"But your best friend would not mind a little thaw now and then. One of the girls confided to me today that walking on and over-waxed floor was nothing to attempting an equal footing in conversation with you."
"I am sorry I am such a slippery customer. Does not the fire burn your face? Shall I hand you a screen?"
"No; I like to toast."
"But your complexion might char; move your chair a little forward."
"In two minutes I intend to have lights and to bring my work down. Will it make you tired to watch me?"
"Exceedingly. I prefer your undivided attention; it is not often we are alone, Ruth."
She looked up slightly startled; he seldom made personal remarks. Her pulses began to flutter with the premonition that reference to a tacitly buried secret was going to be made.
"We have been going out and receiving a good deal lately, though somehow I don't feel festive, with Father away in freezing New York. Mamma would gladly have stayed at home to-night if Jennie had not insisted."
"You think so? I fancy she was a very willing captive; she intimated as much to me."
"Not in words, but her eyes were interesting reading: first, capitulation to Jennie, then, in rapid succession, inspiration, command, entreaty, a challenge and retreat, all directed at me. Possibly this eloquence was lost upon you."
"Entirely. What was your interpretation?"
"Ah, that was confidential. Perhaps I even endowed her with these thoughts, knowing her desires were in touch with my own."
"It is wanton cruelty to arouse a woman's curiosity and leave it unsatisfied."
"It is not cruelty; it is cowardice."
She gazed at him in wonder. His apple-blossom cheeks wore a rosier glow than usual. He seized a log from the box, threw it on the blaze that illumined their faces, grasped the poker, and leaning forward in his chair let it grow hot as he held it to the flames. His glasses fell off, dangling from the cord; and as he adjusted them, he caught the curious, half-amused smile on Ruth's attentive face. He gave the fire a sharp raking and addressed her, gazing into the leaping flames.
"I was wondering why, after all, you could not be happy as my wife."
A numbness as of death overspread her.
"I think I could make you happy, Ruth."
In the pregnant silence that followed he looked up, and meeting her sad, reproachful eyes, laid down the poker softly but resolutely; there was method in the action.
"In fact, I know I could make you happy."
"Louis, have you forgotten?" she cried in sharp pain.
"I have forgotten nothing," he replied incisively. "Listen to me, Ruth. It is because I remember that I ask you. Give me the right to care for you, and you will be happier than you can ever be in these circumstances."
"You do not know what you ask, Louis. Even if I could, you would never be satisfied."
"Try me, Ruth," he entreated.
She raised herself from her easy, reclining position, and regarded him earnestly.
"What you desire," she said in a restrained manner, "would be little short of a crime for me. What manner of wife should I be to you when my every thought is given to another?"
His face put on the set look of one who has shut his teeth hard together.
"I anticipated this repulse," he said after a pause; "so what you have just assured me of does not affect my wish or my resolution to continue my plea."
"Would you marry a woman who feels herself as closely bound to another, or the memory of another, as if the marriage rite had been actually performed? Oh, Louis, how could you force me to these disclosures?"
"I am seeking no disclosure, but it is impossible for me to continue silent now."
"Why? Because I love you."
They sat so close together he might have touched her by putting out his hand, but he remained perfectly still, only the pale excitement of long repression speaking from his face; but she shrank back at his words and raised her hand as if about to receive a blow.
"Do not be alarmed," he continued, noticing the action; "my love cannot hurt you, or it would have killed you long ago."
"Oh, Louis," she murmured, "forgive me; I never thought you cared so much."
"How should you? I am not a man to wear my heart upon my sleeve. I think I have always loved you; but living as familiarly as we have lived, seeing you whenever I wished, the thought that some day this might end never occurred to me. It was only when the possibility of some other man's claiming your love and taking you from me presented itself, that my heart rose up in arms against it,—and then I asked you to be my wife."
"Yes," she replied, raising her pale face; "and I refused. The same cause that moved me then, and to which you submitted without protest, rules me now, and you know it."
"No; I do not know it. What then might have had a possible issue is now done with—or do I err?"
Her mouth trembled piteously, but no tears came as she lowered her head.
"Then listen to me. You may think me a poor sort of a fellow even to wish you to marry me when you assure me that you love another. That means that you do not love me as a husband should be loved, but it does not prove that you never could love me so."
"It proves just that."
"No, you may think so now, but let me reason you into seeing the falsity of your thought,—for I do not wish to force or impel you to do a thing repugnant to your reason as well as to your feelings. To begin with, you do not dislike me?"
His face was painful in its eagerness.
"I have always loved you as a dear brother."
"Some people would consider that worse than hostility; I do not. Another question: Is there anything about my life or personality to which you object, or of which your are ashamed?"
"You know how proud we all are of you in your bearing in every relation of life."
"I was egotist enough to think as much at any rate; otherwise I could not approach you so confidently. Well, love—indifferent if you will—and respect are not a bad foundation for something stronger. Will you, for the sake of argument, suppose that for some reason you have forgotten your opposition and have been led into marrying me?"
The sad indulgence of her smile was not inspiriting, but he continued,—
"Now, then, say you are my wife; that means I am your husband, and I love you. You do not return my love, you say; you think you would be wretched with me because you love another. Still, you are married to me; that gives me rights that no other man can possess, no matter how much you love him. You are bound to me, I to you and your happiness; so I pledge myself to make you happier than you are now, because I shall make you forget this man."
"You could not, and I should only grow to hate you."
"Impossible," the pallor of his face intensifying; "because I should so act that my love would wait upon your pleasure: it would never push itself into another's place, but it would in time overshadow the other. For, remember, I shall be your husband. I shall give you another life; I shall take you away with me. You will leave all your old friends and associations for a while, and I shall be with you always,—not intrusively, but necessarily. I shall give you every pleasure and novelty that the Old World can afford. I shall shower my love on you, not myself. In return I shall expect your tolerance. In time I will make you love me."
His voice shook with the strength of his passion, while she listened in heart-sick fear. Carried away by his manner, she almost felt as if he had accomplished his object. He quieted down after this.
"Don't you see, Ruth, that all this change must make you forget? And if you tried to put the past from you for no other reason than that your wifehood would be less untrue, you would be but following the instincts of a truly honorable woman. After that, all would be easy. In every instance you would be forced to look upon me as your husband, for you would belong to me. I should be the author of all your surroundings; and always keeping in mind how I want you to regard me, I should woo you so tenderly that without knowing it you would finally yield. Then, and only then, when I had filled your thought to the exclusion of every other man, I should bring you home; and I think we should be happy."
"And you would be satisfied to give so much and receive so little?"
"The end would repay me."
"It is a pretty story," she said, letting her hands fall listlessly into her lap, "but the denouement is a castle in Spain that we should never inhabit. You think your love is strong enough to kill mine first of all; well, I tell you, nothing is strong enough for that. With this fact established the rest is needless to speak of. It is only your dream, Louis; forgive me that I unwittingly intruded into it; reality would mean disillusion,—we are happy only when we dream."
"You are bitter."
"Our relations are turned, then; I have put into practice your old theories of the uselessness of life. No; I am wrong. It is better to die than not to have loved."
"You think you have lived your life, then. I can't convince you otherwise now; but I am going to beg you to think this over, to try to imagine yourself my wife. I will not hasten your decision, but in a week's time you should be able to answer me yes or no. If anything can help my cause, I cannot overlook it; so I may tell you now that for some occult reason your mother's one wish is to see you my wife."
"And my father?" her voice was harsh now.
"Your father has expressed to your mother that such a course would make him happy."
She rose suddenly as if oppressed. Her face looked hard to a degree. She stood before him, tall and rigid. He stood up and faced her, reading her face so intently that he straightened himself as if to receive an attack.
"I will consider what you have said," she said mechanically.
The reaction was so unexpected that he turned giddy and caught on to the back of a chair to steady himself.
"It will not take me a week," she went on with no change in her monotone; "I can give you an answer in a day or two. To-morrow night, perhaps."
He made a step forward, a movement to seize her hand; but she stepped back and waved him off.
"Don't touch me," she cried in a suppressed voice; "at least you are not my husband—yet."
She turned hastily toward the door without another word.
His vibrant voice compelled her to turn.
"I want no martyr for a wife, nor yet a tragedy queen. If you can come to me and honestly say, 'I trust my happiness to you,' well and good. But as I told you once before, I am not a saint, and I cannot always control myself as I have been forced to do tonight. If this admission is damaging, it is too true to be put lightly aside. I shall not detain you longer."
He looked haughty and cold regarding her from this dim distance. Her gentleness struggled to get the better of her, and she came back and held out her hand.
"I am sorry if I offended you, Louis; good-night. Will you not pardon my selfishness?"
His eyes gleamed behind their glasses; he did not take her hand, but merely bent over the little peace-offering as over a sacrament. Seeing that he had no intention of doing more, her hand fell passively to her side, and she left the room.
As the door closed softly, Arnold sank with a hopeless gesture into a chair and buried his face in his hands. He was not a stoic, but a man,—a Frenchman, who loved much; but Arnold, half-blinded by his own love, scarcely appreciated the depths of self-forgetfulness to which Ruth would have to succumb in order to accept the guaranty of happiness which he offered her.
The question now presented itself in the light of a duty: if by this action she could undo the remorse that her former offence had inflicted, had she the right to ignore the opportunity? A vision of her own sad face obtruded itself, but she put it sternly from her. If she were to do this thing, the motive alone must be considered; and she rigidly kept in view the fact that her marriage would be the only means by which her father might be relieved of the haunting knowledge of her lost peace of mind. Had she given one thought to Louis, the possibility of the act would have been abhorrent to her. One picture she kept constantly before her,—her father's happy eyes.
Mrs. Levice's gaze strayed pensively from the violets she was embroidering to Ruth's pale face. Every time the latter stirred, her mother started expectantly; but the anxiously awaited disclosure was not forthcoming. Outside the rain kept up a sullen downpour, deepening the feeling of comfort indoors; but Mrs. Levice was not what one might call comfortably-minded. Her frequent inventories of Ruth's face had at last led her to believe that the pallor there depicted and the heavy, dark shadows about her eyes meant something decidedly not gladsome.
"Don't you feel well, Ruth?" she asked finally with some anxiety.
Ruth raised her heavy eyes.
"I? Oh, I feel perfectly well. Why do you ask? Do I look ill?"
"Yes, you do; your face is pale, and your eyes look tired. Did you sit up late last night?"
This was a leading move, but Ruth evaded the deeper meaning that was so evident to her now.
"No," she replied; "I believe it could not have been nine when I went upstairs."
"Why? Were you too fatigued to sit up, or was Louis's company unpleasant?"
"Oh, no," was the abrupt response, and her eyes fell on the open page again.
Mrs. Levice, once started on the trail, was not to be baffled by such tactics. Since Ruth was not ill, she had had some mental disturbance of which her weary appearance was the consequence. She felt almost positive that Louis had made some advances last night, from the flash of intelligence with which he had met her telegraphic expression. It was natural for her to be curious; it was unnatural for Ruth to be so reserved. With feelings not a little hurt she decided to know something more.
"For my part," she observed, as if continuing a discussion, "I think Louis charming in a tete-a-tete,—when he feels inclined to be interesting he generally succeeds. Did he tell you anything worth repeating? It is a dull afternoon, and you might entertain me a little."
She looked up from the violet petal she had just completed and encountered Ruth's full, questioning gaze.
"What is it you would like to know, Mamma?" she asked in a gentle voice.
"Nothing that you do not wish to tell," her mother answered proudly, but regarding her intently.
Ruth passed her hand wearily across her brow, and considered a moment before answering.
"I did not wish to hurt you by my silence, Mamma; but before I had decided I hardly thought it necessary to say anything. He asked me to—marry him."
The avowal was not made with the conventional confusion and trembling.
Mrs. Levice was startled by the dead calm of her manner.
"You say that as if it were a daily occurrence for a man like Louis Arnold to offer you his hand and name."
"I hope not."
"But you do. I confess I think you are not one tenth as excited as I am. Why didn't you tell me before? Any other girl would have sat up to tell her mother in the night. Oh, Ruth darling, I am so glad. I have been looking forward to this ever since you grew up. What did you mean by saying you wished to wait till you had decided? Decided what?"
"Upon my answer."
"As if you could question it, you fortunate girl! Or were you waiting for me to help you to it? I scarcely need tell you how you have been honored."
"Honor is not everything, Mamma."
At that moment a desperate longing for her mother's sympathy seized her; but the next minute the knowledge of the needless sorrow it would occasion came to her, and her lips remained closed.
"No," responded her mother, "and you have more than that; surely Louis did not neglect to tell you."
"You mean his love, I suppose,—yes, I have that."
"Then what else would you have? You probably know that he can give you every luxury within reason,—so much for honest practicality. As to Louis himself, the most fastidious could find nothing to cavil at,—he will make you a perfect husband. You are familiar enough with him to know his faults; but no man is faultless. I hope you are not so silly as to expect some girlish ideal,—for all the ideals died in the Golden Age, you know."
"As mine did. No; I have outgrown imagination in that line."
"Then why do you hesitate?" Her mother's eyes were shining; her face was alive with the excitement of hope fulfilled. "Is there anything else wanting?"
"No," she responded dully; "but let us not talk about it any more, please. I must see Louis again, you know."
"If your father were here, he could help you better, dear;" there was no reproach in Mrs. Levice's gentle acceptance of the fact; "he will be so happy over it. There, kiss me, girlie; I know you like to think things out in silence, and I shall not say another word about it till you give me leave."
She kept her word. The dreary afternoon dragged on. By four o-clock it was growing dark, and Mrs. Levice became restless.
"I am going to my room to write to your father now,—he shall have a good scolding for the non-receipt of a letter to-day;" and forthwith she betook herself upstairs.
Ruth closed her book and moved restlessly about the room. She wandered over to the front window, and drawing aside the silken curtain, looked out into the storm-tossed garden. The pale heliotropes lay wet and sweet against the trellises; some loosened rose-petals fluttered noiselessly to the ground; only the gorgeous chrysanthemums looked proudly indifferent to the elements; and the beautiful, stately palm-tree just at the side of the window spread its gracious arms like a protecting temple. She felt suddenly oppressed and feverish, and threw open the long French window. The rain had ceased for the time, and she stepped out upon the veranda. The fragrance of the rain-soaked flowers stole to her senses; the soft, sweet breeze caressed her temples; she stood still in the perfumed freshness and enjoyed its peace. By and by she began to walk up and down. Evening was approaching, and Louis would soon be home. She had decided to meet him on his return and have it over with. She must school herself to some show of graciousness. The thing must not be done by halves or it must not be done at all. Her father's happiness; over and over she repeated it. She went so far as to picture herself in his arms; she heard the old-time words of blessing; she saw his smiling eyes; and a gentleness stole over her whole face, a gentle nobility that made it strangely sweet. The soft patter of rain on the gravel roused her, and she went in; but she felt better, and wished Louis might come in while the mood was upon her.
It was nearing six when Mrs. Levice came back humming a song.
"I thought you would still be here. Make a light, will you, Ruth; it is as pitchy as Hades, only that smouldering log looks purgatorial."
Ruth lit the gas; and as she stood with upturned eyes adjusting the burner, her mother noticed that the heaviness had departed from her face. She sank into a rocker and took up the evening paper.
"What time is it, Ruth?"
"Twenty minutes to six," she answered, glancing at the clock.
"As late as that?" She meant to say, "And Louis not home yet?" but forbore to mention his name.
"It is raining heavily now," said Ruth, throwing a log upon the fire. Mrs. Levice unfolded the crackling newspaper, and Ruth moved over to the window to draw down the blinds. As she stood looking out with her hand on the chair, she saw the gate swing slowly open, and a messenger-boy came dawdling up the walk as if the sun were streaming full upon him.
Ruth stepped noiselessly out, meaning to anticipate his ring. A vague foreboding drove the blood from her lips as she stood waiting at the open hall-door. Seeing the streaming light, the boy managed to accelerate his snail's pace.
"Miss Ruth Levice live here?" he asked, stopping in the doorway.
"Yes." She took the packet he handed her. "Any charges or answers?" she asked.
"Nom," answered the boy; and noticing her pallor and apprehension, "I'll shet the door for you," he added, laying his hand on the knob.
"Thank you. Here, take two cars if necessary; it is too wet to walk." She handed him a quarter, and the boy went off, gayly whistling.
She closed the heavy door softly and sat down on a chair. She recognized Louis's handwriting on the wrapper, and her heart fluttered ominously. She tore off the damp covering, and the first thing she encountered was another wrapper on which was written in large characters:—
DEAR RUTH,—Do not be alarmed; everything is all right. I had to leave town on the overland at 6 P.M. Read the letter first, then the telegram; they will explain.
The kindly feeling that had prompted this warning was appreciated; one fear was stilled. She drew out the letter; she saw in perplexity that it was from her father. She hurriedly opened it and read:
NEW YORK, Jan. 21, 188—.
DEAR LOUIS,—I am writing this from my bed, where I have been confined for the last week with pneumonia, although I managed to write a daily postal. Have been quite ill, but am on the mend and only anxious to start home again. I really cannot rest here, and have made arrangements to leave to-morrow. Have taken every precaution against catching cold, and apart from feeling a trifle weak and annoyed by a cough, am all right. Shall come home directly. Say nothing of this to Esther or Ruth; shall apprise them by telegram of my home-coming. Had almost completed the business, and can leave the rest to Hamilton.
My love to you all.
Your loving Uncle,
Under this Louis had pencilled,
Received this this morning at 10.30.
Ruth closed her eyes as she unfolded the telegram; then with every nerve quivering she read the yellow missive:—
RENO, Jan. 27, 188—.
LOUIS ARNOLD, San Francisco, Cal.:
Have been delayed by my cough. Feeling too weak to travel alone. Come if you can.
Her limbs shook as she sat; her teeth chattered; for one minute she turned sick and faint. Under the telegram Arnold had written:—
Am sure it is nothing. He has never been ill, and is more frightened than a more experienced person would be. There is no need to alarm your mother unnecessarily, so say nothing till you hear from me. Shall wire you as soon as I arrive, which will be to-morrow night.
How could she refrain from telling her mother? She felt suddenly weak and powerless. O God, good God, her heart cried, only make him well!
The sound of the library door closing made her spring to her feet; her mother stood regarding her.
"What is it, Ruth?" she asked.
"Nothing," she cried, her voice breaking despite her effort to be calm,—"nothing at all. Louis has just sent me word that he had to leave town this evening, and says not to wait dinner for him."
"That is very strange," mused her mother, moving slowly toward her and holding out her hand for the note; but Ruth thrust the papers into her pocket.
"It is to me, Mamma; you do not care for second-hand love-letters, do you?" she asked, assuming a desperate gayety. "There is nothing strange about it; he often leaves like this."
"Not in such weather and not after—— There won't be a man in the house to-night. I wish your father were home; he would not like it if he knew." She shivered slightly as they went into the dining-room.
The next day passed like a nightmare. To add to the misery of her secret, her mother began to fidget over the continued lack of any communication from her husband. Had the weather been fair, Ruth would have insisted on her going out with her; but to the rain of the day before was added a heavy windstorm that made any unnecessary expedition from home absurd.
Mrs. Levice worried herself into a headache, but would not lie down. She was sure that the next delivery would bring something. Was it not time for the second delivery? Would not Ruth please watch for the postman? By half-past one she took up her station at the window only to see the jaunty little rubber-encased man go indifferently by. At half-past four this scene was repeated, and then she decided to act.
"Ring up the telegraph-office, Ruth; I am going to send a despatch."
"Why, Mamma, probably the mail is delayed; it always is in winter. Besides, you will only frighten Father."
"Nonsense; two days is a long delay without the excuse of a blockade. Go to the telephone, please."
"The telephone was broken yesterday, you know."
"I had forgotten. Well, one of the girls must go; I can't stand it any longer."
"You can't send any of the girls in such weather; both the maids have terrible colds, and Mary would not go if you asked her. Listen! It is frightful. I promise to go in the morning if we don't get a letter, but we probably shall. Let us play checkers for a while." With a forced stoicism she essayed to distract her mother's thoughts, but with poor success. The wretched afternoon drew to a close; and immediately after a show of dining, Mrs. Levice went to bed. At Ruth's suggestion she took some headache medicine.
"It will make me sleep, perhaps; and that will be better than worrying awake and unable to do anything."
The opiate soon had its effect; and with a sigh of relief Ruth heard her mother's regular breathing. It was now her turn to suffer openly the fox-wounds. Louis had said she would hear to-night; but at what time? It was now eight o'clock, and the bell might ring at any moment. Mrs. Levice slept; and Ruth sat dry-eyed and alert, feeling her heart rise to her throat every time the windows shook or the doors rattled. It was one of the wildest nights San Francisco ever experienced; trees groaned, gates slammed, and a perfect war of the elements was abroad. The wailing wind about the house haunted her like the desolate cry of some one begging for shelter. The ormolu clock ticked on and chimed forth nine. Still her mother slept. Ruth from her chair could see that her cheeks were unnaturally flushed and that her breathing was hurried; but any degree of oblivion was better than the impatient outlook for menacing tidings. Despite the heated room, her hands grew cold, and she wrapped them in the fleecy shawl that enveloped her. The action brought to her mind the way her father used to tuck her little hands under the coverlet when a child, after they had clung around his neck in a long good-night, and how no sooner were they there than out they would pop for "just one squeeze more, Father;" how long the good-nights were with this play! She had never called him "papa" like other children, but he had always liked it best so. She brushed a few drops from her lashes as the sweet little chimer rang out ten bells; she began to grow heart-sick with her thoughts; her limbs ached with stiffness, and she began a gentle walk up and down the room. Would it keep up all night? There! surely somebody was crunching up the gravel-walk. With one look at her sleeping mother, she quickly left the room, closing the door carefully behind her. With a palpitating heart she leaned over the balustrade; was it a false alarm, after all? The next instant there was a violent pull at the bell, as startling in the dead of the night as some supernatural summons. Before Ruth could hurry down, Nora, looking greatly bewildered, came out of her room and rushed to the door. In a trice she was back again with the telegram and had put it into Ruth's hands.
"Fifteen cents' charges," she said.
"Pay it," returned Ruth.
As the maid turned away, she tore open the envelope. Before she could open the form, a firm hand was placed upon hers.
"Give me that," said her mother's voice.
Ruth recoiled; Mrs. Levice stood before her unusually quiet in her white night-dress; with a strong hand she endeavored to relax Ruth's fingers from the paper.
"But, Mamma, it was addressed to me"
"It was a mistake, then; I know it was meant for me. Let go instantly, or I shall tear the paper. Obey me, Ruth."
Her voice sounded harsh as a man's. At the strange tone Ruth's fingers loosened, and Mrs. Levice, taking the telegram, re-entered the room; Ruth followed her closely.
Standing under the chandelier, Mrs. Levice read. No change came over her face; when she had finished, she handed the paper without a word to Ruth. This was the message:—
RENO, Jan. 28, 188—
MISS RUTH LEVICE, San Francisco, Cal.
Found your father very weak and feverish and coughing continually. Insists on getting home immediately. Says to inform Dr. Kemp, who will understand, and have him at the house on our arrival at 11.30 Thursday. No present danger.
"Explain," commanded her mother, speaking in her overwrought condition as if to a stranger.
"Get into bed first, Mamma, or you will take cold."
Mrs. Levice suffered herself to be led there, and in a few words Ruth explained what she knew.
"You knew that yesterday before the train left?"
"And why didn't you tell me? I should have gone to him. Oh, why didn't you tell me?"
"It would have been too late, dear."
"No, it is too late now; do you hear? I shall never see him again, and it is all your fault—what do you know? Stop crying! will you stop crying, or—"
"Mamma, I am not crying; you are crying, and saying things that are not true. It will not be too late; perhaps it is nothing but the cough. Louis says there is no danger."
"Hush!" cried her mother, her whole figure trembling. "I know there is danger now, this minute. Oh, what can I do, what can I do?" With this cry all her strength seemed to give way; she sobbed and laughed with the hysteria of long ago; when Ruth strove to put her arms around her, she shook her off convulsively.
"Don't touch me!" she breathed; "it is all your fault—he wants me—needs me—and, oh, look at me here! Why do you stand there like a ghost? Go away. No, come here—I want Dr. Kemp; now, at once, he said to have him; send for him, Ruth."
"On Thursday morning," she managed to answer.
"No, now—I must, must, must have him! You won't go? Then I shall; move aside."
Ruth, summoning all her strength, strove to hold her in her arms, all to no avail.
"Lie still," she said sternly; "I shall go for Dr. Kemp."
"You can't; it is night and raining. Oh," she continued, half deliriously, "I know I am acting strangely, and he will calm me. Ruth, I want to be calm; don't you understand?"
The two maids, frightened by the noise, stood in the doorway. Both had their heads covered with shawls; both were suffering with heavy colds.
"Come in, girls. Stay here with my mother; I am going for the doctor."
"Oh, Miss Ruth, ain't you afraid? It's a awful night, and black as pitch, and you all alone?" asked one, with wide, frightened eyes.
"I am not afraid," said the girl, a great calmness in her voice as she spoke above her mother's sobbing; "stay and try to quiet her. I shall not be gone long."
She flew into her room, drew on her overshoes and mackintosh, grasped a sealskin hood, which she tied securely under her chin, and went out into the howling, raging night.
She had but a few blocks to go, but under ordinary circumstances the undertaking would have been disagreeable enough. The rain came down in heavy, wild torrents; the wind roared madly, wrapping her skirts around her limbs and making walking almost an impossibility; the darkness was impenetrable save for the sickly, quavering light shed by the few street-lamps, as far apart as angel visitants. Lowering her head and keeping her figure as erect as possible, she struggled bravely on. She met scarcely any one, and those she did meet occasioned her little uneasiness in the flood of unusual emotions that overwhelmed her soul. At any other time the thought of her destination would have blotted out every other perception; now this was but one of many shuddering visions. Trouble was making her hard; life could offer her little that would find her unequal to the test. Down the broad, deserted avenue, with its dark, imposing mansions, she hurried as if she were alone in the havocking elements. The rain beat her and lashed her in the face; she faced it unflinchingly as a small part of her trials. Without a tremor she ran up Dr. Kemp's steps. It was only when she stood with her finger on the bell-button that she realized whom she was about to encounter. Then for the first time she gave one long sob of self-recollection, and pushed the button.
Burke almost immediately opened the door. Ruth had no intention of entering; it would be sufficient to leave her message and hurry home.
"Who's there?" asked Burke, peering out into the darkness. "It's a divil of a night for any one but—"
"Is Dr. Kemp in?" The sweet woman-voice so startled him that he opened the door wide.
"Come in, mum," he said apologetically; "come in out of the night."
"No. Is the doctor in?"
"I don't know," he grumbled, "and I can't stand here with the door open."
"Close it, then, but see if he is in, please."
"I'll lave it open, and ye can come in or stay out according if ye are dry-humored or wet-soled;" and he shuffled off. The door was open! Her father had assured her of this once long ago. Inside were warmth and light; outside, in the shadow, were cold and darkness. Here she stood. Would the man never return? Ah, here he came hurrying along; she drew nearer the door; within a half-foot she stood still with locked jaw and swimming senses.
"My good woman," said the grave, kindly voice which calmed while it unnerved her, "come in and speak to me here. Am I wanted anywhere? Come in, please; the door must be closed."
With almost superhuman will she drew herself together and came closer. Seeing the dark, moving figure, he opened the door wide, and she stepped in; then as it closed she faced him, turning up her white, haggard face to his.
He recoiled as if stunned, but quickly recovered himself.
"What trouble has brought you to me?" he cried.
"My mother," she replied in a low, stifled voice, adding almost instantly in a distant and formal tone, "can you come at once? She is suffering with hysteria and calls you incessantly."
He drew himself up and looked at her with a cold, grand air. This girl had been the only woman who had signally affected his life; yet if her only recognition of it was this cold manner, he could command the same.
"I will come," he replied, looking unbendingly, with steely gray eyes, into her white passionless face, framed in its dark hood.
She bowed her head—further words were impossible—and turned to the door.
He watched her tugging in blind stupefaction at the strange bolt, but did not move to her assistance. Her head was bent low over the intricate thing; but it was useless,—it would not move, and she suddenly raised her eyes beseechingly to him; with a great revulsion of feeling he saw that they were swimming in tears. His own lips trembled, and his heart gave a wild leap. Then one of those unaccountable moods that sometimes masters the best swayed him strongly.
She was alone with him there; he could keep her if he wished. One look at her lovely, beloved face, and his higher manhood asserted itself. He unlatched the door, and still holding it closed, said in a deferential tone,—
"Will you not wait till I ring for my carriage?"
"I would rather go at once."
Nothing was left but for him to comply with her wishes; and as she walked out, he quickly got himself into his proper vestments, seized a vial from his office, and hurried after her. At this juncture the storm was frightful. Up the street he could see come one trying ineffectually to move on. Being a powerful man, he strode on, though the great gusts carried his breath away. In a few minutes he came alongside of Ruth, who was making small progress.
"Will you take my arm?" he asked quietly. "It will help you."
She drew back in alarm.
"There is no necessity," he indistinctly heard in the roar of the gale.
He kept near enough to her, however, to see her. All along this block of Van Ness Avenue is a row of tall, heavy-foliaged eucalyptus-trees; they tossed and creaked and groaned in the furious wind. A violent gust almost took the two pedestrians off their feet, but not too quickly for Dr. Kemp to make a stride toward Ruth and drag her back. At the same moment, one of the trees lurched forward and fell with a crash upon them. By a great effort he had turned and, holding her before him, received the greater blow upon his back.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, bending his head so near her face that his short wet beard brushed her cheek.
"No," she said, wresting herself from him; "I thank you—but you have hurt yourself."
"You are mistaken," he said abruptly. "Take my arm, please."
He did not wait for her yea or nay; but drawing her arm through his, he strode on in silence, holding it closely pinioned against his heart. When they reached the house, they were both white and breathless. Nora opened the door for them.
"Oh, Miss Ruth, do hurry up!" she cried, wringing her hands as the doctor threw off his coat and hat; "all she does now is to stare at us with her teeth all chattering."
The doctor sprang up three steps at a time, Ruth quickly following.
The room was in a blaze of light; Mrs. Levice sat up in bed, her large dark eyes staring into vacancy, her face as white as the snowy counterpane.
Kemp looked like a pillar of strength as he came up to the bedside.
"Well?" he said, holding out his hand and smiling at her.
As he took her hand in his, she strove to speak; but the sobbing result was painful.
"None of that!" he said sternly, laying his hand on her shoulders. "If you try, you can stop this. Now see, I am holding you. Look at me, and you will understand you must quiet down."
He used his well-known power of magnetism. Gradually the quivering shoulders quieted beneath his hands; the staring eyes relaxed, and he gently laid her head upon the pillow.
"Don't go away!" she implored piteously, as she felt his hands move from her.
"No, indeed," he replied in a bright, soothing voice; "see, I am going to give you a few drops of this, which will make you all right in a short time. Now then, open your mouth."
"But, Doctor, I wish to speak to you."
"After you have taken this and rested awhile."
"And you won't go away?" she persisted.
"I shall stay right here." She obediently swallowed the dose; and as he drew up an easy-chair and seated himself, the drawn lines on her face relaxed.
"It is so strengthening to have you here," she murmured.
"It will be more strengthening for you to close your eyes."
Ruth, who still stood in her wet clothes, lowered the lights.
"You had better change your clothes immediately," said Kemp, in a low tone from his chair.
She did not look at him, but at his voice she left the room.
Quickly removing her wet garments, she slipped into a loose, dull red gown. As the dry warmth of it reached her senses, she suddenly remembered that his feet might be wet. She lit a candle, and going into Louis's room, appropriated a pair of slippers that stood in his closet.
It was now past midnight; but no thought of sleep occurred to her till, entering her mother's room, she perceived in the semi-darkness that the doctor lay back with closed eyes. He was not asleep, however, for he opened his eyes at her light footfall. She looked very beautiful in her unconfined gown, the red tone heightening the creamy colorlessness of her face.
"Will you put them on?" she asked in a hushed voice, holding out the slippers.
"You are very kind," he replied, looking with hungry eyes into her face. Seeing that he did not take them, she placed them on the carpet. The action recalled him to himself, and wishing to detain her, he said,—
"Do they belong to a man as big as I?"
"They are my cousin's."
She had half turned to leave.
"Ah," he returned, "and will he relish the idea of my standing in his shoes?"
No double-entendre was intended, but Ruth's thoughts gave one miserable bound to Arnold.
"He will be pleased to add to your comfort," spoke Mrs. Levice from the bed, thus saving Ruth an answer.
"I do not need them," said the doctor, turning to her swiftly; "and, Mrs. Levice, if you do not go to sleep, I shall leave."
"I want Ruth to stay in the room," she murmured petulantly.
"Very well, Mamma," said Ruth, wearily, seating herself in a low, soft-cushioned chair in a remote corner. She knew how to sit perfectly still. It was a peculiar situation,—the mother, who had been the means of drawing these two together first and last, slept peacefully; and he and she, the only waking mortals in the house, with the miserable gulf between them, sat there without a word.
Ruth's temples throbbed painfully; she felt weak and tired; toward morning she sank into a heavy sleep. Kemp did not sleep; he kept his face turned from her, trying to quiet his thoughts with the dull lullaby of the rain. But he knew when she slept; his gaze wandered searchingly around the room till it fell upon a slumber-robe thrown across a divan. He arose softly and picked it up; his light step made no sound in the soft carpet. As he came up to Ruth, he saw with an inward groan the change upon her sleeping face. Great, dark shadows lay about her eyes not caused by the curling lashes; her mouth drooped pathetically at the corners; her temples, from which her soft hair was rolled, showed the blue veins; he would have given much to touch her hair with his hand, but he laid the cover over her shoulders without touching her, and tucked it lightly about her knees and feet. Then he went back to his chair. It was five o'clock before either mother or daughter opened her eyes; they started up almost simultaneously. Ruth noticed the warm robe about her, and her eyes sped to the doctor. He, however, was speaking to Mrs. Levice, who in the dim light looked pale but calm.
"I feel perfectly well," she was saying, "and shall get up immediately."
"Where is the necessity?" he inquired. "Lie still to-day; it is not bad weather for staying in bed."
"Did not Ruth tell you?"
"Tell me?" he repeated in surprise.
"Of the cause of this attack?"
"Then I must. Briefly, my husband has been in New York for the past five weeks; he suffered there with acute pneumonia for a week, told us nothing, but hurried home as soon as possible,—too soon, I suppose. Day before yesterday my nephew received a letter stating these facts, and, later, a telegram asking him to come to Reno, where he was delayed, feeling too ill to go farther alone. The first I heard of this was last night, when Ruth received this telegram from Louis." She handed it to him.
As Kemp read, an unmistakable gravity settled on his face. As he was folding the paper thoughtfully, Mrs. Levice addressed him again in her unfamiliar, calm voice,—
"Will you please explain what he means by your understanding?"
"Yes; I suppose it is expedient for me to tell you at once," he said slowly, reseating himself and pausing as if trying to recall something.
"Last year," he began, "probably as early as February, your husband came to me complaining of a cough that annoyed him nights and mornings; he further told me that when he felt it coming, he went to another apartment so as not to disturb you. I examined him, and found he was suffering with the first stages of asthma, and that one of his lungs was slightly diseased already. I treated him and gave him directions for living carefully. You knew nothing of this?"
"Nothing," she answered hoarsely.
"Well," he went on gently, "there was no cause for worry; if checked in time, a man may live to second childhood with asthma, and the loss of a small portion of a lung is not necessarily fatal. He knew this, and was mending slowly; I examined him several times and found no increase in the loss of tissue, while he told me the cough was not so troublesome."
"But for some weeks before he left," said Mrs. Levice, "he coughed every morning and night. When I besought him to see a doctor, he ridiculed me out of the idea. How did you find him before he left?"
"I have not seen Mr. Levice for some months," he replied gravely.
Mrs. Levice eyed him questioningly, but he offered no explanation.
"Then do you think," she continued, "that this asthma made the pneumonia more dangerous?"
Her fingers clutched at the sheet convulsively; but the strength of her voice and aspect remained unbroken.
"Thank you," she said, "for telling me so candidly. Then will you be here to-morrow morning?"
"I shall manage to meet him at Oakland with a closed carriage."
"May I go with you?"
"Pardon me; but it will be best for you to receive him quietly at home. There must be nothing whatever to disturb him. Have all ready, especially yourself."
"I understand," she said. "And now, Doctor, let me thank you for your kindness to me;" she held out both hands. "Will you let Ruth show you to a room, and will you breakfast with us when you have rested?"
"I thank you; it is impossible," he replied, looking at his watch. "I shall hurry home now. Good-morning, Mrs. Levice. There may be small cause for anxiety; and, remember, the less excited you remain, the more you can help him."
He turned from her.
"Ruth, will you see the doctor to the door?"
She followed him down the broad staircase, as in former days, but with a difference. Then he had waited for her to come abreast with him, and they had descended together, talking pleasantly. Now not a word was said till he had put on his heavy outer coat. As he laid his hand on the knob, Ruth spoke,—
"Is there anything I can do for my father, do you think?"
She started as he turned a tired, haggard face to hers.
"I can think of nothing but to have his bed in readiness and complete quiet about the house."
"Yes; and—and do you think there is any danger?"
"No, no! at least, I hope not. I shall be able to tell better when I see him. Is there anything I can do for you?"
She shook her head; she dared not trust herself to speak in the light of his tender eyes. He hastily opened the door, and bowing, closed it quickly behind him.
The sun shone with its usual winter favoritism upon San Francisco this Thursday morning. After the rain the air felt as exhilarating as a day in spring. Young girls tripped forth "in their figures," as the French have it; and even the matrons unfastened their wraps under the genial wooing of sunbeams.
Everything was quiet about the Levice mansion. Neither Ruth nor her mother felt inclined to talk; so when Mrs. Levice took up her position in her husband's room, Ruth wandered downstairs. The silence seemed vocal with her fears.
"So I tell ye's two," remarked the cook as her young mistress passed from the kitchen, "that darter and father is more than kin, they is soul-kin, if ye know what that means; an' the boss's girl do love him more'n seven times seven children which such a man-angel should 'a' had." For the "boss" was to those who served him "little lower than the angels;" and their prayers the night before had held an eloquent appeal for his welfare.
Ruth, with her face against the window, watched in sickening anxiety. She knew they were not to be expected for some time, but it was better to stand here than in the fear-haunted background.
Suddenly and almost miraculously, it seemed to her, a carriage stood before the gate. She flew to the door, and as she opened it leaned for one second blindly against the wall.
"Tell my mother they have come," she gasped to the maid, who had entered the hall.
Then she looked out. Two men were carrying one between them up the walk. As they came nearer, she saw how it was. That bundled-up figure was her father's; that emaciated, dark, furrowed face was her father's; but as they carefully helped him up the steps, and the loud, painful, panting breaths came to her, were they her father's too? No need, Ruth, to rush forward and vainly implore some power to tear from yourself the respiration withheld from him. Air, air! So, man, so; one step more and then relief. Ah!
She paused in agony at the foot of the stairs as the closing door shut out the dreadful sound. We never value our blessings till we have lost them; who thinks it a boon to be able to breathe without thinking of the action?
He had not seen her; his eyes had been closed as if in exhaustion as they gently helped him along, and she had understood at once that the only thing to be thought of was, by some manner of means, to remove the choking obstacle from his lungs. Oh, to be able in her young strength to hold the weak, loved form in her arms and breathe into him her overflowing life-breath! She walked upstairs presently; he would be expecting her. As she reached the upper landing, Kemp came from the room, closing the door behind him. His bearing revealed a gravity she had never witnessed before. In his tightly buttoned morning-suit, with the small white tie at his throat, he might have been officiating at some solemn ceremonial. He stood still as Ruth confronted him at the head of the stairs, and met her lovely, miserable eyes with a look of sympathy. She essayed to speak, but succeeded only in gazing at him in speechless entreaty.
"Yes, I know," he responded to her silent appeal; "you were shocked at what you heard: it was the asthma that has completely overpowered him. His illness has made him extremely weak."
"And you think—"
"We must wait till he has rested; the trip was severe for one in his condition."
"Tell me the truth, please, with no reservations; is there danger?"
Her eager, abrupt questions told clearly what she suffered.
"He has never had any serious illness; if the asthma has not overleaped itself, we have much to hope for."
The intended consolation conveyed a contrary admission which she immediately grasped.
"That means—the worst," she said, her clasped fingers speaking the language of despair. "Oh, Doctor, you who know so much, can't you help him? Think, think of everything; there must be something! Only do your best, do your utmost; you will, won't you?"
His deep, grave eyes answered her silently as he took both her little clasped hands in his one strong one, saying simply,—
"Trust me, but only so far as lies within my human power. He is somewhat eased, and asks for you. Look at your mother: she is surpassing herself; if your love for him can achieve one half such a conquest, you will but be making good your inheritance. I shall be in again at one, and will send some medicines up at once." He ended in his usual businesslike tone, and walked hastily downstairs.
There was perfect quiet in the room as Ruth entered. Propped high by many pillows, Jules Levice lay in his bed; his wife's arm was about him; his head rested on her bosom; with her one disengaged hand she smoothed his white hair. Never was the difference between them more marked than now, when her beautiful face shone above his, which had the touch of the destroyer already upon it; never was the love between them more marked than now, when he leaned in his weakness upon her who had never failed him in all their wedded years.
His eyes were half closed as if in rest; but he heard her enter, and Mrs. Levice felt the tremor that thrilled him as Ruth approached.
The softly whispered love-name of old made her tremble; she smiled through her tears, but when his feeble arms strove to draw her to him, she stooped, and laying them about her neck, placed her cheek upon his. For some minutes these three remained knit in a close embrace; love, strong and tender, spoke and answered in that silence.
"It is good to be at home," he said, speaking with difficulty.
"It was not home without you, dear," murmured his wife, laying her lips softly upon his forehead. Ruth, kneeling beside the bed, noticed how loosely the dark signet-ring he wore hung upon his slender finger.
"You look ill, my Ruth," he said, after a pause. "Lay my head down, Esther love; you must be tired. Sit before me, dear, I want to see your two faces together."
His gaunt eyes flitted from one to the other.
"It is a fair picture to take with one," he whispered.
"To keep with one," softly trembled his wife's voice; his eyes met hers in a commiserating smile.
Suddenly he started up.
"Ruth," he gasped, "will you go to Louis? He must be worn out."
She left the room hurriedly. Her faint knock was not immediately answered, and she called softly; receiving no reply, she turned the knob, which yielded to her hand. Sunbeams danced merrily about the room of the young man, who sat in their light in a dejected attitude. He evidently had made no change in his toilet; and as Ruth stood unnoticed beside him, her eyes wandered over his gray, unshaven face, travel-stained and weary to a degree. She laid her hand upon his shoulder.
"Louis," she called gently.
He shook under her touch, but made no further sign that he knew of her presence.
"You must be so tired, Louis," she continued sympathetically.
It may have been the words, it may have been the tone, it may have been that she touched some hidden thought, for suddenly, without premonition, his breast heaved, and he sobbed heavily as only a man can sob.
She started back in pain. That such emotion could so unstring Louis Arnold was a marvel. It did not last long; and as he rose from his chair he spoke in his accustomed, quiet tone.
"Forgive my unmanliness," he said; "it was kind of you to come to me."
"You look very ill, Louis; can't I bring you something to refresh you, or will you lie down?"
"We shall see; is there anything you wish to ask me?
After a pause he said,—
"You must not be hopeless; he is in good hands, and everything that can be done will be done. Is he resting now?"
"Yes; if to breathe like that is to rest. Oh, Louis, when I think how for months he has suffered alone, it almost drives me crazy."
"Why think of it, then? Or, if you must, remember that in his surpassing unselfishness he saved you much anxiety; for you could not have helped him."
"Not with our sympathy?"
"Not him, Ruth; to know that you suffered for him was—would have been his crowning sorrow. Is there anything I can do now?"
"No, only think of yourself for a moment; perhaps you can rest a little, for you need it, dear."
A flame of color burned in his cheek at the unusual endearment.
"I shall bring you a cup of tea presently," she said as she left him.
The morning passed into afternoon. Silence hung upon the house. A card had been pinned under the door-bell; and the many friends, who in the short time since the sick man's arrival had heard of his illness, dropped in quietly and left as they came.
Dr. Kemp came in after luncheon. Mr. Levice was sleeping,—in all truth, one could say easily, but the doctor counted much from the rest. He expected Dr. H——- for a consultation. This he had done as a voucher and a sort of comforting assurance that nothing would be left undone. Dr. H——- came in blandly; he went out gravely. There was little to be said.
Kemp walked thoughtfully upstairs after his colleague had left, and went straight to Arnold's room. The freedom of the house was his; he seemed to have established himself here simply through his earnestness and devotion.
"Mr. Arnold," he said to the Frenchman, who quickly rose from his desk, "I want you to prepare your aunt and your cousin for the worst. You know this; but if he should have a spell of coughing, the end might be sudden."
A cold pallor overspread Louis's face at the confirmation of his secret fears.
He bowed slightly and cleared his throat before answering.
"There will be no necessity," he said; "my uncle intends doing so himself."
"He must not hasten it by excitement," said Kemp, moving toward the door.
"That is unavoidable," returned Arnold. "You must know he had an object in hurrying home."
"I did not know; but I shall prevent any unnecessary effort to speak. If you can do this for him, will you not?"
"And you know what it is in detail?"
"Then for his sake—"
"And for the others, he must be allowed to speak."
Kemp regarded him steadily, wondering wherein lay the impression of concealed power which emanated from him. He left the room without another word.
"Dr. H——- must have gone to school with you," panted Levice, as Dr. Kemp entered; "even his eyes have been educated to express the same feeling; except for a little—"
"There, there," quieted Kemp; "don't exhaust yourself. Miss Levice, that fan, please. A little higher? How's that?"
"Do not go, Doctor," he said feebly; "I have something to say, to do, and you—I want you—give me something—I must say it now. Esther, where are you?"
"Mr. Levice, you must not talk now," put in Kemp, authoritatively; "whatever you have to say will last till morning."
"And you. Now go to sleep."
Mrs. Levice followed him to the door.
"You spoke just now of a nurse," she said through her pale lips; "I shall not want one: I alone can nurse him."
"There is much required; I doubt if you are strong enough."
"I am strong."
He clasped her hand in assent; he could not deny her.
"I shall come in and stay with you to-night," he said simply.
"You. Why should you?"
"Because I too love him."
Her mouth trembled and the lines of her face quivered, but she drew her hand quickly over it.
Kemp gave one sharp glance over to the bed; Ruth had laid her head beside her father's and held his hand. In such a house, in every Jewish house, one finds the best nurses in the family.
Shafts of pale sunlight darted into the room and rested on Mr. Levice's hair, covering it with a silver glory,—they trailed along the silken coverlet, but stopped there; one little beam strayed slowly, and almost as if with intention, toward Arnold, seated near the foot of the bed. Ruth, lovely in her pallor, sat near him; Mrs. Levice, on the other side of the bed, leaned back in her chair placed close to her husband's pillow; more remote, though inadvertently so, sat Dr. Kemp. It was by Mr. Levice's desire that these four had assembled here.
He was sitting up, supported by many pillows; his face was hollow and colorless; his hands lay listlessly upon the counterpane. No one touches him; bathed in sunlight, as he was, the others seemed in shadow. When he spoke, his voice was almost a whisper, but it was distinctly audible to the four intent listeners; only the clock seemed to accompany his staccato speech, running a race, as it were, with his failing strength.
"It is a beautiful world," he said dreamily, "a very beautiful world;" the sunbeams kissed his pale hands as if thanking him; no one stirred, letting the old man take his time. Finally he realized that all were waiting for him, and thought sprang, strong and powerful, to his face.
"Dr. Kemp," he began, "I have something to say to you,—to you in particular, and to my daughter Ruth. My wife and nephew know in brief what I have to say; therefore I need not dwell on the painful event that happened here last September; you will pardon me, when you see the necessity, for my reverting to it at all."
Every one's eyes rested upon him,—that is, all but Arnold's, which seemed holding some secret communion with the cupids on the ceiling,—and the look of convulsive agony that swept across Ruth's face was unnoticed.
"In all my long, diversified life," he went on, "I had never suffered as I did after she told me her decision,—for in all those years no one had ever been made to suffer through me; that is, so far as I knew. Unconsciously, or in anger, I may have hurt many, but never, as in this case, with knowledge aforethought,—when the blow fell upon my own child. You will understand, and perhaps forgive, when I say I gave no thought to you. She came to me with her sweet, renunciating hands held out, and with a smile of self-forgetfulness, said, 'Father, you are right; I could not be happy with this man.' At the moment I believed her, thinking she had adopted my views; but with all her bravery, her real feelings conquered her, and I saw. Not that she had spoken untruly, but she had implied the truth only in part, I knew my child loved me, and she meant honestly that my pain would rob her of perfect happiness with you,—my pain would form an eclipse strong enough to darken everything. Do you think this knowledge made me glad or proud? Do you know how love, that in the withholding justifies itself, suffers from the pain inflicted? But I said, 'After all, it is as I think; she will thank me for it some day.' I was not altogether selfish, please remember. Then, as I saw her silent wrestling, came distrust of myself; I remembered I was pitted against two, younger and no more fallible than myself. As soon as doubt of myself attacked me, I strove to look on the other side; I strove to rid myself of the old prejudices, the old superstitions, the old narrowness of faith; it was useless,—I was too old, and my prejudices had become part of me. It was in this state of perturbation that I had gone one day up to the top floor of the Palace Hotel. Thank you, Doctor."
The latter had quietly risen and administered a stimulant. As he resumed his seat, Levice continued:
"I was seated at a window overlooking Market Street. Below me surged a black mass of crowding, jostling, hurrying beings, so far removed they seemed like little dots, each as large and no larger than his fellows. Above them stretched the same blue arch of heaven, they breathed the same air, trod in each other's footsteps; and yet I knew they were all so different,—ignorance walked with enlightenment, vice with virtue, rich with poor, low with high,—but I felt, poised thus above them, that they were creatures of the same God. Go once thus, and you will understand the feeling. And so I judged these aliens. Which was greater; which was less? This one, who from birth and inheritance is able to stand the equal of any one, or this one, who through birth and inheritance blinks blindly at the good and beautiful? Character and circumstance are not altogether of our own making; they are, to a great degree, results of inherited tendencies over which we have no control,—accidents of birthplace, in the choosing of which we had no voice. The high in the world do not shine altogether by their own light, not do the lowly grovel altogether in their own debasement,—I felt the excuse for humanity. I was overwhelmed with one feeling,—only God can weigh such circumstantial evidence; we, in our little knowledge of results, pronounce sentence, but final judgment is reserved for a higher court, that sees the cross-purposes in which we are blindly caught. So with everything. Below me prayed Christian and Jew, Mohammedan and Brahmin, idolater and agnostic. Why was one man different in this way from his fellows? Because he was born so, because his parents were so, because he was bred so, because it seemed natural and convenient to remain so,—custom and environment had made his religion. Because Jesus Christ dared to attack their existing customs and beliefs, the Jews, then powerful, first reviled, then feared, then slew him; because the Jews could not honestly say, 'I believe this man to be a God,' they were hurled from their eminence and dragged, living, for centuries in the dust. And yet why? Because God withheld and still withholds from this little band the power of believing in Christ as his son. Christians call this a wilful weakness; Jews call it strength. After all, who is to be praised or blamed for it? God. Then instead of beating the Jew, and instead of sneering at the Christian, let each pity the other; because one, I know not which, is weak, and because the other, I know not which, is strong. I left the building; I came upon the street. I felt like saluting every one as my brother. A little ragged child touched me, and as I laid my hand upon her curly head, the thrill of humanity shot through me.
"It was not until I went to New York that the feelings I then experienced took on a definite shape. There, removed from my old haunts, I wandered alone when I could. Then I thought of you, my friend, of you, my child, and beside you I was pitiful,—pitiful, because in my narrowness I had thought myself strong enough to uphold a vanishing restriction. I resolved to be practical; I have been accused of being a dreamer. I grasped your two images before me and drew parallels. Socially each was as high as the other. Mentally the woman was as strong in her sphere as the man was in his. Physically both were perfect types of pure, healthy blood. Morally both were irreproachable. Religiously each held a broad love for God and man. I stood convicted; I was in the position of a blind fool who, with a beautiful picture before him, fastens his critical, condemning gaze upon a rusting nail in the rusting wall behind,—a nail even now loosened, and which in another generation will be displaced. Yet what was I to do? Come back and tell you that I had been needlessly cruel? What would that avail? True, I might make you believe that I no longer thought marriage between you wrong; but that would not remove the fact that the world, which so easily makes us happy or otherwise, did not see as I saw. In this vortex I was stricken ill. All the while I wanted to hasten to you, to tell you how it was with me, and it seemed as if I never could get to you. 'Is this Nemesis,' I thought, 'or divine interposition?' So I struggled till Louis came. Then all was easier. I told him everything and said, 'Louis, what shall I do?' 'only this,' he answered simply: 'tell them that their happy marriage will be your happiness, and the rest of the world will be as nothing to these two who love each other.'"
The old man paused; the little sunbeam had reached the end of the coverlet and gave a leap upon Louis's shoulder like an angle's finger, but his gaze remained fixed upon the cupids on the ceiling. Ruth had covered her face with her hands. Mrs. Levice was softly weeping, with her eyes on Louis. Dr. Kemp had risen and stood, tall and pale, meeting Levice's eyes.
"I believe—and my wife believes," said Levice, heavily, as if the words were so many burdens, "that our child will be happy only as your wife, and that nothing should stand in the way of the consummation of this happiness. Dr. Kemp, you have assured me you still love my daughter. Ruth!"
She sprang to her feet, looking only at her father.
"Little one," he faltered, "I have been very cruel in my ignorance."
"Do not think of this, Father," she whispered.
"I must," he said, taking her hand in his. "Kemp, your hand, please."
He grasped the strong white hand and drew the two together; and as Kemp's large hand closed firmly over her little one, Levice stooped his head, kissed them thus clasped, and laid his hand upon them.
"There is one thing more," he said. "At the utmost I have but a few days to live. I shall not see your happiness: I shall not see you, my Ruth, as I have often pictured you. Ah, well, darling, a father may be permitted sweet dreams of his only child. You have always been a good girl, and now I am going to ask you to do one thing more—you also, Doctor. Will you be married now, this day, here, so that I may yet bless your new life? Will you let me see this? And listen,—will you let the world know that you were married with my sanction, and did not have to wait till the old man was dead? Will you do this for me, my dear ones?"
"Will you, Ruth?" asked Kemp, softly, his fingers pressing hers gently.
Ruth stifled a sob as she met her father's eager eyes.
"I will," she answered so low that only the intense silence in the room made it audible.
Levice separated their hands and held one on each of his cheeks.
"Always doing things for her ugly old father," he murmured; "this time giving up a pretty wedding-day that all girls so love."
"Oh, hush, my darling."
"You will have no guests, unless, Doctor, there is some one you would like to have."
"I think not," he decided, noting with a pang the pale, weary face of Levice; "we will have it all as quiet as possible. You must rest now, and leave everything to me. Would you prefer Dr. Stephens or a justice?"
"Either. Dr. Stephens is a good man, whom I know, however; and one good man with the legal right is as good as another to marry you."
There was little more said then. Kemp turned to Mrs. Levice and raised her hand to his lips. Arnold confronted him with a pale, smiling face; the two men wrung each other's hands, passing out together immediately after.
Herbert Kemp and Dr. Stephens stood quietly talking to Mr. Levice. The latter seemed weaker since his exertion of the morning, and his head lay back among the pillows as if the support were grateful. Still his eager eyes were keenly fastened upon the close-lipped mouth and broad, speaking brow of the minister who spoke so quietly and pleasantly. Kemp, looking pale and handsome, answered fitfully when appealed to, and kept an expectant eye upon the door. When Ruth entered, he went forward to meet her, drawing her arm through his. They had had no word together, no meeting of any kind but right here in the morning; and now, as she walked toward the bed, the gentle smile that came as far as her eyes was all for her father. Thought could hold no rival for him that day.
"This is Miss Levice, Dr. Stephens," said Kemp, presenting them. A swift look of wonderment passed under the reverend gentleman's beetle-brows as he bent over her hand. Could this tall, beautiful girl be the daughter of little Jules Levice? Where did she get that pure Madonna face, that regal bearing, that mobile and expressive mouth? The explanation was sufficient when Mrs. Levice entered. They stood talking, not much, but in that wandering, obligatory way that precedes any undertaking. They were waiting for Arnold; he came in presently with a bunch of pale heliotropes. He always looked well and in character when dressed for some social event; it was as if he were made for this style of dress, not the style for him. The delicate pink of his cheeks looked more like the damask skin of a young girl than ever; his eyes, however, behind their glasses, were veiled. As he handed Ruth the flowers, he said,—
"I asked the doctor to allow me to give you these. Will you hold them with my love?"
"They are both very dear to me," she replied, raising the flowers to her lips.
Their fragrance filled the room while the simple ceremony was being performed. It was a striking picture, and one not likely to be forgotten. Levice's eyes filled with proud, pardonable tears as he looked at his daughter,—for never had she looked as to-day in her simple white gown, her face like a magnolia bud, a fragrant dream; standing next to Kemp, the well-mated forms were noticeable. Even Arnold, with his heart like a crushed ball of lead, acknowledged it in bitter resignation. For him the scene was one of those silent, purgatorial moments that are approached with senses steeled and thought held in a vice. To the others it passed, as if it had happened in a dream. Even when Kemp stooped and pressed his lips for the first time upon his wife's, the real meaning of what had taken place seemed far away to Ruth; the present held but one thing in prominence,—the pale face upon the pillow. She felt her mother's arms around her; she knew that Louis had raised her hand to his lips, that she had drawn his head down and kissed him, that Dr. Kemp was standing silently beside her, that the minister had spoken some gravely pleasant words; but all the while she wanted to tear herself away from it all and fold that eager, loving, dying face close to hers. She was allowed to do so finally; and when she was drawn into the outstretched arms, there was only the long silence of love.
Kemp had left the room with Dr. Stephens, having a further favor to intrust to him. The short announcement of this marriage, which Dr. Stephens gave for insertion in the evening papers, created a world of talk.
When Kemp re-entered, Levice called him to him, holding out his hand. The doctor grasped it in that firm clasp which was always a tonic.
"Will you kneel?" asked Levice; Kemp knelt beside his wife, and the old father blessed them in the words that held a double solemnity now:—
"'The Lord bless thee and keep thee.
"'The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee.
"'The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.'"
"I think if you don't mind, dear, I shall close my eyes now," he said as they arose.
Ruth moved about, closing the blinds.
"Don't close out all the sun," said her father; "I like it,—it is an old friend. After all, I don't think I'll sleep; let me lie here and look at you all awhile. Louis, my boy, must you go?"
"Oh, no," he replied, turning back from the door and gliding into a chair.
"Thank you; and now don't think of me. Go on talking; it will be a foretaste of something better to lie here and listen. Esther, are you cold? I felt a shudder go through your hand, love. Ruth, give your mother a shawl; don't forget that sometimes some one should see that your mother is not cold. Just talk, will you?"
So they talked,—that is, the men did. Their grave, deep voices and the heavily breathing of the invalid were the only sounds in the room. Finally, as the twilight stole in, it was quite still. Levice had dropped into a sort of stupor. Kemp arose then.
"I shall be back presently," he said, addressing Mrs. Levice, who started perceptibly as he spoke. "I have some few directions to give to my man that I entirely forgot."
"Could not we send some one? You must not stay away now."
"I shall return immediately. Mr. Levice does not need me while he sleeps, and these instructions are important. Don't stir, Arnold; I know my way out."
Nevertheless Arnold accompanied him to the door. Ruth gave little heed to their movements. Her agitated heart had grasped the fact that the lines upon her father's face had grown weaker and paler, his breathing shorter and more rasping; when she passed him and touched his hand, it seemed cold and lifeless.
At nine the doctor came in again; the only appreciable difference in his going or coming was that no one rose or made any formal remarks. He went up to the bed and placed his hand on the sleeping head. Mrs. Levice moved her chair slightly as he seated himself on the edge of the bed and took Levice's hand. Ruth, watching him with wide, distended eyes, thought he would never drop it. Her senses, sharpened by suffering, read every change on his face. As he withdrew his hand, she gave one long, involuntary moan. He turned quickly to her.
"What is it?" he asked, his grave eyes scanning her anxiously.
"Nothing," she responded. It was the first word she had spoken to him since the afternoon ceremony. He turned back to Levice, lowering his ear to his chest. After a faint, almost imperceptible pause he arose.
"I think you had all better lie down," he said softly. "I shall sit with him, and you all need rest."
"I could not rest," said Mrs. Levice; "this chair is all I require."
"If you would lie on the couch here," he urged, "you would find the position easier."
"No, no! I could not."
He looked at Ruth.
"I shall go by and by," she answered.
Arnold had long since gone out.
Ruth's by and by stretched on interminably. Kemp took up the "Argonaut" that lay folded on the table. He did not read much, his eyes straying from the printed page before him to the "finis" writing itself slowly on Jules Levice's face, and thence to Ruth's pale profile; she was crying,—so quietly, though, that but for the visible tears an onlooker might not have known it; she herself did not,—her heart was silently overflowing.
Toward morning Levice suddenly sprang up in bed and made as if to leap upon the floor. Kemp's quick, strong hand held him back.
"Where are you going?" he asked. Mrs. Levice stood instantly beside him.
"Oh," gasped Levice, his eyes falling upon her, "I wanted to get home; but it is all right now. Is the child in bed, Esther?"
"Here she is; lie still, Jules; you know you are ill."
"But not now. Ah, Kemp, I can get up now; I am quite well, you know."
"Wait till morning," he resisted, humoring this inevitable idiosyncrasy.
"But it is morning now; and I feel so light and well. Open the shutters, Ruth; see, Esther; a beautiful day."
It was quite dark with the darkness that immediately precedes dawn; the windows were bespangled with the distillations of the night, which gleamed as the light fell on them.
Mrs. Levice seated herself beside him.
"It is very early, Jules," she said, smiling with hope, not knowing that this deceptive feeling was but the rose-flush of the sinking sun; "but if you feel well when day breaks you can get up, can't he Doctor?"
Levice lay back with closed eyes for some minutes. A quivering smile crossed his face and his eyes opened.
"Were you singing that song just now, Ruth, my angel?"
"What son, Father dear?"
"That—'Adieu,—adieu—pays—amours'—we sang it—you know—when we left home together—my mother said—I was too small—too small—and—too—"
Ruth looked around wildly for Kemp. He had left the room; she must go for him. As she came into the hall, she saw him and Louis hurriedly advancing up the corridor. Seeing her, they reached her side in a breath.
"Go," she whispered through pale lips; "he is breathing with that—"
Kemp laid his hand upon her shoulder.
"Stay here a second; it will be quite peaceful."
She looked at him in agony and walked blindly in after Louis.
He was lying as they had left him, with Mrs. Levice's hand in his.
"Keep tight hold, darling," the rattling voice was saying. "Don't take it off till—another takes it—it will not be hard then." Suddenly he saw Louis standing pale and straight at the foot of the bed.
"My good boy," he faltered, "my good boy, God will bless—" His eyes closed again; paler and paler grew his face.
"Father!" cried Ruth in agony.
He looked toward her smiling.
"The sweetest word," he murmured; "it was—my glory."
Silence. A soul is passing; a simple, loving soul, giving no trouble in its passage; dropping the toils, expanding with infinity. Not utterly gone; immortality is assured us in the hearts that have touched ours.
Silence. A shadow falls, and Jules Levice's work is done; and the first sunbeams crept about him, lay at his feet a moment, touched the quiet hands, fell on the head like a benediction, and rested there.
"I thought you would be quiet at this hour," said Rose Delano, seating herself opposite her friend in the library, the Thursday evening after the funeral. They looked so different even in the waning light,—Ruth in soft black, her white face shining like a lily above her sombre gown, Rose, like a bright firefly, perched on a cricket, her cheeks rosy, her eyes sparkling from walking against the sharp, cold wind.
"We are always quiet now," she answered softly; "friends come and go, but we are very quiet. It does me good to see you, Rosebud."
"Does it?" her sweet eyes smiled happily. "I was longing to drop in if only to hold your hand for a minute; but I did not know exactly where to find you."
"Why, where could I be but here?"
"I thought possibly you had removed to your husband's home."
For a second Ruth looked at her wonderingly; then the slow rich color mounted, inch by inch, back to her little ears till her face was one rosy cloud.
"No; I have stayed right on."
"I saw the doctor to-day," she chatted. "He looks pale; is he too busy?"
"I do not know,—that is, I suppose so. How are the lessons, Rose?"
"Everything is improving wonderfully; I am so happy, dear Mrs. Kemp, and what I wished to say was that all happiness and all blessings should, I pray, fall on you two who have been so much to me. Miss Gwynne told me that to do good was your birthright. She said that the funeral, with its vast gathering of friends, rich, poor, old, young, strong, and crippled of all grades of society, was a revelation of his life even to those who thought they knew him best. You should feel very proud with such sweet memories."
"Yes," assented Ruth, her eyes quickly suffused with tears.
They sat quietly thus for some time, till Rose, rising from her cricket, kissed her friend silently and departed.
The waning light fell softly through the lace curtains, printing quaint arabesques on the walls and furniture and bathing the room in a rich yellow light. A carriage rolled up in front of the house. Dr. Kemp handed the reins to his man and alighted. He walked slowly up to the door. It was very still about the house in the evening twilight. He pushed his hat back on his head and looked up at the clear blue sky, as if the keen breeze were pleasant to his temples. Then with a quick motion, as though recalling his thoughts, he turned and rang the bell. The latchkey of the householder was not his.
Ruth, sitting in the shadows, had scarcely heard the ring. She was absorbed in a new train of thought. Rose Delano was the first one who had clearly brought home to her the thought that she was really married. She had been very quiet with her other friends, and every one, looking at her grief-stricken face, had shrunk from mentioning what would have called for congratulation. Rose, who knew only these two, naturally dwelt on their changed relations. Her husband! Her dormant love gave an exultant bound. Wave upon wave of emotion beat upon her heart; she sprang to her feet; the door opened, and he came in. He saw her standing faintly outlined in the dark.
"Good-evening," he said, coming slowly toward her with extended hand; "have you been quite well to-day?" He felt her fingers tremble in his close clasp, and let them fall slowly. "Bob sent you these early violets. Shall I light the gas?"
"If you will."
He turned from her and rapidly filled the room with light.
"Where is your mother?" he asked, turning toward her again. Her face was hidden in the violets.
"Upstairs with Louis. They had something to arrange. Did you wish to see her?" To judge from Ruth's manner, Kemp might have been a visitor.
"No," he replied. "If you will sit down, we can talk quietly till they come in."
As she resumed her high-backed chair and he seated himself in another before her, he was instantly struck by some new change in her face. The faraway, impersonal look with which she had met him in these sad days had been what he had expected, and he had curbed with a strong will every impulse for any closer recognition. But this new look,—what did it mean? In the effort to appear unconcerned the dark color had risen to his own cheeks.
"I had quite a pleasant little encounter to-day," he observed; "shall I tell it to you?"
"If it will not tire you."
Keeping his eyes fixed on the picture over her head, he did not see the look of anxious love that dwelt in her eyes as they swept over him.
"Oh, no," he responded, slightly smiling over the recollection. "I was coming down my office steps this afternoon, and had just reached the foot, when a bright-faced, bright-haired boy stood before me with an eager light in his eyes. 'Aren't you Dr. Kemp?' he asked breathlessly, like one who had been running. I recollected him the instant he raised his hat from his nimbus of golden hair. 'Yes; and you are Will Tyrrell,' I answered promptly. 'Why, how did you remember?' he asked in surprise; 'you saw me only once.' 'Never mind; I remember that night,' I answered. 'How is that baby sister of yours?' 'Oh, she's all right,' he replied dismissing the subject with the royalty that brotherhood confers. 'I say, do you ever see Miss Levice nowadays?' I looked at him with a half-smile, not knowing whether to set him right or not, when he finally blurted out, 'She's the finest girl I ever met. Do you know her well, Doctor?' 'Well,' I answered, 'I know her slightly,—she is my wife.'"
He had told the little incident brightly; but as he came to the end, his voice gradually lowered, and as he pronounced the last word, his eyes sought hers. Her eyelids fluttered; her breath seemed suspended.
"I said you were my wife," he repeated softly, leaning forward, his hands grasping the chair-arms.
"And what," asked Ruth, a little excited ring in her voice,—"what did Will say?"
"Who cared?" he asked, quickly moving closer to her; "do you?" He caught her hand in his, scarce knowing what he said, and interlaced his fingers with hers.
"Ruth," he asked below his breath, "have you forgotten entirely what we are to each other?"
It was such a cruel lover's act to make her face him thus, her bosom panting, her face changing from white to red and from red to white.
"Have you, sweet love?" he insisted.
"No," she whispered, trying to turn her head from him.
With an irrepressible movement she sprang up, pushing his hand from hers. He rose also, his face pale and disturbed, and indescribable fear overpowering him.
"You mean," he said quietly, "that you no longer love me,—say it now and have it over."
"Oh," she cried in exquisite pain, "why do you tantalize me so—can't you see that—"
She looked so beautiful thus confessed that with sudden ecstacy he drew her to him and pressed his lips in one long kiss to hers.
A little later Mrs. Levice and Louis came down. Mrs. Levice entered first and stood still; Louis, looking over her shoulder, saw too—nothing but Ruth standing encircled by her husband's arm; her lovely face smiled into his, which looked down at her with an expression that drove every drop of blood from Arnold's face. For a moment they were unseen; but when Ruth, who was the first to feel their presence, started from Kemp as if she had committed a crime, Arnold came forward entirely at his ease.
Kemp met Mrs. Levice with outstretched hands and smiling eyes.
"Good-evening, Mother," he said; "we had just been speaking of you." Mrs. Levice looked into his deep, tender eyes, and raising her arm, drew his head down and kissed him.
Ruth had rolled forward a comfortable chair, and stood beside it with shy, sweet look as her mother sat down and drew her down beside her. Sorrow had softened Mrs. Levice wonderfully; and looking for love, she wooed everybody by her manner.
"What were you saying of me?" she asked, keeping Ruth's hand in hers and looking up at Kemp, who leaned against the mantel-shelf, his face radiant with gladness.
"We were saying that it will do you good to come out of this great house to our little one, till we find something better."
Mrs. Levice looked across at Louis, who stood at the piano, his back half turned, looking over a book.
"It is very sweet to be wanted by you all now," she said, her voice trembling slightly; "but I never could leave this house to strangers,—every room is too full of old associations, and sweet memories of him. Louis wants me to go down the coast with him soon, stopping for a month or so at Coronado. Go to your cottage meanwhile by yourselves; even I should be an intruder. There, Ruth, don't I know? And when we come back, we shall see. It is all settled, isn't it, Louis?"
He turned around then.
"Yes, I feel that I need a change of scene, and I should like to have her with me; you do not need her now."
Ruth looked at his careworn face, and said with tender solicitude,—
"You are right, Louis."
And so it was decided.