Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XVII. Jack of All Trades
Mr. Ossian (otherwise "Osh") Popham was covering the hall of the Yellow House with the hayfield paper. Bill Harmon's father had left considerable stock of one sort and another in the great unfinished attic over the store, and though much of it was worthless, and all of it was out of date, it seemed probable that it would eventually be sold to the Careys, who had the most unlimited ingenuity in making bricks without straw, when it came to house decoration. They had always moved from post to pillar and Dan to Beersheba, and had always, inside of a week, had the prettiest and most delightful habitation in the naval colony where they found themselves. Beulah itself, as well as all the surrounding country, had looked upon the golden hayfield paper and scorned it as ugly and countrified; never suspecting that, in its day, it had been made in France and cost a dollar and a half a roll. It had been imported for a governor's house, and only half of it used, so for thirty years the other half had waited for the Careys. There always are Careys and their like, and plenty of them, in every generation, so old things, if they are good, need never be discouraged.
Mr. Popham never worked at his bricklaying or carpentering or cabinet making or papering by the hour, but "by the job"; and a kind Providence, intent on the welfare of the community, must have guided him in this choice of business methods, for he talked so much more than he worked, that unless householders were well-to-do, the rights of employer and employee could never have been adjusted. If they were rich no one of them would have stopped Ossian's conversation for a second. In the first place it was even better than his work, which was always good, and in the second place he would never consent to go to any one, unless he could talk as much as he liked. The Careys loved him, all but Julia, who pronounced him "common" and said Miss Tewksbury told her never to listen to anyone who said "I done it" or "I seen it." To this Nancy replied (her mother being in the garden, and she herself not yet started on a line of conduct arranged to please the angels) that Miss Tewksbury and Julia ought to have a little corner of heaven finished off for themselves; and Julia made a rude, distinct, hideous "face" at Nancy. I have always dated the beginning of Julia's final transformation from this critical moment, when the old Adam in her began to work. It was good for Nancy too, who would have trodden on Julia so long as she was an irritating but patient, well-behaved worm; but who would have to use a little care if the worm showed signs of turning.
"Your tongue is like a bread knife, Nancy Carey!" Julia exclaimed passionately, after twisting her nose and mouth into terrifying and dreadful shapes. "If it wasn't that Miss Tewksbury told me ladies never were telltales, I could soon make trouble between you and your blessed mother."
"No, you couldn't," said Nancy curtly, "for I'd reform sooner than let you do that!--Perhaps I did say too much, Julia, only I can't bear to have you make game of Mr. Popham when he's so funny and nice. Think of his living with nagging Mrs. Popham and his stupid daughter and son in that tiny house, and being happy as a king."
"If there wasn't something wrong with him he wouldn't be happy there," insisted Julia.
Mr. Popham himself accounted for his contentment without insulting his intelligence. "The way I look at it," he said, "this world's all the world we'll git till we git to the next one; an' we might's well smile on it, 's frown! You git your piece o' life an' you make what you can of it;--that's the idee! Now the other day I got some nice soft wood that was prime for whittlin'; jest the right color an' grain an' all, an' I started in to make a little statue o' the Duke o' Wellington. Well, when I got to shapin' him out, I found my piece o' wood wouldn't be long enough to give him his height; so I says, 'Well, I don't care, I'll cut the Duke right down and make Napoleon Bonaparte.' I'd 'a' been all right if I'd cal'lated better, but I cut my block off too short, and I couldn't make Napoleon nohow; so I says, 'Well, Isaac Watts was an awful short man, so I guess I'll make him!' But this time my wood split right in two. Some men would 'a' been discouraged, but I wasn't, not a mite; I jest said, 'I never did fancy Ike Watts, an' there's one thing this blamed chip will make, an' that's a button for the barn door!'"
Osh not only whittled and papered and painted, but did anything whatsoever that needed to be done on the premises. If the pump refused to draw water, or the sink drain was stopped, or the gutters needed cleaning, or the grass had to be mowed, he was the man ordained by Providence and his own versatility to do the work. While he was papering the front hall the entire Carey family lived on the stairs between meals, fearful lest they should lose any incident, any anecdote, any story, any reminiscence that might fall from his lips. Mrs. Carey took her mending basket and sat in the doorway, within ear shot, while Peter had all the scraps of paper and a small pasting board on the steps, where he conducted his private enterprises.
Osh would cut his length of paper, lay it flat on the board, and apply the wide brush up and down neatly while he began his story. Sometimes if the tale were long and interesting the paste would dry, but in that case he went over the surface again. At the precise moment of hanging, the flow of his eloquence stopped abruptly and his hearers had to wait until the piece was finished before they learned what finally became of Lyddy Brown after she drove her husband ou' doors, or of Bill Harmon's bull terrier, who set an entire community quarreling among themselves. His racy accounts of Mrs. Popham's pessimism, which had grown prodigiously from living in the house with his optimism; his anecdotes of Lallie Joy Popham, who was given to moods, having inherited portions of her father's incurable hopefulness, and fragments of her mother's ineradicable gloom,--these were of a character that made the finishing of the hall a matter of profound unimportance.
"I ain't one to hurry," he would say genially; "that's the reason I won't work by the hour or by the day. We've got one 'hurrier' in the family, and that's enough for Lallie Joy 'n' me! Mis' Popham does everything right on the dot, an' Lallie Joy 'n' me git turrible sick o' seein' that dot, 'n' hevin' our 'tention drawed to it if we don't see it. Mis' Bill Harmon's another 'hurrier,'--well, you jest ask Bill, that's all! She an' Mis' Popham hev been at it for fifteen years, but the village ain't ready to give out the blue ribbon yet. Last week my wife went over to Harmon's and Mis' Harmon said she was goin' to make some molasses candy that mornin'. Well, my wife hurried home, put on her molasses, made her candy, cooled it and worked it, and took some over to treat Mis' Harmon, who was jest gittin' her kittle out from under the sink!"
The Careys laughed heartily at this evidence of Mrs. Popham's celerity, while Osh, as pleased as possible, gave one dab with his paste brush and went on:--
"Maria's blood was up one while, 'cause Mis' Bill Harmon always contrives to git her wash out the earliest of a Monday morning. Yesterday Maria got up 'bout daybreak (I allers tell her if she was real forehanded she'd eat her breakfast overnight), and by half past five she hed her clothes in the boiler. Jest as she was lookin' out the kitchen winder for signs o' Mis' Bill Harmon, she seen her start for her side door with a big basket. Maria was so mad then that she vowed she wouldn't be beat, so she dug for the bedroom and slat some clean sheets and piller cases out of a bureau drawer, run into the yard, and I'm blamed if she didn't get 'em over the line afore Mis' Harmon found her clothespins!"
Good old Osh! He hadn't had such an audience for years, for Beulah knew all its own stories thoroughly, and although it valued them highly it did not care to hear them too often; but the Careys were absolutely fresh material, and such good, appreciative listeners! Mrs. Carey looked so handsome when she wiped the tears of enjoyment from her eyes that Osh told Bill Harmon if 't wa'n't agin the law you would want to kiss her every time she laughed.
Well, the hall papering was, luckily, to be paid for, not by the hour, but by an incredibly small price per roll, and everybody was pleased. Nancy, Kathleen, and Julia sat on the stairs preparing a whiteweed and buttercup border for the spare bedroom according to a plan of Mother Carey's. It was an affair of time, as it involved the delicate cutting out of daisy garlands from a wider bordering filled with flowers of other colors, and proved a fascinating occupation.
Gilbert hovered on the outskirts of the hall, doing odd jobs of one sort and another and learning bits of every trade at which Mr. Popham was expert.
"If we hadn't been in such a sweat to git settled," remarked Osh with a clip of his big shears, "I really'd ought to have plastered this front entry all over! 'T wa'n't callin' for paper half's loud as 't was for plaster. Old Parson Bradley hed been a farmer afore he turned minister, and one Sunday mornin' his parish was thornin' him to pray for rain, so he says: 'Thou knowest, O Lord! it's manure this land wants, 'n' not water, but in Thy mercy send rain plenteously upon us.'"
"Mr. Popham," said Gilbert, who had been patiently awaiting his opportunity, "the pieces of paper are cut for those narrow places each side of the front door. Can't I paste those on while you talk to us?"
"'Course you can, handy as you be with tools! There ain't no trick to it. Most anybody can be a paperer. As Parson Bradley said when he was talkin' to a Sunday-school during a presidential campaign: 'One of you boys perhaps can be a George Washington and another may rise to be a Thomas Jefferson; any of you, the Lord knows, can be a James K. Polk!'"
"I don't know much about Polk," said Gilbert.
"P'raps nobody did very much, but the parson hated him like p'ison. See here, Peter, I ain't made o' paste! You've used up 'bout a quart a'ready! What are you doin' out there anyway? I've heerd o' paintin' the town,--I guess you're paperin' it, ain't you?"
Peter was too busy and too eager for paste to reply, the facts of the case being that while Mr. Popham held the family spellbound by his conversation, he himself was papering the outside of the house with scraps of assorted paper as high up as his short arms could reach.
"There's another thing you can do, Gilbert," continued Mr. Popham. "I've mixed a pail o' that green paint same as your mother wanted, an' I've brought you a tip-top brush. The settin' room has a good nice floor; matched boards, no hummocks nor hollers,--all as flat's one of my wife's pancakes,--an' not a knot hole in it anywheres. You jest put your first coat on, brushin' lengthways o' the boards, and let it dry good. Don't let your folks go stepping on it, neither. The minute a floor's painted women folks are crazy to git int' the room. They want their black alpacky that's in the closet, an' the lookin' glass that's on the mantelpiece, or the feather duster that's hangin' on the winder, an' will you jest pass out the broom that's behind the door? The next mornin' you'll find lots o' little spots where they've tiptoed in to see if the paint's dry an' how it's goin' to look. Where I work, they most allers say it's the cat,--well! that answer may deceive some folks, but 't wouldn't me.--Don't slop your paint, Gilbert; work quick an' neat an' even; then paintin' ain't no trick 't all. Any fool, the Lord knows, can pick up that trade!--Now I guess it's about noon time, an' I'll have to be diggin' for home. Maria sets down an' looks at the clock from half past eleven on. She'll git a meal o' cold pork 'n' greens, cold string beans, gingerbread, 'n' custard pie on t' the table; then she'll stan' in the front door an' holler: 'Hurry up, Ossian! it's struck twelve more 'n two minutes ago, 'n' everything 's gittin' overdone!'"
So saying he took off his overalls, seized his hat, and with a parting salute was off down the road, singing his favorite song. I can give you the words and the time, but alas! I cannot print Osh Popham's dauntless spirit and serene content, nor his cheery voice as he travelled with tolerable swiftness to meet his waiting Maria.
Here comes a maid-en full of woe. Hi-dum-di-dum did-dy-i-o! Here comes a maid-en full of woe. Hi der-ry O! Here comes a maid-en full of woe, As full of woe as she can go! Hi dum did-dy i O! Hi der-ry O!