Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part I.--Five Miles Out
Chapter X. Jack-O'-Lanterns
To the strains of the intermezzo from the "Cavalleria Rusticana," which the orchestra was sending out through the open windows, Max was returning from the gateway to the house. The October night was so mild that he had stolen out bareheaded upon the errand which had taken him to the road. The errand might have been considered an odd one: he wanted to look at the house!
To be sure, illuminated as it was by many gayly coloured lights, the lanterns glowing all across the porch and down the driveway, it was well worth looking at. But it was not this decorative effect which the young host had come out to exult over. And, viewed as a residence only, he had certainly observed it many times before, and under varying conditions. He knew to a nicety just how many slats were lacking from certain of the blinds, just how the ragged edge of the great chimney showed against the sky line, precisely where the big pillared porch needed repairing. No, it was not in any of these aspects that he had come curiously out to view it now. He wanted to see it with the eyes of the prospective purchasers, Jarvis Burnside and Neil Chase. He wanted particularly to see it as Chase saw it, that upon mention of the fact that Max had already been interviewed by a prospective buyer, he had, in spite of his effort to appear indifferent, really shown such eagerness to be given an option upon the place.
Max walked slowly back toward the house, under the shadow of the row of great trees bordering what had once been a lawn. Two figures had just come out upon the porch; he recognized them, even at this distance, as the Chases. At the moment, nobody else occupied the porch. Neil and Dorothy stood for a moment under the lanterns, looking back into the hall, then turned and descended the steps. They surveyed the house as they did so; they backed farther away from it; they strolled round to the west side, and viewed it from that point. Finally, as Max halted beside a tree-trunk, watching them, they began to walk slowly down the driveway, turning from time to time to gaze back at the house-front.
As they passed Max, catching no hint of his presence in the shadow, they conversed in phrases which were of interest to him, and to which, since they intimately concerned himself, he might be excused for listening.
"It's simply stunning," Dorothy was saying eagerly, as they passed. "I'd rather have it than forty new houses. When it's restored it will have such an air! I don't suppose they appreciate it at all, do they? Oh, do get hold of it before anybody tells them!"
"Max says Sally is crazy to live in it. But that can't be because she realizes its value."
"No, she's just old-fashioned child enough to like it because it's homelike, and her uncle and grandfather lived in it, not because it's such a swell type of the real old thing that people rave over now."
"Max isn't the sort to care for it either. But he has an eye on the cash. I shall have to put up a fair price, all right, to get it. I'll try bluffing first, though. He's too much of an office grind to care for anything else, so long as he gets his money. I say, won't that gateway be a corker, when it's put right?"
They walked on out of hearing, but Max had heard all that was necessary to make him tingle.
"Oh, it will be a corker, will it?" he said to himself, as he made for the back of the house by way of the pine grove. "Maybe it will, old, man--but not when you put it right! An office grind, am I? Too dull to know a good thing when I own it, eh? And you'll try bluffing, will you? All right, bluff away--and much good may it do you! I'd sell it to Jarve Burnside before I'd sell it to you, but I--Hello, where are you going?"
He had almost run into Jarvis, hastily emerging from the kitchen door with a smoking jack-o'-lantern, the declining candle of which had made of it both a wreck and the source of a horrible odour. Jarvis cast the pumpkin to one side and wiped his hands on his handkerchief. "Just prevented a small conflagration of corn-stalks," he explained. "What are you doing, prowling round your own back door?"
"Making up my mind not to sell this place to you or to anybody else," said Max, promptly, speaking under the impulse of his irritation.
"Good work! I don't blame you. I certainly don't want it--if you do. I hope you won't go back on letting me rent a few acres, though, to try my hand at farming, in the spring?"
"Jarve,"--Max sat down on the kitchen step--"do you seriously think a fellow could make a living off this land--taking into account all the squash-bugs and fruit-tree pests and tomato-grubs and every other thing that I've always understood makes the life of the farmer miserable?"
"I think," replied Jarvis, laughing a little at Max's way of putting it, but awake to the importance of discussing the matter seriously, if Max showed an inclination to do so, "that trying to do it, with the help of all the experience that modern experiment stations have placed at our hands, would be about the most interesting thing possible. You might not want to give up all other business till you had proved that you really could do it, but I certainly do think the thing would be well worth trying. It's being attempted more and more these days by educated men, college graduates and professional men of all ranks, partly for the pure interest of the thing, partly because the out-door life is about the best worth living. Look at Don Ferry, for an example. Could he possibly have the hold he has on that crowd of his at the Old Dutch if he weren't a man made of substantial flesh and blood, his brain as healthy and his heart as warm as exercise and oxygen can make them?--Well, perhaps he could, if he were one of your pale and scholarly ghosts, but I doubt it."
"This idea of living out here in winter--" Max went off on a new tack--"it's seemed to me absolute foolishness. But if Neil Chase is so, confoundedly anxious to move in before we can move out--"
"Yes. He practically made me an offer for the place to-night."
"Well, well!" Jarvis's eyes gleamed with satisfaction in the darkness. So old Neil was helping the thing along, was he? Nothing could have been better. "Going to consider it?"
"Hardly! See here, could we keep warm in that barracks this winter?"
"You don't have to live all over it. With those fireplaces and waste wood enough in your lot up there to run a blast-furnace, I don't see why you should have any fear of freezing."
"Our little stock of furniture wouldn't go anywhere in furnishing."
"It would furnish a certain amount of space. Keep the rest shut up till you could furnish it."
"I shouldn't think of the thing for a minute," said Max, in the tone of one who explains the inconsistency of so sudden a change of attitude, "if I hadn't this day been notified that the price of our flat is to go up ten dollars a month on the first of November. It's an outrage!"
"It's an extraordinary piece of luck," said Jarvis to himself. But aloud he admitted that it was a good deal of a jump, and a pretty high price for the flat.
At this moment some one looked out of the kitchen window, and then asked Mary Ann inside if she had seen anything lately of Mr. Max.
"I suppose we'll have to go back to the crowd," admitted Max, and they returned just in time to see the first guests taking their leave.
When all had gone, Jarvis hunted up Sally. He found her in one of the dressing-rooms, extinguishing candles which had nearly burned to the bottoms of the lanterns, and were threatening their inflammable surroundings.
"Here, don't touch those things, with your thin clothes on!" Jarvis cried. "We fellows must go round and make all safe--no taking any chances with the house full of dry corn-stalks. But first--have you had a good time to-night?"
"A glorious time. All the evening I've felt as if I lived here--it looked so furnished, somehow, with all the lights and decorations."
"It made you want to live here more than ever, didn't it?"
"It did, indeed. And in ten days we shall be going back to town,"
"Perhaps you won't."
She stared at him. "What in the world do you mean?"
"I don't mean anything," said he, laughing. "I'm like a small boy bursting with the secret information that there's to be ice-cream for dinner. So I don't mean anything--but I'd like to shake hands on it, just the same."
"Jarvis!" She let him seize both her hands and shake them up and down. "You do mean something!"
"Come out in the hall and do the corn-stalk prance with me."
"The corn-stalk prance! What in the world is that? Are you crazy?"
"I'll teach it to you," and he led her out into the wide hall, which had been all the evening the most attractive spot in the house. He pulled two stalks from one of the sheaves which stood on each side of the great fireplace. He handed her one, and throwing the other across his shoulder as if it were a gun, marched to the drawing-room door. The musicians were just putting away their instruments, having played till the last guests were out of hearing.
"Just one more, will you?" he asked, grinning at them in a way which they understood meant an extra fee.
Then he came back to Sally. "Now for it!" he said. "I never did this myself,--nor heard of it--but if we can't do an impromptu turn to-night, on our high spirits, we never can again. Come on!"--as the music burst forth. And he made her an impressive bow.
Smiling, and ready enough to follow his lead, Sally returned him a sweeping courtesy, in minuet style.
"Hi, what's this?" cried Bob, returning from the porch, where he, with the others, had been watching the departure of the procession of carriages and automobiles which had borne the guests away.
"Here, come and see what's going on!" he shouted back to the porch, and they came hurrying in. Mrs. Burnside and Donald Ferry, Josephine and Max, Mrs. Ferry and Alec and Uncle Timothy ranged themselves along the walls, their faces all enjoyment of the somewhat remarkable affair now in progress.
Jarvis and Sally might have been improvising, there was no doubt that they were, but the result was the product of inspiration. Up and down, double and single, in and out, round and round, with all manner of fancy steps, both surprising and picturesque, saluting each other every now and then with bows, with wavings of the corn-stalks, with gestures of greeting and farewell.
Jarvis, without his glasses, his face brilliant with life and merriment, looked a different fellow from the one his friends had been accustomed to see of late; and Sally, her cheeks like crimson carnations, her eyes dark with fun and happiness, her steps the embodiment of youthful grace, was a fascinating figure to watch.
"Isn't that the prettiest thing you ever saw?" asked Josephine of Donald Ferry, as he stood beside her with folded arms.
"I suppose they're making it up as they go along," he said, "but it's very clever and charming. I didn't know your brother had it in him to be so gay."
"Oh, he has. It's this long bother with his eyes that has made him look like an owl, and feel like one. He has plenty of fun and energy in him when it gets a chance."
"I'm beginning to find him out. I like a chap who can relax like that, and show the boyish side of himself now and then."
"And isn't Sally perfectly dear? I never saw her look prettier than to-night," declared Josephine, with an unconscious glance from Sally's white frock, which she knew was an old and much mended one, down at her own pale blue gown, just home from an expensive shop. She was thinking that if she looked half as well in her fine things as Sally in her simple old ones, she should be quite content.
Ferry looked down at the dark head beside him. He remembered no less than three fair maids who had, that evening, called his attention, by one means and another, to points less attractive than their own in other girls. It struck him, as it had done more than once before, that a very warm generosity characterized the friendship between Josephine and Sally, inasmuch as each had seemed to him to be most anxious to have him appreciate the charms of the other.
As for Josephine herself, though he would not bluntly tell her so, she had seldom presented a more winsome picture than to-night. Her dark colouring and piquant features possessed a quality very close to beauty, and her smile at Sally, at a moment when the girl, sweeping close, made her friend a special salutation, was undoubtedly a very attractive thing.
A burst of enthusiastic applause greeted the final whirl and bows of the "corn-stalk prance," and Sally, breathless, dropped upon the bottom step of the wide staircase. Jarvis, coming close to Max, whose hand-clapping was of the heartiest, said in his friend's ear, "Why not tell her now that you've decided to stay here? If you do, you'll make this the happiest night of her life."
Max looked at him. Sally's elder brother was in a more genial mood than he had been in for some time. Somehow his new understanding that the Lanes possessed a more valuable piece of property than they had realized, property for which two buyers were ready at any hour to give them a satisfactory price, had put him into good humour. Then he had been all the evening playing the pleasant part of host under conditions which had called forth many complimentary remarks from guests whose opinions he valued, and he was experiencing the comfortable glow which comes with such a role.
Just now, the sight of his little sister making of herself so charming a spectacle, had caused him to feel an unusual stirring of pride in her. All these factors combined to help Jarvis's suggestion.
He approached his sister as she sat, rosy cheeked and laughing, on the lowest stair, and stood before her. "That wasn't so bad," he said, approvingly. "You and Jarve had better get out a copyright on that--you worked in some pretty fancy steps. Got your skates on to-night, haven't you?"
Sally thrust forward a small, white-shod foot. "No, only some badly used-up pumps. If it hadn't been for Bob and his pipe-clay they would never have been presentable again."
"You're certainly great on making things go. Er--that is--suppose you could make six chairs, a table, and an old couch furnish that room in there--for the winter?"
Their eyes met. Those who happened to be observing from a little distance--and of these there were at least three who had as yet been unable to take their eyes off Sally--saw such a wave of delight sweep over her expressive face as made it even more vivid than they had ever seen it. After an instant's wide-eyed silence, her lips parted, the girl was on her feet.
"Max! Do you mean it? Are we to stay? Oh--you old dear! Make our things furnish that room? Of course I can!"
Her arms were round his neck for the space of two seconds; then she had seized his hand, and was pulling him toward the others. Jarvis, watching Max's face, saw there more amiability than he could have hoped. Yet it would have been a strangely flinty heart, he thought, that could have resisted Sally to-night.
"Ladies and gentlemen,"--Sally made them a low bow,--"we are so glad you've enjoyed our hospitality. Allow us to express our hope that we may have the pleasure of entertaining you often during the winter. We shall be at home here every Saturday evening throughout the season--pop-corn refreshments and corn-stalk-fiddle music, with conversation!"
Bob was first to respond. With a shout, he dashed into the long drawing-room, from which the musicians had now departed, and relieved his feelings by turning a series of handsprings from one end of it to the other.
Alec, who had not much cared to spend the winter in the country, but had of late become immensely drawn toward Donald Ferry, reflected that there might be good times forthcoming out here which would never happen in town. So he grinned pleasantly enough.
Uncle Timothy, beaming, said, "That's very good!" to Mrs. Burnside, and she returned warmly:
"Indeed, I think it is, Mr. Rudd."
Josephine clapped both her hands, then ran to wring Sally's and Max's, declaring joyfully:
"You'll be the most popular resort outside the city."
Jarvis followed, to observe, in a calm tone--to cover his delight, though he succeeded in only partially concealing it from Max, and not at all from Sally--"I think it's a wise decision, and I hope it will mean a partnership in strawberries and squashes next summer. You'll see me out soon with seed-catalogues--since we didn't find any behind that locked door last April."
"We shall be so glad to have such neighbours for the winter," said Mrs. Ferry, with genuine pleasure in her face. "And I hope Donald and I can do something toward making you feel that you have real country neighbours of the kind who are counted as assets."
"If it weren't for you people, I don't think I should have the courage to try it," acknowledged Max.
"We'll make it such a winter you'll never have the courage to go back," prophesied Ferry. "I have a pair of toboggans stowed away somewhere; I'll send for them when the snow comes. That slope from your timber lot down across the fields--"
Bob, returning from the handspring episode, caught these words and raised a whoop of anticipation. "Hi--toboggans!" he was heard to ejaculate at intervals during the next ten minutes.
"Sally," said Uncle Timothy Rudd, "up in New Hampshire, where I used to live before I came to stay with your family, there is an attic full of old furniture which belonged to my father. I have never disposed of it, because certain associations made me have an affection for it. It is pretty old style, and not, I am afraid, in very good condition, but if you care for it--"
"Oh, Uncle Timmy! No matter how old it is or how shaky, we can use it."
"Probably the older and shakier it is, the more valuable when it has been restored," suggested Mrs. Burnside.
"I should say so," declared Jarvis, with emphasis. "You should have heard the Neil Chases rave over some of theirs. Neil found a sideboard in an old cabin down South; it had the doors nailed on with strips of leather; they kept corn meal and molasses in it. He wouldn't take five hundred dollars for it now."
"I don't imagine," said Uncle Timothy, cautiously, "that any of my things are as valuable as that, so don't get your expectations too high, Sally. But they may help you in the matter of supplying chairs and beds for your friends. I take it this will be a hospitable homestead, when Sally is mistress of it."
"How could it help being hospitable," cried Sally, happily, "with friends like ours for guests?"
"Let's make a circle on the hearth, for good luck," proposed Josephine.
Beckoning, she led the way toward the fireplace, where the flames of the big logs, which had leaped and danced there all the evening, carefully fed by Bob from time to time, had now died down into a mass of brilliant coals.
On either side the sheaves of yellow corn-stalks stood like sentinels, and above a row of jack-o'-lanterns, whose candles had been renewed when they threatened to burn low, looked cheerfully down from the high chimney-piece.
"All join hands," commanded Josephine, "and sing 'Auld Lang Syne.'"
"Will you let such new acquaintances join in that song?" asked Mrs. Ferry, as Alec, who was next her, caught her hand in obedience to orders.
"Of course we will. We hope that time will make you old friends," answered Uncle Timothy, gallantly, stretching out his hand, as he stood next upon her other side.
It is rather curious how, in any such grouping, certain combinations come about. Neither Jarvis Burnside nor Donald Ferry seemed to make any abrupt moves, and there certainly was a moment when it might have seemed the natural thing that Jarvis should grasp Uncle Timothy's hand, Ferry seize upon Bob's. But so it did not turn out.
When the circle began slowly to revolve before the fire, one of Sally's hands was in Jarvis's, the other in that of the neighbour who could chop down trees as easily as he could address audiences, and whose hand, therefore, possessed a warm and even grip which suggested both friendliness and strength. Upon Donald Ferry's farther side was Josephine, and Max clasped her other hand. As for Alec and Bob, it did not matter much to them whose hands they held, so that the circle moved briskly and sang lustily. And this it surely did.
"Are you happy, little girl?" asked Jarvis, bending to speak into Sally's ear, as the circle broke up.
Smiling, Sally dashed away a tear. "So happy I'm almost crying," she owned. "It's beginning to seem as if we were going to have a--home, a real home once more--as much as we ever can--without--"
"I understand," he whispered, and led her away down the hall, that she might recover the poise the singing of the old song had shaken.
"They must have been here often when we children were little," she murmured, pausing by the open door under the staircase, which led to a side porch. Just here she was hidden from the rest.
"I'm sure they were. I remember driving out here once with your father, and seeing him sit in front of that hall fireplace with your Uncle Maxwell, talking business. They were here more, I imagine, when you were very small, than afterward, when you were old enough to remember."
"They've been here," said Sally softly. "They've walked about these old floors and looked out of these windows. That makes it home to me. And if I can only make it home to the others--"
"You couldn't help making it home--anywhere."
"Oh, Jarvis, you're such a good friend!--I keep telling you that, till you must be tired of hearing it."
"I'm not tired of hearing it."
There followed an eloquent little silence, during which Jarvis took the girl's hand in both his own and held it close in a way which meant to her the comprehending sympathy with all her joys and sorrows which he had long given her. To him it meant so much more that he dared not give expression to it in any but this mute fashion. But his heart beat high with longing and with hope, though he was firmly bidding himself wait--and wait a long time yet before he put his fortune to the touch, "to win or lose it all!"
Then Sally wiped her eyes, put her handkerchief away, and faced about.
"Now I can go back," she said. "Thank you for giving me a chance to put Sally Lunn in order. The mistress of a mansion like this must always have herself in hand, mustn't she?"
Standing on her own hearth-stone, Sally said good-night to all her guests like the grand lady she gayly affected to be. But like the girl she was, she ran after them to wave her hand at them from the big porch, crying, "Come again--please all do come again--oh, very soon!"