Sophie’s Secret by Louisa May Alcott

Sophie's Secret by Louisa May Alcott

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I.

A party of young girls, in their gay bathing-dresses, were sitting on the beach waiting for the tide to rise a little higher before they enjoyed the daily frolic which they called “mermaiding.”

“I wish we could have a clam-bake; but we have n’t any clams, and don’t know how to cook them if we had. It’s such a pity all the boys have gone off on that stupid fishing excursion,” said one girl, in a yellow-and-black striped suit which made her look like a wasp.

“What is a clam-bake? I do not know that kind of fête,” asked a pretty brown-eyed girl, with an accent that betrayed the foreigner.

The girls laughed at such sad ignorance, and Sophie colored, wishing she had not spoken.

“Poor thing! she has never tasted a clam. What should we do if we went to Switzerland?” said the wasp, who loved to tease.

“We should give you the best we had, and not laugh at your ignorance, if you did not know all our dishes. In my country, we have politeness, though not the clam-bake,” answered Sophie, with a flash of the brown eyes which warned naughty Di to desist.

“We might row to the light-house, and have a picnic supper. Our mammas will let us do that alone,” suggested Dora from the roof of the bath-house, where she perched like a flamingo.

“That’s a good idea,” cried Fanny, a slender brown girl who sat dabbling her feet in the water, with her hair streaming in the wind. “Sophie should see that, and get some of the shells she likes so much.”

“You are kind to think of me. I shall be glad to have a necklace of the pretty things, as a souvenir of this so charming place and my good friend,” answered Sophie, with a grateful look at Fanny, whose many attentions had won the stranger’s heart.

“Those boys have n’t left us a single boat, so we must dive off the rocks, and that is n’t half so nice,” said Di, to change the subject, being ashamed of her rudeness.

“A boat is just coming round the Point; perhaps we can hire that, and have some fun,” cried Dora, from her perch. “There is only a girl in it; I ‘ll hail her when she is near enough.”

Sophie looked about her to see where the hail was coming from; but the sky was clear, and she waited to see what new meaning this word might have, not daring to ask for fear of another laugh.

While the girls watched the boat float around the farther horn of the crescent-shaped beach, we shall have time to say a few words about our little heroine.

She was a sixteen-year-old Swiss girl, on a visit to some American friends, and had come to the seaside for a month with one of them who was an invalid. This left Sophie to the tender mercies of the young people; and they gladly welcomed the pretty creature, with her fine manners, foreign ways, and many accomplishments. But she had a quick temper, a funny little accent, and dressed so very plainly that the girls could not resist criticising and teasing her in a way that seemed very ill-bred and unkind to the new-comer.

Their free and easy ways astonished her, their curious language bewildered her; and their ignorance of many things she had been taught made her wonder at the American education she had heard so much praised. All had studied French and German; yet few read or spoke either tongue correctly, or understood her easily when she tried to talk to them. Their music did not amount to much, and in the games they played, their want of useful information amazed Sophie. One did not know the signs of the zodiac; another could only say of cotton that “it was stuff that grew down South;” and a third was not sure whether a frog was an animal or a reptile, while the handwriting and spelling displayed on these occasions left much to be desired. Yet all were fifteen or sixteen, and would soon leave school “finished,” as they expressed it, but not furnished, as they should have been, with a solid, sensible education. Dress was an all-absorbing topic, sweetmeats their delight; and in confidential moments sweethearts were discussed with great freedom. Fathers were conveniences, mothers comforters, brothers plagues, and sisters ornaments or playthings according to their ages. They were not hard-hearted girls, only frivolous, idle, and fond of fun; and poor little Sophie amused them immensely till they learned to admire, love, and respect her.

Coming straight from Paris, they expected to find that her trunks contained the latest fashions for demoiselles, and begged to see her dresses with girlish interest. But when Sophie obligingly showed a few simple, but pretty and appropriate gowns and hats, they exclaimed with one voice,–

“Why, you dress like a little girl! Don’t you have ruffles and lace on your dresses; and silks and high-heeled boots and long gloves and bustles and corsets, and things like ours?”

“I am a little girl,” laughed Sophie, hardly understanding their dismay. “What should I do with fine toilets at school? My sisters go to balls in silk and lace; but I–not yet.”

“How queer! Is your father poor?” asked Di, with Yankee bluntness.

“We have enough,” answered Sophie, slightly knitting her dark brows.

“How many servants do you keep?”

“But five, now that the little ones are grown up.”

“Have you a piano?” continued undaunted Di, while the others affected to be looking at the books and pictures strewn about by the hasty unpacking.

“We have two pianos, four violins, three flutes, and an organ. We love music, and all play, from papa to little Franz.”

“My gracious, how swell! You must live in a big house to hold all that and eight brothers and sisters.”

“We are not peasants; we do not live in a hut. Voilà, this is my home.” And Sophie laid before them a fine photograph of a large and elegant house on lovely Lake Geneva.

It was droll to see the change in the faces of the girls as they looked, admired, and slyly nudged one another, enjoying saucy Di’s astonishment, for she had stoutly insisted that the Swiss girl was a poor relation.

Sophie meanwhile was folding up her plain piqué and muslin frocks, with a glimmer of mirthful satisfaction in her eyes, and a tender pride in the work of loving hands now far away.

Kind Fanny saw a little quiver of the lips as she smoothed the blue corn-flowers in the best hat, and put her arm around Sophie, whispering,–

“Never mind, dear, they don’t mean to be rude; it’s only our Yankee way of asking questions. I like all your things, and that hat is perfectly lovely.”

“Indeed, yes! Dear mamma arranged it for me. I was thinking of her and longing for my morning kiss.”

“Do you do that every day?” asked Fanny, forgetting herself in her sympathetic interest.

“Surely, yes. Papa and mamma sit always on the sofa, and we all have the hand-shake and the embrace each day before our morning coffee. I do not see that here,” answered Sophie, who sorely missed the affectionate respect foreign children give their parents.

“Have n’t time,” said Fanny, smiling too, at the idea of American parents sitting still for five minutes in the busiest part of the busy day to kiss their sons and daughters.

“It is what you call old-fashioned, but a sweet fashion to me; and since I have not the dear warm cheeks to kiss, I embrace my pictures often. See, I have them all.” And Sophie unfolded a Russia-leather case, displaying with pride a long row of handsome brothers and sisters with the parents in the midst.

More exclamations from the girls, and increased interest in “Wilhelmina Tell,” as they christened the loyal Swiss maiden, who was now accepted as a companion, and soon became a favorite with old and young.

They could not resist teasing her, however,–her mistakes were so amusing, her little flashes of temper so dramatic, and her tongue so quick to give a sharp or witty answer when the new language did not perplex her. But Fanny always took her part, and helped her in many ways. Now they sat together on the rock, a pretty pair of mermaids with wind-tossed hair, wave-washed feet, and eyes fixed on the approaching boat.

The girl who sat in it was a great contrast to the gay creatures grouped so picturesquely on the shore, for the old straw hat shaded a very anxious face, the brown calico gown covered a heart full of hopes and fears, and the boat that drifted so slowly with the incoming tide carried Tilly Reed like a young Columbus toward the new world she longed for, believed in, and was resolved to discover.

It was a weather-beaten little boat, yet very pretty; for a pile of nets lay at one end, a creel of red lobsters at the other, and all between stood baskets of berries and water-lilies, purple marsh rosemary and orange butterfly-weed, shells and great smooth stones such as artists like to paint little sea-views on. A tame gull perched on the prow; and the morning sunshine glittered from the blue water to the bluer sky.

“Oh, how pretty! Come on, please, and sell us some lilies,” cried Dora, and roused Tilly from her waking dream.

Pushing back her hat, she saw the girls beckoning, felt that the critical moment had come, and catching up her oars, rowed bravely on, though her cheeks reddened and her heart beat, for this venture was her last hope, and on its success depended the desire of her life. As the boat approached, the watchers forgot its cargo to look with surprise and pleasure at its rower, for she was not the rough country lass they expected to see, but a really splendid girl of fifteen, tall, broad-shouldered, bright-eyed, and blooming, with a certain shy dignity of her own and a very sweet smile, as she nodded and pulled in with strong, steady strokes. Before they could offer help, she had risen, planted an oar in the water, and leaping to the shore, pulled her boat high up on the beach, offering her wares with wistful eyes and a very expressive wave of both brown hands.

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Categories: English Literature

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