Rebecca's heart beat high at this sweet praise from her hero's lips, bu_efore she had found words to thank him, Mr. and Mrs. Cobb, who had bee_odestly biding their time in a corner, approached her and she introduced the_o Mr. Ladd.
"Where, where is aunt Jane?" she cried, holding aunt Sarah's hand on one sid_nd uncle Jerry's on the other.
"I'm sorry, lovey, but we've got bad news for you."
"Is aunt Miranda worse? She is; I can see it by your looks;" and Rebecca'_olor faded.
"She had a second stroke yesterday morning jest when she was helpin' Jane la_ut her things to come here to-day. Jane said you wan't to know anything abou_t till the exercises was all over, and we promised to keep it secret til_hen."
"I will go right home with you, aunt Sarah. I must just run to tell Mis_axwell, for after I had packed up to-morrow I was going to Brunswick wit_er. Poor aunt Miranda! And I have been so gay and happy all day, except tha_ was longing for mother and aunt Jane."
"There ain't no harm in bein' gay, lovey; that's what Jane wanted you to be.
And Miranda's got her speech back, for your aunt has just sent a letter sayin'
she's better; and I'm goin' to set up to-night, so you can stay here and hav_ good sleep, and get your things together comfortably to-morrow."
"I'll pack your trunk for you, Becky dear, and attend to all our room things,"
said Emma Jane, who had come towards the group and heard the sorrowful new_rom the brick house.
They moved into one of the quiet side pews, where Hannah and her husband an_ohn joined them. From time to time some straggling acquaintance or ol_choolmate would come up to congratulate Rebecca and ask why she had hidde_erself in a corner. Then some member of the class would call to he_xcitedly, reminding her not to be late at the picnic luncheon, or begging he_o be early at the class party in the evening. All this had an air o_nreality to Rebecca. In the midst of the happy excitement of the last tw_ays, when "blushing honors" had been falling thick upon her, and behind th_elicious exaltation of the morning, had been the feeling that the conditio_as a transient one, and that the burden, the struggle, the anxiety, woul_oon loom again on the horizon. She longed to steal away into the woods wit_ear old John, grown so manly and handsome, and get some comfort from him.
Meantime Adam Ladd and Mr. Cobb had been having an animated conversation.
"I s'pose up to Boston, girls like that one are as thick as blackb'ries?"
uncle Jerry said, jerking his head interrogatively in Rebecca's direction.
"They may be," smiled Adam, taking in the old man's mood; "only I don't happe_o know one."
"My eyesight bein' poor 's the reason she looked han'somest of any girl on th_latform, I s'pose?"
"There's no failure in my eyes," responded Adam, "but that was how the thin_eemed to me!"
"What did you think of her voice? Anything extry about it?"
"Made the others sound poor and thin, I thought."
"Well, I'm glad to hear your opinion, you bein' a traveled man, for mothe_ays I'm foolish 'bout Rebecky and hev been sence the fust. Mother scolds m_or spoilin' her, but I notice mother ain't fur behind when it comes t_poilin'. Land! it made me sick, thinkin' o' them parents travelin' miles t_ee their young ones graduate, and then when they got here hevin' to compare
'em with Rebecky. Good-by, Mr. Ladd, drop in some day when you come t_iverboro."
"I will," said Adam, shaking the old man's hand cordially; "perhaps to-morro_f I drive Rebecca home, as I shall offer to do. Do you think Miss Sawyer'_ondition is serious?"
"Well, the doctor don't seem to know; but anyhow she's paralyzed, and she'l_ever walk fur again, poor soul! She ain't lost her speech; that'll be _omfort to her."
Adam left the church, and in crossing the common came upon Miss Maxwell doin_he honors of the institution, as she passed from group to group of stranger_nd guests. Knowing that she was deeply interested in all Rebecca's plans, h_old her, as he drew her aside, that the girl would have to leave Wareham fo_iverboro the next day.
"That is almost more than I can bear!" exclaimed Miss Maxwell, sitting down o_ bench and stabbing the greensward with her parasol. "It seems to me Rebecc_ever has any respite. I had so many plans for her this next month in fittin_er for her position, and now she will settle down to housework again, and t_he nursing of that poor, sick, cross old aunt."
"If it had not been for the cross old aunt, Rebecca would still have been a_unnybrook; and from the standpoint of educational advantages, or indee_dvantages of any sort, she might as well have been in the backwoods,"
"That is true; I was vexed when I spoke, for I thought an easier and happie_ay was dawning for my prodigy and pearl."
"OUR prodigy and pearl," corrected Adam.
"Oh, yes!" she laughed. "I always forget that it pleases you to pretend yo_iscovered Rebecca."
"I believe, though, that happier days are dawning for her," continued Adam.
"It must be a secret for the present, but Mrs. Randall's farm will be bough_y the new railroad. We must have right of way through the land, and th_tation will be built on her property. She will receive six thousand dollars, which, though not a fortune, will yield her three or four hundred dollars _ear, if she will allow me to invest it for her. There is a mortgage on th_and; that paid, and Rebecca self-supporting, the mother ought to push th_ducation of the oldest boy, who is a fine, ambitious fellow. He should b_aken away from farm work and settled at his studies."
"We might form ourselves into a Randall Protective Agency, Limited," muse_iss Maxwell. "I confess I want Rebecca to have a career."
"I don't," said Adam promptly.
"Of course you don't. Men have no interest in the careers of women! But I kno_ebecca better than you."
"You understand her mind better, but not necessarily her heart. You ar_onsidering her for the moment as prodigy; I am thinking of her more a_earl."
"Well," sighed Miss Maxwell whimsically, "prodigy or pearl, the Randal_rotective Agency may pull Rebecca in opposite directions, but nevertheles_he will follow her saint."
"That will content me," said Adam gravely.
"Particularly if the saint beckons your way." And Miss Maxwell looked up an_miled provokingly.
Rebecca did not see her aunt Miranda till she had been at the brick house fo_everal days. Miranda steadily refused to have any one but Jane in the roo_ntil her face had regained its natural look, but her door was always ajar, and Jane fancied she liked to hear Rebecca's quick, light step. Her mind wa_erfectly clear now, and, save that she could not move, she was most of th_ime quite free from pain, and alert in every nerve to all that was going o_ithin or without the house. "Were the windfall apples being picked up fo_auce; were the potatoes thick in the hills; was the corn tosselin' out; wer_hey cuttin' the upper field; were they keepin' fly-paper laid ou_verywheres; were there any ants in the dairy; was the kindlin' wood holdin'
out; had the bank sent the cowpons?"
Poor Miranda Sawyer! Hovering on the verge of the great beyond,—her body
"struck" and no longer under control of her iron will,—no divine vision_loated across her tired brain; nothing but petty cares and sordid anxieties.
Not all at once can the soul talk with God, be He ever so near. If th_eavenly language never has been learned, quick as is the spiritual sense i_eizing the facts it needs, then the poor soul must use the words and phrase_t has lived on and grown into day by day. Poor Miss Miranda!—held fast withi_he prison walls of her own nature, blind in the presence of revelatio_ecause she had never used the spiritual eye, deaf to angelic voices becaus_he had not used the spiritual ear.
There came a morning when she asked for Rebecca. The door was opened into th_im sick-room, and Rebecca stood there with the sunlight behind her, her hand_ull of sweet peas. Miranda's pale, sharp face, framed in its nightcap, looke_aggard on the pillow, and her body was pitifully still under the counterpane.
"Come in," she said; "I ain't dead yet. Don't mess up the bed with the_lowers, will ye?"
"Oh, no! They're going in a glass pitcher," said Rebecca, turning to th_ashstand as she tried to control her voice and stop the tears that sprang t_er eyes.
"Let me look at ye; come closer. What dress are ye wearin'?" said the old aun_n 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 the wrong side, as I told ye?"
"Has your mother made her jelly?"
"She hasn't said."
"She always had the knack o' writin' letters with nothin' in 'em. What's Mar_roke sence I've been sick?"
"Nothing at all, aunt Miranda."
"Why, what's the matter with him? Gittin' lazy, ain't he? How 's John turnin'
"He's going to be the best of us all."
"I hope you don't slight things in the kitchen because I ain't there. Do yo_cald the coffee-pot and turn it upside down on the winder-sill?"
"Yes, aunt Miranda."
"It's always 'yes' with you, and 'yes' with Jane," groaned Miranda, trying t_ove her stiffened body; "but all the time I lay here knowin' there's thing_one the way I don't like 'em."
There was a long pause, during which Rebecca sat down by the bedside an_imidly touched her aunt's hand, her heart swelling with tender pity at th_aunt face and closed eyes.
"I was dreadful ashamed to have you graduate in cheesecloth, Rebecca, but _ouldn't help it no-how. You'll hear the reason some time, and know I tried t_ake it up to ye. I'm afraid you was a laughin'-stock!"
"No," Rebecca answered. "Ever so many people said our dresses were the ver_rettiest; they looked like soft lace. You're not to be anxious abou_nything. Here I am all grown up and graduated,—number three in a class o_wenty-two, aunt Miranda,—and good positions offered me already. Look at me, big and strong and young, all ready to go into the world and show what you an_unt Jane have done for me. If you want me near, I'll take the Edgewoo_chool, so that I can be here nights and Sundays to help; and if you ge_etter, then I'll go to Augusta,—for that's a hundred dollars more, with musi_essons and other things beside."
"You listen to me," said Miranda quaveringly. "Take the best place, regardles_' my sickness. I'd like to live long enough to know you'd paid off tha_ortgage, but I guess I shan't."
Here she ceased abruptly, having talked more than she had for weeks; an_ebecca stole out of the room, to cry by herself and wonder if old age must b_o grim, so hard, so unchastened and unsweetened, as it slipped into th_alley of the shadow.
The days went on, and Miranda grew stronger and stronger; her will seeme_nassailable, and before long she could be moved into a chair by the window, her dominant thought being to arrive at such a condition of improvement tha_he doctor need not call more than once a week, instead of daily; thereb_iminishing the bill, that was mounting to such a terrifying sum that i_aunted her thoughts by day and dreams by night.
Little by little hope stole back into Rebecca's young heart. Aunt Jane bega_o "clear starch" her handkerchiefs and collars and purple muslin dress, s_hat she might be ready to go to Brunswick at any moment when the docto_ronounced Miranda well on the road to recovery. Everything beautiful was t_appen in Brunswick if she could be there by August,—everything that hear_ould wish or imagination conceive, for she was to be Miss Emily's very ow_isitor, and sit at table with college professors and other great men.
At length the day dawned when the few clean, simple dresses were packed in th_air trunk, together with her beloved coral necklace, her cheeseclot_raduating dress, her class pin, aunt Jane's lace cape, and the one new hat, which she tried on every night before going to bed. It was of white chip wit_ wreath of cheap white roses and green leaves, and cost between two and thre_ollars, an unprecedented sum in Rebecca's experience. The effect of it_lories when worn with her nightdress was dazzling enough, but if ever i_ppeared in conjunction with the cheesecloth gown, Rebecca felt that eve_everend professors might regard it with respect. It is probable indeed tha_ny professorial gaze lucky enough to meet a pair of dark eyes shining unde_hat white rose garland would never have stopped at respect!
Then, when all was ready and Abijah Flagg at the door, came a telegram fro_annah: "Come at once. Mother has had bad accident."
In less than an hour Rebecca was started on her way to Sunnybrook, her hear_alpitating with fear as to what might be awaiting her at her journey's end.
Death, at all events, was not there to meet her; but something that looked a_irst only too much like it. Her mother had been standing on the haymo_uperintending some changes in the barn, had been seized with giddiness, the_hought, and slipped. The right knee was fractured and the back strained an_urt, but she was conscious and in no immediate danger, so Rebecca wrote, whe_he had a moment to send aunt Jane the particulars.
"I don' know how 'tis," grumbled Miranda, who was not able to sit up that day;
"but from a child I could never lay abed without Aurelia's gettin' sick too. _on' know 's she could help fallin', though it ain't anyplace for a woman,—_aymow; but if it hadn't been that, 't would 'a' been somethin' else. Aureli_as born unfortunate. Now she'll probably be a cripple, and Rebecca'll have t_urse her instead of earning a good income somewheres else."
"Her first duty 's to her mother," said aunt Jane; "I hope she'll alway_emember that."
"Now that I'm strong again, there's things I want to consider with you, Jane, things that are on my mind night and day. We've talked 'em over before; no_e'll settle 'em. When I'm laid away, do you want to take Aurelia and th_hildren down here to the brick house? There's an awful passel of
'em,—Aurelia, Jenny, and Fanny; but I won't have Mark. Hannah can take him; _on't have a great boy stompin' out the carpets and ruinin' the furniture, though I know when I'm dead I can't hinder ye, if you make up your mind to d_nything."
"I shouldn't like to go against your feelings, especially in laying out you_oney, Miranda," said Jane.
"Don't tell Rebecca I've willed her the brick house. She won't git it till I'_one, and I want to take my time 'bout dyin' and not be hurried off by the_hat's goin' to profit by it; nor I don't want to be thanked, neither. _'pose she'll use the front stairs as common as the back and like as not hav_ater brought into the kitchen, but mebbe when I've been dead a few years _han't mind. She sets such store by you, she'll want you to have your hom_ere as long's you live, but anyway I've wrote it down that way; though Lawye_urns's wills don't hold more'n half the time. He's cheaper, but I guess i_omes out jest the same in the end. I wan't goin' to have the fust man Rebecc_icks up for a husband turnin' you ou'doors."
There was a long pause, during which Jane knit silently, wiping the tears fro_er eyes from time to time, as she looked at the pitiful figure lying weakl_n the pillows. Suddenly Miranda said slowly and feebly:—
"I don' know after all but you might as well take Mark; I s'pose there's tam_oys as well as wild ones. There ain't a mite o' sense in havin' so man_hildren, but it's a turrible risk splittin' up families and farmin' 'em ou_ere 'n' there; they'd never come to no good, an' everybody would kee_ememberin' their mother was a Sawyer. Now if you'll draw down the curtin, I'll try to sleep."