Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part I.--Five Miles Out
Chapter IX. Max Compromises
"I'll tell you what I'll do," said Maxwell Lane. "I'll compromise. If Sally and the rest of you will let up on your nonsensical plan of staying in this barracks all winter, I'll agree to stick it out till--November."
He encountered Sally's gaze. They were all upon the great, high-columned porch which gave to the front of the house its impressive air of being an old family mansion. It was a fortnight after the tent party--a fine August evening. Josephine and Jarvis Burnside had just driven out, and Donald Ferry, seeing them come, had strolled over. So not only Sally, but six other people, were hanging on Max's decision.
He had meant to say "till October." But as he met his sister's eyes it occurred to him that a compromise, which offered one month instead of six, might perhaps be considered a trifle too one-sided to be accepted as a compromise at all. So he finished the sentence, after a perceptible pause, with "till November." That, surely, was being generous, he considered. Just why all decisions should be made by him, as supreme arbiter, can hardly be explained, except that he had assumed that position three years before, when the other young Lanes had been negligible factors in all matters of business, and he, by the divine right of his twenty-one years, had, upon the death of his father, taken the management of the family affairs into his own hands.
Sally drew a long breath of relief. Anyhow, she now had more than two months' reprieve. By the end of that period something might happen to make Max willing to extend it. The tent had been put up again, and all but Max had returned to sleeping in it. He had announced that he cared to take no more chances with thunderstorms and cyclones, so Sally had arranged comfortable quarters for him in the house, in one of the smaller downstairs rooms, looking out upon the grove. There was a fireplace in this room, and Bob had placed a well-stocked wood-box beside it, so that his brother might have no excuse for feeling himself neglected.
"Your compromise gives you so much the bigger half of the bargain," said Josephine, her brilliant dark eyes fixed on Max, "that I think you ought to give Sally something to boot. Isn't that the word?"
"What does she want? The house furnished for the two months?"
"Much simpler than that. Sally and I want to have our friends out for a frolic."
"In an empty house?"
"Yes. What jollier place for a lot of fun? Only it wouldn't seem empty by the time we had put up a lot of flags and bunting and goldenrod and balsam branches. That long drawing-room of yours, with crash on the floor--and a harp and violins behind a screen--and Chinese lanterns all over the rooms and on the porch and down the driveway--"
Josephine's imagination worked fast. She had gone into a dozen specifications before Max could get a chance to interpose.
"Very fine, very fine! And a supper-table, loaded with salads and ices. Glorious idea! How much do you think all this would cost? Of course that's of no consequence, but just out of curiosity I should like to know."
"Goodness, we've boxes of lanterns, rolls of bunting and flags, and yards of crash left from parties way back to my first birthday ones," Josephine assured him. "As for the supper--" She paused to think it out, for party suppers are unquestionably expensive details.
"Wait till October and make it a husking-bee," suggested Donald Ferry. He had become in these few weeks as much a member of this circle of friends as if he had always belonged to it. "Then you'll need only coffee and doughnuts and apples and that sort of thing. There'll be corn enough in my patch to trim your rooms, and plenty for the husking."
"Jolly!" exploded Bob.
"Fine!" cried Alec.
Sally's eyes were radiant. Even Uncle Timothy smiled. Max himself, being, after all, in spite of his grave air, only twenty-four, and capable of enjoying gay times like the rest of them, felt his indifference melt away.
"That would give us a chance to do something in return for all the invitations we've had ever since we've been in the apartment," urged Sally. "Wouldn't you like to ask your friends in the bank, Max?"
"If we had the thing, I shouldn't mind asking two of the fellows--Harper and Ward," Max admitted. "Oh, I suppose we'll have it. When Jo and Sally get their minds on anything, it has to go through. If you can figure it out so it doesn't mean a big bill, it may do very well as a wind-up to this out-door business."
This was being condescending, for Max; and Jarvis smiled to himself as he reflected that there's nothing like having your own way in big matters to make you decently amiable as regards small ones.
From this evening the arrangements for the October husking-bee occupied a more or less prominent part in the plans of the Lanes and their friends. Meanwhile everybody, including Max himself--although he could seldom be made to admit it--thoroughly enjoyed the intervening weeks.
"Did you ever see finer corn than this?" asked Ferry, as he and Bob set up a great shock of rustling stalks at one end of the "drawing-room." "To be sure, I didn't plant it--I owe the owner of the place for that--but I hoed it, and I cut it, and I'm reaping the credit."
"It's magnificent, Mr. Ferry," Sally agreed readily, from the floor where she sat, fitting candles into Chinese lanterns of every form and hue, from small round ones to gorgeous great affairs of fantastic shape and design. It was Saturday afternoon, and the entire force was busy. On the front porch Max and Josephine were hanging lanterns, while Alec was stringing wires among the trees and down the driveway. It was extraordinary how many lanterns the Burnsides seemed to have stored away, and in what fresh condition they were; the bunting and the flags, also. Although some of this material showed unmistakable signs of use, bales more of it had had to be hastily rumpled by Josephine, to get it into the proper condition for lending.
"I'll tell you where I've put in my fine touches," chuckled Bob. "Those twenty jack-o'-lanterns of mine have teeth, every one of 'em. Maybe you don't think that was some work."
"Not only was it work, but it shows a trained sense of artistic effect," Ferry assured him. "That monster you've put on the porch, with four faces pointing to the four points of the compass, has Janus, the god of beginnings, beaten to a finish."
"Sally," Josephine called in at one of the front windows, "I've forgotten to tell you who are in town! Neil and Dorothy Chase. They just came last night. Don't you want to ask them out to-night?"
Alec, down the driveway, heard, and was first to shout his approbation of this idea: "Sure! Get 'em here and ask 'em if they think there's room enough to turn round in!"
Max, from the top of the step-ladder, added his approval: "Have them, whatever you do, Sally. Of all the chumps!"
Bob whistled. "Neil was afraid he'd burst our rooms in town," he recalled. "He can get as chesty as he likes out here. You'll have him, won't you, Sally?"
Sally looked up at their neighbour, who was laughing quietly at the comments. "You must think we have odd motives for our invitations."
"I think the house is going to give the impression to-night of being a hospitable mansion," he returned. "It will be just the time to invite anybody who likes space and effect."
There could be no doubt of this. When all was done, even before the lanterns and the fires were lighted, the drawing-room, the hall, and the dining-room all had taken on such a festal air that it could occur to nobody to miss the furniture which ordinarily occupies houses of this character. Across the hall two rooms had been arranged for dressing-rooms, and even these were highly attractive.
After the lanterns were lighted, outside was fairyland! Inside, with the fireplaces burning huge logs and flashing intermittently over the scene, the jack-o'-lanterns grinning cheerfully from every corner, the flags and bunting contributing colour, and the masses of evergreen and clumps of corn-shocks adding nooks and corners for shadows to dance in, there certainly could have been no quainter or prettier background for a party.
"What I want to know is, whether the lady of the manor feels her part. She certainly looks it!"
It was Jarvis's greeting as he came up the steps into the big porch, after a hasty trip home to dress. Just as he approached the house a figure in white had come out of the doorway, and he congratulated himself on having caught Sally alone for the first time in several days.
Sally met him with an eager welcome: "Oh, I'm so glad you got back before the rest came! I wanted you here to help make things go from the beginning. Max is having fits with his tie, and Alec is in distress because his pumps don't look as smart as he thinks they ought. Even Bob is more than usually fussy about the parting of his hair!"
"Too bad, but such small anxieties always go along with dress occasions. You don't answer my question. Do you feel like the mistress of an ancestral home?"
"Do I? I should say I didn't. I feel like a small girl giving her first party. I hadn't a thing to wear but this old white frock--it's lucky for me our lights are the sort they are. Electrics would show me up for what I am."
"Do you know what you are?"
"Hardly--to-night. What am I, do you think?"
"A healthy, happy, sensible girl, who doesn't care if she isn't wearing a fussy frock from the most expensive place in town. And if you were, you couldn't look nicer."
"Thank you. That's a straight masculine compliment, and I appreciate it. How good it seems to see you without those blue glasses! Are you going to leave them off to-night?"
"I certainly am. I don't care to contribute to the weird effects among the jack-o'-lanterns. I want to see everything as it is to-night--including Sally Lane."
She looked straight into his eyes, with the frank friendliness which never dreamed of turning these pleasant speeches into meaning ones. She was heartily pleased to see him without the disfiguring glasses, for the brown eyes were fine ones, and the face was full of character as well as comeliness.
"No girl ever had such good friends as Sally Lunn," she said. "Do you think I don't know that no decorations of your house in town ever called for so much bunting and crash and so many flags and lanterns as we have here to-night? The others haven't thought of it, but I've done a bit of estimating, if you please."
Jarvis laughed. "It's hard to get round you. But you don't mind? Mother and Jo are certainly near enough to being mother and sister to you to be allowed a bit of fun like this."
"You are sure brother Jarvis didn't have a hand?"
It was on his lips to tell her that whatever relation he might hold to her, that of brother wouldn't do--but he restrained the words. Not yet! It would be a pity to risk anything yet--certainly not now, when her mind was full of the coming party. Beside, he was not at all sure that a word might not spoil all his chances. Sally, in spite of her twenty years, was, in some ways, still such a girl.
So he only answered gayly: "Both hands, if you don't mind. It took hands, shoulders, and back to get the stuff down from our attic!"
Donald Ferry and his mother now came up the steps, and Jarvis and Sally turned to greet them. Ferry had given them both a quick look of keen scrutiny as he saw them standing there alone together under the lanterns. For some time he had been observing that the two seemed to be close friends. What he thought, however, could not have been told from his manner, for he had never seemed in a blither mood as he shook hands and presented himself to Sally in the capacity of one of her right-hand men.
"Thank you," she answered, looking at him precisely as she had looked at Jarvis, with the girlish fearlessness and absence of coquetry which is so charming at her age, much as a younger brother sometimes looks at an elder one whom he sincerely likes and admires. "I've just been telling Jarvis that no girl ever had nicer friends. You've all worked like slaves, and I do hope you'll have good times enough to-night to half pay you. Jarvis, please present Mr. Ferry to the prettiest, jolliest girls we know, won't you? And don't forget to take advantage of your chance to dance with the nicest ones yourself," she added, laughing, and leading the way into the house with Mrs. Ferry, who, with Mrs. Burnside, was to chaperon the party.
Both Jarvis's and Ferry's eyes followed the graceful young figure as it made its way with the elder one down the hall, among the parti-coloured lights. Then, for some reason, they turned to look at each other, and smiled. "Are you prepared to do your duty by those prettiest and jolliest girls?" inquired Ferry.
"If you are. It's the surest way of pleasing Sally," replied Jarvis, with conviction.
Sally's characterization of the girls who were her guests was undoubtedly a true one. They were attractive young people, indeed, who shortly came trooping up the steps, in gauzy gowns of all hues. Youth and happiness are always good to look upon, and freshness of skin and brightness of eye make features not strictly beautiful charming in their own way.
There were plenty of young men and youths, Max's companion bank-clerks were among them, clear-eyed, keen-faced fellows whom the Lanes liked upon sight and were glad to entertain both for Max's sake and their own. Alec and Bob had not been denied the privilege of inviting certain youthful intimates, so it was a somewhat diversified company, in point of age, which laughed and danced and talked and sang, under the lanterns. For sing they did now and then, when tempted by some popular air from the little orchestra--which somehow had been enlarged to include several other instruments besides harp and violin, Josephine arguing that there must be sound enough to be heard upon the porch and lawn. It was a gay company, and the fun was at its height when the last guests to arrive drove up with a proclaiming flourish of a musical horn.
"It's the Chases--we must go out and meet them, Max," and Sally caught at her brother as he was hastening by. They reached the porch as Neil and Dorothy descended from their car and looked about them.
"Well, of all the surprises!" was young Mrs. Chase's greeting, as she swept across the porch in a Paris gown which fairly took one's breath away, as it was disclosed by the falling open of a gorgeous evening wrap.
Jarvis Burnside, looking out of a porch window at the moment, as he fanned one of the "prettiest and jolliest girls," after a brisk "two-step," noted the contrast between Dorothy and Sally. Mrs. Chase was twenty-four, as he happened to know, but she looked considerably older, and one would have said there were at least eight years between them. Yet Sally, although she seemed so girlish, had the hostess's pretty air of self-possession which is equal to greeting any number of Parisian gowns and their wearers.
"Yes, we hoped you would enjoy seeing us again with room enough to shake hands in," and Sally made them welcome with a hearty greeting apiece.
"This you, Sally?" asked Neil Chase, surveying her with interest. "You look more like sixteen than ever. Going to put your hair up when you get to be thirty or forty?"
"My hair is as much up as it can be in the circumstances," retorted Sally, gayly. "Unless I wear a wig, the best I can do is to tie it this way with a bow."
"That's so; we did hear you had a fever in the spring. You don't look much like it now--more like an infant cherub. Well, Max, this the old place you had left you? My congratulations. It's not half bad, you know--at least as it looked coming up the drive, by the light of the lanterns. You must hug yourselves to get out of that six-by-nine flat, if this is a good way out in the country. Country places are getting to be the thing these days. Anybody here we know, or is it a neighbourhood blowout?"
Max stiffened--as he usually did by the time Neil Chase had got out a few of his patronizing sentences. "I think you'll find the same set here you'd find in town," he answered. "We haven't asked a crowd--just enough to be comfortable and have plenty of room. But we have some of our neighbours here, and jolly people they are, too."
"Sally, I can't possibly husk any corn," Mrs. Chase murmured, as Sally led her into the drawing-room. "This gauze is a fright now, and I've worn it only three times. It's awfully expensive--but it's the thing now, you know, so one must have it." Her eyes fell on Sally's dress as she spoke. "Sally Lane!" she half-shrieked into Sally's ear, as, at the moment, the orchestra burst into a swinging waltz, "if that isn't the very same embroidered Swiss that you had for my wedding, almost four years ago, when you were a mere child!"
"Absolutely the same. Doesn't it wear well?" Sally answered, serenely. "Much better than gauze. No, you needn't husk any corn. That's just for those who want a little fun for a few minutes by and by. Mr. Ferry!"--as that young man passed with an inquiring look at her which meant, "Do you want me for anything in connection with these new arrivals?"--and Ferry was at her side.
She enjoyed presenting him to the Chases, for she wanted to see what would happen. She had noted a new side of their neighbour to-night. Thus far their acquaintance had been carried on in tents and wood-lots, in an out-door, every-day environment, so to speak. Donald Ferry as a good comrade she had come to know well; Donald Ferry as a popular preacher she knew by many an enthusiastic report from Jarvis, Alec, and Bob; but the same person as a society man in evening dress, with most engaging manners, was a new acquaintance! She observed him with interest as he made himself entertaining to Neil and Dorothy, and blessed him for his tact when he presently went off with Mrs. Chase, to do her special honour as the only young matron present. She observed that Dorothy seemed very ready to accompany him.
Neil looked after his wife and her companion with an expression of curiosity. "I'd like to know how you came to have him here?" he suggested. "Isn't he that chap the papers are full of, who holds forth to a crowd of men every day down in the Old Dutch Church?"
"He's the one," Max replied. "I haven't heard him yet, though I mean to soon. Burnside and the boys say he's great. He lives next door to us here."
"He's not at all the sort I expected to see, from the stories about him. Still, the sanctimonious sort probably couldn't hold the class of men they say go there regularly. He lives next door to you here, does he? That's odd. My brother Ches didn't talk about anything else than Ferry this morning at breakfast. Says he refused a flattering invitation to a church in Washington because he preferred to stay by the Old Dutch. Well, Dorothy didn't realize he was a parson, or she wouldn't have gone off with him with such a flourish. If she finds it out, you can look to see her begin to be demure. I say, you've certainly got a stunning old place here."
Chase gazed about him at the details of the long drawing-room, noting its wood-work and general proportions. "I'd rather like to look it over," he proposed. "Mind taking me about?"
"No, only it's not furnished, nor lighted, except down here where we're entertaining."
"No electricity, or gas, I suppose, out here. Well, you can raise some kind of a light to trot round by, can't you? I'm a crank on ancient houses and furniture. Wish you had some old mahogany--that's what you need in these rooms."
Max procured a small hand-lamp from the kitchen, and proceeded to escort his guest about. Neil began by showing a patronizing approval of details here and there, but as the survey continued he became less conversational, and walked about in silent inspection of everything, floors, walls, windows, and ceilings, putting on a pair of eye-glasses and assuming a hypercritical expression in excess even of his ordinary attitude.
"Very fair, very fair," was his reply, when Max asked him, at the conclusion of the round of the second story, how he liked it. Determined to make the most of his chance to interest this ordinarily bored young man, Max led the way up the stairs to the old library. Here Neil opened his eyes. But as he immediately narrowed them again, and began to examine books with an indifferent air, Max was not sure how much of an impression the collection was making.
Neil presently sat down. "Suppose we stay a few minutes. Quiet spot. Rather enjoy getting away from the crowd. Er--not intending to furnish up and stay here, are you? Quite a distance from town, isn't it?"
"That's the objection to living out here."
"Have you heard that I'm coming back to practise in the city?"
"No. That so? With your father's firm?"
"Yes. Dad's made me a pretty good offer, and while it was considerable of a sacrifice to leave the business I've built up down there, I'm willing to humour the old man." He crossed his legs in a superior sort of way, his head thrown back after a fashion which always made Max want to throw something at him and disturb his pose. His tone was immensely condescending.
"When do you make the move?"
"Right away. The governor's in a hurry, and I've agreed to lose no time. Don't care to live with the old folks again, so I shall look round a bit for a place. I drive a car, you know, and I've rather taken a fancy to having a country place, something on the old-style order. I've picked up rather a decent collection of old mahogany and prints, Sheffield plate and Lowestoft china--that sort of thing--that needs a certain background to show it off. I've heard of a number of places that might suit me; there are a good many abandoned country places these days--people like to get into town. Not many care, like me, for the artistic point of view in such matters. Er--I suppose you'll sell this place?"
His tone was careless, but Max, who was watching him closely, saw a peculiar gleam in his eye which put him on his guard. Neil Chase was nothing if not shrewd and sharp to the point where the man who dealt with him must look closely after his own interests.
"Oh, I don't know," Max replied, slowly. "Haven't made up my mind. I'm considering an offer now for the place. Some people like to get into town, as you say, but plenty more appreciate life in the country, when they can get such a spot as this. Values in such property are going up, not down, in my opinion."
If Sally could have heard him!