A Sweetgrass Basket by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman

Nancy and Flora were going through the garden, stepping between the squash and tomato vines. Nancy’s mother stood in the kitchen door looking after them.

“Mind you don’t hit your clothes on the tomatoes!” she called out.

“No, we won’t,” they answered back. After they had passed the last bean pole they walked single file along the foot-path down the hill. The tall timothy-grass rustled up almost to their waists. Flora went first, with a light little tilt of her starched skirts. Nancy trudged briskly and sturdily after. Nancy’s old buff calico dress, which had been let down for her every spring since she was seven years old, and marked its age, like a tree, by rings of a brighter color where the old tucks had been, did not look very well beside Flora’s pretty new blue cambric. Neither did Nancy’s old Shaker bonnet show to advantage beside Flora’s hat, with its beautiful bows and streamers; but Nancy was not troubled about that. She cared very little what she wore, so long as she went somewhere. Flora always had nicer things, but she never minded. Flora was her cousin; she had come to live with her when her mother died, ten years before, and her father had considerable money. He lived in the city.

The two girls were nearly the same age, but Nancy was much the larger; she looked clumsy and overgrown following slender little Flora. It was like a dandelion in the wake of a violet. After they had reached the foot of the hill, they crossed some low meadow-land. It was quite wet, little dark pools glimmered between the clumps of rank grasses. Some fine pink orchid flowers were very thick, but they did not stop to pick any. They were going to see the Indians. Their eyes were fixed upon some white tents ahead. They had been there once before with Nancy’s father, but the same sensations of curiosity and exhilarating fear were upon them now.

“Nancy,” whispered Flora, fearfully.

“What say?”

Is that a—tomahawk in that tent door?”

“No; it’s a hoe,” returned Nancy, peering with anxious eyes.

Several Indian women and children were moving about; one Indian man was scraping some birch bark at a tent door. They did not pay any attention to the visitors.

Flora nudged Nancy. “Go along,” said she.

“No, you,” returned Nancy, pushing Flora.

“I don’t dare to.”

They stood hesitating. Finally Nancy gave her head a jerk. “I don’t care; I’m going, if you ain’t,” said she, and forward she went. Flora followed.

The tents were arranged like houses on a street, with the open doors fronting each other. In each tent was a counter loaded with baskets and little birch-bark canoes, and an Indian woman sat behind it to sell them.

The girls went from one tent to another and stared about them. Besides the baskets and canoes, there were sea-gulls’ wings and little fur slippers and pouches. They saw everything. The Indian women offered to sell, but they shook their heads shyly and soberly.

Finally they went into the tent where the Princess kept store. She was a large stout woman and a real Indian Princess. Under the counter a little Indian baby, fast asleep, was swinging in a tiny hammock. Nancy and Flora nudged each other and eyed it with awe. But it was on the Princess’s counter that they saw the sweet-grass basket. They both looked at it, then at each other. It was made of sweet-grass, it was oblong, and had a cover and long handles.

Finally Flora pointed one slim little finger at it. “How much does that cost?” she asked the Princess.

“Fifty cent,” replied the Princess.

Nancy had just eight cents at home. Flora had nothing at all. Her father sent her money every month, and the last instalment was all spent. Neither of them could buy the basket, and fifty cents sounded enormous, but their faces were quite dignified and immovable. It might have been the echo of their strange surroundings, but they acted as if they had Indian blood themselves.

They turned about and went out of the tent; they crossed the old road and climbed the stone-wall. Flora spoke as she picked her way across the meadow. “Guess I’ll buy that basket when my money comes next week,” said she.

Nancy said nothing; she looked gloomy. She stepped in an oozy place and wet one foot, but she did not mind it. She thought of her eight cents, and did an example in mental arithmetic. “Eight from fifty leaves forty-two,” she calculated. For the first time she was envious of Flora. Everybody finds some object to grudge to another. Nancy had found hers—the sweet-grass basket. If she had expressed her feelings, she would have said, “Must she have all those pretty dresses and hats and the sweet-grass basket, too?”

The girls went home silently; they were never great talkers. Flora sat down in the sitting-room with her aunt; Nancy went up-stairs to the chamber where she slept with Flora, and got her little purse out of the corner of her bureau drawer. She counted the eight cents, and puzzled over the problem how to increase it to fifty. She puzzled over it all the rest of that day until she went to sleep at nine o’clock. The next day was Sunday; she puzzled over it as she sat in the pew in church, but she could not arrive at any solution.

However, the next morning she had an inspiration. Her mother sent her over to Aunt Lucretia’s on an errand. Flora was not allowed to go; it was a very hot morning, and she was rather delicate. Nancy on her way to Aunt Lucretia’s thought of a way to swell eight cents to fifty. She trudged down the sunny road in a cloud of dust, her face was scarlet with the heat, but she ignored all little discomforts.

Aunt Lucretia lived in a nice square white house with a green lattice-work porch over the front door. She was an elderly lady and quite rich. She had a Brussels carpet in the parlor and kept a servant-maid.

Nancy went in the side door, and through the sitting-room into the front entry. The parlor door stood open. Aunt Lucretia and her servant, Henrietta, were in there. Nancy stood looking in.

“Aunt Lucretia,” said she.

Aunt Lucretia came forward, with Henrietta following.

“Well, Nancy, what do you want?” said Aunt Lucretia. She was quite a majestic old lady, very tall and large and short-waisted. She wore her gray hair in two puffs each side of her face.

“Mother sent your Stanford paper back,” replied Nancy.

“Well, you can lay it on the sitting-room table,” said Aunt Lucretia. “Is your mother well this morning?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Nancy laid the Stanford paper on the sitting-room table; then she followed on into the kitchen after Aunt Lucretia and Henrietta.

“Is there anything else you want, Nancy?” asked Aunt Lucretia.

“I wanted to know if—I didn’t know but—you’d like to have me pick some blackberries for you, Aunt Lucretia.”


“Yes, ma’am.”

Aunt Lucretia stared reflectively at Nancy. “Do you suppose your mother would be willing? The sun’s pretty hot.”

“Yes, ma’am. I know she wouldn’t care.”

“Well, I do want two quarts of blackberries dreadfully, and there ‘ain’t a boy been along. I’m going to have the minister and his wife to tea to-night, and I want to have blackberry shortcake. Do you suppose you could pick me two quarts before four o’clock this afternoon?”

“Yes, ma’am. I know where they’re real thick.”

“Well,” said Aunt Lucretia, “you can go home and ask your mother, and if she’s willing, you can go and pick them. Mind you keep out of the sun all you can. I’ll give you seven cents a quart; that’s a cent more than the boys ask.”

“Don’t you want more’n two quarts, Aunt Lucretia?” asked Nancy, timidly.

“I guess two quarts will be about all you’ll want to pick,” returned Aunt Lucretia, grimly.

“No, ma’am; it won’t.”

“Well, we’ll see how you hold out. I want four quarts for jell the last of the week; but you pick two quarts first, and see.”

Nancy went home. She ran nearly all the way.

“You go right into the sitting-room, and sit down with the palm-leaf fan, and cool off before you do anything else,” said her mother, when she proposed the plan; “you’ll have a sun-stroke.”

So Nancy had to sit in the dark, cool sitting-room and fan herself for full twenty minutes before she was allowed to put on her old dress and Shaker and start on her berrying excursion. Flora wanted to go, too, but her aunt thought it was too hot; she was apt to have headaches. She sat on the back door-step shelling pease when Nancy started.

Nancy, bustling off with her two-quart tin pail, glanced back at Flora’s little yellow shaven head bending patiently over the pan of pease in the doorway. She felt guilty. Was she not going off with the secret intention of earning money enough to buy that sweet-grass basket before Flora could? Flora would not have her money until Saturday; this was Monday. If she could only earn the forty-two cents in the mean time.

Nancy worked hard that week. Her hands and arms got scratched; she had even a scratch across her nose. The blackberry vines seemed almost like tangible foes; but she pushed and tussled with them until she had picked the six quarts.

On Monday Aunt Lucretia had the minister and his wife to tea, and made blackberry shortcake; on Friday she made blackberry jelly. All Nancy’s part of the contract was promptly fulfilled, but Aunt Lucretia’s was not. She had not a cent of change in her purse when Nancy brought in the last instalment of berries.

“You’ll have to wait two or three days until I can get this bill changed,” said she. “You’ve been real smart about picking ’em. You’ve picked ’em clean, too. Here’s a piece of sweet-cake for you.”

Nancy went home in the hot sun. Her red, scratched face looked gloomy and discouraged in the depths of the Shaker bonnet. She nibbled at the sweet-cake as she went along, but she did not care for it. Here it was Friday forenoon, and she had to wait two or three days for her forty-two cents. Flora’s money would come, and she would buy the sweet-grass basket. Nancy felt quite desperate. That afternoon she teased her mother to let her go over to Aunt Lucretia’s again.

“No; you don’t go a step,” said her mother. “She’s making jell’, and you’ve been over there once to-day. You can sit down with your knitting-work this afternoon, and be contented.”

Nancy sat down with her knitting-work, but she was not contented. It seemed to her that she must have those forty-two cents. After tea she begged again for permission to go to Aunt Lucretia’s. “It’s real nice and cool out now, mother,” she pleaded.

“I don’t care how cool it is,” said her mother, “you can’t go. I don’t see what has got into you.”

But the next morning Nancy was really sent over to Aunt Lucretia’s on an errand. She did the errand, then she stood waiting.

“Did your mother want anything else?” asked Aunt Lucretia.

“No, ma’am.”

“Well, I guess you had better run home then. It’s baking day, and maybe you can help your mother some. You’d ought to help her all you can, you’re getting to be a big girl. I used to do a whole week’s baking before I was your age.”

“Aunt Lucretia!”

“What say?”

“Have you—got that—bill—changed yet?”

“No, I haven’t. You mustn’t tease. I’m going down to the store in a day or two, and then you can have it.”

So Nancy went home again without her forty-two cents. She wept a little on the way. Here it was Saturday, and Flora expecting her money on the noon mail. But it did not come on the noon mail. It did not come until six o’clock at night, and Flora did not think of buying the basket that day.

After tea that night, about half-past seven o’clock, Nancy did something that she had never done before in her life. She went over to her Aunt Lucretia’s without permission. Her mother had gone to one of the neighbor’s. Flora was in the sitting-room reading a story-book. Nancy stole out of the front door, and hurried down the road.

“What are you over here again for, child?” Aunt Lucretia cried when she went in.

Aunt Lucretia and Henrietta were in the kitchen, sticking papers over the jelly tumblers.

Nancy hesitated, and blushed.

“What is it?” asked Aunt Lucretia.

“I—didn’t know but—what—you might have got—that bill changed.”

“Why, I never saw such an acting child! Can’t you wait a minute? Henrietta, have you got any change?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Henrietta. And she got her purse, and they counted out forty-two cents. Twenty-two of them were in pennies.

“Now I hope you’re satisfied,” said Aunt Lucretia, sharply. “Did your mother know you came over here?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Well, you’re a naughty girl. I’m surprised at you. I sha’n’t want to hire you to pick berries again if this is the way you do. Go right home, and mind you tell your mother you’ve been here.”

The forty-two cents, twenty-two of which were pennies, jingled and weighed heavily in Nancy’s pocket. She was not happy going home. She had meditated going to the Indian encampment that night to buy the basket, but it looked so dark over the fields that she was afraid to; so she went straight home. Her mother had returned from the neighbor’s; there she stood in the front door, watching for her.

“Nancy Mann, I want to know where you’ve been,” she cried out, as soon as Nancy opened the gate.

“Over to—Aunt Lucretia’s.”

“You went over there, after all the times I told you not to?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What for?”

“I wanted my—forty-two cents.”

“Forty-two cents! What do you suppose your Aunt Lucretia thinks of you, dunning her up this way? Now you come in and light your candle, and go straight up-stairs to bed.”

It was only half-past eight o’clock. Nancy went to bed. Flora sat up and read her story-book, and did not go up-stairs until after nine. Nancy pretended to be asleep when she came in, but she was not. She did not go to sleep for an hour after that. She lay there and cried softly, and planned.

The next morning was very pleasant. It was Sunday, and all the family went to church. After church, Nancy and Flora went to Sunday-school. Sunday-school was out about one o’clock; then they walked homeward together. Nancy lagged behind, and Flora kept waiting for her.

“Go along; do,” said Nancy. “I want to pick these flowers.”

Flora wondered innocently what Nancy wanted to pick so many flowers for. The flowers were mostly yarrow and arnica blossoms, and Flora had always regarded them as the very commonest kind of weeds.

They were quite near home, when Nancy climbed swiftly over the stone-wall and lay down behind it. Flora went on without turning her head. Nancy had spoken so shortly to her that her feelings were hurt. When she went into the house her aunt asked where Nancy was.

“She’s coming,” said Flora. “She stopped to pick flowers.”

But it was a half-hour before Nancy came. Running as fast as she could over the meadows, it took some time to reach the Indian encampment and return. When she finally approached the house, her mother stood in the doorway, watching. She did not say a word until she came close to her.

“Where have you been?” she inquired.

Nancy hung her head, and was still. She kept one hand behind her.

“Answer me this minute.”

“Down to—the Injuns.”

“What for? What are you holding behind you?”

Nancy did not answer.

“Bring your hand round!” commanded her mother.

Nancy slowly swung around the hand holding the sweet-grass basket.

“Did you go down to the Injuns to-day, and spend that money you earned for that basket?” asked her mother.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Her mother looked at her. The tears were streaming over her hot cheeks and her scratched nose; her best hat had slipped back, and the brim was bent; there was a great green stain on the front of her best dress, and a rent on the side.

“I can never get that green off your dress in the world,” said her mother. “You’ll have to wear it so. Going down to the Injuns to buy baskets on Sunday, in your best dress and hat! And you went so Flora shouldn’t get it. I can see right through you. Now, Nancy Mann, you just march straight back with that basket. You ain’t going to do any trading on the Sabbath day while you belong to me.”

“Oh, mother!” sobbed Nancy; but she had to go. Her forlorn little figure disappeared lingeringly between the garden vines and bean poles.

“Hold your dress back,” called her mother. “Don’t you spoil it any more than you’ve done already.”

To Nancy, looking through a mist of tears, the green-clad bean poles seemed dancing forward and the tomato vines creeping to meet her. Crossing the meadow she wet her feet in her best shoes. But all this was nothing. That stout Indian Princess displayed suddenly a sense of humor and a witty shrewdness which seemed abnormal. Her stolid eyes twinkled under their heavy brows when Nancy explained, tremblingly, how she had brought the basket back; her mother would not let her buy it on Sunday.

“Me no buy basket Sunday,” said the Princess, and she looked loftily away from the sweet-grass basket shaking in Nancy’s shaking hand. She was not in the least moved by Nancy’s horrified, distressed face. Perhaps something of the ancient cruelty of her race possessed her; perhaps it was only the contagion of Yankee shrewdness. Nancy dared not go home with the basket; she went home without it or her fifty cents.

All that afternoon Nancy stayed up in her chamber and wept, while her best dress was soaking to remove the green stain, if it was Sunday. She felt as if her heart were broken. She had lost her self-respect, the sweet-grass basket, and her fifty cents, besides getting a great green stain on her best dress. Flora tried to comfort her.

“Don’t cry,” said she. “It’s too bad! The Princess is real mean.” And then Nancy sobbed harder.

When her mother was getting supper, her father followed into the pantry.

“I declare I feel sorry for the child,” said he. “She’s worked real hard to get that money, and she’ain’t ever had so much as Flora. If it wasn’t Sunday I’d go down there this minute, and get back the money or the basket from those Injuns.”

“You’d look pretty going, and you a deacon of the church, after the way the Princess put it,” returned Nancy’s mother. “I’m sorry enough for Nancy, but she ought to have a little lesson. You can go over there to-morrow morning and get the basket back.”

There was a beautiful custard pudding for supper, but Nancy did not want any.

“Sit up and eat your supper,” said her mother. “Your father’s going down to the Injuns in the morning, and see what he can do about it.”

However, Nancy still did not care for the custard pudding; everything tasted of tears.

The next morning, before Nancy’s father had a chance to go to the Indians, the Princess herself came to the back door. Whether she came from honesty or policy nobody could tell; but she came, and she brought the sweet-grass basket. She rapped on the door, and Nancy opened it. The Princess extended the basket without a word. Nancy wiped her hands, which were damp from washing the breakfast dishes, on her apron, then she took the basket. Then the Princess struck off across the garden.

Nancy carried the basket into the kitchen. She had a shamefaced and resolute expression. Flora was in there, and her father and mother.

She went straight to Flora, and held out the basket. Flora drew back, and looked at her.

“Take it,” said Nancy. “It’s for you.”

Flora looked at her aunt.

“Take it, if she wants you to,” said Mrs. Mann.

Flora took it. “Thank you,” said she. She went soberly out of the room with the basket. Nancy returned to her dish-washing at the sink, her father stared out of the window, her mother came and shoved her aside, and took the dish-cloth out of her hands.

“There, I’ll wash this heavy spider,” said she. “You can go and put on your other dress. I want you to go down to the store for me, and I’m going to let you buy a couple of yards of that pretty pink calico for a new apron.”

Nancy had admired that pink calico. As she went out of the kitchen her father caught her by the shoulders and gave her a little shake; then he patted her head.

“Don’t run too fast, and get all tired out,” said he.

Nancy put on her buff calico, and went to the store. It was an errand to take about an hour. She had been gone about a half-hour when the Indian Princess again came through the bean poles and tomato vines. This time she was all strung about with baskets. She stood at the kitchen door, and parleyed with Mrs. Mann and Flora. When she went away she had a fifty-cent piece in one brown fist, and she was eating a molasses cooky.

Nancy came home with the pink calico, and half a pound of cream of tartar; her mother and Flora were in the sitting-room, and they laughed when she entered.

Nancy looked soberly at them. “Here’s the calico, and the cream tartar,” said she.

“See what Flora has got for you,” said her mother.

Nancy stared around. There on the table stood two sweet-grass baskets exactly alike.

“The Princess came again, and she had another basket. I got it for you,” said Flora.

“Thank you,” said Nancy, in a sober voice, but the dark depths of the Shaker bonnet seemed fairly illumined with smiles.