Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XXI. A Family Rhomboid
The Honorable Lemuel Hamilton sat in the private office of the American Consulate in Breslau, Germany, one warm day in July. The post had been brought in half an hour before, and he had two open letters on the desk in front of him. It was only ten o'clock of a bright morning, but he looked tired and worn. He was about fifty, with slightly grey hair and smoothly shaven face. He must have been merry at one time in his life, for there were many nice little laughing-wrinkles around his eyes, but somehow these seemed to have faded out, as if they had not been used for years, and the corners of his mouth turned down to increase the look of weariness and discontent.
A smile had crept over his face at his old friend Bill Harmon's spelling and penmanship, for a missive of that kind seldom came to the American Consulate. When the second letter postmarked Beulah first struck his eye, he could not imagine why he should have another correspondent in the quaintly named little village. He had read Nancy's letter twice now, and still he sat smoking and dreaming with an occasional glance at the girlish handwriting, or a twinkle of the eye at the re-reading of some particular passage. His own girls were not ready writers, and their mother generally sent their messages for them. Nancy and Kitty did not yet write nearly as well as they talked, but they contrived to express something of their own individuality in their communications, which were free and fluent, though childlike and crude.
"What a nice girl this Nancy Carey must be!" thought the American Consul. "This is such a jolly, confidential, gossipy, winsome little letter! Her first 'business letter' she calls it! Alas! when she learns how, a few years later, there will be no charming little confidences; no details of family income and expenditures; no tell-tale glimpses of 'mother' and 'Julia.' I believe I should know the whole family even without this photograph!--The lady sitting in the chair, to whom the photographer's snapshot has not done justice, is worthy of Nancy's praise,--and Bill Harmon's. What a pretty, piquant, curly head Nancy has! What a gay, vivacious, alert, spirited expression. The boy is handsome and gentlemanly, but he'll have to wake up, or Nancy will be the man of the family. The girl sitting down is less attractive. She's Uncle Allan's daughter, and" (consulting the letter) "Uncle Allan has nervous prostration and all of mother's money." Here Mr. Hamilton gave vent to audible laughter for the third time in a quarter of an hour. "Nancy doesn't realize with what perfection her somewhat imperfect English states the case," he thought. "I know Uncle Allan like a book, from his resemblance to certain other unfortunate gentlemen who have nervous prostration in combination with other people's money. Let's see! I know Nancy; friendly little Nancy, about fifteen or sixteen, I should judge; I know Uncle Allan's 'Julia,' who hems in photographs, but not otherwise; I know Gilbert, who is depressed at having to make his own way; the small boy, who 'is the nicest of us all'; Kitty, who beat all the others in getting to mother's shoulder; and the mother herself, who is beautiful, and doesn't say 'Bosh' to her children's ideas, and refuses to touch the insurance money, and wants Gilbert to show what 'father's son' can do without anybody's help, and who revels in the color and joy of a yellow wall paper at twenty cents a roll! Bless their simple hearts! They mustn't pay any rent while they are bringing water into the kitchen and making expensive improvements! And what Hamilton could be persuaded to live in the yellow house? To think of any one's wanting to settle down in that little deserted spot, Beulah, where the only sound that ever strikes one's ear is Osh Popham's laugh or the tinkle of a cow bell! Oh! if my own girls would write me letters like this, letting me see how their minds are growing, how they are taking hold of life, above all what is in their hearts! Well, little Miss Nancy Carey! honest, outspoken, confidential, clever little Nancy, who calls me her 'dearest Mr. Hamilton' and thanks me for letting her live in my yellow house, you shall never be disturbed, and if you and Gilbert ever earn enough money to buy it, it shall go to you cheap! There's not one of my brood that would live in it--except Tom, perhaps--for after spending three hundred dollars, they even got tired of dancing in the barn on Saturday nights; so if it can fall into the hands of some one who will bring a blessing on it, good old Granny Hamilton will rest peacefully in her grave!"
We have discoursed in another place of family circles, but it cannot be truthfully said that at any moment the Lemuel Hamiltons had ever assumed that symmetrical and harmonious shape. Still, during the first eight or ten years of their married life, when the children were young, they had at least appeared to the casual eye as, say, a rectangular parallelogram. A little later the cares and jolts of life wrenched the right angles a trifle "out of plumb," and a rhomboid was the result. Mrs. Hamilton had money of her own, but wished Lemuel to amass enough fame and position to match it. She liked a diplomatic life if her husband could be an ambassador, but she thought him strangely slow in achieving this dignity. No pleasure or pride in her husband's ability to serve his country, even in a modest position, ever crossed her mind. She had no desire to spend her valuable time in various poky Continental towns, and she had many excuses for not doing so; the proper education of her children being the chief among them. Luckily for her, good and desirable schools were generally at an easy distance from the jewellers' shops and the dressmakers' and milliners' establishments her soul loved, so while Mr. Hamilton did his daily task in Antwerp, Mrs. Hamilton resided mostly in Brussels or Paris; when he was in Zittau, in Saxony, she was in Dresden. If he were appointed to some business city she remained with him several months each year, and spent the others in a more artistic and fashionable locality. The situation was growing difficult because the children were gradually getting beyond school age, although there still remained to her the sacred duty of settling them properly in life. Agnes, her mother's favorite, was still at school, and was devoted to foreign languages, foreign manners, and foreign modes of life. Edith had grown restless and developed an uncomfortable fondness for her native land, so that she spent most of her time with her mother's relatives in New York, or in visiting school friends here or there. The boys had gone far away; Jack, the elder, to Texas, where he had lost what money his father and mother had put into his first business venture; Thomas, the younger, to China, where he was woefully lonely, but doing well in business. A really good diplomatic appointment in a large and important city would have enabled Mr. Hamilton to collect some of his scattered sons and daughters and provide them with the background for which his wife had yearned without ceasing (and very audibly) for years. But Mr. Hamilton did not get the coveted appointment, and Mrs. Hamilton did not specially care for Mr. Hamilton when he failed in securing the things she wanted. This was the time when the laughing-wrinkles began to fade away from Mr. Hamilton's eyes, just for lack of daily use; and it was then that the corners of his mouth began to turn down; and his shoulders to stoop, and his eye to grow less keen and brave, and his step less vigorous. It may be a commonplace remark, but it is not at these precise moments in life that tired, depressed men in modest positions are wafted by Uncle Sam to great and desirable heights; but to Mrs. Hamilton it appeared that her husband was simply indolent, unambitious, and unlucky; not at all that he needed to be believed in, or loved, or comforted, or helped, or braced! It might have startled her, and hurt her wifely pride, if she had seen her lonely husband drinking in little Nancy Carey's letter as if it were dew to a thirsty spirit; to see him set the photograph of the Carey group on his desk and look at it from time to time affectionately, as if he had found some new friends. It was the contentment, the hope, the unity, the pluck, the mutual love, the confidence, the ambition, of the group that touched his imagination and made his heart run out to them. "Airs from the Eden of youth awoke and stirred in his soul" as he took his pen to answer Nancy's first business communication.
Having completed his letter he lighted another cigar, and leaning back in his revolving chair clasped his hands behind his head and fell into a reverie. The various diplomatic posts that might be opened to him crossed his mind in procession. If A or B or C were possible, his wife would be content, and their combined incomes might be sufficient to bring the children together, if not quite under one roof, then to points not so far separated from each other but that a speaking acquaintance might be developed. Tom was the farthest away, and he was the dearest; the only Hamilton of the lot; the only one who loved his father.
Mr. Hamilton leaned forward abstractedly, and fumbling through one drawer of his desk after another succeeded in bringing out a photograph of Tom, taken at seventeen or eighteen. Then by a little extra search he found his wife in her presentation dress at a foreign court. There was no comfort or companionship in that, it was too furbelowed to be anybody's wife,--but underneath it in the same frame was one taken just after their marriage. That was too full of memories to hold much joy, but it stirred his heart, and made it beat a little; enough at any rate to show it was not dead. In the letter case in his vest pocket was an almost forgotten picture of the girls when they were children. This with the others he stood in a row in front of him, reminding himself that he did not know the subjects much more intimately than the photographers who had made their likenesses. He glanced from one family to the other and back again, several times. The Careys were handsomer, there was no doubt of that; but there was a deeper difference that eluded him. The Hamiltons were far more stylishly dressed, but they all looked a little conscious and a little discontented. That was it; the Careys were happier! There were six of them, living in the forgotten Hamilton house in a half-deserted village, on five or six hundred dollars a year, and doing their own housework, and they were happier than his own brood, spending forty or fifty times that sum. Well, they were grown up, his sons and daughters, and the only change in their lives now would come from wise or unwise marriages. No poverty-stricken sons-in-law would ever come into the family, with Mrs. Hamilton standing at the bars, he was sure of that! As for the boys, they might choose their mates in Texas or China; they might even have chosen them now, for aught he knew, though Jack was only twenty-six and Tom twenty-two. He must write to them oftener, all of them, no matter how busy and anxious he might be; especially to Tom, who was so far away.
He drew a sheet of paper towards him, and having filled it, another, and yet another. Having folded and slipped it into an envelope and addressed it to Thomas Hamilton, Esq., Hong Kong, China, he was about to seal it when he stopped a moment. "I'll enclose the little Carey girl's letter," he thought. "Tom's the only one who cares a penny for the old house, and I've told him I have rented it. He's a generous boy, and he won't grudge a few dollars lost to a good cause. Besides, these Careys will increase the value of the property every year they live in it, and without them the buildings would gradually have fallen into ruins." He added a postscript to his letter, saying: "I've sent you little Miss Nancy's letter, the photograph of her tying up the rambler rose, and the family group; so that you can see exactly what influenced me to write her (and Bill Harmon) that they should be undisturbed in their tenancy, and that their repairs and improvements should be taken in lieu of rent." This done and the letters stamped, he put the photographs of his wife and children here and there on his desk and left the office.
Oh! it is quite certain that Mother Carey's own chickens go out over the seas and show good birds the way home; and it is quite true, as she said, "One real home always makes another, I am sure of that!" It can even send a vision of a home across fields and forests and lakes and oceans from Beulah village to Breslau, Germany, and on to Hong Kong, China.