Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XXXIII. Mother Hamilton's Birthday
It was the Fourth of July; a hot, still day when one could fairly see the green peas swelling in their pods and the string beans climbing their poles like acrobats! Young Beulah had rung the church bell at midnight, cast its torpedoes to earth in the early morning, flung its fire-crackers under the horses' feet, and felt somewhat relieved of its superfluous patriotism by breakfast time. Then there was a parade of Antiques and Horribles, accompanied by the Beulah Band, which, though not as antique, was fully as horrible as anything in the procession.
From that time on, the day had been somnolent, enlivened in the Carey household only by the solemn rite of paying the annual rent of the Yellow House. The votive nosegay had been carefully made up, and laid lovingly by Nancy under Mother Hamilton's portrait, in the presence not only of the entire family, but also of Osh Popham, who had called to present early radishes and peppergrass.
"I'd like to go upstairs with you when you get your boquet tied up," he said, "because it's an awful hot day, an' the queer kind o' things you do 't this house allers makes my backbone cold! I never suspicioned that Lena Hamilton hed the same kind o' fantasmic notions that you folks have, but I guess it's like tenant, like landlord, in this case! Anyhow, I want to see the rent paid, if you don't mind. I wish't you'd asked that mean old sculpin of a Hen Lord over; he owns my house an' it might put a few idees into his head!"
In the afternoon Nancy took her writing pad and sat on the circular steps, where it was cool. The five o'clock train from Boston whistled at the station a mile away as she gathered her white skirts daintily up and settled herself in the shadiest corner. She was unconscious of the passing time, and scarcely looked up until the rattling of wheels caught her ear. It was the station wagon stopping at the Yellow House gate, and a strange gentleman was alighting. He had an unmistakable air of the town. His clothes were not as Beulah clothes and his hat was not as Beulah hats, for it was a fine Panama with a broad sweeping brim. Nancy rose from the steps, surprise dawning first in her eyes, then wonder, then suspicion, then conviction; then two dimples appeared in her cheeks.
The stranger lifted the foreign-looking hat with a smile and said, "My little friend and correspondent, Nancy Carey, I think?"
"My American Consul, I do believe!" cried Nancy joyously, as she ran down the path with both hands outstretched. "Where did you come from? Why didn't you tell us beforehand? We never even heard that you were in this country! Oh! I know why you chose the Fourth of July! It's pay day, and you thought we shouldn't be ready with the rent; but it's all attended to, beautifully, this morning!"
"May I send my bag to the Mansion House and stay a while with you?" asked Mr. Hamilton. "Are the rest of you at home? How are Gilbert and Kathleen and Julia and Peter? How, especially, is Mother Carey?"
"What a memory you have!" exclaimed Nancy. "Take Mr. Hamilton's bag, please, Mr. Bennett, and tell them at the hotel that he won't be there until after supper."
It was a pleasant hour that ensued, for Nancy had broken the ice and there was plenty of conversation. Then too, the whole house had to be shown, room by room, even to Cousin Ann's stove in the cellar and the pump in the kitchen sink.
"I never saw anything like it!" exclaimed Hamilton. "It is like magic! I ought to pay you a thousand dollars on the spot! I ought to try and buy the place of you for five thousand! Why don't you go into the business of recreating houses and selling them to poor benighted creatures like me, who never realize their possibilities?"
"If we show you the painted chamber will you promise not to be too unhappy?" asked Nancy. "You can't help crying with rage and grief that it is our painted chamber, not yours; but try to bear up until you get to the hotel, because mother is so soft-hearted she will be giving it back to you unless I interfere."
"You must have spent money lavishly when you restored this room," said the Consul; "it is a real work of art."
"Not a penny," said Mrs. Carey. "It is the work of a great friend of Nancy's, a seventeen-year-old girl, who, we expect, will make Beulah famous some day. Now will you go into your mother's room and find your way downstairs by yourself? Julia, will you show Mr. Hamilton the barn a little later, while Nancy and I get supper? Kitty must go to the Pophams' for Peter; he is spending the afternoon with them."
Nancy had enough presence of mind to intercept Kitty and hiss into her ear: "Borrow a loaf of bread from Mrs. Popham, we are short; and see if you can find any way to get strawberries from Bill Harmon's; it was to have been a bread-and-milk supper on the piazza, to-night, and it must be hurriedly changed into a Consular banquet! Verb. sap. Fly!"
Gilbert turned up a little before six o'clock and was introduced proudly by his mother as a son who had just "gone into business."
"I'm Bill Harmon's summer clerk and delivery boy," he explained. "It's great fun, and I get two dollars and a half a week."
Nancy and her mother worked like Trojans in the kitchen, for they agreed it was no time for economy, even if they had less to eat for a week to come.
"Mr. Hamilton is just as nice as I guessed he was, when his first letter came," said Nancy. "I went upstairs to get a card for the supper menu, and he was standing by your mantelpiece with his head bent over his arms. He had the little bunch of field flowers in his hand, and I know he had been smelling them, and looking at his mother's picture, and remembering things!"
What a merry supper it was, with a jug of black-eyed Susans in the centre of the table and a written bill of fare for Mr. Hamilton, "because he was a Consul," so Nancy said.
Gilbert sat at the head of the table, and Mr. Hamilton thought he had never seen anything so beautiful as Mrs. Carey in her lavender challie, sitting behind the tea cups; unless it was Nancy, flushed like a rose, changing the plates and waiting on the table between courses. He had never exerted himself so much at any diplomatic dinner, and he won the hearts of the entire family before the meal was finished.
"By the way, I have a letter of introduction to you all, but especially to Miss Nancy here, and I have never thought to deliver it," he said. "Who do you think sent it,--all the way from China?"
"My son Tom!" exclaimed Nancy irrepressibly; "but no, he couldn't, because he doesn't know us."
"The Admiral, of course!" cried Gilbert.
"You are both right," Mr. Hamilton answered, drawing a letter from his coat pocket. "It is a Round Robin from the Admiral and my son Tom, who have been making acquaintance in Hong Kong. It is addressed:
Nancy crimsoned. "Did the Admiral tell your son Tom I called him the Yellow Peril? It was wicked of him! I did it, you know, because you wrote me that the only Hamilton who cared anything for the old house, or would ever want to live in it, was your son Tom. After that I always called him the Yellow Peril, and I suppose I mentioned it in a letter to the Admiral."
"I am convinced that Nancy's mind is always empty at bedtime," said her mother, "because she tells everything in it to somebody during the day. I hope age will bring discretion, but I doubt it."
"My son Tom is coming home!" said his father, with unmistakable delight in his voice.
Nancy, who was passing the cake, sat down so heavily in her chair that everybody laughed.
"Come, come, Miss Nancy! I can't let you make an ogre of the boy," urged Mr. Hamilton. "He is a fine fellow, and if he comes down here to look at the old place you are sure to be good friends."
"Is he going back to China after his visit?" asked Mrs. Carey, who felt a fear of the young man something akin to her daughter's.
"No, I am glad to say. Our family has been too widely separated for the last ten years. At first it seemed necessary, or at least convenient and desirable, and I did not think much about it. But lately it has been continually on my mind that we were leading a cheerless existence, and I am determined to arrange matters differently."
Mrs. Carey remembered Ossian Popham's description of Mrs. Lemuel Hamilton and forebore to ask any questions with regard to her whereabouts, since her husband did not mention her.
"You will all be in Washington then," she said, "and your son Tom with you, of course?"
"Not quite so near as that," his father replied. "Tom's firm is opening a Boston office and he will be in charge of that. When do you expect the Admiral back? Tom talks of their coming together on the Bedouin, if it can be arranged."
"We haven't heard lately," said Mrs. Carey; "but he should return within a month or two, should he not, Nancy? My daughter writes all the letters for the family, Mr. Hamilton, as you know by this time."
"I do, to my great delight and satisfaction. Now there is one thing I have not seen yet, something about which I have a great deal of sentiment. May I smoke my cigar under the famous crimson rambler?"
The sun set flaming red, behind the Beulah hills. The frogs sang in the pond by the House of Lords, and the grasshoppers chirped in the long grass of Mother Hamilton's favorite hayfield. Then the moon, round and deep-hued as a great Mandarin orange, came up into the sky from which the sun had faded, and the little group still sat on the side piazza, talking. Nothing but their age and size kept the Carey chickens out of Mr. Hamilton's lap, and Peter finally went to sleep with his head against the consul's knee. He was a "lappy" man, Nancy said next morning; and indeed there had been no one like him in the family circle for many a long month. He was tender, he was gay, he was fatherly, he was interested in all that concerned them; so no wonder that he heard all about Gilbert's plans for earning money, and Nancy's accepted story. No wonder he exclaimed at the check for ten dollars proudly exhibited in payment, and no wonder he marvelled at the Summer Vacation School in the barn, where fourteen little scholars were already enrolled under the tutelage of the Carey Faculty. "I never wanted to go to anything in my life as much as I want to go to that school!" he asserted. "If I could write a circular as enticing as that, I should be a rich man. I wish you'd let me have some new ones printed, girls, and put me down for three evening lectures; I'd do almost anything to get into that Faculty." "I wish you'd give the lectures for the benefit of the Faculty, that would be better still," said Kitty. "Nancy's coming-out party was to be in the barn this summer; that's one of the things we're earning money for; or at least we make believe that it is, because it's so much more fun to work for a party than for coal or flour or meat!"
A look from Mrs. Carey prevented the children from making any further allusions to economy, and Gilbert skillfully turned the subject by giving a dramatic description of the rise and fall of The Dirty Boy, from its first appearance at his mother's wedding breakfast to its last, at the house-warming supper.
After Lemuel Hamilton had gone back to the little country hotel he sat by the open window for another hour, watching the moonbeams shimmering on the river and bathing the tip of the white meeting-house steeple in a flood of light. The air was still and the fireflies were rising above the thick grass and carrying their fairy lamps into the lower branches of the feathery elms. "Haying" would begin next morning, and he would be wakened by the sharpening of scythes and the click of mowing machines. He would like to work in the Hamilton fields, he thought, knee-deep in daisies,--fields on whose grass he had not stepped since he was a boy just big enough to go behind the cart and "rake after." What an evening it had been! None of them had known it, but as a matter of fact they had all scaled Shiny Wall and had been sitting with Mother Carey in Peacepool; that was what had made everything so beautiful! Mr. Hamilton's last glimpse of the Careys had been the group at the Yellow House gate. Mrs. Carey, with her brown hair shining in the moonlight leaned against Gilbert, the girls stood beside her, their arms locked in hers, while Peter clung sleepily to her hand.
"I believe they are having hard times!" he thought, "and I can't think of anything I can safely do to make things easier. Still, one cannot pity, one can only envy them! That is the sort of mother I would have made had I been Nature and given a free hand! I would have put a label on Mrs. Carey, saying: 'This is what I meant a woman to be!'"