The summer term at Wareham had ended,and Huldah Meserve, Dick Carter, andLiving Perkins had finished school, leavingRebecca and Emma Jane to represent Riverboroin the year to come. Delia Weeks was at homefrom Lewiston on a brief visit, and Mrs. Robinsonwas celebrating the occasion by a small and selectparty, the particular day having been set becausestrawberries were ripe and there was a rooster thatwanted killing. Mrs. Robinson explained this to herhusband, and requested that he eat his dinner onthe carpenter's bench in the shed, as the party wasto be a ladies' affair.
"All right; it won't be any loss to me," said Mr.
Robinson. "Give me beans, that's all I ask. Whena rooster wants to be killed, I want somebody elseto eat him, not me!"Mrs. Robinson had company only once or twicea year, and was generally much prostrated for severaldays afterward, the struggle between pride andparsimony being quite too great a strain upon her.
It was necessary, in order to maintain her standingin the community, to furnish a good "set out," yetthe extravagance of the proceeding goaded her fromthe first moment she began to stir the marble caketo the moment when the feast appeared upon thetable.
The rooster had been boiling steadily over a slowfire since morning, but such was his power of resistancethat his shape was as firm and handsome inthe pot as on the first moment when he was loweredinto it.
"He ain't goin' to give up!" said Alice, peeringnervously under the cover, "and he looks like ascarecrow.""We'll see whether he gives up or not when Itake a sharp knife to him," her mother answered;"and as to his looks, a platter full o' gravy makesa sight o' difference with old roosters, and I'll putdumplings round the aidge; they're turrible fillin',though they don't belong with boiled chicken."The rooster did indeed make an impressive showing,lying in his border of dumplings, and the dishwas much complimented when it was borne in byAlice. This was fortunate, as the chorus of admirationceased abruptly when the ladies began to eatthe fowl.
"I was glad you could git over to Huldy'sgraduation, Delia," said Mrs. Meserve, who sat at thefoot of the table and helped the chicken while Mrs.
Robinson poured coffee at the other end. She wasa fit mother for Huldah, being much the most stylishperson in Riverboro; ill health and dress were,indeed, her two chief enjoyments in life. It wasrumored that her elaborately curled "front piece"had cost five dollars, and that it was sent into Portlandtwice a year to be dressed and frizzed; butit is extremely difficult to discover the precise factsin such cases, and a conscientious historian alwaysprefers to warn a too credulous reader againstimbibing as gospel truth something that might bethe basest perversion of it. As to Mrs. Meserve'sappearance, have you ever, in earlier years, soughtthe comforting society of the cook and hung overthe kitchen table while she rolled out sugargingerbread? Perhaps then, in some unaccustomedmoment of amiability, she made you a dough lady,cutting the outline deftly with her pastry knife, andthen, at last, placing the human stamp upon it bysticking in two black currants for eyes. Just call tomind the face of that sugar gingerbread lady andyou will have an exact portrait of Huldah's mother,--Mis' Peter Meserve, she was generally called,there being several others.
"How'd you like Huldy's dress, Delia?" sheasked, snapping the elastic in her black jet braceletsafter an irritating fashion she had.
"I thought it was about the handsomest of any,"answered Delia; "and her composition was firstrate. It was the only real amusin' one there was,and she read it so loud and clear we didn't missany of it; most o' the girls spoke as if they hadhasty pudtin' in their mouths.""That was the composition she wrote for AdamLadd's prize," explained Mrs. Meserve, "and theydo say she'd 'a' come out first, 'stead o' fourth,if her subject had been dif'rent. There was threeministers and three deacons on the committee, andit was only natural they should choose a seriouspiece; hers was too lively to suit 'em."Huldah's inspiring theme had been Boys, and shecertainly had a fund of knowledge and experiencethat fitted her to write most intelligently upon it. Itwas vastly popular with the audience, who enjoyedthe rather cheap jokes and allusions with which itcoruscated; but judged from a purely literary standpoint,it left much to be desired.
"Rebecca's piece wan't read out loud, but theone that took the boy's prize was; why was that?"asked Mrs. Robinson.
"Because she wan't graduatin'," explained Mrs.
Cobb, "and couldn't take part in the exercises;it'll be printed, with Herbert Dunn's, in the schoolpaper.""I'm glad o' that, for I'll never believe it wasbetter 'n Huldy's till I read it with my own eyes;it seems as if the prize ought to 'a' gone to one ofthe seniors.""Well, no, Marthy, not if Ladd offered it to anyof the two upper classes that wanted to try for it,"argued Mrs. Robinson. "They say they asked himto give out the prizes, and he refused, up and down.
It seems odd, his bein' so rich and travelin' aboutall over the country, that he was too modest to gitup on that platform.""My Huldy could 'a' done it, and not winked aneyelash," observed Mrs. Meserve complacently; aremark which there seemed no disposition on thepart of any of the company to controvert.
"It was complete, though, the governor happeningto be there to see his niece graduate," said DeliaWeeks. "Land! he looked elegant! They say he'sonly six feet, but he might 'a' been sixteen, and hecertainly did make a fine speech.""Did you notice Rebecca, how white she was,and how she trembled when she and Herbert Dunnstood there while the governor was praisin' 'em?
He'd read her composition, too, for he wrote theSawyer girls a letter about it." This remark wasfrom the sympathetic Mrs. Cobb.
"I thought 't was kind o' foolish, his makin' somuch of her when it wan't her graduation,"objected Mrs. Meserve; "layin' his hand on her head'n' all that, as if he was a Pope pronouncin' benediction.
But there! I'm glad the prize come to Riverboro't any rate, and a han'somer one never wasgive out from the Wareham platform. I guess thereain't no end to Adam Ladd's money. The fifty dollarswould 'a' been good enough, but he must needsgo and put it into those elegant purses.""I set so fur back I couldn't see 'em fairly,"complained Delia, "and now Rebecca has takenhers home to show her mother.""It was kind of a gold net bag with a chain," saidMrs. Perkins, "and there was five ten-dollar goldpieces in it. Herbert Dunn's was put in a fineleather wallet.""How long is Rebecca goin' to stay at the farm?"asked Delia.
"Till they get over Hannah's bein' married, andget the house to runnin' without her," answeredMrs. Perkins. "It seems as if Hannah might 'a'
waited a little longer. Aurelia was set against hergoin' away while Rebecca was at school, but she'sobstinate as a mule, Hannah is, and she just tookher own way in spite of her mother. She's beendoin' her sewin' for a year; the awfullest coarsecotton cloth she had, but she's nearly blinded herselfwith fine stitchin' and rufflin' and tuckin'. Didyou hear about the quilt she made? It's white, andhas a big bunch o' grapes in the centre, quilted bya thimble top. Then there's a row of circle-borderin'
round the grapes, and she done them the sizeof a spool. The next border was done with a sherryglass, and the last with a port glass, an' all outsideo' that was solid stitchin' done in straight rows;she's goin' to exhibit it at the county fair.""She'd better 'a' been takin' in sewin' and earnin'
money, 'stead o' blindin' her eyes on such foolishnessas quilted counterpanes," said Mrs. Cobb.
"The next thing you know that mortgage will beforeclosed on Mis' Randall, and she and the childrenwon't have a roof over their heads.""Don't they say there's a good chance of therailroad goin' through her place?" asked Mrs.
Robinson. "If it does, she'll git as much as the farmis worth and more. Adam Ladd 's one of the stockholders,and everything is a success he takes holtof. They're fightin' it in Augusty, but I'd backLadd agin any o' them legislaters if he thought hewas in the right.""Rebecca'll have some new clothes now," saidDelia, "and the land knows she needs 'em. Seemsto me the Sawyer girls are gittin' turrible near!""Rebecca won't have any new clothes out o' theprize money," remarked Mrs. Perkins, "for she sentit away the next day to pay the interest on thatmortgage.""Poor little girl!" exclaimed Delia Weeks.
"She might as well help along her folks as spendit on foolishness," affirmed Mrs. Robinson. "I thinkshe was mighty lucky to git it to pay the interestwith, but she's probably like all the Randalls; itwas easy come, easy go, with them.""That's more than could be said of the Sawyerstock," retorted Mrs. Perkins; "seems like theyenjoyed savin' more'n anything in the world, andit's gainin' on Mirandy sence her shock.""I don't believe it was a shock; it stands toreason she'd never 'a' got up after it and been sosmart as she is now; we had three o' the worstshocks in our family that there ever was on thisriver, and I know every symptom of 'em better'nthe doctors." And Mrs. Peter Meserve shook herhead wisely.
"Mirandy 's smart enough," said Mrs. Cobb,"but you notice she stays right to home, and she'smore close-mouthed than ever she was; never tooka mite o' pride in the prize, as I could see, thoughit pretty nigh drove Jeremiah out o' his senses. Ithought I should 'a' died o' shame when he cried`Hooray!' and swung his straw hat when the governorshook hands with Rebecca. It's lucky hecouldn't get fur into the church and had to standback by the door, for as it was, he made a spectacleof himself. My suspicion is"--and here every ladystopped eating and sat up straight--"that theSawyer girls have lost money. They don't know athing about business 'n' never did, and Mirandy'stoo secretive and contrairy to ask advice.""The most o' what they've got is in gov'mentbonds, I always heard, and you can't lose moneyon them. Jane had the timber land left her, an'
Mirandy had the brick house. She probably tookit awful hard that Rebecca's fifty dollars had to beswallowed up in a mortgage, 'stead of goin' towardsschool expenses. The more I think of it, the moreI think Adam Ladd intended Rebecca should havethat prize when he gave it." The mind of Huldah'smother ran towards the idea that her daughter'srights had been assailed.
"Land, Marthy, what foolishness you talk!"exclaimed Mrs. Perkins; "you don't suppose hecould tell what composition the committee wasgoing to choose; and why should he offer anotherfifty dollars for a boy's prize, if he wan't interestedin helpin' along the school? He's give Emma Janeabout the same present as Rebecca every Christmasfor five years; that's the way he does.""Some time he'll forget one of 'em and give tothe other, or drop 'em both and give to some newgirl!" said Delia Weeks, with an experience bornof fifty years of spinsterhood.
"Like as not," assented Mrs. Peter Meserve,"though it's easy to see he ain't the marryin' kind.
There's men that would marry once a year if theirwives would die fast enough, and there's men thatseems to want to live alone.""If Ladd was a Mormon, I guess he could haveevery woman in North Riverboro that's a suitableage, accordin' to what my cousins say," remarkedMrs. Perkins.
"'T ain't likely he could be ketched by any NorthRiverboro girl," demurred Mrs. Robinson; "notwhen he prob'bly has had the pick o' Boston. Iguess Marthy hit it when she said there's menthat ain't the marryin' kind.""I wouldn't trust any of 'em when Miss Rightcomes along!" laughed Mrs. Cobb genially. "Younever can tell what 'n' who 's goin' to please 'em.
You know Jeremiah's contrairy horse, Buster? Hewon't let anybody put the bit into his mouth if hecan help it. He'll fight Jerry, and fight me, till hehas to give in. Rebecca didn't know nothin' abouthis tricks, and the other day she went int' thebarn to hitch up. I followed right along, knowingshe'd have trouble with the headstall, and I declareif she wan't pattin' Buster's nose and talkin' tohim, and when she put her little fingers into hismouth he opened it so fur I thought he'd swallerher, for sure. He jest smacked his lips over the bitas if 't was a lump o' sugar. `Land, Rebecca,' Isays, `how'd you persuade him to take the bit?'
`I didn't,' she says, `he seemed to want it; perhapshe's tired of his stall and wants to get out inthe fresh air.'"