Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XXIX. "Th' Action Fine"
December, January, and February passed with a speed that had something of magic in it. The Careys had known nothing heretofore of the rigors of a State o' Maine winter, but as yet they counted it all joy. They were young and hearty and merry, and the air seemed to give them all new energy. Kathleen's delicate throat gave no trouble for the first time in years; Nancy's cheeks bloomed more like roses than ever; Gilbert, growing broader shouldered and deeper chested daily, simply revelled in skating and coasting; even Julia was forced into an activity wholly alien to her nature, because it was impossible for her to keep warm unless she kept busy.
Mother Carey and Peter used to look from a bedroom window of a clear cold morning and see the gay little procession start for the academy. Over the dazzling snow crust Olive and Cyril Lord would be skimming to meet the Careys, always at the same point at the same hour. There were rough red coats and capes, red mittens, squirrel caps pulled well down over curly and smooth heads; glimpses of red woolen stockings; thick shoes with rubbers over them; great parcels of books in straps. They looked like a flock of cardinal birds, Mother Carey thought, as the upturned faces, all aglow with ruddy color, smiled their morning good-bye. Gilbert had "stoked" the great stove in the cellar full of hard wood logs before he left, and Mrs. Carey and Peter had a busy morning before them with the housework. The family had risen at seven. Julia had swept and dusted; Kathleen had opened the bedroom windows, made the washstands tidy, filled the water pitchers, and changed the towels. Gilbert had carried wood and Peter kindlings, for the fires that had to be laid on the hearths here and there. Mother had cooked the plain breakfast while Nancy put the dining room in order and set the table, and at eight o'clock, when they sat down to plates piled high with slices of brown and white bread, to dishes of eggs or picked-up cod fish, or beans warmed over in the pot, with baked potatoes sometimes, and sometimes milk toast, or Nancy's famous corn muffins, no family of young bears ever displayed such appetites! On Saturday mornings there were griddle cakes and maple syrup from their own trees; for Osh Popham had shown them in the spring how to tap their maples, and collect the great pails of sap to boil down into syrup. Mother Carey and Peter made the beds after the departure of the others for school, and it was pretty to see the sturdy Peter-bird, sometimes in his coat and mittens, standing on the easiest side of the beds and helping his mother to spread the blankets and comforters smooth. His fat legs carried him up and downstairs a dozen times on errands, while his sweet piping voice was lifted in a never ending stream of genial conversation, as he told his mother what he had just done, what he was doing at the present moment, how he was doing it, and what he proposed to do in a minute or two. Then there was a lull from half past ten to half past eleven, shortened sometimes on baking days, when the Peter-bird had his lessons. The old-fashioned kitchen was clean and shining by that time. The stove glistened and the fire snapped and crackled. The sun beamed in at the sink window, doing all he could for the climate in the few hours he was permitted to be on duty in a short New England winter day. Peter sat on a cricket beside his mother's chair and clasped his "Reading without Tears" earnestly and rigidly, believing it to be the key to the universe. Oh! what an hour of happiness to Mother Carey when the boy would lift the very copy of his father's face to her own; when the well-remembered smile and the dear twinkle of the eyes in Peter's face would give her heart a stab of pain that was half joy after all, it was so full to the brim of sweet memories. In that warm still hour, when she was filling the Peter-bird's mind and soul with heavenly learning, how much she learned herself! Love poured from her, through voice and lips and eyes, and in return she drank it in thirstily from the little creature who sat there at her knee, a twig growing just as her bending hand inclined it; all the buds of his nature opening out in the mother-sunshine that surrounded him. Eleven thirty came all too soon. Then before long the kettle would begin to sing, the potatoes to bubble in the saucepan, and Mother Carey's spoon to stir the good things that had long been sizzling quietly in an iron pot. Sometimes it was bits of beef, sometimes mutton, but the result was mostly a toothsome mixture of turnips and carrots and onions in a sea of delicious gravy, with surprises of meat here and there to vary any possible monotony. Once or twice a week dumplings appeared, giving an air of excitement to the meal, and there was a delectable "poor man's stew" learned from Mrs. Popham; the ingredients being strips of parsnip, potatoes cut in quarters, a slice or two of sweet browned pork for a flavor, and a quart of rich milk, mixed with the parsnip juices into an appetizing sauce. The after part of the dinner would be a dish of baked apples with warm gingerbread, or sometimes a deep apple pandowdy, or the baked Indian pudding that was a syrupy, fragrant concoction made of corn meal and butter and molasses baked patiently in the oven for hours.
Mother had the dishes to wash after she had tucked the Peter-bird under the afghan on the sitting room sofa for his daily nap, but there was never any grumbling in her heart over the weary days and the unaccustomed tasks; she was too busy "making things make themselves." If only there were a little more money! That was her chief anxiety; for the unexpected, the outside sources of income were growing fewer, and in a year's time the little hoard would be woefully small. Was she doing all that she could, she wondered, as her steps flew over the Yellow House from attic to cellar. She could play the piano and sing; she could speak three languages and read four; she had made her curtsy at two foreign courts; admiration and love had followed her ever since she could remember, and here she was, a widow at forty, living in a half-deserted New England village, making parsnip stews for her children's dinner. Well, it was a time of preparation, and its rigors and self-denials must be cheer fully faced. She ought to be thankful that she was able to get a simple dinner that her children could eat; she ought to be thankful that her beef and parsnip stews and cracker puddings and corn bread were being transmuted into blood and brawn and brain-tissue, to help the world along somewhere a little later! She ought to be grateful that it was her blessed fortune to be sending four rosy, laughing, vigorous young people down the snowy street to the white-painted academy; that it was her good luck to see four heads bending eagerly over their books around the evening lamp, and have them all turn to her for help and encouragement in the hard places. Why should she complain, so long as the stormy petrels were all working and playing in Mother Carey's water garden where they ought to be; gathering strength to fly over or dive under the ice-pack and climb Shiny Wall? There is never any gate in the wall; Tom the Water Baby had found that out for himself; so it is only the plucky ones who are able to surmount the thousand difficulties they encounter on their hazardous journey to Peacepool. How else, if they had not learned themselves, could Mother Carey's chickens go out over the seas and show good birds the way home? At such moments Mrs. Carey would look at her image in the glass and say, "No whimpering, madam! You can't have the joys of motherhood without some of its pangs! Think of your blessings, and don't be a coward!--
"Who sweeps a room as by God's laws Makes that and th' action fine."
Then her eyes would turn from blue velvet to blue steel, and strength would flow into her from some divine, benignant source and transmute her into father as well as mother!
Was the hearth fire kindled in the Yellow House sending its glow through the village as well as warming those who sat beside it? There were Christmas and New Year's and St. Valentine parties, and by that time Bill Harmon saw the woodpile in the Carey shed grow beautifully less. He knew the price per cord,--no man better; but he and Osh Popham winked at each other one windy February day and delivered three cords for two, knowing that measurement of wood had not been included in Mother Carey's education. Natty Harmon and Digby Popham, following examples a million per cent better than parental lectures, asked one afternoon if they shouldn't saw and chop some big logs for the fireplaces.
Mrs. Carey looked at them searchingly, wondering if they could possibly guess the state of her finances, concluded they couldn't and said smilingly: "Indeed I will gladly let you saw for an hour or two if you'll come and sit by the fire on Saturday night, when we are going to play spelling games and have doughnuts and root beer."
The Widow Berry, who kept academy boarders, sent in a luscious mince pie now and then, and Mrs. Popham and Mrs. Harmon brought dried apples or pumpkins, winter beets and Baldwin apples. It was little enough, they thought, when the Yellow House, so long vacant, was like a beacon light to the dull village; sending out its beams on every side.
"She ain't no kind of a manager, I'm 'fraid!" said Bill Harmon. "I give her 'bout four quarts and a half of kerosene for a gallon every time she sends her can to be filled, but bless you, she ain't any the wiser! I try to give her as good measure in everything as she gives my children, but you can't keep up with her! She's like the sun, that shines on the just 'n' on the unjust. Hen Lord's young ones eat their lunch or their supper there once or twice a week, though the old skinflint's got fifty thousand dollars in the bank."
"Never mind, Bill." said Osh Popham; "there's goin' to be an everlastin' evenupness somewheres! Probably God A'mighty hez his eye on that woman, and He'll see her through. The young ones are growin' up, and the teacher at the academy says they beat the devil on book learnin'! The boy'll make a smart man, pretty soon, and bring good wages home to his mother. The girls are handsome enough to pick up husbands as soon as they've fully feathered out, so it won't be long afore they're all on the up grade. I've set great store by that family from the outset, and I'm turrible glad they're goin' to fix up the house some more when it comes spring. I'm willin' to work cheap for such folks as them."
"You owe 'em somethin' for listenin' to you, Osh! Seems if they moved here jest in time to hear your stories when you'd 'bout tuckered out the rest o' the village!"
"It's a pity you didn't know a few more stories yourself, Bill," retorted Mr. Popham; "then you'd be asked up oftener to put on the back-log for 'em, and pop corn and roast apples and pass the evenin'. I ain't hed sech a gay winter sence I begun settin' up with Maria, twenty years ago."
"She's kept you settin' up ever since, Osh!" chuckled Bill Harmon.
"She has so!" agreed Osh cheerfully, "but you ain't hardly the one to twit me of it; bein' as how you've never took a long breath yourself sence you was married! But you don't ketch me complainin'! It's a poor rule that won't work both ways! Maria hurried me into poppin' the question, and hurried me into marryin' her, an' she ain't let up on me a minute sence then; but she'll railroad me into heaven the same way, you see if she don't. She'll arrive 'head o' time as usual and stan' right there at the bars till she gits Dig 'n' Lallie Joy 'n' me under cover!"
"She's a good woman, an' so's my wife," remarked Bill sententiously; "an' Colonel Wheeler says good women are so rigged inside that they can't be agreeable all the time. The couple of 'em are workin' their fingers to the bone for the school teacher to-day; fixin' him up for all the world as if he was a bride. He's got the women folks o' this village kind o' mesmerized, Thurston has."
"He's a first-rate teacher; nobody that ain't hed experience in the school room is fitted to jedge jest how good a teacher Ralph Thurston is, but I have, an' I know what I 'm talkin' about."
"I never heard nothin' about your teachin' school, Osh."
"There's a good deal about me you never heard; specially about the time afore I come to Beulah, 'cause you ain't a good hearer, Bill! I taught the most notorious school in Digby once, and taught it to a finish; I named my boy Digby after that school! You see my father an' mother was determined to give me an education, an' I wa'n't intended for it. I was a great big, strong, clumsy lunkhead, an' the only thing I could do, even in a one-horse college, was to play base ball, so they kep' me along jest for that. I never got further than the second class, an' I wouldn't 'a' got there if the Faculty hadn't 'a' promoted me jest for the looks o' the thing. Well Prof. Millard was off in the country lecturin' somewheres near Bangor an' he met a school superintendent who told him they was awful hard up for a teacher in Digby. He said they'd hed three in three weeks an' had lost two stoves besides; for the boys had fired out the teachers and broke up the stoves an' pitched 'em out the door after 'em. When Prof. Millard heard the story he says, 'I've got a young man that could teach that school; a feller named Ossian Popham.' The superintendent hed an interview with me, an' I says: 'I'll agree to teach out your nine weeks o' school for a hundred dollars, an' if I leave afore the last day I won't claim a cent!' 'That's the right sperit,' says the Supe, an' we struck a bargain then an' there. I was glad it was Saturday, so 't I could start right off while my blood was up. I got to Digby on Sunday an' found a good boardin' place. The trustees didn't examine me, an' 't was lucky for me they didn't. The last three teachers hed been splendid scholars, but that didn't save the stoves any, so they just looked at my six feet o' height, an' the muscle in my arms, an' said they'd drop in sometime durin' the month. 'Look in any time you like after the first day,' I says. 'I shall be turrible busy the first day!'
"I went into the school house early Monday mornin' an' built a good fire in the new stove. When it was safe to leave it I went into the next house an' watched the scholars arrive. The lady was a widder with one great unruly boy in the school, an' she was glad to give me a winder to look out of. It was a turrible cold day, an' when 't was ten minutes to nine an' the school room was full I walked in as big as Cuffy. There was five rows of big boys an' girls in the back, all lookin' as if they was loaded for bear, an' they graded down to little ones down in front, all of 'em hitchin' to an' fro in their seats an' snickerin'. I give 'em a surprise to begin with, for I locked the door when I come in, an' put the key in my pocket, cool as a cucumber.
"I never said a word, an' they never moved their eyes away from me. I took off my fur cap, then my mittens, then my overcoat, an' laid 'em in the chair behind my desk. Then my undercoat come off, then my necktie an' collar, an' by that time the big girls begun to look nervous; they 'd been used to addressin', but not undressin', in the school room. Then I wound my galluses round my waist an' tied 'em; then I says, clear an' loud:' I'm your new teacher! I'm goin' to have a hundred dollars for teachin' out this school, an' I intend to teach it out an' git my money. It's five minutes to nine. I give you just that long to tell me what you're goin' to do about it. Come on now!' I says, 'all o' you big boys, if you're comin', an' we'll settle this thing here an' now. We can't hev fights an' lessons mixed up together every day, more 'n 's necessary; better decide right now who's boss o' this school. The stove's new an' I'm new, an' we call'ate to stay here till the end o' the term!'
"Well, sir, not one o' that gang stirred in their seats, an' not one of 'em yipped! I taught school in my shirt sleeves consid'able the first week, but I never hed to afterwards. I was a little mite weak on mathematics, an' the older boys an' girls hed to depend on their study books for their information,--they never got any from me,--but every scholar in that Digby school got a hundred per cent in deportment the nine weeks I taught there!"