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As Graham had said, it did seem that infinite patience and courage would be required to defeat the dark adversaries now threatening the life upon which he felt that his own depended. He had full assurance that Grace made her promised effort, but it was little more than an effort of will, dictated by a sense of duty. She had lost her hold on life, which to her enfeebled mind and body promised little beyond renewed weariness and disappointment. How she could live again in any proper sense of the word was beyond her comprehension; and what was bare existence? It would be burdensome to herself and become wearisome to others. The mind acts through its own natural medium, and all the light that came to her was colored by almost despairing memories.
Too little allowance is often made for those in her condition. The strong man smiles half contemptuously at the efforts of one who is feeble to lift a trifling weight. Still, he is charitable. He knows that if the man has not the muscle, all is explained. So material are the conceptions of many that they have no patience with those who have been enfeebled in mind, will, and courage. Such persons would say, "Of course Mrs. Hilland cannot attend to her household as before; but she ought to have faith, resignation; she ought to make up her mind cheerfully to submit, and she would soon be well. Great heavens! haven't other women lost their husbands? Yes, indeed, and they worried along quite comfortably."
Graham took no such superficial view. "Other women" were not Grace. He was philosophical, and tried to estimate the effect of her own peculiar experience on her own nature, and was not guilty of the absurdity of generalizing. It was his problem to save Grace as she was, and not as some good people said she ought to be. Still, his firm belief remained, that she could live if she would comply with what he believed to be the conditions of life; indeed, that she could scarcely help living. If the time could come when her brain would be nourished by an abundance of healthful blood, he might hope for almost anything. She would then be able to view the past dispassionately, to recognize that what was past was gone forever, and to see the folly of a grief which wasted the present and the future. If she never became strong enough for that--and the prospect was only a faint, half- acknowledged hope--then he would reverently worship a patient, gentle, white-haired woman, who should choose her own secluded path, he being content to make it as smooth and thornless as possible.
Beyond a brief absence at the time his regiment was mustered out of the service, he was always at home, and the allies against death--with their several hopes, wishes, and interests--worked faithfully. At last there was a more decided response in the patient. Her sleep became prolonged, as if she were making amends for the weariness of years. Skilful tonic treatment told on the wasted form. New blood was made, and that, in Graham's creed, was new life.
His materialistic theory, however, was far removed from any gross conception of the problem. He did not propose to feed a woman into a new and healthful existence, except as he fed what he deemed to be her whole nature. In his idea, flowers, beauty in as many forms as he could command and she enjoy at the time, were essential. He ransacked nature in his walks for things to interest her. He brought her out into the sunshine, and taught her to distinguish the different birds by their notes. He had Mrs. Mayburn talk to her and consult with her over the homely and wholesome details of housekeeping. Much of the news of the day was brought to her attention as that which should naturally interest her, especially the reconstruction of the South, as represented and made definite by the experience of Henry Anderson and his sister. He told her that he had bought at a nominal sum a large plantation in the vicinity of the parsonage, and that Colonel Anderson should be his agent, with the privilege of buying at no more of an advance than would satisfy the proud young Southerner's self respect.
Thus from every side he sought to bring natural and healthful influences to bear upon her mind, to interest her in life at every point where it touched her, and to reconnect the broken threads which had bound her to the world.
He was aided earnestly and skilfully on all sides. Their success, however, was discouragingly slow. In her weakness Grace made pathetic attempts to respond, but not from much genuine interest. As she grew stronger her manner toward her father was more like that of her former self than was the rest of her conduct. Almost as if from the force of habit, she resumed her thoughtful care for his comfort; but beyond that there seemed to be an apathy, an indifference, a dreary preoccupation hard to combat.
In Graham's presence she would make visible effort to do all he wished, but it was painfully visible, and sometimes she would recognize his unobtrusive attentions with a smile that was sadder than any words could be. One day she seemed almost wholly free from the deep apathy that was becoming characteristic, and she said to him, "Alas, my friend! as I said to you at first, the woman is dead within me. My body grows stronger, as the result of the skill and help you all are bringing to bear on my sad problem, but my heart is dead, and my hope takes no hold on life. I cannot overcome the feeling that I am a mere shadow, and have no right to be here among the living. You are so brave, patient, and faithful that I am ever conscious of a sort of dull remorse; but there is a weight on my brain and a despairing numbness at my heart, making everything seem vain and unreal. Please do not blame me. Asking me to feel is like requiring sight of the blind. I've lost the faculty. I have suffered so much that I have become numb, if not dead. The shadows of the past mingle with the shadows of to-day. Only you seem real in your strong, vain effort, and as far as I can suffer any more it pains me to see you thus waste yourself on a hopeless shadow of a woman. I told you I should disappoint you."
"I am not wasting myself, Grace. Remain a shadow till you can be more. I will bear my part of the burden, if you will be patient with yours. Won't you believe that I am infinitely happier in caring for you as you are than I should be if I could not thus take your hand and express to you my thought, my sympathy? Dear Grace, the causes which led to your depression were strong and terrible. Should we expect them to be counteracted in a few short weeks?"
"Alas, Alford! is there any adequate remedy? Forgive me for saying this to you, and yet you, of all people, can understand me best. You cling to me who should be nothing to a man of your power and force. You say you cannot go on in life without me, even as a weak, dependent friend--that you would lose all zest, incentive, and interest; for I cannot think you mean more. If you feel in this way toward me, who in the eyes of other men would be a dismal burden, think how Warren dwells in my memory, what he was to me, how his strong sunny nature was the sun of my life. Do you not see you are asking of me what you say you could not do yourself, although you would, after your own brave, manly fashion? But your own belief should teach you the nature of my task when you ask me to go on and take up life again, from which I was torn more completely than the vine which falls with the tree to which it clung."
"Dear Grace, do not think for a moment that I am not always gratefully conscious of the immense self-sacrifice you are making for me and others. You long for rest and forgetfulness, and yet you know well that your absence would leave an abyss of despair. You now add so much to the comfort of your father! Mrs. Mayburn clings to you with all the love of a mother. And I, Grace--what else can i do? Even your frail, sad presence is more to me than the sun in the sky. Is it pure selfishness on my part to wish to keep you? Time, the healer, will gradually bring to you rest from pain, and serenity to us all. When you are stronger I will take you to Hilland's grave--"
"No, no, no!" she cried, almost passionately. "Why should I go there? Oh, this is the awful part of it! What I so loved has become nothing, worse than nothing--that from which I shrink as something horrible. Oh, Alford! why are we endowed with such natures if corruption is to be the end? It is this thought that paralyzes me. It seems as if pure, unselfish love is singled out for the most diabolical punishment. To think that a form which has become sacred to you may be put away at any moment as a horrible and unsightly thing! and that such should be the end of the noblest devotion of which man is capable! My whole being revolts at it; and yet how can I escape from its truth? I am beset by despairing thoughts on every side when able to think at all, and my best remedy seems a sort of dreary apathy, in which I do little more than breathe. I have read that there comes a time when the tortured cease to feel much pain. There was a time, especially at the hospital, when I suffered constantly--when almost everything but you suggested torturing thoughts. I suffered with you and for you, but there was always something sustaining in your presence. There is still. I should not live a month in your absence, but it seems as if it were your strong will that holds me, not my own. You have given me the power, the incentive, to make such poor effort as I am putting forth. Moreover, in intent, you gave your life for Warren again and again, and as long as I have any volition left I will try and do all you wish, since you so wish it. But my hope is dead. I do not see how any more good can come to me or through me."
"You are still willing, however, to permit me to think for you, to guide you? You will still use your utmost effort to live?"
"Yes. I can refuse to the man who went back to my dying husband nothing within my power to grant. It is indeed little. Besides, I am in your care, but I fear I shall prove a sad, if not a fatal legacy."
"Of that, dear Grace, you must permit me to be the judge. All that you have said only adds strength to my purpose. Does not the thought that you are doing so very much for me and for all who love you bring some solace?"
"It should. But what have I brought you but pain and deep anxiety? Oh, Alford, Alford! you will waken some bitter day to the truth that you love but the wraith of the girl who unconsciously won your heart. You have idealized her, and the being you now love does not exist. How can I let you go on thus wronging yourself?"
"Grace," replied he, gravely and almost sternly, "I learned in the northern woods, among the fiords of Norway, under the shadow of the Himalayas, and in my long, lonely hours in the war, whom I loved, and why I loved her. I made every effort at forgetfulness that I, at least, was capable of exerting, and never forgot for an hour. Am I a sentimental boy, that you should talk to me in this way? Let us leave that question as settled for all time. Moreover, never entertain the thought that I am planning and hoping for the future. I see in your affection for me only a pale reflection of your love for Hilland."
"No, Alford, I love you for your own sake. How tenderly you have ever spoken of little Rita Anderson, and yet--"
"And yet, as I have told you more than once, the thought of loving her never entered my mind. I could plan for her happiness as I would for a sister, had I one."
"Therefore you can interpret me."
"Therefore I have interpreted you, and, from the first, have asked for nothing more than that you still make one of our little circle, each member of which would be sadly missed, you most of all."
"I ought to be able to do so little as that for you. Indeed, I am trying."
"I know you are, and, as you succeed, you will see that I am content. Do not feel that when I am present you must struggle and make unwonted effort. The tide is setting toward life; float gently on with it. Do not try to force nature. Let time and rest daily bring their imperceptible healing. The war is over. I now have but one object in life, and if you improve I shall come and go and do some man's work in the world. My plantation in Virginia will soon give me plenty of wholesome out-of-door thoughts."
She gave him one of her sad smiles as she replied wearily, "You set me a good example."
This frank interchange of thought appeared at first to have a good effect on Grace, and brought something of the rest which comes from submission to the inevitable. She found that Graham's purpose was as immovable as the hills, and at the same time was more absolutely convinced that he was not looking forward to what seemed an impossible future. Nor did he ask that her effort should be one of feeble struggles to manifest an interest before him which she did not feel. She yielded to her listlessness and apathy to a degree that alarmed her father and Mrs. Mayburn, but Graham said: "It's the course of nature. After such prolonged suffering, both body and mind need this lethargy. Reaction from one extreme to another might be expected."
Dr. Markham agreed in the main with this view, and yet there was a slight contraction of perplexity on his brows as he added: "I should not like to see this tendency increase beyond a certain point, or continue too long. From the first shock of her bereavement Mrs. Hilland's mind has not been exactly in a normal condition. There are phases of her trouble difficult to account for and difficult to treat. The very fineness of her organization made the terrible shock more serious in its injury. I do not say this to discourage you--far from it--but in sincerity I must call your attention to the fact that every new phase of her grief has tended to some extreme manifestation, showing a disposition toward, not exactly mental weakness, but certainly an abnormal mental condition. I speak of this that you may intelligently guard against it. If due precaution is used, the happy mean between these reactions may be reached, and both mind and body recover a healthful tone. I advise that you all seek some resort by the sea, a new one, without any associations with the past."
Within a few days they were at a seaside inn, a large one whose very size offered seclusion. From their wide and lofty balconies they could watch the world come and go on the sea and on the land; and the world was too large and too distant for close scrutiny or petty gossip. They could have their meals in their rooms, or in the immense dining-hall, as they chose; and in the latter place the quiet party would scarcely attract a second glance from the young, gay, and sensation-loving. Their transient gaze would see two old ladies, one an invalid, an old and crippled man, and one much younger, who evidently would never take part in a german.
It was thought and hoped that this nearness to the complex world, with the consciousness that it could not approach her to annoy and pry, might tend to awaken in Grace a passing interest in its many phases. She could see without feeling that she was scanned and surmised about, as is too often the case in smaller houses wherein the guests are not content until they have investigated all newcomers.
But Grace disappointed her friends. She was as indifferent to the world about her as the world was to her. At first she was regarded as a quiet invalid, and scarcely noticed. The sea seemed to interest her more than all things else, and, if uninterrupted, she would sit and gaze at its varying aspects for hours.
According to Graham's plan, she was permitted, with little interference, to follow her mood. Mrs. Mayburn was like a watchful mother, the major much his former self, for his habits were too fixed for radical changes. Grace would quietly do anything he asked, but she grew more forgetful and inattentive, coming out of her deep abstraction--if such it could be termed--with increasing effort. With Graham she seemed more content than with any one else. With him she took lengthening walks on the beach. He sat quietly beside her while she watched the billows chasing one another to the shore. Their swift onset, their defeat, over which they appeared to foam in wrath, their backward and disheartened retreat, ever seemed to tell her in some dim way a story of which she never wearied. Often she would turn and look at him with a vague trouble in her face, as if faintly remembering something that was a sorrow to them both; but his reassuring smile quieted her, and she would take his hand as a little child might have done, and sit for an hour without removing her eyes from the waves. He waited patiently day after day, week after week, reiterating to himself, "She will waken, she will remember all, and then will have strength and calmness to meet it. This is nature's long repose."
It was growing strangely long and deep.
Meanwhile Grace, in her outward appearance, was undergoing a subtle change. Graham was the first to observe it, and at last it was apparent to all. As her mind became inert, sleeping on a downy couch of forgetfulness, closely curtained, the silent forces of physical life, in her deep tranquillity, were doing an artist's work. The hollow cheeks were gradually rounded and given the faintest possible bloom. Her form was gaining a contour that might satisfy a sculptor's dream.
The major had met old friends, and it was whispered about who they were--the widow of a millionaire; Colonel Graham, one of the most dashing cavalry officers in the war which was still in all minds; Major St. John, a veteran soldier of the regular service, who had been wounded in the Mexican War and who was well and honorably known to the chief dignitaries of the former generation. Knowing all this, the quidnuncs complacently felt at first that they knew all. The next thing was to know the people. This proved to be difficult indeed. The major soon found a few veteran cronies at whist, but to others was more unapproachable than a major-general of the old school. Graham was far worse, and belles tossed their heads at the idea that he had ever been a "dashing cavalry officer" or dashing anything else. Before the summer was over the men began to discover that Mrs. Hilland was the most beautiful woman in the house--strangely, marvellously, supernaturally beautiful.
An artist, who had found opportunity to watch the poor unconscious woman furtively--not so furtively either but that any belle in the hostelry would know all about it in half a minute--raved about the combination of charms he had discovered.
"Just imagine," he said, "what a picture she made as she sat alone on the beach! She was so remarkable in her appearance that one might think she had arisen from the sea, and was not a creature of the earth. Her black, close-fitting dress suggested the form of Aphrodite as she rose from the waves. Her profile was almost faultless in its exquisite lines. Her complexion, with just a slight warm tinge imparted by the breeze, had not the cold, dead white of snow, but the clear transparency which good aristocratic blood imparts. But her eyes and hair were her crowning features. How shall I describe the deep, dreamy languor of her large, dark eyes, made a hundred-fold more effective by the silvery whiteness of her hair, which had partly escaped from her comb, and fell upon her neck! And then her sublime, tranquil indifference! That I was near, spellbound with admiration, did not interest her so much as a sail, no larger than a gull's wing, far out at sea."
"Strange, strange!" said one of his friends, laughing; "her unconsciousness of your presence was the strangest part of it all. Why did you not make a sketch?"
"I did, but that infernal Colonel Graham, who is said to be her shadow--after her million, you know--suddenly appeared and asked sternly: 'Have you the lady's permission for this sketch?' I stammered about being 'so impressed, that in the interests of art,' etc. He then snatched my sketch and threw it into the waves. Of course I was angry, and I suppose my words and manner became threatening. He took a step toward me, looking as I never saw a man look. 'Hush,' he said, in a low voice. 'Say or do a thing to annoy that lady, and I'll wring your neck and toss you after your sketch. Do you think I've been through a hundred battles to fear your insignificance?' By Jove! he looked as if he could do it as easily as say it. Of course I was not going to brawl before a lady."
"No; it wouldn't have been prudent--I mean gentlemanly," remarked his bantering friend.
"Well, laugh at me," replied the young fellow, who was as honest as light-hearted and vain. 'I'd risk the chance of having my neck wrung for another glimpse at such marvellous beauty. Would you believe it? the superb creature never so much as once turned to glance at us. She left me to her attendant as completely as if he were removing an annoying insect. Heavens! but it was the perfection of high breeding. But I shall have my revenge: "I'll paint her yet."
"Right, my friend, right you are; and your revenge will be terrible. Her supernatural and high-bred nonchalance will be lost forever should she see her portrait;" and with mutual chaffing, spiced with good- natured satire, as good-naturedly received, the little party in a smoking-room separated.
But furtive eyes soon relieved the artist from the charge of exaggeration. Thus far Grace's manner had been ascribed to high-bred reserve and the natural desire for seclusion in her widowhood. Now, however, that attention was concentrated upon her, Graham feared that more than her beauty would be discovered.
He himself also longed inexpressibly to hide his new phase of trouble from the chattering throng of people who were curious to know about them. To know? As if they could know! They might better sit down to gossip over the secrets of the differential and the integral calculus.
But he saw increasing evidences that they were becoming objects of "interest," and the beautiful millionaire widow "very interesting," as it was phrased; and he knew that there is no curiosity so penetrating as that of the fashionable world when once it is aroused, and the game deemed worthy of pursuit.
People appeared from Washington who had known Lieutenant-Colonel Hilland and heard something of Graham, and the past was being ferreted out. "Her hair had turned white from grief in a night," it was confidently affirmed.
Poor Jones shrugged his shoulders as he thought: "I shall never be the cause of my wife's hair turning white, unless I may, in the future, prevent her from dyeing it."
After all, sympathy was not very deep. It was generally concluded that Colonel Graham would console her, and one lady of elegant leisure, proud of her superior research, declared that she had seen the colonel "holding Mrs. Hilland's hand," as they sat in a secluded angle of the rocks.
Up to a certain time it was comparatively easy to shield Grace; but now, except as she would turn her large, dreamy eyes and unresponsive lips upon those who sought her acquaintance, she was as helpless as a child. The major and Mrs. Mayburn at once acquiesced in Graham's wish to depart. Within a day or two the gossips found that their prey had escaped, and Grace was once more in her cottage home.
At first she recognized familiar surroundings with a sigh of content. Then a deeply troubled look flitted across her face and she looked at Graham inquiringly.
"What is it, Grace?" he asked, gently.
She pressed her hand to her brow, glanced around once more, shook her head sadly, and went to her room to throw off her wraps.
They all looked at one another with consternation. Hitherto they had tried to be dumb and blind, each hiding the growing and awful conviction that Grace was drifting away from them almost as surely as if she had died.
"Something must be done at once," said practical Mrs. Mayburn.
"I have telegraphed for Dr. Markham," replied Graham, gloomily." Nothing can be done till he returns. He is away on a distant trip."
"Oh!" groaned the old major, "there will be an end of me before there is to all this trouble."
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