It was a June morning in Kentucky. The doctor’s nephew coming at a gallop down the pike into Lloydsboro Valley, reined his horse to a walk as he reached the railroad crossing, and leaning forward in his saddle, hesitated a moment between the two roads.
The one along the railroad embankment was sweet with a tangle of wild honeysuckle, and led straight to the little post-office where his morning mail awaited him. The other would take him a mile out of his way, but it was through a thick beech woods, and the cool leafage of its green aisles tempted him. A red-bird darting on ahead suddenly decided his course, for following some quick impulse, as if the cardinal wings had beckoned him, he turned off the highway into the woods.
“I might as well go around and have a look at that Lindsey Cabin,” he said to himself, as an excuse for turning aside. “If it’s in as good shape as I think it is, maybe I can persuade the Van Allens to rent it for the summer. It’s a pity to have a picturesque place like that standing empty when it has such possibilities for hospitality, and the Van Allen girls a positive genius for giving jolly house-parties. To get that family out to Lloydsboro for the summer would be paving the way to no end of good times.”
The farther he rode into the cool woods the better the idea pleased him, and where the bridle-path crossed a narrow creek he paused a moment before plunging down the bank. Somewhere up the ravine a spring was trickling out in a ceaseless flow. He could not see it, but he could hear the gurgle of the water, as cold and crystal clear it splashed down into its rocky basin.
“They could picnic here to their hearts’ content,” he said aloud, glancing up and down the ravine at the rank growth of fern and maidenhair which festooned the rocks.
Alex Shelby had spent only part of two summers in Lloydsboro Valley, but the woodsy smell of mint and pennyroyal, mingling with the fern, brought back the recollection of at least a dozen picnics he had enjoyed near this spot, most of them moonlight affairs, and all of them so pleasant that he was determined to bring about their repetition if possible. Of course this summer he would not have as much time for outings as he had had then. Now that he had finished his medical course he intended to shoulder as much as possible of his uncle’s work. The old doctor’s practice had grown far too heavy for him. But at the same time there need be no limit to the pleasant things that the summer could bring forth, especially if the Van Allen family could be installed in the Lindsey Cabin.
A quarter of a mile more brought him almost to the edge of the woods and to the beginning of the Lindsey place. The spacious, two-story log cabin standing back among the great forest trees, might have been a relic of Daniel Boone’s day, so carefully had his pioneer pattern been copied by skilful architects. But the resemblance was only outward. Inside it was luxuriously equipped with every modern convenience. For a year it had stood tenant-less, and Alex Shelby never passed it without regretting that such a charming old place should be abandoned to dust and spiders. The last time he had gone by it, he had noticed that it was beginning to show the effect of its long neglect. Some of the windows were completely overgrown by ragged rose-vines and Virginia Creeper, and a tin waterspout that had blown loose from its fastenings, dangled from the eaves.
Now as he came near he saw in surprise that the place seemed to have an alert, live air, as if just awakened from sleep. The windows were all thrown open, the vines were trimmed, and were a mass of bloom, the dead leaves were raked neatly in piles and the cobwebs no longer hung from the cornices in dusty festoons.
A long ladder leaning against the front of the house, rested on the sill of an upper window, and Alex wondered if the agents had painters at work. He hoped so. The more thorough the renovation, the more attractive it would be to the Van Allens.
Suddenly his pleased expression changed to one of surprise and dismay, as he saw that the place was already inhabited. Empty packing-boxes, excelsior and wrapping paper littered the front porch. A new hammock hung between the posts. Somebody’s garden-hat lay on the steps. Moreover, a slender girl in a white dress stood at the foot of the ladder, evidently about to ascend, for she shook it to test its balance, and then cautiously stepped up on the first round.
Her back was toward Alex, and he fervently hoped that she would turn around so that he might see her face, then more fervently hoped that she wouldn’t, since it would be somewhat embarrassing to be caught staring as inquisitively as he was doing. Unconsciously at sight of her he had brought his horse to a standstill, and now sat wondering who she could be and what she was about to do. It was as if a curtain had gone up on the first scene of an intensely interesting play, and for the moment he forgot everything else in admiration of the stage setting, and the graceful little figure poised on the ladder.
“Probably going up for an armful of roses,” he thought.
“Hold tight, Ca’line Allison! Don’t let it slip!” she called in a high sweet voice, almost as if she were singing the words, and Alex noticed for the first time, a small coloured girl behind the ladder, bracing herself against it to hold it steady.
The ascent was a slow one. Twice she tripped on her skirts, and with a little shriek almost slipped through between the rounds. Only one hand was free for climbing. The other grasped some dark object that seemed to be a picture frame, though why one should be carrying a picture frame up the outside of a house was more than the young man could imagine, and he concluded he must be mistaken.
The last step brought her head on a level with the second story window, and up where the sun struck through the trees in a broad shaft of light. Her hair had been beautiful in the shadow; a rare tint of auburn with bronze gold glints, but now in the sunshine it was an aureole. What was it it reminded him of? A fragment of a half-forgotten poem came to his mind, although he was not given to remembering such things:
“The other grasped some dark object that seemed to be a picture frame.”
“Sandalphon the angel of glory,
Sandalphon the angel of prayer.”
Then he almost laughed aloud at the comparison, for a dazzling flash of light, blinding him for an instant, was reflected into his eyes from the object she carried, and he saw that it was a looking-glass that she was taking up the ladder with such care.
“What a very human and very feminine angel of glory it is,” he thought. But the next instant, still with the amused smile on his face, he was spurring his horse down the road as fast as it could gallop. The girl on the ladder had caught sight of his reflection in the mirror as she reached up to lay it on the window sill, and had turned a startled face towards him. Not for worlds would he have had her know that he had been so discourteous as to sit staring at her. He had forgotten himself in the interest of the moment.
Eager to find out who the new tenants were at the Lindsey Cabin, he rode rapidly on, turning from the woodland road into a maple-lined avenue leading back to the post-office. Just as he made the turn another surprise confronted him. He almost collided with two girls who were hurrying along arm in arm, under a red parasol.
Both Lloyd Sherman and Kitty Walton were old friends of his, but he had to look twice to assure himself that he saw aright. They had been away at school all year, and he had not heard of their return.
“I thought you were still at Warwick Hall!” he exclaimed, dismounting and stepping forward with bared head, to shake hands in his most cordial way. “When did you get home?”
“Only this mawning,” answered Lloyd. “All the Commencement exercises were ovah last Thursday, and we’re school girls no longah. ‘Beyond, the Alps lies Italy!’ Kitty can tell you all about it, for she had the Valedictory.”
Kitty met Alex’s amused smile with a flash of her black eyes, but before she could deny having used the trite subject that had been so popular in the old Lloydsboro seminary as to have become a standing joke, Alex answered, “Well, you’ve certainly lost no time in starting out to explore the wide world that lies before you. I’ve always heard that there’s nothing to equal the zeal of a sweet girl graduate about to scale her Alps. You’ve barely reached home, haven’t been off the cars three hours, I’ll bet, and yet here you are on the war-path again. What Italy are you climbing after now?”
Ordinarily his banter would have been promptly resented by both girls, but now it served only to recall the amazing news that had sent them hurrying away from the post-office on an excited quest. With a dramatic gesture, Kitty drew a letter from her belt and held it out to him.
“Think of it!” she exclaimed, her cheeks pink with excitement. “Gay Melville’s here in the Valley! Right here in Lloydsboro! Settled in the Lindsey Cabin for the summer, and we didn’t know anything about it till ten minutes ago.”
“Gay Melville,” repeated Alex, instantly alert at mention of the cabin.
“Oh he doesn’t know her, Kitty,” interposed Lloyd. “He wasn’t out in the Valley the wintah she spent her Christmas vacation with you.”
“Then you’ve something to live for!” declared Kitty with emphasis. “She’s one of the old Warwick Hall girls. Was in last year’s class with Allison and Betty, and she’s just the sweetest, dearest — ”
“Don’t tell him any moah,” interrupted Lloyd. “Let him find out for himself.”
“What’s she doing at the Lindsey Cabin?” he asked. He kept a straight face, although inwardly chuckling over the fact that he knew well enough what she was doing, at least what she had been doing three minutes ago.
“They’ve taken it for the summer, that is, her sister Lucy and husband have, Mr. and Mrs. Jameson Harcourt. They’re from San Antonio, and you know the Lindseys spend their winters there. It seems they interested Mr. Harcourt in the Cabin, and of course Gay was wild to get back to the Valley, and she persuaded them to come. She wrote to me just as soon as it was decided, but the letter never reached me till this morning. She thought I would get it before I started home; but it’s just like Gay to mix up her address with mine. She was so excited when she wrote that she addressed it to Warwick Hall Station, Texas, instead of District of Columbia. It has been travelling all over the country, and it’s a wonder that it ever reached me at all.”
“And the worst of it is,” added Lloyd, “of co’se she expected we’d all be heah to meet her. But we stayed ovah in Washington two days, and when they came in last night there wasn’t a soul at the station to welcome them. The ticket agent told me about it just now as we came past. She seemed surprised, he said, and disappointed. She must have thought it queah that none of us were there.”
“Won’t she be funny when she’s found what a mistake she’s made!” exclaimed Kitty. “She’s always making mistakes, and is always perfectly ridiculous over them when she finds it out. We’re going to take you to call on her, Alex, just as soon as they’re settled. She plays the violin divinely.”
“I’ll go right back with you now,” he offered promptly.
“No you won’t,” they cried in the same breath, and Kitty explained, “No telling what sort of a mess they’ll be in with their unpacking. But if they’re ready to see company by night, I’ll telephone to you, and we’ll all go over.”
“I shall live only for that moment,” he declared, laughing, then added as he turned to mount his horse, “I’m mighty glad I met you, and I’m more than glad that you’ve both come home to stay.”
A flourish of the red parasol answered the courtly sweep of his hat as they parted. He rode on rapidly towards the post-office, wondering if they would find the girlish, white-clad figure still perched on the ladder, up among the roses, with the sun making an aureole of her shining hair. He had never seen such hair. “Sandalphon, the angel of glory” — but the quotation broke off with a laugh. Her name was Gay, and it was a looking glass that she was carrying up the ladder. “Well, she’s an original little thing,” he mused, “and if she lives up to her name the Lindsey Cabin will be just as lively a social centre as if the Van Allen girls had possession.”
The encounter with Alex had delayed the girls but a moment or two, still they walked on faster than ever to make up the lost time.
“What do you suppose we’ll find her doing?” queried Lloyd.
“Something unexpected, I’ll be bound,” was the answer. “Will you ever forget that first time we saw her, when she came out to play the violin at the Freshman reception? Such a pretty white dress, and that rapt, uplifted look on her face that makes you think of St. Cecilias and seraphim, and with one foot in a white kid shoe, and the other in that awful old red felt bedroom slipper, edged in black fur!”
“Or the time she lost her belt in Washington,” suggested Lloyd. “Probably we’ll find her unpacking if the trunks came. But Gay’s trunks nevah were known to arrive on time. We may have to be lending her shirtwaists and collahs for a month.”
By this time they had reached the rustic footbridge leading over a ravine to the Cabin, and were in full view of the front windows. Gay was still on the ladder. She had made several trips up and down it since Alex passed. It was hard to decide at what angle to hang the mirror on the window casing, as she had seen them in old Dutch houses in Holland; and in marking the place with the point of the only nail that she had provided on which to hang the mirror, she dropped the nail. Several minutes had been wasted in a fruitless search for it. Others were to be had for the pulling, if one could extract them from the empty packing-boxes, but no hammer could be found on the premises, and it was only after much twisting and struggling that the little coloured girl finally managed to pull one with her teeth.
Another five minutes had been wasted in searching for something with which to drive the nail. Then Gay gingerly ascended the ladder again, armed with a pair of heavy old tongs, taken from the porch fireplace. She had just reached the top of the ladder when the girls caught sight of her.
“Mercy!” exclaimed Kitty in a low tone. “It’ll never do in the world to appear at this juncture. She’s pretty sure to drop through the ladder anyhow, or upset herself, or have some exhibition of the usual Melville luck, even if she’s left to herself. And if she should suddenly discover us there’s no telling what dreadful thing might happen.”
“Let’s slip up behind the arbour and watch till she’s safely down to earth,” whispered Lloyd. “What do you suppose she’s trying to do, and where do you suppose she managed to pick up Ca’line Allison?”
“Sh!” was the answer. “That’s the Dutch mirror she got in Amsterdam last summer. She wrote that it was the triumph of her life when she got home with it whole. She carried it all the way, instead of packing it in her trunk. Listen! What’s that she’s saying?”
The words floated down to them distinctly. “Ca’line Allison, you’ll have to get me something besides these tongs to drive this nail with. I might as well try to do it with a pair of stilts. Besides it’s making dents in them, and it’s wicked to spoil such beautiful old brasses. Mercy! Don’t get up yet!”she shrieked wildly, as the shifting of Ca’line Allison’s small body made the ladder slip a trifle.
“Wait till I poke these tongs through the window and take hold with both hands. Now! Hunt around and find me a stone or a piece of brick.”
The girls behind the arbour could not see her face, but the sight of the familiar little figure clinging to the ladder, and the sound of the beloved voice made them long to rush out and squeeze her.
“Isn’t her hair a glory, up there in the sunshine?” whispered Kitty. “The idea of anybody calling it plain red — such a fluff of bronzy auburn with all those little crinkles of gold! And listen to that whistle! You’d think it was a real mocking bird.”
Wholly unconscious of her audience, Gay teetered on the ladder, whistling and trilling like a happy bobolink, until the little black girl climbed up after her with a brick which she had dug out from the well curb. The girls waited until the nail was securely in place, the mirror hung and Gay had begun to crawl down the ladder backward, before they rushed out from their hiding-place.
They pounced upon her just as she reached the bottom round, and then ensued what Kitty called a pow-wow — an enthusiastic welcome known only to old school chums who have been separated so long a time as a whole twelvemonth. Questions, answers, explanations, a bubbling over of delight at once more being together, kept them talking all at once for nearly ten minutes. Then Gay, remembering her duty as hostess led the way into the house.
“Come in and see Lucy and her fond spouse,” she exclaimed. “They’re still at breakfast although it’s ten o’clock. None of us could make a fire in the range. It simply wouldn’t burn. But we had brought a chafing dish in one of the boxes, and we found another in the pantry, and they’ve been mussing around for the last two hours with them, having the time of their lives. Lucy made fudge and omelette and tea for her breakfast, being the things she knows best how to make, and brother Jameson is trying flap-jacks and coffee.”
“What did you have?” asked Lloyd.