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Just a Little Girl
WHEN THE COAL CAME“THERE’S a wagon stopping at our house,” said Honey Bunch.
She was upstairs in Mother’s room standing at one of the front windows. Mother was sewing and Honey Bunch was amusing her by telling her everything she saw in the street. Mother said that darning stockings wasn’t much fun, but with Honey Bunch to amuse her, she thought she could darn much faster.
“What kind of wagon?” asked Mother.
She wasn’t supposed to look out of the window. Honey Bunch told her everything that went past and then Mother guessed what it was.
“It’s a big wagon,” said Honey Bunch. “A great big wagon. And two horses. And two men. And baskets on the back.”
“Dear me, perhaps it is the huckster,” said Mother. “If it is, I must go down. We need some salad vegetables.”
“No, it isn’t the huckster, he has a white horse,” declared Honey Bunch. “There are two long black things sticking out behind the wagon, Mother. And a man’s coming up the steps.”
“I’ll have to go down,” said Mother, rising. “Why, dear, that is the coal!” she cried as she saw the wagon from the window. “Coal to keep us warm this winter. That is the first load.” Bing! went the doorbell.
Mother hurried down and Honey Bunch trotted after her.
“Mrs. Morton?” said the man, when Mother opened the door. “Got two tons of coal for you. Four more loads on the way. Mr. Jepson says you want it all put in in one day.”
“Yes, it is such a dusty job,” said Honey Bunch’s mother. “Did Mr. Morton tell you to bring chutes?”
“Yes, he told Jepson,” answered the man. “We’ll shoot it in for you. I’ll use the hose, if you have one; that saves some dirt.”
Mr. Jepson was the man from whom Daddy Morton bought his coal.
“Let me see ’em shoot the coal, Mother?” begged Honey Bunch. “I never saw any one shoot coal, Mother.”
The man laughed. He had given Mrs. Morton two slips to sign and he was waiting for them.
“I guess you think I take a pistol and fire at each lump, don’t you?” he said, smiling. “Well, Sister, you hang around and you’ll see how we shoot coal in. Thank you, ma’am.”
Honey Bunch’s mother had given him the slips and she now told him where to find the hose. Honey Bunch danced out in front to watch the men work, promising Mother not to get in their way.
It was very interesting to see them. First they took the hose and turned the water on and washed the coal. Honey Bunch supposed they did this to make it clean, but she afterward decided that no amount of water could make coal clean. Daddy told her that night that the men sprayed the coal with water so the dust would not fly in thick clouds when they put it in the cellar.
“We shoot the coal with this,” said the man who had rung the doorbell, when he put the hose back and took up the “long black things” Honey Bunch had noticed on the back of the wagon.
He took both black things, “coal chutes, we call ’em,” he explained to the watching Honey Bunch, and put a soap box under them to hold them off the walk. The end of one rested on the pile of coal in the wagon and the end of the other just fitted into the cellar window.
Then both men stood on top of the pile of coal and shoveled. Steady streams of coal poured down the chutes and into the cellar. Honey Bunch thought that if the men’s mother should come walking down the street and see them, she would send them up to the bathroom at once and tell them to wash their faces and hands. The little girl had never seen such black hands and faces. Everything about the wagon was dirty; men, horses, blankets, baskets, and shovels. Of course, it was the coal that made things dirty. When one of the men pulled his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his face, that was coal-black, too.
Every time a person came up to the coal chute, the men would stop shoveling and the person would stoop down and crawl under the chute. Many went out into the street and walked around the wagon, instead of going under the chute. Honey Bunch suggested to the men that they stop and take the chute apart to let people through when they came, but the men said if they did that they would never get all the coal put in.
“It’s all right,” said one of the men to Honey Bunch. “You see these people have to go under your coal chute now, because you are having coal put in your cellar; but maybe to-morrow, or next week, they’ll be having coal put in their cellars and you’ll walk under the chute on their sidewalk. That makes it even all around.”
Honey Bunch had not thought of this and she told it to the next lady who came walking by. The lady had on a white hat and Honey Bunch was sure she did not like to have to stoop down and walk under the coal chute.
“When you have coal going in your cellar I’ll come and walk under your chute,” promised Honey Bunch, smiling such a dear little smile that the lady smiled back and said she wished she was having coal put in the next day.
By and by the wagon was empty and the men drove away. Then another wagon came up and two more men unloaded that. Honey Bunch thought they looked just like the other two men. That was because their faces were just as dark, you see. But this wagon was pulled by two white horses and the other wagon had had black horses. That is, these horses would have been white if they had not been pulling a coal wagon. Honey Bunch wondered if horses ever had baths. She hoped they did.
By the time this second wagon was empty, it was noon, and Mother called Honey Bunch in to lunch. They ate in the kitchen, for Mother said that was the cleanest room in the house.
“Mrs. Miller will come and make us all tidy again to-morrow,” Mrs. Morton said, spreading a biscuit for Honey Bunch. “And then, I suppose, as soon as we are nicely in order, the painters will come.”
Honey Bunch wasn’t thinking about painters; her thoughts were with the coal wagons.
“Will there be more coal, Mother?” she asked, biting off a little corner of the biscuit.
“Two more wagons this afternoon,” replied her mother. “And then, I hope, we sha’n’t have to have any more coal put in for a year.”
After lunch Honey Bunch went out to wait for the next coal wagon. She sat on the steps and waited quietly. She was wondering whether the men would let her throw a shovelful of coal down the long chute. She thought it would be fun to see it slide down through the cellar window.
As Honey Bunch sat there in the sunshine, she saw Lady Clare come walking across the street. Lady Clare often went walking, and though Honey Bunch sometimes worried for fear she would be lost, the cat always came safely home. Now Lady Clare was stalking toward the cellar window. The coal men had left it open. As Honey Bunch watched her, Lady Clare stepped inside the window, stood still for a moment, and then jumped.
“I wonder where she went?” said Honey Bunch aloud.
The cat did not come back and Honey Bunch began to think about the cellar. Where did the coal go the men put down the long, black chute? Was it lying in a great pile in the middle of the cellar floor? Perhaps her mother would have to walk around it when she went to get a glass of jelly from the cupboard in the corner. She would not like that, Honey Bunch was sure.
"I s’pect I’d better go see,” announced Honey Bunch, rising from the steps.
She trotted around the side of the house and came to the side entry door. Her mother had gone back to her sewing and Honey Bunch thought she would not tell her about the pile of coal in the middle of the cellar floor until she knew more about it herself.
Honey Bunch opened the door that led into the cellar and went carefully down the steps. There was no coal in the center of the floor, and for a few minutes the little girl thought that the men had not put it in the cellar at all. Then she saw it, black and shining, in one of the “rooms” as she had always called the bins beside the heater.
Lady Clare sat on the coal, washing her face, and the open window above her head let in sweet, cool air. Honey Bunch thought it was very nice in the cellar.
“I’ll wait and see some coal come in,” she told the cat.
They had not long to wait for in a few minutes the rattle of wheels was heard and a wagon drew up at the curb outside. Some one rang the doorbell and Honey Bunch knew the man was giving the slips to her mother to sign. Mrs. Morton had explained that these slips told Mr. Jepson his coal had reached the right house. While Honey Bunch stared at the window she saw the end of the iron chute come in and then, the next moment, with an awful clatter and racket, the coal rushed in! Honey Bunch had not known anything could make so much noise, and she put her hands up to her ears.
“Lady Clare!” she cried. “Where’s Lady Clare?”
The cat was nowhere to be seen. The coal had come pouring in where she had sat under the window, and as Honey Bunch looked more coal kept coming.
“She’s buried underneath!” said Honey Bunch excitedly. “Lady Clare is deep down under all that coal!” As soon as Honey Bunch thought of anything, she made up her mind what to do. If Lady Clare was under that coal, she would get her out!
Honey Bunch jumped upon the pile of coal and began to dig. She had only her little hands to work with and it seemed to her that the coal came in faster than she could toss it out of the way. She worked as hard and as fast as she could, paying no attention when a piece of coal bounded on her head. She was going to get Lady Clare out before she couldn’t breathe.
The stream of coal kept coming and Honey Bunch kept working. She was crying now, because she began to be afraid that Lady Clare was buried at the very bottom of the coal pile. Tears and perspiration and coal dust made great streaks across Honey Bunch’s face; her soft hair was filled with dust; her hands were as black as a coal man’s. She was hot and uncomfortable and most unhappy, but she would not give up.
“Honey Bunch! Honey Bunch! Why, what in the world—” cried a voice.
Honey Bunch looked up and there stood Mother on the cellar stairs.
“Lady Clare is underneath, Mother!” shouted Honey Bunch. She had to shout, because the coal made such a noise coming in. “I saw the coal go on her, but I guess I can get her out.”
“My dear child! Lady Clare is asleep in the kitchen,” said Mrs. Morton, coming all the way down and over to Honey Bunch so she could hear her. “Oh, dearie, how long have you been working like this?”
Honey Bunch looked at the little pile of coal she had been able to throw on to the floor. She looked at the big heap of coal in the bin, a heap which was growing larger every minute. She didn’t see how the cat could be upstairs when she had seen the coal land on top of her, but if Mother said so, it must be true.
“I guess,” said Honey Bunch slowly, sitting down on the coal heap, “I’m just a little tired.”
And Mother picked her up, all dusty as she was, and kissed her and hugged her and carried her upstairs to the clean white bathroom and gave her a bath and shampooed her hair. Then she dressed her in clean clothes and gave her the money to buy a “double decker” ice-cream cone.
“For that,” she said, kissing Honey Bunch as though she loved her very much, “will take the coal-dust taste out of your mouth.” And it did.