Araminta woke with the birds. As yet, it was dark, but from afar came the cheery voice of a robin, piping gaily of coming dawn. When the first ray of light crept into her room, and every bird for miles around was swelling his tiny throat in song, it seemed to her that, until now, she had never truly lived.
The bird that rocked on the maple branch, outside her window, carolling with all his might, was no more free than she. Love had rolled away the stone Aunt Hitty had set before the door of Araminta's heart, and the imprisoned thing was trying its wings, as joyously as the birds themselves.
Every sense was exquisitely alive and thrilling. Had she been older and known more of the world, Love would not have come to her so, but rather with a great peace, an unending trust. But having waked as surely as the sleeping princess in the tower, she knew the uttermost ecstasy of it--heard the sound of singing trumpets and saw the white light.
Her fear of Aunt Hitty had died, mysteriously and suddenly. She appreciated now, as never before, all that had been done for her. She saw, too, that many things had been done that were better left undone, but in her happy heart was no condemnation for anybody or anything.
Araminta dressed leisurely. Usually, she hurried into her clothes and ran down-stairs to help Aunt Hitty, who was always ready for the day's work before anybody else was awake but this morning she took her time.
She loved the coolness of the water on her face, she loved her white plump arms, her softly rounded throat, the velvety roses that blossomed on her cheeks, and the wavy brown masses of her hair, touched by the sun into tints of copper and gold. For the first time in all her life, Araminta realised that she was beautiful. She did not know that Love brings beauty with it, nor that the light in her eyes, like a new star, had not risen until last night.
She was seriously tempted to slide down the banister--this also having been interdicted since her earliest remembrance--but, being a grown woman, now, she compromised with herself by taking two stairs at a time in a light, skipping, perilous movement that landed her, safe but breathless, in the lower hall.
In the kitchen, wearing an aspect distinctly funereal, was Miss Mehitable. Her brisk, active manner was gone and she moved slowly. She did not once look up as Araminta came in.
"Good-morning, Aunt Hitty!" cried the girl, pirouetting around the bare floor. "Isn't this the beautifullest morning that ever was, and aren't you glad you're alive?"
"No," returned Miss Mehitable, acidly; "I am not."
"Aren't you?" asked Araminta, casually, too happy to be deeply concerned about anybody else; "why, what's wrong?"
"I should think, Araminta Lee, that you 'd be the last one on earth to ask what's wrong!" The flood gates were open now. "Wasn't it only yesterday that you broke away from all restraint and refused to make any more quilts? Didn't you put on your best dress in the afternoon when 't want Sunday and I hadn't told you that you could? Didn't you pick a rose and stick it into your hair, and have I ever allowed you to pick a flower on the place, to say nothing of doing anything so foolish as to put it in your hair? Flowers and hair don't go together."
"There's hair in the parlour," objected Araminta, frivolously, "made up into a wreath of flowers, so I thought as long as you had them made out of dead people's hair, I'd put some roses in mine, now, while I'm alive."
Miss Mehitable compressed her lips sternly and went on.
"Didn't you take a rug out of the parlour last night and spread it on the porch, and have I ever had rugs outdoor except when they was being beat? And didn't you sit down on the front porch, where I've never allowed you to sit, it not being modest for a young female to sit outside of her house?"
"Yes," admitted Araminta, cheerfully, "I did all those things, and I put my hair up loosely instead of tightly, as you've always taught me. You forgot that."
"No, I didn't," denied Miss Mehitable, vigorously; "I was coming to that. Didn't you go up to Miss Evelina's without asking me if you could, and didn't you go bareheaded, as I've never allowed you to do?"
"Yes," laughed Araminta, "I did."
"After I went away," pursued Miss Mehitable, swiftly approaching her climax, "didn't you go up to Doctor Dexter's like a shameless hussy?"
"If it makes a shameless hussy of me to go to Doctor Dexter's, that's what I am."
"You went there to see Doctor Ralph Dexter, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did," sang Araminta, "and oh, Aunt Hitty, he was there! He was there!"
"Ain't I told you," demanded Miss Mehitable, "how one woman went up there when she had no business to go and got burnt so awful that she has to wear a veil all the rest of her life?"
"Yes, you told me, Aunt Hitty, but, you see, I didn't get burned."
"Araminta Lee, you're going right straight to hell, just as fast as you can get there. Perdition is yawning at your feet. Didn't that blackmailing play-doctor come home with you?"
"Ralph," Said Araminta--and the way she spoke his name made it a caress--"Ralph came home with me."
"I saw you comin' home," continued Miss Mehitable, with her sharp eyes keenly fixed upon the culprit. "I saw his arm around your waist and you leanin' your head on his shoulder."
"Yes," laughed Araminta, "I haven't forgotten. I can feel his arms around me now."
"And at the gate--you needn't deny it, for I saw it all--he KISSED you!"
"That's right, Aunt Hitty. At his house, he kissed me, too, lots and lots of times. And," she added, her eyes meeting her accuser's clearly, "I kissed him."
"How do you suppose I feel to see such goin's on, after all I've done for you?"
"You needn't have looked, Aunty, if you didn't like to see it."
"Do you know where I went when I went out? I went up to Deacon Robinson's to lay your case before him." Miss Mehitable paused, for the worthy deacon was the fearsome spectre of young sinners.
Araminta executed an intricate dance step of her own devising, but did not seem interested in the advice he had given.
"He told me," went on Miss Mehitable, in the manner of a judge pronouncing sentence upon a criminal, "that at any cost I must trample down this godless uprising, and assert my rightful authority. 'Honour thy father and thy mother,' the Bible says, and I'm your father and mother, rolled into one. He said that if I couldn't make you listen in any other way, it would be right and proper for me to shut you up in your room and keep you on bread and water until you came to your senses."
Araminta giggled. "I wouldn't be there long," she said. "How funny it would be for Ralph to come with a ladder and take me out!"
"Araminta Lee, what do you mean?"
"Why," explained the girl, "we're going to be married--Ralph and I."
A nihilist bomb thrown into the immaculate kitchen could not have surprised Miss Mehitable more. She had no idea that it had gone so far. "Married!" she gasped. "You!"
"Not just me alone, Aunty, but Ralph and I. There has to be two, and I'm of age, so I can if I want to." This last heresy had been learned from Ralph, only the night before.
"Married!" gasped Miss Mehitable, again.
"Yes," returned Araminta, firmly, "married. My mother was married, and Ralph's mother was married, and your mother was married. Everybody's mother is married, and Mr. Thorpe says it's the nearest there is to Heaven. He was going to be married himself, but she died.
"Dear Aunt Hitty," cooed Araminta, with winning sweetness, "don't look so frightened. It's nothing dreadful, it's only natural and right, and I'm the happiest girl the sun shines on to-day. Don't be selfish, Aunty--you've had me all my life, and it's his turn now. I'll come to see you every day and you can come and see me. Kiss me, and tell me you're glad I'm going to be married!"
At this juncture, Thorpe entered the kitchen, not aware that he was upon forbidden ground. Attracted by the sound of voices, he had come in, just in time to hear Araminta's last words.
"Dear child!" he said, his fine old face illumined. "And so you're going to be married to the man you love! I'm so glad! God bless you!" He stooped, and kissed Araminta gently upon the forehead.
Having thus seen, as it were, the sanction of the Church placed upon Araminta's startling announcement, Miss Mehitable could say no more. During breakfast she did not speak at all, even to Thorpe. Araminta chattered gleefully of everything under the blue heaven, and even the minister noted the liquid melody of her voice.
Afterward, she went out, as naturally as a flower turns toward the sun. It was a part of the magic beauty of the world that she should meet Ralph, just outside the gate, with a face as radiant as her own.
"I was coming," he said, after the first rapture had somewhat subsided, "to tell Aunt Hitty."
"I told her," returned the girl, proudly, "all by my own self!"
"You don't mean it! What did she say?"
"She said everything. She told me hell was yawning at my feet, but I'm sure it's Heaven. She said that she was my father and mother rolled into one, and I was obliged to remind her that I was of age. You thought of that," she said, admiringly. "I didn't even know that I'd ever get old enough not to mind anybody but myself--or you."
"You won't have to 'mind' me," laughed Ralph. "I'll give you a long rope."
"What would I do with a rope?" queried Araminta, seriously.
"You funny, funny girl! Didn't you ever see a cow staked out in a pasture?"
"Yes. Am I a cow?"
"For the purposes of illustration, yes, and Aunt Hitty represents the stake. For eighteen or nineteen years, your rope has been so short that you could hardly move at all. Now things are changed, and I represent the stake. You've got the longest rope, now, that was ever made in one piece. See?"
"I'll come back," answered Araminta, seriously. "I don't think I need any rope at all."
"No, dear, I know that. I was only joking. You poor child, you've lived so long with that old dragon that you scarcely recognise a joke when you see one. A sense of humour, Araminta, is a saving grace for anybody. Next to Love, it's the finest gift of the gods."
"Have I got it?"
"I guess so. I think it's asleep, but we'll wake it up. Look here, dear--see what I brought you."
From his pocket, Ralph took a small purple velvet case, lined with white satin. Within was a ring, set with a diamond, small in circumference, but deep, and of unusual brilliancy. By a singular coincidence, it fitted Araminta's third finger exactly.
"Oh-h!" she cried, her cheeks glowing. "For me?"
"Yes, for you--till I get you another one. This was my mother's ring, sweetheart. I found it among my father's things. Will you wear it, for her sake and for mine?"
"I'll wear it always," answered Araminta, her great grey eyes on his, "and I don't want any other ring. Why, if it hadn't been for her, I never could have had you."
Ralph took her into his arms. His heart was filled with that supreme love which has no need of words.
Meanwhile Miss Mehitable was having her bad quarter of an hour. Man-like, Thorpe had taken himself away from a spot where he felt there was about to be a display of emotion. She was in the house alone, and the acute stillness of it seemed an accurate foreshadowing of the future.
Miss Mehitable was not among those rare souls who are seldom lonely. Her nature demanded continuous conversation, the subject alone being unimportant. Every thought that came into her mind was destined for a normal outlet in speech. She had no mental reservoir.
Araminta was going away--to be married. In spite of her trouble, Miss Mehitable noted the taint of heredity. "It's in her blood," she murmured, "and maybe Minty ain't so much to blame."
In this crisis, however, Miss Mehitable had the valiant support of her conscience. She had never allowed the child to play with boys--in fact, she had not had any playmates at all. As soon as Araminta was old enough to understand, she was taught that boys and men--indeed all human things that wore trousers, long or short--were rank poison, and were to be steadfastly avoided if a woman desired peace of mind. Miss Mehitable frequently said that she had everything a husband could have given her except a lot of trouble.
Daily, almost hourly, the wisdom of single blessedness had been impressed upon Araminta. Miss Mehitable neglected no illustration calculated to bring the lesson home. She had even taught her that her own mother was an outcast and had brought disgrace upon her family by marrying; she had held aloft her maiden standard and literally compelled Araminta to enlist.
Now, all her work had gone for naught. Nature had triumphantly reasserted itself, and Araminta had fallen in love. The years stretched before Miss Mehitable in a vast and gloomy vista illumined by no light. No soft step upon the stair, no sunny face at her table, no sweet, girlish laugh, no long companionable afternoons with patchwork, while she talked and Araminta listened. At the thought, her stern mouth quivered, ever so slightly, and, all at once, she found the relief of tears.
An hour or so afterward, she went up to the attic, walking with a stealthy, cat-like tread, though there was no one in the house to hear. In a corner, far back under the eaves, three trunks were piled, one on top of the other. Miss Hitty lifted off the two top trunks without apparent effort, for her arms were strong, and drew the lowest one out into the path of sunlight that lay upon the floor, maple branches swaying across it in silhouette.
In another corner of the attic, up among the rafters, was a box apparently filled with old newspapers. Miss Hitty reached down among the newspapers with accustomed fingers and drew out a crumpled wad, tightly wedged into one corner of the box.
She listened carefully at the door, but there was no step in the house. She was absolutely alone. None the less, she bolted the door of the attic before she picked the crumpled paper apart, and took out the key of the trunk.
The old lock opened readily, and from the trunk came the musty odour of long-dead lavender and rosemary, lemon verbena and rose geranium. On top was Barbara Lee's wedding gown. Miss Hitty always handled it with reverence not unmixed with awe, never having had a wedding gown herself.
Underneath were the baby clothes which the girl-wife had begun to make when she first knew of her child's coming. The cloth was none too fine and the little garments were awkwardly cut and badly sewn, but every stitch had been guided by a great love.
Araminta's first shoes were there, too--soft, formless things of discoloured white kid. Folded in a yellowed paper was a tiny, golden curl, snipped secretly, and marked on the outside: "Minty's hair." Farther down in the trunk were the few relics of Miss Mehitable's far-away girlhood.
A dog-eared primer, a string of bright buttons, a broken slate, a ragged, disreputable doll, and a few blown birds' eggs carefully packed away in a small box of cotton--these were her treasures. There was an old autograph album with a gay blue cover which the years in the trunk had not served to fade. Far down in the trunk was a package which Miss Mehitable took out reverently. It was large and flat and tied with heavy string in hard knots. She untied the knots patiently--her mother had taught her never to cut a string.
Underneath was more paper, and more string. It took her half an hour to bring to light the inmost contents of the package, bound in layer after layer of fine muslin, but not tied. She unrolled the yellowed cloth carefully, for it was very frail. At last she took out a photograph--Anthony Dexter at three-and-twenty--and gazed at it long.
On one page of her autograph album was written an old rhyme. The ink had faded so that it was scarcely legible, but Miss Hitty knew it by heart:
"'If you love me as I love you No knife can cut our love in two.' Your sincere friend, ANTHONY DEXTER."
Like a tiny sprig of lavender taken from a bush which has never bloomed, this bit of romance lay far back in the secret places of her life. She had a knot of blue ribbon which Anthony Dexter had once given her, a lead pencil which he had gallantly sharpened, and which she had never used.
Her life had been barren--Miss Mehitable knew that, and in her hours of self-analysis, admitted it. She would gladly have taken Evelina's full measure of suffering in exchange for one tithe of Araminta's joy. After Anthony Dexter had turned from her to Evelina, Miss Mehitable had openly scorned him. She had spent the rest of her life, since, in showing him and the rest that men were nothing to her and that he was least of all.
She had hovered near his patients simply for the sake of seeing him--she did not care for them at all. She sat in the front window that she might see him drive by, and counted that day lost which brought her no sight of him. This was her one tenderness, her one vulnerable point.
The afternoon shadows grew long and the maple branches ceased to sway. Outside a bird crooned a lullaby to his nesting mate. An oriole perched on the topmost twig of an evergreen in a corner of the yard, and opened his golden throat in a rapture of song.
Love was abroad in the world that day. Bees hummed it, birds sang it, roses breathed it. The black and gold messengers of the fields bore velvety pollen from flower to flower, moving lazily on shimmering, gossamer wings. A meadow-lark rose from a distant clover field, dropping exquisite, silvery notes as he flew. The scent of green fields and honeysuckles came in at the open window, mingled inextricably with the croon of the bees, but Miss Mehitable knew only that it was Summer, that the world was young, but she was old and alone and would be alone for the rest of her life.
She leaned forward to look at the picture, and Anthony Dexter smiled back at her, boyish, frank, eager, lovable. A tear dropped on the pictured face--not the first one, for the photograph was blistered oddly here and there.
"I've done all I could," said Miss Mehitable to herself, as she wrapped it up again in its many yellowed folds of muslin. "I thought Minty would be happier so, but maybe, after all, God knows best."
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