Part II. The Lanes and the Acres.
Chapter XIX. Round the Corner
 

Joanna Marshfield, left alone in charge of the house at Strawberry Acres, on the evening of the twenty-ninth of April, stood in the front doorway, looking out into the rain. The air was mild but like a wet sponge in the feel of it against her cheek.

"I hope to goodness 'twill clear off before the folks come," said she to herself. "Here's Mrs. Burnside coming out most a month sooner than she wanted to and Miss Sally looking forward to seeing things well under way in that old garden she sets such store by. If May Day would just be nice and sunshiny for 'em all 'twould please me. Well, now--who can that be?"

A figure was approaching on the drive-way, carrying an umbrella and a tag, and walking rapidly. As it neared Joanna could see, in the light thrown out from the hallway and the front windows, that the figure wore skirts of dark blue. The next instant the umbrella was tilted back at a reckless angle, and a voice called guardedly out of the mist:

"O Joanna--is that you? Hush--don't answer out loud!"

"Miss Sally!" Joanna, amazed, crossed the porch to meet her young mistress. "Who'd ever have thought of seeing you to-night? Why--we wasn't expecting you till day after to-morrow. And where's Mr. Rudd?"

"Joanna dear!--don't speak so loud. I want to surprise them," came back the laughing whisper, and the next minute Sally's bag and umbrella were on the porch, and she was wringing both her housekeeper's plump hands in her own. "How do you do, Joanna! I'm so glad to see you again. Uncle Timothy stopped off for a week in Washington, and I couldn't wait, so came on alone. Is everybody well?"

"They're well enough, Miss Sally, but--you'll be pretty disappointed. You see they wasn't expecting you, so--"

"Oh, are they away? They can't be all away! Where are they?"

"Well, you see they was getting sort of restless, waiting for the first of May, and Mr. Max took them into town to some show. It's too bad. They'd rather have seen you than any show, I reckon."

"But they'll be back to-night?"

"I expect they will--near eleven."

"Oh, well--I can wait." Sally drew a long breath. "I've waited months--I can stand it a few hours longer."

"It's a shame." Joanna picked up the bag and umbrella and led the way into the hall. "The Burnsides are coming the day after to-morrow." She pointed toward the open door into the west wing, the hall light shining in a short distance among the shadows and showing a room in order. "It's awful too bad they didn't get here to-day."

"Never mind--it's a great deal just to be at home again. How pleasant it all looks--and how fresh!"

Joanna led on into the long living-room where a light fire blazed on the hearth. "It's as fresh as I could make it," she admitted, "but there's some ways it can be made fresher that you'll see right away. Them red pillows--"

Evidently the pillows had been on Joanna's mind ever since she had been put in charge of them upon Sally's departure. Sally gave them one glance and burst into appreciative laughter.

"Pillow-fights, Joanna--and being sat on around the fire, and used for acrobatic performances--yes, I see. I'll re-cover them right away. I'd do it to-night while I wait if I had the stuff--if I could sit still long enough. I want to go all over the house--and if it wasn't raining I'd go out in the garden and through the pine grove and over into the orchard. Oh, here's a new picture of Alec, on the chimney-piece--why didn't he send it to me?"

"I could go over and let the Ferry people know you're here," suggested Joanna, watching Sally eye the small snap-shot likeness hungrily, so that it seemed a matter of charity to present some human creature to her gaze.

"No, no, thank you--I'd rather see my own family first. I can wait. I'll go up and get off these travelling things and unpack my bag--that will take up a little time," and Sally prepared to put her suggestion into action.

"Just let me go up first, Miss Sally," urged Joanna. "Not expecting you so soon the room's no linen in it--it won't look like home to you. I won't be ten minutes. It's too bad--Miss Josephine was going to have the house all trimmed up with flowers for you."

Seeing that to refuse to allow this would disappoint Joanna, Sally submitted and went out to the open front door again, to stand looking off into the wet night where a row of distant lights glimmering vaguely through the mist outlined the course of the trolley connecting Wybury with the city.

"Anyhow, I'm at home," she consoled herself. "I might be content with that, for an hour or two, but it does seem as if I could never wait. If I could only see my garden--"

She went to the end of the porch and tried to make out some sign that would indicate its presence, but the mist was too thick. Yet the light from the living-room windows shone directly down that way. "I believe if I were out there I could see something," she reflected. "I'm going to change my clothes--I might as well soak them a little more." She ran back into the hall, caught up her blue coat, and pulling it on flew out again and plunged off the porch into the darkness, the April rain, more mist than drops, falling on her fair curls. The grass was long and wet, but she cared for nothing now, and dashed on till she came to the first box-border, lying distinct in one of the shafts of light from the windows.

Hunting expectantly about she explored the whole garden, laughing softly to herself at the absurdity of the performance, for she was growing wetter every minute. She felt of the ground where she could not see it, exulting in the discovery of ranks of tulips, where she had planted their bulbs last fall, just breaking into bud.

"You dear things," she said, under her breath, "how enchanting of you to be out to welcome me home, when you had never met me before!--Over there's the sweet pea trellis--I wonder if Bob put the seeds in as I wrote him? Can I tell by the feel of the ground? Oh, the light falls there--I can see."

She was so absorbed in this entertaining exploration that she did not hear the distant closing of a door beyond the pine grove, nor the footsteps which presently came that way and paused, just beyond the orchard. Neither did she guess at the quiet approach of a tall figure through the mist, until it stood upon the edge of the garden. The first she knew of its presence was the sound of a familiar voice, speaking quietly so that it might not startle her, yet with a note of joy plainly perceptible through its control.

"Can I believe my eyes--or am I dreaming that I see you, Sally Lane?"

"Oh, Jarvis!" The cry was a startled one, in spite of his precaution. Then the blue figure flew toward the gray one in the shadow, both hands out, as Sally forgot everything except that here at last was one who seemed to belong to her own household.

"My dear girl! When did you come? Have we missed getting a message?" Jarvis, meeting her more than half way, held the small hands tight, stooping to try to see into her face.

"No, no--I didn't send any--I wanted to surprise you all. Uncle Tim decided to stop off in Washington for a week, and I couldn't bear to wait. He is perfectly well now, and said I might come on. So I came. I never dreamed that every one would be away."

"It's a confounded mischance," his lips said heartily, but his thoughts added--"for everybody but me." He went on quickly, "You mustn't stay out here. How long have you been out?" He touched her hair. "Why, it's soaking wet. Come in, child."

He kept firm hold of one hand and drew her with him in a rapid progress to the porch. The moment the light fell on her face he was expectantly studying it, and when he had her in the hall under the stronger rays he stood still and looked at her as if he wanted to make up for months of deprivation. She turned a rosy red under his scrutiny, her cheeks looking like moist but vivid flowers, drops of rain sparkling in her hair and clinging even to her lashes.

"Come in by the fire and dry your hair," he commanded.

She shook her head and drew away her hand. "No, I'll run up and dry everything at once."

"You won't be all the evening about it?" he questioned, with suspicion, for her attitude suggested flight.

"How can I tell?" The old mischief looked out of her eyes.

He took a step toward her. "Come and get the first wet off by the fire," he urged.

But, laughing, she fled up the stairs.

"I didn't know he was such a distinguished-looking person," she was owning to herself as she ran along the upper hall. "Why, he's grown so much heavier and handsomer I'm actually afraid of him--it doesn't seem like the same Jarvis Burnside I've known so long. He's--he's--what Dorothy Chase would call stunning! I never supposed that farming would have that effect on anybody."

Then she rushed into her own room to find it in spotless order, with evidences of Joanna's recent presence in a brisk little fire burning in the small bedroom fireplace, the freshest of appointments everywhere, and a trimly bright lamp upon the old cherry dressing-table which had come from New Hampshire among Uncle Timothy's furniture.

"My trunk isn't here--what in the world shall I put on?" was her first anxiety. She opened the door of her closet, to find all her last summer's frocks newly "done up" and hanging there in inviting daintiness. She caught at the lilac muslin, now faded by many washings into a mere tint, but looking so like home and good times that it seemed the fitting thing to don, in the absence of her heavier dresses, even upon an April night.

A half-hour later, her hair crisply dried by the fire and curling blithely from its recent bath, herself sweet with the soap-and-water and clean-clothes freshness which is the only fragrance worth cultivating, Sally stole on tiptoe to the top of the stairs and peeped down. She beheld Jarvis pacing up and down the hall, and as she looked saw him take his watch out and scan its face as if he had an appointment to keep. She stood still, her pulses beating rather quickly. This was not exactly the sort of home-coming she had planned, this reception by one person. But it was nearly ten o'clock already, she had managed to consume so much time upstairs. Also, upon Joanna's return to her room to inquire if there were anything else she wanted, the young mistress of the house had imperatively commanded the presence in the living-room of the middle-aged housekeeper until such time as Max and the boys should arrive. Joanna, with her neat black dress and smooth hair, was certainly fitted in appearance for the duties of duenna, and Sally had felt no hesitation whatever in requiring her to assume that role.

So Joanna now waited in the living-room--rather reluctantly, it must be admitted, for it seemed to her that this was carrying chaperonage unnecessarily far. But Jarvis was in the hall, and the door had been closed between. Sally did not realize this latter fact until she had almost reached the bottom of the stairs, where Jarvis, the moment that he had caught sight of her, had advanced to meet her. She looked at the door with a startled expression. It was ordinarily kept open, except in very cold weather.

"Yes, I know it's shut," said the young man at the foot of the stairs, with a smile. "Awful situation, isn't it? But you can escape back up the stairs--if you are quick. I warn you that you'll have to be very quick!"

"Will you give me sixty seconds' start?"

"Not I. You've had five months' start--that's enough. Now you are back--how well you are looking!"

She stood still, two steps above him. Even so, she had not much the advantage of him in height.

"So are you," she retorted. "But we don't need to stay out here to tell each other that. Let's--"

"Are you so eager to see Joanna again? She's looking very well also--for Joanna--but she can wait a minute or two to hear it."

"Joanna has been so good--she's cleaned the whole house for me. She--"

"I know. She's a treasure--but I haven't time to think about her now. All I can think of is that--I'm looking at you again! I told you in my last letter that I wanted to tell you how I felt about your coming home. Do you care to know?"

"Are you really glad?" Sally tried to ask it as she would have done a year ago, in the old friendly time when it was a matter of course that she and Jarvis should be glad to see each other.

"Am I? What do you think?"

"I should be very disappointed if you were not, of course. I want everybody to welcome me home--I've missed it so."

"But you still don't want the welcoming done--'two and two'? Sally, it's a long lane that has no turning. Am I never to come to one?"

"I'm not a very 'long Lane,'" expostulated the girl, laughter on her lips but her eyes shy.

"That may be. But though you have so many turnings it seems to me as if I had been kept a good while on the straight stretch. What if you should let me see just a little way round the corner? You know what I want to find there! You know how dearly I--love you!"

There was a moment's silence.

"Will you be contented to see a very little way?"

"I can't promise to be contented, but I'll agree to be patient, if I can get even a glimpse of where my lane may lead in the end."

Sally tried to look frankly at him, in the old way. It proved less easy than she would have supposed. His whole personality seemed to have grown so dominant, so compelling. She put out one hand. He grasped it eagerly, and would have drawn her down to where he stood, but she prevented this with a warning gesture.

"No, no--" she said quickly--"it's only round the corner you're to look! That only means--I'm willing to be very good friends--better than we have been, perhaps. I don't want to be--tied--by any promises. I want to be a girl yet--only not--perhaps--quite so little a girl as before. Meanwhile--you're not tied, either."

A short laugh interrupted her. "There's nothing on earth I should like so much!"

"There's such a lovely girl next door--I've heard--"

"What have you heard?"

Sally did not seem to be willing to tell.

"It makes no difference what you've heard. Ask her herself what we've talked of most. But, Sally--how long before I may see round another corner?"

She hesitated. "I don't know. Not--this year, please."

"Not this year! Well--I certainly shall have to cultivate patience. But I will--if I must. When--?"

Her lips twitched a little. It was the girl he had known a long time who answered: "When the first strawberries go to market--from Strawberry Acres!"

"Shades of Job! A year from this June? And till then I must walk on neutral ground?"

It was harder to resist him--harder to put him off--than she had thought it would be. But she had made up her mind--and when Sally Lane did that she could not be easily swayed from her purpose.

"You've seen around the corner," she murmured. "You promised to be content with that."

"Not content--patient--if I can. I will be. Thank you for that much."

He reluctantly let her draw away her hand, and she came down the two steps, passed him, and led the way toward the living-room door. With her hand on the knob he stopped her.

"Sally--"

"Yes--"

"I can't help liking the look of the lane--beyond the corner!"

Laughing and blushing more brilliantly than before--which was rather superfluous--Sally threw open the door, regardless of the fact that Joanna, who possessed a pair of very good eyes, was awaiting her in the room beyond. But there is such a thing as dazzling people's eyesight so that they cannot judge perfectly of what they see, and this effect Joanna's mistress immediately proceeded to produce. For the following hour, between raptures over being at home, tales of her Southern experiences--told so vividly that her listeners seemed to see them for themselves--eager questionings of the home stayers, there was small chance for anybody to put a finger upon exactly what Miss Sally Lane's inmost thoughts might be.

Then, quite unexpectedly, a quarter hour earlier than it had been supposed possible, the tramp of feet was heard upon the porch. Sally flew toward the hall--then flew back again, leaving the door closed, and standing still and breathless upon the hearth-rug, in the full light of the fire. Voices were heard in the hall, and the rattle of umbrellas in the rack.

"Plaguey poor play," Max was complaining. "Rather stay by the fire any night than poke to town to bore myself like that. I don't think--"

He flung open the door. Behind him Alec's voice was saying: "I'm as wet as a rat. You fellows had the big umbrella. The little one isn't big enough to--"

"Well, I'll be--" Max's exclamation cut his brother short. He stood still, staring. There was a flutter of lilac skirts, a low cry of joy, and Jarvis was looking on enviously at an illustration of the privileges that exist for brothers, who--stupid fellows--do not half appreciate them. A moment later Alec and Bob had come in for their share of sisterly greeting, and the three were standing round the returned traveller in a highly satisfied semi-circle, putting questions, making comments, and generally behaving as they might have been counted on to do.

"I hope you don't expect us to believe those piteous tales about your losing flesh and colour with homesickness," declared Max, his hand on his sister's shoulder, as he turned her full toward the firelight. "Jove, I never saw you look more like one of those pink peonies you think so much of, in your garden."

"I didn't write piteous tales!" His sister involuntarily accentuated the likeness he had suggested by growing pinker than before.

"It was Uncle Tim, then. He got worried about you, and wrote me so. He must have been off his base. You never looked healthier. But, see here, miss--you don't do this thing again--understand? We'll never keep house here another winter without you!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Sally had come home on Saturday night. On Sunday morning the rain had ceased, and the sun was shining brilliantly. Before breakfast she was out in the garden. Spying her there as he looked out of his window, Max hastened his dressing and went out to join her.

"Looks fairly well in order, eh?" he questioned.

Sally remembered certain information sent her in one of Janet's letters. "Indeed it does. And you made it so. That pleases me more than I can tell you, Max."

"How do you know I did?"

"Guessed it from your expression--and a hint I had had. Didn't you rather enjoy doing it?"

"Much more than I should have expected," he was forced to admit under the scrutiny of her eyes.

"How I wish you could leave the bank and join the boys in the work out here. Don't you almost wish so yourself?" she demanded, thrusting her hand through his arm, as he paced along, his hands in his pockets. The old garden paths were quite wide enough for two, when they walked close together.

Max looked down at her. "To tell the truth, I'm beginning to wish so too."

This, from Max, was a great admission. Sally's eyes sparkled with pleasure. "Oh, can't you?" she cried.

"I don't see how I can, this year. To be sure, Jarve's paying all the expenses and taking all the responsibility these first two years, according to agreement, but I can't lie down on him. Of course it's all outgo and no income until we get the strawberries to bearing next year. Meanwhile the family has to be supported, and what timber we've thought best to sell won't do that, if all of us stop work. It's all right for Al and Bob to spend this season on the farm, for Jarve would have to hire somebody anyway, but it's different with me, and my salary is more than they could earn, both together, at their old jobs. No--I must grind away another year. But then--"

"Then you'll come?"

"Yes, and be glad to."

"I'm so delighted to hear you say that!"

"I need the change. I realize, at last, what a bear I've been these three years. I'm tired of being a bear. It's half nerves, I believe--but a fellow of my age ought not to know he has nerves. Besides--"

He paused, looking off through the pine grove to the gap in the hedge, through which a glimpse of the white cottage could be had. Sally waited. It was rarely that her elder brother became confidential, and this mood seemed more than ordinarily propitious for getting at his best thoughts. After a little he went on, in a firm tone, speaking after a fashion which made his sister feel for him a new respect.

"I may as well tell you that in a way I think I'm rather a different fellow from the one you left last November. I see things differently. It's his doing--" He nodded toward the cottage, and Sally understood. Also, she felt infinitely thankful to the influence which had brought about this change. "I've come to see," he went on more slowly, "what it means to have a definite purpose in life beyond merely making a living and having as much of a good time as you can manage to extract. I want to make a man of myself--the sort of man my Maker intended me to be.

"Ferry's doing it--Jarvis is doing it--even Alec and Bob put me to shame with the manliness they're developing. If Maxwell Lane can't swing into line--"

"He can, dear--he will. He's swung already, when he can talk like this." His sister's hand squeezed his arm tight for a minute, in her happiness.

"It's not going to be a matter of talk, mind you," he said earnestly. "Don Ferry doesn't talk about his own life--he lives it. I want to do the same. But I felt as if I'd like you to know--that's all. What's that coming up in the corner there?"

"Lilies-of-the-valley--they're almost ready to bud." And Sally let him lead the conversation away from himself to talk about the garden, understanding that the little revelation was a great one for him to make, and that it had cost him a decided effort. But while she talked of the pruning of the roses and the prospects of the sweet peas, just sown, her heart was rejoicing over the growth in this "human garden," as Ferry had called it, so much dearer to her.

"Alec's to go away next winter for a course at an agricultural school," Max announced suddenly. "I've made up my mind to that. He shows more bent than any of us toward making a science of this thing. Odd, isn't it?--where you consider how set he was against even living here. I tell you Don Ferry's a great chap. He's done more for us than we can pay back. I'd like to keep him in the family. Janet too. See here--" he rose upright from having stooped over certain newly upspringing shoots, and favoured his sister with a sharp glance. "What's the matter with you and Don hitting it off? That would leave Jarve to Janet, and make a mighty nice combination of us--eh? Judging by appearances Don wouldn't object a bit.--I say--where are you going?"

"Didn't you hear the breakfast-bell?" Sally was walking away from him toward the house.

"No, I didn't. Neither did you."

But Sally continued to walk, regardless of the fact that both Alec and Bob had appeared round the corner of the house, coming toward her, hands in the pockets of their Sunday trousers, feet treading gingerly over the damp grass in their freshly-polished best shoes. On whatever part of Strawberry Acres Sally should be descried to-day, it might be safely prophesied that there her family would be likely to foregather.