So Edith donned the pink dress, and clasping upon her neck and arms the delicate ornaments made from Nina's hair, asked of Arthur, "How she looked."
"Splendidly," he replied, "Handsomer even than on our bridal night."
And Edith was handsomer than on the night when she stood at the altar a bride, for six years of almost perfect happiness had chased away the restless, careworn, sorrowful look which was fast becoming habitual, and now, at twenty-six, Edith St. Claire was p.r.o.nounced by the world the most strikingly beautiful woman of her age. Poets had sung of her charms, artists had transferred them to canvas; brainless beaux, who would as soon rave about a married woman as a single one, provided it were the fashion so to do, had stamped them upon their hearts; envious females had picked them all to pieces, declaring her too tall, too black, too hoydenish to be even pretty; while little d.i.c.k and Nina likened her to the angels, wondering if there were anything in heaven, save Aunt Nina, as beautiful as she. And this was Edith, who when her toilet was completed went down to meet Grace Atherton just arrived and greatly flurried when she heard that Richard had come. Very earnestly the two ladies were talking together when Arthur glanced in for a moment and then hastened up to Richard, whom he found sitting by the window, with d.i.c.k and Nina both seated in his lap, the former utterly astounded at the accuracy with which his blind uncle guessed every time how many fingers he held up!
"Father! father!" he screamed, as Arthur came in, "He can see just as good as if he wasn't blind!" and he looked with childish curiosity into the eyes which had discovered in his infantile features more than one trace of the Swedish Petrea, grandmother to the boy.
Arthur smiled and without replying to his son, said to Richard,
"I have come now to take you to Edith. Grace Atherton is there, too--a wonderfully young and handsome woman for forty-two. I am not sure that you can tell them apart.
"I could tell your wife from all the world," was Richard's answer, as putting down the children and resuming the green shade, he went with Arthur to the door of the library, where Grace and Edith, standing with their backs to them were too much engaged to notice that more than Arthur was coming.
Him Edith heard, and turning towards him she was about to speak, when Richard lowered the green shade he had raised for a single moment, and walking up to her took her hand in his. Twining his fingers around her slender wrist he said to her,
"Come with me to the window and sit on a stool at my feet just as you used to do."
Edith was surprised, and stammered out something about Grace's being in the room.
"Never mind Mrs. Atherton," he said, "I will attend to her by and by--my business is now with you," and he led her to the window, where Arthur had carried a stool.
Like lightning the truth flashed upon Grace, and with a nervous glance at the mirror to see how she herself was looking that afternoon, she stood motionless, while Richard dashing the shade to the floor, said to the startled Edith,
"The blind man would know how Petrea's daughter looks."
With a frightened shriek Edith covered up her face, and laying her head in its old resting place, Richard's lap, exclaimed,
"No, no, oh no, Richard. Please do not look at me now. Help me, Arthur. Don't let him," she continued, as she felt the strong hands removing her own by force. But Arthur only replied by lifting up her head himself and holding in his own the struggling hands, while Richard examined a face seen now for the first time since its early babyhood. Oh how scrutinisingly he scanned that face, with its brilliant black eyes, where tears were glittering like diamonds in the sunlight, its rich healthful bloom, its proudly curved lip, its dimpled chin and soft, round cheeks What did he think of it? Did it meet his expectations? Was the face he had known so long in his darkness as Edith's, natural when seen by daylight? Mingled there no shadow of disappointment in the reality? Was Arthur's Edith at all like Richard's singing bird?
How Arthur wished he knew. But Richard kept his own counsel, for a time at least. He did not say what he thought of her. He only kissed the lips beginning to quiver with something like a grieved expression that Arthur should hold her so long, kissed them twice, and with his hand wiped her tears away, saying playfully,
"'Tis too bad, Birdie, I know, but I've antic.i.p.ated this hour so long."
He had not called her Birdie before, and the familiar name compensated for all the pain which Edith had suffered when she saw those strangely black eyes fastened upon her, and knew that they could see. Springing to her feet the moment, she was released, she jumped into his lap in her old impetuous way, and winding her arms around his neck, sobbed out,
"I am so glad, Richard, so glad. You can't begin to guess how glad, and I've prayed for this every night and every day, Arthur and I. Didn't we, Arthur? Dear, dear Richard. I love you so much."
"What he make mam-ma cry for?" asked a childish voice from the comer where little d.i.c.k stood, half frightened at what he saw, his tiny fist doubled ready to do battle for mother in case he should make up his mind that her rights were invaded.
This had the effect of rousing Edith, who, faint with excitement, was led by Arthur out into the open air, thus leaving Richard alone with his first love of twenty-five years ago. It did not seem to him possible that so many years had pa.s.sed over the face which, at seventeen, was marvellously beautiful, and which still was very, very fair and youthful in its look, for Grace was wondrously well preserved and never pa.s.sed for over thirty, save among the envious ones, who, old themselves, strove hard to make others older still.
"Time has dealt lightly with you, Grace," Richard said, after the first curious glance. "I could almost fancy you were Grace Elmendorff yet," and he lifted gallantly one of her chestnut curls, just as he used to do in years agone, when she was Grace Elmendorff.
This little act recalled so vivedly the scenes of other days that Grace burst into a flood of tears, and hurried from the room to the parlor adjoining, where, un.o.bserved, she could weep again over the hopes forever fled. Thus left to himself, with the exception of little d.i.c.k, Richard had leisure to look about him, descrying ere long the life-sized portrait of Nina hanging on the wall. In an instant he stood before what was to him, not so much a picture painted on rude canvas, as a living reality--the golden-haired angel, who was now as closely identified with his every thought and feeling as even Edith herself had ever been. She had followed him over land and sea, bringing comfort to him in his dark hours of pain, coloring his dreams with rainbow hues of promise, buoying him up and bidding him wait a little--try yet longer, when the only hope worth his living for now seemed to be dying out, and when at last it, the wonderful cure, was done, and those gathered around him said each to the other "He will see," he heard nothing for the buzzing sound which filled his ear, and the low voice whispering to him, "I did it--brought the daylight straight from heaven. G.o.d said I might--and I did. Nina takes care of you."
They told him that he had fainted from excess of joy, but Richard believed that Nina had been with him all the same, cherishing that conviction even to this hour, when he stood there face to face with her, unconsciously saying to himself, "Gloriously beautiful Nina. In all my imaginings of you I never saw aught so fair as this. Edith is beautiful, but not--"
"As beautiful as Nina was, am I?" said a voice behind him, and turning round, Richard drew Edith to his side, and encircling her with his arm answered frankly,
"No, my child, you are not as beautiful as Nina."
"Disappointed in me, are you not? Tell me honestly," and Edith peered up half-archly, half-timidly into the eyes whose glance she scarcely yet dared meet.
"I can hardly call it disappointment," Richard answered, smiling down upon her. "You are different-looking from what I supposed, that is all. Still you are much like what I remember your mother to have been, save that her eyes were softer than yours, and her lip not quite so proudly curved."
"In other words, I show by my face that I am a Bernard, and something of a spitfire," suggested Edith, and Richard rejoined,
"I think you do," adding as he held her a little closer to him, "Had I been earlier blessed with sight, I should have known I could not tame you. I should only have spoiled you by indulgence."
Just at this point, little Nina came in, and taking her in her arms, Edith said,
"I wanted to call her Edith, after myself, as I thought it might please you; but Arthur said no, she must be Nina Bernard,"
"Better so," returned Richard, moving away from the picture, "I can never call another by the name I once called you," and this was all the sign he gave that the wound was not quite healed.
But it was healing fast. Home influences were already doing him good, and when at last supper was announced, he looked very happy as he took again his accustomed seat at the table, with Arthur opposite Edith just where she used to be, and Grace, sitting at his right. It was a pleasant family party they made, and the servants marvelled much to hear Richard's hearty laugh mingling with Edith's merry peal.
That night, when the July moon came up over the New England hills, it looked down upon the four--Richard and Arthur, Grace and Edith, sitting upon the broad piazza as they had not sat in years, Grace a little apart from the rest, and Edith between her husband and Richard, holding a hand of each, and listening intently while the latter told them how rumors of a celebrated Parisian oculist had reached him in his wanderings; how he had sought the rooms of that oculist, leaving them a more hopeful man than when he entered; how the hope then enkindled grew stronger month after month, until the thick folds of darkness gave way to a creamy kind of haze, which hovered for weeks over his horizon of sights growing gradually whiter and thinner, until faint outlines were discovered, and to his unutterable joy he counted the window panes, knowing then that sight was surely coming back. He did not tell them how through all that terrible suspense Nina seemed always with him; he would not like to confess how superst.i.tious he had become, fully believing that Nina was his guardian angel, that she hovered near him, and that the touch of her soft, little hands had helped to heal the wound gaping so cruelly when he last bade adieu to his native land. Richard was not a spiritualist. He utterly repudiated their wild theories, and built up one of his own, equally wild and strange, but productive of no evil, inasmuch as no one was admitted into his secret, or suffered to know of his one acknowledged sphere where Nina reigned supreme. This was something he kept to himself, referring but once to Nina during his narrative, and that when he said to Edith,
"You remember, darling, Nina told me in her letter that she'd keep asking G.o.d to give me back my sight."
Edith cared but little by whose agency this great cure had been accomplished, and laying her head on Richard's knee, just as a girl she used to do, she wept out her joy for sight restored to her n.o.ble benefactor, reproaching him for having kept the good news from them so carefully, even shutting his eyes when he wrote to them so that his writing should be natural, and the surprise when he did return, the greater.
Meanwhile Grace's servant came up to accompany her home, and she bade the happy group good night, her heart beating faster than its wont as Richard said to her at parting, "I was going to offer my services, but see I am forestalled. My usual luck, you know," and his black eyes rested a moment, on her face and then wandered to where Edith sat. Did he mean anything by this? Had the waves of time, which had beaten and battered his heart so long, brought it back at last to its first starting point, Grace Elmendorff? Time only can tell. He believed his youthful pa.s.sion had died out years ago, that matrimony was for him an utter impossibility.
He had been comparatively happy across the sea, and he was happier still now that he was at home, wishing he had come before, and wondering why it was that the sight of Edith did not pain him, as he feared it would. He liked to look at her, to hear her musical voice, to watch her graceful movements as she flitted about the house, and as the days and weeks went on he grew young again in her society, until he was much like the Richard to whom she once said, "I will be your wife," save that his raven hair was tinged with grey, making him, as some thought, finer-looking than ever.
To Arthur and Edith he was like a dearly beloved brother; while to d.i.c.k and Nina he was all the world. He was very proud of little d.i.c.k, but Nina was his pet, as she was every body's who knew her, and she ere long learned to love him better, if possible, than she did her father, calling him frequently "her oldest papa," and wondering in her childish way why he kissed so tenderly as often as she lisped out that dear name.
And now but little more remains to tell. It is four months since Richard came home, and the hazy Indian summer sun shines o'er the New England hills, bathing Collingwood in its soft, warm rays, and falling upon the tall bare trees and the withered gra.s.s below, carpeted with leaves of many a bright hue. On the velvety sward, which last summer showed so rich a green, the children are racing up and down, d.i.c.k's cheeks glowing like the scarlet foliage he treads beneath his feet, and Nina's fair hair tossing in the autumn wind, which seems to blow less rudely on the little girl than on her stronger older brother. On one of the iron seats scattered over the lawn sits Richard; watching them as they play, not moodily, not mournfully, for grief and sorrow have no lodgment in the once blind Richard's heart, and he verily believes that he is as happy without Edith as he could possibly have been with her.
She is almost everything to him now that a wife could be consulting his wishes before her own, or Arthur's, and making all else subservient to them. No royal sovereign ever lorded it over his subjects more completely than could Richard over Collingwood, if he chose, for master and servants alike yield him unbounded deference; but Richard is far too gentle to abuse the power vested in his hands and so he rules by perfect love, which knows no shadow of distrust. The gift of sight has compensated for all his olden pain, and often to himself he says, "I would hardly be blind again for the sake of Edith's first affections."
He calls her Edith now, just as he used to do, and Edith knows that only a scar is left, as a memento of the fearful sacrifice.
The morning has broken at last, the darkness pa.s.sed away, and while basking in the full, rich daylight, both Richard and Arthur, and Edith wonder if they are the same to whom the world was once so dreary. Only over Grace Atherton is any darkness brooding. She cannot forget the peerless boon she throw away when she deliberately said to Richard Harrington, "I will not walk in your shadow," and the love she once bore him is alive in all its force, but so effectually concealed that few suspect its existence.
Richard goes often to Brier Hill, staying sometimes hours, and Victor, with his opinion of the "gay widow" somewhat changed, has more than once hinted at Collingwood how he thinks these visits will end. But the servants scoffed, at the idea, while Arthur and Edith look curiously on, half hoping Victor is right, and so that matter remains in uncertainty.
Across the fields, Gra.s.sy Spring still lies a ma.s.s of shapeless ruins. Frequently has Arthur talked of rebuilding it as a home for his children, but as Richard has always opposed it and Edith is indifferent, he will probably remain at Collingwood.
Away to the south, the autumn winds blow softly around Sunnybank, where Edith's negroes are living as happy under the new administration as the old, speaking often of their beautiful mistress who, when the winter snows fall on the Bay State hills, will wend her way to the southward, and Christmas fires will again be kindled upon the hearthstones left desolate so many years. Nor is she, whose little grave lies just across the field forgotten.
Enshrined is her memory within the hearts of all who knew and loved her, while away to the northward where the cypress and willow mark the resting-place of Shannondale's dead, a costly marble rears its graceful column, pointing far upward to the sky, the home of her whose name that marble bears. "NINA." That is all.
No laudations deeply cut tell what she was or where she died.
"NINA." Nothing more. And yet this single word has a power to touch the deepest, tenderest feeling of two hearts at least, Arthur's and Edith's--speaking to them of the little golden-haired girl who crossed so innocently their pathway, striving hard to efface all prints of her footsteps, caring to the last for her "Arthur boy" and the "Miggie" she loved so well, and calling to them as it were, even after the rolling river was safely forded, and she was landed beside the still waters in the bright, green fields of Eden.
And now to the sweet little girl and the n.o.ble man who, through the mazy labyrinths of Darkness and of Daylight, have grown so strongly into our love, whose faces were familiar as our own, whose names were household words, over whose sorrows our tears have fallen like rain, and in whose joys we have rejoiced, we bid a final adieu. Farewell to thee, beautiful NINA. "Earth hath none fairer lost. Heaven none purer gained." Farewell to thee forever, and blessings, rich and rare, distil like evening dew upon the dear head of the brave-hearted, generous hero RICHARD HARRINGTON.
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