The autumn days flew past like shuttles in a loom. The river reflected the yellow foliage of the white birch and the scarlet of the maples. The wayside was bright with goldenrod, with the red tassels of the sumac, with the purple frost-flower and feathery clematis.
If Rose was not as happy as Stephen, she was quietly content, and felt that she had more to be grateful for than most girls, for Stephen surprised her with first one evidence and then another of thoughtful generosity. In his heart of hearts he felt that Rose was not wholly his, that she reserved, withheld something; and it was the subjugation of this rebellious province that he sought. He and Rose had agreed to wait a year for their marriage, in which time Rose's cousin would finish school and be ready to live with the old people; meanwhile Stephen had learned that his maiden aunt would be glad to come and keep house for Rufus. The work at the River Farm was too hard for a girl, so he had persuaded himself of late, and the house was so far from the village that Rose was sure to be lonely. He owned a couple of acres between his place and the Edgewood bridge, and here, one afternoon only a month after their engagement, he took Rose to see the foundations of a little house he was building for her. It was to be only a story-and-a-half cottage of six small rooms, the two upper chambers to be finished off later on. Stephen had placed it well back from the road, leaving space in front for what was to be a most wonderful arrangement of flower-beds, yet keeping a strip at the back, on the river-brink, for a small vegetable garden. There had been a house there years before-- so many years that the blackened ruins were entirely overgrown; but a few elms and an old apple-orchard remained to shade the new dwelling and give welcome to the coming inmates.
Stephen had fifteen hundred dollars in bank, he could turn his hand to almost anything, and his love was so deep that Rose's plumb-line had never sounded bottom; accordingly he was able, with the help of two steady workers, to have the roof on before the first of November. The weather was clear and fine, and by Thanksgiving clapboards, shingles, two coats of brown paint, and even the blinds had all been added. This exhibition of reckless energy on Stephen's part did not wholly commend itself to the neighborhood.
"Steve's too turrible spry," said Rose's grandfather; "he'll trip himself up some o' these times."
"You never will," remarked his better half, sagely.
"The resks in life come along fast enough, without runnin' to meet 'em," continued the old man. "There's good dough in Rose, but it ain't more'n half riz. Let somebody come along an' drop in a little more yeast, or set the dish a little mite nearer the stove, an' you'll see what'll happen."
"Steve's kept house for himself some time, an' I guess he knows more about bread-makin' than you do."
"There don't nobody know more'n I do about nothin', when my pipe's drawin' real good an' nobody's thornin' me to go to work," replied Mr. Wiley; "but nobody's willin' to take the advice of a man that's seen the world an' lived in large places, an' the risin' generation is in a turrible hurry. I don' know how 't is: young folks air allers settin' the clock forrard an' the old ones puttin' it back."
"Did you ketch anything for dinner when you was out this mornin'?" asked his wife. "No, I fished an' fished, till I was about ready to drop, an' I did git a few shiners, but land, they wa'n't as big as the worms I was ketchin' 'em with, so I pitched 'em back in the water an' quit."
During the progress of these remarks Mr. Wiley opened the door under the sink, and from beneath a huge iron pot drew a round tray loaded with a glass pitcher and half a dozen tumblers, which he placed carefully on the kitchen table.
"This is the last day's option I've got on this lemonade-set," he said, "an' if I'm goin'to Biddeford to-morrer I've got to make up my mind here an' now."
With this observation he took off his shoes, climbed in his stocking feet to the vantage ground of a kitchen chair, and lifted a stone china pitcher from a corner of the highest cupboard shelf where it had been hidden.
"This lemonade's gittin' kind o' dusty," he complained, "I cal'lated to hev a kind of a spree on it when I got through choosin' Rose's weddin' present, but I guess the pig'll hev to help me out."
The old man filled one of the glasses from the pitcher, pulled up the kitchen shades to the top,put both hands in his pockets, and walked solemnly round the table, gazing at his offering from every possible point of view.
There had been three lemonade sets in the window of a Biddeford crockery store when Mr. Wiley chanced to pass by, and he had brought home the blue and green one on approval.
To the casual eye it would have appeared as quite uniquely hideous until the red and yellow or the purple and orange ones had been seen; after that, no human being could have made a decision, where each was so unparalleled in its ugliness, and Old Kennebec's confusion of mind would have been perfectly understood by the connoisseur.
"How do you like it with the lemonade in, mother?" he inquired eagerly. "The thing that plagues me most is that the red an' yaller one I hed home last week lights up better'n this, an' I believe I'll settle on that; for as I was thinkin' last night in bed, lemonade is mostly an evenin' drink an' Rose won't be usin' the set much by daylight. Root beer looks the han'somest in this purple set, but Rose loves lemonade better'n beer, so I guess I'll pack up this one an' change it to-morrer. Mebbe when I get it out o' sight an' give the lemonade to the pig I'll be easier in my mind."
In the opinion of the community at large Stephen's forehandedness in the matter of preparations for his marriage was imprudence, and his desire for neatness and beauty flagrant extravagance. The house itself was a foolish idea, it was thought, but there were extenuating circumstances, for the maiden aunt really needed a home, and Rufus was likely to marry before long and take his wife to the River Farm. It was to be hoped in his case that he would avoid the snares of beauty and choose a good stout girl who would bring the dairy back to what it was in Mrs. Waterman's time.
All winter long Stephen labored on the inside of the cottage, mostly by himself. He learned all trades in succession, Love being his only master. He had many odd days to spare from his farm work, and if he had not found days he would have taken nights. Scarcely a nail was driven without Rose's advice; and when the plastering was hard and dry, the wall-papers were the result of weeks of consultation.
Among the quiet joys of life there is probably no other so deep, so sweet, so full of trembling hope and delight, as the building and making of a home,--a home where two lives are to be merged in one and flow on together, a home full of mysterious and delicious possibilities, hidden in a future which is always rose-colored.
Rose's sweet little nature broadened under Stephen's influence; but she had her moments of discontent and unrest, always followed quickly by remorse.
At the Thanksgiving sociable some one had observed her turquoise engagement ring,--some one who said that such a hand was worthy of a diamond, that turquoises were a pretty color, but that there was only one stone for an engagement ring, and that was a diamond. At the Christmas dance the same some one had said her waltzing would make her "all the rage" in Boston. She wondered if it were true, and wondered whether, if she had not promised to marry Stephen, some splendid being from a city would have descended from his heights, bearing diamonds in his hand. Not that she would have accepted them; she only wondered. These disloyal thoughts came seldom, and she put them resolutely away, devoting herself with all the greater assiduity to her muslin curtains and ruffled pillow-shams. Stephen, too, had his momentary pangs. There were times when he could calm his doubts only by working on the little house. The mere sight of the beloved floors and walls and ceilings comforted his heart, and brought him good cheer.
The winter was a cold one, so bitterly cold that even the rapid water at the Gray Rock was a mass of curdled yellow ice, something that had only occurred once or twice before within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.
It was also a very gay season for Pleasant River and Edgewood. Never had there been so many card-parties, sleigh rides and tavern dances, and never such wonderful skating. The river was one gleaming, glittering thoroughfare of ice from Milliken's Mills to the dam at the Edgewood bridge. At sundown bonfires were built here and there on the mirror like surface, and all the young people from the neighboring villages gathered on the ice; while detachments of merry, rosycheeked boys and girls, those who preferred coasting, met at the top of Brigadier Hill, from which one could get a longer and more perilous slide than from any other point in the township.
Claude Merrill, in his occasional visits from Boston, was very much in evidence at the Saturday evening ice parties. He was not an artist at the sport himself, but he was especially proficient in the art of strapping on a lady's skates, and mur'muring--as he adjusted the last buckle,--"The prettiest foot and ankle on the river!" It cannot be denied that this compliment gave secret pleasure to the fair village maidens who received it, but it was a pleasure accompanied by electric shocks of excitement. A girl's foot might perhaps be mentioned, if a fellow were daring enough, but the line was rigidly drawn at the ankle, which was not a part of the human frame ever alluded to in the polite society of Edgewood at that time.
Rose, in her red linsey-woolsey dress and her squirrel furs and cap, was the life of every gathering, and when Stephen took her hand and they glided up stream, alone together in the crowd, he used to wish that they might skate on and on up the crystal ice-path of the river, to the moon itself, whither it seemed to lead them.