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- Across the Years - 4/34 -


"Ann, Ann, whoa! You mustn't--you can't! Ann, please whoa!" she supplicated wildly. She might as well have besought the wind not to blow.

On and on, neck and neck, the horses raced. Miss Prue's bonnet slipped and hung rakishly above one ear. Her hair loosened and fell in straggling wisps of gray to her shoulders. Her eyeglasses dropped from her nose and swayed dizzily on their slender chain. Her gloves split across the back and showed the white, tense knuckles. Her breath came in gasps, and only a moaning "whoa--whoa" fell in jerky rhythm from her white lips. Ashamed, frightened, and dismayed, Miss Prue clung to the reins and kept her straining eyes on the road ahead.

On and on down the long straight road flew Jupiter Ann and the little gray mare. At door and window of the scudding houses appeared men and women with startled faces and upraised hands. Miss Prue knew that they were there, and shuddered. The shame of it--she, in a horse-race, and with Rupert Joyce! Hurriedly she threw a look at the young man's face to catch its expression; and then she saw something else: the little gray mare was a full half-head in the lead of Jupiter Ann!

It was then that a strange something awoke in Miss Prue--a fierce new something that she had never felt before. Her lips set hard, and her eyes flashed a sudden fire. Her moaning "whoa--whoa" fell silent, and her hands loosened instinctively on the reins. She was leaning forward now, eagerly, anxiously, her eyes on the head of the other horse. Suddenly her tense muscles relaxed, and a look that was perilously near to triumphant joy crossed her face--Jupiter Ann was ahead once more!

By the time the wide sweep of the driveway leading to Miss Prue's home was reached, there was no question of the result, and well in the lead of the little gray mare Jupiter Ann trotted proudly up the driveway and came to a panting stop.

Flushed, disheveled, and palpitating, Miss Prue picked her way to the ground. Behind her Rupert Joyce was just driving into the yard. He, too, was flushed and palpitating--though not for the same reason.

"I--I just thought I'd drive out and see Mary Belle," he blurted out airily, assuming a bold front to meet the wrath which he felt was sure to come. At once, however, his jaw dropped in amazement.

"Mary Belle? I left her down in the orchard gathering apples," Miss Prue was saying cheerfully. "You might look for her there." And she smiled-- the gracious smile of the victor for the vanquished.

Incredulously the youth stared; then, emboldened, he plunged on recklessly:

"I say, you know, Miss Prue, that little horse of yours can run!"

Miss Prue stiffened. With a jerk she straightened her bonnet and thrust her glasses on her nose.

"Ann has been bad--very bad," she said severely. "We'll not talk of it, if you please. I am ashamed of her!" And he turned haughtily away.

And yet--

In the barn two minutes later, Miss Prue patted Jupiter Ann on the neck --a thing she had never done before.

"We beat 'em, anyhow, Ann," she whispered. "And, after all, he's a pleasant-spoken chap, and if Mary Belle wants him--why--let's let her have him!"

The Axminster Path

"There, dear, here we are, all dressed for the day!" said the girl gayly, as she led the frail little woman along the strip of Axminster carpet that led to the big chair.

"And Kathie?" asked the woman, turning her head with the groping uncertainty of the blind.

"Here, mother," answered a cheery voice. "I'm right here by the window."

"Oh!" And the woman smiled happily. "Painting, I suppose, as usual."

"Oh, I'm working, as usual," returned the same cheery voice, its owner changing the position of the garment in her lap and reaching for a spool of silk.

"There!" breathed the blind woman, as she sank into the great chair. "Now I am all ready for my breakfast. Tell cook, please, Margaret, that I will have tea this morning, and just a roll besides my orange." And she smoothed the folds of her black silk gown and picked daintily at the lace in her sleeves.

"Very well, dearie," returned her daughter. "You shall have it right away," she added over her shoulder as she left the room.

In the tiny kitchen beyond the sitting-room Margaret Whitmore lighted the gas-stove and set the water on to boil. Then she arranged a small tray with a bit of worn damask and the only cup and saucer of delicate china that the shelves contained. Some minutes later she went back to her mother, tray in hand.

"'Most starved to death?" she demanded merrily, as she set the tray upon the table Katherine had made ready before the blind woman. "You have your roll, your tea, your orange, as you ordered, dear, and just a bit of currant jelly besides."

"Currant jelly? Well, I don't know,--perhaps it will taste good. 'T was so like Nora to send it up; she's always trying to tempt my appetite, you know. Dear me, girls, I wonder if you realize what a treasure we have in that cook!"

"Yes, dear, I know," murmured Margaret hastily. "And now the tea, Mother--it's getting colder every minute. Will you have the orange first?"

The slender hands of the blind woman hovered for a moment over the table, then dropped slowly and found by touch the position of spoons, plates, and the cup of tea.

"Yes, I have everything. I don't need you any longer, Meg. I don't like to take so much of your time, dear--you should let Betty do for me."

"But I want to do it," laughed Margaret. "Don't you want me?"

"Want you! That isn't the question, dear," objected Mrs. Whitmore gently. "Of course, a maid's service can't be compared for an instant with a daughter's love and care; but I don't want to be selfish--and you and Kathie never let Betty do a thing for me. There, there! I won't scold any more. What are you going to do to-day, Meg?"

Margaret hesitated. She was sitting by the window now, in a low chair near her sister's. In her hands was a garment similar to that upon which Katherine was still at work.

"Why, I thought," she began slowly, "I'd stay here with you and Katherine a while."

Mrs. Whitmore set down her empty cup and turned a troubled face toward the sound of her daughter's voice.

"Meg, dear," she remonstrated, "is it that fancy-work?"

"Well, isn't fancy-work all right?" The girl's voice shook a little.

Mrs. Whitmore stirred uneasily.

"No, it--it isn't--in this case," she protested. "Meg, Kathie, I don't like it. You are young; you should go out more--both of you. I understand, of course; it's your unselfishness. You stay with me lest I get lonely; and you play at painting and fancy-work for an excuse. Now, dearies, there must be a change. You must go out. You must take your place in society. I will not have you waste your young lives."

"Mother!" Margaret was on her feet, and Katherine had dropped her work. "Mother!" they cried again.

"I--I shan't even listen," faltered Margaret. "I shall go and leave you right away," she finished tremulously, picking up the tray and hurrying from the room.

It was hours later, after the little woman had trailed once more along the Axminster path to the bed in the room beyond and had dropped asleep, that Margaret Whitmore faced her sister with despairing eyes.

"Katherine, what shall we do? This thing is killing me!"

The elder girl's lips tightened. For an instant she paused in her work-- but for only an instant.

"I know," she said feverishly; "but we mustn't give up--we mustn't!"

"But how can we help it? It grows worse and worse. She wants us to go out--to sing, dance, and make merry as we used to."

"Then we'll go out and--tell her we dance."

"But there's the work."

"We'll take it with us. We can't both leave at once, of course, but old Mrs. Austin, downstairs, will be glad to have one or the other of us sit with her an occasional afternoon or evening."

Margaret sprang to her feet and walked twice the length of the room.

"But I've--lied so much already!" she moaned, pausing before her sister. "It's all a lie--my whole life!"

"Yes, yes, I know," murmured the other, with a hurried glance toward the bedroom door. "But, Meg, we mustn't give up--'twould kill her to know now. And, after all, it's only a little while!--such a little while!"

Her voice broke with a half-stifled sob. The younger girl shivered, but did not speak. She walked again the length of the room and back; then she sat down to her work, her lips a tense line of determination, and her thoughts delving into the few past years for a strength that might help her to bear the burden of the days to come.


Across the Years - 4/34

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