A Live Dummy by Mrs. Molesworth

The Merediths were spending the autumn on the French coast, at a sea-bathing place called Sablons-sur-mer. It is a nice bright little place. I am afraid the inhabitants would be offended if they heard it called "little," for they think it a very important town! It consists of two long streets—one facing the sea, one inland, where the shops and the houses of the people who live there all the year round, are. And between these two streets run smaller ones—so small that they are more passage-ways than streets. The most imposing one is called an "arcade"; in it are the best shops, a bazaar of all sorts of fancy things to delight children's eyes, from tin buckets and spades to dig with in the sands, to rocking-horses, though not of a very expensive kind. At one corner of this arcade is a large, ready-made tailor's establishment; this shop, for reasons I will explain to you, divided the children's attention with the bazaar.

There were ever so many Merediths; three girls and two boys and a couple of cousins. The Sablons people are accustomed to English visitors, so the sight of this band of children was not startling to them; and the little messieurs, and the jeunes mees, soon had several friends in the place, whom they never passed without a friendly nod and a bon jour or bon soir, as the case might be.

The cousins I have mentioned were not with the Merediths on their first arrival. There had been some doubt of finding a house large enough to take the whole party in, so Bessie and Hugh had waited at their own home in the country in England in a state of frantic anxiety, till one fine day came a letter from their aunt with the delightful news that the children might be despatched as soon as they could be got ready.

Bessie and Hugh had never paid a visit to France before; so the two new-comers had plenty of "guides" to explain everything to them, and show them the "lions" of Sablons-sur-mer. Only one condition was made by Lilian, the eldest and nearly "grown up" Meredith girl. Bessie and Hugh must manage not to seem like English tourists "gaping about with guide-books in their hands, and looking as if they had never been out of an English country village."

"But we scarcely ever have been," said Bessie; "at least, only when we go to grandmamma's at Cheltenham, and Hugh was once three days in London."

"That doesn't matter," said Miss Meredith; "you needn't look like some of the English people one sees over here. I feel quite ashamed sometimes to own them for my country people."

Bessie was too much in awe of her big cousin to ask her to explain more exactly what it was she was not to do, or to "look." But she resolved to herself to be on her very best behaviour, and Madge and Letty assured her it would be "all right"—she needn't talk French when there was any one who "mattered" to hear, and she needn't seem as if things were strange to her, that was what Lilian minded.

"Mayn't I look in at the shop-windows, even?" asked Bessie, rather dolefully.

Shop-windows were very delightful and charming to the little country cousin.

"Of course you may. Every body does," said Letty; "especially at the bazaar. It's not windows; it's all open, you know, like stalls at a market," explained Madge; "it's a regular bazaar. Not look at it!—why it's made to be looked at. And oh; Bessie," Letty went on again, "you will be amused at the big tailor's, or ready-made clothier's, as mamma calls it, at the corner of the arcade. It's something like Madame Tussaud's—such a lot of wax dummies at the door. And they change their clothes every few days. Some of them are quite big, like men; and some little boys. They've got one now which they think is dressed like an English sailor-suit boy—you never saw such a costume! And there's a man in a red coat—our boys say he is meant to be an English 'milord' dressed for 'the hunt.'"

When Bessie saw the bazaar she was as full of admiration of it as even Madge and Letty could desire, especially of the big tailor's. There was a brilliant show of figures, from the little wax boy in imaginary English sailor costume, to a moustached gentleman elaborately got up in evening suit, white tie and all.

"Oh, how funny they are!" Bessie exclaimed. "But I don't see the one in the red coat."

"He's not there to-day," said Madge. "Perhaps we'll see him again to-morrow, in something different."

"It must be great fun dressing, and undressing them," said Bessie. "Do they change them nearly every day?"

"Oh no, not so often as that. But we watch them always, to see."

But for the next two or three days there was no change. Bessie looked in vain for the red-coated one she was so curious to see.

Now I must tell you that there was sometimes a regiment, or part of a regiment, at Sablons. They came for rifle-practice on the sands; and there was always a great excitement when a new detachment came in. And a few days after Bessie and Hugh made their appearance, the town was awakened early one morning by the tramp of a number of red-coats, who had marched over from an inland town, where there were large barracks. Next day on their way home, as usual, from their morning bath, the little girls passed through the arcade. Madge and Letty did not give the dummies more than a passing glance, till suddenly they noticed that Bessie had stayed behind.

"There she is," said Letty; "she's staring at the figures. Why—is that—?" and she hesitated.

There she was, sure enough—Bessie, that is to say—standing in front of a tall figure, a red-coated one in all the glory of a scarlet uniform, and with several medals on the right breast, which the little girl on her tip-toes was reaching up to and examining, one after another, with great interest. Letty and Madge drew near and looked at her with a curious misgiving. She glanced round.

"Letty, Madge," she said, "do come here and look at this new dummy. It's got a lot of medals, and——"

She stopped with a little shriek. The "new dummy" had suddenly raised its right arm, saluting Bessie with military precision as it stepped slightly to one side, with the words—

"A votre service, Mademoiselle."

"Oh, oh!" gasped Bessie. "It's alive—it's—it's a man, a living soldier."

And so the supposed dummy was! A young officer, who, happening like the children themselves to be standing in front of the tailor's staring at the figures, had actually been mistaken by Bessie for one of the waxen group. He had entered into the joke, and remained perfectly motionless while the little girl made her investigation, doubtless explaining all to himself by the fact of her being a jeune mees—one of that extraordinary English nation of whom it is impossible to say what they won't do next.

Oh, how ashamed Bessie was! How scarlet grew Letty and Madge! But there was nothing to be done. The officer had already disappeared at the other end of the arcade with a second friendly and smiling though respectful salute.

One thought struck the three children—Susanne, the maid, was fortunately a little in advance and had not seen the strange mistake.

"Don't let's tell Lilian," they said. "She'd never get over it, she really wouldn't."

But mother—aunty as she was to Bessie—was told, and comforted the mortified and shamefaced little girl as well as she could.

"After all," she said, "it was nothing naughty; Bessie had not meant to be rude; and she was quite sure the officer had not thought her so."

Nor had he. But it was a very amusing story to relate; and if Bessie had been within hearing of him when he told it to his brother-officers, I think she could not but have joined in their laughter.