XXII. Rachel's Visit To Miss Parrott
 

Rachel ran blindly up the garret stairs of the parsonage and threw herself down on the top, her blue, checked apron over her head.

"Oh, I can't--I can't," she screamed.

"Rachel," the minister's wife called gently after her. But Rachel stormed on, "Oh, I can't; dear me, I can't!"

So Mrs. Henderson mounted the stairs and sat down on the top one, and took Rachel's hands, nervously beating together.

"My child, you must listen to me."

It was said very quietly; but Rachel knew by this time what the parsonage people meant when they said a thing, so she answered meekly in a muffled voice because of the apron over her head:

"Yes'm."

"Take down your apron," said Mrs. Henderson.

Down fell the apron, disclosing a face of so much distress, that for a moment the heart of the parson's wife failed her, but it must be done,

"My child," she began very gently, "it is best that you should go to see Miss Parrott. She will be a good friend to you."

"I don't want no friends," said Rachel doggedly, in her distress relapsing into her old tenement-house disregard of the rules of speech; "no more 'n I've got her."

"Ah, child, that is not a wise way to talk," said Mrs. Henderson, shaking her head. "One cannot have too many friends."

"She'd be too many," said Rachel; "that old woman that came the other day in that carriage all full of bones."

"You must not talk so, dear. She is a very fine woman. Now, Rachel, she has asked to have you spend the day there, and we have promised that you shall go."

There was an awful pause. A big blue-bottle over in the corner under the rafters was making a final decision to explore the filmy lace web beneath the window where a fat old spider had been patiently waiting for him, and he gave his last buzz of freedom before he hopped in. This was all the sound that broke the silence. Rachel held her breath, and fixed her black eyes at a point straight ahead, positively sure if she withdrew her gaze she would burst out crying.

"So you will be ready to go at ten o'clock, Rachel, for Miss Parrott will send for you then," Mrs. Henderson was saying. And in a minute more the parson's wife was going down the garret stairs; Rachel, with a heart full of woe, slowly following, leaving the big garret to the fat old spider, who was busily weaving her silken threads in glee over her prisoner.

And Rachel's woeful face was more than matched by the countenances of the two boys of the parson's family, who were not at all pleased that the companion sent to them by Mrs. Fisher, and who had turned out surprisingly just to their liking, should be suddenly torn away from them even for a single day. And they followed disapprovingly around, hanging upon all the preparations for the momentous visit, with a very bad influence upon Rachel's endeavor to control herself. Seeing which, their mother sent them off on an errand to Grandma Bascom.

So, when the ancient carriage, with its well-seasoned coachman who rejoiced in the name of Simmons, made its appearance, there was no one to see Rachel off, save the patron's wife, the minister himself being away on a call lo a sick parishioner.

Rachel went steadily down the walk between the box-borders, feeling her heart sink at each step. Mrs. Henderson, well in advance, was down at the roadside to help her in, with a last bit of good advice.

"Good-morning, Simmons," said the parson's wife pleasantly.

"Good-morning, Madam," Simmons touched his hat, and spoke with the air of state, for he kept his English ways. Secretly, the parson's wife was always quite impressed by them, and she looked at Rachel for some sign to that effect. But the child was scowling, and biting her thin lips, and she suffered Mrs. Henderson to assist her into the wide old vehicle without any further change of expression. When once in, she gazed around, then leaned forward on the slippery old green leather seat.

"Can't Peletiah come?" she gasped; "there's lots o' room."

"No," said Mrs. Henderson. "Now be a good girl"--all her fears returning as she saw Rachel's face.

Simmons starting up the horses, that, although an old pair, yet liked to set off with a flourish, the movement bounced Rachel violently against the back of her seat and knocked her bonnet over her face. This gave her something to think of, and changed her terror to a deep displeasure. When the drive was ended, therefore, and the brougham, after its progress through an avenue of fine old trees, was brought to a standstill before the ancestral mansion where Miss Parrott's father and grandfather had lived before her, the visitor was in no condition to enjoy the pleasures thrust upon her.

Miss Parrott, in the stiff, black silk gown that she had worn the day when she called at the parsonage, met her on the big stone steps. She put out a hand in a long, black lace mitt, "I am very glad to see you, child," she said, in old-time hospitality.

But no hospitality, old-time or any other, had a pleasant effect on Rachel. She gave a glance up and around the big, gloomy gray, stone house, with a wild thought of rushing down the avenue and home to the parsonage.

"It is a pleasant place, isn't it?" observed Miss Parrott with complacent memory of always living in the grandest homestead for several counties.

"No, ma'am," said Rachel promptly.

Miss Parrott started, and gave a little gasp. Then, reflecting it was not in accordance with fine manners to notice any such slip on the part of guests, she led the way into the mansion. Simmons, much shocked, actually forgot himself so far as to scratch his head, as he drove off to the stables, and he didn't get over it all day.

"Perhaps you would like a little refreshment," suggested Miss Parrott, when, the child's bonnet off, she was seated on the edge of a stiff, high-backed chair. She couldn't think of anything else to say, and as she usually offered it to her friends at the end of their long drives when they called upon her, it seemed a happy thing to do now, especially as Rachel's black eyes were fastened upon her in a manner extremely uncomfortable for the person gazed at.

As Rachel didn't know in the least what "refreshment" meant, she stared on, without a word. And Miss Parrott, pulling with more vigor than was her wont, a long red worsted cord that hung down by the piano, a stately butler made his appearance quicker than usual, took his directions from his mistress, and after regarding the small figure perched on one of the ancestral Parrott chairs with extreme disfavor, he silently withdrew.

Presently, in he came, his head well thrown back, and bearing a huge silver tray. On it were a decanter, two little queer-shaped glasses, and a plate of very thin seed cakes. He deposited this on a spindle-legged table, which he drew up in front of his mistress, and, with another glance, which he intended to be very withering, cast upon Rachel, but which she didn't see at all, he departed.

"Now, my dear," said Miss Parrott, in a lighter tone, feeling quite in her element while serving refreshments in such an elegant way, "you must be very hungry." She poured out a glassful from the decanter, and getting out of her chair, she took up the plate of seed cakes, and advanced to the small figure. "Here, child."

Rachel took the little queer-shaped glass, but had no sooner felt it within her hand, than she gave a loud scream.

"Take it away, it smells just like Gran"--pushing it from her.

It knocked against the plate of seed cakes Miss Parrott was proffering, and together they fell to the floor with a crash. In hurried the butler.

"I don't know what can be the matter," Miss Parrott was gasping, her hand on her heart, as she leaned against one of the ancient cabinets of which the apartment seemed to be full.

"It smells just like Gran," Rachel was repeating, with flashing eyes. "Oh, how dare you give it to me!" She was standing over the wreck of the priceless china and glass, which, as no such accidents had been recorded in the family, Miss Parrott had continued to use in the entertainment of her guests.

"You bad child, you!" exclaimed the butler, seizing her arm, and gone almost out of his senses at the sight of the ruin of such ancient treasures.

"I'm not bad," cried Rachel, turning on him and stamping her foot; "she's bad-- that woman there--for giving me what smells just like Gran!"

"I can't make her out," declared the butler, eyeing her as he released her arm and stepped back toward his mistress.

"And that's what makes people drunk," went on Rachel, pointing an angry finger at the wet spot where the liquid from the decanter was slowly oozing into the velvet carpet.

The butler turned an outraged countenance, on which a dull red was spreading, over to his mistress.

"You would better go out, Hooper," said Miss Parrott faintly, and holding fast to the cabinet.

"I'm afraid to leave you, madam," said Hooper; "she ain't fit--that creature"-- pointing to Rachel, "to be here; she may fly at you. I'll put her out at once."

"You may leave the apartment, Hooper," said Miss Parrott, regaining some of her dignity by a mighty effort. "I'm not in the least afraid." But her looks belied her words, or at any rate the old serving-man thought so, and he made bold to remonstrate again.

"Let me put her out, madam," he begged. "I'll call the gardeners."

"Oh, no, no!" protested Miss Parrott, coming rapidly to her self-composure; "that would never do in all the world. Leave the room, Hooper." This last was said so exactly like his mistress at her best, that the butler obeyed it, making a wide circuit as he passed Rachel, who still stood, the picture of wrath, over the broken china and glass.

Not a word was said for some minutes. Outside, Polly, the old parrot, was scolding vociferously, and the tall clock was ticking away for clear life. Hooper, his ear first, and then his eye, glued to the keyhole, was vainly endeavoring to find out what was passing in the sitting-room.

At last Rachel drew a long breath. "I'm sorry I broke your things," and she awkwardly pushed the bits with her shoe,

"Oh, that's no matter," said Miss Parrott, feeling astonished at herself for the words, "but you said such dreadful things. I can never forget that." She drew a long breath.

No matter that she broke those beautiful things! The whole truth flashed upon Rachel, and although the smell of the hated stuff was even yet dragging back to her all the memory of her low condition of life through such childhood as she had known, over and above it all was quickly rising the conviction that for this unpardonable misdemeanor she would be sent back to the city and--awful thought!- -perhaps to Gran. She set her teeth together hard, and clenched her thin hands as they hung by her side.

"Yes. I say it is no matter," repeated Miss Parrott, not suffering herself to glance at the wreck of her ancestral treasures, "but oh, child! why did you say such dreadful things?" She still clung to the cabinet, shocked out of one tradition of her family, as if she must still hold to its time-worn and honored furnishings.

Rachel gave her a swift, bird-like glance. "You do care; you're crying," she exclaimed, aghast at the tears running over the wrinkled face.

"Not about that, but the things you said; I didn't mean to do you harm." Miss Parrott did not attempt to deny the tears, and brushed them off with a trembling hand.

"You ain't hurt me," cried Rachel, stumbling across the floor, with an awful feeling at her heart to see this stiff old woman cry.

"Oh, whatever your name is, don't! I'll go home, and the minister may send me back to Gran, an' she may beat me. Don't cry!" She seized the heavy black silk in its front breadth and held on tightly.

The butler, having at this minute his eye at the keyhole, now rushed in, unable to bear the sight, to be met by Miss Parrott, her withered face flaming behind her tears.

"Do you go directly out, Hooper, and remain away until you are called." He never knew how he got out; and this time the keyhole was unobstructed.

"Were you beaten, you poor little thing?" Was this Miss Parrott bending over Rachel's shaking shoulders, and hands clutching the silk gown! "Oh, dear, dear!"

"Tain't no matter," mumbled Rachel. "I don't care, only don't let me go back." She shook in terror, and crouched down to the floor.

"Never!" said Miss Parrott firmly. All the blood in her body seemed to be in her wrinkled face, and her eyes shone, as had those of her father, the old judge, when befriending some poor unfortunate. "You shall never go back, child; don't be afraid."

But Rachel still shivered. There were the broken bits of china and glass on the floor back of her, and the minister and his wife must be told of the awful accident; and what they would do with her, why, of course, no one could tell.

The thin, wrinkled fingers on which blazed many rings, that had been her mother's before her, were tremblingly smoothing Rachel's neatly braided hair. And as if she thought what was passing beneath them, Miss Parrott broke out quickly:

"I shall never speak of it--of the breaking of those articles, child; so no one will know it but ourselves."

"Never tell?" gasped Rachel, lifting her head, in astonishment and scarcely believing her ears.

"Of course not," declared Miss Parrott, in scorn. "So do not be afraid any longer, but get up and dry your eyes." For at this announcement, Rachel's tears had gushed out, and she sobbed as if her heart would break.

For answer Rachel flew to her feet, and without any warning and astonishing herself equally with the recipient, she threw her arms around Miss Parrott's thin neck, in among all the ancient laces with which she delighted to adorn it, and hugged it convulsively.

Taken unawares, Miss Parrott could utter no word, and Rachel clung to her and sobbed. But the old ears had heard what hadn't been sounded in them for many a long day, and forgotten were wasted heirlooms and broken treasures.

"I love you!" Rachel had said, hugging her tumultuously.