The Watermelon Stockings

by Alice Caldwell Hegan

(Author of "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch")

"Jes' look at dat ornery little nigger!" exclaimed Aunt Melvy, as she deposited a basket of clothes on the cabin floor. "I lef her to clean up, an' to put de 'taters on to bile, an' to shoo de flies offen de twinses, an' I wisht you 'd look at her!"

Nell Tracy, who had come down with Aunt Melvy from the big house on the hill, viewed the culprit ruefully. 'Mazin' Grace was Aunt Melvy's eighth daughter, and had been named for her mother's favorite hymn, which began "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound." She was very short and very fat, and her kinky hair was plaited into ten tight pigtails, each of which was bound with a piece of leather shoe-string. At present she sat with her back propped against the door, her mouth wide open, and slept peacefully while the flood of her mother's wrath passed over her.

"'MAZIN' GRACE SLEPT PEACEFULLY." "'MAZIN' GRACE SLEPT PEACEFULLY."

"Oh, but, Aunt Melvy, won't you please let her come?" begged Nell, throwing off her sun-bonnet and letting down a tangle of yellow curls. "I have n't got anybody to play with me. Mother drove to town with father, and she said I was to get 'Mazin' Grace to stay with me."

"Why, I'se gwine to let her come, honey," said Aunt Melvy, "co'se I is. I wouldn't mek you cry fer nothin'! Only, I'se gwine to whup her fust. She ain't 'sponsible on her word, dat's what's de matter wid her. She done 'low to me she would n't wink her eyeball while I was gone. What you think I ketch her doin' one time?" Aunt Melvy's voice sank to a whisper. "She sewed, on a Sunday! She knowed as well as me dat w'en she gits to heben she'll hab to pick out ebery one ob dem stitches wid her nose."

Nell looked at the sleeper's round pug-nose and wondered how she would ever be able to do it. But it was no use thinking of the punishment in the next world, when an immediate whipping was promised in this; consequently she turned the whole battery of her eloquence upon Aunt Melvy, who in the end gave in.

"'AND I AM GOING TO WEAR THE WATERMELON STOCKINGS,' CRIED NELL." "'AND I AM GOING TO WEAR THE WATERMELON STOCKINGS,' CRIED NELL."

Ten minutes later the two little playmates were skipping down the avenue under the shady old beech-trees where their fathers had played together in the long ago.

"Is yer maw gwine lemme tek you to de Christian an' Debil Society?" asked 'Mazin' Grace, as they skirted the house, and made their way into the back yard.

"Yes," cried Nell, gleefully, "and I am going to wear the watermelon stockings!"

If 'Mazin' Grace had not been so black, a cloud might have been seen passing over her face. She was the sharer of all Nell's woes, and of all but one of her joys. The exception was the possession of the watermelon stockings.

These were a sort of heirloom among the children of the family, and were regarded with reverence and pride. They were of a peculiar shade of pink silk, with clockwork up the sides and sprays of white flowers embroidered over the instep. A long time ago they had belonged to Cousin Mary, who was quite a big girl now, and she had sent them to Uncle Robert's boy up in Ohio. He learned to waltz in them, and in time sent them to little Agnes in Virginia, who wore them for a year on state occasions, then sent them back to Kentucky to little Cousin Nell.

If ever a tempted soul longed for a forbidden treasure, 'Mazin' Grace longed for the watermelon stockings. "Effen they was mine, I'd give you one anyways," she argued with Nell, but to no avail.

In the back yard stood a big old chicken-coop, which had been cleaned out and nicely whitewashed for the children to use as a play-house. It had an upstairs and a downstairs, and a square little door that fastened on the outside with a wooden peg. Nell could climb in easily; but 'Mazin' Grace was too fat, and after many efforts she had given up, contenting herself with watching the play from outside.

To-day a doll funeral was in progress, and Nell, moving comfortably about inside the coop, arranged the broken bits of china in a spool-box, tied a sweeping piece of crape on her biggest doll, and allowed her imagination full swing in depicting the grief of the doll family.

'Mazin' Grace, sitting under the apple-tree outside, took little interest in the proceedings. The hot sun beat down on the long stretch of blue-grass, and up from the creek came the warm odor of mint; a fat old bumblebee hummed close to her head, but she did not stir. She was thinking about the watermelon stockings.

"NELL TIED A SWEEPING PIECE OF CRAPE ON HER BIGGEST DOLL." "NELL TIED A SWEEPING PIECE OF CRAPE ON HER BIGGEST DOLL."

Presently she began to move stealthily toward the coop, watching Nell cautiously from the corner of her eyes. "Ain't nobody to home but me an' her," she whispered to herself, "an' there wouldn't nobody know, an'—" With a deft movement she closed the small door and fastened it with the wooden peg. Then she turned, and, leaving the unconscious prisoner, sped softly up the garden path, through the basement, and up the stairs.

In Mrs. Tracy's bedroom was a wide old mahogany dresser with big glass knobs that seemed to glare unwinking reproof at 'Mazin' Grace as she opened the bottom drawer.

"Dis heah is where dey stays at," she said, tossing aside ribbons and laces in her eagerness. "Oh, goody, goody! Heah dey is!"

Tearing away the tissue-paper, she gazed with delight at the coveted stockings. The knobs might glare as much as they liked; the sparrows might scold themselves hoarse on the window-sill; 'Mazin' Grace was lost in the rapture of the moment, and refused to consider consequences. She traced the pattern of the embroidery with her stubby finger, she rubbed the silk against her cheek, and even tied one stocking around her head and stood on tiptoe to see the result in the mirror. The more she handled them the more reckless she became.

"I 'spect I 'se gwine to try dese heah stockin's on!" she said, with a giggle, as she drew the silken lengths over her bare, dusty feet. "Gee Bob! Ain't them scrumptious! I look lak a shore-'nuff circus lady!"

"CATCHING HER RAGGED SKIRTS IN EITHER HAND, SHE BOWED LOW TO HER IMAGE." "CATCHING HER RAGGED SKIRTS IN EITHER HAND, SHE BOWED LOW TO HER IMAGE."

She tipped the mirror in order to get the full reflection, and stood for a moment entranced. Then catching her ragged skirts in either hand, she bowed low to her image, and, after cutting a formal and elaborate pigeonwing, settled down to a shuffle that shook the floor. Music and motion were as much a part of 'Mazin' Grace as her brown skin and her white teeth. All Aunt Melvy's piety had failed to convince her of the awful wickedness of "shaking her foot" and "singing reel chunes." She danced now with utter abandon, and the harder she danced the louder she sang:

"Suzanne Goffin, don't you cry;
Take dat apron from your eye.
Don't let de niggers see you sigh;
You'll git a pahtner by an' by."

The small figure with its flying pigtails swayed and swung, and the pink legs darted in and out. Backward, forward, right glide, left glide, two skips sidewise. Her breath was almost gone, but she rallied her forces for a grand finale. With a curtsy to the bedpost and hands all around, she dashed into the rollicking ecstasy of the "Mobile Buck":

"Way up yonder in de moon,
Yaller gal lickin' a silver spoon.
Cynthy, my darlin', who tol' you so?
Cynthy, my darlin', how do you know?"
 

As she dropped panting on the floor, something arrested her attention. She held up her head and sniffed the air. It was a familiar odor that roused her conscience as nothing else could have done. Something burning usually meant that she had failed to watch the stove, and that catastrophe usually meant a whipping. She scrambled to her feet and ran to the window. Over across the road, the big barn where Mr. Tracy stored his grain was wrapped in flames. The wind was blowing from that direction, and it fanned the smoke into 'Mazin' Grace's eyes.

"Gee! Dat was a spark of fire," she cried, as she snatched her hand from the window-sill. She climbed out of the window upon the porch, and looked anxiously up and down the road. Nothing was to be seen save the long stretch of empty turnpike, with the hot sun beating down upon it. As she turned to go back inside the window, she stopped, horrified. On the cornice of the roof above her a glowing ember was smoldering dangerously. 'Mazin' Grace wrung her hands.

"Mammy said I was gwine to git burned up fer bein' so wicked. An' Marse Jim's house, what's belonged to we-all sence de wah! An' de settin'-room where we hangs up our stockin's ebery Christmas! An' dere ain't nobody to take keer ob it all but me! Oh, Lordy! Lordy! what mus' I do?—what mus' I do?"

As she stood there, wild-eyed and tearful, a thought made its way through the kinky hair into her bewildered brain. She darted back into the house, and reappeared with a broom.

"I'se gwine up dat ladder," she said with grim determination, "an' I'se gwine to sweep dem sparks off. An' effen I can't sweep 'em off I kin spank 'em out."

The fire at the barn was now raging; great volumes of smoke swept toward the house, heavily laden with live embers. 'Mazin' Grace, choking and frightened, wielded her broom with telling effect; no sooner did a spark touch the roof than it was brushed off into the long grass below. But they were coming faster and faster, and, watch as she would, she could not keep some of them from igniting the dry shingles. From side to side she scrambled, sweeping, beating, fighting the fire with all the strength in her little body. Her eyes smarted fiercely, her feet were bruised, the heat was suffocating; but 'Mazin' Grace never thought of deserting the post: she worked, as she had danced, with all her might and main, pitting her puny strength valiantly against that of the flames.

"FROM SIDE TO SIDE SHE SCRAMBLED, SWEEPING, BEATING, AND FIGHTING THE FIRE." "FROM SIDE TO SIDE SHE SCRAMBLED, SWEEPING, BEATING, AND FIGHTING THE FIRE."

But courage does not always bring success. Just when the fire at the barn began to subside, and the sparks ceased to fall on the roof, a tiny column of smoke began to curl up from the gabled roof of the porch. 'Mazin' Grace clambered down the ladder, and, sitting astride of the angle, worked her way outward toward the fire. She could not carry the broom, but if she could only reach the blaze perhaps she could beat it out with her hands! Excitement gave her fresh strength. On either side the roof sloped abruptly, but she worked her way on, inch by inch. Two shingles had caught—three! The smoke had changed into a blaze. Leaning over as far as she dared, 'Mazin' Grace stretched out her hand toward the flame. She could not reach it.

With a cry of terror and despair, she fell forward on the ridge; all her courage and strength suddenly deserted her—she could only cling there face downward, and sob and sob as if her heart would break. "Effen our house burns down, I want to die too," she whispered. "But Miss Lucy an' Marse Jim won't never know how I tried to take keer on it. 'Deed I did."

Up from the creek came the faint perfume of the mint; the sparrows scolded in the beech-trees. Nellie, who had broken her prison bars, called again and again from the playground, while slowly but surely up the roof crawled the ever-increasing flames. But 'Mazin' Grace heard nothing, saw nothing; she lay unconscious on the roof, an absurdly pitiful little figure in her ragged dress and pink silk stockings.


It was six weeks before 'Mazin' Grace's burns were sufficiently healed for her to walk. Mr. Tracy, hearing of the fire on his farm, had driven home just in time to save the child's life. His porch was completely destroyed; but the old homestead, with its host of memories and associations, stood intact—a monument to the faithfulness of a very naughty little girl.

Almost the first time 'Mazin' Grace was allowed to go out, she took Nell to the "Christian an' Debil" Society. She limped as she walked, for her feet were still tender from the recent blisters; but, in spite of the pain, her smile was one of unalloyed bliss. Two pairs of sturdy little legs were keeping step in two new pairs of watermelon stockings.