Chapter XXIII. Richard Has Waked Earlier
 

Twelve o'clock, one o'clock, two o'clock. Roberta wondered afterward what she had done with the hours! At three she had her bath; at half after she put up her hair, hardly venturing to look at her own face in her mirror, so flushed and shy was it. Roberta shy?--she who, according to Ted, "wasn't afraid of anything in the world!" But she had been afraid of one thing, even as Richard Kendrick had averred. Was she not afraid of it now? She could not tell. But she knew that her hands shook as she put up her hair, and that it tumbled down twice and had to be done over again. Afraid! She was afraid, as every girl worth winning is, of the sight of her lover!

Yet when she heard hoofbeats on the driveway could have kept her from peeping out. The rear porch, from which the riding party would start, was just below her window, the great pillars rising past her. She had closed one of her blinds an hour before; she now made use of its sheltering interstices. She saw Richard on a splendid black horse coming up the drive, looking, as she had foreseen he would look, at home in the saddle and at his best. She saw the colour in his cheeks, the brightness in his eyes, caught his one quick glance upward--did he know her window? He could not possibly see her, but she drew back, happiness and fear fighting within her for the ascendency. Could she ever go down and face him out there in the strong June light, where he could see every curving hair of eyelash? note the slightest ebb and flow of blood in cheek?

Rosamond was calling: "Come, Rob! Mr. Kendrick is here and Joe is bringing round the horses. Can I help you?"

Roberta opened her door. "I couldn't do my hair at all; does it look a fright under this hat?"

Rosamond surveyed her. "Of course it doesn't. You're the most bewitching thing I ever saw in that blue habit, and your hair is lovely, as it always is. Rob, I have grown stout; I had to let out two bands before I could get this on; it was made before I was married. Steve's been laughing at me. Here he is; now do let's hurry. I want every bit of this good time, don't you?"

There was no delaying longer. Rosamond, all eagerness, was leading the way downstairs, her little riding-boots tapping her departure. Stephen was waiting for Roberta; she had to precede him. The next she knew she was down and out upon the porch, and Richard Kendrick, hat and crop in hand, was meeting her halfway, his expectant eyes upon her face. One glance at him was all she was giving him, and he was mercifully making no sign that any one looking on could have recognized beyond his eager scrutiny as his hand clasped hers. And then in two minutes they were off, and Roberta, feeling the saddle beneath her and Colonel's familiar tug on the bit at the start-off--he was always impatient to get away--was realizing that the worst, at least for the present, was over.

"Which way?" called Stephen, who was leading with Rosamond.

"Out the road past the West Wood marshes, please--straight out. Take it moderately; we're going about twelve miles and it's pretty warm yet."

There was not much talking while they were within the city limits--nor after they were past, for that matter. Rosamond, ahead with her husband, kept up a more or less fitful conversation with him, but the pair behind said little. Richard made no allusion to his letter of the morning beyond a declaration of his gratitude to the whole party for falling in with his plans. But the silence was somehow more suggestive of the great subject waiting for expression than any exchange of words could have been, out here in the open. Only once did the man's impatience to begin overcome his resolution to await the fitting hour.

Turning in his saddle as Colonel fell momentarily behind, passing the West Wood marshes, Richard allowed his eyes to rest upon horse and rider with full intent to take in the picture they made.

"I haven't ventured to let myself find out just how you look," he said. "The atmosphere seems to swim around you; I see you through a sort of haze. Do you suppose there can be anything the matter with my eyesight?"

"I should think there must be," she replied demurely. "It seems a serious symptom. Hadn't you better turn back?"

"While you go on? Not if I fall off my horse. I have a suspicion that it's made up of a curious compound of feelings which I don't dare to describe. But--may I tell you?--I must tell you--I never saw anything so beautiful in my life as--yourself, to-day. I--" He broke off abruptly. "Do you see that old rosebush there by those burnt ruins of a house? Amber-white roses, and sweet as--I saw them there yesterday when I went by. Let me get them for you."

He rode away into the deserted yard and up to a tangle of neglected shrubbery. He had some difficulty in getting Thunderbolt--who was as restless a beast as his name implied--to stand still long enough to allow him to pick a bunch of the buds; he would have nothing but buds just breaking into bloom. These he presently brought back to Roberta. She fancied that he had planned to stop here for this very purpose. Clearly he had the artist's eye for finishing touches. He watched her fasten the roses upon the breast of the blue-cloth habit, then he turned determinedly away.

"If I don't look at you again," said he, his eyes straight before him, "it's because I can't do it--and keep my head. You accused me once of losing it under a winter moon; this is a summer sun--more dangerous yet.... Shall we talk about the crops? This is fine weather for growing things, isn't it?"

"Wonderful. I haven't been out this road this season--as far as this. I'm beginning to wonder where you are taking us."

"To the hill where you and Miss Ruth and Ted and I toasted sandwiches last November. Could there be a better place for the end--of our ride? You haven't been out here this season--are you sure?"

"No, indeed. I've been too busy with the close of school to ride anywhere--much less away out here."

"You like my choice, then? I hoped you would."

"Very much."

It was a queer, breathless sort of talking; Roberta hardly knew what she was saying. She much preferred to ride along in silence. The hour was at hand--so close at hand! And there was now no getting away. She knew perfectly that her agreeing to come at all had told him his answer; none but the most cruel of women would allow a man to bring her upon such a ride, in the company of other interested people, only to refuse him at the end of it. But she had to admit to herself that if he were now exulting in the sure hope of possessing her he was keeping it well out of sight. There was now none of the arrogant self-confidence in his manner toward her which there had been on the February night when he had made a certain prophecy concerning Midsummer. Instead there was that in his every word and look which indicated a fine humility--almost a boyish sort of shyness, as if even while he knew the treasure to be within his grasp he could neither quite believe it nor feel himself fit to take it. From a young man of the world such as he had been it was the most exquisite tribute to her power to rouse the best in him that he could have given and she felt it to the inmost soul of her.

"Here are the forks," said Richard suddenly, and Roberta recognized with a start that they were nearly at the end of their journey.

"Which way?" Stephen was shouting back, and Richard was waving toward the road at the left, which led up the steep hill.

"Here is where you dropped the bunch of rose haws," said he, with a quick glance as they began the ascent. "I have them yet--brown and dry. Did you know you dropped them?"

"I remember. But I didn't suppose anybody--"

"Found them? By the greatest luck--and stopped my car in a hurry. They were bright on my desk for a month after that; I cared more for them than for anything I owned. I had the greatest difficulty in keeping my man from throwing them away, though. You see, he hadn't my point of view! Roberta--here we are! Will you forgive what will seem like a piece of the most unwarrantable audacity?" He was speaking fast as they came up over the crown of the hill: "I didn't do it because I was sure of anything at all, but because--it was something to make myself think I could carry out a wish of yours. Do you remember the 'stout little cabin on the hilltop', Roberta? Could you--could you care for it, as I do?"

The last words were almost a whisper, but she heard them. Her eyes were riveted on the outlines, two hundred feet away through the trees, of a small brown building at the very crest of the hill over-looking the valley. Very small, very rough, with its unhewn logs--the "stout little cabin" stood there waiting.

Well! What was she to think? He had been sure, to build this and bring her to it! And yet--it was no house for a home; no expensive bungalow; not even a summer cottage. Only a "stout little cabin," such as might house a hunter on a winter's night; the only thing about it which looked like luxury the chimney of cobblestones taken from the hillside below, which meant the possibility of the fire inside without which one could hardly spend an hour in the small shelter on any but a summer day. Suddenly she understood. It was the sheer romance of the thing which had appealed to him; there was no audacity about it.

He was watching her anxiously as she stared at the cabin; she came suddenly to the realization of that. Then he threw himself off his horse as they neared the rail fence, fastened him, and came back to Roberta. Near-by, Stephen was taking Rosamond down and she was exclaiming over the charm of the place.

Richard came close, looking straight up into Roberta's face, which was like a wild-rose for colouring, but very sober. Her eyes would not meet his. His own face had paled a little, in spite of all its healthy, outdoor hues.

"Oh, don't misunderstand me," he whispered. "Wait--till I can tell you all about it. I was wild to do something--anything--that would make you seem nearer. Don't misunderstand--dear!"

Stephen's voice, calling a question about the horses, brought him back to a realization of the fact that his time was not yet, and that he must continue to act the part of the sane and responsible host. He turned, summoning all his social training, and replied to the question in his usual quiet tone. But, as he took her from her horse, Roberta recognized the surge of his feeling, though he controlled his very touch of her, and said not another word in her ear. She had all she could do, herself, to maintain an appearance of coolness under the shock of this extraordinary surprise. She had no doubt that Rosamond and Stephen comprehended the situation, more or less. Let them not be able to guess just how far things had developed, as yet.

Rosamond came to her aid with her own freely manifested pleasure in the place. Clever Rosy! her sister-in-law was grateful to her for expressing that which Roberta could not trust herself to speak.

"What a dear little house, a real log cabin!" cried Rosamond as the four drew near. "It's evidently just finished; see the chips. It opens the other way, doesn't it? Isn't that delightful! Not even a window on this side toward the road, though it's back so far. I suppose it looks toward the valley. A window on this end; see the solid shutters; it looks as if one could fortify one's self in it. Oh, and here's a porch! What a view--oh, what a view!"

They came around the end of the cabin together and stood at the front, surveying the wide porch, its thick pillars of untrimmed logs, its balustrade solid and sheltering, its roof low and overhanging. From the road everything was concealed; from this aspect it was open to the skies; its door and two front windows wide, yet showing, door as well as windows, the heavy shutters which would make the place a stronghold through what winter blasts might assault it. From the porch one could see for miles in every direction; at the sides, only the woods.

"It's an ideal spot for a camp," declared Stephen with enthusiasm. "Is it yours, Kendrick? I congratulate you. Invite me up here in the hunting season, will you? I can't imagine anything snugger. May we look inside?"

"By all means! It's barely finished--it's entirely rough inside--but I thought it would do for our supper to-night."

"Do!" Rosamond gave a little cry of delight as she looked in at the open door. "Rough! You don't want it smoother. Does he, Rob? Look at the rustic table and benches! And will you behold that splendid fireplace? Oh, all you want here is the right company!"

"And that I surely have." Richard made her a little bow, his face emphasizing his words. He went over to a cupboard in the wall, of which there were two, one on either side of the fireplace. He threw it open, disclosing hampers. "Here is our supper, I expect. Are you hungry? It's up to us to serve it. I didn't have the man stay; I thought it would be more fun to see to things ourselves."

"A thousand times more," Rosamond assured him, looking to Roberta for confirmation, who nodded, smiling.

They fell to work. Hats were removed, riding skirts were fastened out of the way, hampers were opened and the contents set forth. Everything that could possibly be needed was found in the hampers, even to coffee, steaming hot in the vacuum bottles as it had been poured into them.

"Some other time we'll come up and rough it," Richard explained, when Stephen told him he was no true camper to have everything prepared for him in detail like this; "but to-night I thought we'd spend as little time in preparations as possible and have the more of the evening. It will be a Midsummer Night's Dream on this hill to-night," said he, with a glance at Roberta which she would not see.

Presently they sat down, Roberta finding herself opposite their host, with the necessity upon her of eating and drinking like a common mortal, though she was dwelling in a world where it seemed as if she did not know how to do the everyday things and do them properly. It was a delicious meal, no doubt of that, and at least Stephen and Rosamond did justice to it.

"But you're not eating anything yourself, man," remonstrated Stephen, as Richard pressed upon him more cold fowl and delicate sandwiches supplemented by a salad such as connoisseurs partake of with sighs of appreciation, and with fruit which one must marvel to look upon.

"You haven't been watching me, that's evident," returned Richard, demonstrating his ability to consume food with relish by seizing upon a sandwich and making away with it in short order.

Roberta rose. "I can eat no more," she said, "with that wonderful sky before me out there." She escaped to the porch.

They all turned to exclaim at a gorgeous colouring beginning in the west, heralding the sunset which was coming. Rosamond ran out also, Stephen following. Richard produced cigars.

"Have a smoke out here, Gray," said he, "while I put away the stuff. No, no help, thank you. James will be here, by and by, to pack it properly."

"Stephen"--Rosamond stood at the edge of the hill below the porch--"bring your cigar down here; it's simply perfect. You can lie on your side here among the pine needles and watch the sky."

They went around a clump of trees to a spot where the pine needles were thick, just out of sight of the cabin door. No doubt but Rosamond and Stephen liked to have things to themselves; there was no pretence about that. It was almost the anniversary of their marriage--their most happy marriage.

Roberta stood still upon the porch, looking, or appearing to look, off at the sunset. Once again she would have liked to run away. But--where to go? Rosamond and Stephen did not want her; it would have been absurd to insist on following them. If she herself should stroll away among the pine trees, she would, of course, be instantly pursued. The porch was undoubtedly the most open and therefore the safest spot she could be in. So she leaned against the pillar and waited, her heart behaving disturbingly meanwhile. She could hear Richard, within the cabin hurriedly clearing the table and stuffing everything away into the cupboards on either side of the fireplace--he was making short work of it. Before she could have much time to think, his step was upon the porch behind her; he was standing by her shoulder.

"It's a wonderful effect, isn't it? Must we talk about it?" he inquired softly.

"Don't you think it deserves to be talked about?" she answered, trying to speak naturally.

"No. There's only one thing in the world I want to talk about. I can't even see that sky, for looking at--you. I've stood at the top of this slope more times than I can tell you, wondering if I should dare to build this little cabin. The idea possessed me, I couldn't get away from it. I bought the land--and still I was afraid. I gave the order to the builder--and all but took it back. I knew I ran every kind of risk that you wouldn't understand me--that you would think I still had that abominable confidence that I was fool enough to express to you last--February. Does it look so?"

She nodded slowly without turning her head.

His voice grew even more solicitous; she could hear a little tremble in it, such as surely had not been there last February, such as she had never heard there before. "But it isn't so! With every log that's gone in, a fresh fear has gone in with it. Even on the way here to-day I had all I could do not to turn off some other way. The only thing that kept me coming on to meet my fate here, and nowhere else, was the hope that you loved the spot itself so well that you--that your heart would be a bit softer here than--somewhere else. O Roberta--I'm not half good enough for you, but--I love you--love you--"

His voice broke on the words. It surely was a very far from confident suitor who pleaded his case in such phrases as these. He did not so much as take her hand, only waited there, a little behind her, his head bent so that he might see as much as he could of the face turned away from him.

She did not answer; something seemed to hold her from speech. One of her arms was twined about the rough, untrimmed pillar of the porch; her clasp tightened until she held it as if it were a bulwark against the human approach ready to take her from it at a word from her lips.

"I told you in my letter all I knew I couldn't say now. You know what you mean to me. I'm going to make all I can out of what there is in me whether you help me or not. But--if I could do it for you--"

Still she could not speak. She clung to the pillar, her breath quickening. He was silent until he could withstand no longer, then he spoke so urgently in her ear that he broke in upon that queer, choking reserve of hers which had kept her from yielding to him:

"Roberta--I must know--I can't bear it."

She turned, then, and put out her hand. He grasped it in both his own.

"What does that mean, dear? May I--may I have the rest of you?"

It was only a tiny nod she gave, this strange girl, Roberta, who had been so afraid of love, and was so afraid of it yet. And as if he understood and appreciated her fear, he was very gentle with her. His arms came about her as they might have come about a frightened child, and drew her away from the pillar with a tender insistence which all at once produced an extraordinary effect. When she found that she was not to be seized with that devastating grasp of possession which she had dreaded, she was suddenly moved to desire it. His humbleness touched and melted her--his humbleness, in him who had been at first so arrogant--and with the first exquisite rush of response she was taken out of herself. She gave herself to his embrace as one who welcomes it, and let him have his way--all his way--a way in which he quite forgot to be gentle at all.

When this had happened, Roberta remembered, entirely too late, that it was this which, whatever else she gave him, she had meant to refuse him--at least until to-morrow. Because to-day was undeniably the twenty-fourth of June--Midsummer's Day!