In the Thick of the Fight/The Heart of Victoria
STORY II.—THE HEART OF VICTORIA.
TOLD BY MATTHEW GRAY.
SHORTLY after the railway accident during which my wife nearly lost her life, I was appointed editor to the Fleet Street Monthly. I liked the post, and entered on my new experiences with much zest. Amongst the many contributors to the paper was a man of the name of Basil Housman. He had been an old friend of mine for several years, and I was only too delighted to obtain his somewhat distinguished services, for he was a man of science and a noted traveller. I was never permitted, however, to get a real glimpse into his true character until the following short story occurred.
Housman and I had been friends from our college days, and when he happened to be in London he put up, as a rule, at my house. He was an eminently attractive man, and possessed much personal charm. Wherever he went he made friends. I his fact was altogether remarkable, and showed the genuineness of his inner nature, for, as far as externals were concerned, he was, without any exception, the ugliest man I have ever seen. His ugliness was of the essentially pronounced type, and was so self-asserting that it caused comment wherever he appeared. His face was large and roughly hewn, his features irregular, his eyes sunken and small, his skin swarthy; the harsh stubble which took the name of hair on his bulldog head was in keeping with the rest of his characteristics—in short, he was ugly with that aggressiveness which annoys the eye until you know the man so well that you forget the face in the interest which the character gives you.
My friend's name, I have already said, was Basil Housman. Housman is a German name, and some of Basil's characteristics were undoubtedly due to the Fatherland. His ugly face was in no way redeemed by his figure, which was short and ungainly. His arms were too long, his legs too short; he was thickly set too, and when he walked across a room, he did so with a rolling gait which was the reverse of graceful. But his voice was wonderfully beautiful; it was deep and mellow with many modulations. He had also a gentle and attractive manner, more particularly when he addressed women and children. When he came to stay with us, my wife and I were always delighted to welcome him. He would come without warning or invitation, quite certain that we would be glad to see him, and not wishing to have any fuss made over him.
One afternoon in the beginning of the month of November I had just returned home after a hard day's work, when I saw that the hall was piled up with Housman's belongings. Rugs, Gladstone bags, portmanteaus, a strap full of sticks, and several queer ungainly boxes stopped the way.
“Hullo! here you are!” cried the hearty voice of my friend. He issued out of my study with a pipe in his mouth.
“Welcome back, Housman,” I cried. “It is an age since I have seen you.”
“I have turned up like the proverbial bad penny,” he replied.
“Not at all,” I answered; “you know how welcome you are. How long is it since we last met?”
“Two years, five months, and a fortnight,” replied Housman promptly. “To be quite accurate I left here at four o'clock on——”
I held up my hand warningly.
“My dear fellow,” I replied, “spare me particulars. Suffice it to say I am delighted to see you. By the way, does the wife know you are here?”
“Does she not? I have had tea with her and a long chat—my room was got ready for me nearly two hours ago.”
“Then why are all these things in the hall?”
“Because I am only going to stay for a night. I am off to Southsea by the first train in the morning, and I hope to persuade you, Gray, to accompany me.”
“I am afraid that is impossible,” I replied; “my editorial work——”
“Listen to me—your editorial work must keep. I have a request to make of you. I am about your oldest friend, and I want you to devote your valuable time to me to-morrow—but there, I'll say nothing until we have dined. At what hour is dinner likely to be ready?”
“At once, I hope. My wife is dining at her club to-night, so we shall be alone. I'll run upstairs to wash my hands, and will meet you in five minutes in the library.”
During dinner Housman made himself as agreeable as was his wont. He told story after story in such a manner, with such an inimitable sense of the humour of the situation, that it was impossible to restrain from hearty roars of laughter as I listened to him, and I noticed that the servants had much ado to keep their composure.
When dinner was over, we went back to the library, and, seating ourselves in two arm chairs, stretched out our legs to the grateful blaze.
“Now for your news,” I said, looking full at my friend.
He turned as I spoke, and looked me in the face. His keen short-sighted eyes assumed an expression of pleasant thought. He paused for nearly half a minute before replying; then he said, as if he were discharging a pistol into my face—
“I am going to be married.”
Now his many friends prophesied that Housman would never marry, that such a lover could not ever settle down, that such a lover of Nature and of mankind in general could never concentrate his affections on one woman only. I shared the general opinion oil this point, and, in my surprise and delight, started up impulsively to shower congratulations upon him.
He held up one of his huge hands to intercept my words.
“I know exactly what you want to say,” he replied. “Let us suppose it said and come to facts. I am engaged to be married. The girl's name is Victoria Hynton. I met her on board one of the P. and O. boats returning from India. She was accompanying her father and mother and a young brother to England. Her father is known by his friends as O. P. Hynton; he is an American of the pronounced type and has, I believe, made a lot of money in oil. They intend to take a house near Southsea, and Victoria has promised to be mine as soon as I can make arrangements for our wedding. The whole thing suits admirably. I am desperately in love with Victoria, and she is desperately in love with me. O. P. Hynton and Mrs. Hynton are charmed to give their daughter to an Englishman, and, in short, I am the happiest fellow in existence.”
“What is the girl like?” I asked after a pause.
Housman lay back in his chair, and began to puff circles of smoke out of his pipe. He watched the vapour as it curled into the air and disappeared; then taking the pipe out of his mouth, he turned and looked at me.
“You do not believe in lovers' rhapsodies, do you?” he asked.
“I like to hear them in the case of genuine fellows like you,” I replied. “It is my opinion that a man cannot be too much in love with a girl before marriage. I believe in fervent attachments—they wear best in the end.”
He smiled in a somewhat sardonic way.
“You would not have thought me capable of that sort of thing?” he asked.
“Well, no,” I replied. “You have always made yourself so agreeable to every girl you came across, that I did not know it was in you to devote yourself wholly and entirely to one.”
“Look here,” he said, altering his tone on the instant, “I don't believe I can stand chaff on this subject even from you. I am caught at last—bitten hard—bowled over, all the rest. I am thirty-five, she is eighteen, but in our special case difference of age does not really matter.”
“I am glad of that,” I replied. “You certainly are a good bit her senior. But tell me what she is like. Have you got her photograph anywhere about you?”
“Here,” he said, tapping his waistcoat. “I'll show it to you presently—I'd like to describe her first.”
“Very well, go ahead,” I answered.
“She is tall and fair,” began Housman, “the fairest girl I ever met in my life. Nothing dark about her except her eyes—they are large, well open, and of a bright brown colour—here——.” He started forward, pulled a velvet case out of his pocket, touched the spring, and handed it to me open to look at.
“You can see for yourself,” he said; “I am the luckiest fellow in existence.”
I looked at the photograph with interest. It was taken in profile, and represented a girl whose perfect features and whose natural slim young grace could not but be apparent to the most casual observer. The head was nobly formed, and the waving bright hair grew low on the forehead, and was fastened up in a picturesque mass at the back of the head. The features were as regular as those of a Greek goddess.
“Yes,” I said, as I returned the photograph to its owner, “that is a picture of a beautiful girl. But I confess I should like to see her in full face. I cannot judge of the eyes in a profile picture.”
“I told you the eyes were dark,” said Housman—“the darkest, brightest brown—very dark.” He paused; then added abruptly, “Gray, my next words will surprise you. Victoria is stone blind.”
I looked my astonishment. I did not speak a word for ah instant.
“Blind from her birth,” he continued; “never saw the sun, nor the sea, nor Nature in any of her aspects. You will understand therefore that the difference in our ages cannot matter a bit.”
Still I did not speak. Housman gazed at me, almost suspending his breath to listen for my words.
“Good God!” I cried at last.
My friend sprang instantly to. his feet.
“I knew you would say that, and yet I hoped you would not,” he exclaimed. “Why should not I love a blind girl? Don't you think it is about the best possible thing that could happen to me?”
“I can't say I do,” I replied. “A blind wife! Good God, Housman, what induced you to do it? Is there no chance of her recovering her sight?” I asked.
“God forbid!” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Simply what I say.”
Housman re-seated himself near me.
“Don't you understand?” he began; “can't you see the matter for yourself? I, of all men, ought to be glad to have a wife like Victoria—my personal appearance.”
“Fudge!” I replied. “Don't you know by this time that girls admire ugly men? Not that you are ugly at all to those who really know you.”
“Yes, I am,” he answered. “I never thought at all about the fact until I knew Victoria, but then I took a good stare at myself in the glass and drew certain conclusions. I accept with perfect calmness the inevitable fact that I am the ugliest man in existence—that is nothing to me because Victoria thinks me beautiful. Yes, it is a lucky chance which gives this lovely blind girl to me. The fact is, Gray, although I am ugly, I am monstrous particular. In short, on the subject of woman, I am fastidious. My wife must be purity itself. Her ideas, her motives must be clear as glass—she must be full of lofty aspiration—she, in short, must belong to heaven, while I belong to earth. Now, cannot you understand that Victoria is all that? The gross and common things of life have been shut away from her, but she has come in some wonderful inexplicable way into close contact with the beautiful. You will know for yourself when you see her. Gray, old chap, she has formed the most curious conception about me. Her impression is that I am the ideal of manly beauty. Now you understand how fatal it would be to my happiness if she were to recover her sight.”
“As she has reached the age of eighteen and has been blind from her birth, it is scarcely likely she ever will,” I replied. “Of course, I congratulate you, Housman. You always were completely out of the common, and a blind wife will add the crown to your peculiar charms. I need not tell you that I am anxious to see Miss Hynton.”
“That is good; you will come with me to Southsea to-morrow?”
Soon afterwards my friend took his leave. He called for me early the next day when I was to accompany him to Southsea. We arrived there about noon and drove straight to the Hyntons' hotel.
They were prepared for our visit, and welcomed my friend and myself with enthusiasm. O. P. Hynton and his wife belonged to the better class type of Americans. Their accents, it is true, bore some trace of the country of their birth, but their manners were good, and they were evidently well-educated people. The boy, a lad of fifteen, was a particularly precocious American youth. After chatting with them all for a short time I looked eagerly round for the girl on whom my friend's choice had fallen.
“Run, Charley,” said the mother to her son. “Tell Victoria that Mr. Housman and his friend, Mr. Gray, have just arrived. Tell her to come along right in.”
The lad started off. The next moment there came a soft rustle of silken drapery, and a very tall and slender girl stood in the doorway. She was dressed in a sort of Liberty costume of very pale green which hung close to her lissom young figure. She stood quite still for a moment, one hand slightly lifted. Her large brown eyes were wide open, and were gazing a little upward as if she meant to follow the light. I noticed how brown they were, quite of a nutty shade, and I also observed even in the first glance something peculiar about the pupils.
As the blind girl stood in the doorway, a ray of sunshine stole across the room and lost itself in her red gold hair. The hair now shone with radiance around her white brow.
Housman went to meet her, took her hand, and led her up to my side.
“This is my friend Gray, Victoria,” he said. “I have been telling him all about you.”
“I am real glad to see you, Mr. Gray,” said Victoria Hynton. Her voice was clear as a bell; there was not a trace of accent about it. It had the same peculiar purity which characterised her face and her wide-open eyes.
“I have read your books,” she continued, still keeping her eyes fixed on me as if she could see me. “I admire them very much, more particularly the 'Shadow of the Duke.'”
I felt surprised at hearing her say she had read my books, but I soon found that it was her custom to speak of everything like a person with perfect sight. She seated herself on a chair near me, and nearly took my breath away by going into vivid and rapturous descriptions of some lovely scenery which she had passed through during her journey to England.
“I love scenery beyond anything in the wide world,” she said.
“Forgive me,” I answered, dropping my voice to a low tone, “how can scenery be of moment to you?”
“Ah,” she replied, “I see you know very little about blind people. In one sense, of course, I am blind, but in another, I see. I think I know the peculiar qualities of the atmosphere now so thoroughly that I can tell without anyone describing it—when there is water in the vicinity, also when there are mountains, also when the sky is clouded, also again when the sun shines and the sky is blue. I see landscapes everywhere. I am always making pictures about them. My brother Charley sometimes tells me that my pictures are much more beautiful than the reality. When he tells me so, I no longer wish for your ordinary sight.”
I talked to her for a little longer. She was full of brightness and intelligence. In short, she was up-to-date in every particular. After a time I looked at my watch, and found that the hour had arrived when I must catch my return train. I bade Miss Hynton good-bye, and left the room. Mrs. Hynton followed me into the ante-room.
“Well, Mr. Gray,” she said in an eager voice, “I hope you are not disappointed in your friend's choice.”
“How could I possibly be disappointed?” I replied. “I never met a more beautiful girl than your daughter.”
“Yes, but for her want of sight,” replied the mother. “Please listen to me for a moment. You do not seem like a stranger, for, of course, I know your books, and Mr. Housman has many times mentioned your name. It is because you seem to us more friend than stranger that I wish now to take you into our confidence. Basil Housman says over and over again that he is quite satisfied to take Victoria in her blindness, but her father and I hope that his quixotic notions in this respect may not be put to the test. In short, we intend to take her to town to morrow to consult one of the great oculists over her case. This was our principal reason for visiting Europe.”
I interrupted in great surprise.
“Do you mean to tell me,” I said, “that you have never yet consulted a good doctor about your daughter's eyes?”
“Well, no, I can't say we have. Come along up here, Obadiah.” O. P. Hynton, who had entered the ante-room, went at once to his wife's side.
“I have been telling Mr. Gray of our intention of taking Victoria to an oculist in London,” she said.
“That's so,” he drawled. “That was our real reason for visiting Europe; we did not wish our girl to see any doctor unless she could see the best, so we put off the day of inquiry until she was grown up. Her mother and I are both surprised at Mr. Housman's wish to marry her, but as the young people fixed it all up for themselves, and of course we know nothing but what is good of Mr. Housman, we agreed to the engagement. But we don't intend the wedding to take place until Victoria has at least had a chance of obtaining the use of her eyes.”
“Have you told Mr. Housman of your determination?” I asked.
“Well, no, that is just it, we have not,” said the wife. “We thought we'd give him a bit of a surprise. He believes he is going to marry a blind girl. Imagine his delight when he sees Victoria with perfect vision.”
I remembered some words Housman had said to me the night before, and after a pause I said emphatically—
“I think I would tell him.”
“What is the good of disappointing him if there is nothing in it?” questioned Mrs. Hynton.
“The disappointment is much more likely to be the other way,” I answered. “Housman is quite in love with the idea of marrying a blind wife.”
“A seeing wife will be much more to the point when all's said and done,” interposed O. P. “Well, Mr. Gray, we will think over your suggestion; and if we think it best, we'll fix it up that he's to know. Anyhow, we take Victoria to London to-morrow.”
A moment or two afterwards I took my leave, and returned to town by the next train.
That evening at a late hour, somewhat to my surprise, Housman called to see me. I was in the drawing-room with my wife when he was ushered into the room. He wore his morning clothes, and looked rougher and plainer than I had ever seen him.
“Can I speak to you at once, Gray?” he asked.
“To be sure,” I replied, for something in his face immediately aroused my sympathy. “Is my wife in the way?” I continued.
“Not at all,” he replied; “that is, if you care to listen to my unhappy story, Mrs. Gray. The fact is this, I am very nearly as miserable as I was the reverse last night. What do you think those people are going to do?”
“Do you mean the Hyntons?” I asked.
“Yes, I mean O. P. Hynton and his wife. They insist upon taking Victoria to an oculist for the express purpose of giving her back her sight.”
“They are quite right to do so,” I replied. “But how did you find out about it?”
“Mrs. Hynton told me this afternoon. I never was in a greater rage in my life. I said something of what was in my mind, but it had not the least effect upon her. Now, look here, Gray, we must stop this thing.”
“How can we interfere?” I asked. “If the girl has the slightest chance of obtaining such a precious possession as sight, how can you have the heart to deprive her of it?”
“You may say what you like about my conduct in this matter,” said Housman, springing to his feet as he spoke; “but I stick to my statement that the last thing in all the world I wish Victoria to have is the use of her eyes. Can anything be more perfect than perfect? Can any happiness be greater than the cup of bliss full to the brim? I tell you sight will be her undoing; it will let in evil, it will let in misery. Oh, good God, Gray, can't we stop the thing? If I were her husband, I should have some authority in the matter, but as it is——”
“As it is, you cannot interfere,” I said firmly.
He sank down on the nearest chair, and clasped his strong hands tightly together.
“I am sure, Mr. Housman, you are making yourself unhappy very unnecessarily,” said Diana in her sweet voice. “If Victoria Hynton is the girl you and my husband have described, nothing can really alter her nature.”
“I am none so sure of that,” he replied. “The experiment is unnecessary. Again I repeat it is a pity to damage perfection. I have staked my all on Victoria. She is absolutely unique. There is not a girl like her on the face of God's earth. When she gets her sight, she will be like other girls. And, and—this is the kernel of the trouble, she will see me as I am—ugly and old—old and ugly. Gray, I can't stand it. Is there no power on earth that can stop this thing? I repeat that it is sacrilege to give Victoria any sight but that beautiful inner sight which God Almighty supplies to her.”
“I can partly understand your feelings,” I said, “but at the same time you will forgive my saying that they are much overstrained. Do you think that you ought from a selfish motive——”
“I? selfish!” interrupted Housman; “perhaps I am.”
He stared across the room in a dazed way.
“Not really, old fellow,” I said. “Never since the world was made was there a man who thought less of himself and more of others than you do, but, in this special case, have you the right to interfere in order to deprive a girl of recovering the most precious sense ever given to man?”
“Yes,” he said, clapping one hand heavily on his knee,-“I believe that I am right. Victoria's case is peculiar—her nature is peculiar. She has been shut away from earth, although living in its midst for eighteen years. You must have seen for yourself, Gray, that the grosser things of life do not touch her.”
“I never saw anyone less earthly,” I exclaimed.
“Then I believe I am right to keep her so. If she goes to an oculist, he will examine her eyes, and by so doing arouse a painful sensation within her which she will call by the name of 'hope.' She will long for that thing which she has never had, thinking it a much more precious gift than it is. She will be induced to undergo a serious operation by which her perfect physical health will be jeopardised. The operation may or may not be successful. If it fails, she will have undergone unnecessary pain and anxiety. If it succeeds, she will be indeed as a god, knowing good and evil, but never, never to her dying day, will she be the same Victoria she was of old. I believe I am right in trying to do my utmost to preserve her in her present state of innocence.”
“Well,” I said, after a pause, “the only one who can vote against the interview with the doctor is the young lady herself.”
He stared at me when I said this, and then answered in an emphatic voice—
“Jove! you are right, Gray; and it is my belief she will vote against it. Hynton and his wife won't surely persevere against the girl's own wish. You and I will go down to Southsea by the earliest train in the morning, and put the test to her.”
“I certainly ought not to interfere in the matter,” I said.
“You shall not interfere, but you shall tell her what is about to happen—the very tones of my voice might influence her unduly. I'll sit by, but I'll be silent. She has taken a great fancy to you. You shall tell her the simple truth. Will you come?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I'll certainly see you through this.”
He started up to wring my hand impulsively.
On the following morning we caught an early train to Portsmouth, and found ourselves at the hotel where the Hyntons were staying, at an early hour. We went up immediately to their rooms, and Housman had a private interview with the American and his wife. I waited for him in the ante room where Mrs. Hynton had told me of their intention with regard to the oculist on the previous day. Housman was absent about ten minutes. He returned presently with a red face.
“They mean to take her to town to-day,” he said, “but have told her nothing as yet. They are firmly determined that she shall have the advice of Hayward, the famous oculist. But, yielding to my persuasions, they now allow you, Gray, to break the news to her. It is my opinion that if she decides against it, they will not insist on the interview.”
At that moment I could not help feeling that I was unfit for the work which I had undertaken. I began to feel queer and nervous. Housman's intense anxiety began to react upon me.
“Come along,” he said excitedly, “she is waiting for us in the drawing-room. I have told her that you have arrived, and she expressed pleasure at once. She is alone—come—they want to catch the twelve o'clock train, and there is not too much time.”
We both entered the drawing-room, where Victoria, wearing the soft silken dress she had on the day before, was seated near one of the windows. The day happened to be a balmy one, and the window was open. She was gazing straight out, her elbow resting on the window-sill, her hand pressed to her cheek. Her eyes, with their peculiar wide-open expression, appeared to look full in the direction of the sea. She started when she heard our steps, and, rising from her seat, came to meet us.
“How do you do, Mr. Gray?” she. said, holding out her hand to me. “I am very glad to see you again, Basil, won't you sit here?”
She motioned to a seat close to herself—he took it immediately. I sat down facing her.
“How delicious the morning is!” she said. “I think I like the somewhat damp quality which characterises your English air. Then what a lovely colour the sea is this morning!”
“What is it like?” I asked, to prove her.
“I know the colour quite well by the noise it is making,” she replied; “the sea to-day is purple towards the horizon—deep purple—but there is a wonderful tone of grey-blue nearer the shore. The quality of the air which blows on my face tells me that,” she continued, faintly smiling.
I looked full at her. She seemed to feel my gaze, and so sensitive were all her nerves that she even had a faint premonition of trouble in the air. She ceased to look in the direction of the sea and turned her face towards me.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked suddenly, putting one of her hands into Housman's. “Have you come to tell me bad news, Mr. Gray?”
“I have come to bring you news,” I answered, “but it is certainly not bad. I have been commissioned by your lover——”
“Yes, Victoria, by me,” said Basil. “Now listen.”
“It is strange that you, Mr. Gray, should be asked to give me news,” she continued. “Why does not Basil speak himself?—the thing must be bad.”
“No, it is good,” I replied.
“Then why are you troubled, and why is Basil troubled?”
“How do you know that I am troubled, darling?” he asked.
“I feel something indescribably sad all over me,” she replied. “I have never in my life known trouble, but as it comes to everyone perhaps it is at last coming to me. Please tell me at once what is the matter.”
“It is certainly not trouble,” I said. “I'll tell you as you wish, at once—then you can judge for yourself. Your father and mother wish to take you to London to-day.”
“Yes,” she replied gently, “I knew that last night.”
“They are taking you for a specified purpose. They want you to see a good oculist.”
“An oculist? What is that?”
“An oculist is the name of a doctor who makes the study of the eye his speciality,” I replied slowly.
She pressed one of her hands immediately to her eyes.
“Mine don't ache,” she said; “they do not trouble me in any way. Why should I see him?”
“With the hope,” I replied, “that he may give you your sight.”
“My sight,” she answered; she turned white to her lips.
I did not add another word. Housman turned and looked at her. Presently, with a long-drawn sigh, she laid her head on his shoulder.
“Is this true, Basil?” she asked. “Is it possible that I, who have always been blind, can be made to see?”
“They say there is a possibility, Victoria,” he replied; his great voice trembled.
“Your father and mother have brought you to Europe for the express purpose of consulting Hayward, the great specialist,” I continued. “They have never taken you to an oculist before; they wish to do so now. It is quite possible that something may be done to give you your sight.”
“My sight,” she repeated; “there is a possibility that I shall really see?” Her eyes grew darker than ever, brighter too. The colour came slowly back to her lips and cheeks.
“You must please yourself in this matter, my darling,” said Housman. “As you are now, you are absolute' perfect. If you do not wish to be disturbed, Victoria, I vow that I will not let them take you to an oculist. Understand, my darling, that you must please yourself.”
“Would not you like me to see, Basil?” she asked very gently.
“You are perfect as you are,” he replied.
“I think,” I said slowly, “that the choice in this matter remains with you, Miss Hynton. If you are opposed to seeing the oculist, I am given to understand that your father and mother will not press the point. If, on the other hand——”
She interrupted me; she stood up.
“If I am opposed?” she said in a tone) of query. “If all were darkness around you, would you be opposed, Mr. Gray?”
“I cannot say that I would,” I replied.
“Would you, Basil?”
He said nothing, but he took her hand. The colour rose richer and brighter in her cheeks. She seemed to palpitate all over with wonderful life.
“If it is a question of choice,” she said, “my choice is made; I will go.”
“The oculist may pain and disappoint you, Victoria,” said her lover.
“I will go,” she repeated. “Even the chance of sight—oh, my God, even the chance!” She fell suddenly on her knees, and the tears rained from her sightless eyes. Housman put his arm round her waist, and lifted her to her feet.
“To be able to see you, Basil,” she said; “to be able to see your beautiful face. Oh, Basil, I have chosen!”
He did not say another word. He supported her steps across the drawing-room, and took her into the room where her father and mother were waiting for her.
Housman accompanied Victoria to the oculist.
He came to my house that evening to bring me the news. The opinion of the great man was absolute and decided. She was suffering from congenital cataract, which had she lived in London, or consulted any doctor of eminence, would have been removed in her infancy. There was, in Hayward's opinion, little or no doubt that an operation would enable her to see; although now, as he fully explained to her parents and lover, she could never hope to enjoy the sight which she would have had, had her eyes been operated upon in her infancy. She would see, of course; but what are called the ocular muscles would never now be able to do their perfect work.
“She is full of a strange, beautiful sort of happiness,” continued Housman. “It is beyond words touching to see her, and to hear her. The Hyntons are taking rooms at the Cosmopolitan, and Hayward will operate on Saturday.”
His face was ghastly pale, and the troubled look in his eyes quite altered their expression.
“You ought to be glad,” I said, after a pause.
“It shows what a selfish dog I am, that I am not glad,” he replied. “I have staked everything on Victoria; if she fails me——”
“She will not do that, old man,” I replied; “I, on my part, would stake anything that that girl possesses a heart in a thousand: her heart will show her what stuff you are made of. You wrong her and yourself when you give utterance to such a thought.”
“Well,” he said abruptly, “I have made up my mind. Hynton and his wife have arranged that the wedding is to be postponed until after the six weeks during which Victoria must stay in a darkened room. On the day after that on which Hayward allows her to use her eyes, we are to be married. That is what they have settled. But my own opinion is that this wedding may never come off; for I swear before God that if, when she sees me, she is startled, or shows the slightest sense of repulsion, I will never take her to church.”
He left me soon afterwards. Nothing that I could say would make him alter his resolve, and I perceived that he was steadily preparing himself for the worst.
I did not see him again for many weeks. During that time I heard nothing about Victoria Hynton, although my wife and I often talked over Housman's story and hers
One evening, towards the end of January, Housman walked into my study.
“How do you do?” he said, holding out his hand. He sank immediately into a chair, and began to mop his forehead. “Pray forgive my not coming near you, during the past six weeks,” he said.
“My pardon is more than granted,” I replied. “I feel ashamed at not having sought you out.”
“Thank God, you did not! I was not fit to be in a decent man's society. I have been a morose beggar—horrible, even to myself. During the last fortnight I have not even been in Victoria's presence.”
“How is she?” I asked.
“Well, quite well—too well; in blooming health. The operation was a complete success. No bad consequences followed—no inflammation—nothing. Hayward removed the bandages two days ago, and she is allowed to use her eyes a little, and, her mother says, is rapidly getting them under control. She has not seen me yet. To-morrow is our wedding-day. It is arranged that I am to see her for a few minutes, before we go to church. Gray, old fellow, will you be my friend to the end? Will you help me to see this thing out? Mrs. Hynton has sent you a warm invitation to the wedding. Will you go with me to the Cosmopolitan, at nine o'clock to-morrow morning? I have told no one else of what I mean to do, but I may as well say to you that my mind absolutely made up.”
“I hope you are not going to do anything silly or rash,” I said. “Even supposing Miss Hynton shows some slight surprise when first she sees you, is such a fact, perfectly natural remember, to upset the happiness of both your lives?”
“It shall not,” he answered. “It certainly shall not destroy the happiness of her life. Gray, I am, perhaps, morbid on this point. As you know already, until I met Victoria I never cared a sou about my personal appearance; but all the same, I could not conceal the truth from myself that I am one of the ugliest men in existence. The fact cannot be denied that my soul has been clapped into a very ungainly casket. Now, that child worships beauty; her sentiments and feelings on the subject are abnormally sensitive. I need add no more, need I? She will see me face to face to-morrow, and then she herself shall decide.”
I made no reply. I saw that my friend was in no humour to be argued with.
About half-past eight the following morning he called for me. He was in his usual everyday clothes.
“Why, you have not put on your bridal finery,” I said. “At what hour do you expect to go to church?”
“Between eleven and twelve, if I go at all,” he answered. “If Victoria stands the test I can easily go back to my rooms to dress; if not, I am all the better as I am.”
His hansom was drawn up in front of my door. I sprang into it; he seated himself by me, and we drove straight to the Cosmopolitan. We were shown into a large drawing-room, where O. P. Hynton and his wife were waiting to receive us. They were both dressed for the wedding. When Housman entered in his rough clothes, the Hyntons glanced at him in some astonishment.
“I'll have time to dress presently,” he said. “Where is Victoria?”
“She is waiting for you,” said Mrs. Hynton. “Remember, she has not seen you yet. She is most anxious for your arrival. She has not worn the bandages over her eyes for two or three days now, and is quite accustomed to my face and her father's and Charley's, but of course her great anxiety is to see you—she would like to do so first alone. Will you go to her in the other room?”
“I won't see her alone; I want Gray to accompany me,” he said. There was a very queer light in his eyes.
“That is not fair,” I cried. “What am I to Miss Hynton at this moment? Go by yourself, Housman.”
“I vow I won't. Come along, Gray; be quick.” He linked his big hand forcibly through my arm, and dragged me towards the door of the ante-room. Charley, who was standing by, ran forward and flung open the door.
“Here is Housman, Victoria,” he cried.
We both found ourselves on the threshold of the room. It was slightly darkened, the blinds being more than half-way down; the day was also a dull one. Victoria was seated on the sofa, her slim young figure was slightly bent forward, one of her white hands covered her eyes. I gave her a brief glance and saw that she was in her bridal white. It glistened in long folds all over her slim figure, and lay in a heavy train at her feet. Her bridal veil was flung over her lovely head, orange blossoms pressed against her brow. She looked beautiful beyond description, but there was a shaken, somewhat forlorn expression about her which went straight to my heart; and I saw that Housman, when he looked at her, absolutely and completely forgot himself.
“Are you there, Basil?” she said, holding out one of her hands. “I am afraid to look: it means so much. Come to me, Basil. Put your arms round me. I won't look at you until I feel the pressure of your arms.”
He rushed to her side, flung himself on one knee, and folded her in his strong arms.
She put out one of her hands falteringly, as she had never done when she was blind, and began to feel his head and his face.
“It is the same dear head and the same face that I have missed so sorely during the last fortnight,” she murmured. “Basil, the world is full of beautiful things, but my idea of perfection, my one ideal of manly beauty is centred on you.”
“Look at me before you say another word,” he panted.
She raised her eyes then—lovely eyes they were, although somewhat faltering in their gaze. She glanced first at me as I stood in the doorway, and then, turning to Basil, gave him a long and steadfast look. The next moment, with a smile of ineffable bliss and contentment, she laid her head on his shoulder.
I hurried out of the room and closed the door softly behind me.
“Well,” said Mrs. Hynton, who looked as if she had been crying, “what has she said to him? Poor darling, she is never tired of repeating to her father and me that, in her opinion, her lover's face is the most beautiful in the world. I tremble to think, Mr. Gray, what she will feel when she really sees him.”
“Basil Housman is a right good fellow,” said O. P. Hynton, “but, bless my dollars, he is not handsome.”
Before I could reply a single word, the door was opened behind us, and Victoria and Housman came out. There were tears on Victoria's cheeks, but her eyes were full of happiness; her lover's arm was firmly placed round her waist.
“I am off to get into my wedding toggery,” he cried. His tone was immensely strong and heart-whole now.
“Victoria, my angel, I'll be back in no time,” he continued, giving her a glance which she returned with a look which brought the water into my eyes.
They were married before noon that day.