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The Dreams Come True
The hours Roger had taken from his work in the office had brought nothing but good to Barbara. She gained strength rapidly after she began to walk, and was soon able to dispense with the cane, though she could not walk easily, nor far. She tired quickly and was forced to rest often, but she went about the house slowly and even up and down the stairs.
Aunt Miriam made no comment of any sort. She did not say she was glad Barbara was well after twenty-two years of helplessness, even though she had taken entire care of her, and must have felt greatly relieved when the burden was lifted. She went about her work as quietly as ever, and fulfilled all her household duties with mechanical precision.
Spicy odours were wafted through the rooms, for Eloise had ordered enough jelly, sweet pickles, and preserves to supply a large family for two or three years. She had also bought quilts and rag rugs for all of her old-lady friends and taken the entire stock of candied orange peel for the afternoon teas which she expected to give during the Winter.
Barbara was hard at work upon the dainty lingerie Eloise had planned, and found, by a curious anomaly, that when she did not work so hard, she was able to accomplish more. The needle flew more swiftly when her fingers did not ache and the stitches blur indistinguishably with the fibre of the fabric. When Roger was not there to help her, she divided her day, by the clock, into hours of work and quarter-hours of exercise and rest.
She had been out of the gate twice, with Roger, and had walked up and down the road in front of the house, but, as yet, she had not gone beyond the little garden alone.
Upon the fair horizon of the future was one dark cloud of dread which even Doctor Conrad's positive assurance had mitigated only for a little time. Barbara knew her father and his stern, uncompromising righteousness. When the bandages were taken off and he saw the faded walls and dingy furniture, the worn rugs, and the pitiful remnant of damask at his place at the table; when he realised that his daughter had deceived him ever since she could talk at all, he must inevitably despise her, even though he tried to hide it.
Dimly, Barbara began to perceive the intangible price that is attached to the things of the spirit as well as to the material necessities of daily life. She was forced to surrender his love for her as the compensation for his sight, yet she was firmly resolved to keep, for him, the love that refused to reckon with the barrier of a grave, but triumphantly went past it to clasp the dead Beloved closer still.
Of late, she had been thinking much of her mother. Until Roger had found his father's letter, and she had received her own, upon her twenty-second birthday, she had felt no sense of loss. Constance had been a vague dream to her and little more, in spite of her father's grieving and her instinctive sympathy.
With the letters, however, had come a change. Barbara felt a certain shadowy relationship and an indefinite bereavement. She wondered how her mother had looked, what she had worn, and even how she had dressed her hair. Since her father had gone to the hospital, she had wondered more than ever, but got no satisfaction when she had once asked Aunt Miriam.
She finished the garment upon which she was working, threaded the narrow white ribbon into it, folded it in tissue paper and put it into the chest. It was the last of the second set and Eloise had ordered six. "Four more to do," thought Barbara. "I wonder whether she wants them all alike."
The afternoon shadows had begun to lengthen, and it was Saturday. It was hardly worth while to begin a new piece of work before Monday morning, especially since she wanted to ask Eloise about a new pattern. Doctor Conrad was coming down for the weekend, and probably both of them would be there late in the afternoon, or on Sunday.
"How glad he'll be," said Barbara, to herself. "He'll be surprised when he sees how well I can walk. And father--oh, if father could only come too." She was eager, in spite of her dread.
Simply for the sake of exercise, Barbara climbed the attic stairs and came down again. After she had rested, she tried it once more, but was so faint when she reached the top that she went into the attic and sat down in an old broken rocker. It was the only place in the house where she had not been since she could walk, and she rather enjoyed the novelty of it.
A decrepit sofa, with the springs hanging from under it, was against the wall at one side, far back under the eaves. It was of solid mahogany and had not been bought by the searchers for antiques because its rehabilitation would be so expensive. That and the rocker in which Barbara sat were the only pieces of furniture remaining.
There were several trunks, old-fashioned but little worn. One was Aunt Miriam's, one was her father's, and the others must have belonged to her dead mother. For the first time in her life, Barbara was curious about the trunks.
When she was quite rested, she went over to a small one which stood near the window, and opened it. A faint, musty odour greeted her, but there was no disconcerting flight of moths. Every woollen garment in the house had long ago been used by Aunt Miriam for rugs and braided mats. She had taken Constance's underwear for her own use when misfortune overtook them, and there was little else left.
Barbara lifted from the trunk a gown of heavy white brocade, figured with violets in lavender and palest green. It was yellow and faded and the silver thread that ran through the pattern was tarnished so that it was almost black. The skirt had a long train and around the low-cut bodice was a deep fall of heavy Duchess lace, yellowed to the exquisite tint of old ivory. The short sleeves were trimmed with lace of the same pattern, but only half as wide.
"Oh," said Barbara, aloud, "how lovely!"
There was a petticoat of rustling silk, and a pair of dainty white slippers, yellowed, too, by the slow passage of the years. Their silver buckles were tarnished, but their high heels were as coquettish as ever.
"What a little foot," thought Barbara. "I believe it was smaller than mine."
She took off her low shoe, and, like Cinderella, tried on the slipper. She was much surprised to find that it fitted, though the high heels felt queer. Her own shoe was more comfortable, and so she changed again, though she had quite made up her mind to wear the slippers sometime.
In the trunk, too, she found a white bonnet that she tried on, but without satisfaction, as there was no mirror in the attic. This one trunk evidently contained the finery for which Miriam had not been able to find use.
One by one, Barbara took out the garments, which were all of silk or linen--there was nothing there for the moths. The long bridal veil of rose point, that Barbara had sternly refused to sell, was yellow, too, but none the less lovely. There was a gold scent-bottle set with discoloured pearls, an amethyst brooch which no one would buy because it had three small gold tassels hanging from it, and a lace fan with tortoise-shell sticks, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A thrifty woman at the hotel had once offered two dollars for the fan, but Barbara had kept it, as she was sure it was worth more.
Down in the bottom of the trunk was an inlaid box that she did not remember having seen before. She slid back the cover and found a lace handkerchief, a broken cuff-button, a gold locket enamelled with black, a long fan-chain of gold, set with amethysts, a small gold-framed mirror evidently meant to be carried in a purse or hand-bag, a high shell comb inlaid with gold and set with amethysts, and ten of the dozen large, heavy gold hairpins which Ambrose North, in an extravagant mood, had ordered made for the shining golden braids of his girl-wife.
On the bottom of the box, face down, was a photograph. Barbara took it out, wonderingly, and started in amazement as her own face looked back at her. On the back was written, in the same clear hand as the letter: "For my son, or daughter. Constance North." Below was the date--just a month before Barbara was born.
The heavy hair, in the picture, was braided and wound around the shapely head. The high comb, the same that Barbara had just taken out of the box, added a finishing touch. Around the slender neck and fair, smooth shoulders fell the Duchess lace that trimmed the brocade gown. The amethyst brooch, with two of the three tassels plainly showing, was pinned into the lace on the left side, half-way to the shoulder.
But it was the face that interested Barbara most, as it was the counterpart of her own. There was the same broad, low forehead, the large, deep eyes with long lashes, the straight little nose, and the tender, girlish mouth with its short upper lip, and the same firm, round, dimpled chin. Even the expression was almost the same, but in Constance's deep eyes was a certain wistfulness that the faint smile of her mouth could not wholly deny.
The woman who looked back at her daughter seemed strangely youthful. Barbara felt, in a way, as though she were the mother and Constance the child, for she was older, now, than her mother had been when she died. The years of helplessness and struggle had aged Barbara, too.
The slanting sunbeams of late afternoon came into the attic, but Barbara still studied the sweet face of the picture. Constance was made for love, and love had come when it was too late. What tenderness she was capable of; what toilsome journeys she would undertake without fear, if her heart bade her go! And what courage must have nerved her dimpled hands when she opened the grey, mysterious door of the Unknown! There was no hint of weakness in the face, but Constance had died rather than to take the chance of betraying the man who held her pledge. Barbara's young soul answered in passionate loyalty to the wistfulness, the hunger, and the unspoken appeal.
"He shall never know, Mother, dear," she said aloud. "I promise you that he shall never know."
The shadows grew longer, and, at length, Barbara put the picture down. If she had on the gown, and twisted her braids around her head, she would look like her mother even more than now. She had a fancy to try it--to go downstairs and see what Aunt Miriam would say when she came in. Her eyes sparkled with delight when she drew on the long white stockings of finest silk and put on the white slippers with the tarnished silver buckles.
The gown was too long and a little too loose, but Barbara rejoiced in the faded brocade and in the rustle of the silk petticoat that cracked in several places when she put it on, the fabric was so frail. The ivory-tinted lace set off her shoulders beautifully, but she could only guess at the effect from the brief glimpses the tiny mirror gave her. She put on the amethyst brooch, hung the fan upon its chain and put it around her neck. Then she wound her braids around her head and fastened them securely with the gold hairpins. With the aid of the small-gold mirror, she put the comb in place, and loosened the soft hair on either side, so that it covered the tops of her ears.
She walked back and forth a few times, the full length of the attic, looking back to admire the sweep of her train. Then she sat down upon the decrepit sofa, trying to fancy herself a stately lady of long ago. The room was very still, and, without knowing it, Barbara had wearied herself with her unaccustomed exertion. Her white woollen gown and soft low shoes lay in a little heap on the floor near the window. She must not forget to take them when she went down to look in the mirror.
Presently, she stretched herself out upon the sofa, wondering, drowsily, whether her mother would have lain down to rest in that splendid brocade. She did not intend to sleep, but only to rest a little before going downstairs to surprise Aunt Miriam. Nevertheless, in a few minutes she was fast asleep and dreaming.
* * * * * * *
Eloise went down to the three o'clock train to meet Allan, and was much surprised when Ambrose North came, too. His eyes were bandaged, but otherwise he seemed as well as ever. They offered to go home with him, but he refused, saying that he could go alone as well as he ever had.
They strolled after him, however, keeping at a respectful distance, until they saw him enter the grey, weather-worn gate; then they turned back.
"Is he all right, Allan?" asked Eloise, anxiously.
"I hope so--indeed, I'm very sure he is. The operation turned out to be an extremely simple one, though it wasn't even dreamed of twenty years ago. Barbara's case was simple too,--it's all in the knowing how. She has made one of the quickest recoveries on record, owing to the fact that her body is almost that of a child. When you come down to the root of the matter, surgery is merely the job of a skilled mechanic."
"But you'd be angry if anyone else said that."
"When do the bandages come off?"
"I'm going up to-morrow. They'd have been off over a week ago, but Barbara insisted that she must see him first and ask him to forgive her for deceiving him. She thinks she's a criminal."
"Dear little saint," said Eloise, softly. "I wish none of us ever did anything more wicked than that."
"So do I, but there is an active remnant of a New-England conscience somewhere in Barbara. I'm not sure that the old man hasn't it, too."
"Do you suppose, for a moment, that he won't forgive her?"
"If he doesn't," returned Allan, concisely, "I'll break his ungrateful old neck. I hope she won't stir him up very much, though--he's got a bad heart."
Still, the old man showed no sign of weakness as he went briskly up the walk and knocked at his own door. When Miriam opened it, astonishment made her welcome almost inarticulate, for she had not expected him home so soon. He gave her the small black satchel that he carried, his coat and hat.
"How is Barbara?" he asked, eagerly. "How is my little girl?"
"Well enough," answered Miriam.
"Is she asleep?"
Miriam went to the stairs and called out: "Barbara! Oh, Barbara!" There was no answer.
She started upstairs, but he called her back. "Don't wake her," he said. "Perhaps I can take her supper up to her."
"Suit yourself," responded Miriam, shortly.
She did not see fit to tell him that Barbara was up and could walk. Doctor Conrad could have told him, if he had wanted to--at any rate, it was not Miriam's affair. She bitterly resented the fact that he had not even shaken hands with her when he came home, after his long absence. She hung up his coat and hat, lighted the fire, as the room was cool, went out into the kitchen, and closed the door.
The familiar atmosphere and the comfortable chair in which he sat brought him that peculiar peace of home which is one of the greatest gifts travel can bestow. Even the ticking of the clock came to his senses gratefully. Home at last, after all the pain, the dreary nights and days of acute loneliness, and only one more day to wait--perhaps.
"To see again," he thought. "I am glad I came home first. To-morrow, if God is good to me, I shall see my baby--and the letter. I have dreamed so often that she could walk and I could see!"
He took the two sheets of paper from his pocket and spread them out upon his knee. He moved his hands lovingly across the pages--the one written upon, the other blank. "She died loving me," he said to himself. "To-morrow I shall see it, in her own hand."
Sunset flamed behind the hills and brought into the little room faint threads of gold and amethyst that wove a luminous tapestry with the dusk. The clock ticked steadily, and with every cheery tick brought nearer that dear To-Morrow of which he had dreamed so long. He speculated upon the difference made by the slow passage of a few hours. To-morrow, at this time, his bandages would be off--then why not to-day?
The letter fell to the floor and he picked it up, one sheet at a time, fretfully. The bandage around his temples and the gauze and cotton held firmly against his eyes all at once grew intolerable. It was the last few miles to the weary traveller, the last hour that lay between the lover and his beloved, the darkness before the dawn. He had been very patient, but at last had come to the end.
If only the bandages were off! "If they were," he thought, "I need not open my eyes--I could keep them closed until to-morrow." He raised his hands and worked carefully at the surgical knots until the outer strip was loosened. He wound it slowly off, then cautiously removed the layers of cotton and gauze.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he leaned back in his chair, with his eyes closed, determined to keep faith with the physicians, and, above all, with Doctor Conrad, who had been so very kind. There was no pain at all--only weakness. If the room were absolutely dark, perhaps he might open his eyes for a moment or two. Why should to-morrow be so different from to-day?
The letter was in his hands--that dear letter which said, "I have loved him, I love him still, and have never loved him more than I do to-day." The temptation worked subtly in his mind as strong wine might in his blood. Perhaps, after all, he could not see--the doctors had not given him a positive promise.
The fear made him faint, then surging hope and infinite longing merged into perfect belief--and trust. Unable to endure the strain of waiting longer, he opened his eyes, and as swiftly closed them again.
"I can see," he whispered, shrilly. "Oh, I can see!"
The blood beat hard in his pulses. He waited, wisely, until he was calm, then opened his eyes once more. The room was not dark, but was filled with the soft, golden glow of sunset--a light that illumined and, strangely, brought no pain. Objects long unfamiliar save by touch loomed large and dark before him. Remembered colours came back, mellowed by the half-light. Distances readjusted themselves and perspectives appeared in the transparent mist that seemed to veil everything. He closed his eyes, and said, aloud: "I can see! Oh, I can see!"
Little by little the mist disappeared and objects became clear. The velvety softness of the last light lay kindly upon the dingy room. When he tried to read the letter the words danced on the page. Trembling, he rose and took it over to the window, where the light was stronger. As he stood there, with his back to the door, Miriam, unheard, came into the room.
The bandages on the floor, the eagerness in every line of his body as he stood at the window, and the letter in his hand, gave her, in a single instant, all the information she needed. Her heart beat high with wild hope--the hour of her vengeance had come at last.
She feared he would not be able to read it. Then she remembered the yellowed page on which the writing stood out as clearly as though it had been large print. If he could see at all, he could see that.
Little by little, sustained and supported by his immeasurable longing, the man at the window spelled out the words, in an eager whisper:
"You who have loved me since the beginning of time--will understand and forgive me--for what I do to-day. I do it because I am not strong enough--to go on--and do my duty--by those who need me."
Miriam nodded with satisfaction. At last he knew why Constance had taken her own life.
"If there should be--meeting--past the grave--some day you and I--shall come together again--with no barrier between us." He put his hand to his forehead as though he did not quite understand, but hurried on to the next sentence, for his eyes were failing under the strain.
"I take with me--the knowledge of your love--which has strengthened--and sustained me--since the day--we first met--and must make--even a grave--warm and sweet."
The light in the room seemed to Miriam to be not wholly of the golden sunset. Some radiance of soul must have made that clear soft light which veiled but did not hide. It was sunset, and yet the light was that of a Summer afternoon.
"And remember this--dead though I am--I love you still--you--and my little lame baby--who needs me so--and whom--I must leave--because I am not strong--enough to stay. Through life--and in death--and eternally yours--Constance."
There was a tense, unbearable silence. Miriam moistened her parched lips and chafed her cold hands. "At last," she thought. "At last."
"She died loving me," said Ambrose North, in a shrill whisper. His eyes were closed again, for the strain had hurt--terribly. Dimly, he remembered the other letter. This was not the same, but the other had been to Barbara, and not to him. He did not stop to wonder how it came to be in his pocket. It sufficed that some Angel of God, working through devious ways and long years, had given him at last, face to face, the assurance he had hungered for since the day Constance died.
In a blinding instant, Miriam remembered that no names had been mentioned in the letter. He had made a mistake--but she could set him right. Constance should not triumph again, even in an hour like this.
Ambrose North turned back into the shadow, fearing to face the window. The woman cowering in the corner advanced steadily to meet him. He saw her, vaguely, when his eyes became accustomed to the change of lights.
"Miriam!" he cried, transfigured by joy. "She died loving me! I have it here. It was only because she was not strong--she was ill, and she never let us know." He held forth the letter with a shaking hand.
"She--" began Miriam.
"She died loving me!" he cried. "Oh, Miriam, can you not see? I have it here." His voice rang through the house like some far silver bugle chanting triumph over a field of the slain. "She died loving me!"
* * * * * * *
Barbara had already wakened and she sat up, rubbing her eyes. The attic was almost dark. She went downstairs hurriedly, forgetting her borrowed finery until her long train caught on a projecting splinter and had to be loosened. When she reached her own door she started toward her mirror, anxious to see how she looked, but that triumphant cry from the room below made her heart stand still.
White as death and strangely fearful, she went down and into the living-room, where the last light deepened the shadows and lay lovingly upon her father's illumined face.
Barbara smiled and went toward him, with her hands outstretched in welcome. Miriam shrank back into the farthest shadows, shaking as though she had seen a ghost.
There was an instant's tense silence. All the forces of life and love seemed suddenly to have concentrated into the space of a single heart-beat. Then the old man spoke.
"Constance," he said, unsteadily, "have you come back, Beloved? It has been so long!"
Radiant with beauty no woman had ever worn before, Barbara went to him, still smiling, and the old man's arms closed hungrily about her. "I dreamed you were dead," he sobbed, "but I knew you died loving me. Where is our baby, Constance? Where is my Flower of the Dusk?"
Even as he spoke, the overburdened heart failed beneath its burden of joy. He staggered and would have fallen, had not Miriam caught him in her strong arms. Together, they helped him to the couch, where he lay down, breathing with great difficulty.
"Constance, darling," he gasped, feebly, "where is our baby? I want Barbara."
For the sake of the dead and the living, Barbara supremely put self aside. "I do not know," she whispered, "just where Barbara is. Am I not enough?"
"Enough for earth," he breathed in answer, "and--for--heaven--too. Kiss me--Constance--just once--dear--before----"
Barbara bent down. He lifted his shaking hands caressingly to the splendid crown of golden hair, the smooth, fair cheeks, the perfect neck and shoulders, and died, enraptured, with her kiss upon his lips.
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