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CHAPTER XXIV A TANTALIZING REVELATION
"I shall have something to tell you in the orchard this evening," said the Story Girl at breakfast one morning. Her eyes were very bright and excited. She looked as if she had not slept a great deal. She had spent the previous evening with Miss Reade and had not returned until the rest of us were in bed. Miss Reade had finished giving music lessons and was going home in a few days. Cecily and Felicity were in despair over this and mourned as those without comfort. But the Story Girl, who had been even more devoted to Miss Reade than either of them, had not, as I noticed, expressed any regret and seemed to be very cheerful over the whole matter.
"Why can't you tell it now?" asked Felicity.
"Because the evening is the nicest time to tell things in. I only mentioned it now so that you would have something interesting to look forward to all day."
"Is it about Miss Reade?" asked Cecily.
"I'll bet she's going to be married," I exclaimed, remembering the ring.
"Is she?" cried Felicity and Cecily together.
The Story Girl threw an annoyed glance at me. She did not like to have her dramatic announcements forestalled.
"I don't say that it is about Miss Reade or that it isn't. You must just wait till the evening."
"I wonder what it is," speculated Cecily, as the Story Girl left the room.
"I don't believe it's much of anything," said Felicity, beginning to clear away the breakfast dishes. "The Story Girl always likes to make so much out of so little. Anyhow, I don't believe Miss Reade is going to be married. She hasn't any beaus around here and Mrs. Armstrong says she's sure she doesn't correspond with anybody. Besides, if she was she wouldn't be likely to tell the Story Girl."
"Oh, she might. They're such friends, you know," said Cecily.
"Miss Reade is no better friends with her than she is with me and you," retorted Felicity.
"No, but sometimes it seems to me that she's a different kind of friend with the Story Girl than she is with me and you," reflected Cecily. "I can't just explain what I mean."
"No wonder. Such nonsense," sniffed Felicity. "It's only some girl's secret, anyway," said Dan, loftily. "I don't feel much interest in it."
But he was on hand with the rest of us that evening, interest or no interest, in Uncle Stephen's Walk, where the ripening apples were beginning to glow like jewels among the boughs.
"Now, are you going to tell us your news?" asked Felicity impatiently.
"Miss Reade IS going to be married," said the Story Girl. "She told me so last night. She is going to be married in a fortnight's time."
"Who to?" exclaimed the girls.
"To" - the Story Girl threw a defiant glance at me as if to say, "You can't spoil the surprise of THIS, anyway," - "to - the Awkward Man."
For a few moments amazement literally held us dumb.
"You're not in earnest, Sara Stanley?" gasped Felicity at last.
"Indeed I am. I thought you'd be astonished. But I wasn't. I've suspected it all summer, from little things I've noticed. Don't you remember that evening last spring when I went a piece with Miss Reade and told you when I came back that a story was growing? I guessed it from the way the Awkward Man looked at her when I stopped to speak to him over his garden fence."
"But - the Awkward Man!" said Felicity helplessly. "It doesn't seem possible. Did Miss Reade tell you HERSELF?"
"I suppose it must be true then. But how did it ever come about? He's SO shy and awkward. How did he ever manage to get up enough spunk to ask her to marry him?"
"Maybe she asked him," suggested Dan.
The Story Girl looked as if she might tell if she would.
"I believe that WAS the way of it," I said, to draw her on.
"Not exactly," she said reluctantly. "I know all about it but I can't tell you. I guessed part from things I've seen - and Miss Reade told me a good deal - and the Awkward Man himself told me his side of it as we came home last night. I met him just as I left Mr. Armstrong's and we were together as far as his house. It was dark and he just talked on as if he were talking to himself - I think he forgot I was there at all, once he got started. He has never been shy or awkward with me, but he never talked as he did last night."
"You might tell us what he said," urged Cecily. "We'd never tell."
The Story Girl shook her head.
"No, I can't. You wouldn't understand. Besides, I couldn't tell it just right. It's one of the things that are hardest to tell. I'd spoil it if I told it - now. Perhaps some day I'll be able to tell it properly. It's very beautiful - but it might sound very ridiculous if it wasn't told just exactly the right way."
"I don't know what you mean, and I don't believe you know yourself," said Felicity pettishly. "All that I can make out is that Miss Reade is going to marry Jasper Dale, and I don't like the idea one bit. She is so beautiful and sweet. I thought she'd marry some dashing young man. Jasper Dale must be nearly twenty years older than her - and he's so queer and shy - and such a hermit."
"Miss Reade is perfectly happy," said the Story Girl. "She thinks the Awkward Man is lovely - and so he is. You don't know him, but I do."
"Well, you needn't put on such airs about it," sniffed Felicity.
"I am not putting on any airs. But it's true. Miss Reade and I are the only people in Carlisle who really know the Awkward Man. Nobody else ever got behind his shyness to find out just what sort of a man he is."
"When are they to be married?" asked Felicity.
"In a fortnight's time. And then they are coming right back to live at Golden Milestone. Won't it be lovely to have Miss Reade always so near us?"
"I wonder what she'll think about the mystery of Golden Milestone," remarked Felicity.
Golden Milestone was the beautiful name the Awkward Man had given his home; and there was a mystery about it, as readers of the first volume of these chronicles will recall.
"She knows all about the mystery and thinks it perfectly lovely-and so do I," said the Story Girl.
"Do YOU know the secret of the locked room?" cried Cecily.
"Yes, the Awkward Man told me all about it last night. I told you I'd find out the mystery some time."
"And what is it?"
"I can't tell you that either."
"I think you're hateful and mean," exclaimed Felicity. "It hasn't anything to do with Miss Reade, so I think you might tell us."
"It has something to do with Miss Reade. It's all about her."
"Well, I don't see how that can be when the Awkward Man never saw or heard of Miss Reade until she came to Carlisle in the spring," said Felicity incredulously, "and he's had that locked room for years."
"I can't explain it to you - but it's just as I've said," responded the Story Girl.
"Well, it's a very queer thing," retorted Felicity.
"The name in the books in the room was Alice - and Miss Reade's name is Alice," marvelled Cecily. "Did he know her before she came here?"
"Mrs. Griggs says that room has been locked for ten years. Ten years ago Miss Reade was just a little girl of ten. SHE couldn't be the Alice of the books," argued Felicity.
"I wonder if she'll wear the blue silk dress," said Sara Ray.
"And what will she do about the picture, if it isn't hers?" added Cecily.
"The picture couldn't be hers, or Mrs. Griggs would have known her for the same when she came to Carlisle," said Felix.
"I'm going to stop wondering about it," exclaimed Felicity crossly, aggravated by the amused smile with which the Story Girl was listening to the various speculations. "I think Sara is just as mean as mean when she won't tell us."
"I can't," repeated the Story Girl patiently.
"You said one time you had an idea who 'Alice' was," I said. "Was your idea anything like the truth?"
"Yes, I guessed pretty nearly right."
"Do you suppose they'll keep the room locked after they are married?" asked Cecily.
"Oh, no. I can tell you that much. It is to be Miss Reade's own particular sitting room."
"Why, then, perhaps we'll see it some time ourselves, when we go to see Miss Reade," cried Cecily.
"I'd be frightened to go into it," confessed Sara Ray. "I hate things with mysteries. They always make me nervous."
"I love them. They're so exciting," said the Story Girl.
"Just think, this will be the second wedding of people we know," reflected Cecily. "Isn't that interesting?"
"I only hope the next thing won't be a funeral," remarked Sara Ray gloomily. "There were three lighted lamps on our kitchen table last night, and Judy Pineau says that's a sure sign of a funeral."
"Well, there are funerals going on all the time," said Dan.
"But it means the funeral of somebody you know. I don't believe in it - MUCH - but Judy says she's seen it come true time and again. I hope if it does it won't be anybody we know very well. But I hope it'll be somebody I know a LITTLE, because then I might get to the funeral. I'd just love to go to a funeral."
"That's a dreadful thing to say," commented Felicity in a shocked tone.
Sara Ray looked bewildered.
"I don't see what is dreadful in it," she protested.
"People don't go to funerals for the fun of it," said Felicity severely. "And you just as good as said you hoped somebody you knew would die so you'd get to the funeral."
"No, no, I didn't. I didn't mean that AT ALL, Felicity. I don't want anybody to die; but what I meant was, if anybody I knew HAD to die there might be a chance to go to the funeral. I've never been to a single funeral yet, and it must be so interesting."
"Well, don't mix up talk about funerals with talk about weddings," said Felicity. "It isn't lucky. I think Miss Reade is simply throwing herself away, but I hope she'll be happy. And I hope the Awkward Man will manage to get married without making some awful blunder, but it's more than I expect."
"The ceremony is to be very private," said the Story Girl.
"I'd like to see them the day they appear out in church," chuckled Dan. "How'll he ever manage to bring her in and show her into the pew? I'll bet he'll go in first - or tramp on her dress - or fall over his feet."
"Maybe he won't go to church at all the first Sunday and she'll have to go alone," said Peter. "That happened in Markdale. A man was too bashful to go to church the first time after getting married, and his wife went alone till he got used to the idea."
"They may do things like that in Markdale but that is not the way people behave in Carlisle," said Felicity loftily.
Seeing the Story Girl slipping away with a disapproving face I joined her.
"What is the matter, Sara?" I asked.
"I hate to hear them talking like that about Miss Reade and Mr. Dale," she answered vehemently. "It's really all so beautiful-but they make it seem silly and absurd, somehow."
"You might tell me all about it, Sara," I insinuated. "I wouldn't tell - and I'd understand."
"Yes, I think you would," she said thoughtfully. "But I can't tell it even to you because I can't tell it well enough yet. I've a feeling that there's only one way to tell it - and I don't know the way yet. Some day I'll know it - and then I'll tell you, Bev."
Long, long after she kept her word. Forty years later I wrote to her, across the leagues of land and sea that divided us, and told her that Jasper Dale was dead; and I reminded her of her old promise and asked its fulfilment. In reply she sent me the written love story of Jasper Dale and Alice Reade. Now, when Alice sleeps under the whispering elms of the old Carlisle churchyard, beside the husband of her youth, that story may be given, in all its old-time sweetness, to the world.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXV THE LOVE STORY OF THE AWKWARD MAN