Nell Speed.

A House Party with the Tucker Twins



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CHAPTER XVI
THINGS HAPPENING

One of the delights of leaving home is coming back, at least so I always felt about my beloved Bracken. I indulged in many little jaunts during the summer but each home-coming was as pleasant as the trips. First there had been the house-party at Maxton, which had been so full of good times, then a short stay at home and almost before I had settled myself, a hurry call from the Tuckers to go to a mountain camp run by some very spunky girls from Richmond, the Carters.

Those days in camp were a delightful experience and quite an eye-opener as to what girls can do if it is up to them. The Carter girls had been brought up in extravagant luxury, but when their father had a nervous breakdown and they suddenly found themselves with no visible means of support, they jumped in and ran a week-end boarding camp on the side of a mountain in Albemarle, and actually supported the whole family and made some money besides.

They were the busiest people I ever saw, but they managed to tuck in a lot of fun along with it. I certainly hope to see more of those girls, as they interested me tremendously. Douglas was the oldest; she seemed to be the balance wheel for the family. I never saw such poise in a young girl, – not a bit "society," either. She had given up college and was going to stay at home and help. Helen was the next, a stylish creature with more clash and swing to her than even my beloved Tweedles. She was the one who directed the cooking as though she had been catering to boarders all her life, and I was told that she had never thought of such a thing until the spring before, when her father got ill. She evidently had no head for money and I am afraid had an extravagant way with her that gave poor Douglas some trouble.

Then came Nan, a perfect love of a little thing, all poetry and charm but with a conscience that made her do her duty in spite of preferring to live in the clouds. Lucy was the youngest girl and showed promise of being perhaps the best-looking of all the very handsome sisters, but she was too young to say for certain. At any rate, she was a very attractive child. Then there was Bobby, the little brother, an enfant terrible and a perfect little duck.

Mr. Carter was the most pathetic figure I have ever seen: a big, strong man, accustomed to action and power, reduced to letting his daughters make a living for him. He seemed to have lost the power of concentration, somehow. Mr. Tucker said he thought he would get well but it was going to take a long time. He had worked beyond mental endurance trying to keep his family in luxury.

Mrs. Carter was the kind of woman who reconciles one to being a half-orphan, not that my little mother would ever have been that kind, but I mean it is better to be motherless than to have the kind she was. I thought she was very pretty, very gracious, with a wonderful social gift, but the kind of woman who flops at the first breath of disaster.

Those Carter girls will have her on their hands just like a baby until the end of time. Whenever she was crossed, she simply went to bed in a ravishing boudoir cap and bed sacque and there she lolled until she carried her point.

The Carters were so interesting to me that I should like to tell more about them but they really should be in a book all to themselves, they and their week-end camp. I had never been right in the mountains before, but after my stay among them I felt that I liked it even better than the seashore. Father said that the last wonderful thing I saw was always the most wonderful thing in the world. He also said that that was just as it should be. That when persons begin to look backward all the time instead of forward, the sutures of their skulls are too firmly knit together and all of their pleasures have to be of memory. New things make no impression on their brains. He said he intended to keep his skull in a semi-pliable state like a baby's and go on looking at the world as a rattle for him to have a good time with.

I had often thought that my dear father spent a terribly humdrum existence for a man of his ability and intense interest in current events. While I loved the country in general and Bracken in particular, I also loved to get out into the world occasionally and get a new outlook, a different view-point as it were; get somewhere where things were happening. Nothing much ever seemed to me to happen in the country.

One day I said as much to him. He smiled and drew me to him.

"Why, honey, things are happening all the time in the country just as much as in town. I like to get away occasionally, too, but not because I want to be where things are happening, – in fact, I like to get away from so many things happening at once as they do in my life here as a country doctor. The things that happen in cities I feel more impersonal about."

"But you like to read about the things that happen in cities."

"Yes, and city people like to read about the things that happen in the country, too. Aren't all the popular magazines filled with stories of rural life?"

"Ye-s! But they are romances that are made up."

"But not made up out of whole cloth! Come and go with me to-day on my rounds."

"Oh, I'd love to, but Miss Pinkie Davis has come to sew for me and I have to be here to help."

"Let her stay and we will give her a holiday. Poor Miss Pinkie has precious few holidays. She can read all the new magazines and rest her busy fingers."

Of course Miss Pinkie was agreeable to the arrangement. She did have very few holidays and no time to read the romances she craved. We left her ensconced in a hammock on the shady porch with a pile of magazines beside her and a beatific smile on her paper doll countenance. Something interesting was already happening in the country, at least something interesting to Miss Pinkie.

It was a wonderful day in late September. The winter corn had been cut and stacked in shocks that always reminded me of Indian wigwams. The tobacco had been housed the week before and now from each tobacco barn arose a mist of blue smoke. Groups of men could be seen standing around every barn gathered there to take part in the sacred rite of curing the green tobacco. A steady fire must be kept up day and night, and all the men in the countryside seemed to feel it could not be done without the personal supervision of each and every one of them.

"Suppose the women had some important steady cooking to do where the fire had to be kept up day and night, do you think they would have to call in all the other women in the county to assist?" laughed Father. "Men are funny animals."

"The tobacco crop was pretty good, wasn't it?" I asked.

"Fine! Never saw a better. I guess many a poor soldier in the trenches will be thankful that it is so. They say this war is being fought on the wheat and tobacco crops." I thought Father gave me a sly glance, but when I asked him what he was looking at he said nothing much, he only thought my nose was growing a little.

Everybody had a word of greeting for Dr. Allison as we drove by. We were stopped again and again, sometimes for a word of advice from the family physician as to Jim's sore throat or Mary's indigestion; sometimes to prescribe for a hog or cow that was indisposed, and once to decide if San Jose scale had attacked a peach orchard. We could not stop long with each person as we were on a hurry call, but Father always had a moment to spare; and then the colt had to make up for lost time and was given free rein at every good stretch of road.

The colt was the colt by courtesy and habit. He had long ago passed the skittish age, but his spirit was one of eternal youth and his ways so coltish that no other name seemed to suit him. One could as soon think of Cupid's growing up to be an old gentleman as the colt's ever becoming a safe, steady nag. Enough things happened in the country for him, and he thought that each thing that happened was something for him to dance and prance about. A flock of belated blackbirds twittering in an oak tree was enough to make him get the bit in his teeth and run a quarter of a mile. A rabbit running across the road was something to shy over, – and I agree with the colt in that. As many times as I have seen it, there is something about a Molly Cottontail as she lopes across the road that always startles me. She bobs up so suddenly from nowhere and disappears as rapidly into the nowhere.

Driving the colt was an excitement in itself that must have kept life from becoming dull to my dear father. There could be no loafing on that job. Reins had to be well up in hand and the driver must be fully cognizant of things that the imaginative animal no doubt looked upon as possible enemies. Sometimes I think he was playing a game with himself and making excitement to keep his existence from being humdrum. At any rate, it was great fun to be behind the spirited animal on that crisp September morn. No one could drive so well as Father. He had a sure, steady, gentle but firm touch on the rein that soothed the most nervous horse. Father's driving always reminded me of Zebedee's dancing.

Our hurry call was to a young farmer's wife. The gates were wide open as though we were expected and no obstacles were to delay us. The husband, Henry Miller, was waiting for us at the stile block. His face was drawn and white and great tears were rolling down his weather-beaten cheeks.

"She's awful bad off, Doctor. I'm afraid she's gonter die," he whispered huskily.

"Oh no, my son! I have no idea of such a thing. Maybe you had better unhitch my horse. He is not much on the stand. Page, you help him, please."

Now Father knew perfectly well that I could look after the colt by myself, but he simply wanted to occupy Mr. Miller. Silently we undid the straps and led him to the stable. I realized he was feeling too deeply to listen to my chatter, so I kept very quiet. When we started back to the house I told him he must not bother about me, – that I had a book and would just make myself at home out in the summer-house.

"I will come, too," he faltered. "Looks like I'll go crazy if I have to stay alone."

"Oh, do come! Maybe you would like me to read to you."

"No, Miss Page! Just let me talk to you. You see I feel so bad about Ellen because she ain't been back to see her folks. I didn't know she wanted to go, but it seems she did and didn't like to say so. I ought to have known about it. If I hadn't have been a numskull I would a-known. I've been so happy just to be with her that I never thought she wasn't just as happy to be with me."

"Why, Mr. Miller, I am sure she was. Everybody is always saying how happy Mrs. Miller is. Only the other day I heard Sally Winn declare she never saw such a contented young married woman. Sally says lots of young married women are not happy; that it takes a long time for them to get used to husbands instead of sweethearts; but that your wife didn't have to do that because you seemed just like a sweetheart all the time."

"Did she say that, – did she truly? I wonder what made her think it."

"Something your wife told her, I reckon!"

"Oh, thank you! Thank you for that! She could have gone to her mother if I had known she wanted to."

"Of course she could, but maybe she did want to go to her mother and didn't want to leave you. I bet that was the reason she didn't tell you she wanted to see her mother. She knew you would insist upon her going, and then she would have had to leave you."

Now the poor anxious young man was smiling. He wiped his eyes and grasped my hand.

"You are powerful like Doc Allison, Miss Page. He knows how to cure a sick spirit just as well as a sick body, and you sure can comfort a fellow, too."

There was the creak of a screen door being hastily opened on the side porch of the farmhouse and an old colored woman came running out. Henry Miller jumped to his feet but could not go to meet her. Fear seemed to grip him. What news was she bringing?

"Marse Hinry, it's a boy! It's a boy!"

"A boy?"

"Yassir, a boy, an' jes' as peart as kin be, an' Miss Ellen – "

"Is she dead?"

"Daid! Law, chile, she is the livinges' thing you ever seed an' what's mo' she is a-axin' fer you jes' lak she can't stan' it a minute longer 'thout she see you. Baby cryin' fer you, too!" and sure enough we did hear a faint squeaky cry issuing from an upstairs room.

The newly-made parent sprinted to the house as though he were in a Marathon race, and the old colored woman and I looked at each other and wiped the tears off that would roll down our cheeks.

"Young paws allus is kinder pitable," she remarked, and then hastened back to her labors.

Father came out soon, his lean face beaming with smiles, his arm thrown around the shoulders of the ecstatic Henry. We were to stay to dinner at the farmhouse, much to the delight of the old colored cook. It was deemed a great privilege in the county to have Doc Allison stop for dinner.

"I done made a dumplin' fer Marse Hinry," she said, as we were sitting down to the hospitable board. "In stressful times men-folks mus' eat or they gits ter broodin' on they troubles, an' whin men-folks gits ter broodin' if'n they ain't full er victuals fo' yer know it they is full er liquor."

As Henry Miller was a most respectable, church-going young man this amused Father very much.

"That's so, Aunt Min, so you feed him up. He had better look out, anyhow, because before you know it that young man upstairs will be whipping him."

This delighted the negress, who chuckled with glee as she passed the dumplings.

"I is glad it's a boy 'cep'n' they is been so many boys born here lately that this ol' nigger is beginning ter s'picion that these here battles I hear 'bout is goin' ter spread this-a-way. In war time all the gal babies is born boys."

"Oh, I hope not, Aunt Min," said Father gravely.

"Yassir! An' the snakes! I never seed the like of snakes this summer gone by. That means the debble is busy an' the debble is the father of war."

"True, true!" sighed the doctor. "Well, I hope it won't come to us until the youngster upstairs is able to help defend us."

While we were at dinner, Father was called up on the Millers' telephone. Mrs. Reed, an old lady on the adjoining farm, was very ill and the doctor must leave his dumpling unfinished and fly to her. The colt was harnessed with the expedition used in a fire engine house and we were on our way in an incredibly short time.

CHAPTER XVII
MORE THINGS HAPPENING

The Reeds were aristocrats of the first rank. There were no men in the family at all, no one but old Mrs. Reed, who had been a widow for at least forty years, and her two old maid daughters, Miss Elizabeth and Miss Margaret.

Weston was a beautiful place if somewhat gone to seed by reason of the impossibility of obtaining the necessary labor to keep it up. The house was a low rambling building, part brick and part frame, where rooms had been added on in days gone by when the family was waxing instead of waning, as was now the case.

Miss Elizabeth insisted upon my coming in the house although I longed to be allowed the privilege of exploring the garden, which I had remembered with great pleasure from former visits with my father. No matter if potatoes had to go unplanted and wheat uncut, the ladies of Weston had never permitted the flower garden to be neglected. I could see it from the window of the parlor through the half closed blinds. Cosmos and chrysanthemums were massed in glowing clumps, holding their own in spite of a light frost we had had the night before. The monthly roses, huge bushes that looked as though they had been there for centuries, were blooming profusely.

Mrs. Reed was very, very low, so low that her daughters feared the worst. A door opened from the parlor into her bedroom, which the daughters spoke of always with a kind of reverence as "the chamber." Through this door I could hear the low clear voice of the old lady as she greeted the doctor.

"How do you do, James? I am glad to see you once more."

"Yes, Mrs. Reed, I am more than glad of the privilege of seeing you. May I feel your pulse?" His tone was that of a man who requests to kiss one's hand.

"You may, James, but there is no use. I am quite easy now, but only a few moments ago my heart quite stopped beating. Each time I swing a little lower. Did I hear someone say you had little Page with you?"

"Yes, madame! She is in the parlor."

"I want to see the child."

I heard quite distinctly but I did not want to go in, shrinking instinctively from the ordeal of speaking to the old lady who was swinging so low.

Miss Elizabeth came for me. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could be older than Miss Elizabeth, who looked a hundred. She was in reality almost seventy. The mother was ninety but did not look any older than the daughter nor much more fragile. Miss Margaret was much more buxom than Miss Elizabeth and perhaps ten years younger. She was regarded by the two older ladies as nothing more than a child.

"Mother wants to see you," whispered the weeping Miss Elizabeth. Miss Elizabeth always did weep about everything. In fact, in the course of her threescore years and almost ten, so many tears had flowed down her cheeks that they had worn a little furrow from the corner of her eye to the corner of her mouth, where it made a neat little twist outward just in time to keep the salt water out of her mouth. These wrinkles in the poor lady's cheeks gave to her countenance a whimsical expression of laughter. The little twist at the end of the furrow was responsible for this.

I went as bidden and hoped no one knew how I hated it.

"Page, Mrs. Reed wants to see you a moment," said Father very gently.

"How do you do?" I whispered in such a wee voice that I felt as though someone away off had said it and not I. I knew that Mrs. Reed was deaf, too, and that I should have spoken in a loud tone.

"I'll be better soon, child," answered the old lady, who did not seem to be deaf at all. They say sometimes just before death that faculties become quite acute.

"How pretty you are, my dear, almost as pretty as your mother. I hope you appreciate what a good man your father is." Her voice was very low and I had to lean over to catch what she was saying. Her thin old hands were lying on the outside of the counterpane and they seemed to me to look already dead. I had never seen a dead person but I fancied that their hands must look just that way. I was deeply grateful to Fate that I did not have to take one of those hands.

"Yes; ma'am – I – believe I do. He is the best man in the world."

"He is so honest. Now he knows I am almost gone and he would not tell me a lie about it for anything, – would you, James?"

"No, madame!" and Father put his finger again on her wrist. Miss Elizabeth wept silently and Miss Margaret sobbed aloud.

"Tell me, has Ellen Miller's baby come?"

"Yes, I have just come from there. It is a fine boy and mother and baby doing well."

"Good! I am glad when I hear some men are being born into the county. Too many women! Too many women! What are you girls crying for?" she asked, turning her head a little on the pillow and looking with wonder at the two old ladies she called girls. "There is no use in crying for me. I am glad to die, – not that I have not been happy in my life, – yes, very happy! But there are more on the other side than this side now for me. Your father and brothers, my father and mother and brothers and sisters, all my friends. Do you think I'll know them, James?"

"Yes, madame, I think you will."

"I don't expect them to know me," the faint old voice went on. "How could they know me, so old and wrinkled and feeble? My husband was only fifty-five when he died and I was still nothing more than a child of fifty. My hair had not turned and I was very lively. Do you think he will be disappointed to find me so old?"

Her mind was wandering now and her voice trailed off to the finest thread. Father motioned me to go, but before I could turn the old lady suddenly sat up in bed and called to her daughters:

"Don't forget to have the giant-of-battle rose trimmed back and those hollyhocks transplanted!" Then she fell back on her pillow and closed her eyes.

I slipped out of the room and ran into the garden where Father found me a half hour later.

"How is Mrs. Reed, Father?" I asked. He looked at me wonderingly.

"She is well again," he answered gently. "She was dead, my dear, before you left the room."

"Oh, Father!" I gasped.

"I was sorry for you to be there, but I got fooled. I thought the old lady was going to live a few hours longer, but doctors know mighty little when you come down to life and death. Come, honey! We must go. I have a sick child to see on my way home."

We had to stop at a little country store on the way to see the sick child to get some chewing-gum for the youthful patient. Father always had chewing-gum for the sick kiddies and that kept him in high favor with them. Doc Allison was looked upon as a kind of concrete Santy who gave un-Christmas presents. He carried peppermints always in his pocket, and when a child was told to poke out his tongue he more than likely would find a peppermint on it before he pulled it in again.



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