Louis ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM
The story of a lovely lady who found happiness by welcoming the unwelcome guest
WHEN Lydia Branden, enthroned like some faded , wrinkled aristocrat being tumbril-borne to the guillotine, had been driven away in Jed Doherty’s decrepit station hack, Mildred Raymond stood for several happy moments on the grey stone steps of Halfway House, the keys of which— cellars, pantries, linen closets and all—jangled full pleasantly in the pocket of her brown jersey. In a few days, when her lawyers had completed the bargain, the deeds to it would accrue to her.
Halfway House, for a century and more had been the house of the Brandens. Long, low, built of red brick, with many gables and quaint, white-framed windows, with terraces and fairy garden nooks, with a softly noisy little bum flowing through the dell behind it, Halfway House was such a home as Mildred Raymond had always dreamed of owning. True, it had taken a good part of her inheritance to purchase this house of dreams. But it was hers—hers wherein to rest after long years of looking after the invalid Reter Raymond, her uncle; years that robbed her of much of life’s laughter, of life’s moonlit moments and its warm whisperings in starry nights. But she was coming into her •jwn now.
She turned—Jed's flivver was only a cloud of dust—and walked into Halfway House, its new' owner. All about her, in the dark, gleaming mahogany of chairs and hall stand, in the old prints on the oak-panelled wall, in the soft, venerable rugs on the shining floor, was the mellowness of age, the beauty that comes to a house in which people—strong, fine folk— have really lived.
As the Brandens had lived. Mildred knew very little about them. She had first seen Halfway House, directed there by an archangel in the prosaic guise of a real estate agent, a fortnight ago. Lydia Branden then lived there alone with a housekeeper of lifelong association, one Mary Mallock, who stayed on now with the new mistress and who lived in the history and tradition of the Brandens. A buxom, lavender-pink-and-white old body, Mrs. Mallock, an integral part of Halfway House. Mildred loved her.
nrHE new owner of all this beauty, still a bit unable to adjust herself to the rôle of mistress, strolled into the long library that opened off the hall. Here in the red-brick hearth, flanked by gleaming firedogs, a fire of rock maple burned, its light flickering on the ancient bindings of books, caressing them as old friends who had long bided there. Mildred walked to the mantel, a trifle self-conscious as if still she were an interloper, to gaze at a picture. She hadn’t dared to showcuriosity about it or interest in it under the hawklike eye of Lydia Branden, but from the moment she first saw it those dark, smiling eyes of the pictured man had challenged her—those fearless eyes and the lean, strong face and whimsical mouth. She had seen that face before, in dreams and in reality. Once when Peter Raymond, able then to travel, had taken her to the East, she had seen this man, striding through the bazaars, tall and gaunt as an Arab, with glamor written on his face; and often in dreams . . .
“Kit” was scrawled across the picture; just “Kit.” But he belonged in this old house. He was one of them, Mildred knew ; for in old Lydia Branden’s eyes, in the proud way she held her white head, Mildred had seen this man again.
“Kit,” said Mildred aloud, cocking her own auburn head the better to study his features.
“Pardon me. Miss Raymond.” It was Mrs. Mallock, standing just within the library door. The old housekeeper’s soft blue eyes wandered beyond Mildred’s slowly crimsoning face, to rest for an affectionate moment on the picture of Christopher Branden. Later, Lydia would send for it and such other intimate things as she wanted.
“That’s Mr. Kit, ma’am,” said Mrs. Mallock, as if Mildred had just questioned her. “He’s the only man of the family left, and only the good Lord knows where he’d be now'. He’s always been a u'anderer, livin’ mostly in furrin parts, cornin’ home for a few days now an’ then. But he’s
not a wastrel, ma’am; not a ne’er-do-well. The Brandens, save a very few, were all sea captains or soldiers or gipsies like Mr. Kit. But they were all fine an’ noble gentlemen, and he is the same.”
“I have no doubt about it,” agreed Mildred, wondering what Kit would think of her, of a stranger owming the house of his fathers. Yes, she could picture him very well in these soft old surroundings, sprawling in the worn leather chairs, using the yellowed meerschaums and crusted old briar-root pipes that lay on the mantel, riding down the woodland roads in these gold and scarlet days of autumn. He belonged here; she did not.
“It is seven years,” said Mrs. Mallock, “since Mr. Kit were here, I’m sure.”
“He couldn’t know about—this? About Halfway House being sold to me?”
“No, ma’am. He’s a poor hand at letters, and Miss Lydia never knew wiiere to reach him. I guess that’s just as well, Miss Raymond.”
“He wouldn’t like me to have it?”
“He doesn’t know you, ma’am. Since someone had to have the old place, we’re glad it’s one like you. It won’t change an’ it u'on’t suffer.”
“Nothing will be changed,” said Mildred softly. “Not a book or a pipe or a picture. I love every inch of it, Mrs. Mallock.”
The housekeeper thanked her with a look of old, complete understanding. Here was another who knew the charm and felt in her deep heart the spell of Halfway House. Well, indeed, that it had fallen to such as this soft-eyed, sweetfaced girl who loved its repose, its changelessness.
XTEXT day Mildred drove, at sunset time, to Riverside Station to get some parcels that were coming out for her on the evening train. Across the river the sky was yellow, deepening to gold and flame where the sun was losing itself in the shadows beyond the black hills above Moss Glen. The train roared out of the twilight, the baggageman handed her the parcels. She turned toward her car that stood, motor humming softly, on the gravel patch by the toylike station. She turned, she stopped, she almost dropped the parcels. A tall young man in a careless suit of grey, with a black tie knotted as carelessly as the suit was donned, with a turned-down hat of grey felt, was standing on the platform. Mildred Raymond’s heartbeats quickened. It was heKit Branden. Home again, dropping down out of the years to revisit this place where he was born, to live again in the quiet rooms of Halfway House, to walk once more across the hills and fields he loved.
He saw her, hesitated, walked over. There was no one else about. Jed Doherty never met this train. Passengers to Riverside were few at best and came usually at noon. Kit Branden removed his hat.
“Pardon me,” he said. He looked closely at her and recognition showed in the intentness of his eyes for a moment, then he recollected himself. “Sorry,” he said. “1—for a moment I thought I knew you. That does sound like, ’Haven’t I met you before?’ I know, but I’m serious. My name is Branden. I belong at Halfway House, and. as there’s no one about and it’s six miles to go, I was wondering if you would be so decent —I see you’re pointed that way— as to tell Jed Doherty, supposing he’s still living and his bus still going, to come fetch me. And forgive my awful nerve, won’t you?”
Mildred looked from him to the car. She was strangely upset, very much at a loss to know just what to do. Clearly, he thought that Halfway House still belonged to his family. He hadn’t been home for seven years and it would hurt both her and him to come out with the news, to say, “Sorry, but you know the place has been sold. I own it.” No, she couldn't say that to Kit Branden. He had the air of the far traveller, of one who has journeyed many leagues and, finding himself at last in sight of the smoke from his home chimney, looks eagerly forward to his chair by the hearth. She couldn’t tell this brown-faced, smiling fellow that home was no more home to him.
“I can do better,” she said. “You see, I’m going to Halfway House myself. I—I am staying there for a few days as Miss Branden’s guest. You’re her nephew, aren’t you? I saw' your picture there. My name is Mildred Raymond.”
Kit smiled delightedly.
“Fancy! I certainly am in luck. But it’s a piece of imposition, Miss Raymond. I never tell them I’m coming, because I’m never quite sure I’ll get here. This time I just had to come. Oh, I got terribly lonely for the place. Guess I’m getting old and weary of wandering. I think I’ll stay home for good. Aunt Lydia would love that—the only surviving male Branden, you know.”
Mildred’s breath seemed to catch. Stay home for good! Then he’d have to know' the truth. She had hoped to carry things off, even ask Lydia Branden’s co-operation to let him think that all was well—if he were spending just the usual few' days. But he seemed quite sincere about his decision to stay—to stay in a place that was no longer his. She knew she should tell him now' and have done with it. But when she looked up at him and met his eyes she could not.
Kit piled his bags into the rumble seat and got in beside her, close to her in the front seat of the little blue roadster. The gears meshed, then hummed more gently, then the only sound was the shrill prolonged whine of the tires on the paved road and the rush of the wind past the glass w'ings. The road sw'ept in a wide curve through the village and the lights of cottages twinkled in the twilight.
Kit Branden’s head was bared to the cool rush of air. From under a fawm beret, Mildred’s dark hair blew' in little w'isps and tendrils. He looked sideways at her.
“This is a real homecoming,” he said. “I hope—are you staying long with Aunt Lydia?”
“Yes. Oh, yes. I’ll be stopping there quite a while.”
“Splendid! And you’ll go riding with me, and gunning and fishing? I can take a w'eek off, then I’m going to start in at the farm. Going in for stock and poultry just as the ancestors used to. I ahvays planned to do that, and now I feel that it’s the one thing I want to do in life. Sort of family responsibilities, you see. Perhaps I can get back some of what my immediate predecessors frittered away.”
"XÆILDRED was silent. It would be unkind; it would destroy that splendid ardor and young eagerness of his, if she told him that he w:as too late now' to do anything for the Brandens, that Halfw'ay House and its paddocks and wide fields and w'oodland were his no longer. But wouldn’t Mrs. Mallock—
At the junction of the Post Road with that leading to Halfway House, Mildred stopped the car. There w'as a little store there. She told Kit she had some things to get. She bought candy and some oranges, and w'hile the man was w'rapping them she went to the phone and called Halfway House.
“Yes, yes; Kit is with me, Mrs. Mallock. And, listen, you must not let on—must not tell him that the place has been sold. Mind. I am just a visitor while he is here. It still belongs to him. Good of me? I don’t know, Mrs. Mallock. Maybe I’m being good just to myself.”
Perhaps it was a form of selfishness to deceive him like this. It might be termed cruelty as well as kindness. It was something a man of his stamp w'ould not take kindly, if he should chance to learn the truth. But he wouldn’t learn. No one in the parish save M rs. Mallock knew that Halfway House had passed from the age-old tenure of the Brandens into the hands of a stranger. All very well if Kit only stayed a short while, but if, as he said, he was home for good . . .
Beyond that point, Mildred could not think. She got into the car again, under Kit’s admiring eyes, and they drove on down dark alleys of cedar and pine where brown jack rabbits scuttled across the wide beam of the head lamps and scurried through the dry yellow leaves by the roadside. The car, low-slung, vibrant with the power of eight cylinders, hugged the uneven road, filled its occupants with the light joy of wind-swift motion. Out of the east the rr.con rose red behind the dark and spirelike ev ergreens, and the lights of Halfw'ay House, wann, twinkling, shone out of the night.
Thus came Christopher Branden back to the house of his fathers.
Mrs. Mallock acted well this part that was so pleasant for her to play. Easy for her to pretend that it was still Mr. Kit’s home. It did not seem otherwise to her. It could never be otherwise, for the Brandens had built this house. In it they had lived and loved. Kit had been bom; here his father and mother had died. Their blood was in the very mortar of its bricks, their spirits still lived beneath its rafters.
and gazed into her eyes, and she into his as into the eyes of the little, brown-faced boy she had been fostermother to for many years. There were few words spoken. Mildred felt a tightening of the throat; a rising mist came before her eyes.
“ ‘Loved of wise men was the shade of my rooftree;
The true word of welcome was spoken in the door.'”
Softly, as he walked with Mildred into the library, Kit quoted the lines from Wandering Willie’s song. The shade of my rooftree, thought Mildred. Better that other line:
‘‘Home no more home to me, whither must I wander—”
Oh, well, the moment was sweet. The time was good, there in low chairs before the blazing hearth fire. There was whisky, a soda siphon. Mildred watched Kit with eyes enraptured as he stuffed a briar pipe with expert ease and lighted it, and gazed keenly at her through the smoke for a silent moment. Then:
‘‘I saw you once in the bazaars of Cairo,” he said. “Long ago.”
She was glad; she was, somehow, glorified. So he, striding past like an Arab, had seen her and had remembered—even as she had not forgotten.
“Yes,” she said, “I saw you. I knew you when I saw that picture. And you remembered me, Kit?”
The “Kit” had slipped out. But it was good to call him Kit.
“Yes. I remembered, Mildred. One sees so many things, so many faces, that only the few stand out, only those that are unforgettable. I wondered where I’d see you again, for I knew I would. Strange that it should be here in my own house. Y'ou are very welcome.”
As a lord he spoke to a stranger princess biding within his castle. Poor Kit. But she did not smile, did not feel at all the superiority of her position. She knew that there was something in Halfway House, its soul, its spirit, that belonged to this youth, that no deed of transfer could ever give to her. And she wished, uneasily, that things might be other than what they were; that it might still be his home.
rT'HEY dined, facing each other across the oaken board.
Blue candles shone softly upon the spotless linen and gleaming glass and shining cutlery, and the eyes of dead and gone Brandens from the wainscotted walls looked down on them; on the last of their line and this stranger girl who had no place among them.
Kit did not question her about how long her friendship with his aunt Lydia had been existent. He said he would wait until his aunt’s return to tell her of his plans.
“She will never believe me when I tell her I’m going to stay here. I’ve picked up a lot in my travels,” he said with that same bright eagerness that brought a warmth in Mildred’s heart. “I can make Halfway House all that it was before. I’m not too late.” He looked at her with a directness that was wondrously disconcerting. “And I want to, still more now.”
After dinner they walked through the moonlit garden and down the steep slope of the dell to where a little wooden bridge crossed the rushing waters of the bum, and on the bridge rail they leaned to watch the silvered waters. Kit’s voice was low and happy as he spoke of “being home.” And she had never been happier—or more miserable. For whither could this lead save to chagrin and disappointment and bitterness for him?
Until long after the tall clock in the hall had chimed the witching hour they sat by the fireside in the library, and Kit talked of his wanderings as of things finished and done with, and of Halfway House as of something eternal and never to be lost by him. And Mildred listened fondly, joyously, loving him in her silent heart as is the way of such women.
When they said good night in the hall outside her door Kit held her hand and smiled at her, and had he kissed it she had found nothing incongruous in the act, for men like him had kissed small white hands in this very hall, the hands of the women that were their women.
“Good night,” he said. “You have made this homecoming a memorable one. It seems—and this may sound strange to you, Mildred—as if you belonged here, too.”
Her cheeks were hot. She left him abruptly with a piteous little smile.
She heard him raise his window, heard the sounds of his preparations for bed, heard through the night only the soft chiming of the old clock as she lay awake in this house of the Brandens that had come to be her own.
On the morrow—there were still a few good horses in the stables—they went riding, she and Kit, through leafy lanes of yellow autumn light, across brooks where the earth of the banks was black and soft and little trout darted in shadow companies, over fallow fields, and past quiet farmsteads where the cellars were already banked with loam against the winter’s coming. They shot woodcock and went trout fishing along the silver brook. They laughed, they played, and in the evenings they sat by the fireside and talked. And on the third night Mildred knew that the end of this, the loss of his companionship, of his splendid ways, would mean for her the end of all things. She could not, would not, think of life without him. But he was not the man to marry the
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woman who owned the roof above him. Love her well he might, but there were things, honor, pride, that mattered much to the like of him. It was an impasse. There was only one way, the way of deceit—not to tell him the truth until she belonged to him.
“Don’t you think”—he stood above her that third night, and the bit of his pipe tapped against his white teeth—“that we have started something that should not.
' must not end ; something of beauty greater j than I, at least, have ever known?” He sat j on the arm of her chair and gathered her j close to him, and raised her face to his with his hand beneath her chin. “You do think that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Kit. I’ve never been happier.”
“Nor have I.” Slowly he bent to her and kissed her lips, and she held him and it was a dream of years come true for one whose life had been lonely, whose hunger fed only with the intangible stuff of dreams.
“My dear.” he said. “These days, these nights, will go on now as long as we live; only more wonderful because you will belong to me.”
Her face was against the rough Connemara ! tweed of his lapel. He could not see that she ; was troubled. It would be so hard to tell him the truth, even after they were married, when it would make no difference or, she hoped, could make none. But stubbornly, determined to enjoy this hour, to let no fear of the afterward mar its beauty, Mildred ceased to think of the time when she must tell him. After all. it was a temporal thing that must not be allowed to intrude upon this bliss that was of eternity.
“You will marry me soon?” he asked. “Very soon?”
“When you want me to,” she promised. “But are you sure of yourself—and of me? Are you sure that nothing.......?”
His finger touched her lips that uttered such treason.
“I was sure long ago in the bazaar of Cairo; I have always been sure.”
And so it was sealed.
AGREAT fear and a greater joy were the diastole and systole of Mildred’s heart! beats now. Nothing could spoil their happiI ness, her heart would say ; then, treacherously turning, it would tell her that pride, the pride of the Brandens, would never let him marry the girl who owned his rooftree. It made her wretched and she would resolve to out with the stor. and see if his love would stand the test. Wisdom counselled her to wait until, as his wife, she could soften ! the shock of his knowing. At least, he could j not reproach himself with the fact that any| thing mercenary had entered into his love j for he did not know. Often he spoke of the i house as being hers now, as well as his own, j and lie told her of all the things he planned ; they would do together.
The next day was busy with plans for ; their wedding, with letters to be written,
! arrangements to be made, though they both j were set on having everything done quietly, j with only their immediate relatives in the know. Mildred moved in a world of rosepink and ivory. All that she had ever asked of life, all that she had so many times despaired of having, even in part, would soon be hers. To live, to share the beauty and repose of Halfway House with the man of her dreams! It seemed to be good beyond j belief.
She sat at the writing table in the library that night. Kit was out somewhere; he was I forever and at all hours poking about the yards and stables. Mildred was looking for stamps. There were none in the drawer, hut I there were a few in her compact. She found j them. The open mirror of the compact as it stood on the desk was before her eyes, and in it was reflected the white blotter that Kit had left standing against the inkpot. A word, words, made right by the reflection, stuck into her mind slowly at first, then sharply; then like knives went down into her heart—
“Have solved the problem by proposing marriage. Accepted. Most happy. Kit.”
Even the name of Lydia Branden was there. Mildred stared dully at those accusing, damning words. The very pride she had been afraid of wounding was nonexistent. He had known from the start that the place belonged to her. He had come here with the design - -
“Kit!” she whispered. “How could you
do that to me......lie to me, pretend that you
It was hideous, incredible. Kit in the rôle of a Judas, of a fortune hunter. She had never seen even the shadow of a lie in those fine brown eyes of his. What could she do? Tax him with it? Have it out with him?
CHE heard his step in the hall, heard the rattle of his ash stick among the others in the rack, heard him whistling softly as he came toward'the library door.
His brown smile faded, and a gravity, feigned as much as real, succeeded it.
In spite of herself she ran to him, placed her hands on his shoulders and stared into his eyes.
“Kit, you didn’tdidn’t lie to me?”
His look of gravity deepened.
“About loving you? No, milady.”
“About—about anything else, Kit?” “Well, now, let’s see—” He picked her up easily and carried her over to the table and seated her upon it so that her eyes were level with his. “Come to think of it, I did, in a way.” His voice was teasing until he saw the utter panic, the stark terror in her eyes, and the trembling of her mouth. “I lied to you. Mildred, about the ownership of Halfway House. I let you think it was yours, and that was a lie of a sort.”
“But—but it is mine.”
“Wrong; it’s ours now but it was mine. The deed of transfer was never signed. I arrived in the city—hurried like blazes when Aunt Lydia’s letter reached me in Kimberley a month late—just in time to get to the lawyers and snatch the pen from Aunt Lydia’s fragile hand. Oh. it was like a jolly old melodrama—the prodigal son rushing in to tear up the mortgage and fling the fragments in the villain’s face. Only you were the villain.”
“Kit, I’m sorry” She was all gladness now. “I thought for a while—I saw on the blotter, quite by chance, the wire you sent your aunt, and—”
“Further explanations due you,” grinned Kit. “Aunt Lyd felt sorry for you, said you loved the place so much and would be so cut up over losing it that she couldn’t tell you, especially after she’d promised it to you and you were installed here. Anyway, I said I’d come down to break the news to you. And I couldn’t. I didn’t want to, when you were so splendid, so sweet as not to let on to me that I was just an interlojyer. It's Halfway House, you see. We each came halfway, darling, and when two have come halfway it must end in—this.
“This” was a kiss which, Mrs. Mallock witnessing it. sent the old lady to the kitchen for a long quiet spell of happy weeping and a few words to the cook about how Mr. Kit’s boyish feet user! to patter on the stairs, and of how, under divine direction, life goes on.
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