The following short story, which appeared in the May 1881 issue of the children's periodical Wide Awake, also serves as the title story in a book generally attributed to Ella Rodman Church. In actuality, the book Borrowed Plumes is one of several collections issued by the publishing company D. Lothrop & Co. utilizing material recycled from Wide Awake (which Lothrop also published).
WorldCat listings for the book Borrowed Plumes show the contents as "Borrowed plumes.--The missionary iron-holders.--Children's books in old times.--April fools and other fools.--The Mite Society at Sage-Town school-house.--Cousin Sallie's wedding slippers.--An evening with Columbus.--The torch-light brigade."
In addition to "Borrowed Plumes," two other stories in the collection are also from the May 1881 issue of Wide Awake: "Cousin Sallie's Wedding Slippers," written by series author Margaret Sidney (Harriett Mulford Lothrop, wife of Daniel Lothrop, owner of the publishing company) and illustrated by J. Wells Champney (husband of series author Lizzie Wells Champney), and "An Evening with Columbus," penned by Frederick Abbott Stokes. "The Missionary Iron-Holders" (by Amy Terese Powelson) and "The Mite Society at Sagetown School-House" (by Mrs. M. L. Evans) were both from the April 1881 issue, while "The Torch-Light Brigade" by Mrs. S. B. C. Samuels, yet another series author, had appeared in December 1880. The remaining two piecess "April Fools and Other Fools" (by J. F. Packard) and "Children’s Books in Old Times" (by Sarah Loring Bailey) were from the April 1879 and Feb 1879 issues, respectively. (An index to Wide Awake can be found at FictionMags.)
Like several of Church's other children's stories, "Borrowed Plumes" contains a story within a story, narrated by an aunt to her young niece. The latter aspect may reflect Church's own situation, for the 1880 census shows her sharing a residence with her sister and brother-in-law and their eight-year-old daughter.
by Ella Rodman Church
"Aunt Mary, isn't my parasol pretty? and did you ever see such a sweet hat? It came directly from Paris -- see how nicely the turban shape fits over my curls. And don't you like this bunch of violets, with the white ostrich plume? I think my dress is just perfect; mamma took great pains to get this shade of lilac silk, and the pearl buttons to fasten it up the back. I hope the dusty road won't spoil my bronze boots."
The little chatterer stopped a moment; and her aunt, Miss Selwood, who looked like a perfect lady in her very plain dress, glanced at her in some amusement. The little niece had only arrived the evening before from her city home, and she was to spend this bright, beautiful month of May in the country because she had been getting a little pale and thin among brick walls; but she evidently thought that things were very plain in her aunt's village home, and was full of little airs that were quite amusing. Miss Selwood had seen very little of her brother's child since she was three years old, which was seven years ago; and she found her now quite a lovable little girl, although with rather an overweening fondness for dress.
"Will I do, auntie?" asked Clarice, whirling around for inspection; for her aunt had been silent while she rattled on.
"I think," replied Miss Selwood, smiling, "that you will do very well. You have a hat to protect your head from the sun, and a parasol to shade your eyes, and your hands and feet are well covered. It seems to me that we may walk to church quite comfortably."
Clarice bit her lip in vexation -- she could not make auntie out at all, though she was very nice in many ways. She was very sure, however, that she was wonderfully well-dressed; and she swung herself from side to side, as she walked; until every separate ruffle seemed to stand out by itself. The village people certainly looked at her, and this pleased Clarice; but some poorly-dressed children, from whom she shrank away as though afraid of being touched, called out "Proudie! Proudie!" as she passed.
The young lady glanced indignantly at her aunt; but Miss Selwood did not seem to have heard them, and they entered the church. Clarice was a long time in settling herself, and she looked around more than once to see if there was any other little girl so handsomely dressed. No one could compare with her, and this gave her a satisfied feeling; she told her aunt, as they went home, that country people had no "style."
"There are different kinds of style, Clarice," replied her aunt quietly, "and some styles are very bad ones."'
Miss Selwood junior wondered what auntie meant by this; but she decided not to ask her.
In the evening, like every other child with an auntie at hand, Clarice wanted a story.
"I think," said Aunt Mary, after a few moments' reflection, "that I will tell you about a little girl who had some very strange adventures. Her name was Elma, and she was always dressed in the extreme of the fashion, and not a little proud of her fine clothes. She lived in a beautiful house in the country; and one afternoon, late in the spring, she put on her new things that had just been sent home, and stole out for a walk. She went on the very tips of her toes, for fear the stones and dust would spoil her nice boots; and she looked constantly down at her dress and thought it a great pity that there was scarcely any one to see her.
"A countryman passed in his wagon, and offered her a ride; but she felt indignant at the idea of being asked to get up on a rough wooden seat with her new suit, and scarcely answered him civilly."
"I think she was a rude little girl," said Clarice; "mamma always teaches me to be polite."
"She did not know that she was rude," replied her aunt; "the trouble was that she was thinking entirely of herself and her fine clothes. When she had walked a little farther, she was not near any house -- there were only trees and the grassy road to be seen; but voices called out very distinctly: 'Patchwork; Patchwork!'
Elma looked sharply around, but she did not see any patchwork, neither could she get a glimpse of the people who ought to have been attached to these voices. She felt rather frightened; and this feeling did not lesson [sic] when an immense bird that she knew at once to be an ostrich, from a picture in her geography, came running up to her faster than any horse, and shrieked in a shrill voice: 'Thief! Thief! Thief!'
" 'Oh! oh!' screamed Elma, beginning to run the other way.
"But there is no use in trying a race with an ostrich: and the huge creature, ruffling its beautiful plumes in anger, soon overtook her -- when snatching the feather out of her jaunty hat, he stuck it into one of his wings, saying:
"Look at that, will you? See how perfectly it fits -- oh! you thief! Take that!' and slapping her with the same wing, the ostrich ran off again.
" 'Patchwork! Patchwork!' called out the malicious voices; and Elma looked up in a tree to see two or three parrots, who all winked at her, and screamed 'Patchwork!'
"But parrots were not things to be afraid of; and Elma anwered back quite boldly: 'Where is the patchwork?'
" 'You! you!' they replied, with fresh grimaces 'you're all over patchwork. Why don't you wear a dress in one piece, like the rest of the animals? and one that grows on your own back, instead of taking a bit from this one, and a bit from that one?'
" 'Because,' said Elma hotly, 'I am not an animal -- I don't want to be a creature covered with fur or feathers.'
" 'No,' shrieked all the parrots together 'you'd rather steal what you want. You're a thief!'
"And they began again the hateful cry of 'Patchwork!' till the little girl ran off crying; but wherever she went, the parrots seemed to be there before her, screaming 'Thief!' and "Patchwork!' until the wonder was that they didn't all have sore throats.
"But a very queer procession now began to advance toward her; and Elma stopped crying in sheer astonishment, and stood staring at the strange creatures that poured on as though a Noah's Ark had just been emptied near by. This procession was headed by a very solemn goat, with such a forlorn looking little kid beside it that seem to be all ears, that Elma suddenly laughed out.
" 'Such conduct is perfectly insulting,' exclaimed the goat, bristling its horns in anger. 'After treating my child in the way you have done, you might, at least, look sorry.'
" 'Why, I am sure I haven't done anything to you,' said Elma to the kid, for she was quite frightened at the old goat's ferocious aspect, and she didn't like things with horns.
"But the kid only looked foolish, as kids generally do; and the goat asked severely: 'What are your boots made of?'
" 'Why, kid, I suppose,' she replied, with an astonished glance at the little object beside her.
" 'Yes, kid,' continued the indignant goat; 'the very skin off my child's back! and front, too, probably. And so are your gloves. Oh, very fine, upon my word! with their two buttons (stolen from some animal's horn, I suppose, or a pearl oyster). Off with them, if you please!'
" 'I sha'n't,' sobbed Elma. 'My mamma bought them and paid for them, and they didn't come off your child's back at all -- she's got all her skin on now.'
" 'She actually doubts our word,' said the old goat, who had a great deal of dignity, and evidently belonged to one of the first families; 'she is not a lady, in spite of her fine clothes. Be good enough to tumble down.'
"And in this polite manner, the animal butted so furiously at Elma, that she found herself speedily on her back; and wrenching off her boots and gloves, the goat, now quite satisfied, walked away with its kid -- who had done nothing from the beginning but look silly.
" 'What next'? thought the little girl; but presently, she began to scream: 'O-h! Do go away! Won't somebody take them off? '
"They were so big, and fat, and comfortable looking, those yellowish-gray worms, with large heads and a horn apiece, just where one wouldn't expect to see it, being quite at the wrong end of the body! They had been stuffing themselves so with mulberry leaves, that they could scarcely move; and with the greatest deliberation they dropped themselves down from somewhere, and began to promenade slowly over Elma's pretty silk dress.
" 'Well, upon my word,' said the fattest one, who seemed to be a sort of grandmother among them, 'I never should have known them again! And you are sure that this smooth, shiny stuff is really our cocoons that we worked so hard over? How did they ever manage it, I wonder?'
" 'Why,' replied another one, who looked like a professor, 'they first baked the cocoons in an oven, before we had a chance to bore a hole and get through -- for that would have spoiled the silk, it seems, for these people who are ashamed to appear in their own skins. Then it is cleansed from gum, and reeled off in long strings; and after going through the loom, it comes out the soft shiny stuff we are walking over. How very slippery it is, to be sure!'
"And the professor tumbled head over heels.
" 'Well, this is a pretty state of things!' said grandmamma worm in great wrath, 'that I should have been spinning my brains out for five long days to set this little chit up with a silk dress'!
" 'What are you going to do about it?' asked the professor, as he clung to the top of a ruffle.
" 'We will eat some holes in it.' was the reply, as she began to gnaw, 'though it isn't half so good as mulberry-leaves.'
"Elma, who thought that the the silkworms were going to eat her[,] had taken to screaming again; but before long, the worms pronounced the prepared silk disgusting stuff, and tumbled off in a half-sick condition.
"Then came up a small family of pearl oysters; walking on the edges of their shells in a very remarkable manner, and leading in their midst one who appeared to be an invalid.
" 'What do you want?' asked Elma, as she surveyed the half-open oysters, each looking like a seed that had just sprouted into two leaves.
" 'We want the buttons;' they replied, 'for which we were rudely torn from our beds at a most vulgarly early hour; and now we cannot find them again, and have to wander without sleep.'
" ' But you ought to get up, you know,' said the little girl; 'oysters are much too fond of their beds -- and my mamma says that it is very indolent to sleep late in the morning.'
" 'But oysters' mammas don't,' was the reply, ' and we are all enchanted princesses -- we sleep a hundred years and more, unless some one drags us out of bed, and we don't like it at all. The mother-of-pearl in our shells is so constantly stolen, that we have decided to enter a protest against it; and we may as well begin with you.'
" 'What is the matter with that one in the middle?' asked Elma, to gain time; 'she seems to be crying!'
" 'Then things are what they seem, this time,' was the reply, 'whatever Mr. Longfellow says to the contrary. Our sister is ill, and she is weepiing; she has a hopeless disease, that is aggravated by her tears -- and the result is a precious pearl, which, I see, you are wearing in a ring.'
" 'My father's birth-day gift!' cried Elma in despair; for all the oysters were opening and shutting their mouths as though they meant to fasten on her finger.
" 'But stolen, in the first place,' said the oyster who did most of the talking,'and we will take that and the buttons, if you please.'
"Now Elma did not please at all; but the oysters looked so resolute, and had such a horrible way of snapping their shells together, that she wrenched off all her pretty pearl buttons and placed them, with the ring, in a heap on the ground.
"The oysters walked triumphantly off with their recovered treasures; but scarcely had they gone, when a lamb planted itself directly in front of Elma, and ba'ad at her in such a senseless way, that she got all out of patience.
" 'Now,' said she, 'what have I got on that you want?'
" 'Baa!' replied the lamb.
"The parrots, who had been comparatively quiet, to enjoy Elma's perplexity, now took up the case, and shrieked from their tree-top:
" 'That little, white, embroidered sacque that you feel so fine in, is made of lamb's wool. You'd better hand it over -- there is nothing like paying your debts!'
But Elma was quite resolved not to hand it over; what did she care for an animal that had neither horns nor claws, and could do nothing but 'baa'? The lamb stood his ground so persistently, however, and bleated so pertinaciously in her face, that she finally flung her sacque at him in a pet; and he scampered off with the dainty garment on his back.
"Turning hastily to the other side, Elma saw what looked like a gray house lumbering toward her; and before she could really take in this strange phenomenon, a very large, and unwieldly looking elephant stood gazing down upon her. He seemed about three stories high, and surveyed her very gravely with his small eyes; while the little girl could stir neither hand nor foot with terror -- her last moment, she thought, had surely come.
"Presently, the huge animal put out his trunk, as though it had been an arm with a hand attached to it, and coolly seized Elma's parasol, which she considered the crowning point of her whole attire. It had a beautifully carved ivory handle; and breaking this off close to the whalebone, the elephant flung the silk top on the ground, like a flower dropped from its stem -- and saying: 'The king has his own again,' moved slowly away, brandishing the parasol handle like a musket.
" 'Well,' said Elma, with a sigh of relief, 'I hope that's the last.'
" 'You don't deserve it should be the last,' replied the parrots, who always came in like a disagreeable chorus. 'There are the poor, little pale children who have worked in factories over the cotton cloth for your dainty underclothing; and hosts of people who have been employed, in various ways, in putting you together. For patchwork you are, and patchwork you will be, so long as you wear things that first belonged to others. And to think of your taking airs for that reason!' laughed the parrots; 'ha! ha! ha!'
"The boisterous laughter woke Elma, who had been dreaming all this time, on the little white bed where she had flung herself in a pet, because her new dress was sent home with only five ruffles on it, when she wanted seven.
"I think the dream did her good; for she began to see the folly of caring so much for clothing, when she was really dependent on all sorts of animals to furnish her with anything to wear."
"Why, auntie," said Clarice, "I never thought of that before, and if animals could really act and talk in this way, I should think they would call people 'thieves' and 'patchwork.' I wish we didn't have to borrow clothes from them."
Miss Selwood hoped that the lesson might work; and before her little niece left her, there certainly was a decided improvement.