Chapter XXV. A Stout Little Cabin
 

Christmas morning! and the bells in St. Luke's pealing the great old hymn, dear for scores of years to those who had heard it chiming from the ivy-grown towers--"Adeste, Fideles."

"Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!"

Joyful and triumphant, indeed, though yet subdued and humble, since this paradox may be at times in human hearts, was Richard Kendrick, as he stood waiting in the vestibule of St. Luke's, on Christmas morning, for a tryst he had made. Not with Roberta, for it was not possible for her to be present to-day, but with Ruth Gray, that young sister who had become so like a sister by blood to Richard that, at her suggestion, it had seemed to him the happiest thing in the world to go to church with her on Christmas morning--the morning of the day which was to see his marriage.

The Gray homestead was full of wedding guests, the usual family guests of the Christmas house-party. On the evening before had occurred the Christmas dance, and Richard had led the festivities, with his bride-elect at his side. It had been a glorious merry-making and his pulses had thrilled wildly to the rapture of it. But to-day--to-day was another story.

A slender young figure, in brown velvet with a tiny twig of holly perched among furry trimmings, hurried up the steps and into the vestibule. Richard met Ruth halfway, his face alight, his hand clasping hers eagerly.

"I'm so sorry I am late," she whispered. "Oh, it's so fine of you to come. Isn't it a lovely, lovely way to begin this Day--your and Rob's day, too?"

He nodded, smiling down at her with eyes full of brotherly affection for a most lovable girl. He followed her into the church and took his place beside her, feeling that he would rather be here, just now, than anywhere in the world.

It must be admitted that he hardly heard the service, except for the music, which was of a sort to make its own way into the most abstracted consciousness. But the quiet spirit of the place had its effect upon him, and when he knelt beside Ruth it seemed the most natural thing in the world to form a prayer in his heart that he might be a fit husband for the wife he was so soon to take to himself. Once, during a long period of kneeling, Ruth's hand slipped shyly into his, and he held it fast, with a quickening perception of what it meant to have a pure young spirit like hers beside him in this sacred hour. His soul was full of high resolve to be a son and brother to this rare family into which he was entering such as might do them honour. For it was a very significant fact that to him the people who stood nearest to Roberta were of great consequence; and that a source of extraordinary satisfaction to him, from the first, had been his connection with a family which seemed to him ideal, and association with which made up to him for much of which his life had been empty.

A proof of this had been his invitation, through his grandfather, who had warmly seconded his wish, to Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Gray, to come and stay with the Kendricks throughout this Christmas party, precisely as they had done the year before. To have Aunt Ruth preside at breakfast on this auspicious morning had given Richard the greatest pleasure, and the kiss he had bestowed upon her had been one which she recognized as very like the tribute of a son. From her side he had gone to St. Luke's.

"Good-bye, dear, for a few hours," he whispered to Ruth, as he put her into the brougham, driven by the old family coachman, in which she had come alone to church. "When I see you next I'll be almost your brother. And in just a few minutes after that--"

"Oh, Richard--are you happy?" she whispered back, scanning his face with brimming eyes.

"So happy I can't tell even you. Give my love, my dearest love, to--"

"I will--" as he paused on the name, as if he could not speak it just then. "She was so glad to have us go to church together. She wanted to come herself--so much."

He pressed the small gloved hand held out to him. He knew that Ruth idealized him far beyond his worth--he could read it in her gaze, which was all but reverential. He said to himself, as he turned away, that a man never had so many motives to be true to the girl he was to marry. To bring the first shade of distrust into this little sister's tender eyes would be punishment enough for any disloyalty, no matter what the cause might be.

The wedding was to be at six o'clock. There was nothing about the whole affair, as it had been planned by Roberta, with his full assent, to make it resemble any event of the sort in which he had ever taken part. Not one consideration of custom or of vogue had had weight with her, if it differed from her carefully wrought-out views of what should be. Her ruling idea had been to make it all as simple and sincere as possible, to invite no guests outside her large family and his small one except such personal friends as were peculiarly dear to both. When Richard had been asked to submit his list of these, he had been taken aback to find how pitifully few people he could put upon it. Half a dozen college classmates, a small number of fellow clubmen--these painstakingly considered from more than one standpoint--the Cartwrights, his cousins, whom he really knew but indifferently well; two score easily covered the number of those whom by any stretch of the imagination he could call friends. The long roll of his fashionable acquaintance he dismissed as out of the question. If he had been married in church there would have been several hundreds of these who must unquestionably have been bidden; but since Roberta wanted as she put it, "only those who truly care for us," he could but choose those who seemed to come somewhere near that ideal. To be quite honest, he was aware that his real friends were among those who could not be bidden to his marriage. The crippled children in the hospitals; the suffering poor who would send him their blessing when they read in to-morrow's paper that he was married; the shop-people in Eastman who knew him for the kindest employer they had ever had:--these were they who "truly cared"; and the knowledge was warm at his heart, as with a ruthless hand he scored off names of the mighty in the world of society and finance.

"Dick, my boy, you've grown--you've grown!" was his grandfather's comment, when Richard, with a rueful laugh, had shown the old man the finished list, upon which, well toward the top, had been the names of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Carson. Of Hugh Benson, as best man, Matthew Kendrick heartily approved. "You've chosen the nugget of pure gold, Dick," he said, "where you might have been expected to take one with considerable alloy. He's worth all the others put together."

Richard had never realized this more thoroughly than when, on Christmas afternoon, he invited Benson to drive with him for a last inspection of a certain spot which had been prepared for the reception of the bridal pair at the first stage of their journey. He could not, as Hugh took his place beside him and the two whirled away down the frost-covered avenue, imagine asking any other man in the world to go with him on such a visit. There was no other man he knew who would not have made it the occasion for more or less distasteful raillery; but Hugh Benson was of the rarely few, he felt, who would understand what that "stout little cabin" meant to him.

They came upon it presently, standing bleak and bare as to exterior upon its hilltop, with only a streaming pillar of smoke from its big chimney to suggest that it might be habitable within. But when the heavy door was thrown open, an interior of warmth and comfort presented itself such as brought an exclamation of wonder from the guest, and made Richard's eyes shine with satisfaction.

The long, low room had been furnished simply but fittingly with such hangings, rugs, and few articles of furniture as should suggest home-likeness and service. Before the wide hearth stood two big winged chairs, and a set of bookshelves was filled with a carefully chosen collection of favourite books. The colourings were warm but harmonious, and upon a heavy table, now covered with a rich, dull red cloth, stood a lamp of generous proportions and beauty of design.

"I've tried to steer a line between luxury and austerity," Richard explained, as Hugh looked about him with pleased observation. "We shall not be equipped for real roughing it--not this time, though sometimes we may like to come here dressed as hunters and try living on bare boards. I just wanted it to seem like a bit of home, when she comes in to-night. There'll be some flowers here then, of course--lots of them, and that ought to give it the last touch. There are always flowers in her home, bowls of them, everywhere--it was one of the first things I noticed. Do you think she will like it here?" he ended, with a hint of almost boyish diffidence in his tone.

"Like it? It's wonderful. I never heard of anything so--so--all it should be for--a girl like her," Hugh exclaimed, lamely enough, yet with a certain eloquence of inflection which meant more than his choice of words. He turned to Richard. "I can't tell you," he went on, flushing with the effort to convey to his friend his deep feeling, "how fortunate I think you are, and how I hope--oh, I hope you and she will be--the happiest people in the world!"

"I'm sure you hope that, old fellow," Richard answered, more touched by this difficult voicing of what he knew to be Hugh's genuine devotion than he should have been by the most felicitous phrasing of another's congratulations. "And I can tell you this. There's nobody else I know whom I would have brought here to see my preparations--nobody else who would have understood how I feel about--what I'm doing to-day. I never should have believed it would have seemed so--well, so sacred a thing to take a girl away from all the people who love her, and bring her to a place like this. I wish--wish I were a thousand times more fit for her."

"Rich Kendrick--" Benson was taken out of himself now. His voice was slightly tremulous, but he spoke with less difficulty than before. "You are fitter than you know. You've developed as I never thought any man could in so short a time. I've been watching you and I've seen it. There was always more in you than people gave you credit for--it was your inheritance from a father and grandfather who have meant a great deal in their world. You've found out what you were meant for, and you're coming up to new and finer standards every day. You are fit to take this girl--and that means much, because I know a little of what a--" Now he was floundering again, and his fine, then face flamed more hotly than before--"of what she is!" he ended, with a complete breakdown in the style of his phraseology, but with none at all in the conveyance of his meaning.

Richard flung out his hand, catching Hugh's, and gripping it. "Bless you for a friend and a brother!" he cried, his eyes bright with sudden moisture. "You're another whom I mustn't disappoint. Disappoint? I ought to be flayed alive if I ever forget the people who believe in me--who are trusting me with--Roberta!"

It was a pity she could not have heard him speak her name, have seen the way he looked at his friend as he spoke it, and have seen the way his friend looked back at him. There was a quality in their mentioning of her, here in this place where she was soon to be, which was its own tribute to the young womanhood she so radiantly imaged.

In spite of all these devices to make the hours pass rapidly, they seemed to Richard to crawl. That one came, at last, however, which saw him knocking at the door of his grandfather's suite, dressed for his marriage, and eager to depart. Bidden by Mr. Kendrick's man to enter, he presented himself in the old gentleman's dressing-room, where its occupant, as scrupulously attired as himself, stood ready to descend to the waiting car. Richard closed the door behind him, and stood looking at his grandfather with a smile.

"Well, Dick, boy--ready? Ah, but you look fresh and fine! Clean in body and mind and heart for her--eh? That's how you look, sir--as a man should look--and feel--on his wedding day. Well, she's worth it, Dick--worth the best you can give."

"Worth far better than I can give, grandfather," Richard responded, the glow in his smooth cheek deepening.

"Well, I don't mean to overrate you," said the old man, smiling, "but you seem to me pretty well worth while any girl's taking. Not that you can't become more so--and will, I thoroughly believe. It's not so much what you've done this last year as what you show promise of doing--great promise. That's all one can ask at your age. Ten years later--but we won't go into that. To-night's enough--eh, my dear boy? My dear boy!" he repeated, with a sudden access of tenderness in his voice. Then, as if afraid of emotion for them both, he pressed his grandson's hand and abruptly led the way into the outer room, where Thompson stood waiting with his fur-lined coat and muffler.

From this point on it seemed to Richard more or less like a rapidly shifting series of pictures, all wonderfully coloured. The first was that of the electric light of the big car's interior shining on the faces of Uncle Rufus and Aunt Ruth, on Mr. Kendrick and Hugh Benson--the latter a little pale but quite composed. Hugh had owned that he felt seriously inadequate for the role which was his to-night, being no society man and unaccustomed to taking conspicuous parts anywhere but in business. But Richard had assured him that it was all a very simple matter, since it was just a question of standing by a friend in the crisis of his life! And Hugh had responded that it would be a pity indeed if he were unwilling to do that.

The next picture was that of the wide hall at the Gray home--as he came into it a vivid memory flashed over Richard of his first entrance there--less honoured than to-night! Soft lights shone upon him; the spicy fragrance of the ropes and banks of Christmas "greens," bright with holly, saluted his nostrils; and the glimpse of a great fire burning, quite as usual, on the broad hearth of the living-room--a place which had long since come to typify his ideal of a home--served to make him feel that there could be no spot more suitable for the beginning of a new home, because there could be nothing in the world finer or more beautiful to model it upon.

Nothing seemed afterward clear in his memory until the moment when he came from his room upstairs, with Hugh close behind him, and met the rector of St. Luke's, who was to marry him. There followed a hazy impression of a descent of the staircase, of coming from a detour through the library out into the full lights and of standing interminably facing a large gathering of people, the only face at which he could venture to glance that of Judge Calvin. Gray, standing dignified and stately beside another figure of equal dignity and stateliness--probably that of Mr. Matthew Kendrick. Then, at last--there was Roberta, coming toward him down a silken lane, her eyes fixed on his--such eyes, in such a face! He fixed his own gaze upon it, and held it--and forgot everything else, as he had hoped he should. Then there were the grave words of the clergyman, and his own voice responding--and sounding curiously unlike his own, of course, as the voice of the bridegroom has sounded in his own ears since time began. Then Roberta's--how clearly she spoke, bless her! Then, before he knew it, it was done, and he and she were rising from their knees, and there were smiles and pleasant murmurings all about them--and little Ruth was sobbing softly with her cheek against his!

It was here that he became conscious again of the family--Roberta's family, and of what it meant to have such people as these welcome him into their circle. When he looked into the face of Roberta's mother and felt her tender welcoming kiss upon his lips, his heart beat hard with joy. When Roberta's father, his voice deep with feeling, said to him, "Welcome to our hearts, my son," he could only grasp the firm hand with an answering, passionate pressure which meant that he had at last that which he had consciously or unconsciously longed for all his life. All down the line his overcharged spirit responded to the warmth of their reception of him--Stephen and Rosamond, Louis and Ruth and young Ted, smiling at him, saying the kindest things to him, making him one of them as only those can who are blessed with understanding natures. To be sure, it was all more or less confused in his memory, when he tried to recall it afterward, but enough of it remained vivid to assure him that it had been all he could have asked or hoped--and that it was far, far more than he deserved!

"The boy bears up pretty well, eh?" observed old Matthew Kendrick to his lifelong friend, Judge Calvin Gray, as the two stood aside, having gone through their own part in the greeting of the bridal pair. Mr. Kendrick's hand was still tingling with the wringing grip of his grandson's; his heart was warm with the remembrance of the way Richard's brilliant eyes had looked into his as he had said, low in the old man's ear--"I'm not less yours, grandfather--and she's yours, too." Roberta had put both arms about his neck, whispering: "Indeed I am, dear grandfather--if you'll have me." Well, it had been happiness enough, and it was good to watch them as they went on with their joyous task, knowing that he had a large share in their lives, and would continue to have it.

"Bears up? I should say he did. He looks as if he could assist in steadying the world upon the shoulders of old Atlas," answered Judge Gray happily. "It's a trying position for any man, and some of them only just escape looking craven."

"The man who could stand beside that young woman and look craven would deserve to be hamstrung," was the other's verdict. "Cal, she's enough to turn an old man's head; we can't wonder that a young one's is swimming. And the best of it is that it isn't all looks, it's real beauty to the core. She's rich in the qualities that stand wear in a wearing world--and her goodness isn't the sort that will ever pall on her husband. She'll keep him guessing to the end of time, but the answer will always give him fresh delight in her."

"You analyze her well," admitted Roberta's uncle. "But that's to be expected of a man who's been a pastmaster all his life in understanding and dealing with human nature."

"When it was not too near me, Cal. When it came to the dearest thing I had in the world, I made a mistake with it. It was only when the boy came under this roof that he received the stimulus that has made him what he is. That was sure to tell in the end."

"Ah, but he had your blood in him," declared Calvin Gray heartily.

Thus, all about them, in many quarters, were the young pair affectionately discussed. Not the least eloquent in their praise were the youngest members of the company.

"I say, but I'm proud of my new brother," declared Ted Gray, the picture of youthful elegance, with every hair in place, and a white rose on the lapel of his short evening-jacket. He was playing escort to the prettiest of his girl cousins. "Isn't he a stunner to-night?"

"He always was--that is, since I've known him," responded Esther, Uncle Philip's daughter. "I can't help laughing when I think of the Christmas party last year, and how Rob made us all think he was a poor young man, and she didn't like him at all. All of us girls thought she was so queer not to want to dance with him, when he was so handsome and danced so beautifully. I suppose she was just pretending she didn't care for him."

"Nobody ever'll know when Rob did change her mind about him," Ted assured her. "She can make you think black's green when she wants to."

"Isn't she perfectly wonderful to-night?" sighed the pretty cousin, with a glance from her own home-made frock--in which, however, she looked like a freshly picked rose--to Roberta's bridal gown, shimmering through mistiness, simplicity itself, yet, as the little cousin well knew, the product of such art as she herself might never hope to command. "I always thought she was perfectly beautiful, but she's absolutely fascinating to-night."

"Tell that to Rich. I'm afraid he doesn't appreciate her," laughed Ted, indicating his new brother-in-law, who, at the moment being temporarily unemployed, was to be observed following his bride with his eyes with a wistful gaze indicating helplessness without her even for a fraction of time.

Roberta had been drawn a little away by her husband's best man, who had something to tell her which he had reserved for this hour.

"Mrs. Kendrick," he was beginning--at which he was bidden to remember that he had known the girl Roberta for many years; and so began again, smiling with gratitude:

"Roberta, have you any idea what is happening in Eastman to-night?"

"Indeed I haven't, Hugh. Anything I ought to know of?"

"I think it's time you did. Every employee in our store is sitting down to a great dinner, served by a caterer from this city, with a Christmas favour at every plate. The place cards have a K and G on them in monogram. There are such flowers for decorations as most of those people never saw. I don't need to tell you whose doing this is."

He had the reward he had anticipated for the telling of this news--Roberta's cheek coloured richly, and her eyes fell for a moment to hide the surprise and happiness in them.

"That may seem like enough," he went on gently, "but it wasn't enough for him. At every children's hospital in this city, and in every children's ward, there is a Christmas tree to-night, loaded with gifts. And I want you to know that, busy as he has been until to-day, he picked out every gift himself, and wrote the name on the card with his own hand."

It was too much to tell her all at once, and he knew it when he saw her eyes fill, though she smiled through the shining tears as she murmured:

"And he didn't tell me!"

"No, nor meant to. When I remonstrated with him he said you might think it a posing to impress you, whereas it simply meant the overflow of his own happiness. He said if he didn't have some such outlet he should burst with the pressure of it!"

Her moved laughter provided some sort of outlet for her own pressure of feeling about these tidings. When she had recovered control of herself she turned to glance toward her husband, and Hugh's heart stirred within him at the starry radiance of that look, which she could not veil successfully from him, who knew the cause of it.

It was the Alfred Carsons who came to her last; the young manager beaming with pleasure in the honour done him by his invitation to this family wedding, to which the great of the city were mostly intentionally unbidden; his pretty young wife, in effective modishness of attire by no means ill-chosen, glowing with pride and rosy with the effort to comport herself in keeping with the standards of these "democratically aristocratic" people, as her husband had shrewdly characterized them. As they stood talking with the bride, two of Richard's friends standing near by, former close associates in the life of the clubs he was now too busy to pursue, exchanged a brief colloquy which would mightily have interested the subject of it if he could have heard it.

"Who are these?" demanded one of the other, gazing elsewhere as he spoke.

"Partner or manager or something, in that business of Rich's up in Eastman. So Belden Lorimer says."

"Bright looking chap--might be anybody, except for the wife. A bit too conscious, she."

"You might not notice that except in contrast with the new Mrs. Kendrick. There's the real thing, yes? Rich knew what he was doing when he picked her out."

"Undoubtedly he did. The whole family's pretty fine--not the usual sort. Watch Mrs. Clifford Cartwright. Even she's impressed. Odd, eh?--with all the country cousins about, too."

"I know. It's in the air. And of course everybody knows the family blood is of the bluest. Unostentatious but sure of itself. The Cartwrights couldn't get that air, not in a thousand years."

"Rich himself has it, though--and the grandfather."

"True enough. I'm wondering which class we belong in!"

The two laughed and moved closer. Neither could afford to miss a chance of observing their old friend under these new conditions, for he had been a subject of their speculations ever since the change in him had begun. And though they had deplored the loss of him from their favourite haunts, they had been some time since forced to admit that he had never been so well worth knowing as now that he was virtually lost to them.

"Oh, Robby, darling--I can never, never let you go!"

So softly wailed Ruth, her slim young form clinging to her sister's, regardless of her bridesmaid's crushed finery, daintily cherished till this moment. Over her head Roberta's eyes looked into her mother's. There were no tears in the fine eyes which met hers, but somehow Roberta knew that Ruth's heartache was a tiny pain beside that other's.

Richard, looking on, standing ready to take his bride away, wondered once more within himself how he could have the heart to do it. But it was done, and he and Roberta were off together down the steps; and he was putting her into Mr. Kendrick's closed car; and she was leaning past him to wave and wave again at the dear faces on the porch. Under the lights here and there one stood out more clearly than the rest--Louis's, flushed and virile; Rosamond's, lovely as a child's; old Mr. Kendrick's, intent and grave, forgetting to smile. The father and the mother were in the shadow--but little Gordon, Stephen's boy, made of himself a central figure by running forward at the last to fling up a sturdy arm and cry:

"Good-bye, Auntie Wob--come back soon!"

It had been a white Christmas, and the snow had fallen lightly all day long. It was coming faster now, and the wind was rising, to Richard's intense satisfaction. He had been fairly praying for a gale, improbable though that seemed. There was a considerable semblance of a storm, however, through which to drive the twelve miles to the waiting cabin on the hilltop, and when the car stopped and the door was opened, a heavy gust came swirling in. The absence of lights everywhere made the darkness seem blacker, out here in the country, and the general effect of outer desolation was as near this strange young man's desire as could have been hoped.

"Good driving, Rogers. It was a quick trip, in spite of the heavy roads at the last. Thank you--and good-night."

"Thank you, sir. Good-night, Mr. Kendrick--and Mrs. Kendrick, if I may."

"Good-night, Rogers," called the voice Rogers had learned greatly to admire, and he saw her face smiling at him as the lights of the car streamed out upon it.

Then the great car was gone, and Richard was throwing open the door of the cabin, letting all the warmth and glow and fragrance of the snug interior greet his bride, as he led her in and shut the door with a resounding force against the winter night and storm.

It had been a dream of his that he should put her into one of the big, cushioned, winged chairs, and take his own place on the hearth-rug at her feet. Together they should sit and look into the fire, and be as silent or as full of happy speech as might seem to befit the hour. Now, when he had bereft her of her furry wraps and welcomed her as he saw fit, he made his dream come true. He told her of it as he put her in her chair, and saw her lean back against the comfortable cushioning with a long breath of inevitable weariness after many hours of tension.

"And you wondered which it would be, speech or silence?" queried Roberta, as he took that place he had meant to take, at her knee, and looked up, smiling, into her down-bent face.

"I did wonder, but I don't wonder now. I know. There aren't any words, are there?"

"No," she answered, looking now into the fire, yet seeing, as clearly as before, his fine and ardent, yet reverent face, "I think there are no words."