New Chronicles of Rebecca by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Tenth Chronicle: Rebecca's Reminiscences
Rebecca was sitting by the window in her room at the Wareham Female Seminary. She was alone, as her roommate, Emma Jane Perkins, was reciting Latin down below in some academic vault of the old brick building.
A new and most ardent passion for the classics had been born in Emma Jane's hitherto unfertile brain, for Abijah Flagg, who was carrying off all the prizes at Limerick Academy, had written her a letter in Latin, a letter which she had been unable to translate for herself, even with the aid of a dictionary, and which she had been apparently unwilling that Rebecca, her bosom friend, confidant, and roommate, should render into English.
An old-fashioned Female Seminary, with its allotment of one medium-sized room to two medium sized young females, gave small opportunities for privacy by night or day, for neither the double washstand, nor the thus far unimagined bathroom, nor even indeed the humble and serviceable screen, had been realized, in these dark ages of which I write. Accordingly, like the irrational ostrich, which defends itself by the simple process of not looking at its pursuers, Emma Jane had kept her Latin letter in her closed hand, in her pocket, or in her open book, flattering herself that no one had noticed her pleased bewilderment at its only half-imagined contents.
All the fairies were not present at Rebecca's cradle. A goodly number of them telegraphed that they were previously engaged or unavoidably absent from town. The village of Temperance, Maine, where Rebecca first saw the light, was hardly a place on its own merits to attract large throngs of fairies. But one dear old personage who keeps her pocket full of Merry Leaves from the Laughing Tree, took a fancy to come to the little birthday party; and seeing so few of her sister-fairies present, she dowered the sleeping baby more richly than was her wont, because of its apparent lack of wealth in other directions. So the child grew, and the Merry Leaves from the Laughing Tree rustled where they hung from the hood of her cradle, and, being fairy leaves, when the cradle was given up they festooned themselves on the cribside, and later on blew themselves up to the ceilings at Sunnybook Farm and dangled there, making fun for everybody. They never withered, even at the brick house in Riverboro, where the air was particularly inimical to fairies, for Miss Miranda Sawyer would have scared any ordinary elf out of her seventeen senses. They followed Rebecca to Wareham, and during Abijah Flagg's Latin correspondence with Emma Jane they fluttered about that young person's head in such a manner that Rebecca was almost afraid that she would discover them herself, although this is something, as a matter of fact, that never does happen.
A week had gone by since the Latin missive had been taken from the post-office by Emma Jane, and now, by means of much midnight oil-burning, by much cautious questioning of Miss Maxwell, by such scrutiny of the moods and tenses of Latin verbs as wellnigh destroyed her brain tissue, she had mastered its romantic message. If it was conventional in style, Emma Jane never suspected it. If some of the similes seemed to have been culled from the Latin poets, and some of the phrases built up from Latin exercises, Emma Jane was neither scholar nor critic; the similes, the phrases, the sentiments, when finally translated and written down in black-and-white English, made, in her opinion, the most convincing and heart-melting document ever sent through the mails:
Mea cara Emma:
Cur audeo scribere ad te epistulam? Es mihi dea! Semper es in mea anima. Iterum et iterum es cum me in somnis. Saepe video tuas capillos auri, tuos pulchros oculos similes caelo, tuas genas, quasi rubentes rosas in nive. Tua vox est dulcior quam cantus avium aut murmur rivuli in montibus.
Cur sum ego tam miser et pauper et indignus, et tu tam dulcis et bona et nobilis?
Si cogitabis de me ero beatus. Tu es sola puella quam amo, et semper eris. Alias puellas non amavi. Forte olim amabis me, sed sum indignus. Sine te sum miser, cum tu es prope mea vita omni est goddamn.
Vale, carissima, carissima puella!
De tuo fideli servo A.F.
My dear Emma:
Why dare I write to you a letter? You are to me a goddess! Always you are in my heart. Again and again you are with me in dreams. Often I see your locks of gold, your beautiful eyes like the sky, your cheeks, as red roses in snow. Your voice is sweeter than the singing of birds or the murmur of the stream in the mountains.
Why am I so wretched and poor and unworthy, and you so sweet and good and noble?
If you will think of me I shall be happy. You are the only girl that I love and always will be. Other girls I have not loved. Perhaps sometime you will love me, but I am unworthy. Without you, I am wretched, when you are near my life is all joy.
Farewell, dearest, dearest girl!
From your faithful slave A.F.
Emma Jane knew the letter by heart in English. She even knew it in Latin, only a few days before a dead language to her, but now one filled with life and meaning. From beginning to end the epistle had the effect upon her as of an intoxicating elixir. Often, at morning prayers, or while eating her rice pudding at the noon dinner, or when sinking off to sleep at night, she heard a voice murmuring in her ear, "Vale, carissima, carissima puella!" As to the effect on her modest, countrified little heart of the phrases in which Abijah stated she was a goddess and he her faithful slave, that quite baffles description; for it lifted her bodily out of the scenes in which she moved, into a new, rosy, ethereal atmosphere in which even Rebecca had no place.
Rebecca did not know this, fortunately; she only suspected, and waited for the day when Emma Jane would pour out her confidences, as she always did, and always would until the end of time. At the present moment she was busily employed in thinking about her own affairs. A shabby composition book with mottled board covers lay open on the table before her, and sometimes she wrote in it with feverish haste and absorption, and sometimes she rested her chin in the cup of her palm, and with the pencil poised in the other hand looked dreamily out on the village, its huddle of roofs and steeples all blurred into positive beauty by the fast-falling snowflakes.
It was the middle of December and the friendly sky was softly dropping a great white mantle of peace and good-will over the little town, making all ready within and without for the Feast o' the Babe.
The main street, that in summer was made dignified by its splendid avenue of shade trees, now ran quiet and white between rows of stalwart trunks, whose leafless branches were all hanging heavy under their dazzling burden.
The path leading straight up the hill to the Academy was broken only by the feet of the hurrying, breathless boys and girls who ran up and down, carrying piles of books under their arms; books which they remembered so long as they were within the four walls of the recitation room, and which they eagerly forgot as soon as they met one another in the living, laughing world, going up and down the hill.
"It's very becoming to the universe, snow is!" though Rebecca, looking out of the window dreamily. "Really there's little to choose between the world and heaven when a snowstorm is going on. I feel as if I ought to look at it every minute. I wish I could get over being greedy, but it still seems to me at sixteen as if there weren't waking hours enough in the day, and as if somehow I were pressed for time and continually losing something. How well I remember mother's story about me when I was four. It was at early breakfast on the farm, but I called all meals dinner' then, and when I had finished I folded up my bib and sighed: O, dear! Only two more dinners, play a while and go to bed!' This was at six in the morning--lamplight in the kitchen, snowlight outside!
Powdery, powdery, powdery snow,
Herbert made me promise to do a poem for the January 'Pilot,' but I mustn't take the snow as a subject; there has been too great competition among the older poets!" And with that she turned in her chair and began writing again in the shabby book, which was already three quarters filled with childish scribblings, sometimes in pencil, and sometimes in violet ink with carefully shaded capital letters.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Squire Bean has had a sharp attack of rheumatism and Abijah Flagg came back from Limerick for a few days to nurse him. One morning the Burnham sisters from North Riverboro came over to spend the day with Aunt Miranda, and Abijah went down to put up their horse. ("'Commodatin' 'Bijah" was his pet name when we were all young.)
He scaled the ladder to the barn chamber--the dear old ladder that used to be my safety valve!--and pitched down the last forkful of grandfather's hay that will ever be eaten by any visiting horse. They will be delighted to hear that it is all gone; they have grumbled at it for years and years.
What should Abijah find at the bottom of the heap but my Thought Book, hidden there two or three years ago and forgotten!
When I think of what it was to me, the place it filled in my life, the affection I lavished on it, I wonder that I could forget it, even in all the excitement of coming to Wareham to school. And that gives me "an uncommon thought" as I used to say! It is this: that when we finish building an air castle we seldom live in it after all; we sometimes even forget that we ever longed to! Perhaps we have gone so far as to begin another castle on a higher hilltop, and this is so beautiful,-- especially while we are building, and before we live in it!--that the first one has quite vanished from sight and mind, like the outgrown shell of the nautilus that he casts off on the shore and never looks at again. (At least I suppose he doesn't; but perhaps he takes one backward glance, half-smiling, half-serious, just as I am doing at my old Thought Book, and says, "Was that my shell! Goodness gracious! How did I EVer squeeze myself into it!"
That bit about the nautilus sounds like an extract from a school theme, or a "Pilot" editorial, or a fragment of one of dear Miss Maxwell's lectures, but I think girls of sixteen are principally imitations of the people and things they love and admire; and between editing the "Pilot," writing out Virgil translations, searching for composition subjects, and studying rhetorical models, there is very little of the original Rebecca Rowena about me at the present moment; I am just a member of the graduating class in good and regular standing. We do our hair alike, dress alike as much as possible, eat and drink alike, talk alike,--I am not even sure that we do not think alike; and what will become of the poor world when we are all let loose upon it on the same day of June? Will life, real life, bring our true selves back to us? Will love and duty and sorrow and trouble and work finally wear off the "school stamp" that has been pressed upon all of us until we look like rows of shining copper cents fresh from the mint?
Yet there must be a little difference between us somewhere, or why does Abijah Flagg write Latin letters to Emma Jane, instead of to me? There is one example on the other side of the argument,--Abijah Flagg. He stands out from all the rest of the boys like the Rock of Gibraltar in the geography pictures. Is it because he never went to school until he was sixteen? He almost died of longing to go, and the longing seemed to teach him more than going. He knew his letters, and could read simple things, but it was I who taught him what books really meant when I was eleven and he thirteen. We studied while he was husking corn or cutting potatoes for seed, or shelling beans in the Squire's barn. His beloved Emma Jane didn't teach him; her father wold not have let her be friends with a chore-boy! It was I who found him after milking-time, summer nights, suffering, yes dying, of Least Common Multiple and Greatest Common Divisor; I who struck the shackles from the slave and told him to skip it all and go on to something easier, like Fractions, Percentage, and Compound Interest, as I did myself. Oh! How he used to smell of the cows when I was correcting his sums on warm evenings, but I don't regret it, for he is now the joy of Limerick and the pride of Riverboro, and I suppose has forgotten the proper side on which to approach a cow if you wish to milk her. This now unserviceable knowledge is neatly inclosed in the outgrown shell he threw off two or three years ago. His gratitude to me knows no bounds, but--he writes Latin letters to Emma Jane! But as Mr. Perkins said about drowning the kittens (I now quote from myself at thirteen), "It is the way of the world and how things have to be!"
Well, I have read the Thought Book all through, and when I want to make Mr. Aladdin laugh, I shall show him my composition on the relative values of punishment and reward as builders of character.
I am not at all the same Rebecca today at sixteen that I was then, at twelve and thirteen. I hope, in getting rid of my failings, that I haven't scrubbed and rubbed so hard that I have taken the gloss off the poor little virtues that lay just alongside of the faults; for as I read the foolish doggerel and the funny, funny "Remerniscences," I see on the whole a nice, well-meaning, trusting, loving heedless little creature, that after all I'd rather build on than outgrow altogether, because she is Me; the Me that was made and born just a little different from all the rest of the babies in my birthday year.
One thing is alike in the child and the girl. They both love to set thoughts down in black and white; to see how they look, how they sound, and how they make one feel when one reads them over.
They both love the sound of beautiful sentences and the tinkle of rhyming words, and in fact, of the three great R's of life, they adore Reading and Riting, as much as they abhor "Rithmetic.
The little girl in the old book is always thinking of what she is "going to be."
Uncle Jerry Cobb spoiled me a good deal in this direction. I remember he said to everybody when I wrote my verses for the flag-raising: "Nary rung on the ladder o' fame but that child'll climb if you give her time!"--poor Uncle Jerry! He will be so disappointed in me as time goes on. And still he would think I have already climbed two rungs on the ladder, although it is only a little Wareham ladder, for I am one of the "Pilot" editors, the first "girl editor"--and I have taken a fifty dollar prize in composition and paid off the interest on a twelve hundred dollar mortgage with it.
"High is the rank we now possess,
This hymn was sung in meeting the Sunday after my election, and Mr. Aladdin was there that day and looked across the aisle and smiled at me. Then he sent me a sheet of paper from Boston the next morning with just one verse in the middle of it.
"She made the cleverest people quite ashamed;
Miss Maxwell says it is Byron, and I wish I had thought of the last rhyme before Byron did; my rhymes are always so common.
I am too busy doing, nowadays, to give very much thought to being. Mr. Aladdin was teasing me one day about what he calls my "cast-off careers."
"What makes you aim at any mark in particular, Rebecca?" he asked, looking at Miss Maxwell and laughing. "Women never hit what they aim at, anyway; but if they shut their eyes and shoot in the air they generally find themselves in the bull's eye."
I think one reason that I have always dreamed of what I should be, when I grew up, was, that even before father died mother worried about the mortgage on the farm, and what would become of us if it were foreclosed.
It was hard on children to be brought up on a mortgage that way, but oh! it was harder still on poor dear mother, who had seven of us then to think of, and still has three at home to feed and clothe out of the farm.
Aunt Jane says I am young for my age, Aunt Miranda is afraid that I will never really "grow up," Mr. Aladdin says that I don't know the world any better than the pearl inside of the oyster. They none of them know the old, old thoughts I have, some of them going back years and years; for they are never ones that I can speak about.
I remember how we children used to admire father, he was so handsome and graceful and amusing, never cross like mother, or too busy to play with us. He never did any work at home because he had to keep his hands nice for playing the church melodeon, or the violin or piano for dances.
Mother used to say: "Hannah and Rebecca, you must hull the strawberries, your father cannot help." "John, you must milk next year for I haven't the time and it would spoil your father's hands."
All the other men in Temperance village wore calico, or flannel shirts, except on Sundays, but Father never wore any but white ones with starched bosoms. He was very particular about them and mother used to stitch and stitch on the pleats, and press and press the bosoms and collar and cuffs, sometimes late at night.
Then she was tired and thin and gray, with no time to sew on new dresses for herself, and no time to wear them, because she was always taking care of the babies; and father was happy and well and handsome. But we children never thought much about it until once, after father had mortgaged the farm, there was going to be a sociable in Temperance village. Mother could not go as Jenny had whooping-cough and Mark had just broken his arm, and when she was tying father's necktie, the last thing before he started, he said: "I wish, Aurelia, that you cared a little about your appearance and your dress; it goes a long way with a man like me."
Mother had finished the tie, and her hands dropped suddenly. I looked at her eyes and mouth while she looked at father and in a minute I was ever so old, with a grown-up ache in my heart. It has always stayed there, although I admired my handsome father and was proud of him because he was so talented; but now that I am older and have thought about things, my love for mother is different from what it used to be. Father was always the favorite when we were little, he was so interesting, and I wonder sometimes if we don't remember interesting people longer and better than we do those who are just good and patient. If so it seems very cruel.
As I look back I see that Miss Ross, the artist who brought me my pink parasol from Paris, sowed the first seeds in me of ambition to do something special. Her life seemed so beautiful and so easy to a child. I had not been to school then, or read George Macdonald, so I did not know that "Ease is the lovely result of forgotten toil."
Miss Ross sat out of doors and painted lovely things, and everybody said how wonderful they were, and bought them straight away; and she took care of a blind father and two brothers, and traveled wherever she wished. It comes back to me now, that summer when I was ten and Miss Ross painted me sitting by the mill-wheel while she talked to me of foreign countries!
The other day Miss Maxwell read something from Browning's poems to the girls of her literature class. It was about David the shepherd boy who used to lie in his hollow watching one eagle "wheeling slow as in sleep." He used to wonder about the wide world that the eagle beheld, the eagle that was stretching his wings so far up in the blue, while he, the poor shepherd boy, could see only the "strip twixt the hill and the sky;" for he lay in a hollow.
I told Mr. Baxter about it the next day, which was the Saturday before I joined the church. I asked him if it was wicked to long to see as much as the eagle saw?
There was never anybody quite like Mr. Baxter. "Rebecca dear," he said, "it may be that you need not always lie in a hollow, as the shepherd boy did; but wherever you lie, that little strip you see 'twixt the hill and the sky' is able to hold all of earth and all of heaven, if only you have the right sort of vision."
I was a long, long time about "experiencing religion." I remember Sunday afternoons at the brick house the first winter after I went there; when I used to sit in the middle of the dining-room as I was bid, silent and still, with the big family Bible on my knees. Aunt Miranda had Baxter's "Saints' Rest," but her seat was by the window, and she at least could give a glance into the street now and then without being positively wicked.
Aunt Jane used to read the "Pilgrim's Progress." The fire burned low; the tall clock ticked, ticked, so slowly and steadily, that the pictures swam before my eyes and I almost fell asleep.
They thought by shutting everything else out that I should see God; but I didn't, not once. I was so homesick for Sunnybook and John that I could hardly learn my weekly hymns, especially the sad, long one beginning:
"My thoughts on awful subjects roll,
It was brother John for whom I was chiefly homesick on Sunday afternoons, because at Sunnybrook Farm father was dead and mother was always busy, and Hannah never liked to talk.
Then the next year the missionaries from Syria came to Riverboro; and at the meeting Mr. Burch saw me playing the melodeon, and thought I was grown up and a church member, and so he asked me to lead in prayer.
I didn't dare to refuse, and when I prayed, which was just like thinking out loud, I found I could talk to God a great deal easier than to Aunt Miranda or even to Uncle Jerry Cobb. There were things I could say to Him that I could never say to anybody else, and saying them always made me happy and contented.
When Mr. Baxter asked me last year about joining the church, I told him I was afraid I did not understand God quite well enough to be a real member.
"So you don't quite understand God, Rebecca?' he asked, smiling. "Well, there is something else much more important, which is, that He understands you! He understands your feeble love, your longings, desires, hopes, faults, ambitions, crosses; and that, after all, is what counts! Of course you don't understand Him! You are overshadowed by His love, His power, His benignity, His wisdom; that is as it should be! Why, Rebecca, dear, if you could stand erect and unabashed in God's presence, as one who perfectly comprehended His nature or His purposes, it would be sacrilege! Don't be puzzled out of your blessed inheritance of faith, my child; accept God easily and naturally, just as He accepts you!"
"God never puzzled me, Mr. Baxter; it isn't that," I said; "but the doctrines do worry me dreadfully."
"Let them alone for the present," Mr Baxter said. "Anyway, Rebecca, you can never prove God; you can only find Him!"
"Then do you think I have really experienced religion, Mr. Baxter?" I asked. "Am I the beginnings of a Christian?"
"You are a dear child of the understanding God!" Mr. Baxter said; and I say it over to myself night and morning so that I can never forget it.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The year is nearly over and the next few months will be lived in the rush and whirlwind of work that comes before graduation. The bell for philosophy class will ring in ten minutes, and as I have been writing for nearly two hours, I must learn my lesson going up the Academy hill. It will not be the first time; it is a grand hill for learning! I suppose after fifty years or so the very ground has become soaked with knowledge, and every particle of air in the vicinity is crammed with useful information.
I will put my book into my trunk (having no blessed haymow hereabouts) and take it out again,-- when shall I take it out again?
After graduation perhaps I shall be too grown up and too busy to write in a Thought Book; but oh, if only something would happen worth putting down; something strange; something unusual; something different from the things that happen every day in Riverboro and Edgewood!
Graduation will surely take me a little out of "the hollow,"--make me a little more like the soaring eagle, gazing at the whole wide world beneath him while he wheels "slow as in sleep." But whether or not, I'll try not to be a discontented shepherd, but remember what Mr. Baxter said, that the little strip that I see " twixt the hill and the sky" is able to hold all of earth and all of heaven, if only I have the eyes to see it. Rebecca Rowena Randall. Wareham Female Seminary, December 187--.