Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XIV. Ways and Means
It was late June, and Gilbert had returned from school, so the work of making the Yellow House attractive and convenient was to move forward at once. Up to now, the unpacking and distribution of the furniture, with the daily housework and cooking, had been all that Mrs. Carey and the girls could manage.
A village Jack-of-all-trades, Mr. Ossian Popham, generally and familiarly called "Osh" Popham, had been called in to whitewash existing closets and put hooks in them; also, with Bill Harmon's consent, to make new ones here and there in handy corners. Dozens of shelves in odd spaces helped much in the tidy stowing away of household articles, bed-clothing, and stores. In the midst of this delightful and cheery setting-to-rights a letter arrived from Cousin Ann. The family was all sitting together in Mrs. Carey's room, the announced intention being to hold an important meeting of the Ways and Means Committee, the Careys being strong on ways and uniformly short on means.
The arrival of the letters by the hand of Bill Harmon's boy occurred before the meeting was called to order.
"May I read Cousin Ann's aloud?" asked Nancy, who had her private reasons for making the offer.
"Certainly," said Mrs. Carey unsuspectingly, as she took up the inevitable stocking. "I almost wish you had all been storks instead of chickens; then you would always have held up one foot, and perhaps that stocking, at least, wouldn't have had holes in it!"
"Poor Muddy! I'm learning to darn," cried Kathleen, kissing her.
[Groans from the whole family greeted this opening passage, and Gilbert cast himself, face down, on his mother's lounge.]
["She'll never forget that the bed came down with her!" exclaimed Gilbert, his voice muffled by the sofa cushions.]
[Mother Carey pricked up her ears at this point, and Gilbert raised himself on one elbow, but Nancy went on gravely.]
[Kathleen flushed angrily and laid down her work.]
But here the family rose en masse and descended on the reader of the spurious letter just as she had turned the first page. In the amiable scuffle that ensued, a blue slip fell from Cousin Ann's envelope and Gilbert handed it to his mother with the letter.
Mrs. Carey, wiping the tears of merriment that came to her eyes in spite of her, so exactly had Nancy caught Cousin Ann's epistolary style, read the real communication, which ran as follows:--
DEAR MARGARET,--I have had you much in mind since I left you, always with great anxiety lest your strength should fail under the unexpected strain you put upon it. I had intended to give each of you a check for thirty-five dollars at Christmas to spend as you liked, but I must say I have not entire confidence in your judgment. You will be likelier far to decorate the walls of the house than to bring water into the kitchen sink. I therefore enclose you three hundred dollars and beg that you will have the well piped at once, and if there is any way to carry the water to the bedroom floor, do it, and let me send the extra amount involved. You will naturally have the well cleaned out anyway, but I should prefer never to know what you found in it. My only other large gift to you in the past was one of ornaments, sent, you remember, at the time of your wedding!
["We remember!" groaned the children in chorus.]
["That's so!" remarked Gilbert to Nancy.]
"Children!" said Mrs. Carey, folding the letter and slipping the check into the envelope for safety, "your Cousin Ann is really a very good woman."
"I wish her bed hadn't come down with her," said Gilbert. "We could never have afforded to get that water into the house, or had the little furnace, and I suppose, though no one of us ever thought of it, that you would have had a hard time doing the work in the winter in a cold house, and it would have been dreadful going to the pump."
"Dreadful for you too, Gilly," replied Kathleen pointedly.
"I shall be at school, where I can't help," said Gilbert.
Mrs. Carey made no remark, as she intended the fact that there was no money for Gilbert's tuition at Eastover to sink gradually into his mind, so that he might make the painful discovery himself. His fees had fortunately been paid in advance up to the end of the summer term, so the strain on their resources had not been felt up to now.
Nancy had disappeared from the room and now stood in the doorway.
"I wish to remark that, having said a good many disagreeable things about Cousin Ann, and regretting them very much, I have placed the four black and white marble ornaments on my bedroom mantelpiece, there to be a perpetual reminder of my sins. You Dirty Boy is in a hundred pieces in the barn chamber, but if Cousin Ann ever comes to visit us again, I'll be the one to confess that Gilly and I were the cause of the accident."
"Now take your pencil, Nancy, and see where we are in point of income, at the present moment," her mother suggested, with an approving smile. "Put down the pension of thirty dollars a month."
"Down.--Three hundred and sixty dollars."
"Now the hundred dollars over and above the rent of the Charlestown house."
"Down; but it lasts only four years."
"We may all be dead by that time." (This cheerfully from Gilbert.)
"Then the interest on our insurance money. Four per cent on five thousand dollars is two hundred; I have multiplied it twenty times."
"Of course if anything serious happens, or any great need comes, we have the five thousand to draw upon," interpolated Gilbert.
"I will draw upon that to save one of us in illness or to bury one of us," said Mrs. Carey with determination, "but I will never live out of it myself, nor permit you to. We are five,--six, while Julia is with us," she added hastily,--"and six persons will surely have rainy days coming to them. What if I should die and leave you?"
"Don't, mother!" they cried in chorus, so passionately that Mrs. Carey changed the subject quickly. "How much a year does it make, Nancy?"
"Three hundred and sixty plus one hundred plus two hundred equals six hundred and sixty," read Nancy. "And I call it a splendid big lump of money!"
"Oh, my dear," sighed her mother with a shake of the head, "if you knew the difficulty your father and I have had to take care of ourselves and of you on five and six times that sum! We may have been a little extravagant sometimes following him about,--he was always so anxious to have us with him,--but that has been our only luxury."
"We saved enough out of exchanging the grand piano to pay all the expenses down here, and all our railway fares, and everything so far, in the way of boards and nails and Osh Popham's labor," recalled Gilbert.
"Yes, and we are still eating the grand piano at the end of two months, but it's about gone, isn't it, Muddy?" Nancy asked.
"About gone, but it has been a great help, and our dear little old-fashioned square is just as much of a comfort.--Of course there's the tapestry and the Van Twiller landscape Uncle gave me; they may yet be sold."
"Somebody'll buy the tapestry, but the Van Twiller'll go hard," and Gilbert winked at Nancy.
"A picture that looks just the same upside down as the right way about won't find many buyers," was Nancy's idea.
"Still it is a Van Twiller, and has a certain authentic value for all time!"
"The landscapes Van Twiller painted in the dark, or when he had his blinders on, can't be worth very much," insisted Gilbert. "You remember the Admiral thought it was partridges nesting in the underbrush at twilight, and then we found Joanna had cleaned the dining room and hung the thing upside down. When it was hung the other end up neither father nor the Admiral could tell what it was; they'd lost the partridges and couldn't find anything else!"
"We shall get something for it because it is a Van Twiller," said Mrs. Carey hopefully; "and the tapestry is lovely.--Now we have been doing all our own work to save money enough to make the house beautiful; yet, as Cousin Ann says, it does not belong to us and may be taken away at any moment after the year is up. We have never even seen our landlord, though Mr. Harmon has written to him. Are we foolish? What do you think, Julia?"