A year had elapsed since Adam Ladd'sprize had been discussed over the teacupsin Riverboro. The months had come andgone, and at length the great day had dawned forRebecca,--the day to which she had been lookingforward for five years, as the first goal to be reachedon her little journey through the world. School-days were ended, and the mystic function knownto the initiated as "graduation" was about to becelebrated; it was even now heralded by the sundawning in the eastern sky. Rebecca stole softlyout of bed, crept to the window, threw open theblinds, and welcomed the rosy light that meant acloudless morning. Even the sun looked differentsomehow,--larger, redder, more important thanusual; and if it were really so, there was no memberof the graduating class who would have thoughtit strange or unbecoming, in view of all thecircumstances. Emma Jane stirred on her pillow,woke, and seeing Rebecca at the window, came andknelt on the floor beside her. "It's going to bepleasant!" she sighed gratefully. "If it wasn'twicked, I could thank the Lord, I'm so relieved inmind! Did you sleep?""Not much; the words of my class poem keptrunning through my head, and the accompanimentsof the songs; and worse than anything, MaryQueen of Scots' prayer in Latin; it seemed as if"`Adoro, imploro,Ut liberes me!'
were burned into my brain."No one who is unfamiliar with life in ruralneighborhoods can imagine the gravity, the importance,the solemnity of this last day of school. Inthe matter of preparation, wealth of detail, and generalexcitement it far surpasses a wedding; for thatis commonly a simple affair in the country, sometimeseven beginning and ending in a visit to theparsonage. Nothing quite equals graduation in theminds of the graduates themselves, their families,and the younger students, unless it be the inaugurationof a governor at the State Capitol. Wareham,then, was shaken to its very centre on thisday of days. Mothers and fathers of the scholars,as well as relatives to the remotest generation, hadbeen coming on the train and driving into the townsince breakfast time; old pupils, both married andsingle, with and without families, streamed back tothe dear old village. The two livery stables werecrowded with vehicles of all sorts, and lines of buggiesand wagons were drawn up along the sides ofthe shady roads, the horses switching their tails inluxurious idleness. The streets were filled withpeople wearing their best clothes, and the fashionsincluded not only "the latest thing," but the wellpreserved relic of a bygone day. There were allsorts and conditions of men and women, for therewere sons and daughters of storekeepers, lawyers,butchers, doctors, shoemakers, professors, ministers,and farmers at the Wareham schools, eitheras boarders or day scholars. In the seminary buildingthere was an excitement so deep and profoundthat it expressed itself in a kind of hushed silence,a transient suspension of life, as those most interestedapproached the crucial moment. The femininegraduates-to-be were seated in their ownbedrooms, dressed with a completeness of detailto which all their past lives seemed to have beenbut a prelude. At least, this was the case with theirbodies; but their heads, owing to the extreme heatof the day, were one and all ornamented with leads,or papers, or dozens of little braids, to issue laterin every sort of curl known to the girl of thatperiod. Rolling the hair on leads or papers was afavorite method of attaining the desired result, andthough it often entailed a sleepless night, therewere those who gladly paid the price. Others, inwhose veins the blood of martyrs did not flow,substituted rags for leads and pretended that theymade a more natural and less woolly curl. Heat,however, will melt the proudest head and reduceto fiddling strings the finest product of the waving-pin; so anxious mothers were stationed overtheir offspring, waving palm-leaf fans, it havingbeen decided that the supreme instant when thetown clock struck ten should be the one chosenfor releasing the prisoners from their self-imposedtortures.
Dotted or plain Swiss muslin was the favoritegarb, though there were those who were steamingin white cashmere or alpaca, because in some casessuch frocks were thought more useful afterwards.
Blue and pink waist ribbons were lying over thebacks of chairs, and the girl who had a Romansash was praying that she might be kept fromvanity and pride.
The way to any graduating dress at all had notseemed clear to Rebecca until a month before.
Then, in company with Emma Jane, she visited thePerkins attic, found piece after piece of white butter-muslin or cheesecloth, and decided that, at apinch, it would do. The "rich blacksmith's daughter"cast the thought of dotted Swiss behind her,and elected to follow Rebecca in cheesecloth asshe had in higher matters; straightway devisingcostumes that included such drawing of threads,such hemstitching and pin-tucking, such insertionsof fine thread tatting that, in order to be finished,Rebecca's dress was given out in sections,--thesash to Hannah, waist and sleeves to Mrs. Cobb,and skirt to aunt Jane. The stitches that wentinto the despised material, worth only three orfour pennies a yard, made the dresses altogetherlovely, and as for the folds and lines into whichthey fell, they could have given points to satinsand brocades.
The two girls were waiting in their room alone,Emma Jane in rather a tearful state of mind. Shekept thinking that it was the last day that theywould be together in this altogether sweet andclose intimacy. The beginning of the end seemedto have dawned, for two positions had been offeredRebecca by Mr. Morrison the day before: one inwhich she would play for singing and calisthenics,and superintend the piano practice of the youngergirls in a boarding-school; the other an assistant'splace in the Edgewood High School. Both werevery modest as to salary, but the former includededucational advantages that Miss Maxwell thoughtmight be valuable.
Rebecca's mood had passed from that of excitementinto a sort of exaltation, and when the firstbell rang through the corridors announcing that infive minutes the class would proceed in a body tothe church for the exercises, she stood motionlessand speechless at the window with her hand onher heart.
"It is coming, Emmie," she said presently; "doyou remember in The Mill on the Floss, whenMaggie Tulliver closed the golden gates of childhoodbehind her? I can almost see them swing;almost hear them clang; and I can't tell whether Iam glad or sorry.""I shouldn't care how they swung or clanged,"said Emma Jane, "if only you and I were on thesame side of the gate; but we shan't be, I knowwe shan't!""Emmie, don't dare to cry, for I'm just on thebrink myself! If only you were graduating withme; that's my only sorrow! There! I hear therumble of the wheels! People will be seeing ourgrand surprise now! Hug me once for luck, dearEmmie; a careful hug, remembering our butter-muslin frailty!"Ten minutes later, Adam Ladd, who had justarrived from Portland and was wending his way tothe church, came suddenly into the main street andstopped short under a tree by the wayside, rivetedto the spot by a scene of picturesque lovelinesssuch as his eyes had seldom witnessed before. Theclass of which Rebecca was president was notlikely to follow accepted customs. Instead of marchingtwo by two from the seminary to the church,they had elected to proceed thither by royal chariot.
A haycart had been decked with green vines andbunches of long-stemmed field daisies, those gaydarlings of New England meadows. Every inch ofthe rail, the body, even the spokes, all were twinedwith yellow and green and white. There were twowhite horses, flower-trimmed reins, and in the floralbower, seated on maple boughs, were the twelvegirls of the class, while the ten boys marched oneither side of the vehicle, wearing buttonholebouquets of daisies, the class flower.
Rebecca drove, seated on a green-covered benchthat looked not unlike a throne. No girl cladin white muslin, no happy girl of seventeen, isplain; and the twelve little country maids, fromthe vantage ground of their setting, lookedbeautiful, as the June sunlight filtered down on theiruncovered heads, showing their bright eyes, theirfresh cheeks, their smiles, and their dimples.
Rebecca, Adam thought, as he took off his hatand saluted the pretty panorama,--Rebecca, withher tall slenderness, her thoughtful brow, the fireof young joy in her face, her fillet of dark braidedhair, might have been a young Muse or Sibyl; andthe flowery hayrack, with its freight of bloominggirlhood, might have been painted as an allegoricalpicture of The Morning of Life. It all passed him,as he stood under the elms in the old village streetwhere his mother had walked half a century ago,and he was turning with the crowd towards thechurch when he heard a little sob. Behind a hedgein the garden near where he was standing was aforlorn person in white, whose neat nose, chestnuthair, and blue eyes he seemed to know. He steppedinside the gate and said, "What's wrong, MissEmma?""Oh, is it you, Mr. Ladd? Rebecca wouldn'tlet me cry for fear of spoiling my looks, but I musthave just one chance before I go in. I can be ashomely as I like, after all, for I only have to singwith the school; I'm not graduating, I'm justleaving! Not that I mind that; it's only beingseparated from Rebecca that I never can stand!"The two walked along together, Adam comfortingthe disconsolate Emma Jane, until they reachedthe old meeting-house where the Commencementexercises were always held. The interior, withits decorations of yellow, green, and white, wascrowded, the air hot and breathless, the essays andsongs and recitations precisely like all others thathave been since the world began. One always fearsthat the platform may sink under the weight ofyouthful platitudes uttered on such occasions; yetone can never be properly critical, because the sightof the boys and girls themselves, those young andhopeful makers of to-morrow, disarms one's scorn.
We yawn desperately at the essays, but our heartsgo out to the essayists, all the same, for "the visionsplendid" is shining in their eyes, and there is nofear of "th' inevitable yoke" that the years are sosurely bringing them.
Rebecca saw Hannah and her husband in theaudience; dear old John and cousin Ann also, andfelt a pang at the absence of her mother, thoughshe had known there was no possibility of seeingher; for poor Aurelia was kept at Sunnybrook bycares of children and farm, and lack of moneyeither for the journey or for suitable dress. TheCobbs she saw too. No one, indeed, could fail tosee uncle Jerry; for he shed tears more than once,and in the intervals between the essays descantedto his neighbors concerning the marvelous giftsof one of the graduating class whom he had knownever since she was a child; in fact, had driven herfrom Maplewood to Riverboro when she left herhome, and he had told mother that same night thatthere wan't nary rung on the ladder o' fame thatthat child wouldn't mount before she got throughwith it.
The Cobbs, then, had come, and there wereother Riverboro faces, but where was aunt Jane,in her black silk made over especially for thisoccasion? Aunt Miranda had not intended to come,she knew, but where, on this day of days, was herbeloved aunt Jane? However, this thought, likeall others, came and went in a flash, for the wholemorning was like a series of magic lanternpictures, crossing and recrossing her field of vision.
She played, she sang, she recited Queen Mary'sLatin prayer, like one in a dream, only brought toconsciousness by meeting Mr. Aladdin's eyes asshe spoke the last line. Then at the end of theprogramme came her class poem, Makers of To-morrow; and there, as on many a former occasion,her personality played so great a part that sheseemed to be uttering Miltonic sentiments insteadof school-girl verse. Her voice, her eyes, her bodybreathed conviction, earnestness, emotion; andwhen she left the platform the audience felt thatthey had listened to a masterpiece. Most of herhearers knew little of Carlyle or Emerson, or theymight have remembered that the one said, "Weare all poets when we read a poem well," and theother, "'T is the good reader makes the goodbook."It was over! The diplomas had been presented,and each girl, after giving furtive touches to herhair, sly tweaks to her muslin skirts, and caressingpats to her sash, had gone forward to receive theroll of parchment with a bow that had been thesubject of anxious thought for weeks. Rounds ofapplause greeted each graduate at this thrillingmoment, and Jeremiah Cobb's behavior, whenRebecca came forward, was the talk of Wareham andRiverboro for days. Old Mrs. Webb avowed thathe, in the space of two hours, had worn out herpew more--the carpet, the cushions, and woodwork--than she had by sitting in it forty years.
Yes, it was over, and after the crowd had thinneda little, Adam Ladd made his way to the platform.
Rebecca turned from speaking to some stran-gers and met him in the aisle. "Oh, Mr. Aladdin,I am so glad you could come! Tell me"--and shelooked at him half shyly, for his approval was dearerto her, and more difficult to win, than that of theothers--"tell me, Mr. Aladdin,--were you satisfied?""More than satisfied!" he said; "glad I metthe child, proud I know the girl, longing to meetthe woman!"