A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
The long, summer months dragged their length for Miss Lady, months of heartache and rebellion, of loneliness and tears. Then came a day when, without apparent reason, the shadows lifted. She was tramping across the river flats, with Mike at her heels, when once again she heard the world singing, and before she knew it an answering song sprang to her lips.
Uncle Jimpson, plowing near by, looked up and smiled:
"Dat's right, Honey; sounds lak ole times to hear you singin' ag'in. I was jus' settin' here steddyin' how good I'd feel ef de Cunnel could come a stompin' 'long an' gimme one of his 'fore-de-war cussin's fer bein' lazy."
"Oh, Uncle Jimpson, if he could! It seems so long since he left us. I have just been over to Miss Ferney's, but she wasn't there. I want to get her to come and stay with me until I know what I am going to do. They expect to take the Doctor home to-morrow."
"Yas'm, Carline was tellin' me. Looks to me lak he's been well enough to go fer some time." Uncle Jimpson scratched his head wisely.
"I don't know what's to become of us," said Miss Lady ruefully twisting Mike's ears. "They say unless I sell the rest of Thornwood, we won't have money enough to live on. But I won't sell another acre. I'll teach school first."
Uncle Jimpson was scandalized: "Now, Miss Lady, chile, don't you git dem notions in your head. Dem's ole maid notions, you ain't no ole maid yit! Why don't you git married, and git a kerridge, an' I'll dribe an' Carline'll cook an' tak' care de chillun."
"I'm never going to marry, Uncle Jimpson," Miss Lady declared, with the passionate assurance of youth. "And I am never going to leave Thornwood. If you see Miss Ferney going down the road, ask her to stop by a minute. Come on, Mike, we are late now."
And they were late, five minutes, by the open-faced watch that lay in the Doctor's hand as they entered the garden. He was sitting in his wheel-chair with his books and manuscripts on a table at his elbow, and he lifted an expectant face toward the gate as she entered.
It was strange what two months at Thornwood had done for the Doctor. He had been brought there unconscious, a serious, middle-aged professor, who had run in the same groove for twenty years. The same surroundings, the same people, the same monotonous, daily routine had rendered him as rusty and faded as the text-books he lived with. Nothing short of a collision could have jolted him out of his rut, and the collision had arrived.
The sudden change from the grim realism of a lecture platform, with its bleak blackboard and creaking chalk, to the romance of an old flower garden where blossoms flirted with each other across the borders, and birds made love in every bough, was enough to freshen the spirit of even a John Jay Queerington. His cosmic conscience, which usually worked overtime, striving to solve problems which Nature had given up, seemed to be asleep. His fine, serious face relaxed somewhat from its austerity, and as the days passed he read less and observed more.
His observations, before long, resulted in a discovery; he, who was so weary of the cultivated hothouse species of femininity, had chanced quite by accident upon a rare, unclassified wild-flower, that piqued his curiosity and enlisted his interest. For two months he had depended almost entirely upon his young hostess for companionship, and the fact that the large box of books he had ordered from the city remained unopened, gave evidence that the Doctor had not been bored.
During the hours when he was not engrossed in verifying statistics, and appending references to those voluminous and still accumulating notes for the fifth volume of his great work, he devoted himself to sorting and arranging the odds and ends of facts and fancies that he found stored away in Miss Lady's brain. Under ordinary circumstances he would have dismissed a pupil to whom clearness and accuracy were strangers, and whose attention wandered with every passing butterfly. In the classroom he not only demanded but practised order and system. He arrived at his conclusions by as methodical a series of mental actions as he arrived at his desk every morning at twenty-nine minutes to nine. But these were not ordinary circumstances.
The impetuous young person who listened to him with such rapt admiration and respect, when she listened at all, had no method or system whatever. She simply waited for the hint, the flash that revealed the vision, then she joyously and fearlessly leaped to her conclusion.
The fact that amazed him was not that she frequently landed before he did, but that she landed at all!
As for Miss Lady herself, she was finding the Doctor's interest and companionship a welcome solace in her loneliness. The well of his knowledge seemed to her fathomless, and she never tired of hanging over the brink and looking down, often seeing stars in the darkness that she never saw in the day.
When this last lesson was finished, the Doctor closed the book reluctantly:
"I have given you the merest outline for future work," he said. "The rest remains with you. Have you decided yet what you are going to do?"
"No, I'll do whatever you tell me, Doctor. Only I do hope it won't be to teach school,--the very thought of teaching makes me shrivel."
"It is not altogether beyond the range of possibility that you will marry," said the Doctor, tracing parallelograms on the arm of the chair. "Such things do happen, you know."
Miss Lady, sitting with her elbows on the table and her chin on her palms, flashed a strange, questioning glance at him.
"Do you believe in love, Doctor?"
"Why, of course, you foolish girl, in all its manifestations, filial, paternal, marital. Assuredly I do."
"But I mean that other kind, the kind that makes a little heaven for a man and woman here on earth, that answers all their longings, so that nothing else matters, just so they have each other. I read about it in novels and in poetry, but I don't see it. The married people I know take each other as much for granted as they do their hands and feet. That's not what love means to me."
The Doctor smiled indulgently. "Wait until you have passed the sentimental age before you give your verdict! Most young ladies imagine that because love does not arrive, full panoplied on a snow- white steed, that it is not love. You, probably, like the rest, have read too many romantic novels. When you come to know life better you will realize that moral equality and intellectual affinity promise a much safer union than a violent romantic attachment."
She regarded him as earnestly as if he had been the fount of all wisdom.
"How long does it usually last?" she asked.
"Last?" he repeated.
"The sentimental age. I suppose a girl ought to get through it by the time she is twenty. But I never do things on time. I didn't even know I was sentimental until you told me. I have learned a great many things since you came."
"There were some things you did not need to learn," said the Doctor quietly. "Kindness and sympathy, and rare understanding. I shall always look back with pleasure to these quiet weeks spent under your father's roof. They have given me the only chance I have had in years for undisturbed writing on the History that will stand for my life work. I must confess that I dread my return home. The noise and confusion, the constant invasion of my privacy, the demands upon my time, appal me. Very few realize the magnitude of my work, and the necessity it lays upon me for isolating myself. You have been singularly sympathetic and helpful in that respect."
"But think what your being here has meant to me! You came into my life just when everything else seemed to drop out. You explained things to me, and gave me something to do. You can't begin to know how you have helped me."
"I have only tried to direct and suggest," the Doctor said; "in short to take the place--"
"Of a father," finished Miss Lady enthusiastically.
The Doctor tapped his foot impatiently. After all her father was a much older man than he: the distance, at that moment, between forty and sixty seemed infinitely greater than that between forty and twenty.
"You see," Miss Lady went on, unconsciously, "you have taken Daddy's place in so many ways that I have been depending on you for everything. It makes me awfully lonesome when I think of your leaving. Down here you have just belonged to Miss Wuster and me, and once you get back to town you will be the famous Doctor Queerington again and belong to everybody. I shan't dare write to you for fear I spell a word wrong."
"Indeed, I shall expect a weekly letter reporting the progress of your studies, and I shall come to see you from time to time and help you with your plans for the future."
"Yes, but it won't be the same. We will sit in the parlor, and you'll be company, and I shall be afraid of you. I am always afraid of you the minute I get out of your sight."
"What nonsense! I never criticize anything but your pronunciation, and an occasional exaggeration of statement. If I have seemed severe--"
"You haven't! You've been an angel! When I think of all the time you have taken from your writing to help me, I am ashamed for letting you do it."
"You must not think," said the Doctor slowly, "that I have been wholly disinterested. I have found you singularly helpful to me. I think I may say that you stimulate me and refresh me more than any one I know."
"I do? Oh! Doctor! That's about the nicest thing I ever had said to me."
He was not prepared for the radiant face of gratitude that was lifted to his, nor for the proximity of her glowing eyes which gave him no further reason for doubting their exact hue.
"Yes," he said with slight embarrassment, "your mind interests me exceedingly. It is not complex, nor subtle, but remarkably intuitive. You have imagination and humor, and great receptivity."
Miss Lady wore the absorbed look people usually wear when their characteristics are undergoing vivisection; she could not have been more fascinated had she been viewing her face for the first time in a mirror.
"This little volume now," the Doctor continued, picking up an elementary treatise on evolution; "I am particularly anxious to see what effect it will have on a fresh, unsophisticated mind. Make notes as you read, and we will discuss it when you have finished."
"And you won't forget to send me the copy of Mrs. Browning?"
"No, I seldom forget. But I may not send it. Science is better for you just now than poetry. What is that blossom you are so carefully cherishing?"
Miss Lady's eyes fell, and the color leapt to her face.
"This? Just a wild rose I found over there by the wall. I thought they had stopped blooming weeks ago."
The Doctor took it in his hand and examined it minutely: "It is the Rosa Blanda," he said, "five cleft sepals that terminate in a tube. Pliny tells us that in ancient days the warriors used the petals of this rose to garnish their choicest meats. Who is that quaint person coming over the stile?"
"It's Miss Ferney. What a nuisance, on our last day! But I forgot, I asked her to come. If she stays very long, just tell a little fib, won't you, and say you need me for something?"
"It will not be a fib," said the Doctor quietly, "I do need you."
Miss Lady met her caller at the front porch and relieved her of the jar she was carrying.
"It's pickles," said Miss Ferney, a withered little woman whose small, nibbling face suggested a squirrel's. "I thought having company you might need 'em. Don't know though. City people may be too aristocratic to eat country pickles."
"The idea, Miss Ferney! Don't you sell them in the city all the time?"
"Yes, under labels. City people lay stress on labels. When I was a child, I wasn't allowed to eat things that was labeled. I hear he's going?"
"Your Doctor. Don't see how you've ever stood him so long."
"Oh! you don't know Doctor Queerington! It's been a great privilege to have him here, He is a very distinguished man, Miss Ferney, and so kind and good!"
"Good or bad, they are all the same to me. Just as soon have a fly under my mosquito bar as a man buzzing around in my house. When's he going?"
"To-morrow. Will that be too soon for you to come over?"
"No, I'm ready to come. Sis 'Lizzie will be sure to try some of those new-fangled receipts and spoil a bushel or two of cucumbers, but I said I'd come and I will. What is this Jimpson is telling me about your taking the examinations for the county school?"
Miss Lady sighed: "I may have to teach; I don't know."
"Sell off some more land. You don't need a hundred acres."
"We've sold too much already! It will be the house next. I am determined to hold on to Thornwood if the roof tumbles in on my head!"
"I know how you feel," said Miss Ferney whose sentiments ran to real estate. "I've been saving every nickel I made for nearly twenty years to buy back our place. From all the talk we heard last spring, Sis Lizzie rather allowed you was going to get married."
"Well, I am not."
"I am glad of it. Folks are keen enough to believe in every beau a girl has 'til she's thirty. After that they don't believe in any of them. Sis was misled by what they told her over at the Wickers'."
"What did they tell her?" asked Miss Lady, training a rebellious moon vine up the trellis.
"Oh, they told her about that young city fellow you was rampaging all over the country with last spring. Mrs. Wicker said he hadn't a thought in his head but you. That he wore her plumb out telling her about you, just as if she hadn't help raise you on a bottle!"
Miss Lady still found the vine absorbing, but she took time to say over her shoulder:
"Tell your sister and Mrs. Wicker that that young man has gone to China."
"Well, nobody could wish him further! I hope he will stay. You are too nice a girl to get married. What do women want to marry for anyway? Look at me! Forty years single and not one minute of it spent in wishing I was married! I glory in my independence, I glory in my freedom."
Miss Ferney was allowed to glory undisturbed, for Miss Lady, leaning against the railing of the porch, had apparently forgotten her existence.
"You just make up your mind to take that school job, and lead a useful, independent life. I know a teacher in Shelby County that's had the same school for fifteen years, ever since she was a plump, pretty girl, and she's thin as I am now, and gray as a rat. Kept that same position and done well all these years."
Miss Lady wheeled suddenly and flung out her arms:
"If you don't hush this minute, Miss Ferney, I'll run off and join the circus! I'd lots rather stand on one toe in fluffy, spangled skirts, and jump through a hoop than teach school!"
Miss Ferney looked scandalized: "You don't seem right well," she said as if in excuse for such flippancy. "I do believe you've got a fever. I'm going straight home and mix you up a tonic."
Miss Lady sat for some time on the steps with her eyes on the distant river. Up the hillside the treetops rippled in the breeze, and down in the valley the winding stream danced in the shallows or loitered in brown pools to whisper secrets to the low-hanging boughs. The world seemed to her not only very beautiful, but very lonesome, and the vow of eternal celibacy, made to Uncle Jimpson, loomed large and terrible in the presence of Miss Ferney.
"Oh, here you are," said the nurse, coming around the house; "the Doctor has been refusing to lie down until you come out to the garden. He says he needs you for something. Deliver me from convalescents!"
Miss Lady laughed and ran down the path to the garden, where the Doctor greeted her with his rarest smile. The rest of the morning they pored over manuscripts, sorting notes, and making corrections, she happy in having even a tiny share in his great work, and he finding her enthusiasm and interest a welcome condiment to stir his jaded appetite for his task. Meanwhile, a bedraggled little rose languished unnoticed beneath the manuscript of "The History of Norman Influence on English Language and Literature."