Of course it behooved Mr. Bruce to call the next day and see how Miss Crowe had stood her drive. He set a veto upon her intended departure, and presented an invitation from his sister for the following week. At Mrs. Littlefield's instance, Lizzie accepted the invitation, despatched a laconic note to Mrs. Ford, and stayed over for Miss Bruce's party. It was a grand affair. Miss Bruce was a very great lady: she treated Miss Crowe with every attention. Lizzie was thought by some persons to look prettier than ever. The vaporous gauze, the sunny hair, the coral, the sapphires, the smile, were displayed with renewed success. The master of the house was unable to dance; he was summoned to sterner duties. Nor could Miss Crowe be induced to perform, having hurt her foot on the ice. This was of course a disappointment; let us hope that her entertainers made it up to her.
On the second day after the party, Lizzie returned to Glenham. Good Mr. Littlefield took her to the station, stealing a moment from his precious business-hours.
"There are your checks," said he; "be sure you don't lose them. Put them in your glove. "
Lizzie gave a little scream of merriment.
" Mr. Littlefield, how can you? I 've a reticule, Sir. But I really don't want you to stay. "
"Well, I confess," said her companion. -- "Hullo! there 's your Scottish chief! I 'll get him to stay with you till the train leaves. He may be going. Bruce!"
"Oh, Mr. Littlefield, don't!" cries Lizzie. "Perhaps Mr. Bruce is engaged. "
Bruce's tall figure came striding towards them. He was astounded to find that Miss Crowe was going by this train. Delightful! He had come to meet a friend who had not arrived.
"Littlefield," said he," you can't be spared from your business. I will see Miss Crowe off. "
When the elder gentleman had departed, Mr. Bruce conducted his companion into the car, and found her a comfortable seat, equidistant from the torrid stove and the frigid door. Then he stowed away her shawls, umbrella, and reticule. She would keep her muff? She did well. What a pretty fur!
"It 's just like your collar," said Lizzie. "I wish I had a muff for my feet," she pursued, tapping on the floor.
"Why not use some of those shawls? "said Bruce; "let 's see what we can make of them. "
Antl he stooped down and arranged them as a rug, very neatly and kindly. And then he called himself a fool for not having, used the next seat, which was empty; and the wrapping was done over again.
" I 'm so afraid you'll be carried off!" said Lizzie. "What would you do?"
"I think I should make the best of it. And you?"
"I would tell you to sit down there"; and she indicated the seat facing her. He took it. "Now you 'll be sure to," said Elizabeth.
"I 'm afraid I shall, unless I put the newspaper between us. "And he took it out of his pocket. "Have you seen the news?"
"No," says Lizzie, elongating her bonnet-ribbons. "What is it? Just look at that party. "
"There 's not much news. There 's been a scrimmage on the Rappahannock. Two of our regiments engaged, -- the Fifteenth and the Twenty-Eighth. Did n't you tell me you had a cousin or something in the Fifteenth?"
"Not a cousin, no relation, but an intimate friend, -- my guardian's son. What does the paper say, please?" inquires Lizzie, very pale.
Bruce cast his eye over the report. "It does n't seem to have amounted to much; we drove back the enemy, and recrossed the river at our ease. Our loss only fifty. There are no names," he added, catching a glimpse of Lizzie's pallor, -- "none in this paper at least. "
In a few moments appeared a newsboy crying the New York journals.
"Do you think the New York papers sould have any names?" asked Lizzie.
"We can try," said Bruce. And he bought a "Herald," and unfolded it. "Yes, there is a list," he continued, some time after he had opened out the sheet. "What 's your friend's name?" he asked, from behind the paper.
"Ford, -- John Ford, second lieutenant," said Lizzie.
There was a long pause.
At last Bruce lowered the sheet, and showed a face in which Lizzie's pallor seemed faintly reflected.
"There is such a name among the wounded," he said; and, folding the paper down, he held it out, and gently crossed to the seat beside her.
Lizzie took the paper, and held it close to her eyes. But Bruce could not help seeing that her temples had turned from white to crimson.
"Do you see it?" he asked; " I sincerely hope it 's nothing very bad. "
"Severely," whispered Lizzie.
"Yes, but that proves nothing. Those things are most unreliable. Do hope for the best. "
Lizzie made no answer. Meanwhile passengers had been brushing in, and the car was full. The engine began to puff, and the conductor to shout. The train gave a jog.
"You 'd better go, Sir, or you 'll be carried off," said Lizzie, holding out her hand, with her face still hidden.
"May I go on to the next station with you?" said Bruce.
Lizzie gave him a rapid look, with a deepened flush. He had fancied that she was shedding tears. But those eyes were dry; they held fire rather than water.
"No, no, Sir; you must not. I insist. Good bye. "
Bruce's offer had cost him a blush, too. He had been prepared to back it with the assurance that he had business ahead, and, indeed, to make a little business in order to satisfy his conscience. But Lizzie's answer was final.
"Very well," said he," good bye. You have my real sympathy, Miss Crowe. Don't despair. We shall meet again. "
The train rattled away. Lizzie caught a glimpse of a tall figure with lifted hat on the platform. But she sat motionless, with her head against the windowframe, her veil down, and her hands idle.
She had enough to do to think, or rather to feel. It is fortunate that the utmost shock of evil tidings often comes first. After that everything is for the better. Jack's name stood printed in that fatal column like a stern signal for despair. Lizzie felt conscious of a crisis which almost arrested her breath. Night had fallen at midday: what was the hour? A tragedy had stepped into her life: was she spectator or actor? She found herself face to face with death: was it not her own soul masquerading in a shroud? She sat in a half-stupor. She had been aroused from a dream into a waking nightmare. It was like hearing a murder-shriek while you turn the page of your novel. But I cannot describe these things. In time the crushing sense of calamity loosened its grasp. Feeling lashed her pinions. Thought struggled to rise. Passion was still, stunned, floored. She had recoiled like a receding wave for stronger onset. A hundred ghastly fears and fancies strutted a moment, pecking at the young girl's naked heart, like sandpipers on the weltering beach. Then, as with a great murmurous rush, came the meaning of her grief. The flood-gates of emotion were opened.
At last passion exhausted itself, and Lizzie thought. Bruce's parting, words rang in her ears. She did her best to hope. She reflected that wounds, even severe wounds, did not necessarily mean death. Death might easily be warded off. She would go to Jack; she would nurse him; she would watch by him; she would cure him. Even if Death had already beckoned, she would strike down his hand: if Life had already obeyed, she would issue the stronger mandate of Love. She would stanch his wounds; she would unseal his eyes with her kisses; she would call till he answered her.
Lizzie reached home and walked up the garden path. Mrs. Ford stood in the parlor as she entered, upright, pale, and rigid. Each read the other's countenance. Lizzie went towards her slowly and giddily. She must of course kiss her patroness. She took her listless hand and bent towards her stern lips. Habitually Mrs. Ford was the most undemonstrative of women. But as Lizzie looked closer into her face, she read the signs of a grief infinitely more potent than her own. The formal kiss gave way: the young girl leaned her head on the old woman's shoulder and burst into sobs. Mrs. Ford acknowledged those tears with a slow inclination of the head, full of a certain grim pathos: she put out her arms and pressed them closer to her heart.
At last Lizzie disengaged herself and sat down.
"I am going to him," said Mrs. Ford.
Lizzie's dizziness returned. Mrs. Ford was going, -- and she, she?
"I am going to nurse him, and with God's help to save him. "
"How did you hear?"
"I have a telegram from the surgeon of the regiment"; and Mrs. Ford held out a paper.
Lizzie took it and read: "Lieutenant Ford dangerously wounded in the action of yesterday. You had better come on. "
"I should like to go myself," said Lizzie: " I think Jack would like to have me. "
"Nonsense! A pretty place for a young girl! I am not going for sentiment; I am going for use. "
Lizzie leaned her head back in her chair, and closed her eyes. From the moment they had fallen upon Mrs. Ford, she had felt a certain quiescence. And now it was a relief to have responsibility denied her. Like most weak persons, she was glad to step out of the current of life, now that it had begun to quicken into action. In emergencies, such persons arc tacitly counted out; and they as tacitly consent to the arrangement. Even to the sensitive spirit there is a certain meditative rapture in standing on the quiet shore, (beside the ruminating cattle,) and watching the hurrying, eddying flood, which makes up for the loss of dignity. Lizzie's heart resumed its peaceful throbs. She sat, almost dreamily, with her eyes shut.
"I leave in an hour," said Mrs. Ford. " I am going to get ready. -- Do you hear?"
The young girl's silence was a deeper consent than her companion supposed.
IT was a week before Lizzie heard from Mrs. Ford. The letter, when it came, was very brief. Jack still lived. The wounds were three in number, and very serious; he was unconscious; he had not recognized her; but still the chances either way were thought equal. They would be much greater for his recovery nearer home; but it was impossible to move him. " I write from the midst of horrible scenes," said the poor lady. Subjoined was a list of necessary medicines, comforts, and delicacies, to be boxed up and sent.
For a while Lizzie found occupation in writing a letter to Jack, to be read in his first lucid moment, as she told Mrs. Ford. This lady's man-of-business came up from the village to superintend the packing of the boxes. Her directions were strictly followed; and in no point were they found wanting. Mr. Mackenzie bespoke Lizzie's admiration for their friend's wonderful clearness of memory and judgment. "I wish we had that woman at the head of affairs," said he. "'Gad, I 'd apply for a Brigadier-Generalship. " -- "I 'd apply to be sent South," thought Lizzie. When the boxes and letter were despatched, she sat down to await more news. Sat down, say I? Sat down, and rose, and wondered, and sat down again. These were lonely, weary days. Very different are the idleness of love and the idleness of grief. Very different is it to be alone with your hope and alone with your despair. Lizzie failed to rally her musings. I do not mean to say that her sorrow was very poignant, although she fancied it was. Habit was a great force in her simple nature; and her chief trouble now was that habit refused to work. Lizzie had to grapple with the stern tribulation of a decision to make, a problem to solve. She felt that there was some spiritual barrier between herself and repose. So she began in her usual fashion to build up a false repose on the hither side of belief. She might as well have tried to float on the Dead Sea. Peace eluding her, she tried to resign herself to tumult. She drank deep at the well of self-pity, but found its watars brackish. People are apt to think that they may temper the penalties of misconduct by self-commiseration, just as they season the long aftertaste of beneficence by a little spice of self-applause. But the Power of Good is a more grateful master than the Devil. What bliss to gaze into the smooth gurgling wake of a good deed, while the comely bark sails on with floating pennon! What horror to look into the muddy sediment which floats round the piratic keel! Go, sinner, and dissolve it with your tears! And you, scoffing friend, there is the way out! Or would you prefer the window? I 'm an honest man forevermore.
One night Lizzie had a dream, -- a rather disagreeable one, -- which haunted her during many waking hours. It seemed to her that she was walking in a lonely place, with a tall, dark-eyed man who called her wife. Suddenly, in the shadow of a tree, they came upon an unburied corpse. Lizzie proposed to dig him a grave. They dug a great hole and took hold of the corpse to lift him in; when suddenly he opened his eyes. Then they saw that he was covered with wounds. He looked at them intently for some time, turning his eyes from one to the other. At last he solemnly said," Amen!" and closed his eyes. Then she and her companion placed him in the grave, and shovelled the earth over him, and stamped it down with their feet.
He of the dark eyes and he of the wounds were the two constantly recurring figures of Lizzie's reveries. She could never think of John without thinking of the courteous Leatherborough gentleman, too. These were the data of her problem. These two figures stood like opposing knights, (the black and the white,) foremost on the great chess-board of fate. Lizzie was the wearied, puzzled player. She would idly finger the other pieces, and shift them carelessly hither and thither; but it was of no avail: the game lay between the two knights. She would shut her eyes and long for some kind hand to come and tamper with the board; she would open them and see the two knights standing immovable, face to face. It was nothing new. A fancy had come in and offered defiance to a fact; they must fight it out. Lizzie generously inclined to the fancy, the unknown champion, with a reputation to make. Call her blasée, if you like, this little girl, whose record told of a couple of dances and a single lover, heartless, old before her time. Perhaps she deserves your scorn. I confess she thought herself ill-used. By Whom? by what? wherein? These were questions Miss Crowe was not prepared to answer. Her intellect was unequal to the stern logic of human events. She expected two and two to make five: as why should they not for the nonce? She was like an actor who finds himself on the stage with a half-learned part and without sufficient wit to extemporize. Pray, where is the prompter? Alas, Elizabeth, that you bad no mother! Young girls are prone to fancy that when once they have a lover, they have everything they need: a conclusion inconsistent with the belief entertained by many persons, that life begins with love. Lizzie's fortunes became old stories to her before she had half read them through. Jack's wounds and danger were an old story. Do not suppose that she had exhausted the lessons, the suggestions of these awful events, their inspirations, exhortations, -- that she had wept as became the horror of the tragedy. No: the curtain had not yet fallen, yet our young lady had begun to yawn. To yawn? Ay, and to long for the afterpiece. Since the tragedy dragged, might she not divert herself with that well-bred man beside her?
Elizabeth was far from owning to herself that she had fallen away from her love. For my own part, I need no better proof of the fact than the dull persistency with which she denied it. What accusing voice broke out of the stillness? Jack's nobleness and magnanimity were the hourly theme of her clogged fancy. Again and again she declared to herself that she was unworthy of them, but that, if he would only recover and come home, she would be his eternal bond-slave. So she passed a very miserable month. Let us hope that her childish spirit was being tempered to some useful purpose. Let us hope so.
She roamed about the empty house with her footsteps tracked by an unlaid ghost. She cried aloud and said that she was very unhappy; she groaned and called herself wicked. Then, sometimes, appalled at her moral perplexities, she declared that she was neither wicked nor unhappy; she was contented, patient, and wise. Other girls had lost their lovers: it was the present way of life. Was she weaker than most women? Nay, but Jack was the best of men. If he would only come back directly, without delay, as he was, senseless, crying even, that she might look at him, touch him, speak to him! Then she would say that she could no longer answer for herself, and wonder (or pretend to wonder) whether she were not going mad. Suppose Mrs. Ford should come back and find her in an unswept room, pallid and insane? or suppose she should die of her troubles? What if she should kill herself? -- dismiss the servants, and close the house, and lock herself up with a knife? Then she would cut her arm to escape from dismay at what she had already done; and then her courage would ebb away with her blood, and, having so far pledged herself to despair, her life would ebb away with her courage; and then, alone, in darkness, with none to help her, she would vainly scream, and thrust the knife into her temple, and swoon to death. And Jack would come back, and burst into the house, and wander through the empty rooms, calling her name, and for all answer get a death-scent! These imaginings were the more creditable or discreditable to Lizzie, that she had never read "Romeo and Juliet. "At any rate, they served to dissipate time, -- heavy, weary time, -- the more heavy and weary as it bore dark foreshadowings of some momentous event. If that event would only come, whatever it was, and sever this Gordian knot of doubt!
The days passed slowly: the leaden sands dropped one by one. The roads were too lull for walking; so Lizzie was obliged to confine her restlessness to the narrow bounds of the empty house, or to an occasional journey to the village, where people sickened her by their dull indifference to her spiritual agony. Still they could not fail to remark how poorly Miss Crowe was looking. This was true, and Lizzie knew it. I think she even took a certain comfort in her pallor and in her failing interest in her dress. There was some satisfaction in displaying her white roses amid the apple-checked prosperity of Main Street. At last Miss Cooper, the Doctor's sister, spoke to her: --
"How is it, Elizabeth, you look so pale, and thin, and worn out? What you been doing with yourself? Falling in love, eh? It is n't right to be so much alone. Come down and stay with us awhile, -- till Mrs. Ford and John come back," added Miss Cooper, who wished to put a cheerful face on the matter.
For Miss Cooper, indeed, any other face would have been difficult. Lizzie agreed to come. Her hostess was a busy, unbeautiful old maid, sister and housekeeper of the village physician. Her occupation here below was to perform the forgotten tasks of her fellowmen, -- to pick up their dropped stitches, as she herself declared. She was never idle, for her general cleverness was commensurate with mortal needs. Her own story was that she kept moving, so that folks could n't see how ugly she was. And, in fact, her existence was manifest through her long train of good deeds, -- just as the presence of a comet is shown by its tail. It was doubtless on the above principle that her visage was agitated by a perpetual laugh.
Meanwhile more news had been coming from Virginia. "What an absurdly long letter you sent John," wrote Mrs. Ford, in acknowledging the receipt of the boxes. " His first lucid moment would be very short, if he were to take upon himself to read your effusions. Pray keep your long stories till he gets well. " For a fortnight the young soldier remained the same, -- feverish, conscious only at intervals. Then came a change for the worse, which, for many weary days, however, resulted in nothing decisive. " If he could only be moved to Glenham, home, and old sights," said his mother," I should have hope. But think of the journey!" By this time Lizzie had stayed out ten days of her visit.
One day Miss Cooper came in from a walk, radiant with tidings. Her face, as I have observed, wore a continual smile, being dimpled and punctured all over with merriment, -- so that, when an unusual cheerfulness was super-diffused, it resembled a tempestuous little pool into which a great stone has been cast.
"Guess who's come," said she, going up to the piano, which Lizzie was carelessly fingering, and putting her hands on the young girl's shoulders. "Just guess!" Lizzie looked up.
"Jack," she half gasped.
"Oh, dear, no, not that! How stupid of me! I mean Mr. Bruce, your Leatherborough admirer. "
"Mr. Bruce! Mr. Bruce!" said Lizzie. " Really?"
"True as I live. He 's come to bring his sister to the Water-Cure. I met them at the post-office. "
Lizzie felt a strange sensation of good news. Her finger-tips were on fire. She was deaf to her companion's rattling chronicle. She broke into the midst of it with a fragment of some triumphant, jubilant melody. The keys rang beneath her flashing hands. And then she suddenly stopped, and Miss Cooper, who was taking off her bonnet at the mirror, saw that her face was covered with a burning flush.
That evening, Mr. Bruce presented himself at Doctor Cooper's, with whom he had a slight acquaintance. To Lizzie he was infinitely courteous and tender. He assured her, in very pretty terms, of his profound sympathy with her in her cousin's danger; -- her cousin he still called him, -- and it seemed to Lizzie that until that moment no one had begun to be kind. And then he began to rebuke her, playfully and in excellent taste, for her pale cheeks.
"Is n't it dreadful?" said Miss Cooper. " She looks like a ghost. I guess she 's in love. "
"He must be a good-for-nothing lover to make his mistress look so sad. If I were you, I 'd give him up, Miss Crowe. "
"I did n't know I looked sad," said Lizzie.
"You don't now," said Miss Cooper. " You 're smiling and blushing. A' n' t she blushing, Mr. Bruce?"
"I think Miss Crowe has no more than her natural color," said Bruce, dropping his eye-glass. " What have you been doing all this while since we parted?"
"All this while? it 's only six weeks. I don't know. Nothing. What have you?"
"I 've been doing nothing, too. It's hard work. "
"Have you been to any more parties?"
"Not one. "
"Any more sleigh-rides?"
"Yes. I took one more dreary drive all alone, -- over that same road. you know. And I stopped at the farm-house again, and saw the old woman we had the talk with. She remembered us, and asked me what had become of the young lady who was with me before. I told her you were gone home, but that I hoped soon to go and see you. So she sent you her love."
"Oh, how nice!" exclaimed Lizzie.
"Was n't it? And then she made a certain little speech; I won't repeat it, or we shall have Miss Cooper talking about your blushes again. "
"I know," cried the lady in question: " she said she was very" --
"Very what?" said Lizzie.
"Very h-a-n-d -- what every one says. "
"Very handy?" asked Lizzie. " I 'm sure no one ever said that. "
"Of course," said Bruce; " and I answered what every one answers. "
"Have you seen Mrs. Littlefield lately?"
"Several times. I called on her the day before I left town, to see if she hall any messages for you. "
"Oh, thank you! I hope she 's well. "
"Oh, she 's as jolly as ever. She sent you her love, and hoped you would come back to Leatherborough very soon again. I told her, that, however it might be with the first message, the second should be a joint one from both of us. "
"You 're very kind. I should like very much to go again. -- Do you like Mrs. Littlefield?"
"Like her? Yes. Don't you? She's thought a very pleasing woman. "
"Oh, she 's very nice. -- I don't think she has much conversation. "
"Ah, I 'm afraid you mean she does n't backbite. We 've always found plenty to talk about. "
"That 's a very significant tone. What, for instance?"
"Well, we have talked about Miss Crowe. "
"Oh, you have? Do you call that having plenty to talk about?"
"We have talked about Mr. Bruce, -- have n't we, Elizabeth?" said Miss Cooper, who had her own notion of being agreeable.
It was not an altogether bad notion, perhaps; but Bruce found her interruptions rather annoying, and insensibly allowed them to shorten his visit. Yet, as it was, he sat till eleven o'clock, -- a stay quite unprecedented at Glenham.
When he left the house, he went splashing down the road with a very elastic tread, springing over the starlit puddles, and trolling out some sentimental ditty. He reached the inn, and went up to his sister's sitting-room.
"Why, Robert, where have you been all this while?" said Miss Bruce.
"At Dr. Cooper's. "
"Dr. Cooper's? I should think you had! Who 's Dr. Cooper?"
"Where Miss Crowe 's staying. "
"Miss Crowe? Ah, Mrs. Littlefield's friend! Is she as pretty as ever?"
"Prettier, -- prettier, -- prettier. Ta-ra-ta! Ta-ra-ta!"
"Oh, Robert, do stop that singing! You 'll rouse the whole house. "
LATE one afternoon, at dusk, about three weeks after Mr. Bruce's arrival, Lizzie was sitting alone by the fire, in Miss Cooper's parlor, musing, as became the place and hour. The Doctor and his sister came in, dressed for a lecture.
"I 'm sorry you won't go, my dear," said Miss Cooper. " It 's a most interesting subject: 'A Year of the War. ' All The battles and things described, you know. "
"I ' m tired of war," said Lizzie.
"Well, well, if you 're tired of the war, we ' ll leave you in peace. Kiss me good-bye. What 's the matter? You look sick. You are homesick, a'n't you?"
"No, no, -- I 'm very well. "
"Would you like me to stay at home with you?"
"Oh, no! pray, don't!"
"Well, we 'll tell you all about it. Will they have programmes, James? I 'll bring her a programme. But you really feel as if you were going to be ill. Feel of her skin, James. "
"No, you need n't, Sir," said Lizzie. "How queer of you, Miss Cooper! I ' m perfectly well. "
And at last her friends departed. Belore long the servant came with the lamp, ushering Mr. Mackenzie.
"Good evening, Miss," said he. "Bad news from Mrs. Ford. "
"Yes, Miss. I 've just got a letter stating that Mr. John is growing worse and worse, and that they look for his death from hour to hour. -- It 's very sad," he added, as Elizabeth was silent.
"Yes, it 's very sad," said Lizzie.
"I thought you 'd like to hear it. "
"Thank you. "
"He was a very noble young fellow," pursued Mr. Mackenzie.
Lizzie made no response.
"There 's the letter," said Mr. Mackenzie, handing it over to her.
Lizzie opened it.
"How long she is reading it!" thought her visitor. "You can't see so far from the light, can you, Miss?"
"Yes," said Lizzie. -- "His poor mother! Poor woman!"
"Ay, indeed, Miss, -- she 's the one to be pitied. "
"Yes, she 's the one to be pitied," said Lizzie. "Well!" and she gave him back the letter.
"I thought you 'd like to see it," said Mackenzie, drawing on his gloves; and then, after a pause, -- "I 'll call again, Miss, if I hear anything more. Good night!"
Lizzie got up and lowered the light, and then went back to her sofa by the fire.
Half an hour passed; it went slowly; but it passed. Still lying there in the dark room on the sofa, Lizzie heard a ring at the door-bell, a man's voice and a man's tread in the hall. She rose and went to the lamp. As she turned it up, the parlor-door opened. Bruce came in.
"I was sitting in the dark," said Lizzie; "but when I heard you coming, I raised the light. "
"Are you afraid of me?" said Bruce.
"Oh, no! I 'll put it down again. Sit down. "
"I saw your friends going out," pursued Bruce; "so I knew I should find you alone. -- What are you doing here in the dark?"
"I 've just received very bad news from Mrs. Ford about her son. He 's much worse, and will probably not live. "
"Is it possible?"
"I was thinking about that. "
"Dear me! Well that 's a sad subject. I 'm told he was a very fine young man. "
"He was, -- very," said Lizzie.
Bruce was silent awhile. He was a stranger to the young officer, and felt that he had nothing to offer beyond the commonplace expressions of sympathy and surprise. Nor had he exactly the measure of his companion's interest in him.
"If he dies," said Lizzie," it will be under great injustice. "
"Ah! what do you mean?"
"There was n't a braver man in the army. "
"I suppose not. "
"And, oh, Mr. Bruce," continued Lizzie," he was so clever and good and generous! I wish you had known him. "
"I wish I had. But what do you mean by injustice? Were these qualities denied him?"
"No indeed! Every one that looked at him could see that he was perfect. "
"Where 's the injustice, then? It ought to be enough for him that you should think so highly of him. "
"Oh, he knew that," said Lizzie.
Bruce was a little puzzled by his companion's manner. He watched her, as she sat with her cheek on her hand, looking at the fire. There was a long pause. Either they were too friendly or too thoughtful for the silence to be embarrassing. Bruce broke it at last.
"Miss Crowe," said he," on a certain occasion, some time ago, when you first heard of Mr. Ford's wounds, I offered you my company, with the wish to console you as far as I might for what seemed a considerable shock. It was, perhaps, a bold offer for so new a friend; but, nevertheless, in it even then my heart spoke. You turned me off. Will you let me repeat it? Now, with a better right, will you let me speak out all my heart?"
Lizzie heard this speech, which was delivered in a slow and hesitating tone, without looking up or moving her head, except, perhaps, at the words "turned me off. "After Bruce had ceased, she still kept her position.
"You 'll not turn me off now?" added her companion.
She dropped her hand, raised her head, and looked at him a moment: he thought he saw the glow of tears in her eyes. Then she sank back upon the sofa with her face in the shadow of the mantel-piece.
"I don't understand you, Mr. Bruce," said she.
"Ah, Elizabeth! am I such a poor speaker. How shall I make it plain? When I saw your friends leave home half an hour ago, and reflected that you would probably be alone, I determined to go right in and have a talk with you that I 've long been wanting to have. But first I walked half a mile up the road, thinking hard, -- thinking how I should say what I had to say. I made up my mind to nothing, but that somehow or other I should say it. I would trust, -- I do trust to your frankness, kindness, and sympathy, to a feeling corresponding to my own. Do you understand that feeling? Do you know that I love you? I do, I do, I do! You must know it. If you don't, I solemnly swear it. I solemnly ask you, Elizabeth, to take me for your husband. "
While Bruce said these words, he rose, with their rising passion, and came and stood before Lizzie. Again she was motionless.
"Does it take you so long to think?" said he, trying to read her indistinct features; and he sat down on the sofa beside her and took her hand.
At last Lizzie spoke.
"Are you sure," said she," that you love me?"
"As sure as that I breathe. Now, Elizabeth, make me as sure that I am loved in return. "
"It seems very strange, Mr. Bruce," said Lizzie.
"What seems strange? Why should it? For a month I 've been trying, in a hundred dumb ways, to make it plain; and now, when I swear it, it only seems strange!"
"What do you love me for?"
"For? For yourself, Elizabeth. "
"Myself? I am nothing. "
"I love you for what you are, -- for your deep, kind heart, -- for being so perfectly a woman. "
Lizzie drew away her hand, and her lover rose and stood before her again. But now she looked up into his face, questioning when she should have answered, drinking strength from his entreaties for her replies. There he stood before her, in the glow of the firelight, in all his gentlemanhood, for her to accept or reject. She slowly rose and gave him the hand she had withdrawn.
"Mr. Bruce, I shall be very proud to love you," she said.
And then, as if this effort was beyond her strength, she half staggered back to the sofa again. And still holding her hand, he sat down beside her. And there they were still sitting when they heard the Doctor and his sister come in.
For three days Elizabeth saw nothing of Mr. Mackenzie. At last, on the fourth day, passing his office in the village, she went in and asked for him. He came out of his little back parlor with his mouth full and a beaming face.
"Good-day, Miss Crowe, and good news!"
"Good news?" cried Lizzie.
"Capital!" said he, looking hard at her, while he put on his spectacles. " She writes that Mr. John -- won't you take a seat? -- has taken a sudden and unexpected turn for the better. Now's the moment to save him; it 's an equal risk. They were to start for the North the second day after date. The surgeon comes with them. So they'll be home -- of course they 'll travel slowly -- in four or five days. Yes, Miss, it 's a remarkable Providence. And that noble young man will be spared to the country, and to those who love him, as I do. "
"I had better go back to the house and have it got ready," said Lizzie, for an answer.
"Yes, Miss, I think you had. In fact, Mrs. Ford made that request. "
The request was obeyed. That same day Lizzie went home. For two days she found it her interest to overlook, assiduously, a general sweeping, scrubbing, and provisioning. She allowed herself no idle moment until bed-time. Then -- But I would rather not be the chamberlain of her agony. It was the easier to work, as Mr. Bruce had gone to Leatherborough on business.
On the fourth evening, at twilight, John Ford was borne up to the door on his stretcher, with his mother stalking beside him in rigid grief, and kind, silent friends pressing about with helping hands.
"Home they brought her warrior dead, She nor swooned nor uttered cry. "
It was, indeed, almost a question, whether Jack was not dead. Death is not thinner, paler, stiller. Lizzie moved about like one in a dream. Of course, when there are so many sympathetic friends, a man's family has nothing to do, -- except exercise a little self-control. The women huddled Mrs. Ford to bed; rest was imperative; she was killing herself. And it was significant of her weakness that she did not resent this advice. In greeting her, Lizzie felt as if she were embracing the stone image on the top of a sepulchre. She, too, had her cares anticipated. Good Doctor Cooper and his sister stationed themselves at the young man's couch.
The Doctor prophesied wondrous things of the change of climate; he was certain of a recovery. Lizzie found herself very shortly dealt with as an obstacle to this consummation. Access to John was prohibited. "Perfect stillness, you know, my dear," whispered Miss Cooper, opening his chamber-door on a crack, in a pair of very creaking shoes. So for the first evening that her old friend was at home Lizzie caught but a glimpse of his pale, senseless face, as she hovered outside the long train of his attendants. If we may suppose any of these kind people to have had eyes for aught but the sufferer, we may be sure that they saw another visage equally sad and white. The sufferer? It was hardly Jack, after all.
When Lizzie was turned from Jack's door, she took a covering from a heap of draperies that had been hurriedly tossed down in the hall: it was an old army-blanket. She wrapped it round her, and went out on the verandah. It was nine o'clock; but the darkness was filled with light. A great wanton wind -- the ghost of the raw blast which travels by day -- had arisen, bearing long, soft gusts of inland spring. Scattered clouds were hurrying across the white sky. The bright moon, careering in their midst, seemed to have wandered forth in frantic quest of the hidden stars.
Lizzie nestled her head in the blanket, and sat down on the steps. A strange earthy smell lingered in that faded old rug, and with it a faint perfume of tobacco. Instantly the young girl's senses were transported as they had never been before to those far-off Southern battle-fields. She saw men lying in swamps, puffing their kindly pipes, drawing their blankets closer, canopied with the same luminous dusk that shone down upon her comfortable weakness. Her mind wandered amid these scenes till recalled to the present by the swinging of the garden-gate. She heard a firm, well-known tread crunching the gravel. Mr. Bruce came up the path. As he drew near the steps, Lizzie arose. The blanket fell back from her head, and Bruce started at recognizing her.
"Hullo! You, Elizabeth? What's the matter?"
Lizzie made no answer.
"Are you one of Mr. Ford's watchers? "he continued, coming up the steps; "how is he?"
Still she was silent. Bruce put out his hands to take hers, and bent forward as if to kiss her. She half shook him off, and retreated toward the door.
"Good heavens!" cried Bruce; "what 's the matter? Are you moonstruck? Can't you speak?"
"No, -- no, -- not to - night," said Lizzie, in a choking voice. "Go away, -- go away!"
She stood holding the door-handle, and motioning him off. He hesitated a moment, and then advanced. She opened the door rapidly, and went in. He heard her lock it. He stood looking at it stupidly for some time, and then slowly turned round and walked down the steps.
The next morning Lizzie arose with the early dawn, and came down stairs. She went into the room where Jack lay, and gently opened the door. Miss Cooper was dozing in her chair. Lizzie crossed the threshold, and stole up to the bed. Poor Ford lay peacefully sleeping. There was his old face, after all, -- his strong, honest features refined, but not weakened, by pain. Lizzie softly drew up a low chair, and sat down beside him. She gazed into his face, -- the dear and honored face into which she had so often gazed in health. It was strangely handsomer: body stood for less. It seemed to Lizzie, that, as the fabric of her lover's soul was more clearly revealed, -- the veil of the temple rent wellnigh in twain, -- she could read the justification of all her old worship. One of Jack's hands lay outside the sheets, -- those strong, supple fingers, once so cunning in workmanship, so frank in friendship, now thinner and whiter than her own. After looking at it for some time, Lizzie gently grasped it. Jack slowly opened his eyes. Lizzie's heart began to throb; it was as if the stillness of the sanctuary had given a sign. At first there was no recognition in the young man's gaze. Then the dull pupils began visibly to brighten. There came to his lips the commencement of that strange moribund smile which seems so ineffably satirical of the things of this world. O imposing spectacle of death! O blessed soul, marked for promotion! What earthly favor is like thine? Lizzie sank down on her knees, and, still clasping John's hand, bent closer over him.
"Jack, -- dear, dear Jack," she whispered," do you know me?"
The smile grew more intense. The poor fellow drew out his other hand, and slowly, feebly placed it on Lizzie's head, stroking down her hair with his fingers.
"Yes, yes," she murmured; "you know me, don't you? I am Lizzie, Jack. Don't you remember Lizzie?"
Ford moved his lips inaudibly, and went on patting her head.
"This is home, you know," said Lizzie; " this is Glenham. You have n't forgotten Glenham? You are with your mottler and me and your friends. Dear, darling Jack!"
Still he went on, stroking her head; and his feeble lips tried to emit some sound. Lizzie laid her head down on the pillow beside his own, and still his hand lingered caressingly on her hair.
"Yes, you know me," she pursued; "you are with your friends now forever, -- with those who will love and take care of you, oh, forever!"
"I 'm very badly wounded," murmured Jack, close to her ear.
"Yes, yes, my dear boy, but your wounds are healing. I will love you and nurse you forever. "
"Yes, Lizzie, our old promise," said Jack: and his hand fell upon her neck, and with its feeble pressure he drew her closer, and she wet his face with her tears.
Then Miss Cooper, awakening, rose and drew Lizzie away.
"I am sure you excite him, my dear. It is best he should have none of his family near him, -- persons with whom he has associations, you know. "
Here the Doctor was heard gently tapping on the window, and Lizzie went round to the door to admit him.
She did not see Jack again all day. Two or three times she ventured into the room, but she was banished by a frown, or a finger raised to the lips. She waylaid the Doctor frequently. He was blithe and cheerful, certain of Jack's recovery. This good man used to exhibit as much moral elation at the prospect of a cure as an orthodox believer at that of a new convert: it was one more body gained from the Devil. He assured Lizzie that the chance of scene and climate had already begun to tell: the fever was lessening, the worst symptoms disappearing. He answered Lizzie's reiterated desire to do something by directions to keep the house quiet and the sick-room empty.
Soon after breakfast, Miss Dawes, a neighbor, came in to relieve Miss Cooper, and this indefatigable lady transferred her attention to Mrs. Ford. Action was forbidden her. Miss Cooper was delighted for once to be able to lay down the law to her vigorous neighbor, of whose fine judgment she had always stood in awe. Having bullied Mrs. Ford into taking her breakfast in the little sitting-room, she closed the doors, and prepared for "a good long talk." Lizzie was careful not to break in upon this interview. She had bidden her patroness good morning, asked after her health, and received one of her temperate osculations. As she passed the invalid's door, Doctor Cooper came out and asked her to go and look for a certain roll of bandages, in Mr. John's trunk, which had been carried into another room. Lizzie hastened to perform this task. In fumbling through the contents of the trunk, she came across a packet of letters in a well-known feminine hand-writing. She pocketed it, and, after disposing of the bandages, went to her own room, locked the door, and sat down examine the letters. Between reading and thinking and sighing and (in spite of herself) smiling, this process took the whole morning. As she came down to dinner, she encountered Mrs. Ford and Miss Cooper, emerging from the sitting-room, the good long talk being only just concluded.
"How do you feel, Ma'am?" she asked of the elder lady, -- "rested?"
For all answer Mrs. Ford gave a look -- I had almost said a scowl -- so hard, so cold, so reproachful, that Lizzie was transfixed. But suddenly its sickening meaning was revealed to her. She turned to Miss Cooper, who stood pale and fluttering beside the mistress, her everlasting smile glazed over with a piteous, deprecating glance; and I fear her eyes flashed out the same message of angry scorn they had just received. These telegraphic operations are very rapid. The ladies hardly halted: the next moment found them seated at the dinner-table with Miss Cooper scrutinizing her napkin-mark and Mrs. Ford saying grace.
Dinner was eaten in silence. When it was over, Lizzie returned to her own room. Miss Cooper went loomed and Mrs. Ford went to her son. Lizzie heard the firm low click of the lock as she closed the door. Why did she lock it? There was something fatal in the silence that followed. The plot of her little tragedy thickened. Be it so: she would act her part with the rest. For the second time in her experience, her mind was lightened by the intervention of Mrs. Ford. Before the scorn of her own conscience, (which never came,) before Jack's deepest reproach, she was ready to bow down, -- but not before that long-faced Nemesis in black silk. The leaven of resentment began to work. She leaned back in her chair, and folded her arms, brave to await results. But before long she fell asleep. She was aroused by a knock at her chamber-door. The afternoon was far gone. Miss Dawes stood without.
"Elizabeth, Mr. John wants very much to see you, with his love. Come down very gently: his mother is lying down. Will you sit with him while I take my dinner? -- Better? Yes, ever so much. "
Lizzie betook herself with trembling haste to Jack' s bedside.
He was propped up with pillows. His pale cheeks were slightly flushed. His eyes were bright. He raised himself, and, for such feeble arms, gave Lizzie a long, strong embrace.
"I 've not seen you all day, Lizzie," said he. " Where have you been?"
"Dear Jack, they would n't let me come near you. I begged and prayed. And I wanted so to go to you in the army; but I could n't. I wish, I wish I had!"
"You would n't have liked it, Lizzie. I 'm glad you did n't. It's a bad, bad place. "
He lay quietly, holding her hands and gazing at her.
"Can I do anything for you, dear?" asked the young girl. "I would work my life out. I 'm so glad you're better!"
It was some time before Jack answered, --
"Lizzie," said he, at last," I sent for you to look at you. -- You are more wondrously beautiful than ever. Your hair is brown, -- like -- like nothing; your eyes are blue; your neck is white. Well, well!"
He lay perfectly motionless, but for his eyes. They wandered over her with a kind of peaceful glee, like sunbeams playing on a statue. Poor Ford lay, indeed, not unlike an old wounded Greek, who at falling dusk has crawled into a temple to die, steeping the last dull interval in idle admiration of sculptured Artemis.
"Ah, Lizzie, this is already heaven! "he murmured.
"It will be heaven when you get well," whispered Lizzie.
He smiled into her eyes: --
"You say more than you mean. There should be perfect truth between us. Dear Lizzie, I am not going to get well. They are all very much mistaken. I am going to die. I 've done my work. Death makes up for everything. My great pain is in leaving you. But you, too, will die one of these days; remember that. In all pain and sorrow, remember that. "
Lizzie was able to reply only by the tightening grasp of her hands.
"But there is something more," pursued Jack. "Life is as good as death. Your heart has found its true keeper; so we shall all three be happy. Tell him I bless him and honor him. Tell him God, too, blesses him. Shake hands with him for me," said Jack, feebly moving his pale fingers. "My mother," he went on, -- "be very kind to her. She will have great grief, but she will not die of it. She 'll live to great age. Now, Lizzie, I can't talk any more; I wanted to say farewell. You 'll keep me farewell, -- you 'll stay with me awhile, -- won't you? I 'll look at you till the last. For a little while you 'll be mine, holding my hands -- so -- until death parts us. "
Jack kept his promise. His eyes were fi. xed in a firm gaze long after the sense had left them.
In the early dawn of the next day, Elizabeth left her sleepless bed, opened the window, and looked out on the wide prospect, still cool and dim with departing night. It offered freshness and peace to her hot head and restless heart. She dressed herself hastily, crept down stairs, passed the death-chamber, and stole out of the quiet house. She turned away from the still sleeping village and walked towards the open country. She went a long way without knowing it. The sun had risen high when she bethought herself to turn. As she came back along the brightening highway, and drew near home, she saw a tall figure standing beneath the budding trees of the garden, hesitating, apparently, whether to open the gate. Lizzie came upon him almost before he had seen her. Bruce's first movement was to put out his hands, as any lover might; but as Lizzie raised her veil, he dropped them.
"Yes, Mr. Bruce," said Lizzie," I 'll give you my hand once more, -- in farewell. "
"Elizabeth!" cried Bruce, half stupefied," in God's name, what do you mean by these crazy speeches?"
"I mean well. I mean kindly and humanely to you. And I mean justice to my old -- old love. "
She went to him, took his listless hand, without looking into his wild, smitten face, shook it passionately, and then, wrenching her own from his grasp, opened the gate and let it swing behind her.
"No! no! no!" she almost shrieked, turning about in the path. " I forbid you to follow me!"
But for all that, he went in.