The Indivisible Five
The Indivisible Five
At the ages of fifty-four and fifty, respectively, Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth found themselves possessed of a roomy, old-fashioned farmhouse near a thriving city, together with large holdings of lands, mortgages, and bank stock. At the same time they awoke to an unpleasant realization that many of their fellow creatures were not so fortunate.
"James," began Mrs. Wentworth, with some hesitation, one June day, "I've been thinking—with all our rambling rooms and great big yards, and we with never a chick nor a child to enjoy them—I've been thinking—that is, I went by the orphan asylum in town yesterday and saw the poor little mites playing in that miserable brick oven they call a yard, and—well, don't you think we ought to have one—or maybe two—of them down here for a week or two, just to show them what summer really is?"
The man's face beamed.
"My dear, it's the very thing! We'll take two—they'll be company for each other; only"—he looked doubtfully at the stout little woman opposite—"the worst of it will come on you, Mary. Of course Hannah can manage the work part, I suppose, but the noise—well, we'll ask for quiet ones," he finished, with an air that indicated an entirely satisfactory solution of the problem.
Life at "Meadowbrook" was a thing of peaceful mornings and long, drowsy afternoons; a thing of spotless order and methodical routine. In a long, childless marriage Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth's days had come to be ordered with a precision that admitted of no frivolous deviations: and noise and confusion in the household machinery were the unforgivable offenses. It was into this placid existence that Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth proposed to introduce two children from the orphan asylum.
Before the week was out a note was sent to the matron of the institution, and the prospective host and hostess were making their plans with unwonted excitement.
"We'll rise at six and breakfast at seven," began Mrs. Wentworth.
"And they must be in bed by eight o'clock," supplemented her husband.
"I did n't say whether to send boys or girls, and I forgot to say anything about their being quiet; but if they're boys, you can teach them gardening, James, and if they're girls, they can sew with me a good deal."
"Hm-m—yes; I really don't know what we shall do to entertain them. Perhaps they might like to read," suggested Mr. Wentworth, looking with some doubt at his big bookcases filled with heavy, calf-bound volumes.
"Of course; and they can walk in the garden and sit on the piazza," murmured Mrs. Wentworth happily.
In the orphan asylum that same evening there was even greater excitement. Mrs. Wentworth's handwriting was not of the clearest, and her request for "two" children had been read as "ten"; and since the asylum—which was only a small branch of a much larger institution—had recently been depleted until it contained but five children, the matron was sorely perplexed to know just how to fill so generous an order. It ended in her writing an apologetic note to Mrs. Wentworth and dispatching it the next morning by the hand of the eldest girl, Tilly, who was placed at the head of four other jubilant children, brushed, scrubbed, and admonished into a state of immaculate primness.
At half-past nine o'clock the driver of the big carry-all set five squirming children on to their feet before the front door at "Meadowbrook," and rang the bell.
"Here you are," he called gayly, as Hannah opened the door. "I've washed my hands of 'em—now they're yours!" And he drove briskly out of the yard.
Hannah neither moved nor spoke. She simply stared.
"Here's a note," began Tilly, advancing shyly, "for Mis' Wentworth."
Mechanically Hannah took the note and, scarcely realizing what she was doing, threw open the door of the parlor—that parlor which was sacred to funerals, weddings, and the minister's calls.
The children filed in slowly and deposited themselves with some skill upon the slippery haircloth chairs and sofa. Hannah, still dazed, went upstairs to her mistress.
"From the asylum, ma'am," she said faintly, holding out the note.
Mrs. Wentworth's eyes shone.
"Oh, the children! Where are they, Hannah?"
"In the parlor, ma'am."
"The parlor? Why, Hannah, the parlor is no place for those two children!" Mrs. Wentworth started toward the door.
Hannah coughed and uptilted her chin.
"They ain't two, ma'am. There's as much as half a dozen of 'em."
"There is, ma'am."
"Why, Hannah, what—" The lady tore open the note with shaking fingers, and read:
My dear Madam: You very generously asked for ten children, but I hope you will pardon me for sending only five. That is all we have with us now, owing to several recent adoptions from our ranks—you know we are never very large, being only a branch of the Hollingsworth Asylum. The children were so crazy, though, at the idea of a trip to the country, that I am sure each child will have fun enough—and make noise enough, also, I fear—for two, so in the end you may think you've got your ten children, after all. You must be fond of children to be willing to give so many a two-weeks' vacation, but you don't know what a lot of good you are doing. If you could have seen the children when I read them your note, you would have been well repaid for all your trouble. I wish there were more like you in the world. Yours respectfully,
"Hannah," faltered Mrs. Wentworth, dropping into her chair, "they did n't read my note right. They—they've actually sent us the whole asylum!"
"Well, it looks like it—downstairs," returned Hannah grimly.
"Sure enough, they are downstairs, and I must go to them," murmured Mrs. Wentworth, rising irresolutely to her feet. "I—I'll go down. I'll have to send all but two home, of course," she finished, as she left the room.
Downstairs she confronted five pairs of eyes shining out at her from the gloom.
"Good-morning, children," she began, trying to steady her voice. "There is—er—I—well—" She stopped helplessly, and a small girl slid to the floor from her perch on the sofa and looked longingly toward the hall.
"Please, ma'am, there's a kitty out there; may I get it?" she asked timidly.
"Please, have you got a dog, too?" piped up a boy's voice.
"An' chickens an' little pigs? They said you had!" interposed a brown-eyed girl from the corner.
"An' there's hammocks an' swings, maybe," broke in Tilly; "an' please, ma'am, may n't we go outdoors and begin right away? Two weeks is an awful short time, you know, for all we want to do," she finished earnestly.
Four pairs of feet came down to the floor with a thump and eight small boots danced a tattoo of impatience on the parlor carpet—the small girl was already out in the hall and on her knees to the cat.
"Why, yes,—that is—you see, there was a mistake; I—" Mrs. Wentworth stopped suddenly, for as soon as the "yes" had left her lips the children had fled like sheep.
She stepped to the front door and looked out.
A boy was turning somersaults on the grass. Three girls had started a game of tag. Watching all this with eager eyes was a boy of eight, one foot tightly bound into an iron brace. It was on this child that Mrs. Wentworth's eyes lingered the longest.
"Poor little fellow! Well, he shall be one of the two," she murmured, as she hurried out to Hannah.
"When they going, ma'am?" began Hannah, with an assurance born of long service.
"I—I haven't told them; I—well, I waited for Mr. Wentworth," confessed her mistress hastily. Then, with some dignity: "They can just as well have to-day outdoors, anyway."
It was nearly noon when Mr. Wentworth drove into the yard, gave his horse into the care of Bill, the man-of-all-work, and hurried into the house.
"Mary, Mary—where are you?" he called sharply. Never before had James Wentworth broken the serene calm of his home with a voice like that.
"Yes, dear, I'm here—in the dining-room."
Mrs. Wentworth's cheeks were flushed, her hair was disordered, and her neck-bow was untied; but she was smiling happily as she hovered over a large table laden with good things and set for six.
"You can sit down with them, James," she exclaimed; "I'm going to help Hannah serve them."
"Mary, what in the world does this mean? The yard is overrun with screaming children! Have they sent us the whole asylum?" he demanded.
Mrs. Wentworth laughed hysterically.
"That's exactly what they have done, dear. They took my 'two' for a 'ten,' and—and they did the best they could to supply my wants!"
"Well, but—why don't you send them home? We can't—"
"Yes, yes; I know, dear," interrupted the woman hastily, the happy look gone from her eyes. "After dinner I am—that is, you may send all but two home. I thought I'd let them play awhile."
"Humph!" ejaculated the man; "send them home?—I should think so!" he muttered, as his wife went to call the children to dinner.
What a wonderful meal that was, and how the good things did vanish down those five hungry throats!
The man at the head of the table looked on in dumb amazement, and he was still speechless when, after dinner, five children set upon him and dragged him out to see the bird's nest behind the barn.
"An' we found the pigs an' the chickens, Mister, jest as they said we would," piped up Tommy eagerly, as they hurried along.
"An' a teeny little baby cow, too," panted the smaller girl, "an' I fed him."
"Well, I guess you could n't 'a' fed him if I had n't held him with the rope," crowed Bobby.
"Or if I had n't scared him with my stick!" cut in Tilly. "I guess you ain't the only pebble on the beach, Bobby Mack!"
"Good Heavens!" groaned Mr. Wentworth, under his breath. "And have I got to keep two of these little hoodlums for a whole fortnight? Er—children," he said aloud, after the bird's nest had been duly admired; "er—suppose we go and—er—read."
Into the house trooped the five chattering boys and girls in the wake of an anxious, perplexed man. Some minutes later the children sat in a stiff row along the wall, while the man, facing them, read aloud from a ponderous calf-bound volume on "The Fundamental Causes of the Great Rebellion."
For some time Mr. Wentworth read without pausing to look up, his sonorous voice filling the room, and his mind wholly given to the subject in hand; then he raised his eyes—and almost dropped the book in his hand: Tommy, the cripple, sat alone.
"Why, where—what—" stammered Mr. Wentworth.
"They've gone out ter the barn, Mister," explained Tommy cheerfully, pointing to the empty chairs.
"Oh!" murmured Mr. Wentworth faintly, as he placed the book on the shelf. "I—er—I think we won't read any more."
"Come on, then; let's go to the barn," cried Tommy. And to the barn they went.
There were no "Fundamental Causes of the Great Rebellion" in the barn, but there were fundamental causes of lots of other things, and Mr. Wentworth found that now his words were listened to with more eagerness; and before he knew it, he was almost as excited as were the children themselves.
They were really a very intelligent lot of youngsters, he told himself, and the prospect of having two of them for guests did not look so formidable after all.
From the barn they went to the garden, from the garden to the pond, from the pond back to the yard; then they all sat down under the apple trees while Mr. Wentworth built them a miniature boat; in days long gone by James Wentworth had loved the sea, and boat-making had been one of his boyhood joys.
At four o'clock Mrs. Wentworth called from the house:
"James, will you come here a minute, please?"
A slow red stole over the man's face as he rose to his feet. The red was a deep crimson by the time he faced his wife.
"How are you going to send them home, dear?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"But it's four o'clock, and we ought to be thinking of it. Which two are you going to keep?"
"I—I don't know," he acknowledged.
For some unapparent reason Mrs. Wentworth's spirits rose, but she assumed an air of severity.
"Why, James!—have n't you told them?" she demanded.
"Mary, I could n't; I've been trying to all the afternoon. Er—you tell them—do!" he urged desperately. "I can't—playing with them as I have!"
"Suppose we keep them all, then?" she hazarded.
"Oh, I can manage it! I've been talking with Hannah—I saw how things were going with you"—his features relaxed into a shame-faced smile—"and Hannah says her sister can come to help, and we've got beds enough with the cots in the attic."
He drew a deep breath.
"Then we won't have to tell them!" he exclaimed.
"No, we won't have to tell them," she laughed, as she turned back into the house.
What a fortnight that was at "Meadowbrook!" The mornings—no longer peaceful—were full of rollicking games; and the long, drowsy afternoons became very much awake with gleeful shouts. The spotless order fled before the bats and balls and books and dolls that Mr. Wentworth brought home from the store; and the methodical routine of the household was shattered to atoms by daily picnics and frequent luncheons of bread and butter.
No longer were the days ordered with a precision that admitted of no frivolous deviations, for who could tell in the morning how many bumped heads, cut fingers, bruised noses and wounded hearts would need sympathetic attention before night?
And so it went on until the evening before the two weeks were completed; then, after the children were abed and asleep, the man and his wife talked it over.
"Well, this ends to-morrow, I suppose. You must be tired, Mary; it's been a hard time for you, dear," he began.
"Not a bit of it, James," she demurred. "Hannah and Betsey have done all the work, and you've been with the children so much I've not felt their care at all."
The man stirred uneasily.
"Well, I—I wanted to relieve you as much as possible," he exclaimed, wondering if she knew how many boats he had built for the boys, and how many jackknives he had broken in the process.
"Do you know?—I think I shall be actually lonely when they are gone," declared Mrs. Wentworth, without looking up.
The man threw a sharp glance at his wife.
"So shall I," he said.
"James, I've been wondering, could n't we—adopt one of them?" she suggested, trying to make it appear as if the thought had but just entered her head.
Again the man gave his wife a swift glance.
"Why—we—might—I suppose," he returned, hoping that his hesitation would indicate that the idea was quite new to him—instead of having been almost constantly in his thoughts for a week.
"We might take two—company for each other, you know!" She looked at him out of the corner of her eye.
"Hm-m," he agreed pleasantly.
"The only trouble is the selecting, James."
"Yes, that is a drawback," murmured the man, with a vivid recollection of a certain afternoon under the apple trees.
"Well, I'll tell you"—Mrs. Wentworth leaned forward in sudden animation—"to-morrow you pick out the one you want and ask him—or her—to go into the parlor for a few minutes at nine o'clock in the morning, and I will do the same."
"Well, maybe," he began a little doubtfully, "but—"
"And if there are two, and you are n't real sure which you want, just ask both of them to go, and we'll settle it together, later," she finished.
To this, with some measure of content, her husband agreed.
The next morning at ten minutes before nine Mrs. Wentworth began her search. With no hesitation she accosted the little cripple.
"Tommy, dear, I want you to go into the parlor for a few minutes. Take your book in there and read, and I'll come very soon and tell you what I want."
Tommy obeyed at once and Mrs. Wentworth sighed in relief. At that moment Tilly came into the garden.
What a dear little woman those two weeks of happiness had caused Tilly to become! How much she loved Tommy, and what care she took of him! Really, it was a shame to separate them—they ought to be brought up together—perhaps Mr. Wentworth would n't find any child that he wanted; anyway, she believed she should send Tilly in, at a venture.
A moment later Tilly was following in Tommy's footsteps. On the piazza steps sat Bobby—homely, unattractive Bobby, crying.
"Why, my dear!" remonstrated Mrs. Wentworth.
"Tommy's gone! I can't find him," sobbed the boy.
Mrs. Wentworth's back straightened.
Of course Bobby cried—no one was so good to him as Tommy was—no one seemed to care for him but Tommy. Poor, homely Bobby! He had a hard row to hoe. He—
But she could n't take Bobby! Of course not—she had Tommy and Tilly already. Still—
Mrs. Wentworth stooped and whispered a magic word in Bobby's ear, and the boy sprang to his feet and trotted through the hall to the parlor door.
"I don't care," muttered Mrs. Wentworth recklessly. "I could n't bear to leave him alone out here. I can settle it later."
Twice she had evaded her husband during the last fifteen minutes; now, at nine o'clock, the appointed time, they both reached the parlor door. Neither one could meet the other's eyes, and with averted faces they entered the room together; then both gave a cry of amazement.
In the corner, stiff, uncomfortable, and with faces that expressed puzzled anxiety, sat five silent children.
Mrs. Wentworth was the first to recover presence of mind.
"There, there, dears, it's all right," she began a little hysterically. "You can call it a little game we were playing. You may all run outdoors now."
As the last white apron fluttered through the door she dropped limply into a chair.
"James, what in the world are we going to do?" she demanded.
"Give it up!" said the man, his hands in his pockets—James Wentworth's vocabulary had grown twenty years younger in the last two weeks.
"But really, it's serious!"
"It certainly is."
"But what shall we do?"
The man took his hands from his pockets and waved them in a manner that would indicate entire irresponsibility.
"We might end it as we did two weeks ago and keep the whole lot of them," she proposed merrily.
"Well—why don't you?" he asked calmly.
His face grew red with a shame-faced laugh.
"Well—there are families with five children in them, and I guess we could manage it," he asserted in self-defense.
She sat up and looked at him with amazement.
"Surely we have money enough—and I don't know how we could spend it better," he continued rapidly; "and with plenty of help for you—there's nothing to hinder turning ourselves into an orphan asylum if we want to," he added triumphantly.
"Oh, James, could we—do you think?" she cried, her eyes shining with a growing joy. "Tommy, and Tilly, and all? Oh, we will—we will! And—and—we'll never have to choose any more, will we, James?" she finished fervently.