New Chronicles of Rebecca by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Fifth Chronicle: The Saving of the Colors
Even when Rebecca had left school, having attained the great age of seventeen and therefore able to look back over a past incredibly long and full, she still reckoned time not by years, but by certain important occurrences.
There was the year her father died; the year she left Sunnybrook Farm to come to her aunts in Riverboro; the year Sister Hannah became engaged; the year little Mira died; the year Abijah Flagg ceased to be Squire Bean's chore-boy, and astounded Riverboro by departing for Limerick Academy in search of an education; and finally the year of her graduation, which, to the mind of seventeen, seems rather the culmination than the beginning of existence.
Between these epoch-making events certain other happenings stood out in bold relief against the gray of dull daily life.
There was the day she first met her friend of friends, "Mr. Aladdin," and the later, even more radiant one when he gave her the coral necklace. There was the day the Simpson family moved away from Riverboro under a cloud, and she kissed Clara Belle fervently at the cross-roads, telling her that she would always be faithful. There was the visit of the Syrian missionaries to the brick house. That was a bright, romantic memory, as strange and brilliant as the wonderful little birds' wings and breasts that the strangers brought from the Far East. She remembered the moment they asked her to choose some for herself, and the rapture with which she stroked the beautiful things as they lay on the black haircloth sofa. Then there was the coming of the new minister, for though many were tried only one was chosen; and finally there was the flag-raising, a festivity that thrilled Riverboro and Edgewood society from centre to circumference, a festivity that took place just before she entered the Female Seminary at Wareham and said good-by to kind Miss Dearborn and the village school.
There must have been other flag-raisings in history,--even the persons most interested in this particular one would grudgingly have allowed that much,--but it would have seemed to them improbable that any such flag-raising as theirs, either in magnitude of conception or brilliancy of actual performance, could twice glorify the same century. Of some pageants it is tacitly admitted that there can be no duplicates, and the flag-raising at Riverboro Centre was one of these; so that it is small wonder if Rebecca chose it as one of the important dates in her personal almanac.
The new minister's wife was the being, under Providence, who had conceived the germinal idea of the flag.
At this time the parish had almost settled down to the trembling belief that they were united on a pastor. In the earlier time a minister was chosen for life, and if he had faults, which was a probably enough contingency, and if his congregation had any, which is within the bounds of possibility, each bore with the other (not quite without friction), as old-fashioned husbands and wives once did, before the easy way out of the difficulty was discovered, or at least before it was popularized.
The faithful old parson had died after thirty years' preaching, and perhaps the newer methods had begun to creep in, for it seemed impossible to suit the two communities most interested in the choice.
The Rev. Mr. Davis, for example, was a spirited preacher, but persisted in keeping two horses in the parsonage stable, and in exchanging them whenever he could get faster ones. As a parochial visitor he was incomparable, dashing from house to house with such speed that he could cover the parish in a single afternoon. This sporting tendency, which would never have been remarked in a British parson, was frowned upon in a New England village, and Deacon Milliken told Mr. Davis, when giving him what he alluded to as his "walking papers," that they didn't want the Edgewood church run by hoss power!
The next candidate pleased Edgewood, where morning preaching was held, but the other parish, which had afternoon service, declined to accept him because he wore a wig--an ill-matched, crookedly applied wig.
Number three was eloquent but given to gesticulation, and Mrs. Jere Burbank, the president of the Dorcas Society, who sat in a front pew, said she couldn't bear to see a preacher scramble round the pulpit hot Sundays.
Number four, a genial, handsome man, gifted in prayer, was found to be a Democrat. The congregation was overwhelmingly Republican in its politics, and perceived something ludicrous, if not positively blasphemous, in a Democrat preaching the gospel. ("Ananias and Beelzebub'll be candidatin' here, first thing we know!" exclaimed the outraged Republican nominee for district attorney.)
Number five had a feeble-minded child, which the hiring committee prophesied, would always be standing in the parsonage front yard, making talk for the other denominations.
Number six was the Rev. Judson Baxter, the present incumbent; and he was voted to be as near perfection as a minister can be in this finite world. His young wife had a small income of her own, a distinct and unusual advantage, and the subscription committee hoped that they might not be eternally driving over the country to get somebody's fifty cents that had been over-due for eight months, but might take their onerous duties a little more easily.
"It does seem as if our ministers were the poorest lot!" complained Mrs. Robinson. "If their salary is two months behindhand they begin to be nervous! Seems as though they might lay up a little before they come here, and not live from hand to mouth so! The Baxters seem quite different, and I only hope they won't get wasteful and run into debt. They say she keeps the parlor blinds open bout half the time, and the room is lit up so often evenin's that the neighbors think her and Mr. Baxter must set in there. It don't seem hardly as if it could be so, but Mrs. Buzzell says tis, and she says we might as well say good-by to the parlor carpet, which is church property, for the Baxters are living all over it!"
This criticism was the only discordant note in the chorus of praise, and the people gradually grew accustomed to the open blinds and the overused parlor carpet, which was just completing its twenty-fifth year of honest service.
Mrs. Baxter communicated her patriotic idea of a new flag to the Dorcas Society, proposing that the women should cut and make it themselves.
"It may not be quite as good as those manufactured in the large cities," she said, "but we shall be proud to see our home-made flag flying in the breeze, and it will mean all the more to the young voters growing up, to remember that their mothers made it with their own hands."
"How would it do to let some of the girls help?" modestly asked Miss Dearborn, the Riverboro teacher. "We might choose the best sewers and let them put in at least a few stitches, so that they can feel they have a share in it."
"Just the thing!" exclaimed Mrs. Baxter. "We can cut the stripes and sew them together, and after we have basted on the white stars the girls can apply them to the blue ground. We must have it ready for the campaign rally, and we couldn't christen it at a better time than in this presidential year."
In this way the great enterprise was started, and day by day the preparations went forward in the two villages.
The boys, as future voters and fighters, demanded an active share in the proceedings, and were organized by Squire Bean into a fife and drum corps, so that by day and night martial but most inharmonious music woke the echoes, and deafened mothers felt their patriotism oozing out at the soles of their shoes.
Dick Carter was made captain, for his grandfather had a gold medal given him by Queen Victoria for rescuing three hundred and twenty-six passengers from a sinking British vessel. Riverboro thought it high time to pay some graceful tribute to Great Britain in return for her handsome conduct to Captain Nahum Carter, and human imagination could contrive nothing more impressive than a vicarious share in the flag raising.
Living Perkins tried to be happy in the ranks, for he was offered no official position, principally, Mrs. Smellie observed, because "his father's war record wa'nt clean." "Oh, yes! Jim Perkins went to the war," she continued. "He hid out behind the hencoop when they was draftin', but they found him and took him along. He got into one battle, too, somehow or nother, but he run away from it. He was allers cautious, Jim was; if he ever see trouble of any kind comin' towards him, he was out o' sight fore it got a chance to light. He said eight dollars a month, without bounty, wouldn't pay him to stop bullets for. He wouldn't fight a skeeter, Jim wouldn't, but land! we ain't to war all the time, and he's a good neighbor and a good blacksmith."
Miss Dearborn was to be Columbia and the older girls of the two schools were to be the States. Such trade in muslins and red, white, and blue ribbons had never been known since "Watson kep' store," and the number of brief white petticoats hanging out to bleach would have caused the passing stranger to imagine Riverboro a continual dancing school.
Juvenile virtue, both male and female, reached an almost impossible height, for parents had only to lift a finger and say, "you shan't go to the flag raising!" and the refractory spirit at once armed itself for new struggles toward the perfect life.
Mr. Jeremiah Cobb had consented to impersonate Uncle Sam, and was to drive Columbia and the States to the "raising" on the top of his own stage. Meantime the boys were drilling, the ladies were cutting and basting and stitching, and the girls were sewing on stars; for the starry part of the spangled banner was to remain with each of them in turn until she had performed her share of the work.
It was felt by one and all a fine and splendid service indeed to help in the making of the flag, and if Rebecca was proud to be of the chosen ones, so was her Aunt Jane Sawyer, who had taught her all her delicate stitches.
On a long-looked-for afternoon in August the minister's wife drove up to the brick house door, and handed out the great piece of bunting to Rebecca, who received it in her arms with as much solemnity as if it had been a child awaiting baptismal rites.
"I'm so glad!" she sighed happily. "I thought it would never come my turn!"
"You should have had it a week ago, but Huldah Meserve upset the ink bottle over her star, and we had to baste on another one. You are the last, though, and then we shall sew the stars and stripes together, and Seth Strout will get the top ready for hanging. Just think, it won't be many days before you children will be pulling the rope with all your strength, the band will be playing, the men will be cheering, and the new flag will go higher and higher, till the red, white, and blue shows against the sky!"
Rebecca's eyes fairly blazed. "Shall I fell on' my star, or buttonhole it?" she asked.
"Look at all the others and make the most beautiful stitches you can, that's all. It is your star, you know, and you can even imagine it is your state, and try and have it the best of all. If everybody else is trying to do the same thing with her state, that will make a great country, won't it?"
Rebecca's eyes spoke glad confirmation of the idea. "My star, my state!" she repeated joyously. "Oh, Mrs. Baxter, I'll make such fine stitches you'll think the white grew out of the blue!"
The new minister's wife looked pleased to see her spark kindle a flame in the young heart. "You can sew so much of yourself into your star," she went on in the glad voice that made her so winsome, "that when you are an old lady you can put on your specs and find it among all the others. Good-by! Come up to the parsonage Saturday afternoon; Mr. Baxter wants to see you."
"Judson, help that dear little genius of a Rebecca all you can!" she said that night, when they were cosily talking in their parlor and living "all over" the parish carpet. "I don't know what she may, or may not, come to, some day; I only wish she were ours! If you could have seen her clasp the flag tight in her arms and put her cheek against it, and watched the tears of feeling start in her eyes when I told her that her star was her state! I kept whispering to myself, Covet not thy neighbor's child!'"
Daily at four o'clock Rebecca scrubbed her hands almost to the bone, brushed her hair, and otherwise prepared herself in body, mind, and spirit for the consecrated labor of sewing on her star. All the time that her needle cautiously, conscientiously formed the tiny stitches she was making rhymes "in her head," her favorite achievement being this:
"Your star, my star, all our stars together, They make the dear old banner proud To float in the bright fall weather."
There was much discussion as to which of the girls should impersonate the State of Maine, for that was felt to be the highest honor in the gift of the committee.
Alice Robinson was the prettiest child in the village, but she was very shy and by no means a general favorite.
Minnie Smellie possessed the handsomest dress and a pair of white slippers and open-work stockings that nearly carried the day. Still, as Miss Delia Weeks well said, she was so stupid that if she should suck her thumb in the very middle of the exercises nobody'd be a dite surprised!
Huldah Meserve was next voted upon, and the fact that if she were not chosen her father might withdraw his subscription to the brass band fund was a matter for grave consideration.
"I kind o' hate to have such a giggler for the State of Maine; let her be the Goddess of Liberty," proposed Mrs. Burbank, whose patriotism was more local than national.
"How would Rebecca Randall do for Maine, and let her speak some of her verses?" suggested the new minister's wife, who, could she have had her way, would have given all the prominent parts to Rebecca, from Uncle Sam down.
So, beauty, fashion, and wealth having been tried and found wanting, the committee discussed the claims of talent, and it transpired that to the awe-stricken Rebecca fell the chief plum in the pudding. It was a tribute to her gifts that there was no jealousy or envy among the other girls; they readily conceded her special fitness for the role.
Her life had not been pressed down full to the brim of pleasures, and she had a sort of distrust of joy in the bud. Not until she saw it in full radiance of bloom did she dare embrace it. She had never read any verse but Byron, Felicia Hemans, bits of "Paradise Lost," and the selections in the school readers, but she would have agreed heartily with the poet who said:
"Not by appointment do we meet delight And joy; they heed not our expectancy; But round some corner in the streets of life They on a sudden clasp us with a smile."
For many nights before the raising, when she went to her bed she said to herself, after she had finished her prayers: "It can't be true that I'm chosen for the State of Maine! It just CAN'T be true! Nobody could be good enough, but oh, I'll try to be as good as I can! To be going to Wareham Seminary next week and to be the State of Maine too! Oh! I must pray hard to God to keep me meek and humble!"
The flag was to be raised on a Tuesday, and on the previous Sunday it became known to the children that Clara Belle Simpson was coming back from Acreville, coming to live with Mrs. Fogg and take care of the baby, called by the neighborhood boys "the Fogg horn," on account of his excellent voice production.
Clara Belle was one of Miss Dearborn's original flock, and if she were left wholly out of the festivities she would be the only girl of suitable age to be thus slighted; it seemed clear to the juvenile mind, therefore, that neither she nor her descendants would ever recover from such a blow. But, under all the circumstances, would she be allowed to join in the procession? Even Rebecca, the optimistic, feared not, and the committee confirmed her fears by saying that Abner Simpson's daughter certainly could not take any prominent part in the ceremony, but they hoped that Mrs. Fogg would allow her to witness it.
When Abner Simpson, urged by the town authorities, took his wife and seven children away from Riverboro to Acreville, just over the border in the next county, Riverboro went to bed leaving its barn and shed doors unfastened, and drew long breaths of gratitude to Providence.
Of most winning disposition and genial manners, Mr. Simpson had not that instinctive comprehension of property rights which renders a man a valuable citizen.
Squire Bean was his nearest neighbor, and he conceived the novel idea of paying Simpson five dollars a year not to steal from him, a method occasionally used in the Highlands in the early days.
The bargain was struck, and adhered to religiously for a twelve-month, but on the second of January Mr. Simpson announced the verbal contract as formally broken.
"I didn't know what I was doin' when I made it, Squire," he urged. "In the first place, it's a slur on my reputation and an injury to my self-respect. Secondly, it's a nervous strain on me; and thirdly, five dollars don't pay me!"
Squire Bean was so struck with the unique and convincing nature of these arguments that he could scarcely restrain his admiration, and he confessed to himself afterward, that unless Simpson's mental attitude could be changed he was perhaps a fitter subject for medical science than the state prison.
Abner was a most unusual thief, and conducted his operations with a tact and neighborly consideration none too common in the profession. He would never steal a man's scythe in haying-time, nor his fur lap-robe in the coldest of the winter. The picking of a lock offered no attractions to him; "he wa'n't no burglar," he would have scornfully asserted. A strange horse and wagon hitched by the roadside was the most flagrant of his thefts; but it was the small things--the hatchet or axe on the chopping-block, the tin pans sunning at the side door, a stray garment bleaching on the grass, a hoe, rake, shovel, or a bag of early potatoes, that tempted him most sorely; and these appealed to him not so much for their intrinsic value as because they were so excellently adapted to swapping. The swapping was really the enjoyable part of the procedure, the theft was only a sad but necessary preliminary; for if Abner himself had been a man of sufficient property to carry on his business operations independently, it is doubtful if he would have helped himself so freely to his neighbor's goods.
Riverboro regretted the loss of Mrs. Simpson, who was useful in scrubbing, cleaning, and washing, and was thought to exercise some influence over her predatory spouse. There was a story of their early married life, when they had a farm; a story to the effect that Mrs. Simpson always rode on every load of hay that her husband took to Milltown, with the view of keeping him sober through the day. After he turned out of the country road and approached the metropolis, it was said that he used to bury the docile lady in the load. He would then drive on to the scales, have the weight of the hay entered in the buyer's book, take his horses to the stable for feed and water, and when a favorable opportunity offered he would assist the hot and panting Mrs. Simpson out of the side or back of the rack, and gallantly brush the straw from her person. For this reason it was always asserted that Abner Simpson sold his wife every time he went to Milltown, but the story was never fully substantiated, and at all events it was the only suspected blot on meek Mrs. Simpson's personal reputation.
As for the Simpson children, they were missed chiefly as familiar figures by the roadside; but Rebecca honestly loved Clara Belle, notwithstanding her Aunt Miranda's opposition to the intimacy. Rebecca's "taste for low company" was a source of continual anxiety to her aunt.
"Anything that's human flesh is good enough for her!" Miranda groaned to Jane. "She'll ride with the rag-sack-and-bottle peddler just as quick as she would with the minister; she always sets beside the St. Vitus' dance young one at Sabbath school; and she's forever riggin' and onriggin' that dirty Simpson baby! She reminds me of a puppy that'll always go to everybody that'll have him!"
It was thought very creditable to Mrs. Fogg that she sent for Clara Belle to live with her and go to school part of the year.
"She'll be useful" said Mrs. Fogg, "and she'll be out of her father's way, and so keep honest; though she's no awful hombly I've no fears for her. A girl with her red hair, freckles, and cross-eyes can't fall into no kind of sin, I don't believe."
Mrs. Fogg requested that Clara Belle should be started on her journey from Acreville by train and come the rest of the way by stage, and she was disturbed to receive word on Sunday that Mr. Simpson had borrowed a "good roader" from a new acquaintance, and would himself drive the girl from Acreville to Riverboro, a distance of thirty-five miles. That he would arrive in their vicinity on the very night before the flag-raising was thought by Riverboro to be a public misfortune, and several residents hastily determined to deny themselves a sight of the festivities and remain watchfully on their own premises.
On Monday afternoon the children were rehearsing their songs at the meeting-house. As Rebecca came out on the broad wooden steps she watched Mrs. Peter Meserve's buggy out of sight, for in front, wrapped in a cotton sheet, lay the previous flag. After a few chattering good-bys and weather prophecies with the other girls, she started on her homeward walk, dropping in at the parsonage to read her verses to the minister.
He welcomed her gladly as she removed her white cotton gloves (hastily slipped on outside the door, for ceremony) and pushed back the funny hat with the yellow and black porcupine quills-- the hat with which she made her first appearance in Riverboro society.
"You've heard the beginning, Mr. Baxter; now will you please tell me if you like the last verse?" she asked, taking out her paper. "I've only read it to Alice Robinson, and I think perhaps she can never be a poet, though she's a splendid writer. Last year when she was twelve she wrote a birthday poem to herself, and she made natal' rhyme with Milton,.' which, of course, it wouldn't. I remember every verse ended:
'This is my day so natal
Another one of hers was written just because she couldn't help it, she said. This was it:
'Let me to the hills away,
The minister could scarcely refrain from smiling, but he controlled himself that he might lose none of Rebecca's quaint observations. When she was perfectly at ease, unwatched and uncriticised, she was a marvelous companion.
"The name of the poem is going to be My Star,'" she continued, "and Mrs. Baxter gave me all the ideas, but somehow there's a kind of magicness when they get into poetry, don't you think so?" (Rebecca always talked to grown people as if she were their age, or, a more subtle and truer distinction, as if they were hers.)
"It has often been so remarked, in different words," agreed the minister.
"Mrs. Baxter said that each star was a state, and if each state did its best we should have a splendid country. Then once she said that we ought to be glad the war is over and the States are all at peace together; and I thought Columbia must be glad, too, for Miss Dearborn says she's the mother of all the States. So I'm going to have it end like this: I didn't write it, I just sewed it while I was working on my star:
For it's your star, my star, all the stars together,
"'Oh! many are the poets that are sown by nature,'" thought the minister, quoting Wordsworth to himself. "And I wonder what becomes of them! That's a pretty idea, little Rebecca, and I don't know whether you or my wife ought to have the more praise. What made you think of the stars lying on the flag's mother-breast'? Where did you get that word?"
"Why" (and the young poet looked rather puzzled), "that's the way it is; the flag is the whole country--the mother--and the stars are the states. The stars had to lie somewhere: 'lap' nor 'arms' wouldn't sound well with West,' so, of course, I said 'breast,'" Rebecca answered, with some surprise at the question; and the minister put his hand under her chin and kissed her softly on the forehead when he said good-by at the door.
Rebecca walked rapidly along in the gathering twilight, thinking of the eventful morrow.
As she approached the turning on the left called the old Milltown road, she saw a white horse and wagon, driven by a man with a rakish, flapping, Panama hat, come rapidly around the turn and disappear over the long hills leading down to the falls. There was no mistaking him; there never was another Abner Simpson, with his lean height, his bushy reddish hair, the gay cock of his hat, and the long piratical, upturned mustaches, which the boys used to say were used as hat-racks by the Simpson children at night.. The old Milltown road ran past Mrs. Fogg's house, so he must have left Clara Belle there, and Rebecca's heart glowed to think that her poor little friend need not miss the raising.
She began to run now, fearful of being late for supper, and covered the ground to the falls in a brief time. As she crossed the bridge she again saw Abner Simpson's team, drawn up at the watering trough.
Coming a little nearer, with the view of inquiring for the family, her quick eye caught sight of something unexpected. A gust of wind blew up a corner of a linen lap-robe in the back of the wagon, and underneath it she distinctly saw the white-sheeted bundle that held the flag; the bundle with a tiny, tiny spot of red bunting peeping out at one corner. It is true she had eaten, slept, dreamed red, white, and blue for weeks, but there was no mistaking the evidence of her senses; the idolized flag, longed for, worked for, sewed for, that flag was in the back of Abner Simpson's wagon, and if so, what would become of the raising?
Acting on blind impulse, she ran toward the watering-trough, calling out in her clear treble: "Mr. Simpson! Oh, Mr. Simpson, will you let me ride a piece with you and hear all about Clara Belle? I'm going part way over to the Centre on an errand." (So she was; a most important errand,--to recover the flag of her country at present in the hands of the foe!)
Mr. Simpson turned round in his seat and cried heartily, "Certain sure I will!" for he liked the fair sex, young and old, and Rebecca had always been a prime favorite with him. "Climb right in! How's everybody? Glad to see ye! The folks talk bout ye from sun-up to sun-down, and Clara Belle can't hardly wait for a sight of ye!"
Rebecca scrambled up, trembling and pale with excitement. She did not in the least know what was going to happen, but she was sure that the flag, when in the enemy's country, must be at least a little safer with the State of Maine sitting on top of it!
Mr. Simpson began a long monologue about Acreville, the house he lived in, the pond in front of it, Mrs. Simpson's health, and various items of news about the children, varied by reports of his personal misfortunes. He put no questions, and asked no replies, so this gave the inexperienced soldier a few seconds to plan a campaign. There were three houses to pass; the Browns' at the corner, the Millikens', and the Robinsons' on the brow of the hill. If Mr. Robinson were in the front yard she might tell Mr. Simpson she wanted to call there and ask Mr. Robinson to hold the horse's head while she got out of the wagon. Then she might fly to the back before Mr. Simpson could realize the situation, and dragging out the precious bundle, sit on it hard, while Mr. Robinson settled the matter of ownership with Mr. Simpson.
This was feasible, but it meant a quarrel between the two men, who held an ancient grudge against each other, and Mr. Simpson was a valiant fighter as the various sheriffs who had attempted to arrest him could cordially testify. It also meant that everybody in the village would hear of the incident and poor Clara Belle be branded again as the child of a thief.
Another idea danced into her excited brain; such a clever one she could hardly believe it hers. She might call Mr. Robinson to the wagon, and when he came close to the wheels she might say, "all of a sudden": "Please take the flag out of the back of the wagon, Mr. Robinson. We have brought it here for you to keep overnight." Mr. Simpson might be so surprised that he would give up his prize rather than be suspected of stealing.
But as they neared the Robinsons' house there was not a sign of life to be seen; so the last plan, ingenious though it was, was perforce abandoned.
The road now lay between thick pine woods with no dwelling in sight. It was growing dusk and Rebecca was driving along the lonely way with a person who was generally called Slippery Simpson.
Not a thought of fear crossed her mind, save the fear of bungling in her diplomacy, and so losing the flag. She knew Mr. Simpson well, and a pleasanter man was seldom to be met. She recalled an afternoon when he came home and surprised the whole school playing the Revolutionary War in his helter-skelter dooryard, and the way in which he had joined the British forces and impersonated General Burgoyne had greatly endeared him to her. The only difficulty was to find proper words for her delicate mission, for, of course, if Mr. Simpson's anger were aroused, he would politely push her out of the wagon and drive away with the flag. Perhaps if she led the conversation in the right direction an opportunity would present itself. She well remembered how Emma Jane Perkins had failed to convert Jacob Moody, simply because she failed to "lead up" to the delicate question of his manner of life. Clearing her throat nervously, she began: "Is it likely to be fair tomorrow?"
"Guess so; clear as a bell. What's on foot; a picnic?"
"No; we're to have a grand flag-raising!" ("That is," she thought, "if we have any flag to raise!")
"That so? Where?"
"The three villages are to club together and have a rally, and raise the flag at the Centre. There'll be a brass band, and speakers, and the Mayor of Portland, and the man that will be governor if he's elected, and a dinner in the Grange Hall, and we girls are chosen to raise the flag."
"I want to know! That'll be grand, won't it?" (Still not a sign of consciousness on the part of Abner.)
"I hope Mrs. Fogg will take Clara Belle, for it will be splendid to look at! Mr. Cobb is going to be Uncle Sam and drive us on the stage. Miss Dearborn--Clara Belle's old teacher, you know--is going to be Columbia; the girls will be the States of the Union, and oh, Mr. Simpson, I am the one to be the State of Maine!" (This was not altogether to the point, but a piece of information impossible to conceal.)
Mr. Simpson flourished the whipstock and gave a loud, hearty laugh. Then he turned in his seat and regarded Rebecca curiously. "You're kind of small, hain't ye, for so big a state as this one?" he asked.
"Any of us would be too small," replied Rebecca with dignity, "but the committee asked me, and I am going to try hard to do well."
The tragic thought that there might be no occasion for anybody to do anything, well or ill, suddenly overcame her here, and putting her hand on Mr. Simpson's sleeve, she attacked the subject practically and courageously.
"Oh, Mr. Simpson, dear Mr. Simpson, it's such a mortifying subject I can't bear to say anything about it, but please give us back our flag! Don't, don't take it over to Acreville, Mr. Simpson! We've worked so long to make it, and it was so hard getting the money for the bunting! Wait a minute, please; don't be angry, and don't say no just yet, till I explain more. It'll be so dreadful for everybody to get there tomorrow morning and find no flag to raise, and the band and the mayor all disappointed, and the children crying, with their muslin dresses all bought for nothing! O dear Mr. Simpson, please don't take our flag away from us!"
The apparently astonished Abner pulled his mustaches and exclaimed: "But I don't know what you're drivin' at! Who's got yer flag? I hain't!"
Could duplicity, deceit, and infamy go any further, Rebecca wondered, and her soul filling with righteous wrath, she cast discretion to the winds and spoke a little more plainly, bending her great swimming eyes on the now embarrassed Abner, who looked like an angle-worm, wriggling on a pin.
"Mr. Simpson, how can you say that, when I saw the flag in the back of your wagon myself, when you stopped to water the horse? It's wicked of you to take it, and I cannot bear it!" (Her voice broke now, for a doubt of Mr. Simpson's yielding suddenly darkened her mind.) "If you keep it, you'll have to keep me, for I won't be parted from it! I can't fight like the boys, but I can pinch and scratch, and I will scratch, just like a panther--I'll lie right down on my star and not move, if I starve to death!"
"Look here, hold your hosses n' don't cry till you git something to cry for!" grumbled the outraged Abner, to whom a clue had just come; and leaning over the wagon-back he caught hold of a corner of white sheet and dragged up the bundle, scooping off Rebecca's hat in the process, and almost burying her in bunting.
She caught the treasure passionately to her heart and stifled her sobs in it, while Abner exclaimed: "I swan to man, if that hain't a flag! Well, in that case you're good n' welcome to it! Land! I seen that bundle lyin' in the middle o' the road and I says to myself, that's somebody's washin' and I'd better pick it up and leave it at the post-office to be claimed; n' all the time it was a flag!"
This was a Simpsonian version of the matter, the fact being that a white-covered bundle lying on the Meserves' front steps had attracted his practiced eye, and slipping in at the open gate he had swiftly and deftly removed it to his wagon on general principles; thinking if it were clean clothes it would be extremely useful, and in any event there was no good in passing by something flung into your very arms, so to speak. He had had no leisure to examine the bundle, and indeed took little interest in it. Probably he stole it simply from force of habit, and because there was nothing else in sight to steal, everybody's premises being preternaturally tidy and empty, almost as if his visit had been expected!
Rebecca was a practical child, and it seemed to her almost impossible that so heavy a bundle should fall out of Mrs. Meserve's buggy and not be noticed; but she hoped that Mr. Simpson was telling the truth, and she was too glad and grateful to doubt anyone at the moment.
"Thank you, thank you ever so much, Mr. Simpson. You're the nicest, kindest, politest man I ever knew, and the girls will be so pleased you gave us back the flag, and so will the Dorcas Society; they'll be sure to write you a letter of thanks; they always do."
"Tell em not to bother bout any thanks," said Simpson, beaming virtuously. "But land! I'm glad twas me that happened to see that bundle in the road and take the trouble to pick it up." (Jest to think of it's bein' a flag!" he thought; "if ever there was a pesky, wuthless thing to trade off, twould be a great, gormin' flag like that!")
"Can I get out now, please?" asked Rebecca. "I want to go back, for Mrs. Meserve will be dreadfully nervous when she finds out she dropped the flag, and she has heart trouble."
"No, you don't," objected Mr. Simpson gallantly, turning the horse. "Do you think I'd let a little creeter like you lug that great heavy bundle? I hain't got time to go back to Meserve's, but I'll take you to the corner and dump you there, flag n' all, and you can get some o' the men-folks to carry it the rest o' the way. You'll wear it out, huggin' it so!"
"I helped make it and I adore it!" said Rebecca, who was in a high-pitched and grandiloquent mood. "Why don't you like it? It's your country's flag."
Simpson smiled an indulgent smile and looked a trifle bored at these frequent appeals to his extremely rusty higher feelings.
"I don' know's I've got any partic'lar int'rest in the country," he remarked languidly. "I know I don't owe nothin' to it, nor own nothin' in it!"
"You own a star on the flag, same as everybody," argued Rebecca, who had been feeding on patriotism for a month; "and you own a state, too, like all of us!"
"Land! I wish't I did! or even a quarter section!" sighed Mr. Simpson, feeling somehow a little more poverty-stricken and discouraged than usual.
As they approached the corner and the watering-trough where four cross-roads met, the whole neighborhood seemed to be in evidence, and Mr. Simpson suddenly regretted his chivalrous escort of Rebecca; especially when, as he neared the group, an excited lady, wringing her hands, turned out to be Mrs. Peter Meserve, accompanied by Huldah, the Browns, Mrs. Milliken, Abijah Flagg, and Miss Dearborn.
"Do you know anything about the new flag, Rebecca?" shrieked Mrs. Meserve, too agitated, at the moment, to notice the child's companion.
"It's right here in my lap, all safe," responded Rebecca joyously.
"You careless, meddlesome young one, to take it off my steps where I left it just long enough to go round to the back and hunt up my door-key! You've given me a fit of sickness with my weak heart, and what business was it of yours? I believe you think you own the flag! Hand it over to me this minute!"
Rebecca was climbing down during this torrent of language, but as she turned she flashed one look of knowledge at the false Simpson, a look that went through him from head to foot, as if it were carried by electricity.
He had not deceived her after all, owing to the angry chatter of Mrs. Meserve. He had been handcuffed twice in his life, but no sheriff had ever discomfited him so thoroughly as this child. Fury mounted to his brain, and as soon as she was safely out from between the wheels he stood up in the wagon and flung the flag out in the road in the midst of the excited group.
"Take it, you pious, passimonious, cheese-parin', hair-splittin', back-bitin', flag-raisin' crew!" he roared. "Rebecca never took the flag; I found it in the road, I say!"
"You never, no such a thing!" exclaimed Mrs. Meserve. "You found it on the doorsteps in my garden!"
"Mebbe twas your garden, but it was so chock full o' weeks I thought twas the road," retorted Abner. "I vow I wouldn't a' given the old rag back to one o' you, not if you begged me on your bended knees! But Rebecca's a friend o' my folks and can do with her flag's she's a mind to, and the rest o' ye can go to thunder-- n' stay there, for all I care!"
So saying, he made a sharp turn, gave the gaunt white horse a lash and disappeared in a cloud of dust, before the astonished Mr. Brown, the only man in the party, had a thought of detaining him.
"I'm sorry I spoke so quick, Rebecca," said Mrs. Meserve, greatly mortified at the situation. "But don't you believe a word that lyin' critter said! He did steal it off my doorstep, and how did you come to be ridin' and consortin' with him! I believe it would kill your Aunt Miranda if she should hear about it!"
The little school-teacher put a sheltering arm round Rebecca as Mr. Brown picked up the flag and dusted and folded it.
"I'm willing she should hear about it," Rebecca answered. "I didn't do anything to be ashamed of! I saw the flag in the back of Mr. Simpson's wagon and I just followed it. There weren't any men or any Dorcases to take care of it and so it fell to me! You wouldn't have had me let it out of my sight, would you, and we going to raise it tomorrow morning?"
"Rebecca's perfectly right, Mrs. Meserve!" said Miss Dearborn proudly. "And it's lucky there was somebody quick-witted enough to ride and consort' with Mr. Simpson! I don't know what the village will think, but seems to me the town clerk might write down in his book, This day the State of Maine saved the flag!'"