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With her mouth firmly set, and assuming the air of a martyr trying to make himself a little more comfortable against the stake, Miss Mehitable climbed the hill. In her capable hands were the implements of warfare--pails, yellow soap, and rags. She carried a mop on her shoulder as a regular carries a gun.
"Havin' said I would clean house, I will clean house," she mused, "in spite of all the ingratitude and not listenin'. 'T won't take long, and it'll do my heart good to see the place clean again. Evelina's got no gumption about a house--never did have. I s'pose she thinks it's clean just because she's swept it and brushed down the cobwebs, but it needs more 'n a broom to take out twenty-five years' dirt."
Her militant demeanour was somewhat chastened when she presented herself at the house. When the door was opened, she brushed past Miss Evelina with a muttered explanation, and made straight for the kitchen stove. She heated a huge kettle of water, filled her pail, and then, for the first time, spoke.
"I've come to finish cleanin' as I promised I would, and I hope it'll offset your nursin' of Minty. And if that blackmailing play-doctor comes while I'm at work, you can tell him that I ain't speakin' to Minty from the hall, nor settin' foot in her room, and that he needn't be in any hurry to make out his bill, 'cause I'm goin' to take my time about payin' it."
She went upstairs briskly, and presently the clatter of moving furniture fairly shook the house over Miss Evelina's head. It sounded as if Miss Mehitable did not know there was an invalid in the house, and found distinct pleasure in making unnecessary noise. The quick, regular strokes of the scrubbing brush swished through the hall. Resentment inspired the ministering influence to speed.
But it was not in Miss Hitty's nature to cherish her wrath long, while the incense of yellow soap was in her nostrils and the pleasing foam of suds was everywhere in sight.
Presently she began to sing, in a high, cracked voice which wavered continually off the key. She went through her repertory of hymns with conscientious thoroughness. Then a bright idea came to her.
"There wa'n't nothin' said about singin'," she said to herself. "I wa'n't to speak to Minty from the hall, nor set foot into her room. But I ain't pledged not to sing in the back room, and I can sing any tune I please, and any words. Reckon Minty can hear."
The moving of the ladder drowned the sound made by the opening of the lower door. Secure upon her height, with her head near the open transom of the back room. Miss Mehitable began to sing.
"Araminta Lee is a bad, un-grate-ful girl," she warbled, to a tune the like of which no mortal had ever heard before. "She fell off of a step-lad-der, and sprained her an-kle, and the play-doc-tor said it was broke in or-der to get more mon-ey, breaks being more val-u-able than sprains. Araminta Lee is lay-ing in bed like a la-dy, while her poor old aunt works her fingers to the bone, to pay for doc-tor's bills and nursin'. Four dollars and a half," she chanted, mournfully, "and no-body to pay it but a poor old aunt who has to work her fin-gers to the bone. Four dollars and a half, four dollars and a half--almost five dollars. Araminta thinks she will get out of work by pretending to be sick, but it is not so, not so. Araminta will find out she is much mis-taken. She will do the Fall clean-ing all alone, alone, and we do not think there will be any sprained an-kles, nor any four dollars--"
Doctor Ralph Dexter appeared in the doorway, his face flaming with wrath. Miss Mehitable continued to sing, apparently unconcerned, though her heart pounded violently against her ribs. By a swift change of words and music, she was singing "Rock of Ages," as any woman is privileged to do, when cleaning house, or at any other time.
But the young man still stood there, his angry eyes fixed upon her. The scrutiny made Miss Mehitable uncomfortable, and at length she descended from the ladder, still singing, ostensibly to refill her pail.
"Let me hide--" warbled Miss Hitty, tremulously, attempting to leave the room.
Doctor Ralph effectually barred the way. "I should think you'd want to hide," he said, scornfully. "If I hear of anything; like this again, I'll send in that bill I told you of. I know a lawyer who can collect it."
"If you do," commented Miss Mehitable, ironically, "you know more 'n I do." She tried to speak with assurance, but her soul was quaking within her. Was it possible that any one knew she had over three hundred dollars safely concealed in the attic?
"I mean exactly what I say," continued Ralph. "If you so much as climb these stairs again, you and I will have trouble,"
Sniffing disdainfully, Miss Mehitable went down into the kitchen, no longer singing. "You'll have to finish your own cleanin'," she said to Miss Evelina. "That blackmailing play-doctor thinks it ain't good for my health to climb ladders. He's afraid I'll fall off same as Minty did and he hesitates to take more of my money."
"I'd much rather you wouldn't do any more," replied Miss Evelina, kindly. "You have been very good to me, ever since I came here, and I appreciate it more than I can tell you. I'm going to clean my own house, for, indeed, I'm ashamed of it."
Miss Hitty grunted unintelligibly, gathered up her paraphernalia, and prepared to depart. "When Minty's well," she said, "I'll come back and be neighbourly."
"I hope you'll come before that," responded Miss Evelina. "I shall miss you if you don't."
Miss Hitty affected not to hear, but she was mollified, none the less.
From his patient's window, Doctor Ralph observed the enemy in full retreat, and laughed gleefully. "What is funny?" queried Araminta, She had been greatly distressed by the recitative in the back bedroom and her cheeks were flushed with fever.
"I was just laughing," said Doctor Ralph, "because your aunt has gone home and is never coming back here any more."
"Oh, Doctor Ralph! Isn't she?" There was alarm in Araminta's voice, but her grey eyes were shining.
"Never any more," he assured her, in a satisfied tone. "How long have you lived with Aunt Hitty?"
"Ever since I was a baby."
"H--m! And how old are you now?"
"Where did you go to school?"
"I didn't go to school. Aunt Hitty taught me, at home."
"Didn't you ever have anybody to play with?"
"Only Aunt Hitty. We used to play a quilt game. I sewed the little blocks together, and she made the big ones."
"Must have been highly exciting. Didn't you ever have a doll?"
"Oh, no!" Araminta's eyes were wide and reproachful now. "The Bible says 'thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.'"
Doctor Ralph sighed deeply, put his hands in his pockets, and paced restlessly across Araminta's bare, nun-like chamber. As though in a magic mirror, he saw her nineteen years of deprivation, her cramped and narrow childhood, her dense ignorance of life. No playmates, no dolls--nothing but Aunt Hitty. She had kept Araminta wrapped in cotton wool, mentally; shut her out from the world, and persistently shaped her toward a monastic ideal.
A child brought up in a convent could have been no more of a nun in mind and spirit than Araminta. Ralph well knew that the stern guardianship had not been relaxed a moment, either by night or by day. Miss Mehitable had a well-deserved reputation for thoroughness in whatever she undertook.
And Araminta was made for love. Ralph turned to look at her as she lay on her pillow, her brown, wavy hair rioting about her flushed face. Araminta's great grey eyes were very grave and sweet; her mouth was that of a lovable child. Her little hands were dimpled at the knuckles, in fact, as Ralph now noted; there were many dimples appertaining to Araminta.
One of them hovered for an instant about the corner of her mouth. "Why must you walk?" she asked. "Is it because you're glad your ankle isn't broken?"
Doctor Ralph came back and sat down on the bed beside her. He had that rare sympathy which is the inestimable gift of the physician, and long years of practice had not yet calloused him so that a suffering fellow-mortal was merely a "case". His heart, was dangerously tender toward her.
"Lots of things are worse than broken ankles," he assured her. "Has it been so bad to be shut up here, away from Aunt Hitty?"
"No," said the truthful Araminta. "I have always been with Aunt Hitty, and it seems queer, but very nice. Someway, I feel as if I had grown up."
"Has Miss Evelina been good to you?"
"Oh, so good," returned Araminta, gratefully. "Why?"
"Because," said Ralph, concisely, "if she hadn't been, I'd break her neck."
"You couldn't," whispered Araminta, softly, "you're too kind. You wouldn't hurt anybody."
"Not unless I had to. Sometimes there has to be a little hurt to keep away a greater one."
"You hurt me, I think, but I didn't know just when. It was the smelly, sweet stuff, wasn't it?"
Ralph did not heed the question. He was wondering what would become of Araminta when she went back to Miss Mehitable's, as she soon must. Her ankle was healing nicely and in a very short time she would be able to walk again. He could not keep her there much longer. By a whimsical twist of his thought, he perceived that he was endeavouring to wrap Araminta in cotton wool of a different sort, to prevent Aunt Hitty from wrapping her in her own particular brand.
"The little cat," said Araminta, fondly. "I thought perhaps it would come to-day. Is it coming when I am well?"
"Holy Moses!" ejaculated Ralph. He had never thought of the kitten again, and the poor child had been waiting patiently, with never a word. The clear grey eyes were upon him, eloquent with belief.
"The little cat," replied Ralph, shamelessly perjuring himself, "was not old enough to leave its mother. We'll have to wait until to-morrow or next day. I was keeping it for a surprise; that's why I didn't say anything about it. I thought you'd forgotten."
"Oh, no! When I go back home, you know, I can't have it. Aunt Hitty would never let me."
"Won't she?" queried Ralph. "We'll see!"
He spoke with confidence he was far from feeling, and was dimly aware that Araminta had the faith he lacked. "She thinks I'm a wonder-worker," he said to himself, grimly, "and I've got to live up to it."
It was not necessary to count Araminta's pulse again, but Doctor Ralph took her hand--a childish, dimpled hand that nestled confidingly in his.
"Listen, child," he said; "I want to talk to you. Your Aunt Hitty hasn't done right by you. She's kept you in cotton when you ought to be outdoors. You should have gone to school and had other children to play with."
"Cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, snakes, mice, pigeons, guinea-pigs--everything."
"I was never in cotton," corrected Araminta, "except once, when I had a bad cold."
"That isn't just what I mean, but I'm afraid I can't make you understand. There's a whole world full of big, beautiful things that you don't know anything about; great sorrows, great joys, and great loves. Look here, did you ever feel badly about anything?"
"Only--only--" stammered Araminta; "my mother, you know. She was--was married."
"Poor child," said Ralph, beginning to comprehend. "Have you been taught that it's wrong to be married?"
"Why, yes," answered Araminta, confidently. "It's dreadful. Aunt Hitty isn't married, neither is the minister. It's very, very wrong. Aunt Hitty told my mother so, but she would do it."
There was a long pause. The little warm hand still rested trustingly in Ralph's. "Listen, dear," he began, clearing his throat; "it isn't wrong to be married. I never before in all my life heard of anybody who thought it was. Something is twisted in Aunt Hitty's mind, or else she's taught you that because she's so brutally selfish that she doesn't want you ever to be married. Some people, who are unhappy themselves, are so constituted that they can't bear to see anybody else happy. She's afraid of life, and she's taught you to be.
"It's better to be unhappy, Araminta, than never to take any risks. It all lies in yourself at last. If you're a true, loving woman, and never let yourself be afraid, nothing very bad can ever happen to you. Aunt Hitty has been unjust to deny you life. You have the right to love and learn and suffer, to make great sacrifices, see great sacrifices made for you; to believe, to trust--even to be betrayed. It's your right, and it's been kept away from you."
Araminta was very still and her hand was cold. She moved it uneasily.
"Don't, dear," said Ralph, his voice breaking. "Don't you like to have me hold your hand? I won't, if you don't want me to."
Araminta drew her hand away. She was frightened.
"I don't wonder you're afraid," continued Ralph, huskily. "You little wild bird, you've been in a cage all your life. I'm going to open the door and set you free."
Miss Evelina tapped gently on the door, then entered, with a bowl of broth for the invalid. She set it down on the table at the head of the bed, and went out, as quietly as she had come.
"I'm going to feed you now," laughed Ralph, with a swift change of mood, "and when I come to see you to-morrow, I'm going to bring you a book."
"What kind of a hook?" asked Araminta, between spoonfuls.
"A novel--a really, truly novel."
"You mustn't!" she cried, frightened again. "You get burned if you read novels."
"Some of them are pretty hot stuff, I'll admit," returned Ralph, missing her meaning, "but, of course, I wouldn't give you that kind. What sort of stories do you like best?"
"Daniel in the lions' den and about the ark. I've read all the Bible twice to Aunt Hitty while she sewed, and most of the Pilgrim's Progress, too. Don't ask me to read a novel, for I can't. It would be wicked."
"All right--we won't call it a novel. It'll be just a story book. It isn't wrong to read stories, is it?"
"No-o," said Araminta, doubtfully. "Aunt Hitty never said it was."
"I wouldn't have you do anything wrong, Araminta--you know that. Good-bye, now, until to-morrow."
Beset by strange emotions, Doctor Ralph Dexter went home. Finding that the carriage was not in use, he set forth alone upon his feline quest, reflecting that Araminta herself was not much more than a little grey kitten. Everywhere he went, he was regarded with suspicion. People denied the possession of cats, even while cats were mewing in defiance of the assertion. Bribes were offered, and sternly refused.
At last, ten miles from home, he found a maltese kitten its owner was willing to part with, in consideration of three dollars and a solemn promise that the cat was not to be hurt.
"It's for a little girl who is ill," he said. "I've promised her a kitten."
"So your father's often said," responded the woman, "but someway, I believe you."
On the way home, he pondered long before the hideous import of it came to him. All at once, he knew.
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