"I admit your claim," she cried, wringing her hands. "You have made death, that I welcome, a terror. How can I live? What is there left of me but a shadow? What am I but a mere semblance of a woman? The snow is not whiter than my hair, or colder than my heart. Oh, Alford, you have grown morbid in all these years. You cannot know what is best. Your true chance is to let me go. I am virtually dead now, and when my flickering breath ceases, the change will be slight indeed."
"It will be a fatal change for me," he replied, with such calm emphasis that she shuddered. "You ask how you can live. Again I repeat, by complying with the conditions of life. You have been complying with the conditions of death; and I will not yield you to him. Grief has been a far closer and more cherished friend than I; and you have permitted it, like a shadow, to stand between us. The time has now come when you must choose between this fatal shadow, this useless, selfish grief, and a loyal friend, who only asks that he may see you at times, that he may know where to find the one life that is essential to his life. Can you not understand from your own experience that a word from you is sweeter to me than all the music of the world?—that smiles from you will give me courage to fight the battle of life to the last? Had Hilland come back wounded, would you have listened if he had reasoned, 'I am weak and maimed—not like my old self: you will be better off without me'?"
"Say no more," she faltered. "If a shadow can live, I will. If a poor, heartless, hopeless creature can continue to breathe, I will. If I die, as I believe I must, I will die doing just what you ask. If it is possible for me to live, I shall disappoint you more bitterly than ever. Alford, believe me, the woman is dead within me. If I live I shall become I know not what—a sort of unnatural creature, having little more than physical life."
"Grace, our mutual belief forbids such a thought. If a plant is deeply shadowed, and moisture is withdrawn, it begins to die. Bring to it again light and moisture, the conditions of its life, and it gradually revives and resumes its normal state. This principle applies equally to you in your higher order of existence. Will you promise me that, at the utmost exertion of your will and intelligence, you will try to live?"
"Yes, Alford; but again I warn you. You will be disappointed."
He kissed both her hands with a manner that evinced profound gratitude and respect, but nothing more; and then summoned his aunt and Dr. Markham.
Grace lay back on the sofa, white and faint, with closed eyes.
"Oh, Alford, what have you done?" exclaimed Mrs. Mayburn.
"What is right and rational. Dr. Markham, Mrs. Hilland has promised to use the utmost exertion of her will and intelligence to live. I ask that you and my aunt employ your utmost skill and intelligence in co- operation with her effort. We here—all four of us—enter upon a battle; and, like all battles, it should be fought with skill and indomitable courage, not sentimental impulse. I know that Mrs. Hilland will honestly make the effort, for she is one to keep her word. Am I not right, Grace?"
"Yes," was the faint reply.
"Why, now I can go to work with hope," said the physician briskly, as he gave his patient a little stimulant.
"And I also," cried the old lady, tears streaming down her face. "Oh, darling Grace, you will live and keep all our hearts from breaking."
"I'll try," she said, in almost mortal weariness.
When she had been revived somewhat by his restoratives, Dr. Markham said, "I now advise that she be carried back to her room, and I promise to be unwearied in my care."
"No," said Graham to his aunt. "Do not call the servants; I shall carry her to her room myself;" and he lifted her as gently as he would take up a child, and bore her strongly and easily to her room.
"Poor, poor Alford!" she whispered—"wasting your rich, full heart on a shadow."
When Graham returned to the library he found that the major had tottered in, and was awaiting him with a look of intense anxiety.
"Graham, Graham!" he cried, "do you. think there is any hope?"
"I do, sir. I think there is almost a certainty that your daughter will live."
"Now God be praised! although I have little right to say it, for I've put His name to a bad use all my life."
"I don't think any harm has been done," said Graham, smiling.
"Oh, I know, I know how wise you German students are. You can't find God with a microscope or a telescope, and therefore there is none. But I'm the last man to criticise. Grace has been my divinity since her mother died; and if you can give a reasonable hope that she'll live to close my eyes, I'll thank the God that my wife worshipped, in spite of all your new-fangled philosophies."
"And I hope I shall never be so wanting in courtesy, to say the least, as to show anything but respect for your convictions. You shall know the whole truth about Grace; and I shall look to you also for aid in a combined effort to rally and strengthen her forces of life. You know, Major, that I have seen some service."
"Yes, yes; boy that you are, you are a hundred-fold more of a veteran than I am. At the beginning of the war I felt very superior and experienced. But the war that I saw was mere child's-play."
"Well, sir, the war that I've been through was child's play to me compared with the battle begun to-night. I never feared death, except as it might bring trouble to others, and for long years I coveted it; but I fear the death of Grace Hilland beyond anything in this world or any other. As her father, you now shall learn the whole truth;" and he told his story from the evening of their first game of whist together.
"Strange, strange!" muttered the old man. "It's the story of Philip Harkness over again. But, by the God who made me, she shall reward you if she lives."
"No, Major St. John, no. She shall devote herself to you, and live the life that her own feelings dictate. She understands this, and I will it. I assure you that whatever else I lack it's not a will."
"You've proved that, Graham, if ever a man did. Well, well, well, your coming has brought a strange and most welcome state of affairs. Somehow you've given me a new lease of life and courage. Of late we've all felt like hauling down the flag, and letting grim death do his worst. I couldn't have survived Grace, and didn't want to. Only plucky Mrs. Mayburn held on to your coming as a forlorn hope. You now make me feel like nailing the flag to the staff, and opening again with every gun. Grace is like her mother, if I do say it. Grace Brentford never lacked for suitors, and she had the faculty of waking up men. Forgive an old man's vanity. Phil Harkness was a little wild as a young fellow, but he had grand mettle in him. He made more of a figure in the world than I—was sent to Congress, owned a big plantation, and all that—but sweet Grace Brentford always looked at me reproachfully when I rallied her on the mistake she had made, and was contentment itself in my rough soldier's quarters," and the old man took off his spectacles to wipe his tear-dimmed eyes. "Grace is just like her. She, too, has waked up men. Hilland was a grand fellow; and, Graham, you are a soldier every inch of you, and that's the highest praise I can bestow. You are in command in this battle, and God be with you. Your unbelief doesn't affect Him any more than a mole's."
Graham laughed—he could laugh in his present hopefulness—as he replied, "I agree with you fully. If there is a personal Creator of the universe, I certainly am a small object in it." "That's not what I've been taught to believe either; nor is it according to my reason. An infinite God could give as much attention to you as to the solar system."
"From the present aspect of the world, a great deal would appear neglected," Graham replied, with a shrug.
"Come, Colonel Graham," said the major, a little sharply, "you and I have both heard the rank and file grumble over the tactics of their general. It often turned out that the general knew more than the men. But it's nice business for me to be talking religion to you or any one else;" and the idea struck him as so comical that he laughed outright.
Mrs. Mayburn, who entered at that moment, said: "That's a welcome sound. I can't remember, Major, when I've heard you laugh. Alford, you are a magician. Grace is sleeping quietly."
"Little wonder! What have I had to laugh about?" said the major. "But melancholy itself would laugh at my joke to-night. Would you believe it, I've been talking religion to the colonel,—if I haven't!"
"I think it's time religion was talked to all of us."
"Oh, now, Mrs. Mayburn, don't you begin. You haven't any God any more than Graham has. You have a jumble of old-fashioned theological attributes, that are of no more practical use to you than the doctrines of Aristotle. Please ring for Jinny, and tell her to bring us a bottle of wine and some cake. I want to drink to Grace's health. If I could see her smile again I'd fire a feu de joie if I could find any ordnance larger than a popgun. Don't laugh at me, friends," he added, wiping the tears from his dim old eyes; "but the bare thought that Grace will live to bless my last few days almost turns my head. Where is Dr. Markham?"
"He had other patients to see, and said he would return by and by," Mrs. Mayburn replied.
"It's time we had a little relief," she continued, "whatever the future may be. The slow, steady pressure of anxiety and fear was becoming unendurable. I could scarcely have suffered more if Grace had been my own child; and I feared for you, Alford, quite as much."
"And with good reason," he said, quietly.
She gave him a keen look, and then did as the major had requested.
"Come, friends," cried he, "let us give up this evening to hope and cheer. Let what will come on the morrow, we'll have at least one more gleam of wintry sunshine to-day."
Filling the glasses of all with his trembling hand, he added, when they were alone: "Here's to my darling's health. May the good God spare her, and spare us all, to see brighter days. Because I'm not good, is no reason why He isn't."
"Amen!" cried the old lady, with Methodistic fervor.
"What are you saying amen to?—that I'm not good?"
"Oh, I imagine we all average about alike," was her grim reply—"the more shame to us all!"
"Dear, conscience-stricken old aunty!" said Graham, smiling at her. "Will nothing ever lay your theological ghosts?"
"No, Alford," she said, gravely. "Let us change the subject."
"I've told Major St. John everything from the day I first came here," Graham explained; "and now before we separate let it be understood that he joins us as a powerful ally. His influence over Grace, after all, is more potent than that of all the rest of us united. My words to-night have acted more like a shock than anything else. I have placed before her clearly and sharply the consequences of yielding passively, and of drifting further toward darkness. We must possess ourselves with an almost infinite patience and vigilance. She, after all, must bear the brunt of this fight with death; but we must be ever on hand to give her support, and it must be given also unobtrusively, with all the tact we possess. We can let her see that we are more cheerful in our renewed hope, but we must be profoundly sympathetic and considerate."
"Well, Graham, as I said before, you are captain. I learned to obey orders long ago as well as to give them;" and the major summoned his valet and bade them goodnight.
Graham, weary in the reaction from his intense feeling and excitement, threw himself on the sofa, and his aunt came and sat beside him.
"Alford," she said, "what an immense change your coming has made!"
"The beginning of a change, I hope."
"It was time—it was time. A drearier household could scarcely be imagined. Oh, how dreary life can become! Grace was dying. Every day I expected tidings of your death. It's a miracle that you are alive after all these bloody years. All zest in living had departed from the major. We are all materialists, after our own fashion, wholly dependent on earthly things, and earthly things were failing us. In losing Grace, you and the major would have lost everything; so would I in losing you. Alford, you have become a son to me. Would you break a mother's heart? Can you not still promise to live and do your best?"
"Dear aunt, we shall all live and do our best."
"Is that the best you can say, Alford?"
"Aunty, there are limitations to the strength of every man. I have reached the boundary of mine. From the time I began the struggle in the Vermont woods, and all through my exile, I fought this passion. I hesitated at no danger, and the wilder and more desolate the region, the greater were its attractions to me. I sought to occupy my mind with all that was new and strange; but such was my nature that this love became an inseparable part of my being. I might just as well have said I would forget my sad childhood, the studies that have interested me, your kindness. I might as well have decreed that I should not look the same and be the same—that all my habits of thought and traits of character should not be my own. Imagine that a tree in your garden had will and intelligence. Could it ignore the law of its being, all the long years which had made it what it is, and decide to be some other kind of tree, totally different? A man who from childhood has had many interests, many affections, loses, no doubt, a sort of concentration when the one supreme love of his life takes possession of him. If Grace lives, and I can see that she has at last tranquilly and patiently accepted her lot, you will find that I can be tranquil and patient. If she dies, I feel that I shall break utterly. I can't look into the abyss that her grave would open. Do not think that I would consciously and deliberately become a vulgar suicide—I hope I long since passed that point, and love and respect for you forbid the thought—but the long strain that I have been under, and the dominating influence of my life, would culminate. I should give way like a man before a cold, deadly avalanche. I have been frank with you, for in my profound gratitude for your love and kindness I would not have you misunderstand me, or think for a moment that I proposed deliberately to forget you in my own trouble. The truth is just this, aunt: I have not strength enough to endure Grace Hilland's death. It would be such a lame, dreary, impotent conclusion that I should sink under it, as truly as a man who found himself in the sea weighted by a ton of lead. But don't let us dwell on this thought. I truly believe that Grace will live, if we give her all the aid she requires. If she honestly makes the effort to live—as she will, I feel sure—she can scarcely help living when the conditions of life are supplied."
"I think I understand you, Alford," said the old lady, musingly; "and yet your attitude seems a strange one."
"It's not an unnatural one. I am what I have been growing to be all these years. I can trace the sequence of cause and effect until this moment."
"Well, then," said the old lady, grimly, "Grace must live, if it be in the power of human will and effort to save her. Would that I had the faith in God that I ought to have! But He is afar off, and He acts in accordance with an infinite wisdom that I can't understand. The happiness of His creatures seems a very secondary affair."
"Now, aunty, we are on ground where we differ theoretically, to say the least; but I accord to you full right to think what you please, because I know you will employ all the natural and rational expedients of a skilful nurse."
"Yes, Alford; you and Grace only make me unhappy when you talk in that way. I know you are wrong, just as certainly as the people who believed the sun moved round the earth. The trouble is that I know it only with the same cold mental conviction, and therefore can be of no help to either of you. Pardon me for my bluntness: do you expect to marry Grace, should she become strong and well?"
"No, I can scarcely say I have any such hope. It is a thought I do not even entertain at present, nor does she. I am content to be her friend through life, and am convinced that she could not think of marriage again for years, if ever. That is a matter of secondary importance. All that I ask is that she shall live."
"Well, compared with most men, a very little contents you," said his aunt dryly. "We shall see, we shall see. But you have given me such an incentive that, were it possible, I'd open my withered veins and give her half of my poor blood."
"Dear aunty, how true and stanch your love is! I cannot believe it will be disappointed."
"I must go back to my post now, nor shall I leave it very often."
"Here is Dr. Markham. He will see that you have it often enough to maintain your own health, and I will too. I've been a soldier too long to permit my chief of staff to be disabled. Pardon me, doctor, but it seems to me that this is more of a case for nursing and nourishment than for drugs."
"You are right, and yet a drug can also become a useful ally. In my opinion, it is more a case for change than anything else. When Mrs. Hilland is strong enough, you must take her from this atmosphere and these associations. In a certain sense she must begin life over again, and take root elsewhere."
"There may be truth in what you say;" and Graham was merged in deep thought when he was left alone. The doctor, in passing out a few moments later, assured him that all promised well.
THE EFFORT TO LIVE
As Graham had said, it did seem that infinite patience and courage would be required to defeat the dark adversaries now threatening the life upon which he felt that his own depended. He had full assurance that Grace made her promised effort, but it was little more than an effort of will, dictated by a sense of duty. She had lost her hold on life, which to her enfeebled mind and body promised little beyond renewed weariness and disappointment. How she could live again in any proper sense of the word was beyond her comprehension; and what was bare existence? It would be burdensome to herself and become wearisome to others. The mind acts through its own natural medium, and all the light that came to her was colored by almost despairing memories.
Too little allowance is often made for those in her condition. The strong man smiles half contemptuously at the efforts of one who is feeble to lift a trifling weight. Still, he is charitable. He knows that if the man has not the muscle, all is explained. So material are the conceptions of many that they have no patience with those who have been enfeebled in mind, will, and courage. Such persons would say, "Of course Mrs. Hilland cannot attend to her household as before; but she ought to have faith, resignation; she ought to make up her mind cheerfully to submit, and she would soon be well. Great heavens! haven't other women lost their husbands? Yes, indeed, and they worried along quite comfortably."
Graham took no such superficial view. "Other women" were not Grace. He was philosophical, and tried to estimate the effect of her own peculiar experience on her own nature, and was not guilty of the absurdity of generalizing. It was his problem to save Grace as she was, and not as some good people said she ought to be. Still, his firm belief remained, that she could live if she would comply with what he believed to be the conditions of life; indeed, that she could scarcely help living. If the time could come when her brain would be nourished by an abundance of healthful blood, he might hope for almost anything. She would then be able to view the past dispassionately, to recognize that what was past was gone forever, and to see the folly of a grief which wasted the present and the future. If she never became strong enough for that—and the prospect was only a faint, half- acknowledged hope—then he would reverently worship a patient, gentle, white-haired woman, who should choose her own secluded path, he being content to make it as smooth and thornless as possible.
Beyond a brief absence at the time his regiment was mustered out of the service, he was always at home, and the allies against death—with their several hopes, wishes, and interests—worked faithfully. At last there was a more decided response in the patient. Her sleep became prolonged, as if she were making amends for the weariness of years. Skilful tonic treatment told on the wasted form. New blood was made, and that, in Graham's creed, was new life.
His materialistic theory, however, was far removed from any gross conception of the problem. He did not propose to feed a woman into a new and healthful existence, except as he fed what he deemed to be her whole nature. In his idea, flowers, beauty in as many forms as he could command and she enjoy at the time, were essential. He ransacked nature in his walks for things to interest her. He brought her out into the sunshine, and taught her to distinguish the different birds by their notes. He had Mrs. Mayburn talk to her and consult with her over the homely and wholesome details of housekeeping. Much of the news of the day was brought to her attention as that which should naturally interest her, especially the reconstruction of the South, as represented and made definite by the experience of Henry Anderson and his sister. He told her that he had bought at a nominal sum a large plantation in the vicinity of the parsonage, and that Colonel Anderson should be his agent, with the privilege of buying at no more of an advance than would satisfy the proud young Southerner's self respect.
Thus from every side he sought to bring natural and healthful influences to bear upon her mind, to interest her in life at every point where it touched her, and to reconnect the broken threads which had bound her to the world.
He was aided earnestly and skilfully on all sides. Their success, however, was discouragingly slow. In her weakness Grace made pathetic attempts to respond, but not from much genuine interest. As she grew stronger her manner toward her father was more like that of her former self than was the rest of her conduct. Almost as if from the force of habit, she resumed her thoughtful care for his comfort; but beyond that there seemed to be an apathy, an indifference, a dreary preoccupation hard to combat.
In Graham's presence she would make visible effort to do all he wished, but it was painfully visible, and sometimes she would recognize his unobtrusive attentions with a smile that was sadder than any words could be. One day she seemed almost wholly free from the deep apathy that was becoming characteristic, and she said to him, "Alas, my friend! as I said to you at first, the woman is dead within me. My body grows stronger, as the result of the skill and help you all are bringing to bear on my sad problem, but my heart is dead, and my hope takes no hold on life. I cannot overcome the feeling that I am a mere shadow, and have no right to be here among the living. You are so brave, patient, and faithful that I am ever conscious of a sort of dull remorse; but there is a weight on my brain and a despairing numbness at my heart, making everything seem vain and unreal. Please do not blame me. Asking me to feel is like requiring sight of the blind. I've lost the faculty. I have suffered so much that I have become numb, if not dead. The shadows of the past mingle with the shadows of to-day. Only you seem real in your strong, vain effort, and as far as I can suffer any more it pains me to see you thus waste yourself on a hopeless shadow of a woman. I told you I should disappoint you."
"I am not wasting myself, Grace. Remain a shadow till you can be more. I will bear my part of the burden, if you will be patient with yours. Won't you believe that I am infinitely happier in caring for you as you are than I should be if I could not thus take your hand and express to you my thought, my sympathy? Dear Grace, the causes which led to your depression were strong and terrible. Should we expect them to be counteracted in a few short weeks?"
"Alas, Alford! is there any adequate remedy? Forgive me for saying this to you, and yet you, of all people, can understand me best. You cling to me who should be nothing to a man of your power and force. You say you cannot go on in life without me, even as a weak, dependent friend—that you would lose all zest, incentive, and interest; for I cannot think you mean more. If you feel in this way toward me, who in the eyes of other men would be a dismal burden, think how Warren dwells in my memory, what he was to me, how his strong sunny nature was the sun of my life. Do you not see you are asking of me what you say you could not do yourself, although you would, after your own brave, manly fashion? But your own belief should teach you the nature of my task when you ask me to go on and take up life again, from which I was torn more completely than the vine which falls with the tree to which it clung."
"Dear Grace, do not think for a moment that I am not always gratefully conscious of the immense self-sacrifice you are making for me and others. You long for rest and forgetfulness, and yet you know well that your absence would leave an abyss of despair. You now add so much to the comfort of your father! Mrs. Mayburn clings to you with all the love of a mother. And I, Grace—what else can i do? Even your frail, sad presence is more to me than the sun in the sky. Is it pure selfishness on my part to wish to keep you? Time, the healer, will gradually bring to you rest from pain, and serenity to us all. When you are stronger I will take you to Hilland's grave—"
"No, no, no!" she cried, almost passionately. "Why should I go there? Oh, this is the awful part of it! What I so loved has become nothing, worse than nothing—that from which I shrink as something horrible. Oh, Alford! why are we endowed with such natures if corruption is to be the end? It is this thought that paralyzes me. It seems as if pure, unselfish love is singled out for the most diabolical punishment. To think that a form which has become sacred to you may be put away at any moment as a horrible and unsightly thing! and that such should be the end of the noblest devotion of which man is capable! My whole being revolts at it; and yet how can I escape from its truth? I am beset by despairing thoughts on every side when able to think at all, and my best remedy seems a sort of dreary apathy, in which I do little more than breathe. I have read that there comes a time when the tortured cease to feel much pain. There was a time, especially at the hospital, when I suffered constantly—when almost everything but you suggested torturing thoughts. I suffered with you and for you, but there was always something sustaining in your presence. There is still. I should not live a month in your absence, but it seems as if it were your strong will that holds me, not my own. You have given me the power, the incentive, to make such poor effort as I am putting forth. Moreover, in intent, you gave your life for Warren again and again, and as long as I have any volition left I will try and do all you wish, since you so wish it. But my hope is dead. I do not see how any more good can come to me or through me."
"You are still willing, however, to permit me to think for you, to guide you? You will still use your utmost effort to live?"
"Yes. I can refuse to the man who went back to my dying husband nothing within my power to grant. It is indeed little. Besides, I am in your care, but I fear I shall prove a sad, if not a fatal legacy."
"Of that, dear Grace, you must permit me to be the judge. All that you have said only adds strength to my purpose. Does not the thought that you are doing so very much for me and for all who love you bring some solace?"
"It should. But what have I brought you but pain and deep anxiety? Oh, Alford, Alford! you will waken some bitter day to the truth that you love but the wraith of the girl who unconsciously won your heart. You have idealized her, and the being you now love does not exist. How can I let you go on thus wronging yourself?"
"Grace," replied he, gravely and almost sternly, "I learned in the northern woods, among the fiords of Norway, under the shadow of the Himalayas, and in my long, lonely hours in the war, whom I loved, and why I loved her. I made every effort at forgetfulness that I, at least, was capable of exerting, and never forgot for an hour. Am I a sentimental boy, that you should talk to me in this way? Let us leave that question as settled for all time. Moreover, never entertain the thought that I am planning and hoping for the future. I see in your affection for me only a pale reflection of your love for Hilland."
"No, Alford, I love you for your own sake. How tenderly you have ever spoken of little Rita Anderson, and yet—"
"And yet, as I have told you more than once, the thought of loving her never entered my mind. I could plan for her happiness as I would for a sister, had I one."
"Therefore you can interpret me."
"Therefore I have interpreted you, and, from the first, have asked for nothing more than that you still make one of our little circle, each member of which would be sadly missed, you most of all."
"I ought to be able to do so little as that for you. Indeed, I am trying."
"I know you are, and, as you succeed, you will see that I am content. Do not feel that when I am present you must struggle and make unwonted effort. The tide is setting toward life; float gently on with it. Do not try to force nature. Let time and rest daily bring their imperceptible healing. The war is over. I now have but one object in life, and if you improve I shall come and go and do some man's work in the world. My plantation in Virginia will soon give me plenty of wholesome out-of-door thoughts."
She gave him one of her sad smiles as she replied wearily, "You set me a good example."
This frank interchange of thought appeared at first to have a good effect on Grace, and brought something of the rest which comes from submission to the inevitable. She found that Graham's purpose was as immovable as the hills, and at the same time was more absolutely convinced that he was not looking forward to what seemed an impossible future. Nor did he ask that her effort should be one of feeble struggles to manifest an interest before him which she did not feel. She yielded to her listlessness and apathy to a degree that alarmed her father and Mrs. Mayburn, but Graham said: "It's the course of nature. After such prolonged suffering, both body and mind need this lethargy. Reaction from one extreme to another might be expected."
Dr. Markham agreed in the main with this view, and yet there was a slight contraction of perplexity on his brows as he added: "I should not like to see this tendency increase beyond a certain point, or continue too long. From the first shock of her bereavement Mrs. Hilland's mind has not been exactly in a normal condition. There are phases of her trouble difficult to account for and difficult to treat. The very fineness of her organization made the terrible shock more serious in its injury. I do not say this to discourage you—far from it—but in sincerity I must call your attention to the fact that every new phase of her grief has tended to some extreme manifestation, showing a disposition toward, not exactly mental weakness, but certainly an abnormal mental condition. I speak of this that you may intelligently guard against it. If due precaution is used, the happy mean between these reactions may be reached, and both mind and body recover a healthful tone. I advise that you all seek some resort by the sea, a new one, without any associations with the past."
Within a few days they were at a seaside inn, a large one whose very size offered seclusion. From their wide and lofty balconies they could watch the world come and go on the sea and on the land; and the world was too large and too distant for close scrutiny or petty gossip. They could have their meals in their rooms, or in the immense dining-hall, as they chose; and in the latter place the quiet party would scarcely attract a second glance from the young, gay, and sensation-loving. Their transient gaze would see two old ladies, one an invalid, an old and crippled man, and one much younger, who evidently would never take part in a german.
It was thought and hoped that this nearness to the complex world, with the consciousness that it could not approach her to annoy and pry, might tend to awaken in Grace a passing interest in its many phases. She could see without feeling that she was scanned and surmised about, as is too often the case in smaller houses wherein the guests are not content until they have investigated all newcomers.
But Grace disappointed her friends. She was as indifferent to the world about her as the world was to her. At first she was regarded as a quiet invalid, and scarcely noticed. The sea seemed to interest her more than all things else, and, if uninterrupted, she would sit and gaze at its varying aspects for hours.
According to Graham's plan, she was permitted, with little interference, to follow her mood. Mrs. Mayburn was like a watchful mother, the major much his former self, for his habits were too fixed for radical changes. Grace would quietly do anything he asked, but she grew more forgetful and inattentive, coming out of her deep abstraction—if such it could be termed—with increasing effort. With Graham she seemed more content than with any one else. With him she took lengthening walks on the beach. He sat quietly beside her while she watched the billows chasing one another to the shore. Their swift onset, their defeat, over which they appeared to foam in wrath, their backward and disheartened retreat, ever seemed to tell her in some dim way a story of which she never wearied. Often she would turn and look at him with a vague trouble in her face, as if faintly remembering something that was a sorrow to them both; but his reassuring smile quieted her, and she would take his hand as a little child might have done, and sit for an hour without removing her eyes from the waves. He waited patiently day after day, week after week, reiterating to himself, "She will waken, she will remember all, and then will have strength and calmness to meet it. This is nature's long repose."
It was growing strangely long and deep.
Meanwhile Grace, in her outward appearance, was undergoing a subtle change. Graham was the first to observe it, and at last it was apparent to all. As her mind became inert, sleeping on a downy couch of forgetfulness, closely curtained, the silent forces of physical life, in her deep tranquillity, were doing an artist's work. The hollow cheeks were gradually rounded and given the faintest possible bloom. Her form was gaining a contour that might satisfy a sculptor's dream.
The major had met old friends, and it was whispered about who they were—the widow of a millionaire; Colonel Graham, one of the most dashing cavalry officers in the war which was still in all minds; Major St. John, a veteran soldier of the regular service, who had been wounded in the Mexican War and who was well and honorably known to the chief dignitaries of the former generation. Knowing all this, the quidnuncs complacently felt at first that they knew all. The next thing was to know the people. This proved to be difficult indeed. The major soon found a few veteran cronies at whist, but to others was more unapproachable than a major-general of the old school. Graham was far worse, and belles tossed their heads at the idea that he had ever been a "dashing cavalry officer" or dashing anything else. Before the summer was over the men began to discover that Mrs. Hilland was the most beautiful woman in the house—strangely, marvellously, supernaturally beautiful.
An artist, who had found opportunity to watch the poor unconscious woman furtively—not so furtively either but that any belle in the hostelry would know all about it in half a minute—raved about the combination of charms he had discovered.
"Just imagine," he said, "what a picture she made as she sat alone on the beach! She was so remarkable in her appearance that one might think she had arisen from the sea, and was not a creature of the earth. Her black, close-fitting dress suggested the form of Aphrodite as she rose from the waves. Her profile was almost faultless in its exquisite lines. Her complexion, with just a slight warm tinge imparted by the breeze, had not the cold, dead white of snow, but the clear transparency which good aristocratic blood imparts. But her eyes and hair were her crowning features. How shall I describe the deep, dreamy languor of her large, dark eyes, made a hundred-fold more effective by the silvery whiteness of her hair, which had partly escaped from her comb, and fell upon her neck! And then her sublime, tranquil indifference! That I was near, spellbound with admiration, did not interest her so much as a sail, no larger than a gull's wing, far out at sea."
"Strange, strange!" said one of his friends, laughing; "her unconsciousness of your presence was the strangest part of it all. Why did you not make a sketch?"
"I did, but that infernal Colonel Graham, who is said to be her shadow—after her million, you know—suddenly appeared and asked sternly: 'Have you the lady's permission for this sketch?' I stammered about being 'so impressed, that in the interests of art,' etc. He then snatched my sketch and threw it into the waves. Of course I was angry, and I suppose my words and manner became threatening. He took a step toward me, looking as I never saw a man look. 'Hush,' he said, in a low voice. 'Say or do a thing to annoy that lady, and I'll wring your neck and toss you after your sketch. Do you think I've been through a hundred battles to fear your insignificance?' By Jove! he looked as if he could do it as easily as say it. Of course I was not going to brawl before a lady."
"No; it wouldn't have been prudent—I mean gentlemanly," remarked his bantering friend.
"Well, laugh at me," replied the young fellow, who was as honest as light-hearted and vain. 'I'd risk the chance of having my neck wrung for another glimpse at such marvellous beauty. Would you believe it? the superb creature never so much as once turned to glance at us. She left me to her attendant as completely as if he were removing an annoying insect. Heavens! but it was the perfection of high breeding. But I shall have my revenge: "I'll paint her yet."
"Right, my friend, right you are; and your revenge will be terrible. Her supernatural and high-bred nonchalance will be lost forever should she see her portrait;" and with mutual chaffing, spiced with good- natured satire, as good-naturedly received, the little party in a smoking-room separated.
But furtive eyes soon relieved the artist from the charge of exaggeration. Thus far Grace's manner had been ascribed to high-bred reserve and the natural desire for seclusion in her widowhood. Now, however, that attention was concentrated upon her, Graham feared that more than her beauty would be discovered.
He himself also longed inexpressibly to hide his new phase of trouble from the chattering throng of people who were curious to know about them. To know? As if they could know! They might better sit down to gossip over the secrets of the differential and the integral calculus.
But he saw increasing evidences that they were becoming objects of "interest," and the beautiful millionaire widow "very interesting," as it was phrased; and he knew that there is no curiosity so penetrating as that of the fashionable world when once it is aroused, and the game deemed worthy of pursuit.
People appeared from Washington who had known Lieutenant-Colonel Hilland and heard something of Graham, and the past was being ferreted out. "Her hair had turned white from grief in a night," it was confidently affirmed.
Poor Jones shrugged his shoulders as he thought: "I shall never be the cause of my wife's hair turning white, unless I may, in the future, prevent her from dyeing it."
After all, sympathy was not very deep. It was generally concluded that Colonel Graham would console her, and one lady of elegant leisure, proud of her superior research, declared that she had seen the colonel "holding Mrs. Hilland's hand," as they sat in a secluded angle of the rocks.
Up to a certain time it was comparatively easy to shield Grace; but now, except as she would turn her large, dreamy eyes and unresponsive lips upon those who sought her acquaintance, she was as helpless as a child. The major and Mrs. Mayburn at once acquiesced in Graham's wish to depart. Within a day or two the gossips found that their prey had escaped, and Grace was once more in her cottage home.
At first she recognized familiar surroundings with a sigh of content. Then a deeply troubled look flitted across her face and she looked at Graham inquiringly.
"What is it, Grace?" he asked, gently.
She pressed her hand to her brow, glanced around once more, shook her head sadly, and went to her room to throw off her wraps.
They all looked at one another with consternation. Hitherto they had tried to be dumb and blind, each hiding the growing and awful conviction that Grace was drifting away from them almost as surely as if she had died.
"Something must be done at once," said practical Mrs. Mayburn.
"I have telegraphed for Dr. Markham," replied Graham, gloomily." Nothing can be done till he returns. He is away on a distant trip."
"Oh!" groaned the old major, "there will be an end of me before there is to all this trouble."
GRAHAM'S LAST SACRIFICE
A terrible foreboding oppressed Graham. Would Grace fulfil her prediction and disappoint him, after all? Would she elude him, escape, die, and yet remain at his side, beautiful as a dream? Oh, the agony of possessing this perfect casket, remembering the jewel that had vanished! He had vowed to defeat his gloomy rivals, Grief and Death, and they were mocking him, giving the semblance of what he craved beyond even imagined perfection, but carrying away into their own inscrutable darkness the woman herself.
What was Grace?—what becoming? As he looked he thought of her as a sculptor's ideal embodied, a dream of beauty only, not a woman—as the legend of Eve, who might, before becoming a living soul, have harmonized with the loveliness of her garden without seeing or feeling it.
He could not think of her mind as blotted out or perverted; he could not conceive of it otherwise than as corresponding with her outward symmetry. To his thought it slumbered, as her form might repose upon her couch, in a death-like trance. She went and came among them like a somnambulist, guided by unconscious instincts, memories, and habits.
She knew their voices, did, within limitations, as they requested; but when she waited on her father there was a sad, mechanical repetition of what she had done since childhood. Mrs. Mayburn found her docile and easily controlled, and the heart-stricken old lady was vigilance itself.
Toward Graham, however, her manner had a marked characteristic. He was her master, and she a dumb, lovely, unreasoning creature, that looked into his eyes for guidance, and gathered more from his tones than from his words. Some faint consciousness of the past had grown into an instinct that to him she must look for care and direction; and she never thought of resisting his will. If he read to her, she turned to him her lovely face, across which not a gleam of interest or intelligence would pass. If he brought her flowers, she would hold them until they were taken from her. She would pace the garden walks by his side, with her hand upon his arm, by the hour if he wished it, sometimes smiling faintly at his gentle tones, but giving no proof that she understood the import of his words. At Hilland's name only she would start and tremble as if some deep chord were struck, which could merely vibrate until its sounds were faint and meaningless.
It was deeply touching also to observe in her sad eclipse how her ingrained refinement asserted itself. In all her half-conscious action there was never a coarse look or word. She was a rose without its perfume. She was a woman without a woman's mind and heart. These had been subtracted, with all the differences they made; otherwise she was Grace Hilland.
Graham was profoundly perplexed and distressed. The problem had become too deep for him. The brain, nourished by good blood, had not brought life. All his skill and that of those allied with him had failed. The materialist had matter in the perfection of breathing outline, but where was the woman he loved? How could he reach her, how make himself understood by her, except as some timid, docile creature responds to a caress or a tone? His very power over her was terrifying. It was built upon the instinct, the allegiance that cannot reason but is unquestioning. Nothing could so have daunted his hope, courage, and will as the exquisite being Grace had become, as she looked up to him with her large, mild, trusting eyes, from which thought, intelligence, and volition had departed.
At last Dr. Markham came, and for several days watched his patient closely, she giving little heed to his presence. They all hung on his perturbed looks with a painful anxiety. For a time he was very reticent, but one day he followed Graham to his quarters in Mrs. Mayburn's cottage, where he was now much alone. Grace seemed to miss him but slightly, although she always gave some sign of welcome on his return. The mocking semblance of all that he could desire often so tantalized him that her presence became unendurable. The doctor found him pacing his room in a manner betokening his half-despairing perplexity.
"Colonel Graham," he said, "shall I surprise you when I say physicians are very fallible? I know that it is not the habit of the profession to admit this, but I have not come here to talk nonsense to you. You have trusted me in this matter, and admitted me largely into your confidence, and I shall speak to you in honest, plain English. Mrs. Hilland's symptoms are very serious. What I feared has taken place. From her acute and prolonged mental distress and depression, of which she would have died had you not come, she reacted first into mental lethargy, and now into almost complete mental inactivity. I cannot discover that any disturbed physical functions have been an element in her mental aberration, for more perfect physical life and loveliness I have never seen. Her white hair, which might have made her look old, is a foil to a beauty which seems to defy age.
"Pardon me for saying it, but I fear our treatment has been superficial. We men of the world may believe what we please, but to many natures, especially to an organization like Mrs. Hilland's, hope and faith are essential. She has practically been without these from the first, and, as you know, she was sinking under the struggle maintained by her own brave, womanly spirit. She was contending with more than actual bereavement. It was the hopelessness of the struggle that crushed her, for she is not one of that large class of women who can find consolation in crape and becoming mourning.
"In response to your appeal, she did make the effort you required, but it was the effort of a mind still without hope or faith—one that saw no remedy for the evils that had already overwhelmed her—and I must bear witness that her efforts were as sincere as they were pathetic. We all watched to give every assistance in our power. I've lain awake nights, Colonel Graham, to think of remedies that would meet her needs; and good Mrs. Mayburn and your old black cook, Aunt Sheba, prepared food fit for the gods. You were more untiring and effective than any of us, and the major's very infirmities were among her strongest allies. Well, we have the result—a woman who might be a model for a goddess, even to her tranquil face, in which there is no trace of varying human feeling. Explanation of the evil that crushed her, hope, and faith were not given—who can give them?—but they were essential to her from the first. Unbelief, which is a refuge to some, was an abyss to her. In it she struggled and groped until her mind, appalled and discouraged and overwhelmed, refused to act at all. In one sense it is a merciful oblivion, in another a fatal one, from which she must be aroused if possible. But it's a hard, hard case."
"You make it hard indeed," said Graham, desperately. "What faith can I instil except the one I have? I can't lie, even for Grace Hilland. She knew well once that I could easily die for her."
"Well, then," said the physician, "permit a plain, direct question. Will you marry her?"
"Marry her—as she now is?" cried Graham, in unfeigned astonishment.
"You said you could die for her. This may be going much further. Indeed I should call it the triumph of human affection, for in honesty I must tell you that she may never be better, she may become worse. But I regard it as her only chance. At any rate, she needs a vigilant caretaker. Old Mrs. Mayburn will not be equal to the task much longer, and her place will have to be filled by hired service. I know it is like suggesting an almost impossible sacrifice to broach even the thought, remembering her condition, but—"
"Dr. Markham," said Graham, pacing the floor in great agitation, "you wholly misunderstand me. I was thinking of her, not of myself. What right have I to marry Grace Hilland without her consent? She could give no intelligent assent at present."
"The right of your love; the right her husband gave when he committed her to your care; the right of your desire to prevent her from drifting into hopeless, lifelong imbecility, wherein she would be almost at the mercy of hired attendants, helpless to shield herself from any and every wrong; the right of a man to sacrifice himself absolutely for another if he chooses."
"But she might waken from this mental trance and feel that I had taken a most dishonorable advantage of her helplessness."
"Yes, you run that risk; but here is one man who will assure her to the contrary, and you would be sustained by the consciousness of the purest motives. It is that she may waken that I suggest the step; mark, I do not advise it. As I said at first, I am simply treating you with absolute confidence and sincerity. If matters go on as they are, I have little or no hope. Mrs. Mayburn is giving way under the strain, and symptoms of her old disorder are returning. She cannot watch Mrs. Hilland much longer as she has been doing. Whom will you put in her place? Will you send Mrs. Hilland to an asylum, with its rules and systems and its unknown attendants? Moreover, her present tranquil condition may not last. She may become as violent as she now is gentle. She may gradually regain her intelligence, or it may be restored to her by some sudden shock. If the mysteries of the physical nature so baffle us, who can predict the future of a disordered intellect? I have presented the darkest side of the picture; I still think it has its bright side. She has no hereditary mental weakness to contend with. As it developed somewhat gradually, it may pass in the same manner. If you should marry her and take her at once to Europe, change of scene, of life, with your vigilant presence ever near, might become important factors in the problem. The memory that she was committed to your care has degenerated into a controlling instinct; but that is far better than nothing. The only real question in my mind is, Are you willing to make the sacrifice and take the risks? You know the world will say you married her for her money, and that will be hard on a man like you."
Graham made a gesture of contempt: "That for the world," he said. "Have you broached this subject to her father and my aunt?"
"Certainly not before speaking to you."
"You then give me your assurance, as a man, that you believe this right, and that it is Grace Hilland's best chance—indeed, almost her only chance—for recovery?"
"I do most unhesitatingly, and I shall do more. I shall bring from New York an eminent physician who has made mental disease a study all his life, and he shall either confirm my opinion or advise you better."
"Do so, Dr. Markham," said Graham, very gravely. "I have incurred risks before in my life, but none like this. If from any cause Mrs. Hilland should recover memory and full intelligence, and reproach me for having taken advantage of a condition which, even among savage tribes, renders the afflicted one sacred, all the fiendish tortures of the Inquisition would be nothing to what I should suffer. Still, prove to me, prove to her father, that it is her best chance, and for Grace Hilland I will take even this risk. Please remember there must be no professional generalities. I must have your solemn written statement that it is for Mrs. Hilland's sake I adopt the measure."
"So be it," was the reply. "I shall telegraph to Dr. Armand immediately to expect me, and shall say that I wish him to be prepared to come at once."
"Do so, and consider no question of expense. I am no longer poor, and if I were, I would mortgage my blood at this juncture."
On the following evening Dr. Armand was almost startled by the vision on the veranda of the St. John cottage. A silvery-haired woman sat looking placidly at the glowing sunset, with its light and its rose- hues reflected in her face.
"If ever there was a picture of a glorified saint, there is one," he muttered, as he advanced and bowed.
She gave him no attention, but with dark eyes, made brilliant by the level rays, she gazed steadily on the closing day. The physician stole a step or two nearer, and looked as steadily at her, while his experienced eye detected in all her illuminated beauty the absence of the higher, more subtle light of reason. Dr. Markham had told him next to nothing about the case, and had asked him to go and see for himself, impressing him only with the fact that it was a question of vital importance that he was to aid in deciding; that he must give it his whole professional skill, and all the necessary time, regardless of expense. The moment he saw Grace, however, the business aspect of the affair passed from his mind. His ruling passion was aroused, and he was more than physician—a student—as the great in any calling ever are.
Graham came to the door and recognized instinctively the intent, eagle-eyed man, who merely nodded and motioned him to approach his patient. Graham did so, and Grace turned her eyes to him with a timid, questioning glance. He offered her his arm; she rose instantly and took it, and began walking with him.
"Were you looking at the sunset, Grace?"
She turned upon him the same inquiring eyes, but did not answer.
"Do you not think it very beautiful? Does it not remind you of the sunset you saw on the evening when I returned from my first battle?"
She shook her head, and only looked perplexed,
"Why, Grace," he continued, as if provoked, "you must remember. I was carried, you know, and you and Mrs. Mayburn acted as if my scratches were mortal wounds."
She looked frightened at his angry tones, clasped her hands, and with tears in her eyes looked pleadingly up to him.
"Dear Grace, don't be worried." He now spoke in the gentlest tones, and lifted her hand to his lips. A quick, evanescent smile illumined her face. She fawned against his shoulder a moment, placed his hand against her cheek, and then leaned upon his arm as they resumed their walk, Dr. Armand keeping near them without in the least attracting her attention.
"Grace," resumed Graham, "you must remember. Hilland, Warren, you know."
She dropped his arm, looked wildly around, covered her face with her hands, and shuddered convulsively.
After a moment he said, kindly but firmly, "Grace, dear Grace."
She sprang to him, seized his hand, and casting a look of suspicion at Dr. Armand, drew him away.
A few moments later she was again looking tranquilly at the west, but the light had departed from the sky and from her face. It had the look of one who saw not, thought and felt not. It was breathing, living death.
Graham looked at her mournfully for a few moments, and then, with a gesture that was almost despairing, turned to the physician, who had not lost a single expression.
"Thank you," was that gentleman's first laconic remark; and he dropped into a chair, still with his eyes on the motionless figure of Grace.
At last he asked, "How long would she maintain that position?"
"I scarcely know," was the sad response; "many hours certainly."
"Please let her retain it till I request you to interfere. The moon is rising almost full, the evening is warm, and she can take no harm."
The major tottered out on his crutches, and was given his chair, the physician meanwhile being introduced. Brief and courteous was Dr. Armand's acknowledgment, but he never took his eyes from his patient. The same was true of his greeting to Mrs. Mayburn; but that good lady's hospitable instincts soon asserted themselves, and she announced that dinner was ready.
"Take Mrs. Hilland to dinner," said the physician to Graham; "but first introduce me."
The young man approached and said, "Grace." She rose instantly and took his arm. "This is Dr. Armand, Grace. He has called to see you." She made him a courteous inclination, and then turned to Graham to see what next was expected of her, but he only led her to the dining-room.
"Gracie, darling, bring me my cushion," said her father, speaking as he had been used to do when she was a little girl.
She brought it mechanically and arranged it, then stood in expectancy. "That will do, dear;" and she returned to her seat in silence. Throughout the meal she maintained this silence, although Dr. Armand broached many topics, avoiding only the name of her husband. Her manner was that of a little, quiet, well-bred child, who did not understand what was said, and had no interest in it. The physician's scrutiny did not embarrass her; she had never remembered, much less forgotten him.
When the meal was over they all returned to the piazza. At the physician's request she was placed in her old seat, and they all sat down to watch. The moon rose higher and higher, made her hair more silvery, touched her still face with a strange, ethereal beauty, and threw the swaying shadow of a spray of woodbine across her motionless figure—so motionless that she seemed a sculptured rather than a breathing woman.
After a while the old major rose and groaned as he tottered away. Mrs. Mayburn, in uncontrollable nervous restlessness, soon followed, that she might find relief in household cares. The two men watched on till hours had passed, and still the lovely image had not stirred. At last Dr. Armand approached her and said, "Mrs. Hilland."
She rose, and stood coldly aloof. The name, with her prefix, did not trouble her. She had long been accustomed to that "Hilland," as Graham uttered the word, alone affected her, touching some last deep chord of memory.
"Mrs. Hilland," the doctor continued, "it is getting late. Do you not think you had better retire?"
She looked at him blankly, and glanced around as if in search of some one.
"I am here, Grace," said Graham, emerging from the doorway.
She came to him at once, and he led her to Mrs. Mayburn, kissing her hand, and receiving, in return, her strange, brief, fawning caress.
"I would like to know the history of Mrs. Hilland's malady from the beginning," said Dr. Armand, when Graham returned.
"I cannot go over it again," replied Graham, hoarsely. "Dr. Markham can tell you about all, and I will answer any questions. Your room is ready for you here, where Dr. Markham will join you presently. I must bid you good-night;" and he strode away.
But as he passed under the apple-tree and recalled all that had occurred there, he was so overcome that once more he leaned against it for support.
There was no sleep for Graham that night, for he knew that two skilful men were consulting on a question beyond any that had agitated his heart before. As he paced the little parlor with restless steps, Aunt Sheba's ample form filled the doorway, and in her hands was a tray bearing such coffee as only she knew how to brew.
"Thanks, Aunt Sheba," he said, motioning to a table, without pausing in his distracted walk.
She put down the tray, retreated hesitatingly, and then began: "Dear Mas'r Graham, my ole heart jes aches for yer. But don't yer be so cast down, mas'r; de good Lord knows it all, and I'se a-prayin' for yer and de lubly Miss Grace night and day."
He was so utterly miserable that he was grateful for even this homely sympathy, and he took the old woman's hand in his as he said kindly, "Pray on, then, good old aunty, if it's any comfort to you. It certainly can do no harm."
"Oh, Mas'r Graham, you dunno, you dunno. Wid all yer wise knowin' yer dunno. You'se all—good Mis' Mayburn, de ole major, an' all—are in de dark land ob unbelievin', like poor Missy Grace. She doesn't know how you'se all tink about her an' lub her; needer does you know how de good Lord tinks about you and lubs you. You guv me my liberty; you guv what I tinks a sight more on; you'se been kind to de poor old slave dat los' all her chillen in de weary days dat's gone. I'se a 'memberin' yer all de time. You hab no faith, Mas'r Graham, and poor ole Aunt Sheba mus' hab faith for yer. An' so I will. I'se a wrastlin' wid de Lord for yer all de time, an' I'se a-gwine to wrastle on till I sees yer an' Missy Grace an' all comin' inter de light;" and she threw her apron over her head, and went sobbing away.
He paused for a moment when she left him, touched deeply by the strong, homely, human sympathy and gratitude of the kind old soul who fed him—as he never forgot—when he was a fugitive in a hostile land. That she had manifested her feeling after what he deemed her own ignorant, superstitious fashion was nothing. It was the genuine manifestation of the best human traits that touched him—pure gems illumining a nature otherwise so clouded and crude.
Late at night footsteps approached, and the two physicians entered. "I first permitted Dr. Armand to form his own impressions, and since have told him everything," said Dr. Markham, "and he strongly inclines to my view. Realizing the gravity of the case, however, he has consented to remain a day or two longer. We will give you no hasty opinion, and you shall have time on your part to exercise the most deliberate judgment."
Dr. Armand confirmed his associate's words, and added, "We will leave you now to the rest you must need sorely. Let me assure you, however, that I do not by any means consider Mrs. Hilland's case hopeless, and that I am strongly impressed with the belief that her recovery must come through you. A long train of circumstances has given you almost unbounded influence over her, as you enabled me to see this evening. It would be sad to place such a glorious creature in the care of strangers, for it might involve serious risk should she regain her memory and intelligence with no strong, sympathetic friend, acquainted with her past, near her. I am inclined to think that what is now little more than an instinct will again develop into a memory, and that the fact that she was committed to your care will fully reconcile her to the marriage—indeed, render her most grateful for it, if capable of understanding the reasons which led to it. If further observation confirms my present impressions, I and Dr. Markham will plainly state our opinions to her father and Mrs. Mayburn. As my colleague has said, you must comprehend the step in all its bearings. It is one that I would not ask any man to take. I now think that the probabilities are that it would restore Mrs. Hilland to health eventually. A year of foreign travel might bring about a gradual and happy change."
"Take time to satisfy yourselves, gentlemen, and give me your decision as requested. Then you have my permission to give your opinions to Major St. John."
Within a week this was done, and the poor old man bowed his head on Graham's shoulder and wept aloud in his gratitude. Mrs. Mayburn also, wiping away her tears, faltered, "You know, Alford, how I schemed for this marriage years ago; you remember my poor blind strategy on that June day, do you not? How little I thought it would take place under circumstances like these! And yet, I've thought of it of late often, very often. I could not go on much longer, for I am old and feeble, and it just broke my heart to think of Grace, our Grace, passing into the hands of some hired and indifferent stranger or strangers. I believe she will recover and reward your sacrifice."
"It is no sacrifice on my part, aunt, except she wakens only to reproach me."
"Well, devotion, then; and little sense she'd ever have," concluded the old lady, after her own brusque fashion, "if she does not fall on her knees and bless you. You could now take better care of her than I, for she trusts and obeys you implicitly. She is docile and gentle with me, but often strangely inattentive. She would be still more so with a stranger; and the idea of some strong, unfeeling hands forcing her into the routine of her life!" Thus almost completely was removed from his mind the unspeakable dread lest he was taking an unfair advantage of helplessness. He fully recognized also that the ordeal for himself would be a terrible one—that it would be the fable of Tantalus repeated for weeks, months, perhaps for years, or for life. The unfulfilled promise of happiness would ever be before him. His dark- visaged rivals, Grief and Death, would jeer and mock at him from a face of perfect beauty. In a blind, vindictive way he felt that his experience was the very irony of fate. He could clasp the perfect material form of a woman to his heart, and at the same time his heart be breaking for what could not be seen or touched.
The question, however, was decided irrevocably. He knew that he could not leave helpless Grace Hilland to the care of strangers, and that there was no place for him in the world but at her side; and yet it was with something of the timidity and hesitation of a lover that he asked her, as they paced a shady garden-walk, "Grace, dear Grace, will you marry me?"
His voice was very low and gentle, and yet she turned upon him a startled, inquiring look. "Marry you?" she repeated slowly.
"Yes, let me take care of you always," he replied, smilingly, and yet as pale almost as herself.
The word "care" reassured her, and she gave him her wonted smile of content, as she replied, very slowly, "Yes. I want you to take care of me always. Who else can?"
"That's what I mean by marrying you—taking care of you always," he said, raising her hand to his lips.
"You are always to take care of me," she replied, leaning her head on his shoulder for a moment.
"Mrs. Mayburn is not strong enough to take care of you any longer. She will take care of your father. Will you let me take care of you as she does?"
She smiled contentedly, for the word "care" appeared to make all natural and right.
It was arranged that they should be married in the presence of Dr. Markham, Aunt Sheba, and Jinny, in addition to those so deeply interested. The physician prepared the clergyman for the ceremony, which was exceedingly brief and simple, Grace smiling into Graham's face when he promised to take care of her always, and she signifying her consent and pleasure in the manner that was so mute and sad. Then he told her that he was going to take her away, that she might get perfectly strong and well; and she went at his request without hesitancy, although seeming to wonder slightly at the strong emotion of her father and Mrs. Mayburn when parting from her. Jinny, who had been her nurse in childhood, accompanied her. Dr. Markham also went with them as far as the steamer, and they sailed away into a future as vague and unknown to them as the ocean they were crossing.
The waves seen from the deck of the steamer produced in Grace the same content with which she had gazed at them from the shore during the previous summer; only now there were faint signs of wonder in her expression, and sometimes of perplexity. Her eyes also wandered around the great vessel with something of the interest of a child, but she asked no questions. That Graham was with her and smiled reassuringly seemed sufficient, while the presence of her old colored nurse, who in some dim way was connected with her past, gave also an additional sense of security.
As time elapsed and they began their wanderings abroad, it seemed to Graham that his wife was beginning life over again, as a very little quiet child would observe the strange and unaccountable phenomena about it. Instead of her fixed vacancy of gaze, her eyes began to turn from object to object with a dawning yet uncomprehending interest. He in simplest words sought to explain and she to listen, though it was evident that their impression was slight indeed. Still there was perceptible progress, and when in his tireless experimenting he began to bring before her those things which would naturally interest a child, he was encouraged to note that they won a larger and more pleased attention. A garden full of flowers, a farmyard with its sleek, quiet cattle, a band of music, a broad, funny pantomime, were far more to her than Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's. Later, the variety, color, and movement of a Paris boulevard quite absorbed her attention, and she followed one object after another with much the same expression that might be seen on the face of a little girl scarcely three years old. This infantile expression, in contrast with her silver hair and upon her mature and perfect features, was pathetic to the last degree, and yet Graham rejoiced with exceeding joy. With every conscious glance and inquiring look the dawn of hope brightened. He was no longer left alone in the awful solitude of living death. The beautiful form was no longer like a deserted home. It now had a tenant, even though it seemed but the mind of a little child. The rays of intelligence sent out were feeble indeed, but how much better than the blank darkness that had preceded! Something like happiness began to soften and brighten the husband's face as he took his child-wife here and there. He made the long galleries of the Louvre and of Italy her picture-books, and while recognizing that she was pleased with little more than color, form, and action—that the sublime, equally with the vicious and superstitious meanings of the great masters, were hidden—he was nevertheless cheered and made more hopeful by the fact that she was pleased and observant—that she began to single out favorites; and before these he would let her stand as long as she chose, and return to them when so inclined.
She had lost the power of reading a line. She did not know even her letters; and these he began to teach her with unflagging zeal and patience. How the mysterious problem would end he could not tell. It might be that by kindling a little light the whole past would become illumined; it might be that he would have to educate her over again; but be the future what it would, the steadfast principle of devotion to her became more fixed, and to care for her the supreme law of his being.
From the time of his first message to them he had rarely lost an opportunity to send a letter to the anxious ones at home, and their replies abounded in solicitous, grateful words. Dr. Markham often called, and rubbed his hands with increasing self-gratulation over the success of his bold measure, especially as encomiums on his sagacity had been passed by the great Dr. Armand.
Nearly a year had passed, and Graham and his wife, after their saunterings over the Continent, were spending the summer in the Scottish Highlands. They sailed on the lochs, fished from their banks, and climbed the mountain passes on little shaggy ponies that were Scotch in their stubbornness and unflinching endurance. Grace had become even companionable in her growing intelligence, and in the place of her silent, inquiring glances there were sometimes eager, childlike questionings.
Of late, however, Graham noted the beginnings of another change. With growing frequency she passed her hand over her brow, that was contracted in perplexity. Sometimes she would look at him curiously, at Jinny, and at the unfamiliar scenes of her environment, then shake her head as if she could not comprehend it all. Speedily, however, she would return with the zest of a quiet little girl to the pleasures and tasks that he unweariedly provided. But Graham grew haggard and sleepless in his vigilance, for he believed that the time of her awakening was near.
One day, while sailing on a loch, they were overtaken by a heavy storm and compelled to run before it, and thus to land at no little distance from their inn. Grace showed much alarm at the dashing waves and howling tempest. Nor was her fright at the storm wholly that of an unreasoning child. Its fury seemed to arouse and shock her, and while she clung to Graham's hand, she persisted in sitting upright and looking about, as if trying to comprehend it all. After landing they had a long, fatiguing ride in the darkness, and she was unusually silent. On reaching her room she glanced around as if all was unfamiliar and incomprehensible. Graham had a presentiment that the hour was near, and he left her wholly to the care of her old colored nurse, but almost immediately, from excessive weariness, she sank into a deep slumber.
Her lethargy lasted so late in the following day that he was alarmed, fearing lest her old symptoms were returning. With anxious, hollow eyes, he watched and waited, and at last she awoke and looked at him with an expression that he had longed for through many weary months, and yet now it terrified him.
"Alford—Mr. Graham," she began, in deep surprise.
"Hush, dear Grace. You have been very ill."
"Yes, but where am I? What has happened?"
"Very much; but you are better now. Here is Jinny, your old nurse, who took care of you as a child."
The old colored woman came in, and, as instructed, said: "Yes, honey, I'se tooken care ob you since you was a baby, and I'se nebber lef' you."
"Everything looks very strange. Why, Alford, I had a long, sad talk with you but a short time since in the library, and you were so kind and unselfish!"
"Yes, Grace; we spoke frankly to each other, but you have been very ill since then, worse than ever before. At your father's request and Dr. Markham's urgent counsel, I brought you to Europe. It was said to be your only chance."
"But where is Mrs. Mayburn?"
"She is at home taking care of your father. Her old sickness threatened to return. She could take care of you no longer, and you needed constant care."
A slow, deep flush overspread her face and even her neck as she faltered: "And—and—has no one else been with me but Jinny?"
"No one else except myself. Grace, dear Grace, I am your husband. I was married to you in the presence of your father, Mrs. Mayburn, and your family physician."
"Now long since?" she asked, in a constrained voice.
"About a year ago."
"Have we been abroad ever since?"
"Yes, and you have been steadily improving. You were intrusted to my care, and there came a time when I must either be faithful to that trust, or place you in the hands of strangers. You were helpless, dear Grace."
"Evidently," in the same low, constrained tone. "Could—could you not have fulfilled your trust in some other way?"
"Your father, your second mother, and your physician thought not."
"Still—" she began, hesitated, and again came that deep, deep flush.
"For your sake, Grace, I incurred the risk of this awful moment."
She turned, and saw an expression which brought tears to her eyes. "I cannot misjudge you," she said slowly; "the past forbids that. But I cannot understand it, I cannot understand it at all."
"Perhaps you never will, dear Grace; I took that risk also to save your life and mind."
"Yes, your mind. If, in recalling the past, the memory of which has returned, you can preserve sufficient confidence in me to wait till all is clear and explained, I shall be profoundly grateful. I foresaw the possibility of this hour; I foresaw it as the chief danger and trial of my life; and I took the risk of its consequences for your sake because assured by the highest authority that it was your one chance for escape, not from death, but from a fate worse than death, which also would have removed you from my care—indeed the care of all who loved you. I have prepared myself for this emergency as well as I could. Here are letters from your father, Mrs. Mayburn, Dr. Markham, and Dr. Armand, one of the most eminent authorities in the world on brain diseases. But after all I must be judged by your woman's heart, and so stand or fall. I now have but one request, or entreaty rather, to make—that you do not let all the efforts we have made in your behalf be in vain. Can you not calmly and gradually receive the whole truth? There must be no more relapses, or they will end in black ruin to us all. Now that you can think for yourself, your slightest wish shall be my law. Jinny, remain with your mistress."
He lifted her passive hand to his lips, passed into their little parlor, and closed the door. Grace turned to her nurse, and in low, almost passionate utterance, said: "Now tell me all."
"Lor' bress you, Missy Grace, it 'ud take a right smart time to tell yer all. When de big doctors an' all de folks say you'se got to hab strangers take care ob you or go ter a'sylum, and arter all you'd git wuss, Mas'r Graham he guv in, and said he'd take care ob you, and dey all bress 'im and tank 'im, and couldn't say 'nuff. Den he took you 'cross de big ocean—golly I how big it be—jes' as de doctor said; an' nebber hab I seed sich lub, sich 'votion in a moder as Mas'r Graham hab had fer you. He had to take care ob you like a little chile, an' he was teachin' you how to read like a little chile when, all on a suddint, you wakes up an' knows ebryting you'se forgotten. But de part you doesn't know is de part mos' wuth knowin'. No woman eber had sich a husban' as Mas'r Graham, an' no chile sich a moder. 'Clar' ter grashus ef I b'lieve he's ebber slep' a wink wid his watchin' an' a-tinkin' what he could do fer you."
"But, Jinny, I'm not ill; I never felt stronger in my life."
"Laws, Missy Grace, dar's been a mirackle. You'se strong 'nuff 'cept your mine's been off wisitin' somewhar. Golly! you jes' git up an' let me dress you, an' I'll show yer de han'somest woman in de worl'. All yer's got ter do now is jes' be sensible like, an' yer won't have yer match."
Grace cast an apprehensive look toward the door of the parlor in which was her husband, and then said hurriedly: "Yes, dress me quick. Oh, heavens! how much I have to think about, to realize!"
"Now, honey dear, you jes' keep cool. Don't go an' fly right off de handle agin, or Mas'r Graham'll blow his brains out. Good Lor', how dat man do look sometimes! An' yet often, when he was pintin' out yer letters ter yer, or showin' yer pearty tings, like as you was a chile, he look so happy and gentle like, dat I say he jes' like a moder."
Grace was touched, and yet deep, deep in her soul she felt that a wrong had been done her, no matter what had been the motives. Jinny had no such fine perceptions, but with a feminine tact which runs down through the lowliest natures, she chose one of Grace's quietest, yet most becoming costumes, and would not let her go to the glass till arrayed to the dusky woman's intense satisfaction. Then she led her mistress to the mirror and said: "Look dar, honey! All de picters you'se eber seen can't beat dat!" and Grace gazed long and fixedly at the lovely creature that gazed back with troubled and bewildered eyes.
"Was—was I like that when—when he married me?"
"Yes, an' no, honey. You only look like a picter of a woman den—a berry pearty picter, but nothin' but a picter arter all. Mas'r Graham hab brought yer ter life."
With another lingering, wondering glance at herself, she turned away and said: "Leave me, now, Jinny; I wish to be alone."
The woman hesitated, and was about to speak, but Grace waved her away imperiously, and sat down to the letters Graham had given her. She read and re-read them. They confirmed his words. She was a wife: her husband awaited her but a few feet away—her husband, and she had never dreamed of marrying again. The past now stood out luminous to her, and Warren Hilland was its centre. But another husband awaited her—one whom she had never consciously promised "to love, honor, and obey." As a friend she could worship him, obey him, die for him; but as her husband—how could she sustain that mysterious bond which merges one life in another? She was drawn toward him by every impulse of gratitude. She saw that, whether misled or not, he had been governed by the best of motives—nay, more, by the spirit of self- sacrifice in its extreme manifestation—that he had been made to believe that it was her only chance for health and life. Still, in her deepest consciousness he was but Alford Graham, the friend most loved and trusted, whom she had known in her far distant home, yet not her husband. How could she go to him, what could she say to him, in their new relations that seemed so unreal?
She trembled to leave him longer in the agony of suspense; but her limbs refused to support her, and her woman's heart shrank with a strange and hitherto unknown fear.
There was a timid knock at the door.
"Come in, Alford," she said, tremblingly.
He stood before her haggard, pale, and expectant.
"Alford," she said, sadly, "why did you not let me die?"
"I could not," he replied, desperately. "As I told you, there is a limit to every man's strength. I see it all in your face and manner— what I feared, what I warned Dr. Markham against. Listen to me. I shall take you home at once. You are well. You will not require my further care, and you need never see my face again."
"And you, Alford?" she faltered.
"Do not ask about me. Beyond the hour when I place you in your father's arms I know nothing. I have reached my limit. I have made the last sacrifice of which I am capable. If you go back as you are now, you are saved from a fate which it seemed to me you would most shrink from could you know it—the coarse, unfeeling touch and care of strangers who could have treated you in your helplessness as they chose. You might have regained your reason years hence, only to find that those who loved you were broken-hearted, lost, gone. They are now well and waiting for you. Here are their letters, written from week to week and breathing hope and cheer. Here is the last one from your father, written in immediate response to mine. In it he says, 'My hand trembles, but it is more from joy than age.' You were gaining steadily, although only as a child's intelligence develops. He writes, 'I shall have my little Grace once more, and see her mind grow up into her beautiful form.'"
She bent her head low to hide the tears that were falling fast as she faltered: "Was it wholly self-sacrifice when you married me?"
"Yes—in the fear of this hour, the bitterest of my life—yes. It has followed me like a spectre through every waking and sleeping hour. Please make the wide distinction. My care for you, the giving up of my life for you, is nothing. That I should have done in any case, as far as I could. But with my knowledge of your nature and your past, I could not seem to take advantage of your helplessness without an unspeakable dread. When shown by the best human skill that I could thus save you, or at least ensure that you would ever have gentle, sympathetic care, I resolved to risk the last extremity of evil to myself for your sake. Now you have the whole truth."
She rose and came swiftly to him—for he had scarcely entered the room in his wish to show her respect—and putting her arm around his neck, while she laid her head upon his breast, said gently and firmly: "The sacrifice shall not be all on your side. I have never consciously promised to be your wife, but now, as far as my poor broken spirit will permit, I do promise it. But be patient with me, Alford. Do not expect what I have not the power to give. I can only promise that all there is left of poor Grace Hilland's heart—if aught—shall be yours."
Then for the first time in his life the strong man gave way. He disengaged her so hastily as to seem almost rough, and fell forward on the couch unconscious. The long strain of years had culminated in the hour he so dreaded, and in the sudden revulsion caused by her words nature gave way.
Almost frantic with terror, Grace summoned her servant, and help from the people of the inn. Fortunately an excellent English physician was stopping at the same house, and he was speedily at work. Graham recovered, only to pass into muttering delirium, and the burden of his one sad refrain was: "If she should never forgive me!"
"Great heavens, madam! what has he done?" asked the matter-of-fact Englishman.
What a keen probe that question was to the wife as she sat watching through the long, weary night! In an agony of self-reproach she recalled all that he had done for her and hers in all the years, and now in her turn she entreated him to live; but he was as unconscious as she had been in the blank past. No wooing, no pleading, could have been so potent as his unconscious form, his strength broken at last in her service.
"O God!" she cried—forgetting in her anguish that she had no God— "have I been more cruel than all the war? Have I given him the wound that shall prove fatal—him who saved Warren's life, my own, my reason, and everything that a woman holds dear?"
Graham's powerful and unvitiated nature soon rallied, however, and under the skilful treatment the fever within a few days gave place to the first deep happiness he had ever known. Grace was tender, considerate, her own former self, and with something sweeter to him than self-sacrifice in her eyes; and he gave himself up to an unspeakable content.
It was she who wrote the home letters that week, and a wondrous tale they told to the two old people, who subsisted on foreign news even more than on Aunt Sheba's delicate cookery.
Graham was soon out again, but he looked older and more broken than his wife, who seemingly had passed by age into a bloom that could not fade. She decided that for his sake they would pass the winter in Italy, and that he should show her again as a woman what he had tried to interest her in as a child. Her happiness, although often deeply shadowed, grew in its quiet depths. Graham had too much tact to be an ardent lover. He was rather her stanch friend, her genial but most considerate companion. His powerful human love at last kindled a quiet flame on the hearth of her own heart that had so long been cold, and her life was warmed and revived by it. He also proved in picture galleries and cathedrals that he had seen much when he was abroad beyond wild mountain regions and wilder people, and her mind, seemingly strengthened by its long sleep, followed his vigorous criticism with daily increasing zest.
The soft, sun-lighted air of Italy appeared to have a healing balm for both, and even to poor Grace there came a serenity which she had not known since the "cloud in the South" first cast its shadow over her distant hearth.
To Graham at last there had come a respite from pain and fear, a deep content. His inner life had been too impoverished, and his nature too chastened by stern and bitter experience, for him to crave gayety and exuberant sentiment in his wife. Her quiet face, in which now was the serenity of rest, and not the tranquillity of death in life, grew daily more lovely to him; and he was not without his human pride as he saw the beauty-loving Italians look wonderingly at her. She in turn was pleased to observe how he impressed cultivated people with his quiet power, with a presence that such varied experiences had combined to create. Among fine minds, men and women are more truly felt than seen. We meet people of the plainest appearance and most unostentatious manner, and yet without effort they compel us to recognize their superiority, while those who seek to impress others with their importance are known at once to be weak and insignificant.
It was also a source of deep gratification to Grace that now, since her husband had obtained rest of mind, he turned naturally to healthful business interests. Her own affairs, of which he had charge in connection with Hilland's lawyer, were looked after and explained fully to her; and his solicitude for Henry Anderson's success led to an exchange of letters with increasing frequency. Much business relating to the Virginia plantation was transacted on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Grace sought to quiet her compunctions at leaving her father and Mrs. Mayburn so long by frequent letters written in her dear old style, by cases of Italian wines, delicate and rare; exquisite fabrics of the loom, and articles of vertu; and between the letters and the gifts the old people held high carnival after their quaint fashion all that winter.
The soft Italian days lapsed one after another, like bright smiles on the face of nature; but at last there came one on which Grace leaned her head upon her husband's shoulder and whispered, "Alford, take me home, please."
Had he cared for her before, when she was as helpless as a little child? Jinny, in recalling that journey and in dilating on the wonders of her experience abroad, by which she invariably struck awe into the souls of Aunt Sheba and Iss, would roll up her eyes, and turn outward the palms of her hands, as she exclaimed, "Good Lor', you niggers, how I make you 'prehen' Mas'r Graham's goin's on from de night he sez, sez he ter me, 'Pack up, Jinny; we'se a-gwine straight home.' Iss 'clares dat Mas'r Graham's a ter'ble soger wid his long, straight sword and pistol, an' dat he's laid out more 'Federates dan he can shake a stick at. Well, you'd nebber b'lieve he'd a done wuss dan say, 'How d'ye' to a 'Federate ef yer'd seen how he 'volved roun' Missy Grace. He wouldn't let de sun shine on her, nor de win' blow near her, and eberybody had ter git right up an' git ef she eben wanted ter sneeze. On de ship he had eberybody, from de cap'n to de cabin-boys, a waitin' on her. Dey all said we hab a mighty quiet v'yage, but Lor' bress yer! it was all 'long ob Mas'r Graham. He wouldn't let no wabes run ter pitch his darlin' roun'. Missy Grace, she used ter sit an' larf an' larf at 'im—bress her dear heart, how much good it do me to hear de honey larf like her ole dear self! Her moder used ter be mighty keerful on her, but 'twan't nothin' 'pared ter Mas'r Graham's goin's on."
Jinny had never heard of Baron Munchausen, but her accounts of foreign experiences and scenes were much after the type of that famous raconteur; and by each repetition her stories seemed to make a portentous growth. There was, however, a residuum of truth in all her marvels. The event which she so vaguely foreshadowed by ever- increasing clouds of words took place. In June, when the nests around the cottage were full of little birds, there was also, in a downy, nest-like cradle, a miniature of sweet Grace Graham; and Jinny thenceforth was the oracle of the kitchen.
The belief of children that babies are brought from heaven seems often verified by the experiences that follow their advent. And truly the baby at the St. John cottage was a heavenly gift, even to the crotchety old major, whom it kept awake at night by its unseasonable complaints of the evils which it encountered in spite of Grandma Mayburn, faithful old Aunt Sheba, who pleaded to be its nurse, and the gentle mother, who bent over it with a tenderness new and strange even to her heart.
She could laugh now, and laugh she would, when Graham, with a trepidation never felt in battle, took the tiny morsel of humanity, and paraded up and down the library. Lying back on the sofa in one of her dainty wrappers, she would cry, "Look at him, papa; look at that grim cavalryman, and think of his leading a charge!"