Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XX. The Painted Chamber
Matters were in this state of forwardness when Nancy and Kathleen looked out of the window one morning and saw Lallie Joy Popham coming down the street. She "lugged" butter and milk regularly to the Careys (lugging is her own word for the act), and helped them in many ways, for she was fairly good at any kind of housework not demanding brains. Nobody could say why some of Ossian Popham's gifts of mind and conversation had not descended to his children, but though the son was not really stupid at practical work, Lallie Joy was in a perpetual state of coma.
Nancy, as has been intimated before, had a kind of tendency to reform things that appeared to her lacking in any way, and she had early seized upon the stolid Lallie Joy as a worthy object.
"There she comes!" said Nancy. "She carries two quarts of milk in one hand and two pounds of butter in the other, exactly as if she was bending under the weight of a load of hay. I'll run down into the kitchen and capture her for a half hour at five cents. She can peel the potatoes first, and while they're boiling she can slice apples for sauce."
"Have her chop the hash, do!" coaxed Julia for that was her special work. "The knife is dull beyond words."
"Why don't you get Mr. Popham to sharpen it? It's a poor workman that complains of his tools; Columbus discovered America in an open boat," quoted Nancy, with an irritating air of wisdom.
"That may be so," Julia retorted, "but Columbus would never have discovered America with that chopping-knife, I'm sure of that.--Is Lallie Joy about our age?"
"I don't know. She must have been at least forty when she was born, and that would make her fifty-five now. What do you suppose would wake her up? If I could only get her to stand straight, or hold her head up, or let her hair down, or close her mouth! I believe I'll stay in the kitchen and appeal to her better feelings a little this morning; I can seed the raisins for the bread pudding."
Nancy sat in the Shaker rocker by the sink window with the yellow bowl in her lap. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes were bright, her lips were red, her hair was goldy-brown, her fingers flew, and a high-necked gingham apron was as becoming to her as it is to all nice girls. She was thoroughly awake, was Nancy, and there could not have been a greater contrast than that between her and the comatose Lallie Joy, who sat on a wooden chair with her feet on the side rounds. She had taken off her Turkey red sunbonnet and hung it on the chair-back, where its color violently assaulted her flaming locks. She sat wrong; she held the potato pan wrong, and the potatoes and the knife wrong. There seemed to be no sort of connection between her mind and her body. As she peeled potatoes and Nancy seeded raisins, the conversation was something like this.
"How did you chance to bring the butter to-day instead of to-morrow, Lallie Joy?"
"Had to dress me up to go to the store and get a new hat."
"What colored trimming did you get?"
"Same as old."
"Don't they keep anything but magenta?"
"Why didn't you try blue for a change?"
"Dunno; didn't want any change, I guess."
"Do you like magenta against your hair?"
"Never thought o' my hair; jest thought o' my hat."
"Well, you see, Lallie Joy, you can't change your hair, but you needn't wear magenta hats nor red sunbonnets. Your hair is handsome enough, if you'd only brush it right."
"I guess I know all 'bout my hair and how red 't is. The boys ask me if Pop painted it."
"Why do you strain it back so tight?"
"Keep it out o' my eyes."
"Nonsense; you needn't drag it out by the roots. Why do you tie the braids with strings?"
"'Cause they hold, an' I hain't got no ribbons."
"Why don't you buy some with the money you earn here?"
"Savin' up for the Fourth."
"Well, I have yards of old Christmas ribbons that I'll give you if you'll use them."
"What do you scrub your face with, that makes those shiny knobs stick right out on your forehead and cheek bones?"
"Well, you shouldn't; haven't you any other?"
"Aren't your legs in good working order?"
Uncomprehending silence on Lallie Joy's part and then Nancy returned to the onslaught.
"Don't you like to look at pretty things?"
"Dunno but I do, an' dunno as I do."
"Don't you love the rooms your father has finished here?"
"Not any more than that?"
"Pop thinks some of 'em's queer, an' so does Bill Harmon."
Long silence, Nancy being utterly daunted.
"How did you come by your name, Lallie Joy?"
"Lallie's out of a book named Lallie Rook, an' I was born on the Joy steamboat line going to Boston."
"Oh, I thought Joy was Joy!"
"Joy Line's the only joy I ever heard of!"
There is no knowing how long this depressing conversation would have continued if the two girls had not heard loud calls from Gilbert upstairs. Lallie Joy evinced no surprise, and went on peeling potatoes; she might have been a sister of the famous Casabianca, and she certainly could have been trusted not to flee from any burning deck, whatever the provocation.
"Come and see what we've found, Digby and I!" Gilbert cried. "Come, girls; come, mother! We were stripping off the paper because Mr. Popham said there'd been so many layers on the walls it would be a good time to get to the bottom of it and have it all fresh and clean. So just now, as I was working over the mantel piece and Digby on the long wall, look in and see what we uncovered!"
Mrs. Carey had come from the nursery, Kitty and Julia from the garden, and Osh Popham from the shed, and they all gazed with joy and surprise at the quaint landscapes that had been painted in water colors before the day of wall paper had come.
Mr. Popham quickly took one of his tools and began on another side of the room. They worked slowly and carefully, and in an hour or two the pictures stood revealed, a little faded in color but beautifully drawn, with almost nothing of any moment missing from the scenes.
"Je-roosh-y! ain't they handsome!" exclaimed Osh, standing in the middle of the room with the family surrounding him in various attitudes of ecstasy. "But they're too faced out to leave's they be, ain't they, Mis' Carey? You'll have to cover 'em up with new paper, won't you, or shall you let me put a coat of varnish on 'em?"
Mrs. Carey shuddered internally. "No, Mr. Popham, we mustn't have any 'shine' on the landscapes. Yes, they are dreadfully dim and faded, but I simply cannot have them covered up!"
"It would be wicked to hide them!" said Nancy. "Oh, Muddy, is it our duty to write to Mr. Hamilton and tell him about them? He would certainly take the house away from us if he could see how beautiful we have made it, and now here is another lovely thing to tempt him. Could anybody give up this painted chamber if it belonged to him?"
"Well, you see," said Mr. Popham assuringly, "if you want to use this painted chamber much, you've got to live in Beulah; an' Lem Hamilton ain't goin' to stop consullin' at the age o' fifty, to come here an' rust out with the rest of us;--no, siree! Nor Mis' Lem Hamilton wouldn't stop over night in this village if you give her the town drinkin' trough for a premium!"
"Is she fashionable?" asked Julia.
"You bet she is! She's tall an' slim an' so chuck full of airs she'd blow away if you give her a puff o' the bellers! The only time she come here she stayed just twenty-four hours, but she nearly died, we was all so 'vulgar.' She wore a white dress ruffled up to the waist, and a white Alpine hat, an' she looked exactly like the picture of Pike's Peak in my stereopticon. Mis' Popham overheard her say Beulah was full o' savages if not cannibals. 'Well,' I says to Maria, 'no matter where she goes, nobody'll ever want to eat her alive!'--Look at that meetin' house over the mantel shelf, an' that grassy Common an' elm trees! 'T wa'n't no house painter done these walls!"
"And look at this space between the two front windows," cried Kathleen. "See the hens and chickens and the Plymouth Rock rooster!"
"And the white calf lying down under the maple; he's about the prettiest thing in the room," said Gilbert.
"We must just let it be and think it out," said Mother Carey. "Don't put any new paper on, now; there's plenty to do downstairs."
"I don't know 's I should particularly like to lay abed in this room," said Osh, his eyes roving about the chamber judicially. "I shouldn't hev no comfort ondressin' here, nohow; not with this mess o' live stock lookin' at me every minute, whatever I happened to be takin' off. I s'pose that rooster'd be right on to his job at sun-up! Well, he couldn't git ahead of Mis' Popham, that's one thing; so 't I shouldn't be any worse off 'n I be now! I don't get any too much good sleep as 't is! Mis' Popham makes me go to bed long afore I'm ready, so 't she can git the house shut up in good season; then 'bout 's soon's I've settled down an' bed one short nap she says, 'It's time you was up, Ossian!"'
"Mother! I have an idea!" cried Nancy suddenly, as Mr. Popham took his leave and the family went out into the hall. "Do you know who could make the walls look as they used to? My dear Olive Lord!"
"She's only sixteen!" objected Mrs. Carey.
"But she's a natural born genius! You wait and see the things she does!"
"Perhaps I could take her into town and get some suggestions or some instruction, with the proper materials," said Mrs. Carey, "and I suppose she could experiment on some small space behind the door, first?"
"Nothing that Olive does would ever be put behind anybody's door," Nancy answered decisively. "I'm not old enough to know anything about painting, of course (except that good landscapes ought not to be reversible like our Van Twiller), but there's something about Olive's pictures that makes you want to touch them and love them!"
So began the happiest, most wonderful, most fruitful autumn of Olive Lord's life, when she spent morning after morning in the painted chamber, refreshing its faded tints. Whoever had done the original work had done it lovingly and well, and Olive learned many a lesson while she was following the lines of the quaint houses, like those on old china, renewing the green of the feathery elms, or retracing and coloring the curious sampler trees that stood straight and stiff like sentinels in the corners of the room.