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By Grace Livingston Hill
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Grace Livingston Hill
All rights reserved.
There were lilies of the valley, a rich mass of them, growing inside the hedge, lifting their delicate waxen bells among the deep green of their sheath-like leaves. John Worth made sure of this before he lifted the latch of the wrought-iron gate and stepped within.
It was not easy to see the flowers from the street, for the hedge had grown so tall it was far above his head, though he was full six feet. The hedge was thick and firm, an impervious wall of green. One had to stand close to the gate and look carefully to find the fairy bells among the green.
He noticed as he paused to close the gate behind him that the grass had been diligently cut around them. Or was that his imagination? He stopped and picked a single stem, with the perfect exquisite flowers strung like pearls on a thread of jade, and held it shielded in the palm of his hand as he passed on up the path toward the mansion.
It was early for an evening visit, not yet eight o'clock. He realized this with sudden acuteness as he drew near the house, which was as yet hidden by thick foliage. He had had his reasons for not adhering strictly to the social custom of the big town where he had been raised. Mainly, his time was short, and he wanted to make sure of the evening if possible before anyone forestalled him. But now that he was here, he wondered if he had been wise?
A drifting sound of voices from the house, the purr of a costly motor gliding up the driveway beyond the line of hemlocks, a girl's laughter ringing out harshly from one of the upper balconies struck him like successive blows. He had not thought of possible guests! It would have been better to have waited for the darkness!
Yet he would not turn back now.
The pavement curved around a fountain playing softly in silver spray above a marble-rimmed pool where cool lilies, white and pink, floated exquisitely. Marble benches stood beneath the copper beeches and high pines that sheltered the spot; and beyond, the path curved again to the low rising steps of the terrace.
Suddenly the house looked down upon him as some great personage well established upon his throne might look upon an intruder!
Two girls in diaphanous evening gowns of jade and coral were leaning upon the iron grillwork of a frail balcony just outside the second-story window. They looked like flowers against the rugged gray of the stone masonry.
Another laugh rang out with a more perceptible note of hardness as they turned to go back into the room. They had not noticed his approach.
Something cold and alien seemed to blow across his face. Involuntarily he pressed the little flower he held as if it had been a talisman, but he went steadily on up the steps to the terrace until he stood before the door. His shoulders were erect, his step as firm as if he had been accustomed to tread that way and to stand before such portals daily.
As he waited to be admitted, his lips took on a stern set, and his eyes were as if he were going into battle.
The door swung open silently. He turned to realize that a man in uniform was standing before him questioningly. His lips seemed stiff as he spoke her name.
The servant looked him over appraisingly.
"Miss Patricia is giving a dinner tonight," he explained with a questioning lift of one eyebrow. "Is — Mr. —?" He consulted the card Worth had laid on the silver tray. "Is Mr. Worth one of the invited guests?"
Something desperate flamed in John Worth's face.
"No, I'm not, but I must see her!" he said firmly.
"Perhaps, later in the evening," suggested the servant delicately, "I might inquire if it will be convenient —?"
A sick wave of despair surged over the young man. Later in the evening! Might as well give it up now! "No!" he said determinedly. "Wait!"
He brought out his fountain pen and, reaching for his card, wrote a few infinitesimal words on its back.
"Take that to her!" he said briefly.
He was led to a small reception room. The heavy velvet curtains at the doorway were drawn aside giving a vista of the dim lovely distance; a pillared aisle almost like a cathedral, with rooms opening beyond; a noble staircase dividing halfway up and leading either side to a gallery screened by Moorish lattice; below the gallery a large fireplace in which logs were burning brightly, for the spring evening was cool.
More people were arriving, with a sound of high, strained voices as they greeted those who were just coming down after removing their wraps, and their chatter blended with the soft twang of stringed instruments being put in tune behind a screen of palms.
There was sound and color and an arrogant life there to which he had never belonged.
"There's Thorny!" he heard a voice exclaim.
A general laugh, hard and knowing, followed, like the laugh that had come from the upper gallery multiplied by many voices.
Thorny appeared, tall, slender, confident, well groomed, his perfect teeth like matched pearls flashing gorgeously as he smiled. There was no denying that Thornton Bellingham made a stunning appearance.
John Worth studied him furtively from the shadow of the curtain. He was not much changed. A shadow under the jaded eyes perhaps — fine, dark, restless eyes with long effective lashes.
There were those girls whispering again outside the curtain.
"Yes, Pat's mother told Aunt Fran! She said Pat had practically promised to announce her engagement tonight!"
What a fool he had been to come!
"Hot stuff, darling, but there won't be any great thrill about it, will there? We've all known it was coming for the last three years! I can't see why she let it drag out so. Stage stuff, I call it —"
The voices drifted by and mingled with the general buzz and laughter.
John Worth sat still and waited, turning cold to his fingertips with the futility of his errand.
Patricia had been called to the telephone. She had been awaiting the arrival of the last guest, a man whom she had met at the country club that week and who had done some notable flying and got himself into the newspapers. She had arranged to place him by her side at the dinner. Thorny would not like it, of course, but under the circumstances he would make the best of it. She had seated Thorny far down the table at her mother's side. It was her own dinner and she had arranged all the details.
The traitorous guest was on the telephone. He had been in an accident and his car was wrecked. It happened too far from a telephone to let her know sooner. It was impossible for him now to get there in time for dinner. Might he drop in later in the evening and make his apologies?
She turned from the telephone in dismay.
Rapidly she went over the list of her guests with a wild hope of finding another one who could be placed at her side at the table. But no, there was a reason for the placing of each one of them. She could not change it now. It was going to be most awkward. And there wasn't anyone else whom she could call upon at this last minute. It was too late! She felt as if the walls of a huge stone prison were slowly closing in around her heart to crush her.
It was just then, as she turned desperately away from the telephone, that the butler approached her apologetically with John Worth's card in his hand.
"Miss Patricia, there's a gentleman in the small reception room insisting upon seeing you for just a moment."
"I cannot possibly see anyone now," said Patricia firmly. "Didn't you tell him, Barker?" "Yes, I did, Miss Patricia. I suggested some other evening, or perhaps later in the evening, but he said no and sent you this. I'll send him away if you say."
Patricia, frowning, took the card and read:
I have never before been in a position to come. May I see you for just a moment about something that may be important to us both? I must leave tonight.
Wondering, she turned the card over and read John Worth's name.
Startled, she turned the card back, reread the message, and the frown on her brow relaxed. A soft glow came into her eyes. She was suddenly lifted out of her perplexities and put back into her childhood. In a flash she saw a wooded hillside under a stormy sky, with anemones blowing like frightened children in the grass at her feet. And off in the distance across fields and fences, a small shingled house, weather beaten and gray, and a boy with eyes like a young knight standing in the doorway with his mother, while all around the yard valley-lilies clustered closely, their perfume filling the clean, wet air.
John Worth! After all these years!
A servant was approaching, and her perplexities dropped down upon her once more. Dinner was about to be served and she was lacking a guest!
Then a sudden thought struck her. John Worth! Why not ask him? He wouldn't likely have a dinner coat, of course, and that would make him conspicuous, but what of that? She remembered him at school often wearing coats that showed too much of his wrists. Thorny would be angry, too, but Thorny's lips were sealed for this evening at least. Her mother wouldn't like it either, but what else could she do? The other man had failed her. Anyway, her mother wouldn't remember who John was, that he used to live in a little frame house on the hillside and bring honey and strawberries and wild grapes to the house to sell sometimes when he was a small boy.
She turned to the servant with sudden determination in her face.
"I'll see him!" she said. "I'll be back in a moment. I think the last guest has arrived. Dinner can be served almost immediately."
The servant bowed and left her, and with a heart wildly beating, like a condemned criminal under expected reprieve, she turned and made her way swiftly through a sun porch to a door at the far end opening into the small reception room where John Worth was waiting. As she entered, she caught the faint fragrance of valley-lilies on the air and wondered. Was it her imagination?CHAPTER 2
When Patricia Prentiss was a little girl, there had been a battle royal between her father and mother concerning the school she would attend.
George Prentiss was a kindly, grave man with a great ability to make money and a few old-fashioned ideas to which he clung stubbornly. For the rest he let his wife have her way.
Mainly his old-fashioned ideas were three in number. He did not believe in drinking intoxicating liquors. He had always attended church regularly in the same old church where his father and mother, and their fathers and mothers, had attended church, and he always would — even though the denomination and most of the congregation had abandoned the old plain structure and built a fine new edifice, selling the old one to a small nondenominational group, who were utterly beyond the pale socially. George Prentiss had allied himself with the minority and stayed in the old church, with the nondenominational group.
And finally, he believed that the public school was the only proper place in which to secure an education.
In the matter of liquor, his wife had more or less come off victorious. It was the first battle of their married life, and she claimed that life would be a desert drear if she couldn't have cocktails at her parties, that people all did it nowadays and she would die of shame if she couldn't do as others did. It had been a long steady conflict, but gradually she had dominated. Little by little liquor was served at the Prentiss table at social occasions. Usually the head of the house absented himself from the town when he knew what was to be, and he never drank himself when he was forced by circumstances to be present.
In the matter of church attendance, Amelia Prentiss made several decisive gestures in the direction of a fashionable and formal place of worship. George went with her once and balked. It was not his idea of a place to worship God, and he would not go there again. She might do as she liked, but he would continue to worship where he always had worshipped. No amount of argument sufficed to move him, and finally, his wife, not keen on going to church herself, settled down to long restful Sabbath mornings in bed, to be ready for lovely, stately social teas in the late afternoon and Sunday evening musicales.
But when it came to the matter of where to send their only child to school, George rose right up and planted his foot down on principle. No, Patricia should not go to Miss Delicia Greystone's Select School for Girls. There might be girls' schools that were worth going to, but this one was not. Patricia should not be trained to be a little empty-headed snob. She should go to a good, honest public school the way her father had done, get a little idea of the way the world was made up of all kinds of people, and not think she was "it."
It lasted a week, that battle, and cost so much in courage and pain and sleeplessness that George Prentiss resolved he would never fight another, no matter what was involved. But he won. Amelia shed plenty of tears, cast reproach upon him, and even said he had deceived her when he married her. That she thought he was a man of refined feelings and high ambitions, and it seemed he was instead wedded to low, uncultured things. That he was even willing to have his charming angel-child herd among the rabble in the public schools, where she would acquire low tastes, worse language, and the manners of common people. She wept so copiously that several times George Prentiss had to leave the house and walk out in the country to the old farm, which he still owned, to get near to sky and trees and realize that he wasn't after all the low-lived criminal that Amelia had been trying to make him out.
But when he returned — his spirit rested and his vision cleared by a sight of the sky and the green trees and grass, with a touch of the old home fraught with sweet memories — he would come into the house with his jaw set firmly, reminding his wife of the days when she used to contemplate him from afar and wonder if he wasn't a bit too set in his ways to make pleasant company for her life.
On one such occasion she eyed him through the evening meal between scant conversation and finally remarked with the advent of the dessert she knew he liked:
"Well, I've made arrangements for Patricia to enter Miss Greystone's school Monday morning. She's not to lose her grade by the transfer. In fact, they've agreed to guarantee that she will pass as usual in the spring. She is to have dear little Gwendolyn Champney as a seatmate and be in the same grade with Thornton Bellingham. They are giving our child every advantage possible, and I'm quite delighted!" she finished with complacence. "She'll be free from that awful public school at last!"
Patricia, sitting in front of her untouched dessert, listened aghast, her eyes fixed on her mother's exalted countenance. Her mother was eating away at the thick meringue on her fat orange custard pie and omitting to watch the expressions on the faces of her husband and child.
Patricia could usually be counted on to behave quietly like a lady and not intrude into the general conversation unless asked a question, but on this occasion she was too deeply stirred to remember her manners, and suddenly her wide lovely blue eyes brimmed with big tears, a look of desperate panic went over her beautiful little face, and she broke forth in an awful and most unwonted rebellion.
"Oh! I don't want to leave my lovely public school!" she burst out in a scream of fear. "And I won't go to that silly old Greystone School. I won't! I won't! I won't! Inever won't! They're all sissies and dummies that go to that school! Oh, Daddy, I can't go to an old stuck-up school like that and have all my own school laughing at me and saying I couldn't keep up with my class!"
She finished the end of her sentence by jumping down from her seat and hiding her face in her father's neck, where she stood and wailed her heart out.
Her father's arm went comfortingly, firmly around her, and his voice came soothingly into her ear.
"There, there, there! Daddy's little girl! Of course you shan't go to that silly old stuck-up school. Of course you're going to stay in your nice fine healthy public school. Don't you worry. That's one thing your daddy will see to, that you stay in the public school where he got his education. Nobody is going to cheat you out of that!"
Excerpted from Patricia by Grace Livingston Hill. Copyright © 2015 Grace Livingston Hill. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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