Rebecca's heart beat high at this sweetpraise from her hero's lips, but before shehad found words to thank him, Mr. andMrs. Cobb, who had been modestly biding theirtime in a corner, approached her and she introducedthem to Mr. Ladd.
"Where, where is aunt Jane?" she cried, holdingaunt Sarah's hand on one side and uncle Jerry'son the other.
"I'm sorry, lovey, but we've got bad news foryou.""Is aunt Miranda worse? She is; I can see itby your looks;" and Rebecca's color faded.
"She had a second stroke yesterday morningjest when she was helpin' Jane lay out her thingsto come here to-day. Jane said you wan't to knowanything about it till the exercises was all over, andwe promised to keep it secret till then.""I will go right home with you, aunt Sarah. Imust just run to tell Miss Maxwell, for after I hadpacked up to-morrow I was going to Brunswick withher. Poor aunt Miranda! And I have been so gayand happy all day, except that I was longing formother and aunt Jane.""There ain't no harm in bein' gay, lovey; that'swhat Jane wanted you to be. And Miranda's gother speech back, for your aunt has just sent a lettersayin' she's better; and I'm goin' to set up to-night,so you can stay here and have a good sleep, and getyour things together comfortably to-morrow.""I'll pack your trunk for you, Becky dear, andattend to all our room things," said Emma Jane,who had come towards the group and heard thesorrowful news from the brick house.
They moved into one of the quiet side pews,where Hannah and her husband and John joinedthem. From time to time some straggling acquaintanceor old schoolmate would come up to congratulateRebecca and ask why she had hidden herselfin a corner. Then some member of the class wouldcall to her excitedly, reminding her not to be lateat the picnic luncheon, or begging her to be earlyat the class party in the evening. All this had anair of unreality to Rebecca. In the midst of thehappy excitement of the last two days, when"blushing honors" had been falling thick upon her, andbehind the delicious exaltation of the morning, hadbeen the feeling that the condition was a transientone, and that the burden, the struggle, the anxiety,would soon loom again on the horizon. She longedto steal away into the woods with dear old John,grown so manly and handsome, and get some comfortfrom him.
Meantime Adam Ladd and Mr. Cobb had beenhaving an animated conversation.
"I s'pose up to Boston, girls like that one are asthick as blackb'ries?" uncle Jerry said, jerking hishead interrogatively in Rebecca's direction.
"They may be," smiled Adam, taking in the oldman's mood; "only I don't happen to know one.""My eyesight bein' poor 's the reason she lookedhan'somest of any girl on the platform, I s'pose?""There's no failure in my eyes," responded Adam,"but that was how the thing seemed to me!""What did you think of her voice? Anythingextry about it?""Made the others sound poor and thin, Ithought.""Well, I'm glad to hear your opinion, you bein'
a traveled man, for mother says I'm foolish 'boutRebecky and hev been sence the fust. Motherscolds me for spoilin' her, but I notice mother ain'tfur behind when it comes to spoilin'. Land! itmade me sick, thinkin' o' them parents travelin'
miles to see their young ones graduate, and thenwhen they got here hevin' to compare 'em with Rebecky.
Good-by, Mr. Ladd, drop in some day whenyou come to Riverboro.""I will," said Adam, shaking the old man's handcordially; "perhaps to-morrow if I drive Rebeccahome, as I shall offer to do. Do you think MissSawyer's condition is serious?""Well, the doctor don't seem to know; but anyhowshe's paralyzed, and she'll never walk furagain, poor soul! She ain't lost her speech; that'llbe a comfort to her."Adam left the church, and in crossing the commoncame upon Miss Maxwell doing the honorsof the institution, as she passed from group togroup of strangers and guests. Knowing thatshe was deeply interested in all Rebecca's plans, hetold her, as he drew her aside, that the girl wouldhave to leave Wareham for Riverboro the nextday.
"That is almost more than I can bear!" exclaimedMiss Maxwell, sitting down on a bench and stabbingthe greensward with her parasol. "It seems to meRebecca never has any respite. I had so manyplans for her this next month in fitting her for herposition, and now she will settle down to houseworkagain, and to the nursing of that poor, sick,cross old aunt.""If it had not been for the cross old aunt,Rebecca would still have been at Sunnybrook; andfrom the standpoint of educational advantages, orindeed advantages of any sort, she might as wellhave been in the backwoods," returned Adam.
"That is true; I was vexed when I spoke, for Ithought an easier and happier day was dawning formy prodigy and pearl.""OUR prodigy and pearl," corrected Adam.
"Oh, yes!" she laughed. "I always forget thatit pleases you to pretend you discovered Rebecca.""I believe, though, that happier days are dawningfor her," continued Adam. "It must be a secretfor the present, but Mrs. Randall's farm will bebought by the new railroad. We must have rightof way through the land, and the station will bebuilt on her property. She will receive six thousanddollars, which, though not a fortune, will yield herthree or four hundred dollars a year, if she willallow me to invest it for her. There is a mortgageon the land; that paid, and Rebecca self-supporting,the mother ought to push the education of the oldestboy, who is a fine, ambitious fellow. He shouldbe taken away from farm work and settled at hisstudies.""We might form ourselves into a RandallProtective Agency, Limited," mused Miss Maxwell. "Iconfess I want Rebecca to have a career.""I don't," said Adam promptly.
"Of course you don't. Men have no interest inthe careers of women! But I know Rebecca betterthan you.""You understand her mind better, but notnecessarily her heart. You are considering her for themoment as prodigy; I am thinking of her more aspearl.""Well," sighed Miss Maxwell whimsically, "prodigyor pearl, the Randall Protective Agency maypull Rebecca in opposite directions, but neverthelessshe will follow her saint."That will content me," said Adam gravely.
"Particularly if the saint beckons your way."And Miss Maxwell looked up and smiled provokingly.
Rebecca did not see her aunt Miranda till shehad been at the brick house for several days.
Miranda steadily refused to have any one but Jane inthe room until her face had regained its naturallook, but her door was always ajar, and Jane fanciedshe liked to hear Rebecca's quick, light step. Hermind was perfectly clear now, and, save that shecould not move, she was most of the time quite freefrom pain, and alert in every nerve to all that wasgoing on within or without the house. "Were thewindfall apples being picked up for sauce; were thepotatoes thick in the hills; was the corn tosselin'
out; were they cuttin' the upper field; were theykeepin' fly-paper laid out everywheres; were thereany ants in the dairy; was the kindlin' wood holdin'
out; had the bank sent the cowpons?"Poor Miranda Sawyer! Hovering on the vergeof the great beyond,--her body "struck" and nolonger under control of her iron will,--no divinevisions floated across her tired brain; nothing butpetty cares and sordid anxieties. Not all at oncecan the soul talk with God, be He ever so near. Ifthe heavenly language never has been learned,quick as is the spiritual sense in seizing the facts itneeds, then the poor soul must use the words andphrases it has lived on and grown into day by day.
Poor Miss Miranda!--held fast within the prisonwalls of her own nature, blind in the presence ofrevelation because she had never used the spiritualeye, deaf to angelic voices because she had not usedthe spiritual ear.
There came a morning when she asked forRebecca. The door was opened into the dim sick-room, and Rebecca stood there with the sunlightbehind her, her hands full of sweet peas. Miranda'spale, sharp face, framed in its nightcap, lookedhaggard on the pillow, and her body was pitifully stillunder the counterpane.
"Come in," she said; "I ain't dead yet. Don'tmess up the bed with them flowers, will ye?""Oh, no! They're going in a glass pitcher," saidRebecca, turning to the washstand as she tried tocontrol her voice and stop the tears that sprangto her eyes.
"Let me look at ye; come closer. What dressare ye wearin'?" said the old aunt in her cracked,weak voice.
"My blue calico.""Is your cashmere holdin' its color?""Yes, aunt Miranda.""Do you keep it in a dark closet hung on thewrong side, as I told ye?""Always.""Has your mother made her jelly?""She hasn't said.""She always had the knack o' writin' letters withnothin' in 'em. What's Mark broke sence I've beensick?""Nothing at all, aunt Miranda.""Why, what's the matter with him? Gittin'
lazy, ain't he? How 's John turnin' out?""He's going to be the best of us all.""I hope you don't slight things in the kitchenbecause I ain't there. Do you scald the coffee-potand turn it upside down on the winder-sill?""Yes, aunt Miranda.""It's always `yes' with you, and `yes' withJane," groaned Miranda, trying to move her stiffenedbody; "but all the time I lay here knowin'
there's things done the way I don't like 'em."There was a long pause, during which Rebeccasat down by the bedside and timidly touched heraunt's hand, her heart swelling with tender pity atthe gaunt face and closed eyes.
"I was dreadful ashamed to have you graduatein cheesecloth, Rebecca, but I couldn't help it no-how. You'll hear the reason some time, and knowI tried to make it up to ye. I'm afraid you was alaughin'-stock!""No," Rebecca answered. "Ever so many peoplesaid our dresses were the very prettiest; they lookedlike soft lace. You're not to be anxious aboutanything. Here I am all grown up and graduated,--number three in a class of twenty-two, auntMiranda,--and good positions offered me already.
Look at me, big and strong and young, all ready togo into the world and show what you and auntJane have done for me. If you want me near, I'lltake the Edgewood school, so that I can be herenights and Sundays to help; and if you get better,then I'll go to Augusta,--for that's a hundreddollars more, with music lessons and other thingsbeside.""You listen to me," said Miranda quaveringly.
"Take the best place, regardless o' my sickness.
I'd like to live long enough to know you'd paid offthat mortgage, but I guess I shan't."Here she ceased abruptly, having talked morethan she had for weeks; and Rebecca stole out ofthe room, to cry by herself and wonder if old agemust be so grim, so hard, so unchastened andunsweetened, as it slipped into the valley of theshadow.
The days went on, and Miranda grew strongerand stronger; her will seemed unassailable, andbefore long she could be moved into a chair by thewindow, her dominant thought being to arrive atsuch a condition of improvement that the doctorneed not call more than once a week, instead ofdaily; thereby diminishing the bill, that was mount-ing to such a terrifying sum that it haunted herthoughts by day and dreams by night.
Little by little hope stole back into Rebecca'syoung heart. Aunt Jane began to "clear starch"her handkerchiefs and collars and purple muslindress, so that she might be ready to go to Brunswickat any moment when the doctor pronouncedMiranda well on the road to recovery. Everythingbeautiful was to happen in Brunswick if shecould be there by August,--everything that heartcould wish or imagination conceive, for she was tobe Miss Emily's very own visitor, and sit at tablewith college professors and other great men.
At length the day dawned when the few clean,simple dresses were packed in the hair trunk,together with her beloved coral necklace, her cheeseclothgraduating dress, her class pin, aunt Jane'slace cape, and the one new hat, which she tried onevery night before going to bed. It was of whitechip with a wreath of cheap white roses and greenleaves, and cost between two and three dollars, anunprecedented sum in Rebecca's experience. Theeffect of its glories when worn with her nightdresswas dazzling enough, but if ever it appeared inconjunction with the cheesecloth gown, Rebecca feltthat even reverend professors might regard it withrespect. It is probable indeed that any professorialgaze lucky enough to meet a pair of dark eyes shiningunder that white rose garland would never havestopped at respect!
Then, when all was ready and Abijah Flagg atthe door, came a telegram from Hannah: "Comeat once. Mother has had bad accident."In less than an hour Rebecca was started on herway to Sunnybrook, her heart palpitating with fearas to what might be awaiting her at her journey'send.
Death, at all events, was not there to meet her;but something that looked at first only too muchlike it. Her mother had been standing on thehaymow superintending some changes in the barn,had been seized with giddiness, they thought, andslipped. The right knee was fractured and the backstrained and hurt, but she was conscious and in noimmediate danger, so Rebecca wrote, when she hada moment to send aunt Jane the particulars.
"I don' know how 'tis," grumbled Miranda, whowas not able to sit up that day; "but from a childI could never lay abed without Aurelia's gettin' sicktoo. I don' know 's she could help fallin', thoughit ain't anyplace for a woman,--a haymow; butif it hadn't been that, 't would 'a' been somethin'
else. Aurelia was born unfortunate. Now she'llprobably be a cripple, and Rebecca'll have to nurseher instead of earning a good income somewhereselse.""Her first duty 's to her mother," said aunt Jane;"I hope she'll always remember that.""Nobody remembers anything they'd ought to,--at seventeen," responded Miranda. "Now thatI'm strong again, there's things I want to considerwith you, Jane, things that are on my mind nightand day. We've talked 'em over before; now we'llsettle 'em. When I'm laid away, do you want totake Aurelia and the children down here to the brickhouse? There's an awful passel of 'em,--Aurelia,Jenny, and Fanny; but I won't have Mark. Hannahcan take him; I won't have a great boy stompin'
out the carpets and ruinin' the furniture, thoughI know when I'm dead I can't hinder ye, if youmake up your mind to do anything.""I shouldn't like to go against your feelings,especially in laying out your money, Miranda," saidJane.
"Don't tell Rebecca I've willed her the brickhouse. She won't git it till I'm gone, and I want totake my time 'bout dyin' and not be hurried off bythem that's goin' to profit by it; nor I don't want tobe thanked, neither. I s'pose she'll use the frontstairs as common as the back and like as not havewater brought into the kitchen, but mebbe whenI've been dead a few years I shan't mind. She setssuch store by you, she'll want you to have your homehere as long's you live, but anyway I've wrote itdown that way; though Lawyer Burns's wills don'thold more'n half the time. He's cheaper, but Iguess it comes out jest the same in the end. Iwan't goin' to have the fust man Rebecca picks upfor a husband turnin' you ou'doors."There was a long pause, during which Jane knitsilently, wiping the tears from her eyes from timeto time, as she looked at the pitiful figure lyingweakly on the pillows. Suddenly Miranda said slowlyand feebly:--"I don' know after all but you might as welltake Mark; I s'pose there's tame boys as well aswild ones. There ain't a mite o' sense in havin'
so many children, but it's a turrible risk splittin' upfamilies and farmin' 'em out here 'n' there; they'dnever come to no good, an' everybody would keeprememberin' their mother was a Sawyer. Now ifyou'll draw down the curtin, I'll try to sleep."