by Quincy Germaine
"When mother says salad and Henrietta custard, and Ned must have omelet, and father demands cake, and the hens won't lay, will you tell me how to accomplish the miracle?"
Rose's voice was answered in the empty kitchen whence the maid-of-all-work had recently fled. The speaker was as hot as the humid day outside, and in her straight blue apron with her curly hair concealed by a severe dusting-cap looked almost anything but the daughter of the house. She surveyed the untidy scene disconsolately for a moment, then took a broom from the closet and began to wield it with a fury calculated to bring on a fever. But by the time the room was swept and its tables cleared of breakfast dishes, her excitement had abated. She sank down in a rocking chair by the window for a moment of futile reflection.
It was the first week of the Gerard family vacation, supposed to be for the purposes of recuperation and idleness. The one efficient maid they had brought out from the city had endured the pleasures of country living for five days. That morning she had departed without warning just two hours before Henrietta's guests were due. Not quite thirty minutes later Mrs. Gerard had been summoned by the telephone to a sick neighbor four miles away. She had been driven off in one direction by her husband, while her son went in the other to meet and delay his sister's arriving friends. Henrietta had undertaken to set the rooms in order upstairs, so Rose was alone in the kitchen with a problem that defied all solution.
"In the city with stores around every corner we never need an egg," she reflected gloomily. "Out here everything seems to depend on hens. Drat 'em!"
No reassuring sounds came from the hen-yard as the moments passed. Nervously she ran over the possibilities of the ice-box and pantry, but always she came up against the dire necessity presented by the combination of expected guests and inconsiderate fowls.
"I'd like to wring their necks! Mayonnaise, two; custard, three; cake, three; and -- Gracious, how many for the omelet? It's a foolish meal anyhow, all eggs! They'll be sick!"
She rose from her chair and crossed the long kitchen to the pantry. In jerking open the ice-chest doorshe managed to strike her head a blow that brought the tears to her eyes. Though cold meat, fruit, and vegetables confronted her, she propped her head on her fist and wept.
Bathed in a flood of woe and thoroughly enjoying the misery, she did not turn round when presently she heard a step behind her. She thought it was Henrietta, when a man's voice said:
"Here are your eggs, and fresh butter."
Rose recognized the voice. It was the last straw on the load of exasperation. Her knees gave way beneath the burden and she sank limply to the floor. Though she did not look up, she knew exactly how the intruder looked.
He was tall, with smiling brown eyes and handsome teeth. He always wore khaki, and his hair and tanned skin were the same color. He was not merely an egg-and-butter man either, but one who had come originally, as they had, to spend his vacations in the country and had fallen under the spell of rural living. He was a bachelor, too, and distinctly eligible from the society point-of-view. Furthermore, he had asked her to marry him, more than once in the six years of their acquaintance. She knew that he would never ask her again now that he had seen her thus, -- hot and dirty and drenched in tears. She bowed her head still lower and sobbed afresh.
But the egg-and-butter man was of an enquiring type of mind. After a moment he came over to where she crouched, picked her up without an effort, and in an equally matter-of-fact way carried her to the sink where he washed her face and dried it in her apron. Then he put her in the rocking-chair and stood over her till she looked at him.
"What's the matter?" he demanded then.
She told him and tears welled up again in the telling.
"Well," he said, "here are the eggs."
She looked at the box and back at him.
"Two dozen! Dick, I could kiss you!"
"You may," he answered gravely. "Thirty cents' worth to the dozen."
"Now we'll see this little party through," he added. "What do say to my being butler, just for style?"
Rose nodded with shining eyes, as she began the mayonnaise.
"Did anyone see you come?" she asked.
"Never a soul. I couldn't get in the front door. That's why I came round to the back."
"That's the proper door when you come to see the maid," she retorted. "Just you keep out of sight. Miss Henrietta's very strict about my having followers till my work's done!"
"But I'm on this job, too, till after lunch. Can I have a white shirt and coat of Ned's?"
"Out in the laundry, I think. Go and look while I mix the cake."
The egg-and-butter man went out. The butler returned. He laid the table while she made the custard, and vanished dutifully when Henrietta, -- as the guests were sighted down the road -- came to the kitchen to see how Rose was progressing.
"What will we do with them this afternoon?" she questioned desperately, as she turned to go. "Ned has driven them all around before bringing them over."
"Everything is arranged," said Rose. "Just get out of my kitchen now, and keep your head during luncheon."
Henrietta went. She did not like her sister's tone, but she knew that only a miracle could save the day and she wondered despairingly what would be forthcoming. Her greeting to the guests when they drove up with Ned was gay, though perhaps hysterical.The Bostwick girls were rather formal friends, and she dreaded the necessity of apologizing. The reappearance of her mother and father, however, distracted her mind from the need of excuses and they were all in the dining-room before she recollected what she had intended to say.
The butler stood behind her mother's chair. Henrietta saw her father's eyebrows rise as he glanced at the man. Her heart sank when Ned hastily emptied his glass by a single gulp. Furtively she met her mother's eyes. In them, beneath amusement, was an unmistakable command.
"Rose was sorry not to be in for luncheon," she said to the nearest guest, "but she'll be with us this afternoon."
"I'm glad she's not off visiting," was the reply. "Mrs. Gerard, this is the dearest place! The simple life for mine!" and the meal proceeded tranquilly.
The omelet was an enormous fluff set in a garniture that no chef could invent from the limited resources of a kitchen conservatory; the salad under its golden dressing was an old-fashioned bouquet. The cake and custard proclaimed at once to unaccustomed palates that real fresh milk and new-laid eggs are luxuries unknown to the city-bred. And the hand that served and removed the dainty, flowered plates did not mar the culinary achievement by a single slip.
Across the gorgeous irises that formed the center-piece, the Bostwick girls, while listening to Henrietta's account of the simplicity of this vacation life and to Ned's laughing comments on the terrible death of congenial friends, exchanged glances that in the course of time cost their father the price of the nearest available farm.
When the luncheon was at and end and they had been on the shaded piazza an hour and more, as conversation began to flag, Ned raised the question of plans for the afternoon. All sounds from the dining-room had ceased, and likewise a murmer of running water from above.
"I was waiting for Rose," said Henrietta. "I'll go in and see if she has come."
She went upstairs and down the long hall to her sister's room. The door was closed, and she hesitated to knock for fear of breaking in on a deserved rest. But to a timid tap a wide-awake voice called "Come!", and she burst open the door amazedly.
Rose, cool and very much preoccupied, stood before the mirror dressed in white. She was trying the effect of different hats. She did not even glance at Henrietta.
"Rose," begged the latter after a moment or two of silence, "are you coming down? The Bostwicks are getting bored and there's nothing on earth to do."
"If they can wait another half-hour, there's a wedding for them to attend over at the old meeting-house."
"Your butler and your maid."
Henrietta sank on the bed with a gasp.
"But Dick's a farmer! You said it would take a miracle to make you marry him!"
"It did," returned Rose composedly.
"Out here in the country all the time! What will you do?"
Rose decided on a lace hat trimmed with tiny pink blossoms under the brim.
"What will I do?" she repeated with a little smile. "Give me something harder to answer, why don't you? I made a luncheon out of nothing at all; from the empty air I supplied a butler to serve it properly. Now I'm offering to entertain your guests in a way that will surely surprise them. Go downstairs and hunt for another miracle somebody would like to have performed."