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Seven years slipped by unmarked by any important change. The Hardings were still prosperous in an humble way. The cooper had been able to obtain work most of the time, and this, with the annual remittance for little Ida, had enabled the family not only to live in comfort, but even to save up one hundred and fifty dollars a year. They might even have saved more, living as frugally as they were accustomed to do, but there was one point in which they would none of them consent to be economical. The little Ida must have everything she wanted. Timothy brought home nearly every day some little delicacy for her, which none of the rest thought of sharing. While Mrs. Harding, far enough from vanity, always dressed with extreme plainness, Ida's attire was always of good material and made up tastefully.
Sometimes the little girl asked: "Mother, why don't you buy yourself some of the pretty things you get for me?"
Mrs. Harding would answer, smiling: "Oh, I'm an old woman, Ida. Plain things are best for me."
"No, I'm sure you're not old, mother. You don't wear a cap. Aunt Rachel is a good deal older than you."
"Hush, Ida. Don't let Aunt Rachel hear that. She wouldn't like it."
"But she is ever so much older than you, mother," persisted the child.
Once Rachel heard a remark of this kind, and perhaps it was that that prejudiced her against Ida. At any rate, she was not one of those who indulged her. Frequently she rebuked her for matters of no importance; but it was so well understood in the cooper's household that this was Aunt Rachel's way, that Ida did not allow it to trouble her, as the lightest reproach from Mrs. Harding would have done.
Had Ida been an ordinary child, all this petting would have had an injurious effect upon her mind. But, fortunately, she had the rare simplicity, young as she was, which lifted her above the dangers which might have spoiled her otherwise. Instead of being made vain and conceited, she only felt grateful for the constant kindness shown her by her father and mother, and brother Jack, as she was wont to call them. Indeed it had not been thought best to let her know that such were not the actual relations in which they stood to her.
There was one point, much more important than dress, in which Ida profited by the indulgence of her friends.
"Martha," the cooper was wont to say, "Ida is a sacred charge in our hands. If we allow her to grow up ignorant, or only allow her ordinary advantages, we shall not fulfill our duty. We have the means, through Providence, of giving her some of those advantages which she would enjoy if she had remained in that sphere to which her parents doubtless belong. Let no unwise parsimony on our part withhold them from her."
"You are right, Timothy," said his wife; "right, as you always are. Follow the dictates of your own heart, and fear not that I shall disapprove."
"Humph!" said Aunt Rachel; "you ain't actin' right, accordin' to my way of thinkin'. Readin', writin' and cypherin' was enough for girls to learn in my day. What's the use of stuffin' the girl's head full of nonsense that'll never do her no good? I've got along without it, and I ain't quite a fool."
But the cooper and his wife had no idea of restricting Ida's education to the rather limited standard indicated by Rachel. So, from the first, they sent her to a carefully selected private school, where she had the advantage of good associates, and where her progress was astonishingly rapid.
Ida early displayed a remarkable taste for drawing. As soon as this was discovered, her adopted parents took care that she should have abundant opportunity for cultivating it. A private master was secured, who gave her lessons twice a week, and boasted everywhere of the progress made by his charming young pupil.
"What's the good of it?" asked Rachel. "She'd a good deal better be learnin' to sew and knit."
"All in good time," said Timothy. "She can attend to both."
"I never wasted my time that way," said Rachel. "I'd be ashamed to."
Nothing could exceed Timothy's gratification, when, on his birthday, Ida presented him with a beautifully drawn sketch of his wife's placid and benevolent face.
"When did you do it, Ida?" he asked, after earnest expressions of admiration.
"I did it in odd minutes," she answered, "when I had nothing else to do."
"But how could you do it, without any of us knowing what you were about?"
"I had a picture before me, and you thought I was copying it, but, whenever I could do it without being noticed, I looked up at mother as she sat at her sewing, and so, after a while, I finished the picture."
"And a fine one it is," said the cooper, admiringly.
Mrs. Harding insisted that Ida had flattered her, but this Ida would not admit.
"I couldn't make it look as good as you, mother," she said. "I tried, but somehow I didn't succeed as I wanted to."
"You wouldn't have that difficulty with Aunt Rachel," said Jack, roguishly.
Ida could not help smiling, but Rachel did not smile.
"I see," she said, with severe resignation, "that you've taken to ridiculing your poor aunt again. But it's only what I expect. I don't never expect any consideration in this house. I was born to be a martyr, and I expect I shall fulfill my destiny. If my own relations laugh at me, of course I can't expect anything better from other folks. But I shan't be long in the way. I've had a cough for some time past, and I expect I'm in consumption."
"You make too much of a little joke, Rachel," said the cooper, soothingly. "I'm sure Jack didn't mean anything."
"What I said was complimentary," said Jack.
Rachel shook her head incredulously.
"Yes, it was. Ask Ida. Why won't you draw Aunt Rachel, Ida? I think she'd make a very striking picture."
"So I will," said Ida, hesitatingly, "if she will let me."
"Now, Aunt Rachel, there's a chance for you," said Jack. "Take my advice, and improve it. When it's finished it can be hung up in the Art Rooms, and who knows but you may secure a husband by it."
"I wouldn't marry," said Rachel, firmly compressing her lips; "not if anybody'd go down on their knees to me."
"Now, I'm sure, Aunt Rachel, that's cruel of you," said Jack, demurely.
"There ain't any man I'd trust my happiness to," pursued the spinster.
"She hasn't any to trust," observed Jack, sotto voce.
"Men are all deceivers," continued Rachel, "the best of 'em. You can't believe what one of 'em says. It would be a great deal better if people never married at all."
"Then where would the world be a hundred years hence?" suggested her nephew.
"Come to an end, most likely," answered Aunt Rachel; "and I'm not sure but that would be the best thing. It's growing more and more wicked every day."
It will be seen that no great change has come over Miss Rachel Harding, during the years that have intervened. She takes the same disheartening view of human nature and the world's prospects as ever. Nevertheless, her own hold upon the world seems as strong as ever. Her appetite continues remarkably good, and, although she frequently expresses herself to the effect that there is little use in living, she would be as unwilling to leave the world as anyone. It is not impossible that she derives as much enjoyment from her melancholy as other people from their cheerfulness. Unfortunately her peculiar mode of enjoying herself is calculated to have rather a depressing influence upon the spirits of those with whom she comes in contact--always excepting Jack, who has a lively sense of the ludicrous, and never enjoys himself better than in bantering his aunt.
"I don't expect to live more'n a week," said Rachel, one day. "My sands of life are 'most run out."
"Are you sure of that, Aunt Rachel?" asked Jack.
"Yes, I've got a presentiment that it's so."
"Then, if you're sure of it," said her nephew, gravely, "it may be as well to order the coffin in time. What style would you prefer?"
Rachel retreated to her room in tears, exclaiming that he needn't be in such a hurry to get her out of the world; but she came down to supper, and ate with her usual appetite.
Ida is no less a favorite with Jack than with the rest of the household. Indeed, he has constituted himself her especial guardian. Rough as he is in the playground, he is always gentle with her. When she was just learning to walk, and in her helplessness needed the constant care of others, he used, from choice, to relieve his mother of much of the task of amusing the child. He had never had a little sister, and the care of a child as young as Ida was a novelty to him. It was perhaps this very office of guardian to the child, assumed when she was young, that made him feel ever after as if she were placed under his special protection.
Ida was equally attached to Jack. She learned to look to him for assistance in any plan she had formed, and he never disappointed her. Whenever he could, he would accompany her to school, holding her by the hand, and, fond as he was of rough play, nothing would induce him to leave her.
"How long have you been a nursemaid?" asked a boy older than himself, one day.
Jack's fingers itched to get hold of his derisive questioner, but he had a duty to perform, and he contented himself with saying: "Just wait a few minutes, and I'll let you know."
"I dare say you will," was the reply. "I rather think I shall have to wait till both of us are gray before that time."
"You will not have to wait long before you are black and blue," retorted Jack.
"Don't mind what he says, Jack," whispered Ida, fearing that he would leave her.
"Don't be afraid, Ida; I won't leave you. I'll attend to his business another time. I guess he won't trouble us to-morrow."
Meanwhile the boy, emboldened by Jack's passiveness, followed, with more abuse of the same sort. If he had been wiser, he would have seen a storm gathering in the flash of Jack's eye; but he mistook the cause of his forbearance.
The next day, as they were going to school, Ida saw the same boy dodging round the corner with his head bound up.
"What's the matter with him, Jack?" she asked.
"I licked him like blazes, that's all," said Jack, quietly. "I guess he'll let us alone after this."
Even after Jack left school, and got a position in a store at two dollars a week, he gave a large part of his spare time to Ida.
"Really," said Mrs. Harding, "Jack is as careful of Ida as if he was her guardian."
"A pretty sort of a guardian he is!" said Aunt Rachel. "Take my word for it, he's only fit to lead her into mischief."
"You do him injustice, Rachel. Jack is not a model boy, but he takes the best care of Ida."
Rachel shrugged her shoulders, and sniffed significantly. It was quite evident that she did not have a very favorable opinion of her nephew.
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