THERE was something pathetic in the serene unconsciousness of the little village as the stage came lumbering down the hillside, bearing its freight of portent. So many things were going to be changed forever after, – and no one knew it. Such a vast difference was going speedily to make itself felt, and not a soul was aware even of what a bigger soul it was so soon to be. Old Mrs. Croft, clear at the other end of town and paralyzed for twenty years, hadn't the slightest conception of what a leading part was being prepared for her to play. Poor Katie Croft, her daughter-in-law and slave, whose one prayer was for freedom, dreamed not that the answer was now at last coming near. Mrs. Cowmull, sitting on her porch awaiting the "artist who had advertised," knew not who or what or how old he might be or the interest that would soon be hers. Poor Emily Mead, shelling peas on the bench at the back of her mother's house, frowned fretfully and, putting back her great lock of rich chestnut hair with an impatient gesture, wished that she might see "just one real man before she died," – and the man was even then jolting towards her. Miss Debby Vane, putting last touches to the flowers on her guest-room table, where Madeleine would soon see them, was also sweetly unaware of the approach of momentous events. She thought but of Madeleine, the distant cousin whose parents wanted to see if absence would break up an obnoxious love affair, and so were sending her to Miss Debby, who was "only too pleased."
"A love affair," she whispered rapturously. "A real love affair in this town!" And then she pursed her lips delightfully, never guessing that she was to see so much besides.
Meanwhile Miss Matilda Drew stood looking sternly out of her sister Susan's window, considering if there were any necessary yet up to now forgotten point to be impressed upon Jane the instant that she should arrive. Miss Matilda was naturally as ignorant as all the rest, – as ignorant even as poor Susan, lying primly straight behind her on the bed. Susan was a widow and an invalid, not paralyzed like old Mrs. Croft, but pretty helpless. Matilda had lived with her for five years and tended her assiduously, as she grew more and more feeble. Now Matilda was "about give out," and – "just like a answer out of a clear sky," as Matilda said – their niece Jane, whom neither had seen since she was a mite in curls fifteen years ago, had written to ask if she might spend her holiday with them. They had said "Yes," and Matilda was going away for a rest while Jane kept house and waited on her poor old aunt. Jane was one of the passengers now rattling along in the stage. She differed widely from the others and from every one else in the village, but all put together, they formed that mass known to literature as "the situation." I think myself that it was the rest that formed "the situation" and that Jane formed "the key," but I may be prejudiced. Anyway, "key" or not, Miss Matilda's niece was a sweet, brown-skinned, bright-haired girl, with a happy face, great, beautiful eyes, and a heart that beat every second in truer accord with the great working principles of the universe. She was the only one among them now who had a foot upon the step that led to the path "higher up." And yet because she was the only one, she had seen her way to come gladly and teach them what they had never known; not only that, but also to learn of them the greatest lesson of her own life. So we see that although conscious of both hands overflowing with gifts, Jane really was as ignorant, in God's eyes, as all the rest. She had gone far enough beyond the majority to know that to give is the divinest joy which one may know, but she had not gone far enough to realize that in the greatest outpouring of generosity which we can ever give vent to, a vacuum is created which receives back from those we benefit gifts way beyond the value of our own. "I shall bring so much happiness here," ran the undercurrent of her thought; she never imagined that Fate had brought her to this simple village to fashion herself unto better things.
So all, alike unaware – those in the stage and those awaiting its advent with passengers and post – drew long, relieved breaths as it passed with rattle and clatter over the bridge and into the main street.
EVERYBODY GETS THERE
JANE sat on the rear seat with old Mr. Cattermole, who was coming home to his daughter, Mrs. Mead.
"Ever been here before?" old Mr. Cattermole asked her.
"I'll tell you what it is," said Mr. Cattermole, beaming benevolently, "it's the jolting. It keeps me from hearing what you say."
Jane nodded, smiling.
But old Mr. Cattermole wasn't long inconvenienced by the jolting.
"Who you going to stop with?" he asked next.
"Mrs. Ralston and Miss Drew."
"Mrs. Ralston and Miss Drew."
"Who? I don't hear you."
"The Crews? – There ain't no such people in town."
"Miss Drew!" Jane became slightly crimson.
"I'll tell you," said Mr. Cattermole, "we'll wait. I can't hear. Really I can't."
The next minute they arrived at Mrs. Cowmull's, since she lived in the first house on the street. Lorenzo Rath, the artist, who had been sitting on the middle seat with Madeleine, now pressed her hand, twisted about and shook Jane's, nodded to old Mr. Cattermole, leaned forward and dragged his suit-case from under the seat, and then wriggled out, over two boxes and under a flapping curtain, and down on to the sidewalk. Mrs. Cowmull was standing on the porch, trying to look hospitable and unconscious at the same time. "Here," said the stage driver, suddenly delivering Lorenzo's trunk on to the top of his head, – "and here's the lampshade and the codfish, – they get down here, too."
Lorenzo couldn't help laughing. "Au revoir," he cried, waving the lampshade as the steps began to move.
"We'll meet again soon," Madeleine cried, her face full of bright color.
"Yes, of course."
Then they were off.
"Seemed a nice young feller," said old Mr. Cattermole to Jane.
"Yes." She tried to speak loudly.
"I'll tell you," said old Mr. Cattermole benevolently, "you come and see my granddaughter Emily, and then we'll talk. My granddaughter's a great student. You'll like her. She's full of the new ideas and new books and all that. We're very proud of her. Only she don't get married."
Then the stage stopped, and Mrs. Mead came running out. "Oh, Father, did you buy the new magazines, – on the train, you know?"
Old Mr. Cattermole was descending backwards with the care of a cat in an apple-tree. "It's my daughter," he said to Jane. "I can always hear her because she speaks so plain. Yes, Emma, it was dusty, very dusty."
"This lawn-sprinkler is your's, ain't it?" said the stage driver, jerking it off the roof into Mrs. Mead's arms. "Here's his bag, too."
And then they went on again. Madeleine now had space to turn about. "You'll come and see me?" she asked Jane earnestly; "it'll be so nice. We're both strangers here."
"I'll try," Jane answered, "but I shall be closely tied to the house. Aunt Susan is an invalid, you see. I'll not only have all the work, but if I go out, that poor sick woman will be left helpless and alone up-stairs."
"Perhaps I can come and see you, then," said Madeleine. "I'll have the time to come, if you'll have the time to see me."
"I don't know anything about what my life will be," said Jane. "As I told you on the train, I've only seen my aunts once in my life and that was fifteen years ago. But I should think that you could come and see us. I should think that a little company would do Aunt Susan a lot of good. I'm sure that it would, in fact. But she may not like to see strangers. I really don't know a thing about it. I'm all in the dark."
"I'll come and ask if I may come," said Madeleine brightly. "If she sees me, maybe she'll like me. Most everybody does." She laughed.