When Mother Fell Ill
When Mother Fell Ill
Tom was eighteen, and was spending the long summer days behind the village-store counter—Tom hoped to go to college in the fall.
Carrie was fifteen; the long days found her oftenest down by the brook, reading—Carrie was a bit romantic, and the book was usually poetry.
Robert and Rosamond, the twins—known to all their world as "Rob" and "Rose"—were eight; existence for them meant play, food, and sleep. To be sure, there were books and school; but those were in the remote past or dim future together with winter, mittens, and fires. It was summer, now—summer, and the two filled the hours with rollicking games and gleeful shouts—and incidentally their mother's workbasket with numerous torn pinafores and trousers.
Behind everything, above everything, and beneath everything, with all-powerful hands and an all-wise brain, was mother. There was father, of course; but father could not cook the meals, sweep the rooms, sew on buttons, find lost pencils, bathe bumped foreheads, and do countless other things. So thought Tom, Carrie, and the twins that dreadful morning when father came dolefully downstairs and said that mother was sick.
Mother sick! Tom stared blankly at the sugar bowl, Carrie fell limply into the nearest chair, and the twins began to cry softly.
The next thirty-six hours were never forgotten by the Dudleys. The cool nook in the woods was deserted, and Carrie spent a hot, discouraged morning in the kitchen—sole mistress where before she had been an all too seldom helper. At noon Mr. Dudley and Tom came home to partake of underdone potatoes and overdone meat. The twins, repressed and admonished into a state of hysterical nervousness, repaired directly after dinner to the attic. Half an hour later a prolonged wail told that Rob had cut his finger severely with an old knife; and it was during the attendant excitement that Rose managed to fall the entire length of the attic stairs. At night, after a supper of soggy rolls and burnt omelet, Mr. Dudley sent an appealing telegram to "Cousin Helen"; and the next afternoon, at five, she came.
Miss Helen Mortimer was pretty, sweet-tempered, and twenty-five. The entire family fell captive to her first smile. There was a world of comfort and relief in her very presence, and in the way she said cheerily:
"We shall do very well, I am sure. Carrie can attend to her mother, and I will take the helm downstairs."
The doctor said that rest and quiet was what Mrs. Dudley most needed, so Carrie's task would be comparatively light; and with a stout woman to come twice a week for the heavy work downstairs, the household gave promise of being once more on a livable basis.
It was at breakfast the next morning that the first cloud appeared on Miss Mortimer's horizon. It came in the shape of the crisply fried potatoes she was serving. The four children were eating late after their father had left.
"Oh, Cousin Helen," began Tom, in an annoyed manner, "I forgot to tell you; I don't like fried potatoes. I have baked ones."
"Yes; mother always baked them for me."'
"Oh, that's too bad; you can't eat them, then,—they hurt you!"
"Hurt me? Not a bit of it! I don't like them, that's all. Never mind; you can do it to-morrow."
When "to-morrow" came Miss Mortimer had not forgotten. The big round dish was heaped with potatoes baked to a turn.
"Thank you, I'll take the fried," said Carrie, as the dish was passed to her.
"The f-fried?" stammered Miss Mortimer.
"Yes; I prefer those."
"But there are no fried. I baked them."
"Well, how funny!" laughed Carrie. "I thought we had it all fixed yesterday. I thought we were to have both fried and baked. Mother always did, you know. You see, we don't like them the same way. Never mind," she added with a beaming smile, quite misunderstanding the look on her cousin's face, "it does n't matter a bit and you must n't feel so bad. It'll be all right to-morrow, I'm sure."
"Yes, and I want buckwheat cakes, please," piped up Rob.
"All right, you shall have them," agreed Cousin Helen with a smile.
"Maybe you don't quite know what you're getting into, Cousin Helen," he suggested. "If you make buckwheat cakes for Rob—it means graham muffins for Rose."
"And she shall have them; the very next morning, too."
"Oh, no, that will never do. She demands them the same day."
"Oh, I thought you did n't understand," chuckled Tom. "When you make one, you have to make both. Mother always did—she had to; 't was the only way she could suit both the twins, and I don't believe you 'll find any other way out of it. As for us—we don't mind; we eat them all!"
"Oh!" said Cousin Helen faintly.
"And another thing," resumed Tom, "we might as well settle the drink question right away—of course you'll want to know. Father is the only one who drinks cereal coffee. We (Carrie and I) like the real thing, every time; and the twins have cocoa—weak, of course, so there's not much to it."
"And you must n't sweeten mine while you're cooking it," interposed Rose decidedly.
"Sure enough—lucky you thought of that," laughed Tom, "or else poor Cousin Helen would have had another mistake to fret over. You see," he explained pleasantly, "Rose insists on putting in all the sugar herself, so hers has to be made unsweetened; but Rob is n't so particular and prefers his made in the regular way—sweetened while cooking, you know."
"Oh, I make two kinds of cocoa, do I?" asked Cousin Helen.
"Yes—er—that is, in two ways."
"Hm-m; and coffee and the cereal drink, making four in all?" continued Cousin Helen, with ominous sweetness.
Tom stirred uneasily and threw a sharp glance into his cousin's face.
"Well—er—it does seem a good many; but—well, mother did, you know, and we might as well have what we want, as something different, I suppose," he finished, with vague uneasiness.
"Oh, certainly, who would mind a small thing like that!" laughed Miss Mortimer, a queer little gleam in her eyes.
This was but the beginning. On the pantry-shelf were four kinds of cereals. Carrie explained that all were served each morning, for the family could n't agree on any particular one. As for eggs; Tom always had to have his dropped on a slice of toast; the twins liked theirs scrambled; but Carrie herself preferred hers boiled in the shell. Apple-pie must always be in the house for Tom, though it so happened, strangely enough, Carrie said, that no one else cared for it at all.
"Mother was always making apple-pie," laughed Carrie apologetically. "You see, they get stale so quickly, and Tom is the only one to eat them, they have to be made pretty often—one at a time, of course."
Bread, rolls, pastry, meat, vegetables—each had its own particular story, backed always by that ever-silencing "mother did," until Miss Mortimer was almost in despair. Sometimes she made a feeble protest, but the children were so good-natured, so entirely unaware that they were asking anything out of the ordinary, and so amazed at any proposed deviation from the established rules, that her protests fell powerless at their feet.
"Mother did"—"mother did"—"mother did," Miss Mortimer would murmur wearily to herself each day, until she came to think of the tired little woman upstairs as "Mother Did" instead of "Aunt Maria." "No wonder 'Mother Did' fell ill," she thought bitterly. "Who would n't!"
The weeks passed, as weeks will—even the dreariest of them—and the day came for Cousin Helen to go home, Mrs. Dudley being now quite her old self. Loud were the regrets at her departure, and overwhelming were the thanks and blessings showered in loving profusion; but it was two weeks later, when Tom, Carrie, and the twins each sent her a birthday present, that an idea came to Miss Mortimer. She determined at once to carry it out, even though the process might cause her some heartache.
Thus it came about that Tom, Carrie, Rob, and Rose, each received a letter (together with the gift each had sent) almost by return mail.
My dear Cousin: Thank you very much for the novel you sent me, but I am going to ask you to change it for a book of travels. I like that kind better, and mother and all my friends give me travels whenever they want to please me. I might as well have something I want as something different, I suppose, so I am asking you to change.
Your Cousin Helen
Carrie read this:
My dear Carrie: Thank you for the pretty little turnover collar and cuffs you sent me for my birthday; but I think it is so funny you never noticed that I don't care for pink. Mother found it out even when I was but little more than a baby. Oh, I can wear it, but I don't care for it. Don't feel badly, however, my dear Carrie; all you've got to do is just to take these back and make me some blue ones, and I know you won't mind doing that.
Rob's letter ran:
My dear Rob: I am writing to thank you for the box of chocolates you sent yesterday. I am sending them back to you, though, because I seldom eat chocolates. Oh, no, they don't hurt me, but I don't like them as well as I do caramels, so won't you please change them? Mother gives me a box of candy every Christmas, but it is never chocolates. I know you would rather give me what I like, Rob, dear.
Lots of love
Rose had striven early and late over a crocheted tidy, spending long hours of her playtime in doing work to which her fingers were but little accustomed. She confidently expected a loving letter of thanks and praise, and could scarcely wait to open the envelope. This is what she read:
My dear Rose: Thank you very much for the tidy, dear, but whatever in the world caused you to make it in that stitch? I like shell-stitch ever so much better, so would you mind doing it over for me? I am returning this one, for maybe you will decide to ravel it out; if you don't, you can just make me a new one. Mother has crocheted several things for me, but most of them are in shell-stitch, which, after all, is about the only stitch I care for.
Lots of love from
Your Cousin Helen
After a dazed five minutes of letter-reading, the four children hurried to the attic—always their refuge for a conference. There they read the four letters aloud, one after another. A dumfounded silence followed the last word. Rose was the first to break it.
"I think she's a mean old thing—so there!" Rose was almost crying.
"Hush, dear, hush!" choked Carrie. "She is n't mean; she's good and kind—we know she is. She—she means something by it; she must. Let's read them again!"
Bit by bit they went over the letters. It was at the third mention of "mother" that Tom raised his head with a jerk. He looked sheepishly into Carrie's face.
"I—I guess I know," he said with a shame-faced laugh.
It must have been a month later that Miss Mortimer received a letter from Mrs. Dudley. One paragraph sent a quick wave of color to the reader's face; and this was the paragraph:
I am feeling better than for a long time. Some way, the work does n't seem nearly so hard as it used to. Perhaps it is because I am stronger, or perhaps it is because the children are not nearly so particular about their food as they used to be. I am so glad, for it worried me sometimes—they were so very fussy. I wondered how they would get along out in the world where "mother" could n't fix everything to their liking. Perhaps you noticed it when you were here. At any rate, they are lots better now. Perhaps they have out-grown it. I hope so, I'm sure.