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"My goodness, I didn't mean your kind; I meant the regular kind."
Jane was laughing. "But I mustn't laugh," she said, after a minute; "we must go to work. Let's see if we can find out how it all began. Didn't you and Aunt Matilda get on nicely at first?"
Susan considered. "Well, I don't believe we did. She was always so very sparing. Husband was sparing, and of course I'd had a good many years of it, but when your husband's gone and you've got the property yourself and have left it to an only sister who takes care of you, you don't like her being even more sparing, – putting you on skim-milk right from the first and chopping the potato peelings in the hash."
"But there must have been some good in the situation, or it wouldn't have been. When there's a wrong situation, the cure lies in hunting out the good, not in talking over the bad."
"You won't find any good in Matilda and me living together, – not if you hunt till Doomsday." Susan took a big sip of coffee and then shook her head hard.
"There's good in everything."
"I don't know what it was here, then. I was all ready to die, and the doctor said I couldn't live, and when I found out how Matilda was counting on it, I just made up my mind to live just to spite her. But it's been awful hard work."
Jane turned and seized her hand. "Well, maybe that's the reason for the situation, then. You see if she'd been different, you'd have died, but being a person who made you mad, you stayed alive."
Susan laughed a little. "I've been mad enough, I know," she went on; "it's awful to be up-stairs the way I've been and have to prowl down-stairs and run off with your food like a dog in an alley. I was always watching till I saw Matilda over that second fence and then racing for something to eat. I've been very hungry often and often, Jane, very hungry indeed, – and in my own house, too."
The tears came into the girl's eyes. "Poor Auntie!" she said. "Well, it's all over now and won't ever come back. You must believe me when I say so. Old conditions never return. The wheel can't turn backward. That mustn't be."
"But how'll it help it when Matilda's visit gets over?"
Jane rested her chin on her hands and looked out of the window. "I'll have to get you on to a plane where you can't live as you did ever again," she said.
"On a plane! – " Susan stared.
"A plane is a kind of grade in life. We keep going up them like stairs, and the quieter and happier people live, the higher is the plane on which they are. It's very simple, when you come to understand it. It's sort of like a marble staircase built out of a marsh and on up a mountain. You can stand down in the mud, or step higher in the reeds, or step higher in the water (generally it's hot water," Jane interrupted herself to say with a little smile). "Or out on the dry earth, or higher where it's flowers, or higher or higher. But every time you get up a step you leave all the mess of all the lower steps behind you forever.Do you understand?"
"No, I don't."
"Why, don't you see that if you lift yourself higher than your surroundings, of course you'll have other conditions around you and be really living another life? We can't possibly be bound by conditions lower than our souls. It's a law. I'll help you to understand it, and then it will help you to not be at all troubled over Aunt Matilda. You'll be above her. Don't you see? One can always get out of a disagreeable life by lifting one's self above it."
"But I did stay up-stairs," said Susan, with beautiful literalness. "I think it's awful to have to keep a plane above any one, when the whole house is yours."
"I didn't mean that," said Jane. "I meant that mentally you must get above her. It isn't in words or in thoughts, – you must be above her. You must get free. I must help you. You can do it. Anybody can do it. And as soon as you are free in your spirit, your life will change. Our daily life follows our thoughts. Our thoughts make a pattern, and life weaves it. The world of stars that we can't hardly grasp at all is all God's thought. The life in this house was your thought and Aunt Matilda's."
"It wasn't mine," said Susan quickly; "it was hers."
"Well, it's mine now," said Jane. "That's the true business of the Sunshine Nurses. They must get a new thought into a house and get it to growing well. Then they'll leave the true sunshine there forever after."
Susan's eyes were very curious – very bright. "I declare I don't see how you'll do it here," she said. "I can't look at Matilda any new way, as I know of. Whatever she does, she does just exactly as I don't like it."
"I suppose that you try her, too."
"Well, I didn't die; of course she minded that. But I couldn't die. You can't die just to order."
"No, of course not; I didn't mean that." Jane was quite serious. "I don't blame you at all for not doing that."
Susan had finished and rose from the table. "Let's leave the dishes and go out in the yard," she said. "I'm awfully anxious to keep on at this till we find a way out, if you think that you can; I go about wild when I think of her. I'm ready for anything except staying in bed any more."
"Oh, that's all over," said Jane. "You're off the bed-plane now, and don't you see how much higher you've got already? The next step is to fix yourself so securely on this happy one that you know that it's yours and you can't leave it. You see, you feel able to go back down again, and as long as you feel that way, it's possible. One has to bar out the wrong kind of life forever, and then of course it's over."
"But she is coming back," said Susan, "and I can't live any more on gobbles of milk and cold bits swallowed while I'm getting up-stairs three steps to the jump."
Jane looked at her. "I expect that exercise was awfully good for you, Auntie," she said seriously. "You've probably gotten a lot of health and interest out of it. Don't forget that."
"Well, maybe; but I don't want any more." Susan's tone was terribly earnest.
"It's all over then," said Jane, slowly and with emphasis; "if you truly and honestly don't want any more, then it must be all over. The thing to do now is to build a firm connection between ourselves and it's being all over."
"I don't quite understand what you mean," said Susan, "but something's got to be done, of course, because otherwise she'll come home, and oh, my, her face when she sees me up and around!"
Jane knit her brows. "You see, Auntie," she said slowly, "there's only one thing to do. We've got to change ourselves completely; we've to get where we want her to come home and where we look forward to it – "
Susan stopped short and lifted up both hands. "Gracious, we can't ever do that! It isn't in humanity."
"Yes, we can do it," said Jane firmly; "people can always do anything that they can think out, and if we can think this out straight, we can do it."
"It isn't easy to see in just the first minute, but I understand the principle of it and I know that we can work it, for I've seen it done. You do it by getting an entirely new atmosphere into the house."
"But you've done that already," interrupted Susan. "It isn't musty anywhere any more, and there's such a kind of a happy smell instead."
"I don't mean that kind of an atmosphere. I mean a change of feeling in ourselves. We've got to somehow make ourselves all over; we must really and truly be different."
"But I am made over, and you were all right, anyhow."
"No, I'm not all right," said Jane firmly. "I'm very wrong. I'm letting silly thoughts with which I've no business torment me dreadfully, and I'm not driving them out with any kind of resolution. Then we're both doing wrong about Aunt Matilda. We're making a narrow little black box of our opinion and crowding her into it all the time. There's nothing so dreadful as the way families just chain one another to their faults. Outsiders see all the nice things, and we have lots of courage to always live up to their opinions, but families spend most of their time just nailing those they love best into pretty little limits. You and I are so happy together, and we're changing ourselves and one another every day, but we never think that Aunt Matilda's also having experience and changing herself, too. We kind of forbid her to grow better."
"You won't find anything that will change Matilda very quick, Jane. She's a dreadful person to stick to habits; she's drunk out of the blue cup and give me the green one for these whole five years."
"The change in the atmosphere of the house," said Jane slowly, "must be complete. We must never say one more word about her that isn't nice, and we mustn't even think unkind thoughts. We must talk about her lots and look forward to her coming back – "
"Oh, heavens, I can't," gasped Susan.
"We'll begin to-day on her room – "
"Then you'll make her madder than a hatter, sure; she can't bear to have her room touched."
"I'm going to make it the prettiest room in the house," said Jane resolutely. "I'm going to brush and clean and mend and fix all those clothes she's left hanging up, and I'm going to love her dearly from now on."
Susan sat still, her lips moving slightly, but whether with repressed feeling or trembling sentiment it would be impossible to say. "She looked awful cute when she was little and wore pantalettes," she said finally.
"Bravo!" cried Jane, running to her and kissing her. "There's a fine victory for you, and now," – her face brightening suddenly, – "I've got an idea of what we can do to lift us right straight up into a new circle of life. What do you say to our making the little back parlor over into a bedroom, and – "
" – taking Mr. Rath to board?" cried Susan joyfully. "Oh, I am sure that he wanted to come all along."
Jane laughed outright. "No, indeed, the very idea! No, what I thought of was inviting that poor old Mrs. Croft here for a week and giving her and her daughter-in-law a rest from one another."
Susan gave a sharp little yell. "Why, Jane Grey, I never heard the beat! Why, she can't even feed herself!"
"It would be a way to change the atmosphere of the house; it's just the kind of thing that would change us all – "
"I should think it would change us all," interrupted Susan; "why, she threw a cup of tea at Katie's back last week. Katie said she couldn't possibly imagine what had come over her, – she was leaning out to hook the blinds."
"It would be a Bible-lovely thing to do," Jane went on slowly. "You or I could feed her, and I'd take care of her. I'm a nurse, you know!"
"Jane! Well, you beat all! Well, I never did! Old Mrs. Croft. Why, they say you might as well be gentle with a hornet."
"Maybe she has her reasons; maybe it's, – Set a hornet to tend a hornet, for all we know. Anyway, it's come to me as some good to do, and when I think of any good that I can do, I have to do it, – else it's a sin. That's my religion."
"That religion of yours'll get you into a lot of hot water along through life." Susan's tone was very grave. "And you've never seen old Mrs. Croft, or you'd never speak of her and religion in the same breath. They've got a cat she caresses, and some days she caresses it for all she's worth. I've heard the cat being caressed when it was quiet, myself, many's the time. You can't use that religion of yours on old Mrs. Croft; she isn't a subject for religion. She's one of that kind that the man in the Bible thanked God he wasn't one of them."
"My religion is what brought me here to you," said Jane gently. "You aren't really sorry that I learned it, are you, Auntie?"
Susan's eyes moistened quickly. She gasped, then swallowed, then made up her mind. "Well, Sunshine Jane," she said resignedly, "when shall we get her?"
"We'll put her room in order to-morrow morning, and I'll go and ask her in the afternoon."
"Oh, dear!" said Susan, with a world of meaning in the two syllables. "I hope she'll enjoy the change."
Jane laughed. "Goodness, Auntie, I never saw any one pick up new ideas as quick as you do. I was months learning how to make myself over, and you do it in just a few hours. You must have laid a big foundation of self-control up there in bed."
Susan sighed, uncheered. "It kept me pretty sharp, I tell you," she said; "when you're always hungry and have to get your food on the sly and be positively sure of never being found out, it does keep you in trim being spry pretty steady."
"May we come in?" asked voices at the gate. It was Lorenzo Rath and Madeleine. "We wanted to see how you were getting on to-day," the latter called.
"We've been changing the furniture and the atmosphere," said Susan, trying bravely to smile. "Jane is turning everything around and bringing the bright new side out."
"If you'll come and help me wash the breakfast dishes and then make biscuits," Jane said to Madeleine, "I'll ask you both to lunch."
"I want to learn how to do everything, of course," said Madeleine.
"And why shouldn't we go down to the garden?" suggested Lorenzo to Susan. "You'll point out the things you want to-day, and I'll pull 'em up."
"But there are fences to climb," said Jane.
"Fiddle for fences," said her aunt; "he'll go ahead, and I'll skim over 'em like a squirrel. I never made anything of fences."
So they divided the labor.
"The house looks so pretty," said Madeleine, as she and Jane went through to the kitchen. "How do you ever manage it, – with just the same things, too?"
Jane glanced about. "Why, there's a right place for everything, and if you just stand back a bit and let the things have time to think, they'll tell you where to put them. There was an old blue vase in the dining-room that was pretty weak-minded, but I was patient and carried it all over the place till finally it was suited on top of the what-not in the corner of the hall. The trouble with most things is that we hurry them too much at first, and then we don't help them out of their false position later."
"Oh, Jane, you are so delightfully quaint. You must tell Mr. Rath that. It's the kind of speech that will just charm the soul right out of an artist."
Jane was deep in the flour-bin. "But I don't want to charm his soul. I'll leave that to you."
"To me! Why, he doesn't care a rap about me."
"Well, then, to Emily Mead."
"Emily Mead! Oh, my dear, you have put a lot of new ideas into her head! She says that you told her that any one could get anything that he or she wanted."
"And so they can."
"Suppose she wants Mr. Rath?"
"If she wants him in the right way, she'll have him."
"I don't like that way of speaking of men," said Madeleine, dipping her white fingers into the flour and beginning to chip the butter through it. "Don't you think it's horrid how girls speak of men nowadays? I do."
"Of course I do," said Jane. "But one drops into the habit just because everybody does it. I'll never be married myself, and it's partly because I think it's all being so dragged down. Instead of two people's knowing one another and liking one another better till finally a big, beautiful, holy secret sort of dawns on them and makes the world all over new, girls just go on and act as if men were wild animals to be hunted and caught and talked about, or married and made fun of. I don't think all these new ideas and new ways for women have made women a bit more womanly. When I had to earn my living, I picked out work that a man couldn't do, and that I wouldn't be hurting any man by doing. I'm sorry for men nowadays. And I think women lose a lot the way some of them go on."
"After all, there can't be anything nicer than to be a woman, can there?" said Madeleine, stirring as the other poured in ingredients. "I've always been glad that I was a woman. I think that a woman's life is so sweet, and it's beautiful to be protected and cared for." The pink flew over her cheeks at the words.
Jane's lashes swept downward for a minute, then rose resolutely. "Or to protect and care for others. It always seems to me as if a woman was the sort of blessed way through which a man's love and strength and care go to his children. Men are so helpless with children, but they do such a lot for wives, and then the mothers pass it on to the little ones."
"Life's lovely when you think of it rightly, isn't it?" Madeleine said thoughtfully. "I'm so pleased over having come here. You see Father and Mother wanted me to spend a few weeks quietly where I could rest and pick myself up a little, and so they sent me here. I didn't care much about coming, but I'm glad now. You're doing me lots of good, Jane; you seem to help me to unlock the doors to everything that's just best in me."
"It isn't that I do it," said Jane; "it's that it's been done to me, and after it got through me, it's bound to shine on. It's like light; every window you clean lets it through into another place, where maybe there's something else to clean and let it through again."
"I suppose we just live to keep clean and let light through," laughed Madeleine, cutting out the biscuits.
"I think that you'd make a good preacher, Jane; you've such nice, plain, homely, understandable ways of putting things."
Jane laughed and popped the pan into the oven. "Come and help lay the table," she said. "Oh, you never saw anything as sweet as Aunt Susan's joy in her own things. She's like a little child at Christmas. It's a kind of coming back to life for her."
"They say that her sister was awfully mean to her."
"But she wasn't at all. She thought that she was sicker than she was, and she kept her in bed, and the joke of it was that Aunt Susan didn't like to hurt her feelings by letting her see what mistaken ideas she had, so she hopped up every time the coast was clear and kept lively and interested trying to be about and in bed at once."
"How perfectly delightful! I never heard anything so funny. And then you came and discovered the truth."
"Well, I didn't want her to stay in bed. I'd never encourage any one in a false belief, but she hadn't the belief, – she had only the false appearance. She didn't enjoy being an invalid one bit."
"I think it's too droll," said Madeleine. "Didn't you laugh when it dawned on you first?"
"It dawned on me rather sadly. But we laugh together now."
"What will she do when her sister comes back?"
"Oh, that will all come out nicely. I don't know just how, but I know that it will come out all right."
"Do you always have faith in things coming out rightly?"
"Always. I wouldn't dare not to. I'm one of those people who kind of feel the future as it draws near, and so I wouldn't allow myself to feel any mean future drawing near, on principle. I always feel that nice things are marching straight towards me as fast as ever the band of music plays."
"Do you believe that it really makes any difference?"
"Of course it makes a difference. It makes all the difference in the world, because hope's a rope by which any good thing can haul you right up to it, hand over hand."
"You give me a lot to think about," said Madeleine.
Jane ran out and picked some ivy leaves to place under the vase of flowers in the middle of the table. It made a little green mat. "There; we're all ready when they come, now," she said.
Presently they did come.
"Oh, what will Mrs. Cowmull say to this!" said Lorenzo, as he pulled out Mrs. Ralston's chair. "She's busy marking passages in The Seven Lamps of Architecture to read aloud to me while I eat, and now I shan't show up at all."
"Have you seen her niece lately?" asked Madeleine.
"Yes, I saw her this morning. She wants to pose for me, only she stipulated that she should wear clothes. I told her that my models all wore thick wool and only showed a little of their faces. She didn't seem to like that."
"But what did you mean? Surely you don't always have them wear thick woolen?"
"I just do. If they haven't thick wool on, I won't paint them at all."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, I paint sheep."
The mild little joke met with great favor.
"I think you're a very clever young man," Susan said with great sincerity. "To think of me having a good time laughing with a sheep painter," she added. "Who holds them for you to paint, and do you set them afterwards?"
"I paint them right in the fields," said Lorenzo.
"I should think they'd butt you from behind."
"I paint over a fence."
"Well, that's safe," said Jane's aunt. "If you're careful not to be on the side where there's a bull."
After supper Madeleine helped Jane wash the dishes.
"What fun you make out of everything," she said.
"It's the only way," Jane answered. "My mission is to make two sunbeams shine where only one slanted."
"I'm glad I'm one of the heathen to whom you were sent," said Madeleine affectionately.
Jane put her arm around her. "So am I, dear, very glad."
Madeleine laid her face against the other girl's. "Some day I want to tell you a secret," she said; "a secret that Lorenzo told me yesterday."
Jane felt her heart sort of skip a beat. "Do tell me," she said in a whisper.
"I can't now," said Madeleine. "I want to be all alone with you. It's too – too big a secret to bear to be broken in upon."
"Can you come to-morrow afternoon? Auntie's going to Mrs. Mead's to the Sewing Society, and I'll be here alone."
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