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When Graham returned to the library he found that the major had tottered in, and was awaiting him with a look of intense anxiety.
"Graham, Graham!" he cried, "do you. think there is any hope?"
"I do, sir. I think there is almost a certainty that your daughter will live."
"Now God be praised! although I have little right to say it, for I've put His name to a bad use all my life."
"I don't think any harm has been done," said Graham, smiling.
"Oh, I know, I know how wise you German students are. You can't find God with a microscope or a telescope, and therefore there is none. But I'm the last man to criticise. Grace has been my divinity since her mother died; and if you can give a reasonable hope that she'll live to close my eyes, I'll thank the God that my wife worshipped, in spite of all your new-fangled philosophies."
"And I hope I shall never be so wanting in courtesy, to say the least, as to show anything but respect for your convictions. You shall know the whole truth about Grace; and I shall look to you also for aid in a combined effort to rally and strengthen her forces of life. You know, Major, that I have seen some service."
"Yes, yes; boy that you are, you are a hundred-fold more of a veteran than I am. At the beginning of the war I felt very superior and experienced. But the war that I saw was mere child's-play."
"Well, sir, the war that I've been through was child's play to me compared with the battle begun to-night. I never feared death, except as it might bring trouble to others, and for long years I coveted it; but I fear the death of Grace Hilland beyond anything in this world or any other. As her father, you now shall learn the whole truth;" and he told his story from the evening of their first game of whist together.
"Strange, strange!" muttered the old man. "It's the story of Philip Harkness over again. But, by the God who made me, she shall reward you if she lives."
"No, Major St. John, no. She shall devote herself to you, and live the life that her own feelings dictate. She understands this, and I will it. I assure you that whatever else I lack it's not a will."
"You've proved that, Graham, if ever a man did. Well, well, well, your coming has brought a strange and most welcome state of affairs. Somehow you've given me a new lease of life and courage. Of late we've all felt like hauling down the flag, and letting grim death do his worst. I couldn't have survived Grace, and didn't want to. Only plucky Mrs. Mayburn held on to your coming as a forlorn hope. You now make me feel like nailing the flag to the staff, and opening again with every gun. Grace is like her mother, if I do say it. Grace Brentford never lacked for suitors, and she had the faculty of waking up men. Forgive an old man's vanity. Phil Harkness was a little wild as a young fellow, but he had grand mettle in him. He made more of a figure in the world than I--was sent to Congress, owned a big plantation, and all that--but sweet Grace Brentford always looked at me reproachfully when I rallied her on the mistake she had made, and was contentment itself in my rough soldier's quarters," and the old man took off his spectacles to wipe his tear-dimmed eyes. "Grace is just like her. She, too, has waked up men. Hilland was a grand fellow; and, Graham, you are a soldier every inch of you, and that's the highest praise I can bestow. You are in command in this battle, and God be with you. Your unbelief doesn't affect Him any more than a mole's."
Graham laughed--he could laugh in his present hopefulness--as he replied, "I agree with you fully. If there is a personal Creator of the universe, I certainly am a small object in it." "That's not what I've been taught to believe either; nor is it according to my reason. An infinite God could give as much attention to you as to the solar system."
"From the present aspect of the world, a great deal would appear neglected," Graham replied, with a shrug.
"Come, Colonel Graham," said the major, a little sharply, "you and I have both heard the rank and file grumble over the tactics of their general. It often turned out that the general knew more than the men. But it's nice business for me to be talking religion to you or any one else;" and the idea struck him as so comical that he laughed outright.
Mrs. Mayburn, who entered at that moment, said: "That's a welcome sound. I can't remember, Major, when I've heard you laugh. Alford, you are a magician. Grace is sleeping quietly."
"Little wonder! What have I had to laugh about?" said the major. "But melancholy itself would laugh at my joke to-night. Would you believe it, I've been talking religion to the colonel,--if I haven't!"
"I think it's time religion was talked to all of us."
"Oh, now, Mrs. Mayburn, don't you begin. You haven't any God any more than Graham has. You have a jumble of old-fashioned theological attributes, that are of no more practical use to you than the doctrines of Aristotle. Please ring for Jinny, and tell her to bring us a bottle of wine and some cake. I want to drink to Grace's health. If I could see her smile again I'd fire a feu de joie if I could find any ordnance larger than a popgun. Don't laugh at me, friends," he added, wiping the tears from his dim old eyes; "but the bare thought that Grace will live to bless my last few days almost turns my head. Where is Dr. Markham?"
"He had other patients to see, and said he would return by and by," Mrs. Mayburn replied.
"It's time we had a little relief," she continued, "whatever the future may be. The slow, steady pressure of anxiety and fear was becoming unendurable. I could scarcely have suffered more if Grace had been my own child; and I feared for you, Alford, quite as much."
"And with good reason," he said, quietly.
She gave him a keen look, and then did as the major had requested.
"Come, friends," cried he, "let us give up this evening to hope and cheer. Let what will come on the morrow, we'll have at least one more gleam of wintry sunshine to-day."
Filling the glasses of all with his trembling hand, he added, when they were alone: "Here's to my darling's health. May the good God spare her, and spare us all, to see brighter days. Because I'm not good, is no reason why He isn't."
"Amen!" cried the old lady, with Methodistic fervor.
"What are you saying amen to?--that I'm not good?"
"Oh, I imagine we all average about alike," was her grim reply--"the more shame to us all!"
"Dear, conscience-stricken old aunty!" said Graham, smiling at her. "Will nothing ever lay your theological ghosts?"
"No, Alford," she said, gravely. "Let us change the subject."
"I've told Major St. John everything from the day I first came here," Graham explained; "and now before we separate let it be understood that he joins us as a powerful ally. His influence over Grace, after all, is more potent than that of all the rest of us united. My words to-night have acted more like a shock than anything else. I have placed before her clearly and sharply the consequences of yielding passively, and of drifting further toward darkness. We must possess ourselves with an almost infinite patience and vigilance. She, after all, must bear the brunt of this fight with death; but we must be ever on hand to give her support, and it must be given also unobtrusively, with all the tact we possess. We can let her see that we are more cheerful in our renewed hope, but we must be profoundly sympathetic and considerate."
"Well, Graham, as I said before, you are captain. I learned to obey orders long ago as well as to give them;" and the major summoned his valet and bade them goodnight.
Graham, weary in the reaction from his intense feeling and excitement, threw himself on the sofa, and his aunt came and sat beside him.
"Alford," she said, "what an immense change your coming has made!"
"The beginning of a change, I hope."
"It was time--it was time. A drearier household could scarcely be imagined. Oh, how dreary life can become! Grace was dying. Every day I expected tidings of your death. It's a miracle that you are alive after all these bloody years. All zest in living had departed from the major. We are all materialists, after our own fashion, wholly dependent on earthly things, and earthly things were failing us. In losing Grace, you and the major would have lost everything; so would I in losing you. Alford, you have become a son to me. Would you break a mother's heart? Can you not still promise to live and do your best?"
"Dear aunt, we shall all live and do our best."
"Is that the best you can say, Alford?"
"Aunty, there are limitations to the strength of every man. I have reached the boundary of mine. From the time I began the struggle in the Vermont woods, and all through my exile, I fought this passion. I hesitated at no danger, and the wilder and more desolate the region, the greater were its attractions to me. I sought to occupy my mind with all that was new and strange; but such was my nature that this love became an inseparable part of my being. I might just as well have said I would forget my sad childhood, the studies that have interested me, your kindness. I might as well have decreed that I should not look the same and be the same--that all my habits of thought and traits of character should not be my own. Imagine that a tree in your garden had will and intelligence. Could it ignore the law of its being, all the long years which had made it what it is, and decide to be some other kind of tree, totally different? A man who from childhood has had many interests, many affections, loses, no doubt, a sort of concentration when the one supreme love of his life takes possession of him. If Grace lives, and I can see that she has at last tranquilly and patiently accepted her lot, you will find that I can be tranquil and patient. If she dies, I feel that I shall break utterly. I can't look into the abyss that her grave would open. Do not think that I would consciously and deliberately become a vulgar suicide--I hope I long since passed that point, and love and respect for you forbid the thought--but the long strain that I have been under, and the dominating influence of my life, would culminate. I should give way like a man before a cold, deadly avalanche. I have been frank with you, for in my profound gratitude for your love and kindness I would not have you misunderstand me, or think for a moment that I proposed deliberately to forget you in my own trouble. The truth is just this, aunt: I have not strength enough to endure Grace Hilland's death. It would be such a lame, dreary, impotent conclusion that I should sink under it, as truly as a man who found himself in the sea weighted by a ton of lead. But don't let us dwell on this thought. I truly believe that Grace will live, if we give her all the aid she requires. If she honestly makes the effort to live--as she will, I feel sure--she can scarcely help living when the conditions of life are supplied."
"I think I understand you, Alford," said the old lady, musingly; "and yet your attitude seems a strange one."
"It's not an unnatural one. I am what I have been growing to be all these years. I can trace the sequence of cause and effect until this moment."
"Well, then," said the old lady, grimly, "Grace must live, if it be in the power of human will and effort to save her. Would that I had the faith in God that I ought to have! But He is afar off, and He acts in accordance with an infinite wisdom that I can't understand. The happiness of His creatures seems a very secondary affair."
"Now, aunty, we are on ground where we differ theoretically, to say the least; but I accord to you full right to think what you please, because I know you will employ all the natural and rational expedients of a skilful nurse."
"Yes, Alford; you and Grace only make me unhappy when you talk in that way. I know you are wrong, just as certainly as the people who believed the sun moved round the earth. The trouble is that I know it only with the same cold mental conviction, and therefore can be of no help to either of you. Pardon me for my bluntness: do you expect to marry Grace, should she become strong and well?"
"No, I can scarcely say I have any such hope. It is a thought I do not even entertain at present, nor does she. I am content to be her friend through life, and am convinced that she could not think of marriage again for years, if ever. That is a matter of secondary importance. All that I ask is that she shall live."
"Well, compared with most men, a very little contents you," said his aunt dryly. "We shall see, we shall see. But you have given me such an incentive that, were it possible, I'd open my withered veins and give her half of my poor blood."
"Dear aunty, how true and stanch your love is! I cannot believe it will be disappointed."
"I must go back to my post now, nor shall I leave it very often."
"Here is Dr. Markham. He will see that you have it often enough to maintain your own health, and I will too. I've been a soldier too long to permit my chief of staff to be disabled. Pardon me, doctor, but it seems to me that this is more of a case for nursing and nourishment than for drugs."
"You are right, and yet a drug can also become a useful ally. In my opinion, it is more a case for change than anything else. When Mrs. Hilland is strong enough, you must take her from this atmosphere and these associations. In a certain sense she must begin life over again, and take root elsewhere."
"There may be truth in what you say;" and Graham was merged in deep thought when he was left alone. The doctor, in passing out a few moments later, assured him that all promised well.
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