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Jane Lavinia put her precious portfolio down on the table in her room, carefully, as if its contents were fine gold, and proceeded to unpin and take off her second-best hat. When she had gone over to the Whittaker place that afternoon, she had wanted to wear her best hat, but Aunt Rebecca had vetoed that uncompromisingly.
"Next thing you'll be wanting to wear your best muslin to go for the cows," said Aunt Rebecca sarcastically. "You go right back upstairs and take off that chiffon hat. If I was fool enough to be coaxed into buying it for you, I ain't going to have you spoil it by traipsing hither and yon with it in the dust and sun. Your last summer's sailor is plenty good enough to go to the Whittakers' in, Jane Lavinia."
"But Mr. Stephens and his wife are from New York," pleaded Jane Lavinia, "and she's so stylish."
"Well, it's likely they're used to seeing chiffon hats," Aunt Rebecca responded, more sarcastically than ever. "It isn't probable that yours would make much of a sensation. Mr. Stephens didn't send for you to show him your chiffon hat, did he? If he did, I don't see what you're lugging that big portfolio along with you for. Go and put on your sailor hat, Jane Lavinia."
Jane Lavinia obeyed. She always obeyed Aunt Rebecca. But she took off the chiffon hat and pinned on the sailor with bitterness of heart. She had always hated that sailor. Anything ugly hurt Jane Lavinia with an intensity that Aunt Rebecca could never understand; and the sailor hat was ugly, with its stiff little black bows and impossible blue roses. It jarred on Jane Lavinia's artistic instincts. Besides, it was very unbecoming.
I look horrid in it, Jane Lavinia had thought sorrowfully; and then she had gone out and down the velvet-green springtime valley and over the sunny birch hill beyond with a lagging step and a rebellious heart.
But Jane Lavinia came home walking as if on the clear air of the crystal afternoon, her small, delicate face aglow and every fibre of her body and spirit thrilling with excitement and delight. She forgot to fling the sailor hat into its box with her usual energy of dislike. Just then Jane Lavinia had a soul above hats. She looked at herself in the glass and nodded with friendliness.
"You'll do something yet," she said. "Mr. Stephens said you would. Oh, I like you, Jane Lavinia, you dear thing! Sometimes I haven't liked you because you're nothing to look at, and I didn't suppose you could really do anything worthwhile. But I do like you now after what Mr. Stephens said about your drawings."
Jane Lavinia smiled radiantly into the little cracked glass. Just then she was pretty, with the glow on her cheeks and the sparkle in her eyes. Her uncertainly tinted hair and an all-too-certain little tilt of her nose no longer troubled her. Such things did not matter; nobody would mind them in a successful artist. And Mr. Stephens had said that she had talent enough to win success.
Jane Lavinia sat down by her window, which looked west into a grove of firs. They grew thickly, close up to the house, and she could touch their wide, fan-like branches with her hand. Jane Lavinia loved those fir trees, with their whispers and sighs and beckonings, and she also loved her little shadowy, low-ceilinged room, despite its plainness, because it was gorgeous for her with visions and peopled with rainbow fancies.
The stained walls were covered with Jane Lavinia's pictures—most of them pen-and-ink sketches, with a few flights into water colour. Aunt Rebecca sniffed at them and deplored the driving of tacks into the plaster. Aunt Rebecca thought Jane Lavinia's artistic labours a flat waste of time, which would have been much better put into rugs and crochet tidies and afghans. All the other girls in Chestercote made rugs and tidies and afghans. Why must Jane Lavinia keep messing with ink and crayons and water colours?
Jane Lavinia only knew that she must—she could not help it. There was something in her that demanded expression thus.
When Mr. Stephens, who was a well-known artist and magazine illustrator, came to Chestercote because his wife's father, Nathan Whittaker, was ill, Jane Lavinia's heart had bounded with a shy hope. She indulged in some harmless manoeuvring which, with the aid of good-natured Mrs. Whittaker, was crowned with success. One day, when Mr. Whittaker was getting better, Mr. Stephens had asked her to show him some of her work. Jane Lavinia, wearing the despised sailor hat, had gone over to the Whittaker place with some of her best sketches. She came home again feeling as if all the world and herself were transfigured.
She looked out from the window of her little room with great dreamy brown eyes, seeing through the fir boughs the golden western sky beyond, serving as a canvas whereon her fancy painted glittering visions of her future. She would go to New York—and study—and work, oh, so hard—and go abroad—and work harder—and win success—and be great and admired and famous—if only Aunt Rebecca—ah! if only Aunt Rebecca! Jane Lavinia sighed. There was spring in the world and spring in Jane Lavinia's heart; but a chill came with the thought of Aunt Rebecca, who considered tidies and afghans nicer than her pictures.
"But I'm going, anyway," said Jane Lavinia decidedly. "If Aunt Rebecca won't give me the money, I'll find some other way. I'm not afraid of any amount of work. After what Mr. Stephens said, I believe I could work twenty hours out of the twenty-four. I'd be content to live on a crust and sleep in a garret—yes, and wear sailor hats with stiff bows and blue roses the year round."
Jane Lavinia sighed in luxurious renunciation. Oh, it was good to be alive—to be a girl of seventeen, with wonderful ambitions and all the world before her! The years of the future sparkled and gleamed alluringly. Jane Lavinia, with her head on the window sill, looked out into the sunset splendour and dreamed.
Athwart her dreams, rending in twain their frail, rose-tinted fabric, came Aunt Rebecca's voice from the kitchen below, "Jane Lavinia! Jane Lavinia! Ain't you going for the cows tonight?"
Jane Lavinia started up guiltily; she had forgotten all about the cows. She slipped off her muslin dress and hurried into her print; but with all her haste it took time, and Aunt Rebecca was grimmer than ever when Jane Lavinia ran downstairs.
"It'll be dark before we get the cows milked. I s'pose you've been day-dreaming again up there. I do wish, Jane Lavinia, that you had more sense."
Jane Lavinia made no response. At any other time she would have gone out with a lump in her throat; but now, after what Mr. Stephens had said, Aunt Rebecca's words had no power to hurt her.
"After milking I'll ask her about it," she said to herself, as she went blithely down the sloping yard, across the little mossy bridge over the brook, and up the lane on the hill beyond, where the ferns grew thickly and the grass was beset with tiny blue-eyes like purple stars. The air was moist and sweet. At the top of the lane a wild plum tree hung out its branches of feathery bloom against the crimson sky. Jane Lavinia lingered, in spite of Aunt Rebecca's hurry, to look at it. It satisfied her artistic instinct and made her glad to be alive in the world where wild plums blossomed against springtime skies. The pleasure of it went with her through the pasture and back to the milking yard; and stayed with her while she helped Aunt Rebecca milk the cows.
When the milk was strained into the creamers down at the spring, and the pails washed and set in a shining row on their bench, Jane Lavinia tried to summon up her courage to speak to Aunt Rebecca. They were out on the back verandah; the spring twilight was purpling down over the woods and fields; down in the swamp the frogs were singing a silvery, haunting chorus; a little baby moon was floating in the clear sky above the white-blossoming orchard on the slope.
Jane Lavinia tried to speak and couldn't. For a wonder, Aunt Rebecca spared her the trouble.
"Well, what did Mr. Stephens think of your pictures?" she asked shortly.
"Oh!" Everything that Jane Lavinia wanted to say came rushing at once and together to her tongue's end. "Oh, Aunt Rebecca, he was delighted with them! And he said I had remarkable talent, and he wants me to go to New York and study in an art school there. He says Mrs. Stephens finds it hard to get good help, and if I'd be willing to work for her in the mornings, I could live with them and have my afternoons off. So it won't cost much. And he said he would help me—and, oh, Aunt Rebecca, can't I go?"
Jane Lavinia's breath gave out with a gasp of suspense.
Aunt Rebecca was silent for so long a space that Jane Lavinia had time to pass through the phases of hope and fear and despair and resignation before she said, more grimly than ever, "If your mind is set on going, go you will, I suppose. It doesn't seem to me that I have anything to say in the matter, Jane Lavinia."
"But, oh, Aunt Rebecca," said Jane Lavinia tremulously. "I can't go unless you'll help me. I'll have to pay for my lessons at the art school, you know."
"So that's it, is it? And do you expect me to give you the money to pay for them, Jane Lavinia?"
"Not give—exactly," stammered Jane Lavinia. "I'll pay it back some time, Aunt Rebecca. Oh, indeed, I will—when I'm able to earn money by my pictures!"
"The security is hardly satisfactory," said Aunt Rebecca immovably. "You know well enough I haven't much money, Jane Lavinia. I thought when I was coaxed into giving you two quarters' lessons with Miss Claxton that it was as much as you could expect me to do for you. I didn't suppose the next thing would be that you'd be for betaking yourself to New York and expecting me to pay your bills there."
Aunt Rebecca turned and went into the house. Jane Lavinia, feeling sore and bruised in spirit; fled to her own room and cried herself to sleep.
Her eyes were swollen the next morning, but she was not sulky. Jane Lavinia never sulked. She did her morning's work faithfully, although there was no spring in her step. That afternoon, when she was out in the orchard trying to patch up her tattered dreams, Aunt Rebecca came down the blossomy avenue, a tall, gaunt figure, with an uncompromising face.
"You'd better go down to the store and get ten yards of white cotton, Jane Lavinia," she said. "If you're going to New York, you'll have to get a supply of underclothing made."
Jane Lavinia opened her eyes.
"Oh, Aunt Rebecca, am I going?"
"You can go if you want to. I'll give you all the money I can spare. It ain't much, but perhaps it'll be enough for a start."
"Oh, Aunt Rebecca, thank you!" exclaimed Jane Lavinia, crimson with conflicting feelings. "But perhaps I oughtn't to take it—perhaps I oughtn't to leave you alone—"
If Aunt Rebecca had shown any regret at the thought of Jane Lavinia's departure, Jane Lavinia would have foregone New York on the spot. But Aunt Rebecca only said coldly, "I guess you needn't worry over that. I can get along well enough."
And with that it was settled. Jane Lavinia lived in a whirl of delight for the next week. She felt few regrets at leaving Chestercote. Aunt Rebecca would not miss her; Jane Lavinia thought that Aunt Rebecca regarded her as a nuisance—a foolish girl who wasted her time making pictures instead of doing something useful. Jane Lavinia had never thought that Aunt Rebecca had any affection for her. She had been a very little girl when her parents had died, and Aunt Rebecca had taken her to bring up. Accordingly she had been "brought up," and she was grateful to Aunt Rebecca, but there was no closer bond between them. Jane Lavinia would have given love for love unstintedly, but she never supposed that Aunt Rebecca loved her.
On the morning of departure Jane Lavinia was up and ready early. Her trunk had been taken over to Mr. Whittaker's the night before, and she was to walk over in the morning and go with Mr. and Mrs. Stephens to the station. She put on her chiffon hat to travel in, and Aunt Rebecca did not say a word of protest. Jane Lavinia cried when she said good-by, but Aunt Rebecca did not cry. She shook hands and said stiffly, "Write when you get to New York. You needn't let Mrs. Stephens work you to death either."
Jane Lavinia went slowly over the bridge and up the lane. If only Aunt Rebecca had been a little sorry! But the morning was perfect and the air clear as crystal, and she was going to New York, and fame and fortune were to be hers for the working. Jane Lavinia's spirits rose and bubbled over in a little trill of song. Then she stopped in dismay. She had forgotten her watch—her mother's little gold watch; she had left it on her dressing table.
Jane Lavinia hurried down the lane and back to the house. In the open kitchen doorway she paused, standing on a mosaic of gold and shadow where the sunshine fell through the morning-glory vines. Nobody was in the kitchen, but Aunt Rebecca was in the little bedroom that opened off it, crying bitterly and talking aloud between her sobs, "Oh, she's gone and left me all alone—my girl has gone! Oh, what shall I do? And she didn't care—she was glad to go—glad to get away. Well, it ain't any wonder. I've always been too cranky with her. But I loved her so much all the time, and I was so proud of her! I liked her picture-making real well, even if I did complain of her wasting her time. Oh, I don't know how I'm ever going to keep on living now she's gone!"
Jane Lavinia listened with a face from which all the sparkle and excitement had gone. Yet amid all the wreck and ruin of her tumbling castles in air, a glad little thrill made itself felt. Aunt Rebecca was sorry—Aunt Rebecca did love her after all!
Jane Lavinia turned and walked noiselessly away. As she went swiftly up the wild plum lane, some tears brimmed up in her eyes, but there was a smile on her lips and a song in her heart. After all, it was nicer to be loved than to be rich and admired and famous.
When she reached Mr. Whittaker's, everybody was out in the yard ready to start.
"Hurry up, Jane Lavinia," said Mr. Whittaker. "Blest if we hadn't begun to think you weren't coming at all. Lively now."
"I am not going," said Jane Lavinia calmly.
"Not going?" they all exclaimed.
"No. I'm very sorry, and very grateful to you, Mr. Stephens, but I can't leave Aunt Rebecca. She'd miss me too much."
"Well, you little goose!" said Mrs. Whittaker.
Mrs. Stephens said nothing, but frowned coldly. Perhaps her thoughts were less of the loss to the world of art than of the difficulty of hunting up another housemaid. Mr. Stephens looked honestly regretful.
"I'm sorry, very sorry, Miss Slade," he said. "You have exceptional talent, and I think you ought to cultivate it."
"I am going to cultivate Aunt Rebecca," said Jane Lavinia.
Nobody knew just what she meant, but they all understood the firmness of her tone. Her trunk was taken down out of the express wagon, and Mr. and Mrs. Stephens drove away. Then Jane Lavinia went home. She found Aunt Rebecca washing the breakfast dishes, with the big tears rolling down her face.
"Goodness me!" she cried, when Jane Lavinia walked in. "What's the matter? You ain't gone and been too late!"
"No, I've just changed my mind, Aunt Rebecca. They've gone without me. I am not going to New York—I don't want to go. I'd rather stay at home with you."
For a moment Aunt Rebecca stared at her. Then she stepped forward and flung her arms about the girl.
"Oh, Jane Lavinia," she said with a sob, "I'm so glad! I couldn't see how I was going to get along without you, but I thought you didn't care. You can wear that chiffon hat everywhere you want to, and I'll get you a pink organdy dress for Sundays."
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