Uncle Jerry coughed and stirred in his chair a good deal during Rebecca's recital, but he carefully concealed any undue feeling of sympathy, just muttering, "Poor little soul! We'll see what we can do for her!"
"You will take me to Maplewood, won't you, Mr. Cobb?" begged Rebecca piteously.
"Don't you fret a mite," he answered, with a crafty little notion at the back of his mind; "I'll see the lady passenger through somehow. Now take a bite o' somethin' to eat, child. Spread some o' that tomato preserve on your bread; draw up to the table. How'd you like to set in mother's place an' pour me out another cup o' hot tea?"
Mr. Jeremiah Cobb's mental machinery was simple, and did not move very smoothly save when propelled by his affection or sympathy. In the present case these were both employed to his advantage, and mourning his stupidity and praying for some flash of inspiration to light his path, he blundered along, trusting to Providence.
Rebecca, comforted by the old man's tone, and timidly enjoying the dignity of sitting in Mrs. Cobb's seat and lifting the blue china teapot, smiled faintly, smoothed her hair, and dried her eyes.
"I suppose your mother'll be turrible glad to see you back again?" queried Mr. Cobb.
A tiny fear--just a baby thing--in the bottom of Rebecca's heart stirred and grew larger the moment it was touched with a question.
"She won't like it that I ran away, I s'pose, and she'll be sorry that I couldn't please aunt Mirandy; but I'll make her understand, just as I did you."
"I s'pose she was thinkin' o' your schoolin', lettin' you come down here; but land! you can go to school in Temperance, I s'pose?"
"There's only two months' school now in Temperance, and the farm 's too far from all the other schools."
"Oh well! there's other things in the world beside edjercation," responded uncle Jerry, attacking a piece of apple pie.
"Ye--es; though mother thought that was going to be the making of me," returned Rebecca sadly, giving a dry little sob as she tried to drink her tea.
"It'll be nice for you to be all together again at the farm--such a house full o' children!" remarked the dear old deceiver, who longed for nothing so much as to cuddle and comfort the poor little creature.
"It's too full--that's the trouble. But I'll make Hannah come to Riverboro in my place."
"S'pose Mirandy 'n' Jane'll have her? I should be 'most afraid they wouldn't. They'll be kind o' mad at your goin' home, you know, and you can't hardly blame 'em."
This was quite a new thought,--that the brick house might be closed to Hannah, since she, Rebecca, had turned her back upon its cold hospitality.
"How is this school down here in Riverboro --pretty good?" inquired uncle Jerry, whose brain was working with an altogether unaccustomed rapidity,--so much so that it almost terrified him.
"Oh, it's a splendid school! And Miss Dearborn is a splendid teacher!"
"You like her, do you? Well, you'd better believe she returns the compliment. Mother was down to the store this afternoon buyin' liniment for Seth Strout, an' she met Miss Dearborn on the bridge. They got to talkin' 'bout school, for mother has summer-boarded a lot o' the schoolmarms, an' likes 'em. `How does the little Temperance girl git along?' asks mother. `Oh, she's the best scholar I have!' says Miss Dearborn. `I could teach school from sun-up to sun-down if scholars was all like Rebecca Randall,' says she."
"Oh, Mr. Cobb, did she say that?" glowed Rebecca, her face sparkling and dimpling in an instant. "I've tried hard all the time, but I'll study the covers right off of the books now."
"You mean you would if you'd ben goin' to stay here," interposed uncle Jerry. "Now ain't it too bad you've jest got to give it all up on account o' your aunt Mirandy? Well, I can't hardly blame ye. She's cranky an' she's sour; I should think she'd ben nussed on bonny-clabber an' green apples. She needs bearin' with; an' I guess you ain't much on patience, be ye?"
"Not very much," replied Rebecca dolefully.
"If I'd had this talk with ye yesterday," pursued Mr. Cobb, "I believe I'd have advised ye different. It's too late now, an' I don't feel to say you've ben all in the wrong; but if 't was to do over again, I'd say, well, your aunt Mirandy gives you clothes and board and schoolin' and is goin' to send you to Wareham at a big expense. She's turrible hard to get along with, an' kind o' heaves benefits at your head, same 's she would bricks; but they're benefits jest the same, an' mebbe it's your job to kind o' pay for 'em in good behavior. Jane's a leetle bit more easy goin' than Mirandy, ain't she, or is she jest as hard to please?"
"Oh, aunt Jane and I get along splendidly," exclaimed Rebecca; "she's just as good and kind as she can be, and I like her better all the time. I think she kind of likes me, too; she smoothed my hair once. I'd let her scold me all day long, for she understands; but she can't stand up for me against aunt Mirandy; she's about as afraid of her as I am."
"Jane'll be real sorry to-morrow to find you've gone away, I guess; but never mind, it can't be helped. If she has a kind of a dull time with Mirandy, on account o' her bein' so sharp, why of course she'd set great store by your comp'ny. Mother was talkin' with her after prayer meetin' the other night. `You wouldn't know the brick house, Sarah,' says Jane. `I'm keepin' a sewin' school, an' my scholar has made three dresses. What do you think o' that,' says she, `for an old maid's child? I've taken a class in Sunday-school,' says Jane, `an' think o' renewin' my youth an' goin' to the picnic with Rebecca,' says she; an' mother declares she never see her look so young 'n' happy."
There was a silence that could be felt in the little kitchen; a silence only broken by the ticking of the tall clock and the beating of Rebecca's heart, which, it seemed to her, almost drowned the voice of the clock. The rain ceased, a sudden rosy light filled the room, and through the window a rainbow arch could be seen spanning the heavens like a radiant bridge. Bridges took one across difficult places, thought Rebecca, and uncle Jerry seemed to have built one over her troubles and given her strength to walk.
"The shower 's over," said the old man, filling his pipe; "it's cleared the air, washed the face o' the airth nice an' clean, an' everything to-morrer will shine like a new pin--when you an' I are drivin' up river."
Rebecca pushed her cup away, rose from the table, and put on her hat and jacket quietly. "I'm not going to drive up river, Mr. Cobb," she said. "I'm going to stay here and--catch bricks; catch 'em without throwing 'em back, too. I don't know as aunt Mirandy will take me in after I've run away, but I'm going back now while I have the courage. You wouldn't be so good as to go with me, would you, Mr. Cobb?"
"You'd better b'lieve your uncle Jerry don't propose to leave till he gits this thing fixed up," cried the old man delightedly. "Now you've had all you can stan' to-night, poor little soul, without gettin' a fit o' sickness; an' Mirandy'll be sore an' cross an' in no condition for argyment; so my plan is jest this: to drive you over to the brick house in my top buggy; to have you set back in the corner, an' I git out an' go to the side door; an' when I git your aunt Mirandy 'n' aunt Jane out int' the shed to plan for a load o' wood I'm goin' to have hauled there this week, you'll slip out o' the buggy and go upstairs to bed. The front door won't be locked, will it?"
"Not this time of night," Rebecca answered; "not till aunt Mirandy goes to bed; but oh! what if it should be?"
"Well, it won't; an' if 't is, why we'll have to face it out; though in my opinion there's things that won't bear facin' out an' had better be settled comfortable an' quiet. You see you ain't run away yet; you've only come over here to consult me 'bout runnin' away, an' we've concluded it ain't wuth the trouble. The only real sin you've committed, as I figger it out, was in comin' here by the winder when you'd ben sent to bed. That ain't so very black, an' you can tell your aunt Jane 'bout it come Sunday, when she's chock full o' religion, an' she can advise you when you'd better tell your aunt Mirandy. I don't believe in deceivin' folks, but if you've hed hard thoughts you ain't obleeged to own 'em up; take 'em to the Lord in prayer, as the hymn says, and then don't go on hevin' 'em. Now come on; I'm all hitched up to go over to the post-office; don't forget your bundle; `it's always a journey, mother, when you carry a nightgown;' them 's the first words your uncle Jerry ever heard you say! He didn't think you'd be bringin' your nightgown over to his house. Step in an' curl up in the corner; we ain't goin' to let folks see little runaway gals, 'cause they're goin' back to begin all over ag'in!"
When Rebecca crept upstairs, and undressing in the dark finally found herself in her bed that night, though she was aching and throbbing in every nerve, she felt a kind of peace stealing over her. She had been saved from foolishness and error; kept from troubling her poor mother; prevented from angering and mortifying her aunts.
Her heart was melted now, and she determined to win aunt Miranda's approval by some desperate means, and to try and forget the one thing that rankled worst, the scornful mention of her father, of whom she thought with the greatest admiration, and whom she had not yet heard criticised; for such sorrows and disappointments as Aurelia Randall had suffered had never been communicated to her children.
It would have been some comfort to the bruised, unhappy little spirit to know that Miranda Sawyer was passing an uncomfortable night, and that she tacitly regretted her harshness, partly because Jane had taken such a lofty and virtuous position in the matter. She could not endure Jane's disapproval, although she would never have confessed to such a weakness.
As uncle Jerry drove homeward under the stars, well content with his attempts at keeping the peace, he thought wistfully of the touch of Rebecca's head on his knee, and the rain of her tears on his hand; of the sweet reasonableness of her mind when she had the matter put rightly before her; of her quick decision when she had once seen the path of duty; of the touching hunger for love and understanding that were so characteristic in her. "Lord A'mighty!" he ejaculated under his breath, "Lord A'mighty! to hector and abuse a child like that one! 'T ain't abuse exactly, I know, or 't wouldn't be to some o' your elephant-hided young ones; but to that little tender will-o'-the-wisp a hard word 's like a lash. Mirandy Sawyer would be a heap better woman if she had a little gravestun to remember, same's mother 'n' I have."
"I never see a child improve in her work as Rebecca has to-day," remarked Miranda Sawyer to Jane on Saturday evening. "That settin' down I gave her was probably just what she needed, and I daresay it'll last for a month."
"I'm glad you're pleased," returned Jane. "A cringing worm is what you want, not a bright, smiling child. Rebecca looks to me as if she'd been through the Seven Years' War. When she came downstairs this morning it seemed to me she'd grown old in the night. If you follow my advice, which you seldom do, you'll let me take her and Emma Jane down beside the river to-morrow afternoon and bring Emma Jane home to a good Sunday supper. Then if you'll let her go to Milltown with the Cobbs on Wednesday, that'll hearten her up a little and coax back her appetite. Wednesday 's a holiday on account of Miss Dearborn's going home to her sister's wedding, and the Cobbs and Perkinses want to go down to the Agricultural Fair."
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