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Dennis was glad to escape, and went to a side door where he could cool his hot cheeks in the night air. He fairly dreaded to meet Christine again, and, even where the wind blew cold upon him, his cheeks grew hotter and hotter, as he remembered what had occurred. He had been there but a little time when a light hand fell on his arm, and he was startled by her voice--"Mr. Fleet, are you very tired?"
"Not in the least," he answered, eagerly.
"You must be: it is wrong for me to think of it."
"Miss Ludolph, please tell me what I can do for you?"
She looked at him wistfully and said: "This is a time when loss and disaster burden every heart, and I know it is a duty to try to maintain a cheerful courage, and forget personal troubles. I have tried to-day, and, with God's help, hope in time to succeed. While endeavoring to wear in public a cheerful face, I may perhaps now, and to so true a friend as yourself, show more of my real feelings. Is it too far--would it take too long, to go to where my father died? His remains could not have been removed."
"Alas, Miss Ludolph," said Dennis, very gently, "there can be no visible remains. The words of the Prayer Book are literally true in this case--'Ashes to ashes.' But I can take you to the spot, and it is natural that you should wish to go. Are you equal to the fatigue?"
"I shall not feel it if you go with me, and then we can ride part of the way, for I have a little money." (Dr. Arten had insisted on her taking some.) "Wait for me a moment."
She soon reappeared with her shawl cut in two equal parts. One she insisted on folding and putting around him as a Scotsman wears his plaid. "You will need it in the cool night wind," she said, and then she took his arm in perfect trust, and they started.
In the cars she gave him her money, and he said, "I will return my fare to-morrow night."
"What!" she replied, looking a little hurt. "After spending two dollars on me, will you not take five cents in return?"
"But I spent it foolishly."
"You spent it like a generous man. Surely, Mr. Fleet, you did not understand my badinage this evening. If I had not spoken to you in that strain, I could not have spoken at all. You have been a brother to me, and we should not stand on these little things."
"That is it," thought he again. "She looks upon and trusts me as a brother, and such I must try to be till she departs for her own land; yet if she knew the agony of the effort she would scarcely ask it."
But as they left the car, he said, "All that you would ask from a brother, please ask from me."
She put her hand in his, and said, "I now ask your support, sympathy, and prayer, for I feel that I shall need all here."
Still retaining her hand, he placed it on his arm and guided her most carefully around the hot ruins and heaps of rubbish till they came to where the Art Building had stood. The moon shone brightly down, lighting up with weird and ghostly effect the few walls remaining. They were utterly alone in the midst of a desolation sevenfold more impressing than that of the desert. Pointing to the spot where, in the midst of his treasures of art and idolized worldly possessions, Mr. Ludolph had perished, she said, in a thrilling whisper, "My father's ashes are there."
Her breath came quick and short, and her face was so pale and agonized that he trembled for her, but he tightened his grasp on her hand, and his tears fell with hers.
"Oh, my father!" she cried, in a tone of unspeakable pathos, "can I never, never see you again? Can I never tell you of the love of Jesus, and the better and happier life beyond? Oh, how my heart yearns after you! God forgive me if this is wrong, but I cannot help it!"
"It is not wrong," said Dennis, brokenly. "Our Lord himself wept over those He could not save."
"It is all that I can do," she murmured, and, leaning her head on his shoulder, a tempest of sobs shook her person.
He supported her tenderly, and said, in accents of the deepest sympathy, "Let every tear fall that will: they will do you good." At last, as she became calmer, he added, "Remember that your great Elder Brother has called the heavy laden to Him for rest."
At last she raised her head, turned, and gave one long parting look, and, as Dennis saw her face in the white moonlight, it was the face of a pitying angel. A low "Farewell!" trembled from her lips, she leaned heavily on his arm, they turned away, and seemingly the curtain fell between father and child to rise no more.
"Mr. Fleet," she said, pleadingly, "are you too tired to take me to my old home on the north side?"
"Miss Ludolph, I could go to the ends of the earth for you, but you are not equal to this strain upon your feelings. Have mercy on yourself."
But she said, in a low, dreamy tone: "I wish to take leave to-night of my old life--the strange, sad past with its mystery of evil; and then I shall set my face resolutely toward a better life--a better country. So bear with me, my true, kind friend, a little longer."
"Believe me, my thought was all for you. All sense of fatigue has passed away."
Silently they made their way, till they stood where, a few short days before, had been the elegant home that was full of sad and painful memories to both.
"There was my studio," she said in the same dreamy tone, "where I indulged in my wild, ambitious dreams, and sought to grasp a little fading circlet of laurel, while ignoring a heavenly and an immortal crown. There," she continued, her pale face becoming crimson, even in the white moonlight, "I most painfully wronged you, my most generous, forgiving friend, and a noble revenge you took when you saved my life and led me to a Saviour. May God reward you; but I humbly ask your pardon--"
"Please, Miss Ludolph, do not speak of that. I have buried it all. Do not pain yourself by recalling that which I have forgiven and almost forgotten. You are now my ideal of all that is noble and good, and in my solitary artist life of the future you shall be my gentle yet potent inspiration."
"Why must your life be solitary in the future?" she asked, in a low tone.
He was very pale, and his arm trembled under her hand; at last he said, in a hoarse voice, "Do not ask me. Why should I pain you by telling you the truth?"
"Is it the part of a true friend to refuse confidence?" she asked, reproachfully.
He turned his face away, that she might not see the evidences of the bitter struggle within--the severest he had ever known; but at last he spoke in the firm and quiet voice of victory. She had called him brother, and trusted him as such. She had ventured out alone on a sacred mission with him, as she might with a brother. She was dependent on him, and burdened by a feeling of obligation. His high sense of honor forbade that he should urge his suit under such circumstances. If she could not accept, how painful beyond words would be the necessity of refusal, and the impression had become almost fixed in his mind that her regard for him was only sisterly and grateful in its character.
"Yes, Miss Ludolph," he said, "my silence is the part of true friendship--truer than you can ever know. May Heaven's richest blessings go with you to your own land, and follow you through a long, happy life."
"My own land? This is my own land."
"Do you not intend to go abroad at once, and enter upon your ancestral estates as the Baroness Ludolph?"
"Not if I can earn a livelihood in Chicago," she answered, most firmly. "Mr. Fleet, all that nonsense has perished as utterly as this my former home. It belongs to my old life, of which I have forever taken leave to-night. My ancestral estate in Germany is but a petty affair, and mortgaged beyond its real worth by my deceased uncle. All I possess, all I value, is in this city. It was my father's ambition, and at one time my own, to restore the ancient grandeur of the family with the wealth acquired in this land. The plan lost its charms for me long ago--I would not have gone if I could have helped it--and now it is impossible. It has perished in flame and smoke. Mr. Fleet, you see before you a simple American girl. I claim and wish to be known in no other character. If nothing remains of my father's fortune I shall teach either music or painting--"
"Oh, Christine!" he interrupted, "forgive me for speaking to you under the circumstances, but indeed I cannot help it. Is there hope for me?"
She looked at him so earnestly as to remind him of her strange, steady gaze when before he pleaded for her love near that same spot, but her hand trembled in his like a fluttering, frightened bird. In a low, eager tone she said, "And can you still truly love me after all the shameful past?"
"When have I ceased to love you?"
With a little cry of ecstasy, like the note of joy that a weary bird might utter as it flew to its mate, she put her arm around his neck, buried her face on his shoulder, and said, "No hope for you, Dennis, but perfect certainty, for now EVERY BARRIER IS BURNED AWAY!"
What though the home before them is a deserted ruin? Love is joining hands that shall build a fairer and better one, because filled with that which only makes a home--love.
What though all around are only dreary ruins, where the night wind is sighing mournfully? Love has transformed that desert place into the paradise of God; and, if such is its power in the wastes of earthly desolation, what will be its might amid the perfect scenes of heaven?
Our story is finished.
It only remains to say that Christine stands high at court, but it is a grander one than any of earth. She is allied to a noble, but to one who has received his patent from no petty sovereign of this world. She has lost sight of the transient laurel wreath which she sought to grasp at such cost to herself and others, in view of the "crown of glory that fadeth not away," and to this already, as an earnest Christian, she has added starry jewels.
Below is the Ludolph Hall in which sturdy independence led her to begin her married life. But she is climbing the mountain at her husband's side, and often her hands steady and help him. The ash-tree, twined with the passion-flower, is not very far above them, and the villa, beautiful within and without, is no vain dream of the future. But even in happy youth their eyes of faith see in airy, golden outline their heavenly home awaiting them.
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