LAVENDER AND OLD LACE
By Myrtle Reed
I. THE LIGHT IN THE WINDOW II. THE ATTIC. III. MISS AINSLIE IV. A GUEST V. THE RUMOURS OF THE VALLEY VI. THE GARDEN VII. THE MAN WHO HESITATES VIII. SUMMER DAYS IX. BY HUMBLE MEANS X. LOVE LETTERS XI. THE ROSE OF ALL THE WORLD XII. BRIDE AND GROOM XIII. PLANS XIV. "FOR REMEMBRANCE" XV. THE SECRET AND THE DREAM XVI. SOME ONE WHO LOVED HER XVII. DAWN
I. The Light in the Window
A rickety carriage was slowly ascending the hill, and from the place of honour on the back seat, the single passenger surveyed the country with interest and admiration. The driver of that ancient chariot was an awkward young fellow, possibly twenty-five years of age, with sharp knees, large, red hands, high cheek-bones, and abundant hair of a shade verging upon orange. He was not unpleasant to look upon, however, for he had a certain evident honesty, and he was disposed to be friendly to every one.
"Be you comfortable, Miss?" he asked, with apparent solicitude.
"Very comfortable, thank you," was the quiet response. He urged his venerable steeds to a gait of about two miles an hour, then turned sideways.
"Be you goin' to stay long, Miss?"
"All Summer, I think."
The young woman smiled in listless amusement, but Joe took it for conversational encouragement. "City folks is dretful bashful when they's away from home," he said to himself. He clucked again to his unheeding horses, shifted his quid, and was casting about for a new topic when a light broke in upon him.
"I guess, now, that you're Miss Hathaway's niece, what's come to stay in her house while she goes gallivantin' and travellin' in furrin parts, be n't you?"
"I am Miss Hathaway's niece, and I have never been here before. Where does she live?"
He flourished the discarded fish-pole which served as a whip, and pointed out a small white house on the brow of the hill. Reflection brought him the conviction that his remark concerning Miss Hathaway was a social mistake, since his passenger sat very straight, and asked no more questions.
The weary wheels creaked, but the collapse which Miss Thorne momentarily expected was mercifully postponed. Being gifted with imagination, she experienced the emotion of a wreck without bodily harm. As in a photograph, she beheld herself suddenly projected into space, followed by her suit case, felt her new hat wrenched from her head, and saw hopeless gravel stains upon the tailored gown which was the pride of her heart. She thought a sprained ankle would be the inevitable outcome of the fall, but was spared the pain of it, for the inability to realise an actual hurt is the redeeming feature of imagination.
Suddenly there was a snort of terror from one of the horses, and the carriage stopped abruptly. Ruth clutched her suit case and umbrella, instantly prepared for the worst; but Joe reassured her.
"Now don't you go and get skeered, Miss," he said, kindly; "'taint nothin' in the world but a rabbit. Mamie can't never get used to rabbits, someways." He indicated one of the horses—a high, raw-boned animal, sketched on a generous plan, whose ribs and joints protruded, and whose rough white coat had been weather-worn to grey.
"Hush now, Mamie," he said; "'taint nothin'."
"Mamie" looked around inquiringly, with one ear erect and the other at an angle. A cataract partially concealed one eye, but in the other was a world of wickedness and knowledge, modified by a certain lady-like reserve.
"G' long, Mamie!"
Ruth laughed as the horse resumed motion in mincing, maidenly steps. "What's the other one's name?" she asked.
"Him? His name's Alfred. Mamie's his mother."
Miss Thorne endeavoured to conceal her amusement and Joe was pleased because the ice was broken. "I change their names every once in a while," he said, "'cause it makes some variety, but now I've named'em about all the names I know."
The road wound upward in its own lazy fashion, and there were trees at the left, though only one or two shaded the hill itself. As they approached the summit, a girl in a blue gingham dress and a neat white apron came out to meet them.
"Come right in, Miss Thorne," she said, "and I'll explain it to you."
Ruth descended, inwardly vowing that she would ride no more in Joe's carriage, and after giving some directions about her trunk, followed her guide indoors.
The storm-beaten house was certainly entitled to the respect accorded to age. It was substantial, but unpretentious in outline, and had not been painted for a long time. The faded green shutters blended harmoniously with the greyish white background, and the piazza, which was evidently an unhappy afterthought of the architect, had two or three new shingles on its roof.
"You see it's this way, Miss Thorne," the maid began, volubly; "Miss Hathaway, she went earlier than she laid out to, on account of the folks decidin' to take a steamer that sailed beforehand—before the other one, I mean. She went in sech a hurry that she didn't have time to send you word and get an answer, but she's left a letter here for you, for she trusted to your comin'."
Miss Thorne laid her hat and jacket aside and settled herself comfortably in a rocker. The maid returned presently with a letter which Miss Hathaway had sealed with half an ounce of red wax, presumably in a laudable effort to remove temptation from the path of the red-cheeked, wholesome, farmer's daughter who stood near by with her hands on her hips.
"Miss Ruth Thorne," the letter began,
"I am writing this in a hurry, as we are going a week before we expected to. I think you will find everything all right. Hepsey will attend to the house-keeping, for I don't suppose you know much about it, coming from the city. She's a good-hearted girl, but she's set in her ways, and you'll have to kinder give in to her, but any time when you can't, just speak to her sharp and she'll do as you tell her.
"I have left money enough for the expenses until I come back, in a little box on the top shelf of the closet in the front room, under a pile of blankets and comfortables. The key that unlocks it is hung on a nail driven into the back of the old bureau in the attic. I believe Hepsey is honest and reliable, but I don't believe in tempting folks.
"When I get anywhere where I can, I will write and send you my address, and then you can tell me how things are going at home. The catnip is hanging from the rafters in the attic, in case you should want some tea, and the sassafras is in the little drawer in the bureau that's got the key hanging behind it.
"If there's anything else you should want, I reckon Hepsey will know where to find it. Hoping that this will find you enjoying the great blessing of good health, I remain,
"Your Affectionate Aunt,
"P. S. You have to keep a lamp burning every night in the east window of the attic. Be careful that nothing catches afire."
The maid was waiting, in fear and trembling, for she did not know what directions her eccentric mistress might have left.
"Everything is all right, Hepsey," said Miss Thorne, pleasantly, "and I think you and I will get along nicely. Did Miss Hathaway tell you what room I was to have?"
"No'm. She told me you was to make yourself at home. She said you could sleep where you pleased."
"Very well, I will go up and see for myself. I would like my tea at six o'clock." She still held the letter in her hand, greatly to the chagrin of Hepsey, who was interested in everything and had counted upon a peep at it. It was not Miss Hathaway's custom to guard her letters and she was both surprised and disappointed.
As Ruth climbed the narrow stairway, the quiet, old-fashioned house brought balm to her tired soul. It was exquisitely clean, redolent of sweet herbs, and in its atmosphere was a subtle, Puritan restraint.
Have not our houses, mute as they are, their own way of conveying an impression? One may go into a house which has been empty for a long time, and yet feel, instinctively, what sort of people were last sheltered there. The silent walls breathe a message to each visitor, and as the footfalls echo in the bare cheerless rooms, one discovers where Sorrow and Trouble had their abode, and where the light, careless laughter of gay Bohemia lingered until dawn. At night, who has not heard ghostly steps upon the stairs, the soft closing of unseen doors, the tapping on a window, and, perchance, a sigh or the sound of tears? Timid souls may shudder and be afraid, but wiser folk smile, with reminiscent tenderness, when the old house dreams.
As she wandered through the tiny, spotless rooms on the second floor of Miss Hathaway's house, Ruth had a sense of security and peace which she had never known before. There were two front rooms, of equal size, looking to the west, and she chose the one on the left, because of its two south windows. There was but one other room, aside from the small one at the end of the hall, which, as she supposed, was Hepsey's.
One of the closets was empty, but on a shelf in the other was a great pile of bedding. She dragged a chair inside, burrowed under the blankets, and found a small wooden box, the contents clinking softly as she drew it toward her.
Holding it under her arm, she ascended the narrow, spiral stairs which led to the attic. At one end, under the eaves, stood an old mahogany dresser. The casters were gone and she moved it with difficulty, but the slanting sunbeams of late afternoon revealed the key, which hung, as her aunt had written, on a nail driven into the back of it.
She knew, without trying, that it would fit the box, but idly turned the lock. As she opened it, a bit of paper fluttered out, and, picking it up, she read in her aunt's cramped, But distinct hand: "Hepsey gets a dollar and a half every week. Don't you pay her no more."
As the house was set some distance back, the east window in the attic was the only one which commanded a view of the sea. A small table, with its legs sawed off, came exactly to the sill, and here stood a lamp, which was a lamp simply, without adornment, and held about a pint of oil.
She read the letter again and, having mastered its contents, tore it into small pieces, with that urban caution which does not come amiss in the rural districts. She understood that every night of her stay she was to light this lamp with her own hands, but why? The varnish on the table, which had once been glaring, was scratched with innumerable rings, where the rough glass had left its mark. Ruth wondered if she were face to face with a mystery.
The seaward side of the hill was a rocky cliff, and between the vegetable garden at the back of the house and the edge of the precipice were a few stumps, well-nigh covered with moss. From her vantage point, she could see the woods which began at the base of the hill, on the north side, and seemed to end at the sea. On the south, there were a few trees near the cliff, but others near them had been cut down.
Still farther south and below the hill was a grassy plain, through which a glistening river wound slowly to the ocean. Willows grew along its margin, tipped with silvery green, and with masses of purple twilight tangled in the bare branches below.
Ruth opened the window and drew a long breath. Her senses had been dulled by the years in the city, but childhood, hidden though not forgotten, came back as if by magic, with that first scent of sea and Spring.
As yet, she had not fully realised how grateful she was for this little time away from her desk and typewriter. The managing editor had promised her the same position, whenever she chose to go back, and there was a little hoard in the savings-bank, which she would not need to touch, owing to the kindness of this eccentric aunt, whom she had never seen.
The large room was a typical attic, with its spinning-wheel and discarded furniture—colonial mahogany that would make many a city matron envious, and for which its owner cared little or nothing. There were chests of drawers, two or three battered trunks, a cedar chest, and countless boxes, of various sizes. Bunches of sweet herbs hung from the rafters, but there were no cobwebs, because of Miss Hathaway's perfect housekeeping.
Ruth regretted the cobwebs and decided not to interfere, should the tiny spinners take advantage of Aunt Jane's absence. She found an old chair which was unsteady on its rockers but not yet depraved enough to betray one's confidence. Moving it to the window, she sat down and looked out at the sea, where the slow boom of the surf came softly from the shore, mingled with the liquid melody of returning breakers.
The first grey of twilight had come upon the world before she thought of going downstairs. A match-safe hung upon the window casing, newly filled, and, mindful of her trust, she lighted the lamp and closed the window. Then a sudden scream from the floor below startled her.
"Miss Thorne! Miss Thorne!" cried a shrill voice. "Come here! Quick!"
White as a sheet, Ruth flew downstairs and met Hepsey in the hall. "What on earth is the matter!" she gasped.
"Joe's come with your trunk," responded that volcanic young woman, amiably; "where'd you want it put?"
"In the south front room," she answered, still frightened, but glad nothing more serious had happened. "You mustn't scream like that."
"Supper's ready," resumed Hepsey, nonchalantly, and Ruth followed her down to the little dining-room.
As she ate, she plied the maid with questions. "Does Miss Hathaway light that lamp in the attic every night?"
"Yes'm. She cleans it and fills it herself, and she puts it out every morning. She don't never let me touch it."
"Why does she keep it there?"
"D' know. She d' know, neither."
"Why, Hepsey, what do you mean? Why does she do it if she doesn't know why she does it?"
"D'know.'Cause she wants to, I reckon."
"She's been gone a week, hasn't she?"
"No'm. Only six days. It'll be a week to-morrer."
Hepsey's remarks were short and jerky, as a rule, and had a certain explosive force.
"Hasn't the lamp been lighted since she went away?"
"Yes'm. I was to do it till you come, and after you got here I was to ask you every night if you'd forgot it."
Ruth smiled because Aunt Jane's old-fashioned exactness lingered in her wake. "Now see here, Hepsey," she began kindly, "I don't know and you don't know, but I'd like to have you tell me what you think about it."
"I d' know, as you say, mum, but I think—" here she lowered her voice—"I think it has something to do with Miss Ainslie."
"Who is Miss Ainslie?"
"She's a peculiar woman, Miss Ainslie is," the girl explained, smoothing her apron, "and she lives down the road a piece, in the valley as, you may say. She don't never go nowheres, Miss Ainslie don't, but folks goes to see her. She's got a funny house—I've been inside of it sometimes when I've been down on errands for Miss Hathaway. She ain't got no figgered wall paper, nor no lace curtains, and she ain't got no rag carpets neither. Her floors is all kinder funny, and she's got heathen things spread down onto'em. Her house is full of heathen things, and sometimes she wears'em."
"Wears what, Hepsey? The 'heathen things' in the house?"
"No'm. Other heathen things she's got put away somewheres. She's got money, I guess, but she's got furniture in her parlour that's just like what Miss Hathaway's got set away in the attic. We wouldn't use them kind of things, nohow," she added complacently.
"Does she live all alone?"
"Yes'm. Joe, he does her errands and other folks stops in sometimes, but Miss Ainslie ain't left her front yard for I d' know how long. Some says she's cracked, but she's the best housekeeper round here, and if she hears of anybody that's sick or in trouble, she allers sends'em things. She ain't never been up here, but Miss Hathaway, she goes down there sometimes, and she'n Miss Ainslie swaps cookin' quite regler. I have to go down there with a plate of somethin' Miss Hathaway's made, and Miss Ainslie allers says: 'Wait just a moment, please, Hepsey, I would like to send Miss Hathaway a jar of my preserves.'"
She relapsed unconsciously into imitation of Miss Ainslie's speech. In the few words, softened, and betraying a quaint stateliness, Ruth caught a glimpse of an old-fashioned gentlewoman, reserved and yet gracious.
She folded her napkin, saying: "You make the best biscuits I ever tasted, Hepsey." The girl smiled, but made no reply.
"What makes you think Miss Ainslie has anything to do with the light?" she inquired after a little.
"'Cause there wasn't no light in that winder when I first come—leastways, not as I know of—and after I'd been here a week or so, Miss Hathaway, she come back from there one day looking kinder strange. She didn't say much; but the next mornin' she goes down to town and buys that lamp, and she saws off them table legs herself. Every night since, that light's been a-goin', and she puts it out herself every mornin' before she comes downstairs."
"Perhaps she and Miss Ainslie had been talking of shipwreck, and she thought she would have a little lighthouse of her own," Miss Thorne suggested, when the silence became oppressive.
"P'raps so," rejoined Hepsey. She had become stolid again.
Ruth pushed her chair back and stood at the dining-room window a moment, looking out into the yard. The valley was in shadow, but the last light still lingered on the hill. "What's that, Hepsey?" she asked.
"That—where the evergreen is coming up out of the ground, in the shape of a square."
"That's the cat's grave, mum. She died jest afore Miss Hathaway went away, and she planted the evergreen."
"I thought something was lacking," said Ruth, half to herself.
"Do you want a kitten, Miss Thorne?" inquired Hepsey, eagerly. "I reckon I can get you one—Maltese or white, just as you like."
"No, thank you, Hepsey; I don't believe I'll import any pets."
"Jest as you say, mum. It's sorter lonesome, though, with no cat; and Miss Hathaway said she didn't want no more."
Speculating upon the departed cat's superior charms, that made substitution seem like sacrilege to Miss Hathaway, Ruth sat down for a time in the old-fashioned parlour, where the shabby haircloth furniture was ornamented with "tidies" to the last degree. There was a marble-topped centre table in the room, and a basket of wax flowers under a glass case, Mrs. Hemans's poems, another book, called The Lady's Garland, and the family Bible were carefully arranged upon it.
A hair wreath, also sheltered by glass, hung on the wall near another collection of wax flowers suitably framed. There were various portraits of people whom Miss Thorne did not know, though she was a near relative of their owner, and two tall, white china vases, decorated with gilt, flanked the mantel-shelf. The carpet, which was once of the speaking variety, had faded to the listening point. Coarse lace curtains hung from brass rings on wooden poles, and red cotton lambrequins were festooned at the top.
Hepsey came in to light the lamp that hung by chains over the table, but Miss Thorne rose, saying: "You needn't mind, Hepsey, as I am going upstairs."
"Want me to help you unpack?" she asked, doubtless wishing for a view of "city clothes."
"No, thank you."
"I put a pitcher of water in your room, Miss Thorne. Is there anything else you would like?"
"Nothing more, thank you."
She still lingered, irresolute, shifting from one foot to the other. "Miss Thorne—" she began hesitatingly.
"Be you—be you a lady detective?" Ruth's clear laughter rang out on the evening air. "Why, no, you foolish girl; I'm a newspaper woman, and I've earned a rest—that's all. You mustn't read books with yellow covers."
Hepsey withdrew, muttering vague apologies, and Ruth found her at the head of the stairs when she went up to her room. "How long have you been with Miss Hathaway?" she asked.
"Five years come next June."
"Good night, Hepsey."
"Good night, Miss Thorne."
From sheer force of habit, Ruth locked her door. Her trunk was not a large one, and it did not take her long to put her simple wardrobe into the capacious closet and the dresser drawers. As she moved the empty trunk into the closet, she remembered the box of money that she had left in the attic, and went up to get it. When she returned she heard Hepsey's door close softly.
"Silly child," she said to herself. "I might just as well ask her if she isn't a'lady detective.' They'll laugh about that in the office when I go back."
She sat down, rocking contentedly, for it was April, and she would not have to go back until Aunt Jane came home, probably about the first of October. She checked off the free, health-giving months on her tired fingers, that would know the blue pencil and the typewriter no more until Autumn, when she would be strong again and the quivering nerves quite steady.
She blessed the legacy which had fallen into Jane Hathaway's lap and led her, at fifty-five, to join a "personally conducted" party to the Old World. Ruth had always had a dim yearning for foreign travel, but just now she felt no latent injustice, such as had often rankled in her soul when her friends went and she remained at home.
Thinking she heard Hepsey in the hall, and not caring to arouse further suspicion, she put out her light and sat by the window, with the shutters wide open.
Far down the hill, where the road became level again, and on the left as she looked toward the village, was the white house, surrounded by a garden and a hedge, which she supposed was Miss Ainslie's. A timid chirp came from the grass, and the faint, sweet smell of growing things floated in through the open window at the other end of the room.
A train from the city sounded a warning whistle as it approached the station, and then a light shone on the grass in front of Miss Ainslie's house. It was a little gleam, evidently from a candle.
"So she's keeping a lighthouse, too," thought Ruth. The train pulled out of the station and half an hour afterward the light disappeared.
She meditated upon the general subject of illumination while she got ready for bed, but as soon as her head touched the pillow she lost consciousness and knew no more until the morning light crept into her room.
II. The Attic
The maid sat in the kitchen, wondering why Miss Thorne did not come down. It was almost seven o'clock, and Miss Hathaway's breakfast hour was half past six. Hepsey did not frame the thought, but she had a vague impression that the guest was lazy.
Yet she was grateful for the new interest which had come into her monotonous life. Affairs moved like clock work at Miss Hathaway's—breakfast at half past six, dinner at one, and supper at half past five. Each day was also set apart by its regular duties, from the washing on Monday to the baking on Saturday.
Now it was possible that there might be a change. Miss Thorne seemed fully capable of setting the house topsy-turvy—and Miss Hathaway's last injunction had been: "Now, Hepsey, you mind Miss Thorne. If I hear that you don't, you'll lose your place."
The young woman who slumbered peacefully upstairs, while the rest of the world was awake, had, from the beginning, aroused admiration in Hepsey's breast. It was a reluctant, rebellious feeling, mingled with an indefinite fear, but it was admiration none the less.
During the greater part of a wondering, wakeful night, the excited Hepsey had seen Miss Thorne as plainly as when she first entered the house. The tall, straight, graceful figure was familiar by this time, and the subdued silken rustle of her skirts was a wonted sound. Ruth's face, naturally mobile, had been schooled into a certain reserve, but her deep, dark eyes were eloquent, and always would be. Hepsey wondered at the opaque whiteness of her skin and the baffling arrangement of her hair. The young women of the village had rosy cheeks, but Miss Thorne's face was colourless, except for her lips.
It was very strange, Hepsey thought, for Miss Hathaway to sail before her niece came, if, indeed, Miss Thorne was her niece. There was a mystery in the house on the hilltop, which she had tried in vain to fathom. Foreign letters came frequently, no two of them from the same person, and the lamp in the attic window had burned steadily every night for five years. Otherwise, everything was explainable and sane.
Still, Miss Thorne did not seem even remotely related to her aunt, and Hepsey had her doubts. Moreover, the guest had an uncanny gift which amounted to second sight. How did she know that all of Hepsey's books had yellow covers? Miss Hathaway could not have told her in the letter, for the mistress was not awire of her maid's literary tendencies.
It was half past seven, but no sound came from upstairs. She replenished the fire and resumed meditation. Whatever Miss Thorne might prove to be, she was decidedly interesting. It wis pleasant to watch her, to feel the subtle refinement of all her belongings, and to wonder what was going to happen next. Perhaps Miss Thorne would take her back to the city, as her maid, when Miss Hathaway came home, for, in the books, such things frequently happened. Would she go? Hepsey was trying to decide, when there was a light, rapid step on the stairs, a moment's hesitation in the hall, and Miss Thorne came into the dining-room.
"Good morning, Hepsey," she said, cheerily; "am I late?"
"Yes'm. It's goin' on eight, and Miss Hathaway allers has breakfast at half past six."
"How ghastly," Ruth thought. "I should have told you," she said, "I will have mine at eight."
"Yes'm," replied Hepsey, apparently unmoved. "What time do you want dinner?"
"At six o'clock—luncheon at half past one."
Hepsey was puzzled, but in a few moments she understood that dinner was to be served at night and supper at midday. Breakfast had already been moved forward an hour and a half, and stranger things might happen at any minute.
Ruth had several other reforms in mind, but deemed it best to wait. After breakfast, she remembered the lamp in the window and went up to put it out.
It was still burning when she reached it, though the oil was almost gone, and, placing it by the stairway, that she might not forget to have it filled, she determined to explore the attic to her heart's content.
The sunlight streamed through the east window and searched the farthest corners of the room. The floor was bare and worn, but carefully swept, and the things that were stored there were huddled together far back under the eaves, as if to make room for others.
It was not idle curiosity, but delicate sentiment, that made Ruth eager to open the trunks and dresser drawers, and to turn over the contents of the boxes that were piled together and covered with dust. The interest of the lower part of the house paled in comparison with the first real attic she had ever been in.
After all, why not? Miss Hathaway was her aunt,—her mother's only sister,—and the house was in her care. There was no earthly reason why she should not amuse herself in her own way. Ruth's instincts were against it, but Reason triumphed.
The bunches of dried herbs, hanging from the rafters and swaying back and forth in ghostly fashion, gave out a wholesome fragrance, and when she opened trunks whose lids creaked on their rusty hinges, dried rosemary, lavender, and sweet clover filled the room with that long-stored sweetness which is the gracious handmaiden of Memory.
Miss Hathaway was a thrifty soul, but she never stored discarded clothing that might be of use to any one, and so Ruth found no moth-eaten garments of bygone pattern, but only things which seemed to be kept for the sake of their tender associations.
There were letters, on whose yellowed pages the words had long since faded, a dogeared primer, and several well worn schoolbooks, each having on its fly-leaf: "Jane Hathaway, Her Book"; scraps of lace, brocade ard rustling taffeta, quilt patterns, needlebooks, and all of the eloquent treasures that a well stored attic can yield.
As she replaced them, singing softly to herself, a folded newspaper slipped to the floor. It was yellow and worn, like the letters, and she unfolded it carefully. It was over thirty years old, and around a paragraph on the last page a faint line still lingered. It was an announcement of the marriage of Charles G. Winfield, captain of the schooner Mary, to Miss Abigail Weatherby.
"Abigail Weatherby," she said aloud. The name had a sweet, old-fashioned sound. "They must have been Aunt Jane's friends." She closed the trunk and pushed it back to its place, under the eaves.
In a distant corner was the old cedar chest, heavily carved. She pulled it out into the light, her cheeks glowing with quiet happiness, and sat down on the floor beside it. It was evidently Miss Hathaway's treasure box, put away in the attic when spinsterhood was confirmed by the fleeting years.
On top, folded carefully in a sheet, was a gown of white brocade, short-waisted and quaint, trimmed with pearl passementerie. The neck was square, cut modestly low, and filled in with lace of a delicate, frosty pattern—Point d'Alencon. Underneath the gown lay piles of lingerie, all of the finest linen, daintily made by hand. Some of it was trimmed with real lace, some with crocheted edging, and the rest with hemstitched ruffles and feather-stitching.
There was another gown, much worn, of soft blue cashmere, some sea-shells, a necklace of uncut turquoises, the colour changed to green, a prayer-book, a little hymnal, and a bundle of letters, tied with a faded blue ribbon, which she did not touch. There was but one picture—an ambrotype, in an ornate case, of a handsome young man, with that dashing, dare-devil look in his eyes which has ever been attractive to women.
Ruth smiled as she put the treasures away, thinking that, had Fate thrown the dice another way, the young man might have been her esteemed and respected uncle. Then, all at once, it came to her that she had unthinkingly stumbled upon her aunt's romance.
She was not a woman to pry into others' secrets, and felt guilty as she fled from the attic, taking the lamp with her. Afterward, as she sat on the narrow piazza, basking in the warm Spring sunshine, she pieced out the love affair of Jane Hathaway's early girlhood after her own fashion.
She could see it all plainly. Aunt Jane had expected to be married to the dashing young man and had had her trousseau in readiness, when something happened. The folded paper would indicate that he was Charles Winfield, who had married some one else, but whether Aunt Jane had broken her engagement, or the possible Uncle Charles had simply taken a mate without any such formality, was a subject of conjecture.
Still, if the recreant lover had married another, would Aunt Jane have kept her treasure chest and her wedding gown? Ruth knew that she herself would not, but she understood that aunts were in a class by themselves. It was possible that Charles Winfield was an earlier lover, and she had kept the paper without any special motive, or, perhaps, for "auld lang syne."
Probably the letters would have disclosed the mystery, and the newspaper instinct, on the trail of a "story," was struggling with her sense of honour, but not for the world, now that she knew, would Ruth have read the yellowed pages, which doubtless held faded roses pressed between them.
The strings of sea-shells, and the larger ones, which could have come only from foreign shores, together with the light in the window, gave her a sudden clew. Aunt Jane was waiting for her lover and the lamp was a signal. If his name was Charles Winfield, the other woman was dead, and if not, the marriage notice was that of a friend or an earlier lover.
The explanation was reasonable, clear, and concise—what woman could ask for more? Yet there was something beyond it which was out of Miss Thorne's grasp—a tantalising something, which would not be allayed. Then she reflected that the Summer was before tier, and, in reality, now that she was off the paper, she had no business with other people's affairs.
The sun was hidden by gathering clouds and the air was damp before Ruth missed the bright warmth on the piazza, and began to walk back and forth by way of keeping warm. A gravelled path led to the gate and on either side was a row of lilac bushes, the bare stalks tipped with green. A white picket fence surrounded the yard, except at the back, where the edge of the precipice made it useless. The place was small and well kept, but there were no flower beds except at the front of the house, and there were only two or three trees.
She walked around the vegetable garden at the back of the house, where a portion of her Summer sustenance was planted, and discovered an unused gate at the side, which swung back and forth, idly, without latching. She was looking over the fence and down the steep hillside, when a sharp voice at her elbow made her jump.
"Sech as wants dinner can come in and get it," announced Hepsey, sourly. "I've yelled and yelled till I've most bust my throat and I ain't a-goin' to yell no more."
She returned to the house, a picture of offended dignity, but carefully left the door ajar for Ruth, who discovered, upon this rude awakening from her reverie, that she was very hungry.
In the afternoon, the chill fog made it impossible to go out, for the wind had risen from the sea and driven the salt mist inland. Miss Hathaway's library was meagre and uninteresting, Hepsey was busy in the kitchen, and Ruth was frankly bored. Reduced at last to the desperate strait of putting all her belongings in irreproachable order, she found herself, at four o'clock, without occupation. The temptation in the attic wrestled strongly with her, but she would not go.
It seemed an age until six o'clock. "This won't do," she said to herself; "I'll have to learn how to sew, or crochet, or make tatting. At last, I am to be domesticated. I used to wonder how women had time for the endless fancy work, but I see, now."
She was accustomed to self analysis and introspection, and began to consider what she could get out of the next six months in the way of gain. Physical strength, certainly, but what else? The prospect was gloomy just then.
"It's goin' to rain, Miss Thorne," said Hepsey, at the door. "Is all the winders shut?"
"Yes, I think so," she answered.
"Supper's ready any time you want it."
"Very well, I will come now."
When she sat down in the parlour, after doing scant justice to Hepsey's cooking, it was with a grim resignation, of the Puritan sort which, supposedly, went with the house. There was but one place in all the world where she would like to be, and she was afraid to trust herself in the attic.
By an elaborate mental process, she convinced herself that the cedar chest and the old trunks did not concern her in the least, and tried to develop a feminine fear of mice, which was not natural to her. She had just placed herself loftily above all mundane things, when Hepsey marched into the room, and placed the attic lamp, newly filled, upon the marble table.
Here was a manifest duty confronting a very superior person and, as she went upstairs, she determined to come back immediately, but when she had put the light in the seaward window, she lingered, under the spell of the room.
The rain beat steadily upon the roof and dripped from the eaves. The light made distorted shadows upon the wall and floor, while the bunches of herbs, hanging from the rafters, swung lightly back and forth when the wind rattled the windows and shook the old house.
The room seemed peopled by the previous generation, that had slept in the massive mahogany bed, rocked in the chairs, with sewing or gossip, and stood before the old dresser on tiptoe, peering eagerly into the mirror which probably had hung above it. It was as if Memory sat at the spinning-wheel, idly twisting the thread, and bringing visions of the years gone by.
A cracked mirror hung against the wall and Ruth saw her reflection dimly, as if she, too, belonged to the ghosts of the attic. She was not vain, but she was satisfied with her eyes and hair, her white skin, impervious to tan or burn, and the shape of her mouth. The saucy little upward tilt at the end of her nose was a great cross to her, however, because it was at variance with the dignified bearing which she chose to maintain. As she looked, she wondered, vaguely, if she, like Aunt Jane, would grow to a loveless old age. It seemed probable, for, at twenty-five, The Prince had not appeared. She had her work and was happy; yet unceasingly, behind those dark eyes, Ruth's soul kept maidenly match for its mate.
When she turned to go downstairs, a folded newspaper on the floor attracted her attention. It was near one of the trunks which she had opened and must have fallen out. She picked it up, to replace it, but it proved to be another paper dated a year later than the first one. There was no marked paragraph, but she soon discovered the death notice of "Abigail Winfield, nee Weatherby, aged twenty-two." She put it into the trunk out of which she knew it must have fallen, and stood there, thinking. Those faded letters, hidden under Aunt Jane's wedding gown, were tempting her with their mute secret as never before. She hesitated, took three steps toward the cedar chest, then fled ingloriously from the field.
Whoever Charles Winfeld was, he was free to love and marry again. Perhaps there had been an estrangement and it was he for whom Aunt Jane was waiting, since sometimes, out of bitterness, the years distil forgiveness. She wondered at the nature which was tender enough to keep the wedding gown and the pathetic little treasures, brave enough to keep the paper, with its evidence of falseness, and great enough to forgive.
Yet, what right had she to suppose Aunt Jane was waiting? Had she gone abroad to seek him and win his recreant heart again? Or was Abigail Weatherby her girlhood friend, who had married unhappily, and then died?
Somewhere in Aunt Jane's fifty-five years there was a romance, but, after all, it was not her niece's business. "I'm an imaginative goose," Ruth said to herself. "I'm asked to keep a light in the window, presumably as an incipient lighthouse, and I've found some old clothes and two old papers in the attic—that's all—and I've constructed a tragedy."
She resolutely put the whole matter aside, as she sat in her room, rocking pensively. Her own lamp had not been filled and was burning dimly, so she put it out and sat in the darkness, listening to the rain.
She had not closed the shutters and did not care to lean out in the storm, and so it was that, when the whistle of the ten o'clock train sounded hoarsely, she saw the little glimmer of light from Miss Ainslie's window, making a faint circle in the darkness.
Half an hour later, as before, it was taken away. The scent of lavender and sweet clover clung to Miss Hathaway's linen, and, insensibly soothed, Ruth went to sleep. After hours of dreamless slumber, she thought she heard a voice calling her and telling her not to forget the light. It was so real that she started to her feet, half expecting to find some one standing beside her.
The rain had ceased, and two or three stars, like timid children, were peeping at the world from behind the threatening cloud. It was that mystical moment which no one may place—the turning of night to day. Far down the hill, ghostly, but not forbidding, was Miss Ainslie's house, the garden around it lying whitely beneath the dews of dawn, and up in the attic window the light still shone, like unfounded hope in a woman's soul, harking across distant seas of misunderstanding and gloom, with its pitiful "All Hail!"
III. Miss Ainslie
Ruth began to feel a lively interest in her Aunt Jane, and to regret that she had not arrived in time to make her acquaintance. She knew that Miss Hathaway was three or four years younger than Mrs. Thorne would have been, had she lived, and that a legacy had recently come to her from an old friend, but that was all, aside from the discoveries in the attic.
She contemplated the crayon portraits in the parlour and hoped she was not related to any of them. In the family album she found no woman whom she would have liked for an aunt, but was determined to know the worst.
"Is Miss Hathaway's picture here, Hepsey?" she asked.
"No'm. Miss Hathaway, she wouldn't have her picter in the parlour, nohow. Some folks does, but Miss Hathaway says't'aint modest."
"I think she's right, Hepsey," laughed Ruth, "though I never thought of it in just that way. I'll have to wait until she comes home."
In the afternoon she donned the short skirt and heavy shoes of her "office rig," and started down hill to explore the village. It was a day to tempt one out of doors,—cool and bright, with that indefinable crispness which belongs to Spring.
The hill rose sheer from the highlands, which sloped to the river on the left, as she went down, and on the right to the forest. A side path into the woods made her hesitate for a moment, but she went straight on.
It was the usual small town, which nestles at the foot of a hill and eventually climbs over it, through the enterprise of its wealthier residents, but, save for Miss Hathaway's house, the enterprise had not, as yet, become evident. At the foot of the hill, on the left, was Miss Ainslie's house and garden, and directly opposite, with the width of the hill between them, was a brown house, with a lawn, but no garden except that devoted to vegetables.
As she walked through the village, stopping to look at the display of merchandise in the window of the single shop, which was also post-office and grocery, she attracted a great deal of respectful attention, for, in this community, strangers were an event. Ruth reflected that the shop had only to grow to about fifty times its present size in order to become a full-fledged department store and bring upon the town the rank and dignity of a metropolis.
When she turned her face homeward, she had reached the foot of the hill before she realised that the first long walk over country roads was hard for one accustomed to city pavements. A broad, flat stone offered an inviting resting-place, and she sat down, in the shadow of Miss Ainslie's hedge, hoping Joe would pass in time to take her to the top of the hill. The hedge was high and except for the gate the garden was secluded.
"I seem to get more tired every minute," she thought. "I wonder if I've got the rheumatism."
She scanned the horizon eagerly for the dilapidated conveyance which she had once both feared and scorned. No sound could have been more welcome than the rumble of those creaking wheels, nor any sight more pleasing than the conflicting expressions in "Mamie's" single useful eye. She sat there a long time, waiting for deliverance, but it did not come.
"I'll get an alpenstock," she said to herself, as she rose, wearily, and tried to summon courage to start. Then the gate clicked softly and the sweetest voice in the world said: "My dear, you are tired—won't you come in?"
Turning, she saw Miss Ainslie, smiling graciously. In a moment she had explained that she was Miss Hathaway's niece and that she would be very glad to come in for a few moments.
"Yes," said the sweet voice again, "I know who you are. Your aunt told me all about you and I trust we shall be friends."
Ruth followed her up the gravelled path to the house, and into the parlour, where a wood fire blazed cheerily upon the hearth. "It is so damp this time of year," she went on, "that I like to keep my fire burning."
While they were talking, Ruth's eyes rested with pleasure upon her hostess. She herself was tall, but Miss Ainslie towered above her. She was a woman of poise and magnificent bearing, and she had the composure which comes to some as a right and to others with long social training.
Her abundant hair was like spun silver—it was not merely white, but it shone. Her skin was as fresh and fair as a girl's, and when she smiled, one saw that her teeth were white and even; but the great charm of her face was her eyes. They were violet, so deep in colour as to seem almost black in certain lights, and behind them lay an indescribable something which made Ruth love her instinctively. She might have been forty, or seventy, but she was beautiful, with the beauty that never fades.
At intervals, not wishing to stare, Ruth glanced around the room. Having once seen the woman, one could not fail to recognise her house, for it suited her. The floors were hardwood, highly polished, and partly covered with rare Oriental rugs. The walls were a soft, dark green, bearing no disfiguring design, and the windows were draped with net, edged with Duchesse lace. Miss Hathaway's curtains hung straight to the floor, but Miss Ainslie's were tied back with white cord.
The furniture was colonial mahogany, unspoiled by varnish, and rubbed until it shone.
"You have a beautiful home," said Ruth, during a pause.
"Yes," she replied, "I like it."
"You have a great many beautiful things."
"Yes," she answered softly, "they were given to me by a—a friend."
"She must have had a great many," observed Ruth, admiring one of the rugs.
A delicate pink suffused Miss Ainslie's face. "My friend," she said, with quiet dignity, "is a seafaring gentleman."
That explained the rugs, Ruth thought, and the vase, of finest Cloisonne, which stood upon the mantel-shelf. It accounted also for the bertha of Mechlin lace, which was fastened to Miss Ainslie's gown, of lavender cashmere, by a large amethyst inlaid with gold and surrounded by baroque pearls.
For some little time, they talked of Miss Hathaway and her travels. "I told her she was too old to go," said Miss Ainslie,. smiling, "but she assured me that she could take care of herself, and I think she can. Even if she couldn't, she is perfectly safe. These 'personally conducted' parties are by far the best, if one goes alone, for the first time."
Ruth knew that, but she was surprised, nevertheless. "Won't you tell me about my aunt, Miss Ainslie?" she asked. "You know I've never seen her."
"Why, yes, of course I will! Where shall I begin?"
"At the beginning," answered Ruth, with a little laugh.
"The beginning is very far away, deary," said Miss Ainslie, and Ruth fancied she heard a sigh. "She came here long before I did, and we were girls together. She lived in the old house at the top of the hill, with her father and mother, and I lived here with mine. We were very intimate for a long time, and then we had a quarrel, about something that was so silly and foolish that I cannot even remember what it was. For five years—no, for almost six, we passed each other like strangers, because each was too proud and stubborn to yield. But death, and trouble, brought us together again."
"Who spoke first," asked Ruth, much interested, "you or Aunt Jane?"
"It was I, of course. I don't believe she would have done it. She was always stronger than I, and though I can't remember the cause of the quarrel, I can feel the hurt to my pride, even at this day."
"I know," answered Ruth, quickly, "something of the same kind once happened to me, only it wasn't pride that held me back—it was just plain stubbornness. Sometimes I am conscious of two selves—one of me is a nice, polite person that I'm really fond of, and the other is so contrary and so mulish that I'm actually afraid of her. When the two come in conflict, the stubborn one always wins. I'm sorry, but I can't help it."
"Don't you think we're all like that?" asked Miss Ainslie, readily understanding. "I do not believe any one can have strength of character without being stubborn. To hold one's position in the face of obstacles, and never be tempted to yield—to me, that seems the very foundation."
"Yes, but to be unable to yield when you know you should—that's awful."
"Is it?" inquired Miss Ainslie, with quiet amusement.
"Ask Aunt Jane," returned Ruth, laughing. "I begin to perceive our definite relationship."
Miss Ainslie leaned forward to put another maple log on the fire. "Tell me more about Aunt Jane," Ruth suggested. "I'm getting to be somebody's relative, instead of an orphan, stranded on the shore of the world."
"She's hard to analyse," began the older woman. "I have never been able to reconcile her firmness with her softness. She's as hard as New England granite, but I think she wears it like a mask. Sometimes, one sees through. She scolds me very often, about anything that occurs to her, but I never pay any attention to it. She says I shouldn't live here all alone, and that I deserve to have something dreadful happen to me, but she had all the trees cut down that stood on the hill between her window and mine, and had a key made to my lower door, and made me promise that if I was ill at any time, I would put a signal in my window—a red shawl in the daytime and a light at night. I hadn't any red shawl and she gave me hers.
"One night—I shall never forget it—I had a terrible attack of neuralgia, during the worst storm I have ever known. I didn't even know that I put the light in the window—I was so beside myself with pain—but she came, at two o'clock in the morning, and stayed with me until I was all right again. She was so gentle and so tender—I shall always love her for that."
The sweet voice vibrated with feeling, and Ruth's thoughts flew to the light in the attic window, but, no—it could not be seen from Miss Ainslie's. "What does Aunt Jane look like?" she asked, after a pause.
"I haven't a picture, except one that was taken a long time ago, but I'll get that." She went upstairs and returned, presently, putting an old-fashioned ambrotype into Ruth's hand.
The velvet-lined case enshrined Aunt Jane in the bloom of her youth. It was a young woman of twenty or twenty-five, seated in a straight-backed chair, with her hands encased in black lace mitts and folded in the lap of her striped silk gown. The forehead was high, protruding slightly, the eyes rather small, and very dark, the nose straight, and the little chin exceedingly firm and determined. There was an expression of maidenly wistfulness somewhere, which Ruth could not definitely locate, but there was no hint of it in the chin.
"Poor little Aunt Jane," said Ruth. "Life never would be easy for her."
"No," returned Miss Ainslie, "but she would not let anyone know."
Ruth strolled over to the window, thinking that she must be going, and Miss Ainslie still held the picture in her hand. "She had a lover, didn't she?" asked Ruth, idly.
"I-I-think so," answered the other, unwillingly. "You remember we quarrelled."
A young man stopped in the middle of the road, looked at Miss Ainslie's house, and then at the brown one across the hill. From her position in the window, Ruth saw him plainly. He hesitated a moment, then went toward the brown house. She noted that he was a stranger—there was no such topcoat in the village.
"Was his name Winfield?" she asked suddenly, then instantly hated herself for the question.
The ambrotype fell to the floor. Miss Ainslie stooped to pick it up and Ruth did not see her face. "Perhaps," she said, in a strange tone, "but I never have asked a lady the name of her friend."
Gentle as it was, Ruth felt the rebuke keenly. An apology was on her lips, but only her flushed cheeks betrayed any emotion. Miss Ainslie's face was pale, and there was unmistakable resentment in her eyes.
"I must go," Ruth said, after an awkward silence, and in an instant Miss Ainslie was herself again.
"No-you mustn't go, deary. You haven't seen my garden yet. I have planted all the seeds and some of them are coming up. Isn't it beautiful to see things grow?"
"It is indeed," Ruth assented, forgetting the momentary awkwardness, "and I have lived for a long time where I have seen nothing grow but car tracks and high buildings. May I come again and see your garden?"
"I shall be so glad to have you," replied Miss Ainslie, with a quaint stateliness. "I have enjoyed your visit so much and I hope you will come again very soon."
"Thank you—I will."
Her hostess had opened the door for her, but Ruth stood in the hall, waiting, in obedience to some strange impulse. Then she stepped outside, but something held her back-something that lay unspoken between them. Those unfathomable eyes were fixed upon her, questioning, pleading, and searching her inmost soul.
Ruth looked at her, wondering, and striving to answer the mute appeal. Then Miss Ainslie laid her hand upon her arm. "My dear," she asked, earnestly, "do you light the lamp in the attic window every night?"
"Yes, I do, Miss Ainslie," she answered, quickly.
The older woman caught her breath, as if in relief, and then the deep crimson flooded her face.
"Hepsey told me and Aunt Jane left a letter about it," Ruth continued, hastily, "and I am very glad to do it. It would be dreadful to have a ship wrecked, almost at our door."
"Yes," sighed Miss Ainslie, her colour receding, "I have often thought of 'those who go down to the sea in ships.' It is so terrible, and sometimes, when I hear the surf beating against the cliff, I—I am afraid."
Ruth climbed the hill, interested, happy, yet deeply disturbed. Miss Ainslie's beautiful, changing face seemed to follow her, and the exquisite scent of the lavender, which had filled the rooms, clung to her senses like a benediction.
Hepsey was right, and unquestionably Miss Ainslie had something to do with the light; but no deep meaning lay behind it—so much was certain. She had lived alone so long that she had grown to have a great fear of shipwreck, possibly on account of her friend, the "seafaring gentleman," and had asked Miss Hathaway to put the light in the window—that was all.
Ruth's reason was fully satisfied, but something else was not. "I'm not going to think about it any more," she said to herself, resolutely, and thought she meant it.
She ate her dinner with the zest of hunger, while Hepsey noiselessly served her. "I have been to Miss Ainslie's, Hepsey," she said at length, not wishing to appear unsociable.
The maid's clouded visage cleared for an instant. "Did you find out about the lamp?" she inquired, eagerly.
"No, I didn't, Hepsey; but I'll tell you what I think. Miss Ainslie has read a great deal and has lived alone so much that she has become very much afraid of shipwreck. You know all of us have some one fear. For instance, I am terribly afraid of green worms, though a green worm has never harmed me. I think she asked Miss Hathaway to put the lamp in the window, and possibly told her of something she had read which made her feel that she should have done it before."
Hepsey's face took on its old, impenetrable calm.
"Don't you think so?" asked Miss Thorne, after a long pause.
"It's all very reasonable, isn't it?"
In spite of the seeming assent, she knew that Hepsey was not convinced; and afterward, when she came into the room with the attic lamp and a box of matches, the mystery returned to trouble Ruth again.
"If I don't take up tatting," she thought, as she went upstairs, "or find something else to do, I'll be a meddling old maid inside of six months."
IV. A Guest
As the days went by, Ruth had the inevitable reaction. At first the country brought balm to her tired nerves, and she rested luxuriously, but she had not been at Miss Hathaway's a fortnight before she bitterly regretted the step she had taken.
Still there was no going back, for she had given her word, and must stay there until October. The months before her stretched out into a dreary waste. She thought of Miss Ainslie gratefully, as a redeeming feature, but she knew that it was impossible to spend all of her time in the house—it the foot of the hill.
Half past six had seemed an unearthly hour for breakfast, and yet more than once Ruth had been downstairs at five o'clock, before Hepsey was stiring. There was no rest to be had anywhere, even after a long walk through the woods and fields. Inaction became irritation, and each day was filled with a thousand unbearable annoyances. She was fretful, moody, and restless, always wishing herself back in the office, yet knowing that she could not do good work, even if she were there.
She sat in her room one afternoon, frankly miserable, when Hepsey stalked in, unannounced, and gave her a card.
"Mr. Carl Winfield!" Ruth repeated aloud. "Some one to see me, Hepsey?" she asked, in astonishment.
"Yes'm. He's a-waitin' on the piazzer."
"Didn't you ask him to come in?"
"No'm. Miss Hathaway, she don't want no strangers in her house."
"Go down immediately," commanded Ruth, sternly, "ask him into the parlour, and say that Miss Thorne will be down in a few moments."
Hepsey shuffled downstairs with comfortable leisure, opened the door with aggravating slowness, then said, in a harsh tone that reached the upper rooms distinctly: "Miss Thorne, she says that you can come in and set in the parlour till she comes down."
"Thank you," responded a masculine voice, in quiet amusement; "Miss Thorne is kind—and generous."
Ruth's cheeks flushed hotly. "I don't know whether Miss Thorne will go down or not," she said to herself. "It's probably a book-agent."
She rocked pensively for a minute or two, wondering what would happen if she did not go down. There was no sound from the parlour save a subdued clearing of the throat. "He's getting ready to speak his piece," she thought, "and he might as well do it now as to wait for me."
Though she loathed Mr. Carl Winfield and his errand, whatever it might prove to be, she stopped before her mirror long enough to give a pat or two to her rebellious hair. On the way down she determined to be dignified, icy, and crushing.
A tall young fellow with a pleasant face rose to greet her as she entered the room. "Miss Thorne?" he inquired.
"Yes—please sit down. I am very sorry that my maid should have been so inhospitable." It was not what she had meant to say.
"Oh, that's all right," he replied, easily; "I quite enjoyed it. I must ask your pardon for coming to you in this abrupt way, but Carlton gave me a letter to you, and I've lost it." Carlton was the managing editor, and vague expectations of a summons to the office came into Ruth's mind.
"I'm on The Herald," he went on; "that is, I was, until my eyes gave out, and then they didn't want me any more. Newspapers can't use anybody out of repair," he added, grimly.
"I know," Ruth answered, nodding.
"Of course the office isn't a sanitarium, though they need that kind of an annex; nor yet a literary kindergarten, which I've known it to be taken for, but—well, I won't tell you my troubles. The oculist said I must go to the country for six months, stay outdoors, and neither read nor write. I went to see Carlton, and he promised me a berth in the Fall—they're going to have a morning edition, too, you know."
Miss Thorne did not know, but she was much interested.
"Carlton advised me to come up here," resumed Winfield. "He said you were here, and that you were going back in the Fall. I'm sorry I've lost his letter."
"What was in it?" inquired Ruth, with a touch of sarcasm. "You read it, didn't you?"
"Of course I read it—that is, I tried to. The thing looked like a prescription, but, as nearly as I could make it out, it was principally a description of the desolation in the office since you left it. At the end there was a line or two commending me to your tender mercies, and here I am."
"Now what in the dickens have I done?" thought Winfield. "That's it exactly, Miss Thorne. I've lost my reference, and I'm doing my best to create a good impression without it. I thought that as long as we were going to be on the same paper, and were both exiles—"
He paused, and she finished the sentence for him: "that you'd come to see me. How long have you been in town?"
"'In town' is good," he said. "I arrived in this desolate, God-forsaken spot just ten days ago. Until now I've hunted and fished every day, but I didn't get anything but a cold. It was very good, of its kind—I couldn't speak above a whisper for three days."
She had already recognised him as the young man she saw standing in the road the day she went to Miss Ainslie's, and mentally asked his pardon for thinking he was a book-agent. He might become a pleasant acquaintance, for he was tall, clean shaven, and well built. His hands were white and shapely and he was well groomed, though not in the least foppish. The troublesome eyes were dark brown, sheltered by a pair of tinted glasses. His face was very expressive, responding readily to every change of mood.
They talked "shop" for a time, discovering many mutual friends, and Ruth liked him. He spoke easily, though hurriedly, and appeared to be somewhat cynical, but she rightly attributed it to restlessness like her own.
"What are you going to do on The Tribune?" she asked.
"Anything," he answered, with an indefinable shrug. "'Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.' What are you going to do?"
"The same," replied Ruth. "'Society,''Mother's Corner,''Under the Evening Lamp,' and 'In the Kitchen with Aunt Jenny.'"
He laughed infectiously. "I wish Carlton could hear you say that."
"I don't," returned Ruth, colouring faintly.
"Why; are you afraid of him?"
"Certainly I am. If he speaks to me, I'm instantly stiff with terror."
"Oh, he isn't so bad," said Winfield, reassuringly, "He's naturally abrupt, that's all; and I'll venture he doesn't suspect that he has any influence over you. I'd never fancy that you were afraid of anybody or anything on earth."
"I'm not afraid of anything else," she answered, "except burglars and green worms."
"Carlton would enjoy the classification—really, Miss Thorne, somebody should tell him, don't you think? So much innocent pleasure doesn't often come into the day of a busy man."
For a moment Ruth was angry, and then, all at once, she knew Winfield as if he had always been her friend. Conventionality, years, and the veneer of society were lightly laid upon one who would always be a boy. Some men are old at twenty, but Winfield would be young at seventy.
"You can tell him if you want to," Ruth rejoined, calmly. "He'll be so pleased that he'll double your salary on the spot."
"And you?" he asked, his eyes twinkling with fun.
"I'll be pensioned, of course."
"You're all right," he returned, "but I guess I won't tell him. Riches lead to temptation, and if I'm going to be on The Tribune I'd hate to have you pensioned."
Hepsey appeared to have a great deal of employment in the dining-room, and was very quiet about it, with long pauses between her leisurely movements. Winfield did not seem to notice it, but it jarred upon Ruth, and she was relieved when he said he must go.
"You'll come again, won't you?" she asked.
"I will, indeed."
She stood at the window, unconsciously watching him as he went down the hill with a long, free stride. She liked the strength in his broad shoulders, his well modulated voice, and his clear, honest eyes; but after all he was nothing but a boy.
"Miss Thorne," said Hepsey, at her elbow, "is that your beau?" It was not impertinence, but sheer friendly interest which could not be mistaken for anything else.
"No," she answered; "of course not."
"He's real nice-lookin', ain't he?
"Have you got your eye on anybody else?"
"Then, Miss Thorne, I don't know's you could do better."
"Perhaps not." She was thinking, and spoke mechanically. From where she stood she could still see him walking rapidly down the hill.
"Ain't you never seen him before?"
Miss Thorne turned. "Hepsey," she said, coldly, "please go into the kitchen and attend to your work. And the next time I have company, please stay in the kitchen—not in the dining-room."
"Yes'm," replied Hepsey, meekly, hastening to obey.
She was not subtle, but she understood that in some way she had offended Miss Thorne, and racked her brain vainly. She had said nothing that she would not have said to Miss Hathaway, and had intended nothing but friendliness. As for her being in the dining-room—why, very often, when Miss Hathaway had company, she was called in to give her version of some bit of village gossip. Miss Hathaway scolded her when she was displeased, but never before had any one spoken to Hepsey in a measured, icy tone that was at once lady-like and commanding. Tears came into her eyes, for she was sensitive, after all.
A step sounded overhead, and Hepsey regained her self-possession. She had heard nearly all of the conversation and could have told Miss Thorne a great deal about the young man. For instance, he had not said that he was boarding at Joe's, across the road from Miss Ainslie's, and that he intended to stay all Summer. She could have told her of an uncertain temper, peculiar tastes, and of a silver shaving-cup which Joe had promised her a glimpse of before the visitor went back to the city; but she decided to let Miss Thorne go on in her blind ignorance.
Ruth, meanwhile, was meditating, with an aggravated restlessness. The momentary glimpse of the outer world had stung her into a sense of her isolation, which she realised even more keenly than before. It was because of this, she told herself, that she hoped Winfield liked her, for it was not her wont to care about such trifles. He thought of her, idly, as a nice girl, who was rather pretty when she was interested in anything; but, with a woman's insight, influenced insensibly by Hepsey's comment, Ruth scented possibilities.
She wanted him to like her, to stay in that miserable village as long as she did, and keep her mind from stagnation—her thought went no further than that. In October, when they went back, she would thank Carlton, prettily, for sending her a friend—provided they did not quarrel. She could see long days of intimate companionship, of that exalted kind which is, possible only when man and woman meet on a high plane. "We're both too old for nonsense," she thought; and then a sudden fear struck her, that Winfield might be several years younger than she was.
Immediately she despised herself. "I don't care if he is," she thought, with her cheeks crimson; "it's nothing to me. He's a nice boy, and I want to be amused."
She went to her dresser, took out the large top drawer, and dumped its contents on the bed. It was a desperate measure, for Ruth hated to put things in order. The newspaper which had lain in the bottom of it had fallen out also, and she shook it so violently that she tore it.
Then ribbons, handkerchiefs, stocks, gloves, and collars were unceremoniously hustled back into the drawer, for Miss Thorne was at odds with herself and the world. She was angry with Hepsey, she hated Winfield, and despised herself. She picked up a scrap of paper which lay on a glove, and caught a glimpse of unfamiliar penmanship.
It was apparently the end of a letter, and the rest of it was gone. "At Gibraltar for some time," she read, "keeping a shop, but will probably be found now in some small town on the coast of Italy. Very truly yours." The signature had been torn off.
"Why, that isn't mine," she thought. "It must be something of Aunt Jane's." Another bit of paper lay near it, and, unthinkingly, she read a letter which was not meant for her.
"I thank you from my heart," it began, "for understanding me. I could not put it into words, but I believe you know. Perhaps you think it is useless—that it is too late; but if it was, I would know. You have been very kind, and I thank you."
There was neither date, address, nor signature. The message stood alone, as absolutely as some far-off star whose light could not be seen from the earth. Some one understood it—two understood it—the writer and Aunt Jane.
Ruth put it back under the paper, with the scrap of the other letter, and closed the drawer with a bang. "I hope," she said to herself, "that while I stay here I'll be mercifully preserved from finding things that are none of my business." Then, as in a lightning flash, for an instant she saw clearly.
Fate plays us many tricks and assumes strange forms, but Ruth knew that some day, on that New England hill, she would come face to face with a destiny that had been ordained from the beginning. Something waited for her there—some great change. She trembled at the thought, but was not afraid.
V. The Rumours of the Valley
"Miss Thorne," said Hepsey, from the doorway of Ruth's room, "that feller's here again." There was an unconscious emphasis on the last word, and Ruth herself was somewhat surprised, for she had not expected another call so soon.
"He's a-settin' 'n in the parlour," continued Hepsey, "when he ain't a-walkin' around it and wearin' out the carpet. I didn't come up when he first come, on account of my pie crust bein' all ready to put in the oven."
"How long has he been here?" asked Ruth, dabbing a bit of powder on her nose and selecting a fresh collar.
"Oh, p'raps half an hour."
"That isn't right, Hepsey; when anyone comes you must tell me immediately. Never mind the pie crust next time." Ruth endeavoured to speak kindly, but she was irritated at the necessity of making another apology.
When she went down, Winfield dismissed her excuses with a comprehensive wave of the hand. "I always have to wait when I go to call on a girl," he said; "it's one of the most charming vagaries of the ever-feminine. I used to think that perhaps I wasn't popular, but every fellow I know has the same experience."
"I'm an exception," explained Ruth; "I never keep any one waiting. Of my own volition, that is," she added, hastily, feeling his unspoken comment.
"I came up this afternoon to ask a favour of you," he began. "Won't you go for a walk with me? It's wrong to stay indoors on a day like this."
"Wait till I get my hat," said Ruth, rising.
"Fifteen minutes is the limit," he called to her, as she went upstairs.
She was back again almost immediately, and Hepsey watched them in wide-mouthed astonishment as they went down hill together, for it was not in her code of manners that "walking out" should begin so soon. When they approached Miss Ainslie's he pointed out the brown house across from it, on the other side of the hill.
"Yonder palatial mansion is my present lodging," he volunteered, "and I am a helpless fly in the web of the 'Widder' Pendleton."
"Pendleton," repeated Ruth; "why, that's Joe's name."
"It is," returned Winfield, concisely. "He sits opposite me at the table, and wonders at my use of a fork. It is considered merely a spear for bread and meat at the 'Widder's.' I am observed closely at all times, and in some respects Joe admires me enough to attempt imitation, which, as you know, is the highest form of flattery. For instance, this morning he wore not only a collar and tie, but a scarf pin. It was a string tie, and I've never before seen a pin worn in one, but it's interesting."
"It must be."
"He has a sweetheart," Winfield went on, "and I expect she'll be dazzled."
"My Hepsey is his lady love," Ruth explained.
"What? The haughty damsel who wouldn't let me in? Do tell!"
"You're imitating now," laughed Ruth, "but I shouldn't call it flattery."
For a moment, there was a chilly silence. Ruth did not look at him, but she bit her lip and then laughed, unwillingly. "'It's all true," she said, "I plead guilty."
"You see, I know all about you," he went on. "You knit your brows in deep thought, do not hear when you are spoken to, even in a loud voice, and your mail consists almost entirely of bulky envelopes, of a legal nature, such as came to the 'Widder' Pendleton from the insurance people."
"Returned manuscripts," she interjected.
"Possibly—far be it from me to say they're not. Why, I've had 'em myself."
"You don't mean it!" she exclaimed, ironically.
"You seek out, as if by instinct, the only crazy person in the village, and come home greatly perturbed. You ask queer questions of your humble serving-maid, assume a skirt which is shorter than the approved model, speaking from the village standpoint, and unhesitatingly appear on the public streets. You go to the attic at night and search the inmost recesses of many old trunks."
"Yes," sighed Ruth, "I've done all that."
"At breakfast you refuse pie, and complain because the coffee is boiled. Did anybody ever hear of coffee that wasn't boiled? Is it eaten raw in the city? You call supper 'dinner,' and have been known to seek nourishment at nine o'clock at night, when all respectable people are sound asleep. In your trunk, you have vainly attempted to conceal a large metal object, the use of which is unknown."
"Oh, my hapless chafing-dish!" groaned Ruth.
"Chafing-dish?" repeated Winfield, brightening visibly. "And I eating sole leather and fried potatoes? From this hour I am your slave—you can't lose me now!
"Go on," she commanded.
"I can't—the flow of my eloquence is stopped by rapturous anticipation. Suffice it to say that the people of this enterprising city are well up in the ways of the wicked world, for the storekeeper takes The New York Weekly and the 'Widder' Pendleton subscribes for The Fireside Companion. The back numbers, which are not worn out, are the circulating library of the village. It's no use, Miss Thorne—you might stand on your hilltop and proclaim your innocence until you were hoarse, and it would be utterly without effect. Your status is definitely settled."
"How about Aunt Jane?" she inquired. "Does my relationship count for naught?"
"Now you are rapidly approaching the centre of things," replied the young man. "Miss Hathaway is one woman in a thousand, though somewhat eccentric. She is the venerated pillar of the community and a constant attendant it church, which it seems you are not. Also, if you are really her niece, where is the family resemblance? Why has she never spoken of you? Why have you never been here before? Why are her letters to you sealed with red wax, bought especially for the purpose? Why does she go away before you come? Lady Gwendolen Hetherington," he demanded, with melodramatic fervour, "answer me these things if you can!"
"I'm tired," she complained.
"Delicate compliment," observed Winfield, apparently to himself. "Here's a log across our path, Miss Thorne; let's sit down."
The budded maples arched over the narrow path, and a wild canary, singing in the sun, hopped from bough to bough. A robin's cheery chirp came from another tree, and the clear notes of a thrush, with a mottled breast, were answered by another in the gold-green aisles beyond.
"Oh," he said, under his breath, "isn't this great!"
The exquisite peace of the forest was like that of another sphere. "Yes," she answered, softly, "it is beautiful."
"You're evading the original subject," he suggested, a little later.
"I haven't had a chance to talk," she explained. "You've done a monologue ever since we left the house, and I listened, as becomes inferior and subordinate woman. I have never seen my venerated kinswoman, and I don't see how she happened to think of me. Nevertheless, when she wrote, asking me to take charge of her house while she went to Europe, I gladly consented, sight unseen. When I came, she was gone. I do not deny the short skirt and heavy shoes, the criticism of boiled coffee, nor the disdain of breakfast pie. As far is I know, Aunt Jane is my only living relative."
"That's good," he said, cheerfully; "I'm shy even of an aunt. Why shouldn't the orphans console one another?"
"They should," admitted Ruth; "and you are doing your share nobly."
"Permit me to return the compliment. Honestly, Miss Thorne," he continued, seriously, "you have no idea how much I appreciate your being here. When I first realised what it meant to be deprived of books and papers for six months at a stretch, it seemed as if I should go mad. Still, I suppose six months isn't as bad as forever, and I was given a choice. I don't want to bore you, but if you will let me come occasionally, I shall be very glad. I'm going to try to be patient, too, if you'll help me—patience isn't my long suit."
"Indeed I will help you," answered Ruth, impulsively; "I know how hard it must be."
"I'm not begging for your sympathy, though I assure you it is welcome." He polished the tinted glasses with a bit of chamois.. and his eyes filled with the mist of weakness before he put them on again. "So you've never seen your aunt," he said.
"No—that pleasure is still in store for me."
"They say down at the 'Widder's' that she's a woman with a romance."
"Tell me about it!" exclaimed Ruth, eagerly.
"Little girls mustn't ask questions," he remarked, patronisingly, and in his most irritating manner. "Besides, I don't know. If the 'Widder' knows, she won't tell, so it's fair to suppose she doesn't. Your relation does queer things in the attic, and every Spring, she has an annual weep. I suppose it's the house cleaning, for the rest of the year she's dry-eyed and calm."
"I weep very frequently," commented Ruth.
"'Tears, idle tears—I wonder what they mean.'"
"They don't mean much, in the case of a woman."
"I've never seen many of'em," returned Winfield, "and I don't want to. Even stage tears go against the grain with me. I know that the lady who sobs behind the footlights is well paid for it, but all the same, it gives me the creeps."
"It's nothing serious—really it isn't," she explained. "It's merely a safety valve. If women couldn't cry, they'd explode."
"I always supposed tears were signs of sorrow," he said.
"Far from it," laughed Ruth. "When I get very angry, I cry, and then I got angrier because I'm crying and cry harder."
"That opens up a fearful possibility. What would happen if you kept getting angrier because you were crying and crying harder because you got angrier?"
"I have no idea," she answered, with her dark eyes fixed upon him, "but it's a promising field for investigation."'
"I don't want to see the experiment."
"Don't worry," said Ruth, laconically, "you won't."
There was a long silence, and Winfield began to draw designs on the bare earth with a twig. "Tell me about the lady who is considered crazy," he suggested.
Ruth briefly described Miss Ainslie, dwelling lovingly upon her beauty and charm. He listened indifferently at first, but when she told him of the rugs, the real lace which edged the curtains, and the Cloisonne vase, he became much interested.
"Take me to see her some day, won't you," he asked, carelessly.
Ruth's eyes met his squarely. "'T isn't a 'story,'" she said, resentfully, forgetting her own temptation.
The dull colour flooded his face. "You forget, Miss Thorne, that I am forbidden to read or write."
"For six months only," answered Ruth, sternly, "and there's always a place for a good Sunday special."
He changed the subject, but there were frequent awkward pauses and the spontaniety was gone. She rose, adjusting her belt in the back, and announced that it was time for her to go home.
On their way up the hill, she tried to be gracious enough to atone for her rudeness, but, though he was politeness itself, there was a difference, and she felt as if she had lost something. Distance lay between them—a cold, immeasurable distance, yet she knew that she had done right.
He opened the gate for her, then turned to go. "Won't you come in?" she asked, conventionally.
"No, thank you—some other time, if I may. I've had a charming afternoon." He smiled pleasantly, and was off down the hill.
When she remembered that it was a Winfield who had married Abigail Weatherby, she dismissed the matter as mere coincidence, and determined, at all costs, to shield Miss Ainslie. The vision of that gracious lady came to her, bringing with it a certain uplift of soul. Instantly, she was placed far above the petty concerns of earth, like one who walks upon the heights, untroubled, while restless surges thunder at his feet.
VI. The Garden
Miss Thorne wrote an apology to Winfield, and then tore it up, thereby gaining comparative peace of mind, for, with some natures, expression is the main thing, and direction is but secondary. She was not surprised because he did not come; on the contrary, she had rather expected to be left to her own devices for a time, but one afternoon she dressed with unusual care and sat in state in the parlour, vaguely expectant. If he intended to be friendly, it was certainly time for him to come again.
Hepsey, passing through the hall, noted the crisp white ribbon at her throat and the bow in her hair. "Are you expectin' company, Miss Thorne?" she asked, innocently.
"I am expecting no one," answered Ruth, frigidly, "I am going out."
Feeling obliged to make her word good, she took the path which led to Miss Ainslie's. As she entered the gate, she had a glimpse of Winfield, sitting by the front window of Mrs. Pendleton's brown house, in such a dejected attitude that she pitied him. She considered the virtuous emotion very praiseworthy, even though it was not deep enough for her to bestow a cheery nod upon the gloomy person across the way.
Miss Ainslie was unaffectedly glad to see her, and Ruth sank into an easy chair with something like content. The atmosphere of the place was insensibly soothing and she instantly felt a subtle change. Miss Ainslie, as always, wore a lavender gown, with real lace at the throat and wrists. Her white hair was waved softly and on the third finger of her left hand was a ring of Roman gold, set with an amethyst and two large pearls.
There was a beautiful serenity about her, evident in every line of her face and figure. Time had dealt gently with her, and except on her queenly head had left no trace of his passing. The delicate scent of the lavender floated from her gown and her laces, almost as if it were a part of her, and brought visions of an old-time garden, whose gentle mistress was ever tranquil and content. As she sat there, smiling, she might have been Peace grown old.
"Miss Ainslie," said Ruth, suddenly, "have you ever had any trouble?"
A shadow crossed her face, and then she answered, patiently, "Why, yes—I've had my share."
"I don't mean to be personal," Ruth explained, "I was just thinking."
"I understand," said the other, gently. Then, after a little, she spoke again:
"We all have trouble, deary—it's part of life; but I believe that we all share equally in the joy of the world. Allowing for temperament, I mean. Sorrows that would crush some are lightly borne by others, and some have the gift of finding great happiness in little things.
"Then, too, we never have any more than we can bear—nothing that has not been borne before, and bravely at that. There isn't a new sorrow in the world—they're all old ones—but we can all find new happiness if we look in the right way."
The voice had a full music, instinct with tenderness, and gradually Ruth's troubled spirit was eased. "I don't know what's the matter with me," she said, meditatively, "for I'm not morbid, and I don't have the blues very often, but almost ever since I've been at Aunt Jane's, I've been restless and disturbed. I know there's no reason for it, but I can't help it."
"Don't you think that it's because you have nothing to do? You've always been so busy, and you aren't used to idleness."
"Perhaps so. I miss my work, but at the same time, I haven't sense enough to do it."
"Poor child, you're tired—too tired to rest."
"Yes, I am tired," answered Ruth, the tears of nervous weakness coming into her eyes.
"Come out into the garden."
Miss Ainslie drew a fleecy shawl over her shoulders and led her guest outdoors. Though she kept pace with the world in many other ways, it was an old-fashioned garden, with a sun-dial and an arbour, and little paths, nicely kept, that led to the flower beds and circled around them. There were no flowers as yet, except in a bed of wild violets under a bay window, but tiny sprigs of green were everywhere eloquent with promise, and the lilacs were budded.
"That's a snowball bush over there," said Miss Ainslie, "and all that corner of the garden will be full of roses in June. They're old-fashioned roses, that I expect you wouldn't care for-blush and cinnamon and sweet briar—but I love them all. That long row is half peonies and half bleeding-hearts, and I have a bed of columbines under a window on the other side of the house. The mignonette and forget-me-nots have a place to themselves, for I think they belong together—sweetness and memory.
"There's going to be lady-slippers over there," Miss Ainslie went on, "and sweet william. The porch is always covered with morning-glories—I think they're beautiful and in that large bed I've planted poppies, snap-dragon, and marigolds. This round one is full of larkspur and bachelor's buttons. I have phlox and petunias, too—did you ever see a petunia seed?"
Ruth shook her head.
"It's the tiniest thing, smaller than a grain of sand. When I plant them, I always wonder how those great, feathery petunias are coming out of those little, baby seeds, but they come. Over there are things that won't blossom till late—asters, tiger-lilies and prince's feather. It's going to be a beautiful garden, deary. Down by the gate are my sweet herbs and simples—marjoram, sweet thyme, rosemary, and lavender. I love the lavender, don't you?"
"Yes, I do," replied Ruth, "but I've never seen it growing."
"It's a little bush, with lavender flowers that yield honey, and it's all sweet—flowers, leaves, and all. I expect you'll laugh at me, but I've planted sunflowers and four-o'clocks and foxglove."
"I won't laugh—-I think it's lovely. What do you like best, Miss Ainslie?"
"I love them all," she said, with a smile on her lips and her deep, unfathomable eyes fixed upon Ruth, "but I think the lavender comes first. It's so sweet, and then it has associations—"
She paused, in confusion, and Ruth went on, quickly: "I think they all have associations, and that's why we love them. I can't bear red geraniums because a cross old woman I knew when I was a child had her yard full of them, and I shall always love the lavender," she added, softly, "because it makes me think of you."
Miss Ainslie's checks flushed and her eyes shone. "Now we'll go into the house," she said, "and we'll have tea."
"I shouldn't stay any longer," murmured Ruth, following her, "I've been here so long now."
"'T isn't long," contradicted Miss Ainslie, sweetly, "it's been only a very few minutes."
Every moment, the house and its owner took on new beauty and charm. Miss Ainslie spread a napkin of finest damask upon the little mahogany tea table, then brought in a silver teapot of quaint design, and two cups of Japanese china, dainty to the point of fragility.
"Why, Miss Ainslie," exclaimed Ruth, in surprise, "where did you get Royal Kaga?"
Miss Ainslie was bending over the table, and the white hand that held the teapot trembled a little. "They were a present from—a friend," she answered, in a low voice.
"They're beautiful," said Ruth, hurriedly.
She had been to many an elaborate affair, which was down on the social calendar as a "tea," sometimes as reporter and often as guest, but she had found no hostess like Miss Ainslie, no china so exquisitely fine, nor any tea like the clear, fragrant amber which was poured into her cup.
"It came from China," said Miss Ainslie, feeling the unspoken question. "I had a whole chest of it, but it's almost all gone."
Ruth was turning her cup and consulting the oracle. "Here's two people, a man and a woman, from a great distance, and, yes, here's money, too. What is there in yours?"
"Nothing, deary, and besides, it doesn't come true."
When Ruth finally aroused herself to go home, the old restlessness, for the moment, was gone. "There's a charm about you," she said, "for I feel as if I could sleep a whole week and never wake at all."
"It's the tea," smiled Miss Ainslie, "for I'm a very commonplace body."
"You, commonplace?" repeated Ruth; "why, there's nobody like you!"
They stood at the door a few moments, talking aimlessly, but Ruth was watching Miss Ainslie's face, as the sunset light lay caressingly upon it. "I've had a lovely time," she said, taking another step toward the gate.
"So have I—you'll come again, won't you?" The sweet voice was pleading now, and Ruth answered it in her inmost soul. Impulsively, she came back, threw her arms around Miss Ainslie's neck, and kissed her. "I love you," she said, "don't you know I do?"
The quick tears filled Miss Ainslie's eyes and she smiled through the mist. "Thank you, deary," she whispered, "it's a long time since any one has kissed me—a long time!"
Ruth turned back at the gate, to wave her hand, and even at that distance, saw that Miss Ainslie was very pale.
Winfield was waiting for her, just outside the hedge, but his presence jarred upon her strangely, and her salutation was not cordial.
"Is the lady a friend of yours?" he inquired, indifferently.
"She is," returned Ruth; "I don't go to see my enemies—do you?"
"I don't know whether I do or not," he said, looking at her significantly.
Her colour rose, but she replied, sharply: "For the sake of peace, let us assume that you do not."
"Miss Thorne," he began, as they climbed the hill, "I don't see why you don't apply something cooling to your feverish temper. You have to live with yourself all the time, you know, and, occasionally, it must be very difficult. A rag, now, wet in cold water, and tied around your neck—have you ever tried that? It's said to be very good."
"I have one on now," she answered, with apparent seriousness, "only you can't see it under my ribbon. It's getting dry and I think I'd better hurry home to wet it again, don't you?"
Winfield laughed joyously. "You'll do," he said.
Before they were half up the hill, they were on good terms again. "I don't want to go home, do you?" he asked.
"Home? I have no home—I'm only a poor working girl."
"Oh, what would this be with music! I can see it now! Ladies and gentlemen, with your kind permission, I will endeavour to give you a little song of my own composition, entitled:'Why Has the Working Girl No Home!'"
"You haven't my permission, and you're a wretch."
"I am," he admitted, cheerfully, "moreover, I'm a worm in the dust."
"I don't like worms."
"Then you'll have to learn."
Ruth resented his calm assumption of mastery. "You're dreadfully young," she said; "do you think you'll ever grow up?"
"Huh!" returned Winfield, boyishly, "I'm most thirty."
"Really? I shouldn't have thought you were of age."
"Here's a side path, Miss Thorne," he said, abruptly, "that seems to go down into the woods. Shall we explore? It won't be dark for an hour yet."
They descended with some difficulty, since the way was not cleat, and came into the woods at a point not far from the log across the path. "We mustn't sit there any more," he observed, "or we'll fight. That's where we were the other day, when you attempted to assassinate me."
"I didn't!" exclaimed Ruth indignantly.
"That rag does seem to be pretty dry," he said, apparently to himself. "Perhaps, when we get to the sad sea, we can wet it, and so insure comparative calm."
She laughed, reluctantly. The path led around the hill and down from the highlands to a narrow ledge of beach that lay under the cliff. "Do you want to drown me?" she asked. "It looks very much as if you intended to, for this ledge is covered at high tide."
"You wrong me, Miss Thorne; I have never drowned anything."
His answer was lost upon her, for she stood on the beach, under the cliff, looking at the water. The shimmering turquoise blue was slowly changing to grey, and a single sea gull circled overhead.
He made two or three observations, to which Ruth paid no attention. "My Lady Disdain," he said, with assumed anxiety, "don't you think we'd better go on? I don't know what time the tide comes in, and I never could look your aunt in the face if I had drowned her only relative."
"Very well," she replied carelessly, "let's go around the other way."
They followed the beach until they came to the other side of the hill, but found no path leading back to civilisation, though the ascent could easily be made.
"People have been here before," he said; "here are some initials cut into this stone. What are they? I can't see."
Ruth stooped to look at the granite boulder he indicated. "J. H.," she answered, "and J. B."
"It's incomplete," he objected; "there should be a heart with an arrow run through it."
"You can fix it to suit yourself," Ruth returned, coolly, "I don't think anybody will mind." She did not hear his reply, for it suddenly dawned upon her that "J. H." meant Jane Hathaway.
They stood there in the twilight for some little time, watching the changing colours on the horizon and then there was a faint glow on the water from the cliff above. Ruth went out far enough to see that Hepsey had placed the lamp in the attic window.
"It's time to go," she said, "inasmuch as we have to go back the way we came."
They crossed to the other side and went back through the woods. It was dusk, and they walked rapidly until they came to the log across the path.
"So your friend isn't crazy," he said tentatively, as he tried to assist her over it.
"That depends," she replied, drawing away from him; "you're indefinite."
"Forgot to wet the rag, didn't we?" he asked. "I will gladly assume the implication, however, if I may be your friend."
"Kind, I'm sure," she answered, with distant politeness.
The path widened, and he walked by her side. "Have you noticed, Miss Thorne, that we have trouble every time we approach that seemingly innocent barrier? I think it would be better to keep away from it, don't you?"
"What initials were those on the boulder? J. H. and—"
"I thought so. 'J. B.' must have had a lot of spare time at his disposal, for his initials are cut into the 'Widder' Pendleton's gate post on the inner side, and into an apple tree in the back yard."
"Did you know Joe and Hepsey were going out to-night?"
"No, I didn't—they're not my intimate friends."
"I don't see how Joe expects to marry on the income derived from the village chariot."
"Have they got that far?"
"I don't know," replied Winfield, with the air of one imparting a confidence. "You see, though I have been in this peaceful village for some little time, I have not yet arrived at the fine distinction between 'walking out, 'settin' up,' and 'stiddy comp'ny.' I should infer that 'walking out' came first, for 'settin' up' must take a great deal more courage, but even 1, with my vast intellect, cannot at present understand 'stiddy comp'ny.'"
"Joe takes her out every Sunday in the carriage," volunteered Ruth, when the silence became awkward.
"In the what?"
"Carriage—haven't you ridden in it?"
"I have ridden in them, but not in it. I walked to the 'Widder's,' but if it is the conveyance used by travellers, they are both 'walking out' and 'settin' up.'"
They paused at the gate. "Thank you for a pleasant afternoon," said Winfield. "I don't have many of them."
"You're welcome," returned Ruth, conveying the impression of great distance.
Winfield sighed, then made a last desperate attempt. "Miss Thorne," he said, pleadingly, "please don't be unkind to me. You have my reason in your hands. I can see myself now, sitting on the floor, at one end of the dangerous ward. They'll smear my fingers with molasses and give me half a dozen feathers to play with. You'll come to visit the asylum, sometime, when you're looking for a special, and at first, you won't recognise me. Then I'll say: 'Woman, behold your work,' and you'll be miserable all the rest of your life."
She laughed heartily at the distressing picture, and the plaintive tone of his voice pierced her armour. "What's the matter with you?" she asked.
"I don't know—I suppose it's my eyes. I'm horribly restless and discontented, and it isn't my way."
Then Ruth remembered her own restless weeks, which seemed so long ago, and her heart stirred with womanly sympathy. "I know," she said, in a different tone, "I've felt the same way myself, almost ever since I've been here, until this very afternoon. You're tired and nervous, and you haven't anything to do, but you'll get over it."
"I hope you're right. I've been getting Joe to read the papers to me, at a quarter a sitting, but his pronunciation is so unfamiliar that it's hard to get the drift, and the whole thing exasperated me so that I had to give it up."
"Let me read the papers to you," she said, impulsively, "I haven't seen one for a month."
There was a long silence. "I don't want to impose upon you," he answered—"no, you mustn't do it."
Ruth saw a stubborn pride that shrank from the slightest dependence, a self-reliance that would not falter, but would steadfastly hold aloof, and she knew that in one thing, at least, they were kindred.
"Let me," she cried, eagerly; "I'll give you my eyes for a little while!"
Winfield caught her hand and held it for a moment, fully understanding. Ruth's eyes looked up into his—deep, dark, dangerously appealing, and alight with generous desire.