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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Girl At Cobhurst - Chapter 37. La Fleur Assumes Responsibilities
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The Girl At Cobhurst - Chapter 37. La Fleur Assumes Responsibilities Post by :vbhnl Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :1938

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The Girl At Cobhurst - Chapter 37. La Fleur Assumes Responsibilities

CHAPTER XXXVII. LA FLEUR ASSUMES RESPONSIBILITIES

It was toward the middle of the afternoon that the good La Fleur sat upon a bench under a tree by the side of the noble mansion of Cobhurst. She was enjoying the scene and allowing her mind to revel in the future she had planned for herself. She was not even thinking of the dinner. Presently there drove into the grounds a boy in a bowl-shaped trotting-wagon, bringing a telegram for Mr. Haverley. La Fleur went to meet him.

"He is not at home," she said.

"Well," said the boy, "there is seventy-five cents to pay, and perhaps there is an answer."

"Are you sure the message was not prepaid?" asked La Fleur, suspiciously.

"Oh, the seventy-five cents is for delivery," said the boy. "We deliver free in town, but we can't come way out here in the country for nothing. Isn't there somebody here who can 'tend to it?"

La Fleur drew a wallet from her pocket. "I will pay you," she said; "but if there is an answer you should take it back with you. Can't you wait a bit?"

"No," said the boy, "I can't. I shall be away from the office too long as it is."

La Fleur was in a quandary; there was no one at home but herself; a telegram is always important; very likely an immediate answer was required; and here was an opportunity to send one. If the message were from his sister, there might be something which she could answer. At any rate, it was an affair that must not be neglected, and Mr. Haverley had gone off with his fishing-rod, and no one knew when he would get back.

"Wait one minute," she said to the boy, and she hurried into the kitchen with the telegram. She put on her spectacles and looked at it; the envelope was very slightly fastened. No doubt this was something that needed attention, and the boy would not wait. Telegrams were not like private letters, anyway, and she would take the risk. So she opened the envelope without tearing it, and read the message. First she was frightened, and then she was puzzled.

"Well, I can't answer that," she said, "and I suppose he will go as soon as he gets it."

She laid the telegram on the kitchen table and went out to the impatient boy, and told him there was no answer. Whereupon he departed at the top of his pony's speed.

La Fleur returned to the kitchen and reread the telegram. The signature was not very legible, and in her first hasty reading she had not made it out, but now she deciphered it.

"Panney!" she exclaimed, "R. Panney! I believe it is from that tricky old woman!" And with her elbows on the table she gave herself up to the study of the telegram. "I never saw anything like it," she thought. "It looks exactly as if she wanted to frighten him without telling him what has happened. It could not be worse than it is, even if his sister is dead, and if that were so, anybody would telegraph that she was very ill, so as not to let it come on him too sudden. Nothing can be more dreadful than what he'll think when he reads this. One thing is certain: she meant him to go when he got it. Yes, indeed!" And a smile came upon her face as she thought. "She wants him there; that is as plain as daylight."

At this moment a step was heard outside, and the telegram was slipped into the table drawer. La Fleur arose and approached the open door; there she saw Phoebe.

"How d'ye do, ma'am?" said that individual. "Do let me come in an' sit down, for I'm nearly tired to death, an' so cross that I'd like to fight a cat."

"What has happened to you?" asked La Fleur, when she and her visitor had seated themselves.

"Nothin'," replied Phoebe, "except that I've been sent on a fool's errand, an' made to walk all the way from Thorbury, here, an' a longer an' a dirtier an' a rockier road I never went over. I thought two or three times that I should just drop. If I'd knowed how stiff my j'ints would be, I wouldn't 'a' come, no matter what she said."

"She said," repeated La Fleur. "Who?"

"That old Miss Panney!" said Phoebe, with a snap. "She sent me out here to look after Mike, an' was too stingy even to pay my hack fare. She wanted me to come day before yesterday, but I couldn't get away 'til to-day."

"Where is Miss Panney?" asked La Fleur, quickly.

"She's gone to the seashore, where the Bannisters an' Miss Miriam is. She said she'd come here herself if it hadn't been for goin' thar."

"To look after Mike?" asked the other.

"Not 'zactly," said Phoebe, with a grin. "There's other things here she wanted to look after."

"Upon my word!" exclaimed La Fleur, "I can't imagine what there is on this place that Miss Panney need concern herself about."

"There isn't no place," said Phoebe, "where there isn't somethin' that Miss Panney wants to consarn herself in."

La Fleur looked at Phoebe, and then dropped the subject.

"Don't you want a cup of tea?" she asked, a glow of hospitality suddenly appearing on her face. "That will set you up sooner than anything else, and perhaps I can find a piece of one of those meat pies your husband likes so much."

Phoebe was not accustomed to being waited upon by white people, and to have a repast prepared for her by this cook of high degree flattered her vanity and wonderfully pleased her. Her soul warmed toward the good woman who was warming and cheering her body.

"I say it again," remarked La Fleur, "that I cannot think what that old lady should want to look after in this house."

"Now look here, madam," said Phoebe, "it's jes' nothin' at all. It's jes' the most nonsensical thing that ever was. I don't mind tellin' you about it; don't mind it a bit. She wants Mr. Hav'ley to marry Miss Dora Bannister, an' she's on pins an' needles to know if the young woman here is likely to ketch him. That's all there is 'bout it. She don't care two snaps for Mike, an' I reckon he don't want no looking after anyway."

"No, indeed," answered the other; "I take the best of care of him. Miss Panney must be dreadful afraid of our young lady, eh?"

"That's jes' what she is," said Phoebe. "I wonder she didn't take Mr. Hav'ley along with her when she went to the seashore."

La Fleur's eyes sparkled.

"Now come, Phoebe," said she; "what on earth did she want you to do here?"

Phoebe took a long draught of tea, and put down the cup, with a sigh of content.

"Oh, nothin'," said she. "She jes' wanted me to spy round, an' see if Mr. Hav'ley an' Miss Drane was fallin' in love with each other, an' then I was to go an' tell her about it the mornin' before she started. Now I'll have to keep it 'til she comes back, but I reckon thar ain't nothin' to tell about."

La Fleur laughed. "Nothing at all," said she. "You might stay here a week and you wouldn't see any lovemaking between those two. They don't as much as think of such a thing. So you need not put yourself to any trouble about that part of Miss Panney's errand. Here comes your good Michael, and I think you will find that he is doing very well."

About ten minutes after this, when Phoebe and Mike had gone off to talk over their more than semi-detached domestic affairs, La Fleur took the telegram from the drawer, replaced it in its envelope, which she closed and fastened so neatly that no one would have supposed that it had been opened. Then she took from a shelf a railroad time-table, which lay in company with her cookbook and a few other well-worn volumes; for the good cook cared for reading very much as she cared for her own mayonnaise dressing; she wanted but little at a time, but she liked it.

"The last train to the city seems to be seven-ten," she said to herself. "No other train after that stops at Thorbury. If he had been at home he would have taken an early afternoon train, which was what she expected, I suppose. It will be a great pity for him to have to go tonight, and for no other reason than for that old trickster's telegram. If anything has really happened, he'll get news of it in some sensible shape."

At all events, there was nothing now to be done with the telegram, so she put it on the shelf, and set about her preparations for dinner, which had been very much delayed.

Ralph had gone off fishing; but, before starting, he had put Mrs. Browning to the gig and had told Cicely that as soon as her work was finished, she must take her mother for a drive. The girl had been delighted, and the two had gone off for a long jog through the country lanes.

It was late in the afternoon when Ralph came striding homeward across the fields. He was still a mile from Cobhurst, and on a bit of rising ground when, on the road below him, he saw Mrs. Browning and the gig, and to his surprise the good old mare was demurely trotting away from Cobhurst.

"Can it be possible," he exclaimed, "that they have just started!" And he hurried down toward the road. He now saw that there was only one person in the gig, and very soon he was near enough to perceive that this was Cicely.

"I expect you are wondering what I am doing here by myself, and where I am going," she said, when she stopped and he stood by the gig. "I shall tell you the exact truth, because I know you will not mind. We started out a long time ago, but mother had a headache, and the motion of the gig made it worse. She was trying to bear it so that I might have a drive, but I insisted upon turning back. I took her as far as the orchard, where I left her, and since then I have been driving about by myself and having an awfully good time. Mother did not mind that, as I promised not to go far away. But I think I have now gone far enough along this road. I like driving ever so much! Don't you want me to drive you home?"

"Indeed I do!" said Ralph, and in he jumped.

"I expect Miriam must be enjoying this lovely evening," she said. "And she will see the sun set from the beach, for Barport faces westward, and I never saw a girl enjoy sunsets as she does. At this moment I expect her face is as bright as the sky."

"And wouldn't you like to be standing by her?" asked Ralph.

Cicely shook her head. "No," she said. "To speak truly, I should rather be here. We used to go a good deal to the seashore, but this is the first time that I ever really lived in the country, and it is so charming I would not lose a day of it, and there cannot be very many more days of it, anyway."

"Why not?" asked Ralph.

"I am now copying chapter twenty-seventh of the doctor's book, and there are only thirty-one in all. And as to his other work, that will not occupy me very long."

Ralph was about to ask a question, but, instead, he involuntarily grasped one of the little gloved hands that held the reins.

"Pull that," he said quickly. "You must always turn to the right when you meet a vehicle."

Cicely obeyed, but when they had passed a wagon, drawn by a team of oxen, she said, "But there was more room on the other side."

"That may be," replied Ralph, with a laugh, "but when you are driving, you must not rely too much on your reason, but must follow rules and tradition."

"If I knew as much about driving as I like it," said she, "I should be a famous whip. Before we go, I am going to ask Miriam to take me out with her, two or three times, and give me lessons in driving. She told me that you had taught her a great deal."

"So you would be willing to take your tuition secondhand," said Ralph. "I am a much better teacher than Miriam is."

"Would you like to make up a class?" she asked. "But I do not know how the teacher and the two pupils could ride in this gig. Oh, I see. Miriam and I could sit here, and you could walk by our side and instruct us, and when the one who happened to be driving should make a mistake, she would give up her seat and the reins, and go to the foot of her class."

"Class indeed!" exclaimed Ralph; "I'll have none of it. I will take you out tomorrow and give you a lesson."

So they went gayly on till they came to a grassy hill which shut out the western view.

"Do you think I could go through that gate," asked Cicely, "and drive Mrs. Browning up that hill? There is going to be a grand sunset, and we should get a fine view of it up there."

"No," said Ralph, "let us get out and walk up, and as Mrs. Browning can see the barn, we will not worry her soul by tying her to the fence. I shall let her go home by herself, and you will see how beautifully she will do it."

So they got out, and Ralph having fastened the reins to the dashboard, clicked to the old mare, who walked away by herself. Cicely was greatly interested, and the two stood and watched the sober-minded animal as she made her way home as quietly and properly as if she had been driven. When she entered the gate of the barnyard, and stopped at the stable door, Ralph remarked that she would stand there until Mike came out, and then the two went into the field and walked up the hill.

"I once had a scolding from Miriam for doing that sort of thing," said Ralph; "but you do not seem to object."

"I do not know enough yet," cried Cicely, who had begun to run up the hill; "wait until I have had my lessons."

They stood together at the top of the little eminence.

"I wonder," said Cicely, "if Miriam ever comes upon this hill at sunset. Perhaps she has never thought of it."

Ralph did not know; but the mention of Miriam's name caused him to think how little he had missed his sister, who had seemed to live in his life as he had lived in hers. It was strange, and he could not believe that he would so easily adapt himself to the changed circumstances of his home life. There was another thing of which he did not think, and that was that he had not missed Dora Bannister. It is true that he had never seen much of that young lady; but he had thought so much about her, and made so many plans in regard to her, and had so often hoped that he might see her drive up to the Cobhurst door, and had had such charming recollections of the hours she had spent in his home, and of the travels they had taken together by photograph, her blue eyes lifted to his as if in truth she leaned upon his arm as they walked through palace and park, that it was wonderful that he did not notice that for days his thoughts had not dwelt upon her.

When the gorgeous color began to fade out of the sky, Cicely said her mother would be wondering what had become of her, and together they went down the hill, and along the roadside, where they stopped to pick some tall sprays of goldenrod, and through the orchard, and around by the barnyard, where Mike was milking, and where Ralph stopped while Cicely went on to the house.

Phoebe was standing down by the entrance gate. She was waiting for an oxcart, whose driver had promised to take her with him on his return to Thorbury. She had arranged with a neighbor to prepare the minister's supper, but she must be on hand to give him his breakfast. As there was nothing to interest her at Cobhurst, and nothing to report, she was glad to go, and considered this oxcart a godsend, for her plan of getting Mike to drive her over in the spring cart had not been met with favor.

Waiting at the gateway, she had seen Ralph and Cicely walk up the hill, and watched them standing together, ever and ever so long, looking at the sky, and she had kept her eyes on them as they came down the hill, stopped to pick flowers which he gave to her, and until they had disappeared among the trees of the orchard.

"Upon my word an' honor!" ejaculated Mrs. Robinson, "if that old French slop-cook hasn't lied to me, wus than Satan could do hisself! If them two ain't lovers, there never was none, an' that old heathen sinner thought she could clap a coffee bag over my head so that I couldn't see nothin' nor tell nothin'. She might as well a' slapped me in the face, the sarpent!"

And unable, by reason of her indignation, to stand still any longer, she walked up the road to meet the returning oxcart, whose wheels could be heard rumbling in the distance.

La Fleur had seen the couple standing together on the little hill, but she had thought it a pity to disturb their tete-a-tete.

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