IX. By Humble Means
 

As lightly as a rose petal upon the shimmering surface of a stream, Summer was drifting away, but whither, no one seemed to care. The odour of printer's ink upon the morning paper no longer aroused vain longings in Winfield's breast, and Ruth had all but forgotten her former connection with the newspaper world.

By degrees, Winfield had arranged a routine which seemed admirable. Until luncheon time, he was with Ruth and, usually, out of doors, according to prescription. In the afternoon, he went up again, sometimes staying to dinner, and, always, he spent his evenings there.

"Why don't you ask me to have my trunk sent up here?" he asked Ruth, one day.

"I hadn't thought of it," she laughed. "I suppose it hasn't seemed necessary."

"Miss Hathaway would be pleased, wouldn't she, if she knew she had two guests instead of one?"

"Undoubtedly; how could she help it?"

"When do you expect her to return?"

"I don't know--I haven't heard a word from her. Sometimes I feel a little anxious about her." Ruth would have been much concerned for her relative's safety, had she known that the eccentric lady had severed herself from the excursion and gone boldly into Italy, unattended, and with no knowledge of the language.

Hepsey inquired daily for news of Miss Hathaway, but no tidings were forthcoming. She amused herself in her leisure moments by picturing all sorts of disasters in which her mistress was doubtless engulfed, and in speculating upon the tie between Miss Thorne and Mr. Winfield.

More often than not, it fell to Hepsey to light the lamp in the attic window, though she did it at Miss Thorne's direction. "If I forget it, Hepsey," she had said, calmly, "you'll see to it, won't you?"

Trunks, cedar chests, old newspapers, and long hidden letters were out of Ruth's province now. Once in two or three weeks, she went to see Miss Ainslie, but never stayed long, though almost every day she reproached herself for neglect.

Winfield's days were filled with peace, since he had learned how to get on with Miss Thorne. When she showed herself stubborn and unyielding, he retreated gracefully, and with a suggestion of amusement, as a courtier may step aside gallantly for an angry lady to pass. Ruth felt his mental attitude and, even though she resented it, she was ashamed.

Having found that she could have her own way, she became less anxious for it, and several times made small concessions, which were apparently unconscious, but amusing, nevertheless. She had none of the wiles of the coquette; she was transparent, and her friendliness was disarming. If she wanted Winfield to stay at home any particular morning or afternoon, she told him so. At first he was offended, but afterward learned to like it, for she could easily have instructed Hepsey to say that she was out.

The pitiless, unsympathetic calendar recorded the fact that July was near its end, and Ruth sighed--then hated herself for it.

She had grown accustomed to idleness, and, under the circumstances, liked it far too well.

One morning, when she went down to breakfast, Hepsey was evidently perplexed about something, but Ruth took no outward note of it, knowing that it would be revealed ere long.

"Miss Thorne," she said, tentatively, as Ruth rose from the table.

"Yes?"

"Of course, Miss Thorne, I reckon likely't ain't none of my business, but is Mr. Winfield another detective, and have you found anything out yet?"

Ruth, inwardly raging, forced herself to let the speech pass unnoticed, and sailed majestically out of the room. She was surprised to discover that she could be made so furiously angry by so small a thing.

Winfield was coming up the hill with the mail, and she tried to cool her hot cheeks with her hands. "Let's go down on the side of the hill," she said, as he gave her some letters and the paper; "it's very warm in the sun, and I'd like the sea breeze."

They found a comparatively level place, with two trees to lean against, and, though they were not far from the house, they were effectually screened by the rising ground. Ruth felt that she could not bear the sight of Hepsey just then.

After glancing at her letters she began to read aloud, with a troubled haste which did not escape him. "Here's a man who had a little piece of bone taken out of the inside of his skull," she said. "Shall I read about that? He seems, literally, to have had something on his mind."

"You're brilliant this morning," answered Winfield, gravely, and she laughed hysterically.

"What's the matter with you?" he asked. "You don't seem like yourself."

"It isn't nice of you to say that," she retorted, "considering your previous remark."

There was a rumble and a snort on the road and, welcoming the diversion, he went up to reconnoitre. "Joe's coming; is there anything you want in the village?"

"No," she answered, wearily, "there's nothing I want--anywhere."

"You're an exceptional woman," returned Winfield, promptly, "and I'd advise you to sit for your photograph. The papers would like it--'Picture of the Only Woman Who Doesn't Want Anything'--why, that would work off an extra in about ten minutes!"

Ruth looked at him for a moment, then turned her eyes away. He felt vaguely uncomfortable, and was about to offer atonement when Joe's deep bass voice called out:

"Hello!"

"Hello yourself!" came in Hepsey's highest tones, from the garden.

"Want anything to-day?"

"Nope!"

There was a brief pause, and then Joe shouted again: "Hepsey!"

"Well?"

"I should think they'd break their vocal cords," said Winfield.

"I wish they would," rejoined Ruth, quickly.

"Come here!" yelled Joe. "I want to talk to yer."

"Talk from there," screamed Hepsey.

"Where's yer folks?"

"D'know."

"Say, be they courtin'?"

Hepsey left her work in the garden and came toward the front of the house. "They walk out some," she said, when she was halfway to the gate, "and they set up a good deal, and Miss Thorne told me she didn't know as she'd do better, but you can't rightly say they're courtin''cause city ways ain't like our'n."

The deep colour dyed Ruth's face and her hands twitched nervously. Winfield very much desired to talk, but could think of nothing to say. The situation was tense.

Joe clucked to his horses. "So long," he said. "See yer later."

Ruth held her breath until he passed them, and then broke down. Her self control was quite gone, and she sobbed bitterly, in grief and shame. Winfield tucked his handkerchief into her cold hands, not knowing what else to do.

"Don't!" he said, as if he, too, had been hurt. "Ruth, dear, don't cry!"

A new tenderness almost unmanned him, but he sat still with his hands clenched, feeling like a brute because of her tears.

The next few minutes seemed like an hour, then Ruth raised her head and tried to smile. "I expect you think I'm silly," she said, hiding her tear stained face again.

"No!" he cried, sharply; then, with a catch in his throat, he put his hand on her shoulder.

"Don't!" she sobbed, turning away from him, "what--what they said--was bad enough!"

The last words ended in a rush of tears, and, sorely distressed, he began to walk back and forth. Then a bright idea came to him.

"I'll be back in a minute," he said.

When he returned, he had a tin dipper, freshly filled with cold water. "Don't cry any more," he pleaded, gently, "I'm going to bathe your face."

Ruth leaned back against the tree and he knelt beside her. "Oh, that feels so good," she said, gratefully, as she felt his cool fingers upon her burning eyes. In a little while she was calm again, though her breast still heaved with every fluttering breath.

"You poor little woman," he said, tenderly, "you're just as nervous as you can be. Don't feel so about it. just suppose it was somebody who wasn't!"

"Who wasn't what?" asked Ruth, innocently.

Winfield crimsoned to the roots of his hair and hurled the dipper into the distance.

"What--what--they said," he stammered, sitting down awkwardly. "Oh, darn it!" He kicked savagely at a root, and added, in bitterest self accusation, "I'm a chump, I am!"

"No you're not," returned Ruth, with sweet shyness, "you're nice. Now we'll read some more of the paper."

He assumed a feverish interest in the market reports, but his thoughts were wandering. Certainly, nothing could have been worse. He felt as if a bud, which he had been long and eagerly watching, was suddenly torn open by a vandal hand. When he first touched Ruth's eyes with his finger tips, he had trembled like a schoolboy, and he wondered if she knew it.

If she did, she made no sign. Her cheeks were flushed, the lids of her downcast eyes were pink, and her voice had lost its crisp, incisive tones, but she read rapidly, without comment or pause, until the supply of news gave out. Then she began on the advertisements, dreading the end of her task and vainly wishing for more papers, though in her heart there was something sweet, which, even to herself, she dared not name.

"That'll do," he said, abruptly, "I'm not interested in the 'midsummer glove clearing.' I meant to tell you something when I first came--I've got to go away."

Ruth's heart throbbed painfully, as if some cold hand held it fast. "Yes," she said, politely, not recognising her own voice.

"It's only for a week--I've got to go to the oculist and see about some other things. I'll be back before long."

"I shall miss you," she said, conventionally. Then she saw that he was going away to relieve her from the embarrassment of his presence, and blessed him accordingly.

"When are you going?" she asked.

"This afternoon. I don't want to go, but it's just as well to have it over with. Can I do anything for you in the city?"

"No, thank you. My wants are few and, at present, well supplied."

"Don't you want me to match something for you? I thought women always had pieces of stuff that had to be matched immediately."

"They made you edit the funny column, didn't they?" she asked, irrelevantly.

"They did, Miss Thorne, and, moreover, I expect I'll have to do it again."

After a little, they were back on the old footing, yet everything was different, for there was an obtruding self consciousness on either side. "What time do you go?" she asked, with assumed indifference.

"Three-fifteen, I think, and it's after one now."

He walked back to the house with her, and, for the second time that day, Hepsey came out to sweep the piazza.

"Good bye, Miss Thorne," he said.

"Good bye, Mr. Winfield."

That was all, but Ruth looked up with an unspoken question and his eyes met hers clearly, with no turning aside. She knew he would come back very soon and she understood his answer--that he had the right.

As she entered the house, Hepsey said, pleasantly: "Has he gone away, Miss Thorne?"

"Yes," she answered, without emotion. She was about to say that she did not care for luncheon, then decided that she must seem to care.

Still, it was impossible to escape that keen-eyed observer. "You ain't eatin' much," she suggested.

"I'm not very hungry."

"Be you sick, Miss Thorne?"

"No--not exactly. I've been out in the sun and my head aches," she replied, clutching at the straw.

"Do you want a wet rag?"

Ruth laughed, remembering an earlier suggestion of Winfield's. "No, I don't want any wet rag, Hepsey, but I'll go up to my room for a little while, I think. Please don't disturb me."

She locked her door, shutting out all the world from the nameless joy that surged in her heart. The mirror disclosed flushed, feverish cheeks and dark eyes that shone like stars. "Ruth Thorne," she said to herself, "I'm ashamed of you! First you act like a fool and then like a girl of sixteen!"

Then her senses became confused and the objects in the room circled around her unsteadily. "I'm tired," she murmured. Her head sank drowsily into the lavender scented pillow and she slept too soundly to take note of the three o'clock train leaving the station. It was almost sunset when she was aroused by voices under her window.

"That feller's gone home," said Joe.

"Do tell!" exclaimed Hepsey. "Did he pay his board?"

"Yep, every cent. He's a-comin' back."

"When?"

"D'know. Don't she know?" The emphasis indicated Miss Thorne.

"I guess not," answered Hepsey. "They said good bye right in front of me, and there wa'n't nothin' said about it."

"They ain't courtin', then," said Joe, after a few moments of painful thought, and Ruth, in her chamber above, laughed happily to herself.

"Mebbe not," rejoined Hepsey. "It ain't fer sech as me to say when there's courtin' and when there ain't, after havin' gone well nigh onto five year with a country loafer what ain't never said nothin'." She stalked into the house, closed the door, and noisily bolted it. Joe stood there for a moment, as one struck dumb, then gave a long, low whistle of astonishment and walked slowly down the hill.