It was about this time that Rebecca, who had been reading about the Spartan boy, conceived the idea of some mild form of self-punishment to be applied on occasions when she was fully convinced in her own mind that it would be salutary. The immediate cause of the decision was a somewhat sadder accident than was common, even in a career prolific in such things.
Clad in her best, Rebecca had gone to take tea with the Cobbs; but while crossing the bridge she was suddenly overcome by the beauty of the river and leaned over the newly painted rail to feast her eyes on the dashing torrent of the fall. Resting her elbows on the topmost board, and inclining her little figure forward in delicious ease, she stood there dreaming.
The river above the dam was a glassy lake with all the loveliness of blue heaven and green shore reflected in its surface; the fall was a swirling wonder of water, ever pouring itself over and over inexhaustibly in luminous golden gushes that lost themselves in snowy depths of foam. Sparkling in the sunshine, gleaming under the summer moon, cold and gray beneath a November sky, trickling over the dam in some burning July drought, swollen with turbulent power in some April freshet, how many young eyes gazed into the mystery and majesty of the falls along that river, and how many young hearts dreamed out their futures leaning over the bridge rail, seeing "the vision splendid" reflected there and often, too, watching it fade into "the light of common day."
Rebecca never went across the bridge without bending over the rail to wonder and to ponder, and at this special moment she was putting the finishing touches on a poem.
Two maidens by a river strayed Down in the state of Maine. The one was called Rebecca, The other Emma Jane. "I would my life were like the stream," Said her named Emma Jane, "So quiet and so very smooth, So free from every pain." "I'd rather be a little drop In the great rushing fall! I would not choose the glassy lake, 'T would not suit me at all!" (It was the darker maiden spoke The words I just have stated, The maidens twain were simply friends And not at all related.) But O! alas I we may not have The things we hope to gain; The quiet life may come to me, The rush to Emma Jane!
"I don't like `the rush to Emma Jane,' and I can't think of anything else. Oh! what a smell of paint! Oh! it is ON me! Oh! it's all over my best dress! Oh I what will aunt Miranda say!"
With tears of self-reproach streaming from her eyes, Rebecca flew up the hill, sure of sympathy, and hoping against hope for help of some sort.
Mrs. Cobb took in the situation at a glance, and professed herself able to remove almost any stain from almost any fabric; and in this she was corroborated by uncle Jerry, who vowed that mother could git anything out. Sometimes she took the cloth right along with the spot, but she had a sure hand, mother had!
The damaged garment was removed and partially immersed in turpentine, while Rebecca graced the festal board clad in a blue calico wrapper of Mrs. Cobb's.
"Don't let it take your appetite away," crooned Mrs. Cobb. "I've got cream biscuit and honey for you. If the turpentine don't work, I'll try French chalk, magneshy, and warm suds. If they fail, father shall run over to Strout's and borry some of the stuff Marthy got in Milltown to take the currant pie out of her weddin' dress."
"I ain't got to understandin' this paintin' accident yet," said uncle Jerry jocosely, as he handed Rebecca the honey. "Bein' as how there's `Fresh Paint' signs hung all over the breedge, so 't a blind asylum couldn't miss 'em, I can't hardly account for your gettin' int' the pesky stuff."
"I didn't notice the signs," Rebecca said dolefully. "I suppose I was looking at the falls."
"The falls has been there sence the beginnin' o' time, an' I cal'late they'll be there till the end on 't; so you needn't 'a' been in sech a brash to git a sight of 'em. Children comes turrible high, mother, but I s'pose we must have 'em!" he said, winking at Mrs. Cobb.
When supper was cleared away Rebecca insisted on washing and wiping the dishes, while Mrs. Cobb worked on the dress with an energy that plainly showed the gravity of the task. Rebecca kept leaving her post at the sink to bend anxiously over the basin and watch her progress, while uncle Jerry offered advice from time to time.
"You must 'a' laid all over the breedge, deary," said Mrs. Cobb; "for the paint 's not only on your elbows and yoke and waist, but it about covers your front breadth."
As the garment began to look a little better Rebecca's spirits took an upward turn, and at length she left it to dry in the fresh air, and went into the sitting-room.
"Have you a piece of paper, please?" asked Rebecca. "I'll copy out the poetry I was making while I was lying in the paint."
Mrs. Cobb sat by her mending basket, and uncle Jerry took down a gingham bag of strings and occupied himself in taking the snarls out of them,--a favorite evening amusement with him.
Rebecca soon had the lines copied in her round schoolgirl hand, making such improvements as occurred to her on sober second thought.
THE TWO WISHES BY REBECCA RANDALL Two maidens by a river strayed, 'T was in the state of Maine. Rebecca was the darker one, The fairer, Emma Jane. The fairer maiden said, "I would My life were as the stream; So peaceful, and so smooth and still, So pleasant and serene." "I'd rather be a little drop In the great rushing fall; I'd never choose the quiet lake; 'T would not please me at all." (It was the darker maiden spoke The words we just have stated; The maidens twain were simply friends, Not sisters, or related.) But O! alas! we may not have The things we hope to gain. The quiet life may come to me, The rush to Emma Jane!
She read it aloud, and the Cobbs thought it not only surpassingly beautiful, but a marvelous production
"I guess if that writer that lived on Congress Street in Portland could 'a' heard your poetry he'd 'a' been astonished," said Mrs. Cobb. "If you ask me, I say this piece is as good as that one o' his, `Tell me not in mournful numbers;' and consid'able clearer."
"I never could fairly make out what `mournful numbers' was," remarked Mr. Cobb critically.
"Then I guess you never studied fractions!" flashed Rebecca. "See here, uncle Jerry and aunt Sarah, would you write another verse, especially for a last one, as they usually do--one with `thoughts' in it--to make a better ending?"
"If you can grind 'em out jest by turnin' the crank, why I should say the more the merrier; but I don't hardly see how you could have a better endin'," observed Mr. Cobb.
"It is horrid!" grumbled Rebecca. "I ought not to have put that `me' in. I'm writing the poetry. Nobody ought to know it IS me standing by the river; it ought to be `Rebecca,' or `the darker maiden;' and `the rush to Emma Jane' is simply dreadful. Sometimes I think I never will try poetry, it's so hard to make it come right; and other times it just says itself. I wonder if this would be better?
But O! alas! we may not gain The good for which we pray The quiet life may come to one Who likes it rather gay,
I don't know whether that is worse or not. Now for a new last verse!"
In a few minutes the poetess looked up, flushed and triumphant. "It was as easy as nothing. Just hear!" And she read slowly, with her pretty, pathetic voice:--
Then if our lot be bright or sad, Be full of smiles, or tears, The thought that God has planned it so Should help us bear the years.
Mr. and Mrs. Cobb exchanged dumb glances of admiration; indeed uncle Jerry was obliged to turn his face to the window and wipe his eyes furtively with the string-bag.
"How in the world did you do it?" Mrs. Cobb exclaimed.
"Oh, it's easy," answered Rebecca; "the hymns at meeting are all like that. You see there's a school newspaper printed at Wareham Academy once a month. Dick Carter says the editor is always a boy, of course; but he allows girls to try and write for it, and then chooses the best. Dick thinks I can be in it."
"IN it!" exclaimed uncle Jerry. "I shouldn't be a bit surprised if you had to write the whole paper; an' as for any boy editor, you could lick him writin', I bate ye, with one hand tied behind ye."
"Can we have a copy of the poetry to keep in the family Bible?" inquired Mrs. Cobb respectfully.
"Oh! would you like it?" asked Rebecca. "Yes indeed! I'll do a clean, nice one with violet ink and a fine pen. But I must go and look at my poor dress."
The old couple followed Rebecca into the kitchen. The frock was quite dry, and in truth it had been helped a little by aunt Sarah's ministrations; but the colors had run in the rubbing, the pattern was blurred, and there were muddy streaks here and there. As a last resort, it was carefully smoothed with a warm iron, and Rebecca was urged to attire herself, that they might see if the spots showed as much when it was on.
They did, most uncompromisingly, and to the dullest eye. Rebecca gave one searching look, and then said, as she took her hat from a nail in the entry, "I think I'll be going. Good-night! If I've got to have a scolding, I want it quick, and get it over."
"Poor little onlucky misfortunate thing!" sighed uncle Jerry, as his eyes followed her down the hill. "I wish she could pay some attention to the ground under her feet; but I vow, if she was ourn I'd let her slop paint all over the house before I could scold her. Here's her poetry she's left behind. Read it out ag'in, mother. Land!" he continued, chuckling, as he lighted his cob pipe; "I can just see the last flap o' that boy-editor's shirt tail as he legs it for the woods, while Rebecky settles down in his revolvin' cheer! I'm puzzled as to what kind of a job editin' is, exactly; but she'll find out, Rebecky will. An' she'll just edit for all she's worth!
"`The thought that God has planned it so Should help us bear the years.'
Land, mother! that takes right holt, kind o' like the gospel. How do you suppose she thought that out?"
"She couldn't have thought it out at her age," said Mrs. Cobb; "she must have just guessed it was that way. We know some things without bein' told, Jeremiah."
Rebecca took her scolding (which she richly deserved) like a soldier. There was considerable of it, and Miss Miranda remarked, among other things, that so absent-minded a child was sure to grow up into a driveling idiot. She was bidden to stay away from Alice Robinson's birthday party, and doomed to wear her dress, stained and streaked as it was, until it was worn out. Aunt Jane six months later mitigated this martyrdom by making her a ruffled dimity pinafore, artfully shaped to conceal all the spots. She was blessedly ready with these mediations between the poor little sinner and the full consequences of her sin.
When Rebecca had heard her sentence and gone to the north chamber she began to think. If there was anything she did not wish to grow into, it was an idiot of any sort, particularly a driveling one; and she resolved to punish herself every time she incurred what she considered to be the righteous displeasure of her virtuous relative. She didn't mind staying away from Alice Robinson's. She had told Emma Jane it would be like a picnic in a graveyard, the Robinson house being as near an approach to a tomb as a house can manage to be. Children were commonly brought in at the back door, and requested to stand on newspapers while making their call, so that Alice was begged by her friends to "receive" in the shed or barn whenever possible. Mrs. Robinson was not only "turrible neat," but "turrible close," so that the refreshments were likely to be peppermint lozenges and glasses of well water.
After considering the relative values, as penances, of a piece of haircloth worn next the skin, and a pebble in the shoe, she dismissed them both. The haircloth could not be found, and the pebble would attract the notice of the Argus-eyed aunt, besides being a foolish bar to the activity of a person who had to do housework and walk a mile and a half to school.
Her first experimental attempt at martyrdom had not been a distinguished success. She had stayed at home from the Sunday-school concert, a func- tion of which, in ignorance of more alluring ones, she was extremely fond. As a result of her desertion, two infants who relied upon her to prompt them (she knew the verses of all the children better than they did themselves) broke down ignominiously. The class to which she belonged had to read a difficult chapter of Scripture in rotation, and the various members spent an arduous Sabbath afternoon counting out verses according to their seats in the pew, and practicing the ones that would inevitably fall to them. They were too ignorant to realize, when they were called upon, that Rebecca's absence would make everything come wrong, and the blow descended with crushing force when the Jebusites and Amorites, the Girgashites, Hivites, and Perizzites had to be pronounced by the persons of all others least capable of grappling with them.
Self-punishment, then, to be adequate and proper, must begin, like charity, at home, and unlike charity should end there too. Rebecca looked about the room vaguely as she sat by the window. She must give up something, and truth to tell she possessed little to give, hardly anything but--yes, that would do, the beloved pink parasol. She could not hide it in the attic, for in some moment of weakness she would be sure to take it out again. She feared she had not the moral energy to break it into bits. Her eyes moved from the parasol to the apple-trees in the side yard, and then fell to the well curb. That would do; she would fling her dearest possession into the depths of the water. Action followed quickly upon decision, as usual. She slipped down in the darkness, stole out the front door, approached the place of sacrifice, lifted the cover of the well, gave one unresigned shudder, and flung the parasol downward with all her force. At the crucial instant of renunciation she was greatly helped by the reflection that she closely resembled the heathen mothers who cast their babes to the crocodiles in the Ganges.
She slept well and arose refreshed, as a consecrated spirit always should and sometimes does. But there was great difficulty in drawing water after breakfast. Rebecca, chastened and uplifted, had gone to school. Abijah Flagg was summoned, lifted the well cover, explored, found the inciting cause of trouble, and with the help of Yankee wit succeeded in removing it. The fact was that the ivory hook of the parasol had caught in the chain gear, and when the first attempt at drawing water was made, the little offering of a contrite heart was jerked up, bent, its strong ribs jammed into the well side, and entangled with a twig root. It is needless to say that no sleight-of-hand performer, however expert, unless aided by the powers of darkness, could have accomplished this feat; but a luckless child in the pursuit of virtue had done it with a turn of the wrist.
We will draw a veil over the scene that occurred after Rebecca's return from school. You who read may be well advanced in years, you may be gifted in rhetoric, ingenious in argument; but even you might quail at the thought of explaining the tortuous mental processes that led you into throwing your beloved pink parasol into Miranda Sawyer's well. Perhaps you feel equal to discussing the efficacy of spiritual self-chastisement with a person who closes her lips into a thin line and looks at you out of blank, uncomprehending eyes! Common sense, right, and logic were all arrayed on Miranda's side. When poor Rebecca, driven to the wall, had to avow the reasons lying behind the sacrifice of the sunshade, her aunt said, "Now see here, Rebecca, you're too big to be whipped, and I shall never whip you; but when you think you ain't punished enough, just tell me, and I'll make out to invent a little something more. I ain't so smart as some folks, but I can do that much; and whatever it is, it'll be something that won't punish the whole family, and make 'em drink ivory dust, wood chips, and pink silk rags with their water."