ALAN CROSSAN, as Miss Sally said, was really devoted to his friend. There had been scarcely a day since Robert had come to the major’s that the doctor had not called to see him. “ And it’s so nice for Sidney and me,”Miss Sally asserted, in one of her long, pleasant talks with Mr. Steele. “To think, now, that he should have taught her to carve so beautifully ! But then Sidney could be taught anything. I’ve always said that.”
They were in the long parlor, which was only a little more dreary than usual, with the gray rain sweeping in under the dark roof of the porch against the front windows, and spattering down the chimney once in a while upon the fire. Except Miss Sally Lee’s kind face, the soft-coal fire was the only cheerful thing in the room; it burned with a dancing whirl of flames in an old-fashioned grate, which had an iron back wrought into the flaring rays of a broad-faced sun, and two brass balls on the hobs. On the high black mantelpiece stood an ormolu clock, with a dome-like glass shade to protect the figures of Iphigenia and Diana; it had not moved a gilt hand across its fretted face for years. Robert Steele watched it now vaguely, listening to the rain and to Miss Sally’s chatter. He was thinking of her rather than of what she said. She was so upon the outside of what was greatest to her, so ignored and unnoticed, and yet so true and good, that she stirred his pity and then his tenderness. When to tenderness he added gratitude, it is no wonder that the quiet little spinster was transformed in his eyes. " Yes, a noble woman, nobly planned,” he thought. Yet he did not finish the quotation ; he could not, despite his convictions, looking at the simple, gentle face, matter of fact and incapable of subtlety, with mild eyes under sleek brown hair, which she wore in old-fashioned bands over her ears. But though she might not warn or command, at least she comforted, because, he said to himself, she believed in him; he did not reflect that she believed in every one, even in Miss Sidney Lee, whose neglect of her aunt filled him with indignation. Nor did he realize that to be one’s self neglected will sometimes bias the judgment. With this thought of Sidney, he glanced, reluctantly, towards the portrait at the other end of the room : here was the same insolent sweetness, the same serene selfishness, the same charm which stung him into anger and, he said, dislike. Yet he still looked at the painting, with something beneath his anger, which he called content. It was so much better to be with Miss Sally, he thought, than to see that look in the face of Miss Sidney Lee.
“You are so much better,” he heard Miss Sally saying; “and when you are well, just think what good things you will do with that money.”Robert had made some dreary comment upon his money, and it was thus Miss Sally received it, following out a suggestion she had made some time before, but which she had taught Robert to feel had been his own.
“If the thirty pieces had come back to Judas,”he answered. “ do you think that the establishment of a lazaretto would have washed them clean ? ”
“ But it is not the same kind of thing,” said Miss Sally, with a little awe at the allusion, but much good sense; “ and it’s time for you to have your beef-tea, anyhow.”
“I think,”returned Robert, smiling at her with wistful eyes, “that your good opinion is better for me than beeftea.”
“ I’m afraid,” she said, with a gleam of fun (it was wonderful how, under kindly influences, she was developing a harmless gayety, which had never been called out when it might have better matched her years), — “ I ‘m afraid that you could n’t live up to the good opinion without the beef-tea.” She nodded and smiled, as she went to fetch it, with a small assumption of authority, and presently came back, balancing on her hands a tray on which was a frail blue bowl of soup and a glass of sherry.
“ How are you so wise in caring for people, Miss Sally ? ” Robert asked, watching her spread a little table at his side. “You know just what to do for everybody.”
“ Well, I am an old woman, you know,” she answered brightly. But it was strange how young she looked with the glow of the fire on her face, although there were some threads of gray in the knot of ringlets at the back of her head.
“ You are not old,” Robert protested loyally; but nevertheless he was astonished when she said she was but thirty-seven. “You are so wise,” he explained, with the simple candor which Miss Sally had been quick to appreciate, “so wise and kind, that I had thought you were more than thirty-seven. I am thirty-five, you know, and you are so much wiser than I am.”
Miss Sally blushed. “Oh, but indeed I am not at all clever. When I think how much Mortimer knows, and Sidney, I feel as if I really belonged in the kitchen with Susan. But you ? ” she added, with sudden constraint, — “ why, I thought you were Alan’s age.”
It was curious what an instant change of atmosphere this mutual knowledge caused. Miss Sally began to wonder if she had been quite polite in telling a man as old as Mr. Steele what he ought or ought not to do. She began to feel a little awe of him. Perhaps he had thought her forward ? Robert, too, was aware of a subtle difference. He became more assertive ; sympathy and confidence meant more from a woman of his own age than from one so much his senior as he had supposed Miss Sally to be. A friendship which holds a possibility within it is always attractive, whether the possibility is recognized or not. Robert, hearing at that moment Sidney’s voice in the hall, said to himself that while he was honored with Miss Sally’s friendship it made no difference whether Miss Sidney Lee ignored him or not. But he felt suddenly old and tired, as the room darkened with a sudden dash of rain against the windows, and Sidney and Alan entered.
As he looked up at them a surprising thought first presented itself to his mind. Perhaps it sprung from Sidney’s careless glance; but he did not stop to analyze it. His thoughts went back to the dull rooms in town, the empty days, the weight of undesired wealth ; and then — he was so far recovered — came the thrill of fear at the old bondage, but with it the thought of Miss Sally’s belief in him, and then — the possibility!
“ Steele,”Alan’s voice broke in,— Miss Sally had slipped away, “ to look after somebody’s comfort,”Robert was sure,— “ Steele, I have been telling Sidney about your charming cousin, Miss Townsend. I can’t persuade her to go to see her. She would teach you lots of things, Sidney ; even to read novels, perhaps. Bob, did you know Miss Sidney Lee scorned novels ?”
“ No, ’I don’t,” said the girl: “ only T do not read them, Alan. Is n’t it a little waste of time to read novels ? And Miss Townsend — if she is a teacher, I should think she might be positive, and ” —
“ And what, pray, are you?” cried Alan. “ No, really, she is delightful. I called on her last night, which is more than you ’ve done for a month, Bob. School-ma’am ? Not a bit of it! Simply a charming woman, though worldly and decidedly practical.”
Sidney smiled, with serious eyes. To hear him talk in this way gave her a curious feeling of being left out; she did not understand it. She did not answer him, but waited for him to go on, with that peculiar and silent graciousness which stirred Alan’s heart as an unseen and noiseless wind blows red coals into a flame.
“ She brought up a question which interested me,” Alan proceeded. “ I don’t know whether to call it ethics or taste. Bob, listen. You look half asleep. She had come across a sketch, or story, or something, — she said it was true, — about a man and his wife who came over in a steamer; I think it was that one which went down on the Newfoundland coast. Well, the man, it seems, was the sole support not only of his wife, but of his mother and his sisters. When the steamer began to sink, it was found that only a few could be saved ; so of course the women were to go first. But this fellow’s wife would n’t move. ‘ No’ she said. ‘ You ’ve got to be saved because of your mother and sisters.’ And the man — if you’d call him a man — actually did go off in the life-boat, and leave his wife to drown ! What do you think of that, Steele ? Your cousin told me of half a dozen people who upheld him. He saved his miserable life at the cost of his wife’s.”
“ I don’t see that he had any choice,” Robert answered.
“ Bob,” the doctor admonished him, “ I shall have to order you to bed, if you utter such sentiments ; it shows that you are not strong. Sidney, you are not going to agree with him ? ”
She shook her head. " I think they should have died together. They had a right to themselves. Why should the woman have insisted that her husband should live heart-broken all his days ? Oh, she was cruel! She didn’t really love him.”
“ Do you think that ? ” Robert asked, with that hesitation which always came into his voice when he spoke to Sidney.
“ I think she loved him divinely, because she wanted the highest thing for him; and what must have been his passion for duty that he could leave her ! ”
“ My dear fellow,” said Alan, “ the value of an effort is determined by its result, not by the nobility of motive which prompts it. You are both wrong ; he should have saved her and died himself. Here’s Miss Sally. What do you say, Miss Sally ? ” And then he told her the story.
“ I think they should both have put on life-preservers,” answered Miss Sally earnestly; at which they laughed at her, even Robert; yet there was a new consciousness in his heart as he did so, a sort of pity that she had not seen the deeper thing ; and with it that tenderness, without reason, which excuses and commends at the same time. The laughter, Sidney’s at least, made him resentful as well as tender.
Robert Steele, not yet strong, very pitiful, very grateful, was drifting gradually to a position where he should say, “She is so kind to me. I am so sorry for her. I will try to be worthy of her friendship. I — lovelier!” He sighted this point that rainy morning in December, though it was nearly two weeks later that he fairly rounded it, being then within three days of his departure from Major Lee’s house. His visit had prolonged itself far beyond Alan’s expectation ; indeed, it had been evident to the doctor ten days before that Robert had stayed as long as the most ardent hospitality might desire ; but such a thought had not occurred to the sick man. Miss Sally had assured him, when he protested at the trouble he gave, and said he must go away, that it was a pleasure to have him stay ; and Major Lee, courteous, indifferent, almost unconscious of the young man’s presence, but never forgetful of that forlorn, half-invalid life of which he had had a glimpse, said, too, “ Pray do not think of leaving us, sir.” So Robert had remained. He had, of course, no inkling of Mrs. Paul’s joy in this, as he had not seen her. She had fallen ill, “and when I have a cold in my head,” she announced to Miss Sally, “ I don’t go about making an object of myself.” It was for this reason, too, that the tea-party had been postponed, and that she did not know that John had gone away from home for a week; for it was not Mrs. Paul’s habit to receive her son in her bedroom, and no one cared to impart the information. Only Scarlett and Miss Sally were privileged to see the undress of their tyrant, and they found her more awful with her white hair drawn straight and tight away from her fierce eyes, and without the softness of lace about her neck and wrists, than in the dignity of her satin gowns.
She had taken cold the day of the sleet storm, — she remembered the date with angry exactness, — and the Lord only knew when she could be downstairs again, and able to ask the people to tea. Yet Mr. Steele’s lengthened stay was somewhat pacifying, and the first time that she was in the drawingroom again, and had had a talk with Sidney about him, she was really pleasant for the rest of the evening, even to Mr. Brown, when he called, as was his duty, to congratulate the richest member of his parish upon her recovery. But all the while that she was listening to him or giving advice (“ I never shrink from giving advice,” she had declared more than once, which, indeed, was strictly true), she was making many plans for Sidney and Robert Steele.
It was almost a pity, for it would have saved her much disappointment in the future, that she could not at that moment have seen Miss Sally and Robert Steele sitting by the fire in the yellow parlor. The major was in his library, where, as a matter of course. Sidney had joined him; so these two persons, no longer young, and therefore to be trusted, were alone.
It was a relief to Robert when Sidney left them. That wide, questioning look in her frank eyes always kindled in him a hot disgust with himself, and a desire to be soothed by Miss Sally’s gentle if ignorant approval. How well she understood his moods, he said to himself, as she fell into a pleasant silence. So long as he did not know that her thoughts were upon the failure of her beef stock to clear, his content could not he lessened. He sat in his usual attitude, his head resting on his hand, and his sad eyes watching the dancing shine of the flames. Miss Sally had drawn a bit of cambric from her green work-bag, and was softly stroking the gathers with her needle.
“ That is something for somebody, I am sure ?" Robert commented, looking at her.
She nodded pleasantly. “ Sidney does n’t like to sew,” she explained.
Robert Steele sighed. “ I suppose you I lave never known the feeling of self-reproach for neglect of any one you love? ” “ Why, I almost think,” said Miss Sally, “ that love means self-reproach. I don’t see how a person can ever be satisfied with what he does for any one he cares for.”
“Still, love always forgives love,” Robert answered, “ even for apparent neglect.” He was thinking of that last look in his mother’s face, when weakness and fear had silenced her reproaches, and she had — how Robert blessed her for it! — " forgiven ” him. Then his thoughts followed the story of his own miserable cowardice. “ It is your own forgiveness that it is hardest to get,” he said.
Miss Sally looked puzzled ; then, with a gleam of that good sense which seems an actual part of a somewhat foolish character, she said, “ But I think you forgive yourself when you make yourself worthy to be forgiven by somebody else ; not when they do forgive you, but when they ought to. Sometimes, it seems to me,” continued Miss Sally, who could not remember an injury over night, “that we pardon things too easily.”
Robert sighed. “ You are so kind, in spite of your justice. “ You have forgiven me.”
“ Oh, dear me, Mr. Steele,” protested Miss Sally, “ I did n’t mean — why, of course I was not talking about you ; you have done nothing which needs forgiveness ; you know what I think about that money.”
As for his remorse for his cowardice, it never entered Miss Sally’s mind. To tell the truth, she had been reproaching herself for not scolding Susan about the ruined beef stock, and wishing that she had been more strong-minded than to forgive her so quickly.
“ If I am ever anything in this world,” cried Robert, his face lighting with earnestness, “ it will be because you believe in me, Miss Sally ! ”
“ Oh, Mr. Steele,” she said humbly, “ don’t say that. God gives you the hope and strength. I only see it. I sometimes think that I can see such things, because I am a little on the outside of life, you know; and so perhaps I have more time to see what is good in other people.”
“ If you think that a man is good, it will make him so. He has got to live up to it,” Robert answered.
Miss Sally laughed. It was so strange and pleasant, this talking out her little thoughts.
“ If you believe in me,” he went on, " I will grow into something for your sake. I will build a better future on this miserable past, if you will show me how.” Miss Sally put her work down, startled by the earnestness in his voice. His eyes had a strained and hunted look in them, and his lips, under his soft brown beard, were pressed hard together. “ And you shall not be on the outside of anybody’s life; you shall he in mine, you shall make it!”
“I—I’ll help you all I can,” she said simply, but her voice trembled ; she did not, know why, but she was vaguely frightened ; she began to sew very fast, and looked towards the door, as though meditating flight.
“ I will be something in the world. Oh, care for me just a little, Miss Sally ! ”
“ I — I don’t understand,” she faltered, and then regained her presence of mind. “I’m sure we all like you, Mr. Steele.” But her hands shook, and the needle flashed in and out unsteadily.
“ Why, I ”—he paused, and put his hands over his face for an instant; he was saying to himself that it was for her sake that he was conquering his sin — “ I love you. You have been good to me, you have made me feel that there is hope for me yet, you have given me life — and I love you ! ”
Nothing could have been more honest than this declaration. No young man who has played the sighing lover for a year could, at that one instant of unrecognized pity and profound gratitude, have felt himself more truly in love than did Robert Steele now. How could he tell that his growing hold upon life was due not only to Miss Sally’s belief in him, but also to a firmer pulse and a, healthier circulation ? And how could the timid, trustful little spinster discriminate ? She had had no past experience with a man in love, with which to compare this scene ; she merely began to cry with all her might, stealthily wiping her eyes on the bit of cambric, and saying, “ Oh, why, my! You must n’t talk that way, Mr. Steele ! ”
Robert had risen, and stood beside her ; one nervous hand upon the back of her chair, and the other covering the hit of cambric and her trembling fingers, It would have been hard to say which trembled most. He had always seen her strong for him, and this weakness stirred him profoundly. “ Don’t you see ? I love you. I want you to love me, Miss Sally,”— he spoke as gently as to a sobbing child, — “ care for me, and for your sake I will try and be all you can desire.”
“ You’ve got to have your wine,” replied Miss Sally, with sudden determination and calmness. " I don’t know what I ’ve been thinking of to let you talk — so much.”
She thrust her sewing into the green bag in a resolute way, but her lips were unsteady, and the tears glittered upon her lashes.
“ Just say one word,” he pleaded. His own earnestness was like wine to him. “ Love me, and I 11 he worthy of you.”
“1 — I must think,” she said. So many things came rushing into her mind : assured comfort for Sidney and the major ; some one who would care for her ; a happiness of her own, which might show Sidney many things. All this without the slightest thought of love itself. “ I must think ! ” she repeated, and, without waiting to hear his entreaty, she slipped out into the hall and up to the darkness of her bedroom. Her face burned and throbbed, and she put her hands up to her throat, as though she could not breathe ; a little quivering sob parted her lips. She made haste to light her lamp, for the reserve of darkness was not a comfort to Miss Sally. When she sat down on the edge of her high bed, and tried to compose herself ; but her breath was hurried, and her eyes blurred once or twice with half-frightened tears.
“ I must really,”said Miss Sally to herself, — “I must really take some pellets. I am — I am agitated.” A small chest, holding many little vials, stood on the straight-legged dressing-table. Miss Sally lifted the lid and regarded the contents critically. " What would be best ?" she pondered, and was not satisfied until she had opened her Domestic Physician, and, glancing down the list of emotions of the mind, learned that fear, excessive joy, violent anger, and unhappy love might be benefited by — and then a list of names. Miss Sally did not pause to classify her emotion. Ignatia was advised for three of the four conditions, so it was the safest thing to try. Five little white pills were counted carefully into one shaking palm, and then placed upon her tongue, while she stood, the bottle in her hand, waiting for their effect. A moment later she went over to her bedside, and, kneeling, buried her face in her hands. She was ashamed that she had not thought of this before. The small pills had no doubt calmed her mind enough for faith. She prayed with all her simple heart for wisdom, then looked up to see that the lamp was not smoking, and prayed again.
It must have been nearly three hours later, when the house had fallen into the sleepy silence of night, that Sidney, sitting by the old hour-glass table in her bedroom, her smooth forehead frowning over some accounts the major had begged her to settle for him, heard a hesitating knock at her door, and Miss Sally entered.
The bare and lofty room was full of shadows, except for the spot of light in which the young woman sat, so, glancing up in a preoccupied way, she did not see that Miss Sally’s eyes were red and her mouth tremulous. Miss Sally’s gray flannel dressing-gown was short and scanty, and when she knelt by the hearth and stirred the fire she shivered a little.
“ It is cold in here, Sidney,”she said. “ Is it ? ” the girl answered tranquilly. With the soft color in her cheek and the swift, warm youth in every vein, how could Sidney know that the little drowsy fire in the wide black fireplace quite failed to heat the big room? There were many draughts in Sidney’s bedroom, which had windows on two sides, and sagging doorsills, and a great chimney, and the room was cold, — so cold that on the small fan-lights which capped the windows there was a faint cross-hatching of frost, and when the moon looked in upon Sidney, adding the columns of figures, these wonderful lines and feathers sparkled as though a diamond had been shivered against the glass. A path of moonlight lay across the floor, and touched the pillows and the white canopy of the bed. It glimmered on the brass knobs of the dressing-table, and spread a film of silver upon the oval mirror balanced on the chest of drawers. It showed, too, Miss Sally crouched upon the hearth, and holding up one hand to shield her face from the fire.
Is a woman ever too worldly or too simple, too young or too old, to desire sympathy in a love affair ? A man rarely burns to pour even a successful love into any other man’s bosom ; but a woman must say, or look, “ My life is not uncrowned.” The acceptance or non-acceptance of the crown is the usual excuse for such confidences. Miss Sally felt vaguely that her niece was altogether remote from love and loving, and yet, she must talk to some one! “ Sidney.”she began.
The girl glanced at the forlorn gray heap beside the fire, and noted, with the cruel exactness of youth, that Miss Sally’s hair showed some white threads about the temples. “ Well, dear? " she said.
“ How do you think ” — Miss Sallyseemed absorbed in following the pattern of the brass fender with her eyes — “that a woman knows she is in love? ”
Sidney put down her pen, and stared at her aunt in undisguised astonishment.
“ I am sure I don’t know ! How do you suppose ?" There was the impersonal interest in her voice with which an inhabitant of another world might question a state of mind he could never know.
“ Who has been asking your advice ? ”
Miss Sally shook her head miserably.
— I ‘ve always thought, at least it has seemed to me, that one would feel, if she fell in love,” — Miss Sally blushed,
— “ that she couldn’t have any life in the future without — the other person ; and as if she had not been alive in the past, not having had — the other person. And yet, you see, Sidney, there are so many other things? ”
“ What other things ? ” Sidney asked, curiously. This odd conversation did not suggest anything serious ; it only amused her. Miss Sally never needed a premise, and was incapable of reaching a conclusion, so her niece was not apt to look for meaning in her chatter.
“ Well, if you like a person very much, and he likes you very much, and he will make you happy, and he needs you, and you think it would be pleasant, — only of course life would be pleasant, anyhow, but not as pleasant, — in fact — well, if you want to — Sidney, I suppose that’s a kind of love ?
Sidney flung her head back with a laugh, closing her account-book with a soft bang. “ I don’t pretend to know what love is, but I know what it is not! Has your Mr. Steele been asking your advice ? Has he fallen in love with anybody ? He had better ask father’s advice.” A quick gravity came into her face as she spoke of the major.
Miss Sally shook her head. “ You know I don’t think as brother does? ”
Perhaps if she had not just risen from her knees, she would not have invited argument by even so mild an assertion of her opinion. Very long ago, she had given up discussion upon such subjects, and put her theories into an unselfish life. In earlier days she had tried argument once or twice, but she had been quickly worsted by her brother’s logic, given in Sidney’s silver voice.
“ It s better,”Miss Sally had assured herself with wistful humility, “for little minds to leave great things alone; somehow, if I meddle with them, it isn’t only I that am ridiculous, but the great things are, too.”That she referred to her belief now showed how deeply she was moved.
“ I think people are happier when they love each other,” she said.
“ If they believe themselves immortal,”Sidney answered, with that pitying contempt which affection keeps good-natured, " or if they can forget death.”
“ I think,” answered Miss Sally, rising and looking at her niece with another kind of pity, “ that if they remember the dear Lord, they can trust the rest.”She was so earnest, she almost forgot that she had been asking advice for herself. “ If they just take God into their lives, darling, they needn’t fear death.”
Sidney smiled. “ Dear ! ” she said, putting her strong young arms about the little figure; and the amusement in those starlike eyes silenced Miss Sally.
It was sadly a matter of course that Sidney should forget that half hour by her bedroom fire, and Miss Sally’s troubled look. Like every one else, she was used to her aunt’s inconsequence; and that Miss Sally should have discussed the symptoms of falling in love meant nothing more practical than did her views on political economy, when she suggested that all the money in the world might be divided, so that there should not be any more poverty. “ Well, at least,” she had explained, blushing but persistent, “ it would be more like the golden rule.” Only Robert Steele had had the insight to know how brave she was to stand by her little foolish opinion, and it was he, now. who knew the meaning of the blush that flickered in her face when any one spoke to her.
There was a look of half-frightened importance in Miss Sally’s eyes the morning after Robert had told her that he loved her, and a fluttering delight, which, however, had no relation to love. She was undeniably pleased, but as for accepting Mr. Steele, — that was another matter. Yet there were so many reasons for it, she said to herself, absently dusting the library for the second time. “It would be a good thing for Sidney, oh, in so many ways ! And if I still lived here " (it did not occur to her to say we "), — " if I still lived here, I could take better care than ever of Mortimer. And oh, what pretty dresses Sidney should have! ” And there was something as near malice as could come into her gentle soul, when she reflected, “How surprised Mrs. Paul would be! ” To Robert himself she had only said, looking hard out of the window, as she handed him his beef-tea, in a sidewise, crablike manner, “ Please to wait a little, Mr. Steele; please to let me think.” She looked so small and frightened that, with a warmer wave of that impulse he had called love, he answered very tenderly, “Yes, Miss Sally, — only do not give me up.”
The pleading in his voice seemed to his listener irresistible; she had the same desire to make him happy which she felt whenever she stopped to comfort a crying child in the street, and give it a penny and a kiss. But she could not frame the words for which he asked. Instead, he heard her in the hall, and caught the major’s patient impatience as she fussed about his coat. " Fussed ” was the uncompromising word which flashed into Mr. Steele’s mind ; yet he knew very well, as he resented his own thought, that had that care been expressed in his behalf he would not have called it “fuss.” He was to leave the major’s the next day, and as the two households were almost one, it was only proper that he should say good-by to Mrs. Paul ; the strain of expectation made it hard to sit alone in the parlor, and Miss Sally seemed suddenly occupied up-stairs, so it was a relief to go out.
He found Mrs. Paul just getting into her carriage, a bad moment for pleasant commonplaces, or indeed for anything, — a moment at which Davids, diplomat as he was, always quailed. She was angry that Robert Steele should see her thus, muffled in hideous wraps and supported by her man-servant; looking — no one knew it better than she — old, and awkward, and pitifully feeble. Yet the quiet way in which Mr. Steele took Davids’ place, and with wonderful gentleness lifted her into the carriage, disarmed her pride by its appeal to the suffering body. She glared at him through her veils, and said grudgingly, “ Come, get in. You might as well call upon me in the carriage as anywhere else.” Yet when he had seated himself opposite her, and Davids had slammed the door, pride asserted itself. With weak, uncertain hands, and bitter impatience at the weakness, she pulled the lace back from her face. She was perfectly aware that the soft black folds made a fitting frame for her dark eyes and her shadowy puffs of white hair. Then she smiled.
“ Really, this is very nice of you.” she said, “though I wonder Sally Lee permitted you to come out alone. She has been a most devoted nurse.” She lifted her eyebrows, with that air which says, “ I can sympathize with you !
“She has indeed,” Robert answered. He was aware that he spoke warmly, and vaguely dismayed at his own consciousness. “ There is no one so kind as Miss Lee,” he added.
“ True,” returned Mrs. Paul, with the slightest shrug under her laces. “ Kindness is Sally’s métier. A woman has to have some peculiarity; goodness is Sally’s. It is very monotonous.”
“ If it were more general, it would not be a peculiarity,” Robert answered curtly.
“ I suppose you have found it amusing sometimes,” said Mrs. Paul, again with that look of camaraderie and understanding. “ A little of it is amusing ; it is only when one goes through years of it, as I have done, — really from a sense of duty, you know, to keep my hold upon Sidney, — that one finds it a bore. Poor little Sally ! How well I remember when I saw her first! Mortimer Lee brought her with him to take care of Sidney, when he came North, after his wife’s death. But it was a pity he could n’t have had a person of more sense. She has encouraged all his wicked ideas, even that folly of never going into the parlor where his wife’s picture hangs, you know. She means well, no doubt, but she is so silly; sometimes I almost fear she makes Sidney dull.”
She looked at him keenly as she said that. Mrs. Paul knew very well that a little slur is like oil upon the fire, and there certainly was a quick annoyance in his face, which gave her much satisfaction.
“ Yes,” she went on, “ Sally was quite plump when she first came to Mercer, — twenty years ago and more ; let me see, she must have been twenty-five, — and she looked for all the world like a pincushion in a tight black cover ; she wore a jacket, — should n’t you know that Sally would wear a jacket ? ” Robert Steele tingled under the contempt in her voice. “ Whatever Miss Lee wore must have been suitable.”
Mrs. Paul laughed. “ I am glad you admire Sidney’s aunt, — that is quite proper. But, really, between ourselves, she is amusing ? Oh, how I used to admire her moral courage in those days ! It was before there was a Mrs. Brown at the Rectory, and Lord ! how regularly Sally went to church ! Really, you know, Mr. Steele, where an unmarried woman goes with increasing devotion to a church where the clergyman is attractive and also unmarried, it shows a willingness to be misunderstood which is noble. It is a common virtue among old maids ; if the clergy only knew how the female mind confounds religion and love, they might not be so hopeful of their converts.”
“ There was never such a thought as that in Miss Lee’s mind ! ” cried Robert, his face dark with anger. (If only she had given him the right to defend her !)
“ Ah, well,” said Mrs. Paul carelessly, “ it does n’t signify. Mr. Brown was too intelligent a man ; although once I really did fear — but I had a word with him ! I’ve no doubt he’s been grateful ever since ; for a clergyman is so unsuspecting that a designing— Who was that young woman you bowed to ?”
“ My cousin, Katherine Townsend.” Robert answered; " and if you will allow me, I shall say good-afternoon. I must see her for a moment.”
This terrible drive must end. He could not protect Miss Sally, but he need not listen to her maligner.
“ She walks superbly,” observed Mrs. Paul, watching the tall, straight figure hurrying along the road. “ Is she handsome ? Who is she ? ”
Robert gave her antecedents, with one hand on the door-knob, and said she was not at all handsome; but Mrs. Paul nodded approvingly at the name of Drayton, and forgave the lack of beauty.
” A woman,” she declared, “ who holds her head like that can afford to be positively ugly. And poor, you say ? That is nothing. She’s her mother’s daughter, and she can’t escape the habit of good manners any more than any other habit. And it is manner that counts.”
She was reluctant to have him leave her, and as he stood bareheaded by the carriage door she dealt one more blow for her cause.
“ Sidney will miss you when you go,” she said; " she hears so little sensible talk ; for Mortimer Lee, with his egotism,— his grief is nothing in the world but inordinate self-love, — is as absurd in his way as Sally is in hers. Good-by, good-by, — let me see you often.”
Robert joined his cousin, and walked on with her to make the long-delayed call; but when he went away Katherine Townsend drew a breath of relief. He was so preoccupied, so silently depressed, that it was an effort to talk to him. He had had an instant of dismay in realizing that he perceived a perverted truth in some of the things Mrs. Paul had said of the woman he loved, — “ the woman I love with all my heart; ” and his dismay was, he declared, because of the weakness of his character, not the weakness of his love. “ That is the strongest thing about me, at least,” he thought drearily. He brightened up a little when, upon the bridge, Alan overtook him. Alan made too many demands upon his friends to admit of anything so selfish as depression. Just now, too, the doctor was full of an impetuous determination to be happy. He had come out to walk with this purpose distinctly in his mind.
It was one of those still, raw days, with a feeling of snow in the air, and a mist settling like smoke along the thawing ground. On hills that faced the south, patches of sodden grass showed here and there through the melting snow. The river had not been frozen over for nearly a fortnight, but its black, hurrying current bore occasional blocks of broken, snowy ice. Alan was blind to the cheerlessness of the day. He was thinking, with an intentness which was a new sensation, of Sidney and her view of life. Not because he feared it, but because it was a part of her charm, this strange and exquisite aloofness from the things which other women took into their lives. He would not have had it otherwise, he told himself, and yet — he was not altogether happy. “ We are queer beings, — men,” he declared, smiling and frowning together.
He had taken this walk out into the country for the pleasure of thinking about Sidney, but sometimes this pleasant thinking was interrupted by an annoyed remembrance of a certain erratic action of his heart, which he had watched with a good deal of interest for nearly two years now. “ That ’s the worst of being a doctor,” he grumbled ; “ knowledge divides your chances by two. But hang it! I won’t think about it.” And he dismissed it, as he had often done before, but this time with a new unwillingness to see a thing which might affect Sidney Lee! This determination and the joyous flight of his fancy had brought exhilaration and satisfaction into his face.
“ Hello, Bob ! ” he called out gayly, as he saw Robert walking slowly through the mist; and, as he reached him, he struck him lightly on the shoulder. " Where do you hail from ? Been to see the charming Katherine ? ”
“Yes,” Robert answered, “and Mrs. Paul. Alan, what a woman she is ! ”
“ Superb ! ” cried the other, with a grimace.
Robert was in no mood for flippancy. He did not reply, but looked drearily before him and sighed. He was trying to understand his depression. “ With such hope of happiness as I have,” he was saying to himself, “ why can I not conquer what is, of course, bodily weakness ? ” But he sighed again ; it was at such a moment as this that his face was an especial index of his character. Deep, wistful gray eyes, under a sweep of brown hair that fell across his forehead, and required at times a half-backward toss of his head to keep it in its place; a delicate and sensitive mouth hidden in a pointed beard, which concealed a chin whose resolution belied the tenderness of his eyes and the weakness of his lips. It was an interesting face ; not from what it hinted of reserve, but because of its confiding sweetness. He was only silent now, he thought, because he had no right to tell Alan of his new hope.
On the bridge the two men stopped and, leaning on the hand-rail, looked down into the water. The river was so high that there was a jar and thrill all through the tumbling old structure.
“ Look here,” Alan said, when they had watched the sweep of the water a moment in silence, “ what a mighty fine girl Miss Townsend is ! ”
“ Why, of course,” Robert answered, smiling; “ isn’t she my cousin, man ? ”
“ No nonsense about her,” Alan proceeded ; “ no money; reasonably goodlooking; no morbid father with preposterous theories.” (Alan had not yet reached the point where he could take the major seriously, although, to be sure, he was apprehensive that the major might take him seriously.) “ I should think you would be the fellow to say you saw the hand of Providence in it.”
“ I don’t know what kind of a hand John Paul would see in it, then,” returned Robert.
“ Oh ! ” said Alan. “ What ? Well, I always knew Paul was a man of intelligence, though he has no tongue. I’m sorry for you, Bob.”
“You needn’t be,” Robert assured him. “ Now, look here,” Alan insisted. (“ Come on, don’t stand here in the cold.) There must be some reason that you did n’t fall in love with her, because it was so plainly the thing for you to do. A girl who is poor, charming — well, I said all that — and yet you did n’t ? ” “ I don’t see why this does n’t apply equally to you.”answered the other; “and, furthermore,” — he looked at his friend with affection shining in his eyes, — “ furthermore, I don’t see how she or any other woman could have helped ” —
“ Bah ! ” cried Alan. “ No, there’s a reason for your not doing it. I swear, Steele, I believe there is ‘Another’! What?”
Robert’s face flushed. Alan was delighted.
“ Come, now,” he demanded, " out with it! ” Then his amusement suddenly faded in the thought of Sidney; he even looked anxious.
“ Don’t be an ass,” Robert began, laughing to protect himself. But Alan was in earnest under his lightness.
“ You ’d better tell me,” he said. “ If you don’t, I ’ll think that it is — Miss Sally ! There ! I’ve no business to jest about her. But, seriously, you may just as well make up your mind to ask my advice, because, you know, you’ve got to have my consent, and ” —
Robert had been breathless for a moment ; then he broke in sternly, “ You are right; you have no business to use Miss Lee’s name.”
The doctor looked at him in astonishment. “ Bob ” — he began, and paused. A woman had brushed past them, coming with hesitating and uncertain steps out of the mist. Alan, seeing her face, forgot his raillery, and forgot too the thought which had flashed into his mind at Robert’s words. “ Poor soul ! ” he said ; “ did you see that, Bob ? What a face ! — sick with misery. A look like that strikes on your heart like a hammer.” He stopped and glanced back, but seemed to check the impulse to follow her. “ Poor, forlorn creature ! At least, we never saw that kind of wretchedness in Italy. The earth was kind, and the air. People were not physically wretched, and to me physical suffering is no end worse than moral misery.” “ That is unworthy of you, Alan,” Robert began to say, hearing only the end of the sentence in his confusion at those other words; then he too looked back at the hurrying shape in the fog. “ Hold on a minute, will you? ” he said. “ She is in some sort of trouble ; perhaps a little help ” — and he turned to follow the gaunt young figure which had so old and awful a face. Alan tried to detain him.
“No good, Bob; money given that way does no good except to the giver. Sidney says that’s the use of all philanthropy.”
But Robert had gone, and Alan sauntered on slowly, alone. He smiled as he spoke Sidney’s name, and now, as he walked, he whistled softly to himself. Just then, back from the middle of the bridge, and wavering down to the water, came a shrill scream, followed by a splash which sent a shudder through the darkening mist. Alan turned and ran back, while the sound still rang in his ears. How very long the bridge seemed before he reached Robert! He had one glimpse of him, starting forward as though to jump into the river, and then staggering back, faint with horror, against the side of the bridge. “ She climbed upon the rail,” he gasped, “ and then ” —
Alan pulled off his coat, and with one bound swung himself over the handrail and would have dropped into the water, but Robert clung to his arm.
“ No,” be cried, “ you shall not, you’ve no right ” —
“ Let go ! ” the doctor said between his teeth ; he twisted himself from his friend’s grasp, and in another moment was in the river. He must have known, even as he jumped, that it was too late, and that Death had already pulled the woman under the water. But he called out to her not to fear, — that he was coining, that he would save her. The echo of that brave young voice surely followed her into eternity.
As for Robert, he stood an instant in horror and dismay, staring at the hurrying river, with its flecks of white ice, where Alan, buffeting the water and the mist, was whirling out of his sight. Then he made as though he would follow his friend ; then cried out, “My God, what have I done! ” then ran towards the toll-house, shouting madly for a boat. But a skiff had been put out. Mrs. Jennings had seen the girl jump, and had screamed to a man upon the shore, with all the might of her little voice hid in folds of flesh. The whole thing was over in ten minutes, and Alan safe on land. But it seemed to Robert Steele as if he lived a year as he stood waiting for the boat to come back. He saw them rowing about, — looking for the woman, he supposed ; the suspense was unbearable.
“ You ‘re hardly able to stand,” Job Todd was saying to Alan, for it was he who had pulled the doctor into the skiff; “ and what made you try to do it, anyhow ? A woman’s bound to have her own way about dyin’, like everythin’ else. And in that current you had about as much heft as a shavin’.”
Alan was shivering so that he could scarcely speak ; but he laughed. “ I believe you’d have been the very man to do it, if I had n’t had the first chance.”
“ Well, very likely I should have been just such a fool,”Job admitted modestly, and then leaped ashore to help Alan out of the boat and hurry him up to the tollhouse.
“ I’m all right,” the doctor said to Robert, “ but, poor soul — we were too late! ” As he spoke, it occurred to him that Robert had been almost at the woman’s side when she threw herself into the river. He was too confused by the shock, just making itself felt, of his plunge into the icy water to have anything but puzzled wonder in his mind ; but when he was in the toll-house, and Mrs. Jennings, with tears and brandy and hot blankets, was hovering about him, ponderous, but ecstatic, his wonder took definite shape. Why had not Robert tried to save her ? Why had he waited? Fear? He refused to harbor the thought. But why ?
Mrs. Jennings was pouring out her unheeded praises, and regretting that her ’Liza had not been at home to see such bravery, though it “ would ‘a’ been a shock, too, — that poor, dear, beautiful young woman. Job, take a sup o’ somethin’ hot; it’s agitatin’ to see such sights, — I feel it myself.” So she took the sup of something hot, which Job, having signed the pledge for Eliza’s sake, declined. Then she looked at Robert, standing silent, with despair agonizing in his eyes, which he never lifted from Alan’s face. “ I suppose,” she said, " you ain’t in no great need of anythin’ ? I saw you on the bridge watchin’ her, till this dear gentleman came up. Well, the Lord knows it’s pleasanter not to be so feelin’ as some of us is. ’T is n’t everybody as could ’a’ stood there, and not ’a’ tried to save the poor creature. Now, this blessed gentleman here, I see he’s one to give way to his feelin’s, like me,” declared the mistress of the toll-house, weeping comfortably. Then she asked him, being anxious to learn his name, to write in her ‘Liza’s autograph album. Alan laughed, protested that he did not deserve the honor of Miss Eliza’s autograph book, admired the geraniums, and told Mrs. Jennings he believed she’d make a first-rate nurse, especially for any one needing stimulants ; but he never looked at Robert Steele.
When the carriage which Job had made haste to order had arrived, it seemed as though Mrs. Jennings’ enthusiasm would lead her to bundle herself into it; it made her praises of Alan almost insulting to the silent " coward ” — she only hinted at that word — who took his place beside the doctor. But when the two men were alone in the carriage, with Mrs. Jennings’ admiration shut out, it was Alan who was silent.
“Oh, Alan,” Robert said, in a smothered voice, “ what is right? ” The doctor frowned. “ I thought — and yet to see you do it — risk your life because of me ! And if you had died, what then ? ” He covered his face with his hands, in overwhelming and passionate pain.
“ Please do not give it another thought,” Alan answered, with a carelessness which seemed too perfect for disdain ; “ you see I am none the worse.”
“ I saw her first,” Robert went on, almost as though speaking to himself, and with that singularly distinct enunciation with which a man baffled by conflicting emotions seeks to keep one idea clear in his mind. " I —I watched her there in the water, in an eddy, — I could have saved her then. But I felt so sure — then you came. Oh, what is right? That man in the toll-house would have done it; even that woman said ” —
“ Pray drop the subject,” Alan interrupted, impatient and shivering. The suggestion of Mrs. Jennings was more than he could bear. He was saying to himself, “ He was afraid.”
“ Oh, Alan,” cried the other, in an agony, “ help me ! Was I right ? You saw it one way, I another. To which of us does God speak, Alan ? What is right ? ”
“ I was very glad to do it,” Alan answered curtly ; “ probably you were not strong enough to attempt such a thing. Of course you were wise to hesitate, and — oh, damn it, Steele ! why did n’t you do it? ” His face was quivering.
Robert looked at him, dimly seeing what his friend’s thought had been. He was not hurt. The moment was too great for personal pain.
“ I did not try to save her,” he said simply, “ because I believe that no one ought to interfere with a moral act. The woman had a right to take her own life; it lay between herself and her God.”
Alan stared at him incredulously, but his face flushed with shame.
“ I dared not interfere,” Robert ended, with sad sincerity.
Alan drew a quick breath; then he caught his friend’s hands in his own, his voice breaking as he spoke. “ Forgive me, Steele,” he said.
Of course, afterwards, they talked it all over. “ Suicide is another name for insanity, Bob,” the doctor declared. “To my mind, we have as much right to try to save such a person as to treat a man with a fever.” But Robert insisted that no one had a right to say that weariness of life was insanity.
“ What about the right and wrong of it ? ” Alan questioned.
“ It is a sin,” the other admitted.
“Then,” said Alan, “according to your theory, one should not interfere to prevent crime ? ”
“ If it injures no one but the sinner, I should not interfere ; but there are few crimes which do not injure others than the criminal. For instance, I should not feel justified in preventing a man by force from shameless drunkenness, if the community did not see it, so that no one could be contaminated by his example. Otherwise, I should prevent him. With suicide, only the principal and his God are concerned.”
“ Stuff ! ” cried Alan, with wholesome common sense. “ It depresses the community ; and, by Jove! it’s given my heart a knock that takes a year off my life. I don’t believe any act can be confined in its consequences to the principal. There is always the example.”
But Robert would not grant that.
“ Bob.” said the doctor, his hands clasped behind his head and a cigar between his lips, “ I give you up, — I can’t follow you ; and in the matter of this poor soul, you may be right, — you may be right. But I never should have had the courage to let her drown ! ”
Robert shook his head. " I cannot seem to see the point at which what is theoretically right begins to be practically wrong,” he said after a while, sadly. " I tell you, Alan, I understand the comfort of making somebody else your conscience. That is the peace of the Catholic Church.”
“Stuff ! ” cried Alan again, good-naturedly.
When Robert went back to the major’sf that evening, he was very silent. “ Very sad.” Miss Sally thought, touched, and filled with self-reproaches for her uncertainty.
She had been trying all day to make up her mind, but to see him now unhappy, and about her! She must decide. She grew more shy, and scarcely spoke, so that Robert almost forgot her presence. It was recalled to him, however, when, with a curious mixture of humiliation and justice, he mentioned at the tea-table what Alan had done that afternoon. Even before her pity for the “ poor thing ” and pride in Alan could be put into words, Miss Sally’s thought of Robert sprang to her lips. “Oh, I am so glad you did n’t do it,” she said ; " you might have taken cold ! ” There was a half sob in her voice, and an instant resolution to “ ask Mortimer ” at once. For the first time since he had been her patient, Robert did not find Miss Sally’s solicitude sweet.
Mr. Steele was to go away in the morning, and although Miss Sally was inclined to be sentimental in the silence of her heart, she knew, vaguely, that she should feel a curious kind of relief when the excitement of his presence had been withdrawn,—an excitement felt only since he had declared himself her lover. It was not, however, until the evening of that day that Miss Sally summoned courage to ask her brother’s consent to Mr. Steele’s proposal. There was, to her mind, a sort of impropriety in speaking of it while Robert was still under the major’s roof.
“ May I come to-morrow, Miss Sally?” he had said meaningly, when he bade her good-by ; and she, remembering his low-spiritedness of the night before, could only reply, trembling, “ Yes, please.” The necessity of having some sort of an answer ready gave her the courage to knock at the library door that night.
She had waited in her bedroom, growing momentarily more chilly and more timid, until she had heard Sidney’s door close, and knew that her brother was alone. Then she went out into the upper hall and looked over the stair-rail, to see that no one was wandering about below. She felt her heart pounding in her throat, and her small hands clasped themselves nervously together. All was quiet; there was only the faint crackle of the fire in the parlor, which still sent a dull glow out into the darkness of the hall. It took her many minutes to go down the wide staircase, but the very effort made something which had a likeness to love stir in her heart.
Major Lee, writing at the square table in the room beyond the library, looked up with surprise as his sister entered. He even put on his glasses for a moment, with a keen glance at the agitation in her face.
“ Mortimer,” began Miss Sally, “ may I have a few words — a short conversation with you ? ” Only Robert Steele had seen the pathos of Miss Sally’s unfailing effort to “ express herself well" when talking to her brother.
“ Pray sit down, Sarah.”said the major, with grave politeness. “ I trust nothing has troubled you ? ”
“ I am sure you are very good.”Miss Sally answered. She was so silent after that one speech, and her agitation was so apparent, that the major looked at her with sudden alarm.
“Is there anything wrong with Sidney ? ” he asked sharply, half rising from his chair.
“Oh, dear me, no ! ” said Miss Sally, relieved to have something to say ; then she coughed a little, and gazed intently at the small, scuffed toe of her slipper. “I merely wished to say—to observe, at least — don’t you think, Mortimer, that there has been a good deal of snow this winter ? ”
The major did not smile. This was probably his sister’s way of leading up to the needs of the coal-bin; poor Sarah had a somewhat tiresome habit of coming to the point sidewise. She seemed to the major like a little hurrying sailboat, which yet tacked and tacked, in an endless zigzag, before reaching its destination; especially when she wished to make a request was there this rather foolish hesitation.
But Major Lee’s unfailing courtesy forbade that he should hurry his sister, so he only replied, “ Yes, a great deal; and the skies are overcast, so that it is probable there will be more before daybreak.”
“Yes,” said Miss Sally, “very true,” and then lapsed into silence.
Major Lee’s habit of refusing to be interested spared him much. He did not urge her to proceed. He sat brooding and dreaming before the fire ; whatever she had to say, good or bad, would come soon enough without a question from him. It did not concern Sidney ; that was all he cared to know.
“ Mortimer,” she began, and stopped to cough behind her hand, “I — I think it is wonderful how well Mrs. Paul keeps; it is really remarkable for a woman of her age.”
This needed no reply. The major, gazing at the fire, his chin resting on his breast, was twisting, absently, the thin gold ring upon his left hand.
“ What a pity Annette did not live to cheer her ! ” Miss Sally commented. “ Only, perhaps she would have married, and left her mother. Most young women do.”
“ Yes,” said the major, noticing only the pause for his reply.
“Don’t — don’t you think they do, Mortimer? Don’t you think most women marry — more than men do ? ”
He smiled. " I should think it was about equal.”
“ But women,” Miss Sally explained, “ generally expect to be married. Don’t you think so ? ”
“ I suppose,” the major admitted, with a politeness that might have softened his words even to a more sensitive hearer, “ that they are generally less intelligent than men.”
Miss Sally did not see the connection, but she was too intent upon her subject to seek an explanation. I know, Mortimer,” she said, “ that you think marriage is a mistake, but — but I can’t help thinking Annette might have been happier married.”
Her brother made no comment.
“ And oh, dear me, if somebody had been living in the same house with her, and — and cared for her, you couldn’t really blame her?”
“ Pity, Sarah, — pity, pity. One does not blame a child.”
“ But you see "—Miss Sally was too earnest to pause—“if he cared, oh, very much, and would be unhappy if she — did n’t ! And oh, Mortimer, I do respect him ! ” The major put on his glasses and looked at her in sudden astonishment. This emotion was not because of Mrs. Paul’s dead daughter. He was interested, but vaguely alarmed. “ You see,” she proceeded tremulously, “ he has been with us for more than a month now ; long enough for anybody to learn to like him. And when he told me — oh, Mortimer, I was so surprised I did n’t know what to say ! Nobody knows it, of course; not even Sidney.”
Miss Sally’s fright had made her eyes overflow, so that she did not see the flush on Major Lee’s face. “What!” he said, in a low voice. “ But you say Sidney does not know it ? ”
Miss Sally shook her head, in a bewildered way. “ No, no ; it did n’t seem proper to tell her.”
Major Lee had risen, in his alarm and indignation. “ Certainly not; but are you sure that he has not told her ?”
“ Oh, no, indeed,” answered Miss Sally. “ He wouldn’t say a word until — until I said he might. And if you are not willing that I should accept him, Sidney need never know it.”
“Sarah,” he said, after an empty moment of astonishment, “I thought he spoke of — her.”
“ Sidney ? ” she repeated vaguely. “ Oh, no ; it’s only me.”
Major Lee turned sharply away, and walked the length of the room and back before he could trust himself to speak. Miss Sally had risen, and stood watching him. Her brother’s relief did not hurt her ; it was only natural. “Sarah,” he said, coming back to her, “ I fear I was abrupt. Pray sit down. I am distressed that you should have been annoyed by this young man. I have been neglectful, or such a thing could not have come about. I will see him to-morrow.”
“You — you are so kind, dear brother,” Miss Sally answered, trembling very much, and with a look of the keenest perplexity on her face.
“ I am much disappointed,” the major began sternly. “ The young man was my guest. It had not struck me that it was necessary to protect my household from possible annoyance. I must beg your pardon, Sarah.”
Miss Sally twisted her fingers together and breathed quickly. “But, Mortimer, I thought — I thought perhaps you would be willing for me to — to live here, so that I could still take care of you and Sidney.”
It was a long time since Mortimer Lee had experienced such successive shocks of emotion. He looked at her a moment in silence ; then he said, “ Sarah, do I understand that it is your wish to accept Mr. Steele ? ”
“ Yes, if you please, dear Mortimer,” she answered faintly.
Again the major walked away from her and back before he spoke. “ Sally, of course you shall do as you wish, but — I am sorry.”
She looked at him furtively. His voice was so gentle that she realized vaguely the thought behind his words, and yet it eluded her as she tried to speak. “I — I’m sure he is a good man, Mortimer. You don’t disapprove of him, brother, do you ? I ‘m sure he will do anything you wish, — only he seemed to want me, Mortimer ? ” The major smiled. “ I know,” proceeded Miss Sally, the words fluttering upon her lips, “ that you think it’s a mistake to — to care ; but I’ve never been afraid of sorrow.”
“ Have you ever known any joy ? ” he said. “ But I wonder if you can know joy, — I wonder if you can love.” He looked at her with sad intensity. “ Do you love him, Sally ? ”
His sister’s face flushed from her little chin to the smooth line of her hair. “I — I have a regard for Mr. Steele,” she said.
The major threw himself down into his chair. “ You are safe. You might as well marry him. And I suppose he has a regard for you ? Well, that is as it should be. Never cease to have a regard for him, my dear, and you need not fear the future.”
Miss Sally saw that lie was amused by something, and she smiled, but with a wistful tremor of her lips. “Then you are willing, Mortimer?”
He did not reply for a moment; then he said, “ I see no reason to object. I hope you will not be too happy, but I think there is no danger, at least for you.” Mortimer Lee would not permit himself to think that Miss Sally could not inspire profound love. He took her hand and led her to the door. “ Goodnight, Sally,” he said; and then, taking her face between his hands, he gently kissed her forehead.
The fire had burned low before he left it that night, and the wind, rumbling in the upper chimney, bad scattered the white ashes out upon the hearth.