Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
VIII. Summer Days
The rumble of voices which came from the kitchen was not disturbing, but when the rural lovers began to sit on the piazza, directly under Ruth's window, she felt called upon to remonstrate.
"Hepsey," she asked, one morning, "why don't you and Joe sit under the trees at the side of the house? You can take your chairs out there."
"Miss Hathaway allerss let us set on the piazzer," returned Hepsey, unmoved.
"Miss Hathaway probably sleeps more soundly than I do. You don't want me to hear everything you say, do you?"
Hepsey shrugged her buxom shoulders. "You can if you like, mum."
"But I don't like," snapped Ruth. "It annoys me."
There was an interval of silence, then Hepsey spoke again, of her own accord. "If Joe and me was to set anywheres but in front, he might see the light."
"Well, what of it?"
"Miss Hathaway, she don't want it talked of, and men folks never can keep secrets," Hepsey suggested.
"You wouldn't have to tell him, would you?"
"Yes'm. Men folks has got terrible curious minds. They're all right if they don't know there's nothin', but if they does, why they's keen."
"Perhaps you're right, Hepsey," she replied, biting her lips. "Sit anywhere you please."
There were times when Ruth was compelled to admit that Hepsey's mental gifts were fully equal to her own. It was unreasonable to suppose, even for an instant, that Joe and Hepsey had not pondered long and earnestly upon the subject of the light in the attic window, yet the argument was unanswerable. The matter had long since lost its interest for Ruth--perhaps because she was too happy to care.
Winfield had easily acquired the habit of bringing her his morning papers, and, after the first embarrassment, Ruth settled down to it in a businesslike way. Usually, she sat in Miss Hathaway's sewing chair, under a tree a little way from the house, that she might at the same time have a general supervision of her domain, while Winfield stretched himself upon the grass at her feet. When the sun was bright, he wore his dark glasses, thereby gaining an unfair advantage.
After breakfast, which was a movable feast at the "Widder's," he went after his mail and brought hers also. When he reached the top of the hill, she was always waiting for him.
"This devotion is very pleasing," he remarked, one morning.
"Some people are easily pleased," she retorted. "I dislike to spoil your pleasure, but my stern regard for facts compels me to say that it is not Mr. Winfield I wait for, but the postman."
"Then I'll always be your postman, for I 'do admire' to be waited for, as they have it at the 'Widder's.' Of course, it's more or less of an expense--this morning, for instance, I had to dig up two cents to get one of your valuable manuscripts out of the clutches of an interested government."
"That's nothing," she assured him, "for I save you a quarter every day, by taking Joe's place as reader to Your Highness, not to mention the high tariff on the Sunday papers. Besides, the manuscripts are all in now."
"I'm glad to hear that," he replied, sitting down on the piazza. "Do you know, Miss Thorne, I think there's a great deal of joyous excitement attached to the pursuit of literature. You send out a story, fondly believing that it is destined to make you famous. Time goes on, and you hear nothing from it. You can see your name 'featured' on the advertisements of the magazine, and hear the heavy tread of the fevered mob, on the way to buy up the edition. In the roseate glow of your fancy, you can see not only your cheque, but the things you're going to buy with it. Perhaps you tell your friends, cautiously, that you're writing for such and such a magazine. Before your joy evaporates, the thing comes back from the Dead Letter Office, because you hadn't put on enough postage, and they wouldn't take it in. Or, perhaps they've written 'Return' on the front page in blue pencil, and all over it are little, dark, four-fingered prints, where the office pup has walked on it."
"You seem to be speaking from experience."
"You have guessed it, fair lady, with your usual wonderful insight. Now let's read the paper--do you know, you read much better than Joe does?"
"Really?" Ruth was inclined to be sarcastic, but there was a delicate colour in her cheeks, which pleased his aesthetic sense.
At first, he had had an insatiable thirst for everything in the paper, except the advertisements. The market reports were sacrificed inside of a week, and the obituary notices, weather indications, and foreign despatches soon followed. Later, the literary features were eliminated, but the financial and local news died hard. By the end of June, however, he was satisfied with the headlines.
"No, thank you, I don't want to hear about the murder," he said, in answer to Ruth's ironical question, "nor yet the Summer styles in sleeves. All that slop on the Woman's Page, about making home happy, is not suited to such as I, and I'll pass."
"There's a great deal here that's very interesting," returned Ruth, "and I doubt if I myself could have crammed more solid knowledge into one Woman's Page. Here's a full account of a wealthy lady's Summer home, and a description of a poor woman's garden, and eight recipes, and half a column on how to keep a husband at home nights, and plans for making a china closet out of an old bookcase."
"If there's anything that makes me dead tired," remarked Winfield, "it's that homemade furniture business."
"For once, we agree," answered Ruth. "I've read about it till I'm completely out of patience. Shirtwaist boxes from soap boxes, dressing tables from packing boxes, couches from cots, hall lamps from old arc light globes, and clothes hampers from barrels--all these I endured, but the last straw was a 'transformed kitchen.'"
"Tell me about it," begged Winfield, who was enjoying himself hugely.
"The stove was to be set into the wall," began Ruth, "and surrounded with marble and white tiling, or, if this was too expensive, it was to be hidden from view by a screen of Japanese silk. A nice oak settle, hand carved, which 'the young husband might make in his spare moments,' was to be placed in front of it, and there were to be plate racks and shelves on the walls, to hold the rare china. Charming kitchen!"
Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes shone like stars. "You're an awfully funny girl," said Winfield, quietly, "to fly into a passion over a 'transformed kitchen' that you never saw. Why don't you save your temper for real things?"
She looked at him, meaningly, and he retreated in good order. "I think I'm a tactful person," he continued, hurriedly, "because I get on so well with you. Most of the time, we're as contented as two kittens in a basket."
"My dear Mr. Winfield," returned Ruth, pleasantly, "you're not only tactful, but modest. I never met a man whose temperament so nearly approached the unassuming violet. I'm afraid you'll never be appreciated in this world--you're too good for it. You must learn to put yourself forward. I expect it will be a shock to your sensitive nature, but it's got to be done."
"Thank you," he laughed. "I wish we were in town now, and I'd begin to put myself forward by asking you out to dinner and afterward to the theatre."
"Why don't you take me out to dinner here?" she asked.
"I wouldn't insult you by offering you the 'Widder's' cooking. I mean a real dinner, with striped ice cream at the end of it."
"I'll go," she replied, "I can't resist the blandishments of striped ice cream."
"Thank you again; that gives me courage to speak of something that has lain very near my heart for a long time."
"Yes?" said Ruth, conventionally. For the moment she was frightened.
"I've been thinking fondly of your chafing-dish, though I haven't been allowed to see it yet, and I suppose there's nothing in the settlernent to cook in it, is there?"
"Nothing much, surely."
"We might have some stuff sent out from the city, don't you think so?"
"Yes--anything that would keep."
Aided and abetted by Winfield, she made out a list of articles which were unknown to the simple-minded inhabitants of the village.
"I'll attend to the financial part of it," he said, pocketing the list, "and then, my life will be in your hands."
After he went away, Ruth wished she knew more about the gentle art of cooking, which, after all, is closely allied to the other one--of making enemies. She decided to dispense with Hepsey's services, when Winfield came up to dinner, and to do everything herself.
She found an old cook book of Aunt Jane's and turned over its pages with new interest. It was in manuscript form, and seemed to represent the culinary knowledge of the entire neighbourhood. Each recipe was duly accredited to its original author, and there were many newspaper clippings, from the despised "Woman's Page" in various journals.
Ruth thought it would be an act of kindness to paste the loose clippings into Aunt Jane's book, and she could look them over as she fastened them in. The work progressed rapidly, until she found a clipping which was not a recipe. It was a perfunctory notice of the death of Charles Winfield, dated almost eighteen years ago.
She remembered the various emotions old newspapers had given her when she first came to Aunt Jane's. This was Abigail Weatherby's husband--he had survived her by a dozen years. "I'm glad it's Charles Winfield instead of Carl," thought Ruth, as she put it aside, and went on with her work.
"Pantry's come," announced Winfield, a few days later; "I didn't open it, but I think everything is there. Joe's going to bring it up."
"Then you can come to dinner Sunday," answered Ruth, smiling.
"I'll be here," returned Winfield promptly. "What time do we dine?"
"I don't know exactly. It's better to wait, I think, until Hepsey goes out. She always regards me with more or less suspicion, and it makes me uncomfortable."
Sunday afternoon, the faithful Joe drove up to the gate, and Hepsey emerged from her small back room, like a butterfly from a chrysalis. She was radiant in a brilliant blue silk, which was festooned at irregular intervals with white silk lace. Her hat was bending beneath its burden of violets and red roses, starred here and there with some unhappy buttercups which had survived the wreck of a previous millinery triumph. Her hands were encased in white cotton gloves, which did not fit.
With Joe's assistance, she entered the vehicle and took her place proudly on the back seat, even while he pleaded for her to sit beside him.
"You know yourself that I can't drive nothin' from the back seat," he complained.
"Nobody's askin' you to drive nothin' from nowhere," returned Hepsey, scornfully. "If you can't take me out like a lady, I ain't a-goin'."
Ruth was dazzled by the magnificence of the spectacle and was unable to take her eyes away from it, even after Joe had turned around and started down hill. She thought Winfield would see them pass his door and time his arrival accordingly, so she was startled when he came up behind her and said, cheerfully:
"They look like a policeman's, don't they?"
"Hepsey's hands--did you think I meant yours?"
"How long have you been here?"
"Nearly thirty years."
"That wasn't what I meant," said Ruth, colouring. "How long have you been at Aunt Jane's?"
"Oh, that's different. When Joe went out to harness his fiery steeds to his imposing chariot, I went around through the woods, across the beach, climbed a vertical precipice, and came up this side of the hill. I had to wait some little time, but I had a front seat during the show."
He brought out her favourite chair, placing it under the maple tree, then sat down near her. "I should think you'd get some clothes like Hepsey's," he began. "I'll wager, now, that you haven't a gown like that in your entire wardrobe."
"You're right--I haven't. The nearest approach to it is a tailored gown, lined with silk, which Hepsey thinks I should wear wrong side out."
"How long will the coast be clear?"
"Until nine o'clock, I think. They go to church in the evening."
"It's half past three now," he observed, glancing at his watch. "I had fried salt pork, fried eggs, and fried potatoes for breakfast. I've renounced coffee, for I can't seem to get used to theirs. For dinner, we had round steak, fried, more fried potatoes, and boiled onions. Dried apple pie for dessert--I think I'd rather have had the mince I refused this morning."
"I'll feed you at five o'clock," she said, smiling.
"That seems like a long time," he complained.
"It won't, after you begin to entertain me."
It was after five before either realised it. "Come on," she said, "you can sit in the kitchen and watch me."
He professed great admiration while she put on one of Hepsey's white aprons, and when she appeared with the chafing-dish, his emotion was beyond speech. He was allowed to open the box and to cut up some button mushrooms, while she shredded cold chicken. "I'm getting hungry every minute," he said, "and if there is undue postponement, I fear I shall assimilate all the raw material in sight--including the cook."
Ruth laughed happily. She was making a sauce with real cream, seasoned delicately with paprika and celery salt. "Now I'll put in the chicken and mushrooms," she said, "and you can stir it while I make toast."
They were seated at the table in the dining-room and the fun was at its height, when they became aware of a presence. Hepsey stood in the door, apparently transfixed with surprise, and with disapproval evident in every line of her face. Before either could speak, she was gone.
Though Ruth was very much annoyed, the incident seemingly served to accentuate Winfield's enjoyment. The sound of wheels on the gravel outside told them that she was continuing her excursion.
"I'm going to discharge her to-morrow," Ruth said.
"You can't--she is in Miss Hathaway's service, not yours. Besides, what has she done? She came back, probably, after something she had forgotten. You have no reasonable ground for discharging her, and I think you'd be more uncomfortable if she went than if she stayed."
"Perhaps you're right," she admitted.
"I know how you feel about it," he went on, "but I hope you won't let her distress you. It doesn't make a bit of difference to me; she's only amusing. Please don't bother about it."
"I won't," said Ruth, "that is, I'll try not to."
They piled the dishes in the sink, "as a pleasant surprise for Hepsey," he said, and the hours passed as if on wings. It was almost ten o'clock before it occurred to Winfield that his permanent abode was not Miss Hathaway's parlour.
As they stood at the door, talking, the last train came in. "Do you know," said Winfield, "that every night, just as that train comes in, your friend down there puts a candle in her front window?"
"Well," rejoined Ruth, sharply, "what of it? It's a free country, isn't it?"
"Very. Untrammelled press and highly independent women. Good night, Miss Thorne. I'll be up the first thing in the morning."
She was about to speak, but slammed the door instead, and was displeased when she heard a smothered laugh from outside.