Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XXII. Cradle Gifts
Mrs. Henry Lord sent out a good many invitations to the fairies for Cyril's birthday party, but Mr. Lord was at his critical point in the first volume of his text book, and forgot that he had a son. Where both parents are not interested in these little affairs, something is sure to be forgotten. Cyril's mother was weak and ill at the time, and the upshot of it was that the anger of The Fairy Who Wasn't Invited was visited on the baby Cyril in his cradle. In the revengeful spirit of that fairy who is omitted from these functions, she sent a threat instead of a blessing, and decreed that Cyril should walk in fear all the days of his life. Of course, being a fairy, she knew very well that, if Cyril, or anybody very much interested in Cyril, went to declare that there was no power whatever behind her curse, she would not be able to gratify her spite; but she knew also, being a fairy, that if Cyril got into the habit of believing himself a coward, he would end by being one, so she stood a good chance of winning, after all.
Cyril, when he came into the world, had come with only half a welcome. No mother and father ever met over his cradle and looked at him together, wondering if it were "well with the child." When he was old enough to have his red-gold hair curled, and a sash tied around his baby waist, he was sometimes taken downstairs, but he always fled to his mother's or his nurse's knee when his father approached. How many times he and his little sister Olive had hidden under the stairs when father had called mother down to the study to scold her about the grocer's bill! And there was a nightmare of a memory concerning a certain birthday of father's, when mother had determined to be gay. It was just before supper. Cyril, clad in his first brief trousers, was to knock at the study door with a little purple nosegay in his hand, to show his father that the lilac had bloomed. Olive, in crimson cashmere, was to stand near, and when the door opened, present him with her own picture of the cat and her new kittens; while mother, looking so pretty, with her own gift all ready in her hand, was palpitating on the staircase to see how the plans would work. Nothing could have been worse, however, in the way of a small domestic tragedy, than the event itself when it finally came off.
Cyril knocked. "What do you want?" came from within, in tones that breathed vexation at being interrupted.
"Knock again!" whispered Mrs. Lord. "Father doesn't remember that it's his birthday, and he doesn't know that it's you knocking."
Cyril knocked again timidly, but at the first sound of his father's irritable voice as he rose hurriedly from his desk, the boy turned and fled through the kitchen to the shed.
Olive held the fort, picture in hand.
"It's your birthday, father," she said. "There's a cake for supper, and here's my present." There was no love in the child's voice. Her heart, filled with passionate sympathy for Cyril, had lost all zest for its task, and she handed her gift to her father with tightly closed lips and heaving breast.
"All right; I'm much obliged, but I wish you would not knock at this door when I am writing,--I've told you that before. Tell your mother I can't come to supper to-night, but to send me a tray, please!"
As he closed the door Olive saw him lay the picture on a table, never looking at it as he crossed the room to one of the great book-cases that lined the walls.
Mrs. Lord had by this time disappeared forlornly from the upper hall. Olive, aged ten, talked up the stairs in a state of mind ferocious in its anger. Entering her mother's room she tore the crimson ribbon from her hair and began to unbutton her dress. "I hate him! I hate him!" she cried, stamping her foot. "I will never knock at his door again! I'd like to take Cyril and run away! I'll get the birthday cake and fling it into the pond; nothing shall stop me!". Then, seeing her mother's white face, she wailed, as she flung herself on the bed: "Oh, mother, mother,--why did you ever let him come to live with us? Did we have to have him for a father? Couldn't you help it, mother?"
Mrs. Lord grew paler, put her hand to her heart, wavered, caught herself, wavered again, and fell into the great chair by the window. Her eyes closed, and Olive, frightened by the apparent effect of her words, ran down the back stairs and summoned the cook. When she returned, panting and breathless, her mother was sitting quite quietly by the window, looking out at the cedars.
"It was only a sudden pain, dear! I am all well again. Nothing is really the matter, Bridget. Mr. Lord will not be down to supper; spread a tray for him, please."
"I'd like to spread a tray for him at the bottom of the Red Sea; that's where he belongs!" muttered Bridget, as she descended to the kitchen to comfort Cyril.
"Was it my fault, mother?" asked Olive, bending over her anxiously.
Her mother drew the child's head down and leaned her own against it feebly. "No, dear," she sighed. "It's nobody's fault, unless it's mine!"
"Is the pain gone?"
"Quite gone, dear."
Nevertheless the pain was to prove the final wrench to a heart that had been on the verge of breaking for many a year, and it was not long before Olive and Cyril were motherless.
Mr. Lord did not have the slightest objection to the growing intimacy between his children and the new family in the Yellow House, so long as he was not disturbed by it, and so long as it cost him nothing. They had strict orders not to play with certain of their village acquaintances, Mr. Lord believing himself to be an aristocrat; the fact being that he was almost destitute of human sympathy, and to make a neighbor of him you would have had to begin with his grandfather and work for three generations. He had seen Nancy and Gilbert at the gates of his place, and he had passed Mrs. Carey in one of his infrequent walks to the post-office. She was not a person to pass without mental comment, and Mr. Lord instantly felt himself in the presence of an equal, an unusual fact in his experience; he would not have known a superior if he had met one ever so often!
"A very fine, unusual woman," he thought. "She accounts for that handsome, manly boy. I wish he could knock some spirit into Cyril!"
The process of "knocking spirit" into a boy would seem to be inconsistent with educational logic, but by very different methods, Gilbert had certainly given Cyril a trifling belief in himself, and Mother Carey was gradually winning him to some sort of self-expression by the warmth of her frequent welcomes and the delightful faculty she possessed of making him feel at ease.
"Come, come!" said the petrels to the molly-mocks in "Water Babies." "This young gentleman is going to Shiny Wall. He is a plucky one to have gone so far. Give the little chap a cast over the ice-pack for Mother Carey's sake."
Gilbert was delighted, in a new place, to find a boy friend of his own age, and Cyril's speedy attachment gratified his pride. Gilbert was doing well these summer months. The unceasing activity, the authority given him by his mother and sisters, his growing proficiency in all kinds of skilled labor, as he "puttered" about with Osh Popham or Bill Harmon in house and barn and garden, all this pleased his enterprising nature. Only one anxiety troubled his mother; his unresigned and mutinous attitude about exchanging popular and fashionable Eastover for Beulah Academy, which seat of learning he regarded with unutterable scorn. He knew that there was apparently no money to pay Eastover fees, but he was still child enough to feel that it could be found, somewhere, if properly searched for. He even considered the education of Captain Carey's eldest son an emergency vital enough to make it proper to dip into the precious five thousand dollars which was yielding them a part of their slender annual income. Once, when Gilbert was a little boy, he had put his shoulder out of joint, and to save time his mother took him at once to the doctor's. He was suffering, but still strong enough to walk. They had to climb a hilly street, the child moaning with pain, his mother soothing and encouraging him as they went on. Suddenly he whimpered: "Oh! if this had only happened to Ellen or Joanna or Addy or Nancy, I could have borne it so much better!"
There was a good deal of that small boy left in Gilbert still, and he endured best the economies that fell on the feminine members of the family. It was the very end of August, and although school opened the first Monday in September, Mrs. Carey was not certain whether Gilbert would walk into the old-fashioned, white painted academy with the despised Beulah "hayseeds," or whether he would make a scene, and authority would have to be used.
"I declare, Gilly!" exclaimed Mother Carey one night, after an argument on the subject; "one would imagine the only course in life open to a boy was to prepare at Eastover and go to college afterwards! Yet you may take a list of the most famous men in America, and I dare say you will find half of them came from schools like Beulah Academy or infinitely poorer ones. I don't mean the millionaires alone. I mean the merchants and engineers and surgeons and poets and authors and statesmen. Go ahead and try to stamp your school in some way, Gilly!--don't sit down feebly and wait for it to stamp you!"
This was all very well as an exhibition of spirit on Mother Carey's part, but it had been a very hard week. Gilbert was sulky; Peter had had a touch of tonsillitis; Nancy was faltering at the dishwashing and wishing she were a boy; Julia was a perfect barnacle; Kathleen had an aching tooth, and there being no dentist in the village, Was applying Popham remedies,--clove-chewing, roasted raisins, and disfiguring bread poultices; Bill Harmon had received no reply from Mr. Hamilton, and when Mother Carey went to her room that evening she felt conscious of a lassitude, and a sense of anxiety, deeper than for months. As Gilbert went by to his own room, he glanced in at her door, finding it slightly ajar. She sat before her dressing table, her long hair flowing over her shoulders, her head bent over her two hands. His father's picture was in its accustomed place, and he heard her say as she looked at it: "Oh, my dear, my dear! I am so careworn, so troubled, so discouraged! Gilbert needs you, and so do I, more than tongue can tell!" The voice was so low that it was almost a whisper, but it reached Gilbert's ears, and there was a sob strangled in it that touched his heart.
The boy tiptoed softly into his room and sat down on his bed in the moonlight.
"Dear old Mater!" he thought. "It's no go! I've got to give up Eastover and college and all and settle down into a country bumpkin! No fellow could see his mother look like that, and speak like that, and go his own gait; he's just got to go hers!"
Meantime Mrs. Carey had put out the lamp and lay quietly thinking. The last words that floated through her mind as she sank to sleep were those of a half-forgotten verse, learned, she could not say how many years before:--
You can glad your child or grieve it! You can trust it or deceive it; When all's done Beneath God's sun You can only love and leave it.