Rebecca's heart beat high at this sweet praise from her hero's lips, but before she had found words to thank him, Mr. and Mrs. Cobb, who had been modestly biding their time in a corner, approached her and she introduced them to Mr. Ladd.
"Where, where is aunt Jane?" she cried, holding aunt Sarah's hand on one side and 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's color faded.
"She had a second stroke yesterday morning jest when she was helpin' Jane lay out her things to come here to-day. Jane said you wan't to know anything about it till the exercises was all over, and we promised to keep it secret till then."
"I will go right home with you, aunt Sarah. I must just run to tell Miss Maxwell, for after I had packed up to-morrow I was going to Brunswick with her. Poor aunt Miranda! And I have been so gay and happy all day, except that I 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 have a 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 news from the brick house.
They moved into one of the quiet side pews, where Hannah and her husband and John joined them. From time to time some straggling acquaintance or old schoolmate would come up to congratulate Rebecca and ask why she had hidden herself in a corner. Then some member of the class would call to her excitedly, reminding her not to be late at the picnic luncheon, or begging her to be early at the class party in the evening. All this had an air of unreality to Rebecca. In the midst of the happy excitement of the last two days, when "blushing honors" had been falling thick upon her, and behind the delicious exaltation of the morning, had been the feeling that the condition was a transient one, and that the burden, the struggle, the anxiety, would soon loom again on the horizon. She longed to steal away into the woods with dear 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 happen to know one."
"My eyesight bein' poor 's the reason she looked han'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? 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 mother says I'm foolish 'bout Rebecky and hev been sence the fust. Mother scolds me for spoilin' her, but I notice mother ain't fur behind when it comes to spoilin'. Land! it made me sick, thinkin' o' them parents travelin' miles to see 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 to Riverboro."
"I will," said Adam, shaking the old man's hand cordially; "perhaps to-morrow if I drive Rebecca home, as I shall offer to do. Do you think Miss Sawyer's condition is serious?"
"Well, the doctor don't seem to know; but anyhow she's paralyzed, and she'll never walk fur again, poor soul! She ain't lost her speech; that'll be a comfort to her."
Adam left the church, and in crossing the common came upon Miss Maxwell doing the honors of the institution, as she passed from group to group of strangers and guests. Knowing that she was deeply interested in all Rebecca's plans, he told her, as he drew her aside, that the girl would have to leave Wareham for Riverboro the next day.
"That is almost more than I can bear!" exclaimed Miss Maxwell, sitting down on a bench and stabbing the greensward with her parasol. "It seems to me Rebecca never has any respite. I had so many plans for her this next month in fitting her for her position, and now she will settle down to housework again, 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; and from the standpoint of educational advantages, or indeed advantages of any sort, she might as well have been in the backwoods," returned Adam.
"That is true; I was vexed when I spoke, for I thought an easier and happier day 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 you discovered 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 bought by the new railroad. We must have right of way through the land, and the station 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 a year, if she will allow me to invest it for her. There is a mortgage on the land; that paid, and Rebecca self-supporting, the mother ought to push the education of the oldest boy, who is a fine, ambitious fellow. He should be taken away from farm work and settled at his studies."
"We might form ourselves into a Randall Protective Agency, Limited," mused Miss 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 know Rebecca better than you."
"You understand her mind better, but not necessarily her heart. You are considering her for the moment as prodigy; I am thinking of her more as pearl."
"Well," sighed Miss Maxwell whimsically, "prodigy or pearl, the Randall Protective Agency may pull Rebecca in opposite directions, but nevertheless she 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 she had been at the brick house for several days. Miranda steadily refused to have any one but Jane in the room until 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 was perfectly clear now, and, save that she could not move, she was most of the time quite free from pain, and alert in every nerve to all that was going on within or without the house. "Were the windfall apples being picked up for sauce; were the potatoes thick in the hills; was the corn tosselin' out; were they cuttin' the upper field; were they keepin' fly-paper laid out everywheres; 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 visions floated 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 the heavenly language never has been learned, quick as is the spiritual sense in seizing the facts it needs, then the poor soul must use the words and phrases it has lived on and grown into day by day. Poor Miss Miranda!--held fast within the prison walls of her own nature, blind in the presence of revelation because she had never used the spiritual eye, deaf to angelic voices because she had not used the spiritual ear.
There came a morning when she asked for Rebecca. The door was opened into the dim sick- room, and Rebecca stood there with the sunlight behind her, her hands full of sweet peas. Miranda's pale, sharp face, framed in its nightcap, looked haggard 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 them flowers, will ye?"
"Oh, no! They're going in a glass pitcher," said Rebecca, turning to the washstand as she tried to control her voice and stop the tears that sprang to her eyes.
"Let me look at ye; come closer. What dress are 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 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 Mark broke 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' out?"
"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 you scald 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 to move her stiffened body; "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 Rebecca sat down by the bedside and timidly touched her aunt's hand, her heart swelling with tender pity at the gaunt face and closed eyes.
"I was dreadful ashamed to have you graduate in cheesecloth, Rebecca, but I couldn't help it no- how. You'll hear the reason some time, and know I tried to make it up to ye. I'm afraid you was a laughin'-stock!"
"No," Rebecca answered. "Ever so many people said our dresses were the very prettiest; they looked like soft lace. You're not to be anxious about anything. Here I am all grown up and graduated,-- number three in a class of twenty-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 and aunt Jane have done for me. If you want me near, I'll take the Edgewood school, so that I can be here nights and Sundays to help; and if you get better, then I'll go to Augusta,--for that's a hundred dollars more, with music lessons and other things beside."
"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 off that mortgage, but I guess I shan't."
Here she ceased abruptly, having talked more than she had for weeks; and Rebecca stole out of the room, to cry by herself and wonder if old age must be so grim, so hard, so unchastened and unsweetened, as it slipped into the valley of the shadow.
The days went on, and Miranda grew stronger and stronger; her will seemed unassailable, 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 that the doctor need not call more than once a week, instead of daily; thereby diminishing the bill, that was mount- ing to such a terrifying sum that it haunted her thoughts by day and dreams by night.
Little by little hope stole back into Rebecca's young heart. Aunt Jane began to "clear starch" her handkerchiefs and collars and purple muslin dress, so that she might be ready to go to Brunswick at any moment when the doctor pronounced Miranda well on the road to recovery. Everything beautiful was to happen in Brunswick if she could be there by August,--everything that heart could wish or imagination conceive, for she was to be Miss Emily's very own visitor, 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 the hair trunk, together with her beloved coral necklace, her cheesecloth graduating 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 with a wreath of cheap white roses and green leaves, and cost between two and three dollars, an unprecedented sum in Rebecca's experience. The effect of its glories when worn with her nightdress was dazzling enough, but if ever it appeared in conjunction with the cheesecloth gown, Rebecca felt that even reverend professors might regard it with respect. It is probable indeed that any professorial gaze lucky enough to meet a pair of dark eyes shining under that white rose garland would never have stopped at respect!
Then, when all was ready and Abijah Flagg at the door, came a telegram from Hannah: "Come at once. Mother has had bad accident."
In less than an hour Rebecca was started on her way to Sunnybrook, her heart palpitating 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 at first only too much like it. Her mother had been standing on the haymow superintending some changes in the barn, had been seized with giddiness, they thought, and slipped. The right knee was fractured and the back strained and hurt, but she was conscious and in no immediate danger, so Rebecca wrote, when she 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. I don' know 's she could help fallin', though it ain't anyplace for a woman,--a haymow; but if it hadn't been that, 't would 'a' been somethin' else. Aurelia was born unfortunate. Now she'll probably be a cripple, and Rebecca'll have to nurse her instead of earning a good income somewheres else."
"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 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; now we'll settle 'em. When I'm laid away, do you want to take Aurelia and the children 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; I won'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 do anything."
"I shouldn't like to go against your feelings, especially in laying out your money, Miranda," said Jane.
"Don't tell Rebecca I've willed her the brick house. She won't git it till I'm gone, and I want to take my time 'bout dyin' and not be hurried off by them that's goin' to profit by it; nor I don't want to be thanked, neither. I s'pose she'll use the front stairs as common as the back and like as not have water brought into the kitchen, but mebbe when I've been dead a few years I shan't mind. She sets such store by you, she'll want you to have your home here as long's you live, but anyway I've wrote it down that way; though Lawyer Burns's wills don't hold more'n half the time. He's cheaper, but I guess it comes out jest the same in the end. I wan't goin' to have the fust man Rebecca picks up for a husband turnin' you ou'doors."
There was a long pause, during which Jane knit silently, wiping the tears from her eyes from time to time, as she looked at the pitiful figure lying weakly on 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 tame boys as well as wild ones. There ain't a mite o' sense in havin' so many children, but it's a turrible risk splittin' up families and farmin' 'em out here 'n' there; they'd never come to no good, an' everybody would keep rememberin' their mother was a Sawyer. Now if you'll draw down the curtin, I'll try to sleep."