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A terrible foreboding oppressed Graham. Would Grace fulfil her prediction and disappoint him, after all? Would she elude him, escape, die, and yet remain at his side, beautiful as a dream? Oh, the agony of possessing this perfect casket, remembering the jewel that had vanished! He had vowed to defeat his gloomy rivals, Grief and Death, and they were mocking him, giving the semblance of what he craved beyond even imagined perfection, but carrying away into their own inscrutable darkness the woman herself.
What was Grace?--what becoming? As he looked he thought of her as a sculptor's ideal embodied, a dream of beauty only, not a woman--as the legend of Eve, who might, before becoming a living soul, have harmonized with the loveliness of her garden without seeing or feeling it.
He could not think of her mind as blotted out or perverted; he could not conceive of it otherwise than as corresponding with her outward symmetry. To his thought it slumbered, as her form might repose upon her couch, in a death-like trance. She went and came among them like a somnambulist, guided by unconscious instincts, memories, and habits.
She knew their voices, did, within limitations, as they requested; but when she waited on her father there was a sad, mechanical repetition of what she had done since childhood. Mrs. Mayburn found her docile and easily controlled, and the heart-stricken old lady was vigilance itself.
Toward Graham, however, her manner had a marked characteristic. He was her master, and she a dumb, lovely, unreasoning creature, that looked into his eyes for guidance, and gathered more from his tones than from his words. Some faint consciousness of the past had grown into an instinct that to him she must look for care and direction; and she never thought of resisting his will. If he read to her, she turned to him her lovely face, across which not a gleam of interest or intelligence would pass. If he brought her flowers, she would hold them until they were taken from her. She would pace the garden walks by his side, with her hand upon his arm, by the hour if he wished it, sometimes smiling faintly at his gentle tones, but giving no proof that she understood the import of his words. At Hilland's name only she would start and tremble as if some deep chord were struck, which could merely vibrate until its sounds were faint and meaningless.
It was deeply touching also to observe in her sad eclipse how her ingrained refinement asserted itself. In all her half-conscious action there was never a coarse look or word. She was a rose without its perfume. She was a woman without a woman's mind and heart. These had been subtracted, with all the differences they made; otherwise she was Grace Hilland.
Graham was profoundly perplexed and distressed. The problem had become too deep for him. The brain, nourished by good blood, had not brought life. All his skill and that of those allied with him had failed. The materialist had matter in the perfection of breathing outline, but where was the woman he loved? How could he reach her, how make himself understood by her, except as some timid, docile creature responds to a caress or a tone? His very power over her was terrifying. It was built upon the instinct, the allegiance that cannot reason but is unquestioning. Nothing could so have daunted his hope, courage, and will as the exquisite being Grace had become, as she looked up to him with her large, mild, trusting eyes, from which thought, intelligence, and volition had departed.
At last Dr. Markham came, and for several days watched his patient closely, she giving little heed to his presence. They all hung on his perturbed looks with a painful anxiety. For a time he was very reticent, but one day he followed Graham to his quarters in Mrs. Mayburn's cottage, where he was now much alone. Grace seemed to miss him but slightly, although she always gave some sign of welcome on his return. The mocking semblance of all that he could desire often so tantalized him that her presence became unendurable. The doctor found him pacing his room in a manner betokening his half-despairing perplexity.
"Colonel Graham," he said, "shall I surprise you when I say physicians are very fallible? I know that it is not the habit of the profession to admit this, but I have not come here to talk nonsense to you. You have trusted me in this matter, and admitted me largely into your confidence, and I shall speak to you in honest, plain English. Mrs. Hilland's symptoms are very serious. What I feared has taken place. From her acute and prolonged mental distress and depression, of which she would have died had you not come, she reacted first into mental lethargy, and now into almost complete mental inactivity. I cannot discover that any disturbed physical functions have been an element in her mental aberration, for more perfect physical life and loveliness I have never seen. Her white hair, which might have made her look old, is a foil to a beauty which seems to defy age.
"Pardon me for saying it, but I fear our treatment has been superficial. We men of the world may believe what we please, but to many natures, especially to an organization like Mrs. Hilland's, hope and faith are essential. She has practically been without these from the first, and, as you know, she was sinking under the struggle maintained by her own brave, womanly spirit. She was contending with more than actual bereavement. It was the hopelessness of the struggle that crushed her, for she is not one of that large class of women who can find consolation in crape and becoming mourning.
"In response to your appeal, she did make the effort you required, but it was the effort of a mind still without hope or faith--one that saw no remedy for the evils that had already overwhelmed her--and I must bear witness that her efforts were as sincere as they were pathetic. We all watched to give every assistance in our power. I've lain awake nights, Colonel Graham, to think of remedies that would meet her needs; and good Mrs. Mayburn and your old black cook, Aunt Sheba, prepared food fit for the gods. You were more untiring and effective than any of us, and the major's very infirmities were among her strongest allies. Well, we have the result--a woman who might be a model for a goddess, even to her tranquil face, in which there is no trace of varying human feeling. Explanation of the evil that crushed her, hope, and faith were not given--who can give them?--but they were essential to her from the first. Unbelief, which is a refuge to some, was an abyss to her. In it she struggled and groped until her mind, appalled and discouraged and overwhelmed, refused to act at all. In one sense it is a merciful oblivion, in another a fatal one, from which she must be aroused if possible. But it's a hard, hard case."
"You make it hard indeed," said Graham, desperately. "What faith can I instil except the one I have? I can't lie, even for Grace Hilland. She knew well once that I could easily die for her."
"Well, then," said the physician, "permit a plain, direct question. Will you marry her?"
"Marry her--as she now is?" cried Graham, in unfeigned astonishment.
"You said you could die for her. This may be going much further. Indeed I should call it the triumph of human affection, for in honesty I must tell you that she may never be better, she may become worse. But I regard it as her only chance. At any rate, she needs a vigilant caretaker. Old Mrs. Mayburn will not be equal to the task much longer, and her place will have to be filled by hired service. I know it is like suggesting an almost impossible sacrifice to broach even the thought, remembering her condition, but--"
"Dr. Markham," said Graham, pacing the floor in great agitation, "you wholly misunderstand me. I was thinking of her, not of myself. What right have I to marry Grace Hilland without her consent? She could give no intelligent assent at present."
"The right of your love; the right her husband gave when he committed her to your care; the right of your desire to prevent her from drifting into hopeless, lifelong imbecility, wherein she would be almost at the mercy of hired attendants, helpless to shield herself from any and every wrong; the right of a man to sacrifice himself absolutely for another if he chooses."
"But she might waken from this mental trance and feel that I had taken a most dishonorable advantage of her helplessness."
"Yes, you run that risk; but here is one man who will assure her to the contrary, and you would be sustained by the consciousness of the purest motives. It is that she may waken that I suggest the step; mark, I do not advise it. As I said at first, I am simply treating you with absolute confidence and sincerity. If matters go on as they are, I have little or no hope. Mrs. Mayburn is giving way under the strain, and symptoms of her old disorder are returning. She cannot watch Mrs. Hilland much longer as she has been doing. Whom will you put in her place? Will you send Mrs. Hilland to an asylum, with its rules and systems and its unknown attendants? Moreover, her present tranquil condition may not last. She may become as violent as she now is gentle. She may gradually regain her intelligence, or it may be restored to her by some sudden shock. If the mysteries of the physical nature so baffle us, who can predict the future of a disordered intellect? I have presented the darkest side of the picture; I still think it has its bright side. She has no hereditary mental weakness to contend with. As it developed somewhat gradually, it may pass in the same manner. If you should marry her and take her at once to Europe, change of scene, of life, with your vigilant presence ever near, might become important factors in the problem. The memory that she was committed to your care has degenerated into a controlling instinct; but that is far better than nothing. The only real question in my mind is, Are you willing to make the sacrifice and take the risks? You know the world will say you married her for her money, and that will be hard on a man like you."
Graham made a gesture of contempt: "That for the world," he said. "Have you broached this subject to her father and my aunt?"
"Certainly not before speaking to you."
"You then give me your assurance, as a man, that you believe this right, and that it is Grace Hilland's best chance--indeed, almost her only chance--for recovery?"
"I do most unhesitatingly, and I shall do more. I shall bring from New York an eminent physician who has made mental disease a study all his life, and he shall either confirm my opinion or advise you better."
"Do so, Dr. Markham," said Graham, very gravely. "I have incurred risks before in my life, but none like this. If from any cause Mrs. Hilland should recover memory and full intelligence, and reproach me for having taken advantage of a condition which, even among savage tribes, renders the afflicted one sacred, all the fiendish tortures of the Inquisition would be nothing to what I should suffer. Still, prove to me, prove to her father, that it is her best chance, and for Grace Hilland I will take even this risk. Please remember there must be no professional generalities. I must have your solemn written statement that it is for Mrs. Hilland's sake I adopt the measure."
"So be it," was the reply. "I shall telegraph to Dr. Armand immediately to expect me, and shall say that I wish him to be prepared to come at once."
"Do so, and consider no question of expense. I am no longer poor, and if I were, I would mortgage my blood at this juncture."
On the following evening Dr. Armand was almost startled by the vision on the veranda of the St. John cottage. A silvery-haired woman sat looking placidly at the glowing sunset, with its light and its rose- hues reflected in her face.
"If ever there was a picture of a glorified saint, there is one," he muttered, as he advanced and bowed.
She gave him no attention, but with dark eyes, made brilliant by the level rays, she gazed steadily on the closing day. The physician stole a step or two nearer, and looked as steadily at her, while his experienced eye detected in all her illuminated beauty the absence of the higher, more subtle light of reason. Dr. Markham had told him next to nothing about the case, and had asked him to go and see for himself, impressing him only with the fact that it was a question of vital importance that he was to aid in deciding; that he must give it his whole professional skill, and all the necessary time, regardless of expense. The moment he saw Grace, however, the business aspect of the affair passed from his mind. His ruling passion was aroused, and he was more than physician--a student--as the great in any calling ever are.
Graham came to the door and recognized instinctively the intent, eagle-eyed man, who merely nodded and motioned him to approach his patient. Graham did so, and Grace turned her eyes to him with a timid, questioning glance. He offered her his arm; she rose instantly and took it, and began walking with him.
"Were you looking at the sunset, Grace?"
She turned upon him the same inquiring eyes, but did not answer.
"Do you not think it very beautiful? Does it not remind you of the sunset you saw on the evening when I returned from my first battle?"
She shook her head, and only looked perplexed,
"Why, Grace," he continued, as if provoked, "you must remember. I was carried, you know, and you and Mrs. Mayburn acted as if my scratches were mortal wounds."
She looked frightened at his angry tones, clasped her hands, and with tears in her eyes looked pleadingly up to him.
"Dear Grace, don't be worried." He now spoke in the gentlest tones, and lifted her hand to his lips. A quick, evanescent smile illumined her face. She fawned against his shoulder a moment, placed his hand against her cheek, and then leaned upon his arm as they resumed their walk, Dr. Armand keeping near them without in the least attracting her attention.
"Grace," resumed Graham, "you must remember. Hilland, Warren, you know."
She dropped his arm, looked wildly around, covered her face with her hands, and shuddered convulsively.
After a moment he said, kindly but firmly, "Grace, dear Grace."
She sprang to him, seized his hand, and casting a look of suspicion at Dr. Armand, drew him away.
A few moments later she was again looking tranquilly at the west, but the light had departed from the sky and from her face. It had the look of one who saw not, thought and felt not. It was breathing, living death.
Graham looked at her mournfully for a few moments, and then, with a gesture that was almost despairing, turned to the physician, who had not lost a single expression.
"Thank you," was that gentleman's first laconic remark; and he dropped into a chair, still with his eyes on the motionless figure of Grace.
At last he asked, "How long would she maintain that position?"
"I scarcely know," was the sad response; "many hours certainly."
"Please let her retain it till I request you to interfere. The moon is rising almost full, the evening is warm, and she can take no harm."
The major tottered out on his crutches, and was given his chair, the physician meanwhile being introduced. Brief and courteous was Dr. Armand's acknowledgment, but he never took his eyes from his patient. The same was true of his greeting to Mrs. Mayburn; but that good lady's hospitable instincts soon asserted themselves, and she announced that dinner was ready.
"Take Mrs. Hilland to dinner," said the physician to Graham; "but first introduce me."
The young man approached and said, "Grace." She rose instantly and took his arm. "This is Dr. Armand, Grace. He has called to see you." She made him a courteous inclination, and then turned to Graham to see what next was expected of her, but he only led her to the dining-room.
"Gracie, darling, bring me my cushion," said her father, speaking as he had been used to do when she was a little girl.
She brought it mechanically and arranged it, then stood in expectancy. "That will do, dear;" and she returned to her seat in silence. Throughout the meal she maintained this silence, although Dr. Armand broached many topics, avoiding only the name of her husband. Her manner was that of a little, quiet, well-bred child, who did not understand what was said, and had no interest in it. The physician's scrutiny did not embarrass her; she had never remembered, much less forgotten him.
When the meal was over they all returned to the piazza. At the physician's request she was placed in her old seat, and they all sat down to watch. The moon rose higher and higher, made her hair more silvery, touched her still face with a strange, ethereal beauty, and threw the swaying shadow of a spray of woodbine across her motionless figure--so motionless that she seemed a sculptured rather than a breathing woman.
After a while the old major rose and groaned as he tottered away. Mrs. Mayburn, in uncontrollable nervous restlessness, soon followed, that she might find relief in household cares. The two men watched on till hours had passed, and still the lovely image had not stirred. At last Dr. Armand approached her and said, "Mrs. Hilland."
She rose, and stood coldly aloof. The name, with her prefix, did not trouble her. She had long been accustomed to that "Hilland," as Graham uttered the word, alone affected her, touching some last deep chord of memory.
"Mrs. Hilland," the doctor continued, "it is getting late. Do you not think you had better retire?"
She looked at him blankly, and glanced around as if in search of some one.
"I am here, Grace," said Graham, emerging from the doorway.
She came to him at once, and he led her to Mrs. Mayburn, kissing her hand, and receiving, in return, her strange, brief, fawning caress.
"I would like to know the history of Mrs. Hilland's malady from the beginning," said Dr. Armand, when Graham returned.
"I cannot go over it again," replied Graham, hoarsely. "Dr. Markham can tell you about all, and I will answer any questions. Your room is ready for you here, where Dr. Markham will join you presently. I must bid you good-night;" and he strode away.
But as he passed under the apple-tree and recalled all that had occurred there, he was so overcome that once more he leaned against it for support.
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