IX. Housecleaning
 

The brisk, steady tap sounded at Miss Evelina's door. It was a little after eight, and she opened it, expecting to find her breakfast, as usual. Much to her surprise, Miss Mehitable stood there, armed with a pail, mop, and broom. Behind her, shy and frightened, was Araminta, similarly equipped.

The Reverend Austin Thorpe, having carried a step-ladder to the back door, had then been abruptly dismissed. Under the handle of her scrubbing pail, the ministering angel had slipped the tray containing Miss Evelina's breakfast.

"I've slopped it over some," she said, in explanation, "but you won't mind that. Someway, I've never had hands enough to do what I've had to do. Most of the work in the world is slid onto women, and then, as if that wasn't enough, they're given skirts to hold up, too. Seems to me that if the Almighty had meant for women to be carrying skirts all their lives, He'd have give us another hand and elbow in our backs, like a jinted stove-pipe, for the purpose. Not having the extra hand, I go short on skirts when I'm cleaning."

Miss Mehitable's clean, crisp, calico gown ceased abruptly at her ankles. Araminta's blue and white gingham was of a similar length, and her sleeves, guiltless of ruffles, came only to her dimpled elbows. Araminta was trying hard not to stare at Miss Evelina's veil while Aunt Hitty talked.

"We've come," asserted Miss Mehitable, "to clean your house. We've cleaned our own and we ain't tired yet, so we're going to do some scrubbing here. I guess it needs it."

Miss Evelina was reminded of the Piper, who was digging in her garden because he had no garden of his own. "I can't let you," she said, hesitating over the words. "You're too kind to me, and I'm going to do my cleaning myself."

"Fiddlesticks!" snorted Miss Hitty, brushing Miss Evelina from her path and marching triumphantly in. "You ain't strong enough to do cleaning. You just set down and eat your breakfast. Me and Minty will begin upstairs."

In obedience to a gesture from her aunt, Araminta crept upstairs. The house had not yet taken on a habitable look, and as she stood in the large front room, deep in dust and draped with cobwebs, she was afraid.

Meanwhile Miss Mehitable had built a fire in the kitchen stove, put kettles of water on to heat, stretched a line across the yard, and brought in the step-ladder. Miss Evelina sat quietly, and apparently took no notice of the stir that was going on about her. She had not touched her breakfast.

"Why don't you eat?" inquired Miss Hitty, not unkindly.

"I'm not hungry," returned Miss Evelina, timidly.

"Well," answered Miss Mehitable, her perception having acted in the interval, "I don't wonder you ain't, with all this racket goin' on. I'll be out of here in a minute and then you can set here, nice and quiet, and eat. I never like to eat when there's anything else going on around me. It drives me crazy."

True to her word, she soon ascended the stairs, where the quaking Araminta awaited her. "It'll take some time for the water to heat," observed Miss Hitty, "but there's plenty to do before we get to scrubbing. Remember what I've told you, Minty. The first step in cleaning a room is to take out of it everything that ain't nailed to it."

Every window was opened to its highest point. Some were difficult to move, but with the aid of Araminta's strong young arms, they eventually went up as desired. From the windows descended torrents of bedding, rugs, and curtains, a veritable dust storm being raised in the process.

"When I go down after the hot water, I'll hang these things on the line," said Miss Mehitable, briskly. "They can't get any dustier on the ground than they are now."

The curtains were so frail that they fell apart in Miss Hitty's hands. "You can make her some new ones, Minty," she said. "She can get some muslin at Mis' Allen's, and you can sew on curtains for a while instead of quilts. It'll be a change."

None too carefully, Miss Mehitable tore up the rag carpet and threw it out of the window, sneezing violently. "There's considerable less dirt here already than there was when we come," she continued, "though we ain't done any real cleaning yet. She can't never put that carpet down again, it's too weak. We'll get a bucket of paint and paint the floors. I guess Sarah Grey had plenty of rugs. She's got a lot of rag carpeting put away in the attic if the moths ain't ate it, and, now that I think of it, I believe she packed it into the cedar chest. Anyway I advised her to. 'It'll come handy,' I told her, 'for Evelina, if you don't live to use it yourself.' So if the moths ain't got the good of it, there's carpet that can be made into rugs with some fringe on the ends. I always did like the smell of fresh paint, anyhow. There's nothin' you can put into a house that'll make it smell as fresh and clean as paint. Varnish is good, too, but it's more expensive. I'll go down now, and get the hot water and the ladder. I reckon she's through with her breakfast by this time."

Miss Evelina had finished her breakfast, as the empty tray proved. She sat listlessly in her chair and the water on the stove was boiling over.

"My sakes, Evelina," cried Miss Hitty, sharply, "I should think you'd--I should think you'd hear the water fallin' on the stove," she concluded, lamely. It was impossible to scold her as she would have scolded Araminta.

"I'm goin' out now to put things on the line," continued Miss Hitty. "When I get Minty started to cleanin', I'll come down and beat."

Miss Evelina made no response. She watched her brisk neighbour wearily, without interest, as she hurried about the yard, dragging mattresses into the sunlight, hanging musty bedding on the line, and carrying the worn curtains to the mountain of rubbish which the Piper had reared in front of the house.

"That creeter with the red feather can clean the yard if he's a mind to," mused Miss Hitty, who was fully conversant with the Piper's work, "but he can't clean the house. I'm going to do that myself."

She went in and was presently in her element. The smell of yellow soap was as sweet incense in the nostrils of Miss Hitty, and the sound of the scrubbing brush was melodious in her ears. She brushed down the walls with a flannel cloth tied over a broom, washed the windows, scrubbed every inch of the woodwork, and prepared the floor for its destined coat of paint.

Then she sent Araminta into the next room with the ladder, and began on the furniture. This, too, was thoroughly scrubbed, and as much paint and varnish as would come off was allowed to come. "It'll have to be painted," thought Miss Hitty, scrubbing happily, "but when it is painted, it'll be clean underneath, and that's more than it has been. Evelina 'll sleep clean to-night for the first time since she come here. There's a year's washin' to be done in this house and before I get round to that, I'll lend her some of my clean sheets and a quilt or two of Minty's."

Adjourning to the back yard, Miss Mehitable energetically beat a mattress until no more dust rose from it. With Araminta's aid she carried it upstairs and put it in place. "I'm goin' home now after my dinner and Evelina's," said Miss Hitty, "and when I come back I'll bring sheets and quilts for this. You clean till I come back, and then you can go home for your own lunch."

Araminta assented and continued her work. She never questioned her aunt's dictates, and this was why there was no friction between the two.

When Miss Mehitable came back, however, half buried under the mountain of bedding, she was greeted by a portentous silence. Hurrying upstairs, she discovered that Araminta had fallen from the ladder and was in a white and helpless heap on the floor, while Miss Evelina chafed her hands and sprinkled her face with water.

"For the land's sake!" cried Miss Hitty. "What possessed Minty to go and fall off the ladder! Help me pick her up, Evelina, and we'll lay her on the bed in the room we've just cleaned. She'll come to presently. She ain't hurt."

But Araminta did not "come to." Miss Mehitable tried everything she could think of, and fairly drenched the girl with cold water, without avail.

"What did it?" she demanded with some asperity. "Did she see anything that scared her?"

"No," answered Miss Evelina, shrinking farther back into her veil. "I was downstairs and heard her scream, then she fell and I ran up. It was just a minute or two before you came in."

"Well," sighed Miss Hitty, "I suppose we'll have to have a doctor. You fix that bed with the clean things I brought. It's easy to do it without movin' her after the under sheet is on and I'll help you with that. Don't pour any more cold water on her. If water would have brung her to she'd be settin' up by now. And don't get scared. Minty ain't hurt."

With this comforting assurance, Miss Hitty sped down-stairs, but her mind was far from at rest. At the gate she stopped, suddenly confronted by the fact that she could not bring Anthony Dexter to Evelina's house.

"What'll I do!" moaned Miss Hitty. "What'll I do! Minty'll die if she ain't dead now!"

The tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks, but she ran on, as fast as her feet would carry her, toward Doctor Dexter's. "The way'll be opened," she thought--"I'm sure it will."

The way was opened in an unexpected fashion, for Doctor Ralph Dexter answered Miss Hitty's frantic ring at his door.

"I'd clean forgotten you," she stammered, wholly taken aback. "I don't believe you're anything but a play doctor, but, as things is, I reckon you'll have to do."

Doctor Ralph Dexter threw back his head and laughed--a clear, ringing boyish laugh which was very good to hear.

"'Play doctor' is good," he said, "when anybody's worked as much like a yellow dog as I have. Anyhow, I'll have to do, for father's not at home. Who's dead?"

"It's Araminta," explained Miss Hitty, already greatly relieved. "She fell off a step-ladder and ain't come to yet."

Doctor Ralph's face grew grave. "Wait a minute." He went into the office and returned almost immediately. As luck would have it, the doctor's carriage was at the door, waiting for a hurry call.

"Jump in," commanded Doctor Ralph. "You can tell me about it on the way. Where do we go?"

Miss Hitty issued directions to the driver and climbed in. In spite of her trouble, she was not insensible of the comfort of the cushions nor the comparative luxury of the conveyance. She was also mindful of the excitement her presence in the doctor's carriage produced in her acquaintances as they rushed past.

By dint of much questioning, Doctor Ralph obtained a full account of the accident, all immaterial circumstances being brutally eliminated as they cropped up in the course of her speech. "It's God's own mercy," said Miss Hitty, as they stopped at the gate, "that we'd cleaned that room. We couldn't have got it any cleaner if 't was for a layin' out instead of a sickness. Oh, Ralph," she pleaded, "don't let Minty die!"

"Hush!" said Doctor Ralph, sternly. He spoke with an authority new to Miss Hitty, who, in earlier days, had been wont to drive Ralph out of her incipient orchard with a bed slat, sharpened at one end into a formidable weapon of offence.

Araminta was still unconscious, but she was undressed, and in bed, clad in one of Miss Evelina's dainty but yellowed nightgowns. Doctor Ralph worked with incredible quickness and Miss Hitty watched him, wondering, frightened, yet with a certain sneaking confidence in him.

"Fracture of the ankle," he announced, briefly, "and one or two bad bruises. Plaster cast and no moving."

When Araminta returned to consciousness, she thought she was dead and had gone to Heaven. The room was heavy with soothing antiseptic odours, and she seemed to be suspended in a vapoury cloud. On the edge of the cloud hovered Miss Evelina, veiled, and Aunt Hitty, who was most assuredly crying. There was a stranger, too, and Araminta gazed at him questioningly.

Doctor Ralph's hand, firm and cool, closed over hers. "Don't you remember me, Araminta?" he asked, much as one would speak to a child. "The last time I saw you, you were hanging out a basket of clothes. The grass was very green and the sky was a bright blue, and the petals of apple blossoms were drifting all round your feet. I called to you, and you ran into the house. Now I've got you where you can't get away."

Araminta's pale cheeks flushed. She looked pleadingly at Aunt Hitty, who had always valiantly defended her from the encroachments of boys and men.

"You come downstairs with me, Ralph Dexter," commanded Aunt Hitty. "I've got some talking to do to you. Evelina, you set here with Araminta till I get back."

Miss Evelina drew a damp, freshly scrubbed chair to the bedside. "I fell off the step-ladder, didn't I?" asked Araminta, vaguely.

"Yes, dear." Miss Evelina's voice was very low and sweet. "You fell, but you're all right now. You're going to stay here until you get well. Aunt Hitty and I are going to take care of you."

In the cobwebbed parlour, meanwhile, Doctor Ralph was in the hands of the attorney for the prosecution, who questioned him ceaselessly.

"What's wrong with Minty?"

"Broken ankle."

"How did it happen to get broke?" demanded Miss Hitty, with harshness. "I never knew an ankle to get broke by falling off a ladder."

"Any ankle will break," temporised Dr. Ralph, "if it is hurt at the right point."

"I wish I could have had your father."

"Father wasn't there," returned Ralph, secretly amused. "You had to take me."

Miss Hitty's face softened. There were other reasons why she could not have had Ralph's father.

"When can Minty go home?"

"Minty can't go home until she's well. She's got to stay right here."

"If she'd fell in the yard," asked Miss Hitty, peering keenly at him over her spectacles, "would she have had to stay in the yard till she got well?"

The merest suspicion of a dimple crept into the corner of Doctor Ralph's mouth. His eyes danced, but otherwise his face was very grave. "She would," he said, in his best professional manner. "A shed would have had to be built over her." He fancied that Miss Hitty's constant presence might prove disastrous to a nervous patient. He liked the quiet, veiled woman, who obeyed his orders without question.

"How much," demanded Miss Mehitable, "is it going to cost?"

"I don't know," answered Ralph, honestly. "I'll have to come every day for a long time--perhaps twice a day," he added, remembering the curve of Araminta's cheek and her long, dark lashes.

Miss Hitty made an indescribable sound. Pain, fear, disbelief, and contempt were all mingled in it.

"Don't worry," said Ralph, kindly. "You know doctoring sometimes comes by wholesale."

Miss Hitty's relief was instantaneous and evident. "There's regular prices, I suppose," she said. "Broken toe, broken ankle, broken leg--each one so much. Is that it?"

Doctor Ralph was seized with a violent fit of coughing.

"How much is ankles?" demanded his inquisitor.

"I'll leave that all to you, Miss Hitty," said Ralph, when he recovered his composure. "You can pay me whatever you think is right."

"I shouldn't pay you anything I didn't think was right," she returned, sharply, "unless I was made to by law. As long as you've got to come every day for a spell, and mebbe twice, I'll give you five dollars the day Minty walks again. If that won't do, I'll get the doctor over to the Ridge."

Doctor Ralph coughed so hard that he was obliged to cover his face with his handkerchief. "I should think," said Miss Mehitable, "that if you were as good a doctor as you pretend to be, you'd cure your own coughin' spells. First thing you know, you'll be running into quick consumption. Will five dollars do?"

Ralph bowed, but his face was very red and he appeared to be struggling with some secret emotion. "I couldn't think of taking as much as five dollars, Miss Hitty," he said, gallantly. "I should not have ventured to suggest over four and a half."

"He's cheaper than his father," thought Miss Hitty, quickly suspicious. "That's because he ain't as good a doctor."

"Four and a half, then," she said aloud. "Is it a bargain?"

"It is," said Ralph, "and I'll take the best possible care of Araminta. Shake hands on it." He went out, his shoulders shaking with suppressed merriment, and Miss Hitty watched him through the grimy front window.

"Seems sort of decent," she thought, "and not too grasping. He might be real nice if he wasn't a man."