Ruth went into the sitting-room, where a light was burning dimly, but the chest was locked. "Do you know where the key is, Carl?" she asked, coming back for a moment.
"No, I don't, dear," he answered. Then he asked Miss Ainslie where the key was, but she only murmured: "letters."
"Shall I go and help Ruth find them?"
"Yes," she said, "help--letters."
Together, they broke open the lock of the chest, while Miss Ainslie was calling, faintly: "Carl, Carl, dear! Where are you? I want you!"
"We'd better turn the whole thing out on the floor," he said, suiting the action to the word, then put it back against the wall, empty. "We'll have to shake everything out, carefully," returned Ruth, "that's the only way to find them."
Wrapped carefully in a fine linen sheet, was Miss Ainslie's wedding gown, of heavy white satin, trimmed simply with priceless Venetian point. They shook it out hurriedly and put it back into the chest. There were yards upon yards of lavender taffeta, cut into dress lengths, which they folded up and put away. Three strings of amethysts and two of pearls slipped out of the silk as they lifted it, and there was another length of l.u.s.trous white taffeta, which had changed to an ivory tint.
Four shawls of Canton crepe, three of them lavender and one ivory white, were put back into the chest. There were several fans, of fine workmanship, a girdle of oxidized silver, set with amethysts and pearls, and a large marquetry box, which contained tea. "That's all the large things," he said; "now we can look these over."
Ruth was gathering up great quant.i.ties of lace--Brussels, Point d'Alencon, Cluny, Mechlin, Valenciennes, d.u.c.h.esse and Venetian point.
There was a bridal veil of the Venetian lace, evidently made to match that on the gown. Tiny, dried petals rustled out of the meshes, for Miss Ainslie's laces were laid away in lavender, like her love.
"I don't see them," she said, "yes, here they are." She gave him a bundle of yellowed letters, tied with lavender ribbon. "I'll take them to her," he answered, picking up a small black case that lay on the floor, and opening it. "Why, Ruth!" he gasped. "It's my father's picture!"
Miss Ainslie's voice rose again in pitiful cadence. "Carl, Carl, dear!
Where are you? I want you--oh, I want you!"
He hastened to her, leaving the picture in Ruth's hand. It was an ambrotype, set into a case lined with purple velvet. The face was that of a young man, not more than twenty-five or thirty, who looked strangely like Winfield. The eyes, forehead and the poise of the head were the same.
The earth trembled beneath Ruth's feet for a moment, then, all at once, she understood. The light in the attic window, the marked paragraph in the paper, and the death notices--why, yes, the Charles Winfield who had married Abigail Weatherby was Miss Ainslie's lover, and Carl was his son. "He went away!" Miss Ainslie's voice came again to Ruth, when she told her story, with no hint of her lover's name. He went away, and soon afterward, married Abigail Weatherby, but why? Was it love at first sight, or did he believe that his sweetheart was dead? Then Carl was born and the mother died. Twelve years afterward, he followed her--broken hearted. Carl had told her that his father could not bear the smell of lavender nor the sight of any shade of purple--and Miss Ainslie always wore lavender and lived in the scent of it--had he come to shrink from it through remorse?
Why was it, she wondered? Had he forgotten Miss Ainslie, or had he been suddenly swept off his feet by some blind whirlwind of pa.s.sion? In either case, memory had returned to torture him a thousand fold--to make him ashamed to face her, with his boy in his arms.
And Aunt Jane knew of the marriage, at the time, probably, and said no word. Then she learned of Abigail Weatherby's death, and was still silent, hoping, perhaps, that the wanderer would come back, until she learned that Charles Winfield, too, was dead. And still she had not told Miss Ainslie, or, possibly, thought she knew it all till the day that Hepsey had spoken of; when she came home, looking "strange," to keep the light in the attic window every night for more than five years.
Was it kind? Ruth doubted for a moment, then her heart softened with love for Aunt Jane, who had hidden the knowledge that would be a death blow to Miss Ainslie, and let her live on, happy in her dream, while the stern Puritan conscience made her keep the light in the attic window in fulfilment of her promise.
As if the little light could reach the veil which hangs between us and Eternity, or penetrate the greyness which never parts save for a pa.s.sage! As if all Miss Ainslie's love and faith could bring the dead to life again, even to be forgiven!
Her lips quivered when she thought of Miss Ainslie's tenderness for Carl and the little whispered lullabies that she sang to herself, over and over again. "She does not know," thought Ruth. "Thank G.o.d, she will never know!"
She put the rest of the things into the chest and closed it, covering it, as before, with the rug Miss Ainslie loved. When she went into the other room, she was asleep again, with her cheek pillowed on the letters, while Carl sat beside her, holding her hand and pondering over the mystery he could not explain. Ruth's heart ached for those two, so strangely brought together, who had but this little hour to atone for a lifetime of loss.
The first faint lines of light came into the eastern sky. Ruth stood by the window, watching the colour come on the grey above the hill, while two or three stars still shone dimly. The night lamp flickered, then went out. She set it in the hall and came back to the window.
As Miss Ainslie's rug had been woven, little by little, purple, crimson, and turquoise, gleaming with inward fires, shone upon the clouds.
Carl came over to Ruth, putting his arm around her. They watched it together--that miracle which is as old as the world, and yet ever new.
"I don't see--" he began.
"Hush, dear," Ruth whispered, "I know, and I'll tell you some time, but I don't want her to know."
The sky brightened slowly, and the intense colour came into the room with the light. Ruth drew the curtains aside, saying, in a low tone, "it's beautiful, isn't it?"
There was a sudden movement in the room and they turned, to see Miss Ainslie sitting up, her cheeks flushed, and the letters scattered around her. The ribbon had slipped away, and her heavy white hair fell over her shoulders. Ruth went to her, to tie it back again, but she put her away, very gently, without speaking.
Carl stood by the window, thinking, and Miss Ainslie's eyes rested upon him, with wonder and love. The sunrise stained her white face and her eyes shone brightly, as sapphires touched with dawn. The first ray of the sun came into the little room and lay upon her hair, changing its whiteness to gleaming silver. Then all at once her face illumined, as from a light within.
Carl moved away from the window, strangely drawn toward her, and her face became radiant with unspeakable joy. Then the pa.s.sion of her denied motherhood swelled into a cry of longing--"My son!"
"Mother!" broke from his lips in answer He went to her blindly, knowing only that they belonged to each other, and that, in some inscrutable way, they had been kept apart until it was too late. He took her into his arms, holding her close, and whispering, brokenly, what only she and G.o.d might hear! Ruth turned away, sobbing, as if it was something too holy for her to see.
Miss Ainslie, transfigured with unearthly light, lifted her face to his.
Her lips quivered for an instant, then grew cold beneath his own. She sank back among the pillows, with her eyes closed, but with yet another glory upon the marble whiteness of her face, as though at the end of her journey, and beyond the mists that divided them, her dream had become divinely true.
Then he, who should have been her son, bent down, the tears falling unheeded upon her face, and kissed her again.
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