XXVI. A Zoological Father
 

That was just what Mother Carey was wondering when Nancy spoke, and as the result of several hours' reflection she went out for a walk just before dusk and made her way towards The Cedars with a package under her cloak.

She followed the long lane that led to the house, and knocked at the front door rather timidly. In her own good time Mrs. Bangs answered the knock and admitted Mrs. Carey into the dreariest sitting room she had ever entered.

"I am Mrs. Carey from the Hamilton house," she said to Mrs. Bangs. "Will you ask Mr. Lord if he will see me for a moment?"

Mrs. Bangs was stupefied at the request, for, in her time, scarcely a single caller from the village had crossed the threshold, although there had been occasional visitors from Portland or Boston.

Mrs. Carey waited a few moments, silently regarding the unequalled bareness, ugliness, and cheerlessness of the room. "Olive has a sense of beauty," she thought, "and Olive is sixteen; it is Olive who ought to make this place different from what it is, and she can, unless her father is the stumbling-block in the way."

At this moment the possible stumbling-block, Henry Lord, Ph.D., came in and greeted her civilly. His manner was never genial, for there was neither love in his heart nor warm blood in his veins; but he was courteous, for he was an educated fossil, of good birth and up-bringing. He had been dissecting specimens in his workroom, and he looked capable of dismembering Mother Carey; but bless your heart, she had weapons in her unseen armory that were capable of bringing confusion to his paltry apparatus!--among others a delicate, slender little sword that pierced deep on occasion.

Henry Lord was of medium height; spare, clean-shaven, thin-lipped, with scanty auburn hair, high forehead, and small keen eyes, especially adapted to the microscope, though ill fitted to use in friendly conversation.

"We are neighbors, Professor Lord, though we have never met," said Mrs. Carey, rising and giving him her hand.

"My children know you better than I," he answered, "and I feel it very kind in you to allow them to call on you so frequently." They had lived at the Yellow House for four months save at meal times, but as their father was unaware of the number and extent of their visits Mrs. Carey thought it useless to speak of them, so she merely said:

"It is a great pleasure to have them with us. My children have left many friends behind them in Massachusetts and elsewhere, and might have been lonely in Beulah; besides, I often think the larger the group (within certain limits), the better chance children have of learning how to live."

"I should certainly not have permitted Olive and Cyril to attend the local academy but for your family," said Professor Lord. "These country schools never have any atmosphere of true scholarliness, and the speech and manners of both teachers and pupils are execrable."

"I dare say that is often the case. If the academies could furnish such teachers as existed fifty years ago; and alas! if we parents could furnish such vigorous, determined, ambitious, self-denying pupils as used to be sent out from country homes, we should have less to complain of. Of course we are peculiarly fortunate here in Beulah."

Mr. Lord looked faintly amused and infinitely superior. "I am afraid, my dear lady," he remarked, "that you have not had long enough experience to comprehend the slenderness of Mr. Philpot's mental equipment."

"Oh, Mr. Philpot resigned nearly three months ago," said Mrs. Carey easily, giving Henry Lord, Ph.D., her first stab, and a look of amusement on her own behalf. "Ralph Thurston, the present principal, is a fine, unusual fellow."

"Really? The children have never mentioned any change, but I regret to say I am absent-minded at meals. The death of my wife left many gaps in the life of the household."

"So that you have to be mother and father in one!" (Stab two: very delicately delivered.)

"I fear I am too much of a student to be called a good family man."

"So I gathered." (Stab three. She wanted to provoke curiosity.)

Mr. Lord looked annoyed. He knew his unpopularity, and did not wish any village gossip to reach the ears of strangers. "You, my dear madam, are capable of appreciating my devotion to my life work, which the neighbors naturally wholly misunderstand," he said.

"I gathered nothing from the neighbors," responded Mrs. Carey, "but a woman has only to know children well to see at a glance what they need. You are so absorbed in authorship just now, that naturally it is a little hard for the young people; but I suppose there are breathing places, 'between books'?"

"There are no breathing places between mine; there will be six volumes, and I am scarcely half through the third, although I have given seven years to the work. Still, I have an excellent housekeeper who attends to all our simple needs. My children are not fitted for society."

"No, not quite." (Stab four). "That is the reason they ought to see a good deal of it, but they are very fine children and very clever."

"I am glad you think so, but they certainly write bad English and have no general knowledge whatsoever."

"Oh, well, that will come, doubtless, when you have more time with them." (Stab five.) "I often think such mysterious things as good speech and culture can never be learned in school. I shouldn't wonder if that were our department, Dr. Lord!" (Stab six.) "However, you will agree, modest parent as you are, that your Olive is a genius?"

"I have never observed it," replied her father. "I cannot, of course, allow her to practice on any musical instrument, because my studies demand quiet, but I don't think she cares for music."

"She draws and paints, however, in the most astonishing way, and she has a passionate energy, and concentration, and devotion to her work that I have never seen coupled with anything but an extraordinary talent. She is destined to go very far, in my opinion."

"Not too far, I hope," remarked Mr. Lord, with an icy smile. "Olive can paint on plush and china as much as she likes, but I am not partial to 'careers' for young women."

"Nor am I; save when the gift is so commanding, so obvious, that it has to be reckoned with;--but I must not delay my business any longer, nor keep you from your work. We are having a housewarming this evening at seven. Olive and Cyril are there now, helping in the preparations, and I want to know if they may stay to supper, and if you can send for them at half past nine or ten."

"Certainly they may stay, though I should think your supper table could hardly stand the strain."

"Where there are five already, two more make no difference, save in better appetite for all," said Mother Carey, smiling and rising.

"If you will allow me to get my hat and coat I will accompany you to the main road," said Mr. Lord, going to the front hall, and then opening the door for Mrs. Carey. "Let me take your parcel, please."

He did not know in the least why he said it and why he did it. The lady had interfered with his family affairs to a considerable extent, and had made several remarks that would have appeared impertinent, had they not issued from a very winsome, beautiful mouth. Mrs. Ossian Popham or Mrs. Bill Harmon would have been shown the door for saying less, yet here was Henry Lord, Ph.D., ambling down the lane by Mother Carey's side, thinking to himself what a burden she lifted from his shoulders by her unaccountable interest in his unattractive children. He was also thinking how "springy" was the lady's step in her short black dress, how brilliant the chestnut hair looked under the black felt hat, and how white the skin gleamed above the glossy lynx boa. A kind of mucilaginous fluid ran in his veins instead of blood, but Henry Lord, Ph.D., had his assailable side nevertheless, and he felt extraordinarily good natured, almost as if the third volume were finished, with public and publishers clamoring for its appearance.

"I don't know where Olive could have got any such talent as you describe," he said, as they were walking along the lane. "She had some lessons long ago, I remember, and her mother used to talk of her amusing herself with pencil and paint, but I have heard nothing of it for years."

"Ask to see her sketches when you are talking with her about her work some day," suggested Mother Carey. (Stab seven.) "As a matter of fact she probably gets her talent from you."

"From me!" Printed letters fail to register the amazement in Professor Lord's tone.

"Why not, when you consider her specialty?"

"What specialty?"

Really, a slender sword was of no use with this man; a bludgeon was the only instrument, yet it might wound, and she only wanted to prick. Had the creature never seen Olive sketching, nor noted her choice of subjects?

"She paints animals; paints nothing else, if she can help it; though she does fairly well with other things. Is it impossible that your study of zoology--your thought, your absorption for years and years, in the classification, the structure, the habits of animals--may have been stamped on your child's mind? She has an ardor equal to your own, only showing itself in a different manner. You may have passed on, in some mysterious way, your knowledge to Olive. She may have unconsciously blended it with some instinct for expression of her own, and it comes out in pictures. Look at this, Professor Lord. Olive gave it to me to-day."

They stood together at the gate leading out into the road, and Mrs. Carey unwrapped the painting and poised it against the top of the gate.

Olive's father looked at it for a moment and then said, "I am no judge of these things, technically or otherwise, but it certainly seems very creditable work for a girl of Olive's age."

"Oh, it is surely more than that! My girl Nancy stands there in the flesh, though her face is hidden. Look at the wind blowing, look at the delightful, the enchanting calf; above all look at the title! Who in the world but a little genius could have composed that sketch, breathing youth in every inch of it,--and called it 'Young April'! Oh! Professor Lord, I am very bold, because your wife is not living, and it is women who oftenest see these budding tendencies in children; forgive me, but do cherish and develop this talent of Olive's."

The eyes the color of the blue velvet bonnet were turned full upon Henry Lord, Ph.D. They swam in tears and the color came and went in her cheek; she was forty, but it was a lovely cheek still.

"I will think it over," he replied with some embarrassment as he wrapped the picture again and handed it to her. "Meantime I am certainly very much obliged to you. You seem to have an uncommon knowledge of young people. May I ask if you are, or have been, a teacher?" "Oh, no!" Mrs. Carey remarked with a smile, "I am just a mother,--that's all! Good night."