― 40 ―

An Elderly Romance.

Jean Armytage sat by her window reading and re-reading a letter in the fading light. Anyone might have imagined from the time spent in scanning it that it was written in Sanscrit, or in crabbed hieroglyphics. But no! The writing was clear enough. It was not the caligraphy—it was the subject matter that astounded, confused, dazzled, and bewildered the recipient. For this letter was nothing more nor less than an offer of marriage from Jean's old playmate, Reuben Grant—a man who had never spoken a word of love to her in his life—now living across the seas in far-off Australia, owning land, and cattle, and horses, and buggles (“what you call gigs, Jean”), all which seemed wealth to this lone woman dwelling in a quiet Highland village.

“It cannot be true,” she ejaculated. “Who ever heard of a woman of my age getting a love-letter?” And then with a pang—half of sorrow, half of indignation—she reflected that the letter contained no word of love! Reuben had set out the advantages that would accrue from her change of state, but never a word of his own feelings. It was as businesslike a proposal as that of any ordinary partnership. There was no room for sentiment in the matter. Wherefore Jean, being a woman, felt defrauded of her just due.

The habit of years led her to lay this matter—as she had laid all the former perplexities of her life—before the minister.

“I've got a bit letter here I'd like you to read,” she said, drawing the envelope with the Australian stamp from her pocket, and handing it with a fine blush to the arbiter of the village destinies. He read it through quickly, and, looking up with a face in which satisfaction and amusement struggled for the mastery, said, emphatically, “Well, Jean, I congratulate you! Many younger women would envy you this good fortune.”

“You think I'd better accept, then, minister?” Jean asked, anxiously.

“Accept! By all means! Why should you hesitate?”

Jean looked down. “It seems,” she stammered out, “more as if Reuben were looking for a housekeeper than for—a wife. There's no word in it, as if—as—if—he cared for me!”

“Why, Jean, I'm ashamed of you!” exploded the minister. “The idea of a woman of your age expecting to be courted like a young girl! I suppose you want Reuben to write you poetry about hearts, and darts, and the like, eh? No, no, Jean; leave all that to the young folks! Be content with the good home this worthy man offers you, and the good bit of silver in the bank. Take your passage to Australia in the next boat, and thank heaven for this good fortune.”

  ― 41 ―

Jean went home, unconvinced by the minister's logic, and yet, on the very next day, she wrote to the Orient office about her passage. What had decided her was the discovery of a few words hastily penned at the back of the letter. “There's no denyin', Jean, that I'm a bit lonesome—so write soon.” This was enough. Reuben was “lonesome,” and he wanted her! As for Jean herself, she had wanted Reuben all her life.

The time arrived when Jean, after dressing herself with trembling hands in her best clothes, came out of her cabin to meet Reuben—a fine man in spite of grizzled locks and a wrinkled skin, tanned and stained by exposure to all weathers.

“Well, Jean, have you had a pleasant voyage?” he asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. Jean's heart went down like a lump of lead, but she answered bravely, “Thank you kindly, Reuben, I've been a fine sailor!” And then, with the woman's subtle instinct for finding the right thing to say, she added, “And it's a beautiful country you've brought me to, Reuben. Everywhere I've landed the sun has been shining.”

“Yes, too much sunshine; you'll live to find that out,” answered Reuben. And then, the ice being broken, he proceeded to talk about Australia, comparing it with the old land, and to make inquiries for mutual friends in the Scotch village. This filled the time till Jean's modest luggage was brought to shore. Then Reuben called a hansom, and the affianced couple drove away.

“Jean, my place is far away in the country, and what shopping you want must be done to-day. Get yourself good clothes, and—and don't spare the silver. A man doesn't get married every day.”

Jean felt ready to die of fright when the lift whirled her up to the second floor of a large drapery establishment, where “ready-made” dresses and mantles and beautiful bonnets and hats awaited the purchaser. She made a feeble protest when Reuben pointed to a grey silk dress on a stand marked at a fabulous figure, and then a lace mantle, and a bonnet with white flowers, and bade her try them on. She emerged from the fitting-room a touching mixture of pride and shamefacedness. The reflection in the glass had been a revelation! Reuben glanced at the sum total, handed out the cash, and motioned Jean downstairs.

“Oh, Reuben! Am I to wear these grand things in the street—and of a week-day?” murmured Jean. “Can't they be put in a box?”

“By-and-bye, when we travel in the train, you can put on your old clothes, Jean.” (Her old clothes! Hadn't they been made by Mary McMurtie, the best needlewoman in the village?) “But now you must wear them, for this is our wedding-day. The minister will marry us at 4, and then we'll have a bit dinner and take the night train home.”

Jean did not answer. The experiences of her first day were too bewildering! Clothes fit for the laird's lady—and Reuben's imperative masculine ways—and now, a wedding!

The cab stopped at the door of an hotel. Here Reuben ordered a meal, and afterwards Jean was left to rest till the time came for going to church. It

  ― 42 ―
was Reuben himself who tapped at the door. His eye rested approvingly on the well-clad figure, and then a sudden fear struck him.

“Would you have been wanting a white gown?” he asked, apprehensively.

“No, no, no!” cried Jean, shrinking back as if in horror. “What should I be doing in a white gown at my age?” This seemed to recall Reuben to his senses.

“No, you're right, Jean; we're not like a pair of young fools. We're just sensible folk,” he said, slowly. “White gowns are not for the like of us!”

Jean could never recall clearly the marriage service. She went through it in a dream. The empty church seemed dreary and uncanny. Where were the women friends who should have stood by her at this supreme crisis in her life? They were thousands of miles away! In the vestry, after signing their names, Reuben kissed her formally. This act seemed to clinch the bargain. Jean, for some dark, feminine reason, felt a pang of disappointment. She had thought there would be … more in a kiss … than that! A tear rose to her eye, but she drove it back, remembering Reuben's words: “We're not like a pair of young fools!” She must leave the kisses, as well as the “white gown,” to them.

It was in the clear light of early morning, and from the window of a railway carriage, that Jean looked out on the surroundings of her new home. Reuben had insisted on a sleeping berth, and, thoroughly tired by the many conflicting emotions of the previous day, she had slept soundly. She awoke fresh and bright, pleased to know the city's din was far behind her.

At the wayside station a funny old coach was waiting for the mail, and for any chance passengers who might come that way. But Reuben led his bride to a large, roomy buggy, harnessed to a pair of fine horses.

“Whose carriage may this be?” inquired Jean, speaking low so that the lad holding the horses should not hear.

Reuben turned his head and laughed.

“Your own, woman; your own,” he answered brightly.

Jean fell back speechless. Why, this was as good as being a laird's lady!

The drive itself left something to be desired. Never in the whole course of her life had Jean been jolted and bumped in such a manner. As long as Reuben kept to the high road the pace was endurable; but when he turned off into what Jean called “the woods,” and the buggy began to make flying leaps over fallen logs, and abrupt precipitous descents into dry creeks, she could not restrain a few panic-stricken cries.

“You'll get used to it, Jeanie, woman,” Reuben said, kindly. “This bush track is a bit rough in parts, but there's many that's worse.”

This was feeble consolation, but Jean had to make the best of it.

After a time the buggy emerged once more on the high road, and in the distance Jean saw a long avenue of pines and a winding river fringed with willows. Then came meadows, green with lucerne, and cattle luxuriating in the shade caused by bushy hawthorn hedges. Outhouses and barns were soon discovered, and at the end of the avenue a low white house.

“This is home, Jean,” Reuben said, simply. He led her in. To her relief, the rooms were not richly furnished; no carpets that she would be afraid to

  ― 43 ―
tread on, or gilt clocks and statues such as she had seen at the laird's house. Everything was solid, and plain, and comfortable. Reuben then opened the door of a press filled with linen.

“Oh, the bonny, bonny things,” Jean cried, running forward in ecstasy.

Reuben's face glowed. “I remember how you were sitting hour after hour mending your aunt's tablecloths,” he said slowly. “I can see you at the window, with your head bent; your hair was black then, Jean.”

“Ah, it's fast whitening now, Reuben,” Jean said, with a little sigh.

“Well, it'll remind us that we're sensible folk now,” returned Reuben, sturdily. “But, oh! Jean, your black hair was real bonny.”

He stood silent for a while, watching Jean finger lovingly the damask cloths and snow-white sheets. Then he opened another door. “Here's a bit of silver for you, Jean,” he said, indifferently.

If the linen had enchanted Jean, the bit of silver struck her dumb—a brand-new silver teapot, a cruet-stand, spoons and forks, wrapped up in tissue paper, and a dozen teaspoons marked with her initials.

“Reuben, you're too good to me,” faltered Jean, the tears springing to her eyes.

“Nonsense, woman; only a bit of silver,” Reuben answered, deprecatingly. “I remember how your teaspoons always shone, German silver though they were. Well, come outside now, and look at the cows.”

They were going in to be milked—big, heavy beasts, with great, soft brown eyes. Jean, who loved all dumb creatures, took to them at once.

“Shall I be doing the milking?” she asked, timidly.

“Only if it pleases you, my woman. I didn't bring you here to work,” answered Reuben, quickly.

Something stronger than herself impelled Jean to ask:

“Why did you bring me here, Reuben?”

“Oh, just that we might be two old folk going down hill together,” he answered, lightly. “Come and look at the creek.”

The creek—that was what Reuben called the river, fringed with willows. They went down to the brink, and sat in the shade. Some big, grey stones, standing out of the water, formed a natural bridge.

“I remember seeing you step across the brook in the Laird's Wood,” Reuben said. “One foot slipped in the water, and you cried out, and——”

“And you jumped in and caught me round the waist, and lifted me over,” continued Jean, softly.

“You remember it, then?” exclaimed Reuben, delightedly. “That was before my first trip, and when I came back I thought to meet you there again. And so I did, but there was another with you, Jean—Colin McNeil—so I turned back, and that night Mary McNeil said to me: ‘Jean is as good as promised to our Colin.’ ”

“She lied,” Jean struck in, flercely, her eyes flaming. “She lied. I was never promised to Colin.”

“You were walking like lovers that night,” said Reuben, accusingly.

“He was asking me to marry him, but I said nay. I looked up and saw you by the bridge—but when Colin left me you had gone.”

  ― 44 ―

“And the next day I left home for good,” said Reuben, gravely. “Lord, what fools we are! To think of the things that might have been, to think—Jean”—breaking off suddenly—“why did you send Colin away? Was there ever a one you liked better?”

“Yes,” said Jean, shyly.

A look of joy overspread Reuben's face. He opened his lips eagerly, as if to ask another question, and then the courage failed him. The man she liked better was probably Duncan McTavish. He had heard their names coupled together; it could not possibly have been .....

“It's green and shady here, Jean,” he said. “You don't see many such spots in this country. But directly I came here I planted the creek with willows. I got out rows of pines, and made hawthorn hedges. I knew you liked the green.”

“But, Reuben, that was years ago, before you ever thought of me,” cried Jean, astonished.

Reuben's face flushed.

“There never was a time that I didn't think of you, my woman—never—not since we were but children at school.”

“Oh, Reuben, is this true? Oh, this is better than houses and lands, and linen and silver! Oh, Reuben, why didn't you say it in your letter?”

“What should I be saying, Jean?”

“Why, that you loved me, Reuben,” Jean said, audaciously, with flaming cheeks. “Oh, Reuben, all your talk was of your land and cattle, and money—never one word—oh, never one word of love! I thought you just wanted a housekeeper. I wouldn't have come if you hadn't written: ‘I'm a bit lonesome.’ Oh, Reuben, you may be a clever man, but you just—don't understand a woman!” Reuben's arm was around her now, and her tearful face was resting on his shoulder. His own eyes were brimming.

“Jeanie, woman, I've loved you all my life; I was going to tell you so the night I saw you at the bridge—with Colin! And I came away the morn because I couldn't stand the thought that you were promised to him. Later I heard that Colin had died, and the thought came to me: ‘She's free now.’ But, no! I couldn't take another man's leavings! So I just lived my life alone. But you were always with me, Jean. When I made that causeway in the creek, I saw you stepping there; and when I planted the trees, I saw you resting under their shadows; and when I built the house, I said: ‘This is for her sticks of furniture, and her bit of linen.’ 'Twas all for you!” Closer and closer Jean clung to him, devouring the story—the old, old story that rings ever new in the ears of each successive generation.

“But it wasn't till I heard that your father had died, and that you were alone, that the thought came to me of asking you to come out. And after I had written the letter a lonesomeness fell on me, such as I had never known before. If you had said me nay, Jean, I'd have left the place, and carried my swag to some other State. I couldn't have borne the house without you! And when your letter came, so prim and plain, I thought: ‘It's the lonesomeness, too, that is bringing her to me. We must leave the fancy and the flutter to the young folk. We'll just be good companions jogging on the road together

  ― 45 ―
to the end of life.’ I never thought you cared for me, Jeanie, woman! Was it—was it because of me you sent Colin away?”

Jean looked up, smiling through her tears. “I was just mad with Colin for keeping me on the bridge when you were waiting on the other side, and when I found you had gone I just sat down and greeted. And when I heard you had left the village, with never a word of farewell, my heart turned to stone. My youth went that day!”

“But it's come back, Jeanie, it's come back! For all your hair is touched with grey, there's a light in your eyes and a colour on your lips like a young girl. Jeanie, woman, is it the light of love, and is it for me?”

“There's never been anyone but you, Reuben, never! It's all for you.” And then Reuben folded her in a long embrace, very different from the formal salute he had imprinted on her cheek in the vestry.

Together they sat under the green canopy of dipping willows, the golden Australian sunshine creating a vernal glory all round them, and casting flashes of glittering light upon the stream. A new earth had opened before the lone woman, a new and smiling country, where the sunshine was always golden, the sky always blue, and where love was the truth of life!

It was the prosaic dinner-bell that aroused them from their idyllic dream. Lifting Jean to her feet, and slipping her hand under his arm, Reuben cried with a joyous laugh: “Why, Jean, we're no better than a pair of young fools, after all!” And arm in arm they entered the house that was now home to both.