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   Chapter 17 FROM THE BEGINNING

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 26042

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


John Leaver turned and tried to close the door, but the mound of snow prevented. The wind was sweeping in with fury. "Go away from it," he commanded. "I'll see to it."

He kicked the snow out with his foot, crowded the door into place, and turned about again. He stood still, looking at the figure before him, with its startled face, wide eyes staring at him, breath coming short. Charlotte's hands were pressed over her heart, she seemed unable to speak.

"Did I frighten you, rushing in upon you at this time of night?" The smile upon his face died, he looked as if she had put out a hand to hold him off. Then, as he regarded her more closely, he saw that which alarmed him.

"Is something wrong? Has something happened?" he asked hurriedly.

She nodded, still staring with a strange, wild look. Then, in a breath, she found speech and action.

"Oh, come!" she gasped. "Granny is-something has happened to Granny!" and ran to him and caught at his hand, like a child, pulling him.

"Just a minute," he said, quickly, releasing himself, and pulled off his snow-covered overcoat and frozen gloves, and threw them to one side. Then he put out his hand to her.

"Now!" he said, and they ran together to the stairs, and up them. At the top Charlotte paused.

"In there!" she whispered, and let him take the lead.

Her hand held very tight in his he crossed the room. He took up the candle from the dressing-table, approached the bed, and gave the candle to Charlotte. Letting go her hand then, he bent and looked closely into the still, peaceful old face ... made a brief, quiet examination....

He led her down the stairs again. She was fully blind now, seeing nothing, conscious of but two things-the sense of a great blow having fallen stunningly, and the sense of being held firmly by a warm, strong hand. She clung to that hand as if it were all that lay between sea and shore.

In the living-room, before the fire, she felt the hand draw itself gently away. But then she found herself clasped in two warm arms, her head pressed gently down upon a strong shoulder. A voice spoke with a throbbing tenderness which seemed to envelop her:

"Don't question anything, just let me take you to my heart-where you belong. God sent me to you at this hour, I'm sure of it. I felt it all the way-that you needed me. I am yours, body and soul. Let me serve you and take care of you as if it had all been settled long ago. Be big enough for that, dear."

She listened, and let him have his way. Whatever might come after, there seemed nothing else to do now. The Presence in the room above seemed to have changed everything. One could not speak or act as might have been possible an hour ago. Only the great realities counted now. Here were two of them confronting her at once-Death and Love. How could she be less primitively honest in the face of one than of the other?

He put her in the winged chair, drew the white shawl closely about her shoulders, dropped upon one knee by her side, and, taking possession once more of her hand, spoke low and decidedly:

"I will go over to the Macauleys and send Mrs. Macauley to you. Then Mr. Macauley and I will take everything in charge-with your permission?"

He waited for her assent. She gave it with closed eyes, her head tilted back against the wing of the chair, her lips pressed tight together that they might not tremble.

"You will want to take her to Washington, or on to South Carolina?"

"South Carolina-where she was born."

"We shall not be able to start till the storm is over. There is no train or trolley service out from the city to-night, and there will not be until the wind and drifting stops. My train was ten hours late. I should have been here this morning. Meanwhile, I will stay just where you want me. You and Mrs. Macauley can settle that. I wish for your sake Mrs. Burns were here-and Red."

"They are not here? Then-how did you come to-"

"Come home before them? I couldn't stay away contentedly as long as they. I had had an all-summer's vacation, and wanted to be at work. But I came from the ship straight up here, to satisfy myself that all was well with you. I found you-needing me. Can I help being thankful that I came?"

"Dr. Leaver-?"

"Yes?"

Charlotte sat up suddenly, opening her eyes, pressing her free hand again over her heart with that unconscious gesture as old as suffering.

"If I had not insisted on keeping Granny here she would not have-would not have-"

She sank back, covering her face.

"What had her being here to do with it? You took every care of her. She was old-ripe-ready to go. The wonder is that she has lived so long, with such a frail hold on life."

"But-she had an exposure. This dreadful weather-night before last-her window blew in-she was chilled-"

Her voice broke. With difficulty she told him the story of the experience. He lifted her hand to his lips and held it there. After a minute he spoke very gently:

"I doubt if that had anything to do with it. It was probably the crash of the window blowing in that woke you, although you did not know it; she may not have lain there but a moment. You overcame the slight chill, if there was one, with your prompt measures. You brought her downstairs, and carried her back. There was no strain whatever upon her, it was all upon you. Dr. Burns has told me that her heart-action was the weakest and most irregular he had encountered; that, at any hour, without seeming provocation, it might stop. Why should you mourn? It was a happy way to go-merely to stop breathing, as her attitude and expression show she did. Her hour had come-you had nothing to do with it. Take that to your heart, and don't blame yourself for one moment more."

She lay back in the chair again, relaxing a little under the firm words.

"Shall I go now and send Mrs. Macauley? It is nearly ten o'clock, time we were letting them know. But before I go let me tell you one thing, then I will say no more to-night. There is no more now to come between us than there was a year ago when-listen, Charlotte-we knew-we both knew-that we belonged to each other, and nothing waited but the spoken word. I dare to say this to you, for I am sure, in my inmost soul, that you know as well as I do where we stood at that time. And-the thing is gone which came between us afterward."

He stood up, put on his coat, said quietly: "You shall be alone but a very short time," and went out.

Left alone Charlotte laid both arms suddenly down upon the arm of the chair-Granny's chair-and broke into a passion of weeping. It lasted only for a little while, then she raised herself suddenly, threw back her head, lifted both arms high-it was an old gesture of hers when she was commanding her own self-control-gripping the clenched fists tight. Then, as steps and the sound of voices were heard outside, she stood up, holding herself quietly.

When Mrs. Macauley came in, excitedly sympathetic and eager to comfort, she found a quiet mourner ready to talk with her more composedly than she herself was able to do. Martha, shocked though she was by the sudden call, was full of curiosity as to the return of John Leaver, and only Charlotte's reticent dignity of manner kept back a torrent of eager questions.

"It's certainly very fortunate he's here," she admitted. "He can take charge of the journey South, knowing trains and routes much better than Jim or I do. Of course we will go with you, dear. I judge from what Dr. Leaver says he will go all the way-which will certainly be a comfort. He seems so strong and capable-so changed from the way he acted when he first came here, languid and indifferent. Oh, how sorry Red and Ellen will be not to be here! Red was so fond of dear Madam Chase."

Martha proved not unpleasant company for that first night, for her practical nature was always getting the better of her notion that she must speak only of things pertaining to the occasion. She went out into Charlotte's kitchen and stirred about there, returning with a tray of light, hot food. She had been astonished at the meagreness of the supplies she found, but made no comment.

"You must keep up your strength, my dear girl," she urged, when Charlotte faltered over the food. "It's a long way between now and the time when it will be all over. We may be delayed a day or two in getting off, and delayed all the way down. I hear this storm is raging all over the country."

Her words proved true. It was two days before the little party could be off. During that time Charlotte was overwhelmed with attention from her neighbours. The Macauleys and Chesters could not do enough. Either Winifred or Martha was constantly with her, and their presence was not ungrateful. John Leaver came and went upon errands, never seeing Charlotte alone, but making no effort to do so, conveying to her by his look or the grasp of his hand the comradeship which she felt more convincingly with every passing hour. His personality seemed somehow as vital and stirring as the course of a clear stream in a desert place.

At the short, private service which preceded the departure of the party for the train, he came and took his place beside her in a quiet way which had in it the quality of a right. Although he did not touch or speak to her the sense of his near presence was to her like a strong supporting arm. When the moment came to leave the room she heard his whisper in her ear and felt his hand upon her arm:

"Courage! You are not going alone, you know."

It went to her heart. On the threshold she suddenly looked up at him through her veil, and met in return such a look as a woman may lean upon. Her heart throbbed wildly in response, throbbed as only a sad heart may when it realizes that there is to be balm for its wounds.

All through the long journey Charlotte felt Leaver's constant support, although he made no further effort to define the relation between them, even when for a short space, now and then, the two were alone together. Instead he talked of his hurried trip abroad with the Burnses, and once, when they were pacing up and down a platform, at a long stop, he told her of his visit to a certain noted specialist in Berlin.

"I had had a breakdown in my work last spring," he said, in a quite simple way, as if he were speaking of something unimportant. "I had made up my mind that I could never hope fully to recover from its effects. Dr. Z-- told me that I was perfectly recovered, that I was as sound, mentally and physically, as I had ever been, and that, if I used ordinary common sense in the future about vacations at reasonable intervals, there was no reason why the experience should ever be repeated. This assurance was what sent me home. I found I couldn't stay in Germany and go sightseeing with my friends after that. I wanted to be at work again."

"I wonder that Dr. Burns didn't want to rush home with you," Charlotte observed-though it was not of Red Pepper she was thinking. This simple statement, she knew, was the explanation he was giving her of the thing he had said to her last August under her apple-tree. It made clear to her that which she had suspected before-it somehow seemed, also, to take away the last barrier between them.

"Burns needed the change-he hasn't had a vacation except his honeymoon for years. By the way, he's having a second honeymoon over there."

"I'm very glad," Charlotte responded.

Then the summons came for the return to the train, and Mr. and Mrs. Macauley, waving to them from the other end of the platform, met them at the step.

On the morning of the third day the party reached their destination. They were met at the small station by a staid but comfortable equipage, driven by an old family coachman with grizzled, kinky hair and a black face full of solemnity. They were taken to the hospitable home of the owner of the dignified old carriage and the fat, well-kept horses which had brought them to her door, and were there welcomed as only Southern hostesses can welcome. Mrs. Catesby's mother had been a friend of Madam Chase's youth, and for her sake the daughter had thrown open her house to do honour to the ashes of one whom she had never seen.

"How glad I am," Charlotte said, soon after her arrival, standing by a window with kind Mrs. Catesby, "to come down here where it is spring. I could never have borne it-to put Granny away under the snow. She didn't like the snow, though she never said so. Are those camellias down by the hedge? Oh, may I go out and pick some-for Granny?"

"I thought you might like them-and might want to pick them yourself, or I should have had them ready. I sent for no other flowers. I remember my mother telling me how Madam Chase loved them-as she herself did."

From an upper window, in the room to which he had been assigned, Leaver saw Charlotte go down the garden path to the hedge, there to fill a small basket with the snowy blooms. When she turned to go back to the house she found h

im beside her.

"I see now why you wanted no other flowers," he said, as he took the basket. "These are like her-fair and pure and fragile."

"She was fond of them. She wore them in her hair when she was a girl. They have no fragrance; that is why I want them for her now. How people can bear strong, sweet flowers around their dead I can never understand."

"I have always wondered at that, too," Leaver admitted. "My mother had the same feeling." He looked closely at Charlotte's face, as the bright sunlight of the Southern spring morning fell upon it. "You are very tired," he said, and his voice was like a caress. "Not in body, but in mind-and heart. I wish, by some magic, I could secure for you two full hours' sleep before-the hour."

"I couldn't sleep. But I am strong, I shall not break down."

"No, you will not break down; that wouldn't be like you. And to-night-you shall sleep. I promise you that."

"I wish you could," Charlotte said, and her lips trembled ever so slightly. "But I shall not."

"You shall. Trust me that you shall. I know a way to make you sleep."

However that might be, she thought, his presence was now, as all through this ordeal, the thing which stood between her and utter desolation. A few hours later, when he stood beside her at the place which was to receive that which they had brought to it, she felt as if she could not have borne the knowledge that she was laying away her only remaining kinswoman, if it had not been for the sense of protection which, even at the supreme moment, he managed to convey to her. Her hand, as it lay upon his arm, was taken and held in a close clasp, which tightened possessively upon it, minute by minute, until it was as if the two were one in the deep emotion of the hour.

All the beauty of spring at her tenderest was in the air, as the little party turned slowly away, in the light of the late afternoon sun. Somewhere in the distance a bird was softly calling to its mate.

Behind Charlotte and Leaver, the kindly old clergyman who had been Madam Chase's life-long friend was gently murmuring:

"'Dust is dust, to dust returneth,

Was not written of the soul.'"

Upon the evening of that day, spent as such evenings are, in subdued conversation at a hearthside, Leaver came across the room and spoke to Charlotte.

"I am wondering," he said, "if a short walk in the night air won't make you fitter for sleep than you look now. It is mild and fine outside. Will you come?"

"It will do you good, Miss Ruston," urged her hostess, who had taken a strong liking to Dr. Leaver. The Macauleys seconded the suggestion also, and Charlotte, somewhat reluctantly as to outward manner, but, in spite of sorrow and physical fatigue, with a strong leap of the heart, made ready.

As her companion closed the door behind them Charlotte understood that she was alone with him at last, as she had not been alone with him in all these days, even when no person was present. She had small time in which to recognize what was coming, for, almost instantly, it was at hand. There was a small park opposite the house, and to the deserted walk which circled it she found herself led.

"Dear," Leaver's voice began, in its tenderest inflection, "I have a curious feeling that no words can make it any clearer between us than it already is. Last winter we knew how it was with us-didn't we? Won't you tell me that you knew? It is my dearest belief that you did."

"Yes, I knew," Charlotte answered, very low.

"To me it was the most beautiful thing I had ever dreamed of, that two people could so understand and belong to each other before a word was said. When the time came to speak, and-the thing had happened that made it impossible, I can never tell you what it meant to me. When I found you there in the North it seemed as if the last ounce had been added to the burden I was bearing. I couldn't ask for your friendship; I couldn't have taken it if you had given it to me. I had to have all or nothing. Can you understand that?"

She nodded. She put up one hand and lifted the thin black veil she was wearing, and turned her face upward to the stars. They were very bright, that February night, down in South Carolina.

"But now," he went on, after a moment, "it is all plain before us. Charlotte, am I a strangely presumptuous lover to take so much for granted? I don't even ask if you have changed. Knowing you, that doesn't seem possible to me. I have never wooed you, I have simply-recognized you! You belonged to me. I was sure that you so recognized me. It has been as I dreamed it would be, when I was a boy, dreaming my first dreams about such things. I have known many women-have had a few of them for my very good friends. I never cared to play at love with any one; it didn't interest me. But when I saw you I loved you. I won't say 'fell in love;' that's not the phrase. I loved you. The love has grown with every day I have known you-grown even when I thought it was to be denied."

"I know," Charlotte said again, and now she was smiling through tears at the friendly stars above her.

"Yes, you know," he answered, happily. "That's the wonderful thing to me-that you should know."

A little path wound through the park, as deserted as the street. He led her into this, and, pausing where a group of high-grown shrubs screened them from all possible passers-by, he spoke with all the passion he had hitherto restrained.

"Charlotte, are you my wife? Tell me so-in this!"

He laid one arm about her shoulders, his hand lifted her face as he stooped to meet it with his own. When he raised his head again it was to look, as she had looked, toward the stars.

"That was worth," he said tensely, "all the pain I have ever known." Then as he led her on he spoke again with an odd wistfulness.

"Dearest, I have talked about our love not needing words, and yet, I find I want to hear your voice after all. Will you tell me, in words, how it is with you? I want to hear!"

After a moment she answered him, softly, yet with a vibrant sweetness in her tone. "John Leaver, it is as you say. I have known, from the first, that I-must love you. You made me, in spite of myself. I couldn't-couldn't help it!"

He bent his head, with a low murmur of happiness. Then: "And I thought I could do without words!" he said.

For the first time in many days Charlotte's lips curved suddenly into the little provoking, arch smile which was one of her greatest charms.

"I never thought I could!" she said.

He laughed. "You shall not! And now I'm going to speak some very definite words to which I want a very definite answer. Charlotte, you are-I can't bear to remind you-as far as kinspeople go, quite alone in the world. There is no reason why that should be true. The nearest of all relations can be yours to-morrow. Will you marry me to-morrow, before we go North? Then we shall be quite free to stop in Baltimore or to go on as you prefer. I can go with you, at once, to close up the little house, if you wish. Is there any reason why we should stay apart a day longer?"

"I don't know of any that would appeal to you. But there is one."

"May I know it?"

She hesitated. "I'm-very shabby," she said, reluctantly; "much shabbier than you can guess."

"We'll go by the way of New York, and you can buy all you need. That's an objection which turns into an argument for the other side, for I want very much to see a certain old friend in New York, who was out of town when I landed last week. I can do it while you shop. Doesn't that convince you?"

"I can let it-if you really think it is best to be in such haste."

"Why not? Why should we waste another day apart that we could spend together? At its longest life is too short for love."

"Yes," she murmured.

"I'm thankful, very thankful, that you are too womanly to insist on any prolonging of what has certainly been separation enough. I felt that you wouldn't. Oh, all through, it has been your womanliness I have counted on, dear,-an inexhaustible, rich mine of sense and sweetness."

"You rate me too high," Charlotte protested, softly. "I'm only a working-woman, now, you know. All the old traditions of the family have been set aside by me."

"You have lived up to their traditions of nobility understood in just a little different way. It is these years of effort which have made you what you are. If I had known you in the days before trouble came to you I might have admired your beauty, but I shouldn't have loved your soul."

"Then"-she looked up into his face-"I'm glad for everything I've suffered."

* * *

The sunlight was pouring in again, next morning, when Charlotte awoke. She lay, for a little, looking out into the treetops, holding the coming day against her heart.

"I can't believe it; oh, I can't believe it," she whispered to herself. "A week ago so heavy and forlorn and poor-to-day, in spite of losing Granny, so rich, rich. I'm to be-his wife-this day-his wife! O God! make me fit for him; make me fit to take his love!"

When she went downstairs she found him waiting at the foot, looking up at her with his heart in his eyes, though his manner was as quiet and composed as ever. At his side stood Martha Macauley, excited and eager. The moment that Leaver's hand had released Charlotte's Martha had her in her arms.

"You dear girl!" she cried. "Of all the romantic things I ever heard of! I'm so upset I don't know what to do or say, except that I think you're doing just exactly right. It's as Dr. Leaver says; there isn't a thing in the way. Why shouldn't you go back together? Only I wish Ellen and Red were here; they're certain to feel cheated."

"We'll try to make it up to them," Leaver said, smiling.

"It's all right," declared James Macauley, joining them. "I like the idea of getting these things over quietly, without any fuss over trunkfuls of clothes. If a lady always looks like a picture, whatever she wears, why should she need fairly to jump out of her frame because she's getting married?"

Upstairs, a little later, Martha, coming in upon Charlotte, as she bent over a tiny trunk, put a solicitous question:

"My dear, if there's anything in the world I can lend you, will you let me do it? I have a few quite pretty things with me, and I'd love to give them to you."

Lifting a flushed, smiling face Charlotte answered: "That's dear of you, but I think I have enough-of the things that really matter. I've only this one travelling dress, but as we shall go straight to New York I can soon have the frock or two I need. It's so fortunate I brought a trunk at all. When I came away I was so uncertain just what would happen next, or how long I might want to stop on the way back, that I put in all the white things I had there."

"And beautiful white things they are, too, if that is a sample," said Martha, noting with feminine interest a dainty garment in Charlotte's hands. "You're lucky to have them."

"My mother left stores and stores of such things, and I've been making them into modern ones ever since. They are my one luxury," and Charlotte laid the delicate article of embroidered linen and lace in its place with a loving little pat, as if she were touching the mother to whom it had belonged. "Otherwise I'm pretty shabby. Yet, I can't seem to mind much."

"You don't look shabby. You look much trimmer and prettier in that suit and hat than I in mine, though mine were new this fall. If you knew how I envy you that look you would be quite satisfied with your old clothes," said Martha, generously. "And as for the husband you are getting-well-I suppose you know you're in the greatest sort of good fortune. All the way down here I've been watching him-Jim says I haven't done anything else-and I certainly never saw a man who seemed so always to know how and when to do the right thing. If ever there was a gentleman, born and bred, Dr. Leaver is certainly that one. And he's a man, too-a splendid one."

"I'm so glad you recognize that," said Charlotte, a joyous ring in her voice.

Ten o'clock, the hour set for the marriage, came on flying feet. Before Charlotte could fairly realize it she was walking down the street of the small Southern village to the little old church which Mrs. Rodney Rutherford Chase had attended as a girl. The old rector who met them there had been a life-long friend of the Chase family. Then, in a sort of strange dream, Charlotte found herself standing by John Leaver's side, listening to the familiar yet quite new and strange words of the marriage service. She heard his voice, gravely repeating the solemn vows, her own, following them with the vows which correspond, then the old rector's deep tones announcing that they two were one in the sight of God and man.

She felt her husband's kiss upon her lips, and, turning, lifted her tear-wet, shining eyes to his. At that moment they two might have been alone in the world for all their consciousness of any other presence.

* * *

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