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- Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill - 20/26 -
was to get away from the schoolhouse. Perhaps not more than two dozen people had distinctly heard what Julia so cruelly said to her; but it seemed to the girl from the Red Mill as though everybody in that throng knew that she was a charity child-- that, as Julia said, the very frock she had on belonged to somebody else.
And to Helen! She had never for a moment suspected that Helen had been the donor of the three frocks. Of course everybody in the neighborhood had known all the time that she was wearing Helen's cast-off clothing. Everybody but Ruth herself would have recognized the dresses; she had been in the neighborhood so short a time that, of course, she was not very well acquainted with Helen's wardrobe.
At the moment she could not feel thankful to her chum. She could only remember Julia's cutting words, and feel the sting to her pride that she should have shown herself before all beholders the recipient of her friend's alms.
Nobody spoke to her as she glided through the moving crowd and reached the door. Miss Cramp was delayed in getting to her; Helen and Tom did not see her go, for they were across the room and farthest from the door. And so she reached the exit and slipped out.
The men and boys from outside thronged the tiny anteroom and the steps. As she pushed through them one man said:
"Why, here's the smart leetle gal that took Semple's gal down a peg-- eh? She'd oughter have a prize for that, that's what she ought!"
But Ruth could not reply to this, although she knew it was meant kindly. She went out into the darkness. There were many horses hitched about the schoolhouse, but she reached the clear road in safety and ran toward the Red Mill.
The girl came to the mill and went quietly into the kitchen. She had got the best of her tears now, but Aunt Alviry's bright eyes discovered at once that she was unhappy. Uncle Jabez did not even raise his eyes when she came in.
"What is the matter with my pretty leetle creetur?" whispered the old woman, creeping close to Ruth.
"Nothing is the matter now," returned Ruth, in the same low tone.
"Didn't you do well?" asked the old woman, wistfully.
"I won the spelling match," replied Ruth. "I stood up longer than anybody else."
"Is that so!" exclaimed Aunt Alvirah, with pride. "I told ye so, Ruthie. And ye beat that Semple gal?"
"She was the last one to fail before me," Ruth returned.
"Well, well! D'ye hear that, Jabez? Our Ruth won the spellin'-match."
The miller did not raise his head from his accounts; only grunted and nodded.
"But something went wrong wi' ye, deary?" persisted Aunt Alvirah, watching Ruth's face closely.
"Oh, Auntie! why didn't you tell me that Helen gave me the frocks?"
"Deary, deary, me!" ejaculated Aunt Alvirah. "How did you know?"
"Julia Semple told me-- she told me before everybody!" gasped Ruth, fighting hard to keep back the tears. "She called me a pauper! She called it out before them all, and said that I wore Helen's cast-off clothes!"
"The mean thing!" said Aunt Alvirah, with more sharpness then she usually expressed. "Isn't that jest like the Semples? They're all that way. Got mad with you because you beat her at spelling; eh?"
"Yes. But she has known it right along, of course."
"Deary me!" said Aunt Alvirah. "Nobody supposed them frocks would be reckernized-- least of all Helen. She meant it kindly, Ruthie. It was kindly meant,"
"I wish I'd worn my old black dress to rags!" cried Ruth, who was too hurt to be sensible or just. "I suppose Helen meant it kindly. And you did what you thought was right, Auntie. But all the girls have turned up their noses at me--"
"Let 'em stay turned up-- what do you care?" suddenly growled Uncle Jabez.
For the moment Ruth had forgotten his presence and she and Aunt Alvirah had been talking more loudly. They both fell suddenly silent and stared at him.
"Are ye too proud to wear dresses that's give to ye?" demanded Uncle Jabez. "Ye ain't too proud to take food and shelter from me. And I'm a poorer man than Macy Cameron an' less able to give."
The tone and the words were both cruel-- or seemed to be to Ruth's mind. But she said, bravely:
"People know that you're my uncle--"
"I was yer mother's uncle; that's all. The relationship ain't much," declared Uncle Jabez.
"Jabez," said the little old woman, solemnly, "you've been a good friend to me-- ye've borne with me in sickness and in weakness. Ye took me from the a'mshouse when I didn't have a penny to my name and nobody else to turn to, it seemed. I've tried ter do for ye faithfully. But I ain't done my duty by you no more than this child here has since she's come here to the Red Mill. You know that well yourself, too. Don't blame the pretty leetle creetur for havin' the nateral vanity that all young things hez. Remember, Jabez, that it was through you that she has had to accept clothing from outsiders."
"Through me?" growled the miller, raising his countenance and scowling at the brave old woman-- for it took courage for Aunt Alvirah to speak to him in this way.
"Helen Cam'ron wouldn't have been called on to give Ruthie her frocks which she only wore last year, and outgrew, if you hadn't lost Ruthie's trunk. Ye know that, Jabez," urged Aunt Alvirah.
"I s'pose I'm never to hear the last of that!" stormed the miller.
"You are still to hear the first word from Ruthie about it, Jabez," admonished his housekeeper.
"Well," repeated Aunt Alvirah, still speaking quietly but earnestly. "You know it ain't my way to interfere in your affairs, Jabez. But right is right. It was you lost Ruthie's trunk. I never knew ye ter be dishonest--"
"What's that?" gasped Mr. Potter, the red mantling his gray cheek dully.
"I never knew ye ter do a dishonest thing afore, Jabez," pursued Aunt Alvirah, with her voice shaking now. "But it's dishonest for ye to never even perpose ter make good what ye lost. If you'd lost a sack of grain for a neighbor ye'd made it up to him; wouldn't ye?"
"What's thet gotter do with a lot of foolish fal-lals an' rigamagigs belonging to a gal that I've taken in--"
"To help us. And she does help us," declared the old woman, quickly. "She more'n airns her keep, Jabez. Ye know she does."
"Well!" grunted the miller again, but he actually looked somewhat abashed and dropped his gaze to the ledger.
"Well, then, Jabez Potter," said the old housekeeper, "you think it over-- think it over, Jabez. And as sure as my name's Alviry Boggs, if you do think it over, something will come of it!"
This seemed like a rather mysterious saying, and there seemed to be nothing for the miller to observe in answer to it. Ruth had ere this dried her eyes and it was soon bedtime. It is a long time from Friday night to Monday morning-- especially to young folk. The hurt that Ruth had felt over Julia Semple's unkind words had lost its keenness in Ruth's mind ere school began again. So Ruth took up her school duties quite as usual, wearing one of the pretty frocks in which, however, she could no longer take such pride and delight.
There was really nothing for her to do but wear them. She realized that. She felt, however, that whenever any girl looked at her she remembered that it was Helen Cameron's cast-off dress she wore; so she was glad that the big girls were no more friendly than before and that they seldom looked at her.
Besides, all the school was very busy now. In a fortnight would came graduation. About all Ruth heard at recess and between sessions, even among the smaller girls, was the discussion of what they were to wear on the last day of the term. It was a great day at this school, and Miss Cramp was to graduate from her care seven pupils-- four girls and three boys-- all of whom would go to the Cheslow High the coming year. Ruth would not be ready to graduate; but before fall, if she was faithful to the tasks Miss Cramp set her, that kind teacher assured the girl from the Red Mill that she would be able to enter the higher school with this graduating class.
All the older girls and many of the others were to wear white. Miss Cramp approved of this, for even a simple white dress would look pretty and nice and was within the means of most of the girl pupils. Nobody asked Ruth what she would wear; and she was glad of that, for she knew that she had no choice but to don the shabby black cloth frock she had worn at first, or one of the "charity" frocks.
In this first week after the spelling-bee she did not see Helen or Tom, and only received a brief note from Helen which she tried to answer with her usual cheerfulness. Helen and Tom were going to the city for a few days, therefore Ruth was not likely to see either until the end of the term.
At the Red Mill matters went much the same as usual. If Uncle Jabez had taken to heart anything that Aunt Alvirah had said, he did not show it. He was as moody as ever and spoke no more to Ruth than before. But once or twice the girl found him looking at her with a puzzled frown which she did not understand.
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