The elderly Mrs. Barry had one son, Mark, whom she passionately hoped to marry Lois Wilbur, his childhood friend. Nevertheless, Mark went to the city of.
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A mild wind was blowing up from the southwest, over the ribbon of resinous firs in the valley, the low-lying wheatfields and the long slopes of aftermath where the lush growth of the clover rivalled the luxuriance of June. From all it brushed in its unfettered sweep it filched somewhat of odor—from the firs the tang of their balsam, from the field-borders the warm breath of smoke-blue asters and sunned, grasses, and from the Barry orchard the aroma of ripening fruit and the pungency of the mint that grew thickly around the roots of the old cherry trees. All these it garnered to itself and poured, as if from an unseen flagon of delight, around the tiny old woman who sat among the grasses where the lane curved down the slope by the beech grove. She drank in the autumnal draught as she knitted and basked in the sunshine that mellowed on the slope around her. It pleased her to sit there in the day’s maturity, under a sky that was curdled over with films of white cloud, and knit placidly while she watched the wind lifting the ferns in the shadows of the birches and combing the long grasses on the slope. She seldom looked at her knitting. Her tiny hands worked ceaselessly but her large and unsunken blue eyes kept on the landscape a watch that missed little, from the stir and flicker of the sapling leaves at her side to the cloud shadows broadening and vanishing on the far away level fields to the south or the occasional wayfarers along the Rutherglen main road that ran, straight as a die, to the west until it dipped suddenly into the curve of the fir valley.
Save for the little old woman with the eager eyes not a living creature could be seen near or far. From the Barry homestead, that had topped the birch hill for three generations, to the opal-tinted horizons of the south and west and the gleam of the ocean north and east the whole world seemed to have fallen for the time being into a pleasant untroubled dream.
To Mrs. Barry, or Aunt Nan, as everybody in Rutherglen, related or unrelated affectionately called her the afternoon was as a cup of delight held to her lips. She drank it in unsatedly, thinking aloud meanwhile as was her habit.
“Isn’t it good to be alive? I want to live as long as there’s afternoons like this. Sakes alive, what smells! Seems to me the very air is dripping with ’em. There’s the mint—and the dead fir. Haven’t I always loved the dead fir? It minds me of when I was a girl and the first Mark and I used to go walking in the lane back of home where the firs grew so thick. That was forty years ago. I must be getting an old woman. How still them firs in the hollow look—as if they were talking to the sky. And what a blue there is over the hills! Strange how it always fades before you get to it! The way with most things I expect. I feel as if I was drinking the sunshine in and storing it up in my heart to last me through the winter. I’m so happy—it doesn’t seem to me that I’d have a thing changed if I could. I’ve had sorrow enough in my life but it’s put behind now and lived over like those furrows the second Mark ploughed in the lane last spring. They looked ugly for a time but now they’re all picked out with asters and golden-rod. It’s a dear way Nature has. And I just love living!”
She dropped her knitting for a minute and softly leaned her withered pink cheek against the creamy satin of the white birch bole behind her. As she watched the Rutherglen road a girl came out from the purple shadow of the firs that overhung it. Aunt Nan recognized her with a smile of delight.
“That’s Lois Wilbur. I don’t know as there’s another soul in the world I’d want to see just now but I do want to see her. She fits into an afternoon like this instead of spoiling it as most folks would do. I hope she’s coming here. If she passes our gate I believe I’ll just run down and lay violent hands on her.”
Aunt Nan was spared this exertion for when Lois Wilbur came to the white gate at the end of the Barry lane she turned in under the big willows. She walked with the elastic step of healthy youth and there was a faint yet rich bloom on her face, born of her windy walk up from the valley.
Although she was not beautiful in any strictly defined sense of the word she possessed a certain charm and distinction of appearance that always left beholders with a pleasurable sense of satisfaction in that softly rounded girlhood of hers, with all its strongly felt potentialities. Those who knew Lois Wilbur best felt, without, perhaps, realizing it, that her greatest charm was the aura of possibility surrounding her—the power of future development that was in her. She was one to whom maturity would bring her best and you felt instinctively that such maturity could be nothing less than beautiful when the crescent of her rich nature should have rounded out into completeness.
Whatever life might bring to this girl—and it must bring much, if not of action yet of feeling and heart-growth—it could not crush her. Its gifts, whether of sorrow or joy, could only tend still further to ripen and enrich the woman soul that looked wistfully yet unshrinkingly out of her level-gazing eyes. For the rest, she was simply the happy, wholesome girl she seemed, fully dowered with youth’s soft curves and virginal bloom, with a dimple or two lurking about her mouth and a saving glint of humor in her frank smile.
As she came up the grassy slope Aunt Nan held out her hand and Lois took it in her smooth, firmly moulded one, looking down at the little woman affectionately.
“I thought you’d come,” said Aunt Nan. “You belong to the afternoon so it brought you. Things that belong together always come together. What a lot of trouble that would save some folks if they only believed it. I was afraid you were going on to the shore and if you had passed our gate you’d have seen a sight now—nothing less than old Aunt Nan careening down the lane at full speed to catch you! Truth is, Lois, I was dying for someone to unload all the thoughts I’ve been gathering out of the afternoon on.”
“I did start for the shore,” said Lois. “When school came out I thought of the water purring around the rocks in this off-shore wind and it was too much for me, although I should have gone straight home and done some sewing. But I couldn’t sew on a day like this. There’s something in the atmosphere that gets into my blood like wine and makes a sort of glory in my soul. And my fingers would twitch and I would sew a crooked seam. So I said heigh-ho for the rocks and the off-shore wind. But I thought I’d give you a call in passing and bring you up the last magazine.”
Aunt Nan reached out for it greedily.
“Is the story finished, Lois?”
“Yes—and you were right. She didn’t forgive him. It spoiled the story for me.”
“I knew she wouldn’t,” said Aunt Nan triumphantly. “That’s what has made the story seem so real to me all along. That girl was so human—one kind of human, of course. There are other kinds. Now, you’d have forgiven him.”
Lois smiled introspectively.
“Yes, I think so. If it had been a matter of principle I don’t suppose I could. But it dealt only with emotions juggled by fate and I could—yes, I could have forgiven him if I had loved him as she pretended to.”
“She didn’t pretend,” said Aunt Nancy quickly. “She did love him. But it wasn’t her nature to be forgiving, poor thing! Don’t I know? I was just like her forty years ago. That’s why I understood her so well. I knew she wouldn’t forgive him. I wouldn’t have then—I couldn’t. I could and would now but it’s took me sixty years to learn how. That’s where you have the advantage of me, Lois. You begin where I leave off. It doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? It cost me something years ago. But it can’t all go for nothing. Do you know—” Aunt Nan dropped her knitting and leaned back against the birch with her eyes on the western sky—“I think that’s about the best argument for immortality I know of—leaving out the Bible, of course, for it’s no use hurling the Bible at folks who say they don’t believe in it, like old Luke Bowes at the Cove. I’ve read somewhere that nothing is ever wasted. You understand what I mean, I guess—you’re up in them scientific things—I ain’t. Now, take a woman like me who starts out in life with a good strong tang of temper and a lot of intolerance and any amount of self-will and power of keeping grudges, not to mention a heap of other faults. Well, she lives seventy or eighty years maybe, and it takes her all that time to learn how to control her temper and be forgiving and tolerant. Then she dies. If there ain’t any future life all that knowledge and self-control that took so long to gain goes for nothing—is clean wasted as you might say. Now, that ain’t nature’s way. There’s another life where it will be all made use of. I don’t mean to talk you to death, Lois. I’m going to stop now and let you have a chance.”
“I love to hear you, Aunt Nan,” assured Lois. “There is nobody down in the valley like you. I’d feel like a little fool if I talked to any of them about the things I discuss with you.”
“I know,” said Aunt Nan comfortably. “You and I always did understand each other, Lois, from the very first time that your mother brought you up here to see me. You were a mite of a child, with such big, serious eyes and long, nutty brown curls, and a habit of saying all of a sudden such queer, deep-down sort of things. Your mother was real worried about you. She thought you was odd. But I guess I always understood you. You always felt real comfortable with me, didn’t you? And you’ve been in my heart ever since you held up your face to be kissed, out there in the garden, and told me you knew you were a very naughty girl but you never could do wrong in a garden because the flowers were the eyes of angels watching you.”
“I’ve a bit of the same old feeling still when I walk in a garden. Let us go and see yours, Aunt Nan. Your asters must be out now. Mine got all rusted.”
“You’re going to stay here and have tea with me Lois. Don’t say you ain’t, now.”
“The rocks and the off-shore wind,” began Lois, with her twinkle and her dimple, but Aunt Nan interrupted her.
“The rocks will keep and other winds will blow. You must stay, Lois. I’m all alone. The second Mark went to the back lands stumping after dinner. Took a snack with him and said he’d be too busy to come home to tea. So you stay—and I’ll give you some fruit cake.”
Aunt Nan had a whimsical way of referring to her only son as the second Mark. Her husband, who had died thirty years before, was the first Mark.
“How is Mark now?” asked Lois as they walked up the slope towards the garden.
“None too well, though he won’t give in that he isn’t as perk as usual—manlike. He mopes a bit when he thinks I’m not watching. I’ll warrant you he is lying on his back among the ferns more’n half the time in them back lands today instead of stumping. I told him he wasn’t fit to do stumping yet awhile. But he’s the first Mark over again—go he would with a whistle. That grippe pulls a body down terrible. But I’ve got Mark coaxed up to take a little trip next week and I’m in hopes it’ll set him up in good shape again. He’s going to Queenslea tomorrow for Exhibition week and longer if he’ll listen to me—but he won’t. Such a boy for home as he is! And he is such a dear, good boy, Lois. I’ve never had a mite of worry over him since he was born. We’ve just been real chums, he and I, as he says himself. Of course, I know it can’t go on forever so. Mark will marry some day and then I’ll have to share him with his wife. But I’ll be willing and glad to, for I know Mark won’t choose unworthily and whoever he brings to the hill will get a whole-hearted welcome from me.”
Lois made no reply but her face flushed a little. Aunt Nan looked at her shrewdly out of the corner of her eye and was not displeased at what she saw. The sweet old soul had her own harmless wiles and she had for some time been on the look-out for a chance of indirectly assuring Lois that when Mark brought her to the hill farm she would welcome her even more warmly as daughter-in-law than as friend.
“I’d have given a good deal once upon a time for the first Mark’s mother to have intimated as much to me,” she thought. “Lois knows what store I’ve always set by the second Mark and she might feel a bit anxious as to how I’d take his making-up to her—as he is doing, plain as the nose on your face. Now she knows, I guess, and everything is real nice and comfortable.”
Aunt Nan’s garden had a local fame in Rutherglen. It was on the southern slope, a pool of sunshine on fine days and the haunt of mingled fragrance and cool shadows in dull hours, hedged in east and west by the apple and cherry orchards, and flowers bloomed there from the waking April days to mid-November. Aunt Nan “had a way with flowers,” the Rutherglen people said. Just at this time her heart was wrapped up in her asters, a broad scarf of which ran across the garden from the clumps of tiger-lilies at the gate to the old stone bench under the lilac bushes at the further end. They justified her pride and Lois bent over them, her face alight with rapture.
“This aster bed is a springtime poem that sang itself in your heart last May and is now taking outward shape like this,” she said to Aunt Nan.
“You always say the right thing, Lois. That thought was in my mind but I never could have put it into words so well.”
After a moment’s silence Aunt Nan burst out again anxiously.
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