Aikenside Part 23

"They were to be married at eight in the evening. Allowing for possible delays, it's over before this and Guy is lost forever!"

Mrs. Noah had no consolation to offer, and only pressed the hot, feverish hands, while Maddy turned her face to the wall, and did not speak again, except to whisper, incoherently, as she half slumbered, half woke:

"Did Guy think of me when he promised to love her, and does he, can he, see how miserable I am?" Maddy was indeed pa.s.sing through deep waters, and that night, the fourth of December, the longest, dreariest she ever knew, could never be forgotten. Once past, the worst was over, and as the rarest metal is purified by fire, so Maddy came from the dreadful ordeal strengthened for what was before her. Both Agnes and Mrs. Noah noticed the strangely beautiful expression of her face, when she came down to the breakfast-room, while Jessie, as she kissed her pale cheek, whispered:

"You look as if you had been with the angels." Guy was not expected with his bride for two weeks, or more, and as the days dragged on, Maddy felt that the waiting for him was more intolerable than the seeing him with Lucy would be. Restless and impatient, she could not remain quietly at the cottage--while at Aikenside, she longed to return again to her own home, and in this way the time wore on, until the anniversary of that day when she had come from New York, and found Guy waiting for her the station. To stay that day in the house so rife with memories of the dead was impossible, and Flora was surprised and delighted to hear that both were going up to Aikenside in the vehicle hired of Farmer Green, whose officiated as driver. It was nearly noon when they reached their destination, meeting at the gate with Flora's brother Tom, who said to them:

"We've heard from Mr. Guy; the ship is in; they'll be here sure to-night, and Mrs. Noah is turnin' things upside down with the dinner."

Leaning back in the buggy, Maddy felt for a moment as if she were dying.

Never until then had she realized how, all the while, she had been clinging to an indefinable hope, a presentiment that something might yet occur to spare her from a long lifetime of pain, such as lay before her if Guy were really lost; but the bubble had burst, leaving her nothing to hope, nothing to cling to, nothing but black despair; and half bewildered, she received the noisy greeting of Jessie, who met her at the door, and dragged her into the drawing-room, decorated with flowers from the hothouse, told her to guess who was coming.

"I know; Tom told me; Guy is coming with Lucy," Maddy answered, and relieving herself from Jessie, she turned to Agnes, asking where Mrs.

Noah was, and if she might go to her for a moment.

"Oh, Maddy, child, I'm sorry you've come to-day," Mrs. Noah said, as she chafed Maddy's cold hands, and leading her to the fire, made her sit down, while she untied her hood, and removed her cloak and furs.

"I did not know it, or I should have stayed away," Maddy replied; "I shall not stay, as it is. I cannot see them to-day. Charlie will drive me back before the train is due; but what did he say? And how is Lucy?"

"He did not mention her. There's the dispatch" and Mrs. Noah handed to Maddy the telegram, received that morning, and which was simply as follows:

"The steamer is here. Shall be at the station at five o'clock P. M. GUY REMINGTON."

Twice Maddy read it over, experiencing much the same feeling she would have experienced had it been her death warrant she was reading.

"At five o'clock. I must go before that," she said, sighing as she remembered how, one year ago that day, she was traveling over the very route where Guy was now traveling with his bride. Did he think of it?

think of his long waiting at the depot, or of that memorable ride, the events of which grew more and more distinct in her memory, making her cheeks burn even now, as she recalled his many acts of tenderness and care.

Laying the telegram on the table, she went with Mrs. Noah through the rooms, warmed and made ready for the bride, lingering longest in Lucy's, which the bridal decorations, and the bright fire blazing in the grate made singularly inviting. As yet, there were no flowers there, and Maddy claimed the privilege of arranging them for this room herself. Agnes had almost stripped the conservatory; but Maddy found enough to form a most tasteful bouquet, which she placed upon a marble dressing table; then within a slip of paper which she folded across the top, she wrote: "Welcome to the bride."

"They both will recognize my handwriting; they'll know I've been here,"

she thought, as with one long, last, sad look at the room, she walked away.

They were laying the table for dinner now, and with a kind of dizzy, uncertain feeling, Maddy watched the servants hurrying to and fro, bringing out the choicest china, and the glittering silver, in honor of the bride. Comparatively, it was not long since a little, frightened, homesick girl, she first sat down with Guy at that table, from which the proud Agnes would have banished her; but it seemed to her an age, so much of happiness and pain had come to her since then. There was a place for her there now, a place near Guy; but she should not fill it. She could not stay; and she astonished Agnes and Jessie, just as they were going to make their dinner toilet, by announcing her intention of going home. She was not dressed to meet Mrs. Remington, she said, shuddering as for the first time she p.r.o.nounced a name which the servants had frequently used, and which jarred on her ear, every time she heard it.

She was not dressed appropriately to meet an English lady. Flora of course would stay, she said, as it was natural she should, to greet her new mistress; but she must go, and finding Charlie Green she bade him bring around the buggy.

Agnes was not particularly surprised, for a vague suspicion of something like the truth had gradually been creeping into her brain, as she noted Maddy's pallid face, and the changes which pa.s.sed over it whenever Guy was mentioned. Agnes pitied Maddy, for in her own heart there was a little burning spot, when she remembered who was to accompany Dr.

Holbrook. So she did not urge her to remain, and she tried to hush Jessie's lamentations when she heard Maddy was going.

One long, sad, wistful look at Guy's and Lucy's home, and Maddy followed Charlie to the buggy waiting for her, bidding him drive rapidly, as there was every indication of a coming storm.

The gray, wintry afternoon was drawing to a close, and the December night was shutting down upon the Honedale hills in sleety rain, when the cottage was reached, and Maddy, pa.s.sing up the narrow, slippery walk, entered the cold, dreary room, where there was neither fire nor light, nor friendly voice to greet her. No sound save the ticking of the clock; no welcome save the purring of the house cat, who came crawling at her feet as she knelt before the stove and tried to kindle the fire. Charlie Green had offered to go in and do this for her, as indeed he had offered to return and stay all night, but she had declined, preferring to be alone, and with stiffened fingers she laid the kindlings Flora had prepared, and then applying the match, watched the blue flame as it gradually licked up the smoke and burst into a cheerful blaze.

"I shall feel better when it's warm," she said, crouching over the fire, and shivering with more than bodily cold.

There was a kind of nameless terror stealing over her as she at thinking of the year ago when the inmates of three graves across the meadow were there beneath that very roof where she now sat alone.

"I'll strike a light," she said, rising to her feet, and trying not to glance at the shadowy corners filling her with fear.

The lamp was found, and its friendly beams soon dispersed the darkness from the corners and the fear from Maddy's heart, but it could not drive from her mind thoughts of what might at that moment be transpiring at Aikenside. If the bride and groom came at all that night, she knew they must have been there for an hour or more, and in fancy she saw the tired, but happy, Lucy, as up in her pleasant room she made her toilet for dinner, with Guy standing by and looking on. Just as he had a right to do. Did he smile approvingly upon his young wife? Did his eye, when it rested on her, light up with the same expression she had seen so often when it looked at her? Did he commend her taste and say his little wife was beautiful, as he kissed her fair, white cheek, or was there a cloud upon his handsome face, a shadow on his heart, heavy with thoughts of her, and would he rather it were Maddy there in the bridal room? If so, his burden was hard indeed, but not so hard as hers, and kneeling on the floor, poor Maddy laid her head in the chair, and, 'mid piteous moans, asked G.o.d, her Father, to help them both to bear--help her and Guy--making the latter love as he ought the gentle girl who had left home and friends to live with him in a far-distant land; asked, too, that she might tear from her heart every sinful thought, loving Guy only as she might love the husband of another.

The prayer ended, Maddy still sat upon the floor, while over her pale face the lamplight faintly flickered, showing the dark lines beneath her eyes and the tear stains on her cheek. Without, the storm still was raging, and the wintry rain, mingled with sleet and snow, beat piteously against the curtained windows, while the wind howled mournfully as it shook the door and sweeping past the cottage went screaming over the hill. But Maddy heard nothing of the tumult. She had brought a pillow from the bedroom, and placing it upon the chair, sat down again upon the floor and rested her head upon it. She did not even know that her pet cat had crept up beside her, purring contentedly and occasionally licking her hair, much less did she hear above the storm the swift tread of horses' feet as some one came dashing down the road, the rider pausing an instant as he caught a glimpse of the cottage lamp and then hurrying on to the public house beyond, where the hostler frowned moodily at being called out to care for a stranger's horse, the stranger meanwhile turning back a foot to where the cottage lamp shone a beacon light through the inky darkness. The stranger reached the little gate and, undoing the fastening, went hurrying up the walk, his step upon the crackling snow catching Maddy's ear at last and making her wonder who could be coming there on such a night as this. It was probably Charlie Green, she said, and with a feeling of impatience at being intruded upon she arose to her feet just as the door turned upon its hinges, letting in a powerful draught of wind, which extinguished the lamp and left her in total darkness.

But it did not matter. Maddy had caught a sound, a peculiar cough, which froze the blood in her veins and made her quake with terror quite as much as if the footsteps hurrying toward her had been the footsteps of the dead, instead of belonging, as she knew they did, to Guy Remington--Guy, who, with garments saturated with rain, felt for her in the darkness, found her where from faintness she had crouched again beside the chair, drew her closely to him, in a pa.s.sionate, almost painful, hug, and said, oh! so tenderly, so lovingly:

"Maddy, my darling, my own! We will never be parted again."

CHAPTER XXIII. -- LUCY.

Hours had gone by, and the clock hands pointed to twelve, ere Maddy compelled herself to hear the story Guy had come to tell. She had thrust him from her at first, speaking to him of Lucy, his wife, and Guy had answered her back: "I have no wife--I never had one. Lucy is in heaven,"

and that was all Maddy knew until the great shock had spent itself in tears and sobs, which became almost convulsions as she tried to realize the fact that Lucy Atherstone was dead; that the bridal robe about which she had written, with girlish frankness, proved to be her shroud, and that her head that night was not pillowed on Guy's arm, but was resting under English turf and beneath an English sky. She could listen at last, but her breath came in panting gasps; while Guy told her how, on the very morning of the bridal, Lucy had greeted him with her usual bright smile, appearing and looking better than he had before seen her look since he reached her mother's home; how for an hour they sat together alone in a little room sacred to her, because years before it was there he confessed his love.

Seated on a low ottoman, with her golden head lying on his lap, she had this morning told him, in her artless way, how much she loved him, and how hard it sometimes was to make her love for the creature second to her love for the Creator; told him she was not faultless, and asked that when he found how erring and weak she was, he would bear with her frailties as she would bear with his; talked with him, too, of Maddy Clyde, confessing in a soft, low tone, how once or twice a pang of jealousy had wrung her heart when she read his praises of his pupil. But she had conquered that; she had prayed it all away, and now, next to her own sister, she loved Maddy Clyde. Other words, too, were spoken--words of guileless, pure affection, too sacred even for Guy to breathe to Maddy; and then Lucy had left him, her hart-bounding step echoing through the hall and up the winding stairs, down which she never came again alive, for when Guy next looked upon her she was lying white as a water lily, her neck and dress and golden hair stained with the pale red life current oozing from her livid lips. A blood vessel had been suddenly ruptured, the physician said, and for her, the fair, young bride, there was no hope. They told her she must die, for the mother would have them tell her. Once, for a few moments, there rested on her face a fearfully frightened look, such as a harmless bird might wear when suddenly caught in a snare. But that soon pa.s.sed away as from beneath the closed eyelids the great tears came gushing, and the stained lips whispered faintly: "G.o.d knows best what's right. Poor Guy!--break it gently to him."

At this point in the story Guy broke down entirely, sobbing as only strong men can sob.

"Maddy," he said, "I felt like a heartless wretch--a most consummate hypocrite--as, standing by Lucy's side, I met the fond, pitying glance of her blue eyes, and suffered her poor little hand to part my hair as she tried to comfort me, even though every word she uttered was shortening her life; tried to comfort me, the wretch who was there so unwillingly, and who at this prospect of release hardly knew at first whether he was more sorry than pleased. You may well start from he in horror, Maddy. I was just the wretch I describe: but I overcame it, Maddy, and Heaven is my witness that no thought of you intruded itself upon me afterward is I stood by my dying Lucy--gentle, patient, loving to the last. I saw how good, how sweet she was, and something of the old love, the boy love, came back to me, as I held her in my arms, where she wished to be. I would have saved her if I could; and when I called her 'my darling Lucy,' they were not idle words. I kissed her many times for myself, and once, Maddy, for you. She told me to. She whispered: 'Kiss me, Guy, for Maddy Clyde. Tell her I'd rather she should take my place than anybody else--rather my Guy should call her wife--for I know she will not be jealous if you sometimes talked of your dead Lucy, and I know she will help lead my boy to that blessed home where sorrow never comes.' That was the last she ever spoke, and when the sun went down death had claimed my bride. She died in my arms, Maddy. I felt the last fluttering of her pulse, the last beat of her heart. I laid her back upon her pillows. I wiped the blood from her lips and from her golden curls. I followed her to her early grave. I saw her buried from my sight, and then, Maddy, I started home; thoughts of you and thoughts of Lucy blended equally together until Aikenside was reached. I talked with Mrs. Noah; I heard all of you there was to tell, and then I talked with Agnes, who was not greatly surprised, and did not oppose my coming here tonight. I could not remain there, knowing you were alone. In the bridal chamber I found your bouquet, with its 'Welcome to the bride.' Maddy, you must be that bride. Lucy sanctioned it, and the doctor, too, for I told him all. His own wedding was, of course, deferred, and he did not come home with me, but he said: 'Tell Maddy not to wait. Life is too short to waste any happiness. She has my blessing.' And, Maddy, it must be so. Aikenside needs a mistress; you are all alone. You are mine--mine forever."

The storm had died away, and the moonbeams stealing through the window told that morning was breaking, but neither Guy nor Maddy heeded the lapse of time. Theirs was a sad kind of happiness as they talked together, and could Lucy have listened to them she would have felt satisfied that she was not forgotten. One long, bright curl, cut from her head by his own hand, was all there was left of her to Guy, save the hallowed memories of her purity and goodness--memories which would yet mold the proud, impulsive Guy into the earnest, consistent Christian which Lucy in her life had desired that he should be, and which Maddy rejoiced to see him.

CHAPTER XXIV. -- FINALE.

The close of a calm September afternoon, and the autumnal sunlight falls softly upon Aikenside, where a gay party is now a.s.sembled. For four years Maddy Clyde has been mistress there, and in looking back upon them she wonders how so much happiness as she has known could be experienced in so short a time. Never but once has the slightest ripple of sorrow shadowed her heart, and that was when her n.o.ble husband, Guy, said to her, in a voice she knew was earnest and determined that he could no longer remain deaf to his country's call--that where the battle storm was raging he was needed, and like a second Sardanapalus he must not stay at home. Then for a brief season her bright face was overcast, and her brown eyes dim with weeping. Giving him to the war seemed like giving him up to death. But women can be as true heroes as men. Indeed, it oftentimes costs more courage for a weak, confiding woman to bid her loved ones leave her for the field of carnage than it costs them to face the cannon's mouth. Maddy found it so, but Christian patriotism triumphed over all, and stifling her own grief, she sent him away with smiles, and prayers, and cheering words of encouragement, turning herself for consolation to the source from which she never sued for peace in vain. Save that she missed her husband terribly, she was not lonely, for her beautiful dark-eyed boy, whom they called Guy, Jr., kept her busy, while not very many weeks afterward, Guy, Sr., sitting in his tent, read with moistened eyes of a little golden-haired daughter, whom Maddy named Lucy Atherstone, and gazed upon a curl of hair she inclosed to the soldier father, asking if it were not like some other hair now moldering back to dust within an English churchyard. "Maggie" said it was, Aunt Maggie, as Guy, Jr., called the wife of Dr. Holbrook, who had come to Aikenside to stay, while her husband did his duty as surgeon in the army. That little daughter is a year-old baby now, and in her short white dress and coral bracelets she sits neglected on the nursery floor, while mother and Jessie, Maggie and everybody hasten out into the yard to welcome the returning soldier, Major Guy, whose arm is in a sling, and whose face is very pale from the effects of wounds received at Gettysburg, where his daring courage had well-nigh won for Maddy a widow's heritage. For the present the arm is disabled, and so he has been discharged, and comes back to the home where warm words of welcome greet him, from the lowest servant up to his darling wife, who can only look her joy as he folds her in his well arm, and kisses her beautiful face. Only Margaret Holbrook seems a little sad, she had so wanted her husband to come with Guy, but his humanity would not permit him to leave the suffering beings who needed his care. Loving messages he sent to her, and her tears were dried when she heard from Guy how greatly he was beloved by the pale occupants of the beds of pain, and how much he was doing to relieve their anguish.

Jessie, grown to be a most beautiful girl of nearly sixteen, is still a child in actions, and wild with delight at seeing her brother again, throws her arms around his neck, telling, in almost the same breath, how proud she is of him, how much she wished to go to him when she heard he was wounded, how she wishes she was a boy, so she could enlist, how nicely Flora is married and settled down at the cottage in Honedale, and then asks if he knows aught of the rebel colonel to whom just before the war broke out her mother was married, and whose home was in Richmond.

Guy knows nothing of him, except that he is still doing what he deems his duty in fighting for the Confederacy, but from exchanged prisoners, who had come up from Richmond, he has heard of a beautiful lady, an officer's wife, and as rumor said, a Northern woman, who visited them in prison, speaking kind words of sympathy, and once binding up a drummer boy's aching head with a handkerchief, which he still retained, and on whose corner could be faintly traced the name of "Agnes Remington."

Jessie's eyes are full of tears as she says:

"Poor mamma, how glad I am I did not go to Virginia with her. It's months since I heard from her direct. Of course it was she who was so good to the drummer boy. She cannot be much of a rebel," and Jessie glances triumphantly at Mrs. Noah, who, never having quite overcome her dislike of Agnes, had sorely tried Jessie by declaring that her mother "had found her level at last, and was just where she wanted to be."

Good Mrs. Noah, the ancient man whose name she bore would as soon have thought of leaving the Ark as she of turning a traitor to her country, and when she heard of the riotous mob raised against the draft, she talked seriously of going in person to New York "to give 'em a piece of her mind," and for one whole day refused to speak to Flora's husband, because he was a "dum dimocrat," and she presumed was opposed to Lincoln. With the exception of Maddy, no one was more please to see Guy than herself. He was her boy, the one she brought up, and with all a mother's fervor she kissed his bronzed cheek, and told him how glad she was to have him back.

With his boy on his sound arm, Guy disengaged himself from the noisy group and went with Maddy to where the little lady, the child he had never seen, was just beginning to show signs of resentment at being left so long alone.

"Lulu, sissy, papa's come; this is papa," the little boy cried, a.s.suming the honor of the introduction.

Lulu, as they called her, was not afraid of the tall soldier, and stretching out her fat, white hands, went to him readily. Blue-eyed and golden haired, she bore but little resemblance to either father or mother, but there was a sweet, beautiful face, of which Maddy had often dreamed, but never seen, and whether it were in the infantile features of his little girl. Parting lovingly her yellow curls and kissing her fair cheek, he said to Maddy, softly, just as he always spoke of that dead one:

"Maddy, darling, Margaret Holbrook is right--our baby daughter is very much like our dear lost Lucy Atherstone."

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