His mother was still sitting in the porch, and he became at once conscious of a change in her appearance. As she looked up in pleased expectancy, he recognized the cause, and his sternness vanished instantly, as he said, "How fine we look to-night," and half sitting on the little foot-bench beside her, and half kneeling, he touched the soft lace, and gently kissed the withered cheek whose blood was still not so far from the surface but that it could return in answer to the caress, while she looked yearningly into the eyes that even now were hardly on a level with hers, as if searching for the cause of what might be troubling him. Yet she only said, as they rose and went indoors, "I put on your gifts for you, at our first supper together," adding with an unconsciousness that made Horace smile in spite of himself,—"besides, I shouldn't wonder if some of the neighbours might drop in to see us, for it must have got about by this time that you've come home; the mail carrier saw you drive out this morning, I'm quite sure."
Neighbours did call; some from pure friendliness, others to see if "Horace acted set up by his new callin' and fortune," and still others, who had been to the Bluffs that afternoon, to tell of the wonders of the festival, their praise or condemnation varying according to age, until Mrs. Bradford was at a loss whether to think the affair a spectacle of fairyland or a vision of the bottomless pit, and Horace was in torment lest he should be appealed to for an opinion, which he was presently. "What did he think of the tea room? Was Mrs. Latham painted? Was she Sylvia's mother, or step-mother, and if she was the former, didn't she act dreadful giddy for the mother of grown children? And didn't he think Sylvia was just sweet, so different from the rest, and sort of sad, as if she had a step-mother, as people said, and was sat on?" The questioner being the very woman for whom Sylvia had taken such pains in selecting the bouquet of specimen roses, who proved to be the new wife of a neighbour whom Horace had not met.
It seemed to Horace that his mother purposely looked away from him as he tried to pull himself together, and answer nonchalantly that he believed that Mrs. Latham was Sylvia's own mother, though she did appear very young, and that of course she was acting the part of a Geisha girl, a tea-seller, which would account for her sprightly manner, etc., unconsciously putting what he wished in the place of what he knew, adding with a heartiness that almost made his voice tremble that Miss Sylvia certainly did seem different, and as if she was no kin of her mother's.
"I guess, then, likely it isn't her step-mother, but that she's worried in her mind about her beau," continued the loquacious woman, pleased at having such a large audience for her news. "I heard some folks say,—when I was waitin' about for my cream, and havin' a good look at all the millionnaires, which they didn't mind, but seemed to expect, the same bein' fair enough, seein' as it's what I paid to go in for,—that the man they call Mr. Bell, that's been hangin' around the Bluffs since spring, is courtin' her steady, but she can't seem to make up her mind. Thinks I to myself, I don't wonder, for I've had a good look at him, and he's well over forty, and though he dresses fine, from his eyes I wouldn't trust him, if he was a pedler, even to weigh out my rags and change 'em for tin, without I'd shook the scales well first. The same folks was sayin' that he's a grass widower, anyway, and I shouldn't think her folks would put up with that, fixed as they be, yet they do say," and here her voice dropped mysteriously, "that Mrs. Latham's a kind of grass widder herself, for her husband hasn't turned up in all the year she's been here, and nobody's so much as seen his name to a check."
At this point Mrs. Bradford made an effort to turn the conversation into other channels; for friendly as she always was with her neighbours of all degrees, she never allowed unkind gossip in her house, and only a newcomer would have ventured upon it. As it was, the loquacious one felt the rebuke in the air, and made hasty adieus on the plea of having to set bread, leaving the rest to talk to their host of themselves, their pleasure at his return, and the local interests of Pine Ridge.
When they had all gone, Horace locked the back door, after filling an old yellow and bronze glazed pitcher, which bric-a-brac hunters would have struggled for, at the well, as he had done every night during his boyhood, he left it on the hall table, and going out the front way to the garden, walked up and down the long straight walk, between the sweet peas and rose bushes, for more than an hour, until, having fought to no conclusion the battle into which a new foe had entered, he returned to the house and went noiselessly to his room.
Here, in place of the confusion he had left, quiet and order reigned. All his clothes were laid away in their old places. He had but to reach his hand inside the closet, the door of which hesitated before opening in its familiar way, to find his night gear; the sheets were turned down at the exact angle, and the pillows arranged one crosswise, one upright, as he liked them,—his mother's remembering touch was upon everything.
He undressed without striking a light, and lay down, only to look wakefully out at the dark lattice of tree branches against the moonlit sky. Presently a step sounded on the stairs and paused at his partly open door. He raised himself on his elbow, and peering through the crack saw his mother standing there in night-dress and short sack, shading the candle with her hand as she used when he was a little chap, to make sure that he was safe asleep and had not perhaps crept out the window to go coon hunting with the bigger boys,—a proceeding his father always winked at, but which she feared would lead him to overdo and get a fever.
"I'm here, mother," he said cheerfully.
"Are you quite comfortable, Horace? Is there nothing that you want?"
He hesitated a moment, and then said frankly, "Yes and no, mother."
"Is it anything that I can do for you?" she asked, coming into the room and smoothing his hair as she spoke.
"Ah, that is the no of it, and the hard part," he answered, capturing the hand and holding it tight between his own.
"And the hard part for your old mother too, when the one thing comes that she cannot give or do. Whatever it is, don't shut me out from it, Horace,—that is, unless you must," and tucking the light summer quilt in Under the pillow by one of his hands, she kissed his forehead and went away.
Horace Bradford must have slept, for his next consciousness was of the fresh wind and light of morning, and as he drew his cramped hand from under his pillow, something soft and filmy came with it,—a woman's handkerchief edged with lace.
For a minute he held it in surprise, and then began to search the corners for the marking. There it was, two embroidered initials, S.L. Where had it dropped from? Who had put it there? Was it a message or an accident? Yet it was both and neither. His mother had found the dainty thing in the package from New York that held the gown and ornaments, where it had dropped from Sylvia's waist that night, four months before, when she stood leaning on Miss Lavinia Dorman's table, as the parcel was being tied.
Mrs. Bradford had pondered over it silently until, the day when I went to see her and chanced to mention Sylvia Latham's name, its identity flashed upon her; and when gropingly she came to associate this name with something that troubled Horace, obliterating self and mother jealousy, she tucked the bit of linen underneath his pillow, with an undefined idea, knowing nothing, in the hope that it might comfort him. And so it did; for even when he learned the manner of its coming, he put it in his letter case as a reminder not to despair but wait.
* * * * *
When a week had passed and the matter of the divorce had been well aired, discussed, and was no longer a novelty to her neighbours on the Bluffs, Mrs. Latham's plan of soon closing her cottage and transferring the servants to Newport, with the exception of the stable men and a couple of caretakers, was announced, as she was going abroad for the baths. The same day Lavinia Dorman received an urgent note from Sylvia, asking her "when and where she could see her alone, if, as she thought likely, she did not feel inclined to come to the house." The tone of the brief note showed that Sylvia felt the whole matter to be a keen disgrace that not only compromised herself but her friends.
Of course Miss Lavinia went, and would have gone even if she had to combat Mrs. Latham, for whom she asked courteously at the door; but that lady, for some reason, did not choose to appear and run the gantlet, and sent an elaborate message about a sick headache by the now somewhat crestfallen Perkins. Presently Sylvia slipped into the morning room, and crouching by Miss Lavinia, buried her face in her friend's lap, the tension at last giving way, and it was some time before she grew quiet enough to talk coherently, and tell her plan, which is this: she wishes Miss Lavinia to take the Alton cottage (which is furnished) at the foot of the Bluffs, for the rest of the season, and live there with her. Then as soon as Mrs. Latham has gone, and the poor girl has steadied herself, her father, to whom she has already written, will come, and what she will do in the autumn will be arranged. Everything is as yet vague; but one thing she has decided for herself—under no circumstances will she again live with her mother, and she is now staying quietly in the house and taking her meals in her room, in order to give the scandalmongers and gossips as little material as possible.
Lavinia Dorman, who readily consented to do as she asked, says that Sylvia is brave and heartbroken at the same time, that all her girlish spontaneity has gone, and she is like a statue.
I am so sorry to have Miss Lavinia go, even a few hundred yards down the road, it has seemed so good to have an older woman in the house to whom I can say, "Would you, or wouldn't you?" Martin is also quite upset, and has stopped writing and begun fumbling and pulling the reference books about again; but Miss Lavinia says that she is not going to give up the afternoon reading, for she thinks the history is a work of importance not to be slighted, and that Sylvia will doubtless take up her own reading and practising after a time; that while she herself has willingly consented to chaperon her, she does not intend to give up her own freedom, nor would it be good for Sylvia if she did.
Yesterday morning Miss Lavinia received a letter from Sylvester Latham, thanking her for the offer of temporary protection for his daughter, and telling her, in curt business terms, meant to be affable, to name her own price for the office.
I have never before seen the ladylike Lavinia Dorman so completely and ungovernably angry. I could do nothing with her, and last evening it took the united efforts of Martin, father, and Evan to convince her that it was not a real affront. Poor Mr. Latham, he has not yet gotten beyond money valuation of friendship; but then it is probably because he has had no chance. Perhaps—but no, life is too serious just now in that quarter for me to allow myself remotely pleasant perhapses.
Miss Lavinia was too agitated to play piquet to-night, so she and Martin sat in the porch where the light from the hall lamp was sufficient to enable them to play a couple of games of backgammon, to steady her nerves, she said; and presently, as the dice ceased rattling, Evan gave me a nudge of intelligence, and looking over I found that they had reversed the board and were playing "Give away" with checkers.
"After this, what?" I whispered to Evan.
"Jackstraws," he answered, shaking with silent laughter.
* * * * *
Horace Bradford turned his mind for the next few days to the many things about the place that needed his attention, resolving that he would let a week or so elapse before making any further attempt to see Sylvia, and in that time hoped to find Miss Lavinia at home, and from her possibly receive some light upon the gossip about Mr. Bell, as well as news of Sylvia herself.
The sinking-fund for repairs and rebuilding the house that he and his mother had been accumulating ever since he had made his own way, he found to be in a healthy condition. A new hay barn and poultry house was to be put up at once; and, as soon as practicable, his wish of many years, to restore the brick house, that had been marred by "lean-tos" in the wrong places, to its colonial simplicity, could be at least begun.
Every day until two or three o'clock in the afternoon he gave to these affairs, and then he went to his books. But here again he met with a strange surprise, a new sensation,—he could neither fix his mind upon writing, nor take in what he read; the letters were as meaningless as fly specks on the pages. After a day or two he gave up the attempt. He had worked too closely during the last term, he thought; his sight did not register on his brain,—he had heard of such cases; he would rest a week or so.
Then every afternoon he walked over the Ridge to the little river in the valley, carrying a book in his pocket, and his fishing-rod as a sort of excuse, and poling an old flatboat down-stream to a shady spot under the trees, propped his rod in place, where by a miracle he occasionally caught a perch or bass, sat looking idly into the water, the brim of an old felt hat turned down about his eyes. One day, near the week's end, as he was lounging thus, his eye was attracted by a headline in a bit of newspaper in which he had wrapped his bait box to save his pocket. It was a semi-local paper from town, one that his mother took, but which they seldom either of them read, and the date was three days back. He turned it over idly, pausing as he did so to pull up the line which was being jerked violently, but only by a mud eel. Why did he return again to the scrap of paper when he had freed his hook? His eyes caught strange words, and his hands began to tremble as he read. It was the condensed report of the Latham divorce that was now going the rounds of the journals.
He paused a moment, then folded the paper, put it in his pocket, poled the boat with vigorous strokes to the landing-place, and strode through the woods and across the cornfields homeward, his heart beating tumultuously until he seemed almost to be struggling with suffocation.
He stopped at the barn and harnessed a horse to the old buggy, passing by the new one that he had recently ordered from town, and then went into the house, where, taking off his slouchy fishing clothes, he put on the same ceremonious afternoon wear that he would have worn at Northbridge if going to call, put Sylvia's handkerchief in his inner pocket, and went in search of his mother.
He found her in the kitchen, tying the covers upon countless jars of currant jam. She looked surprised to see him back at such an hour, but said nothing, as Esther Nichols was close by, employed in wiping off the jars.
"I'm going over to Oaklands for a drive," he said, handing her the scrap of newspaper with a gesture that meant silence.
"Shall I wait supper for you, or will you be late?" she said, touching his hand with a gesture almost of entreaty.
"I may be late, but—yes, you may wait supper," he replied, looking back at her in going out, as if he wanted to carry the picture well forward in his mind, against any forgetfulness.
The miles between Pine Ridge and the Bluffs seemed endless. He had at first intended to go to Oaklands village to see Miss Lavinia and gather such tidings as he could of the calamity that had overtaken Sylvia; for he never for a moment questioned but that the girl, who had been entirely straightforward, even in days of college pranks, should so regard the matter. But as he drove along, and the very fact that he was moving toward a definite end calmed him and clarified his judgment, he resolved to go directly to Sylvia herself. He would certainly do this if he had seen the announcement of her parents' deaths; then why not now, when their love that gave her birth was officially and publicly declared extinct?
He drove through the wide gateway and left his horse standing by a stone pillar outside the porte-cochere,—the beast would stand anywhere if there was a bar or post for him to look at,—and walked up the steps with the air of one who is not to be gainsaid.
"Not at home," replied the singsong voice of Perkins, in answer to Bradford's demand for Miss Latham, Potts and Parker having already gone to open the Newport house for the renter, as a staff of servants was let with it, and then he added, as if conferring a favour, "and Mrs. Latham has gone on the coach to the station to meet some guests, the last 'ouse party before she sails."
"Before she sails," thought Bradford, numbly. Sylvia was going? Could he believe the man? Should he go through the formality of leaving a card that she might not get? No, he would go home and write a letter.
Sylvia kept the house until late in the afternoon, these days. Then she slipped out by the servants' stairway, and through the garden, to walk in the wood lane that ran northward, joining the two parallel highroads; for her healthy body needed air, and she knew that if she did not have it, she could not control herself to keep peaceful silence for even the few days that remained. So it chanced this afternoon that she was walking to and fro in the quiet lane where the ferns crept down quite to the grassy wheel tracks, when Perkins said those repellent words, "Not at home."
As Bradford turned out the gate and noticed that the sun was already setting, he thought to save time by cutting through the almost unused lane to the turnpike that led directly to Pine Ridge. He had driven but halfway across, when a flutter of light garments a little way ahead attracted him. Could it be? Yes, it was Sylvia, in truth, and at the moment that he recognized her and sprang to the ground she heard the approaching hoofs and turned. For a full minute neither spoke nor moved, then going quickly to her and stretching out both hands, he said, his heart breaking through his voice, "I have been to see you. I did not know until to-day."
She gave her hands, and in another moment his strong arms held her fast and unresisting—the purifying friendship of those unconscious years crystallized and perfected at love's first touch.
They said but very little as they walked up and down the lane together, for half an hour; but as the shadows lengthened, the thought came equally to both—"What should they do next? How could they part, and yet how stay together?" Horace, with man's barbarian directness, would have liked to bear her home to safety and his mother; but the shadow of usage and her mother stood between, for in spite of the hollow mockery of it all, Sylvia was still of her household.
"I must take you home," he said at last, "and to-morrow I will come—all shall be arranged."
"To-night," she whispered, clasping his arm in nervous terror. "Come back with me and tell her to-night; then I shall feel sure, and not as if it was not real. And when you have told her,—before whoever may be there, remember,—go home; do not stop to listen to anything she may say."
They drove slowly back, and went up the steps to the house, from which voices and laughter came, hand in hand, like two children; but they were children no longer when they crossed the threshold and saw Monty Bell in the group that loitered with Mrs. Latham in the reception hall, waiting for dinner to be announced.
Sylvia's thin gown was wet with dew, her hair was tossed about, her eyes big with excitement, and a red spot burned in each cheek in startling contrast to her pallor—all of which gave her a wild and unusual beauty that absolutely startled as well as shocked her mother, letting her think for a second that Sylvia was going to make a scene, had gone mad, perhaps, and run away, and that the tall man holding her by the hand had found her and brought her home.
Taking a few hasty steps forward, and dreading anything disagreeably tragic, she said: "Mr. Bradford, I believe. What is it? What has happened?"
"Only this, that Miss Sylvia has promised to be my wife, and that, as her mother, we have come to tell you of it before I go home to tell my own." Horace Bradford drew himself up to every inch of his full height as he spoke, bowed to Mrs. Latham, then led Sylvia to the foot of the stairs, saying, "Until to-morrow," and walked quietly out of the house.
No one spoke. Then Mrs. Latham, choking with rage, feeling herself helplessly at bay (Sylvia was of age, and she could not even assume authority under the circumstances), collapsed on a divan in modified hysterics, and Monty Bell, completely thunderstruck, finally broke the silence by his characteristic exclamation, "I'll be damned!"
* * * * *
After their belated supper, when Esther Nichols had gone over to a neighbour's, Horace, sitting by his mother's side, out in the honeysuckled porch, where the sphinx moths whirred like humming-birds of night, holding her hands in his, told her all. And she, stifling the mother pain that, like a birth pang, expected yet dreaded, must come at first when the other woman, no matter how welcome, steps between, folded his hands close, as if she held him again a baby in her arms, and said, smiling through vague tears, "To-morrow we will go together to her, my blessed son."
"I cannot ask you to do that; there are reasons—I will bring Sylvia to you later, when her mother has gone," he answered hastily, resolving that he would do anything to shield her self-respect from the possible shock of meeting that other mother.
"Horace, you forget yourself, and your father too," she said almost sternly. "I am country bred, but still I know the world's ways. Your father's wife will go first to greet her who will be yours; you need not fear for me," and he sat silent.
That next afternoon, when Horace's first and last love met, they looked into each other's hearts and saw the same image there, while Mrs. Latham lay on the lounge in her room, raging within, that again her tongue had failed her in her own house, and realizing that, woman of the world as she aimed to be, the "egg woman" had rendered her helpless by mere force of homely courtesy. Presently she rose, and railing and scolding the bewildered maid, sent a message to New York to transfer her passage, if possible, to an earlier steamer.
GOSSIP AND THE BUG HUNTERS
July 18. It is such a deadly sin to marry outside of the limited set that is socially registered, that I now understand why many of the Whirlpoolers are mentally inbred, almost to the vanishing point, so that they have lost the capacity of thinking for themselves, and must necessarily follow a leader.
Sylvia Latham's engagement to Horace Bradford has caused a much greater sensation than her mother's divorce. To be sure, every one who has met Horace, not only fails to find anything objectionable about him, but accords him great powers of attraction; yet they declare in the same breath that the affair will not do for a precedent, and deplore its radical influence.
To-day we have settled down to midsummer quiet and to a period of silence after much talking. The Bluffs are quite deserted except by a bevy of children left with governesses while their parents are yachting or in Europe, and the servants in charge of the various houses. But a trail of discontent is left behind, for these servants, by their conspicuous idleness, are having a very demoralizing effect upon the help in the plain houses hereabout, who are necessarily expected to do more work for lower wages.
I am fully realizing, also, that the excitement of living other people's lives, which we cannot control, through sympathetic imagination, is even more wearing than meeting one's own responsibilities. A certain amount of separateness—I use the word in an entirely opposite meaning to that of aloofness—is, I find, necessary to every member of our household, and this chance for intimacy with oneself is a luxury denied to those who live all their lives taking joy and sorrow equally in a crowd.
Even the boys, young as they are, recognize it unconsciously, and have separate tree lairs, and neither may enter the other's, without going through some mysterious and wonderful ceremony and sign language, by which permission is asked and granted.
There are often days when father sits in his study with closed door or drives over the hills without desire for even the boys as companions. This need not signify that he is either ill or worried,—it is simply the need of separateness. The same thing applies to Evan when he sometimes slips out through the garden at night, without word or sign, and is only traceable by the beacon his cigar point makes, as he moves among the trees, until this also vanishes, while my attic corner and the seat at the end of the wild walk offer me similar relief.
At least the attic did until Martin Cortright, at my own invitation, established a rival lair at the opposite end. I did not think that it would matter, the presence of this quiet man barricaded by his books and papers, but it does, because the charm of isolation is destroyed. I would not have done otherwise, however; I have all outdoors, and he will have returned to New York to find winter quarters, and arrange for the publication of the first volume of his history when autumn and shut-in time draws near.
Mrs. Latham sailed last week, and Sylvia is now in New York visiting her father at his hotel and arranging her future plans. To-morrow she returns, and together with Lavinia Dorman goes to the Alton cottage until late August or early September, when her wedding is expected to take place.
At the last moment Mrs. Latham changed her plan of leaving the Bluff cottage in the charge of servants, had all her personal belongings moved away, and offered the place for sale.
"Yes, my dear," said Mrs. Jenks-Smith, who, being a sort of honorary stewardess of the Colony, usually remains a full week after the breaking-up time, and frequently runs in to report progress, "she's not coming back; being divorced she doesn't need to claim residence here. The place is so convenient to town, too, but I can't really blame her,—though of course I'm glad poor Sylvia's to be happy in her own way, and all that, for it's plain to be seen with one eye she's too slow to go her mother's pace—you couldn't expect Vivvy Latham, over all the hurdles but one, and almost at the end of the race, to relish her daughter's mother-in-law being in the egg trade in the very neighbourhood.
"At first everybody thought that the Bradfords, mother and son, would probably give up work and float on Sylvester J. Latham's money, for they say (to spite Vivvy, most likely) he took to Horace Bradford at the first, for what did the young fellow do but go straight to town and look Sylvester up, and make a clean breast of it before the gossips could even twist their tongues around the affair.
"Sylvester thought he could handle Bradford to suit himself, move him to New York, jam him into business, cut up the farm in house lots, reorganize his affairs, and declare a dividend out of him for his own benefit, as he does with lame railroads,—but not a bit of it!
"'With what you may choose to do for Sylvia personally, it would be selfish for me to interfere; but our way of living can only be planned upon the basis of what I earn,' said Horace, looking Mr. Latham in the face, and he's a big man too,—Sylvia gets her height from him.
"It rather knocked Sylvester out, because it was a kind of spunk he'd never met, and he told Jenks-Smith about it. Thought they didn't speak? Oh yes, they're thick again, just now, over some kind of a deal.
"Did you know Jenks-Smith had bought Vivvy's house here? Yes, the deed was passed the day she sailed. We've got to keep the Bluffs select, you know, and if the house was put on the market, goodness knows who might buy it, just to get in with us.
"Mr. Latham had an idea of taking it and giving it to Sylvia, but they wouldn't have that either,—are just fixing up the old house a bit, and going to summer at the farm, while the old lady will keep on selling eggs the same as ever. Not but what she's a thoroughbred all right, though in a cheap stable. I was down at Vivvy's the day she came to call on Sylvia! Just as quiet and cool, except that her hands in the openwork silk mits shook, as if her son was a duke. I thought there would be a lively row, and I wished myself out of it, but Vivvy hadn't a chance to strike out until the old lady got up to go, then she only said: 'You must not understand that I approve of Sylvia's folly, or in any way give my consent to this rash engagement. I cannot prevent it, that is all.'
"The old lady's eyes flashed, and I thought, now for it; but she only looked Vivvy through and through, and said very clearly: 'Most brides are better for their mother's blessing, but under the circumstances I think we prefer to do without it.'"
Well-meaning Lady of the Bluffs, I'm really acquiring a sort of affection for her in spite of her crudity. If all the Whirlpoolers were like her, the pool might be a noisy torrent, but never a dangerous one.
* * * * *
This is Lavinia Dorman's last day with me, and I know she is really sorry to go, in spite of a sort of pleasurable responsibility and excitement she feels in managing Sylvia's affairs for a time.
She waked up with a bad headache—a rare thing for her—and after breakfast seemed so forlorn and blue that I coaxed her into my room and petted her for a while, almost as I would one of the children; and as she no longer conceals the fact of the false front from me, I took it off, brushed and brushed her lovely hair until it grew supple and alive, and began to glisten, and the pain gradually slipped through it into the air; then I drew it up cushionwise from her forehead and coiled it loosely on top, and she, declaring that my fingers had a magic touch, spent the rest of the morning at my desk in writing letters.
The lovable woman who has no one specially to love her is a common tragedy of everyday life. Strangely enough it more often draws ridicule than sympathy, and it seems to be always considered the woman's own fault, instead of a combination of circumstances, woven often of self-sacrifice, mistaken duty, and the studied suppression of natural emotions.
I think that both Miss Lavinia and Martin Cortright dread the going back to their old existence, and yet I am not sure that either of them would consent to change it in any way, in spite of their growlings at the modern conditions of life in New York. They have learned to lean upon the very restrictions that cramp them, until the idea of cutting free seems as impossible as for the bulky woman to sever the stay-lace that at once suffocates and supports her.
Martin Cortright stayed to luncheon to-day. Not that it is an unusual occurrence, but he wished to have a long afternoon to finish reading a certain portion of his manuscript to Miss Lavinia before her flitting in the morning.
We were seated at the table when she came in hurriedly, apologizing for being late, saying that she had become so absorbed in finishing her letters that she did not realize that it was even noon. I did not look at her particularly until a few moments later, when Martin, after fussing with his bread a good deal, looked up and said, with a charming smile, "What a very becoming gown you have on to-day, Miss Lavinia."
"Yes," said father, "I was thinking precisely the same thing myself, so you see that in spite of our condemning your sex for paying so much attention to clothes, we men are the first to note the result of them."
Miss Lavinia looked puzzled. She was too much the politic woman of the world to say that the dimity gown was the same one that she had worn for the two or three days previous; besides, the fact would have cast a doubt upon their judgment, and she was particular in all such little details of good breeding; so she parried the compliment deftly, and straightway fell to pondering as to what circumstance the remark might refer. Glancing toward the open window, she caught a reflection of herself where the glass, backed by the dark green curtain, made a mirror. She had forgotten to rearrange her hair, and her burnished silver-shot locks remained rolled back lightly from her white forehead without the ugly, concealing front! I rejoiced inwardly, for the spontaneous tribute to the improvement by those two dear, stupid, discriminating men, has settled the fronts in a way in which no arguments of mine could, for to-night she came to dinner not only with her own emancipated hair, but wearing a bit of red geranium stuck fetchingly in the puff.
* * * * *
August 1. Sylvia has returned, and Miss Lavinia has gone to her, Lucy and the portly cook having arrived from New York last night, in company with Josephus, confined in a large hamper borrowed from the fishmonger, in the top of which a ventilator had been introduced. Josephus was naturally indignant when first let out, and switched his tail in wrath, declining to recognize his mistress, and starting to explore the house like an evil spirit. This morning I found him calmly perched on our woodshed roof, gazing wickedly at the boys' banty chickens in the coop below. I predict that he gets into trouble, unless his silver collar, like a badge of aristocracy, protects him. But what can you expect of a misguided Whirlpool cat, whose only conception of a bird is a dusty street sparrow, when he meets face to face the delicious and whetting elusiveness of a banty chick or a young robin.
Poor Sylvia is nervously tired out, and the month's rest will be a real boon. Her plans are quite settled, and there is nothing for her to do but rest until the time comes to carry them out. She and Horace are to be married the last week in August, so that they will have time for a Canadian trip before College begins and they return to settle down in a scrap of a house in Northbridge.
August seems to be considered an unusual month for a wedding; but it suits the circumstances, and as Sylvia has decided to be married quite privately here at Oaklands, for her own sake, as well as for Mrs. Bradford's convenience, she wisely wishes to have it over before the possible return of the Whirlpoolers.
Horace had hoped that his mother would join them in Northbridge, but she said "No," very firmly, adding, with a quaint, twinkling smile, "Horace, nobody ever loved each other closer than your father and I, but there were times in the beginning when ever so well meaning a third finger in our pie would have spoiled the baking. Best leave old mother on the farm until by and by, when she can't tell a fresh egg from a bad one any longer."
So Horace comes down twice a week to visit Sylvia, and Miss Lavinia often drives to Pine Ridge with her and leaves her for a day, so that Mrs. Bradford may share the pleasant woman's talk of linen for table and bed, and other details of a bridal outfit.
We all missed Miss Lavinia when she left, that is, all but the boys, and they hailed the change with joy, as giving them another house to roam in and out of. How much of the joy of childhood that we so envy comes from their freedom from prejudice, the ability they have for adapting themselves.
Martin was so distrait for a time that father absolutely ventured to tease him a little, whereupon he turned stoutly about and declared: "I have never denied the inspiration and value of congenial female society, and the mere fact that circumstances have shut me from it so much of late years makes me all the more appreciative of present privileges. Oh, Dick, old friend, isn't it some credit to a man who has lived backward almost from his birth, if, after he's sixty, he realizes it and tries to catch up with the present? It seems to me as if the best things had always been just within my grasp, only to slip away again, through unforeseen circumstances, and my ill luck reminds me of a story and picture in a comic paper that the boys were chuckling over last night. It was of a well-intentioned beetle who fattened a nice green caterpillar for its family's thanksgiving dinner, and the thing went and spun itself into a cocoon the night before!"
Martin Cortright at times verges on the pathetic, but always cures himself by his appreciation of his own limitations before he reaches the bore stage. He too is taking a short vacation from work, or rather I should say that he has developed industry in a new direction and become absorbed in entomology, to the extent of waging war on the tent caterpillars that are disfiguring both the orchards and the wild cherry trees of the highways with their untidy filmy nests, leaving the foliage prematurely brown and sere, from their ravages. Yesterday, in driving home from Pine Ridge with Sylvia, we noticed that even the wood edges had the appearance of being scorched by fire, and many of the old orchards where we go in May for apple blossoms are wrecks meshed in the treacherous slimy webs.
Martin's methods are regular and very simple, but he goes about his task each day as if the matter was a marvel of military strategy. First he puts a book ostentatiously in one pocket and a flask of alcohol in the other. Next he takes his torch, consisting of a piece of sponge wired to an old rake handle, which he keeps on the back stoop, and makes sure that it is tight and secure, finally searching me out to say that in case he meets Miss Lavinia, have I any message for her.
Why he does not keep his outfit up at Martha's I do not know; perhaps because of Timothy's keen tongue.
Miss Lavinia, after her morning housekeeping is over, takes her work bag to the narrow cottage porch and apparently gives herself up to the task of making pin-cushions for Sylvia or embroidering initials on napery. Suddenly she will get up, say that her feet are falling asleep and that she needs a walk to restore her circulation. Will Sylvia go with her? Sylvia, after pretending to consider, thinks not, making some excuse of its being too warm or that she expects Horace that day. Presently two prim people walking in opposite directions meet and, taking the same path, may be seen any morning along the less frequented roads and orchard paths, sometimes repairing the torch that has a constant tendency to lose its head, sometimes watching the destruction by fire of an unusually wicked worm city, and frequently with their heads stuck into some suspicious bush, where they appear to be watching invisible things with breathless interest.
Father and I chanced upon them when thus employed the other morning. Martin turned about and in the most serious manner began to dilate upon the peculiarities of worms in general and particular, as well as of the appropriateness of their study by the book collector, as the score and a half insects that injure books and their bindings are not worms at all, having none of the characteristics of the veritable book worm Sitodrepa panicea, to all of which Miss Lavinia listened with devout attention.
"What makes them act so?" I said, half to myself, as we drove on, and father stopped shaking with laughter. "There isn't the slightest reason why they should not go to walk together; why do they manoeuvre with all the transparency of ostriches?"
"It's another manifestation of suppressed youth," said father, wiping his eyes, "upon the principle that the boy would rather slip out of the window to go coasting at night than ask leave and walk out publicly, and that when a young girl begins to grow romantic, she often takes infinite pains to go round the back way to meet some one who is quite welcome at the front door. When young folks have not had a chance to do these things, and the motive for them lies dormant, heaven alone knows how or when it will break loose."
Others, however, have observed, and the "Bug Hunters" has now come to be the local nickname of these two most respectable middle-aged people with ancestors.
Josephus, who has been leading a sporting life for many days, or rather nights, has at last returned minus his long tail with which he used to express his displeasure in such magnificent sweeps. Miss Lavinia is in tears, and wishes to have a reward offered for the apprehension of the doer of the deed.
Evan says that if she does, and thus acknowledges the cat as hers, she may be deluged with bills for poultry, as he has been hearing weird tales on the train, such as are often current among commuters who are not zoologists, of a great black lynx that has been invading chicken coops and killing for pleasure, as his victims are usually left on the ground. Thus has country freedom corrupted the manners of a polite cat, and at the same time a hay knife (probably) has rendered him tailless.
* * * * *
August 20. Summer is at high tide. How I dread its ebbing; yet even now the hastening nights are giving warning. Evan has been taking a vacation, and we have spent many days, we four, following the northward windings of the river in a wide, comfortable boat and lunching in the woods. We are pagans these days, basking in the sun, cooling in the shade, and living a whole life between sunrise and sunset. The boys are showing unconscious kinship with wood things, and getting a wholesome touch of the earth in their thoughts.
I am sure that the mind often needs a vacation more than the body, and yet the condition of change that bears the name of rest frequently merely gives the head fresh work.
How far away the Whirlpool and its people seem as we sit perhaps on one of the many tiny river islands enjoying this time separateness, not as individuals, but as a family, for the whirl of the pool is tiresome even to watch. I have felt old these last three months, and I suppose it is a still further carrying out of the allegory and penalty of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge; only the discipline does seem a little hard when, having no desire either to pluck or taste the apple, one stands actually away with hands safely behind back, and yet has the fruit absolutely thrust between unwilling lips.
Even the feathered things about us are in this mood; their family life is over, the companionship of fall travel has not begun, and the woods are full of moulting birds choosing this separateness in preparation for the tension of new flight and its perils. Everything, in short, in wild nature has its corresponding note in our own humanity,—the sweating of the corn, the moulting of the bird, the contraction of the earth by frost, all have a kindred season or experience in the heart.
Then, too, the August nights—so heavy with the intensity of sleep that is akin to sleeplessness, broken by peremptory thunder voices and searching lightning, or again enveloped by moonlight that floods the room—shut out the world until, kneeling in its tide between the little white beds, I can feel the refrain of that hymn of mother's that father taught me long ago to say to myself in the night when she had gone away from sight and I was lonely:—
"Father, on thy heart I lean When the world comes not between."
* * * * *
August 30. Sylvia and Horace were married under sunshine yesterday in the little chantry of the church that is used in winter and for week-day services. To-day the cold northeasterly storm has come, under cover of which August so often disappears and September enters the marshes upon the wings of low-flying plovers, to the discordant call of the first waterfowl of the return migration.
Mr. Latham came to the wedding. In fact, he has been here several times during the month. He is a well-built man, under sixty, dark and taciturn, and would be handsome but for the hard expression of his face.
His attitude toward the world has seemed to be one of perpetual parry and self-defence; of course he may have good reason for this distrust, or, as Evan says, he may have brought the necessity upon himself by his constant severity of attack on others. Yesterday I partly changed my mind about him. He evidently once had tender feelings, but, from what cause who can say, they have in some way been compressed and frozen until they exist only as hurts.
Sylvia was married in bridal white. She had wished to wear a travelling gown and go away from the chantry door, but Miss Lavinia argued her out of the notion, saying, "Horace has the right to a pretty bride, even if you do not care." It would have taken but very little, after the strain of the last two months, to make Sylvia morbid and old beyond her years, her one thought seeming to be to get away from the surroundings of the past year and begin to live anew.
Our group, and a dozen friends of the Bradfords, including some from Northbridge who belonged to both, filled the little chapel which Horace, Martin, and Evan had trimmed with flowers wholly from our garden. At the last moment, Mrs. Jenks-Smith, whom we thought abroad, dashed up in a depot hack, perspiring and radiant, her smart gown having a most peculiar and unnatural looking promontory on the chest. "No, my dear, I'm not in Carlsbad. Jenks-Smith was called back on business, and I sniffed the wedding in the air and hooked on,—only arrived last night. Have you seen the papers? Hush, I'll tell you later," and her voice sank into an awed whisper, and she gave a startled look as the bride entered on her father's arm, with Ian and Richard as her only attendants. Having heard so much talk of marrying and of weddings, they had asked Sylvia to let them be "bridesmaids," and it seemed she really wanted them. Their faces were solemn to the verge of comedy as they walked hand in hand before her, their feet in brand-new pumps, keeping step and pointing out carefully, while their evident satisfaction brought a smile like a ray of belated sunshine to the face of the serious bride.
I watched Mr. Latham, usually so immovable, during the ceremony as he stepped back from the altar into the shadows, when he left Sylvia finally with Horace. His shoulders lost their squareness, his head drooped; but when I saw that it was to hide the tears that filled his eyes, I looked away. Father says he has seen this type of man, contracted by money-getting, hardened by selfish misunderstanding, recover himself, soften, and grow young again at the transforming touch of grandchildren. Who knows, Sylvia may find her childhood's father again some day.
When we went back to the cottage for luncheon, the bump in Mrs. Jenks-Smith's corsage was removed, and proved to be a gift for Sylvia,—a thick leather case, holding a rich neck ornament of diamonds, a sort of collar with pendants, for the Lady of the Bluffs is nothing if not generous.
"I got it in this way without paying a cent of duty," she said in a stage whisper to Miss Lavinia and me in the hall, as she struggled to release the box, wrenching off a waist hook or two as she did so.
"Jenks-Smith said it didn't look natural, and I'd surely be spotted, but I said I'd like to see mere hired men try to tell a lady how stout or how thin she had a right to be. Almost too gorgeous for a professor's wife? Not a bit; Miss Lavinia, you're not advanced. Nobody knows nowadays, at the launching, how anybody's going to turn out,—whether they'll sink or float,—and diamonds are an all-right cargo, anyway. If she moves up, she can wear 'em, if she slumps, she can sell 'em, and if she just drifts along on the level, she can look at 'em once in a time. No, my dear, diamonds are a consolation that no woman can afford to miss."
Considering her usual careless good nature, it seemed to me that Mrs. Jenks-Smith was very fussy during the luncheon, ill at ease, and strangely anxious to hurry the departure of Sylvia and Horace. The guests, all but ourselves, left first, then Mr. Latham, who went upstairs to take leave of his daughter alone. When Sylvia finally came down, her colour had returned and she looked her radiant self again as she kissed Miss Lavinia and Mrs. Bradford, and went down the steps holding Horace, not by the arm, but clinging to his hand.
As the carriage disappeared around the bend of the road, and as we stood looking at one another, feeling for a second the reaction and the sense of an empty house that always follows the going of a bride, the Lady of the Bluffs sank into a deep chair exclaiming, "Thank the Lord, they've gone!"
"Why, what is it? Are you ill?" cried father, who was just leaving, coming quickly to her side.
"It's this. I wanted to get her started north ahead of it. When she comes back she won't care so much," she replied incoherently, pulling a scrap of a morning newspaper from her card-case and holding it out at random for the nearest one to take. Father caught it from her hand, and going to the window, read aloud in slow, precisive accents of astonishment:—
"AN EVENT OF INTEREST TO NEW YORK SOCIETY.
"(SPECIAL CABLE TO NEW YORK HERALD.)
"LONDON, Aug. 29.—Yesterday the marriage took place of Montgomery Bell to Mrs. Vivian Latham, both of New York. The wedding, at the registrar's and quite informal, was followed by a breakfast given the couple by Mrs. Center—who chanced, with several other intimates of the American colony, to be in the city en route to the German baths,—at her apartment which she always keeps in readiness for occupancy. Mr. Bell, who is a member of all the best clubs, is known socially as the 'Indispensable.' Mr. and Mrs. Bell will return to New York in November and open their magnificent house at Central Park East with a series of the delightful entertainments which they both so well know how to render unique."
September 8. Three lowering days of wind and rain, and Summer, after a feigned departure, has returned to complete her task of perfecting.
She does this year after year—the marvel is that we are ever deceived; but after all, what is it but the conflict between arbitrary and natural law? The almanac-maker says that on the first day of September autumn is due. Nature, the orbit-maker, proclaims it summer until, the month three-quarters old, the equinox is crossed. Nature is always right, and after the usual breezy argument sends Summer, her garments a bit storm-tattered, perchance, back to her own.
The ill wind that dashed the tall auratum lilies in the garden to the ground, stripped the clinging fingers of the sweet peas from their trellis, and decapitated the heavy-headed dahlias, has blown me good, held me indoors awhile, sent me to my attic confessional once more, with conscience for priest, and the twins for acolytes, though they presently turned catechists with an entirely new series of questions.
When I have not opened my desk or my garden book for some time, and the planting season, be it of spring or of autumn, as now, overtakes me unawares, I am always newly convinced that gardening is the truly religious life, for it implies a continual preparation for the future, a treading in the straight and narrow path that painful experience alone can mark, an absorption beyond compare, and the continual exercise of hope and love, but above all, of entire childlike faith.
When the time had come in the creative evolution for the stamping of the perfected animal with the Divine image that forever separates him from all previous types, it was no wonder that God set man, in whom the perpetual struggle between the body and soul was to take place, in a garden for his education.
* * * * *
Recently the boys have been absorbed in their little printing press, which they have established in my attic corner, the present working motive having come from the card announcing Sylvia's marriage to the world in general, according to Mr. Latham's desire. Richard secured one of these and busied himself an entire morning in setting it in type, for the first time in his experience getting the capitals and small letters in their proper places. The result was so praiseworthy that Evan hunted up a large box of ornamental cards for them in town, and for two days they have been "filling orders" for every one in the household.
I print the names they wish to copy very distinctly in big letters. Richard does the type-setting, which is altogether too slow work for Ian, who, as pressman, does the inking and printing, and in the process has actually learned his tardy letters. As to the distributing and cleaning of the type, I find a little assistance is gratefully accepted, even by patient Richard, whose dear little pointed fingers by this time have become tired, and fumble.
To-day, having exhausted the simple family names, they have tried combinations and experiments with the words Mr., Mrs., and Miss, much to their own amusement, "Miss Timothy Saunders" being considered a huge joke.
Suddenly Ian looked up with one of his most compelling, whimsical smiles, and said, "Barbara, grandpop's Mrs. was grandma, and she's in heaven, but where is Mrs. Uncle Martin?"
Rather startled, I said that I didn't know,—that there had never been any Mrs. Uncle Martin.
"Why not?" persisted Ian, an answer that is simply an acknowledgment of ignorance never being accepted by a child. Before I could think Richard chirped out: "But Aunt Lavinia hasn't any Mr. for her card neiver, and Martha, she said the other day that there was a Mr. and a Mrs. for everybody, only sometimes they couldn't find each other for ever so long. She told that to Effie, and I heard her."
A short pause, and then Ian jumped up, clapping his hands with joy, as the solution of the problem flashed across him.
"I know what's happened, Barbara; maybe Uncle Martin's Mrs. and Aunt Lavinia's Mr. has gone and got lost together, and some day they'll find it out and bring each ovver back! Do you think they will, so we can have some more weddings and pink ice cream, and couldn't we hurry up and help find them? I guess we better print him some Mrs. cards so as in case."
I had drifted into gardening work on paper again, and I believe I said that he had better ask Uncle Martin what he thought about the matter, and at that moment the bell rang for luncheon.
The ringing of bells for meals in this house is what Lavinia Dorman calls "a relic of barbarism," that she greatly deplores; but as I tell her, our family gathers from so many points of the compass that if the maid announced the meals, she would have to be gifted with the instinct of a chaser of strayed freight cars.
Ian's queries have brought up a subject that has deluded and eluded my hopes all summer, and has finally ended in the people that I hoped would drift through the doorway of one of my most substantial air castles refusing so to do, or else being too blind to see the open door.
Martin and Lavinia are the best possible friends, have been constantly in each other's society, see from nearly the same point of view, and both agree and disagree upon the same subjects, but they have not settled the question of loneliness of living as I hoped, by making the companionship permanent, via matrimony.
Of course, I did not expect them to fall in love exactly as Evan and I or Horace and Sylvia did—that belongs to spring and summer; still, I thought that when they started worm-hunting together, and played checkers every evening, that they were beginning to find each other mutually indispensable, at least.
But no. Martin stored away his papers in the old desk, and went to New York a week ago to see several suites of bachelor apartments that had been offered him.
He writes this morning that he has found one to his liking, and will return to-night, if he may, and stay over to-morrow to pack his things. Meanwhile Miss Lavinia has sent her maids to clean and open her house in "Greenwich Village," and will go home on Monday, spending her final Sunday with me. Josephus went with the maids; the country had a demoralizing effect upon him.
Miss Lavinia has been agitating moving uptown, several of her friends at the Bluffs insisting that an apartment near the Park is much more suitable for her than the little house so far from the social centre, saying it is no wonder she is lonely and out of things; but yesterday she told me that she had abandoned the idea of change, and had sent orders to have her old back yard garden dismantled and the whole plot paved, as it was now only a suitable place for drying clothes. Also that she had written to ask her father's cousin Lydia, whose Staten Island home had been built in by progress, very much like her own garden, to come to pass the winter with her; and, lest she should repent of so rash an act, she had given the letter to Evan before the ink was fairly dry, as he passed the cottage on the way to the train, that he might post it in the city.
One consolation remains to me in the wreck of my romantic hopes for her—Miss Lavinia has liked our neighbourhood so well that she has taken the Alton cottage that she now occupies on a three years' lease, and intends living here from May to October. The rambling garden is full of old-time, hardy plants and roses, and oh, what good times we shall have together there next spring, for of course she will stop with me when she is getting things in order, and I can spare her enough roots and cuttings to fill every spare inch of ground,—so, with Sylvia at Pine Ridge, what more can I ask? The strain and hubbub of the Bluffs seems to be quite vanishing from the foreground and merging with the horizon.
That reminds me that the people are drifting back quite rapidly now. The golfers are afield again Sundays, and all talk of introducing fox hunting with tame foxes; but they will have to learn the land, with its dips and rocks, better first, or there will be a pretty crop of cracked crowns for father. At present, I think that New England Prejudice will soon however get the upper hand here, and tighten her hold of the reins that seemed slipping from her grasp, which is well, for she has long borne aloft the only standard of national morality whose code is not a sliding scale.
* * * * *
September 9. Martin came back to-night. As he entered the house with Evan I positively did not know him, for he has shaved off his mustache and queer little pussy-cat whiskers, and with them has gone his "pudgyness." He is really a very fine-looking man, and his features are developed by the shaving process in an unexpected way. He seems so wide awake, too, and alive to everything that passes, that I could see that father, who came from the office to greet him, had difficulty in restraining his surprise, but he contented himself by asking:—
"How did you fare with the publishers? Did you fall among thieves or among friends?"
"That is equivalent to asking if my book has been accepted, as it is only when work is refused that we call the mediums through which we seek to reach the public hard names. Yes, the fate of my book is soon told; it has found its place, and is to be fully illustrated as well, though it will take me many months to collect the unique material they desire; this insures me a busy winter, for which I am not only prepared but eager.
"I wish I could as easily tell you what this summer here has done for me, Dick," and he leaned over the chair in which father had seated himself and laid his arm affectionately across his shoulder. "I think in asking me here you rescued me from as dangerous a condition of mental apathy as when you stood by my bed so many years ago."
"Don't thank me," said father, leaning back and looking up at him, "thank God's sunshine, work, the babies here, and why not woman's society also,—you used to appreciate that, too, eh, Martin, old man? Give everybody his, or rather her, due."
"Yes," I heard him answer, as if pondering the matter, while I fled discreetly upstairs at this juncture, "you doubtless are right; Lavinia Dorman's criticisms have been of infinite value in ridding my work of a litter of words that encumbered the spirit and purpose of it. She is direct and to the point, and yet withal most sympathetic. I had thought of dedicating the book to her in some private way, for really we are joint heirs, as it were, in so many traditions and habits of old New York, that it would not seem strained or inappropriate."
"On the contrary, I think it most suitable, and I would not go to any great pains to hide the compliment of the dedication under a bushel of disguise either, if I were you. The Lydia Languish age of abnormal privacy and distorted, unhealthy sensibility has fortunately passed. Nowadays women like men to be direct, outspoken, definite, where they are concerned."
"Do you think so?" asked Martin, in real surprise. "I feared possibly that it might annoy her."
"I know so—annoy her, fudge!" was father's comment.
* * * * *
When we went in to dinner, Miss Lavinia at once noticed the change in Martin's appearance, and said, in a spirit of mischief which of course I alone noticed:—
"Back from the city, and with new clothes, too,—how very smart and becoming they are."
But poor Martin was quite guileless, and looking down at his coat in a puzzled way, as if to make doubly sure, replied, "No, it cannot be my clothes, for they are the same." Then, brightening, as the possible reason occurred to him: "Perhaps it may be my shaven face; you see, the barber made an error in the trimming of my decorations yesterday, and he thought it better to take them entirely off and have them grow afresh, but I had not thought of the matter in the light of an improvement."
"But it is one, most decidedly," continued Miss Lavinia, nodding brightly across at him, while father, who now realized the change he could not locate, cried:—
"Don't let them grow again, my boy. You look ten years younger, at the very least, which you know at our age is not to be despised!"
Then we all grew hilarious, and talked together like a lot of school children, and when the boys came in to dessert, as usual, they also were infectiously boisterous over the catching of some bass in the river where Timothy Saunders had taken them that afternoon as a special treat. They clamoured and begged so for Uncle Martin to stop over the next day for fishing and have one more good time with them, that he, feeling flattered almost to the point of embarrassment, yielded upon Evan's suggesting that, instead of going by the eight o'clock morning train as he intended, he could wait for one late in the evening, which would get him to town before eleven. For Martin was to move into his new bachelor apartments the following morning.
The three men lingered long at the table, smoking, the talk punctuated by long periods of silence, each regretting in his own way the present terminating of the summer intercourse, and yet, I fancy, realizing that it had lasted exactly the safe length of time. To be able to adapt oneself temporarily to the presence of outsiders in a house is a healthy habit, but to adjust a family to do it permanently is to lose what can never be regained. Miss Lavinia and I agreed upon that long ago, and for this reason I am very much surprised that she has asked her cousin Lydia to spend the winter, with a view of making the arrangement permanent.
The boys brought some of their games downstairs, and succeeded in adding half an hour to their bedtime by coaxing Aunt Lavinia to play with them, until I finally had to almost carry them to bed, they grew so suddenly sleepy from their day's fishing.
When I returned below stairs after the boys were asleep, father had gone to the village, Evan was walking up and down outside, all the windows and doors were open again, and the sultry air answered the katydids' cry for "Some-more-heat, some-more-heat."
Miss Lavinia was still in the hall, sitting on the lower step of the stairs, for the boys had been using the broad landing that made a turn at the top of the three steps as a place to play their games. Martin stood leaning on the newel post, and from the few words I heard I knew that he was telling her about the proposed dedication, so I went out and joined Evan, for it seems as though we had had little leisure outdoors together of late, and as if it was time to make it up as best we might.
Then, once again, as we crossed the streak of light that streamed like a narrow moon path from the doorway, Evan paused and nodded his head toward the hall. I turned—there sat Miss Lavinia and Martin Cortright on the stairs, playing with the boys'—jack-straws!
"After this, what?" I asked, in my mirth leaning backward on Evan's supporting arm.
"To be pat, it ought to be the deluge," chuckled Evan; "but as these are prosy times, it simply means the end has been reached, and that to-morrow they will put away mild summer madness, and return to the Whirlpool to paddle about decorously as of yore."
I find that I am not the only person who is disappointed at the absence of matrimonial intentions between Martin and Miss Lavinia. The postmistress told me yesterday that she's been expecting to hear of a second wedding any day, as when one took place it always meant three, though she couldn't "fetch the third couple together, even in her mind's eye," which I have found to be usually a capacious and well filled optic.
Mrs. Barton also stopped Martha Corkle on the road, and said with an insinuating sneer, "She'd always supposed that the gentleman from New York who lodged with her was making up to the proud old maid at the Doctor's, but as he evidently wasn't going to, she'd advise Mrs. Evan to watch out, as Miss Lavinia, doubtless being disappointed, might set her cap for the Doctor himself, and then the Lord knows what would happen, men being so easily flattered and trapped."
Martha was indignant, and I must say very rude, for she snapped back: "I wonder at that same bein' your holdin', Mrs. Barton, bein' as you've five maid daughters that's not so by their desirin', folks do say as knows."
Mud throwers should be careful to wear gloves,—their ammunition is sticky.
* * * * *
September 10. This morning father and I were obliged to go to town upon some hospital business, and as we had to remain there for luncheon, or perhaps longer, we took the train instead of driving over, leaving Lavinia to pack, so that she might have a free Saturday to drive with me to bid Mrs. Bradford good-by, and learn the latest news of Sylvia and Horace. Meanwhile the boys were to go fishing with Martin, who is as careful of them as possible, taking their lunch with them.
They did not have good luck, however, and growing restless and tired of fishing without catching, Martin brought them home by three o'clock, and as both he and Miss Lavinia had finished their preparations for leaving, they went out to the seat by the rose arbour to enjoy what was left of the glorious afternoon, for it has been one of those days that come in dreams, so perfect that one knows it cannot last.
"I hope that I shall not lose all track of you this winter," said Miss Lavinia. "Of course you will be busy, but you might spare a lonely woman an evening now and then for piquet, or whist if Evan or the Doctor should come to town."
"Lose track of you, Miss Lavinia,—how could that be possible?" queried Martin in mild-eyed astonishment. "You know there will be a second volume of the book for you to read and criticise, besides all the illustrations to discuss. No, I hoped that you could spare me two definite evenings every week, at least until the work is in press, though I suppose that is asking a great deal of a woman having so many friends, and places to go."
"If you could see the way I spend my evenings alone, you would not hesitate. Of course I do dine out once in a time, and people come to me, but between times—I envy even Josephus, who can have social enjoyment any time by merely scratching on the door and running along the palings to the neighbours."
"I am glad, for I decided upon taking the Washington Square rooms, instead of moving up nearer the Clubs as my friends advised, because I thought it would be so much more convenient if, in proof correcting, I should require to consult you hastily."
Miss Lavinia felt a pleasurable flush rising to her cheeks, when it was chilled by the memory of her invitation to her cousin Lydia. Why had she given it? Then the realization that a third party would be unwelcome to her made the flush return and deepen.
* * * * *
"Uncle Martin, where is your Mrs.? Barbara said I'd have to ask you 'cause she didn't know," suddenly asked Ian's voice, so close behind them that they both started. He had been up in the attic to get some of his precious cards, one of which he now held in front of Martin Cortright's gaze.
"My Mrs.! Why, what do you mean?" he asked in uncomprehending astonishment, taking the boy on his knee; but when the little scamp had explained, the stupidest person in the world could not plead ignorance.
"And," Ian continued, "Dick and me thought that p'r'aps if your Mrs. and Aunt Lavinia's Mr. had got lost together we could find them for you, and then there'd be two more weddings with pink ice cream. We're going to look this afternoon, and we're going to ask Martha to help us, 'cause she found her Mr. after he'd been lost a great while, Effie says."
"And he was right here in the place, too," chimed in Richard, "only he didn't seem to see her, so p'r'aps yours aren't far off, and we might get them in time to have the wedding to-night before you go. Wouldn't you like to be in a wedding, Aunt Lavinia?"
"Mercy no, child, I'm too old!" she ejaculated, now as red as a Jacqueminot rose, while the boys ran off in the direction of Martha's, to ask her where it was best to begin this important quest, the prize for which was pink ice cream.
Miss Lavinia did not look up for a moment, and when she did she found Martin's eyes fastened on her face, and in them a strange enlightenment that shook her like an electric bolt, as he arose and stood before her, saying:—
"You need never be old. Some prefer June strawberries and others September peaches, that is all. When once in June I thought to gather the strawberries, I found they belonged to another, for I loved your friend, who was Barbara's mother."
"And I loved your friend, who is Barbara's father," Miss Lavinia said, rising and facing him.
"As they married each other, why may not we? I know now why my work has prospered this summer and why life seems good again. Ian's little fancy shows me the truth."
"Our Mr. and Mrs. were not far off, then," said she, laying her hand on his, while she looked into his face with one of those rare smiles of unreserved confidence that makes Lavinia Dorman more fascinating than half the younger women that I know.
After a moment of romance they waked up to the fact of the present and its comical aspect; the boys' talk of weddings brought that necessary episode quickly before them.
"May I tell the Doctor when he returns? Shall we tell them all?" asked Martin, eagerly, and Miss Lavinia sat suddenly down again and realized that she still was in the world of responsibilities.
"I think I would rather wait and do it all at once, after—after the pink ice-cream," she said, as he laughed at her hesitation over the word. "I don't like keeping it from Barbara, but I'm so tired of talk and fuss and feathers and Mrs. Grundy." "Then let us get it quietly over next week, or tomorrow, if you say, unless you wish time to feel sure, or perhaps to think it over," said Martin, with enthusiasm.
"Time to think it over!" cried Miss Lavinia, springing lightly to her feet. "No, I'm sure I don't wish to think, I want to act—to do things my own way and give no one a chance to speak until it is done. What have I been doing all my life but thinking, and waiting for it to be a convenient and suitable time for me to do this or that, wondering what others will think if I do or don't; thinking that the disagreeable was duty, often simply because it was disagreeable. Surely you have been hampered by this perpetual thinking too, and watching the thumb of custom to see if it pointed up or down. No, I'm done with it. We've agreed to be married, so why not this very afternoon, and have the wedding over before you go, as the boys suggested?"
"The best possible idea, though I should have hardly dared suggest it," said Martin, tramping to and fro in excitement. "How shall we manage? Go down here to the rectory?"
"I would rather go over to town," said Miss Lavinia, beginning, in spite of herself, to realize difficulties. "We do not know who might drop in here."
"Very well," said Martin, decisively, looking at his watch. "I have it! Timothy is off to-day; I will harness the grays to the stanhope, as we can't wait to send to the stable, and we will drive over the back way by the Ridge and be home again by dinner time. The rector of All Saints' was a classmate of mine, and I met him again only the other day, so we shall have no trouble there."
"Are you sure you can harness the horses properly?" asked Miss Lavinia, with characteristic caution, and then smiling at herself, as Martin hurried off to the stable.
* * * * *
In less than twenty minutes the sober gray horses turned out of the stable yard and up the road upon the most remarkable trip of their career. Nothing strange was noticeable about the turnout, except that the traces hung a trifle loose, and that the occupants sat unusually far back under the hood for so pleasant an afternoon. That is, until after they had passed Martha's house in the lane and turned into the unfrequented back highway, then they both leaned forward, gave a sigh of relief, and, looking at each other, laughed aloud.
"Do you realize that we are eloping, like runaway school children?" said Miss Lavinia, "we two hitherto sober-minded Knickerbockers?"
"I realize that I like what we are doing very much, whatever it may be called," replied Martin, "and that it is very considerate of you to spare me and do it in this way. The conventional affair is very hard on a man of my years, all of whose contemporaries are either bald or rheumatic; besides, now I think of it, it is merely carrying out the ever-present precedent. My father's great-great-grand father and mother eloped in 1689 from Staten Island to the Bouerie, and the boat upset when they were going back."
"Mercy on us!" exclaimed Miss Lavinia, "I hope we shall not upset! I wonder if the wheels are on securely. I thought I heard something rattle. There it is again."
As they reached the bottom of the long hill, Martin let the reins hang loose on the horses' necks and, lowering the hood, looked back to see if he could find the cause of the jolting sound, accompanied by panting, as of a dog running. Then he gave an exclamation of impatience, and pulled the horses up short, for there, alternately running and lifting up their feet and swinging, were the twins, clinging to the back of the gig!
Miss Lavinia gave a cry of dismay. "Where did you come from, and where are you going?" she questioned rather sharply. "We went to Martha's, you know," said Ian, as if his errand had been one of such importance that it was impossible she should forget it, "and she wasn't there, so we thought we'd just look for those people we said about, by ourselves. But we couldn't find anybody, only a shiny black snake by the road, and he rubber-necked at us and spit some 'fore he ran away. Then we saw grandpop's horses coming, and when you went by we hooked on, and—"
"'Cause we thought if you was looking for those people and found them, then we'd be there for the pink ice cream," added Richard, cheerfully, supplementing Ian's story when his breath gave out.
"I suppose we must turn around and take them home," said Miss Lavinia, with a sigh.
"Not a bit of it. Let them come with us; it is too late to turn back, unless," he added, with a ring of mock humility in his tone, "you have changed your mind and wish time to think. As for me, I've turned my back on even thinking whether they will be missed or who will worry.
"Scramble in, boys, and curl up here in front. You are just in time; two of these people you were searching for are going to be married this afternoon. We are going to the wedding, and you shall be best men," and the boys settled down, chuckling and whispering, but presently Ian looked up, as light dawned, and cried: "I spy! It's you, Uncle Martin, and Aunt Lavinia is your Mrs., only you couldn't find her all summer till to-day," and he hugged his friend around the legs, which were all he could reach, but Richard leaned backward until his head rested on Miss Lavinia's knees, and he reached up his cooing lips to be kissed.
The rest of the ride to town was uneventful, except that when they reached the outskirts they met Jenks-Smith's coach loaded with Whirlpool people, but the Lady of the Bluffs saw nothing strange in the combination, and merely shook her parasol at them, calling, "I'm sorry to hear you're flitting, just when it's getting lively again, too!"
Fortunately the rector of All Saints' was at home, likewise the requisite number of his family, for witnesses. Then it transpired that the couple had never thought of the ring, and while Martin went out to buy one, Miss Lavinia was left sitting on the edge of a very stiff sofa with a boy on either side of her, with the Rectory family drawn up opposite like an opposing force, which did not encourage easy conversation.
However, the agony was soon over, and the bride and groom left, Martin giving his old classmate, to whom the world had been penurious, a hand-shake that, when examined by the breathless family a few moments later, was found to yield at least a new parlour carpet, an easy-chair for the Rector's bent back, and a new clerical suit to cover his gaunt frame.
"Now comes the pink ice cream," sang Ian, dancing a-tiptoe as they reached the street; and there being but one good restaurant in town, on the high street, next to the saddler's shop where the red goat harness was still displayed, the party drove there, and the pink ice cream was eaten, good and full measure thereof, while on their way out the coveted goat harness found itself being taken from the window to be packed away under the seat of the gig.
* * * * *
It was almost dinner time when father and I returned to-night, and the boys were squeezed together in a chair on the piazza, close to Miss Lavinia, while Martin sat near by on the balustrade. The boys were in a great state of giggles, and kept clapping their hands to their mouths as if they feared something would escape. I hurried upstairs, not wishing to make dinner late, as I knew Martin expected to take the nine o'clock train, just as father came in saying that Timothy had returned, and that he found the horses in a wonderful sweat, and feared they were sick, as they hadn't been out all day.
By this time we were in the hall and walking toward the dining room. Martin stopped short, as if to say something, and then changed his mind, while a bumping at the pantry door attracted the attention of us all.
Out came Ian, a portion of the goat harness on his head and shoulders, followed by Richard, around whose neck the reins were fastened, and between them they carried the great heavy silver tea-tray only used on state occasions. In the centre of it rested a pink sofa pillow, upon which some small, flat object like a note was lying.
They came straight across the hall, halting in front of me, and saying earnestly, "We didn't ask for the harness, but Uncle Martin says that people always give their best mens presents." I looked at him for a second, not understanding, then Evan, with a curious twinkle in his eye, strode across, whispering to me, "The Deluge," as he picked up the card and read aloud, "Mr. and Mrs. Martin Cortright!" It was the card that Richard had printed several days before and carried in strange company in his warm, mussy little pocket ever since.
There was tense silence, and then a shout, as Martin took his wife's hand that wore the wedding ring and laid it on mine; then he and father fairly hugged each other, for father did not forget those long-ago days of the strawberries that Martin could not gather.
When the excitement had subsided and dinner was over, Martha and Tim, to whom the horse matter had been explained, came over to offer their congratulations,—at least Martha did. Timothy merely grinned, and, to the best of my belief, winked slyly at Martin, as much as to say, "We may be long in knowing our minds, but when we men are ready, the weemen fair tumble over us."
"Indeed, mum, but I wish you joy, and that he'll lead you as easy a life as Tim'thy here does me, 'deed I do, and no disrespeck intended," was Martha's parting sentence; and then our wonder as to whether Martin was going to town, or what, was cut short by his rising, looking at his watch, and saying in the most matter-of-fact way to Lavinia: "Is your bag ready? You know we leave in an hour."
"Does Lucy expect you?" I ventured to ask.
"Oh no, I shall not trouble her until the day appointed. We shall go to the Manhattan, I think."
"How about your cousin Lydia?" asked father, who could not resist a chance to tease.
"I forgot all about her!" exclaimed poor Lavinia, clasping her hands tragically and looking really conscience-stricken. "And I," said Evan, who had suddenly jumped up and rammed his hand into his side pocket, "forgot to post your letter to her!"
* * * * *
October 31. We have all been to New York to visit the runaway Cortrights, as Evan calls them, now that they are settled, and it is pleasant to see that so much belated happiness is possible. The fate of Lavinia's house is definitely arranged; they will remain in "Greenwich Village," in spite of all advice to move up in town. The defunct back yard is being covered by an extension that will give Martin a fine library, with a side window and a scrap of balcony, while the ailantus tree is left, that bob-tailed Josephus may not be deprived of the feline pleasures of the street or his original way of reaching it over the side fence; and the flower garden that was, will be the foundation of a garden of books under the kindly doctrine of compensation.
Above is to be a large guest room for Sylvia and Horace, or Evan and me, so that there will be room in plenty when by and by we bring the boys to see our New York.
Mrs. Jenks-Smith, who has formed a sincere attachment to Lavinia Cortright, did all in her power to persuade her to be her neighbour up in town, offering a charming house at a bargain and many advantages. Finally becoming piqued at the refusal, she said:—
"Why will you be so stupid? Don't you know that this out-of-the-way street is in the social desert?"
"It may be in a desert, as you say," said Lavinia, gently, "but we mean at least to make it an oasis for our friends who are weary of the whirling of the pool."
* * * * *
We stood looking at the boys as they slept tonight. Strange thoughts will crop up at times most unexpectedly. Horns blowing on the highway proclaimed the late arrival of a coaching party at the Bluffs. "Would you like to have money if you could, and go about the world when and where you please?" I asked Evan, but he, shaking his head, drew me towards him, answering my question with another—
"Would you, or why do you ask?"
I never thought that Mrs. Jenks-Smith's stricture would turn to a prayer upon my lips, but before I knew it I whispered, "God keep us comfortably poor."
Then Ian, feeling our presence, raised himself in sleepy leisure, and nestling his cheek against my dress said, "Barbara, please give Ian a drink of water."