They had been called the Sawyer girls whenMiranda at eighteen, Jane at twelve, andAurelia at eight participated in the variousactivities of village life; and when Riverboro fellinto a habit of thought or speech, it saw no reasonfor falling out of it, at any rate in the same century.
So although Miranda and Jane were between fiftyand sixty at the time this story opens, Riverborostill called them the Sawyer girls. They werespinsters; but Aurelia, the youngest, had made whatshe called a romantic marriage and what her sisterstermed a mighty poor speculation. "There's worsethings than bein' old maids," they said; whetherthey thought so is quite another matter.
The element of romance in Aurelia's marriageexisted chiefly in the fact that Mr. L. D. M. Randallhad a soul above farming or trading and was a votaryof the Muses. He taught the weekly singing-school(then a feature of village life) in half a dozenneighboring towns, he played the violin and "called off"at dances, or evoked rich harmonies from churchmelodeons on Sundays. He taught certain uncouthlads, when they were of an age to enter society, theintricacies of contra dances, or the steps of theschottische and mazurka, and he was a markedfigure in all social assemblies, though conspicuouslyabsent from town-meetings and the purely masculinegatherings at the store or tavern or bridge.
His hair was a little longer, his hands a littlewhiter, his shoes a little thinner, his manner a triflemore polished, than that of his soberer mates;indeed the only department of life in which he failedto shine was the making of sufficient money to liveupon. Luckily he had no responsibilities; his fatherand his twin brother had died when he was yet aboy, and his mother, whose only noteworthy achievementhad been the naming of her twin sons Marquisde Lafayette and Lorenzo de Medici Randall, hadsupported herself and educated her child by makingcoats up to the very day of her death. She was wontto say plaintively, "I'm afraid the faculties was toomuch divided up between my twins. L. D. M. isawful talented, but I guess M. D. L. would 'a' benthe practical one if he'd 'a' lived.""L. D. M. was practical enough to get the richestgirl in the village," replied Mrs. Robinson.
"Yes," sighed his mother, "there it is again; ifthe twins could 'a' married Aurelia Sawyer, 't would'a' been all right. L. D. M. was talented 'nough toGET Reely's money, but M. D. L. would 'a' ben practical'nough to have KEP' it."Aurelia's share of the modest Sawyer propertyhad been put into one thing after another by thehandsome and luckless Lorenzo de Medici. He hada graceful and poetic way of making an investmentfor each new son and daughter that blessed theirunion. "A birthday present for our child, Aurelia,"he would say,--"a little nest-egg for the future;"but Aurelia once remarked in a moment of bitternessthat the hen never lived that could sit onthose eggs and hatch anything out of them.
Miranda and Jane had virtually washed theirhands of Aurelia when she married Lorenzo deMedici Randall. Having exhausted the resourcesof Riverboro and its immediate vicinity, theunfortunate couple had moved on and on in a steadilydecreasing scale of prosperity until they had reachedTemperance, where they had settled down andinvited fate to do its worst, an invitation which waspromptly accepted. The maiden sisters at homewrote to Aurelia two or three times a year, and sentmodest but serviceable presents to the children atChristmas, but refused to assist L. D. M. with theregular expenses of his rapidly growing family.
His last investment, made shortly before the birthof Miranda (named in a lively hope of favors whichnever came), was a small farm two miles fromTemperance. Aurelia managed this herself, and soit proved a home at least, and a place for theunsuccessful Lorenzo to die and to be buried from, a dutysomewhat too long deferred, many thought, whichhe performed on the day of Mira's birth.
It was in this happy-go-lucky household that Rebeccahad grown up. It was just an ordinary family;two or three of the children were handsome and therest plain, three of them rather clever, two industrious,and two commonplace and dull. Rebecca hadher father's facility and had been his aptest pupil.
She "carried" the alto by ear, danced without beingtaught, played the melodeon without knowing thenotes. Her love of books she inherited chiefly fromher mother, who found it hard to sweep or cookor sew when there was a novel in the house.
Fortunately books were scarce, or the children mightsometimes have gone ragged and hungry.
But other forces had been at work in Rebecca,and the traits of unknown forbears had been wroughtinto her fibre. Lorenzo de Medici was flabby andboneless; Rebecca was a thing of fire and spirit:
he lacked energy and courage; Rebecca was pluckyat two and dauntless at five. Mrs. Randall andHannah had no sense of humor; Rebecca possessedand showed it as soon as she could walk and talk.
She had not been able, however, to borrow herparents' virtues and those of other generous ancestorsand escape all the weaknesses in the calendar.
She had not her sister Hannah's patience or herbrother John's sturdy staying power. Her will wassometimes willfulness, and the ease with which shedid most things led her to be impatient of hard tasksor long ones. But whatever else there was or wasnot, there was freedom at Randall's farm. The childrengrew, worked, fought, ate what and slept wherethey could; loved one another and their parentspretty well, but with no tropical passion; andeducated themselves for nine months of the year, eachone in his own way.
As a result of this method Hannah, who couldonly have been developed by forces applied fromwithout, was painstaking, humdrum, and limited;while Rebecca, who apparently needed nothing butspace to develop in, and a knowledge of terms inwhich to express herself, grew and grew and grew,always from within outward. Her forces of one sortand another had seemingly been set in motion whenshe was born; they needed no daily spur, but movedof their own accord--towards what no one knew,least of all Rebecca herself. The field for theexhibition of her creative instinct was painfully small,and the only use she had made of it as yet was toleave eggs out of the corn bread one day and milkanother, to see how it would turn out; to partFanny's hair sometimes in the middle, sometimeson the right, and sometimes on the left side; and toplay all sorts of fantastic pranks with the children,occasionally bringing them to the table as fictitiousor historical characters found in her favorite books.
Rebecca amused her mother and her family generally,but she never was counted of seriousimportance, and though considered "smart" and old forher age, she was never thought superior in any way.
Aurelia's experience of genius, as exemplified in thedeceased Lorenzo de Medici led her into a greateradmiration of plain, every-day common sense, a qualityin which Rebecca, it must be confessed, seemedsometimes painfully deficient.
Hannah was her mother's favorite, so far as Aureliacould indulge herself in such recreations as partiality.
The parent who is obliged to feed and clotheseven children on an income of fifteen dollars amonth seldom has time to discriminate carefullybetween the various members of her brood, but Hannahat fourteen was at once companion and partner inall her mother's problems. She it was who kept thehouse while Aurelia busied herself in barn and field.
Rebecca was capable of certain set tasks, such askeeping the small children from killing themselvesand one another, feeding the poultry, picking upchips, hulling strawberries, wiping dishes; but shewas thought irresponsible, and Aurelia, needingsomebody to lean on (having never enjoyed thatluxury with the gifted Lorenzo), leaned on Hannah.
Hannah showed the result of this attitude somewhat,being a trifle careworn in face and sharp in manner;but she was a self-contained, well-behaved, dependablechild, and that is the reason her aunts had invitedher to Riverboro to be a member of their family andparticipate in all the advantages of their loftierposition in the world. It was several years sinceMiranda and Jane had seen the children, but theyremembered with pleasure that Hannah had notspoken a word during the interview, and it wasfor this reason that they had asked for the pleasureof her company. Rebecca, on the other hand, haddressed up the dog in John's clothes, and beingrequested to get the three younger children readyfor dinner, she had held them under the pump andthen proceeded to "smack" their hair flat to theirheads by vigorous brushing, bringing them to thetable in such a moist and hideous state of shininessthat their mother was ashamed of their appearance.
Rebecca's own black locks were commonly pushedsmoothly off her forehead, but on this occasion sheformed what I must perforce call by its only name,a spit-curl, directly in the centre of her brow, anornament which she was allowed to wear a veryshort time, only in fact till Hannah was able to callher mother's attention to it, when she was sentinto the next room to remove it and to come backlooking like a Christian. This command she interpretedsomewhat too literally perhaps, because shecontrived in a space of two minutes an extremelypious style of hairdressing, fully as effective if notas startling as the first. These antics were solelythe result of nervous irritation, a mood born of MissMiranda Sawyer's stiff, grim, and martial attitude.
The remembrance of Rebecca was so vivid that theirsister Aurelia's letter was something of a shock tothe quiet, elderly spinsters of the brick house; forit said that Hannah could not possibly be sparedfor a few years yet, but that Rebecca would comeas soon as she could be made ready; that the offerwas most thankfully appreciated, and that the regularschooling and church privileges, as well as theinfluence of the Sawyer home, would doubtless be"the making of Rebecca"