WHEN Robert saw Miss Sally next, the mists of wonder about his motives had been cleared away by a sharp reality.
He found, when he reached home, that Alan had been very ill the night before. That plunge into the river had been a great strain upon a heart already weak, and during the long midnight, alone, the doctor had wondered, solemnly, whether he might not die before morning. The next day he was weak and still suffering a little, but, as he expressed it. “all right;” yet there was a dusky pallor in his face which terrified Robert, and made him forget his own perplexities, though to him perplexities were really distresses. True, this illness had been because Alan had done what he had refused to do, but his passionate tenderness for his friend forbade even so much self-consciousness as that. He watched the doctor, with a comprehension of his smallest wish which was like a woman’s ; it was so intent, so absorbing, that he almost forgot Miss Sally and his anticipated happiness. He was, however, reminded of both. They had been talking again of that conflict on the bridge. “ Steele,” Alan said. " I thought it all out last night. You were right, from your point of view; and it has taught me a lesson, it has revealed the smallness of my imagination to me. After this, I shall approve of everything you do, on principle. If you murder your grandmother,” — Robert winced, and Alan swore at himself under his breath, — “ I shall know it was from a lofty motive.” The doctor felt so keenly that his simile had been unfortunate that he made haste to talk of something else. “ See here, what made you so fierce to me yesterday, when I spoke of Miss Sally? I don’t think I deserved it.”
Robert had been sitting at the foot of Alan’s sofa, but at that he rose and began to walk about the room, steering his way among chairs and tables littered with books and papers. “ What a room ! ” he said. There were two stands which held chemicals and retorts ; and there was a music-rack, and an easel with mahl-sticks crossed in front of an unfinished canvas. “You are a disorderly beggar, Alan ! " he declared.
The doctor looked at him keenly. “ She’s good, but not what you ‘d call brilliant, and you know perfectly well that I did not mean any disrespect. She’s been a first-rate nurse for you, Bob, but scarcely a companion, I fancy? ” Alan was very serious. “Is it possible ? " he was asking himself.
Robert stood still, " I have never known,” he said slowly, “ a wiser or a kinder companion. I am a better man, Alan, for this visit to Major Lee’s.” Had he had the right, with the rush of memory which came at Alan’s mention of her name, how much more he might have said, how he would have gloried in saying it! With a backward shake of his head he tossed the soft hair away from his forehead, and his eyes brightened ; the happiness in them was unmistakable.
“ Good heavens ! ” Alan said to himself, when, a little later, he was alone. In his amazement he sat up, letting his bearskin cover fall on the floor; he leaned his elbows on his knees, and whistled; then, involuntarily, laughed. “ Jove ! what will Mrs. Paul say? ”
The next day, Robert went hopefully for his answer. Miss Sally, trembling and blushing, was awaiting him in the parlor. In one word she told him she would marry him, and then left him to the grave and puzzled greetings of her brother.
The major’s view of the sadness of love might have found words had Robert aspired to any one save Mortimer Lee’s own sister ; but for once instinct was stronger than reason, and he only said, “ You are probably not aware that the marriage of a friend is always a matter of regret to me. I cannot therefore contemplate my sister’s marriage with satisfaction. Nevertheless, you and she must make your own judgments. I hope you will not be unhappy.”
What congratulations ! Robert stumbled over his awkward thanks, and was grateful that the major, with a courteous excuse, withdrew to the study, and left him to find his way back to the parlor and Miss Sally ; but there he forgot all but his thankfulness.
They had a long and happy talk together. How Miss Sally beamed and brightened ! The flattery of her joy intoxicated him with confidence in himself. He was full of plans ; she should tell him how she wished the money — “ her money,” he called it — to be spent, and what would make her happiest to do. Should they travel ? Would she like to build ? Such deference took Miss Sally’s breath away, and frightened her a little, too.
“ I thought we could live here ? ” she faltered ; “the house is so big, and, you see, I must always take care of Mortimer and Sidney.”
Robert was too happy to be startled by this suggestion. He laughed and shook his head, and said she would have enough to do to take care of him, and talked with eager haste of his gratitude and joy. Miss Sally did not know howto speak ; she looked at him with overflowing eyes, but he made her silences eloquent by saying to himself that her sympathy and understanding were perfect. The possibilities of silence are the materials from which Love builds her most stately palaces!
The light in Robert’s eyes flickered for an instant, as though a cold wind had blown across this new fire in his heart, when, answering his passionate declaration that she had saved him from that old horror of weakness (he felt himself saved now ; the future struggle was nothing, if her hand were in his), Miss Sally said, with quick, uncomprehending pity, “ Oh, never mind that ; you were sick, — that was all. I never think of it.”
Never think of it ! All the bitter months rose before him, all the wasted opportunities, all the self-contempt which she had turned to aspiration. Robert seemed to find a violent silence opposing his impetuous words. He did not stay much longer. “ I want, he declared, “ to tell Alan, and to proclaim my happiness upon the housetops, Miss Sally ! ” He suddenly realized that it was impossible to say anything but “ Miss Sally,” and to ask himself painfully, “ Why ? ”
For her part, she said, “ Good-by, Mr. Steele,” with a little blush and a half-courtesy which went to his heart.
There was a solemn moment in Robert’s soul, when, with intense consciousness of what he was doing, he kissed her. “Just the way Mortimer did !” she thought, as she stood that night, with a candle in her hand, peering into the looking-glass, almost as though she expected to see some mark upon her forehead. Kisses were rare things in Miss Sally’s life ; she, to be sure, kissed Sidney night and morning, but that any one should deliberately kiss her ! As she stared at her small, old face in the depths of the mirror, with the candle’s shifting light gleaming on a silver thread in her hair, she felt that she could never be quite the same again. Happier ? Oh, yes, happier, — but how strange it all seemed, how exciting! and she sighed.
As for Robert Steele, when he left her, it was with a little uncertainty as to his destination. It was Strange, but he had no desire to go at once to Alan. Instead, in an aimless way, he wandered out into the country, stopping for a shuddering instant at that spot upon the bridge where he had suffered.
It must have been two hours later that he went, towards dusk, to Katherine Townsend’s, and told her that he was the happiest man in the world. Her start of surprise, almost of consternation, as he named Miss Sally Lee. he could not at once forget, although she made haste to congratulate him in that cordial manner which means consideration rather than sincerity.
“ I’ve heard Mr. Paul speak of her, and I’ve seen her at church ; she’s a saint, cousin Robert, and I am so glad for you.”
He brightened under her interest, and realized how thankful he was for the blessing of Miss Sally’s love. “ I don’t deserve it,” he said, “ but, Kate, I’m going to try to.”
“ I know you will! ” she cried, putting her hands in his, and looking at him with such understanding in her face that he said quickly, “ God bless you, Kitty ! ”
When he went away, there was a mist of tears in Katherine Townsend’s frank eyes. “ Poor cousin Robert! ” she said, but she did not ask herself why she pitied him. She was in that mood where one sympathizes with one’s self, under the pretense of sympathizing with some one else. She had been less happy since that walk with John Paul to the birch woods. “ I told him only the truth,” she assured herself, “ and of course he did n’t like it, but I can’t help that; I am glad I did it.” But she was not glad. “ I was too severe,” she began to say ; and after a while, “ It is all over. At least, there never was anything, but now I know there never will be. Well, I ’m glad I did it.” It was at this time that Ted observed, one evening at tea, that Kitty looked just as if — she ’d been crying !
These reflections of hers were not caused by any diminution of friendship on the part of John Paul, although he came to Red Lane less often than formerly. He still brought jackknives and carpenter outfits with him. In fact, he paid Ted far more attention than he did Ted’s sister. He had told Miss Townsend, with the gladdest anticipation, that he had gone to the great city of the State to examine into the business of a newspaper — a free-trade journal, of course — with which he hoped to connect himself. It would mean leaving Mercer, but he did not seem to be unhappy at that.
These were bright days to John Paul. That bitter talk on the Perryville Road had told him much ; he dared to hope now with all his heart. Only he must try to grow more worthy of her before he should ask Katherine to make his hope a reality. He began to “answer back,” as Davids expressed it, at the tea-table or at the checker-board. Not very often, to be sure, and not very successfully ; the attempt to break a habit of years is necessarily experimental. At this time, he was cordial to everybody, even to Mr. Steele, whom he overtook coming home from his call upon Katherine. Alan had been right in saying that John Paul was incapable of appreciating Robert. Still, one’s own happiness goes far in blotting out the mistakes of others ; so on this occasion he was willing to slacken his pace, and the two men walked on together. Mr. Steele was too tired to talk much, which made his companion think that the fellow was really pleasanter than usual; but when they reached the dreadful place on the bridge, Robert could not pass it without saying how Alan had risked his life there. He told the story heartily, but he did not speak of himself. He could not have displayed the confusion of his soul to John Paul, whose brief and downright expressions of opinion always repelled the man whose mind moved in subtle and inverted lines.
John was enthusiastic. “ The boy has something to him! It was splendidly brave in him. Don’t you think so?”
“ It was human,” Robert said, after a moment’s pause.
“ How do you mean ? It was superb ! Ice in the river, and such a current as these thaws make ! ”
“ I mean that it was instinct,” Robert answered reluctantly ; he knew it must appear to Paul that he was cheapening his friend’s action. “ Alan is superb, but an act like that, instantaneous, without reason, can scarcely be called brave, it seems to me. Alan does brave things always ; he is the truest man I know.”
“ Well,” John said coldly, “ I suppose we look at it differently. For my part, I’m proud of him.”
“Oh, so am I,” Robert Steele protested ; but his companion did not pursue the subject.
It was not an opportune moment, but they had nearly reached the stone steps that led up the terraces to Mrs. Paul’s house, and Robert would not lose this chance. “ Mr. Paul,” he began, “ you may care to know I —I am to be congratulated. I have become engaged to be married.”
John stared at him. “ Well, you are the most dejected-looking subject for congratulations, but it’s a good thing, I’m sure.” He sighed enviously, and then laughed in a short, good-natured way. “ So living in the major’s household has not demoralized you ? I suppose Miss Sally’s ministrations have made you feel you had better get a wife; she is the kindest-hearted little creature in the world when anybody is under the weather, even if she has n’t much sense.”
After that remark, Robert Steele thanked Heaven that some one stopped to speak to John, and prevented the inevitable question, “ Who is she ? ”
John Paul, however, was so much interested in this curious news — he always thought of Robert as “ that queer fellow ”— that he actually became communicative, and mentioned it, of course in the briefest way, to his mother; but that he should talk of his own accord surprised her into momentary amiability.
“ You say he’s engaged ? Now why in the world don’t you tell me such things oftener? You knowhow I like a piece of news.”
“ Does n’t happen every day,” John observed.
“ Well, to whom,—to whom? Sidney ? ” They were sitting at the tea-table, and Mrs. Paul rapped the bare mahogany with her stick, to hasten his reply. But he only shook his head. “ Don’t know? Why, you must know ! Do you mean to say you did n’t ask ? “
John was really abashed. “ Somebody interrupted us just then,”he explained, wrinkling his forehead.
“ Well,” Mrs. Paul said, “really!” Sometimes stupidity is too great for comment. “Whom do you think it is? Or perhaps you don t think? I hat is one thing you ‘ve never been accused of, Johnny. Lord! have n’t you any idea ? It must be Sidney. I ’ll wager it is. How stupid in you, Johnny, not to have thought of her! Yet I never should have guessed it from her manner to-day.”
John Paul looked startled; he had not thought of Sidney, — that was true. But perhaps it was she ; yes, very likely. He hoped so, he said to himself; it would be a good thing for the girl; she would be saved from her unnatural life. “ But I wish he were a bigger fellow,” he thought.
Mrs. Paul was radiant. “ Scarlett,” she said, when she took the woman’s arm to go into the drawing-room. “ I do believe it has turned out as I wished about Miss Lee!” The hope began to be a certainty before long, and when she called for the checker-board she nodded to herself once or twice, her lips pressed exultingly together, and her mind so full of plans that she forgot to criticise her son’s moves.
“ If it ’s true,” she declared, “ I ‘ll give her a check on her wedding morning that will make Mortimer Lee open his eyes ! ”
“ She ’ll need it more if it is n’t true,” John observed. The clock was almost on the stroke of nine, and it was his habit to say good-night then, so he knew he could escape any railing such a remark might provoke. But Mrs. Paul was too amiable to rail.
“ Well, she won’t get it ! I don’t propose to give my money to any silly person; just remember that, Johnny.” She was so intent upon her pleasant thoughts that she almost forgot it was her son to whom she spoke, and smiled at him with that arch look which still flashed sometimes from her faded eyes. “ If Sidney marries well, I ’ll make it my business to see that she does n’t go to her husband empty-handed. I shall tell Mortimer Lee so. I want to see Mortimer Lee. I want to find out whether I’m right. I know I am! Johnny, just fetch the writing-table here.”
John made no comment; if his mother chose to let her curiosity hurry her into such a thing, it was her affair. From this it will be seen that Miss Katherine Townsend had yet something to achieve. He lifted the table to Mrs. Paul’s side, and although the brass handles of the drawers rattled upon their square plates, she did not reprove him. She was flushed with interest.
“ Fetch a lamp,” she cried, “ and open that little box for the wax and taper ! I shall ask him to come here at once, — to-morrow. And I don’t want you about, Johnny; this is not a thing to be discussed before you. I shall ask him to take tea with the others Thursday night. I ’ve decided to ask the people for Thursday night.”
She took the feathered pen in her impatient hand, trying the nib upon her thumb-nail, and moving the lamp a little, for a better light upon her paper. Then in her delicate, old-fashioned hand she wrote, “Mrs. Edward Paul presents her compliments to Major Lee, and begs that he will call upon her, on a matter of mutual interest and importance, on the afternoon of Sunday, January the 20th, at any hour after four.” She sealed the note, apparently forgetful that she had asked her son to be her messenger; and then John left her, sitting by the fire, with interest and pleasure sparkling in her keen old face.
But when he reached the major’s he almost forgot the letter in his pleasure at seeing Alan Crossan. The doctor had had no business to go out, Robert had assured him; but there he was, rather white, and with a new look in his eyes whenever they rested upon Sidney.
“Crossan,” John began, hardly waiting to bid Sidney good-evening, and looking with a beaming face at Alan, “why did the young woman choose such vicious weather for suicide ? ”
“ Pshaw! ” said the doctor, laughing and frowning, “how do you know anything about it ? But it was the weather that made her do it.”
John was too much interested to drop the subject, and was full of praises for the doctor’s courage.
But Alan only laughed. “Talk about bravery! Steele displayed a bravery beyond me. He did n’t jump in.”
“ I did n’t know he was present,” said John Paul stiffly, looking at Sidney.
“ How do you mean, Alan? ” Sidney asked ; her aunt and Mr. Steele were, as usual, in the parlor across the hall.
“ Why, he has a theory,” the doctor answered, “ that no one has a right to interfere with a moral act.”
“ Does he call suicide moral ? ” John inquired.
Alan was eager to explain. “ And, Paul,” he ended, “ surely you see how much finer such hesitation was than mere brute instinct? A dog could have jumped into the river as well as I, but only a human soul would long to save the woman, and yet deny itself, lest it meddled with infinite issues.”
John Paul looked bored. “ I don’t understand that sort of thing. If I were such a fool as to throw myself into a river, I’d dispense with a human soul upon the bank, if there were any brute instinct on hand to pull me out.”
“It was noble!” Sidney exclaimed. And for a moment John thought that his mother had been right in her surmise; but as he went on speaking of Robert, he was relieved by the indifference in her face.
“ I tell you what it is,” he said doggedly, “ cold water is not agreeable in any form, and your Steele ” —
Alan was almost angry. “ You have no idea of the struggle! Steele was wretched! The conflict of the higher duty and the lower duty is anguish to a man like my friend.”
“ Oh, he regretted it afterwards, did he?” (John was sure now that it was not Sidney.) “ Pity a man can’t foresee his regrets.”
“ He was in despair,” Alan said.
“ But,” Sidney interposed, “ if he did not try to save the woman because he thought he had no right to, he should not have despaired.”
“ Where is he? ” John asked suddenly, looking about as though he expected to see Mr. Steele.
“ He’s with aunt Sally,” Sidney answered.
John Paul’s eyes widened. “ Ah ! ” he said involuntarily ; and later, as he lounged home through the garden, he said to himself. “ I ’ll let the major break it to her ! ”
Sidney was the last one to know of her aunt’s engagement. Miss Sally had longed to tell her, but was incapable of speaking of it to the girl, and so had gone about the house with a confused and absent air, which at last attracted the attention of her niece. But Sidney would not ask what the matter might be, lest she should have to hear some tale of distress about Miss Sally’s poor. Nevertheless, the next morning, it was a relief to have her father say, “Sidney, you are probably unaware that your aunt ” — He paused ; the major was at a loss for words which would properly express this extraordinary event.
“ Yes,” she answered, “ what is it ? I know there is something.”
They were alone in the major’s little study ; Miss Sally and her lover had gone to church. “ I want to give thanks,” Robert had said, with that quiet happiness which always shone in his eyes when he was alone with her. But Miss Sally felt the awkwardness of the unaccustomed in taking possession of this new thing called happiness, and for once in her life would rather have stayed at home. She almost envied her brother and Sidney, reading together in the quiet study, with the pale sunshine streaming into the room, and a green log singing and whispering on the andirons. Sidney was sitting on the broad bench in the window, and had looked up in surprise because her father did not come to her side for the word or two about her book, or the silent resting of his hand upon her head, with which, as though to satisfy himself of the presence of his treasure, he always began the day ; instead, he stood by the table, frowning slightly and hesitating. She smiled and waited, and then the astonishing news was told.
“ Oh, father ! ” she said, under her breath. But the incredulity in her face was not like Alan’s, or John Paul’s, or even the major’s. That would be felt later, when she stopped to think that it was Miss Sally to whom love had come ; but for a moment it was the thought of love itself which astounded her. Love ! “ Oh, poor aunt Sally ! ”
Major Lee sat down at his writing-table, with the air of a man who has done his duty. He began to mend his pen, and appeared to forget Miss Sally’s small concerns. “ We shall lose part of our afternoon to-day,” he observed ; “ Mrs. Paul has requested me to call upon her.”
“ But, father,” Sidney said, “ why is it? Does n’t aunt Sally know what she is doing? Oh, father ! ”
He smiled as she came and knelt down beside him, her face full of confusion and wonder. “ You know what she thinks,”he explained; “ with her peculiar beliefs she is not unreasonable.”
“ But,”Sidney protested, all her young heart in her eyes, “ we know her belief cannot really help her ; have n’t we done wrong not to show her ? Oh, he does not love her as — as I should think a person might love, or else he would not try to teach her to love him ! Why did n’t we save her, father ? ”
The major hesitated. “Sarah has so few pleasures ; her hope of immortality, and all that, was so much to her, I had not the heart to take it from her ; but I never thought, it did not seem to me probable, that she would wish to marry. Yet I fear I have not given the subject the attention that I should have done. I rather took it for granted that she might absorb her knowledge unconsciously, so it did not occur to me to instruct her. I should have remembered that Sarah is not a thoughtful person. Poor Sally!” The major had not thought so tenderly of his sister for years.
Pity for her aunt made Sidney for a moment almost remorseful that she had had a love to make her wise to escape suffering, and Miss Sally had not; but she would not let her father reproach himself. “ No, you were right, — you are always right; ” she lifted his hand, that scholarly and delicate right hand, to her lips ; “ but — poor aunt Sally.”
As she went back to her seat in the window, the major followed her with adoring eyes, and then began to write ; absently at first, though not because his mind was upon his sister, only that this announcement had turned his thoughts from the columns of figures to his daughter’s safe and not unhappy future. Sidney, too, dropped the subject, and opened her hook. Miss Sally, with her little hopes and fears, or sorrows and joys, had not enough personality to hold her attention. Yet while she read, the mystery which this step of her aunt’s suggested burned in her heart; and an hour afterwards, when the major had banished it all and was absorbed in his writing, she looked up and said, “ It is the certainty of living after death that makes it possible for her to love him.”
“Yes,” Major Lee answered; “immortality is the ignis fatuus which Love creates to excuse its own existence. People like your aunt reason, if I may be allowed the word, that because they desire immortality, because life would be unpleasant without such a hope, therefore they are immortal.”
“ How strange it is,” she said, “ how strange, that people can blind themselves with such a belief, when every day they see that it cannot separate grief from death ! But God ? I suppose they fall back upon their God, when they find that their hope of heaven does not comfort them.” She laughed lightly, and would have picked up her book again, but the major, with a sort of contemptuous anger, repeated her word.
“ God ! My darling, they cannot have immortality unless they have some one to confer it; hence they invest the laws of life with personality ; but you would find such persons very quickly dropping their belief in a God if they gave up the desire for eternal life.”
“ Would they ? ” she asked slowly. “ And yet, do you know, that idea of a God seems to me so much greater than just the hope of prolonged existence. To have Some One who is, who knows, — that would be enough, it seems to me, without making such a thought minister to little human wishes for immortality. If one were sure of — an Intelligence, then, indeed, one might bear death. But of course it is foolish to talk about it.”
“ Yes,” her father answered. “ To limit Force by that word ‘personality’ is indeed foolish.”
“ There might be something higher than personality,” she began doubtfully.
She shook her head, and her father smiled.
“ Who has been talking to you, Sidney, that you amuse yourself with such reflections ? I don’t believe you go to church enough; you are idealizing Christianity when you speculate upon personality. Go to church, my dear.” Sidney’s face burned. “ Or else, do not divert yourself by imagining what a difference it would make if light, heat, and electricity should arrange a heavenly mansion for you.”
“ But I did not mean a heavenly mansion,” she said, with quiet persistence, though her cheeks were hot. “ Only that if there were any understanding of life, anywhere, one might be content.”
The major shrugged his shoulders. “If?” And she said no more.
His reproof banished Miss Sally’s romance from Sidney’s mind, and when she saw her aunt for a moment before dinner she had forgotten what the flushed embarrassment of the little face meant. When she recalled it, she kissed Miss Sally, with a hurried look, and said she hoped — and then she kissed her again, for she really did not know what she hoped. “ What is the use of wishing people happiness when you know they will find only sorrow ? ” she thought.
Miss Sally, however, did not attach much meaning to hesitation, and beamed as she told Robert, who fell into sudden silence at her words, that Sidney had congratulated her in such a pretty way. She was wondering if she ought not to announce her engagement to Mrs. Paul, and trembling at the prospect, when the major said, as he opened the door for her after dinner, —
“ Sarah, will you be so good as to see that my blue coat is laid out for me ? ”
And with sudden inspiration she said, “ Oh, Mortimer, are you going to ? ”
“ Going to? ” he repeated vaguely.
“ I thought,” faltered Miss Sally, “ that perhaps you were going to see Mrs. Paul?”
Her brother looked surprised. “Yes. she has sent for me. I do not know why : possibly to consult me upon some business matter.”
Even Miss Sally might have smiled at that had she been less agitated, but she only said, “ Oh — yes — of course. I only thought — you were going to tell her.”
“ To tell her ? ” inquired the major, puzzled.
“Yes, about me. You see she sent over a note this morning, inviting us all to take tea with her on Thursday. Perhaps she has guessed, because she said something about ’special occasion,’ but I don’t know, and I thought she ought to be told. ’
“ Oh — certainly, yes,” said the major. " I beg your pardon, Sarah.”
Of course he could not know that Miss Sally was full of tremulous haste for him to be off. As soon as he went into the library she brought him his blue coat and even his stick, which she unconsciously dusted. Then she went up-stairs and waited in the upper hall to hear him start. Since Robert Steele’s departure the yellow parlor had gone back to its holland covers and closed shutters, and Miss Sally, as in the days before she knew what love was, sat alone in her bedroom, or in this open square of the hall; she could hear the murmur of voices from the library as, between their pleasant silences, Sidney and her father talked ; she began to fear that the major had forgotten his appointment, — that he might have forgotten her was of so little importance that she did not think of it. But at last she went downstairs, hovering near the library door with a fluttering excuse about books before she dared to remind her brother that the clock in the hall had struck four, with that rattling sigh with which old clocks let the hours slip away.
The major thanked her, but it was with an evident effort that he roused himself from his deep chair and his book, and started out.
Miss Sally did not realize that some one else was as impatient as she. Mrs. Paul had been watching the green door in the garden wall with keen eyes. It did not occur to her, in her excited expectation, that Major Lee would not come in so unconventional a fashion; the lane, and the terraced steps, and the formal waiting at her white front door finally brought him while she was frowning at his delay. She had spent the greater part of the afternoon at her toilet-table, and she was still sitting there, in front of the mirror, when Davids at last announced the major.
It was a matter of indifference to Mrs. Paul that her serving-woman should have seen her excitement or understood her anxiety about her dress. Scarlett was useful to her; Mrs. Paul declared that she could not live without Scarlett; but to her mind a servant had no personality, and so she made no more effort to conceal her emotion from the little, silent, shriveled woman than from a chair or table. She was quite aware that Scarlett knew why she was made to puff her mistress’s soft white hair with such precision, and why she should have been consulted so sharply upon the black lace scarf which Mrs. Paul pinned about her head to frame her face in softened shadow. The servant heard her sigh as she looked down at her black satin dress. “ If I had known a week ago, Scarlett, you could have done another gown ? ”
“ Yes, madam,” the woman replied, " but nothing could have become you better.”
Mrs. Paul, resting her elbow on the table, looked at herself in the glass; her lip curled, and she struck the floor with her stick. " What difference does it make!” she said, under her breath. Then she leaned back in her chair, absently plucking at the lace about her wrists, and waited.
Major Lee was very long in coming, Scarlett thought. She sat outside the bedroom, in the somewhat chilly upper hall, where she could be within reach of Mrs. Paul’s voice and could see her face in the mirror. Perhaps Scarlett had her thoughts, too, in that half-hour while she waited in the cold ; her thin, stiff fingers were hidden in her sleeves for warmth, and her little dim eyes stared at the faded engraving, on the wall beside her, of some long-dead Paul, who, in a silken gown, pointed with the pallid forefinger of his right hand at the roll of manuscripts in his left, and who had a simper of consciousness at the inscription below the portrait of “ The Honorable,” etc. Scarlett never dreamed of making herself comfortable, but sat upright on the broad, hard seat which ran across the window and was covered with glazed calico. She reflected that Mrs. Paul was annoyed at Major Lee’s delay, but she neither rejoiced nor grieved with her, although it seemed to her only right that her mistress should suffer sometimes. In her passionless way, the woman contemplated Life with interest as it was revealed to her under this roof; but it never touched Scarlett herself. When at last Davids came to say that the expected guest was in the drawingroom, Scarlett could see in the mirror the sudden quiver of her mistress’s face at the major’s name. “ That ’ll never grow old, nor her pride,” she thought calmly.
Mrs. Paul rose, carrying her head with a certain lofty grace that hinted at lines of her neck and shoulders which must once have been beautiful. She took Davids’ arm to the parlor, but discarded it there, and then, handing her stick to Scarlett, with an imperious gesture she motioned them both back. The man and woman looked at each other a moment, as she entered the room without support, and Davids said, under his breath, “ Law ! ” but Scarlett was silent.
The green baize door closed, and the two servants did not see her sweep backwards in a superb courtesy as the major bowed over her hand. “It is a very long time,” she said, “since this roof has had the honor of sheltering Mortimer Lee.” Her momentary strength was failing, and she needed his arm to reach her chair, into which she sank, trembling beneath the folds of her black satin.
“A recluse, Mrs. Paul,” returned the major, regarding her with grave and courteous attention, " does not often permit himself the luxury of pleasure.”
“ I have not seen you here for nearly four years,” she said, with sudden weakness in her voice.
“ That must mean,” he answered, " that there has been no opportunity for me to be of service to Mrs, Paul for nearly four years. Let me hope to be more fortunate in the future.”
She looked up at him, standing at her side, absolutely remote and indifferent, and her face sharpened, but her voice was as even as his own. “ I took the liberty, my dear Major Lee, of sending for you, because I wished to say a word to you of Sidney’s future.”
With a charming gesture and a smile, she begged him to be seated. The major, in las well-brushed blue coat, with his soft felt hat upon his knees and his worn gloves in his left hand, waited in silent patience until this echo of his past, in her mist of lace and hazy sparkle of jewels, should choose to explain why he had been summoned. It was not business, evidently. Sidney’s future ? That belonged to him, but no doubt she meant well.
“ To tell the truth,” continued Mrs. Paul, “such a pleasing hint was given me yesterday of Mr. Steele that I felt I must take the liberty of an old friend of Sidney’s, — she has, I think, no friend who has loved her so long? — and ask you directly about it. Pray, Major Lee, do you like young Steele ? ”
The major had looked puzzled, but his face cleared, and there was even a smile for a moment behind the enduring sadness of his eyes. “ I scarcely know him well enough to have a personal regard for him,” he said. " but his father was my friend.”
“ Oh, yes, true,” returned Mrs. Paul; “ and that I know Sidney’s father is an excuse, you must admit, for my questions and interest. You think, I am sure, that he is an admirable young man; one who must be successful some time, even though some youthful theory of honor, which he has doubtless outgrown, made him rather foolish. He will certainly be a successful man ? ”
“ Successful ? ” The major lifted his eyebrows. “ In his particular line he will no doubt be successful. I should think he might achieve a trifle brilliantly.”
“ Are you not severe?” she said gayly. “ But I feared you might have some such impression, and I wished to say—I begged you to come this afternoon that I might say — that if, as I have surmised, he desires the honor of connecting himself with the family of Major Lee ? ” — the major bowed — “I should like to express my confidence in his ability, and to add, if you will permit me, one word of my intentions concerning Sidney.”
“ You do my daughter much honor by your kind interest,” he answered, still with a slight smile. “ I shall be rejoiced to listen to all that you may say of her; but for Mr. Steele my sister must thank you for your very cordial expression of approval.”
“ Sally ! ” cried Mrs. Paul, sitting upright, grasping the arms of her chair with white jeweled fingers.
“ My sister begged me,” proceeded the major calmly, “ to ask for your congratulations, and I shall be glad to be the bearer of them to Mr. Steele.”
“Sally ! ” said Mrs. Paul again, faintly ; and then falling back into her chair, she looked at her guest’s grave face. “ I — I beg your pardon, I am — surprised ; I had imagined — hoped — that the young man had thought of Sidney.”
The putting it into words banished any glimmer of amusement from the major’s eyes ; he frowned slightly. “ My sister is extremely happy.”
That he should ignore her allusion to Sidney stung Mrs. Paul into momentary forgetfulness of her disappointment. “ I am distressed that it is not Sidney. The child’s future, — what is it ? Surely — surely — you have not thought of that ? ”
There was no tenderness in her voice, but the major reproached himself for that. Perhaps he had not been courteous to refuse to speak of Sidney. “You are most kind,” he said, with an effort, “ but I have no fear for my daughter’s future; she will not be unhappy.”
“ She will not lie happy, returned Mrs. Paul quickly, “if you mean that she is never to care for any one, never to marry. Oh, spare Sidney your theories ; let her have some happiness in life! ”
“ If there were such a thing,” the major answered simply ; " but the best I have been able to do has been to teach her how to escape misery.”
“ You make it appear,” she said, “ that there is nothing positive but pain, Is not life worth having? ”
“ I have not found it so,” the major replied, “ have you ? ”
“No!” she cried, with a sharp gesture, “ I have not, but — I might.”
Mortimer Lee sighed. “ Yes? Well, Sidney shall at least not learn through grief its worthlessness, as you and I have learned it.”
“ Ah ! ” she said, with a quick indrawn breath ; and then, with an in-consequence which made him look at her with sudden attention, “I — I had the greatest respect for Mr. Paul.”
“ My very slight acquaintance with him,” Major Lee replied, relieved to change the subject, “ I remember with pleasure. He was a person of most amiable manners.”
Mrs. Paul bent her head. “ He had not a redeeming vice.” The major made no answer, and she, looking steadily into the fire, was silent ; they could hear the clock ticking in the hall. “ If you do not give her the only thing which makes life endurable,” Mrs. Paul began, — “ it may not last, or it may not be very great, but it is the best we know,— if you will not let her have the happiness of love, think how empty her life will be! Oh, when she is as old as we are, what will she have ?”
“ No hopeless pain,” he answered briefly, “no bitter memories.”
“ But what will she have?” insisted the other, leaning forward in her earnestness. “ If she has once had love, nothing can take it from her, She need not be afraid of memory, if she has had it. It is only when it has been denied that life is bitter.”
“ Ah, well,” said the major, and despite his politeness there was a little weariness in his voice, for the hour was late, “ we are old enough to see that it is misery either way. Only the pain remains.”
“ Oh, that is not true ! ” she cried with sudden passion. “ No, I know it is not true. An instant’s happiness, — one would pay for an instant by years of misery! I know it — now! My soul is not old, I am not old, Mortimer, — oh, this miserable body ! ” She struck her hand fiercely against her breast; anger at the fetters of the years, the extraordinary effort of her soul to break the ice of age, sent a wave of color into her cheeks, her eyes burned and glowed, her whole form dilated, — she was a beautiful woman. It was only for a moment; then she shrank down in her chair, and her lips had the tremulous weakness of age. “ Let the child be happy, — let her love some one.”
“ You are very good,” he answered, frowning and with averted eyes, “ yon are very kind to take such thought for my daughter, but I merely express her own judgment and inclination in this matter. And to return to the subject for which you were so good as to summon me, I rejoice that you approve of Mr. Steele.”
“ What I meant to say,” she replied, with instant composure, “was connected with him only because I supposed him to be Sidney’s lover. Otherwise, I confess, he does not interest me. I was glad to think that she was to marry a rich man.” She stopped, wishing that she might fling out some cruel word to wound him. Then, in a flash, she had an inspiration. “ To tell the truth, I had been fearful that, with ihe perversity inherent in young women, she might fall in love with a poor man. Indeed, seeing Alan Crossan’s infatuation, I was somewhat anxious ; there is no money, and he has, I believe, heart disease. However, as her opinion agrees so entirely with yours, there is perhaps no danger of that ? ”
“ None, I think,” the major answered, hot and cold at once; “but I must not intrude my daughter further upon your kindness.”
He rose, with a look which was unmistakable, and which acted upon Mrs. Paul as some sharp pain does on a halfstunned and suffering animal. She stood bracing herself by one shaking hand on the back of her chair, and smiling calmly from under the arch of her delicate brows. “ You are so very kind to have come,” she said, “although, to be sure. I am disappointed to find that it; was unnecessary to trouble you, and I cannot be of service to Sidney, as I had hoped; but I must not detain you any longer! The little tea-party which 1 had proposed for Sidney must turn into one of congratulation for — dear Sally. And you are so much occupied, I fear we must not hope that you will join us?” Her eyes glittered as she spoke, and there was a sting in her voice which would have made acceptance impossible, even had the major wished to come. But nothing was further from his desires, and with an old-fashioned stateliness he “regretted” and “ diplored,” and then, bowing over her hand, yet soft and white under its rings, he left her, standing, smiling, in the firelight.
Later, when Scarlett came in to see if she should fetch the lamps, she found her mistress fallen in a heap back into her chair, her head resting in her hands and her bent shoulders shaken by feeble sobs. “ Take me up-stairs,” she said. “ I want to go to bed, Scarlett, you fool! Don’t you see I’m sick? Oh, let me go to sleep! I’m so old — so old — so old.”
The Sunday desolation of the streets pressed upon Mortimer Lee, as he went home, like a tangible misery. The working-folk in their best clothes, staring out of the windows in forlorn and unaccustomed leisure, or walking about in the gray, cold dusk as though restless from too much rest, were part of the hopeless dreariness of life to him, and he would have felt that bitter pity for humanity, which is often only intense self-pity, — for each man is to himself the type of humanity,—had not that hint of Mrs. Paul’s concerning Alan been burning in his heart; although it was, he said to himself, absurd, nay, improper, to give it any thought. But he wished Mrs. Paul had not suggested such a thing. It was only in this connection that the sobbing, angry old woman was in his mind.
When, the next morning, he told his sister that the tea-party was to be one of congratulation for her, she turned white with pleasure. “ Dear Mrs. Paul, how good and kind she is! If it were Sidney, now, but just me ! ”
The major frowned. “ Sarah, I wish you would be so good as never to refer to Sidney in such a connection.”
Miss Sally was very much abashed. “Of course I won’t, Mortimer. I only meant ” —
“Just so, I understand,” said the major hastily. “ Pardon me for interrupting you, but we need not discuss it.”
Miss Sally had a moment of blankness, but her new interest filled her with such unwonted exhilaration that she forgot the snub in reflecting that she must decide upon what she was to wear, or rather she must ask Sidney, — in so important a matter she could not trust her own judgment; so, humming a little song in unaccustomed joyousness, she went to consult her niece in the lumberroom of the east wing, where of late Sidney worked at her carving. It was one of those mild days which sometimes come in winter, when the skies are as blue as June. Little clouds, like foam or flocks of snowy birds, drifted up and across from the west; here and there brown patches of grass, wet from the melting snow, caught the sunshine in a sudden gleam ; like a fringe of light, the icicles along the eaves sparkled and glittered, and, as they melted in the sun, the flashing instant of each falling drop ended in a bell-like chime upon the wet flagstones below.
This room in the east wing was full of sunshine. Sidney’s pots of jonquils on the window-ledge bloomed in white and gold, and filled the air with tine and subtile sweetness. The dusk of the room seemed laced with the sparkle of the sun and the golden burst of blossoms in the window. Sidney had pushed a round rosewood table, which was supported by a single rotund leg ending in vicious-looking brass claws, into the stream of sunshine by the window ; her tools were on it, and a design Alan had drawn for her, and she was intent upon her carving, the sun powdering the soft hair about her forehead, and glittering along the blade of her small, keen knife. Miss Sally, twisting her feather duster nervously between her loosely gloved fingers, slipped into the lumber-room from the hall, closing the door behind her with an elaborate quiet which sent a muffled echo along the lofty ceiling. Sidney looked up, and blushed deeper than did her aunt. It was all so strange ! Somehow, instead of the old affectionate indifference, she felt a frightened interest, which was at the same time half repulsion. Her hand shook, and the mid-rib of a curling leaf was notched and bent.
“ Sidney,” said Miss Sally, going over to the jonquils, and examining their brave green spears, “ what do you think I had better wear on Thursday ? The major says the party is for me, — just think of that, Sidney! So of course it’s only proper that I should pay Mrs. Paul the compliment of looking well. — at least as well as I can.”
Sidney listened absently. When her aunt paused, after enumerating her dresses, she made this or that comment upon the modest wardrobe, scarcely knowing what she said.
“ After all,” continued Miss Sally, with a contented sigh, “a good black silk is the very best thing, don’t you think so, love ? And you know my bit of thread lace ? I washed it out only yesterday, and put it around a bottle to dry, and then pulled it a little, so it does look really very well. That in the neck and sleeves, and with my mosaic pin. will be nice and neat and in good taste, and Mrs. Paul will like it, I’m sure.” She hesitated, wrinkling her forehead anxiously. ” I wish I had a little train ; but I remember that when I bought that silk a train did seem too extravagant. I might piece it and let it down in the back, but it has been turned twice, you know, and is so very old I ’m afraid it would n’t stand that.” Sidney nodded. “It is really a very important occasion,” proceeded the other. “ I can’t get used to being so important. Dear Mrs. Paul, I hope she knows that I appreciate her kindness! ” Then it struck her that she had forgotten Sidney, and she added with remorseful haste, “ Now. my dear, about you ? Of course you ’ll wear the gown which Scarlett altered for you, and I am sure Mortimer will let you use something of dear Gertrude’s about your neck.”
“ Aunt Sally,” said her niece, leaning back in her chair, but still playing with her little sharp knife, “ I suppose you don’t have to think of what Mr. Steele would like, because he will be pleased with anything you wear ? ”
“ It’s very good in you to think so,” responded Miss Sally brightly.
“ I meant,” Sidney said — “I wondered ” — But she could not put her wonder into words. Love ? Was this love ? She shook her head silently, and began with a steady hand to curve the petal of a rose. But Miss Sally did not stop to speculate upon the nature of love ; nor did she know that this new thing in her life had brought a brightness into her timid eyes and a little color into her face which was as though youth had looked back upon her for a moment. Sidney watched her, mystified by it, and by the apparent contradiction of her aunt’s thought for small things.
Major Lee also observed Miss Sally closely in those days, but he did not misunderstand her frame of mind. “It is the newness of feeling important,” he explained to himself. “ and the interest in something quite her own, and the pleasure of being cared for. She does not even trouble herself by the endeavor to suppose that it is love.”
And indeed Miss Sally was so happy that she had almost forgotten that she was in love, although she never for a moment forgot that Mr. Steele “ cared for her.” It was thus she thought of his affection. “ She is so happy,” Sidney said to her father once, her eyes clouding with a puzzled look, “ she never seems afraid ? ”
“ True,” the major answered, with half a sigh, “ but there are three reasons for that, Sidney. In the first place, she never thinks of his death, —your aunt has no imagination, as you very well know; in the second place, her heaven would console her if she did think of it; but thirdly, she has a regard for Mr. Steele ! ”
In fact, Miss Sally had never in the whole course of her devoted and self-effacing life created half so much interest in her own household, and she had never before given so little thought to her brother and Sidney. Afterwards, when the newness of it all had worn off, and she was even wearying a little for the old accustomed round of emotions, she reproached herself for this. But for the present it was all a fluttering and growing joy.
Thursday evening was a climax. Miss Sally scarcely slept the night before for thinking what she should do and say at a tea-party given in her honor.
Nor did Mrs. Paul sleep well that night; she was enraged at herself for not having given the thing up. “ Why in the world,” she had cried to her son, sweeping the checkers off the board when she saw defeat approaching, " am I to be bored by these people to-morrow evening? I haven’t seen Sally this week; I would n’t. I sent word by Sidney that I did n’t want her to read to me, and what does the fool do but write me a note to thank me for my consideration ? And that young Steele ! Lord ! I can forgive him about the money ; vice can be overlooked, but not stupidity! ”
She had changed her mind about the tea-party twenty times before Thursday morning dawned. “I could say I had a headache, and put it off, even at the last moment, Scarlett, only ” — Mrs. Paul closed her lips suddenly. Perhaps Scarlett guessed the rest. Mortimer Lee should not think that his affairs or his daughter’s changed her plans. So the tea-party was not postponed, and Thursday evening arrived. At precisely half past six. Miss Sally, breathing quickly with excitement, took Robert Steele’s arm, and went with little tripping steps through the garden and up to Mrs. Paul’s door.
The path was too narrow for Sidney to walk beside her aunt, and Robert, aware that she was following him, found it strangely difficult to listen to Miss Sally’s chatter. Again, as he met the two ladies at the foot of the stairs, he knew with painful consciousness that Sidney’s wondering eyes were upon him; her aunt was fumbling over a glove button, and looking up at him with an hysterical little laugh.
Except Alan and the Browns no one had yet arrived, so Miss Sally breathed more freely as they entered the drawingroom. Mrs. Paul was sitting, as usual, in state beside the fire, and in answer to Miss Sally’s bow and outstretched hand she motioned her aside, and cried, " Sidney, you look like Madame la Marquise in that gown and with your hair pompadour ! Let me kiss you, child ! ”
Sidney’s fleeting color deepened into a smile as she caught Alan’s eye, and then, while Miss Sally blushed and trembled against her lover, Mrs, Paul adjusted her glasses, and extended two fingers to the guest of the evening. “ Well, Sally, so you ‘re to be congratulated at last! ”
“ I claim your greatest congratulations, Mrs. Paul,”said Robert, in a voice which made Miss Sally’s heart come up in her throat, but delighted the older woman. She did not much care upon whom she vented the anger which still stung her as she thought of that interview with the major, but her disappointment about Sidney had turned into contempt for Mr. Steele, so she was glad to make him uncomfortable. As for the major’s sister, she could scarcely think of her with calmness.
“ You may kiss me,” she said, turning her cheek towards Miss Sally, with that peculiar look of endurance with which some people accept a kiss.
“ I was afraid we were late, dear Mrs. Paul! ” cried Miss Sally, her eyes filling with pleasure at this favor.
“ I should never complain at your lateness, Sally,”returned the other grimly.
“ You are so good to say so ! ” said Miss Sally.
Robert’s face had darkened, but it did not repel Mrs. Paul ; she motioned him to draw a chair to her side. “ I knew your father so well, I — I had an opportunity of observing his devotion when he was in love, so I can imagine how very happy his son is now. A young man just engaged, and to so estimable a person as our dear Sally, is, of course, in heaven ? ”
Robert bowed ; he could see, without, looking at her, that Miss Sally was still guarding her shyness with nervous laughter. His heart glowed with pity. Mrs. Paul was interrupted here by fresh arrivals, and he had a moment in which to reflect how he might seem to be unconscious of the sneer in her words. As soon as she could she turned to him again. “ And you are very, very much in love ? How charming it is to be young and have enthusiasm ! Sally must think so whenever she looks at you.”
“ We are neither of us very young,” said Robert, “ but perhaps we are the better able to appreciate happiness, now we have it.”
“ Oh, of course,” returned Mrs. Paul, looking away with scarcely concealed weariness. She lifted her glasses to stare at each guest, but stopped for a longer glance at Alan Crossan and Sidney.
Alan had not looked well since that struggle in the river ; he was pale, and there was a luminous intensity in his eyes that was new. Mrs. Paul saw it, and a curious look came into her face.
This was as it should be. It was better that Mortimer Lee had not come; he must not see it too soon ; when it had gone so far that opposition would only increase it, then, perhaps, she might be able to forget her humiliation in pointing out to him his own. Mrs. Paul was able to think these thoughts, and yet say pleasant things to her guests. The gleam of many lights, the voices and laughter of her company, the courtly badinage of an old admirer, and, more than all, the chance to fling a truth, tipped and sharpened by a lie, into Robert Steele’s quivering soul braced her into positive enjoyment of the dreaded tea-party. She would have been glad if Colonel Drayton had seen fit to ignore his cousin, Mr. Steele, even though it would have been a rudeness to their hostess ; anything to wound the young fool!
There were moments during that evening when she almost forgot her rage at the designing Sally in her contempt for Sally’s lover. " One can’t blame Sally, at her time of life,” she said to Mrs. Brown, “ but the young man — Lord ! ”
When, at half past seven. Davids flung open the doors into the dining-room, Mrs. Paul, leaning on Colonel Drayton’s arm, marshaled her guests with charming grace. To be sure, by some oversight, as Miss Sally explained, there was no one to offer her his arm, until Alan, with a word to Sidney, who had been assigned to him, came to her side.
“ Dear Miss Sally,” he said, “ won’t you walk into the dining-room with me ? ”
Miss Sally hesitated to deprive Sidney of an escort. “ And yet, you know, Alan, Mrs. Paid would feel so badly to think she had forgotten me, when the party is for me — perhaps I ‘d better ? ”
So Alan placed her at the table, by John’s side, and saw her flash one happy look at Robert Steele, who was upon Mrs. Paul’s right. Robert’s stern expression delighted his hostess and brought a finer cordiality into her face ; it also inspired her to make her other guests uncomfortable. She introduced a theological discussion between Mr. Brown and Alan by asking the clergyman if he knew that he had another heathen in his parish. “ Fancy,” she cried, “ how shocked I was (anything irreverent is very shocking to me, Mr. Steele) to hear him say that the church which taught that the Almighty required the blood of Christas an atonement made Judas Iscariot its chief saint! ”
“ I merely quoted, Mrs. Paul,” the doctor began to say, embarrassed and annoyed, seeing the distress in Miss Sally’s eyes, and aware that Colonel Drayton adjusted his glasses for a disapproving look.
Then she turned upon Sidney to regret. that Major Lee was not present, ending, with a careless gesture, “ But he is so odd, your father. Genius is always taken out of common sense.”
These thrusts made, she could devote herself to Miss Sally. Mrs. Paul was smiling now and very handsome. “ You have taken care of Mr. Steele to advantage,” she said, bending forward to catch Miss Sally’s eye ; “ to his advantage, I mean, of course.”
“ He is better,” answered Miss Sally proudly, and Robert’s face burned.
“ I suppose the little pills have done it ? ” she said, turning to Robert. “ Sally’s little pills give her so much pleasure, and I suppose they never do any harm, — do they, Alan Crossan? She wanted me to take some once when T was ill,” she went on, with a shrug. “ I told her I preferred death to idiocy. Seriously, I am at a loss to understand how persons who believe in the virtues of little pills can be anything but knaves or fools, — I mean the medical men, of course. Don’t you agree with me, Mr. Steele ? ”
“ Alan agrees with you, no doubt, Mrs. Paul,” he said carelessly; “but I have a great respect for them.”
His face was dark with anger. Mrs. Paul was witty at the expense of the woman he loved; yet how ridiculous were the manual and the little pills !
“ We must drink to Sally’s future,” she began again, later ; “ you young people can stand, but Sally and I may surely think of comfort. Alan Crossan, come, you’ve been talking to Sidney long enough; propose the toast, and congratulate Sally on the opportunities of life. All things come to one who waits! You might congratulate yourself, too, upon having carried dear Mr. Steele to the house where he was to find his happiness.”
By this time, every one at the table, except perhaps Sidney, who was more absent-minded than usual, and Miss Sally, who was incapable of thinking an unkindness intentional, was thoroughly indignant. Alan was tingling with anger.
But he rose, and by a happy turn of words said so many true and pretty things of poor scarlet Miss Sally that she sniffed audibly, and very honestly and frankly wiped her eyes. Even Sidney was touched by the gentleness in Alan’s cordial young voice, and she looked at the little shrinking figure in the black silk with a smile which made Miss Sally feel that her cup overflowed with blessings.
“ Now,” said Mrs. Paul, striking Robert lightly with her fan, “ what have you to say ? Surely you and Alan have been rivals. Sally, I did n’t know you had so many lovers.”
“ We are all Miss Sally’s lovers,” observed John Paul; it was his first remark that evening.
Robert, was on his feet in an instant, with one quick look of gratitude at Alan, and then a burst of self-congratulation, which in Mrs. Paul’s ears told of something beside happiness and hope. She smiled as he proceeded. “ He distrusts himself,” she thought; and when he sat down, flushed and glad, and with a look at Miss Sally, who was in tears, she smiled again.
“ You took no wine,” she said, with the solicitude of the hostess ; adding, “ Not even to drink dear Sally’s health? ”
“No,” he answered, “I do not use wine.”
“ Mr. Steele does not approve of wine,” Miss Sally explained proudly.
The doctor frowned. Was Robert about to assert a temperance which he had not practiced ?
“ What! ” cried Mrs. Paul, holding up her wineglass so that the light sparkling through the claret flashed red upon the starlike cutting about the bowl, “ you do not approve of the moderate use of wine ? Surely that is one of Sally’s theories to which you have submitted ? Ah. the head is always the slave of the heart! ”
“ No,” Robert answered miserably, — the discrepancy between his protest and his life was so appalling that he could not stop to think of the impression he was making, — “I do not approve of it. I think Miss Lee agrees with me, but I felt that it was wrong, for me, before I knew her views. I have always felt that it was wrong,” he added, nervously anxious to say without words that, though he fell short of his principles, he never doubted them. There was no self-consciousness in the distress in his face ; only the dismay which every sensitive soul feels in claiming a nobility of thought which his past has contradicted. Indeed, it is strange how, long after a sin is atoned for, forgotten, even, by all except the sinner, it will thrust a high impulse out of the soul, with the cry of “ Unclean, unclean ! ” Robert’s pain was so great that he did not feel Mrs. Paul’s significant look, or care for Alan’s annoyance. He was quite silent for the rest of the uncomfortable occasion, which, however, was not prolonged. Mrs. Paul was tired ; she was glad to motion Davids to throw open the folding doors again, and once more settle herself in her great chair by the drawing-room fire.
Every one was relieved when the dreary evening came to an end. Miss Sally, to be sure, talked cheerfully all the way home of Mrs. Paul’s kindness, looking over her shoulder at Sidney and Alan to say that Mrs. Paul did not really mean it when she spoke sharply. But there were tears in her eyes, which the darkness hid even from her lover.
For weeks afterwards the tea-party was a nightmare to Robert Steele. It was not that Mrs. Paul’s cruelty to Miss Sally hurt him, for it made him all the tenderer to her, and so, in a certain way, he could almost exult in it; but with terror he found himself examining the quality of his love, while at the same time he realized that until that night he had seen Miss Sally only in her relation to himself, and not in relation to life. He could never again be deaf to her foolish laughter or her little fluttering talk, which skirted great subjects without any understanding, though with the same reverence which she gave to all things, both small and great, in a humility that was only humiliation. He saw it all, and despaired at his own perception. “ How is it possible,” he asked himself, " loving her as I do, honoring her, saved by her, that I can have an instant’s thought of what is so small!" He was shamed by his own meanness, and so aware of it that he depended more and more upon Miss Sally’s courage and affection. With the consciousness of weakness came greater love. Perhaps this frame of mind was induced by a sharp return of the old pain, and the consequent necessity of morphine with its resulting struggle against that habit, which had become almost dormant. So, thrown more for help upon the woman he loved, the weeks passed not unhappily, although sometimes, when his mind was not tilled with her, he was vaguely miserable, because ever since his engagement he had been aware of a subtile estrangement from Alan, too intangible to question, more a mood than an emotion, and yet enough to make this soul, which marked with quivering exactness every changing expression of its own or of another, fall back into depression. Feeling himself rebuffed, he kept his moods and wonders and vague terrors to himself, or forgot them in Miss Sally’s presence and affection. After all, what is redemption but to be healed of self-despisings? Little by little, led by her hand, Robert emerged again from weakness, and looked about him ; then, gradually, returned that terror of perception which had followed Mrs. Paul’s tea-party. It must have been in March that, one day, depressed beyond the point where words could cheer him, he went drearily out into the country for a long walk.
It was snowing with steady persistency, and there was no wind ; only the white cheerfulness of a storm that shut out the world. Robert would have been glad to lose himself at once in its vague comfort, but, with that painstaking kindness which was part of his nature, he stopped in Red Lane to learn how Ted was, for the child had been ill. The inquiry made, he turned, with a sigh of relief, down the lane, crossed an unbroken field, and entered the soft gloom of the woods. The silence closed about him like down. He drew a breath of thankfulness ; it was good to be alone. He sat down upon the trunk of a fallen tree, whose twisted and fantastic roots had been plucked long ago from the earth, and spread now in the air like the fretwork of a great rose-window which, on all its curves and ledges, had caught the white outlines of the snow. He could hear, back in the woods, the faint sound of flakes falling on the curled and brittle leaves, which still hung thick upon the branches of the oaks. The vague trouble which he had refused to face was soothed for the moment into forgetfulness and peace. These sounds of nature have a wonderful claim upon consciousness, — both joy and sorrow melt into them : the noise of rain trampling at midnight through a garden, the wind whispering in the dry grass along a hilltop, the rustling haste of hail on frozen snow, — all have a power over the mind, and seem to draw it back into the complete whole from which it has been for the moment separated.
With the weight of snow the underbrush about Robert’s feet had bent into wonderful curves, which made a network of low, glittering corridors, vaulted and arched, and so far reaching that when some furry creatures a rod away moved, or nestled softly against each other, a pad of snow from the fretted roof fell with a powdery thud into the white depths at his side. A rabbit hounded past him, turning for one bright, frank glance at the motionless figure upon the log, and leaving small intaglios of his steps upon the surface of the snow. The rustle of the flakes upon the dead leaves, the muffled wood noises about him, his own breathing, were the only sounds which broke the white silence of the woods.
Robert sat with his head resting in his hands; his eyes had but the range of a pile of fresh nut-shells dropped at the foot of the big hickory opposite him, and a wild blackberry bush powdered on every thorn and spray with a puff of feathery white. Little by little, after that first relief of forgetfulness, he began to come back to his unrecognized pain. There was nothing to distract his mind from Miss Sally, and yet he found himself refusing to think of the treasure of his love, and wondering instead how long it would be before the snow would cover the shells, and gazing with bated breath at two keen black eyes which watched him with friendly suspicion from a mossy hole between the wrinkled roots of the hickory. He remembered, and then sighed helplessly because he remembered, that Miss Sally had once said she should think it would be dreadful to be alone in the woods. There was something which frightened her about the bare heart of nature. Not that Miss Sally had ever said the bare heart of nature, but that was her meaning.
After a while, as he sat there on the fallen tree trunk, a tense stillness seemed to take possession of him, which made even the squirrel alert and anxious. The snow settled on his shoulders, and covered the pile of shells at the foot of the hickory. The storm was thickening, and the bending branches of the blackberry bushes were almost hidden by the piling flakes. A whirl of white shut him in upon himself, and in the furious silence of the storm the consternation in his soul clamored to be heard. Beneath the prayer of gratitude for Miss Sally’s love, with which he tried to stifle this tumult, one fact asserted itself and insisted upon a hearing.
Robert Steele’s heart grew sick. How gray and dark it was here in the woods, under the snow-laden boughs; what an unhuman silence! He looked up through the branches and the driving mist of flakes at the leaden sky. “God!” he said in a whisper. It was the cry of the convict soul which would escape from itself.
The face of Truth had at last confronted him and compelled his horrified eyes; he knew now that his selfreproach for perception was an effort to protect what had never existed. He saw that he had called gratitude love, and that he had mistaken pity for passion. No wonder that the hopeless cry trembled on his lips; reproach, and despair, and anguish, all at once. God ! why had he been born, why had he been thrust into the misery of consciousness? His self-deception was the juggle of Fate, and the very horror of it was his irresponsibility. If he could have blamed himself for having mistaken his emotions, there might have been some comfort for him; but can a man blame himself for the curve of his skull, which decides his character before he is born ? Fate? What is it but temperament! Helpless and without hope, he contemplated his own nature. He dropped his head upon his hands without a sound, and his very soul was dumb with dismay.
It must have been an hour before Robert emerged from the deeper and more selfish terror of self-knowledge, to cry out, with the thought of the wrong to Miss Sally, “ What have I done ? ”
A long while after that, he rose, the snow falling from his knees and shoulders ; the squirrel darted back into his nest, and far down in the woods there was the skurry and flutter of frightened things,
Robert had a fit of sickness as a result of that morning in the woods ; but there was no return to morphine, — the hour was too great for that. Miss Sally did not see him for a fortnight, and when she did she said it was no wonder he had been ill. sitting there in the snow, for Alan had explained that Robert was fond of the woods, especially in a snowstorm, and had taken cold there ; for her part, she wondered that he escaped with nothing worse than a sore throat.