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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 11
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The Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 11 Post by :luquete Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1267

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The Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 11

Chapter XI

The two men sat for some time out in the grove. It was very pleasant there. The air was unusually still, and only the tops of the trees whitened occasionally in a light puff of wind like a sigh. Now and then a carriage or an automobile passed on the road beyond, but not many of them. It was not a main thoroughfare. The calls and quick carols of the birds, punctuated with sharp trills of insects, were almost the only sounds heard. Now and then Sylvia's face glanced at them from a house window, but it was quickly withdrawn. She never liked men to be in close conclave without a woman to superintend, yet she could not have told why. She had a hazy impression, as she might have had if they had been children, that some mischief was afoot.

"Sitting out there all this time, and smoking, and never seeming to speak a word," she said to herself, as she returned to her seat beside a front window in the south room and took up her book. She was reading with a mild and patronizing interest a book in which the heroine did nothing which she would possibly have done under given circumstances, and said nothing which she would have said, and was, moreover, a distinctly different personality from one chapter to another, yet the whole had a charm for the average woman reader. Henry had flung it aside in contempt. Sylvia thought it beautiful, possibly for the reason that her own hard sense was sometimes a strenuous burden, and in reading this she was forced to put it behind her. However, the book did not prevent her from returning every now and then to her own life and the happenings in it. Hence her stealthy journeys across the house and peeps at the men in the grove. If they were nettled by a sense of feminine mystery, she reciprocated. "What on earth did they want to stop Rose from going to see Lucy for?" seemed to stare at her in blacker type than the characters of the book.

Presently, when she saw Horace pass the window and disappear down the road, she laid the book on the table, with a slip of paper to keep the place, and hurried out to the grove. She found Henry leisurely coming towards the house. "Where has he gone?" she inquired, with a jerk of her shoulder towards the road.

"Mr. Allen?"

"Yes."

"How should I know?"

"Don't you know?"

"Maybe I do," said Henry, smiling at Sylvia with his smile of affection and remembrance that she was a woman.

"Why don't you tell?"

"Now, Sylvia," said Henry, "you must remember that Mr. Allen is not a child. He is a grown man, and if he takes it into his head to go anywhere you can't say anything."

Sylvia looked at Henry with a baffled expression. "I think he might spend his time a good deal more profitably Sunday afternoon than sitting under the trees and smoking, or going walking," said she, rashly and inconsequentially. "If he would only sit down and read some good book."

"You can't dictate to Mr. Allen what he shall or shall not do," Henry repeated.

"Why didn't you want Rose to go to Lucy's?" asked Sylvia, making a charge in an entirely different quarter.

Henry scorned to lie. "I don't know," he replied, which was the perfect truth as far as it went. It did not go quite far enough, for he did not add that he did not know why Horace Allen did not want her to go, and that was his own reason.

However, Sylvia could not possibly fathom that. She sniffed with her delicate nostrils, as if she actually smelled some questionable odor of character. "You men have mighty queer streaks, that's all I've got to say," she returned.

When they were in the house again she resumed her book, reading every word carefully, and Henry took up the Sunday paper, which he had not finished. The thoughts of both, however, turned from time to time towards Horace. Sylvia did not know where he had gone. She did not suspect. Henry knew, but he did not know why. Horace had sprung suddenly to his feet and caught up his hat as the two men had been sitting under the trees. Henry had emitted a long puff of tobacco smoke and looked inquiringly at him through the filmy blue of it.

"I can't stand it another minute," said Horace, almost with violence. "I've got to know what is going on. I am going to the Ayres's myself. I don't care what they think. I don't care what she thinks. I don't care what anybody thinks." With that he was gone.

Henry took another puff at his pipe. It showed the difference between the masculine and the feminine point of view that Henry did not for one moment attach a sentimental reason to Horace's going. He realized Rose's attractions. The very probable supposition that she and Horace might fall in love with and marry each other had occurred to him, but this he knew at once had nothing to do with that. He turned the whole over and over in his mind, with no result. He lacked enough premises to arrive at conclusions. He had started for the house and his Sunday paper when he met Sylvia, and had resolved to put it all out of his mind. But he was not quite able. There is a masculine curiosity as well as a feminine, and one is about as persistent as the other.

Meantime Horace was walking down the road towards the Ayres house. It was a pretty, much-ornamented white cottage, with a carefully kept lawn and shade trees. At one side was an old-fashioned garden with an arbor. In this arbor, as Horace drew near, he saw the sweep of feminine draperies. It seemed to him that the arbor was full of women. In reality there were only three--Lucy, her mother, and Rose.

When Rose had rung the door-bell she had been surprised by what sounded like a mad rush to answer her ring. Mrs. Ayres opened the door. She looked white and perturbed, and behind her showed Lucy's face, flushed and angry.

"I knew it was Miss Fletcher; I told you so, mother," said Lucy, and her low, sweet voice rang out like an angry bird's with a sudden break for the high notes.

Mrs. Ayres kept her self-possession of manner, although her face showed not only nervousness but something like terror. "Good-afternoon, Miss Fletcher," she said. "Please walk in."

"She said for me to call her Rose," cried Lucy. "Please come in, Rose. I am glad to see you."

In spite of the cordial words the girl's voice was strange. Rose stared from daughter to mother and back again. "If you were engaged," she said, rather coldly, "if you would prefer that I come some other time--"

"No, indeed," cried Lucy, "no other time. Yes, every other time. What am I saying? But I want you now, too. Come right up to my room, Rose. I know you will excuse my wrapper and my bed's being tumbled. I have been lying down. Come right up."

Rose followed Lucy, and to her astonishment became aware that Lucy's mother was following her. Mrs. Ayres entered the room with the two girls. Lucy looked impatiently at her, and spoke as Rose wondered any daughter could speak. "Rose and I have some things to talk over, mother," she said.

"Nothing, I guess, that your mother cannot hear," returned Mrs. Ayres, with forced pleasantry. She sat down, and Lucy flung herself petulantly upon the bed, where she had evidently been lying, but seemingly not reposing, for it was much rumpled, and the pillows gave evidence of the restless tossing of a weary head. Lucy herself had a curiously rumpled aspect, though she was not exactly untidy. Her soft, white, lace-trimmed wrapper carelessly tied with blue ribbons was wrinkled, her little slippers were unbuttoned. Her mass of soft hair was half over her shoulders. There were red spots on the cheeks which had been so white in the morning, and her eyes shone. She kept tying and untying two blue ribbons at the neck of her wrapper as she lay on the bed and talked rapidly.

"I look like a fright, I know," she said. "I was tired after church, and slipped off my dress and lay down. My hair is all in a muss."

"It is such lovely hair that it looks pretty anyway," said Rose.

Lucy drew a strand of her hair violently over her shoulder. It almost seemed as if she meant to tear it out by the roots.

"Lucy!" said her mother.

"Oh, mother, do let me alone!" cried the girl. Then she said, looking angrily at her tress of hair, then at Rose: "It is not nearly as pretty as yours. You know it isn't. All men are simply crazy over hair your color. I hate my hair. I just hate it."

"Lucy!" said her mother again, in the same startled but admonitory tone.

Lucy made an impatient face at her. She threw back the tress of hair. "I hate it," said she.

Rose began to feel awkward. She noticed Mrs. Ayres's anxious regard of her daughter, and she thought with disgust that Lucy Ayres was not so sweet a girl as she had seemed. However, she felt an odd kind of sympathy and pity for her. Lucy's pretty face and her white wrapper seemed alike awry with nervous suffering, which the other girl dimly understood, although it was the understanding of a normal character with regard to an abnormal one.

Rose resolved to change the subject. "I did enjoy your singing so much this morning," she said.

"Thank you," replied Lucy, but a look of alarm instead of pleasure appeared upon her face, which Rose was astonished to see in the mother's likewise.

"I feel so sorry for poor Miss Hart, because I cannot think for a moment that she was guilty of what they accused her of," said Rose, "that I don't like to say anything about her singing. But I will say this much: I did enjoy yours."

"Thank you," said Lucy again. Her look of mortal terror deepened. From being aggressively nervous, she looked on the verge of a collapse.

Mrs. Ayres rose, went to Lucy's closet, and returned with a bottle of wine and a glass. "Here," she said, as she poured out the red liquor. "You had better drink this, dear. You know Dr. Wallace said you must drink port wine, and you are all tired out with your singing this morning."

Lucy seized the glass and drank the wine eagerly.

"It must be a nervous strain," said Rose, "to stand up there, before such a crowded audience as there was this morning, and sing."

"Yes, it is," agreed Mrs. Ayres, in a harsh voice, "and especially when anybody isn't used to it. Lucy is not at all strong."

"I hope it won't be too much for her," said Rose; "but it is such a delight to listen to her after--"

"Oh, I am tired and sick of hearing Miss Hart's name!" cried Lucy, unpleasantly.

"Lucy!" said Mrs. Ayres.

"Well, I am," said Lucy, defiantly. "It has been nothing but Miss Hart, Miss Hart, from morning until night lately. Nobody thinks she poisoned Miss Farrel, of course. It was perfect nonsense to accuse her of it, and when that is said, I think myself that is enough. I see no need of this eternal harping upon it. I have heard nothing except 'poor Miss Hart' until I am nearly wild. Come, Rose, I'll get dressed and we'll go out in the arbor. It is too pleasant to stay in-doors. This room is awfully close."

"I think perhaps I had better not stay," Rose replied, doubtfully. It seemed to her that she was having a very strange call, and she began to be indignant as well as astonished.

"Of course you are going to stay," Lucy said, and her voice was sweet again. "We'll let Miss Hart alone and I'll get dressed, and we'll go in the arbor. It is lovely out there to-day."

With that Lucy sprang from the bed and let her wrapper slip from her shoulders. She stood before her old-fashioned black-walnut bureau and began brushing her hair. Her white arms and shoulders gleamed through it as she brushed with what seemed a cruel violence.

Rose laughed in a forced way. "Why, dear, you brush your hair as if it had offended you," she said.

"Don't brush so hard, Lucy," said Mrs. Ayres.

"I just hate my old hair, anyway," said Lucy, with a vicious stroke of the brush. She bent her head over, and swept the whole dark mass downward until it concealed her face and nearly touched her knees. Then she gave it a deft twist, righted herself, and pinned the coil in place.

"How beautifully you do up your hair," said Rose.

Lucy cast an appreciative glance at herself in the glass. The wine had deepened the glow on her cheeks. Her eyes were more brilliant. She pulled her hair a little over one temple, and looked at herself with entire satisfaction. Lucy had beautiful neck and arms, unexpectedly plump for a girl so apparently slender. Her skin was full of rosy color, too. She gazed at the superb curve of her shoulders rising above the dainty lace of her corset-cover, and smiled undisguisedly.

"I wish my neck was as plump as yours," said Rose.

"Yes, she has a nice, plump neck," said Mrs. Ayres. While the words showed maternal pride, the tone never relaxed from its nervous anxiety.

Lucy's smile vanished suddenly. "Well, what if it is plump?" said she. "What is the use of it? A girl living here in East Westland can never wear a dress to show her neck. People would think she had gone out of her mind."

Rose laughed. "I have some low-neck gowns," said she, "but I can't wear them, either. Maybe that is fortunate for me, my neck is so thin."

"You will wear them in other places," said Lucy. "You won't stay here all your days. You will have plenty of chances to wear your low-neck gowns." She spoke again in her unnaturally high voice. She turned towards her closet to get her dress.

"Lucy!" said Mrs. Ayres.

"Well, it is the truth," said Lucy. "Don't preach, mother. If you were a girl, and somebody told you your neck was pretty, and you knew other girls had chances to wear low-neck dresses, you wouldn't be above feeling it a little."

"My neck was as pretty as yours when I was a girl, and I never wore a low-neck dress in my life," said Mrs. Ayres.

"Oh, well, you got married when you were eighteen," said Lucy. There was something almost coarse in her remark. Rose felt herself flush. She was sophisticated, and had seen the world, although she had been closely if not lovingly guarded; but she shrank from some things as though she had never come from under a country mother's wing in her life.

Lucy got a pale-blue muslin gown from the closet and slipped it over her shoulders. Then she stood for her mother to fasten it in the back. Lucy was lovely in this cloud of blue, with edgings of lace on the ruffles and knots of black velvet. She fastened her black velvet girdle, and turned herself sidewise with a charming feminine motion, to get the effect of her slender waist between the curves of her small hips and bust. Again she looked pleased.

"You are dear in that blue gown," said Rose.

Lucy smiled. Then she scowled as suddenly. She could see Rose over her shoulder in the glass. "It is awful countrified," said she. "Look at the sleeves and look at yours. Where was yours made?"

"My dressmaker in New York made it," faltered Rose. She felt guilty because her gown was undeniably in better style.

"There's no use trying to have anything in East Westland," said Lucy.

While she was fastening a little gold brooch at her throat, Rose again tried to change the subject. "That candy of yours looked perfectly delicious," said she. "You must teach me how you make it."

Mrs. Ayres went dead white in a moment. She looked at Lucy with a look of horror which the girl did not meet. She went on fastening her brooch. "Did you like it?" she asked, carelessly.

"An accident happened to it, I am sorry to say," explained Rose. "Mr. Allen and I were out in the grove, and somehow he jostled me, and the candy got scattered on the ground, and he stepped on it."

"Were you and he alone out there?" asked Lucy, in a very quiet voice.

Rose looked at her amazedly. "Why, no, not when that happened!" she replied. "Aunt Sylvia was there, too." She spoke a little resentfully. "What if Mr. Allen and I had been alone; what is that to her?" she thought.

"There is some more candy," said Lucy, calmly. "I will get it, and then we will go out in the arbor. I will teach you to make the candy any day. It is very simple. Come, Rose dear. Mother, we are going out in the arbor."

Mrs. Ayres rose immediately. She preceded the two girls down-stairs, and came through the sitting-room door with a dish of candy in her hand just as they reached it. "Here is the candy, dear," she said to Lucy, and there was something commanding in her voice.

Lucy took the dish, a pretty little decorated affair, with what seemed to Rose an air of suspicion and a grudging "thank you, mother."

"Come, Rose," she said. She led the way and Rose followed. Mrs. Ayres returned to the sitting-room. The girls went through the old-fashioned garden with its flower-beds outlined with box, in which the earlier flowers were at their prime, to the arbor. It was a pretty old structure, covered with the shaggy arms of an old grape-vine whose gold-green leaves were just uncurling. Lucy placed the bowl of candy on the end of the bench which ran round the interior, and, to Rose's surprise, seated herself at a distance from it, and motioned Rose to sit beside her, without offering her any candy. Lucy leaned against Rose and looked up at her. She looked young and piteous and confiding. Rose felt again that she was sweet and that she loved her. She put her arm around Lucy.

"You are a dear," said she.

Lucy nestled closer. "I know you must have thought me perfectly horrid to speak as I did to mother," said she, "but you don't understand."

Lucy hesitated. Rose waited.

"You see, the trouble is," Lucy went on, "I love mother dearly, of course. She is the best mother that ever a girl had, but she is always so anxious about me, and she follows me about so, and I get nervous, and I know I don't always speak as I should. I am often ashamed of myself. You see--"

Lucy hesitated again for a longer period. Rose waited.

"Mother has times of being very nervous," Lucy said, in a whisper. "I sometimes think, when she follows me about so, that she is not for the time being quite herself."

Rose started and looked at the other girl in horror. "Why don't you have a doctor?" said she.

"Oh, I don't mean that she--I don't mean that there is anything serious, only she has always been over-anxious about me, and at times I fancy she is nervous, and then the anxiety grows beyond limit. She always gets over it. I don't mean that--"

"Oh, I didn't know," said Rose.

"I never mean to be impatient," Lucy went on, "but to-day I was very tired, and I wanted to see you especially. I wanted to ask you something."

"What?"

Lucy looked away from Rose. She seemed to shrink within herself. The color faded from her face. "I heard something," she said, faintly, "but I said I wouldn't believe it until I had asked you."

"What is it?"

"I heard that you were engaged to marry Mr. Allen."

Rose flushed and moved away a little from Lucy. "You can contradict the rumor whenever you hear it again," said she.

"Then it isn't true?"

"No, it isn't."

Lucy nestled against Rose, in spite of a sudden coldness which had come over the other girl. "You are so dear," said she.

Rose looked straight ahead, and sat stiffly.

"I am thoroughly angry at such rumors, merely because a girl happens to be living in the same house with a marriageable man," said she.

"Yes, that is so," said Lucy. She remained quiet for a few moments, leaning against Rose, her blue-clad shoulder pressing lovingly the black-clad one. Then she moved away a little, and reared her pretty back with a curious, snakelike motion. Rose watched her. Lucy's eyes fastened themselves upon her, and something strange happened. Either Lucy Ayres was a born actress, or she had become actually so imbued, through abnormal emotion and love, with the very spirit of the man that she was capable of projecting his own emotions and feelings into her own soul and thence upon her face. At all events, she looked at Rose, and slowly Rose became bewildered. It seemed to her that Horace Allen was looking at her through the eyes of this girl, with a look which she had often seen since their very first meeting. She felt herself glowing from head to foot. She was conscious of a deep crimson stealing all over her face and neck. Her eyes fell before the other girl's. Then suddenly it was all over. Lucy rose with a little laugh. "You sweet, funny creature," she said. "I can make you blush, looking at you, as if I were a man. Well, maybe I love you as well as one." Lucy took the bowl of candy from the bench and extended it to Rose. "Do have some candy," said she.

"Thank you," said Rose. She looked bewildered, and felt so. She took a sugared almond and began nibbling at it. "Aren't you going to eat any candy yourself?" said she.

"I have eaten so much already that it has made my head ache," replied Lucy. "Is it good?"

"Simply delicious. You must teach me how you make such candy."

"Lucy will be glad to teach you any day," said Mrs. Ayres's voice. She had come swiftly upon them, and entered the arbor with a religious newspaper in her hand. Lucy no longer seemed annoyed by her mother's following her. She only set the candy behind her with a quick movement which puzzled Rose.

"Aren't you going to offer your mother some?" she asked, laughing.

"Mother can't eat candy. Dr. Wallace has forbidden it," Lucy said, quickly.

"Yes, that is quite true," assented Mrs. Ayres. She began reading her paper. Lucy offered the bowl again to Rose, who took a bonbon. She was just swallowing it when Horace Allen appeared. He made a motion which did not escape Mrs. Ayres. She rose and confronted him with perfect calmness and dignity. "Good-afternoon, Mr. Allen," she said.

Lucy had sprung up quickly. She was very white. Horace said good-afternoon perfunctorily, and looked at Rose.

Mrs. Ayres caught up the bowl of candy. "Let me offer you some, Mr. Allen," she said. "It is home-made candy, and quite harmless, I assure you."

Her fair, elderly face confronted him smilingly, her voice was calm.

"Thank you," said Horace, and took a sugared almond.

Lucy made a movement as if to stop him, but her mother laid her hand with gentle firmness on her arm. "Sit down, Lucy," she said, and Lucy sat down.

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Chapter XIIHenry Whitman and his wife Sylvia remained, the one reading his Sunday paper, the other her book, while Horace and Rose were away. Henry's paper rustled, Sylvia turned pages gently. Occasionally she smiled the self-satisfied smile of the reader who thinks she understands the author, to her own credit. Henry scowled over his paper the scowl of one who reads to disapprove, to his own credit.Both were quite engrossed. Sylvia had reached an extremely interesting portion of her book, and Henry was reading a section of his paper which made him fairly warlike. However, the clock striking four aroused both
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Chapter XWhen Sylvia reached home she found Rose Fletcher and Horace Allen sitting on the bench under the oak-trees of the grove north of the house. She marched out there and stood before them, holding her fringed parasol in such a way that it made a concave frame for her stern, elderly face and thin shoulders. "Rose," said she, "you had better go into the house and lay down till dinner-time. You have been walking in the sun, and it is warm, and you look tired."She spoke at once affectionately and severely. It seemed almost inconceivable that this elderly country woman
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