ALAN went; but he took his disposition with him. He was full of the exaltation of sacrifice; yet he watched critically for the first indication of weakening resolution. After a while, with the reality of absence came a depression which was new, and in which, for once, he failed to find his own mood interesting. It became necessary that he should repeatedly assure himself that he had done well to spare Sidney his love, because he spared her also the end which was hurriedly approaching. Perhaps Alan’s weakness of soul, as well as body, in those yellow September days, was good for Robert Steele. Usefulness was to be his salvation, he said to himself, and, gradually, his purpose of going into the Catholic Church became not only a flight from despair, but a hope for the future. He and Alan spoke of it often, as they wandered and rested among the hills; Alan admitting, reluctantly, that it was best, yet filled with the friendliest curiosity and wonder. He recognized in Robert the absence of that spiritual passion which, having little to do with sweet reasonableness, often hurries an impressionable man into some expression of religion. In the past, Robert had had scarcely more of a creed than Alan; but he had always felt the need of one, and to feel that is almost a creed in itself. He had been terrified at his own nature, and he had sought to escape from it in the strong, wise arms of that church which nourishes the soul, and leaves the intellect to itself; there, with bitter knowledge of his cowardice, he saw his safety assured.
Alan understood and sympathized with all his sweet and generous heart, but refrained from theological discussion. This for two reasons : he did not know anything about theology, and he cared less. He entered into Robert’s plans with the greatest interest, and furthered them by suggesting that, as soon as he himself was a little stronger, they should go together to Rome. Then he fell to thinking how rich his life had grown since he saw Italy last, and the light in his face was as though for a moment the flame of life lifted and glowed behind his smiling eyes. These moments of satisfaction with himself, however, became rarer as his strength declined, and so the date of departure for Europe was postponed, and still postponed.
October came, and yet they lingered among the hills. Alan had begun to say to himself that perhaps he had been a fool; and when a man reaches that point, it is only a step to the determination to renounce his folly. Yet to break one’s word to one’s self is distinctly unpleasant, although if the responsibility of it can be shared with another person it is a little less so. Alan instinctively sought approval; and who would be so ready to approve of anything he might do as Robert ?
One still day, early in November, the two young men went very slowly, and resting often, up and across a ferny pasture on the steep side of a mountain, and stopped at last beside a low, shaggy cedar. It was late in the afternoon, but the Indian-summer mildness lingered, even while the gradual amethyst of evening fell around the feet of the mountains opposite, and crept, like a tide of dreams, up and across the great ranges of the hills. From behind the shoulder of a peak misty with this haze of night, which yet is not darkness, the yellow sunset blurred the distance in flooding gold, and fell upon the bosom of this rocky field. Down in the valley, a little tumbling branch of the Youghioglieny grew dark in the shadows, only gleaming with sudden white where the water leaped and broke across the great stones in its path.
Alan had changed in these two months. His eyes yet smiled, but his face was white. He lay flat on his back under the cedar, where the sunshine was warm still upon the frosted ferns ; his hands were under his head, his knees crossed, and there was a cigar between his lips. Robert sat beside him, looking down into the darkening valley, thinking. As he watched the twist of blue smoke from Alan’s cigar, or, absently, the swing of a stalk of goldenrod under the weight of a brown butterfly, he was pressing his own weakness in upon his memory, as a fanatic will again and again open a healing wound. He would not accept the consolation even of a look into the future, with its hope of a better life, — except, possibly, as he said to himself, that he would never take any positive stand again so long as he lived ; he would do only as he might be directed, and then, perhaps, he could get through life without injuring any one.
“ Bob,” said the doctor, “ do you know, I believe I’ve been a fool to come up here ? ”
“ Why ? ” Robert asked, turning with quick anxiety to look into his face. “ You are no worse ? ”
“ Oh, I was n’t thinking of that. I mean in leaving Mercer.”
“ Yes ? ”
“ Well,” Alan began slowly, " I 'll tell you what I mean; ” and then he told him.
It was not a long story, and the main fact his hearer had long ago guessed ; but, in the middle, at the point at which he had told Major Lee that he would not see Sidney, Alan stopped, —perhaps to relight his cigar, perhaps to seek some words which might make his change of mind seem to himself reasonable, or at least inevitable. Robert looked at him with a tenderness which might have shone in the eyes of a woman.
“ It was a mistake to take such a stand,” the doctor proceeded ; “ and to stick to a blunder, when you recognize it as such, is obstinacy, not consistency. I mean the going away was a blunder ; there is no reason why I should not have stayed in Mercer. I need not have — I mean, just to see her sometimes would have done no harm. There is no reason why I should not see her. As for the major, his plan of life is wicked. ’
“ It is against nature,” Robert admitted.
“ How does it strike you,” Alan asked, after a pause, — " the going back to Mercer ? ”
Robert hesitated. “ I am confused,” he said at last, “ between the right she has to receive, even to claim, sorrow and the right you have to withhold it from her. But that is not your question. Your promise to Major Lee is the first thing. Of course he must release you from that before you can return.
“There was no promise — exactly,”Alan explained impatiently.
Robert’s face flushed, and he looked away from the doctor. “ It would not, however, be — honorable,” He dropped his voice, miserably, at that last word.
Alan struck him on the knee with friendly roughness. “ I don’t pretend to be as good as you ; no doubt you are right. But I “m going back. Perhaps I 'll die there, but — not directly ! And just to see her. Bob ! ”
He had only said that he loved Sidney, and she had refused him ; the sacred confession of that second refusal he kept in his own heart. But the gladness in his face betrayed the truth.
Not many days later, they returned to Mercer : Robert, with faint protestations that the major should be asked to release Alan, or at least warned of the doctor’s intentions; Alan, with the reckless gayety of the man who has no misgivings about his duty, because he lives only in the present moment. They went back to their old rooms in Mercer, for the agent had found no other tenants ; and the sunshine dancing on the walls of the library met them with the welcome Alan’s heart supplied.
“ Ah,” he said, “ it is good to be in the same town with her. To-morrow I shall see her, — and I ’ll see Major Lee, of course; you need n’t look at me in that way! ”
But that was not to be. To-morrow came, and with it the rising tide of death. Alan was very ill for nearly a week. Robert wondered, as he watched the young man’s brave fight for life, whether his friend was glad the fates had spared Sidney. But Alan, smiling with white lips, settled that question.
“ Bob, if this is going to be the end,” he said, with a pause between his words, “ you must bring Sidney, you know.” His face lighted as he spoke.
It was not the end. Little by little he came back to life, but it was some time before he spoke of Sidney again. “ You haven’t seen her, have you?” he asked. He was watching at dusk the dance of the flames on the hearth.
“ I ?" Robert answered. “No, of course not.”
Alan raised his eyebrows. “ I cannot imagine why not.”
“ Because I did n’t suppose you wished her to know that you were here before you had seen her father.”
Alan looked at him in despair. “ As though I remembered that nonsense, with one foot in the grave. And she must have heard it from somebody.” He frowned as he spoke ; it had been a beautiful solace, in those sharp hours, to fancy that Sidney’s thoughts were with him.
“No,” Robert returned. “Mrs. Paul is away, as you know, and unless the major has chanced to hear that we are in Mercer, and mentioned it to Miss Lee (which does not seem probable), how could she know it? ”
Alan shook his head impatiently. “ I want her to know it! ” Robert made no reply. “ You must go and tell her.” Alan declared.
“ You will write to Major Lee? ” his friend entreated gently.
“ Write to nobody ! ” said Alan sharply. “ Unless it is to Sidney, if you refuse to take my message. Do you refuse ? ”
“ Alan,” the other evaded, “ do reconsider this ! ” Robert Steele had never been so heroic as when he raised his standard of honor out of the wreck and ruin of his own life. The sick man wearily turned his head away. He could not argue; how foolish it seemed, this straining at a gnat! Yet a little later he was able to say, with friendly cheerfulness, “ All right; only you are wrong, old man.” At that Robert threw his scruples to the winds. Of course he did not know that Alan had quietly made up his mind to “ manage his own affairs,” but that would not have made any difference. Without a word of his plans he said he was going out to walk.
Robert had not entered Major Lee’s house since that day when he had gone to tell Miss Sally the truth, and, as he crossed the courtyard, memory assailed him like a physical pain. The little paving-stones were wet with November mist, and the fallen leaves lay in windblown heaps, too heavy with dampness to rustle as he walked through them. Just a year ago Miss Sally had welcomed him here ; the major had trusted him ; Alan had respected him ; and Sidney ? The thought of seeing her now was intolerable.
He followed little Susan to the library, but with a shuddering consciousness of the yellow drawing-room, and even that strange sidewise look with which one sees a spot where perhaps a coffin has stood. Behind that closed door Miss Sally had listened to his confession. As he stood waiting, saying to himself, “She is dead, —she is dead,” he forgot the terror of meeting Sidney; after all these weeks his humiliation was too absorbing for the consciousness of shame.
Sidney, when she heard who was in the library, turned white, and then a wave of color covered her face. Mr. Steele in Mercer ? Then Alan must be, also ! Oh, why had he come back ? She went downstairs slowly, her hand resting on the banister, her mind in a tumult. Then the thought struck her of the pain it must be to Mr. Steele to come back to this house where death had been, and her own confusion was forgotten. That Sidney could so forget was indicative of that change in her which Robert saw in her Face. For an instant it seemed as though this woman, in her black gown, with earnest, pitying eyes, could not be the old Sidney Lee ; her wide, indifferent gaze had gone, and with it self-satisfaction and a certain sweet disdain which had charmed and wounded at once. Instead, there was a quiet acceptance of life, lightened, indeed, by that great moment when she had recognized her larger self, but only by its memory, not its repetition. Such memories feed the soul; a man who has once lifted his eyes to the midnight heavens may walk forever afterwards with his face towards the dust, but he cannot forget that he has seen the stars! So Sidney, failing again and yet again, bowed by the shame of self-knowledge, struggling with her own weakness and incompleteness, was sustained by the memory of that Strength which was sufficient for her.
She had suffered, and her soul was born.
Robert and she looked at each other a moment, as she gave him her hand, and then he turned sharply away from her. Sidney did not speak ; those meaningless commonplaces, which wash realities out of life, were not easy to either of these two. The tears trembled in her eyes; sympathy, which was a new sense, showed her what to say.
“Mr. Steele, the lilies in the church the day that Katherine was married were so beautiful; I knew you put them there.”
“ I had no right to do even that! ” he answered, in a low voice. His own misery made him forget his purpose in coming, and Sidney was too pitiful to think of herself, and so remind him.
“You are unhappy,” she said gently, and with that calm, direct look which made any subject fitting. “ You are unhappy because you brought your engagement with my aunt to an end. That is not right, it seems to me. Truly, I think you honored truth in doing it ; but you degrade truth in being sorry that you did it.”
“ It — it is not that! ” he cried ; and then, almost with a groan, “ I am unworthy to speak her name !
Sidney waited. “ I wonder where Alan is,” she was saying to herself; but she waited.
“No,” he went on, after a pause, “ I did right to tell her ; but the sin — the sin was in the beginning, — that I did not see that it was not love ! ”
“Yes,” she assented.
“And now,” Robert ended, “she is dead.”
They neither of them spoke for a few moments.
“ Miss Lee,” Robert began, his voice firm again, “ will you tell me a little about her illness ? I know nothing of it. I felt I had no right to ask Alan.”
Sidney started. “ It was not very long, you know. Alan was with us almost all the time. He was so good.”
“Oh, where is he?” she cried, turning. and looking straight into his face. “ Where is Alan ? ”
“ He is here in Mercer. I came to tell you.”
“Here?” she faltered. “We have not seen him.”
“ We only came ten days ago,” he explained. “ I want to tell you about him, Miss Lee.”
“ Yes, tell me ! ” It would not have occurred to Sidney to disguise her wish to hear of Alan.
“ I hope that he may be able to come to see you ” —
“ Be able?” Sidney interrupted quickly. “ Has he been ill ? ”
“ Yes ; Alan has been very ill. Miss Lee.”
“ But not now ? ” she entreated breathlessly, — “he is better now ? ”
“ For to-day, yes,” he answered, “but he will never be well.” She did not speak; Robert could not tell whether she understood him. “ He has been so much worse, so much weaker, and — we shall not have him with us very long. I thought — I thought you ought to know it ? ”
“ Yes.” Her face was so white that Robert was terrified at what he had done. He tried to say something more of what he still dared to hope, but every word of hope was strung upon a thread of fear, and he dared not offer the comfort of a lie. Sidney was not listening; when he ended, she said quietly, “ There is my father coming; tell him.”
Robert met the major on the doorstep. He had forgotten that this was the first time that he had seen him since Miss Sally’s funeral; for once he was so unconscious of his own sins that he did not see the questioning displeasure on Mortimer Lee s face. " Alan Crossan is in Mercer.” he said, “but he is very ill. I have justtold your daughter.” Then, without pausing for an answer, he left him.
Sidney stood in the firelit dusk, wailing. “ Father,” she said, as he entered, — “ father, I have something to tell you.”
The major closed the door, and took her in his arms.
With the perfect blossoming of a rose its calyx falls away, and is folded back under its shadowy fragrance. So do the small things of life, necessary in their hour, find their relative values in a great crisis. “ For this cause came I into the world,” the soul declares calmly ; and knows no hesitation, and, equally, no determination. Its purpose and itself are one. When the environment is forgotten, the supremest individuality is reached.
Now, staring into the eyes of Death, while Grief beckoned her with extended hand, Sidney Lee’s consciousness of fear, and expediency, and obedience to her father, was pushed hack by this blossoming of her life. She read her own soul, and saw her love for Alan, not as a thing bursting into existence at this touch of death, but as a tranquil and eternal fact; so much a part of her that not only did it seem that it must always be, but that it always had been. It was not to be accepted or rejected. It was. Her past was but the shell which held the possibility: the calyx of the consummate flowering of life.
She was so calm as she told her father her purpose, so ultimate, that the old man presented no argument and ventured no entreaty. There was nothing to be done or said.
Sidney kissed him gently when she ended what she had to say, and then left him. He could not touch her ; he could not speak to her. ” It is as though I were dead,” he said to himself. This heart, which had answered his as the water answers the wind, could not be reached by his despair. “ This is the pain of the dead,” he thought, sitting alone in his library; “ they cannot touch us ! ” The dead ! What was he thinking of ? No, they had neither this nor any other pain. A trembling comfort crept back into his heart ; no one could deprive him of death. In that, at least, was no disappointment. But why had he lived so long ? A strange feeling came over him, a realization of his infinite removal from all which had made his life. Surely he had died when Gertrude’s lovely eyes closed upon the world ? Here, in the shadows, heside his smouldering fire, that delicate and marvelous mechanism of a human mind quivered, under the jar and shock of pain ; in a dull confusion he seemed to forget Sidney, and the thought came to him that Gertrude was still his. To rest his head upon her bosom—ah! the hideous desolation of longing! The slow tears of age burned under his weary eyelids. Scarcely aware of what he was doing, he rose, taking the lamp in his unsteady hands, and with a feeble step left the library. He crossed the hall, and stood at the door of the yellow parlor. The house was quite silent: little Susan had put out the lamp on the staircase an hour ago, and gone up to bed ; the faint glow from the library fire lay like a bridge across the darkness of the hall. He did not hesitate, but the confusion of his thoughts betrayed itself by the slowness with which he turned the knob and entered the parlor. The door stuck a little, and the jar of pushing it open moved with a muffled echo through the darkness ; the room was very cold, and there was the scent of the unused fireplace and the linen covers of the furniture. Mortimer Lee went at once towards its further end. He put the lamp down upon a small table before the portrait, stopping to move aside a little workbag of green silk, vaguely aware that it was Sarah’s. Curiously enough, it reminded him of death, for he had been saying to himself that Gertrude and he were together, and that meant life.
Then he turned his dim eyes upon the portrait.
How long he stood there, his hands clasped behind him, or holding the lamp above his head, that its shifting light might fall upon that young face, he never knew. But the silence, ringing in his ears, was clamorous with a new desolation: in the arch sweetness of those eyes there was no comprehension of his pain. Who was she, this beautiful young woman ? Not the wife who had lived in his heart all these years,— not Gertrude, whom he knew with the passion of sorrow ? Mortimer Lee dropped his head upon his breast, without a sound. What was this new despair ? Where was his grief ? Suddenly, for one swift instant, the unreality of these twenty years swept over him, — his precious possession of pain was torn out of his heart, — he seemed to stand alone. That sense of the solitude of the soul is not often revealed to a man, and when it is it crushes the mind into the numbness of despair. It is so absolute that, afterwards, the soul doubts its reality, and resumes easily the old habit of communion with whatever, in the past, has been most real.
That night Sidney slept as peacefully as a child. Her life, it seemed to her, had been taken out of her hands, and she knew the calm of the fatalist, which is, perhaps, the highest form of faith.
It was snowing when she looked out into her garden, the next morning ; the firs in the evergreen hedge were like cowled and muffled figures stealing through the storm; her window-ledge was piled high with feathery white, and the leaded outlines of the fan-lights were traced in twists of down. All the grimy, bustling town faded into misty purity while the snow fell; here and there from a great, chimney a burst of flame, like a ruddy banner, flared out into the driving white, and then subsided into a roll of dark smoke, laced by hurrying flakes.
“If only it wouldn’t stop!” Alan Crossan said, sitting at his library window, and looking at the soft depths on the naked branches of the old locusttree ; “but it will melt, and then I can’t go out for a week.”
“ Do you think,” Robert asked, “ that you will be able to start in a week, Alan ? ”
“If I want to,” the other replied, with gay significance. “ Bob, don t. worry about not getting to Rome at once. Let me die in peace at Mercer, and I 'll be your patron saint. Besides, if you are really worried at the delay, I have a History of the Popes you can study. It is by an eminent Protestant; it will give you lots of information.”
Robert laughed, but said he really thought Alan ought to make up his mind to start; a Pennsylvania winter was not the best thing in the world for an invalid.
Alan looked at him with interest“ You don’t take the strictly moral view which you did yesterday ? ” he observed.
“Yes, I do; only I can’t see that it makes any difference what view I take.”
“ Not the slightest,” Alan agreed good-naturedly.
“ I ’d like to ask you something,” Robert began, after a pause. “ Do you mean, if you stay, to — to try to make her love you ? ”
Alan’s face grew suddenly grave. “ No,” he said quietly.
“ But if she sees you, may not that come ? ”
Alan shook his head. “ I only want her to know that I am in town.”
“ She knows that.”
“ What ! ” exclaimed the doctor. “ When ? ”
“ I told her. yesterday.”
“ Bob,” cried the other joyously, “ you ’re a trump ! What did she say ? ”
“ Nothing,” Robert answered, uncertain whether he should tell Alan the confession of Sidney’s silence. (“ It will only make it harder for him,” he thought.)
“ Nothing ? Did you tell her I had been ill ? ”
“ Yes,” Robert admitted, still struggling to see whether he was not really helping Alan to break his word to the major.
“She didn’t say anything.”
Alan opened his lips, but seemed to find himself at a loss for words. “ Did n’t say anything ? ” he repeated blankly. “ Did n’t she say she was sorry ? ”
Robert shook his head. He had made up his mind ; he had done wrong in telling Sidney, — at least it should end here.
Alan fell into gloomy silence. He was hurt. Not a message, not a word ? He would not ask anything further. He began to torment himself with questions which revealed how, underneath his assurance to her and his sacrifice in going away, had lurked the hope that she would love him. “ Perhaps she was angry that, I did not say good-by ? Perhaps my note was curt, and she felt that I had ceased to love her?” Perhaps — perhaps— Is a lover ever done with that word ?
The snow whirled and drifted against his window, but to Alan’s eyes all the cheerfulness of the storm had gone. Once he asked abruptly, “ Did she look well?” And Robert said, “Yes; but older and graver.” Alan would not read; he had not strength enough for his violin ; he answered Robert’s efforts at conversation by monosyllables. He looked gloomily at the fire, and said to himself that, after all, life was a grim sort of thing ; and he wondered whether the mere satiety of living might not bring the desire for death.
But while he brooded and wondered, turning studiously away from Robert’s troubled face, the door opened, and some one stood in the doorway. Neither of the young men looked up, until Alan, realizing with vague annoyance that some one was standing behind him, turned and saw her. The wind had brought the wild-rose color into Sidney’s cheeks, and the snow had caught on the rings of shining hair upon her forehead. She looked like a flower swept in out of the storm. Her long gray cloak dropped from her shoulders, as she unfastened its clasp and came quietly to his side.
‘‘Alan. I have come,” she said.
Robert Steele started to his feet with one astounded word, but Alan, a sudden content smoothing the trouble and weariness from his face, as the west wind blows the clouds from the serene and open spaces of the sky, lifted his eyes to hers, without speaking. Sidney took his hand and held it against her bosom, stroking it softly.
‘‘ Mr. Steele,” she said, without a tremor or a blush, and looking directly at him, “ I have come to marry Alan.” She did not wait to see Robert leave the room ; it was nothing to Sidney if the whole world should see her now ; she knelt down beside Alan, and laid her head upon his breast. He heard her whisper one word. Weakened and trembling, he could only rest his cheek against her hair, with a sob upon his lips.
It was just a fortnight later that Mrs. Paul returned from her first visit, to Katherine and John, — a visit which had been an extraordinary experience to her. She had gone full of plans for her beloved Kate’s happiness, but they had been quietly and quite courteously ignored. Katherine, although never unkind, was quite indifferent to her husband’s mother. Life was so interesting to young Mrs. Paul that she no longer diverted herself by trying to charm the bitter and selfish old woman. Mrs. Paul was at first incapable of grasping the situation, but it dawned upon her when Katherine civilly acquiesced in her mother-in-law’s tentative statement that perhaps she had better go back to Mercer.
“Yes.” she said, “ perhaps it is best.. You would not want to travel in the colder weather.”
Mrs. Paul did not understand her own emotions. She still said to herself, mechanically, that Kate was delightful, and she tried to adjust this speech to her ideal. It was inconceivable that Katherine did not love her; this willingness to have her go was really consideration ; but she felt sore and baffled, and a forlorn dismay began to creep into her mind.
After all, it was a relief to come back to Mercer. With this new light upon Kate’s character, it would be easier to talk about her than to talk to her. She wished that she could have had Sally for half an hour, but Sidney was better than no one. So, just before tea, she bade Scarlett step over to the other house, and say, with Mrs. Paul’s love, “Will Miss Lee come in this evening for a little while ? ”
“ She should come without being sent for,” she added severely; “but Mortimer Lee is so selfish in keeping her with him. He made her neglect me shamefully in the summer, after Sally died.”
She wondered, as she watched the fire shine and flicker, how Mortimer Lee would get along without Sally’s stupid goodness. “Of course he will be uncomfortable,” she said to herself, and smiled.
Thus sitting, thinking, Mrs. Paul saw Scarlett crossing the major’s garden, and hurrying through the doorway in the garden wall. A moment later there was a sound of voices in the kitchen. This was so unusual and so little in accordance with Mrs. Paul’s theories that she frowned, and bent her head as though to listen ; but through the green baize door only a muffled discord reached her.
Scarlett, in the kitchen, with her black shawl falling off one shoulder, her small withered hands gesticulating and trembling, was at last talking. Her words came fast, but Davids, leaning against the dresser, his arms folded and his feet crossed, observed her with complacent silence.
“ What has come to you ? ” demanded the woman. “ I ’ve been in the house since noon, and you never let on to me. And you, to hold your tongue five hours! ”
“ And how do you like my holdin’ my tongue ? ” inquired Davids.
“ That’s neither here nor there. There’s some meaning in your head, or you would n’t be so close-mouthed. I know you! ”
Scarlett’s face was growing pale again, and her voice was steadier. She turned to take off her bonnet, that she might go to her mistress, but Davids quietly stepped in front of the door, and stood, with his hands behind him, rattling the knob, observing her all the while with intense satisfaction.
“ Yes,” he said, “ I did keep my mouth shut, and I ’d a’ kep’ it shut an hour longer if it had killed me, if I d ’a’ bust, just for a lesson to you. You an’ me’s lived in this kitchen pretty near twenty-five years, and from the very first you set out to keep a close mouth, an’ you’ve done it. You’ve never give a bit of news that you could help. Well, it come my turn. An’ I made out I could be as mean as you. I know all, — all; but I ain’t got a word to say ! ”
Scarlett looked at him steadily and in silence; then a slow smile came about her lips. She turned away without a protest, to wait, with folded hands, until he chose to open the door. Her composure made Davids furious. Stammering with anger, he moved unconsciously out into the room. As he did so, the small, gray woman slipped past him, and escaped into the hall. In spite of her self-control, however, she was visibly excited when she opened the drawing-room door.
“Mrs. Paul” — she began, in a fluttering breath.
“ What was that disgraceful noise in the kitchen ? ” interrupted her mistress sharply.
“Ma’am,” cried Scarlett, “ she’s married ! ”
Mrs. Paul put on her glasses, and looked at the woman as though she thought her suddenly insane.
“ She ’s married ! ” Scarlett declared again. “It’s two weeks to-morrow. And — and — that Billy Davids ! ”
“ What are you talking about ? ” said Mrs. Paul.
Scarlett breathed hard in the effort to compose herself. “ Miss Sidney has gone and got married, and us away I ” Mrs. Paul stared at her, with parted lips. “Seems he was going to die (he ain’t dead yet, though: them doctors never die), and she said she’d have him ; and she went to his house with a minister.— t was n’t Mr. Brown. Susan said. Yes. Miss Sidney took the preacher to him. The major was n’t there, and nobody except Mr. Steele. La. madam, you ’re faint ?" But Mrs. Paul motioned her to proceed. “ She told Susan,” said Scarlett, rubbing her hands to express her agitation, — “ she told Susan she was going to get married, as — as natural as if it. wasn’t anything more than to go and buy a pair of gloves, she was so easy saying it. Did n’t seem to be anything to her. Susan says she ain’t been home since, and she says the major hasn’t seen her. He’s white mad, Susan says. And — and — that Davids ! ” she ended, her voice breaking as she thought of him.
“ It is Alan Crossan,” said Mrs. Paul, in a low voice, as though she spoke to herself.
“ Yes, ma’am, it is,” Scarlett assented : “ and he ’s dying.”
There was silence for a moment, broken only by Scarlett’s hurried breathing.
“ Bring my writing-table.” commanded Mrs. Paul quietly. The woman brought it, and stood waiting, with excited curiosity on every feature. “ You may go,” said her mistress, looking up over her glasses ; and then, with the pen between her fingers, she leaned back in her chair and thought.
“ At last ! ” she said, under her breath, — “ at last! A righteous retribution.”
*“ My dear Major Lee,” she wrote rapidly, “ I hear with pleasure ” — No, that was too crude really to wound him. Sympathy would be a more subtile thrust. She tore her letter across, and threw it in the fire. “ How he must suffer! ” she thought, and her eyes exulted. “ And to think that I was not at home to see it all ! ”
She had forgotten Katherine and her own mortification. Such grievances were superficial when placed beside this old reality, which was as enduring as a cruel rock that had been hidden, but not destroyed, by a shining tide. It was as though Katherine had never existed. Again she tried to write, but it was impossible. “ I must know first how it happened,” she said to herself, striking her hand sharply on the table. “ Of course he is not angry with Sidney ; Susan is a fool ; but how much did he know about it? How does he feel towards Alan ? How ” — Endless questions came into her mind, but all bore upon Major Lee’s discomfiture ; in her exultation she had forgotten Sidney, save as the means by which her father’s wickedness had been baffled, and it was with almost a. start of surprise that she remembered that the girl herself could best give the information she desired.
“ How stupid ! ” she said, frowning. “ I should have sent for her at once ! ” But, to lose no further time, she wrote a brief note, veiling her triumph with only the faintest pretense of sympathy and congratulation together, and bidding Sidney come at once to see her. “ Scarlett will see you home,” she added in a postscript, " if, as I suppose, your husband is unable to come with you.” It was characteristic that, upon the receipt of Sidney’s brief message that she did not wish to leave Alan and would not come, Mrs. Paul had nothing but anger and injured feelings. “ I never saw so selfish a girl,” she said bitterly.
That evening was intolerably long and empty. A curious feeling of being left out began to intrude upon her anger. She said to herself, Why has no one told me this ? Why did no one write to me ? The world is mad ! ” Her chagrin had in it a sort of terror, which she refused to face, preferring, instead, to dwell upon Mortimer Lee’s pain. She scarcely slept that night, and as the gray Sunday morning widened into the reluctant day she was impatient to execute some of the plans which had occurred to her. First, she sent for Robert Steele ; but his response to her peremptory summons was a curt note, begging to be excused. Scarlett stood watching her as she read it, and saw her lift her head with the air of one who refuses to be rebuffed; but her voice trembled when she spoke, “ Order the carriage at twelve,” she said. She had made up her mind that she would go directly to Mortimer Lee. Of course he would be at home, and alone. He did not go to see Sidney, he had not a friend in the world, — save herself, — and, wicked atheist that he was, there was no hope that he might be in church.
“ It is very raw and cold,” Scarlett observed.
“ I said twelve,” Mrs. Paul answered.
“ Very well,” said Scarlett. She had done her duty by the protest; it was nothing to her if her mistress chose to get sick.
But when twelve o’clock came Mrs. Paul’s angry mortification insisted upon words, and, while Scarlett was dressing her, she found fault with a thousand things for the mere relief of speaking.
“ Why can’t you fasten my cloak without fumbling about so ? ” she demanded. “ You never try to do anything well, Scarlett; you are like all the rest of the world, and have no gratitude in you ! ” The woman, who had dropped on her knees to fasten Mrs. Paul’s fur-lined slippers, made no reply. “ There is no such thing as gratitude,” continued the other; “ there is not a soul I can depend upon.”
Scarlett rose, her small, lean hands clasped in front of her, and her passionless eyes fixed upon Mrs. Paul’s face. “ I am not surprised that you should think so, madam.”
“ What do you mean ? ” returned Mrs. Paul contemptuously.
This simple question was Scarlett’s opportunity ; it was the small and sputtering match which may yet fire a powder magazine. She stepped back a little, swallowed once or twice, and looked steadily at a spot upon the wall, above Mrs. Paul’s headShe had always meant to tell her mistress her opinion of her; as well now as anytime. So, calmly, rocking slightly back and forth upon her heels, she said monotonously, “ Because, madam, you are unkind, even when you do a kindness. You are unjust and you are bad-tempered. Mr. John could n’t stand it, and he knew it would n’t be for edification to bring his wife here to live. We get our deservings in this life, and you’ve got what you’ve earned, when you find that nobody cares for you. That is my opinion, madam.”
Mrs. Paul lifted her glasses and observed the woman in silence for a moment, during which Scarlett changed color, but did not cease swaying back and forth upon her heels, and regarding the wall with a tranquil stare.
“ Is the carriage ready ? ” said Mrs. Paul.
“Yes, madam ; ’ and without another word they went downstairs.
In nearly sixty years of brilliant selfishness, Mrs. Paul had had no friend who would do for her this simple office of telling her the truth, and it had to come at last from the lips of a servant. When the carriage door closed and she was alone, Mrs. Paul’s face was white.
Little Susan caught a glimpse of the heavy carriage just before it left the lane and came rumbling into the courtyard, and, realizing that her master was to have a caller, she was so grateful that she was moved to tears when she opened the door to Mrs. Paul. ‘‘ Anything.'’ thought Susan, “ to get him like folks.”
The sight of the old man sitting in his library, his white head sunk upon his breast, his sad eyes watching the vacant moments drag themselves away, had been very distressing to Susan. She wiped her eyes frequently as she looked at him, or as she stood behind his chair in the dining-room ; for the major was as careful as ever of the details of life, and went through the form of dining as ceremoniously as though he had his old household about him. He even tried to eat, because he feared that the young woman might be distressed if he did not. With the instinct of a gentle heart he had felt little Susan’s unhappiness concerning him. Indeed, the girl had told her mother that she was that sorry for him that she did n’t know but what, she must go to a more cheerful place. Susan wont each day to inquire for Miss Sidney’s husband, and, unasked, announced his condition to the major at tea. She could not tell, she had confided to Scarlett, whether he listened or not, but she was n’t one to be turned from her duty by that. It was natural that she should have said that he was angry. His silence, even during Mr. Steele’s daily call (Susan knew that he was silent then, she was so interested herself, she said) ; the fact that he made no inquiries concerning his daughter, that he never went to her house, that he did not, even write to her, that he had not seen her since that morning when she had left him to marry Alan, — what could it mean but anger ? To be sure, the expression upon his face was not exactly anger, Susan thought ; it puzzled her because she could not classify it; it was so pitiful that sometimes she could not bear to look at him.
Mortimer Lee had grown suddenly and awfully old, in these weeks since Sidney’s marriage; the shock of her grief had shaken the very foundations of his life. That strange confusion which had befogged his senses the night he went to look at Gertrude’s picture lingered still in his thoughts. His daughter’s grief seemed to be his own. not hers. He lived over again the old despair of more than twenty years ago, and then, with a start, realized that Sidney was waiting for pain which had not reached her yet. Robert told him once, hesitatingly, bow calm and even glad Sidney was. The old man made no reply. Sorrow had not come yet ; a false excitement upheld her, the exhilaration of present joy blinded her; the terror would but be the greater when it came. It was for that he waited ; then he would go to her. As for seeing her before that moment when she should need him, it never occurred to him. This rending of the bone and marrow, this parting of two souls, was not for his eyes. Sitting here in his library, alone, night, after night, without even the friendly companionship of his books, it seemed as though, with exceeding pity, his very soul wept.
And so the days passed. Alan, his hand held in his wife’s, was going out into the Unknown. Sidney went step by step beside him, straining her eyes into the darkness of the future, shuddering lest at any moment, her feet, should touch the first wave of that dark stream upon which she must let him venture forth alone, and yet walking with a lofty serenity and peace which astounded the dying man. His own mystery of death was not half so great to Alan as was Sidney’s mystery of life. He watched her with a sort of awe. Every instant was appreciation, every moment a jewel, which the divine caress of consciousness held in this light and in that, that no gleam of its beauty might be lost. Her lovely joy was set in grief, but there was no terror in it. 'They had talked much of her assurance, but it seemed to Alan only words.
“God is enough for pain,” she had told him. “ Love is possible and beautiful. even though its flower is grief, because it grows from the heart of the Purpose of the universe, because it is folded about by God.”
“Don’t you understand me, Alan?" she said once, wistfully. He put his thin white hand under her chin, and looked clown into her tranquil eyes.
“ It does not seem probable that I do,” he answered, smiling. “ I do not. very often understand myself — but I am glad.”
Perhaps he was too weak to take her wider view : perhaps the exceeding simplicity of dying brought back the older thoughts, his mother’s teachings of so long ago, and he rested in them with great content; but he was glad for Sidney. Once he asked her, with a. pause here and there between his words, of her hope for the future.
“I cannot grasp your — willingness not to know. You do not expect to see me again ? ”
“ If it is best,” she answered, her voice quivering into calmness ; “ but it will be best, either way. There is no death, never any death! It is all life ; we came from it, and we go back into it again. Oh, Alan, we both belong to life ; it is in it that we are really and truly one.”
Afterwards, when he had been lying silently for a long time, he looked up at her, with a smile flickering in his eyes. “ But I —shall not be I ? ” he said, with pitiful gentleness.
“God is,” she answered. “Oh, I cannot let go of that one moment.”
Their two lives shut out the rest of the world. They saw Robert Steele come and go with the same indifference to a necessity with which they saw light and darkness. Appreciation of moments may turn a day into a year, and these months together held the experiences of a lifetime. Sidney’s consciousness of the pervading God took no definite shape, although she felt that she could not have lived without such consciousness. As a star opens its bosom to the sun that it may fill itself with light for the coming darkness, Sidney absorbed the present. It was at this time that she prayed, dumbly, not for Alan’s life, not for strength to hear her coming sorrow, but for more, and more, and more God! There were no words in this outcry of her soul to Him who gave words, and needeth not that any should tell Him. Deep was calling unto deep, — existence itself was a prayer.
She told Alan all this, as he could listen to it; and once he said to her, “ Yes, yes, I know, and I am glad. Only remember—will you, Sidney? — that I am sure of the rest, of the future ? I am sure of it. I have come back to the old familiar things, Christ and heaven (that means having you again !) ; they are easier to think about than this abstraction, and#I believe they are just what you have found, by another name. No, I don’t reason ; I trust. It is your attitude, only I go a step further than you.” And then, later, " Sometimes it seems to me, do you know, that for me to go on ahead is just to teach you to take that step. And you won’t forget that — I am sure ”
Sidney’s thought of her father in these beautiful days was only that “he understood.” Major Lee knew that she felt this ; it would have been profane had either of them insisted upon it by words. Thus they waited : Sidney for a deeper glory, her father for the inevitable night.
That Sunday when Mrs. Paul’s carriage came across the creaking snow in the courtyard, the major had been brooding over this strange pause in his life, realizing with pathetic patience that even when it ended, when Alan died and his daughter came back to him again, life could not be as it had been. His dim eyes burned as this cruel thought struck upon his heart ; the insolence of time is like a blow in the face from an unseen enemy.
“There is no help for it,” he was saying to himself. He was so absorbed that he did not understand Susan’s summons to the parlor, or hear the name she gave, so the girl had to speak again, pleadingly : “ She’s in the parlor, sir, waitin’. I put a match to the fire, but it’s cold in there.”
“ She ? ” said the old man vaguely, “ Where ? ” and then brushed past her in tremulous haste. Sidney had come. But why had she waited ; was Alan —
The shock of seeing Mrs. Paul, shivering in her furs, upon the yellow satin sofa was almost a physical pain. He had no words. But Mrs. Paul supplied them ; her voice was full of fine anxiety.
“ My dear Major Lee, pray what is this about Sidney ? I was so shocked, so concerned. Such a tragedy for the poor girl! Pray tell me how you could have permitted such a thing ? ”
He did not answer, but seemed to look beyond her, as though he were unconscious of her presence. The change in his face since she had seen him last awed but could not silence her.
“ She has grieved you, I know,” she began to say, “ but her disobedience will bring its own punishment ; you can only pity and forgive her. And the selfishness of the young man — but tell me” —
‘‘Not here,—not here,” interposed Mortimer Lee, still gazing above her, at the further end of the room.
She turned, following his eyes, to meet those of the portrait, beautiful, disdainful, and, as she thought with sudden fury, triumphant. Standing at the feet of this dead woman, she saw the source of all her bitterness, her selfishness, her cruelty, — saw it with futile rage at her own helplessness in the hand of Fate. She had been robbed by this young creature, and she had tried to hide the desolation of her heart by worldliness and selfishness. Her loss had turned to evil everything which had been good ; and then, as though that were not cruel enough, Annette had been taken away. Her own son did not love her; Katherine cared nothing for her ; Sidney had forgotten her ; her very servant despised her. She looked again at Mortimer Lee, still staring at the picture. “ Yes, not here,” she repeated, “ not here ! ” (It was strange to see how simple the primal passion of humanity made these two souls.) She motioned him to give her his arm. “ I came,” she said, — “I came, but I will go away ; yes, I will go away I ” Her voice broke.
Without a word, the major led her to her carriage. He bowed, and stood, the cold wind blowing his white hair about, watching the carriage circle around the snow-covered lawn, and disappear down the lane. Then he went back, and stood before the portrait.
“It was the only thing I ever kept from you, Gertrude,” he said feebly ;
“ but she has come and shown it to you herself. You would not have had me tell you such a thing ? But she has told you ” —
After the shock of that interview the confusion of Mortimer Lee’s thoughts passed away. His profound dismay settled into a certain tranquillity of waiting. He was gathering up his strength to meet Sidney’s need of it, when the day should come.
And so the winter failed, and fainted into the hesitating spring. Robert Steele came every evening to tell him of Alan; they never spoke of Sidney. But one day in March he did not come, and a strange excitement grew in Mortimer Lee’s face. “ It is near,” he said to himself. It was; very near. He did not go to the bank the next morning ; he must be at home to know when Sidney needed him.
All that morning he sat in his library in tense expectancy. In the early afternoon came a note from Robert Steele. “ Not yet, not yet,” the old man said; longing for the blow to fall, that his own work of tenderness might begin. The windy March sky lifted and lightened towards sunset, and all along behind the hills the clear and lucent air, yellow as a topaz, faded up into pale violet under the torn fringes of the clouds. Mortimer Lee stood, with his hands behind him, looking out at the peace of the coming night ; but he turned at the sound of the opening door, and Sidney came swiftly to his arms.
The room had darkened in the fading light, but he could see the change in her face ; not age, but living, had marked it. That ecstasy shone in her eyes which is the realization of the Infinite, and may be called either joy or grief, as both are one in it.
“ I have come to tell you,” he heard her say, “ it is over, my life. But I am glad to have lived. Oh, I am glad ! ”
“ Alan ” —
“ Yes; yet I am a happy woman. Father, I wanted you to know that I was happy ! It is joy, father ! ”
He held her fast in his trembling arms, and his tears fell upon her head. But Sidney’s eyes were clear. She raised her face, and it was she who was the comforter. “ It is worth while,” she said tenderly. His grief moved her as her own had not; a flood of tears, as natural and unrestrained as a child’s, shook her from head to foot. " He is dead, but he has lived. He is mine, always. Oh, it is worth while, — it is worth while; t he past is ours, and all is — God ! ’
Then they went back again together to Alan’s side.
Sidney’s life afterwards was as though into a dead body had come a living soul.
The old circumstances remained, the old possibilities, but the spirit which animated them was a new spirit. She and her father drew closer and closer together, the old love greater for the new love. Calm, she was, and strangely content ; entering deeper into that Refuge which had revealed itself to her, and losing her life daily in the lives of others ; yet never limiting her peace by defining it, nor daring to imprison it within a creed.
Mrs. Paul called her an infidel.
Robert Steele, feeling vaguely that Sidney, religious, without a religion, drew her strength from the same source as did he, absorbed in the wonderful ritual of the most detailed religion in the world, yet prayed for her salvation with the anguished fear of the consistent Christian who hears his Lord denied.
The major only waited,
“ It cannot last,” he said to himself sadly; “it is unreal. And when it. breaks down — even I cannot help her! Oh, the cruelty of love ! ”
And still he waited.