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   Chapter 9 A PRACTICAL ARTIST

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 19932

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Here I am! And the goods are here too. Isn't it a miracle? It could never have been done if I hadn't found a kind friend among the railroad men, who sent my things by fast freight. Now to settle in a whirlwind of a hurry and fly back for Granny."

These were Miss Charlotte Ruston's words of greeting as she shook hands with the occupants of the Macauley car, which had met her at the station on the last day of July. She looked as fresh and eager to carry out her plans as if she were not just at the end of a journey.

"I suppose you'll stop for luncheon first," Martha Macauley suggested. She noted, with the approval of the suburbanite who cares much to be well dressed, the quietly smart attire of the arriving traveller.

"Indeed I will. Fuel first, fire afterward. But I'm fairly burning to begin, July weather though it is. How are my hollyhocks? A splendid row? I've dreamed of those hollyhocks!"

"They are all there-as well as one can see them above the weeds. We would have had the grass cut for you, but didn't venture to touch so much as a spear, lest we destroy some picturesque effect," Ellen said, giving her friend's hand an affectionate grasp as Charlotte took her place beside her.

"I do want to see to it all for myself. I've had the greatest difficulty in waiting these four weeks, or should have had if I hadn't been so busy. But now that I'm here I'll show you how to make a home out of four chairs, three rugs, a table, a mirror, and an adorable copper bowl. Talk of the simple life-you're going to see it lived just across the street, you matrons with innumerable things to dust!"

"We shall be delighted to watch you do it," Ellen assured her, and Martha gave an incredulous assent.

It was but a few hours before they saw the prophecy coming true. Miss Ruston barely took time for luncheon, and by the time the dray containing her modest supply of household goods was at her door she was ready for work. A blue painter's blouse slipped over her travelling dress, her sleeves rolled well up her shapely arms, she had plunged into the labour of settling. She had for an assistant a woman whom Ellen had engaged for her, and a tall youth who was the woman's son, and these two she managed with a generalship little short of genius.

The floors had been cleaned and stained with a simple dull-brown stain a week before, and Miss Ruston eyed them with satisfaction, uneven though they were. She set the lad at work oiling them, demonstrating to him with her own hands, carefully gloved, the way to do it. Every window she flung wide, and Mrs. Kelsey was presently scrubbing away at the dim, small panes, trying her best to make them shine to please the young lady who from time to time stopped as she flew by to comment on her work.

"That's it, Mrs. Kelsey, you know how, don't you? I haven't much in the way of hangings for them, so we must have them bright as mirrors. Hard to get into the corners? Yes, I know. But it's somehow the corners that show most. Try this hairpin under your cloth,"-she slipped one out from her heavy locks-"you can get into the corners with that, I'm sure. Tom, there's a spot as big as a plate you haven't hit. You can't see it in that light; bend over this way a minute, and you'll find it. That's it! It would have been a pity to leave it, wouldn't it! Don't miss any more places, Tom. I haven't many rugs, and the floors will show a good deal."

"I didn't know artists were ever such practical people," confessed Mrs. Red Pepper Burns, sitting on the edge of a straight-backed old chair in the small kitchen. The house boasted but four rooms, two below and two above, with a small enclosure off the kitchen which had been used for a bedroom in the benighted days when people knew no better, and which Charlotte had promptly set aside for a dark room.

"Practical? I'm not an artist, as you use the word, but I assure you real artists are the most practical people in the world. Not one of them but can make a whistle out of a pig's tail, or a queen's robe out of a sheet and a blue scarf! What do you think of my light-housekeeping outfit?"

She held up an aluminum skillet which she had just taken from the box she was unpacking. "Here's everything we can need in the way of cooking utensils, packed into a foot square, and light as a feather, the whole thing. My purse was rather light when I had bought it, too." She made a funny little grimace, then laughed. "But my most trying purchase was my tin bath! You can't imagine what a hunt I had for it. But I found it at last in an Englishman's little out-of-the-way shop, and a big tin ewer to go with it. I'm proud of them now, and emptying the tub once a day is going to be fine for my muscles."

"You have splendid courage, dear, and I can see you're not afraid of hard work. I want you to promise me this, though, Charlotte. When you are specially tired, and there's luncheon or dinner to get, run over and let us give you a trayful of things. Cynthia always cooks more than we eat, and then has to contrive to use it in other ways."

Charlotte nodded. "Thank you. Luckily, though I'm poor I'm not proud. By the way, you haven't an unused kitchen chair, have you? To tell the truth I forgot several things, and one of them is a chair for the kitchen. I probably shall not sit down myself, and shall always serve our little meals in the living-room, but I foresee that I shall have guests here in the kitchen, and I'd like to be able to offer them a chair. That one you're sitting in is my very best old split-bottomed, high-backed photographer's treasure, which must go in the front room by the fireplace."

"When you are through explaining I will assure you that two kitchen chairs will arrive as soon as I go home," promised Ellen.

"Bless you! I foresee that you will make a splendid neighbour. Do you want to climb upstairs and see the nest I'm going to feather for Granny?"

She turned to the narrow little staircase between the walls, and gayly led the way. But Ellen exclaimed in dismay over the steepness of the stairs.

"Charlotte! Do you think dear little old Madam Chase can climb these? They are the steepest I ever saw!"

"She won't need to. Private lift, always ready."

"What do you mean? Surely not-"

Charlotte extended two round, supple arms. "Why not? Granny weighs just eighty pounds-if she is wearing plenty of clothes. In her little nightie and lavender kimono considerably less. And I'm strong as strong."

"But even then she's more than you ought to carry up and down this ladder."

Charlotte turned at the top of the stairs, and laughed back at her friend. "Granny's a sports-woman," said she. "She will-whisper it!-thoroughly enjoy sliding down these stairs, and, as for my carrying her up them, haven't you yet found out that a weight you love devotedly is just no weight at all? Now, look here! Aren't these bits of rooms fascinating? Hot, just now, I admit-" She ran to the windows, wrenched them open and propped them up. "Too hot in July, certainly; we'll camp downstairs while this weather lasts. But fine and warm and sunny through the winter. A bit of an oil-stove will make Granny as snug as a kitten, and her maid Charlotte will see that she's never left alone with it burning."

"I see you're quite invincible in your determination to make the best of everything. I can hardly believe you are the same girl I used to know, brought up to be waited on and petted by everybody. You've developed splendidly, and I'm proud of you."

"Thank you, Len. No, I'm not the same girl at all. I've been having to depend upon my own management for four years now-long enough to learn a good many makeshifts. It's been rather a pull, but I've had Granny through it all, and as long as she's left to me I won't complain. I used to be an extravagant person, but you've no idea how I've learned to make money last. Don't stay up here, it's too hot for you. But I'll get the place in order, for it may be cooler by the time I bring Granny, so we can sleep here."

"I'll help. What comes first?"

"Nothing-for you. I'll run up and down with rugs and curtains,-really, they're about all there are to go up here, except Granny's dressing-table. I've saved that for her, and a little old single bed she likes. I'll have Tom bring them up."

But Ellen insisted on helping, and when the bed was in place made it up with the fine old linen Charlotte produced, exclaiming over its handsome monograms, of an antique pattern much admired in these days.

"But where is your bed, Charlotte? I want to get that ready, too," she urged, when various small tasks were completed.

"Oh, never mind about mine. I'll see to that later." Charlotte was rubbing away at an old brass candlestick upon the dressing-table.

"I didn't see another bed. Surely you can't both sleep in this?"

"Hardly-poor Granny! No; mine is a folding cot, the nicest thing!"

"And you've no furniture at all for your room?"

"Don't want it. Granny will let me peep in her mirror. Don't look so shocked, Len. We're just camping out for a year, you know, and I brought all we needed. What's the use of being encumbered with household goods?"

"But you have them, somewhere? Let me send for them, dear, please. If you are to stay all winter you must be comfortable."

"We shall be. And-I haven't any more things, if you must have it. When the estate was sold I bought in all I could afford, but have sold some since. You may as well know it, but I want you to understand that I don't consider it a hardship at all to live as I intend to live this year. I shall be making money hand over fist, presently, and by the time I have had my city studio a year or two shall be affording Eastern rugs and hand-carved furniture. Wait and see!"

She stopped polishing and stood looking at her friend with the peculiar, radiant look which was her greatest charm, her dark eyes glowing, her lips in proud, sweet lines of

resolution, her round chin held high. Then she laughed, throwing her head higher yet, with a gay spirit; came forward and caught Ellen Burns by the shoulders and bending kissed her.

"I told you I wasn't proud," she said, "but I am! Too proud to be proud! I never believed in the pride which covers up, but in that which frankly owns its poverty, and laughs at it. I laugh!"

"You splendid girl! Where did you get it?"

"Picked it up. But I really think I shall have the happiest year out of this I've known yet."

"I believe you will. And I shall delight in having you so near."

The two descended. By the time Mrs. Kelsey's work-day was over the front room was in order, and Charlotte, bidding good-night to her servitors, gave them hearty praise and bade them come back early in the morning. Ellen had gone home, bidding Charlotte follow her at convenience.

"I must run out and pick some flowers for my copper bowl," Charlotte had said. "Then the room will be ready to show your husband this evening. I'm anxious to have it make a good impression on him, and I've discovered that men always notice posies."

So, out in the tangled garden she chose a great bunch of delphinium, in mingled shadings from pale blues and lavenders to deepest sapphire tones, and bringing it in exultingly filled the copper bowl and set it on the old spindle-legged table opposite the fireplace. Woven rag rugs in dull blues lay on the floor; one great winged chair, Granny's chair, stood by the window. Besides this were the splint-bottomed, high-backed chair, two Sheraton chairs, and a Chippendale mirror,-all relics of a luxurious old home. Two small portraits in oil hung upon the wall, painted by some master hand, portraits of Charlotte's parents. This was all the furnishing the room contained, but somehow, in the warm light of the late July afternoon, it looked anything but bare.

The Chesters, the Macauleys and the Burnses, all came across the street in the early July evening, to view the work which had been done. Charlotte had slipped on a thin white gown and pinned a bunch of old-fashioned crimson-and-pink "bleeding-hearts" at her waist, to do the occasion honour. She looked, somehow, already as if she belonged with the place. She sat upon the doorstone and hemmed small muslin curtains which were to go in the bedrooms upstairs, and Martha, Winifred, and Ellen, seeing this, sent for their sewing materials and helped her, while the daylight lasted.

Burns, looking on, hands in pockets, suddenly observed, "We fellows ought to be doing something for her. What do you say to every man going for a scythe and cutting the grass? No lawn mower can tackle a tangle like this."

Macauley groaned. "Why begin to be neighbourly at such a pace? Cutting this grass is going to be no easy task."

But Chester and Burns had already started across the street, and Macauley was obliged to follow. By the time darkness fell the front yard had been cropped into at least a semblance of tidiness, and Charlotte was offering her thanks to three warm gentlemen, and regretting that she had not been keeping house long enough to have any refreshment to offer them.

"Come over when we are settled, and Granny and I will have some sparkling Southern beverages for you," she promised.

"You are coming over to sleep, child," Ellen said, as the time for departure arrived, and Charlotte showed signs of closing up her small domain.

"Not at all. I mean to have the fun of spending my first night in my new home," Miss Ruston declared, and held to her decision, in spite of the arguments and entreaties of the women and the assertions of the men that she would be afraid.

"Well, then, beat on a dishpan if anything disturbs you, and we'll rush across in a body and rescue you," promised Macauley.

Left alone, Charlotte went inside, lighted a genial looking lamp, and sat down alone in her little living-room. Chin in her palms, she leaned her elbows upon the spindle-legged table, looking up at the portrait of her mother, its fine colourings glowing in the mellow light from the lamp. She sat for a long time in this posture, her eyes losing their sparkle and growing dreamy, and-at last-a trifle misty. When this stage occurred she suddenly jumped up, carried the lamp into the kitchen, searched until she found a candle and lighted it, then, extinguishing the lamp, she went slowly upstairs to the cot bed.

By the following evening her preparations were so far complete that she could take the evening train for Baltimore, announcing that the two future occupants of the little house would return within forty-eight hours. During her absence the three women who were her friends put their heads together, ordered extra baking and brewing done in their own kitchens, and ended by stocking her small shelves with a great array of good things.

Before the forty-eight hours had quite gone by Miss Ruston was leading a tiny figure, with shoulders held almost as straight as her own, in at the hedge gate. It was twilight of the August evening. The cottage door was open and the rays from the lamp lately lighted by her neighbours streamed down the path.

Charlotte stooped-she had to stoop a long way-and put her lips close to the small ear under the white hair which lay softly over it. "Doesn't it look like home, Granny?" she said, in a peculiar, clear tone, a little raised.

"What say, dear?" responded a low and quite toneless voice-the voice of the very deaf.

"Home, Granny?" repeated the younger voice. The strong arm of the taller figure came about the little shoulders in the small gray travelling coat.

"Warm? Not so warm as it was on the train. I shall be quite comfortable once I am sitting quietly in my chair."

Doctor and Mrs. Burns, following the travellers with certain pieces of hand luggage, looked at one another.

"Bless her small heart, is she as deaf as that?" queried Red Pepper, in a whisper. "I shall have difficulty in getting my adoration over to her!"

"She has grown much deafer since I knew her, several years ago," Ellen explained. "But as her eyes seem bright as ever I imagine you will have no difficulty in making her understand your adoration. She is used to it."

"I should think she might be. She is the prettiest old lady I ever saw, and looks one of the keenest. We shall understand each other, if we have to write on slates."

Charlotte led Madam Chase-Mrs. Rodney Rutherford Chase was the name on the visiting cards she still used with scrupulous care for the observances of etiquette-in at the cottage door and placed her in the winged chair. She untied and removed a microscopic bonnet, drew off the gray coat, and laid an inquiring finger on her charge's wrist.

"Let me attend to that," begged R.P. Burns, looming in the small doorway. "I'll find out how tired she is. I doubt if she would admit it by word of mouth."

He went down on one knee beside the chair, a procedure which brought his smiling face beside the old lady's questioning one. His fingers clasped her wrist, and held it after he had found out what it told him.

"Tired?" he said, very distinctly, his lips forming the word for her to see.

Madam Chase shook her head decidedly. "Not at all, Doctor. But the train was very warm and very dusty. I shall be glad to feel a cool linen pillow under my head instead of a hot cotton one."

He nodded. "Could you eat a bit, and drink a cup of tea?"

"What say, Doctor? Tea? Yes, I should be glad of tea. I never like the decoction they serve upon trains and call tea."

"I'll have it for her in a minute," and Ellen went out into the kitchen.

Burns looked up at Miss Ruston. "As soon as she has had her tea she must go to bed. She has stood the journey well, but she needs a long rest after it." Then he looked again at Mrs. Rodney Rutherford Chase. "I can see you are a very plucky small person," said he, and her nod and smile in answer showed that at least she caught the indications of a compliment.

Presently, when she had had her tea, had patted Ellen's hand for bringing it, and had looked about her a little with observant eyes which showed pleasure when they rested on certain familiar objects, she laid her white curls back against the chair and looked up at her granddaughter like a child who asks to be put to sleep.

Burns advanced again. "May I have the honour?" he asked, stooping over the tiny figure with outstretched arms.

"You'll find me pretty heavy, Doctor," said she, but she put up her arms and clasped his neck as he lifted her, quite as if it were a matter of course with her to have stalwart men offer their services on all occasions. Burns strode up the steep and narrow staircase with her as if she had been a child, Charlotte preceding him with a pair of candles. In her own room he laid the little old lady on her bed, then stooped once more.

"May I have a reward for that?" he asked, and without waiting for permission kissed the delicate cheek, as soft and smooth as velvet beneath his lips.

"You are a very good young man," said the old lady. "I think I shall have to adopt you as a grandson."

Burns laid his hand on his heart and made her a deeply respectful bow, at which she laughed and waved him away.

"Adorable," said he to Charlotte, on his way down, "is not a word which men use over every small object, as you women do, therefore it should have the more force when they do make use of it. No other word fits little Madam Chase so well. Consider me yours to command in her service, at any hour of day or night."

"Thank you," Charlotte called softly after him. "I assure you she will command you herself, and delight in doing it. She never fails to recognize homage when she receives it, or to demand it when she does not. But she will give you quite as much as she takes from you."

"I'm confident of it," and Burns descended to his wife. "You have a rival," he told her solemnly.

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