Chapter XXIV. The Pillars of Home
 

"Listen, grandfather--they're playing! We'll catch them at it. Here's an open window."

Matthew Kendrick followed his grandson across the wide porch to a French window opening into the living-room of the Gray home, at the opposite end from that where stood the piano, and from which the strains of 'cello and harp were proceeding. The two advanced cautiously to take up their position just within that far window, gazing down the room at the pair at the other end.

Roberta, in hot-weather white, with a bunch of blue corn-flowers thrust into her girdle, sat with her 'cello at her knee, her dark head bent as she played. Ruth, a gay little figure in pink, was fingering her harp, and the poignantly rich harmonies of Saint-Saeens' Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix were filling the room. Upon the great piano stood an enormous bowl of summer bloom; the air was fragrant with the breath of it. The room was as cool and fresh with its summer draperies and shaded windows as if it were not fervid July weather outside.

Richard flung one exulting glance at his grandfather, for the sight was one to please the eyes of any man even if he had no such interest in the performers as these two had. The elder man smiled, for he was very happy in these days, happier than he had been for a quarter of a century.

The music ceased with the last slow harp-tones, the 'cello's earlier upflung bow waving in a gesture of triumph.

"Splendid, Rufus!" she commended. "You never did it half so well."

"She never did," agreed a familiar voice from the other end of the room, and the sisters turned with a start. Richard advanced down the room, Mr. Kendrick following more slowly.

"You look as cool as a pond-lily, love," said Richard, "in spite of this July weather." His approving eyes regarded Roberta's cheek at close range. "Is it as cool as it looks?" he inquired, and placed his own cheek against it for an instant, regardless of the others present.

Roberta laid her hand in Mr. Kendrick's, and the old man raised it to his lips, in a stately fashion he sometimes used.

"That was very beautiful music you were making," he said. "It seems a pity to bring it to an end. Richard and I want you for a little drive, to show you something which interests us very much. Will you go--and will Ruth go, too?"

"Oh, do you really want me?" cried Ruth eagerly.

"Of course we want you, little sister," Richard told her.

"I'll get our hats," offered Ruth, and was off.

So presently the four had taken their places in Mr. Kendrick's car, its windows open, its luxurious winter cushioning covered with dust-proof, cool-feeling materials. Richard sat opposite Roberta, and it was easy for her to see by the peculiar light in his eyes that there was something afoot which was giving him more than ordinary joy in her companionship. His lips could hardly keep themselves in order, the tones of his voice were vibrant, his glance would have met hers every other minute if she would have allowed it.

The car rolled along a certain aristocratic boulevard leading out of the city, past one stately residence after another. As the distance became greater from the centre of affairs, the places took on a more and more comfortable aspect, with less majesty of outline, and more home-likeness. Surrounding grounds grew more extensive, the houses themselves lower spreading and more picturesque. It was a favourite drive, but there were comparatively few abroad on this July morning. Nearly every residence was closed, and the inhabitants away, though the beauty of the environment was as carefully preserved as if the owners were there to observe and enjoy.

"We're the only people in the city this summer," observed Richard, "except ninety-nine-hundredths of the population, which fails to count, of course, in the eyes of these residents. Curious custom, isn't it? to close such homes as these, just when they're at their most attractive, and go off to a country house. They'd be twice as comfortable at home, in this weather--just as we are. And this is the first summer I ever tried it! Robin, that's a pleasant place, isn't it?"

He indicated one of the houses they were passing, an unusually interesting combination of wood and stone, half hidden beneath spreading vines.

"Yes, that's charming," she agreed. "And I like the next even better, don't you?"

The next was of a different style entirely, less ambitious and more friendly of appearance, with long reaches of porch and pergola, and more than usually well-arranged masses of shrubbery enhancing the whole effect of withdrawal from the public gaze.

"I do, I think, for some reasons. You choose the least pretentious houses, every time, don't you? Don't care a bit for show places?"

"Not a bit," owned the girl.

"Here's one, now," Richard pointed it out. "The owner spent a lot of money on that. Would you live in it?"

"Not--willingly."

Richard glanced at his grandfather. "I wonder just how much she would suffer," he suggested, with sparkling eyes. "Suppose we should drive in there and tell her we'd bought it!"

Mr. Kendrick turned to the figure in white at his side. The eyes of the old man and the young woman met with understanding, and the two smiled affectionately before the meeting was over. Richard looked on approvingly. But he complained.

"I'd like one like that, myself," said he. "Robin has looked at me only three times this morning, and once was when we met, for purposes of identification!"

He had a glance of his own, then, and apparently it went to his head, for he became more animated than ever in calling the party's attention to each piece, of property passed by.

"These are all modern," he commented presently. "There's something about your really old house that can't be copied. Your own home, Robin--that's the type of antique beauty that's come to seem to me more desirable than any other. Isn't there one along here somewhere that reminds one of it?"

"There's the General Armitage place," Roberta said. "That must be close by, now. It used to be far out in the country. It was built by the same architect who built ours. General Armitage and my great-grandfather were intimate friends--they were in the Civil War together."

"Here it is." Ruth pointed it out eagerly. "I always like to go by it, because it looks quite a little like ours, only the grounds are much larger, and it has a wonderful old garden behind it. Mother has often said she wished she could transplant the Armitage garden bodily, now that the house has been closed so long. She says the old gardener is still here, and looks after the garden--or his grandsons do."

"Shall we drive in and see it?" proposed Richard. "A garden like that ought to have some one to admire it now and then."

He gave the order, and the car rolled in through the old stone gateway. The place, though of a noble old type, was far from a pretentious one, and there was no lodge at the gate, as with most of its neighbours. The house was no larger than the comfortable home of the Gray family, but its closed blinds and empty white-pillared portico gave it a deserted air. The grounds about it were not indicative of present day, fastidious landscape gardening, but suggested an old-time country gentleman's estate, sufficiently kept up to prevent wild and alien growth, though needing the supervision of an interested owner to suggest beneficial changes here and there.

"It's a beautiful old place, isn't it?" Richard looked to Roberta for confirmation, and saw it in her kindling eyes.

"It has always been our whole family's ideal of a home," she said. "Ours is so much nearer the centre of things, we haven't the acres we should like, and whenever we have driven past this place we have looked longingly at it. Since General and Mrs. Armitage died, and their family became scattered, father has often said that he was watching anxiously to see it come on the market, for there was no place he more coveted the right ownership for, even though he couldn't think of living here himself. It seems such a pity when homes like this go to people who don't appreciate them, and alter and spoil them."

"So it does," agreed Richard, and now he had much ado to keep his soaring spirits from betraying the happy secret which he saw his betrothed did not remotely suspect. He knew she expected to dwell hereafter in the "stone pile" which had been the home of the Kendricks for many years, and she had never by a word or look made him feel that such a prospect tried her spirit. That it was not to her a wholly happy prospect he had divined, as he might have divined that a wild bird would not be happy in a cage, nor a deer in a close corral.

"Oh, the garden!" breathed Roberta, and clasped her hands with an unconscious gesture of pleasure, as the car swept round the house and past the tall box borders of what was, indeed, such an old-time memorial, tended by faithful and loving hands, as must stir the interest of any admirer of the stately conceptions of an earlier day. A bowed figure, at work in a great bed of rosy phlox, straightened painfully as the car stopped, and the visitors looked into the seamed, tanned face of the presiding spirit of the place, the old gardener who had served General Armitage all his life.

All four alighted, and walked through the winding paths, talked with old Symonds, and studied the charming spot with growing delight. Richard, managing to get Roberta to himself for a brief space, eagerly questioned her.

"You find this prettier than any picture in any gallery, don't you?"

"Oh, it has great charm for me. I can hardly express the curious content it gives me, to wander about such an old garden. The fragrance of the box is particularly pleasant to me, and I love the old-fashioned flowers better than any of the wonders the modern gardeners show. Just look at that mass of larkspur--did you ever see such a satisfying blue?"

"I have. The first time I came to your house to dinner you wore blue, the softest, richest blue imaginable, and you sat where the shaded light made a picture of you I shall never forget. I've never seen that peculiar blue since without thinking of you. It's one of the shades of that larkspur, isn't it?"

"I made fun of you, afterward, for telling Rosy you noticed the colours we wore," confessed Roberta, with a mischievous glance.

"You did--you rascal! Look up at me a minute--please. The blue of your eyes, with those black lashes, is another larkspur shade, in this light. I've called it sea-blue. Rob--dearest--the nights I've dreamed about those eyes of yours!"

He got no further chance to observe them just then, as he might have expected, for Roberta immediately turned their light on the garden and away from his worshipful regard. She engaged the old gardener in conversation, and made his dull gaze brighten with her praise. Meanwhile Richard went off to the house, and presently returning, drew his party into a group and put a question, striving to maintain an appearance of indifference.

"It occurred to me you might care to look into the house itself. It's rather interesting inside, I believe. There seems to be a caretaker there, and she says we may come in. She'll meet us at the front. Shall we take a minute to do it?"

"I should like it very much," agreed Roberta promptly. "I've heard mother speak of the fine old hall with its staircase--a different type from ours, and very interesting."

"There certainly is a remarkable attraction to me in this place," said Matthew Kendrick, walking beside Roberta with hands clasped behind his back and head well up. "It has a homelike look, in spite of its deserted state, which appeals to me. I wonder that the remnant of the family does not care to retain it."

"I hear the remnant is all but gone," his grandson informed him, with sober lips but dancing eyes. He was delighted with his grandfather for his assistance in playing the part of the casual observer. He led the way up the steps of the white-pillared portico, and wheeled to see the others ascending. He watched Roberta as she preceded him over the threshold of the opened door.

"Shall I see you coming in that door, you beautiful thing, years and years from now?" he asked her in his heart, and smiled happily to himself.

And now, indeed, old Matthew Kendrick played his part nobly and with skill. When the party had admired the distinction of the hall, and the stately sweep of its staircase, he led Ruth into a room on the left at the same moment that Richard summoned Roberta to look at something he had described in the room on the right. A question drew the caretaker after Mr. Kendrick, senior, and the younger man had the moment he was playing for.

"This fireplace, Robin--isn't it the very counter-part of the one in your own living-room?" He asked it with his hand on the chimney-piece, and his glowing eyes studying hers.

Roberta looked, and nodded delightedly. "It certainly is, only still wider and higher. What a splendid one! And what a room! Oh, how could they leave it? Imagine it furnished, and lived in."

"Imagine it! And a great fire on this hearth. It would take in an immense log, wouldn't it?"

"Poor hearth!" She turned again to it, and her glance sobered. "So cold now, even on a July day, after having been warmed with so many fires."

"Shall we warm it?" He took an eager step toward her. "Shall we build our own home fires upon it?"

Startled, she stared at him, the blue of her eyes growing deep. He smiled into them, his own gleaming with satisfaction.

"Richard! What do you--mean?"

"What I say, darling. Could you be happy here? Should you like it better than the Kendrick house?--gloomy old place that that is!"

"But--your grandfather! We--we couldn't possibly leave him lonely!"

"Bless your kind heart, dear--we couldn't. Shall we make a home for him here?"

"Would he be content?"

"So content that he's only waiting to know that you like it, and he'll tell you so. The plan is this, Robin--if you approve it. Three months of the year grandfather will stay in the old home, the hard, winter months, and if you are willing, we'll stay with him. The rest of the year--here, in our own home. Eh? Do you like it?"

She stood a moment, staring into the empty fireplace, her eyes shining with a sudden hint of most unwonted tears. Then she turned to him.

"Oh, you dear!" she whispered, and was swept into his arms.

"Then you do like it?" he insisted, presently.

"Like it! Oh, I can't tell you. To have such a home as this, so like the old one, yet so wonderful of itself. To make it ours--to put our own individuality into it, yet never hurt it. And that garden! What will mother say? Oh, Richard--I was never so happy in my life!"

He knew that was true of himself, for his heart was full to bursting, with the success of his scheming. They walked the length of the long room, looked out of each window, returned to the fireplace. He held her fast and whispered in her ear:

"Robin, I can see all sorts of things in this room. I saw them the minute I came into it first, a month ago. I've stood here, dreaming, more than once since then. I see ourselves, living here, and--I see--Robin--I see--little figures!"

She nodded, with her face against his breast. He lifted her face, and his lips met hers in such a meeting as they had not yet known. Richard's heart beat hard with the sure knowledge of that which he had only dared before to believe would be true--that his wife would rejoice to be the mother of his children. Not in vain had this young man looked into child faces and brought joy to their eyes; he had learned that life would never be complete without children of his own. And now he knew, certainly, that this woman whom he loved would gladly join her superb young life with his in the bringing of other lives into the world, with their full heritage, and not a drop withheld. It was a wondrous moment.

They went out together, in search of Mr. Kendrick and Ruth, and then the party proceeded over the house. With a word and a fee Richard dismissed the caretaker, and the four were free to talk of their affairs. Ruth was wild with delight at the news; Mr. Kendrick quietly happy at Roberta's words to him, and her clasp of his hand.

"Richard was sure you would be pleased, my dear," he said, "and I myself could not doubt that, brought up in the atmosphere you have been, you must prefer such a home as this, so like your own. And if you would really care to have me here with you, a part of the year, I could but be gratified and contented."

They assured him of their joy at this: they mounted the stairs with him and searched for the apartments which should be his. In spite of his protests they insisted on his occupying those which were obviously the choicest of the house, declaring that nothing could be too good for him. He was deeply touched at their devotion, and they were as glad as he. The time passed rapidly in these momentous affairs.

"I suppose we must be off," admitted Richard reluctantly, discovering the hour. "Robin, how can you bear to leave it so long untenanted? From July to Christmas--what an interminable stretch of time!"

"Not with all you have planned to do," Roberta reminded him. "Think what it will mean to get it all in order."

"I do think what it will mean. Don't I, though! It will mean--shopping with my love, choosing rugs and furniture--and plates and cups, Robin--plates and cups to eat and drink from. The fun of that! Will you help us, Rufus?" He turned, laughing, to the young girl beside him. "Will you come and eat and drink from our plates and cups? Ah, but this is a great old world--yes? you three dear people! And I'm the happiest fellow in it!"

There seemed small doubt that there could be few happier, just then, as standing at the top of his own staircase and gazing down into the wide and empty hall toward the open door which led out upon the white-pillared portico of his home-that-was-to-be, Richard Kendrick flung up one arm, lifting an imaginary cup high in the air, and calling joyously:

"Here's hoping!"