"Warsaw has fallen," said Dr. Blythe with a resigned air, as he brought th_ail in one warm August day.
Gertrude and Mrs. Blythe looked dismally at each other, and Rilla, who wa_eeding Jims a Morganized diet from a carefully sterilized spoon, laid th_aid spoon down on his tray, utterly regardless of germs, and said, "Oh, dea_e," in as tragic a tone as if the news had come as a thunderbolt instead o_eing a foregone conclusion from the preceding week's dispatches. They ha_hought they were quite resigned to Warsaw's fall but now they knew they had, as always, hoped against hope.
"Now, let us take a brace," said Susan. "It is not the terrible thing we hav_een thinking. I read a dispatch three columns long in the Montreal _Herald_esterday that proved that Warsaw was not important from a military point o_iew at all. So let us take the military point of view, doctor dear."
"I read that dispatch, too, and it has encouraged me immensely," sai_ertrude. "I knew then and I know now that it was a lie from beginning to end.
But I am in that state of mind where even a lie is a comfort, providing it i_ cheerful lie."
"In that case, Miss Oliver dear, the German official reports ought to be al_ou need," said Susan sarcastically. "I never read them now because they mak_e so mad I cannot put my thoughts properly on my work after a dose of them.
Even this news about Warsaw has taken the edge off my afternoon's plans.
Misfortunes never come singly. I spoiled my baking of bread today–and no_arsaw has fallen–and here is little Kitchener bent on choking himself t_eath."
Jims was evidently trying to swallow his spoon, germs and all. Rilla rescue_im mechanically and was about to resume the operation of feeding him when _asual remark of her father's sent such a shock and thrill over her that fo_he second time she dropped that doomed spoon.
"Kenneth Ford is down at Martin West's over-harbour," the doctor was saying.
"His regiment was on its way to the front but was held up in Kingsport fo_ome reason, and Ken got leave of absence to come over to the Island."
"I hope he will come up to see us," exclaimed Mrs. Blythe.
"He only has a day or two off, I believe," said the doctor absently.
Nobody noticed Rilla's flushed face and trembling hands. Even the mos_houghtful and watchful of parents do not see everything that goes on unde_heir very noses. Rilla made a third attempt to give the long-suffering Jim_is dinner, but all she could think of was the question–Would Ken come to se_er before he went away? She had not heard from him for a long while. Had h_orgotten her completely? If he did not come she would know that he had.
Perhaps there was even–some other girl back there in Toronto. Of course ther_as. She was a little fool to be thinking about him at all. She would _not_hink about him. If he came, well and good. It would only be courteous of hi_o make a farewell call at Ingleside where he had often been a guest. If h_id not come–well and good, too. It did not matter very much. Nobody was goin_o fret. That was all settled comfortably–she was quite indifferent–bu_eanwhile Jims was being fed with a haste and recklessness that would hav_illed the soul of Morgan with horror. Jims himself didn't like it, being _ethodical baby, accustomed to swallowing spoonfuls with a decent interval fo_reath between each. He protested, but his protests availed him nothing.
Rilla, as far as the care and feeding of infants was concerned, was utterl_emoralized.
Then the telephone-bell rang. There was nothing unusual about the telephon_inging. It rang on an average every ten minutes at Ingleside. But Rill_ropped Jims' spoon again–on the carpet this time–and flew to the 'phone as i_ife depended on her getting there before anybody else. Jims, his patienc_xhausted, lifted up his voice and wept.
"Hello, is this Ingleside?"
"That you, Rilla?"
"Yeth–yeth." Oh, why couldn't Jims stop howling for just one little minute?
_Why_ didn't _somebody_ come in and choke him?
"Know who's speaking?"
Oh, didn't she know! Wouldn't she know that voice anywhere–at any time?
"It's Ken–isn't it?"
"Sure thing. I'm here for a look-in. Can I come up to Ingleside tonight an_ee you?"
Had he used "you" in the singular or plural sense? Presently she would wrin_ims's neck–oh, _what_ was Ken saying?
"See here, Rilla, can you arrange that there won't be more than a few doze_eople round? Understand? I can't make my meaning clearer over this ball_ural line. There are a dozen receivers down."
Did she understand! Yes, she understood.
"I'll try," she said.
"I'll be up about eight then. By-by."
Rilla hung up the 'phone and flew to Jims. But she did not wring that injure_nfant's neck. Instead she snatched him bodily out of his chair, crushed hi_gainst her face, kissed him rapturously on his milky mouth, and danced wildl_round the room with him in her arms. After this Jims was relieved to fin_hat she returned to sanity, gave him the rest of his dinner properly, an_ucked him away for his afternoon nap with the little lullaby he loved best o_ll. She sewed at Red Cross shirts for the rest of the afternoon and built _rystal castle of dreams, all a-quiver with rainbows. Ken wanted to see _her_ –to see her _alone_. That could be easily managed. Shirley wouldn't bothe_hem, father and mother were going to the Manse, Miss Oliver never playe_ooseberry, and Jims always slept the clock round from seven to seven. Sh_ould entertain Ken on the veranda–it would be moonlight–she would wear he_hite georgette dress and do her hair _up_ –yes, she would–at least in a lo_not at the nape of her neck. Mother couldn't object to _that_ , surely. Oh, how wonderful and romantic it would be! Would Ken say _anything_ –he must mea_o say _something_ or why should he be so particular about seeing her alone?
What if it rained–Susan had been complaining about Mr. Hyde that morning! Wha_f some officious Junior Red called to discuss Belgians and shirts? Or, wors_f all, what if Fred Arnold dropped in? He did occasionally.
The evening came at last and was all that could be desired in an evening. Th_octor and his wife went to the Manse, Shirley and Miss Oliver went they alon_new where, Susan went to the store for household supplies, and Jims went t_reamland. Rilla put on her georgette gown, knotted up her hair and bound _ittle double string of pearls around it. Then she tucked a cluster of pal_ink baby roses at her belt. Would Ken ask her for a rose for a keepsake? Sh_new that Jem had carried to the trenches in Flanders a faded rose that Fait_eredith had kissed and given him the night before he left.
Rilla looked very sweet when she met Ken in the mingled moonlight and vin_hadows of the big veranda. The hand she gave him was cold and she was s_esperately anxious not to lisp that her greeting was prim and precise. Ho_andsome and tall Kenneth looked in his lieutenant's uniform! It made him see_lder, too–so much so that Rilla felt rather foolish. Hadn't it been th_eight of absurdity for her to suppose that this splendid young officer ha_nything special to say to _her_ , little Rilla Blythe of Glen St. Mary?
Likely she hadn't understood him after all–he had only meant that he didn'_ant a mob of folks around making a fuss over him and trying to lionize him, as they had probably done over-harbour. Yes, of course, that was all h_eant–and she, little idiot, had gone and vainly imagined that he didn't wan_nybody but her. And he would think she had manoeuvred everybody away so tha_hey could be alone together, and he would laugh to himself at her.
"This is better luck than I hoped for," said Ken, leaning back in his chai_nd looking at her with very unconcealed admiration in his eloquent eyes. "_as sure someone would be hanging about and it was just _you_ I wanted to see, Rilla-my-Rilla."
Rilla's dream castle flashed into the landscape again. _This_ was unmistakabl_nough certainly–not much doubt as to his meaning _here_.
"There aren't–so many of us–to poke around as there used to be," she sai_oftly.
"No, that's so," said Ken gently. "Jem and Walter and the girls away–it make_ big blank, doesn't it? But–" he leaned forward until his dark curls almos_rushed her hair–"doesn't Fred Arnold try to fill the blank occasionally. I'v_een told so."
At this moment, before Rilla could make any reply, Jims began to cry at th_op of his voice in the room whose open window was just above them–Jims, wh_ardly _ever_ cried in the evening. Moreover, he was crying, as Rilla kne_rom experience, with a vim and energy that betokened that he had been alread_himpering softly unheard for some time and was thoroughly exasperated. Whe_ims started in crying like that he made a thorough job of it. Rilla knew tha_here was no use to sit still and pretend to ignore him. He wouldn't stop; an_onversation of any kind was out of the question when such shrieks and howl_ere floating over your head. Besides, she was afraid Kenneth would think sh_as utterly unfeeling if she sat still and let a baby cry like that. He wa_ot likely acquainted with Morgan's invaluable volume.
She got up. "Jims has had a nightmare, I think. He sometimes has one and he i_lways badly frightened by it. Excuse me for a moment."
Rilla flew upstairs, wishing quite frankly that soup tureens had never bee_nvented. But when Jims, at sight of her, lifted his little arms entreatingl_nd swallowed several sobs, with tears rolling down his cheeks, resentmen_ent out of her heart. After all, the poor darling was frightened. She picke_im up gently and rocked him soothingly until his sobs ceased and his eye_losed. Then she essayed to lay him down in his crib. Jims opened his eyes an_hrieked a protest. This performance was repeated twice. Rilla grew desperate.
She couldn't leave Ken down there alone any longer–she had been away nearl_alf an hour already. With a resigned air she marched downstairs, carryin_ims, and sat down on the veranda. It was, no doubt, a ridiculous thing to si_nd cuddle a contrary war-baby when your best young man was making hi_arewell call, but there was nothing else to be done.
Jims was supremely happy. He kicked his little pink-soled feet rapturously ou_nder his white nighty and gave one of his rare laughs. He was beginning to b_ very pretty baby; his golden hair curled in silken ringlets all over hi_ittle round head and his eyes were beautiful.
"He's a decorative kiddy all right, isn't he?" said Ken.
"His looks are very well," said Rilla, bitterly, as if to imply that they wer_uch the best of him. Jims, being an astute infant, sensed trouble in th_tmosphere and realized that it was up to him to clear it away. He turned hi_ace up to Rilla, smiled adorably and said, clearly and beguilingly,
It was the very first time he had spoken a word or tried to speak. Rilla wa_o delighted that she forgot her grudge against him. She forgave him with _ug and kiss. Jims, understanding that he was restored to favour, cuddled dow_gainst her just where a gleam of light from the lamp in the living-roo_truck across his hair and turned it into a halo of gold against her breast.
Kenneth sat very still and silent, looking at Rilla–at the delicate, girlis_ilhouette of her, her long lashes, her dented lip, her adorable chin. In th_im moonlight, as she sat with her head bent a little over Jims, the lampligh_linting on her pearls until they glistened like a slender nimbus, he though_he looked exactly like the Madonna that hung over his mother's desk at home.
He carried that picture of her in his heart to the horror of the battlefield_f France. He had had a strong fancy for Rilla Blythe ever since the night o_he Four Winds dance; but it was when he saw her there, with little Jims i_er arms, that he loved her and realized it. And all the while, poor Rilla wa_itting, disappointed and humiliated, feeling that her last evening with Ke_as spoiled and wondering why things always had to go so contrarily outside o_ooks. She felt too absurd to try to talk. Evidently Ken was completel_isgusted, too, since he was sitting there in such stony silence.
Hope revived momentarily when Jims went so thoroughly asleep that she though_t would be safe to lay him down on the couch in the living-room. But when sh_ame out again Susan was sitting on the veranda, loosening her bonnet string_ith the air of one who meant to stay where she was for some time.
"Have you got your baby to sleep?" she asked kindly.
Your baby! Really, Susan might have more tact.
"Yes," said Rilla shortly.
Susan laid her parcels on the reed table, as one determined to do her duty.
She was very tired but she must help Rilla out. Here was Kenneth Ford who ha_ome to call on the family and they were all unfortunately out, and "the poo_hild" had had to entertain him alone. But Susan had come to her rescue–Susa_ould do her part no matter how tired she was.
"Dear me, how you have grown up," she said, looking at Ken's six feet of khak_niform without the least awe. Susan had grown used to khaki now, and a_ixty-four even a lieutenant's uniform is just clothes and nothing else. "I_s an amazing thing how fast children do grow up. Rilla here, now, is almos_ifteen."
"I'm going on seventeen, Susan," cried Rilla almost passionately. She was _hole month past sixteen. It was intolerable of Susan.
"It seems just the other day that you were all babies," said Susan, ignorin_illa's protest. "You were really the prettiest baby I ever saw, Ken, thoug_our mother had an awful time trying to cure you of sucking your thumb. Do yo_emember the day I spanked you?"
"No," said Ken.
"Oh well, I suppose you would be too young–you were only about four and yo_ere here with your mother and you insisted on teasing Nan until she cried. _ad tried several ways of stopping you but none availed, and I saw that _panking was the only thing that would serve. So I picked you up and laid yo_cross my knee and lambasted you well. You howled at the top of your voice bu_ou left Nan alone after that."
Rilla was writhing. Hadn't Susan _any_ realization that she was addressing a_fficer of the Canadian Army? Apparently she had not. Oh, what would Ke_hink?
"I suppose you do not remember the time your mother spanked you either,"
continued Susan, who seemed to be bent on reviving tender reminiscences tha_vening. "I shall never, no never, forget it. She was up here one night wit_ou when you were about three, and you and Walter were playing out in th_itchen yard with a kitten. I had a big puncheon of rainwater by the spou_hich I was reserving for making soap. And you and Walter began quarrellin_ver the kitten. Walter was at one side of the puncheon standing on a chair, holding the kitten, and you were standing on a chair at the other side. Yo_eaned across that puncheon and grabbed the kitten and pulled. You were alway_ great hand for taking what you wanted without too much ceremony. Walter hel_n tight and the poor kitten yelled but you dragged Walter and the kitten hal_ver and then you both lost your balance and tumbled into that puncheon, kitten and all. If I had not been on the spot you would both have bee_rowned. I flew to the rescue and hauled you all three out before much har_as done, and your mother, who had seen it all from the upstairs window, cam_own and picked you up, dripping as you were, and gave you a beautifu_panking. Ah," said Susan with a sigh, "those were happy old days a_ngleside."
"Must have been," said Ken. His voice sounded queer and stiff. Rilla suppose_e was hopelessly enraged. The truth was he dared not trust his voice lest i_etray his frantic desire to laugh.
"Rilla here, now," said Susan, looking affectionately at that unhappy damsel,
"never was much spanked. She was a real well-behaved child for the most part.
But her father did spank her once. She got two bottles of pills out of hi_ffice and dared Alice Clow to see which of them could swallow all the pill_irst, and if her father had not happened in the nick of time those tw_hildren would have been corpses by night. As it was, they were both sic_nough shortly after. But the doctor spanked Rilla then and there and he mad_uch a thorough job of it that she never meddled with anything in his offic_fterwards. We hear a great deal nowadays of something that is called 'mora_ersuasion,' but in my opinion a good spanking and no nagging afterwards is _uch better thing."
Rilla wondered viciously whether Susan meant to relate _all_ the famil_pankings. But Susan had finished with the subject and branched off to anothe_heerful one.
"I remember little Tod MacAllister over-harbour killed himself that very way, eating up a whole box of fruitatives because he thought they were candy. I_as a very sad affair. He was," said Susan earnestly, "the very cutest littl_orpse I ever laid my eyes on. It was very careless of his mother to leave th_ruitatives where he could get them, but she was well-known to be a heedles_reature."
"Did you see anybody at the store?" asked Rilla desperately, in the faint hop_f directing Susan's conversation into more agreeable channels.
"Nobody except Mary Vance," said Susan, "and she was stepping round as bris_s the Irishman's flea."
What terrible similes Susan used! Would Kenneth think she acquired them fro_he family!
"To hear Mary talk about Miller Douglas you would think he was the only Gle_oy who had enlisted," Susan went on. "But of course she always did brag an_he has some good qualities I am willing to admit, though I did not think s_hat time she chased Rilla here through the village with a dried codfish til_he poor child fell, heels over head, into the puddle before Carter Flagg'_tore."
Rilla went cold all over with wrath and shame. Were there any more disgracefu_cenes in her past that Susan could rake up? As for Ken, he could have howle_ver Susan's speeches, but he would not so insult the duenna of his lady, s_e sat with a preternaturally solemn face which seemed to poor Rilla a haught_nd offended one.
"I paid eleven cents for a bottle of ink tonight," complained Susan. "Ink i_wice as high as it was last year. Perhaps it is because Woodrow Wilson ha_een writing so many notes. It must cost him considerable. My cousin Sophi_ays Woodrow Wilson is not the man she expected him to be–but then no man eve_as. Being an old maid, I do not know much about men and have never pretende_o, but my cousin Sophia is very hard on them, although she married two o_hem, which you might think was a fair share. Albert Crawford's chimney ble_own in that big gale we had last week, and when Sophia heard the brick_lattering on the roof she thought it was a Zeppelin raid and went int_ysterics. And Mrs. Albert Crawford says that of the two things she would hav_referred the Zeppelin raid."
Rilla sat limply in her chair like one hypnotized. She knew Susan would sto_alking when she was ready to stop and that no earthly power could make he_top any sooner. As a rule, she was very fond of Susan but just now she hate_er with a deadly hatred. It was ten o'clock. Ken would soon have to go–th_thers would soon be home–and she had not even had a chance to explain to Ke_hat Fred Arnold filled no blank in her life nor ever could. Her rainbo_astle lay in ruins round her.
Kenneth got up at last. He realized that Susan was there to stay as long as h_id, and it was a three mile walk to Martin West's over-harbour. He wondere_f Rilla had put Susan up to this, not wanting to be left alone with him, les_e say something Fred Arnold's sweetheart did not want to hear. Rilla got up, too, and walked silently the length of the veranda with him. They stood ther_or a moment, Ken on the lower step. The step was half sunk into the earth an_int grew thickly about and over its edge. Often crushed by so many passin_eet it gave out its essence freely, and the spicy odour hung round them lik_ soundless, invisible benediction. Ken looked up at Rilla, whose hair wa_hining in the moonlight and whose eyes were pools of allurement. All at onc_e felt sure there was nothing in that gossip about Fred Arnold.
"Rilla," he said in a sudden, intense whisper, "you are the sweetest thing."
Rilla flushed and looked at Susan. Ken looked, too, and saw that Susan's bac_as turned. He put his arm about Rilla and kissed her. It was the first tim_illa had ever been kissed. She thought perhaps she ought to resent it but sh_idn't. Instead, she glanced timidly into Kenneth's seeking eyes and he_lance was a kiss.
"Rilla-my-Rilla," said Ken, "will you promise that you won't let anyone els_iss you until I come back?"
"Yes," said Rilla, trembling and thrilling.
Susan was turning round. Ken loosened his hold and stepped to the walk.
"Good-bye," he said casually. Rilla heard herself saying it just as casually.
She stood and watched him down the walk, out of the gate, and down the road.
When the fir wood hid him from her sight she suddenly said "Oh," in a choke_ay and ran down to the gate, sweet blossomy things catching at her skirts a_he ran. Leaning over the gate she saw Kenneth walking briskly down the road, over the bars of tree shadows and moonlight, his tall, erect figure grey i_he white radiance. As he reached the turn he stopped and looked back and sa_er standing amid the tall white lilies by the gate. He waved his hand–sh_aved hers–he was gone around the turn.
Rilla stood there for a little while, gazing across the fields of mist an_ilver. She had heard her mother say that she loved turns in roads–they wer_o provocative and alluring. Rilla thought she hated them. She had seen Je_nd Jerry vanish from her around a bend in the road–then Walter–and now Ken.
Brothers and playmate and sweetheart–they were all gone, never, it might be, to return. Yet still the Piper piped and the dance of death went on.
When Rilla walked slowly back to the house Susan was still sitting by th_eranda table and Susan was sniffing suspiciously.
"I have been thinking, Rilla dear, of the old days in the House of Dreams, when Kenneth's mother and father were courting and Jem was a little baby an_ou were not born or thought of. It was a very romantic affair and she an_our mother were such chums. To think I should have lived to see her son goin_o the front. As if she had not had enough trouble in her early life withou_his coming upon her! But we must take a brace and see it through."
All Rilla's anger against Susan had evaporated. With Ken's kiss still burnin_n her lips, and the wonderful significance of the promise he had aske_hrilling heart and soul, she could not be angry with anyone. She put her sli_hite hand into Susan's brown, work-hardened one and gave it a squeeze. Susa_as a faithful old dear and would lay down her life for any one of them.
"You are tired, Rilla dear, and had better go to bed," Susan said, patting he_and. "I noticed you were too tired to talk tonight. I am glad I came home i_ime to help you out. It is very tiresome trying to entertain young men whe_ou are not accustomed to it."
Rilla carried Jims upstairs and went to bed, but not before she had sat for _ong time at her window reconstructing her rainbow castle, with several adde_omes and turrets.
"I wonder," she said to herself, "if I am, or am not, engaged to Kennet_ord."