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tered scarecrow rocking in the wind — these counted- No food or raiment came from that wanton, running without thought of the future, purpose, or conscience, through meadow and wood to the sea.
Sometimes — not now, in winter, but when the crocuses came — Rebecca wrestled spiritually with the brook — a thing without roots or attachments, a mere gadabout, scornful of duty, of everything behind it, in its eagerness to get on. Life was real, life was earnest. As for the goal beyond the grave, she wished that it might come occasionally at the end of the day, instead of at the end of living, like Billy's grain and blanket. Even at fifty the grave was a long way off.
Strictly speaking, Rebecca was fortyeight, a fact she strictly adhered to in public. In the privacy of her own thoughts, when grim and vindictive, she was fifty; down among the birches, forty; and, in crocus-time, even thirty. 'Steady, capable woman — no nonsense about Rebecca!' was the village verdict, knowing little of what it could not see or touch.
Billy's wants attended to, Rebecca went into the house. Her mother, sitting by the window, had been watching for her return.
'You've been gone a long time.'
For an ailing old woman, watching day after day at the window of a hilltop farm, every hour was 'a long time.' But the querulous voice passed over Rebecca's soul without leaving a trace. After forty years of duty, its surface, like Billy's hide, had ceased to be supersensitive. Rebecca possessed what the minister called 'a healthy spirit.'
'Yes, mother,' she said, warming her hands at the range; 'Billy is n't as spry as he used to be.'
'Did you see the Squire?'
'Is it true?'
'Yes, mother, it's true.'
And the truth shall make you free! The sentence from the minister's sermon came from nowhere, like a bird alighting on a twig — ridiculously inapposite. That impertinent busybody, the irresponsible mind, was one of Rebecca's trials.
Then, for a long time, there was silence, their thoughts'going their separate ways. Much hard and solitary thinking preceded 'getting together' for these two.
Rebecca hung her squirrel coat in the closet and turned to the door.
'Where are you going now, Rebecca?'
'To the office, mother.'
The 'office' was a low one-story building, with a single door and room, where her father used to consult his clients — even hilltop villages requiring lawyers as well as ministers and doctors.
That, however, was long ago, and the office had descended to Rebecca, with its legend in gilt letters still on the panel of its door. Here she kept the farmaccounts, her books, and her dreams. Whenever she spoke of 'going home,' it was the office she had in mind.
It boasted a desk, above which Washington was perpetually delivering his farewell address; a horsehair sofa, whose billowy surface was reminiscent of former clients; a bookcase with diamond panes, — the law books had been relegated to the upper shelves, — and a redeeming fireplace, open, hospitable, framed in a white mantelpiece, with Ionic columns and garlands of roses in plaster, on which, under the clock, stood a group of two grotesque porcelain figures in bright colors: a woman, holding high a tambourine, and a man with a guitar. The child Rebecca had given these gay figures ecstatic adoration, as representing a wonderful world inhabited by fairies, gypsies, and other mythical persons — to which they evidently belonged. That also was long ago. If Rebecca's glance rested on them now, it was only the glance of mingled scorn and pity appropriate to misguided creatures doomed, like the butterflies fluttering in autumn sunshine, to an untimely end. Yet there they remained enthroned, with the sofa and the sign on the door and the clock which never ran down — relics of the past, which would not let go.
It was four o'clock, growing dark already. Rebecca wound the clock, — it was Saturday night, — threw a fresh log on the smouldering coals, and sat down in the rocker before the hearth, watching the little flames, hissing, and beginning to curl up over their prey. Shadows danced on the walls and ceiling, and red lights on the polished balls of the andirons.
It had all been like a dream, only, unlike a dream, it had not vanished. It was true — and Christopher was coming Monday morning.
The beat of Rebecca's heart quickened. It had been as steady in the Squire's office as the Squire's clock, even when he said, 'You're a rich woman, Rebecca.' 'Am I?' Rebecca had said to herself. 'What's more,'the Squire went on, 'and what ain't common, your Uncle Caleb's set it down fair and square in the will,' — the Squire's spectacles dropped from his forehead to his nose, — " To my niece, Rebecca, in recognition of her sterling qualities."'
Rebecca's lip softened, then straightened. Uncle Caleb had bided his time.
'I've a telegram here somewhere from Christopher.' — It was then Rebecca's heart gave its first j ump.—' He's comirtg up from York.' The Squire's fingers fumbled among his papers. 'He's executor. He says, "Tell Rebecca I 'll see her Monday."'
Recalling this announcement, Rebecca's heart jumped again. She had
slid from the rocker to the rug; but at the crunch of heavy boots on the snow, sprang to her desk. It would never do to have Hansen find her dreaming like a silly girl on the rug before the fire.
Hansen was the overseer. He came in, his red beard dripping with moisture, and they went over the milk receipts together. It was disconcertingly evident that Hansen had something on his mind.
'Is that all, Hansen?'
'Of course, Miss Rebecca,' — Hansen began every sentence with 'of course,' — 'if what's being said in the village is true, you 'II be wanting to get that wire up from the mill. We could save —'
'Yes, Hansen.' Hansen was always trying to squeeze something more out of the land by putting something more in. 'We will go into that Monday.'
Faithful man was Hansen, — looking after the farm as if it were his own, — her right hand.
When he had gone, Rebecca went back to the rug. On the wall over the mantel the clock ticked on, solemnly, intent on duty, indifferent to the time it recorded.
Christopher and Rebecca had played together once in the pleasant places by the brook. Christopher was a wonderful playmate. He knew every bird by its note, where it hid its nest, — in tree, in hedge, or meadow,—how many eggs the nest should hold, and of what color. He knew the bait each fish loved best, and could catch the wariest with a bent pin. No colt ever foaled on the hill had unseated him, though he had to cling desperately, bare-back, to the mane. Even the brown Durham bull looked askance at Christopher. As for the dogs, they ran to meet him at the mere sight of the stocky little figure, bare-headed, hands in ragged trousers, sure of adventure.
Where Christopher got his chief possession — imagination — is a secret untold. It did not grow on hilltop farms, and he was never seen with a book out of school. What tales he could tell! The little flaxen-haired girl listened to them for hours, open-mouthed, eyes bulging with wonder. He confided to her what he was going to do when he was a man. Among other things he was going to find the North Pole. He spoke of the North Pole as if it were a marble in his pocket. Wonderful hours those were, among the buttercups by the brook and, on rainy days, in the haymow! No real person walking the village street was half as real as the phantoms that trod Christopher's stage. Wonderful hours! spiced with the sense of stolen joys — for motherless Christopher was the son of the village ne'erdo-weel, without favor outside of the animal kingdom.
And then, gradually, almost insensibly, Christopher drew away, like a young sapling from its fellows of slower growth, and Rebecca was left behind, alone, clinging to childish toys, dreamland, and all the creations of Christopher's riotous imagination, outgrown and spurned now for the solid things beckoning to manlier ambition. And then, suddenly, leaping out of the dark, came one by one those events over which there is no control — Christopher's disappearance, her father's death, her mother's failing health, closing in on her like the walls of a narrowing room, walking roughshod over the dreams, hardening her hands, putting that fixed, determined look in her eyes; till one by one the actors on Christopher's stage died, its lights went out, and of those splendid hours nothing was left but a few rebellious tears shed in the 'office,' when accounts were done and the fire was very low.
After all, Christopher had run true to life. It was in the natural order of
things that he should disappear, as natural and inevitable as that the sheep should get the foot disease — predestined and foreordained, like blight and frost and potato bugs.
It was quite otherwise with Uncle Caleb. He was a surprise.
Uncle Caleb owned the mills, only four miles away, though it might as well have been a hundred. Once in a while, to be sure, he drove out to the hilltop, and Rebecca was conscious of approving glances in his shrewd gray eyes. They talked a little of the crops. Then he went away. And now he had brought Christopher back — Christopher and money at forty-eight! All the fat worms wiggling to the surface when the ground thawed out for a day could not bring the birds back in winter. Uncle Caleb was only a winter sun, waking to momentary life what would better be left to sleep.
The clock struck five. It was getting near supper-time. She covered the fire, put her desk to rights, and went out, locking the door. The key she kept in her pocket, as if there were secrets in the office to guard.
Her mother looked up as she came in.
'Rebecca, I've been thinking—'
'We can talk of that to-morrow, mother. I am tired to-night.'
'But, Rebecca, to-morrow's the Sabbath.'
'I know it,' said Rebecca grimly.
But just before going to bed, as if the word 'Christopher' was not a bombshell loaded with potentialities, in her most casual manner she let drop the sentence: 'Christopher's coming Monday, Mother.'
'Dear me! how time flies.'
A gleam of humor twinkled in Rebecca's eyes.
'I wonder if he found the North Pole.'
'Nothing. Good-night, mother.'
Rebecca had conquered the major devils on the ride home from the Squire's. They had all slunk away, cowed by that ominous word 'fifty' — except one. This latter she slew before going down to breakfast Monday morning. Heroines in the books on the lower shelves behind the diamond panes invariably glanced in their mirrors before facing important interviews. Like Israel of old, Rebecca hardened her heart. Nothing on her bureau-cover would make the slightest difference, had she desired any. There would be only what she had seen hundreds of times — a woman almost forty-eight, not quite; slim; an oval face, tanned by wind and sun; grayish eyes quick to show certain indescribable danger-signals; the flaxen hair deepened to brown; a mouth, firm, but ready to soften; and a nose — nothing the matter with it, only she did not like it. She had no interest in these things. So she went downstairs, ignoring the mirror, thereby missing what had not been seen in it since —
But her mother saw, when Rebecca brought the breakfast-tray — and wondered.
Then, without warning, while pouring the coffee, a horse neighed in the yard, and there, at the hitching-post, was Christopher, the Christopher of the brook, only bigger, with the same quick confident gesture, the same compelling voice calling to her in the doorway: —
'Hullo, little girl!'
Formality dropped from her like a cloak.
'Hullo, Christopher! Come in.'
Christopher had falsified hill prophecy. Persistent rumor had forced the admission that, instead of going to the bad, he had, as Uncle Caleb predicted, made good. Uncle Caleb was a shrewd old fellow, saying little beyond an oc
casional ' I told you so.' Moreover, success had not spoiled Christopher. It was impossible to spoil him. 'Sound as a winter apple,' Uncle Caleb had said to the Squire, when making his will. And here he was, sitting opposite Rebecca, clean-shaven, talking about Ceylon and India and London and Cairo, as familiarly as he used to talk about fairies and giants and the North Pole.
Rebecca listened as the little flaxenhaired girl had listened, her eyes growing brighter, her mouth softer, her heart lighter — till suddenly, lighting a cigar and looking straight in her eyes, he said: —
'Look here, Rebecca, we have business to talk over. Where shall we go?'
Except for the maid clearing the table, there was no particular reason for going anywhere; but just here the little fox, which had slipped his leash and laid the fire in the office early in the morning before anyone was up, spoke.
'We might go to the office. It's nearer than the brook — and warmer.'
'Just the place!' said Christopher. 'So the brook s still there.'
'Yes, it's still running away, Christopher.'
Not a word had he said about what she had refused to see in the mirror; but now, sitting in the rocker, the pine cones blazing and stars coming and going in the soot of the chimney-brick, —
'You're looking fine, Rebecca.'
'Am I? I've got the farm in fine shape.' She parried the amused smile in his blue eyes with 'Tell me about yourself, Christopher.'
He began without a moment's hesitation, just as he did in the hay-mow when she said, 'I'm ready — now begin.' Perhaps, in the hay-mow, neither of them wholly believed the things he said; but they both believed in Christopher. That was his glory and charm, his intrepid, nonchalant self-confidence, his faith in himself, serene, without a trace of vanity. 'Why, it's easy as water running down hill,' he used to say. Listening again, Rebecca could think of nothing but the juggler she had once seen with Uncle Caleb, tossing the balls in dazzling arcs till her eyes blinked. Only now the juggler's balls were realities. Christopher had really killed a real tiger in a real jungle. The gold at the foot of the rainbow was in his pocket. He had actually made the journeys they had taken together on the magical carpet. And, little by little, her spirit kindling at the touch of his, getting the farm in fine shape dwindled to utter insignificance, the cares that worried her and the triumphs that elated her appeared miserable, petty trifles.
'I suppose I could, if I wanted to,' she murmured.
'Rebecca, you must.'
'Must what?' said Rebecca.
'Live! It's easy as rolling off a log. You're a rich woman, Rebecca — rich.' She liked the sound of her name amazingly. 'Sell the farm, rent it, give it away. Do you want to spend the rest of your life —'
'No, I don't,' she interjected, seeing visions; 'but there's mother.'
'That's easy. Put the breath of life in her too. Take her with you.'
'Where?' said Rebecca, breathless herself.
Christopher smiled his radiant smile.
'Practical little woman! Don't I remember how you used to save the crumbs for the chickens! You have n't got to bother with crumbs now. Leave it to me. I'll manage the whole thing for you — mother and all.'
It was dazzling, the old spell was sweeping her along with him. But on the horizon hung one black cloud, in the back of her mind one awful question. She summoned all her courage, desperately.
'I suppose you are married, Christopher?'
'Bless you, no!' laughed Christopher.
She hurried over the thin ice, wildly, strangely happy.
'Nor found the North Pole, I reckon.'
He laughed again.
'The North Pole's all right for a maypole, Rebecca, but you and I are getting along to — well, say August. Nothing grows there, no more than in your cowpasture — though you have got a lot of stones out of it.'
'Yes, I have,' said Rebecca dreamily.
'Don't talk it over with your mother. Just do it. That's my motto. Do it and it's done. I have my eye on a house for you in 73d Street already.'
The color print of Washington, the clock, the bookcase, and the horsehair sofa were all fading away; the farm itself, substantial, century-old, rooted in the granite hills, dissolving in a rosy mist. She was treading air, drinking at fountains sealed for years. How could she ever have been contented to —
'Where do you live, Christopher?'
He was standing now beside her, his hand patting her shoulder.
'You don't have to think of me, little woman. I'm looking after you. Say, Rebecca, could you put me up for the night? I'd really like to go over the old place.'
Rebecca had never in her life been looked after.
'Of course, Christopher.'
Christopher came back for supper just as hungry as the ragged boy for whom Rebecca saved her 'piece of pie,' remarking cheerfully that he had had the worth of his dinner. She knew now what he had meant: exactly what he said —'To go over the old place.' He had done it thoroughly. It was natural enough, not having gone to the bad, that he should pay off old scores by calling on the minister, returning good for