Anne Warner.

Sunshine Jane



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CHAPTER I
GENERAL IGNORANCE

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.

CHAPTER II
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.

"No, never."

"Hey?"

"No, never."

"Once?"

"Never."

"What?"

"Never!"

"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."

"Who?"

"Mrs. Ralston and Miss Drew."

"Who? I don't hear you."

"Miss Drew."

"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.

"Hey!"

"Yes."

"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.

"I'm sure of that," Jane said, laughing, too. Then the stage stopped at Miss Debby Vane's, and Miss Debby came flying down to embrace her cousin. "Thanks be to God that you're here safe, my dear. These awful storms at sea have just about frightened me to death."

"But I was on land, Aunt Deborah." Madeleine, in getting down, had gotten into a warm embrace at the same time.

"I know, dear, I know. But one can't remember that all the time – can one?" Miss Debby was kissing her over and over.

"Your step-ladder. Look out!" cried the stage driver, and they had barely time to jump from under.

Then Madeleine reached up and clasped Jane's hand. "We shall be friends," she said earnestly; "I've never met any one whom I've liked quite in the same way that I like you. Do let us see all that we can of one another."

"I want to, I know," Jane answered.

The stage driver was already remounting his seat.

"Au revoir," Madeleine cried, just as Lorenzo had done.

"Just for a little," Jane called back, and then she was alone in the stage, rattling down the long, green-arched street to its furthest end.

"There goes the stage," Katie Croft called out to her mother-in-law in the next room. "Now Miss Drew'll have her niece and be able to get away for a little rest."

"If it was a daughter-in-law, she couldn't, maybe," said a voice from the next room; "the rest is going to be poor, sweet Susan Ralston's, anyhow. Oh, my Susan Ralston, my dear, sweet Susan Ralston, my loving Susan Ralston, where I used to go and call!"

"Why, Mother, you haven't so much as thought of Mrs. Ralston for years." Katie's voice was very sharp.

"Nobody knows what I think of," wailed the voice from the other room. "My thoughts is music. They fly and sing all night. They sing Caw, Caw, and they fly like feathers."

Katie Croft walked over and shut the door with a bang. Katie was almost beside herself.

The stage now drew up before the Ralston house.

Miss Matilda quitted the window, where she had stood watching for an hour, and went to the gate. Her emotions were quite tumultuous – for her. Single-handed she had tended her sister for five years, and now she was going to have a rest. She had had very trying symptoms, and the doctor had advised a rest, – three weeks of freedom, night and day. She was going away on a real holiday, going back to the place where she had taught school before the summons had come to cherish, love, and protect her only sister, who was not strong and had property. It seemed like a dream, – a wild, lively, and joyful dream. She almost smiled as she thought of what was at hand.

Jane descended, her small trunk came bang down beside her in the same instant, and the driver was paid and drove off. The aunt and niece then turned to go into the house.

"Well, and so it's you!" Matilda's tone and glance were slightly inquisitorial, and more than slightly dictatorial. "I'm glad to see you're strong. You'll need be. She's an awful care. She ain't up much now. Isn't up at all sometimes for weeks. Sleeps considerable. Take off your hat and coat and hang them there. That's the place where they belong."

Jane obeyed without saying anything. But her smile spoke for her.

"Hungry?" inquired Matilda.

"A little."

"I surmised you would be and waited supper. Thought you'd see how I fixed hers then. She's eating very little. Less and less all the time. There's a garden to weed, too. Awful inconvenient out there across two stiles. But she won't give it up. She pays me to tend it, or I'd let the dandelions root it out in short order. But I tend it."

They had gone into the kitchen, where a kettle stewed feebly over a half-dead fire. "Sit down," said Matilda. "I'll fix her supper first. She takes her tea cold, so I save it from morning and heat it up with a little boiling water, so. Then there's this bit of fish I saved from day before yesterday, and I cut a piece of bread. No butter, because her stomach's delicate. You'll see that she'll hardly eat this. Watch now."

Jane sat and watched, still smiling.

"Mr. Rath, the artist, came down in the stage with you, didn't he?" Miss Matilda went on. "What kind of a young man was he? Somebody'll tell you, so it might as well be me, what's brought him here. Mrs. Cowmull's trying to marry off her niece, Emily Mead. There aren't any men in town, so she advertised. She gave it out that she wanted a boarder, but everybody see through that. That's what marriage has come to these days, catching men to board 'em and then marrying them when they're thinking of something else. I thank Heaven I ain't had nothing to do with any marriage. They're a bad business. There, that's your supper."

Jane started slightly. Her own cold fish and lukewarm tea sat before her. "Shan't I take Aunt Susan's up first?" she asked, recollecting that she still had some lunch in her bag, and that Matilda would be leaving early in the morning.

"No need. She likes things cold. You ought to see her face if she gets anything boiling in her mouth. It's no use to give her nothing hot. You'd think it was a snake. I give it up the third time she burnt her."

"But I ought to go up and see her, I think; she hasn't seen me since I was such a little girl."

"No need. You go ahead and enjoy your supper without bothering over her. She knows you're here, and she isn't one that's interested in things. She'll read an old shelf paper for hours, but carry her up a new paper and like as not when you get to the bed with it, you'll find her asleep. She sleeps a lot."

Jane – thus urged – picked the chilled fish with a fork and considered.

"I'll show you about the house after you've done eating," the aunt continued presently; "it's easy taken care of, for I keep it all shut up. Just Susan's room and mine and the kitchen is open. The neighbors won't bother you, for I give them to understand long ago as I wasn't one with time to waste. There isn't any one in the place that a woman with any sense would want to bother with, anyhow."

"I don't fancy that I'll have time to be lonesome," smiled Jane, bravely swallowing some tea.

"You'd have if it wasn't for the garden. I don't know whatever in the world makes Susan set such store by that garden. She will have it that it shall be kept up in memory of her husband, and you never saw such weeds. I've often sat down backwards when one come up – often."

"I can't see it at all," with a glance out of the window.

"You can't from here. And it's got to be watered, and she counts every pot full of water from her bed. She can hear me pumping. The birds dig up the seeds as fast as I can plant 'em, and I never saw no sense in slaving in the sun over what you can buy in the shade any day. – Are you done?"

"Yes, I'm done."

"Then come on."

"Can I spread the tray?"

"Tray! She doesn't have a tray. What should I fuss with a tray for, when I've got two hands?"

Jane rose and stood by the table in silence, watching the cup filled from the standing teapot and the plate ornamented with a lonely bit of fish and a slice of bread. "Don't you butter the bread?"

"She's in bed so much she mustn't have rich food," Matilda answered; "there, now it's ready. Come on."

"Shan't I carry anything?"

"I can take it, I guess. I've carried it alone for five years; I guess I can manage it to-night."

Jane followed up the stairs in silence; Matilda marched ahead with a firm, heavy tread.

"Shall I knock for you?"

"I don't know what for. She yells anyway, whenever I come in, whether she's knocked or not. Just open the door."

Jane opened the door gently, and they went in together. The room was half darkened, and only a little sharp nose showed over the top of the bedquilt.

"Here's your supper," said the affectionate sister, "and here's Jane."

A shrill cry was followed by two eyes tipping upward beyond the nose. "Oh, are you Jane?" There was a lot of pathos in the tone.

The girl moved quickly to the bedside. "I hope that we're going to be very happy," she said; "we must love one another very much, you know."

The invalid hoisted herself on to an elbow and looked towards the plate which Matilda was holding forth.

"Oh, my! Fish again!" she wailed.

Later – on their way back to the kitchen fire – Matilda said significantly: "Most ungrateful person I ever saw, she is. But just don't notice what she says. It's the only way to get on. I keep her room tidy and I keep her house clean and I keep her garden weeded. I'm careful of her money, and she's well fed. I don't know what more any one could ask, but she ain't satisfied and she ain't always polite, but you'll only have three weeks of what I've had for five years, so I guess it won't kill you."

"Oh, I think that I'll be all right," Jane answered cheerfully.

"The stage is ordered for seven in the morning, and I shall get up at half-past four," the aunt continued. "You can sleep till five just as well. I'm going to bed now, and you'd better do the same thing."

"Yes, I think so," said Jane cheerfully; "good night."

CHAPTER III
MATILDA TEACHES

MATILDA seated herself bolt upright on one of the kitchen chairs and drew a hard, stiff sigh.

"It'll be a great rest to get away," she said, "more of a rest than any one but me will ever know. You see, she's left all she's got to me in her will, so I'm bound in honor to keep a pretty sharp watch over everything. I can't even take a chance at her sinking suddenly away, with the room not picked up or a cobweb in some high corner. I've seen her will, and she ain't left you a cent, so you won't have the same responsibility. It'll be easier for you."

"I'll do my very best," said Jane.

"The trouble is I'm too conscientious," said Matilda. "I was always conscientious, and she was always slack. It's an awful failing. It's a warning, too, for now there she lays, snug as a bug in a rug, and me with New Asthma in my arm from tending her and the house."

"You'll get over all that very soon," said the niece soothingly.

Matilda glanced at her suspiciously. "No, I shan't. I may get better, but I shan't get over it. It's a nerve trouble and can't never be completely cured. A doctor can alligator it, but he can't cure it. I'll have it till I die."

Jane was silent.

"You wrote that you were some kind of a nurse. What kind did you say you were?"

"I'm a Sunshine Nurse."

"A Sunshine Nurse! What's that? Some new idea of never pulling down the shades?"

Jane laughed. "Not exactly. It's an Order just founded by a doctor. He picked out the girls himself, and he sends them where he chooses for training."

"What's the training?"

Jane looked at her and hesitated a little. "I expect you'll laugh," she said finally; "it does sound funny to any one who isn't used to such ideas. We're to see the sun as always shining, and always shine ourselves, and our training consists in going where there isn't any brightness and being bright, and going where there isn't any happiness and teaching happiness."

"Sounds to me like nonsense," said Matilda, rising abruptly; "don't you go letting up the sitting-room shades and fading the upholstering, – that's all I've got to say. Come now and I'll show you about locking up, and then we'll go to bed."

Jane obeyed with promptness and was most observant and attentive. Matilda loaded her with behests and instructions and seemed appreciative of the intelligence with which they were received.

"I wouldn't go in for nothing fancy," she said, as they completed their task; "the less you stir up her and the house, the easier it'll be for me when I come back. You don't want to ever forget that I'm coming back, and don't put any fancy ideas into her head. There's plenty to do here without going out of your way to upset my ways."

"I'll remember," said Jane.

Then they started up-stairs, and a few minutes later the Sunshine Nurse was alone in her own room, free to stand quietly by the window and let her outward gaze form a bond between the still beauty of a country night and the glad vision of work in plenty, and that of a kind which Miss Matilda couldn't prohibit, because she knew not the world in which such work is done.

"Not – " said Jane to herself with a little whimsical smile – "not but what I'm 'most sure that my teaching will be manifest in a lot of material changes, too, but by the time that she comes back, her own feelings will be sufficiently 'alligatored' so that she'll see life differently also. God's plan is just as much for her good in sending her away as it is for mine in sending me here, and I mustn't forget that for a minute. I'll be busy and she'll be busy, and we'll both be learning and we'll both be teaching and we'll both be being necessary."

She drew a chair close and sat down, full of her own bright and helpful thoughts. Much of love and wonder came flooding into her through the medium of the sweet, calm night without. "It's like being among angels," she fancied, and felt a close companionship with those who had known the Great White Messengers face to face.

Long she sat there, praying the prayer that is just one indrawn breath of content and uplifted consciousness. Not many girls of twenty-two would have seen so much in that not unusual situation, and yet it was to her so brimful of fair possibilities that she could hardly wait for morning to begin work.



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