Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XII. Cousin Ann
Mother Carey, not wishing to make any larger number of persons uncomfortable than necessary, had asked Julia not to come to them until after the house in Beulah had been put to rights; but the Fergusons went abroad rather unexpectedly, and Mr. Ferguson tore Julia from the arms of Gladys and put her on the train with very little formality. Her meeting Cousin Ann on the way was merely one of those unpleasant coincidences with which life is filled, although it is hardly possible, usually, for two such disagreeable persons to be on the same small spot at the same precise moment.
On the third morning after the Careys' arrival, however, matters assumed a more hopeful attitude, for Cousin Ann became discontented with Beulah. The weather had turned cold, and the fireplaces, so long unused, were uniformly smoky. Cousin Ann's stomach, always delicate, turned from tinned meats, eggs three times a day, and soda biscuits made by Bill Harmon's wife; likewise did it turn from nuts, apples, oranges, and bananas, on which the children thrived; so she went to the so-called hotel for her meals. Her remarks to the landlady after two dinners and one supper were of a character not to be endured by any outspoken, free-born New England woman.
"I keep a hotel, and I'll give you your meals for twenty-five cents apiece so long as you eat what's set before you and hold your tongue," was the irate Mrs. Buck's ultimatum. "I'll feed you," she continued passionately, "because it's my business to put up and take in anything that's respectable; but I won't take none o' your sass!"
Well, Cousin Ann's temper was up, too, by this time, and she declined on her part to take any of the landlady's "sass"; so they parted, rather to Mrs. Carey's embarrassment, as she did not wish to make enemies at the outset. That night Cousin Ann, still smarting under the memory of Mrs. Buck's snapping eyes, high color, and unbridled tongue, complained after supper that her bedstead rocked whenever she moved, and asked Gilbert if he could readjust it in some way, so that it should be as stationary as beds usually are in a normal state.
He took his tool basket and went upstairs obediently, spending fifteen or twenty minutes with the much-criticised article of furniture, which he suspected of rocking merely because it couldn't bear Cousin Ann. This idea so delighted Nancy that she was obliged to retire from Gilbert's proximity, lest the family should observe her mirth and Gilbert's and impute undue importance to it.
"I've done everything to the bedstead I can think of," Gilbert said, on coming downstairs. "You can see how it works to-night, Cousin Ann!"
As a matter of fact it did work, instead of remaining in perfect quiet as a well-bred bedstead should. When the family was sound asleep at midnight a loud crash was heard, and Cousin Ann, throwing open the door of her room, speedily informed everybody in the house that her bed had come down with her, giving her nerves a shock from which they probably would never recover.
"Gilbert is far too young for the responsibilities you put upon him, Margaret," Cousin Ann exclaimed, drawing her wrapper more closely over her tall spare figure; "and if he was as old as Methuselah he would still be careless, for he was born so! All this talk about his being skilful with tools has only swollen his vanity. A boy of his age should be able to make a bedstead stay together."
The whole family, including the crestfallen Gilbert, proposed various plans of relief, all except Nancy, who did not wish to meet Gilbert's glance for fear that she should have to suspect him of a new crime. Having embarked on a career of villainy under her direct instigation, he might go on of his own accord, indefinitely. She did not believe him guilty, but she preferred not to look into the matter more closely.
Mother Carey's eyes searched Gilbert's, but found there no confirmation of her fears.
"You needn't look at me like that, mother," said the boy. "I wouldn't be so mean as to rig up an accident for Cousin Ann, though I'd like her to have a little one every night, just for the fun of it."
Cousin Ann refused to let Gilbert try again on the bedstead, and refused part of Mrs. Carey's bed, preferring to sleep on two hair mattresses laid on her bedroom floor. "They may not be comfortable," she said tersely, "but at least they will not endanger my life."
The next morning's post brought business letters, and Cousin Ann feared she would have to leave Beulah, although there was work for a fortnight to come, right there, and Margaret had not strength enough to get through it alone.
She thought the chimneys were full of soot, and didn't believe the kitchen stove would ever draw; she was sure that there were dead toads and frogs in the well; the house was inconvenient and always would be till water was brought into the kitchen sink; Julia seemed to have no leaning towards housework and had an appetite that she could only describe as a crime, inasmuch as the wherewithal to satisfy it had to be purchased by others; the climate was damp because of the river, and there was no proper market within eight miles; Kathleen was too delicate to live in such a place, and the move from Charlestown was an utter and absolute and entire mistake from A to Z.
Then she packed her small trunk and Gilbert ran to the village on glad and winged feet to get some one to take his depressing relative to the noon train to Boston. As for Nancy, she stood in front of the parlor fireplace, and when she heard the hoot of the engine in the distance she removed the four mortuary vases from the mantelpiece and took them to the attic, while Gilbert from the upper hall was chanting a favorite old rhyme:--
"She called us names till she was tired, She called us names till we perspired, She called us names we never could spell, She called us names we never may tell. "She called us names that made us laugh, She called us names for a day and a half, She called us names till her memory failed, But finally out of our sight she sailed."
"It must have been written about Cousin Ann in the first place," said Nancy, joining Kathleen in the kitchen. "Well, she's gone at last!
"Now every prospect pleases, And only Julia's vile,"
she paraphrased from the old hymn, into Kathleen's private ear.
"You oughtn't to say such things, Nancy," rebuked Kathleen. "Mother wouldn't like it."
"I know it," confessed Nancy remorsefully. "I have been wicked since the moment I tried to get rid of You Dirty Boy. I don't know what's the matter with me. My blood seems to be too red, and it courses wildly through my veins, as the books say. I am going to turn over a new leaf, now that Cousin Ann's gone and our only cross is Julia!"
Oh! but it is rather dreadful to think how one person can spoil the world! If only you could have seen the Yellow House after Cousin Ana went! If only you could have heard the hotel landlady exclaim as she drove past: "Well! Good riddance to bad rubbish!" The weather grew warmer outside almost at once, and Bill Harmon's son planted the garden. The fireplaces ceased to smoke and the kitchen stove drew. Colonel Wheeler suggested a new chain pump instead of the old wooden one, after which the water took a turn for the better, and before the month was ended the Yellow House began to look like home, notwithstanding Julia.
As for Beulah village, after its sleep of months under deep snow-drifts it had waked into the adorable beauty of an early New England summer. It had no snow-capped mountains in the distance; no amethyst foothills to enchain the eye; no wonderful canyons and splendid rocky passes to make the tourist marvel; no length of yellow sea sands nor plash of ocean surf; no trade, no amusements, no summer visitors;--it was just a quiet, little, sunny, verdant, leafy piece of heart's content, that's what Beulah was, and Julia couldn't spoil it; indeed, the odds were, that it would sweeten Julia! That was what Mother Carey hoped when her heart had an hour's leisure to drift beyond Shiny Wall into Peacepool and consider the needs of her five children. It was generally at twilight, when she was getting Peter to sleep, that she was busiest making "old beasts into new."
"People fancy that I make things, my little dear," says Mother Carey to Tom the Water Baby, "but I sit here and make them make themselves!"
There was once a fairy, so the tale goes, who was so clever that she found out how to make butterflies, and she was so proud that she flew straight off to Peacepool to boast to Mother Carey of her skill.
But Mother Carey laughed.
"Know, silly child," she said, "that any one can make things if he will take time and trouble enough, but it is not every one who can make things make themselves."
"Make things make themselves!" Mother Carey used to think in the twilight. "I suppose that is what mothers are for!"
Nancy was making herself busily these days, and the offending Julia was directly responsible for such self-control and gains in general virtue as poor impetuous Nancy achieved. Kathleen was growing stronger and steadier and less self-conscious. Gilbert was doing better at school, and his letters showed more consideration and thought for the family than they had done heretofore. Even the Peter-bird was a little sweeter and more self-helpful just now, thought Mother Carey fondly, as she rocked him to sleep. He was worn out with following Natty Harmon at the plough, and succumbed quickly to the music of her good-night song and the comfort of her sheltering arms. Mother Carey had arms to carry, arms to enfold, arms to comfort and caress. She also had a fine, handsome, strong hand admirable for spanking, but she had so many invisible methods of discipline at her command that she never needed a visible spanker for Peter. "Spanking is all very well in its poor way," she used to say, "but a woman who has to fall back on it very often is sadly lacking in ingenuity."
As she lifted Peter into his crib Nancy came softly in at the door with a slip of paper in her hand.
She drew her mother out to the window over the front door. "Listen," she said. "Do you hear the frogs?"
"I've been listening to them for the last half-hour," her mother said. "Isn't everything sweet to-night, with the soft air and the elms all feathered out, and the new moon!"
"Was it ever so green before?" Nancy wondered, leaning over the window-sill by her mother's side. "Were the trees ever so lace-y? Was any river ever so clear, or any moon so yellow? I am so sorry for the city people tonight! Sometimes I think it can't be so beautiful here as it looks, mother. Sometimes I wonder if part of the beauty isn't inside of us!" said Nancy.
"Part of all beauty is in the eyes that look at, it," her mother answered.
"And I've been reading Mrs. Harmon's new reference Bible," Nancy continued, "and here is what it says about Beulah."
She held the paper to the waning light and read: "Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken, neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate ... but it shall be called Beulah, for the Lord delighteth in thee.
"I think father would be comforted if he could see us all in the Yellow House at Beulah!" Nancy went on softly as the two leaned out of the window together. "He was so loving, so careful of us, so afraid that anything should trouble us, that for months I couldn't think of him, even in heaven, as anything but worried. But now it seems just as if we were over the hardest time and could learn to live here in Beulah; and so he must be comforted if he can see us or think about us at all;--don't you feel like that, mother?"
Yes, her mother agreed gently, and her heart was grateful and full of hope. She had lost the father of her children and the dear companion of her life, and that loss could never be made good. Still her mind acknowledged the riches she possessed in her children, so she confessed herself neither desolate nor forsaken, but something in a humble human way that the Lord could take delight in.