"My best course," he reasoned, "is to see her as often as possible, and thus give her the opportunity to know me well. If I shall ever have any power to win her love, she, by something in her manner or tone, will unconsciously reveal the truth to me. Then I will not be slow to act. Why should I lose the pleasure of these golden hours by seeking openly that which as yet she has not the slightest disposition to give?"
This appeared to him a safe and judicious policy, and yet it may well be doubted whether it would ever have been successful with Grace St. John, even had she been as fancy free as when Hilland first met her. She was a soldier's daughter, and could best be won by Hilland's soldier-like wooing. Not that she could have been won any more readily by direct and impetuous advances had not her heart been touched, but the probabilities are that her heart never would have been touched by Graham's army-of-observation tactics. It would scarcely have occurred to her to think seriously of a man who did not follow her with an eager quest.
On the other hand, as his aunt had suggested from the first, poor Graham was greatly endangering his peace by this close study of a woman lovely in herself, and, as he fully believed, peculiarly adapted to satisfy every requirement of his nature. A man who knows nothing of a hidden treasure goes unconcernedly on his way; if he discovers it and then loses it he feels impoverished.
Graham's visit was at last lengthened to a month, and yet the impulse of work or of departure had not seized him. Indeed, there seemed less prospect of anything of the kind than ever. A strong mutual attachment was growing between himself and his aunt. The brusque, quick-witted old lady interested him, while her genuine kindness and hearty welcome gave to him, for the first time in his life, the sense of being at home. She was a woman of strong likes and dislikes. She had taken a fancy to Graham from the first, and this interest fast deepened into affection. She did not know how lonely she was in her isolated life, and she found it so pleasant to have some one to look after and think about that she would have been glad to have kept him with her always.
Moreover, she had a lurking hope, daily gaining confirmation, that her nephew was not so indifferent to her favorite as he seemed. In her old age she was beginning to long for kindred and closer ties, and she felt that she could in effect adopt Grace, and could even endure the invalid major for the sake of one who was so congenial. She thought it politic however to let matters take their own course, for her strong good sense led her to believe that meddling rarely accomplishes anything except mischief. She was not averse to a little indirect diplomacy, however, and did all in her power to make it easy and natural for Graham to see the young girl as often as possible, and one lovely day, early in June, she planned a little excursion, which, according to the experience of her early days, promised well for her aims.
One breathless June morning that was warm, but not sultry, she went over to the St. Johns', and suggested a drive to the brow of a hill from which there was a superb view of the surrounding country. The plan struck the major pleasantly, and Grace was delighted. She had the craving for out-of-door life common to all healthful natures, but there was another reason why she longed for a day under the open sky with her thoughts partially and pleasantly distracted from one great truth to which she felt she must grow accustomed by degrees. It was arranged that they should take their lunch and spend the larger part of the afternoon, thus giving the affair something of the aspect of a quiet little picnic.
Although Graham tried to take the proposition quietly, he could not repress a flush of pleasure and a certain alacrity of movement eminently satisfactory to his aunt. Indeed, his spirits rose to a degree that made him a marvel to himself, and he wonderingly queried, "Can I be the same man who but a few weeks since watched the dark line of my native country loom up in the night, and with prospects as vague and dark as that outline?"
Miss St. John seemed perfectly radiant that morning, her eyes vying with the June sunlight, and her cheeks emulating the roses everywhere in bloom. What was the cause of her unaffected delight? Was it merely the prospect of a day of pleasure in the woods? Could he hope that his presence added to her zest for the occasion? Such were the questions with which Graham's mind was busy as he aided the ladies in their preparations. She certainly was more kind and friendly than usual— yes, more familiar. He was compelled to admit, however, that her manner was such as would be natural toward an old and trusted friend, but he hoped—never before had he realized how dear this hope was becoming—that some day she would awaken to the consciousness that he might be more than a friend. In the meantime he would be patient, and, with the best skill he could master, endeavor to win her favor, instead of putting her on the defensive by seeking her love.
"Two elements cannot pass into combination until there is mutual readiness," reasoned the scientist. "Contact is not combination. My province is to watch until in some unguarded moment she gives the hope that she would listen with her heart. To speak before that, either by word or action, would be pain to her and humiliation to me."
The gulf between them was wide indeed, although she smiled so genially upon him. In tying up a bundle their hands touched. He felt an electric thrill in all his nerves; she only noticed the circumstance by saying, "Who is it that is so awkward, you or I?"
"You are Grace," he replied. "It was I."
"I should be graceless indeed were I to find fault with anything to- day," she said impulsively, and raising her head she looked away into the west as if her thoughts had followed her eyes.
"It certainly is a very fine day," Graham remarked sententiously.
She turned suddenly, and saw that he was watching her keenly. Conscious of her secret she blushed under his detected scrutiny, but laughed lightly, saying, "You are a happy man, Mr. Graham, for you suggest that perfect weather leaves nothing else to be desired."
"Many have to be content with little else," he replied, "and days like this are few and far between."
"Not few and far between for me," she murmured to herself as she moved away.
She was kinder and more friendly to Graham than ever before, but the cause was a letter received that morning, against which her heart now throbbed. She had written to Hilland of Graham, and of her enjoyment of his society, dwelling slightly on his disposition to make himself agreeable without tendencies toward sentiment and gallantry.
Love is quick to take alarm, and although Graham was his nearest friend, Hilland could not endure the thought of leaving the field open to him or to any one a day longer. He knew that Graham was deliberate and by no means susceptible. And yet, to him, the fact conveyed by the letter, that his recluse friend had found the society of Grace so satisfactory that he had lingered on week after week, spoke volumes. It was not like his studious and solitary companion of old. Moreover, he understood Graham sufficiently well to know that Grace would have peculiar attractions for him, and that upon a girl of her mind he would make an impression very different from that which had led society butterflies to shun him as a bore. Her letter already indicated this truth. The natural uneasiness that he had felt all along lest some master spirit should appear was intensified. Although Graham was so quiet and undemonstrative, Hilland knew him to be possessed of an indomitable energy of will when once it was aroused and directed toward an object. Thus far from Grace's letter he believed that his friend was only interested in the girl of his heart, and he determined to forestall trouble, if possible, and secure the fruits of his patient waiting and wooing, if any were to be gathered. At the same time he resolved to be loyal to his friend, as far as he could admit his claims, and he wrote a glowing eulogy of Graham, unmarred by a phrase or word of detraction. Then, as frankly, he admitted his fears, in regard not only to Graham, but to others, and followed these words with a strong and impassioned plea in his own behalf, assuring her that time and absence, so far from diminishing her mastery over him, had rendered it complete. He entreated for permission to come to her, saying that his business interests, vast as they were, counted as less than nothing compared with the possession of her love—that he would have pressed his suit by personal presence long before had not obligations to others detained him. These obligations he now could and would delegate, for all the wealth of the mines on the continent would only be a burden unless she could share it with him. He also informed her that a ring made of gold, which he himself had mined deep in the mountain's heart, was on the way to her —that his own hands had helped to fashion the rude circlet-and that it was significant of the truth that he sought her not from the vantage ground of wealth, but because of a manly devotion that would lead him to delve in a mine or work in a shop for her, rather than live a life of luxury with any one else in the world.
For the loving girl what a treasure was such a letter! The joy it brought was so overwhelming that she was glad of the distractions which Mrs. Mayburn's little excursion promised. She wished to quiet the tumult at her heart, so that she could write as an earnest woman to an earnest man, which she could not do on this bright June morning, with her heart keeping tune with every bird that sang. Such a response as she then might have made would have been the one he would have welcomed most, but she did not think so. "I would not for the world have him know how my head is turned," she had laughingly assured herself, not dreaming that such an admission would disturb his equilibrium to a far greater degree.
"After a day," she thought, "out of doors with Mrs. Mayburn's genial common-sense and Mr. Graham's cool, half-cynical philosophy to steady me, I shall be sane enough to answer."
They were soon bowling away in a strong, three-seated rockaway, well suited to country roads, Graham driving, with the object of his thoughts and hopes beside him. Mrs. Mayburn and the major occupied the back seat, while Jinny, with a capacious hamper, was in the middle seat, and in the estimation of the diplomatic aunt made a good screen and division.
All seemed to promise well for her schemes, for the young people appeared to be getting on wonderfully together. There was a constant succession of jest and repartee. Grace was cordiality itself; and in Graham's eyes that morning there was coming an expression of which he may not have been fully aware, or which at last he would permit to be seen. Indeed, he was yielding rapidly to the spell of her beauty and the charm of her mind and manner. He was conscious of a strange, exquisite exhilaration. Every nerve in his body seemed alive to her presence, while the refined and delicate curves of her cheek and throat gave a pleasure which no statue in the galleries of Europe had ever imparted.
He wondered at all this, for to him it was indeed a new experience. His past with its hopes and ambitions seemed to have floated away to an indefinite distance, and he to have awakened to a new life—a new phase of existence. In the exaltation of the hour he felt that, whatever might be the result, he had received a revelation of capabilities in his nature of which he had not dreamed, and which at the time promised to compensate for any consequent reaction. He exulted in his human organism as a master in music might rejoice over the discovery of an instrument fitted to respond perfectly to his genius. Indeed, the thought crossed his mind more than once that day that the marvel of marvels was that mere clay could be so highly organized. It was not his thrilling nerves alone which suggested this thought, or the pure mobile face of the young girl, so far removed from any suggestion of earthliness, but a new feeling, developing in his heart, that seemed so deep and strong as to be deathless.
They reached their destination in safety. The June sunlight would have made any place attractive, but the brow of the swelling hill with its wide outlook, its background of grove and intervening vistas, left nothing to be desired. The horses were soon contentedly munching their oats, and yet their stamping feet and switching tails indicated that even for the brute creation there is ever some alloy. Graham, however, thought that fortune had at last given him one perfect day. There was no perceptible cloud. The present was so eminently satisfactory that it banished the past, or, if remembered, it served as a foil. The future promised a chance for happiness that seemed immeasurable, although the horizon of his brief existence was so near; for he felt that with her as his own, human life with all its limitations was a richer gift than he had ever imagined possible. And yet, like a slight and scarcely heard discord, the thought would come occasionally, "Since so much is possible, more ought to be possible. With such immense capability for life as I am conscious of to-day, how is it that this life is but a passing and perishing manifestation?"
Such impressions took no definite form, however, but merely passed through the dim background of his consciousness, while he gave his whole soul to the effort to make the day one that from its unalloyed pleasure could not fail to recall him to the memory of Miss St. John. He believed himself to be successful, for he felt as if inspired. He was ready with a quick reply to all her mirthful sallies, and he had the tact to veil his delicate flattery under a manner and mode of speech that suggested rather than revealed his admiration. She was honestly delighted with him and his regard, as she understood it, and she congratulated herself again and again that Hilland's friend was a man that she also would find unusually agreeable. His kindness to her father had warmed her heart toward him, and now his kindness and interest were genuine, although at first somewhat hollow and assumed.
Graham had become a decided favorite with the old gentleman, for he had proved the most efficient ally that Grace had ever gained in quickening the pace of heavy-footed Time. Even the veteran's chilled blood seemed to feel the influences of the day, and his gallantry toward Mrs. Mayburn was more pronounced than usual. "We, too, will be young people once more," he remarked, "for the opportunity may not come to us again."
They discussed their lunch with zest, they smiled into one another's face, and indulged in little pleasantries that were as light and passing as the zephyrs that occasionally fluttered the leaves above their heads; but deep in each heart were memories, tides of thought, hopes, fears, joys, that form the tragic background of all human life. The old major gave some reminiscences of his youthful campaigning. In his cheerful mood his presentation of them was in harmony with the sunny afternoon. The bright sides of his experiences were toward his auditors, but what dark shadows of wounds, agony, and death were on the further side! And of these he could never be quite unconscious, even while awakening laughter at the comic episodes of war.
Mrs. Mayburn seemed her plain-spoken, cheery self, intent only on making the most of this genial hour in the autumn of her life, and yet she was watching over a hope that she felt might make her last days her best days. She was almost praying that the fair girl whom she had so learned to love might become the solace of her age, and fill, in her childless heart, a place that had ever been an aching void. Miss St. John was too preoccupied to see any lover but one, and he was ever present, though thousands of miles away. But she saw in Graham his friend, and had already accepted him also as her most agreeable friend, liking him all the better for his apparent disposition to appeal only to her fancy and reason, instead of her heart. She saw well enough that he liked her exceedingly, but Hilland's impetuous wooing and impassioned words had made her feel that there was an infinite difference between liking and loving; and she pictured to herself the pleasure they would both enjoy when finding that their seemingly chance acquaintance was but preparation for the closer ties which their several relations to Hilland could not fail to occasion.
The object of this kindly but most temperate regard smiled into her eyes, chatted easily on any topic suggested, and appeared entirely satisfied; but was all the while conscious of a growing need which, denied, would impoverish his life, making it, brief even as he deemed it to be, an intolerable burden. But on this summer afternoon hope was in the ascendant, and he saw no reason why the craving of all that was best and noblest in his nature should not be met. When a supreme affection first masters the heart it often carries with it a certain assurance that there must be a response, that when so much is given by a subtle, irresistible, unexpected impulse, the one receiving should, sooner or later, by some law of correspondence, be inclined to return a similar regard. All living things in nature, when not interfered with, at the right time and in the right way, sought and found what was essential to the completion of their life, and he was a part of nature. According to the law of his own individuality he had yielded to Miss St. John's power. His reason had kept pace with his heart. He had advanced to his present attitude toward her like a man, and had not been driven to it by the passion of an animal. Therefore he was hopeful, self-complacent, and resolute. He not only proposed to win the girl he loved, cost what it might in time and effort, but in the exalted mood of the hour felt that he could and must win her.
She, all unconscious, smiled genially, and indeed seemed the very embodiment of mirth. Her talk was brilliant, yet interspersed with strange lapses that began to puzzle him. Meanwhile she scarcely saw him, gave him but the passing attention with which one looks up from an absorbing story, and all the time the letter against which her heart pressed seemed alive and endowed with the power to make each throb more glad and full of deep content.
How isolated and inscrutable is the mystery of each human life! Here were four people strongly interested in each other and most friendly, between whom was a constant interchange of word and glance, and yet their thought and feeling were flowing in strong diverse currents, unseen and unsuspected.
As the day declined they all grew more silent and abstracted. Deeper shadows crept into the vistas of memory with the old, and those who had become but memories were with them again as they had been on like June days half a century before. With the young the future, outlined by hope, took forms so absorbing that the present was forgotten. Ostensibly they were looking off at the wide and diversified landscape; in reality they were contemplating the more varied experiences, actual and possible, of life.
At last the major complained querulously that he was growing chilly. The shadow in which he shivered was not caused by the sinking sun.
The hint was taken at once, and in a few moments they were on their way homeward. The old sportive humor of the morning did not return. The major was the aged invalid again. Mrs. Mayburn and Graham were perplexed, for Grace had seemingly become remote from them all. She was as kind as ever; indeed her manner was characterized by an unusual gentleness; but they could not but see that her thoughts were not with them. The first tumultuous torrent of her joy had passed, and with it her girlhood. Now, as an earnest woman, she was approaching the hour of her betrothal, when she would write words that would bind her to another and give direction to all her destiny. Her form was at Graham's side; the woman was not there. Whither and to whom had she gone? The question caused him to turn pale with fear.
"Miss Grace," he said at last, and there was a tinge of reproach in his voice, "where are you? You left us some time since," and he turned and tried to look searchingly into her eyes.
She met his without confusion or rise in color. Her feelings had become so deep and earnest, so truly those of a woman standing on the assured ground of fealty to another, that she was beyond her former girlish sensitiveness and its quick, involuntary manifestations. She said gently, "Pardon me, Mr. Graham, for my unsocial abstraction. You deserve better treatment for all your efforts for our enjoyment to- day."
"Please do not come back on compulsion," he said. "I do not think I am a natural Paul Pry, but I would like to know where you have been."
"I will tell you some day," she said, with a smile that was so friendly that his heart sprang up in renewed hope. Then, as if remembering what was due to him and the others, she buried her thoughts deep in her heart until she could be alone with them and their object. And yet her secret joy, like a hidden fire, tinged all her words with a kindly warmth. Graham and his aunt were not only pleased but also perplexed, for both were conscious of something in Grace's manner which they could not understand. Mrs. Mayburn was sanguine that her June-day strategy was bringing forth the much- desired results; her nephew only hoped. They all parted with cordial words, which gave slight hint of that which was supreme in each mind.
Graham found letters which required his absence for a day or two, and it seemed to him eminently fitting that he should go over in the evening and say good-by to Miss St. John. Indeed he was disposed to say more, if the opportunity offered. His hopes sank as he saw that the first floor was darkened, and in answer to his summons Jinny informed him that the major and Miss Grace were "po'ful tired" and had withdrawn to their rooms. He trembled to find how deep was his disappointment, and understood as never before that his old self had ceased to exist. A month since no one was essential to him; now his being had become complex. Then he could have crossed the ocean with a few easily spoken farewells; now he could not go away for a few hours without feeling that he must see one who was then a stranger. The meaning of this was all too plain, and as he walked away in the June starlight he admitted it fully. Another life had become essential to his own. And still he clung to his old philosophy, muttering, "If this be true, why will not my life become as needful to her?" His theory, like many another, was a product of wishes rather than an induction from facts.
When he returned after a long ramble, the light still burning in Miss St. John's window did not harmonize with the story of the young girl's fatigue. The faint rays, however, could reveal nothing, although they had illumined page after page traced full of words of such vital import to him.
Mrs. Mayburn shared his early breakfast, and before he took his leave he tried to say in an easy, natural manner:
"Please make my adieus to Miss St. John, and say I called to present them in person, but it seemed she had retired with the birds. The colored divinity informed me that she was 'po'ful tired,' and I hope you will express my regret that the day proved so exceedingly wearisome." Mrs. Mayburn lifted her keen gray eyes to her nephew's face, and a slow rising flush appeared under her scrutiny. Then she said gently, "That's a long speech, Alford, but I don't think it expresses your meaning. If I give your cordial good-by to Grace and tell her that you hope soon to see her again, shall I not better carry out your wishes?"
"Yes," was the grave and candid reply.
"I believe you are in earnest now."
"I am, indeed," he replied, almost solemnly, and with these vague yet significant words they came to an understanding.
Three days elapsed, and still Graham's business was not completed. In his impatience he left it unfinished and returned. How his heart bounded as he saw the familiar cottage! With hasty steps he passed up the path from the street. It was just such another evening as that which had smiled upon his first coming to his aunt's residence, only now there was summer warmth in the air, and the richer, fuller promise of the year. The fragrance that filled the air, if less delicate, was more penetrating, and came from flowers that had absorbed the sun's strengthening rays. If there was less of spring's ecstasy in the song of the birds, there was now in their notes that which was in truer accord with Graham's mood.
At a turn of the path he stopped short, for on the rustic seat beneath the apple-tree he saw Miss St. John reading a letter; then he went forward to greet her, almost impetuously, with a glow in his face and a light in his eyes which no one had ever seen before. She rose to meet him, and there was an answering gladness in her face which made her seem divine to him.
"You are welcome," she said cordially. "We have all missed you more than we dare tell you;" and she gave his hand a warm, strong pressure.
The cool, even-pulsed man, who as a boy had learned to hide his feelings, was for a moment unable to speak. His own intense emotion, his all-absorbing hope, blinded him to the character of her greeting, and led him to give it a meaning it did not possess. She, equally preoccupied with her one thought, looked at him for a moment in surprise, and then cried, "He has told you—has written?"
"He! who?" Graham exclaimed with a blanching face.
"Why, Warren Hilland, your friend. I told you I would tell you, but I could not before I told him," she faltered.
He took an uncertain step or two to the tree, and leaned against it for support.
The young girl dropped the letter and clasped her hands in her distress. "It was on the drive—our return, you remember," she began incoherently. "You asked where my thoughts were, and I said I would tell you soon. Oh! we have both been blind. I am so—so sorry."
Graham's face and manner had indeed been an unmistakable revelation, and the frank, generous girl waited for no conventional acknowledgment before uttering what was uppermost in her heart.
By an effort which evidently taxed every atom of his manhood, Graham gained self-control, and said quietly, "Miss St. John, I think better of myself for having loved you. If I had known! But you are not to blame. It is I who have been blind, for you have never shown other than the kindly regard which was most natural, knowing that I was Hilland's friend. I have not been frank either, or I should have learned the truth long ago. I disguised the growing interest I felt in you from the first, fearing I should lose my chance if you understood me too early. I am Hilland's friend. No one living now knows him better than I do, and from the depths of my heart I congratulate you. He is the best and truest man that ever lived."
"Will you not be my friend, also?" she faltered.
He looked at her earnestly as he replied, "Yes, for life."
"You will feel differently soon," said the young girl, trying to smile reassuringly. "You will see that it has all been a mistake, a misunderstanding; and when your friend returns we will have the merriest, happiest times together."
"Could you soon feel differently?" he asked.
"Oh! why did you say that?" she moaned, burying her face in her hands. "If you will suffer even in a small degree as I should!"
Her distress was so evident and deep that he stood erect and stepped toward her. "Why are you so moved, Miss St. John?" he asked. "I have merely paid you the highest compliment within my power."
Her hands dropped from her face, and she turned away, but not so quickly as to hide the tears that dimmed her lustrous eyes. His lip quivered for a moment at the sight of them, but she did not see this.
"You have merely paid me a compliment," she repeated in a low tone.
The lines of his mouth were firm now, his face grave and composed, and in his gray eyes only a close observer might have seen that an indomitable will was resuming sway. "Certainly," he continued, "and such compliments you have received before and would often again were you free to receive them. I cannot help remembering that there is nothing unique in this episode."
She turned and looked at him doubtingly, as she said with hesitation, "You then regard your—your—"
"My vacation experience," he supplied.
Her eyes widened in what resembled indignant surprise, and her tones grew a little cold and constrained as she again repeated his words.
"You then regard your experience as a vacation episode."
"Do not for a moment think I have been insincere," he said, with strong emphasis, "or that I should not have esteemed it the chief honor of my life had I been successful—"
"As to that," she interrupted, "there are so many other honors that a man can win."
"Assuredly. Pardon me, Miss St. John, but I am sure you have had to inflict similar disappointments before. Did not the men survive?"
The girl broke out into a laugh in which there was a trace of bitterness. "Survive!" she cried. "Indeed they did. One is already married, and another I happen to know is engaged. I'm sure I'm glad, however. Your logic is plain and forcible, Mr. Graham, and you relieve my mind greatly. Men must be different from women."
"What did you mean by asking me, 'Could you soon feel differently?'"
He hesitated a moment and flushed slightly, then queried with a smile, "What did you mean by saying that I should soon learn to feel differently, and that when Hilland returned we should have the merriest times together?"
It was her turn now to be confused now; and she saw that her words were hollow, though spoken from a kindly impulse.
He relieved her by continuing: "You probably spoke from an instinctive estimate of me. You remembered what a cool and wary suitor I had been. Your father would say that I had adopted an-army-of-observation tactics, and I might have remembered that such armies rarely accomplish much. I waited for you to show some sign of weakness, and now you see that I am deservedly punished. It is ever best to face the facts as they are."
"You appear frank, Mr. Graham, and you certainly have not studied philosophy in vain."
"Why should I not take a philosophical view of the affair? In my policy, which I thought so safe and astute, I blundered. If from the first I had manifested the feeling"—the young girl smiled slightly at the word—"which you inspired, you would soon have taught me the wisdom of repressing its growth. Thus you see that you have not the slightest reason for self-censure; and I can go on my way, at least a wiser man."
She bowed gracefully, as she said with a laugh, "I am now beginning to understand that Mr. Graham can scarcely regret anything which adds to his stores of wisdom, and certainly not so slight an 'affair' as a 'vacation episode.' Now that we have talked over this little misunderstanding so frankly and rationally, will you not join us at whist to-night?"
"Certainly. My aunt and I will come over as usual."
Her brow contracted in perplexity as she looked searchingly at him for a moment; but his face was simply calm, grave, and kindly in its expression, and yet there was something about the man which impressed her and even awed her—something unseen, but felt by her woman's intuition. It must be admitted that it was felt but vaguely at the time; for Grace after all was a woman, and Graham's apparent philosophy was not altogether satisfactory. It had seemed to her as the interview progressed that she had been surprised into showing a distress and sympathy for which there was no occasion—that she had interpreted a cool, self-poised man by her own passionate heart and boundless love. In brief, she feared she had been sentimental over an occasion which Graham, as he had suggested, was able to view philosophically. She had put a higher estimate on his disappointment than he, apparently; and she had too much of her father's spirit, and too much womanly pride not to resent this, even though she was partially disarmed by this very disappointment, and still more so by his self-accusation and his tribute to Hilland. But that which impressed her most was something of which she saw no trace in the calm, self-controlled man before her. As a rule, the soul's life is hidden, except as it chooses to reveal itself; but there are times when the excess of joy or suffering cannot be wholly concealed, even though every muscle is rigid and the face marble. Therefore, although there were no outward signals of distress, Graham's agony was not without its influence on the woman before him, and it led her to say, gently and hesitatingly, "But you promised to be my friend, Mr. Graham."
His iron will almost failed him, for he saw how far removed she was from those women who see and know nothing save that which strikes their senses. He had meant to pique her pride as far as he could without offence, even though he sank low in her estimation; but such was the delicacy of her perceptions that she half divined the trouble he sedulously strove to hide. He felt as if he could sit down and cry like a child over his immeasurable loss, and for a second feared he would give way. There was in his eyes a flash of anger at his weakness, but it passed so quickly that she could scarcely note, much less interpret it.
Then he stepped forward in a friendly, hearty way, and took her hand as he said: "Yes, Miss St. John, and I will keep my promise. I will be your friend for life. If you knew my relations to Hilland, you could not think otherwise. I shall tell him when we meet of my first and characteristic siege of a woman's heart, of the extreme and prudent caution with which I opened my distant parallels, and how, at last, when I came within telescopic sight of the prize, I found that he had already captured it. My course has been so perfectly absurd that I must laugh in spite of myself;" and he did laugh so naturally and genially that Grace was constrained to join him, although the trouble and perplexity did not wholly vanish from her eyes.
"And now," he concluded, "that I have experienced my first natural surprise, I will do more than sensibly accept the situation. I congratulate you upon it as no one else can. Had I a sister I would rather that she married Hilland than any other man in the world. We thus start on the right basis for friendship, and there need be no awkward restraint on either side. I must now pay my respects to my aunt, or I shall lose not only her good graces but my supper also;" and with a smiling bow he turned and walked rapidly up the path, and disappeared within Mrs. Mayburn's open door.
Grace looked after him, and the perplexed contraction of her brow deepened. She picked up Hilland's letter, and slowly and musingly folded it. Suddenly she pressed a fervent kiss upon it, and murmured: "Thank God, the writer of this has blood in his veins; and yet—and yet—he looked at first as if he had received a mortal wound, and— and—all the time I felt that he suffered. But very possibly I am crediting him with that which would be inevitable were my case his."
With bowed head she returned slowly and thoughtfully through the twilight to her home.
THE KINSHIP OF SUFFERING
When Graham felt that he had reached the refuge of his aunt's cottage, his self-control failed him, and he almost staggered into the dusky parlor and sank into a chair. Burying his face in his hands, he muttered: "Fool, fool, fool!" and a long, shuddering sigh swept through his frame.
How long he remained in this attitude he did not know, so overwhelmed was he by his sense of loss. At last he felt a hand laid upon his shoulder; he looked up and saw that the lamp was lighted and that his aunt was standing beside him. His face was so altered and haggard that she uttered an exclamation of distress.
Graham hastily arose and turned down the light. "I cannot bear that you should look upon my weakness," he said, hoarsely.
"I should not be ashamed of having loved Grace St. John," said the old lady, quietly.
"Nor am I. As I told her, I think far better of myself for having done so. A man who has seen her as I have would be less than a man had he not loved her. But oh, the future, the future! How am I to support the truth that my love is useless, hopeless?"
"Alford, I scarcely need tell you that my disappointment is bitter also. I had set my heart on this thing."
"You know all, then?"
"Yes, I know she is engaged to your friend, Warren Hilland. She came over in the dusk of last evening, and, sitting just where you are, told me all. I kept up. It was not for me to reveal your secret. I let the happy girl talk on, kissed her, and wished her all the happiness she deserves. Grace is unlike other girls, or I should have known about it long ago. I don't think she even told her father until she had first written to him her full acknowledgment. Your friend, however, had gained her father's consent to his addresses long since. She told me that."
"Oh, my awful future!" he groaned. "Alford," Mrs. Mayburn said, gently but firmly, "think of her future. Grace is so good and kind that she would be very unhappy if she saw and heard you now. I hope you did not give way thus in her presence."
He sprang to his feet and paced the room rapidly at first, then more and more slowly. Soon he turned up the light, and Mrs. Mayburn was surprised at the change in his appearance.
"You are a strong, sensible woman," he began.
"Well, I will admit the premise for the sake of learning what is to follow."
"Miss St. John must never know of my sense of loss—my present despair," he said, in low, rapid speech. "Some zest in life may come back to me in time; but, be that as it may, I shall meet my trouble like a man. To make her suffer now—to cloud her well-merited happiness and that of my friend—would be to add a bitterness beyond that of death. Aunt, you first thought me cold and incapable of strong attachments, and a few weeks since I could not have said that your estimate was far astray, although I'm sure my friendship for Hilland was as strong as the love of most men. Until I met you and Grace it was the only evidence I possessed that I had a heart. Can you wonder? He was the first one that ever showed me any real kindness. I was orphaned in bitter truth, and from childhood my nature was chilled and benumbed by neglect and isolation. Growth and change are not so much questions of time as of conditions. From the first moment that I saw Grace St. John, she interested me deeply; and, self-complacent, self- confident fool that I was, I thought I could deal with the supreme question of life as I had dealt with those which half the world never think about at all. I remember your warning, aunt; and yet, as I said to myself at the time, there was more of incentive than warning in your words, flow self-confidently I smiled over them! How perfectly sure I was that I could enjoy this rare girl's society as I would look at a painting or listen to a symphony! Almost before I was aware, I found a craving in my heart which I now know all the world cannot satisfy. That June day which you arranged so kindly in my behalf made all as clear as the cloudless sun that shone upon us. That day I was revealed fully unto myself, but my hope was strong, for I felt that by the very law and correspondence of nature I could not have such an immeasurable need without having that need supplied. In my impatience I left my business unfinished and returned this evening, for I could not endure another hour of delay. She seemed to answer my glad looks when we met; she gave her hand in cordial welcome. I, blinded by feeling, and thinking that its very intensity must awaken a like return, stood speechless, almost overwhelmed by my transcendent hope. She interpreted my manner naturally by what was uppermost in her mind, and exclaimed: 'He has told you—he has written.' In a moment I knew the truth, and I scarcely think that a knife piercing my heart could inflict a deeper pang. I could not rally for a moment or two. When shall I forget the sympathy—the tears that dimmed her dear eyes! I have a religion at last, and I worship the divine nature of that complete woman. The thought that I made her suffer aroused my manhood; and from that moment I strove to make light of the affair—to give the impression that she was taking it more seriously than I did. I even tried to pique her pride—I could not wound her vanity, for she has none—and I partially succeeded. My task, however, was and will be a difficult one, for her organization is so delicate and fine that she feels what she cannot see. But I made her laugh in spite of herself at my prudent, wary wooing. I removed, I think, all constraint, and we can meet as if nothing had happened. Not that we can meet often—that would tax me beyond my strength—but often enough to banish solicitude from her mind and from Hilland's. Now you know the facts sufficiently to become a shrewd and efficient ally. By all your regard for me—what is far more, by all your love for her—I entreat you let me bring no cloud across her bright sky. We are going over to whist as usual to- night. Let all be as usual."
"Heaven bless you, Alford!" faltered his aunt, with tearful eyes.
"Heaven! what a mockery! Even the lichen, the insect, lives a complete life, while we, with all our reason, so often blunder, fail, and miss that which is essential to existence."
Mrs. Mayburn shook her head slowly and thoughtfully, and then said: "This very fact should teach us that our philosophy of life is false. We are both materialists—I from the habit of living for this world only; you, I suppose, from mistaken reasoning; but in hours like these the mist is swept aside, and I feel, I know, that this life cannot, must not, be all in all."
"Oh, hush!" cried Graham, desperately. "To cease to exist and therefore to suffer, may become the best one can hope for. Were it not cowardly, I would soon end it all."
"You may well use the word 'cowardly,'" said his aunt in strong emphasis; "and brave Grace St. John would revolt at and despise such cowardice by every law of her nature."
"Do not fear. I hope never to do anything to forfeit her respect, except it is for the sake of her own happiness, as when to-day I tried to make her think my veins were filled with ice-water instead of blood. Come, I have kept you far too long. Let us go through the formality of supper; and then I will prove to you that if I have been weak here I can be strong for her sake. I do not remember my mother; but nature is strong, and I suppose there comes a time in every one's life when he must speak to some one as he would to a mother. You have been very kind, dear aunt, and I shall never forget that you have wished and schemed for my happiness."
The old lady came and put her arm around the young man's neck and looked into his face with a strange wistfulness as she said, slowly: "There is no blood relationship between us, Alford, but we are nearer akin than such ties could make us. You do not remember your mother; I never had a child. But, as you say, nature is strong; and although I have tried to satisfy myself with a hundred things, the mother in my heart has never been content. I hoped, I prayed, that you and Grace might become my children. Alford, I have been learning of late that I am a lonely, unhappy old woman. Will you not be my boy? I would rather share your sorrow than be alone in the world again."
Graham was deeply touched. He bowed his head upon her shoulder as if he were her son, and a few hot tears fell from his eyes. "Yes, aunt," he said, in a low tone, "you have won the right to ask anything that I can give. Fate, in denying us both what our hearts most craved, has indeed made us near akin; and there can be an unspoken sympathy between us that may have a sustaining power that we cannot now know. You have already taken the bitterness, the despair out of my sorrow; and should I go to the ends of the earth I shall be the better for having you to think of and care for."
"And you feel that you cannot remain here, Alford?"
"No, aunt, that is now impossible; that is, for the present."
"Yes, I suppose it is," she admitted, sadly.
"Come, aunty dear, I promised Miss St. John that we would go over as usual to-night, and I would not for the world break my word."
"Then we shall go at once. We shall have a nice little supper on our return. Neither of us is in the mood for it now."
After a hasty toilet Graham joined his aunt. She looked at him, and had no fears.
Grace met them at the door. "It is very kind of you," she said, "to come over this evening after a fatiguing journey."
"Very," he replied, laughingly; "a ride of fifty miles in the cars should entitle one to a week's rest."
"I hope you are going to take it."
"Oh, no; my business man in New York has at last aroused me to heroic action. With only the respite of a few hours' sleep I shall venture upon the cars again and plunge into all the perils and excitements of a real estate speculation. My property is going up, and 'there's a tide,' you know, 'which, taken at its flood—'"
"Leads away from your friends. I see that it is useless for us to protest, for when did a man ever give up a chance for speculation?"
"Then it is not the fault of man: we merely obey a general law."
"That is the way with you scientists," she said with a piquant nod and smile. "You do just as you please, but you are always obeying some profound law that we poor mortals know nothing about. We don't fall back upon the arrangements of the universe for our motives, do we, Mrs. Mayburn?"
"Indeed we don't," was the brusque response. "'When she will, she will, and when she won't, she won't,' answers for us."
"Grace! Mrs. Mayburn!" called the major from the parlor; "if you don't come soon I'll order out the guard and have you brought in. Mr. Graham," he continued, as the young man hastened to greet him, "you are as welcome as a leave of absence. We have had no whist since you left us, and we are nearly an hour behind time to-night. Mrs. Mayburn, your humble servant. Excuse me for not rising. Why the deuce my gout should trouble me again just now I can't see. I've not seen you since that juvenile picnic which seemed to break up all our regular habits. I never thought that you would desert me. I suppose Mr. Graham carries a roving commission and can't be disciplined. I propose, however, that we set to at once and put the hour we've lost at the other end of the evening."
It was evident that the major was in high spirits, in spite of his catalogue of ills; and in fact his daughter's engagement had been extremely satisfactory to him. Conscious of increasing age and infirmity, he was delighted that Grace had chosen one so abundantly able to take care of her and of him also. For the last few days he had been in an amiable mood, for he felt that fortune had dealt kindly by him. His love for his only child was the supreme affection of his heart, and she by her choice had fulfilled his best hopes. Her future was provided for and safe. Then from the force of long habit he thought next of himself. If his tastes were not luxurious, he had at least a strong liking for certain luxuries, and to these he would gladly add a few more did his means permit. He was a connoisseur in wines and the pleasures of the table—not that he had any tendencies toward excess, but he delighted to sip the great wines of the world, to expatiate on their age, character, and origin. Sometimes he would laughingly say, "Never dilate on the treasures bequeathed to us by the old poets, sages, and artists, but for inspiration and consolation give me a bottle of old, old wine—wine made from grapes that ripened before I was born."
He was too upright a man, however, to gratify these tastes beyond his means; but Grace was an indulgent and skilful housekeeper, and made their slender income minister to her father's pleasure in a way that surprised even her practical friend, Mrs. Mayburn. In explanation she would laughingly say, "I regard housekeeping as a fine art. The more limited your materials the greater the genius required for producing certain results. Now, I'm a genius, Mrs. Mayburn. You wouldn't dream it, would you? Papa sometimes has a faint consciousness of the fact when he finds on his table wines and dishes of which he knows the usual cost. 'My dear,' he will say severely, 'is this paid for?' 'Yes,' I reply, meekly. 'How did you manage it?' Then I stand upon my dignity, and reply with offended majesty, 'Papa, I am housekeeper. You are too good a soldier to question the acts of your superior officer.' Then he makes me a most profound bow and apology, and rewards me amply by his almost childlike enjoyment of what after all has only cost me a little undetected economy and skill in cookery."
But the major was not so blind as he appeared to be. He knew more of her "undetected" economies, which usually came out of her allowance, than she supposed, and his conscience often reproached him for permitting them; but since they appeared to give her as much pleasure as they afforded him, he had let them pass. It is hard for a petted and weary invalid to grow in self-denial. While the old gentleman would have starved rather than angle for Hilland or plead his cause by a word—he had given his consent to the young man's addresses with the mien of a major-general—he nevertheless foresaw that wealth as the ally of his daughter's affection would make him one of the most discriminating and fastidious gourmands in the land.
In spite of his age and infirmity the old soldier was exceedingly fond of travel and of hotel life. He missed the varied associations of the army. Pain he had to endure much of the time, and from it there was no escape. Change of place, scene, and companionship diverted his mind, and he partially forgot his sufferings. As we have shown, he was a devourer of newspapers, but he enjoyed the world's gossip far more when he could talk it over with others, and maintain on the questions of the day half a dozen good-natured controversies. When at the seashore the previous summer he had fought scores of battles for his favorite measures with other ancient devotees of the newspaper. Grace had made Graham laugh many a time by her inimitable descriptions of the quaint tilts and chaffings of these graybeards, as each urged the views of his favorite journals; and then she would say, "You ought to see them sit down to whist. Such prolonged and solemn sittings upset my gravity more than all their bric-a-brac jokes." And then she had sighed and said, "I wish we could have remained longer, for papa improved so much and was so happy."
The time was coming when he could stay longer—as long as he pleased— for whatever pleased her father would please Grace, and would have to please her husband. Her mother when dying had committed the old man to her care, and a sacred obligation had been impressed upon her childish mind which every year had strengthened.
As we have seen, Grace had given her heart to Hilland by a compulsion which she scarcely understood herself. No thrifty calculations had had the slightest influence in bringing the mysterious change of feeling that had been a daily surprise to the young girl. She had turned to Hilland as the flower turns to the sun, with scarcely more than the difference that she was conscious that she was turning. When at last she ceased to wonder at the truth that her life had become blended with that of another—for, as her love developed, this union seemed the most natural and inevitable thing in the world—she began to think of Hilland more than of herself, and of the changes which her new relations would involve. It became one of the purest sources of her happiness that she would eventually have the means of gratifying every taste and whim of her father, and could surround him with all the comforts which his age and infirmities permitted him to enjoy.
Thus the engagement ring on Miss St. John's finger had its heights and depths of meaning to both father and daughter; and its bright golden hue pervaded all the prospects and possibilities—the least as well as the greatest—of the future. It was but a plain, heavy circlet of gold, and looked like a wedding-ring. Such to Graham it seemed to be, as its sheen flashed upon his eyes during their play, which continued for two hours or more, with scarcely a remark or an interruption beyond the requirements of the game. The old major loved this complete and scientific absorption, and Grace loved to humor him. Moreover, she smiled more than once at Graham's intentness. Never had he played so well, and her father had to put forth all his veteran skill and experience to hold his own. "To think that I shed tears over his disappointment, when a game of whist can console him!" she thought. "How different he is from his friend! I suppose that is the reason that they are such friends—they are so unlike. The idea of Warren playing with that quiet, steady hand and composed face under like circumstances! And yet, why is he so pale?"
Mrs. Mayburn understood this pallor too well, and she felt that the ordeal had lasted long enough. She, too, had acted her part admirably, but now she pleaded fatigue, saying that she had not been very well for the last day or two. She was inscrutable to Grace, and caused no misgivings. It is easier for a woman than for a man to hide emotions from a woman, and Mrs. Mayburn's gray eyes and strong features rarely revealed anything that she meant to conceal. The major acquiesced good-naturedly, saying, "You are quite right to stop, Mrs. Mayburn, and I surely have no cause to complain. We have had more play in two hours than most people have in two weeks. I congratulate you, Mr. Graham; you are becoming a foeman worthy of any man's steel."
Graham rose with the relief which a man would feel on leaving the rack, and said, smilingly, "Your enthusiasm is contagious. Any man would soon be on his mettle who played often with you."
"Is enthusiasm one of your traits?" Grace asked, with an arch smile over her shoulder, as she went to ring the bell.
"What! Have you not remarked it?"
"Grace has been too preoccupied to remark anything—sly puss!" said the major, laughing heartily. "My dear Mrs. Mayburn, I shall ask for your congratulations tonight. I know we shall have yours, Mr. Graham, for Grace has informed me that Hilland is your best and nearest friend. This little girl of mine has been playing blind-man's-buff with her old father. She thought she had the handkerchief tight over my eyes, but I always keep One corner raised a little. Well, Mr. Graham, this dashing friend of yours, who thinks he can carry all the world by storm, asked me last summer if he could lay siege to Grace. I felt like wringing his neck for his audacity and selfishness. The idea of any one taking Grace from me!"
"And no one shall, papa," said Grace, hiding her blushing face behind his white shock of hair. "But I scarcely think these details will interest—"
"What!" cried the bluff, frank old soldier—"not interest Mrs. Mayburn, the best and kindest of neighbors? not interest Hilland's alter ego?"
"I assure you," said Graham, laughing, "that I am deeply interested; and I promise you, Miss Grace, that I shall give Hilland a severer curtain lecture than he will ever receive from you, because he has left me in the dark so long."
"Stop pinching my arm," cried the major, who was in one of his jovial moods, and often immensely enjoyed teasing his daughter. "You may well hide behind me. Mrs. Mayburn, I'm going to expose a rank case of filial deception that was not in the least successful. This 'I came, I saw, I conquered' friend of yours, Mr. Graham, soon discovered that he was dealing with a race that was not in the habit of surrendering. But your friend, like Wellington, never knew when he was beaten. He wouldn't retreat an inch, but drawing his lines as close as he dared, sat down to a regular siege."
Graham again laughed outright, and with a comical glance at the young girl, asked, "Are you sure, sir, that Miss St. John was aware of these siege operations?"
"Indeed she was. Your friend raised his flag at once, and nailed it to the staff. And this little minx thought that she could deceive an old soldier like myself by playing the role of disinterested friend to a lonely young man condemned to the miseries of a mining town. I was often tempted to ask her why she did not extend her sympathy to scores of young fellows in the service who are in danger of being scalped every day. But the joke of it was that I knew she was undermined and must surrender long before Hilland did."
"Now, papa, it's too bad of you to expose me in this style. I appeal to Mrs. Mayburn if I did not keep my flag flying so defiantly to the last that even she did not suspect me."
"Yes," said the old lady, dryly; "I can testify to that."
"Which is only another proof of my penetration," chuckled the major. "Well, well, it is so seldom I can get ahead of Grace in anything that I like to make the most of my rare good fortune; and it seems, Mr. Graham, as if you and your aunt had already become a part of our present and prospective home circle. I have seen a letter in which Warren speaks of you in a way that reminds me of a friend who was shot almost at my side in a fight with the Indians. That was nearly half a century ago, and yet no one has taken his place. With men, friendships mean something, and last."
"Come, come," cried Mrs. Mayburn, bristling up, "neither Grace nor I will permit such an implied slur upon our sex."
"My friendship for Hilland will last," said Graham, with quiet emphasis. "Most young men are drawn together by a mutual liking—by something congenial in their natures. I owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, He found me a lonely, neglected boy, who had scarcely ever known kindness, much less affection, and his ardent, generous nature became an antidote to my gloomy tendencies. From the first he has been a constant and faithful friend. He has not one unworthy trait. But there is nothing negative about him, for he abounds in the best and most manly qualities; and I think," he concluded, speaking slowly and deliberately, as if he were making an inward vow, "that I shall prove worthy of his trust and regard."
Grace looked at him earnestly and gratefully, and the thought again asserted itself that she had not yet gauged his character or his feeling toward herself. To her surprise she also noted that Mrs. Mayburn's eyes were filled with tears, but the old lady was equal to the occasion, and misled her by saying, "I feel condemned, Alford, that you should have been so lonely and neglected in early life, but I know it was so."
"Oh, well, aunt, you know I was not an interesting boy, and had I been imposed upon you in my hobbledehoy period, our present relations might never have existed. I must ask your congratulations also," he continued, turning toward the major and his daughter. "My aunt and I have in a sense adopted each other. I came hither to pay her a formal call, and have made another very dear friend."
"Have you made only one friend since you became our neighbor?" asked Grace, with an accent of reproach in her voice.
"I would very gladly claim you and your father as such," he replied, smilingly.
The old major arose with an alacrity quite surprising in view of his lameness, and pouring out two glasses of the wine that Jinny had brought in answer to Grace's touch of the bell, he gave one of the glasses to Graham, and with the other in his left hand, he said, "And here I pledge you the word of a soldier that I acknowledge the claim in full, not only for Hilland's sake, but your own. You have generously sought to beguile the tedium of a crotchety and irritable old man; but such as he is he gives you his hand as a true, stanch friend; and Grace knows this means a great deal with me."
"Yes, indeed," she cried. "I declare, papa, you almost make me jealous. You treated Warren as if you were the Great Mogul, and he but a presuming subject. Mr. Graham, if so many new friends are not an embarrassment of riches, will you give me a little niche among them?" "I cannot give you that which is yours already," he replied; "nor have I a little niche for you. You have become identified with Hilland, you know, and therefore require a large space."
"Now, see here, my good friends, you are making too free with my own peculiar property. You are already rich in each other, not counting Mr. Hilland, who, according to Alford, seems to embody all human excellence. I have only this philosophical nephew, and even with him shall find a rival in every book he can lay hands upon. I shall therefore carry him off at once, especially as he is to be absent several days."
The major protested against his absence, and was cordiality itself in his parting words.
Grace followed them out on the moonlit piazza. "Mr. Graham," she said, hesitatingly, "you will not be absent very long, I trust."
"Oh, no," he replied, lightly; "only two or three weeks. In addition to my affairs in the city, I have some business in Vermont, and while there shall follow down some well-remembered trout-streams."
She turned slightly away, and buried her face in a spray of roses from the bush that festooned the porch. He saw that a tinge of color was in her cheeks, as she said in a low tone, "You should not be absent long; I think your friend will soon visit us, and you should be here to welcome him," and she glanced hastily toward him. Was it the moonlight that made him look so very pale? His eyes held hers. Mrs. Mayburn had walked slowly on, and seemingly he had forgotten her. The young girl's eyes soon fell before his fixed gaze, and her face grew troubled. He started, and said lightly, "I beg your pardon, Miss Grace, but you have no idea what a picture you make with the aid of those roses. The human face in clear moonlight reveals character, it is said, and I again congratulate my friend without a shadow of doubt. Unversed as I am in such matters, I am quite satisfied that Hilland will need no other welcome than yours, and that he will be wholly content with it for some time to come. Moreover, when I find myself among the trout, there's no telling when I shall get out of the woods."
"Is fishing, then, one of your ruling passions?" the young girl asked, with an attempt to resume her old piquant style of talk with him.
"Yes," he replied, laughing, so that his aunt might hear him; "but when one's passions are of so mild a type one may be excused for having a half-dozen. Good-by!"
She stepped forward and held out her hand. "You have promised to be my friend," she said, gently.
His hand trembled in her grasp as he said quietly and firmly, "I will keep my promise."
She looked after him wistfully, as she thought, "I'm not sure about him. I hope it's only a passing disappointment, for we should not like to think that our happiness had brought him wretchedness."
FLIGHT TO NATURE
Graham found his aunt waiting for him on the rustic seat beneath the apple-tree. Here, a few hours before, his heart elate with hope, he had hastened forward to meet Grace St. John. Ages seemed to have passed since that moment of bitter disappointment, teaching him how relative a thing is time.
The old lady joined him without a word, and they passed on silently to the house. As they entered, she said, trying to infuse into the commonplace words something of her sympathy and affection, "Now we will have a cosey little supper."
Graham placed his hand upon her arm, and detained her, as he replied, "No, aunt; please get nothing for me. I must hide myself for a few hours from even your kind eyes. Do not think me weak or unmanly. I shall soon get the reins well in hand, and shall then be quiet enough."
"I think your self-control has been admirable this evening."
"It was the self-control of sheer, desperate force, and only partial at that. I know I must have been almost ghostly in my pallor. I have felt pale—as if I were bleeding to death. I did not mean to take her hand in parting, for I could not trust myself; but she held it out so kindly that I had to give mine, which, in spite of my whole will power, trembled. I troubled and perplexed her. I have infused an element of sorrow and bitterness into her happy love; for in the degree in which it gives her joy she will fear that it brings the heartache to me, and she is too good and kind not to care. I must go away and not return until my face is bronzed and my nerves are steel. Oh, aunt! you cannot understand me; I scarcely understand myself. It seems as if all the love that I might have given to many in the past, had my life been like that of others, had been accumulating for this hopeless, useless waste—this worse than waste, since it only wounds and pains its object."
"And do I count for so little, Alford?"
"You count for more now than all others save one; and if you knew how contrary this utter unreserve is to my nature and habit, you would understand how perfect is my confidence in you and how deep is my affection. But I am learning with a sort of dull, dreary astonishment that there are heights and depths of experience of which I once had not the faintest conception. This is a kind of battle that one must fight out alone. I must go away and accustom myself to a new condition of life. But do not worry about me. I shall come back a vertebrate;" and he tried to summon a reassuring smile, as he kissed her in parting.
That night Graham faced his trouble, and decided upon his future course.
After an early breakfast the next morning, the young man bade his aunt good-by. With moist eyes, she said, "Alford, I am losing you, just as I find how much you are and can be to me."
"No, aunty dear; my course will prove best for us both," he replied, gently. "You would not be happy if you saw me growing more sad and despairing every day through inaction, and—and—well, I could never become strong and calm with that cottage there just beyond the trees. You have not lost me, for I shall try to prove a good correspondent."
Graham kept his word. His "real estate speculation" did not detain him long in the city, for his business agent was better able to manage such interests than the inexperienced student; and soon a letter dated among the mountains and the trout streams of Vermont assured Mrs. Mayburn that he had carried out his intentions. Not long after, a box with a score of superb fish followed the letter, and Major St. John's name was pinned on some of the largest and finest. During the next fortnight these trophies of his sport continued to arrive at brief intervals, and they were accompanied by letters, giving in almost journal form graphic descriptions of the streams he had fished, their surrounding scenery, and the amusing peculiarities of the natives. There was not a word that suggested the cause that had driven him so suddenly into the wilderness, but on every page were evidences of tireless activity.
The major was delighted with the trout, and enjoyed a high feast almost every day. Mrs. Mayburn, imagining that she had divined Graham's wish, read from his letters glowing extracts which apparently revealed an enthusiastic sportsman.
After his departure Grace had resumed her frequent visits to her congenial old friend, and confidence having now been given in respect to her absent lover, the young girl spoke of him out of the abundance of her heart. Mrs. Mayburn tried to be all interest and sympathy, but Grace was puzzled by something in her manner—something not absent when she was reading Graham's letters. One afternoon she said: "Tell your father that he may soon expect something extraordinarily fine, for Alford has written me of a twenty-mile tramp through the mountains to a stream almost unknown and inaccessible."
"Won't you read the description to us this evening? You have no idea how much pleasure papa takes in Mr. Graham's letters. He says they increase the gamy flavor of the fish he enjoys so much; and I half believe that Mr. Graham in this indirect and delicate way is still seeking to amuse my father, and so compensate him for his absence. Warren will soon be here, however, and then we can resume our whist parties. Do you know that I am almost jealous? Papa talks more of Vermont woods than of Western mines. You ought to hear him expatiate upon the trout. He seems to follow Mr. Graham up and down every stream; and he explains to me with the utmost minuteness just how the flies are cast and just where they were probably thrown to snare the speckled beauties. By the way, Mr. Graham puzzles me. He seems to be the most indefatigable sportsman I ever heard of. But I should never have suspected it from the tranquil weeks he spent with us. He seemed above all things a student of the most quiet and intellectual tastes, one who could find more pleasure in a library and laboratory than in all the rest of the world together. Suddenly he develops into the most ardent disciple of Izaak Walton. Indeed, he is too ardent, too full of restless activity, to be a true follower of the gentle, placid Izaak. At his present rate he will soon overrun all Vermont;" and she looked searchingly at her friend.
A faint color stole into the old lady's cheeks, but she replied, quietly: "I have learned to know Alford well enough to love him dearly; and yet you must remember that but a few weeks ago he was a comparative stranger to me. He certainly is giving us ample proof of his sportsmanship, and now that I recall it, I remember hearing of his fondness for solitary rambles in the woods when a boy."
"His descriptions certainly prove that he is familiar with them," was the young girl's answer to Mrs. Mayburn's words. Her inward comment on the slight flush that accompanied them was: "She knows. He has told her; or she, less blind than I, has seen." But she felt that the admission of his love into which Graham had been surprised was not a topic for her to introduce, although she longed to be assured that she had not seriously disturbed the peace of her lover's friend. A day or two later Hilland arrived, and her happiness was too deep, too complete, to permit many thoughts of the sportsman in the Vermont forests. Nor did Hilland's brief but hearty expressions of regret at Graham's temporary absence impose upon her. She saw that the former was indeed more than content with her welcome; that while his friendship was a fixed star of the first magnitude, it paled and almost disappeared before the brightness and fulness of her presence. "Nature," indeed, became "radiant" to both "with purple light, the morning and the night varied enchantments."
Grace waited for Graham to give his own confidence to his friend if he chose to do so, for she feared that if she spoke of it estrangement might ensue. The unsuspecting major was enthusiastic in his praises of the successful fisherman, and Hilland indorsed with emphasis all he said. Graham's absence and Grace's reception had banished even the thought that he might possibly find a rival in his friend, and his happiness was unalloyed.
One sultry summer evening in early July Graham returned to his aunt's residence, and was informed that she was, as usual, at her neighbor's. He went immediately to his room to remove the dust and stains of travel. On his table still lay the marked copy of Emerson that Grace had lent him, and he smiled bitterly as he recalled his complacent, careless surmises over the underscored passage, now so well understood and explained. Having finished his toilet, he gazed steadily at his reflection in the mirror, as a soldier might have done to see if his equipment was complete. It was evident he had not gone in vain to nature for help. His face was bronzed, and no telltale flush or pallor could now be easily recognized. His expression was calm and resolute, indicating nerves braced and firm. Then he turned away with the look of a man going into battle, and without a moment's hesitancy he sought the ordeal. The windows and doors of Major St. John's cottage were open, and as he mounted the piazza the group around the whist-table was in full view—the major contracting his bushy eyebrows over his hand as if not altogether satisfied, Mrs. Mayburn looking at hers with an interest so faint as to suggest that her thoughts were wandering, and Hilland with his laughing blue eyes glancing often from his cards to the fair face of his partner, as if he saw there a story that would deepen in its inthralling interest through life. There was no shadow, no doubt on his wide, white brow. It was the genial, frank, merry face of the boy who had thawed the reserve and banished the gathering gloom of a solitary youth at college, only now it was marked by the stronger lines of early manhood. His fine, short upper lip was clean shaven, and its tremulous curves indicated a nature quick, sensitive, and ready to respond to every passing influence, while a full, tawny beard and broad shoulders banished all suggestion of effeminacy. He appeared to be, what in truth he was, an unspoiled favorite of fortune, now supremely happy in her best and latest gift. "If I could but have known the truth at first," sighed Graham, "I would not have lingered here until my very soul was enslaved; for he is the man above all others to win and hold a woman's heart."
That he held the heart of the fair girl opposite him was revealed by every glance, and Graham's heart ached with a pain hard to endure, as he watched for a moment the exquisite outlines of her face, her wide, low brow with its halo of light-colored hair that was in such marked contrast with the dark and lustrous eyes, now veiled by silken lashes as she looked downward intent on the game, now beaming with the very spirit of mirth and mischief as she looked at her opponents, and again softening in obedience to the controlling law of her life as she glanced half shyly from time to time at the great bearded man on the other side of the table.
"Was not the world wide enough for me to escape seeing that face?" he groaned. "A few months since I was content with my life and lot. Why did I come thousands of miles to meet such a fate? I feared I should have to face poverty and privation for a time. Now they are my lot for life, an impoverishment that wealth would only enhance. I cannot stay here, I will not remain a day longer than is essential to make the impression I wish to leave;" and with a firm step he crossed the piazza, rapped lightly in announcement of his presence, and entered without ceremony.
Hilland sprang forward joyously to meet him, and gave him just such a greeting as accorded with his ardent spirit. "Why, Graham!" he cried, with a crushing grasp, and resting a hand on his shoulder at the same time, "you come unexpectedly, like all the best things in the world. We looked for a letter that would give us a chance to celebrate your arrival as that of the greatest fisherman of the age."
"Having taken so many unwary trout, it was quite in keeping to take us unawares," said Grace, pressing forward with outstretched hand, for she had determined to show in the most emphatic way that Hilland's friend was also hers.
Graham took the proffered hand and held it, while, with a humorous glance at his friend, he said: "See here, Hilland, I hold an indisputable proof that it's time you appeared on the confines of civilization and gave an account of yourself."
"I own up, old fellow. You have me on the hip. I have kept one secret from you. If we had been together the thing would have come out, but somehow I couldn't write, even to you, until I knew my fate."
"Mr. Graham," broke in the major, "if we were in the service, I should place you in charge of the commissary department, and give you a roving commission. I have lived like a lord for the past two weeks;" and he shook Graham's hand so cordially as to prove his heart had sympathized with an adjacent organ that had been highly gratified.
"I have missed you, Alford," was his aunt's quiet greeting, and she kissed him as if he were her son, causing a sudden pang as he remembered how soon he would bid her farewell again.
"Why, Graham, how you have improved! You have gained a splendid color in the woods. The only trouble is that you are as attenuated as some of the theories we used to discuss."
"And you, giddy boy, begin to look quite like a man. Miss Grace, you will never know how greatly you are indebted to me for my restraining influence. There never was a fellow who needed to be sat down upon so often as Hilland. I have curbed and pruned him; indeed, I have almost brought him up."
"He does you credit," was her reply, spoken with mirthful impressiveness, and with a very contented glance at the laughing subject of discussion.
"Yes, Graham," he remarked, "you were a trifle heavy at times, and were better at bringing a fellow down than up. It took all the leverage of my jolly good nature to bring you up occasionally. But I am glad to see and hear that you have changed so happily. Grace and the major say you have become the best of company, taking a human interest in other questions than those which keep the scientists by the ears."
"That is because I have broken my shell and come out into the world. One soon discovers that there are other questions, and some of them conundrums that the scientists may as well give up at the start. I say, Hilland, how young we were over there in Germany when we thought ourselves growing hourly into savants!"
"Indeed we were, and as sublimely complacent as we were young. Would you believe it, Mrs. Mayburn, your nephew and I at one time thought we were on the trail of some of the most elusive secrets of the universe, and that we should soon drag them from cover. I have learned since that this little girl could teach me more than all the universities."
Graham shot a swift glance at his aunt, which Grace thought she detected; but he turned to the latter, and said genially: "I congratulate you on excelling all the German doctors. I know he's right, and he'll remember the lore obtained from you long after he has forgotten the deep, guttural abstractions that droned on his ears abroad. It will do him more good, too."
"I fear I am becoming a subject of irony to you both," said Grace.
"They are both becoming too deep for us, are they not, Mrs. Mayburn?" put in the major. "You obtained your best knowledge, Mr. Graham, when you trampled the woods as a boy, and though you gathered so much of it by hook it's like the fish you killed, rare to find. If we were in the service and I had the power, I'd have you brevetted at once, and get some fellow knocked on the head to make a vacancy. You have been contributing royally to our mess, and now you must take a soldier's luck with us to-night. Grace, couldn't you improvise a nice little supper?"
"Please do not let me cause any such trouble this hot evening," Graham began; "I dined late in town, and—"
"No insubordination," interrupted Grace, rising with alacrity. "Certainly I can, papa," and as she paused near Graham, she murmured: "Don't object; it will please papa."
She showed what a provident housekeeper she was, for they all soon sat down to an inviting repast, of which fruit was the staple article, with cake so light and delicate that it would never disturb a man's conscience after he retired. Then with genial words and smiles that masked all heartache, Graham and his aunt said good-night and departed, Hilland accompanying his friend, that he might pour out the long-delayed confidence. Graham shivered as he thought of the ordeal, as a man might tremble who was on his way to the torture-chamber, but outwardly he was quietly cordial.
After accompanying Mrs. Mayburn to her cottage door, the friends strolled away together, the sultry evening rendering them reluctant to enter the house. When they reached the rustic seat under the apple- tree, Hilland remarked: "Here's a good place for our—"
"Not here," interrupted Graham, in a tone that was almost sharp in its tension.
"Why not?" asked his friend, in the accent of surprise.
"Oh, well," was the confused answer, "some one may be passing— servants may be out in the grounds. Suppose we walk slowly."
"Graham, you seem possessed by the very demon of restlessness. The idea of walking this hot night!"
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter," Graham replied, carelessly, although his face was rigid with the effort; and he threw himself down on the rustic seat. "We are not conspirators that we need steal away in the darkness. Why should I not be restless after sitting in the hot cars all day, and with the habit of tramping fresh upon me?"
"What evil spirit drove you into the wilderness and made you the champion tramp of the country? It seems to me you must have some remarkable confidences also."
"No evil spirit, I assure you; far from it. My tramp has done me good; indeed, I never derived more benefit from an outing in the woods in my life. You will remember that when we were boys at college no fellow took longer walks than I. I am simply returning to the impulses of my youth. The fact is, I've been living too idly, and of course there would be a reaction in one of my temperament and habits. The vital force which had been accumulating under my aunt's high feeding and the inspiration resulting from the society of two such charming people as Major and Miss St. John had to be expended in some way. Somehow I've lost much of my old faith in books and laboratories. I've been thinking a great deal about it, and seeing you again has given a strong impulse to a forming purpose. I felt a sincere commiseration when you gave up your life of a student. I was a fool to do so. I have studied your face and manner this evening, and can see that you have developed more manhood out in those Western mines, in your contact with men and things and the large material interests of the world, than you could have acquired by delving a thousand years among dusty tomes."
"That little girl over there has done more for me than Western mines and material interests."
"That goes without saying; and yet she could have done little for you, had you been a dawdler. Indeed, in that case she would have had nothing to do with you. She recognized that you were like the gold you are mining—worth taking and fashioning; and I tell you she is not a girl to be imposed upon."
"You admire Grace very much."
"I do indeed, and I respect her still more. You know I never was a lady's man; indeed, the society of most young women was a weariness to me. Don't imagine I am asserting any superiority. You enjoyed their conversation, and you are as clever as I am."
"I understand," said Hilland, laughing; "you had nothing in common. You talked to a girl as if she were a mile off, and often broached topics that were cycles away. Now, a girl likes a fellow to come reasonably close—metaphorically, if not actually—when he chats with her. Moreover, many that you met, if they had brains, had never cultivated them. They were as shallow as a duck-pond, and with their small deceits, subterfuges, and affectations were about as transparent. Some might imagine them deep. They puzzled and nonplussed you, and you slunk away. Now I, while rating them at their worth, was able from previous associations to talk a little congenial nonsense, and pass on. They amused me, too. You know I have a sort of laughing philosophy, and everything and everybody amuses me. The fellows would call these creatures angels, and they would flap their little butterfly wings as if they thought they were. How happened it that you so soon were en rapport with Grace?"
"Ah, wily wretch!" Graham laughed gayly, while the night hid his lowering brows; "praise of your mistress is sweeter than flattery to yourself. Why, simply because she is Grace St. John. I imagine that it is her army life that has so blended unconventionality with perfect good breeding. She is her bluff, honest, high-spirited old father over again, only idealized, refined, and womanly. Then she must have inherited some rare qualities from her Southern mother: you see my aunt has told me all about them. I once met a Southern lady abroad, and although she was middle-aged, she fascinated me more than any girl I had ever met. In the first place, there was an indescribable accent that I never heard in Europe—slight, indeed, but very pleasing to the ear. I sometimes detect traces of it in Miss St. John's speech. Then this lady had a frankness and sincerity of manner which put you at your ease at once; and yet with it all there was a fine reserve. You no more feared that she would blurt out something unsanctioned by good taste than that she would dance a hornpipe. She was singularly gentle and retiring in her manner; and yet one instinctively felt he would rather insult a Southern fire-eater than offend her. She gave the impression that she had been accustomed to a chivalric deference from men, rather than mere society attentions; and one unconsciously infused a subtle homage in his very accent when speaking to her. Now, I imagine that Miss St. John's mother must have been closely akin to this woman in character. You know my weakness for analyzing everything. You used to say I couldn't smoke a cigar without going into the philosophy of it. I had not spent one evening in the society of Miss St. John before I saw that she was a rara avis. Then her devotion to her invalid father is superb. She enlisted me in his service the first day of my arrival. Although old, crippled, often racked with pain, and afflicted with a temper which arbitrary command has not improved, she beguiles him out of himself, smiles away his gloom—in brief, creates so genial an atmosphere about him that every breath is balm, and does it all, too, without apparent effort You see no machinery at work. Now, this was all a new and very interesting study of life to me, and I studied it. There, too, is my aunt, who is quite as interesting in her way. Such women make general or wholesale cynicism impossible, or else hypocritical;" and he was about to launch out into as extended an analysis of the old lady's peculiarities, when Hilland interrupted him with a slap on the shoulder and a ringing laugh.
"Graham, you haven't changed a mite. You discourse just as of old, when in our den at the university we befogged ourselves in the tobacco-smoke and the denser obscurities of German metaphysics, only your theme is infinitely more interesting. Now, when I met my paragon, Grace, whom you have limned with the feeling of an artist rather than of an analyst, although with a blending of both, I fell in love with her."
"Yes, Hilland, it's just like you to fall in love. My fear has ever been that you would fall in love with a face some day, and not with a woman. But I now congratulate you from the depths of my soul."
"How comes it that you did not fall in love with one whom you admire so much? You were not aware of my suit."
"I suppose it is not according to my nature to 'fall in love,' as you term it. The very phrase is repugnant to me. When a man is falling in any sense of the word, his reason is rather apt to be muddled and confused, and he cannot be very sure where he will land. If you had not appeared on the scene my reason would have approved of my marriage with Miss St. John—that is, if I had seen the slightest chance of acceptance, which, of course, I never have. I should be an egregious fool were it otherwise."
"How about your heart?"
"The heart often leads to the sheerest folly," was the sharp rejoinder.
Hilland laughed in his good-humored way. His friend's reply seemed the result of irritation at the thought that the heart should have much to say when reason demurred. "Well, Graham," he said, kindly and earnestly, "if I did not know you so well, I should say you were the most cold-blooded, frog-like fellow in existence. You certainly are an enigma to me on the woman question. I must admit that my heart went headlong from the first; but when at last reason caught up, and had time to get her breath and look the case over, she said it was 'all right'—far better than she had expected. To one of my temperament, however, it seems very droll that reason should lead the way to love, and the heart come limping after."
"Many a one has taken the amatory tumble who would be glad to reason his way up and back. But we need not discuss this matter in the abstract, for we have too much that is personal to say to each other. You are safe; your wonted good fortune has served you better than ever. All the wisdom of Solomon could not have enabled you to fall in love more judiciously. Indeed, when I come to think of it, the wisdom of Solomon, according to history, was rather at fault in these matters. Tell me how it all came about" (for he knew the story must come); "only outline the tale to-night. I've been speculating and analyzing so long that it is late; and the major, hearing voices in the grounds, may bring some of his old army ordnance to bear on us."
But Hilland, out of the abundance of his heart, found much to say; and his friend sat cold, shivering in the sultry night, his heart growing more despairing as he saw the heaven of successful wooing that he could never enter. At last Hilland closed with the words, "I say, Graham, are you asleep?"