Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
XV. The Secret and the Dream
Ruth easily became accustomed to the quiet life at Miss Ainslie's, and gradually lost all desire to go back to the city. "You're spoiling me," she said, one day. "I don't want to go back to town, I don't want to work, I don't want to do anything but sit still and look at you. I didn't know I was so lazy."
"You're not lazy, dear," answered Miss Ainslie, "you were tired, and you didn't know how tired you were."
Winfield practically lived there. In the morning, he sat in the garden, reading the paper, while Ruth helped about the house. She insisted upon learning to cook, and he ate many an unfamiliar dish, heroically proclaiming that it was good. "You must never doubt his love," Miss Ainslie said, "for those biscuits--well, dear, you know they were--were not just right."
The amateur cook laughed outright at the gentle criticism. "They were awful," she admitted, "but I'm going to keep at it until I learn how."
The upper part of the house was divided into four rooms, with windows on all sides. One of the front rooms, with north and east windows, was Miss Ainslie's, while the one just back of it, with south and east windows, was a sitting-room.
"I keep my prettiest things up here, dear," she explained to Ruth, "for I don't want people to think I'm crazy." Ruth caught her breath as she entered the room, for rare tapestries hung on the walls and priceless rugs lay on the floor. The furniture, like that downstairs, was colonial mahogany, highly polished, with here and there a chair or table of foreign workmanship. There was a cabinet, filled with rare china, a marquetry table, and a chair of teakwood, inlaid with mother of pearl. In one corner of the room was a large chest of sandal wood, inlaid with pearl and partly covered by a wonderful antique rug.
The world had seemingly given up its beauty to adorn Miss Ainslie's room. She had pottery from Mexico, China and Japan; strange things from Egypt and the Nile, and all the Oriental splendour of India and Persia. Ruth wisely asked no questions, but once, as before, she said hesitating; "they were given to me by a--a friend."
After much pleading on Ruth's part, Winfield was allowed to come to the sitting room. "He'll think I'm silly, dear," she said, flushing; but, on the contrary, he shared Ruth's delight, and won Miss Ainslie's gratitude by his appreciation of her treasures.
Day by day, the singular attraction grew between them. She loved Ruth, but she took him unreservedly into her heart. Ruth observed, idly, that she never called him "Mr. Winfield." At first she spoke of him as "your friend" and afterward, when he had asked her to, she yielded, with an adorable shyness, and called him Carl.
He, too, had eaten of the lotus and lost the desire to go back to town. From the hilltop they could see the yellow fields and hear the soft melody of reaping from the valley around them. He and Ruth often walked together, but Miss Ainslie never would go with them. She stayed quietly at home, as she had done for many years.
Every night, when the last train came from the city, she put a lighted candle in her front window, using always the candlestick of solid silver, covered with fretwork in intricate design. If Winfield was there, she managed to have him and Ruth in another room. At half-past ten, she took it away, sighing softly as she put out the light.
Ruth wondered, but said nothing, even to Winfield. The grain in the valley was bound in sheaves, and the first colour came on the maples--sometimes in a delicate flush, or a flash of gold, and sometimes like a blood-red wound.
One morning, when Miss Ainslie came downstairs, Ruth was startled at the change in her. The quick, light step was slow and heavy, the broad, straight shoulders drooped a little, and her face, while still dimpled and fair, was subtly different. Behind her deep, violet eyes lay an unspeakable sadness and the rosy tints were gone. Her face was as pure and cold as marble, with the peace of the dead laid upon it. She seemed to have grown old in a single night.
All day she said little or nothing and would not eat. She simply sat still, looking out of the east window. "No," she said, gently, to Ruth, "nothing is the matter, deary, I'm just tired."
When Winfield came, she kept him away from Miss Ainslie without seeming to do so. "Let's go for a walk," she said. She tried to speak lightly, but there was a lump in her throat and a tightening at her heart.
They climbed the hill and took the side path which led to the woods, following it down and through the aisles of trees, to the log across the path. Ruth was troubled and sat there some little time without speaking, then suddenly, she knew that something was wrong with Carl.
Her heart was filled with strange foreboding and she vainly tried to swallow the persistent lump in her throat. She spoke to him, gently, once or twice and he did not seem to hear. "Carl!" she cried in agony, "Carl! What is it?"
He tried to shake off the spell which lay upon him. "Nothing, darling," he said unsteadily, with something of the old tenderness. "I'm weak--and foolish--that's all."
"Carl! Dearest!" she cried, and then broke down, sobbing bitterly.
Her tears aroused him and he tried to soothe her. "Ruth, my darling girl, don't cry. We have each other, sweetheart, and it doesn't matter--nothing matters in the whole, wide world."
After a little, she regained her self-control.
"Come out into the sun," he said, "it's ghostly here. You don't seem real to me, Ruth."
The mist filled her eyes again. "Don't, darling," he pleaded, "I'll try to tell you."
They sat down on the hillside, where the sun shone brightly, and where they could see Miss Ainslie's house plainly. She waited, frightened and suffering, for what seemed an eternity, before he spoke.
"Last night, Ruth," he began, "my father came to me in a dream. You know he died when I was about twelve years old, and last night I saw him as he would have been if he had lived until now--something over sixty. His hair and beard were matted and there was the most awful expression in his eyes--it makes me shudder yet. He was in his grave clothes, dead and yet not dead. He was suffering--there was something he was trying to say to me; something he wanted to explain. We were out here on the hill in the moonlight and I could see Miss Ainslie's house and hear the surf behind the cliff. All he could say to me was: 'Abby--Mary--Mary --Abby--she--Mary,' over and over again. Once he said 'mother.' Abby was my mother's name.
"It is terrible," he went on. "I can't understand it. There is something I must do, and I don't know what it is. A command is laid on me by the dead--there is some wrong for which I must atone. When I first awoke, I thought it was a dream, but it isn't, it's real. It seems as though that was the real world, and this--all our love and happiness, and you, were just dreams. I can't bear it, Ruth!"
He shuddered, and she tried to comfort him, though she was cold as a marble statue and her lips moved with difficulty. "Don't, dear," she said, "It was only a dream. I've had them sometimes, so vividly that they haunted me for days and, as you say, it seemed as if that was the real world and this the dream. I know how you feel--those things aren't pleasant, but there's nothing we can do. It makes one feel so helpless. The affairs of the day are largely under our control, but at night, when the body is asleep, the mind harks back to things that have been forgotten for years. It takes a fevered fancy as a fact, and builds upon it a whole series of disasters. It gives trivial things great signif!cance and turns life upside down. Remembering it is the worst of all."
"There's something I can't get at, Ruth," he answered. "It's just out of my reach. I know it's reasonable to suppose it was a dream and that it can be explained by natural causes, but I don't dream very often."
"I dream every night," she said. "Sometimes they're just silly, foolish things and sometimes they're vivid and horrible realities that I can't forget for weeks. But, surely, dear, we're not foolish enough to believe in dreams?"
"No, I hope not," he replied, doubtfully.
"Let's go for a little walk," she said, "and we'll forget it."
Then she told him how changed Miss Ainslie was and how she had left her, sitting aimlessly by the window. "I don't think I'd better stay away long," she concluded, "she may need me."
"I won't be selfish, Ruth; we'll go back now. "I'm sorry Miss Ainslie isn't well."
"She said she was 'just tired' but it isn't like her to be tired. She doesn't seem to want anybody near her, but you can sit in the garden this afternoon, if you'd like to, and I'll flit in and out like an industrious butterfly. Some new books have just come, and I'll leave them in the arbour for you."
"All right, dear, and if there's anything I can do, I hope you'll tell me."
As they approached the house, a brisk little man hurried out of the gate and went toward the village.
"Who's that?" asked Winfield.
"I don't know--some one who has brought something, probably. I trust she's better."
Miss Ainslie seemed more like herself, as she moved about the house, dusting and putting the rooms in order, as was her wont. At noon she fried a bit of chicken for Ruth, but took nothing herself except a cup of tea.
"No, deary," she said, in answer to Ruth's anxious question, "I'm all right--don't fret about me."
"Have you any pain, Miss Ainslie?"
"No, of course I haven't, you foolish child!"
She tried to smile, but her white lips quivered pitifully.
In the afternoon, when she said she was cold, Ruth made a fire in the open fireplace, and wheeled Miss Ainslie's favourite chair in front of it. She drew her shawl about her shoulders and leaned back.
"I'm so comfortable, now, she said drowsily; "I think I'm going to sleep, dear."
Ruth sat by her, pretending to read, but, in reality, watching her closely, until the deep, regular breathing assured her that she was asleep. She went out into the garden and found Winfield in the arbour.
"How's this patient?" she asked, kissing him lightly on the forehead.
"I'm all right, dearest," he answered, drawing her down beside him, "and I'm ashamed of myself because I was so foolish."
During the afternoon Ruth made frequent trips to the house, each time finding Miss Ainslie sound asleep. It was after six o'clock when she woke and rubbed her eyes, wonderingly.
"How long have I been asleep, Ruth?"
"All the afternoon, Miss Ainslie--do you feel better now?"
"Yes, I think I do. I didn't sleep last night, but it's been years since I've taken a nap in the daytime."
Ruth invited Carl to supper, and made them both sit still while she prepared the simple meal, which, as he said, was "astonishingly good." He was quite himself again, but Miss Ainslie, though trying to assume her old manner, had undergone a great change.
Carl helped Ruth with the dishes, saying he supposed he might as well become accustomed to it, and, feeling the need of s!eep, went home very early.
"I'm all right," he said to Ruth, as he kissed her at the door, "and you're just the sweetest girl in the world. Good night, darling."
A chill mist came inland, and Ruth kept pine knots burning in the fireplace. They sat without other light, Miss Ainslie with her head resting upon her hand, and Ruth watching her narrowly. Now and then they spoke aimlessly, of commonplaces.
When the last train came in, Miss Ainslie raised her eyes to the silver candlestick that stood on the mantel and sighed.
"Shall I put the light in the window?" asked Ruth.
It was a long time before Miss Ainslie answered.
"No, deary," she said sadly, "never any more."
She was trying to hide her suffering, and Ruth's heart ached for her in vain. The sound of the train died away in the distance and the firelight faded.
"Ruth," she said, in a low voice, "I am going away."
"Away, Miss Ainslie? Where?"
"I don't know, dear--it's where we all go--'the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.' Sometimes it's a long journey and sometimes a short one, but we all take it--alone--at the last."
Ruth's heart throbbed violently, then stood still.
"Don't!" she cried, sharply.
"I'm not afraid, dear, and I'm ready to go, even though you have made me so happy--you and he."
Miss Ainslie waited a moment, then continued, in a different tone:
"To-day the lawyer came and made my will. I haven't much--just this little house, a small income paid semi-annually, and my--my things. All my things are for you--the house and the income are for--for him."
Ruth was crying softly and Miss Ainslie went to her, laying her hand caressingly upon the bowed head. "Don't, deary," she pleaded, "don't be unhappy. I'm not afraid. I'm just going to sleep, that's all, to wake in immortal dawn. I want you and him to have my things, because I love you--because I've always loved you, and because I will--even afterward."
Ruth choked down her sobs, and Miss Ainslie drew her chair closer, taking the girl's cold hand in hers. That touch, so strong and gentle, that had always brought balm to her troubled spirit, did not fail in its ministry now.
"He went away," said Miss Ainslie, after a long silence, as if in continuation of something she had said before, "and I was afraid. He had made many voyages in safety, each one more successful than the last, and he always brought me beautiful things, but, this time, I knew that it was not right for him to go."
"When he came back, we were to be married." The firelight shone on the amethyst ring as Miss Ainslie moved it on her finger. "He said that he would have no way of writing this time, but that, if anything happened, I would know. I was to wait--as women have waited since the world began.
"Oh, Ruth, do you know what waiting means? Mine has lasted through thirty-three interminable years. Each day, I have said: 'he will come to-morrow.' When the last train came in, I put the light in the window to lead him straight to me. Each day, I have made the house ready for an invited guest and I haven't gone away, even for an hour. I couldn't bear to have him come and find no welcome waiting, and I have always worn the colour he loved. When people have come to see me, I've always been afraid they would stay until he came, except with you--and Carl. I was glad to have you come to stay with me, because, lately, I have thought that it would be more--more delicate than to have him find me alone. I loved you, too, dear," she added quickly.
"I--I asked your aunt to keep the light in the window. I never told her why, but I think she knew, and you must tell her, dear, the next time you see her, that I thank her, and that she need never do it again. I thought, if he should come in a storm, or, perhaps, sail by, on his way to me--"
There was another long silence, then, with an effort, she went on. "I have been happy, for he said he wanted me to be, though sometimes it was hard. As nearly as I could, I made my dream real. I have thought, for hours, of the things we would say to each other when the long years were over and we were together again. I have dressed for his eyes alone, and loved him--perhaps you know--"
"I know, Miss Ainslie," said Ruth, softly, her own love surging in her heart, "I know."
"He loved me, Ruth," she said, lingering upon the words, "as man never loved before. In all of God's great universe, there was never anything like that--even in Heaven, there can't be anything so beautiful, though we have to know human love before we can understand God's. All day, I have dreamed of our little home together, and at night, sometimes--of baby lips against my breast. I could always see him plainly, but I never could see our--our child. I have missed that. I have had more happiness than comes to most women, but that has been denied me."
She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. Her lips were white and quivering, but there were no tears. At length she sat upright and fixed her eyes upon Ruth.
"Don't be afraid of anything," she said in a strange tone, "poverty or sickness or death, or any suffering God will let you bear together. That isn't love--to be afraid. There's only one thing--the years! Oh, God, the bitter, cruel, endless years!"
Miss Ainslie caught her breath and it sounded like a sob, but she bravely kept it back. "I have been happy," she said, in pitiful triumph; "I promised him that I would be, and I have kept my word. Sometimes it was hard, but I had my dream. Lately, this last year, I have often been afraid that--that something had happened. Thirty-three years, and you know, dear," she added, with a quaint primness, "that I am a woman of the world."
"In the world, but not of it," was on Ruth's lips, but she did not say it.
"Still, I know it was wrong to doubt him--I couldn't, when I thought of our last hour together, out on the hill in the moonlight. He said it was conceivable that life might keep him from me, but death never could. He told me that if he died, I would know, that he would come and tell me, and that in a little while afterward, we should be together."
The dying embers cast a glow upon her face. It was almost waxen in its purity; she seemed transfigured with the light of another world. "Last night, he came to me--in a dream. He is dead--he has been dead for a long time. He was trying to explain something to me--I suppose he was trying to tell me why he had not come before. He was old--an old man, Ruth, and I have always thought of him as young. He could not say anything but my name--'Mary--Abby--Mary-- Abby--' over and over again; and, once, 'mother.' I was christened 'Mary Abigail,' but I never liked the middle name, so I dropped it; and he used to tease me sometimes by calling me 'Abby.' And--from his saying 'mother,' I know that he, too, wherever he may be, has had that dream of --of our child."
Ruth was cold from head to foot, and her senses reeled. Every word that Winfield had said in the morning sounded again in her ears. What was it that went on around her, of which she had no ken? It seemed as though she stood absolutely alone, in endless space, while planets swept past, out of their orbits, with all the laws of force set suddenly aside.
Miss Ainslie felt her shuddering fear. "Don't be afraid, dear," she said again, "everything is right. I kept my promise, and he kept his. He is suffering--he is very lonely without me; but in a little while we shall be together."
The fire died out and left the room in darkness, broken only by the last fitful glow. Ruth could not speak, and Miss Ainslie sat quietly in her chair. "Come," she said at last, stretching out her hand, "let's go upstairs. I have kept you up, deary, and I know you must be very tired."
The house seemed filled with a shadowy presence--something intangible, but portentous, for both good and ill. Ruth took down the heavy mass of white hair and brushed it back, tying it at the neck with a ribbon, in girlish fashion, as Miss Ainslie always did. Her night gown, of sheerest linen, was heavy with Valenciennes lace, and where it fell back from her throat, it revealed the flesh, exquisitely white, set in gracious curves and womanly softness, as if by a sculptor who loved his clay.
The sweet, wholesome scent of the lavender flowers breathed from the folds of Miss Ainslie's gown, as she stood there in the candle light, smiling, with the unearthly glow still upon her face.
"Good night, deary," she said; "you'll kiss me, won't you?"
For a moment the girl's face was buried among Miss Ainslie's laces, then their lips met. Ruth was trembling and she hurried away, swallowing the lump in her throat and trying to keep back the tears.
The doors were open, and there was no sound save Miss Ainslie's deep breathing, but Ruth kept a dreary vigil till almost dawn.