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Graham's visit was at last lengthened to a month, and yet the impulse of work or of departure had not seized him. Indeed, there seemed less prospect of anything of the kind than ever. A strong mutual attachment was growing between himself and his aunt. The brusque, quick-witted old lady interested him, while her genuine kindness and hearty welcome gave to him, for the first time in his life, the sense of being at home. She was a woman of strong likes and dislikes. She had taken a fancy to Graham from the first, and this interest fast deepened into affection. She did not know how lonely she was in her isolated life, and she found it so pleasant to have some one to look after and think about that she would have been glad to have kept him with her always.
Moreover, she had a lurking hope, daily gaining confirmation, that her nephew was not so indifferent to her favorite as he seemed. In her old age she was beginning to long for kindred and closer ties, and she felt that she could in effect adopt Grace, and could even endure the invalid major for the sake of one who was so congenial. She thought it politic however to let matters take their own course, for her strong good sense led her to believe that meddling rarely accomplishes anything except mischief. She was not averse to a little indirect diplomacy, however, and did all in her power to make it easy and natural for Graham to see the young girl as often as possible, and one lovely day, early in June, she planned a little excursion, which, according to the experience of her early days, promised well for her aims.
One breathless June morning that was warm, but not sultry, she went over to the St. Johns', and suggested a drive to the brow of a hill from which there was a superb view of the surrounding country. The plan struck the major pleasantly, and Grace was delighted. She had the craving for out-of-door life common to all healthful natures, but there was another reason why she longed for a day under the open sky with her thoughts partially and pleasantly distracted from one great truth to which she felt she must grow accustomed by degrees. It was arranged that they should take their lunch and spend the larger part of the afternoon, thus giving the affair something of the aspect of a quiet little picnic.
Although Graham tried to take the proposition quietly, he could not repress a flush of pleasure and a certain alacrity of movement eminently satisfactory to his aunt. Indeed, his spirits rose to a degree that made him a marvel to himself, and he wonderingly queried, "Can I be the same man who but a few weeks since watched the dark line of my native country loom up in the night, and with prospects as vague and dark as that outline?"
Miss St. John seemed perfectly radiant that morning, her eyes vying with the June sunlight, and her cheeks emulating the roses everywhere in bloom. What was the cause of her unaffected delight? Was it merely the prospect of a day of pleasure in the woods? Could he hope that his presence added to her zest for the occasion? Such were the questions with which Graham's mind was busy as he aided the ladies in their preparations. She certainly was more kind and friendly than usual-- yes, more familiar. He was compelled to admit, however, that her manner was such as would be natural toward an old and trusted friend, but he hoped--never before had he realized how dear this hope was becoming--that some day she would awaken to the consciousness that he might be more than a friend. In the meantime he would be patient, and, with the best skill he could master, endeavor to win her favor, instead of putting her on the defensive by seeking her love.
"Two elements cannot pass into combination until there is mutual readiness," reasoned the scientist. "Contact is not combination. My province is to watch until in some unguarded moment she gives the hope that she would listen with her heart. To speak before that, either by word or action, would be pain to her and humiliation to me."
The gulf between them was wide indeed, although she smiled so genially upon him. In tying up a bundle their hands touched. He felt an electric thrill in all his nerves; she only noticed the circumstance by saying, "Who is it that is so awkward, you or I?"
"You are Grace," he replied. "It was I."
"I should be graceless indeed were I to find fault with anything to- day," she said impulsively, and raising her head she looked away into the west as if her thoughts had followed her eyes.
"It certainly is a very fine day," Graham remarked sententiously.
She turned suddenly, and saw that he was watching her keenly. Conscious of her secret she blushed under his detected scrutiny, but laughed lightly, saying, "You are a happy man, Mr. Graham, for you suggest that perfect weather leaves nothing else to be desired."
"Many have to be content with little else," he replied, "and days like this are few and far between."
"Not few and far between for me," she murmured to herself as she moved away.
She was kinder and more friendly to Graham than ever before, but the cause was a letter received that morning, against which her heart now throbbed. She had written to Hilland of Graham, and of her enjoyment of his society, dwelling slightly on his disposition to make himself agreeable without tendencies toward sentiment and gallantry.
Love is quick to take alarm, and although Graham was his nearest friend, Hilland could not endure the thought of leaving the field open to him or to any one a day longer. He knew that Graham was deliberate and by no means susceptible. And yet, to him, the fact conveyed by the letter, that his recluse friend had found the society of Grace so satisfactory that he had lingered on week after week, spoke volumes. It was not like his studious and solitary companion of old. Moreover, he understood Graham sufficiently well to know that Grace would have peculiar attractions for him, and that upon a girl of her mind he would make an impression very different from that which had led society butterflies to shun him as a bore. Her letter already indicated this truth. The natural uneasiness that he had felt all along lest some master spirit should appear was intensified. Although Graham was so quiet and undemonstrative, Hilland knew him to be possessed of an indomitable energy of will when once it was aroused and directed toward an object. Thus far from Grace's letter he believed that his friend was only interested in the girl of his heart, and he determined to forestall trouble, if possible, and secure the fruits of his patient waiting and wooing, if any were to be gathered. At the same time he resolved to be loyal to his friend, as far as he could admit his claims, and he wrote a glowing eulogy of Graham, unmarred by a phrase or word of detraction. Then, as frankly, he admitted his fears, in regard not only to Graham, but to others, and followed these words with a strong and impassioned plea in his own behalf, assuring her that time and absence, so far from diminishing her mastery over him, had rendered it complete. He entreated for permission to come to her, saying that his business interests, vast as they were, counted as less than nothing compared with the possession of her love--that he would have pressed his suit by personal presence long before had not obligations to others detained him. These obligations he now could and would delegate, for all the wealth of the mines on the continent would only be a burden unless she could share it with him. He also informed her that a ring made of gold, which he himself had mined deep in the mountain's heart, was on the way to her --that his own hands had helped to fashion the rude circlet-and that it was significant of the truth that he sought her not from the vantage ground of wealth, but because of a manly devotion that would lead him to delve in a mine or work in a shop for her, rather than live a life of luxury with any one else in the world.
For the loving girl what a treasure was such a letter! The joy it brought was so overwhelming that she was glad of the distractions which Mrs. Mayburn's little excursion promised. She wished to quiet the tumult at her heart, so that she could write as an earnest woman to an earnest man, which she could not do on this bright June morning, with her heart keeping tune with every bird that sang. Such a response as she then might have made would have been the one he would have welcomed most, but she did not think so. "I would not for the world have him know how my head is turned," she had laughingly assured herself, not dreaming that such an admission would disturb his equilibrium to a far greater degree.
"After a day," she thought, "out of doors with Mrs. Mayburn's genial common-sense and Mr. Graham's cool, half-cynical philosophy to steady me, I shall be sane enough to answer."
They were soon bowling away in a strong, three-seated rockaway, well suited to country roads, Graham driving, with the object of his thoughts and hopes beside him. Mrs. Mayburn and the major occupied the back seat, while Jinny, with a capacious hamper, was in the middle seat, and in the estimation of the diplomatic aunt made a good screen and division.
All seemed to promise well for her schemes, for the young people appeared to be getting on wonderfully together. There was a constant succession of jest and repartee. Grace was cordiality itself; and in Graham's eyes that morning there was coming an expression of which he may not have been fully aware, or which at last he would permit to be seen. Indeed, he was yielding rapidly to the spell of her beauty and the charm of her mind and manner. He was conscious of a strange, exquisite exhilaration. Every nerve in his body seemed alive to her presence, while the refined and delicate curves of her cheek and throat gave a pleasure which no statue in the galleries of Europe had ever imparted.
He wondered at all this, for to him it was indeed a new experience. His past with its hopes and ambitions seemed to have floated away to an indefinite distance, and he to have awakened to a new life--a new phase of existence. In the exaltation of the hour he felt that, whatever might be the result, he had received a revelation of capabilities in his nature of which he had not dreamed, and which at the time promised to compensate for any consequent reaction. He exulted in his human organism as a master in music might rejoice over the discovery of an instrument fitted to respond perfectly to his genius. Indeed, the thought crossed his mind more than once that day that the marvel of marvels was that mere clay could be so highly organized. It was not his thrilling nerves alone which suggested this thought, or the pure mobile face of the young girl, so far removed from any suggestion of earthliness, but a new feeling, developing in his heart, that seemed so deep and strong as to be deathless.
They reached their destination in safety. The June sunlight would have made any place attractive, but the brow of the swelling hill with its wide outlook, its background of grove and intervening vistas, left nothing to be desired. The horses were soon contentedly munching their oats, and yet their stamping feet and switching tails indicated that even for the brute creation there is ever some alloy. Graham, however, thought that fortune had at last given him one perfect day. There was no perceptible cloud. The present was so eminently satisfactory that it banished the past, or, if remembered, it served as a foil. The future promised a chance for happiness that seemed immeasurable, although the horizon of his brief existence was so near; for he felt that with her as his own, human life with all its limitations was a richer gift than he had ever imagined possible. And yet, like a slight and scarcely heard discord, the thought would come occasionally, "Since so much is possible, more ought to be possible. With such immense capability for life as I am conscious of to-day, how is it that this life is but a passing and perishing manifestation?"
Such impressions took no definite form, however, but merely passed through the dim background of his consciousness, while he gave his whole soul to the effort to make the day one that from its unalloyed pleasure could not fail to recall him to the memory of Miss St. John. He believed himself to be successful, for he felt as if inspired. He was ready with a quick reply to all her mirthful sallies, and he had the tact to veil his delicate flattery under a manner and mode of speech that suggested rather than revealed his admiration. She was honestly delighted with him and his regard, as she understood it, and she congratulated herself again and again that Hilland's friend was a man that she also would find unusually agreeable. His kindness to her father had warmed her heart toward him, and now his kindness and interest were genuine, although at first somewhat hollow and assumed.
Graham had become a decided favorite with the old gentleman, for he had proved the most efficient ally that Grace had ever gained in quickening the pace of heavy-footed Time. Even the veteran's chilled blood seemed to feel the influences of the day, and his gallantry toward Mrs. Mayburn was more pronounced than usual. "We, too, will be young people once more," he remarked, "for the opportunity may not come to us again."
They discussed their lunch with zest, they smiled into one another's face, and indulged in little pleasantries that were as light and passing as the zephyrs that occasionally fluttered the leaves above their heads; but deep in each heart were memories, tides of thought, hopes, fears, joys, that form the tragic background of all human life. The old major gave some reminiscences of his youthful campaigning. In his cheerful mood his presentation of them was in harmony with the sunny afternoon. The bright sides of his experiences were toward his auditors, but what dark shadows of wounds, agony, and death were on the further side! And of these he could never be quite unconscious, even while awakening laughter at the comic episodes of war.
Mrs. Mayburn seemed her plain-spoken, cheery self, intent only on making the most of this genial hour in the autumn of her life, and yet she was watching over a hope that she felt might make her last days her best days. She was almost praying that the fair girl whom she had so learned to love might become the solace of her age, and fill, in her childless heart, a place that had ever been an aching void. Miss St. John was too preoccupied to see any lover but one, and he was ever present, though thousands of miles away. But she saw in Graham his friend, and had already accepted him also as her most agreeable friend, liking him all the better for his apparent disposition to appeal only to her fancy and reason, instead of her heart. She saw well enough that he liked her exceedingly, but Hilland's impetuous wooing and impassioned words had made her feel that there was an infinite difference between liking and loving; and she pictured to herself the pleasure they would both enjoy when finding that their seemingly chance acquaintance was but preparation for the closer ties which their several relations to Hilland could not fail to occasion.
The object of this kindly but most temperate regard smiled into her eyes, chatted easily on any topic suggested, and appeared entirely satisfied; but was all the while conscious of a growing need which, denied, would impoverish his life, making it, brief even as he deemed it to be, an intolerable burden. But on this summer afternoon hope was in the ascendant, and he saw no reason why the craving of all that was best and noblest in his nature should not be met. When a supreme affection first masters the heart it often carries with it a certain assurance that there must be a response, that when so much is given by a subtle, irresistible, unexpected impulse, the one receiving should, sooner or later, by some law of correspondence, be inclined to return a similar regard. All living things in nature, when not interfered with, at the right time and in the right way, sought and found what was essential to the completion of their life, and he was a part of nature. According to the law of his own individuality he had yielded to Miss St. John's power. His reason had kept pace with his heart. He had advanced to his present attitude toward her like a man, and had not been driven to it by the passion of an animal. Therefore he was hopeful, self-complacent, and resolute. He not only proposed to win the girl he loved, cost what it might in time and effort, but in the exalted mood of the hour felt that he could and must win her.
She, all unconscious, smiled genially, and indeed seemed the very embodiment of mirth. Her talk was brilliant, yet interspersed with strange lapses that began to puzzle him. Meanwhile she scarcely saw him, gave him but the passing attention with which one looks up from an absorbing story, and all the time the letter against which her heart pressed seemed alive and endowed with the power to make each throb more glad and full of deep content.
How isolated and inscrutable is the mystery of each human life! Here were four people strongly interested in each other and most friendly, between whom was a constant interchange of word and glance, and yet their thought and feeling were flowing in strong diverse currents, unseen and unsuspected.
As the day declined they all grew more silent and abstracted. Deeper shadows crept into the vistas of memory with the old, and those who had become but memories were with them again as they had been on like June days half a century before. With the young the future, outlined by hope, took forms so absorbing that the present was forgotten. Ostensibly they were looking off at the wide and diversified landscape; in reality they were contemplating the more varied experiences, actual and possible, of life.
At last the major complained querulously that he was growing chilly. The shadow in which he shivered was not caused by the sinking sun.
The hint was taken at once, and in a few moments they were on their way homeward. The old sportive humor of the morning did not return. The major was the aged invalid again. Mrs. Mayburn and Graham were perplexed, for Grace had seemingly become remote from them all. She was as kind as ever; indeed her manner was characterized by an unusual gentleness; but they could not but see that her thoughts were not with them. The first tumultuous torrent of her joy had passed, and with it her girlhood. Now, as an earnest woman, she was approaching the hour of her betrothal, when she would write words that would bind her to another and give direction to all her destiny. Her form was at Graham's side; the woman was not there. Whither and to whom had she gone? The question caused him to turn pale with fear.
"Miss Grace," he said at last, and there was a tinge of reproach in his voice, "where are you? You left us some time since," and he turned and tried to look searchingly into her eyes.
She met his without confusion or rise in color. Her feelings had become so deep and earnest, so truly those of a woman standing on the assured ground of fealty to another, that she was beyond her former girlish sensitiveness and its quick, involuntary manifestations. She said gently, "Pardon me, Mr. Graham, for my unsocial abstraction. You deserve better treatment for all your efforts for our enjoyment to- day."
"Please do not come back on compulsion," he said. "I do not think I am a natural Paul Pry, but I would like to know where you have been."
"I will tell you some day," she said, with a smile that was so friendly that his heart sprang up in renewed hope. Then, as if remembering what was due to him and the others, she buried her thoughts deep in her heart until she could be alone with them and their object. And yet her secret joy, like a hidden fire, tinged all her words with a kindly warmth. Graham and his aunt were not only pleased but also perplexed, for both were conscious of something in Grace's manner which they could not understand. Mrs. Mayburn was sanguine that her June-day strategy was bringing forth the much- desired results; her nephew only hoped. They all parted with cordial words, which gave slight hint of that which was supreme in each mind.
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