The Pool of Stars
THE POOL OF STARS
Elizabeth Houghton sat on a bigstone beside the road, just where the highwayforked, her school books still tucked underher arm. Her round blue eyes stared straightbefore her, as she tried, with one last effort, tomake up her mind. For a whole week she had beenattempting to reach a decision: that very morningshe had told herself sternly that the matter must besettled to-day, yet still she had kept on debating inwardly,hour after hour, saying, one moment, “Iwill,” and the next, “I won’t.” In the late afternoonshe had set out for Aunt Susan’s to announceher decision, but here she was pausing at the turnof the way, still irresolute.
If she went onward by the broad highroad thatstretched before her, she would come to the bigcountry-house where her aunt lived and where,once inside the door, all her doubts and hesitationswould be swept away by Aunt Susan’s forcible arguments.On the other hand, if she climbed the hillup the narrower branch of the way, Somerset Lane,she would come, she knew, to the white cottage besidethe road where lived Miss Miranda Reynolds,a friend of her father’s whom she had been biddento go to see. When she set forth after school shehad purposed vaguely going to one place or theother. If to Miss Reynolds’, it would be puttingoff the moment of her decision a little longer, if toAunt Susan’s, it would end in settling the matteronce for all.
She turned about on the stone and looked up thecrooked path of Somerset Lane, winding steeply upthe slope above her and ending before a great stoneentrance-way with barred iron gates. Beyond thegates she could catch further glimpses of risingground, groups of trees and, at the very summit ofthe hill, the broken walls of a ruined building. Itmust have been a fire, she concluded, after staringupward for some minutes, that had so blackened thestone walls and left them standing, empty and desolate,with here and there a blank window or the partof an arched doorway. For very weariness withpondering her own problem, she began to let hermind wander away in vague curiosity as to howsuch destruction had come about and how the firehad looked as it had swept blazing across the longroofs until they crashed and fell, had glowed behindthe empty windows and had gone up in columns ofsparks and flame above the dark trees. Her fatherhad told her nothing of this big ruined house at thetop of the hill, he had merely directed her to look forthe Reynolds cottage half way up the slope amongthe maple trees. No doubt, Elizabeth thought, MissReynolds could give her an account of the fire. Thisidea gave some point to a visit in which she had feltvery little interest until now. She had a twinge ofconscience as she sat looking up the lane rememberinghow long it was since she had promised herfather to go, and how she should have climbed thatsteep way many days before.
Elizabeth had not lived very long in this neighborhood,for this was early spring and it had beenonly at Christmas time that she and her father andIrish Anna, who kept house for them, had come toHarwood to settle down in what had been Mr.Houghton’s old home. Even here, after manyother moves, the question of uprooting soon came upagain, for in March her father had been summonedto England to spend six months.
“I wish it were not going to be so lonely for you,Betsey,” he had said as he made preparations togo, “but at least you will be busy. I am glad thatwe have found such a good school for you at last.A few more changes, and your education would havebeen wrecked entirely.”
Betsey had always meant to go to college and wasnow in the last half-year of her preparation. Transfersfrom one school to another had indeed resultedin so much lost time that she was already a little behindher proper class and would, so she agreed withher father, lose all chances of fulfilling her plansshould she change again. She sighed deeply as shethought of it, sitting there upon the stone, for it wasthis very question that was casting shadows over avery brilliant prospect.
Very soon after Mr. Houghton’s departure, Betsey’sAunt Susan, growing weary of the life of herquiet country place, big and luxurious though itwas, had pressed upon her niece a dazzling invitation.It was to accompany her on a journey thatwould include Bermuda, Panama, California, and,when hot weather came, the Canadian Rockies. Itbecame difficult for Elizabeth even to think of moremonths of plodding study, when, sitting at her desk,she could picture the flowers and palms of Bermuda,its coral caves with floors of rippling water, or thelazy breakers tumbling in on some California beach.But to go would mean giving up college, that wascertain. And Elizabeth’s mother, who had died fiveyears before, had always wanted her to go to college!
So long did she sit there on the stone under thebig oak tree, hesitating and debating, that presentlythere was a rumble of thunder, followed by the sharpspatter of rain on the little new leaves above herhead. The low-hanging branches sheltered her likea roof so that she had only to sit there with herhands clasped about her knee, waiting for the showerto pass and for her puzzled thoughts to set themselvesin order. She was wishing greatly for herfather’s advice, but that it would be impossible toget in time. Anna, good-natured and interested asshe was, could offer little more than, “Sure it wouldbe grand to go to college and learn so much,” or, ifthe talk happened to turn in another direction, “Sureit would be grand to go to California and see all thepretty flowers,” so that her opinions were of no verygreat help.
Elizabeth could see below her, as she sat there,rolling stretches of field and meadow and patches ofwoodland turning from brown to fresh spring green.Almost too far away to be visible on this day of fitfullights and shadows, were the crowded roofs andspires of a distant town and, to the east of them,the high, gray towers of that very college aboutwhich her dreams and ambitions had clustered solong.
“But it will be so lonely here!” she cried almostaloud, all her thoughts rising to sudden protest. Shehad friends of her own age at school, plenty of them,but what older person was there to whom she couldgo in doubt or difficulty, who was there to give herhelp or advice when she should need it? She feltlost and helpless at the thought and utterly forlorn.No, she could not bear it, she would go withAunt Susan, her choice would be for change andtravel and the seeing of beautiful things instead ofthe long empty road of hard work that stretched beforeher. Her battered geometry and Latin booksslipped from her knee and lay, face downward andunheeded, on the grass. She had made up her mind—almost.
The shower had cleared and the clouds weresweeping away in rolling thunderheads of gray andshining silver. The moving sunlight touched theroofs of the town and lit, at last, the slim towers ofthe college so that they showed white and glitteringagainst the dark background of the trees. Usuallythey seemed dim and distant, Elizabeth had thought,and never, as to-day, so near, so clear, possessed ofsuch dignity of grace and beauty. She could notquite tell what it was, curiosity, doubt, hesitation,or all three at once that made her, when she got upto go, turn into Somerset Lane instead of along thehighway, and that caused her to put off again themoment of letting Aunt Susan convince her that sheshould go to Bermuda.
She began to feel, as she climbed the hill, a gooddeal of curiosity concerning this Miss Miranda ofwhom her father had said so much and whom sheshould have gone to see long ago. Would she beall stiff manners and critical eyes, she wondered, thekind of person to make you feel awkward and tongue-tiedthe moment you crossed the threshold? It wasthe feeling that she must be something of the sortthat had kept Betsey from coming for all this time.For some distance the lane wound and twisted sothat she could not catch any glimpse of the white cottagethat she sought. Once she stopped where aside path, a mere rough track bordered by Lombardypoplars, led away to the left. Could that bethe way, she wondered, but no, it must lead only tothe fields beyond, for here was a heavy white farmhorse, evidently just come from plowing, turninginto the path through a gap in the hedge. The bigcreature lifted his feet slowly, seeming comfortablytired after a well-spent day among the furrows, ashe trudged leisurely along under the slender shadowsof the wet poplar trees. He bore an equally wearyrider, a boy of about Elizabeth’s own age, who wasperched sideways on the broad back, his legs swingingwith every lurch of the horse’s shoulders, his hatheld on his knee so that Elizabeth could see plainlyhis hot, sunburned face and his rumpled, red-brownhair. He did not observe her, for he was lookingaway across the valley toward that same group oftowers that she herself had been watching, as thoughthe