Kitchen Junket by Ralph Page
The apple orchard was in red bud, and the black stems of the sugar plums covered with white exotic bloom that night when Chris and I walked along the path that was a short cut to Uncle Wallace's.
"It's a nice night for the junket," said Chris, shifting the basket of sandwiches from one hand to the other. "Hope we'll be early so you can play that new fiddle tune you learned up north. Ste. Anne's Reel, I mean. Uncle Wallace will want to learn it."
"You make him dance Morning Star with you," I answered, "and I'll play it then, so eveybody can hear what a fine tune it is."
We got to the old farm house just in time to help carry the kitchen stove out into the shed. "Won't need no fire in the kitchen tonight," explained Uncle Wallace. "Fireplace in the front room, and you folks dancing, will make it warm enough. B'sides, I remember a junket that Uncle Sam Loveland had once. Part way through, the stovepipe fell down and landed right in a ten gallon crock of hard cider. Time we'd got the pipe back in place, the whole house was full of smoke and the cider full of soot. Had to drink the women folk's lemonade, and there warn't near enough to go round. Ever since then I've always said that stoves and junkets don't go together."
Back in the kitchen we found most of the expected guests had arrived. Mostly cousins, near or far removed, or close friends and 'adopted' members of the family. That is one good thing about kitchen junkets; everybody tries to get there on time. Come eight o'clock, say, and there's hardly anyone there. At quarter past eight the party is under way, and the dancing started.
"Where's my fiddlin' chair, Mabel? Got to get these young-ones goin'."
A wood bottomed chair, with no back, was brought in from the buttery and placed in the corner by the wood box. Eight year old Norma handed Uncle Wallace his fiddle, saying as she did so that she had tuned it up for him and "it's all ready to play."
"Waal, I swear, so't is," said the old man, after three or four experimental scrapes of the bow had proved it so. "Tell yer ma to pay more attention to your music, and less to yer hair do."
"All right, folks. Lady Walpole's Reel is the figure. Take your partners for Lady Walpole's Reel."
Here was the first jolly scramble for partners, followed by good natured jockeying for positions in the sets. Three sets of us in all. One in the kitchen under the critical eye of Uncle Wallace. One in the big living room, and another in the north dining room.
"Balance and swing below."
The loud, clear voice stopped the banter. The kitchen junket had started. The first balance steps and the first few swings were of the best dancing school form. But wait until the next dance. Then the fancy steps and light footed shenanigans would begin.
"Down the center with your own
Same way back when you get below
Cast off and ladies' chain
Prom-m-menade her half way
Right and left right to your place."
The music goes faster and faster. The swings more furious. The balancing more spirited and complicated. Seven minutes go by. Most of the men have thrown their outer garments onto the chairs lining the walls. Eight minutes. All are getting warmed up, and the last of the misery from aching joints. Nine minutes. "What's the matter, Wallace? Can't you play any faster?" The old man's started and can't run down.
"Now swing your partners everyone
Swing 'em again boys, just for fun
Promanade all. You know and I don't care
Open the windows and let in some air."
"How's you folks get along in the settin' room, Charles?"
"Fine. Say, that was the best reel I ever danced. What was you folks laughing at out here in the kitchen?"
"Laughing at Clint. Swung Ethelyn off her feet, and she's so heavy she most floored him."
"Here comes Jim Davis with his banjo. He's always one figure late. Hurry up Jim, and get in tune, so's we can start a plain quadrille."
"Huh. Y'ain't got to wait for me. All tuned up ain't I Wallace?"
"'T'was a couple hours ago, before you had to go home and milk. How's that two year old comin', Jim?"
"Good's they ever do. Dam'f I ever saw a real good one. Hates to let her milk down. Don't like to bother with a heifer 'n her first calf. How is your 'A' Wallace?"
That old five string banjo was Jim's pride and joy. The case was battered and held together with a couple of skating straps. The instrument itself, though, was as spic and clean as if it had just come out of a band box. The inlaid mother of pearl, marking the positions, danced and sparkled in the soft yellow lights of the kerosene lamps that lined the mantle over the kitchen fireplace. The ebony finger board was a dark silken sheen, and the silver nuts used to tighten the head, shown as though burnished with silver cream polish. As well they had. A good workman is known by his tools, and this was the tool of an artist. The first few chords proved it.
"By George! Yer right, Jim. 'T ain't down a red hair, now is it?"
"Square up, folks. Plain quadrille. Four couples in a set."
"What's it goin't'be, Wallace, Honest John?"
"Hell, no, Harry. Can't do that yet. Ain't but just begun to dance."
"Sure, I know it Wallace. It's a fine figure though."
"So't is, and so is this one. Goin' to call a Caledonian Quadrille."
Tucking the fiddle under his chin he swept the bow across the strings and began the first strain of Bonnie Dundee.
"Honor your partners. Then:
"First four half promanade
Half right and left to place
First four forward, cross right hands around
Left hands back
Balance and turn partners
Same two ladies chain."
Then the side couples repeated the same figure. Never a simle on anyone's face; only by looking into their eyes could you tell whether or not they were having a good time. The fiddle and banjo kept to a strict marching tempo and the couples moved through the figures with an ease and grace of a lifetime of practice. The second figure followed quickly to the tune of Blue Bells of Scotland.
Quick applause greeted the ending of this figure, as the dancers drew deep breaths in anticipation of the "breakdown" figure to follow.
"All the ladies balance to the right. Swing.
All the gents balance to the left. Swing."
And so on, all around the set. Forgotten where all the niceties taught us by village dancing masters. Who could be sedate and pickle-faced when fiddle and banjo were racing through the Reel of Stumpie? Pigeon wings. Cooper step. High Betty Martin. Brazing step. All the plain and fancy jig steps. An excited yip of rapture from the dining room told every one that Larry was up to some complicated didoes.
"Everybody do it again. Y' on yer own."
The whole swift figure repeated without benefit of caller. Music going faster and faster. Swirling skirts and stamping feet. The tune had changed to Miss MacLeod's Reel. This was dancing. This was what we came for.
"Come on, Chris. Get off yer heels and on 't yer toes. What's the matter, can't you keep up?"
All too soon the dance ended with Uncle Wallace shouting:
"Promenade the girl beside yer. I'm goin' to stop and have some cider."
The old rhyme drew as much laughter as it had the first time he had used it, long years ago, at some other now forgotten junket.
"Good idea, Wallace. I need some, too."
A tin dipper, filled with the golden brew of Russet apples was passed around to all the men. Each drank from the communal cup and having drank, handed it on to his nearest neighbor. The man who emptied the dipper, filled it, and started it on its way again.
"Drink 'er up men," said Uncle Wallace, "there ain't goin't'be but two more rounds you know."
"Aw heck, Wallace. How we goin'T' dance on that?"
"Better 'n yer can on a dozen, Bert. That's the rule here you know."
Other kitchen junkets, elsewhere, might be the excuse to empty a barrel or so, but not here. Everyone there knew it and the protesting voices were all a part of the game. If you couldn't feel happy on three good drinks of Russet apple cider, most a year old, then something was the matter with you. After all, there was nothing to stop you from taking a deep breath and taking all you could as a single drink. Once the dipper was lowered, though, you must pass it on to some one else. There was no limit to the amount of lemonade for the girls, who always made a great to do over someone spiking it with gin. Such as event might have happened, somewhere, but not under the watchful eye of Aunt Mabel, who could smell hard liquor farther than she could see it.
The old couple were not strait-laced teetotalers. Far from it. But as Aunt Mabel used to say:
"Dancin' and hard liquor don't go together. I like vinegar on baked beans, but I don't want any on strawberry short cake. Everything in its place, and there's a place for everything."
This first stop for refreshments lasted but a short time. It sort of gave us a chance to get our second wind. Followed in quick succession, three of the quieter contrys. Quieter in that there was a minimum of swings. Pat'nella, danced to Finnegan's Wake. We "ballanced the four corners" in this one, turning a quarter way round to our own right before each balance. Arms hanging loosely at our sides, each of us men tried to outdo the others in intricate balance steps. The Wild Goose Chase to the tune by the same name. And finally, French Four, to Old Zip Coon.
It was a time honored ritual between Uncle Wallace and Jim Davis, that Uncle was to dance this with mother, while Jim played the tune by himself. This was what Jim had been waiting for all evening. It gave him a chance to show his prowess with the strings, and he never failed to give a masterly performance. The old farm house echoed to the tune as Jim's big hands plucked the strings unerringly. The applause and yells of approval as the dance ended was as soothing to the old bachelor as Balm of Gilead to a sore muscle. The lean wind burned face beamed with delight, and ever ready to share his pleasure with another, he called out happily: "Come on now, Al. It's your turn now. Play something so 't Wallace can do the next one, too. He's so darned old and stiff that he more'n warmed up."