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  • 1864
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had learned that not the Swedish baby’s mother but Grace Elmendorff had been the lady who jilted Richard Harrington and that, repenting bitterly of her girlish coquetry, Mrs. Atherton would now gladly share the blind man’s lot, and be to him what she had not been to her aged, gouty lord. Grace did not say all this to Edith, it is true, but the latter read as much in the trembling voice and tearful eyes with which Grace told the story of her early love, and to herself she said, “I will bring this matter about. Richard often talks of her to me, asking if she has faded, and why she does not come more frequently to Collingwood. I will speak to him at the very first opportunity, and will tell him of my mistake, and ask him who Eloise Temple’s mother was, and why he was so much interested in her.”

With this to engross her mind and keep it from dwelling too much upon the past, Edith became more like herself than she had been since that dreadful scene in the Deering woods. Even her long neglected piano was visited with something of her former interest, she practising the songs which she knew Grace could sing with her, and even venturing upon two or three duets, of which Grace played one part. It would be so nice, she thought, to have some female in the house besides old Mrs. Matson, and she pictured just how Grace would look in her white morning gowns, with her blue eyes and chestnut curls, presiding at the breakfast table and handling the silver coffee urn much more gracefully than she could do.

It was a pleasant picture of domestic bliss which Edith drew that April morning, and it brought a glow to her cheeks, whence the roses all had fled. Once, indeed, as she remembered what Arthur had said concerning Richard’s probable intentions, and what she had herself more than half suspected, she shuddered with fear lest by pleading for Grace, she should bring a fresh trial to herself. But no, whatever Richard might once have thought of her, his treatment now was so fatherly that she had nothing to fear, and with her mind thus at ease Edith waited rather impatiently until the pleasant April day drew to its close. Supper was over, the cloth removed, Victor gone to an Ethiopian concert, Mrs. Matson knitting in her room, Sarah, the waiting-maid, reading a yellow covered novel, and Richard sitting alone in his library.

Now was Edith’s time if ever, and thrusting the worsted work she was crocheting into her pocket, she stepped to the library door and said pleasantly “You seem to be in a deep study. Possibly you don’t want me now?”

“Yes, I do,” he answered quickly. “I always want you.”

“And can always do without me, too, I dare say,” Edith rejoined playfully, as she took her seat upon a low ottoman, near him.

“No, I couldn’t,” and Richard sighed heavily. “If I had not you I should not care to live. I dreamed last night that you were dead, that you died while I was gone, and I dug you up with my own hands just to look upon your face again. I always see you in my sleep. I am not blind then, and when a face fairer, more beautiful than any of which the poets ever sang flits before me, I whisper to myself, ‘that’s Edith,–that’s my daylight.'”

“Oh, mistaken man,” Edith returned, laughingly, “how terribly you would be disappointed could you be suddenly restored to sight and behold the long, lank, bony creature _I_ know as Edith Hastings– low forehead, turned-up nose, coarse, black hair, all falling out, black eyes, yellowish black skin, not a particle of red in it–the fever took that away and has not brought it back. Positively, Richard, I’m growing horridly ugly. Even my hair, which I’ll confess I did use to think was splendid, is as rough as a chestnut burr. Feel for yourself if you don’t believe me,” and she laid his hand upon her hair, which, though beautiful and abundant, still was quite uneven and had lost some of its former satin gloss.

Richard shook his head. Edith’s description of her personal appearance made not a particle of difference with him. She might not, perhaps, have recovered her good looks, but she would in time. She was improving every day, and many pronounced her handsomer than before her sickness, for where there had been, perhaps, a superabundance of color and health there was now a pensive, subdued beauty, preferred by some to the more glowing, dashing style which had formerly distinguished Edith Hastings from every one else in Shannondale. Something like this he said to her, but Edith only laughed and continued her crocheting, wondering how she should manage to introduce Grace Atherton. It was already half-past eight, Victor might soon be home, and if she spoke to him that night she must begin at once. Clearing her throat and making a feint to cough, she plunged abruptly into the subject by saying, “Richard, why have you never married? Didn’t you ever see anybody you loved well enough?”

Richard’s heart gave one great throb and then grew still, for Edith had stumbled upon the very thing uppermost in his mind. What made her? Surely, there was a Providence in it. ‘Twas an omen of good, boding success to his suit, and after a moment he replied,

“Strange that you and I should both be thinking of matrimony. Do you know that my dreaming you were dead is a sign that you will soon be married?”

“_I_, Mr. Harrington!” and Edith started quickly. “The sign is not true. I shall never marry, never. I shall live here always, if you’ll let me, but I do want you to have a wife. You will be so much happier, I think. Shall I propose one for you?”

“Edith,” Richard answered, “sit close to me while I tell you of one I once wished to make my wife.”

Edith drew nearer to him, and he placed upon her head the hands which were cold and clammy as if their owner were nerving himself for some mighty effort.

“Edith, in my early manhood I loved a young girl, and I thought my affection returned, but a wealthier, older man came between us, and she chose his riches in preference to walking in my shadow, for such she termed my father.”

“But she’s repented, Mr. Harrington–she surely has,” and Edith dropped her work in her earnestness to defend Grace Atherton. “She is sorry for what she made you suffer; she has loved you through all, and would be yours now if you wish it, I am sure. You DO wish it, Richard. You will forgive Grace Atherton,” and in her excitement Edith knelt before him, pleading for her friend.

Even before he answered her she knew she pleaded in vain, but she was not prepared for what followed the silence Richard was first to break.

“Grace Atherton can never be to me more than what she is, a tried, respected friend. My boyish passion perished long ago, and into my later life another love has crept, compared with which my first was as the darkness to the full noonday. I did not think to talk of this to-night, but something compels me to do so–tells me the time has come, and Edith, you must hear me before you speak, but sit here where I can touch you, and when I’m through if what I’ve said meets with a responsive chord, lay your hand in mine, and I shall know the nature of your answer.”

It was coming now–the scene which Arthur foresaw when, sitting in the Deering woods, with life and sense crushed out, he gave his Edith up to one more worthy than himself. It was the foreshadowing of the “SACRIFICE,” the first step taken toward it, and as one who, seeing his destiny wrapping itself about him fold on fold, sits down stunned and powerless, so Edith sat just where he bade her sit, and listened to his story.

“Years ago, Edith, a solitary, wretched man I lived in my dark world alone, weary of life, weary of every thing, and in my weariness I was even beginning to question the justice of my Creator for having dealt so harshly with me, when one day a wee little singing bird, whose mother nest had been made desolate, fluttered down at my feet, tired like myself, and footsore even with the short distance it had come on life’s rough journey. There was a note in the voice of this sinking bird which spoke to me of the past, and so my interest grew in the helpless thing until at last it came to nestle at my side, not timidly, for such was not its nature, but as if it had a right to be there–a right to be caressed and loved as I caressed and loved it, for I did learn to love it, Edith, so much, oh, so much, and the sound of its voice was sweeter to me than the music of the Swedish nightingale, who has filled the world with wonder.

“Years flew by, and what at first had been a tiny fledgling, became a very queen of birds, and the blind man’s heart throbbed with pride when he heard people say of his darling that she was marvellously fair. He knew it was not for him to look upon her dark, rich, glowing beauty, but he stamped her features upon his mind in characters which could not be effaced, and always in his dreams her face sat on his pillow, watching while be slept, and when he woke bent over him, whispering, ‘Poor blind man,’ just as the young bird had whispered ere it’s home was in his bosom.

“Edith, that face is always with me, and should it precede me to the better land, I shall surely know it from all the shining throng. I shall know my singing bird, which brought to our darkened household the glorious daylight, just as Arthur St. Claire said she would when he asked me to take her.”

From the ottoman where Edith sat there came a low, choking sound, but it died away in her throat, and with her hands locked so firmly together that the taper nails made indentation in the tender flesh, she listened, while Richard continued:

“It is strange no one has robbed me of my gem. Perhaps they spared me in their pity for my misfortune. At all events, no one has come between us, not even Arthur St. Claire, who is every way a desirable match for her.”

Again that choked, stifled moan, and a ring of blood told where the sharp nail had been, but Edith heeded nothing save Richard’s voice, saying to her,

“You have heard of little streams trickling from the heart of some grim old mountain, growing in size and strength as they advanced, until at last they became a mighty river, whose course nothing could impede, Such, Edith, is my love for that singing bird. Little by little, inch by inch, it has grown in its intensity until there is not a pulsation of my being which does not bear with it thoughts of her. But my bird is young while I am old. Her mate should be one on whose head the summer dews are resting, one more like Arthur St Claire, and not an owl of forty years growth like me; but she has not chosen such an one, and hope has whispered to the tough old owl that his bright-eyed dove might be coaxed into his nest; might fold her wings there forever, nor seek to fly away. If this COULD be, Edith. Oh, if this could be, I’d guard that dove so tenderly that not a feather should be ruffled, and the winds of heaven should not blow too roughly on my darling. I’d line her cage all over with gold and precious stones, but the most costly gem of all should be the mighty unspeakable love I’d bear to her. Aye, that I do bear her now, Edith,–my daylight, my life. You surely comprehend me; tell me, then, can all this be? Give me the token I desire.”

He stretched out his groping hand, which swayed back and forth in the empty air, but felt the clasp of no soft fingers clinging to it, and a wistful, troubled look settled upon the face of the blind man, just as a chill of fear was settling upon his heart.

“Edith, darling, where are you?” and his hand sought the ottoman where she had been, but where she was not now.

Noiselessly, as he talked, she had crept away to the lounge in the corner, where she crouched like a frightened deer, her flush creeping with nervous terror, and her eyes fastened upon the man who had repeated her name, asking where she was.

“Here, Richard,” she answered at last, her eyelids involuntarily closing when she saw him rising, and knew he was coming toward her.

She had forgotten her promise to Arthur that she would not answer Richard “No,” should he ask her to be his wife; that, like Nina’s “scratching out,” was null and void, and when he knelt beside her, she said half bitterly,

“It must not be; THE SINGING BIRD CANNOT MATE WITH THE OWL!”

Instantly there broke from the blind man’s lips a cry of agony so pitiful, so reproachful in its tone, that Edith repented her insulting words, and winding her arms around his neck, entreated his forgiveness for having so cruelly mocked him..

“You called yourself so first,” she sobbed, “or I should not have thought of it. Forgive me. Richard, I didn’t mean it. I could not thus pain the noblest, truest friend I ever had. Forgive your singing bird. She surely did not mean it,” and Edith pressed her burning cheeks against his own.

What was it she did not mean? That it could not be, or that he was an owl? He asked himself this question many times during the moment of silence which intervened; then as he felt her still clinging to him, his love for her rolled back upon him with overwhelming force, and kneeling before her as the slave to his master, he pleaded with her again to say IT COULD BE, the great happiness he had dared to hope for.

“Is there any other man whom my darling expects to marry?” he asked, and Edith was glad he put the question in this form, as without prevarication she could promptly answer,

“No, Richard, there is none.”

“Then you may learn to love me,” Richard said. “I can wait, I can wait; but must it be very long? The days will be so dreary, and I love you so much that I am lost if you refuse. Don’t make my darkness darker, Edith.”

He laid his head upon her lap, still kneeling before her, the iron-willed man kneeling to the weak young girl, whose hands were folded together like blocks of lead, and gave him back no answering caress, only the words,

“Richard, I can’t. It’s too sudden. I have thought of you always as my elder brother, Be my brother, Richard. Take me as your sister, won’t you?”

“Oh, I want you for my wife,” and his voice was full of pleading pathos. “I want you in my bosom, I need you there, darling. Need some one to comfort me. I’ve suffered so much, for your sake, too. Oh, Edith, my early manhood was wasted; I’ve reached the autumn time, and the gloom which wrapped me then in its black folds lies around me still, and will you refuse to throw over my pathway a single ray of sunlight? No, no, Edith, you won’t, you can’t. I’ve loved you too much. I’ve lost too much. I’m growing old–and–oh, Birdie, Birdie, I’M BLIND! I’M BLIND!”

She did not rightly interpret his suffering FOR HER SAKE. She thought he meant his present pain, and she sought to soothe him as best she could without raising hopes which never could be realized. He understood her at last; knew the heart he offered her was cast back upon him, and rising from his kneeling posture, he felt his way back to his chair, and burying his head upon a table standing near, sobbed as Edith had never heard man sob before, not even Arthur St. Claire, when in the Deering Woods he had rocked to and fro in his great agony. Sobs they were which seemed to rend his broad chest asunder, and Edith stopped her ears to shut out the dreadful sound.

But hark, what is it he is saying? Edith fain would know, and listening intently, she hears him unconsciously whispering to himself; “OH, EDITH, WAS IT FOR THIS THAT _I_ SAVED YOU FROM THE RHINE, PERILING MY LIFE AND LOSING MY EYESIGHT? BETTER THAT YOU HAD DIED IN THE DEEP WATERS THAN THAT _I_ SHOULD MEET THIS HOUR OF ANGUISH.”

“Richard, Richard!” and Edith nearly screamed as she flew across the floor. Lifting up his head she pillowed it upon her bosom, and showering kisses upon his quivering lips, said to him, “Tell me– tell me, am _I_ that Swedish baby, _I_ that Eloise Temple?”

He nodded in reply, and Edith continued: “the child for whose sake you were made blind! Why have you not told me before? I could not then have wounded you so cruelly. How can I show my gratitude? I am not worthy of you, Richard; not worthy to bear your name, much less to be your bride, but such as I am take me. I cannot longer refuse. Will you, Richard? May I be your wife?”

She knelt before HIM now; hers was the supplicating posture, and when he shook his head, she continued,

“You think it a sudden change, and so it is, but I mean it. I’m in earnest, I do love you, dearly, oh, so dearly, and by and by I shall love you a great deal more. Answer me–may I be your wife?”

It was a terrible temptation, and Richard Harrington reeled from side to side like a broken reed, while his lips vainly essayed to speak the words his generous nature bade them speak. He could not see the eagerness of the fair young face upturned to his–the clear, truthful light shining in Edith’s beautiful dark eyes, telling better than words could tell that she was sincere in her desire to join her sweet spring life with his autumn days. He could not see this, else human flesh had proved too weak to say what he did say at last.

“No, my darling, I cannot accept a love born of gratitude and nothing more. You remember a former conversation concerning this Eloise when you told me you were glad you were not she, as in case you were you should feel compelled to be grateful, or something like that, where as you would rather render your services to me from love. Edith, that remark prevented me from telling you then that you were Eloise, the Swedish mother’s baby.”

Never before had the words “that Swedish mother” touched so tender a chord in Edith’s heart as now, and forgetting every thing in her intense desire to know something of her own early history, she exclaimed, “You knew my mother, Richard. You have heard her voice, seen her face; now tell me of her, please. Where is she? And Marie, too, for there was a Marie. Let’s forget all that’s been said within the last half hour. Let’s begin anew, making believe it’s yesterday instead of now, and, when the story is ended, ask me again if the singing bird can mate with the eagle. The grand, royal eagle, Richard, is the best similitude for you,” and forcing herself to sit upon his knee, she put her arms around his neck bidding him again tell her of her mother.

With the elastic buoyancy of youth Edith could easily shake off the gloom which for a few brief moments had shrouded her like a pall, but not so with Richard. “The singing-bird must not mate with the owl,” rang continually in his ears. It was her real sentiment he knew, and his heart ached so hard as he thought how he had staked his all on her and lost it.

“Begin,” she said, “Tell me where you first met my mother.”

Richard heaved a sigh which smote heavily on Edith’s ear, for she guessed of what he was thinking, and she longed to reassure him of her intention to be his sight hereafter, but he was about to speak and she remained silent.

“Your mother,” he said “was a Swede by birth, and her marvellous beauty first attracted your father, whose years were double her own.”

“I’m so glad,” interrupted Edith, “As much as twenty-one years older, wasn’t he?”

“More than that,” answered Richard, a half pleased, half bitter smile playing over his dark face, “Forgive me, darling, but I’m afraid he was not as good a man as he should have been, or as kind to his young wife. When I first saw her she lived in a cottage alone, and he was gone. She missed him sadly, and her sweet voice seemed full of tears as she sang her girl baby to sleep. You have her voice, Edith, and its tones came back to me the first time I ever heard you speak. But I was telling of your father. He was dissipated, selfish and unprincipled,–affectionate and kind to Petrea one day, cold, hard and brutal the next. Still she loved him and clung to him, for he was the father of her child. You were a beautiful little creature, Edith, and I loved you so much that when I knew you had fallen from a bluff into the river, I unhesitatingly plunged after you.”

“I remember it,” cried Edith, “I certainly do, or else it was afterwards told to me so often that it seems a reality.”

“The latter is probably the fact,” returned Richard. “You were too young to retain any vivid recollections of that fall.”

Still Edith persisted that she did remember the face of a little girl in the water as she looked over the rock, and of bending to touch the arm extended toward her. She remembered Bingen, too, with its purple grapes; else why had she been haunted all her life with vine-clad hills and plaintive airs.

“Your mother sang to you the airs, while your nurse, whose name I think was Marie, told you of the grapes growing on the hills,” said Richard. “She was a faithful creature, greatly attached to your mother, but a bitter foe of your father. I was too much absorbed in the shadow stealing over me to pay much heed to my friends, and after they left Germany I lost sight of them entirely, nor dreamed that the little girl who came to me that October morning was my baby Eloise. Your voice always puzzled me, and something I overheard you saying to Grace one day about your mysterious hauntings of the past, together with an old song of Petrea’s which you sang, gave me my first suspicion as to who you were, and decided me upon that trip to New York. Going first to the Asylum of which you were once an inmate, I managed after much diligent inquiry to procure the address of the woman who brought you there when you were about three years old. I had but little hope of finding her, but determining to persevere I sought out the humble cottage in the suburbs of the city. It was inhabited by an elderly woman who denied all knowledge of Edith Hastings until told that I was Richard Harrington. Then her manner changed at once, and to my delight I heard that she was Marie’s sister. She owned the cottage, had lived there more than twenty years, and saw your mother die. Petrea, it seems, had left her husband, intending to return to Sweden, but sickness overtook her and she died in New York, committing you to the faithful Marie’s care in preference to your father’s. Such was her dread of him that she made Marie swear to keep your existence a secret from him, lest he should take you back to a place where she had been so wretched and where all the influences, she thought, were bad. She would rather you should be poor, she said, than to be brought up by him, and as a means of eluding discovery, she said you should not bear his name, and with her dying tears she baptised you Edith Hastings. After her decease Marie wrote to him that both of you were dead, and he came on at once, seemed very penitent and sorry when it was too late.”

“Where was his home?” Edith asked eagerly; and Richard replied,

“That is one thing I neglected to enquire, but when I met him in Europe I had the impression that it was in one of the Western or South-western states.”

“Is he still alive?” Edith asked again, a daughter’s love slowly gathering in her heart in spite of the father’s cruelty to the mother.

“No,” returned Richard. “Marie, who kept sight of his movements, wrote to her sister some years since that he was dead, though when he died, or how, Mrs. Jamieson did not know. She, too, was ill when he came to her house, and consequently never saw him herself.”

“And the Asylum–how came I there?” said Edith; and Richard replied,

“It seems your mother was an orphan, and had no near relatives to whom you could be sent, and as Marie was then too poor and dependent to support you she placed you in the Asylum as Edith Hastings, visiting you occasionally until she went back to France, her native country. Her intention was to return in a few months, but a violent attack of inflammatory rheumatism came upon her, depriving her of the use of her limbs, and confining her to her bed for years, and so prevented her from coming back. Mrs. Jamieson, however, kept her informed with regard to you, and told me that Marie was greatly when she heard you were with me, whom she supposed to be the same Richard Harrington who had saved your life, and of whom her mistress had often talked. Marie is better now, and when I saw her sister more than a year ago, she was hoping she might soon revisit America. I left directions for her to visit Collingwood, and for several months I looked for her a little, resolving if she came, to question her minutely concerning your father. He must have left a fortune, Edith, which by right is yours, if we can prove that you are his child, and with Marie’s aid I hope to do this sometime. I have, however, almost given her up; but now that you know all I will go again to New York, and seek another interview with Mrs. Jamieson. Would it please you to have the little orphan, Edith Hastings, turn out to be an heiress?”

“Not for my own sake,” returned Edith; “but if it would make you love me more, I should like it;” and she clung closer to him as he replied,

“Darling that could not be. I loved you with all the powers I had, even before I knew you were Petrea’s child. Beautiful Petrea! I think you must be like her, Edith, except that you are taller. She was your father’s second wife. This I knew in Germany, and also that there was a child of Mr. Temple’s first marriage, a little girl, he said.”

“A child–a little girl,” and Edith started quickly, but the lightning flash which had once gleamed across her bewildered mind, when in the Den she stood gazing at the picture of Miggie Bernard, did not come back to her now, neither did she remember Arthur’s story, so much like Richard’s. She only thought that possibly there was somewhere in the world a dear, half-sister, whom she should love so much, could she only find her. Edith was a famous castle-builder, and forgetting that this half-sister, were she living, would be much older than herself, she thought of her only as a school-girl, whose home should be at Collingwood, and on whom MRS. RICHARD HARRINGTON would lavish so much affection, wasting on her the surplus love which, perhaps, could not be given to the father–husband. How then was her castle destroyed, when Richard said,

“She, too, is dead, so Mrs. Jamieson told me, and there is none of the family left save you.”

“I wish I knew where mother was buried,” Edith sighed, her tears falling to the memory of her girl mother, whose features it seamed to her she could recall, as well as a death-bed scene, when somebody with white lips and mournful black eyes clasped her in her arms and prayed that God would bless her, and enable her always to do right.

It might have been a mere fancy, but to Edith it was a reality, and she said within herself,

“Yes, darling mother, I will do right, and as I am sure yon would approve my giving myself to Richard, so I will be his wife.”

One wild, longing, painful throb her heart gave to the past when she had hoped for other bridegroom than the middle-aged man on whose knee she sat, and then laying her hot face against his bearded cheek, she whispered,

“You’ve told the story, Richard. It does not need Marie to confirm it, though she, too, will come sometime to tell me who I am, but when she comes, I shan’t be Edith Hastings, shall I. The initials won’t be changed, though. They will be ‘E.H.’ still–Edith Harrington. It has not a bad sound, has it?”

“Don’t, darling, please don’t,” and Richard’s voice had in it a tone much like that which first rang through the room, when Edith said,

“It cannot be.”

“Richard,” and Edith took his cold face between her soft, warm hands, “Richard, won’t you let the singing bird call you husband? If you don’t, she will fly away and sing to some one else, who will prize her songs. I thought you loved me, Richard.”

“Oh, Edith, my precious Edith! If I knew I could make the love grow where it is not growing–the right kind of love, I mean–I would not hesitate; but, darling, Richard Harrington would die a thousand deaths rather than take you to his bosom an unloving wife. Remember that, and do NOT mock me; do not deceive me. You think now in the first flush of your gratitude to me for having saved your life and in your pity for my blindness that you can do anything; but wait awhile–consider well–think how I shall be old while you still are young,–a tottering, gray-haired man, while your blood still retains the heat of youth. The Harringtons live long. I may see a hundred.”

“And I shall then be seventy-nine; not so vast a difference,” interrupted Edith.

“No, not a vast difference then,” Richard rejoined, “but ’tis not then I dread. ‘Tis now, the next twenty-five years, during which I shall be slowly decaying, while you will be ripening into a matured, motherly beauty, dearer to your husband than all your girlish loveliness. ‘Tis then that I dread the contrast in you; not when both are old; and, Edith, remember this, you can never be old to me, inasmuch as I can never see you. I may feel that your smooth, velvety flesh is wrinkled, that your shining hair is thin, your soft round arms more sinewy and hard, but I cannot see it, and in my heart I shall cherish ever the image I first loved as Edith Hastings. You, on the contrary, will watch the work of death go on in me, will see my hair turn gray, my form begin to stoop, my hand to tremble, my eyes grow blear and watery, and when all has come to pass, won’t you sicken of the shaky old man and sigh for a younger, more vigorous companion?”

“Not unless you show me such horrid pictures,” Edith sobbed, impetuously, for in her heart of hearts she felt the truth of every word he uttered, and her whole soul revolted against the view presented to her of the coming time.

But she would conquer such feelings–she would be his wife, and drying her eyes she said, “I can give you my decision now as well as at any other time, but if you prefer it, I will wait four weeks and then bring you the same answer I make you now–I will be your wife.”

“I dare not hope it,” returned Richard, “You will change your mind, I fear, but, Edith, if you do not,–if you promise to be mine, don’t forsake me afterwards, for I should surely die,” and as if he already felt the agony it would cost him to give his darling up after he had once possessed her, he clasped his hands upon his heart, which throbbed so rapidly that Edith heard its muffled beat and saw its rise and fall. “I could not lose you and still live on without you, Edith,” and he spoke impetuously, “You won’t desert me, if you promise once.”

“Never, never,” she answered, and with a good night kiss upon his lips she went out from the presence of the man she already looked upon as her future husband, breathing freer when she stood within the hall where he was not, and freer still when in her own chamber there was a greater distance between them.

Alas, for Edith, and a thousand times alas, for poor, poor Richard!

CHAPTER XXV.

DESTINY.

Not for one moment did Edith waver in her purpose, and lest Richard should suspect what he could not see, she affected a gayety in his presence sadly at variance with her real feelings. Never had her merry laugh rang out so frequently before him–never had her wit been one half so sparkling, and when he passed his hands over her flushed cheek, feeling how hot it was, he said to himself, “The roses are coming back, she cannot be unhappy,” and every line and lineament of the blind man’s face glowed with the new-born joy springing up within his heart, and making the world around him one grand jubilee.

Victor was quick to note the change in his master, and without the least suspicion of the truth, he once asked Edith, “What made Mr. Harrington so young and almost boyish, acting as men were supposed to act when they were just engaged?”

“Victor,” said Edith, after a moment’s reflection, “can you keep a secret?”

“Certainly,” he replied. “What is it, pray? Is Mr. Harrington matrimonially inclined?”

Edith’s heart yearned for sympathy–for some one to sustain her– to keep her from fainting by the wayside, and as she could not confide in Grace, Victor was her only remaining refuge. He had been the repositary of all her childish secrets, entering into her feelings as readily and even more demonstratively than any female friend could have done. Richard would tell him, of course, as soon as it was settled, and as she knew now that it was settled, why not speak first and so save him the trouble. Thus deciding, she replied to his question,

“Yes, Richard is going to be married; but you must not let him know I told you, till the engagement is made public.”

Victor started, but had no shadow of suspicion that the young girl before him was the bride elect. His master had once been foolish enough to think of her as such he believed, but that time was passed. Richard had grown more sensible, and Edith was the future wife of Arthur St. Claire. Nina would not live long, and after she was dead there would be no further hindrance to a match every way so suitable. This was Victor’s theory, and never doubting that the same idea had a lodgment in the minds of both Arthur and Edith, he could not conceive it possible that the latter would deliberately give herself to Richard. Grace Atherton, on the contrary, would be glad to do it; she had been coaxing his master these forty years, and had succeeded in winning him at last. Victor did not fancy Grace; and when at last he spoke, it was to call both his master and Mrs. Atherton a pair of precious fools. Edith looked wonderingly at him as he raved on.

“I can’t bear her, I never could, since I heard how she abused you. Why, I’d almost rather you’d be his wife than that gay widow.”

“Suppose I marry him then in her stead,” Edith said, laughingly. “I verily believe he’d exchange.”

“Of course he would,” Victor answered, bitterly. “The older a man grows, the younger the girl he selects, and it’s a wonder he didn’t ask you first.”

“Supposing he had?” returned Edith, bending over a geranium to hide her agitation. “Supposing he had, and it was I instead of Grace to whom he is engaged.”

“Preposterous!” Victor exclaimed. “You could not do such a thing in your right senses. Why, I’d rather see you dead than married to your father. I believe I’d forbid the banns myself,” and Victor strode from the room, banging the door behind him, by way of impressing Edith still more forcibly with the nature of his opinion.

Edith was disappointed. She had expected sympathy at least from Victor, had surely thought he would he pleased to have her for his mistress, and his words, “I would rather see you dead,” hurt her cruelly. Perhaps every body would say so. It was an unnatural match, this union of autumn and spring, but she must do something. Any thing was preferable to the aimless, listless life she was leading now. She could not be any more wretched than she was, and she might perhaps be happier when the worst was over and she knew for certain that she was Richard’s wife. HIS WIFE! It made her faint and sick just to say those two words. What then would the reality be? She loved him dearly as a guardian, a brother, and she might in time love him as her husband. Such things had been. They could be again. Aye, more, they should he, and determining henceforth to keep her own counsel, and suffer Victor to believe it was Grace instead of herself, she ran into the garden, where she knew Richard was walking, and stealing to his side, caught his arm ere he was aware of her presence.

“Darling, is it you?” he asked, and his dark face became positively beautiful with the radiant love-light shining out all over it.

Every day the hope grew stronger that the cherished object of his life might be realized. Edith did not avoid him as he feared she would. On the contrary she rather sought his society than otherwise, never, however, speaking of the decision. It was a part of the agreement that they should not talk of it until the four weeks were gone, the weeks which to Richard dragged so slowly, while to Edith they flew on rapid wing; and with every rising sun, she felt an added pang as she thought how soon the twelfth of May would be there. It wanted but four days of it when she joined him in the garden, and for the first time since their conversation Richard alluded to it by asking playfully, “what day of the month it was?”

“The eighth;” and Edith’s eyes closed tightly over the tears struggling to gain egress, then with a mighty effort she added, laughingly,

“When the day after to-morrow comes, it will be the tenth, then the eleventh, then the twelfth, and then, you know, I’m coming to you in the library. Send Victor off for that evening, can’t you? He’s sure to come in when I don’t want him, if he’s here,” and this she said because she feared it would be harder to say yes if Victor’s reproachful eyes should once look upon her, as they were sure to do, if he suspected her designs.

Richard could not understand why Victor must be sent away, but anything Edith asked was right, and he replied that Victor should not trouble them.

“There, he’s coming now!” and Edith dropped the hand she held, as if fearful lest the Frenchman should suspect.

This was not the proper feeling, she knew, and returning to the house, she shut herself up in her room, crying bitterly because she could not make herself feel differently!

The twelfth came at last, not a balmy, pleasant day as May is wont to bring, but a rainy, dreary April day, when the gray clouds chased each other across the leaden sky, now showing a disposition to bring out patches of blue, and again growing black and heavy as the fitful showers came pattering down. Edith was sick. The strong tension of nerves she had endured for four long weeks was giving way. She could not keep up longer; and Richard breakfasted and dined without her, while with an aching head she listened to the rain beating against her windows, and watched the capricious clouds as they floated by. Many times she wished it all a dream from which she should awaken; and then, when she reflected that ’twas a fearful reality, she covered her head with the bed-clothes and prayed that she might die. But why pray for this? She need not be Richard’s wife unless she chose–he had told her so repeatedly, and now she too said “I will not!” Strange she had not thus decided before and stranger still that she should be so happy now she had decided!

There was a knock at the door, and Grace Atherton asked to be admitted.

“Richard told me you were sick,” she said, as she sat down by Edith’s side; “and you do look ghostly white. What is the matter, pray?”

“One of my nervous headaches;” and Edith turned from the light so that her face should tell no tales of the conflict within.

“I received a letter from Arthur last night,” Grace continued, “and thinking you might like to hear from Nina, I came round in the rain to tell you of her. Her health is somewhat improved, and she is now under the care of a West India physician, who holds out strong hopes that her mental derangement may in time be cured.”

Edith was doubly glad now that she had turned her face away, for by so doing she hid the tears which dropped so fast upon her pillow.

“Did Arthur mention me?” she asked, and Grace knew then that she was crying.

Still it was better not to withhold the truth, and bending over her she answered,

“No, Edith, he did not. I believe he is really striving to do right.”

“And he will live with Nina if she gets well?” came next from the depths of the pillows where Edith lay half smothered.

“Perhaps so. Would you not like to have him?” Grace asked.

“Ye-e-e-s. I sup-pose so. Oh, I don’t know what I like. I don’t know anything except that I wish I was dead,” and the silent weeping became a passionate sobbing as Edith shrank further from Grace, plunging deeper and deeper among her pillows until she was nearly hidden from view.

Grace could not comfort her; there was no comfort as she saw, and as Edith refused to answer any of her questions upon indifferent topics, she ere long took her leave, and Edith was left alone. She had reversed her decision while Grace was sitting there, and the news from Florida was the immediate cause. She should marry Richard now, and her whole body shook with the violence of her emotions; but as the fiercest storm will in time expend its fury, so she grew still at last, though it was rather the stillness of despair than any healthful, quieting influence stealing over her. She hated herself because she could not feel an overwhelming joy at the prospect of Nina’s recovery; hated Arthur because he had forgotten her; hated Grace for telling her so; hated Victor for saying he would rather see her dead than Richard’s wife; hated Mrs. Matson for coming in to ask her how she was; hated her for staying there when she would rather be alone, and made faces at her from beneath the sheet; hated everybody but Richard, and in time she should hate him–at least, she hoped she should, for on the whole she was more comfortable when hating people than she had ever been when loving them. It had such a hardened effect upon her, this hatred of all mankind, such a don’t care influence, that ahe rather enjoyed it than otherwise.

And this was the girl who, as that rainy, dismal day drew to its close and the sun went down in tears, dressed herself with a firm, unflinching hand, arranging her hair with more than usual care, giving it occasionally a sharp pull, as a kind of escape valve to her feelings and uttering an impatient exclamation whenever a pin proved obstinate and did not at once slip into its place. She was glad Richard was blind and could not see her swollen eyes, which, in spite of repeated bathings in ice-water and cologne would look red and heavy. Her voice, however, would betray her, and so she toned it down by warbling snatches of a love song learned ere she knew the meaning of love, save as it was connected with Richard. It was not Edith Hastings who left that pleasant chamber, moving with an unfaltering step down the winding stairs and across the marble hall, but a half-crazed, defiant woman going on to meet her DESTINY and biting her lip with vexation when she heard that Richard had company–college friends, who being in Shannondale on business had come up to see him.

This she learned from Victor, whom she met in the hall, and who added, that he never saw his master appear quite so dissatisfied as when told they were in the library, and would probably pass the night. Edith readily guessed the cause of his disquiet, and impatiently stamped her little foot upon the marble floor, for she knew their presence would necessarily defer the evil hour, and she could not live much longer in her present state of excitement.

“I was just coming to your room,” said Victor, “to see if you were able to appear in the parlor. Three men who have not met in years are stupid company for each other; and then Mr. Harrington wants to show you off I dare say. Pity the widow wasn’t here.”

Victor spoke sarcastically, but Edith merely replied,

“Tell your master I will come in a few minutes.”

Then, with a half feeling of relief, she ran back to her room, bathing her eyes afresh, and succeeding in removing the redness to such an extent, that by lamplight no one would suspect she had been crying. Her headache was gone, and with spirits somewhat elated, she started again for the parlor where she succeeded in entertaining Richard’s guests entirely to his satisfaction.

It was growing late, and the clock was striking eleven when at last Richard summoned Victor, bidding him show the gentleman to their rooms. As they were leaving the parlor Edith came to Richard’s side and in a whisper so low that no one heard her, save himself, said to him,

“Tell Victor he needn’t come back.”

He understood her meaning, and said to his valet,

“I shall not need your services to-night. You may retire as soon as you choose.”

Something in his manner awakened Victor’s suspicions, and his keen eyes flashed upon Edith, who, with a haughty toss of the head, turned away to avoid meeting it again.

The door was dosed at last; Victor was gone; their guests were gone, and she was alone with Richard, who seemed waiting for her to speak; but Edith could not. The breath she fancied would come so freely with Victor’s presence removed, would scarcely come at all, and she felt the tears gathering like a flood every time she looked at the sightless man before her, and thought of what was to come. By a thousand little devices she strove to put it off, and remembering that the piano was open, she walked with a faltering step across the parlor, closed the instrument, smoothed the heavy cover, arranged the sheets of music, whirled the music stool as high as she could, turned it back as low as she could, sat down upon it, crushed with her fingers two great tears, which, with all her winking she could not keep in subjection, counted the flowers on the paper border and wondered how long she should probably live. Then, with a mighty effort she arose, and with a step which this time did not falter, went and stood before Richard, who was beginning to look troubled at her protracted silence. He knew she was near him now, he could hear her low breathing, and he waited anxiously for her to speak.

Edith’s face was a study then. Almost every possible emotion was written upon it. Fear, anguish, disappointed hopes, cruel longings for the past, terrible shrinkings from the present, and still more terrible dread of the future. Then these passed away, and were succeeded by pity, sympathy, gratitude, and a strong desire to do right. The latter feelings conquered, and sitting down by Richard, she took his warm hand between her two cold ones, and said to him,

“‘Tis the twelfth of May to-night, did you know it?”

Did he know it? He had thought of nothing else the livelong day, and when, early in the morning, he heard that she was sick, a sad foreboding had swept over him, lest what he coveted so much should yet be withheld. But she was there beside him. She had sought the opportunity and asked if he knew it was the twelfth, and, drawing her closer to him, he answered back: “Yes, darling; ’tis the day on which you were to bring me your decision. You have kept your word, birdie. You have brought it to me whether good or bad. Now tell me, is it the old blind man’s wife, the future mistress of Collingwood, that I encircle with my arm?”

He bent down to listen for the reply, feeling her breath stir his hair, and hearing each heart-beat as it counted off the seconds. Then like a strain of music, sweet and rich, but oh, so touchingly sad, the words came floating in a whisper to his ear, “Yes, Richard, your future wife; but please, don’t call yourself the old blind man. It makes you seem a hundred times my father. You are not old, Richard–no older than I feel!” and the newly betrothed laid her head on Richard’s shoulder, sobbing passionately.

Did all girls behave like this? Richard wished he knew. Did sweet Lucy Collingwood, when she gave her young spring life to his father’s brown October? Lucy had loved her husband, he knew, and there was quite as much difference between them as between himself and Edith. Possibly ’twas a maidenly weakness to cry, as Edith was doing. He would think so at all events. It were death to think otherwise, and caressing her with unwonted tenderness, he kissed her tears away, telling her how happy she had made him by promising to be his–how the darkness, the dreariness all was gone, and the world was so bright and fair. Then, as she continued weeping and he remembered what had heretofore passed between them, he said to her earnestly: “Edith, there is one thing I would know. Is it a divided love you bring me, or is it no love at all. I have a right to ask you this, my darling. Is it gratitude alone which prompted your decision? If it is, Edith, I would die rather than accept it. Don’t deceive me, darling, I cannot see your face– cannot read what’s written there. Alas! alas! that I am blind to- night; but I’ll trust you, birdie; I’ll believe what you may tell me. Has an affection, different from a sister’s, been born within the last four weeks? Speak! do you love me more than you did? Look into my eyes, dearest; you will not deal falsely with me then.”

Like an erring, but penitent child, Edith crept into his lap, but did not look into the sightless eyes. She dared not, lest the gaze should wring from her quivering lips the wild words trembling there, “Forgive me, Richard, but I loved Arthur first.” So she hid her face in his bosom, and said to him,

“I do not love you, Richard, as you do me. It came too sudden, and I had not thought about it. But I love you dearly, very dearly, and I want so much to be your wife. I shall rest so quietly when I have you to lean upon, you to care for. I am young for you, I know, but many such matches have proved happy, and ours assuredly will. You are so good, so noble, so unselfish, that I shall be happy with you. I shall be a naughty, wayward wife, I fear, but you can control me, and you must. We’ll go to Europe sometime, Richard, and visit Bingen on the Rhine, where the little baby girl fell in the river, and the brave boy Richard jumped after her. Don’t you wish you’d let me die? There would then have been no bad black-haired Edith lying in your lap, and torturing you with fears that she does not love you as she ought.”

Edith’s was an April temperament, and already the sun was shining through the cloud; the load at her heart was not so heavy, nor the future half so dark. Her decision was made, her destiny accepted, and henceforth she would abide by it nor venture to look back.

“Are you satisfied to take me on my terms?” she asked, as Richard did not immediately answer.

He would rather she had loved him more, but it was sudden, he knew, and she was young. He was terribly afraid, it is true, that gratitude alone had influenced her actions, but the germ of love was there, he believed; and by and by it would bear the rich, ripe fruit. He could wait for that; and he loved her so much, wanted her so much, needed her so much, that he would take her on any terms.

“Yes” he said at last, resting his chin upon her bowed head, “I am satisfied, and never since my rememberance, has there come to Richard Harrington a moment so fraught with bliss as this in which I hold you in my arms and know I hold my wife, my darling wife, sweetest name ever breathed by human tongue–and Edith, if you must sicken of me, do it now–to-night. Don’t put it off, for every fleeting moment binds me to you with an added tie, which makes it harder to lose you.”

“Richard,” and, lifting up her head, Edith looked into the eyes she could not meet before, “I swear to you, solemnly, that never, by word or deed, will I seek to be released from our engagement, and if I am released, it will be because you give me up of your own free will. You will be the one to break it, not I.”

“Then it will not be broken,” came in a quick response from Richard, as he held closer to him one whom he now felt to be his forever.

The lamps upon the table, and the candles on the mantel flashed and smoked, and almost died away–the fire on the marble hearth gave one or two expiring gasps and then went out–the hands of the clock moved onward, pointing to long after midnight, and still Richard, loth to let his treasure go, kept her with him, talking to her of his great happiness, and asking if early June would be too soon for her to be his bride.

“Yes, yes, much too soon,” cried Edith. “Give me the whole summer in which to be free. I’ve never been any where you know. I want to see the world. Let’s go to Saratoga, and to all those places I’ve heard so much about. Then, in the autumn, we’ll have a famous wedding at Collingwood, and I will settle down into the most demure, obedient of wives.”

Were it not that the same roof sheltered them both, Richard would have acceded to this delay, but when he reflected that he should not be parted from Edith any more than if they were really married, he consented, stipulating that the wedding should take place on the anniversary of the day when she first came to him with flowers, and called him “poor blind man.”

“You did not think you’d ever be the poor blind man’s wife,” he said, asking her, playfully, if she were not sorry even now.

“No,” she answered. Nor was she. In fact, she scarcely felt at all. Her heart was palsied, and lay in her bosom like a block of stone–heavy, numb, and sluggish in its beat.

Of one thing, only, was she conscious, and that a sense of weariness–a strong desire to be alone, up stairs, where she was not obliged to answer questions, or listen to loving words, of which she was so unworthy. She was deceiving Richard, who, when his quick ear caught her smothered yawn, as the little clock struck one, bade her leave him, chiding himself for keeping her so long from the rest he knew she needed.

“For me, I shall never know fatigue or pain again,” he said, as he led her to the door, “but my singing-bird is different–she must sleep. God bless you, darling. You have made the blind man very happy.”

He kissed her forehead, her lips, her hands, and then released her, standing in the door and listening to her footsteps as they went up the winding stairs and out into the hall beyond–the dark, gloomy hall, where no light was, save a single ray, shining through the keyhole of Victor’s door.

CHAPTER XXVI.

EDITH AND THE WORLD.

“Victor is faithful,” Edith said, as she saw the light, and fancied that the Frenchman was still up, waiting to assist his master.

But not for Richard did Victor keep the watch that night. He would know how long that interview lasted below, and when it was ended he would know its result. What Victor designed he was pretty sure to accomplish, and when, by the voices in the lower hall, he knew that Edith was coming, he stole on tip-toe to the balustrade, and, leaning over, saw the parting at the parlor door, feeling intuitively that Edith’s relations to Richard had changed since he last looked upon her. Never was servant more attached to his master than was Victor Dupres to his, and yet he was strongly unwilling that Edith’s glorious beauty should be wasted thus.

“If she loved him,” he said to himself, as, gliding back to his room, he cautiously shut the door, ere Edith reached the first landing. “If she loved him, I would not care. More unsuitable matches than this have ended happily–but she don’t. Her whole life is bound with that of another, and she shrinks from Mr. Harrington as she was not wont to do. I saw it in her face, as she turned away from him. There’ll be another grave in the Collingwood grounds–another name on the tall monument, ‘Edith, wife of Richard Harrington, aged 20.'”

Victor wrote the words upon a slip of paper, reading them over until tears dimmed his vision, for, in fancy, the imaginative Frenchman assisted at Edith’s obsequies, and even heard the grinding of the hearse wheels, once foretold by Nina. Several times he peered out into the silent hall, seeing the lamplight shining from the ventilator over Edith’s door, and knowing by that token that she had not retired. What was she doing there so long? Victor fain would know, and as half-hour after half-hour went by, until it was almost four, he stepped boldly to the door and knocked. Long association with Victor had led Edith to treat him more as an equal than a servant; consequently he took liberties both with her and Richard, which no other of the household would dare to do, and now, as there came no response, he cautiously turned the knob and walked into the room where, in her crimson dressing-gown, her hair unbound and falling over her shoulders, Edith sat, her arms crossed upon the table, and her face upon her arms. She was not sleeping, for as the door creaked on its hinges, she looked up, half-pleased to meet only the good-humored face of Victor where she had feared to see that of Richard.

“Miss Edith, this is madness–this is folly,” and Victor sat down before her. “I was a fool to think it was Mrs. Atherton.”

“Victor Dupres, what do you mean? What do you know? Why are you here?” and Edith’s eyes flashed with insulted pride; but Victor did not quail before them. Gazing steadily at her, he replied, “You are engaged to your guardian, and you do not love him.”

“Victor Dupres, _I_ DO!” and Edith struck her hand upon the table with a force which made the glass lamp rattle.

“Granted you do,” returned Victor, “but how do you love him? As a brother, as a friend, as a father, if you will, but not as you should love your husband; not as you could love Arthur St. Claire, were he not bound by other ties,”

Across the table the blanched, frightened face of Edith looked, and the eyes which never before had been so black, scanned Victor keenly.

“What do you know of Arthur St. Claire’s ties?” she asked at last, every word a labored breath.

Victor made no answer, but hurrying from the room, returned with the crumpled, soiled sheet of foolscap, which he placed before her, asking if she ever saw it before.

Edith’s mind had been sadly confused when Nina read to her the SCRATCHING OUT, and she had forgotten it entirely, but it came back to her now, and catching up the papers, she recognized Richard’s unmistakable hand-writing. He knew, then, of her love for Arthur–of the obstacle to that love–of the agony it cost her to give him up. He had deceived her–had won her under false pretenses, assuming that she loved no one. She did not think this of Richard, and in her eyes, usually so soft and mild, there was a black, hard, terrible expression, as she whispered hoarsely, “How came this in your possession?”

He told her how–thus exonerating Richard from blame, and the hard, angry look was drowned in tears as Edith wept aloud.

“Then he don’t know it,” she said at length, “Richard don’t. I should hate him if he did and still wished me to be his wife.”

“I can tell him,” was Victor’s dry response, and in an instant Edith was over where he sat.

“You cannot, you must not, you shall not. It will kill him if I desert him. He told me so, and I promised that I wouldn’t– promised solemnly. I would not harm a hair of Richard’s head, and he so noble, so good, so helpless, with so few sources of enjoyment; but oh, Victor, I did love Arthur best–did love him so much,” and in that wailing cry Edith’s true sentiments spoke out. “I did love him so much–I love him so much now,” and she kept whispering it to herself, while Victor sought in vain for some word of comfort, but could find none. Once he said to her, “Wait, and Nina may die,” but Edith recoiled from him in horror.

“Never hint that Again,” she almost screamed. “It’s murder, foul murder. I would not have Nina die for the whole world–beautiful, loving Nina. I wouldn’t have Arthur, if she did. I couldn’t, for I am Richard’s wife. I wish I’d told him early June instead of October. I’ll tell him to-morrow and in four weeks more all the dreadful uncertainty will be ended. I ought to love him, Victor, he’s done so much for me. I am that Swedish child he saved from the river Rhine, periling life and limb, losing his sight for me. He found it so that time he went with you to New York,” and Edith’s tears ceased as she repeated to Victor all she knew of her early history. “Shouldn’t I marry him?” she asked, when the story was ended. “Ought I not to be his eyes? Help me, Victor. Don’t make it so hard for me; I shall faint by the way if you do.”

Victor conceded that she owed much to Richard, but nothing could make him think it right for her to marry him with her present feelings. It would be a greater wrong to him than to refuse him, but Edith did not think so.

“He’ll never know what I feel,” she said, and by and by I shall be better,–shall love him as he deserves. There are few Richards in the world, Victor.”

“That is true,” he replied, “but ’tis no reason why you must be sacrificed. Edith, the case is like this: I wish, and the world at large, if it could speak, would wish for Richard to marry you, but would not wish you to marry Richard.”

“But I shall,” interrupted Edith. “There is no possible chance of my not doing so, and Victor, you will help me.–You won’t tell him of Arthur. You know how his unselfish heart would give me up if you did, and break while doing it. Promise, Victor.”

“Tell me first what you meant by early June, and October,” he said, and after Edith had explained, he continued, “Let the wedding be still appointed for October, and unless I see that it is absolutely killing you, I will not enlighten Mr. Harrington.”

And this was all the promise Edith could extort from him.

“Unless he saw it was absolutely killing her, he would not enlighten Richard.”

“He shall see that it will not kill me,” she said to herself, “I will be gay whether I feel it or not. I will out-do myself, and if my broken heart should break again, no one shall be the wiser.”

Thus deciding, she turned toward the window where the gray dawn was stealing in, and pointing to it, said:

“Look, the day is breaking; the longest night will have an end, so will this miserable pain at my heart. Daylight will surely come when I shall be happy with Richard. Don’t tell him, Victor, don’t; and now leave me, for my head is bursting with weariness.”

He knew it was, by the expression of her face, which, in the dim lamp-light, looked ghastly and worn, and he was about to leave her, when she called him back, and asked how long he had lived with Mr. Harrington.

“Thirteen years,” he replied. “He picked me up in Germany, just before he came home to America. He was not blind then.”

“Then you never saw my mother?”

“Never.”

“Nor Marie?”

“Never to my knowledge,”

“You were in Geneva with Richard, you say. Where were you, when– when–“

Edith could not finish, but Victor understood what she would ask, and answered her,

“I must have been in Paris. I went home for a few months, ten years ago last fall, and did not return until just before we came to Collingwood. The housekeeper told me there had been a wedding at Lake View, our Geneva home, but I did not ask the particulars. There’s a moral there, Edith; a warning to all foolish college boys, and girls, who don’t half know their minds.”

Edith was too intent upon her own matters to care for morals, and without replying directly, she said,

“Richard will tell you to-morrow or to-day, rather, of the engagement, and you’ll be guarded, won’t you?”

“I shall let him know I disapprove,” returned Victor, “but I shan’t say anything that sounds like Arthur St. Claire, not yet, at all events.”

“And, Victor, in the course of the day, you’ll make some errand to Brier Hill, and incidentally mention it to Mrs. Atherton. Richard won’t tell her, I know, and I can’t–I can’t. Oh, I wish it were– “

“The widow, instead of you,” interrupted Victor, as he stood with the door knob in his hand. “That’s what you mean, and I must say it shows a very proper frame of mind in a bride-elect.”

Edith made a gesture for him to leave her, and with a low bow he withdrew, while Edith, alternately shivering with cold and flushed with fever, crept into bed, and fell away to sleep, forgetting, for the time, that there were in the world such things as broken hearts, unwilling brides, and blind husbands old enough to be her father.

* * * * * *

The breakfast dishes were cleared away, all but the exquisite little service brought for Edith’s use when she was sick, and which now stood upon the side-board waiting until her long morning slumber should end. Once Mrs. Matson had been to her bedside, hearing from her that her head was aching badly, and that she would sleep longer. This message was carried down to Richard, who entertained his guests as best he could, but did not urge them to make a longer stay.

They were gone now, and Richard was alone. It was a favorable opportunity for telling Victor of his engagement, and summoning the latter to his presence, he bade him sit down, himself hesitating, stammering and blushing like a woman, as he tried to speak of Edith. Victor might have helped him, but he would not, as he sat, rather enjoying his master’s confusion, until the latter said, abruptly,

“Victor, how would you like to have a mistress here–a bona fide one, I mean, such as my wife would be?”

“That depends something upon who it was,” Victor exclaimed, as if this were the first intimation he had received of it.

“What would you say to Edith?” Richard continued, and Victor replied with well-feigned surprise, “Miss Hastings! You would not ask that little girl to be your wife! Why you are twenty-five years her senior.”

“No, no, Victor, only twenty-one,” and Richard’s voice trembled, for like Edith, he wished to be reassured and upheld even by his inferiors.

He knew Victor disapproved, that he considered it a great sacrifice on Edith’s part, but for this he had no intention of giving her up. On the contrary it made him a very little vexed that his valet should presume to question his acts, and he said with more asperity of manner than was usual for him,

“You think it unsuitable, I perceive, and perhaps it is, but if we are satisfied, it is no one’s else business, I think,”

“Certainly not,” returned Victor, a meaning smile curling his lip, “if both are satisfied, I ought to be. When is the wedding?”

He asked this last with an appearance of interest, and Richard, ever ready to forgive and forget, told him all about it, who Edith was, and sundry other matters, to which Victor listened as attentively as if he had not heard the whole before. Like Edith, Richard was in the habit of talking to Victor more as if he were an equal than a servant and in speaking of his engagement, he said,

“I had many misgivings as to the propriety of asking Edith to be my wife–she is so young, so different from me, but my excuse is that I cannot live without her. She never loved another, and thus the chance is tenfold that she will yet be to me all that a younger, less dependent husband could desire.”

Victor bit his lip, half resolved one moment to undeceive poor Richard, whom he pitied for his blind infatuation, but remembering his promise, he held his peace, until his master signified that the conference was ended, when he hastened to the barn, where he could give vent to his feeling in French, his adopted language being far too prosy to suit his excited mood. Suddenly Grace Atherton came into his mind, and Edith’s request that he should tell her.

“Yes, I’ll do it,” he said, starting at once for Brier Hill “‘Twill be a relief to let another know it, and then I want to see her squirm, when she hears all hope for herself is gone.”

For once, however, Victor was mistaken. Gradually the hope that she could ever be aught to Richard was dying out of Grace’s heart, and though, for an instant, she turned very white when, as if by accident, he told the news, it was more from surprise at Edith’s conduct than from any new feeling that she had lost him. She was in the garden bending over a bed of daffodils, so he did not see her face, but he knew from her voice how astonished she was and rather wondered that she could question him so calmly as she did, asking if Edith were very happy, when the wedding was to be, and even wondering at Richard’s willingness to wait so long.

“Women are queer any way,” was Victor’s mental comment, as, balked of his intention to see Grace Atherton squirm, he bade her good morning, and bowed himself from the garden, having first received her message that she would come up in the course of the day, and congratulate the newly betrothed.

Once alone, Grace’s calmness all gave way; and though the intelligence did not affect her as it once would have done, the fibres of her heart quivered with pain, and a sense of dreariness stole over her, as, sitting down on the thick, trailing boughs of an evergreen, she covered her face with her hands, and wept as women always weep over a blighted hope. It was all in vain that her pet kitten came gamboling to her feet, rubbing against her dress, climbing upon her shoulder, and playfully touching, with her velvet paw, the chestnut curls which fell from beneath her bonnet. All in vain that the Newfoundland dog came to her side, licking her hands and gazing upon her with a wondering, human look of intelligent. Grace had no thought for Rover or for Kitty, and she wept on, sometimes for Arthur, sometimes for Edith, but oftener for the young girl who years ago refused the love offered her by Richard Harrington; and then she wondered if it were possible that Edith had so soon ceased to care for Arthur,

“I can tell from her manner,” she thought; and with her mind thus brought to the call she would make at Collingwood, she dried her eyes, and speaking playfully to her dumb pets, returned to the house a sad, subdued woman, whose part in the drama of Richard Harrington was effectually played out.

That afternoon, about three o’clock, a carriage bearing Grace Atherton, wound slowly up the hill to Collingwood and when it reached the door a radiant, beautiful woman stepped out, her face all wreathed in smiles and her voice full of sweetness as she greeted Richard, who came forth to meet her.

“A pretty march you’ve stolen upon me,” she began, in a light, bantering tone–“you and Edith–never asked my consent or said so much as ‘by your leave’ but no matter, I congratulate you all the same. I fancied it would end in this. Where is she–the bride- elect?”

Richard was stunned with such a volley of words from one whom he supposed ignorant of the matter, and observing his evident surprise Grace continued, “You wonder how I know, Victor told me this morning; he was too much delighted to keep it to himself. But say, where is Edith?”

“Here I am,” and advancing from the parlor, where she had overheard the whole, Edith laughed a gay, musical laugh, as hollow and meaningless as Mrs. Atherton’s forced levity.

Had she followed the bent of her inclinations she would not have left her pillow that day, but remembering Victor’s words, “Unless I see it’s killing you,” she felt the necessity of exerting herself, of wearing the semblance of happiness at least, and about noon she had arisen and dressed herself with the utmost care, twining geranium leaves in her hair just as she used to do when going to see Arthur, and letting them droop from among her braids in the way he had told her was so becoming. Then, with flushed cheeks and bright, restless eyes, she went down to Richard, receiving his caresses and partially returning them when she fancied Victor was where he could see her,

“Women are queer,” he said again to himself, as he saw Edith on Richard’s knee, with her arm around his neck. “Their love is like a footprint on the seashore; the first big wave washes it away, and they are ready to make another. I reckon I shan’t bother myself about her any more. If she loved Arthur as I thought she did, she couldn’t hug another one so soon. It isn’t nature–man nature, any way; but Edith’s like a reed that bends. That character of Cooper’s suits her exactly. I’ll call her so to myself hereafter–Reed that bends,” and Victor hurried off, delighted with his new name.

But if Victor was in a measure deceived by Edith’s demeanor, Grace Atherton was not. Women distrust women sooner than men; can read each other better, detect the hidden motive sooner, and ere the two had been five minutes together, Grace had caught a glimpse of the troubled, angry current over which the upper waters rippled so smoothly that none save an accurate observer would have suspected the fierce whirlpool which lay just below the surface. Because, he thought, they would like it better, Richard left the two ladies alone at last and then turning suddenly upon Edith, Grace said,

“Tell me, Edith, is your heart in this or have you done it in a fit of desperation?”

“I have had a long time to think of it,” Edith answered proudly. “It is no sudden act. Richard is too noble to accept it if it were. I have always loved him,–not exactly as I loved Arthur, it is true.”

Here the whirlpool underneath threatened to betray itself, but with a mighty effort Edith kept it down, and the current was unruffled as she continued,

“Arthur is nearer my age–nearer my beau ideal, but I can’t have him, and I’m not going to play the part of a love-lorn damsel for a married man. Tell him so when you write. Tell him I’m engaged to Richard just as he said I would be. Tell him I’m happy, too, for I know I’m doing right. It is not wicked to love Richard and it was wicked to love him.”

It cost Edith more to say this than she supposed, and when she finished, the perspiration stood in drops beneath her hair and about her mouth.

“You are deceiving yourself,” said Grace, who, without any selfish motive now, really pitied the hard, white-faced girl, so unlike the Edith of other days. “You are taking Richard from gratitude, nothing else. Victor told me of your parentage, but because he saved your life, you need not render yours as a return. Your heart is not in this marriage.”

“Yes, it is–all the heart I have,” Edith answered curtly. Then, as some emotion stronger than the others swept over her, she laid her head upon the sofa arm and sobbed, “You are all leagued against me, but I don’t care. I shall do as I like, I have promised to marry Richard, and Edith Hastings never lied. She will keep her word,” and in the eyes which she now lifted up, Grace saw the years glittering like diamonds.

Then a merry laugh burst from the lips of the wayward girl as she met Mrs. Atherton’s anxious glance, and running to the piano she dashed off most inspiriting waltz, playing so rapidly that the bright bloom came back, settling in a small round spot upon her cheek, and making her surpassingly beautiful even to Grace, whose great weakness was an unwillingness to admit that another’s charms were superior to her own. When the waltz was ended Edith’s mood had changed, and turning to Grace she nestled closely to her, and twining one of the silken curls around her fingers, said coaxingly,

“You think me a naughty child no doubt, but you do not understand me. I certainly do love Richard more than you suppose; and Grace, I want you to help me, to encourage me. Engaged girls always need it, I guess, and Victor is so mean, he says all sorts of hateful things about my marrying my father, and all that. Perhaps the village people will do so, too, and if they do, you’ll stand up for me, won’t you? You’ll tell them how much I owe him–how much I love him, and, Grace,” Edith’s voice was very low now, and sad, “and when you write to Arthur don’t repeat the hateful things I said before, but tell him I’m engaged; that I’m the Swedish baby; that I never shall forget him quite; and that I love Richard very much.”

Oh, how soft and plaintive was the expression of the dark eyes now, as Edith ceased to speak, and pressed the hand which warmly pressed hers back, for Grace’s womanly nature was aroused by this appeal, and she resolved to fulfill the trust reposed in her by Edith. Instead of hedging her way with obstacles she would help her, if possible; would encourage her to love the helpless blind man, whose step was heard In the hall. He was coming to rejoin them, and instantly into Edith’s eyes there flashed a startled, shrinking look, such as the recreant slave may be supposed to wear when he hears his master’s step. Grace knew the feeling which prompted that look full well. She had felt it many a time, in an intensified degree, stealing over her at the coming of one whose snowy looks and gouty limbs had mingled many a year with the dust of Shannondale, and on her lips the words were trembling, “This great sacrifice must not be,” when Edith sprang up, and running out into the hall, met Richard as be came.

Leading him into the parlor, and seating him upon the sofa, she aat beside him, holding his hand in hers, as if she thus would defy her destiny, or, at the least, meet it bravely. Had Grace known of Victor’s new name for Edith she too would have called her “Reed that bends,” and as it was she thought her a most incomprehensible girl, whom no one could fathom, and not caring to tarry longer, soon took her leave, and the lovers were alone.

Arrived at home, Grace opened her writing desk and commenced a letter, which started next day for Florida, carrying to Arthur St. Claire news which made his brain reel and grow giddy with pain, while his probed heart throbbed, and quivered, and bled with a fresh agony, as on his knees by Nina’s pillow he prayed, not that the cup of bitterness might pass from him–he was willing now to quaff that to its very dregs, but that Edith might be happy with the husband she had chosen, and that he, the desolate, weary Arthur might not faint beneath this added burden.

Five weeks went by–five weeks of busy talk among the villagers, some of whom approved of the engagement, while more disapproved. Where was that proud Southerner? they asked, referring to Arthur St. Claire. They thought him in love with Edith. Had he deserted her, and so in a fit of pique she had given herself to Richard? This was probably the fact, and the gossips, headed by Mrs. Eliakim Rogers, speculated upon it, while the days glided by, until the five weeks were gone, and Edith, sitting in Grace’s boudoir, read, with eyes which had not wept since the day following her betrothal, the following extract from Arthur’s letter to his cousin:

“Richard and Edith! Oh! Grace, Grace! I thought I had suffered all that mortal man could suffer, but when that fatal message came, I died a thousand deaths in one, enduring again the dreadful agony when in the Deering woods I gave my darling up. Oh, Edith, Edith, Edith, my soul goes after her even now with a quenchless, mighty love, and my poor, bruised, blistered heart throbs as if some great giant hand were pressing its festered wounds, until I faint with anguish and cry out, ‘my punishment is greater than I can bear.’

“Still I would not have it otherwise, if I could. I deserve it all, aye, and more, too. Heaven bless them both, Richard and his beautiful singing bird. Tell her so, Grace. Tell her how I blessed her for cheering the blind man’s darkness, but do not tell her how much it costs me to bid her, as I now do, farewell forever and ever, farewell.”

It was strange that Grace should have shown this letter to Edith, but the latter coaxed so hard that she reluctantly consented, repenting of it however when she saw the effect it had on Edith. Gradually as she read, there crept over her a look which Grace had never seen before upon the face of any human being–a look as if the pent-up grief of years was concentrated in a single moment of anguish too acute to be described. There were livid spots upon her neck–livid spots upon her face, while the dry eyes seemed fading out, so dull, and dim, and colorless they looked, as Edith read the wailing cry with which Arthur St. Claire bade her his adieu.

For several minutes she sat perfectly motionless, save when the muscles of her mouth twitched convulsively, and when the hard, terrible look gave way–the spots began to fade–the color came back to her cheeks–the eyes resumed their wonted brilliancy–the fingers moved nervously, and Edith was herself. She had suffered all she could, and never again would her palsied heart know the same degree of pain which she experienced when reading Arthur’s letter. It was over now–the worst of it. Arthur knew of her engagement–blessing her for it, and pitying he would not have it otherwise. The bitterness of death was past, and henceforth none save Grace and Victor suspected the worm which fed on Edith’s very life, so light, so merry, so joyous she appeared; and Edith was happier than she had supposed it possible for her to be. The firm belief that she was doing right, was, of itself, a source of peace, and helped to sustain her fainting spirits, still there was about her a sensation of disquiet, a feeling that new scenes would do her good, and as the summer advanced, and the scorching July sun penetrated even to the cool shades of Collingwood, she coaxed Richard, Grace and Victor to go away. She did not care where, she said, “anything for a change; she was tired of seeing the same things continually. She never knew before how stupid Shannondale was. It must have changed within the last few months.”

“I think it was you who have changed,” said Grace, fancying that she could already foresee the restless, uneasy, and not altogether agreeable woman, which Edith, as Richard’s wife, would assuredly become.

Possibly Richard, too, thought of this, for a sigh escaped him as he heard Edith find fault with her beautiful home.

Still he offered no remonstrance to going from home awhile, and two weeks more found them at the Catskill Mountain House, where at first not one of the assembled throng suspected that the beautiful young maiden who in the evening danced like a butterfly in their midst, and in the morning bounded up the rocky heights like some fearless, graceful chamois, was more than ward to the man who had the sympathy of all from the moment the whispered words went round, “He is blind.”

Hour after hour would Edith sit with him upon the grass plat overlooking the deep ravine, and make him see with her eyes the gloriously magnificent view, than which there is surely none finer in all the world; then, when the looked toward the west, and the mountain shadow began to creep across the valley, the river, and the hills beyond, shrouding them in an early twilight, she would lead him away to some quiet sheltered spot, where unobserved, she could lavish upon him the little acts of love she knew he so much craved and which she would not give to him when curious eyes were looking on. It was a blissful paradise to Richard, and when in after years he looked back upon the past, he always recurred to those few weeks as the brightest spot in his whole life, blessing Edith for the happiness she gave him during that season of delicious quiet spent amid the wild scenery of the Catskill Mountains.

CHAPTER XXVII.

THE LAND OF FLOWERS.

It was the original plan for the party to remain two weeks or more at the Mountain House, and then go on to Saratoga, but so delighted were they with the place that they decided to tarry longer, and the last of August found them still inmates of the hotel, whose huge white walls, seen from the Hudson, stand out from the dark wooded landscape, like some mammoth snow bank, suggestive to the traveller of a quiet retreat and a cool shelter from the summer’s fervid heat. Edith’s health and spirits were visibly improved, and her musical laugh often rang through the house in tones so merry and gleeful that the most solemn of the guests felt their boyhood coming back to them as they heard the ringing laugh, and a softer light suffused their cold, stern eyes as they paused in the midst of some learned discussion to watch the frolicsome, graceful belle of the Mountain House–the bride elect of the blind man.

It was known to be so now. The secret was out–told by Victor, when closely questioned with regard to Edith’s relationship to Mr. Harrington. It created much surprise and a world of gossip, but shielded Edith from attentions which might otherwise have been annoying, for more than Richard thought her the one of all others whose presence could make the sunshine of their life. But Edith was betrothed. The dun leaves of October would crown her a wife, and so one pleasant morning some half a score young men, each as like to the other as young men at fashionable places of resort are apt to be, kicked their patent leather boots against the pillars of the rear piazza, broke a part of the tenth commandment shockingly, muttered to themselves speeches anything but complimentary to Richard, and then, at the appearance of a plaid silk travelling dress and brown straw flat, rushed forward en masse, each contending frantically for the honor of assisting Miss Hastings to enter the omnibus, where Richard was already seated, and which was to convey a party to the glens of the Kauterskill Falls.

Edith had been there often. The weird wildness of the deep gorge suited her, and many an hour had she whiled away upon the broken rocks, watching the flecks of sunlight as they came struggling down through the overhanging trees, listening to the plaintive murmur of the stream, or gazing with delight upon the fringed, feathery falls which hung from the heights above like some long, white, gauzy ribbon. Richard, on the contrary, had never visited them before, and he only consented to do so now from a desire to gratify Edith, who acted as his escort in place of Victor. Holding fast to her hand he slowly descended the winding steps and circuitous paths, and then, with a sad feeling of helpless dependence, sat down upon the bank where Edith bade him sit, herself going off in girlish ecstasies as a thin spray fell upon her face and she saw above her a bright-hued rainbow, spanning the abyss.

“They are letting the water on,” she cried, “Look, Richard! do look!” and she grasped his hand, while he said to her mournfully,

“Has Birdie forgotten that I am blind, and helpless, and old–that she must lead me as a child?”

There was a touching pathos in his voice which went straight to Edith’s heart, and forgetting the rainbow, she eat down beside him, still keeping his hand in hers, and asked what was the matter? She knew he was unusually disturbed, for seldom had she seen upon his face a look of so great disquiet. Suddenly as she remembered his unwillingness to come there alone, it flashed upon her that it might arise from an aversion to seem so dependent upon a weak girl in the presence of curious strangers. With Victor he did not mind it, but with her it might be different, and she asked if it were not so.

“Hardly that, darling; hardly that;” and the sightless eyes drooped as if heavy with unshed tears. “Edith,” and he pressed the warm hand he held, “ours will be an unnatural alliance. I needed only to mingle with the world to find it so. People wonder at your choice–wonder that one so young as you should choose a battered, blasted tree like me round which to twine the tendrils of your green, fresh life.”

“What have you heard?” Edith asked, half bitterly, for since their engagement was known at the hotel, she had more than once suspected the truth of what he said to her. The world did not approve, but she would not tell Richard that she knew it, and she asked again what he had heard.

“The ear of the blind is quick,” he replied; “and as I sat waiting in the stage this morning I heard myself denounced as a ‘blind old Hunks,’ a selfish dog, who had won the handsomest girl in the country. Then, as we were descending to this ravine you remember we stopped at the foot of some stairs while you removed a brier from your dress, and from a group near by I heard the whispered words, ‘There they come–the old blind man, who bought his ward with money and gratitude. ‘Twas a horrid sacrifice! Look how beautiful she is!’ Darling, I liked to hear you praised, but did not like the rest. It makes me feel as if I were dragging you to the altar against your will. And what is worse than all, the verdict of the people here is the verdict of the world. Edith, you don’t want me. You cannot wish to call one husband whose dependence upon you will always make you blush for your choice. It was gratitude alone which prompted your decision. Confess that it was, and I give you back your troth. You need not be the old blind man’s wife.”

For an instant Edith’s heart leaped up, and the sun spots dancing on the leaves were brighter than she had ever seen them, but the feeling passed away, and laying both her hands reverently in Richard’s, she said,

“I will be your wife. I care nothing for the world, and we won’t mingle in it any more to cause remarks. We’ll stay at Collingwood, where people know us best. Let’s go home to-morrow. I’m tired of this hateful place. Will you go?”

Ere Richard could answer, Grace Atherton was heard exclaiming,

“Ah, here you are, I’ve hunted everywhere. Mr. Russell,” and she turned to the dark man at her side, “this is Mr. Harrington–Miss Hastings–Mr. Russell, from Tallahassee.” Edith did not at first think that Tallahassee was in Florida, not many miles from Sunnybank, and she bowed to the gentleman as to any stranger, while Grace, who had just arrived in another omnibus, explained to her that Mr. Russell was a slight acquaintance of Arthur’s; that the latter being in town, and accidentally hearing that he was coming North, had intrusted him with some business matters, which would require his visiting Grassy Spring–had given him a letter of introduction to herself, said letter containing a note for Edith–that Mr. Russell had been to Shannondale, and ascertaining their whereabouts, had followed them, reaching the Mountain House in the morning stage.

“He can spend but one day here,” she added, in conclusion, “and wishing him to see as much as possible of our northern grandeur I brought him at once to the Falls. Here is your note,” and tossing it into Edith’s lap she moved away.

A note from Arthur! How Edith trembled as she held it in her hand, and with a quick, furtive glance at sightless eyes beside her, she raised the dainty missive to her lips, feeling a reproachful pang as she reflected that she was breaking her vow to Richard. Why had Arthur written to her–she asked herself this question many times, while Richard, too, asked,

“What news from Florida?” ere she broke the seal and read, not words of changeless and dark despair, but words of entreaty that for the sake of Nina, sick, dying Nina, she would come at once to Florida, for so the crazy girl had willed it, pleading with them the live-long day to send for Miggie, precious Miggie, with the bright, black eyes, which looked her into subjection, and the soft hands which drove the ugly pain away.

“All the summer,” Arthur wrote, “she has been failing. The heat seems to oppress her, and several times I’ve been on the point of returning with her to the North, thinking I made a mistake in bringing her here, but she refuses to leave Sunnybank. Old sights and familiar places have a soothing effect upon her, and she is more as she used to be before the great calamity fell upon her. Her disease is consumption, hereditary like her insanity, and as her physical powers diminish her mental faculties seem to increase. The past is not wholly a blank to her now; she remembers distinctly much that has gone by, but of nothing does she talk so constantly as of Miggie, asking every hour if I’ve sent for you– how long before you’ll come; and if you’ll stay until she’s dead. I think your coming will prolong her life; and you will never regret it, I am sure. Mr. Russell will be your escort, as he will return in three weeks.”

To this note two postscripts were appended–the first in a girlish, uneven hand, was redolent of the boy Arthur’s “Florida rose.”

“Miggie, precious Miggie–come to Sunnybank; come to Nina. She is waiting for you. She wants you here–wants to lay her poor, empty head, where the bad pain used to be, on your soft, nice bosom–to shut her eyes and know it is your breath she feels–your sweet, fragrant breath, and not Arthur’s, brim full of cigar smoke. Do come, Miggie, won’t you? There’s a heap of things I want to fix before I die, and I am dying, Miggie. I see it in my hands, so poor and thin, not one bit like they used to be, and I see it, too, in Arthur’s actions. Dear Arthur boy! He is so good to me– carries me every morning to the window, and holds me in his lap while I look out into the garden where we used to play, you and I. I think it was you, but my brain gets so twisted, and I know the real Miggie is out under the magnolias, for it says so on the stone, but I can’t help thinking you are she. Arthur has a new name for me, a real nice name, too. He took it from a book, he says–about just such a wee little girl as I am. ‘Child-wife,’ that’s what he calls me, and he strokes my hair so nice. I’m loving Arthur a heap, Miggie. It seems just as if he was my mother, and the name ‘Child-wife’ makes little bits of waves run all over me. He’s a good boy, and God will pay him by and by for what he’s been to me. Some folks here call me Mrs. St. Claire. Why do they? Sometimes I remember something about somebody somewhere, more than a hundred years ago, but just as I think I’ve got hold of it right, it goes away. I lose it entirely, and my head is so snarled up. Come and unsnarl it, wont you? Nina is sick, Nina is dying, Nina is crazy. You must come.”

The second postscript showed a bolder, firmer hand, and Edith read,

“I, too, echo Nina’s words, ‘Come, Miggie, come.’ Nina wants you, and I–Heaven only knows how much I want you–but, Edith, were you in verity Richard’s wife, you could not be more sacred to me than you are as his betrothed, and I promise solemnly that I will not seek to influence your decision. The time is surely coming when I shall be alone; no gentle Nina, sweet ‘Child-wife’ clinging to me. She will be gone, and her Arthur boy, as she calls me, free to love whomsoever he will. But this shall make no difference. I have given you to Richard. I will not wrong the blind man. Heaven bless you both and bring you to us.”

The sun shone just as brightly in the summer sky–the Kauterskill fell as softly into the deep ravine–the shouts of the tourists were just us gay–the flecks of sunshine on the grass danced just as merrily, but Edith did not heed them. Her thoughts were riveted upon the lines she had read, and her heart throbbed with an unutterable desire to respond at once to that pleading call–to take to herself wings and fly away–away over mountain and valley, river and rill, to the fair land of flowers where Nina was, and where too was Arthur. As she read, she uttered no sound, but when at last Richard said to her,

“What is it, Birdie? Have you heard bad news?” her tears flowed at once, and leaning her head upon his shoulder, she answered,

“Nina is dying–dear little, bright-haired Nina. She has sent for me. She wants me to come so much. May I, Richard? May I go to Nina?”

“Read me the letter,” was Richard’s reply, his voice unusually low and sad.

Edith could not read the whole. Arthur’s postscript must be omitted, as well as a portion of Nina’s, but she did the best she could, breaking down entirely when she reached the point where Nina spoke of her Arthur boy’s goodness in carrying her to the window.

Richard, too, was much affected, and his voice trembled as he said, “St. Claire is a noble fellow. I always felt strangely drawn toward him. Isn’t there something between him and Nina–something more than mere guardianship?”

“They were engaged before she was crazy,” returned Edith, while Richard sighed, “poor boy, poor boy! It must be worse than death. His darkness is greater than mine.”

Then his thoughts came back to Edith’s question, “May I go to Nina?” and his first feeling was that she might, even though her going would necessarily defer a day to which he was so continually looking forward, but when he remembered the danger to which she would be exposed from the intense heat at that season of the year, he shrank from it at once, mildly but firmly refusing to let her incur the fearful risk.

“Could I be assured that my bird would fly back to me again with its plumage all unruffled I would let her go,” he said, “but the chances are against it. You would surely sicken and die, and I cannot let you go.”

Edith offered no remonstrance, but her face was very white and her eyes strangely black as she said, “Let us go home, then; go to- morrow. This is no place for me, with Nina dying.”

Nothing could please Richard more than to be back at Collingwood, and when Grace came to them he announced his intention of leaving on the morrow. Grace was willing, and Victor, when told of the decision, was wild with delight. Mr. Russell, too, decided to go with them to Shannondale, and when, next morning, the party came out to take the downward stage, they found him comfortably seated on the top, whither he had but little trouble in coaxing Grace, who expressed a wish to enjoy the mountain scenery as they descended.

“Will Miss Hastings come up, too?” he asked, but Edith declined and took her seat inside between Richard and Victor, the latter of whom had heard nothing of the letter; neither did Edith tell him until the next day when, arrived at Collingwood, they were alone for a moment in the library–then she explained to him that Nina was sick, possibly had sent for her.

“I thought things would work out after a time, though honestly I’d rather that little girl shouldn’t die if it could be brought round any other way,” was Victor’s reply, which called a flush at once to Edith’s cheek.

“Victor Dupres,” said she, “never hint such a thing again. It is too late now; it cannot be–it shall not be; and if I go, Arthur has promised not to say one word which can influence me.”

“If you go,” repeated Victor, “Then you have some intention of going–I thought he had objected.”

“So he has,” returned Edith, the same look stealing into her eyes which came there at the Falls. “So he has, but if Nina lives till the middle of October I shall go. My mind is made up.”

“Oh, consistency, thou art a jewel,” muttered Victor, as hearing some one coming, he walked away. “Means to jump down the lion’s throat, but does not expect to be swallowed! Splendid logic that!” and Victor shrugged his shoulders at what seemed so contradictory as Edith’s talk and Edith’s conduct.

As she had said, Edith meant to go, nay more, was determined to go, and when, on the third day after their return, Mr. Russell came for her final decision, she said to him, ere Richard had time to speak,

“I shall not go now; it is too early for that, but if Nina continues worse, I will come to her the latter part of October. I am writing so to her to-day.”

Richard was confounded, and could only stammer out,

“Who is to be your escort?”

“You, Richard;” and Edith clasped his arm, thus reassuring him at once.

She had some thought, some consideration for him; she did not intend to desert him wholly, and he playfully tapped her chin, laughing to think how the little lady had boldly taken matters into her own hands, telling what should be with as much sang froid as if she were master instead of himself. And Richard rather liked the independent spirit of Edith, particularly when he found that he was not wholly left out of her calculations. And so he arranged with Mr. Russell, that if Nina were not better as the autumn advanced, Edith should perhaps go down to see her.

Arthur had made his marriage with Nina public as soon as he returned to Sunnybank, but as Mr. Russell’s home was in Tallahassee, and he himself a quiet, taciturn man, he had not heard of it, and in speaking of Nina to Edith, he called her Miss Bernard, as usual, and thus Richard still remained in ignorance, never suspecting that golden haired Nina was the same young girl he had married years before.

Poor Richard, he was ignorant of many things and never dreamed how light and gay was Edith’s heart at the prospect of going to Florida, even though she half expected that when she went it would be as his wife. But Richard determined it otherwise. It cost him a struggle so to do, but his iron will conquered every feeling, save those of his better judgment, and calling Edith to him one day two weeks after Mr. Russell’s departure, he said,

“Birdie, I’ve come to the conclusion that a blind man like me will only be in your way, in case you go to Florida. I am not an interesting traveling companion. I require too much care, and I dread the curious gaze of strangers. It makes me very uncomfortable. So on the whole I’d rather stay at home and let Victor go in my stead. What does Birdie say?”

“She says you are the noblest, most unselfish man that ever lived,” and Edith kissed his lips, chiding herself seriously for the spirit which whispered to her that she too would rather go without him. “I won’t stay very long,” she said. “Our wedding need not be deferred more than two months; say, till the first of January, at 7 o’clock, just as we before arranged it for October, only a more quiet affair, I shall then be your New Year’s gift.