Little Mitchell's Lady Comes
B aby Mitchell was an August squirrel. That is, he was born in the month of August. His pretty gray mother found a nice hole, high up in the crotch of a tall chestnut tree, for her babies' nest; and I know she lined it with soft fur plucked from her own loving little breast,—for that is the way the squirrel mothers do.
This chestnut tree grew on the side of a steep mountain,—none other than Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain peak in all the eastern half of the United States. It is in North Carolina, where there are a great many beautiful mountains, but none of them more beautiful than Mount Mitchell, with the great forest trees on its slopes. One of these forest trees was the big chestnut where Baby Mitchell was born. In the warm and lovely summer he lay safe in his snug nest twenty feet above the ground.
How many little brothers and sisters there were, I do not know, for a very sad thing happened, and all of them died but Little Mitchell. I must tell you what this sad thing was that happened to the little squirrels.
There was a small log-cabin at the foot of the mountain, and here lived a father and mother and a very large family of very small children. There was no other house near; and the father had to go a great many miles through the woods to his work in a saw-mill that some one had set up in the mountains.
And the children had to go such a long way to school, over little rivers that they crossed on narrow foot-logs; and through deep shady woods, where the sun could scarcely send a ray down through the tops of the tall trees; and under tangled rhododendron bushes that were often like little trees they were so large, and in the summer time were covered with masses of splendid white flowers.
Yes, it was a beautiful forest, though it was very, very wild; but there were no dangerous animals to hurt the children, excepting once in a while a long rattlesnake that wiggled out of the way as fast as it could if anybody came along.
The children loved their forest home, and they could run across the foot-logs without slipping into the little rivers, for they had no shoes, and their pretty bare feet had learned to cling to whatever they touched, like the feet of the wild animals, and they, you know, never tumble down or slip on a log.
When the children had run across the foot-logs, and danced through the dark woods, and skipped along under the rhododendrons far enough, they came to the schoolhouse.
You would be surprised to see this schoolhouse, for it was only a little log-hut with one room; and the seats were just rough benches, and there were no desks and no blackboards.
The schoolhouse stood on the bank of a little river; and all the children who lived "yon side" the river, as they say there, had to come to school over a long and narrow foot-log. But this log had a railing to hold on by, and the children did not mind going over it any more than you mind walking on the sidewalk. You see, they had their bare feet to cling with.
But they did not have to cross the log to go to the schoolhouse very often, for it is almost always "vacation" in the mountains. Sometimes the children go to school three months in the year, but very often there is school for only six weeks at a time. So they have to make the most of the good times, when they all meet together, and play with each other, and learn to read a little.
It would be fun to tell you about the little girls who came from ever so far, barefooted and sunbonneted, and the little boys who came from ever so far, barefooted with ragged caps on their heads, to this queer school. And it would be fun to tell of what they did in school, and of the sport they had at recess, playing in the river that ran so close to the schoolhouse door, and in the woods, all full of wild flowers, where the rabbits scampered under the trees, showing nothing but a tuft of white down which was their tail. But up in the trees gray squirrels ran about, with tails all big and bushy, and not white at all. It would be fun to tell about these things,—but there is little Baby Mitchell waiting for us up in the top of the chestnut tree, and we must hurry and take him down.
But first we must go back to the little log-cabin at the foot of the mountain, and wait for the lady to come along; because, you see, the story all turns on the coming of the lady.
One August day, toward night, when it began to get very cool at the foot of the high mountain, the mother of the little children who lived in the log-cabin was very much astonished. The little children were very much astonished too. The dog was so astonished that he forgot to bark; and the very cabbages and cornstalks that grew in the clearing in front of the cabin no doubt were also very much astonished.
Such a thing had never happened before; for coming along the path out of the woods were two strangers,—a lady from away off, and a mountain man who was acting as her guide.
The lady, on her part, was very much astonished too. She wanted to climb to the top of Mount Mitchell; and somebody had told somebody who had told her that the shortest way up was from a house at the foot, on the east side of the mountain, and that this house was a little hotel where strangers usually went to spend the night before starting up the high mountain.
So the lady came from away off, until she got within a few miles of the foot of the high mountain. Here she spent the night in a farmhouse, and next morning took a mountain man for a guide, who said he knew the way; and they started to walk to the little hotel, which she found was no hotel at all, but only the tiny log-cabin where the father and mother and their children lived.
The lady had to walk, because that was the only way to get there. There was no road through the forest, only a narrow path that went waggling along over rocks and rivers and tangly tree-roots, and nobody but a mountaineer could have found it. The lady followed her guide miles and miles, and would have felt very tired, only the air is so refreshing up by the big mountain that you cannot feel very tired, not if you walk ever so far.
The lady wore shoes, of course, and she could not get through the woods and over the foot-logs as easily as the little barefooted children. But at last, just before dark, they crossed one more stream over a particularly small and wabbly foot-log, and there they were.
"That is the house," said the guide, as they came out into the clearing where the cabbages and corn-stalks were growing.
"Where?" said the lady.
"There," said the guide, pointing to the cabin.
It was then that the lady felt very much astonished.
Ladies always feel very much astonished in these mountains, because nothing ever turns out as they expect.
This lady had expected to find a little hotel, you remember.
But where is Baby Mitchell all this time? you are asking.
Oh, he is safe enough yet. Nothing at all has happened to him, and you must wait patiently until it is time for something to happen.
The lady is very tired, remember,—or at least as tired as anybody can be in that enchanted forest; and she is hungry, and must have her supper.
When the mother of the little children saw the lady coming, she was glad as well as astonished, and ran to meet her.
"Law me! You must be plumb tired out," she said. "Come right along in, and set down and rest yourself. We hain't got much, but what we have got you're welcome to."
That is the way the mountain people always talk. Their grammar is all wrong, but their hearts are all right,—and a good heart is worth a great deal more than good grammar; don't you think so?
So the lady went in. There was nothing else to do. She couldn't possibly have gone back all that way through the forest and across the rivers at night, you know. And though the log-house was so small and so crowded, she felt that she was not in the way, the mother and all the little children looked so friendly at her.
She was quite a wonderful lady,—or at least so thought that family in the woods; for while the little children stood looking at her, what do you think?
There she sat—with a doll in her hands!
It was a little doll, but it had real hair, and when you laid it down it shut its eyes.
The little children who lived in the cabin had never seen a doll in their long lives before,—never.
But they knew right away what it was for. So did the lady. She knew very well it was meant for children to play with; and presently she laid it in the arms of one of the little girls. And the little girl grabbed it tight in both hands, as if she were afraid it would run away. Then she laid it up over her shoulder, with its curly head in the hollow of her neck, just as her mother held the baby, and she patted it softly with a gentle motherly touch of her chubby little hand, and, oh, how her eyes did shine!
Then, wonder of wonders!—there was another doll in the lady's hand, and she put it into the arms of another little girl; and still another doll came out of her pocket, or somewhere, for the third little girl; and the three dolls were all as much alike as two peas.
It was all wonderful. The three little girls would have thought Christmas had come in the middle of the summer, if they had known anything about Christmas, which they did not. Yet they were very good and pretty little girls, and they had lovely rivers to play in, and a great splendid mountain to look at all their lives.
Of course there were some boys,—three of them; and they were about as much interested in the wonderful dolls as were their little sisters. That is, they were until the lady took out of the bag which the guide carried a new jack-knife with two shiny blades; then the boys' eyes got very shiny too. None of them had ever owned a knife. Their father had one, and when he was at home the boys used to borrow it to whittle the ends of sticks into brushes to kindle the fire with; for there was never a scrap of paper with which to start a fire.
You can imagine how those three boys felt when the lady gave each of them a new knife! You can imagine how they felt, I say; but they could not have told you. They really didn't know themselves; for they had never felt that way before.
What are you asking?—are we never coming to Little Mitchell?
Yes; but we must have supper first.
What has supper to do with it?
Oh, everything. For now that the lady is found, the whole story turns on the supper.
If it hadn't been for the supper, the lady would not have found Little Mitchell, and you would never have known a thing about him.
You see, the people who lived in the cabin had nothing to eat but corn-pone, which is a kind of coarse corn-bread baked in the ashes; for they had no stove,—nothing but a big stone fireplace to do their cooking in.
There was nothing but corn-pone and fried cabbage there to eat. So when the lady came, the father took his gun (he had just got home from the saw-mill) and went out to get some meat for supper.
After a little while he came back with a large gray squirrel; and pretty soon they all had a nice hot supper of corn-pone, fried cabbage, and squirrel-pie.
Now squirrel-pie is really no worse than chicken-pie or veal-pie or mutton-pie; but it sounds worse. And of course nobody knew that the squirrel that went into the pie was a poor little mother bunny with a nestful of young babies.
I should like to tell you how the lady spent the night in the log-cabin, which had only two rooms for its eleven occupants, counting the lady and her guide who were not expected, and not counting the very littlest baby and the next biggest baby and the three-year old baby, who were all tucked away somewhere—under one of the beds, I think—before supper.
I say I should like to tell you about that strange night; only, of course, you would not listen, with Baby Mitchell waiting up in his tree to be rescued.
But I must say that many rooms do not make kinder hearts or better manners than the lady found in those two crowded little rooms of the log-house.
The lady was not used to living as her new friends had to live, and she could not get used to it in time to go to sleep that night. So when morning came she should have felt very tired after the long walk of the day before and the sleepless night. But, remember, she was in an enchanted forest,—that is, it seemed to have enchanted air, for the moment she got out in the morning and breathed deep of the pure high air she felt as fresh as she ever felt in her life.
And the school-teacher did look so fresh and pretty!
Who was the school-teacher?
Why, she was just the schoolteacher. She was young and pretty, and the little children loved her, and went to school every morning with her through the deep woods and over the many rivers.
She lived at their house during term-time, and she had just come, for school was to begin the next Monday. Her own home was in another part of the mountains.
When the lady asked her how she liked living out in
this wild and lonely place, and teaching in the wild
and lonely schoolhouse, she smiled until her pretty
white teeth showed, and
"Oh, I like it splendid."
So you see the little children had good reason to love her.