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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Story Of Waitstill Baxter - Winter - Chapter 26. A Wedding-Ring
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The Story Of Waitstill Baxter - Winter - Chapter 26. A Wedding-Ring Post by :jimlooper Category :Long Stories Author :Kate Douglas Wiggin Date :May 2012 Read :3312

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The Story Of Waitstill Baxter - Winter - Chapter 26. A Wedding-Ring

WINTER
CHAPTER XXVI. A WEDDING-RING

THE snow had come. It had begun to fall softly and steadily at the beginning of the week, and now for days it had covered the ground deeper and deeper, drifting about the little red brick house on the hilltop, banking up against the barn, and shrouding the sheds and the smaller buildings. There had been two cold, still nights; the windows were covered with silvery landscapes whose delicate foliage made every pane of glass a leafy bower, while a dazzling crust bediamonded the hillsides, so that no eye could rest on them long without becoming snow-blinded.

Town-House Hill was not as well travelled as many others, and Deacon Baxter had often to break his own road down to the store, without waiting for the help of the village snow-plough to make things easier for him. Many a path had Waitstill broken in her time, and it was by no means one of her most distasteful tasks--that of shovelling into the drifts of heaped-up whiteness, tossing them to one side or the other, and cutting a narrow, clean-edged track that would pack down into the hardness of marble.

There were many "chores" to be done these cold mornings before any household could draw a breath of comfort. The Baxters kept but one cow in winter, killed the pig,--not to eat, but to sell,--and reduced the flock of hens and turkeys; but Waitstill was always as busy in the barn as in her own proper domain. Her heart yearned for all the dumb creatures about the place, intervening between them and her father's scanty care; and when the thermometer descended far below zero she would be found stuffing hay into the holes and cracks of the barn and hen-house, giving the horse and cow fresh beddings of straw and a mouthful of extra food between the slender meals provided by the Deacon.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon and a fire in the Baxters' kitchen since six in the morning had produced a fairly temperate climate in that one room, though the entries and chambers might have been used for refrigerators, as the Deacon was as parsimonious in the use of fuel as in all other things, and if his daughters had not been hardy young creatures, trained from their very birth to discomforts and exposures of every sort, they would have died long ago.

The Baxter kitchen and glittered in all its accustomed cleanliness and order. Scrubbing and polishing were cheap amusements, and nobody grudged them to Waitstill. No tables in Riverboro were whiter, no tins more lustrous, no pewter brighter, no brick hearths ruddier than hers. The beans and brown bread and Indian pudding were basking in the warmth of the old brick oven, and what with the crackle and sparkle of the fire, the gleam of the blue willow-ware on the cupboard shelves, and the scarlet geraniums blooming on the sunny shelf above the sink, there were few pleasanter place to be found in the village than that same Baxter kitchen. Yet Waitstill was ill at ease this afternoon; she hardly knew why. Her father had just put the horse into the pung and driven up to Milliken's Mills for some grain, and Patty was down at the store instructing Bill Morrill (Cephas Cole's successor) in his novel task of waiting on customers and learning the whereabouts of things; no easy task in the bewildering variety of stock in a country store; where pins, treacle, gingham, Epsom salts, Indian meal, shoestrings, shovels, brooms, sulphur, tobacco, suspenders, rum, and indigo may be demanded in rapid succession.

Patty was quiet and docile these days, though her color was more brilliant than usual and her eyes had all their accustomed sparkle. She went about her work steadily, neither ranting nor railing at fate, nor bewailing her lot, but even in this Waitstill felt a sense of change and difference too subtle to be put in words. She had noted Patty's summer flirtations, but regarded them indulgently, very much as if they had been the irresponsible friskings of a lamb in a meadow. Waitstill had more than the usual reserve in these matters, for in New England at that time, though the soul was a subject of daily conversation, the heart was felt to be rather an indelicate topic, to be alluded to as seldom as possible. Waitstill certainly would never have examined Patty closely as to the state of her affections, intimate as she was with her sister's thoughts and opinions about life; she simply bided her time until Patty should confide in her. She had wished now and then that Patty's capricious fancy might settle on Philip Perry, although, indeed, when she considered it seriously, it seemed like an alliance between a butterfly and an owl. Cephas Cole she regarded as quite beneath Patty's rightful ambitions, and as for Mark Wilson, she had grown up in the belief, held in the village generally, that he would marry money and position, and drift out of Riverboro into a gayer, larger world. Her devotion to her sister was so ardent, and her admiration so sincere, that she could not think it possible that Patty would love anywhere in vain; nevertheless, she had an instinct that her affections were crystallizing somewhere or other, and when that happened, the uncertain and eccentric temper of her father would raise a thousand obstacles.

While these thoughts coursed more or less vagrantly through Waitstill's mind, she suddenly determined to get her cloak and hood and run over to see Mrs. Boynton. Ivory had been away a good deal in the woods since early November chopping trees and helping to make new roads. He could not go long distances, like the other men, as he felt constrained to come home every day or two to look after his mother and Rodman, but the work was too lucrative to be altogether refused. With Waitstill's help, he had at last overcome his mother's aversion to old Mrs. Mason, their nearest neighbor; and she, being now a widow with very slender resources, went to the Boyntons' several times each week to put the forlorn household a little on its feet.

It was all uphill and down to Ivory's farm, Waitstill reflected, and she could take her sled and slide half the way, going and coming, or she could cut across the frozen fields on the crust. She caught up her shawl from a hook on the kitchen door, and, throwing it over her head and shoulders to shield herself from the chill blasts on the stairway, ran up to her bedroom to make herself ready for the walk.

She slipped on a quilted petticoat and warmer dress, braided her hair freshly, while her breath went out in a white cloud to meet the freezing air; snatched her wraps from her closet, and was just going down the stairs when she remembered that an hour before, having to bind up a cut finger for her father, she had searched Patty's bureau drawer for an old handkerchief, and had left things in disorder while she ran to answer the Deacon's impatient call and stamp upon the kitchen floor.

"Hurry up and don't make me stan' here all winter!" he had shouted. "If you ever kept things in proper order, you wouldn't have to hunt all over the house for a piece of rag when you need it!"

Patty was very dainty about her few patched and darned belongings; also very exact in the adjustment of her bits of ribbon, her collars of crocheted thread, her adored coral pendants, and her pile of neat cotton handkerchiefs, hem-stitched by her own hands. Waitstill, accordingly, with an exclamation at her own unwonted carelessness, darted into her sister's room to replace in perfect order the articles she had disarranged in her haste. She knew them all, these poor little trinkets,--humble, pathetic evidences of Patty's feminine vanity and desire to make her bright beauty a trifle brighter.

Suddenly her hand and her eye fell at the same moment on something hidden in a far corner under a white "fascinator," one of those head-coverings of filmy wool, dotted with beads, worn by the girls of the period. She drew the glittering, unfamiliar object forward, and then lifted it wonderingly in her hand. It was a string of burnished gold beads, the avowed desire of Patty's heart; a string of beads with a brilliant little stone in the fastening. And, as if that were not mystery enough, there was something slipped over the clasped necklace and hanging from it, as Waitstill held it up to the light--a circlet of plain gold, a wedding-ring!

Waitstill stood motionless in the cold with such a throng of bewildering thoughts, misgivings, imaginings, rushing through her head that they were like a flock of birds beating their wings against her ears. The imaginings were not those of absolute dread or terror, for she knew her Patty. If she had seen the necklace alone she would have been anxious, indeed, for it would have meant that the girl, urged on by ungoverned desire for the ornament, had accepted present from one who should not have given it to her secretly; but the wedding-ring meant some-thing different for Patty,--something more, something certain, something unescapable, for good or ill. A wedding-ring could stand for nothing but marriage. Could Patty be married? How, when, and where could so great a thing happen without her knowledge? It seemed impossible. How had such a child surmounted the difficulties in the path? Had she been led away by the attractions of some stranger? No, there had been none in the village. There was only one man who had the worldly wisdom or the means to carry Patty off under the very eye of her watchful sister; only one with the reckless courage to defy her father; and that was Mark Wilson. His name did not bring absolute confidence to Waitstill's mind. He was gay and young and thoughtless; how had he managed to do this wild thing?--and had he done all decently and wisely, with consideration for the girl's good name? The thought of all the risks lying in the train of Patty's youth and inexperience brought a wail of anguish from Waitstill's lips, and, dropping the beads and closing the drawer, she stumbled blindly down the stairway to the kitchen, intent upon one thought only--to find her sister, to look in her eyes, feel the touch of her hand, and assure herself of her safety.

She gave a dazed look at the tall clock, and was beginning to put on her cloak when the door opened and Patty entered the kitchen by way of the shed; the usual Patty, rosy, buoyant, alert, with a kind of childlike innocence that could hardly be associated with the possession of wedding-rings.

"Are you going out, Waity? Wrap up well, for it's freezing cold. Waity, Waity, dear! What's the matter?" she cried, coming closer to her sister in alarm.

Waitstill's face had lost its clear color, and her eyes had the look of some dumb animal that has been struck and wounded. She sank into the flag-bottomed rocker by the window, and leaning back her head, uttered no word, but closed her eyes and gave one long, shivering sigh and a dry sob that seemed drawn from the very bottom of her heart.

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