The days flew by; as summer had meltedinto autumn so autumn had given place towinter. Life in the brick house had goneon more placidly of late, for Rebecca was honestlytrying to be more careful in the performance of hertasks and duties as well as more quiet in her plays,and she was slowly learning the power of the softanswer in turning away wrath.
Miranda had not had, perhaps, quite as manyopportunities in which to lose her temper, but it isonly just to say that she had not fully availed herselfof all that had offered themselves.
There had been one outburst of righteous wrathoccasioned by Rebecca's over-hospitable habits,which were later shown in a still more dramatic andunexpected fashion.
On a certain Friday afternoon she asked her auntMiranda if she might take half her bread and milkupstairs to a friend.
"What friend have you got up there, for pity'ssake?" demanded aunt Miranda.
"The Simpson baby, come to stay over Sunday;that is, if you're willing, Mrs. Simpson says she is.
Shall I bring her down and show her? She's dressedin an old dress of Emma Jane's and she looks sweet.""You can bring her down, but you can't showher to me! You can smuggle her out the way yousmuggled her in and take her back to her mother.
Where on earth do you get your notions, borrowinga baby for Sunday!""You're so used to a house without a baby youdon't know how dull it is," sighed Rebecca resignedly,as she moved towards the door; "but at thefarm there was always a nice fresh one to play withand cuddle. There were too many, but that's nothalf as bad as none at all. Well, I'll take her back.
She'll be dreadfully disappointed and so will Mrs.
Simpson. She was planning to go to Milltown.""She can un-plan then," observed Miss Miranda.
"Perhaps I can go up there and take care of thebaby?" suggested Rebecca. "I brought her homeso 't I could do my Saturday work just the same.""You've got enough to do right here, withoutany borrowed babies to make more steps. Now, noanswering back, just give the child some supper andcarry it home where it belongs.""You don't want me to go down the front way,hadn't I better just come through this room andlet you look at her? She has yellow hair and bigblue eyes! Mrs. Simpson says she takes after herfather."Miss Miranda smiled acidly as she said shecouldn't take after her father, for he'd take anything there was before she got there!
Aunt Jane was in the linen closet upstairs, sortingout the clean sheets and pillow cases for Saturday,and Rebecca sought comfort from her.
"I brought the Simpson baby home, aunt Jane,thinking it would help us over a dull Sunday, butaunt Miranda won't let her stay. Emma Jane hasthe promise of her next Sunday and Alice Robinsonthe next. Mrs. Simpson wanted I should have herfirst because I've had so much experience in babies.
Come in and look at her sitting up in my bed, auntJane! Isn't she lovely? She's the fat, gurglykind, not thin and fussy like some babies, and Ithought I was going to have her to undress anddress twice each day. Oh dear! I wish I couldhave a printed book with everything set down in itthat I COULD do, and then I wouldn't get disappointedso often.""No book could be printed that would fit you,Rebecca," answered aunt Jane, "for nobody couldimagine beforehand the things you'd want to do.
Are you going to carry that heavy child home inyour arms?""No, I'm going to drag her in the littlesoap-wagon. Come, baby! Take your thumb out ofyour mouth and come to ride with Becky in yourgo-cart." She stretched out her strong young armsto the crowing baby, sat down in a chair with thechild, turned her upside down unceremoniously,took from her waistband and scornfully flung awaya crooked pin, walked with her (still in a highlyreversed position) to the bureau, selected a largesafety pin, and proceeded to attach her brief redflannel petticoat to a sort of shirt that she wore.
Whether flat on her stomach, or head down, heelsin the air, the Simpson baby knew she was in thehands of an expert, and continued gurgling placidlywhile aunt Jane regarded the pantomime with akind of dazed awe.
"Bless my soul, Rebecca," she ejaculated, "itbeats all how handy you are with babies!""I ought to be; I've brought up three and ahalf of 'em," Rebecca responded cheerfully, pullingup the infant Simpson's stockings.
"I should think you'd be fonder of dolls thanyou are," said Jane.
"I do like them, but there's never any changein a doll; it's always the same everlasting old doll,and you have to make believe it's cross or sick, orit loves you, or can't bear you. Babies are moretrouble, but nicer."Miss Jane stretched out a thin hand with a slender,worn band of gold on the finger, and the babycurled her dimpled fingers round it and held it fast.
"You wear a ring on your engagement finger,don't you, aunt Jane? Did you ever think aboutgetting married?""Yes, dear, long ago.""What happened, aunt Jane?""He died--just before.""Oh!" And Rebecca's eyes grew misty.
"He was a soldier and he died of a gunshotwound, in a hospital, down South.""Oh! aunt Jane!" softly. "Away from you?""No, I was with him.""Was he young?""Yes; young and brave and handsome, Rebecca;he was Mr. Carter's brother Tom.""Oh! I'm so glad you were with him! Wasn'the glad, aunt Jane?"Jane looked back across the half-forgotten years,and the vision of Tom's gladness flashed upon her:
his haggard smile, the tears in his tired eyes, hisoutstretched arms, his weak voice saying, "Oh, Jenny!
Dear Jenny! I've wanted you so, Jenny!" It wastoo much! She had never breathed a word of itbefore to a human creature, for there was no one whowould have understood. Now, in a shamefaced way,to hide her brimming eyes, she put her head downon the young shoulder beside her, saying, "It washard, Rebecca!"The Simpson baby had cuddled down sleepily inRebecca's lap, leaning her head back and suckingher thumb contentedly. Rebecca put her cheekdown until it touched her aunt's gray hair and softlypatted her, as she said, "I'm sorry, aunt Jane!"The girl's eyes were soft and tender and theheart within her stretched a little and grew; grewin sweetness and intuition and depth of feeling. Ithad looked into another heart, felt it beat, andheard it sigh; and that is how all hearts grow.
Episodes like these enlivened the quiet course ofevery-day existence, made more quiet by the departureof Dick Carter, Living Perkins, and HuldahMeserve for Wareham, and the small attendance atthe winter school, from which the younger childrenof the place stayed away during the cold weather.
Life, however, could never be thoroughly dullor lacking in adventure to a child of Rebecca'stemperament. Her nature was full of adaptability,fluidity, receptivity. She made friends everywhereshe went, and snatched up acquaintances in everycorner.
It was she who ran to the shed door to take thedish to the "meat man" or "fish man;" she whoknew the family histories of the itinerant fruitvenders and tin peddlers; she who was asked to takesupper or pass the night with children in neighboringvillages--children of whose parents her auntshad never so much as heard. As to the nature ofthese friendships, which seemed so many to theeye of the superficial observer, they were of variouskinds, and while the girl pursued them withenthusiasm and ardor, they left her unsatisfied andheart-hungry; they were never intimacies such asare so readily made by shallow natures. She lovedEmma Jane, but it was a friendship born of propinquityand circumstance, not of true affinity. It washer neighbor's amiability, constancy, and devotionthat she loved, and although she rated these qualitiesat their true value, she was always searchingbeyond them for intellectual treasures; searchingand never finding, for although Emma Jane hadthe advantage in years she was still immature.
Huldah Meserve had an instinctive love of funwhich appealed to Rebecca; she also had a fascinatingknowledge of the world, from having visitedher married sisters in Milltown and Portland; buton the other hand there was a certain sharpnessand lack of sympathy in Huldah which repelledrather than attracted. With Dick Carter she couldat least talk intelligently about lessons. He was avery ambitious boy, full of plans for his future, whichhe discussed quite freely with Rebecca, but whenshe broached the subject of her future his interestsensibly lessened. Into the world of the ideal EmmaJane, Huldah, and Dick alike never seemed to havepeeped, and the consciousness of this was always afixed gulf between them and Rebecca.
"Uncle Jerry" and "aunt Sarah" Cobb weredear friends of quite another sort, a very satisfyingand perhaps a somewhat dangerous one. A visitfrom Rebecca always sent them into a twitter ofdelight. Her merry conversation and quaint come-ments on life in general fairly dazzled the old couple,who hung on her lightest word as if it had beena prophet's utterance; and Rebecca, though shehad had no previous experience, owned to herself aperilous pleasure in being dazzling, even to a coupleof dear humdrum old people like Mr. and Mrs. Cobb.
Aunt Sarah flew to the pantry or cellar wheneverRebecca's slim little shape first appeared on the crestof the hill, and a jelly tart or a frosted cake was sureto be forthcoming. The sight of old uncle Jerry'sspare figure in its clean white shirt sleeves, whateverthe weather, always made Rebecca's heart warmwhen she saw him peer longingly from the kitchenwindow. Before the snow came, many was the timehe had come out to sit on a pile of boards at thegate, to see if by any chance she was mounting thehill that led to their house. In the autumn Rebeccawas often the old man's companion while he wasdigging potatoes or shelling beans, and now in thewinter, when a younger man was driving the stage,she sometimes stayed with him while he did hisevening milking. It is safe to say that he was theonly creature in Riverboro who possessed Rebecca'sentire confidence; the only being to whom shepoured out her whole heart, with its wealth of hopes,and dreams, and vague ambitions. At the brickhouse she practiced scales and exercises, but at theCobbs' cabinet organ she sang like a bird, improvisingsimple accompaniments that seemed to herignorant auditors nothing short of marvelous. Hereshe was happy, here she was loved, here she wasdrawn out of herself and admired and made muchof. But, she thought, if there were somebody whonot only loved but understood; who spoke her language,comprehended her desires, and responded toher mysterious longings! Perhaps in the big worldof Wareham there would be people who thoughtand dreamed and wondered as she did.
In reality Jane did not understand her niece verymuch better than Miranda; the difference betweenthe sisters was, that while Jane was puzzled, shewas also attracted, and when she was quite in thedark for an explanation of some quaint or unusualaction she was sympathetic as to its possible motiveand believed the best. A greater change had comeover Jane than over any other person in the brickhouse, but it had been wrought so secretly, andconcealed so religiously, that it scarcely appeared to theordinary observer. Life had now a motive utterlylacking before. Breakfast was not eaten in thekitchen, because it seemed worth while, now thatthere were three persons, to lay the cloth in the dining-room; it was also a more bountiful meal than ofyore, when there was no child to consider. Themorning was made cheerful by Rebecca's start forschool, the packing of the luncheon basket, the finalword about umbrella, waterproof, or rubbers; theparting admonition and the unconscious waiting atthe window for the last wave of the hand. She foundherself taking pride in Rebecca's improved appearance,her rounder throat and cheeks, and her bettercolor; she was wont to mention the length ofRebecca's hair and add a word as to its remarkableevenness and lustre, at times when Mrs. Perkinsgrew too diffuse about Emma Jane's complexion.
She threw herself wholeheartedly on her niece's sidewhen it became a question between a crimson ora brown linsey-woolsey dress, and went through amemorable struggle with her sister concerning thepurchase of a red bird for Rebecca's black felt hat.
No one guessed the quiet pleasure that lay hidden inher heart when she watched the girl's dark head bentover her lessons at night, nor dreamed of her joy it,certain quiet evenings when Miranda went to prayermeeting; evenings when Rebecca would read aloudHiawatha or Barbara Frietchie, The Bugle Song,or The Brook. Her narrow, humdrum existencebloomed under the dews that fell from this freshspirit; her dullness brightened under the kindlingtouch of the younger mind, took fire from the "vitalspark of heavenly flame" that seemed always toradiate from Rebecca's presence.
Rebecca's idea of being a painter like her friendMiss Ross was gradually receding, owing to theapparently insuperable difficulties in securing anyinstruction. Her aunt Miranda saw no wisdom incultivating such a talent, and could not conceive thatany money could ever be earned by its exercise,"Hand painted pictures" were held in little esteemin Riverboro, where the cheerful chromo or thedignified steel engraving were respected and valued.
There was a slight, a very slight hope, that Rebeccamight be allowed a few music lessons from MissMorton, who played the church cabinet organ, butthis depended entirely upon whether Mrs. Mortonwould decide to accept a hayrack in return for ayear's instruction from her daughter. She had thematter under advisement, but a doubt as to whetheror not she would sell or rent her hayfields kept herfrom coming to a conclusion. Music, in commonwith all other accomplishments, was viewed by MissMiranda as a trivial, useless, and foolish amusement,but she allowed Rebecca an hour a day for practiceon the old piano, and a little extra time forlessons, if Jane could secure them without payment ofactual cash.
The news from Sunnybrook Farm was hopefulrather than otherwise. Cousin Ann's husband haddied, and John, Rebecca's favorite brother, had goneto be the man of the house to the widowed cousin.
He was to have good schooling in return for his careof the horse and cow and barn, and what was stillmore dazzling, the use of the old doctor's medicallibrary of two or three dozen volumes. John's wholeheart was set on becoming a country doctor, withRebecca to keep house for him, and the visionseemed now so true, so near, that he could almostimagine his horse ploughing through snowdrifts onerrands of mercy, or, less dramatic but none theless attractive, could see a physician's neat turncuttrundling along the shady country roads, a medicinecase between his, Dr. Randall's, feet, and MissRebecca Randall sitting in a black silk dress by hisside.
Hannah now wore her hair in a coil and herdresses a trifle below her ankles, these concessionsbeing due to her extreme height. Mark had brokenhis collar bone, but it was healing well. Little Mirawas growing very pretty. There was even a rumorthat the projected railroad from Temperance toPlumville might go near the Randall farm, in whichcase land would rise in value from nothing-at-all anacre to something at least resembling a price. Mrs.
Randall refused to consider any improvement intheir financial condition as a possibility. Content towork from sunrise to sunset to gain a meresubsistence for her children, she lived in their future,not in her own present, as a mother is wont to dowhen her own lot seems hard and cheerless.