Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XXIV. A Letter From Germany
Mother Carey walked down the village street one morning late in August, while Peter, milk pail in hand, was running by her side and making frequent excursions off the main line of travel. Beulah looked enchanting after a night of rain, and the fields were greener than they had been since haying time. Unless Mr. Hamilton were away from his consular post on a vacation somewhere on the Continent, he should have received, and answered, Bill Harmon's letter before this, she was thinking, as she looked at the quiet beauty of the scene that had so endeared itself to her in a few short months.
Mrs. Popham had finished her morning's work and was already sitting at her drawing-in frame in the open doorway, making a very purple rose with a very scarlet centre.
"Will you come inside, Mis' Carey?" she asked hospitably, "or do you want Lallie Joy to set you a chair on the grass, same as you had last time?"
"I always prefer the grass, Mrs. Popham," smiled Mrs. Carey. "As it's the day for the fishman to come I thought we'd like an extra quart of milk for chowder."
"I only hope he'll make out to come," was Mrs. Popham's curt response. "If I set out to be a fishman, I vow I'd be one! Mr. Tubbs stays to home whenever he's hayin', or his wife's sick, or it's stormy, or the children want to go to the circus!"
Mrs. Carey laughed. "That's true; but as your husband reminded me last week, when Mr. Tubbs disappointed us, his fish is always fresh-caught, and good."
"Oh! of course Mr. Popham would speak up for him!" returned his wife. "I don't see myself as it makes much diff'rence whether his fish is good or bad, if he stays to home with it! Mebbe I look on the dark side a little mite; I can't hardly help it, livin' with Mr. Popham, and he so hopeful."
"He keeps us all very merry at the Yellow House," Mrs. Carey ventured.
"Yes, he would," remarked Mrs. Popham drily, "but you don't git it stiddy; hopefulness at meals, hopefulness evenin's, an' hopefulness nights!--one everlastin' stiddy stream of hopefulness! He was jest so as a boy; always lookin' on the bright side whether there was any or not. His mother 'n' father got turrible sick of it; so much sunshine in the house made a continual drouth, so old Mis' Popham used to say. For her part, she said, she liked to think that, once in a while, there was a cloud that was a first-class cloud; a thick, black cloud, clean through to the back! She was tired to death lookin' for Ossian's silver linin's! Lallie Joy's real moody like me; I s'pose it's only natural, livin' with a father who never sees anything but good, no matter which way he looks. There's two things I trust I shan't hear any more when I git to heaven,--that's 'Cheer up Maria!' an' 'It's all for the best!' As for Mr. Popham, he says any place'll be heaven to him so long as I ain't there, callin' 'Hurry up Ossian!' so we have it, back an' forth!"
"It's a wonderful faculty, seeing the good in everything," sighed Mrs. Carey.
"Wonderful tiresome," returned Mrs. Popham, "though I will own up it's Ossian's only fault, and he can't see his own misfortunes any clearer than he can see those of other folks. His new colt run away with him last week and stove the mowin' machine all to pieces. 'Never mind, Maria!' he says, 'it'll make fust-rate gear for a windmill!' He's out in the barn now, fussin' over it; you can hear him singin'. They was all here practicin' for the Methodist concert last, night, an' I didn't sleep a wink, the tunes kep' a-runnin' in my head so! They always git Ossian to sing 'Fly like a youthful hart or roe, over the hills where spices grow,' an' I tell him he's too old; youthful harts an' roes don't fly over the hills wearin' spectacles, I tell him, but he'll go right on singin' it till they have to carry him up on the platform in a wheeled chair!"
"You go to the Congregational church, don't you, Mrs. Popham?" asked Mrs. Carey. "I've seen Lallie and Digby at Sunday-school."
"Yes, Mr. Popham is a Methodist and I'm a Congregationalist, but I say let the children go where they like, so I always take them with me."
Mrs. Carey was just struggling to conceal her amusement at this religious flexibility on Mrs. Popham's part, when she espied Nancy flying down the street, bareheaded, waving a bit of paper in the air.
"Are you 'most ready to come home, Muddy?" she called, without coming any nearer.
"Yes, quite ready, now Lallie has brought the milk. Good morning, Mrs. Popham; the children want me for some new enterprise."
"You give yourself most too much to 'em," expostulated Mrs. Popham; "you don't take no vacations."
"Ah, well, you see 'myself' is all I have to give them," answered Mrs. Carey, taking Peter and going to meet Nancy.
"Mother," said that young person breathlessly, "I must tell you what I didn't tell at the time, for fear of troubling you. I wrote to Mr. Hamilton by the same post that Mr. Harmon did. Bill is so busy and such a poor writer I thought he wouldn't put the matter nicely at all, and I didn't want you, with all your worries, brought into it, so I wrote to the Consul myself, and kept a copy to show you exactly what I said. I have been waiting at the gate for the letters every day for a week, but this morning Gilbert happened to be there and shouted, 'A letter from Germany for you, Nancy!' So all of them are wild with curiosity; Olive and Cyril too, but I wanted you to open and read it first because it may be full of awful blows."
Mrs. Carey sat down on the side of a green bank between the Pophams' corner and the Yellow House and opened the letter,--with some misgivings, it must be confessed. Nancy sat close beside her and held one edge of the wide sheets, closely filled.
"Why, he has written you a volume, Nancy!" exclaimed Mrs. Carey. "It must be the complete story of his life! How long was yours to him?" "I don't remember; pretty long; because there seemed to be so much to tell, to show him how we loved the house, and why we couldn't spend Cousin Ann's money and move out in a year or two, and a lot about ourselves, to let him see we were nice and agreeable and respectable."
"I'm not sure all that was strictly necessary," commented Mrs. Carey with some trepidation.
This was Lemuel Hamilton's letter, dated from the office of the American Consul in Breslau, Germany.
Mother Carey's eyes twinkled. She well knew Nancy's informal epistolary style, and her facile, instantaneous friendliness!
"What does he mean by that?"
"I sent him a snap shot of the family."
"Nancy! What for?"
"So that he could see what we were like; so that he'd know we were fit to be lifelong tenants!"
Mrs. Carey turned resignedly to the letter again.
"Oh, dear!" interpolated Nancy. "It seems, lately, as if nobody had both father and mother!"
"The west bedroom; that isn't the painted one; no, of course it is the one where I sleep," said Mrs. Carey. "The painted one must always have been the guest chamber."
"Oh! I do like him!" exclaimed Nancy impetuously. "Can't you see him, mother? It's so nice of him to remember that they always mowed the hayfield last for his mother's sake, and so nice of him to think of Queen Anne's lace all these years!"
"Nancy!" asked Mrs. Carey, looking away from the letter again, "did you say anything about your Cousin Ann?"
"Yes, some little thing or other; for it was her money that we couldn't spend until we knew we could stay in the house. I didn't describe her, of course, to Mr. Hamilton; I just told him she was very businesslike, and yes, I remember now, I told him you said she was a very fine person; that's about all. But you see how clever he is! he just has 'instinks,' as Mr. Popham says, and you don't have to tell him much about anything."
"No rent! Not even the sixty dollars!" exclaimed Nancy.
"Look; that is precisely what he says."
"There never was such a dear since the world began!" cried Nancy joyously. "Oh! do read on; there's a lot more, and the last may contradict the first."
"So much!" quoted Nancy with dramatic emphasis. "Oh, he is a dear!"
"My bedroom! I shall love to have it there," said Mother Carey.
Tears of joy sprang to the eyes of emotional Nancy. She rose to her feet and paced the greensward excitedly.
"Oh, mother, I didn't think there could be another such man after knowing father and the Admiral. Isn't it all as wonderful as a fairy story?"
"There's a little more; listen, dear."
"Oh, dear! there comes the dreadful 'unless'! 'My son Tom' is our only enemy, then!" said Nancy darkly.
"He is in China, at all events," her mother remarked cheerfully.
"The planting of the rose was a heavenly inspiration if it does 'fix Tom!' We'll call Tom the Chinese Enemy. No, we'll call him the Yellow Peril," laughed Nancy in triumph.
"I don't see why you didn't go over to Germany yourself, Nancy, and take a trunk of samples!" cried Mrs. Carey, wiping the tears of merriment from her eyes. "I can't think what the postage on your letter must have been."
"Ten cents," Nancy confessed, "but wasn't it worth it, Muddy?--Come, read the last few lines, and then we'll run all the way home to tell the others."
"I can't remember why I told him about Mother Carey's chickens," said Nancy reflectively. "It just seemed to come in naturally. The Yellow Peril must be rather nice, as well as his father, even if he is our enemy. That was clever of him, putting his grandmother in the brick oven!" And here Nancy laughed, and laughed again, thinking how her last remark would sound if overheard by a person unacquainted with the circumstances.
"A delightful, warm, kind, friendly letter," said Mother Carey, folding it with a caressing hand. "I wish your father could have read it."
"He doesn't say a word about his children," and Nancy took the sheets and scanned them again.
"You evidently gave him the history of your whole family, but he confines himself to his own life."
"He mentions 'my son Tom' frequently enough, but there's not a word of Mrs. Hamilton."
"No, but there's no reason there should be, especially!"
"If he loved her he couldn't keep her out," said Nancy shrewdly. "She just isn't in the story at all. Could any of us write a chronicle of any house we ever lived in, and leave you out?"
Mrs. Carey took Nancy's outstretched hands and was pulled up from the greensward. "You have a few 'instinks' yourself, little daughter," she said with a swift pat on the rosy cheek. "Now, Peter, put your marbles in the pocket of your blue jeans, and take the milk pail from under the bushes; we must hurry or there'll be no chowder."
As they neared Garden Fore-and-Aft the group of children rushed out to meet them, Kitty in advance.
"The fish man didn't come," she said, "and it's long past his time, so there's no hope; but Julia and I have the dinner all planned. There wasn't enough of it to go round anyway, so we've asked Olive and Cyril to stay, and we've set the table under the great maple,--do you care?"
"Not a bit; we'll have a real jollification, because Nancy has some good news to tell you!"
"The dinner isn't quite appropriate for a jollification," Kitty observed anxiously. "Is the news good enough to warrant opening a jar or a can of anything?"
"Open all that doth hap to be closed," cried Nancy, embracing Olive excitedly. "Light the bonfires on the encroaching hills. Set casks a-tilt, and so forth."
"It's the German letter!" said Gilbert at a venture.
"What is the dinner, Kitty?" Mother Carey asked.
"New potatoes and string beans from the aft garden. Stale bread made into milk toast to be served as a course. Then, not that it has anything to do with the case, but just to give a style to the meal, Julia has made a salad out of the newspaper."
Nancy created a diversion by swooning on the grass; a feat which had given her great fame in charades.
"It was only the memory of Julia's last newspaper salad!" she murmured when the usual restoratives had been applied. "Prithee, poppet, what hast dropped into the dish to-day?"
Julia was laughing too much to be wholly intelligible, but read from a scrap in her apron pocket: "'Any fruit in season, cold beans or peas, minced cucumber, English walnuts, a few cubes of cold meat left from dinner, hard boiled eggs in slices, flecks of ripe tomatoes and radishes to perfect the color scheme, a dash of onion juice, dash of paprika, dash of rich cream.' I have left out the okra, the shallot, the estragon, the tarragon, the endive, the hearts of artichoke, the Hungarian peppers and the haricot beans because we hadn't any;--do you think it will make any difference, Aunt Margaret?"
"It will," said Nancy oracularly, "but all to the good."
"Rather a dull salad I call it," commented Gilbert. "Lacks the snap of the last one. No mention of boned sprats, or snails in aspic, calves' foot jelly, iced humming birds, pickled edelweiss, or any of those things kept habitually in the cellars of families like ours. No dash of Jamaica ginger or Pain-killer or sloe gin or sarsaparilla to give it piquancy. Unless Julia can find a paper that gives more up-to-date advice to its country subscribers, we'll have to transfer her from the kitchen department to the woodshed."
Julia's whole attitude, during this discussion of her recent culinary experiments, was indicative of the change that was slowly taking place in her point of view. The Careys had a large sense of humor, from mother down as far as Peter, who was still in the tadpole stage of it. They chaffed one another on all occasions, for the most part courteously and with entire good nature. Leigh Hunt speaks of the anxiety of certain persons to keep their minds quiet lest any motion be clumsy, and Julia's concern had been of this variety; but four or five months spent in a household where mental operations, if not deep, were incredibly quick, had made her a little more elastic. Mother Carey had always said that if Julia had any sense of humor she would discover for herself what a solemn prig she was, and mend her ways, and it seemed as if this might be true in course of time.
"What'll we do with all the milk?" now demanded Peter, who had carried it all the way from the Pophams', and to whom it appeared therefore of exaggerated importance.
"Angel boy!" cried Nancy, embracing him. "The only practical member of the family! What wouldst thou suggest?"
"Drink it," was the terse reply.
"And so't shall be, my liege! Fetch the beaker, lackey," identifying Cyril with a royal gesture. "Also crystal water from the well, which by the command of our Cousin Ann will speedily flow in a pipe within the castle walls. There are healths to be drunk this day when we assemble under the Hamilton maple, and first and most loyally the health of our American Consul at Breslau, Germany!"