Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part II. The Lanes and the Acres.
Chapter XIII. Afternoon Tea
"I feel," said Sally Lane, impressively, "that the way to receive them properly is to have afternoon tea on the lawn. What is the use of having a lawn--even though it's still rather hummocky--and four magnificent ancestral oaks--ancestral oaks sounds like an English novel--if we don't have afternoon tea on It--under Them?"
She stood in the doorway of the front room in the west wing, where Mrs. Burnside and Josephine were sitting, the one busy with some small piece of sewing, the other writing letters at a desk.
"Are they coming over before we call on them?" Josephine inquired, with poised pen. "Coming to-day? Why, they only arrived last night."
"I saw Mr. Ferry this morning, and he said he did not want to wait for us to come over with our hats and gloves on and call, he wanted to bring the girls and his mother over this afternoon, so as to lose no time in having them find out what was on the farther side of the hedge. I asked him why he hadn't brought them with him then--it was at eight o'clock this morning. But he said he wanted to bring them himself, and he was then on his way to his car--otherwise he thought he should not have hesitated at all on account of the hour. He said they were crazy to come."
"Sally! He didn't say they were crazy to come."
"He didn't use that particular word, perhaps--men never do, of course. But he said 'eager,' or 'anxious,' or something like that--it means the same thing. Evidently they've been told all about us. What would you give, Jo Burnside, to know how we've been described?"
"We probably haven't been described. Men never describe people. They just say, 'She's all right, you'll like her,' or something equally vague."
"It would give me a chance to wear my lilac muslin," mused Sally quite irrelevantly, but Josephine caught her meaning.
"Afternoon tea on the lawn? Then do let's have it. Anything to see you in that lilac muslin."
"Then we'll trail over the lawn to meet them--only the lilac muslin doesn't trail--and we'll hold out our hands at a medium sort of angle, so that we'll be prepared to reciprocate whatever sort of high-low shake fresh from abroad they give us. Since Dorothy Chase came back last fall she gives a side-to-side jerk that stops your breath short just where it happens to be at the moment. What do you suppose they'll be like? Young ladies from two years' residence in Germany, or just plain, jolly girls?"
Josephine shook her head, but her mother replied in a quiet tone of conviction: "I doubt if the daughter of that family will be anything but a simple-mannered girl, no matter how experienced she may be in foreign usages."
Sally nodded. "So I'm hoping. But 'Miss Carew'--with a voice--sounds more formidable. It's for Miss Carew I'm going to have afternoon tea. I'll go out now and make my little cakes. And I'll have very, very thin bread and butter. I've just one cherished jar of the choicest Orange Pekoe, so the tea will be above reproach. And my one pride is my linen--you know how much mother always kept--not only her own but Grandmother Rudd's." Then she vanished, quite suddenly, from the doorway, as if, having once mentioned the mother of whom she seldom spoke, she could not come back again to other subjects until a period of silence had intervened.
"I'm so anxious to see her put away the black clothes," said Josephine to her mother. "It will be good for her to wear the lilac muslin, for now she's made it she can't bring herself to put it on, though she knows how we all want to see her in colours again. Speaking of colours--Jarvis said this morning that by the fence in the south meadow the grass was blue with wild violets. I believe I'll go and pick a big bunch for Sally's tea-table."
"It seems rather early for tea on the lawn," suggested Mrs. Burnside, "though I couldn't bear to damp Sally's ardour by saying so."
"Oh, it's really very warm, and the lawn seems quite dry. I don't blame Sally for wanting to show off the 'ancestral oaks.' It's almost like June."
But--alas for plans which count upon the most June-like May weather--no guests were served with afternoon tea that day except under a roof more substantial than the low-hanging boughs of the great oaks. At mid-afternoon, treacherously enough, the sky showed not a cloud, except over beyond the timber lot, where they had risen to some height before they could be discerned from the lawn. There Sally, lilac-clad, was laying her fine linen cloth, setting out her thin teacups of the old gold-banded china, and arranging Josephine's blue meadow-violets in a curious, engraved glass bowl of Grandmother Rudd's. A small gust of wind, lifting the edges of the heavy damask cloth and nearly capsizing the violets, first called her attention to a change in the weather. Uncle Timothy, bringing out chairs at her behest, paused and scanned the horizon with an experienced eye.
"Looks a little dubious to me, Sally," he observed, although he came on with his chairs. "Company due pretty soon?"
"It's four o'clock--they'll come very soon, for I sent word that we'd have tea early on account of its growing cool after five. Yes--there is a little bit of a dark cloud in the south beyond the woods, but you don't think it will bring rain right away, do you?"
"If it begins to blow, it will--look out, there--" for another brisk little zephyr lifted the corner of the tea-table cloth again, and threatened the teacups. "Weather changes pretty suddenly sometimes, in May."
"But the sun is so bright--and a minute ago I was thinking that it was lucky the branches are so thick on this old oak, for the sunshine was really uncomfortably hot. It can't rain right away. I'll bring out everything, and be ready to offer them tea the minute they've said 'Good afternoon.'"
Sally hurried away to the house, leaving Uncle Timothy standing guard over the tea-table and keeping a weather eye on the gathering patch of clouds.
But it could rain right away, as it presently proved. By the time Sally crossed the lawn with her plates of bread and butter and tiny sugary cakes, Mary Ann following with the tray holding the tea equipage, there were strong indications of what was soon to happen. Sally had not more than decided that it was best to retreat to the porch and await developments, than the first drops on her upturned forehead warned her that the retreat could not be too hasty.
The Ferry party, coming through the gap in the hedge a few minutes earlier than they would have done if it had not seemed expedient to forestall the gathering shower, saw the scurrying hosts. Jarvis and Max were with them, for it was Saturday afternoon. The Ferrys themselves were forced to make haste also, and as a result, guests and hostess, tea-tray and chairs, bread-and-butter and violets, reached the shelter of the big porch at nearly the same time, and sixty seconds later the first pursuing dash of rain rattled against the pillars.
"It's too bad," cried Sally, breathless and laughing, as she turned around to greet her guests, little curls escaping about her forehead and over her ears, in spite of all her previous care to insure their smooth order. But her hand gave warm welcome all around the circle, and she led the party into the wide hall, now transformed by the waxing of its dark floor and the presence of several old-time rag rugs, into a hospitable-looking entrance. "Put the tea-table here by the open door, please, Max," she directed. "We'll be as near out of doors as we can."
At the first sound of voices Mrs. Burnside and Josephine had appeared, and between them things were in order in the new setting in less time than it takes to tell it. A great bunch of daffodils on an old table near the door made the spot seem quite festive enough for the occasion, and Sally, when she had caught her breath and pushed back the distracting curls, proved herself to possess a fair amount of the poise of the accustomed hostess whom nothing can really upset. She rearranged her tea-table just inside the hall door, and before she had finished, a dash of sunshine fell across it, making her declare, as she settled the bowl of violets, that if the shower could just have confined its efforts to her garden, which needed watering, and not to sprinkling the lawn, which didn't need it, she would not have felt so ungrateful to it.
"And we came especially to see the garden," said Janet Ferry. "We've heard of that garden in every letter since the first of April." She looked at her brother with a mischievous twinkle in her hazel eyes, much like his own.
"Do tell me what you have heard," said Sally serenely, preparing to make her tea, and sending Max for the hot water. "The really important things, like the coming up of the sweet peas, or unimportant ones, like the strange way the weeds have of appearing faster than the seeds?"
From the nonchalance of this question it will be seen that Sally herself thought nothing of the fact that items concerning her garden should have seemed of sufficient importance to go into the letters of a brother whose time was ordinarily occupied with affairs much more momentous. The garden was of overwhelming importance to Sally, why shouldn't it be interesting to everybody? But there were two people in the company besides his sister who glanced rather quickly at Donald Ferry. He, however, seemed to think there could be no reason for anybody's minding what he might choose to write about.
"Here were two girls," he said, from his position in the doorway, where he stood leaning against the lintel, watching the process of tea making, "writing long descriptions of all sorts of rural beauties they had discovered in their travels about Germany and France--given them as a reward for long study by a discerning aunt. They professed special interest in gardens. Should I refrain from telling them about the only one in sight, even though it couldn't be said to have reached the show stage?"
"You certainly didn't refrain," said Miss Constance Carew, smiling at him from her seat near Sally. "We were told that if we would spend the summer here, one of our chief joys would be the old, box-bordered garden."
"So long as it helped to bring you, I don't regret it," said he, returning the smile in a way which made those who observed decide at once that these other two were old and familiar friends. Miss Carew, though she was not precisely a pretty girl, was really beautiful when she smiled, and had, at all times, an undeniable charm about her which came from one knew not just what. She was rather tall but very graceful, and her manner had about it an indefinable something which made one like to watch her, admiring each move she made as something done just a little differently from the way other people did it.
Sally poured her tea, and the three young men handed about the cups. Everybody fell to talking at once. Max, who had had an approving eye on Miss Janet Ferry from the first, and had decided that he should much prefer her conversation to that of her more impressive friend, drew up a chair beside her when his duties were over, and presently proved her to be as blithely entertaining as her appearance had promised. She was a small person in stature, but her personality was one not to be ignored. She looked like a miniature edition of her brother, heavy braids of the same red-brown hair wound about her small head, the same brilliant, good-humoured hazel eyes looking out of a prepossessing young face, and the same seemingly quick appreciation of everything other people said and did making her a delightful person to talk with. Max, as he supplied her with bread-and-butter, plied her with questions about her life in Germany, and listened to her vivacious stories of her experiences, thinking that it was a long time since he had met a girl he liked so well.
"You don't know how much it means to Constance and Janet to find two girls of their own sort so near," declared Donald Ferry, bringing his cup to take it with Josephine close beside the doorway. "I think they've been feeling a little dubious over finding us out here in a place which had neither lake, seashore, nor mountains to recommend it."
"Perhaps they're still feeling so," suggested Josephine. "There's not much about tea in a shower to cheer their spirits."
"Do they look as if they needed cheering?"
Josephine glanced from Janet, laughing whole-heartedly at something Max was apparently describing with great eloquence, to Constance Carew, leaning back in her chair and looking up at Jarvis, who stood beside her, with the smile which made her face a picture to study.
"It's delightful for us, I'm sure, that they've come," Josephine said warmly.
"You'll find Janet up to the wildest schemes for sport you can devise. And Constance, though she looks so stately, can unbend like a school-girl. As for her voice--you must hear her pretty soon. Janet is anxious to touch her old piano again, and both are always obliging with their music. They are equal to quite a concert between them."
"So we've been hoping. Sally has dusted the piano no less than five times to-day in anticipation. You can't think what a pleasure it is to Sally just to see that piano standing there. It happens to be almost the precise duplicate of the one that was sold when her old home was broken up."
"I'm glad. I hope she uses it?"
"Not in a way that she would let me call using it. She sits down and plays little bits--mostly out of her head, I think. She--Why, what's that?"
It was Bob, tearing by the front door and yelling as he ran:
"Team running away in the south meadow--man knocked down!"
In an instant three teacups clinked and clattered as they were set hastily down, and three male figures bolted out of the door, without apology further than three ejaculations of surprise and chagrin. Mr. Rudd followed at a brisk walk. As for the portion of the company remaining, they also put aside teacups and plates, and followed Sally to the living-room.
They ran in to the four windows of the long room, between two of which stood the piano. Janet Ferry gave it a private nod and pat as she went by, whispering, "You dear old thing! I'll speak to you as soon as I can."
They could see the runaway team, a plough jerking at their heels, dashing madly across the furrows, one of the horses apparently much wilder than the other. They saw Jarvis, Ferry, and Max reach the rail fence at nearly the same moment, and go over it at a rate of speed which suggested danger to trousers-legs. Bob could be discerned, racing frantically in the wake of the careering horses, and in the nearer distance Mr. Rudd could be heard shouting something wholly unintelligible.
One of the running figures halted near the fence, stooping, and the watching eyes understood that the presumably injured ploughman was lying there.
"It's Don that has stopped," said Janet Ferry to her mother. "Now he'll probably have a new case on his hands. I do hope the man isn't much hurt."
"I can't stay here to look!" cried Sally, and, gathering up her lilac skirts, ran away out of the room. In a moment they saw her flying across the wet grass, her tea-party forgotten.
"I am going too," and Janet Ferry, delicate folds of pale gray silk caught up as Sally had caught up her muslin, was off in Sally's train.
Josephine and Constance Carew looked at each other. The guest nodded. "I don't mind the wet grass," said she--though one glance at the ephemeral fabric of her frock made Josephine say, as the two hurried to the hall, "Had you really better? The grass is soaking."
"Who cares for clothes when there's a runaway?" replied Miss Carew. "Besides, this will tub, and yours won't."
"But the man may be badly hurt," and away went Josephine, high-heeled pumps making her flight a trifle dangerous, over the slippery turf. And her guest ran at her side.
By the time they reached the meadow fence the team had been brought panting to a standstill, cornered by Bob and Jarvis at the far end of the meadow. When Donald Ferry looked up from the prostrate form of the ploughman, he beheld four figures in dainty dresses also brought to a stand-still by a splintery rail fence over which it did not seem discretion to attempt to scramble unless the need were dire.
It was not dire. Jake Kelly had only been stunned by striking his head upon a big stone just upturned by his plough. He was already opening his eyes and the colour was returning to his sunburned face. He put his hand to his head.
"All right," called Ferry to the row of anxious faces by the fence, at which the tense expressions relaxed, and certain dimples began to play. If nobody were seriously hurt, the situation certainly had its amusing side. Five minutes ago they had all been demurely drinking afternoon tea, with the most correct society manners evident on all sides. They had not known each other very well, but each had wondered what the others were like upon less formal occasions. And suddenly a decidedly less formal occasion had been precipitated into their midst.
"Guess I ain't much the wuss for wear," declared Jake Kelly, sitting up. "All's hurt's my feelin's at havin' that there team git away from me like that. The old mare's steady's a clock--thought she could hold the young one down, if he did git lively. Dunno now what he took off at. Serves me right for trustin' 'em a minute while I lit up my pipe."
Bob, on the old mare's back, and Jarvis, at the bits of the young horse, were bringing back the plough undamaged by its brisk career across the field. Jarvis certainly presented a somewhat incongruous appearance in his afternoon attire, as he plunged along the furrows in foot-gear not intended for locomotion over freshly ploughed land. Jake rose to his feet, answering the queries of Ferry at his side as to his fitness for continuing work with a decided: "Sure I am. Sha'n't get even with myself for that fool trick till I've done a good dozen furrows. You don't ketch that there pair o'hosses gittin' away from Jake Kelly again this day!"
"The rescue party may as well go back to the teacups," observed Jarvis, as the whole group, standing partly on the one and partly on the other side of the rail fence, watched the now subdued team take a fresh start under the guidance of a vigilant driver with a large bump on the back of his head, which he had refused to have treated in any way but with contempt.
Saying which, Jarvis mounted the fence--tearing a slight rent near the hem of his trousers-leg because he was not looking where he went. He had been observing the effect of the now brilliant sunshine on an uncovered fair head, and in the fashion of Jake he accepted the proffered sympathy of Bob on the disaster to his clothing with a murmured: "Serves me right for not attending strictly to business."
The company marched back in more orderly ranks than it had come forth. Max found himself by the side of Constance Carew, and discovered that she had quite as strong a sense of humour as Janet Ferry, for she described to him most amusingly the way in which the four girls had abandoned all concern for their afternoon finery, and had rushed forth prepared to help bear a stretcher down a wet ploughed field, or share in dashing about in the attempt to catch the runaway team.
"This is what comes," said he, in reply, and looking around at Sally with mirth in his eye, "of trying to be fashionable on a farm."
"Trying to be fashionable!" cried Sally, behind him, catching the words. "I was merely trying to be hospitable. But Fate evidently didn't mean I should be either. Twice in one afternoon!"
"Let's go back and turn the tea-drinking into a musicale," suggested Ferry. "I know my sister is longing to get her hands on the piano."
"You shouldn't propose to have your own family perform," Janet reproached her brother.
"Why shouldn't I? I haven't heard you play for two years, nor Constance sing for three. No false modesty shall keep me from demanding to be satisfied."
"I heard somebody telling somebody else I had dusted the piano five times to-day," said Sally, as she led the way in, "and I surely ought to be rewarded for such care as that."
So they trooped in, a somewhat less faultlessly attired party than they had gone out, for Sally's curls were more rebellious than ever, Josephine's skirts had a mud stain on their hem, Jarvis's rent showed plainly, and everybody's foot-gear was decidedly the worse for the run over wet sod and fresh earth. But they had left behind them all stiffness born of untried acquaintance, had discovered that there was nobody in the company who could not be depended upon to play a gallant part in whatever emergency might arise, and were in a mood thoroughly to enjoy the remainder of the visit.
Without being asked again Janet went straight to the piano, sat down at it as if it were the old friend it claimed to be, and with one or two affectionate soft layings of her hands upon it in almost noiseless chords, as if she were asking it something to which it responded under its breath, swept into a movement from one of the greatest compositions the world knows.
When she finished she looked up at her brother, who had come to stand close beside the instrument. Her eyes were full of tears, and his were by no means free from a suspicion of moisture. Evidently the sound of the familiar keys had many associations for both, and they were associations which their mother shared, for her face was turned away toward the open window, and she was very still.
But in a minute more Janet had turned to beckon to her friend, and was beginning an accompaniment without so much as waiting for Constance to reach the piano. Smiling, the tall girl found a place beside it just in time to take up her part. And then--the listeners held their breath. The golden notes rang through the rooms and out upon the warm May air, while the singer herself seemed as little to be "performing" as if the song had been a mere child's play tune.
"What made you start with that?" protested Constance, in her friend's ear, the moment it was over. "Such a show song!"
But Donald, from the other side of the piano, leaned across. "Don't mind," he whispered. "Any of the simple things would have done us out just now."
Constance nodded quickly. The next minute, with a word to Janet, she had plunged into a gay little German song, with a spirit in it as light as the spring itself, and every one was smiling.
When they had gone, Jarvis, passing through the hall with a glance into the room where the piano stood, caught a glimpse of Sally standing by the open window, looking after the four who were just disappearing through the hedge. He crossed the room softly and looked out over her head.
"They're all right, aren't they?" said he.
"Splendid!" agreed Sally. "I like them both, even more than I expected." Then she added, in a lower tone, "I'd give the hair off my head to be able to make such music as that, either with my hands or with my voice."
Jarvis, smiling to himself, unperceived touched one fair strand with a reverent hand. "I wouldn't give," said he, "even for such magnificent music as that, so much as that one curl over your right ear--if another wouldn't grow there in its place."
Sally faced about. "The idea!" said she. "Of course you wouldn't. It's not yours, sir, to give! But I'd cut it off, when you weren't looking!"