Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
IV. A Guest
As the days went by, Ruth had the inevitable reaction. At first the country brought balm to her tired nerves, and she rested luxuriously, but she had not been at Miss Hathaway's a fortnight before she bitterly regretted the step she had taken.
Still there was no going back, for she had given her word, and must stay there until October. The months before her stretched out into a dreary waste. She thought of Miss Ainslie gratefully, as a redeeming feature, but she knew that it was impossible to spend all of her time in the house--it the foot of the hill.
Half past six had seemed an unearthly hour for breakfast, and yet more than once Ruth had been downstairs at five o'clock, before Hepsey was stiring. There was no rest to be had anywhere, even after a long walk through the woods and fields. Inaction became irritation, and each day was filled with a thousand unbearable annoyances. She was fretful, moody, and restless, always wishing herself back in the office, yet knowing that she could not do good work, even if she were there.
She sat in her room one afternoon, frankly miserable, when Hepsey stalked in, unannounced, and gave her a card.
"Mr. Carl Winfield!" Ruth repeated aloud. "Some one to see me, Hepsey?" she asked, in astonishment.
"Yes'm. He's a-waitin' on the piazzer."
"Didn't you ask him to come in?"
"No'm. Miss Hathaway, she don't want no strangers in her house."
"Go down immediately," commanded Ruth, sternly, "ask him into the parlour, and say that Miss Thorne will be down in a few moments."
Hepsey shuffled downstairs with comfortable leisure, opened the door with aggravating slowness, then said, in a harsh tone that reached the upper rooms distinctly: "Miss Thorne, she says that you can come in and set in the parlour till she comes down."
"Thank you," responded a masculine voice, in quiet amusement; "Miss Thorne is kind--and generous."
Ruth's cheeks flushed hotly. "I don't know whether Miss Thorne will go down or not," she said to herself. "It's probably a book-agent."
She rocked pensively for a minute or two, wondering what would happen if she did not go down. There was no sound from the parlour save a subdued clearing of the throat. "He's getting ready to speak his piece," she thought, "and he might as well do it now as to wait for me."
Though she loathed Mr. Carl Winfield and his errand, whatever it might prove to be, she stopped before her mirror long enough to give a pat or two to her rebellious hair. On the way down she determined to be dignified, icy, and crushing.
A tall young fellow with a pleasant face rose to greet her as she entered the room. "Miss Thorne?" he inquired.
"Yes--please sit down. I am very sorry that my maid should have been so inhospitable." It was not what she had meant to say.
"Oh, that's all right," he replied, easily; "I quite enjoyed it. I must ask your pardon for coming to you in this abrupt way, but Carlton gave me a letter to you, and I've lost it." Carlton was the managing editor, and vague expectations of a summons to the office came into Ruth's mind.
"I'm on The Herald," he went on; "that is, I was, until my eyes gave out, and then they didn't want me any more. Newspapers can't use anybody out of repair," he added, grimly.
"I know," Ruth answered, nodding.
"Of course the office isn't a sanitarium, though they need that kind of an annex; nor yet a literary kindergarten, which I've known it to be taken for, but--well, I won't tell you my troubles. The oculist said I must go to the country for six months, stay outdoors, and neither read nor write. I went to see Carlton, and he promised me a berth in the Fall--they're going to have a morning edition, too, you know."
Miss Thorne did not know, but she was much interested.
"Carlton advised me to come up here," resumed Winfield. "He said you were here, and that you were going back in the Fall. I'm sorry I've lost his letter."
"What was in it?" inquired Ruth, with a touch of sarcasm. "You read it, didn't you?"
"Of course I read it--that is, I tried to. The thing looked like a prescription, but, as nearly as I could make it out, it was principally a description of the desolation in the office since you left it. At the end there was a line or two commending me to your tender mercies, and here I am."
"Now what in the dickens have I done?" thought Winfield. "That's it exactly, Miss Thorne. I've lost my reference, and I'm doing my best to create a good impression without it. I thought that as long as we were going to be on the same paper, and were both exiles--"
He paused, and she finished the sentence for him: "that you'd come to see me. How long have you been in town?"
"'In town' is good," he said. "I arrived in this desolate, God-forsaken spot just ten days ago. Until now I've hunted and fished every day, but I didn't get anything but a cold. It was very good, of its kind--I couldn't speak above a whisper for three days."
She had already recognised him as the young man she saw standing in the road the day she went to Miss Ainslie's, and mentally asked his pardon for thinking he was a book-agent. He might become a pleasant acquaintance, for he was tall, clean shaven, and well built. His hands were white and shapely and he was well groomed, though not in the least foppish. The troublesome eyes were dark brown, sheltered by a pair of tinted glasses. His face was very expressive, responding readily to every change of mood.
They talked "shop" for a time, discovering many mutual friends, and Ruth liked him. He spoke easily, though hurriedly, and appeared to be somewhat cynical, but she rightly attributed it to restlessness like her own.
"What are you going to do on The Tribune?" she asked.
"Anything," he answered, with an indefinable shrug. "'Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.' What are you going to do?"
"The same," replied Ruth. "'Society,''Mother's Corner,''Under the Evening Lamp,' and'In the Kitchen with Aunt Jenny.'"
He laughed infectiously. "I wish Carlton could hear you say that."
"I don't," returned Ruth, colouring faintly.
"Why; are you afraid of him?"
"Certainly I am. If he speaks to me, I'm instantly stiff with terror."
"Oh, he isn't so bad," said Winfield, reassuringly, "He's naturally abrupt, that's all; and I'll venture he doesn't suspect that he has any influence over you. I'd never fancy that you were afraid of anybody or anything on earth."
"I'm not afraid of anything else," she answered, "except burglars and green worms."
"Carlton would ernjoy the classification--really, Miss Thorne, somebody should tell him, don't you think? So much innocent pleasure doesn't often come into the day of a busy man."
For a moment Ruth was angry, and then, all at once, she knew Winfield as if he had always been her friend. Conventionality, years, and the veneer of society were lightly laid upon one who would always be a boy. Some men are old at twenty, but Winfield would be young at seventy.
"You can tell him if you want to," Ruth rejoined, calmly. "He'll be so pleased that he'll double your salary on the spot."
"And you?" he asked, his eyes twinkling with fun.
"I'll be pensioned, of course."
"You're all right," he returned, "but I guess I won't tell him. Riches lead to temptation, and if I'm going to be on The Tribune I'd hate to have you pensioned."
Hepsey appeared to have a great deal of employment in the dining-room, and was very quiet about it, with long pauses between her leisurely movements. Winfield did not seem to notice it, but it jarred upon Ruth, and she was relieved when he said he must go.
"You'll come again, won't you?" she asked.
"I will, indeed."
She stood at the window, unconsciously watching him as he went down the hill with a long, free stride. She liked the strength in his broad shoulders, his well modulated voice, and his clear, honest eyes; but after all he was nothing but a boy.
"Miss Thorne," said Hepsey, at her elbow, "is that your beau?" It was not impertinence, but sheer friendly interest which could not be mistaken for anything else.
"No," she answered; "of course not."
"He's real nice-lookin', ain't he?
"Have you got your eye on anybody else?"
"Then, Miss Thorne, I don't know's you could do better."
"Perhaps not." She was thinking, and spoke mechanically. From where she stood she could still see him walking rapidly down the hill.
"Ain't you never seen him before?"
Miss Thorne turned. "Hepsey," she said, coldly, "please go into the kitchen and attend to your work. And the next time I have company, please stay in the kitchen--not in the dining-room."
"Yes'm," replied Hepsey, meekly, hastening to obey.
She was not subtle, but she understood that in some way she had offended Miss Thorne, and racked her brain vainly. She had said nothing that she would not have said to Miss Hathaway, and had intended nothing but friendliness. As for her being in the dining-room--why, very often, when Miss Hathaway had company, she was called in to give her version of some bit of village gossip. Miss Hathaway scolded her when she was displeased, but never before had any one spoken to Hepsey in a measured, icy tone that was at once lady-like and commanding. Tears came into her eyes, for she was sensitive, after all.
A step sounded overhead, and Hepsey regained her self-possession. She had heard nearly all of the conversation and could have told Miss Thorne a great deal about the young man. For instance, he had not said that he was boarding at Joe's, across the road from Miss Ainslie's, and that he intended to stay all Summer. She could have told her of an uncertain temper, peculiar tastes, and of a silver shaving-cup which Joe had promised her a glimpse of before the visitor went back to the city; but she decided to let Miss Thorne go on in her blind ignorance.
Ruth, meanwhile, was meditating, with an aggravated restlessness. The momentary glimpse of the outer world had stung her into a sense of her isolation, which she realised even more keenly than before. It was because of this, she told herself, that she hoped Winfield liked her, for it was not her wont to care about such trifles. He thought of her, idly, as a nice girl, who was rather pretty when she was interested in anything; but, with a woman's insight, influenced insensibly by Hepsey's comment, Ruth scented possibilities.
She wanted him to like her, to stay in that miserable village as long as she did, and keep her mind from stagnation--her thought went no further than that. In October, when they went back, she would thank Carlton, prettily, for sending her a friend--provided they did not quarrel. She could see long days of intimate companionship, of that exalted kind which is, possible only when man and woman meet on a high plane. "We're both too old for nonsense," she thought; and then a sudden fear struck her, that Winfield might be several years younger than she was.
Immediately she despised herself. "I don't care if he is," she thought, with her cheeks crimson; "it's nothing to me. He's a nice boy, and I want to be amused."
She went to her dresser, took out the large top drawer, and dumped its contents on the bed. It was a desperate measure, for Ruth hated to put things in order. The newspaper which had lain in the bottom of it had fallen out also, and she shook it so violently that she tore it.
Then ribbons, handkerchiefs, stocks, gloves, and collars were unceremoniously hustled back into the drawer, for Miss Thorne was at odds with herself and the world. She was angry with Hepsey, she hated Winfield, and despised herself. She picked up a scrap of paper which lay on a glove, and caught a glimpse of unfamiliar penmanship.
It was apparently the end of a letter, and the rest of it was gone. "At Gibraltar for some time," she read, "keeping a shop, but will probably be found now in some small town on the coast of Italy. Very truly yours." The signature had been torn off.
"Why, that isn't mine," she thought. "It must be something of Aunt Jane's." Another bit of paper lay near it, and, unthinkingly, she read a letter which was not meant for her.
"I thank you from my heart," it began, "for understanding me. I could not put it into words, but I believe you know. Perhaps you think it is useless--that it is too late; but if it was, I would know. You have been very kind, and I thank you."
There was neither date, address, nor signature. The message stood alone, as absolutely as some far-off star whose light could not be seen from the earth. Some one understood it--two understood it--the writer and Aunt Jane.
Ruth put it back under the paper, with the scrap of the other letter, and closed the drawer with a bang. "I hope," she said to herself, "that while I stay here I'll be mercifully preserved from finding things that are none of my business." Then, as in a lightning flash, for an instant she saw clearly.
Fate plays us many tricks and assumes strange forms, but Ruth knew that some day, on that New England hill, she would come face to face with a destiny that had been ordained from the beginning. Something waited for her there--some great change. She trembled at the thought, but was not afraid.