NEW HOPES

“Only two more little days,” said Azalea, “and then we are through.”

“Little days, little days,” sang Carin in a tune of her own. “Only two
more little days.”

“You use strange expressions,” remarked Miss Zillah to her girls. “Why
do you say ‘little days’? Why not ‘short days’?”

“When I love anything,” explained Azalea, “I call it little.”

“Then you do love these days? I’m glad. I was afraid—”

“Aunt Zillah, dear—afraid?”

“Afraid you were tired, my girl. You’re tanned, of course, and so not
pale, but you do seem rather weary.”

“Oh, I’m tired, but school teachers have a perfect right to be tired.
Six weeks of teaching children who haven’t been in the habit of learning
_is_ rather an order, now, isn’t it, Aunt Zillah? But they’ve _learned_!
All this last week they’ve studied like mad trying to get as much as they
could before school closed. Even that queer, cross Mr. McIntosh has
worked as if his life depended on it.”

“His young shote depended on it, you remember,” laughed Carin. “Mr.
Rowantree has lost his wager with him and will have to hand over the
brace of ducks.”

“So much the worse for Mary Cecily and the babies,” sighed Azalea.
“Well, they’ll have plenty this year, anyway. The farm is really doing
well, and it will do better next year now that Jake Panther is to take it
over to work it on shares. He has _much_ more in him than I thought at
first. Now that he sees there’s some hope ahead for the Panthers, he’s a
changed fellow. He’s roofed the cabin he and his grandmother live in,
and set up a doorstep, and put out a rain barrel and made all sorts of
improvements. Even Grandma Panther herself doesn’t look quite such a
witch as she did.”

“Oh, but Paralee is the prize,” said Carin. “Since the great news came
from Asheville that her father would soon be as strong and active as ever
he was, and since dear Aunt Zillah fitted her out in decent clothes, and
Jake got his regular job, she walks and looks like one who has just
discovered what it is to be alive.”

“I hope it will all come right about her going to the Industrial School
at Hardinge. You wrote to your father and mother about it, Carin, didn’t
you?”

“Of course I did, Zalie. That’s the third time you’ve asked me that
question. I’m just as sure father will send her away to school as I am
that he’ll open up the moonlight school and put Mr. Rowantree at the head
of it. Oh, I do wish those dear people of mine would come! There’s so
much I want to show them and tell them about. We must take them over to
Rowantree Hall the very first thing.”

“There’s a large package waiting for me at Bee Tree,” said Miss Zillah.
“Little Dibblee Sikes stopped in to tell me. It must be my mantel
ornaments. I want to see them on Mis’ Cassie’s spare room shelf before
we go.”

“Come, Carin we must be off,” cried Azalea, snatching her parasol from
its hook. “Good-bye, Aunt Zillah. Only two more little days—little
days—little days.”

“Silly one!” cried Carin, gathering up her parasol also and trailing
after her. “Why is your heart so thistledownish?”

“How do I know? How do I know?” answered Azalea, still lilting. “Except
because I like my little days.”

It had come to that, simply. She liked her little days of hard work.
She had broken the back of rebellion that memorable day when Keefe rode
away to his great happiness with his sister, and she had been left,
bereft of these two “charmers of the world” as she called them, to do her
hard stint of work. In a way, Carin followed where she led. If Azalea’s
enthusiasm for the teaching had faltered, Carin’s would have faltered
too. But Azalea’s devotion to her work had steadily increased since she
had fought her fight with envy and selfishness. She had been able to
summon to her aid the hidden powers of her will, and these had sustained
her even through these last hot, nerve-wearying days of her teaching.
Now she felt herself to be the victor over that indolent, brooding,
indulgent self which had more than once in her life tried to get the
upper hand.

Not a pupil in the school but had made headway. Some of them had done
extraordinarily well. Dibblee Sikes had cried whenever the last day of
school was mentioned; but he cheered up when Azalea assured him that
there should be a “moonlight school” for his mother.

“Maybe,” said Azalea, “it can be arranged so that there will be a day
school all winter long for you youngsters.”

“But you’ll not be here, ma’am,” said Dibblee. “No one can learn us like
you and Miss Carin. There’s been teachers here that just yelled at us
and we got so skeered we couldn’t learn nothin’. All the fun we had was
running away from school.”

“You shan’t have that kind of a teacher, I promise,” Azalea assured him.
“Oh, Dibblee, if only I knew enough I’d stay right here and teach you all
the time; but, you see, I have to go to school myself for a long time
yet. As I am now, I should soon run out of learning and you would get
ahead of me.” She laughed gayly and Dibblee laughed with her. There was
much laughter about the schoolhouse these days, and it was no longer
because some one had blundered or met with an accident. They laughed now
because they were happy, because their shyness had ceased to be a torment
to them, and because they felt that they were more like other
children—not strange, not some one who needed a “missionary” to help them
on. Of all the services that Azalea and Carin had been able to perform
for them, the bestowing upon them of self-esteem was the greatest. Just
how this result had been attained it would be hard to say. Perhaps it
was the gentleness, the unfailing politeness of their young teachers and
their way of seeming as “kin” to these shy, wild, suspicious young
creatures, that had done it.

“It’s like teaching squirrels to eat from the hand,” Azalea had said more
than once to Carin.

Little had been seen of the Rowantrees and nothing of Keefe since the day
Keefe went to his sister’s home, but they were all, even the children,
coming to school for the “last day.” The parents of the pupils were
coming too, not only that they might, like parents the world over, swell
with pride over the accomplishments of their offspring, but also because
word had been sent broadcast that the moonlight school would be under
discussion.

There were few flowers left on the mountain side by this time, but the
prettiest imaginable decorations had been contrived with spurge and
galax, rhododendron leaves and vines. The place was really a bower, and
the children were clean and fresh for the occasion. Indeed, it may well
be doubted if certain of them had ever been so freshened and decorated as
on this day. Their young teachers had led them to believe that they were
to expect high festival, and they themselves were in the most charming of
their white frocks, with the little strings of gold beads which Mrs.
Carson had given them at Christmas.

The event held one throbbing secret. It was a cold secret, although it
arose from a warm impulse. By the greatest perseverance, Aunt Zillah had
managed to get a wagonload of ice and a number of ice cream freezers up
from Lee, and now, with the eager aid of the McEvoys, delicious ice
cream, made after Miss Zillah’s own receipt, smooth as satin and tempting
as nectar, filled the great freezers which bulked mysteriously beneath
their gunny sack wrappings in the shade of the schoolhouse. Moreover, in
the little cupboard where Azalea and Carin kept their stores, were six of
the most noble, decorative and triumphant cakes which Miss Zillah ever
had concocted.

“I don’t know much about educating the young,” she told the girls and
Mis’ Cassie, “but when it comes to feeding them, I understand the matter
perfectly. Anyone who has reared a girl like Annie Laurie is bound to
know something about that.” She sighed a little, for the day held one
drawback. She did long to have her niece share in the pleasures of this
closing time and to have her see what had been accomplished, and she had
written begging Annie Laurie to come, but the girl had replied vaguely.
Business at the dairy was very brisk. She was working early and late to
get her hand in completely before her valuable assistant, Sam Disbrow,
left for Rutherford Academy.

“It will be a month yet before he goes,” Aunt Zillah had said almost
petulantly. “I should have thought Annie Laurie might have spared us one
day.”

Mr. and Mrs. Carson were already at Lee, having run down to open up the
house.

“There seems to be no end of things to do,” Mr. Carson wrote his
daughter. “Do you really think you need us up there, kitten? What
difference will a few hours make? Have McEvoy pack up your possessions,
and hasten to us.”

“He doesn’t mean a word of it,” Carin declared. “He and mother are
simply dying to get up here and see what we’ve done. Whenever papa
sounds dull and prosy like that I know he’s planning something
delightful. It isn’t normal for him to be stupid. He’s up to something,
you’ll see.”

But as the “last day,” hot, with gay clouds, came, and the pupils
appeared an hour too early, and the Rowantree’s old surrey swung from the
thick shade of the old wood road, all indicating that the hour was at
hand, Carin began to have her doubts. For once in the history of the
world, her parents were going to be stupid and sensible and economical!
They were going to act like other people! She was horribly disappointed
in them, and kept very busy so as not to be alone with Azalea and let her
see how disappointed she was.

There really was a great deal to do, for the parents of the pupils
required much polite consideration. School did not call that morning
until half after ten o’clock. The time preceding that was spent in
talking about the moonlight school. There seemed to be a general desire
for it, although some of the neighbors were exceedingly shy about
expressing their desires.

“I’m ready to teach it,” Mr. Rowantree declared. “And I’ll do it for the
smallest sum possible.”

The mountain folk may or may not have approved of Mr. Rowantree, but
there was none who doubted his ability to teach them anything they might
wish to know. Indeed, they always had held a great opinion of his
bookishness; and now they seemed to find him more likable than they had
imagined possible. His fine and gracious manners never relaxed, no
matter with whom he talked, and where they had once been offended and
annoyed by this display of elegance, it now seemed different to them,
since the young teachers, who evidently approved of him, had themselves
such pretty, fine ways, and yet were so simple and friendly.

The truth was, the folk of Sunset Gap were beginning to take a new view
of various matters. For almost the first time in their existence they
had been brought into close contact with people from the outer world, and
their fears and prejudices had, in the light of their summer’s
experience, been dying a rapid and painless death.

The morning hours were given up to a hasty review of the work done, that
the parents might see something of what their children had been learning.
The young teachers secretly hoped that their audience would be so pleased
that they would take measures to establish a school of their own
volition.

Now Azalea and now Carin, flushed, eager and slightly tremulous, led on
their classes through the review of reading, spelling, geography, history
and arithmetic, while crowded about the windows and the platform sat the
parents, their tanned faces smiling and interested. Miss Zillah in her
lavender lawn, her curls fresh as flowers, beamed upon them from the
platform. Little Mary Cecily Rowantree and her brood was at the rear,
where her young ones could ease their feelings by turning somersaults in
the school doorway or by chasing an alarmed bunny.

Mr. Rowantree moved about from place to place, lending an academic aspect
to the scene. Seated on the low, broad window sill, gay and lithe as a
faun, was Keefe, with whom Azalea and Carin had been able to exchange
little more than a nod. He still showed the effects of his illness, his
eyes looked unnaturally large and his mouth was strangely sensitive; but
he was more charming than ever. He had a sketching pad and pencil with
him, and in the most engaging manner he sketched the heads of those in
the room. He seemed very far away to Azalea—very much a creature of some
brighter, lighter world than that in which she dwelt. She felt in her
heart that he was going on to things of which she would know nothing—to a
successful life in some great city. He would know artists and the most
interesting sort of folks. He would live in strange, delightful places;
he would travel. She and Sunset Gap would be only a fading, picturesque
thought in his memory.

But all that foolish fretting and fuming, she told herself severely, was
over and done with. She was Azalea McBirney, with her chosen work to do.
Things were as they were; not dreams, not charming visions, but just
plain facts, plain needs, plain work. Moreover, life was all the better
for being as it was. If the body needed simple bread more than candies,
so the spirit needed the plain bread of life more than delicacies.

So she bent brain, spirit, eyes, hands, lips to the labor of the day.
She determined to draw from each of her pupils a quick and eager
response. She threw herself into the hour’s performance, and had the
profound satisfaction of feeling those minds which a few weeks before had
been so aloof, so chilled, so closed, open to her influence as flowers
open to the sun.

From time to time more neighbors came and clustered about the windows
without, leaning on the sills and listening to the program. Neither
Azalea nor Carin paid much attention to these soft comings and goings,
these quiet unobtrusive movements of the people without there in the heat
of the changing day. There was some fear of rain; Azalea heard the
people whispering about it; she herself noted how the light in the room
changed from bright sunlight to soft shadow. She hoped, of course, that
the rain would hold off; and yet she couldn’t help thinking how charming
Keefe would look there on the window ledge, with the silver rain falling
between him and the trees; and she remembered that first wonderful day at
the Rowantrees, when they all had eaten on the gallery with the rain
making a silver curtain between them and the rest of the world.

It was time for the nooning—the famous nooning that was to hold Aunt
Zillah’s surprise—and Azalea was just bringing the exercises to an end,
when she saw an extraordinary sight. Carin, the proper, the correct, the
ladylike, who had been seated on the platform near an open window, was
suddenly seen to plunge through the window like the most madcap child in
the whole school. Not a sound came from her, but with her bright hair
tumbling about her from the violence of her leap to the ground, she was
speeding down the path. What was worse and more astonishing, Aunt
Zillah, the very mirror of what was decorous, had looked, and was now
speeding after her, only she was swung down from the window by the
sympathetic Keefe, who apparently had the key to her extraordinary
conduct. In spite of the titter of delight that shook the school, Azalea
preserved her dignity, but out of the corner of her eye she saw Mr. and
Mrs. Carson, and Carin homing to them like a swift dove; and Annie Laurie
running with outstretched arms to meet her Aunt Zillah.

Azalea didn’t say even in her inmost heart: “And there’s nobody for me.”
She was through with that sort of “grumping” and did not mean ever to
give way to it again. Besides, in a day or two she would be driving up
the dear familiar road with Pa McBirney, and coming upon the well-loved
clearing with the little house that was her home, and listening to Jim’s
questions, and feeling Ma McBirney’s kind eyes on her, and then she would
go creeping up to her own sweet, odd room in the loft that looked up the
mountain side, and she would be happy. Yes, of course she would be
happy. That was her life. Every one had his own life. Mary Cecily had
hers and Keefe had his, and Carin had hers—

All of this time she was talking, was neatly and cheerfully bringing the
exercises to a close, and her well-trained pupils were doing their best
to give her their attention and not to let their eyes wander down the
road to view the interesting scenes taking place there.

“Miss Pace,” said Azalea clearly, “has a luncheon prepared for you which
you are all asked to help prepare in the grove. Everyone is
invited—everyone. No one is to go away.”

No one had the slightest intention of going away. What was the use of
doing that when already Paralee and Mis’ Cassie and Mis’ Sikes and others
of the neighbors who had been pressed into service, were bringing forth
platters of sandwiches and cold meat loaf and pickles and salad; and
Miles McEvoy was starting a fire among the well-blackened stones of a
rude fireplace in the schoolyard, and Mrs. McIntosh was mixing coffee in
the huge pot.

“And now,” said Azalea to herself, “it is the moment for me to go and
meet my friends.”

She walked out of the schoolroom door quite properly, meaning to remember
every step of the way that she was only the schoolteacher, and not Carin
with loving parents, nor Aunt Zillah with a devoted niece—but just at her
most dignified and self-conscious moment she was caught about the waist
by Annie Laurie’s strong arms and lifted entirely off her feet. Yes,
right there before her pupils and all the people she had been hoping to
impress with her discretion, was swung quite clear of the ground and
hugged till she literally heard a little crack in her ribs!




“I suppose you thought I wasn’t coming up here to see how things were
going on, didn’t you, you funny little old schoolma’am?” demanded Annie
Laurie’s strong bright tones. “Me—as inquisitive as a house cat—not to
come nosing! That’s too ridiculous. Well, here I am, anyway!”

Here she very much was, tall and glowing and quite grown up in her pretty
blue linen, with her wide hat with the cornflowers. And here were Mr.
and Mrs. Carson, ready to greet Azalea as if she were almost their own.
Oh, it was good to have Mrs. Carson’s arm about her waist—good to be in
the encircling gentleness and protection of her calm love!

But there really wasn’t a moment to waste in talk. Azalea told them
that. Her mind swung back to its duties.

“After luncheon,” she said, “we’ll visit.”

Carin remembered her responsibilities, too; and Aunt Zillah was suddenly
in a hospitable flurry. But there really was no call for haste. Sunset
Gap was not used to it. There always had been, in the experience of its
inhabitants, plenty of time for everything. There was time to eat,
certainly. People sat about in little groups and partook of Aunt
Zillah’s delicious repast, and they waited on each other graciously,
forgetting, it seemed, all about their shyness and their terrific pride
and their old quarrels.

But the great moment came when the generous freezers yielded up their
strange confection, and for the first time in their lives the folk at
Sunset Gap knew the taste of that odd little miracle among foods, ice
cream in August weather. Some tasted it suspiciously; some ate it
injudiciously; some knew it for a good thing from the first second; some
doubted till they had sampled the second saucer; but all realized that
this would be an occasion to tell of; and that if the truth of the
statements were doubted, they had witnesses to prove that they had eaten
frozen food the hottest day of the year.

That afternoon came the “exercises” and like last day exercises in
schools the world over, what they involved of anguish, triumph, amusement
and disaster it would take long to relate, and the record would be of no
interest save to those who had suffered and rejoiced with the day’s
events.

They were shortened—fortunately, no doubt—by the approach of the storm
which had threatened all day. The watchers without grew restless; the
horses stamped and tugged at their hitching, and Azalea, bringing the
session quickly and happily to an end, begged for one second’s hearing
for Mr. Carson.

“He has something very important to say to you,” she cried, her voice
reaching out above the heads of her restive audience. “You must listen,
because it is something that may make all your future lives happier.”
She smiled at them beautifully, and they paused, half risen from their
seats to listen.

Charles Carson had but a brief word.

“The moonlight school of which you have been talking, friends, will be
opened here next month. It will hold every night that the moon shines
the year round for the next twelve months. Each person who enters has
the privilege of paying what he can for his instruction. If he cannot
pay, he shall have the instruction nevertheless. Mr. Rowantree, your
neighbor, a scholarly man and one whom many a university would be proud
to have on its list of teachers, will be your leader. May it be for your
great good and joy! I believe it will be, for no joy in this world is
greater than the joy of knowledge.”

“Three cheers for Mr. Carson,” cried Keefe. “Come now!
_Whoop—whoop—hurrah_!”

The neighbors and the children gave the cheer heartily if somewhat
awkwardly, and when Keefe called “Three cheers for your teachers, Miss
Carson and Miss McBirney,” they became rather lustier; and when he came
to, “Three cheers for Miss Pace,” remembering the dainties she had
provided, they were aroused to a hoarse enthusiasm. They wanted to be
polite; to shake hands; to say thank you; but the storm was muttering.
Azalea waved them all away laughingly.

“Why say good-bye?” she cried. “We’ll never forget you and you’ll never
forget us, but we mustn’t stop to talk about it. The storm’s coming.
Run—or stay.”

The thunder drowned her voice.

“Come, Azalea,” cried Keefe; “don’t stop to lock up. Some of the people
will be wanting to stay in the schoolhouse, probably. Here, put on my
coat and run.”

“But you mustn’t run, Keefe,” warned Azalea. “Your heart—mustn’t you be
careful of that?”

The boy laughed lightly and held out his hand, and Azalea, taking it,
felt herself flying along through the darkening paths of the woods.

Safe in the Oriole’s Nest, the Carsons, the Rowantrees, the Paces and
Keefe and Azalea, made many plans that evening of wild summer rain. It
had been arranged that they were all to be accommodated for the night
between the McEvoys’ and the cottage, so since none was leaving, there
was no need for haste. Not a person there was of the sort who feels that
nightfall bids him to bed. They did as they pleased with their day and
their night, and this night they wished to talk. The little Rowantrees,
Gerald and the weary Constance, Moira and Michael, the twins, were nested
in the hammocks and on the couches, and in the lightning-pierced gloom,
with the storm crashing and thundering about them, the others sat long,
talking over each other’s affairs with a frankness which might not have
been easy under other circumstances.

Keefe made it known that he was going to New York, taking his summer’s
product of pictures with him, to “try himself out.” He had something to
work for now; there was some zest to life; he wanted to make a success of
himself for the sake of Mary Cecily and the children. Annie Laurie was
to attend to her dairy, and being now ready to take up advanced studies,
was to study the University Extension Course by herself.

“Miss Parkhurst, your governess,” said Mrs. Carson to Carin, “is not
coming back, my dear. She is to live nearer her mother and sister and
teach school. That means that our plans for you must be changed. We
shall send you to the Roanoke Academy for Young Ladies. After you have
had two years there you may take up your study of painting, if you wish
to do so, in some art school. In the meantime, you will have art
instruction at the school.”

“But, mamma,” cried Carin, “that means—why, that means that Azalea and
Annie Laurie and I will not study together any more. Why, it means
breaking up the Triple Alliance!”

“Never worry about changes,” said Mrs. Carson in her silvery voice. “It
is the changes that make life interesting. Good has always come to you,
Carin, and good will continue to come. Annie Laurie has already chosen
what she wishes to do. We have decided what we think best for you.
There remains only Azalea to care for. How is it with you, Azalea? What
do you wish to do?”

“I mean,” said Azalea, her heart trembling a little in spite of her
efforts to be calm and philosophic, “to prepare myself to take charge of
the mountain industries at Lee. Just how I can best fit myself for this
work I do not know. I mustn’t desert Mother McBirney, must I? I can’t
put any expense on my dear family, but I can stay at home and learn
weaving of Mother McBirney and basket-making of dear old Haystack
Thompson, and go to Jug Town and find out how to make pottery. I can
pick up my education, don’t you see?”

She sat tall, slight and very girlish-looking, by the table on which
rested the reading lamp. Her vivid face, thrown into relief by the soft
glow, had, to all those present, a sweet and gracious familiarity. They
loved her, wanted her with them, wanted her to help them make up the sum
of good things that is called “home.” There was not one person there who
wanted to spare her, yet here she was with her little declaration of
independence.

“Come up to New York,” whispered Keefe, fascinated, “and study at the
School of Design.”

Azalea shook her head.

“I’d like to make my own way,” she said valiantly. “It—it would make me
happier than anything else. I’d rather not be sent anywhere. I’d rather
cut my own path.”

“So proud,” smiled Mr. Carson whimsically. “Would it hurt you to accept
help from those who love you, Azalea?”

“Is it pride?” asked Azalea with a bright thoughtfulness. “I’m sure I
don’t think it is. I want to use my own will, Mr. Carson, to see what I
can spin out of myself. If it should happen to be a wonderful silver web
how pleased I would be!”

“Oh, you’re so young, Azalea, dear,” mourned Miss Zillah. “Don’t go to
taking too much risk. Don’t be too independent.”

“No, don’t, Azalea,” pleaded Carin. “Let papa and mamma make some plan
for you.”

“They understand me better than you do, Carin love,” said her friend.
“They know what a joy it is to make one’s own plans and carry them out.
Annie Laurie knows, too, don’t you, dear?”

Annie Laurie nodded her fine ruddy head. She knew. Keefe knew too, for
he was like an eagle in his love of freedom. They all gave way before
Azalea finally. She was no longer a little girl to be petted and given
presents to, and to be consoled for her orphanage by the hospitality they
could offer. She was a young woman, poor, united to humble people,
gifted with a strange, fine talent—a talent for living and for making
things seem rich and wonderful—and it was their business to let her have
her way. She had grown up during the summer. She realized it herself,
and knew as the rest of them could not, what the influences had been
which had brought that transformation to pass. Henceforth, she would
have her own way to make, her own sorrows to endure, her own peculiar
joys to seek. Until now one hand after another had guided her; she had
clung to skirts, so to speak. But she had grown past that; she must walk
alone.

She looked about her at the rude but charming room, and at the faces of
her kind and dear friends. She seemed to see herself, too, as she sat
there, a girl with a curious past and a strange present. As for her
future! She shrugged her shoulders gayly—as her poor little dead mother
sometimes had done—and spread out her hands with a wide gesture.

“It’s to be Azalea for herself,” she said with a brave little laugh.
“Wish her luck!”