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Rebecca had now cut the bonds that bound her to the Riverboro district school, and had been for a week a full-fledged pupil at the Wareham Seminary, towards which goal she had been speeding ever since the memorable day when she rode into Riverboro on the top of Uncle Jerry Cobb's stagecoach, and told him that education was intended to be "the making of her."
She went to and fro, with Emma Jane and the other Riverboro boys and girls, on the morning and evening trains that ran between the academy town and Milliken's Mills.
The six days had passed like a dream!--a dream in which she sat in corners with her eyes cast down; flushed whenever she was addressed; stammered whenever she answered a question, and nearly died of heart failure when subjected to an examination of any sort. She delighted the committee when reading at sight from "King Lear," but somewhat discouraged them when she could not tell the capital of the United States. She admitted that her former teacher, Miss Dearborn, might have mentioned it, but if so she had not remembered it.
In these first weeks among strangers she passed for nothing but an interesting-looking, timid, innocent, country child, never revealing, even to the far-seeing Emily Maxwell, a hint of her originality, facility, or power in any direction. Rebecca was fourteen, but so slight, and under the paralyzing new conditions so shy, that she would have been mistaken for twelve had it not been for her general advancement in the school curriculum.
Growing up in the solitude of a remote farm house, transplanted to a tiny village where she lived with two elderly spinsters, she was still the veriest child in all but the practical duties and responsibilities of life; in those she had long been a woman.
It was Saturday afternoon; her lessons for Monday were all learned and she burst into the brick house sitting-room with the flushed face and embarrassed mien that always foreshadowed a request. Requests were more commonly answered in the negative than in the affirmative at the brick house, a fact that accounted for the slight confusion in her demeanor.
"Aunt Miranda," she began, "the fishman says that Clara Belle Simpson wants to see me very much, but Mrs. Fogg can't spare her long at a time, you know, on account of the baby being no better; but Clara Belle could walk a mile up, and I a mile down the road, and we could meet at the pink house half way. Then we could rest and talk an hour or so, and both be back in time for our suppers. I've fed the cat; she had no appetite, as it's only two o'clock and she had her dinner at noon, but she'll go back to her saucer, and it's off my mind. I could go down cellar now and bring up the cookies and the pie and doughnuts for supper before I start. Aunt Jane saw no objection; but we thought I'd better ask you so as to run no risks."
Miranda Sawyer, who had been patiently waiting for the end of this speech, laid down her knitting and raised her eyes with a half-resigned expression that meant: Is there anything unusual in heaven or earth or the waters under the earth that this child does not want to do? Will she ever settle down to plain, comprehensible Sawyer ways, or will she to the end make these sudden and radical propositions, suggesting at every turn the irresponsible Randall ancestry?
"You know well enough, Rebecca, that I don't like you to be intimate with Abner Simpson's young ones," she said decisively. "They ain't fit company for anybody that's got Sawyer blood in their veins, if it's ever so little. I don't know, I'm sure, how you're goin' to turn out! The fish peddler seems to be your best friend, without it's Abijah Flagg that you're everlastingly talkin' to lately. I should think you'd rather read some improvin' book than to be chatterin' with Squire Bean's chore-boy!"
"He isn't always going to be a chore-boy," explained Rebecca, "and that's what we're considering. It's his career we talk about, and he hasn't got any father or mother to advise him. Besides, Clara Belle kind of belongs to the village now that she lives with Mrs. Fogg; and she was always the best behaved of all the girls, either in school or Sunday-school. Children can't help having fathers!"
"Everybody says Abner is turning over a new leaf, and if so, the family'd ought to be encouraged every possible way," said Miss Jane, entering the room with her mending basket in hand.
"If Abner Simpson is turnin' over a leaf, or anythin' else in creation, it's only to see what's on the under side!" remarked Miss Miranda promptly. "Don't talk to me about new leaves! You can't change that kind of a man; he is what he is, and you can't make him no different!"
"The grace of God can do consid'rable," observed Jane piously.
"I ain't sayin' but it can if it sets out, but it has to begin early and stay late on a man like Simpson."
"Now, Mirandy, Abner ain't more'n forty! I don't know what the average age for repentance is in men-folks, but when you think of what an awful sight of em leaves it to their deathbeds, forty seems real kind of young. Not that I've heard Abner has experienced religion, but everybody's surprised at the good way he's conductin' this fall."
"They'll be surprised the other way round when they come to miss their firewood and apples and potatoes again," affirmed Miranda.
"Clara Belle don't seem to have inherited from her father," Jane ventured again timidly. "No wonder Mrs. Fogg sets such store by the girl. If it hadn't been for her, the baby would have been dead by now."
"Perhaps tryin' to save it was interferin' with the Lord's will," was Miranda's retort.
"Folks can't stop to figure out just what's the Lord's will when a child has upset a kettle of scalding water on to himself," and as she spoke Jane darned more excitedly. "Mrs. Fogg knows well enough she hadn't ought to have left that baby alone in the kitchen with the stove, even if she did see Clara Belle comin' across lots. She'd ought to have waited before drivin' off; but of course she was afraid of missing the train, and she's too good a woman to be held accountable."
"The minister's wife says Clara Belle is a real--I can't think of the word!" chimed in Rebecca. "What's the female of hero? Whatever it is, that's what Mrs. Baxter called her!"
"Clara Belle's the female of Simpson; that's what she is," Miss Miranda asserted; "but she's been brought up to use her wits, and I ain't sayin' but she used em."
"I should say she did!" exclaimed Miss Jane; "to put that screaming, suffering child in the baby-carriage and run all the way to the doctor's when there wasn't a soul on hand to advise her! Two or three more such actions would make the Simpson name sound consid'rable sweeter in this neighborhood."
"Simpson will always sound like Simpson to me!" vouchsafed the elder sister, "but we've talked enough about em an' to spare. You can go along, Rebecca; but remember that a child is known by the company she keeps."
"All right, Aunt Miranda; thank you!" cried Rebecca, leaping from the chair on which she had been twisting nervously for five minutes. "And how does this strike you? Would you be in favor of my taking Clara Belle a company-tart?"
"Don't Mrs. Fogg feed the young one, now she's taken her right into the family?"
"Oh, yes," Rebecca answered, "she has lovely things to eat, and Mrs. Fogg won't even let her drink skim milk; but I always feel that taking a present lets the person know you've been thinking about them and are extra glad to see them. Besides, unless we have company soon, those tarts will have to be eaten by the family, and a new batch made; you remember the one I had when I was rewarding myself last week? That was queer--but nice," she added hastily.
"Mebbe you could think of something of your own you could give away without taking my tarts!" responded Miranda tersely; the joints of her armor having been pierced by the fatally keen tongue of her niece, who had insinuated that company-tarts lasted a long time in the brick house. This was a fact; indeed, the company-tart was so named, not from any idea that it would ever be eaten by guests, but because it was too good for every-day use.
Rebecca's face crimsoned with shame that she had drifted into an impolite and, what was worse, an apparently ungrateful speech.
"I didn't mean to say anything not nice, Aunt Miranda," she stammered. "Truly the tart was splendid, but not exactly like new, that's all. And oh! I know what I can take Clara Belle! A few chocolate drops out of the box Mr. Ladd gave me on my birthday."
"You go down cellar and get that tart, same as I told you," commanded Miranda, "and when you fill it don't uncover a new tumbler of jelly; there's some dried-apple preserves open that'll do. Wear your rubbers and your thick jacket. After runnin' all the way down there--for your legs never seem to be rigged for walkin' like other girls'--you'll set down on some damp stone or other and ketch your death o' cold, an' your Aunt Jane n' I'll be kep' up nights nursin' you and luggin' your meals upstairs to you on a waiter."
Here Miranda leaned her head against the back of her rocking chair, dropped her knitting and closed her eyes wearily, for when the immovable body is opposed by the irresistible force there is a certain amount of jar and disturbance involved in the operation.
Rebecca moved toward the side door, shooting a questioning glance at Aunt Jane as she passed. The look was full of mysterious suggestion and was accompanied by an almost imperceptible gesture. Miss Jane knew that certain articles were kept in the entry closet, and by this time she had become sufficiently expert in telegraphy to know that Rebecca's unspoken query meant: "Could you permit the hat with the red wings, it being Saturday, fine settled weather, and a pleasure excursion?"
These confidential requests, though fraught with embarrassment when Miranda was in the room, gave Jane much secret joy; there was something about them that stirred her spinster heart--they were so gay, so appealing, so un-Sawyer-, un-Riverboro-like. The longer Rebecca lived in the brick house the more her Aunt Jane marveled at the child. What made her so different from everybody else. Could it be that her graceless popinjay of a father, Lorenzo de Medici Randall, had bequeathed her some strange combination of gifts instead of fortune? Her eyes, her brows, the color of her lips, the shape of her face, as well as her ways and words, proclaimed her a changeling in the Sawyer tribe; but what an enchanting changeling; bringing wit and nonsense and color and delight into the gray monotony of the dragging years!
There was frost in the air, but a bright cheery sun, as Rebecca walked decorously out of the brick house yard. Emma Jane Perkins was away over Sunday on a visit to a cousin in Moderation; Alice Robinson and Candace Milliken were having measles, and Riverboro was very quiet. Still, life was seldom anything but a gay adventure to Rebecca, and she started afresh every morning to its conquest. She was not exacting; the Asmodean feat of spinning a sand heap into twine was, poetically speaking, always in her power, so the mile walk to the pink-house gate, and the tryst with freckled, red-haired Clara Belle Simpson, whose face Miss Miranda said looked like a raw pie in a brick oven, these commonplace incidents were sufficiently exhilarating to brighten her eye and quicken her step.
As the great bare horse-chestnut near the pink-house gate loomed into view, the red linsey-woolsey speck going down the road spied the blue linsey-woolsey speck coming up, and both specks flew over the intervening distance and, meeting, embraced each other ardently, somewhat to the injury of the company-tart.
"Didn't it come out splendidly?" exclaimed Rebecca. "I was so afraid the fishman wouldn't tell you to start exactly at two, or that one of us would walk faster than the other; but we met at the very spot! It was a very uncommon idea, wasn't it? Almost romantic!"
"And what do you think?" asked Clara Belle proudly. "Look at this! Mrs. Fogg lent me her watch to come home by!"
"Oh, Clara Belle, how wonderful! Mrs. Fogg gets kinder and kinder to you, doesn't she? You're not homesick any more, are you?"
"No-o; not really; only when I remember there's only little Susan to manage the twins; though they're getting on real well without me. But I kind of think, Rebecca, that I'm going to be given away to the Foggs for good."
"Do you mean adopted?"
"Yes; I think father's going to sign papers. You see we can't tell how many years it'll be before the poor baby outgrows its burns, and Mrs. Fogg'll never be the same again, and she must have somebody to help her."
"You'll be their real daughter, then, won't you, Clara Belle? And Mr. Fogg is a deacon, and a selectman, and a road commissioner, and everything splendid."
"Yes; I'll have board, and clothes, and school, and be named Fogg, and "(here her voice sank to an awed whisper) "the upper farm if I should ever get married; Miss Dearborn told me that herself, when she was persuading me not to mind being given away."
"Clara Belle Simpson!" exclaimed Rebecca in a transport. "Who'd have thought you'd be a female hero and an heiress besides? It's just like a book story, and it happened in Riverboro. I'll make Uncle Jerry Cobb allow there can be Riverboro stories, you see if I don't."
"Of course I know it's all right," Clara Belle replied soberly. "I'll have a good home and father can't keep us all; but it's kind of dreadful to be given away, like a piano or a horse and carriage!"
Rebecca's hand went out sympathetically to Clara Belle's freckled paw. Suddenly her own face clouded and she whispered:
"I'm not sure, Clara Belle, but I'm given away too--do you s'pose I am? Poor father left us in debt, you see. I thought I came away from Sunnybrook to get an education and then help pay off the mortgage; but mother doesn't say anything about my coming back, and our family's one of those too-big ones, you know, just like yours."
"Did your mother sign papers to your aunts?'
"If she did I never heard anything about it; but there's something pinned on to the mortgage that mother keeps in the drawer of the bookcase."
"You'd know it if twas adoption papers; I guess you're just lent," Clara Belle said cheeringly. "I don't believe anybody'd ever give you away! And, oh! Rebecca, father's getting on so well! He works on Daly's farm where they raise lots of horses and cattle, too, and he breaks all the young colts and trains them, and swaps off the poor ones, and drives all over the country. Daly told Mr. Fogg he was splendid with stock, and father says it's just like play. He's sent home money three Saturday nights."
"I'm so glad!" exclaimed Rebecca sympathetically. "Now your mother'll have a good time and a black silk dress, won't she?"
"I don't know," sighed Clara Belle, and her voice was grave. "Ever since I can remember she's just washed and cried and cried and washed. Miss Dearborn has been spending her vacation up to Acreville, you know, and she came yesterday to board next door to Mrs. Fogg's. I heard them talking last night when I was getting the baby to sleep--I couldn't help it, they were so close-- and Miss Dearborn said mother doesn't like Acreville; she says nobody takes any notice of her, and they don't give her any more work. Mrs. Fogg said, well, they were dreadful stiff and particular up that way and they liked women to have wedding rings."
"Hasn't your mother got a wedding ring?" asked Rebecca, astonished. "Why, I thought everybody had to have them, just as they do sofas and a kitchen stove!"
"I never noticed she didn't have one, but when they spoke I remembered mother's hands washing and wringing, and she doesn't wear one, I know. She hasn't got any jewelry, not even a breast-pin."
"Rebecca's tone was somewhat censorious, "your father's been so poor perhaps he couldn't afford breast-pins, but I should have thought he'd have given your mother a wedding ring when they were married; that's the time to do it, right at the very first."
"They didn't have any real church dress-up wedding," explained Clara Belle extenuatingly. "You see the first mother, mine, had the big boys and me, and then she died when we were little. Then after a while this mother came to housekeep, and she stayed, and by and by she was Mrs. Simpson, and Susan and the twins and the baby are hers, and she and father didn't have time for a regular wedding in church. They don't have veils and bridesmaids and refreshments round here like Miss Dearborn's sister did."
"Do they cost a great deal--wedding rings?" asked Rebecca thoughtfully. "They're solid gold, so I s'pose they do. If they were cheap we might buy one. I've got seventy-four cents saved up; how much have you?"
"Fifty-three," Clara Belle responded, in a depressing tone; "and anyway there are no stores nearer than Milltown. We'd have to buy it secretly, for I wouldn't make father angry, or shame his pride, now he's got steady work; and mother would know I had spent all my savings."
Rebecca looked nonplussed. "I declare," she said, "I think the Acreville people must be perfectly horrid not to call on your mother only because she hasn't got any jewelry. You wouldn't dare tell your father what Miss Dearborn heard, so he'd save up and buy the ring?"
"No; I certainly would not!" and Clara Belle's lips closed tightly and decisively.
Rebecca sat quietly for a few moments, then she exclaimed jubilantly: "I know where we could get it! From Mr. Aladdin, and then I needn't tell him who it's for! He's coming to stay over tomorrow with his aunt, and I'll ask him to buy a ring for us in Boston. I won't explain anything, you know; I'll just say I need a wedding ring."
"That would be perfectly lovely," replied Clara Belle, a look of hope dawning in her eyes; "and we can think afterwards how to get it over to mother. Perhaps you could send it to father instead, but I wouldn't dare to do it myself. You won't tell anybody, Rebecca?"
"Cross my heart!" Rebecca exclaimed dramatically; and then with a reproachful look, "you know I couldn't repeat a sacred secret like that! Shall we meet next Saturday afternoon, and I tell you what's happened?--Why, Clara Belle, isn't that Mr. Ladd watering his horse at the foot of the hill this very minute? It is; and he's driven up from Milltown stead of coming on the train from Boston to Edgewood. He's all alone, and I can ride home with him and ask him about the ring right away!"
Clara Belle kissed Rebecca fervently, and started on her homeward walk, while Rebecca waited at the top of the long hill, fluttering her handkerchief as a signal.
"Mr. Aladdin! Mr. Aladdin!" she cried, as the horse and wagon came nearer.
Adam Ladd drew up quickly at the sound of the eager young voice.
"Well, well; here is Rebecca Rowena fluttering along the highroad like a red-winged blackbird! Are you going to fly home, or drive with me?"
Rebecca clambered into the carriage, laughing and blushing with delight at his nonsense and with joy at seeing him again.
"Clara Belle and I were just talking about you this minute, and I'm so glad you came this way, for there's something very important to ask you about," she began, rather breathlessly.
"No doubt," laughed Adam Ladd, who had become, in the course of his acquaintance with Rebecca, a sort of high court of appeals; "I hope the premium banquet lamp doesn't smoke as it grows older?"
"Now, Mr. Aladdin, you will not remember nicely. Mr. Simpson swapped off the banquet lamp when he was moving the family to Acreville; it's not the lamp at all, but once, when you were here last time, you said you'd make up your mind what you were going to give me for Christmas."
"Well," and "I do remember that much quite nicely."
"Well, is it bought?"
"No, I never buy Christmas presents before Thanksgiving."
"Then, dear Mr. Aladdin, would you buy me something different, something that I want to give away, and buy it a little sooner than Christmas?"
"That depends. I don't relish having my Christmas presents given away. I like to have them kept forever in little girls' bureau drawers, all wrapped in pink tissue paper; but explain the matter and perhaps I'll change my mind. What is it you want?"
"I need a wedding ring dreadfully," said Rebecca, "but it's a sacred secret."
Adam Ladd's eyes flashed with surprise and he smiled to himself with pleasure. Had he on his list of acquaintances, he asked himself, a person of any age or sex so altogether irresistible and unique as this child? Then he turned to face her with the merry teasing look that made him so delightful to young people.
"I thought it was perfectly understood between us," he said, "that if you could ever contrive to grow up and I were willing to wait, that I was to ride up to the brick house on my snow white"--
"Coal black," corrected Rebecca, with a sparkling eye and a warning finger.
"Coal black charger; put a golden circlet on your lily white finger, draw you up behind me on my pillion"--
"And Emma Jane, too," Rebecca interrupted.
"I think I didn't mention Emma Jane," argued Mr. Aladdin. "Three on a pillion is very uncomfortable. I think Emma Jane leaps on the back of a prancing chestnut, and we all go off to my castle in the forest."
"Emma Jane never leaps, and she'd be afraid of a prancing chestnut," objected Rebecca.
"Then she shall have a gentle cream-colored pony; but now, without any explanation, you ask me to buy you a wedding ring, which shows plainly that you are planning to ride off on a snow white -- I mean coal black--charger with somebody else."
Rebecca dimpled and laughed with joy at the nonsense. In her prosaic world no one but Adam Ladd played the game and answered the fool according to his folly. Nobody else talked delicious fairy-story twaddle but Mr. Aladdin.
"The ring isn't for me!" she explained carefully. "You know very well that Emma Jane nor I can't be married till we're through Quackenbos's Grammar, Greenleaf's Arithmetic, and big enough to wear long trails and run a sewing machine. The ring is for a friend."
"Why doesn't the groom give it to his bride himself?"
"Because he's poor and kind of thoughtless, and anyway she isn't a bride any more; she has three step and three other kind of children."
Adam Ladd put the whip back in the socket thoughtfully, and then stooped to tuck in the rug over Rebecca's feet and his own. When he raised his head again he asked: "Why not tell me a little more, Rebecca? I'm safe!"
Rebecca looked at him, feeling his wisdom and strength, and above all his sympathy. Then she said hesitatingly: "You remember I told you all about the Simpsons that day on your aunt's porch when you bought the soap because I told you how the family were always in trouble and how much they needed a banquet lamp? Mr. Simpson, Clara Belle's father, has always been very poor, and not always very good,--a little bit thievish, you know--but oh, so pleasant and nice to talk to! And now he's turning over a new leaf. And everybody in Riverboro liked Mrs. Simpson when she came here a stranger, because they were sorry for her and she was so patient, and such a hard worker, and so kind to the children. But where she lives now, though they used to know her when she was a girl, they're not polite to her and don't give her scrubbing and washing; and Clara belle heard our teacher say to Mrs. Fogg that the Acreville people were stiff, and despised her because she didn't wear a wedding ring, like all the rest. And Clara Belle and I thought if they were so mean as that, we'd love to give her one, and then she'd be happier and have more work; and perhaps Mr. Simpson if he gets along better will buy her a breast-pin and earrings, and she'll be fitted out like the others. I know Mrs. Peter Meserve is looked up to by everybody in Edgewood on account of her gold bracelets and moss agate necklace."
Adam turned again to meet the luminous, innocent eyes that glowed under the delicate brows and long lashes, feeling as he had more than once felt before, as if his worldly-wise, grown-up thoughts had been bathed in some purifying spring.
"How shall you send the ring to Mrs. Simpson?" he asked, with interest.
"We haven't settled yet; Clara Belle's afraid to do it, and thinks I could manage better. Will the ring cost much? Because, of course, if it does, I must ask Aunt Jane first. There are things I have to ask Aunt Miranda, and others that belong to Aunt Jane."
"It costs the merest trifle. I'll buy one and bring it to you, and we'll consult about it; but I think as you're great friends with Mr. Simpson you'd better send it to him in a letter, letters being your strong point! It's a present a man ought to give his own wife, but it's worth trying, Rebecca. You and Clara Belle can manage it between you, and I'll stay in the background where nobody will see me."
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