MoboReader> Literature > Mrs. Red Pepper

   Chapter 11 AFTER DINNER

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 18676

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Charlotte Chase Ruston, I want you to come over to a little dinner to-night. Just a few people, and as informal as dinners on hot August evenings should be. Afterward we'll spend the time on the porch."

"Thank you, Len. Whom are you going to have? I want to prepare my mind for what is likely to happen."

Mrs. Burns mentioned her guests. "I've arranged them with special reference to Dr. Leaver," she explained. "I think it will do him good, just now, to have to exert himself a little bit. He seems well enough, but absolutely uninterested in things or people,-except the children. He spends hours with them. I'm going to put you next him, if I may."

"Please don't. I particularly want the chance to talk with Mr. Arthur Chester about something I've found he can tell me. We never can get time for it, and this will be just the chance. Give Miss Mathewson to Dr. Leaver, and put some pretty girl on his other side."

"I will, if you prefer, of course," Ellen agreed promptly. She had observed that, although she had taken pains to have them meet, Dr. Leaver and Miss Ruston seemed to be in the habit of quietly avoiding each other. But she was not the woman to ask her friend's confidence, since it was not voluntarily given. She could only wonder why two people from the same world, apparently so well suited to each other, should be so averse to spending even a few moments together.

An hour later Charlotte, having dispatched considerable business, bundling it out of the way as if it had suddenly become of no account, was delving in a trunk for a frock.

"It's the one and only possible thing I have that will do for one of Len's 'little dinners,'" she was saying to herself. "I know just how she'll be looking, and I must live up to her. I wonder if I can mend it to be fit-I wonder."

She carried it downstairs. Madam Chase, sitting by the window with her knitting, looked up.

"Mending lace, dearie?" she asked. "Can't I do it for you?"

"I'm afraid it's beyond even you, Granny," she said, ruefully. To the deaf ears her gesture told more than her words.

"Let me see," commanded the old lady. When the gauzy gown was spread before her she examined it carefully.

"If it need not be washed-" she began.

"It must be. Look at the bottom." Charlotte's expressive hands demonstrated as she talked. "I've danced in it and sat out dances in all sorts of places in it. But I can wash it, if you can mend it. I'll wash it with the tips of my fingers."

"I will try," said her grandmother.

That afternoon Charlotte carefully laundered the mended gown, dried it in the sun and ironed it, partly with her fingers, partly with a tiny iron. Finished, it was a work of art, a frock of rare lace of exquisite design, several times made over, and now, in its last stage, prettier than in its first.

"If it will hold together," Charlotte said laughing, as she put it on, and, kneeling before Granny, waited while the delicate old fingers slowly fastened each eyelet. When she rose she was a figure at which the old lady who loved her looked with pleased eyes.

"You are beautiful, dearie," she said. "And nobody will guess that your dress is mended."

"Not a bit, thanks to your clever fingers. Now I'll go find some flowers to wear, and then I'm off. I'll come back to put you to bed, and you'll send Bob over if you want the least thing, won't you, even the least?"

Charlotte went out into her garden, holding her skirts carefully away from possible touch of bush or briar. Late August flowers were many, but among them were none that pleased her. She came away therefore without a touch of colour upon her white attire, yet seeming to need none, the bloom upon her cheek was so clear, the dusk of her hair so rich.

"Isn't she fascinating?" said Winifred Chester in the ear of John Leaver, as Charlotte came in. "I never saw a girl who seemed so radiantly well and happy, with so little to make her so. I think she and Madam Chase must be very poor, all the nice things they have seem so old, and the new things so very simple. Ellen says the family was a very fine one."

"Very fine," he agreed. His eyes were upon Charlotte as she greeted her hosts. He answered Winifred's further comments absently. He bowed gravely in response to Charlotte's recognition of him, then turned and talked with the pretty girl whom Ellen had asked him to take in to dinner.

At the table Miss Ruston and Dr. Leaver found themselves nearly opposite. Leaver talked conscientiously with his companion, then devoted himself to Winifred Chester, upon his other side. Returning to do his duty by Miss Everett, he found her eager to discuss those opposite.

"They say Miss Ruston does the most wonderful photographs," she observed. "One would know she was devoted to some art, wouldn't one? The way that frock is cut about her shoulders-only an artist would venture to wear it like that, without a single touch of colour. Every other woman I know would have put on a string of gold beads or pearls or at least a pendant of some sort."

For a moment Leaver forgot to answer. He had not looked at Charlotte since he had first taken his seat. Now, with Miss Everett calling his attention to her, and everybody else, including the subject of their interest, absorbed in their own affairs, he let his eyes rest lingeringly upon her. He had had only brief glimpses of her since she had come to town, and had seen her at such times always in the summer street-or-garden attire which she constantly wore. Now he saw her under conditions which vividly brought back to him other scenes. The white lace gown she wore, with its peculiar cut, like the spreading of flower petals about the beautifully modeled shoulders-it struck him as familiar. Had she worn any jewels upon that white neck when he had seen her? He thought not. He had never known her to wear ornament of any sort, he was sure. She needed none, he was equally sure of that. As she sat, with her head turned toward Arthur Chester, who was expounding with great elaboration something which called for maps upon the tablecloth drawn with a rapidly moving finger, she was showing to the observers across the table a face and head in profile, an outline which had been burned into the memory of the man who now regarded it and forgot to make answer.

Miss Everett glanced at him curiously. Then she murmured: "Don't you think the leaving off of all ornaments is sometimes just as much a coquetry as the wearing of them would be? It certainly challenges notice even more, doesn't it?"

"It depends on whether one happens to possess them, I should say," Leaver returned.

"About their drawing attention, or their absence drawing it? I suppose so. But when you don't know which it is, but judge by the richness of the gown that the wearer can afford them-"

"I'm no judge of the richness of a gown."

"I am, then. That is the most wonderful lace-anybody can see-at least any woman."

"Tell me, Miss Everett,"-Leaver made a determined effort to get away from the personal aspect of the subject,-"why does a woman love jewels? For their own sake, or because of their power to adorn her-if they do adorn her?"

The young woman plunged animatedly into a discussion of the topic as he presented it. She was wearing certain striking ornaments of pearl and turquoise, which undoubtedly became her fair colouring whether they enhanced her beauty or not. It was while this discussion was in progress, Leaver forcing himself to attend sufficiently to make intelligent replies, that Charlotte Ruston suddenly turned and looked at him. He looked straight back at her, a peculiar intentness growing in his deep-set eyes.

He did not withdraw his gaze until she had turned away again, and the encounter had been but for the briefest space, yet when it was over John Leaver's colour had changed a little. For the moment it was as if nobody else had been in the room-he was only dully conscious that upon his other side Winifred Chester was addressing him, and that he must make reply.

When the company which had spent the sultry August evening upon the porch in the semi-darkness was near to breaking up, Leaver came to Charlotte and took his place beside her. When she left the house he was with her, and the two crossed the street and went in at the hedge gate together.

"May I stay a very little while?" he asked. And when she assented he added, "Shall we find the bench in your garden?"

"Do you know that bench?" she questioned, surprised.

"I spent many hours upon it before you came, and during the days when I was not getting about much. I listened to the reading of two books, lounging there. So it seems like a familiar spot to me."

"It is my favourite resting place. I am sorry you were driven away by my coming. You and Miss Mathewson would have been very welcome there, all the rest of the summer, if I had known."

"Thank you. But I have passed the invalid stage and am not being treated as a patient. I read for myself, at present, and tramp the country, instead of sitting on benches, anywhere. It's a great improvement."

"I am very glad."

Charlotte let him lead the way to the retreat under the apple-tree, and he proved his knowledge of it by stopping now and then to hold aside hindering branches of shrubbery, and to lift f

or her a certain heavily leafed bough which drooped across the path, but which would hardly have been discerned in the summer starlight by one not familiar with its position.

"It would be a pity to tear that gown," he remarked, as the last barrier was passed. "It occurred to me, as I looked at you to-night, that it was one I had seen you wear in Baltimore, last winter. Am I right?"

"Last winter, and the winter before, and even the winter before that, if you had known me so long," she answered, with a gay little laugh. "I am so fond of it I shall not discard it until it can no longer be mended."

"You are wise. I believe it is hardly the attitude of the modern woman toward dress of any sort, but it might well be. We never tire of Nature, though she wears the same costume season after season."

"Her frocks don't fray at the edges-or when they do she turns them such gorgeous colours that we don't notice they are getting worn."

"Aren't there some rough edges on this bench? Please take this end; I think I recall that it is smoother than the other."

"Thank you. One good tear, and even Granny's needle couldn't make me whole again."

He bent over to pick up a scarf of silver gauze which had slipped from her shoulders. He laid it about them, and as he did so she shivered suddenly, though the air was warm, without a hint of dampness. But she covered the involuntary movement with a shrug, saying lightly, "A man I know says he thoroughly believes a woman is colder rather than warmer in a scarf like this, on the theory that anything with so many holes in it must create an infinite number of small draughts."

"He may be right. But I confess, as a physician, I like to cover up exposed surfaces from the open night air-to a certain extent-even with an excuse for a protection like this."

He sat down beside her. The bench was not a long one, and he was nearer to her than he had yet been to-night. She sat quietly, one hand lying motionless in her lap. The other hand, down at her side, laid hold of the edge of the bench and gripped it rather tightly. She began to talk about the old garden, as it lay before them, its straggling paths and beds of flowers mere patches of shadow, dark and light. He answered, now and then, in an absent sort of way, as if his mind were upon something else, and he only partly heard. She spoke of "Sunny Farm"-the children's hospital in the country-of Burns and Ellen and Bob-and then, suddenly, with a sense of the uselessness of trying all by herself to make small talk under conditions of growing constraint, she fell silent. He let the silence endure for a little space, then broke it bluntly.

"I'm glad," he said, in the deep, quiet voice she remembered well, "that you will give me a chance. What is the use of pretending that I have brought you here to talk of other people? I have something to say to you, and you know it. I can't lead up to it by any art, for it has become merely a fact which it is your right to know. You should have known it long ago."

He stopped for a minute. She was absolutely still beside him, except for the hand that gripped the edge of the bench. That took a fresh hold.

When he spoke again, his voice, though still quiet, showed tension.

"Before I saw you the last time, last spring, I meant to ask you to marry me. When I did see you, something had happened to make that impossible. It had not only made it impossible, but it made me unable even to explain. I shall never forget that strange hour I spent with you. You knew that something was the matter. But I couldn't tell you. I thought then I never could. Seeing you, as I have to-night, I realized that I couldn't wait another hour to tell you. But, even now, I don't feel that I can explain. There's only one thing I am sure of-that I must say this much: All my seeking of you, last winter, meant the full intent and purpose to win you, if I could. And-you can never know what it meant to me to give it up."

The last words were almost below his breath, but she heard them, heard the uncontrollable, passionate ache of them. Plainer than the words themselves this quality in them spoke for him.

For a moment there was silence between them again. Then he went on: "I can't ask-I don't ask-a word from you in answer. Neither can I let myself say more than I am saying. It wouldn't be fair to you, however you might feel. And I want you to believe this-that not to say more takes every bit of manhood I have."

Silence again. Then, from the woman beside him, in the clearest, low voice, with an inflection of deep sweetness:

"Thank you, Dr. Leaver."

Suddenly he turned upon the bench-he had been staring straight before him. He bent close, looked into her shadowy face for a moment, then found her hand, where it lay in her lap, lifted it in both his own, and pressed it, for a long, tense moment, against his lips. She felt the contact burn against the cool flesh, and it made intelligible all that he would not allow himself to say, in terms which no woman could mistake.

Then he sprang up from the bench.

"Will you walk as far as the house with me?" he asked, gently. "Or shall I leave you here? It is late: I don't quite like to leave you here alone."

"I will go with you," she answered, and, rising, drew her skirts about her. He stood beside her for a moment, looking down at her white figure, outlined against the darkness behind them. She heard him take one deep, slow inspiration, like a swimmer who fills his lungs before plunging into the water; she heard the quick release of the breath, followed by his voice, saying, with an effort at naturalness:

"If I had such a place as this, where I'm staying, I should be tempted to bring out a blanket and sleep in it to-night."

"One might do worse," she answered. "These branches have been so long untrimmed that it takes a heavy shower to dampen the ground beneath."

They made their way back along the straggling paths, and came to the cottage, from whose windows streamed the lamplight that waited for Charlotte. As it fell upon her Leaver looked at her, and stood still. Pausing, she glanced up at him, and away again. She knew that he was silently regarding her. Quite without seeing she knew how his face looked, the fine face with the eyes which seemed to see so much, the firm yet sensitive mouth, the whole virile personality held in a powerful restraint.

Then he opened the door for her, and she passed him. She looked back at him from the threshold.

"Good-night," she said, and smiled.

"Good-night," he answered, and gave back the smile. Then he went quickly down the path and away.

Ten minutes afterward she put out the light in the front room, and stole out of the door, leaving it open behind her. Still in the white gown of the evening, but with a long, dark cloak flung over it, she went swiftly back over the paths to the garden bench. Arrived there she sat down upon it, where she had sat before, but not as she had been. Instead, she turned and laid her arm along the low back of the bench, and her head upon it, and remained motionless in that position for a long time. Her eyes were wide, in the darkness, and her lips were pressed tight together, and once, just once, a smothered, struggling breath escaped her. But, finally, she sat up, threw up her head, lifted both arms above it, the hands clenched tight.

"Charlotte Ruston," she whispered fiercely, "you have to be strong-and strong-and stronger yet! You have to be! You have to be!"

Then she rose quickly to her feet, with a motion not unlike that with which John Leaver had sprung to his an hour before. It was a movement which meant that emotion must yield to action. She went swiftly back to the house, in at the door, up the straight, high stairs to her room.

As she lighted her candle a voice spoke from Madam Chase's room, its door open into her own.

"Charlotte?"

"Yes, Granny?"

The girl went in, taking the candle, which she set upon the dressing-table. She bent over the bed, putting her lips close to the old lady's ear.

"Can't you sleep, dear?" she asked.

"Not until you are in, child. Why are you so late?"

"It's not late, Granny. You know I went to Dr. Burns's to dinner."

"It's very late," repeated the delicate old voice, slightly querulous, because of its owner's failure to hear the explanation. "Much too late for a girl like you. You should have had your beauty sleep long ago."

Charlotte smiled, feeling as if her twenty-six years had added another ten to themselves since morning. She patted the soft cheek on the pillow, and tenderly adjusted the gossamer nightcap which, after the fashion of its wearer's youth, kept the white locks snugly in order during the sleeping hours.

"I'm here now, Granny. Please go to sleep right away. Or-would you like a glass of milk first?"

"What say?"

"Milk, dear,-hot milk?"

"Yes, yes, it will put me to sleep. Quite hot, not lukewarm."

Charlotte went down the steep stairs again, heated the milk, and brought it back. When it had been taken she kissed the small face, drew the linen sheet smooth again, and went away with the candle. In her own room she presently lay down upon her cot, rejoicing that the old lady could not hear its creaking.

Toward morning she fell asleep.

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares