The last words were almost a whisper, but she heard them. Her eyes were riveted on the outlines, two hundred feet away through the trees, of a small brown building at the very crest of the hill over-looking the valley. Very small, very rough, with its unhewn logs—the "stout little cabin" stood there waiting.
Well! What was she to think? He had been sure, to build this and bring her to it! And yet—it was no house for a home; no expensive bungalow; not even a summer cottage. Only a "stout little cabin," such as might house a hunter on a winter's night; the only thing about it which looked like luxury the chimney of cobblestones taken from the hillside below, which meant the possibility of the fire inside without which one could hardly spend an hour in the small shelter on any but a summer day. Suddenly she understood. It was the sheer romance of the thing which had appealed to him; there was no audacity about it.
He was watching her anxiously as she stared at the cabin; she came suddenly to the realization of that. Then he threw himself off his horse as they neared the rail fence, fastened him, and came back to Roberta. Near-by, Stephen was taking Rosamond down and she was exclaiming over the charm of the place.
Richard came close, looking straight up into Roberta's face, which was like a wild-rose for colouring, but very sober. Her eyes would not meet his. His own face had paled a little, in spite of all its healthy, outdoor hues.
"Oh, don't misunderstand me," he whispered. "Wait—till I can tell you all about it. I was wild to do something—anything—that would make you seem nearer. Don't misunderstand—dear!"
Stephen's voice, calling a question about the horses, brought him back to a realization of the fact that his time was not yet, and that he must continue to act the part of the sane and responsible host. He turned, summoning all his social training, and replied to the question in his usual quiet tone. But, as he took her from her horse, Roberta recognized the surge of his feeling, though he controlled his very touch of her, and said not another word in her ear. She had all she could do, herself, to maintain an appearance of coolness under the shock of this extraordinary surprise. She had no doubt that Rosamond and Stephen comprehended the situation, more or less. Let them not be able to guess just how far things had developed, as yet.
Rosamond came to her aid with her own freely manifested pleasure in the place. Clever Rosy! her sister-in-law was grateful to her for expressing that which Roberta could not trust herself to speak.
"What a dear little house, a real log cabin!" cried Rosamond as the four drew near. "It's evidently just finished; see the chips. It opens the other way, doesn't it? Isn't that delightful! Not even a window on this side toward the road, though it's back so far. I suppose it looks toward the valley. A window on this end; see the solid shutters; it looks as if one could fortify one's self in it. Oh, and here's a porch! What a view—oh, what a view!"
They came around the end of the cabin together and stood at the front, surveying the wide porch, its thick pillars of untrimmed logs, its balustrade solid and sheltering, its roof low and overhanging. From the road everything was concealed; from this aspect it was open to the skies; its door and two front windows wide, yet showing, door as well as windows, the heavy shutters which would make the place a stronghold through what winter blasts might assault it. From the porch one could see for miles in every direction; at the sides, only the woods.
"It's an ideal spot for a camp," declared Stephen with enthusiasm. "Is it yours, Kendrick? I congratulate you. Invite me up here in the hunting season, will you? I can't imagine anything snugger. May we look inside?"
"By all means! It's barely finished—it's entirely rough inside—but I thought it would do for our supper to-night."
"Do!" Rosamond gave a little cry of delight as she looked in at the open door. "Rough! You don't want it smoother. Does he, Rob? Look at the rustic table and benches! And will you behold that splendid fireplace? Oh, all you want here is the right company!"
"And that I surely have." Richard made her a little bow, his face emphasizing his words. He went over to a cupboard in the wall, of which there were two, one on either side of the fireplace. He threw it open, disclosing hampers. "Here is our supper, I expect. Are you hungry? It's up to us to serve it. I didn't have the man stay; I thought it would be more fun to see to things ourselves."
"A thousand times more," Rosamond assured him, looking to Roberta for confirmation, who nodded, smiling.
They fell to work. Hats were removed, riding skirts were fastened out of the way, hampers were opened and the contents set forth. Everything that could possibly be needed was found in the hampers, even to coffee, steaming hot in the vacuum bottles as it had been poured into them.
"Some other time we'll come up and rough it," Richard explained, when Stephen told him he was no true camper to have everything prepared for him in detail like this; "but to-night I thought we'd spend as little time in preparations as possible and have the more of the evening. It will be a Midsummer Night's Dream on this hill to-night," said he, with a glance at Roberta which she would not see.
Presently they sat down, Roberta finding herself opposite their host, with the necessity upon her of eating and drinking like a common mortal, though she was dwelling in a world where it seemed as if she did not know how to do the everyday things and do them properly. It was a delicious meal, no doubt of that, and at least Stephen and Rosamond did justice to it.
"But you're not eating anything yourself, man," remonstrated Stephen, as Richard pressed upon him more cold fowl and delicate sandwiches supplemented by a salad such as connoisseurs partake of with sighs of appreciation, and with fruit which one must marvel to look upon.
"You haven't been watching me, that's evident," returned Richard, demonstrating his ability to consume food with relish by seizing upon a sandwich and making away with it in short order.
Roberta rose. "I can eat no more," she said, "with that wonderful sky before me out there." She escaped to the porch.
They all turned to exclaim at a gorgeous colouring beginning in the west, heralding the sunset which was coming. Rosamond ran out also, Stephen following. Richard produced cigars.
"Have a smoke out here, Gray," said he, "while I put away the stuff. No, no help, thank you. James will be here, by and by, to pack it properly."
"Stephen"—Rosamond stood at the edge of the hill below the porch—"bring your cigar down here; it's simply perfect. You can lie on your side here among the pine needles and watch the sky."
They went around a clump of trees to a spot where the pine needles were thick, just out of sight of the cabin door. No doubt but Rosamond and Stephen liked to have things to themselves; there was no pretence about that. It was almost the anniversary of their marriage—their most happy marriage.
Roberta stood still upon the porch, looking, or appearing to look, off at the sunset. Once again she would have liked to run away. But—where to go? Rosamond and Stephen did not want her; it would have been absurd to insist on following them. If she herself should stroll away among the pine trees, she would, of course, be instantly pursued. The porch was undoubtedly the most open and therefore the safest spot she could be in. So she leaned against the pillar and waited, her heart behaving disturbingly meanwhile. She could hear Richard, within the cabin hurriedly clearing the table and stuffing everything away into the cupboards on either side of the fireplace—he was making short work of it. Before she could have much time to think, his step was upon the porch behind her; he was standing by her shoulder.
"It's a wonderful effect, isn't it? Must we talk about it?" he inquired softly.
"Don't you think it deserves to be talked about?" she answered, trying to speak naturally.
"No. There's only one thing in the world I want to talk about. I can't even see that sky, for looking at—you. I've stood at the top of this slope more times than I can tell you, wondering if I should dare to build this little cabin. The idea possessed me, I couldn't get away from it. I bought the land—and still I was afraid. I gave the order to the builder—and all but took it back. I knew I ran every kind of risk that you wouldn't understand me—that you would think I still had that abominable confidence that I was fool enough to express to you last—February. Does it look so?"
She nodded slowly without turning her head.
His voice grew even more solicitous; she could hear a little tremble in it, such as surely had not been there last February, such as she had never heard there before. "But it isn't so! With every log that's gone in, a fresh fear has gone in with it. Even on the way here to-day I had all I could do not to turn off some other way. The only thing that kept me coming on to meet my fate here, and nowhere else, was the hope that you loved the spot itself so well that you—that your heart would be a bit softer here than—somewhere else. O Roberta—I'm not half good enough for you, but—I love you—love you—"
His voice broke on the words. It surely was a very far from confident suitor who pleaded his case in such phrases as these. He did not so much as take her hand, only waited there, a little behind her, his head bent so that he might see as much as he could of the face turned away from him.
She did not answer; something seemed to hold her from speech. One of her arms was twined about the rough, untrimmed pillar of the porch; her clasp tightened until she held it as if it were a bulwark against the human approach ready to take her from it at a word from her lips.
"I told you in my letter all I knew I couldn't say now. You know what you mean to me. I'm going to make all I can out of what there is in me whether you help me or not. But—if I could do it for you—"
Still she could not speak. She clung to the pillar, her breath quickening. He was silent until he could withstand no longer, then he spoke so urgently in her ear that he broke in upon that queer, choking reserve of hers which had kept her from yielding to him:
"Roberta—I must know—I can't bear it."
She turned, then, and put out her hand. He grasped it in both his own.
"What does that mean, dear? May I—may I have the rest of you?"
It was only a tiny nod she gave, this strange girl, Roberta, who had been so afraid of love, and was so afraid of it yet. And as if he understood and appreciated her fear, he was very gentle with her. His arms came about her as they might have come about a frightened child, and drew her away from the pillar with a tender insistence which all at once produced an extraordinary effect. When she found that she was not to be seized with that devastating grasp of possession which she had dreaded, she was suddenly moved to desire it. His humbleness touched and melted her—his humbleness, in him who had been at first so arrogant—and with the first exquisite rush of response she was taken out of herself. She gave herself to his embrace as one who welcomes it, and let him have his way—all his way—a way in which he quite forgot to be gentle at all.
When this had happened, Roberta remembered, entirely too late, that it was this which, whatever else she gave him, she had meant to refuse him—at least until to-morrow. Because to-day was undeniably the twenty-fourth of June—Midsummer's Day!
THE PILLARS OF HOME
"Listen, grandfather—they're playing! We'll catch them at it. Here's an open window."
Matthew Kendrick followed his grandson across the wide porch to a French window opening into the living-room of the Gray home, at the opposite end from that where stood the piano, and from which the strains of 'cello and harp were proceeding. The two advanced cautiously to take up their position just within that far window, gazing down the room at the pair at the other end.
Roberta, in hot-weather white, with a bunch of blue corn-flowers thrust into her girdle, sat with her 'cello at her knee, her dark head bent as she played. Ruth, a gay little figure in pink, was fingering her harp, and the poignantly rich harmonies of Saint-Saeens' Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix were filling the room. Upon the great piano stood an enormous bowl of summer bloom; the air was fragrant with the breath of it. The room was as cool and fresh with its summer draperies and shaded windows as if it were not fervid July weather outside.
Richard flung one exulting glance at his grandfather, for the sight was one to please the eyes of any man even if he had no such interest in the performers as these two had. The elder man smiled, for he was very happy in these days, happier than he had been for a quarter of a century.
The music ceased with the last slow harp-tones, the 'cello's earlier upflung bow waving in a gesture of triumph.
"Splendid, Rufus!" she commended. "You never did it half so well."
"She never did," agreed a familiar voice from the other end of the room, and the sisters turned with a start. Richard advanced down the room, Mr. Kendrick following more slowly.
"You look as cool as a pond-lily, love," said Richard, "in spite of this July weather." His approving eyes regarded Roberta's cheek at close range. "Is it as cool as it looks?" he inquired, and placed his own cheek against it for an instant, regardless of the others present.
Roberta laid her hand in Mr. Kendrick's, and the old man raised it to his lips, in a stately fashion he sometimes used.
"That was very beautiful music you were making," he said. "It seems a pity to bring it to an end. Richard and I want you for a little drive, to show you something which interests us very much. Will you go—and will Ruth go, too?"
"Oh, do you really want me?" cried Ruth eagerly.
"Of course we want you, little sister," Richard told her.
"I'll get our hats," offered Ruth, and was off.
So presently the four had taken their places in Mr. Kendrick's car, its windows open, its luxurious winter cushioning covered with dust-proof, cool-feeling materials. Richard sat opposite Roberta, and it was easy for her to see by the peculiar light in his eyes that there was something afoot which was giving him more than ordinary joy in her companionship. His lips could hardly keep themselves in order, the tones of his voice were vibrant, his glance would have met hers every other minute if she would have allowed it.
The car rolled along a certain aristocratic boulevard leading out of the city, past one stately residence after another. As the distance became greater from the centre of affairs, the places took on a more and more comfortable aspect, with less majesty of outline, and more home-likeness. Surrounding grounds grew more extensive, the houses themselves lower spreading and more picturesque. It was a favourite drive, but there were comparatively few abroad on this July morning. Nearly every residence was closed, and the inhabitants away, though the beauty of the environment was as carefully preserved as if the owners were there to observe and enjoy.
"We're the only people in the city this summer," observed Richard, "except ninety-nine-hundredths of the population, which fails to count, of course, in the eyes of these residents. Curious custom, isn't it? to close such homes as these, just when they're at their most attractive, and go off to a country house. They'd be twice as comfortable at home, in this weather—just as we are. And this is the first summer I ever tried it! Robin, that's a pleasant place, isn't it?"
He indicated one of the houses they were passing, an unusually interesting combination of wood and stone, half hidden beneath spreading vines.
"Yes, that's charming," she agreed. "And I like the next even better, don't you?"
The next was of a different style entirely, less ambitious and more friendly of appearance, with long reaches of porch and pergola, and more than usually well-arranged masses of shrubbery enhancing the whole effect of withdrawal from the public gaze.
"I do, I think, for some reasons. You choose the least pretentious houses, every time, don't you? Don't care a bit for show places?"
"Not a bit," owned the girl.
"Here's one, now," Richard pointed it out. "The owner spent a lot of money on that. Would you live in it?"
Richard glanced at his grandfather. "I wonder just how much she would suffer," he suggested, with sparkling eyes. "Suppose we should drive in there and tell her we'd bought it!"
Mr. Kendrick turned to the figure in white at his side. The eyes of the old man and the young woman met with understanding, and the two smiled affectionately before the meeting was over. Richard looked on approvingly. But he complained.
"I'd like one like that, myself," said he. "Robin has looked at me only three times this morning, and once was when we met, for purposes of identification!"
He had a glance of his own, then, and apparently it went to his head, for he became more animated than ever in calling the party's attention to each piece, of property passed by.
"These are all modern," he commented presently. "There's something about your really old house that can't be copied. Your own home, Robin—that's the type of antique beauty that's come to seem to me more desirable than any other. Isn't there one along here somewhere that reminds one of it?"
"There's the General Armitage place," Roberta said. "That must be close by, now. It used to be far out in the country. It was built by the same architect who built ours. General Armitage and my great-grandfather were intimate friends—they were in the Civil War together."
"Here it is." Ruth pointed it out eagerly. "I always like to go by it, because it looks quite a little like ours, only the grounds are much larger, and it has a wonderful old garden behind it. Mother has often said she wished she could transplant the Armitage garden bodily, now that the house has been closed so long. She says the old gardener is still here, and looks after the garden—or his grandsons do."
"Shall we drive in and see it?" proposed Richard. "A garden like that ought to have some one to admire it now and then."
He gave the order, and the car rolled in through the old stone gateway. The place, though of a noble old type, was far from a pretentious one, and there was no lodge at the gate, as with most of its neighbours. The house was no larger than the comfortable home of the Gray family, but its closed blinds and empty white-pillared portico gave it a deserted air. The grounds about it were not indicative of present day, fastidious landscape gardening, but suggested an old-time country gentleman's estate, sufficiently kept up to prevent wild and alien growth, though needing the supervision of an interested owner to suggest beneficial changes here and there.
"It's a beautiful old place, isn't it?" Richard looked to Roberta for confirmation, and saw it in her kindling eyes.
"It has always been our whole family's ideal of a home," she said. "Ours is so much nearer the centre of things, we haven't the acres we should like, and whenever we have driven past this place we have looked longingly at it. Since General and Mrs. Armitage died, and their family became scattered, father has often said that he was watching anxiously to see it come on the market, for there was no place he more coveted the right ownership for, even though he couldn't think of living here himself. It seems such a pity when homes like this go to people who don't appreciate them, and alter and spoil them."
"So it does," agreed Richard, and now he had much ado to keep his soaring spirits from betraying the happy secret which he saw his betrothed did not remotely suspect. He knew she expected to dwell hereafter in the "stone pile" which had been the home of the Kendricks for many years, and she had never by a word or look made him feel that such a prospect tried her spirit. That it was not to her a wholly happy prospect he had divined, as he might have divined that a wild bird would not be happy in a cage, nor a deer in a close corral.
"Oh, the garden!" breathed Roberta, and clasped her hands with an unconscious gesture of pleasure, as the car swept round the house and past the tall box borders of what was, indeed, such an old-time memorial, tended by faithful and loving hands, as must stir the interest of any admirer of the stately conceptions of an earlier day. A bowed figure, at work in a great bed of rosy phlox, straightened painfully as the car stopped, and the visitors looked into the seamed, tanned face of the presiding spirit of the place, the old gardener who had served General Armitage all his life.
All four alighted, and walked through the winding paths, talked with old Symonds, and studied the charming spot with growing delight. Richard, managing to get Roberta to himself for a brief space, eagerly questioned her.
"You find this prettier than any picture in any gallery, don't you?"
"Oh, it has great charm for me. I can hardly express the curious content it gives me, to wander about such an old garden. The fragrance of the box is particularly pleasant to me, and I love the old-fashioned flowers better than any of the wonders the modern gardeners show. Just look at that mass of larkspur—did you ever see such a satisfying blue?"
"I have. The first time I came to your house to dinner you wore blue, the softest, richest blue imaginable, and you sat where the shaded light made a picture of you I shall never forget. I've never seen that peculiar blue since without thinking of you. It's one of the shades of that larkspur, isn't it?"
"I made fun of you, afterward, for telling Rosy you noticed the colours we wore," confessed Roberta, with a mischievous glance.
"You did—you rascal! Look up at me a minute—please. The blue of your eyes, with those black lashes, is another larkspur shade, in this light. I've called it sea-blue. Rob—dearest—the nights I've dreamed about those eyes of yours!"
He got no further chance to observe them just then, as he might have expected, for Roberta immediately turned their light on the garden and away from his worshipful regard. She engaged the old gardener in conversation, and made his dull gaze brighten with her praise. Meanwhile Richard went off to the house, and presently returning, drew his party into a group and put a question, striving to maintain an appearance of indifference.
"It occurred to me you might care to look into the house itself. It's rather interesting inside, I believe. There seems to be a caretaker there, and she says we may come in. She'll meet us at the front. Shall we take a minute to do it?"
"I should like it very much," agreed Roberta promptly. "I've heard mother speak of the fine old hall with its staircase—a different type from ours, and very interesting."
"There certainly is a remarkable attraction to me in this place," said Matthew Kendrick, walking beside Roberta with hands clasped behind his back and head well up. "It has a homelike look, in spite of its deserted state, which appeals to me. I wonder that the remnant of the family does not care to retain it."
"I hear the remnant is all but gone," his grandson informed him, with sober lips but dancing eyes. He was delighted with his grandfather for his assistance in playing the part of the casual observer. He led the way up the steps of the white-pillared portico, and wheeled to see the others ascending. He watched Roberta as she preceded him over the threshold of the opened door.
"Shall I see you coming in that door, you beautiful thing, years and years from now?" he asked her in his heart, and smiled happily to himself.
And now, indeed, old Matthew Kendrick played his part nobly and with skill. When the party had admired the distinction of the hall, and the stately sweep of its staircase, he led Ruth into a room on the left at the same moment that Richard summoned Roberta to look at something he had described in the room on the right. A question drew the caretaker after Mr. Kendrick, senior, and the younger man had the moment he was playing for.
"This fireplace, Robin—isn't it the very counter-part of the one in your own living-room?" He asked it with his hand on the chimney-piece, and his glowing eyes studying hers.
Roberta looked, and nodded delightedly. "It certainly is, only still wider and higher. What a splendid one! And what a room! Oh, how could they leave it? Imagine it furnished, and lived in."
"Imagine it! And a great fire on this hearth. It would take in an immense log, wouldn't it?"
"Poor hearth!" She turned again to it, and her glance sobered. "So cold now, even on a July day, after having been warmed with so many fires."
"Shall we warm it?" He took an eager step toward her. "Shall we build our own home fires upon it?"
Startled, she stared at him, the blue of her eyes growing deep. He smiled into them, his own gleaming with satisfaction.
"Richard! What do you—mean?"
"What I say, darling. Could you be happy here? Should you like it better than the Kendrick house?—gloomy old place that that is!"
"But—your grandfather! We—we couldn't possibly leave him lonely!"
"Bless your kind heart, dear—we couldn't. Shall we make a home for him here?"
"Would he be content?"
"So content that he's only waiting to know that you like it, and he'll tell you so. The plan is this, Robin—if you approve it. Three months of the year grandfather will stay in the old home, the hard, winter months, and if you are willing, we'll stay with him. The rest of the year—here, in our own home. Eh? Do you like it?"
She stood a moment, staring into the empty fireplace, her eyes shining with a sudden hint of most unwonted tears. Then she turned to him.
"Oh, you dear!" she whispered, and was swept into his arms.
"Then you do like it?" he insisted, presently.
"Like it! Oh, I can't tell you. To have such a home as this, so like the old one, yet so wonderful of itself. To make it ours—to put our own individuality into it, yet never hurt it. And that garden! What will mother say? Oh, Richard—I was never so happy in my life!"
He knew that was true of himself, for his heart was full to bursting, with the success of his scheming. They walked the length of the long room, looked out of each window, returned to the fireplace. He held her fast and whispered in her ear:
"Robin, I can see all sorts of things in this room. I saw them the minute I came into it first, a month ago. I've stood here, dreaming, more than once since then. I see ourselves, living here, and—I see—Robin—I see—little figures!"
She nodded, with her face against his breast. He lifted her face, and his lips met hers in such a meeting as they had not yet known. Richard's heart beat hard with the sure knowledge of that which he had only dared before to believe would be true—that his wife would rejoice to be the mother of his children. Not in vain had this young man looked into child faces and brought joy to their eyes; he had learned that life would never be complete without children of his own. And now he knew, certainly, that this woman whom he loved would gladly join her superb young life with his in the bringing of other lives into the world, with their full heritage, and not a drop withheld. It was a wondrous moment.
They went out together, in search of Mr. Kendrick and Ruth, and then the party proceeded over the house. With a word and a fee Richard dismissed the caretaker, and the four were free to talk of their affairs. Ruth was wild with delight at the news; Mr. Kendrick quietly happy at Roberta's words to him, and her clasp of his hand.
"Richard was sure you would be pleased, my dear," he said, "and I myself could not doubt that, brought up in the atmosphere you have been, you must prefer such a home as this, so like your own. And if you would really care to have me here with you, a part of the year, I could but be gratified and contented."
They assured him of their joy at this: they mounted the stairs with him and searched for the apartments which should be his. In spite of his protests they insisted on his occupying those which were obviously the choicest of the house, declaring that nothing could be too good for him. He was deeply touched at their devotion, and they were as glad as he. The time passed rapidly in these momentous affairs.
"I suppose we must be off," admitted Richard reluctantly, discovering the hour. "Robin, how can you bear to leave it so long untenanted? From July to Christmas—what an interminable stretch of time!"
"Not with all you have planned to do," Roberta reminded him. "Think what it will mean to get it all in order."
"I do think what it will mean. Don't I, though! It will mean—shopping with my love, choosing rugs and furniture—and plates and cups, Robin—plates and cups to eat and drink from. The fun of that! Will you help us, Rufus?" He turned, laughing, to the young girl beside him. "Will you come and eat and drink from our plates and cups? Ah, but this is a great old world—yes? you three dear people! And I'm the happiest fellow in it!"
There seemed small doubt that there could be few happier, just then, as standing at the top of his own staircase and gazing down into the wide and empty hall toward the open door which led out upon the white-pillared portico of his home-that-was-to-be, Richard Kendrick flung up one arm, lifting an imaginary cup high in the air, and calling joyously:
A STOUT LITTLE CABIN
Christmas morning! and the bells in St. Luke's pealing the great old hymn, dear for scores of years to those who had heard it chiming from the ivy-grown towers—"Adeste, Fideles."
"Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!"
Joyful and triumphant, indeed, though yet subdued and humble, since this paradox may be at times in human hearts, was Richard Kendrick, as he stood waiting in the vestibule of St. Luke's, on Christmas morning, for a tryst he had made. Not with Roberta, for it was not possible for her to be present to-day, but with Ruth Gray, that young sister who had become so like a sister by blood to Richard that, at her suggestion, it had seemed to him the happiest thing in the world to go to church with her on Christmas morning—the morning of the day which was to see his marriage.
The Gray homestead was full of wedding guests, the usual family guests of the Christmas house-party. On the evening before had occurred the Christmas dance, and Richard had led the festivities, with his bride-elect at his side. It had been a glorious merry-making and his pulses had thrilled wildly to the rapture of it. But to-day—to-day was another story.
A slender young figure, in brown velvet with a tiny twig of holly perched among furry trimmings, hurried up the steps and into the vestibule. Richard met Ruth halfway, his face alight, his hand clasping hers eagerly.
"I'm so sorry I am late," she whispered. "Oh, it's so fine of you to come. Isn't it a lovely, lovely way to begin this Day—your and Rob's day, too?"
He nodded, smiling down at her with eyes full of brotherly affection for a most lovable girl. He followed her into the church and took his place beside her, feeling that he would rather be here, just now, than anywhere in the world.
It must be admitted that he hardly heard the service, except for the music, which was of a sort to make its own way into the most abstracted consciousness. But the quiet spirit of the place had its effect upon him, and when he knelt beside Ruth it seemed the most natural thing in the world to form a prayer in his heart that he might be a fit husband for the wife he was so soon to take to himself. Once, during a long period of kneeling, Ruth's hand slipped shyly into his, and he held it fast, with a quickening perception of what it meant to have a pure young spirit like hers beside him in this sacred hour. His soul was full of high resolve to be a son and brother to this rare family into which he was entering such as might do them honour. For it was a very significant fact that to him the people who stood nearest to Roberta were of great consequence; and that a source of extraordinary satisfaction to him, from the first, had been his connection with a family which seemed to him ideal, and association with which made up to him for much of which his life had been empty.
A proof of this had been his invitation, through his grandfather, who had warmly seconded his wish, to Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Gray, to come and stay with the Kendricks throughout this Christmas party, precisely as they had done the year before. To have Aunt Ruth preside at breakfast on this auspicious morning had given Richard the greatest pleasure, and the kiss he had bestowed upon her had been one which she recognized as very like the tribute of a son. From her side he had gone to St. Luke's.
"Good-bye, dear, for a few hours," he whispered to Ruth, as he put her into the brougham, driven by the old family coachman, in which she had come alone to church. "When I see you next I'll be almost your brother. And in just a few minutes after that—"
"Oh, Richard—are you happy?" she whispered back, scanning his face with brimming eyes.
"So happy I can't tell even you. Give my love, my dearest love, to—"
"I will—" as he paused on the name, as if he could not speak it just then. "She was so glad to have us go to church together. She wanted to come herself—so much."
He pressed the small gloved hand held out to him. He knew that Ruth idealized him far beyond his worth—he could read it in her gaze, which was all but reverential. He said to himself, as he turned away, that a man never had so many motives to be true to the girl he was to marry. To bring the first shade of distrust into this little sister's tender eyes would be punishment enough for any disloyalty, no matter what the cause might be.
The wedding was to be at six o'clock. There was nothing about the whole affair, as it had been planned by Roberta, with his full assent, to make it resemble any event of the sort in which he had ever taken part. Not one consideration of custom or of vogue had had weight with her, if it differed from her carefully wrought-out views of what should be. Her ruling idea had been to make it all as simple and sincere as possible, to invite no guests outside her large family and his small one except such personal friends as were peculiarly dear to both. When Richard had been asked to submit his list of these, he had been taken aback to find how pitifully few people he could put upon it. Half a dozen college classmates, a small number of fellow clubmen—these painstakingly considered from more than one standpoint—the Cartwrights, his cousins, whom he really knew but indifferently well; two score easily covered the number of those whom by any stretch of the imagination he could call friends. The long roll of his fashionable acquaintance he dismissed as out of the question. If he had been married in church there would have been several hundreds of these who must unquestionably have been bidden; but since Roberta wanted as she put it, "only those who truly care for us," he could but choose those who seemed to come somewhere near that ideal. To be quite honest, he was aware that his real friends were among those who could not be bidden to his marriage. The crippled children in the hospitals; the suffering poor who would send him their blessing when they read in to-morrow's paper that he was married; the shop-people in Eastman who knew him for the kindest employer they had ever had:—these were they who "truly cared"; and the knowledge was warm at his heart, as with a ruthless hand he scored off names of the mighty in the world of society and finance.
"Dick, my boy, you've grown—you've grown!" was his grandfather's comment, when Richard, with a rueful laugh, had shown the old man the finished list, upon which, well toward the top, had been the names of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Carson. Of Hugh Benson, as best man, Matthew Kendrick heartily approved. "You've chosen the nugget of pure gold, Dick," he said, "where you might have been expected to take one with considerable alloy. He's worth all the others put together."
Richard had never realized this more thoroughly than when, on Christmas afternoon, he invited Benson to drive with him for a last inspection of a certain spot which had been prepared for the reception of the bridal pair at the first stage of their journey. He could not, as Hugh took his place beside him and the two whirled away down the frost-covered avenue, imagine asking any other man in the world to go with him on such a visit. There was no other man he knew who would not have made it the occasion for more or less distasteful raillery; but Hugh Benson was of the rarely few, he felt, who would understand what that "stout little cabin" meant to him.
They came upon it presently, standing bleak and bare as to exterior upon its hilltop, with only a streaming pillar of smoke from its big chimney to suggest that it might be habitable within. But when the heavy door was thrown open, an interior of warmth and comfort presented itself such as brought an exclamation of wonder from the guest, and made Richard's eyes shine with satisfaction.
The long, low room had been furnished simply but fittingly with such hangings, rugs, and few articles of furniture as should suggest home-likeness and service. Before the wide hearth stood two big winged chairs, and a set of bookshelves was filled with a carefully chosen collection of favourite books. The colourings were warm but harmonious, and upon a heavy table, now covered with a rich, dull red cloth, stood a lamp of generous proportions and beauty of design.
"I've tried to steer a line between luxury and austerity," Richard explained, as Hugh looked about him with pleased observation. "We shall not be equipped for real roughing it—not this time, though sometimes we may like to come here dressed as hunters and try living on bare boards. I just wanted it to seem like a bit of home, when she comes in to-night. There'll be some flowers here then, of course—lots of them, and that ought to give it the last touch. There are always flowers in her home, bowls of them, everywhere—it was one of the first things I noticed. Do you think she will like it here?" he ended, with a hint of almost boyish diffidence in his tone.
"Like it? It's wonderful. I never heard of anything so—so—all it should be for—a girl like her," Hugh exclaimed, lamely enough, yet with a certain eloquence of inflection which meant more than his choice of words. He turned to Richard. "I can't tell you," he went on, flushing with the effort to convey to his friend his deep feeling, "how fortunate I think you are, and how I hope—oh, I hope you and she will be—the happiest people in the world!"
"I'm sure you hope that, old fellow," Richard answered, more touched by this difficult voicing of what he knew to be Hugh's genuine devotion than he should have been by the most felicitous phrasing of another's congratulations. "And I can tell you this. There's nobody else I know whom I would have brought here to see my preparations—nobody else who would have understood how I feel about—what I'm doing to-day. I never should have believed it would have seemed so—well, so sacred a thing to take a girl away from all the people who love her, and bring her to a place like this. I wish—wish I were a thousand times more fit for her."
"Rich Kendrick—" Benson was taken out of himself now. His voice was slightly tremulous, but he spoke with less difficulty than before. "You are fitter than you know. You've developed as I never thought any man could in so short a time. I've been watching you and I've seen it. There was always more in you than people gave you credit for—it was your inheritance from a father and grandfather who have meant a great deal in their world. You've found out what you were meant for, and you're coming up to new and finer standards every day. You are fit to take this girl—and that means much, because I know a little of what a—" Now he was floundering again, and his fine, then face flamed more hotly than before—"of what she is!" he ended, with a complete breakdown in the style of his phraseology, but with none at all in the conveyance of his meaning.
Richard flung out his hand, catching Hugh's, and gripping it. "Bless you for a friend and a brother!" he cried, his eyes bright with sudden moisture. "You're another whom I mustn't disappoint. Disappoint? I ought to be flayed alive if I ever forget the people who believe in me—who are trusting me with—Roberta!"
It was a pity she could not have heard him speak her name, have seen the way he looked at his friend as he spoke it, and have seen the way his friend looked back at him. There was a quality in their mentioning of her, here in this place where she was soon to be, which was its own tribute to the young womanhood she so radiantly imaged.
In spite of all these devices to make the hours pass rapidly, they seemed to Richard to crawl. That one came, at last, however, which saw him knocking at the door of his grandfather's suite, dressed for his marriage, and eager to depart. Bidden by Mr. Kendrick's man to enter, he presented himself in the old gentleman's dressing-room, where its occupant, as scrupulously attired as himself, stood ready to descend to the waiting car. Richard closed the door behind him, and stood looking at his grandfather with a smile.
"Well, Dick, boy—ready? Ah, but you look fresh and fine! Clean in body and mind and heart for her—eh? That's how you look, sir—as a man should look—and feel—on his wedding day. Well, she's worth it, Dick—worth the best you can give."
"Worth far better than I can give, grandfather," Richard responded, the glow in his smooth cheek deepening.
"Well, I don't mean to overrate you," said the old man, smiling, "but you seem to me pretty well worth while any girl's taking. Not that you can't become more so—and will, I thoroughly believe. It's not so much what you've done this last year as what you show promise of doing—great promise. That's all one can ask at your age. Ten years later—but we won't go into that. To-night's enough—eh, my dear boy? My dear boy!" he repeated, with a sudden access of tenderness in his voice. Then, as if afraid of emotion for them both, he pressed his grandson's hand and abruptly led the way into the outer room, where Thompson stood waiting with his fur-lined coat and muffler.
From this point on it seemed to Richard more or less like a rapidly shifting series of pictures, all wonderfully coloured. The first was that of the electric light of the big car's interior shining on the faces of Uncle Rufus and Aunt Ruth, on Mr. Kendrick and Hugh Benson—the latter a little pale but quite composed. Hugh had owned that he felt seriously inadequate for the role which was his to-night, being no society man and unaccustomed to taking conspicuous parts anywhere but in business. But Richard had assured him that it was all a very simple matter, since it was just a question of standing by a friend in the crisis of his life! And Hugh had responded that it would be a pity indeed if he were unwilling to do that.
The next picture was that of the wide hall at the Gray home—as he came into it a vivid memory flashed over Richard of his first entrance there—less honoured than to-night! Soft lights shone upon him; the spicy fragrance of the ropes and banks of Christmas "greens," bright with holly, saluted his nostrils; and the glimpse of a great fire burning, quite as usual, on the broad hearth of the living-room—a place which had long since come to typify his ideal of a home—served to make him feel that there could be no spot more suitable for the beginning of a new home, because there could be nothing in the world finer or more beautiful to model it upon.
Nothing seemed afterward clear in his memory until the moment when he came from his room upstairs, with Hugh close behind him, and met the rector of St. Luke's, who was to marry him. There followed a hazy impression of a descent of the staircase, of coming from a detour through the library out into the full lights and of standing interminably facing a large gathering of people, the only face at which he could venture to glance that of Judge Calvin. Gray, standing dignified and stately beside another figure of equal dignity and stateliness—probably that of Mr. Matthew Kendrick. Then, at last—there was Roberta, coming toward him down a silken lane, her eyes fixed on his—such eyes, in such a face! He fixed his own gaze upon it, and held it—and forgot everything else, as he had hoped he should. Then there were the grave words of the clergyman, and his own voice responding—and sounding curiously unlike his own, of course, as the voice of the bridegroom has sounded in his own ears since time began. Then Roberta's—how clearly she spoke, bless her! Then, before he knew it, it was done, and he and she were rising from their knees, and there were smiles and pleasant murmurings all about them—and little Ruth was sobbing softly with her cheek against his!
It was here that he became conscious again of the family—Roberta's family, and of what it meant to have such people as these welcome him into their circle. When he looked into the face of Roberta's mother and felt her tender welcoming kiss upon his lips, his heart beat hard with joy. When Roberta's father, his voice deep with feeling, said to him, "Welcome to our hearts, my son," he could only grasp the firm hand with an answering, passionate pressure which meant that he had at last that which he had consciously or unconsciously longed for all his life. All down the line his overcharged spirit responded to the warmth of their reception of him—Stephen and Rosamond, Louis and Ruth and young Ted, smiling at him, saying the kindest things to him, making him one of them as only those can who are blessed with understanding natures. To be sure, it was all more or less confused in his memory, when he tried to recall it afterward, but enough of it remained vivid to assure him that it had been all he could have asked or hoped—and that it was far, far more than he deserved!
"The boy bears up pretty well, eh?" observed old Matthew Kendrick to his lifelong friend, Judge Calvin Gray, as the two stood aside, having gone through their own part in the greeting of the bridal pair. Mr. Kendrick's hand was still tingling with the wringing grip of his grandson's; his heart was warm with the remembrance of the way Richard's brilliant eyes had looked into his as he had said, low in the old man's ear—"I'm not less yours, grandfather—and she's yours, too." Roberta had put both arms about his neck, whispering: "Indeed I am, dear grandfather—if you'll have me." Well, it had been happiness enough, and it was good to watch them as they went on with their joyous task, knowing that he had a large share in their lives, and would continue to have it.
"Bears up? I should say he did. He looks as if he could assist in steadying the world upon the shoulders of old Atlas," answered Judge Gray happily. "It's a trying position for any man, and some of them only just escape looking craven."
"The man who could stand beside that young woman and look craven would deserve to be hamstrung," was the other's verdict. "Cal, she's enough to turn an old man's head; we can't wonder that a young one's is swimming. And the best of it is that it isn't all looks, it's real beauty to the core. She's rich in the qualities that stand wear in a wearing world—and her goodness isn't the sort that will ever pall on her husband. She'll keep him guessing to the end of time, but the answer will always give him fresh delight in her."
"You analyze her well," admitted Roberta's uncle. "But that's to be expected of a man who's been a pastmaster all his life in understanding and dealing with human nature."
"When it was not too near me, Cal. When it came to the dearest thing I had in the world, I made a mistake with it. It was only when the boy came under this roof that he received the stimulus that has made him what he is. That was sure to tell in the end."
"Ah, but he had your blood in him," declared Calvin Gray heartily.
Thus, all about them, in many quarters, were the young pair affectionately discussed. Not the least eloquent in their praise were the youngest members of the company.
"I say, but I'm proud of my new brother," declared Ted Gray, the picture of youthful elegance, with every hair in place, and a white rose on the lapel of his short evening-jacket. He was playing escort to the prettiest of his girl cousins. "Isn't he a stunner to-night?"
"He always was—that is, since I've known him," responded Esther, Uncle Philip's daughter. "I can't help laughing when I think of the Christmas party last year, and how Rob made us all think he was a poor young man, and she didn't like him at all. All of us girls thought she was so queer not to want to dance with him, when he was so handsome and danced so beautifully. I suppose she was just pretending she didn't care for him."
"Nobody ever'll know when Rob did change her mind about him," Ted assured her. "She can make you think black's green when she wants to."
"Isn't she perfectly wonderful to-night?" sighed the pretty cousin, with a glance from her own home-made frock—in which, however, she looked like a freshly picked rose—to Roberta's bridal gown, shimmering through mistiness, simplicity itself, yet, as the little cousin well knew, the product of such art as she herself might never hope to command. "I always thought she was perfectly beautiful, but she's absolutely fascinating to-night."
"Tell that to Rich. I'm afraid he doesn't appreciate her," laughed Ted, indicating his new brother-in-law, who, at the moment being temporarily unemployed, was to be observed following his bride with his eyes with a wistful gaze indicating helplessness without her even for a fraction of time.
Roberta had been drawn a little away by her husband's best man, who had something to tell her which he had reserved for this hour.
"Mrs. Kendrick," he was beginning—at which he was bidden to remember that he had known the girl Roberta for many years; and so began again, smiling with gratitude:
"Roberta, have you any idea what is happening in Eastman to-night?"
"Indeed I haven't, Hugh. Anything I ought to know of?"
"I think it's time you did. Every employee in our store is sitting down to a great dinner, served by a caterer from this city, with a Christmas favour at every plate. The place cards have a K and G on them in monogram. There are such flowers for decorations as most of those people never saw. I don't need to tell you whose doing this is."
He had the reward he had anticipated for the telling of this news—Roberta's cheek coloured richly, and her eyes fell for a moment to hide the surprise and happiness in them.
"That may seem like enough," he went on gently, "but it wasn't enough for him. At every children's hospital in this city, and in every children's ward, there is a Christmas tree to-night, loaded with gifts. And I want you to know that, busy as he has been until to-day, he picked out every gift himself, and wrote the name on the card with his own hand."
It was too much to tell her all at once, and he knew it when he saw her eyes fill, though she smiled through the shining tears as she murmured:
"And he didn't tell me!"
"No, nor meant to. When I remonstrated with him he said you might think it a posing to impress you, whereas it simply meant the overflow of his own happiness. He said if he didn't have some such outlet he should burst with the pressure of it!"
Her moved laughter provided some sort of outlet for her own pressure of feeling about these tidings. When she had recovered control of herself she turned to glance toward her husband, and Hugh's heart stirred within him at the starry radiance of that look, which she could not veil successfully from him, who knew the cause of it.
It was the Alfred Carsons who came to her last; the young manager beaming with pleasure in the honour done him by his invitation to this family wedding, to which the great of the city were mostly intentionally unbidden; his pretty young wife, in effective modishness of attire by no means ill-chosen, glowing with pride and rosy with the effort to comport herself in keeping with the standards of these "democratically aristocratic" people, as her husband had shrewdly characterized them. As they stood talking with the bride, two of Richard's friends standing near by, former close associates in the life of the clubs he was now too busy to pursue, exchanged a brief colloquy which would mightily have interested the subject of it if he could have heard it.
"Who are these?" demanded one of the other, gazing elsewhere as he spoke.
"Partner or manager or something, in that business of Rich's up in Eastman. So Belden Lorimer says."
"Bright looking chap—might be anybody, except for the wife. A bit too conscious, she."
"You might not notice that except in contrast with the new Mrs. Kendrick. There's the real thing, yes? Rich knew what he was doing when he picked her out."
"Undoubtedly he did. The whole family's pretty fine—not the usual sort. Watch Mrs. Clifford Cartwright. Even she's impressed. Odd, eh?—with all the country cousins about, too."
"I know. It's in the air. And of course everybody knows the family blood is of the bluest. Unostentatious but sure of itself. The Cartwrights couldn't get that air, not in a thousand years."
"Rich himself has it, though—and the grandfather."
"True enough. I'm wondering which class we belong in!"
The two laughed and moved closer. Neither could afford to miss a chance of observing their old friend under these new conditions, for he had been a subject of their speculations ever since the change in him had begun. And though they had deplored the loss of him from their favourite haunts, they had been some time since forced to admit that he had never been so well worth knowing as now that he was virtually lost to them.
"Oh, Robby, darling—I can never, never let you go!"
So softly wailed Ruth, her slim young form clinging to her sister's, regardless of her bridesmaid's crushed finery, daintily cherished till this moment. Over her head Roberta's eyes looked into her mother's. There were no tears in the fine eyes which met hers, but somehow Roberta knew that Ruth's heartache was a tiny pain beside that other's.
Richard, looking on, standing ready to take his bride away, wondered once more within himself how he could have the heart to do it. But it was done, and he and Roberta were off together down the steps; and he was putting her into Mr. Kendrick's closed car; and she was leaning past him to wave and wave again at the dear faces on the porch. Under the lights here and there one stood out more clearly than the rest—Louis's, flushed and virile; Rosamond's, lovely as a child's; old Mr. Kendrick's, intent and grave, forgetting to smile. The father and the mother were in the shadow—but little Gordon, Stephen's boy, made of himself a central figure by running forward at the last to fling up a sturdy arm and cry:
"Good-bye, Auntie Wob—come back soon!"
It had been a white Christmas, and the snow had fallen lightly all day long. It was coming faster now, and the wind was rising, to Richard's intense satisfaction. He had been fairly praying for a gale, improbable though that seemed. There was a considerable semblance of a storm, however, through which to drive the twelve miles to the waiting cabin on the hilltop, and when the car stopped and the door was opened, a heavy gust came swirling in. The absence of lights everywhere made the darkness seem blacker, out here in the country, and the general effect of outer desolation was as near this strange young man's desire as could have been hoped.
"Good driving, Rogers. It was a quick trip, in spite of the heavy roads at the last. Thank you—and good-night."
"Thank you, sir. Good-night, Mr. Kendrick—and Mrs. Kendrick, if I may."
"Good-night, Rogers," called the voice Rogers had learned greatly to admire, and he saw her face smiling at him as the lights of the car streamed out upon it.
Then the great car was gone, and Richard was throwing open the door of the cabin, letting all the warmth and glow and fragrance of the snug interior greet his bride, as he led her in and shut the door with a resounding force against the winter night and storm.
It had been a dream of his that he should put her into one of the big, cushioned, winged chairs, and take his own place on the hearth-rug at her feet. Together they should sit and look into the fire, and be as silent or as full of happy speech as might seem to befit the hour. Now, when he had bereft her of her furry wraps and welcomed her as he saw fit, he made his dream come true. He told her of it as he put her in her chair, and saw her lean back against the comfortable cushioning with a long breath of inevitable weariness after many hours of tension.
"And you wondered which it would be, speech or silence?" queried Roberta, as he took that place he had meant to take, at her knee, and looked up, smiling, into her down-bent face.
"I did wonder, but I don't wonder now. I know. There aren't any words, are there?"
"No," she answered, looking now into the fire, yet seeing, as clearly as before, his fine and ardent, yet reverent face, "I think there are no words."