Their Ancestral Latch-String

by Annie Fellows Johnston

It was an ideal day for a picnic; mid-June in the heart of the Blue Grass. On the rose-covered back porch of an old Southern mansion two pretty girls were enthusiastically preparing for their day's outing. It did not cloud their happiness that Claribel had to iron her own shirt-waist for the occasion, or that the dainty lunch Wilma was packing into the basket would leave the larder almost empty. They had always been used to that order of things.

But old Mam Daphne, bumping her scrubbing-brush over the kitchen floor, shook her woolly head sadly. She could remember the time when every day was a gala day in the old mansion, because it was always overflowing with guests to be entertained with free-handed hospitality. Store-room and smoke-house were filled to overflowing then, and there was a swarm of negro servants always in attendance. It hurt the faithful old mammy's pride to see one of her young mistress's daughters bending over the ironing-board, and to hear the other exclaiming over the fried chicken and frosted spice cake in the picnic basket, when such luxuries had once been their family's daily fare. She was their only servitor, now, coming once a week to scrub and clean.



This morning she looked down the grass-grown walk to the broken-hinged gate and sighed. She was looking through a bower of climbing roses, but even the Gloire de Dijon, with its thousands of gold-hearted blossoms, could not hide the fact that the old place was fast going to decay.

To Claribel and Wilma, not yet out of their teens, repairs on the old house did not seem half so important as their own personal ones of shoe soles and skirt braids. It was their sister Agnes, ten years older, who shouldered all such worries.

There had been girls in the country place where they lived, girls of the best old families, too, who, feeling the pinch of poverty that followed the changed conditions of the South after the war, had gone away to teach school or learn typewriting. But Agnes, bringing up her sisters in strict accordance with the old family traditions, carefully weeded out of their young minds any such tendencies toward self-support. With the city only fifteen miles away, where they might have had the society and advantages they longed for, her prejudices and family pride kept them in their cage of circumstances, waiting helplessly like two irresponsible little canaries, for some outside hand to open the door.



"Honey," said Mam Daphne, pausing in her scrubbing as Claribel came into the kitchen for a hot iron, "I'se been studyin' ovah you-all's case right smaht, lately. You'se done had to move out'n de front o' de house, count o' de roof leakin', an' you shet up de west wing, so many windows was broke. Soon you-all will be movin' into de kitchen. Why don't you sell this great place fo' it goes clean to destruction, an' buy a little cottage jes' big enough fo' you three chillun? You'd be so much more comf'table."

"Sell Marchmont, Mam Daphne," cried Claribel. "Why, it has never belonged to any one but a Mason since the days of Boone! Besides," she explained, with the consideration they had always shown their mother's old nurse, "there'll be no need for it when sister's book is published. Last spring, when the Southern Sentinel gave her their book reviewing to do every week, we discovered that she had been at work for years on a novel of her own. When that is published she is going to take us to the city every winter. She'll be so rich and famous then we'll meet all the lions and people worth knowing. Wilma and I will study designing and take painting lessons, and we'll go to parties and concerts and have as many beaux as mamma had when she was young. And, best of all, we'll repair Marchmont, and you are to come and live with us again. That is part of sister's plan."

Mam Daphne listened with a look of incredulous wonder on her old face.

"Aw, go 'long, honey, you'se a-foolin' me!" she exclaimed, dipping her brush into the suds again. But an eager voice in the doorway made her look up to see the careworn face of the oldest sister.

"Yes, it's true, Mam Daphne," cried Agnes. "I am almost through, now, and as soon as these noisy children are off to the picnic I shall begin my last chapter. I am just in the mood for it, and I shall not even stop to get any lunch."

"Then I'll leave you a devilled egg and a spice cake to nibble on," said Wilma, "for there won't be a crust of bread left in the house when this lunch is taken out of it. I'm glad genius burns. What a heavenly day this is going to be for all of us!"

As she spoke, they were startled by a loud bang of the knocker on the big front door. Rarely in their remembrance had the great brass griffin's head sent that hollow booming through the hall. Since they had been living in the south wing the neighbours always came to the side entrance.

"Who can it be at this hour of the morning?" cried Claribel, dropping her iron and clutching at her light curly hair, which was always in pretty disorder. "We're none of us dressed to meet strangers. Run, Mam Daphne! How fortunate you are here to go to the door!"

A moment later the old coloured woman was fumbling at the long unused bolts, while the girls listened breathlessly at the dining-room door. It was a lady's voice that reached them. Evidently some one who had been at the house in its palmy days, for she recognised Mam Daphne as an old servant.

"I want to see all the young ladies, Daphne," she said. "Tell them that it is Mrs. Gorham, their mother's old friend and schoolmate, from Lexington. Tell them I am on my way to Louisville, and have taken the liberty of stopping off to spend the day, without sending them word." Then, as if to herself, they heard her say: "I've lived in Kentucky too long, and enjoyed Alice Mason's hospitality too often not to be sure of a welcome from her daughters."

Wilma sank down limply in a disconsolate heap on the floor. "Oh, sister, what shall we do?" she whispered to Agnes. "Must we give up the picnic, and that glorious ride home by moonlight, when it's probably the only outing of the kind we'll have this summer? The boys were going to take their banjos and mandolins, and they counted on us to help serenade—"

Claribel interrupted her with a grim face. "There's no help for it. Don't you see, Wilma, that we've got to give it up? Don't you know that everything fit to eat in the house went into that picnic basket? We can't go without it, and we can't take it and leave sister to entertain the company without its help. But oh, it's certainly too provoking! Why, of all days in the year, should she drop down on us to-day, when this is the first time she has been here since we were out of the nursery!"

"I'm afraid there's nothing left for us to do but to keep up the old traditions, and entertain her in the best style we can, dears," said Agnes, gently. "Poor mamma's best friend must be showed the hospitality that she always found here. But, oh, girls, I did hope to finish that book to-day! It may be weeks before I'm keyed up to the pitch again where I feel equal to writing the climax as it should be done."

There were tears in Wilma's eyes as she carried the lunch-basket into the pantry, but she giggled as, passing the old portraits on the stairs, as they went up to dress, Claribel shook her fist in their faces.

"That's what we get for having the latch-string of our ancestors in our keeping," she exclaimed. "It's pretty well frayed out by this time, and cannot stand many more strains like this. It seems to me that we are sort of acting a lie. Mam Daphne will wait on the table to-day, and Mrs. Gorham will see what a spread we have, and will think that we live that way all the time."

"Well," said Wilma, hopefully, "we will live that way all the time when sister's 'Romance of Carrington' is published. How good it will be to feel able to ask the girls to stay to lunch any time they happen to drop in, and not have to be wondering if the butter will hold out!"

Despite their disappointment, the day proved a pleasant one, for Mrs. Gorham brought with her a breath from the outside world for which they longed. She entertained them with stories of her travels, of her daughter's experiences at boarding-school and her son Tom's escapades at college. She praised Claribel's embroidery and Wilma's little water-colour sketches, and she left without discovering all the ravages time had wrought in beautiful old Marchmont. For they sat out on the porch nearly all day, and the rose mantle of the Gloire de Dijon hid a multitude of sins of omission in the way of neglected repairs.



Several days later, when Mrs. Gorham wrote to Agnes, thanking her for the pleasure the visit had given her, she added: "I have talked so much about Marchmont since my return, of its roses, of its hospitality and its charming girls, that Tom declares he intends to follow my example and drop by some day for a call. He may carry out his threat this summer, as a little business matter may call him to that part of the State. I have assured him your latch-string will be out to him as it was to me, for old time's sake. I shall be very glad to have him know the daughters of my old friend."

"Oh," cried Wilma, as Agnes read the letter aloud, "if he is half as interesting as his mother's tales of him, he must be a real Prince Charming. But, oh, girls, don't you hope he'll wait until 'Carrington' is out? It would be dreadfully embarrassing if, after his mother's account of our hospitality, we could give him only scraps. There can't always be a picnic basket to fall back on."

The prospective guest was often discussed during the summer that followed; and, although he never came, Wilma was always alarming the family, when affairs were especially unpropitious, by the query, "What if he should suddenly drop in upon us now?"

"There's no use of your crying 'wolf' any longer," said Claribel, impatiently, one rainy morning, near the middle of September. "He's surely gone back to college by this time. What if a letter did come to sister this morning, addressed in a strange handwriting? It is from some new man on the Sentinel, probably."

"At any rate," insisted Wilma, "I wish it had come before sister went to town, and if it should be from Mrs. Gorham's son, of all the unlucky days in creation, he couldn't have chosen a worse time to arrive. The situation is absolutely hopeless."

The two girls were in the attic, arrayed in their oldest wrappers. Claribel, with her curly hair carefully tied up in a towel, was ripping open an old feather bolster to convert it into sofa pillows. Wilma, dragging out dusty boxes from under the eaves, was looking through them for some remnants of linen for covers.

Their noses were blue with cold, for the wind whistled through the broken panes of the attic windows. Early that morning Agnes had started on her weekly trip to town to the Sentinel's office. Her face was white and set, and she had passed a sleepless night. The day before, her manuscript, that was to have made the fortunes of her little world, was returned to her from the publishers. It was more than a disappointment to the three who had counted so confidently upon its success. It was almost a tragedy in the shattering of such high hopes. An intangible sense of loss had weighed on their spirits ever since, almost as if some one lay dead in the great empty parlours below.

It was a desire to rid themselves of the strange feeling of desolation that brooded over the familiar rooms that sent the girls to the attic as soon as Agnes left. Mam Daphne had brought the mail, as she often did in rainy weather, and gone again. The sight of the letter addressed to Agnes had given rise to Wilma's usual supposition, and then silence followed for nearly an hour. It was broken by a sudden thundering of the griffin's head against the great front door. The girls' hearts seemed to leap up in their throats. They had not heard that sound since the June day of Mrs. Gorham's visit.

"Tom!" ejaculated Wilma, in a terrified whisper, looking wildly into Claribel's startled eyes. "Oh, we can't let him in! Neither of us is fit to go down, and there isn't a spark of fire in this big barn of a house, even in the kitchen stove."

"I can't go," announced Claribel. "I am simply covered with feathers. It will take an hour at least to pick them off."

Wilma held up two grimy hands, and pointed to the front breadth of her wrapper, which had been torn to ribbons on a lurking nail.

"Do you think he would recognise in either of us one of the 'charming girls of Marchmont' that his mother painted?"

"Maybe it's only a book-agent after all," suggested Claribel, hopefully. But the knocking sounded again, and Wilma shook her head.

"No, there was that letter to sister, you know, and it sounds just as I've imagined Tom would knock, from what his mother told of him—so peremptory and lordly, somehow, as if he wouldn't take no for an answer."

"What shall we do?" groaned Claribel, desperately. "Even if we were fit to go down, there's nothing but bread and tea for lunch. Oh, if sister were only home!"



While they hesitated and exclaimed and debated, they heard a step crunch on the gravel far below, and looking down, saw a dripping umbrella, a broad back, and two long legs striding down the walk. Just above the attic window where they crouched, a grinning gargoyle spouted a stream of water past the tiny diamond panes. Through this miniature cataract they watched their departing guest. At the gate he turned for a long backward look, and they had a glimpse of a handsome boyish face, as he gazed up at the stately pillared old mansion. The roses were gone, and the rain beating against it made it look unspeakably old and cheerless. All the front shutters were closed, and no smoke wreathed from any of its chimneys. Evidently he thought the place deserted, seeing no signs of life anywhere about it.

As his gaze wandered upward to the grinning old gargoyle, the girls hastily drew back. When they peeped out again, he had gone.

"Do you realise what we have done?" asked Claribel, with tears of mortification springing to her eyes. "We have kept still and acted another lie for the sake of our ancestral latch-string. Oh, why haven't we servants and plenty to eat and wear as they had in the good old times Mam Daphne tells about, so that we could always be at home to everybody?"

"And he looked so interesting," wailed Wilma. "I'd love to know a man like that—a real, wide-awake college fellow—and now he's walked right out of our lives as everything else worth while has done. Now that 'Carrington' has failed and sister lost hope—"

She did not finish the sentence, but sat there on the attic floor in a disconsolate little heap, staring out the tiny window while the rain beat a dirge on the leaky roof. Suddenly she was startled by Claribel scrambling to her feet.

"You hear me, Wilma Mason," she cried. "I'll never be mortified again in this way! I don't care what sister says, I am going to work for the honour of the family latch-string. I swear this shall never happen again." Her tragic manner was in such comical contrast to her befeathered appearance that Wilma laughed, for the first time since the return of the manuscript. Then they went down to rekindle the kitchen fire, and plan for the repairing of their family fortunes.

"I don't know what practical shape your fine resolutions will take," said Wilma, as they took their bread and tea at lunch, "but for my part, no one shall ever again look at that poor old broken-hinged gate with the quizzical glance Tom gave it. His very eyebrows seemed to say 'Lor', how shiftless!' I shall put on a new hinge myself as soon as it stops raining. There's a big box of screws and locks and things down in the granary, and the remains of a tool-chest."

Once started on her round of repairs, Wilma found herself viewing the entire premises from the standpoint of the sharp gray eyes that had looked so reprovingly at the broken-hinged gate.

"If Tom ever comes here again," she vowed to herself, "he shall not see this grand old place in such a pitiful state of dilapidation. I can at least see that the porch floor has paint, and the garden chairs more than three legs apiece. I feel that I have the making in me of a first-class carpenter." So here and there she went, hammering, and screwing, and puttying, and painting, finding an outlet for much latent energy, and a use for her long repressed, although long suspected mechanical ability.

Claribel's plans did not put themselves into practical shape so readily. For days she went about with a preoccupied air. There was some mysterious correspondence that Agnes wondered over, many hours spent in her room with locked doors. Then one day she stole down the stately stairway with a little valise in her hands.

"You needn't look at me in that way," she whispered, defiantly, as she met the disapproving gaze of the long line of family portraits. "It is to keep up your own old traditions that I am doing it."

Then something of the proud spirit of her ancestors seemed to take possession of her as she passed out of their patronising presence. It helped her to hold her head high, and carried her through a trying interview with the most fashionable dressmaker in the city, whither she had slipped away with some little models of children's dresses of her own designing and making.

At the end of an hour she came away triumphant. Madame, impressed by her references, quick to see the value of her original ideas, and shrewd enough to know how useful this artistic young girl could be to her, consented to her proposition to establish a department for the making of children's fancy costumes, of which Claribel was to be in charge. At first the woman named a salary so low that she would not have dared propose it, had she not thought that necessity had driven the girl to such a step. She was used to beating down her employees to absurdly low wages. Then it was that the pride of all her ancestors seemed to blaze out of Claribel's eyes, and she drew herself up haughtily.



"You know that the designing alone would be worth four times that sum, madame," she said, quietly. "If that is the best you can do, we will not discuss the subject farther."

Madame hastily retracted then. She knew it would never do to let this opportunity slip into the hands of a rival, and the names of Claribel's references were too prominent to overlook. So a little later, when the next train bore the excited young girl homeward, it was a triumphant voice that poured out the story of her success to Wilma, who met her at the gate.

"And at a salary that will put new shingles on old Marchmont," she cried, "and put Daphne in the kitchen, and picnic fare in the pantry every day."

"You needn't think you're going to do it all," exclaimed Wilma. "This very day I discovered all the old hothouse frames stored away in the carriage-house, as good as new; and Mam Daphne told me so many tales about the violets and the lettuce that used to be the boast of Marchmont every winter, that I went over to consult papa's old gardener. Sister has actually consented to let me try my hand at raising both. I haven't told her yet that it is my ambition to furnish the fashionable club houses this winter with extra fine lettuce at fancy prices. Poor sister! She'll be horrified, after all her precautions, to have one of us turn out a market-gardener and the other a dressmaker."

"Say designer, if you please, when you break my news to her, and tell her that my creative ability simply had to have an outlet of some kind, and that this will be a stepping-stone to my career as artist. Maybe that will help to soften the blow."

"Really, it was Tom who began it. He ought to have all the credit, or otherwise," said Wilma, as they passed on into the wide front hall. "I hadn't realised the condition of our family latch-string until I saw it through his eyes. Then I began to trace it back and found that it began in the door of a pioneer log cabin; and oh, what do you think, Claribel, the two ancestors we are proudest of, the ones we all quote the oftenest, and plume ourselves the most on being their descendants, had to dig and delve for everything they got. Old Mrs. Carter told me so this morning." She pointed to the two portraits that headed the long line. "Now if sister makes any objections to our plans, I'll just refer her to the first of the grandmammas who made our hospitality proverbial, and, hardening her hands with the work of the wilderness, was yet the truest gentlewoman of them all."