Father liked spending his summers in the country, once he had got used to it, but it introduced two major earthquakes each year into his life. One when he moved out of town in the spring, and one in the fall when he moved back. If there was one thing Father hated it was packing. It seemed a huddled, irregular affair to a man with his orderly mind. For a week or more before it was time to begin he was upset by the prospect. He had only a few drawers full of clothes to empty into a trunk, but it had to be done in a certain particular way. No one else could attend to it for him–no one else could do the thing properly. All that Mother could do was to have his trunk brought to his room. When it had been laid in a corner, gaping at him, his groaning began. He walked around, first putting his shirts in, then his clothes and his underwear, then burrowing under and taking some out again to go in the suitcase, then deciding that after all he would not take part of what he had packed. During all such perplexities he communed with himself, not in silence.
The first sounds that used to come from his room were low groans of self-pity. Later on, as the task he was struggling with became more and more complicated, he could be heard stamping about, and denouncing his garments. If we looked in his door we would see him in the middle of the room with a bathrobe, which had already been packed twice in the suitcase and once in the trunk, and which was now being put back in the trunk again because the suitcase was crowded. Later it would once more go back in the suitcase so as to be where he could get at it. His face was red and angry, and he was earnestly saying, “Damnation!”
Long before any of this began Mother had already started her end of it. Father packed only his own clothes. She packed everything else: except that she had someone to help her, of course, with the heavy things. In the fall, for instance, a man named Jerome sometimes went up to the country to do this. He was a taciturn, preoccupied coloured man, an expert at moving, who worked so well and quickly that he kept getting ahead of his schedule. It was distracting to Mother to plan out enough things to keep Jerome busy. It was also distracting to see him sit idle. He was paid by the day.
But the principal problem that Mother had to attend to was Father. He said that he didn’t really mind moving but that he did object to the fuss. As to rugs, for instance, he refused to have any at all put away until after he and all his belongings had been moved from the house. This seemed unreasonable to me–I said he ought to allow them to make a beginning and put a few away, surely. He would admit, privately, that this was true, perhaps, but here was the trouble: if he once let Mother get started she would go much too far. “When your mother is closing up a house,” he said, “she gets too absorbed in it. She is apt to forget my comfort entirely–and also her own. I have found by experience that if I yield an inch in this matter the place is all torn up.” He added that he had to insist upon absolute order, simply because the alternative was absolute chaos. Furthermore, why shouldn’t the process be orderly if it were skilfully handled? If it wasn’t, it was no fault of his, and he declined to be made to suffer for it.
Mother’s side of it was that it was impossible to move out imperceptibly. “Things naturally get upset a little, Clare dear, when you’re making a change. If they get upset too much I can’t help it; and I do wish you would stop bothering me.”
One result of this difference was a war about the rugs every fall. Two or three weeks before they left, Mother always had the large rug in the hall taken up–there was no need of two rugs in the hall, she told Father.
“I won’t have it, damn it, you’re making the place a barracks,” he said.
“But we’re moving,” Mother expostulated; “we must get the house closed.”
“Close it properly then! Do things suitably, without this cursed helter-skelter.” He retreated into the library where he could sit by a fire, while Mother went in and out of cold rooms and halls with her shawl on.
The library had two large heavy pieces of furniture in it–a grand piano, and a huge desk-like table piled with papers and books. This table filled the centre of the room and stood square on a rug. It was hard work to lift that heavy table to get the rug out from under it. Until this was done, every year, Mother kept thinking about it at night. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t necessary to have that rug put away much beforehand, but she wanted to get it over and done with so that she could sleep. But Father was particularly dependent on this rug because he liked to sit in the library; he was always determined that it shouldn’t be touched till he left.
He couldn’t, however, remain on guard continuously. He sometimes had to go out. In fact, he was manœuvred into going out, though this he never quite learned. In the late afternoon when he supposed the day’s activities over, he would come out of the library and venture to go off in the motor. Not far, just to get the evening paper, which was a very short trip. His mind was quiet: he assumed that nothing much could be done in his absence. But just as he was leaving he would be given some errand to do–some provisions to buy in the next town beyond, or a book to leave at some friends. Or if this might make him suspicious, nothing would be said as he left, but the chauffeur would be given instructions what to say when he had bought Father’s paper.
“There are some flowers in the car, sir, that Mrs. Day . . .”
Father looked up from his paper, and looked threateningly over his glasses. “What’s all this?” he said. “What?”
The chauffeur repeated mildly “–that Mrs. Day wishes left at the church.”
“Damn the church,” Father answered, going back to the market reports. Not that he was down on that institution, he believed in it firmly, but he expected the church to behave itself and not interfere with his drives. However, he was looking through his paper, and he didn’t say no, and the chauffeur didn’t give him time to anyhow, but cranked up the car, and off they went down the Post Road, all the way into Rye.
When they got home, Father hung up his overcoat in the cold hall, and grasping his evening paper he marched back to the library fire. . . .
Meantime things had been happening. Mother had had the big table lifted, and had got up the rug; and Jerome had lugged it out to the laundry yard to beat it. After that, his orders were to roll it and wrap it and put it away. While he was doing this, which was naturally expected to take him some time, Mother thankfully went up to the china-room to pack certain cups. She always felt a little more peaceful when Jerome was fully occupied. . . .
A little later, when she was in her own room and had just sat down for a minute, for the first time that day, and was sorting the linen, and humming, there was a knock at the door.
Mother sat up sharply, every bit of her alert again. “Who is that?”
She heard a deprecating little cough, then Jerome’s quiet voice. “Now–er–Mrs. Day?”
“Well, what is it, Jerome?” Mother wailed. She had thought she had left that man enough to do for once anyhow, but here he was back on her hands again. “What is it now?” she said in despair. “Have you finished that work?”
“No’m,” Jerome said reassuringly. “I ain’t finished that yet.” He paused, and coughed again, conscious that he was bringing poor news. “Mr. Day, he’s hollerin’ consid’able, down in the liberty.”
“What about? What’s the matter with him?”
Jerome knew she knew well enough. He said, “Yes’m,” mechanically; and added in a worried way, as if to himself, “He’s a-hollerin’ for that rug.”
Mother didn’t like Jerome to use that word, “hollerin’.” It wasn’t respectful. But it was so painfully descriptive that she couldn’t think what other word he could substitute. She put down the linen. I never could see why she didn’t stay quietly in her room, at such moments, and let Father keep up his hollerin’ till he cooled off. But I was an outsider in these wars, and Mother of course was a combatant. She charged out into the big upper hall, and at once began an attack, launching her counter-offensive vigorously, over the banisters. She called loudly upon Father to stop right away and be still; and she told him how wicked it was of him to make trouble for her when she was working so hard. Father, from his post in the library, boomed a violent reply. It was like an artillery bombardment. Neither side could see the other. But they fired great guns with great vigour, and it all seemed in earnest.
Jerome stood respectfully waiting, wondering how it would come out. He was wholly in the dark as to which side was winning, there was so much give and take. But the combatants knew. Mother presently saw she was beaten. There was some note she detected in Father’s voice, deeper than bluster; or some weariness in herself that betrayed her. At any rate, she gave in.
She turned to Jerome. He saw that she was thinking how she could fix it. Jerome felt dejected. Had that big old rug got to be toted back into the library?
“Jerome, I’ll have to give Mr. Day one of those rugs from the blue-room–one of the long narrow white fur pair. You know which I mean?”
“Yes’m,” Jerome said with partial relief. “Put it under that desk?”
“No, between the desk and the fireplace. By Mr. Day’s chair. That’s all that’s necessary. He just wants something under his feet.”
This wasn’t at all Father’s idea of what he wanted, as Jerome soon discovered when he took the long white fur rug down to him. Father was so completely amazed he forgot to be angry. He had supposed he had won that bombardment. He had made Mother cease firing. Yet now after he had lowered his temperature again back to normal, and settled down to enjoy the fruits of his victory, namely his own big square rug, here was Jerome bringing him instead a long narrow hairy monstrosity.
“What’s that?” he demanded.
Jerome limply exhibited the monstrosity, feeling hopeless inside, like a pessimistic salesman with no confidence in his own goods.
“What are you bringing that thing in here for?”
“Yessir, Mr. Day. Mrs. Day says put it under your feet.”
Father started to turn loose his batteries all over again. But his guns had gone cold. He felt plenty of disgust and exasperation, but not quite enough fury. He fired what he had at Jerome, who stood up to it silently; and he kicked the offending white fur rug, and said he wouldn’t have it. But something in the air now seemed to tell him, in his turn, he had lost. Even Jerome felt this, and put the rug under his feet, “temporary,” leaving Father trying to read his paper again, indignant and bitter. He particularly disliked this white rug. He remembered it now from last year.
Mother went back to the linen. The house became quiet. The only sounds were thuds in the laundry yard, where Jerome was at work, beating and sweeping his booty, concealed by the hedge.
By the library fire Father was turning over the page of his paper, and glaring at the white rug, and saying to himself loudly, “I hate it!” He kicked at the intruder. “Damn woolly thing. I want my own rug.”