The little schoolhouse on the hill had itsmoments of triumph as well as its scenesof tribulation, but it was fortunate thatRebecca had her books and her new acquaintancesto keep her interested and occupied, or life wouldhave gone heavily with her that first summer inRiverboro. She tried to like her aunt Miranda (theidea of loving her had been given up at the momentof meeting), but failed ignominiously in the attempt.
She was a very faulty and passionately human child,with no aspirations towards being an angel of thehouse, but she had a sense of duty and a desire tobe good,--respectably, decently good. Whenevershe fell below this self-imposed standard she wasmiserable. She did not like to be under her aunt'sroof, eating bread, wearing clothes, and studyingbooks provided by her, and dislike her so heartilyall the time. She felt instinctively that this waswrong and mean, and whenever the feeling of remorsewas strong within her she made a desperateeffort to please her grim and difficult relative. Buthow could she succeed when she was never herself inher aunt Miranda's presence? The searching lookof the eyes, the sharp voice, the hard knotty fingers,the thin straight lips, the long silences, the "front-piece" that didn't match her hair, the very obvious"parting" that seemed sewed in with linen thread onblack net,--there was not a single item that appealedto Rebecca. There are certain narrow, unimaginative,and autocratic old people who seem to call outthe most mischievous, and sometimes the worsttraits in children. Miss Miranda, had she lived in apopulous neighborhood, would have had her doorbellpulled, her gate tied up, or "dirt traps" set in hergarden paths. The Simpson twins stood in suchawe of her that they could not be persuaded to cometo the side door even when Miss Jane held gingerbreadcookies in her outstretched hands.
It is needless to say that Rebecca irritated heraunt with every breath she drew. She continuallyforgot and started up the front stairs because it wasthe shortest route to her bedroom; she left thedipper on the kitchen shelf instead of hanging it upover the pail; she sat in the chair the cat liked best;she was willing to go on errands, but often forgotwhat she was sent for; she left the screen doorsajar, so that flies came in; her tongue was ever inmotion; she sang or whistled when she was pickingup chips; she was always messing with flowers,putting them in vases, pinning them on her dress,and sticking them in her hat; finally she was aneverlasting reminder of her foolish, worthless father,whose handsome face and engaging manner hadso deceived Aurelia, and perhaps, if the facts wereknown, others besides Aurelia. The Randalls werealiens. They had not been born in Riverboro noreven in York County. Miranda would have allowed,on compulsion, that in the nature of things a largenumber of persons must necessarily be born outsidethis sacred precinct; but she had her opinion ofthem, and it was not a flattering one. Now if Hannahhad come--Hannah took after the other side of thehouse; she was "all Sawyer." (Poor Hannah! thatwas true!) Hannah spoke only when spoken to,instead of first, last, and all the time; Hannah atfourteen was a member of the church; Hannah liked toknit; Hannah was, probably, or would have been, apattern of all the smaller virtues; instead of whichhere was this black-haired gypsy, with eyes as bigas cartwheels, installed as a member of the household.
What sunshine in a shady place was aunt Janeto Rebecca! Aunt Jane with her quiet voice, herunderstanding eyes, her ready excuses, in these firstdifficult weeks, when the impulsive little strangerwas trying to settle down into the "brick houseways." She did learn them, in part, and by degrees,and the constant fitting of herself to these new anddifficult standards of conduct seemed to make herolder than ever for her years.
The child took her sewing and sat beside auntJane in the kitchen while aunt Miranda had the postof observation at the sitting-room window. Sometimesthey would work on the side porch where theclematis and woodbine shaded them from the hotsun. To Rebecca the lengths of brown ginghamwere interminable. She made hard work of sewing,broke the thread, dropped her thimble into thesyringa bushes, pricked her finger, wiped theperspiration from her forehead, could not match thechecks, puckered the seams. She polished her needlesto nothing, pushing them in and out of the emerystrawberry, but they always squeaked. Still auntJane's patience held good, and some small measureof skill was creeping into Rebecca's fingers, fingersthat held pencil, paint brush, and pen so cleverly andwere so clumsy with the dainty little needle.
When the first brown gingham frock wascompleted, the child seized what she thought anopportune moment and asked her aunt Miranda if shemight have another color for the next one.
"I bought a whole piece of the brown," saidMiranda laconically. "That'll give you two moredresses, with plenty for new sleeves, and to patchand let down with, an' be more economical.""I know. But Mr. Watson says he'll take backpart of it, and let us have pink and blue for thesame price.""Did you ask him?""Yes'm.""It was none o' your business.""I was helping Emma Jane choose aprons, anddidn't think you'd mind which color I had. Pinkkeeps clean just as nice as brown, and Mr. Watsonsays it'll boil without fading.""Mr. Watson 's a splendid judge of washing, Iguess. I don't approve of children being riggedout in fancy colors, but I'll see what your auntJane thinks.""I think it would be all right to let Rebeccahave one pink and one blue gingham," said Jane.
"A child gets tired of sewing on one color. It'sonly natural she should long for a change; besidesshe'd look like a charity child always wearing thesame brown with a white apron. And it's dreadfulunbecoming to her!""`Handsome is as handsome does,' say I.
Rebecca never'll come to grief along of her beauty,that's certain, and there's no use in humoring herto think about her looks. I believe she's vain as apeacock now, without anything to be vain of.""She's young and attracted to bright things--that's all. I remember well enough how I felt at herage.""You was considerable of a fool at her age,Jane.""Yes, I was, thank the Lord! I only wish I'dknown how to take a little of my foolishness alongwith me, as some folks do, to brighten my decliningyears."There finally was a pink gingham, and when it wasnicely finished, aunt Jane gave Rebecca a delightfulsurprise. She showed her how to make a prettytrimming of narrow white linen tape, by folding itin pointed shapes and sewing it down very flat withneat little stitches.
"It'll be good fancy work for you, Rebecca; foryour aunt Miranda won't like to see you alwaysreading in the long winter evenings. Now if youthink you can baste two rows of white tape roundthe bottom of your pink skirt and keep it straightby the checks, I'll stitch them on for you and trimthe waist and sleeves with pointed tape-trimming,so the dress'll be real pretty for second best."Rebecca's joy knew no bounds. "I'll bastelike a house afire!" she exclaimed. "It's a thousandyards round that skirt, as well I know, havinghemmed it; but I could sew pretty trimming on ifit was from here to Milltown. Oh! do you thinkaunt Mirandy'll ever let me go to Milltown withMr. Cobb? He's asked me again, you know; butone Saturday I had to pick strawberries, and anotherit rained, and I don't think she really approves ofmy going. It's TWENTY-NINE minutes past four, auntJane, and Alice Robinson has been sitting underthe currant bushes for a long time waiting for me.
Can I go and play?""Yes, you may go, and you'd better run as far asyou can out behind the barn, so 't your noise won'tdistract your aunt Mirandy. I see Susan Simpsonand the twins and Emma Jane Perkins hiding behindthe fence."Rebecca leaped off the porch, snatched AliceRobinson from under the currant bushes, and,what was much more difficult, succeeded, by meansof a complicated system of signals, in getting EmmaJane away from the Simpson party and giving themthe slip altogether. They were much too small forcertain pleasurable activities planned for thatafternoon; but they were not to be despised, for theyhad the most fascinating dooryard in the village. Init, in bewildering confusion, were old sleighs, pungs,horse rakes, hogsheads, settees without backs, bed-steads without heads, in all stages of disability, andnever the same on two consecutive days. Mrs.
Simpson was seldom at home, and even when shewas, had little concern as to what happened on thepremises. A favorite diversion was to make thehouse into a fort, gallantly held by a handful ofAmerican soldiers against a besieging force of theBritish army. Great care was used in apportioningthe parts, for there was no disposition to letanybody win but the Americans. Seesaw Simpsonwas usually made commander-in-chief of the Britisharmy, and a limp and uncertain one he was, capable,with his contradictory orders and his fondnessfor the extreme rear, of leading any regiment toan inglorious death. Sometimes the long-sufferinghouse was a log hut, and the brave settlers defeateda band of hostile Indians, or occasionally weremassacred by them; but in either case the Simpsonhouse looked, to quote a Riverboro expression, "asif the devil had been having an auction in it."Next to this uncommonly interesting playground,as a field of action, came, in the children's opinion,the "secret spot." There was a velvety stretchof ground in the Sawyer pasture which was full offascinating hollows and hillocks, as well as verdantlevels, on which to build houses. A group of treesconcealed it somewhat from view and flung a gratefulshade over the dwellings erected there. It hadbeen hard though sweet labor to take armfuls of"stickins" and "cutrounds" from the mill to thissecluded spot, and that it had been done mostlyafter supper in the dusk of the evenings gave ita still greater flavor. Here in soap boxes hiddenamong the trees were stored all their treasures:
wee baskets and plates and cups made of burdockballs, bits of broken china for parties, dolls, soonto be outgrown, but serving well as characters inall sorts of romances enacted there,--deaths,funerals, weddings, christenings. A tall, square houseof stickins was to be built round Rebecca thisafternoon, and she was to be Charlotte Cordayleaning against the bars of her prison.
It was a wonderful experience standing inside thebuilding with Emma Jane's apron wound about herhair; wonderful to feel that when she leaned herhead against the bars they seemed to turn to coldiron; that her eyes were no longer Rebecca Randall'sbut mirrored something of Charlotte Corday'shapless woe.
"Ain't it lovely?" sighed the humble twain, whohad done most of the labor, but who generouslyadmired the result.
"I hate to have to take it down," said Alice,"it's been such a sight of work.""If you think you could move up some stonesand just take off the top rows, I could step outover," suggested Charlotte Corday. "Then leavethe stones, and you two can step down into theprison to-morrow and be the two little princes inthe Tower, and I can murder you.""What princes? What tower?" asked Alice andEmma Jane in one breath. "Tell us about them.""Not now, it's my supper time." (Rebecca wasa somewhat firm disciplinarian.)"It would be elergant being murdered by you,"said Emma Jane loyally, "though you are awfulreal when you murder; or we could have Elijah andElisha for the princes.""They'd yell when they was murdered," objectedAlice; "you know how silly they are at plays, allexcept Clara Belle. Besides if we once show themthis secret place, they'll play in it all the time, andperhaps they'd steal things, like their father.""They needn't steal just because their fatherdoes," argued Rebecca; "and don't you ever talkabout it before them if you want to be my secret,partic'lar friends. My mother tells me never to sayhard things about people's own folks to their face.
She says nobody can bear it, and it's wicked to shamethem for what isn't their fault. Remember MinnieSmellie!"Well, they had no difficulty in recalling thatdramatic episode, for it had occurred only a few daysbefore; and a version of it that would have meltedthe stoniest heart had been presented to every girlin the village by Minnie Smellie herself, who,though it was Rebecca and not she who came offvictorious in the bloody battle of words, nursed herresentment and intended to have revenge.