Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Josephine Daskam Bacon > Text of Oracles

A short story by Josephine Daskam Bacon

The Oracles

Title:     The Oracles
Author: Josephine Daskam Bacon [More Titles by Bacon]

You'll wonder, no doubt, at me having the daring to make what you might call a sort of romance out of her life--now all's over. And, of course, it's not in my way at all. Not but what I've read enough of romance-books--many's the many! My mother was always at me to lay them by and take up some bit of work that 'ud bring me in more in the end--and yet, there's no doubt it was my readings and dreamings and such-like that brought me about Miss Lisbet's friendship, at the first, and that friendship was the making of me, one way and another, as mother never denied.

It was Dr. Stanchon that set me about it. He came into my cottage, a matter of a month or so back, looking fair grizzled and white--the heat, he said. And if I knew better, I never said so. He never minded the heat till this summer. And on his vacation at home, too! But he showed his age, fair.

"You haven't some kind of drink for me, have you, Rhoda?" he says, sort of faint-like. "It's been a hard day at the hospital."

Now that might do for some, but not for me, that's known the doctor fifty-four years come Easter. I looked at the wheels of the gig, and they were all clay, red clay from the one road hereabouts that's made of it--the graveyard road. And I knew where he'd been. But of course I says nothing, but brings him a palm-leaf fan, and seats him out of the glare, in the entry that looks over the little garden, and I waters the red bricks of the porch with a spray or two from the garden-pot (nothing so cooling as watered brick, I say!) and hurries in to beat up his drink. He settled down in the old chair I always keep for him--a Windsor, cushioned in some English chintz his wife brought me out from home, twenty years ago--and I heard him sigh and stretch as I got the lemons and the eggs. I beat up the whites, stiff as silver, added the lemon juice by littles, dusted a bit of castor sugar, and stuck in a sprig of mint from my sunken half-barrel where the cress grows.

"Ah, that makes a man new!" says he, handing back the glass. "It's a pity you can't patent that, Rhoda!"

And then he pulled out his old pipe, and smoked for a quarter-hour, without a word. But he rested.

"And how's Miss Jessop, these days, doctor?" says I, when I saw he was ready for talking.

"Finely, finely!" says he. "Her little girl wrote me a letter yesterday. Ten years old! Image of her father, that child. You're as bad as Lisbet, though, that never would learn to change."

"I'm sure I beg her pardon--Mrs. Weldon, of course, and her with a boy fourteen, too!" says I. "How Miss Lisbet did take to her, surely! I always thought having her to help with Master Louis's children when they were so bad, just helped poor Miss Lisbet to bear with her sorrow at not starting the hospital, and all that."

"Yes, yes," he said and nodded.

"She was a fine woman, Jessop was. Best nurse I ever had. Yes, yes--Weldon's a lucky fellow."

The cress smelled strong in the heat, then, and I couldn't but say:

"Do you remember when Miss Lisbet and I started the cress-bed, doctor, down in the Winthrop pond?"

At first he didn't answer, and I saw the old times in his face.

"How she did enjoy your cress-and-mustard salad!" he says, finally. "Mrs. Stanchon spoke of it this morning--have you a little mess I could take up to the house?"

And so we passed to talking about her, and it eased us both.

"It's like a sort of tale, sir, isn't it?" says I, thoughtful-like. "Often and often when my niece has left everything tidy, and made my tea and cakes, and put away the wash, and watered the brick, and gone home, and I sit here while the pot draws and there's only the cat for company (not that I complain! I've my thoughts, and plenty of books, and all the old days to live over!) often and often, as I say, it'll come to me in a sort of tale, like, and I wish there was some one to take it down; it would read off like a book!"

"And why not take it down yourself, Rhoda, my girl?" says he. "There's one, as I needn't tell you, would have no little pleasure reading it."

And so I began. You'd be surprised at the many that's offered to help me, and piece out bits of her life that maybe I wouldn't know. But I knew enough for what I had in mind to show, namely, what Miss Lisbet was always planning to do--and what she really did do.

So now I'll begin at the beginning.

* * * * *

It was the morning of the day I was ten years old that I first saw her. A Saturday it was, and a holiday, and mother gave me a piece of currant bread, buttered, for a treat, and the day free till sunset, after my morning tasks were through. I was all that was left her--five others buried, in fifteen years--and she was very easy with me, for which you could scarcely blame her, poor soul! Three lost in England, of the smallpox, and one that hardly opened his little eyes, and my sister of something that they had no name for rightly in those days, doctor says, but they call it appendicitis now. I was born over here, and never saw England, though I've always loved to read about it and always called it "home," not thinking, as one often will. Mother had black memories of the old country and was anxious for us to grow up little Americans, though I can see now that she went to work very wrong to bring that about, for we always curtseyed to the rector and old Madam Winthrop when she rode by in the coach, and never, in short, thought of looking higher than we were born.

So when I saw a lovely young lady drive up in a pony cart, hand the reins to the groom, get out, and walk through the gate toward me, I held the currant bread behind me and dropped a little curtsey.

"Is this Mrs. Pennyfield's house?" she says, stopping and staring at me.

"Yes, miss, she's my mother," says I.

"What is your name?" says she.

"Rhoda Pennyfield, please, miss," says I, and then, the goodness knows why, for I was a shy enough little thing commonly, "It's my birthday!"

"Why, how funny!" she says, smiling the loveliest smile in the world. "It's mine, too! How old are you, Rhoda Pennyfield?"

"Ten, miss."

"Isn't that wonderful!" she cries out, blushing like a rose peony. "I am ten to-day, too! What were your presents? Mine were the pony phaeton and this gold watch (she held it out to me on a chain about her neck) and a macaw from South America from my Uncle Mather, on an ebony perch. And a French doll from my aunty in New York, but I don't care for dolls any more. What had you?"

Now, as you can see, if I had really been a little American, I should have been jealous and ashamed that things were so different between us, but such a notion never entered my head.

"Mother baked currant bread, miss," I said, "and Madam Winthrop's gardener gave me a spotted kitten, and I have a string of blue beads and the day to myself. I'm thinking I'll go up to The Cedars and Mrs. Williams will let me read some of the books from the library for the afternoon."

"Why, that's where I live--The Cedars!" she says, surprised. "Madam Winthrop is my aunt, and Mrs. Williams dresses me! Come into the phaeton and I'll drive you there!"

She had forgot the errand she came on, bless her, with the excitement, and if mother hadn't come out to inquire, there'd have been a great to-do. There was a maid all over blotches at The Cedars, and a doctor and nurse was wanted, and mother was ready very quick, as she always was. So I got into the phaeton and Miss Lisbet drove me to The Cedars, and I had a birthday dinner with her: roast fowl and mashed potatoes and new peas and a frozen pudding with figs and almonds in it. I can see her now, at the head of the table, with me and Mrs. Williams on either side, and the macaw, all indigo and orange color and scarlet, on his perch opposite! She had on a worked muslin frock with lace-trimmed pantalets, blue silk stockings, and black French kid ankle-ties. Her hair, a light golden brown, was all in curls, and a blue velvet snood kept it back: the young girls today wear ribbons about their heads something like it. Her eyes were a dark, bright blue, and her cheeks, like most American children's, a sort of clear pale, that flushed quick with her feelings. She was tall and slim and looked quite three years older than me, that has always been stocky-like and apple-cheeked, even at sixty-four!

She had been away at a school for two years, having lost her father and mother, and old Madam Winthrop had adopted her, in a sort of way, being her great-aunt, and was to leave her all her money.

While we were eating, old Dr. Stanchon pops in, leading a little red-haired boy, very plain and clever-looking, by the hand.

"Can this youngster have a bite with you, Mrs. Williams?" says he, looking worried like. "That precious girl of yours has the fever, and I'll be busy some time. I promised him the fish pond for a treat, for it's his birthday, to-day, and now perhaps Miss Elizabeth will take him there--hello, little Rhoda! How fine we are!"

The little lad pulls out a great pocket-knife and lays it on the table.

"I am Dick Stanchon, and I'm ten years old to-day!" says he very quick. "I have this Barlow knife and the 'Arabian Nights,' and I'm to be a doctor, like my father. Do you have frozen pudding often, here?"

Well, you can see how startling it would be to three children to be at the same birthday together! We couldn't be tired talking of it.

"We will all be firm friends for the rest of our life," said Miss Lisbet, very excited, "and never have secrets from each other. And when I get Aunt Winthrop's money, I will divide it into three parts, one for each. And we will do a great deal of good in the world."

"Come, come," says Mrs. Williams, sour-like, "not so fast, missy. You've not the money yet, nor shouldn't speak of it, and as for being friends, it's all right so far as Dick Stanchon is concerned, but I doubt if Madam will feel the same as to Rhoda Pennyfield! So make no more plans till we know."

But of course we did make plans, for all her stiffness. We sat in the red cedar grove, playing at tea-parties with a beautiful china tea-set, and Master Dick was to marry her, and I was to live with them and be nurse to the children, with one named for me!

Dear, dear! I've forgot much that's come in between and many that's been kind to me (more shame to me!) but I can see the sun on her curls now and him sharpening his new knife on the granite rocks that were so thick in the grove.

"Rhoda and Dick," says she, very solemn, after a little, "I'm going to tell you a great secret. Come close to me."

You can believe we listened with all our ears; we worshipped the ground she trod on, both of us, do you see, even then.

"I mean to do a great deal of good in the world before I die," says she, "as I mentioned before, at dinner. I don't mean just ordinary being good, you know, but doing it. At school I always meant to go as a missionary, and I was saving all my money for a fund for it, but I couldn't seem to keep it, somehow. Two or three of the girls were poor girls, and if they hadn't their birthdays remembered, it would have been dreadful. And the cook's little boy was lame in his spine and he was so fond of flowers! And I hadn't so much money, anyway. Then, all my time was full, because we had to do things every hour, just so. But now I'm to have a governess and I shall have a great deal of time, so I can study hard for a missionary and perhaps go to South America--if there are any heathens there, as I suppose there are."

"Yes, miss," says I.

"So now my new life is beginning," she says very low and solemn, "and I feel that everything will be different. I wish I could be sure, though, that it would be!"

"Why don't you try the larkspurs, miss," says I. "They'll tell you."

My mother, you must know, was a great believer in signs. Not being much educated, she went by them, I suppose, the way plain people will, be it ever so. There's no use saying it's against religion--mother was as religious as any one, take who you will--they will do it. If a bird flew into the house, there was death for sure, and she never would let three candles be lighted, no matter whose the house. And so my sister and I had many of these ways and signs, and always told how things would be by larkspurs. So I told Miss Lisbet how to strip them off for "yes, no, yes, no," and she asked her question very solemn:

"Larkspur, larkspur, tell me true,
Or never again I'll trust to you!

Is there to be a great change in my life?" And she stripped them off, mumbling-like to herself, "Yes, no, yes, no"--and the last off was "no."

And then she cried, poor thing, and I with her, for we both believed in 'em, but Dick only laughed and said it was all foolishness.

"If you want to do different from what you have been, Lisbet, of course you can," says he, and then the old doctor came and fetched us both home.

"I'm going to begin my studying, just the same!" she calls after us, and I watched the sun on her hair till the coachman's cottage cut us off.

Well, the governess came and they'd lessons all morning long and music practising afternoons, but there was no missionary study, because she took it into her head that I must be educated and know all she knew--as if that was likely! Still, I picked up a good bit, here and there, and the gardener's little boy, that was backward and dumb-like, isn't forgetting to-day what he owes to Miss Lisbet, I'll warrant. Three days a week she'd read to him and spell the letters and sums plain--and him that was the mock of the scholars, so that he'd never go near the school, what is he now, I ask you? Professor in Yale College, and helped Dr. Stanchon in the planning of a big school for those children that are backward-like, as he was, and many of them as bright as bright, really. They manage such as them better than they did in those days, doctor says, and most of it owed to Henry Wilson's boy.

Often and often we'd walk up to her tea from the lodge, her setting her little teeth to keep from crying at the time she was wasting, with all her heathen waiting for her in South America!

"But I can't leave poor little Ezra Wilson, Rhoda, I just can't!" she'd cry out. "Wait till these old music-lessons are over and I haven't to use those horrible dumb-bells every morning, and I'll do something for the world, yet!"

"Surely, miss," I'd soothe her.

Well, the time went by like sands in a glass, and we were grown maids before you'd think twice. She looked full two years more than her seventeen, and Master Dick was away at Harvard College two years already, for he was wonderful forward and clever always, and first in all his classes. What time she'd had from her lessons and her paintings and sketching (which she hated dreadfully, poor thing, though seeming a master of it, to my eyes!) she was teaching him French and German from her governess, for they didn't teach it in the village school and his mother couldn't spare him away, and those languages helped him a good bit in his studies at the college. The old doctor was terrible proud of him.

And then came the day that he came home so sudden. It was a grand April morning and Miss Lisbet and I were directing Henry Wilson about changing the vines and laying them by for the house painting: Madam was scolding and fussing about, annoying everybody with her sharp ways, and I remember thinking that she was failing for sure. I was sad, too, for mother had decided to put me out to service, after all, and that meant a parting for Miss Lisbet and me. Mother felt that I was getting above myself, like, and spoiled for anything that would happen me in the usual course if Miss Lisbet ever changed, you see. And who could deny that? But the dear thing knew nothing of it, yet--I hadn't the heart.

Well, Madam was scolding away famously.

"Mind that wistaria, Wilson!" says she. "There's not its equal in Westchester County!"

"Yes, yes, Madam," says he, crusty-like. "Why good-morning, Master Dick!"

And there he stood. At the first glance, I saw he looked different. Older and graver.

"What's this, what's this, Richard?" Madam cries. "Neglecting your studies?"

"Studies? Studies?" says he, as quick and sharp as she. "What, is the matter with the people about here? Are you dreaming? Fort Sumter down, the flag insulted, the President calling for seventy-five thousand volunteers, and you talk of studies! I'm going to try to get into the Seventh, and I'm only here to see Elizabeth before I go."

"Nonsense, boy!" says Madam, trembling, though. "We'll see what your father has to say, first."

"My father only wishes he had a dozen sons, ma'am!" he told her, proud as Lucifer. "Lisbet, can I speak with you?"

She went directly to him, and they walked, holding hands, behind the cedar grove. She told me afterward that he just said:

"Will you wait till I come back, Lisbet?"

And she answered, "Why, of course, Dick!" They parted a promised couple. Madam was all shaky, but she kissed him good-bye, and let him put a little blue-stoned ring on Miss Lisbet's hand--there was a splash of red paint on it from the house, and mother fair turned white when I told her. "They'll never wed," she said, "that's certain sure! Poor young people!"

But the paint wasn't for blood, after all, for he never got a scratch. He was handsome enough in his new uniform, and more than one envied my Miss Lisbet when she waved him good-bye on the train--they were off for Baltimore.

"Rhoda," says she to me, after a few weeks of waiting, "I can't bear this! Us eating and drinking so easy, and those poor boys dying--it's not right. I must and shall go as nurse!"

And we could do nothing with her--she'd hardly sleep. It was Dr. Stanchon found the way to handle her.

"Dear child," he says at last, "why not do as I do--send a substitute? I sent my boy, because I'm the only doctor left here, now, and people must be born and die, you know, war or no war," says he. "I'd far rather have gone. Now, it's out of the question for you, for many reasons, but if your aunt would give you your dress-money and you gave up a summer at the mountains, you could pay a good, settled woman, of experience, and there's many would love to go."

Well, she seized on that, the generous creature, and got it out of Madam, and we fitted out a respectable widow-woman mother often had to help her, and sent her to one of those Southern cities--I forget now. She wrote up only that there was mostly blacks for waiting on one, and food poor and scarce. But Master Dick sent word that she kept the fever away for a mile around her, and the officers thereabouts gave her a long piece of writing and a medal after all was over, and the Rebels a silver cup--she cared for all alike, whatever the uniform. The little house she had was built up into a hospital, later, and she lived and died there, and only came up to the north to beg money for it. It was the only one in thirty miles around. Eighteen years she lived there, and left the cup to Miss Lisbet; the medal to her daughter.

Well, I must hurry on. I could talk about those days forever, but in the books, I have taken notice often, they pick and choose.

So I will pass to when it came to her of a sudden how she could collect clothes and food for the army, and keep one place open for the lint-scraping and bandage-rolling, as all the ladies were doing in the big cities. She had a tongue of honey and every one knew about her having hired Mrs. Jarvis to go nurse, so she was sure to get what she begged for. She took over a vacant office in the village, part of Madam's property, and I never saw her happier than the day we were fitting it up. It was all cleaned and new furnished and there were desks and tables and nursing-books and shelves for the jellies and medicines, and everything to be sent orderly and where needed at the time, not rushed forward all helter-skelter as so much is at such times. Dr. Stanchon saw all, and heard the plans, and patted her shoulder.

"Well done, Blossom, well done!" says he. "I might have let you go, after all!"

And he offered to advise and find out the quickest and best trains and such like.

It was July and a hot, clear day. The notice was in the village paper for all the women that could help, to come to a first meeting and take hours for duty there, and routes to collect, and offer wagons if they had them, and give fruit for jelly, and Miss Lisbet led off with the old pony and cart for steady work.

We were resting in the garden and she had just told me that she meant to give all her time to the "office," as we called it in a joking way (for nice young ladies didn't go to offices then, I promise you! Madam thought little enough of it) and she put her hand on mine.

"Rhoda," says she, "my dream is coming true--do you see? I'm to do something for my country, after all! Just as a man would--just as Dick does, Rhoda! Isn't it a grand thing?"

"Yes, miss," says I.

"The change is coming now, Rhoda," she says, and then, laughing at herself, "I'm going to ask the larkspurs!"

And she pulled a great stalk and held it over her head, as I had taught her seven years before.

"Larkspur, larkspur, tell me true,
Or never again I'll trust to you!

Is there to be a great change in my life?"

And she stripped them off, yes, no, yes, no--and they said no! The sweet face fell, and I hurried to comfort her.

"Maybe they always say no hereabouts," says I. "Let me have a try!" And I asked the same question, but it came yes, and that I knew must be true, though she did not.

The next day, after she had made a speech like the Queen's (I thought) and every one wondering, with her so young, and a hundred dollars pledged, and all so eager to work under her--for she was one of them that's born to lead--who should run in but Henry Wilson, all out of breath, crying to her to hurry home, for Madam was down with a stroke, and one side of her all powerless!

Well, to make a long story short, she never left her poor aunt for above an hour at a time till the fighting was over! Madam, who had never seemed overfond before, was mad for her now, and she was pushing her chair or reading to her or stroking her hand or playing old tunes or sitting in sight, the livelong day. They tried the sea and they tried the mountains and there was a nurse and a maid, but it was always Miss Lisbet behind it all. She was rich, she had real French convent lace on her body-linen, and asparagus and peaches in winter, and a conservatory as big as a house, oh, yes. But she was more tied down than many a poor girl 'prenticed for her living, and I often wonder if it's not that way with many of the rich ladies you see! I know I was working hard with a dressmaker the first year--before they kept me as seamstress and mender at The Cedars--and I wouldn't have changed with her, except for love of her, poor dear!

I was back in The Cedars when Madam went off in her sleep one night as easy as a baby. There was no need for grieving--'twas a blessed release, and just the soberness and the thoughts that must come to one when even an old body of eighty-odd passes away. Poor old Madam hadn't many friends, for everybody was so afraid of her, and we all felt the best that ever she'd done was to leave the lonely old place to Miss Lisbet. Master Dick was coming home, for the war was over, and the black men freed at last, and he was full captain, and never a scratch or a headache even, to show for the four years!

We were in the garden waiting for him, she as lovely as ever I'd seen her in a white dress, all frilled from the waist down, with violet ribbons (Madam made her vow never to wear black for her) and a violet band in her hair. She'd a great brooch of amethyst stones at her neck and Master Dick's blue ring on her finger.

"Rhoda," says she, of a sudden, "what if we tried the larkspurs again?" and she smiled at me, a mischievous little smile, like a child's.

"Nay, now, miss dear," says I, "what's the good of such games, and you a grown woman? No doubt now but your way is clear to do as you like--a fine husband and plenty of money. Let it be."

"But I will," she says, reaching for a spray of the blue stuff, "I will, Rhoda, once more, for luck."

"Well, then, miss," says I, "put the question different like, why not? Make it plainer--you're forever talking about 'a change in your life,' and there's always changes, you know."

So she laughs and holds it up and sings:

"Larkspur, larkspur, tell me true,
Or never again I'll trust to you!

Am I going to be able now to use all this money to help some great cause?"

And the flowers said, no!

Well, I couldn't say I was sorry for that, just because she was all for schooling and helping the blacks, now they were thrown on themselves like; for old Dr. Stanchon would have it that they were bound to make more trouble now in the South than they had before, and that those who had freed them owed them a living--or something like that. Most hated him for it around our parts, but doctor says the country has found his father was right, to-day. Nevertheless, there's other uses for good family money than that, as we all know.

"You've bewitched the larkspurs, Miss Lisbet," I said, laughing. "Why not fool them a bit? Pick a tiny short spray like this, and ask a question you know the answer to, and then you'll see how things are."

"Well," says she, "I'll ask 'If I'm to marry Dick'!"

I didn't half like that, but I happened to peep out of the tail of my eye and who should I see but Master Dick himself, leaning over the low cedar hedge, looking for us. He was out of her sight, and so I made haste and picked a tiny stalk with but three blossoms and handed it to her.

"Quick, quick, Miss Lisbet, dear!" I said, knowing well what the answer would be. She asked quick enough, but when she stripped them, yes, no--and stopped there, I saw that the third had somehow fallen off and lay on her white lap. It gave me a turn, but she only brushed it away and laughed softly.

"It is foolish," she said, "isn't it, Rhoda? For there he is! Here, Dick, this way!"

I started to leave them, but she wouldn't have it, and gave him her cheek to kiss as easy as a child--or started to, but there was a man in uniform behind him, just rounding the turn, and she drew back.

"Major La Salle," says Master Dick, proud as Punch, you could see, "Miss Elizabeth Winthrop."

She curtseyed and the Major bowed to the ground, and I couldn't but notice a tiny bald spot amongst his curly dark hair.

"An old fellow for Master Dick's friend," thought I, and so he was, being all of thirty-six, and more like Dr. Stanchon's crony than his son's! Thirty-six was something in those days, you see, and Master Dick was all ready to settle when the young men of his age to-day are playing their football games and heedless as school girls.

The Major had lines about his mouth and eyes, and had buried a wife, we learned, three years before the war--a sad marriage, by Master Dick's accounts, as she wasn't worthy of him and had made him grave before his time. Our young Captain couldn't talk enough of him and had written many's the letters about him before ever we saw him. But we were both surprised to find him so much older than we had thought, and Miss Lisbet was afraid to talk much before him at first, for fear he'd find her missish and ignorant. She didn't realize, the sweet thing, how any one would think, to see her at the head of that great house, managing all and doing so much good in the village, that she was the equal of any woman.

They'd been but three days in the village, and all the time they had from the doctor's wife's proud tea-drinkings, to show off her boy, they'd spent with us. She always had me by her, for Mrs. Williams was getting on, and best off by herself, and Miss Lisbet didn't feel 'twas quite as it should be for her to be off with them alone. So when they spoke of Madam's will, I was sewing near by.

Miss Lisbet was telling of her schemes for the poor blacks and the Major was agreeing with her, and said that Master Dick's father had the right of it.

"Now, for heaven's sake, Louis, don't encourage Miss Winthrop in any of her plans for the human race," says Master Dick, laughing. "It's bad enough to have my father executor. All that money depends on me, you know, and I don't approve of women's rights as much as you do."

"Depends on you? What do you mean?" says the Major.

"Why, unless she marries me she doesn't get Madam's money at all," says Master Dick. "The old lady was afraid of unprincipled fortune hunters, and of me, at least, she knew the worst!"

"But the larkspurs said I wouldn't marry you, Captain Dick Stanchon!" she cried, half laughing, half displeased, for she couldn't bear him to question what she said.

The Major got up at that and walked away, and I left them, too, as was quite correct for a promised pair.

It might have been an hour later that I walked to the cedar grove to find my thimble and saw Miss Lisbet hurrying there ahead of me. I slackened a bit, and when I caught her up I saw she was talking with the Major--he must have been waiting there for her. I thought it odd, but stooped over and looked through the grass, and all of a sudden they were level with me, the other side the hedge.

"You sent for me?" said she, breathless like.

"Yes. Can you guess why?" said he, and my knees began to shake.

"N-no, Major La Salle," said she, still breathing strangely.

"I sent for you to tell you that the larkspur told you true, Elizabeth," he said, very deep. "You will never marry Dick Stanchon, you will marry me."

"Why--why..." she began, and I couldn't move then, try as I might.

"As sure as that little star belongs in the moon's arms, Elizabeth, you belong in mine!" said he. "Don't you know it?"

"But, Dick," she said, still breathing as I had never heard her.

"Dick is a boy," he said. "You are fit for a man. I loved you when I first took off my cap before you. But I would never court an heiress. Could you come to a western army post and live on a Major's pay?"

"It's not me--I could live on nothing, almost--it's how to tell Dick!" she began, crying and breathing that strange way, both together--and then I knew it was all over, of course.

"My star!" I heard him say, and I crept away, somehow.

Well, that was all. One week, she was a great heiress and engaged to a bright young fellow with life opening out before him; the next she was married to a poor widower, fifteen years her elder, and off to some place in the western prairies, with only a chest of linen and silver and some old mahogany and her clothes! It was like a dream. But only to see her look at him, you'd know she'd met her master. Before, she hadn't sensed things rightly, she told me.

I was wild to go with her, but no such thing as a maid for his wife, the Major said, and anyway, mother was near doubled with the rheumatism and I couldn't be spared. So I kissed her on the station platform and cried myself blind that night. And Master Dick went off to Germany, to study, and never a word was mentioned: he held his head high, the Captain did!

We got news regular from little Essie White, that Miss Lisbet's outworn dresses used to go to. She used to read an hour a day, did Miss Lisbet, to Essie's mother, who went blind, and she stocked Essie with flannels and such, as she grew. I trained her in as kitchen maid when I was at The Cedars, and when help turned out so poor and scarce in the West--all ignorant Paddies, as we called them then--she sent to me and I sped Essie out to her, and a good job, too, for she was in no state to be worrying out her precious health over dust and dirt and victuals!

Essie wrote us long letters, how Miss Lisbet was the belle of the post and had a night school for the private soldiers started, with officers' ladies to teach, and took all the charge of the little hospital. Mrs. Jarvis sent her rules and saving ways and many clever contrivances from all her experience in the South, and long after the La Salles left that post the night school was kept up--and may be now, for aught I know, for it seemed that all she planted, grew. Balls they gave and private theatricals and riding parties, and Essie said she was happy as the day was long, but for that she felt she might have done so much for the world with Madam's money. She wanted schools in all the army posts and the negroes taught farming and goodness knows what not, you see.

But when little Louis came there was no time for all that, I promise you! It broke my heart not to be with her, but mother was failing, slow but sure, and 'twould have been sin to leave her.

But I heard all his sweet ways and when he was creeping, and how he called my poor old picture "Dody" (bless him!) and hardly was he ready for his kilts but his brother was stepping into his shoes! Named for her father he was, and the image of the first, that was the image of the Major. She took the care of them mostly, herself, for she didn't like the rough girls out there, and had only Essie and a woman for washing, and I didn't need Essie's letters to tell me she was tired and worn-like. It seemed a poor kind of life for one that had had a half dozen of servants and gardens and grape houses and her saddle-horse--but she wouldn't have changed for Windsor Castle, I well knew.

And next I heard, they were to move, very sudden, and the garden just planted and all, and worst of all, Essie had lost her heart to a corporal and was to stay behind. At the time I blamed her sorely and wrote her a bitter letter, but, dearie me, life is life for all of us, and Miss Lisbet wasn't her treasure as she was mine. We made it up later, Essie and me.

My dear wrote me herself, the saddest letter that ever I had from her, I believe. The old mahogany pieces had been stored, very careful, and burned in the storage, and the linen was out and the china broken, and the new baby would find but a poor house, she feared, when they should be settled. Could I find her one for Essie's place? And oh, if only she could see my face, for she dreaded her coming trial, with every one strange!

I was sitting in my new black, when I read the letter, with poor mother free of her rheumatics at last, and all soft as I was from it, I cried and cried!

I wrote her that I'd find some one, and then I went to the old doctor and we talked and twisted it this way and that, and he went up to The Cedars and called on Madam's heir-at-law, a crabbed old cousin that lived much to himself and saw only the doctor, and the end of it was that I was to pick out what I thought Miss Lisbet would like in the matter of furniture, for he used but a third of the rooms, and what linen and stuff his housekeeper thought could be spared.

And wasn't I glad to hear that, for well I knew the housekeeper, a good woman who'd nursed turn about with mother for years, and had seen my young lady grow up!

Well, if I do say it of myself, I stripped The Cedars thorough! And yet a stranger would hardly know. It was full, do you see, from many generations, and overflowing, and I furnished three bedrooms, complete, from the garrets! Blankets I got, and a trunk of towels, and seven woven bedspreads, and a dining-table that Miss Lisbet's mother's mother had eaten a wedding dinner at, and the stuffed macaw on his ebony perch! Eight dozen dinner napkins that had never seen the laundry, and carpets that the moths were sure to take if I didn't! And brass fire-irons and a great chest of books and some heads of statues she'd always liked, and big engravings of foreign places, broken old ruins and such. And her nursery fittings, that had never been touched, I took entire--fire guard and small chairs, Moses in the Bulrushes, little kneeling Samuel and all! And nearly everything from her lovely bedroom--chintz valances, and the little South American dressing-cabinet, and the china-set in a strawed barrel. I knew what she loved--who better? And the old doctor got the whole car-load across the country free as air for me, through a gentleman that had heard how much Miss Lisbet had done in the War, and that as good as owned the railroad. He had us met with mules, too, at the end of the horrid, dusty trip; and when me and little Maria Riggs (niece of a tidy widow-woman Miss Lisbet had had chair-caning taught to, so that she had no need to come on the town) got to the new home, we found only a neighbor to give us the keys. The Major was off on army matters for a week, and she had taken the two boys and gone on a visit to a new friend she'd made, and left things all hugger-mugger, from despair and tiredness, poor girl!

I was quite as well pleased, and Maria and I swept and cleaned and nailed carpets and hung pictures and clear-starched muslin curtains and filled shelves and drawers, as happy as queens. And round the house I planted out the five old vines I'd brought all moist and good in an open basket, from The Cedars, and in the garden that a fine, fresh-faced soldierman, English as could be, dug and spaded for me, what did I put in but larkspur seeds, amongst the sweet williams and pansies and mignonette!

Well, she came back, expecting nothing, do you see, and there at the door was I, in black, with white cuffs and apron, and little Maria curtseying behind me. And the old claw-leg card-table in the hall and the glass with the gilt eagle above it.

"Rhoda! Rhoda!" she screams, and gives one look at the statues and pictures and new carpet in the drawing-room and faints on the floor! And I nearly crazy for being such a fool at such a time!

None the less, the third boy was born in his mother's old four-posted bed, as beautiful as a king, and her living picture. Stanchon La Salle he was, for the old doctor, who never bore her a moment's grudge, mind you, on Master Dick's account.

"He's a fine man, Rhoda, and I doubt if Dick could have managed her right," was all he ever said to me. "She has a great spirit."

And then the time went by like the water under a bridge. She'd no more worries about drudging, for Maria and I did all, with the English soldierman for rough jobs; but she had her hands full with the boys, for the Major didn't want them sent back to the East to school, and she had all the teaching and training of them, to say nothing of the care of them, growing. Nine years we lived there, and then Master Louis was off to West Point, and in two years more his brother, and one day--it seemed the next day but two or three!--we were packing Master Stanchon's trunk to go to Yale College, where his father went! We rubbed our eyes and sat alone, and there was the macaw she got for her tenth birthday looking at us! And I do assure you, I felt much the same as ever. Which I had heard people say, as a girl, and felt to be unbecoming.

The Colonel was pretty nigh to white hair, but firm and strong, and she was grey, but not a wrinkle, and very beautiful. He was to leave the service and had been offered a post in government, somehow, at Washington, when just as we were beginning to worry if his eyes could stand the book-work, the lawyer's letter came.

It seemed too good to be true. Old, crabbed Mr. Hawkes was long ago dead, and The Cedars closed, and his heir, a very curious woman, had felt that Miss Lisbet was defrauded, and left everything to her in her will! So we were to go back, and it cleared so many worries that we cried together.

"And now, Rhoda, now for a chance to do something!" she says, suddenly.

I only stared at her.

"Why, Miss Lisbet, you've been doing since you were born!" I cried.

"Oh, Rhoda, you know!" she says, coaxing, "only for those near me, and in such a small way! Now the boys are started, and no more worry for the Colonel, and you and I can do something that will last!"

And laughing like a girl, if she didn't fly out to the garden and find our frost-bitten, yellow larkspur, the last!

"See!" says she, and began to wave it.

"Oh, don't, don't!" says I, anxious-like, "and you to be a grandmother next year, maybe!" (for Louis was to be married to a New York young lady in the winter).

But she would, and when she asked, half laughing, half frightened:

"Am I to do what I have longed for all my life, at last? " and stripped off the rotting blossoms, yes, no, yes, no--the last one fell.

And before ever we reached The Cedars the Colonel had gone blind!

Well, for five years she was never from his side one half hour at a time. He said he blessed the blindness that gave him her hand at every moment, and it was a beautiful sight to see them together. Riches makes such an affliction as light as it can ever be, that's certain, and he lived in luxury. He held Louis's twin daughters in his arms and hoped to "see," as he called it, smiling, the next brother's, but it was not to be.

Dr. Stanchon, as I learned at last to call Master Dick, said that he couldn't have had a moment's pain, and his own boy, named for the Colonel, carried him to the grave with our three.

Mrs. Stanchon was a sweet soul, tied to a wheel-chair for life after five years married, and Miss Lisbet was forever doing things for her entertainment and to make her forget, like. She never did too much, but just enough, and didn't stop with grapes and books, as many rich folk will, you know, but sat with her every other day, at least, with the Colonel by her side, listening to her bright talk. I doubt the two of them realized, at those times, how afflicted they were!

She never talked as if he was gone--always as if they'd only parted for a little. Her hair was soon whiter than his, and she walked and moved very slow, for her, but the boys seemed to see no difference.

Louis's wife was delicate and came to us, finally, till he should have an easier post, and the twins were not strong, like our babies. Once we nearly lost them, and after that Granny Lisbet (as they called her) never took her eye off them, and pulled them through. It seemed the village was full of sick children that year, and the mothers were crazy for her to look at every one.

She was anxious to set up a regular nurse for the district, and gave a room for that purpose, with a lending closet, and arranged money for the nurse to be paid for ten years. (They are quite common, now, but hers was the first in our parts.)

"She's working too hard, Rhoda, my girl," says Dr. Stanchon. "Her heart's not what she thinks. Keep her quiet, can't you?" But what could I do?

I nearly cried, last June, when I'd got her out in the garden, that day, for a bit of quiet, and she began on her plans for the villages to be taxed for nurses and doctors, to keep off sickness!

"The babies are all well, now," says she, "and Louis comes for his family to-morrow, and the twins are no trouble. The nurse is all started in the village and I am going to see the Governor at Albany next week--I have an appointment. Isn't it strange, Rhoda, that I am all but fifty, and only ready now to do something with my opportunities? I've ten good years before me, and the Colonel shall be proud of me yet!"

I felt so weak and sad all of a sudden--God knows why. She rarely spoke of him. I held her hand.

"Why, look, Rhoda, there's a stalk of larkspur out!" she said. "Go pick it for me, will you?"

I started to say no, but then I saw but one bud on it and I thought to myself, "I'll see her pleased for once, I will!" knowing she'd never notice, and so brought it. She waved it, blue above her white head (and me only iron grey to-day!)

"Larkspur, larkspur, tell me true,
Or never again I'll trust to you,"

she mumbled like, and I thought her voice sounded strange and far away, somehow.

"Is a change coming at last in my narrow little life? "

"Oh, hush, Miss Lisbet! you that have been so much to so many!" says I, sobbing at her dear stupidness, and then she begins, yes--and that was all.

"Why, Rhoda!" she cries, "at last, at last I've won!" and half rises in the garden-chair. Then suddenly her hands went to her heart.

"Why, Louis--Louis! My dear!" she said, staring at the cedar hedge. "Can you see? " And fell back.

The change had come, indeed, and I and all that loved her hope that now she knows what a life like hers meant to those she lived among and blessed!

[The end]
Josephine Daskam Bacon's short story: Oracles