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It was one of the moist, pleasantly odorous nights of early spring. There was a chill in the evening air, but the grass was growing green in sheltered spots, and Jeffrey Miller had found purple-petalled violets and pink arbutus on the hill that day. Across a valley filled with beech and fir, there was a sunset afterglow, creamy yellow and pale red, with a new moon swung above it. It was a night for a man to walk alone and dream of his love, which was perhaps why Jeffrey Miller came so loiteringly across the springy hill pasture, with his hands full of the mayflowers.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man of forty, and looking no younger, with dark grey eyes and a tanned, clean-cut face, clean-shaven save for a drooping moustache. Jeffrey Miller was considered a handsome man, and Bayside people had periodical fits of wondering why he had never married. They pitied him for the lonely life he must lead alone there at the Valley Farm, with only a deaf old housekeeper as a companion, for it did not occur to the Bayside people in general that a couple of shaggy dogs could be called companions, and they did not know that books make very excellent comrades for people who know how to treat them.
One of Jeffrey's dogs was with him now—the oldest one, with white breast and paws and a tawny coat. He was so old that he was half-blind and rather deaf, but, with one exception, he was the dearest of living creatures to Jeffrey Miller, for Sara Stuart had given him the sprawly, chubby little pup years ago.
They came down the hill together. A group of men were standing on the bridge in the hollow, discussing Colonel Stuart's funeral of the day before. Jeffrey caught Sara's name and paused on the outskirts of the group to listen. Sometimes he thought that if he were lying dead under six feet of turf and Sara Stuart's name were pronounced above him, his heart would give a bound of life.
"Yes, the old kunnel's gone at last," Christopher Jackson was saying. "He took his time dyin', that's sartain. Must be a kind of relief for Sara—she's had to wait on him, hand and foot, for years. But no doubt she'll feel pretty lonesome. Wonder what she'll do?"
"Is there any particular reason for her to do anything?" asked Alec Churchill.
"Well, she'll have to leave Pinehurst. The estate's entailed and goes to her cousin, Charles Stuart."
There were exclamations of surprise from the other men on hearing this. Jeffrey drew nearer, absently patting his dog's head. He had not known it either.
"Oh, yes," said Christopher, enjoying all the importance of exclusive information. "I thought everybody knew that. Pinehurst goes to the oldest male heir. The old kunnel felt it keen that he hadn't a son. Of course, there's plenty of money and Sara'll get that. But I guess she'll feel pretty bad at leaving her old home. Sara ain't as young as she used to be, neither. Let me see—she must be thirty-eight. Well, she's left pretty lonesome."
"Maybe she'll stay on at Pinehurst," said Job Crowe. "It'd only be right for her cousin to give her a home there."
Christopher shook his head.
"No, I understand they're not on very good terms. Sara don't like Charles Stuart or his wife—and I don't blame her. She won't stay there, not likely. Probably she'll go and live in town. Strange she never married. She was reckoned handsome, and had plenty of beaus at one time."
Jeffrey swung out of the group and started homeward with his dog. To stand by and hear Sara Stuart discussed after this fashion was more than he could endure. The men idly watched his tall, erect figure as he went along the valley.
"Queer chap, Jeff," said Alec Churchill reflectively.
"Jeff's all right," said Christopher in a patronizing way. "There ain't a better man or neighbour alive. I've lived next farm to him for thirty years, so I ought to know. But he's queer sartainly—not like other people—kind of unsociable. He don't care for a thing 'cept dogs and reading and mooning round woods and fields. That ain't natural, you know. But I must say he's a good farmer. He's got the best farm in Bayside, and that's a real nice house he put up on it. Ain't it an odd thing he never married? Never seemed to have no notion of it. I can't recollect of Jeff Miller's ever courting anybody. That's another unnatural thing about him."
"I've always thought that Jeff thought himself a cut or two above the rest of us," said Tom Scovel with a sneer. "Maybe he thinks the Bayside girls ain't good enough for him."
"There ain't no such dirty pride about Jeff," pronounced Christopher conclusively. "And the Millers are the best family hereabouts, leaving the kunnel's out. And Jeff's well off—nobody knows how well, I reckon, but I can guess, being his land neighbour. Jeff ain't no fool nor loafer, if he is a bit queer."
Meanwhile, the object of these remarks was striding homeward and thinking, not of the men behind him, but of Sara Stuart. He must go to her at once. He had not intruded on her since her father's death, thinking her sorrow too great for him to meddle with. But this was different. Perhaps she needed the advice or assistance only he could give. To whom else in Bayside could she turn for it but to him, her old friend? Was it possible that she must leave Pinehurst? The thought struck cold dismay to his soul. How could he bear his life if she went away?
He had loved Sara Stuart from childhood. He remembered vividly the day he had first seen her—a spring day, much like this one had been; he, a boy of eight, had gone with his father to the big, sunshiny hill field and he had searched for birds' nests in the little fir copses along the crest while his father plowed. He had so come upon her, sitting on the fence under the pines at the back of Pinehurst—a child of six in a dress of purple cloth. Her long, light brown curls fell over her shoulders and rippled sleekly back from her calm little brow; her eyes were large and greyish blue, straight-gazing and steadfast. To the end of his life the boy was to carry in his heart the picture she made there under the pines.
"Little boy," she had said, with a friendly smile, "will you show me where the mayflowers grow?"
Shyly enough he had assented, and they set out together for the barrens beyond the field, where the arbutus trailed its stars of sweetness under the dusty dead grasses and withered leaves of the old year. The boy was thrilled with delight. She was a fairy queen who thus graciously smiled on him and chattered blithely as they searched for mayflowers in the fresh spring sunshine. He thought it a wonderful thing that it had so chanced. It overjoyed him to give the choicest dusters he found into her slim, waxen little fingers, and watch her eyes grow round with pleasure in them. When the sun began to lower over the beeches she had gone home with her arms full of arbutus, but she had turned at the edge of the pineland and waved her hand at him.
That night, when he told his mother of the little girl he had met on the hill, she had hoped anxiously that he had been "very polite," for the little girl was a daughter of Colonel Stuart, newly come to Pinehurst. Jeffrey, reflecting, had not been certain that he had been polite; "But I am sure she liked me," he said gravely.
A few days later a message came from Mrs. Stuart on the hill to Mrs. Miller in the valley. Would she let her little boy go up now and then to play with Sara? Sara was very lonely because she had no playmates. So Jeff, overjoyed, had gone to his divinity's very home, where the two children played together many a day. All through their childhood they had been fast friends. Sara's parents placed no bar to their intimacy. They had soon concluded that little Jeff Miller was a very good playmate for Sara. He was gentle, well-behaved, and manly.
Sara never went to the district school which Jeff attended; she had her governess at home. With no other boy or girl in Bayside did she form any friendship, but her loyalty to Jeff never wavered. As for Jeff, he worshipped her and would have done anything she commanded. He belonged to her from the day they had hunted arbutus on the hill.
When Sara was fifteen she had gone away to school. Jeff had missed her sorely. For four years he saw her only in the summers, and each year she had seemed taller, statelier, further from him. When she graduated her father took her abroad for two years; then she came home, a lovely, high-bred girl, dimpling on the threshold of womanhood; and Jeffrey Miller was face to face with two bitter facts. One was that he loved her—not with the boy-and-girl love of long ago, but with the love of a man for the one woman in the world; and the other was that she was as far beyond his reach as one of those sunset stars of which she had always reminded him in her pure, clear-shining loveliness.
He looked these facts unflinchingly in the face until he had grown used to them, and then he laid down his course for himself. He loved Sara—and he did not wish to conquer his love, even if it had been possible. It were better to love her, whom he could never win, than to love and be loved by any other woman. His great office in life was to be her friend, humble and unexpectant; to be at hand if she should need him for ever so trifling a service; never to presume, always to be faithful.
Sara had not forgotten her old friend. But their former comradeship was now impossible; they could be friends, but never again companions. Sara's life was full and gay; she had interests in which he had no share; her social world was utterly apart from his; she was of the hill and its traditions, he was of the valley and its people. The democracy of childhood past, there was no common ground on which they might meet. Only one thing Jeffrey had found it impossible to contemplate calmly. Some day Sara would marry—a man who was her equal, who sat at her father's table as a guest. In spite of himself, Jeffrey's heart filled with hot rebellion at the thought; it was like a desecration and a robbery.
But, as the years went by, this thing he dreaded did not happen. Sara did not marry, although gossip assigned her many suitors not unworthy of her. She and Jeffrey were always friends, although they met but seldom. Sometimes she sent him a book; it was his custom to search for the earliest mayflowers and take them to her; once in a long while they met and talked of many things. Jeffrey's calendar from year to year was red-lettered by these small happenings, of which nobody knew, or, knowing, would have cared.
So he and Sara drifted out of youth, together yet apart. Her mother had died, and Sara was the gracious, stately mistress of Pinehurst, which grew quieter as the time went on; the lovers ceased to come, and holiday friends grew few; with the old colonel's failing health the gaieties and lavish entertaining ceased. Jeffrey thought that Sara must often be lonely, but she never said so; she remained sweet, serene, calm-eyed, like the child he had met on the hill. Only, now and then, Jeffrey fancied he saw a shadow on her face—a shadow so faint and fleeting that only the eye of an unselfish, abiding love, made clear-sighted by patient years, could have seen it. It hurt him, that shadow; he would have given anything in his power to have banished it.
And now this long friendship was to be broken. Sara was going away. At first he had thought only of her pain, but now his own filled his heart. How could he live without her? How could he dwell in the valley knowing that she had gone from the hill? Never to see her light shine down on him through the northern gap in the pines at night! Never to feel that perhaps her eyes rested on him now and then as he went about his work in the valley fields! Never to stoop with a glad thrill over the first spring flowers because it was his privilege to take them to her! Jeffrey groaned aloud. No, he could not go up to see her that night; he must wait—he must strengthen himself.
Then his heart rebuked him. This was selfishness; this was putting his own feelings before hers—a thing he had sworn never to do. Perhaps she needed him—perhaps she had wondered why he had not come to offer her such poor service as might be in his power. He turned and went down through the orchard lane, taking the old field-path across the valley and up the hill, which he had traversed so often and so joyfully in boyhood. It was dark now, and a few stars were shining in the silvery sky. The wind sighed among the pines as he walked under them. Sometimes he felt that he must turn back—that his pain was going to master him; then he forced himself to go on.
The old grey house where Sara lived seemed bleak and stricken in the dull light, with its leafless vines clinging to it. There were no lights in it. It looked like a home left soulless.
Jeffrey went around to the garden door and knocked. He had expected the maid to open it, put Sara herself came.
"Why, Jeff," she said, with pleasure in her tones. "I am so glad to see you. I have been wondering why you had not come before."
"I did not think you would want to see me yet," he said hurriedly. "I have thought about you every hour—but I feared to intrude."
"You couldn't intrude," she said gently. "Yes, I have wanted to see you, Jeff. Come into the library."
He followed her into the room where they had always sat in his rare calls. Sara lighted the lamp on the table. As the light shot up she stood clearly revealed in it—a tall, slender woman in a trailing gown of grey. Even a stranger, not knowing her age, would have guessed it to be what it was, yet it would have been hard to say what gave the impression of maturity. Her face was quite unlined—a little pale, perhaps, with more finely cut outlines than those of youth. Her eyes were clear and bright; her abundant brown hair waved back from her face in the same curves that Jeffrey had noted in the purple-gowned child of six, under the pines. Perhaps it was the fine patience and serenity in her face that told her tale of years. Youth can never acquire it.
Her eyes brightened when she saw the mayflowers he carried. She came and took them from him, and her hands touched his, sending a little thrill of joy through him.
"How lovely they are! And the first I have seen this spring. You always bring me the first, don't you, Jeff? Do you remember the first day we spent picking mayflowers together?"
Jeff smiled. Could he forget? But something held him back from speech.
Sara put the flowers in a vase on the table, but slipped one starry pink cluster into the lace on her breast. She came and sat down beside Jeffrey; he saw that her beautiful eyes had been weeping, and that there were lines of pain around her lips. Some impulse that would not be denied made him lean over and take her hand. She left it unresistingly in his clasp.
"I am very lonely now, Jeff," she said sadly. "Father has gone. I have no friends left."
"You have me," said Jeffrey quietly.
"Yes. I shouldn't have said that. You are my friend, I know, Jeff. But, but—I must leave Pinehurst, you know."
"I learned that tonight for the first time," he answered.
"Did you ever come to a place where everything seemed ended—where it seemed that there was nothing—simply nothing—left, Jeff?" she said wistfully. "But, no, it couldn't seem so to a man. Only a woman could fully understand what I mean. That is how I feel now. While I had Father to live for it wasn't so hard. But now there is nothing. And I must go away."
"Is there anything I can do?" muttered Jeffrey miserably. He knew now that he had made a mistake in coming tonight; he could not help her. His own pain had unmanned him. Presently he would say something foolish or selfish in spite of himself.
Sara turned her eyes on him.
"There is nothing anybody can do, Jeff," she said piteously. Her eyes, those clear child-eyes, filled with tears. "I shall be braver—stronger—after a while. But just now I have no strength left. I feel like a lost, helpless child. Oh, Jeff!"
She put her slender hands over her face and sobbed. Every sob cut Jeffrey to the heart.
"Don't—don't, Sara," he said huskily. "I can't bear to see you suffer so. I'd die for you if it would do you any good. I love you—I love you! I never meant to tell you so, but it is the truth. I oughtn't to tell you now. Don't think that I'm trying to take any advantage of your loneliness and sorrow. I know—I have always known—that you are far above me. But that couldn't prevent my loving you—just humbly loving you, asking nothing else. You may be angry with my presumption, but I can't help telling you that I love you. That's all. I just want you to know it."
Sara had turned away her head. Jeffrey was overcome with contrition. Ah, he had no business to speak so—he had spoiled the devotion of years. Who was he that he should have dared to love her? Silence alone had justified his love, and now he had lost that justification. She would despise him. He had forfeited her friendship for ever.
"Are you angry, Sara?" he questioned sadly, after a silence.
"I think I am," said Sara. She kept her stately head averted. "If—if you have loved me, Jeff, why did you never tell me so before?"
"How could I dare?" he said gravely. "I knew I could never win you—that I had no right to dream of you so. Oh, Sara, don't be angry! My love has been reverent and humble. I have asked nothing. I ask nothing now but your friendship. Don't take that from me, Sara. Don't be angry with me."
"I am angry," repeated Sara, "and I think I have a right to be."
"Perhaps so," he said simply, "but not because I have loved you. Such love as mine ought to anger no woman, Sara. But you have a right to be angry with me for presuming to put it into words. I should not have done so—but I could not help it. It rushed to my lips in spite of me. Forgive me."
"I don't know whether I can forgive you for not telling me before," said Sara steadily. "That is what I have to forgive—not your speaking at last, even if it was dragged from you against your will. Did you think I would make you such a very poor wife, Jeff, that you would not ask me to marry you?"
"Sara!" he said, aghast. "I—I—you were as far above me as a star in the sky—I never dreamed—I never hoped——"
"That I could care for you?" said Sara, looking round at last. "Then you were more modest than a man ought to be, Jeff. I did not know that you loved me, or I should have found some way to make you speak out long ago. I should not have let you waste all these years. I've loved you—ever since we picked mayflowers on the hill, I think—ever since I came home from school, I know. I never cared for anyone else—although I tried to, when I thought you didn't care for me. It mattered nothing to me that the world may have thought there was some social difference between us. There, Jeff, you cannot accuse me of not making my meaning plain."
"Sara," he whispered, wondering, bewildered, half-afraid to believe this unbelievable joy. "I'm not half worthy of you—but—but"—he bent forward and put his arm around her, looking straight into her clear, unshrinking eyes. "Sara, will you be my wife?"
"Yes." She said the word clearly and truly. "And I will think myself a proud and happy and honoured woman to be so, Jeff. Oh, I don't shrink from telling you the truth, you see. You mean too much to me for me to dissemble it. I've hidden it for eighteen years because I didn't think you wanted to hear it, but I'll give myself the delight of saying it frankly now."
She lifted her delicate, high-bred face, fearless love shining in every lineament, to his, and they exchanged their first kiss.
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