Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part I.--Five Miles Out
Chapter VI. In the Pine Grove
"Sally, will you and Max go for a drive with us? It will cool you off for sleep." Josephine stood looking in on them, herself in white from head to foot, a refreshing sight for tired eyes to rest upon.
Sally drew herself up eagerly upon her couch pillows. Max yawned and stretched in the chair in which he had been half asleep.
"Oh, it would be so good to get out!" Sally rose unsteadily to her feet.
Max rubbed his eyes. "Sally can go. I think I'll go to bed. Much obliged."
"Please go, Max. We want you very much, and it's too hot here to sleep."
"He's worn out," explained Sally. "But the drive will rest you, boy," she insisted.
"Jarvis is driving. He has something to talk over with you," urged Josephine.
Max unwillingly put on his coat. He felt tired enough. He had never known so trying a period of work as that which had been driving him now for weeks at the bank, with this accompaniment of intense heat which made his labours seem doubly hard. He gave Sally his arm, down the stairs, wondering if she felt much weaker than he did, and reflecting that in one thing she had the advantage over him--she need not work until she should feel fit. As for himself, he must work, fit or not.
The rest of Sally's family were out. She had been sending them away nightly to sit in the park by the river bank, allowing only one to remain with her. Although she had been at home nearly a week, it was difficult for them to see that she had made any gain in acquiring strength. Each evening Bob and Uncle Timothy searched the daily paper in vain for prophecy of change in the weather, and each morning they eyed the flags upon a certain tall building with a distinct sense of resentment toward them for persistently indicating "Fair and dry."
"Good! Delighted to be able to lure you out!" called Jarvis, from his driver's seat. Although it was evening, he wore his goggles, on account of the myriad bright lights of this down-town district, and they shone upon his guests like welcoming lamps above his satisfied smile.
"Tired out, old fellow?" he asked Max, as he wheeled the horses about.
"Absolutely done. This heat is the worst I ever knew. The place where my desk stands is the hottest corner in the hottest bank in the hottest city in the universe!"
"This certainly has been the worst day yet. That's why I thought you might like to get out into the country."
"Don't care where I go," said Max. "Excuse me if I shut my eyes and keep quiet. I haven't energy enough to say any more for a mile."
"All right. Shut your eyes, and I'll tell you when to open them."
Max turned sidewise in his seat, rested his elbow on the back, propped his head upon his hand, closed his eyes, and appeared to slumber. Jarvis drove on silently, noting with pleasure the subdued murmur of talk going on behind him, where Sally, after a long and lonely day, was enjoying the chance to visit with her friend. The girl lay back against the luxurious padding of the Burnside carriage, resting and drinking in the refreshing sense of coolness caused more by the motion than by a greatly lowered temperature, for the evening was very warm. Presently, however, as they left the city and turned out upon a country road, the lessening heat and freer stirring of the air became distinctly perceptible.
A passing stream of automobiles, setting out for some scene of festivity at a popular resort several miles away, roused Max from his lethargy with their tooting horns and brilliant lights. "Lucky ducks!" he muttered, in surly tones. "They can always stir up a breeze."
"They're not the only ones who can stir up breezes," rejoined Jarvis. "I'm about to stir up one myself."
"I should think you'd own a runabout," remarked Max.
"Perhaps I will some day--when you people get to living out here."
Max looked about him. "Headed for the farm, are we? You seem to have a fancy for this road."
"It's the prettiest outside the city. Look here, Max"--he lowered his voice, that Sally might not catch a word of the coming talk--"I want to own up to something. I've been taking liberties with your place out here."
Jarvis pulled off his goggles and turned his eyes upon his companion. Max yawned once more--it was the last time he yawned that evening. From that moment he became thoroughly awake.
"Well, what is it?" he asked. "Had the house painted and moved in?"
"Not quite so bad as that. I've put up a tent in your grove and moved out."
Max stared. "What?"
"Let's keep our voices low for a bit," urged Jarvis. "I want to surprise Sally. I knew if I asked your permission to camp in your grove you'd give it to me without a minute's hesitation, so, banking on your generosity, I took possession. I wanted to surprise you all. It struck me that every last one of you needed an outing, and I thought if you found a tent all in order out here, perhaps you'd like to try camping through this hot spell."
Max was still staring. Jarvis faced him silently, straining his eyes in the darkness to see what manner of expression might be discovered upon the face beside him, showing so whitely through the obscurity. Max did not reply for the space of a full minute. When he did it was not necessary for Jarvis to strain his eyes to make out the expression. He could tell what it was quite without seeing it.
"It may be the proper thing to bank on a person's generosity," said Max, in a tone of deep displeasure, "but as a rule I think it pays to consult a man before you take possession of his property."
Now this speech was highly characteristic and therefore not unexpected. Nevertheless, it made Jarvis Burnside feel exceedingly like kicking his friend violently from his seat into the road. For a moment, all he could command himself to do was to tighten his grip on his horses and send them at a considerably accelerated pace along the smooth turnpike. When he spoke, however, it was with no change from the quiet good humour of his former tone.
"You don't mean just that, with an old friend like me. Mother and Jo are with me in this attempt at a pleasant surprise. They will be tremendously hurt if you get up on your dignity and take it this way. We knew you had no time to be arranging camps, here or anywhere else, yet we saw you working yourself to death, and Sally needing to get out of the heat--"
"I understand. Jo talked this thing at me the last time we were out here. It's a trick to get round my refusal to live here. You think you can get in an entering wedge. It's no use won't live out here. It's nonsense, and--"
Sally's voice interrupted from behind: "Max, isn't this glorious? Don't you feel like a new person? We must be almost at the farm. Just think, I haven't seen the farm since April, before a leaf was out!"
But Josephine, who understood the situation, and was anxious to prevent any interference with the conversation now going on upon the front seat, promptly drew Sally back to their own interview.
"Max, listen to me." Jarvis spoke in a still lower voice. "Do one thing for the sake of my pride, if not for yours. I may have blundered, but you know I didn't mean to. I thought I could count on your understanding my motives. But anyhow, just for to-night, give way to my schemes, and don't let the others see that you're offended with us. If after a night here you still honestly think I'm a fool and a meddler, I won't say another word--"
"A night here! Do you expect to keep us here all night?"
"You must think I'm--"
"I think you're a reasonable being and a kind-hearted brother. If Sally likes the plan and wants to stay, let her. If she doesn't, I'll cheerfully take you both home. Mother's here to welcome us and make the thing proper, and we've all planned to stay. Think of the oven your flat is to-night. Come, be good, and you'll be cool!"
"Do you realize you're treating me like a small boy?"
"I feel rather like one myself--one who has stolen a cake out of the pantry and is in danger of a thrashing," was Jarvis's whimsical admission. "See here. I'll give you leave to take it out of me all you like. I'll agree to meet you at midnight in the timber tract, and take whatever you see fit to administer--provided you'll keep in before the rest. What do you say?" In making this preposterous proposition he was apparently perfectly serious.
It was as Mrs. Burnside had said. If anybody could manage Max's proud stubbornness, it was Jarvis, with his cool command of himself and his inborn habit of courtesy to everybody. Yet even Jarvis had his hands full to-night. Max's physical condition of fatigue and overwrought nerves made him more than ordinarily captious and difficult to handle.
"Confound you, you've got me in a corner!" he muttered. "That's what I don't like. If you had come out in the open with your plans--"
"You'd have refused me."
"You just said you counted on my generosity. If you were so sure of it, why didn't you ask for it?"
Jarvis laughed. "Oh, be reasonable! Don't you let people plot, at Christmas time and on birthdays, to take you by surprise? You hardly call it not being in the open because they don't ask your permission to present you with a house-jacket or a fountain-pen!"
The horses trotted briskly on, quiet ensuing behind them for a little while. Max fell into a sulky silence; Sally into a happy one, as she leaned out, watching for the final turn in the road before the pines should come into sight. Jarvis was wondering just how Max would behave, and hoping that Sally's pleasure would blind her eyes to her brother's dissatisfaction. He was counting a good deal on the impression his camp would make. As he thought it would look in the moonlight, with a little camp fire before it, it seemed to him it must appeal to anybody.
Sally gave a little cry. "There's the grove! How big and dark it looms up at night! I can smell it before I get near it--in my imagination. I've been smelling it all these hot days, and longing for it. Oh, what's that at the back? Didn't you see a flash of something?"
Sally was fairly hanging out of the carriage, her gaze feasting on the cool depths of gloom under the tall trees, when she caught sight of the little leaping flames of the camp fire.
"Somebody must be in there," agreed Josephine. "Perhaps it's Mr. Ferry, who lives next door, in the white cottage. Remember my telling you about him? Max gave him leave to inhabit the grove all he liked."
"Everything's so dry, he might set it on fire," considered Sally anxiously.
"You won't fear any such carelessness on his part when you see him," Josephine assured her confidently.
The carriage turned in at the gate. In another minute it had reached a point where the tent began to show from behind a clump of bushes. Sally's hand clutched Max's shoulder. Her brother was ill-humouredly surveying the signs of occupancy of the debatable ground.
"Why, there's a tent there!" she cried. "A big tent, and some one in front! Who is it--do you know?" She turned excitedly to Josephine; then she touched Jarvis's shoulder. "I seem to be doing all the exclaiming," she declared. "You people must know about this. Is it--is it a surprise?"
"It seems to be," replied Jarvis, turning to see her face, as the fire-light struck it, aglow with wonder and anticipation.
Josephine caught her hand. "It's on your land, Sally dear," she said. "Do you mind?"
"Did it ever strike you," said Jarvis, quickly, in Max's ear, "that this is Sally's land, and Alec's, and Bob's, quite as much as yours?"
Mrs. Burnside came out to greet the party, and Sally tumbled into her welcoming arms, hugging her frantically, and pulling away from her again to look about her. She seemed a different girl from the limp and languid one who had climbed into the carriage an hour before.
"Isn't it absolutely enchanting?" she exclaimed, gazing eagerly into the big tent, the open flaps of which showed an outer room arranged with rugs, chairs, couch, and table. Other open flaps at the corners of this outer enclosure invited exploration, and Sally promptly obeyed the summons. She found four smaller rooms, securely partitioned by high, tightly stretched canvas walls. She came back beaming.
"What does it all mean?" she begged. "Are we to stay here to-night? Was there ever anything so inviting as those beds and cots? I could hardly keep from falling into one of them."
"You may fall into one as soon as you choose," said Josephine, gleefully. "The one on the southeast corner is yours, the one with the blue Japanese rug on the floor and the wicker chair with the blue cushion. We've sent a telephone message to the rest of your family, so they won't expect you back."
Jarvis, returning with Max from the bestowal of his horses in the barn, found his mother and the two girls sitting in a row upon a rustic seat at a little distance from the tent, their faces toward the camp fire, now a mere flicker, which nobody had taken the trouble to revive. It was too hot a night for camp fires, except as welcoming beacons.
"Well?" questioned Jarvis, standing before the three, upon whom the bright midsummer moonlight streamed so luminously that the white figures were visible in every detail.
"Well?" responded Josephine.
"Very well, I think," added Mrs. Burnside.
"More than well!" And Sally clasped her hands in a way both characteristic and eloquent. "A dozen tonics couldn't have made me feel so much stronger as the notion of sleeping in that big white tent. I wish I knew just what the thermometer says it is in the flat at home. Oh, poor Uncle Timmy, and Bob and Alec! How I wish they were here--don't you, Max?"
It would have taken a harder heart than that which beat wearily in Max's breast to allow him to answer his sister sullenly.
"You like it, Sally?" he asked, taking a position where the moonlight did not illumine his face.
"Like it!" she exclaimed. "Jo says we're to stay if you are willing--live in this tent, and have the others out, and Mary Ann Flinders! We won't need Mary Ann long. I'll be strong enough myself to cook in another week. Oh, wasn't it dear and kind of these people to plan this for us?"
What could he do or say against it all without seeming a churl and an ingrate? But before he could formulate the inwardly grudging yet outwardly appreciative reply he felt forced to make, Jarvis himself had interposed with a flow of lively talk, explaining to Sally various details of arrangement, and sparing Max the necessity of making any insincere speeches. And the next thing that happened was the setting forth by Josephine, on the table in the tent's outer room, of a light but tempting supper, brought from home in a hamper--the product of no Mary Ann Flinders, but of the Burnside cook.
"Mm--mm!" The soft but eloquent sound came from Sally's closed lips when she had taken her first taste of a sandwich of unknown but delicious compound. "Was ever anything so good? Max, boy, please try one, quick! What is this perfect drink, Joey?--how it does go to the spot! Oh, if you are all half as happy as Sally Lunn, you don't know how to express it!"
"We're even happier," said Josephine, laughing softly, "for it seems at last as if we have Sally Lunn back."
Jarvis had hard work to keep his own pleasure properly subdued. He sat just across the table from Max, and the light from two candles shone revealingly into his satisfied face. He put on his goggles to screen his eyes, hoping that they might assist in concealing his content. Until Max gave in and agreed to it all, it would never do to let anybody but Sally crow with delight.
Mrs. Burnside insisted on an early bedtime for Sally, and the convalescent reluctantly admitted that not even joy was wholly sustaining to such weakness of limb as was still hers. So she submitted, with a sigh of appreciation, to being tucked away in the bed in the southeast enclosure of the tent, and soon was lying peacefully there, watching through her open tent-flap the moonlight as it lay on the open lawn, beyond the vista of trees. The air was now stirring refreshingly through the grove, and Sally, under the thinnest of light summer blankets, was absolutely comfortable and restful, as she had not been for many weary nights.
In the adjoining room, Max was asleep in two minutes after he had stretched himself upon his cot. Outside, by the embers of the camp fire, Jarvis and Josephine exchanged a brief conversation.
"Is he taking it worse or better than you expected?" Josephine asked, in the lowest of whispers.
"He took it like the bumptious idiot he can be, at first. He's a trifle calmer now. I'm hoping by morning he'll be reasonable."
"Don't you think he must see the beauty of it when he looks at Sally?"
"One would think so. I suppose we mustn't blame him too much, for he certainly is worn out with work in this heat, and isn't himself. If he'll only be sensible, the staying here will do him as much good as it will Sally. She is pleased isn't she?"
"Pleased doesn't express it. But she thinks it's all my doing."
"Don't let her think anything else. It was your suggestion, and you've done half the work."
"It was Mr. Ferry's suggestion. Did you know he put up that rustic bench out there this afternoon? Made it out of the tree he chopped down."
"I didn't stop to wonder how it came there. I wonder if Max noticed it? I suppose he will think that was more of our impudence. It was kind of Ferry, though. He'll be a good neighbour for them."
"Oh, Jarvis, how I wish we could all stay here, too!"
Her brother gave vent to a curious little ejaculation, whether of agreement or dissent she could not tell. "Of course we can't," he said shortly.
"Perhaps Max will come round and ask us to put up another tent for ourselves."
"Not much he won't. Never mind, I'm satisfied if he submits to this."
When Max opened his eyes the next morning it was difficult for him to realize where he was. He lay staring at the flecks of sunlight on the pine-needle-strewn ground, wondering how it happened that he had not wakened in damp discomfort from hot and perspiring slumbers. Before he felt himself fully awake he was conscious of a voice a few feet away, exclaiming:
"Oh, Mr. Ferry, how kind of you! What splendid strawberries! Out of your own garden? You must be an accomplished gardener." It was Josephine's voice.
"Only a novice, but I'm rather proud of these. I hope the first night was a comfortable one?"
"Perfect! Our friends are still sleeping--though they won't be long if I shout like this."
"I've been up so long I didn't realize it was barely seven o'clock. But I wanted to make sure of your having these for the first camp breakfast. I'll disappear now, and perhaps I can venture to appear again, later in the day, with my mother. We want to offer our services as neighbours from whom anything, from axes to apricots, can be borrowed."
Max could hear Josephine's low laugh echoed by a small ecstatic chuckle from the other side of the canvas wall which separated his head from Sally's. Her whisper came from very near his ear:
"Max, are you awake? Did you hear what Jo said? We're to have fresh strawberries, right out of a garden, for breakfast. Aren't you glad you're alive?"
Where was his ill-temper? He felt for it, in the recesses of his inner man, and couldn't seem to find it. He had had nine long hours of refreshing sleep, in the purest air to be found in the country, and had wakened with a sense of refreshment and well-being such as he had not experienced in many months. A faint, but appetizing, odour of cookery, including that of fragrant coffee, was in the air, and there were to be freshly picked strawberries for breakfast. And on the other side of the tent wall was a happy young convalescent, demanding of him whether it was not good to be alive. He found himself answering, in a genuinely cheerful tone:
"I'm certainly mighty glad you're alive, Sally Lunn!"