XXIII. The Old Parrott Homestead
 

"Come, child." Miss Parrott drew herself out of Rachel's clinging arms.

What should she do now to divert this little girl from her terror and distress? She was sorely put to it for the answer. She gathered up the nervous hands in one of her own, and led the way out into the wide hall, hung with ancestral portraits. "I am going to take you to my own room," she said suddenly.

Rachel didn't know the wonderful condescension of this plan for her amusement, but she clung to the long, thin fingers, and presently she was seated on a cricket covered with tambour work, and watching Miss Parrott's movements about the spacious apartment.

"Move your cricket over here, child." Miss Parrott was unlocking what looked to Rachel's eyes like a big cupboard that stood out from the wall. It had little panes of glass all criss-crossed with strips of white wood across its face, and a set of drawers beneath. And as Rachel obediently carried the cricket over and set it down where Miss Parrott indicated, her chief attention was still upon this curious cupboard, and what Miss Parrott was doing in it, for the door now stood open.

Rachel leaned forward on her cricket and rested her hands on her knees. On the shelves was such an array of articles, that to the child's gaze, nothing stood out distinctly as an object to lavish one's sole attention upon. But Miss Parrott made early choice, and lifting out a big doll from one of the lower shelves, she laid it in Rachel's lap.

"I used to play with it," she said softly.

Rachel looked down upon the doll in her lap. It was long and hard and angular as to body, and its face was a dull white, except some patches of pink on the outer edge of the cheeks, showing the rest of the coloring to have been worn away. Its eyes were staring up into Rachel's in such an expressionless, unpleasant manner that she involuntarily turned away her own.

"Her name is Priscilla," said Miss Parrott, looking down at Rachel, which called her to herself and the necessity of attention to these efforts to amuse her.

"Yes'm," said Rachel.

"Now I don't suppose you know how much I loved this doll," said Miss Parrott, turning her back on the cupboard, to draw up a chair opposite Rachel and seat herself upon it, "but I used to take her to bed with me nights."

"Did you?" said Rachel, beginning to finger the doll with sudden interest.

"Yes, and I made her clothes and talked to her, and sometimes I called her 'Sister,'" said Miss Parrott, quite gone in remembrance.

"Oh!" said Rachel.

"You see, she was all I had. I was the youngest, and my real sister was married and away, and my brothers were men when I was a little girl."

"Oh!" said Rachel again.

"And so I had to make believe that Priscilla was alive," said Miss Parrott, her eyes glowing with remembrance of her childhood, brought so singularly near on this morning; "I really had to Rachel."

"I've got a child," said Rachel, growing suddenly communicative, and looking up from the old doll to watch the effect of her announcement.

"Have you, dear?" responded Miss Parrott, quite pleased at the bright face, from which the last tear had been wiped away.

"Yes, my Phronsie gave her to me, and she sleeps with me," said Rachel, in great satisfaction.

"I suppose she is very much like Priscilla," observed Miss Parrott.

"Oh, no, she isn't," declared Rachel promptly, turning her mind again to the ancient doll; "my child is pretty and she shuts her eyes. She isn't a bit like yours."

"Well, Priscilla was always pretty to me," said Miss Parrott, astonished that she felt so little the slight to her child. "Well, now, Rachel, we will put the doll aside. You may lay it on the bed and then come back here."

Rachel got off from her cricket and went over to the other side of the apartment.

"My, what a funny bed!" she exclaimed, using her eyes to their utmost to see as much of the canopy, with its tester of blue and white chintz, the four posts beneath, and the counterpane executed in honeycomb pattern.

Miss Parrott, exploring her cupboard to get out something else with which to entertain Rachel, did not hear her; so she slowly returned, walking backward to observe as much of this queer article of furniture as the time allowed. In this way she fell over the cricket.

"Dear me!" exclaimed Miss Parrott, pulling her head out of the cupboard, "did you hurt yourself, child?"

"No'm," said Rachel, getting up with a very red face, and exceedingly ashamed. "I don't believe I broke it." She set the cricket up in its proper position and anxiously examined it all over.

"Oh, no," said Miss Parrott reassuringly, "the cricket is not harmed. See here, Rachel"--she held in her hand a long string of little irregular things that dangled as she turned toward her--"I am going to put these on your neck. Now stand still, child." And suiting the action to the words, something snapped with a little click under Rachel's chin.

Rachel looked down quickly at the queer little odd-shaped red things, hanging over her breast.

"I used to wear them when I was a little girl, very much smaller than you," said Miss Parrott, her head on one side and falling back to see the effect.

"What are they?" asked Rachel, not daring to lay a finger on them, and holding her breath at the idea of being within the magnificent circle of Miss Parrott's early adornments.

"Red coral beads," said Miss Parrott, smiling at the nice contrast between the necklace and the dark little face above. "Now, child, you are going to wear them whenever you come to visit me and as long as you stay. And that means they will not come off till to-morrow, for you are to sleep here to-night."

"I haven't any nightgown," said Rachel, who by this time liked to stay well enough, but seeing here an insuperable objection.

"That's easily managed," said Miss Parrott, quickly; "I shall send a note to the parsonage, saying you will stay, and----"

At the mention of "note" Rachel suddenly collapsed, and a look of terror spread over her face.

"Oh, I forgot," she cried.

"Why, what is the matter, child?" demanded Miss Parrott, in great concern.

"I must go and get it," said Rachel wildly, and, dashing blindly off, she left Miss Parrott standing in front of her ancestral cupboard holding her childish treasures, to rush over the long and winding back stairs. At their end she found herself hopelessly entangled in an array of back passages and little old- fashioned apartments, from which, run as she would, she could never seem to find the right exit.

Her progress was noted with indignation and contempt by as many of the old retainers in the Parrott service as could be gathered at short notice, and their calls to her to leave the premises, accompanied by sundry shakings of a long crash towel in the hands of the cook, only impeded Rachel's hope of success.

"I don't know the way out," she cried at last, finding herself in a big closet whose door, being open, she fondly trusted would allow her passage out into the free air.

"Well, 'tisn't here," said an angry voice, and the brandishing of a big, iron spoon made Rachel beat a hasty retreat, this time into the back hall. Miss Parrott was just descending the stairs, her stiff, black silk skirt held high, before she set foot in the servants' quarters.

"Child, child," she said in reproach, "what is the matter?"

"Oh, I've lost the note--I mean, I forgot it." Rachel flew to her and wailed it all out.

"She's crying, that bad girl is, all over Mistress's front breadth," announced Joanna, the parlor maid, through the little window of the butler's pantry.

"La me!" ejaculated the cook, raising her hands and the crash towel, "to think of our mistress so demeaning herself!"

"What note?" cried Miss Parrott, in great bewilderment. "Rachel, stop crying at once and speak plainly. What note do you mean?"

"The one Mrs. Henderson gave me," cried Rachel; "I must go and get it, but I don't know the way out."

"To give to me? Did Mrs. Henderson tell you to give it to me?" asked Miss Parrott, beginning to see light.

"Yes'm. Oh, please let me out," begged Rachel; "I left it in the carriage."

"Ah--well, then, we'll go out this way." And there, turning to the left, was the passage down which Rachel had plunged twice before, and at its end, a small green door, that, when opened, led out through an arbor overrun with creepers, to a short cut to the stables.

"Now, then!" Miss Parrott gathered up the train of her black silk gown and put it over her arm; then in full view of the latticed window of the kitchen and scullery department, she sallied forth across the greensward to the stables beyond, Rachel's brown hand tucked in her own.

"Laws a me!" It was the scullery maid who screamed this out. "She's got on Miss Parrott's coral beads."

"You're a ninny!" cried the cook, turning on her in disdain; "go back to your pots and kettles, Ann. Whatever would she have to do with the Mistress's beads? It's some old string you see around her neck."

"It tell you it's Miss Parrott's red beads!" declared Ann stoutly. She might be sent back to her work among the pots and kettles, but she would stick fast to her tale. "I seen 'em when I went up to Miss Parrott's room with the bellows I'd cleaned this very morning, through the little winders to her cupboard, an' I'd know 'em anywhere."

The cook stamped her foot, shaking the crash towel which she still retained, and Ann withdrew to those inner precincts that were considered her department.

Meanwhile, Miss Parrott was talking to Simmons, who, touching his hat respectfully when he saw her approach, now came up to await her commands.

"Have the goodness to open the brougham door, Simmons," said Miss Parrott, going through the carriage house to the corner where that ancient vehicle was stored.

Simmons obeyed wonderingly, with an eye askance at Rachel, by the other side of Miss Parrott, eagerly pressing forward.

"Now jump in," said Miss Parrott, but this command was not needed, for Rachel was already within the family coach and prowling around on the old green leather cushion and over the floor with both nervous hands.

"It isn't--oh, yes, it is!" and up she came, red and shining, to hold out a small, white envelope.

Miss Parrott leaned against the brougham, and broke the seal. Rachel, her whole heart in one glad thrill of joy, made little sign except to heave a deep sigh of relief that the note had been found. Simmons, seeing no excuse for lingering further, went back to one of the carriages to go through the form of inspecting its exterior, while he still kept an eye employed in the direction of his mistress.

"Dear Miss Parrott" (so the note ran), "I really do not think it is wise to ask Rachel to remain over night. I will explain later. Another time, perhaps she may do so. Yours respectfully, Almira Henderson."

"Dear me!" exclaimed Miss Parrott to herself, and, folding up the little note into many creases, she stood lost in thought. "Well, I suppose I must yield to the parson's wife, for she has some good reason. But the child shall stay next time."

Rachel, whose spirits had risen, since it was quite positive that the note was not lost, now seized Miss Parrott's hand and hopped and skipped by her side across the green grass on their return to the mansion. Simmons came out of his retirement, his chamois skin with which he had been ostensibly polishing up a carriage, still in his hand, to stand in the doorway to watch them.

"Well, I am surprised," he declared, quite slowly and impressively, as befitted a serving-man to an old genteel family.

"Oh, let's go in there," cried Rachel, catching sight of the tall hollyhocks behind a wicket gate and pulling at the long, slender fingers.

Miss Parrott hesitated.

"Well, just one peep," she said, "for it is near to luncheon time," and she pulled out the watch from her belt. But to Rachel "a peep" meant all the world, so she dropped the fingers and raced through the gateway, to get there first and thus make it last as long as possible.

"Oh, oh!" she cried, her little dark face aflame with delight, "it's the most beautiful place." Then she began to run up and down all the narrow paths marking the circles and hearts and diamonds in which the old-fashioned garden was laid out, and sniffing the fragrance as she ran.

Miss Parrott seated herself on a stone seat by the fountain in the center. Her delight was quite equal to Rachel's, and the thin, wrinkled face assumed a more peaceful expression than it had carried for many a day, so that when Hooper came to summon her to luncheon, he was fairly taken aback at its unwonted cheer.

"Rachel!" Miss Parrott's voice had a pleasant ring to it. Rachel came dancing along a little curving path, the red coral beads flying up and down on her breast, her cheeks nearly as red. "Oh, it's perfectly beautiful here," she cried.

"Do you like it?" Miss Parrott's thin cheek glowed, too. It carried her back to the day when she as a child had been skipping in that old garden, and her heart gave a throb at the thought that there were perhaps in store for her many delights yet, through Rachel's enjoyment of the old-fashioned flowers and shrubs.

"But come, child," she brought herself up suddenly to say, with a little laugh; "Hooper has summoned us to luncheon, and we must obey."

"Do you have to obey a servant?" asked Rachel, coming out of her dance to fall into step by her side, and looking up with wide-open eyes.

"Always," said Miss Parrott most positively, "else they won't obey me, if I don't. It's system that makes everything comfortable, Rachel."

As Rachel knew nothing whatever about system, she followed silently, her small head full of the beautiful garden in which she had been rioting, and which--oh, joy!--Miss Parrott promised she should visit again, when the luncheon was over. And seated at the polished mahogany table, she was so lost in thought that Miss Parrott, in state at the other end, was obliged to speak to her twice before she looked up.

"Finish your soup, child," said Miss Parrott.

Rachel hadn't even begun it, and she now seized the first thing upon which her hand rested, a heavy silver fork. Hooper, back of his mistress's chair, darted forward to put the right implement before her. But Rachel gave him a withering glance that stopped him half-way. "You don't need to come. I've got it"; and she held up her spoon triumphantly, and ever after, all through the meal, she seemed to view his necessary advances as so many affronts, intended to show up her lack of manners, and she exercised all her wits to keep him at bay. So that the old butler was glad when the meal was over.

But long before that time arrived, Rachel had leaned back in her tall, carved chair, letting her knife and fork rest on her plate, while she feasted her eyes over the table, what it held, and then around the whole apartment.

"There's some of the same flowers like the ones in the garden," she said, bringing her gaze back to point to the old-fashioned silver vase and its nodding clusters in the center of the table. "What are they?"

"Those are larkspur," said Miss Parrott, craning her neck to see around the high silver service from which she poured her tea.

"And what's the other, this side?" Rachel bobbed over on her chair, till Hooper involuntarily closed his eyes, expecting she would go entirely off from her chair, and he didn't want to see it, it would be so disgraceful at a Parrott table.

"That?" Miss Parrott, too, leaned over on her chair. "Oh--why, that's a ragged robin, Rachel."

"Ragged robin!" repeated Rachel, hopping off from her chair. "Oh, I want to see it," and she ran around the table-end, and leaned over to get a better view. "'Tisn't a bit ragged," she cried, very much disappointed, "and besides, he isn't there."

"Oh, Rachel!" exclaimed Miss Parrott, in dismay. "You must not do so; we never leave our chairs when we are at the dining-table."

Rachel, thus admonished, scuttled back to her seat, while Hooper groaned and pretended not to see anything. But she kept her black eyes fastened on the ragged robins. "There isn't any bird there," she said.

"What, child?"

"You said there was a robin in those flowers," said Rachel again, using her little brown fingers to designate the vase and its contents, "and that he was ragged, and there isn't any."

"Oh, dear me!" exclaimed Miss Parrott; then she laughed. "The flowers are called ragged robins, Rachel," she said.

"Oh!" said Rachel; then she laughed, too, a merry little peal, that just bubbled over because she was happy.

"Now eat your luncheon," said Miss Parrott. "Hooper, you may give her some more milk."

"I don't want any more milk," said Rachel, waving him off with quite an air. "I've got lots and lots"--peering into her cup. She took up her knife and fork again, but, looking over them, found so many things to call for more attention than they seemed to be worthy of, that she soon laid them down again upon her plate.

"Where did you used to sit when you was a little girl?" she asked suddenly, when she had been reflecting a bit.

"I? Oh, I sat at the side of the table," said Miss Parrott, starting, as she was thus hastily summoned down into her past.

"Then can't I sit there now?" cried Rachel, flying out of her chair again. "Say, can't I? Do let me." She ran clear around the table and hung over Miss Parrott's chair.

Hooper groaned again and looked steadfastly out of the opposite window.

"My child," exclaimed Miss Parrott; her tone was very grave, but she put her long arm around Rachel and drew her closely to her, "remember what I said: you must not leave your chair during a meal."

"I forgot," Rachel flew back again, not waiting for her request to be granted, and sat down meekly in her place.

"And you must eat something," continued Miss Parrott, glancing at the little girl's plate, and with dreadful qualms at her old heart for having been severe. "If you don't, Rachel, Mrs. Henderson won't let you come here again."

The solemn butler folded and unfolded his hands, while his face expressed the belief that such a calamity could possibly be borne.

"And if you didn't come, Rachel"--Miss Parrott took up her cup of tea, and set it down again untouched--"I should feel very sorry; I should indeed," she added, with a little catch in her throat.

"So should I," said Rachel abruptly; then she picked up her knife and fork and began to eat as fast as she could.

"Oh, my dear!" cried Miss Parrott, quite horrified, "not so fast! Pray don't, Rachel"--looking down the table-length in distress.

Rachel by this time was alive to the disgrace she was undergoing, and she turned quite pale, and deserting her food altogether, sat stiff and straight on her chair, too miserable to care for anything. Miss Parrott bore this for a breathing-space, and then without a warning she slipped off from her chair and went quickly down to the end of the table.

"I'm not blaming you, you poor little thing," she declared, bending over the dark hair; "don't think so, Rachel."

Rachel turned with a swift movement and hid her face in the laces falling from Miss Parrott's breast.

"I want to go home to Mrs. Henderson's," she sobbed.

"We don't care for any more luncheon, Hooper," said Miss Parrott hoarsely, taking Rachel's hand, "We will go into the other room," and she led her off sobbing.

When Rachel reached Hooper, however, standing petrified with surprise, she looked up at him defiantly and brushed the tears from her cheek.

And after they had passed out, Hooper still stood in a daze. At last he came out of it, and, ejaculating, "Well, I never did!" he began to clear the table.

Once outside, Miss Parrott turned suddenly.

"We'll go back to the garden," she said.

This pleased Rachel very much, and she forgot her distress and mortification, and actually smiled up into the old face.

"Your hand's shaking," she announced, turning her gaze to the long, slender fingers covering her own little brown palm.

"Is it?" said Miss Parrott absently.

"Yes, it shakes dreadfully," said Rachel, with a critical air. "Look!"--pointing down at it.

"Oh, that is nothing," began Miss Parrott; then she stopped suddenly and put both hands on the thin little shoulders. "Oh, child," she said brokenly, "I did so hope you'd like me, for I've nothing in this world to live for, Rachel, and now you want to go back to the parsonage."

"Oh, I don't want to go back--I do love you!" cried Rachel, in great alarm, and she raised her little brown hands and actually smoothed the long, wrinkled face between them. "Don't look so. you look dreadful," she pleaded.

For at the touch of those childish hands over her face, Miss Parrott broke utterly down, all her aristocratic traditions falling away in a second of time, to reveal her lonely, hopeless life. And she sobbed in a way very hard for any onlooker to hear. To Rachel, powerless to stop her, it seemed the most terrible thing in all this world, and she burst out in her misery:

"I'll stay here forever if you'll stop."

That word "forever" did what nothing else could have achieved. It brought Miss Parrott to herself. Then it was Rachel who led her about the old-fashioned garden, and chattered about the flowers, unmindful whether or no she was answered, until presently Miss Parrott was quite recovered, and even smiling in a well-pleased way. At last she pulled out her ancient watch from her belt.

"Now, Rachel," she said, "you must go back to the parsonage this afternoon, for Mrs. Henderson expects you."

"I'll stay if you want me to," said Rachel, moving closer to Miss Parrott's side.

"No, dear--not to-day, because it wouldn't be right; the parson and his wife only loaned you to me for to-day, but----"

"What's 'loaned'?" interrupted Rachel abruptly, and wrinkling her forehead.

"Why, they only let me have you just for today," said Miss Parrott.

"Oh."

"And so you must go back, but I shall come for you again," and Miss Parrott turned a hungry glance down upon the dark little face at her side.

"I'll come," said Rachel, with a sociable nod.

"And, Rachel"--Miss Parrott drew her closer to her side--"you may keep the coral beads, dear. That shows you are really coming back to me to stay."

"For ever and always?" cried Rachel, patting the necklace lovingly with one hand. "Can I keep 'em just forever? Say, can I?"

"Yes, child"--Miss Parrott's old face smiled in delight at the compact--"they are yours to keep all your life. And now," she added brightly, "I want you to come into the drawing-room, and----"

"What's 'drawing-room'?" demanded Rachel, who felt it was much better for all concerned in a conversation to understand things as they went along.

"Why, that is the parlor," answered Miss Parrott.

"Oh."

"I want to hear you sing, Rachel," cried Miss Parrott longingly. "I can hardly wait, come." She hurried the child along with hasty steps, Rachel skipping by her side.

"I'll sing," she said, "all you want me to. I know lots and lots of things"-- until the grand piano in the long, dim drawing-room, not opened for many years, was reached. Then she spun down the middle of the apartment. "I'm going to dance first," she announced, picking out the skirt of her gown on either side. "My, but ain't it dark, here, though!"