Mrs. Peter had dropped a stitch while animadverting against Miss Susan Owens, from New York, and stopped a moment while she picked it up. It would be difficult to describe Ethelyn's emotions as she heard her own husband talked of as something marketable, which others than Susan Owens might covet. He was evidently the lion of the season. It was something to have a governor of Richard's reputation in the house, and the guests made the most of it, wishing he would join them in the parlor or on the piazza, and regretting that he stayed so constantly in his room. Many attempts were made to draw him out, Mrs. and Miss Owens, on the strength of their acquaintance in Washington, venturing to call upon him, and advising him to take more exercise. Miss Owens' voice was loud and clear, and Ethie heard it distinctly as the young lady talked and laughed with Richard, the hot blood coursing rapidly through her veins, and the first genuine pangs of jealousy she had ever felt creeping into her heart as she guessed what might possibly be in Miss Owens' mind. Many times she resolved to make herself known to him; but uncertainty as to how she might be received, and the remembrance of what Mrs. Van Buren had said with regard to the divorce, held her back; and so, with only a thin partition between them, and within sound of each other's footsteps, the husband and wife, so long estranged from each other, lived on, day after day, Richard spending most of his time in his room, and Ethelyn managing so adroitly when she came in and went out, that she never saw so much as his shadow upon the floor, and knew not whether he was greatly changed or not.
IN RICHARD'S ROOM
Richard had been sick for a week or more. As is frequently the case, the baths did not agree with him at first, and Mrs. Pry reported to Ethelyn that the governor was confined to his bed, and saw no one but the doctor and nurses, not even "that bold Miss Owens, who had actually sent to Geneva for a bouquet, which she sent to his room with her compliments." This Mrs. Pry knew to be a fact, and the highly scandalized woman repeated the story to Ethelyn, who scarcely heard what she was saying for the many turbulent emotions swelling at her heart. That Richard should be sick so near to her, his wife—that other hands than hers should tend his pillow and minister to his wants—seemed not as it should be; and when she recalled the love and tender care which had been so manifest that time when he came home from Washington and found her so very ill, the wish grew strong within her to do something for him. But what to do—that was the perplexing question. She dared not go openly to him, until assured that she was wanted; and so there was nothing left but to imitate Miss Owens and adorn his room with flowers. Surely she had a right to do so much, and still her cheek crimsoned like some young girl's as she gathered together the choicest flowers the little town afforded, and arranging them into a most tasteful bouquet, sent them in to Richard, vaguely hoping that at least in the cluster of double pinks, which had been Richard's favorite, there might be hidden some mesmeric power or psychological influence which should speak to the sick man of the wayward Ethie who had troubled him so much.
Richard was sitting up in bed when Mary brought the bouquet, saying, Miss Bigelow sent it, thinking it might cheer him a bit. Should she put it in the tumbler near Miss Owens'?
Miss Owens had sent a pretty vase with hers, but Ethie's was simply tied with a bit of ribbon she had worn about her neck. And Richard took it in his hand, an exclamation escaping him as he saw and smelled the fragrant pinks, whose perfume carried him first to Olney and Andy's weedy beds in the front yard, and then to Chicopee, where in Aunt Barbara's pretty garden, a large plant of them had been growing when he went after his bride. A high wind had blown them down upon the walk, and he had come upon Ethie one day trying to tie them up. He had plucked a few, he remembered, telling Ethie they were his favorites for perfume, while the red peony was his favorite for beauty. There had been a comical gleam in her brown eyes which he now knew was born of contempt for his taste with regard to flowers. Red peonies were not the rarest of blossoms—Melinda had taught him that when he suggested having them in his conservatory; but surely no one could object to these waxen, feathery pinks, whose odor was so delicious. Miss Bigelow liked them, else she had never sent them to him. And he kept the bouquet in his hand, admiring its arrangement, inhaling the sweet perfume of the delicate pinks and heliotrope, and speculating upon the kind of person Miss Bigelow must be to have thought so much of him. He could account for Miss Owens' gift—the hot-house blossoms, which had not moved him one-half so much as did this bunch of pinks. She had known him before—had met him in Washington; he had been polite to her on one or two occasions, and it was natural that she should wish to be civil, at least while he was sick. But the lady in No. 101—the Miss Bigelow for whom he had discarded his boots and trodden on tiptoe half the time since his arrival—why she should care for him he could not guess; and finally deciding that it was a part of Clifton, where everybody was so kind, he put the bouquet in the tumbler Mary had brought and placed it on the stand beside him. He was very restless that night, and Ethie heard the watchman at his door twice asking if he wanted anything.
"Nothing," was the reply, and the voice, heard distinctly in the stillness of the night, was so faint and sad that Ethie hid her face in her pillow and sobbed bitterly, while the intense longing to see him grew so strong within her that by morning the resolution was taken to risk everything for the sake of looking upon him again.
He did not require an attendant at night—he preferred being alone, she had ascertained; and she knew that his door was constantly left open for the admission of fresh air. The watchman only came into the hall once an hour or thereabouts, and while Richard slept it would be comparatively easy for her to steal into his room. Fortune seemed to favor her, for when at nine the doctor, as usual, came up to pay his round visits, she heard him say, "I will leave you something which never fails to make one sleep," and after two hours had passed she knew by the regular breathing which, standing on the threshold of her room, she could distinctly hear, that Richard was sleeping soundly. The watchman had just made the tour of that hall, and the faint glimmer of his lantern was disappearing down the stairs. It would be an hour before he came back again, and now, if ever, was her time. There was a great throb of fear at her heart, a trembling of every joint, a choking sensation in her throat, a shrinking back from what might probably be the result of that midnight visit; and then, nerving herself for the effort, she stepped out into the hall and listened. Everything was quiet, and every room was darkened, save by the moon, which, at its full, was pouring a flood of light through the southern window at the end of the hall and seemed to beckon her on. She was standing now at Richard's door, opened wide enough to admit her, and so she made no noise as she stepped cautiously across the threshold and stood within the chamber. The window faced the east, and the inside blinds were opened wide, making Ethelyn remember how annoyed she used to be at that propensity of Richard's to roll up every curtain and open every shutter so as to make the room light and airy. It was light now almost as day, for the moonlight lay upon the floor in a great sheet of silver, and showed her plainly the form and features of the sick man upon the bed. She knew he was asleep, and with a beating heart she drew near to him, and stood for a moment looking down upon the face she had not seen since that wintry morning five years before, when in the dim twilight, it had bent wistfully over her, as if the lips would fain have asked forgiveness for the angry words and deeds of the previous night. That face was pale now, and thin, and the soft brown hair was streaked with gray, making Richard look older than he was. He had suffered, and the suffering had left its marks upon him so indisputably that Ethie could have cried out with pain to see how changed he was.
"Poor Richard," she whispered softly, and kneeling by the bedside she laid her hot cheek as near as she dared to the white, wasted hand resting outside the counterpane.
She did not think what the result of waking him might be. She did not especially care. She was his wife, let what would happen—his erring but repentant Ethie. She had a right to be there with him, and so at last she took his thin hand between her own, and caressed it tenderly. Then Richard moved, and moaning in his deep sleep seemed to have a vague consciousness that someone was with him. Perhaps it was the nurse who had been with him at night on one or two occasions; but the slumber into which he had fallen was too deep to be easily broken. Something he murmured about the medicine, and Ethie's hand held it to his lips, and Ethie's arm was passed beneath his pillow as she lifted up his head while he swallowed it. Then, without unclosing his eyes, he lay back upon his pillow again, while Ethie stood over him until the glimmer of the watchman's lamp passed down the hall a second time, and disappeared around the corner. The watchman had stopped at Richard's door to listen, and then Ethie had experienced a spasm of terror at the possibility of being discovered; but with the receding footsteps her fears left her, and she waited a half-hour longer, while Richard in his dreams talked of bygone days—speaking of Olney, and then of Daisy and herself. Dead, both of them, he seemed to think; and Ethie's pulse throbbed with a strange feeling of joy as she heard herself called his poor darling, whom he wanted back again. She was satisfied now. He had not forgotten her, or even thought to separate himself from her, as Aunt Van Buren hinted. He was true to her yet, and she had acted foolishly in keeping aloof from him so long. But she would be foolish no longer. To-morrow he should know everything. If he would only awaken she would tell him now, and take the consequences. But Richard did not waken, and at last, with a noiseless step, she glided back to her own chamber. She would write to Richard, she decided. She could talk to him better on paper, and, then, if he did not care to receive her, they would both be spared much embarrassment.
Ethie's door was locked all the next morning, for she was writing to her husband a long, humble letter, in which all the blame was taken upon herself, inasmuch as she had made the great mistake of marrying without love. "But I do love you now, Richard," she said; "love you truly, too, else I should never be writing this to you, and asking you to take me back and try if I cannot make you happy."
It was a good deal for Ethie to confess that she had been so much in fault; but she did it honestly, and when the letter was finished she felt as if all that had been wrong and bitter in the past was swept away, and a new era in her life had begun. She would wait till night, she said—wait till all was again quiet in the hall and in the sick-room, and then when the boy came around with the mail, as he was sure to do, she would hand her letter to him, and bid him leave it in Governor Markham's room. The rest she could not picture to herself; but she waited impatiently for the long August day to draw to its close, joining the guests in the parlor by way of passing the time, and appearing so bright and gay that those who had thought her proud and cold, and reticent, wondered at the brightness of her face and the glad, eager expression of her eyes. She was pretty, after all, they thought, and even Miss Owens, from New York, tried to be very gracious, speaking to her of Governor Markham, whose room adjoined hers, and asking if she had seen him. About him Ethie did not care to talk, and, making some excuse to get away, left the room without hearing a whisper of the story which was going the rounds of the Cure, and which Miss Owens was rather desirous of communicating to someone who, like herself, would be likely to believe it a falsehood.
MRS. PETER PRY TAKES A PACK
Mrs. Pry was in a pack, a whole pack, too, which left nothing free but her head, and even that was bandaged in a wet napkin, so that the good woman was in a condition of great helplessness, and nervously counted the moments which must elapse ere Annie, the bath girl, would come to her relief. Now, as was always the case when in a pack, her ears were uncorked and turned toward the door, which she had purposely left ajar, so as not to lose a word, in case any of the ladies came down to that end of the hall and stood by the window while they talked together. They were there now, some half a dozen or more, and they were talking eagerly of the last fresh piece of news brought by Mrs. Carter and daughter, who had arrived from Iowa the day before, and for lack of accommodations at the Cure had gone to the hotel. Both were old patients, and well known in Clifton and so they had spent most of the day at the Cure, hunting up old acquaintances and making new ones. Being something of lion-seekers, they had asked at the office who was there worth knowing, the young lady's face wearing a very important air as she glanced round upon the guests, and remarked, "How different they seemed from those charming people from Boston and New York whom we met here last summer!"
It did not appear as if there was a single lion there this season, whether moneyed, literary, or notorious; and Miss Annie Carter thought it very doubtful whether they should remain or go on to Saratoga, as all the while she had wished to do. In great distress good Mrs. Leigh racked her brain to think who the notables were, and finally bethought herself of Governor Markham, whose name acted like magic upon the newcomers.
"Governor Markham here? Strange, I never thought of Clifton when I heard that he was going East for his health. How is he? Does he improve? It is quite desirable that he should do so, if all reports are true;" and Mrs. Carter looked very wise and knowing upon the group which gathered around her, anxious to hear all she had to tell of Governor Markham.
She did not pretend that she knew him herself, as she lived some distance from Davenport; but she had heard a great deal about him and his handsome house; and Annie, her daughter, who was visiting in Davenport, had been all over it after it was finished. Such a beautiful suite of rooms as he had fitted up for his bride; they were the envy and wonder of both Davenport and Rock Island, too.
"His bride! We did not know he had one. He passes for a widower here," several voices echoed in chorus, and then Mrs. Carter began the story which had come to her through a dozen mediums, and which circulated rapidly through the house, but had not reached Mrs. Pry up to the time when, with her blanket and patchwork quilt she had brought from New Hampshire, she lay reposing in her pack, with her ears turned toward the door and ventilator, ready to catch the faintest breath of gossip.
She heard a great deal that afternoon, for the ladies at the end of the hall did not speak very low, and when at last she was released from her bandages and had made her afternoon toilet, she hastened round to Miss Bigelow's to report what she had heard. Tired with her vigils of the previous night, Ethie was lying down, but she bade Mrs. Pry come in, and then kept very quiet while the good woman proceeded to ask if she had heard the news. Ethie had not, but her heart stood still while her visitor, speaking in a whisper, asked if she was sure Governor Markham could not hear. That the news concerned herself Ethelyn was sure, and she was glad that her face was in a measure concealed from view as she listened to the story.
Governor Markham's wife was not dead, as they had supposed. She was a shameless creature, who eight or ten years before eloped with a man a great deal younger than herself. She was very beautiful, people said, and very fascinating, and the governor worshiped the ground she trod upon. He took her going off very hard at first, and for years scarcely held up his head. But lately he had seemed different, and had been more favorable to a divorce, as advised by his friends. This, however, was after he met Miss Sallie Morton, whose father was a millionaire in Chicago, and whose pretty face had captivated the grave governor. To get the divorce was a very easy matter there in the West, and the governor was now free to marry again. As Miss Morton preferred Davenport to any other place in Iowa, he had built him a magnificent house upon a bluff, finishing it elegantly, and taking untold pains with the suite of rooms intended for his bride. As Miss Sallie objected to marrying him while he was so much of an invalid, he had come to Clifton, hoping to reestablish his health so as to bring home his wife in the autumn, for which event great preparations were making in the family of Miss Sallie.
This was the story as told by Mrs. Pry, and considering that it had only come to her through eight or ten different persons, she repeated the substance of it pretty accurately, and then stopped for Ethie's comment. But Ethie had nothing to say, and when, surprised at her silence, Mrs. Pry asked if she believed it at all, there was still no reply, for Ethelyn had fainted. The reaction was too great from the bright anticipations of the hour before, to the crushing blow which had fallen so suddenly upon her hopes. That a patient at Clifton should faint was not an uncommon thing. Mrs. Pry had often felt like it herself when just out of a pack, or a hot sulphur bath, and so Ethie's faint excited no suspicion in her mind. She was fearful, though, that Miss Bigelow had not heard all the story, but Ethie assured her that she had, and then added that if left to herself she might possibly sleep, as that was what she needed. So Mrs. Pry departed, and Ethie was alone with the terrible calamity which had come upon her. She had been at the Water Cure long enough to know that not more than half of what she heard was true, and this story she knew was false in the parts pertaining to herself and her desertion of her husband. She had never heard before that she was suspected of having had an associate in the flight, and her cheeks crimsoned at the idea, while she wondered if Richard had ever thought that of her. Not at first, she knew, else he had never sought for her so zealously as Aunt Barbara had intimated; but latterly, as he had heard no tidings from her, he might have surmised something of the kind, and that was the secret of the divorce.
"Oh, Richard! Richard!" she murmured, with her hands pressed tightly over her lips, so as to smother all sound, "I felt so sure of your love. You were so different from me. I am punished more than I can bear."
If she had never known before, Ethie knew now, how much she really loved her husband, and how the hope of eventually returning to him had been the day-star of her life. Had she heard that he was lying dead in the next room, she would have gone to him at once, and claiming him as hers, would have found some comfort in weeping sadly over him, and kissing his cold lips, but now it did indeed seem more than she could bear. She did not doubt the story of the divorce, or greatly disbelieve in the other wife. It was natural that many should seek to win his love now that he had risen so high, and she supposed it was natural that he should wish for another companion. Perhaps he believed her dead, and Ethie's heart gave one great throb of joy as she thought of going in to him, and by her bodily presence contradict that belief, and possibly win him from his purpose. But Ethie was too proud for that, and her next feeling was one of exultation that she had not permitted Aunt Barbara to write, or herself taken any measures for communicating with him. He should never know how near she had been to him, or guess ever so remotely of the anguish she was enduring, as, only a few feet removed from him, she suffered, in part, all the pain and sorrow she had brought upon him. Then, as she remembered the new house fitted for the bride, she said:
"I must see that house. I must know just what is in store for my rival. No one knows me in Davenport. Richard is not at home, and there is no chance for my being recognized."
With this decision came a vague feeling akin to hope that possibly the story was false—that after all there was no rival, no divorce. At all events, she should know for a certainty by going to Davenport; and with every nerve stretched to its utmost tension, Ethie arose from her bed and packed her trunk quietly and quickly, and then going to the office, surprised the clerk with the announcement that she wished to leave on the ten-o'clock train. She had received news which made her going so suddenly imperative, she said to him, and to the physician, whom she called upon next, and whose strong arguments against her leaving that night almost overcame her. But Ethie's will conquered at last, and when the train from the East came in she stood upon the platform at the station, her white face closely veiled, and her heart throbbing with the vague doubts which began to assail her as to whether she were really doing a wise and prudent thing in going out alone and unprotected to the home she had no right to enter, and where she was not wanted.
Hot, and dusty, and tired, and sick, and utterly hopeless and wretched, Ethie looked drearily out from the windows of her room at the hotel, whither she had gone on her first arrival in Davenport. Her head seemed bursting as she stood tying her bonnet before the mirror, and drawing on her gloves, she glanced wistfully at the inviting-looking bed, feeling strongly tempted to lie down there among the pillows and wait till she was rested before she went out in that broiling August sun upon her strange errand. But a haunting presentiment of what the dizziness and pain in her head and temples portended urged her to do quickly what she had to do; so with another gulp of the ice water she had ordered, and which only for a moment cooled her feverish heat, she went from her room into the hall, where the boy was waiting to show her the way to "the governor's house." He knew just where it was. Everybody knew in Davenport, and the chambermaid to whom Ethie had put some questions, had volunteered the information that the governor had gone East for his health, and the house, she believed, was shut up—not shut so that she could not effect an entrance to it. She would find her way through every obstacle, Ethie thought, wondering vaguely at the strength which kept her up and made her feel equal to most anything as she followed her conductor through street after street, onward and onward, up the hill, where the long windows and turrets of a most elegant mansion were visible. When asked at the hotel if she would not have a carriage, she had replied that she preferred to walk, feeling that in this way she should expend some of the fierce excitement consuming her like an inward fire. It had not abated one whit when at last the house was reached, and dismissing her guide she stood a moment upon the steps, leaning her throbbing head against the door post, and summoning courage to ring the bell. Never before had she felt so much like an intruder, or so widely separated from her husband, as during the moment she stood at the threshold of her home, hesitating whether to ring or go away and give the matter up. She could not go away now that she had come so far, she finally decided. She must go in and see the place where Richard lived, and so, at last, she gave the silver knob a pull, which reverberated through the entire house, and brought Hannah, the housemaid, in a trice to see who was there.
"Is Governor Markham at home?" Ethie asked, as the girl waited for her to say something.
Governor Markham was East, and the folks all gone, the girl replied, staring a little suspiciously at the stranger who without invitation, had advanced into the hall, and even showed a disposition to make herself further at home by walking into the drawing room, the door of which was slightly ajar.
"My name is Markham. I am a relative of the governor. I am from the East," Ethelyn volunteered, as she saw the girl expected some explanation.
Had Hannah known more of Ethelyn, she might have suspected something; but she had not been long in the family, and coming, as she did, from St. Louis, the story of her master's wife was rather mythical to her than otherwise. That there was once a Mrs. Markham, who, for beauty, and style, and grandeur, was far superior to Mrs. James, the present mistress of the establishment, she had heard vague rumors; while only that morning when dusting and airing Richard's room, she had stopped her work a moment to admire the handsome picture which Richard had had painted, from a photograph of Ethie, taken when she was only seventeen. It was a beautiful, girlish face, and the brown eyes were bright and soft, and full of eagerness and joy; while the rounded cheeks and pouting lips were not much like the pale thin woman who now stood in the marbled hall, claiming to be a relative of the family. Hannah never dreamed who it was; but, accustomed to treat with respect everything pertaining to the governor, she opened the door of the little reception-room, and asked the lady to go in.
"I'll send you Mrs. Dobson the housekeeper," she said; and Ethie heard her shuffling tread as she disappeared through the hall and down the stairs to the regions where Mrs. Dobson reigned.
Ethelyn was a little afraid of that dignitary; something in the atmosphere of the house made her afraid of everything, inspiring her as it did with the feeling that she had no business there—that she was a trespasser, a spy, whom Mrs. Dobson would be justified in turning from the door. But Mrs. Dobson meditated no such act. She was a quiet, inoffensive, unsuspicious, personage, believing wholly in Governor Markham and everything pertaining to him. She was canning fruit when Hannah came with the message that some of the governor's kin had come from the East, and remembering to have heard that Richard once had an uncle somewhere in Massachusetts, she had no doubt that this was a daughter of the old gentleman and a cousin of Richard's, especially as Hannah described the stranger as youngish and tolerably good-looking. She had no thought that it was the runaway wife, of whom she knew more than Hannah, else she would surely have dropped the Spencer jar she was filling and burned her fingers worse than she did, trying to crowd in the refractory cover, which persisted in tipping up sideways and all ways but the right way.
"Some of his kin. Pity they are gone. What shall we do with her?" she said, as she finally pushed the cover to its place and blew the thumb she had burned badly.
"Maybe she don't mean to stay long; she didn't bring no baggage," Hannah said, and thus reassured, Mrs. Dobson rolled down her sleeves and tying on a clean apron, started for the reception-room, where Ethie sat like one stupefied, or one who walks in a dream from which he tries in vain to waken.
This house, as far as she could judge, was not like that home on the prairie where her first married days were spent. Everything here was luxurious and grand and in such perfect taste. It seemed a princely home, and Ethie experienced more than one bitter pang of regret that by her own act she had in all probability cut herself off from any part or lot in this earthly paradise.
"I deserve it, but it is very hard to bear," she thought, just as Mrs. Dobson appeared and bowing respectfully, began:
"Hannah tells me you are kin to the governor's folks,—his cousin, I reckon—and I am so sorry they are all, gone, and will be yet for some weeks. The governor is at a water cure down East—strange you didn't hear of it—and t'other Mr. Markham has gone with his wife to Olney, and St. Paul, and dear knows where. Too bad, ain't it? But maybe you'll stay a day or two and rest? We'll make you as comfortable as we can. You look about beat out," and Mrs. Dobson came nearer to Ethelyn, whose face and lips were white as ashes, and whose eyes looked almost black with her excitement.
She was very tired. The rapid journey, made without rest or food either, save the cup of tea and cracker she tried to swallow, was beginning to tell upon her, and while Mrs. Dobson was speaking she felt stealing over her the giddiness which she knew was a precursor to fainting.
"I am tired and heated," she gasped. "I could not sleep at the hotel or eat, either. I will stay a day and rest, if you please. Rich—Governor Markham will not care; I was traveling this way, and thought I would call. I have heard so much about his house."
She felt constrained to say this by way of explanation, and Mrs. Dobson accepted it all, warming up at once on the subject of the house—that was her weak point; while to show strangers through the handsome rooms was her delight. No opportunity to do this had for some time been presented, and the good woman's face glowed with the pleasure she anticipated from showing the governor's cousin his house and grounds. But first the lady must have some dinner, and bidding her lay aside her bonnet and shawl and make herself at home, she hurried back to the kitchen and dispatched Hannah for the tender lamb-chop she was going to broil, as that was something easily cooked, and the poor girl seemed so tired and feeble.
"She looks like the Markhams, or like somebody I've seen," she said, never dreaming of finding the familiar resemblance to "somebody she had seen" in the picture hanging in Richard's room.
What she would have done had she known who the stranger was is doubtful. Fortunately she did not know; but being hospitably inclined, and feeling anxious to show the governor's Eastern relatives how grand and nice they were, she broiled the tender lamb, and made the fragrant coffee, and laid the table in the cozy breakfast-room, and put on the little silver set, and then conducted her visitor out to dinner, helping her herself, and leaving the room with the injunction to ring if she wanted anything, as Hannah was within hearing. Terribly bewildered and puzzled with regard to her own identity, Ethie sat down to Richard's table, in Richard's house, and partook of Richard's food, with a strange feeling of quiet, and a constantly increasing sensation of numbness and bewilderment. Access to the house had been easier than she fancied; but she could not help feeling that she had no right to be there, no claim on Richard's hospitality. Certainly she had none, if what she had heard at Clifton were true. But was it? There was some doubt creeping into her mind, though why Richard should wish to build so large and so fine a house just for himself alone she could not understand. She never guessed how every part of that dwelling had been planned with a direct reference to her and her tastes; that not a curtain, or a carpet, or a picture had been purchased without Melinda's having said she believed Ethie would approve it. Every stone, and plank and tack, and nail had in it a thought of the Ethie whose coming back had been speculated upon and planned in so many different ways, but never in this way—never just as it had finally occurred, with Richard gone, and no one there to welcome her, save the servants in the kitchen, who, while she ate her solitary dinner, feeling more desolate and wretched than she had ever before felt in her life, wondered who she was, and how far they ought to go with their attentions and civilities. They were not suspicious, but took her for what she professed to be—a Markham, and a near connection of the governor; and as that stamped her somebody, they were inclined to be very civil, feeling sure that Mrs. James would heartily approve their course. She had rung no bell for Hannah; but they knew her dinner was over, for they heard her as she went back into the reception-room, where Mrs. Dobson ere long joined her, and asked if she would like to see the house.
"It's the only thing we can amuse you with, unless you are fond of music. Maybe you are," and Mrs. Dobson led the way to a little music-room, where, in the recess of a bow window a closed piano was standing.
At first Ethelyn did not observe it closely; but when the housekeeper opened it, and pushing back the heavy drapery, disclosed it fully to view, Ethie started forward with a sudden cry of wonder and surprise, while her face was deathly pale, and the fingers which came down with a crash upon the keys shook violently, for she knew it was her old instrument standing there before her—the one she had sold to procure money for her flight. Richard must have bought it back; for her sake, too, or rather for the sake of what she once was to him, not what she was now.
"Play, won't you?" Mrs. Dobson said. But Ethie could not then have touched a note. The faintest tone of that instrument would have maddened her and she turned away from it with a shudder, while the rather talkative Mrs. Dobson continued: "It's an old piano, I believe, that belonged to the first Mrs. Markham. There's to be a new one bought for the other Mrs. Markham, I heard them say."
Ethie's hands were tightly locked together now, and her teeth shut so tightly over her lips that the thin skin was broken, and a drop of blood showed upon the pale surface; but in so doing she kept back a cry of anguish which leaped up from her heart at Mrs. Dobson's words. The "first Mrs. Markham," that was herself, while the "other Mrs. Markham" meant, of course, her rival—the bride about whom she had heard at Clifton. She did not think of Melinda as being a part of that household, "and the other Mrs. Markham," for whom the new piano was to be purchased—she thought of nothing but herself, and her own blighted hopes.
"Does the governor know for certain that his first wife is dead?" she asked, at last, and Mrs. Dobson replied:
"He believes so, yes. It's five years since he heard a word. Of course she's dead. She must have been a pretty creature. Her picture is in the governor's room. Come, I will show it to you."
Mrs. Dobson had left her glasses in the kitchen, so she did not notice the white, stony face, so startling in its expression, as her visitor followed her on up the broad staircase into the spacious hall above, and on still further, till they came to the door of Richard's room, which Hannah had left open. Then for a moment Ethelyn hesitated. It seemed almost like a sacrilege for her feet to tread the floor of that private room, for her breath to taint the atmosphere of a spot where the new wife would come. But Mrs. Dobson led her on until she stood in the center of Richard's room, surrounded by the unmistakable paraphernalia of a man, with so many things around her to remind her of the past. Surely, this was her own furniture; the very articles he had chosen for the room in Camden. It was kind in Richard to keep and bring them here, where everything was so much more elegant—kind, too, in him to redeem her piano. It showed that for a time, at least, he had remembered her; but alas! he had forgotten her now, when she wanted his love so much. There were great blurring tears in her eyes, and she could not distinctly see the picture on the walk which Mrs. Dobson said was the first Mrs. Markham, asking if she was not a beauty.
"Rather pretty, yes," Ethie said, making a great effort to speak naturally, and adding after a moment: "I suppose it will be taken down when the other Mrs. Markham comes."
In Mrs. Dobson's mind the other Mrs. Markham only meant Melinda, and she replied:
"Why should it? She knows it is here. She knew the other lady and liked her, too."
"She knew me? Who can it be?" Ethie asked herself, remembering that the name she had heard at Clifton was a strange one to her.
"This, now, is the very handsomest part of the whole house," Mrs. Dobson said, throwing open a door which led from Richard's room into a suite of apartments which, to Ethie's bewildered gaze, seemed more like fairyland than anything real she had ever seen. "This the governor fitted up expressly for his wife and I'm told he spent more money here than in all the upper rooms. Did you ever see handsomer lace? He sent to New York for them," she said, lifting up one of the exquisitely wrought curtains festooned across the arch which divided the boudoir from the large sleeping room beyond. "This I call the bridal chamber," she continued, stepping into the room where everything was so pure and white. "But, bless me, I forgot that I put on a lot of bottles to heat: I'll venture they are every one of them shivered to atoms. Hannah is so careless. Excuse me, will you, and entertain yourself a while. I reckon you can find your way back to the parlor."
Ethelyn wanted nothing so much as to be left alone and free to indulge in the emotions which were fast getting the mastery of her. Covering her face with her hands, as the door closed after Mrs. Dobson, she sat for a moment bereft of the power to think or feel. Then, as things became more real, as great throbs of heat and pain went tearing through her temples, she remembered that she was in Richard's house, up in the room which Mrs. Dobson had termed the bridal chamber, the apartments which had been fitted up for Richard's bride, whoever she might be.
"I never counted on this," she whispered, as she paced up and down the range of rooms, from the little parlor or boudoir to the dressing room beyond the bedroom, and the little conservatory at the side, where the choicest of plants were in blossom, and where the dampness was so cool to her burning brow.
It did not strike her as strange that Richard should have thought of all this, nor did she wonder whose taste had aided him in making such a home. She did not wonder at anything except at herself, who had missed so much and fallen into such depths of woe.
"Oh, Richard!" she sighed, as she went back to the bridal chamber. "You would pity me now, and forgive me, too, if you knew what I am suffering here in your home, which can never, never be mine!"
She was standing now near the low window, taking in the effect of her surroundings, from the white ground carpet covered with brilliant bouquets, to the unrumpled, snowy bed which looked so deliciously cool and inviting and seemed beckoning the poor, tired woman to its embrace. And Ethie yielded at last to the silent invitation, forgetting everything save how tired, and sorry, and fever-smitten she was, and how heavy her swollen eyelids were with tears unshed, and the many nights she had not slept. Ethie's cheeks were turning crimson, and her pulse throbbing rapidly as, loosing her long, beautiful hair, which of all her girlish beauty remained unimpaired, and putting off her little gaiters, she lay down upon the snowy bed, and pressing her aching head upon the pillows, whispered softly to her other self—the Ethelyn Grant she used to know in Chicopee, when a little twelve-year-old girl she fled from the maddened cow and met the tall young man from the West.
"Governor Markham they call him now," she said, "and I am Mrs. Governor," and a wild laugh broke the stillness of the rooms kept so sacred until now.
In the hall below Hannah overheard the laugh, and mounting the stairs cast one frightened glance into the chamber where a tossing, moaning figure lay upon the bed, with masses of brown hair falling about the face and floating over the pillows.
Good Mrs. Dobson dropped one of the jars she was filling when Hannah came with her strange tale, and leaving the scalding mass of pulp and juice upon the floor, she hastened up the stairs, and with as stern a voice as it was possible for her to assume, demanded of Ethelyn what she was doing there. But Ethie only whispered on to herself of divorces, and governors' wives-elect, and bridal chambers where she could rest so nicely. Mrs. Dobson and Mrs. Dobson's ire were nothing to her, and the good woman's wrath changed to pity as she met the bright, restless eyes, and felt the burning hands which she held for a moment in her own. It was a pretty little hand—soft and white and small almost as a child's. There was a ring upon the left hand, too; a marriage ring, Mrs. Dobson guessed, wondering now more than ever who the stranger was that had thus boldly taker possession of a room where none but the family ever came.
"She is married, it would seem," she said to Hannah, and then, as Richard's name dropped from Ethelyn's lips, she looked curiously at the flushed face so ghastly white, save where spots of crimson colored the cheeks, and at the mass of hair which Ethie had pushed up and off from the forehead it seemed to oppress with its weight.
"Go, bring me some ice-water from the cellar," Mrs. Dobson said to Hannah, who hurried away on the errand, while the housekeeper, left to herself, bent nearer to Ethelyn and closely scrutinized her face; then stepping to Richard's room, she examined the picture on the wall, where the hair was brushed back and the lips were parted like the lips and hair in that other room where the stranger was.
Mrs. Dobson was a good deal alarmed—"set back," as she afterward expressed it when telling the story to Melinda—and her knees fairly knocked together as she returned to the sick-room, and bending again over the stranger asked, "Is your name Ethelyn?"
For an instant there was a look of consciousness in the brown eyes, and Ethie whispered faintly:
"Don't tell him. Don't send me away. Let me stay here and die; it won't be long, and this pillow is so nice."
She was wandering again, and satisfied that her surmises were correct, Mrs. Dobson lifted her gently up, and to the great surprise of Hannah, who had returned with the ice, began removing the heavy dress and the skirts so much in the way.
"Bring some of Mrs. Markham's night-clothes, and ask me no questions," she said to the astonished girl, who silently obeyed her, and then assisted while Ethelyn was arrayed in Melinda's night-gown and made more comfortable and easy than she could be in her own tight-fitting dress.
"Take this to the telegraph office," was Mrs. Dobson's next order, after she had been a few moments in the library, and Hannah obeyed, reading as she ran:
"DAVENPORT, August—. "To MRS. JAMES MARKHAM, Olney:
"There's a strange woman sick here. Please come home. "ELINOR DOBSON."
The way was open for the dispatch, and in less than half an hour the operator at Olney was writing out the message which would take Melinda back to Davenport as fast as steam could carry her.
Mrs. James Markham had spent a few weeks with a party of Davenport friends in St. Paul and vicinity, but she was now at home in Olney with her mother, whom she helped with the ironing that morning, showing a quickness and dexterity in the doing up of Tim's shirts and best table linen which proved that, although a "mighty fine lady," as some of the Olneyites termed her, she had neither forgotten nor was above working in the kitchen when the occasion required. The day's ironing was over now, and refreshed with a bath and a half-hour's sleep after it, she sat under the shadow of the tall trees, arrayed in her white marseilles, which, being gored, made her look, as unsophisticated Andy thought, most too slim and flat. Andy himself was over at the Joneses that afternoon, and, down upon all fours, was playing bear with baby Ethelyn, who shouted and screamed with delight at the antics of her childish uncle. Mrs. James was not contemplating a return to Davenport for three or four weeks; indeed, ever since the letter received from Clifton with regard to Richard's sickness, she had been seriously meditating a flying visit to the invalid, who she knew would be glad to see her. It must be very desolate for him there alone, she said; and then her thoughts went after the wanderer whom they had long since ceased to talk about, much less than to expect back again. Melinda was sadly thinking of her, and speculating as to what her fate had been, when down the road from the village came the little messenger boy, who always made one's heart beat so fast when he handed out his missive. He had one now, and he brought it to Melinda, who, thinking of her husband, gone to Denver City, felt a thrill of fear lest something had befallen him. But no; the dispatch came from Davenport, from Mrs. Dobson herself, and read that a strange woman lay very sick in the house.
"A strange woman," that was all, but it made Melinda's heart leap up into her throat at the bare possibility as to who the strange woman might be. Andy was standing by her now reading the message, and Melinda knew by the flush upon his face, and the drops of perspiration which started out so suddenly around his mouth, that he, too, shared her suspicions. But not a word was spoken by either upon the subject agitating them so powerfully. Melinda only said, "I must go home at once—in the next train if possible," while Andy rejoined, "I am going with you."
Melinda knew why he was going, and when at last they were on the way, the sight of his honest-speaking face, glowing all over with eagerness and joyful anticipations, kept her own spirits up, and made what she so greatly hoped for seem absolutely certain. It was morning when they arrived, and were driven rapidly through the streets toward home. The house seemed very quiet; every window and shutter, so far as they could see, was closed, and both experienced a terrible fear lest "the strange woman" was gone. They could not wait for Hannah to open the door, and so they went round to the basement, surprising Mrs. Dobson as she bent over the fire, stirring the basin of gruel she was preparing for her patient. "The strange woman" was not gone. She was raving mad, Mrs. Dobson said, and talked the queerest things. "I've had the doctor, just as I knew you would have done, had you been here," she said, "and he pronounced it brain fever, brought on by fatigue, and some great excitement or worriment. 'Pears like she thought she was divorced, or somebody was divorced, for she was talking about it, and showing the ring on her fourth finger. I hope Governor Markham won't mind it. 'Twas none of my doings. She went there herself, and I first found her in the bed in that room where nobody ever slept—the bride's room, I call it, you know."
"Is she there?" Melinda asked, in amazement, while Andy, who had been standing near the door which led up to the next floor, disappeared up the stairs, leaving the women alone.
He knew the way to the room designated, and went hurrying on until he reached the door, and there he paused, his flesh creeping with the intensity of his excitement, and his whole being pervaded with a crushing sense of eager expectancy. He had not put into words what or whom he expected to find on the other side of the door he hardly dared to open. He only knew he should be terribly disappointed if his conjectures proved wrong, and a smothered prayer rose to his lips, "God grant it may be the she I mean."
The she he meant was sleeping now. The brown head which rolled so restlessly all night was lying quietly upon the pillows, the burning cheek resting upon one hand, and the mass of long, bright hair tucked back under one of Mrs. Dobson's own nightcaps, that lady having sought in vain for such an article among her mistress' wardrobe. She did not hear Andy as he stepped softly across the floor to the bedside. Bending cautiously above her, he hesitated a moment, while a great throb of disappointment ran through his veins. Surely that was not Ethie, with the hollow cheeks and the disfiguring frill around her face, giving her more the look of the new and stylish nurse Melinda had got from Chicago—the woman who wore a cap in place of a bonnet, and jabbered half the time in some foreign tongue, which Melinda said was French. The room was very dark, and Andy pushed back a blind, letting in such a flood of light that the sleeper started, and moaned, and turned herself upon the pillow, while with a gasping, sobbing cry, Andy fell upon his knees, and with clasped hands and streaming eyes, exclaimed:
"I thank Thee, Father of mercies, more than I can tell, for it is Ethie—it is Ethie—it is Ethie, our own darling Ethie, come back to us again; and now, dear Lord, bring old Dick home at once, and let us have a time of it."
Ethie's eyes were opened and fixed inquiringly upon Andy. Something in his voice and manner must have penetrated through the mists of delirium clouding her brain, for the glimmer of a smile played round her lips, and her hands moved slowly toward him; then they went back again to her throat and tugged at the nightcap strings which good Mrs. Dobson had tied in a hard knot by way of keeping the cap upon the refractory head. Ethie did not fancy the cap any more than Andy, who, guessing her wishes, lent his own assistance to the untying of the strings.
"You don't like the pesky thing on your head, making you look so like a scarecrow, do you?" he said gently, as with a jerk he broke the strings and then threw the discarded cap upon the floor.
Ethie seemed to know him for a moment, and, "Kiss me, Andy," came feebly from her lips. Winding his arms about her, Andy did kiss her many times, while his tears dropped upon her face and moistened the long hair, which, relieved from its confinement, fell in dark masses about her face, making her look more like the Ethelyn of old than she had at first.
"Was there a divorce?" she whispered, and Andy, in great perplexity, was wondering what she meant, when Melinda's step came along the hall, and Melinda entered the room together with Mrs. Dobson.
"It's she—herself! It's our own Ethie!" Andy exclaimed, standing back a little from the bed, but still holding the feverish hand which had grasped his so firmly, as if in that touch alone was rest and security.
"I thought so," and with a satisfied nod Mrs. Dobson put down her bowl of gruel and went down to communicate the startling news to Hannah, who nearly lost her senses in the first moment of surprise.
"Do you know me, Ethie?" Melinda asked, but in the bright, rolling eyes there was no ray of reason; only the lip quivered slightly, and Ethie said so sadly, so beseechingly, "Don't send me away, when I am so tired and sorry."
She seemed to have a vague idea where she was and who was with her, clinging closer to Andy, as if surest of him, and once when he bent over her, she suddenly wound her arms around his neck and whispered, "Don't leave me—it's nice to know you are with me; and don't let them put that dreadful thing on my head again. Aunt Van Buren said I was a fright. Will Richard think so, too?"
This was the only time she mentioned her husband, though she talked of Clifton and Mrs. Pry, and the story of the divorce, and the dear little chapel where she said God always came, bidding Andy kneel down and pray just as they were doing there when the summer day drew to a close.
"We must send for Dick," Andy said; "but don't let's tell the whole; let's leave something to his imagination;" and so the telegram which went to Governor Markham read simply: "Come home immediately. Don't wait for a single train."
Richard had heard of Miss Bigelow's sudden departure, and had been surprised to find how much he missed the light footsteps and the rustling sound which had come from No. 101. He was a good deal interested in Miss Bigelow, and when Mary told him of her leaving so unexpectedly and appearing so excited, there had for a moment flashed over him the wild thought, "Could it be?" No, it could not, he said; but he questioned Mary as to the appearance of the lady in No. 101. "Was she very handsome, with full, rosy cheeks, and eyes of chestnut brown?"
"She was rather pretty," Mary said; "but her face was thin and pale, and her eyes, she guessed, were black."
It was not Ethie, then—Richard had never believed it was—but he felt sorry that she was gone, whoever she might be, and Clifton was not so pleasant to him now as it had been at first. He was much better, and had been once to the chapel, when up the three flights of stairs Perry came and along the hall till he stopped at Room No. 102. There was a telegram for Richard, who took it with trembling hands and read it with a blur before his eyes and something at his heart like a blow, but which was born of a sudden hope that, after many days and months and years of waiting, God had deigned to be merciful. But only for a brief moment did this hope buoy him up. It could not be, he said; and yet, as he made his hasty preparations for his journey, he found the possibility constantly recurring to his mind, while the nearer he came to Davenport the more probable it seemed, and the more impatient he grew at every little delay. There were several upon the road, and once, only fifty miles from home, there was a detention of four hours. But the long train moved at last, and just as the sun was setting the cars stopped in the Davenport depot, and as the passengers alighted the loungers whispered to each other, "Governor Markham has come home."
RICHARD AND ETHELYN
Arrived at Davenport, and so near his home that he could discern its roofs and chimneys, the hope which had kept Richard up all through his rapid journey began to give way, and he hardly knew what or whom he expected to find, as he went up the steps to his house and rang the door bell. Certainly not Andy—he had not thought of him—and his pulse quickened with a feeling of eagerness and hope renewed when he caught sight of his brother's beaming face and felt the pressure of his broad hand. In his delight Andy kissed his brother two or three times during the interval it took to get him through the hall into the reception room, where they were alone. Arrived there, Andy fell to capering across the floor, while Richard looked on, puzzled to decide whether his weak brother had gone wholly daft or not. Recollecting himself at last, and assuming a more sober attitude, Andy came close to him and whispered:
"Dick, you ought to be thankful, so thankful and glad that God has been kind at last and heard our prayers, just as I always told you he would. Guess who is upstairs, ravin' crazy by spells, and quiet as a Maltese kitten the rest of the time? I'll bet, though, you'll never guess, it is so strange? Try, now—who do you think it is?"
"Ethelyn," came in a whisper from Richard's lips, and rather crestfallen, the simple Andy said, "Somebody told you, I know; but you are right. Ethie is here—came when we all was gone—said she was a connection of yourn, and so Miss Dobson let her in, and treated her up, and showed her the house, and left her in them rooms you fixed a purpose for her. You see Miss Dobson had some truck she was canning, and she stayed downstairs so long that when she went back she found Ethie had taken possession of that bed where nobody ever slept, and was burnin' up with fever and talkin' the queerest kind of talk about divorces, and all that, and there was something in her face made Miss Dobson mistrust who she was, and she telegraphed for Melinda and me—or rather for Melinda—and I came out with her, for I knew in a minit who the strange woman was. But she won't know you, Dick. She don't know me, though she lays her head on my arm and snugs up to me awful neat. Will you go now to see her?"
The question was superfluous, for Richard was halfway up the stairs, followed close by Andy, who went with him to the door of Ethie's room, and then stood back, thinking it best for Richard to go in alone.
Ethelyn was asleep, and Melinda sat watching her. She knew it was Richard who came in, for she had heard his voice in the hall, and greeting him quickly, arose and left the room, whispering: "If she wakes, don't startle her. Probably she will not know you."
Then she went out, and Richard was alone with the wife he had not seen for more than five weary years. It was very dark in the room, and it took him a moment to accustom himself to the light enough to discover the figure lying so still before him, the pale eyelids closed, and the long eyelashes resting upon the crimson cheek. The lips and forehead were very white, but the rest of the face was purple with fever, and as that gave the cheeks a fuller, rounder look, she did not at first seem greatly changed, but looked much as she did the time he came from Washington and found her so low. The long hair which Andy would not have confined in a cap was pushed back from her brow, and lay in tangled masses upon the pillow, while her hands were folded one within the other and rested outside the covering. And Richard touched her hands first—the little, soft, white hands he used to think so pretty, and which he now kissed so softly as he knelt by the bedside and tried to look closely into Ethie's face.
"My poor, sick darling, God knows how glad I am to have you back," he murmured, and his tears dropped like rain upon the hands he pressed so gently. Then softly caressing the pale forehead, his fingers threaded the mass of tangled hair, and his lips touched the hot, burning ones which quivered for a moment, and then said, brokenly:
"A dream—all a dream. I've had it so many times."
She was waking, and Richard drew back a step or two, while the bright, restless eyes moved round the room as if in quest of someone.
"It's very dark," she said, and turning one of the shutters Richard came back and stood just where the light would fall upon his face as it did on hers.
He saw now how changed she was; but she was none the less dear to him for that, and he spoke to her very tenderly:
"Ethie, darling, don't you know me? I am Richard, your husband, and I am so glad to get you back."
There did seem to be a moment's consciousness, for there crept into the eyes a startled, anxious look as they scanned Richard's face; then the lip quivered again, and Ethie said pleadingly:
"Don't send me away. I am so tired, and the road was so long. I thought I would never get here. Let me stay. I shall not be bad any more."
Then, unmindful of consequences, Richard gathered her in his arms, and held her there an instant in a passionate embrace, which left her pale and panting, but seemed to reassure her, for when he would have laid her back upon the pillow, she said to him, "No, not there—on your arm—so. Yes, that's nice," and an expression of intense satisfaction stole into her face as she nestled her head close to Richard's bosom, and, closing her eyes, seemed to sleep again. And Richard held her thus, forgetting his own fatigue, and refusing to give up his post either to Andy or Melinda, both of whom ventured in at last, and tried to make him take some refreshment and rest.
"I am not hungry," he said, "and it is rest enough to be with Ethelyn."
Much he wondered where she had come from, and Melinda repeated all Ethelyn had said which would throw any light upon the subject.
"She has talked of the Nile, and St. Petersburg, and the Hellespont, and the ship which was bringing her to Richard, and of Chicopee, but it was difficult telling how much was real," Melinda said, adding, "She talked of Clifton, too; and were it possible, I should say she came direct from there, but that could not be. You would have known if she had been there. What was the number of your room?"
"102," Richard replied, a new revelation dawning upon him, while Melinda rejoined:
"That is the number she talks about—that and 101. Can it be that she was there?"
Richard was certain of it. The Miss Bigelow who had interested him so much lay there in his arms, his own wife, who was, if possible, tenfold dearer to him now than when he first held her as his bride. He knew she was very sick, but she would not die, he said to himself. God had not restored her to him just to take her away again, and make his desolation more desolate. Ethie would live. And surely if love, and nursing, and tender care were of any avail to save the life which at times seemed fluttering on the very verge of the grave, Ethelyn would live. Nothing was spared which could avail to save her, and even the physician, who had all along done what he could, seemed to redouble his efforts when he ascertained who his patient was.
Great was the surprise, and numerous the remarks and surmises of the citizens, when it was whispered abroad that the strange woman lying so sick in the governor's house was no other than the governor's wife, about whom the people had speculated so much. Nor was it long ere the news went to Camden, stirring up the people there, and bringing Mrs. Miller at once to Davenport, where she stayed at a hotel until such time as she could be admitted to Ethelyn's presence.
Mrs. Markham, senior, was washing windows when Tim Jones brought her the letter bearing the Davenport postmark. Melinda had purposely abstained from writing home until Richard came; and so the letter was in his handwriting, which his mother recognized at once.
"Why, it's from Richard!" she exclaimed. "I thought he wouldn't stay long at Clifton. I never did believe in swashin' all the time. A bath in the tin washbasin does me very well," and the good woman wiped her window leisurely, and even put it back and fastened the side-slat in its place before she sat down to see what Richard had written.
Tim knew what he had written, for in his hat was another letter from Melinda, for his mother, which he had opened, his feet going off into a kind of double shuffle as he read that Ethelyn had returned. She had been very cold and proud to him; but he had admired her greatly, and remembered her with none but kindly feelings. He was a little anxious to know what Mrs. Markham would say, but as she was in no hurry to open her letter, and he was in a hurry to tell his mother the good news, he bade her good-morning, and mounting his horse, galloped away toward home.
"I hope he's told who the critter was that was took sick in the house," Mrs. Markham said, as she adjusted her glasses and broke the seal.
Mrs. Markham had never fainted in her life, but she came very near it that morning, feeling some as she would if the Daisy, dead, so long, had suddenly walked into the room and taken a seat beside her.
"I am glad for Dick," she said. "I never saw a man change as he has, pinin' for her. I mean to be good to her, if I can," and Mrs. Markham's sun-bonnet was bent low over Richard's letter, on which there were traces of tears when the head was lifted up again. "I must let John know, I never can stand it till dinner time," she said, and a shrill blast from the tin horn, used to bring her sons to dinner, went echoing across the prairie to the lot where John was working.
It was not a single blast, but peal upon peal, a loud, prolonged sound, which startled John greatly, especially as he knew by the sun that it could not be twelve o'clock.
"Blows as if somebody was in a fit," he said, as he took long and rapid strides toward the farmhouse.
His mother met him in the lane, letter in hand, and her face white with excitement as she said below her breath:
"John, John, oh! John, she's come. She's there at Richard's—sick with the fever, and crazy; and Richard is so glad. Read what he says."
She did not say who had come, but John knew, and his eyes were dim with tears as he took the letter from his mother's hand, and read it, walking beside her to the house.
"I presume they doctor her that silly fashion, with little pills the size of a small pin head. Melinda is so set in her way. She ought to have some good French brandy if they want to save her. I'd better go myself and see to it," Mrs. Markham said, after they had reached the house, and John, at her request, had read the letter aloud.
John did not quite fancy his mother's going, particularly as Richard had said nothing about it, but Mrs. Markham was determined.
"It was a good way to make it up with Ethelyn, to be there when she come to," she thought, and so, leaving her house-cleaning to itself, and John to his bread and milk, of which he never tired, she packed a little traveling bag, and taking with her a bottle of brandy, started on the next train for Davenport, where she had never been.
Aunt Barbara was not cleaning house. She was cutting dried caraway seed in the garden, and thinking of Ethie, wondering why she did not write, and hoping that when she did she would say that she had talked with Richard, and made the matter up. Ever since hearing that he was at Clifton, in the next room to Ethie, Aunt Barbara had counted upon a speedy reconciliation, and done many things with a direct reference to that reconciliation. The best chamber was kept constantly aired, with bouquets of flowers in it, in case the happy pair, "as good as just married," should come suddenly upon her. Ethie's favorite loaf cake was constantly kept on hand, and when Betty suggested that they should let Uncle Billy cut down that caraway seed, "and heave it away," the good soul objected, thinking there was no telling what would happen, and it was well enough to save such things as anise and caraway. So, in her big cape bonnet, she was cutting her branches of herbs, when Charlie Howard looked over the garden gate with "Got a letter for you."
"It ain't from her. It's from—why, it's from Richard, and he is in Davenport," Aunt Barbara exclaimed, as she sat down in a garden chair to read the letter which was not from Ethie.
Richard did not say directly to her that she must come, but Aunt Barbara felt an innate conviction that her presence would not be disagreeable, even if Ethie lived, while "if she died," and Aunt Barbara's heart gave a great throb as she thought it, "if Ethie died she must be there," and so her trunk was packed for the third time in Ethie's behalf, and the next day's train from Boston carried the good woman on her way to Davenport.
There had been a succession of rainy days in Davenport—dark, rainy days, which added to the gloom hanging over that house where they watched so intently by Ethie's side, trembling lest the life they prayed for so earnestly might go out at any moment, so high the fever ran, and so wild and restless the patient grew. The friends were all there now—James, and John, and Andy, and Aunt Barbara, with Mrs. Markham, senior, who, at first, felt a little worried, lest her son should be eaten out of house and home, especially as Melinda manifested no disposition to stint the table of any of their accustomed luxuries. As housekeeper, Mrs. Dobson was a little inclined at first to stand in awe of the governor's mother, and so offered no remonstrance when the tea grounds from supper were carefully saved to be boiled up for breakfast, as both Melinda and Aunt Barbara preferred tea to coffee, but when it came to a mackerel and a half for seven people, and four of them men, Mrs. Dobson demurred, and Melinda's opinion in requisition, the result was that three fishes, instead of one and a half smoked upon the breakfast table next morning, together with toast and mutton-chops. After that Mrs. Markham gave up the contest with a groan, saying, "they might go to destruction their own way, for all of her."
Where Ethelyn was concerned, however, she showed no stint. Nothing was too good for her, no expense too great, and next to Richard and Andy, she seemed more anxious, more interested than anyone for the sick girl who lay so insensible of all that was passing around her, save at brief intervals when she seemed for an instant to realize where she was, for her eyes would flash about the room with a frightened, startled look, and then seek Richard's face with a wistful, pleading expression, as if asking not to cast her off, not to send her back into the dreary world where she had wandered so long alone. The sight of so many seemed to worry her, for she often talked of the crowd at the Clifton depot, saying they took her breath away; and once, drawing Andy's face down to her, she whispered to him, "Send them back to the Cure, all but his royal highness"—pointing to Richard—"and Anna, the prophetess, she can stay."
This was Aunt Barbara, to whom Ethelyn clung as a child to its mother, missing her the moment she left the room, and growing quiet as soon as she returned. It was the same with Richard. She seemed to know when he quitted her side, and her eyes watched the door eagerly till he came back to her again. At the doctor's suggestion, all were at last banished from the sick-room except Aunt Barbara, and Richard, and Nick Bottom, as she persisted in calling poor Andy, who was terribly perplexed to know whether he was complimented or not, and who eventually took to studying Shakspere to find out who Bottom was. Those were trying days to Richard, who rarely left Ethie's bedside, except when it was absolutely necessary. She was more quiet with him, and would sometimes sleep for hours upon his arm, with one hand clasped in Aunt Barbara's, and the other held by Andy. At other times, when the fever was on, no arm availed to hold her as she tossed from side to side, talking of things at which a stranger would have marveled, and which made Richard's heart ache to its very core. At times she was a girl in Chicopee, and all the past as connected with Frank Van Buren was lived over again; then she would talk of Richard, and shudder as she recalled the dreary, dreadful day when the honeysuckles were in blossom, and he came to make her his wife.
"It was wrong, all wrong. I did not love him then," she said, "nor afterward, on the prairie, nor anywhere, until I went away, and found what it was to live without him."
"And do you love him now?" Richard asked her once when he sat alone with her.
There was no hesitancy on her part, no waiting to make up an answer. It was ready on her lips, "Yes, oh, yes!" and the weak arms lifted themselves up and were wound around his neck with a pressure almost stifling. How much of this was real Richard could not tell, but he accepted it as such, and waited impatiently for the day when the full light of reason should return and Ethie be restored to him. There was but little of her past life which he did not learn from her ravings, and so there was less for her to tell him when at last the fever abated, and his eyes met hers with a knowing, rational expression. Andy was alone with her when the change first came. The rain, which had fallen so steadily, was over, and out upon the river the sunlight was softly falling. At Andy's earnest entreaty, Richard had gone for a little exercise in the open air, and was walking slowly up and down the broad piazza, while Aunt Barbara slept, and Andy kept his vigils by Ethelyn. She, too, was sleeping quietly, and Andy saw the great drops of perspiration standing upon her brow and beneath her hair. He knew it was a good omen, and on his knees by the bedside, with his face in his hands, he prayed aloud, thanking God for restoring Ethelyn to them, and asking that they might all be taught just how to make her happy. A faint sound between a moan and a sob roused him and, looking up, he saw the great tears rolling down Ethie's cheeks, while her lips moved as if they would speak to him.
"Andy, dear old Andy! is it you, and are you glad to have me back?" she said, and then all Andy's pent-up feelings found vent in a storm of tears and passionate protestations of love and tenderness for his darling sister.
She remembered how she came there, and seemed to understand why Andy was there, too; but the rest was a little confused. Was Aunt Barbara there, or had she only dreamed it?
"Aunt Barbara is here," Andy said, and then, with the same frightened, anxious look her face had so often worn during her illness, Ethie said: "Somebody else has sat by me and held my head and hands, and kissed me! Andy, tell me—was that Richard?—and did he kiss me, and is he glad to find me?"
She was gazing fixedly at Andy, who replied: "Yes, Dick is here. He's glad to have you back. He's kissed you more than forty times. He don't remember nothing.''
"And the divorce, Andy—is the story true, and am I not his wife?"
"I never heard of no divorce, only what you said about one in your tantrums. Dick would as soon have cut off his head as got such a thing," Andy replied.
Ethelyn knew she could rely on what Andy said, and a heartfelt "Thank God! It is more than I deserve!" fell from her lips, just as a step was heard in the hall.
"That's Dick,—he's coming," Andy whispered, and hastily withdrawing he left the two alone together.
It was more than an hour before even Aunt Barbara ventured into the room, and when she did she knew by the joy written on Richard's face and the deep peace shining in Ethie's eyes that the reconciliation had been complete and perfect. Every error had been confessed, every fault forgiven, and the husband and wife stood ready now to begin the world anew, with perfect love for and confidence in each other. Ethie had acknowledged all her faults, the greatest of which was the giving her hand to one from whom she withheld her heart.
"But you have that now," she said. "I can truly say that I love you far betten than ever frank Van Buren was loved, and I know you to be worthy, too. I have been so wicked, Richard,—so wilful and impatient,—that I wonder you have not learned to hate my very name. I may be wilful still. My old hot temper is not all subdued, though I hope I am a better woman than I used to be when I cared for nothing but myself. God has been so good to me who have forgotten Him so long; but we will serve Him together now."
As Ethie talked she had nestled closer and closer to her husband, whose arms encircled her form and whose face bent itself down to hers, while a rain of tears fell upon her hair and forehead as the strong man,—the grave Judge and the honored Governor,—confessed where he, too, had been in fault, and craving his young wife's pardon, ascribed also to God the praise for bringing them both to feel their dependence on Him, as well as to see this day, the happiest of their lives.
Gradually, as she could bear it, the family came in one by one to see her, Mrs. Markham, Sen., waiting till the very last, and refusing to go until Ethelyn had expressed a wish to see her.
"I was pretty hard on her, I s'pose, and it would not be strange if she laid it up against me," she said to Melinda; but Ethie had nothing against her now.
The deep waters through which she had passed had obliterated all traces of bitterness toward anyone, and when her mother-in-law came in she feebly extended her hand and whispered: "I'm too tired, mother, to talk much, but kiss me once for the sake of what we are going to be to each other."
Mrs. Markham was not naturally a bad or a hard woman, either. She was only unfortunate that her ideas had run in one rut so long without any jolt to throw them out. Circumstances had greatly softened her, and Ethie's words touched her deeply.
"I was mighty mean to you sometimes, Ethelyn, and I've been sorry for it," she said, as she stooped to kiss her daughter-in-law, and then hurried from the room, "Only to think, she called me mother," she said to Melinda, to whom she reported the particulars of her interview with Ethelyn—"me, who had been meaner than dirt to her—called me mother, when I used to mistrust her she didn't think any more of me than if I'd been an old squaw. I shan't forget it right away."
Perhaps the sweetest, most joyful tears Ethelyn shed that day were those which came to her eyes when they brought her Ethelyn, her namesake, the little three-year-old, who pushed her brown curls back from her baby face with such a womanly air, and said:
"I'se glad to see Aunt Ethie. I prays for her ever' night. Uncle Andy told me so. I loves you, Aunt Ethie."
She was a beautiful little creature, and her innocent prattle and engaging manners did much toward bringing the color back to Ethie's cheeks and the brightness to her eyes. Those days of convalescence were blissful ones, for now there was no shadow of a cloud resting on the domestic horizon. Between husband and wife there was perfect love, and in his newly born happiness, Richard forgot the ailments which had sent him an invalid to Clifton, while Ethie, surrounded by every luxury which love could devise or money procure, and made each hour to feel how dear she was to those from whom she had been so long estranged, grew fresh, and young, and pretty again; so that when, early in December, Mrs. Dr. Van Buren came to Davenport to see her niece, she found her more beautiful far than she had been in her early girlhood, when the boyish Frank had paid his court to her. Poor little Nettie was dead. Her life had literally been worried out of her; and during those September days, when Ethelyn was watched and tended so carefully, she had turned herself wearily upon her pillow, and just as the clock was striking the hour of midnight, asked of the attendant:
"Has Frank come yet?"
"Not yet. Do you want anything?"
"No, nothing. Is mother here?"
"She was tired out, and has gone to her room to rest. Shall I call her?"
"No, no matter. Is Ethie in her crib? Please bring her here. Never mind if you do wake her. 'Tis the last time."
And so the little sleeping child was brought to the dying mother, who would fain feel that something she had loved was near her in the last hour of loneliness and anguish she would ever know. Sorrow, disappointment, and cruel neglect had been her lot ever since she became a wife, but at the last these had purified and made her better, and led her to the Saviour's feet, where she laid the little child she held so closely to her bosom, dropping her tears upon its face and pressing her farewell kiss upon its lips. Then she put it from her, and bidding the servant remove the light, which made her eyes ache so, turned again upon her pillow, and folding her little, white, wasted hands upon her bosom, said softly the prayer the Saviour taught, and then glided as softly down the river whose tide is never backward toward the shores of time.
* * * * *
About one Frank came home from the young men's association which he attended so often, his head fuller of champagne and brandy than it was of sense, and every good feeling blunted with dissipation. But the Nettie whose pale face had been to him so constant a reproach was gone forever, and only the lifeless form was left of what he once called his wife. She was buried in Mount Auburn, and they made her a grander funeral than they had given to her first-born, and then the household want on the same as ever until Mrs. Van Buren conceived the idea of visiting her niece, Mrs. Gov. Markham, and taking her grandchild with her. For the sake of the name she was sure the little girl would be welcome, as well as for the sake of the dead mother. And she was welcome, more so even than the stately aunt, whose deep mourning robes seemed to throw a kind of shadowy gloom over the house which she found so handsome, and elegant, and perfectly kept that she would willingly have spent the entire winter there. She was not invited to do this, and some time in January she went back to her home, looking out on Boston Common, but not until she had eaten a Christmas dinner with Mrs. Markham, senior, at whose house the whole family were assembled on that occasion.
There was much good cheer and merriment there, and Ethie, in her rich crimson silk which Richard had surprised her with, was the queen of all, her wishes deferred to, and her tastes consulted with a delicacy and deference which no one could fail to observe. And Eunice Plympton was there, too, waiting upon the table with Andy, who insisted upon standing at the back of Ethie's chair, just as he had seen the waiters do in Camden, and would have his mother ring the silver bell when anything was wanted. It was a happy family reunion, and a meet harbinger of the peaceful days in store for our heroine—days which came and went so fast, until winter melted into spring, and the spring budded into blushing summer, and the summer faded into the golden autumn, and the autumn floated with feathery snowflakes into the chilly winter and December came again, bringing another meeting of the Markhams. But this time it was at the governor's house in Davenport, and another was added to the number—a pretty little waxen thing, which all through the elaborate dinner slept quietly in its crib, and then in the evening, when the gas was lighted in the parlors, and Mr. Townsend was there in his gown, behaved most admirably, and lay very still in its father Richard's arms, until it was transferred from his to those of the clergyman, who in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost baptized it "Daisy Adelaide Grant."