The first happy year at Wareham, withits widened sky-line, its larger vision, itsgreater opportunity, was over and gone.
Rebecca had studied during the summer vacation,and had passed, on her return in the autumn,certain examinations which would enable her, if shecarried out the same programme the next season,to complete the course in three instead of fouryears. She came off with no flying colors,--thatwould have been impossible in consideration of herinadequate training; but she did wonderfully wellin some of the required subjects, and so brilliantlyin others that the average was respectable. Shewould never have been a remarkable scholar underany circumstances, perhaps, and she was easily out-stripped in mathematics and the natural sciencesby a dozen girls, but in some inexplicable way shebecame, as the months went on, the foremost figurein the school. When she had entirely forgotten thefacts which would enable her to answer a questionfully and conclusively, she commonly had someoriginal theory to expound; it was not alwayscorrect, but it was generally unique and sometimesamusing. She was only fair in Latin or Frenchgrammar, but when it came to translation, her freedom,her choice of words, and her sympatheticunderstanding of the spirit of the text made her thedelight of her teachers and the despair of her rivals.
"She can be perfectly ignorant of a subject,'
said Miss Maxwell to Adam Ladd, "but entirelyintelligent the moment she has a clue. Most of theother girls are full of information and as stupid assheep."Rebecca's gifts had not been discovered save bythe few, during the first year, when she was adjustingherself quietly to the situation. She was distinctlyone of the poorer girls; she had no finedresses to attract attention, no visitors, no friendsin the town. She had more study hours, and lesstime, therefore, for the companionship of other girls,gladly as she would have welcomed the gayety ofthat side of school life. Still, water will find its ownlevel in some way, and by the spring of the secondyear she had naturally settled into the same sort ofleadership which had been hers in the smallercommunity of Riverboro. She was unanimously electedassistant editor of the Wareham School Pilot, beingthe first girl to assume that enviable, though somewhatarduous and thankless position, and when hermaiden number went to the Cobbs, uncle Jerry andaunt Sarah could hardly eat or sleep for pride.
"She'll always get votes," said Huldah Meserve,when discussing the election, "for whether sheknows anything or not, she looks as if she did, andwhether she's capable of filling an office or not, shelooks as if she was. I only wish I was tall and darkand had the gift of making people believe I wasgreat things, like Rebecca Randall. There's onething: though the boys call her handsome, younotice they don't trouble her with much attention."It was a fact that Rebecca's attitude towards theopposite sex was still somewhat indifferent andoblivious, even for fifteen and a half! No one couldlook at her and doubt that she had potentialities ofattraction latent within her somewhere, but that sideof her nature was happily biding its time. A humanbeing is capable only of a certain amount of activityat a given moment, and it will inevitably satisfyfirst its most pressing needs, its most ardent desires,its chief ambitions. Rebecca was full of smallanxieties and fears, for matters were not going wellat the brick house and were anything but hopefulat the home farm. She was overbusy and overtaxed,and her thoughts were naturally drawn towards thedifficult problems of daily living.
It had seemed to her during the autumn andwinter of that year as if her aunt Miranda hadnever been, save at the very first, so censorious andso fault-finding. One Saturday Rebecca ran upstairsand, bursting into a flood of tears, exclaimed,"Aunt Jane, it seems as if I never could stand hercontinual scoldings. Nothing I can do suits auntMiranda; she's just said it will take me my wholelife to get the Randall out of me, and I'm notconvinced that I want it all out, so there we are!"Aunt Jane, never demonstrative, cried withRebecca as she attempted to soothe her.
"You must be patient," she said, wiping first herown eyes and then Rebecca's. "I haven't told you,for it isn't fair you should be troubled when you'restudying so hard, but your aunt Miranda isn't well.
One Monday morning about a month ago, she hada kind of faint spell; it wasn't bad, but the doctoris afraid it was a shock, and if so, it's the beginningof the end. Seems to me she's failing right along,and that's what makes her so fretful and easy vexed.
She has other troubles too, that you don't knowanything about, and if you're not kind to your auntMiranda now, child, you'll be dreadful sorry sometime."All the temper faded from Rebecca's face, andshe stopped crying to say penitently, "Oh! the poordear thing! I won't mind a bit what she says now.
She's just asked me for some milk toast and Iwas dreading to take it to her, but this will makeeverything different. Don't worry yet, aunt Jane,for perhaps it won't be as bad as you think."So when she carried the toast to her aunt a littlelater, it was in the best gilt-edged china bowl, witha fringed napkin on the tray and a sprig of geraniumlying across the salt cellar.
"Now, aunt Miranda," she said cheerily, "I expectyou to smack your lips and say this is good; it's notRandall, but Sawyer milk toast.""You've tried all kinds on me, one time an'
another," Miranda answered. "This tastes realkind o' good; but I wish you hadn't wasted thatnice geranium.""You can't tell what's wasted," said Rebeccaphilosophically; "perhaps that geranium has beenhoping this long time it could brighten somebody'ssupper, so don't disappoint it by making believe youdon't like it. I've seen geraniums cry,--in the veryearly morning!"The mysterious trouble to which Jane had alludedwas a very real one, but it was held in profoundsecrecy. Twenty-five hundred dollars of the smallSawyer property had been invested in the businessof a friend of their father's, and had returned thema regular annual income of a hundred dollars. Thefamily friend had been dead for some five years,but his son had succeeded to his interests and allwent on as formerly. Suddenly there came a lettersaying that the firm had gone into bankruptcy,that the business had been completely wrecked, andthat the Sawyer money had been swept away witheverything else.
The loss of one hundred dollars a year is a verytrifling matter, but it made all the difference betweencomfort and self-denial to the two old spinstersTheir manner of life had been so rigid and carefulthat it was difficult to economize any further, and theblow had fallen just when it was most inconvenient,for Rebecca's school and boarding expenses, smallas they were, had to be paid promptly and in cash.
"Can we possibly go on doing it? Shan't wehave to give up and tell her why?" asked Janetearfully of the elder sister.
"We have put our hand to the plough, and wecan't turn back," answered Miranda in her grimmesttone; "we've taken her away from her motherand offered her an education, and we've got to keepour word. She's Aurelia's only hope for years tocome, to my way o' thinkin'. Hannah's beau takesall her time 'n' thought, and when she gits ahusband her mother'll be out o' sight and out o' mind.
John, instead of farmin', thinks he must be a doctor,--as if folks wasn't gettin' unhealthy enoughthese days, without turnin' out more young doctorsto help 'em into their graves. No, Jane; we'll skimp'n' do without, 'n' plan to git along on our interestmoney somehow, but we won't break into our principal,whatever happens.""Breaking into the principal" was, in the mindsof most thrifty New England women, a sin onlysecond to arson, theft, or murder; and, though therule was occasionally carried too far for commonsense,--as in this case, where two elderly womenof sixty might reasonably have drawn somethingfrom their little hoard in time of special need,--itdoubtless wrought more of good than evil in thecommunity.
Rebecca, who knew nothing of their businessaffairs, merely saw her aunts grow more and moresaving, pinching here and there, cutting off thisand that relentlessly. Less meat and fish werebought; the woman who had lately been comingtwo days a week for washing, ironing, and scrubbingwas dismissed; the old bonnets of the seasonbefore were brushed up and retrimmed; there wereno drives to Moderation or trips to Portland. Economywas carried to its very extreme; but thoughMiranda was well-nigh as gloomy and uncompromisingin her manner and conversation as a woman couldwell be, she at least never twitted her niece of beinga burden; so Rebecca's share of the Sawyers'
misfortunes consisted only in wearing her old dresses,hats, and jackets, without any apparent hope of achange.
There was, however, no concealing the state ofthings at Sunnybrook, where chapters of accidentshad unfolded themselves in a sort of serial story thathad run through the year. The potato crop hadfailed; there were no apples to speak of; the hayhad been poor; Aurelia had turns of dizziness inher head; Mark had broken his ankle. As this washis fourth offense, Miranda inquired how manybones there were in the human body, "so 't they'dknow when Mark got through breakin' 'em." Thetime for paying the interest on the mortgage, thatincubus that had crushed all the joy out of theRandall household, had come and gone, and therewas no possibility, for the first time in fourteenyears, of paying the required forty-eight dollars.
The only bright spot in the horizon was Hannah'sengagement to Will Melville,--a young farmerwhose land joined Sunnybrook, who had a goodhouse, was alone in the world, and his own master.
Hannah was so satisfied with her own unexpectedlyradiant prospects that she hardly realized her mother'sanxieties; for there are natures which flourish,in adversity, and deteriorate when exposed to suddenprosperity. She had made a visit of a week atthe brick house; and Miranda's impression, conveyedin privacy to Jane, was that Hannah was closeas the bark of a tree, and consid'able selfish too;that when she'd clim' as fur as she could in theworld, she'd kick the ladder out from under her,everlastin' quick; that, on being sounded as to herability to be of use to the younger children in thefuture, she said she guessed she'd done her sharea'ready, and she wan't goin' to burden Will withher poor relations. "She's Susan Randall throughand through!" ejaculated Miranda. "I was glad tosee her face turned towards Temperance. If thatmortgage is ever cleared from the farm, 't won't beHannah that'll do it; it'll be Rebecca or me!"