MoboReader> Literature > The Road to Providence

   Chapter 1 THE DOCTORS MAYBERRY, MOTHER AND SON

The Road to Providence By Maria Thompson Daviess Characters: 29518

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"Now, child, be sure and don't mix 'em with a heavy hand! Lightness is expected of riz biscuits and had oughter be dealt out to 'em by the mixer from the start. Just this way-"

"Mother, oh, Mother," came a perturbed hail in Doctor Mayberry's voice from the barn door, "Spangles is off the nest again-better come quick!"

"Can't you persuade her some, Tom?" Mother called back from the kitchen door as she peered anxiously across the garden fence and over to the gray barn where the Doctor stood holding the door half open, but ready for a quick close-up in case of an unexpected sally. "My hands is in the biscuits and I don't want to come now. Just try, Tom!"

"I have tried and I can't do it! She's getting the whole convention agitated. You'd better come on, Mother!"

"Dearie me," said Mrs. Mayberry, as she rinsed her hands in the wash-pan on the shelf under tin cedar bucket, "Tom is just as helpless with the chickens at setting time as a presiding elder is at a sewing circle; can't use a needle, too stiff to jine the talk and only good when it comes to the eating, from broilers to frying size. Just go on and mix the biscuits with faith, honey-bird, for I mistrust I won't be back for quite a spell."

"Now let me see what all these conniptions is about," she said in a commanding voice, as she walked boldly in through her son's cautiously widened door gap.

And a scene of confusion that was truly feminine met her capable glance. Fuss-and-Feathers, a stylish young spangled Wyandotte, was waltzing up and down the floor and shrieking an appeal in the direction of a whole row of half-barrel nests that stretched along the dark and sequestered side of the feed-room floor, upon which was established what had a few minutes before been a placid row of setting hens. Now over the rim of each nest was stretched a black, white, yellow or gray head, pop-eyed with alarm and reproach. They were emitting a chorus of indignant squawks, all save a large, motherly old dominick in the middle barrel who was craning her scaly old neck far over toward the perturbed young sister and giving forth a series of reassuring and commanding clucks.

"I didn't do a thing in the world to them, Mother," said Doctor Tom in a deprecatory tone of voice, as if he were in a way to be blamed for the whole excitement. "I was across the barn at the corn-crib when she hopped off her nest and went on the rampage. Just a case of the modern feminine rebellion, I wager."

"No such thing, sir! They ain't nothing in the world the matter with her 'cept as bad a case of young-mother skeer as I have ever had before amongst all my hens. Don't you see, Tom, two of her setting have pipped they shells and the cheepings of the little things have skeered the poor young thing 'most to death. Old Dominick have took in the case and is trying her chicken-sister best to comfort her. These here pullet spasms over the hatching of the first brood ain't in no way unusual. The way you have forgot chicken habits since you have growed up is most astonishing to me, after all the helping with them I taught you." As she spoke, Mother Mayberry had been rearranging the deserted nest with practised hand and had tenderly lifted two feeble, moist little new-borns on her broad palm to show to the Doctor.

"What are you going to do with them, Mother?" he asked, for though his education in chicken lore seemed to have been in vain he was none the less sympathetically interested in his mothers practice of the hen-craft.

"I'm just going to give 'em to Old Dominick to dry out and warm up for her while I persuade her back on the nest. As she gets used to hearing the cheepings from under another hen she'll take the next ones that come with less mistrust." And suiting her actions to her words Mother Mayberry slipped the two forlorn little mites under a warm old wing that stretched itself out with gentleness to receive and comfort them. Some budding instinct had sent the foolish fluff of stylish feathers clucking at her skirts, so she bent down and with a gentle and sympathetic hand lifted the young inadequate back on the nest.

"I really oughter put on a cover and make her set on the next," she said doubtfully, "but it do seem kinder to teach her hovering a little at a time. Course all women things has got mothering borned into 'em, but it comes easier to some than to others. I always feel like giving 'em a helping hand at the start off."

"You have a great deal of faith if you feel sure of that universally maternal instinct in these days, Mother," said the Doctor with a teasing smile as he handed her a quart cup of oats from the bin. "Oh, I know what you're talking about," answered Mother, as she scattered a little grain in front of each nest and prepared to leave in peace and quiet the brooding mothers. "It's this woman's rights and wrongs question. I've been so busy doctoring Providence Road pains and trying to make a good, proper husband outen you for some nice girl, what some other woman have been putting licks on to get ready for you, that I've been too pushed to think about the wrongs being did to me. But not knowing any more about it than I do, I think this woman's rumpus all sounds kinder like a hen scratching around in unlikely and contrary corners for the bread of life, when she knows they is plenty of crumbs at the kitchen door to be et up. But if you're going to ride over to Flat Rock this evening you'd better go on and get back in time for some riz biscuits as Elinory is a-making for you this blessed minute."

"She's not making them for me," answered the young Doctor with the color rising under his clear, tanned skin up to his very forelock. As he spoke he busied himself with bridling his restless young mare.

"Of course she is," answered his mother serenely. "Women don't take no interest in cooking unless they's a man to eat the fixings. Left to herself she'd eat store bread and cheese with her head outen the window for the birds to clean up the crumbs. Stop by and ask after Mis' Bostick and the Deacon. And if you bring me a little candy from the store with the letters, maybe I'll eat it to please you. Now be a-going so as to be a-coming the sooner." With which admonition Mother took her departure down the garden path.

She was tall and broad, was Mother Mayberry, and in her walk was left much of the lissome strength of her girlhood to lighten the matronly dignity of her carriage. Her stiffly starched, gray-print skirts swept against a budding border of jonquils and the spring breezes floated an end of her white lawn tie as a sort of challenge to a young cherry tree, that was trying to snow out under the influence of the warm sun. Her son smiled as he saw her stoop to lift a feeble, over-early hop toad back under the safety of the jonquil leaves, out of sight of a possible savage rooster. He knew what expression lay in her soft gray eyes that brooded under her Wide, placid brow, upon which fell abundant and often riotous silver water-waves. His own eyes were very like them and softened as he looked at her, a masculine version of one of her quick dimples quirked at the corner of his clean-cut mouth.

"The bread of life-she's found it," he said to himself musingly as he slipped the last buckle in his bridle tight.

"Elinory," called Mother Mayberry from the kitchen steps, "come out here and sense the spring. Everywhere you look they is some young thing a-peeping up or a-reaching out or a-running over or wobbling or bleating or calling. Looks like the whole world have done broke out in blooms and babies."

"I can't-I wish I could," came an answer in a low, beautiful voice with a queer, husky note. "It's all sticking to my hands, flour and everything, and I don't know what to do!"

"Dearie me, you've put in the milk a little too liberal! Wait until I sift on a mite more flour. Now rub it in light! See, it's all right, and most beautiful dough. Don't be discouraged, for riz biscuits is most the top test of cooking. Keep remembering back to those cup custards you made yesterday, what Tom Mayberry ate three of for supper and then tried to sneak one outen the milk-house to eat before he went to bed."

"Oh, did he?" asked Miss Wingate with delight shining in her dark eyes and a beautiful pink rising up in her pale cheeks. "I wish I COULD do something to please him and make him feel how-how-grateful I am-for the hope he's given me. I was so hopeless and unhappy-and desperate when I came. But I believe my voice is coming back! Every day it's stronger and you are so good to me and make me so happy that I'm not afraid any more. You give me faith to hope-as well as to mix biscuits." And a pearly tear splashed on the rolling-pin.

"Yes, put your trust in the Heavenly Father, child, and some in Tom Mayberry. Before you know it you'll be singing like the birds out in the trees; but I can't let myself think about the time's a-coming for you to fly away to the other people's trees to sing. When Tom told me about Doctor Stein's wanting to send a great big singer lady, what had lost her voice, down here to see if he couldn't cure her like he did that preacher man and the politics speaker, I was skeered for both him and me, for I knew things was kinder simple with us here and I was afraid I couldn't make you happy and comfortable. But then I remembered Doctor Stein had stayed 'most two weeks when he came South with Tom for a visit and said he had tacked ten years on to the end of his life by just them few days of Providence junketings and company feedings, so I made up my mind not to be proud none and to say for you to come on. I've got faith in my boy's doctoring same as them New York folks has, and I wanted him to try to cure you. Then I knew you didn't have no mother to pet up the sick throat none. A little consoling comfort is a good dose to start healing any kind of trouble with. I knew I had plenty of that in my heart to prescribe out to help along with your case; so here you are not three weeks with us, a-mixing riz biscuits for Tom's supper and like to coax the heart outen both of us. I told him-Dearie me, somebody's calling at the front gate!"

"Mis' Mayberry! Oh, Mis' Mayberry!" came a high, quavering old voice from around the corner of the house, and Squire Tutt hove in sight. He was panting for breath and trembling with rage as he ascended the steps and stood in the kitchen door.

Mother hastened to bring him a chair into which he wheezingly subsided.

"Why, Squire," she questioned anxiously, "have anything happened? Is Mis' Tutt tooken with lumbago again?"

"No!" exploded the Squire, "she's well-always is! I'm the only really sick folks in Providence, though I don't git no respect for it. In pain all the time and no respect-no respect!"

"Now, Squire, everybody in Providence have got sympathy for your tisic, and just yesterday Mis' Pike was a-asking me-"

"Tisic! I ain't talking about tisic now! It's this pain in my stomick that that young limb of satan of your'n insulted me about not a hour ago. Me a-writhing in tormint with nothing less'n a cancer-insulted me!" As the Squire projected his remark toward Mother Mayberry he bent double and peered expectantly up into her sympathetic face.

"Why, what did he do, Squire?" demanded Mother, with a glance at Miss Wingate, who still stood at the biscuit block cutting out her dough. She regarded the old man with alarmed wonder.

"Told me to drink two cups of hot water and lie down a hour-me in tormint!" The Squire fairly spit his complaint into the air.

"Dearie me, Tom had oughter known better than that about one of your spells," said Mother. "Why, I've been a-curing them for years for you myself with nothing more'n a little drop of spirits, red pepper and mint. He had oughter told you to take that instead of hot water. I'm sorry-"

"Oughter told me to take spirits-told me to TAKE spirits! Don't you know, Mis' Mayberry, a man with a sanctified wife can't TAKE no spirits; they must be GAVE to him by somebody not a member of the family. Me a-suffering tormints-two cups of hot water-tormints, tormints!"

The old man's voice rose to a perfect wail, but came down a note or two as Mother hastily reached in the press and drew out a tall, old demijohn and poured a liberal dose of the desired medicine into a glass. She added a dash of red pepper and a few drops of peppermint. This treatment of the Squire's dram in Mother's estimation turned a sinful beverage into a useful medicine and served to soothe her conscience while it disturbed the Squire's appreciation of her treatment not at all. He swallowed the fiery dose without as much as the blink of an eyelid and on the instant subsided into comfortable complacency.

"Please forgive Tom for not having more gumption, Squire, and next time you're took come right over to me same as usual. Course I know all the neighbors feel as how Tom is young and have just hung out his shingle here, and I ain't expectin' of 'em to have no confidence in him. I think it my duty to just go on with my usual doctoring of my friends. I hope you won't hold this mistake against Tom."

"Well," said the Squire in a mollified tone of voice, "I won't say no more, but you must tell him to stop fooling with these here Providence people. Stopped Ezra Pike's wife feeding her baby on pot-liquor and give it biled milk watered with lime juice. It'll die-it'll die!"

"Oh no, Squire, it's a-getting well-jest as peart as can be," Mother said in a mollifying tone of voice.

"It'll die-it'll die! Cut one er the lights outen Sam Mosbey's side-called it a new fangled impendix name-but he'll die-he'll die!"

"Sam's a-working out there on the barn roof right this minute, Squire, good and alive," said Mother Mayberry with a good-humored smile, while Miss Wingate cast a restrained though indignant glance at the doubting old magistrate.

"And old Deacon Bostick drinking cow-hot milk and sucking raw eggs! He looks like a mixed calf and shanghai rooster! So old he'd oughter die-and he'll do it! Hot water and me in tormint! Hot water on his middle in a rubber bag and nothing inside er him! He'll die-he'll die!"

"Oh no, Squire, the good Lord have gave Deacon Bostick back to us from the edge of the grave; Tom a-working day and night but under His guidance. He have gained ten pounds and walks everywhere. It were low typhus, six weeks running, too! I'm glad it were gave to me to see my son bring back a saint to earth from the gates themselves. Have you been by to see him?"

"Yes," answered the Squire as he rose much more briskly than he had seated himself, and prepared to take his departure. "Yes, and it was you a-nussing of him that did it-muster slipped hi

m calimile-but I ain't a-disputing! Play actor, ain't you, girl?" he demanded as he paused on his way out of the door and peered over at Miss Wingate with his beetling, suspicious eyes.

"Yes," answered the singer lady as she went on putting her biscuit into the pan. If her culinary manoeuvers were slow they were at least sure and the "riz" biscuits looked promising.

"Dearie me," said Mother as she returned from guiding her guest down the front walk and into the shaded Road, "it do seem that Squire Tutt gets more rantankerous every day. Poor Mis' Tutt is just wore out with contriving with him. It's a wonder she feels like she have got any ease at all, much less a second blessing. Now I must turn to and make a dish of baked chicken hash for supper to be et with them feather biscuits of your'n. I want to compliment them by the company of a extra nice dish. If they come out the oven in time I want to ask Sam Mosbey to stop in and get some, with a little quince preserves. He brought his dinner in a bucket, which troubled me, for who's got foot on my land, two or four, I likes to feed myself. I expected he was some mortified at your being here. He's kinder shy like in the noticing of girls."

"That seems to be a failing with the Providence young-with Providence people," ventured Miss Wingate with ambiguity.

"Oh, country boys is all alike," answered Mother comfortingly, only in a measure taking in the tentative observation. "They're all kinder co'ting tongue-tied. They have to be eased along attentive, all 'cept Buck Peavey, who'd like to eat Pattie up same as a cannibal, I'm thinking, and don't mind who knows it. Now the supper is all on the simmer and can be got ready in no time. Let's me and you walk down to the front gate and watch for Tom to come around the Nob from Flat Rock and then we can run in the biscuits. Maybe we'll hear some news; I haven't hardly seen any folks to-day and I mistrust some mischief are a-brewing somewhere."

And Mother Mayberry's well trained intuitions must have been in unusually good working order, for she met her expected complications at the very front gate. She was just turning to point out a promise of an unusually large crop of snowballs on the old shrub by the gate-post when a subdued sniffling made itself heard and caused her to concentrate her attention on the house opposite across the Road. And a sympathy stirring scene met her eyes. Perched along the fence were all five of the little Pikes clinging to the top board in forlorn despondency. On the edge of the porch sat Mr. Pike in his shirt sleeves with his pipe in one hand and the Teether Pike balanced on his knee. His expression matched that of the children in the matter of gloom, and like them he glanced apprehensively toward the door as if expecting Calamity to issue from his very hearthstone.

"Why, what's the matter?" demanded Mother as she hurried to the edge of the sidewalk followed by the singer lady, whose acquaintance with the young Pikes had long before ripened to the stage of intimate friendship. At the sight of her sympathetic face, Eliza, the first Pike, slipped to the ground and buried her head in her new but valued friend's dainty muslin skirt. Bud, the next rung of the stair steps licked out his tongue to dispose of a mortifying tear and little Susie sobbed outright. At this juncture, just as Mother was about to demand again an explanation of such united woe, Mrs. Pike came to the door, and a large spoon and a bottle full of amber, liquid grease made further inquiry unnecessary.

"Sakes, Mis' Mayberry, I certainly am glad you have came over to back me up in getting down these doses of oil. Ez," with an indignant and contemptuous glance at her sullen husband, "don't want me to give it to 'em. He'd rather they'd up and die than to stand the ruckus, but I ain't a-going to let my own children perish for a few cherry seeds with a bottle of oil in the house and Doctor Tom Mayberry's prescription to give 'em a spoonful all around." Mrs. Pike was short and stout, but with a martial and determined eye, and as she spoke she began to measure out a first dose with her glance fixed on young Bud, who turned white around his little mouth and clung to the fence. Susie's sobs rose to a wail and Eliza shuddered in Miss Wingate's skirt.

"Wait a minute, Mis' Pike," said Mother hurriedly, "are you sure they have et cherry seeds? Cherries ain't ripe yet, and-"

"We didn't-we didn't!" came in a perfect chorus of wails from the little fence birds.

"Of course they did, Mis' Mayberry!" exclaimed their mother relentlessly. "It was two jars of cherry preserves that Prissy put up and clean forgot to seed 'fore she biled 'em, and the children done took and et 'em on the sly. Now they're going to suffer for it."

"We all spitted the seeds out, and we was so hungry, too!" Eliza took courage to sob from Miss Wingate's skirt. Bud managed to echo her statement, while Susie and the two little boys gave confirmation from their wide-open, terror-stricken eyes.

"Well, now, maybe they did, Mis' Pike," said Mother, coming near to argue the question. Her hand rested sustainingly on one of the brave young Bud's knees which jutted out from the fence.

"Can't trust 'em, Mis' Mayberry, fer if they'll steal they'll lie," said Mrs. Pike in a voice tinged with the deepest melancholy for the fallen estate of her family. "They'll have to suffer for both sins whether they did or didn't," and again the bottle was poised.

"Now hold on, Mis' Pike," again exclaimed Mother Mayberry as her face illumined with a bright smile. "If they throwed away the cherry pits they must be where they throwed 'em and they can go find 'em to prove they character. They ain't nothing fairer than that. Where did you eat the preserves, children?" she asked, but there was a wild rush around the corner of the house before her question was answered.

"Now," exclaimed the astonished mother, "I never thought of that and if they thought to spit out one stone they did the balance. But Doctor Tom was so kind to tell me about the oil and I paid fifteen cents down at the store for it, that I'm a mind to give it to 'em anyway."

"I'll be blamed if you do," ejaculated her indignant husband as he shouldered Teether and strode into the house, unable longer to restrain his rage.

"Ain't that just like him!" said his wife in a resigned voice. "And I was just going to try to make him take this spoonful I've poured out. It won't hurt him none and it's a pity to pour it back, it wastes so. Do either of you all need it?" she asked hospitably.

Miss Wingate was dissenting with an echo of Eliza's shudder and Mother Mayberry with a laugh, when the reprieved criminals raced back around the house, each dirty little fist inclosing a reasonable number of grubby cherry stones.

"Well," assented their mother reluctantly, "I'll let you off this time, but don't any of you never take nothing to eat again without asking, and I'm a-going to punish you by making you every one wash your feet in cold water and go to bed. Now mind me and all stand to once in the tub by the pump and tell your Paw I say not to touch that kettle of hot water. I don't want you to have a drop. Go right on and do as I say."

The threatened punishment had been too great for the youngsters to mind this lesser and accustomed penalty, so they retired with cheerfulness and spirits and in a few seconds a chorus of squeals and splashes came from the back yard.

After an exchange of friendly good-bys Mrs. Pike entered her front door and Mother and the singer lady returned to their own front gate.

"Dearie me," said Mother in a tone of positive discouragement, "I don't know what I will do if I have to undo another one of Tom Mayberry's prescriptions to-day. But you couldn't expect a man to untangle a children quirk like that; and oil woulder been the thing for the cherry stones in children's stomachs, but not for ones throwed on the back walk. I hope the Squire won't hear about it," she added with a laugh.

"I think," said Miss Wingate with her dark eyes fixed on Mother's face with positive awe, "I think you are wonderful with everybody. You know just what to do for them, and what to say to them and-"

"Well," interrupted Mother with a laugh, "it are gave to some women to be called on the Lord's ease mission, and I reckon I'm of that band. Don't you know I'm the daughter of a doctor, and the wife of a doctor and the mother of one as good as either of the other two? I can't remember the time when I didn't project with the healing of ailments. When I married Doctor Mayberry and come down over the Ridge from Warren County with him, he had his joke with me about my herb-basket and a-setting up opposition to him. It's in our blood. My own cousin Seliny Lue Lovell down at the Bluff follows the calling just the same as I do. I say the Lord were good to me to give me the love of it and a father and a husband and now a son to practise with."

"The Doctors Mayberry, Mother and Son, how interesting that sounds, Mrs. Mayberry," exclaimed Miss Wingate with a delightful laugh, "And no wonder Doctor Mayberry is so gifted that he gets National commissions to study Pellagra and-and has a troublesome singer lady sent all the way from New York to patch up."

"Yes, it do look like that Tom Mayberry gets in a good chanct everywhere he goes. Some folks picks a friend offen every bush they passes and Tom's one. He was honored considerable in New York and then sent over to Berlin, Europe, and beyont to study up about people's skins. And then here he comes back, sent by the Government right down to Flat Rock, on the other side of Providence Nob, to study out about that curious corn disease they calls Pellagra, what I don't think is a thing in the world but itch and can be cured by a little sulphur and hog lard. But I'm blessing the chanct that brought him back to me, even if I know it are just for a spell. And, too, he oughter be happy to have brung his mother such a song bird as you. I'm so used to you and your helping me with Cindy away to Springfield, that I don't see how I ever got along without you or ever will." As she spoke, Mother Mayberry smiled delightedly at the singer girl and drew her closer. Mother's voice at most times was a delicious mixture of banter and caress.

"Perhaps I'll stay always," said the singer lady as she drew close against the gray print shoulder. "When I look around me I feel as if I had awakened in a beautiful world with no more dirty, smoky cities that hurt my throat, no more hot, lighted theaters, no noises, and everything is just a great big bouquet of soft smells and colors."

As she spoke, Elinor Wingate, who was just a tired girl in the circle of Mother Mayberry's strong arm, let her great dark eyes wander off across the meadow to where a dim rim of Harpeth Hills seemed to close in the valley. Her glance returned to the low, wing-spreading, brick farm-house, which, vine-covered, lilac-hedged and maple-shaded, seemed to nestle against the breast of Providence Nob, at whose foot clustered the little settlement of Providence and around whose side ran the old wilderness trail called Providence Road. And her face was soft with a light of utter contentment, for under that low-gabled roof she was finding strength to hope for the recovery of her lost treasure, without which life would seem a void. Then for a moment she looked down the village Road, across which the trees were casting long afternoon shadows and along which was flowing the tide of late afternoon social life. Women hung over the front gates to greet men in from the fields or from down the Road, girls laughed and chaffed one another or the blushing country boys, and the children played tag and hop-scotch back and forth along the way.

"It's all lovely," she said again with a contented little sigh. When she spoke softly there was not a trace of the burr in her voice and it was as sweet as a dove note.

"Days like these we had oughter take the world as a new gift from God," said Mother musingly. "It were a day like this I come with Doctor Mayberry along the Road to Providence to live, and stopped right at this gate under this very maple tree, thirty-five years ago; and thirty of 'em have I lived lonesome without him. I had a baby at my breast and Tom by my knee when he went away from us, and I know now it was the call laid on me to take up his work that saved me. When I got back from the funeral and had laid the baby on the bed Mis' Jim Petway come a-running up the road crying that Ellen, her youngest child, were a-choking to death with croup. I never had a thought but to take his saddle-bags and follow her, and somehow the good Lord guided my hand amongst his medicines, and with what I had learned from him and Pa I fought a good fight and saved the little thing's life, though it took the night to do it. And in one of them dark hours a sister-to-woman sense was born in me what I ain't never lost. A neighbor took Tom and they brought my baby to me and I stayed by Mis' Petway until they weren't no more danger. Next day it were Squire Tutt's first wife tooken down with the fever and not the week passed before that very Sam Mosbey were borned. We was too poor to have a doctor come and live here and they was a doctor over to Springfield took up my husband's county practice, so I jest naturally had to do the healing myself, only a-sending for him in the worst cases. They was a heap of teethers that summer and it kept me busy looking after 'em. I expect I made mistakes but I kept up me and the patients' courage by sympathizing and heartening. It didn't cost nobody nothing and we wasn't so prosperous then that it wasn't a help for me to do the doctoring when I could, and I mostly were able. I were glad of the work and did it with a thankful mind; not as they wasn't times when I felt sick at heart, and in danger of questioning why, but I tried to steady myself with prayer until I could find the Everlasting Arm to lean on that is always held out to the widow and the fatherless. And so a-leaning I have got me and Tom Mayberry along until now."

"And the whole rest of the world leaning on you," said the lovely lady as she drew nearer and caught Mother Mayberry's strong hand in her own slender fingers.

"Well," answered Mother, as she shaded her eyes with her other hand to look far up the Road toward the Ridge over which they were waiting for the Doctor's horse to appear, "looks like often hands a-reaching out for help gives strength before they takes any, and a little hope planted in another body's garden is apt to fly a seed and sprout in your own patch. There he is-let's hurry in the biscuits!"

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