Two Little Pilgrims' Progress/A step higher
HUMAN BEINGS CAN DO ANYTHING THEY SET THEIR MINDS TO
THEY did not tell each other of the strange and bold thought which had leaped up in their minds that day. Each felt an unwonted shyness about it, perhaps because it had been in each mind, and, hidden though it was, it remained furtively in both.
They went on exactly as they had begun. Each morning Meg went to her drudgery in the dairy, and Robin followed Jones whithersoever duty led. If the older people had imagined they would get tired and give up, they found out their mistake. That they were often tired was true, but that in either there arose once the thought of giving up—never! And they worked hard. The things they did to earn their weekly stipend would have touched the heart of a mother of cared-for children; but on Mrs. Jennings' model farm, people knew how much work a human being could do when necessity drove. They were all driven by necessity, and it was nothing new to know that muscles ached and feet swelled and burned. In fact they knew no one who did not suffer as a rule from these small inconveniences. And these children, with their set little faces and mature intelligence, were somehow so unsuggestive of the weakness and limitations of childhood, that they were often given work which was usually intrusted only to older people. Mrs. Macartney found that Meg never slighted anything, never failed in a task, and never forgot one, so she gave her plenty to do. Scrubbing and scouring that others were glad to shirk fell to her share. She lifted and dragged things about that grown-up girls grumbled over. What she lacked in muscle and size, she made up in the indomitable will-power that made her small face set itself, and her small body become rigid as iron. Her work ended by not confining itself to the dairy, but extended to the house, the kitchen—anywhere where there were tiresome things to be done.
With Robin it was the same story. Jones was not afraid to give him any order. He was of use in all quarters; in the huge fields, in the barn, in the stables, and as a messenger to be trusted to trudge any distance when transport was not available.
They both grew thin but sinewy looking, and their faces had a rather strained look. Their always large, bright eyes seemed to grow bigger, and their little square jaws looked more square every day; but on Saturday nights they each were paid their fifty cents, and climbed to the Straw Parlour and unburied the Treasure, and added to it.
Those Saturday nights were wonderful things. To the end of life they would never forget them. Through all the tired hours of labour they were looked forward to. Then they lay in their nest of straw and talked things over. There it seemed that they could relax and rest their limbs as they could do it nowhere else. Mrs. Jennings was not given to sofas and easy-chairs, and it is not safe to change position often when one has a grown-up bedfellow. But in the straw they could loll at full length, curl up or stretch out just as they pleased, and there they could enlarge upon the one subject that filled their minds and fascinated and enraptured them.
Who could wonder that it was so! The City Beautiful was growing day by day, and the development of its glories was the one thing they heard talked of. Robin had continued his habit of collecting every scrap of newspaper referring to it. He still cut them out of Aunt Matilda's old papers; he begged them from everyone—neighbours, storekeepers, work hands. When he was sent on errands he cast all-embracing glances round every place his orders took him to. The postmaster of the nearest village discovered his weakness, and saved paragraphs and whole papers for him. Before very long there was buried near the Treasure a treasure even more valuable of newspaper cuttings, and on the wonderful Saturday nights they gave themselves up to revelling in them.
How they watched it and followed it and lived with it—this great human scheme, which somehow seemed to their young minds more like the scheme of giants and genii! How they seized upon every new story of its wonders, and felt that there could be no limit to them! They knew every purpose and plan connected with it,—every arch and tower and wall and stone they pleased themselves by fancying. Newspapers were liberal with information. People talked of it, they heard of it on every side. To them it seemed that the whole world must be thinking of nothing else.
"While we are lying here," Meg said—"while you are doing chores and I am scouring pans and scrubbing things, it is all going on. People in France and in England and in Italy are doing work to send to it. Artists are painting pictures and machinery is whirring and making things—and everything is pouring in to that one wonderful place. And men and women planned it, you know—just men and women. And if we live a few years we shall be men and women; and they were once children like us—only—if they had been quite like us, they would never have known enough to do anything."
"But when they were children like us," said Robin, "they did not know what they would have learned by this time, and they never dreamed about this."
"That shows how wonderful men and women are," said Meg. "I believe they can do anything, if they set their minds to it"; and she said it stubbornly.
"Perhaps they can," said Robin slowly. "Perhaps we could do anything we set our minds to."
There was the suggestive tone in his voice which Meg had been thrilled by more than once before. She had been thrilled by it most strongly when he had said that if they saved their dollar a week they might be able to go almost anywhere. Unconsciously she responded to it now.
"If I could do anything I set my mind to," she said, "do you know what I would set my mind to first?"
"I would set my mind to going to that wonderful place. I would set it to seeing everything there—and remembering all I could hold—and learning all there was to be learned—and I would set it hard!"
"So would I," said Robin.
It was a more suggestive voice than before he said the words in, and suddenly he got up and went and tore away the straw from the burying-place of the Treasure. He took out the old iron bank and brought it back to their corner.
He did it so suddenly and with such a determined air that Meg rather lost her breath.
"What are you going to do with the Treasure?" she asked.
"I am going to count it."
He was opening the box, using the blade of a stout pocket-knife as a screw-driver.
"A return ticket to Chicago costs $9.55," he said. "I asked at the depot. That would be $19.10 for two people. Anyone who is careful can live on a very little for a while. I want to see if we shall have money enough to go."
"To go?" Meg cried out. "To the Fair? Robin!"
She could not believe the evidence of her ears. It sounded so daring.
"Nobody would take us!" she said. "Even if we had money enough to pay for ourselves—nobody would take us."
"Take!" answered Robin, working at his screws. "No, nobody would. What's the matter with taking ourselves?"
Meg sat up in the straw, conscious of a sort of shock.
"To go by ourselves! like grown-up people! To buy our tickets ourselves and get on the train and go all the way alone—and walk about the Fair alone! Robin!"
"Who takes care of us here?" answered Robin. "Who has looked after us ever since father and mother died? Ourselves! just ourselves! Whose business are we but our own! Who thinks of us or asks if we are happy or unhappy?"
"Nobody," said Meg, and she hid her face in her arms on her knees.
Robin went on stubbornly.
"Nobody is ever going to do it," he said, "if we live to be hundreds of years old. I've thought of it when I've been working in the field with Jones, and I've thought of it when I've been lying awake at night. It's kept me awake many and many a time."
"So it has me," said Meg.
"And since this thing began to be talked about everywhere I've thought of it more and more," said Rob. "It means more to people like us than it does to anyone else. It's the people who never see things, and who have no chances, it means the most to. And the more I think of it the more I—I won't let it go by me." And all at once he threw himself face downward on the straw and hid his face in his arms.
Meg lifted hers. There was something in the woeful desperation of his movement that struck her to the heart. She had never known him do such a thing in their lives before. That was not his way. Whatsoever hard thing had happened—howsoever lonely and desolate they had felt, he had never shown his feelings this way. She put out her hand and touched his shoulder.
"Robin," she said—"Oh, Robin!"
"I don't care," he said from the refuge of his sleeves; "we are little when we are compared with grown-up people. They would call us children—and children usually have someone to help them—tell them what to do. I'm only like this because I've been thinking so much—and working so hard—and it does seem like an enchanted city; but no one ever thinks we could care about it any more than if we were cats and dogs. It was not like that at home, even if we were poor." Then he sat up with as little warning as he had thrown himself down, and gave his eyes a fierce rub. He returned to the Treasure again.
"I've been making up my mind to it for days," he said. "If we have the money we can buy our tickets and go some night without saying anything to anyone. We can leave a note for Aunt Matilda to tell her we are all right and we are coming back. She'll be too busy to mind."
"Do you remember that book of father's we read," said Meg—"that one called David Copperfield? David ran away from the bottle place when he was younger than we are—and he had to walk all the way to Dover."
"We shall not have to walk, and we won't let anyone take our money away from us," said Robin.
"Are we going really?" said Meg. "You speak as if we were truly going—and it can't be!"
"Do you know what you said just now about believing human beings could do anything if they set their minds to it? Let's set our minds to it."
"Well," Meg answered rather slowly, as if weighing the matter—"Let's!"
And she fell to helping to count the Treasure.