Dunham lay in a stupor for twenty-four hours, and after that he was delirious, with dim intervals of reason in which they kept him from talking, till one morning he woke and looked up at Staniford with a perfectly clear eye, and said, as if resuming the conservation, "I struck my head on a pile of chains."
"Yes," replied Staniford, with a wan smile, "and you've been out of it pretty near ever since. You mustn't talk."
"Oh, I'm all right," said Dunham. "I know about my being hurt. I shall be cautious. Have you written to Miss Hibbard? I hope you haven't!"
"Yes, I have," replied Staniford. "But I haven't sent the letter," he added, in answer to Dunham's look of distress. "I thought you were going to pull through, in spite of the doctor,—he's wanted to bleed you, and I could hardly keep his lancet out of you,—and so I wrote, mentioning the accident and announcing your complete restoration. The letter merely needs dating and sealing. I'll look it up and have it posted." He began a search in the pockets of his coat, and then went to his portfolio.
"What day is this?" asked Dunham.
"Friday," said Staniford, rummaging his portfolio.
"Have you been in Venice?"
"Look here, Dunham! If you begin in that way, I can't talk to you. It shows that you're still out of your head. How could I have been in Venice?"
"But Miss Blood; the Aroostook—"
"Miss Blood went to Venice with her uncle last Saturday. The Aroostook is here in Trieste. The captain has just gone away. He's stood watch and watch with me, while you were off on business."
"But didn't you go to Venice on Monday?"
"Well, hardly," answered Staniford.
"No, you stayed with me,—I see," said Dunham.
"Of course, I wrote to her at once," said Staniford, huskily, "and explained the matter as well as I could without making an ado about it. But now you stop, Dunham. If you excite yourself, there'll be the deuce to pay again."
"I'm not excited," said Dunham, "but I can't help thinking how disappointed—But of course you've heard from her?"
"Well, there's hardly time, yet," said Staniford, evasively.
"Why, yes, there is. Perhaps your letter miscarried."
"Don't!" cried Staniford, in a hollow under-voice, which he broke through to add, "Go to sleep, now, Dunham, or keep quiet, somehow."
Dunham was silent for a while, and Staniford continued his search, which he ended by taking the portfolio by one corner, and shaking its contents out on the table. "I don't seem to find it; but I've put it away somewhere. I'll get it." He went to another coat, that hung on the back of a chair, and fumbled in its pockets. "Hello! Here are those letters they brought me from the post-office Saturday night, —Murray's, and Stanton's, and that bore Farrington's. I forgot all about them." He ran the unopened letters over in his hand. "Ah, here's my familiar scrawl—" He stopped suddenly, and walked away to the window, where he stood with his back to Dunham.
"Staniford! What is it?"
"It's—it's my letter to her" said Staniford, without looking round.
"Your letter to Miss Blood—not gone?" Staniford, with his face still from him, silently nodded. "Oh!" moaned Dunham, in self-forgetful compassion. "How could it have happened?"
"I see perfectly well," said the other, quietly, but he looked round at Dunham with a face that was haggard. "I sent it out to be posted by the portier, and he got it mixed up with these letters for me, and brought it back."
The young men were both silent, but the tears stood in Dunham's eyes.
"If it hadn't been for me, it wouldn't have happened," he said.
"No," gently retorted Staniford, "if it hadn't been for me, it wouldn't have happened. I made you come from Messina with me, when you wanted to go on to Naples with those people; if I'd had any sense, I should have spoken fully to her before we parted; and it was I who sent you to see if she were on the steamer, when you fell and hurt yourself. I know who's to blame, Dunham. What day did I tell you this was?"
"A week! And I told her to expect me Monday afternoon. A week without a word or a sign of any kind! Well, I might as well take passage in the Aroostook, and go back to Boston again."
"Why, no!" cried Dunham, "you must take the first train to Venice. Don't lose an instant. You can explain everything as soon as you see her."
Staniford shook his head. "If all her life had been different, if she were a woman of the world, it would be different; she would know how to account for some little misgivings on my part; but as it is she wouldn't know how to account for even the appearance of them. What she must have suffered all this week—I can't think of it!" He sat down and turned his face away. Presently he sprang up again. "But I'm going, Dunham. I guess you won't die now; but you may die if you like. I would go over your dead body!"
"Now you are talking sense," said Dunham.
Staniford did not listen; he had got out his railroad guide and was studying it. "No; there are only those two trains a day. The seven o'clock has gone; and the next starts at ten to-night. Great heavens! I could walk it sooner! Dunham," he asked, "do you think I'd better telegraph?"
"What would you say?"
"Say that there's been a mistake; that a letter miscarried; that
I'll be there in the morning; that—"
"Wouldn't that be taking her anxiety a little too much for granted?"
"Yes, that's true. Well, you've got your wits about you now, Dunham," cried Staniford, with illogical bitterness. "Very probably," he added, gloomily, "she doesn't care anything for me, after all."
"That's a good frame of mind to go in," said Dunham.
"Why is it?" demanded Staniford. "Did I ever presume upon any supposed interest in her?"
"You did at first," replied Dunham.
Staniford flushed angrily. But you cannot quarrel with a man lying helpless on his back; besides, what Dunham said was true.
The arrangements for Staniford's journey were quickly made,—so quickly that when he had seen the doctor, and had been down to the Aroostook and engaged Captain Jenness to come and take his place with Dunham for the next two nights, he had twelve hours on his hands before the train for Venice would leave, and he started at last with but one clear perception,—that at the soonest it must be twelve hours more before he could see her.
He had seemed intolerably slow in arriving on the train, but once arrived in Venice he wished that he had come by the steamboat, which would not be in for three hours yet. In despair he went to bed, considering that after he had tossed there till he could endure it no longer, he would still have the resource of getting up, which he would not have unless he went to bed. When he lay down, he found himself drowsy; and while he wondered at this, he fell asleep, and dreamed a strange dream, so terrible that he woke himself by groaning in spirit, a thing which, as he reflected, he had never done before. The sun was piercing the crevice between his shutters, and a glance at his watch showed him that it was eleven o'clock.
The shadow of his dream projected itself into his waking mood, and steeped it in a gloom which he could not escape. He rose and dressed, and meagrely breakfasted. Without knowing how he came there, he stood announced in Mrs. Erwin's parlor, and waited for her to receive him.
His card was brought in to her where she lay in bed. After supporting Lydia through the first sharp shock of disappointment, she had yielded to the prolonged strain, and the girl was now taking care of her. She gave a hysterical laugh as she read the name on the card Veronica brought, and crushing it in her hand, "He's come!" she cried.
"I will not see him!" said Lydia instantly.
"No," assented her aunt. "It wouldn't be at all the thing. Besides, he's asked for me. Your uncle might see him, but he's out of the way; of course he would be out of the way. Now, let me see!" The excitement inspired her; she rose in bed, and called for the pretty sack in which she ordinarily breakfasted, and took a look at herself in a hand-glass that lay on the bed. Lydia did not move; she scarcely seemed to breathe; but a swift pulse in her neck beat visibly. "If it would be decent to keep him waiting so long, I could dress, and see him myself. I'm well enough." Mrs. Erwin again reflected. "Well," she said at last, "you must see him, Lydia."
"I—" began the girl.
"Yes, you. Some one must. It will be all right. On second thought, I believe I should send you, even if I were quite ready to go myself. This affair has been carried on so far on the American plan, and I think I shall let you finish it without my interference. Yes, as your uncle said when I told him, you're all Americans together; and you are. Mr. Staniford has come to see you, though he asks for me. That's perfectly proper; but I can't see him, and I want you to excuse me to him."
"What would you—what must I—" Lydia began again.
"No, Lydia," interrupted her aunt. "I won't tell you a thing. I might have advised you when you first came; but now, I—Well, I think I've lived too long in Europe to be of use in such a case, and I won't have anything to do with it. I won't tell you how to meet him, or what to say; but oh, child,"—here the woman's love of loving triumphed in her breast,—"I wish I was in your place! Go!"
Lydia slowly rose, breathless.
"Lydia!" cried her aunt. "Look at me!" Lydia turned her head. "Are you going to be hard with him?"
"I don't know what he's coming for," said Lydia dishonestly.
"But if he's coming for what you hope?"
"I don't hope for anything."
"But you did. Don't be severe. You're terrible when you're severe."
"I will be just."
"Oh, no, you mustn't, my dear. It won't do at all to be just with men, poor fellows. Kiss me, Lydia!" She pulled her down, and kissed her. When the girl had got as far as the door, "Lydia, Lydia!" she called after her. Lydia turned. "Do you realize what dress you've got on?" Lydia looked down at her robe; it was the blue flannel yachting-suit of the Aroostook, which she had put on for convenience in taking care of her aunt. "Isn't it too ridiculous?" Mrs. Erwin meant to praise the coincidence, not to blame the dress. Lydia smiled faintly for answer, and the next moment she stood at the parlor door.
Staniford, at her entrance, turned from looking out of the window and saw her as in his dream, with her hand behind her, pushing the door to; but the face with which she looked at him was not like the dead, sad face of his dream. It was thrillingly alive, and all passions were blent in it,—love, doubt, reproach, indignation; the tears stood in her eyes, but a fire burnt through the tears. With his first headlong impulse to console, explain, deplore, came a thought that struck him silent at sight of her. He remembered, as he had not till then remembered, in all his wild longing and fearing, that there had not yet been anything explicit between them; that there was no engagement; and that he had upon the face of things, at least, no right to offer her more than some formal expression of regret for not having been able to keep his promise to come sooner. While this stupefying thought gradually filled his whole sense to the exclusion of all else, he stood looking at her with a dumb and helpless appeal, utterly stunned and wretched. He felt the life die out of his face and leave it blank, and when at last she spoke, he knew that it was in pity of him, or contempt of him. "Mrs. Erwin is not well," she said, "and she wished me—"
But he broke in upon her: "Oh, don't talk to me of Mrs. Erwin! It was you I wanted to see. Are you well? Are you alive? Do you—" He stopped as precipitately as he began; and after another hopeless pause, he went on piteously: "I don't know where to begin. I ought to have been here five days ago. I don't know what you think of me, or whether you have thought of me at all; and before I can ask I must tell you why I wanted to come then, and why I come now, and why I think I must have come back from the dead to see you. You are all the world to me, and have been ever since I saw you. It seems a ridiculously unnecessary thing to say, I have been looking and acting and living it so long; but I say it, because I choose to have you know it, whether you ever cared for me or not. I thought I was coming here to explain why I had not come sooner, but I needn't do that unless— unless—" He looked at her where she still stood aloof, and he added: "Oh, answer me something, for pity's sake! Don't send me away without a word. There have been times when you wouldn't have done that!"
"Oh, I did care for you!" she broke out. "You know I did—"
He was instantly across the room, beside her. "Yes, yes, I know it!"
But she shrank away.
"You tried to make me believe you cared for me, by everything you could do. And I did believe you then; and yes, I believed you afterwards, when I didn't know what to believe. You were the one true thing in the world to me. But it seems that you didn't believe it yourself."
"That I didn't believe it myself? That I—I don't know what you mean."
"You took a week to think it over! I have had a week, too, and I have thought it over, too. You have come too late."
"Too late? You don't, you can't, mean—Listen to me, Lydia; I want to tell you—"
"No, there is nothing you can tell me that would change me. I know it, I understand it all."
"But you don't understand what kept me."
"I don't wish to know what made you break your word. I don't care to know. I couldn't go back and feel as I did to you. Oh, that's gone! It isn't that you did not come—that you made me wait and suffer; but you knew how it would be with me after I got here, and all the things I should find out, and how I should feel! And you stayed away! I don't know whether I can forgive you, even; oh, I'm afraid I don't; but I can never care for you again. Nothing but a case of life and death—"
"It was a case of life and death!"
Lydia stopped in her reproaches, and looked at him with wistful doubt, changing to a tender fear.
"Oh, have you been hurt? Have you been sick?" she pleaded, in a breaking voice, and made some unconscious movement toward him. He put out his hand, and would have caught one of hers, but she clasped them in each other.
"No, not I,—Dunham—"
"Oh!" said Lydia, as if this were not at all enough.
"He fell and struck his head, the night you left. I thought he would die." Staniford reported his own diagnosis, not the doctor's; but he was perhaps in the right to do this. "I had made him go down to the wharf with me; I wanted to see you again, before you started, and I thought we might find you on the boat." He could see her face relenting; her hands released each other. "He was delirious till yesterday. I couldn't leave him."
"Oh, why didn't you write to me?" She ignored Dunham as completely as if he had never lived. "You knew that I—" Her voice died away, and her breast rose.
"I did write—"
"But how,—I never got it."
"No,—it was not posted, through a cruel blunder. And then I thought
—I got to thinking that you didn't care—"
"Oh," said the girl. "Could you doubt me?"
"You doubted me," said Staniford, seizing his advantage. "I brought the letter with me to prove my truth." She did not look at him, but she took the letter, and ran it greedily into her pocket. "It's well I did so, since you don't believe my word."
"Oh, yes,—yes, I know it," she said; "I never doubted it!" Staniford stood bemazed, though he knew enough to take the hands she yielded him; but she suddenly caught them away again, and set them against his breast. "I was very wrong to suspect you ever; I'm sorry I did; but there's something else. I don't know how to say what I want to say. But it must be said."
"Is it something disagreeable?" asked Staniford, lightly.
"It's right," answered Lydia, unsmilingly.
"Oh, well, don't say it!" he pleaded; "or don't say it now,—not till you've forgiven me for the anxiety I've caused you; not till you've praised me for trying to do what I thought the right thing. You can't imagine how hard it was for one who hasn't the habit!"
"I do praise you for it. There's nothing to forgive you; but I can't let you care for me unless I know—unless"—She stopped, and then, "Mr. Staniford," she began firmly, "since I came here, I've been learning things that I didn't know before. They have changed the whole world to me, and it can never be the same again."
"I'm sorry for that; but if they haven't changed you, the world may go."
"No, not if we're to live in it," answered the girl, with the soberer wisdom women keep at such times. "It will have to be known how we met. What will people say? They will laugh."
"I don't think they will in my presence," said Staniford, with swelling nostrils. "They may use their pleasure elsewhere."
"And I shouldn't care for their laughing, either," said Lydia.
"But oh, why did you come?"
"Why did I come?"
"Was it because you felt bound by anything that's happened, and you wouldn't let me bear the laugh alone? I'm not afraid for myself. I shall never blame you. You can go perfectly free."
"But I don't want to go free!"
Lydia looked at him with piercing earnestness. "Do you think I'm proud?" she asked.
"Yes, I think you are," said Staniford, vaguely.
"It isn't for myself that I should be proud with other people. But
I would rather die than bring ridicule upon one I—upon you."
"I can believe that," said Staniford, devoutly, and patiently reverencing the delay of her scruples.
"And if—and—" Her lips trembled, but she steadied her trembling voice. "If they laughed at you, and thought of me in a slighting way because—" Staniford gave a sort of roar of grief and pain to know how her heart must have been wrung before she could come to this. "You were all so good that you didn't let me think there was anything strange about it—"
"Oh, good heavens! We only did what it was our precious and sacred privilege to do! We were all of one mind about it from the first. But don't torture yourself about it, my darling. It's over now; it's past—no, it's present, and it will always be, forever, the dearest and best thing in life Lydia, do you believe that I love you?"
"Oh, I must!"
"And don't you believe that I'm telling you the truth when I say that I wouldn't, for all the world can give or take, change anything that's been?"
"Yes, I do believe you. Oh, I haven't said at all what I wanted to say! There was a great deal that I ought to say. I can't seem to recollect it."
He smiled to see her grieving at this recreance of her memory to her conscience. "Well, you shall have a whole lifetime to recall it in."
"No, I must try to speak now. And you must tell me the truth now, —no matter what it costs either of us." She laid her hands upon his extended arms, and grasped them intensely. "There's something else. I want to ask you what you thought when you found me alone on that ship with all of you." If she had stopped at this point, Staniford's cause might have been lost, but she went on: "I want to know whether you were ever ashamed of me, or despised me for it; whether you ever felt that because I was helpless and friendless there, you had the right to think less of me than if you had first met me here in this house."
It was still a terrible question, but it offered a loop-hole of escape, which Staniford was swift to seize. Let those who will justify the answer with which he smiled into her solemn eyes: "I will leave you to say." A generous uncandor like this goes as far with a magnanimous and serious-hearted woman as perhaps anything else.
"Oh, I knew it, I knew it!" cried Lydia. And then, as he caught her to him at last, "Oh—oh—are you sure it's right?"
"I have no doubt of it," answered Staniford. Nor had he any question of the strategy through which he had triumphed in this crucial test. He may have thought that there were always explanations that had to be made afterwards, or he may have believed that he had expiated in what he had done and suffered for her any slight which he had felt; possibly, he considered that she had asked more than she had a right to do. It is certain that he said with every appearance of sincerity, "It began the moment I saw you on the wharf, there, and when I came to know my mind I kept it from you only till I could tell you here. But now I wish I hadn't! Life is too short for such a week as this."
"No," said Lydia, "you acted for the best, and you are—good."
"I'll keep that praise till I've earned it," answered Staniford.