Read CHAPTER XXIV - HOME AT LAUREL COTTAGE of The Automobile Girls At Washington, free online book, by Laura Dent Crane, on ReadCentral.com.

Mrs. Thurston stood on the front porch of her little cottage, looking out in the gathering dusk. Back of her the lights twinkled gayly. A big wood fire crackled in the sitting-room and shone through the soft muslin curtains. A small maid was busily setting the table for supper in the dinning room, and there was a delicious smell of freshly baked rolls coming through the kitchen door. On the table stood a great dish of golden honey and a pitcher of rich milk. Mrs. Thurston had not forgotten, in two years, the favorite supper of her friend, Robert Stuart.

It was a cold night, but she could not wait indoors. She had gathered up a warm woolen shawl of a delicate lavender shade, and wrapped it about her head and shoulders, looking not unlike the gracious spirit of an Autumn twilight as she lingered to welcome the travelers home. She was thinking of all that had happened since the day that Bab had stopped Ruth’s runaway horses. She was recalling how much Mr. Stuart had done for her little girls in the past two years. “He could not have been kinder to Mollie and Barbara, if they had been his own daughters,” thought pretty Mrs. Thurston, with a blush.

But did she not hear the ever-welcome sound of a friendly voice? Was not Mr. Bubble calling to her out of the darkness? Surely enough his two great shining eyes now appeared at the well-known turn in the road. A few moments later Mrs. Thurston was being tempestuously embraced by the “Automobile Girls.”

“Do let me speak to Miss Stuart, children,” Mrs. Thurston entreated, trying to extricate herself from four pairs of girlish arms.

“Come in, Miss Stuart,” she laughed. “I hope you are not tired from your journey. I cannot tell you what pleasure it gives me to see you and Mr. Stuart once more.”

Mr. Stuart gave Mrs. Thurston’s hand a little longer pressure than was absolutely necessary. Mrs. Thurston blushed and finally drew her hand away.

“Look after Mr. Stuart, dear,” she said to Bab. “He is to have the guest chamber upstairs. I want to show Miss Stuart to her room. I am sorry, Ruth, our little home is too small to give you a room to yourself. You will have to be happy with Mollie and Bab. Grace you are to stay to supper with us. Your father will come for you after supper. I had to beg awfully hard, but he finally consented to let you remain with us. Our little reunion would not be complete without you.”

Mrs. Thurston took Miss Sallie into a charming room which she had lately renovated for her guest. It was papered in Miss Stuart’s favorite lavender paper, had lavender curtains at the windows, and a bright wood fire in the grate.

“I hope you will be comfortable, Miss Stuart,” said little Mrs. Thurston, who stood slightly in awe of stately and elegant Miss Sallie.

For answer Miss Sallie smiled and looked searchingly at Mrs. Thurston.

“Is there any question you wish to ask me?” Mrs. Thurston inquired, flushing slightly at Miss Stuart’s peculiar expression.

“Oh, no,” smiled Miss Sallie. “Oh, no, I have no question to ask you!”

It was seven o ’clock when the party sat down to supper, and after nine when they finally rose. They stopped then only because Squire Carter arrived and demanded his daughter, Grace, whom he had to carry off, as he and her mother could bear to be parted from their child no longer.

Miss Sallie asked to be excused, soon after supper, as she was tired from her trip. “I think the ‘Automobile Girls’ had better go to bed, too,” she suggested. Then Miss Sallie flushed. For she was so accustomed to telling her girls what they ought to do that she forgot it was no longer her privilege to advise Bab and Mollie when they were in their mother’s house.

Bab insisted on running out to their little stable to see if her beloved horse, “Beauty,” were safe and sound. And, of course, Ruth and Mollie went with her. But not long afterwards, the three girls retired to their room to talk until they fell asleep, too worn out for further conversation.

“I am not tired, Mrs. Thurston, are you?” Mr. Stuart asked. “If you don’t mind, won’t you sit and talk to me for a little while before this cozy open fire? We never have a chance to say much to each other before our talkative daughters. How charming the little cottage looks to-night! It is like a second home.”

Mrs. Thurston smiled happily. “It makes me very happy to have you and Ruth feel so. I hope you will always feel at home here. I wish I could do something in return for all the kindness you have shown to my two little girls.”

Mr. Stuart did not reply at once. He seemed to be thinking so deeply that Mrs. Thurston did not like to go on talking.

“Mrs. Thurston,” Mr. Stuart spoke slowly, “why would you not come to my house in Chicago to make us a visit when I asked you, nearly a year ago?”

Mrs. Thurston hesitated. “I told you my reasons then, Mr. Stuart. It was quite impossible. But it has been so long I have almost forgotten why I had to refuse.”

“It was after our trip in the private car with our friends, the fall before, you remember, Mrs. Thurston. But I know why you would not come to my home,” Mr. Stuart answered, smiling. “You were willing to accept my hospitality for your daughters, but you would not accept it for yourself. Am I not right?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Thurston faltered. “I thought it would not be best.”

“I am sorry,” Mr. Stuart said sadly. “Because I want to do a great deal more than ask you to come to visit me in Chicago. I wish you to come to live there as my wife.”

Mrs. Thurston’s reply was so low it could hardly be heard. But Mr. Stuart evidently understood it and found it satisfactory.

A few moments later Mrs. Thurston murmured, “I don’t believe that Ruth and your sister Sallie will be pleased.”

“Ruth will be the happiest girl in the world!” Mr. Stuart retorted. “Poor child, she has longed for sisters all her life. Now she is going to have the two she loves best in the world. As for Sallie .” Here Mr. Stuart hesitated. He thought Miss Sallie did not dream of his affection for the little widow, and he was not at all sure how she would receive the news. “As for Sallie,” he continued stoutly, “I am sure Sallie wishes my happiness more than anything else and she will be glad when she hears that I can find it only through you.”

Mrs. Thurston shook her head. “I can only consent to our marriage,” she returned, “if my girls and yours are really happy in our choice and if your sister is willing to give us her blessing.”

“Oh, Aunt Sallie, dear, please are you awake?” Ruth cried at half-past seven the next morning, tapping gently on Miss Stuart’s door.

Ruth had been awakened by her father at a little after six that morning and carried off to his bedroom in her dressing-gown, to sit curled up on her father’s bed, while he made his confession to her.

Ruth had listened silently at first with her head turned away. Once her father thought she was crying. But when she turned toward him her eyes were shining with happy tears. Ruth never thought of being jealous, or that her adored father would love her any less. She only thought, first, of his happiness and next of her own.

Mr. Stuart would not let Ruth go until, with her arms about his neck and her cheek pressed to his, she begged him to let her be the messenger to Barbara, Mollie and Aunt Sallie.

“You will be careful when you break the news to your aunt,” Mr. Stuart entreated. “I should have given her some warning in regard to my feelings for Mrs. Thurston. I fear the news will be an entire surprise to her.”

Ruth wondered what she should say first.

“Come in, dear,” Miss Sallie answered placidly in reply to Ruth’s knock. Miss Stuart was sitting up in bed with a pale lavender silk dressing sacque over her lace and muslin gown.

“I suppose,” Miss Sallie continued calmly, “that you have come to tell me that your father is going to marry Mrs. Thurston.”

“Aunt Sallie,” gasped Ruth, “are you a wizard?”

“No,” said Miss Stuart, “I am a woman. Why, child, I have seen this thing coming ever since we first left Robert Stuart here in Kingsbridge when I took you girls off to Newport. Are you pleased, child?” Miss Sallie inquired, a little wistfully.

“Gladder than anything, if you are, Aunt Sallie,” Ruth replied. “But Father told me to come to ask you how you felt. He says Mrs. Thurston won’t marry him unless we all consent.”

“Nonsense!” returned Miss Stuart in her accustomed fashion. “Of course I am glad to have Robert happy. Mrs. Thurston is a dear little woman. Only,” dignified Miss Sallie choked with a tiny sob in her voice, “I can’t give you up, Ruth, dear.” And Miss Stuart and her beloved niece shed a few comfortable tears in each other’s arms.

“I never, never will care for any one as I do for you, Aunt Sallie,” Ruth protested. “And aren’t you Chaperon Extraordinary and Ministering Angel Plentipotentiary to the ‘Automobile Girls’? The other girls care for you almost as much as I do. I wonder if Mrs. Thurston has told Bab and Mollie. Do you think they will be glad to have me for a sister?”

“Fix my hair, Ruth, and don’t be absurd,” Miss Sallie rejoined, returning to her former severe manner, which no longer alarmed any one of the “Automobile Girls.” “It is wonderful to me how I have learned to do without a maid while I have been traveling about the world with you children.”

The winter sunshine poured into the breakfast room of Laurel Cottage. The canary sang rapturously in his golden cage. He rejoiced at the sound of voices and the cheerful sounds in the house.

Bab and Mollie were helping to set the breakfast table, when Ruth joined them. Neither girl said anything except to ask Ruth why she had slipped out of their room so early.

Ruth’s heart sank. After all, then, Barbara and Mollie were not pleased. They did not care for her enough to be happy in this closer bond between them.

Mrs. Thurston kissed Ruth shyly, but she made no mention of anything unusual. And when Mr. Stuart came in to breakfast he looked as embarrassed and uncomfortable as a boy. There was a constraint over the little party at breakfast that had not been there the night before.

Unexpectedly the door opened. Into the room came Grace Carter with a big bunch of white roses in her hand. “I just had to come early,” she declared simply. “I wanted to find out.” Grace thrust the flowers upon Mrs. Thurston.

“Come here to me, Grace,” Miss Sallie commanded. “You are a girl after my own heart. Robert, Mrs. Thurston, I congratulate you and I wish you joy with my whole heart.”

Barbara and Mollie gazed at each other in stupefied silence. What did it all mean?

Mrs. Thurston blushed like a girl over her roses. “Miss Stuart, I never dreamed you could have heard so soon. I have not yet told Barbara and Mollie.”

“Told us what?” Bab demanded in her emphatic fashion. Then Ruth’s heart was light again.

But Bab did not wait to be answered. She suddenly guessed the truth. Now she knew why Ruth’s manner had changed so quickly a short time before. She ran round the table, upsetting her chair in her rush. And before she said a word either to her mother or to Mr. Stuart, she flung her arms about Ruth and whispered: “Our wish has come true, Ruth, darling! We are sisters as well as best friends.”

Then Bab congratulated her mother and Mr. Stuart in a much more dignified fashion.

“When is it to be, Father?” Ruth queried.

Mr. Stuart looked at Mrs. Thurston. “In the spring,” she faltered.

“Then we will all go away together and have a happy summer, somewhere,” Mr. Stuart asserted, smiling on the faces of his dear ones.

“We shall do no such thing, Robert Stuart,” Miss Sallie interposed firmly. “You shall have your honeymoon alone. I intend to take my ‘Automobile Girls’ some place where we have never been before. Will you go with me, children?”

“Yes,” chorused the four girls. “Aunt Sallie and the ’Automobile Girls’ forever.”