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Till now the dark was worn, and overhead
The lights of sunset and of sunrise mixed.--TENNYSON
At New York, Tom wrote a short letter to announce his safe arrival, and then pushed on by railway into Indiana. Winter had completely set in; and when he at length arrived at Winiamac, he found that a sleigh was a far readier mode of conveyance to Massissauga than the wagons used in summer. His drive, through the white cathedral-like arcades of forest, hung with transparent icicles, and with the deep blue sky above, becoming orange towards the west, was enjoyable; and even Massissauga itself, when its skeleton trees were like their neighbours, embellished by the pure snowy covering, looked less forlorn than when their death contrasted with the exuberant life around. He stopped at the hotel, left his baggage there, and after undergoing a catechism on his personal affairs, was directed to Mr. Muller's house, and made his way up its hard-trodden path of snow, towards the green door, at which he knocked two or three times before it was opened by a woman, whose hair and freckled skin were tinted nowhere but in Ireland.
He made a step forward out of the cutting blast into the narrow entry, and began to ask, 'Is Miss Ward here? I mean, can I see Miss Warden?' when, as if at the sound of his voice, there rang from within the door close by a shriek--one of the hoarse hysterical cries he had heard upon the day of the inquest. Without a moment's hesitation, he pushed open the door, and beheld a young lady in speechless terror hanging over the stiffened figure on the couch--the eyes wide open, the limbs straight and rigid. He sprang forward, and lifted her into a more favourable posture, hastily asking for simple remedies likely to be at hand, and producing a certain amount of revival for a few moments, though the stiffness was not passing--nor was there evidence of consciousness.
'Are you Leonard?' said Cora Muller, under her breath, in this brief interval, gazing into his face with frightened puzzled eyes.
'No; but I am come to tell her that he is free!' But the words were cut short by another terrible access, of that most distressing kind that stimulates convulsion; and again the terrified women instinctively rendered obedience to the stranger in the measures he rapidly took, and his words, 'hysteria--a form of hysteria,' were forced from him by the necessity of lessening Cora's intense alarm, so as to enable her to be effective. 'We must send for Dr. Laidlaw,' she began in the first breathing moment, and again he looked up and said, 'I am a physician!'
'Mr. Tom?' she asked with the faintest shadow of a smile; he bent his head, and that was their introduction, broken again by another frightful attack; and when quiescence, if not consciousness, was regained, Tom knelt by the sofa, gazing with a sense of heart-rending despair at the wasted features and thin hands, the waxen whiteness of the cheek, and the tokens in which he clearly read long and consuming illness as well as the overthrow of the sudden shock.
'What is this?' he asked, looking up to Cora's beautiful anxious face.
'Oh, she has been very sick, very sick,' she answered; 'it was an attack of pleurisy; but she is getting better at last, though she will not think so, and this news will make all well. Does she hear? Say it again!'
Tom shook his head, afraid of the sound of the name as yet, and scarcely durst even utter the word 'Ella' above his breath.
'She is gone out with Cousin Deborah to an apple bee,' was the reassuring answer. 'She wanted change, poor child! Is she getting better?'
Averil was roused by a cough, the sound which tore Tom's heart by its import, but he drew back out of her sight, and let Cora raise her, and give her drink, in a soothing tender manner, that was evident restoration. 'Cora dear, is it you?' she said, faintly; 'didn't I hear some one else's voice? Didn't they say--?' and the shiver that crept over her was almost a return of the hysteric fit.
'We said he was free,' said Cora, holding her in her arms.
'Free--yes, I know what that means--free among the dead,' said Averil, calmly, smoothing Cora's hair, and looking in her face. 'Don't be afraid to let me hear. I shall be there with him and Minna soon. Didn't somebody come to tell me? Please let him in, I'll be quiet now.'
And as she made gestures of arranging her hair and dress, Tom guardedly presented himself, saying in a voice that trembled with his endeavour to render it calm, 'Did you think I should have come if I had nothing better to tell you?' and as she put out her hand in greeting, he took it in both his own, and met her eyes looking at him wide open, in the first dawning of the hope of an impossible gladness. 'Yes,' he said, 'the truth is come out--he is cleared--he is at home--at Stoneborongh!'
The hot fingers closed convulsively on his own, then she raised herself, pressed her hands together, and gasped and struggled fearfully for breath. The joy and effort for self-command were more than the enfeebled frame could support, and there was a terrible and prolonged renewal of those agonizing paroxysms, driving away every thought from the other two except of the immediate needs. At last, when the violence of the attack had subsided, and left what was either fainting or stupor, they judged it best to carry her to her bed, and trust that, reviving without the associations of the other room, the agitation would be less likely to return, and that she might sleep under the influence of an anodyne. Poor Tom! it was not the reception he had figured to himself, and after he had laid her down, and left her to Cora and to Katty to be undressed, he returned to the parlour, and stood over the sinking wood-fire in dejection and dreariness of heart--wrung by the sufferings he had witnessed, with the bitter words (too late) echoing in his brain, and with the still more cruel thought--had it been his father or one of his brothers-- any one to whose kindness she could trust, the shock had not been so great, and there would have been more sense of soothing and comfort! And then he tried to collect his impressions of her condition, and judge what would serve for her relief, but all his senses seemed to be scattered; dismay, compassion, and sympathy, had driven away all power of forming a conclusion--he was no longer the doctor--he was only the anxious listener for the faintest sound from the room above, but none reached him save the creaking of the floor under Katty's heavy tread.
The gay tinkle of sleigh-bells was the next noise he heard, and presently the door was opened, and two muffled hooded figures looked into the room, now only lighted by the red embers of the fire.
'Where's Cora? where's Ave?' said the bright tone of the lesser. 'It is all dark!' and she was raising her voice to call, when Tom instinctively uttered a 'Hush,' and moved forward; 'hush, Ella, your sister has been ill.'
The little muffled figure started at the first sound of his voice, but as he stepped nearer recoiled for a second, then with a low cry, almost a sob of recognition, exclaimed, 'Mr. Tom! Oh, Mr. Tom! I knew you would come! Cousin Deborah, it's Mr. Tom!' and she flew into his arms, and clung with an ecstasy of joy, unknowing the why or how, but with a sense that light had shone, and that her troubles were over. She asked no questions, she only leant against him with, 'Mr. Tom! Mr. Tom!' under her breath.
'But what is it, stranger? Do tell! Where are the girls? What's this about Avy's being sick? Do you know the stranger, Ella?'
'It's Mr. Tom,' she cried, holding his arm round her neck, looking up in a rapturous restfulness.
'I brought Miss Ward-en some good news that I fear has been too much for her,' said he; 'I am--only waiting to--hear how she is.'
By way of answer, Deborah opened another door which threw more light on the scene from the cooking stove in the kitchen, and at the same moment Cora with a candle came down the stairs.
'O, Dr. May,' she said, 'you have been too long left alone in the dark. I think she is asleep now. You will stay. We will have tea directly.'
Tom faltered something about the hotel, and began to look at Cousin Deborah, and to consider the proprieties of life; but Cousin Deborah, Cora, and Ella began declaring with one voice that he must remain for the evening meal, and a bustle of cheerful preparation commenced, while Ella still hung on his hand.
'But, Ella, you've never asked my good news.'
'Oh dear! I was too glad! Are we going home then?'
'Yes, I trust so, I hope so, my dear; for Leonard's innocence has come to light, and he is free.'
'Then Henry won't mind--and we may be called by our proper name again--and Ave will be well,' cried the child, as the ideas came more fully on her comprehension. 'O, Cora! O, Cousin Deborah, do you hear? Does Ave know? May I run up and tell Ave?'
This of course was checked, but next Ella impetuously tore off her wraps for the convenience of spinning up and down wildly about the kitchen and parlour. Leonard himself did not seem to have great part in her joy; Henry's policy had really nearly rooted out the thought of him personally, and there was a veil of confusion over the painful period of his trial, which at the time she had only partially comprehended. But she did understand that his liberation would be the term of exile; and though his name was to her connected with a mysterious shudder that made her shrink from uttering or hearing details, she had a security that Mr. Tom would set all right, and she loved him so heartily, that his presence was sunshine enough for her.
A little discomfited at the trouble he was causing, Tom was obliged to wait while not only Cousin Deborah, but Cora busied herself in the kitchen, and Ella in her restless joy came backwards and forwards to report their preparations, and at times to tarry a short space by his side, and tell of the recent troubles. Ave had been very ill, she said, very ill indeed about a month ago, and Henry had come home to see her, but had been obliged to go away to the seige of Charleston when she was better. They had all been ill ever since they came there, but now Mr. Tom was come, should not they all go home to dear Stoneborough, away from this miserable place? If they could only take Cora with them!
It was still a childish tongue; but Ella had outgrown all her plump roundness, and was so tall and pale that Tom would hardly have known her. Her welcome was relief and comfort, and she almost inspired her own belief that now all would be well. His English ideas were rather set at rest by finding that Mrs. Deborah was to preside at the tea- table, and that he was not to be almost tete-a-tete with Miss Muller. Deborah having concluded her hospitable cares, catechized him to her full content, and satisfied herself on the mystery of the Wardens' life.
And now what brought himself out? She guessed he could not find an opening in the old country. Tom smiled, explained his opening at home, and mentioned his charge of his late friend's book.
'So you are come out about the book, and just come a few hundred miles out of the way to bring this bit of news, that you could have telegraphed,' said the Yankee dame, looking at him with her keen eyes. 'Well, if you were coming, it was a pity you were not sooner. She has pined away ever since she came here; and to such a worn-down condition as hers, poor child, I doubt joy's kinder more upsetting than trouble, when one is used to it. There; I'll fix the things, and go up and sit with Avy. She'll be less likely to work herself into a flight again if she sees me than one of you.'
So Tom--less embarrassed now--found himself sitting by the fire, with Ella roasting her favourite nuts for him, and Miss Muller opposite. He was taken by surprise by her beautiful face, elegant figure, and lady-like manner, and far more by her evidently earnest affection for Averil.
She told him that ever since the fatal turn of little Minna's illness, Averil had been subject to distressing attacks of gasping and rigidity, often passing into faintness; and though at the moment of emotion she often showed composure and self-command, yet that nature always thus revenged herself. Suspense--letters from home or from Henry--even verses, or times connected with the past, would almost certainly bring on the affection; and the heat of the summer had relaxed her frame, so as to render it even more unable to resist. There had been hope in the bracing of winter, but the first frosts had brought a chill, and a terrible attack of pleurisy, so dangerous that her brother had been summoned; she had struggled through, however, and recovered to a certain point, but there had stopped short, often suffering pain in the side, and never without panting breath and recurring cough. This had been a slightly better day, and she had been lying on the sofa, counting the days to Leonard's next letter, when the well-known voice fell on her ears, and the one strong effort to control herself had resulted in the frightful spasms, which had been worse than any Cora had yet witnessed.
'But she will get well, and we shall go home,' said Ella, looking up wistfully into Tom's mournful face.
'And I shall lose you,' said Cora; 'but indeed I have long seen it was the only thing. If I had only known, she never should have come here.'
'No, indeed, I feel that you would have led her to nothing that was not for her good and comfort.'
'Ah! but I did not know,' said Cora; 'I had not been here--and I only thought of my own pleasure in having her. But if there is any way of freeing her from this unfortunate speculation without a dead loss, I will make father tell me.'
This--from Cora's pretty mouth--though only honest and prudent, rather jarred upon Tom in the midst of his present fears; and he began to prepare for his departure to the inn, after having sent up Ella to ask for her sister, and hearing that she still slept soundly under the influence of the opiate.
When Averil awoke it was already morning, and Cora was standing by her bed, with her eyes smiling with congratulation, like veronicas on a sunny day.
'Cora, is it true?' she said, looking up.
Cora bent down and kissed her, and whispered, 'I wish you joy, my dear.'
'Then it is,' she said; 'it is not all a dream?'
'No dream, dearest.'
'Who said it?' she asked. 'O, Cora, that could not be true!' and the colour rose in her cheek.
'That! yes, Averil, if you mean that we had a visitor last evening. I took him for Leonard, do you know! Only I thought his eyes and hair did not quite answer the description.'
'He is a very gentleman-like person. Did you not think so?' said Averil.
'Ah! Ave, I've heard a great deal. Don't you think you had better tell me some more?'
'No, no!' exclaimed Averil; 'you are not to think of folly,' as coughing cut her short.
'I'll not think of any more than I can help, except what you tell me.'
'Never think at all, Cora. Oh! what has brought him here? I don't know how I can dare to see him again; and yet he is not gone, is he?'
'Oh no, he is only at the inn. He is coming back again.'
'I must be up. Let me get up,' said Averil, raising herself, but pausing from weakness and breathlessness.
And when they had forced some food upon her, she carried out her resolution, though twice absolutely fainting in the course of dressing; and at length crept softly, leaning on Cora's arm, into the parlour. Though Tom was waiting there, he neither spoke nor came forward till she was safely placed upon the sofa, and then gathering breath, she sought him with her eager eyes, shining, large, lustrous, and wistful, as they looked out of the white thin face, where the once glowing colour had dwindled to two burning carnation spots. It was so piteous a change that as he took her hand he was silent, from sheer inability to speak calmly.
'You have come to tell me,' she said. 'I am afraid I could not thank you last night.' How different that soft pleading languid voice from the old half defiant tone!
'I did not know you had been so unwell,' he forced himself to say, 'or I would not have come so suddenly.'
'I am grown so silly' she said, trying to smile. 'I hardly even understood last night;' and the voice died away in the intense desire to hear.
'I--I was coming on business, and I thought you would not turn from the good tidings, though I was the bearer,' he said, in a broken, agitated, apologetic way.
'Only let me hear it again,' she said. 'Did you say he was free?'
'Yes, free as you are, or I. At home. My father was gone to fetch him.'
She put her hands over her face, and looked up with the sweetest smile he had ever seen, and whispered, 'Now I can sing my Nunc dimittis.'
He could not at once speak; and before he had done more than make one deprecatory gesture, she asked, 'You have seen him?'
'Not since this--not since September.'
'I know. You have been very good; and he is at home--ah! not home-- but Dr. May's. Was he well? Was he very glad?'
'I have not seen him; I have not heard; you will hear soon. I came at once with the tidings.'
'Thank you;' and she clasped her hands together. 'Have you seen Henry? does he know?'
'Could I? Had not you the first right?'
'Leonard! Oh, dear Leonard!' She lay back for a few moments, panting under the gust of exceeding joy; while he was silent, and tried not to seem to observe her with his anxious eyes. Then she recovered a little and said, 'The truth come out! Did you say so? What was the truth?'
'He paused a moment, afraid of the shock, and remembering that the suspicion had been all unknown to her. She recalled probabilities, and said,
'Was it from a confession? Is it known who--who was the real unhappy person?'
'Yes. Had you no suspicion?'
'No--none,' said Averil, shuddering, 'unless it was some robber. Who was it?'
'You had never thought of the other nephew?'
'You don't mean Samuel Axworthy! Oh! no. Why the last thing Leonard bade me, was always to pray for him.'
'Ah!' said Tom, with bent head, and colouring cheeks; 'but who are those for whom such as Leonard would feel bound to pray?'
There was a moment's silence, and then she said, 'His enemy! Is that what you mean? But then he would have known it was he.'
'He was entirely convinced that so it must have been, but there was no proof, and an unsupported accusation would only have made his own case worse.'
'And has he confessed? has he been touched and cleared Leonard at last?'
'No; he had no space granted him. It was the receipt in your brother's writing that was found upon him.'
'The receipt? Yes, Leonard always said the receipt would clear him! But oh, how dreadful! He must have had it all the time. How could he be so cruel! Oh! I never felt before that such wickedness could be;' and she lay, looking appalled and overpowered.
'Think of your brother knowing it all, and bidding--and giving you that injunction--' said Tom, feeling the necessity of overcoming evil with good.
'Oh! if I had known it, I could not--I could not have been like Leonard! And where--what has become of him?' she asked, breathlessly. 'You speak as if he was dead.'
'Yes. He was killed in a fray at a gaming-house!'
There was a long silence, first of awe, then of thankfulness plainly beaming in her upraised eyes and transparent countenance, which Tom watched, filled with sensations, mournful but not wholly wretched. Shattered as she was, sinking away from her new-found happiness, it was a precious privilege to be holding to her the longed--for draught of joy.
'Tell me about it, please,' she presently said. 'Where--how did the receipt come to light? Were the police told to watch for it? I want to know whom I have to thank.'
His heart beat high, but there was a spirit within him that could not brook any attempt to recall the promise he had pursued her with, the promise that he would not rest till he had proved her brother's innocence. He dreaded her even guessing any allusion to it, or fancying he had brought the proffered price in his hand; and when he began with, 'Can you bear to hear of the most shocking scene I ever witnessed?' he gave no hint of his true motive in residing at Paris, of the clue that Bilson's draft had given him in thither pursuing Axworthy, nor of his severe struggle in relinquishing the quest. He threw over all the completest accidental air, and scarcely made it evident that it was he who had recognized the writing, and all that turned on it. Averil listened to the narration, was silent for some space, then having gone over it in her own mind, looked up and said--
'Then all this came of your being at that hospital;' and a burning blush spread over the pale cheek, and made Tom shrink, start, and feel guilty of having touched the chord of obligation, connected with that obtrusive pledge of his. Above all, however, to repress emotion was his prime object; and he calmly answered, 'It was a good Providence that brought any one there who knew the circumstances.'
She was silent; and he was about to rise and relieve her from the sense of his presuming on her gratitude, when a cough, accompanied with a pressure of her hand on her side, betrayed an access of suffering, that drew him on to his other purpose of endeavouring to learn her condition, and to do what he could for her relief. His manner, curiously like his father's, and all the home associations connected with it, easily drew from her what he wanted to ascertain, and she perfectly understood its purport, and was calm and even bright.
'I was glad to be better when Henry went away,' she said; 'he had so much to do, and we thought I was getting well then. You must not frighten him and hurry him here, if you please,' she said, earnestly, 'for he must not be wasting his time here, and you think it will last a month or two, don't you?'
'I want to persuade Henry to bring you all home, and enter into partnership with Mr. Wright,' said Tom. 'The voyage would--might--it would be the best thing for you.'
'Could I ever be well enough again? Oh, don't tell me to think about it! The one thing I asked for before I die has been given me, and now I know he is free, I will--will not set my mind on anything else.'
There was a look so near heaven on her face, as she spoke, that Tom durst not say any more of home, or earthly schemes; but, quiet, grave, and awe-stricken, left her to the repose she needed, and betook himself to the other room, where Ella, of course, flew on him, having been hardly detained by Cora from breaking in before. His object was to go to see the medical man who had been attending Averil; and Cora assuring him the horse had nothing to do in the frost, and telling him the times of the day when he would be most likely to find Dr. Laidlaw, he set forth.
Averil meantime lay on her sofa calmly happy, and thankful, the worn and wearied spirit full of rest and gladness unspeakable, in the fulness of gratitude for the answered prayer that she might know her brother free before her death. If she had ever doubted of her own state, she had read full confirmation in her physician's saddened eyes, and the absence of all hopeful auguries, except the single hint that she might survive a voyage to England; and that she wished unsaid. Life, for the last five years, had been mournful work; there had been one year of blind self-will, discord, and bitterness, then a crushing stroke, and the rest exhausted submission and hopeless bending to sorrow after sorrow, with self-reproach running through all. Wearied out, she was glad to lay down the burthen, and accept the evening gleam as sunset radiance, without energy to believe it as the dawn of a brighter day. She shrank from being made even to wish to see Leonard. If once she began to think it possible, it would be a hard sacrifice to give it up; and on one point her resolution was fixed, that she would not be made a cause for bringing him to share their wretchedness in America. Life and things of life were over with her, and she would only be thankful for the softening blessings that came at its close, without stirring up vain longings for more. That kindness of Tom May, for instance, how soothing it was after her long self-reproach for her petulant and cutting unjust reply to his generous affection--generous above all at such a moment!
And after all, it was he--it was he and no other who had cleared Leonard--he had fulfilled the pledge he had given when he did not know what he was talking of. How she hated the blush that the sudden remembrance had called up on her face! It was quite plain that he had been disgusted by her unkind, undignified, improper tone of rejection; and though out of humanity he had brought her the tidings, he would not let her approach to thanking him, she was ashamed that he should have traced an allusion, the most distant, to the scene he had, doubtless, loathed in remembrance. He would, no doubt, go away to-day or to-morrow, and then these foolish thoughts would subside, and she should be left alone with Cora and her thankfulness, to think again of the great change before her!
But Tom was not gone. Indeed Averil was much more ill before the next morning, partly from hysteria, the reaction of the morning's excitement, and partly from an aggravation of the more serious pulmonary affection. It was a temporary matter, and one that made his remaining the merest act of common humanity, since he had found Dr. Laidlaw a very third-rate specimen, and her brother was too far off to have arrived in time to be of use. The fresh science and skill of the young physician were indeed of the highest value, and under his care Averil rallied after a few days of prostration and suffering, during which she had watched and observed a good deal, and especially the good understanding between her doctor and Cora Muller. When Cousin Deborah was sitting with her, they always seemed to be talking in the drawing-room; nay, there were reports of his joining in the fabrication of some of the delicacies that were triumphantly brought to her room; and Ella was in a state of impatient pique at being slighted by 'Mr. Tom,' who, she complained, was always fighting with Cora about their politics; and Cora herself used to bring what Dr. May had said, as the choicest entertainment to her sick friend; while to herself he was merely the physician, kind and gentle to the utmost degree; but keeping his distance so scrupulously, that the pang awoke that he absolutely disliked her, and only attended her from common compassion; and, it might be, found consolation in being thus brought in contact with Cora. Oh, if it were only possible to own her wrongs, and ask his pardon without a compromise of maidenliness! Perhaps--perhaps she might, when she was still nearer death, and when she was supposed to know how it was between him and Cora. Dear Cora, it would be a beautiful reward for them both, and they would take care of Ella. Cora would be happier than ever yet among the Mays--and--Oh! why, why was there so much unkind selfish jealousy left, that instead of being glad, the notion left her so very miserable? Why did the prospect of such happiness for her self- devoted friend and nurse make her feel full of bitterness, and hardly able to bear it patiently, when she heard her speak the name of Dr. May?
Averil had again left her bed, and resumed her place on the sofa before letters arrived. There was Leonard's from Cocksmoor Parsonage, the first real letter she had had from him since his term of servitude had begun. It was a grave and thankful letter, very short, doing little more than mention every one's kindness, and express a hope of soon meeting her and Ella, however and wherever Henry should think best. Brief as it was, it made her more thoroughly realize his liberty, and feel that the yearning towards him in her heart was growing more and more ardent, in spite of her strivings not to let it awaken.
The same post brought Henry's answer to Tom May's representation. It was decisive. He had broken off his whole connection with England, and did not wish to return to a neighbourhood so full of painful recollections. He was making his way rapidly upwards in his present position, and it would be folly to give up the advantages it offered; moreover, he had no fears of the future well-doing of the Massissauga Company. As soon as the weather permitted it, he hoped to remove his sister to a healthier locality for change of air, but she could not be fit for a journey in the winter. There were plenty of acknowledgments to the Mays for their kindness to Leonard, from whom Henry said he had heard, as well as from Dr. May, and others at Stoneborough. He should advise Leonard by all means to close with Mr. Bramshaw's offer, for he saw no opening for him in the United States at present, although the ultimate triumph over rebellion, &c. &c. &c.--in the most inflated style of Henry's truly adopted country. No one who had not known the whole affair would ever enter into Leonard's entire innocence, the stigma of conviction would cleave to him, and create an impression against him and his family among strangers, and it was highly desirable that he should remain among friends. In fact, it was plain that Henry was still ashamed of him, and wished to be free of a dangerous appendage. Tom was so savagely angry at this letter that he could only work off his wrath by a wild expedition in the snow, in the course of which he lost his way, wandered till the adventure began to grow perilous, came at last upon a squatter, with great difficulty induced him to indicate the track sufficiently for his English density, and arrived at Massissauga at nine o'clock at night. Averil was still on her sofa, quite calm and quiet, all but her two red spots; but afterwards, in her own room, she had one of her worst fits of spasms.
However, she was up and dressed by the middle of the next day, and, contrary to her wont since the first time, she sent Ella out of the room when her doctor came to see her.
'I wanted to speak to you,' she said, 'I have a great favour to ask of you. You will soon be going home. Would you, could you take Ella with you? I know it is a great, a too great thing to ask. But I would not have her in any one's way. I am going to write to Mrs. Wills, at the school where I was, and Ella's means are quite enough to keep her there, holidays and all, till Leonard can give her a home. It will be much better for her, and a relief to Henry; and it will be giving back one--one to Leonard! It will be one thing more that I shall be happy about.'
Tom had let her go on with her short gentle sentences, because he knew not how to answer; but at last she said, 'Forgive me, and do not think of it, if I have asked what I ought not, or would be troublesome.'
Troublesome! no, indeed! I was only thinking--if it might not be better managed,' he answered, rather by way of giving himself time to debate whether the utterance of the one thought in his heart would lead to his being driven away.
'Pray do not propose Leonard's coming for her! He must come to this feverish place in spring. And if he came, and I were not here, and Henry not wanting him! Oh no, no; do not let me think of his coming!'
'Averil,' he said, kneeling on one knee so as to be nearer, and to be able to speak lower, 'you are so unearthly in your unselfishness, that I dare the less to put before you the one way in which I could take Ella home to him. It is if you would overlook the past, and give me a brother's right in them both.'
She turned in amazement to see if she had heard aright. He had removed his glasses, and the deep blue expressive eyes so seldom plainly visible were wistfully, pleadingly, fixed on her, brimming over with the dew of earnestness. Her face of inquiry gave him courage to go on, 'If you would only let me, I think I could bring you home to see him; and if you would believe it and try, I believe I could make you happier,' and with an uncontrollable shake in his voice he ceased--and only looked.
She sat upright, her hands clasped in her lap, her eyes shut, trying to collect her thoughts; and the silence lasted for several seconds. At last she said, opening her eyes, but gazing straight before her, not at him, 'I do not think I ought. Do you really know what you are saying? You know I cannot get well.'
'I know,' he said. 'All I ask is, to tend and watch over you while I may, to bring you home to Leonard, and to be Ella's brother.'
His voice was still and low, and he laid his hand on her folded ones with reverent solemnity; but though it did not tremble, its touch was cold as marble, and conveyed to Averil an instant sense of the force of his repressed emotion. She started under it, and exclaimed with the first agitation she had shown, 'No, no; it would cost you too much. You, young, beginning life--you must not take a sorrow upon you.'
'Is it not there already?' he said, almost inaudibly. 'Would it lessen it to be kept away from you?'
'Oh, do not go on, do not tempt me,' she cried. 'Think of your father.'
'Nay, think what he is yourself. Or rather look here,' and he took out a part of a letter from Ethel, and laid it before her.
'As to papa not guessing your object,' she said, 'that was a vain delusion if you ever entertained it, so you must not mind my having explained. He said if he had been you, it was just what he should have done himself, and he is quite ready to throw his heart into it if you will only trust to his kindness. I do so want you really to try what that is.'
'And you came for this,' faltered Averil, leaning back, almost overcome.
'I did not come meaning to hurry the subject on you. I hoped to have induced Henry to have brought you all home, and then, when I had done my best to efface the recollection of that unpardonable behaviour, to have tried whether you could look on me differently.'
'I don't like you to say that,' said Averil, simply but earnestly; 'I have felt over and over again how wrong I was--how ungrateful--to have utterly missed all the nobleness and generosity of your behaviour, and answered in that unjust, ill-tempered way.'
'Nothing was ever more deserved,' he answered; 'I have hated myself ever since, and I hope I am not as obnoxious now.'
'It was I!' she said; 'I have lived every bit of the winter over again, and seen that I was always ready to be offended, and somehow I could not help caring so much for what you said, that lesser things from you hurt and cut as other people's did not.'
'Do you know what that proves?' said Tom, with an arch subsmile lighting on his eyes and mouth; and as a glow awoke on her pale cheek, he added, 'and won't you believe, too, that my propensity to "contemptuous irony" was all from my instinctive fear of what you could do to me!'
'Oh, don't repeat that! I have been so bitterly ashamed of it!'
'I am sure I have.'
'And I have longed so to ask your pardon. I thought I would leave a letter or message with Ella that you would understand.'
'You can do better than that now. You can forgive me.'
'Oh!' said Averil, her hands suddenly joined over her face, 'this is one joy more! I cannot think why it is all growing so bright just at last--at last. It is all come now! How good it is!'
He saw that she could bear no more. He pressed no more for a decisive answer; he did not return to the subject; but from that time he treated her as what belonged to him, as if it was his business to think, act, and judge for her, and to watch over her; and her acquiescence was absolute.
There was not much speaking between them; there were chiefly skirmishes between him and Cora, to which she listened in smiling passive amusement; and even when alone together they said little-- actually nothing at all about the future. He had written to Ethel on his first arrival, and on the reply, as well as on Averil's state, all must depend. Meanwhile such a look of satisfied repose and peace shone upon Averil's face as was most sweet to look upon; and though extremely feeble, and not essentially better, she was less suffering, and could in great languor, but in calm enjoyment, pass through day by day of the precious present that had come to crown her long trial.
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