After Many Years (Weston)
After Many Years
BY GEORGE WESTON
MRS. CALDERWOOD was performing two trying duties: she was having her spring house-cleaning and her spring dressmaking done at the same time. It happened therefore that when little Miss Neames, the dressmaker, was leaving the Calderwood residence late one afternoon she caught the butler placing a battered old oil-painting on a heap of miscellaneous odds and ends that was presently to be thrown away.
"Oh!" exclaimed Miss Neames, "don't you want that picture, Mr. Wilkens?"
"No, Miss Neames," said the butler; "it 'as a 'ole in the corner, as you can see, and the frame is broke as well. Some hamateur's work, I dare say, done many a year ago when painting and such was more fashionable among the young ladies than they are now."
"Then," said Miss Neames, made bold by the possibility of owning a real oil-painting, "would you mind if I took it, Mr. Wilkens, seeing that you were going to throw it away?"
"You can 'ave it and welcome, Miss Neames."
She ran out for a boy to carry it, and between the two they soon had it fastened over the mantelpiece in Miss Neames's sitting-room. A vase, artfully placed, hid the patch in the lower corner, and a bottle of gold paint did wonders for the frame. It was a life-size copy of a portrait, not unskilfully done, and it dominated the room to an extent that awed Miss Neames at first.
"A real oil-painting," she whispered to herself. "Who would have thought that I would ever own one! And how handsome he looks sitting up there—and how sad! Poor man." she whispered in a still lower key, " perhaps he's—he's thinking of some one." She looked at him very long and very earnestly, and when she arose to put the kettle on the gas-stove the picture man seemed to be watching her every movement.
"Why!" said little Miss Neames, "he's going to be just the same as company, and he'll keep me from being lonesome. I'll have to give him a name. Let me see. Shall I call him Mr. Carruthers—or Mr. Pointdexter—or Mr. Harrington—or what?" She thought the matter over until the water began to boil.
"I think," she said then, " hat I will call him Mr. Carruthers. Mr. Arthur Carruthers. Well, Mr. Carruthers," she said, looking up at the picture, "isn't it beautiful weather we're having? I'm going to have a cup of tea and a few crackers. You don't mind, do you? I'll put the crackers up here on the shelf, and if you would like one help yourself, sir. It isn't often that I have company, Mr. Carruthers, and you don't know how comfortable it feels to have you. I wish you wouldn't look so sad, though; but we'll have to try to cheer each other up. Now if you'll wait a little while, I won't be gone very long."
She disappeared into the next room, and when she came out she was dressed in her best brown silk, with an old-fashioned locket on her breast.
"There, sir!" she exclaimed, nodding to the picture. "It isn't often that I feel like dressing up, but when I do—! Aren't you proud of me now? Aren't you glad you're here with me instead of being on an old dust-heap somewhere?" She took a pack of cards from a drawer. "Now first," she said, "we'll play solitaire and then I'll tell your fortune. I hope you like my brown dress, but I think your favorite color is blue. Your eyes are blue and so is your necktie. You be careful, sir!" she exclaimed, shaking a reckless finger at the picture, "or I'll make myself a blue dress this summer and then you will lose your head! I think I'll tell your fortune first."
She shuffled the cards with a skill that could have come only from long practice. "Now," she said, rising and holding up the pack, "you must cut the cards and wish. What? You want me to cut them for you? Why, of course I don't mind! Well, I never! If you haven't drawn the nine of hearts! And you want me to wish for you, too? W-e-l-l—"
She wished for him, turning her head away as she did it, and it must be that the fortune was a good one, for little Miss Neames was very happy all the rest of the evening. Very tender, too, was her voice and very gentle was her glance when at last she bade her guest good night.
"And I want you to know that I've had a beautiful evening," she said, turning once more as she reached the doorway that led into the other room; and somehow I feel that we're going to be very good friends, because—because I like you ever so much—Arthur—"
She blushed a little at her great daring, and, blushing still, she softly shut the door.
The summer came and the summer went and the autumn was nearly over, when one evening a knock sounded on Miss Neames's door. She was evidently expecting some one, for she ran at once to open it.
"Why, Mr. Ridge!" she said. "Walk right in!"
"Do you know," said Mr. Ridge, gladly walking in—"do you know that you look more—more—oh, you're looking fine!"
"Do you think so, Mr. Ridge?"
"I know it!"
And no one who looked at little Miss Neames could reverse the verdict of Mr. Ridge. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks were pink, and she carried herself with a certain cozy assurance that was a delight to see. Moreover, she had focussed all her art in the making of a blue silk dress which fitted her to perfection, and which brought out the roses in her cheeks and laughed at the hint of gray in her hair. In a word, it was quite impossible to contradict Mr. Ridge when he sank into an easy chair near the window and looked at her and said, "It seems good to be here."
She looked proudly around the room until her eye caught that of the silent figure above the mantel, and it seemed to her that the picture gave her a long, sad look of reproach.
"Yes," continued Mr. Ridge, "somehow I always feel at home when I'm with you. It seems as though we had known each other forever instead of three months."
She was busy with the kettle and the teapot, and her manner had suddenly become subdued.
"Do you remember the first time I noticed you?" he asked.
"You came to the silk department and wanted some blue silk. Somehow I got the idea that it was to be a wedding-dress, or something very special, and I waited on you myself. Do you remember?"
"I think I do, but, dear me, I'd been getting silk at your department for years, though you weren't always there."
"No. Of course, being the manager of the silk department, I have to be here and there and everywhere; but I shall never forget the day you came in for that blue silk. I put your name down in the sales-book, and then do you know what I did?"
She shook her head.
"I copied it in my private memorandum book." He drew it from his pocket. "Here it is," he said, " 'Miss Anne Neames,' and here's your address, too."
She looked at it; and having looked at it she looked at Mr. Ridge, too, and smiled.
"Then I did something that I never did before in all my life," he continued. "The next time you came in, I asked you how the blue silk had made up and whether the dress was finished. You said it had made up beautifully, and I asked if I could see it. That was on a Saturday. The next day I called to see you. You wore the blue silk and you made me a cup of tea—my first cup of tea."
Little Miss Neames looked at the picture over the mantelpiece and she was very quiet. He followed her glance.
"Do you know," he said, "that from then until yesterday I was jealous of that picture over there. I thought it was some one that you had—that you had liked. It was the way you looked at it sometimes when I was talking to you. I didn't like to ask any questions, but yesterday I came across a picture in a book of poetry, and it's just the same as that. They must have been taken from the same portrait."
"In a book of poetry, Mr. Ridge?"
"I have the very book here." He drew a volume of Childe Harold from his pocket and opened it at the frontispiece.
" 'Lord Byron'!" she exclaimed, reading the title. They compared the picture in the book with the one on the wall. "The very same! And does he write poetry?"
"Oh! Is he—is he dead?"
"He has been dead," said Mr. Ridge, "nearly ninety years."
She bowed her head, and when she looked next at the picture over the mantelpiece her mouth trembled a little.
"There is a sketch of his life in the front of the book," continued Mr. Ridge. "He was—to tell you the truth, Miss Neames, he was very wild."
"I'll leave you the book," he said, shaking his head, "and you can read it when you get time. If you have a pen and ink, I'll write your name in it for you."
She found a pen and a bottle of ink and sat down by him.
"So when I knew who it was," he said, trying the pen, "I didn't feel so jealous. She looked away.
"Why, Mr. Ridge!" she murmured.
He dipped the pen in the ink. A breeze, blowing through the window, turned the pages of the book. She turned the leaves back to the proper place, and although in some unaccountable manner Mr. Ridge's hand rested over her own. they both seemed to be unaware of it.
" 'From James S. Ridge to Anne—' Let me see," he said, looking up, "what is your last name?"
"What a question!" she breathed; "Neames, of course!"
"I wish it were something else."
The clock ticked loudly on the mantelpiece.
"I wish," continued Mr. Ridge bravely, though his voice shook a little, too—"I wish it were Ridge!"
And again she turned her head, but this time when she looked up they smiled into each other's eyes and were glad.
Mr. Ridge had long since gone when little Miss Neames finished reading The Life of Lord Byron. She pointed her finger at him accusingly, but her finger fell and she courtesied low instead.
"Thank you, my lord," she said, "and I beg your pardon for calling you Arthur and being so chatty. It was your blue dress that attracted Jim, and—I thank you, my lord!"
She suddenly placed a chair by the mantelpiece, and when she stood on the chair her eyes looked straight into the eyes of the picture.
"If you were alive," she whispered, "I wouldn't dare do this, because you were so—so wild, hut now—"
And with a tender little sigh of gratitude she kissed him fully and sweetly upon the lips.