ROWANTREE HALL

The third Sunday of their sojourn on the mountain, they accepted an
invitation to Rowantree Hall. Keefe O’Connor had been the messenger,
bringing the invitation by word of mouth, and though Miss Zillah was not
quite sure about the propriety of accepting, the girls overbore all
objections. So it was agreed that Keefe was to be their guide there and
back—to which end he borrowed one of Miles McEvoy’s horses—and they set
forth in the middle of a shimmering July forenoon. Keefe and Miss Zillah
rode ahead; Azalea and Carin followed on their ponies, each of the
feminine members of the party carrying in a neat saddlebag a clean summer
frock to be donned upon arriving.
They followed the main traveled road but a short way, turning off
presently on what looked like an old wood road. It was almost overgrown
with huckleberries and little pines, and the farther they went, the
prettier and wilder it grew. At length they entered a magnificent piece
of woodland where the chestnut and the maple, the tulip and the gum, the
chestnut oak and the red oak and many other beautiful trees grew
together. Then behold, in the midst of this they came upon a gateway
made of great logs, with an iron lantern hanging from each end of the
crosspiece, and above it in rustic letters the words “Rowantree Hall.”
“I feel,” said Carin, “as if I might come upon the Sleeping Princess at
any moment.”
“And I feel,” Azalea answered, “as if we might all be turned into
sleeping princesses. Oh, Keefe, are you sure this is not an enchanted
wood?”
Keefe looked back over his shoulder gayly.
“I’m not at all sure,” he said. “If you know of any way of keeping off
enchantments—”
“I don’t want to keep them off,” Carin called. “Oh, how wonderful it all
is! Aunt Zillah, we are going to have an adventure.”
“No doubt,” said Aunt Zillah, quite as light-hearted and care-free as any
of the young people. “It is impossible to avoid adventures. Life itself
is an adventure.”
They had to ride a mile after they entered the gate before they came to
the house, and the only indications that they were near the habitation of
man were the paths which ran here and there among laurel or rhododendron,
and the rustic seats which were placed at intervals along the way. But
at last the house arose before them. It had started out to be what Mr.
Carson would have called a Southern mansion. The double gallery should
have been supported by fluted pillars, but instead of these classic
shafts, the boles of eight great chestnut trees served the purpose. The
house had never been properly painted, only “primed” with ochre which had
faded until it was almost the color of the ground around it, but over
this had grown a multitude of vines. English ivy, Virginia creeper,
trumpet flower, honeysuckle, purple and white clematis, the Dorothy
Perkins rose and the matrimony vine climbed, ramped, and enwrapped
according to their dispositions, till the ragged looking house was as gay
as a castle with banners.
On the lower gallery, in white linen, very stately and hospitable in
appearance, sat Rowantree himself.
“What a pleasure to have guests,” he said with an English accent, coming
forward to assist Miss Zillah from her horse. “We have been looking
forward to this honor with the greatest appreciation.”
Miss Zillah could be stately herself when occasion demanded, and she was
quite as polite as Mr. Rowantree when she thanked him. If Mr. Rowantree
could have had his way, he would have beaten his hands together and
summoned his slaves to lead the horses to the stables. But the truth—the
bare and undecorated truth—was that there were neither slaves nor
stables, the first never having come into Mr. Rowantree’s life, and the
second having been burned to the ground a few years back. But the
horses, which Mr. Rowantree and Keefe cared for, were no doubt much
happier let loose in a field near at hand. The ponies in particular were
enthusiastic, and their cheerful neighings could be heard at intervals
the rest of the day.
Aunt Zillah, followed by her two girls, entered what the Rowantrees were
pleased to call their “drawing-room.” It was large enough to deserve the
name, no question about that. And the outlook from its great windows was
so beautiful—the house being on a rise and overlooking the forest about
it and glimpsing the mountains beyond—that curtains would have been a
mere drawback. Nor could any wall covering have been softer in color
than the gray building paper which had been tacked on the joists of the
house, since the builders never had got as far as lath and plaster.
There was no chimney shelf, but there was a large fireplace, heaped for
the occasion with oleander leaves. A few pieces of fine mahogany
furniture were surrounded by the rudest mountain chairs, and the wall
decorations consisted of a beautiful clock which kept the time of sunrise
and moonrise as well as the hours of the day; in addition there were two
fine, mellow portraits in oil, a fowling piece, two broken tennis rackets
and some mountain baskets.
Miss Zillah was too delicate-minded to take stock of anybody’s
possessions, but the eager girls, set on their own sort of an adventure,
noticed these odds and ends with one sweep of their eyes. Then, the next
moment, the mistress of the house entered, and all was forgotten in
looking at her.
She was taller than Barbara Summers, whom they both used as a standard
for sweet women, but still she was small. Her face was unmistakably
Irish; her eyes gray-misted blue, her hair as black as Keefe O’Connor’s.
Her mouth was sad and glad at once, and there was a strange, appealing
look in her face as of wanting something. She seemed homesick for
something—perhaps for something she never had had. The girls felt that
if she had a happy time she wouldn’t, in the midst of it, be able to
forget sorrow; and that if she were very sorrowful, she would still
manage to hold on to joy. Carin said afterward that her face made her
think of Ellen Terry’s. Azalea had not, of course, seen this great
actress, but she, too, thought somehow of acting. As soon as Mrs.
Rowantree began to talk, Azalea felt as if she were in a story book or on
the stage. Like Rowantree himself, his wife was dressed in white, but it
was, as Azalea could not help noticing, a very old frock with various
rents in it, just as Mr. Rowantree’s linen was frayed and ragged. But
these things seemed, somehow, to make the “adventure” all the more
interesting. Mrs. Rowantree had quick, gay motions, and she walked down
the length of the long curious room as if she were tripping on her toes.
“Miss Pace, it’s a great pleasure to be meeting you,” she said, not
waiting for an introduction, but grasping Miss Zillah’s hand. To Carin
and Azalea she said: “Young faces are flowers at the feast!” Her way was
so quaintly old-fashioned, so charming, so dramatic, that Azalea again
thought of play-acting; yet Mrs. Rowantree was nothing, it seemed, if not
sincere. So perhaps it was best, Azalea decided, to think of this as the
most charming “really truly” thing that had come her way.
Miss Zillah made it known that they were not content to remain in their
riding clothes, and Mrs. Rowantree offered their apologies to her husband
with pretty ceremony.
“The ladies wish to be excused, my dear,” she said. “They have to make
themselves more acceptable to the gentlemen.” She contrived to include
Keefe in the little bow she swept them. So the four ladies were off up a
stairway designed for a magnificent hand rail, but having nothing better
in the way of a balustrade than a stout rope strung through posts.
Upstairs the appearance of things was even more bare and unsettled than
below. The room to which they were taken was that occupied, apparently,
by Mr. and Mrs. Rowantree, and here was almost nothing in the way of
furniture beyond the beds and a most elaborate dressing case belonging to
Rowantree himself, spread out on a table before a triplicate mirror.
Opposite it stood another table above which hung a very small mirror,
where, it was evident by the meager little feminine articles, Mary Cecily
Rowantree made her toilet. The celluloid brushes were in great contrast
to the gold-stoppered, tortoise shell contrivances in Mr. Rowantree’s
case.
While the white frocks were being put on, Mrs. Rowantree lent a hand with
deftness and gayety. She delighted in Carin’s golden hair and in Aunt
Zillah’s beautiful silver curls. She said Azalea was like a rose, and
that Constance had done nothing but talk of her since the day on the
train.
“The children,” said Mrs. Rowantree, “are in the nursery waiting
impatiently to see you.” It appeared that every bare room in the great
unfinished house had its name.
When they all rustled down in their white gowns, Mr. Rowantree greeted
them magnificently at the foot of the stairs.
“Have the children brought, my dear,” he said to his wife. “They
naturally are eager to be released.”
From his tone one would have expected the children to enter accompanied
by at least a governess and a nurse, but it was the little proud mother
herself who brought in Gerald—“my eldest son, Miss Pace,”—and Moira and
Michael—“my darling twins, young ladies,”—and led by the hand that wise
young person, Constance, who flew like a bird to Azalea’s arms.
“She’s like myself,” said Mrs. Rowantree, “fierce in her affections.”
Azalea laughed. “Oh, so am I,” she said. “Mr. McBirney, my adopted
father, always tells me that. He wants me to be calm, but I can’t stay
calm.”
Mary Cecily Rowantree gave a rippling laugh.
“Why be calm,” she asked, “when you can be having a fine excitement about
something or other?”
“It’s the Irish blood in her,” explained Mr. Rowantree benevolently,
“that makes my wife like that. I am not so easily amused myself. A
quiet life, that’s what suits me best. I ask nothing better than to sit
on my gallery and look at my peaceful trees. My dear, dinner will be
served ere long, I take it?” Again it seemed as if there must be a cook
and cook’s assistants, scullions and servitors not far off. But again it
was little Mrs. Rowantree who dashed to fill orders. Miss Zillah was
persuaded to join Mr. Rowantree on the gallery, but Carin and Azalea
insisted on going into the kitchen to help, for by this time they were
quite aware of the condition of things. It was quite evident that Mr.
Rowantree had an imagination, and not only saw some things which did not
exist, but contrived not to see the unpleasant ones that did.
However, as the four handsome children persisted in tagging their mother
into the kitchen, Mrs. Rowantree said to Carin:
“If you’re really wanting to help—and I can see your heart’s in it—would
you mind telling a story to the young ones off somewhere? They’re always
under my feet, and while goodness knows I love to have them hanging about
me, they are a hindrance to the getting of the dinner.”
“Story?” cried Carin. “I know twenty. Come, children!” And she
vanished, followed not only by the four young Rowantrees, but by Keefe
O’Connor as well.
So it was Azalea who had the next hour with the hostess.
“I thought we’d eat on the gallery,” said Mrs. Rowantree. “It gives us a
fine outlook over the estate.”


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There was no table on the gallery, but boards laid on sawhorses served
every purpose, and the linen which Mrs. Rowantree gave Azalea to spread
over this rude table was of the finest, most beautiful damask. The
dishes, on the other hand, were of the commonest and had evidently been
purchased at Bee Tree or some similar mart. But as for the food, Mrs.
Rowantree knew how to manage that. She evidently made a fine art of
seasoning, and while, as she said, they “had not the advantage of
markets” at Rowantree Hall, they contrived, apparently, to get plenty to
eat.
It was quite a formal moment when Rowantree himself waved them all to
their seats. He placed Miss Zillah’s chair for her magnificently, while
Keefe placed Mrs. Rowantree’s. Miss Zillah was made to feel the
distinction conferred upon her by being placed at the right hand of her
host, who proceeded to carve his barnyard fowl with as many gestures as a
trencher man of the Middle Ages might have used in carving the wild boar.
The Rowantree children apparently forgot nothing in the way of manners—at
least so far as outward appearances went. It is true that Carin received
a bad kick in the shins which was not intended for her; and that Azalea
had to hold Moira’s hand to keep her from pinching her twin, but nothing
could be sweeter than the way they thanked their father when he served
them with food, or the smiling manner in which they answered questions.
While they sat there, it began to rain softly, gray, bead-like drops
falling from the gallery’s edge to the ground, and hanging a soft shining
curtain between them and the outer world. Azalea never forgot the beauty
of it all. There was no wind, and they were quite as comfortable behind
their silver curtain as they would have been in the house—more so,
indeed, for the day had been a hot one. Delicious odors came up from the
ground; the birds gave forth contented, throaty sounds, and all the regal
midsummer mountain world seemed well content.
They were very happy together, with a freedom from care that does not
often come in this rather grim world. Only in the eyes of Mary Cecily
Rowantree there remained that strange look of longing, of forever
searching for something which she could not find. Keefe O’Connor caught
it, and sympathized. Azalea saw it, and because she too had a hurt—as
orphans must needs have—she too understood. Those who have a sorrow
belong to a great brotherhood and know each other by secret signs.
But it was a happy dinner for all of that. Between courses Rowantree
himself offered to sing them an old ballad, and in a rich bass voice
which set the echoes of the wood at work, he thundered the lines of “The
Maid of Bohea.” There was great applause, and he sang again. It was to
his singing of “Bold Robin Hood,” that Azalea and his wife brought in the
custard pie and the homemade cheese, and to the sad strains of “A Sailor
There Was” that they finally cleared the table. After dinner everyone
turned in to help, save the master of the house, who still felt the need
of quiet and of looking down what he called “the approach,” by which he
meant the winding road that led from the house to the gate.
If Mr. Rowantree could sing old English ballads, Mrs. Rowantree could
sing, most bewitchingly, old Irish lyrics. Carin and Azalea could sing,
too, though not like their friend Annie Laurie. Keefe had plenty of good
will even if he had not much of a voice, and Miss Zillah had a sweet
little silver thread of song which she was not ashamed to display. So
among them they had a musical afternoon, accompanied by one and another
on the old square piano with its rattling keys. The gentle shower that
had fallen during dinner had passed as quietly as it came, and the sun
shone softly through the wet shining leaves of the trees into the room.
However, it was just before going home that Azalea had her real
“adventure.” Mrs. Rowantree had drawn her arm through her own, and the
two of them had strolled together down one of the laurel-edged paths of
the place.
“Keefe O’Connor has been telling me your story,” Mary Cecily said gently,
“and I want to say that it’s myself who knows how to sympathize with
you.”
“Oh,” Azalea replied with a sharp little catch of the breath, “I didn’t
know anyone had told Keefe about me.”
“Never fear but the story will follow you,” returned Mrs. Rowantree with
an accent of wisdom. “Stories good and bad have a way of following one.
But this I will say, Miss Azalea: I honor you for what you’ve done and
the way you’ve clung to those who took you in when you were homeless.
It’s very like my own story—very like, indeed.”
“Is it?” asked Azalea, forgetting herself at once and warming to her
companion. “Have you been alone in the world, Mrs. Rowantree?”
“Alone in a way you never were, Miss Azalea, for I lost through my own
heedlessness the one living creature that should have been my care, and
the knowledge of it is always eating at my heart in spite of my good
husband and my blessed babes.”
“Oh, Mrs. Rowantree,” cried the girl, distressed, “aren’t you blaming
yourself for something that wasn’t really your fault?”
Mary Cecily turned her misty eyes toward Azalea, tragedy brooding in
them.
“If you wish to hear my story,” she said, “sit here and I will tell it to
you. My good husband doesn’t like me to talk of it, but my sorrow gets
pent in me and tears me, which is what he doesn’t understand. I’ll be
better for telling you the strange tale.”
There was a rude bench beneath a fine sour-wood tree, and Azalea, sitting
Turk-wise at one end so that she might face her companion, prepared to
give her attention to the “strange tale”—and she thrilled as she did so,
for she loved strange tales with a great love.