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Dolly's Lesson by Susan Coolidge


“What is presence of mind, any way?” demanded little Dolly Ware, as she sat, surrounded by her family, watching the sunset.

The sunset hour is best of all the twenty-four in Nantucket. At no other time is the sea so blue and silvery, or the streaks of purple and pale green which mark the place of the sand-spits and shallows that underlie the island waters so defined, or of such charming colors. The wind blows across softly from the south shore, and brings with it scents of heath and thyme, caught from the high upland moors above the town. The sun dips down, and sends a flash of glory to the zenith; and small pink clouds curl up about the rising moon, fondle her, as it were, and seem to love her. It is a delightful moment, and all Nantucket dwellers learn to watch for it.

It was the custom of the Ware family, as soon as they had despatched their supper,—a very hearty supper, suited to young appetites sharpened by sea air;—of chowder, or hot lobster, or a newly caught blue-fish, with piles of brown bread and butter, and unlimited milk,—to rush out en masse to the piazza of their little cottage, and “attend to the sunset,” as though it were a family affair. It was the hour when jokes were cracked and questions asked, and when Mamma, who was apt to be pretty busy during the daytime, had leisure to answer them.

Dolly was youngest of the family,—a thin, wiry child, tall for her years, with a brown bang lying like a thatch over a pair of bright inquisitive eyes, and a thick pig-tail braided down her back. Phyllis, the next in age, was short and fat; then came Harry, then Erma, just sixteen (named after a German great-grandmother), and, last of all, Jack, tallest and jolliest of the group, who had just “passed his preliminaries,” and would enter college next year. Mrs. Ware might be excused for the little air of motherly pride with which she gazed at her five. They were fine children, all of them,—frank, affectionate, generous, with bright minds and healthy bodies.

“Presence of mind sometimes means absence of body,” remarked Jack, in answer to Dolly's question.

“I was speaking to Mamma,” said Dolly, with dignity. “I wasn't asking you.”

“I am aware of the fact, but I overlooked the formality, for once. What makes you want to know, midget?”

“There was a story in the paper about a girl who hid the kerosene can when the new cook came, and it said she showed true presence of mind,” replied Dolly.

“Oh, that was only fun! It didn't mean anything.”

“Isn't there any such thing, then?”

“Why, of course there is. Picking up a shell just before it bursts in a hospital tent, and throwing it out of the door, is presence of mind.”

“Yes, and tying a string round the right place on your leg when you've cut an artery,” added Harry, eagerly.

“Swallowing a quart of whiskey when a rattlesnake bites you,” suggested Jack.

“Saving the silver, instead of the waste-paper basket, when the house is on fire,” put in Erma.

Dolly looked from one to the other.

“What funny things!” she cried. “I don't believe you know anything about it. Mamma, tell me what it really means.”

“I think,” said Mrs. Ware, in those gentle tones to which her children always listened, “that presence of mind means keeping cool, and having your wits about you, at critical moments. Our minds—our reasoning faculties, that is—are apt to be stunned or shocked when we are suddenly frightened or excited; they leave us, and go away, as it were, and it is only afterward that we pick ourselves up, and realize what we ought to have done. To act coolly and sensibly in the face of danger is a fine thing, and one to be proud of.”

“Should you be proud of me if I showed presence of mind?” asked Dolly, leaning her arms on her mother's lap.

“Very proud,” replied Mrs. Ware, smiling as she stroked the brown head,—“very proud, indeed.”

“I mean to do it,” said Dolly, in a firm tone.

There was a general laugh.

“How will you go to work?” asked Jack. “Shall I step down to Hussey's, and get a shell for you to practise on?”

“She'll be setting the house on fire some night, to show what she can do,” added Harry, teasingly.

“I shall do no such thing,” protested Dolly, indignantly. “How foolish you are! You don't understand a bit! I don't want to make things happen; but, if they do happen, I shall try to keep cool and have my wits about me, and perhaps I shall.”

“It would be lovely to be brave and do heroic things,” remarked Phyllis.

“You could at least be brave enough to use your common sense,” said her mother. “Yours is a very good resolution, Dolly dear, and I hope you'll keep to it.”

“I will,” said Dolly, and marched undauntedly off to bed. Later, she found herself repeating, as if it were a lesson to be learned, “Presence of mind means keeping cool, and having your wits about you;” and she said it over and over every morning and evening after that, as she braided her hair. Phyllis overheard, and laughed at her a little; but Dolly didn't mind being laughed at, and kept on rehearsing her sentence all the same.

It is not given to all of us to test ourselves, and discover by actual experiment just how much a mental resolution has done for us. Dolly, however, was to have the chance. The bathing-beach at Nantucket is a particularly safe one, and the water through the summer months most warm and delicious. All the children who lived on the sandy bluff known as “The Cliff” were in the habit of bathing; and the daily dip taken in company was the chief event of the day, in their opinion. The little Wares all swam like ducks; and no one thought of being nervous or apprehensive if Harry struck out boldly for the jetty, or if Erma and Phyllis were seen side by side at a point far beyond the depth of either of them, or little Dolly took a “header” into deep water off an old boat.

It happened, about two months after the talk on the piazza, that Dolly was bathing with Kitty Allen, a small neighbor of her own age. Kitty had just been learning to swim, and was very proud of her new accomplishment; but she was by no means so sure of herself or so much at home in the water as Dolly, who had learned three years before, and practised continually.

The two children had swam out for quite a distance; then, as they turned to go back, Kitty suddenly realized her distance from the shore, and was seized with immediate and paralyzing terror.

“Oh, oh!” she gasped. “How far out we are! We shall never get back in the world! We shall be drowned! Dolly Ware, we shall certainly be drowned!”

She made a vain clutch at Dolly, and, with a wild scream, went down, and disappeared.

Dolly dived after her, only to be met by Kitty coming up to the surface again, and frantically reaching out, as drowning persons do, for something to hold by. The first thing she touched was Dolly's large pig-tail, and, grasping that tight, she sank again, dragging Dolly down with her, backward.

It was really a hazardous moment. Many a good swimmer has lost his life under similar circumstances. Nothing is more dangerous than to be caught and held by a person who cannot swim, or who is too much disabled by fear to use his powers.

And now it was that Dolly's carefully conned lesson about presence of mind came to her aid. “Keep cool; have your wits about you,” rang through her ears, as, held in Kitty's desperate grasp, she was dragged down, down into the sea. A clear sense of what she ought to do flashed across her mind. She must escape from Kitty and hold her up, but not give Kitty any chance to drag her down again. As they rose, she pulled her hair away with a sudden motion, and seized Kitty by the collar of her bathing-dress, behind.

“Float, and I'll hold you up,” she gasped. “If you try to catch hold of me again, I'll just swim off, and leave you, and then you will be drowned, Kitty Allen.”

Kitty was too far gone to make any very serious struggle. Then Dolly, striking out strongly, and pushing Kitty before her, sent one wild cry for help toward the beach.

The cry was heard. It seemed to Dolly a terribly long time before any answer came, but it was in reality less than five minutes before a boat was pushed into the water. Dolly saw it rowing toward her, and held on bravely. “Be cool; have your wits about you,” she said to herself. And she kept firm grasp of her mind, and would not let the fright, of whose existence she was conscious, get possession of her.

Oh, how welcome was the dash of the oars close at hand, how gladly she relinquished Kitty to the strong arms that lifted her into the boat! But when the men would have helped her in too, she refused.

“No, thank you; I'll swim!” she said. It seemed nothing to get herself to shore, now that the responsibility of Kitty and Kitty's weight were taken from her. She swam pluckily along, the boat keeping near, lest her strength should give out, and reached the beach just as Jack, that moment aware of the situation, was dashing into the water after her. She was very pale, but declared herself not tired at all, and she dressed and marched sturdily up the cliff, refusing all assistance.

There was quite a little stir among the summer colony over the adventure, and Mrs. Ware had many compliments paid her for her child's behavior. Mr. Allen came over, and had much to say about the extraordinary presence of mind which Dolly had shown.

“It was really remarkable,” he said. “If she had fought with Kitty, or if she had tried to swim ashore and had not called for assistance, they might easily have both been drowned. It is extraordinary that a child of that age should keep her head, and show such coolness and decision.”

“It wasn't remarkable at all,” Dolly declared, as soon as he was gone. “It was just because you said that on the piazza that night.”

“Said what?”

“Why, Mamma, surely you haven't forgotten. It was that about presence of mind, you know. I taught it to myself, and have said it over and over ever since,—'Keep cool; have your wits about you.' I said it in the water when Kitty was pulling me under.”

“Did you, really?”

“Indeed, I did. And then I seemed to know what to do.”

“Well, it was a good lesson,” said Mrs. Ware, with glistening eyes. “I am glad and thankful that you learned it when you did, Dolly.”

“Are you proud of me?” demanded Dolly.

“Yes, I am proud of you.”

This capped the climax of Dolly's contentment. Mamma was proud of her; she was quite satisfied.