An Invitation Given on Impulse by Lucy Maud Montgomery
It was a gloomy Saturday morning. The trees in the Oaklawn grounds were tossing wildly in the gusts of wind, and sodden brown leaves were blown up against the windows of the library, where a score of girls were waiting for the principal to bring the mail in.
The big room echoed with the pleasant sound of girlish voices and low laughter, for in a fortnight school would close for the holidays, and they were all talking about their plans and anticipations.
Only Ruth Mannering was, as usual, sitting by herself near one of the windows, looking out on the misty lawn. She was a pale, slender girl, with a sad face, and was dressed in rather shabby black. She had no special friend at Oaklawn, and the other girls did not know much about her. If they had thought about it at all, they would probably have decided that they did not like her; but for the most part they simply overlooked her.
This was not altogether their fault. Ruth was poor and apparently friendless, but it was not her poverty that was against her. Lou Scott, who was "as poor as a church mouse," to quote her own frank admission, was the most popular girl in the seminary, the boon companion of the richest girls, and in demand with everybody. But Lou was jolly and frank and offhanded, while Ruth was painfully shy and reserved, and that was the secret of the whole matter.
There was "no fun in her," the girls said, and so it came about that she was left out of their social life, and was almost as solitary at Oaklawn as if she had been the only girl there. She was there for the special purpose of studying music, and expected to earn her own living by teaching it when she left. She believed that the girls looked down on her on this account; this was unjust, of course, but Ruth had no idea how much her own coldness and reserve had worked against her.
Across the room Carol Golden was, as usual, the centre of an animated group; Golden Carol as her particular friends sometimes called her, partly because of her beautiful voice, and partly because of her wonderful fleece of golden hair. Carol was one of the seminary pets, and seemed to Ruth Mannering to have everything that she had not.
Presently the mail was brought in, and there was a rush to the table, followed by exclamations of satisfaction or disappointment. In a few minutes the room was almost deserted. Only two girls remained: Carol Golden, who had dropped into a big chair to read her many letters; and Ruth Mannering, who had not received any and had gone silently back to her part of the window.
Presently Carol gave a little cry of delight. Her mother had written that she might invite any friend she wished home with her to spend the holidays. Carol had asked for this permission, and now that it had come was ready to dance for joy. As to whom she would ask, there could be only one answer to that. Of course it must be her particular friend, Maud Russell, who was the cleverest and prettiest girl at Oaklawn, at least so her admirers said. She was undoubtedly the richest, and was the acknowledged "leader." The girls affectionately called her "Princess," and Carol adored her with that romantic affection that is found only among school girls. She knew, too, that Maud would surely accept her invitation because she did not intend to go home. Her parents were travelling in Europe, and she expected to spend her holidays with some cousins, who were almost strangers to her.
Carol was so much pleased that she felt as if she must talk to somebody, so she turned to Ruth.
"Isn't it delightful to think that we'll all be going home in a fortnight?"
"Yes, very--for those that have homes to go to," said Ruth drearily.
Carol felt a quick pang of pity and self-reproach. "Haven't you?" she asked.
Ruth shook her head. In spite of herself, the kindness of Carol's tone brought the tears to her eyes.
"My mother died a year ago," she said in a trembling voice, "and since then I have had no real home. We were quite alone in the world, Mother and I, and now I have nobody."
"Oh, I'm so sorry for you," cried Carol impulsively. She leaned forward and took Ruth's hand in a gentle way. "And do you mean to say that you'll have to stay here all through the holidays? Why, it will be horrid."
"Oh, I shall not mind it much," said Ruth quickly, "with study and practice most of the time. Only now, when everyone is talking about it, it makes me wish that I had some place to go."
Carol dropped Ruth's hand suddenly in the shock of a sudden idea that darted into her mind.
A stray girl passing through the hall called out, "Ruth, Miss Siviter wishes to see you about something in Room C."
Ruth got up quickly. She was glad to get away, for it seemed to her that in another minute she would break down altogether.
Carol Golden hardly noticed her departure. She gathered up her letters and went abstractedly to her room, unheeding a gay call for "Golden Carol" from a group of girls in the corridor. Maud Russell was not in and Carol was glad. She wanted to be alone and fight down that sudden idea.
"It is ridiculous to think of it," she said aloud, with a petulance very unusual in Golden Carol, whose disposition was as sunny as her looks. "Why, I simply cannot. I have always been longing to ask Maud to visit me, and now that the chance has come I am not going to throw it away. I am very sorry for Ruth, of course. It must be dreadful to be all alone like that. But it isn't my fault. And she is so fearfully quiet and dowdy--what would they all think of her at home? Frank and Jack would make such fun of her. I shall ask Maud just as soon as she comes in."
Maud did come in presently, but Carol did not give her the invitation. Instead, she was almost snappish to her idol, and the Princess soon went out again in something of a huff.
"Oh, dear," cried Carol, "now I've offended her. What has got into me? What a disagreeable thing a conscience is, although I'm sure I don't know why mine should be prodding me so! I don't want to invite Ruth Mannering home with me for the holidays, but I feel exactly as if I should not have a minute's peace of mind all the time if I didn't. Mother would think it all right, of course. She would not mind if Ruth dressed in calico and never said anything but yes and no. But how the boys would laugh! I simply won't do it, conscience or no conscience."
In view of this decision it was rather strange that the next morning, Carol Golden went down to Ruth Mannering's lonely little room on Corridor Two and said, "Ruth, will you go home with me for the holidays? Mother wrote me to invite anyone I wished to. Don't say you can't come, dear, because you must."
Carol never, as long as she lived, forgot Ruth's face at that moment.
"It was absolutely transfigured," she said afterwards. "I never saw anyone look so happy in my life."
* * * * *
A fortnight later unwonted silence reigned at Oaklawn. The girls were scattered far and wide, and Ruth Mannering and Carol Golden were at the latter's home.
Carol was a very much surprised girl. Under the influence of kindness and pleasure Ruth seemed transformed into a different person. Her shyness and reserve melted away in the sunny atmosphere of the Golden home. Mrs. Golden took her into her motherly heart at once; and as for Frank and Jack, whose verdict Carol had so dreaded, they voted Ruth "splendid." She certainly got along very well with them; and if she did not make the social sensation that pretty Maud Russell might have made, the Goldens all liked her and Carol was content.
"Just four days more," sighed Carol one afternoon, "and then we must go back to Oaklawn. Can you realize it, Ruth?"
Ruth looked up from her book with a smile. Even in appearance she had changed. There was a faint pink in her cheeks and a merry light in her eyes.
"I shall not be sorry to go back to work," she said. "I feel just like it because I have had so pleasant a time here that it has heartened me up for next term. I think it will be very different from last. I begin to see that I kept to myself too much and brooded over fancied slights."
"And then you are to room with me since Maud is not coming back," said Carol. "What fun we shall have. Did you ever toast marshmallows over the gas? Why, I declare, there is Mr. Swift coming up the walk. Look, Ruth! He is the richest man in Westleigh."
Ruth peeped out of the window over Carol's shoulder.
"He reminds me of somebody," she said absently, "but I can't think who it is. Of course, I have never seen him before. What a good face he has!"
"He is as good as he looks," said Carol, enthusiastically. "Next to Father, Mr. Swift is the nicest man in the world. I have always been quite a pet of his. His wife is dead, and so is his only daughter. She was a lovely girl and died only two years ago. It nearly broke Mr. Swift's heart. And he has lived alone ever since in that great big house up at the head of Warner Street, the one you admired so, Ruth, the last time we were uptown. There's the bell for the second time, Mary can't have heard it. I'll go myself."
As Carol showed the caller into the room, Ruth rose to leave and thus came face to face with him. Mr. Swift started perceptibly.
"Mr. Swift, this is my school friend, Miss Mannering," said Carol.
Mr. Swift seemed strangely agitated as he took Ruth's timidly offered hand.
"My dear young lady," he said hurriedly, "I am going to ask you what may seem a very strange question. What was your mother's name?"
"Agnes Hastings," answered Ruth in surprise. And then Carol really thought that Mr. Swift had gone crazy, for he drew Ruth into his arms and kissed her.
"I knew it," he said. "I was sure you were Agnes' daughter, for you are the living image of what she was when I last saw her. Child, you don't know me, but I am your Uncle Robert. Your mother was my half-sister."
"Oh, Mr. Swift!" cried Carol, and then she ran for her mother.
Ruth turned pale and dropped into a chair, and Mr. Swift sat down beside her.
"To think that I have found you at last, child. How puzzled you look. Did your mother never speak of me? How is she? Where is she?"
"Mother died last year," said Ruth.
"Poor Agnes! And I never knew! Don't cry, little girl. I want you to tell me all about it. She was much younger than I was, and when our mother died my stepfather went away and took her with him. I remained with my father's people and eventually lost all trace of my sister. I was a poor boy then, but things have looked up with me and I have often tried to find her."
By this time Carol had returned with her father and mother, and there was a scene--laughing, crying, explaining--and I don't really know which of the two girls was the more excited, Carol or Ruth. As for Mr. Swift, he was overjoyed to find his niece and wanted to carry her off with him then and there, but Mrs. Golden insisted on her finishing her visit. When the question of returning to Oaklawn came up, Mr. Swift would not hear of it at first, but finally yielded to Carol's entreaties and Ruth's own desire.
"I shall graduate next year, Uncle, and then I can come back to you for good."
That evening when Ruth was alone in her room, trying to collect her thoughts and realize that the home and love that she had so craved were really to be hers at last, Golden Carol was with her mother in the room below, talking it all over.
"Just think, Mother, if I had not asked Ruth to come here, this would not have happened. And I didn't want to, I wanted to ask Maud so much, and I was dreadfully disappointed when I couldn't--for I really couldn't. I could not help remembering the look in Ruth's eyes when she said that she had no home to go to, and so I asked her instead of Maud. How dreadful it would have been if I hadn't."