Page:Weird Tales volume 36 number 01.djvu/46
The child was thin like a growing reed, awkwardly graceful and tall for her nine years. She as proud of her missing front tooth and her two taffy-colored braids which were still too short, really, to ever stay braided. Julia noted the look of luminous happiness on the child's delicate face, the wind-ruffled hair like a fine, spun web, the too-bright eyes that had of late become a little secret and remote.
"Must you, darling, slam the door when you come in?"
"It wasn't me," Gin protested, a trifle sulkily.
"Well, but it wasn't. It was Tommy, really. He came in when I did, but he ran right out again—"
Julia's lips tightened a little as she studied the child's face. She could discern nothing but candor there. Virginia's hurt air of being misunderstood seemed real enough.
"Virginia—you're not to tell that story again, do you hear? It's silly—just something you made up. There isn't any such person, and you know it! I know it's just a game, but it's a wicked one, and—"
Virginia stamped her foot. Her childish face contorted with grief and anger. Two huge tears squeezed out of her stricken eyes and worked their way down her smooth apple cheeks.
"It isn't!" she sobbed. "It isn't just a story! It's true—every bit! Tommy's real! We—we played tag in the orchard before we came in! He isn't a fib, I didn't make anything up, I didn't!
Frightened, Julia jumped up and crossed the room in quick strides. She grasped the thin, heaving shoulders and looked down into Gin's tearful, accusing face. Trying to mask the unsteadiness in her voice, she spoke casually:
"Don't do that, Ginny—don't cry. Mother didn't mean anything bad. Here's a hankie—that's better, isn't it?" Her fingers flew, smoothing the fine, taffy-colored hair. "You must have been playing tag with the wind! Look—you've lost a ribbon and torn your skirt."
"Tommy runs faster than me," said the child, more calmly. "I chased him but he got away in the briar patch. I guess that's how I tore my new dress."
Suddenly Julia swept the taffy-colored head close. She didn't want Gin to see her face just then.
"Seems to me," Julia said gaily, "this Tommy of yours is always running away. He must be quicker than a rabbit. Is that why I've never seen him?"
"Oh, Mother! He's scared of people!"
"Yes? And why?"
The childish voice trailed off. The room was very quiet. Julia stiffened, staring fixedly over Gin's bowed head—staring through the wide-open casement windows, at the clean, warm, yellow afternoon sunlight.
Beyond the white sashes were the massed blooms of the hollyhocks, trim, precise and sane. Beyond the flower-bed she could see a shaven slope of lawn, and still further away the ripe grass uncut at the foot of the old orchard.
The orchard, she thought frantically—forcing herself to think—was frightfully run-down. The twisted, wind-tortured trees assumed such grotesque shapes at night. Those dead husks should have been cut down long ago—they were unsightly, and spoiled the place. The orchard field itself was grown over with lank weeds and sparse wild hay that had seeded itself on the wind. She watched how the wind wove a path through the tall grass of the orchard field—invisible feet retreating from the edge of the lawn back toward the shadows of the twisted apple-trees.
She watched intently how the yellow grass rippled at the base of a gnarled trunk,