Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

Across the Way by Robert Grant

 

The news that the late Mr. Cherrington's house on Saville Street had been let for a school, within a few months after his death, could not have been a surprise to any one in the neighborhood. Ten years before, when Mr. Cherrington and those prominent in his generation were in their heyday, Saville Street had been sacred to private residences from one end to the other, but the tide of fashion had been drifting latterly. There was already another school in the same block, and there were scattered all along on either side of the street a sprinkling of throat, eye, and ear doctors, a very fashionable dressmaker or two, an up-town bank, and numerous apartments for bachelors.

The news could not have been a surprise even to Mr. Homer Ramsay, but that crusty old bachelor in the seventies brought down his walking-stick with a vicious thump when he heard it, and remarked that he would live to be ninety “if only to spite 'em.” This threat, however, had reference, not to Mr. Cherrington's residence, but his own, which was exactly opposite, and which he had occupied for more than forty years. It was a conviction of Mr. Ramsay's that there was a conspiracy on foot to purchase his house, and accordingly he took every opportunity to declare that he would never part with an inch of his land while he was in the flesh. A wag in the neighborhood had expressed the opinion that the old gentleman waxed hale and hearty on his own bile. He was certainly a churlish individual in his general bearing toward his fellow-beings, and violent in his prejudices. For the last ten years his favorite prophecy had been that the country was going to the devil.

Besides the house on Saville Street, Mr. Ramsay had some bonds and stock—fifty or sixty thousand dollars in all—which tidy little property would, in the natural course of events, descend to his next of kin; in this case, however, only a first cousin once removed. In the eye of the law a living person has no heir; but blood is thicker than water, and it was generally taken for granted that Mr. Horace Barker, whose grandmother had been the sister of Mr. Ramsay's father, would some day be the owner of the house on Saville Street. At least, confident expectation that this would come to pass had long restrained Mr. Barker from letting any one but his better half know that he regarded his Cousin Homer as an irascible old curmudgeon; and perhaps, on the other hand, had justified Mr. Ramsay in his own mind for referring in common parlance to his first cousin once removed as a stiff nincompoop who had married a sickly doll. Not that Mr. Horace Barker needed the money, by any means. He was well-to-do already, and lived in a more fashionable street than Saville Street, where he occupied a dignified-looking brown-stone house, from the windows of which his three little people—all girls—peeped and nodded at the organ-grinder and the street-band.

The name of the person to whom Mr. Cherrington's house had been leased was Miss Elizabeth Whyte. She was twenty-five, and she was starting a school because it was necessary for her to earn her own living. She considered that life, from the point of view of happiness, was over for her; and yet, though she had made up her mind that she could never be really happy again, she was resolved neither to mope nor to be a burden on any one. Mr. Mills, the executor of Mr. Cherrington's estate, who believed himself to be a judge of human nature withal, had observed that she seemed a little overwrought, as though she had lived on her nerves; but, on the other hand, he had been impressed by her direct, business-like manner, which argued that she was very much in earnest. Besides, she was vouched for by the best people, and Mrs. Cyrus Bangs was moving heaven and earth to procure pupils for her. It was clearly his duty as a business man to let her have the house.

Until within a few months Elizabeth Whyte had lived in a neighboring town—the seat of a college, where the minds of young men for successive generations have been cultivated, but sometimes at the expense of a long-suffering local community. Her father, who at the time of her birth was a clergyman with a parish, had subsequently evolved into an agnostic and an invalid without one, and she had been used to plain living and high thinking from her girlhood. Even parents who find it difficult to keep the wolf at a respectful distance by untiring economy will devise some means to make an only daughter look presentable on her first appearance in society. Fine feathers do not make fine birds, and yet the consciousness of a becoming gown will irradiate the cheek of beauty. Elizabeth at eighteen would have been fetching in any dress, but in each of her three new evening frocks she looked bewitching. She was a gay, trig little person, with snapping, dark eyes and an arch expression; a tireless dancer, quick and audacious at repartee; the very ideal of a college belle. The student world had fallen prostrate at her feet, and Tom Whittemore most conspicuously and devotedly of all.

Tom was, perhaps, the most popular man of his day; a Philadelphian of reputedly superfine stock, fresh-faced and athletic, with a jaunty walk. There was no one at the college assemblies who whispered so entrancingly in her ear when she was all alone with him in a corner, and no one who placed her new fleecy wrap about her shoulders with such an air of devotion when it was time to go home. She liked him from the very first; and all her girl friends babbled, “Wouldn't it be a lovely match?” But Tom's classmates from Philadelphia, when they became confidential in the small hours of the morning, asked each other what Tom's mother would say. Tom was a senior, and it was generally assumed that matters would culminate on Class-day evening, that evening of all evenings in the collegiate world sacred to explanation and vows. Elizabeth lay awake all that night, remembering that she had let Tom have his impetuous say, and that at the end he had folded her in his arms and kissed her. Not until the next morning, and then merely as an unimportant fact, did it occur to her that, though Tom had told her she was dearer to him than all the world besides, there was no definite engagement between them. It was only when whispers reached her that Tom, who had gone to Philadelphia to attend the wedding of a relation, was not coming back to his Commencement, that she began to think a little. But she never really doubted until the news came that Tom had been packed off by his mother on a two years' journey round the world.

What mother in a distant city would be particularly pleased to have her only son, on whom rested the hopes of an illustrious stock, lose his heart to a college belle? But Elizabeth can scarcely be blamed for not having taken the illustrious stock into consideration. She kept saying to herself, that, if he had only written, she could have forgiven him; and it was not surprising that the partners with whom she danced at the college assemblies during the next five years described her to each other as steely. Indeed, she danced and prattled with such vivacious energy, and her black eyes shone so like beads, that college tradition twisted her story until it ran that she had thrown over Tom Whittemore, the most popular man of his day, and that she had no more heart than a nether millstone. And all the time, just to prove to herself that she had not cared for him, she kept the roses that he had given her on that Class-day evening in the secret drawer of her work-box. It had been all sheer nonsense, a boy and girl flirtation. So she had taught herself to argue, knowing that it was untrue, and knowing that she knew it to be so.

Then had come the deaths of her father and mother within three months of each other, and she had awakened one morning to the consciousness that she was alone in the world, and face to face with the necessity of earning her daily bread. The gentleman who had charge of the few thousand dollars belonging to her father's estate, in announcing that her bonds had ceased to pay interest, had added that she was in the same boat with many of the best people; which ought to have been a consolation, had she needed any. But this loss of the means of living had seemed a mere trifle beside her other griefs; indeed, it acted as a spur rather than a bludgeon. The same pride which had prompted her to continue to dance bade her bestir herself to make a living. Upon reflection, the plan of starting a school struck her as the most practicable. But it should be a school for girls; she had done with the world of men. She had loved with all her heart, and her heart was broken; it was withered, like the handful of dried roses in the secret drawer of her work-box.

       * * * * *

Elizabeth was fortunate enough to obtain at the outset the patronage of some of those same “best people” in the adjacent city, who happened to know her story. Fashionable favor grows apace. It was only after hearing that Mrs. Cyrus Bangs had intrusted her little girl to the tender mercies of Miss Whyte that Mrs. Horace Barker subdued the visions of scarlet-fever, bad air, and evil communications which haunted her, sufficiently to be willing to send her own darlings to the new kindergarten. People intimate with Mrs. Barker were apt to say that worry over her three little girls, who were exceptionally healthy children, kept her a nervous invalid.

“I consider Mrs. Cyrus Bangs a very particular woman,” she said, with plaintive impressiveness to her husband. “If she is willing to send her Gwendolen to Miss Whyte, I am disposed to let Margery, Gladys, and Dorothy go. Only you must have a very clear understanding with Miss Whyte, at the outset, as to hours and ventilation and Gladys's hot milk. We cannot move from the seaside until a fortnight after her term begins, and it will be utterly impossible for me to get the children to school in the mornings before half-past nine.”

It never occurred to Horace Barker, when one morning about ten o'clock, some six weeks later, he called at the kindergarten with his precious trio, that there was any impropriety in breaking in upon Miss Whyte's occupations an hour after school had begun. What school-mistress could fail to be proud of the distinction of obtaining his three daughters as pupils at any hour of the twenty-four when he saw fit to proffer them? He expected to find a cringing, deferential young person, who would, in the interest of her own bread and butter, accede without a murmur to any stipulations which so important a patroness as Mrs. Horace Barker might see fit to impose. He became conscious, in the first place, that the school-mistress was a much more attractive-looking young person than he had anticipated, and secondly, that she seemed rather amused than otherwise at his conditions. No man, and least of all a man so consummate as Mr. Barker—for he was a dapper little person with a closely cropped beard and irreproachable kid gloves—likes to be laughed at by a woman, especially by one who is young and moderately good-looking; and he instinctively drew himself up by way of protest before Elizabeth spoke.

“Really, Mr. Barker,” she replied, after a few moments of reflection, “I don't see how it is possible for me to carry out Mrs. Barker's wishes. To let the children come half an hour later and go home half an hour earlier than the rest would interfere with the proper conduct of the school. I will do my best to have the ventilation satisfactory, and perhaps I can manage to provide some hot milk for the second one, as her mother desires; but in the matter of the hours, I do not see how I can accommodate Mrs. Barker. To make such an exception would be entirely contrary to my principles.”

Horace Barker smiled inwardly at the suggestion that a school-mistress could have principles which an influential parent might not violate.

“When I say to you that it is Mrs. Barker's particular desire that her preferences regarding hours should be observed, I am sure that you will interpose no further objection.”

Elizabeth gave a strange little laugh, and her eyes, which were still her most salient feature, snapped noticeably. “It is quite out of the question, Mr. Barker,” she said with decision. “Much as I should like to have your little girls, I cannot consent to break my rules on their account.”

“Mrs. Barker would be very sorry to be compelled to send her children elsewhere,” he said solemnly, with the air of one who utters a dire threat.

“I should be glad to teach your little girls upon the same terms as I do my other pupils,” said Elizabeth, quietly. “But if my regulations are unsatisfactory, you had better send them elsewhere.”

Horace Barker was a man who prided himself on his deportment. He would no more have condescended to express himself with irate impetuosity than he would have permitted his closely cropped beard to exceed the limits which he imposed upon it. He simply bowed stiffly, and turning to the Misses Barker, who, under the supervision of a nurse, whom they had been taught to address by her patronymic Thompson instead of by her Christian name Bridget, had been open-mouthed listeners to the dialogue, said, “Come, children.”

It so happened that as Mr. Horace Barker and the Misses Barker descended the steps of the late Mr. Cherrington's house, they came plump upon Mr. Homer Ramsay, who was taking his morning stroll. The old gentleman was standing leaning on his cane, glaring across the street; and, by way of acknowledging that he perceived his first cousin once removed, he raised the cane, and, pointing in the line of his scowling gaze, ejaculated:

“This street is going to perdition. As though it weren't enough to have a school opposite me, a fellow has had the impudence to put his doctor's sign right next door to my house—an oculist, he calls himself. In my day, a man who was fit to call himself a doctor could set a leg, or examine your eyes, or tell what was the matter with your throat, and not leave you so very much the wiser even then; but now there's a different kind of quack for every ache and pain in our bodies.”

“We live in a progressive world, Cousin Homer,” said Mr. Barker, placing his eyeglass astride his nose to examine the obnoxious sign across the way. “Dr. James Clay, Oculist,” he read aloud, indifferently.

“Progressive fiddlesticks, Cousin Horace. A fig for your oculists and your dermatologists and all the rest of your specialists! I have managed to live to be seventy-five, and I never had anybody prescribe for me but a good old-fashioned doctor, thank Heaven! And I'm not dead yet, as the speculators who have their eyes on my house and are waiting for me to die will find out.” Mr. Ramsay scowled ferociously; then casting a sweeping glance from under his eyebrows at the little girls, he said, “Cousin Horace, if your children don't have better health than their mother, they might as well be dead. Do they go there?” he asked, indicating the school-house with his cane.

“I am removing them this morning. Anabel had concluded to send them there, but I find that the young woman who is the teacher has such hoity-toity notions that I cannot consent to let my daughters remain with her. In my opinion, so arbitrary a young person should be checked; and my belief is that before many days she will find herself without pupils.” Whereupon Mr. Barker proceeded on his way, muttering to himself, when at a safe distance, “Irrational old idiot!”

Mr. Ramsay stood for some moments mulling over his cousin's answer; by degrees his countenance brightened and he began to chuckle; and every now and then, in the course of his progress along Saville Street, he would stand and look back at the late Mr. Cherrington's house, as though it had acquired a new interest in his eyes. His daily promenade was six times up and six times down Saville Street; and he happened to complete the last lap, so to speak, of his sixth time down at the very moment when Miss Whyte's little girls came running out on the sidewalk for recess. Behind them appeared the school-mistress, who stood looking at her flock from the top of the stone flight.

Elizabeth knew the old gentleman by sight but not by name, and she was therefore considerably astonished to see him suddenly veer from his ordinary course, and come slowly up the steps.

“You're the school-mistress?” he asked, with the directness of an old man who feels that he need not mince his words.

“Yes, sir. I'm Miss Whyte.”

“My name's Ramsay; Homer Ramsay. I live opposite, and I've come to tell you I admire your pluck in not letting my cousin, Hortace Barker, put you down. I'll stand by you, too; you can tell him that. Break up your school? I should like to see him do it. Had to take his three little girls away, did he? Ho, ho! A grand good joke that; a grand good joke. What was it he asked you to do?”

“Mr. Barker wished me to change some of my rules about hours, and I was not able to accommodate him, that was all,” answered Elizabeth, who found herself eminently puzzled by the interest in her affairs displayed by this strange visitor.

“I'll warrant he did. And you wouldn't make the change. A grand good joke that. I know him; he's my first cousin once removed, and the only relation I've left. And he is going to try and break up your school. I'd like to see him do it.”

“I don't believe that Mr. Barker would do anything so unjust,” said Elizabeth, flushing.

“Yes, he would. I had it from his own lips. But he shan't; not while I'm in the flesh. What did you say your name was?”

“Whyte—Elizabeth Whyte.”

“And what made you become a school-teacher, I should like to know?”

“I had to earn my living.”

“Humph! In my day, girls as pretty as you got married; but now the rich ones are those who get husbands, and those who are poor have to tend shop instead of baby.”

“I know a number of girls who were poor, who have excellent husbands,” said Elizabeth quietly, spurred into coming to the rescue of the sex she despised. “But,” she added, “there are many girls nowadays who are poor who prefer to remain single.” She was amused at having been led into so unusual a discussion with this queer old gentleman.

“Bah! That caps the climax. When pretty girls pretend that they don't wish to be married, the world is certainly turned upside down. Well, I like your spirit, though I don't approve of your methods. I just dropped in to say that if Horace Barker does cause you any trouble, you've a friend across the way. Good-morning.”

And before Elizabeth could bethink herself to say that she was very much obliged to him, Mr. Ramsay was gone.

That very day after school, while Elizabeth was on her way across the park which lay between Saville Street and the section of the city where her rooms were, she dodged the wrong way in a narrow path, so that she ran plump into the arms of a young man who was walking in the opposite direction. Most women expect men to look out for them when they dodge, but Elizabeth's code did not allow her to put herself under obligations to any man. To tell the truth, she was in such a brown study over the events of the morning that she had become practically oblivious of her surroundings. When she recovered sufficiently from her confusion at her clumsiness to take in the details of the situation, she realized that the individual in question was a young man whom she was in the habit of passing daily at this same hour. Only the day before he had rescued her veil which had been swept away by a high wind; and here she was again, within twenty-four hours, forcing herself upon his attention. She, too, of all women, who had done with men forever!

But Elizabeth's confusion was slight compared with that manifested by her victim, who, notwithstanding that his hat had been jammed in by her school-bag (which she had raised as a shield), was so profuse in the utterance of his apologies and so willing to shoulder all responsibility, that her own sensibilities were speedily comforted. She found herself, after they had separated, much more engrossed by the fact that he had addressed her by name. Although they had been passing each other daily for over two months, it had never occurred to her to wonder who he might be. But it was evident that she was not unknown to him. She remembered now merely that he was a gentleman, and that he had intelligent eyes and a pleasant, deferential smile. The recollection of his blushing diffidence made her laugh.

On the following day, when they were about to pass as usual, she was suddenly confronted in her mind by the alternative whether to recognize him or not. A glance at him as he approached told her that he himself was evidently uncertain if she would choose to consider their experience of the previous day as equivalent to an introduction, and yet she noticed a certain wistfulness of expression which suggested the desire to be permitted to doff his hat to her. To acknowledge by a simple inclination of her head the existence of a man whom she was likely to pass every day seemed the natural thing to do, however unconventional; so she bowed.

“Good afternoon, Miss Whyte,” he said, lifting his hat with a glad smile.

How completely our lives are often appropriated by incidents which seem at the time of but slight importance! For the next few months Elizabeth was buffeted as it were between the persistent persecution of Mr. Horace Barker and the persistent devotion of Mr. Homer Ramsay. With Mr. Barker she had no further interview, but not many weeks elapsed before the influence of malicious strictures and insinuations circulated by him concerning the hygienic arrangements of her school began to bear their natural fruit. Parents became querulous and suspicious; and when calumny was at its height, a case of scarlet-fever among her pupils threw consternation even into the soul of Mrs. Cyrus Bangs, her chief patroness. But, on the other hand, she soon realized that she possessed an ardent, if not altogether discreet, champion in her enemy's septuagenarian first cousin once removed, who sang her praises and fought her battles from one end of Saville Street to the other. Mr. Ramsay no longer railed against electric cars and specialists; all his fulminations were uttered against the malicious warfare which his Cousin Horace and that blood relative's sickly wife were waging against the charming little Miss Whyte, who had hired Mr. Cherrington's house across the way. What is more, he paid Elizabeth almost daily visits, during which, after he had discussed ways and means for confounding his vindictive kinsman, he was apt to declare that she ought to be married, and that it was a downright shame so pretty a girl should be condemned to drudgery because she lacked a dowry. This was a point on which the old gentleman never ceased to harp; and Elizabeth labored vainly to make him understand that teaching was a delight to her instead of a drudgery, and that she had not the remotest desire for a husband. And by way of proving how indifferent she was to the whole race of men, she continued to bow to the unknown stranger of her daily walk without making the slightest effort to discover his name.

Pneumonia, that deadly foe of hale and hearty septuagenarians, carried Mr. Homer Ramsay off within forty-eight hours in the first week of May. And very shortly after, Elizabeth received a letter from Mr. Mills, the lawyer, requesting her to call on a matter of importance. She supposed that it concerned her lease. Perhaps her enemy had bought the roof over her head.

Mr. Mills ushered her into his private office. Then opening a parchment envelope on his desk, he turned to her, and said: “I have the pleasure to inform you, Miss Whyte, that my client, the late Mr. Homer Ramsay, has left you the residuary legatee of his entire property—some fifty or sixty thousand dollars. Perhaps,” he added, observing Elizabeth's bewildered expression, “you would like to read the will while I attend to a little matter in the other office. It is quite short, and straight as a string. I drew the instrument, and the testator knew what he was about just as well as you or I.”

Mr. Mills, who, as you may remember, was a student of human nature, believed that Miss Whyte lived on her nerves, and he had therefore planned to leave her alone for a few moments to allow any hysterical tendency to exhaust itself. When he returned, he found her looking straight before her with the document in her lap.

“Is it all plain?” he asked kindly.

“Yes. But I don't understand exactly why he left it to me.”

“Because he liked you, my dear. He had become very fond of you. And if you will excuse my saying so,” he added, with a knowing smile, “he was very anxious to see you well married. He said that he wished to provide you with a suitable dowry.”

“I see,” said Elizabeth, coloring. She reflected for a moment, then looked up and said, “But I am free to use it as I see fit?”

“Absolutely. I may as well tell you now as any time, however,” Mr. Mills added smoothly, “that Mr. Ramsay's cousin, Mr. Horace Barker, has expressed an intention to contest the will. He is the next of kin, though only a first cousin once removed.”

Elizabeth started at the name, and drew herself up slightly.

“You need not give yourself the smallest concern in the matter,” the lawyer continued. “If Mr. Barker were in needy circumstances or were a nearer relative, he might be able to make out a case, but no jury will hesitate between a first cousin once removed, amply rich in this world's goods, and a—a—pretty woman. I myself am ready to testify that Mr. Ramsay was completely in his right mind,” he added, with professional dignity; “and as for the claim of undue influence, it is rubbish—sheer rubbish.”

Elizabeth sat for a few moments without speaking. She seemed to pay no heed to several further reassuring remarks which Mr. Mills, who judged that she was appalled by the idea of a legal contest, hastened to let fall. At last she looked straight at him, and said with firmness, “I suppose that I am at liberty not to take this money, if I don't wish to?”

“At liberty? Bless my stars, Miss Whyte, anybody is at liberty to refuse a gift of fifty thousand dollars. But when you call to see me again, you will be laughing at the very notion of such a thing. Go home, my dear young lady, and leave the matter in my hands. Naturally you are overwrought at the prospect of going into court.”

“It isn't that, Mr. Mills. I cannot take this money; I have no right to it. I am no relation to Mr. Ramsay, and the only reason he left it to me was—was because he thought it would help me to be married. Otherwise he would have left it to Mr. Barker. I have no intention of marrying, and I should not be willing to take a fortune under such circumstances.”

“The will is perfectly legal, my dear. And as to marrying, you are free to remain single all your days, if you wish to,” said Mr. Mills, with another knowing smile. “Indeed, you are overwrought.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I am sure that I shall never change my mind,” she answered. “I could never take it.”

Elizabeth slept little that night; but when she arose in the morning, she felt doubly certain that she had acted to her own satisfaction. What real right had she to this money? It was coming to her as the result of the fancy of an eccentric old man, who, in a moment of needless pity and passing interest, had made a will in her favor to the prejudice of his natural heir. Of what odds was it that that heir had ample means already, or even that he was her bitter enemy? Did not the very fact that he was her enemy and that she despised him make it impossible for her to take advantage of an old man's whim so as to rob him? She would have no lawsuit; he might keep the fifty thousand dollars, and she would go her way as though Mr. Homer Ramsay and Mr. Horace Barker had never existed. Mr. Ramsay had left her his money on the assumption that she would be able to marry. To have taken it knowing that she intended never to marry would have been to take it under false pretences.

Mr. Mills consoled himself after much additional expostulation with the reflection that if a woman is bent on making a fool of herself, the wisest man in the world is helpless to prevent her. He set himself at last to prepare the necessary papers which would put Mr. Horace Barker in possession of his cousin's property; and very shortly the act of signal folly, as he termed it, was completed. Tongues in the neighborhood wagged energetically for a few days; but presently the birth of twins in the next block distracted the public mind, and Elizabeth was allowed to resume the vocation of an inconspicuous schoolmistress. From the object of her bounty, Mr. Horace Barker, she heard nothing directly; but at least he had the grace to discontinue his persecutions. And parental confidence, which, in spite of scarlet-fever, had never been wholly lost, was manifested in the form of numerous applications to take pupils for the coming year. For the first time for many weeks Elizabeth was in excellent spirits and was looking forward to the summer vacation, now close at hand; during which she hoped to be able to fit herself more thoroughly for her duties after a few weeks of necessary rest.

One evening, about a fortnight before the date when the school was to close, she noticed that the print of her book seemed blurred; she turned the page and, perceiving the same effect, realized that her vision was impaired. On the following morning at school she noticed the same peculiarity whenever she looked at a book. She concluded that it was but a passing weakness, the result of having studied too assiduously at night. Still, recognizing that her eyes were all-important to her, she decided to consult an oculist at once. It would be a simple matter to do, for was there not one directly opposite in the house next to Mr. Ramsay's? The sign, Dr. James Clay, Oculist, had daily stared her in the face. She resolved to consult him that very day after school. To be sure she knew nothing about him individually, but she was aware that only doctors of the best class were to be found in Saville Street.

She was obliged to wait in an anteroom, as there were three or four patients ahead of her. When her turn came to be ushered into the doctor's office, she found herself suddenly in the presence of the unknown young man whom she was accustomed to meet daily on her way from school. Her impulse at recognizing him, though she could not have told why, was to slip away; but before she could move, he looked up from the table over which he was bent making a memorandum.

“Miss Whyte!” he exclaimed with pleased astonishment and some confusion, advancing to meet her. “In what way can I be of service to you?”

“Dr. Clay? I should like you to look at my eyes; they have been troubling me lately.”

Elizabeth briefly detailed her symptoms. He listened with gravity, and then after requesting her to change her seat, he examined her eyes with absorbed attention. This took some minutes, and when he had finished there was something in his manner which prompted her to say:

“Of course you will tell me, Dr. Clay, exactly what is the matter.”

“I am bound to do so,” he said, slowly. “I wished to make perfectly sure, before saying that your eyes are quite seriously affected—not that there is danger of a loss of sight, if proper precautions are taken—but—but it will be absolutely necessary for you to abstain from using them in order to check the progress of the disease.”

“I see,” she said, quietly, after a brief silence. “Do you mean that I cannot teach school? I am a school-teacher.”

“I knew that; and knowing it, I thought it best to tell you the whole truth. No, Miss Whyte; you must not use your eyes for at least a year, if you do not wish to lose your sight.”

“I see,” said Elizabeth again, with the hopeless air of one from whom the impossible is demanded. “I thank you, Dr. Clay, for telling me the truth,” she added, simply. “Have I strained my eyes?”

“You have evidently overtaxed them a little; but the disease is primarily a disease of the nerves. Will you excuse me for asking if at any time within the last few years you have suffered a severe shock?”

“A shock?” Elizabeth hesitated an instant, and replied gently: “Yes; but it was a number of years ago.”

“That would account for the case, nevertheless.”

A few minutes later Elizabeth was walking along the street, face to face with despair. She had not been able to obtain permission from the doctor to use her eyes even during the ten days which remained before vacation. He had said that every moment of delay would make the cure more difficult. She must absolutely cease to look at a book for one whole year. It would be necessary at first for her to visit him for treatment two or three times a week. He had said—she remembered his exact words—“I cannot do a very great deal for you; we can rely only on time for that; but believe me, I shall endeavor to help you so far as it lies in human power. I hope that you will trust me—and—and come to me freely.” Kind words these, but of what avail were they to answer the embarrassing question how she was to live? She must give up her school at least for a year; that seemed inevitable. How was she to earn her daily bread if she obeyed the doctor's orders? Would it not be better to use her eyes to the end, and trust to charity to send her to an infirmary when she became blind? Why had she been foolish enough to refuse Mr. Ramsay's property? But for a quixotic theory, she would not now have been at the world's mercy.

It was the sting of shame which this last thought aroused, following in the train of her bitter reasoning, that caused her to quicken her pace and clinch her hands. That same pride, which had been her ally hitherto, had come to her rescue once more. She said to herself that she had done what she knew was right, and that no force of cruel circumstances should induce her to regret that she had not acted differently. She would prove still that she was able to make her own way without assistance, even though she were obliged to scrub floors. A shock? The shock of a betrayed faith which had arrayed her soul in bitterness against mankind. Must she own that she was crushed? Not while she had an arm to toil and a heart to strive.

The next ten days were bitter ones. Elizabeth, after disbanding her school, began to plan and contrive for the future. Schemes bright with prospect suggested themselves, and faded into smoke at the touch of practicability. She had a few hundred dollars, which would enable her to live until she had been able to devise a plan, and she determined that the world should not think that she was discouraged. The world, and chiefly at the moment Dr. Clay, whose kindness and earnest attention during the visits which she paid him suggested that he felt great pity for her. Pity? She wished the pity of no man.

One evening while she was alone in her parlor, wrestling with her schemes, the maid entered and said that a gentleman wished to see her. A gentleman? She could think of none who would be likely to call upon her, but she bade the girl show him in; and a moment later she was greeting Dr. Clay. Presently, while she was wondering why he had come, she found herself listening to these words: “I am a stranger to you to all intents and purposes, but you are none to me. For months I have dogged your footsteps unknown to you, and haunted this house in my walks because I knew that you lived here. The memory of your face has sweetened my dreams, and those brief moments when we have passed each other daily have been sweeter than any paradise. I know the story of your struggle with that coward and of your noble act of renunciation. It cut into my heart like a knife to speak to you those necessary words the other day, and I have been miserable ever since. I said to myself at last that I would go to you and tell you that I could not be happy apart from you; and that your happiness was mine. This seems presumptuous, intrusive: I wish to be neither. I have merely come to ask that I may be free to call upon you and to try to make you love me. I am not rich, but my practice is such that I am able to offer you a home. Will you allow me to come to see you, at least to be your friend?”

The silence which followed this eager question seemed to demand an answer. Elizabeth, who had been sitting with bent head, looked up presently and answered with a sweet smile:

“I have no friends, Dr. Clay. I think it would be very pleasant to have one.”

A few minutes later when he was gone, Elizabeth sat for some time without moving, with the same happy smile on her lips. He had asked nothing more and she had given him no greater assurance. Why was it that at last she buried her face in her hands and sobbed as though her bosom would break? Why was it, too, that before she went to bed that night she took a handful of withered flowers, mere dust and ashes, from the secret drawer of her work-box, and, wrapping them in the paper which had enclosed them, held them in the flame of the lamp until they were consumed? Why? Because love, unwatched for, unbidden had entered her heart, which she thought sere as the rose-leaves, and restored light to the sunshine and joy to the world.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page