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Graham found his aunt waiting for him on the rustic seat beneath the apple-tree. Here, a few hours before, his heart elate with hope, he had hastened forward to meet Grace St. John. Ages seemed to have passed since that moment of bitter disappointment, teaching him how relative a thing is time.
The old lady joined him without a word, and they passed on silently to the house. As they entered, she said, trying to infuse into the commonplace words something of her sympathy and affection, "Now we will have a cosey little supper."
Graham placed his hand upon her arm, and detained her, as he replied, "No, aunt; please get nothing for me. I must hide myself for a few hours from even your kind eyes. Do not think me weak or unmanly. I shall soon get the reins well in hand, and shall then be quiet enough."
"I think your self-control has been admirable this evening."
"It was the self-control of sheer, desperate force, and only partial at that. I know I must have been almost ghostly in my pallor. I have felt pale--as if I were bleeding to death. I did not mean to take her hand in parting, for I could not trust myself; but she held it out so kindly that I had to give mine, which, in spite of my whole will power, trembled. I troubled and perplexed her. I have infused an element of sorrow and bitterness into her happy love; for in the degree in which it gives her joy she will fear that it brings the heartache to me, and she is too good and kind not to care. I must go away and not return until my face is bronzed and my nerves are steel. Oh, aunt! you cannot understand me; I scarcely understand myself. It seems as if all the love that I might have given to many in the past, had my life been like that of others, had been accumulating for this hopeless, useless waste--this worse than waste, since it only wounds and pains its object."
"And do I count for so little, Alford?"
"You count for more now than all others save one; and if you knew how contrary this utter unreserve is to my nature and habit, you would understand how perfect is my confidence in you and how deep is my affection. But I am learning with a sort of dull, dreary astonishment that there are heights and depths of experience of which I once had not the faintest conception. This is a kind of battle that one must fight out alone. I must go away and accustom myself to a new condition of life. But do not worry about me. I shall come back a vertebrate;" and he tried to summon a reassuring smile, as he kissed her in parting.
That night Graham faced his trouble, and decided upon his future course.
After an early breakfast the next morning, the young man bade his aunt good-by. With moist eyes, she said, "Alford, I am losing you, just as I find how much you are and can be to me."
"No, aunty dear; my course will prove best for us both," he replied, gently. "You would not be happy if you saw me growing more sad and despairing every day through inaction, and--and--well, I could never become strong and calm with that cottage there just beyond the trees. You have not lost me, for I shall try to prove a good correspondent."
Graham kept his word. His "real estate speculation" did not detain him long in the city, for his business agent was better able to manage such interests than the inexperienced student; and soon a letter dated among the mountains and the trout streams of Vermont assured Mrs. Mayburn that he had carried out his intentions. Not long after, a box with a score of superb fish followed the letter, and Major St. John's name was pinned on some of the largest and finest. During the next fortnight these trophies of his sport continued to arrive at brief intervals, and they were accompanied by letters, giving in almost journal form graphic descriptions of the streams he had fished, their surrounding scenery, and the amusing peculiarities of the natives. There was not a word that suggested the cause that had driven him so suddenly into the wilderness, but on every page were evidences of tireless activity.
The major was delighted with the trout, and enjoyed a high feast almost every day. Mrs. Mayburn, imagining that she had divined Graham's wish, read from his letters glowing extracts which apparently revealed an enthusiastic sportsman.
After his departure Grace had resumed her frequent visits to her congenial old friend, and confidence having now been given in respect to her absent lover, the young girl spoke of him out of the abundance of her heart. Mrs. Mayburn tried to be all interest and sympathy, but Grace was puzzled by something in her manner--something not absent when she was reading Graham's letters. One afternoon she said: "Tell your father that he may soon expect something extraordinarily fine, for Alford has written me of a twenty-mile tramp through the mountains to a stream almost unknown and inaccessible."
"Won't you read the description to us this evening? You have no idea how much pleasure papa takes in Mr. Graham's letters. He says they increase the gamy flavor of the fish he enjoys so much; and I half believe that Mr. Graham in this indirect and delicate way is still seeking to amuse my father, and so compensate him for his absence. Warren will soon be here, however, and then we can resume our whist parties. Do you know that I am almost jealous? Papa talks more of Vermont woods than of Western mines. You ought to hear him expatiate upon the trout. He seems to follow Mr. Graham up and down every stream; and he explains to me with the utmost minuteness just how the flies are cast and just where they were probably thrown to snare the speckled beauties. By the way, Mr. Graham puzzles me. He seems to be the most indefatigable sportsman I ever heard of. But I should never have suspected it from the tranquil weeks he spent with us. He seemed above all things a student of the most quiet and intellectual tastes, one who could find more pleasure in a library and laboratory than in all the rest of the world together. Suddenly he develops into the most ardent disciple of Izaak Walton. Indeed, he is too ardent, too full of restless activity, to be a true follower of the gentle, placid Izaak. At his present rate he will soon overrun all Vermont;" and she looked searchingly at her friend.
A faint color stole into the old lady's cheeks, but she replied, quietly: "I have learned to know Alford well enough to love him dearly; and yet you must remember that but a few weeks ago he was a comparative stranger to me. He certainly is giving us ample proof of his sportsmanship, and now that I recall it, I remember hearing of his fondness for solitary rambles in the woods when a boy."
"His descriptions certainly prove that he is familiar with them," was the young girl's answer to Mrs. Mayburn's words. Her inward comment on the slight flush that accompanied them was: "She knows. He has told her; or she, less blind than I, has seen." But she felt that the admission of his love into which Graham had been surprised was not a topic for her to introduce, although she longed to be assured that she had not seriously disturbed the peace of her lover's friend. A day or two later Hilland arrived, and her happiness was too deep, too complete, to permit many thoughts of the sportsman in the Vermont forests. Nor did Hilland's brief but hearty expressions of regret at Graham's temporary absence impose upon her. She saw that the former was indeed more than content with her welcome; that while his friendship was a fixed star of the first magnitude, it paled and almost disappeared before the brightness and fulness of her presence. "Nature," indeed, became "radiant" to both "with purple light, the morning and the night varied enchantments."
Grace waited for Graham to give his own confidence to his friend if he chose to do so, for she feared that if she spoke of it estrangement might ensue. The unsuspecting major was enthusiastic in his praises of the successful fisherman, and Hilland indorsed with emphasis all he said. Graham's absence and Grace's reception had banished even the thought that he might possibly find a rival in his friend, and his happiness was unalloyed.
One sultry summer evening in early July Graham returned to his aunt's residence, and was informed that she was, as usual, at her neighbor's. He went immediately to his room to remove the dust and stains of travel. On his table still lay the marked copy of Emerson that Grace had lent him, and he smiled bitterly as he recalled his complacent, careless surmises over the underscored passage, now so well understood and explained. Having finished his toilet, he gazed steadily at his reflection in the mirror, as a soldier might have done to see if his equipment was complete. It was evident he had not gone in vain to nature for help. His face was bronzed, and no telltale flush or pallor could now be easily recognized. His expression was calm and resolute, indicating nerves braced and firm. Then he turned away with the look of a man going into battle, and without a moment's hesitancy he sought the ordeal. The windows and doors of Major St. John's cottage were open, and as he mounted the piazza the group around the whist-table was in full view--the major contracting his bushy eyebrows over his hand as if not altogether satisfied, Mrs. Mayburn looking at hers with an interest so faint as to suggest that her thoughts were wandering, and Hilland with his laughing blue eyes glancing often from his cards to the fair face of his partner, as if he saw there a story that would deepen in its inthralling interest through life. There was no shadow, no doubt on his wide, white brow. It was the genial, frank, merry face of the boy who had thawed the reserve and banished the gathering gloom of a solitary youth at college, only now it was marked by the stronger lines of early manhood. His fine, short upper lip was clean shaven, and its tremulous curves indicated a nature quick, sensitive, and ready to respond to every passing influence, while a full, tawny beard and broad shoulders banished all suggestion of effeminacy. He appeared to be, what in truth he was, an unspoiled favorite of fortune, now supremely happy in her best and latest gift. "If I could but have known the truth at first," sighed Graham, "I would not have lingered here until my very soul was enslaved; for he is the man above all others to win and hold a woman's heart."
That he held the heart of the fair girl opposite him was revealed by every glance, and Graham's heart ached with a pain hard to endure, as he watched for a moment the exquisite outlines of her face, her wide, low brow with its halo of light-colored hair that was in such marked contrast with the dark and lustrous eyes, now veiled by silken lashes as she looked downward intent on the game, now beaming with the very spirit of mirth and mischief as she looked at her opponents, and again softening in obedience to the controlling law of her life as she glanced half shyly from time to time at the great bearded man on the other side of the table.
"Was not the world wide enough for me to escape seeing that face?" he groaned. "A few months since I was content with my life and lot. Why did I come thousands of miles to meet such a fate? I feared I should have to face poverty and privation for a time. Now they are my lot for life, an impoverishment that wealth would only enhance. I cannot stay here, I will not remain a day longer than is essential to make the impression I wish to leave;" and with a firm step he crossed the piazza, rapped lightly in announcement of his presence, and entered without ceremony.
Hilland sprang forward joyously to meet him, and gave him just such a greeting as accorded with his ardent spirit. "Why, Graham!" he cried, with a crushing grasp, and resting a hand on his shoulder at the same time, "you come unexpectedly, like all the best things in the world. We looked for a letter that would give us a chance to celebrate your arrival as that of the greatest fisherman of the age."
"Having taken so many unwary trout, it was quite in keeping to take us unawares," said Grace, pressing forward with outstretched hand, for she had determined to show in the most emphatic way that Hilland's friend was also hers.
Graham took the proffered hand and held it, while, with a humorous glance at his friend, he said: "See here, Hilland, I hold an indisputable proof that it's time you appeared on the confines of civilization and gave an account of yourself."
"I own up, old fellow. You have me on the hip. I have kept one secret from you. If we had been together the thing would have come out, but somehow I couldn't write, even to you, until I knew my fate."
"Mr. Graham," broke in the major, "if we were in the service, I should place you in charge of the commissary department, and give you a roving commission. I have lived like a lord for the past two weeks;" and he shook Graham's hand so cordially as to prove his heart had sympathized with an adjacent organ that had been highly gratified.
"I have missed you, Alford," was his aunt's quiet greeting, and she kissed him as if he were her son, causing a sudden pang as he remembered how soon he would bid her farewell again.
"Why, Graham, how you have improved! You have gained a splendid color in the woods. The only trouble is that you are as attenuated as some of the theories we used to discuss."
"And you, giddy boy, begin to look quite like a man. Miss Grace, you will never know how greatly you are indebted to me for my restraining influence. There never was a fellow who needed to be sat down upon so often as Hilland. I have curbed and pruned him; indeed, I have almost brought him up."
"He does you credit," was her reply, spoken with mirthful impressiveness, and with a very contented glance at the laughing subject of discussion.
"Yes, Graham," he remarked, "you were a trifle heavy at times, and were better at bringing a fellow down than up. It took all the leverage of my jolly good nature to bring you up occasionally. But I am glad to see and hear that you have changed so happily. Grace and the major say you have become the best of company, taking a human interest in other questions than those which keep the scientists by the ears."
"That is because I have broken my shell and come out into the world. One soon discovers that there are other questions, and some of them conundrums that the scientists may as well give up at the start. I say, Hilland, how young we were over there in Germany when we thought ourselves growing hourly into savants!"
"Indeed we were, and as sublimely complacent as we were young. Would you believe it, Mrs. Mayburn, your nephew and I at one time thought we were on the trail of some of the most elusive secrets of the universe, and that we should soon drag them from cover. I have learned since that this little girl could teach me more than all the universities."
Graham shot a swift glance at his aunt, which Grace thought she detected; but he turned to the latter, and said genially: "I congratulate you on excelling all the German doctors. I know he's right, and he'll remember the lore obtained from you long after he has forgotten the deep, guttural abstractions that droned on his ears abroad. It will do him more good, too."
"I fear I am becoming a subject of irony to you both," said Grace.
"They are both becoming too deep for us, are they not, Mrs. Mayburn?" put in the major. "You obtained your best knowledge, Mr. Graham, when you trampled the woods as a boy, and though you gathered so much of it by hook it's like the fish you killed, rare to find. If we were in the service and I had the power, I'd have you brevetted at once, and get some fellow knocked on the head to make a vacancy. You have been contributing royally to our mess, and now you must take a soldier's luck with us to-night. Grace, couldn't you improvise a nice little supper?"
"Please do not let me cause any such trouble this hot evening," Graham began; "I dined late in town, and--"
"No insubordination," interrupted Grace, rising with alacrity. "Certainly I can, papa," and as she paused near Graham, she murmured: "Don't object; it will please papa."
She showed what a provident housekeeper she was, for they all soon sat down to an inviting repast, of which fruit was the staple article, with cake so light and delicate that it would never disturb a man's conscience after he retired. Then with genial words and smiles that masked all heartache, Graham and his aunt said good-night and departed, Hilland accompanying his friend, that he might pour out the long-delayed confidence. Graham shivered as he thought of the ordeal, as a man might tremble who was on his way to the torture-chamber, but outwardly he was quietly cordial.
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