New Chronicles of Rebecca by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Sixth Chronicle: The State of Maine Girl
The foregoing episode, if narrated in a romance, would undoubtedly have been called "The Saving of the Colors," but at the nightly conversazione in Watson's store it was alluded to as the way little Becky Randall got the flag away from Slippery Simpson.
Dramatic as it was, it passed into the limbo of half-forgotten things in Rebecca's mind, its brief importance submerged in the glories of the next day.
There was a painful prelude to these glories. Alice Robinson came to spend the night with Rebecca, and when the bedroom door closed upon the two girls, Alice announced here intention of "doing up" Rebecca's front hair in leads and rags, and braiding the back in six tight, wetted braids.
Rebecca demurred. Alice persisted.
"Your hair is so long and thick and dark and straight," she said, "that you'll look like an Injun!"
"I am the State of Maine; it all belonged to the Indians once," Rebecca remarked gloomily, for she was curiously shy about discussing her personal appearance.
"And your wreath of little pine-cones won't set decent without crimps," continued Alice.
Rebecca glanced in the cracked looking-glass and met what she considered an accusing lack of beauty, a sight that always either saddened or enraged her according to circumstances; then she sat down resignedly and began to help Alice in the philanthropic work of making the State of Maine fit to be seen at the raising.
Neither of the girls was an expert hairdresser, and at the end of an hour, when the sixth braid was tied, and Rebecca had given one last shuddering look in the mirror, both were ready to weep with fatigue.
The candle was blown out and Alice soon went to sleep, but Rebecca tossed on her pillow, its goose-feathered softness all dented by the cruel lead knobs and the knots of twisted rags. She slipped out of bed and walked to and fro, holding her aching head with both hands. Finally she leaned on the window-sill, watching the still weather-vane on Alice's barn and breathing in the fragrance of the ripening apples, until her restlessness subsided under the clear starry beauty of the night.
At six in the morning the girls were out of bed, for Alice could hardly wait until Rebecca's hair was taken down, she was so eager to see the result of her labors.
The leads and rags were painfully removed, together with much hair, the operation being punctuated by a series of squeaks, squeals, and shrieks on the part of Rebecca and a series of warnings from Alice, who wished the preliminaries to be kept secret from the aunts, that they might the more fully appreciate the radiant result.
Then came the unbraiding, and then--dramatic moment--the "combing out;" a difficult, not to say impossible process, in which the hairs that had resisted the earlier stages almost gave up the ghost.
The long front strands had been wound up from various angles and by various methods, so that, when released, they assumed the strangest, most obstinate, most unexpected attitudes. When the comb was dragged through the last braid, the wild, tortured, electric hairs following, and then rebounding from it in a bristling, snarling tangle. Massachusetts gave one encompassing glance at the State o' Maine's head, and announced her intention of going home to breakfast! She was deeply grieved at the result of her attempted beautifying, but she felt that meeting Miss Miranda Sawyer at the morning meal would not mend matters in the least, so slipping out of the side door, she ran up Guide Board hill as fast as her legs could carry her.
The State o' Maine, deserted and somewhat unnerved, sat down before the glass and attacked her hair doggedly and with set lips, working over it until Miss Jane called her to breakfast; then, with a boldness born of despair, she entered the dining room, where her aunts were already seated at table. To "draw fire" she whistled, a forbidden joy, which only attracted more attention, instead of diverting it. There was a moment of silence after the grotesque figure was fully taken in; then came a moan from Jane and a groan from Miranda.
"What have you done to yourself?" asked Miranda sternly.
"Made an effort to be beautiful and failed!" jauntily replied Rebecca, but she was too miserable to keep up the fiction. "Oh, Aunt Miranda, don't scold. I'm so unhappy! Alice and I rolled up my hair to curl it for the raising. She said it was so straight I looked like an Indian!"
"Mebbe you did," vigorously agreed Miranda, "but 't any rate you looked like a Christian Injun, 'n' now you look like a heathen Injun; that's all the difference I can see. What can we do with her, Jane, between this and nine o'clock?"
"We'll all go out to the pump just as soon as we're through breakfast," answered Jane soothingly. "We can accomplish consid'rable with water and force."
Rebecca nibbled her corn-cake, her tearful eyes cast on her plate and her chin quivering.
"Don't you cry and red your eyes up," chided Miranda quite kindly; "the minute you've eat enough run up and get your brush and comb and meet us at the back door."
"I wouldn't care myself how bad I looked," said Rebecca, "but I can't bear to be so homely that I shame the State of Maine!"
Oh, what an hour followed this plaint! Did any aspirant for literary or dramatic honors ever pass to fame through such an antechamber of horrors? Did poet of the day ever have his head so maltreated? To be dipped in the rain-water tub, soused again and again; to be held under the spout and pumped on; to be rubbed furiously with rough roller towels; to be dried with hot flannels! And is it not well-nigh incredible that at the close of such an hour the ends of the long hair should still stand out straight, the braids having been turned up two inches by Alice, and tied hard in that position with linen thread?
"Get out the skirt-board, Jane," cried Miranda, to whom opposition served as a tonic, "and move that flat-iron on to the front o' the stove. Rebecca, set down in that low chair beside the board, and Jane, you spread out her hair on it and cover it up with brown paper. Don't cringe, Rebecca; the worst's over, and you've borne up real good! I'll be careful not to pull your hair nor scorch you, and oh, how I'd like to have Alice Robinson acrost my knee and a good strip o' shingle in my right hand! There, you're all ironed out and your Aunt Jane can put on your white dress and braid your hair up again good and tight. Perhaps you won't be the hombliest of the states, after all; but when I see you comin' in to breakfast I said to myself: I guess if Maine looked like that, it wouldn't never a' been admitted into the Union!'"
When Uncle Sam and the stagecoach drew up to the brick house with a grand swing and a flourish, the goddess of Liberty and most of the States were already in their places on the "harricane deck."
Words fail to describe the gallant bearing of the horses, their headstalls gayly trimmed and their harnesses dotted with little flags. The stage windows were hung in bunting, and from within beamed Columbia, looking out from the bright frame as if proud of her freight of loyal children. Patriotic streamers floated from whip, from dash-board and from rumble, and the effect of the whole was something to stimulate the most phlegmatic voter.
Rebecca came out on the steps and Aunt Jane brought a chair to assist in the ascent. Miss Dearborn peeped from the window, and gave a despairing look at her favorite.
What had happened to her? Who had dressed her? Had her head been put through a wringing-machine? Why were her eyes red and swollen? Miss Dearborn determined to take her behind the trees in the pine grove and give her some finishing touches; touches that her skillful fingers fairly itched to bestow.
The stage started, and as the roadside pageant grew gayer and gayer, Rebecca began to brighten and look prettier, for most of her beautifying came from within. The people, walking, driving, or standing on their doorsteps, cheered Uncle Sam's coach with its freight of gossamer-muslined, fluttering-ribboned girls, and just behind, the gorgeously decorated haycart, driven by Abijah Flagg, bearing the jolly but inharmonious fife-and-drum corps.
Was ever such a golden day! Such crystal air! Such mellow sunshine! Such a merry Uncle Sam!
The stage drew up at an appointed spot near a pine grove, and while the crowd was gathering, the children waited for the hour to arrive when they should march to the platform; the hour toward which they seemed to have been moving since the dawn of creation.
As soon as possible Miss Dearborn whispered to Rebecca: "Come behind the trees with me; I want to make you prettier!"
Rebecca thought she had suffered enough from that process already during the last twelve hours, but she put out an obedient hand and the two withdrew.
Now Miss Dearborn was, I fear, a very indifferent teacher. Dr. Moses always said so, and Libbie Moses, who wanted her school, said it was a pity she hadn't enjoyed more social advantages in her youth. Libbie herself had taken music lessons in Portland; and spent a night at the Profile House in the White Mountains, and had visited her sister in Lowell, Massachusetts. These experiences gave her, in her own mind, and in the mind of her intimate friends, a horizon so boundless that her view of smaller, humbler matters was a trifle distorted.
Miss Dearborn's stock in trade was small, her principal virtues being devotion to children and ability to gain their love, and a power of evolving a schoolroom order so natural, cheery, serene, and peaceful that it gave the beholder a certain sense of being in a district heaven. She was poor in arithmetic and weak in geometry, but if you gave her a rose, a bit of ribbon, and a seven-by-nine looking-glass she could make herself as pretty as a pink in two minutes.
Safely sheltered behind the pines, Miss Dearborn began to practice mysterious feminine arts. She flew at Rebecca's tight braids, opened the strands and rebraided them loosely; bit and tore the red, white, and blue ribbon in two and tied the braids separately. Then with nimble fingers she pulled out little tendrils of hair behind the ears and around the nape of the neck. After a glance of acute disapproval directed at the stiff balloon skirt she knelt on the ground and gave a strenuous embrace to Rebecca's knees, murmuring, between her hugs, "Starch must be cheap at the brick house!"
This particular line of beauty attained, there ensued great pinchings of ruffles, her fingers that could never hold a ferrule nor snap children's ears being incomparable fluting-irons.
Next the sash was scornfully untied and tightened to suggest something resembling a waist. The chastened bows that had been squat, dowdy, spiritless, were given tweaks, flirts, bracing little pokes and dabs, till, acknowledging a master hand, they stood up, piquant, pert, smart, alert!
Pride of bearing was now infused into the flattened lace at the neck, and a pin (removed at some sacrifice from her own toilette) was darned in at the back to prevent any cowardly lapsing. The short white cotton gloves that called attention to the tanned wrist and arms were stripped off and put in her own pocket. Then the wreath of pine-cones was adjusted at a heretofore unimagined angle, the hair was pulled softly into a fluffy frame, and finally, as she met Rebecca's grateful eyes she gave her two approving, triumphant kisses. In a second the sensitive face lighted into happiness; pleased dimples appeared in the cheeks, the kissed mouth was as red as a rose, and the little fright that had walked behind the pine-tree stepped out on the other side Rebecca the lovely.
As to the relative value of Miss Dearborn's accomplishments, the decision must be left to the gentle reader; but though it is certain that children should be properly grounded in mathematics, no heart of flesh could bear to hear Miss Dearborn's methods vilified who had seen her patting, pulling, squeezing Rebecca from ugliness into beauty.
The young superintendent of district schools was a witness of the scene, and when later he noted the children surrounding Columbia as bees a honeysuckle, he observed to Dr. Moses: "She may not be much of a teacher, but I think she'd be considerable of a wife!" and subsequent events proved that he meant what he said!
Now all was ready; the moment of fate was absolutely at hand; the fife-and-drum corps led the way and the States followed; but what actually happened Rebecca never knew; she lived through the hours in a waking dream. Every little detail was a facet of light that reflected sparkles, and among them all she was fairly dazzled. The brass band played inspiring strains; the mayor spoke eloquently on great themes; the people cheered; then the rope on which so much depended was put into the children's hands, they applied superhuman strength to their task, and the flag mounted, mounted, smoothly and slowly, and slowly unwound and stretched itself until its splendid size and beauty were revealed against the maples and pines and blue New England sky.
Then after cheers upon cheers and after a patriotic chorus by the church choirs, the State of Maine mounted the platform, vaguely conscious that she was to recite a poem, though for the life of her she could not remember a single word.
"Speak up loud and clear, Rebecky," whispered Uncle Sam in the front row, but she could scarcely hear her own voice when, tremblingly, she began her first line. After that she gathered strength and the poem "said itself," while the dream went on.
She saw Adam Ladd leaning against a tree; Aunt Jane and Aunt Miranda palpitating with nervousness; Clara Belle Simpson gazing cross-eyed but adoring from a seat on the side; and in the far, far distance, on the very outskirts of the crowd, a tall man standing in a wagon--a tall, loose-jointed man with red upturned mustaches, and a gaunt white horse headed toward the Acreville road.
Loud applause greeted the state of Maine, the slender little white-clad figure standing on the mossy boulder that had been used as the centre of the platform. The sun came up from behind a great maple and shone full on the star-spangled banner, making it more dazzling than ever, so that its beauty drew all eyes upward.
Abner Simpson lifted his vagrant shifting gaze to its softy fluttering folds and its splendid massing of colors, thinking:
"I don't know's anybody'd ought to steal a flag--the thunderin' idjuts seem to set such store by it, and what is it, anyway? Nothin; but a sheet o' buntin!"
Nothing but a sheet of bunting? He looked curiously at the rapt faces of the mothers, their babies asleep in their arms; the parted lips and shining eyes of the white-clad girls; at Cap'n Lord, who had been in Libby prison , and Nat Strout, who had left an arm at Bull Run; at the friendly, jostling crowd of farmers, happy, eager, absorbed, their throats ready to burst with cheers. Then the breeze served, and he heard Rebecca's clear voice saying:
"For it's your star, my star, all the stars together,
"Talk about stars! She's got a couple of em right in her head," thought Simpson. . . . "If I ever seen a young one like that lyin; on anybody's doorstep I'd hook her quicker'n a wink, though I've got plenty to home, the Lord knows! And I wouldn't swap her off neither. . . . Spunky little creeter, too; settin; up in the wagon lookin' bout's big as a pint o' cider, but keepin' right after the goods! . . . I vow I'm bout sick o' my job! Never with the crowd, allers jest on the outside, s if I wa'n't as good's they be! If it paid well, mebbe I wouldn't mind, but they're so thunderin' stingy round here, they don't leave anything decent out for you to take from em, yet you're reskin' your liberty n' reputation jest the same! . . . Countin' the poor pickin's n' the time I lose in jail I might most's well be done with it n' work out by the day, as the folks want me to; I'd make bout's much n' I don't know's it would be any harder!"
He could see Rebecca stepping down from the platform, while his own red-headed little girl stood up on her bench, waving her hat with one hand, her handkerchief with the other, and stamping with both feet.
Now a man sitting beside the mayor rose from his chair and Abner heard him call:
"Three cheers for the women who made the flag!"
"Hip, hip, hurrah!"
"Three cheers for the State of Maine!"
"Hip, hip, hurrah!"
"Three cheers for the girl that saved the flag from the hands of the enemy!"
"Hip, hip, hurrah! Hip, hip, hurrah!"
It was the Edgewood minister, whose full, vibrant voice was of the sort to move a crowd. His words rang out into the clear air and were carried from lip to lip. Hands clapped, feet stamped, hats swung, while the loud huzzahs might almost have wakened the echoes on old Mount Ossipee.
The tall, loose-jointed man sat down in the wagon suddenly and took up the reins.
"They're gettin' a little mite personal, and I guess it's bout time for you to be goin', Simpson!"
The tone was jocular, but the red mustaches drooped, and the half-hearted cut he gave to start the white mare on her homeward journey showed that he was not in his usual devil-may-care mood.
"Durn his skin!" he burst out in a vindictive undertone, as the mare swung into her long gait. "It's a lie! I thought twas somebody's wash! I hain't an enemy!"
While the crowd at the raising dispersed in happy family groups to their picnics in the woods; while the Goddess of Liberty, Uncle Sam, Columbia, and the proud States lunched grandly in the Grange hall with distinguished guests and scarred veterans of two wars, the lonely man drove, and drove, and drove through silent woods and dull, sleepy villages, never alighting to replenish his wardrobe or his stock of swapping material.
At dusk he reached a miserable tumble-down house on the edge of a pond.
The faithful wife with the sad mouth and the habitual look of anxiety in her faded eyes came to the door at the sound of wheels and went doggedly to the horse-shed to help him unharness.
"You didn't expect to see me back tonight, did ye?" he asked satirically; "leastwise not with this same horse? Well, I'm here! You needn't be scairt to look under the wagon seat, there hain't nothin' there, not even my supper, so I hope you're suited for once! No, I guess I hain't goin' to be an angel right away, neither. There wa'n't nothin' but flags layin' roun' loose down Riverboro way, n' whatever they say, I hain't sech a hound as to steal a flag!"
It was natural that young Riverboro should have red, white, and blue dreams on the night after the new flag was raised. A stranger thing, perhaps, is the fact that Abner Simpson should lie down on his hard bed with the flutter of bunting before his eyes, and a whirl of unaccustomed words in his mind.
"For it's your star, my star, all our stars together."
"I'm sick of goin' it alone," he thought; "I guess I'll try the other road for a spell;" and with that he fell asleep.