Chapter XXIV. The Primrose Way
 

Spring and winter, and spring again, and flying rumors fluttered tantalizing wings over Clayton. Just when it was definitely announced that Willowvale was to be sold, Ruth Nelson returned, after a year's absence, and opened the old home.

Mrs. Nelson did not come with her. That excellent lady had concluded to bestow her talents upon a worthier object. In her place came Miss Merritt, a quiet little sister of Ruth's mother, who proved to be to the curious public a pump without a handle.

About this time Sandy Kilday returned from his last term at the university, and gossip was busy over the burden of honors under which he staggered, and the brilliance of the position he had accepted in the city. In prompt contradiction of this came the shining new sign, "Hollis & Kilday," which appeared over the judge's dingy little office.

Nobody but Ruth knew what that sign had cost Sandy. He had come home, fresh from his triumphs, and burning with ambition to make his way in the world,--to make a name for her to share, and a record for her to be proud of. The opportunity that had been offered him was one in a lifetime. It had taken all his courage and strength and loyalty to refuse it, but Ruth had helped him.

"We must think of the judge first, Sandy," she said. "While he lives we must stay here; there'll be time enough for the big world after a while."

So Sandy gave up his dream for the present and tacked the new sign over the office door with his own hand.

The old judge watched him from the pavement. "That's right," he said, rubbing his hands together with childish satisfaction; "that's just about the best-looking sign I ever saw!"

"If you ever turn me down in court I'll stand it on its head and make my own name come first," threatened Sandy; and the judge repeated the joke to every one he saw that day.

It was not long until the flying rumors settled down into positive facts, and Clayton was thrilled to its willow-fringed circumference. There was to be a wedding! Not a Nelson wedding of the olden times, when a special car brought grand folk down from the city, and the townspeople stayed apart and eyed their fine clothes and gay behavior with ill-concealed disfavor. This was to be a Clayton wedding for high and low, rich and poor.

There was probably not a shutter opened in the town, on the morning of the great day, that some one did not smile with pleasure to find that the sun was shining.

Mrs. Hollis woke Sandy with the dawn, and insisted upon helping him pack his trunk before breakfast. For a week she had been absorbed in his nuptial outfit, jealously guarding his new clothes, to keep him from wearing them all before the wedding.

Aunt Melvy was half an hour late in arriving, for she had tarried at "Who'd 'a' Thought It" to perform the last mystic rites over a rabbit's foot which was to be her gift to the groom.

The whole town was early astir and wore a holiday air. By noon business was virtually abandoned, for Clayton was getting ready to go to the wedding.

Willowvale extended a welcome to the world. The wide front gates stood open, the big-eyed poplars beamed above the oleanders and the myrtle, while the thrushes and the redwings twittered and caroled their greetings from on high. The big white house was open to the sunshine and the spring; flowers filled every nook and corner; even the rose-bush which grew outside the dining-room window sent a few venturesome roses over the sill to lend their fragrance to those within.

And such a flutter of expectancy and romance and joy as pervaded the place! All the youth of Clayton was there, loitering about the grounds in gay little groups, or lingering in couples under the shadow of the big porches.

In the library Judge and Mrs. Hollis did the honors, and presented the guests to little Miss Merritt, whose cordial, homely greetings counteracted the haughty disapproval of the portraits overhead.

Mr. Moseley rambled through the rooms, indulging in a flowing monologue which was as independent of an audience as a summer brook.

Mr. Meech sought a secluded spot under the stairway and nervously practised the wedding service, while Mrs. Meech, tucked up for once in her life, smiled bravely on the company, and thought of a little green mound in the cemetery, which Sandy had helped her keep bright with flowers.

They were all there, Dr. Fenton slapping everybody on the back and roaring at his own jokes; Sid Gray carrying Annette's flowers with a look of plump complacency; Jimmy Reed constituting himself a bureau of information, giving and soliciting news concerning wedding presents, destination of wedding journey, and future plans.

Up-stairs, at a hall window, the groom was living through rapturous throes of anticipation. For the hundredth time he made sure the ring was in the left pocket of his waistcoat.

From down-stairs came the hum of voices mingled with the music. The warm breath of coming summer stole through the window.

Sandy looked joyously out across the fields of waving blue-grass to the shining river. Down by the well was an old windmill, and at its top a weather-vane. When he spied it he smiled. Once again he was a ragged youngster, back on the Liverpool dock; the fog was closing in, and the coarse voices of the sailors rang in his ears. In quick flashes the scenes of his boyhood came before him,--the days on shipboard, on the road with Ricks, at the Exposition, at Hollis Farm, at the university,--and through them all that golden thread of romance that had led him safe and true to the very heart of the enchanted land where he was to dwell forever.

"'Fore de Lawd, Mist' Sandy, ef you ain't fergit yer necktie!"

It was Aunt Melvy who burst in upon his reverie with these ominous words. She had been expected to assist with the wedding breakfast, but the events above-stairs had proved too alluring.

Sandy's hand flew to his neck. "It's at the farm," he cried in great excitement, "wrapped in tissue-paper in the top drawer. Send Jim, or Joe, or Nick--any of the darkies you can find!"

"Send nuthin'," muttered Aunt Melvy, shuffling down the stairs. "I's gwine myself, ef I has to take de bridal kerridge."

Messengers were sent in hot haste, one to the farm and one to town, while Jimmy Reed was detailed to canvass the guests and see if a white four-in-hand might be procured.

"The nearest thing is Mr. Meech's," he reported on his fourth trip up-stairs; "it's a white linen string-tie, but he doesn't want to take it off."

"Faith, and he'll have to!" said Sandy, in great agitation. "Don't he know that nobody will be looking at him?"

Annette appeared at a bedroom door, a whirl of roses and pink.

"What's the m-matter? Ruth will have a f-fit if you wait much longer, and my hair is coming out of curl."

"Take it off him," whispered Sandy, recklessly, to Jimmy Reed; and violence was prevented only by the timely arrival of Aunt Melvy with the original wedding tie.

The bridal march had sounded many times, and the impatient guests were becoming seriously concerned, when a handkerchief fluttered from the landing and Sandy and Ruth came down the wide white steps together.

Mr. Meech cleared his throat and, with one hand nervously fidgeting under his coattail, the other thrust into the bosom of his coat, began:

"We are assembled here to-day to witness the greatest and most time-hallowed institution known to man."

Sandy heard no more. The music, the guests, the flowers, even his necktie, faded from his mind.

A sacred hush filled his soul, through which throbbed the vows he was making before God and man. The little hand upon his arm trembled, and his own closed upon it in instant sympathy and protection.

"In each of the ages gone," Mr. Meech was saying with increasing eloquence, "man has wooed and won the sweet girl of his choice, and then, with the wreath of fairest orange-blossoms encircling her pure brow, while yet the blush of innocent love crimsoned her cheek, led her away in trembling joy to the hymeneal altar, that their names, their interests, their hearts, might all be made one, just as two rays of light, two drops of dew, sometimes meet, to kiss--to part no more forever."

Suddenly a loud shout sounded from the upper hall, followed by sounds like the repeated fall of a heavy body. Mr. Meech paused, and all eyes were turned in consternation toward the door. Then through the stillness rang out a hallelujah from above.

"Praise de Lawd, de light's done come! De darkness, lak de thunder, done roll away. I's saved at last, and my name is done written in de Promised Land! Amen! Praise de Lawd! Amen!"

To part of the company at least the situation was clear. Aunt Melvy, after seeking religion for nearly sixty years, had chosen this inopportune time to "come th'u'."

She was with some difficulty removed to the wash-house, where she continued her thanksgiving in undisturbed exultation.

Amid suppressed merriment, the marriage service was concluded, Mr. Meech heroically foregoing his meteoric finale.

Clayton still holds dear the memory of that wedding: of the beautiful bride and the happy groom, of the great feast that was served indoors and out, and of the good fellowship and good cheer that made it a gala day for the country around.

When it was over, Sandy and Ruth drove away in the old town surrey, followed by such a shower of rice and flowers and blessings as had never been known before. They started, discreetly enough, for the railroad-station, but when they reached the river road Sandy drew rein. Overhead the trees met in a long green arch, and along the wayside white petals strewed the road. Below lay the river, dancing, murmuring, beckoning.

"Let's not be going to the city to-day!" cried Sandy, impulsively. "Let's be following the apple-blossoms wherever they lead."

"It's all the same wherever we are," said Ruth, in joyful freedom.

They turned into the road, and before them, through the trees, lay the long stretch of smiling valley.