The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter II. The Rising Watsons
There is ever a song somewhere, my dear, There is ever a something sings alway: There's a song of the lark when the skies are clear And the song of the thrush when the skies are gray.
----James Whitcomb Riley.
While Martha Perkins was weaving sweet fancies to beguile the tedium of her uneventful life, a very different scene was being enacted, a few miles away, in the humble home of John Watson, C. P. R. section-man, in the little town of Millford, where he and his wife and family of nine were working out their own destiny. Mrs. Watson up to this time had spent very few of the daylight hours at home, having a regular itinerary among some of the better homes of the town, where she did half-day stands at the washtub, with, a large grain sack draped around her portly person, while the family at home brought themselves up in whatever way seemed best to them.
One day the fortunes of the Watson family suddenly changed, and in such a remarkable way it would convince the most sceptical of the existence of good working fairies. A letter came to Pearl, the eldest girl, from the Old Country, and the letter contained money!
When it became known in the community that Pearl Watson had received a magnificent gift of money from the parents of the young Englishman she had nursed while she was working for Mrs. Sam Motherwell, it created no small stir in the hearts of those who had to do with other young Englishmen. Parents across the sea, rolling in ancestral gold and Bank of England notes, acquired a reality they had never enjoyed before. The young chore boy who was working for five dollars a month at George Steadman's never knew why Mrs. Steadman suddenly let him have the second helping of butter and also sugar in his tea. Neither did he understand why she gave him an onion poultice for his aching ear, and lard to rub into his chapped hands. Therefore, when she asked him out straight about his folks in the Old Country, and "how they were fixed," he, being a dull lad, and not quick to see an advantage, foolishly explained that he "didn't 'ave nobody belongink to him"--whereupon the old rule regarding second helpings was as suddenly restored.
On the Monday morning after Pearl's return home she was the first person up in the house. She made the porridge and set the table for breakfast, and then roused all the family except Danny, who was still allowed the privilege of sleeping as long as he wished and even encouraged in this.
After the family had eaten their breakfast Pearl explained her plans to them. "Ma," she said, "you are not to wash any, more, and isn't it lucky there's a new Englishwoman across the track there in 'Little England,' that'll be glad to get it to do, and no one'll be disappointed, and we'll go to the store to-day and get Sunday suits all round for the wee lads and all, and get them fixed up to go to Sunday-school and church twice a day. Ye'll have to learn what ye can while the clothes last. Mary'll have a new fur collar, and Ma'll have the fur-lined cape; and yer old coat, Ma, can be cut down for me. Camilla'll help us to buy what we need, and now, Ma, let's get them ready for school. Money's no good to us if we haven't education, and it's education we'll have now, every last wan of us. Times has changed for the Watsons! It seems as if the Lord sent us the money Himself, for He can't bear to have people ignorant if there's any way out of it at all, at all, and there's nearly always a way if people'll only take it. So, Ma, get out a new bar of soap and let's get at them!"
But in spite of all Pearl and her mother could'do, there was only enough clothing for two little boys, and Patsey had to stay at home; but Pearlie beguiled him into good-humour by telling him that when he grew to be a man he would keep a big jewellery store, and in preparation therefor she set him at work, draped, in a nightdress of his mother's, to cut watches and brooches from an old Christmas catalogue.
"Now, Mary, alanna," Pearl continued, "you're to go to school, too, and make every day count, There's lots to learn, and it's all good. Get as much as ye can every day. I'm goin' myself, you bet, when I get things fixed up, and Teddy and all of us. We've got the money to git the clothes, and we'll go as far with it as the clothes'll last."
When Pearl, Mrs. Watson, and Camilla went that day to purchase clothes for the family, they received the best of attention from the obliging clerks. Mr. Mason, the proprietor, examined the cheque, and even went with Pearl to the bank to deposit it.
Then came the joyous work of picking out clothes for the whole family. A neat blue and white hairline stripe was selected for Jimmy, in preference to a pepper-and-salt suit, which Pearl admitted was nice enough, but would not do for Jimmy, for it seemed to be making fun of his freckles. A soft brown serge with a white belt with two gold bears on it was chosen for Danny, and gray Norfolk jacket suits for Tommy and Patsey--just alike, because Pearl said everybody knew they were twins, and there was no use denying it now. A green and black plaid was bought to make Mary a new Sunday dress, and a red and black plaid for "days." Pearl knew that when Mary was telling a story to the boys she always clothed her leading lady in plaid, and from this she inferred how Mary's tastes ran! Stockings and shoes were selected, and an assortment of underclothes, towels, toques, scarfs, and overshoes assembled.
It was like a dream to Pearl, the wildest, sweetest dream, the kind you lie down and try to coax back again after you wake from it. She could not keep from feeling Danny's brown suit and stroking lovingly his shiny brown shoes.
Then came a "stuff" dress for Ma, and Sunday suits for Pa, Teddy, and Billy. By this time the whole staff were busy helping on the good work. Mr. Mason had no fur-lined capes in stock, but he would send for one, he said, and have it still in time for Sunday, for Pearl was determined to have her whole family go to church Sunday morning.
"My, what an outburst of good clothes there'll be," Camilla said. "Now, what are you going to have for yourself?"
Pearl had always dreamed of a wine-coloured silk, but she hesitated now, for she had heard that silk did not wear well, and was a material for rich people only, but that did not prevent the dream from coming back. While Pearl was thinking about it, Mr. Mason and Camilla held a hurried conference.
"What about your favourite colour, now, Pearl?" Camilla asked. "Isn't it a wine-coloured silk you always wish for when you see the new moon?"
Pearl admitted that it had been her wish for quite a while, but she wanted to see overcoats first; so overcoats were bought and overcoats sent on approval. There were yards and yards of flannelette bought to be made into various garments. Pearl was going to have a dressmaker come to the house, who, under Camilla's direction, would make all sorts of things for the Watsons.
Pearl's purchases were so numerous that two packing boxes were sent up on the dray wagon, and it was a proud moment for her when she saw them carried in and placed in the middle of the floor of the "room."
"Now, set down," Pearl said firmly; "every wan of ye set on the floor, so none of yer stuff can fall, and I'll give ye what's for ye. But ye can't put them on till Sunday morning, that is the Sunday things, and ye can't put on any of them till, to-morrow morning, when ye'll be as clean as hot water and bar soap can make ye; for me and Ma are going at ye all to-night. There's nothin' looks more miserabler than a good suit of clothes with a dirty neck fornenst it."
Everybody did as Pearl said, and soon their arms were full of her purchases. Danny was so delighted with the gold bears that he quite neglected to look at his suit. Tommy was rubbing his chin on his new coat to see how it felt. Patsey was hunting for pockets in his, when some one discovered that Bugsey was in tears, idle, out-of-place tears! Mrs. Watson, in great surprise, inquired the cause, and, after some coaxing, Bugsey whimpered: "I wish I'd always knew I was goin' to get them!"
Mrs. Watson remonstrated with him, but Purl interposed gently. "L'ave him alone, Ma; I know how he feels! He's enjoyin' his cry as much as if he was laughin' his head off!"
An hour was spent in rapturous inspection, and then everything was placed carefully back in the boxes. That night, after supper, there came a knock at the door, and a long pasteboard box, neatly tied with wine-coloured ribbon, was handed in. On its upper surface it bore in bold characters the name of "Miss P. Watson," and below that, "With the compliments of Mason & Meikle."
Excitement ran high.
"Open it, Pearlie dear," her mother said. "Don't stand there gawkin' at it. There'll be something in it, maybe."
There was something in it for sure. There was a dress length of the softest, springiest silk, the kind that creaks when you squeeze it, and it was of the shade that Pearl had seen in her dreams. There were yards of silk braid and of cream net. There were sparkling buttons and spools of thread, and a "neck" of cream filling with silver spangles on it, and at the bottom of the box; rolled in tissue paper, were two pairs of embroidered stockings and a pair of glittering black patent leather slippers that you could see your face in!
"Look at that now!" Mrs. Watson exclaimed. "Doesn't it beat all?"
But Pearl, breathing heavily, was in a state of wordless delight. "It's just as well I wasn't for scoldin' Bugsey for cryin' over his suit," she said at length; "for if it wasn't that I'm feart o' spottin' some of these, I'd be for doin' a cry myself. I've got such a glad spot here in me Adam's apple. Reach me yer apron, Ma--it's comin' out of me eyes in spite of meself. Camilla must ha' told them what I would like, and wasn't it kind of them, Ma, to ever think o' me? And who'd ever 'a' thought of Mr. Mason being so kind, and him so stern lookin'?"
"Ye never can tell by looks, Pearlie," her mother said sententiously. "Many's the kind heart beats behind a homely face." Which is true enough in experience, though perhaps not quite in keeping with the findings of anatomical science.
That night there were prohibitory laws made regarding the taking of cherished possessions to bed by the owners thereof; but when the lights were all out, and peaceful slumber had come to the little house, one small girl in her nightgown went quietly across the bare floor to the lounge in the "room" to feel once more the smooth surface of her slippers and to smell that delicious leathery smell. She was tempted to take one of them back with her, but her conscience reminded her of the rule she had made for the others, and so she imprinted a rapturous kiss on the sole of one of them, where it would not show, and went back to her dreams.
All week the sound of the sewing machine could be heard in the Watson home, as Mary Barner, Camilla, Mrs. Watson, and one real dressmaker fashioned various garments for the young Watsons. Even Mrs. Francis became infected with the desire to help, and came over hurriedly to show Mrs. Watson how to put a French hem on her new napery. But as the only napery, visible or invisible, was a marbled oilcloth tacked on the table, Mrs. Francis was unable to demonstrate the principle of French hemming. Camilla, however, showed her mistress where to work the buttonholes on Patsey's nightshirt, and later in the afternoon she felled the seams in Mary's plaid dress.
Saturday night brought with it arduous duties, for Pearl was determined that the good clothes of her family would not be an outward show only.
On Sunday morning, an hour before church time, the children were all dressed and put on chairs as a precaution against accidents. Mrs. Watson's fur-lined cape had come the night before, and Camilla had brought over a real winter hat in good repair, which Mrs. Ducker had given her. Mrs. Ducker said it was really too good a hat to give away, but she could not wear it with any comfort now, for Mrs. Grieves had one almost the same. Mrs. Ducker and Mrs. Grieves had had a slight unpleasantness at the last annual Ladies' Aid dinner, the subject under discussion being whether chickens should be served with or without bones.
Camilla came for the boys on Sunday morning, and took them for Mrs. Francis to see, and also for the boys to see themselves in the long mirror in the hall. Danny sidled up to Mrs. Francis and said in a confidential whisper: "Ain't I the biggest dood in the bunch?"
When the others had admired their appearance sufficiently and filed back to the dining-room, Bugsey still stood before the glass, resolutely digging away at a large brown freckle on his cheek. He came out to Camilla and asked her for a sharp knife, and it was with difficulty that he was dissuaded from his purpose. When Mrs. Francis saw the drift of Bugsey's intention, she made a note in her little red book under the heading, "The leaven of good clothes."
Just as they went into church Pearlie gave them her parting instructions.
"Don't put yer collection in yer mouths, ye might swallow it; I'ave it tied up in yer handkerchiefs, and don't chew the knot. Keep yer eye on the minister and try to understand all ye can of it, and look like as if ye did, anyway!"
John Watson, coached by Pearl, went first and waited at the end of the seat to let the whole flock march past him. There was one row full and four in the row behind. Pearl sat just behind Danny, so that she could watch his behaviour from a strategic point.
The minister smiled sympathetically when he saw the Watson family file in. He had intended preaching a doctrinal sermon on baptism, but the eager faces of the Watson children inspired him to tell the story of Esther. Even Danny stayed awake to listen, and when it came to an end and Mr. Burrell told of the wicked Haman being hanged on the scaffold of his own making, Patsey whispered to Bugsey in a loud "pig whisper:" "That's when he got it in the neck!" Mrs. Watson was horrified beyond words, but Pearl pointed out that while it was beyond doubt very bad to whisper in church, still what Patsey said showed that he had "sensed what the story was about."
The next week she dramatized the story for the boys. Jimmy was always the proud and haughty Ahasuerus, his crown made of the pasteboard of the box his father's new cap came in. Bugsey was the gentle Esther who came in trembling to see if she would suit his Majesty. The handle of a dismembered parasol was used for the golden sceptre, and made a very good one after Mary had wound it around with the yellow selvage that came off her plaid dress.
"You lads have got to play educated games now," Pearl had said, when she started them at this one. "'Bull-in-the-ring,' 'squat-tag,' 'button, button, who's got the button?' are all right for kids that don't have to rise in the world, but with you lads it's different. Ye've got to make yer games count. When I get to school I'll learn lots of games for ye, but ye must all do yer best now."