Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
XII. Bride and Groom
Though Winfield had sternly determined to go back to town the following day, he did not achieve departure until later. Ruth went to the station with him, and desolation came upon her when the train pulled out, in spite of the new happiness in her heart.
She had little time to miss him, however, for, at the end of the week, and in accordance with immemorial custom, the Unexpected happened.
She was sitting at her window one morning, trying to sew, when the village chariot stopped at the gate and a lady descended. Joe stirred lazily on the front seat, but she said, in a clear, high-pitched voice: "You needn't trouble yourself, Joe. He'll carry the things."
She came toward the house, fanning herself with a certain stateliness, and carrying her handkerchief primly, by the exact centre of it. In her wake was a little old gentleman, with a huge bundle, surrounded by a shawl-strap, a large valise, much the worse for wear, a telescope basket which was expanded to its full height, and two small parcels. A cane was tucked under one arm and an umbrella under the other. He could scarcely be seen behind the mountain of baggage.
Hepsey was already at the door. "Why, Miss Hathaway!" she cried, in astonishment.
"'T ain't Miss Hathaway," rejoined the visitor, with some asperity, "it's Mrs. Ball, and this is my husband. Niece Ruth, I presume," she added, as Miss Thorne appeared. "Ruth, let me introduce you to your Uncle James."
The bride was of medium height and rather angular. Her eyes were small, dark, and so piercingly brilliant that they suggested jet beads. Her skin was dark and her lips had been habitually compressed into a straight line. None the less, it was the face that Ruth had seen in the ambrotype at Miss Ainslie's, with the additional hardness that comes to those who grow old without love. Her bearing was that of a brisk, active woman, accustomed all her life to obedience and respect.
Mr. Ball was two or three inches shorter than his wife, and had a white beard, irregularly streaked with brown. He was baldheaded in front, had scant, reddish hair in the back, and his faded blue eyes were tearful. He had very small feet and the unmistakable gait of a sailor. Though there was no immediate resemblance, Ruth was sure that he was the man whose picture was in Aunt Jane's treasure chest in the attic. The daredevil look was gone, however, and he was merely a quiet, inoffensive old gentleman, for whom life had been none too easy.
"Welcome to your new home, James," said his wife, in a crisp, businesslike tone, which but partially concealed a latent tenderness. He smiled, but made no reply.
Hepsey still stood in the parlour, in wide mouthed astonishment, and it was Ruth's good fortune to see the glance which Mrs. Ball cast upon her offending maid. There was no change of expression except in the eyes, but Hepsey instantly understood that she was out of her place, and retreated to the kitchen with a flush upon her cheeks, which was altogether foreign to Ruth's experience.
"You can set here, James," resumed Mrs. Ball, "until I have taken off my things."
The cherries on her black straw bonnet were shaking on their stems in a way which fascinated Ruth. "I'll take my things out of the south room, Aunty," she hastened to say.
"You won't, neither," was the unexpected answer; "that's the spare room, and, while you stay, you'll stay there."
Ruth was wondering what to say to her new uncle and sat in awkward silence as Aunt Jane ascended the stairs. Her step sounded lightly overhead and Mr. Ball twirled his thumbs absently. "You--you've come a long way, haven't you?" she asked.
"Yes'm, a long way." Then, seemingly for the first time, he looked at her, and a benevolent expression came upon his face. "You've got awful pretty hair, Niece Ruth," he observed, admiringly; "now Mis' Ball, she wears a false front."
The lady of the house returned at this juncture, with the false front a little askew. "I was just a-sayin'," Mr. Ball continued, "that our niece is a real pleasant lookin' woman."
"She's your niece by marriage," his wife replied, "but she ain't no real relative."
"Niece by merriage is relative enough," said Mr.Ball, "and I say she's a pleasant lookin' woman, ain't she, now?"
"She'll do, I reckon. She resembles her Ma." Aunt Jane looked at Ruth, as if pitying the sister who had blindly followed the leadings of her heart and had died unforgiven.
"Why didn't you let me know you were coming, Aunt Jane?" asked Ruth. "I've been looking for a letter every day and I understood you weren't coming back until October."
"I trust I am not unwelcome in my own house," was the somewhat frigid response.
"No indeed, Aunty--I hope you've had a pleasant time."
"We've had a beautiful time, ain't we, James? We've been on our honeymoon."
"Yes'm, we hev been on our honeymoon, travellin' over strange lands an' furrin wastes of waters. Mis' Ball was terrible sea sick comin' here."
"In a way," said Aunt Jane, "we ain't completely married. We was married by a heathen priest in a heathen country and it ain't rightfully bindin', but we thought it would do until we could get back here and be married by a minister of the gospel, didn't we, James?"
"It has held," he said, without emotion, "but I reckon we will hev to be merried proper."
"Likewise I have my weddin' dress," Aunt Jane went on, "what ain't never been worn. It's a beautiful dress--trimmed with pearl trimmin'"--here Ruth felt the pangs of a guilty conscience--"and I lay out to be married in it, quite private, with you and Hepsey for witnesses."
"Why, it's quite a romance, isn't it, Aunty?"
"'T is in a way," interjected Mr. Ball, "and in another way, 't ain't."
"Yes, Ruth," Aunt Jane continued, ignoring the interruption, "'t is a romance--a real romance," she repeated, with all the hard lines in her face softened. "We was engaged over thirty-five year. James went to sea to make a fortin', so he could give me every luxury. It's all writ out in a letter I've got upstairs. They's beautiful letters, Ruth, and it's come to me, as I've been settin' here, that you might make a book out'n these letters of James's. You write, don't you?"
"Why, yes, Aunty, I write for the papers but I've never done a book."
"Well, you'll never write a book no earlier, and here's all the material, as you say, jest a-waitin' for you to copy it. I guess there's over a hundred letters."
"But, Aunty," objected Ruth, struggling with inward emotion, "I couldn't sign my name to it, you know, unless I had written the letters."
"Because it wouldn't be honest," she answered, clutching at the straw, "the person who wrote the letters would be entitled to the credit--and the money," she added hopefully.
"Why, yes, that's right. Do you hear James? It'll have to be your book, 'The Love Letters of a Sailor,' by James, and dedicated in the front 'to my dearly beloved wife, Jane Ball, as was Jane Hathaway.' It'll be beautiful, won't it, James?"
"Yes'm, I hev no doubt but what it will."
"Do you remember, James, how you borrered a chisel from the tombstone man over to the Ridge, and cut our names into endurin' granite?"
"I'd forgot that--how come you to remember it?"
"On account of your havin' lost the chisel and the tombstone man a-worryin' me about it to this day. I'll take you to the place. There's climbin' but it won't hurt us none, though we ain't as young as we might be. You says to me, you says: 'Jane, darlin', as long as them letters stays cut into the everlastin' rock, just so long I'll love you,' you says, and they's there still."
"Well, I'm here, too, ain't I?" replied Mr. Ball, seeming to detect a covert reproach. "I was allers a great hand fer cuttin'."
"There'll have to be a piece writ in the end, Ruth, explainin' the happy endin' of the romance. If you can't do it justice, James and me can help--James was allers a master hand at writin'. It'll have to tell how through the long years he has toiled, hopin' against hope, and for over thirty years not darin' to write a line to the object of his affections, not feelin' worthy, as you may say, and how after her waitin' faithfully at home and turnin' away dozens of lovers what pleaded violent-like, she finally went travellin' in furrin parts and come upon her old lover a-keepin' a store in a heathen land, a-strugglin' to retrieve disaster after disaster at sea, and constantly withstandin' the blandishments of heathen women as endeavoured to wean him from his faith, and how, though very humble and scarcely darin to speak, he learned that she was willin' and they come a sailin' home together and lived happily ever afterward. Ain't that as it was, James?"
"Yes'm, except that there wa'n't no particular disaster at sea and them heathen women didn't exert no blandishments. They was jest pleasant to an old feller, bless their little hearts."
By some subtle mental process, Mr. Ball became aware that he had made a mistake. "You ain't changed nothin' here, Jane," he continued, hurriedly, "there's the haircloth sofy that we used to set on Sunday evenins' after meetin', and the hair wreath with the red rose in it made out of my hair and the white rose made out of your grandmother's hair on your father's side, and the yeller lily made out of the hair of your Uncle Jed's youngest boy. I disremember the rest, but time was when I could say'm all. I never see your beat for makin' hair wreaths, Jane. There ain't nothin' gone but the melodeon that used to set by the mantel. What's come of the melodeon?"
"The melodeon is set away in the attic. The mice et out the inside."
"Didn't you hev no cat?"
"There ain't no cat, James, that could get into a melodeon through a mouse hole, more especially the big maltese you gave me. I kept that cat, James, as you may say, all these weary years. When there was kittens, I kept the one that looked most like old Malty, but of late years, the cats has all been different, and the one I buried jest afore I sailed away was yeller and white with black and brown spots--a kinder tortoise shell--that didn't look nothin' like Malty. You'd never have knowed they belonged to the same family, but I was sorry when she died, on account of her bein' the last cat."
Hepsey, half frightened, put her head into the room. "Dinner's ready," she shouted, hurriedly shutting the door.
"Give me your arm, James," said Mrs. Ball, and Ruth followed them into the dining-room.
The retired sailor ate heartily, casting occasional admiring glances at Ruth and Hepsey. It was the innocent approval which age bestows upon youth. "These be the finest biscuit," he said, "that I've had for many a day. I reckon you made 'em, didn't you, young woman?"
"Yes, sir," replied Hepsey, twisting her apron.
The bride was touched in a vulnerable spot.
"Hepsey," she said, decisively, "when your week is up, you will no longer be in my service. I am a-goin'to make a change."
Mr. Ball's knife dropped with a sharp clatter. "Why, Mis' Ball," he said, reproachfully, "who air you goin' to hev to do your work?"
"Don't let that trouble you, James," she answered, serenely, "the washin' can be put out to the Widder Pendleton, her as was Elmiry Peavey, and the rest ain't no particular trouble."
"Aunty," said Ruth, "now that you've come home and everything is going on nicely, I think I'd better go back to the city. You see, if I stay here, I'll be interrupting the honeymoon."
"No, no, Niece Ruth!" exclaimed Mr. Ball, "you ain't interruptin' no honeymoon. It's a great pleasure to your aunt and me to hev you here--we likes pretty young things around us, and as long as we hev a home, you're welcome to stay in it; ain't she Jane?"
"She has sense enough to see, James, that she is interruptin' the honeymoon," replied Aunt Jane, somewhat harshly. "On account of her mother havin' been a Hathaway before marriage, she knows things. Not but what you can come some other time, Ruth," she added, with belated hospitality.
"Thank you, Aunty, I will. I'll stay just a day or two longer, if you don't mind--just until Mr. Winfield comes back. I don't know just where to write to him."
"Mr.--who?" demanded Aunt Jane, looking at her narrowly.
"Mr. Carl Winfield," said Ruth, crimsoning --"the man I am going to marry." The piercing eyes were still fixed upon her.
"Now about the letters, Aunty," she went on, in confusion, "you could help Uncle James with the book much better than I could. Of course it would have to be done under your supervision."
Mrs. Ball scrutinized her niece long and carefully. "You appear to be tellin' the truth," she said. "Who would best print it?"
"I think it would be better for you to handle it yourself, Aunty, and then you and Uncle James would have all the profits. If you let some one else publish it and sell it, you'd have only ten per cent, and even then, you might have to pay part of the expenses."
"How much does it cost to print a book?"
"That depends on the book. Of course it costs more to print a large one than a small one."
"That needn't make no difference," said Aunt Jane, after long deliberation. "James has two hundred dollars sewed up on the inside of the belt he insists on wearin', instead of Christian suspenders, ain't you, James?"
"Yes'm, two hundred and four dollars in my belt and seventy-six cents in my pocket."
"It's from his store," Mrs. Ball explained. "He sold it to a relative of one of them heathen women."
"It was worth more'n three hundred," he said regretfully.
"Now, James, you know a small store like that ain't worth no three hundred dollars. I wouldn't have let you took three hundred, 'cause it wouldn't be honest."
The arrival of a small and battered trunk created a welcome diversion. "Where's your trunk, Uncle James?" asked Ruth.
"I ain't a needin' of no trunk," he answered, "what clothes I've got is on me, and that there valise has more of my things in it. When my clothes wears out, I put on new ones and leave the others for some pore creeter what may need 'em worse'n me."
Aunt Jane followed Joe upstairs, issuing caution and direction at every step. "You can set outside now, Joe Pendleton," she said, "and see that them hosses don't run away, and as soon as I get some of my things hung up so's they won't wrinkle no more, I'll come out and pay you."
Joe obeyed, casting longing eyes at a bit of blue gingham that was fluttering among the currant bushes in the garden. Mr. Ball, longing for conversation with his kind, went out to the gate and stood looking up at him, blinking in the bright sunlight. "Young feller," he said, "I reckon that starboard hoss is my old mare. Where'd you get it?"
"Over to the Ridge," answered Joe, "of a feller named Johnson."
"Jest so--I reckon 't was his father I give Nellie to when I went away. She was a frisky filly then--she don't look nothin' like that now."
"Mamie" turned, as if her former master's voice had stirred some old memory. "She's got the evil eye," Mr. Ball continued. "You wanter be keerful."
"She's all right, I guess," Joe replied.
"Young feller," said Mr. Ball earnestly, "do you chew terbacker?"
"Yep, but I ain't got no more. I'm on the last hunk."
Mr. Ball stroked his stained beard. "I useter," he said, reminiscently, "afore I was merried."
Joe whistled idly, still watching for Hepsey.
"Young feller, "said Mr. Ball, again, "there's a great deal of merryin' and givin' in merriage in this here settlement, ain't there?"
"Not so much as there might be."
"Say, was your mother's name Elmiry Peavey?"
"Yes sir," Joe answered, much surprised.
"Then you be keerful," cautioned Mr. Ball. "Your hoss has got the evil eye and your father, as might hev been, allers had a weak eye fer women." Joe's face was a picture of blank astonishment. "I was engaged to both of 'em," Mr. Ball explained, "each one a-keepin' of it secret, and she--" here he pointed his thumb suggestively toward the house--"she's got me."
"I'm going to be married myself," volunteered Joe, proudly.
"Merriage is a fleetin' show--I wouldn't, if I was in your place. Merriage is a drag on a man's ambitions. I set out to own a schooner, but I can't never do it now, on account of bein' merried. I had a good start towards it--I had a little store all to myself, what was worth three or four hundred dollars, in a sunny country where the women folks had soft voices and pretty ankles and wasn't above passin' jokes with an old feller to cheer 'im on 'is lonely way."
Mrs. Ball appeared at the upper window. "James," she called, "you'd better come in and get your hat. Your bald spot will get all sunburned."
"I guess I won't wait no longer, Miss Hathaway," Joe shouted, and, suiting the action to the word, turned around and started down hill. Mr. Ball, half way up the gravelled walk, turned back to smile at Joe with feeble jocularity.
Hearing the familiar voice, Hepsey hastened to the front of the house, and was about to retreat, when Mr. Ball stopped her.
"Pore little darlin', he said, kindly, noting her tear stained face. "Don't go--wait a minute." He fumbled at his belt and at last extracted a crisp, new ten dollar bill. "Here, take that and buy you a ribbon or sunthin' to remember your lovin' Uncle James by."
Hepsey's face brightened, and she hastily concealed the bill in her dress. "I ain't your niece," she said, hesitatingly, "it's Miss Thorne."
"That don't make no difference," rejoined Mr. Ball, generously, "I'm willin' you should be my niece too. All pretty young things is my nieces and I loves 'em all. Won't you give your pore old uncle a kiss to remember you by?"
Ruth, who had heard the last words, came down to the gravelled walk. "Aunt Jane is coming," she announced, and Hepsey fled.
When the lady of the house appeared, Uncle James was sitting at one end of the piazza and Ruth at the other, exchanging decorous commonplaces.