Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
IX. Gilbert's Embassy
The new station had just been built in Boston, and it seemed a great enterprise to Gilbert to be threading his way through the enormous spaces, getting his information by his own wits and not asking questions like a stupid schoolboy. Like all children of naval officers, the Careys had travelled ever since their birth; still, this was Gilbert's first journey alone, and nobody was ever more conscious of the situation, nor more anxious to carry it off effectively.
He entered the car, opened his bag, took out his travelling cap and his copy of "Ben Hur," then threw the bag in a lordly way into the brass rack above the seat. He opened his book, but immediately became interested in a young couple just in front of him. They were carefully dressed, even to details of hats and gloves, and they had an unmistakable air of wedding journey about them that interested the curious boy.
Presently the conductor came in. Pausing in front of the groom he said, "Tickets, please"; then: "You're on the wrong train!" "Wrong train? Of course I'm not on the wrong train! You must be mistaken! The ticket agent told me to take this train."
"Can't help that, sir, this train don't go to Lawrence."
"It's very curious. I asked the brakeman, and two porters. Ain't this the 3.05?"
"This is the 3.05."
"Where does it go, then?"
"Goes to Lowell. Lowell the first stop."
"But I don't want to go to Lowell!"
"What's the matter with Lowell? It's a good place all right!"
"But I have an appointment in Lawrence at four o'clock."
"I'm dretful sorry, but you'll have to keep it in Lowell, I guess!--Tickets, please!" this to a pretty girl on the opposite side from Gilbert, a pink and white, unsophisticated maiden, very much interested in the woes of the bride and groom and entirely sympathetic with the groom's helpless wrath.
"On the wrong train, Miss!" said the conductor.
"On the wrong train?" She spoke in a tone of anguish, getting up and catching her valise frantically. "It can't be the wrong train! Isn't it the White Mountain train?"
"Yes, Miss, but it don't go to North Conway; it goes to Fabyan's."
"But my father put me on this train and everybody said it was the White Mountain train!"
"So it is, Miss, but if you wanted to stop at North Conway you'd ought to have taken the 3.55, platform 8."
"Put me off, then, please, and let me wait for the 3.55."
"Can't do it, Miss; this is an express train; only stops at Lowell, where this gentleman is going!"
(Here the conductor gave a sportive wink at the bridegroom who had an appointment in Lawrence.)
The pretty girl burst into a flood of tears and turned her face despairingly to the window, while the bride talked to the groom excitedly about what they ought to have done and what they would have done had she been consulted.
Gilbert could hardly conceal his enjoyment of the situation, and indeed everybody within hearing--that is, anybody who chanced to be on the right train--looked at the bride and groom and the pretty girl, and tittered audibly.
"Why don't people make inquiries?" thought Gilbert superciliously. "Perhaps they have never been anywhere before, but even that's no excuse."
He handed his ticket to the conductor with a broad smile, saying in an undertone, "What kind of passengers are we carrying this afternoon?"
"The usual kind, I guess!--You're on the wrong train, sonny!"
Gilbert almost leaped into the air, and committed himself by making a motion to reach down his valise.
"I, on the wrong train?" he asked haughtily. "That can't be so; the ticket agent told me the 3.05 was the only fast train to Greentown!"
"Mebbe he thought you said Greenville; this train goes to Greenville, if that'll do you! Folks ain't used to the new station yet, and the ticket agents are all bran' new too,--guess you got hold of a tenderfoot!"
"But Greenville will not 'do' for me," exclaimed Gilbert. "I want to go to Greentown."
"Well, get off at Lowell, the first stop,--you'll know when you come to it because this gentleman that wanted to go to Lawrence will get off there, and this young lady that was intendin' to go to North Conway. There'll be four of you; jest a nice party."
Gilbert choked with wrath as he saw the mirth of the other passengers.
"What train shall I be able to take to Greentown," he managed to call after the conductor.
"Don't know, sonny! Ask the ticket agent in the Lowell deepot; he's an old hand and he'll know!"
Gilbert's pride was terribly wounded, but his spirits rose a little later when he found that he would only have to wait twenty minutes in the Lowell station before a slow train for Greentown would pick him up, and that he should still reach his destination before bedtime, and need never disclose his stupidity.
After all, this proved to be his only error, for everything moved smoothly from that moment, and he was as prudent and successful an ambassador as Mother Carey could have chosen. He found the Colonel, whose name was not Foster, by the way, but Wheeler; and the Colonel would not allow him to go to the Mansion House, Beulah's one small hotel, but insisted that he should be his guest. That evening he heard from the Colonel the history of the yellow house, and the next morning the Colonel drove him to the store of the man who had charge of it during the owner's absence in Europe, after which Gilbert was conducted in due form to the premises for a critical examination.
The Yellow House, as Garden Fore-and-Aft seemed destined to be chiefly called, was indeed the only house of that color for ten miles square. It had belonged to the various branches of a certain family of Hamiltons for fifty years or more, but in course of time, when it fell into the hands of the Lemuel Hamiltons, it had no sort of relation to their mode of existence. One summer, a year or two before the Careys had seen it, the sons and daughters had come on from Boston and begged their father to let them put it in such order that they could take house parties of young people there for the week end. Mr. Hamilton indulgently allowed them a certain amount to be expended as they wished, and with the help of a local carpenter, they succeeded in doing several things to their own complete satisfaction, though it could not be said that they added to the value of the property. The house they regarded merely as a camping-out place, and after they had painted some bedroom floors, set up some cots, bought a kitchen stove and some pine tables and chairs, they regarded that part of the difficulty as solved; expending the rest of the money in turning the dilapidated barn into a place where they could hold high revels of various innocent sorts. The two freshman sons, two boarding-school daughters, and a married sister barely old enough to chaperon her own baby, brought parties of gay young friends with them several weeks in succession. These excursions were a great delight to the villagers, who thus enjoyed all the pleasures and excitements of a circus with none of its attendant expenses. They were of short duration, however, for Lemuel Hamilton was appointed consul to a foreign port and took his wife and daughters with him. The married sister died, and in course of time one of the sons went to China to learn tea-planting and the other established himself on a ranch in Texas. Thus the Lemuel Hamiltons were scattered far and wide, and as the Yellow House in Beulah had small value as real estate and had never played any part in their lives, it was almost forgotten as the busy years went by.
"Mr. Hamilton told me four years ago, when I went up to Boston to meet him, that if I could get any rent from respectable parties I might let the house, though he wouldn't lay out a cent on repairs in order to get a tenant. But, land! there ain't no call for houses in Beulah, nor hain't been for twenty years," so Bill Harmon, the storekeeper, told Gilbert. "The house has got a tight roof and good underpinnin', and if your folks feel like payin' out a little money for paint 'n' paper you can fix it up neat's a pin. The Hamilton boys jest raised Cain out in the barn, so 't you can't keep no critters there."
"We couldn't have a horse or a cow anyway," said Gilbert.
"Well, it's lucky you can't. I could 'a' rented the house twice over if there'd been any barn room; but them confounded young scalawags ripped out the horse and cow stalls, cleared away the pig pen, and laid a floor they could dance on. The barn chamber 's full o' their stuff, so 't no hay can go in; altogether there ain't any nameable kind of a fool-trick them young varmints didn't play on these premises. When a farmer's lookin' for a home for his family and stock 't ain't no use to show him a dance hall. The only dancin' a Maine farmer ever does is dancin' round to git his livin' out o' the earth;--that keeps his feet flyin', fast enough."
"Well," said Gilbert, "I think if you can put the rent cheap enough so that we could make the necessary repairs, I think my mother would consider it."
"Would you want it for more 'n this summer?" asked Mr. Harmon.
"Oh! yes, we want to live here!"
"Want to live here!" exclaimed the astonished Harmon. "Well, it's been a long time sence we heard anybody say that, eh, Colonel?
"Well now, sonny" (Gilbert did wish that respect for budding manhood could be stretched a little further in this locality), "I tell you what, I ain't goin' to stick no fancy price on these premises--"
"It wouldn't be any use," said Gilbert boldly. "My father has died within a year; there are four of us beside my mother, and there's a cousin, too, who is dependent on us. We have nothing but a small pension and the interest on five thousand dollars life insurance. Mother says we must go away from all our friends, live cheaply, and do our own work until Nancy, Kitty, and I grow old enough to earn something."
Colonel Wheeler and Mr. Harmon both liked Gilbert Carey at sight, and as he stood there uttering his boyish confidences with great friendliness and complete candor, both men would have been glad to meet him halfway.
"Well, Harmon, it seems to me we shall get some good neighbors if we can make terms with Mrs. Carey," said the Colonel. "If you'll fix a reasonable figure I'll undertake to write to Hamilton and interest him in the affair."
"All right. Now, Colonel, I'd like to make a proposition right on the spot, before you, and you can advise sonny, here. You see Lem has got his taxes to pay,--they're small, of course, but they're an expense,--and he'd ought to carry a little insurance on his buildings, tho' he ain't had any up to now. On the other hand, if he can get a tenant that'll put on a few shingles and clapboards now and then, or a coat o' paint 'n' a roll o' wall paper, his premises won't go to rack 'n' ruin same's they're in danger o' doin' at the present time. Now, sonny, would your mother feel like keepin' up things a little mite if we should say sixty dollars a year rent, payable monthly or quarterly as is convenient?"
Gilbert's head swam and his eyes beheld such myriads of stars that he felt it must be night instead of day. The rent of the Charlestown house was seven hundred dollars a year, and the last words of his mother had been to the effect that two hundred was the limit he must offer for the yellow house, as she did not see clearly at the moment how they could afford even that sum.
"What would be your advice, Colonel?" stammered the boy.
"I think sixty dollars is not exorbitant," the Colonel answered calmly (he had seen Beulah real estate fall a peg a year for twenty successive years), "though naturally you cannot pay that sum and make any extravagant repairs."
"Then I will take the house," Gilbert remarked largely. "My mother left the matter of rent to my judgment, and we will pay promptly in advance. Shall I sign any papers?"
"Land o' Goshen! the marks your little fist would make on a paper wouldn't cut much of a figure in a court o' law!" chuckled old Harmon. "You jest let the Colonel fix up matters with your ma."
"Can I walk back, Colonel?" asked Gilbert, trying to preserve some dignity under the storekeeper's attacks. "I'd like to take some measurements and make some sketches of the rooms for my mother."
"All right," the Colonel responded. "Your train doesn't go till two o'clock. I'll give you a bite of lunch and take you to the station."
If Mother Carey had watched Gilbert during the next half-hour she would have been gratified, for every moment of the time he grew more and more into the likeness of the head of a family. He looked at the cellar, at the shed, at the closets and cupboards all over the house, and at the fireplaces. He "paced off" all the rooms and set down their proportions in his note-book; he even decided as to who should occupy each room, and for what purposes they should be used, his judgment in every case being thought ridiculous by the feminine portion of his family when they looked at his plans. Then he locked the doors carefully with a fine sense of ownership and strolled away with many a backward look and thought at the yellow house.
At the station he sent a telegram to his mother. Nancy had secretly given him thirty-five cents when he left home. "I am hoarding for the Admiral's Christmas present," she whispered, "but it's no use, I cannot endure the suspense about the house a moment longer than is necessary. Just telegraph us yes or no, and we shall get the news four hours before your train arrives. One can die several times in four hours, and I'm going to commit one last extravagance,--at the Admiral's expense!"
At three o'clock on Saturday afternoon a telegraph boy came through the gate and rang the front door bell.
"You go, Kitty, I haven't the courage!" said Nancy, sitting down on the sofa heavily. A moment later the two girls and Peter (who for once didn't count) gazed at their mother breathlessly as she opened the envelope. Her face lighted as she read aloud:--
"Victory perches on my banners. Have accomplished all I went for. GILBERT."
"Hurrah!" cried both girls. "The yellow house is the House of Carey forevermore."
"Will Peter go too?" asked the youngest Carey eagerly, his nose quivering as it always did in excitement, when it became an animated question point.
"I should think he would," exclaimed Kitty, clasping him in her arms. "What would the yellow house be without Peter?"
"I wish Gilbert wouldn't talk about his banners," said Nancy critically, as she looked at the telegram over her mother's shoulder. "They're not his banners at all, they're ours,--Carey banners; that's what they are!"
Mother Carey had wished the same thing, but hoped that Nancy had not noticed the Gilbertian flaw in the telegram.