"I did not think Mr. Winthrop would care very much. He is so angry with me."
"He very soon got over his anger when he found how sick you were. At first he was nearly beside himself; for he thought it was the message I had taken to you from him that day that caused your illness. He would come to your bedside, and listen to your appeals for forgiveness with such an expression of pain on his face. Sometimes he would take your hands in his, assuring you of his forgiveness; but you never understood him. I was afraid you would die without ever knowing."
"But I would have known all about it, once my spirit had got freed from the body; I cannot describe what glimpses I have had of other worlds than ours. It seemed so restful there; so much better than we have words to describe."
"We are so glad you did not leave us for that place, even though it is so beautiful."
"When this life is done, and its work all finished, I may slip away there. I think my soul saw its home and can never again be so fully content with earth."
"Try not to think about it, Medoline, any more."
"When a person's spirits begin to get homesick for a higher existence, usually they soon drift quietly away where they long to be."
Another day she told me how much Mrs. Blake had done for me, nursing me with a skill and patience that drew high praise from the dignified city physician accustomed to skilled nurses. Mr. Winthrop used to come and go, watching her closely, and one day he said:—
"No matter what happens, Mrs. Blake's future will be attended to."
Then I asked the question that had been troubling me ever since I had been getting better.
"Why do I never see or hear anything from Mr. Winthrop? you say he has forgiven me; but he has not so much as sent me a message, or flower since I came to myself."
"Why, Medoline, did you not know?"
"Know what?" I asked, interrupting her, "has he gone away with Mrs. Le Grande?" I had forgotten for the moment that Mrs. Le Grande was even weaker than myself.
"Oh, no, indeed; marriage has been one of her least anxieties of late. Mr. Winthrop is in London before this: I am looking for letters now every day."
"Has he gone to Europe?"
"Yes; I thought of course you knew; he left the very day the doctor pronounced you out of danger."
"Did you know he thought of going?"
"No, we were greatly surprised; I cannot think why he left so abruptly."
"Perhaps he was afraid of Mrs. Le Grande. He knows how fascinating she can be when she chooses."
"I do not think she had anything to do with it. She was perfectly harmless when he left, in the delirium of fever, with two physicians in attendance."
I was not convinced by Mrs. Flaxman's words, but said no more on the subject.
My strength rapidly returned once I had got in the open air. Thomas always found it perfectly convenient now to take me for a drive, even at most unseasonable hours. His gardening was pressing heavily upon him, and no doubt it was hard for him to trust the care of flower and vegetable beds to other hands; but of the two he preferred to trust them rather than me, to strangers.
We took long drives over hill and valley—for the most part taking the road that skirted the seashore. Silently I would watch the white sails disappearing beyond the eastern horizon, wishing that I could follow them to my guardian's side. I missed the delightful hours I used to spend in his study listening to his conversation, so different from that of any human being I ever knew. He lived so far above the range of little minds, the trivialities of everyday life, social gossip, and the like, seemed to shrink from his presence. One always felt the touch of noble thoughts, and the longing for high endeavor where he was. I lived over again in these long, quiet drives, with the silent Thomas, those last few months, when, with my innocent child's heart, I sunned myself in his presence, unconscious of the rare charm and fascination that drew me to him.
But as I grew stronger I turned from the past and its memories, bitter-sweet, and set myself resolutely to the duty of living my life well, independently of its secret unrest and pain. I knew that many before me, multitudes after me, would be called to endure a like discipline, and the world, no doubt, is the richer in what it holds as imperishable because of the compensation suffering brings; for if we take with a docile mind the discipline God gives, there will always be compensation. One day, when I had come back strengthened from a long drive along the seashore, a very pleasant surprise awaited me. Mrs. Flaxman had received letters from Mr. Winthrop which, to my surprise, she did not share with me. But she handed me a check for two hundred dollars, which I was to distribute among my poor friends. That money I believe helped to change the destinies of several lives: for I tried to lay it out in a way that would help some to improve their chances to make life a success.
June, with its flowers and perfumes, came at last; and in the early morning, when I used to ramble through the stretches of flowers and shrubbery, and under the trees, tremulous with bird song, I wondered how the owner of all this beauty could willingly banish himself from it. Thomas permitted me to gather flowers at will—a favor I used to the utmost, among others sending Mrs. Le Grande a daily remembrance from Oaklands, in the shape of a bouquet of the choicest blossoms.
At last I resolved to follow the flowers myself, though at the risk of the second time incurring Mr. Winthrop's displeasure; but if she were soon to die, as her attendants seemed to expect, surely here was missionary work right at my door. I found the cottage a perfect bower of roses. The garden in front was a wilderness of the choicest varieties I had ever seen, and in the windows nothing could be seen but green leaves and blossoms of every varying tint. It seemed hard to believe that the rarest rose of all was lying there, fading slowly away amid all this fragrance and beauty. I rang the bell, which was answered by the same little maid who had received me before. I asked for Mrs. Le Grande.
"She's no better, ma'am, and Missus thinks she'll never be; but, my! we dassent tell her; she's that 'fraid of death."
"Does she see strangers?"
"There's not many comes to see her, but I'll tell her you're here. Just step in here, please, and sit down for a minute."
She opened a door near by; but I thanked her and said I would wait in the garden among the roses for her answer.
She soon came for me with a smiling face, saying Mrs. Le Grande would be glad to see me, and then led the way to her room.
Mrs. Le Grande was reclining in an invalid's chair, propped up with pillows, a rich satin quilt thrown over her feet, and robed in a pink silk wrapper that matched perfectly her exquisite complexion and the roses fastened in her hair. She received me with a gaiety that, under the circumstances, astonished me, saying: "Why, how well you look! Your attack of fever could not have been so severe as mine."
"I was very ill indeed, I cannot imagine how one could be worse and live," I said, gravely.
"But I shall not be so strong as you for some weeks. It has left me with a troublesome cough, I shall be well when that leaves me."
I felt constrained; uncertain what to say. Since her recovery was doubtful I shrank from encouraging her in a false hope, and I could not tell her that we all thought she must soon die. She soon noticed my constraint, and began to rally me.
"Is it on account of Mr. Winthrop's absence you are looking so sorrowful?" she asked.
"I was not thinking of him, but of you alone."
"That is kind, but I am not flattered. I did not think I was such a gloomy object for reflection."
"I was only sorry to see you looking so frail, and wishing I could help you," I said, gently.
"If you only could, I would very soon discharge those useless doctors; they are all alike, I believe; for I have tried each one of them in turn, and they none of them have done much for me."
"I do not think there is so much difference in doctors as people imagine, if they but learn the nature of the disease, they all know the proper remedies to use."
"That is poor consolation for me, I know if I had a good physician I would be well in a few days; but the trouble with those who have attended me is, they do not understand my case and do not administer the proper remedies."
"Nature is an excellent healer herself. If wisely assisted, she soon works the miracle of healing, unless,—" I hesitated.
"Unless what?" she asked sharply.
"God has willed otherwise."
"I cannot listen to such words, I am not going to die until I am old. Oh, why must we grow old and die at last? it was a cruel way to create us."
"The other world seemed so beautiful to me when I was so sick, I scarcely wanted to come back to this."
"Well, it seems just the reverse to me, I lie awake at night and shudder when I think of death and the grave. It makes me shudder now in the sunshine, and with you smiling down so kindly at me. Please to never mention such things to me again."
I felt grieved; for then my task in coming here would be a vain one. Day by day as I came to see her, the hectic flush in her cheek kept deepening, and the eyes grew brighter and more sorrowful, while she grew gradually weaker.
Very soon the pretty parlor was vacated, while her bed was the only comfortable resting-place. She was anxious to have me come, and the nurse said she counted the hours between my departure and return. Her eagerness to have me read to her puzzled me at first, especially since she was indifferent as to what I read, but after a while I found that she prized my reading merely because it acted as a sedative. During the night sleep usually forsook her; but when I left she was generally sleeping peacefully. She permitted me to read the Bible as much as I chose. One day she explained the reason for her indifference in the matter:—
"I do not wish to get interested in anything you read, for then I would keep awake to listen; but the sleep you bring me is better than all my medicine, I set nurse reading to me one day; but her voice was uncultivated, and her emphasis intolerable I should soon be well if you would read to me all the time."
"I never heard of any one getting raised from a sick-bed by so simple a remedy."
"You do not try to encourage me," she said, fretfully.
I read on to her day after day until my voice grew husky, and the mere act of speaking often wearied me.
We all saw the end was rapidly approaching, but no one had the courage to tell her. She got so angry with me one day when I suggested bringing Mr. Lathrop to visit her, that I slipped quietly away to escape the storm I had raised. I used to go and return with a sense of defeat that paralyzed all hopeful enthusiasm, and fearing that Mr. Winthrop's displeasure had probably been a second time incurred, without any corresponding gain to debit the loss.
THE SOUND OF MARRIAGE BELLS.
I came home one day more dispirited than usual. I had found Mrs. Le Grande weaker than ever, and yet she was clinging tenaciously to life, and had that morning dictated an order to her dress-maker in New York for a most elaborate costume. When I tried to urge her to think of something more enduring than the raiment whose fashion and beauty soon changes, she forbade me mentioning such a thing again in her presence, nor would she listen to the Scripture reading on which I always insisted as the one condition on which I would read to her at all. I knew my own words were powerless to break the crust of worldliness and selfishness that bound her heart, but I hoped God's word might pierce it. Hubert had returned from college a few days before, and just as I entered the oak avenue from the little footpath through the wood, I met him cantering along on Faery.
"A stranger has just arrived whom you will be surprised to see," he called to me.
"Any one I know?" I asked carelessly.
"I should say it was; and one whom you will be glad to see, if I am not mistaken."
"Won't you tell me who it is and so prolong my pleasure, for I am not going direct to the house. I intend taking a stroll through the garden to try and get some unhappy fancies brushed away by the blossoms."
"Anticipation is said to exceed realization, so I will generously leave you the former," he said, giving Faery the whip and cantering rapidly away.
I did not find the flowers such comforters as I hoped, and soon entered the house, no doubt slightly impelled thereto by a natural curiosity as well. I glanced into the drawing-room and parlors as I passed along the hall and began to think Hubert was merely subjecting me to one of his practical jokes, as I could see no sign of visitors anywhere, and I concluded to go to the library and try for a while to forget myself and heartaches in an hour's hard reading. I found the door ajar and when I entered the room was surprised to find the curtains drawn, and the room flooded with the June sunshine. I turned to the study-table to see who might be taking such liberties in the master's absence when there, standing with his back to me stood Mr. Winthrop himself. He turned suddenly and saw me. "Ah, little one, have you come to speak to me?"
"I did not know you were here; but I am very glad to speak to you—to welcome you home," I said, giving him my hand.
"You seem like one come back to me from the dead," he said, soberly, still holding my hand.
"I am not sure if it was not you who held me back from those shining gates."
"What do you mean?"
"When you held my hand through that long night, I thought but for your firm grasp I should drift out of reach of life altogether."
"I tried to pray that night, Medoline, as I had never done before; I believe my prayers were answered."
"Then you have found that the Bible is true?" I asked, looking up eagerly into his face.
"Yes, every day more clearly."
"Then it was well worth all the weariness and pain I endured to have you say this; but have you fully forgiven me, Mr. Winthrop, and may we take up our friendship as before?"
"Must we take it up as before, Medoline? I have found I cannot be satisfied with your friendship only?"
"I do not understand you."
"You drove me away, and you have forced me to return—must I leave again? I cannot remain near you any longer with our relation to each other unchanged. I must have your love or nothing. Friendship between us, and nothing more, is out of the question. Can you not learn to love me, Medoline?"
I turned and placed both my hands in his.
"Does this mean love instead of fear? Remember you told me not long ago you were afraid of me; answer me truly, little one; do hand and heart go together?"
"If you care to have them," I murmured softly, "but, have you forgotten Mrs. Le Grande?"
"Long ago I ceased to think of her, only as one may remember a brief surrender to an ignoble passion. The mistake I made was in measuring womanhood generally by her standard—you have taught me, my darling, that angels have not yet ceased to visit our poor earth."
"Oh, Mr. Winthrop, you must not go to the other extreme or I shall soon disappoint you."
"You are all I could wish, Medoline. If it were possible I would not ask any change in mind or body, my Eve—fresh from the hand of God."
His words frightened me; for how could I ever fulfill his expectations? He read my face.
"Are you sure, Medoline, you love me as I want to be loved by my wife? Have you gained your woman's heart with its full capacity for love or suffering, or are you still only a child?"
"I could die for you, Mr. Winthrop, if it were for your good; I do not ask for anything better than to be near you always in time and eternity."
"Since how long have you regarded me in this way, Medoline?"
"You remember that long night holding my hand, when I was at the worst of the fever? I saw everything clearly then. My spirit seemed to get away from the body, or very nearly so, and looked on things as it had never done before."
"Did you wonder after that why I left you so abruptly?"
"For a long time I thought you were still at Oaklands. Every day I used to hope you might come, or send me a message."
"You shall never be so left again till death separates us."
"If you cared for me then, why did you leave me?" I asked timidly.
"If I cared for you then, Medoline! Why don't you ask me when first I began to love you?"
"I did not think to ask."
"Do you remember that day in the autumn when you had the Mill Road people here?"
"You came to me, if you remember, with the widow Larkum's baby in your arms, a very timid, and beseeching look on your face at the same time."
I nodded in reply.
"My heart went out to you then and there, as it never did to any woman. I had been fascinated and amused with your ways before that. How I have waited and hoped since then to see you turn to me with the love-light in your eyes! Fear lest I might lose my self-restraint and speak too soon, drove me from you—fear lest some other man would win what I so passionately craved has brought me back. Darling, you have made this the happiest day of my life."
I never saw Mrs. Le Grande again alive. The following morning I made my confession to Mr. Winthrop, and got his consent to continue my visits to the sick room, at Rose Cottage, until recovery or death should take place. My one anxiety as I walked along the field and woodland that day, was lest my face might reveal to her keen vision the gladness that thrilled all my pulses. I did not wait to ring the bell but went directly to her rooms. The parlor door was closed; when I opened it, at the farther end of the room I was startled to see a white-robed form lying on one of the sofas.
I hesitated with sudden fear, but finally summoning all my resolution I crossed the room and stood beside the clay-cold form of Mrs. Le Grande. The nurse who was in the adjoining room came to my side and after a few seconds' silence she said, gently:
"I never felt so lonesome with any dying person as with her last night."
"Did she know she was dying?"
"Yes, we told her. It seemed dreadful to let her go before her Maker without a prayer for mercy, but her thoughts, for all we told her, were more about this world than the next. She made her will as soon as the doctor came. We sent for him in haste, and then she told us what to put on her when we prepared her for the coffin. That's the gown she was to have been married in. She said: 'Mr. Winthrop shall see his bride in her wedding dress, at last.'"
I looked at the rich white satin, with its exquisite trimming of lace, and the fresh gathered roses instead of orange blossoms.
"Did she say nothing about where her soul was going?" I asked, yet dreading a reply.
"After he'd got the will drawn, the doctor asked her if her business for another world was satisfactorily arranged; but she said the next world would have to wait its turn after she'd got there; she had no strength left to make any more preparations."
I turned away, too sick at heart to listen longer, but the nurse followed me with a message from the dying woman.
"It was her special request that you and Mr. Winthrop should come to her funeral, and afterward be present at the reading of the will. I am not at liberty to explain, but I think you will regret it if you do not come. She said that was to be the sign of reconciliation between her and Mr. Winthrop."
"I will deliver the message, and, if possible, prevail on him to come," I promised, and then hastily left the house. When I reached home I went directly to the library where I found Mr. Winthrop. He looked surprised to see me back so soon, and then, noticing traces of tears on my face, said:
"What is wrong, little one?"
"Mrs. Le Grande died sometime during the night. The nurse told me she showed no anxiety respecting her future state."
He was silent. At last I said: "You have forgiven her, Mr. Winthrop?"
"Forgiven her! Yes, Medoline; and if she had lived, I could never have repaid her for the lesson she taught me, and the favor she conferred on me by going away so abruptly."
"Then you will grant her last request that we should both attend her funeral, and the reading of her will. I have an impression she has left each of us some keepsake, as a token of her repentance."
"Don't you think, little one, that would be a mercenary motive to take us there?"
"But I want you to grant her dying request," I murmured, already ashamed of my argument.
"We will both go, assuredly; and in the meantime I shall see that preparations for her funeral are suitably arranged."
"You will look upon her dead face; she left directions as to how she should be robed for the grave. She said you should see your bride in her wedding dress at last."
"I expect, before many weeks, to see my own precious bride. I shall be indifferent as to her dress. It will be herself I shall look at," he said with a caress that for the time made me forget Mrs. Le Grande.
We went to the funeral, to which went also a good part of the townsfolk; for curiosity was on tip-toe. Thomas was greatly mystified when Mr. Winthrop, leaving Mrs. Flaxman at Oaklands, bade him drive us back to Linden Lane. Dr. Hill was there, and Mrs. Le Grande's lawyer from New York, and Dr. Townshend, who had drawn her will, with the nurse and landlady, who were her witnesses. Presently the lawyer put on his spectacles, and broke the seal, and then in a hard, dry voice began to read the will. I listened with languid interest until presently Mr. Winthrop's name was mentioned. I looked at him with keen surprise. Could it be possible Mrs. Le Grande had willed him the bulk of her fortune? His face was pale, I could see no trace of a satisfaction one might naturally expect on the face of another at such unexpected accession of wealth; rather he looked grieved and shocked. Before I had time to recover myself my own name was read off in the even, unimpassioned tones of the lawyer. She left me her jewelry, pictures, and other valuables. It seemed like one of the fairy tales of my childhood. There was something pathetic, too, in the wording of her will: "I hope they will adorn a happier woman than I have been," as if that, too, were a legacy she bequeathed me.
The formality of reading the will ended, Mr. Winthrop asked for an immediate and private interview with the lawyer. Afterward I learned it was to see if some informality could not be discovered, rendering the will illegal, but this was impossible. He took the money as a sacred trust, expending the interest year by year on religious and benevolent objects. Into many a heathen household has it already carried the blessed light of the gospel—to many a burdened heart has it come to lighten the load of poverty and care.
The story of one memorable year of my life is told. It was the prelude to many a happier year.