(Mary Penrose To Barbara Campbell)
June 5. I have not dipped pen in ink for an entire week, which has been one of stirring events, for not only have we wholly emerged from indoor life, but we have had a hair-breadth escape from something that not only threatened to mar the present summer, but to cast so heavy a shadow over the garden that no self-respecting flowers could flourish even under the thought of it. You cannot possibly guess with what we were threatened, but I am running ahead of myself.
The day that we began it - the vacation - by stopping the clocks, we overslept until nine o'clock. When we came downstairs, the house was in a condition of cheerful good order unknown to that hour of the day.
There is such a temperamental difference in this mere setting things to rights. It can be done so that every chair has a stiffly repellent look, and the conspicuous absence of dust makes one painfully conscious that it has not always been thus, while the fingers inadvertently stray over one's attire, plucking a shred here and a thread there. Even flowers can be arranged in a vase so as to look thoroughly and reproachfully uncomfortable, and all the grace and meaning crushed out of them. But Maria Maxwell has the touch gracious that makes even a plainly furnished room hold out detaining hands as you go through, and the flowers on the greeting table in the hall (yes, Lavinia Cortright taught me that little fancy of yours during her first visit), though much the same as I had been gathering for a week past, wore an air of novelty!
For a moment we stood at the foot of the stairs looking about and getting our bearings, as guests in an unfamiliar place rather than householders. It flitted through my body that I was hungry, and one of the "must be's" of the vacation country was that we were to forage for breakfast. At the same time Bart sauntered unconsciously toward the mail-box under the hat-rack and then, suddenly putting his hands behind him, turned to me with a quizzical expression, saying: "Letters are forbidden, I know, but how about the paper? Even the 'Weekly Tribune' would be something; you know that sheet was devised for farmers!"
"If this vacation isn't to be a punishment, but a pleasure, I think we had both better 'have what we want when we want it'!" I replied, for at that moment I spied the Infant out on the porch, and to hug her ladyship was a swiftly accomplished desire. For some reason she seemed rather astonished at this very usual performance, and putting her hands, boy-fashion, into the pockets of her checked overalls, surveyed herself deliberately, and then looking up at me rather reproachfully remarked, "Tousin Maria says that now you and father are tumpany!"
"And what is company?" I asked, rather anxious to know from what new point we were to be regarded.
"Tumpany is people that comes to stay in the pink room wif trunks, and we play wif them and make them do somfing to amuse' em all the time hard, and give 'em nicer things than we have to eat, and father shaves too much and tuts him and wears his little dinky coat to dinner. And by and by when they've gone away Ann-stasia says, 'Glory be!' and muvver goes to sleep. But muwer, if you are the tumpany, you can't go to sleep when you've gone away, can you?"
A voice joined me in laughter, Maria Maxwell's, from inside the open window of the dining room. Looking toward the sound, I saw that, though the dining table itself had been cleared, a side table drawn close to the window was set with places for two, a posy of poets' narcissus and the last lilies-of-the-valley between, while a folded napkin at one place rested on a newspaper!
"I thought we were to get our own breakfasts," I said, in a tone of very feeble expostulation, which plainly told that, at that particular moment, it was the last thing I wished to do.
"You are, the very minute you feel like it, and not before! You must let yourselves down gradually, and not bolt out of the house as if you had been evicted. If Bart went paperless and letterless this very first morning, until he has met something that interests him more, he would think about the lack of the news and the mail all day until they became more than usually important!" So saying, Maria swept the stems and litter of the flowers she had been arranging into her apron, and annexing the Infant to one capable finger, all the other nine being occupied, she went down the path toward the garden for fresh supplies, leaving Ann-stasia, as the Infant calls her, to serve the coffee, a prerogative of which she would not consent to be bereft, not even upon the plea of lightening her labours!
"Isn't this perfect!" I exclaimed, looking toward a gap in the hills that was framed by the debatable knoll on one side and reached by a short cut across the old orchard and abandoned meadows of the farm above, the lack of cultivation resulting in a wealth of field flowers.
"Entirely!" assented Bart, his spoon in the coffee cup stirring vigorously and his head enveloped in the newspaper. But what did the point of view matter: he was content and unhurried - what better beginning for a vacation? In fact in those two words lies the real vacation essence.
Meanwhile, as I munched and sipped, with luxurious irresponsibility, I watched Maria moving to and fro between the shrubs that bounded the east alley of the old garden. In her compressed city surroundings she had always seemed to me a very big sort of person, with an efficiency that was at times overpowering, whose brown eyes had a "charge bayonet" way of fixing one, as if commanding the attention of her pupils by force of eye had become a habit. But here, her most cherished belongings given room to breathe in the spare room that rambles across one end of the house, while her wardrobe has a chance to realize itself in the deep closet, Maria in two short days had become another person.
She does not seem large, but merely well built. The black gowns and straight white collars that she always wore, as a sort of professional garb, have vanished before a shirtwaist with an openwork neck and half sleeves, while the flesh exposed thereby is pink and wholesome. Hair not secured for the wear and tear of the daily rounds of school, but allowed to air itself, requires only a few hair-pins, and, if it is naturally wavy, follows its own will with good effect. While as to her eyes, what in them seemed piercing at short range melted to an engaging frankness in the soft light under the trees. In short, if she had been any other than Maria Maxwell, music teacher, Bart's staid cousin and the avowed family spinster, I should have thought of her as a fine-looking woman who only needed a magic touch of some sort to become positively handsome. Coffee and paper finished, I became aware that Bart was gazing at me.