New Chronicles of Rebecca by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Fourth Chronicle: A Tragedy in Millinery
Emma Jane Perkins's new winter dress was a blue and green Scotch plaid poplin, trimmed with narrow green velvet-ribbon and steel nail-heads. She had a gray jacket of thick furry cloth with large steel buttons up the front, a pair of green kid gloves, and a gray felt hat with an encircling band of bright green feathers. The band began in front with a bird's head and ended behind with a bird's tail, and angels could have desired no more beautiful toilette. That was her opinion, and it was shared to the full by Rebecca.
But Emma Jane, as Rebecca had once described her to Mr. Adam Ladd, was a rich blacksmith's daughter, and she, Rebecca, was a little half-orphan from a mortgaged farm "up Temperance way," dependent upon her spinster aunts for board, clothes, and schooling. Scotch plaid poplins were manifestly not for her, but dark-colored woolen stuffs were, and mittens, and last winter's coats and furs.
And how about hats? Was there hope in store for her there? she wondered, as she walked home from the Perkins house, full of admiration for Emma Jane's winter outfit, and loyally trying to keep that admiration free from wicked envy. Her red-winged black hat was her second best, and although it was shabby she still liked it, but it would never do for church, even in Aunt Miranda's strange and never-to-be-comprehended views of suitable raiment.
There was a brown felt turban in existence, if one could call it existence when it had been rained on, snowed on, and hailed on for two seasons; but the trimmings had at any rate perished quite off the face of the earth, that was one comfort!
Emma Jane had said, rather indiscreetly, that at the village milliner's at Milliken's Mills there was a perfectly elegant pink breast to be had, a breast that began in a perfectly elegant solferino and terminated in a perfectly elegant magenta; two colors much in vogue at that time. If the old brown hat was to be her portion yet another winter, would Aunt Miranda conceal its deficiencies from a carping world beneath the shaded solferino breast? Would she, that was the question?
Filled with these perplexing thoughts, Rebecca entered the brick house, hung up her hood in the entry, and went into the dining-room.
Miss Jane was not there, but Aunt Miranda sat by the window with her lap full of sewing things, and a chair piled with pasteboard boxes by her side. In one hand was the ancient, battered, brown felt turban, and in the other were the orange and black porcupine quills from Rebecca's last summer's hat; from the hat of the summer before that, and the summer before that, and so on back to prehistoric ages of which her childish memory kept no specific record, though she was sure that Temperance and Riverboro society did. Truly a sight to chill the blood of any eager young dreamer who had been looking at gayer plumage!
Miss Sawyer glanced up for a second with a satisfied expression and then bent her eyes again upon her work.
"If I was going to buy a hat trimming," she said, "I couldn't select anything better or more economical than these quills! Your mother had them when she was married, and you wore them the day you come to the brick house from the farm; and I said to myself then that they looked kind of outlandish, but I've grown to like em now I've got used to em. You've been here for goin' on two years and they've hardly be'n out o'wear, summer or winter, more'n a month to a time! I declare they do beat all for service! It don't seem as if your mother could a' chose em,--Aurelia was always such a poor buyer! The black spills are bout as good as new, but the orange ones are gittin' a little mite faded and shabby. I wonder if I couldn't dip all of em in shoe blackin'? It seems real queer to put a porcupine into hat trimmin', though I declare I don't know jest what the animiles are like, it's be'n so long sence I looked at the pictures of em in a geography. I always thought their quills stood out straight and angry, but these kind o' curls round some at the ends, and that makes em stand the wind better. How do you like em on the brown felt?" she asked, inclining her head in a discriminating attitude and poising them awkwardly on the hat with her work-stained hand.
How did she like them on the brown felt indeed?
Miss Sawyer had not been looking at Rebecca, but the child's eyes were flashing, her bosom heaving, and her cheeks glowing with sudden rage and despair. All at once something happened. She forgot that she was speaking to an older person; forgot that she was dependent; forgot everything but her disappointment at losing the solferino breast, remembering nothing but the enchanting, dazzling beauty of Emma Jane Perkins's winter outfit; and suddenly, quite without warning, she burst into a torrent of protest.
"I will not wear those hateful porcupine quills again this winter! I will not! It's wicked, wicked to expect me to! Oh! How I wish there never had been any porcupines in the world, or that all of them had died before silly, hateful people ever thought of trimming hat with them! They curl round and tickle my ear! They blow against my cheek and sting it like needles! They do look outlandish, you said so yourself a minute ago. Nobody ever had any but only just me! The only porcupine was made into the only quills for me and nobody else! I wish instead of sticking out of the nasty beasts, that they stuck into them, same as they do into my cheek! I suffer, suffer, suffer, wearing them and hating them, and they will last forever and forever, and when I'm dead and can't help myself, somebody'll rip them out of my last year's hat and stick them on my head, and I'll be buried in them! Well, when I am buried they will be, that's one good thing! Oh, if I ever have a child I'll let her choose her own feathers and not make her wear ugly things like pigs' bristles and porcupine quills!'
With this lengthy tirade Rebecca vanished like a meteor, through the door and down the street, while Miranda Sawyer gasped for breath, and prayed to Heaven to help her understand such human whirlwinds as this Randall niece of hers.
This was at three o'clock, and at half-past three Rebecca was kneeling on the rag carpet with her head in her aunt's apron, sobbing her contrition.
"Oh! Aunt Miranda, do forgive me if you can. It's the only time I've been bad for months! You know it is! You know you said last week I hadn't been any trouble lately. Something broke inside of me and came tumbling out of my mouth in ugly words! The porcupine quills make me feel just as a bull does when he sees a red cloth; nobody understands how I suffer with them!"
Miranda Sawyer had learned a few lessons in the last two years, lessons which were making her (at least on her "good days") a trifle kinder, and at any rate a juster woman than she used to be. When she alighted on the wrong side of her four-poster in the morning, or felt an extra touch of rheumatism, she was still grim and unyielding; but sometimes a curious sort of melting process seemed to go on within her, when her whole bony structure softened, and her eyes grew less vitreous. At such moments Rebecca used to feel as if a superincumbent iron pot had been lifted off her head, allowing her to breath freely and enjoy the sunshine.
"Well," she said finally, after staring first at Rebecca and then at the porcupine quills, as if to gain some insight into the situation, "well, I never, sence I was born int' the world, heerd such a speech as you've spoke, an' I guess there probably never was one. You'd better tell the minister what you said and see what he thinks of his prize Sunday-school scholar. But I'm too old and tired to scold and fuss, and try to train you same as I did at first. You can punish yourself this time, like you used to. Go fire something down the well, same as you did your pink parasol! You've apologized and we won't say no more about it today, but I expect you to show by extry good conduct how sorry you be! You care altogether too much about your looks and your clothes for a child, and you've got a temper that'll certainly land you in state's prison some o' these days!"
Rebecca wiped her eyes and laughed aloud. "No, no, Aunt Miranda, it won't, really! That wasn't temper; I don't get angry with people; but only, once in a long while, with things; like those,-- cover them up quick before I begin again! I'm all right! Shower's over, sun's out!"
Miss Miranda looked at her searchingly and uncomprehendingly. Rebecca's state of mind came perilously near to disease, she thought.
"Have you seen me buyin' any new bunnits, or your Aunt Jane?" she asked cuttingly. "Is there any particular reason why you should dress better than your elders? You might as well know that we're short of cash just now, your Aunt Jane and me, and have no intention of riggin' you out like a Milltown fact'ry girl."
"Oh-h!" cried Rebecca, the quick tears starting again to her eyes and the color fading out of her cheeks, as she scrambled up from her knees to a seat on the sofa beside her aunt. "Oh-h! How ashamed I am! Quick, sew those quills on to the brown turban while I'm good! If I can't stand them I'll make a neat little gingham bag and slip over them!"
And so the matter ended, not as it customarily did, with cold words on Miss Miranda's part and bitter feelings on Rebecca's, but with a gleam of mutual understanding.
Mrs. Cobb, who was a master hand at coloring, dipped the offending quills in brown dye and left them to soak in it all night, not only making them a nice warm color, but somewhat weakening their rocky spines, so that they were not quite as rampantly hideous as before, in Rebecca's opinion.
Then Mrs. Perkins went to her bandbox in the attic and gave Miss Dearborn some pale blue velvet, with which she bound the brim of the brown turban and made a wonderful rosette, out of which the porcupine's defensive armor sprang, buoyantly and gallantly, like the plume of Henry of Navarre.
Rebecca was resigned, if not greatly comforted, but she had grace enough to conceal her feelings, now that she knew economy was at the root of some of her aunt's decrees in matters of dress; and she managed to forget the solferino breast, save in sleep, where a vision of it had a way of appearing to her, dangling from the ceiling, and dazzling her so with its rich color that she used to hope the milliner would sell it that she might never be tempted with it when she passed the shop window.
One day, not long afterward, Miss Miranda borrowed Mr. Perkins's horse and wagon and took Rebecca with her on a drive to Union, to see about some sausage meat and head cheese. She intended to call on Mrs. Cobb, order a load of pine wood from Mr. Strout on the way, and leave some rags for a rug with old Mrs. Pease, so that the journey could be made as profitable as possible, consistent with the loss of time and the wear and tear on her second-best black dress.
The red-winged black hat was forcibly removed from Rebecca's head just before starting, and the nightmare turban substituted.
"You might as well begin to wear it first as last," remarked Miranda, while Jane stood in the side door and sympathized secretly with Rebecca.
"I will!" said Rebecca, ramming the stiff turban down on her head with a vindictive grimace, and snapping the elastic under her long braids; "but it makes me think of what Mr. Robinson said when the minister told him his mother-in-law would ride in the same buggy with him at his wife's funeral."
"I can't see how any speech of Mr. Robinson's, made years an' years ago, can have anything to do with wearin' your turban down to Union," said Miranda, settling the lap robe over her knees.
"Well, it can; because he said: Have it that way, then, but it'll spile the hull blamed trip for me!'"
Jane closed the door suddenly, partly because she experienced a desire to smile (a desire she had not felt for years before Rebecca came to the brick house to live), and partly because she had no wish to overhear what her sister would say when she took in the full significance of Rebecca's anecdote, which was a favorite one with Mr. Perkins.
It was a cold blustering day with a high wind that promised to bring an early fall of snow. The trees were stripped bare of leaves, the ground was hard, and the wagon wheels rattled noisily over the thank-you-ma'ams.
"I'm glad I wore my Paisley shawl over my cloak," said Miranda. "Be you warm enough, Rebecca? Tie that white rigolette tighter round your neck. The wind fairly blows through my bones. I most wish t we'd waited till a pleasanter day, for this Union road is all up hill or down, and we shan't get over the ground fast, it's so rough. Don't forget, when you go into Scott's, to say I want all the trimmin's when they send me the pork, for mebbe I can try out a little mite o' lard. The last load o' pine's gone turrible quick; I must see if "Bijah Flagg can't get us some cut-rounds at the mills, when he hauls for Squire Bean next time. Keep your mind on your drivin', Rebecca, and don't look at the trees and the sky so much. It's the same sky and same trees that have been here right along. Go awful slow down this hill and walk the hoss over Cook's Brook bridge, for I always suspicion it's goin' to break down under me, an' I shouldn't want to be dropped into that fast runnin' water this cold day. It'll be froze stiff by this time next week. Hadn't you better get out and lead"--
The rest of the sentence was very possibly not vital, but at any rate it was never completed, for in the middle of the bridge a fierce gale of wind took Miss Miranda's Paisley shawl and blew it over her head. The long heavy ends whirled in opposite directions and wrapped themselves tightly about her wavering bonnet. Rebecca had the whip and the reins, and in trying to rescue her struggling aunt could not steady her own hat, which was suddenly torn from her head and tossed against the bridge rail, where it trembled and flapped for an instant.
"My hat! Oh! Aunt Miranda, my hateful hat!" cried Rebecca, never remembering at the instant how often she had prayed that the "fretful porcupine" might some time vanish in this violent manner, since it refused to die a natural death.
She had already stopped the horse, so, giving her aunt's shawl one last desperate twitch, she slipped out between the wagon wheels, and darted in the direction of the hated object, the loss of which had dignified it with a temporary value and importance.
The stiff brown turban rose in the air, then dropped and flew along the bridge; Rebecca pursued; it danced along and stuck between two of the railings; Rebecca flew after it, her long braids floating in the wind.
"Come back"! Come back! Don't leave me alone with the team. I won't have it! Come back, and leave your hat!"
Miranda had at length extricated herself from the submerging shawl, but she was so blinded by the wind, and so confused that she did not measure the financial loss involved in her commands.
Rebecca heard, but her spirit being in arms, she made one more mad scramble for the vagrant hat, which now seemed possessed with an evil spirit, for it flew back and forth, and bounded here and there, like a living thing, finally distinguishing itself by blowing between the horse's front and hind legs, Rebecca trying to circumvent it by going around the wagon, and meeting it on the other side.
It was no use; as she darted from behind the wheels the wind gave the hat an extra whirl, and scurrying in the opposite direction it soared above the bridge rail and disappeared into the rapid water below.
"Get in again!" cried Miranda, holding on her bonnet. "You done your best and it can't be helped, I only wish't I'd let you wear your black hat as you wanted to; and I wish't we'd never come such a day! The shawl has broke the stems of the velvet geraniums in my bonnet, and the wind has blowed away my shawl pin and my back comb. I'd like to give up and turn right back this minute, but I don't like to borrer Perkins's hoss again this month. When we get up in the woods you can smooth your hair down and tie the rigolette over your head and settle what's left of my bonnet; it'll be an expensive errant, this will!"
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It was not till next morning that Rebecca's heart really began its song of thanksgiving. Her Aunt Miranda announced at breakfast, that as Mrs. Perkins was going to Milliken's Mills, Rebecca might go too, and buy a serviceable hat.
"You mustn't pay over two dollars and a half, and you mustn't get the pink bird without Mrs. Perkins says, and the milliner says, that it won't fade nor moult. Don't buy a light-colored felt because you'll get sick of it in two or three years same as you did the brown one. I always liked the shape of the brown one, and you'll never get another trimmin' that'll wear like them quills."
"I hope not!" thought Rebecca.
"If you had put your elastic under your chin, same as you used to, and not worn it behind because you think it's more grown-up an' fash'onable, the wind never'd a' took the hat off your head, and you wouldn't a' lost it; but the mischief's done and you can go right over to Mis' Perkins now, so you won't miss her nor keep her waitin'. The two dollars and a half is in an envelope side o' the clock."
Rebecca swallowed the last spoonful of picked-up codfish on her plate, wiped her lips, and rose from her chair happier than the seraphs in Paradise.
The porcupine quills had disappeared from her life, and without any fault or violence on her part. She was wholly innocent and virtuous, but nevertheless she was going to have a new hat with the solferino breast, should the adored object prove, under rigorous examination, to be practically indestructible.
"Whene'er I take my walks abroad,
So she improvised, secretly and ecstatically, as she went towards the side entry.
"There's 'Bijah Flagg drivin' in," said Miss Miranda, going to the window. "Step out and see what he's got, Jane; some passel from the Squire, I guess. It's a paper bag and it may be a punkin, though he wouldn't wrop up a punkin, come to think of it! Shet the dinin' room door, Jane; it's turrible drafty. Make haste, for the Squire's hoss never stan's still a minute cept when he's goin'!"
Abijah Flagg alighted and approached the side door with a grin.
"Guess what I've got for ye, Rebecky?"
No throb of prophetic soul warned Rebecca of her approaching doom.
"Nodhead apples?" she sparkled, looking as bright and rosy and satin-skinned as an apple herself.
"No; guess again."
"A flowering geranium?"
"Nuts? Oh! I can't, " Bijah; I'm just going to Milliken's Mills on an errand, and I'm afraid of missing Mrs. Perkins. Show me quick! Is it really for me, or for Aunt Miranda?
"Reely for you, I guess!" and he opened the large brown paper bag and drew from it the remains of a water-soaked hat!
They were remains, but there was no doubt of their nature and substance. They had clearly been a hat in the past, and one could even suppose that, when resuscitated, they might again assume their original form in some near and happy future.
Miss Miranda, full of curiosity, joined the group in the side entry at this dramatic moment.
"Well, I never!" she exclaimed. "Where, and how under the canopy, did you ever?"
"I was working on the dam at Union Falls yesterday," chuckled Abijah, with a pleased glance at each of the trio in turn, "an' I seen this little bunnit skippin' over the water jest as Becky does over the road. It's shaped kind o' like a boat, an' gorry, ef it wa'nt sailin' jest like a boat! Where hev I seen that kind of a bristlin' plume?' thinks I."
("Where indeed!" thought Rebecca stormily.)
"Then it come to me that I'd drove that plume to school and drove it to meetin' and drove it to the Fair an'drove it most everywheres on Becky. So I reached out a pole an' ketched it fore it got in amongst the logs an' come to any damage, an' here it is! The hat's passed in its checks, I guess; looks kind as if a wet elephant had stepped on it; but the plume's bout's good as new! I reely fetched the hat beck for the sake o' the plume."
"It was real good of you, 'Bijah, an' we're all of us obliged to you," said Miranda, as she poised the hat on one hand and turned it slowly with the other.
"Well, I do say," she exclaimed, "and I guess I've said it before, that of all the wearing' plumes that ever I see, that one's the wearin'est! Seems though it just wouldn't give up. Look at the way it's held Mis' Cobb's dye; it's about as brown's when it went int' the water."
"Dyed, but not a mite dead," grinned Abijah, who was somewhat celebrated for his puns.
"And I declare," Miranda continued, "when you think o' the fuss they make about ostriches, killin' em off by hundreds for the sake o' their feathers that'll string out and spoil in one hard rainstorm,--an' all the time lettin' useful porcupines run round with their quills on, why I can't hardly understand it, without milliners have found out jest how good they do last, an' so they won't use em for trimmin'. 'Bijah's right; the hat ain't no more use, Rebecca, but you can buy you another this mornin'--any color or shape you fancy--an' have Miss Morton sew these brown quills on to it with some kind of a buckle or a bow, jest to hide the roots. Then you'll be fixed for another season, thanks to 'Bijah."
Uncle Jerry and Aunt Sarah Cobb were made acquainted before very long with the part that destiny, or Abijah Flagg, had played in Rebecca's affairs, for, accompanied by the teacher, she walked to the old stage driver's that same afternoon. Taking off her new hat with the venerable trimming, she laid it somewhat ostentatiously upside down on the kitchen table and left the room, dimpling a little more than usual.
Uncle Jerry rose from his seat, and, crossing the room, looked curiously into the hat and found that a circular paper lining was neatly pinned in the crown, and that it bore these lines, which were read aloud with great effect by Miss Dearborn, and with her approval were copied in the Thought Book for the benefit of posterity:
"It was the bristling porcupine, As he stood on his native heath, He said, I'll pluck me some immortelles And make me up a wreath. For tho' I may not live myself To more than a hundred and ten, My quills will last till crack of doom, And maybe after then. They can be colored blue or green Or orange, brown, or red, But often as they may be dyed They never will be dead.' And so the bristling porcupine As he stood on his native heath, Said, I think I'll pluck me some immmortelles And make me up a wreath.'