Uncle Bradburn took down a volume of the new Cyclopædia, and placed it on the stand beside him. He did not, however, open it immediately, but sat absorbed in thought. At length he spoke:—"Don't you think a young girl in the kitchen, to help Dorothy, would save a good many steps?"
"I don't know," replied Aunt Janet, slowly. "Dorothy has a great deal to do already. Hepsy is as good and considerate as possible, but Dorothy won't let her do anything hardly. Hepsy says herself that within doors she has only dusted furniture and mended stockings ever since she came."
"Can't you find sewing for Hepsy?"
"She ought not to do much of that, you know."
"Very true; but then this girl,—she will have to go to the poor-house if we don't take her. She has been living with Mrs. Kittredge at the Hollow; but Mrs. Kittredge has made up her mind not to keep her any longer. The fact is, nobody will keep her unless we do; and she is terribly set against going back to the poor-house."
"Who is she?" asked Aunt Janet, a little hurriedly. She guessed already.
"Her name is Rhoda Breck. You have heard of her."
"Heard of her! I should think so!"
"If I were you, Oliver," said grandmother, who sat in her rocking-chair knitting, "I would have two or three new rooms finished off over the wood-shed, and then you could accommodate a few more of that sort. Just like you!"
And she took a pinch of snuff from a little silver-lidded box made of a sea-shell. She took it precipitately,—a sign that she was slightly disturbed. This snuff-box, however, was a safety-valve.
Uncle Bradburn smiled quietly and made no reply.
"We will leave it to Dorothy," said Aunt Janet. "It is only fair, for she will have all the trouble."
Uncle Bradburn regarded the point as gained: he was sure of Dorothy. But he added by way of clincher, "Probably the girl never knew a month of kind treatment in her life, and one would like her to have a chance of seeing what it is. Just imagine a child of fifteen subjected to the veriest vixen in the country. There is some excuse for old Mrs. Kittredge, too, exasperated as she is by disease. No wonder if she is not very amiable; but that makes it none the less hard for the child."
So the upshot of the matter was, that Rhoda Breck was installed nominal aid to Dorothy.
Uncle brought her the next day in his sulky,—a slight little creature, with a bundle as large as herself.
Presently she appeared at the sitting-room door. She was scarcely taller than a well-grown ten-years child. She wore a dress of gay-hued print, a bright shawl whose fringe reached lower than the edge of her skirt, and on her head an old-world straw bonnet decorated with a mat of crushed artificial flowers, and a faded, crumpled green veil. The small head had a way of moving in quick little jerks, like a chicken's; and it was odd to see how the enormous bonnet moved and jerked in unison. The face and features were small, except the eyes, which were large and wide open, and blue as turquoise.
She took time to look well around the room before she spoke:—"Well, I'm come; I suppose you've been expecting of me. See here, be I going to sleep with that colored woman?"
It was not possible to know from her manner to whom the query was addressed; but Aunt Janet replied, "No, Rhoda, there is a room for you. We never ask Dorothy to share her room with any one." Then, turning to me, "Go and show Rhoda her room, my dear."
I rose to obey. Rhoda surveyed me, as if taking an inventory of the particulars which made up my exterior; and when I in turn felt my eyes attracted by her somewhat singular aspect, she remarked, in an indescribably authoritative tone, "Don't gawp! I hate to be gawped at."
"See what a pretty room Dorothy has got ready for you," said I,—"a chest of drawers in it, too; and there's a little closet. I am sure you will like your room."
"No, you ain't sure neither," she replied. "Nobody can't tell till they've tried. Likely yourn has got a carpet all over it. Hain't it, now?"
"It has a straw matting," I answered.
"And it's bigger'n this, I'll bet Ain't it, now?"
"It is larger; but Louise and I have it together," said I.
"Yes, I've heard tell about her," said Rhoda. "Well, you see you and her ain't town-poor. If you was town-poor you'd have to put up with everything,—little room, and straw bed, and old clothes, and everything. I expect I'll have to take your old gowns; hain't you got any? Say, now."
"Yes," I said, "but I wear them myself. Surely, that you have on is not old."
"Well, that's because I picked berries enough to buy it with. My bundle there's all old duds, though. It takes me half my time to patch 'em. You'd pitch 'em into the rag-bag. Wouldn't you, now?"
"I have not seen them, you know," I replied.
"More you hain't, nor you ain't agoing to. I hate folks peeking over my things."
"Well," said I, "you may be sure I shall never do it. I must go back to my work now."
"O, you feel above looking at town-poor's things, don't you? Wait till I've showed you my new apron. I didn't ride in it for fear I'd dust it. It's real gay, ain't it, now?"
"Yes," said I; "it looks like a piece of a tulip-bed. But I must really go. I hope you will like your room."
When I went back into the sitting-room, grandmother was wiping her eyes. She had been laughing till she cried at the new help Uncle Oliver had brought into the house.
"No matter, though," she was saying; "let him call them help if he likes. If Dorothy will put up with it, I am sure we ourselves may. He says Hepsy more than pays her way in eggs and chickens. Just as if he thought about the eggs and chickens! Of course, if persons are really in need, it always pays to help them; and I guess Oliver has about as much capital invested that way as any one I know of, and I'm glad of it. But it's his funny way of doing it; it's all help, you see." And she laughed again till the tears came.
In half an hour, during which time grandmother had a nap in her chair and Aunt Janet read, the little apparition stood in the doorway again. She had doffed the huge bonnet; and in her lint-white locks, drawn back from her forehead so straight and tight that it seemed as if that were what made her eyes open so round, she wore a tall horn comb. Around her neck, and standing well out, was a broad frill of the same material as her dress, highly suggestive of Queen Elizabeth.
"You hain't got any old things, coats and trousers and such, all worn out, have you? 'Cause if you have, I guess I'll begin a braided rug. When folks are poor, they've got to work, if they know what's good for 'em."
"They'd better work, if they know what's good for 'em, whether they're poor or not," said grandmother.
"There's a pedler going to bring me a diamond ring when I get a dollar to pay him for it."
This remark was elicited by a fiery spark on grandmother's finger.
"You had better save your money for something you need more," said grandmother.
"You didn't think so when you bought yourn, did you, now?" said Rhoda.
Meantime Aunt Janet had experienced a sense of relief at Rhoda's suggestion, by reason of finding herself really at a loss how to employ her. So they twain proceeded at once to the garret; whence they presently returned, Rhoda bearing her arms full of worn-out garments which had been accumulating in view of the possible beggar whose visits in that part of New England are inconveniently rare.
"Those braided rugs are very comfortable things under one's feet in winter," said grandmother. "They're homely as a stump fence, but that is no matter."
"I hardly knew what you would do with her while we were away," said Aunt Janet. "But it would kill the child to sit steadily at that. There's one thing, though,—strawberries will soon be ripe, and she can go and pick them. You may tell her, Kate, that I will pay her for them by the quart, just as any one else does. That will please and encourage her, I think."
I told her that evening.
"No, you don't," was her answer. "Nobody don't pay me twice over. I ain't an old skinflint, if I be town-poor. But I'll keep you in strawberries, though. Never you fear."
I quite liked that of her, and so did grandmother and Aunt Janet when I told them.
Uncle and Aunt Bradburn were going to make their yearly visit at Exeter, where uncle's relatives live. The very day of their departure brought a letter announcing a visit from one of Aunt Janet's cousins, a Miss Lucretia Stackpole. She was a lady who avowed herself fortunate in having escaped all those trammels which hinder people from following their own bent. One of her fancies was for a nomadic life; and in pursuance of this, she bestowed on Aunt Janet occasional visits, varying in duration from two or three days to as many weeks. The letter implied that she might arrive in the evening train, and we waited tea for her.
She did not disappoint us; and during the tea-drinking she gave us sketches, not only of all the little celebrities she had met at Saratoga, but of all the new fashions in dresses, bonnets, and jewelry, besides many of her own plans.
It was impossible for her to remain beyond the week, she said, because she had promised to meet her friends General and Mrs. Perkinpine in Burlington in time to accompany them to Montreal and Quebec, whence they must hurry back to Saratoga for a week, and go thence to Baltimore; then, after returning for a few days to New York, they were to go to Europe.
"But you don't mean to go with them to Europe, Lucretia?" said grandmother.
"O, of course, Aunt Margaret," for so she called her,—"of course I intend to go. We mean to be gone a year, and half the time we shall spend in Paris. We shall go to Rome, and we shall spend a few weeks in England."
"I cannot imagine what you will do with six months in Paris,—you who don't know five words of French."
"I studied it, however, at boarding-school," said Miss Stackpole; "I read both Télémaque and the New Testament in French."
"Did you?" said grandmother; "well, every little helps."
"I think I should dearly love to go myself," said Louise.
"One picks up the language," said Miss Stackpole; "and certainly nothing is more improving than travel."
"If improvement is your motive, it is certainly a very laudable one," said grandmother. "But I should suppose that at your age you would begin to prefer a little quiet to all this rushing about. But every one to his liking."
Now it is undeniable that grandmother and Miss Stackpole never did get on very well together; so it was rather a relief to Louise and myself when Miss Stackpole, pleading fatigue from her ride, expressed a wish to go to bed early, and get a good long, refreshing night's sleep, the facilities for which, she averred, were the only compensating circumstance of country life.
Immediately afterwards, grandmother called Louise and myself into her room, to say what a pity it was that this visit had not occurred either a few weeks earlier or a few weeks later, when uncle and aunt would have been at home; but that, as it was, we must make the best of it, and do all in our power to make things go pleasantly for Miss Stackpole. It was true, she said, that Lucretia was not so very many years younger than herself, and, for her part, she thought pearl-powder and rouge and dyed hair, and all such trash, made people look old and silly, instead of young and handsome. It did sometimes try her patience a little; but she hoped she should remember, and so must we, that it was a Christian duty to treat people hospitably in one's own home, and that it was enjoined upon us to live peaceably, if possible, with all men, as much as lieth in us. Lucretia's being a goose made no difference in the principle.
So we planned that we would take her up to Haverhill, and down to Cornish, and over to Woodstock,—all places to which she liked to go. And Dorothy came in to ask if she had better broil or fricassee the chickens for breakfast, and to say that there was a whole basketful of Guinea-hens' eggs, and that she had just set some waffles and sally-lunns a-sponging. She was determined to do her part, she said: she should be mighty glad to help get that skinchy-scrimpy look out of Miss Lucretia's face, just like a sour raisin.
Grandmother said every one must do the best she could.
There was one topic which Miss Stackpole could never let alone, and which always led to a little sparring between herself and grandmother. So the next morning, directly after breakfast, she began,—"Aunt Margaret, I never see that ring on your finger without wanting it."
"I know it," grandmother responded; "and you're likely to want it. It's little like you'll ever get it."
"Now, Aunt Margaret! you always could say the drollest things. But, upon my word, I should prize it above everything. What in all the world makes you care to wear such a ring as that, at your age, is more than I can imagine. If you gave it to me, I promise you I would never part with it as long as I live."
"And I promise you, Lucretia, that I never will. And let me tell you, that, old as I am, you are the only one who has ever seemed in a hurry for me to have done with my possessions. If it will ease your mind any, I can assure you, once for all, that this ring will never come into your hands as long as you live. It has been in the family five generations, and has always gone to the eldest daughter; and, depend upon it, I shall not be the first to infringe the custom. So now I hope you will leave me in peace."
Miss Stackpole held up her hands, and exclaimed and protested. When she was alone with Louise and me, she said she could plainly see that grandmother grew broken and childish.
When we saw grandmother alone, she said she was sorry she had been so warm with Lucretia; she feared it was not quite Christian; besides, though you brayed a fool in a mortar with a pestle, yet would not his foolishness depart from him.
The visiting career, so desirable for various reasons, was entered upon immediately. To Bethel, being rather too far for going and returning the same day, only Miss Stackpole and Louise went. They rode in the carryall, Louise driving. Though quite needlessly, Miss Stackpole was a little afraid of trusting herself to Louise's skill, and begged Will Bright, uncle's gardener, to leave his work, just for a day, and go with them. But there were a dozen things, said Will, which needed immediate doing, so that was out of the question. Then it came out that a run-away horse was not the only danger. In the country there are so many lurking-places, particularly in going through woods, whence a robber might pounce upon you all of a sudden and demand your life, or your portemonnaie, or your watch, or your rings, or something, that Miss Stackpole thought unprotected women, out on a drive, were on the whole forlorn creatures. But in our neighborhood a highwayman was a myth,—we had hardly ever even heard of one; and so, after no end of misgivings lest one or another lion in the way should after all compel the relinquishment of the excursion, literally at the eleventh hour they were fairly on their way.
A room with a low, pleasant window looking out on the garden was the one assigned to Rhoda. In the garret she had discovered a little old rocking-chair, and this, transferred to her room, and placed near the window, was her favorite seat. Here, whenever one walked in the back garden, which was pretty much thickets of lilacs, great white rose-bushes, beds of pinks and southern-wood, and rows of currant-bushes, might be heard Rhoda's voice crooning an old song. It was rather a sweet voice, too. I wondered where she could have collected so many old airs. She said she supposed she caught them of Miss Reeney, out at the poor-house.
When one saw Rhoda working away with unremitting assiduity, day after day, it was difficult to yield credence to all the stories that had been current in regard to her violence of temper and general viciousness. That was hard work, too, which she was doing; at least it looked hard for such little bits of hands. First, cutting with those great heavy shears through the thick, stiff cloth; next, the braiding; and finally, the sewing together with the huge needle, and coarse, waxed thread.
One afternoon I had been looking at her a little while, and, as what uncle said about her having never had fair play came into my mind, I felt a strong compulsion to do her some kindness, however trifling; so I gathered a few flowers, fragrant and bright, and took them to her window.
"Rhoda," said I, "shouldn't you like these on your bureau? They will look pretty there; and only smell how sweet they are. You may have the vase for your own, if you like."
She took it without a word, looked at it a moment, glancing at me to make sure she understood, and then rose and placed it on the bureau, where it showed double, reflected from the looking-glass. She did not again turn her face towards me till she had spent a brief space in close communion with a minute handkerchief which she had drawn from her pocket. Clearly, here was one not much wonted to little kindnesses, and not insensible to them either.
The visit to Bethel had resulted so well, that Woodstock and Cornish were unhesitatingly undertaken. Nor was it misplaced confidence on Miss Stackpole's part. With the slight drawback of having forgotten the whip on the return from Woodstock, not the shadow of an accident occurred. Nor was this oversight of much account, only that Tim Linkinwater, the horse, whose self-will had increased with his years, soon made the discovery that he for the nonce held the reins of power; and when they reached Roaring Brook, instead of proceeding decorously across the bridge, he persisted in descending a somewhat steep bank and fording the stream. Half-way across, he found the coolness of the water so agreeable that he decided to enjoy it ad libitum. No expostulations nor chirrupings nor cluckings availed aught. He felt himself master of the occasion, and would not budge an inch. He looked up stream and down stream, and now and then sent a sly glance back at Miss Stackpole and Louise, and now and then splashed the water with his hoofs against the pebbles. Miss Stackpole's distress became intense. It began to be a moot point whether they might not be forced to pass the night there, in the middle of Roaring Brook. By great good fortune, at this juncture came along in his sulky Dr. Butterfield of Meriden. To him Louise appealed for aid, and he gave her his own whip, reaching it down to her from the bridge. Tim Linkinwater, perfectly comprehending the drift of events, did not wait for the logic of the lash, which, nevertheless, Miss Stackpole declared that he richly deserved, and which she would fain have seen administered, only for the probability that his homeward pace might be thereby perilously accelerated.
That night we all went unusually early to bed and to sleep. I remember looking from the window after the light was out, and seeing, through a rift in the clouds, the new moon just touching the peak of the opposite mountain. A whippoorwill sang in the great chestnut-tree at the farther corner of the yard; tree-toads trilled, and frogs peeped, and through all could just be heard the rapids up the river.
We were wakened at midnight by very different sounds,—a clattering, crushing noise, like something failing down stairs, with outcries fit to waken the seven sleepers. You would believe it impossible that they all proceeded from one voice; but they did, and that Rhoda's. We were wide awake and up immediately; and as the screams ceased, we distinctly heard some one running rapidly down the walk. As soon as we could get lights, we found ourselves congregated in the upper front hall; and Rhoda, when she had recovered breath to speak, told her story.
She did not know what awoke her; but she heard what sounded like carefully raising a window, and some one stepping softly around the house. At first she supposed it might be one of the family; but, the sounds continuing, it came into her head to get up and see what they were. So she came, barefooted as she was, up the back way, and was just going down the front stairs, when a gleam of light shone on the ceiling above her. She moved to a position whence she could look over the balusters, and saw that the light came from a shaded lantern, carried by a man who moved so stealthily that only the creaking of the boards betrayed his footsteps. At the foot of the stairs he paused a moment, looking around, apparently hesitating which way to go. He decided to ascend; and then Rhoda, bravely determined to do battle, seized a rocking-chair which stood near, and threw it downward with all her force, lifting up her voice at the same time to give the alarm.
Whether the man were hurt or not, it is certain that he was not so disabled as to impede his flight, and that he had lost his lantern, for that lay on the floor at the foot of the staircase; so did the rocking-chair, broken all to pieces.
When we came to go over the house, it had been thoroughly ransacked. Every bit of silver, from the old-fashioned tea-pot and coffee-pot and the great flat porringer which Grandmother Graham's mother had brought over from Scotland to the cup which had belonged to the baby that died twenty years ago, and which Aunt Janet loved for his sake, the spoons, forks, all were collected in a large basket, with a quantity of linen and some articles of clothing.
If the thief had been content with these, he might probably have secured them, for he had already placed them on a table just beneath an open window; but, hoping to gain additional booty, he lost and we saved it all,—-or rather Rhoda saved it for us. We were extremely glad, for it would have been a great mischance losing those things, apart from the shame, as grandmother said, of keeping house so poorly while uncle and aunt were away.
Will Bright thought, from Rhoda's account, that the man might be Luke Potter; for Luke lived nobody knew how, and he had recently returned from a two years' absence, strongly suspected to have been a resident in a New York State-prison. His family occupied a little brown house, half a mile up the road to uncle's wood-lot.
So Will went up there the next day, pretending he wanted Luke to come and help about some mowing that was in hand. Luke's wife said that her husband had not been out of bed for two days, with a hurt he got on the cars the Saturday before. Then Will offered to go in and see if he could not do something for him; but Mrs. Potter said that he was asleep, and, having had a wakeful night, she guessed he had better not be disturbed.
Will felt sure of his man, and, knowing Potter's reckless audacity, made extensive preparations for defence. He brought down from the garret a rusty old gun and a powder-horn, hunted up the bullet-moulds, and run ever so many little leaden balls before he discovered that they did not fit the gun; but that, as he said, was of no consequence, because there would be just as much noise, and it was not likely that any thief would stay to be shot at twice.
So, notwithstanding our great fright, we grew to feel tolerably secure; but we took good care to fasten the windows, and to set in a safer place the articles which had so nearly been lost. Moreover, Will Bright was moved into a little room at the head of the back stairs.
It was to be thought that Miss Stackpole would be completely overcome by this midnight adventure; but she averred that, contrariwise, it had the effect to rouse every atom of energy and spirit which she possessed. She had waited only to slip on a double-gown, and, seizing the first article fit for offensive service, which proved to be a feather duster, she hurried to the scene of action. She said afterwards, that she had felt equal to knocking down ten men, if they had come within her range. I remember myself that she did look rather formidable. Her double-gown was red and yellow; and her hair, wound up in little horn-shaped papillotes, imparted to her face quite a bristly and fierce expression.
Evidently, Rhoda was much exalted in Will Bright's esteem from that eventful night.
"She's clear grit," said Will. "Who 'd have thought the little thing had so much spunk in her? I declare I don't believe there's another one in the house that would have done what she did."
The next forenoon, while Louise and I were sewing in grandmother's room, Miss Stackpole came hurriedly in, looking quite excited.
"Aunt Margaret,—girls," said she, "do you know that, after all, you've got a thief in the house? for you certainly have."
"Lucretia," said grandmother, "explain yourself; what do you mean now?"
"Why, I mean exactly what I said; there's no doubt that somebody in the house is dishonest. I know it; I've lost a valuable pin."
"How valuable?" said grandmother, smiling,—"a diamond one?"
"You need not laugh, Aunt Margaret; it is one of these new pink coral pins, and very expensive indeed. I shall make a stir about it, I can tell you. A pity if I can't come here for a few days without having half my things stolen!"
"And whom do you suspect of taking it?" said grandmother, coolly.
"How do I know? I don't think Dorothy would touch anything that was not her own."
"You don't?" said grandmother, firing up. "I am glad you see fit to make one exception in the charge you bring against the household."
"O, very well. I suppose you think I ought to let it all go, and never open my lips about it. But that is not my way."
"No, it is not," said grandmother.
"If it were my own pin, I shouldn't care so much; but it is not. It belongs to Mrs. Perkinpine."
"And you borrowed it? borrowed jewelry? Well done, Lucretia! I would not have believed it of you. I call that folly and meanness."
"No," said Miss Stackpole, "I shall certainly replace it; I shall have to, if I don't find it. But I will find it. I'll tell you: that girl that dusts my room, Hepsy you call her, I'll be bound that she has it. Not that she would know its value; but she would think it a pretty thing to wear. Now, Aunt Margaret, don't you really think yourself it looks—"
"Lucretia Stackpole," interrupted grandmother, "if you care to know what I really think myself, I will tell you. Since you have lost the pin, and care so much about it, I am sorry. You can well enough afford to replace it, though. But if you want to make everybody in the neighborhood dislike and despise you, just accuse Hepsy of taking your trinkets. She was born and bred here, close by us, and we think we know her. For my part, I would trust her with gold uncounted. Everybody will think, and I think too, that it is far more likely you have lost or mislaid it than that any one here has stolen it."
Miss Stackpole had already opened her lips to reply; but what she would have said will never be known, for she was interrupted again,—this time by a terrible noise, as if half the house had fallen, and then piteous cries. The sounds came from the wood-shed, and thither we all hastened, fully expecting to find some one buried under a fallen wood-pile. It was not quite that, but there lay Rhoda, with her foot bent under her, writhing and moaning in extreme pain.
We were every one assembled there, grandmother, Miss Stackpole, Louise, and I, and Hepsy, Dorothy, and Will Bright. Dorothy would have lifted and carried her in, but Rhoda would not allow it. Will Bright did not wait to be allowed, but took her up at once, more gently and carefully than one would have thought, and deposited her in her own room. Then, at grandmother's suggestion, he set off directly on horseback for Dr. Butterfield, whom fortunately he encountered on the way.
The doctor soon satisfied himself that the extent of the poor girl's injuries was a bad sprain,—enough, certainly, but less than we had feared.
It would be weeks before she would be able to walk, and meantime perfect quiet was strictly enforced. Hepsy volunteered her services as nurse, and discharged faithfully her assumed duties. But Rhoda grew restless and feverish, and finally became so much worse that we began seriously to fear lest she had received some internal injury.
One afternoon I was sitting with her when the doctor came. He spoke cheeringly, as usual; but when I went to the door with him, he said the child had some mental trouble, the disposal of which would be more effective than all his medicines, and that I must endeavor to ascertain and remove it.
Without much difficulty I succeeded. She was haunted with the fear, that, in her present useless condition, she would be sent away. I convinced her that no one would do this during the absence of Uncle and Aunt Bradburn, and that before their return she would probably be able to resume her work.
"I know I'll sleep real good to-night," said Rhoda. "You see I'm awful tired of going round so from one place to another. It's just been from pillar to post ever since I can remember."
"Well," said I, "you may be sure that you will never be sent away from this house for sickness nor for accident. So now set your poor little heart at rest about it."
The blue eyes looked at me with an expression different from any I had seen in them before. They were soft, pretty eyes, too, now that the hair was suffered to lie around the face, instead of being stretched back as tightly as possible. One good result had come from the wood-shed catastrophe: the high comb had been shattered into irretrievable fragments. I inly determined that none like it should ever take its place.
Since Miss Stackpole said it was impossible for her to remain till the return of Uncle and Aunt Bradburn, I cannot say that, under the circumstances, we particularly desired her to prolong her visit. It may be that grandmother had too little patience with her; certainly they two were not congenial spirits. However, by means of taking her to see every relative we had in the vicinity, we disposed of the time very satisfactorily. She remained a few days longer than she had intended, so that Dorothy, who is unapproachable in ironing, might do up her muslin dresses.
"I have changed my mind about Hepsy," said she the night before she left. "I think now it is Rhoda."
"What is Rhoda?" asked grandmother.
"That has taken the coral pin."
Grandmother compressed her lips, but her eyes spoke volumes.
"Miss Stackpole," said I, "it is true that Rhoda has not been here long; still, I have a perfect conviction of her honesty."
"Very amiable and generous of you to feel so, Kate," said Miss Stackpole; "perhaps a few years ago, when I was of your age, I should have thought just the same."
"Kate is twenty next September," said grandmother, who could refrain no longer. "I never forget anybody's age. It is quite possible that she will change in the course of twenty-five or thirty years."
We all knew this to be throwing down the gauntlet. Miss Stackpole did not, however, take it up. She said she intended to lay the circumstances, exactly as they were, before Mrs. Perkinpine; and if that lady would allow her, she should pay for the pin. She thought, though, it might be her duty to talk with Rhoda; perhaps, even at the eleventh hour, the girl might be induced to give it up.
"I will take it upon me, Lucretia," said grandmother, "to object to your talking with Rhoda. Even if we have not among us penetration enough to see that she is honest as daylight, it does not follow that we should be excusable in doing anything to make that forlorn orphan child less happy than she is now. You visit about a great deal, Lucretia. I hope, for the sake of all your friends, that you don't everywhere scatter your suspicions broadcast as you have done here. I am older than you, as you will admit, and I have never known any good come of unjust accusations."
After Miss Stackpole went up stairs that night, she folded the black silk dress she had been wearing to lay it in her trunk; and in doing that, she found the missing pin on the inside of the waist-lining, just where she had put it herself. Then she remembered having stuck it there one morning in a hurry, to prevent any one being tempted with seeing it lie around.
And Rhoda never knew what an escape she had.
"I do wish there was something for me to do," said Rhoda; "I never was used to lying abed doing nothing. It most tuckers me out."
"Cannot you read, Rhoda?" I asked.
"Yes, I can read some. I can't read words, but I can tell some of the letters."
"Have you never gone to school?"
"No; I always had to work. Poor folks have got to work, you know."
"Yes, but that need not prevent your learning to read. I can teach you myself; I will, if you like."
"I guess your aunt won't calculate to get me to work for her, and then have me spend my time learning to read. First you know, she'll send me off."
"She will like it perfectly well. Grandmother is in authority here now; I will go and ask her." This I knew would seem to her decisive.
"What did she say?" said Rhoda, rather eagerly, when I returned.
"She says yes, by all means; and that if you learn to read before aunt comes home, you shall have a new dress, and I may choose it for you."
Now it was no sinecure, teaching Rhoda, but she won the dress,—a lilac print, delicate and pretty enough for any one. I undertook to make the dress, but she accomplished a good part of it herself. She said Miss Reeny used to show her about sewing. Whatever was to be done with hands she learned with surprising quickness. Grandmother suggested that the reading lessons should be followed by a course in writing. Before the lameness was well over, Rhoda could write, slowly indeed, yet legibly.
I carried her some roses one evening. While putting them in water, I asked what flowers she liked best.
"I like sweetbriers best," said she. "I think sweetbriers are handsome in the graveyard. I set out one over Jinny Collins's grave. For what I know, it is growing now."
"Who was Jinny Collins, Rhoda?"
"A girl that used to live over at the poor-house when I did. She was bound out to the Widow Whitmarsh, the spring that I went to live with Mrs. Amos Kemp. Jinny used to have sick spells, and Mrs. Whitmarsh wanted to send her back to the poor-house, but folks said she couldn't, because she'd had her bound. She and Mrs. Kemp was neighbors; and after Jinny got so as to need somebody with her nights, Mrs. Kemp used to let me go and sleep with her, and then she could wake me up if she wanted anything. I wanted to go, and Jinny wanted to have me come; she used to say it did her lots of good. Sometimes we'd pretend we was rich, and was in a great big room with curtains to the windows. We didn't have any candle burning,—Mrs. Whitmarsh said there wa'n't no need of one, and more there wa'n't. One night we said we'd take a ride to-morrow or next day. We pretended we'd got a father, and he was real rich, and had got a horse and wagon. Jinny said we'd go to the store and buy us a new white gown,—she always wanted a white gown. By and by she said she was real sleepy; she didn't have no bad coughing-spell that night, such as she most always did. She asked me if I didn't smell the clover-blows, how sweet they was; and then she talked about white lilies, and how she liked 'em most of anything, without it was sweetbriers. Then she asked me if I knew what palms was; and she said when she was dead she wanted me to have her little pink chany box that Miss Maria Elliot give her once, when she bought some blueberries of her. So then she dozed a little while; and I don't know why, but I couldn't get asleep for a good while, for all I'd worked real hard that day. I guess 'twas as much as an hour she laid kind of still; she never did sleep real sound, so but what she moaned and talked broken now and then. So by and by she give a start, and says she, 'I'm all ready.' 'Ready for what, Jinny,' says I. But she didn't seem to know as I was talking to her. Says she, 'I'm all ready. I've got on a white gown and a palm in my hand.' So then I knew she was wandering like, as I'd heard say folks did when they was very sick; for she hadn't any gown at all on, without you might call Mrs. Whitmarsh's old faded calico sack one, nor nothing in her hand neither. So pretty soon she dropped to sleep again, and I did too. And I slept later 'n common. The sun was shining right into my eyes when I opened 'em. I thought 't would trouble Jinny, and I was just going to pin her skirt up to the window, and I see that she looked awful white. I put my hand on her forehead, and it was just as cold as a stone. So then I knew she was dead. I never see her look so happy like. She had the pleasantest smile on her lips ever you see. I didn't know as Mrs. Kemp'd like to have me stay, but I just brushed her hair,—'t was real pretty hair, just a little mite curly,—and then I run home and told Mrs. Kemp. She said she'd just as lives I'd stay over to Mrs. Whitmarsh's as not that day, 'cause she was going over to Woodstock shopping. So I went back again, and Mrs. Whitmarsh she sent me to one of the selectmen to see if she'd got to be to the expense of the funeral, 'cause she said it didn't seem right, seeing she never got much work out of Jinny, she was always so weakly. And Mr. Robbins he said the town would pay for the coffin and digging the grave. That made her real pleasant; and I don't know what put me up to it, but I was real set on it that Jinny should have on a white gown in the coffin. And I asked Mrs. Whitmarsh if I mightn't go over to Miss Bradford's; and she let me, and Miss Bradford give me an old white gown, if I'd iron it; and Polly Wheelock, she was Miss Bradford's girl, she helped me put it on to Jinny. And then Polly got some white lilies, and I got some sweetbrier sprigs, and laid round her in the coffin. I've seen prettier coffins, but I never see no face look so pretty as Jinny's. Mrs. Whitmarsh had the funeral next morning. She said she wanted to that night, so she could put the room airing, but she supposed folks would talk, and, besides, they didn't get the grave dug quick enough neither. Mrs. Kemp let me go to the funeral. I thought they was going to carry her over to the poor-house burying-ground, but they didn't, 'cause 't would cost so much for a horse and wagon. The right minister was gone away, and the one that was there was going off in the cars, so he had to hurry. There wa'n't hardly anybody there, only some men to let the coffin down, and the sexton, and Mrs. Whitmarsh and Polly Wheelock and I. The minister prayed a little speck of a prayer and went right away. I heard Mrs. Whitmarsh telling Mrs. Kemp she thought she'd got out of it pretty well, seeing she didn't expect nothing but what she'd got to buy the coffin, and get the grave dug, and be to all the expense. She said she guessed nobody'd catch her having another girl bound out to her. Mrs. Kemp said she always knew 't was a great risk, and that was why she didn't have me bound.
"That summer, when berries was ripe, Mrs. Kemp let me go and pick 'em and carry 'em round to sell; and she said I might have a cent for every quart I sold. I got over three dollars that summer for myself."
"What did you do with it?"
"I bought some shoes, and some yarn to knit me some stockings. I can knit real good."
"How came you to leave Mrs. Kemp."
"Partly 't was 'cause she didn't like my not buying her old green shawl with my share of the money for the berries; and partly 'cause I got cold, and it settled in my feet so's I couldn't hardly go round. So she told me she'd concluded to have me go back to the poor-house. If she kept a girl, she said, she wanted one to wait on her, and not to be waited on. She waited two or three days to see if I didn't get better, so as I could walk over there; but I didn't. And one day it had been raining, but it held up awhile, and she see a neighbor riding by, and she run out and asked him if he couldn't carry me over to the poor-house. He said he could if she wanted him to; so I went. I had on my cape, and it wa'n't very warm. She asked me when I come away, if I wa'n't sorry I hadn't a shawl. I expect I did catch cold. I couldn't set up nor do nothing for more 'n three weeks. When I got so I could knit, my yarn was gone. I never knew what become of it; and one of the women used to borrow my shoes for her little girl, and she wore 'em out So, come spring, I was just where I was the year before, only lonesomer, cause Jinny was gone."
"And did you stay there?"
"To the poor-house? No; Betty Crosfield wanted a girl to come and help her. She took in washing for Mr. Furniss's hands. She said I wa'n't strong enough to earn much, but she would pay me in clothes. She give me a Shaker bonnet and an old gown that the soap had took the color out of, and she made a tack in it, so's it did. And I had my cape. When strawberries come, the hands was most all gone, and she let me sleep there, and go day-times after berries, and she to have half the pay. That's how I got my red calico and my shawl."
"Who made your dress, Rhoda?"
"Miss Reeny, I carried it over to see if she'd cut it out, and she said she'd make it if they'd let her, and they did. And I got her some green tea. She used to say sometimes, she'd give anything for a cup of green tea, such as her mother used to have."
"Who is Miss Reeny?"
"A woman that lives over there. Her father used to be a doctor; but he died, and she was sickly and didn't know as she had any relations, and by and by she had to go there. They say over there she ain't in her right mind, but I don't know. She was always good to me. There was an old chair with a cushion in it, and Miss Reeny wanted it to sit in, 'cause her back was lame; but old Mrs. Fitts wanted it too, and they used to spat it. So Miss Holbrook come there one day to see the place, and somebody told her about the cushioned chair, and, if you'll believe it, the very next day there was one come over as good again, with arms to it, and a cushion, and all. Miss Holbrook sent it over to Miss Reeny. None of 'em couldn't take it away."
"And is she there now?"
"Yes, she can't go nowhere else. One night Betty Crosfield said I needn't come there no more; she was going to take a boarder. Berry-time was most over, so then I got a place to Miss Stoney's, the milliner. She agreed to give me twenty-five cents a week, and I thought to be sure I should get back my shoes and yarn now. But one morning the teapot was cracked, and she asked me, and I said I didn't do it,—and I didn't; but she said she knew I did, because there wasn't nobody but her and me that touched it, and she should keep my wages till they come to a dollar and a half, because that was what a new one would cost. Before the teapot was paid for I did break a glass dish. I didn't know 't would hurt it to put it in hot water; and everything else that was broke, she thought I broke it, and she kept it out of my wages. I told her I didn't see as she ought to; and in the fall she said she couldn't put up with my sauce and my breaking no longer. Mrs. Kittredge wanted a girl, and I went there."
"And how did you find it there?"
"I think it was about the hardest place of all. I'd as lives go back to the poor-house as to stay there. Sally Kittredge used to tell things that wa'n't true about me. She told one day that I pushed her down. I never touched my hand to her. But Mrs. Kittredge got a raw hide up stairs and give it to me awful. I shouldn't wonder if it showed now; just look."
She undid the fastening of her dress and slipped off the waist for me to see. The little back—she was very small—was all discolored with stripes, purple, green, and yellow. After showing me these bruises, she quietly fastened her dress again.
Now there was that in Rhoda's manner during this narration which wrought in my mind entire conviction of its verity. By the time of Uncle and Aunt Bradburn's return, she was growing in favor with every one in the house. She was gentle, patient, and grateful.
The deftness with which she used those small fingers suggested to me the idea of teaching her some of the more delicate kinds of fancy-work. But it seemed that she required no teaching. An opportunity given of looking on while one was embroidering, crocheting, or making tatting, and the process was her own. Native tact imparted to her at once the skill which others attain only by long practice. As for her fine sewing, it was exquisite; and in looking at it, one half regretted the advent of the sewing-machine.
The fall days grew short; the winter came and went; and in the course of it, besides doing everything that was required of her in the household, keeping up the reading and writing, and satisfactory progress in arithmetic, Rhoda had completed, at my suggestion, ten of those little tatting collars, made of fine thread, and rivalling in delicate beauty the loveliest fabrics of lace.
Because a project was on foot for Rhoda. A friend of mine going to Boston took charge of the little package of collars, and the result was that the proprietor of a fancy-store there engaged to receive all of them that might be manufactured, at the price of three dollars each. When my friend returned, she brought me, as the avails of her commission, the sum of thirty dollars.
But here arose an unexpected obstacle. It was difficult to convince Rhoda that the amount, which seemed to her immense, was of right her own. She comprehended it, however, at last; and thenceforth her skill in this and other departments of fancy-work obtained for her constant and remunerative employment.
It was now a year since Rhoda came to us, and during this time her improvement had been steady and rapid. And since she had come to dress like other girls, no one could say that she was ill-looking; but, as I claimed the merit of effecting this change in her exterior, it may be that I observed it more than any one else. Still, I fancy that some others were not blind.
"Where did you get those swamp-pinks, Rhoda?" for I detected the fine azalia odor before I saw them.
A bright color suffused the childlike face, quite to the roots of the hair. "Will Bright got them when he went after the cows. You may have some if you want them."
"No, thank you; it is a pity to disturb them, they look so pretty just as they are."
Troubles come to everybody. Even Will Bright, though no one had ever known him to be without cheerfulness enough for half a dozen, was not wholly exempt from ills. With all his good sense, which was not a little, Will was severely incredulous of the reputed effects of poison-ivy; and one day, by way of maintaining his position, gathered a spray of it and applied it to his face. He was not long in finding the vine in question an ugly customer. His face assumed the aspect of a horrible mask, and the dimensions of a good-sized water-pail, with nothing left of the eyes but two short, straight marks. For once, Will had to succumb and be well cared for.
In this state of things a letter came to him with a foreign postmark. "I will lay it away in your desk, Will," said uncle, "till you can read it yourself; that will be in a day or two."
"If you don't mind the trouble, sir, I should thank you to open and read it for me. I get no letters that I am unwilling you should see."
It was to the effect that a relative in England had left him a bequest of five hundred pounds, and that the amount would be made payable to his order wherever he should direct.
"You will oblige me, sir, if you will say nothing about this for the present," said Will, when uncle had congratulated him.
"I hope we shall not lose sight of you, Will," said uncle, who really felt a strong liking for the young man, who had served him faithfully three years.
"I hope not, sir," replied Will. "I shall be glad to consult you before I decide what use to make of this windfall. At all events, I don't want to change my quarters for the present."
About the same time, brother Ned, in Oregon, sent me a letter which contained this passage:—
"We are partly indebted for this splendid stroke of business to the help of a townsman of our own; his name is Joseph Breck. He says he ran away from Deacon Handy's, at fifteen years old, because the Deacon would not send him to school as he had agreed. Ask uncle if he remembers Ira Breck, who lived over at Ash Swamp, near the old Ingersol place. He was drowned saving timber in a freshet. He left two children, and this Joseph is the elder. The other was a girl, her name Rhoda, six or eight years younger than Joseph; she must be now, he says, not far from sixteen or seventeen. Joe has had a hard row to hoe, but now that he begins to see daylight he wants to do something for his sister. He is a thoroughly honest and competent fellow, and we are glad enough to get hold of him. He told me the other night such a story as would make your heart ache: at all events it would make you try to ascertain something about his sister before you write next."
I lost no time in seeking Rhoda.
"Yes," said she, in reply to my inquiries, "I did have a brother once. He went off and was lost. I can just remember him. I don't suppose I shall ever see him again. Folks said likely he was drowned."
"Was his name Joseph?"
"It was Joe; father used to call him Joe."
I read to her from Ned's letter what related to her brother.
"I'm most afraid it's a dream," said Rhoda after a brief silence. "Over at the poor-house I used to have such good dreams, and then I'd wake up out of them. After I came here I used to be afraid it was a dream; but I didn't wake out of that. Perhaps I shall see Joe again; who knows?"
From this time a change came over Rhoda. She begged as a privilege to learn to do everything that a woman can do about a house.
"I do declare, Miss Kate," said Dorothy one day, after displaying a grand array of freshly baked loaves, wearing the golden-brown tint that hints at such savory sweetness, "that girl, for a white girl, is going to make a most a splendid cook. I never touched this bread, and just you see! ain't it perfindiculur wonderful?"
Soon after, I found Rhoda, with her dress tidily pinned out of harm's way, standing at a barrel, and poking vigorously with a stick longer than herself.
"What now, Rhoda! what are you doing there?"
"Come here and look at the soap, Miss Kate. I made it every bit myself; ain't it going to be beautiful?"
"Why do you care to do such things, Rhoda?"
"I'll tell you," in a low voice; "perhaps when Joe comes home, some time he'll buy himself a little place and let me keep house for him; then I shall want to know how to do everything."
"Rhoda, I believe you can do everything already."
"No, I can't wring," looking piteously from one little hand to the other. "I can iron cute, but I can't wring. Dorothy says that is one thing I shall have to give up, unless I can make my hands grow. Do you suppose I could?"
"No; you must make Joe buy you a wringer. Can you make butter?"
"O yes, when the churning isn't large. Likely Joe won't keep more than one cow."
I looked at the eager little thing, wondering if her hope would ever be realized. She divined my thought, and glanced at me wistfully. "You think this is a dream; you think I shall wake up.
"No, no," I answered; "I wonder what Joe will think when he sees what a mite of a sister he has. He'll make you stand round, Rhoda, you may be sure of that."
"May be he isn't any larger himself," she responded, with a ready, bright smile.
Brother Ned's next letter brought the welcome tidings that he hoped to come home the ensuing August, and that Joseph Breck would probably come at the same time.
June went, and July. Rhoda grew restless; she was no longer constantly at work; she began to listen nervously for every train of cars. I was glad to believe that the brother for whom she held in readiness such lavish love was deserving of it. She grew prettier every day. The uncouth dress was gone forever, the hideous bonnet burned up, and the gay shawl made over to Miss Reeny, who admired and coveted it. Hepsy herself was not more faultlessly quiet and tasteful in her attire. I was sure that Joe, if he had eyes at all, must be convinced that his sister was worth coming all the way from Oregon to see.
At last, one pleasant afternoon, there was a step in the hall that I recognized; it was Ned's! I reached him first, and felt his dear old arms close fast about me; and then, for Louise's right was stronger than mine, I gave him over to her and the rest. My happiness, though it half blinded me, did not prevent my seeing a pallid little face looking earnestly in from the back hall door. Then Joe had not come! I felt a keen pang for Rhoda.
"Ned," said I, as soon as I could get a word with him, "there is Joe Breck's sister; where is Joe?"
"Where is Joe?" said Ned; "why, there he is."
Sure enough, there above Rhoda's—a good way above—was a dark, fine, manly face, all sun-browned and bearded.—"Rhoda!"—He had stolen a march upon her. She turned and saw him. A swift look of glad surprise, and the brother and sister so long separated had recognized each other. He drew her to him and held her there tenderly as if she were a little child.
So Joe bought "a little place," and I believe he would fain have had his sister Rhoda for its mistress. But then it came out that Will Bright, that sly fellow had been using every bit of persuasion in his power to make her promise that she would keep house for him. Nay, he had won already a conditional promise, the proviso being, of course, Joe's approval. Will's is not a little place, either. With his relative's legacy he purchased the great Wellwood nursery; and so skilled is he in its management that uncle says there is not a more thriving man in the neighborhood. And Rhoda, of whom he is wonderfully proud, is as content a little woman as any in the land. Whenever I go to Uncle Bradburn's,—and few summers pass that I do not,—I make a point of reserving time for a visit to Rhoda. The last time I went, I encountered Will bringing her down stairs in his arms; and she held in her arms, as something too precious to be yielded to another, what proved on inspection to be a tiny, blue-eyed baby. It was comical to see her ready, matronly ways; and it was touching, when you thought of the past, to witness her quiet yet perfect enjoyment.
And I really know of no one in the world more heartily benevolent than she. "You see," she says, "I knew once what it is to need kindness; and now I should be worse than a heathen if I did not help other people when I have a chance."
I suppose Hepsy pitied Joe for his disappointment. In any case, she has done what she could to console him for it. On the whole, it would be difficult to say which is the happier wife, Hepsy or Rhoda.