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A short story by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Tilly Slowboy

Title:     Tilly Slowboy
Author: Kate Dickinson Sweetser [More Titles by Sweetser]

Although still in her earliest teens, Tilly Slowboy was a nursery-maid for little Mrs. Peerybingle's baby, and despite her extreme youth, was a most enthusiastic and unusual nursery-maid indeed.

It may be noted of Miss Slowboy that she had a rare and surprising talent for getting the baby into difficulties; and had several times imperilled its short life, in a quiet way peculiarly her own.

She was of a spare and straight shape, this young lady, insomuch that her garments appeared to be in constant danger of sliding off those sharp pegs, her shoulders, on which they were loosely hung. Her costume was remarkable for the partial development on all possible occasions, of some flannel vestment of a singular structure; also affording glimpses, in the region of the back, of a pair of stays, in color a dead green.

Being always in a state of gaping admiration at everything, and absorbed besides, in the perpetual contemplation of her mistress's perfections, and the baby's, Miss Slowboy, in her little errors of judgment may be said to have done equal honor to her head and to her heart; and though these did less honor to the baby's head, which they were the occasional means of bringing into contact with deal doors, dressers, stair-rails, bed-posts, and other foreign substances, still they were the honest results of Tilly Slowboy's constant astonishment at finding herself so kindly treated and installed in such a comfortable home. For the maternal and paternal Slowboy were alike unknown to Fame, and Tilly had been bred by public charity, a foundling; which word, though only differing from fondling by one vowel's length, is very different in meaning, and expresses quite another thing.

It was a singularly happy and united family in which Tilly's lot was cast. Honest John Peerybingle, Carrier; his pretty little wife, whom he called Dot; the very remarkable doll of a baby; the dog Boxer; and the Cricket on the Hearth, whose cheerful chirp, chirp, chirp, was a continual family blessing and good-omen;--were collectively and severally the objects of Tilly's unbounded admiration.

If ever a person or thing alarmed Tilly, she would hastily seek protection near the skirts of her pretty little mistress; or, failing that, would make a charge or butt at the object of her fright with the only offensive instrument within her reach--which usually happened to be the baby. Tilly's bump of good fortune being extraordinarily well developed, the baby usually managed to come out from the siege unharmed, to be soothed and comforted in Tilly's own peculiar fashion; her most common method of amusement being to reproduce for its entertainment scraps of conversation current in the house, with all the sense left out of them, and all the nouns changed to the plural number, as--"Did its mothers make it up a beds then! And did its hair grow brown and curly when its cap was lifted off, and frighten it, a precious Pets, a-sitting by the fire!"

It was a notable and exciting event to Miss Slowboy when she set out one day in the Carrier's cart, with her little mistress and the remarkable baby, to have dinner with Caleb Plummer's blind daughter, Bertha, who was Mrs. Dot's devoted friend.

In consequence of the departure, there was a pretty sharp commotion at John Peerybingle's, for to get the baby under weigh took time. Not that there was much of the baby, speaking of it as a thing of weight and measure, but there was a vast deal to do about it, and all had to be done by easy stages. When the baby was got, by hook and by crook, to a certain point of dressing, and you might have supposed that another touch or two would finish him off, he was unexpectedly extinguished, and hustled off to bed; where he simmered (so to speak) between two blankets for the best part of an hour, while Mrs. Peerybingle took advantage of the interval to make herself smart for the trip, and during the same short truce, Miss Slowboy insinuated herself into a spencer, of a fashion so surprising and ingenious, that it had no connection with herself, or anything else in the universe, but was a shrunken, dog's-eared, independent fact, pursuing its lonely course without the least regard to anybody. By this time, the baby, being all alive again, was invested by the united efforts of Mrs. Peerybingle and Miss Slowboy, with a cream-colored mantle for its body, and a sort of nankeen raised-pie for its head, and in course of time they all three got down to the door, where the old horse was waiting to convey them on their trip.

In reference to Miss Slowboy's ascent into the cart, if I might be allowed to mention a young lady's legs, on any terms, I would observe of her that there was a fatality about hers which rendered them singularly liable to be grazed; and that she never effected the smallest ascent or descent without recording the circumstance upon them with a notch, as Robinson Crusoe marked the days upon his wooden calendar. But as this might be considered ungenteel, I'll think of it--merely observing that when the three were all safely settled in the cart, and the basket containing the Veal-and-Ham Pie and other delicacies, which Mrs. Peerybingle always carried when she visited the blind girl, was stowed away, they jogged on for some little time in silence.

But not for long, for everybody on the road had something to say to the occupants of John Peerybingle's cart, and sometimes passengers on foot, or horseback, plodded on a little way beside the cart, for the express purpose of having a chat. Then, too, the packages and parcels for the errand cart were numerous, and there were many stoppages to take them in and give them out, which was not the least interesting part of the journey.

Of all the little incidents of the day, Dot was the amused and open-eyed spectatress from her chair in the cart; making a charming little portrait as she sat there, looking on. And this delighted John the Carrier beyond measure.

The trip was a little foggy, to be sure, in the January weather, and was raw and cold. But who cared for such trifles! Not Dot, decidedly. Not Tilly Slowboy, for she deemed sitting in a cart on any terms, to be the highest point of human joy; the crowning circumstance of earthly hopes. Not the baby, I'll be sworn; for it's not in baby nature to be warmer or more sound asleep than that blessed young Peerybingle was all the way.

In one place there was a mound of weeds burning, and they watched the fire until, in consequence, as she observed, of the smoke "getting up her nose," Miss Slowboy choked--she could do anything of that sort on the smallest provocation--and woke the baby, who wouldn't go to sleep again.

But, at that moment they came in sight of the blind girl's home, where she was waiting with keen anticipation to receive them.

Bertha had other visitors as well that day, and the picnic dinner proceeded in a very stately and dignified manner. Miss Slowboy was isolated, for the time being, from every article of furniture but the chair she sat on, that she might have nothing else to knock the baby's head against, and sat staring about her in unspeakable delight. To her the day was all too short, and when that evening John Peerybingle making his return trip, called to take them home, Miss Slowboy's regret was intense.

As long as her little mistress smiled, Tilly's face too was wreathed in smiles; but when a hidden shadow darkened the Perrybingle sky, overclouding the happiness of the little home, and Dot cried all night, Tilly's eyes were red and swollen too, the next morning.

It happened in this way. Pretty little Dot gave good John Perrybingle cause for anxiety by her actions, and the honest carrier, disturbed and misled, felt that he had reason to doubt her love for him, which almost broke his honest, faithful heart. While he was worrying over this, and over her, his little wife was merely shielding a secret belonging to Edward Plummer, Bertha's brother, who had just come back, after many year's absence in the golden South Americas.

So unaccustomed was Dot to keeping a secret that it caused her to act very strangely, and give her husband reason to misjudge her, which almost broke her loving little heart. All of which trouble Tilly Slowboy did not understand, but was deeply affected by it, and when she found her mistress alone, sobbing piteously, was quite horrified, exclaiming:

"Ow, if you please, don't! It's enough to dead and bury the baby, so it is, if you please!"

"Will you bring him sometimes, to see his father, Tilly?" inquired her mistress, drying her eyes; "when I can't live here, and have gone to my old home?"

"Ow, if you please, don't!" cried Tilly, throwing back her head and bursting out into a howl--she looked at the moment uncommonly like Boxer--"Ow, if you please, don't! Ow, what has everybody been and gone and done with everybody, making everybody else so wretched. Ow-w-w-w!"

The soft-hearted Slowboy trailed off at this juncture, into such a deplorable howl, the more tremendous from its long suppression, that she must infallibly have wakened the baby and frightened him into something serious (probably convulsions) if her attention had not been forcibly diverted from her misery for a moment, after which she stood for some time silent, with her mouth wide open; and then, posting off to the bed on which the baby lay asleep, danced in a weird, Saint Vitus manner, on the floor, and at the same time rummaged with her face and head among the bedclothes, apparently deriving much relief from those extraordinary operations.

Fortunately for all concerned in the little domestic drama, before a crisis had been reached, Edward Plummer revealed his secret, and his reasons for having been obliged to keep it. This cleared up the mystery concerning Mrs. Dot's conduct, proving her to be the same loyal, loving little wife she always was: to the exquisite satisfaction of the honest carrier, his family and friends, and last but not least, Miss Slowboy, who wept copiously for joy, and wishing to include her young charge in the general interchange of congratulations, handed round the baby to everybody in succession, as if it were something to eat or drink.

Of course it became a serious duty now, to make such a day of it as should mark these events for a high feast and festival in the Peerybingle Calendar forevermore. Accordingly, Dot went to work to produce such an entertainment as should reflect undying honor on the house and on every one concerned, and in a very short space of time everybody in the house was in a state of flutter and domestic turmoil and during the flurry of preparation, everybody tumbled over Tilly Slowboy and the baby everywhere. Tilly never came out in such force before. Her ubiquity was the theme of universal admiration. She was a stumbling-block in the passage at five-and-twenty minutes past two; a man-trap in the kitchen at half-past two precisely; and a pitfall in the garret at five-and-twenty minutes to three. The baby's head was, as it were, a test and touchstone for every description of matter,--animal, vegetable, and mineral. Nothing was in use that day that didn't come, at some time or other, into close acquaintance with it.

That was a great celebration indeed, with Dot doing the honors in her wedding-gown, her eyes sparkling with happiness, and the good carrier, so jovial and so ruddy at the bottom of the table, and all their guests aiding to make the occasion a memorable and happy one.

There was a dance in the evening, for which Bertha played her liveliest tune. Inspired by infectious joy, old and young get up and join the whirling throng. Suddenly Caleb Plummer clutches Tilly Slowboy by both hands and goes off at score, Miss Slowboy firm in the belief that diving hotly in among the couples, and effecting any number of concussions with them, is your only principle of footing it, and ecstatically glad to abandon herself to the delights of the occasion, so long as she sees joy written again on the pretty face of her beloved little mistress, and feels that happiness has been restored to honest John Peerybingle and his family.

Hark! How the Cricket on the Hearth joins in the music, with its Chirp, Chirp, Chirp, and how the kettle hums!

[The end]
Kate Dickinson Sweetser's short story: Tilly Slowboy