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THE HOUSE OF AARON
A FEELING that the day was to bring great things had dawned upon Waitstill when she woke that morning, and now it was coming true.
Climbing Saco Hill was like climbing the hill of her dreams; life and love beckoned to her across the snowy slopes.
At rest about Patty's future, though troubled as to her sorry plight at the moment, she was conscious chiefly of her new-born freedom. She revelled in the keen air that tingled against her cheek, and drew in fresh hope with every breath. As she trod the shining pathway she was full of expectancy, her eyes dancing, her heart as buoyant as her step. Not a vestige of confusion or uncertainty vexed her mind. She knew Ivory for her true mate, and if the way to him took her through dark places it was lighted by a steadfast beacon of love.
At the top of the hill she turned the corner breathlessly, and faced the length of road that led to the Boynton farm. Mrs. Mason's house was beyond, and oh, how she hoped that Ivory would be at home, and that she need not wait another day to tell him all, and claim the gift she knew was hers before she asked it. She might not have the same exaltation to-morrow, for now there were no levels in her heart and soul. She had a sense of mounting from height to height and lighting fires on every peak of her being. She took no heed of the road she was travelling; she was conscious only of a wonderful inward glow.
The house was now in sight, and a tall figure was issuing from the side door, putting on a fur cap as it came out on the steps and down the lane. Ivory was at home, then, and, best of all, he was unconsciously coming to meet her--although their hearts had been coming to meet each other, she thought, ever since they first began to beat.
As she neared the bars she called Ivory's name. His hands were in the pockets of his great-coat, and his eyes were fixed on the ground. Sombre he was, distinctly sombre, in mien and gait; could she make him smile and flush and glow, as she was smiling and flushing and glowing? As he heard her voice he raised his head quickly and uncomprehendingly.
"Don't come any nearer," she said, "until I have told you something!" His mind had been so full of her that the sight of her in the flesh, standing twenty feet away, bewildered him.
She took a few steps nearer the gate, near enough now for him to see her rosy face framed in a blue hood, and to catch the brightness of her eyes under their lovely lashes. Ordinarily they were cool and limpid and grave, Waitstill's eyes; now a sunbeam danced in each of them. And her lips, almost always tightly closed, as if she were holding back her natural speech,--her lips were red and parted, and the soul of her, free at last, shone through her face, making it luminous with a new beauty.
"I have left home for good and all," she said. "I'll tell you more of this later on, but I have left my father's house with nothing to my name but the clothes I stand in. I am going to look for work in the mills to-morrow, but I stopped here to say that I'm ready to marry you whenever you want me--if you do want me."
Ivory was bewildered, indeed, but not so much so that he failed to apprehend, and instantly, too, the real significance of this speech.
He took a couple of long strides, and before Waitstill had any idea of his intentions he vaulted over the bars and gathered her in his arms.
"Never shall you go to the mills, never shall you leave my sight for a single hour again, my one-woman-in-all-the-world! Come to me, to be loved and treasured all your life long! I've worshipped you ever since I was a boy; I've kept my heart swept and garnished for you and no other, hoping I might win you at last."
How glorious to hear all this delicious poetry of love, and to feel Ivory's arms about her, making the dream seem surer!
"Oh, how like you to shorten the time of my waiting!" he went on, his words fairly chasing one another in their eagerness to be spoken How like you to count on me, to guess my hunger for your love, to realize the chains that held me back, and break them yourself with your own dear, womanly hands! How like you, oh, wonderful Waitstill!"
Ivory went on murmuring phrases that had been lying in his heart unsaid for years, scarcely conscious of what he was saying, realizing only that the miracle of miracles had happened.
Waitstill, for her part, was almost dumb with joy to be lying so close to his heart that she could hear it beating; to feel the passionate tenderness of his embrace and his kiss falling upon her hair.
"I did not know a girl could be so happy!" she whispered. "I've dreamed of it, but it was nothing like this. I am all a-tremble with it."
Ivory held her off at arm's length for a moment, reluctantly, grudgingly. "You took me fairly off my feet, dearest," he said, "and forgot everything but the one supreme fact you were telling me. Had I been on guard I should have told you that I am no worthy husband for you, Waitstill. I haven't enough to offer such a girl as you."
"You're too late, Ivory! You showed me your heart first, and now you are searching your mind for bugbears to frighten me."
"I am a poor man."
"No girl could be poorer than I am."
"After what you've endured, you ought to have rest and comfort."
"I shall have both--in you!" This with eyes, all wet, lifted to Ivory's.
"My mother is a great burden--a very dear and precious, but a grievous one."
"She needs a daughter. It is in such things that I shall be your helpmate."
"Will not the boy trouble you and add to your cares?"
"Rod? I love him; he shall be my little brother."
"What if my father were not really dead?--I think of this sometimes in the night!--What if he should wander back, broken in spirit, feeble in body, empty in purse?"
"I do not come to you free of burdens. If my father is deserted by all, I must see that he is made comfortable. He never treated me like a daughter, but I acknowledge his claim."
"Mine is such a gloomy house!"
"Will it be gloomy when I am in it?" and Waitstill, usually so grave, laughed at last like a care-free child.
Ivory felt himself hidden in the beautiful shelter of the girl's love. It was dark now, or as dark as the night ever is that has moonlight and snow. He took Waitstill in his arms again reverently, and laid his cheek against her hair. "I worship God as well as I know how," he whispered; "worship him as the maker of this big heaven and earth that surrounds us. But I worship you as the maker of my little heaven and earth, and my heart is saying its prayers to you at this very moment!"
"Hush, my dear! hush! and don't value me too much, or I shall lose my head--I that have never known a sweet word in all my life save those that my sister has given me.--I must tell you all about Patty now."
"I happen to know more than you, dear. I met her at the bridge when I was coming home from the woods, and I saw her safely to Uncle Bart's door.--I don't know why we speak of it as Uncle Bart's when it is really Aunt Abby's!--I next met Mark, who had fairly flown from Bridgton on the wings of love, arriving hours ahead of time. I managed to keep him from avenging the insults heaped upon his bride, and he has driven to the Mills to confide in his father and mother. By this time Patty is probably the centre of the family group, charming them all as is her custom."
"Oh, I am so glad Mark is at home! Now I can be at rest about Patty. And I must not linger another moment, for I am going to ask Mrs. Mason to keep me overnight," cried Waitstill, bethinking herself suddenly of time and place.
"I will take you there myself and explain everything. And the moment I've lighted a fire in Mrs. Mason's best bedroom and settled you there, what do you think I am going to do? I shall drive to the town clerk's house, and if he is in bed, rout him out and have the notice of our intended marriage posted in a public place according to law. Perhaps I shall save a day out of the fourteen I've got to wait for my wife. 'Mills,' indeed! I wonder at you, Waitstill! As if Mrs. Mason's house was not far enough away, without your speaking of 'mills.'"
"I only suggested mills in case you did not want to marry me," said Waitstill.
"Walk up to the door with me," begged Ivory.
"The horse is all harnessed, and Rod will slip him into the sleigh in a jiffy."
"Oh, Ivory! do you realize what this means?"--and Waitstill clung to his arm as they went up the lane together--"that whatever sorrow, whatever hardship comes to us, neither of us will ever have to bear it alone again?"
"I believe I do realize it as few men could, for never in my five-and-twenty years have I had a human creature to whom I could pour myself out, in whom I could really confide, with whom I could take counsel. You can guess what it will be to have a comprehending woman at my side. Shall we tell my mother? Do say 'yes'; I believe she will understand.--Rod, Rod! come and see who's stepping in the door this very minute!"
Rodman was up in his bedroom, attiring himself elaborately for sentry duty. His delight at seeing Waitstill was perhaps slightly tempered by the thought that flashed at once through his mind,--that if she was safe, he would not be required to stand guard in the snow for hours as he had hoped. But this grief passed when he fully realized what Waitstill's presence at the farm at this unaccustomed hour really meant. After he had been told, he hung about her like the child that he was,--though he had a bit of the hero in him, at bottom, too,--embracing her waist fondly, and bristling with wondering questions.
"Is she really going to stay with us for always, Ivory?" he asked.
"Every day and all the days; every night and all the nights. 'Praise God from whom all blessings flow!'" said Ivory, taking off his fur cap and opening the door of the living-room. "But we've got to wait for her a whole fortnight, Rod. Isn't that a ridiculous snail of a law?"
"Patty didn't wait a fortnight."
"Patty never waited for anything," Ivory responded with a smile; "but she had a good reason, and, alas! we haven't, or they'11 say that we haven't. And I am very grateful to the same dear little Patty, for when she got herself a husband she found me a wife!"
Rodman did not wholly understand this, but felt that there were many mysteries attending the love affairs of grown-up people that were too complicated for him to grasp; and it did not seem to be just the right moment for questions.
Waitstill and Ivory went into Mrs. Boynton's room quietly, hand in hand, and when she saw Waitstill she raised herself from her pillow and held out her arms with a soft cry of delight.
"I haven't had you for so long, so long!" she said, touching the girl's cheek with her frail hand.
"You are going to have me every day now, dear," whispered Waitstill, with a sob in her voice; for she saw a change in the face, a new transparency, a still more ethereal look than had been there before.
"Every day?" she repeated, longingly. Waitstill took off her hood, and knelt on the floor beside the bed, hiding her face in the counterpane to conceal the tears.
"She is coming to live with us, dear.--Come in, Rod, and hear me tell her.--Waitstill is coming to live with us: isn't that a beautiful thing to happen to this dreary house?" asked Ivory, bending to take his mother's hand.
"Don't you remember what you thought the first time I ever came here, mother?" and Waitstill lifted her head, and looked at Mrs. Boynton with swimming eyes and lips that trembled. "Ivory is making it all come true, and I shall be your daughter!"
Mrs. Boynton sank farther back into her pillows, and closing her eyes, gave a long sigh of infinite content. Her voice was so faint that they had to stoop to catch the words, and Ivory, feeling the strange benediction that seemed to be passing from his mother's spirit to theirs, took Rod's hand and knelt beside Waitstill.
The verse of a favorite psalm was running through Lois Boynton's mind, and in a moment the words came clearly, as she opened her eyes, lifted her hands, and touched the bowed heads. "Let the house of Aaron now say that his mercy endureth forever!" she said, slowly and reverently; and Ivory, with all his heart, responded, "Amen!"
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