Chapter VII. Convalescence
 

"Is that the Nelson phaeton going out the road?" asked Mrs. Hollis as she peered out through the dining-room window one morning. "I shouldn't be a bit surprised if it was Mrs. Nelson making her yearly visits, and here my bricks haven't been reddened."

Sandy's heart turned a somersault. He was sitting up for the first time, wrapped in blankets and wearing a cap to cover his close-cropped head. All through his illness he had been tortured by the thought that he had talked of Ruth, though now wild horses could not have dragged forth a question concerning her.

"Melvy," continued Mrs. Hollis, as she briskly rubbed the sideboard with some unsavory furniture-polish, "if Mrs. Nelson does come here, you be sure to put on your white apron before you open the door; and for pity sake don't forget the card-tray! You ought to know better than to stick out your hand for a lady's calling-card. I told you about that last week."

Aunt Melvy paused in her dusting and chuckled: "Lor', honey, dat's right! You orter put on airs all de time, wid all de money de judge is got. He says to me yisterday, says he, 'Can't you 'suade yer Miss Sue not to be cleanin' up so much, an' not to go out in de front yard wid dat ole sunbonnet on?'"

"Well, I'd like to know how things would get done if I didn't do them," exclaimed Mrs. Hollis, hotly. "I suppose he would like me to let things go like the Meeches! The only time I ever saw Mrs. Meech work was when she swept the front pavement, and then she made Martha walk around behind her and read out loud while she was doing it."

"It's Mr. Meech that's in the yard now," announced Sandy from the side window. "He's raking the leaves with one hand and a-reading a book with the other."

"I knew it!" cried Mrs. Hollis. "I never saw such doings. They say she even leaves the dishes overnight. And yet she can sit on her porch and smile at people going by, just like her house was cleaned up. I hate a hypocrite."

Sandy had had ample time to watch the Meeches during his long convalescence. He had been moved from the spare room to a snug little room over the kitchen, which commanded a fine view of the neighbors. When the green book got too heavy to hold, or his eyes grew too tired to look at the many magazines with which the judge supplied him, he would lie still and watch the little drama going on next door.

Mrs. Meech was a large, untidy woman who always gave the impression of needing to be tucked up. The end of her gray braid hung out behind one ear, her waist hung out of her belt, and even the buttons on her shoes hung out of the buttonholes in shameless laziness.

Mr. Meech did not need tucking in; he needed letting out. He seemed to have shrunk in the wash of life. In spite of the fact that he was three sizes too small for his wife, to begin with, he emphasized it by wearing trousers that cleared his shoe-tops and sleeves half-way to his elbows. But this was only on week-days, for on Sunday Sandy would see him emerge, expand, and flutter forth in an ample suit of shiny broadcloth. For Mr. Meech was the pastor of the Hard-Shell Baptist Church in Clayton, and if his domestic economy was a matter of open gossip, there was no question concerning the fact of his learning. It had been the boast of the congregation for years that Judge Hollis was the only man in town who was smart enough to understand his sermons. When Mr. Meech started out in the morning with a book under his arm and one sticking out of each pocket, Sandy would pull up on his elbow to watch proceedings. He loved to see fat Mrs. Meech pat the little man lovingly on the head and kiss him good-by; he loved to see Martha walk with him to the gate and throw kisses after him until he turned the curve in the road.

Martha was a pale, thin girl with two long, straight plaits and a long, straight dress. She went to school in the morning, and when she came home at noon her mother always hurried to meet her and kissed her on both cheeks. Sandy had got quite in the habit of watching for her at the side window where she came to study. He leaned forward now to see if she were there.

"I thought so!" cried Mrs. Hollis, looking over his shoulder. "There comes the Nelson phaeton this minute! Melvy, get on your white apron. I'll wind up the cuckoo-clock and unlock the parlor door."

"Who is it?" ventured Sandy, with internal tremors.

"Hit's Mrs. Nelson an' her niece, Miss Rufe," said Aunt Melvy, nervously trying to reverse her apron after tying the bow in the front. "Dey's big bugs, dey is. Dey is quality, an' no mistake. I b'longed to Miss Rufe's grandpaw; he done lef' her all his money, she an' Mr. Carter. Poor Mr. Carter! Dey say he ain't got no lungs to speak of. Ain't no wonder he's sorter wild like. He takes after his grandpaw, my ole mars'. Lor', honey, de mint-juleps jus' nachelly ooze outen de pores ob his grandpaw's skin! But Miss Rufe she ain't like none ob dem Nelsons; she favors her maw. She's quality inside an' out."

A peal of the bell cut short further interesting revelations. Aunt Melvy hurried through the hall, leaving doors open behind her. At the front door she paused in dismay. Before her stood the Nelsons in calling attire, presenting two immaculate cards for her acceptance. Too late she remembered her instructions.

"'Fore de Lawd!" she cried in consternation, "ef I ain't done fergit dat pan ag'in!"

Sandy, left alone in the dining-room, was listening with every nerve a-quiver for the sound of Ruth's voice. The thought that she was here under the same roof with him sent the blood bounding through his veins. He pulled himself up, and trailing the blanket behind him, made his way somewhat unsteadily across the room and up the back stairs.

Behind the door of his room hung the pride of his soul, a new suit of clothes, whole, patchless, clean, which the judge had bought him two days before. He had sat before it in speechless admiration; he had hung it in every possible light to get the full benefit of its beauty; he had even in the night placed it on a chair beside the bed, so that he could put out his hand in the dark and make sure it was there. For it was the first new suit of clothes that he remembered ever to have possessed. He had not intended to wear it until Sunday, but the psychological moment had arrived.

With trembling fingers and many pauses for rest, he made his toilet. He looked in the mirror, and his heart nearly burst with pride. The suit, to be sure, hung limp on his gaunt frame, and his shaven head gave him the appearance of a shorn lamb, but to Sandy the reflection was eminently satisfying. One thing only seemed to be lacking. He meditated a moment, then, with some misgiving, picked up a small linen doily from the dresser, and carefully folding it, placed it in his breast-pocket, with one corner just visible.

Triumphant in mind, if weak in body, he slipped down the back steps, skirted Aunt Melvy's domain, and turned the corner of the house just as the Nelson phaeton rolled out of the yard. Before he had time to give way to utter despair a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon, for the phaeton stopped, and there was evidently something the matter. Sandy did not wait for it to be remedied. He ran down the road with all the speed he could muster.

Near the gate where the little branch crossed the turnpike was a slight embankment, and two wheels of the phaeton had slipped over the edge and were buried deep in the soft earth. Beside it, sitting indignantly in the water, was an irate lady who had evidently attempted to get out backward and had taken a sudden and unexpected seat. Her countenance was a pure specimen of Gothic architecture; a massive pompadour reared itself above two Gothic eyebrows which flanked a nose of unquestioned Gothic tendencies. Her mouth, with its drooping corners, completed the series of arches, and the whole expression was one of aspiring melancholy and injured majesty.

Kneeling at her side, reassuring her and wiping the water from her hands, was Ruth Nelson.

"God send you ain't hurt, ma'am!" cried Sandy, arriving breathless.

The girl looked up and shook her head in smiling protest, but the Gothic lady promptly suffered a relapse.

"I am--I know I am! Just look at my dress covered with mud, and my glove is split. Get my smelling-salts, Ruth!"

Ruth, upon whom the lady was leaning, turned to Sandy.

"Will you hand it to me? It is in the little bag there on the seat."

Sandy rushed to do her bidding. He was rather hazy as to the object of his search; but when his fingers touched a round, soft ball he drew it forth and hastily presented it to the lady's Roman nose.

She, with closed eyes, was taking deep whiffs when a laugh startled her.

"Oh, Aunt Clara, it's your powder-puff!" cried Ruth, unable to restrain her mirth.

Mrs. Nelson rose with as much dignity as her draggled condition would permit. "You'd better get me home," she said solemnly. "I may be internally injured." She turned to Sandy. "Boy, can't you get that phaeton back on the road?"

Sandy, whose chagrin over his blunder had sent him to the background, came promptly forward. Seizing the wheel, he made several ineffectual efforts to lift it back to the road.

"It is not moving an inch!" announced the mournful voice from above. "Can't you take hold of it nearer the back, and exert a little more strength?"

Sandy bit his lip and shot a swift glance at Ruth. She was still smiling. With savage determination he fell upon the wheel as if it had been a mortal foe; he pushed and shoved and pulled, and finally, with a rally of all his strength, he went on his knees in the mud and lifted the phaeton back on the road.

Then came a collapse, and he leaned against the nearest tree and struggled with the deadly faintness that was stealing over him.

"Why--why, you are the boy who was sick!" cried Ruth, in dismay.

Sandy, white and trembling, shook his head protestingly. "It's me bellows that's rocky," he explained between gasps.

Mrs. Nelson rustled back into the phaeton, and taking a piece of money from her purse, held it out to him.

"That will amply repay you," she said.

Sandy flushed to the roots of his close-cropped hair. A tip, heretofore a gift of the gods, had suddenly become an insult. Angry, impetuous words rushed to his lips, and he took a step forward. Then he was aware of a sudden change in the girl, who had just stepped into the phaeton. She shot a quick, indignant look at her aunt, then turned around and smiled a good-by to him.

He lifted his cap and said, "I thank ye." But it was not to Mrs. Nelson, who still held the money as they drove out of the avenue.

Sandy went wearily back to the house. He had made his first trial in behalf of his lady fair, but his soul knew no elation. His beautiful new armor had sustained irreparable injury, and his vanity had received a mortal wound.