Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part II. The Lanes and the Acres.
Chapter XV. On an August Evening
"Oh, dear--who's this coming?--just as we've settled down to accomplish something!"
"It's the Chases. Girls--we simply can't stop work to entertain them!"
"We don't need to stop--this sort of work."
They bent over their sewing--all but Sally, who with inward reluctance got to her feet as the Chases' big car rolled up the driveway and approached the porch, where the four girls were sitting, busy with some extremely important matters. But of course the work had to be put down for a little when Dorothy Chase actually set foot on the porch.
"Oh, what an energetic crowd!" she cried, "this hot August morning, too. Sally, where are your men? Neil wants to see some of them while I talk to you."
Sally pointed off into the distance. "Jarvis and Bob are hoeing potatoes over there in the field. There's a tree near by, and Neil can sit in the shade of that. You don't mind going, Neil? They're 'way behind with the potatoes."
Neil Chase bowed impressively to the group on the porch. "I should much prefer to stay here," said he gallantly, "but business reasons impel me to seek that inferno out yonder. What Jarve finds interesting in that sort of thing is beyond me."
He drove on by the house and over the grass behind, getting as near to the corn-field as possible, that he might have to walk only the least necessary distance. Meanwhile his wife sat down and inspected the quality of the work being done on the porch.
"Are you people sewing for an orphan asylum?" she inquired, after discovering that red and blue ginghams and white cotton cloth of a grade only moderately fine were the materials being used for certain small garments.
"Something like it. One of Mr. Ferry's poor families was burned out the other day--five children and an invalid mother."
"Of course--the mother's always an invalid, isn't she? I believe they make themselves invalids on purpose. Well--it makes no difference how important it is. Those children won't freeze in this weather, if you don't get these things all done to-night. And I'm in a perfectly awful difficulty. You all have simply got to help me out."
"What's the matter?" Josephine asked the question calmly, being used to Dorothy Chase's fashion of putting things. She threaded her needle as she spoke, as if she had every intention of continuing to work for as long a period as she had planned to do. The other girls resumed their sewing also. The cause of their being at work at all certainly was apology sufficient for going on with it, in spite of the visitor.
"Just listen--and nobody is to say a word till I'm through. It's no use raising objections--you're to do as I ask, if you care anything whatever about my friendship." She grasped the ends of the lavender-silk parasol lying on her lavender-linen lap, nodded her head violently, causing several lavender plumes to nutter agitatedly upon her lavender-straw hat, and plunged into her subject.
"I'm entertaining to-night for our new bishop--and he's a distant connection besides. I made it an evening affair, because it's so hot, and our new house opens up so beautifully. I planned to have some informal music--and at this last minute Herr Braun and Madame Hafsky have failed me. It was a misunderstanding about the date. It turns out they were engaged for to-day weeks ago by somebody very important--they won't give it up. I must have music--and everybody is out of town. Now what I want is to have you four go back with me to luncheon, help me about the decorations and things this afternoon, and then have Miss Carew sing and Miss Ferry play for us in the evening. Neil will come back for the men for the evening. You know I didn't ask you in the beginning only because I knew you didn't want to be invited. But now--you must come!"
It was precisely like Dorothy Chase. That was all that could be said. Nobody said it, but Sally and Josephine thought it, and Janet and Constance told themselves, as they sewed on, that the young matron who made this decidedly startling proposition must be accustomed to having things her own way, or she would not have acquired so confident a manner of making her demands.
Sally was the first to give voice to her astonishment. "Well, Dorothy," said she, "you certainly take us off our feet. Here are we, just settled down to work that absolutely must be done, and in you walk and ask us to lay it down and go off to help entertain a bishop who's probably wishing you wouldn't do anything special at all for him this hot weather!"
"Nothing of the sort. He's heard all about Miss Carew's voice--people that met her last year in Leipsic."
Constance sat up. "Who, please?"
"The Markhams--and the Carrolls. Now will you be good?"
Constance leaned back again, applying herself to her sewing.
"I don't remember anybody of that name," mused Janet, looking at Constance.
"Yes, you do--friends of Mrs. Sears--just stopping over a day?"
The two pairs of eyes met. There must have been something in Constance's--invisible to other beholders--which recalled some incident or other to Janet, for after staring a minute she suddenly dropped her eyes, said, "Oh, yes--" and sewed away faster than ever.
"Will you come?" demanded Dorothy Chase.
They tried to get out of it--they pointed out various reasons why it would be difficult for them to come away. Dorothy overrode all their objections, and became so persistent that at last the four agreed, but refused to go until evening. As for the young men of the household, it would be of no use to ask them.
"Send out for us just in time for your affair, and we'll come," promised Sally. "But what you want of Jo and me I don't see. We can't perform for you in any way."
"Oh, but you can help make things go. Sally can talk to the bishop--"
"I can't," cried Sally, dismayed.
"And Jo can be nice to Mrs. bishop. I don't see why your men won't come. It's so hard to get men for anything except sports in summer. How perfectly absurd it is for Jarvis Burnside to prefer hoeing potatoes in this frightful sun to playing society man for an hour or two in the evening!"
"It's truly incomprehensible, but so it is. Besides, he looks like an Indian, and in his evening clothes would resemble a fiend. Be satisfied, Dorothy, now you have us for victims, and let the men stay at home." And Sally slashed a seam open with shears that clipped like her speech.
But Mrs. Chase was not satisfied, and berated Jarvis roundly, when, presently he came walking up to the porch with Neil, looking the picture of well-browned contentment. He took her displeasure lightly enough, and presently had her laughing in spite of herself.
"Well, I know all about it now," Neil Chase informed the company, as he got into his car. "We ploughed seven acres and sowed it to buckwheat, turned the buckwheat under and have now planted the ground to potatoes. In the end there are to be strawberries on the seven acres--or a good share of it--and Burnside, Lane & Co. are to become the most successful strawberry culturists in this part of the country."
"Right you are," agreed Jarvis placidly, sitting down on the edge of the porch and poking about in Janet Ferry's work-bag until he found a thimble, which he placed on the only finger it would fit, the smallest one on his right hand. He had washed the hands before he came to the porch, but they were so brown that the little gold thimble looked most absurd in its new position.
"If I sew for you for an hour, Miss Janet," he proposed, as the car bolted away down the drive, "will you come and hoe potatoes for me until lunch time?"
"I would gladly hoe potatoes all day if I could be let off from going to play for Mrs. Chase's friends this evening." The fierce energy with which Janet pulled out a row of bastings gave emphasis to her words.
Jarvis looked at his sister. "How did you manage not to let me in for this affair, Sis?"
"I knew you wouldn't go, and Janet knew her brother wouldn't. Sally said Max would be too used up. Happy boys--we saved you from it at the price of going ourselves."
"Self-sacrificing girls! We'll have to make it up to you somehow. When I see Ferry I'll--Hold on, I've an idea. How are you coming home?"
"In Neil's car--as we go."
"We'll see that you come in a better way. Be good little girls, do your stunts, keep up your courage, and we'll rescue you promptly at eleven o'clock," and putting down the thimble Jarvis went away, deaf to entreaties to tell what his interesting plan might be.
"Oh, dear, isn't it horrid?" demanded Sally that evening, running into Josephine's room in the course of her dressing to have certain unreachable hooks and eyes fastened. "After sewing all day we deserve something better than one of the Chases' fussy affairs."
"Stop fuming and stand still. Anybody who looks as pretty as you do in this white swiss--"
"Poor old white swiss--the same one. I wish Dorothy could forget the pattern of it. She'll undoubtedly mention that I wore it at her wedding,--she does, every time."
"Don't you care a bit. Those touches of blue make it seem perfectly fresh to me, and I've seen it much oftener than Dorothy Chase has."
"You're a comfort. You look like a dream yourself, in that peach-coloured thing."
"A midsummer day's dream, then--with my gypsy skin. Oh, there's Neil and his car."
"A nice lot you are," Neil Chase was exclaiming outside, as he drove up to the porch and eyed the male figures occupying its comfortable recesses. Max reposed in a hammock; Mr. Timothy Rudd swayed to and fro in a rocker, reading the evening paper by the sunset light; Alec and Bob, sitting on the steps, were playing a game of some sort; and Jarvis lay stretched at full length on a rug, his arms beneath his head, luxuriously resting after his bath and change of work clothes for fresh flannels, enjoying the sense of virtue earned by having hoed many rows of potatoes with a vigorous arm.
"A nice lot," Neil went on. "We have it in for you particularly, Jarve. Max never was much of a society chap, but you once could be depended upon to do your duty like a man. Bob, run in and see if those girls are ready. Dorothy won't be easy till she sees them. One thing I know--you'll soon tire of this playing at farming. To be the real thing you fellows ought to work till the sun goes down, doing 'chores.' I'll wager a fiver you come in and get your bath every night before dinner, eh?"
"We certainly do," Jarvis laughed.
"And you don't sit down in your shirt-sleeves?"
"You're not the real thing--never will be. Look at those girls!" He pulled off his straw hat as two figures appeared in the doorway. "Nice farmers' folks they are!"
"We're glad you think we're nice," responded Sally, gathering her white skirts about her. "Jo, be careful--don't get that peaches-and-cream frill against the running board."
Jarvis's reposeful posture had become an active one, and he took care that neither peach-coloured skirts nor white ones fluttered against anything on the outside of the car that might soil them.
"Here come Constance and Janet. Aren't they imposing society ladies now?" and Sally stood up to wave at the two coming through the hedge, accompanied by Janet's brother. Ferry had an eye upon the porch and meant to spend the evening consoling his friends for the absence of the usual feminine contingent.
"You exquisite person--may I venture to sit beside you?" whispered Sally, as Constance, in trailing pale gray with bands of violet velvet, a shimmering cloak of the same hues enveloping her like a mist, took the place beside her. "This is the singer, not my friend Constance. I'm--just--a little--afraid of you!"
"Nonsense!" Constance's warm hand caught Sally's beneath the cloak. "You know I don't like show singing--or anything that goes with it."
"Don't forget your promise--" Josephine called back, as the big car, with its rainbow-tinted load rolled away.
An answering shout from the porch, accompanied by the waving of several arms, conveyed assurance.
"What promise?" asked Janet, turning to the others. Being the smallest of the party she occupied one of the folding seats which enable a roomy tonneau to hold five people.
"The boys are coming after us--we don't know how. Doesn't that give you courage to face the evening?" murmured Josephine, and the expression on Janet's face became decidedly more hopeful.
"But how can they come? They've only your brother's car!" she said in Josephine's ear.
"Don't know, and don't care. They'll come--and rescue us from our fate."
They felt, during the following hours, that they needed the cheering prospect of a merry home-going, to enable them to bear the rigours of the form of entertainment offered them. It was not that the affair differed much from affairs of its sort, but the fact that it did not materially differ might have been what made it seem so tiresome. Possibly the effect of a summer of out-door, home merrymaking, under the least conventional of conditions, had been to make formal entertaining under a roof seem more than ordinarily fatiguing and pointless. The handsome rooms were hot, in spite of open windows; the guests quite evidently were making heroic efforts to seem gay. Somehow even Janet's brilliant music stirred only a perfunctory sort of applause.
"Never played so badly in my life," whispered the performer, when she regained Josephine's side, after her second number.
"You played perfectly, as you always do."
"I played like an automaton--a 'piano-player.' Don't pretend you don't know the difference."
"I understand, of course. But, you know, we shouldn't really like to have you play for the bishop and these people as you do for us on your own piano."
"The poor bishop! Doesn't he look like a martyr? I'm sure he's delightful--in his own library, or at his friends' dinner-tables--but he hates this sort of thing. He's beautifully polite, but he's bored. My only hope is that Con will revive him. It's her turn next."
If anything could revive a weary bishop, who had that day attended two funerals and a diocesan convention, it would be both the sight and the sound of Miss Constance Carew.
"Isn't she dear?" breathed Sally, in Josephine's ear, as Constance took her place, her slender, gray-clad figure and interest-stirring face a notable contrast to the personality of the professional singer who had opened the program of occasional numbers, interspersed through an evening of--so-called--conversation. Sally's hands were unconsciously clasped tight all through the song, and her eyes left the singer's face only long enough to observe that the bishop's tired eyes were also fixed upon the creator of all those wonderful, liquid notes, and to fancy that, for the moment, at least, he forgot how hot his neck was inside his close, clerical neckwear.
"That pays me for coming," was the reward Constance had from Sally, whose praise she had somehow come to value more highly than that of most people she knew. Sally might be no musician herself, but she was a most sympathetic listener, and could appreciate the points singers love to have appreciated, as few people can.
"That pays me!" Constance answered, drawing a long breath. "But, Sally, will it never end? It's nearly eleven, now."
"Thank heaven! I'd lost all count of time. The boys said they'd be here at eleven. But Dorothy is not to know they're within five miles of here. She'd never forgive them."
As she spoke a maid came to her elbow and handed her a note. Retiring to a secluded corner to read it, Sally returned with triumphant eyes. "We're to go down the lawn to a gate that opens on the other road. They're there. Now--to get away from Dorothy."
This proved difficult.
"Not let Neil take you back? Why not? How will you get back? But you're not going yet?"
"Both the girls have performed twice, with two encores. You don't expect any more of them this hot night? Your bishop is going to sleep; do let him off and send him to bed. Yes, we must go now. They've sent for us. Don't bother about how we're going to get back--Neil will be thankful not to have to take us."
Thus Sally. And when Dorothy persisted in exclamations and questions her guests fell into a little gusto of enthusiasm over the stately old house which Neil had bought after he had to give up the Maxwell Lane place, and diverted Dorothy's attention. Sally also praised everything she could honestly praise in relation to the affair of the evening--and not a thing she couldn't, for Sally was the most honest creature alive. Somehow at last she got her party away from their hostess, taking advantage of the bishop's approach to whisper hastily--"Here comes your guest of honour. Now do attend to him and forget us!"--and so had them all out a side door and off down the lawn out of range of the lighted windows. As they hurried along in their airy dresses, they were pulling off long, hot gloves, and saying, still under their breath, "Oh, isn't it good to get out?" They were laughing softly, and breathing deep breaths of the warm summer air, and looking up at the starlit sky.
"Now where is that gate?" They had reached the high fence at the back of the grounds.
"Here you are--this way," came back a low voice, and a doorway in the fence swung open. There was a rush of skirts, and the four were out in the road at the back of the suburban place, a country road on which stood, most appropriately, a long hay-wagon, cushioned with hay and rugs, drawn by a pair of farm horses, with Jake Kelly in command. Four other dark figures were grouped about the back end.
"You splendid things!"
"What a jolly idea!"
"Oh, what a delicious change from a hot music-room!"
"Here's Mother Burnside, tucked away in the corner. How good of you to come, you patient person!"
"Now tell us all about it," demanded Donald Ferry of Sally, next whom, at the end of the load, he sat. It may be noted that Jarvis had not been found, of late, at Sally's elbow. Without a suggestion of seeming avoidance on her part, or of umbrage on his, the two no longer fell to each other as a matter of course. Sally's plea had had the effect she wished for. Both Constance and Janet appeared to like Jarvis immensely, and Sally could not detect any failure on his part to enjoy their society. She told herself it was a very good thing that she had been so frank with him.
"All about it?" She was answering Ferry's question. "Why, I don't need to tell you. You know, without having been there, exactly how things went."
"More or less, probably. Was it very hot?"
"Stifling! How could it be anything else on an August night? Janet vows her fingers burned on the keys. But she played beautifully, of course, and the bishop had a little interval of being glad he was there. Poor man--I wonder if anything can be warmer than a clerical waistcoat."
"Nothing, except a clerical collar, I believe. Did Constance have a bad time of it, too? She doesn't like singing in hot rooms."
"She sang like an angel. The bishop opened his eyes and stared at her all through, and applauded so vigorously it must have made him several degrees warmer. But she deserved it."
"I don't doubt it. And what did you and Miss Josephine do?"
"Stood about and tried to look pleased and happy. My gloves felt like furs and a soapstone, and I couldn't think of anything intelligent to say to anybody."
Ferry laughed. "I wonder if anybody ever does say anything intelligent at such entertainments. Did Mr. Neil Chase himself rise to the occasion and play the genial host as he should?"
"I think he mostly spent the evening sitting on the porch rail at the farthest corner away from the drawing-room."
"The memory of the fellows lounging comfortably on your porch undoubtedly made his role seem the harder by contrast. I saw a longing look in his eye as he drove away, and had an idea he might be back. But I suppose he couldn't get out of it."
"No--their 'country home' isn't much like our 'country home.' Oh, isn't this air delicious? Do you suppose Constance would be willing to sing in it? Wouldn't it sound like a part of the summer night out here?"
They were bowling along the quiet country road, only the chirp of many locusts, the rumble of the wheels, and the sound of their own voices to break the stillness. Ferry leaned forward. Constance was at the farther end of the wagon, between Jarvis and Max.
"Constance!" he called softly. Sally thought she would not hear, but she did. Ferry's voice, even in its subdued tones, possessed that carrying quality which is the peculiar acquirement of the trained public speaker.
"Yes, Don," she called back, and everybody stopped talking. People had a way of stopping other talk to listen when either of these two had anything to say.
"Here's a person, at this end of the chariot, who wonders if people with drawing-room voices ever venture to test them in the open air."
"What do you think about it?"
"That one of them will, if we ask her. Therefore, we ask."
Constance considered an instant. "Will you and Janet sing 'My Garden' with me--especially for Sally?"
For answer Ferry tried for the proper key, found it--under his breath--and began, very softly, and on a low note, to sing. Janet joined him with a subdued contralto, and the two voices, without words, made themselves into a harmonious undertone of an accompaniment. Upon this support, presently, rose Constance's pure notes. It was no "show singing," this time, and the song did not lift above a gentle volume which seemed to fit, as Sally had anticipated, into the night. But the listeners gave themselves to the listening as they had never done before, even in the many times they had heard this girl. Even Jake Kelly, on his driver's seat, turned about to hearken with held breath. The farm-hand drew his horses down to a walk, that not a note might be marred.
"A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot! Rose plot, Fringed pool, Ferned grot-- The veriest school Of Peace, and yet the fool Contends that God is not-- Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool? Nay, but I have a sign: 'Tis very sure God walks in mine."
The words[A] were familiar to some of them--the music new. Together words and music were something to remember.
[Footnote A: The words are those of Thomas Edward Brown.]
Certain of these phrases came in over and over, throughout the song--taking hold of one's heart most appealingly. "Not God--in gardens!--when the eve is cool?" came again and again, till one felt it indeed to be the word of the fool. Then, in exquisite harmony, fell the assurance--"Nay, but I have a sign--a sign--a sign--'Tis very sure God walks in mine!"
Everybody but Sally found words in which to tell, in some sort, how the song had seemed to them, even Alec observing boyishly, "I say, but that's great. I didn't know you folks could all sing."
After some minutes had gone by, Donald Ferry bent to speak in Sally's ear. She was looking off into the night, her hands clasped tight together in her lap. "I know," he said, very gently.
"You always know," she answered, under cover of the talk, which was now going on again. "Tell me,"--wistfully--"do you think--He--walks in mine?"
"I know it. He walks in every garden--when He is wanted there."