Hildegarde's Neighbors by Laura E. Richards
Chapter XIV. Roger the Codger.
"Miranda!" said Roger.
"Yes, my dear brother!"
"Tum te-tiddle-de-tum, tum, tum, tum!"
"Yes, my dear brother."
"I--oh, I beg your pardon; that isn't what I meant to say, of course. A--the moon is in perigee now, you know."
"Roger," said his sister-in-law, looking up from her sewing, "you know there is no earthly use in saying that kind of thing to me. 'Perigee' suggests nothing to me but periwig, and it is painful to think of the moon in so unbecoming a head-gear. Are you quite sure that that was what you were going to say?"
Roger laughed, looked a little confused, and threw stones into the water; Mrs. Merryweather sewed on buttons and waited.
"I shall be twenty-five next week," was the professor's next remark. "I--a--I am getting to be quite an old fogy."
"Your teeth and digestion are still good," said his sister-in-law, with provoking composure; "and you are able--generally speaking-- to get about without a stick."
"Pshaw!" said Roger. He laughed again, and threw out his powerful arms. He was lying at full length on the verandah, his handsome head propped against one of the pillars, framed in a mass of woodbine and trumpet-vine. Mrs. Merryweather looked at him, and thought that with the exception of her Miles and her boys, she had never seen a finer-looking fellow. Every line of the lithe, elastic figure was instinct with power; the face, from the broad upright brow to the firm chin, was alight with thought and intelligence. But the blue eyes, usually so clear in their grave gaze, held a shadow to-day, a curious look of shyness, one might almost say shamefacedness. Mrs. Merryweather gazed at him, and thought her own thoughts, but she knew her husband's family, and held her peace.
"That is a very lovely girl, Miranda!" was the Professor's next remark.
"Meaning Gertrude--?" said this wicked woman, innocently.
"Oh,--I mean Hilda, of course! She is remarkably intelligent, don't you think so?"
Mrs. Merryweather assented warmly, and added praises of her own. Hildegarde's little ears would surely have burned if she could have heard the good lady. As for Roger, he listened with great complacency.
"Yes!" he said. "She is sympathetic, and unselfish,--remarkably so, it seems to me; and--and she takes an interest in things,--I mean real things, such, as girls usually care nothing about."
"Perigees, for example," said his sister-in-law.
"Well," said Roger, laughing, "yes, I suppose I do mean perigees, and that kind of thing. They are not in your line, Miranda, I know."
"Oh, but I respect them!" said Mrs. Merryweather. "There is nothing I respect more highly than a perigee, unless it be an apogee, which always sounds like the beginning of an incantation. So Hilda likes them, does she?"
"Of course," said Roger, slowly, skipping stones over the pond with thoughtful accuracy; "she has never studied any of these things, but she has really an astonishing aptitude for them. And her hand is so steady, and she has such a true eye."
"Was that why you kept her sitting on a rock, waving a towel, for three mortal hours, yesterday morning?" asked his sister-in-law, dryly.
Roger turned scarlet.
"Was it so long?" he said. "I didn't know--I never noticed. I--was taking observations, you know, and she seemed so--did she say she was tired? Was I a brute? Of course I was!"
"Don't go off at a tangent, or whatever you call the thing!" said Mrs. Merryweather. "She said she had had a most delightful morning, and that waving a towel had been her favourite amusement from baby-hood."
Roger looked wistfully at his sister-in-law. They were genuinely fond of each other, but they spoke different languages, and he sometimes found it difficult to follow her turns of speech. He was silent for a few minutes, absorbed in calculating the curves of his stones, which really skimmed in an astonishing manner.
"I suppose," he said, presently, watching a particularly adventurous pebble, "I suppose, Miranda, that I must seem--well-- quite an old fellow, to such a young creature as that?"
Mrs. Merryweather had a quizzical reply on the tip of her tongue, but glancing at Roger's face, thought better of it, and merely said, "My dear boy, don't be absurd!"
"I don't mean to be absurd," said Roger, sitting upright, and forgetting his pebbles. "But--well, I am a kind of grandfather to all the children, you know, and she would naturally--eh? regard me in the same light. That--a--that seems perfectly reasonable, doesn't it?"
Mrs. Merryweather made no reply. Roger followed the direction of her eyes, and saw Hildegarde and Gerald coming up from the wharf. Hildegarde had been drying her hair after the daily swim, and it hung in long locks over her shoulders; the tall boy was bending over her, pleading earnestly for something.
"Just a little bit!" he said, as they came within hearing. "Oh, I say, Miss Hilda, just a scrap. You have such lots, you never would miss it. Just a little lock of hair!"
Roger Merryweather's face grew very grave. He did not move, but his grasp tightened on the pebble in his hand.
"What do you want of it?" said downright Hilda, laughing and tossing her tawny mane. Mrs. Merryweather listened for the faintest shade of coquetry in the girl's tone, found none, and listened on, well content.
"What do I want of it?" cried Gerald. "What a question!--
"O Hilda, fair beyond compare! I'll make a garland of thy hair, Shall twine my heart forevermair, Until the day I dee!"
"Very proper!" said Hilda. "I am glad to find that you know your ballads. What else will you do with it, for example?"
"Wi' ae lock o' thy yellow hair I'll theek my nest when it grows bare!"
Gerald went on. "The excelsior is coming out of my mattress, and I thought--"
"I can't spare enough for that," said Hildegarde. "Any other uses for my poor hair?"
"The Mater has a single hair of George Washington's, done up in a gold snuffbox," cried the boy. "If you'll give me two, I will hunt up a snuffbox. There's a fine old stingo in the Chemical Works who takes snuff, and I will get his, and give him a tomato can instead, and keep one hair in that."
"And the other?" Hilda persisted, taking the long tresses in her hand, and running them through her fingers in a tantalizing manner,--"the other hair, Master Obadiah?"
"Oh, dear! what a persistent thing a girl is! I--must you really know? Because you mightn't like it, if I told you the truth." The ingenuous youth here turned a somersault, and coming up on one knee, remained in an attitude of supplication, clasping his hands imploringly. Hilda laughed, but still caressed her locks, unmoved.
"The other hair!" she said.
"Well, if you must know, I want to make a new kind of fly for the bass. They aren't biting at all, and your hair is just the colour, to a shade. There! that is the terewth. Do you mind?"
"Mind, you foolish boy? You might have had your fly made by this time. Here, give me your knife!"
She stood still, and severed a long, fair tress, which she laid in Gerald's hand.
"There! that will make a whole swarm of flies; and if there is any left over, you can theek your nest with it."
At this moment she looked up and saw the Professor sitting on the verandah, watching her. Her face lighted up with the brightest smile, Roger thought, that he had ever seen, and she hastened forward.
"Oh, Captain! I was afraid I was too late. Aren't you going to take observations this morning? And mayn't I go too? Here is my towel, all ready."
Gerald clapped his hand to his face, with an exclamation of acute pain.
"My dear boy, what is the matter?" cried his mother and Hildegarde in one breath.
"It is--nothing!" gasped the boy, sitting down on the edge of the verandah. "Where is the glue?"
"The glue!" repeated Hilda.
"Le Page's glue! My nose has become disjointed, and I would fain repair it. I am suffering excruciating torments; but don't mind me. Go on your towelled and triumphant way, and leave the noseless wretch to pine alone!"
"And make his flies!" said Hilda. "You miserable boy, you really took me in. Good-by, dear madam; I will get Bell, and we will surely be home in time for dinner this time. Won't we, Captain?" But the Captain did not commit himself.
"Mater," said Gerald, watching the two as they walked away together, "do you think--"
"Not often!" said his mother. "It is a dangerous occupation."
"True!" said Gerald. "Well, if I mustn't think, where is Phil?"