Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
I. The Light in the Window
A rickety carriage was slowly ascending the hill, and from the place of honour on the back seat, the single passenger surveyed the country with interest and admiration. The driver of that ancient chariot was an awkward young fellow, possibly twenty-five years of age, with sharp knees, large, red hands, high cheek-bones, and abundant hair of a shade verging upon orange. He was not unpleasant to look upon, however, for he had a certain evident honesty, and he was disposed to be friendly to every one.
"Be you comfortable, Miss?" he asked, with apparent solicitude.
"Very comfortable, thank you," was the quiet response. He urged his venerable steeds to a gait of about two mles an hour, then turned sideways.
"Be you goin' to stay long, Miss?"
"All Summer, I think."
The young woman smiled in listless amusement, but Joe took it for conversational encouragement. "City folks is dretful bashful when they's away from home," he said to himself. He clucked again to his unheeding horses, shifted his quid, and was casting about for a new topic when a light broke in upon him.
"I guess, now, that you're Miss Hathaway's niece, what's come to stay in her house while she goes gallivantin' and travellin' in furrin parts, be n't you?"
"I am Miss Hathaway's niece, and I have never been here before. Where does she live?"
He flourished the discarded fish-pole which served as a whip, and pointed out a small white house on the brow of the hill. Reflection brought him the conviction that his remark concerning Miss Hathaway was a social mistake, since his passenger sat very straight, and asked no more questions.
The weary wheels creaked, but the collapse which Miss Thorne momentarily expected was mercifully postponed. Being gifted with imagination, she experienced the emotion of a wreck without bodily harm. As in a photograph, she beheld herself suddenly projected into space, followed by her suit case, felt her new hat wrenched from her head, and saw hopeless gravel stains upon the tailored gown which was the pride of her heart. She thought a sprained ankle would be the inevitable outcome of the fall, but was spared the pain of it, for the inability to realise an actual hurt is the redeeming feature of imagination.
Suddenly there was a snort of terror from one of the horses, and the carriage stopped abruptly. Ruth clutched her suit case and umbrella, instantly prepared for the worst; but Joe reassured her.
"Now don't you go and get skeered, Miss," he said, kindly; "'taint nothin' in the world but a rabbit. Mamie can't never get used to rabbits, someways." He indicated one of the horses--a high, raw-boned animal, sketched on a generous plan, whose ribs and joints protruded, and whose rough white coat had been weather-worn to grey.
"Hush now, Mamie," he said; "'taint nothin'."
"Mamie" looked around inquiringly, with one ear erect and the other at an angle. A cataract partially concealed one eye, but in the other was a world of wickedness and knowledge, modified by a certain lady-like reserve.
"G' long, Mamie!"
Ruth laughed as the horse resumed motion in mincing, maidenly steps. "What's the other one's name?" she asked.
"Him? His name's Alfred. Mamie's his mother."
Miss Thorne endeavoured to conceal her amusement and Joe was pleased because the ice was broken. "I change their names every once in a while," he said, "'cause it makes some variety, but now I've named'em about all the names I know."
The road wound upward in its own lazy fashion, and there were trees at the left, though only one or two shaded the hill itself. As they approached the summit, a girl in a blue gingham dress and a neat white apron came out to meet them.
"Come right in, Miss Thorne," she said, "and I'll explain it to you."
Ruth descended, inwardly vowing that she would ride no more in Joe's carriage, and after giving some directions about her trunk, followed her guide indoors.
The storm-beaten house was certainly entitled to the respect accorded to age. It was substantial, but unpretentious in outline, and had not been painted for a long time. The faded green shutters blended harmoniously with the greyish white background, and the piazza, which was evidently an unhappy afterthought of the architect, had two or three new shingles on its roof.
"You see it's this way, Miss Thorne," the maid began, volubly; "Miss Hathaway, she went earlier than she laid out to, on account of the folks decidin' to take a steamer that sailed beforehand--before the other one, I mean. She went in sech a hurry that she didn't have time to send you word and get an answer, but she's left a letter here for you, for she trusted to your comin'."
Miss Thorne laid her hat and jacket aside and settled herself comfortably in a rocker. The maid returned presently with a letter which Miss Hathaway had sealed with half an ounce of red wax, presumably in a laudable effort to remove temptation from the path of the red-cheeked, wholesome, farmer's daughter who stood near by with her hands on her hips.
"Miss Ruth Thorne," the letter began,
"I am writing this in a hurry, as we are going a week before we expected to. I think you will find everything all right. Hepsey will attend to the house-keeping, for I don't suppose you know much about it, coming from the city. She's a good-hearted girl, but she's set in her ways, and you'll have to kinder give in to her, but any time when you can't, just speak to her sharp and she'll do as you tell her.
"I have left money enough for the expenses until I come back, in a little box on the top shelf of the closet in the front room, under a pile of blankets and comfortables. The key that unlocks it is hung on a nail driven into the back of the old bureau in the attic. I believe Hepsey is honest and reliable, but I don't believe in tempting folks.
"When I get anywhere where I can, I will write and send you my address, and then you can tell me how things are going at home. The catnip is hanging from the rafters in the attic, in case you should want some tea, and the sassafras is in the little drawer in the bureau that's got the key hanging behind it.
"If there's anything else you should want, I reckon Hepsey will know where to find it. Hoping that this will find you enjoying the great blessing of good health, I remain,
"Your Affectionate Aunt,
"P. S. You have to keep a lamp burning every night in the east window of the attic. Be careful that nothing catches afire."
The maid was waiting, in fear and trembling, for she did not know what directions her eccentric mistress might have left.
"Everything is all right, Hepsey," said Miss Thorne, pleasantly, "and I think you and I will get along nicely. Did Miss Hathaway tell you what room I was to have?"
"No'm. She told me you was to make yourself at home. She said you could sleep where you pleased."
"Very well, I will go up and see for myself. I would like my tea at six o'clock." She still held the letter in her hand, greatly to the chagrin of Hepsey, who was interested in everything and had counted upon a peep at it. It was not Miss Hathaway's custom to guard her letters and she was both surprised and disappointed.
As Ruth climbed the narrow stairway, the quiet, old-fashioned house brought balm to her tired soul. It was exquisitely clean, redolent of sweet herbs, and in its atmosphere was a subtle, Puritan restraint.
Have not our houses, mute as they are, their own way of conveying an impression? One may go into a house which has been empty for a long time, and yet feel, instinctively, what sort of people were last sheltered there. The silent walls breathe a message to each visitor, and as the footfalls echo in the bare cheerless rooms, one discovers where Sorrow and Trouble had their abode, and where the light, careless laughter of gay Bohemia lingered until dawn. At night, who has not heard ghostly steps upon the stairs, the soft closing of unseen doors, the tapping on a window, and, perchance, a sigh or the sound of tears? Timid souls may shudder and be afraid, but wiser folk smile, with reminiscent tenderness, when the old house dreams.
As she wandered through the tiny, spotless rooms on the second floor of Miss Hathaway's house, Ruth had a sense of security and peace which she had never known before. There were two front rooms, of equal size, looking to the west, and she chose the one on the left, because of its two south windows. There was but one other room, aside from the small one at the end of the hall, which, as she supposed, was Hepsey's.
One of the closets was empty, but on a shelf in the other was a great pile of bedding. She dragged a chair inside, burrowed under the blankets, and found a small wooden box, the contents clinking softly as she drew it toward her.
Holding it under her arm, she ascended the narrow, spiral stairs which led to the attic. At one end, under the eaves, stood an old mahogany dresser. The casters were gone and she moved it with difficulty, but the slanting sunbeams of late afternoon revealed the key, which hung, as her aunt had written, on a nail driven into the back of it.
She knew, without trying, that it would fit the box, but idly turned the lock. As she opened it, a bit of paper fluttered out, and, picking it up, she read in her aunt's cramped, But distinct hand: "Hepsey gets a dollar and a half every week. Don't you pay her no more."
As the house was set some distance back, the east window in the attic was the only one which commanded a view of the sea. A small table, with its legs sawed off, came exactly to the sill, and here stood a lamp, which was a lamp simply, without adornment, and held about a pint of oil.
She read the letter again and, having mastered its contents, tore it into small pieces, with that urban caution which does not come amiss in the rural districts. She understood that every night of her stay she was to light this lamp with her own hands, but why? The varnish on the table, which had once been glaring, was scratched with innumerable rings, where the rough glass had left its mark. Ruth wondered if she were face to face with a mystery.
The seaward side of the hill was a rocky cliff, and between the vegetable garden at the back of the house and the edge of the precipice were a few stumps, well-nigh covered with moss. From her vantage point, she could see the woods which began at the base of the hill, on the north side, and seemed to end at the sea. On the south, there were a few trees near the cliff, but others near them had been cut down.
Still farther south and below the hill was a grassy plain, through which a glistening river wound slowly to the ocean. Willows grew along its margin, tipped with silvery green, and with masses of purple twilight tangled in the bare branches below.
Ruth opened the window and drew a long breath. Her senses had been dulled by the years in the city, but childhood, hidden though not forgotten, came back as if by magic, with that first scent of sea and Spring.
As yet, she had not fully realised how grateful she was for this little time away from her desk and typewriter. The managing editor had promised her the same position, whenever she chose to go back, and there was a little hoard in the savings-bank, which she would not need to touch, owing to the kindness of this eccentric aunt, whom she had never seen.
The large room was a typical attic, with its spinning-wheel and discarded furniture--colonial mahogany that would make many a city matron envious, and for which its owner cared little or nothing. There were chests of drawers, two or three battered trunks, a cedar chest, and countless boxes, of various sizes. Bunches of sweet herbs hung from the rafters, but there were no cobwebs, because of Miss Hathaway's perfect housekeeping.
Ruth regretted the cobwebs and decided not to interfere, should the tiny spinners take advantage of Aunt Jane's absence. She found an old chair which was unsteady on its rockers but not yet depraved enough to betray one's confidence. Moving it to the window, she sat down and looked out at the sea, where the slow boom of the surf came softly from the shore, mingled with the liquid melody of returning breakers.
The first grey of twilight had come upon the world before she thought of going downstairs. A match-safe hung upon the window casing, newly filled, and, mindful of her trust, she lighted the lamp and closed the window. Then a sudden scream from the floor below startled her.
"Miss Thorne! Miss Thorne!" cried a shrill voice. "Come here! Quick!"
White as a sheet, Ruth flew downstairs and met Hepsey in the hall. "What on earth is the matter!" she gasped.
"Joe's come with your trunk," responded that volcanic young woman, amiably; "where'd you want it put?"
"In the south front room," she answered, still frightened, but glad nothing more serious had happened. "You mustn't scream like that."
"Supper's ready," resumed Hepsey, nonchalantly, and Ruth followed her down to the little dining-room.
As she ate, she plied the maid with questions. "Does Miss Hathaway light that lamp in the attic every night?"
"Yes'm. She cleans it and fills it herself, and she puts it out every morning. She don't never let me touch it."
"Why does she keep it there?"
"D' know. She d' know, neither."
"Why, Hepsey, what do you mean? Why does she do it if she doesn't know why she does it?"
"D'know.'Cause she wants to, I reckon."
"She's been gone a week, hasn't she?"
"No'm. Only six days. It'll be a week to-morrer."
Hepsey's remarks were short and jerky, as a rule, and had a certain explosive force.
"Hasn't the lamp been lighted since she went away?"
"Yes'm. I was to do it till you come, and after you got here I was to ask you every night if you'd forgot it."
Ruth smiled because Aunt Jane's old-fashioned exactness lingered in her wake. "Now see here, Hepsey," she began kindly, "I don't know and you don't know, but I'd like to have you tell me what you think about it."
"I d' know, as you say, mum, but I think--" here she lowered her voice--" I think it has something to do with Miss Ainslie."
"Who is Miss Ainslie?"
"She's a peculiar woman, Miss Ainslie is," the girl explained, smoothing her apron, "and she lives down the road a piece, in the valley as, you may say. She don't never go nowheres, Miss Ainslie don't, but folks goes to see her. She's got a funny house--I've been inside of it sometimes when I've been down on errands for Miss Hathaway. She ain't got no figgered wall paper, nor no lace curtains, and she ain't got no rag carpets neither. Her floors is all kinder funny, and she's got heathen things spread down onto'em. Her house is full of heathen things, and sometimes she wears'em."
"Wears what, Hepsey? The'heathen things' in the house?"
"No'm. Other heathen things she's got put away somewheres. She's got money, I guess, but she's got furniture in her parlour that's just like what Miss Hathaway's got set away in the attic. We wouldn't use them kind of things, nohow," she added complacently.
"Does she live all alone?"
"Yes'm. Joe, he does her errands and other folks stops in sometimes, but Miss Ainslie ain't left her front yard for I d' know how long. Some says she's cracked, but she's the best housekeeper round here, and if she hears of anybody that's sick or in trouble, she allers sends'em things. She ain't never been up here, but Miss Hathaway, she goes down there sometimes, and she'n Miss Ainslie swaps cookin' quite regler. I have to go down there with a plate of somethin' Miss Hathaway's made, and Miss Ainslie allers says: 'Wait just a moment, please, Hepsey, I would like to send Miss Hathaway a jar of my preserves.'"
She relapsed unconsciously into imitation of Miss Ainslie's speech. In the few words, softened, and betraying a quaint stateliness, Ruth caught a glimpse of an old-fashioned gentlewoman, reserved and yet gracious.
She folded her napkin, saying: "You make the best biscuits I ever tasted, Hepsey." The girl smiled, but made no reply.
"What makes you think Miss Ainslie has anything to do with the light?" she inquired after a little.
"'Cause there wasn't no light in that winder when I first come--leastways, not as I know of--and after I'd been here a week or so, Miss Hathaway, she come back from there one day looking kinder strange. She didn't say much; but the next mornin' she goes down to town and buys that lamp, and she saws off them table legs herself. Every night since, that light's been a-goin', and she puts it out herself every mornin' before she comes downstairs."
"Perhaps she and Miss Ainslie had been talking of shipwreck, and she thought she would have a little lighthouse of her own," Miss Thorne suggested, when the silence became oppressive.
"P'raps so," rejoined Hepsey. She had become stolid again.
Ruth pushed her chair back and stood at the dining-room window a moment, looking out into the yard. The valley was in shadow, but the last light still lingered on the hill. "What's that, Hepsey?" she asked.
"That--where the evergreen is coming up out of the ground, in the shape of a square."
"That's the cat's grave, mum. She died jest afore Miss Hathaway went away, and she planted the evergreen."
"I thought something was lacking," said Ruth, half to herself.
"Do you want a kitten, Miss Thorne?" inquired Hepsey, eagerly. "I reckon I can get you one--Maltese or white, just as you like."
"No, thank you, Hepsey; I don't believe I'll import any pets."
"Jest as you say, mum. It's sorter lonesome, though, with no cat; and Miss Hathaway said she didn't want no more."
Speculating upon the departed cat's superior charms, that made substitution seem like sacrilege to Miss Hathaway, Ruth sat down for a time in the old-fashioned parlour, where the shabby haircloth furniture was ornamented with "tidies" to the last degree. There was a marble-topped centre table in the room, and a basket of wax flowers under a glass case, Mrs. Hemans's poems, another book, called The Lady's Garland, and the family Bible were carefully arranged upon it.
A hair wreath, also sheltered by glass, hung on the wall near another collection of wax flowers suitably framed. There were various portraits of people whom Miss Thorne did not know, though she was a near relative of their owner, and two tall, white china vases, decorated with gilt, flanked the mantel-shelf. The carpet, which was once of the speaking variety, had faded to the listening point. Coarse lace curtains hung from brass rings on wooden poles, and red cotton lambrequins were festooned at the top.
Hepsey came in to light the lamp that hung by chains over the table, but Miss Thorne rose, saying: "You needn't mind, Hepsey, as I am going upstairs."
"Want me to help you unpack? she asked, doubtless wishing for a view of "city clothes."
"No, thank you."
"I put a pitcher of water in your room, Miss Thorne. Is there anything else you would like?"
"Nothing more, thank you."
She still lingered, irresolute, shifting from one foot to the other. "Miss Thorne--" she began hesitatingly.
"Be you--be you a lady detective?" Ruth's clear laughter rang out on the evening air. "Why, no, you foolish girl; I'm a newspaper woman, and I've earned a rest--that's all. You mustn't read books with yellow covers."
Hepsey withdrew, muttering vague apologies, and Ruth found her at the head of the stairs when she went up to her room. "How long have you been with Miss Hathaway?" she asked.
"Five years come next June."
"Good night, Hepsey."
"Good night, Miss Thorne."
From sheer force of habit, Ruth locked her door. Her trunk was not a large one, and it did not take her long to put her simple wardrobe into the capacious closet and the dresser drawers. As she moved the empty trunk into the closet, she remembered the box of money that she had left in the attic, and went up to get it. When she returned she heard Hepsey's door close softly.
"Silly child," she said to herself. I might just as well ask her if she isn't a'lady detective.' They'll laugh about that in the office when I go back."
She sat down, rocking contentedly, for it was April, and she would not have to go back until Aunt Jane came home, probably about the first of October. She checked off the free, health-giving months on her tired fingers, that would know the blue pencil and the typewriter no more until Autumn, when she would be strong again and the quivering nerves quite steady.
She blessed the legacy which had fallen into Jane Hathaway's lap and led her, at fifty-five, to join a "personally conducted" party to the Old World. Ruth had always had a dim yearning for foreign travel, but just now she felt no latent injustice, such as had often rankled in her soul when her friends went and she remained at home.
Thinking she heard Hepsey in the hall, and not caring to arouse further suspicion, she put out her light and sat by the window, with the shutters wide open.
Far down the hill, where the road became level again, and on the left as she looked toward the village, was the white house, surrounded by a garden and a hedge, which she supposed was Miss Ainslie's. A timid chirp came from the grass, and the faint, sweet smell of growing things floated in through the open window at the other end of the room.
A train from the city sounded a warning whistle as it approached the station, and then a light shone on the grass in front of Miss Ainslie's house. It was a little gleam, evidently from a candle.
"So she's keeping a lighthouse, too," thought Ruth. The train pulled out of the station and half an hour afterward the light disappeared.
She meditated upon the general subject of illumination while she got ready for bed, but as soon as her head touched the pillow she lost consciousness and knew no more until the morning light crept into her room.