Philip, still sitting at her feet, encircled her with both arms, and drew her down to him.
"My Thelma!" he whispered, "there is nothing left—nothing at all worth living for,—save Love!"
"Ah! but that," she answered softly, "is everything!"
* * * * * *
Is it so, indeed? Is Love alone worth living for—worth dying for? Is it the only satisfying good we can grasp at among the shifting shadows of our brief existence? In its various phases and different workings, is it, after all, the brightest radiance known in the struggling darkness of our lives?
Sigurd had thought so,—he had died to prove it. Philip thought so,—when once more at home in England with his recovered "treasure of the golden midnight" he saw her, like a rose refreshed by rain, raise her bright head in renewed strength and beauty, with the old joyous lustre dancing in her eyes, and the smile of a perfect happiness like summer sunshine on her fair face. Lord Winsleigh thought so;—he was spending the winter in Rome with his wife and son,—and there among the shadows of the Caesars, his long, social martyrdom ended, and he regained what he had once believed lost for ever—his wife's affection. Clara gentle, wistful, with the softening shadow of a great sorrow and a great repentance in her once too-brilliant eyes, was a very different Clara to the dashing "beauty" who had figured so conspicuously in London society. She clung to her husband with an almost timid eagerness as though she dreaded losing him—and when he was not with her, she seemed to rely entirely on her son, whom she watched with a fond, almost melancholy pride, and who responded to her tenderness though proffered so late, with the full-hearted frankness of his impulsive, ardent nature. She wrote to Thelma asking her pardon, and in return received such a sweet, forgiving, generous letter as caused her to weep for an hour or more. But she felt she could never again meet the clear regard of those beautiful, earnest, truthful eyes—never again could she stand in Thelma's presence, or call her friend—that was all over. Still Love remained,—a Love, chastened and sad, with drooping wings and a somewhat doubting smile,—yet it was Love—
"Love, that keeps all the choir of lives in chime— Love, that is blood—within the veins of time."
And Love, no matter how abused and maltreated, is a very patient god, and even while suffering from undeserved wounds, still works on, doing magical things. So that poor Edward Neville, the forsaken husband of Violet Vere, when he heard that that popular actress had died suddenly in America from a fit of delirium tremens brought on by excessive drinking, was able, by some gentle method known only to Love and himself, to forget all her frailties—to obliterate from his memory the fact that he ever saw her on the boards of the Brilliant Theatre,—and to think of her henceforth only as the wife he had once adored, and who, he decided in vague, dreamy fashion, must have died young. Love also laid a firm hand on the vivacious Pierre Duprez—he who had long scoffed at the jeu d'amour, played it at last in grave earnest,—and one bright season he introduced his bride into Parisian society,—a charming little woman, with very sparkling eyes and white teeth, who spoke French perfectly, though not with the ''haccent' recommended by Briggs. It was difficult to recognize Britta in the petite elegante who laughed and danced and chattered her way through some of the best salons in Paris, captivating everybody as she went,—but there she was, all the same, holding her own as usual. Her husband was extremely proud of her—he was fond of pointing her out to people as something excessively precious and unique—and saying—"See her! That is my wife! From Norway! Yes—from the very utmost north of Norway! I love my country—certainly!—but I will tell you this much—if I had been obliged to choose a wife among French women—ma foi! I should never have married!"
And what of George Lorimer?—the idle, somewhat careless man of "modern" type, in whose heart, notwithstanding the supposed deterioration of the age, all the best and bravest codes of old-world chivalry were written? Had Love no fair thing to offer him? Was he destined to live out his life in the silent heroism of faithful, unuttered, unrequited, unselfish devotion? Were the heavens, as Sigurd had said, always to be empty? Apparently not,—for when he was verging towards middle age, a young lady besieged him with her affections, and boldly offered to be his wife any day he chose to name. She was a small person, not quite five years old, with great blue eyes and a glittering tangle of golden curls. She made her proposal one summer afternoon on the lawn at Errington Manor, in the presence of Beau Lovelace, on whose knee sat her little brother Olaf, a fine boy a year younger than herself. She had placed her dimpled arms round Lorimer's neck,—and when she so confidingly suggested marriage to her "Zordie," as she called him, she was rubbing her rosy, velvety cheek against his moustache with much sweet consideration and tenderness. Lovelace, hearing her, laughed aloud, whereat the little lady was extremely offended.
"I don't tare!" she said, with pretty defiance. "I do love oo, Zordie, and I will marry oo!"
George held her fondly to his breast as though she were some precious fragile flower of which not a petal must be injured.
"All right!" he answered gaily, though his voice trembled somewhat, "I accept! You shall be my little wife, Thelma. Consider it settled!"
Apparently she did so consider it, for from that day, whenever she was asked her name, she announced herself proudly as "Zordie's 'ittle wife, Thelma"—to the great amusement of her father, Sir Philip, and that other Thelma, on whom the glory of motherhood had fallen like a new charm, investing both face and form with superior beauty and an almost divine serenity. But "Zordie's wife" took her sobriquet very seriously,—so much so, indeed, that by-and-by "Zordie" began to take it rather seriously himself—and to wonder whether, after all, marriages, unequal in point of age, might not occasionally turn out well. He condemned himself severely for the romanticism of thinking such thoughts, even while he indulged in them, and called himself "an old fool," though he was in the actual prime of manhood, and an exceedingly handsome fellow withal.
But when the younger Thelma came back at the age of sixteen from her convent school at Arles,—the same school where her mother had been before her,—she looked so like her mother, so very like, that his heart began to ache with the old, wistful, passionate longing he fancied he had stilled for ever. He struggled against this feeling for a while, till at last it became too strong for him,—and then, though he told himself it was absurd,—that a man past forty had no right to expect to win a girl's first love, he grew so reckless that he determined to risk his fate with her. One day, therefore, he spoke out, scarcely knowing what he said, and only conscious that his pulses were beating with abnormal rapidity. She listened to his tremulous, rather hesitating proposal with exceeding gravity, and appeared more surprised than displeased. Raising her glorious blue eyes—eyes in which her mother's noble, fearless look was faithfully reflected, she said simply, just in her mother's own quaint way—
"I do not know why you talk about this at all. I thought it was all settled long ago!"
"Settled!" faltered Lorimer astonished,—he was generally self-possessed, but this fair young lady's perfect equanimity far surpassed his at that moment—"Settled! My darling! my child—I am so much older than you are—"
"I don't like boys!" she declared, with stately disdain. "I was your wife when I was little—and I thought it was to be the same thing now I am big! I told mother so, and she was quite pleased. But of course, if you don't want me—"
She was not allowed to finish her sentence, for Lorimer, with a sudden rush of joy that almost overpowered him, caught her in his arms and pressed the first lover's kiss on her pure, innocently smiling lips.
"Want you!" he murmured passionately, with a strange sweet mingling of the past and present in his words. "I have always wanted—Thelma!"