This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Language:
Form:
Genre:
Published:
  • 1864
Collection:
Tags:
Buy it on Amazon FREE Audible 30 days

of Nina during his absence. “But it shall not be,” she thought, “I can prevent her returning to the Asylum, and I will.”

She might have spared herself all uneasiness, for Dr. Griswold knew nothing of Arthur’s absence, and seemed more surprised than she had been.

“I am so glad, so glad,” he said; and when Edith looked inquiringly at him, he answered, “I am glad because it is right that he should go.”

Edith did not in the least comprehend his meaning, and as he manifested no intention to explain, the conversation soon turned upon other topics than Arthur and his sudden journey. Since Arthur’s visit to Worcester, Dr. Griswold had heard nothing from him, and impelled by one of those strange influences which will sometimes lead a person on to his fate, he had come up to Shannondale partly to see how matters stood and partly to whisper a word of encouragement to one who needed it so much. He had never been very robust or strong; the secret which none save Arthur knew had gradually undermined his health, and he was subject to frequent attacks of what he called his nervous headaches. The slightest cause would sometimes induce one of these, and when on the morning after his arrival at Grassy Spring he awoke from a troubled sleep he knew by certain unmistakable signs that a day of suffering was in store for him. This on his own account he would not have minded particularly, for he was accustomed to it, but his presence was needed at home; and the knowledge of this added to the intensity of his pain, which became so great that to rise from his pillow was impossible, and Soph, when sent to his room to announce that breakfast was waiting, reported him to her mother as “mighty sick with blood in the face.”

All the day long he lay in the darkened room, sometimes dreaming, sometimes moaning, and watching through his closed eyes the movements of Nina, who had constituted herself his nurse, treading on tiptoe across the floor, whispering to herself, and apparently carrying on an animated conversation with some imaginary personage. Softly, she bathed his aching head, asking every moment if he were better, and going once behind the door where he heard her praying that “God would make the good doctor well.”

Blessed Nina, there was far more need for this prayer than she supposed, for when the next day came, the pain and heat about the eyes and head were not in the least abated, and a physician was called, who pronounced the symptoms to be those of typhoid fever. With a stifled moan, Dr. Griswold turned upon his pillow, while his great, unselfish heart went out after his poor patients in the Asylum, who would miss him so much. Three days passed away, and it was generally known in the village that a stranger lay sick of typhus fever at Grassy Spring, which with common consent was shunned as if the deadly plague had been rioting there. Years before the disease had raged with fearful violence in the town, and many a fresh mound was reared in the graveyard, and many a hearth-stone desolated. This it was which struck a panic to the hearts of the inhabitants when they knew the scourge was again in their midst, and save the inmates of the house, and Edith Hastings, none came to Dr. Griswold’s aid. At first Richard refused to let the latter put herself in the way of danger, but for once Edith asserted her right to do as she pleased, and declared that she WOULD share Nina’s labors. So for many weary days and nights those two young girls hovered like angels of mercy around the bed where the sick man tossed from side to side, while the fever burned more and more fiercely in his veins until his reason was dethroned, and a secret told which otherwise would have died with him. Gradually the long hidden love for Nina showed itself, and Edith, who alone could comprehend the meaning of what he said and did, saw how a strong, determined man can love, even when there is no hope.

“Little wounded dove,” he called the golden-haired maiden, who bent so constantly over him, caressing his burning face with her cool, soft hands, passing her snowy fingers through his disordered hair, and suffering him to kiss her as he often did, but insisting always that MIGGIE should be kissed also, and Edith, knowing that what was like healing to the sick man would be withheld unless she, too, submitted, would sometimes bow her graceful head and receive upon her brow the token of affection.

“You must hug Miggie, too,” Nina said to him one day, when he had held her slight form for a moment to his bosom. “She’s just as good to you as I am.”

“Nina,” said Edith, “Dr. Griswold does not love me as he does you, and you must not worry him so. Don’t you see it makes him worse?” and lifting the hair she pointed to the drops of perspiration standing upon his forehead.

This seemed to satisfy Nina, while at the same time her darkened mind must have caught a glimmer of the truth, for her manner changed perceptibly, and for a day or so she was rather shy of Dr. Griswold. Then the mood changed again, and to the poor dying man was vouchsafed a glimpse of what it might have been to be loved by Nina Bernard.

“Little sunbeam–little clipped-winged bird–little pearl,” were the terms of endearment he lavished upon her, as, with his feeble arm about her, he told her one night how he loved her. “Don’t go Edith,” he said, as he saw her stealing from the room; “sit down here beside me and listen to what I have to say.”

Edith obeyed, and taking her hand and Nina’s in his, as if the touch of them both would make him strong to unburden his mind, he began:

“Let me call you Edith, while I’m talking, for the sake of one who loves you even as I love Nina,”

Edith started, and very foolishly replied,

“Do you mean Mr. Harrington?”

She knew he didn’t, but her heart was so sore on the subject of Arthur’s absence that she longed to be reassured in some way, and so said what she did.

“No, Edith, it is not Mr. Harrington, I mean,” and Dr. Griswold’s bright eyes fastened themselves upon the trembling girl as if to read her inmost soul, and see how far her feelings were enlisted.

“It’s Arthur,” said Nina, nodding knowingly at both.

“Arthur,” Edith repeated bitterly. “Fine proof he gives of his love. Going from home for an indefinite length of time without one word for me. He hates me, I know,” and bursting into tears she buried her face in the lap of Nina, who sat upon the bed.

“Poor Edith!” and another hand than Nina’s smoothed her bands of shining hair. “By this one act you have confessed that Arthur’s love is not unrequited. I hoped it might be otherwise. God help you, Edith. God help you.”

He spoke earnestly, and a thrill of fear ran through Edith’s veins. Lifting up her head, she said,

“You talk as if it were a certainty that Arthur St. Claire loves me. He has never told me so–never.”

She could not add that he had never given her reason to think so, for he had, and her whole frame quivered with joy as she heard her suspicions confirmed by Dr. Griswold.

“He does love you, Edith Hastings. He has confessed as much to me, and this is why he has gone from home. He would forget you, and it is right. He must forget you; he must not love. It would be a wicked, wicked thing; and Edith–are you listening–do you hear all I say?”

“Yes,” came faintly from Nina’s lap, where Edith had laid her face again.

“Then promise not to marry him, so long–so long–Oh, Nina, how can I say it? Edith, swear you’ll never marry Arthur. Swear, Edith, swear.”

His voice was raised to a shriek, and by the dim light of the lamp, which fell upon his pallid features, both Edith and Nina saw the wild delirium flashing from his eye. Nina was the first to detect it, and wringing Edith’s hand she whispered, imploringly,

“Swear, Miggie, once. Say THUNDER, or something like that as softly as you can. It won’t be so very bad, and he wants you to so much.”

Frightened as Edith was at Dr. Griswold’s manner she could not repress a smile at Nina’s mistaken idea. Still she did NOT swear, and all that night he continued talking incoherently of Arthur, of Edith, of Nina, Geneva, Richard Harrington, and a thousand other matters, mingling them together in such a manner that nothing clear or connected could be made of what he said. In the morning he was more quiet, but there was little hope of his life, the physician said. From the first he had greatly desired to see Arthur once more, and when his danger became apparent a telegram had been forwarded to the wanderer, but brought back no response. Another was sent, and another, the third one, in the form of a letter, finding him far up the Red river, where in that sultry season the air was rife with pestilence, which held with death many a wanton revel, and would surely have claimed him for its victim, but for the timely note which called him away.

Night and day, day and night, as fast as the steam-god could take him, he traveled, his heart swelling with alternate hope and fear as he neared the north-land, seeing from afar the tall heads of the New England mountains, and knowing by that token that he was almost home.

* * * * * *

It was night, dark night at Grassy Spring, and the summer rain, which all the day had fallen in heavy showers, beat drearily against the windows of the room where a fair young girl was keeping watch over the white-faced man whose life was fast ebbing away. They were alone,–Dr. Griswold and Nina–for both would have it so. He, because he felt how infinitely precious to him would be his last few hours with her, when there was no curious ear to listen; and she, because she would have Miggie sleep. Nina knew no languor from wakefulness. She was accustomed to it, and as if imbued with supernatural strength, she had sat night after night in that close room, ministering to the sick man as no one else could have done, and by her faithfulness and tender care repaying him in part for the love which for long, weary years had known no change, and which, as life draw near its close, manifested itself in a desire to have her constantly at his side, where he could look into her eyes, and hear the murmurings of her bird-like voice.

Thus far Edith and the servants had shared her vigils, but this night she preferred to be alone, insisting that Edith, who began to show signs of weariness, should occupy the little room, adjoining, where she could be called, if necessary. Not apprehending death so soon the physician acquiesced in this arrangement, stipulating, however, that Phillis should sleep upon the lounge in Dr. Griswold’s chamber, but the care, the responsibility, should all be Nina’s, he said, and with childish alacrity she hastened to her post. It was the first time she had kept the watch alone, but from past experience the physician believed she could be trusted, and he left her without a moment’s hesitation.

Slowly the hours went by, and Nina heard no sound save the low breathing of the sleepers near, the dropping of the rain, and the mournful sighing of the wind through the maple trees. Midnight came, and then the eyes of the sick man opened wide and wandered about the room as if in quest of some one.

“Nina,” he said, faintly, “Are you here? Why has the lamp gone out? It’s so dark that I can’t see your face.”

Bending over him, Nina replied,

“I’m here, doctor. Nina’s here. Shall I get more light so you CAN see?”

“Yes, darling, more light–more light;” and swift as a fawn Nina ran noiselessly from room to room, gathering up lamp after lamp, and candle after candle, and bringing them to the sick chamber, which blazed as if on fire, while the musical laugh of the lunatic echoed through the room as she whispered to herself, “Twenty sperm candles and fifteen lamps! ‘Tis a glorious watch I keep to-night.”

Once she thought of wakening Edith to share in her transports, but was withheld from doing so by a feeling that “Miggie” would not approve her work.

“It’s light as noonday,” she said, seating herself upon the bedside. “Can’t you see me now?”

“No, Nina, I shall never look on your dear face again until we meet in Heaven. There you will be my own. No one can come between us,” and the feeble arms wound themselves lovingly around the maiden, who laid her cheek against his feverish one, while her little fingers strayed once more amid the mass of disordered hair, pushing it back from the damp forehead, which she touched with her sweet lips.

“Nina,” and the voice was so low that Nina bent her down to catch the sound, “I am dying, darling. You are not afraid to stay with me till the last?”

“No,” she answered, “not afraid, but I do so wish you could see the splendid illumination. Twenty candles and fifteen lamps–the wicks of them all an inch in height. Oh, it’s grand!” and again Nina chuckled as she saw how the lurid blaze lit up the window panes with a sheet of flame which, flashing backward, danced upon the wall in many a grotesque form, and cast a reddish glow even upon the white face of the dying.

He was growing very restless now, for the last great struggle had commenced; the soul was waging a mighty battle with the body, and the conflict was a terrible one, wringing groans of agony from him and great tears from Nina, who forgot her bonfire in her grief. Once when the fever had scorched her veins and she had raved in mad delirium, Dr. Griswold had rocked her in his arms as he would have rocked a little child, and remembering this the insane desire seized on Nina to rock him, too, to sleep. But she could not lift him up, though she bent every energy to the task, and at last, passing one arm beneath his neck she managed to sit behind him, holding him in such a position that he rested easier, and his convulsive movements ceased entirely. With his head upon her bosom she rocked to and fro, uttering a low, cooing sound, as if soothing him to sleep.

“Sing, Nina, sing,” he whispered, and on the night air a mournful cadence rose, swelling sometimes so high that Edith moved uneasily upon her pillow, while even Phillis stretched out a hand as if about to awaken.

Then the music changed to a plaintive German song, and Edith dreamed of Bingen on the Rhine, while Dr. Griswold listened eagerly, whispering at intervals,

“Precious Nina, blessed dove, sing on–sing till I am at rest.”

This was sufficient for Nina, and one after another she warbled the wild songs she knew he loved the best, while the lamps upon the table and the candles upon the floor flickered and flamed and cast their light far out into the yard, where the August rain was falling, and where more than one bird, startled from its slumbers, looked up to see whence came the fitful glare, wondering, it may be, at the solemn dirge, floating out into the darkness far beyond the light.

The gray dawn broke at last, and up the graveled walk rapid footsteps came–Arthur St. Claire hastening home. From a distant hill he had caught the blaze of Nina’s bonfire, and trembling with fear and dread, he hurried on to learn what it could mean. There was no stir about the house–no sign of life, only the crimson blaze shining across the fields, and the sound of a voice, feeble now, and sunk almost to a whisper, for Nina’s strength was giving way. For hours she had sung, while the head upon her bosom pressed more and more heavily–the hand which clasped hers unloosed its hold–the eyes which had fastened themselves upon her with a look of unutterable love, closed wearily–the lips, which, so long as there was life in them, ceased not to bless her, were still, and poor, tired, crazy Nina, fancying that he slept at last, still swayed back and forth, singing to the cold senseless clay, an infant lullaby.

“Hushaby, my baby–go to sleep, my child.”

HE had sung it once to her. SHE sang it now to him, and the strange words fell on Arthur’s ear, even before he stepped across the threshold, where he stood appalled at the unwonted spectacle which met his view. Nina manifested no surprise whatever, but holding up her finger, motioned him to tread cautiously, if he would come near where she was.

“He couldn’t see,” she whispered, “and I made him a famous light. Isn’t it glorious here, smoke, and fire and all? He is sleeping quietly now, only his head is very heavy. It makes my arm ache so hard, and his hands are growing cold, I cannot kiss them warm,” and she held the stiffening fingers against her burning cheek, shuddering at the chill they gave her, just as Arthur shuddered at the sight, for it needed nothing more to tell him that Dr. Griswold was dead!

CHAPTER XIX.

EX-OFFICIO.

The spacious rooms at Grassy Spring had been filled to their utmost capacity by those of the villagers, who, having recovered from their panic, came to join in the funeral obsequies of Dr. Griswold. In the yard without the grass was trampled down and the flowers broken from their stalks by the crowds, who, failing to gain admittance to the interior of the house, hovered about the door, struggling for a sight of the young girl, whose strange death watch and stranger bonfire was the theme of every tongue. Solemnly the voice of God’s ambassador was heard, proclaiming, “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” and then a song was sung, the voices of the singers faltering, all but one, which, rising clear and sweet above the rest, sang of the better world, where the bright eternal noonday ever reigns, and the assembled throng without held their breath to listen, whispering to each other, “It is Nina, the crazy girl. She was the doctor’s betrothed.”

Down the gravelled walk,–along the highway,–over the river, and up the hill to the village churchyard the long procession moved, and when it backward turned, one of the number was left behind, and the August sunset fell softly upon his early grave. Sadly the mourners, Arthur, Edith and Nina, went to their respective homes, Edith seeking the rest she so much needed, Nina subdued and awed into perfect quiet, sitting with folded hands in the room where her truest friend had died, while Arthur, alone in his chamber, held as it were communion with the dead, who seemed this night to be so near to him.

Swiftly, silently, one by one, the days came and went until it was weeks since Dr. Griswold died, and things at Grassy Spring assumed their former routine. At first Nina was inclined to be melancholy, talking much of the deceased, and appearing at times so depressed that Arthur trembled, lest she should again become unmanageable, wondering what he should do with her now the Dr. was gone. Gradually, however, she recovered her usual health and spirits, appearing outwardly the same; but not so with Arthur, whose thoughts and feelings no one could fathom. It was as if he had locked himself within a wall of ice, which nothing had power to thaw. He saw but little of Edith now; the lessons had been tacitly given up, and, after what she had heard from Dr. Griswold, she could not come to Grassy Spring just as she used to do, so she remained at home, marvelling at the change in Arthur, and wondering if he really loved her, why he did not tell her so. Much of what Dr. Griswold had said she imputed to delirium, and with the certainty that she was beloved, she would not dwell upon anything which made her unhappy, and she waited for the end, now hastening on with rapid strides.

Behind the icy wall which Arthur had built around himself, a fierce storm was blowing, and notwithstanding the many midnight watches kept over Dr. Griswold’s grave, the tempest still raged fearfully, threatening to burst its barriers and carry all before it. But it reached its height at last, and wishing to test his strength, Arthur asked Nina one pleasant night to go with him to Collingwood. She consented readily, and in a few moments they were on their way. They found the family assembled upon the broad piazza, where the full moon shone upon them through the broad leaves of woodbine twining about the massive pillars. Edith sat as usual upon a stool at Richard’s feet, and her face wore a look of disappointment. Thoughts of Eloise Temple had been in her mind the entire day, and sitting there with Richard, she had ventured to ask him again of the young girl in whom she was so much interested. But Richard shook his head. He was reserving Eloise Temple for a future day, and he said to Edith,

“I cannot tell you of her yet, or where she is.”

“When will you then?” and Edith spoke pettishly. “You always put me off, and I don’t see either why you need to be so much afraid of telling me about her, unless her mother was bad, or something.”

“Edith,” Richard replied, “I do not wish to explain to you now. By and by I’ll tell you, it may be, though even that will depend on circumstances;” and he sighed as he thought what the circumstances must be which would keep from Edith any further knowledge of Eloise than she already possessed.

Edith did not hear the sigh. She only knew that it was useless to question him, and beating her little foot impatiently, she muttered, “More mystery. If there’s any thing I hate it’s mystery.–“

She did not finish what she meant to say, for at that moment she spied Arthur and Nina coming through the garden gate as the nearest route.

Edith was not in the best of humors. She was vexed at Richard, because he wouldn’t tell and at Arthur for “acting so,” as she termed it,–this acting so implying the studied indifference with which he had treated her of late. But she was not vexed with Nina, and running out to meet her, she laid her arm across her neck, and led her with many words of welcome to the stool she had just vacated, saying laughingly: “I know Mr. Harrington would rather you should sit here than a cross patch like me! I’m ill-natured to-night, Mr. St. Claire,” and she bit her words off with playful spitefulness.

“Your face cannot be an index to your feelings, then,” returned Arthur, retaining her offered hand a moment, and looking into her eyes, just to see if he could do it without flinching.

It was a dangerous experiment, for Edith’s soul looked through her eyes, and Arthur read therein that which sent feverish heats and icy chills alternately through his veins. Releasing her hand he sat down upon the upper step of the piazza, and leaning against one of the pillars, began to pluck the leaves within his reach, and mechanically tear them in pieces.

Meantime Richard had signified to Edith his wish that she should bring another stool, and sit beside him just as Nina was doing.

“I can then rest my hands upon the heads of you both,” he said, smoothing the while Nina’s golden curls,

“Now tell us a story, please,” said Nina; and when Richard asked what it should be, she replied,

“Oh, tell us about the years ago when you were over the sea, and why you have never married. Maybe you have, though. You are old enough, I reckon. Did you ever marry anybody?”

“YES, _I_ DID,” returned Richard; “a little girl with hair like yours, I think, though my eyesight then was almost gone, and I saw nothing distinctly.”

“Wha-a-at!” exclaimed Edith, at the same time asking Arthur if he was hurt as he started suddenly,

“There it goes. It was a BEE, I guess;” and Nina pointed to an insect flitting by, but so far from Arthur as to render a sting from the diminutive creature impossible. Still it served as an excuse, and blessing Nina in his heart for the suggestion, Arthur talked rapidly of various matters, hoping in this way to change the conversation. But Edith was not to be put off, even if Nina were. She was too much interested to know what Richard meant, and as soon as politeness would permit, she said to him,

“Please go on, and tell us of the girl you married. Who was the bridegroom, and where did it occur?”

There was no longer a shadow of hope that the story would not be told, and folding his arms like one resigned to his fate, Arthur listened, while Richard related to the two girls how, soon after his removal to Geneva, he had been elected Justice of the Peace in place of one resigned. “I did not wish for the office.” he said, “although I was seldom called upon to act, and after my sight began to fail so fast, people never came to me except on trivial matters. One night, however, as many as–let me see–as many as ten years ago, my house keeper told me there were in the parlor four young people desirous of seeing me, adding that she believed a wedding was in contemplation.”

“Splendid!” cried Edith; “and you married them, didn’t you? Tell us all about it; how the bride looked, and every thing.”

“I cannot gratify you in that respect,” returned Richard. “There was a veil of darkness between us, and I could see nothing distinctly, but I knew she was very slight, so much so, indeed, that I was sorry afterward that I did not question her age.”

“A runaway match from the Seminary, perhaps,” suggested Arthur, in tones so steady as to astonish himself.

“I have sometimes thought so since,” was Richard’s reply, “but as nothing of the kind was ever known to have occurred, I may have been mistaken.”

“But the names?” cried Edith, eagerly, “you could surely tell by that, unless they were feigned.”

“Which is hardly probable,” Richard rejoined, “though they might as well have been for any good they do me now. I was too unhappy then, too much wrapped up in my own misfortunes to care for what was passing around me, and though I gave them a certificate, keeping myself a memorandum of the same, I soon forgot their names entirely.”

“But the copy,” chimed in Edith, “that will tell. Let’s hunt it up. I’m so interested in these people, and it seems so funny that you should have married them. I wonder where they are. Have you never heard a word from them?”

“Never, since that night,” said Richard; “and what is more unfortunate still for an inquisitive mother Eve, like you, the copy which I kept was burned by a servant who destroyed it with sundry other business papers, on one of her cleaning house days.”

“Ah-h,” and Arthur drew a long, long breath, which prompted Edith to ask if be were tired.

“You’re not as much interested as I am,” she said. “I do wish I knew who the young bride was–so small and so fair. Was she as tall as Nina?” and she turned to Richard, who replied,

“I can hardly judge the height of either. Stand up, Snow Drop, and let me feel if you are as tall as the bride of ten years ago.”

“Yes, Nina is the taller of the two,” said Richard, as he complied with his request and stood under his hand. “I have often thought of this girl-wife and her handsome boy-husband, doubting whether I did right to marry them, but the young man who accompanied them went far toward reassuring me that all was right. They were residents of the village, he said, and having seen me often in town, had taken a fancy to have me perform the ceremony, just for the novelty of the thing.”

“It’s queer you never heard of them afterward,” said Edith; while Nina, looking up in the blind man’s face, rejoined,

“YOU DID IT THEN?”

“Nina,” said Arthur ere Richard could reply, “it is time we were going home; there is Sophy with the shawl which you forgot.” And he pointed toward Sophy coming through the garden, with a warm shawl tucked under her arm, for the dew was heavy that night and she feared lest Nina should take cold.

“Nina won’t go yet; she isn’t ready,” persisted the capricious maiden. “Go till I call you,” and having thus summarily dismissed Soph, the little lady resumed the seat from which she had arisen, and laying her head on Richard’s, whispered to him softly, “CAN’T YOU SCRATCH IT OUT?”

“Scratch what out?” he asked; and Nina replied,

“Why, IT; what you’ve been talking about. Nothing ever came of it but despair and darkness.”

“I do not know what you mean,” Richard said, and as Arthur did not volunteer any information, but sat carelessly scraping his thumb nail with a pen-knife, Edith made some trivial remark which turned the channel of Nina’s thoughts, and she forgot to urge the request that “it should be scratched out.”

“Nina’ll go now,” she said, after ten minutes had elapsed, and calling Soph, Arthur was soon on his way home, hardly knowing whether he was glad or sorry that every proof of his early error was forever destroyed.

CHAPTER XX.

THE DECISION.

The summer was over and gone; its last breath had died away amid the New England hills, and the mellow October days had come, when in the words of America’s sweetest poetess,

“The woods stand bare and brown,
And into the lap of the South land, The flowers are blowing down.”

Over all there was that dreamy, languid haze, so common to the Autumn time, when the distant hills are bathed in a smoky light and all things give token of decay. The sun, round and red, as the October sun is wont to be, shone brightly upon Collingwood, and looked cheerily into the room where Edith Hastings sat, waiting apparently for some one whose tardy appearance filled her with impatience. In her hand she held a tiny note received the previous night, and as she read for the twentieth time the few lines contained therein, her blushes deepened on her cheek, and her blank eyes grew softer and more subdued in their expression.

“Edith,” the note began, “I must see you alone. I have something to say to you which a third person cannot hear. May I come to Collingwood to-morrow at three o’clock, P.M.? In haste, Arthur St. Claire.”

The words were very cold, but to Edith they contained a world of meaning. She knew she was beloved by Arthur St. Claire. Dr. Griswold had told her so. Grace had told her so. Nina had told her so, while more than all his manner had told her so repeatedly, and now HE would tell her so himself and had chosen a time when Richard and Victor were both in Boston, as the one best adapted to the interview. Edith was like all other maidens of eighteen, and her girlish heart fluttered with joy as she thought what her answer would be, but not at first,–not at once, lest she seem too anxious. She’d make him wait a whole week, then see how he felt. He deserved it all for his weak vacillation. If he loved her why hadn’t he told her before! She didn’t believe there was such a terrible impediment in the way. Probably he had sworn never to marry any one save Nina, but her insanity was certainly a sufficient reason for his not keeping the oath. Dr. Griswold was peculiar,–over-nice in some points, and Arthur had been wholly under his control, becoming morbidly sensitive to the past, and magnifying every trivial circumstance into a mountain too great to be moved.

This was Edith’s reasoning as she sat waiting that October afternoon for Arthur, who came ere long, looking happier, more like himself than she had seen him since the memorable day when she first met Nina. Arthur had determined to do right, to tell without reserve the whole of his past history to Edith Hastings, and the moment he reached this decision half his burden was lifted from his mind. It cost him a bitter struggle thus to decide, and lest his courage should give way, he had asked for an early interview. It was granted, and without giving himself time to repent he came at once and stood before the woman who was dearer to him than his life. Gladly would he have died could he thus have blotted out the past and made Edith his wife, but he could not, and he had come to tell her so.

Never had she been more beautiful than she was that afternoon. Her dress of crimson merino contrasted well with her clear dark complexion. Her magnificent hair, arranged with far more care than usual, was wound in many a heavy braid around her head, while, half-hidden amid the silken bands, and drooping gracefully behind one ear, was a single white rose-bud, mingled with scarlet blossoms of verbena; the effect adding greatly to her beauty. Excitement lent a brighter sparkle to her brilliant eyes, and a richer bloom to her glowing cheeks, and thus she sat waiting for Arthur St. Claire, who felt his heart grow cold and faint as he looked upon her, and knew her charms were not for him. She detected his agitation, and as a kitten plays with a captured mouse, torturing it almost to madness, so she played with him ere suffering him to reach the point. Rapidly she went from one subject to another, dragging him with her whether he would or not, until at last as if suddenly remembering herself, she turned her shining eyes upon him, and said, “I have talked myself out, and will now give you a chance. You wrote that you wished to see me.”

But for this direct allusion to his note, Arthur would assuredly have gone away, leaving his errand untold. But he could not do so now. She was waiting for him to speak, and undoubtedly wondering at his silence. Thrice he attempted to articulate, but his tongue seemed paralyzed, and reeking with perspiration, he sat unable to move until she said again, “Is it of Nina you would tell me?”

Then the spell was broken, Nina was the sesame which unlocked his powers of speech; and wiping the large drops from his forehead, he answered,

“Yes, Edith, of Nina, of myself, of you. Edith, you know how much I love you, don’t you, darling?”

The words were apparently wrung from him greatly against his will. They were not what he intended to say, and he would have given worlds to have recalled them, but they were beyond his reach, and the very walls of the room seemed to echo in thunder tones,

“You know how much I love you, don’t you, darling?”

Yes, she did know; he knew she did by the glance she gave him back, and laying his head upon the table, he neither moved nor spoke until a footstep glided to his side, and a soft hand pressed his burning brow, while a voice, whose tones drifted him far, far back to the sea of darkness and doubt where he had so long been bravely buffetting the billows, whispered to him,

“Arthur, I DO know, or rather believe you love me. You would not tell me an untruth, but I do not understand why it should make you so unhappy.”

He did not answer her at once, but retained within his own the little hand which trembled for a moment like an imprisoned bird and then grew warm and full of vigorous life just as Edith was, standing there before him. What should he do? What could he do? Surely, never so dark an hour had gathered round him, or one so fraught with peril. Like lightning his mind took in once more the whole matter as it was. Griswold was dead. On his grave the autumn leaves were falling and the nightly vigils by that grave had been of no avail. Nina could never comprehend, the written proof was burned, Richard had forgotten, there was nothing in the way save his CONSCIENCE and that would not be silent. Loudly it whispered to the anguished man that happiness could not be secured by trampling on Nina’s rights; that remorse would mix itself with every joy and at the last would drive him mad.

“You mistake me, I cannot,” he began to say, but Edith did not heed it, for a sound without had caught her ear, telling her that Richard had unexpectedly returned, and Victor was coming for her.

There was an expression of impatience on Edith’s face, as to Victor’s summons she replied, “Yes, yes, in a moment;” but Arthur breathed more freely as, rising to his feet, he said, “I cannot now say all I wish to say, but meet me, to-morrow at this hour in the Deering Woods, near the spot where the mill brook falls over those old stones. You know the place. We went there once with– NINA.”

He wrung her hand, pitying her more than he did himself, for he knew how little she suspected the true nature of what he intended to tell her.

“God help us both, me to do right, and her to bear it,” was his mental prayer, as he left her at the door of the room where Richard was waiting for her.

There were good and bad angels lugging at Arthur’s heart as he hastened across the fields where the night was falling, darker, gloomier, than ever it fell before. Would it be a deadly sin to marry Edith Hastings? Would Nina be wronged if he did? were questions which the bad spirits kept whispering in his ear, and each time that he listened to these questionings, he drifted further and farther away from the right, until by the time his home was reached he hardly knew himself what his intentions were.

Very bright were the lights shining in the windows of his home, and the fire blazed cheerfully in the library, where Nina, pale and fair as a white pond lily, had ordered the supper table to be set, because she thought it would please him, and where, with her golden curls tucked behind her ears, and a huge white apron on, she knelt before the glowing coals, making the nicely-buttered toast he liked so well. Turning toward him her childish face as he came in, she said,

“See–Nina’s a nice little housekeeper. Wouldn’t it be famous if we could live alone, you and I?”

Arthur groaned inwardly, but made her no reply. Sitting down in his arm-chair, he watched her intently as she made his tea, removed her apron, brushed her curls, and then look her seat at the table, bidding him do the same. Mechanically he obeyed, affecting to eat for her sake, while his eyes were constantly fastened upon her face. Supper being over and the table removed, he continued watching her intently as she flitted about the room, now perching herself upon his knee, calling him “her good boy,” now holding a whispered conversation with Miggie, who, she fancied, was there, and again singing to herself a plaintive song she had sung to Dr. Griswold. When it drew near her bedtime she went to the window, from which the curtain was thrown back, and looking out upon the blackness of the night, said to Arthur,

“The darkness is very dark. I should think poor Dr. Griswold would be afraid lying there alone in that narrow grave. What made him die, Arthur? I didn’t want him to. It had better been I, hadn’t it?”

She came close to him now, and sitting on his knee held his bearded chin in her hand, while she continued,

“Would my poor boy be very lonesome, knowing that Nina wasn’t here, nor up stairs, nor in the Asylum, nor over at Miggie’s, nor anywhere? Would you miss me a bit?”

“YES, YES, YES!”

The words came with quiet, gasping sobs, for in his hour of bitterest anguish, Arthur had never for an instant wished HER gone–the little blue-eyed creature clinging so confidingly to him and asking if he would miss her when she was dead.

“Nina’s would be a little grave,” she said, “not as large as Miggie’s, and perhaps it won’t be long before they dig it. I can wait. You can wait; can’t you, boy?”

What was it which prompted her thus to speak to him? What was it which made him see Griswold’s glance in the eyes looking so earnestly to his own? Surely there was something more than mere chance in all this. Nina would save him. She had grasped his conscience, and she stirred it with no gentle hand, until the awakened man writhed in agony, such as the drowning are said to feel when slowly restored to life, and bowing his head on Nina’s, he cried,

“What shall I do? Tell me, Nina, what to do!”

Once before, when thus appealed to, she had answered him, “Do right,” and she now said the same to the weeping man, who sobbed aloud, “I will. I will tell her all to-morrow. I wish it were to- morrow now, but the long night must intervene, and a weak, vacillating fool like me may waver in that time. Nina,” and he held her closer to him, “stay here with me till morning. I am stronger where you are. The sight of you does me good. Phillis will fix you a bed upon the sofa and make you comfortable; will you stay?”

Every novelty was pleasing to Nina and she assented readily, stipulating, however, that he should not look at her while she said her prayers.

In much surprise Phillis heard of this arrangement, but offered no objection, thinking that Arthur had probably detected signs of a frenzied attack and chose to keep her with him where he could watch her. Alas! they little dreamed that ’twas to save himself he kept her there, kneeling oftentimes beside her as she slept, and from the sight of her helpless innocence gathering strength for the morrow’s duty. How slowly the hours of that never-to-be- forgotten night dragged on, and when at last the grey dawn came creeping up the east, how short they seemed, looked back upon. Through them all Nina had slept quietly, moving only once, and that when Arthur’s tears dropped upon her face. Then, unconsciously, she put her arms around his neck and murmured, “It will all be right sometime.”

“Whether it is or not, I will do right to-day,” Arthur said aloud, and when the sun came stealing into the room, it found him firm as a granite rock.

Nina’s presence saved him, and when the clock pointed to three, he said to her, “Miggie is waiting for me in the Deering woods, where the mill-brook falls over the stones. You called it Niagara, you know, when you went there once with us. Go to Miggie, Nina. Tell her I’m coming soon. Tell her that I sent you.”

“And that you will do right?” interrupted Nina, retaining a confused remembrance of last night’s conversation.

“Yes, tell her I’ll do right. Poor Edith, she will need your sympathy so much;” and with trembling hands Arthur himself wrapped Nina’s shawl around her, taking more care than usual to see that she was shielded from the possibility of taking cold; then, leading her to the door and pointing in the direction of the miniature Niagara he bade her go, watching her with a beating heart as she bounded across the fields toward the Deering woods.

CHAPTER XXI.

THE DEERING WOODS.

Edith had been in a state of feverish excitement all the day, so happy had she been made by the certainty that Arthur loved her. She had not doubted it before, but having it told her in so many words was delightful, and she could scarcely wait for the hour when she was to hear the continuation of a story abruptly terminated by the return of Richard. Poor Richard! He was sitting in his library now, looking so lonely, when on her way through the hall she glanced in at him, that she almost cried to think how desolate he would be when she was gone.

“I’ll coax Arthur to come here and live,” she said to herself, thinking how nice it would be to have Arthur and Nina and Richard all in one house.

The hands of her watch were pointing to three, as, stepping out upon the piazza she passed hurriedly through the grounds and turned in the direction of the Deering Woods. Onward, onward, over the hill and across the fields she flew, until the woods were reached–the silent, leafless woods, where not a sound was heard save the occasional dropping of a nut, the rustle of a leaf, or the ripple of the mill-brook falling over the stones. The warm sun had dried the withered grass, and she sat down beneath a forest tree, watching, waiting, wondering, and trembling violently at last as in the distance she heard the cracking of the brittle twigs and fancied he was coming.

“I’ll pretend I don’t hear him,” she said, and humming a simple air she was industriously pulling the bark from the tree when NINA stood before her, exclaiming,

“You ARE here just as Arthur said you’d be. The woods were so still and smoky that I was most afraid.”

Ordinarily Edith would have been delighted at this meeting, but now she could not forbear wishing Nina away, and she said to her somewhat sternly,

“What made you come?”

“He sent me,” and Nina crouched down at Edith’s feet, like a frightened spaniel. “Arthur is coming, too, and going to do right. He said he was, bending right over me last night, and when I woke this morning there was a great tear on my face. ‘Twasn’t mine, Miggie. It was too big for that. It was Arthur’s.”

“How came he in your room?” Edith asked, a little sharply, and Nina replied,

“I was in the library. We both staid there all night. It wasn’t in my room, though Arthur has a right, Miggie. IT NEVER WAS SCRATCHED OUT!”

Edith was puzzled, and was about to question Nina as to her meaning, when another step was heard, a manly, heavy tread, precluding all possibility of a mistake this time. Arthur St. Claire had come!

“It’s quite pleasant since yesterday,” he said, trying to force a smile, but it was a sickly effort, and only made more ghastly and wan his pallid features, over which ages seemed to have passed since the previous day, leaving them scarred, and battered, and worn.

Edith had never noticed so great a change in so short a time, for there was scarcely a vestige left of the once handsome, merry- hearted Arthur in the stooping, haggard man, who stood before her, with blood-shot eyes, and an humble, deprecating manner, as if imploring her forgiveness for the pain he had come to inflict. Nothing could prevent it now. Her matchless beauty was naught to him. He did not even see it. He thought of her only as a being for whose sake he would gladly die the most torturing death that human ingenuity could devise, if by this means, he could rescue her unscathed from the fire he had kindled around her. But this could not be; he had fallen, dragging her down with him, and now he must restore her even though it broke her heart just as his was broken. He had felt the fibres snapping, one by one; knew his life blood was oozing out, drop by drop, and this it was which made him hesitate so long. It was painful for him to speak, his throat was so parched and dry, his tongue so heavy and thick.

“What is it, Arthur?” Edith said at last, as Nina, uttering a cry of fear, hid her face in the grass to shut out Arthur from her sight, “Tell me, what is it?”

Seating himself upon a log near by, and clasping his hands together with a gesture of abject misery, Arthur replied.

“Edith, I am not worthy to look into your face; unless you take your eyes from mine–oh, take them away, or I cannot tell you what I must.”

Had her very life depended upon it, Edith could not have removed her eyes from his. An undefinable fear was curdling her blood–a fear augmented by the position of her two companions–Nina, with her head upon the grass, and that strange, white-faced being on the log. Could THAT be Arthur St. Claire, or was she laboring under some horrible delusion? No, the lips moved; it was Arthur, and leaning forward she listened to what he was saying,

“Edith, when yesterday I was with you, some words which I uttered and which were wrung from me, I know not how, gave you reason to believe that I was then asking you to become my wife, while something in your manner told me that to such asking you would not answer no. The temptation then to take you to my arms, defying earth and heaven, was a terrible one, and for a time I wavered, I forgot everything but my love for you; but that is past and I come now to the hardest part of all, the deliberate surrender of one dearer than life itself. Edith, do you remember the obstacle, the hindrance which I always said existed to my marrying any one?”

She did not answer; only the eyes grew larger as they watched him; and he continued,

“I made myself forgot it for a time, but Heaven was kinder far than I deserved, and will not suffer me longer. Edith, you CANNOT be my wife.”

She made a movement as if she would go to him, but his swaying arms kept her off, and he went on;

“There IS an obstacle, Edith–a mighty obstacle, I could trample it down if I would, and there is none to question the act; but, Edith, I dare not do you this wrong.”

His voice was more natural now, and Nina, lifting up her head, crept closely to him, whispering softly, “Good boy, you will do right.”

His long, white fingers threaded her sunny hair, and this was all the token he gave that he was conscious of her presence.

“Don’t you know now, Edith, what it is which stands between us?” he asked; and Edith answered, “It is Nina, but how I do not understand.”

Arthur groaned a sharp, bitter groan, and rocking to and fro replied, “Must I tell you? Won’t you ever guess until I do? Oh, Edith, Edith–put the past and present together–remember the picture found in my room when you were a little girl, the picture of Nina Bernard; think of all that has happened; my dread to meet with Richard, though that you possibly did not know; my foolish fear, lest you should know of Nina; her clinging devotion to me; my brotherly care for her; Richard’s story of the one single marriage ceremony he ever performed, where the bride’s curls were like these,” and he lifted Nina’s golden ringlets. “You hear me, don’t you?”

He knew she did, for her bosom was heaving with choking sobs as if her soul were parting from the body; her breath came heavily from between her quivering lips, and her eyes were riveted upon him like coals of living fire. Yes, he knew she heard, and he only questioned her to give himself another moment ere he cut asunder the last chord and sent her drifting out upon the dark sea of despair.

“Edith–Edith–Edith,” and with each word he hugged Nina closer to him, so close that she gave a cry of pain, but he did not heed it; he hardly knew he held her–his thoughts were all for the poor, wretched girl, rising slowly to her feet. “Edith, you surely understand me now. The obstacle between us is—; oh, Nina, say it for me, tell her what you are to me.”

“I know,” and Edith Hastings stood tall and erect before him, “NINA IS YOUR WIFE.”

Nina looked up and smiled, while Edith crossed her arms upon her breast, and waited for him to answer.

“Yes, Edith,–though never before acknowledged as such, Nina is my wife; but, Edith, I swear it before high Heaven, she is only a wife in name. Never for a day, or hour, or moment have I lived with her as such. Were it otherwise, I could not have fallen so low. Her father came the very night we were married, and took her away next morning. Griswold and I must have met him just as we left the yard, after having assisted Nina and her room-mate, Sarah Warren, to reach the window, from which they had adroitly escaped little move than an hour before. No one had missed them,–no one ever suspected the truth, and as Miss Warren died a few months afterward, only Nina, Griswold and myself knew the secret, which I guarded most carefully for fear of expulsion from college. You know the rest. You know it all, Nina is my wife. Nina is my wife,- -my wife,–my wife.”

He kept whispering it to himself, as if thus he would impress it the more forcibly upon the unconscious Edith, who lay upon the withered grass just where Nina had lain, rigid and white and free for the present from all suffering. Arthur could not move; the blow had fallen on them both with a mightier force than even he had anticipated, killing her he feared, and so benumbing himself that to act was impossible, and he continued sitting upon the log with his elbows resting on his knees and his face upon his hands. Only Nina had any reason then or judgment. Hastening to Edith she knelt beside her, and lifting up her head pillowed it upon her lap, wiping from her temple the drops of blood slowly trickling from a cut, made by a sharp stone.

“Miggie, Miggie,” she cried, “wake up. You scare me, you look so white and stiff. Please open your eyes, darling, just a little ways, so Nina’ll know that you ain’t dead. Oh, Arthur, she is DEAD!” and Nina shrieked aloud, when, opening herself the lids, she saw the dull, fixed expression of the glassy eye.

Laying her back upon the grass, she crept to Arthur’s side, and tried to rouse him, saying imploringly, “Miggie’s dead, Arthur; Miggie’s dead. There is blood all over her face. It’s on me, too, look,” and she held before him her fingers, covered with a crimson stain. Even this did not move him; he only kissed the tiny hand wet with Edith’s blood, and whispered to her, “Richard.”

It was enough. Nina comprehended his meaning at once; and when next he looked about him she was flying like a deer across the fields to Collingwood, leaving him alone with Edith. From where he sat he could see her face, and its corpse-like pallor chilled him with horror. He must go to her. It would be long ere Nina guided the blind man to the spot, and, exerting all his strength, he tottered to the brook, filled his hat with water, and crawling, rather than walking, to Edith’s side, dashed it upon her head, washing the stains of blood, away, and forcing back the life so nearly gone. Gradually the eyes unclosed, and looked into his with a glance so full of love. tenderness, reproach, and cruel disappointment, that he turned away, for he could not meet that look.

The blood from the wound upon the forehead was flowing freely now, and faint from its loss, Edith sank again into a state of unconsciousness, while Arthur, scarcely knowing what he did, crept away to a little distance, where, leaning against a tree, he sat insensible as it were, until the sound of footsteps roused him, and he saw Nina coming, holding fast to the blind man’s wrist, and saying to him encouragingly,

“We are almost there. I see her dress now by the bank. Wake up, Miggie; we’re coming–Richard and I. Don’t you hear me, Miggie?”

* * * * * *

Victor had been sent to the village upon an errand for Richard, who was sitting in his arm-chair, just where Edith had left him an hour before, dozing occasionally, as was his custom after dinner, and dreaming of his singing bird.

“Little rose-bud,” he whispered to himself. “It’s strange no envious, longing eyes have sought her out as yet, and tried to win her from me. There’s St. Claire–cannot help admiring her, but thus far he’s been very discreet, I’m sure. Victor would tell me if he saw any indications of his making love to Edith.”

Deluded Richard! Victor Dupres kept his own counsel with regard to Edith and the proprietor of Grassy Spring; and when questioned by his master, as he sometimes was, he always answered, “Monsieur St. Claire does nothing out of the way.”

So Richard, completely blinded, trusted them both, and had no suspicion of the scene enacted that afternoon in the Deering Woods. Hearing a swift footstep coming up the walk, he held his breath to listen, thinking it was Edith, but a moment only sufficed to tell it was Nina. With a rapid, bounding tread she entered the library, and gliding to his side, startled him with, “Come, quick, Miggie’s dead–dead in the Deering Woods!”

For an instant Richard’s brain reeled, and rings of fire danced before his sightless eyes; then, remembering the nature of the one who had brought to him this news, hope whispered that it might not be so bad, and this it was which buoyed him up and made him strong to follow his strange guide.

* * * * * *

Down the lane, across the road, and over the fields Nina led him, bareheaded as he was, and in his thin-soled, slippers, which were torn against the briers and stones, for in her haste Nina did not stop to choose the smoothest path, and Richard was too intent on Edith to heed the roughness of the way. Many questions be asked her as to the cause of the accident, but she told him nothing save that “Miggie was talking and fell down dead.” She did not mention Arthur, for, fancying that he had in some way been the cause of the disaster, she wished to shield him from all censure, consequently Richard had no idea of the crushed, miserable wretch leaning against the sycamore and watching him as he came up. He only heard Nina’s cry, “Wake up, Miggie, Richard’s here!”

It needed more than that appeal, however, to rouse the unconscious girl, and Richard, as he felt her cold, clammy flesh, wept aloud, fearing lest she were really dead. Eagerly he felt for her heart, knowing then that she still lived.

“Edith, darling, speak to me,” and he chafed her nerveless hands, bidding Nina bring him water from the brook.

Spying Arthur’s hat Nina caught it up, when the thought entered her mind, “He’ll wonder whose this is.” Then with a look of subtle cunning, she stole up behind the blind man, and placing the hat suddenly upon his head, withdrew it as quickly, saying, “I’ll get it in this, shan’t I?”

Richard was too much excited to know whether he had worn one hat or a dozen, and he answered her at once, “Use it of course.”

The cold water brought by Nina roused Edith once more, and with a sigh she lay back on Richard’s bosom, so trustfully, so confidingly, that Arthur, looking on, foresaw what the future would bring, literally giving her up then and there to the blind man, who, as if accepting the gift, hugged her fondly to him and said aloud, “I thank the good Father for restoring to me my Edith.”

She suffered him to caress her as much as he liked, and offered no remonstrance when lifting her in his strong arms, he bade Nina lead him back to Collingwood. Like a weary child Edith rested her head upon his shoulder, looking behind once, and regarding Arthur with a look he never forgot, even when the darkness in which he now was groping had passed away, and the full daylight was shining o’er him. Leading Richard to a safe distance, Nina bade him wait a moment while she went back for something she had forgotten–then hastening to Arthur’s side she wound her arms around his neck, smoothed his hair, kissed his lips, and said to him so low that Richard could not hear,

“NINA won’t desert you. She’ll come to you again, when she gets Miggie home. You did do it, didn’t you? but Nina’ll never tell.”

Kissing him once more, she bounded away, and with feelings of anguish which more than compensated for his error, Arthur looked after them as they moved slowly across the field, Richard sometimes tottering beneath his load, which, nevertheless, he would not release, and Nina, holding to his arm, telling him where to go, and occasionally glancing backward toward the spot where Arthur sat, until the night shadows were falling, and he shivered with the heavy dew. Nina did not return, and thinking that she would not, he started for home, never knowing how he reached there, or when; only this he knew, no one suspected him of being in the Deering Woods when Edith Hastings was attacked with that strange fainting fit. Thanks for this to little Nina, who, returning as she had promised, found the forgotten HAT still dripping with water, and hiding it beneath her shawl, carried it safely to Grassy Spring, where it would betray no one.

CHAPTER XXII.

THE DARKNESS DEEPENS.

Death brooded over Collingwood, and his black wing beat clamorously against the windows of the room to which, on that fearful night, Richard had borne his fainting burden, and where for days and weeks she lay so low that with every coming morning the anxious villagers listened for the first stroke of the bell which should tell that Edith was dead. Various were the rumors concerning the cause of her illness, all agreeing upon one point, to wit, that she had fainted suddenly in the woods with Nina, and in falling, had received a deep gash upon her forehead. This it was which made her crazy, the people said, and the physician humored the belief, although with his experience he knew there was some secret sorrow preying upon that young mind, the nature of which he could not easily guess. It never occurred to him that it was in any way associated with Arthur St. Claire, whose heart- broken expression told how much he suffered, and how dear to him was the delirious girl, who never breathed his name, or gave token that she knew of his existence. Every morning, regularly he rung the Collingwood bell, which was always answered by Victor, between whom and himself there was a tacit understanding, perceptible in the fervent manner with which the faithful valet’s hand was pressed whenever the news was favorable. He did not venture into her presence, though repeatedly urged to do so by Grace, who mentally accused him of indifference toward Edith. Alas, she knew not of the nightly vigils kept by the wretched man, when with dim eye and throbbing head he humbled himself before his Maker, praying to be forgiven for the sorrow he had wrought, and again wrestling in agony for the young girl, whose sick room windows he could see, watching the livelong night the flickering of the lamp, and fancying he could tell from its position, if any great change occurred in her.

Richard was completely crushed, and without noticing any one he sat hour after hour, day after day, night after night, always in one place, near the head of the bed, his hands folded submissively together, and his sightless eyes fixed upon the pillow, where he knew Edith was, with a hopeless, subdued expression touching to witness. He did not weep, but his dry, red eyes, fastened always upon the same point, told of sealed fountains where the hot tears were constantly welling up, and failing to find egress without, fell upon the bruised heart, which blistered and burned beneath their touch, but felt no relief. It was in vain they tried to persuade him to leave the room; he turned a deaf ear to their entreaties, and the physician was beginning to fear for his reason, when crazy Nina came to his aid, and laying her moist hand upon his said to him, not imploringly, but commandingly, “Come with me.”

There was a moment’s hesitation, and then Richard followed her out into the open air, sitting where she bade him sit, and offering no resistance when she perched herself upon his knee and passed her arm around his neck.

“Make him cry, can’t you? That will do him good,” whispered Victor, who had come out with them.

Nina knew that better than himself. SHE remembered the time when the sight of Edith had wrung from her torrents of tears, cooling her burning brow, and proving a blessed relief, the good effects of which were visible yet. And now it was her task to make the blind man cry. She recognized something familiar in the hard, stony expression of his face, something which brought back the Asylum, with all its dreaded horrors. She had seen strong men there look just as he was looking. Dr. Griswold had called them crazy, and knowing well what that word implied she would save Richard from so sad a fate.

“It will be lonesome for you when Miggie’s gone,” she said, as a prelude, to the attempt; “lonesomer than it has ever been before; and the nights will be so dark, for when the morning comes there’ll be no Miggie here. She will look sweetly in her coffin, but you can’t see her, can you? You can FEEL how beautiful she is, perhaps; and I shall braid her hair just as she used to wear it.”

There was a perceptible tremor in Richard’s frame, and perceiving it, Nina continued quickly,

“We shall never forget her, shall we? and we’ll often fancy we hear her singing through the halls, even though we know she’s far away heading the choir in Heaven. That will be a pleasanter sound, won’t it, than the echo of the bell when the villagers count the eighteen strokes and a half, and know it tolls for Miggie? The hearse wheels, too–how often we shall hear them grinding through the gravel, as they will grind, making a little track when they come up, and a deeper one when they go away, for they’ll carry Miggie then.”

“Oh, Nina! hush, hush! No, no!” and Richard’s voice was choked with tears, which ran over his face like rain.

Nina had achieved her object, and, with a most satisfied expression she watched him as he wept. Her’s was a triple task, caring for Richard, caring for Arthur, and caring for Edith, but most faithfully did she perform it. Every day, when the sun was low in the western sky, she stole away to Grassy Spring, speaking blessed words of comfort to the despairing Arthur, who waited for her coming as for the visit of an angel. She was dearer to him now since he had confessed his sin to Edith, and could she have been restored to reason he would have compelled himself to make her his wife in reality as well as in name. She was a sweet creature, he knew; and he always caressed her with unwonted tenderness ere he sent her back to the sick room, where Edith ever bemoaned her absence, missing her at once, asking for pretty Nina, with the golden hair. She apparently did not remember that Nina stood between herself and Arthur St. Claire, or, if she did, she bore no malice for the patient, all-enduring girl who nursed her with so much care, singing to her the plaintive German air once sung to Dr. Griswold, and in which Edith would often join, taking one part, while Nina sang the other; and the members of the household, when they heard the strange melody, now swelling load and full, as some fitful fancy took possession of the crazy vocalists, and now sinking to a plaintive wail, would shudder, and turn aside to weep, for there was that in the music which reminded them of the hearse wheels grinding down the gravel, and of the village bell giving the eighteen strokes. Sometimes, for nearly a whole night those songs of the olden time would echo through the house, and with each note she sang the fever burned more fiercely in Edith’s veins, and her glittering black eyes flashed with increased fire, while her fingers clutched at her tangled hair, as if they thus would keep time to the thrilling strain. Her hair troubled her, it was so heavy, so thick, so much in her way, and when she manifested a propensity to relieve herself of the burden by tearing it from the roots the physician commanded them to cut away those beautiful shining braids, Edith’s crowning glory.

It was necessary, he said, and the sharp, polished scissors were ready for the task, when Nina, stepping in between them and the blue-black locks, saved the latter from the nurse’s barbaric hand. She remembered well when her own curls had fallen one by one beneath the shears of an unrelenting nurse, and she determined at all hazards to spare Edith from a like fancied indignity.

“Miggie’s hair shall not be harmed,” she said, covering with her apron the wealth of raven tresses. “I can keep her from pulling it. I can manage her;” and the sequel proved that she was right.

It was a singular power that blue-eyed blonde possessed over the dark-eyed brunette, who became at last as obedient to Nina’s will as Nina once had been to her’s, and it was amusing to watch Nina flitting about Edith, now reasoning with, now coaxing, and again threatening her capricious patient, who was sure eventually to do as she was bidden.

Only once while the delirium lasted did Edith refer to Arthur, and then she said reproachfully, “Oh, Nina, what made him do so?”

They were alone, and bending over her, Nina replied, “I am so sorry, Miggie, and I’ll try to have the ugly thing SCRATCHED OUT.”

This idea once fixed in Nina’s mind could not easily be dislodged, and several times she went to Richard, asking him to SCRATCH IT OUT! Wishing to humor her as far as possible he always answered that he would if he knew what she meant. Nina felt that she must not explain, and with vigilant cunning she studied how to achieve her end without betraying Arthur. It came to her one night, and whispering to Edith, “I am going to get it fixed,” she glided from the room and sought the library where she was sure of finding Richard. It was nearly eleven o’clock, but he had not yet retired, and with his head bent forward he sat in his accustomed place, the fire-light shining on his face, which had grown fearfully haggard and white within the last two weeks. He heard Nina’s step, and knowing who it was, asked if Edith were worse.

“No,” returned Nina, “she’ll live, too, If you’ll only scratch it out.”

He was tired of asking what she meant, and he made no answer. But Nina was too intent upon other matters to heed his silence. Going to his secretary she arranged materials for writing, and then taking his hand, said, in the commanding tone she used toward Edith when at all refractory, “Come and write. ‘Tis the only chance of saving her life.”

“Write what?” he asked, as he rose from his chair and suffered her to lead him to the desk.

He had written occasionally since his blindness, but it was not a frequent thing, and his fingers closed awkwardly about the pen she placed in his hand. Feeling curious to know the meaning of all this, he felt for the paper and then said to her,

“I am ready for you to dictate.”

But dictation was no part of Nina’s intentions. The lines traced upon that sheet would contain a secret which Richard must not know; and with a merry laugh, as she thought how she would cheat him, she replied,

“No, SIR. Only Miggie and I can read what you write. Nina will guide your hand and trace the words.”

Dipping the pen afresh into the ink, she bade him take it, and grasping his fingers, guided them while they wrote as follows;

“I, THE BLIND MAN, RICHARD HARRINGTON,–

“That last was my name,” interrupted Richard, who was rewarded by a slight pull of the hair, as Nina said,

“Hush, be quiet.”

A great blot now came after the “Harrington,” and wiping it up with the unresisting Richard’s coat sleeve, Nina continued:

“–DO HEREBY SOLEMNLY–“

She was not sure whether “swear” or “declare” would be the more proper word, and she questioned Richard, who decided upon “swear” as the stronger of the two, and she went on:

“–SWEAR THAT THE MARRIAGE OF–

“As true as you live you can’t SEE?” she asked, looking curiously into the sightless eyes.

“No; I can’t see,” was the response, and satisfied that she was safe, Nina made him write,

“–ARTHUR ST. CLAIRE AND NINA BERNARD, PERFORMED AT MY HOUSE, IN MY PRESENCE, AND BY ME–“

Nina didn’t know what, but remembering a phrase she had often heard used, and thinking it might be just what was needed, she said,

“Does ‘NULL AND VOID’ mean ‘SCRATCHED OUT?'”

“Yes,” he answered, smiling in spite of himself, and Nina added with immense capitals,

“–NULL AND VOID,” to what she had already written.

“I reckon it will be better to have your name,” she said, and the cramped fingers were compelled to add: “RICHARD HARRINGTON, COLLINGWOOD, November 25th 18–“

“There!” and Nina glanced with an unusual amount of satisfaction at the wonderful hieroglyphics which covered nearly an entire page of foolscap, so large were the letters and so far apart the words. “That’ll cure her, sure,” and folding it up, she hastened back to Edith’s chamber.

Old Rachel watched that night, but Nina had no difficulty in coaxing her from the room, telling her she needed sleep, and Miggie was so much more quiet when alone with her. Rachel knew this was true, and after an hour or so withdrew to another apartment, leaving Edith alone with Nina. For a time Edith slept quietly, notwithstanding that Nina rattled the spoons and upset a chair hoping thus to wake her.

Meanwhile Richard’s curiosity had been thoroughly roused with regard to the SCRATCHING OUT, and knowing Victor was still up, he summoned him to his presence, repeating to him what had just occurred and saying, “If you find that paper read it. It is surely right for me to know what I have written.”

“Certainly,” returned Victor, bowing himself from the room.

Rightly guessing that Nina would read it aloud to Edith, he resolved to be within hearing distance, and when he heard Rachel leave the chamber he drew near the door, left ajar for the purpose of admitting fresher air. From his position he saw that Edith was asleep, while Nina, with the paper clasped tightly in her hand, sat watching her. Once the latter thought she heard a suspicious sound, and stealing to the door she looked up and down the hall where a lamp was burning, showing that it was empty.

“It must have been the wind,” she said, resuming her seat by the bedside, while Victor Dupres, gliding from the closet where he had taken refuge, stood again at his former post, waiting for that deep slumber to end.

“Nina, are you here?” came at last from the pale lips, and the bright, black eyes unclosed looking wistfully about the room.

Silent and motionless Victor stood, while Nina, bending over Edith, answered, “Yes, Miggie, I am here, and I’ve brought you something to make you well. HE wrote it–Richard did–just now, in the library. Can you see if I bring the lamp?” and thrusting the paper into Edith’s hands she held the lamp close to her eyes.

“You havn’t strength, have you?” she continued, as Edith paid no heed. “Let me do it for you,” and taking the crumpled sheet, she read in tones distinct and dear:

“I, THE BLIND MAN, RICHARD HARRINGTON, DO HEREBY SOLEMNLY SWEAR THAT THE MARRIAGE OF ARTHUR ST. CLAIRE AND NINA BERNARD, PERFORMED AT MY HOUSE, IN MY PRESENCE, AND BY ME, IS NULL AND VOID. RICHARD HARRINGTON, COLLINGWOOD, NOVEMBER 5TH, 18–“

Slowly a faint color deepened on Edith’s cheek, a soft lustre was kindled in her eye, and the great tears dropped from her long lashes. Her intellect was too much clouded for her to reason clearly upon anything, and she did not, for a moment, doubt the validity of what she heard. Richard could annul the marriage if he would, she was sure, and now that he had done so, the bitterness of death was past,–the dark river forded, and she was saved. Nina had steered the foundering bark into a calm, quiet sea, and exulting in her good work, she held Edith’s head upon her bosom, and whispered to her of the joyous future when she would live with Arthur.

As a child listens to an exciting tale only comprehends in part, so Edith listened to Nina, a smile playing about her mouth and dancing in her eyes, which at last, as the low voice ceased, closed languidly as did the soft blue orbs above them, and when the grey dawn stole into the room it found them sleeping in each other’s arms,–the noble-hearted Nina who had virtually given up her husband and the broken-hearted Edith who had accepted him. They made a beautiful tableau, and Victor for a time stood watching them, wiping the moisture from his own eyes, and muttering to himself, “Poor Edith, I understand it now, and pity you so much. But your secret is safe. Not for worlds would I betray that blessed angel, Nina.” Then, crossing the hall with a cautious tread, he entered his own apartment and sat down to THINK.

Victor Dupres knew WHAT HAD BEEN SCRATCHED OUT!

CHAPTER XXIII.

PARTING.

It was late the next morning, ere Nina and Edith awoke from that long sleep, which proved so refreshing to the latter, stilling her throbbing pulse, cooling her feverish brow, and subduing the wild look of her eyes, which had in them the clear light of reason. Edith was better. She would live, the physician said, feeling a glow of gratified vanity as he thought how that last dose of medicine, given as an experiment, and about which he had been so doubtful, had really saved her life. She would have died without it, he knew, just as Mrs. Matson, who inclined to homoeopathic principles, knew her patient would have died if she had not slily thrown it in the fire, substituting in its stead sweetened water and pills of bread.

Victor and Nina, too, had their theory with regard to the real cause of Edith’s convalescence, but each kept his own counsel, Victor saying to Richard when questioned as to whether he had read the paper or not,

“No, Miss Nina keeps it clutched tightly in her hand, as if suspecting my design.”

In the course of the day, however, Nina relaxed her vigilance, and Victor, who was sent up stairs with wood, saw the important document lying upon the hearth rug, where Nina had unconsciously dropped it.

“It’s safer with me,” he thought, and picking it up, he carried it to his own apartment, locking it in his trunk where he knew no curious eyes would ever find it.

In her delight at Edith’s visible improvement, Nina forgot the paper for a day or two, and when at last she did remember it, making anxious inquiries for it, Mrs. Matson, who was not the greatest stickler for the truth, pacified her by saying she had burned up a quantity of waste papers scattered on the floor, and presumed this was among them. As Nina cared for nothing save to keep the SCRATCHING OUT from every one except those whom it directly concerned, she dismissed the subject from her mind, and devoted herself with fresh energy to Edith, who daily grew better.

She had not seen Arthur since that night in the Deering Woods, neither did she wish to see him. She did not love him now, she said; the shock had been so great as to destroy the root of her affections, and no excuse he could offer her would in the least palliate his sin. Edith was very harsh, very severe toward Arthur. She should never go to Grassy Spring again, she thought; never look upon his face unless he came to Collingwood, which she hoped he would not do, for an interview could only be painful to them both. She should tell him how deceived she was in him, and Edith’s cheeks grew red, and her eyes unusually bright, as she mentally framed the speech she should make to Arthur St. Claire, if ever they did meet. Her excitement was increasing, when Nina came in, and tossing bonnet and shawl on the floor, threw herself upon the foot of the bed, and began to cry, exclaiming between each sob,

“Nina can’t go! Nina won’t go, and leave you here alone! I told him so the vile boy, but he wouldn’t listen, and Soph is packing my trunks. Oh, Miggie, Miggie! how can I go without you? I shall tear again, and be as bad as ever.”

“What do you mean?” asked Edith, “Where are you going, and why?”

Drying her tears, Nina, in her peculiar way, related how “Arthur wouldn’t believe it was scratched out; Richard couldn’t do such a thing, he said; nobody could do it, but a divorce, and Arthur wouldn’t submit to that. He loves me better, than he used to do,” she said; “and he talked a heap about how he’d fix up Sunny Bank. Then he asked me how I liked the name of Nina St. Claire. _I_ HATE IT!” and the blue eyes flashed as Edith had never seen them flash before. “I won’t be his wife! I’d forgotten all what it was that happened that night until he told it to you in the woods. Then it came back to me, and I remembered how we went to Richard, because he was most blind, and did not often come to Geneva. That was Sarah Warren’s plan I believe, but my head has ached and whirled so since that I most forget. Only this I know, nothing ever came of it; and over the sea I loved Charlie Hudson, and didn’t love Arthur. But, Miggie he’s been so good to me so like my mother. He’s held me in his arms a heap of nights when the fire was in my brain; and once, Miggie, he held me so long, and I tore so awfully, that he fainted, and Dr. Griswold cried, and said, ‘Poor Arthur; poor boy!’ That’s when _I_ BIT HIM!–bit Arthur, Miggie, right on his arm, because he wouldn’t let me pull his hair. Dr. Griswold shook me mighty hard, but Arthur never said a word. He only looked at me so sorry, so grieved like, that I came out of my tantrum, and kissed the place. I’ve kissed it ever so many times since then, and Arthur knows I’m sorry. I ain’t a fit wife for him. I don’t blame him for wanting you. I can’t see the WRONG, but it’s because I’m so thick-headed, I suppose! I wish I wasn’t!” And fixing her gaze upon the window opposite, Nina seemed to be living over the past, and trying to arrange the events of her life in some clear, tangible form.

Gradually as she talked Edith had softened toward Arthur–poor Arthur, who had borne so much. She might, perhaps, forgive him, but to FORGET was impossible. She had suffered too much at his hands for that, and uttering a faint moan as she thought how all her hopes of happiness were blasted, she turned on her pillow just as Nina, coming out of her abstracted fit, said to her,

“Did I tell you we are going to Florida–Arthur and I–going back to our old home, in two or three days, Arthur says it is better so. Old scenes may cure me.”

Alas, for poor human nature. Why did Edith’s heart throb so painfully, as she thought of Nina cured, and taken to Arthur’s bosom as his wife. She knew SHE could not be that wife, and only half an hour before she had said within herself, “_I_ HATE HIM.” Now, however, she was conscious of a strong unwillingness to yield to another the love lost to her forever, and covering her head with the sheet, she wept to think how desolate her life would be when she knew that far away, in the land of flowers, Arthur was learning to forget her and bestowing his affection upon restored, rational Nina.

“Why do you cry?” asked Nina, whose quick ear detected the stifled sobs. “Is it because we are going? I told him you would, when he bade me come and ask if you would see him before he goes.”

“Did he–did he send me that message?” and the Edith, who wouldn’t for the world meet Arthur St. Claire again, uncovered her face eagerly. “Tell him to come to-morrow at ten o’clock. I am the strongest then; and Nina, will you care if I ask you to stay away? I’d rather see him alone.”

Edith’s voice faltered as she made this request, but Nina received it in perfect good faith, answering that she would remain at home.

“I must go now,” she added. “He’s waiting for me, and I do so hope you’ll coax him to stay here. I hate old Florida.”

Edith however felt that it was better for them both to part. She had caught a glimpse of her own heart, and knew that its bleeding fibres still clung to him, and still would cling till time and absence had healed the wound.

“I will be very cold and indifferent to-morrow,” she said to herself, when after Nina’s departure, she lay, anticipating the dreaded meeting and working herself up to such a pitch of excitement that the physician declared her symptoms worse, asking who had been there, and saying no one must see her, save the family, for several days.

The doctor’s word was law at Collingwood, and with sinking spirits Edith heard Richard in the hall without, bidding Mrs. Matson keep every body from the sick room for a week. Even Nina was not to be admitted, for it was clearly proved that her last visit had made Edith worse. What should she do? Arthur would be gone ere the week went by, and she MUST see him. Suddenly Victor came into her mind. She could trust him to manage it, and when that night, while Mrs. Matson was at her tea he came up as usual with wood, she said to him, “Victor, shut the door so no one can hear, and then come close to me.”

He obeyed, and standing by her bedside waited for her to speak.

“Victor, Mr. St. Claire is going to Florida in a day or two. I’ve promised to see him to-morrow at ten o’clock, and Richard says no one can come in here, but I must bid Arthur good-bye and Nina, too. Can’t you manage it, Victor?”

“Certainly,” returned Victor, who, better than any one else knew his own power over his master. “You shall see Mr. St. Claire, and see him alone.”

Victor had not promised more than be felt able to perform, and when at precisely ten o’clock next day the door bell rang, he hastened to answer the summons, admitting Arthur, as he had expected.

“I called to see Miss Hastings,” said Arthur, “I start for Florida to-morrow, and would bid her good-bye.”

Showing him into the parlor, Victor sought Richard’s presence, and by a few masterly strokes of policy and well-worded arguments, obtained his consent for Arthur to see Edith just a few moments.

“It was too bad to send him away without even a good-bye, when she had esteemed him so highly as a teacher,” Richard said, unwittingly repeating Victor’s very words–that a refusal would do her more injury than his seeing her could possibly do. “I’ll go with him. Where is he?” he asked, rising to his feet.

“Now, I wouldn’t if I was you. Let him talk with her alone. Two excite her a great deal more than one, and he may wish to say some things concerning Nina which he does not care for any one else to hear. There is a mystery about HER, you know.”

Richard did not know, but he suffered himself to be persuaded, and Victor returned to Arthur, whom be conducted in triumph to the door of Edith’s chamber. She heard his well known step. She knew that he was coming, and the crimson spots upon her cheeks told how much she was excited. Arthur did not offer to caress her–he dared not do that now–but be knelt by her side, and burying his face in her pillow, said to her,

“I have come for your forgiveness, Edith. I could not go without it. Say that I am forgiven, and it will not be so hard to bid you farewell forever.”

Edith meant to be very cold, but her voice was choked as she replied,

“I can forgive you, Arthur, but to forget is harder far. And still even that might be possible were I the only one whom you have wronged; but Nina–how could you prove so faithless to your marriage vow?”

“Edith,” and Arthur spoke almost sternly. “You would not have me live with Nina as she is now.”

“No, no,” she moaned, “not as she is now, but years ago. Why didn’t you acknowledge her as your wife, making the best of your misfortune. People would have pitied you so much, and I–oh, Arthur, the world would not then have been so dark, so dreary for me. Why did you deceive me, Arthur? It makes my heart ache so hard.”

“Oh, Edith, Edith, you drive me mad,” and Arthur took in his the hand which all the time had unconsciously been creeping toward him. “I was a boy, a mere boy, and Nina was a little girl. We thought it would be romantic, and were greatly influenced by Nina’s room-mate, who planned the whole affair. I told you once how Nina wept, pleading with her father to let her stay in Geneva, but I have not told you that she begged of me to tell him all, while I unhesitatingly refused. I knew expulsion from College would surely be the result, and I was far too ambitious to submit to this degradation when it could be avoided. You know of the gradual change in our feelings for each other, know what followed her coming home, and you can perhaps understand how I grew so morbidly sensitive to anything concerning her, and so desirous to conceal my marriage from every one. This, of course, prompted me to keep her existence a secret as long as possible, and, in my efforts to do so, I can see now that I oftentimes acted the part of a fool. If I could live over the past again I would proclaim from the housetops that Nina was my wife. I love her with a different love since I told you all. She is growing fast into my heart, and I have hopes that a sight of her old home, together with the effects of her native air, will do her good. Griswold always said it would, and preposterous as it seems, I have even dared to dream of a future, when Nina will be in a great measure restored to reason.”

“If she does, Arthur, what then?” and, in her excitement, Edith raised herself in bed, and sat looking at him with eyes which grew each moment rounder, blacker, brighter, but had in them, alas, no expression of joy; and when in answer to her appeal, Arthur said,

“I shall make her my wife,” she fell back upon her pillow, uttering a moaning cry, which to the startled Arthur sounded like,

“No, no! no, no! not your wife.”

“Edith,” and rising to his feet Arthur stood with folded arms, gazing pityingly upon her, himself now the stronger of the two. “Edith, you, of all others, must not tempt me to fall. You surely will counsel me to do right! Help me! oh, help me! I am so weak, and I feel my good resolutions all giving way at sight of your distress! If it will take one iota from your pain to know that Nina shall never be my acknowledged wife, save as she is now, I will swear to you that, were her reason ten times restored, she shall not; But, Edith, don’t, don’t make me swear it. I am lost, lost if you do. Help me to do right, won’t you, Edith?”

He knelt beside her again, pleading with her not to tempt him from the path in which he was beginning to walk; and Edith, as she listened, felt the last link, which bound her to him, snapping asunder. For a moment she HAD wavered; had shrank from the thought that any other could ever stand to him in the relation she once had hoped to stand; but that weakness was over, and while chiding herself for it, she hastened to make amends.

Turning her face toward him, and laying both her hands on his bowed head, she said,

“May the Good Father bless you, Arthur, even as you prove true to Nina. I have loved you, more than you will ever know, or I can ever tell, and my poor, bruised heart clings to you still with a mighty grasp. It is so hard to give you up, but it is right. I shall think of you often in your beautiful Southern home, praying always that God will bless you and forgive you at the last, even as I forgive you. And now farewell, MY Arthur, I once fondly hoped to call you, but mine no longer–NINA’S Arthur–go.”

She made a gesture for him to leave her, but did not unclose her eyes. She could not look upon him, find know it was the last, last time, but she offered no remonstrance when he left, upon her lips a kiss so full of hopeless and yearning tenderness that it burned there many a day after he was gone. She heard him turn away, heard him cross the floor, knew he paused upon the threshold, and still her eye-lids never opened, though the hot tears rained over her face in torrents.

“The sweetest joy I have ever known was my love for you, Edith Hastings,” he whispered, and then the door was closed between them.

Down the winding stairs he went, Edith counting every step, for until all sound of him had ceased she could not feel that they were parted forever. The sounds did cease at last, he had bidden Richard a calm good-bye, had said good-bye to Victor, and now he was going from the house. He would soon be out of sight, and with an intense desire to stamp his image upon her mind just as he was now, the changed, repentant Arthur, Edith arose, and tottering to the window, looked after him, through blinding tears, as he passed slowly from her sight, and then crawling, rather than walking back to her bed, she wept herself to sleep.

It was a heavy, unnatural slumber, and when she awoke from it, the fever returned with redoubted violence, bringing her a second time so near the gates of death that Arthur St. Claire deferred his departure for several days, and Nina became again the nurse of the sick room. But all in vain were her soft caresses and words of love. Edith was unconscious of everything, and did not even know when Nina’s farewell kiss was pressed upon her lips and Nina’s gentle hands smoothed her hair for the last time. A vague remembrance she had of an angel flitting around the room, a bright-haired seraph, who held her up from sinking in the deep, dark river, pointing to the friendly shore where life and safety lay, and this was all she knew of a parting which had wrung tears from every one who witnessed it, for there was something wonderfully touching in the way the crazy Nina bade adieu to “Miggie,” lamenting that she must leave her amid the cold northern hills, and bidding her come to the southland, where the magnolias were growing and flowers were blossoming all the day long. Seizing the scissors, which lay upon the stand, she severed one of her golden curls, and placing it on Edith’s pillow, glided from the room, followed by the blessing of those who had learned to love the beautiful little girl as such as she deserved to be loved.

* * * * * *

One by one the grey December days went by, and Christmas fires were kindled on many a festal hearth. Then the New Year dawned upon the world, and still the thick, dark curtains shaded the windows of Edith’s room. But there came a day at last, a pleasant January day, when the curtains were removed, the blinds thrown open, and the warm sunlight came in shining upon Edith, a convalescent. Very frail and beautiful she looked in her crimson dressing gown, and her little foot sat loosely in the satin slipper, Grace Atherton’s Christmas gift. The rich lace frill encircling her throat was fastened with a locket pin of exquisitely wrought gold, in which was encased a curl of soft, yellow hair, Nina’s hair, a part of the tress left on Edith’s pillow. This was Richard’s idea,–Richard’s New Year’s gift to his darling; but Richard was not there to share in the general joy.

Just across the hall, in a chamber darkened as hers had been, he was lying now, worn out with constant anxiety and watching. When Nina left, his prop was gone, and the fever which had lain in wait for him so long, kindled within his veins a fire like to that which had burned in Edith’s, but his strong, muscular frame met it fiercely, and the danger had been comparatively slight.

All this Grace told to Edith on that morning when she was first suffered to sit up, and asked why Richard did not come to share her happiness, for in spite of one’s mental state, the first feeling of returning health is one of joy. Edith felt it as such even though her heart was so sore that every beat was painful. She longed to speak of Grassy Spring, but would not trust herself until Victor, reading her feelings aright, said to her with an assumed indifference, “Mr. St. Claire’s house is shut up, all but the kitchen and the negro apartments. They are there yet, doing nothing and having a good time generally.”

“And I have had a letter from Arthur,” chimed in Mrs. Atherton, while the eyes resting on Victor’s face turned quickly to hers. “They reached Sunny Bank in safety, he and Nina, and Soph.”

“And Nina,” Edith asked faintly, “how is she?”

“Improving, Arthur thinks, though she misses you very much.”

Edith drew a long, deep sigh, and when next she spoke, she said, “Take me to the window, please, I want to see the country.”

In an instant, Victor, who knew well what she wanted, took her in his arms, and carrying her to the window, set her down in the chair which Grace brought for her; then, as if actuated by the same impulse, both left her and returned to the fire, while she looked across the snow-clad fields to where Grassy Spring reared its massive walls, now basking in the winter sun. It was a mournful pleasure to gaze at that lonely building, with its barred doors, its closed shutters, and the numerous other tokens it gave of being nearly deserted. There was no smoke curling from the chimneys, no friendly door opened wide, no sweet young face peering from the iron lattice of the Den, no Arthur, no Nina there. Nothing but piles of snow upon the roof, snow upon the window-sills, snow upon the doorsteps, snow upon the untrodden walk, snow on the leafless elms, standing there so bleak and brown. Snow everywhere, as cold, as desolate as Edith’s heart, and she bade Victor take her back again to the warm grate where she might perhaps forget how gloomy and sad, and silent, was Grassy Spring.

“Did I say anything when I was delirious–anything I ought not to have said?” she suddenly asked of Grace; and Victor, as if she had questioned him, answered quickly,

“Nothing, nothing–all is safe.”

Like a flash of lightning, Grace Atherton’s eyes turned upon him, while he, guessing her suspicions, returned her glance with one as strangely inquisitive as her own.

“Mon Dieu! I verily believe she knows,” he muttered, as he left the room, and repairing to his own, dived to the bottom of his trunk, to make sure that he still held in his possession the paper on which it had been “scratched out.”

That night as Grace Atherton took her leave of Edith, she bent over the young girl, and whispered in her ear,

“I know it all. Arthur told me the night before he left. God pity you, Edith! God pity you!”

CHAPTER XXIV.

THE NINETEENTH BIRTH-DAY.

Edith was nineteen. She was no longer the childish, merry-hearted maiden formerly known as Edith Hastings. Her cruel disappointment had ripened her into a sober, quiet woman, whose songs were seldom heard in the halls of Collingwood, and whose bounding steps had changed into a slower, more measured tread.

Still, there was in her nature too much of life and vigor to be crushed out at once, and oftentimes it flashed up with something of its olden warmth, and the musical laugh fell again on Richard’s listening ear. He knew she was changed, but he imputed it all to her long, fearful sickness; when the warm summer days came back, she would be as gay as ever, he thought, or if she did not he would in the autumn take her to FLORIDA, to visit Nina, for whom he fancied she might be pining. Once he said as much to her, but his blindness was a shield between them, and he did not see the sudden paling of her cheek and quivering of her lip.

Alas, for Richard, that he walked in so great a darkness. Hour by hour, day by day, had his love increased for the child of his adoption, until now she was a part of his very life, pervading every corner and crevice of his being. He only lived for her, and in his mighty love, he became selfishly indifferent to all else around him. Edith was all he cared for;–to have her with him;–to hear her voice,–to know that she was sitting near,–that by stretching forth his hand he could lay it on her head, or feel her beautiful cheeks,–this was his happiness by day, and when at night he parted unwillingly from her, there was still a satisfaction in knowing that he should meet her again on the morrow,–in thinking that she was not far away–that by stepping across the hall and knocking at her door he could hear her sweet voice saying to him,

“What is it, Richard?”

He liked to have her call him Richard, as she frequently did. It narrowed the wide gulf of twenty-one years between them, bringing him nearer to her, so near, in fact, that bridal veils and orange wreaths now formed a rare loveliness walked ever at his side; clothed in garments such as the mistress of Collingwood’s half million ought to wear, and this maiden was Edith–the Edith who, on her nineteenth birth-day, sat in her own chamber devising a thousand different ways of commencing a conversation which she meant to have with her guardian, the subject of said conversation being no less a personage than Grace Atherton. Accidentally Edith