Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
XIV. "For Remembrance"
The next day, while Ruth was busily gathering up her few belongings and packing her trunk, Winfield appeared with a suggestion regarding the advisability of outdoor exercise. Uncle James stood at the gate and watched them as they went down hill. He was a pathetic old figure, predestined to loneliness under all circumstances.
"That's the way I'll look when we've been married a few years," said Carl.
"Worse than that," returned Ruth, gravely. "I'm sorry for you, even now."
"You needn't be proud and haughty just because you've had a wedding at your house--we're going to have one at ours."
"At the 'Widder's,' I mean, this very evening."
"That's nice," answered Ruth, refusing to ask the question.
"It's Joe and Hepsey," he continued, "and I thought perhaps you might stoop low enough to assist me in selecting an appropriate wedding gift in yonder seething mart. I feel greatly indebted to them."
"Why, of course I will; it's quite sudden, isn't it?" "Far be it from me to say so. However, it's the most reversed wedding I ever heard of. A marriage at the home of the groom, to say the least, is unusual. Moreover, the 'Widder' Pendleton is to take the bridal tour and leave the happy couple at home. She's going to visit a relative who is distant in both position and relationship--all unknown to the relative, I fancy. She starts immediately after the ceremony and it seems to me that it would be a pious notion to throw rice and old shoes after her."
"Why, Carl! You don't want to maim her, do you?"
"I wouldn't mind. If it hadn't been for my ostrich-like digestion, I wouldn't have had anything to worry about by this time. However, if you insist, I will throw the rice and let you heave the shoes. If you have the precision of aim which distinguishes your sex, the 'Widder' will escape uninjured."
"Am I to be invited?"
"Certainly--haven't I already invited you?"
"They may not like it."
"That doesn't make any difference. Lots of people go to weddings who aren't wanted."
"I'll go, then," announced Ruth, "and once again, I give you my gracious permission to kiss the bride."
"Thank you, dear, but I'm not going to kiss any brides except my own. I've signed the pledge and sworn off."
They created a sensation in the village when they acquired the set of china which had been on exhibition over a year. During that time it had fallen at least a third in price, though its value was unchanged. Ruth bought a hideous red table-cloth, which she knew would please Hepsey, greatly to Winfield's digust.
"Why do you do that?" he demanded. "Don't you know that, in all probability, I'll have to eat off of it? I much prefer the oilcloth, to which I am now accustomed."
"You'll have to get used to table linen, dear," she returned teasingly; "it's my ambition to have one just like this for state occasions."
Joe appeared with the chariot just in time to receive and transport the gift. "Here's your wedding present, Joe!" called Winfield, and the innocent villagers formed a circle about them as the groom-elect endeavoured to express his appreciation. Winfield helped him pack the "101 pieces" on the back seat and under it, and when Ruth, feeling like a fairy godmother, presented the red table-cloth, his cup of joy was full.
He started off proudly, with a soup tureen and two platters on the seat beside him. The red table-cloth was slung over his arm, in toreador fashion, and the normal creak of the conveyance was accentuated by an ominous rattle of crockery. Then he circled back, motioning them to wait.
"Here's sunthin' I most forgot," he said, giving Ruth a note. "I'd drive you back fer nothin', only I've got sech a load."
The note was from Miss Ainslie, inviting Miss Thorne and her friend to come at five o'clock and stay to tea. No answer was expected unless she could not come.
The quaint, old-fashioned script was in some way familiar. A flash of memory took Ruth back to the note she had found in the dresser drawer,beginning: "I thank you from my heart for understanding me." So it was Miss Ainslie who had sent the mysterious message to Aunt Jane.
"You're not paying any attention to me," complained Winfield. "I suppose, when we're married, I'll have to write out what I want to say to you, and put it on file."
"You're a goose," laughed Ruth. "We're going to Miss Ainslie's to-night for tea. Aren't we getting gay?"
"Indeed we are! Weddings and teas follow one another like Regret on the heels of Pleasure."
"Pretty simile," commented Ruth. "If we go to the tea, we'll have to miss the wedding."
"Well, we've been to a wedding quite recently, so I suppose it's better to go to the tea. Perhaps, by arranging it, we might be given nourishment at both places--not that I pine for the 'Widder's' cooking. Anyhow, we've sent our gift, and they'd rather have that than to have us, if they were permitted to choose."
"Do you suppose they'll give us anything?"
"Let us hope not."
"I don't believe we want any at all," she said. "Most of them would be in bad taste, and you'd have to bury them at night, one at a time, while I held a lantern."
"The policeman on the beat would come and ask us what we were doing," he objected; "and when we told him we were only burying our wedding presents, he wouldn't believe us. We'd be dragged to the station and put into a noisome cell. Wouldn't it make a pretty story for the morning papers! The people who gave us the things would enjoy it over their coffee."
"It would be pathetic, wouldn't it?"
"It would, Miss Thorne. I think we'd better not tell anybody until its all safely over, and then we can have a little card printed to go with the announcement, saying that if anybody is inclined to give us a present, we'd rather have the money."
"You're a very practical person, Carl. One would think you had been married several times."
"We'll be married as often as you like, dear. Judging by your respected aunt, one ceremony isn't 'rightfully bindin', and I want it done often enough to be sure that you can't get away from me."
As they entered the gate, Uncle James approached stealthily by a roundabout way and beckoned to them. "Excuse me," he began, as they came within speaking distance, "but has Mis' Ball give you furniture?"
"Yes," replied Ruth, in astonishment, "why?"
"There's clouds to starboard and she's repentin'. She's been admirin' of it the hull mornin' in the attic. I was sot in the kitchen with pertaters," he explained, "but the work is wearin' and a feller needs fresh air."
"Thank you for the tip, Uncle," said Winfield, heartily.
The old man glowed with gratification. "We men understand each other," was plainly written on his expressive face, as he went noiselessly back to the kitchen.
"You'd better go home, dear," suggested Ruth.
"Delicate hint," replied Winfield. "It would take a social strategist to perceive your hidden meaning. Still, my finer sensibilities respond instantly to your touch, and I will go. I flatter myself that I've never had to be put out yet, when I've been calling on a girl. Some subtle suggestion like yours has always been sufficient."
"Don't be cross, dear--let's see how soon you can get to the bottom of the hill. You can come back at four o'clock."
He laughed and turned back to wave his hand at her. She wafted a kiss from the tips of her fingers, which seemed momentarily to impede his progress, but she motioned him away and ran into the house.
Aunt Jane was nowhere to be seen, so she went on into the kitchen to help Uncle James with the potatoes. He had peeled almost a peck and the thick parings lay in a heap on the floor. "My goodness'" she exclaimed. "You'd better throw those out, Uncle, and I'll put the potatoes on to boil."
He hastened out, with his arms full of peelings. "You're a real kind woman, Niece Ruth," he said gratefully, when he came in. "You don't favour your aunt none--I think you're more like me."
Mrs. Ball entered the kitchen with a cloud upon her brow, and in one of those rare flashes of insight which are vouchsafed to plodding mortals, a plan of action presented itself to Ruth. "Aunty," she said, before Mrs. Ball had time to speak, "you know I'm going back to the city to-morrow, and I'd like to send you and Uncle James a wedding present--you've been so good to me. What shall it be?"
"Well, now, I don't know," she answered, visibly softening, "but I'll think it over, and let you know."
"What would you like, Uncle James?"
"You needn't trouble him about it," explained his wife. "He'll like whatever I do, won't you, James?"
"Yes'm, just as you say."
After dinner, when Ruth broached the suliject of furniture, she was gratified to find that Aunt Jane had no serious objections. "I kinder hate to part with it, Ruth," she said, "but in a way, as you may say, it's yours."
"'Tisn't like giving it away, Aunty--it's all in the family, and, as you say, you're not using it."
"That's so, and then James and me are likely to come and make you a long visit, so I'll get the good of it, too."
Ruth was momentarily stunned, but rallied enough to express great pleasure at the prospect. As Aunt Jane began to clear up the dishes, Mr. Ball looked at his niece, with a certain quiet joy, and then, unmistakably, winked.
"When you decide about the wedding present, Aunty, let me know, won't you?" she asked, as Mrs. Ball came in after the rest of the dishes. "Mr. Winfield would like to send you a remembrance also." Then Ruth added, to her conscience, "I know he would."
"He seems like a pleasant-spoken feller," remarked Aunt Jane. "You can ask him to supper to-night, if you like."
"Thank you, Aunty, but we're going to Miss Ainslie's."
"Huh!" snorted Mrs. Ball. "Mary Ainslie ain't got no sperrit!" With this enigmatical statement, she sailed majestically out of the room.
During the afternoon, Ruth finished her packing, leaving out a white shirt-waist to wear to Miss Ainslie's. When she went down to the parlour to wait for Winfield, Aunt Jane appeared, with her husband in her wake.
"Ruth, "she announced, "me and James have decided on a weddin' present. I would like a fine linen table-cloth and a dozen napkins."
"All right, Aunty."
"And if Mr. Winfield is disposed to it, he can give me a lemonade set--one of them what has different coloured tumblers belongin' to it."
"He'll be pleased to send it, Aunty; I know he will."
"I'm a-layin' out to take part of them two hundred dollars what's sewed up in James's belt, and buy me a new black silk," she went on. "I've got some real lace to trim it with, whet dames give me in the early years of our engagement. Don't you think a black silk is allers nice, Ruth?"
"Yes, it is, Aunty; and just now, it's very stylish."
"You appear to know about such things. I guess I'll let you get it for me in the city when you buy the weddin' present. I'll give you the money, and you can get the linin's too, while you're about it."
"I'll send you some samples, Aunty, and then you can take your choice."
"And--" began Mrs. Ball.
"Did you know Mrs. Pendleton was going away, Aunty?" asked Ruth, hastily.
"Do tell! Elmiry Peavey goin' travellin'?"
"Yes, she's going somewhere for a visit--I don't know just where."
"I had laid out to take James and call on Elmiry," she said, stroking herapron thoughtfully, while a shadow crossed Mr. Ball's expressive face; "but I guess I'll wait now till I get my new black silk. I want her to know I've done well."
A warning hiss from the kitchen and the odour of burning sugar impelled Aunt Jane to a hasty exit just as Winfield came. Uncle James followed them to the door.
"Niece Ruth," he said, hesitating and fumbling at his belt, "be you goin' to get merried?"
"I hope so, Uncle," she replied kindly.
"Then--then--I wish you'd take this and buy you sunthin' to remember your pore old Uncle James by." He thrust a trembling hand toward her, and offered her a twenty dollar bill.
"Why, Uncle!" she exclaimed. "I mustn't take this! Thank you ever so much, but it isn't right!"
"I'd be pleased," he said plaintively. "'Taint as if I wan's accustomed to money. My store was wuth five or six hundred dollars, and you've been real pleasant to me, Niece Ruth. Buy a hair wreath for the parlour, or sunthin' to remind you of your pore old Uncle."
Winfield pressed her arm warningly, and she tucked the bill into her chatelaine bag. "Thank you, Uncle!" she said; then, of her own accord, she stooped and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
A mist came into the old man's eyes, and he put his hand to his belt again, but she hurriedly led Winfield away. "Ruth," he said, as they went down the hill, "you're a sweet girl. That was real womanly kindness to the poor devil."
"Shall I be equally kind to all 'poor devils'?"
"There's one more who needs you--if you attend to him properly, it will be enough."
"I don't see how they're going to get Aunty's silk gown and a ring like mine and a haircloth parlour suit and publish a book with less than two hundred dollars, do you?"
"Hardly--Joe says that he gave Hepsey ten dollars. There's a great discussion about the spending of it."
"I didn't know--I feel guilty."
"You needn't, darling. There was nothing else for you to do. How did you succeed with your delicate mission?"
"I managed it," she said proudly. "I feel that I was originally destined for a diplomatic career." He laughed when she described the lemonade set which she had promised in his name.
"I'll see that the furniture is shipped tomorrow," he assured her; "and then I'll go on a still hunt for the gaudy glassware. I'm blessed if I don't give 'em a silver ice pitcher, too."
"I'm in for a table-cloth and a dozen napkins," laughed Ruth; "but I don't mind. We won't bury Uncle's wedding present, will we?"
"I should say not! Behold the effect of the card, long before it's printed."
"I know, "said Ruth, seriously, "I'll get a silver spoon or something like that out of the twenty dollars, and then I'll spend the rest of it on something nice for Uncle James. The poor soul isn't getting any wedding present, and he'll never know."
"There's a moral question involved in that," replied Winfield. "Is it right to use his money in that way and assume the credit yourself?"
"We'll have to think it over," Ruth answered. "It isn't so very simple after all."
Miss Ainslie was waiting for them in the garden and came to the gate to meet them. She wore a gown of lavender taffeta, vhich rustled and shone in the sunlight. Th skirt was slightly trained, with a dust ruffle underneath, and the waist was made in surplice fashion, open at the throat. A bertha of rarest Brussels lace was fastened at her neck with the amethyst pin, inlaid with gold and surrounded by baroque pearls. The ends of the bertha hung loosely and under it she had tied an apron of sheerest linen, edged with narrow Duchesse lace. Her hair was coiled softly on top of her head, with a string of amethysts and another of pearls woven among the silvery strands.
"Welcome to my house," she said, smiling, Winfield at once became her slave. She talked easily, with that exquisite cadence which makes each word seem like a gift, but there was a certain subtle excitement in her manner, which Ruth did not fail to perceive. When Winfield was not looking at Miss Ainslie, her eyes rested upon him with a wondering hunger, mingled with tenderness and fear.
Midsummer lay upon the garden and the faint odour of mignonette and lavender came with every wandering wind. White butterflies and thistledown floated in the air, bees hummed drowsily, and fhe stately hollyhocks swayed slowly back and forth.
"Do you know why I asked you to come today?" She spoke to Ruth, but looked at Winfield.
"Why, Miss Ainslie?"
"Because it is my birthday--I am fifty-five years old."
Ruth's face mirrored her astonishment. "You don't look any older than I do," she said.
Except for the white hair, it was true. Her face was as fresh as a rose with the morning dew upon it, and even on her neck, where the folds of lace revealed a dazzling whiteness, there were no lines.
"Teach us how to live, Miss Ainslie," said Winfield, softly, "that the end of half a century may find us young."
A delicate pink suffused her cheeks and she turned her eyes to his. "I've just been happy, that's all," she answered.
"It needs the alchemist's touch," he said, "to change our sordid world to gold."
"We can all learn," she replied, "and even if we don't try, it comes to us once."
"What?" asked Ruth.
"Happiness--even if it isn't until the end. In every life there is a perfect moment, like a flash of sun. We can shape our days by that, if we will--before by faith, and afterward by memory."
The conversation drifted to less serious things. Ruth, remembering that Miss Ainslie did not hear the village gossip, described her aunt's home-coming, the dismissal of Hepsey, and told her of the wedding which was to take place that evening. Winfield was delighted, for he had never heard her talk so well, but Miss Ainslie listened with gentle displeasure.
"I did not think Miss Hathaway would ever be married abroad," she said. "I think she should have waited until she came home. It would have been more delicate to let him follow her. To seem to pursue a gentleman, however innocent one may be, is--is unmaidenly."
Winfield choked, then coughed violently.
"Understand me, dear," Miss Ainslie went on, "I do not mean to criticise your aunt--she is one of my dearest friends. Perhaps I should not have spoken at all," she concluded in genuine distress.
"It's all right, Miss Ainslie," Ruth assured her, "I know just how you feel."
Winfield, having recovered his composure, asked a question about the garden, and Miss Ainslie led them in triumph around her domain. She gathered a little nosegay of sweet-williams for Ruth, who was over among the hollyhocks, then she said shyly: "What shall I pick for you?"
"Anything you like, Miss Ainslie. I am at a loss to choose."
She bent over and plucked a leaf of rosemary, looking at him long and searchingly as she put it into his hand.
"For remembrance," she said, with the deep fire burning in her eyes. Then she added, with a pitiful hunger in her voice:
"Whatever happens, you won't forget me?"
"Never!" he answered, strangely stirred.
"Thank you," she whispered brokenly, drawing away from him. "You look so much like--like some one I used to know."
At dusk they went into the house. Except for the hall, it was square, with two partitions dividing it. The two front rooms were separated by an arch, and the dining-room and kitchen were similarly situated at the back of the house, with a china closet and pantry between them.
Miss Ainslie's table, of solid mahogany, was covered only with fine linen doilies, after a modern fashion, and two quaint candlesticks, of solid silver, stood opposite each other. In the centre, in a silver vase of foreign pattern, there was a great bunch of asters--white and pink and blue.
The repast was simple--chicken fried to a golden brown, with creamed potatoes, a salad made of fresh vegetables from the garden, hot biscuits, deliciously light, and the fragrant Chinese tea, served in the Royal Kaga cups, followed by pound cake, and pears preserved in a heavy red syrup.
The hostess sat at the head of the table, dispensing a graceful hospitality. She made no apology, such as prefaced almost every meal at Aunt Jane's. It was her best, and she was proud to give it--such was the impression.
Afterward, when Ruth told her that she was going back to the city, Miss Ainslie's face grew sad.
"Why--why must you go?" she asked.
"I'm interrupting the honeymoon," Ruth answered, "and when I suggested departure, Aunty agreed to it immediately. I can't very well stay now, can I?"
"My dear," said Miss Ainslie, laying her hand upon Ruth's, "if you could, if you only would--won't you come and stay with me?"
"I'd love to," replied Ruth, impetuously, "but are you sure you want me?"
"Believe me, my dear," said Miss Ainslie, simply, "it will give me great happiness."
So it was arranged that the next day Ruth's trunk should be taken to Miss Ainslie's, and that she would stay until the first of October. Winfield was delighted, since it brought Ruth nearer to him and involved no long separation.
They went outdoors again, where the crickets and katydids were chirping in the grass, and the drowsy twitter of birds came from the maples above. The moon, at its full, swung slowly over the hill, and threads of silver light came into the fragrant dusk of the garden. Now and then the moonlight shone full upon Miss Ainslie's face, touching her hair as if with loving tenderness and giving her an unearthly beauty. It was the face of a saint.
Winfield, speaking reverently, told her of their betrothal. She leaned forward, into the light, and put one hand caressingly upon the arm of each.
"I am so glad," she said, with her face illumined. Through the music of her voice ran lights and shadows, vague, womanly appeal, and a haunting sweetness neither could ever forget.
That night, the gates of Youth turned on their silent hinges for Miss Ainslie. Forgetting the hoary frost that the years had laid upon her hair, she walked, hand in hand with them, through the clover fields which lay fair before them and by the silvered reaches of the River of Dreams. Into their love came something sweet that they had not found before--the absolute need of sharing life together, whether it should be joy or pain. Unknowingly, they rose to that height which makes sacrifice the soul's dearest offering, as the chrysalis, brown and unbeautiful, gives the radiant creature within to the light and freedom of day.
When the whistle sounded fcr the ten o'clock train, Ruth said it was late and they must go. Miss Ainslie went to the gate with them, her lavender scented gown rustling softly as she walked, and the moonlight making new beauty of the amethysts and pearls entwined in her hair.
Ruth, aglow with happiness, put her arms around Miss Ainslie's neck and kissed her tenderly. "May I, too?" asked Winfield.
He drew her toward him, without waiting for an answer, and Miss Ainslie trembled from head to foot as she lifted her face to his.
Across the way the wedding was in full blast, but neither of them cared to go. Ruth turned back for a last glimpse of the garden and its gentle mistress, but she was gone, and the light from her candle streamed out until it rested upon a white hollyhock, nodding drowsily.
To Ruth, walking in the starlight with her lover, it seemed as if the world had been made new. The spell was upon Winfield for a long time, but at last he spoke.
"If I could have chosen my mother," he said, simply, "she would have been like Miss Ainslie."