The Scarlet Leaves
by Laura E. Richards
“The Committee will please come to order!” said Maine.
“What’s up?” asked Massachusetts, pausing in her occupation of peeling chestnuts.
“Why, you know well enough, Massachusetts. Here it is Wednesday, and we don’t know yet what we are going to do on Friday evening. We must do something, or go shamed to our graves. Never a senior class has missed its Frivolous Friday, since the school began.”
“Absolutely no hope of the play?”
“None! Alma’s part is too important; no one could possibly take it at two days’ notice. Unless–they say Chicago has a real gift for acting; but somehow, I don’t feel as if she were the person.”
“I should bar that, positively,” put in Tennessee. “In the first place, Chicago has not been here long enough to be identified with the class. She is clever, of course, or she could not have entered junior last year; but–well, it isn’t necessary to say anything more; she is out of the question.”
“It is too exasperating!” said Massachusetts. “Alma might have waited another week before coming down with measles.”
“It’s harder for her than for any one else, Massachusetts,” said Maine. “Poor dear; she almost cried her eyes out yesterday, when the spots appeared, and there was no more doubt.”
“Yes, I know that; she is a poor, unfortunate Lamb, and I love her, you know I do; still, a growl may be permitted, Maine. There’s nothing criminal in a growl. The question is, as you were saying, what shall we do?”
“We had a dance last week!” said Maine; “at least the sophomores did, and we don’t want to copy them.”
“The real question is,” said Tennessee, cracking her chestnut leisurely, “what does Maine intend to do? If she thinks we made her Class President because we meant to arrange things ourselves, she is more ignorant than I supposed her. Probably she has the whole thing settled in her Napoleonic mind. Out with it, Moosetocmaguntic!”
Maine smiled, and looked round her. The Committee was clustered in a group at the foot of a great chestnut-tree, at the very edge of a wood. The leaves were still thick on the trees, and the October sun shone through their golden masses, pouring a flood of warmth and light down on the greensward, sprinkled with yellow leaves and half-open chestnut burrs. Massachusetts and Tennessee, sturdy and four-square as their own hills; Old New York and New Jersey, and Maine herself, a tall girl with clear, kind eyes, and a color that came and went as she talked. This was the Committee.
“Well,” said Maine, modestly. “I did have an idea, girls. I don’t know whether you will approve or not, but–what do you say to a fancy ball?”
“A fancy ball! at two days’ notice!”
“Penobscot is losing her mind. Pity to see it shattered, for it was once a fine organ.”
“Be quiet, Tennessee! I don’t mean anything elaborate, of course. But I thought we might have an informal frolic, and dress up in–oh, anything we happened to have. Not call it a dance, but have dancing all the same; don’t you see? There are all kinds of costumes that can be got up with very little trouble, and no expense to speak of.”
“For example!” said Massachusetts. “She has it all arranged, girls; all we have to do is to sit back and let wisdom flow in our ears.”
“Massachusetts, if you tease me any more, I’ll sit back, and let you do it all yourself. Well, then–let me see! Tennessee–to tell the truth, I didn’t sleep very well last night; my head ached; and I amused myself by planning a few costumes, just in case you should fancy the idea.”
“Quack! quack!” said Massachusetts. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but you are a duck, and I must just show that I can speak your language. Go on!”
“Tennessee, I thought you might be an Indian. You must have something that will show your hair. With my striped shawl for a blanket, and the cock’s feather out of Jersey’s hat–what do you think?”
“Perfect!” said Tennessee. “And I can try effects with my new paint-box, one cheek stripes, the other spots. Hurrah! next!”
“Old New York, you must be a flower of some kind. Or–why not a basket of flowers? You could have a basket-work bodice, don’t you see? and flowers coming out of it all round your neck–your neck is so pretty, you ought to show it–“
“Or carrots and turnips!” said the irrepressible Massachusetts. “Call her a Harvest Hamper, and braid her lovely locks with strings of onions!”
“Thank you,” laughed Old New York, a slender girl whose flower-like beauty made her a pleasure to look at. “I think I’ll keep to the posy, Massachusetts. Go on, Maine! what shall Massachusetts be, and what will you be yourself?”
“Massachusetts ought by rights to be an apple, a nice fat rosy apple; but I don’t quite know how that can be managed.”
“Then I shall be a codfish!” said Massachusetts, decidedly. “I am not going to desert Mr. Micawber–I mean the Bay State. I shall go as a salt codfish. Dixi! Pass on to the Pine-Tree!”
“Why, so I might be a pine-tree! I didn’t think of that. But still, I don’t think I will; I meant to be October. The leaves at home are so glorious in October, and I saw some scarlet leaves yesterday that will be lovely for chaplets and garlands.”
“What are they? the maples don’t turn red here–too near the sea, I suppose.”
“I don’t know what they are. Pointed leaves, rather long and delicate, and the most splendid color you ever saw. There is just this one little tree, near the crossroad by the old stone house. I haven’t seen anything like it about here. I found it yesterday, and just stood and looked at it, it was so beautiful. Yes, I shall be October; I’ll decide on that. What’s that rustling in the wood? aren’t we all here? I thought I heard something moving among the trees. I do believe some one is in there, Massachusetts.”
“I was pulling down a branch; don’t be imaginative, my dear. Well, go on! are we to make out all the characters?”
“Why–I thought not. Some of the girls will like better to choose their own, don’t you think? I thought we, as the Committee, might make out a list of suggestions, though, and then they can do as they please. But now, I wish some of you others would suggest something; I don’t want to do it all.”
“Daisy will have to be her namesake, of course,” said Tennessee.
“Jersey can be a mosquito,” said Old New York; “she’s just the figure for it.”
“Thank you!” said Jersey, who weighed ninety pounds. “Going on that theory, Pennsylvania ought to go as an elephant, and Rhode Island as a giraffe.”
“And Chicago as a snake–no! I didn’t mean that!” cried Maine.
“You said it! you said it!” cried several voices, in triumph.
“The Charitable Organ has called names at last!” said Jersey, laughing. “And she has hit it exactly. Now, Maine, what is the use of looking pained? the girl is a snake–or a sneak, which amounts to the same thing. Let us have truth, I say, at all hazards.”
“I am sorry!” said Maine, simply. “I am not fond of Chicago, and that is the very reason why I should not call her names behind her back. It slipped out before I knew it; I am sorry and ashamed, and that is all there is to say. And now, suppose we go home, and tell the other girls about the party.”
The Committee trooped off across the hill, laughing and talking, Maine alone grave and silent. As their voices died away, the ferns nodded beside a great pine-tree that stood just within the border of the wood, not six yards from where they had been sitting. A slender dark girl rose from the fern-clump in which she had been crouching, and shook the pine-needles from her dress. Very cautiously she parted the screen of leaves, and looked after the retreating girls.
“That was worth while!” she said; and her voice, though quiet, was full of ugly meaning. “Snakes can hear, Miss Oracle, and bite, too. We’ll see about those scarlet leaves!”
“Tra la, tra lee, I want my tea!”
Sang Tennessee, as she ran up-stairs. “Oh, Maine, is that you? my dear, my costume is simply too perfect for anything. I’ve been out in the woods, practising my war-whoop. Three yelps and a screech; I flatter myself it is the most blood-curdling screech you ever heard. I’m going to have a dress-rehearsal now, all by myself. Come and see–why, what’s the matter, Maine? something is wrong with you. What is it?”
“Oh! nothing serious,” said Maine, trying to speak lightly. “I must get up another costume, that’s all, and there isn’t much time.”
“Why! what has happened?”
“The scarlet leaves are gone.”
“Gone! fallen, do you mean?”
“No! some one has cut or broken every branch. There is not one left. The leaves made the whole costume, you see; it amounts to nothing without them, merely a yellow gown.”
“Oh! my dear, what a shame! Who could have taken them?”
“I cannot imagine. I thought I would get them to-day, and keep them in water over night, so as to have them all ready to-morrow. Oh, well, it can’t be helped. I can call myself a sunflower, or Black-eyed Susan, or some other yellow thing. It’s absurd to mind, of course, only–“
“Only, being human, you do mind,” said Tennessee, putting her arm round her friend’s waist. “I should think so, dear. We don’t care about having you canonized just yet. But, Maine, there must be more red leaves somewhere. This comes of living near the sea. Now, in my mountains, or in your woods, we could just go out and fill our arms with glory in five minutes, whichever way we turned. These murmuring pines and–well, I don’t know that there are any hemlocks–are all very splendid, and no one loves them better than I do; but for a Harvest festival decoration, ‘Ils ne sont pas la dedans,’ as the French have it.”
“Slang, Tennessee! one cent!”
“On the contrary; foreign language, mark of commendation.
“But come now, and see my war-dance. I didn’t mean to let any one see it before-hand, but you are a dear old thing, and you shall. And then, we can take counsel about your costume. Not that I have the smallest anxiety about that; I’ve no doubt you have thought of something pretty already. I don’t see how you do it. When any one says ‘Clothes’ to me, I never can think of anything but red flannel petticoats, if you will excuse my mentioning the article. I think Black-eyed Susan sounds delightful. How would you dress for it? you have the pretty yellow dress all ready.”
“I should put brown velveteen with it. I have quite a piece left over from my blouse. I’ll get some yellow crepe paper, and make a hat, or cap, with a brown crown, you know, and yellow petals for the brim; and have a brown bodice laced together over the full yellow waist, and–“
The two girls passed on, talking cheerfully–it is always soothing to talk about pretty clothes, especially when one is as clever as Maine was, and can make, as Massachusetts used to say, a court train out of a jack-towel.
A few minutes after, Massachusetts came along the same corridor, and tapped at another door. Hearing “Come in!” she opened the door and looked in.
“Busy, Chicago? beg pardon! Miss Cram asked me, as I was going by, to show you the geometry lesson, as you were not in class yesterday.”
“Thanks! come in, won’t you?” said Chicago, rising ungraciously from her desk, “I was going to ask Miss Cram, of course, but I’m much obliged.”
Massachusetts pointed out the lesson briefly, and turned to go, when her eyes fell on a jar set on the ground, behind the door.
“Hallo!” she said, abruptly. “You’ve got scarlet leaves, too. Where did you get them?”
“I found them,” said Chicago, coldly. “They were growing wild, on the public highway. I had a perfect right to pick them.”
There was a defiant note in her voice, and Massachusetts looked at her with surprise. The girl’s eyes glittered with an uneasy light, and her dark cheek was flushed.
“I don’t question your right,” said Massachusetts, bluntly, “but I do question your sense. I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe those leaves are very good to handle. They look to me uncommonly like dogwood. I’m not sure; but if I were you, I would show them to Miss Flower before I touched them again.”
She nodded and went out, dismissing the matter from her busy mind.
“Spiteful!” said Chicago, looking after her sullenly.
“She suspects where I got the leaves, and thinks she can frighten me out of wearing them. I never saw such a hateful set of girls as there are in this school. Never mind, sweet creatures! The ‘snake’ has got the scarlet leaves, and she knows when she has got a good thing.”
She took some of the leaves from the jar, and held them against her black hair. They were brilliantly beautiful, and became her well. She looked in the glass and nodded, well pleased with what she saw there; then she carefully clipped the ends of the branches, and put fresh water in the jar before replacing them.
“Indian Summer will take the shine out of Black-eyed Susan, I’m afraid,” she said to herself. “Poor Susan, I am sorry for her.” She laughed; it was not a pleasant laugh; and went back to her books.
“What a pretty sight!”
It was Miss Wayland who spoke. She and the other teachers were seated on the raised platform at the end of the gymnasium. The long room was wreathed with garlands and brilliantly lighted, and they were watching the girls as they flitted by in their gay dresses, to the waltz that good Miss Flower was playing.
“How ingenious the children are!” Miss Wayland continued. “Look at Virginia there, as Queen Elizabeth! Her train is my old party cloak turned inside out, and her petticoat–you recognize that?”
“I, not!” said Mademoiselle, peering forward. “I am too near of my sight. What ees it?”
“The piano cover. That Persian silk, you know, that my brother sent me. I never knew how handsome it was before. The ruff, and those wonderful puffed sleeves, are mosquito-netting; the whole effect is superb–at a little distance.”
“I thought Virginie not suffeeciently clayver for to effect zis!” said Mademoiselle. “Of custome, she shows not–what do you say? –invention.”
“Oh, she simply wears the costume, with her own peculiar little air of dignity. Maine designed it. Maine is costumer in chief. The Valiant Three, Maine, Massachusetts, and Tennessee, took all the unpractical girls in hand, and simply–dressed them. Entre nous, Mademoiselle, I wish, in some cases, that they would do it every day.”
“Et moi aussi!” exclaimed Mademoiselle, nodding eagerly.
“Maine herself is lovely,” said Miss Cram. “I think hers is really the prettiest costume in the room; all that soft brown and yellow is really charming, and suits her to perfection.”
“Yes; and I am so glad of it, for the child was sadly disappointed about some other costume she had planned, and got this up almost at the last moment. She is a clever child, and a good one. Do look at Massachusetts! Massachusetts, my dear child, what do you call yourself? you are a most singular figure.”
“The Codfish, Miss Wayland; straight from Boston State-House. Admire my tail, please! I got up at five o’clock this morning to finish it, and I must confess I am proud of it.”
She napped her tail, which was a truly astonishing one, made of newspapers neatly plaited and sewed together, and wriggled her body, clad in well-fitting scales of silver paper. “Quite a fish, I flatter myself?” she said, insinuatingly.
“Very like a whale, if not like a codfish,” said Miss Wayland, laughing heartily. “You certainly are one of the successes of the evening, Massachusetts, and the Mosquito is another, in that filmy gray. Is that mosquito-netting, too? I congratulate you both on your skill. By the way, what does Chicago represent? she is very effective, with all those scarlet leaves. What are they, I wonder!”
Massachusetts turned hastily, and a low whistle came from her lips. “Whew! I beg pardon, Miss Wayland. It was the codfish whistled, not I; it’s a way they have on Friday evenings. I told that girl to ask Miss Flower about those leaves; I am afraid they are–oh, here is Miss Flower!” as the good botany teacher came towards them, rather out of breath after her playing.
“Miss Flower, what are those leaves, please? those in Chicago’s hair, and on her dress.”
Miss Flower looked, and her cheerful face grew grave.
“Rhus veneneta” she said; “poison dogwood.”
“I was afraid so!” said Massachusetts. “I told her yesterday that I thought they were dogwood, and advised her to show them to you before she touched them again.”
“Poor child!” said kind Miss Flower. “She has them all about her face and neck, too. We must get them off at once.”
She was starting forward, but Miss Wayland detained her.
“The mischief is done now, is it not?” she said. “And after all, dogwood does not poison every one. I have had it in my hands, and never got the smallest injury. Suppose we let her have her evening, at least till after supper, which will be ready now in a few minutes. If she is affected by the poison, this is her last taste of the Harvest Festivities.”
They watched the girl. She was receiving compliments on her striking costume, from one girl and another, and was in high spirits. She glanced triumphantly about her, her eyes lighting up when they fell on Maine in her yellow dress. She certainly looked brilliantly handsome, the flaming scarlet of the leaves setting off her dark skin and flashing eyes to perfection.
Presently she put her hand up to her cheek, and held it there a moment.
“Aha!” said Massachusetts, aloud. “She’s in for it!”
“In for what?” said Maine, who came up at that moment. Following the direction of Massachusetts’ eyes, she drew her apart, and spoke in a low tone. “I shall not say anything, Massachusetts, and I hope you will not. Don’t you know?” she added, seeing her friend’s look of inquiry. “Those are my scarlet leaves.”
“Yes. I have found out all about it. Daisy lingered behind the rest of us the other day, when I had been telling you all about the leaves, to pick blackberries. She saw Chicago come out of the wood a few minutes after we left, looking black as thunder. Don’t you remember, I thought I heard a rustling in the fern, and you laughed at me? She was hidden there, and heard every word we said. Next day the leaves were gone, and now they are on Chicago’s dress instead of mine.”
“And a far better place for them!” exclaimed Massachusetts, “though I am awfully sorry for her. Oh! you lucky, lucky girl! and you dear, precious, stupid ignoramus, not to know poison dogwood when you see it.”
“Poison dogwood! those beautiful leaves!”
“Those beautiful leaves. That young woman is in for about two weeks of as pretty a torture as ever Inquisitor or Iroquois could devise. I know all about it, though there was a time when I also was ignorant. Look! she is feeling of her cheek already; it begins to sting. Tomorrow she will be all over patches, red and white; itching–there is nothing to describe the itching. It is beyond words. Next day her face will begin to swell, and in two days more–the School Birthday, my dear–she will be like nothing human, a mere shapeless lump of pain and horror. She will not sleep by night or rest by day. She will go home to her parents, and they will not know her, but will think we have sent them a smallpox patient by mistake. Her eyes–“
“Oh, hush! hush, Massachusetts!” cried Maine. “Oh! poor thing! poor thing! what shall I do? I feel as if it were all my fault, somehow.”
“Your fault that she sneaked and eavesdropped, and then stole your decoration? Oh! come, Maine, don’t be fantastic!”
“No, Massachusetts, I don’t mean that. But if I had only known, myself, what they were, I should never have spoken of them, and all this would never have happened.”
“The moral of which is, study botany!” said Massachusetts.
“I’ll begin to-morrow!” said Maine.
* * * * *
“And what is to be the end of the dogwood story, I wonder!” said Tennessee, meeting Massachusetts in a breathless interval between two exercises on the School Birthday, the crowning event of the Harvest Festivities at Miss Wayland’s. “Have you heard the last chapter?”
“No! what is it?”
“Maine is in a dark room with the moaning Thing that was Chicago, singing to her, and telling her about the speeches and things last night. She vows she will not come out again to-day, just because she was at chapel and heard the singing this morning; says that was the best of it, and she doesn’t care much about dancing. Maine! and Miss Wayland will not let us break in the door and carry her off bodily; says she will be happier where she is, and will always be glad of this day. I’ll tell you what it is, Massachusetts, if this is the New England conscience I hear so much about, I’m precious glad I was born in Tennessee.”
“No, you aren’t, Old One! you wish you had been born in Maine.”
“Well, perhaps I do!” said Tennessee.