Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XVIII. The House of Lords
The Carey children had only found it by accident. All their errands took them down the main street to the village; to the Popham's cottage at the foot of a little lane turning towards the river, or on to the post-office and Bill Harmon's store, or to Colonel Wheeler's house and then to the railway station. One afternoon Nancy and Kathleen had walked up the road in search of pastures new, and had spied down in a distant hollow a gloomy grey house almost surrounded by cedars. A grove of poplars to the left of it only made the prospect more depressing, and if it had not been for a great sheet of water near by, floating with cow lilies and pond lilies, the whole aspect of the place would have been unspeakably dreary.
Nancy asked Mr. Popham who lived in the grey house behind the cedars, and when he told them a certain Mr. Henry Lord, his two children and housekeeper, they fell into the habit of speaking of the place as the House of Lords.
"You won't never see nothin' of 'em," said Mr. Popham. "Henry Lord ain't never darkened the village for years, I guess, and the young ones ain't never been to school so far; they have a teacher out from Portland Tuesdays and Fridays, and the rest o' the week they study up for him. Henry's 'bout as much of a hermit's if he lived in a hut on a mounting, an' he's bringing up the children so they'll be jest as odd's he is."
"Is the mother dead?" Mrs. Carey asked.
"Yes, dead these four years, an' a good job for her, too. It's an awful queer world! Not that I could make a better one! I allers say, when folks grumble, 'Now if you was given the materials, could you turn out a better world than this is? And when it come to that, what if you hed to furnish your own materials, same as the Lord did! I guess you'd be put to it!'--Well, as I say, it's an awful queer world; they clap all the burglars into jail, and the murderers and the wife-beaters (I've allers thought a gentle reproof would be enough punishment for a wife-beater, 'cause he probably has a lot o' provocation that nobody knows), and the firebugs (can't think o' the right name--something like cendenaries), an' the breakers o' the peace, an' what not; an' yet the law has nothin' to say to a man like Hen Lord! He's been a college professor, but I went to school with him, darn his picter, an' I'll call him Hen whenever I git a chance, though he does declare he's a doctor."
"Doctor of what?" asked Mrs. Carey.
"Blamed if I know! I wouldn't trust him to doctor a sick cat."
"People don't have to be doctors of medicine," interrupted Gilbert. "Grandfather was Alexander Carey, LL.D.,--Doctor of Laws, that is."
Mr. Popham laid down his brush. "I swan to man!" he ejaculated. "If you don't work hard you can't keep up with the times! Doctor of Laws! Well, all I can say is they need doctorin', an' I'm glad they've got round to 'em; only Hen Lord ain't the man to do 'em any good."
"What has he done to make him so unpopular?" queried Mrs. Carey.
"Done? He ain't done a thing he'd oughter sence he was born. He keeps the thou shalt not commandments first rate, Hen Lord does! He neglected his wife and froze her blood and frightened her to death, poor little shadder! He give up his position and shut the family up in that tomb of a house so 't he could study his books. My boy knows his boy, an' I tell you the life he leads them children is enough to make your flesh creep. When I git roun' to it I cal'late to set the house on fire some night. Mebbe I'd be lucky enough to ketch Hen too, an' if so, nobody in the village'd wear mournin'! So fur, I can't get Maria's consent to be a cendenary. She says she can't spare me long enough to go to jail; she needs me to work durin' the summer, an' in the winter time she'd hev nobody to jaw, if I was in the lockup." This information was delivered in the intervals of covering the guest chamber walls with a delightful white moire paper which Osh always alluded to as the "white maria," whether in memory of his wife's Christian name or because his French accent was not up to the mark, no one could say.
Mr. Popham exaggerated nothing, but on the contrary left much unsaid in his narrative of the family at the House of Lords. Henry Lord, with the degree of Ph.D. to his credit, had been Professor of Zoology at a New England college, but had resigned his post in order to write a series of scientific text books. Always irritable, cold, indifferent, he had grown rapidly more so as years went on. Had his pale, timid wife been a rosy, plucky tyrant, things might have gone otherwise, but the only memories the two children possessed were of bitter words and reproaches on their father's side, and of tears and sad looks on their mother's part. Then the poor little shadow of a woman dropped wearily into her grave, and a certain elderly Mrs. Bangs, with grey hair and firm chin, came to keep house and do the work.
A lonelier creature than Olive Lord at sixteen could hardly be imagined. She was a tiny thing for her years, with a little white oval face and peaked chin, pronounced eyebrows, beautifully arched, and a mass of tangled, untidy dark hair. Her only interests in life were her younger brother Cyril, delicate and timid, and in continual terror of his father,--and a passion for drawing and sketching that was fairly devouring in its intensity. When she was ten she "drew" the cat and the dog, the hens and chickens, and colored the sketches with the paints her mother provided. Whatever appealed to her sense of beauty was straightway transferred to paper or canvas. Then for the three years before her mother's death there had been surreptitious lessons from a Portland teacher, paid for out of Mr. Lord's house allowance; for one of his chief faults was an incredible parsimony, amounting almost to miserliness.
"Something terrible will happen to Olive if she isn't taught to use her talent," Mrs. Lord pleaded to her husband. "She is wild to know how to do things. She makes effort after effort, trembling with eagerness, and when she fails to reproduce what she sees, she works herself into a frenzy of grief and disappointment."
"You'd better give her lessons in self-control," Mr. Lord answered. "They are cheaper than instruction in drawing, and much more practical."
So Olive lived and struggled and grew; and luckily her talent was such a passion that no circumstances could crush or extinguish it. She worked, discovering laws and making rules for herself, since she had no helpers. When she could not make a rabbit or a bird look "real" on paper, she searched in her father's books for pictures of its bones. "If I could only know what it is like inside, Cyril," she said, "perhaps its outside wouldn't look so flat! O! Cyril, there must be some better way of doing; I just draw the outline of an animal and then I put hairs or feathers on it. They have no bodies. They couldn't run nor move; they're just pasteboard."
"Why don't you do flowers and houses, Olive?" inquired Cyril solicitously. "And people paint fruit, and dead fish on platters, and pitchers of lemonade with ice in,--why don't you try things like those?"
"I suppose they're easier," Olive returned with a sigh, "but who could bear to do them when there are living, breathing, moving things; things that puzzle you by looking different every minute? No, I'll keep on trying, and when you get a little older we'll run away together and live and learn things by ourselves, in some place where father can never find us!"
"He wouldn't search, so don't worry," replied Cyril quietly, and the two looked at each other and knew that it was so.
There, in the cedar hollow, then, lived Olive Lord, an angry, resentful, little creature weighed down by a fierce sense of injury. Her gloomy young heart was visited by frequent storms and she looked as unlovable as she was unloved. But Nancy Carey, never shy, and as eager to give herself as people always are who are born and bred in joy and love, Nancy hopped out of Mother Carey's warm nest one day, and fixing her bright eyes and sunny, hopeful glance on the lonely, frowning little neighbor, stretched out her hand in friendship. Olive's mournful black eyes met Nancy's sparkling brown ones. Her hand, so marvellously full of skill, had never held another's, and she was desperately self-conscious; but magnetism flowed from Nancy as electric currents from a battery. She drew Olive to her by some unknown force and held her fast, not realizing at the moment that she was getting as much as she gave.
The first interview, purely a casual one, took place on the edge of the lily pond where Olive was sketching frogs, and where Nancy went for cat-o'-nine-tails. It proved to be a long and intimate talk, and when Mrs. Carey looked out of her bedroom window just before supper she saw, at the pasture bars, the two girls with their arms round each other and their cheeks close together. Nancy's curly chestnut crop shone in the sun, and Olive's thick black plaits looked blacker by contrast. Suddenly she flung her arms round Nancy's neck, and with a sob darted under the bars and across the fields without a backward glance.
A few moments later Nancy entered her mother's room, her arms filled with treasures from the woods and fields. "Oh, Motherdy!" she cried, laying down her flowers and taking off her hat. "I've found such a friend; a real understanding friend; and it's the girl from the House of Lords. She's wonderful! More wonderful than anybody we've ever seen anywhere, and she draws better than the teacher in Charlestown! She's older than I am, but so tiny and sad and shy that she seems like a child. Oh, mother, there's always so much spare room in your heart,--for you took in Julia and yet we never felt the difference,--won't you make a place for Olive? There never was anybody needed you so much as she does,--never."
Have you ever lifted a stone and seen the pale, yellow, stunted shoots of grass under it? And have you gone next day and next, and watched the little blades shoot upward, spread themselves with delight, grow green and wax strong; and finally, warm with the sun, cool with the dew, vigorous with the flow of sap in their veins, seen them wave their green tips in the breeze? That was what happened to Olive Lord when she and Cyril were drawn into a different family circle, and ran in and out of the Yellow House with the busy, eager group of Mother Carey's chickens.