Read CHAPTER XVIII of Chicken Little Jane on the Big John , free online book, by Lily Munsell Ritchie, on


Mrs. Morton and Marian were sitting by the great open fire at the cottage sewing for Jilly. Jilly herself had constructed a wonderful vehicle of two chairs hitched to the center table, and she was vainly trying to persuade Huz and Buz to occupy seats in this luxurious equipage. Lazy Buz, having once been dragged up into a chair, stayed put, though he looked aggrieved, but Huz had his eye on the braided rag rug in front of the fireplace. The moment Jilly’s gaze was attracted elsewhere, he would jump softly down and curl up on the rug.

Marian had risen three times to restore him to Jilly because she mourned so loudly, but she finally began to sympathize with the pup.

“Let him be, Honey, you’ve got Buz for company. Huz doesn’t want to play.”

Jilly opened her mouth to wail. Then she suddenly changed her mind, climbed down, and going over to Huz began whispering vigorously into his ear. Her warm breath tickled Huz and he flopped his ear to drive away the annoying insect. Jilly beamed, calling joyfully to her mother: “Huz say ess, Mamma, Huz say ess.”

“But Jilly, Huz can’t talk.”

“He nod he’s ear, Mamma. Huz nod he’s ear.”

The unfortunate Huz went up into the chair once more.

Mrs. Morton glanced out the window where the March wind was whipping the bare branches of the cherry trees into mournful complaining. Eddying leaves fluttered from the heaps accumulated in fence corners or beneath the friendly shelter of the evergreens. A huge tumble weed went whirling down the road, passed on by each succeeding gust. In and out of the cedars, the robins were flying, prospecting for new nests. She pushed back her hair and sighed.

“It doesn’t seem possible that April is almost here. Ernest has been gone nearly a school year. I am beginning to realize that I sha’n’t see much more of my boy.”

“But, Mother Morton, he is doing so beautifully and he likes the life. You couldn’t keep him with you much longer, even if he were not in the academy. Besides, you still have Jane.”

Mrs. Morton sighed again.

“That is the worst of this ranch life. Jane is growing so fast I shall soon have to be sending her away to school. If we only lived some place where she could be right with me till she finished her education.”

“Oh, Mother Morton, I am glad she can’t. It is the best part of a girl’s education to go away from all the home coddling and have to rely upon herself. I wouldn’t give anything for what I learned by being away from family and friends, and having to exert myself to make people like me, instead of taking it for granted.”

“I don’t doubt what you say is true, Marian, but Ernest is gone, and you don’t know what a wrench it is going to be to send my baby away, too.”

“Are you thinking of sending her next year?”

“I think I must, unless I can persuade Father to move to town for the winter so she can go to the High School. It isn’t merely the studies I am most dissatisfied with her associations here.”

“I know the Creek is certainly a little crude. Still I think Jane is pretty sensible. And she is learning a lot about human nature human nature without its party clothes. It’s good for her, Mother, if she doesn’t get too much of it.”

“What’s good for whom?” Dr. Morton, coming in, was attracted by Marian’s earnest tone.

“Jane, and the effect District Thirteen is having on her,” Marian explained.

“I was just saying, Father, that she is getting too old to be associating with Tom, Dick, and Harry the way she is doing up at the schoolhouse.”

“There you go again, Mother. You don’t go about enough among the neighbors to know what good kindly people they are. Of course, they are plain, but the Tom, Dick, and Harry you complain of, are more wholesome than lots of more stylish youngsters I know. I wish you’d try to be a little more neighborly. I am constantly hearing little thrusts about our family being stuck up. Frank will bear me out in this.”

Frank had followed his father and was warming his hands in the blaze.

“Oh, the Creek thinks the Morton family has a good opinion of itself, all right. But I have been thinking for some time that it wouldn’t hurt us any to have some sort of a merry-making and invite all the neighbors in.” Frank looked at Marian.

“What could we have, Frank?” Marian inquired, her brow puckered a little.

“Well, April Fool’s Day is next Wednesday why not get up a frolic for that evening?”

“Just for the young folks?”

“No, men, women, and children. Invite the families. Send out an invitation to the whole Creek. There will be a lot who can’t come. Cook up plenty of stuff and we can play tricks they won’t need much entertaining. How would that suit you, Chicken Little?”

Jane had just strayed in to join the family group and was listening with interest.

“I think it would be bully.”

“Jane, where did you pick up such a coarse expression? Father, that’s just what I complain of. How am I to teach my daughter to be a gentle woman, when she is constantly hearing vulgar language?”

“Chicken Little is old enough to know better than to use such words, but she probably got that from Ernest or Sherm, if the truth were known.” Frank laughed.

Chicken Little looked injured.

“Why, bully isn’t a by-word or strong language and Ernest said it a lot. You never said anything to him about it’s being vulgar.”

“My dear daughter, can I never make you understand that little ladies may not do everything their brothers do?”

“I don’t care, Mother, I’m sick of hearing about ladies, and if bully is so vulgar, I don’t see why it isn’t vulgar when a boy says it. You expect Ernest to be a gentleman, don’t you, just as much as you do me to be a lady?”

“Come, Chicken Little, don’t speak to your mother that way,” Dr. Morton reproved her.

Mrs. Morton was more severe.

“You may go to your room and remain until you can address your mother respectfully, my daughter.”

Frank’s plan was carried out. There were no formal invitations issued. Frank and Dr. Morton and Jim Bart spoke to every neighbor they met for the next few days, inviting them to come to an April Fool frolic at seven on the evening of April first, and asking them to pass the invitation along to the other residents of Big John. Chicken Little and Sherm rode over to give Captain Clarke a special invitation, fearing he might not have become sufficiently used to Creek ways to come on the more general bidding.

The Captain was charmed and begged leave to send Wing over to help that evening. Wing delighted in every new experience he was having on the Creek. He grinned joyously at the prospect.

The entire Morton family entered into the preparations for this novel party with enthusiasm. Even Jilly and Huz and Buz caught the excitement of something unusual going on, and hung round, and got under everybody’s feet, more successfully than usual. Jilly had the privilege of scraping icing bowls while Huz and Buz looked enviously on. They licked their sticky chops ecstatically when Jilly turned the bowl over to them after she had done her best with the big tin spoon. Her mother reproached her for letting the pups eat out of one of the family dishes, but Jilly couldn’t see why her mother was so particular.

Mrs. Morton and Annie and Marian baked cakes and doughnuts and cookies and mince pies and custard pies, and roasted turkeys and whole hams, until pantry and cellar and spring house were all overflowing. It would be a never-ending reproach, if there should not be an abundance for all who might come, and no one could even guess how many would come.

“It looks like enough for a regiment,” said Mrs. Morton wearily, dropping into a rocking chair on the afternoon of the thirty-first day of March.

“Yes, but country men do have such astonishing appetites. I am sure it would feed all Centerville for twenty-four hours. Of course, some of the things are not eatable,” Marian replied.

They had carried out the April Fool idea as much as possible without spoiling the supper. Six nice brown doughnuts had wads of cotton concealed in their tempting rings. These were to be mixed with the good ones. Pickles just out of the brine, were to be put in the same dish with deliciously perfect ones. There was to be just enough of the false to keep the guests on the alert and make fun.

While they were sitting there resting, Frank and Dr. Morton came in from a trip to town. Frank tossed a package into Marian’s lap with a laugh.

“These ought to do the work for somebody. I’d like to fool old Jake Schmidt. It would be worth ten dollars to see his face he is such a screw about driving a bargain.”

Marian untied the string and opened the parcel, revealing a handful of the most luscious-looking little cucumber pickles that ever lured the unwary.

“They certainly look all right,” said Marian, “what’s the matter with them salt?”

“Feel them.”

Marian picked one up gingerly as if she were afraid it might prick her or explode in her hand. Then she threw back her head and laughed merrily.

“Frank, they are just perfect. I never should have guessed it. You can fetch Jake all right with one of these. Let me know when you do, I’d like to be round to see the fun.”

“Aren’t you afraid you will hurt somebody’s feelings with all these pranks? They don’t seem quite dignified some way for grown up people.”

“That’s just why we want to have them, Mother. The Creek thinks the Morton family is entirely too grown up and stiff. They’ll be good-natured, never fear.”

That evening Chicken Little and Sherm put their heads together.

“We just must find some way to fool Frank I sha’n’t be happy if we don’t.” Chicken Little bit her lips and studied. “Can’t you think of something, Sherm?”

“Not right off the bat, but if we keep our eyes open, we’ll find a way. It would be jolly if we could do it before the crowd. They would so love to see Frank have to take his own medicine. Say, this party is going to be a Jim dandy!”

It had been decided to have the gathering at the cottage, as the big sitting room and the bedroom adjoining would hold more people than Mrs. Morton’s parlor, sitting room, and dining-room all three. Further, the parlor, being separated from the other rooms by a short hallway, was of use only for some little group who wished to be by themselves. Sherm and Chicken Little were busy all day trimming up the pictures and the windows with evergreen and bitter sweet berries, mixed with trailers from the Japanese honeysuckle, which still showed green underneath where it had escaped the hardest freezes. Marian flitted in occasionally with suggestions, but the two did most of the work alone. Chicken Little began by giving Sherm precise directions as to how he was to arrange each branch and spray, but, presently, he began to try little effects of his own so much more charming than hers, that she called Marian in to see.

“You certainly have a knack for decoration, Sherm. I never dreamed you were artistic. Why didn’t you tell us? That spray against the curtain is exquisite. Have you ever taken drawing lessons?” Marian was both surprised and interested to discover this unexpected talent in the self-contained lad.

“No, I have never taken real drawing I used to copy little geometrical designs at school along with the rest.”

“Well, you surely ought to have lessons. I shouldn’t wonder if you had the making of an artist in you.” Marian hurried back to her custards.

Chicken Little went on tying evergreen into ropes, but Marian had put several new ideas into her head.

“Do you want to be an artist, Sherm?”

“No, I want to be an architect.”

“You never said anything about it before.”

“What’s the use of talking? Doesn’t look as if I would ever get the education to be one now.”

“Why, you can’t tell. Even if your father can’t send you, maybe you could work your own way Mr. Clay has.” Chicken Little looked troubled; Sherm’s tone revealed a yearning she had not suspected.

“Yes, I could work my way if I had the chance. I guess Father is never going to be well again and ” He paused for a moment as if it were hard to go on. “Even if he lives, I may have to keep at work to support the family. Mother never says anything, and Father never told me much about his business I don’t know how much we have, but I’m afraid there isn’t a great deal left.”

There was a hopeless ring in his voice that hurt Chicken Little. She wanted to double up her fist and attack somebody or something in Sherm’s behalf.

“I think they your mother ought to tell you.”

“Oh, Mother doesn’t realize I am most grown she she doesn’t think I amount to much I guess.” The boy had been brooding; his manhood affronted because he had not been permitted to share in the family councils.

“Don’t feel that way she doesn’t mean to leave you out, Sherm. You know it’s awfully hard to write things and you have been away most a year.”

“That’s just it. I’ve been away most a year, and Mother doesn’t even hint at my coming back!”

“But Sherm, she’s so worried all the time about your father.”

“All the same, I bet your mother wouldn’t forget about Ernest if your father was ill. I am the only boy in the family and I know I could help, if they’d only trust me. It’s being left out that hurts, Chicken Little. But forget everything I’ve said. I didn’t mean to blab this way. I s’pose Mother’s right I can’t even keep my own affairs to myself.” Sherm shut his lips together tightly.

Jane tactfully changed the subject.

“I suppose you’d have to know a lot to be an architect.”

“Yes, right smart I’d need a college education, and then I’d like to go to Paris and study at the Beaux Arts.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, it’s a school for architects and artists. I don’t know very much about it myself. The New York architect who designed the new court house at home told me I ought to go there, if I ever wanted to be a real honest to goodness architect. I had a talk with him one day. He said if I ever got ready to go, to write to him, and he would give me some letters to people in Paris.”

“My, wouldn’t that be grand to study in Paris? I most wish I was a boy they can do such wonderful things.”

The neighborhood gatherings began early. By half-past seven, hitching posts and trees and fence were all in use for the teams. Frank was pleased.

“If there is anything in numbers, this party is going to be a success. Sure you have plenty to eat?”

Marian groaned. “Frank, I am dead sure we have all the food we can possibly serve between now and midnight. I don’t see how we are ever to manage.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll impress about a dozen of the young folks as waiters they will like nothing better. The boys each have one more pair of hands than they know what to do with. Look at the Raddon boys over by the fireplace. They have put their hands in their pockets, and taken them out, and dropped them by their sides, and picked up every bit of bric-a-brac on the mantel, and smoothed back their hair, and Heaven knows what else, during the last ten minutes. Hands are an awful responsibility! It will be a Godsend to them to give them something to do.”

Chicken Little came out, after helping with wraps and seating guests, in a gale of merriment.

“Oh, Marian, do take a peep at Mrs. Brown. She has a purple skirt and a blue polonaise and a red bow on her hair, and she’s got her hair banged in front and pulled back tight as can be behind.”

“Hush, Jane, they’re our guests.”

“I know, and I didn’t mean to be making fun but Marian, she’s a sight! And Jake Schmidt’s wife and sister have the loveliest hand embroidered caps and aprons, with exquisite lace, that they brought from the old country, and some of the other women are sort of turning up their noses at them. I wish you’d go and say something extra nice to them.”

Marian found her way to where Christine and Johanna Schmidt were shrinking into a corner, painfully aware that their festal dress was very different from their neighbors’. Marian asked after the children and said one or two pleasant things to make them feel at home, then, raising her voice a trifle so that the whole room might hear, she lifted a corner of Johanna’s apron, exclaiming: “Where did you get this exquisite apron? I don’t believe I have ever seen such a beautiful one. May I look at the lace?”

Johanna colored with pleasure. She forgot her shyness and explained eagerly. Marian did not leave her until she had made every woman in that part of the room admire both hers and Christine’s old country handiwork, and they had promised to show her how to make the lace. There was no more smiling at their unusual dress. Others followed Marian’s example in asking to be taught the beautiful craft. Old Jake himself, who had never before considered his women folk as amounting to much, was so gratified by the attention they were receiving, that he was more offensive than usual.

“Never mind,” said Frank, “I’ll fix Jake.”

The early part of the evening passed in visiting and games. Supper was served at ten. There was a stir when the refreshments appeared. Word had gone about that there was to be some hoaxing in connection with the supper and everybody was firmly resolved not to be fooled. Marian allayed suspicion by starting them off with delicious coffee and rolls and cold ham and turkey. Having tasted these gingerly, and found them delicious, both young and old grew less wary. Chicken Little came in demurely with a great dish of pickles. The Creek loved pickles. It helped itself plentifully. Captain Clarke got the first taste of brine, but after one surprised grimace, he went on eating it heroically, while he watched the others. Old Jake promptly fixed his eye on a nice firm-looking green one. He lifted the fork awkwardly and attempted to take the pickle. The pickle slid from under the fork as if it had been greased. Jake was terribly afraid of being a laughing stock; he glanced slily around to see if any one had noticed. Frank was watching from the opposite side of the room, but Jake did not see him. He grasped the fork firmly in his great fist and speared the pickle as if he had been harpooning a fish. The pickle resented such violence. It shot out of the dish and half way across the room with old Jake, the fork still clenched firmly, gazing stupidly after it.

“April Fool, Jake!” called one of the men who saw the joke. Some one picked up the pickle and passed it from hand to hand. After that, people avoided the wooden pickles, but several took liberal bites of brine-steeped ones.

The fun was well under way by this time. So many people had been victimized that many refused the dainties they coveted, for fear of being deceived, only to find their next neighbor enjoying them. The guests began to try to catch each other, and the young men would get Marian to point out the traps. But, so far, Frank had escaped, though Sherm and Chicken Little had been plotting all day. They took Captain Clarke into their confidence, but even he failed, until he had the happy thought of getting Wing to help. Wing had been working busily in the kitchen assisting Annie.

Frank had steadily refused cotton wool doughnuts and sanded pie and every doubtful delicacy, but he was extremely fond of cup custard. When Wing approached him, urging that he be served now, Frank hesitated a moment, then said: “Just bring me a custard, Wing. And Wing, don’t let anybody meddle with it.”

Wing came grinning to the conspirators.

“Oh, dear,” said Chicken Little, “I think the custards are all right.”

Marian overheard. “Trust me, Chicken Little, I have one very special one for Frank I didn’t intend to have him crowing.”

Wing bore in a most tempting custard. Frank inspected it carefully to make sure it had not been tampered with. In so doing he attracted the attention of those round him. He took a generous spoonful and made a hasty dive for the kitchen amid lively applause from the whole room.

“What was in it?” The Captain was still shaking.

“Mustard Marian made it bad enough so he couldn’t hide it!” Chicken Little was dancing up and down in glee.

“Wing, you rascal, I’d like to choke you.” Frank was still sputtering.

Wing assumed a mournful expression. “Me velly sorry nobody touch, samee you say.”

It was the second of April before the last rattle of wheels died away down the lane.

“Well, Mother, I think it paid for the trouble,” said Dr. Morton, as they were starting homeward, his arms laden with chairs.

“Yes, I guess, perhaps, I have been inclined to stand too much aloof. That little Mrs. Anderson is really a cultured woman. She comes from Maine. I asked her to come and spend the day Tuesday.”

Marian’s comment was brief.

“Frank, I am dead, but I’m glad we did it.”

“So am I put out the light.” Frank was already half asleep.