Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
V. The Rumours of the Valley
"Miss Thorne," said Hepsey, from the doorway of Ruth's room, "that feller's here again." There was an unconscious emphasis on the last word, and Ruth herself was someewhat surprised, for she had not expected another call so soon.
"He's a-settinn' in the parlour,"continued Hepsey, "when he ain't a-walkin' around it and wearin' out the carpet. I didn't come up when he first come, on account of my pie crust bein' all ready to put in the oven."
"How long has he been here?" asked Ruth, dabbing a bit of powder on her nose and selecting a fresh collar.
"Oh, p'raps half an hour."
"That isn't right, Hepsey; when anyone comes you must tell me immediately. Never mind the pie crust next time." Ruth endeavoured to speak kindly, but she was irritated at the necessity of making another apology.
When she went down, Winfield dismissed her excuses with a comprehensive wave of the hand. "I always have to wait when I go to call on a girl," he said; "it's one of the most charming vagaries of the ever-feminine. I used to think that perhaps I wasn't popular, but every fellow I know has the same experience."
"I'm an exception," explained Ruth; "I never keep any one waiting. Of my own volition, that is," she added, hastily, feeling his unspoken comment.
"I came up this afternoon to ask a favour of you," he began. "Won't you go for a walk with me? It's wrong to stay indoors on a day like this."
"Wait till I get my hat," said Ruth, rising.
"Fifteen minutes is the limit," he called to her, as she went upstairs.
She was back again almost immediately, and Hepsey watched them in wide-mouthed astonishment as they went down hill together, for it was not in her code of manners that "walking out" should begin so soon. When they approached Miss Ainslie's he pointed out the brown house across from it, on the other side of the hill.
"Yonder palatial mansion is my present lodging," he volunteered, "and I am a helpless fly in the web of the 'Widder' Pendleton."
"Pendleton," repeated Ruth; "why, that's Joe's name."
"It is," returned Winfield, concisely. "He sits opposite me at the table, and wonders at my use of a fork. It is considered merely a spear for bread and meat at the 'Widder's.' I am observed closely at all times, and in some respects Joe admires me enough to attempt imitation, which, as you know, is the highest form of flattery. For instance, this morning he wore not only a collar and tie, but a scarf pin. It was a string tie, and I've never before seen a pin worn in one, but it's interesting."
"It must be."
"He has a sweetheart," Winfield went on, "and I expect she'll be dazzled."
"My Hepsey is his lady love," Ruth explained.
"What? The haughty damsel who wouldn't let me in? Do tell!"
"You're imitating now," laughed Ruth, "but I shouldn't call it flattery."
For a moment, there was a chilly silence. Ruth did not look at him, but she bit her lip and then laughed, unwillingly. "'It's all true," she said, "I plead guilty."
"You see, I know all about you," he went on. "You knit your brows in deep thought, do not hear when you are spoken to, even in a loud voice, and your mail consists almost entirely of bulky envelopes, of a legal nature, such as came to the 'Widder' Pendleton from the insurance people."
"Returned manuscripts," she interjected.
"Possibly--far be it from me to say they're not. Why, I've had 'em myself."
"You don't mean it!" she exclaimed, ironically.
"You seek out, as if by instinct, the only crazy person in the village, and come home greatly perturbed. You ask queer questions of your humble serving-maid, assume a skirt which is shorter than the approved model, speaking from the village standpoint, and unhesitatingly appear on the public streets. You go to the attic at night and search the inmost recesses of many old trunks."
"Yes," sighed Ruth, "I've done all that."
"At breakfast you refuse pie, and complain because the coffee is boiled. Did anybody ever hear of coffee that wasn't boiled? Is it eaten raw in the city? You call supper'dinner,' and have been known to seek nourishment at nine o'clock at night, when all respectable people are sound asleep. In your trunk, you have vainly attempted to conceal a large metal object, the use of which is unknown."
"Oh, my hapless chafing-dish!" groaned Ruth.
"Chafing-dish?" repeated Winfield, brightening visibly. "And I eating sole leather and fried potatoes? From this hour I am your slave--you can't lose me now!
"Go on," she commanded.
"I can't--the flow of my eloquence is stopped by rapturous anticipation. Suffice it to say that the people of this enterprising city are well up in the ways of the wicked world, for the storekeeper takes The New York Weekly and the 'Widder' Pendleton subscribes for The Fireside Companion. The back numbers, which are not worn out, are the circulating library of the village. It's no use, Miss Thorne--you might stand on your hilltop and proclaim your innocence until you were hoarse, and it would be utterly without effect. Your status is definitely settled."
"How about Aunt Jane?" she inquired. "Does my relationship count for naught?"
"Now you are rapidly approaching the centre of things," replied the young man. "Miss Hathaway is one woman in a thousand, though somewhat eccentric. She is the venerated pillar of the community and a constant attendant it church, which it seems you are not. Also, if you are really her niece, where is the family resemblance? Why has she never spoken of you? Why have you never been here before? Why are her letters to you sealed with red wax, bought especially for the purpose? Why does she go away before you come? Lady Gwendolen Hetherington," he demanded, with melodramatic fervour, "answer me these things if you can!"
"I'm tired," she complained.
"Delicate compliment," observed Winfield, apparently to himself. "Here's a log across our path, Miss Thorne; let's sit down."
The budded maples arched over the narrow path, and a wild canary, singing in the sun, hopped from bough to bough. A robin's cheery chirp came from another tree, and the clear notes of a thrush, with a mottled breast, were answered by another in the gold-green aisles beyond.
"Oh," he said, under his breath, "isn't this great!"
The exquisite peace of the forest was like that of another sphere. "Yes," she answered, softly, "it is beautiful."
"You're evading the original subject," he suggested, a little later.
"I haven't had a chance to talk," she explained. "You've done a monologue ever since we left the house, and I listened, as becomes inferior and subordinate woman. I have never seen my venerated kinswoman, and I don't see how she happened to think of me. Nevertheless, when she wrote, asking me to take charge of her house while she went to Europe, I gladly consented, sight unseen. When I came, she was gone. I do not deny the short skirt and heavy shoes, the criticism of boiled coffee, nor the disdain of breakfast pie. As far is I know, Aunt Jane is my only living relative."
"That's good," he said, cheerfully; "I'm shy even of an aunt. Why shouldn't the orphans console one another?"
"They should," admitted Ruth; "and you are doing your share nobly."
"Permit me to return the compliment. Honestly, Miss Thorne," he continued, seriously, "you have no idea how much I appreciate your being here. When I first realised what it meant to be deprived of books and papers for six months at a stretch, it seemed as if I should go mad. Still, I suppose six months isn't as bad as forever, and I was given a choice. I don't want to bore you, but if you will let me come occasionally, I shall be very glad. I'm going to try to be patient, too, if you'll help me--patience isn't my long suit."
"Indeed I will help you," answered Ruth, impulsively; "I know how hard it must be."
"I'm not begging for your sympathy, though I assure you it is welcome." He polished the tinted glasses with a bit of chamois.. and his eyes filled with the mist of weakness before he put them on again. "So you've never seen your aunt," he said.
"No--that pleasure is still in store for me."
"They say down at the 'Widder's' that she's a woman with a romance."
"Tell me about it!" exclaimed Ruth, eagerly.
"Little girls mustn't ask questions," he remarked, patronisingly, and in his most irritating manner. "Besides, I don't know. If the 'Widder' knows, she won't tell, so it's fair to suppose she doesn't. Your relation does queer things in the attic, and every Spring, she has an annual weep. I suppose it's the house cleaning, for the rest of the year she's dry-eyed and calm."
"I weep very frequently," commented Ruth.
"'Tears, idle tears--I wonder what they mean.'"
"They don't mean much, in the case of a woman."
"I've never seen many of'em," returned Winfield, "and I don't want to. Even stage tears go against the grain with me. I know that the lady who sobs behind the footlights is well paid for it, but all the same, it gives me the creeps."
"It's nothing serious--really it isn't," she explained. "It's merely a safety valve. If women couldn't cry, they'd explode."
"I always supposed tears were signs of sorrow," he said.
"Far from it," laughed Ruth. "When I get very angry, I cry, and then I got angrier because I'm crying and cry harder."
"That opens up a fearful possibility. What would happen if you kept getting angrier because you were crying and crying harder because you got angrier?"
"I have no idea," she answered, with her dark eyes fixed upon him, "but it's a promising field for investigation."'
"I don't want to see the experiment."
"Don't worry," said Ruth, laconically, "you won't."
There was a long silence, and Winfield began to draw designs on the bare earth with a twig. "Tell me about the lady who is considered crazy," he suggested.
Ruth briefly described Miss Ainslie, dwelling lovingly upon her beauty and charm. He listened indifferently at first, but when she told him of the rugs, the real lace which edged the curtains, and the Cloisonne vase, he became much interested.
"Take me to see her some day, won't you," he asked, carelessly.
Ruth's eyes met his squarely. "'T isn't a 'story,'" she said, resentfully, forgetting her own temptation.
The dull colour flooded his face. "You forget, Miss Thorne, that I am forbidden to read or write."
"For six months only," answered Ruth, sternly, "and there's always a place for a good Sunday special."
He changed the subject, but there were frequent awkward pauses and the spontaniety was gone. She rose, adjusting her belt in the back, and announced that it was time for her to go home.
On their way up the hill, she tried to be gracious enough to atone for her rudeness, but, though he was politeness itself, there was a difference, and she felt as if she had lost something. Distance lay between them--a cold, immeasurable distance, yet she knew that she had done right.
He opened the gate for her, then turned to go. "Won't you come in?" she asked, conventionally.
"No, thank you--some other time, if I may. I've had a charming afternoon." He smiled pleasantly, and was off down the hill.
When she remembered that it was a Winfield who had married Abigail Weatherby, she dismissed the matter as mere coincidence, and determined, at all costs, to shield Miss Ainslie. The vision of that gracious lady came to her, bringing with it a certain uplift of soul. Instantly, she was placed far above the petty concerns of earth, like one who walks upon the heights, untroubled, while restless surges thunder at his feet.