THE REBEL

Azalea never forgot how quietly and sweetly that night came down. The
mountain, so old—older than the peaks of the Rockies or the Sierras—lay
beneath the stars with an air of placidity as comforting to the spirit as
great music or great words.

Within the room where Keefe rested, the shadows deepened till Azalea and
the others could no longer see his long form on the sofa, nor the little
dark head of Mary Cecily bent to touch his.

“To think of finding some one on the earth who really, really belongs to
you,” said Azalea. “Oh, Carin, how happy they are!”

“Aren’t they!” sighed Carin sympathetically. “Oh, dear, Azalea, it makes
me homesick for papa and mamma. Yet here we are, only half through the
term of school we promised to teach.”

“You can’t say that it’s been dull,” replied Azalea with a fluttering
little laugh. “Just think of all that has happened these short three
weeks.”

“I ought,” murmured Mr. Rowantree, who had supped with them, and who sat
with them now on the porch, “to be riding home to Constance and the other
children. Paralee kindly promised that she would look in on them and
help them get a bit of something to eat, but now I really must be getting
along. They’ve never been alone before after nightfall.”

“You’re going to leave Mrs. Rowantree here then?” asked Aunt Zillah.
“Oh, that’s good of you. I don’t believe those two could bear to be
separated. I know I couldn’t bear to have them.”

“Of course they must stay together,” answered Mr. Rowantree. “Ah, what a
brave, bright little creature my Mary Cecily is, Miss Pace! Folks think
I don’t appreciate her because I’m a lazy, dreamy fool who hasn’t found
out how to take hold of life over here, but perhaps some day I’ll be able
to show them that I’m not quite such a useless creature as they think me.
I know my faults better than anyone else knows them; and the worst fault
of them all is not being properly ashamed of myself. I always was too
indifferent to what others thought; but since you came, Miss Pace, with
these fine unselfish girls, I—well, I’ve seen myself pretty much as
others must see me and I confess I don’t like the picture.”

“Oh, Mr. Rowantree,” cried Aunt Zillah, distressed, “I’m sure—”

“Don’t trouble yourself to say a single polite thing, ma’am. Leave me
the virtue of my repentance. Now, about my little wife’s brother in
there; he must come to Rowantree Hall to-morrow morning. Miles McEvoy
can drive him over the way he took Panther to the station, lying out on
the straw in the wagon box. Keefe’s a fine fellow, no manner of doubt
about that. I took to him from the first.”

“Have you seen the pictures Keefe has up in Mr. McEvoy’s barn?” asked
Aunt Zillah. “It’s a great pleasure and profit to look at them. I’m
sure when Mr. and Mrs. Carson see them they’ll be all for having an
exhibit of them down at Lee. Many artists come there, as you know, and
it’s the habit of the tourists to attend their exhibits. Sometimes they
purchase very freely.”

“It would be a fine thing for him if something of the sort could be
done,” said Mr. Rowantree. “My only fear is that Mary Cecily may have
another philandering male for her to care for. That really would be one
too many. I declare,” he added humorously, “if it came to that, I think
it might drive me to work!”

Azalea could not repress a little laugh, but Carin maintained
disapproving silence. She liked Mr. Rowantree—nobody could help liking
him—but she certainly did not approve of him, and it was not in her to
ease off the situation as Azalea could. Azalea had grown up among
vagabonds, and if she recognized in the magnificent Rowantree a new
variety of the tribe, it only made her tolerant of him.

“But you _do_ like to teach, don’t you, Mr. Rowantree?” she said
encouragingly. “Paralee met me and told me what a wonderful day it had
been for them all, and how you came it over that poor silly Mr. McIntosh.
If only you had been given a chance to teach, maybe—” she hesitated, not
quite seeing where her speech would lead her.

“Maybe I would have stirred my old stumps, eh, Miss Azalea, and not sat
around on my gallery giving a bad imitation of a Southern planter, while
my lion-hearted little wife used her wit and her strength to provide for
the lot of us? Well, now, maybe you’re right. And that reminds me of a
plan we evolved among us to-day. That nice red-headed boy—whatever his
name is—helped shape the notion.”

He told them the idea of the moonlight school and instantly Azalea was on
fire with enthusiasm.

“Oh, Mr. Rowantree,” she cried, “what a splendid thought—what a shining,
glittering thought! It looks just like a king, dressed in white and
jewels and with a crown on its head. Let’s make it come true. Carin,
you’re the wonderful one for doing things. All I can do is to exclaim,
but you go off and do them. Make this come true, Carin! I couldn’t bear
to have it stay merely a dream.”

“It is a glorious idea,” said Carin. “I suppose men and women were quite
happy in the old days, Mr. Rowantree, in ignorance. My father says some
of the old, unlettered peasants were very wise, and that they had
valuable knowledge they passed on from father to son. But in these days
it certainly does seem terrible for a man or woman not to know how to
read or write, particularly here in our country where everyone should
have a chance.”

“That’s it,” cried Aunt Zillah, who was a great patriot; “in this
glorious country where everyone ought to be given a chance! That’s the
promise we’ve held out to those who come to our shores, and it’s that
which helps me to overlook so many things that seem wrong in our dear
land. Greedy we may be, and disgraced by the scheming and grafting of
our politicians, but after all, it is here that the ignorant are educated
and the lowly learn to lift up their heads. Oh, I’m proud to be an
American, and if I had my life to live over again I would devote it to
some cause that would help on the real Americanism. Now, here’s Azalea,
God bless her. She’s going to work among the mountaineers. What could
be more fitting? The child has just the nature for the task, and her
experiences have helped her to understand many things that a more
carefully sheltered girl could not have understood.”

“I hope she’ll marry happily and keep in her own home,” said Mr.
Rowantree shortly, while Azalea colored scarlet and was grateful for the
gloom that hid her face. “I’m an old-fashioned man and I like to see a
woman in her home. As one of the chief of Miss Azalea’s friends I do not
desire a public career for her.”

Even in the dusk Miss Zillah’s head could be seen shaking emphatically.

“Well,” she said, “if you’re an old-fashioned man, Mr. Rowantree, I
suppose I’m what could be called an old-fashioned woman. But this I will
say: I believe in women using their powers, and I think a woman of
intelligence and health has the ability to look after her home and do
something else besides. Azalea may marry or she may not, but in any
event I hope she’ll use her influence and some of her best thought in
behalf of these poor people ’round about us. I’m not a great one for
foreign missions—although I’ve no objection to them—but I do say that
life is twice as wonderful and beautiful when one helps on her fellow
beings. There never was a place in the world where missionary work was
needed more than it is right here in our own beloved state of North
Carolina. It’s a kind and gracious old state, and as beautiful as
anything that lies beneath the sky, but it’s got some poor, neglected
members of the human family in it, and I’m all for helping them on. I
love Azalea, and have great confidence in her, and that’s why I want to
see her give herself to a useful and important work. If she wasn’t of
much account, I shouldn’t think that it mattered what she did; but she’s
of much account, and so, if she were mine I would give her to this
service of her kind as I would give a son, if I had one, to fight and die
for his country.”

Miss Zillah’s gentle voice had gathered to itself unusual power, and its
tones, charged with feeling, penetrated to the shadowy room where Keefe
and Mary Cecily were. Mary Cecily laughed softly as she arose from the
low chair where she had been sitting, and Keefe echoed her. Perhaps it
struck them as amusing that anybody should find it necessary to worry
about anything now, when suddenly, to them, the world seemed so
completely right.

“How are you in there?” queried Rowantree. “I’m thinking of driving home
the night, Mary Cecily, and leaving you here with Keefe.”

“Oh, would Mary Cecily be happy away from the little ones?” asked Keefe.
“Really, I’m much better—fifty percent better, I assure you. It’s not
necessary for—for my sister to stay with me.” His voice caught on the
words. “My sister” was not easily uttered.

“Indeed, I’ve no thought of leaving you, brother dear—no thought at all.
It’s as my husband says. He can ride home to the children; and very good
and dear it is of him to think of it. The two of us will be along in the
morning, as you were planning a while back. Be off, Bryan dear. There’s
only Paralee with the children, and she’s strange to them. Tell them all
that’s happened to me to-day, and let Constance know that I’m bringing
home an own uncle—the very one she’d have chosen, I’m sure.”

Azalea drew back into the shadow of the house. So in the morning they
would be off—Keefe and his bright little sister—carrying their rich
romance with them, and the Oriole’s Nest would be the poorer for their
going! They would be gloriously happy together, telling each other all
that had happened in the years they had been apart. They would go
farther, those two, with their eager, answering minds, and would talk not
only of what they had done, but of what they had thought and felt. Each
would be turning out the riches of his mind for the other to see—holding
up their fancies as if they were embroidered clothes, and each marveling
at what the other had to show. They would be telling to each other the
poetry they knew; and Keefe would be making pictures while Mary Cecily
watched. And how the two of them would love the children and admire
their graceful ways! Azalea could see how they would look, all the
family of them, sitting about the blazing fire in that queer
“drawing-room.” Keefe’s pictures would be put up on the wall—the whole
place would be plastered with them—and they would be talking about this
one and that, and where it was painted. Then they would be singing
together, and whistling and dancing—heaven only knew what they would or
wouldn’t do.

Azalea felt the hot tears of shameless envy crowding out from under her
lids, and hated herself for them. She to help on her fellow-men? She to
work to add to the goodness and happiness of the world, when she grudged
these two their simple happiness, after so many years of tears and
longing and heartache? Could a more miserable, absurd, abject girl than
herself be found anywhere, she wondered. She thanked heaven that the
friends there beside her did not dream how ignoble she was.

Rowantree meantime had said good night and had mounted and ridden away.
They watched the light of his lantern flitting like a firefly among the
trees and at last disappearing entirely in the night.

The McEvoys came with the milk, and lingered to learn the news. As they
walked away Miss Zillah and her girls could hear their soft singsong
voices in kindly unison.

“They’re right sweet folks,” Miss Zillah declared, sighing unaccountably.
“At first they did seem queer to me, but now I’ve grown to be as fond of
them as if they were old neighbors. They’re a good example of a happy
married pair, too. I don’t know as I ever heard them really disagree
about a thing; and though those medicine bottles must be a terrible trial
to Mr. McEvoy, he never says a word about them, except, of course, to
tease Mis’ Cassie a little now and then.”

“There haven’t been any new bottles bought since we came up here, I
notice,” said Carin. “I suppose we’ve kept Mis’ Cassie so busy that she
hasn’t had time to take thought about them.”

“I’ve a fine little plan that I’d like to carry into execution,” said
Miss Zillah. “Down home I have quite a number of pretty mantel ornaments
I bought long ago when—when I thought I was going to have a little home
of my own. I—I never told you about that, my dears, but it seems a good
time to do it now, this being such a wonderful day for us all. You see,
I had my wedding clothes made, and I was to marry one of the kindest,
fairest-minded men that ever lived in the world. And he—he was killed,
dears—thrown from his horse and killed.”

Azalea had still kept in the background, those hurt and lonely tears hot
beneath her lids; and now, at the story of another’s sorrow, she frankly
let them fall. Curiously, though, they were not so hot and bitter as she
had thought they would be.

“Why, Aunt Zillah,” she murmured, “we never guessed! Yet we might have
known. There always was something about you so gentle and sweet—we might
have known that you’d had sorrow.”

“Few live to my age without having sorrow, Zalie, but my sorrow came in
my youth, and it took the zest out of life for a time. However, it was a
sweet sorrow. I’ve always been able to keep my lover young and kind in
my memory. But what I started to say was, that I put away and never have
used the things I got for that little home I meant to have. Now, I’m
going to write sister Adnah and ask her to send me my mantel ornaments.
They’re very pretty and chaste,” went on Miss Zillah quaintly. “Little
shepherds and shepherdesses, piping to each other, and all dressed in the
softest pink and blue, and a clock to match. I even have an embroidered
cover for the mantel, done in cross stitch and in pastel colors to go
with the ornaments. If I give these to Mis’ Cassie and induce her to put
them in the spare room she’ll stick the medicine bottles away out of
sight.”

“They’ll go in that mess under the house,” agreed Carin. “And it will be
a grand day for the McEvoys when they do. Oh, Aunt Zillah, how tired and
sleepy I am—almost too tired and sleepy to go to bed.”




“I feel just the same way,” said Azalea. “Yet I hate to leave the night
to itself, it’s so lovely. Sometimes I think I’ll sleep days and keep
awake nights, I love the night so much.”

“Come,” said Miss Zillah with the voice of authority, “don’t be talking
nonsense. We will get to our beds.”

So they slipped in softly behind the great chimney and the pretty screens
to their own quaint makeshift of bedroom, leaving Mary Cecily on a cot
near her brother. The windows and doors all stood open to the night, and
the girls could hear the soft rustlings of the wood and the tinkle of the
brook. The whippoorwills were very distant and their insistent cry
sounded sweet and mournful, though it could be hectoring enough when it
was near at hand. But nothing was hectoring this night, except that
foolish, wistful longing in Azalea’s restless young heart, because Keefe
and Mary Cecily were so happy in themselves, and because it was taken for
granted that she, Azalea, was always to be so brave and so eager for
service, and was to be a missionary to the mountain folk and was never to
have any joy of her own—no real, selfish, glorious joy! Yet only the
other day she had told Carin how clearly the finger of fate pointed to
her as one set apart to “do good.” She would never marry, she had
said—never, never—because she could not marry a “gentleman” and because
she would marry no one who could not lay claim to that name. And they
had taken her at her word—or at least, they had almost done so. She was
to be Azalea McBirney, the adopted daughter of the mountain folk, the
little sister to all the unfortunates, and was to live apart and be good!

Azalea lay quite on the edge of her bed, very straight and rigid, and
looked up at the stars through her open window. They were cold,
unsympathetic looking stars! Azalea had not previously noticed how very
haughty and remote they could appear, or how indifferent they could be to
the woes and doubts, the frets and flurries of one self-centered young
person called Azalea McBirney—one reneging, horrid young person, who was
secretly going back on all her declarations of faith and service, and
wanting nothing in the world so much as merely to be happy!

Life, decided Azalea, was a puzzle. Once it had seemed simple. Some
things had plainly been right to do; others, as plainly wrong. In those
days she had believed she had only, at any time, to listen to her
conscience to find out precisely what she ought to do, and therefore what
she wanted to do. Because, of course, she wanted to do what was right.

Now she was finding out that there were all sorts of matters which were
neither right nor wrong, about which she had to decide. At present she
was tormented with a longing to share in the joy and in the lives of
Keefe and Mary Cecily. Something in them called to her. Their quick
gayety, their sudden sadnesses, their caring about pictures and poetry
more than they did about food or work, or sleep, or any usual, dutiful
thing, made them seem the very kin of her soul. She couldn’t account for
it. It was merely a fact. She began to understand that there might have
been something of the sort in her own poor little mother. When she took
to wandering the roads with a cheap “show” perhaps it was not merely
necessity, but some half-formed dream of wildness and gayety and art that
had led her on. She too had loved the night and laughter and dancing,
singing and pictures. Not anything evil—Oh, no, on the contrary, only
happily, brightly good things, things that lightened the heart and set
the brain moving so that glittering little thoughts shone in it like
stars in the night.

The Carsons, gentle and kind, formal and polite, were Azalea’s tried and
trusted friends; the McBirneys, generous and loving, lived in the inner
chamber of her heart; Annie Laurie was a gallant girl and her own true
friend; but the soft gay laughter of Keefe and Mary Cecily was as fairy
bells in her ears, and that night she could hear nothing else, it
seemed—not even the voices of the dear old friends—for the tinkling of
them.

So, very stiff, very straight, very miserable, she lay upon her edge of
the bed and counted the hours. Carin, soft as a kitten, curled down well
in the center of the mattress and slept as babies sleep.

“What’s come over me?” demanded Azalea of herself. “Haven’t I any heart?
Haven’t I any sense? Can’t I see anybody else happy without being
jealous of them? Am I an Everlasting Pig?”

Haughty and remote stars do not answer questions like that. Along in the
latter part of the night Azalea fell asleep with the question hanging in
the fast-chilling air. When she awoke, the day was already bright, and
outside the door sounded the voice of Miles McEvoy making arrangements to
carry Mary Cecily and Keefe to Rowantree Hall.

Azalea sprang out of bed with decision. Her lips were set in a hard
little line.

“Come, Carin,” she said, “we mustn’t be late to school. Let’s settle
down now for a long hard pull. We’ll teach school as we never did
before. There’s only three weeks more ahead of us and we mustn’t waste a
minute.”

“My goodness,” yawned Carin, prettily, “you sound like a call to arms.
All right, comrade, I’m with you. Shall we wear our pink ginghams?”

“What does it matter what we wear?” demanded Azalea sternly. “We’re here
to _teach school_. Nobody cares how we look.”

At that Carin sat up in bed bristling with protest.

“What’s come over you, Zalie?” she demanded. “Of course the children
care how we look. Looking as well as we can is part of our work. You
know you’ve often said so yourself. But, dear me, why should I worry
about you, you old Zalie thing? You always look lovely.”

Her friends thought so that morning, certainly. Her eyes were a touch
too bright, perhaps, her cheeks a shade too red, and there was something
a little too vivid and throbbing about her. Try as hard as she could to
keep in the background, she could not succeed.

“You’re a flaming Azalea this morning, my dear,” whispered Mary Cecily
just before she took her seat beside her brother in McEvoy’s wagon for
the rough journey to Rowantree Hall. Keefe was white and spent-looking,
but a glorious happiness shone in his eyes.

“No one is to worry about me,” were his words at parting with his friends
at the Oriole’s Nest. “If it’s sick I am, it must be with gratitude and
bliss. Never will I forget your goodness to me at this house; and now
here I am, going—home!” He turned swimming eyes on his sister.

As they drove off he raised himself on one elbow—he was reclining on the
clean straw in the wagon box—to catch one last glimpse of “the flaming
Azalea.” But she was out of sight—absurdly and irritatingly out of
sight. There were only Miss Zillah and the golden-headed Carin to wave
good-bye.