jerusha'?”

“She isn't my real mother,” explained Janet, defiantly. “I don't want to call her 'Mamma;' she's too young.”

Mrs. Keene laughed,—she couldn't help it.

“We will settle by and by what you shall call me,” she said. “But, Janet, it can't be Jerusha, for that is not my name. I was baptized Jessie.”

“I shall call you Mrs. Keene, then,” said Janet, mortified, but persistent. Her stepmother looked pained, but she said no more.

None of the other children made any difficulty about saying “Mamma” to this sweet new friend. Jessie Keene was the very woman to “mother” a family of children. Bright and tender and firm all at once, she was playmate to them as well as authority, and in a very little while they all learned to love her dearly,—all but Janet; and even she, at times, found it hard to resist this influence, which was at the same time so strong and so kind.

Still, she did resist, and the result was constant discomfort to both parties. To the younger children the new mamma brought added happiness, because they yielded to her wise and reasonable authority. To Janet she brought only friction and resentment, because she would not yield.

So two months passed. Late in August, Mr. and Mrs Keene started on a short journey which was to keep them away from home for two days. Just as the carriage was driving away, Mrs. Keene suddenly said,—

“Oh, Janet! I forgot to say that I would rather you didn't go see Ellen Colton while we are away, or let any of the other children. Please tell nurse about it.”

“Why mustn't I?” demanded Janet.

“Because—” began her mother, but Mr. Keene broke in.

“Never mind 'becauses,' Jessie; we must be off. It's enough for you, Janet, that your mother orders it. And see that you do as she says.”

“It's a shame!” muttered Janet, as she slowly went back to the house. “I always have gone to see Ellen whenever I liked. No one ever stopped me before. I don't think it's a bit fair; and I wish Papa wouldn't speak to me like that before—her.”

Gradually she worked herself into a strong fit of ill-temper. All day long she felt a growing sense of injury, and she made up her mind not to bear it. Next morning, in a towering state of self-will, she marched straight down to the Coltons, resolved at least to find out the meaning of this vexatious prohibition.

No one was on the piazza, and Janet ran up-stairs to Ellen's room, expecting to find her studying her lessons.

No; Ellen was in the bed, fast asleep. Janet took a story-book, and sat down beside her. “She'll be surprised when she wakes up,” she thought.

The book proved interesting, and Janet read on for nearly half an hour before Mrs. Colton came in with a cup and spoon in her hand. She gave a scream when she saw Janet.

“Mercy!” she cried, “what are you doing here? Didn't your ma tell you? Ellen's got scarlet-fever.”

“No, she didn't tell me that. She only said I mustn't come here.”

“And why did you come?”

Somehow Janet found it hard to explain, even to herself, why she had been so determined not to obey.

Very sorrowfully she walked homeward. She had sense enough to know how dreadful might be the result of her disobedience, and she felt humble and wretched. “Oh, if only I hadn't!” was the language of her heart.

The little ones had gone out to play. Janet hurried to her own room, and locked the door.

“I won't see any of them till Papa comes,” she thought. “Then perhaps they won't catch it from me.”

She watched from the window till Maria came out to hang something on the clothesline, and called to her.

“I'm not coming down to dinner,” she said. “Will you please bring me some, and leave it by my door? No, I'm not ill, but there are reasons. I'd rather not tell anybody about them but Mamma.”

“Sakes alive!” said old Maria to herself, “she called missus 'Mamma.' The skies must be going to fall.”

Mrs. Keene's surprise may be imagined at finding Janet thus, in a state of voluntary quarantine.

“I am so sorry,” she said, when she had listened to her confession. “Most sorry of all for you, my child, because you may have to bear the worst penalty. But it was brave and thoughtful in you to shut yourself up to spare the little ones, dear Janet.”

“Oh, Mamma!” cried Janet, bursting into tears. “How kind you are not to scold me! I have been so horrid to you always.” All the pride and hardness were melted out of her now, and for the first time she clung to her stepmother with a sense of protection and comfort.

Janet said afterwards, that the fortnight which she spent in her room, waiting to know if she had caught the fever, was one of the nicest times she ever had. The children and the servants, and even Papa, kept away from her, but Mrs. Keene came as often and stayed as long as she could; and, thrown thus upon her sole companionship, Janet found out the worth of this dear, kind stepmother. She did not have scarlet-fever, and at the end of three weeks was allowed to go back to her old ways, but with a different spirit.

“I can't think why I didn't love you sooner,” she told Mamma once.

“I think I know,” replied Mrs. Keene, smiling. “That stiff little will was in the way. You willed not to like me, and it was easy to obey your will; but now you will to love me, and loving is as easy as unloving was.”