Chapter XVII. Under the Willows
 

Between willow-fringed banks of softest green, and under the bluest of summer skies, the little river took its lazy Southern way. Tall blue lobelias and golden flags played hide-and-seek in the reflections of the gentle stream, and an occasional spray of goldenrod, advance-guard of the autumn, stood apart, a silent warning to the summer idlers.

Somewhere overhead a vireo, dainty poet of bird-land, proclaimed his love to the wide world; while below, another child of nature, no less impassioned, no less aching to give vent to the joy that was bursting his being, sat silent in a canoe that swung softly with the pulsing of the stream.

For Sandy had followed the highroad that led straight into the Land of Enchantment. No more wanderings by intricate byways up golden hills to golden castles; the Love Road had led him at last to the real world of the King Arthur days--the world that was lighted by a strange and wondrous light of romance, wherein he dwelt, a knight, waiting and longing to prove his valor in the eyes of his lady fair.

Burning deeds of prowess rioted in his brain. Oh for dungeons and towers and forbidding battlements! Any danger was welcome from which he might rescue her. Fire, flood, or bandits--he would brave them all. Meanwhile he sat in the prow of the boat, his hands clasped about his knees, utterly powerless to break the spell of awkward silence that seemed to possess him.

They had paddled in under the willows to avoid the heat of the sun, and had tied their boat to an overhanging bough.

Ruth, with her sleeve turned back to the elbow, was trailing her hand in the cool water and watching the little circles that followed her fingers. Her hat was off, and her hair, where the sun fell on it through the leaves, was almost the color of her eyes.

But what was the real color of her eyes? Sandy brought all his intellect to bear upon the momentous question. Sometimes, he thought, they were as dark as the velvet shadows in the heart of the stream; sometimes they were lighted by tiny flames of gold that sparkled in the brown depths as the sunshine sparkled in the shadows. They were deep as his love and bright as his hope.

Suddenly he realized that she had asked him a question.

"It's never a word I've heard of what ye are saying!" he exclaimed contritely. "My mind was on your eyes, and the brown of them. Do they keep changing color like that all the time?"

Ruth, thus earnestly appealed to, blushed furiously.

"I was talking about the river," she said quickly. "It's jolly under here, isn't it? So cool and green! I was awfully cross when I came."

"You cross?"

She nodded her head. "And ungrateful, and perverse, and queer, and totally unlike my father's family." She counted off her shortcomings on her fingers, and raised her brows in comical imitation of her aunt.

"A left-hand blessing on the one that said so!" cried Sandy, with such ardor that she fled to another subject.

"I saw Martha Meech yesterday. She was talking about you. She was very weak, and could speak only in a whisper, but she seemed happy."

"It's like her soul was in Heaven already," said Sandy.

"I took her a little picture," went on Ruth; "she loves them so. It was a copy of one of Turner's."

"Turner?" repeated Sandy. "Joseph Mallord William Turner, born in London, 1775. Member of the Royal Academy. Died in 1851."

She looked so amazed at this burst of information that he laughed.

"It's out of the catalogue. I learned what it said about the ones I liked best years ago."

"Where?"

"At the Olympian Exposition."

"I was there," said Ruth; "it was the summer we came home from Europe. Perhaps that was where I saw you. I know I saw you somewhere before you came here."

"Perhaps," said Sandy, skipping a bit of bark across the water.

A band of yellow butterflies on wide wings circled about them, and one, mistaking Ruth's rosy wet fingers for a flower, settled there for a long rest.

"Look!" she whispered; "see how long it stays!"

"It's not meself would be blaming it for forgetting to go away," said Sandy.

They both laughed, then Ruth leaned over the boat's side and pretended to be absorbed in her reflection in the water. Sandy had not learned that unveiled glances are improper, and if his lips refrained from echoing the vireo's song, his eyes were less discreet.

"You've got a dimple in your elbow!" he cried, with the air of one discovering a continent.

"I haven't," declared she, but the dimple turned State's evidence.

The sun had gone under a cloud as the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, and a light tenderer than sunlight and warmer than moonlight fell across the river. The water slipped over the stones behind them with a pleasant swish and swirl, and the mint that was crushed by the prow of their boat gave forth an aromatic perfume.

Ever afterward the first faint odor of mint made Sandy close his eyes in a quick desire to retain the memory it recalled, to bring back the dawn of love, the first faint flush of consciousness in the girlish cheeks and the soft red lips, and the quick, uncertain breath as her heart tried not to catch beat with his own.

"Can't you sing something?" she asked presently. "Annette Fenton says you know all sorts of quaint old songs."

"They're just the bits I remember of what me mother used to sing me in the old country."

"Sing the one you like best," demanded Ruth.

Softly, with the murmur of the river ac-companying the song, he began:

    "Ah! The moment was sad when my love and I parted,
      Savourneen deelish, signan O!
    As I kiss'd off her tears, I was nigh broken-hearted!--
      Savourneen deelish, signan O!"

Ruth took her hand out of the water and looked at him with puzzled eyes. "Where have I heard it? On a boat somewhere, and the moon was shining. I remember the refrain perfectly."

Sandy remembered, too. In a moment he felt himself an impostor and a cheat. He had stumbled into the Enchanted Land, but he had no right to be there. He buried his head in his hands and felt the dream-world tottering about him.

"Are you trying to remember the second verse?" asked Ruth.

"No," said he, his head still bowed; "I'm trying to help you remember the first one. Was it the boat ye came over from Europe in?"

"That was it!" she cried. "It was on shipboard. I was standing by the railing one night and heard some one singing it in the steerage. I was just a little girl, but I've never forgotten that 'Savourneen deelish,' nor the way he sang it."

"Was it a man'?" asked Sandy, huskily.

"No," she said, half frowning in her effort to remember; "it was a boy--a stowaway, I think. They said he had tried to steal his way in a life-boat."

"He had!" cried Sandy, raising his head and leaning toward her. "He stole on board with only a few shillings and a bundle of clothes. He sneaked his way up to a life-boat and hid there like a thief. When they found him and punished him as he deserved, there was a little lady looked down at him and was sorry, and he's traveled over all the years from then to now to thank her for it."

Ruth drew back in amazement, and Sandy's courage failed for a moment. Then his face hardened and he plunged recklessly on:

"I've blacked boots, and sold papers; I've fought dogs, and peddled, and worked on the railroad. Many's the time I've been glad to eat the scraps the workmen left on the track. And just because a kind, good man--God prosper his soul!--saw fit to give me a home and an education, I turned a fool and dared to think I was a gentleman!"

For a moment pride held Ruth's pity back. Every tradition of her family threw up a barrier between herself and this son of the soil.

"Why did you come to Kentucky?" she asked.

"Why?" cried Sandy, too miserable to hold anything back. "Because I saw the name of the place on your bag at the pier. I came here for the chance of seeing you again, of knowing for sure there was something good and beautiful in the world to offset all the bad I'd seen. Every page I've learned has been for you, every wrong thought I've put out of me mind has been to make more room for you. I don't even ask ye to be my friend; I only ask to be yours, to see ye sometime, to talk to you, and to keep ye first in my heart and to serve ye to the end."

The vireo had stopped singing and was swinging on a bough above them.

Ruth sat very still and looked straight before her. She had never seen a soul laid bare before, and the sight thrilled and troubled her. All the petty artifices which the world had taught her seemed useless before this shining candor.

"And--and you've remembered me all this time?" she asked, with a little tremble in her voice. "I did not know people cared like that."

"And you're not sorry?" persisted Sandy. "You'll let me be your friend?"

She held out her hand with an earnestness as deep as his own. In an instant he had caught it to his lips. All the bloom of the summer rushed to her cheeks, and she drew quickly away.

"Oh! but I'll take it back--I never meant it," cried Sandy, wild with remorse. "Me heart crossed the line ahead of me head, that was all. You've given me your friendship, and may the sorrow seize me if I ever ask for more!"

At this the vireo burst into such mocking, derisive laughter of song that they both looked up and smiled.

"He doesn't think you mean it," said Ruth; "but you must mean it, else I can't ever be your friend."

Sandy shook his fist at the bird.

"You spalpeen, you! If I had ye down here I'd throw ye out of the tree! But you mustn't believe him. I'll stick to my word as the wind to the tree-tops. No--I don't mean that. As the stream to the shore. No-"

He stopped and laughed. All figures of speech conspired to make him break his word.

Somewhere from out the forgotten world came six long, lingering strokes of a bell. Sandy and Ruth untied the canoe and paddled out into midstream, leaving the willow bower full of memories and the vireo still hopping about among the branches.

"I'll paddle you up to the bridge," said Ruth; "then you will be near the post-office."

Sandy's voice was breaking to say that she could paddle him up to the moon if she would only stay there between him and the sun, with her hair forming a halo about her face. But they were going down-stream, and all too soon he was stepping out of the canoe to earth again.

"And will I have to be waiting till the morrow to see you?" he asked, with his hand on the boat.

"To-morrow? Not until Sunday."

"But Sunday is a month off! You'll be coming for the mail?"

"We send for the mail," said Ruth, demurely.

"Then ye'll be sending in vain for yours. I'll hold it back till ye come yourself, if I lose my position for it."

Ruth put three feet of water between them, then she looked up with mischief in her eyes. "I don't want you to lose your position," she said.

"Then you'll come?"

"Perhaps."

Sandy watched her paddle away straight into the heart of the sun. He climbed the bank and waved her out of sight. He had to use a maple branch, for his hat and handkerchief, not to mention less material possessions, were floating down-stream in the boat with Ruth.

"Hello, Kilday!" called Dr. Fenton from the road above. "Going up-town? I'll give you a lift."

Sandy turned and looked up at the doctor impatiently. The presence of other people in the world seemed an intrusion.

"I've been out to the Meeches' all afternoon," said the doctor, wearily, mopping his face with a red-bordered handkerchief.

"Is Martha worse?" asked Sandy, in quick alarm.

"No, she's better," said the doctor, gruffly; "she died at four o'clock."