Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
III. Miss Ainslie
Ruth began to feel a lively interest in her Aunt Jane, and to regret that she had not arrived in time to make her acquaintance. She knew that Miss Hathaway was three or four years younger than Mrs. Thorne would have been, had she lived, and that a legacy had recently come to her from an old friend, but that was all, aside from the discoveries in the attic.
She contemplated the crayon portraits in the parlour and hoped she was not related to any of them. In the family album she found no woman whom she would have liked for an aunt, but was determined to know the worst.
"Is Miss Hathaway's picture here, Hepsey?" she asked.
"No'm. Miss Hathaway, she wouldn't have her picter in the parlour, nohow. Some folks does, but Miss Hathaway says't'aint modest."
"I think she's right, Hepsey," laughed Ruth, "though I never thought of it in just that way. I'll have to wait until she comes home."
In the afternoon she donned the short skirt and heavy shoes of her "office rig," and started down hill to explore the village. It was a day to tempt one out of doors,--cool and bright, with that indefinable crispness which belongs to Spring.
The hill rose sheer from the highlands, which sloped to the river on the left, as she went down, and on the right to the forest. A side path into the woods made her hesitate for a moment, but she went straight on.
It was the usual small town, which nestles at the foot of a hill and eventually climbs over it, through the enterprise of its wealthier residents, but, save for Miss Hathaway's house, the enterprise had not, as yet, become evident. At the foot of the hill, on the left, was Miss Ainslie's house and garden, and directly opposite, with the width of the hill between them, was a brown house, with a lawn, but no garden except that devoted to vegetables.
As she walked through the village, stopping to look at the display of merchandise in the window of the single shop, which was also post-office and grocery, she attracted a great deal of respectful attention, for, in this community, strangers were an event. Ruth reflected that the shop had only to grow to about fifty times its present size in order to become a full-fledged department store and bring upon the town the rank and dignity of a metropolis.
When she turned her face homeward, she had reached the foot of the hill before she realised that the first long walk over country roads was hard for one accustomed to city pavements. A broad, flat stone offered an inviting resting-place, and she sat down, in the shadow of Miss Ainslie's hedge, hoping Joe would pass in time to take her to the top of the hill. The hedge was high and except for the gate the garden was secluded.
"I seem to get more tired every minute," she thought. "I wonder if I've got the rheumatism."
She scanned the horizon eagerly for the dilapidated conveyance which she had once both feared and scorned. No sound could have been more welcome than the rumble of those creaking wheels, nor any sight more pleasing than the conflicting expressions in "Mamie's" single useful eye. She sat there a long time, waiting for deliverance, but it did not come.
"I'll get an alpenstock," she said to herself, as she rose, wearily, and tried to summon courage to start. Then the gate clicked softly and the sweetest voice in the world said: "My dear, you are tired--won't you come in?"
Turning, she saw Miss Ainslie, smiling graciously. In a moment she had explained that she was Miss Hathaway's niece and that she would be very glad to come in for a few moments.
"Yes, " said the sweet voice again, "I know who you are. Your aunt told me all about you and I trust we shall be friends."
Ruth followed her up the gravelled path to the house, and into the parlour, where a wood fire blazed cheerily upon the hearth. "It is so damp this time of year," she went on, "that I like to keep my fire burning."
While they were talking, Ruth's eyes rested with pleasure upon her hostess. She herself was tall, but Miss Ainslie towered above her. She was a woman of poise and magnificent bearing, and she had the composure which comes to some as a right and to others with long social training.
Her abundant hair was like spun silver--it was not merely white, but it shone. Her skin was as fresh and fair as a girl's, and when she smiled, one saw that her teeth were white and even; but the great charm of her face was her eyes. They were violet, so deep in colour as to seem almost black in certain lights, and behind them lay an indescribable something which made Ruth love her instinctively. She might have been forty, or seventy, but she was beautiful, with the beauty that never fades.
At intervals, not wishing to stare, Ruth glanced around the room. Having once seen the woman, one could not fail to recognise her house, for it suited her. The floors were hardwood, highly polished, and partly covered with rare Oriental rugs. The walls were a soft, dark green, bearing no disfiguring design, and the windows were draped with net, edged with Duchesse lace. Miss Hathaway's curtains hung straight to the floor, but Miss Ainslie's were tied back with white cord.
The furniture was colonial mahogany, unspoiled by varnish, and rubbed until it shone.
"You have a beautiful home," said Ruth, during a pause.
"Yes," she replied, "I like it."
"You have a great many beautiful things."
"Yes," she answered softly, "they were given to me by a--a friend."
"She must have had a great many," observed Ruth, admiring one of the rugs.
A delicate pink suffused Miss Ainslie's face. "My friend," she said, with quiet dignity, "is a seafaring gentleman."
That explained the rugs, Ruth thought, and the vase, of finest Cloisonne, which stood upon the mantel-shelf. It accounted also for the bertha of Mechlin lace, which was fastened to Miss Ainslie's gown, of lavender cashmere, by a large amethyst inlaid with gold and surrounded by baroque pearls.
For some little time, they talked of Miss Hathaway and her travels. "I told her she was too old to go," said Miss Ainslie,. smiling, "but she assured me that she could take care of herself, and I think she can. Even if she couldn't, she is perfectly safe. These'personally conducted' parties are by far the best, if one goes alone, for the first time."
Ruth knew that, but she was surprised, nevertheless. "Won't you tell me about my aunt, Miss Ainslie?" she asked. "You know I've never seen her."
"Why, yes, of course I will! Where shall I begin?"
"At the beginning," answered Ruth, with a little laugh.
"The beginning is very far away, deary," said Miss Ainslie, and Ruth fancied she heard a sigh. "She came here long before I did, and we were girls together. She lived in the old house at the top of the hill, with her father and mother, and I lived here with mine. We were very intimate for a long time, and then we had a quarrel, about something that was so silly and foolish that I cannot even remember what it was. For five years--no, for almost six, we passed each other like strangers, because each was too proud and stubborn to yield. But death, and trouble, brought us together again."
"Who spoke first," asked Ruth, much interested, "you or Aunt Jane?"
"It was I, of course. I don't believe she would have done it. She was always stronger than I, and though I can't remember the cause of the quarrel, I can feel the hurt to my pride, even at this day."
"I know," answered Ruth, quickly, "something of the same kind once happened to me, only it wasn't pride that held me back--it was just plain stubbornness. Sometimes I am conscious of two selves--one of me is a nice, polite person that I'm really fond of, and the other is so contrary and so mulish that I'm actually afraid of her. When the two come in conflict, the stubborn one always wins. I'm sorry, but I can't help it."
"Don't you think we're all like that?" asked Miss Ainslie, readily understanding. "I do not believe any one can have strength of character without being stubborn. To hold one's position in the face of obstacles, and never be tempted to yield --to me, that seems the very foundation."
"Yes, but to be unable to yield when you know you should--that's awful."
"Is it?" inquired Miss Ainslie, with quiet amusement.
"Ask Aunt Jane," returned Ruth, laughing. "I begin to perceive our definite relationship."
Miss Ainslie leaned forward to put another maple log on the fire. "Tell me more about Aunt Jane," Ruth suggested. "I'm getting to be somebody's relative, instead of an orphan, stranded on the shore of the world."
"She's hard to analyse," began the older woman. "I have never been able to reconcile her firmness with her softness. She's as hard as New England granite, but I think she wears it like a mask. Sometimes, one sees through. She scolds me very often, about anything that occurs to her, but I never pay any attention to it. She says I shouldn't live here all alone, and that I deserve to have something dreadful happen to me, but she had all the trees cut down that stood on the hill between her window and mine, and had a key made to my lower door, and made me promise that if I was ill at any time, I would put a signal in my window--a red shawl in the daytime and a light at night. I hadn't any red shawl and she gave me hers.
"One night--I shall never forget it--I had a terrible attack of neuralgia, during the worst storm I have ever known. I didn't even know that I put the light in the window--I was so beside myself with pain--but she came, at two o'clock in the morning, and stayed with me until I was all right again. She was so gentle and so tender-- I shall always love her for that."
The sweet voice vibrated with feeling, and Ruth's thoughts flew to the light in the attic window, but, no--it could not be seen from Miss Ainslie's. "What does Aunt Jane look like?" she asked, after a pause.
"I haven't a picture, except one that was taken a long time ago, but I'll get that." She went upstairs and returned, presently, putting an old-fashioned ambrotype into Ruth's hand.
The velvet-lined case enshrined Aunt Jane in the bloom of her youth. It was a young woman of twenty or twenty-five, seated in a straight-backed chair, with her hands encased in black lace mitts and folded in the lap of her striped silk gown. The forehead was high, protruding slightly, the eyes rather small, and very dark, the nose straight, and the little chin exceedingly firm and determined. There was an expression of maidenly wistfulness somewhere, which Ruth could not definitely locate, but there was no hint of it in the chin.
"Poor little Aunt Jane, " said Ruth. "Life never would be easy for her."
"No," returned Miss Ainslie, "but she would not let anyone know."
Ruth strolled over to the window, thinking that she must be going, and Miss Ainslie still held the picture in her hand. "She had a lover, didn't she?" asked Ruth, idly.
"I-I-think so," answered the other, unwillingly. "You remember we quarrelled."
A young man stopped in the middle of the road, looked at Miss Ainslie's house, and then at the brown one across the hill. From her position in the window, Ruth saw him plainly. He hesitated a moment, then went toward the brown house. She noted that he was a stranger--there was no such topcoat in the village.
"Was his name Winfield?" she asked suddenly, then instantly hated herself for the question.
The ambrotype fell to the floor. Miss Ainslie stooped to pick it up and Ruth did not see her face. "Perhaps," she said, in a strange tone, "but I never have asked a lady the name of her friend."
Gentle as it was, Ruth felt the rebuke keenly. An apology was on her lips, but only her flushed cheeks betrayed any emotion. Miss Ainslie's face was pale, and there was unmistakable resentment in her eyes.
"I must go," Ruth said, after an awkward silence, and in an instant Miss Ainslie was herself again.
"No-you mustn't go, deary. You haven't seen my garden yet. I have planted all the seeds and some of them are coming up. Isn't it beautiful to see things grow?"
"It is indeed," Ruth assented, forgetting the momentary awkwardness, "and I have lived for a long time where I have seen nothing grow but car tracks and high buildings. May I come again and see your garden?"
"I shall be so glad to have you," replied Miss Ainslie, with a quaint stateliness. "I have enjoyed your visit so much and I hope you will come again very soon."
"Thank you--I will."
Her hostess had opened the door for her, but Ruth stood in the hall, waiting, in obedience to some strange impulse. Then she stepped outside, but something held her back-something that lay unspoken between them. Those unfathomable eyes were fixed upon her, questioning, pleading, and searching her inmost soul.
Ruth looked at her, wondering, and striving to answer the mute appeal. Then Miss Ainslie laid her hand upon her arm. "My dear," she asked, earnestly, "do you light the lamp in the attic window every night?"
"Yes, I do, Miss Ainslie," she answered, quickly.
The older woman caught her breath, as if in relief, and then the deep crimson flooded her face.
"Hepsey told me and Aunt Jane left a letter about it," Ruth continued, hastily, "and I am very glad to do it. It would be dreadful to have a ship wrecked, almost at our door."
"Yes," sighed Miss Ainslie, her colour receding, "I have often thought of 'those who go down to the sea in ships.' It is so terrible, and sometimes, when I hear the surf beating against the cliff, I--I am afraid."
Ruth climbed the hill, interested, happy, yet deeply disturbed. Miss Ainslie's beautiful, changing face seemed to follow her, and the exquisite scent of the lavender, which had filled the rooms, clung to her senses like a benediction.
Hepsey was right, and unquestionably Miss Ainslie had something to do with the light; but no deep meaning lay behind it--so much was certain. She had lived alone so long that she had grown to have a great fear of shipwreck, possibly on account of her friend, the "seafaring gentleman," and had asked Miss Hathaway to put the light in the window--that was all.
Ruth's reason was fully satisfied, but something else was not. "I'm not going to think about it any more," she said to herself, resolutely, and thought she meant it.
She ate her dinner with the zest of hunger, while Hepsey noiselessly served her. "I have been to Miss Ainslie's, Hepsey," she said at length, not wishing to appear unsociable.
The maid's clouded visage cleared for an instant. "Did you find out about the lamp?" she inquired, eagerly.
"No, I didn't, Hepsey; but I'll tell you what I think. Miss Ainslie has read a great deal and has lived alone so much that she has become very much afraid of shipwreck. You know all of us have some one fear. For instance, I am terribly afraid of green worms, though a green worm has never harmed me. I think she asked Miss Hathaway to put the lamp in the window, and possibly told her of something she had read which made her feel that she should have done it before."
Hepsey's face took on its old, impenetrable calm.
"Don't you think so?" asked Miss Thorne, after a long pause.
"It's all very reasonable, isn't it?"
In spite of the seeming assent, she knew that Hepsey was not convinced; and afterward, when she came into the room with the attic lamp and a box of matches, the mystery returned to trouble Ruth again.
"If I don't take up tatting," she thought, as she went upstairs, "or find something else to do, I'll be a meddling old maid inside of six months."