It was Martha who saw the lake first. It was Katharine who noticed the sign on the cottage, and it was Mark who caught the turtle, and it was Jane who made the wish. But it was Martha who saw the lake first. The others didn’t see it until at least ten seconds later. Or, as Katharine put it, at long last when all hope was despaired of, the weary, wayworn wanderers staggered into sight of the briny deep.
This, while poetic, was not a true picture of the case. They really weren’t so wayworn as all that; the lake was only fifty miles from home. But cars didn’t go so fast thirty years ago as they do today; so they had started that morning, their mother and Martha and Mr. Smith their new stepfather in front, and Jane and Mark and Katharine and the luggage in the tonneau, which is what people called the back seat in those days, and Carrie the cat wandering from shoulder to shoulder and lap to lap as the whim occurred to her.
At first spirits were high, and the air rang with popular song, for this was going to be the four children’s first country vacation since they could remember. But two hours in a model-T Ford with those you love best and their luggage is enough to try the patience of a saint, and the four children, while bright and often quite agreeable, were not saints. It was toward the end of the second hour that the real crossness set in.
“That lake,” said Jane, “had better be good when we finally get to it. If ever.”
“Are you sure we’re on the right road?” said Mark. “That crossroad back there looked better.”
“I want to get out,” said Martha.
“You can’t,” said their mother. “Once you start that, all pleasure is doomed.”
“Then I want to get in back,” said Martha.
“Don’t let her,” said Katharine. “She’ll wiggle, and it’s bad enough back here already. Sardines would be putting it mildly.”
“Just cause I’m the youngest, I never get to do anything,” said Martha.
“That’s right, whine,” said Katharine.
“Children,” said their mother.
“I,” said Mr. Smith, “suggest we stop and have lunch.”
So they did, and it was a town called Angola, which interested Mark because it was named after one of the countries in his stamp album, but it turned out not to be very romantic, just red brick buildings and a drugstore that specialized in hairnets and rubber bathing caps and Allen’s Wild Cherry Extract. Half an hour later, replete with sandwiches and tasting of wild cherry, the four children were on the open road again.
Only now it was a different road, one that kept changing as it went along.
First it was loose crushed stone that slithered and banged pleasingly underwheel. Then it gave up all pretense of paving and became just red clay that got narrower and narrower and went up and down hill. There was no room to pass, and they had to back down most of the fourth hill and nearly into a ditch to let a car go by that was heading the other way. This was interestingly perilous, and Katharine and Martha shrieked in delighted terror.
The people in the other car had luggage with them, and the four children felt sorry for them, going back to cities and sameness when their own vacation was just beginning. But they forgot the people as they faced the fifth hill.
The fifth hill was higher and steeper than any of the others; as they came toward it the road seemed to go straight up in the air. And halfway up it the car balked, even though Mr. Smith used his lowest gear, and hung straining and groaning and motionless like a live and complaining thing.
“Children, get out,” said their mother. So they did.
And relieved of their cloying weight, the car leaped forward and mounted to the brow of the hill, and the four children had to run up the hill after it. That is, Jane and Mark and Katharine did.
Martha was too little to run up the hill. She walked. And nobody gave her a helping hand or waited for her to catch up, and she felt deserted and disconsolate, and the backs of her knees ached. When she arrived at the top, the others were already in the car and urging her on with impatient cries. But she didn’t get in the car. She threw herself down among the black-eyed Susans at the side of the road to get her breath. She glanced around. Then she jumped up again.
“Look!” she cried, pointing.
The others looked. Below them and to one side was the lake. They could see only part of it, because land and trees got in the way, but the water lay blue and cool, and there were cattails and water lilies, and from somewhere in the distance came the put-put of a motorboat.
Then Jane and Mark and Katharine started to get back out of the car, and they all clamored to go running right down to the lake now, and take their bathing suits and jump into it.
Mr. Smith had a lenient look in his eye, and their mother must have seen this, for she became firm.
“All in good time,” she said. “First things first. Wait till we get to the cottage and unpack.”
So Martha climbed back in the car, not feeling out of breath at all anymore, and they drove on till they came to a gate. Mark jumped out and opened the gate, and closed it after them, and then they drove over a rolling pasture, and there were sheep staring stupidly and a few rams looking baleful, and then another gate, and beyond it a grove of trees, and in the grove was the cottage.
And of course before there could be any base thought of unloading the car, the four children had to explore every inch of the cottage and the grounds around it, only not going near the water, because their mother’s word was law and they kept to the letter of it. But they could see the lake from every window and between the silver birches that picturesquely screened the front.
And naturally there was a hammock slung between two of the birches, and better still there was a screened porch with cots on it that ran around three sides of the cottage, and that was where the children would sleep. And there were three little rooms with more cots in them downstairs and another cot in the corner of the living room, for rainy nights, only of course there wouldn’t be many of those.
There was a big kitchen, and a big room upstairs for their mother and Mr. Smith, and that was all of the cottage.
“I’m sorry it isn’t any better,” they heard Mr. Smith saying to their mother. “It was the best I could do so late in the season.”
The four childre...