"Oh, you needn't think I didn't notice the start you gave when he spoke, and the angry way you looked at him. You may pretend all you want to, but you can't cheat me. You'd be the very one to make an absurd fuss if you thought I had even so much as looked at anybody else." And then she burst out laughing at the red and pale confusion of his face. "Why, you're the very picture of jealousy at the very mention of the thing. Dear me, what a tyrant you are going to be! I was going to confess a lot of my old flirtations to you, but now I sha'n't dare to. O Henry, how funny my face feels when I laugh, so stiff, as if the muscles were all rusty! I should think I hadn't laughed for a year by the feeling."
He scarcely dared leave her when they reached her lodgings, for fear that she might get to thinking and puzzling over the matter, and, possibly, at length might hit upon a clue which, followed up, would lead her back to the grave so recently covered over in her life, and turn her raving mad with the horror of the discovery. As soon as he possibly could, he almost ran back to her lodgings in a panic. She had evidently been thinking matters over.
"How came we here in Boston together, Henry? I don't seem to quite understand why I came. I remember you came after me?"
"Yes, I came after you."
"What was the matter? Was I sick?"
"Out of my head?"
"That's the reason you took me to the doctor, I suppose?"
"But why isn't mother here with me?"
"You—you didn't seem to want her," answered Henry, a cold sweat covering his face under this terrible inquisition.
"Yes," said she, slowly, "I do remember your proposing she should come and my not wanting her. I can't imagine why. I must have been out of my head, as you say. Henry," she continued, regarding him with eyes of sudden softness, "you must have been very good to me. Dr. Heidenhoff could never make me forget that."
The next day her mother came. Henry met her at the station and explained everything to her, so that she met Madeline already prepared for the transformation, that is, as much prepared as the poor woman could be. The idea was evidently more than she could take in. In the days that followed she went about with a dazed expression on her face, and said very little. When she looked at Henry, it was with a piteous mingling of gratitude and appeal. She appeared to regard Madeline with a bewilderment that increased rather than decreased from day to day. Instead of becoming familiar with the transformation, the wonder of it evidently grew on her. The girl's old, buoyant spirits, which had returned in full flow, seemed to shock and pain her mother with a sense of incongruity she could not get over. When Madeline treated her lover to an exhibition of her old imperious tyrannical ways, which to see again was to him sweeter than the return of day, her mother appeared frightened, and would try feebly to check her, and address little deprecating remarks to Henry that were very sad to hear. One evening, when he came in in the twilight, he saw Madeline sitting with "her baby," as she had again taken to calling her mother, in her arms, rocking and soothing her, while the old lady was drying and sobbing on her daughter's bosom.
"She mopes, poor little mother!" said Madeline to Henry. "I can't think what's the matter with her. We'll take her off with us on our wedding trip. She needs a little change."
"Dear me, no, that will never do," protested the little woman, with her usual half-frightened look at Henry. "Mr. Burr wouldn't think that nice at all."
"I mean that Mr. Burr shall be too much occupied in thinking how nice I am to do any other thinking," said Madeline.
"That's like the dress you wore to the picnic at Hemlock Hollow," said Henry.
"Why, no, it isn't either. It only looks a little like it. It's light, and cut the same way; that's all the resemblance; but of course a man couldn't be expected to know any better."
"It's exactly like it," maintained Henry.
"What'll you bet?"
"I'll bet the prettiest pair of bracelets I can find in the city."
"Betting is wicked," said Madeline, "and so I suppose it's my duty to take this bet just to discourage you from betting any more. Being engaged makes a girl responsible for a young man's moral culture."
She left the room, and returned in a few moments with the veritable picnic dress on.
"There!" she said, as she stepped before the mirror.
"Ah, that's it, that's it! I give in," he exclaimed, regarding her ecstatically. "How pretty you were that day! I'd never seen you so pretty before. Do you remember that was the day I kissed you first? I should never have dared to. I just had to—I couldn't help it."
"So I believe you said at the time," observed Madeline, dryly. "It does make me not so bad," she admitted, inspecting herself with a critical air. "I really don't believe you could help it. I ought not to have been so hard on you, poor boy. There! there! I didn't mean that. Don't! Here comes mother."
Mrs. Brand entered the room, bringing a huge pasteboard box.
"Oh, she's got my wedding dress! Haven't you, mother?" exclaimed Madeline, pouncing on the box. "Henry, you might as well go right home. I can't pay any more attention to you to-night. There's more important business."
"But I want to see you with it on," he demurred.
"The worst kind."
"Well, then, you sit down and wait here by yourself for about an hour, and maybe you shall;" and the women were off upstairs.
At length there was a rustling on the stairway, and she re-entered the room, all sheeny white in lustrous satin. Behind the gauzy veil that fell from the coronal of dark brown hair adown the shoulders her face shone with a look he had never seen in it. It was no longer the mirthful, self-reliant girl who stood before him, but the shrinking, trustful bride. The flashing, imperious expression that so well became her bold beauty at other times had given place to a shy and blushing softness, inexpressibly charming to her lover. In her shining eyes a host of virginal alarms were mingled with the tender, solemn trust of love.
As he gazed, his eyes began to swim with tenderness, and her face grew dim and misty to his vision. Then her white dress lost its sheen and form, and he found himself staring at the white window-shade of his bedroom, through which the morning light was peering. Startled, bewildered, he raised himself on his elbow in bed. Yes, he was in bed. He looked around, mechanically taking note of one and another familiar feature of the apartment to make sure of his condition. There, on the stand by his bedside, lay his open watch, still ticking, and indicating his customary hour of rising. There, turned on its face, lay that dry book on electricity he had been reading himself to sleep with. And there, on the bureau, was the white paper that had contained the morphine sleeping powder which he took before going to bed. That was what had made him dream. For some of it must have been a dream! But how much of it was a dream? Re must think. That was a dream certainly about her wedding dress. Yes, and perhaps—yes, surely—that must be a dream about her mother's being in Boston. He could not remember writing Mrs. Brand since Madeline had been to Dr. Heidenhoff. He put his hand to his forehead, then raised his head and looked around the room with an appealing stare. Great God! why, that was a dream too! The last waves of sleep ebbed from his brain and to his aroused consciousness the clear, hard lines of reality dissevered themselves sharply from the vague contours of dreamland. Yes, it was all a dream. He remembered how it all was now. He had not seen Madeline since the evening before, when he had proposed their speedy marriage, and she had called him back in that strange way to kiss her. What a dream! That sleeping powder had done it—that, and the book on electricity, and that talk on mental physiology which he had overheard in the car the afternoon before. These rude materials, as unpromising as the shapeless bits of glass which the kaleidoscope turns into schemes of symmetrical beauty, were the stuff his dream was made of.
It was a strange dream indeed, such an one as a man has once or twice in a lifetime. As he tried to recall it, already it was fading from his remembrance. That kiss Madeline had called him back to give him the night before; that had been strange enough to have been a part also of the dream. What sweetness, what sadness, were in the touch of her lips. Ah! when she was once his wife, he could contend at better advantage with her depression of spirits, He would hasten their marriage. If possible, it should take place that very week.
There was a knock at the door. The house-boy entered, gave him a note, and went out. It was in Madeline's hand, and dated the preceding evening. It read as follows:—
"You have but just gone away. I was afraid when I kissed you that you would guess what I was going to do, and make a scene about it, and oh, dear! I am so tired that I couldn't bear a scene. But you didn't think. You took the kiss for a promise of what I was to be to you, when it only meant what I might have been. Poor, dear boy! it was just a little stupid of you not to guess. Did you suppose I would really marry you? Did you really think I would let you pick up from the gutter a soiled rose to put in your bosom when all the fields are full of fresh daisies? Oh, I love you too well for that! Yes, dear, I love you. I've kept the secret pretty well, haven't I? You see, loving you has made me more careful of your honour than when in my first recklessness I said I would marry you in spite of all. But don't think, dear, because I love you that it is a sacrifice I make in not being your wife. I do truly love you, but I could not be happy with you, for my happiness would be shame to the end. It would be always with us as in the dismal weeks that now are over. The way I love you is not the way I loved him, but it is a better way. I thought perhaps you would like to know that you alone have any right to kiss my lips in dreams. I speak plainly of things we never spoke of, for you know people talk freely when night hides their faces from each other, and how much more if they know that no morning shall ever come to make them shamefaced again! A certain cold white hand will have wiped away the flush of shame for ever from my face when you look on it again, for I go this night to that elder and greater redeemer whose name is death. Don't blame me, dear, and say I was not called away. Is it only when death touches our bodies that we are called? Oh, I am called, I am called, indeed! "MADELINE."