Read CHAPTER II - TABITHA AND GLORIANA, HOUSEKEEPERS of Tabitha's Vacation , free online book, by Ruth Alberta Brown, on ReadCentral.com.

“You really think you want to do it?” Mr. Catt glanced quizzically from one bright, girlish face to the other as his fingers gently stroked the red tresses and the black hovering so close to his knee.

“Sure, daddy!” promptly answered Tabitha, patting the arm nearest her in a fashion that a year before she never would have dreamed of.

“Perfectly sure!” repeated Gloriana, snuggling closer to the big armchair in which her adopted father sat, and smiling contentedly at thought of the new life opening up before her.

“Two weeks mean fourteen whole days,” he warned them.

“Yes,” they giggled, “fourteen whole days!”

“And six lively children can raise quite a racket.”

“The house is too far from the rest of town for their noise to bother anyone else,” Tabitha reminded him.

“That’s another point. What would you do if burglars broke in at night? You would be too far from town to call help.”

“There is nothing at McKittrick’s to burgle,” his daughter retorted triumphantly. “I am not afraid.”

“Nor I,” said Gloriana, though somewhat faintly, for of a sudden a new phase of the matter had presented itself. She was still afraid of the black desert nights, and burglars were a constant source of terror to her, though never in all her life had she encountered any of that species of mankind.

“The cottage on the cliff is no more isolated than our cottage here in the hollow, now that the Carsons are away,” continued the black-haired girl. “It would be just as easy-easier, in fact, to get help if we needed it there, than here; for the McKittrick house is on the side of the mountain overlooking the town, while our place is hidden from the rest of Silver Bow by that hill. We can see only the roof of the assayer’s office from here, and that is the nearest building to ours except Carrie’s house.”

“That’s true!” exclaimed Gloriana with such an air of relief that Mr. Catt could not refrain from smiling.

“And besides, nothing is going to happen in two weeks,” continued Tabitha.

“Suppose Miss Davis doesn’t return in two weeks? I thought you wanted to spend your summer at the beach.”

“Oh, Miss Davis will be back on time,” was the confident reply. “And we had planned to stay here a few weeks anyway, you know. Myra won’t be looking for us before the first of July, for we had expected Tom would come home early in the summer for his vacation instead of having to wait until fall, and so made our plans accordingly.”

He smiled at the grown-up air she had assumed, then sighed, for something in her quiet self-assurance and dignified poise suddenly brought home to him the realization that his little girl was fast growing up. The sensitive, rebellious, little spitfire of a few months ago had developed into a charming, gentle-mannered maid; and while he rejoiced in gaining so sweet a daughter, he disliked to lose the wild, untamed elf who had so suddenly blossomed into a young lady before he could in any measure atone for the unhappy years of her loveless childhood. He would have kept her a little girl all her life, had he been able; but here she was springing up into the beauty of a glorious womanhood before his very eyes. So he sighed as he thought of his lost opportunities, then abruptly asked, “How old are you, Tabitha?”

“Going on sixteen, daddy.”

“And you, my other daughter?” turning to Gloriana sitting silently on her low stool by his side.

“Fourteen, sir.”

“Rather youthful housekeepers,” he drawled, teasingly.

“But experienced in spite of youth,” Tabitha gayly retorted. “Why, Miss King says we are the two most promising domestic science pupils she has. Now what do you think of that?”

“That she is right,” came the prompt though unexpected reply; “and if you really think you want to play Good Samaritan for a couple weeks, you have my hearty sanction. The fact of the matter is, I find it impossible to be here at home much for the next fortnight, myself; possibly not at all after tonight. So you might just as well be mothering the McKittricks as left alone in this end of the town, so far as I can see.”

“I knew you would say yes,” sighed Tabitha contentedly. “You shall see what model housekeepers your daughters can be. We’ll make you proud of us.”

“I have no doubt of it,” he answered heartily. “But if you begin your arduous duties to-morrow, it is time you were in bed this minute. Fly away now!”

So they ran laughingly away to their room, both secretly glad of the chance to seek their pillows an hour earlier, for that day at the McKittrick cottage had been a busy one, and though neither would acknowledge it to the other, feet, arms and backs ached sadly. But the next morning, after a refreshing night’s sleep, the duet was ready and eager for the novel rôle they were about to play; and just as soon as their own simple tasks were done, the necessary clothes packed and the little cottage made secure for its two weeks of solitude, they tramped merrily up the steep path to the Eagles’ Nest, and entered upon their summer vacation as housekeepers for a family of six, as Susie expressed it.

Everything was topsy-turvy in the excitement of getting the injured father, and weary, distracted mother started on their brief journey; but finally they were off, and a row of sober-faced children stood on the bluff overlooking the flats below, watching the train puff its way slowly out of sight behind the mountains.

With the last glimpse of the departing cars, the sense of responsibility in her new charge descended upon the shoulders of the volunteer housekeeper, and Tabitha was for a brief moment appalled at the task which she had so rashly undertaken.

“Six children to look after for two whole weeks!” she gasped in dismay. Then her courage returned with a rush. “Why, Tabitha Catt, you coward! I am ashamed of you! If you can’t take care of six children for two short weeks, particularly with Gloriana to help, you are not good for much!” Resolutely she turned toward the house, saying briskly, to hide her own wavering spirits, “Well, folkses, let’s have chocolate pie for supper!”

“Oh, goody!” cried Inez, whirling about to follow her leader; and at mention of these words, the faces of the whole group brightened wonderfully.

“Can’t we have some cake, too? Mamma said we might if you knew how to make it.”

“Knew how to make it?” boasted Tabitha scornfully. “Well, I should say we do! What kind will you have?”

“Nut loaf,” quickly responded Mercedes, who knew from experience how delicious Tabitha’s nut loaves were.

“Angel cake,” wheedled Susie, with her most engaging smile.

“Frosted with chocolate,” added Inez.

“Devil’s food,” suggested Irene.

“Cookies,” pleaded Rosslyn, who had a boy’s fondness for that particular delicacy.

“Dingerbread,” lisped the baby.

And Tabitha laughed. “That’s quite a collection, my dears.”

“I should say so!” gasped Gloriana. “We can’t make them all to-night. In fact, it is nearly four o’clock now. There isn’t time for both pie and cake.”

“Unless we do make gingerbread, as Janie suggested,” said Tabitha slowly, seeing the look of disappointment clouding the row of round, serious faces watching them so expectantly.

“Wiv raisins,” coaxed Rosslyn. “Lots of ’em!”

Instantly the faces brightened again. “Oh, yes, that’s the way we like it best,” chorused the four older members.

“And let us seed them,” pleaded Inez. “Mamma often lets us.”

“She won’t let us eat more’n twelve,” added Irene hopefully, “and we can work real fast.”

“Well, you will have to if we have gingerbread for supper,” said Gloriana. “I supposed the raisins were already seeded. Will we have time, Tabitha?”

“Yes, if everyone hustles, I reckon. Mercy, you know where things are in the pantry. Supposing you get out the spices, sugar, flour, and things. Susie and the twins stone the raisins; and, Rosslyn, you might bring in some small wood for the stove. We’ll use the range to-night, because I have baked in that oven before and know how it works, but won’t know until I experiment with it, how the gasolene oven bakes.”

While she was issuing orders, Tabitha flaxed blithely about the little kitchen, lighting the fire, hunting up cooking utensils, and beginning the process of making chocolate pie, leaving Gloriana to wrestle with the mysteries of a raisin gingerbread.

Anxious for the coming treat, the children obediently flew to their various tasks; and soon voices buzzed busily, while the little hands tried their best to hurry.

“There!” breathed Tabitha at last, lifting a red, perspiring face from an inspection of two beautifully frosted pies in the oven, “they are done. Don’t they look fine? Now you can put in your gingerbread whenever you are ready, Glory. I’ll set these on the wash bench outside to cool, while I hustle up the rest of the supper.”

“Mamma always puts her pies in the pantry window,” volunteered Irene, not wishing to have the tempting delicacy removed from her sight.

“But they will cool quicker in the open air,” explained Tabitha. “And supper will be ready so soon that they won’t be cool enough to eat if we set them in the window. Now, Mercy -”

“Oh, Kitty,” came a sudden wail of alarm from the dooryard where Rosslyn was still busy with his basket of chips, “Janie is gone! I can’t find her anywhere!”

Tabitha dropped her platter of cold potatoes which she was preparing to warm over; Mercedes hastily left her dishpan where she was piling up the soiled kitchen utensils which the youthful cooks had used with extravagant hand; Susie and the twins abruptly deserted the raisin jar; and all bolted for the door.

Only Gloriana remained at her post. She had arrived at the most critical stage of her gingerbread making, and though her first impulse was to join in the search for the missing baby with the rest of her mates, her thrifty bringing-up reminded her that in the meantime the cake would spoil. So she paused long enough to dump in the cupful of raisins still standing on the doorsill, where the seeders had been sitting at their task. Giving the mixture a final beat, she poured the spicy brown dough into the baking sheet, thrust it into the oven, adjusted the dampers, and followed the example of the others, setting out down the rocky path as rapidly as her lameness would permit.

Meanwhile, toiling up the steep trail on the other side of the house, came a tiny, tired figure, almost ready to drop from her unusual exertions. Her dress was torn in a dozen places where the cruel mesquite had caught her as she passed, one shoe was unlaced, one stocking hung in rolls about the plump, scratched ankle, she wore no hat, and her fair hair was sadly tousled by the wind and her struggle through sagebrush and Spanish bayonets. Altogether, she presented a woeful spectacle; but in spite of it all, she clasped tightly in one chubby fist, a soiled and crumpled letter, which every now and then she examined critically, having discovered that the warmth and moisture of her fat hands left tiny, smudgy fingerprints on the white envelope, and being anxious to present a clean document to her wondering audience when she should have reached her goal. But oh, it did seem so far up to the Eagles’ Nest, and the way was so rough for her little feet! Still she kept plodding wearily along, and at length reached the end of her journey, only to find the house silent and deserted.

“Mercy!” she piped shrilly, pushing open the screen and stumbling into the hot kitchen. “I’se dot a letter! Where is you? Susie! Rossie!”

Still no answer. Puzzled at this unusual state of affairs, she raced from room to room as fast as her short, tired legs would carry her, but no one was there.

“Tabby!” she shrieked. “Dory! What did you leave me for?”

A panic seized her. She had been deserted! Tears gathered in her sea-blue eyes, and trickled in rivulets down her flushed cheeks. She was afraid to stay alone. Why had everyone left her? Back to the kitchen she pattered. It was empty, but a fire still burned in the stove and savory odors from the oven lured her on. Curiosity overcame her fear for a moment, and with a mighty tug, she jerked open the door, revealing Gloriana’s gingerbread just done to a turn.

“Dingerbread!” cried the child, gloating over the huge, golden sheet which smelled, oh, so good! “I want some now!” And forgetting that the oven was hot, she seized the pan with both chubby fists, but instantly let go her hold and roared with pain, for ten rosy fingers were cruelly burned, and how they did smart!

Suddenly above the wail of her lusty voice came the sound of excited voices and flying feet; and the next instant frightened Tabitha with her adopted brood in close pursuit, flew into the kitchen, and gathered up the hurt, sobbing baby in her arms, crooning tenderly, “There, there, dearie, you mustn’t cry any more. We’ve all come back. We were hunting you. Where did you go?”

“Oh, see her hands!” cried Irene, shuddering in sympathy. “She has burned herself!”

“But the gingerbread isn’t burned at all,” volunteered Susie with satisfaction, after a keen and anxious scrutiny of the spicy loaf half-way out of the oven.

“For goodness’ sake!” ejaculated Tabitha, not having noticed the seared fingers up to that moment, “What do you do for burns?”

“Bring some butter,” ordered Gloriana, remembering Granny Conover’s first remedy for burns.

“Mamma uses molasses,” said Irene; and Susie and Inez, recovering their senses at the same instant, dived into the pantry, returning immediately, one with a crock of butter in her hand, and the other bearing a bucket of molasses; and before either of the older girls could intervene, they plunged both of Janie’s dirty, scorched hands first into one dish and then into the other, leaving them to drip sticky puddles down the front of Tabitha’s dress and on to the clean kitchen floor.

“Why, you little monkeys!” gasped the senior housekeeper, forgetting the dignity of her position in her wrath at what seemed inexcusable carelessness on the part of the girls.

“Mamma always puts molasses on burns,” quavered Inez, her lip trembling at Tabitha’s tone.

“And Glory said butter,” surprised Susie defended. Then both culprits dissolved in tears.

“There, there, never mind!” cried Tabitha in dismay. “I didn’t mean to scold, but you ought to have known more than to stick the baby’s dirty hands into the molasses pail and butter crock.”

“Not dirty!” screamed the outraged Janie, striking the face above her with a dripping fist. “On’y burned! Ve pan was-” Her sentence unfinished, she found herself ruthlessly shaken and dumped into the middle of the floor, while angry Tabitha rushed out of the door into the cool dusk of early evening, leaving a dismayed family staring aghast at each other in the hot kitchen. Even the amazed baby forgot to voice her protest at such treatment, but stood where she had landed, staring with round, scared eyes after the fleeing figure.

Down the mountainside sped Tabitha to the big boulder, wheeled about and rushed back to the house as swiftly as she had left it, and before the astounded children had recovered their breath, she cried, “I am sorry I was cross. I reckon I’m a little tired and everything has gone upside down and-suppose we have supper now. I know you are all hungry. Susie, while I am tying up Janie’s hands, you might put the potatoes on in the frying pan; Irene, set the table; Inez, fetch the water; and Mercy, cut the bread. Is the gingerbread done, Gloriana?”

“Yes,” responded the junior housekeeper proudly, “and already sliced for the table. Shall I bring in the pie?”

“The pies!” shouted the six McKittricks.

“I had forgotten all about them,” confessed the older girl. “Yes, you better get them right away. One will be enough for supper,-the tins are so large.”

While Tabitha was speaking, Gloriana had stepped briskly out of the door into the summer night and disappeared around the corner of the house; but immediately a terrified scream pierced the air, there was a loud snort and the sound of startled, scampering feet, and Gloriana burst into the room again bearing an empty plate in one hand and a dilapidated looking pie, minus all its frosting, in the other.

“Oh, our lovely pies!” wailed the children in chorus.

“The burros!” gasped Tabitha.

Gloriana nodded. “One had his nose right in the middle of this pie. The other beast had upset the second tin and was licking up the crumbs from the gravel.”

“Oh, dear, I want some pie!” whimpered Rosslyn, puckering his face to cry.

“Ain’t that the worst luck?” Susie burst out.

“If you had put the pies in the window to cool, like mamma does-” began Inez.

“It’s too late to make any more to-night,” Gloriana hastily interrupted, seeing a wrathful sparkle in Tabitha’s black eyes; “but if you don’t make any more fuss about it this time, we’ll bake some to-morrow.”

“And if you want any supper at all, you’d better come now,” advised Mercedes, from her post by the stove, where she was vigorously making hash of the sliced potatoes. “This stuff is beginning to burn.”

Gloriana rescued the frying pan, and the disappointed children gathered about the table, trying to look cheerful, but failing dismally.

“Don’t want any ’tato,” objected Janie, scorning the proffered dish. “Dingerbread!”

“Potato and beans first,” insisted Tabitha.

“Dingerbread!” stubbornly repeated the child, so sleepy and cross that the weary older girl said no more, but slid a large slice of the savory cake into the little plate, and proceeded to help the other children in the same liberal manner. No one wanted beans and potato, but at the first mouthful of the tempting-looking gingerbread, everyone paused, looked inquiringly at her neighbor, chewed cautiously a time or two, and then eight hands went to eight pair of lips.

“I thought we stoned raisins for this cake,” cried Susie, half indignantly.

“So you did,” replied Gloriana, her face flushed crimson as she bent over her plate, intently examining her slice of cake.

“Oh, and put the stones in the cake! What did you do with the raisins?” demanded Inez.

Before Glory could frame a reply, or offer any excuse for the accident, Irene slid hurriedly off her chair, flew through the doorway and down the path toward town, but she was back in a moment, and in her hand she held a cup of raisins.

“Why, Irene McKittrick!” cried Mercedes, lifting her hands in horror. “What made you hide them?”

“I didn’t hide them,” the twin indignantly protested. “The cup was in my lap when Rosslyn called that Janie was lost, and I forgot to put it down when I ran out-doors. I remembered it by the time we reached our playhouse, so I set it down there and that’s where I found it now.”

“Janie wasn’t lost,” interrupted that small maiden in drowsy tones. “Me went to get a letter.”

“To get a letter!” chorused her sisters. “Where?”

“To the store where Mercy goes. A man dave me one, too,” she finished triumphantly, squirming down from her high chair to search about the room for the missing epistle, while the rest of the family forgot both pie and gingerbread in joining in the hunt. Rosslyn found it at last under the stove where it had fallen when Janie began her investigation of the oven; and the girls exclaimed in genuine surprise, “Why, it is a real letter!"’

“Addressed to mamma,” said Mercedes, “Do you suppose Janie really went to the post-office all alone?”

But Janie was fast asleep in her chair where she had retired when convinced that Rosslyn had actually found her precious letter; so the sisters once more bent curious eyes upon the soiled envelope.

“Better re-address it to your mother,” suggested Tabitha, remembering that in her written instructions, Mrs. McKittrick had failed to mention the matter of mail which might come to Silver Bow for her.

“Mamma told me to open all her letters, and not even to send papa’s to Los Angeles, unless ’twas something very important.”

“Then why don’t you open it?” cried Susanne impatiently.

“And see who wrote it,” added Inez.

“I-I-guess I will.” Deliberately she tore open the envelope, spread out the brief letter it contained, and with a comically important air, read the few short lines. Then beginning with the heading, she read it the second time, her face growing graver at each word, until impatient Inez could stand the strain no longer, and burst out, “Well, what’s it all about? Does it take you all night to read that teenty letter?”

“It’s from Aunt Kate, Uncle Dennis’ wife,” Mercedes slowly retorted. “She is going to Europe for something, and wants to send the boys out here to us.”

“Williard and Theodore?”

“Yes.”

“But how can they, with papa hurt and mamma gone?”

“She says that they will pay good board and she knows mamma will be glad enough to get the money, seeing that papa’s still unable to work.”

Tabitha’s face darkened. “It’s an imposition!” she exploded wrathfully.

“I sh’d say so!” agreed Susanne. “They are dreadful noisy boys. We had ’em here once before, and Aunt Kate got awful mad ’cause papa licked ’em when they touched a match to the old shed to see how the people on the desert put out fires.”

“She said they never should come again,” added Inez, “but I guess she’s forgot.”

“How old are they?” ventured Gloriana.

“Williard’s between me and Susie,” Mercedes answered, “and Theodore’s between Susie and the twins.”

“Are you going to let them come?” demanded Irene.

Mercedes turned helplessly toward Tabitha. “What would you do, Kitty?” she asked. “Shall I write and ask mamma?”

“I shouldn’t,” Tabitha promptly replied. “Your mother has her hands full now, and it would only worry her to know how nervy your Aunt Kate is. I’d write her,-your aunt, I mean,-and tell her just how things stand, your father in the hospital and your mother with him. She ought to know more than to send them then. Still, I believe I’d just say that the boys can’t come. She would understand that all right. And I’ll be responsible, Mercedes, if your mother should think we ought to have told her about it first.”

I’d telegraph, so’s to be sure,” said Susanne. “Aunt Kate doesn’t think much about other folks’ wishes, and if she wanted to go to Europe bad enough, she’d ship the boys to us if we all had smallpox.”

“That’s a good idea,” Tabitha acknowledged. “We’ll telegraph at once, and then she will have no excuse for not knowing how sick your father is. Where is there a pencil and paper? I’ll write out a telegram now, and we’ll slip down town, and send it to-night.”

She hastily scribbled the words:

“Mrs. Dennis McKittrick,
Jamaica Plains, Mass.

Don’t send boys. Father in Los Angeles hospital. Mother with him.

MERCEDES McKITTRICK.”

Then taking Irene as company, she carried the message to the telegraph station that same evening, to make sure it reached its destination in time to prevent the threatened visit from the unwelcome cousins.

“Perhaps I acted in a high-handed manner,” she confessed to Gloriana, as they were preparing for bed that night, “but I couldn’t bear to think of that selfish old cat-yes, that’s what she is,-imposing upon Mrs. McKittrick again. I remember the boys, though it was quite a while ago that they were here. They were only little shavers then, too. I never met them, but one doesn’t have to in order to know all they want to know about their antics.”

“And judging from our first day’s experiences as housekeepers in this family, we shall have all we want to do, without two terrors of boys added.”

“To-day has been rather hard and disappointing,” Tabitha acknowledged with a gusty sigh.

“But to-morrow will be better,” Gloriana comforted her. “And it is only for two weeks. That’s one consolation.”

“Thank fortune!” Tabitha exclaimed with fervor; and the tired eyelids closed over the drowsy black eyes and the gray.