"I will get him out," she said; "I will take care of him. I should die with nothing to do; and I promised grandpa——"
She could get no farther, for the rush of memories which came over her, and seating herself upon the ground close to the new grave, she laid her face upon it, and sobbed piteously:
"Oh, grandpa. I'm so lonely without you all; I almost wish I was lying here in the quiet yard."
Then a storm of tears ensued, after which Maddy grew calm, and with her head still bent low, did not hear the rapid step approaching, the mans step coming down the grassy road, coming past the marble tombstones, on to where that wasted figure was crouching upon the ground. There it stopped, and in a half whisper called, "Maddy! Maddy!" Then indeed she started, and lifting up her head saw before her Guy Remington. For a moment she regarded him intently while he said to her, oh so kindly, so pityingly.
"Poor child, you have suffered so much, and I never knew of it till a few days ago."
At the sound of that loved voice speaking thus to her, everything else was forgotten, and with a cry of joy Maddy stretched her hands toward him, moaning out:
"Oh, Guy, Guy, where have you been, when I wanted you so much?"
Maddy did not know what she was saying, or half comprehend the effect it had on Guy, who forgot everything save that she wanted him, had missed him, had turned to him in her trouble, and it was not in his nature to resist her appeal. With a spring he was at her side, and lifting her in his arms seated himself upon her mother's grave; then straining her tightly to his bosom, he kissed her again and again. Hot, burning, passionate kisses they were, which took from Maddy all power of resistance, even had she wished it, which she did not. Too weak to reason, or see the harm, if harm there were, in being loved by Guy, she abandoned herself for a brief interval to the bliss of knowing that she was beloved, and of hearing him tell her so.
"Darling Maddy," he said, "I went away because you sent me, but now I have come back, and nothing shall part us again. You are mine; I claim you here at your mother's grave. Precious Maddy, I did not know of all this till three days ago, when Agnes' letter found me almost at the Rocky Mountains. I traveled day and night, reaching Aikenside this morning, and coming straight to Honedale. I wish I had come before, now that I know you wanted me. Say that again, Maddy. Tell me again that you missed and wanted me."
He was smoothing her hair now, as her bead still lay pillowed upon his breast, so he could not see the spasm of pain which contorted her features as be thus appealed to her. Half bewildered, Maddy could not at first make out whether it were a blissful dream or a reality, her lying there in Guy's arms with his kisses on her forehead, lips and cheek, his words of devotion in her ear, and the soft summer sky smiling down upon her. Alas, it was a dream from which she was awakened by the thought of one across the sea, whose place she had usurped, and this it was which brought the grieved expression to her face as she answered mournfully:
"I did want you, Guy, when I forgot; but now—oh, Guy—Lucy Atherstone!"
With a gesture of impatience Guy was about to answer, when something in the heavy fall of the little hand from his shoulder alarmed him, and lifting up the drooping head he saw that Maddy had fainted. Then back across the meadow Guy bore her to the cottage, where Flora, just returned from a neighbor's, whither she had gone upon an errand, was looking for her in much affright, and wondering who had come from Aikenside with that wet, tired horse, showing so plainly how hard it had been driven.
Up again into her little chamber Maddy was carried and laid upon the bed, which she never left until the golden harvest sheaves were gathered in, and the hot September sun was ripening the fruits of autumn. But now she had a new nurse, a constant attendant, who during the day seldom left her except to talk with and amuse Uncle Joseph, mourning below because no one sang to him or noticed him as Maddy used to do. He had not been sent to the asylum, as Maddy feared, but by way of relieving Flora had been taken to Farmer Green's, where he was so homesick and discontented that at Guy's instigation he was suffered to return to the cottage, crying like a little child when the old familiar spot was reached, kissing his armchair, the cook-stove, the tongs, Mrs. Noah and Flora, and timidly offering to kiss the Lord Governor himself, as he persisted in calling Guy, who declined the honor, but listened quietly to the crazy man's promise "not to spit the smallest kind of a spit on the floor, or anywhere, except in its proper place."
Guy had passed through several states of mind during the interval in which we have seen so little of him. Furious at one time, and reckless as to consequences, he had determined to break with Lucy and marry Maddy, in spite of everybody; then, as a sense of honor came over him, he resolved to forget Maddy, if possible, and marry Lucy at once. It was in this last mood, and while roaming over the Western country, whither after his banishment he had gone, that he wrote to Lucy a strange kind of letter, saying he had waited for her long enough, and sick or well he should claim her the coming autumn. To this letter Lucy had responded quickly, sweetly reproving Guy for his impatience, softly hinting that latterly he had been quite as culpable as herself in the matter of deferring their union and appointing the bridal day for the—of December. After this was settled Guy felt better, though the old sore spot in his heart, where Maddy Clyde had been, was very sore still, and sometimes it required all his powers of self-control to keep from writing to Lucy and asking to be released from an engagement so irksome as his had become. Neglecting to answer Agnes' letters when he first left home, she did not know where he was until a short time before, when she wrote apprising him of grandpa's death and Maddy's severe illness. This brought him, while Maddy's involuntary outburst when she met him in the graveyard, changed the whole current of his intentions. Let what would come, Maddy Clyde should be his wife and as such he watched over her, nursing her back to life, and by his manner effectually silencing all remark, so that the neighbors whispered among themselves what Maddy's prospects were, and, as was quite natural, were a very little more attentive to the future lady of Aikenside. Poor Maddy! it was a terrible trial which awaited her, but it must be met, and so with prayers and tears she fortified herself to meet it, while Guy, the devoted lover, hung over her, never guessing of all that was passing in her mind, or how, when he was out of sight, the lips he had longed so much to kiss, but never had since that day in the graveyard, quivered with anguish as they asked for strength to do right. Oh, how Maddy did love the man she must give up, and how often went up the wailing cry, "Help me, Father, to do my duty, and give me, too, a greater inclination to do it than I now possess."
Maddy's heart did fail her sometimes, and she might have yielded to the temptation but for Lucy's letter, full of eager anticipations of the time when she should see Guy never to part again.
"Sometimes," she wrote, "there comes over me a dark foreboding of evil—a fear that I shall miss the cup now within my reach; but I pray the bad feelings away. I am sure there is no living being who will come between us to break my heart, and as I know God doeth all things well, I trust Him wholly, and cease to doubt."
It was well the letter came when it did, as it helped Maddy to meet the hour she so much dreaded, and which came at last on an afternoon when Mrs. Noah had gone to Aikenside, and Flora had gone on an errand to a neighbor's, two miles away, thus leaving Guy free to tell the story, the old, old story, yet always new to him who tells it and her who listens—story which, as Guy told it, sitting by Maddy's side, with her hands in his, thrilled her through and through, making the sweat drops start out around her lips and underneath her hair—story which made Guy himself pant nervously and tremble like a leaf, so earnestly he told it; told how long he had loved her, of the picture withheld, the jealousy he felt each time the doctor named her, the selfish joy he experienced when he heard the doctor was refused; told of his growing dissatisfaction with his engagement, his frequent resolves to break it, his final decision, which that scene in the graveyard had reversed, and then asked if she would not be his—not doubtfully, but confidently, eagerly, as if sure of her answer.
Alas for Guy! he could not believe he heard aright when, turning her head away for a moment while she prayed for strength, Maddy's answer came, "I cannot, Guy, I cannot. I acknowledge the love which has stolen upon me, I know not how, but I cannot do this wrong to Lucy. Away from me you will love her again. You must. Read this, Guy, then say if you can desert her."
She placed Lucy's letter in his hand, and Guy read it with a heart which ached to its very core. It was cruel to deceive that gentle, trusting girl writing so lovingly of him, but to lose Maddy was to his undisciplined nature more dreadful still, and casting the letter aside he pleaded again, this time with the energy of despair, for he read his fate in Maddy's face, and when her lips a second time confirmed her first reply, while she appealed to his sense of honor, of justice, of right, and told him he could and must forget her, he knew there was no hope, and man though he was, bowed his head upon Maddy's hands and wept stormily, mighty, choking sobs, which shook his frame, and seemed to break up the very fountains of his life. Then to Maddy there came a terrible temptation. Was it right for two who loved as they did to live their lives apart?—right in her to force on Guy the fulfillment of vows he could not literally keep? As mental struggles are always the more severe, so Maddy's took all her strength away, and for many minutes she lay so white and still that Guy roused himself to care for her, thinking of nothing then except to make her better.
It was a long time ere that interview ended, but when it did there was on Maddy's face a peaceful expression, which only the sense of having done right at the cost of a fearful sacrifice could give, while Guy's bore traces of a great and crushing sorrow, as he went out from Maddy's presence and felt that to him she was lost forever. He had promised her he would do right; had said he would marry Lucy, being to her what a husband should be; had listened while she talked of another world, where they neither marry nor are given in marriage, and where it would not be sinful for them to love each other, and as she talked her face had shone like the face of an angel. He had held one of her hands at parting, bending low his head, while she laid the other on it as she blessed him, letting her snowy fingers thread his soft brown hair and linger caressingly among his curly locks. But that was over now. They had parted forever. She was lying where he left her, cold, and white, and faint with dizzy pain. He was riding swiftly toward Aikenside, his heart beats keeping time to the swift tread of his horse's feet, and his mind a confused medley of distracted thoughts, amid which two facts stood out prominent and clear-he had lost Maddy Clyde, and had promised her to marry Lucy Atherstone.
For many days after that Guy kept his room, saying he was sick, and refusing to see any one save Jessie and Mrs. Noah, the latter of whom guessed in part what had happened, and imputing to him far more credit than he deserved, petted and pitied and cared for him until he grew weary of it, and said to her savagely: "You needn't think me so good, for I am not. I wanted Maddy Clyde, and told her so, but she refused me and made me promise to marry Lucy; so I'm going to do that very thing—going to England in a few weeks, or as soon as Maddy is better, and before the sun of this year sets I shall be a married man."
After this all Mrs. Noah's sympathy was in favor of Maddy, the good lady making more than one pilgrimage to Honedale, where she expended all her arguments trying to make Maddy revoke her decision; but Maddy was firm in what she deemed right, and as her health began slowly to improve, and there was no longer an excuse for Guy to tarry, he gave out to the neighborhood that he was at last to be married, and started for England the latter part of October, as unhappy and unwilling a bridegroom, it may be, as ever wait after a bride.
THE INTERVAL BEFORE THE MARRIAGE.
Maddy never knew how she lived through those bright, autumnal days, when the gorgeous beauty of decaying nature seemed so cruelly to mock her anguish. As long as Guy was there, breathing the same air with herself, she kept up, vaguely conscious of a shadowy hope that something would happen without her instrumentality, something to ease the weight pressing so hard upon her. But when she heard that he had really gone, that a line had been received from him after he was on board the steamer, all hope died out of her heart, and had it been right she would have prayed that she might die and forget how utterly miserable she was.
At last there came to her three letters, one from Lucy, one from the doctor, and one from Guy himself. Lucy's she opened first, reading of the sweet girl's great happiness in seeing her darling boy again, of her sorrow to find him so thin, and pale, and changed, in all save his extreme kindness to her, his careful study of her wants, and evident anxiety to please her in every respect. On this Lucy dwelt, until Maddy's heart seemed to leap up and almost turn over in its casing, so fiercely it throbbed and ached with anguish. She was out in the beechen woods when she read the letter, and laying her face in the grass she sobbed as she had never sobbed before.
The doctor's next was opened, and Maddy read with blinding tears that which for a moment increased her pain and sent to her bleeding heart an added pang of disappointment, or a sense of wrong done to her, she could not tell which. Dr. Holbrook was to be married the same day with Lucy, and to Lucy's sister, Margaret.
"Maggie, I call her," he wrote, "because that name is so much like my first love, Maddy, the little girl who though I was too old to be her husband, and so made me very wretched for a time, until I met and knew Margaret Atherstone. I have told her of you, Maddy; I would not marry her without, and she seems willing to take me as I am. We shall come home with Guy, who is the mere wreck of what he was when I last saw him. He has told me, Maddy, all about it, and though I doubly respect you now, I cannot say that I think you did quite right. Better that one should suffer than two, and Lucy's is a nature which will forget far sooner than yours or Guy's. I pity you all."
This almost killed Maddy; she did not love the doctor, but the knowledge that he was to marry another added to her misery, while what he said of her decision was the climax of the whole. Had her sacrifice been for nothing? Would it have been better if she had not sent Guy away? It was anguish unspeakable to believe so, and the shadowy woods never echoed to so bitter a cry of pain as that with which she laid her head on the ground, and for a brief moment wished that she might die. God pitied His child then, and for the next half hour she hardly knew what she suffered.
There was Guy's letter yet to read, and with a listless indifference she opened it, starting as there dropped into her lap a small carte de viste, a perfect likeness of Guy, who sent it, he said, because he wished her to have so much of himself. It would make him happier to know she could sometimes look at him just as he should gaze upon her dear picture after it was a sin to love the original. And this was all the direct reference he made to the past except where he spoke of Lucy, telling how happy she was, and how if anything could reconcile him to his fate, it was the knowing how pure and good and loving was the wife he was getting. Then he wrote of the doctor and Margaret, whom he described as a dashing, brilliant girl, the veriest tease and madcap in the world, and the exact opposite of Maddy.
"It is strange to me why he chose her after loving you," he wrote; "but as they seem fond of each other, their chances of happiness are not inconsiderable."
This letter, so calm, so cheerful in its tone, had a quieting effect on Maddy, who read it twice, and then placing it in her bosom, started for the cottage, meeting on the way with Flora who was seeking for her in great alarm. Uncle Joseph had had a fit, she said, and fallen upon the floor, cutting his forehead badly against the sharp point of the stove. Hurrying on Maddy found that what Flora had said was true, and sent immediately for the physician, who came at once, but shook his head doubtfully as he examined his patient. There were all the symptoms of a fever, he said, bidding Maddy prepare for the worst. Nothing in the form of trouble could particularly affect Maddy now, and perhaps it was wisely ordered that Uncle Joseph's illness should take her thoughts from herself. Prom the very first he refused to take his medicines from any one save her or Jessie, who with her mother's permission stayed altogether at the cottage, and who, as Guy's sister, was a great comfort to Maddy.
As the fever increased, and Uncle Joseph grew more and more delirious his cries for Sarah were heartrending, making Jessie weep bitterly as she said to Maddy:
"If I knew where this Sarah was I'd go miles on foot to find her and bring her to him."
Something like this Jessie said to her mother when she went for a day to Aikenside, asking her in conclusion if she thought Sarah would go.
"Perhaps," and Agnes brushed abstractedly her long, flowing hair, winding it around her jeweled fingers, and then letting the soft curls fall across her snowy arms.
"Where do you suppose she is?" was Jessie's next question, but if Agnes knew, she did not answer, except by reminding her little daughter that it was past her bedtime.
The next morning Agnes' eyes were very red, as if she had been wakeful the entire night, while her white face fully warranted the headache she professed to have.
"Jessie," she said, as they sat together at their breakfast, "I am going to Honedale to-day, going to see Maddy, and shall leave you here, as I do not care to have us both absent."
Jessie demurred a little at first, but finally yielded, wondering what had prompted this visit to the cottage. Maddy wondered so, too, as from the window she saw Agnes instead of Jessie alighting from the carriage, and was conscious of a thrill of gratification that Agnes would have come to see her. But Agnes' business concerned the sick man, poor Uncle Joseph, who was sleeping when she came, and so did not hear her voice as in the tidy kitchen she talked to Maddy, appearing extremely agitated, and flashing her eyes rapidly from one part of the room to another, resting now upon the tinware hung upon the wall and now upon the gourd swimming in the water pail standing in the old- fashioned sink, with the wooden spout, directly over the pile of stones covering the drain. These things were familiar to the proud woman; she had seen them before, and the sight of them now brought to her a most remorseful regret for the past, while her heart ached cruelly as she wished she had never crossed that threshold, or crossing it had never brought ruin to one of its inmates. Agnes was not the same woman whom we first knew. All hope of the doctor had long since been given up, and as Jessie grew older the mother nature was stronger within her, subduing her selfishness, and making her far more gentle and considerate for others than she had been before. To Maddy she was exceedingly kind, and never more so in manner than now, when they sat talking together in the humble kitchen at the cottage.
"You look tired and sick," she said. "Your cares have been too much for one not yet strong. Let me sit by him till he wakes, and you go up to bed."
Very gladly Maddy accepted the offered relief, and utterly worn out with her constant vigils, she was soon sleeping soundly in her own room, while Flora, in the little shed, or back room of the house, was busy with her ironing. Thus there was none to follow Agnes as she went slowly into the sick-room where Uncle Joseph lay, his thin face upturned to the light, and his lips occasionally moving as he muttered in his sleep. There was a strange contrast between that wasted imbecile and that proud, queenly woman, but she could remember a time when the superiority was all upon his side, a time when in her childish estimation he was the embodiment of every manly beauty, and the knowledge that he loved her, his sister's little hired girl, filled her with pride and vanity. A great change had come to them both since those days, and Agnes, watching him and smothering back the cry of pain which arose to her lips at sight of him, felt that for the fearful change in him she was answerable. Intellectual, talented, admired and sought by all he had been once; he was a mere wreck now, and Agnes' breath came in short, quick gasps, as glancing furtively around to see that no one was near, she laid her hand upon his forehead, and parting his thin hair, said, pityingly: "Poor Joseph."
The touch awoke him, and starting up he stared wildly at her, while some memory of the past seemed to be struggling through the misty clouds, obscuring his mental vision.
"Who are you, lady? Who, with eyes and hair like hers?"
"I'm the 'madam' from Aikenside," Agnes said, quite loudly, as Flora passed the door. Then when she was gone she added, softly: "I'm Sarah. Don't you know me? Sarah Agnes Morris."
It seemed for a moment to burst upon him in its full reality, and to her dying day Agnes would never forget the look upon his face, the smile of perfect happiness breaking through the rain of tears, the love, the tenderness mingled with distrust, which that look betokened as he continued gazing at her, but said to her not a word. Again her hand rested on his forehead, and taking it now in his he held it to the light, laughing insanely at its soft whiteness; then touching the costly diamonds which flashed upon him the rainbow hues, he said: "Where's that little bit of a ring I bought for you?"
She had anticipated this, and took from her pocket a plain gold ring, kept until that day where no one could find it, and holding it up to him, said: "Here it is. Do you remember it?"
"Yes, yes," and his lips began to quiver with a grieved, injured expression. "He could give you diamonds, and I couldn't. That's why you left me, wasn't it, Sarah—why you wrote that letter which made my head into two? It's ached so ever since, and I've missed you so much, Sarah! They put me in a cell where crazy people were—oh! so many—and they said that I was mad, when I was only wanting you. I'm not mad now, am I, darling?"
His arm was around her neck, and he drew her down until his lips touched hers. And Agnes suffered it. She could not return the kiss, but she did not turn away from his, and she let him caress her hair, and wind it around his fingers, whispering: "This is like Sarah's, and you are Sarah, are you not?"
"Yes, I am Sarah," she would answer, while the smile so painful to see would again break over his face as he told how much he had missed her, and asked if she had not come to stay till he died.
"There's something wrong," he said; "somebody dead, and seems as if somebody else wanted to die—as if Maddy died ever since the Lord Governor went away. Do you know Governor Guy?"
"I am his stepmother," Agnes replied, whereupon Uncle Joseph laughed so long and loud that Maddy awoke, and, alarmed by the noise, came down to see what was the matter.
Agnes did not hear her, and as she reached the doorway, she started at the strange position of the parties—Uncle Joseph still smoothing the curls which drooped over him, and Agnes saying to him: "You heard his name was Remington, did you not—James Remington?"
Like a sudden revelation it came upon Maddy, and she turned to leave, when Agnes, lifting her head, called her to come in. She did so, and standing upon the opposite side of the bed, she said, questioningly: "You are Sarah Morris?"
For a moment the eyelids quivered, then the neck arched proudly, as if it were a thing of which she was not ashamed, and Agnes answered: "Yes, I was Sarah Agnes Morris; once for three months your grandmother's hired girl, and afterward adopted by a lady who gave me what education I possess, together with that taste for high life which prompted me to jilt your Uncle Joseph when a richer man than he offered himself to me."
That was all she said—all that Maddy ever knew of her history, as it was never referred to again, except that evening, when Agnes said to her, pleadingly: "Neither Guy nor Jessie, nor any one, need know what I have told you."
"They shall not," was Maddy's reply; and from that moment the past, so far as Agnes was concerned, was a sealed page to both. With this bond of confidence between them, Agnes felt herself strangely drawn toward Maddy, while, if it were possible, something of her olden love was renewed for the helpless man who clung to her now instead of Maddy, refusing to let her go; neither had Agnes any disposition to leave him. She should stay to the last, so she said; and she did, taking Maddy's place, and by her faithfulness and care winning golden laurels in the opinion of the neighbors, who marveled at first to see so gay a lady at Uncle Joseph's bedside, attributing it all to her friendship for Maddy, just as they attributed his calling her Sarah to a crazy freak. She did resemble Sarah Morris a very little, they said; and in Maddy's presence they sometimes wondered where Sarah was, repeating strange things which they had heard of her; but Maddy kept the secret from every one, so that even Jessie never suspected why her mother stayed day after day at the cottage; watching and waiting until the last day of Joseph's life.
She was alone with him then, so that Maddy never knew what passed between them. She had left them together for an hour, while she did some errands; and when she returned, Agnes met her at the door, and with a blanched cheek whispered: "He is dead; he died in my arms, blessing you and me; do you hear, blessing me! Surely; my sin is now forgiven?"
BEFORE THE BRIDAL.
There was a fresh grave made in the churchyard, and another chair vacant at the cottage, when Maddy was at last alone. Unfettered by care and anxiety for sick ones, her aching heart was free to go out after the loved ones over the sea, go to the elm-shaded mansion she had heard described so often, and where now two brides were busy with their preparations for the bridal hurrying on so fast. Since the letter read in the smoky, October woods, Maddy had not heard from Guy directly, though Lucy had written since, a few brief lines, telling how happy she was, how strong she was growing, and how much like himself Guy was becoming. Maddy had been less than a woman if the last intelligence had failed to affect her unpleasantly. She did not wish Guy to regret his decision; but to be forgotten so soon after so strong protestations of affection, was a little mortifying, and Maddy's heart throbbed painfully as she read the letter, half hoping it might prove the last she should receive from Lucy Atherstone. Guy had left no orders for any changes to be made at Aikenside; but Agnes, who was largely imbued with a love of bustle and repair, had insisted that at least the suite of rooms intended for the bride should be thoroughly renovated with new paper and paint, carpets and furniture. This plan Mrs. Noah opposed, for she guessed how little Guy would care for the change; but Agnes was resolved, and as she had great faith in Maddy's taste, she insisted that she should go to Aikenside, and pass her judgment upon the improvements. It would do her good, she said— little dreaming how much it cost Maddy to comply with her wishes, or how fearfully the poor, crushed heart ached, as Maddy went through the handsome rooms fitted up for Guy's young bride; but Mrs. Noah guessed it all, pitying so much the white-faced girl, whose deep mourning robes told the loss of dear ones by death; but gave no token of that great loss, tenfold worse than death.
"It was wicked in her to fetch you here," she said to Maddy, one day when in Lucy's room she found her sitting upon the floor, with her head bowed down upon the window sill. "But law, she's a triflin' thing, and didn't know 'twould kill you, poor child, poor Maddy!" and Mrs. Noah laid her hand kindly on Maddy's hair. "Maybe you'd better go home," she continued, as Maddy made no reply; "it must be hard, to be here in the rooms, and among the things which by good rights should be yours."
"No, Mrs. Noah," and Maddy's voice was strangely unnatural, as she lifted up her head, revealing a face so haggard and white that Mrs. Noah was frightened, and asked in much alarm if anything new had happened.
"No, nothing; I was going to say that I'd rather stay a little longer where there are signs and sounds of life. I should die to be alone at Honedale to-morrow. I may die here, I don't know. Do you know that to-morrow will be the bridal?"
Yes, Mrs. Noah knew it; but she hoped it might have escaped Maddy's mind.
"Poor child," she said again, "poor child, I mistrust you did wrong to tell him no!"
"Oh, Mrs. Noah, don't tell me that; don't make it harder for me to bear. The tempter has been telling me so, all day, and my heart is so hard and wicked, I cannot pray as I would. Oh, you don't know how wretched I am!" and Maddy hid her face in the broad, motherly lap, sobbing so wildly that Mrs. Noah was greatly perplexed, how to act, or what to say.
Years ago, she would have spurned the thought that the grandchild of the old man who had bowed to his own picture should be mistress of Aikenside; but she had changed since then, and could she have had her way, she would have stopped the marriage, and, bringing her boy home, have given him to the young girl weeping so convulsively in her lap. But Mrs. Noah could not have her way. The bridal guests were, even then, assembling in that home beyond the sea. She could not call Guy back, and so she pitied and caressed the wretched Maddy, saying to her at last:
"I'll tell you what is impressed on my mind; this Lucy's got the consumption, without any kind of doubt, and if you've no objections to a widower, you may——"
She did not finish the sentence, for Maddy started in horror. To her there was something murderous in the very idea, and she thrust it quickly aside. Guy Remington was not for her, she said, and her wish was to forget him. If she could get through the dreaded to-morrow, she should do better. There had been a load upon her the whole day, a nightmare she could not shake off, and she had come to Lucy's room, in the hope of leaving her burden there, of praying her pain away. Would Mrs. Noah leave her a while, and see that no one came?
The good woman could not refuse, and going out, she left Maddy by the window, watching the sun as it went down, and then watching; the wintry twilight deepen over the landscape, until all things were blended together in one great darkness, and Jessie, seeking for her found her at last, fainting upon the floor.
Maddy was glad of the racking headache, which kept her in her bed the whole of the next day, glad of any excuse to stay away from the family, talking—all but Mrs. Noah—of Guy, and what was transpiring in England. They had failed to remember the difference in the longitude of the two places; but Maddy forgot nothing, and when the clock struck four, she called Mrs. Noah to her and whispered, faintly:
"They were to be married at eight in the evening. Allowing for possible delays, it's over before this and Guy is lost forever!"
Mrs. Noah had no consolation to offer, and only pressed the hot, feverish hands, while Maddy turned her face to the wall, and did not speak again, except to whisper, incoherently, as she half slumbered, half woke:
"Did Guy think of me when he promised to love her, and does he, can he, see how miserable I am?" Maddy was indeed passing through deep waters, and that night, the fourth of December, the longest, dreariest she ever knew, could never be forgotten. Once past, the worst was over, and as the rarest metal is purified by fire, so Maddy came from the dreadful ordeal strengthened for what was before her. Both Agnes and Mrs. Noah noticed the strangely beautiful expression of her face, when she came down to the breakfast-room, while Jessie, as she kissed her pale cheek, whispered:
"You look as if you had been with the angels." Guy was not expected with his bride for two weeks, or more, and as the days dragged on, Maddy felt that the waiting for him was more intolerable than the seeing him with Lucy would be. Restless and impatient, she could not remain quietly at the cottage—while at Aikenside, she longed to return again to her own home, and in this way the time wore on, until the anniversary of that day when she had come from New York, and found Guy waiting for her the station. To stay that day in the house so rife with memories of the dead was impossible, and Flora was surprised and delighted to hear that both were going up to Aikenside in the vehicle hired of Farmer Green, whose officiated as driver. It was nearly noon when they reached their destination, meeting at the gate with Flora's brother Tom, who said to them:
"We've heard from Mr. Guy; the ship is in; they'll be here sure to-night, and Mrs. Noah is turnin' things upside down with the dinner."
Leaning back in the buggy, Maddy felt for a moment as if she were dying. Never until then had she realized how, all the while, she had been clinging to an indefinable hope, a presentiment that something might yet occur to spare her from a long lifetime of pain, such as lay before her if Guy were really lost; but the bubble had burst, leaving her nothing to hope, nothing to cling to, nothing but black despair; and half bewildered, she received the noisy greeting of Jessie, who met her at the door, and dragged her into the drawing-room, decorated with flowers from the hothouse, told her to guess who was coming.
"I know; Tom told me; Guy is coming with Lucy," Maddy answered, and relieving herself from Jessie, she turned to Agnes, asking where Mrs. Noah was, and if she might go to her for a moment.
"Oh, Maddy, child, I'm sorry you've come to-day," Mrs. Noah said, as she chafed Maddy's cold hands, and leading her to the fire, made her sit down, while she untied her hood, and removed her cloak and furs.
"I did not know it, or I should have stayed away," Maddy replied; "I shall not stay, as it is. I cannot see them to-day. Charlie will drive me back before the train is due; but what did he say? And how is Lucy?" "He did not mention her. There's the dispatch" and Mrs. Noah handed to Maddy the telegram, received that morning, and which was simply as follows:
"The steamer is here. Shall be at the station at five o'clock P. M. GUY REMINGTON."
Twice Maddy read it over, experiencing much the same feeling she would have experienced had it been her death warrant she was reading.
"At five o'clock. I must go before that," she said, sighing as she remembered how, one year ago that day, she was traveling over the very route where Guy was now traveling with his bride. Did he think of it? think of his long waiting at the depot, or of that memorable ride, the events of which grew more and more distinct in her memory, making her cheeks burn even now, as she recalled his many acts of tenderness and care.
Laying the telegram on the table, she went with Mrs. Noah through the rooms, warmed and made ready for the bride, lingering longest in Lucy's, which the bridal decorations, and the bright fire blazing in the grate made singularly inviting. As yet, there were no flowers there, and Maddy claimed the privilege of arranging them for this room herself. Agnes had almost stripped the conservatory; but Maddy found enough to form a most tasteful bouquet, which she placed upon a marble dressing table; then within a slip of paper which she folded across the top, she wrote: "Welcome to the bride."
"They both will recognize my handwriting; they'll know I've been here," she thought, as with one long, last, sad look at the room, she walked away.
They were laying the table for dinner now, and with a kind of dizzy, uncertain feeling, Maddy watched the servants hurrying to and fro, bringing out the choicest china, and the glittering silver, in honor of the bride. Comparatively, it was not long since a little, frightened, homesick girl, she first sat down with Guy at that table, from which the proud Agnes would have banished her; but it seemed to her an age, so much of happiness and pain had come to her since then. There was a place for her there now, a place near Guy; but she should not fill it. She could not stay; and she astonished Agnes and Jessie, just as they were going to make their dinner toilet, by announcing her intention of going home. She was not dressed to meet Mrs. Remington, she said, shuddering as for the first time she pronounced a name which the servants had frequently used, and which jarred on her ear, every time she heard it. She was not dressed appropriately to meet an English lady. Flora of course would stay, she said, as it was natural she should, to greet her new mistress; but she must go, and finding Charlie Green she bade him bring around the buggy.
Agnes was not particularly surprised, for a vague suspicion of something like the truth had gradually been creeping into her brain, as she noted Maddy's pallid face, and the changes which passed over it whenever Guy was mentioned. Agnes pitied Maddy, for in her own heart there was a little burning spot, when she remembered who was to accompany Dr. Holbrook. So she did not urge her to remain, and she tried to hush Jessie's lamentations when she heard Maddy was going.
One long, sad, wistful look at Guy's and Lucy's home, and Maddy followed Charlie to the buggy waiting for her, bidding him drive rapidly, as there was every indication of a coming storm.
The gray, wintry afternoon was drawing to a close, and the December night was shutting down upon the Honedale hills in sleety rain, when the cottage was reached, and Maddy, passing up the narrow, slippery walk, entered the cold, dreary room, where there was neither fire nor light, nor friendly voice to greet her. No sound save the ticking of the clock; no welcome save the purring of the house cat, who came crawling at her feet as she knelt before the stove and tried to kindle the fire. Charlie Green had offered to go in and do this for her, as indeed he had offered to return and stay all night, but she had declined, preferring to be alone, and with stiffened fingers she laid the kindlings Flora had prepared, and then applying the match, watched the blue flame as it gradually licked up the smoke and burst into a cheerful blaze.
"I shall feel better when it's warm," she said, crouching over the fire, and shivering with more than bodily cold,
There was a kind of nameless terror stealing over her as she at thinking of the year ago when the inmates of three graves across the meadow were there beneath that very roof where she now sat alone.
"I'll strike a light," she said, rising to her feet, and trying not to glance at the shadowy corners filling her with fear.
The lamp was found, and its friendly beams soon dispersed the darkness from the corners and the fear from Maddy's heart, but it could not drive from her mind thoughts of what might at that moment be transpiring at Aikenside. If the bride and groom came at all that night, she knew they must have been there for an hour or more, and in fancy she saw the tired, but happy, Lucy, as up in her pleasant room she made her toilet for dinner, with Guy standing by and looking on. Just as he had a right to do. Did he smile approvingly upon his young wife? Did his eye, when it rested on her, light up with the same expression she had seen so often when it looked at her? Did he commend her taste and say his little wife was beautiful, as he kissed her fair, white cheek, or was there a cloud upon his handsome face, a shadow on his heart, heavy with thoughts of her, and would he rather it were Maddy there in the bridal room? If so, his burden was hard indeed, but not so hard as hers, and kneeling on the floor, poor Maddy laid her head in the chair, and, 'mid piteous moans, asked God, her Father, to help them both to bear—help her and Guy—making the latter love as he ought the gentle girl who had left home and friends to live with him in a far-distant land; asked, too, that she might tear from her heart every sinful thought, loving Guy only as she might love the husband of another.
The prayer ended, Maddy still sat upon the floor, while over her pale face the lamplight faintly flickered, showing the dark lines beneath her eyes and the tear stains on her cheek. Without, the storm still was raging, and the wintry rain, mingled with sleet and snow, beat piteously against the curtained windows, while the wind howled mournfully as it shook the door and sweeping past the cottage went screaming over the hill. But Maddy heard nothing of the tumult. She had brought a pillow from the bedroom, and placing it upon the chair, sat down again upon the floor and rested her head upon it. She did not even know that her pet cat had crept up beside her, purring contentedly and occasionally licking her hair, much less did she hear above the storm the swift tread of horses' feet as some one came dashing down the road, the rider pausing an instant as he caught a glimpse of the cottage lamp and then hurrying on to the public house beyond, where the hostler frowned moodily at being called out to care for a stranger's horse, the stranger meanwhile turning back a foot to where the cottage lamp shone a beacon light through the inky darkness. The stranger reached the little gate and, undoing the fastening, went hurrying up the walk, his step upon the crackling snow catching Maddy's ear at last and making her wonder who could be coming there on such a night as this. It was probably Charlie Green, she said, and with a feeling of impatience at being intruded upon she arose to her feet just as the door turned upon its hinges, letting in a powerful draught of wind, which extinguished the lamp and left her in total darkness.
But it did not matter. Maddy had caught a sound, a peculiar cough, which froze the blood in her veins and made her quake with terror quite as much as if the footsteps hurrying toward her had been the footsteps of the dead, instead of belonging, as she knew they did, to Guy Remington—Guy, who, with garments saturated with rain, felt for her in the darkness, found her where from faintness she had crouched again beside the chair, drew her closely to him, in a passionate, almost painful, hug, and said, oh! so tenderly, so lovingly:
"Maddy, my darling, my own! We will never be parted again."
Hours had gone by, and the clock hands pointed to twelve, ere Maddy compelled herself to hear the story Guy had come to tell. She had thrust him from her at first, speaking to him of Lucy, his wife, and Guy had answered her back: "I have no wife—I never had one. Lucy is in heaven," and that was all Maddy knew until the great shock had spent itself in tears and sobs, which became almost convulsions as she tried to realize the fact that Lucy Atherstone was dead; that the bridal robe about which she had written, with girlish frankness, proved to be her shroud, and that her head that night was not pillowed on Guy's arm, but was resting under English turf and beneath an English sky. She could listen at last, but her breath came in panting gasps; while Guy told her how, on the very morning of the bridal, Lucy had greeted him with her usual bright smile, appearing and looking better than he had before seen her look since he reached her mother's home; how for an hour they sat together alone in a little room sacred to her, because years before it was there he confessed his love.
Seated on a low ottoman, with her golden head lying on his lap, she had this morning told him, in her artless way, bow much she loved him, and how hard it sometimes was to make her love for the creature second to her love for the Creator; told him she was not faultless, and asked that when he found how erring and weak she was, he would bear with her frailties as she would bear with his; talked with him, too, of Maddy Clyde, confessing in a soft, low tone, how once or twice a pang of jealousy had wrung her heart when she read his praises of his pupil. But she had conquered that; she had prayed it all away, and now, next to her own sister, she loved Maddy Clyde. Other words, too, were spoken—words of guileless, pure affection, too sacred even for Guy to breathe to Maddy; and then Lucy had left him, her hart-bounding step echoing through the hall and up the winding stairs, down which she never came again alive, for when Guy next looked upon her she was lying white as a water lily, her neck and dress and golden hair stained with the pale red life current oozing from her livid lips. A blood vessel had been suddenly ruptured, the physician said, and for her, the fair, young bride, there was no hope. They told her she must die, for the mother would have them tell her. Once, for a few moments, there rested on her face a fearfully frightened look, such as a harmless bird might wear when suddenly caught in a snare. But that soon passed away as from beneath the closed eyelids the great tears came gushing, and the stained lips whispered faintly: "God knows best what's right. Poor Guy!—break it gently to him."
At this point in the story Guy broke down entirely, sobbing as only strong men can sob.
"Maddy," he said, "I felt like a heartless wretch—a most consummate hypocrite—as, standing by Lucy's side, I met the fond, pitying glance of her blue eyes, and suffered her poor little hand to part my hair as she tried to comfort me, even though every word she uttered was shortening her life; tried to comfort me, the wretch who was there so unwillingly, and who at this prospect of release hardly knew at first whether he was more sorry than pleased. You may well start from he in horror, Maddy. I was just the wretch I describe: but I overcame it, Maddy, and Heaven is my witness that no thought of you intruded itself upon me afterward is I stood by my dying Lucy—gentle, patient, loving to the last. I saw how good, how sweet she was, and something of the old love, the boy love, came back to me, as I held her in my arms, where she wished to be. I would have saved her if I could; and when I called her 'my darling Lucy,' they were not idle words. I kissed her many times for myself, and once, Maddy, for you. She told me to. She whispered: 'Kiss me, Guy, for Maddy Clyde. Tell her I'd rather she should take my place than anybody else—rather my Guy should call her wife—for I know she will not be jealous if you sometimes talked of your dead Lucy, and I know she will help lead my boy to that blessed home where sorrow never comes.' That was the last she ever spoke, and when the sun went down death had claimed my bride. She died in my arms, Maddy. I felt the last fluttering of her pulse, the last beat of her heart. I laid her back upon her pillows. I wiped the blood from her lips and from her golden curls. I followed her to her early grave. I saw her buried from my sight, and then, Maddy, I started home; thoughts of you and thoughts of Lucy blended equally together until Aikenside was reached. I talked with Mrs. Noah; I heard all of you there was to tell, and then I talked with Agnes, who was not greatly surprised, and did not oppose my coming here tonight. I could not remain there, knowing you were alone. In the bridal chamber I found your bouquet, with its 'Welcome to the bride.' Maddy, you must be that bride. Lucy sanctioned it, and the doctor, too, for I told him all. His own wedding was, of course, deferred, and he did not come home with me, but he said: 'Tell Maddy not to wait. Life is too short to waste any happiness. She has my blessing.' And, Maddy, it must be so. Aikenside needs a mistress; you are all alone. You are mine—mine forever."
The storm had died away, and the moonbeams stealing through the window told that morning was breaking, but neither Guy nor Maddy heeded the lapse of time. Theirs was a sad kind of happiness as they talked together, and could Lucy have listened to them she would have felt satisfied that she was not forgotten. One long, bright curl, cut from her head by his own hand, was all there was left of her to Guy, save the hallowed memories of her purity and goodness—memories which would yet mold the proud, impulsive Guy into the earnest, consistent Christian which Lucy in her life had desired that he should be, and which Maddy rejoiced to see him.
The close of a calm September afternoon, and the autumnal sunlight falls softly upon Aikenside, where a gay party is now assembled. For four years Maddy Clyde has been mistress there, and in looking back upon them she wonders how so much happiness as she has known could be experienced in so short a time. Never but once has the slightest ripple of sorrow shadowed her heart, and that was when her noble husband, Guy, said to her, in a voice she knew was earnest and determined that he could no longer remain deaf to his country's call—that where the battle storm was raging he was needed, and like a second Sardanapalus he must not stay at home. Then for a brief season her bright face was overcast, and her brown eyes dim with weeping. Giving him to the war seemed like giving him up to death. But women can be as true heroes as men. Indeed, it oftentimes costs more courage for a weak, confiding woman to bid her loved ones leave her for the field of carnage than it costs them to face the cannon's mouth. Maddy found it so, but Christian patriotism triumphed over all, and stifling her own grief, she sent him away with smiles, and prayers, and cheering words of encouragement, turning herself for consolation to the source from which she never sued for peace in vain. Save that she missed her husband terribly, she was not lonely, for her beautiful dark-eyed boy, whom they called Guy, Jr., kept her busy, while not very many weeks afterward, Guy, Sr., sitting in his tent, read with moistened eyes of a little golden-haired daughter, whom Maddy named Lucy Atherstone, and gazed upon a curl of hair she inclosed to the soldier father, asking if it were not like some other hair now moldering back to dust within an English churchyard. "Maggie" said it was, Aunt Maggie, as Guy, Jr., called the wife of Dr. Holbrook, who had come to Aikenside to stay, while her husband did his duty as surgeon in the army. That little daughter is a year-old baby now, and in her short white dress and coral bracelets she sits neglected on the nursery floor, while mother and Jessie, Maggie and everybody hasten out into the yard to welcome the returning soldier, Major Guy, whose arm is in a sling, and whose face is very pale from the effects of wounds received at Gettysburg, where his daring courage had well-nigh won for Maddy a widow's heritage. For the present the arm is disabled, and so he has been discharged, and comes back to the home where warm words of welcome greet him, from the lowest servant up to his darling wife, who can only look her joy as he folds her in his well arm, and kisses her beautiful face. Only Margaret Holbrook seems a little sad, she had so wanted her husband to come with Guy, but his humanity would not permit him to leave the suffering beings who needed his care. Loving messages he sent to her, and her tears were dried when she heard from Guy how greatly he was beloved by the pale occupants of the beds of pain, and how much he was doing to relieve their anguish.
Jessie, grown to be a most beautiful girl of nearly sixteen, is still a child in actions, and wild with delight at seeing her brother again, throws her arms around his neck, telling, in almost the same breath, how proud she is of him, how much she wished to go to him when she heard he was wounded, how she wishes she was a boy, so she could enlist, how nicely Flora is married and settled down at the cottage in Honedale, and then asks if he knows aught of the rebel colonel to whom just before the war broke out her mother was married, and whose home was in Richmond.
Guy knows nothing of him, except that he is still doing what he deems his duty in fighting for the Confederacy, but from exchanged prisoners, who had come up from Richmond, he has heard of a beautiful lady, an officer's wife, and as rumor said, a Northern woman, who visited them in prison, speaking kind words of sympathy, and once binding up a drummer boy's aching head with a handkerchief, which he still retained, and on whose corner could be faintly traced the name of "Agnes Remington."
Jessie's eyes are full of tears as she says:
"Poor mamma, how glad I am I did not go to Virginia with her. It's months since I heard from her direct. Of course it was she who was so good to the drummer boy. She cannot be much of a rebel," and Jessie glances triumphantly at Mrs. Noah, who, never having quite overcome her dislike of Agnes, had sorely tried Jessie by declaring that her mother "had found her level at last, and was just where she wanted to be."
Good Mrs. Noah, the ancient man whose name she bore would as soon have thought of leaving the Ark as she of turning a traitor to her country, and when she heard of the riotous mob raised against the draft, she talked seriously of going in person to New York "to give 'em a piece of her mind," and for one whole day refused to speak to Flora's husband, because he was a "dum dimocrat," and she presumed was opposed to Lincoln. With the exception of Maddy, no one was more please to see Guy than herself. He was her boy, the one she brought up, and with all a mother's fervor she kissed his bronzed cheek, and told him how glad she was to have him back.
With his boy on his sound arm, Guy disengaged himself from the noisy group and went with Maddy to where the little lady, the child he had never seen, was just beginning to show signs of resentment at being left so long alone.
"Lulu, sissy, papa's come; this is papa," the little boy cried, assuming the honor of the introduction.
Lulu, as they called her, was not afraid of the tall soldier, and stretching out her fat, white hands, went to him readily. Blue-eyed and golden haired, she bore but little resemblance to either father or mother, but there was a sweet, beautiful face, of which Maddy had often dreamed, but never seen, and whether it were in the infantile features of his little girl. Parting lovingly her yellow curls and kissing her fair cheek, he said to Maddy, softly, just as he always spoke of that dead one:
"Maddy, darling, Margaret Holbrook is right—our baby daughter is very much like our dear lost Lucy Atherstone."