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The shimmering white silence of noon lay upon the land. Bees hummed in the clover, gorgeous butterflies floated drowsily over the meadows, and far in the blue distance a meadow-lark scattered his golden notes like rain upon the fields.
The world teemed with life, and yet a cold shadow, as of approaching death, darkened the souls of two who walked together in the dusty road that led from the hills to the sea. The old man leaned heavily upon the arm of the younger, and his footsteps faltered. The young man's face was white and he saw dimly, as through a mist, but he tried to keep his voice even.
From the open windows of the little grey house came the deadly sweet smell of anęsthetics, heavy with prescience and pain. It dominated, instantly, all the blended Summer fragrances and brought terror to them both.
"I cannot bear it," said Ambrose North, miserably. "I cannot bear to have my baby hurt."
"She isn't being hurt now," answered Roger, with dry lips. "She's asleep."
"It may be the sleep that knows no waking. If you loved Barbara, you would understand."
The boy's senses, exquisitely alive and quivering, merged suddenly into one unspeakable hurt. If he loved Barbara! Ah, did he not love her? What of last night, when he walked up and down in that selfsame road until dawn, alone with the wonder and fear and joy of it, and unutterably dreading the to-morrow that had so swiftly become to-day.
"I was a fool," muttered Ambrose North. "I was a fool to give my consent."
"It was her choice," the boy reminded him, "and when she walks----"
"When she walks, it may be in the City Not Made With Hands. If I had said 'no,' we should not be out here now, while she--" The tears streamed over his wrinkled cheeks and his bowed shoulders shook.
"Don't," pleaded Roger. "It's all for the best--it must be all for the best."
Neither of them saw Eloise approaching as she came up the road from the hotel. She was in white, as usual, bareheaded, and she carried a white linen parasol. She went to them, calling out brightly, "Good morning!"
"Who is it?" asked the old man.
"It must be Miss Wynne, I think."
"What is it?" inquired Eloise, when she joined them. "What is the matter?"
The blind man could not speak, but he pointed toward the house with a shaking hand.
"It's Barbara, you know," said Roger. "They're in there--cutting her." The last words were almost a whisper.
"But you mustn't worry," cried Eloise. "Nothing can go wrong. Why, Allan is there."
Insensibly her confidence in Allan and the clear ring of her voice relieved the unbearable tension. Surely, Barbara could not die if Allan were there.
"It's hard, I know," Eloise went on, in her cool, even tones, "but there is no doubt about the ending. Allan is one of the few really great surgeons--he has done wonderful things. He has done things that everyone else said were impossible. Barbara will walk and be as straight and strong as any of us. Think what it will mean to her after twenty years of helplessness. How fine it will be to see her without the crutches."
"I have never minded the crutches," said Roger. "I do not want her changed."
"I cannot see her," sighed Ambrose North. "I have never seen my baby."
"But you're going to," Eloise assured him, "for Allan says so, and whatever Allan says is true."
At length, she managed to lead them farther away, though not out of sight of the house, and they all sat down on the grass. She talked continually and cheerfully, but the atmosphere was tense with waiting. Ambrose North bowed his grey head in his hands, and Roger, still pale, did not once take his eyes from the door of the little grey house.
After what seemed an eternity, someone came out. It was one of Allan's assistants. A nurse followed, and put a black bag into the buggy which was waiting outside. Roger was on his feet instantly, watching.
"Sit down," commanded Eloise, coolly. "Allan can see us from here, and he will come and tell us."
Ambrose North lifted his grey head. "Have they--finished--with her?"
"I don't know," returned Eloise. "Be patient just a little longer, please do."
Outwardly she was calm, but, none the less, a great sob of relief almost choked her when Doctor Conrad came across the road to them, swinging his black bag, and called out, in a voice high with hope, "All right!"
* * * * * * *
The sky was a wonderful blue, but the colour of the sea was deeper still. The vast reaches of sand were as white as the blown snow, and the Tower of Cologne had never been so fair as it was to-day. The sun shone brightly on the clear glass arches that made the cupola, and the golden bells swayed back and forth silently.
Barbara was trying to climb up to the cupola, but her feet were weary and she paused often to rest. The rooms that opened off from the various landings of the winding stairway were lovelier than ever. The furnishings had been changed since she was last there, and each room was made to represent a different flower.
There was a rose room, all in pink and green, a pond-lily room in green and white, a violet room in green and lavender, and a gorgeous suite of rooms which someway seemed like a great bouquet of nasturtiums. But, strangely, there was no fragrance of cologne in the Tower. The bottles were all on the mantels, as usual, but Barbara could not open any of them. Instead, there was a heavy, sweet, sickening smell from which she could not escape, though she went continually from room to room. It followed her like some evil thing that threatened to overpower her.
The Boy who had always been beside her, and whose face she could not see, was still in the Tower, but he was far away, with his back toward her. He seemed to be suffering and Barbara tried to get to him to comfort him, but some unforeseen obstacle inevitably loomed up in her path.
There were many people in the Tower, and most of them were old friends, but there were some new faces. Her father was there, of course, and all the brave knights and lovely ladies of whom she had read in her books. Miss Wynne was there and she had never been in the Tower before, but Barbara smiled at her and was glad, though she wished they might have had cologne instead of the sickening smell which grew more deadly every minute.
A grave, silent young man whose demeanour was oddly at variance with his red hair was there also. He had just come and it seemed that he was a doctor. Barbara had heard his name but could not remember it. There were also two young women in blue and white striped uniforms which were very neat and becoming. They wore white caps and smiled at Barbara. She had heard their names, too, but she had forgotten.
None of them seemed to mind the heavy odour which oppressed her so. She opened the windows in the Tower and the cool air came in from the blue sea, but it changed nothing.
"Come, Boy," she called across the intervening mist. "Let's go up to the cupola and ring all the golden bells."
He did not seem to hear, so she called again, and again, but there was no response. It was the first time he had failed to answer her, and it made her angry.
"Then," cried Barbara, shrilly, "if you don't want to come, you needn't, so there. But I'm going. Do you hear? I'm going. I'm going up to ring those bells if I have to go alone."
Still, the Boy did not answer, and Barbara, her heart warm with resentment, began to climb the winding stairs. She did not hurry, for pictures of castles, towers, and beautiful ladies were woven in the tapestry that lined the walls.
She came, at last, to the highest landing. There was only one short flight between her and the cupola. The clear glass arches were dazzling in the sun and the golden bells swayed temptingly. But a blinding, overwhelming fog drifted in from the sea, and she was afraid to move by so much as a step. She turned to go back, and fell, down--down--down--into what seemed eternity.
Before long, the cloud began to lift. She could see a vague suggestion of blue and white through it now. The man with the red hair was talking, loudly and unconcernedly, to a tall man beside him whose face was obscured by the mist. The voices beat upon Barbara's ears with physical pain. She tried to speak, to ask them to stop, but the words would not come. Then she raised her hand, weakly, and silence came upon the room.
Out of the fog rose Doctor Allan Conrad. He was tired and there was a strained look about his eyes, but he smiled encouragingly. He leaned over her and she smiled, very faintly, back at him.
"Brave little girl," he said. "It's all right now. All we ever hoped for is coming very soon." Then he went out, and she closed her eyes. When she was again conscious of her surroundings, it was the next day, but she thought she had been asleep only a few minutes.
At first there was numbness of mind and body. Then, with every heart-beat and throb by throb, came unbearable agony. A trembling old hand strayed across her face and her father's voice, deep with love and longing, whispered: "Barbara, my darling! Does it hurt you now?"
"Just a little, Daddy, but it won't last long. I'll be better very soon."
One of the blue and white nurses came to her and said, gently, "Is it very bad, Miss North?"
"Pretty bad," she gasped. Then she tried to smile, but her white lips quivered piteously. The woman with the kind, calm face came back with a shining bit of silver in her hand. There was a sharp stab in Barbara's arm, and then, with incredible quickness, peace.
"What was it?" she asked, wondering.
"Poppies," answered the nurse. "They bring forgetfulness."
"Barbara," said the old man, sadly, "I wish I could help you bear it----"
"So you can, Daddy."
"Don't be afraid for me--it's coming out all right. And make me a little song."
"There is always a song," she reminded him. "Think how many times you have said to me, 'Always make a song, Barbara, no matter what comes.'"
The old man stirred uneasily in his chair. "What about, dear?"
"About the sea."
"The sea is so vast that it reaches around the world," he began, hesitatingly. "It sings upon the shore of every land, from the regions of perpetual ice and snow to the far tropic islands, where the sun forever shines. As it lies under the palms, all blue and silver, crooning so softly that you can scarcely hear it, you would not think it was the same sea that yesterday was raging upon an ice-bound shore.
"If you listen to its ever-changing music you can hear almost anything you please, for the sea goes everywhere. Ask, and the sea shall sing to you of the frozen north where half the year is darkness and the impassable waste of waters sweeps across the pole. Ask, and you shall hear of the distant islands, where there has never been snow, and the tide may even bring to you a bough of olive or a leaf of palm.
"Ask, and the sea will give you red and white coral, queer shells, mystically filled with its own weird music, and treasures of fairy-like lace-work and bloom. It will sing to you of cool, green caves where the waves creep sleepily up to the rocks and drift out drowsily with the ebb of the tide.
"It will sing of grey waves changing to foam in the path of the wind, and bring you the cry of the white gulls that speed ahead of the storm. It will sing to you of mermen and mermaids, chanting their own melodies to the accompaniment of harps with golden strings. Listen, and you shall hear the songs of many lands, merged into one by the sea that unites them all.
"It bears upon its breast the great white ships that carry messages from one land to another. Silks and spices and pearls are taken from place to place along the vast highways of the sea. And if, sometimes, in a blinding tumult of terror and despair, the men and ships go down, the sea, remorsefully, brings back the broken spars, and, at last, gives up the dead.
"Yet it is always beautiful, whether you see it grey or blue; whether it is mad with rage or moaning with pain, or only crooning a lullaby as the world goes to sleep. And in all the wonderful music there is one dominant chord, for the song of the sea, as of the world, is Love.
"Long ago, Barbara--so long ago that it is written in only the very oldest books, Love was born in the foam of the sea and came to dwell upon the shore. And so the sea, singing forever of Love, creeps around the world upon an unending quest. When the tide sweeps in with the cold grey waves, foam-crested, or in shining sapphire surges that break into pearls, it is only the sea searching eagerly for the lost. So the loneliness and the beauty, the longing and the pain, belong to Love as to the sea."
"Oh, Daddy," breathed Barbara, "I want it so."
"What, dear? The sea?"
"Yes. The music and the colour and the vastness of it. I can hardly wait until I can go."
There was a long silence. "Why didn't you tell me?" asked the old man. "There would have been some way, if I had only known."
"I don't know, Daddy. I think I've been waiting for this way, for it's the best way, after all. When I can walk and you can see, we'll go down together, shall we?"
"Yes, dear, surely."
"You must help me be patient, Daddy. It will be so hard for me to lie here, doing nothing."
"I wish I could read to you."
"You can talk to me, and that's better. Roger will come over some day and read to me, when he has time."
"He was with me yesterday, while----"
"I know," she answered, softly. "I asked him. I thought it would make it easier for you."
"My baby! You thought of your old father even then?"
"I'm always thinking of you, Daddy, because you and I are all each other has got. That sounds queer, but you know what I mean."
The calm, strong young woman in blue and white came back into the room. "She mustn't talk," she said, to the blind man. "To-morrow, perhaps. Come away now."
"Don't take him away from me," pleaded Barbara. "We'll be very good and not say a single word, won't we?"
"Not a word," he answered, "if it isn't best."
The afternoon wore away to sunset, the shadows grew long, and Barbara lay quietly, with her little hand in his. Long lines of light came over the hills and brought into the room some subtle suggestion of colour. Gradually, the pain came back, so keenly that it was not to be borne, and the kind woman with the bit of silver in her hand leaned over the bed once more. Quickly, the poppies brought their divine gift of peace again. And so, Barbara slept.
Then Ambrose North gently loosened the still fingers that were interlaced with his, bent over, and, so gently as not to waken her, took her boy-lover's kiss from her lips.
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