Ford Village has no railroad station, being on the other side of the river from Porter's Falls, and accessible only by the ford which gives it its name, and a ferry line.
The ferry-boat was waiting when Rebecca Flint got off the train with her bag and lunch basket. When she and her small trunk were safely embarked she sat stiff and straight and calm in the ferry-boat as it shot swiftly and smoothly across stream. There was a horse attached to a light country wagon on board, and he pawed the deck uneasily. His owner stood near, with a wary eye upon him, although he was chewing, with as dully reflective an expression as a cow. Beside Rebecca sat a woman of about her own age, who kept looking at her with furtive curiosity; her husband, short and stout and saturnine, stood near her. Rebecca paid no attention to either of them. She was tall and spare and pale, the type of a spinster, yet with rudimentary lines and expressions of matronhood. She all unconsciously held her shawl, rolled up in a canvas bag, on her left hip, as if it had been a child. She wore a settled frown of dissent at life, but it was the frown of a mother who regarded life as a froward child, rather than as an overwhelming fate.
The other woman continued staring at her; she was mildly stupid, except for an over-developed curiosity which made her at times sharp beyond belief. Her eyes glittered, red spots came on her flaccid cheeks; she kept opening her mouth to speak, making little abortive motions. Finally she could endure it no longer; she nudged Rebecca boldly.
"A pleasant day," said she.
Rebecca looked at her and nodded coldly.
"Yes, very," she assented.
"Have you come far?"
"I have come from Michigan."
"Oh!" said the woman, with awe. "It's a long way," she remarked presently.
"Yes, it is," replied Rebecca, conclusively.
Still the other woman was not daunted; there was something which she determined to know, possibly roused thereto by a vague sense of incongruity in the other's appearance. "It's a long ways to come and leave a family," she remarked with painful slyness.
"I ain't got any family to leave," returned Rebecca shortly.
"Then you ain't--"
"No, I ain't."
"Oh!" said the woman.
Rebecca looked straight ahead at the race of the river.
It was a long ferry. Finally Rebecca herself waxed unexpectedly loquacious. She turned to the other woman and inquired if she knew John Dent's widow who lived in Ford Village. "Her husband died about three years ago," said she, by way of detail.
The woman started violently. She turned pale, then she flushed; she cast a strange glance at her husband, who was regarding both women with a sort of stolid keenness.
"Yes, I guess I do," faltered the woman finally.
"Well, his first wife was my sister," said Rebecca with the air of one imparting important intelligence.
"Was she?" responded the other woman feebly. She glanced at her husband with an expression of doubt and terror, and he shook his head forbiddingly.
"I'm going to see her, and take my niece Agnes home with me," said Rebecca.
Then the woman gave such a violent start that she noticed it.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
"Nothin', I guess," replied the woman, with eyes on her husband, who was slowly shaking his head, like a Chinese toy.
"Is my niece sick?" asked Rebecca with quick suspicion.
"No, she ain't sick," replied the woman with alacrity, then she caught her breath with a gasp.
"When did you see her?"
"Let me see; I ain't seen her for some little time," replied the woman. Then she caught her breath again.
"She ought to have grown up real pretty, if she takes after my sister. She was a real pretty woman," Rebecca said wistfully.
"Yes, I guess she did grow up pretty," replied the woman in a trembling voice.
"What kind of a woman is the second wife?"
The woman glanced at her husband's warning face. She continued to gaze at him while she replied in a choking voice to Rebecca:
"I--guess she's a nice woman," she replied. "I--don't know, I--guess so. I--don't see much of her."
"I felt kind of hurt that John married again so quick," said Rebecca; "but I suppose he wanted his house kept, and Agnes wanted care. I wasn't so situated that I could take her when her mother died. I had my own mother to care for, and I was school-teaching. Now mother has gone, and my uncle died six months ago and left me quite a little property, and I've given up my school, and I've come for Agnes. I guess she'll be glad to go with me, though I suppose her stepmother is a good woman, and has always done for her."
The man's warning shake at his wife was fairly portentous.
"I guess so," said she.
"John always wrote that she was a beautiful woman," said Rebecca.
Then the ferry-boat grated on the shore.
John Dent's widow had sent a horse and wagon to meet her sister-in-law. When the woman and her husband went down the road, on which Rebecca in the wagon with her trunk soon passed them, she said reproachfully:
"Seems as if I'd ought to have told her, Thomas."
"Let her find it out herself," replied the man. "Don't you go to burnin' your fingers in other folks' puddin', Maria."
"Do you s'pose she'll see anything?" asked the woman with a spasmodic shudder and a terrified roll of her eyes.
"See!" returned her husband with stolid scorn. "Better be sure there's anything to see."
"Oh, Thomas, they say--"
"Lord, ain't you found out that what they say is mostly lies?"
"But if it should be true, and she's a nervous woman, she might be scared enough to lose her wits," said his wife, staring uneasily after Rebecca's erect figure in the wagon disappearing over the crest of the hilly road.
"Wits that so easy upset ain't worth much," declared the man. "You keep out of it, Maria."
Rebecca in the meantime rode on in the wagon, beside a flaxen-headed boy, who looked, to her understanding, not very bright. She asked him a question, and he paid no attention. She repeated it, and he responded with a bewildered and incoherent grunt. Then she let him alone, after making sure that he knew how to drive straight.
They had traveled about half a mile, passed the village square, and gone a short distance beyond, when the boy drew up with a sudden Whoa! before a very prosperous-looking house. It had been one of the aboriginal cottages of the vicinity, small and white, with a roof extending on one side over a piazza, and a tiny "L" jutting out in the rear, on the right hand. Now the cottage was transformed by dormer windows, a bay window on the piazzaless side, a carved railing down the front steps, and a modern hard-wood door.
"Is this John Dent's house?" asked Rebecca.
The boy was as sparing of speech as a philosopher. His only response was in flinging the reins over the horse's back, stretching out one foot to the shaft, and leaping out of the wagon, then going around to the rear for the trunk. Rebecca got out and went toward the house. Its white paint had a new gloss; its blinds were an immaculate apple green; the lawn was trimmed as smooth as velvet, and it was dotted with scrupulous groups of hydrangeas and cannas.
"I always understood that John Dent was well-to-do," Rebecca reflected comfortably. "I guess Agnes will have considerable. I've got enough, but it will come in handy for her schooling. She can have advantages."
The boy dragged the trunk up the fine gravel-walk, but before he reached the steps leading up to the piazza, for the house stood on a terrace, the front door opened and a fair, frizzled head of a very large and handsome woman appeared. She held up her black silk skirt, disclosing voluminous ruffles of starched embroidery, and waited for Rebecca. She smiled placidly, her pink, double-chinned face widened and dimpled, but her blue eyes were wary and calculating. She extended her hand as Rebecca climbed the steps.
"This is Miss Flint, I suppose," said she.
"Yes, ma'am," replied Rebecca, noticing with bewilderment a curious expression compounded of fear and defiance on the other's face.
"Your letter only arrived this morning," said Mrs. Dent, in a steady voice. Her great face was a uniform pink, and her china-blue eyes were at once aggressive and veiled with secrecy.
"Yes, I hardly thought you'd get my letter," replied Rebecca. "I felt as if I could not wait to hear from you before I came. I supposed you would be so situated that you could have me a little while without putting you out too much, from what John used to write me about his circumstances, and when I had that money so unexpected I felt as if I must come for Agnes. I suppose you will be willing to give her up. You know she's my own blood, and of course she's no relation to you, though you must have got attached to her. I know from her picture what a sweet girl she must be, and John always said she looked like her own mother, and Grace was a beautiful woman, if she was my sister."
Rebecca stopped and stared at the other woman in amazement and alarm. The great handsome blonde creature stood speechless, livid, gasping, with her hand to her heart, her lips parted in a horrible caricature of a smile.
"Are you sick!" cried Rebecca, drawing near. "Don't you want me to get you some water!"
Then Mrs. Dent recovered herself with a great effort. "It is nothing," she said. "I am subject to--spells. I am over it now. Won't you come in, Miss Flint?"
As she spoke, the beautiful deep-rose colour suffused her face, her blue eyes met her visitor's with the opaqueness of turquoise--with a revelation of blue, but a concealment of all behind.
Rebecca followed her hostess in, and the boy, who had waited quiescently, climbed the steps with the trunk. But before they entered the door a strange thing happened. On the upper terrace close to the piazza-post, grew a great rose-bush, and on it, late in the season though it was, one small red, perfect rose.
Rebecca looked at it, and the other woman extended her hand with a quick gesture. "Don't you pick that rose!" she brusquely cried.
Rebecca drew herself up with stiff dignity.
"I ain't in the habit of picking other folks' roses without leave," said she.
As Rebecca spoke she started violently, and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rose-bush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.
"What on earth--" began Rebecca, then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman's face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.
"Come in!" said she in a harsh voice, which seemed to come forth from her chest with no intervention of the organs of speech. "Come into the house. I'm getting cold out here."
"What makes that rose-bush blow so when their isn't any wind?" asked Rebecca, trembling with vague horror, yet resolute.
"I don't see as it is blowing," returned the woman calmly. And as she spoke, indeed, the bush was quiet.
"It was blowing," declared Rebecca.
"It isn't now," said Mrs. Dent. "I can't try to account for everything that blows out-of-doors. I have too much to do."
She spoke scornfully and confidently, with defiant, unflinching eyes, first on the bush, then on Rebecca, and led the way into the house.
"It looked queer," persisted Rebecca, but she followed, and also the boy with the trunk.
Rebecca entered an interior, prosperous, even elegant, according to her simple ideas. There were Brussels carpets, lace curtains, and plenty of brilliant upholstery and polished wood.
"You're real nicely situated," remarked Rebecca, after she had become a little accustomed to her new surroundings and the two women were seated at the tea-table.
Mrs. Dent stared with a hard complacency from behind her silver-plated service. "Yes, I be," said she.
"You got all the things new?" said Rebecca hesitatingly, with a jealous memory of her dead sister's bridal furnishings.
"Yes," said Mrs. Dent; "I was never one to want dead folks' things, and I had money enough of my own, so I wasn't beholden to John. I had the old duds put up at auction. They didn't bring much."
"I suppose you saved some for Agnes. She'll want some of her poor mother's things when she is grown up," said Rebecca with some indignation.
The defiant stare of Mrs. Dent's blue eyes waxed more intense. "There's a few things up garret," said she.
"She'll be likely to value them," remarked Rebecca. As she spoke she glanced at the window. "Isn't it most time for her to be coming home?" she asked.
"Most time," answered Mrs. Dent carelessly; "but when she gets over to Addie Slocum's she never knows when to come home."
"Is Addie Slocum her intimate friend?"
"Intimate as any."
"Maybe we can have her come out to see Agnes when she's living with me," said Rebecca wistfully. "I suppose she'll be likely to be homesick at first."
"Most likely," answered Mrs. Dent.
"Does she call you mother?" Rebecca asked.
"No, she calls me Aunt Emeline," replied the other woman shortly. "When did you say you were going home?"
"In about a week, I thought, if she can be ready to go so soon," answered Rebecca with a surprised look.
She reflected that she would not remain a day longer than she could help after such an inhospitable look and question.
"Oh, as far as that goes," said Mrs. Dent, "it wouldn't make any difference about her being ready. You could go home whenever you felt that you must, and she could come afterward."
"Why not? She's a big girl now, and you don't have to change cars."
"My niece will go home when I do, and not travel alone; and if I can't wait here for her, in the house that used to be her mother's and my sister's home, I'll go and board somewhere," returned Rebecca with warmth.
"Oh, you can stay here as long as you want to. You're welcome," said Mrs. Dent.
Then Rebecca started. "There she is!" she declared in a trembling, exultant voice. Nobody knew how she longed to see the girl.
"She isn't as late as I thought she'd be," said Mrs. Dent, and again that curious, subtle change passed over her face, and again it settled into that stony impassiveness.
Rebecca stared at the door, waiting for it to open. "Where is she?" she asked presently.
"I guess she's stopped to take off her hat in the entry," suggested Mrs. Dent.
Rebecca waited. "Why don't she come? It can't take her all this time to take off her hat."
For answer Mrs. Dent rose with a stiff jerk and threw open the door.
"Agnes!" she called. "Agnes!" Then she turned and eyed Rebecca. "She ain't there."
"I saw her pass the window," said Rebecca in bewilderment.
"You must have been mistaken."
"I know I did," persisted Rebecca.
"You couldn't have."
"I did. I saw first a shadow go over the ceiling, then I saw her in the glass there"--she pointed to a mirror over the sideboard opposite--"and then the shadow passed the window."
"How did she look in the glass?"
"Little and light-haired, with the light hair kind of tossing over her forehead."
"You couldn't have seen her."
"Was that like Agnes?"
"Like enough; but of course you didn't see her. You've been thinking so much about her that you thought you did."
"You thought YOU did."
"I thought I saw a shadow pass the window, but I must have been mistaken. She didn't come in, or we would have seen her before now. I knew it was too early for her to get home from Addie Slocum's, anyhow."
When Rebecca went to bed Agnes had not returned. Rebecca had resolved that she would not retire until the girl came, but she was very tired, and she reasoned with herself that she was foolish. Besides, Mrs. Dent suggested that Agnes might go to the church social with Addie Slocum. When Rebecca suggested that she be sent for and told that her aunt had come, Mrs. Dent laughed meaningly.
"I guess you'll find out that a young girl ain't so ready to leave a sociable, where there's boys, to see her aunt," said she.
"She's too young," said Rebecca incredulously and indignantly.
"She's sixteen," replied Mrs. Dent; "and she's always been great for the boys."
"She's going to school four years after I get her before she thinks of boys," declared Rebecca.
"We'll see," laughed the other woman.
After Rebecca went to bed, she lay awake a long time listening for the sound of girlish laughter and a boy's voice under her window; then she fell asleep.
The next morning she was down early. Mrs. Dent, who kept no servants, was busily preparing breakfast.
"Don't Agnes help you about breakfast?" asked Rebecca.
"No, I let her lay," replied Mrs. Dent shortly.
"What time did she get home last night?"
"She didn't get home."
"She didn't get home. She stayed with Addie. She often does."
"Without sending you word?"
"Oh, she knew I wouldn't worry."
"When will she be home?"
"Oh, I guess she'll be along pretty soon."