I don' know as I cal'lated to be the makin' of anychild," Miranda had said as she folded Aurelia'sletter and laid it in the light-stand drawer.
"I s'posed, of course, Aurelia would send us theone we asked for, but it's just like her to palm offthat wild young one on somebody else.""You remember we said that Rebecca or evenJenny might come, in case Hannah couldn't,"interposed Jane.
"I know we did, but we hadn't any notion it wouldturn out that way," grumbled Miranda.
"She was a mite of a thing when we saw herthree years ago," ventured Jane; "she's had timeto improve.""And time to grow worse!""Won't it be kind of a privilege to put her on theright track?" asked Jane timidly.
"I don' know about the privilege part; it'll beconsiderable of a chore, I guess. If her mother hain'tgot her on the right track by now, she won't take toit herself all of a sudden."This depressed and depressing frame of mind hadlasted until the eventful day dawned on which Rebeccawas to arrive.
"If she makes as much work after she comes asshe has before, we might as well give up hope ofever gettin' any rest," sighed Miranda as she hungthe dish towels on the barberry bushes at the sidedoor.
"But we should have had to clean house, Rebeccaor no Rebecca," urged Jane; "and I can't see whyyou've scrubbed and washed and baked as you havefor that one child, nor why you've about bought outWatson's stock of dry goods.""I know Aurelia if you don't," respondedMiranda. "I've seen her house, and I've seen thatbatch o' children, wearin' one another's clothes andnever carin' whether they had 'em on right sid' outor not; I know what they've had to live and dresson, and so do you. That child will like as not comehere with a passel o' things borrowed from therest o' the family. She'll have Hannah's shoes andJohn's undershirts and Mark's socks most likely.
I suppose she never had a thimble on her finger inher life, but she'll know the feelin' o' one beforeshe's ben here many days. I've bought a piece ofunbleached muslin and a piece o' brown ginghamfor her to make up; that'll keep her busy. Ofcourse she won't pick up anything after herself; sheprobably never see a duster, and she'll be as hardto train into our ways as if she was a heathen.""She'll make a dif'rence," acknowledged Jane,"but she may turn out more biddable 'n we think.""She'll mind when she's spoken to, biddable ornot," remarked Miranda with a shake of the lasttowel.
Miranda Sawyer had a heart, of course, but shehad never used it for any other purpose than thepumping and circulating of blood. She was just,conscientious, economical, industrious; a regularattendant at church and Sunday-school, and a memberof the State Missionary and Bible societies, butin the presence of all these chilly virtues you longedfor one warm little fault, or lacking that, one likablefailing, something to make you sure she wasthoroughly alive. She had never had any educationother than that of the neighborhood district school,for her desires and ambitions had all pointed to themanagement of the house, the farm, and the dairy.
Jane, on the other hand, had gone to an academy,and also to a boarding-school for young ladies; sohad Aurelia; and after all the years that had elapsedthere was still a slight difference in language andin manner between the elder and the two youngersisters.
Jane, too, had had the inestimable advantage of asorrow; not the natural grief at the loss of her agedfather and mother, for she had been content to letthem go; but something far deeper. She was engagedto marry young Tom Carter, who had nothingto marry on, it is true, but who was sure to have,some time or other. Then the war broke out. Tomenlisted at the first call. Up to that time Jane hadloved him with a quiet, friendly sort of affection, andhad given her country a mild emotion of the samesort. But the strife, the danger, the anxiety of thetime, set new currents of feeling in motion. Life becamesomething other than the three meals a day,the round of cooking, washing, sewing, and churchgoing. Personal gossip vanished from the villageconversation. Big things took the place of triflingones,--sacred sorrows of wives and mothers, pangsof fathers and husbands, self-denials, sympathies,new desire to bear one another's burdens. Menand women grew fast in those days of the nation'strouble and danger, and Jane awoke from the vaguedull dream she had hitherto called life to new hopes,new fears, new purposes. Then after a year's anxiety,a year when one never looked in the newspaperwithout dread and sickness of suspense, camethe telegram saying that Tom was wounded; andwithout so much as asking Miranda's leave, shepacked her trunk and started for the South. Shewas in time to hold Tom's hand through hours ofpain; to show him for once the heart of a prim NewEngland girl when it is ablaze with love and grief;to put her arms about him so that he could have ahome to die in, and that was all;--all, but it served.
It carried her through weary months of nursing--nursing of other soldiers for Tom's dear sake; itsent her home a better woman; and though she hadnever left Riverboro in all the years that lay between,and had grown into the counterfeit presentment ofher sister and of all other thin, spare, New Englandspinsters, it was something of a counterfeit, andunderneath was still the faint echo of that wild heart-beat of her girlhood. Having learned the trick ofbeating and loving and suffering, the poor faithfulheart persisted, although it lived on memoriesand carried on its sentimental operations mostly insecret.
"You're soft, Jane," said Miranda once; "youallers was soft, and you allers will be. If 't wa'n'tfor me keeping you stiffened up, I b'lieve you'dleak out o' the house into the dooryard."It was already past the appointed hour for Mr.
Cobb and his coach to be lumbering down thestreet.
"The stage ought to be here," said Miranda,glancing nervously at the tall clock for the twentiethtime. "I guess everything 's done. I'vetacked up two thick towels back of her washstandand put a mat under her slop-jar; but children areawful hard on furniture. I expect we sha'n't knowthis house a year from now."Jane's frame of mind was naturally depressedand timorous, having been affected by Miranda'sgloomy presages of evil to come. The only differencebetween the sisters in this matter was thatwhile Miranda only wondered how they could endureRebecca, Jane had flashes of inspiration inwhich she wondered how Rebecca would endurethem. It was in one of these flashes that she ranup the back stairs to put a vase of apple blossomsand a red tomato-pincushion on Rebecca's bureau.
The stage rumbled to the side door of the brickhouse, and Mr. Cobb handed Rebecca out like areal lady passenger. She alighted with greatcircumspection, put the bunch of faded flowers in heraunt Miranda's hand, and received her salute; itcould hardly be called a kiss without injuring thefair name of that commodity.
"You needn't 'a' bothered to bring flowers,"remarked that gracious and tactful lady; "the garden's always full of 'em here when it comes time."Jane then kissed Rebecca, giving a somewhatbetter imitation of the real thing than her sister.
"Put the trunk in the entry, Jeremiah, and we'llget it carried upstairs this afternoon," she said.
"I'll take it up for ye now, if ye say the word,girls.""No, no; don't leave the horses; somebody'llbe comin' past, and we can call 'em in.""Well, good-by, Rebecca; good-day, Mirandy 'n'
Jane. You've got a lively little girl there. I guessshe'll be a first-rate company keeper."Miss Sawyer shuddered openly at the adjective"lively" as applied to a child; her belief being thatthough children might be seen, if absolutely necessary,they certainly should never be heard if shecould help it. "We're not much used to noise, Janeand me," she remarked acidly.
Mr. Cobb saw that he had taken the wrong tack,but he was too unused to argument to explain himselfreadily, so he drove away, trying to think bywhat safer word than "lively" he might havedescribed his interesting little passenger.
"I'll take you up and show you your room,Rebecca," Miss Miranda said. "Shut the mosquitonettin' door tight behind you, so 's to keep the fliesout; it ain't flytime yet, but I want you to startright; take your passel along with ye and then youwon't have to come down for it; always make yourhead save your heels. Rub your feet on that braidedrug; hang your hat and cape in the entry there asyou go past.""It's my best hat," said Rebecca"Take it upstairs then and put it in the clothes-press; but I shouldn't 'a' thought you'd 'a' wornyour best hat on the stage.""It's my only hat," explained Rebecca. "Myeveryday hat wasn't good enough to bring. Fanny'sgoing to finish it.""Lay your parasol in the entry closet.""Do you mind if I keep it in my room, please?
It always seems safer.""There ain't any thieves hereabouts, and if therewas, I guess they wouldn't make for your sunshade,but come along. Remember to always go up theback way; we don't use the front stairs on accounto' the carpet; take care o' the turn and don't ketchyour foot; look to your right and go in. Whenyou've washed your face and hands and brushedyour hair you can come down, and by and bywe'll unpack your trunk and get you settled beforesupper. Ain't you got your dress on hind sid' foremost?"Rebecca drew her chin down and looked at therow of smoked pearl buttons running up and downthe middle of her flat little chest.
"Hind side foremost? Oh, I see! No, that's allright. If you have seven children you can't keepbuttonin' and unbuttonin' 'em all the time--theyhave to do themselves. We're always buttoned upin front at our house. Mira's only three, but she'sbuttoned up in front, too."Miranda said nothing as she closed the door, buther looks were at once equivalent to and moreeloquent than words.
Rebecca stood perfectly still in the centre of thefloor and looked about her. There was a square ofoilcloth in front of each article of furniture and adrawn-in rug beside the single four poster, whichwas covered with a fringed white dimity counterpane.
Everything was as neat as wax, but the ceilingswere much higher than Rebecca was accustomed to.
It was a north room, and the window, which waslong and narrow, looked out on the back buildingsand the barn.
It was not the room, which was far more comfortablethan Rebecca's own at the farm, nor the lackof view, nor yet the long journey, for she was notconscious of weariness; it was not the fear of astrange place, for she loved new places and courtednew sensations; it was because of some curiousblending of uncomprehended emotions that Rebeccastood her sunshade in the corner, tore off her besthat, flung it on the bureau with the porcupine quillson the under side, and stripping down the dimityspread, precipitated herself into the middle of thebed and pulled the counterpane over her head.
In a moment the door opened quietly. Knockingwas a refinement quite unknown in Riverboro, andif it had been heard of would never have beenwasted on a child.
Miss Miranda entered, and as her eye wanderedabout the vacant room, it fell upon a white andtempestuous ocean of counterpane, an ocean breakinginto strange movements of wave and crest and billow.
"REBECCA!"The tone in which the word was voiced gave it allthe effect of having been shouted from the housetopsA dark ruffled head and two frightened eyesappeared above the dimity spread.
"What are you layin' on your good bed in thedaytime for, messin' up the feathers, and dirtyin'
the pillers with your dusty boots?"Rebecca rose guiltily. There seemed no excuseto make. Her offense was beyond explanation orapology.
"I'm sorry, aunt Mirandy--something cameover me; I don't know what.""Well, if it comes over you very soon again we'llhave to find out what 't is. Spread your bed upsmooth this minute, for 'Bijah Flagg 's bringin' yourtrunk upstairs, and I wouldn't let him see such acluttered-up room for anything; he'd tell it all overtown."When Mr. Cobb had put up his horses that nighthe carried a kitchen chair to the side of his wife,who was sitting on the back porch.
"I brought a little Randall girl down on thestage from Maplewood to-day, mother. She's kin tothe Sawyer girls an' is goin' to live with 'em," hesaid, as he sat down and began to whittle. "She'sthat Aurelia's child, the one that ran away withSusan Randall's son just before we come here tolive.""How old a child?""'Bout ten, or somewhere along there, an' smallfor her age; but land! she might be a hundred tohear her talk! She kep' me jumpin' tryin' to an-swer her! Of all the queer children I ever comeacross she's the queerest. She ain't no beauty--her face is all eyes; but if she ever grows up tothem eyes an' fills out a little she'll make folksstare. Land, mother! I wish 't you could 'a' heardher talk.""I don't see what she had to talk about, a childlike that, to a stranger," replied Mrs. Cobb.
"Stranger or no stranger, 't wouldn't make nodifference to her. She'd talk to a pump or a grind-stun; she'd talk to herself ruther 'n keep still.""What did she talk about?""Blamed if I can repeat any of it. She kep' meso surprised I didn't have my wits about me. Shehad a little pink sunshade--it kind o' looked like adoll's amberill, 'n' she clung to it like a burr to awoolen stockin'. I advised her to open it up--thesun was so hot; but she said no, 't would fade, an'
she tucked it under her dress. `It's the dearestthing in life to me,' says she, `but it's a dreadfulcare.' Them 's the very words, an' it's all the wordsI remember. `It's the dearest thing in life to me, butit's an awful care!' "--here Mr. Cobb laughed aloudas he tipped his chair back against the side of thehouse. "There was another thing, but I can't getit right exactly. She was talkin' 'bout the circusparade an' the snake charmer in a gold chariot, an'
says she, `She was so beautiful beyond compare,Mr. Cobb, that it made you have lumps in yourthroat to look at her.' She'll be comin' over tosee you, mother, an' you can size her up foryourself. I don' know how she'll git on with MirandySawyer--poor little soul!"This doubt was more or less openly expressed inRiverboro, which, however, had two opinions on thesubject; one that it was a most generous thing inthe Sawyer girls to take one of Aurelia's childrento educate, the other that the education would bebought at a price wholly out of proportion to itsintrinsic value.
Rebecca's first letters to her mother would seemto indicate that she cordially coincided with thelatter view of the situation.