Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part II. The Lanes and the Acres.
Chapter XVII. The Southbound Limited
Sally's first letter home was a short one, stating merely that Uncle Timothy was very ill, very glad to see her, and that she was extremely thankful she had come. The second letter, two days later, showed strong anxiety. The illness was pneumonia, although not in its severest form; but Mr. Rudd's age was an important factor in the case. For a week bulletins were brief, then came a long letter, telling of improvement.
"The minute he is well out of danger she ought to come home," was Max's opinion.
"She won't, though," Alec predicted. "She'll stay till she can bring him with her."
"Not if she listens to me," and Max set about writing a reply which would indicate to his sister in no uncertain terms the course he thought she should pursue.
Her answer was prompt. "I want to come home just as much as you want to have me, Max dear, but it is so much to Uncle Timmy to have me with him I can't think of leaving."
Max frowned over this. "She seems to consult me precious little about anything lately," he observed to Jarvis.
"You must admit she's grown up and can think for herself. Besides, much as I'd like to see her back, I think she's right," was Jarvis's opinion.
"Of course you'd side with her against me every time. But I think her brothers are a trifle nearer to her than her uncle."
"She'd undoubtedly think so too, if you were in bed with pneumonia. Since you're all in vigorous health she imagines you can get on without her. But she's not having a very jolly time of it, I should judge. Cheer her up with a lively letter, not a peevish one," was Jarvis's advice.
"You can do that."
"I'm not writing."
"Not?" Max was surprised. "You and Sally haven't quarrelled, have you?"
"Not at all. But I've no reason to think she would care to hear from me. You fellows are undoubtedly telling her all the news."
Jarvis flung a fresh log on the fire as he spoke, then took his place on the hearth-rug with his back to the blaze and his face in the shadow. Max stared at him interestedly, and was about to begin a discussion of the subject when his companion abruptly opened up a new line of conversation, in relation to plans for the farm, and the moment for asking certain questions did not occur again.
The days went by, brief letters from Sally arriving at frequent intervals. They reported very slow improvement in the invalid, with a return of strength so tardy that she still felt she should not leave him. The home in which they were was not that of relatives, and she was unwilling to leave the responsibility of Mr. Rudd's care to those who had expected to have him with them only for a brief visit. A month passed, and then, just as her brothers were making up their minds that the limit had certainly been reached and her duty done, came a letter which gave a blow to their hopes. It read:
"Doctor Wood has ordered Uncle Timmy South. The doctor says he positively must get out of this wretched climate, and he must not think of coming back before spring--and spring well advanced. If you could see what a shadow of himself the poor dear is you would understand that I simply must do what I have agreed to do--go with him. He will pay all my expenses. I think he must have quite a bit more property than we have known of, the matter of finances seems to trouble him so little. Of course I know how you will feel about this--and I want you to believe that I feel a thousand times sorrier than you possibly can. But I know there is nothing else to do. He can't possibly go alone, and I can't see mother's only brother have to hire some stranger to be with him when he has a niece who loves him dearly and owes him for a deal of love he has always lavished on her. It isn't as if you needed me in ways that Joanna couldn't supply--for actual food and drink, I mean. Of course I hope--I know--you all miss your little sister. I'm afraid I should feel very badly if I thought you didn't!
"We plan to start Thursday evening, December third. We can't make quite as good connections as I did in coming, so, according to Doctor Wood's figuring with the time-tables, we shall go through the home city at one o'clock on Saturday morning. We shall be in the station twenty minutes, being switched around, and--well, I don't like to ask anybody to stay up till that hour, but--I shall be up, and looking out--and--and--I'm almost afraid that if I didn't see anybody, I should shed just a tear or two! You see I haven't really cried once yet--and I don't want to break my record.
It really is not necessary to report what was said in Sally's home upon the receipt of this announcement. There was a good deal of excited talking done, and a number of statements were made to the effect that it was out of the question for Sally to be spared all winter, that she should have waited for the consent of her family before deciding on such an absence, and that it absolutely must not be allowed. Yet, after all, when it came to forbidding it, nobody seemed to have quite the authority to do that. Even Max, protesting that the thing was out of all reason, and going so far as to take his pen in hand to write his refusal to permit it, found himself brought to a halt by the remembrance that Sally was showing more and more evidences of possessing a will of her own, and of being perfectly competent to carry out its dictates when they seemed to her right. Clearly she did not want to go South with Uncle Timothy--or with anybody else. There was a homesick touch in more than one line of the stoutly written letter--unquestionably Sally would not be doing this thing if she were not persuaded of her duty.
At one o'clock in the morning of Saturday a party of people stood in the great electric-lighted station. Again the offices of Mr. Jarvis Burnside had taken the group past the usual hindrances and established them on a certain platform, nearly in the centre of the rows of tracks, where the Southbound Limited would come in. This time their numbers were considerably augmented by the presence of Mrs. Burnside and Josephine, Donald and Janet Ferry. Various packages encumbered the arms of each member of the party, and appearances certainly boded well for the reception of the young traveller who at the moment was watching eagerly, as the train rolled through the familiar streets, for the first sign of approach to the station.
"Here she comes!" Bob was the first to cry, pointing to a brilliant headlight just rounding into view on the distant track. "Jolly, I'll bet Sally's wide awake, if she ever was in her life!"
"I expect we're going to find out now how dreadfully short twenty minutes can be," said Janet Ferry to Jarvis, beside whom she stood, an attractively put-up basket of hot-house grapes in her hand.
He nodded, watching the great headlight grow all too slowly bigger and bigger. "Even the twenty minutes will probably be cut short. The train's considerably overdue now."
The long line of sleepers came to a stand-still beside them, and they scanned the cars anxiously for the first sign of Sally. Far down the track could be seen a coloured porter waving in their direction, and the next instant a girl in dark blue jumped off the step of the Pullman and ran toward them. They ran to meet her, Bob and Alec outstripping the rest, and when the others arrived all that could be seen of Sally Lane was the top of a bright head on Bob's shoulder, both blue arms about his neck, his affectionate hand patting her back.
Then they had her in their midst, and everybody was trying to greet her at once. Josephine's arm was about her, and Sally was regarding the group with a radiant smile, crying girlishly; "Oh, how good you people do look! How dear of you all to come down! If I only could stay just a little longer! We don't stop but ten minutes, instead of twenty, the train is so late. Uncle Tim doesn't know you are here--I was afraid he would be too excited to sleep the rest of the night, and he's only just dropped off. Oh, how are you all? You look perfectly fine--I don't believe you've pined away a bit, missing me! Let me look at you."
She studied each in turn, missing nobody. Her clear gaze, the blue eyes black beneath the shadowing thick lashes, met each answering pair of eyes with a steady scrutiny which did not once waver.
"That was a review one would be sorry not to be able to stand," said Ferry to Josephine, as Sally ended by thrusting her arm through Max's and leading him off by himself. "Miss Sally put us all to the test in that minute, didn't she? She gives the impression of demanding the best one has--rather an unusual characteristic in a girl of her age."
"She does demand the best--and gets it," answered Josephine warmly.
Ten feet away Sally was speaking hurriedly: "The thing I wanted most to see you for, Maxy, was to make sure you weren't really angry with me for taking my own way about this."
Her hand pressed his arm. She was looking up into his face. He returned the gaze. "I was angry, Sis," he admitted. "But, somehow, now that I see you, I can't seem to get up steam to tell you so. I suppose you're right--but the place is mighty lonesome without you. If it wasn't for the Ferrys--"
"Are they over much?"
"We get them over as often as we can. I say, I've been noticing that Jarve and Janet seem to hit it off pretty well."
"Do they? That's very nice. You like Janet yourself, don't you?"
"She's the belle of the ball, now you're away, and a mighty jolly girl to have around. If you don't look out your old friend J.B. will slip away from you."
Sally's head went up, her cheeks bloomed a deeper colour. "If I weren't going to leave you in a minute I should punish you for that piece of brotherly impertinence," said she, with spirit. "Have I ever laid hands on anybody to keep him, for you to talk of 'slipping away'?"
"No--you're not that sort," conceded Max, with a laugh which certainly carried a hint of brotherly admiration.
Sally walked straight over to Janet, at whose other side stood Jarvis. "Janet," said she, "Max says you are the life of them all. I'm so glad--and it's so kind of your mother and brother to bring you over to make the evenings pleasant. You'll keep on being good to them all winter, won't you?"
"Sally"--Janet caught hold of both her hands--"let me give you an illustration of how nobly and completely I fill your place. The last time we were over I played for them--played my best, too. I ended with my most brilliant performance of Liszt. Two minutes afterward, when I had gone back to the fire, I heard somebody very softly doing a one-finger melody, picking it out note by note. I listened, and presently made out one of your favourite 'little tunes'--'A Red, Red Rose.' I looked around the group to see who was missing. It was not Bob. It was not Max. It was not Alec. It was not Don. It was not--"
"Anybody. It was--a ghost," supplied Jarvis. He was looking intently at Sally, but she was smiling back at Janet, and the colour in her face was not less than it had been a moment before.
"My ghost, probably," she said lightly. "I'm sure if it were with you all by that fire as often as I think about you, it would be playing little tunes for itself, most of the time. Now I must spend my next minute with Alec," and she was away again.
The minutes certainly were flying.
Janet looked after her. "There's something perfectly irresistible about her, isn't there?" she suggested to her companion. He did not answer and she glanced at him. He had pulled out a card-case from his pocket and was writing something on one of the cards. He slipped the card into the big, green paper-box he held.
"Suppose I take all our packages to the porter and have him put them in her berth while she is off with Alec. Then she'll not have to bother with them, getting on," he proposed. Janet assented, and in a minute Jarvis, laden with packages, approached the porter. Retaining half his burden he followed the porter into the car. He did not immediately return therefrom, and when, three minutes afterward, the signal came for the departure of the train, he was not in the group of whom she took leave.
"Has Jarvis gone? Say good-by for me to him, please, Jo," she whispered as she embraced her friend. Waving the others back Max escorted her into her car. In the passage they met Jarvis. Over her head the two young men looked at each other.
"Good-by, sister," said Max, and kissed her, "I see Jarve wants me to cut it short." With which tactful brotherly explanation he abruptly retraced his steps to the vestibule, where he waited.
In the half-lit narrow passage Jarvis made the most of his minute of grace, although Sally's hand was already extended, and a friendly good-by, with a frank smile, was on her lips.
"Are you in such a hurry to be rid of me?" said he, taking the hand. "You make me feel somehow as if you didn't care even for the old friendship. Is that so, Sally?"
"Not at all. I care very much. It seems so good to see you all."
"To see 'us all' doesn't flatter me much." He smiled a little. "Sally, may I write to you?"
"Do. Tell me all about everybody."
"Will you answer?"
"Now and then."
"You are--" He stopped, with a half impatient movement of his broad shoulders.
"I'm Sally Lane." She said this very distinctly, even though both were speaking under their breath. Then she laughed, with a delicate touch of defiance.
"You certainly are," he agreed. "No doubt in the world of that. But I want you to know I'm Jarvis Burnside, and that stands for something too--something positive--and permanent. My letters will be signed by that name."
"Mine--if I write any--now and then--will be signed by mine--The train is moving. Good-by--old friend!"
She was a slim maid to oppose so colossal a resistance as she did to anything in the least suggestive to sentiment in the leave-taking. Oppose it, however, did the small hand which drew itself away with decision, the pretty lips which smiled again that coolly friendly smile, the blue-black eyes which were steady as ever in their straight look. Max, peering in upon the two to tell Jarvis to come along, saw his sister break down in her self-command, but only at sight of himself. As Jarvis turned away she ran after him to reach beyond him and clutch her brother's arm for one quick pressure, with the low cry, "Oh, Max--please--please--write to me often!"
As Max jumped off, Jarvis turned again. Sally was upon the platform. "That almost makes me wish I were a brother," said he rapidly, from the bottom step, looking straight up at her. He prepared to drop off. "But not quite" he added--and swung himself off and out of sight.
Back in her berth, the little electric side-light on, Sally opened her bundles. Their contents made her feel like laughing and crying both together, all by herself, there on the fast train flying southward through the night. Janet's superb grapes, Mrs. Ferry's preserved Canton ginger, Donald Ferry's little book of verse, with the ribbon mark opening it at "My Garden," all pleased her greatly, each in its way. Then there was a fascinating little traveller's work-box from Josephine, a letter writing-case from Mrs. Burnside, an ink-pencil from Max, a package of current magazines from Alec, a box of chocolates from Bob. The cards and merry messages accompanying these remembrances made pleasant reading, and Sally put them all together in her handbag, that she might look them over many times.
Jarvis's box she did not open till the last. Why, might be a subject for speculation. Does one leave the most interesting letter or package till the last--or does one eagerly open it first? When everything else had been disposed of Sally's fingers untied the cord slowly, she lifted the cover with apparent reluctance, she drew aside the sheltering sheets of green tissue as if she feared to disclose that which they protected. But then, when the bright light at her side shone in upon fresh tints of pink and white and lilac, she drew one deep breath and buried her face in the mass.
"Sweet peas!" she murmured, and shut her eyes and thought of her garden, lying forsaken and desolate in the December frost.
Then she picked up the card. On its back she read, in vigorous pencilling:
"A ghost from the garden, sent by the ghost who tried to pick out the 'little tune.' There seem no other tunes in the world worth listening to."
The next morning Mr. Timothy Rudd had many questions to ask his niece. He sat comfortably among pillows and rugs, his breakfast brought in from the dining-car and served in his section by a waiter who was ready to show him every attention, to oblige the young lady whose smile he liked to win.
"You say they were all down, Sally? This breakfast looks very nice, my dear--I wish I could eat more of it." He laid down a half slice of toast and brushed his thin fingers.
"Uncle Timmy, are you sure you can't manage just a little more? Two spoonfuls of boiled egg, half a slice of toast, and a cup of coffee--that's no breakfast at all. If I tell you all about it, won't you eat just half the egg?"
"I'll try, child, but--really--the old fellow who is wearing my clothes--and not half big enough for them--doesn't seem to be able to summon much of an appetite."
"If you don't eat a good breakfast I shall feel more than ever guilty for not telling you they were coming--though of course I didn't dream of their all coming. But if you had seen them you wouldn't have slept a bit."
"No, like enough I shouldn't. I'll be satisfied if you tell me how they all looked. The boys--Max?"
"Very well, indeed--he's a trifle heavier than when I went away. Joanna's cooking is beginning to tell. I think she pampers them, don't you?--I'm so grateful to her for that."
"Just as usual. He was wearing a new overcoat, and looked a glass of fashion! He says as long as Mr. Ferry lives in the country in the winter he's willing to stand it there. Isn't it lucky they're staying at least one more year? By another winter the demands on Mr. Ferry in town may be so heavy he can't take time to go back and forth."
"Yes, I should say it was a very good thing for Alec to be as much under the influence of such a man as could be brought about, until he is where he can do his own thinking along the right lines. How is my nephew Robert?"
"Oh, Bob's cheeks are so round and red they look like a very large infant's. Dear Bobby--think he misses us most. He ran in and peeped into your berth while the train stood there. I think he rather hoped to wake you."
"Bless the lad--I wish he had." Mr. Rudd took another spoonful of egg under the stimulus of the wish, forgetting that he had not meant to take up that spoon again.
"Mrs. Burnside and Jo looked their own dear selves--every line of them. It struck me afresh, as it always does when I see them after an interval, how beautifully yet quietly dressed they are, and how their photographs might be taken at any minute with delightful results. 'Portrait of a Lady and her Daughter' it would be." And Sally sighed a little sigh of a quite feminine sort, looking down at her own blue travelling attire and wondering how the same material would have looked if made up by Mrs. Burnside's tailor.
"And Jarvis--how is he? I am very fond of Jarvis. I suppose he has lost some of the summer's tan?"
"If he has it's been put back again by the frosty winds, for he's the image of health. Mr. Ferry and Janet are very much themselves, too. And they all sent you something." Sally reached under the berth and drew out a big florists' box, signalled the waiter to remove the remains of the breakfast, and then spread forth the cards which accompanied the great bunch of crimson roses, enjoying Mr. Rudd's almost boyish pleasure in the remembrance of his friends.
"These must be for you too, Sally," said he, burying his nose in one fine half-open bud.
"Not a bit of it."
"No flowers for you, child?"
"Fruit and chocolates and writing-tablets and other delightful things. You must have some of the grapes, Uncle Timmy--I ought to have thought of them for your breakfast."
"These roses are as good as a square meal--but they should have been for you, not for an old fossil like me."
"Don't you dare call yourself an old fossil, Uncle Timmy. Now look at all these pretty gifts," and Sally brought them forth, exhibiting them well concealed from the other passengers. Uncle Timothy looked and exclaimed and admired, and did not note that one person seemed to be unrepresented by any remembrance. Neither did he guess that tucked far away under Sally's berth was a box containing a mass of sweet peas which had that morning been carefully sprinkled, but which were destined never to be seen again by mortal eye except her own.