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” but over her an instant, and stretching his hand across the grave, he laid it on the head of the kneeling girl, giving her the blessing she so much craved, and then bidding her leave him.

“They are calling to you,” he added, as he heard Victor’s voice in the distance, and struggling to her feet, Edith started to go, but forgetting all sense of propriety in that dreadful parting, she turned to him again and said,

“I am going, Arthur, but I must ask one question. It will make my future brighter if I know you love me still, be it ever so little. Do you, Arthur, and when you know I am Richard’s wife will you think of me sometimes, and pity me, too? I shall need it so much!”

Arthur had not expected this, and he reeled as if smitten with a heavy blow. Leaning for support against Petrea’s monument, whence Miggie’s name had been effaced, he gasped:

“God help me, Edith! You should have spared me this. Do I love you? Oh Edith, alas, alas! Here with Nina, whom, Heaven is my witness, I did love truly at the last–here with her, I say, lying dead between us, I swear to you that never was maiden loved as I this moment love you; but I cannot make you mine. I dare not prove thus treacherous to Richard, who trusted you with me, and, Edith, you can be happy with him, and you will. You must forget that I ever crossed your path, thinking of me only as one who was your sister’s husband. And God will give you strength to do this if you ask it of him aright I shall not forgot you, Edith. That cannot be. Across the sea, wherever I may be, I shall remember you, enshrining your memory in my heart, together with Nina, whom I so much wish I had loved earlier, and so have saved us both from pain. And now go–go back to Collingwood, and keep your vow to Richard. He is one of God’s noblest works, an almost perfect man. You will learn to love him. You will be happy. Do not write to me till it is over, then send your cards, and I shall know ’tis done. Farewell, my sister–farewell forever.”

Without a word of reply Edith moved away, nor cast a backward glance at the faint, sick man, who leaned his burning forehead against the gleaming marble; while drop after drop of perspiration fell upon the ground, but brought him no relief. He heard the carriage wheels as they rolled from the door, and the sound seemed grinding his life to atoms, for by that token he knew that Edith was gone–that to him there was nothing left save the little mound at his feet and the memory of his broken lily who slept beneath it. How he wanted her now–wanted his childish Nina–his fair girl-wife, to comfort him. But it could not be, Nina was dead–her sweet, bird-like voice was hushed; it would never meet his listening ear again, and for him there was nothing left, save the wailing wind to whisper sadly to him as she was wont to do, “Poor Arthur boy, poor Arthur boy.”

CHAPTER XXXIII.

HOME.

Oh, what a change it was from sunny Florida to England, just how both Edith and Victor shivered, arrived at the last stage of their journey, they looked out upon the snow-clad hills and leafless trees which fitted out by bare and brown against the winter sky. West Shannondale! the brakeman shouted, and Edith drew her furs around her, for in a few moments more their own station would be reached.

“The river is frozen; it must be very cold,” said Victor, pointing to the blue-black stream; skimmered over with a thin coat of ice.

“Yes, very, very cold,” and Edith felt the meaning of the word in more senses than one.

Why wasn’t she glad to be home again? Why did her thoughts cling so to distant Sunnybank, or her heart die within her as waymark after waymark told her Collingwood was near? Alas! she was not a loving, eager bride elect, returning to the arms of her beloved, but a shrinking, hopeless, desolate woman, going back to meet the destiny she dared not avoid. The change was all in herself, for the day was no colder, the clouds no greyer, the setting sun no paler than New England wintry days and clouds and suns are wont to be. Collingwood was just the same, and its massive walls rose as proudly amid the dark evergreens around it as they had done in times gone by, when to the little orphan it seemed a second Paradise. Away to the right lay Grassy Spring, the twilight shadows gathering around it, piles of snow resting on its roof, and a thin wreath of smoke curling from a single chimney in the rear.

All this Edith saw as in the village omnibus she was driven toward home, Richard was not expecting them until the morrow, and thus no new fires were kindled, no welcoming lights hung out, and the house was unusually gloomy and dark. During Edith’s absence Richard had staid mostly in the library, and there he was sitting now, with his hands folded together in that peculiarly helpless way which characterized all his motions. He heard the sound of wheels, the banging of trunks, and then his ear caught a footstep it knew full well, a slow, shuffling tread, but Edith’s still, and out into the silent hall he groped his way, watching there until she came.

How he hugged her to his bosom–never heeding that she gave him back but one answering kiss, a cold, a frozen thing, which would not thaw even after it touched his lips, so full of life and warmth. Poor, deluded man! he fancied that the tears he felt upon his face were tears of joy at being home again; but alas! alas! they were tears wrung out by a feeling of dreary home-sickness–a longing to be somewhere else–to have some other one than Richard chafing her cold hands and calling her pet names. He looked older, too, than he used to do, and Edith thought of what he once had said about her seeing the work of decay go on in him while she yet was young and vigorous. Still her voice was natural as she answered his many questions and greeted Mrs. Matson who came in to see her as soon as she heard of her arrival.

“In mourning!” the latter exclaimed as with womanly curiosity she inspected Edith’s dress.

Richard started, and putting his hand to Edith’s neck, felt that her collar was of crape, and a shadow passed over his face. He liked to think of her as a bright plumaged bird, not as sombre- hued and wearing the habiliments which come only from some grave.

“Was it necessary that my darling should carry her love for a stranger quite so far as this?” he asked. “Need you have dressed in black?”

Without meaning it, his tone implied reproach, and it cut Edith cruelly, making her wish that she had told him all, when she wrote that she was coming home.

“Oh, Richard,” she cried, “don’t chide me for these outward tokens of sorrow. Nina, dear, darling Nina, was my sister–my fathers child. Temple was only a name he assumed to avoid arrest, so it all got wrong. Everything is wrong,” and Edith sobbed impetuously, while Richard essayed to comfort her.

The dress of black was not displeasing to him now, and he passed his hands caressingly over its heavy folds as if to ask forgiveness for having said aught against it.

Gradually Edith grew calm, and after she had met the servants, and the supper she could not taste was over, she repeated to Richard the story she had heard from Marie, who had stopped for a time in New York to visit her sister.

A long time they sat together that night, while Richard told her how lonely he had been without her, and asked her many questions of Nina’s last days.

“Did she send no message to me?” he said. “She used to like me, I fancied.”

Edith did not know how terrible a message Nina had sent to him, and she replied, “She talked of you a great deal, but I do not remember any particular word. I told her I was to be your wife.” and Edith’s voice trembled, for this was but a prelude to what she meant to say ere she bade him good night. She should breathe so much more freely if she knew her bridal was not so near, and her sister’s death was surely a sufficient reason for deferring it.

Summoning all her courage, she arose, and sitting on Richard’s knee, buttoned and unbuttoned his coat in a kind of abstracted manner, while she asked if it might be so. “I know I promised for New Year’s night,” she said, “but little Nina died so recently and I loved her so much, May it be put off, Richard–put over until June?”

Edith had not thought of this in Florida, but here at home, it came to her like succor to the drowning, and she anxiously awaited Richard’s answer.

A frown for an instant darkened his fine features, for he did not like this second deferring the day, but he was too unselfish to oppose it, and he answered,

“Yes, darling, if you will have it so. It may be better to wait at least six months, shall it be in June, the fifteenth say?”

Edith was satisfied with this, and when they parted her heart was lighted of a heavy load, for six months seemed to her a great, great while.

The next day when Grace came up to call on Edith, and was told of the change, she shrugged her shoulders, for she knew that by this delay Richard stood far less chance of ever calling Edith his wife. But she merely said it was well, congratulating Edith upon her good fortune in being an heiress, and asking many questions about Arthur and Nina, both, and at last taking her leave without a hint as to her suspicions of the future. To Edith the idea had never occurred. She should marry Richard of course, and nothing could happen to defer the day a third time. So she said at least to Victor, when she told him of the arrangement, and with a very expressive whistle, Victor, too, shrugged his shoulders, thinking, that possibly he need not read Nina’s letter after all. He would rather not if it could be avoided, for he knew how keen the pang it would indict upon his noble master, and he would not add one unnecessary drop to the cup of sorrow he saw preparing for poor Richard.

After a few days of listless languor and pining home-sickness, Edith settled into her olden routine of reading, talking and singing to Richard, who thought himself happy even though she did not caress him as often as she used to do, and was sometimes impatient and even ill-natured towards him.

“She mourns so much for Nina,” was the excuse which Richard wrote down in his heart for all her sins, either of omission or commission; and in a measure he was right.

Edith did mourn for sweet little Nina, but mourned not half so much for her as for the hopes forever fled–for Arthur, at whose silence she greatly marvelled, thinking that she would write to him as to her brother, and then shrinking from the task because she knew not what to say.

Spite of her feelings the six months she had thought so long were passing far too rapidly to suit her. Time lingers for no one, and January glided into February, February into March, whose melting snows and wailing winds gave place at last to April, and then again the people of Shannondale begun to talk of “that wedding,” fixed for the 15th of June. Marie had become domesticated at Collingwood, but the negroes, who now called Edith mistress, still remained at Grassy Spring, waiting until Arthur should come, or some message be received from him. It was four months now since Edith left Sunnybank, and in all that time no tiding had come to her from Arthur. Grace’s letters were unanswered, and Grace herself was beginning to feel alarmed, when one afternoon, Victor called Edith to an upper balcony and pointing in the direction of Grassy Spring, bade her look where the graceful columns of smoke were rising from all its chimneys, while its windows were opened wide, and the servants hurried in and out, seemingly big with some important event.

“Saddle Bedouin,” said Edith, more excited than she had deemed it possible for her to be. “Mr. St. Claire must be expected, I am going down to see.”

Victor obeyed, and without a word to Richard, Edith was soon galloping off toward Grassy Spring, where she found Grace hurriedly giving orders to the delighted blacks, who tumbled over each other in their zeal to have everything in readiness for “Marster Arthur.” He was coming that night, so Grace had told them, she having received a telegram that morning from New York, together with a letter.

“He started North the first of Feb.” she said to Edith, “taking Richmond on the way, and has been detained there ever since by sickness. He is very feeble yet, but is anxious to see us all. He has received no letters from me, it seems, and thinks you are married.”

Edith turned very white for a moment, and then there burned upon her cheek a round, red spot, induced by the feeling that the believing she was married had been the immediate cause of Arthur’s illness. Edith was no longer the pale, listless woman who moved so like a breathing statue around Collingwood, but a flushed, excited creature, flitting from room to room, and entering heart and soul into Grace’s plans for having everything about the house as cheerful and homelike as possible for the invalid. She should stay to welcome him, too, she said, bidding one of the negroes put Bedouin in the stable and then go up to Collingwood to tell Richard where she was.

Arthur was indeed coming to Grassy Spring, brought thither by the knowing that something must be done with the place ere he went to Europe as he intended doing, and by the feverish desire to see Edith once more even though she were the wife of Richard, as he supposed her to be. Grace’s first letter had been lost, and as he had been some weeks on the way he knew nothing of matters at Collingwood, though occasionally there crept into his heart a throb of hope that possibly for Nina’s sake the marriage had been deferred and Edith might be Edith Hastings still. It was very sad coming back to the spot so fraught with memories of Nina, and this it was in part which made him look so pale and haggard when at last he stood within the hall and was met by Grace, who uttered an exclamation of surprise at seeing him so changed.

“I am very tired,” he said, with the tone and air of an invalid, “Let me rest in the library awhile, before I see the negroes. Their noise will disturb me,” and he walked into the very room where Edith stood waiting for him.

She had intended to meet him as a brother, the husband of her sister, but the sight of his white, suffering face swept her calmness all away, and with a burst of tears she cried, “Oh, Arthur, Arthur, I did not think you had been so sick. Why did you not let us know; I would have come to you,” and she brought herself the arm-chair which he took, smiling faintly upon her and saying,

“It was bad business being sick at a hotel, and I did sometimes wish you were there, but of course I could not expect you to leave your husband. How is he?”

Edith could hear the beating of her heart and feel the blood tingling her cheeks as she replied, “You mean Richard, but he is not my husband. He–“

Quickly, eagerly Arthur looked up, the expression of his face speaking volumes of joy, surprise, and even hope, but all this faded away, leaving him paler, sicker-looking than before, as Edith continued,

“The marriage was a second time deferred on account of Nina’s death. It will take place in June.”

Grace had left the room and an awkward silence ensued during which Arthur looked absently into the fire, while Edith gazed out upon the darkening sky, wondering if life would always be as hard to bear as now, and half wishing that Arthur St. Claire had staid at Sunnybank until the worst was over.

There was a sound of wheels outside, and Edith heard Richard as he passed into the hall. He had received her message, and thinking it proper for him to welcome Mr. St. Claire, he had come to Grassy Spring to do so, as well as to escort Edith home. Richard could not see how much Arthur was changed, but his quick ear detected the weak, tremulous tones of the voice, which tried to greet him steadily, and so the conversation turned first upon Arthur’s recent illness, and then upon Nina, until at last, as Richard rose to leave, he laid his arm across Edith’s shoulder and said playfully, “You know of course, that what you predicted, when years ago you asked me to take a certain little girl, is coming true. Edith has promised to be my wife. You will surely remain at Grassy Spring through the summer, and so be present at our wedding on the 15th of June. I invite you now.”

“Thank you,” was all Arthur could say, as with his accustomed politeness he arose to bid his guests good night; but his lip quivered as he said it, and his eye never for a moment rested upon Edith, who led Richard in silence to the carriage, feeling that all she loved in the wide world was left there in the little library where the light was shining, and where, although she did not know it, Grace was ministering to the half fainting Arthur.

The sight of Edith and Richard had effected him more than he supposed it would, but the worst was over now, and as he daily grew stronger in the bracing northern air he felt more and more competent to meet what lay before him.

CHAPTER XXXIV.

NINA’S LETTER.

After a week or two had passed, Arthur went occasionally to Collingwood, where Richard greeted him most cordially, urging him to come more frequently and wondering why he always seemed in so much haste to get away. On the occasion of these visits Edith usually kept out of the way, avoiding him so studiously that Richard began to fear she might perhaps dislike him, and he resolved to ask her the first good opportunity. But Edith avoided him, too, never coming now to sit with him alone; somebody must always be present when she was with him, else had her bursting heart betrayed the secret telling so fearfully upon her. Oh, how hateful to her were the preparations for her bridal, which had commenced on a most magnificent scale, for Richard, after waiting so long, would have a grand wedding, and that all who chose might witness the ceremony, it was to be performed in the church, from which the guests would accompany him back to Collingwood.

All Shannondale was interested, and the most extravagant stories were set afloat, not only concerning the trouseau of the bride, but the bride herself. What ailed her? What made her so cold, so white, so proudly reserved, so like a walking ghost? She, who had been so full of vigorous life, so merry, so light-hearted. Could it be the mourning for sweet little Nina, or was it–?

And here the knot of gossippers, at the corner of the streets, or in the stores, or in the parlors at home, would draw more closely together as they whispered,

“Does she love Richard Harrington as she ought? Is not her heart given rather to the younger, handsomer St. Claire?”

How they pitied her if it were so, and how curiously they watched her whenever she appeared in their midst, remarking every action, and construing it according to their convictions.

Victor, too, was on the alert, and fully aware of the public feeling. Day after day he watched his young mistress, following her when she left the house alone, and seeing her more than once when in the Deering woods she laid her face in the springing grass and prayed that she might die. But for her promise, sworn to Richard, she would have gone to him, and kneeling at his feet begged him to release her from her vow, and so spare her the dreadful trial from which she shrank more and more as she saw it fast approaching.

Edith was almost crazy, and Arthur, whenever he chanced to meet her, marvelled at the change since he saw her last. Once he, too, thought of appealing to Richard to save her from so sad a fate as that of an unloving wife, but he would not interfere, lest by so doing he should err again, and so in dreary despair, which each day grew blacker and more hopeless, Edith was left alone, until Victor roused in her behalf, and without allowing himself time to reflect, sought his master’s presence, bearing with him Nina’s letter, and the soiled sheet on which Richard had unwittingly scratched out Arthur’s marriage.

It was a warm, balmy afternoon, and through the open windows of the library, the south wind came stealing in, laden with the perfume of the pink-tinted apple blossoms, and speaking to the blind man of the long ago, when it was his to see the budding beauties now shut out from his sight. The hum of the honey-bee was heard, and the air was rife with the sweet sounds of later spring. On the branch of a tree without, a robin was trilling a song. It had sung there all the morning, and now it had come back again, singing a second time to Richard, who thought of the soft nest up in the old maple, and likened that robin and its mate to himself and Edith, his own singing-bird.

But why linger so long over that May-day which Richard remembered through many, many future years, growing faint and sick as often as the spring brought back the apple-blossom perfume or the song of mated robins. It is, alas, that we shrink as Victor did from the task imposed, that, like him, we dread the blow which will strike at the root of Richard’s very life, and we approach tearfully, pityingly, half remorsefully, as we stand sometimes by a sunken grave, doubting whether our conduct to the dead were always right and just. So Victor felt, as he drew near to Richard; and sitting down beside him said,

“Can I talk with you awhile about Miss Hastings?” Richard started. Victor had come to tell him she was sick, and he asked if it were not so.

“Something has ailed her of late,” he said.

“She is greatly changed since Nina’s death. She mourns much for her sister.”

“Yes,” returned Victor, “she loved Nina dearly, but it is more than this which ails her. God forbid that I should unnecessarily wound you, Mr. Harrington, but I think it right for you to know.”

The dark face, shaded with the long beard, was very white now, and the sightless eyes had in them a look of terror as Richard asked,

“What is it, Victor? Tell me.”

“Come to the sofa first,” Victor rejoined, feeling intuitively that he was safer there than in that high arm-chair, and with unusual tenderness he led his master to the spot, then sitting down beside him, he continued, “Do you remember Nina once made you write something upon a sheet of paper, and that you bade me ascertain what it was?”

“Yes, I remember,” answered Richard, “you told me you had not read it, and imputing it to some crazy fancy of no importance, I gave it no more thought. What of it, Victor?”

“I had not read it then,” answered Victor, “but I have done so since, I have it in my possession–here in my hand. Would you like to hear it?”

Richard nodded, and Victor read aloud: “I, the blind man, Richard Harrington, do hereby solemnly swear that the marriage of Arthur St. Claire and Nina Bernard, performed by me and at my house, is null and void,”

“What! Read it again! It cannot be that I heard aright,” and Richard listened while Victor repeated the lines. “Arthur and Nina! Was she the young girl wife, he, the boy husband, who came to me that night?” Richard exclaimed. “Why have I never known of this before? Why did Edith keep it from me? Say, Victor,” and again Richard listened, this time, oh, how eagerly, while Victor told him what he knew of that fatal marriage, kept so long a secret, and as he listened, the beaded drops stood thickly upon his forehead and gathered around his ashen lips, for Victor purposely let fall a note of warning which shot through the quivering nerves of the blind man like a barbed burning arrow, wringing from him the piteous cry,

“Oh, Victor, Victor, does she–does Edith love Arthur? Has she loved him all the time? Is it this which makes her voice so sad, her step so slow? Speak–better that I know it now than after ’tis too late. What other paper is it you are unfolding?”

“‘Tis a letter from Nina to you. Can you hear it now?”

“Yes, but tell me first all you know. Don’t withhold a single thing. I would hear the whole.”

So Victor told him what he knew up to the time of their going to Florida; and then, opening Nina’s letter, he began to read, pausing, occasionally, to ask if he should stop.

“No, no; go on!” Richard whispered, hoarsely, his head dropping lower and lower, until the face was hidden from view and the chin rested upon the chest, which heaved with every labored breath.

Once at the words, “When you hear this Nina’ll be there with you. She’ll sit upon your knee and wind her arms around your neck”–he started, and seemed to be thrusting something from his lap– something which made him shiver. Was it Nina? He thought so, and strove to push her off but when Victor read, “She will comfort you when the great cry comes in–the crash like the breaking up of the ice in the Northern ponds,” he ceased to struggle, and Victor involuntarily stopped when he saw the long arms twine themselves as it were around an invisible form. Then he commenced again: “And when you feel yourself broken up like they are in the spring, listen and you’ll hear me whispering, ‘Poor Richard! I pity you so much, and I’ll kiss your tears away.'”

Did he hear her? hear Nina whispering comfort to his poor bruised heart? We cannot tell. We only know he bent his ear lower, as if to catch the faintest breath; but alas! there were no tears to kiss away. The blind eyes could not weep–they were too hot, too dry for that–and blood-red rings of fire danced before them as they did when Nina came to him with the startling news that Miggie was dead in the Deering woods.

Victor was reading now about these woods and the scene enacted there, and Richard understood it all, even to the reason why Edith had persisted in being his wife. The deepest waters run silently, it is said, and so, perhaps, the strongest heart when crushed to atoms lies still as death, and gives outwardly no token of its anguish. True it is that Richard neither moaned, nor moved, nor spoke; only the head drooped lower, while the arms clung tightly to the fancied form he held, as if between himself and Nina, wherever she was that dreary day, there was a connecting link of sympathy which pervaded his whole being, and so prevented him from dying outright as he wished he could.

It was finished at last, Nina’s letter–and it seemed to Richard as if the three kinds of darkness, of which she told him, had indeed settled down upon him, so confused was his brain, so crushed his heart, and so doubly black his blindness. He looked to Victor like some great oak, scathed and blasted with one fell blow, and he was trembling for the result, when the lips moved and he caught the words, “Leave me little Snow Drop. Go back to Heaven, whence you came. The blind man will do right.”

Slowly then the arms unclosed, and as if imbued with sight, the red eyes followed something to the open window and out into the bright sunshine beyond; then they turned to Victor, and a smile broke over the stormy features as Richard whispered:

“Nina’s gone! Now take me to my room.”

Across the threshold Victor led the half-fainting man, meeting with no one until his master’s chamber was reached, when Edith came through the hall, and, glancing in, saw the white face on the pillow, where Victor had laid his master down, Richard heard her step, and said, faintly, “Keep her off; I cannot bear it yet!” But even while he spoke Edith was there beside him, asking, in much alarm, what was the matter. She did not observe how Richard shuddered at the sound of her voice; she only thought that he was very ill, and, with every womanly, tender feeling aroused, she bent over him and pressed upon his lips a kiss which burned him like a coal of fire. She must not kiss him now, and, putting up his hands with the feebleness of a little child, he cried piteously,

“Don’t Edith, don’t! Please leave me for a time. I’d rather be alone!”

She obeyed him then, and went slowly out, wondering what it was which had so affected him as to make even her presence undesirable.

Meantime, with hand pressed over his aching eyes, to shut out, if possible, the rings of fire still dancing before them, Richard Harrington thought of all that was past and of what was yet to come.

“How can I lose her now,” he moaned, “Why didn’t she tell me at the first? It would not then have been half so bad. Oh, Edith, my lost Edith. You have not been all guiltless in this matter. The bird I took to my bosom has struck me at last with its talons, and struck so deep. Oh, how it aches, how it aches, and still I love her just the same; aye, love her more, now that I know she must not be mine. Edith, oh, my Edith!”

Then Richard’s thoughts turned upon Arthur. He must talk with him, and he could not meet him there at Collingwood. There were too many curious eyes to see, too many ears to listen. At Grassy Spring they would be more retired, and thither he would go, that very night. He never should sleep again until he heard from Arthur’s own lips a confirmation of the cruel story. He could not ask Edith. Her voice would stir his heart-strings with a keener, deeper agony than he was enduring now. But to Arthur he could speak openly, and then too–Richard was loth to confess it, even to himself, but it was, never the less, true–Arthur, though a man, was gentler than Edith. He would be more careful, more tender, and while Edith might confirm the whole with one of her wild, impulsive outbursts, Arthur would reach the same point gradually and less painfully.

“Order the carriage, Victor,” he said, as it was growing dark in the room. “I am going to Grassy Spring,”

It was in vain that Victor attempted to persuade him to wait until the morrow. Richard was determined, and when Edith came from her scarcely tasted supper, she saw the carriage as it passed through the Collingwood grounds on its way to Grassy Spring, but little dreamed of what would be ere its occupant returned to them again.

CHAPTER XXXV.

THE FIERY TEST.

Arthur was not at home. From the first he had intended making Edith a bridal present–a life-sized portrait of Nina, which he knew she would value more than gifts of gold and silver. He had in his possession a daguerreotype taken when she was just eighteen, and sent to him by her father among other things, of which Charlie Hudson was the bearer. From this he would have a picture painted, employing the best artist in Boston, and it was upon this business that he left Grassy Spring the previous day, saying he should probably be home upon the next evening’s train.

Just before Richard arrived at Grassy Spring, however, a telegram had been received to the effect that Arthur was detained and would not return until midnight. This Phillis repeated to Richard, who for an instant stood thinking, and then said to Victor, “I shall stay. I cannot go back to Collingwood till I have talked with Arthur. But you may go, I would rather be left alone, and, Victor, you will undoubtedly think it a foolish fancy, but I must sleep in Nina’s room. There will be something soothing to me in a place so hallowed by her former presence. Ask old Phillis if I may. Tell her it is a whim, if you like, but get her consent at all hazards.”

Phillis’ consent was easily won, and after Victor was gone, Richard sat alone in the parlor until nearly eleven, when, feeling weary, he consented to retire, and Ike led him up the two flights of stairs into the Den, where he had never been before.

“I do not need your services,” he said to the negro, who departed, having first lighted the gas and turned it on to its fullest extent out of compliment to the blind man.

Gas was a luxury not quite two years old in Shannondale, and had been put in Arthur’s house just before he left for Florida. Collingwood being further from the village could not boast of it yet and consequently Richard was not as much accustomed to it as he would otherwise have been. On this occasion he did not know that it was lighted until, as he stood by the dressing bureau, he felt the hot air in his face. Thinking to extinguish the light by turning the arm of the fixture just as he remembered having done some years before, he pushed it back within an inch of the heavy damask curtain which now shaded the window, and too much absorbed in his own painful reflections to think of ascertaining whether the light was out or not, he groped his way to the single bed, and threw himself upon it, giving way to a paroxysm of grief.

It was strange that one in his frame of mind should sleep, but nature was at last exhausted, and yielding to the influence of the peculiar atmosphere slowly pervading the room, he fell away into a kind of lethargic slumber, while the work of destruction his own hand had prepared, went silently on around him. First the crimson curtain turned a yellowish hue, than the scorched threads dropped apart and the flame crept into the inner lining of cotton, running swiftly through it until the whole was in a blaze, and the wood- work of the window, charred and blackened, and bore the deadly element still onward, but away from the unconscious Richard, leaving that portion of the room unscathed, and for the present safe. Along the cornice under the lathing, beneath the eaves they crept–those little fiery tongues–lapping at each other in wanton, playfulness, and whispering to the dry old shingles on the roof above of the mischief they meant to do.

Half an hour went by, and from the three towers of Shannondale the deep toned bells rang out the watchword of alarm, which the awakened inhabitants caught up, echoing it from lip to lip until every street resounded with the fearful cry, “Fire, fire, Grassy Spring is all on fire.”

Then the two engines were brought, from their shelter, and went rattling through the town and out into the country, a quarter of a mile away, to where the little forked tongues had grown to a mammoth size, darting their vicious heads from beneath the rafters, reaching down to touch the heated panes, hissing defiance at the people below, and rolling over the doomed building until billow of flame leaped billow, both licking up in their mad chase the streams of water poured continually upon them.

Away to the eastward the night express came thundering on, and one of its passengers, looking from his window, saw the lurid blaze, just as once before he had seen the bonfire crazy Nina kindled, and as he watched, a horrible fear grow strong within him, manifesting itself at last in the wild outcry, “‘Tis Grassy Spring, ’tis Grassy Spring.”

Long before the train reached the depot, Arthur St. Claire, had jumped from the rear car, and was flying across the meadow toward his burning home, knowing ere he reached it that all was lost. Timbers were falling, glass was melting, windows were blazing, while at every step the sparks and cinders whirled in showers around his head.

And where all this time was Richard? Victor was asking that question–Victor, just arrived, and followed by the whole household of Collingwood. They were the last to waken, and they came with headlong haste; but Victor’s longer strides outran them all, and when Arthur appeared, he was asking frantically for his master. The negroes in their fright had forgotten him entirely, and the first words which greeted Arthur were, “Mr. Harrington is in the building!”

“Where? where?” he shrieked, darting away, and dragging Victor with him.

“In Nina’s room. He would sleep there,” Victor answered, and with another cry of horror, Arthur sprang to the rear of the building, discovering that the stairs leading to the Den were comparatively unharmed as yet.

“Who will save him?” he screamed, and he turned toward Victor, who intuitively drew back from incurring the great peril.

There was no one to volunteer, and Arthur said,

“I will do it myself.”

Instantly a hundred voices were raised against it. It were worse than madness, they said. The fire must have caught in the vicinity of that room, and Richard was assuredly dead.

“He may not be, and if he is not, I will save him or perish too,” was Arthur’s heroic reply, as he sprang up the long winding stairs, near which the flames were roaring like some long pent up volcano.

He reached the door of the Den. It was bolted, but with superhuman strength he shook it down, staggering backward as the dense cloud of yellowish smoke rolled over and around him, warning him not to advance. But Arthur heeded no warning then. By the light which illumined the entire front of the house, he saw that two sides of the room were not yet touched; the bed in the recess was unharmed, but Richard was not there, and a terrible fear crept over Arthur lest he had perished in his attempt to escape. Suddenly he remembered Nina’s cell, and groping his way through fire and smoke, he opened the oaken door, involuntarily breathing a prayer of thanksgiving when he saw the tall form stretched upon the empty bedstead. He had probably mistaken the way out, and by entering here, had prolonged his life, for save through the glass ventilator the smoke could not find entrance to that spot. Arthur knew that he was living, for the lips moved once and whispered, “Edith,” causing Arthur’s brain to reel, and the cold sweat to start from every pore as he thought for what and for whom he was saving his rival. Surely in that terrible hour, in Nina’s cell, with death staring him in the face on every side, Arthur St. Claire atoned for all the past, and by his noble unselfishness proved how true and brave he was.

Snatching from the nail the heavy sack, he wound it round Richard’s head to shield him from the flames, then recollecting that on the bed without there was a thick rose blanket, he wrapped that too around him, and bending himself with might and main, bore him in his arms across the heated floor and out into the narrow hall, growing sick and faint when he saw the wall of fire now rolling steadily up the stairway.

“Oh, must I die!” he groaned, as he leaned panting against the wall, listening to the roar without, which sounded in his ear like demons yelling over their prey.

Life looked very fair to the young man then; even life without Edith was preferable far to a death like this. He was too young to die and the heart which had said in its bitterness, “there is nothing worth living for,” clung tenaciously to a world which seemed so fast receding from view.

By leaving Richard there, by stripping him of his covering, and folding it about himself, he could assuredly leap down those stairs, and though he reached the bottom a scarred, disfigured thing, life would be in him yet; but Arthur did not waver, Richard should share his fate, be it for weal or woe, and with a prayer for help, he turned aside into a little room from which a few wide steps led up into the cupola. Heaven surely saved this way for him, for the fire was not there yet, and he passed in safety to the roof, where he stood, many dizzy feet from the shouting multitude, who, hoping he might take advantage of it, were watching for him to appear, greeting him with many a loud huzza, and bidding him take courage. The engines had been brought to bear on this part of the building, subduing the fire to such an extent that it was barely possible for him to reach the northern extremity, where, by jumping upon a flat, lower roof, whose surface was tin, and then walking a beam over a sea of hissing flame, he could reach the ladder hoisted against the wall. All this they made him understand, and with but little hope of his success they watched him breathlessly as he trod the black, steaming shingles, which crisped the soles of his boots, and penetrated even to his flesh. He has passed that point in safety, he leaps upon the wing, staggering, aye, falling with his burden, and when he struggles to his feet, the red blaze, wheeling in circles around him, shows where the blood is flowing from a wound upon the forehead. The batteries of the engine are directed toward him now, and they saturate his clothes with water, for the most fearful, most dangerous part is yet to come, the treading that single beam. Will he do it? Can he do it? Untrammeled he might, but with that heavy form he hugs so carefully to him, never! So the crowd decide, and they shout to him, “Leave him; he is dead. Save yourself, young man;” but the brave Arthur answers, “No,” and half wishes he were blind, so as to shut out the seething vortex into which one mistep would plunge him. And while he stood there thus, amid the roaring of the flames, and the din of the multitude, there floated up to him a girlish voice,

“Shut your eyes, Arthur, make believe you are blind, and maybe you can walk the beam.”

It was Edith. He saw her where she stood, apart from all the rest, her long black hair unbound just as she sprang from her pillow, her arms outstretched toward him, and the sight nerved him to the trial. He looked at her once more, it might be for the last time, but he would carry the remembrance of that clear face even to eternity, and with a longing, wistful glance he closed his eyes and prepared to do her bidding. Then it seemed to him that another presence than Edith’s was around him, another voice than hers was whispering words of courage, Nina, who went before, guiding his footsteps, and lightening his load, screening him from the scorching heat and buoying him up, while he walked the blackened beam, which shook and bent at every tread, and at last fell with a crash, but not until the ladder was reached, and a dozen friendly arms were outstretched for Richard, and for him, too, for sight and strength had failed him when they were no longer needed. With countless blessings on the noble young man, they laid him on the grass at Edith’s side, wounded, burned, smoke-stained, and totally unconscious.

It was well for Richard that the entire household of Collingwood were there to care for him, for Edith’s thoughts were all bestowed on Arthur. She hardly looked at Richard, but kneeling down by Arthur, kissed, and pitied, and wept over his poor, raw, bleeding hands, wiped the blood from the wound on the forehead, thinking even then how it would be concealed by the brown hair–the hair all singed and matted, showing how fiercely he had battled for his life. Many gathered around her as she sat there with his head pillowed on her lap, and from the anguish written on her face learned what it was about which the curious villagers had so long been pondering.

“He must go home with me,” Grace Atherton said, “My carriage will soon be here.”

This reminded Edith that she too must act, and beckoning to Victor, she bade him hasten to Collingwood and see that his masters room was made comfortable.

This was the first token she had given that she knew of Richard’s presence near her. She had heard them say that he still lived; that not a hair of his head was singed or a thread of his night garments harmed, and for this she was glad, but nothing could have tempted her to leave Arthur, and she sat by him until the arrival of the carriages which were to convey the still unconscious men to their respective homes.

At Collingwood, however, her whole attention was given to Richard, who, as he began to realise what was passing around him, seemed so much disturbed at having her near him that Victor whispered to her, “Hadn’t you better go out? I think your presence excites him.”

Edith had fancied so too, and wondering much why it should, she left him and going to her own room, sat down by the window, gazing sadly across the fields, to where Grassy Spring lay in the morning sunshine a blackened, mouldering ruin.

CHAPTER XXXVI.

THE SACRIFICE.

For a few days Edith hoped that the fire might defer her marriage a little longer but almost the first thing which Richard addressed directly to her was, “Let the preparations go on as usual; there need be no delay.”

So the dressmakers were recalled and bridal finery tossed about until the whole was finished and the last sewing woman departed, taking with her, as her predecessors had done, a large budget of items touching the cool indifference of the bride elect and the icy reserve of the bridegroom, who was greatly changed, they said. It is true he was kind and considerate, as of old, and his voice, whenever he spoke to Edith, was plaintively sad and touching, but he preferred to be much alone, spending his time in his chamber, into which few save his valet was admitted. And thus no one suspected the mighty conflict he was waging with himself, one moment crying out, “I cannot give her up,” and again moaning piteously, “I must, I must.”

The first meeting between himself and Arthur after the fire had been a most affecting one, Richard sobbing like a child, kissing the hands wounded so cruelly for him, and whispering amid his sobs, “You saved my life at the peril of your own, and I shall never forget it. God help me to do right.”

Many times after this he rode down to Brier Hill whither Edith had frequently preceded him; but Richard never uttered a word of reproach when near the window he heard a rustling sound and knew who was sitting there. Neither would he ask a single question when soft footsteps glided past him and out into the hall, but he always heard them until they died away, and he knew those little feet were treading the verge of the grave he had dug within his heart. It was not yet filled up–that grave–but his mighty love for Edith may coffined there, and he only waited for the needful strength to bury it forever by verbally giving her up.

And while he waited the May-days glided by, and where the apple blossoms once had been, the green hard fruit was swelling now, the lilacs, purple and limp, had dropped from the tree, the hyacinths and daffodils were gone, and June with her sunny skies and wealth of roses, queened it over Collingwood. It lacked but a week now of the day appointed for the wedding, and Edith wished the time would hasten, for anything was preferable to the numb, apathetic feeling which lay around her heart. She had no hope that she should not be Richard’s wife, and she wondered much at his manner, trying more than once to coax him from his strange mood by playful words, and even by caresses, which won from him no response–only once, when, he hugged her tightly to him, kissing her lips and hair, and saying to her, “God forgive me, Birdie, I never meant to wrong you and I am going to make amends.” The next day when Victor went up to his room he was struck with the peculiar expression of his face–a subdued, peaceful expression which told that he was ready at last to make the great sacrifice–to fold the darkness more thickly around himself and give to Arthur the glorious daylight he once hoped would shine for him and Richard would make this sacrifice in his own way. Edith should read Nina’s letter aloud to him, with Arthur sitting near, and then, when it was finished, he would ask if it were true, und why she had not told him before.

Dinner was over, and in the library, where Richard had asked Edith to be his wife, he sat waiting for her now, and for Arthur who had been invited to Collingwood that afternoon. The day was much like that other day when Victor alone sat with him, save that the south wind stealing through the casement was warmer, more fragrant than the breath of May had been. The robin was not now singing in the maple tree, but it would come home ere long, and Richard knew full well the chirping sounds which would welcome its approach. Once he had likened himself to the mated robin, but now, alas, he knew he was but the wounded bird, who finds its nest all desolate, its hopes all fled–I’m a tough old owl,” he said, smiling bitterly as he remembered when first he used that term. Edith was right; she could not mate with the owl, he thought, just as Arthur stepped across the threshold, and Edith came flipping down the stairs.

“Sit on a stool at my feet, as you used to do,” Richard said to her; “and you, Arthur, sit by me upon this sofa.”

They obeyed him, and after a moment he began, “I have sent for you my children, not to inflict pain, but to remove it. Heaven forbid that through me you should suffer longer, or that any act of mine should embitter your young lives. Do not interrupt me,” he continued, as Edith was about to speak. “I must hasten on, or my courage all will fail me. Arthur, give me your hands, the hands that saved my life. I will touch them as carefully, as tenderly as I am about to deal with you.”

Arthur complied with his request, and pressing the right one, Richard continued,

“I joined this once with another, a tiny, little hand, now laid away beneath the Southern flowers; and you said after me, ‘I, Arthur, take thee, Nina, for my wife.’ You remember it, don’t you?”

Arthur could not speak, and, save the violent start which Edith gave, there came no answer to Richard’s question as he went on:

“It is only a few weeks since I learned who was that boy husband of eighteen and that girlish bride of fifteen and a half, but I know it now. I know it all, and this explains much that has been strange in me of late. Edith,” and he felt for her bowed head, “Edith, I have here Nina’s letter, written by stealth, and brought by Victor to me, and you must read it to us–then tell me, if you can, why I have so long been deceived?”

Edith had glanced at the beginning, and with a choking voice she said,

“No, no, oh, Richard, no. Don’t require it of me. Anything but that. I never knew she wrote it. I never meant–oh, Richard, Richard!”

She laid her head now on his knee and sobbed aloud, while he continued:

“You must read it to me, ‘Tis the only punishment I shall inflict upon you.”

“Read it, Edith,” Arthur said, withdrawing one of his hands from Richard’s, and resting it upon her head thus to re-assure her,

Richard guessed his intention and laid his own on Arthur’s. Edith felt the gentle, forgiving pressure, even through the wounded, bandaged hand, and this it was which gave her strength to read that message, which brought Nina before them all, a seemingly living, breathing presence. And when it was finished there was heard in that library more than one “great cry, like the breaking up of the ice on the Northern ponds.”

Richard was the calmest of the three. The contents of the letter were not new to him, and did not touch so tender a chord as that which thrilled and quivered in Arthur’s heart as he listened to the words of his sweet child-wife, the golden haired Nina. Though dead she was all powerful yet, and Nina, from her grave, swayed a mightier sceptre than Nina living could have done.

“Edith,” Richard said, when her agitation had in a measure subsided, “you have read the letter, now tell me, is it true? Crazy people do not always see or hear aright. Did Nina? Has Arthur loved you all the time?”

“Spare Edith,” Arthur cried; “And question me. I did love Edith Hastings, even when I had no right so to do.”

“And would you ask her to be your wife if there were no Richard in the way, and she was free as when you first knew and loved her?”

Arthur knew the blind man was not trifling with him, and he answered promptly,

“I would, but she will bear me witness that never since Nina died, have I sought, by word or deed, to influence her decision.”

“I believe you,” Richard said; “and now, let us compare our love for her, one with the other. Let us see which is the stronger of the two. Do you love Edith so much that you would give her to another, if you knew she loved that other best? If she were promised to you by a vow she dared not break, would you give her to me, supposing I was preferred before you?”

Arthur was very white, as he answered,

“That would not be one-half so hard as the yielding her to one whom she did not love, and, Richard, I have done this. I have given her to you, even when I knew that a word from me would have kept her from you.”

“That is hardly an answer to my question,” Richard rejoined, “but it shows how honorable you have been. I question whether I could have done as much. Your sense of right and wrong was stronger than your love.”

“But,” said Arthur, quickly interrupting him, “you must not think that I loved Edith less, because I did not speak. Silence only fed the flame, and she cannot be so inexpressibly dear to you as she is to me. Oh, Richard, Richard, you do not know how much I love her.”

“Don’t I?” and Richard smiled mournfully; then turning to Edith, he continued, And you, my darling, I would hear from you now. Is it Richard or Arthur you prefer?”

“Oh, Richard,” Edith cried, “I meant to keep my vow, and never let you know. I was going to be a true, a faithful wife, even if it killed me–I certainly was–but, forgive me, Richard, I did love Arthur first, Arthur best, Arthur most of all,” and again the “great cry” smote on Richard’s ear, touching a chord like that which is touched in a mother’s bosom when she hears her suffering infant’s wail.

“Edith,” he said, “if I insist upon it, will you still be my wife?”

“Yes, Richard, and it will not be so dreadful now that you know I do love Arthur best, for I do, I do, I can’t help it, and I have tried so hard. He is young like me, and then I loved him first, I loved him best.”

And in this last the whole was embodied. Edith loved Arthur best. Richard knew she did, and turning to Arthur, he continued,

“And what will you do if I insist? Will memories of the love you bore your lost Nina sustain and comfort you?”

Richard spoke half-tauntingly, but Arthur conquered the emotion of anger he felt arising within him at this allusion to the past, and answered mildly,

“As I hope for Heaven, I did love my poor Nina at the last, with a love which, had it been sooner born, would have made me a happier man; and Nina knew it too, I told her so before she died, and I would fain have kept her with me, but I could not, and now, if I lose Edith, too, it will not be so hard, because I did love Nina, and sweet memories of her will keep my soul from fainting, when I am far away from her little grave, far away from you, and far away from Edith.”

Arthur arose to leave the room, but Richard held him back, saying to him,

“You have answered well. Now listen to me. Edith Hastings cannot be dearer to you than she is to me, but think you I will compel her to be mine? Should I be happy, knowing that always in her dreams another arm than mine encircled her dear form, that other lips than mine were pressed to hers, which moaned in sleep not Richard’s, but Arthur’s name? And this would surely be. The wife I mockingly called mine would be yours in spirit; whether on land or sea, and I ask for no such bride. Were I sure I could win her love, even though it might not be in years, not all the powers of earth should wrest her from me. But I cannot. Such is her temperament that she would give me only hatred, and I do not deserve this from her.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t,” Edith sobbed, and Richard continued,

“Hush, my child, I know how it would be, even if I did forget it for a time. You must not be the blind man’s wife, though the giving you up is like tearing me asunder. And now, Edith, let me hold you once more as I never shall hold you again. It will make me strong to do what I must do.”

Edith could not move, but Arthur lifted her up, and placing her in Richard’s lap, laid one of his own hands pityingly on the head of the blind man, whose tears dropped on Edith’s neck, as he breathed over her his farewell.

“Light of my eyes, joy of my heart, you know not what it costs me to give you up, but God in Heaven knows. He will remember all my pain, removing it in His own good time, and I shall yet be happy. It is true, a black, dreary waste stretches on into the future, but beyond it, even in this world, the bright daylight is shining, and Richard will reach it at last,–will learn to think of you without a pang, to love you as his sister. Arthur, I give to you my darling. I release her from her vow, and may the kind Father bless you both, giving you every possible good. Let no sorrow for me mingle with your joy. I shall have grief and heaviness for a time, but I am strong to bear it. Morning will break at last. Let the wedding night be kept the same as is appointed, there need be no change, save in the bridegroom, and of that the world will all approve. And, Edith, if during the coming week I am not much with you, if I stay altogether in my room, do not try to see me. I once thought you would be my wife. I know you cannot now, and you must not come to me at present. But on your bridal night, I shall go with you to the church. It would look strangely if I did not. I shall return with you to the house, shall force myself to hear them call you by another name than mine, and then, the next morning Arthur must take you away–for a time, I mean. I know you will wish to thank me, but I’d rather you would not. God will reward me in some way for the sacrifice I make this day. Now, Edith, kiss me once, kiss me twice, with your arms around my neck. Lay your soft cheek against mine. Yes–so–so–” and over the dark face there broke a shadowy smile, as Edith did his bidding, kissing him many, many times, and blessing him for the great happiness bestowed upon her.

“There, that will do. Now, Arthur, lead me to my room, and sit with me until this horrid giddiness is gone, and my heart beats more naturally.”

He put Edith from his lap–passed his hand slowly over her face as if thus he would remember it, and then, leaning heavily on Arthur’s arm, tottered from the room–the noble Richard who had made this mighty sacrifice.

CHAPTER XXXVII.

THE BRIDAL.

The week went by as all weeks will, whether laden with happiness or pain, and the rosy light of the 15th morning broke over the New England hills and over Collingwood, where the servants, headed by Grace Atherton, were all astir, and busy with their preparations for the festive scene of the coming night. Edith had made strenuous efforts to have the party given up, sending message after message to Richard, who, without any good reason for it, was determined upon this one point, and always answered “No.”

He had adhered to his resolution of staying in his room, and Edith had not seen him since the eventful day when he had made the great sacrifice. Arthur, however, was admitted daily to his presence, always coming from those interviews with a sad look upon his face, as if his happiness were not unmixed with pain. And still Richard tried to be cheerful, talking but little of Edith, and appearing so calm when he did mention her, that a casual observer would have said he did not care.

In the village nothing was talked about save the change of bridegrooms and the approaching wedding, and when the morning came, others than the inmates of Collingwood were busy and excited.

It was a glorious day, for leafy June had donned her gala robes for the occasion, and every heart, save one, beat with joy, as the sun rose higher and higher in the heavens, nearer and nearer the appointed hour. Richard could not be glad, and that bridal day was the saddest he had ever known. Not even Arthur was permitted to be with him, and none save Victor saw the white, still anguish creeping over his face as hour after hour went by, and from the sounds without he knew that they had come whose business it was to array his Edith in her bridal robes of costly satin and fleecy lace. Then two more hours dragged heavily on, and going to his window he felt that the sun was setting. It was time his own toilet was commenced, and like a little child he submitted himself to Victor, groaning occasionally as he heard the merry laugh of the bridesmaids on the stairs, and remembered a time when he, too, felt as light, as joyous as they, aye, and almost as young. He was strangely altered now, and looked far older than his years, when, with his wedding garments on, he sat in his arm-chair waiting for the bride. He had sent Victor for her, knowing it would be better to meet her once before the trying moment at the altar. Edith obeyed the summons, and in all her wondrous beauty, which this night shone forth resplendently, she came and stood before him, saying softly,

“Richard, I am here.”

There was no need to tell him that. He knew she was there, and drawing her to his side, he said,

“I am glad that I am blind for once, for should I behold you as you are, I could not give you up. Kneel down here, darling, and let me feel how beautiful you are.”

She knelt before him, and her tears fell fast as she felt his hand moving slowly over her dress, pressing her round arms, pausing for a moment upon her white neck, tarrying still longer upon her glowing cheeks, and finally resting in mute blessing upon her braids of hair, where the orange blossoms were.

“I must have a lock of my Birdie’s hair, he said. “Let Arthur cut it off to-night. It will be dearer to me than if ’tis later severed, Leave it on the table, where Victor can find it, for, Edith, when you return from your bridal tour, I shall be gone, and I have sent for you because I would talk with you again ere we part–it may be for years, and it may be forever.”

“No, Richard, no,” Edith sobbed. “You must not go away, I want you here with us.”

“It is best that I go for a while,” he replied, “I am almost as much at home in Europe as I am here, and Victor is anxious to see Paris again. I have talked with Arthur about it, asking him to live here while I am gone at least and take charge of my affairs. He had thought to rebuild Grassy Spring, but finally consented to defer it for a time and do as I desired. The negroes will be pleased with this arrangement, and as Grace must wish to be rid of them, they will come up here at once. I shall be happier knowing that you are here; and when I feel that I can, I will come back again, but do not let thoughts of the wanderer mar your bliss. I have been thinking it over, Edith, and I see more and more that it was right for me to release you. I do not censure you for aught except that you did not tell me in the beginning. For this I did blame you somewhat, but have forgiven you now.”

“Oh. Richard, Richard,” Edith burst out impetuously, “I never loved you one half so much as since you gave me to Arthur, and I have wanted to come and tell you so, but you would not let me.”

He knew what kind of love she meant, and his heart beat just the same as she continued,

“I wanted to tell you how sorry I am that I was ever cross to you, and I have been many times since that night I promised to be yours. I don’t know what made me. I do not feel so now.”

“I know what made you,” Richard replied. “You did not love the blind old man well enough to be his wife, and the feeling that you must be, soured your disposition. Forgive me, darling, but I don’t believe I should have been happy with you after a time–not as happy as Arthur, and it is this which helps me to bear it.”

This was not very complimentary to Edith, but it comforted her just as Richard meant it should, and made the future look brighter. Richard was dearer to her now than he had over been, and the tender, loving caress she gave him, when at last Arthur’s voice was heard without asking for admission was not feigned, for she felt that he was the noblest, the best of men, and she told him so, kissing again and again his face, and sighing to think how white and wan it had grown within the last few weeks.

“Come, darling, we are waiting for you,” Arthur said, as he advanced into the room, and Richard put from his lap the beautiful young girl around whose uncovered shoulders Arthur wrapped the white merino cloak which was to shield her from the night air; then bending over Richard, he said, “Heaven will bless you, even as I do, for the peerless gift I have received from you, and believe me, there is much of pain mingled with my joy–pain at leaving you so desolate. I cannot tell you all I feel, but if a lifetime of devotion can in the smallest degree repay you what I owe, it shall be freely given. Now bless me once more, me and my– bride.”

Richard had arisen as Arthur was speaking, and at the word bride he put out his hand as if to keep from falling, then steadying that on Arthur’s head and laying the other on Edith’s he whispered,

“To him who saved my life when he believed I was his rival I give my singing bird, who for eleven years has been the blind man’s sunshine–give her freely, cheerfully, harboring no malice against him who takes her. My Arthur and my precious Edith, I bless and love you both.”

The nerveless hands pressed heavily for a moment upon the two bowed heads, and then Arthur led his bride away to where the carriage waited.

The ceremony was appointed for half-past eight, but long before that hour St. Luke’s was filled to overflowing, some coming even as early as six to secure seats most favorable to sight. And there they waited, until the roll of wheels was heard and the clergyman appeared in the chancel. Then seven hundred tired heads turned simultaneously toward the door through which the party came, the rich robes of the bride trailing upon the carpet and sweeping from side to side as she moved up the middle aisle. But not upon her did a single eye in all that vast assemblage linger, nor yet upon the bridegroom, nor yet upon the bridesmaid, filing in one behind the other, but upon the stooping figure which moved so slowly, blind Richard groping his way to the altar, caring nothing for the staring crowd, nothing for the sudden buzz as he came in, hearing nothing but Victor’s whispered words, “’twill soon be over.”

Yes, it would soon be over. It was commencing now, the marriage ceremony, and Richard listened in a kind of maze, until the clergyman asked,

“Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?”

As Arthur had supposed this part would, of course, be omitted, no arrangements had been made for it, and an awkward pause ensued, while all eyes involuntarily turned upon the dark man now standing up so tall, so erect, among that group of lighter, airier forms. Like some frozen statue Richard stood, and the minister, thinking he did not hear, repeated his demand. Slowly Richard moved forward, and Grace, who was next to Edith, stepped aside as he came near. Reverently he laid his hand on Edith’s head, and said aloud,

“I DO!”

Then the hand, sliding from her head rested on her shoulder, where it lay all through that ceremony, and the weeping speculators sitting near, heard distinctly the words whispered by the white lips which dripped with the perspiration of this last dreadful agony.

“I, Richard, take thee, Birdie, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.”

He said it every word, and when it was Edith’s turn, he bent a little forward, while his hand grasped her bare shoulder so firmly as to leave a mark when she put Arthur’s name where his should have been, and the quivering lips moaned faintly,

“Don’t Birdie, don’t.”

It was a strange bridal, more sad than joyous, for though in the hearts of bride and groom there was perfect love for each other, there were too many bitter memories crowding upon them both to make it a moment of unmixed bliss–memories of Nina, who seemed to stand by Arthur, blessing him in tones unheard, and a sadder, a living memory of the poor blind man whose low wail, when all was done, smote painfully on Edith’s ear.

In a pew near to the altar Victor sat weeping like a child, and when the last Amen was uttered, he sprang to his master’s side and said,

“Come with me. You cannot wish to go home with the bride.”

Instantly the crowd divided right and left as Victor passed through their midst, leading out into the open air the faint, sick man, who, when they were alone, leaned his head meekly on his faithful valet’s arm, saying to him,

“You are all there is left to care for me now. Be good to me, won’t you?”

Victor answered with a clasp of his hand and hurried on, reaching Collingwood before the bridal guests, who ere long came swarming in like so many buzzing bees, congratulating the newly-wedded pair, and looking curiously round for Richard. But Richard was not there. He had borne all he could, and on his bed in his bolted room he lay, scarcely giving a token of life save when the sounds from the parlors reached his ear, when he would whisper,

“‘Tis done. It is done.”

One by one the hours went by, and then up the gravelled walk the carriages rolled a second time to take the guests away. Hands were shaken and good nights said. There was cloaking in the ladies’ room and impatient waiting in the gentlemen’s; there was hurrying down the stairs, through the hall, and out upon the piazza. There was banging to of carriage doors, cracking of drivers’ whips, and racing down the road. There was a hasty gathering up of silver, a closing of the shutters, a putting out of lamps, until at last silence reigned over Collingwood, from whose windows only two lights were gleaming. Arthur was alone with his bride, and Richard alone with his God.

CHAPTER XXXVIII.

SIX YEARS LATER.

The New York and Springfield train eastward bound stood waiting in the depot at New Haven. There had been a slight accident which occasioned a detention of several minutes, and taking advantage of this delay many of the passengers alighted to stretch their weary limbs or inhale a breath of purer air than could be obtained within the crowded car. Several seats were thus left unoccupied, one of which a tall, dark, foreign-looking man, with eyes concealed by a green shade, was about appropriating to himself, when a wee little hand was laid on his and a sweet baby voice called out,

“That’s my mamma’s chair, big man, mamma gone after cake for Nina!”

The stranger started, and his face flushed with some strong emotion, while his hand rested caressingly upon the flowing curls of the beautiful three-years-old girl, as he asked,

“Who Is mamma, darling? What is her name, I mean?”

“I can tell that a heap better’n Kina,” chimed in a boy of five, who was sitting just across the aisle, and joining the little girl, he continued, ‘My mother is Edith, so Aunt Grace calls her, but father says Miggie most all the time.

The stranger sank into the seat, dizzy and faint with the mighty shock, for he knew now that Edith’s children were standing them before him–that frank, fearless boy, and that sweet little girl, who, not caring to be outdone by her brother, said, in a half exultant way, as if it were something of which she were very proud,

“I’ve got an Uncle ‘Ichard, I have, and he’s tomin’ home bime by.”

“And going to bring me lots of things,” interrupted the boy again, “Marie said so.”

At this point a tall, slender Frenchman, who had entered behind the man with the green shade, glided from the car, glancing backward just in time to see that his master had coaxed both children into his lap, the girl coming shyly, while the boy sprang forward with that wide-awake fearlessness which characterized all his movements. He was a noble-looking little fellow, and the stranger hugged him fondly as he kissed the full red lips so like to other lips kissed long years ago.

“What makes you wear this funny thing?” asked the child, peering up under the shade.

“Because my eyes are weak,” was the reply, “People around your home call me blind.”

“Uncle ‘Ichard is blind,” lisped the little girl, while the boy rejoined, “but the bestest man that ever lived. Why, he’s betterer than father, I guess, for I asked ma wan’t he, and pa told me yes.”

“Hush-sh, child,” returned the stranger, fearing lest they might attract too much attention.

Then removing the shade, his eyes rested long and wistfully upon the little boy and girl as he said,

“I am your Uncle Richard.”

“True as you live and breathe are you Uncle Dick,” the boy almost screamed, winding his chubby arms around the stranger’s neck, while Nina standing upon her feet chirped out her joy as she patted the bearded cheek, and called him “Uncle ‘Ick.”

Surely if there had been any lingering pain in the heart of Richard Harrington it was soothed away by the four soft baby hands which passed so caressingly over his face and hair, while honeyed lips touched his, and sweet bird-like voices told how much they had been taught to love the one whom they always called Uncle. These children had been the hardest part of all to forgive, particularly the first born, for Richard, when he heard of him had felt all the old sorrow coming back again; a feeling as if Edith had no right with little ones which did not call him father. But time had healed that wound too, until from the sunny slopes of France, where his home had so long been, his heart had often leaped across the sea in quest of those same children now prattling in his ear and calling him Uncle Dick. There was another, a dearer name by which they might have called him, but he knew now that ’twas not for him to be thus addressed. And still he felt something like a father’s love stealing into his heart as he wound his arms around the little forms, giving back kiss for kiss, and asking which was like their mother.

“Ain’t none of us much,” Dick replied, “We’re like father and Aunt Nina, hanging on the wall in the library. Mother’s got big black eyes, with winkers a rod long, and her hair shines like my velvet coat, and comes most to her feet.”

Richard smiled, und was about to speak again, when Dick forestalled him by asking–not if he had him something but where it was.

“It’s in your trunk, I guess,” he said, as his busy fingers investigated every pocket and found nothing savoring of playthings, except a knife, both blades of which were opened in a trice, and tried upon the window sill!

Richard, who, never having known much of children, had not thought of presents, was sorely perplexed, when luckily Victor returned, bringing a paper of molasses candy, which he slyly thrust into his master’s hand, whispering to him,

“They always like that.”

Victor had calculated aright, for nothing could have pleased the St. Claires more; and when, as she entered at the door, Edith caught sight of her offspring, she hardly knew them, so besmeared were their little faces with molasses, Nina having wiped her hands first upon her hair and then rubbed them upon Richard’s knee, while Victor looked on a little doubtful us to what the mother might say.

“There’s mam-ma,” Nina cried, trying to shake back her curls, which nevertheless stuck lightly to her forehead. “There’s mam- ma,” and in an instant Little Dick, as he was called, found himself rather unceremoniously set down upon his feet, as Richard adjusted his shade, and resumed the air of helplessness so natural to the blind.

Edith had been to New York with Marie and the children, leaving the former there for a few weeks, and was now on her way home, whither she hoped ere long to welcome Richard, whom she had never seen since the night of her marriage, when Victor led him half fainting from the altar. He would not join them at the breakfast next morning, but sent them his good-bye, and when they returned from their long, happy bridal tour they found a letter for them saying Richard was in Paris.

Regularly after that they heard from him, and though he never referred to the past, Edith knew how much it cost him to write to one whom he had loved so much. Latterly, however, his letters had been far more cheerful in their tone, and it struck Edith that his hand-writing too, was more even than formerly, but she suspected nothing and rather anticipated the time when she should be eyes for him again, just as she used to be. He had said in his last letter that he was coming home ere long, but she had no idea that he was so near, and she wondered what tall, greyish haired gentleman it was who had taken possession of her seat.

“Mother,” little Dick was about to scream, when Victor placed his hand upon his mouth, at the same time turning his back to Edith, who, a little surprised at the proceeding, and a little indignant it may be, said rather haughtily, and with a hasty glance at Richard,

“My seat, sir, if you please.”

The boy by this time had broken away from Victor, and yelled out, “Uncle Dick, ma, Uncle Dick;” but it did not need this now to tell Edith who it was. A second glance had told her, and with face almost as white as the linen collar about her neck, she reeled forward, and would have fallen but for Victor, who caught her by the shoulder and sat her down beside his master.

Richard was far less excited than herself, inasmuch as he was prepared for the meeting and as she sank down with the folds of her grey traveling dress lying in his lap, he offered her his hand, and with the same old sunny smile she remembered so well, said to her,

“Do you not know me?”

“Yes,” she gasped, “but it takes my breath away. I was not expecting you so soon. I am so glad.”

He knew she was by the way her snowy fingers twined themselves around his own and by the fervent pressure of her lips upon his hand.

“Mam-ma’s tyin,” said Nina, and then Edith’s tears fell fast, dropping upon the broad hand she still held, which very, very gradually, but still intentionally drew hers directly beneath the green shade, and there Richard kept it, his thumb hiding the broad band of gold which told she was a wife.

It was a very small, white, pretty hand, and so perhaps he imagined, for he held it a long, long time, while he talked quite naturally of Arthur, of Grace, of the people of Shannondale, and lastly of her children.

“They crept into my heart before I knew it,” he said, releasing Edith’s hand and lifting Nina to his knee. “They are neither of them much like you, my namesake says.”

This reminded Edith of the mysterious shade which puzzled her so much, and, without replying directly to him, she asked why it was worn. Victor shot a quick, nervous glance at his master, who without the slightest tremor in his voice, told her that he had of late been troubled with weak eyes, and as the dust and sunlight made them worse, he had been advised to wear it while traveling as a protection.

“I shall remove it by and by, when I am rested,” he said.

And Edith hoped he would, for he did not seem natural to her with that ugly thing disfiguring him as it did.

When Hartford was reached Richard found an opportunity of whispering something to Victor, who replied,

“Tired find dusty. Better wait, if you want a good impression.”

So, with a spirit of self-denial of which we can scarcely conceive Richard did wait, and the shade was drawn closely down as little Nina, grown more bold climbed up beside him, and poised upon one foot, her fat arm resting on his neck, played “peek-a-boo” beneath the shade, screaming at every “peek,” “I seen your eyes, I did.”

A misstep backward, a tumble and a bumped head brought this sport to an end, just as Shannondale was reached, and in her attempts to soothe the little girl, Edith failed to see that the shade was lifted for a single moment, while, standing upon the platform, Richard’s eyes wandered eagerly, greedily over the broad meadow lands and fields of waving grain, over the wooded hills, rich in summer glory, and lastly toward Collingwood, with its roofs and slender tower basking in the July sun.

“Thank God thank God,” he whispered, just as Victor caught his arm, bidding him alight as the train was about to move forward.

“There’s papa, there–right across the track,” and Dick tugged at his father’s coat skirts, trying to make him comprehend, but Arthur had just then neither eyes nor ears for any thing but his sobbing little daughter, whose forehead he kissed tenderly, thereby curing the pain and healing the wounded heart, of his favorite child, his second golden-haired Nina. Dick, however, persevered, until his father understood what he meant, and Nina was in danger of being hurt again, so hastily was she dropped when Arthur learned that Richard had come. There was already a crowd around him, but they made way for Arthur, who was not ashamed to show before them all, how much he loved the noble man, or how glad he was to have him back.

“Richard has grown old,” the spectators said to each other, as they watched him till he entered the carriage.

And so he had. His hair was quite grey now, and the tall figure was somewhat inclined to stoop, while about the mouth were deep- cut lines which even the heavy mustache could not quite conceal. But he would grow young again, and even so soon he felt his earlier manhood coming back as he rode along that pleasant afternoon, past the fields where the newly-mown hay, fresh from a recent shower, sent forth its fragrance upon the summer air, while the song of the mowers mingled with the click of the whetting scythe, made sweet, homelike sounds which he loved to hear. Why did he lean so constantly from the carriage, and why when Victor exclaimed, “The old ruin is there yet,” referring to Grassy Spring did he, too, look across the valley?

Arthur asked himself this question many times, and at last, when they reached Collingwood and Edith had alighted, he bent forward and whispered in Richard’s ear, not an interrogation, but a positive affirmation, which brought back the response,

“Don’t tell her–not yet, I mean.” Arthur turned very white and could scarcely stand as he stepped to the ground, for that answer, had taken his strength away, and Victor led him instead of his master into the house, where the latter was greeted joyfully by the astonished servants.

He seemed very weary and after receiving them all, asked to go to his room where he could rest.

“You will find it wholly unchanged,” Arthur said. “Nothing new but gas.”

“I trust I shall not set the house on fire this time,” was Richard’s playful rejoinder, as he followed Victor up the stairs to the old familiar chamber, where his valet left him alone to breathe out his fervent thanksgivings for the many blessings bestowed on one, who, when last he left that room, had said in his sorrow, there were no sunspots left.

The first coming home he so much dreaded was over now, and had been accompanied with far less pain than he feared. He knew they were glad to have him back–Arthur and his dear sister, as he always called her now. Never since the bridal night had the name Edith passed his lips and if perchance he heard it from others, he shuddered involuntarily. Still the sound of her voice had not hurt him as he thought it would; nothing had been half so hard as he had anticipated, and falling upon his knees, he poured out his soul in prayer, nor heard the steps upon the threshold as Arthur came in, his heart too full to tarry outside longer. Kneeling by Richard, he, too, thanked the Good Father, not so much for his friend’s safe return as for the boon, precious as life itself which had been given to that friend.

When at last their prayers were ended, both involuntarily advanced to the window, where, with his handsome, manly face turned fully to the light, Arthur stood immovable, nor flinched a hair, as Edith would ere long when passing the same ordeal. He did not ask what Richard thought of him, neither did Richard tell, only the remark,

“I do not wonder that she loved you best.”

They then talked together of a plan concerning Edith, after which Arthur left his brother to the repose he so much needed ere joining them in the parlor below. Never before had pillows seemed so soft or bed so grateful as that on which Richard laid him down to rest, and sleep was just touching his heavy eyelids, when upon the door there came a gentle rap, accompanied with the words,

“P’eae, Uncle ‘Ick, let Nina tome. She’s all dressed up so nice.”

That little girl had crept way down into Richard’s heart, just as she did into every body’s, and he admitted her at once, suffering her to climb up beside him, where, with her fat, dimpled hands folded together, she sat talking to him in her sweet baby language,

“‘Ess go to sleep, Nina tired,” she said at last, and folding his arms about her, Richard held her to his bosom as if she had been his own. “‘Tain’t time to say p’ayers, is it?” she asked, fearing lest she should omit her duty; and when Richard inquired what her prayers were, she answered,

“Now I lay me–and God bess Uncle ‘Ick. Mam-ma tell me that.”

Richard’s eyes filled with tears, which the waxen fingers wiped away, and when somewhat later Victor cautiously looked in, he saw them sleeping there together, Nina’s golden head nestled in Richard’s neck, and one of her little hands lain upon his cheek.

Meantime, in Edith’s room Arthur was virtually superintending the making of his wife’s evening toilet, a most unprecedented employment for mankind in general, and him in particular. But for some reason wholly inexplicable to Edith, Arthur was unusually anxious about her personal appearance, suggesting among other things that she should wear a thin pink muslin, which he knew so well became her dark style of beauty; and when she reminded him of its shortcomings with regard to waist and sleeves, he answered playfully,

“That does not matter. ‘Twill make you look girlish and young.”

So Edith donned the pink dress, and clasping upon her neck and arms the delicate ornaments made from Nina’s hair, asked of Arthur, “How she looked.”

“Splendidly,” he replied, “Handsomer even than on our bridal night.”

And Edith was handsomer than on the night when she stood at the altar a bride, for six years of almost perfect happiness had chased away the restless, careworn, sorrowful look which was fast becoming habitual, and now, at twenty-six, Edith St. Claire was pronounced by the world the most strikingly beautiful woman of her age. Poets had sung of her charms, artists had transferred them to canvas; brainless beaux, who would as soon rave about a married woman as a single one, provided it were the fashion so to do, had stamped them upon their hearts; envious females had picked them all to pieces, declaring her too tall, too black, too hoydenish to be even pretty; while little Dick and Nina likened her to the angels, wondering if there were anything in heaven, save Aunt Nina, as beautiful as she. And this was Edith, who when her toilet was completed went down to meet Grace Atherton just arrived and greatly flurried when she heard that Richard had come. Very earnestly the two ladies were talking together when Arthur glanced in for a moment and then hastened up to Richard, whom he found sitting by the window, with Dick and Nina both seated in his lap, the former utterly astounded at the accuracy with which his blind uncle guessed every time how many fingers he held up!

“Father! father!” he screamed, as Arthur came in, “He can see just as good as if he wasn’t blind!” and he looked with childish curiosity into the eyes which had discovered in his infantile features more than one trace of the Swedish Petrea, grandmother to the boy.

Arthur smiled and without replying to his son, said to Richard,

“I have come now to take you to Edith. Grace Atherton is there, too–a wonderfully young and handsome woman for forty-two. I am not sure that you can tell them apart.

“I could tell your wife from all the world,” was Richard’s answer, as putting down the children and resuming the green shade, he went with Arthur to the door of the library, where Grace and Edith, standing with their backs to them were too much engaged to notice that more than Arthur was coming.

Him Edith heard, and turning towards him she was about to speak, when Richard lowered the green shade he had raised for a single moment, and walking up to her took her hand in his. Twining his fingers around her slender wrist he said to her,

“Come with me to the window and sit on a stool at my feet just as you used to do.”

Edith was surprised, and stammered out something about Grace’s being in the room.

“Never mind Mrs. Atherton,” he said, “I will attend to her by and by–my business is now with you,” and he led her to the window, where Arthur had carried a stool.

Like lightning the truth flashed upon Grace, and with a nervous glance at the mirror to see how she herself was looking that afternoon, she stood motionless, while Richard dashing the shade to the floor, said to the startled Edith,

“The blind man would know how Petrea’s daughter looks.”

With a frightened shriek Edith covered up her face, and laying her head in its old resting place, Richard’s lap, exclaimed,

“No, no, oh no, Richard. Please do not look at me now. Help me, Arthur. Don’t let him,” she continued, as she felt the strong hands removing her own by force. But Arthur only replied by lifting up her head himself and holding in his own the struggling hands, while Richard examined a face seen now for the first time since its early babyhood. Oh how scrutinisingly he scanned that face, with its brilliant black eyes, where tears were glittering like diamonds in the sunlight, its rich healthful bloom, its proudly curved lip, its dimpled chin and soft, round cheeks What did he think of it? Did it meet his expectations? Was the face he had known so long in his darkness as Edith’s, natural when seen by daylight? Mingled there no shadow of disappointment in the reality? Was Arthur’s Edith at all like Richard’s singing bird? How Arthur wished he knew. But Richard kept his own counsel, for a time at least. He did not say what he thought of her. He only kissed the lips beginning to quiver with something like a grieved expression that Arthur should hold her so long, kissed them twice, and with his hand wiped her tears away, saying playfully,

“‘Tis too bad, Birdie, I know, but I’ve anticipated this hour so long.”

He had not called her Birdie before, and the familiar name compensated for all the pain which Edith had suffered when she saw those strangely black eyes fastened upon her, and knew that they could see. Springing to her feet the moment, she was released, she jumped into his lap in her old impetuous way, and winding her arms around his neck, sobbed out,

“I am so glad, Richard, so glad. You can’t begin to guess how glad, and I’ve prayed for this every night and every day, Arthur and I. Didn’t we, Arthur? Dear, dear Richard. I love you so much.”

“What he make mam-ma cry for?” asked a childish voice from the comer where little Dick stood, half frightened at what he saw, his tiny fist doubled ready to do battle for mother in case he should make up his mind that her rights were invaded.

This had the effect of rousing Edith, who, faint with excitement, was led by Arthur out into the open air, thus leaving Richard alone with his first love of twenty-five years ago. It did not seem to him possible that so many years had passed over the face which, at seventeen, was marvellously beautiful, and which still was very, very fair and youthful in its look, for Grace was wondrously well preserved and never passed for over thirty, save among the envious ones, who, old themselves, strove hard to make others older still.

“Time has dealt lightly with you, Grace,” Richard said, after the first curious glance. “I could almost fancy you were Grace Elmendorff yet,” and he lifted gallantly one of her chestnut curls, just as he used to do in years agone, when she was Grace Elmendorff.

This little act recalled so vivedly the scenes of other days that Grace burst into a flood of tears, and hurried from the room to the parlor adjoining, where, unobserved, she could weep again over the hopes forever fled. Thus left to himself, with the exception of little Dick, Richard had leisure to look about him, descrying ere long the life-sized portrait of Nina hanging on the wall. In an instant he stood before what was to him, not so much a picture painted on rude canvas, as a living reality–the golden-haired angel, who was now as closely identified with his every thought and feeling as even Edith herself had ever been. She had followed him over land and sea, bringing comfort to him in his dark hours of pain, coloring his dreams with rainbow hues of promise, buoying him up and bidding him wait a little–try yet longer, when the only hope worth his living for now seemed to be dying out, and when at last it, the wonderful cure, was done, and those gathered around him said each to the other “He will see,” he heard nothing for the buzzing sound which filled his ear, and the low voice whispering to him, “I did it–brought the daylight straight from heaven. God said I might–and I did. Nina takes care of you.”

They told him that he had fainted from excess of joy, but Richard believed that Nina had been with him all the same, cherishing that conviction even to this hour, when he stood there face to face with her, unconsciously saying to himself, “Gloriously beautiful Nina. In all my imaginings of you I never saw aught so fair as this. Edith is beautiful, but not–“

“As beautiful as Nina was, am I?” said a voice behind him, and turning round, Richard drew Edith to his side, and encircling her with his arm answered frankly,

“No, my child, you are not as beautiful as Nina.”

“Disappointed in me, are you not? Tell me honestly,” and Edith peered up half-archly, half-timidly into the eyes whose glance she scarcely yet dared meet.

“I can hardly call it disappointment,” Richard answered, smiling down upon her. “You are different-looking from what I supposed, that is all. Still you are much like what I remember your mother to have been, save that her eyes were softer than yours, and her lip not quite so proudly curved.”

“In other words, I show by my face that I am a Bernard, and something of a spitfire,” suggested Edith, and Richard rejoined,

“I think you do,” adding as he held her a little closer to him, “Had I been earlier blessed with sight, I should have known I could not tame you. I should only have spoiled you by indulgence.”

Just at this point, little Nina came in, and taking her in her arms, Edith said,

“I wanted to call her Edith, after myself, as I thought it might please you; but Arthur said no, she must be Nina Bernard,”

“Better so,” returned Richard, moving away from the picture, “I can never call another by the name I once called you,” and this was all the sign he gave that the wound was not quite healed.

But it was healing fast. Home influences were already doing him good, and when at last supper was announced, he looked very happy as he took again his accustomed seat at the table, with Arthur opposite Edith just where she used to be, and Grace, sitting at his right. It was a pleasant family party they made, and the servants marvelled much to hear Richard’s hearty laugh mingling with Edith’s merry peal.

That night, when the July moon came up over the New England hills, it looked down upon the four–Richard and Arthur, Grace and Edith, sitting upon the broad piazza as they had not sat in years, Grace a little apart from the rest, and Edith between her husband and Richard, holding a hand of each, and listening intently while the latter told them how rumors of a celebrated Parisian oculist had reached him in his wanderings; how he had sought the rooms of that oculist, leaving them a more hopeful man than when he entered; how the hope then enkindled grew stronger month after month, until the thick folds of darkness gave way to a creamy kind of haze, which hovered for weeks over his horizon of sights growing gradually whiter and thinner, until faint outlines were discovered, and to his unutterable joy he counted the window panes, knowing then that sight was surely coming back. He did not tell them how through all that terrible suspense Nina seemed always with him; he would not like to confess how superstitious he had become, fully believing that Nina was his guardian angel, that she hovered near him, and that the touch of her soft, little hands had helped to heal the wound gaping so cruelly when he last bade adieu to his native land. Richard was not a spiritualist. He utterly repudiated their wild theories, and built up one of his own, equally wild and strange, but productive of no evil, inasmuch as no one was admitted into his secret, or suffered to know of his one acknowledged sphere where Nina reigned supreme. This was something he kept to himself, referring but once to Nina during his narrative, and that when he said to Edith,

“You remember, darling, Nina told me in her letter that she’d keep asking God to give me back my sight.”

Edith cared but little by whose agency this great cure had been accomplished, and laying her head on Richard’s knee, just as a girl she used to do, she wept out her joy for sight restored to her noble benefactor, reproaching him for having kept the good news from them so carefully, even shutting his eyes when he wrote to them so that his writing should be natural, and the surprise when he did return, the greater.

Meanwhile Grace’s servant came up to accompany her home, and she bade the happy group good night, her heart beating faster than its wont as Richard said to her at parting, “I was going to offer my services, but see I am forestalled. My usual luck, you know,” and his black eyes rested a moment, on her face and then wandered to where Edith sat. Did he mean anything by this? Had the waves of time, which had beaten and battered his heart so long, brought it back at last to its first starting point, Grace Elmendorff? Time only can tell. He believed his youthful passion had died out years ago, that matrimony was for him an utter impossibility.

He had been comparatively happy across the sea, and he was happier still now that he was at home, wishing he had come before, and wondering why it was that the sight of Edith did not pain him, as