"When did you begin?" asked Rose, smiling in spite of herself at his unflattering honesty.
"How can I tell? Perhaps it did begin up there, though, for that talk set us writing, and the letters showed me what a beautiful soul you had. I loved that first it was so quick to recognize good things, to use them when they came, and give them out again as unconsciously as a flower does its breath. I longed for you to come home, and wanted you to find me altered for the better in some way as I had found you. And when you came it was very easy to see why I needed you to love you entirely, and to tell you so. That's all, Rose."
A short story, but it was enough the voice that told it with such simple truth made the few words so eloquent, Rose felt strongly tempted to add the sequel Mac desired. But her eyes had fallen as he spoke, for she knew his were fixed upon her, dark and dilated, with the same repressed emotion that put such fervor into his quiet tones, and just as she was about to look up, they fell on a shabby little footstool. Trifles affect women curiously, and often most irresistibly when some agitation sways them. The sight of the old hassock vividly recalled Charlie, for he had kicked it on the night she never liked to remember. Like a spark it fired a long train of recollections, and the thought went through her mind: "I fancied I loved him, and let him see it, but I deceived myself, and he reproached me for a single look that said too much. This feeling is very different, but too new and sudden to be trusted. I'll neither look nor speak till I am quite sure, for Mac's love is far deeper than poor Charlie's, and I must be very true."
Not in words did the resolve shape itself, but in a quick impulse, which she obeyed certain that it was right, since it was hard to yield to it. Only an instant's silence followed Mac's answer as she stood looking down with fingers intertwined and color varying in her cheeks. A foolish attitude, but Mac thought it a sweet picture of maiden hesitation and began to hope that a month's wooing was about to end in winning for a lifetime. He deceived himself, however, and cold water fell upon his flame, subduing but by no means quenching it, when Rose looked up with an air of determination which could not escape eyes that were growing wonderfully farsighted lately.
"I came in here to beg Uncle to advise you to go away soon. You are very patient and forbearing, and I feel it more than I can tell. But it is not good for you to depend on anyone so much for your happiness, I think, and I know it is bad for me to feel that I have so much power over a fellow creature. Go away, Mac, and see if this isn't all a mistake. Don't let a fancy for me change or delay your work, because it may end as suddenly as it began, and then we should both reproach ourselves and each other. Please do! I respect and care for you so much, I can't be happy to take all and give nothing. I try to, but I'm not sure I want to think it is too soon to know yet."
Rose began bravely, but ended in a fluttered sort of way as she moved toward the door, for Mac's face though it fell at first, brightened as she went on, and at the last word, uttered almost involuntarily, he actually laughed low to himself, as if this order into exile pleased him much.
"Don't say that you give nothing, when you've just shown me that I'm getting on. I'll go; I'll go at once, and see if absence won't help you 'to think, to know, and to be sure' as it did me. I wish I could do something more for you. As I can't, good-bye."
"Are you going now?" And Rose paused in her retreat to look back with a startled face as he offered her a badly made pen and opened the door for her just as Dr. Alec always did; for, in spite of himself, Mac did resemble the best of uncles.
"Not yet, but you seem to be."
Rose turned as red as a poppy, snatched the pen, and flew upstairs, to call herself hard names as she industriously spoiled all Aunt Plenty's new pocket handkerchiefs by marking them "A.M.C."
Three days later Mac said "good-bye" in earnest, and no one was surprised that he left somewhat abruptly, such being his way, and a course of lectures by a famous physician the ostensible reason for a trip to L——. Uncle Alec deserted most shamefully at the last moment by sending word that he would be at the station to see the traveler off, Aunt Plenty was still in her room, so when Mac came down from his farewell to her, Rose met him in the hall, as if anxious not to delay him. She was a little afraid of another tete-a-tete, as she fared so badly at the last, and had assumed a calm and cousinly air which she flattered herself would plainly show on what terms she wished to part.
Mac apparently understood, and not only took the hint, but surpassed her in cheerful composure, for, merely saying "Good-bye, Cousin; write when you feel like it," he shook hands and walked out of the house as tranquilly as if only a day instead of three months were to pass before they met again. Rose felt as if a sudden shower bath had chilled her and was about to retire, saying to herself with disdainful decision: "There's no love about it after all, only one of the eccentricities of genius," when a rush of cold air made her turn to find herself in what appeared to be the embrace of an impetuous overcoat, which wrapped her close for an instant, then vanished as suddenly as it had come, leaving her to hide in the sanctum and confide to Psyche with a tender sort of triumph in her breathless voice: "No, no, it isn't genius that must be love!"
Chapter 19 BEHIND THE FOUNTAIN
Two days after Christmas a young man of serious aspect might have been seen entering one of the large churches at L——. Being shown to a seat, he joined in the services with praiseworthy devotion, especially the music, to which he listened with such evident pleasure that a gentleman who sat nearby felt moved to address this appreciative stranger after church.
"Fine sermon today. Ever heard our minister before, sir?" he began, as they went down the aisle together among the last, for the young man had lingered as if admiring the ancient building.
"Very fine. No, sir, I have never had that pleasure. I've often wished to see this old place, and am not at all disappointed. Your choir, too, is unusually good," answered the stranger, glancing up at several bonnets bobbing about behind the half-drawn curtains above.
"Finest in the city, sir. We pride ourselves on our music, and always have the best. People often come for that alone." And the old gentleman looked as satisfied as if a choir of cherubim and seraphim "continually did cry" in his organ loft.
"Who is the contralto? That solo was beautifully sung," observed the younger man, pausing to read a tablet on the wall.
"That is Miss Moore. Been here about a year, and is universally admired. Excellent young lady couldn't do without her. Sings superbly in oratorios. Ever heard her?"
"Never. She came from X, I believe?
"Yes, highly recommended. She was brought up by one of the first families there. Campbell is the name. If you come from X, you doubtless know them."
"I have met them. Good morning." And with bows the gentlemen parted, for at that instant the young man caught sight of a tall lady going down the church steps with a devout expression in her fine eyes and a prayer-book in her hand.
Hastening after her, the serious-minded young man accosted her just as she turned into a quiet street.
Only a word, but it wrought a marvelous change, for the devout expression vanished in the drawing of a breath, and the quiet face blossomed suddenly with color, warmth, and "the light that never was on sea or land" as she turned to meet her lover with an answering word as eloquent as his.
"The year is out today. I told you I should come. Have you forgotten?"
"No I knew you'd come."
"And are you glad?"
"How can I help it?"
"You can't don't try. Come into this little park and let us talk." And drawing her hand through his arm, Archie led her into what to other eyes was a very dismal square, with a boarded-up fountain in the middle, sodden grass plots, and dead leaves dancing in the wintry wind.
But to them it was a summery Paradise, and they walked to and fro in the pale sunshine, quite unconscious that they were objects of interest to several ladies and gentlemen waiting anxiously for their dinner or yawning over the dull books kept for Sunday reading. "Are you ready to come home now, Phebe?" asked Archie tenderly as he looked at the downcast face beside him and wondered why all women did not wear delightful little black velvet bonnets with one deep red flower against their hair.
"Not yet. I haven't done enough," began Phebe, finding it very hard to keep the resolution made a year ago.
"You have proved that you can support yourself, make friends, and earn a name, if you choose. No one can deny that, and we are all getting proud of you. What more can you ask, my dearest?"
"I don't quite know, but I am very ambitious. I want to be famous, to do something for you all, to make some sacrifice for Rose, and, if I can, to have something to give up for your sake. Let me wait and work longer I know I haven't earned my welcome yet," pleaded Phebe so earnestly that her lover knew it would be in vain to try and turn her, so wisely contented himself with half, since he could not have the whole.
"Such a proud woman! Yet I love you all the better for it, and understand your feeling. Rose made me see how it seems to you, and I don't wonder that you cannot forget the unkind things that were looked, if not said, by some of my amiable aunts. I'll try to be patient on one condition, Phebe."
"And what is that?"
"You are to let me come sometimes while I wait, and wear this lest you should forget me," he said, pulling a ring from his pocket and gently drawing a warm, bare hand out of the muff where it lay hidden.
"Yes, Archie, but not here not now!" cried Phebe, glancing about her as if suddenly aware that they were not alone.
"No one can see us here I thought of that. Give me one happy minute, after this long, long year of waiting," answered Archie, pausing just where the fountain hid them from all eyes, for there were houses only on one side.
Phebe submitted and never did a plain gold ring slip more easily to its place than the one he put on in such a hurry that cold December day. Then one hand went back into the muff red with the grasp he gave it, and the other to its old place on his arm with a confiding gesture, as if it had a right there.
"Now I feel sure of you," said Archie as they went on again, and no one the wiser for that tender transaction behind the ugly pyramid of boards. "Mac wrote me that you were much admired by your church people, and that certain wealthy bachelors evidently had designs on the retiring Miss Moore. I was horribly jealous, but now I defy every man of them."
Phebe smiled with the air of proud humility that was so becoming and answered briefly: "There was no danger kings could not change me, whether you ever came or not. But Mac should not have told you."
"You shall be revenged on him, then, for, as he told secrets about you, I'll tell you one about him. Phebe, he loves Rose!" And Archie looked as if he expected to make a great sensation with his news.
"I know it." And Phebe laughed at his sudden change of countenance as he added inquiringly, "She told you, then?"
"Not a word. I guessed it from her letters, for lately she says nothing about Mac, and before there was a good deal, so I suspected what the silence meant and asked no questions."
"Wise girl! Then you think she does care for the dear old fellow?"
"Of course she does. Didn't he tell you so?"
"No, he only said when he went away, 'Take care of my Rose, and I'll take care of your Phebe,' and not another thing could I get out of him, for I did ask questions. He stood by me like a hero, and kept Aunt Jane from driving me stark mad with her 'advice.' I don't forget that, and burned to lend him a hand somewhere, but he begged me to let him manage his wooing in his own way. And from what I see, I should say he knew how to do it," added Archie, finding it very delightful to gossip about love affairs with his sweetheart.
"Dear little mistress! How does she behave?" asked Phebe, longing for news, but too grateful to ask at headquarters, remembering how generously Rose had tried to help her, even by silence, the greatest sacrifice a woman can make at such interesting periods.
"Very sweet and shy and charming. I try not to watch but upon my word I cannot help it sometimes, she is so 'cunning,' as you girls say. When I carry her a letter from Mac she tries so hard not to show how glad she is that I want to laugh and tell her I know all about it. But I look as sober as a judge and as stupid as an owl by daylight, and she enjoys her letters in peace and thinks I'm so absorbed in my own passion that I'm blind to hers."
"But why did Mac come away? He says lectures brought him, and he goes, but I am sure something else is in his mind, he looks so happy at times. I don't see him very often, but when I do I'm conscious that he isn't the Mac I left a year ago," said Phebe, leading Archie away, for inexorable propriety forbade a longer stay, even if prudence and duty had not given her a reminding nudge, as it was very cold, and afternoon church came in an hour.
"Well, you see Mac was always peculiar, and he cannot even grow up like other fellows. I don't understand him yet, and am sure he's got some plan in his head that no one suspects, unless it is Uncle Alec. Love makes us all cut queer capers, and I've an idea that the Don will distinguish himself in some uncommon way. So be prepared to applaud whatever it is. We owe him that, you know."
"Indeed we do! If Rose ever speaks of him to you, tell her I shall see that he comes to no harm, and she must do the same for my Archie."
That unusual demonstration of tenderness from reserved Phebe very naturally turned the conversation into a more personal channel, and Archie devoted himself to building castles in the air so successfully that they passed the material mansion without either being aware of it.
"Will you come in?" asked Phebe when the mistake was rectified and she stood on her own steps looking down at her escort, who had discreetly released her before a pull at the bell caused five heads to pop up at five different windows.
"No, thanks. I shall be at church this afternoon, and the oratorio this evening. I must be off early in the morning, so let me make the most of precious time and come home with you tonight as I did before," answered Archie, making his best bow, and quite sure of consent.
"You may." And Phebe vanished, closing the door softly, as if she found it hard to shut out so much love and happiness as that in the heart of the sedate young gentleman who went briskly down the street humming a verse of old "Clyde" like a tuneful bass viol:
"Oh, let our mingling voices rise In grateful rapture to the skies, Where love has had its birth.
Let songs of joy this day declare That spirits come their bliss to share With all the sons of earth."
That afternoon Miss Moore sang remarkably well, and that evening quite electrified even her best friends by the skill and power with which she rendered "Inflammatus" in the oratorio.
"If that is not genius, I should like to know what it is?" said one young man to another as they went out just before the general crush at the end.
"Some genius and a great deal of love. They are a grand team, and, when well driven, astonish the world by the time they make in the great race," answered the second young man with the look of one inclined to try his hand at driving that immortal span.
"Daresay you are right. Can't stop now she's waiting for me. Don't sit up, Mac."
"The gods go with you, Archie."
And the cousins separated one to write till midnight, the other to bid his Phebe good-bye, little dreaming how unexpectedly and successfully she was to earn her welcome home.
Chapter 20 WHAT MAC DID
Rose, meantime, was trying to find out what the sentiment was with which she regarded her cousin Mac. She could not seem to reconcile the character she had known so long with the new one lately shown her, and the idea of loving the droll, bookish, absentminded Mac of former times appeared quite impossible and absurd, but the new Mac, wide awake, full of talent, ardent and high-handed, was such a surprise to her, she felt as if her heart was being won by a stranger, and it became her to study him well before yielding to a charm which she could not deny.
Affection came naturally, and had always been strong for the boy; regard for the studious youth easily deepened to respect for the integrity of the young man, and now something warmer was growing up within her; but at first she could not decide whether it was admiration for the rapid unfolding of talent of some sort or love answering to love.
As if to settle that point, Mac sent her on New Year's Day a little book plainly bound and modestly entitled Songs and Sonnets. After reading this with ever-growing surprise and delight, Rose never had another doubt about the writer's being a poet, for though she was no critic, she had read the best authors and knew what was good. Unpretentious as it was, this had the true ring, and its very simplicity showed conscious power for, unlike so many first attempts, the book was not full of "My Lady," neither did it indulge in Swinburnian convulsions about
"The lilies and languors of peace, The roses and raptures of love.";
or contain any of the highly colored medieval word pictures so much in vogue. "My book should smell of pines, and resound with the hum of insects," might have been its motto, so sweet and wholesome was it with a springlike sort of freshness which plainly betrayed that the author had learned some of Nature's deepest secrets and possessed the skill to tell them in tuneful words. The songs went ringing through one's memory long after they were read, and the sonnets were full of the subtle beauty, insight, and half-unconscious wisdom, which seem to prove that "genius is divine when young."
Many faults it had, but was so full of promise that it was evident Mac had not "kept good company, read good books, loved good things, and cultivated soul and body as faithfully as he could" in vain. It all told now, for truth and virtue had blossomed into character and had a language of their own more eloquent than the poetry to which they were what the fragrance is to the flower. Wiser critics than Rose felt and admired this; less partial ones could not deny their praise to a first effort, which seemed as spontaneous and aspiring as a lark's song; and, when one or two of these Jupiters had given a nod of approval, Mac found himself, not exactly famous, but much talked about. One set abused, the other set praised, and the little book was sadly mauled among them, for it was too original to be ignored, and too robust to be killed by hard usage, so it came out of the fray none the worse but rather brighter, if anything, for the friction which proved the gold genuine.
This took time, however, and Rose could only sit at home reading all the notices she could get, as well as the literary gossip Phebe sent her, for Mac seldom wrote, and never a word about himself, so Phebe skillfully extracted from him in their occasional meetings all the personal news her feminine wit could collect and faithfully reported it.
It was a little singular that without a word of inquiry on either side, the letters of the girls were principally filled with tidings of their respective lovers. Phebe wrote about Mac; Rose answered with minute particulars about Archie; and both added hasty items concerning their own affairs, as if these were of little consequence.
Phebe got the most satisfaction out of the correspondence, for soon after the book appeared Rose began to want Mac home again and to be rather jealous of the new duties and delights that kept him. She was immensely proud of her poet, and had little jubilees over the beautiful fulfillment of her prophecies, for even Aunt Plenty owned now with contrition that "the boy was not a fool." Every word of praise was read aloud on the housetops, so to speak, by happy Rose; every adverse criticism was hotly disputed; and the whole family was in a great state of pleasant excitement over this unexpectedly successful first flight of the Ugly Duckling, now generally considered by his relatives as the most promising young swan of the flock.
Aunt Jane was particularly funny in her new position of mother to a callow poet and conducted herself like a proud but bewildered hen when one of her brood takes to the water. She pored over the poems, trying to appreciate them but quite failing to do so, for life was all prose to her, and she vainly tried to discover where Mac got his talent from. It was pretty to see the new respect with which she treated his possessions now; the old books were dusted with a sort of reverence; scraps of paper were laid carefully by lest some immortal verse be lost; and a certain shabby velvet jacket fondly smoothed when no one was by to smile at the maternal pride with filled her heart and caused her once severe countenance to shine with unwonted benignity.
Uncle Mac talked about "my son" with ill-concealed satisfaction, and evidently began to feel as if his boy was going to confer distinction upon the whole race of Campbell, which had already possessed one poet. Steve exulted with irrepressible delight and went about quoting Songs and Sonnets till he bored his friends dreadfully by his fraternal raptures.
Archie took it more quietly, and even suggested that it was too soon to crow yet, for the dear old fellow's first burst might be his last, since it was impossible to predict what he would do next. Having proved that he could write poetry, he might drop it for some new world to conquer, quoting his favorite Thoreau, who, having made a perfect pencil, gave up the business and took to writing books with the sort of indelible ink which grows clearer with time.
The aunts of course had their "views," and enjoyed much prophetic gossip as they wagged their caps over many social cups of tea. The younger boys thought it "very jolly," and hoped the Don would "go ahead and come to glory as soon as possible," which was all that could by expected of "Young America," with whom poetry is not usually a passion.
But Dr. Alec was a sight for "sair een," so full of concentrated contentment was he. No one but Rose, perhaps, knew how proud and pleased the good man felt at this first small success of his godson, for he had always had high hopes of the boy, because in spite of his oddities he had such an upright nature, and promising little, did much, with the quiet persistence which foretells a manly character. All the romance of the doctor's heart was stirred by this poetic bud of promise and the love that made it bloom so early, for Mac had confided his hopes to Uncle, finding great consolation and support in his sympathy and advice. Like a wise man, Dr. Alec left the young people to learn the great lesson in their own way, counseling Mac to work and Rose to wait till both were quite certain that their love was built on a surer foundation than admiration or youthful romance.
Meantime he went about with a well-worn little book in his pocket, humming bits from a new set of songs and repeating with great fervor certain sonnets which seemed to him quite equal, if not superior, to any that Shakespeare ever wrote. As Rose was doing the same thing, they often met for a private "read and warble," as they called it, and while discussing the safe subject of Mac's poetry, both arrived at a pretty clear idea of what Mac's reward was to be when he came home.
He seemed in no hurry to do this, however, and continued to astonish his family by going into society and coming out brilliantly in that line. It takes very little to make a lion, as everyone knows who has seen what poor specimens are patted and petted every year, in spite of their bad manners, foolish vagaries, and very feeble roaring. Mac did not want to be lionized and took it rather scornfully, which only added to the charm that people suddenly discovered about the nineteenth cousin of Thomas Campbell, the poet. He desired to be distinguished in the best sense of the word, as well as to look so, and thought a little of the polish society gives would not be amiss, remembering Rose's efforts in that line. For her sake he came out of his shell and went about seeing and testing all sorts of people with those observing eyes of his, which saw so much in spite of their nearsightedness. What use he meant to make of these new experiences no one knew, for he wrote short letters and, when questioned, answered with imperturbable patience: "Wait till I get through; then I'll come home and talk about it."
So everyone waited for the poet, till something happened which produced a greater sensation in the family than if all the boys had simultaneously taken to rhyming.
Dr. Alec got very impatient and suddenly announced that he was going to L to see after those young people, for Phebe was rapidly singing herself into public favor with the sweet old ballads which she rendered so beautifully that hearers were touched as well as ears delighted, and her prospects brightened every month.
"Will you come with me, Rose, and surprise this ambitious pair who are getting famous so fast they'll forget their homekeeping friends if we don't remind them of us now and then?" he said when he proposed the trip one wild March morning.
"No, thank you, sir I'll stay with Aunty; that is all I'm fit for and I should only be in the way among those fine people," answered Rose, snipping away at the plants blooming in the study window.
There was a slight bitterness in her voice and a cloud on her face, which her uncle heard and saw at once, half guessed the meaning of, and could not rest till he had found out.
"Do you think Phebe and Mac would not care to see you?" he asked, putting down a letter in which Mac gave a glowing account of a concert at which Phebe surpassed herself.
"No, but they must be very busy," began Rose, wishing she had held her tongue.
"Then what is the matter?" persisted Dr. Alec.
Rose did not speak for a moment, and decapitated two fine geraniums with a reckless slash of her scissors, as if pent-up vexation of some kind must find a vent. It did in words also, for, as if quite against her will, she exclaimed impetuously: "The truth is, I'm jealous of them both!"
"Bless my soul! What now?" ejaculated the doctor in great surprise.
Rose put down her water pot and shears, came and stood before him with her hands nervously twisted together, and said, just as she used to do when she was a little girl confessing some misdeed: "Uncle, I must tell you, for I've been getting very envious, discontented, and bad lately. No, don't be good to me yet, for you don't know how little I deserve it. Scold me well, and make me see how wicked I am."
"I will as soon as I know what I am to scold about. Unburden yourself, child, and let me see all your iniquity, for if you begin by being jealous of Mac and Phebe, I'm prepared for anything," said Dr. Alec, leaning back as if nothing could surprise him now.
"But I am not jealous in that way, sir. I mean I want to be or do something splendid as well as they. I can't write poetry or sing like a bird, but I should think I might have my share of glory in some way. I thought perhaps I could paint, and I've tried, but I can only copy I've no power to invent lovely things, and I'm so discouraged, for that is my one accomplishment. Do you think I have any gift that could be cultivated and do me credit like theirs?" she asked so wistfully that her uncle felt for a moment as if he never could forgive the fairies who endow babies in their cradles for being so niggardly to his girl. But one look into the sweet, open face before him reminded him that the good elves had been very generous and he answered cheerfully: "Yes, I do, for you have one of the best and noblest gifts a woman can possess. Music and poetry are fine things, and I don't wonder you want them, or that you envy the pleasant fame they bring. I've felt just so, and been ready to ask why it didn't please heaven to be more generous to some people, so you needn't be ashamed to tell me all about it."
"I know I ought to be contented, but I'm not. My life is very comfortable, but so quiet and uneventful, I get tired of it and want to launch out as the others have, and do something, or at least try. I'm glad you think it isn't very bad of me, and I'd like to know what my gift is," said Rose, looking less despondent already.
"The art of living for others so patiently and sweetly that we enjoy it as we do the sunshine, and are not half grateful enough for the great blessing."
"It is very kind of you to say so, but I think I'd like a little fun and fame nevertheless." And Rose did not look as thankful as she ought.
"Very natural, dear, but the fun and the fame do not last, while the memory of a real helper is kept green long after poetry is forgotten and music silent. Can't you believe that, and be happy?"
"But I do so little, nobody sees or cares, and I don't feel as if I was really of any use," sighed Rose, thinking of the long, dull winter, full of efforts that seemed fruitless.
"Sit here, and let us see if you really do very little and if no one cares." And, drawing her to his knee, Dr. Alec went on, telling off each item on one of the fingers of the soft hand he held.
"First, an infirm old aunt is kept very happy by the patient, cheerful care of this good-for-nothing niece. Secondly, a crotchety uncle, for whom she reads, runs, writes, and sews so willingly that he cannot get on without her. Thirdly, various relations who are helped in various ways. Fourthly, one dear friend never forgotten, and a certain cousin cheered by praise which is more to him than the loudest blast Fame could blow. Fifthly, several young girls find her an example of many good works and ways. Sixthly, a motherless baby is cared for as tenderly as if she were a little sister. Seventhly, half a dozen poor ladies made comfortable; and, lastly, some struggling boys and girls with artistic longings are put into a pleasant room furnished with casts, studies, easels, and all manner of helpful things, not to mention free lessons given by this same idle girl, who now sits upon my knee owning to herself that her gift is worth having after all."
"Indeed, I am! Uncle, I'd no idea I had done so many things to please you, or that anyone guessed how hard I try to fill my place usefully. I've learned to do without gratitude now I'll learn not to care for praise, but to be contented to do my best, and have only God know."
"He knows, and He rewards in His own good time. I think a quiet life like this often makes itself felt in better ways than one that the world sees and applauds, and some of the noblest are never known till they end, leaving a void in many hearts. Yours may be one of these if you choose to make it so, and no one will be prouder of this success than I, unless it be Mac."
The clouds were quite gone now, and Rose was looking straight into her uncle's face with a much happier expression when that last word made it color brightly and the eyes glance away for a second. Then they came back full of a tender sort of resolution as she said: "That will be the reward I work for," and rose, as if ready to be up and doing with renewed courage.
But her uncle held her long enough to ask quite soberly, though his eyes laughed: "Shall I tell him that?"
"No, sir, please don't! When he is tired of other people's praise, he will come home, and then I'll see what I can do for him," answered Rose, slipping away to her work with the shy, happy look that sometimes came to give to her face the charm it needed.
"He is such a thorough fellow, he never is in a hurry to go from one thing to another. An excellent habit, but a trifle trying to impatient people like me," said the doctor and, picking up Dulce, who sat upon the rug with her dolly, he composed his feelings by tossing her till she crowed with delight.
Rose heartily echoed that last remark, but said nothing aloud, only helped her uncle off with dutiful alacrity and, when he was gone, began to count the days till his return, wishing she had decided to go too.
He wrote often, giving excellent accounts of the "great creatures," as Steve called Phebe and Mac, and seemed to find so much to do in various ways that the second week of absence was nearly over before he set a day for his return, promising to astonish them with the account of his adventures.
Rose felt as if something splendid was going to happen and set her affairs in order so that the approaching crisis might find her fully prepared. She had "found out" now, was quite sure, and put away all doubts and fears to be ready to welcome home the cousin whom she was sure Uncle would bring as her reward. She was thinking of this one day as she got out her paper to write a long letter to poor Aunt Clara, who pined for news far away there in Calcutta.
Something in the task reminded her of that other lover whose wooing ended so tragically, and opening a little drawer of keepsakes, she took out the blue bracelet, feeling that she owed Charlie a tender thought in the midst of her new happiness, for of late she had forgotten him.
She had worn the trinket hidden under her black sleeve for a long time after his death, with the regretful constancy one sometimes shows in doing some little kindness all too late. But her arm had grown too round to hide the ornament, the forget-me-nots had fallen one by one, the clasp had broken, and that autumn she laid the bracelet away, acknowledging that she had outgrown the souvenir as well as the sentiment that gave it.
She looked at it in silence for a moment, then put it softly back and, shutting the drawer, took up the little gray book which was her pride, thinking as she contrasted the two men and their influence on her life the one sad and disturbing, the other sweet and inspiring "Charlie's was passion Mac's is love."
"Rose! Rose!" called a shrill voice, rudely breaking the pensive reverie, and with a start, she shut the desk, exclaiming as she ran to the door: "They have come! They have come!"
Chapter 21 HOW PHEBE EARNED HER WELCOME
Dr. Alec had not arrived, but bad tidings had, as Rose guessed the instant her eyes fell upon Aunt Plenty, hobbling downstairs with her cap awry, her face pale, and a letter flapping wildly in her hand as she cried distractedly: "Oh, my boy! My boy! Sick, and I not there to nurse him! Malignant fever, so far away. What can those children do? Why did I let Alec go?"
Rose got her into the parlor, and while the poor old lady lamented, she read the letter which Phebe had sent to her that she might "break the news carefully to Rose."
DEAR MISS PLENTY, Please read this to yourself first, and tell my little mistress as you think best. The dear doctor is very ill, but I am with him, and shall not leave him day or night till he is safe. So trust me, and do not be anxious, for everything shall be done that care and skill and entire devotion can do. He would not let us tell you before, fearing you would try to come at the risk of your health. Indeed it would be useless, for only one nurse is needed, and I came first, so do not let Rose or anybody else rob me of my right to the danger and the duty. Mac has written to his father, for Dr. Alec is now too ill to know what we do, and we both felt that you ought to be told without further delay. He has a bad malignant fever, caught no one can tell how, unless among some poor emigrants whom he met wandering about quite forlorn in a strange city. He understood Portuguese and sent them to a proper place when they had told their story. But I fear he has suffered for his kindness, for this fever came on rapidly, and before he knew what it was I was there, and it was too late to send me away.
Now I can show you how grateful I am, and if need be give my life so gladly for this friend who has been a father to me. Tell Rose his last conscious word and thought were for her. "Don't let her come; keep my darling safe." Oh, do obey him! Stay safely at home and, God helping me, I'll bring Uncle Alec back in time. Mac does all I will let him. We have the best physicians, and everything is going as well as can be hoped till the fever turns.
Dear Miss Plenty, pray for him and for me, that I may do this one happy thing for those who have done so much for Your ever dutiful and loving
As Rose looked up from the letter, half stunned by the sudden news and the great danger, she found that the old lady had already stopped useless bewailing and was praying heartily, like one who knew well where help was to be found. Rose went and knelt down at her knee, laying her face on the clasped hands in her lap, and for a few minutes neither wept nor spoke. Then a stifled sob broke from the girl, and Aunt Plenty gathered the young head in her arms, saying, with the slow tears of age trickling down her own withered cheeks: "Bear up, my lamb, bear up. The good Lord won't take him from us I am sure and that brave child will be allowed to pay her debt to him. I feel she will."
"But I want to help. I must go, Aunty, I must no matter what the danger is," cried Rose, full of a tender jealousy of Phebe for being first to brave peril for the sake of him who had been a father to them both.
"You can't go, dear, it's no use now, and she is right to say, 'Keep away.' I know those fevers, and the ones who nurse often take it, and fare worse for the strain they've been through. Good girl to stand by so bravely, to be so sensible, and not let Mac go too near! She's a grand nurse Alec couldn't have a better, and she'll never leave him till he's safe," said Miss Plenty excitedly.
"Ah, you begin to know her now, and value her as you ought. I think few would have done as she has, and if she does get ill and die, it will be our fault partly, because she'd go through fire and water to make us do her justice and receive her as we ought," cried Rose, proud of an example which she longed to follow.
"If she brings my boy home, I'll never say another word. She may marry every nephew I've got, if she likes, and I'll give her my blessing," exclaimed Aunt Plenty, feeling that no price would be too much to pay for such a deed.
Rose was going to clap her hands, but wrung them instead, remembering with a sudden pang that the battle was not over yet, and it was much too soon to award the honors.
Before she could speak Uncle Mac and Aunt Jane hurried in, for Mac's letter had come with the other, and dismay fell upon the family at the thought of danger to the well-beloved Uncle Alec. His brother decided to go at once, and Aunt Jane insisted on accompanying him, though all agreed that nothing could be done but wait, and leave Phebe at her post as long as she held out, since it was too late to save her from danger now and Mac reported her quite equal to the task.
Great was the hurry and confusion till the relief party was off. Aunt Plenty was heartbroken that she could not go with them, but felt that she was too infirm to be useful and, like a sensible old soul, tried to content herself with preparing all sorts of comforts for the invalid. Rose was less patient, and at first had wild ideas of setting off alone and forcing her way to the spot where all her thoughts now centered. But before she could carry out any rash project, Aunt Myra's palpitations set in so alarmingly that they did good service for once and kept Rose busy taking her last directions and trying to soothe her dying bed, for each attack was declared fatal till the patient demanded toast and tea, when hope was again allowable and the rally began.
The news flew fast, as such tidings always do, and Aunt Plenty was constantly employed in answering inquiries, for her knocker kept up a steady tattoo for several days. All sorts of people came: gentlefolk and paupers, children with anxious little faces, old people full of sympathy, pretty girls sobbing as they went away, and young men who relieved their feelings by swearing at all emigrants in general and Portuguese in particular. It was touching and comforting to see how many loved the good man who was known only by his benefactions and now lay suffering far away, quite unconscious how many unsuspected charities were brought to light by this grateful solicitude as hidden flowers spring up when warm rains fall.
If Rose had ever felt that the gift of living for others was a poor one, she saw now how beautiful and blessed it was how rich the returns, how wide the influence, how much more precious the tender tie which knit so many hearts together than any breath of fame or brilliant talent that dazzled but did not win and warm. In after years she found how true her uncle's words had been and, listening to eulogies of great men, felt less moved and inspired by praises of their splendid gifts than by the sight of some good man's patient labor for the poorest of his kind. Her heroes ceased to be the world's favorites and became such as Garrison fighting for his chosen people; Howe restoring lost senses to the deaf, the dumb, and blind; Sumner unbribable, when other men were bought and sold and many a large-hearted woman working as quietly as Abby Gibbons, who for thirty years had made Christmas merry for two hundred little paupers in a city almshouse, besides saving Magdalens and teaching convicts.
The lesson came to Rose when she was ready for it, and showed her what a noble profession philanthropy is, made her glad of her choice, and helped fit her for a long life full of the loving labor and sweet satisfaction unostentatious charity brings to those who ask no reward and are content if "only God knows."
Several anxious weeks went by with wearing fluctuations of hope and fear, for Life and Death fought over the prize each wanted, and more than once Death seemed to have won. But Phebe stood at her post, defying both danger and Death with the courage and devotion women often show. All her soul and strength were in her work, and when it seemed most hopeless, she cried out with the passionate energy which seems to send such appeals straight up to heaven: "Grant me this one boon, dear Lord, and I will never ask another for myself!"
Such prayers avail much, and such entire devotion often seems to work miracles when other aids are in vain. Phebe's cry was answered, her self-forgetful task accomplished, and her long vigil rewarded with a happy dawn. Dr. Alec always said that she kept him alive by the force of her will, and that, during the hours when he seemed to lie unconscious, he felt a strong, warm hand holding his, as if keeping him away from the swift current trying to sweep him away. The happiest hour of all her life was that in which he knew her, looked up with the shadow of a smile in his hollow eyes, and tried to say in his old cheery way: "Tell Rose I've turned the corner, thanks to you, my child."
She answered very quietly, smoothed the pillow, and saw him drop asleep again before she stole away into the other room, meaning to write the good news, but could only throw herself down and find relief for a full heart in the first tears she had shed for weeks. Mac found her there, and took such care of her that she was ready to go back to her place now indeed a post of honor while he ran off to send home a telegram which made many hearts sing for joy and caused Jamie, in his first burst of delight, to propose to ring all the city bells and order out the cannon: "Saved thanks to God and Phebe."
That was all, but everyone was satisfied, and everyone fell a-crying, as if hope needed much salty water to strengthen it. That was soon over, however, and then people went about smiling and saying to one another, with handshakes or embraces, "He is better no doubt of it now!" A general desire to rush away and assure themselves of the truth pervaded the family for some days, and nothing but awful threats from Mac, stern mandates from the doctor, and entreaties from Phebe not to undo her work kept Miss Plenty, Rose, and Aunt Jessie at home.
As the only way in which they could ease their minds and bear the delay, they set about spring cleaning with an energy which scared the spiders and drove charwomen distracted. If the old house had been infected with smallpox, it could not have been more vigorously scrubbed, aired, and refreshed. Early as it was, every carpet was routed up, curtains pulled down, cushions banged, and glory holes turned out till not a speck of dust, a last year's fly, or stray straw could be found. Then they all sat down and rested in such an immaculate mansion that one hardly dared to move for fear of destroying the shining order everywhere visible.
It was late in April before this was accomplished, and the necessary quarantine of the absentees well over. The first mild days seemed to come early, so that Dr. Alec might return with safety from the journey which had so nearly been his last. It was perfectly impossible to keep any member of the family away on that great occasion. They came from all quarters in spite of express directions to the contrary, for the invalid was still very feeble and no excitement must be allowed. As if the wind carried the glad news, Uncle Jem came into port the night before; Will and Geordie got a leave on their own responsibility; Steve would have defied the entire faculty, had it been necessary; and Uncle Mac and Archie said simultaneously, "Business be hanged today."
Of course the aunts arrived in all their best, all cautioning everybody else to keep quiet and all gabbling excitedly at the least provocation. Jamie suffered the most during that day, so divided was he between the desire to behave well and the frantic impulse to shout at the top of his voice, turn somersaults, and race all over the house. Occasional bolts into the barn, where he let off steam by roaring and dancing jigs, to the great dismay of the fat old horses and two sedate cows, helped him to get through that trying period.
But the heart that was fullest beat and fluttered in Rose's bosom as she went about putting spring flowers everywhere; very silent, but so radiant with happiness that the aunts watched her, saying softly to one another, "Could an angel look sweeter?"
If angels ever wore pale green gowns and snowdrops in their hair, had countenances full of serenest joy, and large eyes shining with an inward light that made them very lovely, then Rose did look like one. But she felt like a woman and well she might, for was not life very rich that day, when Uncle, friend, and lover were coming back to her together? Could she ask anything more, except the power to be to all of them the creature they believed her, and to return the love they gave her with one as faithful, pure, and deep? Among the portraits in the hall hung one of Dr. Alec, done soon after his return by Charlie in one of his brief fits of inspiration. Only a crayon, but wonderfully lifelike and carefully finished, as few of the others were. This had been handsomely framed and now held the place of honor, garlanded with green wreaths, while the great Indian jar below blazed with a pyramid of hothouse flowers sent by Kitty. Rose was giving these a last touch, with Dulce close by, cooing over a handful of sweet "daffydowndillies," when the sound of wheels sent her flying to the door. She meant to have spoken the first welcome and had the first embrace, but when she saw the altered face in the carriage, the feeble figure being borne up the steps by all the boys, she stood motionless till Phebe caught her in her arms, whispering with a laugh and a cry struggling in her voice: "I did it for you, my darling, all for you!"
"Oh, Phebe, never say again you owe me anything! I never can repay you for this," was all Rose had time to answer as they stood one instant cheek to cheek, heart to heart, both too full of happiness for many words.
Aunt Plenty had heard the wheels also and, as everybody rose en masse, had said as impressively as extreme agitation would allow, while she put her glasses on upside down and seized a lace tidy instead of her handkerchief: "Stop! All stay here, and let me receive Alec. Remember his weak state, and be calm, quite calm, as I am.'
"Yes, Aunt, certainly," was the general murmur of assent, but it was as impossible to obey as it would have been to keep feathers still in a gale, and one irresistible impulse carried the whole roomful into the hall to behold Aunt Plenty beautifully illustrating her own theory of composure by waving the tidy wildly, rushing into Dr. Alec's arms, and laughing and crying with a hysterical abandonment which even Aunt Myra could not have surpassed.
The tearful jubilee was soon over, however, and no one seemed the worse for it, for the instant his arms were at liberty, Dr. Alec forgot himself and began to make other people happy by saying seriously, though his thin face beamed paternally, as he drew Phebe forward: "Aunt Plenty, but for this good daughter I never should have come back to be so welcomed. Love her for my sake."
Then the old lady came out splendidly and showed her mettle, for, turning to Phebe, she bowed her gray head as if saluting an equal and, offering her hand, answered with repentance, admiration, and tenderness trembling in her voice: "I'm proud to do it for her own sake. I ask pardon for my silly prejudices, and I'll prove that I'm sincere by where's that boy?"
There were six boys present, but the right one was in exactly the right place at the right moment, and, seizing Archie's hand, Aunt Plenty put Phebe's into it, trying to say something appropriately solemn, but could not, so hugged them both and sobbed out: "If I had a dozen nephews, I'd give them all to you, my dear, and dance at the wedding, though I had rheumatism in every limb."
That was better than any oration, for it set them all to laughing, and Dr. Alec was floated to the sofa on a gentle wave of merriment. Once there, everyone but Rose and Aunt Plenty was ordered off by Mac, who was in command now and seemed to have sunk the poet in the physician.
"The house must be perfectly quiet, and he must go to sleep as soon as possible after the journey, so all say 'good-bye' now and call again tomorrow," he said, watching his uncle anxiously as he leaned in the sofa corner, with four women taking off his wraps, three boys contending for his overshoes, two brothers shaking hands at short intervals, and Aunt Myra holding a bottle of strong salts under his devoted nose every time there was an opening anywhere.
With difficulty the house was partially cleared, and then, while Aunt Plenty mounted guard over her boy, Rose stole away to see if Mac had gone with the rest, for as yet they had hardly spoken in the joyful flurry, though eyes and hands had met.
Chapter 22 SHORT AND SWEET
In the hall she found Steve and Kitty, for he had hidden his little sweetheart behind the big couch, feeling that she had a right there, having supported his spirits during the late anxiety with great constancy and courage. They seemed so cozy, billing and cooing in the shadow of the gay vase, that Rose would have slipped silently away if they had not seen and called to her. "He's not gone I guess you'll find him in the parlor," said Steve, divining with a lover's instinct the meaning of the quick look she had cast at the hat rack as she shut the study door behind her.
"Mercy, no! Archie and Phebe are there, so he'd have the sense to pop into the sanctum and wait, unless you'd like me to go and bring him out?" added Kitty, smoothing Rose's ruffled hair and settling the flowers on the bosom where Uncle Alec's head had lain until he fell asleep.
"No, thank you, I'll go to him when I've seen my Phebe. She won't mind me," answered Rose, moving on to the parlor.
"Look here," called Steve, "do advise them to hurry up and all be married at once. We were just ready when Uncle fell ill, and now we cannot wait a day later than the first of May."
"Rather short notice," laughed Rose, looking back with the doorknob in her hand.
"We'll give up all our splendor, and do it as simply as you like, if you will only come too. Think how lovely! Three weddings at once! Do fly round and settle things there's a dear," implored Kitty, whose imagination was fired with this romantic idea.
"How can I, when I have no bridegroom yet?" began Rose, with conscious color in her telltale face.
"Sly creature! You know you've only got to say a word and have a famous one. Una and her lion will be nothing to it," cried Steve, bent on hastening his brother's affair, which was much too dilatory and peculiar for his taste.
"He has been in no haste to come home, and I am in no haste to leave it. Don't wait for me, 'Mr. and Mrs. Harry Walmers, Jr.,' I shall be a year at least making up my mind, so you may lead off as splendidly as you like and I'll profit by your experience." And Rose vanished into the parlor, leaving Steve to groan over the perversity of superior women and Kitty to comfort him by promising to marry him on May Day "all alone."
A very different couple occupied the drawing room, but a happier one, for they had known the pain of separation and were now enjoying the bliss of a reunion which was to last unbroken for their lives. Phebe sat in an easy chair, resting from her labors, pale and thin and worn, but lovelier in Archie's eyes than ever before. It was very evident that he was adoring his divinity, for, after placing a footstool at her feet, he had forgotten to get up and knelt there with his elbow on the arm of her chair, looking like a thirsty man drinking long drafts of the purest water.
"Shall I disturb you if I pass through?" asked Rose, loath to spoil the pretty tableau.
"Not if you stop a minute on the way and congratulate me, Cousin, for she says 'yes' at last!" cried Archie, springing up to go and bring her to the arms Phebe opened as she appeared.
"I knew she would reward your patience and put away her pride when both had been duly tried," said Rose, laying the tired head on her bosom with such tender admiration in her eyes that Phebe had to shake some bright drops from her own before she could reply in a tone of grateful humility that showed how much her heart was touched: "How can I help it, when they are all so kind to me? Any pride would melt away under such praise and thanks and loving wishes as I've had today, for every member of the family has taken pains to welcome me, to express far too much gratitude, and to beg me to be one of you. I needed very little urging, but when Archie's father and mother came and called me 'daughter,' I would have promised anything to show my love for them."
"And him," added Rose, but Archie seemed quite satisfied and kissed the hand he held as if it had been that of a beloved princess while he said with all the pride Phebe seemed to have lost: "Think what she gives up for me fame and fortune and the admiration of many a better man. You don't know what a splendid prospect she has of becoming one of the sweet singers who are loved and honored everywhere, and all this she puts away for my sake, content to sing for me alone, with no reward but love."
"I am so glad to make a little sacrifice for a great happiness I never shall regret it or think my music lost if it makes home cheerful for my mate. Birds sing sweetest in their own nests, you know." And Phebe bent toward him with a look and gesture which plainly showed how willingly she offered up all ambitious hopes upon the altar of a woman's happy love.
Both seemed to forget that they were not alone, and in a moment they were, for a sudden impulse carried Rose to the door of her sanctum, as if the south wind which seemed to have set in was wafting this little ship also toward the Islands of the Blessed, where the others were safely anchored now.
The room was a blaze of sunshine and a bower of spring freshness and fragrance, for here Rose had let her fancy have free play, and each garland, fern, and flower had its meaning. Mac seemed to have been reading this sweet language of symbols, to have guessed why Charlie's little picture was framed in white roses, why pansies hung about his own, why Psyche was half hidden among feathery sprays of maidenhair, and a purple passion flower lay at Cupid's feet. The last fancy evidently pleased him, for he was smiling over it, and humming to himself as if to beguile his patient waiting, the burden of the air Rose had so often sung to him:
"Bonny lassie, will ye gang, will ye gang To the birks of Aberfeldie?"
"Yes, Mac, anywhere!"
He had not heard her enter, and wheeling around, looked at her with a radiant face as he said, drawing a long breath, "At last! You were so busy over the dear man, I got no word. But I can wait I'm used to it."
Rose stood quite still, surveying him with a new sort of reverence in her eyes, as she answered with a sweet solemnity that made him laugh and redden with the sensitive joy of one to whom praise from her lips was very precious: "You forget that you are not the Mac who went away. I should have run to meet my cousin, but I did not dare to be familiar with the poet whom all begin to honor."
"You like the mixture, then? You know I said I'd try to give you love and poetry together."
"Like it! I'm so glad, so proud, I haven't any words strong and beautiful enough to half express my wonder and my admiration. How could you do it, Mac?" And a whole face full of smiles broke loose as Rose clapped her hands, looking as if she could dance with sheer delight.
"It did itself, up there among the hills, and here with you, or out alone upon the sea. I could write a heavenly poem this very minute, and put you in as Spring you look like her in that green gown with snowdrops in your bonny hair. Rose, am I getting on a little? Does a hint of fame help me nearer to the prize I'm working for? Is your heart more willing to be won?"
He did not stir a step, but looked at her with such intense longing that his glance seemed to draw her nearer like an irresistible appeal, for she went and stood before him, holding out both hands, as if she offered all her little store, as she said with simplest sincerity: "It is not worth so much beautiful endeavor, but if you still want so poor a thing, it is yours."
He caught her hands in his and seemed about to take the rest of her, but hesitated for an instant, unable to believe that so much happiness was true.
"Are you sure, Rose very sure? Don't let a momentary admiration blind you I'm not a poet yet, and the best are but mortal men, you know."
"It is not admiration, Mac."
"Nor gratitude for the small share I've taken in saving Uncle? I had my debt to pay, as well as Phebe, and was as glad to risk my life."
"No it is not gratitude."
"Nor pity for my patience? I've only done a little yet, and I am as far as ever from being like your hero. I can work and wait still longer if you are not sure, for I must have all or nothing."
"Oh, Mac! Why will you be so doubtful? You said you'd make me love you, and you've done it. Will you believe me now?" And, with a sort of desperation, she threw herself into his arms, clinging there in eloquent silence while he held her close; feeling, with a thrill of tender triumph, that this was no longer little Rose, but a loving woman, ready to live and die for him.
"Now I'm satisfied!" he said presently, when she lifted up her face, full of maidenly shame at the sudden passion which had carried her out of herself for a moment. "No don't slip away so soon. Let me keep you for one blessed minute and feel that I have really found my Psyche."
"And I my Cupid," answered Rose, laughing, in spite of her emotion, at the idea of Mac in that sentimental character.
He laughed, too, as only a happy lover could, then said, with sudden seriousness: "Sweet soul! Lift up your lamp and look well before it is too late, for I'm no god, only a very faulty man."
"Dear love! I will. But I have no fear, except that you will fly too high for me to follow, because I have no wings."
"You shall live the poetry, and I will write it, so my little gift will celebrate your greater one."
"No you shall have all the fame, and I'll be content to be known only as the poet's wife."
"And I'll be proud to own that my best inspiration comes from the beneficent life of a sweet and noble woman."
"Oh, Mac! We'll work together and try to make the world better by the music and the love we leave behind us when we go."
"Please God, we will!" he answered fervently and, looking at her as she stood there in the spring sunshine, glowing with the tender happiness, high hopes, and earnest purposes that make life beautiful and sacred, he felt that now the last leaf had folded back, the golden heart lay open to the light, and his Rose had bloomed.