The Softening of Miss Cynthia by Lucy Maud Montgomery
"I wonder if I'd better flavour this cake with lemon or vanilla. It's the most perplexing thing I ever heard of in my life."
Miss Cynthia put down the bottles with a vexed frown; her perplexity had nothing whatever to do with flavouring the golden mixture in her cake bowl. Mrs. John Joe knew that; the latter had dropped in in a flurry of curiosity concerning the little boy whom she had seen about Miss Cynthia's place for the last two days. Her daughter Kitty was with her; they both sat close together on the kitchen sofa.
"It is too bad," said Mrs. John Joe sympathetically. "I don't wonder you are mixed up. So unexpected, too! When did he come?"
"Tuesday night," said Miss Cynthia. She had decided on the vanilla and was whipping it briskly in. "I saw an express wagon drive into the yard with a boy and a trunk in it and I went out just as he got down. 'Are you my Aunt Cynthia?' he said. 'Who in the world are you?' I asked. And he says, 'I'm Wilbur Merrivale, and my father was John Merrivale. He died three weeks ago and he said I was to come to you, because you were his sister.' Well, you could just have knocked me down with a feather!"
"I'm sure," said Mrs. John Joe. "But I didn't know you had a brother. And his name--Merrivale?"
"Well, he wasn't any relation really. I was about six years old when my father married his mother, the Widow Merrivale. John was just my age, and we were brought up together just like brother and sister. He was a real nice fellow, I must say. But he went out to Californy years ago, and I haven't heard a word of him for fifteen years--didn't know if he was alive or dead. But it seems from what I can make out from the boy, that his mother died when he was a baby, and him and John roughed it along together--pretty poor, too, I guess--till John took a fever and died. And he told some of his friends to send the boy to me, for he'd no relations there and not a cent in the world. And the child came all the way from Californy, and here he is. I've been just distracted ever since. I've never been used to children, and to have the house kept in perpetual uproar is more than I can stand. He's about twelve and a born mischief. He'll tear through the rooms with his dirty feet, and he's smashed one of my blue vases and torn down a curtain and set Towser on the cat half a dozen times already--I never was so worried. I've got him out on the verandah shelling peas now, to keep him quiet for a little spell."
"I'm really sorry for you," said Mrs. John Joe. "But, poor child, I suppose he's never had anyone to look after him. And come all the way from Californy alone, too--he must be real smart."
"Too smart, I guess. He must take after his mother, whoever she was, for there ain't a bit of Merrivale in him. And he's been brought up pretty rough."
"Well, it'll be a great responsibility for you, Cynthia, of course. But he'll be company, too, and he'll be real handy to run errands and--"
"I'm not going to keep him," said Miss Cynthia determinedly. Her thin lips set themselves firmly and her voice had a hard ring.
"Not going to keep him?" said Mrs. John Joe blankly. "You can't send him back to Californy!"
"I don't intend to. But as for having him here to worry my life out and keep me in a perpetual stew, I just won't do it. D'ye think I'm going to trouble myself about children at my age? And all he'd cost for clothes and schooling, too! I can't afford it. I don't suppose his father expected it either. I suppose he expected me to look after him a bit--and of course I will. A boy of his age ought to be able to earn his keep, anyway. If I look out a place for him somewhere where he can do odd jobs and go to school in the winter, I think it's all anyone can expect of me, when he ain't really no blood relation."
Miss Cynthia flung the last sentence at Mrs. John Joe rather defiantly, not liking the expression on that lady's face.
"I suppose nobody could expect more, Cynthy," said Mrs. John Joe deprecatingly. "He would be an awful bother, I've no doubt, and you've lived alone so long with no one to worry you that you wouldn't know what to do with him. Boys are always getting into mischief--my four just keep me on the dead jump. Still, it's a pity for him, poor little fellow! No mother or father--it seems hard."
Miss Cynthia's face grew grimmer than ever as she went to the door with her callers and watched them down the garden path. As soon as Mrs. John Joe saw that the door was shut, she unburdened her mind to her daughter.
"Did you ever hear tell of the like? I thought I knew Cynthia Henderson well, if anybody in Wilmot did, but this beats me. Just think, Kitty--there she is, no one knows how rich, and not a soul in the world belonging to her, and she won't even take in her brother's child. She must be a hard woman. But it's just meanness, pure and simple; she grudges him what he'd eat and wear. The poor mite doesn't look as if he'd need much. Cynthia didn't used to be like that, but it's growing on her every day. She's got hard as rocks."
That afternoon Miss Cynthia harnessed her fat grey pony into the phaeton herself--she kept neither man nor maid, but lived in her big, immaculate house in solitary state--and drove away down the dusty, buttercup-bordered road, leaving Wilbur sitting on the verandah. She returned in an hour's time and drove into the yard, shutting the gate behind her with a vigorous snap. Wilbur was not in sight and, fearful lest he should be in mischief, she hurriedly tied the pony to the railing and went in search of him. She found him sitting by the well, his chin in his hands; he was pale and his eyes were red. Miss Cynthia hardened her heart and took him into the house.
"I've been down to see Mr. Robins this afternoon, Wilbur," she said, pretending to brush some invisible dust from the bottom of her nice black cashmere skirt for an excuse to avoid looking at him, "and he's agreed to take you on trial. It's a real good chance--better than you could expect. He says he'll board and clothe you and let you go to school in the winter."
The boy seemed to shrink.
"Daddy said that I would stay with you," he said wistfully. "He said you were so good and kind and would love me for his sake."
For a moment Miss Cynthia softened. She had been very fond of her stepbrother; it seemed that his voice appealed to her across the grave in behalf of his child. But the crust of years was not to be so easily broken.
"Your father meant that I would look after you," she said, "and I mean to, but I can't afford to keep you here. You'll have a good place at Mr. Robins', if you behave yourself. I'm going to take you down now, before I unharness the pony, so go and wash your face while I put up your things. Don't look so woebegone, for pity's sake! I'm not taking you to prison."
Wilbur turned and went silently to the kitchen. Miss Cynthia thought she heard a sob. She went with a firm step into the little bedroom off the hall and took a purse out of a drawer.
"I s'pose I ought," she said doubtfully. "I don't s'pose he has a cent. I daresay he'll lose or waste it."
She counted out seventy-five cents carefully. When she came out, Wilbur was at the door. She put the money awkwardly into his hand.
"There, see that you don't spend it on any foolishness."
* * * * *
Miss Cynthia's Action made a good deal of talk in Wilmot. The women, headed by Mrs. John Joe--who said behind Cynthia's back what she did not dare say to her face--condemned her. The men laughed and said that Cynthia was a shrewd one; there was no getting round her. Miss Cynthia herself was far from easy. She could not forget Wilbur's wistful eyes, and she had heard that Robins was a hard master.
A week after the boy had gone she saw him one day at the store. He was lifting heavy bags from a cart. The work was beyond his strength, and he was flushed and panting. Miss Cynthia's conscience gave her a hard stab. She bought a roll of peppermints and took them over to him. He thanked her timidly and drove quickly away.
"Robins hasn't any business putting such work on a child," she said to herself indignantly. "I'll speak to him about it."
And she did--and got an answer that made her ears tingle. Mr. Robins bluntly told her he guessed he knew what was what about his hands. He weren't no nigger driver. If she wasn't satisfied, she might take the boy away as soon as she liked.
Miss Cynthia did not get much comfort out of life that summer. Almost everywhere she went she was sure to meet Wilbur, engaged in some hard task. She could not help seeing how miserably pale and thin he had become. The worry had its effect on her. The neighbours said that Cynthy was sharper than ever. Even her church-going was embittered. She had always enjoyed walking up the aisle with her rich silk skirt rustling over the carpet, her cashmere shawl folded correctly over her shoulders, and her lace bonnet set precisely on her thin shining crimps. But she could take no pleasure in that or in the sermon now, when Wilbur sat right across from her pew, between hard-featured Robins and his sulky-looking wife. The boy's eyes had grown too large for his thin face.
The softening of Miss Cynthia was a very gradual process, but it reached a climax one September morning, when Mrs. John Joe came into the former's kitchen with an important face. Miss Cynthia was preserving her plums.
"No, thank you, I'll not sit down--I only run in--I suppose you've heard it. That little Merrivale boy has took awful sick with fever, they say. He's been worked half to death this summer--everyone knows what Robins is with his help--and they say he has fretted a good deal for his father and been homesick, and he's run down, I s'pose. Anyway, Robins took him over to the hospital at Stanford last night--good gracious, Cynthy, are you sick?"
Miss Cynthia had staggered to a seat by the table; her face was pallid.
"No, it's only your news gave me a turn--it came so suddenly--I didn't know."
"I must hurry back and see to the men's dinners. I thought I'd come and tell you, though I didn't know as you'd care."
This parting shot was unheeded by Miss Cynthia. She laid her face in her hands. "It's a judgement on me," she moaned. "He's going to die, and I'm his murderess. This is the account I'll have to give John Merrivale of his boy. I've been a wicked, selfish woman, and I'm justly punished."
It was a humbled Miss Cynthia who met the doctor at the hospital that afternoon. He shook his head at her eager questions.
"It's a pretty bad case. The boy seems run down every way. No, it is impossible to think of moving him again. Bringing him here last night did him a great deal of harm. Yes, you may see him, but he will not know you, I fear--he is delirious and raves of his father and California."
Miss Cynthia followed the doctor down the long ward. When he paused by a cot, she pushed past him. Wilbur lay tossing restlessly on his pillow. He was thin to emaciation, but his cheeks were crimson and his eyes burning bright.
Miss Cynthia stooped and took the hot, dry hands in hers.
"Wilbur," she sobbed, "don't you know me--Aunt Cynthia?"
"You are not my Aunt Cynthia," said Wilbur. "Daddy said Aunt Cynthia was good and kind--you are a cross, bad woman. I want Daddy. Why doesn't he come? Why doesn't he come to little Wilbur?"
Miss Cynthia got up and faced the doctor.
"He's got to get better," she said stubbornly. "Spare no expense or trouble. If he dies, I will be a murderess. He must live and give me a chance to make it up for him."
And he did live; but for a long time it was a hard fight, and there were days when it seemed that death must win. Miss Cynthia got so thin and wan that even Mrs. John Joe pitied her.
The earth seemed to Miss Cynthia to laugh out in prodigal joyousness on the afternoon she drove home when Wilbur had been pronounced out of danger. How tranquil the hills looked, with warm October sunshine sleeping on their sides and faint blue hazes on their brows! How gallantly the maples flaunted their crimson flags! How kind and friendly was every face she met! Afterwards, Miss Cynthia said she began to live that day.
Wilbur's recovery was slow. Every day Miss Cynthia drove over with some dainty, and her loving gentleness sat none the less gracefully on her because of its newness. Wilbur grew to look for and welcome her coming. When it was thought safe to remove him, Miss Cynthia went to the hospital with a phaeton-load of shawls and pillows.
"I have come to take you away," she said.
Wilbur shrank back. "Not to Mr. Robins," he said piteously. "Oh, not there, Aunt Cynthia!"