Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XXX. The Inglenook
It was a wild Friday night in March, after days of blustering storms and drifting snow. Beulah was clad in royal ermine; not only clad, indeed, but nearly buried in it. The timbers of the Yellow House creaked, and the wreaths of snow blew against the windows and lodged there. King Frost was abroad, nipping toes and ears, hanging icicles on the eaves of houses, and decorating the forest trees with glittering pendants. The wind howled in the sitting room chimney, but in front of the great back-log the bed of live coals glowed red and the flames danced high, casting flickering shadows on the children's faces. It is possible to bring up a family by steam heat, and it is often necessary, but nobody can claim that it is either so simple or so delightful as by an open fire!
The three cats were all nestled cosily in Nancy's lap or snuggled by her side. Mother Carey had demurred at two, and when Nancy appeared one day after school with a third, she spoke, with some firmness, of refusing it a home. "If we must economize on cats," cried Nancy passionately, "don't let's begin on this one! She doesn't look it, but she is a heroine. When the Rideout's house burned down, her kittens were in a basket by the kitchen stove. Three times she ran in through the flames and brought out a kitten in her mouth. The tip of her tail is gone, and part of an ear, and she's blind in one eye. Mr. Harmon says she's too homely to live; now what do you think?"
"I think nobody pretending to be a mother could turn her back on another mother like that," said Mrs. Carey promptly. "We'll take a pint more milk, and I think you children will have to leave something in your plates now and then, you polish them until it really is indecent."
To-night an impromptu meeting of the Ways and Means Committee was taking place by the sitting room fire, perhaps because the family plates had been polished to a terrifying degree that week.
"Children," said Mother Carey, "we have been as economical as we knew how to be; we have worked to the limit of our strength; we have spent almost nothing on clothing, but the fact remains that we have scarcely money enough in our reserve fund to last another six months. What shall we do?"
Nancy leaped to her feet, scattering cats in every direction.
"Mother Carey!" she exclaimed remorsefully. "You haven't mentioned money since New Year's, and I thought we were rubbing along as usual. The bills are all paid; what's the matter?"
"That is the matter!" answered Mrs. Carey with the suspicion of a tear in her laughing voice, "The bills are paid, and there's too little left! We eat so much, and we burn so much wood, and so many gallons of oil'"
"The back of the winter's broken, mother dear!" said Gilbert, as a terrific blast shook the blinds as a terrier would a rat. "Don't listen to that wind; it 's only a March bluff! Osh Popham says snow is the poor man's manure; he says it's going to be an early season and a grand hay crop. We'll get fifty dollars for our field."
"That will be in July, and this is March," said his mother. "Still, the small reversible Van Twiller will carry us through May, with our other income. But the saving days are over, and the earning days have come, dears! I am the oldest and the biggest, I must begin."
"Never!" cried Nancy. "You slave enough for us, as it is, but you shall never slave for anybody else; shall she, Gilly?"
"Not if I know it!" answered Gilbert with good ringing emphasis.
"Another winter I fear we must close the Yellow House and--"
The rest of Mother Carey's remark was never heard, for at Nancy's given signal the four younger Careys all swooned on the floor. Nancy had secretly trained Peter so that he was the best swooner of the family, and his comical imitation of Nancy was so mirth-compelling that Mother Carey laughed and declared there was no such thing as talking seriously to children like hers.
"But, Muddy dear, you weren't in earnest?" coaxed Nancy, bending her bright head over her mother's shoulder and cuddling up to her side; whereupon Gilbert gave his imitation of a jealous puppy; barking, snarling, and pushing his frowzly pate under his mother's arm to crowd Nancy from her point of vantage, to which she clung valiantly. Of course Kitty found a small vacant space on which she could festoon herself, and Peter promptly climbed on his mother's lap, so that she was covered with--fairly submerged in--children! A year ago Julia used to creep away and look at such exhibitions of family affection, with a curling lip, but to-night, at Mother Carey's outstretched hand and smothered cry of "Help, Judy!" she felt herself gathered into the heart of the laughing, boisterous group. That hand, had she but known it, was stretched out to her because only that day a letter had come, saying that Allan Carey was much worse and that his mental condition admitted of no cure. He was bright and hopeful and happy, so said Mr. Manson;--forever sounding the praises of the labor-saving device in which he had sunk his last thousands. "We can manufacture it at ten cents and sell it for ten dollars," he would say, rubbing his hands excitedly. "We can pay fifty dollars a month office rent and do a business of fifty thousand dollars a year!" "And I almost believe we could!" added Mr. Manson, "if we had faith enough and capital enough!"
"Of course you know, darlings, I would never leave Beulah save for the coldest months; or only to earn a little money," said Mrs. Carey, smoothing her dress, flattening her collar, and pinning up the braids that Nancy's hugs had loosened.
"I must put my mind on the problem at once," said Nancy, pacing the floor. "I've been so interested in my Virgil, so wrapped up in my rhetoric and composition, that I haven't thought of ways and means for a month, but of course we will never leave the Yellow House, and of course we must contrive to earn money enough to live in it. We must think about it every spare minute till vacation comes; then we'll have nearly four months to amass a fortune big enough to carry us through the next year. I have an idea for myself already. I was going to wait till my seventeenth birthday, but that's four months away and it's too long. I'm old enough to begin any time. I feel old enough to write my Reminiscences this minute."
"You might publish your letters to the American Consul in Breslau; they'd make a book!" teased Gilbert.
"Very likely I shall, silly Gilly," retorted Nancy, swinging her mane haughtily. "It isn't every girl who has a monthly letter from an Admiral in China and a Consul in Germany."
"You wouldn't catch me answering the Queen of Sheba's letters or the Empress of India's," exclaimed Gilbert, whose pen was emphatically less mighty than his sword. "Hullo, you two! what are you whispering about?" he called to Kathleen and Julia, who were huddled together in a far corner of the long room, gesticulating eloquently.
"We've an idea! We've an idea! We've found a way to help!" sang the two girls, pirouetting back into the circle of firelight. "We won't tell till it's all started, but it's perfectly splendid, and practical too."
"And so ladylike!" added Julia triumphantly.
"How much?" asked Gilbert succinctly.
The girls whispered a minute or two, and appeared to be multiplying twenty-five first by fifteen, and then again by twenty.
"From three dollars and seventy-five cents to four dollars and a half a week according to circumstances!" answered Kathleen proudly.
"Will it take both of you?"
"All your time?"
More nods and whispers and calculation.
"No, indeed; only three hours a day."
"Any of my time?"
"Just a little."
"I thought so!" said Gilbert loftily. "You always want me and my hammer or my saw; but I'll be busy on my own account; you'll have to paddle your own canoe!"
"You'll be paid for what you do for us," said Julia slyly, giving Kathleen a poke, at which they both fell into laughter only possible to the very young.
Then suddenly there came a knock at the front door; a stamping of feet on the circular steps, and a noise of shaking off snow.
"Go to the door, Gilbert; who can that be on a night like this,--although it is only eight o'clock after all! Why, it's Mr. Thurston!"
Ralph Thurston came in blushing and smiling, glad to be welcomed, fearful of intruding, afraid of showing how much he liked to be there.
"Good-evening, all!" he said. "You see I couldn't wait to thank you, Mrs. Carey! No storm could keep me away to-night."
"What has mother been doing, now?" asked Nancy. "Her right hand is forever busy, and she never tells her left hand a thing, so we children are always in the dark."
"It was nothing much," said Mrs. Carey, pushing the young man gently into the high-backed rocker. "Mrs. Harmon, Mrs. Popham, and I simply tried to show our gratitude to Mr. Thurston for teaching our troublesome children."
"How did you know it was my birthday?" asked Thurston.
"Didn't you write the date in Lallie Joy's book?"
"True, I did; and forgot it long ago; but I have never had my birthday noticed before, and I am twenty-four!"
"It was high time, then!" said Mother Carey with her bright smile.
"But what did mother do?" clamored Nancy, Kathleen and Gilbert in chorus.
"She took my forlorn, cheerless room and made it into a home for me," said Thurston. "Perhaps she wanted me to stay in it a little more, and bother her less! At any rate she has created an almost possible rival to the Yellow House!"
Ralph Thurston had a large, rather dreary room over Bill Harmon's store, and took his meals at the Widow Berry's, near by. He was an orphan and had no money to spend on luxuries, because all his earnings went to pay the inevitable debts incurred when a fellow is working his way through college.
Mrs. Carey, with the help of the other two women, had seized upon this stormy Friday, when the teacher always took his luncheon with him to the academy, to convert Ralph's room into something comfortable and cheerful. The old, cracked, air-tight stove had been removed, and Bill Harmon had contributed a second-hand Franklin, left with him for a bad debt. It was of soapstone and had sliding doors in front, so that the blaze could be disclosed when life was very dull or discouraging. The straw matting on the floor had done very well in the autumn, but Mrs. Carey now covered the centre of the room with a bright red drugget left from the Charlestown house-furnishings, and hung the two windows with curtains of printed muslin. Ossian Popham had taken a clotheshorse and covered it with red felting, so that the screen, so evolved could be made to hide the bed and washstand. Ralph's small, rickety table had been changed for a big, roomy one of pine, hidden by the half of an old crimson piano cloth. When Osh had seen the effect of this he hurried back to his barn chamber and returned with some book shelves that he had hastily glued and riveted into shape. These he nailed to the wall and filled with books that he found in the closet, on the floor, on the foot of the bed, and standing on the long, old-fashioned mantel shelf.
"Do you care partic'larly where you set, nights, Ossian?" inquired Mrs. Popham, who was now in a state of uncontrolled energy bordering on delirium. "Because your rockin' chair has a Turkey red cushion and it would look splendid in Mr. Thurston's room. You know you fiddle 'bout half the time evenin's, and you always go to bed early."
"Don't mind me!" exclaimed Ossian facetiously, starting immediately for the required chair and bringing back with it two huge yellow sea shells, which he deposited on the floor at each end of the hearth rug.
"How do you like 'em?" he inquired of Mrs. Carey.
"Not at all," she replied promptly.
"You don't?" he asked incredulously. "Well, it takes all kinds o' folks to make a world! I've been keepin' 'em fifteen years, hopin' I'd get enough more to make a border for our parlor fireplace, and now you don't take to 'em! Back they go to the barn chamber, Maria; Mis' Carey's bossin' this job, and she ain't got no taste for sea shells. Would you like an old student lamp? I found one that I can bronze up in about two minutes if Mis' Harmon can hook a shade and chimbly out of Bill's stock."
They all stayed in the room until this last feat was accomplished; stayed indeed until the fire in the open stove had died down to ruddy coals. Then they pulled down the shades, lighted the lamp, gave one last admiring look, and went home.
It had meant only a few hours' thought and labor, with scarcely a penny of expense, but you can judge what Ralph Thurston felt when he entered the door out of the storm outside. To him it looked like a room conjured up by some magician in a fairy tale. He fell into the rocking-chair and looked at his own fire; gazed about at the cheerful crimson glow that radiated from the dazzling drugget, in a state of puzzled ecstasy, till he caught sight of a card lying near the lamp,--"A birthday present from three mothers who value your work for their boys and girls."
He knew Mrs. Carey's handwriting, so he sped to the Yellow House as soon as his supper was over, and now, in the presence of the whole family, he felt tongue-tied and wholly unable to express his gratitude.
It was bed time, and the young people melted away from the fireside.
"Kiss your mother good-night, sweet Pete," said Nancy, taking the reluctant cherub by the hand. "'Hoc opus, hic labor est,' Mr. Thurston, to get the Peter-bird upstairs when once he is down. Shake hands with your future teacher, Peter; no, you mustn't kiss him; little boys don't kiss great Latin scholars unless they are asked."
Thurston laughed and lifted the gurgling Peter high in the air. "Good night, old chap!" he said "Hurry up and come to school!"
"I'm 'bout ready now!" piped Peter. "I can read 'Up-up-my-boy-day-is-not-the-time-for-sleep-the-dew-will-soon-be-gone' with the book upside down,--can't I, Muddy?"
"You can, my son; trot along with sister."
Thurston opened the door for Nancy, and his eye followed her for a second as she mounted the stairs. She glowed like a ruby to-night in her old red cashmere. The sparkle of her eye, the gloss of her hair, the soft red of her lips, the curve and bend of her graceful young body struck even her mother anew, though she was used to her daughter's beauty. "She is growing!" thought Mrs. Carey wistfully. "I see it all at once, and soon others will be seeing it!"
Alas! young Ralph Thurston had seen it for weeks past! He was not perhaps so much in love with Nancy the girl, as he was with Nancy the potential woman. Some of the glamour that surrounded the mother had fallen upon the daughter. One felt the influences that had rained upon Nancy ever since she had come into the world, One could not look at her, nor talk with her, without feeling that her mother--like a vine in the blood, as the old proverb says--was breathing, growing, budding, blossoming in her day by day.
The young teacher came back to the fireplace, where Mother Carey was standing in a momentary brown study.
"I've never had you alone before," he stammered, "and now is my chance to tell you what you've been to me ever since I came to Beulah."
"You have helped me in my problems more than I can possibly have aided you," Mrs. Carey replied quietly. "Gilbert was so rebellious about country schools, so patronizing, so scornful of their merits, that I fully expected he would never stay at the academy of his own free will. You have converted him, and I am very grateful."
"Meantime I am making a record there," said Ralph, "and I have this family to thank for it! Your children, with Olive and Cyril Lord, have set the pace for the school, and the rest are following to the best of their ability. There is not a shirk nor a dunce in the whole roll of sixty pupils! Beulah has not been so proud of its academy for thirty years, and I shall come in for the chief share in the praise. I am trying to do for Gilbert and Cyril what an elder brother would do, but I should have been powerless if I had not had this home and this fireside to inspire me!"
"Tibi splendet focus!" quoted Mrs. Carey, pointing to Olive's inscription under the mantelpiece. "For you the hearth fire glows!"
"Have I not felt it from the beginning?" asked Ralph. "I never knew my mother, Mrs. Carey, and few women have come into my life; I have been too poor and too busy to cultivate their friendship. Then I came to Beulah and you drew me into your circle; admitted an unknown, friendless fellow into your little group! It was beautiful; it was wonderful!"
"What are mothers for, but to do just that, and more than all, for the motherless boys?"
"Well, I may never again have the courage to say it, so just believe me when I say your influence will be the turning-point in my life. I will never, so help me God, do anything to make me unworthy to sit in this fireglow! So long as I have brains and hands to work with, I will keep striving to create another home like this when my time comes. Any girl that takes me will get a better husband because of you; any children I may be blessed with will have a better father because I have known you. Don't make any mistake, dear Mrs. Carey, your hearth fire glows a long, long distance!"
Mother Carey was moved to the very heart. She leaned forward and took Ralph Thurston's young face, thin with privation and study, in her two hands. He bent his head instinctively, partly to hide the tears that had sprung to his eyes, and she kissed his forehead simply and tenderly. He was at her knees on the hearth rug in an instant; all his boyish affection laid at her feet; all his youthful chivalry kindled at the honor of her touch.
And there are women in the world who do not care about being mothers!