Chapter XVI. The Nelson Home
 

Willowvale, the Nelson homestead, lay in the last curve of the river, just before it left the restrictions of town for the freedom of fields and meadows.

It was a quaint old house, all over honeysuckles and bow-windows and verandas, approached by an oleander-bordered walk, and sheltered by a wide circle of poplar-and oak-trees that had nodded both approval and disapproval over many generations of Nelsons.

In the dining-room, on the massive mahogany table, lunch was laid for three. Carter sat at the foot, absorbed in a newspaper, while at the head Mrs. Nelson languidly partook of her second biscuit. It was vulgar, in her estimation, for a lady to indulge in more than two biscuits at a meal.

When old Evan Nelson died six years before, he had left the bulk of his fortune to his two grandchildren, and a handsome allowance to his eldest son's widow, with the understanding that she was to take charge of Ruth until that young lady should become of age.

Mrs. Nelson accepted the trust with becoming resignation. The prospect of guiding a wealthy and obedient young person through the social labyrinth to an eligible marriage wakened certain faculties that had long lain dormant. It was not until the wealthy and obedient young person began to develop tastes of her own that she found the burden irksome.

Nine months of the year Ruth was at boarding-school, and the remaining three she insisted upon spending in the old home at Clayton, where Carter kept his dogs and horses and spent his summers. Hitherto Mrs. Nelson had compromised with her. By adroit management she contrived to keep her, for weeks at a time, at various summer resorts, where she expected her to serve a sort of social apprenticeship which would fit her for her future career.

At nineteen Ruth developed alarming symptoms of obstinacy. Mrs. Nelson confessed tearfully to the rest of the family that it had existed in embryo for years. Instead of making the most of her first summer out of school, the foolish girl announced her intention of going to Willowvale for an indefinite stay.

It was indignation at this state of affairs that caused Mrs. Nelson to lose her appetite. Clayton was to her the limit of civilization; there was too much sunshine, too much fresh air, too much out of doors. She disliked nature in its crude state; she preferred it softened and toned down to drawing-room pitch.

She glanced up in disapproval as Ruth's laugh sounded in the hall.

"Rachel, tell her that lunch is waiting," she said to the colored girl at her side.

Carter looked up as Ruth came breezily into the room. She wore her riding-habit, and her hair was tossed by her brisk morning canter.

"You don't look as if you had danced all night," he said. "Did the mare behave herself?"

"She's a perfect beauty, Carter. I rode her round the old mill-dam, 'cross the ford, and back by the Hollises'. Now I'm perfectly famished. Some hot rolls, Rachel, and another croquette, and--and everything you have."

Mrs. Nelson picked several crumbs from the cloth and laid them carefully on her plate. "When I was a young lady I always slept after being out in the evening. I had a half-cup of coffee and one roll brought to me in bed, and I never rose until noon."

"But I hate to stay in bed," said Ruth; "and, besides, I hate to miss a half-day."

"Is there anything on for this afternoon?" asked Carter.

"Why, yes--" Ruth began, but her aunt finished for her:

"Now, Carter, it's too warm to be proposing anything more. You aren't well, and Ruth ought to stay at home and put cold cream on her face. It is getting so burned that her pink evening-dresses will be worse than useless. Besides, there is absolutely nothing to do in this stupid place. I feel as if I couldn't stand it all summer."

This being a familiar opening to a disagreeable subject, the two young people lapsed into silence, and Mrs. Nelson was constrained to address her communications to the tea-pot. She glanced about the big, old-fashioned room and sighed.

"It's nothing short of criminal to keep all this old mahogany buried here in the country, and the cut-glass and silver. And to think that the house cannot be sold for two more years! Not until Ruth is of age! What do you suppose your dear grandfather could have been thinking of?"

This question, eliciting no reply from the tea-pot, remained suspended in the air until it attracted Ruth's wandering attention.

"I beg your pardon, aunt. What grandfather was thinking of? About the place? Why, I guess he hoped that Carter and I would keep it."

Carter looked over his paper. "Keep this old cemetery? Not I! The day it is sold I start for Europe. If one lung is gone and the other going, I intend to enjoy myself while it goes."

"Carter!" begged Ruth, appealingly.

He laughed. "You ought to be glad to get rid of me, Ruth. You've bothered your head about me ever since you were born."

She slipped her hand into his as it lay on the table, and looked at him wistfully.

"The idea of the old governor thinking we'd want to stay here!" he said, with a curl of the lip.

"Perfectly ridiculous!" echoed Mrs. Nelson.

"I don't know," said Ruth; "it's more like home than any place else. I don't think I could ever bear to sell it."

"Now, my dear Ruth," said Mrs. Nelson, in genuine alarm, "don't be sentimental, I beg of you. When once you make your debut, you'll feel very different about things. Of course the place must be sold: it can't be rented, and I'm sure you will never get me to spend another summer in Clayton. You could not stay here alone."

Ruth sat with her chin in her hands and gazed absently out of the window. She remembered when that yard was to her as the garden of Eden. As a child she had been brought here, a delicate, faded little hot-house plant, and for three wonderful years had been allowed to grow and blossom at will in the freedom of outdoor life. The glamour of those old days still clung to the place, and made her love everything connected with it. The front gate, with its wide white posts, still held the records of her growth, for each year her grandfather had stood her against it and marked her progress. The huge green tub holding the crape myrtle was once a park where she and Annette had played dolls, and once it had served as a burying-ground when Carter's sling brought down a sparrow. The ice house, with its steep roof, recalled a thrilling tobogganing experience when she was six. Grandfather had laughed over the torn gown, and bade her do it again.

It was the trees, though, that she loved best of all; for they were friendly old poplar-trees on which the bark formed itself into all sorts of curious eyes. One was a wicked old stepfather eye with a heavy lid; she remembered how she used to tiptoe past it and pretend to be afraid. Beyond, by the arbor, were two smaller trees, where a coquettish eye on one looked up to an adoring eye on the other. She had often built a romance about them as she watched them peeping at each other through the leaves.

Down behind the house the waving fields of blue-grass rippled away to the little river, where weeping willows hung their heads above the lazy water, and ferns reached up the banks to catch the flowers. And the fields and the river and the house and the trees were hers,--hers and Carter's,--and neither could sell without the consent of the other. She took a deep breath of satisfaction. The prospect of living alone in the old homestead failed to appal her.

"A letter came this morning," said Mrs. Nelson, tracing the crest on the silver creamer. "It's from your Aunt Elizabeth. She wants us to spend ten days with her at the shore. They have taken a handsome cottage next to the Warrentons. You remember young Mr. Warrenton, Ruth? He is a grandson of Commodore Warrenton."

"Warrenton? Oh, yes, I do remember him--the one that didn't have any neck."

Mrs. Nelson closed her eyes for a moment, as if praying for patience; then she went on: "Your Aunt Elizabeth thinks, as I do, that it is absurd for you to bury yourself down here. She wants you to meet people of your own class. Do you think you can be ready to start on Wednesday?"

"Why, we have been here only a week!" cried Ruth. "I am having such a good time, and--" she broke off impulsively. "But I know it's dull for you, Aunt Clara. You go, and leave me here with Carter. I'll do everything you say if you will only let me stay."

Carter laughed. "One would think that Ruth's sole aim in life was to cultivate Clayton--the distinguished, exclusive, aristocratic society of Clayton."

She put her hand on his arm and looked at him pleadingly: "Please don't laugh at me, Carter! I love it here, and I want to stay. You know Aunt Elizabeth; you know what her friends are like. They think I am queer. I can't be happy where they are."

Mrs. Nelson resorted to her smelling-bottle. "Of course my opinions are of no weight. I only wish to remind you that it would be most impolitic to offend your Aunt Elizabeth. She could introduce you into the most desirable set; and even if she is a little--" she searched a moment for a word--"a little liberal in her views, one can overlook that on account of her generosity. She is a very influential woman, Ruth, and a very wealthy one."

Ruth made a quick, impatient gesture. "I don't like her, Aunt Clara; and I don't want you to ask me to go there."

Mrs. Nelson folded her napkin with tragic deliberation. "Very well," she said; "it is not my place to urge it. I can only point out your duty and leave the rest to you. One thing I must speak about, and that is your associating so familiarly with these townspeople. They are impertinent; they take advantages, and forget who we are. Why, the blacksmith had the audacity to refer to the dear major as 'Bob.'"

"Old Uncle Dan?" asked Ruth, laughing. "I saw him yesterday, and he shook hands with me and said: 'Golly, sissy, how you've growed!'"

"Ruth," cried Mrs. Nelson, "how can you! Haven't you any family pride?" The tears came to her eyes, for the invitation to visit the Hunter-Nelsons was one for which she had angled skilfully, and its summary dismissal was a sore trial to her.

In a moment Ruth was at her side, all contrition: "I'm sorry, Aunt Clara; I know I'm a disappointment to you. I'll try--"

Mrs. Nelson withdrew her hand and directed her injured reply to Carter. "I have done my duty by your sister. She has been given every advantage a young lady could desire. If she insists upon throwing away her opportunities, I can't help it. I suppose I am no longer to be consulted--no longer to be considered." She sought the seclusion of her pocket-handkerchief, and her pompadour swayed with emotion.

Ruth stood at the table, miserably pulling a rose to pieces. This discussion was an old one, but it lost none of its sting by repetition. Was she queer and obstinate and unreasonable?

"Ruth's all right," said Carter, seeing her discomfort. "She will have more sense when she is older. She's just got her little head turned by all the attention she has had since coming home. There isn't a boy in the county who wouldn't make love to her at the drop of her eyelash. She was the belle of the hop last night; had the boys about her three deep most of the time."

"The hop!" Mrs. Nelson so far forgot herself as to uncover one eye. "Don't speak of that wretched affair! The idea of her going! What do you suppose your Aunt Elizabeth would say? A country dance in a public hall!"

"I only dropped in for the last few dances," said Carter, pouring himself another glass of wine. "It was beastly hot and stupid."

"I danced every minute the music played," cried Ruth; "and when they played, 'Home, Sweet Home,' I could have begun and gone right through it again."

"By the way," said her brother, "didn't I see you dancing with that Kilday boy?"

"The last dance," said Ruth. "Why?"

"Oh, I was a little surprised, that's all."

Mrs. Nelson, scenting the suggestion in Carter's voice, was instantly alert.

"Who, pray, is Kilday?"

"Oh, Kilday isn't anybody; that's the trouble. If he had been, he would never have stayed with that old crank Judge Hollis. The judge thinks he is appointed by Providence to control this bright particular burg. He is even attempting to regulate me of late. The next time he interferes he'll hear from me."

"But Kilday?" urged Mrs. Nelson, feebly persistent.

"Oh, Kilday is good enough in his place. He's a first-class athlete, and has made a record up at the academy. But he was a peddler, you know--an Irish peddler; came here three or four years ago with a pack on his back."

"And Ruth danced with him!" Mrs. Nelson's words were punctuated with horror.

Ruth looked up with blazing eyes. "Yes, I danced with him; why shouldn't I? You made me dance with Mr. Warrenton, last summer, when I told you he was drinking."

"But, my dear child, you forget who Mr. Warrenton is. And you actually danced with a peddler!" Her voice grew faint. "My dear, this must never occur again. You are young and easily imposed upon. I will accompany you everywhere in the future. Of course you need never recognize him hereafter. The impertinence of his addressing you!"

A step sounded on the gravel outside. Ruth ran to the window and spoke to some one below. "I'll be there as soon as I change my habit," she called.

"Who is it?" asked her aunt, hastily arranging her disturbed locks.

Ruth paused at the door. There was a slight tremor about her lips, but her eyes flashed their first open declaration of independence.

"It's Mr. Kilday," she said; "we are going out on the river."

There was an oppressive silence of ten minutes after she left, during which Carter smiled behind his paper and Mrs. Nelson gazed indignantly at the tea-pot. Then she tapped the bell.

"Rachel," she said impressively, "go to Miss Ruth's room and get her veil and gloves and sun-shade. Have Thomas take them to the boat-house at once."