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- Half a Dozen Girls - 5/45 -


"Let's play hide-and-seek," suggested Jean; "it's so nice and dark up here, to-day."

"Wait a minute," interposed Florence. "Alan, we may as well tell you now: Jean is going to write a play for us to act, and you are going to be John Smith and have your head cut off."

"The mischief, I am!" with a prolonged whistle of surprise and disgust. "It strikes me I have something to say about what shall be done with my head."

"Stop using such dreadful expressions, Alan," said Molly primly. "You know mamma doesn't like to hear you say 'the mischief.'"

"Well, she didn't, 'cause she isn't here," returned Alan, in nowise abashed by his reproof. "And I don't believe she'd like to hear you girls planning to cut my head off, either."

"Oh, Alan, you goose!" said Polly. "John Smith's head wasn't cut off, for Pocahontas saved him, you know. All you'll have to do will be to lie down with your head on a stone, and have one of us girls get ready to hit you with a club."

"If you girls are going to manage the club," remarked the boy, with masculine scorn, "I'd much rather have you try to hit me, for then I'd be safe."

"That's a very old joke, Alan," said Jean, with disgust; "and besides, it isn't polite. You ought to be proud to be asked to have a part in our grand play."

"Will you act, or won't you?" demanded Polly sternly, as she seized him by his short, thick hair.

"Oh, anything to get peace," groaned Alan.

"Say yes, then."

"Yes."

"Very well. Now, you are to be ready whenever we want you; you are to do just what we want, and do it in just the way we want. Do you promise?"

"Yes, yes! But do hurry up and play something, or it will be dark before you begin."

"There!" said Polly, nodding triumphantly to the girls as she released him. "Didn't I tell you I'd get him to act?"

"You couldn't bribe him to keep out of it," said Jean, as they sprang up for their game.

The old attic was a favorite meeting-place for the V, who held high carnival there, now racing up and down the great floor and hiding in dark corners behind aged chests and spinning-wheels, now robing themselves in the time-honored garments which had done duty for various ancestors of the Hapgood family, and exchanging visits of mock ceremony, or inviting Mrs. Hapgood up to witness a remarkable tableau or an impromptu charade. Piles of illustrated papers filled one corner, and, when all else failed, the children used to pore over the sensational pictures of the Civil War, dwelling with an especial interest on the scenes of death and carnage. In another corner was arranged a long row of old andirons, warming-pans, and candlesticks, flanked by an ancient wooden cradle with a projecting cover above the head. Rows of dilapidated chairs there were, of every date and every degree of shabbiness,--those old friends which start in the parlor and slowly descend in rank, first to the sitting-room or library, then up-stairs, and so, by easy stages, to the hospital asylum of the garret. And up through the very midst of it all, midway between the two small windows which lighted the opposite ends of the attic, rose the huge gray stone chimney, like a massive backbone to the body of the house. What stories of the past the old chimney could have told! What descriptions of Hapgoods, long dead, who had warmed themselves about it! What secret papers had been burned in its wide throat! What sweet and tender home scenes had been enacted on the old settles ranged before its glowing hearths, which put to shame our tiny modern fireplaces and insignificant grates! But the old chimney kept its own counsel, and did not whisper a word, even to the swallows that built their nests in the crannies of its sides. If it had spoken, there would be no need for any one else to write of the doings of the V; for the chimney had silently watched the children day by day, and knew, better than any one besides, the simple story of their young lives.

"Now," Polly reminded them, as they were running down the stairs an hour later; "remember to come to-morrow at just three, all of you."

"What's up?" inquired Alan curiously.

"'Pilgrim's Progress,'" said Jean, as she leaped down from the fourth stair, and landed in an ignominious pile on her knees; "we're going to read it aloud together."

"I'm sorry for you, then," responded Alan. "Mother read it to me when I had scarlet fever, ever so long ago, and it's no end stupid."

"We're going to try it, anyway," said Polly, with an air of determination. "Come on, Jean; it's time I was at home. I'll see you to-morrow, girls."

CHAPTER III.

THE GIRLS TRY TO IMPROVE THEIR MINDS.

Polly's reading-club started off valiantly the next afternoon, and for an hour the girls read aloud industriously, while the rain pattered on the shingles above their heads. The experiment had all the charm of novelty, and the weather was in their favor, since there was little temptation to be out of doors; so, at the close of the first day, the reading was voted a great success. However, the next time there was a slight decrease in the interest, and Jean's suggestion as they sat down, that they should read for half an hour and play games the rest of the time, was hailed with delight by all but Polly, who was haunted by the possibility of being that "living disgrace" which Aunt Jane had pronounced her. Still, Polly was in the minority, and the change of programme was adopted. At the third meeting, Molly was the one to propose an adjournment at the end of the first quarter of an hour, and the girls were not slow to take advantage of the suggestion, and go rushing down-stairs, and out into the bright afternoon sunshine, to join Alan who was lazily swinging in the hammock, with his eyes fixed on the bits of white cloud that went drifting across the blue above him.

It was with an air of great decision that Polly marched up the attic stairs, two days later. She had purposely delayed her coming, and the others were anxiously awaiting her. The warm sun streamed in at the western window, and threw a golden light over the dainty summer gowns of the three girls who were in a row on the slippery haircloth seat of an old mahogany sofa, which had an empty starch-box substituted for its missing leg. Alan sat in front of them, placidly rocking to and fro, astride the cradle that he had dragged out into the middle of the floor, to serve as an easy-chair.

"Hurry up, Polyanthus," he remarked encouragingly. "These girls are scolding me like everything, and I want you to come and fight for me."

"Do help us to send him off, Polly," his sister begged. "He insisted on coming up here with us, even after I told him we didn't want him."

"Why don't you go out and play ball with the other boys, Alan?" urged Jean.

"Now, Jean, that's too bad!" said Polly, filled with righteous indignation. "It's not fair to twit Alan because there are some things he can't do."

"Let him be," said Florence; "he'll get so tired of it at the end of ten minutes, that nothing would tempt him to stay here."

"Good for you, Florence; you're a trump," returned Alan. "I promise you, I won't so much as speak, if you'll let me stay; but it's awfully dull doing nothing, and mother's bound I shan't play ball. You wouldn't catch me here, if I could."

"Ungrateful wretch!" exclaimed Polly, while Jean added,--

"No danger of your saying anything! You'll be sound asleep before we've read a page."

"What's the use of reading it, then?" was Alan's pertinent question.

"I'm sure I don't know," answered Florence. "It's one of Polly's ideas, or rather, Aunt Jane's."

"Aunt Jane ought to be ganched!" remarked Alan, with calm disrespect; for Polly made no secret of Aunt Jane's eccentricities, and they were a common subject of discussion among the V.

"I know it," confessed Polly, filled with shame at the thought of having such a relative.

"Come, Polly, what is the use of reading this poky old book?" urged Molly. "'T isn't doing any of us the least bit of good. I've listened just as hard as I could, and I'm sure I haven't any idea what it's all about, it's told in such a queer way."

Molly's use of the word "queer" said more than a dozen lesser adjectives. She had a singularly expressive manner of drawing it out, that threw untold meaning into its simple form. Alan used to declare that, if Molly once pronounced anything queer, its reputation was spoiled, as far as her hearers were concerned. This time Jean upheld her.

"It is very poky," she announced, as she pulled a bit of hair out from one of the holes in the cushion, and fell to picking it to pieces. "I think it's too warm weather for it, Polly. I don't care what Aunt Jane says; I'm not going to waste these glorious summer


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