“ THE leaves of the second autumn were half-shrivelled in drawing near to the winter of their age.
“ I had been to see your mother. She was ill. Mary’s death was slowly, surely bringing her own near. We had had a long talk that afternoon. Her visions of life were rare and beautiful. She was like Mrs. Wilton, the embodiment of all that is purely woman. She had wrought a solemn spell over me,—made Eternity seem near. I had been changed since that prayer on the sea-shore, fourteen months before, but now I felt a longing to go away. Earth seemed so drear,—mother was sick, — Abraham unhappy, — my father deep in the perplexing cares of his profession, mostly from home, — Mrs. Percival was dying,— the year was passing away,— and I, too, would be going ; and as I went out of the house to go home, I remembered the day wherein I had waited in the viny arbor for Mary to awaken from sleep, how I had gone down to the sea to waken myself to a light that burned before it blessed. Since then I had avoided the place, barred with so many prison-wires. Now I felt a longing to go into it. The leaves were frost-bitten. I sympathized with them. Autumn winds went sighing over their misfortunes; spirit-winds blew past me, on their way to and from the land that is and the land that is not to us. The arbor was dear with a newborn love. I went out to greet it, as one might greet a ship sailing the same great ocean, though bound to a different port. There was a something in that old vine-clad arbor that was in me. I felt its shadows coming out to meet me. They chilled a little, but I went in. I looked at the little white office, across the yard, in the corner. I thought of the face that came out that day to see me, — the face that drank up my heart in one long draught, begun across Alice dead, finished when I read that letter. The cup of my heart was empty,—so empty now ! I looked down into it ; it was fringed with stalactites, crystallized from the poison of the glass. Oh ! what did I see there ? A dead, dead crater, aching for the very fire that made it what it was, crying out of its fierce void for fiery fusion. Why did our God make us so, — us, who love, knowing we should not ? I knew from the beginning that Bernard McKey ought not to be cared for by me ; but could I help it ? Now the veil of death, I believed, hung between, and the cup of my heart might be embalmed : the last change, I thought, had come to it, and left it as I that day found.
“ Chloe came around the corner, throwing her apron over her head. She looked up and down the way, as if in search of some one, went down the walk to the gate, looked as I had once seen her do at our house, taking it window by window, and finding no one, (the day seemed deserted,) she was walking back. I called to her from the arbor.
“‘I was just looking for you, Miss Lottie. I’ve got a letter here. Mistress is too sick to read it for me, and Master ’s away. Would you ? ’
“It was addressed to Chloe. I broke the seal and opened it. It seemed a long letter. I gave a sigh at the task before me, and looked over to the end. I saw the signature : it was Bernard H. McKey. After that I saw Chloe’s troubled black face written on my vision, and felt dripping drops about my head.
“ ' There, Miss Lettie, it’s all over, now. I’s so glad you ’re come to! I won’t bother you with reading any more letters. It would have to be much good in it that ’ud pay me for seeing you so.’
“ I was sitting in the arbor a little later, alone, reading the letter. Through the rending of the cup dew stole in ; the mist was stifling. Still't was better than the death that reigned before. The contents of my life were not poured out beyond the earth. The thought gave me comfort. It is so sad to feel the great gate shut down across the flume of your heart! to have the stilled waters set back, never more to join those that have escaped, gone on, to turn the wheel of Eternity ! In that hour it was joy enough for me to know that he lived, even if the life was for another. I, too, had my bright portion in it.
“ Chloe came back. She had forgotten the letter, when she went in to Mrs. Percival. She said ‘faintin' must be good for me; she had n’t seen me look so fine in a many days.’
“ I told Chloe that the letter had been written to me, that it was not meant for her. At first she did not comprehend ; after that I felt sure that a perception of the truth dawned in her mind, she watched me so closely.
“ I carried my letter home. That night I compared the two, — the one Abraham had found (where I knew not, I never questioned him) with this. They bore no resemblance : but I remembered that two years make changes in all things ; they might have effected this. The signatures were unlike ; the latter contained the initial H. What if they were not written by the same person ? The question was too mighty for me. I was compelled to await the answer.
“ Bernard would be in Redleaf in November. He named the day, — appointed the place of meeting. It was the old tower in the church-yard. I had a fancy, as you have, for the dreary dimness there. As children, we made it our temple for all the worships childhood knows. The door had long been gone ; it was open to every one who chose to enter in. Before the coming of the day, I was in continual fear lest the new joy that had come into my life should trace itself visibly on my outward seeming. I took it in as the hungry do food, and tried to hide the sustenance it gave. I saw that my mother’s eyes were often upon me, — that she was trying to follow my joy to its source. One day, — it was the very one before his coming, — she came suddenly upon me when I was wrapt in my mantle of exquisite consciousness. I had gone down to the river: you know it runs at the foot of the place. Tired of stirring up dry, dead leaves, I leaned against a tree,—one arm was around it, — and with my eyes traversing the blue of the sky, on and on, in quick, constant, flashing journeys, like fixed heat-lightning, I suddenly became conscious of a blue upon the earth, orbed in my mother’s cool eyes. I don’t know how I came out of the sky. She said only, ‘ Your thoughts harmonize with the season’; but I knew she meant much more. It was long since she had wandered so far from the house; but of late she had had my joy to trace, — my mother, to whom I could not intrust, it, in all of whose nature it had no place, whose spirit mine was not formed to call out echoes from. The result of her walk to the river was a subsequent day of prostration and a nervous headache. All the morning of that November day I sat beside her in the darkened room. I bathed her head, until she said there was too much life in my hands, and sent for Abraham. Thus my time of release came.”
A quick, involuntary smile crossed Miss Axtell’s face at the memory of her first sight of Mr. McKey. I watched her now. She changed the style of her narration, taking it on quickly, in nervous periods, with electric pauses, which she did not fill as formerly.
“ We met in the tower, happily without discovery. I told him of my mother’s knowledge, showed him the notice of his (as I had thought) death.
“ ‘ It is my cousin,’ he said carelessly, — adding, with a sigh, ‘poor fellow! he was to have married soon.’
“I gave him the letter, the key of all my agony.
“ ‘ I remember when he wrote this,’ he went on, as carelessly as if his words had all been known to me. ‘ You did not see him, perhaps ; he was with me the first time I came to Redleaf, — was here the night he describes.’
“ It was so strange that he did not ask where I obtained the letter! but he did not. He gave me an epitome of his cousin’s life and death. The two were named after an uncle; each had received the baptismal sign ere it was known that the other received the name ; in after-time the Herbert was added to one.
“ We sat in the window of the tower all through the short November afternoon. We saw Chloe come into the church-yard; she came to take up some roses that had blossomed in summer beside Mary’s grave. We heard her knife moving about in the pebbly soil, and watched her going home. She was the only comer. In November, people never visit such places, save from necessity.
“ Mr. McKey and I had discovered the passage leading from church to tower. Mary was with us then. There was a romance in keeping the secret, poetry in the knowledge that we three were sole proprietors ; one was gone, — now it became only ours.
“ How came you to know of it ? ” she suddenly asked.
Questioned thus, I twined my story in with hers, she listening in a rapt way, peculiarly her own. I told her of my prisonment on the day of her visit. I confessed entirely, up to the point she had narrated. When I ended, she said, —
“ You have kept this secret twentyfive days ; mine has been mine eighteen years. Mr. McKey has wandered in the time over the world of civilization, coming here at every return, making only day-visits, wandering up and down familiar places, meeting people whom he knew, but who never saw him through his disguises. He met my mother twice ; even her quick eyes had no ray of suspicion in them.
“ Four years ago we went to Europe : father’s health demanded it. There, by accident, I met Mr. McKey. Fourteen years had so changed him from the medical student in Doctor Percival’s office, that, although without disguise, neither mother nor Abraham recognized him. It was in England that father died,— there that we met Mr. MeKey. It was he who, coming as a stranger, proved our best friend, whom mother and Abraham called Mr. Herbert. It was his hand lifted up for the last time my father’s head just before he died. It was he who went to and fro making all needful arrangements for father’s burial. At last we prepared to leave. He came to the steamer to say parting words. Mother and Abraham, with tearful eyes, thanking him for his past kindness, begged, should he ever come to America, a visit from him. When their farewells were ended, he looked around for me. I was standing apart from them ; the place where my feet then were is to-day fathoms deep under iceberg-soil : it was upon the Pacific’s deck. I wonder if just there where I then stood it is as cold as elsewhere,— if Ocean’s self hath power to congeal the vitality of spirit.”
Miss Axtell paused one moment, as if answering the question to herself. In that interval I remembered the face that only three weeks agone I had looked upon, over which Dead-Sea waves had beat in vain. After the pause, she went on : —
“ I gave Mr. McKey the farewell, silent of all words. A few moments later, and we were on our homeward way, leaving a friend and a grave in England.
“ After our coming home, an intense longing came to speak of Herbert,— to tell my proud mother to whom she was indebted for so many acts of kindly friendship; but often as I said, ‘I will,’ I yet did not. To-day I would wait for the morrow; on the morrow indecision came; and at last, when the intent was stronger than ever, when I had laid me down to sleep after an interview with Mr. McKey, solemnly promising Heaven that with the morning light I would confess all and leave the consequences with my God, in that night-time He sent forth His angel to gather in her spirit.”
Miss Axtell covered her face with the hands so long rigidly clasped about her precious package, and the very air that was in the room caught the thrill and quiver of her heart, strong to suffer, strong to love. When she again spoke, it was in low, murmurous tones.
“ I wanted my mother to know what God had permitted me to be to this man, his great anchor of clinging in all storms, — how, in loving him, I had been permitted to save him. Do you think it is good,” she asked, — “my story? It is n’t a story of what the world calls ' happy love ’; I don’t think I should find it happy even now. I have come to a solemn bridge in the journey of Time. I know it must be crossed,—only how? It is high; my head is dizzied by the very thought. It has none of the ordinary protective railings ; I must walk out alone, and—I cannot see the other end; it is too far, too misty. My mother’s face fills up all the way; it comes out to meet me, and I do not rightly hear what she says, for my ears are filled with the roar of the life-current. that frets over rocks below. I try to stay it while I listen ; it only floods the way. There is time given me ; there is no immediate cause for action : for this I am thankful. Mr. McKey left me at the tower on the day you heard us there. He is a surgeon in the naval service. His ship sailed last week on a three years’ voyage. I shall have time to think, to decide what I ought to do ; perhaps the roar will cease, and I shall hear what my mother tries to say.
“ I have one great thought of torment. Abraham, what if he should die, too,—die without knowing ? that I could not bear ”; and the face, still looking toward Zoar, lifted up itself from the little City of Refuge, and looked into the face of Anna Percival. “ Poor Abraham ! ” she said, “ he has suffered, perhaps even more than I. He will hear you. Will you tell him this for me ? Tell him all; and when you tell how Mary came to die, give him this,” — and she handed to me the very package I had twice journeyed with, — “ it will prove to him the truth of what I say.”
I hesitated to take that which she proffered.
“ You must not disappoint me,” she said. “ I have spent happy hours since you went away, in the belief that Providence sent you here to me in the greatness of my need. I cannot tell Abraham ; I could not bear the joy that will, that must come, when he lays down the burden of his crime, — for, oh ! it will be at the feet of Bernard McKey. You will not refuse me this?” she pleaded.
Anna Percival, in the silence of that upper room where so much of life had come to her, sat at Miss Axtell’s side, and thought of the dream that came one Sunday morning to her, sleeping, and out of the memory of it came tolling down to her heart the words then spoken, and, taught by them, she answered Miss Axtell’s pleading by an “ I will.”
“Good little comfort-giver ! ” Miss Lettie said; and she left the package, containing the precious jewel, in my hands.
Bewildered by the story, filled with sorrow for sufferers passed away from the great, suffering earth, aching for those that still were in the void of misery, I arose to go. “ It was near to mid-day; Aaron and Sophie would wait dinner for me,” I said to Miss Lettie’s pleading for another hour. Ere I went, the conventionalities that signalled our meeting were repeated, and, wrapped in the web and woof Miss Axtell had woven, I went down the staircase and through the wide hall and out of the solemn old house, wondering if ever again Anna Percival would cross its entrance-porch. Kino heard the noise of the closing of the door, and came around the corner to see who it might be. I stayed a moment to say a few comforting words to the dog. Kino saw me safely outside of the gate by way of gratitude. I walked on toward the parsonage.
Redleaf seemed very silent, almost deserted. I met none of the villagers in my homeward walk. “It will be ten minutes yet ere Sophie and Aaron will, waiting, say, ‘I wonder why Anna does not come,’ ” I thought, as I drew near, and my fingers held the tower-key. I had not been there since the Sunday morning memorable to me through all coming time. I lifted the fastening to the church-yard, and went in. My sister Mary lay in this church-yard now. I had until this day known only sister Sophie, and in my heart I thanked Miss Axtell for her story. I went in to look at Mary’s grave. A sweet perfume filled the inclosure ; it came to me through the branching evergreens ; it was from Mary’s grave, covered with the pale pink flowers of the trailing-arbutus. I knew that Abraham Axtell had brought them hither. I gathered one, the least of the precious fragments, I knew that Mary, out of heaven seeing me, would call it no sacrilege, and with it went to my tower.
Spring fingers had gathered up the leaves of snow, winter’s growth, from in among the crevices of stone. I noticed this as I went in. The great stone was over the passage-opening, just where Mr. Axtell had dropped it, lest Aaron should see. Something said to me that my love for the tower was gone, that never more would I care to come to it; and I think the voice was speaking truly, everything did seem so changed. The time moss was only common moss to me, the old rocks might be a part of any mountain now. I had caught up all the romance, all the poetry, which is mystery, of the tower, and henceforth I might leave it to stand guard over the shore of the Sea of Death, white with marble foam. I went up to the very window whence I had taken the brown plaid bit of woman’s wear. I looked out from where I had seen the dying day go down. I heard the sound, from the open door of the parsonage, of Sophie’s voice, humming of contentment; I saw the little lady come and look down the village-street for me; I saw her part those bands of softly purplish hair, with fingers idly waiting the while she stood looking for me. I looked up at the window, down at the floor, down through the winding way of stair, where once I had trembling gone, and, with a farewell softly spoken, I left my churchyard tower with open door and key in the lock. Henceforth it was not mine. I left it with the hope that some other loving soul would take up my devotion, and wait and watch as I had done.
Aaron chanced at dinner-time to let fall his eyes on the door, swinging in the wind. Turning, he looked at me. I, divining the questioning intent of his eyes, answered,—
“ It is I, Aaron. I ’ve left the key in the door. I resign ownership of the tower.”
The grave minister looked pleased. Sophie said, —
“ Oh, I am so glad, you are growing rational, Anna ! ” — and Anna Percival did not tell these two that she had emptied the tower of all its mystery, and thrown the cup afloat on the future.
Aaron and Sophie were doomed to wonder why I came to Redleaf. Sophie begged my longer stay; Aaron thought, with his direct, practical way of looking at all things, save Sophie, that I “ had better not have come at all, if only to Stay during the day-journey of the sun.”
The stars were there to see, when I bade good-bye to Chloe at the parsonage, and went forth burdened with many messages for Jeffy. Aaron and Sophie went with me to the place of landing. It was past Miss Axtell’s house. Only one light was visible ; that shone from Miss Lottie’s room. Aaron said, —
“ I saw Mr. Axtell this morning. He was going across the country, he said.”
No one asked him “ Where ? ” and he said no more.
We were late at the steamboat. I had just time to bid a hasty farewell, and hear a plank-man say, “Better hurry, Miss, if you ’re going on,” and in another minute I was at sea.
I had so much to think of, I knew it would be impossible for sleep to come to me; and so I went on deck to watch the twinkling lights of Redleaf and the stars up above, whilst my busy brain should plan a way to keep my promise to Miss Axtell. I could not break up her fancied security; I could not deprive her of the “ time to think ” before crossing the great bridge, by telling her of the stranger sick in Doctor Percival’s house, and so I let her dream on. It might be many weeks, nay, months, ere Mr. McKey would recover, hence there was no need that she should know ; by that time she would be quite strong again.
Once on deck, and well wrapped from the March sea-breeze, blowing its latest breath over the sea, I took a seat near a large party who seemed lovers of the ocean, they sat so quietly and so long.
My face was turned away from all on deck. I heard footsteps going, coming, to and fro, until these steps came into my reverie. I wished to turn and see the owner, but, fearing that the charm would vanish, I kept my eyes steadily seaward. I scarcely know the time, it may have been an hour, that thus I had sat, when once again the footsteps drew near. The owner paused an instant in passing me. I fancied some zephyr of emotion made his footsteps falter a little. Nothing more came. He walked, as before, and once, when I was certain that all the deck lay between my eyes and him who so often had drawn near, I turned to look. I saw only a gentleman far down the boat, wrapped in an ordinary travelling-shawl. Neither form nor walk was, I thought, familiar, and I lost my interest.
I began to dream of other things,— of the going home, and should I find Mr. McKey improved during my absence ? The party near me began to talk ; it was pleasant to hear soft home words spoken by them, — it gave me, alone as I was, a sense of protection.
When the owner of the footsteps again came near, I scarcely noticed it.
I had reason to do so a moment later. Instead of going straight on, as before, the gentleman stopped an instant,— then, with a strong gesture of excitement, stepped quite near to me, and saying hurriedly, as one does in sudden emergencies, “ I beg your pardon, Madam,” he bent to look at the railing of the guard, just beside me. It so happened that a boat-light illumined a little space just there, and that within it lay a hand whose glove I had a few moments before removed, to put back some stray hairs the sea-breeze had brought from their proper place. No sooner did I divine his intent than I took my hand from off the railing. The gentleman looked up suddenly ; he was quite near then, and no more light than that the stars gave was needful for me. I saw Mr. Axtell, and Mr. Axtell must have seen Miss Percival, for he said, —
“ This is a great surprise. I did not hear of your being in Redleaf, Miss Anna.”
“ Why should you, when I have only been there one day ? ”
“ Did you see my sister ? ” he asked.
“ I was with her during the morning,” I said.
“ And she was as usual ? ”
“ Better, I thought.”
“ I trust so, for I have not been home since morning. I received a letter, as I came through the village, from your father, desiring to see me, and I had time only to send a message to Lettie. I hope Doctor Percival is well ? ”
“Oh, yes, — else I should not be here.”
I had gloved my hand again during these words of recognition. Mr. Axtell noticed it, and asked to see a ring that had attracted his attention.
“ Excuse me,” I said, — “ it is one of my father’s gifts to me,—I cannot take it off,—it is a simple ring, Mr. Axtell ” ; and I held it out for him to see.
“ I knew it! ” he exclaimed ; “ there could not be two alike ; years have not changed its lustre. Mary wore it first on the day we were engaged.”
“ Was it your gift to her, Mr. Axtell ? ”
He answered, “ Yes ” ; and I, drawing it off, handed it to him, saying, “It should have been returned to you long ago.”
“ No, no,” he said, quite solemnly,
“ it is in better keeping ”; and he took the tiny circlet of gold, and looked a moment at it, with its shining cluster of brilliants, then gave it back to me.
“ Have you no claim upon this ? ” I asked.
“ On the ring ? Oh, no, — none.”
I put back with gladness the gift my father gave.
My time had come. The opportunity was most mysteriously given me to redeem the promise made in the morning to Miss Lettie. I began, quite timidly at first, to say that I had a message for Mr. Axtell, one from his sister, — that I was to tell him of events whose occurrence he never knew. He listened quietly, and I went on, commencing at the afternoon of my imprisonment in the tower. I told every word that I had heard from Miss Axtell, — no more, I trembled, it is true, when I came to the death of Alice, and the new life that came to his elder sister. I came at last to Mary. I told it all, the night when he came home, the very words he had spoken to his sister I repeated in his ears, and he was quiet, with a quietness Axtells know. I took out the package and opened it, saying,—
“ Your sister bade me give this to you.”
The careful folds were unwrapped, and within a box lay only a silver cup. Mr. Axtell took it into his hands, turned it to the light, and read on it the name of my sister. I said to him,—
“ Look on the inside.”
He did. It was the fatal cup from which Mary Percival drank the deathdrops. Poisonous crystals lay in its depth. I told him so. I told him how Bernard McKey, driven to despair, had made the fatal mistake.
I thought to have seen the sunlight of joy go up his face. I looked for the glance whose coming his sister so dreaded ; but it came not. My story gave no joy to this strange man. He asked a few questions only, tending to illumine points that my statement had left in uncertainty, and then, when my last words were said, he rose up, and, standing before me, very lowly pronounced these words: —
“ Until to-night, Abraham Axtell never knew the weight of his guilt. He must work out his punishment.”
“ How can you, Mr. Axtell ? Heaven hath appointed forgiveness for the repentant.”
“And freedom from punishment, Miss Percival, is that, too, promised ? ”
“ Strength to bear is freely offered in forgiveness.”
“ May it come to me ! In all God’s earth to-night there dwells not one more needy of Heaven’s mercy.”
“ Mary forgives you,” I said.
“ Bernard McKey, whom I have made most miserable, Lettie’s life-long suffering, is there any atonement that I can offer to them ? ”
“ Yes, Mr. Axtell ” ; and I, too, arose, for the party had gone whilst I was telling my story.
“ Will you name it ? ”
“ Give unto the two a brother’s love. Good night, Mr. Axtell.”
“ I will,” said a deep, solemn voice close beside me. I turned, and Mr. Axtell was gone. I heard footsteps all that night upon deck. They sounded like those that came and stood beside me hours before.
Day was scarcely breaking when we came to land in New York. I waited for the carriage to come from home. Mr, Axtell, was it he who came, with whitened hair, to ask for Miss Percival, to know if he could offer her any service ? What a night of agony he must have lived through ! He saw my look of astonishment, and said,—
“ It is but the beginning of my punishment.”
Ere I had answered Mr. Axtell’s question, my father appeared. He had come for me so early on this March morning,— or was it to meet Mr. Axtell? He said more, in words, to him than to his child. It was several years since my father had met Mr. Axtell, therefore he did not note the change last night had wrought. As I looked at him, during our homeward drive, I repented not having said words of comfort, not telling him that I believed Bernard McKey was at that hour in my father’s house; but I had not exceeded my instructions, by one word I had not gone beyond Miss Lettie’s story. Until Mr. McKey chose to reveal himself, he must exist as a stranger.
Jeffy reported the “ hospital man ” as “ behaving just like other people.” Jeffy evidently regretted, with all the intensity of his Ethiopian nature, the subsiding of the delirium.
Not long after our arrival home, father went, with Mr. Axtell, into his own room, where, with closed doors, the two remained through half the morning. What could my father have to say to the “incomprehensible man,” his daughter Anna asked herself; but no answer breathed through mahogany, as several times she passed near. All was silent in there to other ears than those inside.
At last I heard the door open, and footsteps along the hall. “ Surely,” I thought, “ they are going the way to Mr. McKey’s room.” I was right. They went in. What transpired in there I may never know, but this much was revealed to me : there came thence two faces whereon was written the loveliness of the mercy extended to erring man. My father looked, like all who feel intensely, older than he did in the morning, and yet withal happier. Mr. Axtell went away without seeing me. Father made apology for him by saying that it was important that he should return home immediately, and asked “could I make ready to receive some visitors the following day ? ”
“ Who, papa ? ” I asked.
“ Mr. Axtell and his sister.”
Mr. McKey was able that evening to cross the room, and sit beside the fire. I went in to inquire concerning his comfort. Papa was away. Mr. Axtell must have told him something of me, for I had not been long there, when he, turning his large, luminous eyes from the coals, into which he had been peering, said, —
“ Do you know the sweetness of reconciliation, young lady ? If not, get angry with some one immediately.”
“ I never had an enemy in my life, Mr. McKey,” I replied.
He started a little at the name, and only a little, and he questioned,—
“ Where did you learn the name you give to me ? ”
“From Miss Axtell, yesterday.”
Question and answer succeeded, until I had told him half the story that I knew. I might have said more, but father’s coming in interrupted me.
“ I expect our visitors by the dayboat,” papa said to me the day following. The carriage went for them. I watched its coming from afar down the street. I knew the expression of honest, Yest’s hat out of all the street-throng. The carriage came laden. I saw faces other than the Axtells’, even Aaron’s and Sophie’s.
What glad visitors they were, Aaron and Sophie ! and what a surprise to them to see Miss Axtell there ! I took off
her wrappings, drew an easy-chair, made her sit in it, and she actually looked quite comfortable, outside of the solemn old house. “ She had endured the journey well,” she said. Abraham was so anxious that she should come that she would not refuse his request. “ Abraham has forgiven me,” she whispered, as I bent over her to adjust some stray folds, — “ forgiven me for all my years of silent deceit.”
I shook my head a little at the word; speak I could not, for the minister’s wife was not deaf.
Aaron called her away a moment later.
“ It was deceit, Miss Percival,” Miss Axtell said, so soon as she found our two selves alone. “ I could not well avoid it; if I were tried again, I might repeat the sin : but, thank Heaven, two such trials never come into a single life. I sometimes wish Bernard were not at sea, that he were here to know my release and his forgiveness ; it will be so sweet to feel that no longer I have the sin to bear of concealing his wrong.”
I knew from this that Miss Axtell did not know of Mr. McKey’s presence in the house ; but she ought to know. What if a sound from his voice should chance to come down the passage-way, as I often had heard it ? I watched the doors painfully, to see that not one was left open a hair’s-breadth. until the time Miss Axtell went up to her own room. Talking rapidly, giving her no time to speak, I went on with her. Safely ignorant, I had her at last where ears of mortals could not intrude. Then I said, —
“ We all of us are become wonderful story-tellers. Now it comes to pass that I have a little story to tell ; my time is come at last”; and, watching every muscle of her face, and all the little veins of feeling that I had learned so well, I began.
Carefully I let in the light, until, without a shock, Miss Axtell learned that the room below contained Bernard McKey.
“ They did not understand me,” she said, “or they would not have brought me here thus.”
After a long, long lull, Miss Axtell thanked me for telling her alone, where no one else could see how the knowledge played around her heart. Dear Miss Axtell, sitting there, in my father’s house, only last March, with a holy joy stealing up, in spite of her endeavor to hide it from my eyes even, and suffusing her white face with warm, rosy tints, dear Miss Axtell, I hoped your day-dawn drawing near.
Miss Axtell said “she hated to have other people see her feel ” ; she asked “ would I manage it for her, that no one should be nigh when she met Mr. McKey ? ”
It was that very evening that papa, calling Sophie and me into his room, told us a little of the former history of the people in his house.
“ I want you to help me, children,” he said ; “ ladies manage such things better than we men know how to.”
I said, close to papa’s astonished hearing, “I know all about it; just let me take care of this mission ” ; and he appointed me diplomate on the occasion.
Sophie was strangely disconcerted; she had such fearsome awe of the Axtells, “she could n’t think of interfering,” she said, “ unless to make gruel or some condiment.”
I coaxed Miss Lettie to have her tea in her own room : she certainly did not look like going down. Under pretext of having the care of her, I seated sister Sophie at my station, and thus I had the house, outside of the tea-room, under my control.
“ Come down now ; don’t lose time,” I said to Miss Axtell, running up to her, half breathless from my haste.
“ What for ? What is it? ” she said.
“ Papa is anticipating some grand effort in the managerial line from me, regarding two people in his house, and I don’t choose to manage at all. Mr. McKey is waiting to see you. I knocked to see, as I came up, and all the family are at tea.”
I went down with her. There was no trembling, only a stately calm in her manner, as she drew near.
I knocked. Mr. McKey answered, “ Come in,” in his low, musical, variant tones. I turned the knob ; the door opened. A moment later, I stood alone within the hall. I walked up and down, a true sentinel on true duty, that no enemy might draw near to hear the treaty of true peace which I knew was being written out by the Recording Angel for these two souls. They must have had a pleasant family-talk in the tea-room, they stayed so long.
At last I heard footsteps coming. I told Miss Lettie, thinking that she would leave; but no, she said “ she would stay awhile”; and so, later on, the two were sitting there in quietness of joy, when my father came up to see his patient. Mr. Axtell was with him. They went in; indifferent words were spoken,—until, was it Abraham Axtell that I saw as I kept up my walking in the hall ? What mysterious change had come to transfigure his face so that I scarcely believed the evidence of my own eyes ? He came to the door and said, “ Will you come in. Miss Percival ? ” I obeyed his request. He closed the door, and turned the key.
“ In the presence of those against whom he had sinned he would confess his fault,” were his first words ; and he went on, he of whom they had asked a pardon, and drew a fiery picture of all that he had done, of the murder that he had doubly committed, for he had made another soul to bear his sin.
It was terrible to hear him accuse himself. It was touching to see this proud Axtell begging forgiveness. He offered the fatal cup to my father,—
“ Therein lies the evidence of my murder. It was I who killed your daughter, Doctor Percival. Although no court on earth condemns me, the Judge of all the Earth holds me responsible for her death.”
Doctor Percival tried to reason with him. said words of comfort, but he heeded them not : they might as well have fallen on the vacant air.
“ Blessings be upon you two ! if, out of suffering, God will send joy, it will be yours,” Mr. Axtell said : and he offered his hand to Mr. McKey and his sister, as one does when taking farewell.
He went from them to my father, and offered his hand doubtingly, as if afraid it might be refused.
Papa took it in both his own. An instant later Mr. Axtell came to me. Surely he had no forgiveness to ask of Anna Percival. No; he only said, and I am certain that no one heard, save me, “ I thank God that He has not let me shadow your life. Farewell! ”
He left the room. We all looked, one at another, in that dim astonishment which is never expressed in words. Papa broke the spell by putting on fresh coals.
Miss Lettie said, “ Poor Abraham ! ” and yet she looked so happy, so as I had never seen her yet!
A few moments later Jeffy came rushing in, his eyes dilate with amazement.
“ The gentleman is gone,” he said, “ gone entirely.”
It was even so. Mr. Axtell had gone, no one knew whither. It was late at night, when a letter came for Doctor Percival by a special messenger.
I never saw it. I only know that in it Mr. Axtell explained his intention of absence, and wrote, for his sister’s sake, to make arrangements for her future. She was to return to Redleaf, at such time as she chose to go hence, with Mr. McKey ; and to Aaron’s and Sophie’s care Mr. Axtell committed her.
Papa gave the letter to Miss Lettie. She read it in silence, and her face was immovable. I could divine nothing from it.
Last March! how long the time seems! Scarce six months have gone since I gave the record, and now the summer is dying.
I thought Miss Axtell would have ventured out on the bridge, far and high, ere now; but no, she says “the time is not yet, —that she will wait until Abraham comes home ” ; and Bernard McKey is content.
The solemn old house is closed. No longer Katie opens the door and Kino looks around the corner. Kino died, perhaps of grief: such deaths have been.
Miss Axtell has put off the old DeadSea-wave face. She has just put a calm, beautiful, happy one in at my door, to ask Anna Percival “why she sits and writes, when the last days of summer are drawing nigh?” Miss Axtell stays with me, and a great contentment sings to those who have ears to hear through all her life. If only Mr. Axtell would come home! Why does he stay away so long, and take such a dreary line of travel, where old earth is seamed in memoriam of man’s rebellion ? I ’ll send to him the althea-bud, when next his sister writes.
The leaves are fallen now. Winter is almost come. There is no need that I should send out the althea-fragment. Mr. Axtell wrote to me. Last night I received these words only, — and yet what need I more ?
“ God hath given me peace. I am coming home.”