Rebecca Wise, turned forty and growing slightly gray at the temples, was moving slowly from one of her precious plants to the next, leaning over each to pinch off a dead leaf or count the buds. It was the historic month of May, 1898, and May is the paradise of flower lovers.
Phobe was eighteen years younger than her sister, and the beauty of the village. Indeed, many declared their belief that the whole State of New Hampshire did not contain her equal.
She was seated on the steps of the veranda that skirted the little white cottage, and the absent gaze of her frank blue eyes was directed through the gate at the foot of the little path bordered by white rose-bushes. In her lap was a bundle of papers yellowed by age and an ivory miniature, evidently taken from the carved wooden box at her side.
Presently Rebecca straightened her back with a slight grimace and looked toward her sister, holding her mold-covered hands and fingers spread away from her.
"Well," she inquired, "hev ye found anythin'?"
Phobe brought her gaze back from infinity and replied:
"No, I ain't. Only that one letter where Isaac Burton writes her that the players have come to town."
"I don't see what good them letters'll do ye in the Shakespeare class, then."
Rebecca spoke listlessly—more interested in her garden than in her sister's search.
"I don't know," Phobe rejoined, dreamily. "It's awful funny—but whenever I take out these old letters there comes over me the feelin' that I'm 'way off in a strange country—and I feel like somebody else."
Rebecca looked up anxiously from her work.
"Them sort o' philanderin' notions are foolish, Phobe," she said, and flicked a caterpillar over the fence.
Phobe gave herself a little shake and began to tie up the papers.
"That's so," she replied. "But they will come when I get these out, an' I got 'em out thinkin' the' might be somethin' about Shakespeare in 'em for our class."
She paused and looked wistfully at the letters again.
"Did he live very far back, then?" said Rebecca, wishing to appear interested, but really intent upon a new sprout at the foot of the lilac-bush.
"Yes, three hundred years ago. Three of these letters has a date in 1598 exactly."
There was a long silence, and at length Rebecca looked up from the ground to ascertain its cause. She frowned and drew her aching back stiffly straight again.
"Everlastin'ly lookin' at that pictur'!" she exclaimed. "I declare to goodness, Phobe Wise, folks'll think you're vain as a pouter pigeon."
Phobe laughed merrily, tossed the letters into the box and leaped to her feet. The miniature at which she had been gazing was still in her hands.
"Folks'll never see me lookin' at it, Rebecca—only you," she said.
Then with a coaxing tone and looking with appealing archness at her sister, she went on:
"Is it really like me, Rebecca? Honest true?"
The elder woman merely grunted and moved on to the next bed, and Phobe, with another laugh, ran lightly into the house.
A few moments later she reappeared at the front door with consternation on her face.
"Land o' goodness, Rebecca!" she cried, "do you know what time it is? Near onto one o'clock, an' I've got to be at the Shakespeare class at half past. We'll have to dish up dinner right this minute, and I don't see how I can change my dress after it an' help with the dishes too."
She whisked into the house again, and Rebecca followed her as rapidly as possible.
She was very proud of her baby sister, proud of her having been "clear through high school," and proud of her eminence in the local literary society. There was certainly something inspiring in having a sister who was first corresponding secretary of the Women's Peltonville Association for the Study of Shakespearian History and Literature; and it was simply wonderful how much poetry she could repeat from the pages of her favorite author.
Peltonville Center, New Hampshire, was one of those groups of neatly kept houses surrounding a prettily shaded, triangular common which seem to be characteristic of New England. Standing two miles from the nearest railway station, this little settlement possessed its own combined store and post-office, from whose narrow veranda one might watch the rising generation playing Saturday base-ball on the grassy triangle.
The traditional old meeting-house stood on the opposite side of the common, facing the store. The good old days of brimstone theology were past, and the descendants of the godly Puritans who raised this steeple "in the fear of the Lord," being now deprived of their chief source of fear, found Sunday meetings a bore, and a village pastor an unnecessary luxury.
Indeed, there seemed little need of pastoral admonition in such a town as Peltonville Center. There was a grimly commonplace and universal goodness everywhere, and the village was only saved from unconsciousness of its own perfection by the individual shortcomings of one of its citizens. Fortunately for the general self-complacence, however, the necessary revealing contrast was found in him.
Copernicus Droop was overfond of the bottle, and in spite of the prohibition laws of his State, he proved himself a blessed example and warning by a too frequent and unmistakable intoxication in public. He was gentle and even apologetic in his cups, but he was clearly a "slave of rum" and his mission was therefore fulfilled.
On this first of May, 1898, a number of idle young men sat in a row on the edge of the store veranda. Some were whittling, some making aimless marks in the dust with a stick. All leaned limply forward, with their elbows on their knees.
It was clearly not a Sunday, for the meeting-house was open, and from time to time, one or perhaps two young women together passed into the cool and silent room. The loungers at the store let none escape their notice, and the name of each damsel was passed down the line in an undertone as its owner entered the church.
A lantern-jawed young farmer at the end of the row slowly brushed the shavings from his clothes and remarked:
"Thet's the secon' meetin' of the Shekspeare class this month, ain't it?"
"Yep, an' there'll be two more afore the summer boarders comes up——"
The second speaker would have continued, but he was here interrupted by a third, who whispered loudly:
"Say, fellers, there goes Copernicus."
All eyes were raised and unanimously followed the shabby figure which had just emerged from behind the church and now started into the road leading away from the common toward the north.
"Walks pretty straight fer him, don't he?" snickered the first speaker.
"He's not ben tight fer two days."
"Bet ye a jack-knife he'll be spreein' it fer all he's wuth to-morrow."
Fortunately these comments did not reach the ears of their object, who, all unconscious of the interest which he inspired, made good his way at a fairly rapid pace.
Presently he stopped.
With muslin skirts swaying, hair rumpled, and fair young face flushed with exertion, Phobe Wise was hurrying toward the common. She was almost running in her haste, for she was late and the Shakespeare class was a momentous institution.
"Oh, say, Cousin Phobe," was the man's greeting, "can you tell me ef yer sister's to home?"
The young girl came to a sudden full stop in her surprise. This cousinly greeting from the village reprobate was as exciting and as inexplicable as it was unheard of.
"Why, Mr. Droop!" she exclaimed, "I—I—I s'pose so."
The truth was the truth, after all. But it was hard on Rebecca. What could this man want with her sister?
Droop nodded and passed on.
"Thank ye. Don't stop fer me," he said.
Phobe moved forward slowly, watching Copernicus over her shoulder. She noted his steady steps and pale face and, reassured, resumed her flying progress with redoubled vigor. After all, Rebecca was forty-two years old and well able to take care of herself.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Wise, having carefully wrung out her dishcloth, poured out the water and swept the little sink, was slowly untying her kitchen apron, full of a thankful sense of the quiet hour before her wherein to knit and muse beside the front window of her little parlor.
In the centre of this room there stood a wide, round table, bearing a large kerosene-lamp and the week's mending. At the back and opposite the two windows stood the well-blacked, shiny, air-tight stove. Above this was a wooden mantel, painted to imitate marble, whereon were deposited two photographs, four curious Chinese shells, and a plaster cross to which there clung a very plaster young woman in scant attire, the whole being marked "Rock of Ages" in gilt letters at the base.
Horse-hair furniture in all the glory of endless "tidies" was arranged against walls bedight with a rainbow-like wilderness of morning-glories. The ceiling was of white plaster, and the floor was painted white and decked here and there with knitted rag-carpets, on whose Joseph's-coated surfaces Rebecca loved to gaze when in retrospective mood. In those humble floor-coverings her knowing eyes recognized her first clocked stockings and Phobe's baby cloak. There was her brother Robert's wool tippet embalmed in loving loops with the remnants of his wife's best Sunday-go-to-meetin' ribbons. These two had long been dead, but their sister's loving eyes recreated them in rag-carpet dreams wherein she lived again those by-gone days.
Rebecca had just seated herself and was unrolling her work, when her eyes caught a glimpse of a man's form through the window. He had passed into her gate and was approaching the door. She leaned forward for a good look and then dropped back into her chair with a gasp of surprise.
"Copernicus Droop!" she exclaimed, "did you ever!"
She sat in rigid astonishment until she heard his timid knock, followed by the sound of shoes vigorously wiped upon the door-mat.
"Good mornin'," said Droop, timidly. "I seen Cousin Phobe a-runnin' down the road, an' I sorter thought I'd run in an' see how you was."
"Come right in," said Rebecca, in non-committal tones. She shut the door and followed him into the parlor.
"Here, give me yer hat," she continued. "Set right there. How be ye?"
Droop obeyed. In a few moments the two were seated facing each other, and Rebecca's needles were already busy. There was an interval of awkward silence.
"Well, what did ye come fer?"
It was Rebecca who broke the spell. In her usual downright fashion, she came to the point at once. She thought it as well he should know that she was not deceived by his polite pretence of casual friendly interest.
Droop settled forward with elbows on his knees and brought his finger-tips carefully and accurately together. He found this action amazingly promotive of verbal accuracy.
"Well, Cousin Rebecca," he began, slowly, "I'm lookin' fer a partner." He paused, considering how to proceed.
The spinster let her hands drop in speechless wonder. The audacity of the man! He—to her—a proposal! At her age! From him!
Fortunately the next few words disclosed her error, and she blushed for it as she lifted her work again, turning nearer the window as if for better light.
"Yes," Droop proceeded, "I've a little business plan, an' it needs capital an' a partner."
He waited, but there was no response.
"Capital an' a partner," he repeated, "an' intelligence an' ambition. So I come to you."
Rebecca turned toward him again, scarcely less surprised now than before.
"To me! D'ye mean to say ye've me in yer mind fer a partner—with capital?"
Droop nodded slowly and compressed his lips.
"Well, I want to know!" she exclaimed, helplessly.
"Oh, I know you ain't overly rich right now," said Droop, apologetically; "but it warn't no secret thet ye might hev hed Joe Chandler ef ye hadn't ben so shifty in yer mind an' fell betwixt two stools—an' Lord knows Joe Chandler was as rich as—as Peter Craigin down to Keene—pretty nigh."
Again Rebecca blushed, but this time in anger.
"See here, Copernicus Droop—" she began.
"Oh, I don't mean nothin' mean, now," he insisted, earnestly. "I'm jest leadin' up to the pint sorter natural like—breakin' the thing easy, ye know."
"What air you a-drivin' at?"
Droop shifted uneasily in his seat and ran his finger around inside of his collar before he replied:
"Mister Droop!" exclaimed his hostess, gazing severely into his eyes, "ef you think I'll let you go to drinkin' rum till——"
"Honest to goodness, Miss Wise, I've not teched a drop!" cried Droop, leaping to his feet and leaning forward quickly. "You may smell my breath ef——"
A violent push sent him back to his chair.
"Thet'll do, Mr. Droop. I'll undertake to believe ye fer once, but I'll thank ye to speak plain English."
"I'll do my best," he sighed, plaintively. "I don't blame ye fer not takin' to it quick. I didn't myself at first. Well—here. Ye see—ye know——"
He paused and swallowed hard, gazing at the ceiling for inspiration. Then he burst out suddenly:
"Ye know the graphophone an' the kodak and the biograph an' all them things what ye can see down to Keene?"
Rebecca nodded slowly, with suspicion still in her eye.
"Well, the's a heap o' things ben invented since the Centennial of 1876. Don't you s'pose they've made hills o' money out o' them things—with patents an' all?"
"An' don't you s'pose that ef anybody in 1876 was to up an' bring out sech inventions all at once he'd be bigger than all the other inventors put together!"
Rebecca slowly pushed her needle through her hair, which was a sign of thoughtfulness.
"Wal, o' course," she said, at length, "ef anybody hed aben smart enough to've invented all them things in 1876 he'd aben a pretty big man, I guess."
Droop edged forward eagerly.
"An' s'posen' that you hed married Joe Chandler back in 1876, an' you was rich enough to back up an inventor like that, an' he come to you an' offered to give you half ef you'd up an' help him put 'em on the market, an' s'posen'——"
"What the land sake's the use o' s'posin'?" Rebecca cried, sharply. "This is 1898, an' I ain't married, thanks be to goodness!"
"Ah, but ye could be, ef we was in 1876! There, there—I know what you want to say—but 'taint so! What would ye say ef I was to tell ye that all ye've got to do is jest to get into a machine I've got an' I can take ye back to 1876 in next to no time! What would ye say——"
"I'd say ye was tighter'n a boiled owl, Copernicus Droop."
"But I ain't, I ain't!" he almost screamed. "I tell ye I hevn't teched liquor fer two days. I've reformed. Ef ye won't smell my breath——"
"Then you're plum crazy," she interrupted.
"No, nor crazy either," he insisted. "Why, the whole principle of it is so awful simple! Ef you'd ben to high school, now, an' knew astronomy an' all, you'd see right through it like nothin'."
"Well, then, you c'n explain it to them as hez ben to high school, an' that's sister Phobe. Here she comes now."
She went at once to the door to admit the new-comer. Her visitor, watching the pretty younger sister as she stepped in, rosy and full of life, could not but remark the contrast between the two women.
"Twenty-two years makes a heap o' difference!" he muttered. "But Rebecca was jest as pretty herself, back in 1876."
"Look, Rebecca!" cried Phobe, as she entered the door, "here's a new book Mrs. Bolton lent me to-day. All about Bacon writing Shakespeare's plays, an' how Bacon was a son of Queen Elizabeth. Do you s'pose he really did?"
"Oh, don't ask me, child!" was the nervous reply. "Mr. Droop's in the parlor."
Phobe had forgotten her short interview with Droop, and she now snatched off her hat in surprise and followed her elder sister, nodding to their visitor as she entered.
"Set down, both o' ye," said Rebecca. "Now, then, Mr. Droop, perhaps you'll explain."
Rebecca was far more mystified and interested than she cared to admit. Her brusque manner was therefore much exaggerated—a dissimulation which troubled her conscience, which was decidedly of the tenderest New England brand.
Poor Copernicus experienced a sense of relief as he turned his eyes to those of the younger sister. She felt that Rebecca's manner was distinctly cold, and her own expression was the more cordial in compensation.
"Why, Miss Phobe," he said, eagerly, "I've ben tellin' your sister about my plan to go back to the Centennial year—1876, ye know."
"To—to what, Mr. Droop?"
Phobe's polite cordiality gave place to amazed consternation. Droop raised a deprecating hand.
"Now don't you go to think I'm tight or gone crazy. You'll understand it, fer you've ben to high school. Now see! What is it makes the days go by—ain't it the daily revolution of the sun?"
Phobe put on what her sister always called "that schoolmarm look" and replied:
"Why, it's the turning round of the earth on its axis once in——"
"Yes—yes—It's all one—all one," Droop broke in, eagerly. "To put it another way, it comes from the sun cuttin' meridians, don't it?"
Rebecca, who found this technical and figurative expression beyond her, paused in her knitting and looked anxiously at Phobe, to see how she would take it. After a moment of thought, the young woman admitted her visitor's premises.
"Very good! An' you know's well's I do, Miss Phobe, that ef a man travels round the world the same way's the sun, he ketches up on time a whole day when he gets all the way round. In other words, the folks that stays at home lives jest one day more than the feller that goes round the world that way. Am I right?"
Droop glanced triumphantly at Rebecca. This tremendous admission on her learned young sister's part stripped her of all pretended coldness. Her deep interest was evident now in her whole pose and expression.
"Now, then, jest follow me close," Droop continued, sitting far forward in his chair and pointing his speech with a thin forefinger on his open palm.
"Ef a feller was to whirl clear round the world an' cut all the meridians in the same direction as the sun, an' he made the whole trip around jest as quick as the sun did—time wouldn't change a mite fer him, would it?"
Phobe gasped at the suggestion.
"Why, I should think—of course——"
She stopped and put her hand to her head in bewilderment.
"Et's a sure thing!" Droop exclaimed, earnestly. "You've said yerself that the folks who stayed to home would live one day longer than the fellow that went round. Now, ef that feller travelled round as fast as the sun, the stay-at-homes would only be one day older by the time he got back—ain't that a fact?"
Both sisters nodded.
"Well, an' the traveller would be one day younger than they'd be. An' ain't that jest no older at all than when he started?"
"My goodness! Mr. Droop!" Phobe replied, feebly. "I never thought of that."
"Well, ain't it so?"
"Of course—leastways—why, it must be!"
"All right, then!"
Droop rose triumphantly to his feet, overcome by his feelings.
"Follow out that same reasonin' to the bitter end!" he cried, "an' what will happen ef that traveller whirls round, cuttin' meridians jest twice as fast as the sun—goin' the same way?"
He paused, but there was no reply.
"Why, as sure as shootin', I tell ye, that feller will get jest one day younger fer every two whirls round!"
There was a long and momentous silence. The tremendous suggestion had for the moment bereft both women of all reasoning faculty.
At length the younger sister ventured upon a practical objection.
"But how's he goin' to whirl round as fast as that, Mr. Droop?" she said.
Droop smiled indulgently.
"Et does sound outlandish, when ye think how big the world is. But what if ye go to the North Pole? Ain't all the twenty-four meridians jammed up close together round that part of the globe?"
"Thet's so," murmured Rebecca, "I've seen it many's the time on the map in Phobe's geography book."
"Sure enough," Droop rejoined. "Then ain't it clear that ef a feller'll jest take a grip on the North Pole an' go whirlin' round it, he'll be cuttin' meridians as fast as a hay-chopper? Won't he see the sun gettin' left behind an' whirlin' the other way from what it does in nature? An' ef the sun goes the other way round, ain't it sure to unwind all the time thet it's ben a-rollin' up?"
Rebecca's ball of yarn fell from her lap at this, and, as she followed it with her eyes, she seemed to see a practical demonstration of Droop's marvellous theory.
Phobe felt all the tremendous force of Droop's logic, and she flushed with excitement. One last practical objection was obvious, however.
"The thing must be all right, Mr. Droop," she said; "an' come to think of it, this must be the reason so many folks have tried to reach the North Pole. But it never has been reached yet, an' how are you agoin' to do it?"
"You think it never hez," Copernicus replied. "The fact is, though, that I've ben there."
"You!" Phobe cried.
"And is there a pole there?" Rebecca asked, eagerly.
"The's a pole there, an' I've swung round it, too," Droop replied, sitting again with a new and delightful sense of no longer being unwelcome.
"Here's how 'twas. About a year ago there come to my back door a strange-lookin' man who'd hurt his foot some way. I took him in an' fixed him up—you know I studied for a doctor once—an' while he was bein' fixed up, he sorter took a fancy to me an' he begun to give me the story of his life. He said he was born in the year 2582, an' had ben takin' what he called a historical trip into the past ages. He went on at a great rate like that, an' I thought he was jest wanderin' in his mind with the fever, so I humored him. But he saw through me, an' he wouldn't take no but I should go down into Burnham's swamp with him to see how he'd done it.
"Well, down we went, and right spang in the thickest of the bushes an' muck we come across the queerest lookin' machine that ever ye see!
"Right there an' then he told me all the scientific talk about time an' astronomy thet I've told you, an' then he tuck me into the thing. Fust thing I knew he give a yank to a lever in the machinery an' there was a big jerk thet near threw me on the back o' my head. I looked out, an' there we was a-flyin' over the country through the air fer the North Pole!"
"There, now!" cried Rebecca, "didn't Si Wilkins' boy Sam say he seen a comet in broad daylight last June?"
"Thet was us," Droop admitted.
"And not a soul believed him," Phobe remarked.
"Well," continued Droop, "to make a long story short, thet future-man whirled me a few times 'round the North Pole—unwound jest five weeks o' time, an' back we come to Peltonville a-hummin'!"
"Ef you'll believe me, there we was back to the day he fust come—an' fust thing I knew, thet future-man was a-comin' up to my back door, same ez before, a-beggin' to hev his foot fixed. It was hard on him, but I was convinced fer keeps."
Copernicus shook his head sadly, with retrospective sadness.
"An' where is the future-man now?" Phobe asked.
"Tuk cold on his lungs at the North Pole," said Droop, solemnly. "Hed pneumonia an' up'n died."
"But there warn't nobody round heerd of him except you," said Rebecca. "Who buried him?"
"Ah, thet's one o' the beauties o' the hull business. He'd showed me all the ropes on his machine—his Panchronicon, as he called it—an' so I up'n flew round the North Pole the opposite way as soon's he passed away, till I'd made up the five weeks we'd lost. Then when I got back it was five weeks after his funeral, an' I didn't hev to bother about it."
The two sisters looked at each other, quite overcome with admiration.
"My land!" Rebecca murmured, gathering up her yarn and knitting again. "Sence they've invented them X-rays an' took to picturin' folks' insides, I kin believe anythin'."
"You don't hev to take my word fer it," Droop exclaimed. "Ef you'll come right along with me this blessed minute, I'll show you the machine right now."
"But the plan, Rebecca," Phobe cried. "You've forgotten that I haven't heard Mr. Droop's plan."
"I wish 't you'd call me 'Cousin Copernicus,'" said Droop, earnestly. "You know I've sworn off—quit drinkin' now."
Phobe blushed at his novel proposal and insisted on the previous question.
"But what is the plan?" she said.
"Why, my idea is this, Cousin Phobe. I want we should all go back to 1876 again. Thet's the year your sister could hev married Joe Chandler ef she'd wanted to."
Rebecca murmured something unintelligible, blushing furiously, with her eyes riveted to her knitting. Phobe looked surprised.
"You know you could, Cousin Rebecca," Droop insisted. "Now what I say is, let's go back there. I'll invent the graphophone, the kodak, the vitascope, an' Milliken's cough syrup an' a lot of other big modern inventions. Rebecca'll marry Chandler, an' she an' her husband can back up my big inventions with capital. Why, Cousin Phobe," he cried, with enthusiasm, "we'll all hev a million apiece!"
The sentimental side of Droop's plan first monopolized Phobe's attention.
"Rebecca Wise!" she exclaimed, turning with mock severity to face her sister. "Why is it I've never heard tell about this love affair before now? Why, Joe Chandler's just a fine man. Is it you that broke his heart an' made him an old bachelor all his life?"
Rebecca must have dropped a stitch, for she turned toward the window again and brought her knitting very close to her face.
"What brought ye so early to home, Phobe?" she said. "Warn't there no Shakespeare meetin' to-day?"
"No. Mis' Beecher was to lead, an' she's been taken sick, so I came right home. But you can't sneak out of answerin' me like that, Miss Slyboots," Phobe continued, in high spirits.
Seating herself on the arm of her sister's chair, she put her arms about her neck and, bending over, whispered:
"Tell me honest, now, Rebecca, did Joe Chandler ever propose to you?"
"No, he never did!" the elder sister exclaimed, rising suddenly.
"Now, Mr. Droop," she continued, "your hull plan is jest too absurd to think of——"
Droop tried to expostulate, but she raised her voice, speaking more quickly.
"An' you come 'round again after supper an' we'll tell ye what we've decided," she concluded.
The humor of this reply was lost on Copernicus, but he moved toward the door with a sense of distinct encouragement.
But Rebecca was thinking of something very different as she stood at the front door gazing with softened eyes at the pasture and woods beyond the road. She seemed to see a self-willed girl breaking her own heart and another's rather than acknowledge a silly error. She was wondering if that had really been Rebecca Wise. She felt again all the old bewitching heart-pangs, sweetened and mellowed by time, and she wondered if she were now really Rebecca Wise.