Their Ancestral Latch-String
by Annie Fellows
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
"IT HURT THE FAITHFUL OLD MAMMY'S PRIDE"
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
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.
"PAUSING IN HER SCRUBBING"
"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
"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
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
"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
"SHE ENTERTAINED THEM WITH STORIES OF HER TRAVELS"
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
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
"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!"
"AT THE GATE HE TURNED FOR A LONG BACKWARD LOOK."
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
"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
"'YOU NEEDN'T LOOK AT ME IN THAT WAY,' SHE WHISPERED,
"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
"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."