Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
VII. The Man Who Hesitates
"Isn't fair'," said Winfield to himself, miserably, "no sir, 't isn't fair!"
He sat on the narrow piazza which belonged to Mrs. Pendleton's brown house, and took stern account of his inner self. The morning paper lay beside him, unopened, though his fingers itched to tear the wrapper, and his hat was pulled far down over his eyes, to shade them from the sun.
"If I go up there I'm going to fall in love with her, and I know it!"
That moment of revelation the night before, when soul stood face to face with soul, had troubled him strangely. He knew himself for a sentimentalist where women were concerned, but until they stood at the gate together, he had thought himself safe. Like many another man, on the sunny side of thirty, he had his ideal woman safely enshrined in his inner consciousness.
She was a pretty little thing, this dream maiden--a blonde, with deep blue eyes, a rosy complexion, and a mouth like Cupid's bow. Mentally, she was of the clinging sort, for Winfield did not know that in this he was out of fashion. She had a dainty, bird-like air about her and a high, sweet voice--a most adorable little woman, truly, for a man to dream of when business was not too pressing.
In almost every possible way, Miss Thorne was different. She was dark, and nearly as tall as he was; dignified, self-possessed, and calm, except for flashes of temper and that one impulsive moment. He had liked her, found her interesting in a tantalising sort of way, and looked upon her as an oasis in a social desert, but that was all.
Of course, he might leave the village, but he made a wry face upon discovering, through laboured analysis, that he didn't want to go away. It was really a charming spot--hunting and fishing to be had for the asking, fine accommodations at Mrs. Pendleton's, beautiful scenery, bracing air--in every way it was just what he needed. Should he let himself be frightened out of it by a newspaper woman who lived at the top of the hill? Hardly!
None the less, he realised that a man might firmly believe in Affinity, and, through a chain of unfortunate circumstances, become the victim of Propinquity. He had known of such instances and was now face to face with the dilemma.
Then his face flooded with dull colour. "Darn it," he said to himself, savagely, "what an unmitigated cad I am! All this is on the assumption that she's likely to fall on my neck at any minute! Lord!"
Yet there was a certain comfort in the knowledge that he was safe, even if he should fall in love with Miss Thorne. That disdainful young woman would save him from himself, undoubtedly, when he reached the danger point, if not before.
"I wonder how a fellow would go about it anyway," he thought. "He couldn't make any sentimental remarks, without being instantly frozen. She's like the Boston girls we read about in the funny papers. He couldn't give her things, either, except flowers or books, or sweets, or music. She has more books than she wants, because she reviews'em for the paper, and I don't think she's musical. She doesn't look like the candy fiends, and I imagine she'd pitch a box of chocolates into the sad sea, or give it to Hepsey. There's nothing left but flowers--and I suppose she wouldn't notice'em.
"A man would have to teach her to like him, and, on my soul, I don't know how he'd do that. Constant devotion wouldn't have any effect--I doubt if she'd permit it; and a fellow might stay away from her for six months, without a sign from her. I guess she's cold--no, she isn't, either--eyes and temper like hers don't go with the icebergs.
"I--that is, he couldn't take her out, because there's no place to go. It's different in the city, of course, but if he happened to meet her in the country, as I've done--
"Might ask her to drive, possibly, if I could rent Alfred and Mamie for a few hours--no, we'd have to have the day, for anything over two miles, and that wouldn't be good form, without a chaperone. Not that she needs one--she's equal to any emergency, I fancy. Besides, she wouldn't go. If I could get those two plugs up the hill, without pushing 'em, gravity would take'em back, but I couldn't ask her to walk up the hill after the pleasure excursion was over. I don't believe a drive would entertain her.
"Perhaps she'd like to fish--no, she wouldn't, for she said she didn't like worms. Might sail on the briny deep, except that there's no harbour within ten miles, and she wouldn't trust her fair young life to me. She'd be afraid I'd drown her.
"I suppose the main idea is to cultivate a clinging dependence, but I'd like to see the man who could woo any dependence from Miss Thorne. She holds her head like a thoroughbred touched with the lash. She said she was afraid of Carlton, but I guess she was just trying to be pleasant. I'll tell him about it--no, I won't, for I said I wouldn't.
"I wish there was some other girl here for me to talk to, but I'll be lucky if I can get along peaceably with the one already here. I'll have to discover all her pet prejudices and be careful not to walk on any of 'em. There's that crazy woman, for instance--I mustn't allude to her, even respectfully, if I'm to have any softening feminine influence about me before I go back to town. She didn't seem to believe I had any letter from Carlton--that's what comes of being careless.
"I shouldn't have told her that people said she had large feet and wore men's shoes. She's got a pretty foot; I noticed it particularly before I spoke--I suppose she didn't like that--most girls wouldn't, I guess, but she took it as a hunter takes a fence. Even after that, she said she'd help me be patient, and last night, when she said she'd read the papers to me--she was awfully sweet to me then.
"Perhaps she likes me a little bit--I hope so. She'd never care very much for anybody, though--she's too independent. She wouldn't even let me help her up the hill; I don't know whether it was independence, or whether she didn't want me to touch her. If we ever come to a place where she has to be helped, I suppose I'll have to put gloves on, or let her hold one end of a stick while I hang on to the other.
"Still she didn't take her hand away last night, when I grabbed it. Probably she was thinking about something else, and didn't notice. It's a particularly nice hand to hold, but I'll never have another chance, I guess.
"Carlton said she'd take the conceit out of me, if I had any. I'm glad he didn't put that in the letterstill it doesn't matter, since I've lost it. I wish I hadn't, for what he said about me was really very nice. Carlton is a good fellow.
"How she lit on me when I thought the crazy person might make a good special! Jerusalem! I felt like the dust under her feet. I'd be glad to have anybody stand up for me, like that, but nobody ever will. She's mighty pretty when she's angry, but I'd rather she wouldn't get huffy at me. She's a tremendously nice girl--there's no doubt of that."
At this juncture, Joe came out on the porch, hat in hand. "Mornin', Mr. Winfield."
"Good morning, Joe; how are your troubles this morning?"
"They're ill right, I guess," he replied, pleased with the air of comradeship. "Want me to read the paper to yer?"
"No, thank you, Joe, not this morning."
The tone was a dismissal, but Joe lingered, shifting from one foot to the other. "Ain't I done it to suit yer?"
"Quite so," returned Winfield, serenely.
"I don't mind doin' it," Joe continued, after a long silence. "I won't charge yer nothin'."
"You're very kind, Joe, but I don't care about it to-day." Winfield rose and walked to the other end of the porch. The apple trees were in bloom, and every wandering wind was laden with sweetness. Even the gnarled old tree in Miss Hathaway's yard, that had been out of bearing for many a year, had put forth a bough of fragrant blossoms. He saw it from where he stood; a mass of pink and white against the turquoise sky, and thought that Miss Thorne would make a charming picture if she stood beneath the tree with the blown petals drifting around her.
He lingered upon the vision till Joe spoke again. "Be you goin' up to Miss Hathaway's this mornin'?"
"Why, I don't know," Winfield answered somewhat resentfully, "why?"
"'Cause I wouldn't go--not if I was in your place."
"Why?" he demanded, facing him.
"Miss Hathaway's niece, she's sick."
"Sick!" repeated Winfield, in sudden fear, "what's the matter!"
"Oh,'t ain't nothin' serious, I reckon, cause she's up and around. I've just come from there, and Hepsey said that all night Miss Thorne was a-cryin', and that this mornin' she wouldn't eat no breakfast. She don't never eat much, but this mornin' she wouldn't eat nothin', and she wouldn't say what was wrong with her."
Winfield's face plainly showed his concern.
"She wouldn't eat nothin' last night, neither," Joe went on. "Hepsey told me this mornin' that she thought p'raps you and her had fit. She's your girl, ain't she?"
"No," replied Winfield, "she isn't my girl, and we haven't 'fit.' I'm sorry she isn't well."
He paced back and forth moodily, while Joe watched him in silence. "Well," he said, at length, "I reckon I'll be movin' along. I just thought I'd tell yer."
There was no answer, and Joe slammed the gate in disgust. "I wonder what's the matter," thought Winfield. "'T isn't a letter, for to-day's mail hasn't come and she was all right last night. Perhaps she isn't ill--she said she cried when she was angry. Great Heavens! I hope she isn't angry at me!
"She was awfully sweet to me just before I left her," he continued, mentally, "so I'm not to blame. I wonder if she's angry at herself because she offered to read the papers to me?"
All unknowingly he had arrived at the cause of Miss Thorne's unhappiness. During a wakeful, miserable night, she had wished a thousand times that she might take back those few impulsive words.
"That must be it," he thought, and then his face grew tender. "Bless her sweet heart," he muttered, apropos of nothing, "I'm not going to make her unhappy. It's only her generous impulse, and I won't let her think it's any more."
The little maiden of his dreams was but a faint image just then, as he sat down to plan a course of action which would assuage Miss Thorne's tears. A grey squirrel appeared on the gate post, and sat there, calmly, cracking a nut.
He watched the little creature, absently, and then strolled toward the gate. The squirrel seemed tame and did not move until he was almost near enough to touch it, and then it scampered only a little way.
"I'll catch it," Winfield said to himself, "and take it up to Miss Thorne. Perhaps she'll be pleased."
It was simple enough, apparently, for the desired gift was always close at hand. He followed it across the hill, and bent a score of times to pick it up, but it was a guileful squirrel and escaped with great regularity.
Suddenly, with a flaunt of its bushy tail and a daring, backward glance, it scampered under the gate into Miss Ainslie's garden and Winfield laughed aloud. He had not known he was so near the other house and was about to retreat when something stopped him.
Miss Ainslie stood in the path just behind the gate, with her face ghastly white and her eyes wide with terror, trembling like a leaf. There was a troubled silence, then she said, thickly, "Go!"
"I beg your pardon," he answered, hurriedly, "I did not mean to frighten you."
"Go!" she said again, her lips scarcely moving, "Go!"
"Now what in the mischief have I done;" he thought, as he crept away, feeling like a thief. "I understood that this was a quiet place and yet the strenuous life seems to have struck the village in good earnest.
"What am I, that I should scare the aged and make the young weep? I've always been considered harmless, till now. That must be Miss Thorne's friend, whom I met so unfortunately just now. She's crazy, surely, or she wouldn't have been afraid of me. Poor thing, perhaps I startled her."
He remembered that she had carried a basket and worn a pair of gardening gloves. Even though her face was so changed, for an instant he had seen its beauty--the deep violet eyes, fair skin, and regular features, surmounted by that wonderful crown of silvered hair.
Conflicting emotions swayed him as he wended his way to the top of the hill, with the morning paper in his pocket as an excuse, if he should need one. When he approached the gate, he was seized by a swift and unexplainable fear, and would have turned back, but Miss Hathaway's door was opened.
Then the little maiden of his dreams vanished, waving her hand in token of eterna1 farewell, for as Ruth came down the path between the white and purple plumes of lilac, with a smile of welcome upon her lips, he knew that, in all the world, there was nothing half so fair.