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The year was at its noon. Every rose-bush was glorious with bloom, and even the old climbing rose which clung, in its decay, to Miss Mehitable's porch railing had put forth a few fragrant blossoms.
Soon after Araminta had been carried back home, she discovered that she had changed since she went away. Aunt Hitty no longer seemed infallible. Indeed, Araminta had admitted to herself, though with the pangs of a guilty conscience, that it was possible for Aunt Hitty to be mistaken. It was probable that the entire knowledge of the world was not concentrated in Aunt Hitty.
Outwardly, things went on as usual. Miss Mehitable issued orders to Araminta as the commander in chief of an army issues instructions to his subordinates, and Araminta obeyed as faithfully as before, yet with a distinct difference. She did what she was told to do out of gratitude for lifelong care, and not because she felt that she had to.
She went, frequently, to see Miss Evelina, having disposed of objections by the evident fact that she could not neglect any one who had been so kind to her as Miss Evelina had. Usually, however, the faithful guardian went along, and the three sat in the garden, Evelina with her frail hands listlessly folded, and the others stitching away at the endless and monotonous patchwork.
Miss Mehitable had a secret fear that the bloom had been brushed from her rose. Until the accident, Araminta had scarcely been out of her sight since she brought her home, a toddling infant. Miss Mehitable's mind had unerringly controlled two bodies until Araminta fell off the ladder. Now, the other mind began to show distressing signs of activity.
By dint of extra work, Araminta's eighth patchwork quilt was made for quilting, and the Ladies' Aid Society was invited to Miss Mehitable's for the usual Summer revelry of quilting and gossip. Miss Evelina was invited, but refused to go.
After the festivity was over, Miss Mehitable made a fruitful excavation into a huge chest in the attic, and emerged, flushed but happy, with enough scraps for three quilts.
"This here next quilt, Minty," she said, with the air of one announcing a pleasant surprise, "will be the Risin' Sun and Star pattern. It's harder 'n the others, and that's why I've kep' it until now. You've done all them other quilts real good," she added, grudgingly.
Araminta had her own surprise ready, but it was not of a pleasant nature. "Thank you, Aunt Hitty," she replied, "but I'm not going to make any more quilts, for a while, at any rate."
Miss Mehitable's lower jaw dropped in amazement. Never before had Araminta failed to obey her suggestions. "Minty," she said, anxiously, "don't you feel right? It was hot yesterday, and the excitement, and all--I dunno but you may have had a stroke."
Araminta smiled--a lovable, winning smile. "No, I haven't had any 'stroke,' but I've made all the quilts I'm going to until I get to be an old woman, and have nothing else to do."
"What are you layin' out to do, Minty?" demanded Miss Mehitable.
"I'm going to be outdoors all I want to, and I'm going up to Miss Evelina's and play with my kitten, and help you with the housework, or do anything else you want me to do, but--no more quilts," concluded the girl, firmly.
"Araminta Lee!" cried Miss Mehitable, speech having returned. "If I ain't ashamed of you! Here's your poor old aunt that's worked her fingers to the bone, slaving for you almost ever since the day you was born, and payin' a doctor's outrageous bill of four dollars and a half--or goin' to pay," she corrected, her conscience reproaching her, "and you refusin' to mind!
"Haven't I took good care of you all these eighteen years? Haven't I set up with you when you was sick and never let you out of my sight for a minute, and taught you to be as good a housekeeper as any in Rushton, and made you into a first-class seamstress, and educated you myself, and looked after your religious training, and made your clothes? Ain't I been father and mother and sister and brother and teacher and grandparents all rolled into one? And now you're refusin' to make quilts!"
Araminta's heart reproached her, but the blood of some fighting ancestor was in her pulses now. "I know, Aunt Hitty," she said, kindly, "you've done all that and more, and I'm not in the least ungrateful, though you may think so. But I'm not going to make any more quilts!"
"Araminta Lee," said Miss Mehitable, warningly, "look careful where you're steppin'. Hell is yawning in front of you this very minute!"
Araminta smiled sweetly. Since the day the minister had gone to see her, she had had no fear of hell. "I don't see it, Aunt Hitty," she said, "but if everybody who hasn't pieced more than eight quilts by hand is in there, it must be pretty crowded."
"Araminta Lee," cried Miss Mehitable, "you're your mother all over again. She got just as high-steppin' as you before her downfall, and see where she ended at. She was married," concluded the accuser, scornfully, "yes, actually married!"
"Aunt Hitty," said Araminta, her sweet mouth quivering ever so little, "your mother was married, too, wasn't she?" With this parting shaft, the girl went out of the room, her head held high.
Miss Mehitable stared after her, uncomprehending. Slowly it dawned upon her that some one had been telling tales and undoing her careful work. "Minty! Minty!" she cried, "how can you talk to me so!"
But 'Minty' was outdoors and on her way to Miss Evelina's, bareheaded, this being strictly forbidden, so she did not hear. She was hoping against hope that some day, at Miss Evelina's, she might meet Doctor Ralph again and tell him she was sorry she had broken his heart.
Since the day he went away from her, Araminta had not had even a glimpse of him. She had gone to his father's funeral, as everyone else in the village did, and had wondered that he was not in the front seat, where, in her brief experience of funerals, mourners usually sat.
She admitted, to herself, that she had gone to the funeral solely for the sake of seeing Doctor Ralph. Araminta was wholly destitute of curiosity regarding the dead, and she had not joined the interested procession which wound itself around Anthony Dexter's coffin before passing out, regretfully, at the front door. Neither had Miss Mehitable. At the time, Araminta had thought it strange, for at all previous occasions of the kind, within her remembrance. Aunt Hitty had been well up among the mourners and had usually gone around the casket twice.
At Miss Evelina's, she knocked in vain. There was white chiffon upon the line, but all the doors were locked. Doctor Ralph was not there, either, and even the kitten was not in sight, so, regretfully, Araminta went home again.
Throughout the day, Miss Mehitable did not speak to her erring niece, but Araminta felt it to be a relief, rather than a punishment. In the afternoon, the emancipated young woman put on her best gown--a white, cross-barred muslin which she had made herself. It was not Sunday, and Araminta was forbidden to wear the glorified raiment save on occasions of high state.
She added further to her sins by picking a pink rose--Miss Mehitable did not think flowers were made to pick--and fastening it coquettishly in her brown hair. Moreover, Araminta had put her hair up loosely, instead of in the neat, tight wad which Miss Mehitable had forced upon her the day she donned long skirts. When Miss Mehitable beheld her transformed charge she would have broken her vow of silence had not the words mercifully failed. Aunt Hitty's vocabulary was limited, and she had no language in which to express her full opinion of the wayward one, so she assumed, instead, the pose of a suffering martyr.
The atmosphere at the table, during supper, was icy, even though it was the middle of June. Thorpe noticed it and endeavoured to talk, but was not successful. Miss Mehitable's few words, which were invariably addressed to him, were so acrid in quality that they made him nervous. The Reverend Austin Thorpe, innocent as he was of all intentional wrong, was made to feel like a criminal haled to the bar of justice.
But Araminta glowed and dimpled and smiled. Her eyes danced with mischief, and the colour came and went upon her velvety cheeks. She took pains to ask Aunt Hitty for the salt or the bread, and kept up a continuous flow of high-spirited talk. Had it not been for Araminta, the situation would have become openly strained.
Afterward, she began to clear up the dishes as usual, but Miss Mehitable pushed her out of the room with a violence indicative of suppressed passion. So, humming a hymn at an irreverent tempo, Araminta went out and sat down on the front porch, spreading down the best rug in the house that she might not soil her gown. This, also, was forbidden.
When the dishes were washed and put away, Miss Mehitable came out, clad in her rustling black silk and her best bonnet. "Miss Lee," she said very coldly, "I am going out."
"All right, Aunt Hitty" returned Araminta, cheerfully. "As it happens, I'm not."
Miss Mehitable repressed an exclamation of horror. Seemingly, then, it had occurred to Araminta to go out in the evening--alone!
Miss Mehitable's feet moved swiftly away from the house. She was going to the residence of the oldest and most orthodox deacon in Thorpe's church, to ask for guidance in dealing with her wayward charge, but Araminta never dreamed of this.
Dusk came, the sweet, June dusk, starred with fireflies and clouded with great white moths. The roses and mignonette and honeysuckle made the air delicately fragrant. To the emancipated one, it was, indeed, a beautiful world.
Austin Thorpe came out, having found his room unbearably close. As the near-sighted sometimes do, he saw more clearly at twilight than at other times.
"You here, child?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm here," replied Araminta, happily. "Sit down, won't you?" Having taken the first step, she found the others comparatively easy, and was rejoicing in her new freedom. She felt sure, too, that some day she should see Doctor Ralph once more and all would be made right between them.
The minister sat down gladly, his old heart yearning toward Araminta as toward a loved and only child. "Where is your aunt?" he asked, timidly.
"Goodness knows," laughed Araminta, irreverently. "She's gone out, in all her best clothes. She didn't say whether she was coming back or not."
Thorpe was startled, for he had never heard speech like this from Araminta. He knew her only as a docile, timid child. Now, she seemed suddenly to have grown up.
For her part, Araminta remembered how the minister had once helped her out of a difficulty, and taken away from her forever the terrible, haunting fear of hell. Here was a dazzling opportunity to acquire new knowledge.
"Mr. Thorpe," she demanded, eagerly, "what is it to be married?"
"To be married," repeated Austin Thorpe, dreamily, his eyes fixed upon a firefly that flitted, star-tike, near the rose, "is, I think, the nearest this world can come to Heaven."
"Oh!" cried Araminta, in astonishment. "What does it mean?"
"It means," answered Thorpe, softly, "that a man and a woman whom God meant to be mated have found each other at last. It means there is nothing in the world that you have to face alone, that all your joys are doubled and all your sorrows shared. It means that there is no depth into which you can go alone, that one other hand is always in yours; trusting, clinging, tender, to help you bear whatever comes.
"It means that the infinite love has been given, in part, to you, for daily strength and comfort. It is a balm for every wound, a spur for every lagging, a sure dependence in every weakness, a belief in every doubt. The perfect being is neither man nor woman, but a merging of dual natures into a united whole. To be married gives a man a woman's tenderness; a woman, a man's courage. The long years stretch before them, and what lies beyond no one can say, but they face it, smiling and serene, because they are together."
"My mother was married," said Araminta, softly. All at once, the stain of disgrace was wiped out.
"Yes, dear child, and, I hope, to the man she loved, as I hope that some day you will be married to the man who loves you."
Araminta's whole heart yearned toward Ralph--yearned unspeakably. In something else, surely, Aunt Hitty was wrong.
"Araminta," said Thorpe, his voice shaking; "dear child, come here."
She followed him into the house. His trembling old hands lighted a candle and she saw that his eyes were full of tears. From an inner pocket, he drew out a small case, wrapped in many thicknesses of worn paper. He unwound it reverently, his face alight with a look she had never seen there before.
"See!" he said. He opened the ornate case and showed her an old daguerreotype. A sweet, girlish face looked out at her, a woman with trusting, loving eyes, a sweet mouth, and dark, softly parted hair.
"Oh," whispered Araminta. "Were you married--to her?"
"No," answered Thorpe, hoarsely, shutting the case with a snap and beginning to wrap it again in the many folds of paper. "I was to have been married to her." His voice lingered with inexpressible fondness upon the words. "She died," he said, his lips quivering.
"Oh," cried the girl, "I'm sorry!" A sharp pang pierced her through and through.
"Child," said Thorpe, his wrinkled hand closing on hers, "to those who love, there is no such thing as Death. Do you think that just because she is dead, I have ceased to care? Death has made her mine as Life could never do. She walks beside me daily, as though we were hand in hand. Her tenderness makes me tender, her courage gives me strength, her great charity makes me kind. Her belief has made my own faith more sure, her steadfastness keeps me from faltering, and her patience enables me to wait until the end, when I go, into the Unknown, to meet her. Child, I do not know if there be a Heaven, but if God gives me her, and her love, as I knew it once, I shall not ask for more."
Unable to say more, for the tears, Thorpe stumbled out of the room. Araminta's own eyes were wet and her heart was strangely tender to all the world. Miss Evelina, the kitten, Mr. Thorpe, Doctor Ralph--even Aunt Hitty--were all included in a wave of unspeakable tenderness.
Never stopping to question, Araminta sped out of the house, her feet following where her heart led. Past the crossroads, to the right, down into the village, across the tracks, then sharply to the left, up to Doctor Dexter's, where, only a few weeks before, she had gone in the hope of seeing Doctor Ralph, Araminta ran like some young Atalanta, across whose path no golden apples were thrown.
The door was open, and she rushed in, unthinking, turning by instinct into the library, where Ralph sat alone, leaning his head upon his hand.
"Doctor Ralph!" she cried, "I've come!"
He looked up, then started forward. One look into her glorified face told him all that he needed to know. "Undine," he said, huskily, "have you found your soul?"
"I don't know what I've found," sobbed Araminta, from the shelter of his arms, "but I've come, to stay with you always, if you'll let me!"
"If I'll let you," murmured Ralph, kissing away her happy tears. "You little saint, it's what I want as I want nothing else in the world."
"I know what it is to be married," said Araminta, after a little, her grave, sweet eyes on his. "I asked Mr. Thorpe to-night and he told me. It's to be always with the one you love, and never to mind what anybody else says or does. It's to help each other bear everything and be twice as happy because you're together. It means that somebody will always help you when things go wrong, and there'll always be something you can lean on. You'll never be afraid of anything, because you're together. My mother was married, your mother was married, and I've found out that Aunt Hitty's mother was married, too.
"And Mr. Thorpe--he would have been married, but she died. He told me and he showed me her picture, and he says that it doesn't make any difference to be dead, when you love anybody, and that Heaven, for him, will be where she waits for him and puts her hand in his again. He was crying, and so was I, but it's because he has her and I have you!"
"Sweetheart! Darling!" cried Ralph, crushing her into his close embrace. "It's God Himself who brought you to me now!"
"No," returned Araminta, missing the point, "I came all by myself. And I ran all the way. Nobody brought me. But I've come, for always, and I'll never leave you again. I'm sorry I broke your heart!"
"You've made it well again," he said, fondly, "and so we'll be married--you and I."
"Yes," repeated Araminta, her beautiful face alight with love, "we'll be married, you and I!"
"Sweet," he said, "do you think I deserve so much?"
"Being married is giving everything," she explained, "but I haven't anything at all. Only eight quilts and me! Do you care for quilts?"
"Quilts be everlastingly condemned. I'm going to tell Aunt Hitty."
"No," said Araminta, "I'm going to tell her my own self, so now! And I'll tell her to-morrow!"
It was after ten when Ralph took Araminta home. From the parlour window Miss Mehitable was watching anxiously. She had divested herself of the rustling black silk and was safely screened by the shutters. She had been at home an hour or more, and though she had received plenty of good advice, of a stern nature, from her orthodox counsellor, her mind was far from at rest. Having conjured up all sorts of dire happenings, she was relieved when she heard voices outside.
Miss Mehitable peered out eagerly from behind the shutters. Up the road came Araminta--may the saints preserve us!--with a man! Miss Mehitable quickly placed him as that blackmailing play-doctor who now should never have his four dollars and a half unless he collected it by law. Only in the last ditch would she surrender.
They were talking and laughing, and Ralph's black-coated arm was around Araminta's white-robed waist. They came slowly to the gate, where they stopped. Araminta laid her head confidingly upon Ralph's shoulder and he held her tightly in his arms, kissing her repeatedly, as Miss Mehitable guessed, though she could not see very well.
At last they parted and Araminta ran lightly into the house, saying, in a low, tender voice: "To-morrow, dear, to-morrow!"
She went up-stairs, singing. Even then Miss Mehitable observed that it was not a hymn, but some light and ungodly tune she had picked up, Heaven knew where!
She went to her room, still humming, and presently her light was out, but her guardian angel was too stiff with horror to move.
"O Lord," prayed Araminta, as she sank to sleep, "keep me from the contamination of--not being married to him, for Thy sake, Amen."
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