"There is but one remedy for your complaint." Doctor Suydam settled deeper into his chair. "Marry the girl."
"That is the only piece of your professional advice I ever cared to follow. But how?"
"Any way you can--use force if necessary--only marry her. Otherwise I predict all sorts of complications for you--melancholia, brain-fag, bankruptcy--"
Austin laughed. "Could you write me a prescription?"
"Oh, she'll have you, Bob. You don't seem to realize that you are a good catch."
Austin finished buckling his puttee before rising to his full height. "That doesn't mean anything to her. She doesn't need to make a catch."
"Nonsense! She's just like all the others, only richer and nicer. Go at her as if she were the corn-market; she won't be half so hard to corner. You have made a name for yourself, and a blamed sight more money than you deserve; you are young--comparatively, I mean."
The elder man stroked his shock of iron-gray hair for answer.
"Well, at any rate you are a picturesque personage, even if you can't wear riding-clothes."
"Doesn't a man look like the devil in these togs?" Austin posed awkwardly in front of a mirror.
"There's only one person who can look worse in riding-clothes than a man--that's a woman."
"What heresy, particularly in a society doctor! But I agree with you. I learned to ride on her account, you know. As a matter of fact, I hate it. The sight of a horse fills me with terror."
Doctor Suydam laughed outright at this. "She tells me that you have a very good seat."
"Really!" Austin's eyes gleamed suddenly. "You know I never had a chance to ride when I was a youngster--in fact, I never had an opportunity to do anything except work. That's what makes me so crude and awkward. What I know I have picked up during the last few years."
"You make me tired!" declared the former. "You aren't--"
"Oh, I don't skate on waxed floors nor spill tea, nor clutch at my chauffeur in a tight place, but you know what I mean. I feel lonesome in a dress-suit, a butler fills me with gloom, and--Well, I'm not one of you, that's all."
"Perhaps that's what makes a hit with Marmion. She's used to the other kind."
"It seems to me that I have always worked," ruminated the former speaker. "I don't remember that I ever had time to play, even after I came to the city. It's a mighty sad thing to rob a boy of his childhood; it makes him a dull, unattractive sort when he grows up. I used to read about people like Miss Moore, but I never expected to know them until I met you. Of course, that corn deal rather changed things."
"Well, I should rather say it did!" Suydam agreed, with emphasis.
"The result is that when I am with her I forget the few things I have done that are worth while, and I become the farm-hand again. I'm naturally rough and angular, and she sees it."
"Oh, you're too sensitive! You have a heart like a girl underneath that saturnine front of yours, and while you look like the Sphinx, you are really as much of a kid at heart as I am. Where do you ride to-day?"
"What horse is she riding?"
The doctor shook his head. "Too many automobiles on the Drive. He's a rotten nag for a woman, anyhow. His mouth is as tough as a stirrup, and he has the disposition of a tarantula. Why doesn't she stick to the Park?"
"You know Marmion."
"Say, wouldn't it be great if Pointer bolted and you saved her life? She couldn't refuse you then."
Austin laughed. "That's not exactly the way I'd care to win her. However, if Pointer bolted I'd probably get rattled and fall off my own horse. I don't like the brutes. Come on, I'm late."
"That's right," grumbled the other, "leave me here while you make love to the nicest girl in New York. I'm going down to the office and amputate somebody."
They descended the single flight to the street, where Austin's groom was struggling with a huge black.
"It's coming pretty soft for you brokers," the doctor growled, as his companion swung himself into the saddle. "The next time I get a friend I'll keep him to myself."
Austin leaned forward with a look of grave anxiety upon his rugged features and said: "Wish me luck, Doc. I'm going to ask her to-day."
"Good for you, old fellow." There was great fondness in the younger man's eyes as he wrung the rider's hand and waved him adieu, then watched him disappear around the corner.
"She'll take him," he mused, half aloud. "She's a sensible girl even if all New York has done its best to spoil her." He hailed a taxicab and was hurried to his office.
It was perhaps two hours later that he was called on the telephone.
"Hello! Yes, yes! What is it?" he cried, irritably. "Mercy Hospital! What?" The young physician started. "Hurt, you say? Run-away? Go on, quick!" He listened with whitening face, then broke in abruptly: "Of course he sent for me. I'll be right up."
He slammed the receiver upon its hook and, seizing his hat, bolted out through a waiting-room full of patients. His car was in readiness, and he called to his chauffeur in such tones that the fellow vaulted to his seat.
"Go up Madison Avenue; there's less traffic there. And for God's sake hurry!"
During two years' service with New York's most fashionable physician the driver had never received a command like this, and he opened up his machine. A policeman warned him at Thirty-third Street and the car slowed down, at which Suydam leaned forward, crying, roughly:
"To hell with regulations! There's a man dying!"
The last word was jerked from him as he was snapped back into his seat. Regardless of admonitory shouts from patrolmen, the French car sang its growing song, while truck-drivers bellowed curses and pedestrians fled from crossings at the scream of its siren. A cross-town car blocked them, and the brakes screeched in agony, while Doctor Suydam was well-nigh catapulted into the street; then they were under way again, with the car leaping from speed to speed. It was the first time the driver had ever dared to disregard those upraised, white-gloved hands, and it filled his joy-riding soul with exultation. A street repair loomed ahead, whereupon, with a sickening skid, they swung into a side street; the gears clashed again, and an instant later they shot out upon Fifth Avenue. At the next corner they lay motionless in a blockade, while the motor shuddered; then they dodged through an opening where the mud-guards missed by an inch and were whirling west toward Broadway. At 109th Street a bicycle officer stared in amazement at the dwindling number beneath the rear axle, then ducked his head and began to pedal. He overhauled the speeding machine as it throbbed before the doors of Mercy Hospital, to be greeted by a grinning chauffeur who waved him toward the building and told of a doctor's urgency.
Inside, Doctor Suydam, pallid of face and shaking in a most unprofessional manner, was bending over a figure in riding-clothes, the figure of a tall, muscular man who lay silent, deaf to his words of greeting.
They told him all there was to tell in the deadly, impersonal way of hospitals, while he nodded swift comprehension. There had been a runaway--a woman on a big, white-eyed bay, that had taken fright at an automobile; a swift rush up the Driveway, a lunge over the neck of the pursuing horse, then a man wrenched from his saddle and dragged beneath cruel, murderous hoofs. The bay had gone down, and the woman was senseless when the ambulance arrived, but she had revived and had been hurried to her home. In the man's hand they had found the fragment of a bridle rein gripped with such desperation that they could not remove it until he regained consciousness. He had asked regarding the girl's safety, then sighed himself into oblivion again. They told Suydam that he would die.
With sick heart the listener cursed all high-spirited women and high-strung horses, declaring them to be works of the devil, like automobiles; then he went back to the side of his friend, where other hands less unsteady were at work.
"Poor lonely old Bob!" he murmured. "Not a soul to care except Marmion and me, and God knows whether she cares or not."
* * * * *
But Robert Austin did not die, although the attending surgeons said he would, said he should, in fact, unless all the teachings of their science were at fault. He even offended the traditions of the hospital by being removed to his own apartments in a week. There Suydam, who had watched him night and day, told him that Miss Moore had a broken shoulder and hence could not come to see him.
"Poor girl!" said Austin, faintly. "If I'd known more about horses I might have saved her."
"If you'd known more about horses you'd have let Pointer run," declared his friend. "Nobody but an idiot or a Bob Austin would have taken the chance you did. How is your head?"
The sick man closed his eyes wearily. "It hurts all the time. What's the matter with it?"
"We've none of us been able to discover what isn't the matter with it! Why in thunder did you hold on so long?"
"Because I--I love her, I suppose."
"Did you ask her to marry you?" Suydam had been itching to ask the question for days.
"No, I was just getting to it when Pointer bolted. I--I'm slow at such things." There was a moment's pause. "Doc, what's the matter with my eyes? I can't see very well."
"Don't talk so much," ordered the physician. "You're lucky to be here at all. Thanks to that copper-riveted constitution of yours, you'll get well."
But it seemed that the patient was fated to disappoint the predictions of his friend as well as those of the surgeons at Mercy Hospital. He did not recover in a manner satisfactory to his medical adviser, and although he regained the most of his bodily vigor, the injury to his eyes baffled even the most skilled specialists.
He was very brave about it, however, and wrung the heart of Doctor Suydam by the uncomplaining fortitude with which he bore examination after examination. Learned oculists theorized vaporously about optic atrophies, fractures, and brain pressures of one sort and another; and meanwhile Robert Austin, in the highest perfection of bodily vigor, in the fullest possession of those faculties that had raised him from an unschooled farm-boy to a position of eminence in the business world, went slowly blind. The shadows crept in upon him with a deadly, merciless certainty that would have filled the stoutest heart with gloom, and yet he maintained a smiling stoicism that deceived all but his closest associates. To Doctor Suydam, however, the incontestable progress of the malady was frightfully tragic. He alone knew the man's abundant spirits, his lofty ambitions, and his active habits. He alone knew of the overmastering love that had come so late and was destined to go unvoiced, and he raved at the maddening limits of his profession. In Austin's presence he strove to be cheerful and to lighten the burden he knew was crushing the sick man; but at other times he bent every energy toward a discovery of some means to check the affliction, some hand more skilled than those he knew of. In time, however, he recognized the futility of his efforts, and resigned himself to the worst. He had a furious desire to acquaint Marmion Moore with the truth, and to tell her, with all the brutal frankness he could muster, of her part in this calamity. But Austin would not hear of it.
"She doesn't dream of the truth," the invalid told him. "And I don't want her to learn. She thinks I'm merely weak, and it grieves her terribly to know that I haven't recovered. If she really knew--it might ruin her life, for she is a girl who feels deeply. I want to spare her that; it's the least I can do."
"But she'll find it out some time."
"I think not. She comes to see me every day--"
"Yes. I'm expecting her soon."
"And she doesn't know?"
Austin shook his head. "I never let her see there's anything the matter with my sight. She drives up with her mother, and I wait for her there in the bay-window. It's getting hard for me to distinguish her now, but I recognize the hoofbeats--I can tell them every time."
"But--I don't understand."
"I pretend to be very weak," explained the elder man, with a guilty flush. "I sit in the big chair yonder and my Jap boy waits on her. She is very kind." Austin's voice grew husky. "I'm sorry to lose sight of the Park out yonder, and the trees and the children--they're growing indistinct. I--I like children. I've always wanted some for myself. I've dreamed about--that." His thin, haggard face broke into a wistful smile. "I guess that is all over with now."
"Why?" questioned Suydam, savagely. "Why don't you ask her to marry you, Bob? She couldn't refuse--and God knows you need her."
"That's just it; she couldn't refuse. This is the sort of thing a fellow must bear alone. She's too young, and beautiful, and fine to be harnessed up to a worn-out old--cripple."
"Cripple!" The other choked. "Don't talk like that. Don't be so blamed resigned. It tears my heart out. I--I--why, I believe I feel this more than you do."
Austin turned his face to the speaker with a look of such tragic suffering that the younger man fell silent.
"I'm glad I can hide my feelings," Austin told him, slowly, "for that is what I have to do every instant she is with me. I don't wish to inflict unnecessary pain upon my friends, but don't you suppose I know what this means? It means the destruction of all my fine hopes, the death of all I hold dear in the world. I love my work, for I am--or I was--a success; this means I must give it up. I'm strong in body and brain; this robs me of my usefulness. All my life I have prayed that I might some time love a woman; that time has come, but this means I must give her up and be lonely all my days. I must grope my way through the dark with never a ray of light to guide me. Do you know how awful the darkness is?" He clasped his hands tightly. "I must go hungering through the night, with a voiceless love to torture me. Just at the crowning point of my life I've been snuffed out. I must fall behind and see my friends desert me."
"Bob!" cried the other, in shocked denial.
"Oh, you know it will come to that. People don't like to feel pity forever tugging at them. I've been a lonely fellow and my friends are numbered. For a time they will come to see me, and try to cheer me up; they will even try to include me in their pleasures; then when it is no longer a new story and their commiseration has worn itself out they will gradually fall away. It always happens so. I'll be 'poor Bob Austin,' and I'll go feeling my way through life an object of pity, a stumbling, incomplete thing that has no place to fill, no object to work for, no one to care. God! I'm not the sort to go blind! Where's the justice of it? I've lived clean. Why did this happen to me? Why? Why? I know what the world is; I've been a part of it. I've seen the spring and the autumn colors and I've watched the sunsets. I've looked into men's faces and read their souls, and when you've done that you can't live in darkness. I can't and--I won't!"
"What do you mean?"
"I'm going away."
"When I can no longer see Marmion Moore and before my affliction becomes known to her. Where--you can guess."
"Oh, that's cowardly, Bob! You're not that sort. You mustn't! It's unbelievable," his friend cried, in a panic.
Austin smiled bitterly. "We have discussed that too often, and--I'm not sure that what I intend doing is cowardly. I can't go now, for the thing is too fresh in her memory, she might learn the truth and hold herself to blame; but when she has lost the first shock of it I shall walk out quietly and she won't even suspect. Other interests will come into her life; I'll be only a memory. Then--" After a pause he went on, "I couldn't bear to see her drop away with the rest."
"Don't give up yet," urged the physician. "She is leaving for the summer, and while she is gone we'll try that Berlin chap. He'll be here in August."
"And he will fail, as the others did. He will lecture some clinic about me, that's all. Marmion will hear that my eyes have given out from overwork, or something like that. Then I'll go abroad, and--I won't come back." Austin, divining the rebellion in his friend's heart, said, quickly: "You're the only one who could enlighten her, Doc, but you won't do it. You owe me too much."
"I--I suppose I do," acknowledged Suydam, slowly. "I owe you more than I can ever repay--"
"Wait--" The sick man raised his hand, while a sudden light blazed up in his face. "She's coming!"
To the doctor's trained ear the noises of the street rose in a confused murmur, but Austin spoke in an awed, breathless tone, almost as if he were clairvoyant.
"I can hear the horses. She's coming to--see me."
"I'll go," exclaimed the visitor, quickly, but the other shook his head.
"I'd rather have you stay."
Austin was poised in an attitude of the intensest alertness, his angular, awkward body was drawn to its full height, his lean face was lighted by some hidden fire that lent it almost beauty.
"She's getting out of the carriage," he cried, in a nervous voice; then he felt his way to his accustomed arm-chair. Suydam was about to go to the bay-window when he paused, regarding his friend curiously.
"What are you doing?"
The blind man had begun to beat time with his hand, counting under his breath: "One! Two! Three!--"
"She'll knock when I reach twenty-five. 'Sh! 'sh!" He continued his pantomime, and Suydam realized that from repeated practice Austin had gauged to a nicety the seconds Marmion Moore required to mount the stairs. This was his means of holding himself in check. True to prediction, at "Twenty-five" a gentle knock sounded, and Suydam opened the door.
"Come in, Marmion."
The girl paused for the briefest instant on the threshold, and the doctor noted her fleeting disappointment at seeing him; then she took his hand.
"This is a surprise," she exclaimed. "I haven't seen you for ever so long."
Her anxious glance swept past him to the big, awkward figure against the window's light. Austin was rising with apparent difficulty, and she glided to him.
"Please! Don't rise! How many times have I told you not to exert yourself?"
Suydam noted the gentle, proprietary tone of her voice, and it amazed him.
"I--am very glad that you came to see me." The afflicted man's voice was jerky and unmusical. "How are you to-day, Miss?"
"He shouldn't rise, should he?" Miss Moore appealed to the physician. "He is very weak and shouldn't exert himself."
The doctor wished that his friend might see the girl's face as he saw it; he suddenly began to doubt his own judgment of women.
"Oh, I'm doing finely," Austin announced. "Won't you be seated?" He waved a comprehensive gesture, and Suydam, marveling at the manner in which the fellow concealed his infirmity, brought a chair for the caller.
"I came alone to-day. Mother is shopping," Miss Moore was saying. "See! I brought these flowers to cheer up your room." She held up a great bunch of sweet peas. "I love the pink ones, don't you?"
Austin addressed the doctor. "Miss Moore has been very kind to me; I'm afraid she feels it her duty--"
"No! No!" cried the girl.
"She rarely misses a day, and she always brings flowers. I'm very fond of bright colors."
Suydam cursed at the stiff formality in the man's tone. How could any woman see past that glacial front and glimpse the big, aching heart beyond? Austin was harsh and repellent when the least bit self-conscious, and now he was striving deliberately to heighten the effect.
The physician wondered why Marmion Moore had gone even thus far in showing her gratitude, for she was not the self-sacrificing kind. As for a love match between two such opposite types, Suydam could not conceive of it. Even if the girl understood the sweet, simple nature of this man, even if she felt her own affections answer to his, Suydam believed he knew the women of her set too well to imagine that she could bring herself to marry a blind man, particularly one of no address.
"We leave for the mountains to-morrow," Marmion said, "so I came to say good-by, for a time."
"I--shall miss your visits," Austin could not disguise his genuine regret, "but when you return I shall be thoroughly recovered. Perhaps we can ride again."
"Never!" declared Miss Moore. "I shall never ride again. Think of the suffering I've caused you. I--I--am dreadfully sorry."
To Suydam's amazement, he saw the speaker's eyes fill with tears. A doubt concerning the correctness of his surmises came over him and he rose quickly. After all, he reflected, she might see and love the real Bob as he did, and if so she might wish to be alone with him in this last hour. But Austin laughed at his friend's muttered excuse.
"You know there's nobody waiting for you. That's only a pretense to find livelier company. You promised to dine with me." To Miss Moore he explained: "He isn't really busy; why, he has been complaining for an hour that the heat has driven all his patients to the country, and that he is dying of idleness."
The girl's expression altered curiously. She shrank as if wounded; she scanned the speaker's face with startled eyes before turning with a strained smile to say:
"So, Doctor, we caught you that time. That comes from being a high-priced society physician. Why don't you practise among the masses? I believe the poor are always in need of help."
"I really have an engagement," Suydam muttered.
"Then break it for Mr. Austin's sake. He is lonely and--I must be going in a moment."
The three talked for a time in the manner all people adopt for a sick-room, then the girl rose and said, with her palm in Austin's hand:
"I owe you so much that I can never hope to repay you, but you--you will come to see me frequently this season. Promise! You won't hide yourself, will you?"
The blind man smiled his thanks and spoke his farewell with meaningless politeness; then, as the physician prepared to see her to her carriage, Miss Moore said:
"No! Please stay and gossip with our invalid. It's only a step."
She walked quickly to the door, flashed them a smile, and was gone.
Suydam heard his patient counting as before.
"One! Two! Three--!"
At "Twenty-five" the elder man groped his way to the open bay-window and bowed at the carriage below. There came the sound of hoofs and rolling wheels, and the doctor, who had taken stand beside his friend, saw Marmion Moore turn in her seat and wave a last adieu. Austin continued to nod and smile in her direction, even after the carriage was lost to view; then he felt his way back to the arm-chair and sank limply into it.
"Gone! I--I'll never be able to see her again."
Suydam's throat tightened miserably. "Could you see her at all?"
"Only her outlines; but when she comes back in the fall I'll be as blind as a bat." He raised an unsteady hand to his head and closed his eyes. "I can stand anything except that! To lose sight of her dear face--" The force of his emotion wrenched a groan from him.
"I don't know what to make of her," said the other. "Why didn't you let me go, Bob? It was her last good-by; she wanted to be alone with you. She might have--"
"That's it!" exclaimed Austin. "I was afraid of myself; afraid I'd speak if I had the chance." His voice was husky as he went on. "It's hard--hard, for sometimes I think she loves me, she's so sweet and so tender. At such times I'm a god. But I know it can't be; that it is only pity and gratitude that prompts her. Heaven knows I'm uncouth enough at best, but now I have to exaggerate my rudeness. I play a part--the part of a lumbering, stupid lout, while my heart is breaking." He bowed his head in his hands, closing his dry, feverish eyes once more. "It's cruelly hard. I can't keep it up."
The other man laid a hand on his shoulder, saying: "I don't know whether you're doing right or not. I half suspect you are doing Marmion a bitter wrong."
"Oh, but she can't--she can't love me!" Austin rose as if frightened. "She might yield to her impulse and--well, marry me, for she has a heart of gold, but it wouldn't last. She would learn some time that it wasn't real love that prompted the sacrifice. Then I should die."
The specialist from Berlin came, but he refused to operate, declaring bluntly that there was no use, and all during the long, hot summer days Robert Austin sat beside his open window watching the light die out of the world, waiting, waiting, for the time to make his sacrifice.
Suydam read Marmion's cheery letters aloud, wondering the while at the wistful note they sounded now and then. He answered them in his own handwriting, which she had never seen.
One day came the announcement that she was returning the first week in October. Already September was partly gone, so Austin decided to sail in a week. At his dictation Suydam wrote to her, saying that the strain of overwork had rendered a long vacation necessary. The doctor writhed internally as he penned the careful sentences, wondering if the hurt of the deliberately chosen words would prevent her sensing the truth back of them. As days passed and no answer came he judged it had.
The apartment was stripped and bare, the trunks were packed on the afternoon before Austin's departure. All through the dreary mockery of the process the blind man had withstood his friend's appeal, his stern face set, his heavy heart full of a despairing stubbornness. Now, being alone at last, he groped his way about the premises to fix them in his memory; then he sank into his chair beside the window.
He heard a knock at the door and summoned the stranger to enter, then he rose with a gasp of dismay. Marmion Moore was greeting him with sweet, yet hesitating effusiveness.
"I--I thought you were not coming back until next week," he stammered.
"We changed our plans." She searched his face as best she could in the shaded light, a strange, anxious expression upon her own. "Your letter surprised me."
"The doctor's orders," he said, carelessly. "They say I have broken down."
"I know! I know what caused it!" she panted. "You never recovered from that accident. You did not tell me the truth. I've always felt that you were hiding something from me. Why? Oh, why?"
"Nonsense!" He undertook to laugh, but failed in a ghastly manner. "I've been working too hard. Now I'm paying the penalty."
"How long will you be gone?" she queried.
"Oh, I haven't decided. A long time, however." His tone bewildered her. "It is the first vacation I ever had; I want to make the most of it."
"You--you were going away without saying good-by to--your old friends?" Her lips were white, and her brave attempt to smile would have told him the truth had he seen it, but he only had her tone to go by, so he answered, indifferently:
"All my arrangements were made; I couldn't wait."
"You are offended with me," Miss Moore said, after a pause. "How have I hurt you? What is it; please? I--I have been too forward, perhaps?"
Austin dared not trust himself to answer, and when he made no sign the girl went on, painfully:
"I'm sorry. I didn't want to seem bold. I owe you so much; we were such good friends--" In spite of her efforts her voice showed her suffering.
The man felt his lonely heart swell with the wild impulse to tell her all, to voice his love in one breathless torrent of words that would undeceive her. The strain of repression lent him added brusqueness when he strove to explain, and his coldness left her sorely hurt. His indifference filled her with a sense of betrayal; it chilled the impulsive yearning in her breast. She had battled long with herself before coming and now she repented of her rashness, for it was plain he did not need her. This certainty left her sick and listless, therefore she bade him adieu a few moments later, and with aching throat went blindly out and down the stairs.
The instant she was gone Austin leaped to his feet; the agony of death was upon his features. Breathlessly he began to count:
"One! Two! Three--!"
He felt himself smothering, and with one sweep of his hand ripped the collar from his throat.
"Five! Six! Seven--!"
He was battling like a drowning man, for, in truth, the very breath of his life was leaving him. A drumming came into his ears. He felt that he must call out to her before it was too late. He was counting aloud now, his voice like the moan of a man on the rack.
A frenzy to voice his sufferings swept over him, but he held himself. Only a moment more and she would be gone; her life would be spared this dark shadow, and she would never know, but he--he would indeed be face to face with darkness.
Toward the last he was reeling, but he continued to tell off the seconds with the monotonous regularity of a timepiece, his every power centered on that process. The idea came to him that he was counting his own flickering pulse-throbs for the last time. With a tremendous effort of will he smoothed his face and felt his way to the open window, for by now she must be entering the landau. A moment later and she would turn to waft him her last adieu. Her last! God! How the seconds lagged! That infernal thumping in his ears had drowned the noises from the street below. He felt that for all time the torture of this moment would live with him.
Then he smiled! He smiled blindly out into the glaring sunlight, and bowed. And bowed and smiled again, clinging to the window-casing to support himself. By now she must have reached the corner. He freed one hand and waved it gaily, then with outflung arms he stumbled back into the room, the hot tears coursing down his cheeks.
Marmion Moore halted upon the stairs and felt mechanically for her gold chatelaine. She recalled dropping it upon the center-table as she went forward with hands outstretched to Austin; so she turned back, then hesitated. But he was leaving to-morrow; surely he would not misinterpret the meaning of her reappearance. Summoning her self-control, she remounted the stairs quickly.
The door was half ajar as she had left it in her confusion. Mustering a careless smile, she was about to knock, then paused. Austin was facing her in the middle of the room, beating time. He was counting aloud--but was that his voice? In the brief instant she had been gone he had changed astoundingly. Moreover, notwithstanding the fact that she stood plainly revealed, he made no sign of recognition, but merely counted on and on, with the voice of a dying man. She divined that something was sadly amiss; she wondered for an instant if the man had lost his senses.
She stood transfixed, half-minded to flee, yet held by some pitying desire to help; then she saw him reach forward and grope his way uncertainly to the window. In his progress he stumbled against a chair; he had to feel for the casing. Then she knew.
Marmion Moore found herself inside the room, staring with wide, affrighted eyes at the man whose life she had spoiled. She pressed her hands to her bosom to still its heavings. She saw Austin nodding down at the street below; she saw his ghastly attempt to smile; she heard the breath sighing from his lungs and heard him muttering her name. Then he turned and lurched past her, groping, groping for his chair. She cried out, sharply, in a stricken voice:
The man froze in his tracks; he swung his head slowly from side to side, as if listening.
"What!" The word came like the crack of a gun. Then, after a moment, "Marmion!" He spoke her name as if to test his own hearing. It was the first time she had ever heard him use it.
She slipped forward until within an arm's-length of him, then stretched forth a wildly shaking hand and passed it before his unwinking eyes, as if she still disbelieved. Then he heard her moan.
"Marmion!" he cried again. "My God! little girl, I--thought I heard you go!"
"Then this, this is the reason," she said. "Oh-h-h!"
"What are you doing here? Why did you come back?" he demanded, brutally.
"I forgot my--No! God sent me back!"
There was a pause, during which the man strove to master himself; then he asked, in the same harsh accents:
"How long have you been here?"
"Long enough to see--and to understand."
"Well, you know the truth at last. I--have gone--blind." The last word caused his lips to twitch. He knew from the sound that she was weeping bitterly. "Please don't. I've used my eyes too much, that is all. It is--nothing."
"No! No! No!" she said, brokenly. "Don't you think I understand? Don't you think I see it all now? But why--why didn't you tell me? Why?" When he did not answer she repeated: "God sent me back. I--I was not meant to be so unhappy."
Austin felt himself shaken as if by a panic. He cried, hurriedly: "You see, we've been such good friends. I knew it would distress you. I--wanted to spare you that! You were a good comrade to me; we were like chums. Yes, we were chums. No friend could have been dearer to me than you, Miss Moore. I never had a sister, you know. I--I thought of you that way, and I--" He was struggling desperately to save the girl, but his incoherent words died on his lips when he felt her come close and lay her cheek against his arm.
"You mustn't try to deceive me any more," she said, gently. "I was here. I know the truth, and--I want to be happy."
Even then he stood dazed and disbelieving until she continued:
"I know that you love me, and that I love you."
"It is pity!" he exclaimed, hoarsely. "You don't mean it."
But she drew herself closer to him and turned her tear-stained face up to his, saying, wistfully, "If your dear eyes could have seen, they would have told you long ago."
"Oh, my love!" He was too weak to resist longer. His arms were trembling as they enfolded her, but in his heart was a gladness that comes to but few men.
"And you won't go away without me, will you?" she questioned, fearfully.
"No, no!" he breathed. "Oh, Marmion, I have lost a little, but I have gained much! God has been good to me."