THE Van Vleet family was composed of seven individuals. There were Father and Mother Van Vleet, who had been married while both were in their teens, and their five children, Gretchen, Heide, Francesca, Pauline, and Hans Van Vleet, who had been born in the order named in the seven years immediately succeeding their parents’ marriage. So, in point of fact, now that they were grown, there was scarcely any perceptible difference between this comfortable Dutch couple and their children, save that the children were taller, which made it seem more of a joke that they should actually belong to a father and mother who looked almost as young themselves. All this combined to make them a united and congenial family, and they lived in a comfortable old Dutch homestead and were very well-to-do, owing to the well-tilled acres that stretched down to the river in front of them and back to the ridge of the Jersey Flats behind. But there was one minor chord in the otherwise cheery harmony of the Van Vleet household. Pauline, the youngest sister, now about twenty-two, was not “quite bright,” but she was serene and, as a rule, perfectly happy, which is a deal more than can be said of many people, be they ever so bright. There were two reasons for this serenity of Pauline’s: her own naturally placid temperament and the tender care with which all the others watched over her. But one thing must be confessed, they were not a patriotic family, and the blood in their veins coursed somewhat sluggishly. They had rather hoped that the colonists would win in the war of the Revolution, thinking, no doubt, it would be more to their interest, yet it had never once occurred to Hans or his father to shoulder a flintlock in place of a hoe and go and help them. They were a good, narrow, stay-at-home family, with their thoughts moving in one and the same channel, and with interests bounded by their own acres, their own experiences, and those of their nearest neighbors.
But there was one delightful feature about their neutrality: they could be the best of friends alike with Whigs and Royalists, and were able to invite the Bonifaces to a tea party just as cordially as they could offer the shelter of their home to poor fugitive Aunt Frances. And a few days before they had invited them. Kind old Mrs. Van Vleet, knowing that these were very lonely days at best for Captain Boniface’s family, determined to do all that lay in her power to brighten them, and so a formal invitation, written by Heide in the stiffest of little cramped hands, was sent them. Mrs. Boniface had accepted most gladly. It meant so much to have this evidence of true friendship at a time when many old friends were looking askance and turning a cold shoulder.
And now Saturday afternoon had come, the first Saturday in October, and the Boniface boat was tacking across the river in the teeth of a bracing west wind. They were all there, the entire household, from Captain Boniface, at the helm, to Flutters, in his well-fitting corduroys, seated astride of the bow. Flutters loved to be in the “front of things” generally, but in the present instance it frequently became necessary for him to draw his knees quickly up to his chin, being quite too newly shod to run the risk of contact with the salt water white caps that now and then thumped plumply against the bow. Harry Avery was at the wharf long before the little boat touched it, and stood whittling a brier-wood stick as he waited, and dreaming the while the happiest dreams about the future that might open up before him if he should secure that position with Colonel Hamilton. Somehow or other Harry felt almost certain he could get ahead in the world if it would only give him any sort of a chance.
“Halloo there, Harry! a penny for your thoughts,” called Captain Boniface, bringing his boat about and alongside of the wharf in true sailor fashion.
Harry jumped to his feet and blushed like a school-girl, as if he half feared the thought of his heart could be read by them all. “It is fortunate that I am not bound to tell them,” he answered, catching the rope which the Captain had thrown him, and securing it to a staple.
“No, not bound, of course, but thoughts ought to be of a pretty high order that make you unmindful of the coming of the ‘Grayling’ and the Bonifaces.”
Harry was glad to find the Captain in this lighter vein, for life had been too serious and complicated a matter lately for him often to forget its seriousness. As for Mrs. Boniface, she had been both surprised and delighted when she found her husband willing to accept the Van Vleets’ invitation, for lately it had been quite impossible to get him to take any interest in anything of the sort, and she feared a kind but absolute refusal. But no sooner had the “Grayling” cleared her dock than the Captain seemed to regain his wonted good spirits, and to leave all his heavy-heartedness behind, and glad indeed was his little family to see him in a cheery mood once more.
As soon as the Bonifaces commenced to ascend the beautiful grass-grown meadow, which swept down to the water’s edge, out came all the Van Vleets to meet them and escort them up to the house; and it was a remarkable old dwelling, unlike anything one would see nowadays, if it were not that two or three such homesteads have chanced to survive the ravages of a century, by grace of having once been dignified as “Washington’s Headquarters.”
It was a double two-story house, or rather three-story, if you count the little rooms in the gables. It was built of stone, coated with a rough sort of plaster, and faced the river; its large square stoop, flanked with its two benches, being protected by the overhanging eaves of the roof itself. The front door, seldom opened, was ornamented with a huge brass knocker in the shape of a lion’s head, and was daily burnished with as much thoroughness as though in constant use. Indeed, it must be confessed that in front everything was severe and prim and painfully stiff, but fortunately at the side things were different. Indeed, the house, in its two entirely different aspects, resembled an old army officer, always stern and arbitrary with his men for the sake of discipline, but ‘another fellow altogether’ when off duty and in the company of his brother officers. At the side it was as though you surprised it in undress uniform. In the first place, there was always, in the season, a great profusion of flowers; not, however, in conventional flower beds, but parading their blaze of color from painted tubs, mounted here and there on the table-like tops of old tree stumps, which had evidently survived the first clearing of the land. Fortunately for general effectiveness, these tubs were not filled with a promiscuous assortment of plants, but each held the luxurious growth of some single variety—here a hydrangea, with its wealth of heavy-headed blooms, fairly concealing its leaves; there a great cluster of peonies or brilliant scarlet geraniums. As might be expected on the first Saturday of October, many of these plants bore only a few tardy blossoms, and some of them had evidently lost all heart with the first intimation of frost; but in the centre of the old-fashioned grass plot was a contrivance that from June well into November presented a remarkable blaze of color, varying with every month, and always beautiful. This contrivance, called by the Van Vleets “The flower fountain,” was composed of a series of five circular shelves, each shelf a little smaller in circumference than the one below it, and terminating, at the height of about five feet from the ground, in a round flat top. These shelves were constantly crowded with pots of plants in full bloom. Indeed, Hans kept a sort of nursery for no other reason than to supply the fountain, and the moment a plant took it into its head to bloom no longer, or only in a spiritless way, back it was marched to the nursery, and another took its place. What a fine thing it would be if some of the little folk too, who are not blooming out into just the sort of grown folk we could wish, might simply be remanded to the nursery, there to be restarted, after the manner of Hans’s plants, and perhaps coaxed into a more satisfying growth than they now, alas! give promise of! But if it had not been for this flower fountain, who knows but Hans might have gone to the war? You can see how it would not be an easy thing for a placid, kind-hearted Dutchman, who loved the training and slipping and potting of plants above everything else in the world, to turn his pruning-knife into a sword.
On the afternoon of the tea-party this fountain was ablaze with chrysanthemums, varying in color from the darkest red to the palest pink, and from orange to pure white. The plants of one shelf hid the pots of the shelf above it, and the lowest shelf of all was sunk so low in the ground as to be concealed by the grass. But what gave this side of the house the “homiest” look of all was the row of shining milk tins ranged in a row on a low bench, and tilted against the wall. Then, just beyond them, the kitchen door opened, and such a kitchen! with tables and dresser and every wooden thing in it scoured to immaculate whiteness, and with white sand daily sifted upon the floor in most remarkable patterns. In this kitchen the Van Vleets not only ate, but lived, and so it possessed that undefinable charm which sometimes belongs to the living-room of a family, and never to any other. In preparation for the Bonifaces’ coming, large, high-backed Dutch rockers had been ranged round this kitchen door, and here the little party seated themselves under the uncertain shade of a half-leafless oak-tree, that allowed the warm sunshine to slant gratefully down upon them, and where they could enjoy the flower fountain to the full. The Misses Van Vleet were busy within doors attending to the preparations for supper—that is, with the exception of Pauline, who was always at liberty to do pretty much as she chose; and what she had chosen to do this afternoon was this: After the Bonifaces had come up from their boat she had noticed somebody still moving about in it, so down she went to investigate. Then, when she reached a point near enough to be quite satisfactory to her ladyship, she sat herself down on the low, straight limb of a stunted apple-tree, and waited.