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   Chapter 10 RUTH'S RESPONSIBILITY.

We Girls: a Home Story By A. D. T. Whitney Characters: 25669

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The June days did not make it any better. And the June nights,-well, we had to sit in the "front box at the sunset," and think how there would be June after June here for somebody, and we should only have had just two of them out of our whole lives.

Why did not grandfather give us that paper, when he began to? And what could have become of it since? And what if it were found some time, after the dear old place was sold and gone? For it was the "dear old place" already to us, though we had only lived there a year, and though Aunt Roderick did say, in her cold fashion, just as if we could choose about it, that "it was not as if it were really an old homestead; it wouldn't be so much of a change for us, if we made up our minds not to take it in, as if we had always lived there."

Why, we had always lived there! That was just the way we had always been trying to spell "home," though we had never got the right letters to do it with before. When exactly the right thing comes to you, it is a thing that has always been. You don't get the very sticks and stones to begin with, maybe; but what they stand for grows up in you, and when you come to it you know it is yours. The best things-the most glorious and wonderful of all-will be what we shall see to have been "laid up for us from the foundation." Aunt Roderick did not see one bit of how that was with us.

"There isn't a word in the tenth commandment about not coveting your own house," Barbara would say, boldly. And we did covet, and we did grieve. And although we did not mean to have "hard thoughts," we felt that Aunt Roderick was hard; and that Uncle Roderick and Uncle John were hatefully matter-of-fact and of-course about the "business." And that paper might be somewhere, yet. We did not believe that Grandfather Holabird had "changed his mind and burned it up." He had not had much mind to change, within those last six months. When he was well, and had a mind, we knew what he had meant to do.

If Uncle Roderick and Uncle John had not believed a word of what father told them, they could not have behaved very differently. We half thought, sometimes, that they did not believe it. And very likely they half thought that we were making it appear that they had done something that was not right. And it is the half thoughts that are the hard thoughts. "It is very disagreeable," Aunt Roderick used to say.

Miss Trixie Spring came over and spent days with us, as of old; and when the house looked sweet and pleasant with the shaded summer light, and was full of the gracious summer freshness, she would look round and shake her head, and say, "It's just as beautiful as it can be. And it's a dumb shame. Don't tell me!"

Uncle Roderick was going to "take in" the old homestead with his share, and that was as much as he cared about; Uncle John was used to nothing but stocks and railway shares, and did not want "encumbrances"; and as to keeping it as estate property and paying rent to the heirs, ourselves included,-nobody wanted that; they would rather have things settled up. There would always be questions of estimates and repairs; it was not best to have things so in a family. Separate accounts as well as short ones, made best friends. We knew they all thought father was unlucky to have to do with in such matters. He would still be the "limited" man of the family. It would take two thirds of his inheritance to pay off those old '57 debts.

So we took our lovely Westover summer days as things we could not have any more of. And when you begin to feel that about anything, it would be a relief to have had the last of it. Nothing lasts always; but we like to have the forever-and-ever feeling, however delusive. A child hates his Sunday clothes, because he knows he cannot put them on again on Monday.

With all our troubles, there was one pleasure in the house,-Arctura. We had made an art-kitchen; now we were making a little poem of a serving-maiden. We did not turn things over to her, and so leave chaos to come again; we only let her help; we let her come in and learn with us the nice and pleasant ways that we had learned. We did not move the kitchen down stairs again; we were determined not to have a kitchen any more.

Arctura was strong and blithe; she could fetch and carry, make fires, wash dishes, clean knives and brasses, do all that came hardest to us; and could do, in other things, with and for us, what she saw us do. We all worked together till the work was done; then Arctura sat down in the afternoons, just as we did, and read books, or made her clothes. She always looked nice and pretty. She had large dark calico aprons for her work; and little white bib-aprons for table-tending and dress-up; and mother made for her, on the machine, little linen collars and cuffs.

We had a pride in her looks; and she knew it; she learned to work as delicately as we did. When breakfast or dinner was ready, she was as fit to turn round and serve as we were to sit down; she was astonished herself, at ways and results that she fell in with and attained.

"Why, where does the dirt go to?" she would exclaim. "It never gethers anywheres."

"GATHERS,-anywhere" Rosamond corrected.

Arctura learned little grammar lessons, and other such things, by the way. She was only "next" below us in our family life; there was no great gulf fixed. We felt that we had at least got hold of the right end of one thread in the social tangle. This, at any rate, had come out of our year at Westover.

"Things seem so easy," the girl would say. "It is just like two times one."

So it was; because we did not jumble in all the Analysis and Compound Proportion of housekeeping right on top of the multiplication-table. She would get on by degrees; by and by she would be in evolution and geometrical progression without knowing how she got there. If you want a house, you must build it up, stone by stone, and stroke by stroke; if you want a servant, you, or somebody for you, must build one, just the same; they do not spring up and grow, neither can be "knocked together." And I tell you, busy, eager women of this day, wanting great work out of doors, this is just what "we girls," some of us,-and some of the best of us, perhaps,-have got to stay at home awhile and do.

"It is one of the little jobs that has been waiting for a good while to be done," says Barbara; "and Miss Pennington has found out another. 'There may be,' she says, 'need of women for reorganizing town meetings; I won't undertake to say there isn't; but I'm sure there's need of them for reorganizing parlor meetings. They are getting to be left altogether to the little school-girl "sets." Women who have grown older, and can see through all that nonsense, and have the position and power to break it up, ought to take hold. Don't you think so? Don't you think it is the duty of women of my age and class to see to this thing before it grows any worse?' And I told her,-right up, respectful,-Yes'm; it wum! Think of her asking me, though!"

Just as things were getting to be so different and so nice on West Hill, it seemed so hard to leave it! Everything reminded us of that.

A beautiful plan came up for Ruth, though, at this time. What with the family worries,-which Ruth always had a way of gathering to herself, and hugging up, prickers in, as if so she could keep the nettles from other people's fingers,-and her hard work at her music, she was getting thin. We were all insisting that she must take a vacation this summer, both from teaching and learning; when, all at once, Miss Pennington made up her mind to go to West Point and Lake George, and to take Penelope with her; and she came over and asked Ruth to go too.

"If you don't mind a room alone, dear; I'm an awful coward to have come of a martial family, and I must have Pen with me nights. I'm nervous about cars, too; I want two of you to keep up a chatter; I should be miserable company for one, always distracted after the whistles."

Ruth's eyes shone; but she colored up, and her thanks had half a doubt in them. She would tell Auntie: and they would think how it could be.

"What a nice way for you to go!" said Barbara, after Miss Pennington left. "And how nice it will be for you to see Dakie!" At which Ruth colored up again, and only said that "it would certainly be the nicest possible way to go, if she were to go at all."

Barbara meant-or meant to be understood that she meant-that Miss Pennington knew everybody, and belonged among the general officers; Ruth had an instinct that it would only be possible for her to go by an invitation like this from people out of her own family.

"But doesn't it seem queer she should choose me, out of us all?" she asked. "Doesn't it seem selfish for me to be the one to go?"

"Seem selfish? Whom to?" said Barbara, bluntly. "We weren't asked."

"I wish-everybody-knew that," said Ruth.

Making this little transparent speech, Ruth blushed once more. But she went, after all. She said we pushed her out of the nest. She went out into the wide, wonderful world, for the very first time in her life.

This is one of her letters:-

DEAR MOTHER AND GIRLS:-It is perfectly lovely here. I wish you could sit where I do this morning, looking up the still river in the bright light, with the tender purple haze on the far-off hills, and long, low, shady Constitution Island lying so beautiful upon the water on one side, and dark shaggy Cro' Nest looming up on the other. The Parrott guns at the foundry, over on the headland opposite, are trying,-as they are trying almost all the time,-against the face of the high, old, desolate cliff; and the hurtling buzz of the shells keeps a sort of slow, tremendous time-beat on the air.

I think I am almost more interested in Constitution Island than in any other part of the place. I never knew until I came here that it was the home of the Misses Warner; the place where Queechy came from, and Dollars and Cents, and the Wide, Wide World. It seems so strange to think that they sit there and write still, lovely stories while all this parade and bustle and learning how to fight are going on close beside and about them.

The Cadets are very funny. They will do almost any thing for mischief,-the frolic of it, I mean. Dakie Thayne tells us very amusing stories. They are just going into camp now; and they have parades and battery-practice every day. They have target-firing at old Cro' Nest,-which has to stand all the firing from the north battery, just around here from the hotel. One day the cadet in charge made a very careful sighting of his piece; made the men train the gun up and down, this way and that, a hair more or a hair less, till they were nearly out of patience; when, lo! just as he had got "a beautiful bead," round came a superintending officer, and took a look too. The bad boy had drawn it full on a poor old black cow! I do not believe he would have really let her be blown up; but Dakie says,-"Well, he rather thinks,-if she would have stood still long enough,-he would have let her be-astonished!"

The walk through the woods, around the cliff, over the river, is beautiful. If only they wouldn't call it by such a silly name!

We went out to Old Fort Putnam yesterday. I did not know how afraid Miss Pennington could be of a little thing before. I don't know, now, how much of it was fun; for, as Dakie Thayne said, it was agonizingly funny. What must have happened to him after we got back and he left us I cannot imagine; he didn't laugh much there, and it must have been a misery of politeness.

We had been down into the old, ruinous enclosure; had peeped in at the dark, choked-up casemates; and had gone round and come up on the edge of the broken embankment, which we were following along to where it sloped down safely again,-when, just at the very middle and highest and most impossible point, down sat Miss Elizabeth among the stones, and declared she could neither go back nor forward. She had been frightened to death all the way, and now her head was quite gone. "No; nothing should persuade her; she never could get up on her feet again in that dreadful place." She laughed in the midst of it; but she was really frightened, and there she sat; Dakie went to her, and tried to help her up, and lead her on; but she would not be helped. "What would come of it?" "She didn't know; she supposed that was the end of her; she couldn't do anything." "But, dear Miss Pennington," says Dakie, "are you going to break short off with life, right here, and make a Lady Simon Stylites of yourself?" "For all she knew; she never could get down." I think we must have been there, waiting and coaxing, nearly half an hour, before she began to hitch along; for walk she wouldn't, and she didn't. She had on a black Ernani d

ress, and a nice silk underskirt; and as she lifted herself along with her hands, hoist after hoist sidewise, of course the thin stuff dragged on the rocks and began to go to pieces. By the time she came to where she could stand, she was a rebus of the Coliseum,-"a noble wreck in ruinous perfection." She just had to tear off the long tatters, and roll them up in a bunch, and fling them over into a hollow, and throw the two or three breadths that were left over her arm, and walk home in her silk petticoat, itself much the sufferer from dust and fray, though we did all we could for her with pocket-handkerchiefs.

"What has happened to Miss Pennington?" said Mrs. General M--, as we came up on the piazza.

"Nothing," said Dakie, quite composed and proper, "only she got tired and sat down; and it was dusty,-that was all." He bowed and went off, without so much as a glance of secret understanding.

"A joke has as many lives as a cat, here," he told Pen and me, afterwards, "and that was too good not to keep to ourselves."

Dear little mother and girls,-I have told stories and described describes, and all to crowd out and leave to the last corner such a thing that Dakie Thayne wants to do! We got to talking about Westover and last summer, and the pleasant old place, and all; and I couldn't help telling him something about the worry. I know I had no business to; and I am afraid I have made a snarl. He says he would like to buy the place! And he wanted to know if Uncle Stephen wouldn't rent it of him if he did! Just think of it,-that boy! I believe he really means to write to Chicago, to his guardian. Of course it never came into my head when I told him; it wouldn't at any rate, and I never think of his having such a quantity of money. He seems just like-as far as that goes-any other boy. What shall I do? Do you believe he will?

P.S. Saturday morning. I feel better about that Poll Parroting of mine, to-day. I have had another talk with Dakie. I don't believe he will write; now, at any rate. O girls! this is just the most perfect morning!

Tell Stephen I've got a splendid little idea, on purpose for him and me. Something I can hardly keep to myself till I get home. Dakie Thayne put it into my head. He is just the brightest boy, about everything! I begin to feel in a hurry almost, to come back. I don't think Miss Pennington will go to Lake George, after all. She says she hates to leave the Point, so many of her old friends are here. But Pen and I think she is afraid of the steamers.

* * *

Ruth got home a week after this; a little fatter, a little browner, and a little merrier and more talkative than she had ever been before.

Stephen was in a great hurry about the splendid little mysterious idea, of course. Boys never can wait, half so well as girls, for anything.

We were all out on the balcony that night before dusk, as usual. Ruth got up suddenly, and went into the house for something. Stephen went straight in after her. What happened upon that, the rest of us did not know till afterward. But it is a nice little part of the story,-just because there is so precious little of it.

Ruth went round, through the brown room and the hall, to the front door. Stephen found her stooping down, with her face close to the piazza cracks.

"Hollo! what's the matter? Lost something?"

Ruth lifted up her head. "Hush!"

"Why, how your face shines! What is up?"

"It's the sunset. I mean-that shines. Don't say anything. Our splendid-little-idea, you know. It's under here."

"Be dar-never-minded, if mine is!"

"You don't know. Columbus didn't know where his idea was-exactly. Do you remember when Sphinx hid her kittens under here last summer? Brought 'em round, over the wood-pile in the shed, and they never knew their way out till she showed 'em?"

"It isn't about kittens!"

"Hasn't Old Ma'amselle got some now?"

"Yes; four."

"Couldn't you bring up one-or two-to-morrow morning early, and make a place and tuck 'em in here, under the step, and put back the sod, and fasten 'em up?"

"What-for?" with wild amazement.

"I can't do what I want to, just for an idea. It will make a noise, and I don't feel sure enough. There had better be a kitten. I'll tell you the rest to-morrow morning." And Ruth was up on her two little feet, and had given Stephen a kiss, and was back into the house, and round again to the balcony, before he could say another word.

Boys like a plan, though; especially a mysterious getting-up-early plan; and if it has cats in it, it is always funny. He made up his mind to be on hand.

Ruth was first, though. She kept her little bolt drawn all night, between her room and that of Barbara and Rose. At five o'clock, she went softly across the passage to Stephen's room, in her little wrapper and knit slippers. "I shall be ready in ten minutes," she whispered, right into his ear, and into his dream.

"Scat!" cried Stephen, starting up bewildered.

And Ruth "scatted."

Down on the front piazza, twenty minutes after, she superintended the tucking in of the kittens, and then told him to bring a mallet and wedge. She had been very particular to have the kittens put under at a precise place, though there was a ready-made hole farther on. The cat babies mewed and sprawled and dragged themselves at feeble length on their miserable little legs, as small blind kittiewinks are given to doing.

"They won't go far," said Ruth. "Now, let's take this board up."

"What-for?" cried Stephen, again.

"To get them out, of course," says Ruth.

"Well, if girls ain't queer! Queerer than cats!"

"Hush!" said Ruth, softly. "I believe-but I don't dare say a word yet-there's something there!"

"Of course there is. Two little yowling-"

"Something we all want found, Steve," Ruth whispered, earnestly. "But I don't know. Do hush! Make haste!"

Stephen put down his face to the crack, and took a peep. Rather a long serious peep. When he took his face back again, "I see something," he said. "It's white paper. Kind of white, that is. Do you suppose, Ruth-? My cracky! if you do!"

"We won't suppose," said Ruth. "We'll hammer."

Stephen knocked up the end of the board with the mallet, and then he got the wedge under and pried. Ruth pulled. Stephen kept hammering and prying, and Ruth held on to all he gained, until they slipped the wedge along gradually, to where the board was nailed again, to the middle joist or stringer. Then a few more vigorous strokes, and a little smart levering, and the nails loosened, and one good wrench lifted it from the inside timber and they slid it out from under the house-boarding.

Underneath lay a long, folded paper, much covered with drifts of dust, and speckled somewhat with damp. But it was a dry, sandy place, and weather had not badly injured it.

"Stephen, I am sure!" said Ruth, holding Stephen back by the arm. "Don't touch it, though! Let it be, right there. Look at that corner, that lies opened up a little. Isn't that grandfather's writing?"

It lay deep down, and not directly under. They could scarcely have reached it with their hands. Stephen ran into the parlor, and brought out an opera-glass that was upon the table there.

"That's bright of you, Steve!" cried Ruth.

Through the glass they discerned clearly the handwriting. They read the words, at the upturned corner,-"heirs after him."

"Lay the board back in its place," said Ruth. "It isn't for us to meddle with any more. Take the kittens away." Ruth had turned quite pale.

Going down to the barn with Stephen, presently, carrying the two kittens in her arms, while he had the mallet and wedge,-

"Stephen," said she, "I'm going to do something on my own responsibility."

"I should think you had."

"O, that was nothing. I had to do that. I had to make sure before I said anything. But now,-I'm going to ask Uncle and Aunt Roderick to come over. They ought to be here, you know."

"Why! don't you suppose they will believe, now?"

"Stephen Holabird! you're a bad boy! No; of course it isn't that." Ruth kept right on from the barn, across the field, into the "old place."

Mrs. Roderick Holabird was out in the east piazza, watering her house plants, that stood in a row against the wall. Her cats always had their milk, and her plants their water, before she had her own breakfast. It was a good thing about Mrs. Roderick Holabird, and it was a good time to take her.

"Aunt Roderick," said Ruth, coming up, "I want you and Uncle to come over right after breakfast; or before, if you like; if you please."

It was rather sudden, but for the repeated "ifs."

"You want!" said Mrs. Roderick in surprise. "Who sent you?"

"Nobody. Nobody knows but Stephen and me. Something is going to happen." Ruth smiled, as one who has a pleasant astonishment in store. She smiled right up out of her heart-faith in Aunt Roderick and everybody.

"On the whole, I guess you'd better come right off,-to breakfast!" How boldly little Ruth took the responsibility! Mr. and Mrs. Roderick had not been over to our house for at least two months. It had seemed to happen so. Father always went there to attend to the "business." The "papers" were all at grandfather's. All but this one, that the "gale" had taken care of.

Uncle Roderick, hearing the voices, came out into the piazza.

"We want you over at our house," repeated Ruth. "Right off, now; there's something you ought to see about."

"I don't like mysteries," said Mrs. Roderick, severely, covering her curiosity; "especially when children get them up. And it's no matter about the breakfast, either way. We can walk across, I suppose, Mr. Holabird, and see what it is all about. Kittens, I dare say."

"Yes," said Ruth, laughing out; "it is kittens, partly. Or was."

So we saw them, from mother's room window, all coming along down the side-hill path together.

We always went out at the front door to look at the morning. Arctura had set the table, and baked the biscuits; we could breathe a little first breath of life, nowadays, that did not come out of the oven.

Father was in the door-way. Stephen stood, as if he had been put there, over the loose board, that we did not know was loose.

Ruth brought Uncle and Aunt Roderick up the long steps, and so around.

"Good morning," said father, surprised. "Why, Ruth, what is it?" And he met them right on that very loose board; and Stephen stood stock still, pertinaciously in the way, so that they dodged and blundered about him.

"Yes, Ruth; what is it?" said Mrs. Roderick Holabird.

Then Ruth, after she had got the family solemnly together, began to be struck with the solemnity. Her voice trembled.

"I didn't mean to make a fuss about it; only I knew you would all care, and I wanted-Stephen and I have found something, mother!" She turned to Mrs. Stephen Holabird, and took her hand, and held it hard.

Stephen stooped down, and drew out the loose board. "Under there," said he; and pointed in.

They could all see the folded paper, with the drifts of dust upon it, just as it had lain for almost a year.

"It has been there ever since the day of the September Gale, father," he said. "The day, you know, that grandfather was here."

"Don't you remember the wind and the papers?" said Ruth. "It was remembering that, that put it into our heads. I never thought of the cracks and-" with a little, low, excited laugh-"the 'total depravity of inanimate things,' till-just a little while ago."

She did not say a word about that bright boy at West Point, now, before them all.

Uncle Roderick reached in with the crook of his cane, and drew forward the packet, and stooped down and lifted it up. He shook off the dust and opened it. He glanced along the lines, and at the signature. Not a single witnessing name. No matter. Uncle Roderick is an honest man. He turned round and held it out to father.

"It is your deed of gift," said he; and then they two shook hands.

"There!" said Ruth, tremulous with gladness. "I knew they would. That was it. That was why. I told you, Stephen!"

"No, you didn't," said Stephen. "You never told me anything-but cats."

"Well! I'm sure I am glad it is all settled," said Mrs. Roderick Holabird, after a pause; "and nobody has any hard thoughts to lay up."

They would not stop to breakfast; they said they would come another time.

But Aunt Roderick, just before she went away, turned round and kissed Ruth. She is a supervising, regulating kind of a woman, and very strict about-well, other people's-expenditures; but she was glad that the "hard thoughts" were lifted off from her.

* * *

"I knew," said Ruth, again, "that we were all good people, and that it must come right."

"Don't tell me!" says Miss Trixie, intolerantly. "She couldn't help herself."

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