Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XI. The Service on the Threshold
From this point on, the flitting went easily and smoothly enough, and the transportation of the Carey family itself to Greentown, on a mild budding day in April, was nothing compared to the heavy labor that had preceded it. All the goods and chattels had been despatched a week before, so that they would be on the spot well in advance, and the actual flitting took place on a Friday, so that Gilbert would have every hour of his vacation to assist in the settling process. He had accepted an invitation to visit a school friend at Easter, saying to his mother magisterially: "I didn't suppose you'd want me round the house when you were getting things to rights; men are always in the way; so I told Fred Bascom I'd go home with him."
"Home with Fred! Our only man! Sole prop of the House of Carey!" exclaimed his mother with consummate tact. "Why, Gilly dear, I shall want your advice every hour! And who will know about the planting,--for we are only 'women folks'; and who will do all the hammering and carpenter work? You are so wonderful with tools that you'll be worth all the rest of us put together!"
"Oh, well, if you need me so much as that I'll go along, of course," said Gilbert, "but Fred said his mother and sisters always did this kind of thing by themselves."
"'By themselves,' in Fred's family," remarked Mrs. Carey, "means a butler, footman, and plenty of money for help of every sort. And though no wonder you're fond of Fred, who is so jolly and such good company, you must have noticed how selfish he is!"
"Now, mother, you've never seen Fred Bascom more than half a dozen times!"
"No; and I don't remember at all what I saw in him the last five of them, for I found out everything needful the first time he came to visit us!" returned Mrs. Carey quietly. "Still, he's a likable, agreeable sort of boy."
"And no doubt he'll succeed in destroying the pig in him before he grows up," said Nancy, passing through the room. "I thought it gobbled and snuffled a good deal when we last met!"
Colonel Wheeler was at Greentown station when the family arrived, and drove Mrs. Carey and Peter to the Yellow House himself, while the rest followed in the depot carryall, with a trail of trunks and packages following on behind in an express wagon. It was a very early season, the roads were free from mud, the trees were budding, and the young grass showed green on all the sunny slopes. When the Careys had first seen their future home they had entered the village from the west, the Yellow House being the last one on the elm-shaded street, and quite on the outskirts of Beulah itself. Now they crossed the river below the station and drove through East Beulah, over a road unknown to any of them but Gilbert, who was the hero and instructor of the party. Soon the well-remembered house came into view, and as the two vehicles had kept one behind the other there was a general cheer.
It was more beautiful even than they had remembered it; and more commodious, and more delightfully situated. The barn door was open, showing crates of furniture, and the piazza was piled high with boxes.
Bill Harmon stood in the front doorway, smiling. He hoped for trade, and he was a good sort anyway.
"I'd about given you up to-night," he called as he came to the gate. "Your train's half an hour late. I got tired o' waitin', so I made free to open up some o' your things for you to start housekeepin' with. I guess there won't be no supper here for you to-night."
"We've got it with us," said Nancy joyously, making acquaintance in an instant.
"You are forehanded, ain't you! That's right!--jump, you little pint o' cider!" Bill said, holding out his arms to Peter. Peter, carrying many small things too valuable to trust to others, jumped, as suggested, and gave his new friend an unexpected shower of bumps from hard substances concealed about his person.
"Land o' Goshen, you're loaded, hain't you?" he inquired jocosely as he set Peter down on the ground.
The dazzling smile with which Peter greeted this supposed tribute converted Bill Harmon at once into a victim and slave. Little did he know, as he carelessly stood there at the wagon wheel, that he was destined to bestow upon that small boy offerings from his stock for years to come.
He and Colonel Wheeler were speedily lifting things from the carryall, while the Careys walked up the pathway together, thrilling with the excitement of the moment. Nancy breathed hard, flushed, and caught her mother's hand.
"O Motherdy!" she said under her breath; "it's all happening just as we dreamed it, and now that it's really here it's like--it's like--a dedication,--somehow. Gilbert, don't, dear! Let mother step over the sill first and call us into the Yellow House! I'll lock the door again and give the key to her."
Mother Carey, her heart in her throat, felt anew the solemn nature of the undertaking. It broke over her in waves, fresher, stronger, now that the actual moment had arrived, than it ever had done in prospect. She took the last step upward, and standing in the doorway, trembling, said softly as she turned the key, "Come home, children! Nancy! Gilbert! Kathleen! Peter-bird!" They flocked in, all their laughter hushed by the new tone in her voice. Nancy's and Kitty's arms encircled their mother's waist. Gilbert with sudden instinct took off his hat, and Peter, looking at his elder brother wonderingly, did the same. There was a moment of silence; the kind of golden silence that is full to the brim of thoughts and prayers and memories and hopes and desires,--so full of all these and other beautiful, quiet things that it makes speech seem poor and shabby; then Mother Carey turned, and the Yellow House was blessed. Colonel Wheeler and Bill Harmon at the gate never even suspected that there had been a little service on the threshold, when they came up the pathway to see if there was anything more needed.
"I set up all the bedsteads and got the mattresses on 'em," said Bill Harmon, "thinkin' the sandman would come early to-night."
"I never heard of anything so kind and neighborly!" cried Mrs. Carey gratefully. "I thought we should have to go somewhere else to sleep. Is it you who keeps the village store?"
"That's me!" said Bill.
"Well, if you'll be good enough to come back once more to-night with a little of everything, we'll be very much obliged. We have an oil stove, tea and coffee, tinned meats, bread and fruit; what we need most is butter, eggs, milk, and flour. Gilbert, open the box of eatables, please; and, Nancy, unlock the trunk that has the bed linen in it. We little thought we should find such friends here, did we?"
"I got your extension table into the dining-room," said Bill, "and tried my best to find your dishes, but I didn't make out, up to the time you got here. Mebbe you marked 'em someway so't you know which to unpack first? I was only findin' things that wan't no present use, as I guess you'll say when you see 'em on the dining table."
They all followed him as he threw open the door, Nancy well in the front, as I fear was generally the case. There, on the centre of the table stood You Dirty Boy rearing his crested head in triumph, and round him like the gate posts of a mausoleum stood the four black and white marble funeral urns. Perfect and entire, without a flaw, they stood there, confronting Nancy.
"It is like them to be the first to greet us!" exclaimed Mrs. Carey, with an attempt at a smile, but there was not a sound from Kathleen or Nancy. They stood rooted to the floor, gazing at the Curse of the House of Carey as if their eyes must deceive them.
"You look as though you didn't expect to see them, girls!" said their mother, "but when did they ever fail us?--Do you know, I have a courage at this moment that I never felt before?--Beulah is so far from Buffalo that Cousin Ann cannot visit us often, and never without warning. I should not like to offend her or hurt her feelings, but I think we'll keep You Dirty Boy and the mantel ornaments in the attic for the present, or the barn chamber. What do you say?"
Colonel Wheeler and Mr. Harmon had departed, so a shout of agreement went up from the young Careys. Nancy approached You Dirty Boy with a bloodthirsty glare in her eye.
"Come along, you evil, uncanny thing!" she said. "Take hold of his other end, Gilly, and start for the barn; that's farthest away; but it's no use; he's just like that bloodstain on Lady Macbeth's hand,--he will not out! Kathleen, open the linen trunk while we're gone. We can't set the table till these curses are removed. When you've got the linen out, take a marble urn in each hand and trail them along to where we are. You can track us by a line of my tears!"
They found the stairs to the barn chamber, and lifted You Dirty Boy up step by step with slow, painful effort. Kathleen ran out and put two vases on the lowest step and ran back to the house for the other pair. Gilbert and Nancy stood at the top of the stairs with You Dirty Boy between them, settling where he could be easiest reached if he had to be brought down for any occasion,--an unwelcome occasion that was certain to occur sometime in the coming years.
Suddenly they heard their names called in a tragic whisper! "Gilbert! Nancy! Quick! Cousin Ann's at the front gate!"
There was a crash! No human being, however self-contained, could have withstood the shock of that surprise; coming as it did so swiftly, so unexpectedly, and with such awful inappropriateness. Gilbert and Nancy let go of You Dirty Boy simultaneously, and he fell to the floor in two large fragments, the break occurring so happily that the mother and the washcloth were on one half, and the boy on the other,--a situation long desired by the boy, to whom the parting was most welcome!
"She got off at the wrong station," panted Kathleen at the foot of the stairs, "and had to be driven five miles, or she would have got here as she planned, an hour before we did. She's come to help us settle, and says she was afraid mother would overdo. Did you drop anything? Hurry down, and I'll leave the vases here, in among the furniture; or shall I take back two of them to show that they were our first thought?--And oh! I forgot. She's brought Julia! Two more to feed, and not enough beds!"
Nancy and Gilbert confronted each other.
"Hide the body in the corner, Gilly," said Nancy; "and say, Gilly--"
"You see he's in two pieces?"
"What do you say to making him four, or more?"
"I say you go downstairs ahead of me and into the house, and I follow you a moment later! Close the barn door carefully behind you!--Am I understood?"
"You are, Gilly! understood, and gloried in, and reverenced. My spirit will be with you when you do it, Gilly dear, though I myself will be greeting Cousin Ann and Julia!"