The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Orde, in spite of his activities, managed to see Carroll Bishop twice during the ensuing week.
On his return home late Monday afternoon, Grandma Orde informed him with a shrewd twinkle that she wanted him surely at home the following evening.
"I've asked in three or four of the young people for a candy pull," said she.
"Who, mother?" asked Orde.
"Your crowd. The Smiths, Collinses, Jane Hubbard, and Her," said Grandma Orde, which probably went to show that she had in the meantime been making inquiries, and was satisfied with them.
"Do you suppose they'll care for candy pulling?" hazarded Orde a little doubtfully.
"You mean, will she?" countered Grandma. "Well, I hope for both your sakes she is not beyond a little old-fashioned fun."
So it proved. The young people straggled in at an early hour after supper--every one had supper in those days. Carroll Bishop and Jane arrived nearly the last. Orde stepped into the hall to help them with their wraps. He was surprised as he approached Miss Bishop to lift her cloak from her shoulders, to find that the top of her daintily poised head, with its soft, fine hair, came well below the level of his eyes. Somehow her poise, her slender grace of movement and of attitude, had lent her the impression of a stature she did not possess. To-night her eyes, while fathomless as ever, shone quietly in anticipation.
"Do you know," she told Orde delightedly, "I have never been to a real candy pull in my life. It was so good of your mother to ask me. What a dear she looks to-night. And is that your father? I'm going to speak to him."
She turned through the narrow door into the lighted, low-ceilinged parlour where the company were chatting busily. Orde mechanically followed her. He was arrested by the sound of Jane Hubbard's slow good-humoured voice behind him.
"Now, Jack," she drawled, "I agree with you perfectly; but that is NO reason why I should be neglected entirely. Come and hang up my coat."
Full of remorse, Orde turned. Jane Hubbard stood accusingly in the middle of the hall, her plain, shrewd, good-humoured face smiling faintly. Orde met her frank wide eyes with some embarrassment.
"Here it is," said Jane, holding out the coat. "I don't much care whether you hang it up or not. I just wanted to call you back to wish you luck." Her slow smile widened, and her gray eyes met his still more knowingly.
Orde seized the coat and her hand at the same time.
"Jane, you're a trump," said he. "No wonder you're the most popular girl in town."
"Of course I am, Jack," she agreed indolently. She entered the parlour.
The candy pulling was a success. Of course everybody got burned a little and spattered a good deal; but that was to be expected. After the product had been broken and been piled on dishes, all trooped to the informal "back sitting-room," where an open fire invited to stories and games of the quieter sort. Some of the girls sat in chairs, though most joined the men on the hearth.
Carroll Bishop, however, seemed possessed of a spirit of restlessness. The place seemed to interest her. She wandered here and there in the room, looking now at the walnut-framed photograph of Uncle Jim Orde, now at the great pink conch shells either side the door, now at the marble-topped table with its square paper- weight of polished agate and its glass "bell," beneath which stood a very life-like robin. This "back sitting-room" contained little in the way of ornament. It was filled, on the contrary, with old comfortable chairs, and worn calf-backed books. The girl peered at the titles of these; but the gas-jets had been turned low in favour of the firelight, and she had to give over the effort to identify the volumes. Once she wandered close to Grandma Orde's cushioned wooden rocker, and passed her hand lightly over the old lady's shoulder.
"Do you mind if I look at things?" she asked. "It's so dear and sweet and old and different from our New York homes."
"Look all you want to, dearie," said Grandma Orde.
After a moment she passed into the dining-room. Here Orde found her, her hands linked in front of her.
"Oh, it is so quaint and delightful," she exhaled slowly. "This dear, dear old house with its low ceilings and its queer haphazard lines, and its deep windows, and its old pictures, and queer unexpected things that take your breath away."
"It is one of the oldest houses in town," said Orde, "and I suppose it is picturesque. But, you see, I was brought up here, so I'm used to it."
"Wait until you leave it," said she prophetically, "and live away from it. Then all these things will come back to you to make your heart ache for them."
They rambled about together, Orde's enthusiasm gradually kindling at the flame of her own. He showed her the marvellous and painstaking pencil sketch of Napoleon looking out over a maltese-cross sunset done by Aunt Martha at the age of ten. It hung framed in the upper hall.
"It has always been there, ever since I can remember," said Orde, "and it has seemed to belong there. I've never thought of it as good or bad, just as belonging."
"I know," she nodded.
In this spirit also they viewed the plaster statue of Washington in the lower hall, and the Roger's group in the parlour. The glass cabinet of "curiosities" interested her greatly--the carved ivory chessmen, the dried sea-weeds, the stone from Sugar Loaf Rock, the bit from the wreck of the North Star, the gold and silver shells, the glittering geodes and pyrites, the sandal-wood fan, and all the hundred and one knick-knacks it was then the custom to collect under glass. They even ventured part way up the creaky attic stairs, but it was too dark to enter that mysterious region.
"I hear the drip of water," she whispered, her finger on her lips.
"It's the tank," said Orde.
"And has it a Dark Place behind it?" she begged.
"That's just what it has," said he.
"And--tell me--are there real hair trunks with brass knobs on 'em?"
"Yes, mother has two or three."
"O-o-h!" she breathed softly. "Don't tell me what's in them. I want to believe in brocades and sashes. Do you know," she looked at him soberly, "I never had any dark places behind the tank, nor mysterious trunks, when I was a child."
"You might begin now," suggested Orde.
"Do you mean to insinuate I haven't grown up?" she mocked. "Thank you! Look out!" she cried suddenly, "the Boojum will catch us," and picking up her skirts she fairly flew down the narrow stairs. Orde could hear the light swish of her draperies down the hall, and then the pat of her feet on the stair carpet of the lower flight.
He followed rather dreamily. A glance into the sitting-room showed the group gathered close around the fire listening to Lem Collin's attempt at a ghost story. She was not there. He found her, then, in the parlour. She was kneeling on the floor before the glass cabinet of curiosities, and she had quite flattened her little nose against the pane. At his exclamation she looked up with a laugh.
"This is the proper altitude from which to view a cabinet of curiosities," said she, "and something tells me you ought to flatten your nose, too." She held out both hands to be helped up. "Oh, what a house for a child!" she cried.
After the company had gone, Orde stood long by the front gate looking up into the infinite spaces. Somehow, and vaguely, he felt the night to be akin to her elusive spirit. Farther and farther his soul penetrated into its depths; and yet other depths lay beyond, other mysteries, other unguessed realms. And yet its beauty was the simplicity of space and dark and the stars.
The next time he saw her was at her own house--or rather the house of the friend she visited. Orde went to call on Friday evening and was lucky enough to find the girls home and alone. After a decent interval Jane made an excuse and went out. They talked on a great variety of subjects, and with a considerable approach toward intimacy. Not until nearly time to go did Orde stumble upon the vital point of the evening. He had said something about a plan for the week following.
"But you forget that by that time I shall be gone," said she.
"Gone!" he echoed blankly. "Where?"
"Home," said she. "Don't you remember I am to go Sunday morning?"
"I thought you were going to stay a month."
"I was, but I--certain things came up that made it necessary for me to leave sooner."
"I--I'm sorry you're going," stammered Orde.
"So am I," said she. "I've had a very nice time here."
"Then I won't see you again," said Orde, still groping for realisation. "I must go to Monrovia to-morrow. But I'll be down to see you off."
"Do come," said she.
"It's not to be for good?" he expostulated. "You'll be coming back."
She threw her hands palm out, with a pretty gesture of ignorance.
"That is in the lap of the gods," said she.
"Will you write me occasionally?" he begged.
"As to that--" she began--"I'm a very poor correspondent."
"But won't you write?" he insisted.
"I do not make it a custom to write to young men."
"Oh!" he cried, believing himself enlightened. "Will you answer if I write you?"
"On whether there is a reply to make."
"But may I write you?"
"I suppose I couldn't very well prevent you, if you were sure to put on a three-cent stamp."
"Do you want me to?" persisted Orde.
She began gently to laugh, quite to herself, as though enjoying a joke entirely within her own personal privilege.
"You are so direct and persistent and boy-like," said she presently. "Now if you'll be very good, and not whisper to the other little pupils, I'll tell you how they do such things usually." She sat up straight from the depths of her chair, her white, delicately tapering forearms resting lightly on her knees. "Young men desiring to communicate with young ladies do not ask them bluntly. They make some excuse, like sending a book, a magazine, a marked newspaper, or even a bit of desired information. At the same time, they send notes informing the girl of the fact. The girl is naturally expected to acknowledge the politeness. If she wishes the correspondence to continue, she asks a question, or in some other way leaves an opening. Do you see?"
"Yes, I see," said Orde, slightly crestfallen. "But that's a long time to wait. I like to feel settled about a thing. I wanted to know."
She dropped back against the cushioned slant of her easy chair, and laughed again.
"And so you just up and asked!" she teased.
"I beg your pardon if I was rude," he said humbly.
The laughter died slowly from her eyes.
"Don't," she said. "It would be asking pardon for being yourself. You wanted to know: so you asked. And I'm going to answer. I shall be very glad to correspond with you and tell you about my sort of things, if you happen to be interested in them. I warn you: they are not very exciting."
"They are yours," said he.
She half rose to bow in mock graciousness, caught herself, and sank back.
"No, I won't," she said, more than half to herself. She sat brooding for a moment; then suddenly her mood changed. She sprang up, shook her skirts free, and seated herself at the piano. To Orde, who had also arisen, she made a quaint grimace over her shoulder.
"Admire your handiwork!" she told him. "You are rapidly bringing me to 'tell the truth and shame the devil.' Oh, he must be dying of mortification this evening!" She struck a great crashing chord, holding the keys while the strings reverberated and echoed down slowly into silence again. "It isn't fair," she went on, "for you big simple men to disarm us. I don't care! I have my private opinion of such brute strength. Je me moque!"
She wrinkled her nose and narrowed her eyes. Then ruthlessly she drowned his reply in a torrent of music. Like mad she played, rocking her slender body back and forth along the key-board; holding rigid her fingers, her hands, and the muscles of her arms. The bass notes roared like the rumbling of thunder; the treble flashed like the dart of lightnings. Abruptly she muted the instrument. Silence fell as something that had been pent and suddenly released. She arose from the piano stool quite naturally, both hands at her hair.
"Aren't Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard dear old people?" said she.
"What is your address in New York?" demanded Orde. She sank into a chair nearby with a pretty uplifted gesture of despair.
"I surrender!" she cried, and then she laughed until the tears started from her eyes and she had to brush them away with what seemed to Orde an absurd affair to call a handkerchief. "Oh, you are delicious!" she said at last. "Well, listen. I live at 12 West Ninth Street. Can you remember that?" Orde nodded. "And now any other questions the prisoner can reply to without incriminating herself, she is willing to answer." She folded her hands demurely in her lap.
Two days later Orde saw the train carry her away. He watched the rear car disappear between the downward slopes of two hills, and then finally the last smoke from the locomotive dissipate in the clear blue.
Declining Jane's kindly meant offer of a lift, he walked back to town.