A Mother for the Seasonings © 2010
By Rachel H.
Chapter One: “The Beginning of Things”
It all started in a rather silly way I suppose. You know how we children will get an idea and stick to it through thick and thin. At the very beginning of things, we were all gathered in the parlor, listening to Rosemary tell one of her stories about the “Queen”. The younger children were scattered about her feet, and I was standing in front of the fireplace with hands clasped behind my back, which is a favorite position of mine.
This evening, Rosemary was in the midst of spinning an especially exciting tale: “The orphans heard a knock upon their rickety door: Rap-rap-tap-tap-tap-tap; quietly at first, then growing louder.” She tapped her hand on the floor. “Who would come to the old shack at night? Unless they were—“
“OUTLAWS!” Dill suggested, rather too loudly. Angelica hushed him and gripped the ear of the tiger rug tightly.
“…Unless they were coming for something or someone in particular.” Rosemary continued. “The oldest orphan grabbed the heavy iron poker and crept toward the door, pledged by honor to save the others or die in the attempt. He crept ever nearer the door, and all at once, threw it open and shouted in a loud voice, “WHO GOES THERE? WHAT ARE YOU?”
Dill jumped and stared with round eyes at Rosemary, who held an imaginary poker above her head, her eyes sparkling with excitement. She looked so like Mama at the moment, when she used to tell stories that a lump came into my throat. “Who was at the door?” Fennel whispered. Rosemary smiled mysteriously at Fennel’s wide-eyed expression. “No answer came, but a dark form glided into the room, and stood before the orphans.”
“All at once the dark form threw back her hood, revealing none other than the beautiful Queen! The firelight shone on her golden coronet of hair and-“
“Whass a golden cor’net of hair?” Fennel interrupted.
“Well it’s…well, I’m not exactly sure but it sounds regal! Anyway, the Queen bade the children flee with her, for 3-and-twenty horsemen were just then on their way to do mischief to the orphans! Outside, the Queen had gathered five horses besides her own beautiful white steed. The children mounted the creatures and, as quickly and quietly as a spring breeze, they left the shack and the clearing behind in darkness. They rode all night long, ever dreading to hear the 3-and-twenty sets of hooves in pursuit. But at last, as the morning dawned, they entered the Queen’s own land, and were in real safety at last!”
“Oh Rosie, that’s the best one yet!” Angelica exclaimed.
“It was pretty good, but I still say the 23 horsemen should have tied the children up at stake and started a fire around them, and then the Queen could rescue them!” Dill said.
“I don’t see how the Queen could have put out a fire and killed 23 knights by herself Dill. It works so much better this way!” Rosemary answered.
“I suppose you’re right. But it’s much more exciting my way!” he persisted.
Fenny scooted over to Rosemary and said in a wistful tone, “I wish the queen would come and get us.”
Rosemary smiled, then winked at me. “But then who would take care of Papa?” Fennel bit her lip and was silent for a moment. Then she replied with confidence, “Sali can marry him, and then he will always have someone to cook for him!”
Dill and I hooted at the thought, for Sali was a native woman who was employed as our cook. She was as wide as she was tall, and grouchy, but she was the most talented cook in the Cape so we didn’t mind much.
“Don’t laugh at me. Why wouldn’t it work? We could have a wedding, and I could be a flower girl, and then we could live with the Queen!”
Rosemary wiped her eyes with the hem of the pinafore and said, “Oh Fenny dear, Father would miss us too much. We’ll just have to wait and hope that someday a Queen will come and marry Father.” But she finished the words with a soft sigh.
“Well, Queen Victoria is already married, and I daresay she wouldn’t have Papa if he asked her!” Dill stated frankly. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to live in a castle.” He frowned.
“Why ever not, Dill?” Angie touched a spider’s web in the corner.
“Well, for one thing, castles are too safe! There’s no adventure at a castle!”
“Except in the Wars,…and down in the dungeon where all the desperate criminals are kept! And they are constantly having banquets: miles of tables groaning with food; potatoes and hams, fowl and vegetables, soups and bread, pastries, pies….” As Angie said this, she plucked the little spider from its web, and threw it out the window. Rosemary shuddered and tucked her skirt tightly around her feet.
“And roasts, and trifles, and mulled cider, and mountains of fluffy white rolls…” she continued. Dill appeared more transported by Angie’s description of banquets than he had at any part of the Queen story. “Well,” he conceded at last, “Perhaps I could stand being a King or something like that!”
The others burst into laughter. “You’d be Old King Cole!” Angie remarked, and she began the rhyme.
“Old King Cole
Was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he!
He called for his pipe,
And he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three!”
Dill did look like the illustration in Fennel’s nursery rhyme book, and I had a hard time keeping a straight face. Indeed, he already possessed the rounded figure and the rosy cheeks of the character, so that if he only were wearing a white periwig, it would have been perfect. Far from vexed at the comparison, Dill merely spread the lace antimacassar of his chair regally over his shoulders and drawled, “It would depend entirely, Miss Angelica, on what the bowl contained!”
We all burst into laughter at the splendid finish to the joke. I dethroned Dill with a good-natured shove, and we all returned to our former positions. “When will Papa be home?” Fennel hopped off of Rosemary’s lap and ran to the window. The great, red, Indian sun set late this time of year, so there was no need for street lamps.
“Papa’s working late again this evening, remember?” Dill replied. Fennel gazed out the window through the hibiscus bush, trying to catch a glimpse of Papa.
“It seems like we never get time with Papa anymore!” Angie bounced one foot upon the other, and shook her blond head.
“Well, he’s so busy at the camp!” I said.
“Why don’t we go down tomorrow and surprise him with a visit? We can walk down the railroad tracks and bring a picnic!” Angelica suggested. The others jumped at the idea, but I wasn’t so sure. “It’s a good idea, Angie, but…what would the OLAF say?”
“Aw! They always stop all our good ideas!” Dill complained. “Last time we wanted to play in the river, Mrs. Humphreys told us we’d drown, and Mrs. Major Warner said we’d be `et by piranhas!’ Those were her very words!”
I laughed. “Well Dill, at least that proves the OLAF doesn’t hate us! Besides, we really don’t know what is swimming in the river! There very well could be piranhas!”
“But Basil, piranhas live in the Amazon River in South America! Papa told me! This is India!” Dill pained expression was quite comical to behold.
“Now Dill,” Rosemary said, “we mustn’t blame Mrs. Major Warner for not having a handsome, clever, Papa to explain things to her!”
“Well, neither do we… anymore.” Dill said.
“Dill! Don’t talk that way! Papa doesn’t like having to work so late, but he has to do as the Colonel says!” Rosemary remonstrated. “He hates not being able to spend time with us!”
“Well. That all may be good and well! I believe Papa loves us dearly! And we love him! But the OLAF are always talking about it!” Angie said.
I groaned and passed a hand over my eyes. The OLAF was the name we had given to the women of our settlement. It was an acronym for Old Ladies Against Fun. If the title seems disrespectful, I do apologize, but even after things changed, it had become too natural to lay aside. Papa wasn’t able to spend as much time with us as he used to, but still, we loved him more than anyone we can think of. He is the best father in Cape Farsight, and even in the whole of India, or maybe the whole world.
The conversation lagged for a bit after we decided against visiting Papa at work. The dusk of the room deepened, and since Sali had not come in to light the candles, we sat in the half-light, each busy with our own thoughts. Ever so faintly through the window, we could hear a parrot screaming in the jungle.
All at once Angie sat up from where she lay stroking the tiger rug’s head and said, “Why can’t Papa get a new wife? I heard Major Warner’s wife say that he was a good `catch’ whatever that means.”
And she returned to her position on the rug, tracing the stripes on the fur.
“Well…it might seem strange. He just can’t!” I answered.
“But…why not?” Dill asked, looking at me keenly.
Rosemary lifted hopeful eyes to me, and even Fenny followed her example.
I began to feel decidedly uncomfortable. The idea was new, and I was not sure I liked it. For so long it had just been us children and Papa. It seemed that a new wife for Papa might feel out of place and foreign. Besides, hadn’t we been getting along just fine? True, Papa was so busy we seldom saw him outside of the evenings, but would a stranger in the house be worth the awkwardness of change? I had grown to accept the fact that our family consisted of a Papa, and five children. The memory of Mama ruled in my mind; the faint portrait of another parent, now forever silent, but still present.
“The reason Father can’t get married is because… well… you know… “ I stammered.
“Yes, why not Basil?” Angie asked. “We haven’t had a mother for so long!”
“Mother.” The word rang in my head like a pleasant song. I had thought of Papa having another wife, but I had overlooked the fact that we’d have a new mother. Faint remembrances of perfumed hugs and soft kisses, of winsome songs and silver laughter flooded my mind. A “mother” seemed quite different than a “wife”. A sudden eager ache gripped my heart, and I longed for a mother with a frightening intensity.
“Oh. I don’t see why Papa can’t get married if he wants to. Though he won’t get a real live Queen, I’ll warrant.” I finally admitted, trying to speak lightly so as not to sound too changeable.
Angie stood up. “All right! All we need to do is find a match for Father! Let’s see… there is Lieutenant Sander’s daughter Lily…”
Rosemary interrupted. “Father still loves Mama even though she’s gone. It wouldn’t seem disloyal would it?” and I could tell by her anxious look that the suggestion was a difficult sacrifice of this new hope.
“Do you think a new Mama would make us spice cookies?” Dill asked hopefully.
“Would our new Mama sing me to sleep?” asked Fennel.
“Would she brush my hair without pulling it?” Angie added, grinning at Rosemary.
It was my turn to speak now. “Mama has been gone ever since Fenny was born. And Fennel’s a big girl now! I think Mama would want Papa to be happy. We have to remember that. We’ve been motherless for long enough! The OLAF says you girls are mad as March hares, and they say that we boys need a `gentle, firm hand in our lives’. I think it’s high time that we have a mother. Now, I propose a plan…”
* * * * *
The next morning we waved goodbye to Angie from the gate of our little cottage on Barholt Lane. She wore her best Sunday dress, and a great big white hat. Her curls showed softly beneath the brim, and over all she looked just like a china doll I had seen in one of Fennel’s books. Dill thumped me on the back and congratulated me on coming with the splendid idea in the first place.
I knew that Angie is capable of very charming manners, so I suggested we dress her up, and send her off to the Ladies’ Club where the OLAF meets. I thought that if she could listen to enough gossip, she might hear of any ladies that were single or widowed or looking to be married.
Anyway, we waved goodbye to our little sister, and she grinned and stuck her tongue out, before turning back to the road and curtseying to Major Warner just as he passed. As I’ve told you, she could have good manners if she had a mind to.
* * * *
That same afternoon Angie came tearing into the yard, waving a piece of paper.
She paused to catch her breath and straighten her hat that sat askew on her curls. “I have a whole list of eligible ladies!” She pranced around like a peacock. Dill grabbed it and proceeded to read off a lengthy list of names.
Rosemary and Fenny joined us in the yard, and we all sat along the fence listening to Dill. “But not all of these women can marry Papa!” Rosemary reminded us.
“Of course not goose. But I don’t think all of them would want to!” I took the list from Dill and studied it. “Angie, this is your handwriting. However did you get a chance to write the names down if you were sitting in the middle of the meeting?”
She only grinned more broadly than ever and said, “I wasn’t.”
Now I was confused. “If you didn’t sit in the meeting, then how did you find out about all these people?” I waved the piece of paper in her face.
“I sat behind that group of potted palms. Ram Nokis knew I was there, and he slipped me three cookies. He really is a very nice waiter. Too bad we don’t have a mother that needs to get married. He is so nice and has a funny little parrot that rides around on his shoulder and squawks rude things at the ladies. Then Ram Nokis has to lock him up in the larder until he stops.”
“But you still haven’t told us how you got the names.” I pressed. Angie gave me a withering glance. “As I said before, I was sitting behind the palms, and I found an old receipt from someone’s bill, and you know what they bought? Three dozen tarts and a bottle of champagne! Think of all that rich food. Whoever ate all that must have felt sick!”
I was about to pinch Angie to help her stay focused, but she saw me and continued with the story. “Anyway, I asked Ram Nokis for a pencil, and he gave it to me, and I listened to the OLAF and wrote every name down. Well, at least the ones that they said were unmarried or widowed or that sort of thing.”
I read the remaining names scrawled on the paper. “Widow Tabythuh Micklurrin, Miss Sinthyuh Lowell, Miss Jone Preengul…. And Dill read you the rest. Eleven in all. “I propose that we go about this in a reasonable way. We’ll pick a name every day and visit that lady. If she isn’t the right one, then we’ll visit another the next day. That way we might find a mother before too long!”
All the others agreed with my idea.
“Capital logic Basil- I should have suggested just that sort of thing!” Dill agreed.
I should explain that these were the summer holidays, and I knew we would have many a long, empty week to go “mother-hunting” That evening when Papa came in to kiss us goodnight, we all feared Fennel would give the secret away. I was sitting near the hearth whittling a piece of wood into an elephant for her. She was looking on as Dill began talking about the OLAF. “The women there eat so much, it’s a wonder they aren’t all as fat as…as monkeys!” he finished, for lack of a better comparison.
“They sure do! They ate hundreds a’ tarts!” Fennel spoke up. We all froze, hoping against hope that Fennel would stop speaking. Rosemary’s hands trembled as she continued to knit, and Dill’s face had assumed a threatening expression. Angie was the only one who could gather her wits about her. “You’re right Fennel! The OLAF does eat a lot of tarts! You know, if you and I stacked up all the tarts they ate in a month, I bet it would reach all the way to the tippy-top of the church steeple! Or we could make a whole castle out of tarts for your dolls! Wouldn’t that be charming?” she asked, thereby diverting the conversation into safer waters. She grabbed Fennel by the pinafore and marched her behind the sofa under pretence of drawing plans for a tart-castle. Once out of sight, I could hear their whispered conversation.
“Fennel Seasoning! Don’t you dare say another word about the tarts! You’ll end up spoiling our secret!”
“What secret?” Fennel asked eagerly.
“The secret about finding a mother! Remember Basil told us not to speak of it?”
“Ohhh…. I’m sorry Angie! Did I spoil it?” she asked, a note of panic in her voice.
“No silly. Not yet, but you almost did. Just be quiet for pity’s sake, and only talk about the weather or the garden or something!”
I tried to stifle a laugh. We had decided it would be no good to tell Papa our plan. Rosemary thought that he might get sad and remember Mama and not want to get married and then all our plans would be spoiled.
Angelica and Fennel returned to the group, and sat down.
“The weather was real pretty today wasn’t it?” Fennel immediately began.
“Yes it was Fenny.” Papa agreed.
“No rain, or thunder, or lightening, or anything!” she continued.
“No Fennel, you’re quite right. The weather is usually perfect this time of year.”
“Yep. Just perfect. I didn’t even need my stockings! And Rosemary let me play in the garden barefoot!” Fennel said.
“Is that so?”
“Yes! But I think rain would be good for the garden! But the weather is so pretty! Don’t you like this weather? I like this weather!”
Angelica poked her hard in the ribs, and frowned.
“What? You said I should talk `bout the—“
“Papa!” I interrupted just in time.
I grabbed mentally for any topic that would divert the subject. “Wasn’t the roast extra good tonight?”
Angie rolled her eyes at the weak attempt. Papa smiled faintly. “Yes, it was very good. But Sali always cooks the meat to perfection.”
We were silent for some time. The knowledge that we could not talk about the one all-consuming subject of finding a mother had put a damper on our ability to make conversation.
At last, Papa roused himself with a sad smile. “I’m sorry to be so dull tonight. It is—was—you mother’s birthday…But she would want us to be cheerful tonight. Come, tell me about your day!” So he took Fennel upon his knee, and examined the grubby bouquet of flowers Angie offered with assumed cheerfulness. Rosemary leaned over the back of his chair and stroked his head while Dill chattered away about a huge fish that we had found washed up on the sand. “How was your day at camp? I finally asked, for he was in charge of training new recruits for the British Army. As if glad for a new topic, he smiled and charged bravely forward with a report of the entire goings on.
After Papa had prayed with us and tucked each one of us in own beds, I lay awake, watching the shadows of the mango tree wave and flutter on the wall.
I wondered if our plan would succeed, and if we ever would have a real mother again. It was late when at last I heard Papa go into his bedroom. Not long after I succumbed to my own weariness, and fell asleep, the day’s distractions slipping peacefully away.