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CHAPTER III

 

THE FIRST STEP UP

 

 DURING the weeks that followed they spent more time than ever in their hiding-place. They had always been in the habit of scrambling up to their beloved refuge, when they could slip away there and adjust their ladder, and have time to climb up when there was no one about to see them. This was not an easy thing when the kind of work was being done which obliged the farm hands to pass in and out of the barn or anywhere near it. They had realised that it would not do for people to see the ladder too often in one place and position, or to find it moving itself from one point to another in a way not to be at all explained by ordinary practical farm reasons. Together they had discussed the matter with a great deal of seriousness. It was indeed a serious affair. Without the aid of the ladder their Straw Parlour was an unattainable paradise, but to use it without the exercise of proper precaution would betray them to the enemy. They could not help regarding as an enemy anyone who might come between them and their fortress. So when they went to the barn they first reconnoitred carefully, and then were particular about mounting at different points: When they took the ladder they noticed particularly the position it occupied, and always returned it to exactly the same place and arranged it at the same angle. But it was not always possible to follow these precautions when they were in the mood to desire to retire to seclusion. And in these days they had so much to talk about that the mood was upon them even more frequently than it had ever been.

They had an absorbing topic of conversation. A new and wonderful thing, better than their old books, even better than the stories Meg made, when she lay on the straw, her elbows supporting her, her cheeks on her hands, and her black-lashed grey eyes staring into space. Hers were always good stories, full of palaces and knights and robber-chiefs and fairies, but this new thing had the thrill of being a fairy story which was real—so real that one could read about it in the newspapers, and everybody was talking about it, even Aunt Matilda, her neighbours, and the work hands on the farm. To the two lonely children in their high nest in the straw stack it seemed a curious thing to hear these people in the world below talk about it in their ordinary everyday way, without excitement or awe as if it was a new kind of big ploughing or winnowing machine. To them it was a thing so beautiful that they could scarcely find the words to express their thoughts and dreams about it, and yet they were never alone together without trying to do so.

On wet cheerless days, in which they huddled close together in their nest to keep from being chilled, it was their comfort to try to imagine and paint pictures of the various wonders, until in their interest they forgot the dampness of the air and felt the unending patter of the rain on the barn roof merely a pleasant sort of accompaniment to the stories of their fancies.

Since the day when they had listened to Jones and Jerry down there below them in the barn, Rob had formed the habit of collecting every scrap of newspaper relating to the wonder. He cut paragraphs out of Aunt Matilda's cast-aside newspapers; he begged them from the farm hands and from the country storekeeper. Anything in the form of an illustration he held as a treasure beyond price, and hoarded it to bring to Meg with exultant joy.

How they pored over these things, reading the paragraphs again and again until they knew them almost by heart. How they studied the pictures, trying to gather the proportions and colour of every column or dome or arch! What enthusiast living in Chicago itself knew the marvel as they did, and so dwelt on and revelled in its beauties! No one knew of their pleasure—like the Straw Parlour, it was a secret. The strangeness of their lives lay in the fact that absolutely no one knew anything about them at all or asked anything, thinking it quite enough that their friendlessness was supplied with enough animal heat and nourishment to keep their bodies alive.

Of that other part of them—their restless, growing young brains, and naturally craving hearts, which in their own poor enough but still humain little home had at least been recognised and cared for—Aunt Matilda knew nothing, and indeed had never given a thought to. She had not undertaken the care of intelligences and affections; her own were not of an order to require supervision. She was too much occupied with her five-hundred-acre farm and the amazing things she was doing with it. That the children could read and write and understand some arithmetic she knew. She had learned no more herself, and had found it enough to build her fortune upon. She had never known what it was to feel lonely and neglected, because she was a person quite free from affections, and quite enough for herself. She never suspected that others could suffer from a weakness of which she knew nothing, because it had never touched her.

If anyone had told her that these two children, who ate their plentiful, rough meals at her table, among field hands and servants, were neglected and lonely, and that their own knowledge of it burned in their childish minds, she would have thought the announcement a piece of idle, sentimental folly; but that there was no solid detail of her farming a fact more real than this one, was the grievous truth.

"When we were at home," was Meg's summing up of the situation, "at least we belonged to somebody. We were poor and wore our clothes a long time, and had shabby shoes and couldn't go on excursions; but we had our own little bench by the fire, and father and mother used to talk to us and let us read their books and papers, and try to teach us things. I don't know what we were going to be when we grew up, but we were going to do some sort of work, and know as much as father and mother did. I don't know whether that was a great deal or not—but it was something."

"It was enough to teach school," said Robin. "If we were not so far out in the country now I believe Aunt Matilda would let us go to school if we asked her. It wouldn't cost her anything if we went to the public school."

"She wouldn't if we didn't ask her," said Meg. "She would never think of it herself. Do you know what I was thinking yesterday. I was looking at the pigs in their sty. Some of them were eating, and one was full and was lying down going to sleep. And I said to myself, 'Robin and I are just like you. We live just like you. We eat our food and go to bed, and get up again and eat some more food. We don't learn anything more than you do, and we are not worth so much to anybody—we are not even worth killing at Christmas' "

If they had never known any other life, or if Nature had not given them the big, questioning eyes, and square little jaws and strong nervous little fists, they might have been content to sink into careless idleness and apathy. No one was actively unkind to them—they had their Straw Parlour and were free to amuse themselves as they chose. But they had been made of the material of which the world's workers are built, and their young hearts were full of a restlessness and longing whose full significance they themselves did not comprehend.

And the wonder working in the world beyond them, —this huge, beautiful marvel, planned by the human brain and carried out by mere human hands, this great thing with which all the world seemed to them to be throbbing, and which seemed to set no limit to itself and prove that there was no limit to the power of human wills and minds,—this filled them with a passion of restlessness and yearning greater than they had ever known before.

"It is an enchanted thing, you know, Robin—it's an enchanted thing," Meg said one day, looking up from her study of some newspaper clippings and a magazine with some pictures in it.

"It seems like it,' said Robin.

"I'm sure it's enchanted," Meg went on. "It seems so tremendous that people should think they could do such huge things—as if they felt as if they could do anything or bring anything from anywhere in the world! It almost frightens me sometimes, because it reminds me of the Tower of Babel. Don't you remember how the people got so proud that they thought they could do anything—and they began to build the tower that was to reach to heaven. And then they all woke up one morning and found they were all speaking different languages, and could not understand each other. Suppose everybody was suddenly struck like that some morning now—I mean the Fair people," widening her eyes with a little shiver.

"They won't be," said Rob. "Those things have stopped happening."

"Yes, they have," said Meg. "Sometimes I wish they hadn't. If they hadn't—perhaps—perhaps if we made burnt-offerings, we might be taken by a miracle to see the World's Fair."

"We haven't anything to burn," said Rob rather gloomily.

"We've got the chickens," Meg answered as gloomily, "but it wouldn't do any good. Miracles are over."

"The world is all different," said Robin. "You have to do your miracle yourself."

"It will be a miracle," Meg said, "if we ever get away from Aunt Matilda's world, and live like people instead of like pigs who are comfortable; and we shall have to perform it ourselves."

"There is no one else," said Robin. "You see there is no one else in the world."

He threw out his hand and clutched Meg's, which was lying on the straw near him. He did not know why he clutched it; he did not in the least know why, nor did she know why a queer sound in his voice suddenly made her feel their unfriendedness in a way that overwhelmed her. She found herself looking at him with a hard lump rising in her throat. It was one of the rainy days, and the hollow drumming and patter of the big drops on the roof seemed somehow to shut them in with their loneliness away from all the world.

"It's a strange thing," she said, almost under her breath, "to be two children—only just twelve years old—and to be quite by ourselves in such a big world, where there are such millions and millions of people all busy doing things and making great plans, and none of them knowing about us or caring what we are going to do."

"If we work our miracle ourselves," said Rob, holding her hand quite tight, "it will be better than having it worked for us. Meg!" as if he were beginning a new subject, "Meg!"

"What?" she answered, still feeling the hard lump in her throat.

"Do you think we are going to stay here always?"

"I—oh, Robin, I don't know."

"Well, I do then. We are not—and that's the first step up the Hill of Difficulty."