XXXI. Grooves of Change
 

The winter passed. The snow gradually melted in the meadows and the fields, which first grew brown and then displayed patches of green here and there where the sun fell strongest. There was deep, sticky mud in the roads, and the discouraged farmers urged their horses along with the wheels of their wagons sunk to the hub in ooze. Then there were wet days, the wind ruffling the leaden surface of the river, the sound of the rain dripping from the bare tree-boughs, the smell of the wet grass and the clean, thirsty soil. Milder weather came, then blustery days, then chill damp ones, but steadily life grew, here, there, everywhere, and the ever-new miracle of the awakening earth took place once again. Sap mounted in the trees, blood coursed in the children's veins, mothers began giving herb tea and sulphur and molasses, young human nature was restless; the whole creation throbbed and sighed, and was tremulous, and had growing pains.

April passed, with all its varying moods of sun and shower, and settled weather came.

  All the earth was gay.
    Land and sea
  Gave themselves up to jollity
    And with the heart of May
  Did every Beast keep holiday.

The Carey girls had never heard of "the joy of living" as a phrase, but oh! they knew a deal about it in these first two heavenly springs in little Beulah village! The sunrise was so wonderful; the trees and grass so marvellously green; the wild flowers so beautiful! Then the river on clear days, the glimpse of the sea from Beulah's hill tops, the walks in the pine woods,--could Paradise show anything to compare?

And how good the food tasted; and the books they read, how fresh, how moving, how glorious! Then when the happy day was over, sleep came without pause or effort the moment the flushed cheek touched the cool pillow.

"These," Nancy reflected, quoting from her favorite Wordsworth as she dressed beside her open window, "These must be

              "The gifts of morn,
  Ere life grows noisy and slower-footed thought
  Can overtake the rapture of the sense.

"I was fifteen and a half last spring, and now, though it is only a year ago, everything is different!" she mused. "When did it get to be different, I wonder? It never was all at once, so it must have been a little every day, so little that I hardly noticed it until just now."

A young girl's heart is ever yearning for and trembling at the future. In its innocent depths the things that are to be are sometimes rustling and whispering secrets, and sometimes keeping an exquisite, haunting silence. In the midst of the mystery the solemn young creature is sighing to herself, "What am I meant for? Am I everything? Am I nothing? Must I wait till my future comes to me, or must I seek it?"

This was all like the sound of a still, small voice in Nancy's mind, but it meant that she was "growing up," taking hold on life at more points than before, seeing new visions, dreaming new dreams. Kathleen and Julia seemed ridiculously young to her. She longed to advise them, but her sense of humor luckily kept her silent. Gilbert appeared crude, raw; promising, but undeveloped; she hated to think how much experience he would have to pass through before he could see existence as it really was, and as she herself saw it. Olive's older view of things, her sad, strange outlook upon life, her dislike of anything in the shape of man, her melancholy aversion to her father, all this fascinated and puzzled Nancy, whose impetuous nature ran out to every living thing, revelling in the very act of loving, so long as she did not meet rebuff.

Cyril perplexed her. Silent, unresponsive, shy, she would sometimes raise her eyes from her book in school and find him gazing steadily at her like a timid deer drinking thirstily at a spring. Nancy did not like Cyril, but she pitied him and was as friendly with him, in her offhand, boyish fashion, as she was with every one.

The last days of the academy term were close at hand, and the air was full of graduation exercises and white muslin and ribbon sashes. June brought two surprises to the Yellow House. One morning Kathleen burst into Nancy's room with the news: "Nancy! The Fergusons offer to adopt Judy, and she doesn't want to go. Think of that! But she's afraid to ask mother if she can stay. Let's us do it; shall we?"

"I will; but of course there is not enough money to go around, Kitty, even if we all succeed in our vacation plans. Julia will never have any pretty dresses if she stays with us, and she loves pretty dresses. Why didn't the Fergusons adopt her before mother had made her over?"

"Yes," chimed in Kathleen. "Then everybody would have been glad, but now we shall miss her! Think of missing Judy! We would never have believed it!"

"It's like seeing how a book turns out, to watch her priggishness and smuggishness all melting away," Nancy said. "I shouldn't like to see her slip back into the old Judyisms, and neither would mother. Mother'll probably keep her, for I know Mr. Manson thinks it's only a matter of a few months before Uncle Allan dies."

"And mother wouldn't want a Carey to grow up into an imitation Gladys Ferguson; but that's what Judy would be, in course of time."

Julia took Mrs. Ferguson's letter herself to her Aunt Margaret, showing many signs of perturbation in her usually tranquil face.

Mrs. Carey read it through carefully. "It is a very kind, generous offer, Julia. Your father cannot be consulted about it, so you must decide. You would have every luxury, and your life would be full of change and pleasure; while with us it must be, in the nature of things, busy and frugal for a long time to come."

"But I am one more to feed and clothe, Aunt Margaret, and there is so little money!"

"I know, but you are one more to help, after all. The days are soon coming when Nancy and Gilbert will be out in the world, helping themselves. You and Kathleen could stay with Peter and me, awaiting your turn. It doesn't look attractive in comparison with what the Fergusons offer you!"

Then the gentle little rivers that had been swelling all the past year in Julia's heart, rivers of tenderness and gratitude and sympathy, suddenly overflowed their banks and, running hither and thither, softened everything with which they came in contact. Rocky places melted, barren spots waked into life, and under the impulse of a new mood that she scarcely understood Julia cried, "Oh! dear Aunt Margaret, keep me, keep me! This is home; I never want to leave it! I want to be one of Mother Carey's chickens!"

The child had flung herself into the arms that never failed anybody, and with tears streaming down her cheeks made her plea.

"There, there, Judy dear; you are one of us, and we could not let you go unless you were to gain something by it. If you really want to stay we shall love you all the better, and you will belong to us more than you ever did; so dry your eyes, or you will be somebody's duckling instead of my chicken!"

The next surprise was a visit from Cousin Ann Chadwick, who drove up to the door one morning quite unannounced, and asked the driver of the depot wagon to bring over her two trunks immediately.

"Two trunks!" groaned Gilbert. "That means the whole season!"

But it meant nothing of the kind; it meant pretty white dresses for the three girls, two pairs of stockings and two of gloves for the whole family, a pattern of black silk for Mrs. Carey, and numberless small things to which the Carey wardrobe had long been a stranger.

Having bestowed these offerings rather grimly, as was her wont, and having received the family's grateful acknowledgments with her usual lack of grace, she proceeded in the course of a few days to make herself far more disagreeable than had been the case on any previous visit of her life. She had never seen such dusty roads as in Beulah; so many mosquitoes and flies; such tough meat; such a lack of fruit, such talkative, over-familiar neighbors, such a dull minister, such an inattentive doctor, such extortionate tradesmen.

"What shall we do with Cousin Ann!" exclaimed Mrs. Carey to Nancy in despair. "She makes us these generous presents, yet she cannot possibly have any affection for us. We accept them without any affection for her, because we hardly know how to avoid it. The whole situation is positively degrading! I have borne it for years because she was good to your father when he was a boy, but now that she has grown so much more difficult I really think I must talk openly with her."

"She talked openly enough with me when I confessed that Gilbert and I had dropped and broken the Dirty Boy!" said Nancy, "and she has been very cross with me ever since."

"Cousin Ann," said Mrs. Carey that afternoon on the piazza, "it is very easy to see that you do not approve of the way we live, or the way we think about things in general. Feeling as you do, I really wish you would not spend your money on us, and give us these beautiful and expensive presents. It puts me under an obligation that chafes me and makes me unhappy."

"I don't disapprove of you, particularly," said Miss Chadwick. "Do I act as if I did?"

"Your manner seems to suggest it."

"You can't tell much by manners," replied Cousin Ann. "I think you're entirely too soft and sentimental, but we all have our faults. I don't think you have any right to feed the neighbors and burn up fuel and oil in their behalf when you haven't got enough for your own family. I think you oughtn't to have had four children, and having had them you needn't have taken another one in, though she's turned out better than I expected. But all that is none of my business, I suppose, and, wrong-headed as you are, I like you better than most folks, which isn't saying much."

"But if you don't share my way of thinking, why do you keep fretting yourself to come and see us? It only annoys you."

"It annoys me, but I can't help coming, somehow. I guess I hate other places and other ways worse than I do yours. You don't grudge me bed and board, I suppose?"

"How could I grudge you anything when you give us so much,--so much more than we ought to accept, so much more than we can ever thank you for?"

"I don't want to be thanked; you know that well enough; but there's so much demonstration in your family you can't understand anybody's keeping themselves exclusive. I don't like to fuss over people or have them fuss over me. Kissing comes as easy to you as eating, but I never could abide it. A nasty, common habit, I call it! I want to give what I like and where and when I like, and act as I'm a mind to afterwards. I don't give because I see things are needed, but because I can't spend my income unless I do give. If I could have my way I'd buy you a good house in Buffalo, right side of mine; take your beggarly little income and manage it for you; build a six-foot barbed wire fence round the lot so 't the neighbors couldn't get in and eat you out of house and home, and in a couple of years I could make something out of your family!"

Mrs. Carey put down her sewing, leaned her head back against the crimson rambler, and laughed till the welkin rang.

"I suppose you think I'm crazy?" Cousin Ann remarked after a moment's pause.

"I don't know, Cousin Ann," said Mrs. Carey, taking up her work again. "Whatever it is, you can't help it! If you'll give up trying to understand my point of view, I won't meddle with yours!"

"I suppose you won't come to Buffalo?"

"No indeed, thank you, Cousin Ann!"

"You'll stay here, in this benighted village, and grow old,--you that are a handsome woman of forty and might have a millionaire husband to take care of you?"

"My husband had money enough to please me, and when I meet him again and show him the four children, he will be the richest man in Paradise."

Cousin Ann rose. "I'm going to-morrow, and I shan't be back this year. I've taken passage on a steamer that's leaving for Liverpool next week!"

"Going abroad! Alone, Cousin Ann?"

"No, with a party of Cook's tourists."

"What a strange idea!" exclaimed Mrs. Carey.

"I don't see why; 'most everybody's been abroad. I don't expect to like the way they live over there, but if other folks can stand it, I guess I can. It'll amuse me for a spell, maybe, and if it don't, I've got money enough to break away and do as I'm a mind to."

The last evening was a pleasant, friendly one, every Carey doing his or her best to avoid risky subjects and to be as agreeable as possible. Cousin Ann Chadwick left next day, and Mrs. Carey, bidding the strange creature good-bye, was almost sorry that she had ever had any arguments with her.

"It will be so long before I see you again, Cousin Ann, I was on the point of kissing you,--till I remembered!" she said with a smile as she stood at the gate.

"I don't know as I mind, for once," said Miss Chadwick. "If anybody's got to kiss me I'd rather it would be you than anybody!"

She drove away, her two empty trunks in the back of the wagon. She sailed for Liverpool the next week and accompanied her chosen party to the cathedral towns of England. There, in a quiet corner of York Minster, as the boy choir was chanting its anthems, her heart, an organ she had never been conscious of possessing, gave one brief sudden physical pang and she passed out of what she had called life. Neither her family affairs nor the names of her relations were known, and the news of her death did not reach far-away Beulah till more than two months afterward, and with it came the knowledge that Cousin Ann Chadwick had left the income of five thousand dollars to each of the five Carey children, with five thousand to be paid in cash to Mother Carey on the settlement of the estate.