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The Little Old Man's Story by Anna Kingsford

 

"O love, I have loved you! O my soul, I have lost you!"

—Aurora Leigh

Chapter I.

"It is getting very dark now, and I have been sitting at my open bay window ever since sundown. How fresh and sweet the evening air is, as it comes up from my little flower garden below, laden with the fragrance of June roses and almond blossom! Ah, by the way, I will send over some more of those same roses to my opposite neighbor tomorrow morning,—and there is a beautiful spray of white jasmin nodding in at the casement now, and only waiting to be gathered for him. Poor old man! He must be very lonely and quiet, lying there day after day in his dark little bed-chamber, with no companions save his books and his old housekeeper. But then Dr. Peyton is with him very often, and Dr. Peyton is such a dear kind soul that he makes every one cheerful! I think they have drawn down the blinds earlier than usual tonight at the little old gentleman's. Dr. Peyton says he always likes to sit up in his armchair when the day closes, and watch the twilight gathering over the blue range of the Malvern hills in the distance, and talk dreamy bits of poetry to himself the while, but this evening I noticed the blinds were pulled down almost directly after sunset. And such a lovely sunset as it was tonight! I never beheld anything more glorious! What a wondrous glamour of molten mellow light it threw over all the meadows and cottage gardens! It seemed to me as though the gates of heaven itself were unfolded to receive the returning sun into the golden land of the Hereafter! Dear, dear, I shall get quite poetical in my old age! This is not the first time I have caught myself stumbling unawares on the confines of romance! Miss Lizzie, Miss Lizzie, you must not be fanciful! Do you forget that you are an old maid! Yes, an old maid. Ah, well-a-day, 'tis a very happy, contented, peaceful sound to me now; but twenty years ago,—Here comes dear old Dr. Peyton himself up my garden path! He does not seem to walk so blithely tonight as usual,—surely nothing is the matter; I wish I could see his face, but it is much too dark for that, so I'll go at once and let him in. Now I shall hear news of my opposite neighbor! Ah, I hope he is no worse, poor little old man!"

Gentle reader, I shall not trouble you much in the story I am going to tell, with any personal experiences of my own. But you may as well understand before we proceed farther, that I—Miss Elizabeth Fairleigh—am a spinster on the shady side of forty-five, that I and my two serving-maids occupy a tiny, green-latticed, porticoed, one-storeyed cottage just outside a certain little country town, and that Dr. Peyton, tile one "medical man" of the parish, is a white-haired old gentleman of wondrous kindliness and goodness of heart, who was Pythias to my father's Damon at college long, long ago, and who is now my best friend and my most welcome and frequent visitor. And on the particular evening in question, I had a special interest in his visit, for I wanted very much to know what only he could tell me,—how matters fared with my neighbor and his patient, the little old man who lay sick over the way.

Now this little old man bore the name of Mr Stephen Gray, and he was a bachelor, so Dr. Peyton said, a bachelor grown, from some cause unknown to my friend, prematurely old, and wizened, and decrepit. It was long since he had first come to reside in the small house opposite mine, and from the very day of his arrival I had observed him with singular interest, and conjectured variously in my idle moments about his probable history and circumstances. For many months after his establishment "over the way," this old gentleman used morning and evening to perambulate the little country road which divided our respective dwellings, supporting his feeble limbs with a venerable-looking staff, silver-headed like himself; and on one occasion, when my flower garden happened to look especially gay and inviting, he paused by the gate and gazed so wistfully at its beauties, that I ventured to invite him in, and presented him, bashfully enough, with a posy of my choicest rarities. After this unconventional introduction, many little courtesies passed between us, other nosegays were culled from my small parterre to adorn the little old gentleman's parlour, and more than once Miss Elizabeth Farleigh received and accepted an invitation to tea with Mr Stephen Gray.

But by-and-by these invitations ceased, and my neighbor's pedestrian excursions up and down our road became less and less frequent. Yet when I sent my maid, as I often did, to inquire after his health, the answer returned alternated only between two inflections,—Mr Gray was always either "pretty well," or "a little better today." But presently I noticed that my friend Dr. Peyton began to pay visits at my opposite neighbor's, and of him I inquired concerning the little old man's condition, and learned to my surprise and sorrow that his health and strength were rapidly failing, and his life surely and irrecoverably ebbing away. It might be many long months, Dr. Peyton said, before the end, it might be only a few weeks, but he had seen many such cases, and knew that no human skill or tenderness had power to do more than to prolong the patient's days upon earth by some brief space, and to make the weary hours of feebleness and prostration as pleasant and calm as possible.

When Dr Peyton told me this, it was late autumn, and the little old gentleman lived on in his weakness all through the snow-time and the dim bleak winter days. But when the Spring came round once more, he rallied, and I used often to see him sitting up in his armchair at the open window, arrayed in his dressing-gown, and looking so cheerful and placid, that I could not forbear to nod to him and smile hopefully, as I stood by my garden gate in the soft warm sunshine, thinking that after all my opposite neighbor would soon be able to take his daily walks, and have tea with me again in his cosy little parlour. But when I spoke of this to Dr. Peyton, he only shook his head incredulously, and murmured something about the flame burning brighter for a little while before going out altogether. So the old gentleman lingered on until June, and still every time I sent to ask after his health returned the same old reply,—his "kind regards to Miss Fairleigh, and he was a little better today." And thus matters remained on that identical evening of which I first spoke, when I sat at the bay window in my tiny drawing- room, and saw Dr. Peyton coming so soberly up the garden path.

"Dr Peyton," said I, as I placed my most comfortable chair for him in the prettiest corner of the bay, "you are the very person I have been longing to see for the last half-hour! I want to know how my neighbor Mr Gray is tonight. I see his blinds are down, and I am afraid he may be worse. Have you been there this evening?"

I paused abruptly, for my old friend looked very gravely at me, and I thought as his eyes rested for a moment on my face, that notwithstanding the twilight, I could discern traces of recent tears in them.

"Lizzie," said he, very slowly, and his voice certainly trembled a little as he spoke, "I don't think Mr Gray was ever so well in his life as he is tonight. I have been with him for several hours. He is dead."

"Dead!" I echoed faintly, for I almost doubted whether my ears heard aright. "My little old gentleman dead? Oh, I am very, very grieved indeed! I fancied he was getting so much stronger!"

Dr. Peyton smiled, one of his peculiar, sweet, grave smiles, such as I had often seen on his kindly face at certain times and seasons when other men would not have smiled at all.

"Lizzie," he answered, 'there are some deaths so beautiful and so full of peace, that no one ought to grieve about them, for they bring eternal rest after a life that has been only bitter disquiet and heaviness. And such a death—aye, and such a life—were Mr Gray's."

He spoke so certainly and so calmly, that I felt comforted for the little old man's sake, and longed to know,—woman-like, I suppose,—what sad story of his this had been, to which Dr. Peyton's words seemed to point.

"Then he had a romance after all!" I cried, "and you knew of it! Poor old gentleman! I often wondered how he came to be so lonely. May you tell me, as we sit here together? I should so like to hear about it."

"Yes," said he, with that same peculiar smile, "I may tell you, for it is no secret now. Indeed, I came here partly for that very purpose, because I know well how much you were interested in your opposite neighbor, and how you used to speculate about his antecedents and associations. But I have not known this story long. He only told it me this evening; just an hour or two before he died. Well, we all have our little romances, as you are pleased to call them!"

"Yes, yes, all of us. Even I, unpretentious, plain Elizabeth Fairleigh,—but no matter." I mind me, reader, that I promised not to talk of my own experiences. Ah, there are no such phenomena in the world really, as "commonplace" lives, and "commonplace" persons!

"Poor little old man!" I sighed again. "Did he tell you his story then of his own accord, or"—And I paused in some embarrassment, for I remembered that Dr. Peyton was a true gentleman, and possessed of far too much delicacy of feeling to question anybody upon personal matters or private concerns. But either he did not actually notice my hesitation, or perhaps understood the cause of it well enough to prevent him from appearing to notice it, for he resumed at once, as though no interruption to his discourse had taken place.

"When I went this afternoon to visit your neighbor, Lizzie, I perceived immediately from the change in him that the end was not far off, though I did not think it would come today. But he did. He was in bed when I entered his room, and as soon as he saw me, he looked up and welcomed me with a pleasant smile and said, `Ah, Doctor, I am so glad you are come! I was just going to send round for you! Not that I think you can do me any more good upon earth, for I know that tonight I shall go to my long rest. To my long rest.' He lingered so strangely and so contentedly over these words, that I was singularly touched, and I sat down by his bedside and took his thin white hand in mine. 'Doctor,' said he, presently, `you have been very good and kind to me now for more than ten months, and I have learned in that time to trust and esteem you as though I had known you for many long years. There are no friends of mine near me in the world now, for I am a lonely old man, and before I came here I lived alone, and I have been lonely almost all my life. But I cannot die tonight without telling you the story of my past, and of the days when I used to be young,—very long ago now,—that you may understand why I die here alone, a white-haired old bachelor; and that I may be comforted in my death by the knowledge that I leave at least one friend upon earth to sympathise in my sorrow and to bless me in my solitary grave. 'It is a long story, Doctor,' said the little old man, 'but I feel stronger this afternoon than I have felt for weeks, and I am quite sure I can tell it all from end to end. I have kept it many years in my heart, a secret from every human soul; but now all is over with my sorrow and with me for ever, and I care not who knows of it after I am gone.' Then after a little pause he told me his story, while I sat beside him holding his hand in mine, and I think I did not lose a word of all he said, for he spoke very slowly and distinctly, and I listened with all my heart. Shall I tell it to you, Lizzie? It is not one of those stories that end happily; like the stories we read in children's fairy books, nor is it exciting and sensational like the modern popular novels. There are no dramatic situations in it, and no passionate scenes of tragical love or remorse; 'tis a still, neutral-colored, dreamy bit of pathos; the story of a lost life,—that it will make you sad perhaps to hear, and maybe, a little graver than usual. Only that."

"Please tell it, Dr Peyton," I answered. "You know I have a special liking for such sad histories. 'Tis one of my old-maidish eccentricities I suppose; but somehow I always think sorrow more musical than mirth, and I love the quiet of shadowy places better than the brilliant glow of the open landscape."

"You are right, Lizzie," he returned. "That is the feeling of the true poet in all ages, and the most poetical lives are always those in which the melancholy element predominates. Yet it is contrast that makes the beauty of things, and doubtless we should not fully understand the sweetness of your grave harmonies, nor the loveliness of your shadowy valleys, were all music grave and all places shadowy. And inanimate nature is most assuredly the faithful type and mirror of human life. But I must not waste our time any longer in such idle prologues as these! You shall hear the little old man's story at once, while it is still fresh in my memory, though for the matter of that, I am not likely, I think, to forget it very easily." So Dr Peyton told it me as we sat together there in the growing darkness of the warm summer night, and this, reader mine, is the story he told.

Chapter II.

Some forty years ago, there lived in one of the prettiest houses in Kensington, a rich old wine-merchant, and his two only children. These young men, Stephen and Maurice Grey, were twins, whose mother had died at their birth, and all through their infancy and childhood the old wine-merchant had been to them as father and mother in one, and the brothers had grown up to manhood, loving him and each other as dearly as heart could wish. Already Stephen, the firstborn of the twins, had become partner in his father's flourishing business, and Maurice was preparing at a military college for service in the army, which he was shortly to join, when a certain event occurred at Kensington, trifling enough in itself, but in the sequel pregnant with bitter misfortune to at least two human souls.

There came to reside in the house adjoining old Mr Gray's, an elderly widow lady and her orphan niece,—Mrs. Lamertine and Miss Adelais Cameron. They came there principally for the sake of the latter,—a pale consumptive girl of eighteen, whose delicate health and constitution it was thought might be considerably benefited by the mild soft air of that particular neighborhood. Soon after the arrival of these ladies in their new abode, the old wine-merchant in his courtesy and kindliness of heart saw fit to pay them a visit, and in due time and form the visit was returned, and a friendly come-and-go understanding established between the two houses. In this manner it happened that Stephen, the elder son, by living always in his father's house, from which he was absent only during the office-hours of the day, saw a great deal of Adelais Cameron, and learnt before long to love her with all the depth and yearning that a young man feels in his first rapturous adoration of a beautiful woman.

For a beautiful woman Adelais certainly was. Very fair to look upon was the pale, transparent face, and the plentiful braided hair, golden and soft almost as undyed silk, that wreathed about the lovely little head. Clear and sweet too were the eyes whence the soul of Adelais looked forth, clear and brown and sweet; so that people who beheld her fair countenance and heard her musical voice for the first time, were fain to say in their hearts, "Such a face and such a voice as these are not earthly things; Adelais Cameron is already far on her road towards the land of the angels."

But at least Mrs Lamertine and her friendly neighbors the Grays could perceive that the pale girl grew none the paler nor sicklier for her residence at Kensington, and as days and weeks flew pleasantly by in the long autumn season, the old lady talked more and more confidently of her niece's complete restoration to health and youthful vigour. Then by-and-by Christmas drew round, and with it Maurice Gray came home to his father's house for his last vacation-time; Maurice, with his frank handsome face and curly hair, always so cheerful, always so good-humoured, always so unconscious of his own attractiveness, that wherever he went, everybody was sure to trust and to idolise him. Ay, and to love him too sometimes, but not as Adelais Cameron did, when her full womanly soul awoke first to the living intensity of passion, and she found in him the one god at whose feet to cast all her new wealth of tenderness and homage. Never before had Maurice Gray been so beloved, never before had his own love been so desired and coveted by human soul. And now that the greatest blessing of earth lay so ready to his grasp, Maurice neither perceived the value of the gift, nor understood that it was offered to him. Such was the position when Christmas Day arrived, and the widower begged that Mrs Lamertine and her niece would do him the pleasure to dine in his house and spend the evening there, that they might sing songs and play forfeits together and keep up the ancient institutions of the time, as well as so tiny and staid a party could manage to do; to which sociable invitation, the old dame, nothing averse to pleasant fellowship at any season, readily consented. But when Adelais Cameron entered Mr Gray's drawing-room that Christmas evening with her soft white dress floating about her like a hazy cloud, and a single bunch of snowdrops in the coils of her golden hair, Stephen's heart leapt in his throat, and he said to himself that never until now had he known how exceeding perfect and sweet was the beautiful woman whom he loved with so absorbing a tenderness. Alas, that life should be at times such a terribly earnest game of cross purposes, such an intensely bitter reality of mistakes and blunders! Alas, that men and women can read so little of each other's heart, and yet can comprehend so well the language of their own!

All the evening, throughout the conversation and the forfeits and the merry-making, Stephen Gray spoke and moved and thought only for Adelais, and she for Stephen's twin brother. It was for Maurice that she sang, while Stephen stood beside her at the piano, drinking in the tender passionate notes as though they were sweet wine for which all his soul were athirst; it was at Maurice that she smiled, while Stephen's eyes were on her face, and to Maurice that she prattled and sported and made mirthful jests, while Stephen alone heeded all that she said and did; for the younger brother was reflected in every purpose and thought of hers, even as her own image lay mirrored continually in the heart and thoughts of the elder.

But before the hour of parting came that night, Stephen drew Adelais aside from the others as they sat laughing and talking over some long-winded story of the old wine-merchant's experiences, and told her what she, in the blindness of her own wild love, had never guessed nor dreamed of,—all the deep adoration and worship of his soul. And when it was told, she said nothing for a few minutes, but only stood motionless and surprised, without a blush or tremor or sigh, and he, looking earnestly into her fair uplifted face, saw with unutterable pain that there was no response there to the passionate yearning of his own.

"Adelais," said he, presently, "you do not love me?"

"Yes, yes, Stephen," she answered, softly; "as a brother, as a dear brother."

"No more?" he asked again.

She put her hand into his, and fixing the clear light of her brown eyes full upon him: "Why," she said, hurriedly, "do you ask me this? I cannot give you more, I cannot love you as a husband. Let no one know what has passed between us tonight; forget it yourself as I shall forget also, and we will always be brother and sister all our lives."

Then she turned and glided away across the room into the warm bright glow of the fireside, that lay brightest and warmest in the corner where Maurice sat; but Stephen stood alone in the darkness and hid his face in his hands and groaned. And after this there came a changeover the fortunes of the two households. Day by day Adelais faded and paled and saddened; none knew why. People said it was the winter weather, and that when the springtime came the girl would be herself again, and grow brisker and stronger than ever. But when Maurice was gone back to his college, to fulfil his last term there before leaving for India, the only brother of Adelais came up from his home by the seaside, on a month's visit to his aunt and his sister at Kensington. He was a man of middle age almost, this same Philip Cameron, tall and handsome and fair-spoken, so that the old wine-merchant, who dearly loved good looks and courteous breeding, took to him mightily from the first, and made much of his company on all occasions. But as he stayed on from week to week at Mrs Lamertine's house, Philip saw that the pale lips and cheeks of Adelais grew paler and thinner continually, that the brown eyes greatened in the dark sockets, and that the fragile limbs weakened and sharpened themselves more and more, as though some terrible blight, like the curse of an old enchantment or of an evil eye, hung over the sweet girl, withering and poisoning all the life and the youth in her veins.

She lay on a sofa one afternoon, leaning her golden head upon one of her pale wan hands, and gazing dreamily through the open casement into the depths of the broad April sky, over whose clear blue firmament the drifting clouds came and went incessantly like white-sailed ships at sea. And Adelais thought of the sea as she watched them, and longed in her heart to be away and down by the southern coast where her brother had made his home, with the free salt breeze blowing in her face, and the free happy waves beating the shore at her feet, and the sea-fowl dipping their great strong wings in the leaping surge. Ah to be free,— to be away,—perhaps then she might forget, forget and live down her old life, and bury it somewhere out of sight in the sea-sand;—forget and grow blithe and happy and strong once more, like the breeze and the waves and the wild birds, who have no memory nor regret for the past, and no thought for any joy, save the joy of their present being.

"Phil," she said, as her brother came softly into the room and sat beside her, "take me back with you to the sea-side. I am weary of living always here in Kensington. It is only London after all."

"My dearest," he answered, kindly, "if that is all you wish for, it shall certainly be. But, Adelais, is there nothing more than this that troubles you? There is a shadow in your eyes and on your lips that used not to be there, and all day long you sit by yourself and muse in silence; and you weep too at times, Adelais, when you fancy none is by to see you. Tell me, sister mine, for the sake of the love that is between us, and for the sake of our father and mother who are dead, what cloud is this that overshadows you so?"

Long time he pressed and besought her, pleading by turns his power to help, and her need of tenderness; but yet Adelais was afraid to speak, for the love that was breaking her heart was unreturned. So the next day he found her alone again, and prayed her to tell him her sorrow, that even if he could not help nor comfort her, they might at least lament together. Then at last she bowed her head upon his breast, and told him of Maurice, and of his near departure for India, and of her own disregarded love; but not a word she said of Stephen, because she had promised him to hold her peace. And when she had told her brother all, she laid her arms about his neck and cried, weeping, "Now you know everything that is in my heart, Phil; speak to me no more about it, but only promise to take me away with you when you go, that I may the sooner forget this place and all the sorrow and the pain I have suffered here."

And Philip Cameron kissed her very tenderly, and answered, "Be at rest, sister, you shall have your will."

But when the evening came, he went over to the house of the wine-merchant, and questioned him about Maurice, whether he cared for Adelais or no, and whether he had ever said a word to his father or brother of the matter.

"Ay, ay," quoth the old gentleman, musingly, when Philip had ceased, " 'Tis like enough if there be anything of the sort that the boys should talk of it between them, for, God be thanked, they were always very fond of each other; yet I never heard it spoken about. But then youth has little in common with age, and when young men make confidences of this kind, it is to young men that they make them, and not to grey-beards like me. But tell me, Cameron, for you know I must needs divine something from all this; your sister loves my boy Maurice?"

"If you think so, sir," answered Philip, "you must keep her secret."

"Cameron, Cameron," cried the wine-merchant, "Adelais is failing and sickening every day. Every day she grows whiter and sadder and more silent. Don't tell me it's for love of Maurice! It's not possible such a woman as she is can love anybody in vain! She's an angel on earth, your sister Adelais!"

Then because the old man was kindly and wise and white-headed, Philip told him all that Adelais had said, and how he had promised to take her home with him, and had come unknown to any one to ask before they went whether or not there was any hope for her of the love on which she had so set her heart.

And when Philip was gone the old gentleman called his elder son, Stephen, and asked him—but warily, lest he should betray Adelais—how Maurice bore himself in Stephen's presence when they were alone together and chanced to speak of her, and if Stephen knew or guessed anything of what was in his mind towards her. Then the young man understood for the first time all the blindness of his eyes and the dulness of his heart; and the pain and the desolation and the hopelessness of his life that was to be, rose up before him, and he knew that from thenceforth the glory and the light of it were put out for ever.

"Father," he said, "I know nothing whatever of all this. Is it your wish then that these two should marry?"

"It is my wish, Stephen, and the wish also of our friend Philip himself. Maurice could not take with him to India a sweeter or a worthier wife than Adelais Cameron."

"And does she wish it too?" he asked again. "Tell me, father, for I have guessed already." He lifted his eyes to the old man's face as he spoke, and perceived at once the sudden confusion arid surprise that his words had caused there, yet he said no more, but waited still for a reply.

"My dear boy," said the old gentleman at last, "if you have guessed anything, that is enough; say no more about it, but let it rest with yourself. I have never yet deceived either of my sons. But when Maurice comes home again you can help us very much, for you can question him on the matter more naturally than I could do, and no doubt he will tell you his mind about it, as you say he always does about everything, but with me he might be reserved and bewildered perhaps. Ask him, my boy, but keep your guesses to yourself."

"Father," cried Stephen, pressing his hands together in agony as though his heart were between them, and he would fain crush it into dust and destroy it for ever; "tell me, if I am to do this, does Adelais love my brother?"

"If I tell you at all, boy," said the wine-merchant, "I shall tell you the truth; can you hold your peace like a man of discretion?"

"I have kept other secrets, father," he answered, "I can keep this."

Then his father told him.

Early in May, Adelais Cameron went to the Devonshire sea-coast with her brother and her aunt, and they stayed there together a long while. But the accounts that came from week to week to Kensington were none of the best, for Adelais had borne the long journey but ill, and her strength did not return. Then came the summer and the vacation-time, and Maurice Gray was home again, full to the brim of schemes for his future life, and busy all day with head and hands over his preparations for leaving England in the autumn. But when Stephen talked to him of Adelais, and told him she was gone to the sea-side, Maurice only laughed and answered lightly, that she was a sweet lovable girl, and that he grieved to hear of her illness; no doubt the southern breezes would bring back the color to her cheeks, and he should hear before he had been long gone that she was quite well and strong again. At least he hoped so.

"Then, Maurice, you don't care to see her once more before you sail? You don't want to say goodbye?"

"O well, if she's here, of course, but that's another thing; I wouldn't for worlds have her come back to Kensington just to bid me goodbye. And really you know, Steenie, I've too much to do just now to be running about and saying farewells everywhere. The time that's left me now to be at home with you and my father is none too long. What is Adelais Cameron to me, when all my world is here?"

"Maurice," said Stephen again, in a voice that sounded strained and hard, like the voice of an old man trying to be young; "you're a dear affectionate fellow, and as things are, perhaps this is all very well. But supposing Adelais loved you, and my father and—and—everybody else you know, wished her to be your wife, how would you feel towards her then? Supposing, Maurice—only for the sake of supposing, of course."

"What a strange fellow you are, Steenie! Why, supposing as you say, such a very wild improbable circumstance were to occur, I should be heartily sorry for poor Adelais! Only imagine me with such a wife as she would make! Why I wouldn't have so transparent, white-skinned a beauty about my house all day for a mine of gold! I should be seized with lunacy before long, through mere contemplation of her very unearthliness, and be goaded into fancying her a picture, and hanging her up framed and glazed over my drawing-room mantelpiece! No, no, I'll leave Miss Cameron for you, you're just her style, I take it; but as for me, I never thought of marrying yet, Steenie, for I never yet had the luck or ill-luck to fall in love, and certainly you'll allow that nobody ought to think of marriage until he's really in love. So I'll wish you all success, old boy, and mind you write and tell me how the wooing gets on!"

O Maurice! Maurice!

Then, by-and-by, the young officer sailed, and Adelais heard of his going, and her heart died within her for greatness of sorrow and pain, yet still she held her peace, and lived her life in patience.

And so for two whole years they kept her by the sea, hoping against hope, and whispering those idle convictions that affection always suggests, about the worst being over now, and the time of convalescence being always tedious and unpromising. But in the third year, when the autumn days grew darker, and the sun set redder in the sea, and people began to talk again of Christmas, Adelais called her brother one evening and said:—

"Philip, I have been here very long, and I know that nothing more on earth can ever make me well again now. You will not refuse me the last request I shall make you, Phil? Take me back to the old house at Kensington, that I may see dear old Mr. Gray, and my friend Stephen, once more; and you, Phil, stay with me and Auntie there until I die, for it won't be very long now, and I want to see you near me to the last."

So they brought her back again to the old house, next door to the wine merchant's, and they carried her over the threshold, because she was too weak to walk now, and laid her on the old sofa in the old place by the window, for she would have it, and Philip Cameron did her bidding in everything. And that same evening, Stephen Gray came in to see her, and they met as old friends meet who have been long parted, and sat and talked together until past sunset. But at length Adelais asked him for news of Maurice, what he was doing, and how he was, and when they heard from him last, and what he thought of India and of the new life there, and his companions, and the climate, and the customs of the place; for she never guessed that Stephen knew of her hopeless love. But Stephen turned away his face and answered her briefly, that his brother was well and prosperous, and wrote home constantly. How could he tell her that Maurice had already found himself a rich handsome wife in India?

Chapter III.

Soon after these things, old Mr Gray fell ill of a violent cold, which attacked him suddenly one afternoon on his return from his office. It was Christmas weather then, and the cold and the frost of the season were unusually keen, so that the physician, whom Stephen called in to see his father, looked very grave and dubious; and before many days of his patient's illness were past, he asked the young man whether there were any brothers or sisters of his, whom the merchant might wish to see. Stephen's heart beat fast when he heard the ominous question, for he understood what tidings the grave tone and the strange inquiry were meant to break to him, and knew well that the physician who spoke was one of the wisest and most skillful in London. But he answered as calmly as he could, and talked of Maurice, and of the boy's fondness for his father, and added, that if there were really imminent danger, he should like his brother to be called home, because he was sure Maurice would wish it; but that otherwise the voyage was tedious and the need unimportant.

"Let him be sent for," said the physician. "There is just time."

So Stephen wrote to his brother, and bade him leave his wife with her parents in India, and come home quickly, if he would see his father again, for the time was short, and in those days the only way open to Maurice was the long circuitous sea-route.

Maurice arrived only three days before the old man's death. He had not left his wife behind him, as Stephen suggested, for she loved her husband too dearly to be parted from him, and Maurice brought her with him to his father's house.

From her place on the sofa by the window, Adelais Cameron looked wearily out, watching for the coming of the one she loved most upon earth. And at last the coach drew up at the old gentleman's gate, and she saw Maurice dismount from the box-seat by the driver and open the coach door to hand out a handsome lady, with dark hair and bright glowing eyes.

"Who is that?" she asked of the maid, who was arranging the tea-table beside her.

"Don't you know, Miss?" said the girl, surprised at the inquiry. "That's Mrs Maurice, the rich young lady he married in India a year ago; I was told all about it by the cook at Mr. Gray's, ever-so-long ago."

But as the words were spoken, Stephen entered the room with a message for Philip Cameron, and overheard both the question and the answer. Adelais turned towards him and said, "Stephen, you never told me that Maurice had a wife."

The next week they buried the old wine merchant very quietly and simply. Only three mourners attended the funeral,—Stephen and Maurice and Philip Cameron; but Adelais, looking down on them from her casement corner, as the coffin was carried forth from the house, laid her golden head on her aunt's bosom and cried, "Auntie, auntie, I never thought to live so long as this! Why must those always die who are needed most, while such as I live on from year to year? I fancied I had only a few weeks left me upon earth when we came back to Kensington, and yet here I am still!"

Then after a little while the brothers parted once more; Maurice and his wife went back to India, and Stephen was left alone, sole successor to his father's business, and master of the old house. But Adelais Cameron still lived on, like the shadow of her former self, fading in the sunset of her womanhood, the beauty sapped out from her white death-like face, and the glitter of youth and the sweetness of hope quenched for ever in the depths of her luminous eyes.

Then when the days of mourning were over, Stephen came again to Adelais, to renew the wooing of old times; for he said to himself, "Now that Maurice is married, and my father dead, she may pity me, seeing me so lone and desolate; and I may comfort her for the past, and make her amends with my love, for the pain and the bitterness that are gone by."

But when he knelt alone by the couch whereon Adelais lay, and held her white blue-veined hands in his and told his errand, she turned her face from him and wept sore, as women weep over the dead.

"Adelais, O Adelais," he cried in his despair, "Why will you refuse me always? Don't you see my heart is breaking for love of you? Come home with me and be my wife at last!"

But she made answer very sadly and slowly:—

"Stephen, ought the living and the dead to wed with one another? God forbid that you in your youth and manhood should take to wife such a death-like thing as I! Four years I have lain like this waiting for the messenger to fetch me away, and now that at last he is near at hand, shall I array myself in a bridal veil for a face-cloth, and trailing skirts of silk or satin for a shroud? Dear Stephen, don't talk to me any more about this,—we are brother and sister still,—let nothing on earth break the sweetness of the bond between us."

"Not so, Adelais," cried he, passionately; "you cannot, you must not die yet! You do not know what love can do, you do not know that love is stronger than death, and that where there is love like mine death dare not come! There is nothing in all the world that I will not do for your sake, nothing that I will leave undone to save you, nothing that shall be too hard a condition for me to perform, so that I may keep you with me still. Live, live my darling, my beloved, and be my wife! Give me the right to take you with me, my sweet; let us go together to Madeira, to Malta, to Sicily, where the land is full of life, and the skies are warm, and the atmosphere clear and pure. There is health there, Adelais, and youth, and air to breathe such as one cannot find in this dull, misty, heavy northern climate, and there you will grow well again, and we will think no more about death and sickness. O my darling, my darling, for God's sake refuse me no longer!"

She laid her thin transparent palm wearily over her left side, and turned her calm eyes on the passionate straining face beside her.

"There is that here," she said, pressing her wounded heart more tightly, "that I know already for the touch of the messenger's hand. Already I count the time of my sojourn here, not by weeks nor even by days,—the end has come so very, very near at last. How do I know but that even now that messenger of whom I speak may be standing in our presence,—even now, while you kneel here by my side and talk to me of life and youth and health?"

"Adelais," pleaded the poor lover, hoarsely, "you deceive yourself, my darling! Have you not often spoken before of dying, and yet have lived on? O why should you die now and break my heart outright?"

"I feel a mist coming over me," she answered, "even as I speak with you now. I hear a sound in my ears that is not of earth, the darkness gathers before my face, the light quivers and fades, the night is closing about me very fast. Stephen, Stephen, don't you see that I am dying?"

He bowed his head over the damp colorless brow, and whispered: "If it be so, my beloved, be as my wife yet, and die in my arms."

But while he uttered the words there came a change over her,—a shadow into the sweet eyes and a sudden spasm of pain across the white parted lips. Feebly and uncertainly she put out her hands before her face, like one groping in the darkness, her golden head drooped on his shoulder, and her breath came sharp and thick, with the sound of approaching death. Stephen folded his arms about her with a cry of agony, and pressed the poor quivering hands wildly to his bosom, as though he would fain have held them there for ever.

"O God!" he groaned in his unutterable despair; "is there no hope, no redemption, no retrieving of the past? Is this the bitter end of all, and must I lose my darling so? O Adelais, Adelais, my beloved!" But even as he spoke, the gathering shadow broke softly over all her face, the sobbing, gasping breath ceased in the stillness of the darkened room, the golden head fell lower,—lower yet upon the desolate heart whose love had been so steadfast and so true; and Stephen covered his face with the hands of the dead, and wept such tears as men can only weep once in a lifetime,—tears that make brown hairs grey and young men old.

Philip Cameron and his aunt did not stay long at Kensington. They gave up the house to strangers, and went away to the Continent for awhile, where they traveled about together, until the old lady grew tired of wandering, and settled down with her maid in a little villa near Geneva; and after that, Stephen heard no more of her nor of Philip. But Stephen himself stayed on in the old house until he grew old too, for he loved the place where Adelais had lived, and could not bear to leave it for another. And every evening when he came home from his office, he would sit alone at the window of his study whence he could see across the garden into the little chamber next door, the little chintz-curtained old-fashioned chamber where she used to lie in her weakness years and years ago, where they two had so often talked and read together, and where she had died at last in his arms. But he never wept, thinking of these things now, for he had grown into a little withered dried-up old man, and his tears were dried up also, and instead of his passionate despair and heart-breaking, had come the calm bitterness of eternal regret, and a still voiceless longing for the time that every day drew nearer and nearer, and for the coming of the messenger from the land that is very far off.

But when Maurice came home once more to settle in England with his handsome wife and his children, rich and happy and prosperous, he would fain have taken some new house in London to share with his twin brother, that they might live together; but Stephen would not. Then when Maurice had reasoned and talked with him a long time in vain, pleading by turns the love that had been between them long ago, the loneliness of his brother's estate, and his own desire that they should not separate now, he yielded the contest, and said discontentedly,—

"Have your own way, Steenie, since you will make a solitary bachelor of yourself, but at least give up your useless toiling at the wine-office. To what end do you plod there every day,—you who are wifeless and childless, and have no need of money for yourself? Give me up this great house in which you live all alone, like an owl in an oak-tree, and let me find you a cottage somewhere in the neighborhood, where I can often come and see you, and where you may spend your days in happiness and comfort."

And the little old man shook his head and answered, "Nay, brother Maurice, but I will go away from here to some country village where I am not known, for I have toiled long and wearily all my life, and I cannot rest in peace beside the mill where I have ground down my life so many years. Do not trouble yourself about me, Maurice, I shall find a home for myself."

Then they parted. Maurice and his family came to live in the big house at Kensington, for they liked to be near London, and Stephen sold his father's business to another merchant, and went away, Maurice knew not whither, to bury himself and his lost life in some far-off village, until by-and-by the messenger for whom he had waited and yearned so long should come also for him, and the day break and the shadows flee away."

Such, reader mine, is in substance the story that Dr. Peyton told me. The words in which he related it I cannot of course quite remember now, so I have put it into words of my own, and here and there I have added somewhat to the dialogue. But the facts and the pathos of the romance are not mine, nor his; they are true, actual realities, such as no dressing of fiction can make more poetical or complete in their sorrowful interest.

"It was a long history," said I, "for a dying man to tell."

"Yes," answered he. "And several times it was evident enough from his quick- drawn breath and sudden pauses, that the recital wearied and pained him. But he was so set upon telling, and I, Lizzie, I confess, so much interested in hearing it, that I did not absolutely hinder his fancy, but contented myself with warning him from time to time not to overtask his strength. He always answered me that he was quite strong, and liked to go on, for that it made him happy even to talk once more about Adelais, and to tell me how beautiful and sweet and patient she had been. It was close upon sunset when he ended his story, and he begged me, that as his fashion was, he might be lifted out of bed and carried to his armchair by the window, to look, as he said, for the last time, at the going down of the sun. So I called the housekeeper, and we did what he desired together, and opened the green Venetian blinds of the casement, which had been closed all the afternoon because of the heat. You remember, Lizzie, what a wonderfully bright and beautiful sunset it was this evening? Well, as we threw back the outer shutters, the radiant glory of the sky poured into the room like a flood of transparent gold and almost dazzled us, so that I fancied the sudden brilliancy would be too much for his feeble sight, and I leaned hastily forward with the intention of partly reclosing the blinds. But he signed to me to let them be, so I relinquished my design, and sent the housekeeper downstairs to prepare him his tea, which I thought he might like to take sitting up in his chair by the window. I had no idea—doctor though I am—that his end was so near as it proved to be; for although certainly much exhausted and agitated with the exertion of telling me his story, I did not then perceive any immediate cause for apprehension. Still less did I understand that he was then actually dying; on the contrary, I began to think that my first impressions of his danger when I entered the room that afternoon had been erroneous, and that the change I had observed in him might possibly be an indication of temporary revival. At all events, I fancied the cup of tea which was then being made ready, would be of great use in stimulating and refreshing him after the weariness caused by his long talk, and I promised myself that if I could only persuade him to silence for the rest of the evening, he would be none the worse for the recent gratification of his whim. We sat some time by the open window, watching the sun as it sank lower and lower into the golden-sheeted west, and some unconnected speculations were straying through my mind about `the sea of glass mingled with fire,' when the old man's words aroused me in the midst of my dreaming, and the voice in which he spoke was so unusual and so soft that it startled me.

"`Doctor,' he said, `I think I am dying.'

"I sprang from my seat and stood at his side in a moment, but before the utterance had well passed from his lips, I perceived that it was no mere invalid's fancy.

"'Thirty-five years ago,' he continued, speaking still in that new unusual voice,— `thirty-five years ago this very selfsame day, my Adelais died in my arms as the sun went down. Today, as the sun goes down, I shall die also.'

"Surely," cried I, "this is a very singular incident! Does it not seem so to you! This evening, then, was actually the anniversary of poor Miss Cameron's death! How strange!"

"It certainly appeared so to me at first," he rejoined. "But when my mind reverted to it afterwards, I thought it exceedingly probable that his own knowledge of the fact had itself hastened his end, for he had no doubt been long brooding over it, and maybe desired that his death should occur that particular day and hour. In his enfeebled condition, such a desire would have great physical effect; I have known several similar cases. But however that may have been, I of course have no certain means of deciding. I have already told you, that immediately on my entering his chamber in the afternoon, he expressed to me his conviction that tonight he should go to his `long rest,' and in the certainty of that conviction, related to me the story you have heard. But though it has been the necessary lot of my calling to be present at so many deathbeds, I never before witnessed a calmer or a more peaceful end than Stephen Gray's. In his changed face, in his watchful eyes, in every placid feature of his countenance, I beheld the quiet anticipation of that `long rest' about which he had spoken so contentedly an hour or two since.

"He took no further heed of me whatever,—I doubt if he was even aware of my presence. Wearily he laid his head back upon the white pillows I had placed in the armchair behind him, folded his hands together, and kept his eyes fixed steadfastly, and—I thought—even reverently, upon the setting sun that was now fast sinking like a globe of fire, towards the blue ridge of the Malvern hills, and my heart beat violently as I saw it touch the topmost peak. While I watched, there broke suddenly forth from between the low lines of sunset cloud, a long ray of golden light, that fell full on the uplifted face of the little old man. He did not turn his head, or shrink from its intense brightness, but his lips moved, though the utterance of the words he spoke was so broken and indistinct, that I stooped to hear them.

"'Adelais,—O my lost darling,—my Adelais,—let me come to thee and be beloved at last!'

" Then I looked again at the western sky, and saw that the sun had gone down."

Next morning I gathered my June roses and sweet jasmin, and took them over to the house of the little old man. I went upstairs into the darkened chamber where they had laid him, and bestowed the flowers reverently about the white- draped bed. All the wrinkles were wiped out of his pallid face now, and he looked so wondrously calm and peaceful, lying there with his closed eyelids and crossed hands, in the unbroken silence of the room, that the tears of pity I thought I should have wept at the sight never rose in my eyes; but instead, as I turned away, there came to my memory certain closing lines of a most beautiful poem, written not very long ago by a master-hand that surely held God's commission to write. It is a dead hand now, but the written words remain, and the singer herself has gone to the land of the Hereafter, where the souls of the poets float for ever in the full light of their recovered Godhead, singing such songs as mortal ear hath not yet heard, nor mortal heart conceived of. And the poem of which I spoke, has this ending:—

"`Jasper first,' I said, `And second, sapphire; third, chalcedony. The rest in order,—last, an amethyst."'

 
 
 

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