Chapter XIII. Lavender Linen
 

"I'm going to drive into town. Any of you girls want to go with me?"

Mr. Rufus Gray addressed his wife and their two guests, his nieces, Roberta and Ruth Gray. It was the midwinter vacation at the school where Roberta taught and at the equally desirable establishment where Ruth was taking a carefully selected course of study. Uncle Rufus and Aunt Ruth had invited them to spend the four days of this vacation at their country home, according to a custom they had of decoying one or another of the young people of Rufus's brothers' families to come and visit the aunt and uncle whose own children were all married and gone, sorely missed by the young-hearted pair. Roberta and Ruth had accepted eagerly, always delighted to spend a day or a month at the "Gray Farm," a most attractive place even in winter, and in summer a veritable pleasure-ground of enjoyment.

They all wanted to go to town, the three "girls," including the white-haired one whose face was almost as young as her nieces' as she looked out from the rear seat of the comfortable double sleigh driven by her husband and drawn by a pair of the handsomest horses the countryside could boast. It was only two miles from the fine old country homestead to the centre of the neighbouring village, and though the air was keen nobody was cold among the robes and rugs with which the sleigh overflowed.

"You folks want to do any shopping?" inquired Uncle Rufus, as he drove briskly along the lower end of Eastman's principal business street. "I suppose there's no need of asking that. When doesn't a woman want to go shopping?"

"Of course we do," Ruth responded, without so much as consulting the back seat.

"I meant to bring some lavender linen with me to work on," said Roberta to Aunt Ruth. "Where do you suppose I could find any, here?"

"Why, I don't know, dearie," responded Aunt Ruth doubtfully. "White linen you ought to get anywhere; but lavender--you might try at Artwell & Chatford's. We'll go past Benson's, but it's no use looking there any more. Everybody's expecting poor Hugh to fail any day."

"Oh, I'm sorry," said Roberta warmly. "I always liked Hugh Benson. Mr. Westcott told me some time ago that he was afraid Hugh wasn't succeeding."

"The store's been closed to the public a fortnight now," explained Uncle Rufus over his shoulder. "Hugh hasn't failed yet, and something's going on there; nobody seems to know just what. Inventory, maybe, or getting ready for a bankrupt sale. The Benson sign's still up just as it was before Hugh's father died. Windows covered with white soap or whitewash. Some say the store's going to open up under new parties--guess nobody knows exactly. Hullo! who's that making signs?"

He indicated a tall figure on the sidewalk coming toward them at a rapid rate, face alight, hat waving in air.

"It's Mr. Forbes Westcott," exulted Ruth, twisting around to look at her sister. "Funny how he always happens to be visiting his father and mother just as Rob is visiting you, isn't it, Aunt Ruth?"

Uncle Rufus drew up to the sidewalk, and the whole party shook hands with a tall man of dark, keen features, who bore an unmistakable air of having come from a larger world than that of the town of Eastman.

"Mrs. Gray--Miss Roberta--Miss Ruth--Mr. Gray--why, this is delightful. When did you come? How long are you going to stay? It seems a thousand years since I saw you last!"

He was like an eager boy, though he was clearly no boy in years. He included them all in this greeting, but his eyes were ardently on Roberta as he ended. Ruth, screwed around upon the front seat and watching interestedly, could hardly blame him. Roberta, in her furry wrappings, was as vivid as a flower. Her eyes looked black beneath their dusky lashes, and her cheeks were brilliant with the touch of the winter wind.

"When did you come? How did you find your father and mother?" inquired Roberta demurely.

"Well and hearty as ever, and apparently glad to see their son--as he was to see them. I've been devoting myself to them for three days now, and mean to give them the whole week. It's only fair--isn't it?--after being away so long. How fortunate for me that I should meet you; I might not have found it out till I had missed much time."

"You've missed much time already," put in Uncle Rufus. "They came last night."

"Put your hat on, Forbes," was Aunt Ruth's admonition as Westcott continued to stand beside Roberta, exchanging question and answer concerning the long interval which had intervened since they last met. "Come over to supper to-night, and then you young people can talk without danger of catching your death of cold."

Westcott laughed and accepted, but the hat was not replaced upon his smooth, dark head until the sleigh had gone on.

"Subjects always keep uncovered before their queen," whispered Ruth in Uncle Rufus's ear, and he laughed and nodded.

"Times have changed since I was a young man," said he. "A fellow would have looked queer in my day unwinding his comforter and pulling off his coonskin cap and standing holding those things while he talked on a February morning. He'd have gone home and taken some pepper-tea to ward off the effects of the chill!"

"There's Benson's," Roberta interrupted, "and it's open. Why, look at the people in front of the windows! Look at the windows themselves. There must be a new firm. Poor Hugh!"

"There's a new sign over the old one; a 'Successors to,' I think; but Benson's name is on it, 'Benson & Company,'" announced Ruth, straining her eyes to make it out.

"Somebody must have come to the rescue," said Uncle Rufus with joyous interest. "Well, well; the thing has been kept surprisingly still, and I can't think who it can be, but I'm certainly glad. I hated to see the boy fail. I suppose you all want to go in?"

They unquestionably did, but they wanted first to sit still and look at the windows from their vantage point above the passers-by on foot, who were all stopping as they came along. It was small wonder that they should stop. The town of Eastman had never in its experience seen within its borders window displays like these.

Benson's possessed the advantage of having larger fronts of clear plate-glass than any store in town. As it was a corner store, there were not only two big windows on the front but one equally large upon the side. Each of these showed an artful arrangement of fresh and alluring white goods, and in the centre of each was a special scheme arranged with figures and furnishings to form a charming tableau. In one was the sewing-room scene, adapted from that one which had first challenged Richard's interest in his grandfather's store; in a second a children's tea-party drew many admiring comments from the crowd; and in the side window the figure of a pretty bride with veil and orange blossoms suggested that the surrounding draperies were fit for uses such as hers. The clever adaptability of Carson's art showed in the fact that the figure wore no longer the costly French robe with which she had been draped when she stood in a glass case at Kendrick & Company's, but a delicate frock of simpler materials, such as any village girl might afford, yet so cunningly fashioned that a princess might have worn it as well, and not have been ashamed.

Aunt Ruth and her nieces went enthusiastically in, and Uncle Rufus, declaring that he must go also and congratulate Hugh on this extraordinary transformation, tied his horses across the street where they could not interfere with the view of passing sleighs.

Entering, the visitors found inside the same atmosphere of successful, timely display of fresh and attractive goods as had been promised by the outside. The store did not look like a village store at all; its whole air was metropolitan. The smallest counter carried out this effect; on every hand were goods selected with rare skill, and this description held good of the cheaper articles as well as of those more expensive.

"Well, Hugh, we don't understand, but we are very glad," said Aunt Ruth heartily, shaking hands with the young man who advanced to meet them.

"That's kind of you. It goes without saying that I am very glad, too," responded the proprietor of the place. His thin face flushed a little as he greeted the others, and his eyes, like Westcott's, dwelt a trifle longer on the face of one of the party than on any of the others.

"Rob, I believe you'll find your lavender linen here," said Ruth in her sister's ear, as Uncle Rufus came in and Benson began to show them all about the store. "Look, there are all kinds of white linens; let's stop and ask."

With a word of explanation, Roberta delayed at the counter Ruth had indicated, making inquiry for the goods she sought. It chanced that this department was next to an inclosure which was partially of glass, the new office of the firm. The old firm had had no office, only a desk in a dark corner. In this place two men were talking. One was facing the store, his glance even as he spoke upon the way things were going outside; the other's back was turned. But Ruth, gazing interestedly around as her sister examined linens, discovered something familiar about the set of one of the heads just beyond the glass partition, though she could not see the face. When this head was suddenly thrown back with a peculiar motion she had noted when its owner was particularly amused over something, Ruth said to herself: "Why, that's Mr. Richard Kendrick! What in the world is he doing out here at Eastman?"

As if she had called him Richard turned about and his look encountered Ruth's. The next instant he was out of the glass inclosure and at her side. Roberta, hearing Ruth's low but eager, "Why, Mr. Kendrick, who ever expected to see you in Eastman!" turned about with an expression of astonishment, which was reflected in both the faces before her.

An interested village salesgirl now looked on at a little scene the like of which had never come within the range of her experience. That three people, clearly so surprised to meet in this particular spot, should not proceed voluminously to explain to each other within her hearing the cause of their surprise, was to her an extraordinary thing. But after the first moment's expression of wonder the three seemed to accept the fact as a matter of course, and began to exchange observations concerning the weather, the roads, and various other matters of comparatively small importance. It was not until Uncle Rufus, rounding a high-piled counter with his wife and Hugh Benson, came upon the group, that anything was said of which the curious young person behind the counter could make enough to guess at the situation.

"Well, well, if it isn't Mr. Kendrick!" he exclaimed, after one keen look, and hastened forward, hand outstretched. So the group now became doubled in size, and Uncle Rufus expressed great pleasure at seeing again the young man whose hospitality he had enjoyed during the Christmas house-party.

"But I didn't suppose we should ever see you up here in our town," said he, "especially in winter. Come by the morning train?"

"I've been here for a month, most of the time," Richard told him.

"You have? And didn't come to see us? Well, now--"

"I didn't know this was your home, Mr. Gray," admitted the young man frankly. "I don't remember your mentioning the name of Eastman while you and Mrs. Gray were with us. Probably you did, and if I had realized you were here--"

"You'd have come? Well, you know now, and I hope you'll waste no time in getting out to the 'Gray Farm.' Only two miles out, and the trolley runs by within a few rods of our turn of the road--conductor'll tell you. Better come to-night," he urged genially, "seeing my nieces are here and can help make you feel at home. They'll be going back in a day or two."

Richard, smiling, looked at Aunt Ruth, then at Roberta. "Do come," urged Aunt Ruth as cordially as her husband, and Roberta gave a little nod of acquiescence.

"I shall be delighted to come," he agreed.

"Putting up at the hotel?" inquired Uncle Rufus.

"I'm staying for the present with my friend Mr. Benson," Richard explained, with a glance toward Benson himself, who had moved aside to speak to a clerk. "We were classmates at college. We have--gone into business together here."

It was out. As he spoke the words his face changed colour a little, but his eyes remained steadily fixed on Uncle Rufus.

"Well, well," exclaimed Mr. Rufus Gray. "So it's you who have come to the rescue of--"

But Richard interrupted him quickly. "I beg your pardon, not at all," said he. "It is my friend who has come to my rescue--given me the biggest interest I have yet discovered--the game of business. I'm having the time of my life. With the help of our mutual friend, Mr. Carson, who is to be the business manager of the new house, we hope to make a success."

Roberta was looking curiously at him, and his eyes suddenly met hers. For an instant the encounter lasted, and it ended by her glance dropping from his. There was something new to her in his face, something she could not understand. Instead of its former rather studiedly impassive expression there was an awakened look, a determined look, as if he had something on hand he meant to do--and to do as soon as the present interview should be over. Strangely enough, it was the first time she had met him when he seemed not wholly occupied with herself, but rather on his way to some affair of strong interest in which she had no concern and from which she was detaining him. It was not that he was failing in the extreme courtesy she had learned to expect from him under all conditions. But--well, it struck her that he would return to his companion in the glass-screened office and immediately forget her. This was a change, indeed!

"However you choose to put it," declared Uncle Rufus kindly, "it's a mighty fine thing for Hugh, and we wish you both success."

"You will have it. I have found my lavender linen," said Roberta, turning back to the counter.

Richard came around to her side. "Didn't you expect to find it?" he inquired with interest.

"I really didn't at all. We seldom find summer goods shown in a town like this till spring is well along, least of all coloured dress linens. But you have several shades, besides a beautiful lot of white."

"That's Carson's buying," said he, fingering a corner of the lilac-tinted goods she held up. "I shouldn't know it from gingham. I didn't know what gingham was till the other day. But I can recognize it now on sight, and am no end proud of my knowledge."

"I suppose you are familiar with silk," said she with a quick glance.

He returned it. "Aren't you?"

"I'm not specially fond of it."

"What fabrics do you like best?"

"Thin, sheer things, fine but durable."

"Linens?"

"No, cottons, batistes, voiles--that sort of thing."

"I'm afraid you've got me now," he owned, looking puzzled. "Perhaps I'd know them if I saw them. If Benson has any--I mean, if we have any," he amended quickly, "I'd like to have you see them. Let me go and ask Carson."

He was off to consult the man in the office and was back in a minute. When Roberta had purchased the yard of lavender linen he led her into another aisle and requested the clerk to show her his finest goods. Roberta looked on, much amused, while the display was made, and praised liberally. But suddenly she pounced upon a piece of white material with a tiny white flower embroidered upon its delicate surface.

"That's one of the prettiest pieces of Swiss muslin I ever saw," said she. "And at such a reasonable price. It looks like one of the finest imported Swisses. I'm going to have that pattern this minute."

She gave the order without hesitation.

"I didn't know women ever shopped like that," said Richard in her ear.

"Like what?"

"Why, bought the thing right off without asking to see everything in the store. That's what--I've been told they did."

"Not if they're wise--when they see a thing like that. There was only the one pattern. Why, another woman might have walked up and said right over my shoulder that she would take it."

"If she had I'd have seen that you got it," declared Richard.

He accompanied the party to the door when they went; he saw them to the sleigh and tucked them in.

"Bareheaded again," observed Uncle Rufus, regarding him with interest.

"Again?" queried Richard.

"All the young men we meet this morning insist on standing round outdoors with their hats off," explained the elder man. "It looks reckless to me."

"It would be more reckless not to, I imagine," returned Richard, laughing with Ruth and Roberta.

"We'll see you to-night," Uncle Rufus reminded him as he drove off. "Bring Hugh with you. I asked him in the store, but he seemed to hesitate. It will do him good to get out."

When the sleigh was a quarter of a mile up the road Ruth turned to her uncle. "Do you imagine, Uncle Rufus," said she, "that all those men you've asked for to-night will be grateful--when they see one another?"