Thus the new task began, and thus it continued day after day—not always quite the same, for Georgiana soon recognized that her employer was diversifying her labours as much as he consistently could by changing the nature of the copying. Now and then he refreshed her endurance and rested her tired hand by asking her to read aloud to him several just finished pages of his own writing, walking the floor meanwhile or sitting tipped back in his chair with closed eyes while he listened with ears alert for error of statement or infelicity of phrase, and she wondered at the character of the words she read.
Of course she discovered at once what was the general subject of the book. No essay was this, no work of fiction, no "history of art," as Stuart had scornfully suggested. It could be only the sternest of research and experience which dictated such sentences as these:
The especial dangers to be contended with are that the ethmoid cells may be mistaken for the sphenoids; that we may go too low and enter the pons and medulla; that, laterally, we may enter the cavernous sinus, and above, that we may injure the optic nerve.
It was all more or less of a puzzle to her, but it was one which her taskmaster never explained further than the revelations of each day explained it. She understood that he was a scientist, that he undoubtedly had been an operator in some surgical field or was putting into shape the work of another in that field, but what he now was besides a writer of technical books she had no manner of idea.
"But I really enjoy it, Father Davy," she insisted, when she came down to him one day with hotly flushed cheeks and shaking hand after a particularly protracted siege of copying involved and incomprehensible material. "It's monotonous in a way, but it's intensely interesting, too. Mr. Jefferson is so absorbed in it, it's fun to watch him. To-day he was as happy as a boy over a letter he had just received from a Professor Somebody, a great authority in Vienna. It seemed it absolutely confirmed some statement he had made in a monograph he wrote last year which had been challenged by several scientists. The way he fell to writing his next paragraph after he had read that letter made one imagine he was writing it in his own heart's blood. He read it aloud to me." She laughed appreciatively at the recollection.
"Could you make anything of it?" inquired Mr. Warne with interest.
"Not very much. It was about the pituitary body;—oh, I've come to have a great awe of the pituitary body, it seems to be responsible for so many things. He chuckled over it like a boy, and said to me, 'Forgive these transports, Miss Warne, but this is food and drink to me. I wish I could explain it to you so that you might rejoice over it with me. Some day I will, when we are not so busy.' I hope he will. There's enough that I do understand to make me interested."
"I see you are—and rejoice, my Georgiana. Do you remember what Max Mueller says, echoed by many another, 'Work is life to me; and when I am no longer able to work, life will be a heavy burden?'"
He smiled as he said it, but his daughter read the seldom-expressed longing in the cheerful voice and laid her cheek for an instant against his. "He's quite right. And you have your work, Father Davy, and you're doing it all the time. I think you preach much more effectively now than you did in the pulpit, even when you don't open your mouth. And when you do open it angels couldn't compete with you!"
They laughed softly together, though Mr. Warne shook his head. "It's a curious thing," he mused, "that the weaker the body gets the harder does the mind have to strive to master it. But, thank God—'so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.'"
"'Not as one that beateth the air,'" murmured the girl. "I should say not, Father Davy. As one that delivereth hard blows on his own body, his poor, tired body. Oh, if I had one tenth the self-control——"
At which she ran away, as was quite like her, when emotion suddenly got the better of her. The darkest cloud on this girl's life was the frail tenure of her father's existence. The rest could be endured.
The work in the upstairs study went steadily on, in spite of the fact that James Stuart railed and that Miles Channing came at least once in seven days, driving the sixty miles in a long, swiftly speeding car which brought him to the door of the manse before the early May sunset, and which took him back when the shadows lay black upon the silent road. Two hours in the morning, three in the afternoon, Georgiana gave to the rigid performance of the tasks Mr. Jefferson set her, while outside below the windows at which she worked lay her garden, beloved of her affection, beseeching her not to neglect it.
It was hard sometimes not to betray how she longed to be outside, as she wrote on and on, copying the often difficult and uninteresting language of the more technical part of her employer's construction. And one afternoon, lifting her eyes to let them dwell on a great budding purple lilac tree, with the warm breath of the breeze which had drifted across the apple orchard fanning her cheek, and all the notes of rioting spring in her ears, she did draw in spite of herself one deep sigh of longing which she instantly suppressed—too late.
Her companion looked up quickly, noted the flush in the cheek and the hint of a weary shadow under the dark eyes, and suddenly pushed aside his paper. Then he drew it back, blotted it carefully, laid it with a pile of others, and capped his pen. He wheeled about in his chair to face his assistant.
"Put down your work, please," he commanded gently; "precisely where you are. Don't finish that sentence."
Georgiana looked up, astonished. "Not finish the sentence?"
"No. Did you never stop in the middle of a sentence?"
"I'm afraid I have. But I didn't suppose you ever did."
"I don't. But I want you to. Please. That's right. You will know where to start it again to-morrow."
"To-morrow?" In spite of herself her eyes had lighted as a child's might.
"Even so. To-day we are going for a drive in all this beauty—if I can find a horse and some kind of a vehicle, and you will go with me. It's only three o'clock. We can have a long drive between now and the hour when you invariably disappear to make magic for our appetites. How about it?"
"I can keep on perfectly well, you know," she said, with pen still poised above her paper.
"But I can't." He was smiling. "Now that the other plan has occurred to me, I can't keep on."
"Did you see inside my mind?" queried Georgiana, putting away her copying with rapid motions.
"Suddenly I did. I've been rather blind, a hard taskmaster. I've been conscious of what was going on outside when I went for my walks, but the work is absorbing to me and I have kept you too steadily at it. We both need a rest," he added as she shook her head.
OUT OF THE BLUE
Twenty minutes afterward he drove up to the door with the best that the village liveryman had to give for the highest price his customer could offer—a tall black horse of fair proportions, and a hurriedly washed buggy of the type in vogue in country districts. But as Georgiana went down the path she was conscious that the figure which stood hat and reins in hand awaiting her would lend dignity to any vehicle, short of a wheelbarrow, in which he might be seen to ride.
Then presently the pair were driving along country lanes in the very midst of all the burgeoning beauty of the season, and Georgiana was like a captive bird let loose. Her companion as well responded to the call of Nature at her loveliest, and the tireless worker of the study seemed changed at a word to a bright-eyed idler of the most carefree sort. The two gave themselves up without restraint to the enjoyment of the hour.
"I wonder how long it is," said Mr. Jefferson, letting the reins lie loose at a leafy curve of the road while the black horse willingly walked, "since I have had a drive like this. Not for ten years at least."
"You've lived always in a great city?"
"Since boyhood—in the heart of it."
"And have driven motors, not horses, for those ten years."
"Yes, like everybody else. But I spent all my summers as a boy on my grandfather's farm, and there I drove horses and rode them and did acrobatic feats on their bare backs. I was a wild Indian, a cowboy, and a captain of cavalry by turns. Those were happy days, and on a day like this they don't seem long ago."
"They can't be so dreadfully long ago," she dared, with a glance at the interesting profile beside her.
"Can't they? Don't I look pretty aged compared with your youth?"
"I'm not so remarkably young," she retorted.
"Aren't you? You are about ten years younger than I. That's a big leap and must make me seem a grandfather indeed."
"But you don't know how old I am."
"I could come pretty close to it," said he with a quick look.
"How could you know?"
"When you see a spray of apple blossoms like those"—he pointed toward a mass of pink and white at the stage of perfection beyond an old rail fence—"can't you tell at a glance whether they've been out a day or a week?"
"I should say that if things had happened to them to make them feel as if they'd been out a week when they had been out only two days——"
"A heavy rain, for instance? In that case we should be deceived—perhaps. But in the case of a human being those heavy rains sometimes only mature without fading—— Hello,——what's this?"
A small and very ragged boy had emerged suddenly from a meadow gateway, his face convulsed with pain and fright. He nursed one hand in the other and the colour had deserted his round cheek, leaving it pallid under its freckles. The only house nearby was an abandoned one and there were no others for some distance in either direction.
Mr. Jefferson stopped his horse. "Does it hurt badly, lad?" he asked in the friendliest of tones, which yet had a bracing quality. "Don't you want to let me see if I can help it?"
The boy stood still, tears silently making their way down his face. Giving the reins to Georgiana, Mr. Jefferson jumped out and gently examined the small hand, the middle finger of which, as the onlooker could plainly see, was badly distorted and somewhat swollen. The skin, however, did not seem to be broken.
"We can make that more comfortable right away," the man promised the little boy. "Sit down on the grass for a minute or two, laddie, while I find something I want."
He pulled out a handkerchief, as yet folded and fresh from its ironing, and handed it to Georgiana. "Will you tear that into strips an inch wide, please, while I take a look back here for a bit of wood?" and he disappeared down the road, while Georgiana with the aid of her strong white teeth tore the fine linen as he had bidden, and spoke comfortingly to the little fellow, who seemed glad enough to have fallen into friendly hands.
When he shortly returned Mr. Jefferson was rapidly cutting and whittling a stick into a little splint, which he then wound carefully with a strip of the handkerchief until it was covered from view. Then he took the injured hand in his own capable ones—his assistant had often noted those hands—and said quietly, "I'm going to hurt you just a minute, little man, but you'll be all right, so be game," and in two deft motions he had pulled and twisted the broken finger, and had set it straight as the others, with but one sharp outcry from the owner. In less time than it can be told in, the set finger was bound securely with its neighbouring finger to the padded splint, and the whole neatly bandaged with the torn linen, the entire procedure accomplished with the rapidity and skill of the practised hand. No amateur surgery this, as Georgiana understood well enough.
"There," said Mr. Jefferson, drawing forth another handkerchief as spotless as the first—she wondered if he went always thus provided against emergency—and improvising a little sling in which the bandaged hand swung comfortably, "I think you'll do. Rest a bit and then go home, and tell your mother not to touch that finger for three weeks. By that time it will be as good as new, only be careful with it when you first use it. Good-bye, laddie, and better luck next time."
Georgiana saw the uninjured hand of the boy close over something bright as the man's hand left it, and heard a low sound which might have been almost anything indicative of surprise and joy. Then the black horse was moving on, and Mr. Jefferson was saying: "Weren't we talking about apple blossoms?"
"We had finished with them, I think," Georgiana replied, wondering if he really were going to offer no explanation of the hint of mystery which had been about him ever since her work with him had begun.
But he did not offer any, only went on with the pleasant talk with which he had all along beguiled the way. Georgiana was recognizing this afternoon, more than she had yet done, what a well-stored mind was possessed by this unassuming man, whose manner and speech yet did not lack that quality of quiet assurance which is the product only of genuine knowledge and experience.
The black horse was within a mile of home, passing through the last stretch of woodland which would justify the walking pace, in which, greatly to his astonishment, he was being allowed to indulge at all such points, when a motor car, slowing down beside him, caused him to lay back his ears in displeasure.
Georgiana, turning, beheld the handsome, eager face of Miles Channing as he leaned toward her, his hand hushing his engine as he spoke.
"Miss Warne—Mr. Jefferson—forgive me for stopping you! I should have gone on and waited for you if I had been sure you were on your way home. But I'm a messenger from the Croftons; they beg you to let me bring you back with me to-night." His eyes rested on Georgiana.
"To-night? Is anybody ill?"
"Oh, no, no; nothing like that. It's for quite a different reason they want you; only I'm to ask you not to question me. You're to come on faith, if you will. And they'll agree to have you back in the morning by breakfast-time, if you insist."
Georgiana looked puzzled, but, being human, she was naturally interested and attracted by this mysterious plan. "It's very odd," she mused, "but if father can spare me——"
"I will undertake to see that your father is not lonely this evening," said Mr. Jefferson's quiet voice at her side. "And please don't bother about to-morrow morning or to-morrow at all, if you would like to be away."
"If Mr. Jefferson wouldn't object——" began Channing; but Mr. Jefferson anticipated him.
"Please don't hesitate to go on with Mr. Channing, if you would like to gain a little time," he suggested to his companion. "He will have you at home before I can reach the bend in the road."
Georgiana looked round at him. "I prefer to finish one ride before I begin another," she declared, smiling. "It's only a mile, Mr. Channing; we shall be there nearly as soon as you. Please go on."
It thus came about ten minutes later that James Stuart, walking up to his home from a field where he had been superintending an interesting new departure in cultivation, caught sight first of a now-familiar roadster of aristocratic lines whose appearance thereabouts had become most unwelcome, and shortly thereafter of a less pretentious vehicle, being rapidly drawn by a still more familiar black horse, and occupied by two people whom it gave Stuart no acute pleasure to see together.
"Well, I should say George was displaying her admirers in great shape this afternoon," he said gloomily to himself. "It's a wonder I'm not trailing on behind with a wheelbarrow. But I vow I'd like to know since when her contract with Jefferson has taken them out into the country—and in working hours, too!"
Afterward it was all rather a strange memory to Georgiana when she recalled it. She had flown about to prepare the appetizing early supper with which she was accustomed to serve her small family, and to which she now added a delicacy or two on account of its seeming the natural thing to ask Mr. Miles Channing to remain rather than to allow him to go to the small village hotel. Then she had cleared her table and left the after-work to the neighbour who was to come to the rescue as before. She had dressed with hurried fingers for the trip, and had driven away with a devoted escort who spared no pains to make her feel that he was exceedingly pleased at the success of his mission.
There was no place in her memory for something she did not see nor would have thought of imagining significant if she had seen it. When she left the house Mr. Jefferson was in his room, searching for a book from which to read aloud to his self-assumed charge of the evening. When he heard Georgiana's blithe cry of farewell to her father in the doorway below, he left the bookcase and went with a quick step to the window. He watched the car driven by Mr. Channing out of sight down the road; then he descended to the garden, pipe in hand. Before he returned to the house to take his place by the evening lamp and begin the reading to the gentle invalid stretched on the couch, he had covered many furlongs up and down the straggling pathways and had consumed much more than his usual quota of choice tobacco. And though all about him had been the May environment at its loveliest, through all his marching up and down he had never once looked up.
Miles away, and ever more miles away, Georgiana had flown like the wind in the swift car under its skilfully guiding hand. The drive was a blurred impression of slowly gathering rosy twilight, of the odour of the apple blossoms—somehow a different and more seductive fragrance than it had been in the sunlit afternoon—and always there was the sense of there being beside her a presence which disturbed. Channing's low laugh, his vibrant voice in her ear, the things he said, half serious, half earnest, always full of an only slightly veiled intent—the girl who had spent so many days of her life in hard study or harder housewifery could do no less than yield herself for the hour to the pulse-quickening charm of it and forget everything else.
Just as twilight settled into dusk and for the first time the headlights of the car came on with a long reach like a golden ribbon along the road, Channing, suddenly slowing down, a few miles out of the city, began a rapid speech on a subject so unexpected that it fairly took his hearer's breath away.
"It's not fair of me to tell you, but I've simply got to get in the first word. You must pretend you haven't heard it, but if there's any persuading to be done I want my share, and want it first. Your cousins are going to invite you to sail with them next week for a summer in England after a fortnight in Paris—Paris in June! You don't know what that means; you can't even imagine it. I can—I know it—don't I know it!" He laughed softly. "Since they're to be away and won't need her they'll send down their housekeeper—the most competent person in the world—to stay with your father and make him absolutely comfortable, so you don't have to hesitate on that score."
"It's perfectly wonderful, but"—Georgiana was staring at him through the dusk—"but—oh, I couldn't, Mr. Channing! how could I? Father is so feeble; something might happen."
"Not in summer. Things don't happen to elderly people in summer. It's in winter—pneumonia and things like that. And don't you know he'd be delighted to have you go? He wouldn't let you miss such a chance; I know him already well enough for that."
"But, you see, I'm engaged to work for Mr. Jefferson——"
"Well, he'll be all right; he's a traveled man himself; anybody can see that. He wouldn't stand in the way of your good, not for a moment; of course he wouldn't. He'd urge you to go. Why, there's nothing else for you to do. Think of the glorious summer we'll have—glorious! Why, I——"
"What do you mean? I don't understand." Georgiana felt her cheeks grow scarlet in the darkness.
"Mean? What could I mean? Why, I'm going, too, of course. Sailing when you do. Invited to spend a month in Devon with the Croftons—and you." His voice sank lower. "And that fortnight in Paris—oh, I'll be in Paris, too, no doubt of that! I'll show you what Paris is like on a June evening. Do you think I'd want to send you out of this country if I weren't going, too? Not I—Georgiana!"
"Father Davy, are you sure, sure?" begged his daughter.
"Sure that I want you to go, daughter? Very sure. What sort of father should I be if I were willing to deny you this great pleasure merely to insure my own comfort? And I shall be comfortable. Why should I not be, with the good Mrs. Perkins to look after me, and our fine friend Mr. Jefferson to bear me company in the evenings, as often as he can? And with James Stuart, who is like a son—and with your letters arriving with every foreign mail? Dismiss these fears, my dear, and take your happy chance to see something of the Old World. Many a delightful evening will we have together next winter, you and I, over the photographs you will bring back, while you discourse to me of your adventures."
Thus Mr. David Warne in his most reassuring manner, while his daughter studied his delicate, pallid face, her heart smiting her for being willing to leave him to the loneliness she knew, in spite of all his protests, he would suffer in her absence. And yet opportunities like this one did not occur everyday, might not come again in her lifetime. And everybody was conspiring to make it possible for her.
"It goes without saying," Mr. Jefferson had told her at once, "that all other engagements should be cancelled in the face of such an invitation as this. We will all look after your father for you. And as far as your work with me is concerned, don't give it another thought. I shall make rather slower progress without you, of course, but when you return we will take great strides and complete it well within the limit I have set. So go by all means, and good luck!"
As for James McKenzie Stuart, his words of persuasion seemed to be tempered by various other emotions than those of unselfish desire for Georgiana's pleasure.
"Of course it's great, and there's no doubt that you must go," he said. He was sitting upon the rear porch of the manse, looking off toward Georgiana's garden, on the second evening after her return from the hurried drive to the Croftons'. "I'll do all I can for your father, of course. But don't ask me to console the book-writer."
Georgiana laughed merrily. "He'll not need any consolation, Jimps. Nor you either. Jeannette told me to tell you that she'd write to you once a fortnight—if you'd answer."
"No! She didn't say that?"
"Yes, she did, and meant it. I'll write, too, of course. You'll be deluged with letters and picture post-cards. You ought to be satisfied with so much attention."
"Letters are all right—we won't say anything about the post-cards—and I hope you'll both keep your promises. But when I think of all these summer evenings without you——"
He heaved a gusty sigh which Georgiana had no reason to doubt was genuine. How much heavier would be his spirits, if he were told that Miles Channing was to be of the party, she had full consciousness. She was aware of the futility of attempting to keep this unwelcome news from him longer than the day of her departure, but she had not thus far ventured to mention it.
"I shall miss these evenings myself," she said soberly. "After all, Jimps, I expect there'll be nobody gladder to get back home than I. I shall see this old garden in my dreams." Then quickly, as another deep-drawn breath warned her that sentimental ground was dangerous, she cried: "Oh, but, Jimps! I haven't told you of the last and nicest thing that wonderful girl has done for me. She insisted on my bringing home the dearest little traveling suit of some kind of lovely summer serge that doesn't spot and doesn't muss and is altogether adorable. She insists it's not becoming to her, and it really isn't; but I almost know she planned not to have it becoming so she could give it away to me. And a perfect beauty of a little hat—and a big, loose coat, to wear on the steamer, that looks absolutely new, but she vows it isn't, and that she's tired of it. Was ever anybody so lucky as I?"
"It certainly does take clothes to stir up a girl," was Stuart's cynical comment. "Talk of separation and they pretend to be as sad over it as you are; but let 'em think about the clothes they're going to wear and their spirits leap up like soda water."
"Poor old Jimps! Doesn't he know the sustaining qualities of pretty clothes? Too bad! But really it's lucky I have something to sustain me, it's such a pull to make myself go. I didn't suppose I'd ever leave Father Davy this way while he is so feeble, but he's the most urgent of all to send me off, and I know I really can bring him back wonderful pleasure."
Thus the talks ran during the few days which elapsed before Georgiana's departure. Every spare hour was full with preparation, from the packing of the trim little steamer trunk which arrived by express, a gift from Uncle Thomas, to the careful mending and putting in perfect order of every article Father Davy would be likely to wear during the whole period of his daughter's absence. Georgiana's thoughts as she worked were a curious mixture of happy anticipation and actual dread.
"If only I could go as Jeannette is going," she said to herself, "without a care in the world except to plan how she will fill the summer, and to make sure her maid puts in plenty of silk stockings to last till she can buy some more in Paris. When I went to college it was with the fear that I ought not to accept father's sacrifice, even though Aunt Harriet was with him then, and he was far, far stronger than he is now. I've never done anything in my life without a guilty feeling that I ought not to be doing it. Why can't I do now as they all bid me—drop my cares and take my fun, like any other girl? I will—I must. It's only fair!"
The excitement of anticipation grew upon her as the busy hours slipped away; the regrets and anxieties diminished. With every day came fresh and delightfully interesting contributions to her outfitting from Jeannette or Aunt Olivia—a handsome little handbag of silk and silver to match the traveling suit; a snug toilet case of soft blue leather, holding everything mortal woman could want on train or ship; a great woolly steamer rug to use on shipboard. Georgiana could only catch her breath at such kindness, and dash off hasty notes of spirited thanks, and protests against any more of the same sort. But in spite of her pride it was impossible to resist accepting these and other gifts, they seemed prompted by such genuine affection.
The day came; the trunk was closed and strapped. Mr. Jefferson had done the strapping, coming upon the prospective traveler in the upper hall, where she was trying in vain to bring leather thong and buckle into the proper relations.
"Haven't I yet proved my right to the title of man in the house?" he inquired, as he did the trick with the masculine ease which is ever a source of envy to those whose hands are weaker.
"Indeed you have; but I shall never get over feeling that I have to do everything for myself."
"It will be some one's privilege to teach you better some time," was his rejoinder. "Meanwhile, those of us who are near at hand are only too happy to act as deputies."
Between her "three men," as Jeannette had called them, Georgiana was allowed to do little for herself at the last. She was to meet her cousins as the train went through their city, but Stuart had invited himself to accompany her to that point, thus giving himself a chance, as he said, to clinch that bargain with Jeannette concerning the promised letters and post-cards.
Therefore Georgiana's farewells were not to be all said at once, for which she was thankful. It was quite enough to take leave of Father Davy, who was looking, it seemed to his daughter's eyes, on that sultry June morning, a shade paler and weaker than usual.
"It's the sudden summer heat, dear," he said with the brightest of smiles, as with her arms about him she questioned him; "nothing more. There, there, my little girl; don't let your fancy get the better of you. I'm very well indeed, and shall soon be used to the summer weather. Go—and God be with you, dearest!"
"It doesn't matter about His going with me if He'll only stay with you," murmured Georgiana, vainly struggling with herself, that she might take a bright and tearless farewell of this dear being.
"He will go with you and He will stay with me," said Mr. Warne cheerfully, "so be at rest. Here—I've written you a steamer letter. Read it when the good ship sails, and think of me as rejoicing in your happiness."
It was over at last, and she was off. At the gate she had turned to Mr. Jefferson, who was carrying her handbag to the village stage, from which Stuart had leaped to run up to the porch and say a word of cheer to Mr. Warne, sitting in a big chair.
"I can't tell you what a comfort it is, Mr. Jefferson," she said as she gave him her hand, "to know that you are here. I haven't worked with you for six weeks not to understand that it is no mere author of a scientific treatise who is staying with my father."
"No?" He smiled into her lifted eyes, and his look was that of a friend whom one may trust. "Well, Miss Georgiana, if it is of any support to you to be told that whatever knowledge or skill I may have is all at the service of your father, then I am glad to assure you of that fact. I will do my best for him always. Good-bye, and may it be a happy time from first to last."
His hand held hers close as he said these words, and continued to hold it for a moment longer while he gave her a long and intent look. She felt a strange pang; it was almost as if she could think he was going to miss her. Yet she knew better. If he missed her it would be only because he had become accustomed to having her about. No sign of any more uncommon interest had he ever shown.
Then Stuart, farther down the path, was calling, "Come, George, we're all but late now"; and she was in the old stage and it was lumbering off down the road, while neighbours waved from their windows, and Georgiana strained her eyes to get a last look at the figure on the porch.
On the train she and Stuart somehow found little to say to each other in the ride of an hour and a half to the city station where the rest of the party came aboard. Stuart did not catch sight of Miles Channing until the last minute of the train's stop. He had filled the earlier period of the ten-minute detention in the station with a hurried talk with Jeannette, during which Georgiana noted that the two seemed thoroughly absorbed in each other. It was small wonder, for Jeannette had never been more radiantly lovely than in the distinguished plainness of her traveling costume. She seemed very happy as she presumably bargained with Stuart for letters, and Jimps himself had never looked more interested in any proposition than in that one.
Suddenly, however, the wait was over. Georgiana turned from greeting Channing, who had just come aboard followed by a porter with his luggage, when she heard Stuart's voice in her ear:
"George, is he going?"
"I believe he is," she admitted, trying not to let her colour rise beneath the accusing expression in his eyes.
"And you didn't mention it?"
"Didn't I? He's Jeannette's and Rosalie's friend, not mine."
"No; he's something more than a friend to you—or means to be. I might have known he'd work this scheme. It's good-bye to you in earnest then."
"Jimps! Please don't. It's nothing of the sort. I——"
The train began to move. But instead of a hasty leave-taking and a leap from the steps, James Stuart stood still. "I believe I'll go on for another hour," he said coolly, with a glance at his watch. "I can get off at the next stop. Meanwhile—Miss Jeannette, the observation platform seems to be nearly empty. Would you care to sit out there a while, since I've no chair in here now and the car is full?"
Georgiana, sitting facing Miles Channing—she wondered who was responsible for the fact that his chair proved to be next hers—saw his eyes, as he glanced toward the rear of the car, follow Stuart and Jeannette.
"He's a mighty nice fellow, isn't he?" he commented pleasantly. "Too bad he isn't coming along. Seems tremendously interested in Jeannette, and it's quite evident that she likes him—as much as is good for him. These partings—well, I'm sorry for him. But he means to make the most of this last hour. It would be unkind of us to follow them out there, wouldn't it?—though I was about to propose going out when he stole a march on me."
"It would be very unkind," agreed Georgiana gayly. "Yes, I wish he could have the whole journey; he deserves a rest and change. He's one of the finest men I know."
Now that Channing was beside her, with his handsome face and faultlessly dressed figure easily the most attractive man in the car, she could not begrudge Jeannette this final hour with Stuart, though her pride smarted a little under the change in his manner toward herself. She had read in her cousin's face, as Jeannette's eyes met Stuart's when she first caught sight of him, that she was much more than commonly glad to see him, and the observer had noted with what an air of joyous comradeship the two had hurried, laughing, down the aisle to the rear door after Stuart's proposal.
But the hour was soon over. It was not until the train stopped that Jeannette and Stuart returned to the others inside the car, and then the farewells were necessarily hurried. With a smiling face Stuart shook hands with them all, leaving his best friend to the last, according to the unwritten law of farewells.
When he came to her he looked very nearly straight into her eyes—not quite—it might have been her lower eyelashes upon which he brought his glance to bear.
"Great luck, Georgiana," he said distinctly, "and all kinds of a good time."
"Good-bye, Jimps, and thank you very, very much for coming," she responded.
It was hardly to be believed that James Stuart would not lower his voice and murmur some last word for her ear alone, for this had long been his custom. Instead, he gave her a brilliant smile—and turned again to Jeannette.
"Good-bye, once more," he said—and added something under his breath, in response to which Jeannette nodded, smiling, and went with him to the front end of the car, where she alone was the last to wave farewell as he looked back from the platform.
Georgiana caught a final glimpse of him as he ran along it with bared head, and the whole party waved hands and called parting salutes, in which she joined. Then Jeannette came back, and Georgiana looked searchingly at her, her own heart experiencing an uncomfortable sort of depression as she saw the exquisite flush on her cousin's cheek and the light in her eyes.
"'Dog in the manger!'" Georgiana sternly reproached herself in her own thoughts. "Isn't it enough for you to have one man looking devotion at you, but you must claim everybody in sight?" And she made a determined and partially successful effort not to mind that things had turned out as they had. Only—she and James Stuart had been friends a very long time, and she was sorry to have the parting from him tinged by a cloud of misunderstanding. It would have been much better, she admitted to herself now, to have told him frankly in the beginning that Miles Channing was to be of the party.
A LITTLE TRUNK
It was a journey of only a few hours to the dock where the party were to take ship, the sailing being set for early afternoon. Before it seemed possible they had left the train and were being conveyed by motor to the pier. It was at the first whiff of salt-water fragrance that Georgiana felt a sudden onset of dread of the sailing of the great ship. And when she caught sight of the four black funnels rising above the mass of smaller smokestacks and masts and spars which lifted beyond the dingy buildings of the pier, she experienced an unexpected and disconcerting longing to run away—back to her home.
Her father's face rose before her as she had seen it that morning, pale and worn, the inner brightness of the undaunted spirit shining through the thinnest of veils. What if anything should happen to that beloved face, so that she should never set eyes on it again? The thought shook her with a throb of pain.
They were on the pier, they were ascending the gangway, they were on one of the lower decks and entering the elevator which was to lift them past many intermediate decks to that one, next the highest of all, where their quarters lay. And when they came out upon that upper deck Georgiana was dimly conscious that they were a party to attract attention, even among many people evidently of the same class. Any party to which Aunt Olivia and Jeannette belonged, she felt, must necessarily expect to be noticed. Of her own contribution to the party's distinction she was entirely unaware.
But now that she was actually on shipboard, where during the last fortnight she had so many times imagined herself, Georgiana found to her distress that she could not for a moment banish the thought, the image itself, of that gentle, suffering face at home. Not that she wanted to forget it—not that; but she did want, now that her decision was made, to be able to appreciate what a happy occasion it was and how fortunate the circumstances which had brought about her presence here, the last place in the world she had expected ever to be in.
She entered the stateroom which she was to share with her cousins, and was amazed at the size and comfort of it. It was half filled with flowers and baskets of fruit and other offerings sent for the girls, with two boxes addressed to herself. Both Stuart and Mr. Jefferson had sent her flowers. As she examined them a hurried steward appeared with a third box, which proved to be also for her—a small box, which had come not from a city florist, like the others, but by mail.
It had been put up by unskilled hands, as its crushed shape and damp exterior clearly showed. She opened it, wondering, and found a little bunch of garden flowers, sadly wilted, their limp stems protruding from the moistened newspaper in which they were wrapped. She searched for a card, and found it. In a hand she knew well, a little cramped, a little wavering, but full of character, she read these words: "Blessing her, praying for her, loving her."
Georgiana's heart gave a great leap of fear. What were those lines, what the context? She knew them—knew them well. She had never heard her father quote them, and never read with him the lines from which they came. Did he know them, use them with intent, not imagining she would place them? As she well remembered, they were from "Enoch Arden," and she had spoken them herself, in a dramatized version of that pathetic poem, the last winter of her college life. And they ran thus:
When you shall see her, tell her that I died Blessing her, praying for her, loving her.
At the moment she was alone in the stateroom, the two girls having been an instant before summoned by their brother to meet some friends who had come on board to see them off. She stood staring at the touching little bunch of faded bloom, knowing just how tender had been the thought of her which had prompted the effort. It had not occurred to Mr. Warne that there was any other way of sending flowers to ships than by mailing them from one's own garden. As for the words, she knew well enough that he had not dreamed of disturbing her content by quoting them, yet—she could but feel that the reason why they came to his mind when he was searching there for a bit of tender sentiment to send with his parting gift was the thought of his own possible end being not far away. And if he, too, were thinking of that——
With a fast-beating heart Georgiana stood staring out of the open porthole at the scene of activity outside. Far below her she could see the gangway over which she had come on board. In less than an hour—the party had arrived early—that gangway would be withdrawn, the water would slowly widen between pier and ship, and there would be no turning back. Could she go—could she bear to go—and take the chance? Were her fears only the natural forebodings of the unaccustomed traveler, or was there a real reason why she should never have allowed herself to be persuaded to leave one whose hold on life was so frail, the only being in the world to whom she was closely bound? She closed her eyes and tried to think....
Mrs. Thomas Crofton, turning from a group of friends at the touch of her niece's hand upon hers, would have drawn the girl into the circle and presented her with genuine pride in her, but the low voice in her ear deterred her:
"Aunt Olivia, please forgive me, but I must ask you to come away with me just for five minutes. Please——"
In a temporarily forsaken angle of the deck Georgiana laid her case before her aunt, speaking with rapid, shaken words, but none the less determinedly. Mrs. Crofton listened with an astonished face and with lips which protested even before they had the chance to speak.
"I know just how dreadful it will seem to you all—that I shouldn't have known my duty long ago. But I see it now—oh, so plainly! And it's not only my duty, it's my love that takes me back. I can't stop to tell you how I feel about leaving you all when you've been so kind, so wonderful to me. I can tell you that another time. But the thing now for me is to get off this ship before it sails. I must!"
"But, Georgiana, my dear child——"
"Oh, please don't try to keep me, Aunt Olivia! My mind is made up. I can't tell you how it hurts to do it, but I don't dare to leave my father. If anything happened to him I could never forgive myself—never. He isn't well. It would do no good to take me with you now. I should be so miserable I should spoil it all for you."
"Georgiana, listen." The calmly poised woman of the world held the clinging hand in a firm, warm grasp, the low voice spoke evenly. "Many people feel just as you do, dear, on the eve of sailing. Some are made actually ill, even quite old travelers. But they know that it is pure hysteria and they fight it off, and afterward they are able to laugh at their fears. My dear, you are quite mistaken about there being any danger threatening your father. He is in the best of hands, and he himself would be sadly disappointed——"
It was of no use. Mrs. Crofton took her niece to her stateroom, and, sending for Jeannette and Rosalie, even for Uncle Thomas, tried in vain to shake her.
Ten minutes before the hour of sailing, Rosalie, rushing about the deck in search of Miles Channing, finally discovered him and burst out under her breath with the appalling news:
"Georgiana's going back! She's got the idea somehow that her father mayn't live till she comes home. We can't do a thing with her. Oh, do come and see if you can't show her how absurd it is to do such a thing!"
"Going back!" Miles Channing seized Rosalie's arm. "Where is she? Why, she can't go back; the ship's all but casting off. What on earth is the matter with her? She's too sensible a girl to lose her head at the last minute. Good heavens! We won't let her go; we'll keep her in her stateroom till it's too late. Take me there—quick!"
They dashed along the narrow passageways, until, coming from the Croftons' suite, they encountered Georgiana pale but quiet, Jeannette flushed scarlet and in tears, and Mrs. Crofton evidently sorely exasperated, but keeping herself well in hand.
Channing walked straight up to Georgiana. "Will you give me five minutes?" he asked.
She shook her head with a faint smile. "It's no use, Mr. Channing. I shall not change my mind again. I should have known it in the first place, and there mayn't be five minutes to spare. I must be in sight of the gangway."
"I'll take you there," he said, and glanced at the others in a way which clearly said: "Give me my chance." They understood and let him lead Georgiana on ahead toward the place she sought.
He was a clever man and an experienced one in the ways of women, even though his years among them were not yet many. He realized that argument was of little use; there was only one weapon left with which to fight the girl's determination, and it was one he was not loath to use, though he had not meant to speak so plainly until quite different surroundings invited.
"This is a hard blow to my hopes," he said very low, as they stood where they could watch the manoeuvres of the officers and men who were in charge of the embarkation of passengers. "I can't tell you what this voyage with you has meant to me; I don't know how to give it up. Now, please listen. Won't you do this? Come across with us, and then, when you are actually over—it's only a five-day crossing, you know—if you still feel you must go back, we'll not try to prevent you. You'll be away then only a fortnight, and nothing in the world can go wrong at your home in that little time. And meanwhile we shall have had this voyage together—Georgiana?"
His voice with its meaning inflections would have been very hard to resist, if the girl had not by now set her teeth upon her determination. Having suffered already so much humiliation for the sake of her sudden conviction, her pride would not have let her change again, though a voice from the skies had then and there assured her that all was and would be well with her father. So once more she shook her head and moved toward the gangway. Behind her, ready to follow her if must be, a deckhand waited with her luggage. The Croftons, their faces showing much concern, had remained in the background waiting for a signal from Channing that he had or had not prevailed.
"If you go ashore," threatened Channing, "I shall go with you. And the ship will sail without me."
This roused her to speech. "No, no; don't even say such a thing—just to frighten me. Good-bye, Mr. Channing, and—I'm truly very, very sorry."
"I mean it," he urged hotly. "The whole thing is nothing to me without you; you know that perfectly well."
"I should never forgive you," she said, turning to look once into his eyes, as if to convince him of the reality of her prohibition; and he saw there all the spirit he had reckoned with, and saw, too, such a world of possibilities for one who could arouse that intense and purposeful nature, that he was swept off his feet.
"But you will forgive me if I come back by the next ship," he said quickly.
"No. Not if you come a day sooner than you intended."
Once more their glances met, like blows; then Georgiana moved rapidly toward the gangway, where the sailor in charge was beckoning. The Croftons, one and all, hurried forward, and the retreating traveler suffered their embraces.
"My child, you are forcing us to leave you here alone to look after yourself, after our promising to take every care of you," mourned Mrs. Crofton. "I shall be most uneasy about you."
"No, no, dear Aunt Olivia, you mustn't be. I am a perfectly independent person, and I can take myself home without a particle of trouble. Good-bye—and please, please forgive me, all of you!"
She was off at last, with Jeannette's hot tears on her cheek, Rosalie's reproachful and all but angry final speech, "I didn't think you'd actually do it, Georgiana Warne!" ringing in her ears; and Chester's explosive, derisive prediction following her, "By thunder, but you'll be a sorry girl when it's too late. I can tell you that!"—to make her feel that nobody really understood or sympathized with her.
It was Uncle Thomas who applied the one touch of balm to his niece's sore heart:
"David Warne is a rich man, my dear girl, to have you," he said gently, as he kissed her. "Don't feel too badly over disappointing us; it's all right. Take good care of yourself going home, and give my love to your father."
She smiled bravely back at him as she ran down the gangway with half a score of belated visitors to the ship. In a moment she was only one of the crowd of people who were watching the huge bulk of the liner draw almost imperceptibly away from the pier. Through blurred vision she looked up to the spot where they were all waving at her and smiling—thank heaven, they were smiling, as it was obviously their duty to do, no matter what their feelings.
When their faces had become indistinguishable, and the great ship had backed far out into the waters, and was headed toward the Atlantic, Georgiana turned to a porter at her elbow. "No," she said, "I didn't sail. Yes, this trunk is mine; it's to go back."
Somehow, as she followed the man through the long, dingy building, the thing which drove home the ache in her heart was the sight of the little, aristocratic-looking, leather-covered steamer trunk, Uncle Thomas's gift, packed with so many high hopes, now riding alone on a great truck. Of all the baggage which that truck had borne to the lading of the ship, hers was the only little, lonely piece to come back!
In the darkness of the summer midnight Georgiana descended from the "owl" train, the only passenger, as it happened, to alight at the small station. She had hoped to slip away unobserved for the half-mile walk home, but the station master was too quick for her. He was a young station master, and he had known Georgiana Warne all his life—from afar.
"Well, I certainly did think I'd seen a ghost," said he, confronting her. "I thought you'd gone to Europe. Get a message to come back? Your father ain't took sick, has he?"
"No, I hope not. I—something happened to make it best for me to come back."
"Well, that's too bad, sure," said he, curiously regarding her. "Say, wait five minutes and I'll walk down the road with you. It's pretty late for you to be out alone."
"Thank you, Mr. Parker; I don't mind a bit, and I'm anxious to get on. I've only this small bag to carry, and it's bright moonlight. No, truly, please don't come. Good-night, and thank you."
Could this really be herself, Georgiana Warne, she wondered, as she made her escape and walked rapidly away down the road under the high arches of the elms. How had it come about? Why was she here, she who had expected to be out on the first reaches of the great deep when midnight came this night? As she passed silent house after silent house, familiar and yet somehow strangely unfamiliar in the light of what might have been, it was hard enough to realize that she had had this wonderful chance to stay away for two happy months from the sober little old place, and had herself relinquished it.
Before she knew it she was nearing her home, the old white house standing square and stern in the moonlight—she had been seeing it all the way in the train. She loved it dearly, no doubt of that, but it had been no attack of homesickness which had brought her back to it.
As she came up the path she saw, past the sweeping branches of the great trees which surrounded the house, that Mr. Jefferson's windows were still alight. This was no surprise, for she knew he had often worked till late hours before she began to help him; and it looked as if, now that he had to continue alone, he meant to keep up the rate of advance by working overtime.
Georgiana stole upon the porch and tried the door. It was bolted as usual. She slipped around the house, and tried the side and rear doors in turn, to find them fast. She had had no plan as to how to make an undisturbing entrance at this hour, but had counted on being able to discover some unguarded point. She and her father had never been careful as to thorough locking of the house in a neighbourhood where thefts were almost unknown, but evidently their boarder, accustomed to city ways and chances of trouble, had taken pains to make all fast.
There seemed to be only one thing to do, and Georgiana did it. After all, it was probably better that somebody should know of her return, in case she had to go about the house and make any betraying sounds. She stooped to the gravel path, and scooping up a handful of pebbles flung them up at one of the lighted windows, where they rattled like small bird shot upon the wire netting of the screen.
It took a second fusillade before the absorbed worker within was attracted and appeared at the window, a black figure against the yellow radiance of the oil lamp.
"It's some one who belongs here," Georgiana called softly. "Please come down very quietly and let me in."
"Wait a minute," returned the voice above.
In less than that minute the door swung softly open, and the tall figure, clad in loose shirt and trousers, the former open at the neck and revealing a sturdy throat, stood before the applicant for admission. There was no light upon Georgiana, for the moonlit yard was behind her.
"What can I do for you?" Mr. Jefferson was beginning in a pleasant tone, as of one not at all disturbed by being summoned at this hour, when a voice he had heard many times before said, with an odd thrill in it, as if it struggled between tears and laughter:
"You can let me in and try not to consider me an idiot. I got my father on my mind and couldn't sail, so I came back. That's absolutely all there is of it."
"My dear girl!" Mr. Jefferson put forth a hand and took hers, as he came out upon the porch. "Of course, I beg your pardon," he added, releasing her hand after one strong pressure, "if you consider that my rather natural surprise isn't apology enough. But—you can't mean that the ship—and the party—have sailed without you?"
"Just that. Is—is my father as well as he was this morning?"
"He was quite as well, apparently, at bedtime. The heat has been trying, but he has borne it without complaint."
"I don't know what I expected," confessed Georgiana rather faintly; "but I don't think I expected that. I'm very thankful. I'll come in and slip upstairs. Thank you for coming down."
She would stay for no more; it seemed to her that she could bear no further explanations to-night. As if he understood her, Mr. Jefferson was silent as he followed her in, bolted the heavy door, and took from her the handbag she carried. He deposited this at the door of her room upstairs, and spoke under his breath in the darkness relieved only by the rays which shone from the open door of his own room at the front of the hall:
"Good-night—and welcome back!"
It was almost daylight when she fell asleep, and she wakened again at the first sound of Mrs. Perkins's footsteps in the kitchen below her. She dressed slowly, her heart heavy with the sense of having made a probably needless sacrifice. With the waking in the familiar old room, all the realization of that which she had lost had come heavily upon her. Why was not the sunlight pouring in through portholes, bearing the refreshing breezes from the sea, instead of beating in over the hot tin roof of the ell upon which her windows looked? Was it merely as Aunt Olivia had warned her, the hysteria of the inexperienced traveler? Why had she not at least accepted Miles Channing's eminently reasonable suggestion that she make the voyage, giving her emotions time to cool? At the longest, if she made an immediate return, she would have been absent but little more than a fortnight.
But she dressed with unusual care none the less, and when she descended the back stairs she was looking as fresh and trim as ever in her life. She encountered the good Mrs. Perkins in the kitchen and had it out with her, receiving the first encouragement she had felt that somebody would think her rational in her return.
"Well, I must say," declared that lady, standing still, as if she had been struck, in an attitude of astonishment, "while I'm more than sorry for you to lose your trip, Georgie, I shall feel safer now you're back. Your father cert'nly does look awful peaked to me and kind of weak-like, more so than I ever noticed before. Perhaps it's just because I felt the responsibility settlin' down on my shoulders the minute you was out of the house. And I guess he was goin' to miss you pretty awful much; though, of course, he wouldn't say so."
Georgiana took in her father's tray when it was ready, quite as usual, her heart beating fast as she entered and beheld the white face against the propped-up pillows. After the first gasp of surprise she saw the unwonted colour flow into the pale cheeks.
"My dear, dear child," he said, as she set down the tray and flew to clasp him in her arms, "this is—this is almost more than I can grasp. What has happened Is the sailing of your ship deferred?"
"My sailing on it is deferred," she told him. "I couldn't leave you, Father Davy; that's the simple truth. Your daughter is an infant-in-arms."
She did not try to make it clear to him; but let him guess the most of her reason for returning, and was rewarded by his fervent: "Well, dear, it was a very wonderful thing for you to do. But you should not have done it. You should have trusted the good Lord to take care of me, as I bade you. You must do it yet. We will arrange for you to follow your Uncle Thomas's party on the next boat. I cannot have you lose so much just for me."
"It's no use," she asserted, her eyes studying the blue veins so clearly outlined on the fair forehead. "I've made my decision; I ought to have made it that way in the beginning. So long as you need me I shall not leave you."
At the breakfast table she met Mr. Jefferson. It was only twenty-four hours since she and he had breakfasted together, but somehow it seemed to Georgiana as if at least a week had gone by. Mr. Warne was seldom present at the first meal of the day, and it had come to seem very natural to Georgiana to sit down with her boarder and pour his coffee and talk with him. This morning, however, there was a curious constraint in the girl's manner. After the first interchange of observations on the promise of even more extreme heat than on the preceding day and the possibilities of dress and diet to suit the trying conditions, the talk flagged.
"I am strongly tempted," said Mr. Jefferson, as he rose after making an unusually frugal meal of fruit and coffee, "to let up on work till there comes a change in the weather. I believe I shall try how it feels to idle a little. You surely will indorse that, Miss Warne, as far as you are concerned?"
"No," she said quickly, sure that this plan was the result of consideration for herself; "as far as I am concerned I should much prefer to work. I am sure you can give me something to do, even if you are not working yourself."
"Do you mean that? Then if you do, I shall be with you, though I think it would be good for you to rest. This last week has been pretty full for you, even though you haven't been with me on the book."
She shook her head. "I want to go on with it," she insisted; and he agreed.
News in a small village travels fast, and Georgiana was fully prepared to have James Stuart appear with the first fall of dusk. He came through the hedge at the foot of the garden, and found her on the seat under the old apple tree which was her favourite resort. His greeting was full of the astonishment which had been his all day.
"My word, George, but I never would have believed this! How on earth did you come to do it?"
"I had to," she said simply and rather wearily. She had explained to at least twenty persons that day, as well as she could explain. She was not willing to confide to any one the incident of the flowers and the card which had brought about the impulse to return that had hardened so quickly into action. She had listened to all kinds of comments on the situation, some few sympathetic, but most of them curious and critical. Many had said to her that they never would have believed Georgie Warne would ever change her mind about anything. Others had added that perhaps it was a good thing, since her father certainly was pretty feeble and nobody knew when he might take a turn for the worse. Altogether, it had not been a happy day for the object of the village interest.
Stuart sat down beside Georgiana on the old bench which bore his initials from one end to the other of it, the earliest ones hacked out during his small boyhood, the later more than once coupling Georgiana's with his own. His hand, as he settled into place, rested on one of these very monograms.
"It seems like the natural thing to say I'm glad to see you back," he said slowly, "but—there's a reason why I can't say it at all."
"Then don't dream of saying it." Georgiana leaned her head listlessly against the seamy old tree trunk behind her.
"It's not that I wanted you to go; you know I was altogether too selfish for that," he went on. "But—something happened at the last that made me entirely reconciled to having you go. Can you guess what it was?"
"But you can't. Of course I was pretty well dashed at finding Channing booked for the trip. But—I got over that when—I made up my mind to come, too."
"To come, too!" The head resting against the tree trunk turned quickly. "What do you mean?"
"Jeannette suggested it," said he, with something in his voice which his listener could not quite analyze. "She put it up to me to come over while they should be staying in Devonshire, and join their house party. At first I said I couldn't, but the more I thought of it the more it seemed possible to get over there for a fortnight anyhow. The plan was not to tell you, and to surprise you by walking in on you."
Georgiana stared at him, as well as she could see him through the fervid twilight. "Jimps! Why, how could you get away?"
"There's never a time when it's easy to get away," he admitted; "but everything's in full sail now for the summer, and just lately I've succeeded in getting hold of an awfully competent man who could run things for the month well enough. Anyhow, of course I was dippy at the thought of going and—I promised her I would if I could manage it. I've never had the chance to travel much, and it suddenly struck me that I didn't have to deny myself every possible thing. But, of course, now that you're back——"
"But that makes no difference!" she cried quickly, "Why should it? Jeannette asked you because she wanted you. Of course you must go, if you really can get away."
"She never would have asked me if you hadn't been going. And it was only an afterthought then. If I hadn't gone on for that last hour it wouldn't have occurred to her."
"It occurred to her to wish it, because she said so more than once to me the day I was there. But she didn't dream you could do it. I don't know why we should all consider you a fixture, for your father is much stronger than mine and it couldn't harm him at all to spare you for a little. Of course, you must go, Jimps! When will you start?"
"Do you honestly want me to go, George?" He seemed to be scanning her face through the dimness.
"I should be a selfish thing enough if I didn't," she protested.
He was silent for a minute; then he said: "To be frank, I wrote last night for a berth on a ship that sails in two weeks. Jeannette warned me not to delay, the travel is so heavy this time of year. I talked it over with my father and he seemed pleased at the idea. You can imagine I felt a bit dizzy this morning when I heard you hadn't sailed. I didn't believe it at first."
"Never mind, you will go just the same—and all the more. It's a pity somebody shouldn't carry out the plan, and you've had less fun than I, for you've been at home longer since college. Go, Jimps, and take the goods the gods provide."
She maintained this spirit throughout the ensuing fortnight, in spite of his evident effort to make her acknowledge that she would feel her own disappointment the more for his going. When he came over to say good-bye he found her apparently in the gayest of spirits; and she gave him such a friendly send-off that he went away marvelling in his heart at the ways of young women, and the ways of Georgiana Warne in particular.
On the day following the departure of James Stuart for England, while the two literary workmen were hard at it in the old manse study, the July weather having mercifully turned decidedly cooler for a space, the village telegraph messenger, a tall youth with a shambling gait, appeared with a message for Mr. Jefferson. Georgiana brought it to him, and waited to know whether there was a reply.
She saw the message—evidently a long one—twice read, and noticed a peculiar lighting of the grave face which had bent over it. Mr. Jefferson wrote an answer, briefer than the message received, and himself took it to the waiting boy. When he returned he sat down and began to put in order the papers on which he had been working.
"I have another trade, as you have guessed," he said to Georgiana. "It seems necessary for me to go away and work at it for a few days, perhaps a fortnight. It is fortunate for me that you are here, for I should not have felt that I ought to leave your father, and yet I should hardly have been able to refuse the call of that message."
"Then I am very glad," she returned, "that I am here. Can you leave me work to do?"
"I am afraid not, beyond that already laid out for to-day. Won't you rest while I am gone? This is vacation time for most people, you know."
She shook her head. "With only father to look after I shall have little enough to do."
"You won't—forgive me!—go up into that blistering attic and make rugs? I hope not!" She felt that he was looking keenly at her.
"Why should you hope not? I am one of the people who must be busy to be contented. How soon do you go, Mr. Jefferson?"
"On the noon train." He looked at his watch. "I have an hour to make ready. No, don't go. I will come back when I am ready, and we will put things in shape to leave, so that we shall know exactly where to take them up again."
In half an hour he was back, and together the two put the results of their joint work into such shape that at a moment's notice they might resume it. This done, they went to Mr. Warne, and the intending traveler explained briefly the situation—without, as Georgiana fully realized, explaining it at all. Then, shortly, he went away, with something in his manner which subtly told her that he was very glad to go, and that he was thinking of little besides the errand which took him from them, careful though he was in every courteous detail of leave-taking.
When he had gone Georgiana and her father looked at each other.
"Daughter," said Mr. Warne, looking intently at the vivid face, with the eyes which saw so many things, "do you know what you remind me of?"
"No, Father Davy. Of a cross child?"
"Of a young colt, penned into a very small enclosure, with only one lame and blind old horse to keep it company. And within sight, off on the hillside, is a great, green pasture, with other colts and lambs sporting gayly about, and the summer sunshine over all—except in the corral, over which a dark cloud hangs. And I am sorry—sorry!"
"Father Davy!" Georgiana choked back a lump in her throat. "But it is hot July, and the cloud makes it cooler and nicer in the corral. And besides—the lame, blind horse is such a dear—has drawn such heavy loads and would be so lonely now without company. And—and the colt has many long years to sport on hillsides."
Mr. Warne smiled, more sadly than was his wont. "But not while it is a colt." Then, after a pause, "My dear, we shall miss Mr. Jefferson."
"I shall miss him more than I should have realized till I saw him go down the path. And James Stuart, too. That is why I know that you will miss them."
"We shall live through it," prophesied his daughter cheerfully, and betook herself to the kitchen, which she found looking, in spite of its well-ordered neatness, more like a jail than ever before.
The following days went by on feet of lead. Never had Georgiana had to make such an effort to maintain ordinary, everyday cheerfulness and patience. She found herself longing, with one continuous dull ache from morning till night, for something to happen, something which would absorb her every faculty. She rose early and went for long walks, and went again in the late afternoons, with the one purpose of tiring her vigorous young body so that it would keep her restless mind in order. She worked at her rug-making many hours, spent many more in reading aloud to her father, and still there were hours left to fill. She forced herself to go to see all her acquaintances, to visit those few who were ill; there was nobody in want in the whole place, it seemed, in this summer prosperity of garden.
"There's nothing to do for any one," she said to her father one day. "I feel guilty times without number because I'm not of more use to the people about me."
Her father studied her. "Dear," he said slowly, "what you need just now is something the good Father knows you need, and I believe He will not deny it to you. In the meantime, remember that simply being cheerful and patient under enforced waiting is sometimes the greatest service that can be rendered."
"If you haven't taught me that, it isn't because you haven't illustrated it every day of your life," she cried—and fled.
In her own room she beat her strong young hands together. "Oh, dear God!" she said aloud, "if I could only, only have the thing I want, I would take anything, anything that might go with it and not complain!"
And then, suddenly, one early August night, Mr. Jefferson returned. He came up the path, bag in hand, and saw a solitary figure standing on the small front porch, where a latticework sheltered opposing seats. It was a white figure in the early dusk and it rose as he approached.
"The fortnight is not quite up," said Georgiana quietly. "But I put your room in order to-day, hoping you would come. My father never missed anybody so much."
"That sounds very pleasant." He set down his bag and shook hands. "It makes it the harder to say that I must be off again in the morning. And—I shall not be coming back. If it had not been that I could not leave without seeing you and Mr. Warne I should have sent on to ask you to pack and send my trunk."
"Really? How very unexpected! But I would gladly have sent on the trunk," said Georgiana. Something cold clutched at her heart.
"Would you? That sounds rather inhospitable! Do you care to hear my plans?"
"If you care to tell them, Mr. Jefferson."
"I wonder," said he, "if you would be willing to go around to the other porch and sit there. I have a fancy for being where I can get the scent from your garden. I shall miss that spicy fragrance. Is your father still up?"
"He has just gone to bed. He would be very happy if you would go in and speak to him," said Georgiana.
Mr. Jefferson ran upstairs with his bag, and made a brief call upon Mr. Warne. Then he came down, to find Georgiana standing with her arms about a white pillar, her face looking off toward the garden. The lamplight from the central hall, whose rear door opened upon the porch, gleamed rosily out upon her.
Mr. Jefferson came out and stood beside her. "I came back," he said, "just to offer you my friendship in any time of need. I couldn't go away without doing that; I couldn't be content merely to write it back to you. I have lived here in your home with your father and yourself until it has come to seem almost as if I belonged here. But my work calls me; I must go back to it. The book must wait, to be finished in spare moments as other books have been finished. I thought I could give myself this year away from my profession to accomplish this task and perhaps to lay in fresh stores of energy. But I find I can't be easy in mind to do this longer. So I am going back."
After an instant Georgiana answered, without turning her eyes away from the garden: "You are a very fortunate person."
"To have work that calls so loudly? I am sure of that. And it is work which absorbs me to the full. But I shall always have time to give to you or to your father, if in any way I can ever be of service to you. I have no family to call upon me for any attention whatever; I have no near relative except the married sister who lives abroad, as I have told you. By the way, Allison has bidden me more than once to thank you for her for taking such good care of me. You know her by her picture, if you have noticed it—the one on my bureau."
Georgiana nodded. She did not trust her lips, which were suddenly trembling, to tell him that though he had often spoken of this sister he had never mentioned the fact that the photograph on his bureau was hers. But—what did it matter now? It was far better that she had not known, that she had had this restraint upon her imagination to keep her from ever letting herself go. It was far better—— But he was speaking; she must listen.
"While I have been in this house I have felt," he was saying, "as if I had a real home. It is hard to give that up. Association with your father has become much to me. I can't tell you what he has given me out of his stores of wisdom and experience. And you—have been very good to me; I shall not forget it."
"I have done nothing," murmured Georgiana with dry lips, "except feed you and dust your room. You might have had such service anywhere."
"Might I? I doubt it. And there is something else. If I may I should like to tell you how I have admired you for your steady facing of each day's routine. There is no heroism in the world, Miss Georgiana, equal to that, to my thinking."
She shook her head. "I'm not heroic; please don't tell me I am."
"But you are, and I must tell you so. Why not? I have seen more than you may have realized. My whole life's training has been in the line of observation of other human beings. And you must know that no one could be with you and not understand that the fires of longing to live and live strongly and vitally burn in you with more than ordinary fierceness. Yet you subdue them every day for the sake of the one who needs you. That is real heroism, and the sight of it has touched me very much."
Suddenly she found herself struggling to keep back the choking in her throat. How well he had understood her—and what unsuspected depths of tenderness there were in his rich and quiet voice. She could not speak for a little, and he stood beside her in a comprehending silence.
"I can't go away," he said presently, "without telling you that your happiness has come to seem very important to me. I have—necessarily—a fairly wide knowledge of men, their characters, their motives, their ideals—or their lack of them. Miss Georgiana, when you come to choose—will you let me say it?—don't be misled by superficial attributes, even the most attractive. Don't let the desire to have your horizon apparently expanded, to go far and see much and live intensely, overbalance your appreciation of fine and lasting qualities in one who could give you little excitement but much that is real and worth having. It may be very daring in me to say this to you, but I find myself impelled to it. I want you to live, and live gloriously, and find employment for every one of your splendid energies, and there is only one being in the world who can help you do that—the man whom you can respect as well as love, and love as well as respect. Will you promise me to choose him and nobody else?"
She turned suddenly and fiercely upon him. "How can you think I——" She stopped short, her eyes blazing in the darkness.
"I can foresee," said he, very gently, "an hour for you when you will be tempted out of your senses to do the thing which promises change, any change. You are starving for it; you are desperate with longing for it——"
"Miles Channing came into town when I did: his car raced my train for the last two miles. He has gone to the hotel. Doubtless you will see him within the hour. Miss Georgiana, I can't let you marry him without telling you that if you do you will be an unhappy woman for the rest of your life."
She was speechless for a moment with surprise. She forgot her encounter with the speaker in her astonishment at his news. Channing had come back, then, even as he had vowed, long before the rest of the party. The knowledge that he was close at hand again, bringing back with him such a wild will to accomplish that of which he had been thwarted that he had not been able to brook delay upon the other side of the water, was knowledge of the sort which stopped the breath.
"Will you forgive me?" said Mr. Jefferson's low voice in her ear.
"But—but I—don't understand," she stammered—and now at last she showed him her unhappy eyes.
"What I have to do with it? How can I fail to have something to do with it? When I let you sail in the same party with this young man without warning you, it was because I had no possible notion that he was to be along. When I learned that he had gone and that he had followed you back, I knew that he was in earnest—at least in his pursuit of you. I had thought there was no actual danger for you on account of your friend—your real friend—the young man whom you had known and trusted so long and with such reason. But now, with him away and you alone here and lonely and full of the hunger for life—yes, I know I am speaking plainly, but I feel that I must put you on your guard. And I want you to feel that though I shall be gone to-morrow night I am here to-night, and if you have any need for me—for an elder brother——"
"Oh, how can you think——"
"I do think—and I know—and I fear for you. Not because I do not believe in you, but because I know the manner of man who will approach you. You have never known his sort. Let me be a brother to you—just for to-night, if only in your thought. It may help to steady you."
There was silence between them for a little. Then steps upon the front porch, quick, ringing steps, as of one who comes with eagerness. Georgiana felt her hand taken for an instant and pressed warmly between two firm hands. Then her companion left her....
Three hours afterward Georgiana flung herself, breathing fast, upon her knees beside her open window and lifted her face toward the sky. She would have fled to her garden for this vigil she must keep, but the extraordinary truth was that she did not dare be alone there. Her hands gripped the sill, her eyes stared without seeing at the vaulted depths above her. After a long time—hours—she rose and went to her door, opened it without making a sound, and, listening till she had made sure that the house was as silent as all houses should be at two in the morning, she stole slowly along the upper hall. Presently she stood outside the closed door of the guest who was sleeping under the roof for the last time. With a fast-beating heart she noiselessly laid her hand upon the panel of that door.
"You did steady me," she whispered. "I couldn't have done it if you hadn't warned me—fortified me. Oh, what shall I do without you?"
Inside suddenly a footstep sounded, the footstep of a shod foot. Instantly the girl was off down the hall like a frightened deer. In her own room she stood with her hand upon her breast. "Up—at this hour!" her startled consciousness was repeating. "Why? There was no light in his room. Couldn't he sleep either? Why? Is that what it means to him to be a brother?"
In the morning Mr. Jefferson took his leave. His parting with Mr. Warne was like that between father and son. When he came to Georgiana he looked straight down into her eyes.
"Remember," he said, "that what I have told you of my wish to be of any possible use to you and your father holds good, even though I should be at the other side of the world. I shall write now and then to ask about you both. I can't tell you how I hope for your happiness—Georgiana."
When he had gone she went to her room and dropped upon her knees beside her bed, her arms outflung upon the old blue and white counterpane.
"O God," she whispered passionately, "how could You show it to me if I couldn't have it? How could You?"
Summer had gone at last, its fierce heat giving way to the cool, fresh days of an early autumn. August, September, October—the months had dragged interminably by, and now it was November, bleak and chill, with gray skies and penetrating winds and sudden deluges of rain. Georgiana, sweeping sodden leaves from a wet porch after an all-night storm, looked up to see the village telegraph messenger approaching. With her one dearest safe upon a couch within, and Stuart long since at home again, she could not fear bad news. She thought of Jeannette, who was always, in the absence of a telephone in the old manse, telegraphing her invitations and demands.
She tore open the dispatch with a hope that it was from Jeannette, for she had sadly missed her letters. Jeannette, indeed, it was who had inspired the message, but its sender was her sister. Rosalie Crofton wired that Jeannette had been taken suddenly and violently ill while on a visit in New York and was to be operated upon at once; that she had begged Georgiana to come and to bring James Stuart with her; that Rosalie herself was dreadfully frightened and prayed Georgiana not to lose a train nor to fail to bring Stuart.
Action was never slow with the receiver of this message; it had never been quicker than now. With one brief explanation to her father, she was off to find Stuart. Just at the dripping hedge she met him, his face tense with the shock it was plain he had received. At sight of her he drew a yellow paper from his pocket.
"You've heard?" he cried.
"Yes; this very minute."
"There's only an hour to catch the ten-ten. You'll go?"
"Of course. I was coming to tell you. I'll be ready."
She turned again and ran back. There was much to do in the allotted hour, but with the help of Mrs. Perkins she accomplished it. When she and Stuart were in the train, sitting side by side in the ordinary coach of the traveler who must conserve his resources, as Georgiana had decreed, Stuart spoke the first word of comment upon the situation.
"Of course, there was nothing to do but go," he said, "after that telegram."
"Of course not," agreed Georgiana simply.
"She was perfectly well—last week," said Stuart.
"Was she? You know I haven't seen her since they came back."
"She said she had tried every way to get you there."
"She has. I was going—when I could. You know father hasn't been as well since they came back in September."
"I know. But she's wanted to see you. She says she can't write half so well as she can talk."
"No. One can't."
There was silence for some time after this exchange. Stuart seemed restless, stirred often, once got up and stood for a long time at the rear of the car, staring back at the wet tracks slipping away behind. When they had changed trains and were headed for New York, with their destination only a few hours away, Stuart, again in the vestibule of the car, looking out through the closed entrance door upon a dull landscape passing like a misty wraith through the November fog and twilight, found Georgiana at his elbow.
"Jimps," she was saying in her straightforward way, "what's the use of bothering to keep it covered when it shows so plainly? Do you think I don't understand? I do—and it's absolutely all right."
He turned quickly, and his gloomy eyes stared down into her uplifted face.
"O George!" he muttered. "Can you honestly say that?"
"Honestly. I know how it happened. You couldn't help it. It was meant to be. The other—wasn't. That's all there is of it."
"I've been feeling such a sneak."
"Why should you? I've told you over and over——"
"I know you have. But—that last time——"
"That was really the beginning of—this other," said she with decision. "You were not yourself and you didn't know just why. You thought it must be because you cared for me, but it was—the stirring of your first real feeling for any woman, only you didn't recognize it. That's the whole thing, Jimps, and you are not to reproach yourself, particularly now when——" She faltered suddenly, and he drew a quick breath that was as if something stabbed him.
After a little he began very slowly: "It didn't really happen till—Devonshire. Those two weeks—I can't tell you. No mortal man could have resisted her. Yet I tried; I did, George. She didn't know about you; she never has, except that we were old friends and dear ones. She thinks the trouble is that she's a rich man's daughter and I'm only a farmer."
"You're no ordinary farmer and she knows it. Her family know it. And if she wants you she'll have you; they've never refused her anything."
"I haven't asked her."
"James Stuart!" It was her old tone with him. For the moment both forgot the possible issue of this errand upon which they were going; only the vital relations at stake seemed involved.
"But—she knows," said Stuart very low.
"Of course she does."
By and by Stuart spoke again. "George, you were never quite so close to me as now."
She slipped her hand into his. "I'll stay close, dear; and I'll do all I can for you both."
This was all they said until the first lights of the great city, miles out, were flashing past them. Then it occurred to Georgiana to put a startled question:
"Jimps, have you any address to go to? There was none in my telegram."
"I know where they are staying." Stuart put his hand into his pocket and drew out a thick letter, upon which Georgiana recognized her cousin's handwriting. "This came only yesterday morning."
In spite of herself the girl felt a wild thrill of pain. Her chum—her chum! And it was the first time he had ever failed to be open with her.
As if he recognized that the sight of the letter had told even more plainly than words could have done, the degree of intercommunication between the two presumable lovers, Stuart said quickly:
"I was going to tell you, George—on my word I was. I knew you didn't care for me—that way, but I was afraid it might hurt just the same, after all our vows. Somehow the days went by so fast and—well, you see there was Channing. A while back I thought you were going to marry him, more than likely."
"You didn't really think it, Jimps."
"I don't know what I thought. George, we're getting in. Oh——" And he broke off.
She knew what had happened, for with the first glimpse of the great terminal station the things which thus far had been never really vivid in her consciousness had in the twinkling of an eye taken terrible form. This was New York, and somewhere in it they were to find Jeannette, stricken in the midst of her youth and beauty and joy of life and love. If only they might find the worst of the danger safely past!
They were rushed in a taxicab to the great uptown hotel, to find there a message saying that the whole family were at the hospital and that they were to follow at once. In the second cab Georgiana's hand again found Stuart's and stayed there. His face was set now; he spoke not a word, and even through his glove his hand was cold to the touch. Then, presently, they were at the big, grim-looking hospital with the characteristic odour, so suggestive to the senses of the tragedies which take place there night and day, meeting them at the very portal.
It was Georgiana who made the necessary inquiries, for Stuart seemed like one dazed with fear of that which was to come. He followed her with his fingers gripping his hat brim with a clutch like that of a vise, his eyes looking straight ahead. An attendant led them to a private room, and here in a moment Georgiana found herself caught in Rosalie's arms, with pale faces all about which tried to smile reassuringly but could succeed only in looking strained. It was Aunt Olivia who seemed most composed and who made the situation clear. Uncle Thomas could only grasp the newcomers' hands and press them, while his lips shook and his speech halted.