Under the Red Maple
Under the Red Maple
BY JENNETTE LEE
THE girl sat on the sunny side of the house, looking out across the meadow. Near her, toward the mountain, a red maple lifted itself, naming against the sky. Now and then the girl's eyes sought the tree and lingered on it restfully. It was warm October. The kind of day that holds a secret—waiting, finger on lip. The girl had sat there a long time in the clear light, dreaming, her sketching materials near her and her wide hat thrown carelessly across them. She had dropped them there when she came up from the meadow an hour ago. Luncheon-time had come and gone, but she had not stirred. Her mother had called to her, a little fretfully, from the window, but she had only turned her head, with the slow, absent smile. "By and by, mother. Let me wait."
Her mother had lain down for a midday nap, and the house behind the girl was very quiet. The sun dreamed about her. A locust shrilled sleepily from a tree, and was still. The girl's hands, slight and nervous, half crossed in her lap, and her feet, in their trim ties, thrust a little before her and crossed at the ankle, gave an impression at once delicate and strong. Her pose seemed to have sunk into the spirit of the day—relaxed, yet full of vigor, a kind of lithe waiting.
The young man who had come around the corner of the house stood a long time looking. He had taken off his hat, and the sifting light fell on his dark hair and strong face and firm, square chin. The little smile that stole to his lips as he watched her took away something of the look of self-approval in the face and made it likable.
He moved forward quickly.
She had not turned her head, and her eyes still rested dreamily on the meadow.
"How do you do?" she said, quietly.
He stopped short, half vexed. "You saw me!"
She turned her head, smiling. "No, I don't think I saw you. I knew you were coming."
His face lighted. "You always know." He sat down on the grass beside her.
"Yes, I know—sometimes."
"It's a good sign," he said, contentedly.
The sleepy eyes smiled. "Is it?—It's convenient." She spoke with a slow little relish that was not quite a drawl. It seemed to taste each word as she spoke it, giving it the effect of a kind of dry, detached humor.
The young man stirred uneasily. "You wouldn't know—if you didn't care." He ventured it, watching her face.
"I suppose not, if I didn't—or if you didn't. It's the same thing, I suppose."
The young man moved sharply. "You know it's not."
There was silence between them, and the locust spoke again from the tree.
The young man turned to her half bitterly. "I don't see why you act so, Leslie. You have never given me a straight answer."
The girl sat up, her eyes turned on him in a look that might have been surprise—or anger. The reddish hair that swept lightly back from her face gleamed like a flame. "You have never asked a straight question," she flashed.
"But you knew."
She had sunk back again into the altitude of repose. There was no reply.
He waited, biting his lip—almost sulkily. He swallowed once or twice and the lips opened. "Will you marry me?" he said.
"No, I don't believe I will." The half-brown eyes were turned to him with a friendly smile.
He got quickly to his feet. "What do you mean?" He was looking down at her almost angrily.
The eyes returned his glance unmoved, but a delicate line of color crept into the girl's face. "I don't believe I said it very nicely." The tone was apologetic. "I've never had much practice, you know." The little laugh behind the words was still friendly.
But the young man looked away without response. He stared out over the meadow. "It's deuced awkward, you know. Everybody expects it."
"Everybody?" The word held a quick demand.
He nodded. "All your folks and Uncle Will—"
"Did your uncle Will say so?" She spoke almost quickly, the little drawl brushing aside the words as they came.
"I told him about it last night." The youth spoke stiffly. "We talked over plans a little."
"You talked over my plans—" She said the words under her breath.
"My plans, if you like better. He is going to set me up in business when I marry." He had turned to look at her.
"That's nice." She spoke cordially.
"Isn't it!" His face lighted. "He can afford it all right. He's rich enough."
"Yes. He's rich—enough." The words came slowly—almost a little sigh of regret.
He regarded her with puzzled eyes. "I shall be rich, too." The look cleared.
"In ten years. You wait and see. You shall have all the money you want."
"All the money—I want." It was like the echo of a memory crossing the still air. "I want so little, you know." She looked at him with gentle, candid eyes.
He dropped beside her on the dry grass. "What is it, Leslie?—See, I don't even dare touch your hand." He drew a little away from her. "Why do you make me care so much?"
Her face flushed quickly. "I do not make you care. I have tried from the first to make you see—"
"From the first?" He was staring at her.
"Ever since you came back from college. You never cared before that."
He grew a little thoughtful. "No, I guess you're right. I never cared till then." A sudden question crossed the thought. "Is it some one else?"
She was looking away from him now.
"Is it?" he persisted.
The half-cynical smile, turned to him, challenged him. "You don't want to be my father confessor?"
"No, nor I don't want you to be mine." He got up, brushing the dust from his knees. "I'm going to ask Uncle Will to talk to you," he said, decidedly.
"You are going to ask—" She was looking at him with startled, indignant eyes.
He nodded securely. "There isn't anything he doesn't know. You can tell him if you won't tell me." He had turned away.
"Jack!" She reached out a hand.
He turned back, waiting.
"If I—" She hesitated, cutting the words short. "Well, I do."
She was looking down at her fingers, weaving them back and forth. "There is some one." She said the words very low.
"There is!" He was staring at her—thinking fast.
She nodded miserably. "You won't have to ask him now?"
A shout from the slope above broke the quiet. They looked up quickly.
"There he is," said the youth.
"There he is," echoed the girl.
They moved forward together.
The man coming down the mountain path waved to them gayly. As he came nearer, his gray eyes scanned the pair with keen glance.
The look of content had come back to the girl's face. But the youth's still held its frown.
"You've come just in time, sir." The young man spoke brusquely.
"Just in time—?" The man's eyebrows raised themselves a little.
"—to keep Leslie company. I'm off," responded the youth. He lifted his hat swiftly and turned away.
The girl's eyes followed him with a look of amusement that was half doubt. She turned them to the man. "Will you come in?"
"No; let us sit here." He threw himself down on the short grass and took off his hat, fanning it across his face. "I've been climbing all day," he said.
"It must have been beautiful on top."
"It was like dreaming of the kingdom of the earth," he replied.
They sat in silence, looking out over the meadows. The shadows had lengthened a little. They ran down from the mountain, touching the light here and there. But the sunshine still filtered warm about them, and the look of content in the girl's face was deep with it. The man beside her looked at it now and then, a question in his eyes. But no words broke the quiet. A hawk's wing cast a flying shadow, and they looked up. The girl's smile met his for a brief instant, flitting like the shadow. Then it returned to the meadow. Bees came booming across the open space and settled on the overripe pears that covered the ground beyond. The lengthening day held its deep peace. The man had forgotten his question.
When at last he picked up his hat and rose to go, it came to him again. He looked down at her, waiting, turning the hat slowly in his fingers.
The girl's glance met his, smiling. "Are you going?"
"I was—yes—" He sat down again. "But if you want me to stay—"
"I always want you to stay."
"Polite lady." He smiled at her, still waiting. "I thought you might have something—to tell to—an old uncle."
Her lip quivered a merry instant.
"No," she said, "I have nothing to tell—any one."
"Jack was here?" He opened the way for her.
"Forgive me, dear. I only want you to be happy." He raised his hat, ready to turn away.
Contrition ran across the teasing look in the girl's face. "He did speak," she said, slowly. "But—" She shook her head. Her lip held the secret beneath its smile.
The man looked at her quickly, curiously—as if a clue eluded him. Then his face fell. "I am sorry," he said, simply. "I had hoped—"
She shook her head again. "It would not do."
"Why not?" The question leaped at her.
She met it smiling. "Too many reasons."
"Give me one."
"One?" She paused, looking at him. For a moment she weighed fate between them. Then she brushed it aside with a laugh. "It wouldn't do," she declared. She had risen to her feet and stood beside him, her figure swaying a little in the light. Behind her the red maple cast its deep glow. The man's eyes lingered on the picture as he turned away. Half-way down the slope he turned and looked back. The girl was still standing, following him with her eyes. He lifted his hat, and she raised her hand in quick response. Then it fell to her side and she stood quiet again. He could see the look in her face, half laughing, half challenging him; and behind her the red maple flaming to the sky.
The two men sat in the twilight on the steps of the big house. Across the valley a light shone in the clear dusk, and a star in the mountain rim hung just above it.
The young man blew a whiff of smoke into the twilight. The cigar remained in his fingers, glowing. "I shall not give up," he said, stiffly. "I shall make her care."
The eyes of the other man were on the light, dreaming. It seemed to expand a little and fill the night with its glow. In the midst of it he caught a sudden glimpse of something hidden, mysterious. He leaned forward, looking at it intently. Then it shrank again to the girl's face, quizzical and strong. "Do you think you can make her?" he said, quietly.
The youth's square chin lifted itself a little as he returned the cigar to his lips. "I'm sure of it." He gave a quick puff. "You can make any girl care, they say, if you keep at it long enough."
"I've heard that," said the uncle, thoughtfully.
"Don't you believe it?"
"Perhaps so. You're sure she doesn't—" The question hesitated.
"Love me now? Not a bit of it." The youth laughed. "She said she didn't, plain enough. Said there was some one else."
The older man's hand was suddenly lifted from his knee. "She said there was some one else!"
"That's what she said. But I don't believe it. Who could there be? She said it to put me off. There isn't any one else."
"No, there isn't any one else." The other man said it slowly. He had known her from a child—known her every mood. She could not have concealed from him a friendship deep enough for love. He smiled suddenly in understanding. She was a poet. She was in love with a vision, a dream. But Jack would not know that. He did not understand dreams, nor girls. He was in love with her beauty and charm and her slow, quaint speech. The older man sighed a little. Then he roused himself.
The young man was speaking. "If I had money enough, I believe I could win her to-morrow."
"She does not care for money." He said it tersely, almost gruffly.
The youth nodded. "I know that. But there's a lot of things I could offer her now—right off. We could travel. I'd take her to Italy."
"You'd take her to Italy?" The other mused. "Yes, she would like that."
"I know. There's a lot of things she'd like," said the youth. "But what's the use?" He tossed away the end of the cigar. "I've got to wait till I get 'em." He stood up, stretching out his arms. "I'm going to bed and get ready for the fray."
"Suppose you wait. Leave the fray to me for a little," said the other, quietly.
The youth paused, looking at him doubtfully.
"Let me talk with her," said the other. "Perhaps I can think of something."
The look of gloom lifted a little. "I wish you'd do it," he said, heartily. "I wanted you to to-day. I told her I was going to ask you."
"What did she say?"
"Well, she got almost mad. Then she said there was some one else."
"No, there isn't any one else—not a real person. I think I understand. Let me talk with her."
"You're a brick, uncle." The youth's hand rested affectionately on his shoulder. "I owe you everything."
"That's all right, boy. I've never given you anything yet that I needed myself. There's no great credit in giving away what you don't want."
Long after the youth was in bed and asleep the man sat on the steps, looking across to the light. ... He knew her so well—every mood. He had watched them grow up together—boy and girl. It was he who had taught them to fish and hunt and ride. They had been always with him, tagging after him—he twenty-five and they nine—but always good friends, all of them, ... and now they would marry and go away—to Italy. ... Her dreams would come true—some of them. He stood up abruptly. The light across the valley had gone out, but close at the rim of the mountain the star still shone, twinkling and clear.
She looked up quickly. "How good of you!"
The man, mounted on a great horse, had halted just outside the fence. He smiled quietly at her enthusiasm. "Can you go?"
She came through the gate, looking admiringly at the horse that he led by the bridle. "Isn't she a beauty!" She patted the glossy neck, running her hand down its length with slow, happy motion. The mare reached out a sensitive cushiony lip toward the girl's shoulder, sniffing it lightly and nuzzling it a little. The girl laughed out. She stroked the great nose softly, looking into the wide eyes and watching the pointed ears that moved back and forth in swift question and response. "She's a lady!" declared the girl. "When did she come?"
"Last night. Can you go?"
"I'll be ready in three minutes." She moved back slowly, still admiring the clear, glossy coat and arched neck. "In two minutes and a half," she said, with a little nod, as she disappeared in the doorway.
When she came out she had put on her riding-skirt, and her hair was coiled close about her head.
"Around the mountain?" asked the man. He had lifted her into the saddle and was stroking the mare's neck, looking up at the rider and thinking how well they matched. There was the same spirited sense of power—a kind of reddish-brown challenge to fate. He smiled at the fancy as he leaped into his saddle.
The girl watched the smile-half jealously, it seemed. "She is like me," she said.
He laughed out. "Did you see it—in her eyes?"
"No. In yours."
They rode on in silence. When they came to the foot of the mountain they blackened speed, looking into the long tunnel of yellow light where the road stretched along its base and lost itself at last in a sharp curve to the left.
The girl's eyes travelled forward. Presently she leaned and touched the glossy neck lightly with her hand. "Let us not go through," she said, softly.
The man drew rein, waiting beside her.
"I don't want to come to the end of it," she said.
"No, we won't come to the end—ever."
She laughed, a little tremulously. "But we can't go back." She had turned her head, glancing over her shoulder. An automobile had entered the lighted lane.
With a swift word the man tightened rein. His lips were set, and his eye sharp on her seat.
She turned an assuring nod as they rode. The flying hoofs broke the shimmering arch, and the galloping figures pierced its quiet in shadowy rise and fall. The automobile had slowed a little to watch the framed flight. But the two still flew as if pursued. Breathless they emerged from the glowing circle. Her hair had loosened a little about her neck. They had turned into a bridle-path that led up the mountain. She motioned to him, and they stopped while she gathered up the loose hair, winding it about her head. Her lips were smiling.
"You see, we had to come through." She said it almost gayly. "But it was not our fault."
"It has never been any one's fault," said the man, gravely.
She looked at him with wide eyes. "What are you talking about? Are you talking about something?"
A slow flush had risen in the man's face. "I was going to talk to you about going abroad," he said, quietly. "It was what I asked you to come for. But I had forgotten it, I think. Would you like it—to go abroad—to Italy?" He was watching her face.
"With whom?" She asked the question softly, looking straight before her.
"With your husband."
She drew a little breath—that was half a laugh. "Yes, I should like that. I should like to go anywhere—with him."
For a minute he hesitated. Questions were opening to him, suggestions, whispers. The lighted archway had been filled with them. He could not say what they meant. He had known her always. ... But the boy should have his way. He glanced up the path ahead of them. "Shall we go on?" he asked.
"Can we?" She was still staring before her, sitting very quiet in her saddle.
"It crosses the spur at the other end, you know, and comes down."
They moved forward slowly. He shook off the witchery of the place and spoke with quiet decision. "I have been making plans for the future this morning." He waited.
There was no response.
"Are you interested?"
"Very much." It was a little drawl—the shadow of a laughing whisper.
"I have been planning how to make things over to Jack. I want him to have the good of them while I am here—to see him enjoy them." He waited again. But there was no response. "He will be able to give his wife everything that she wants." He said it, hesitating a little. The girl's face had grown suddenly strange.
"Everything?" She turned her look on him, studying his face with candid eyes. "Do you think he could do that—Jack? Do you think Jack could give her all she wants?"
"What is it, Leslie?" He bent toward her. "Tell me what stands in the way?"
There was no reply—only a sudden curious tightening of the girl's lips.
"It is not the money, child." He had laid his hand on her bridle. "Don't think I know you so little. But the money will make things possible—happy things. I want you both to have it, to enjoy it—together. I have always wanted it."
"Are you going to be poor now?" She asked the question almost shyly.
He laughed contentedly. "I shall have enough to live on."
"And to—to marry on?" asked the girl. A soft flush had come into her face.
"I shall not marry."
"Never?" The word, with its slow drawl, laughed a little.
"But you are poor?" It was almost exultant.
"Yes, I am poor. Does that suit you?"
"Perfectly." She drew a little breath. "And now you can ask—some one—to marry you, and people couldn't say it was your money!" Her face was laughing to him.
He smiled back, a little puzzled, but glad to see her so happy. "Yes, I am free and poor—aged thirty-four."
She looked at him with quizzical eyes. "So very old! Poor dear!"
"So very old," he said, quietly. "Too old to marry the woman I have loved."
The eyes watching him filled with happy light. "You have never told me you loved—any one," she said. The mischievous delight was full of assurance.
"You would have been the first to know it if I had told her," he said, gently.
"Yes?" She swayed a little in her saddle, the breath of a motion toward him.
But he was not looking at her. His eyes were fixed on something before them. "Perhaps she is only a vision—a dream," he said, softly. "Like this love of yours, Leslie." He turned to her. "Jack told me. You must not let it come between you and real happiness. Every one has it—the dream of the ideal—fanciful, impossible."
Her face had grown a little pale and startled.
"Don't mind it, child." They were moving very slowly up the steep path, his hand on her bridle. "Don't mind it, Leslie. I have known you always, child!"
"And—loved you. And I tell you that it will not come true—your dream. Do you believe me, child?"
"Yes." She had straightened herself a little in her saddle.
He stayed her a minute. "And you will say that to Jack when he speaks—again?"
She looked at him with doubting eyes. "I—do—not—know. So many things have happened. He will be rich now," she added, quickly, "and I have always been afraid I should have to marry a rich man." She laughed a little tremulously as she tightened rein. "Come, let us hurry. We can go down faster than we came up."
"Yes—Leslie—" He still kept a hand on her rein, holding her back. "You are happy, child? Tell me—"
Her eyes studied his face a minute—full, serious—a woman's eyes. Then they fell. "No," she said, "I am not happy. But you have told me. I thank you for that. I might have kept on dreaming." The little drawl struck the words bravely. Then it faltered and broke.
The girl's hands had covered her face. They had come to the top of the path. He drew rein, stopping the horses where the path curved. "Leslie"—he leaned nearer to her—"what is it? Tell me!" A new note had come into his voice. His hands reached out and touched the shining hair softly. They framed it in and reached to the hands that covered her face, drawing them back slowly. His eyes searched the face, eager, intent. "Is it that, child?—Is it that?" He said the words softly, with quiet certainty.
She nodded, the tears in her eyes gathering and overflowing and covering her shamed face.
"So that is it, my—"
"Not child!" She shook her head at him through her tears. "Not child!"
"No, not child!" He had drawn her to him—the gleaming head and tear-wet face close to his. "Not child, but grown-up—Kiss me, child! ... Oh, quite grown-up!"
Her lips smiled, and one hand brushed aside the crowding tears. "Stupid man!" she breathed, softly.
He laughed quietly, holding her from him and looking into her eyes.
They fell beneath the look.
"We must go down," she said, slowly. "We must go down sometime."
A little wind stirred among the trees. The yellow leaves loosened and fell, drifting down slowly. The breathing of the horses came in gentle puffs.
They moved forward, down the mountain, to the road that curved at its base.
"Let us go back," said the girl, "the way we came."
They turned slowly and entered the long tunnel of yellow light. The reins lay loose on the horses' necks, and the hoofs made no sound. It was like some dreamway, with two mounted figures moving always along its enchanted length.