Page images
PDF
EPUB

JESSAMINE.

CHAPTER XVI.

THE 'HE September nights were cool among the moun

tains, and as Mr. Kirke and his elder daughter drove home through the moonlight, between eleven and twelve o'clock, from the visit of mercy they had been paying on the other side of the ridge, there were white blankets of mist upon the meadows, and filling up the valleys along which their route lay.

The fire was out in the kitchen, and Patsey had been asleep for two hours and more, having made up her mind that her master would not return until the morrow. There was still a light in Jessie's charnber, and she came down, wide-awake and dressed, to admit the travellers. The servant man slept in a room over the stable, and, after calling to him two or three times without arousing him, the worthy clergyman took pity upon his weariness after his hard day's work, and groomed his horse himself. Eunice exclaimed at the dampness of his overcoat in helping him remove it, and Jessie-instructed in such appliances to health and comfort by her watery adventure, the telling of which she reserved for a more convenient season-prescribed a glass of brandy and water. Mr. Kirke needed nothing except a night's rest, he assured them both; pinched Jessie's cheek in kissing her "good-night," and rallied her upon her anti-temperance proclivities, then ascended to his chamber. He came down late to breakfast the next morning; owned that sleep had proved obdurate to his wooing; that he had had something very like an ague during the night, and that it was a violent headache which deprived him of appetite.

When he arose from table, Jessie coaxed him, almost in the old winsome way he could never resist, into the parlour ; made him lie upon the sofa ; tucked a shawl warmly about his shoulders, and sitting down of her own accord to the piano, played plaintive, soothing airs until he fell asleep.

This was the beginning of the spell of fever that, within twelve hours, laid him upon his bed, and which, ten days later, assumed a typhoid form.

His daughters were his nurses, by day and night. Offers of watchers poured in from the few gentle and the many simple who were his parishioners and neighbours; but the sisters courteously and gratefully declined them all. Their patient was all-deserving of the name, and needed no other care than they could give him. He slept much, and suffered little pain, and their light household tasks allowed one or the other to be constantly with him. Thus, to the kindly applicants; while to each other and their parent they said that love would not allow them to delegate a duty so dear and pious even to the true friends who sought to divide their labours. ever had more tender and gentle custodians. There was

no perceptible difference in the assiduity and skill of the two, but visitors were unanimous in the expression of the opinion that their anxious vigils told more visibly upon Jessie than upon her sister. She wasted almost as rapidly as the sick man, while her eyes were settled in their mournfulness, and she seemed to forget how to smile days before the physician expressed any doubt as to the sequel of her parent's illness.

He had been confined to his room three weeks, when, on the morning of the 27th of September, Jessie met the doctor on the stairs, as she was carrying in a basin of beef tea she had just made.

“Ah, doctor! I did not know you were here!" she said, more cheerfully than he had heard her speak for several days, unless when within her father's hearing. “Papa is more comfortable—is he not?

“He is more quiet, certainly. Can I see you for a moment, my dear, when you have taken that in? I shall wait for you in the parlour."

He spoke very gravely, averting his eyes as he finished; and hope went suddenly and completely out of the daughter's heart.

She bore the basin carefully and steadily into the chamber, up to the bedside of the patient, and called his name clearly :

Papa, dear, will you take a little of this for me?"

She watched him narrowly as he roused himse respond.

“He sleeps all the time to-day," whispered Eunice.

There was a dull glow in his half-open eyes, and he put his hand to his head, confusedly, staring in his younger daughter's face, as she repeated her request.

“ It is Jessie, papa! You have been dreaming, and are not yet awake. Here is your beef tea. May I give you a spoonful or two?"

"I thought you were your mother, child !” he said, smiling faintly but lovingly at her. "I was dreaming, as

you say."

She fed him as she would an infant, but he would take only a few spoonfuls of the nourishment, turned his face away, and fell asleep again instantly.

The doctor's delicate and unenviable duty was half done for him before she joined him in the lower room.

“You consider my father worse ?" was the address with which she opened the interview.

“I grieve to say that I do."
“Can nothing be done for him ?”
He hesitated.

“I am answered !” she said, hastily. “Don't shelter yourself behind the hateful, worthless subterfuge about hope ceasing only with life. Tell me, instead, how long

No man

66

The rest of the sentence was beyond her powers of utterance. But she did not succumb in aspect, after the wordless struggle died away in a quiver of the unmoistened lips. She was very white, but very still. The doctor congratulated himself upon the sagacity that had led him to choose this one of the twain as the recipient of his unwelcome intelligence. Jessie was his favourite, and he had always contended that hers was the stronger, as well as the more sprightly nature of the two. Since she was so collected—so well prepared for the sad probability—if not the fell certainty—he could be entirely frank.

"The symptoms are of general congestion,” he said. If this should advance rapidly, we cannot hope to have him with us more than twenty-four hours, at the utmost. I shall return, presently, with Dr. Trimble. But his verdict will, I think, coincide with mine. The indications are distinct. Your father will probably be unconscious much of the time, and suffer little, if at all. No one can doubt his fitness for the great change. I have known him for over thirty years, and I can testify that he has walked humbly and closely with his God. He has instructed you so carefully Jessie, my dear, that you do not require to be told where to look for consolation, for grace and strength, in this trying hour—"

A motion of prohibition that had in it none of the grace of entreaty, checked his formula.

"You will not be long absent ? " asked a voice from between the rigid lips.

The circles under her eyes were blacker and broader each second.

“I shall be in again as soon as I can find Dr. Trimble. You had better take Miss Eunice into your contidence without delay. She might think it strange-might take it hard if anything were to happen, you know

“Yes! I know !”
That shut his mouth, and rid her of his presence.

The day was warm for the season—so sultry that the cirrus clouds swimming in the blue ether, looked soft to April tearfulness. How still it was, as Jessie stood in the open oriel-window, and let her eyes roam through garden and churchyard, --ever returning, without volition of hers, to the gap in the long lines of gravestones next ber mother's tomb! Had nature swooned all over the broad earth? Was there nothing real left in creation save the fact of her great woe?

“My father is dying !” she said, aloud and distinctly.

And, again—“I suppose this is what people mean when they talk of not realizing a sorrow!”

As if aught but overwhelming appreciation of the might of a present calamity could crush the heart into deadness.

She was picking the faded leaves from the creepers, and crumbling them into dust, when Eunice came in. Jessie's protracted absence after the conference with the doctor had excited her apprehensions, and she stole down, while her father slept, to inquire into the cause. Im

measurably relieved at sight of her sister s attitude and occupation, she smiled as she aroused her from her reverie.

“I could not think what had become of you, dear! What does Dr. Winters think of father?"

“ Sit down, Eunice, and I will tell you !" said Jessie, dreamy pity in her eyes, but no change in her hard, hollow voice.

Eunice sank into the nearest chair, laying her hand quickly upon her heart.

“ You cannot mean

“ That he is dying? Yes!” interrupted the other ; and in the same awful composure, she repeated the doctor's verdict, verbatim. “Now"-she concluded—“I will go back to him. You may come presently, when you have had time to think over the matter."

The beryl eyes were washed with many tears before they again met Jessie's across the sick-bed, but, after that, Eunice bore herself bravely. Hour after hour, they sat in the hushed upper chamber, facing their nearing desolation, without a plaint or an audible sigh. Below stairs, all was silent as the grave. Patsey, with an indefinable idea that the house should be set in order for the coming of the grim guest, had dusted the furniture, set back the chairs in straight rows against the walls in parlour and dining-room, and closed all the blinds on the lower floor; made her kitchen neat as Miss Eunice could have wished; then seated herself upon the upper step of the side porch, her arms wrapped in her clean apron. Jessie's orders were positive that no one besides the doctors should be admitted, and as the servant's look-out commanded the front gate, she intercepted the many callers who locked to the Parsonage at the swift rumour of the pastor's extreme illness.

“We will keep him to ourselves while he stays with us!” the younger sister had answered the other's fear lest this proceeding should give offence to "the people.” “He has belonged to them for thirty years. At the last, we may surely claim him!”

“ But they love him dearly !” expostulated Eunice. “He is their spiritual father and guide."

"He is our all !” was the curt reply, and Eunice forbore to argue further.

In the midst of her grief, she was slightly afraid of Jessie. The wide eyes that were caverns of gloom; the tuneless accents that never shook or varied, cowed her into quiet and obedience.

There was little to be done. The sick man slept-if it were sleep-except when aroused to take medicine or food. At these periods, he recognized his children, and spoke coherently, although briefly. His kind heart and gentle breeding were with him to the end. His utterances were of thankfulness for the services they rendered, and love for those who bent over him, that not a word should be lost of that they felt, at each awakening, might be the last sentence they should ever hear from him.

He spoke once intelligibly and calmly of the nearing separation.

“I am going fast !” he said to Eunice, who was lifting his head upon her arm that she might adjust the pillow. “The Father is very good. The 'precious blood' avails---even for me-for me! I go empty-handed, but rich-for there is the 'unspeakable gift!'” Closing his eyes he murmured softly to himself.

Eunice bowed her ear, and held her breath to catch the words.

“The token was an arrow, with the point sharpened by love, let easily into the heart! God is good—very good!'

It had been the testimony of his whole life.

“ Jessie, dear! my little girl ! you are wearing yourself out for me!” he said, at another time. “I wish Roy were here! But His will be done!

He knows my darling's needs—her temptations-her trials. Like as a Father pitieth his children, dear! And it is true! Recollect that I told you so, this--and when—and how!”

She was to recollect it in the Father's good time. Now the words meant little, after she had heard the dying parent's wish for Roy's return. She said something in her own heart that was like a thanksgiving that her father was spared the one pang which the coming of the man he would have her marry, would bring—that the sea rolled between them.

“We shall be cared for, papa!" she replied, quietly.

"I know! The promise is sure," and he slept again like a child at even-time upon the mother's breast.

“ The 'great peace' is his !” said Eunice, in pious gratitude.

Jessie was mute.

So the afternoon went by, and the shortening twilight of autumn drew on apace. The shutters of the southern windows were unclosed to admit the air which evening had not made raw. The fleecy clouds were packed in a cumulose mass upon the horizon, and this began to rise in portentous majesty, as the sun set behind it. Dun, while day lasted, with ragged, brassy edges, it darkened and thickened as Jessie watched it from her seat at the bed-head, into a banner of blackness absorbing the light from the rest of the heavens, and blotting out the earth from her sight. The silence was breathless. insect chirped or leaf rustled. Even the pine boughs were motionless. The mill wheel was still; the roar of the waterfall was the only sound abroad under the inky sky. The sisters could no longer see each other, but all the waning light in the room seemed concentred upon pallid face between them. The effect of the pale radiance and the brooding quiet about them was weird-unearthly. Eunice could bear it no longer.

I will bring the night-lamp !” she said, rising.

She had hardly reached the foot of the staircase, when Jessie heard the garden-gate shut, and steps upon the gravel-walk leading to the kitchen ; next, a stifled seream from Patsey, and a low, manly voice in rebuke or re

assurance. Listening, as for her life, the deadly cold of hands and feet creeping up to her heart, she caught a faint exclamation from Eunice; then, the cautious tread of feet in the hall to the parlour-door, which was shut behind those who went in; after which all was quiet again.

For one moment; the darkness was Egyptian, and the night more freezing than winter. The watcher struggled to arise, to raise her hands to her madly throbbing head, but a dull paralysis was upon her limbs. It was not more than three minutes, but it seemed an hour, before will asserted its sway so far as to call back the blood in a tingling rush to the heart and extremities. Her trial was at hand. This--the coup de grace of the appointed torture was not to be spared her, and she awaited it dumbly. But for the moveless face upon the pillow beside her, she must have rushed away to hide herself in thicket or cave-perhaps in the river-bed from which she had been rescued so lately. That she could not leave. Her father slept on, the pale, unearthly glimmering abiding still upon the broad brow and noble features. He was beyond the reach of earthly solicitude—the swimming and buffeting, the toil and anxiety, were for ever overpast; his feet already touched the solid ground. He was very far off from her-bruised, struggling, condemned to endure the consequences of her own and another's wrong-doing.

A weary season of sickness and dread elapsed ere Eunice entered with the lamp. She put it down upon a stand in a distant corner, came around to Jessie's side, and stooped to listen to her father's breathing before she spoke.

Her voice was husky and uneven, and there was the shine of fresh tears upon her cheeks.

“There is some one down stairs who wishes to see you, dear,” she said, laying her hand upon her sister's, to support her in case she should be overcome by the great joy in store for her. “Some one you will be glad and thankful to meet again!"

“Is it Roy Fordham ? ” asked the hard voice, while Jessie did not start or stir.

Eunice saw that her prefatory measures were thrown away.

“It is! He sailed a fortnight earlier than he expected; arrived in America but yesterday. Dear sister! Our Heavenly Father has sent him to us in our sorest need. He is waiting, love !"

“Then let him come up. I shall not leave this room."

Not an

the

CHAPTER XVII,

Every object in the dimly lighted chamber seemed, to Jessie's strained eyes, to stand out with painful distinctness, as her long-absent lover entered. Most clearly of all, she saw his familiar figure; noticed even the full beard and grey travelling suit, while he crossed the floor toward her. She arose, mechanically, and went forward a step to meet his fleet, noiseless, advance.

“My own one! my precious darling!"

He had her in his arms before she could resist, if she had meant to do so. There were tears in his eyes and voice as he kissed her, and he held her closely, warmly, as a mother would a suffering child.

She undid his embrace with fingers strong and chill as steel

“My father is very ill !” she faltered, and retreated to his pillow

Disturbed by the movement and sound of his name, Mr. Kirke awoke. The recess in which his bed 'stood was in partial shadow, but his gaze rested at once upon Roy, and he tried to lift his head.

“ Is that the doctor? ”
Jessie replied:
"No, papa! It is Mr. Fordham.”

Instead of welcoming him, the sick man looked heavenward, and his lips moved in prayer. Only the daughter who had crept nearest to him, interpreted the burden of his thanksgiving.

“Lord! now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in

peace!

same

the eyes that had lighted into gladness at the sight of him were sealed in death, than to plant thorns in the painless pillow of the death-bed by relating how she had betrayed the trust of her betrothed, and disappointed her father's hopes.

If she could have warned him! If she had had the presence of mind to make some sign of caution before she left them together!

Would Roy" the man of granite”-have mercy? or must her father's last words to her be reproof and not blessing? regret and not thankfulness?

Up and down ! up and down! she trod the long alley, looking at the faintly illuminated windows of that upper chamber ; wringing her hands in her dry-eyed agony, longing yet fearing to hear the summons that should end her suspense.

It came at length! Roy's step upon the piazza, and his call, guarded that it should not reach the sick-room, but audible to her as would be the trump of doom.

" Jessie ? where are you?

She went toward him without hesitation. Women have gone to the hall of sentence and to the block in the

way. He met her, guided by her rustling tread among

the leaves. “This should not be!” he said. “ You will be ill next!”

He led her into the house, and to the parlour where there were lights.

She was not surprised that he did not let her pause until they reached the deep windows-where she had not sat, for months, until that morning after the doctor left her. She had not expected a violent outbreak of anger or recrimination; had felt that, even in becoming her accuser, he could not cease to be a gentleman.

Orrin had told her, more than once or thrice, that his kinsman was just to calm severity. He would grant her a chance of self-exculpation; would judge her out of her own mouth; make her rehearse to him the story of her

the spot where she had plighted her vow of eternal constancy. And she would meet it all--say it all, save the name of her tempter—that she was pledged not to reveal—if he would but let her go back the sooner to her father—the father who was dying upstairs !

“Don't think me cruel, dear, or ungenerous," began Roy, when he had seated her, and himself at her side.

Had her wretchedness moved him to leniency?

He continued, “But this is no season for useless delays and mistaken reserve. Our dear father is passing away from us.

I met the doctor on my way to you this evening. He thinks that he may leave us very--very soon. One moment, dearest, and you shall go to him” for she had started up.

“ He has made a dying request of usof you

and me--the fulfilment of which depends upon you. I say nothing of the eager happiness with which I have given my consent to the proposal-only of the comfort

his last moments by marrying me in his sight within the next hour."

When he moved, it was in an effort to hold out his arms to the returned voyager.

“Roy! dear, dear son!"

Roy took the emaciated hands in his, with one answering word.

“ Father!”

“Leave us for a little while, my children !” said the dying voice. “We have much to say to one another, and the time is short !”

He was obeyed; Eunice going to her room, to weep and pray in mingled gratitude and sorrow; Jessie flying down the stairs into the hall, thence out into the garden.

The sky was one expanse of cloud by this time. The wind moaned fitfully in the tree-tops; brought down showers of dry leaves into her face and upon her uncovered head. They whispered drearily to her as they hurtled by and crackled under her feet, and each thicket had its sigh of desolation. She heard and felt all-her soul in unison with the night and its voices of woe. She had fled from her father's presence, feeling like one accursed, forsaken by God and man. The return for which the dying saint's praise had gone up to heaven, was the event she had anticipated with shame and terror that made her long to bury herself in the wilderness or the grave, to escape the sight of him whom she had deceived. To him, her father was now bequeathing her -his dearest earthly treasure. Would Roy let him, indeed, depart in peace, or would his stern sense of truthfulness and honour impel him to a revelation of her perfidy? True, he had taken her in his arms and kissed her, but she had received this as his farewell, not his salutation ; seen in it the resistless overflow of the oldtime fondness at sight of her and her affiction. Better -a thousand times better--that he had not come until

falsehood upon

upon

you can shed

thrown upon

“No! no! no !She slid from her seat to her knees, and hid her face, crouching to the floor in horror and humiliation. “I cannot! It would be a sin ! a fearful sin!”

Roy would have raised her, but she shrank away from him.

“ Anything but that! Ask me anything but that!she repeated.

“ It is not I who ask it, dear. Our father has decided what shall be the time and place of our marriage. It is not selfish-much less is it sinful in us to yield to his wish-his last earthly desire.

It has been his prayer from the commencement of his illness that he might live to join our hands; give you into my keeping before you should close his eyes. Surely, knowing this, we may not fear to repeat in his hearing the vows we made long ago in this our betrothal ncok."

The simple, sad sincerity of his appeal sounded like pitiless will in the ears of the distracted girl, but she could not gainsay his reasoning. The decision was then

her! Hers was the power to cast a ray of light upon the even-time of the life which bad been to her a constant benefaction, or to cloud it with disappointment.

“ It is not selfish in us to yield to his wish!”

The words stung like venomed sarcasm. Not selfish to accept the fate against which her nature-physical and spiritual—had lashed itself into revolt for weary months past! Not selfish to bind upon her neck the yoke of the scorned and unloving wife!

The last thought moved her to action. She dragged herself to her feet, still rejecting his aid, and, for the first time since their meeting, looked into his face.

“Did you get my last letter? that in which I asked you to release me from this engagement ?"

“ Yes.”

He would have drawn nearer as he said it, but she kept him off-less by her gesture than with her eyes —so unlike the sweet wells at which he used to drink his fill of love!

“And knowing all, it is still your wish to marry me! Think well before you answer.

This bond is for life, remember! and life is long! Oh, how long to the miserable!"

“ This is my answer.” Before she could avoid him, he had gathered her in his arms, had pressed the reluctant head to his bosom. “We have been wedded almost a year and a half already, my Jessie. I am claiming my wife, not my betrothed. Did you imagine that I could be frightened from my hope and my purpose by that morbid little note, written by a half-sick, over-sensitive woman? Recollect! you left the decision to me! If, instead of this, you had ordered me to stay away for ever, I should have come to you all the same; have taken you to the old resting-place and kissed away the gloomy fancies that had tempted you to banish me. I know your heart better than you do yourself—and it is mine! The

Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part you and me! Now, beloved, what shall I say our father? The minutes are precious.”

“ It shall be as you and he desire. I will tell him this myself,” replied Jessie, calming all at once into mournful composure Roy deemed altogether natural in the circumstances.

“One word more!” detaining her. “I met Dr. Baxter this evening at the station, on his way to pay you a visit, promised, he said, ever since last winter. Stopping at the hotel while the stage set down other passengers, we heard of your father's illness, and our dear old friend, with characteristic delicacy, would not present himselfa stranger to your sister, in the circumstances. He remained at the hotel until I should bring further intelligence. Am I right in supposing that it is your wish, as well as mine, that he should perform the ceremony which is to make us one in name, as we have long been one in heart? If so, I will go for him without delay."

“Do what you like—whatever is best," she answered, hurriedly. “By all means, bring Dr. Baxter here! My father will like to see him."

“ His arrival just now is providential,” said Roy, walking upstairs at her side, his arm still supporting her. “There is light, even from the earthward side, upon this dark river, love!”

He beckoned Eunice from the sick-room as Jessie went in, exchanged half-a-dozen sentences with her relative to his plans, and ran down the steps lightly and swiftly. He had ordered Mr. Kirke's horse to be harnessed to his buggy before he sought Jessie, and Eunice heard him drive off in the direction of the village by the time she returned to her post.

The sisters awaited him and the clergyman where they had sat all day, the one at the right hand, the other at the left hand, of their father. Eunice ventured to suggest to her companion the expediency of making some change in her dress before the ceremony.

"I thought perhaps you would like to be married in white,” she said, timidly. “I am almost sure Roy would prefer this."

“I have not time to dress. I have left him too long already," returned Jessie, pointing to her father.

She tried to keep her promise of apprising him of her acquiescence in his will, but was partly baffled by his increasing drowsiness. He spoke, it is true, when she told him that she had heard from Mr. Fordham of his request, and determined to grant it, but it was not clear that he quite understood her. “Good child !” he said, with closed eyes.

"God bless you both !

Did “both ” mean his daughters or the two who were to be wedded presently? She could not bring herself to ask.

Mr. Kirke lapsed into slumber or stupor, and the room was silent again save for his irregular breathing,

« PreviousContinue »