Middle Aged Love Stories/A Hope Deferred
A HOPE DEFERRED
MISS SABINA dropped a lump of sugar into each of the little cups and poured the coffee with a pretty carefulness, handing one across the table and rising with a grace that was almost girlish.
"Shall we drink it on the porch?" she asked, in her gentle, deprecating voice with the minor tone in it, that one associated with her as closely as her gray dress, her quaint old-fashioned rings, and the faint odor of dried rose-leaves—not attar or essence of rose, but dried rose-leaves—that went with her when she walked.
For ten years she had asked this question, pleasantly, deferentially; and for ten years M. Laroche had taken his cup, preceded her to the door that opened directly on the piazza, bowed low as he held it for her to pass, and exclaimed with an ever-fresh enthusiasm, "Ze porrch, by all means!"
It was a pleasant porch with a climbing vine and a box of scarlet geraniums, and directly in front of it a little unfenced green with a small fountain the park of the street, which was one of those clean and faded byways of a rapidly growing city that surprise the discoverer with a sense of what the old town used to be two generations ago. The rumble of the city died away before one entered Maple Avenue; the women sat and gossiped on the stoops; the children played happily in the park; the late afternoon seemed almost rural as the sun slanted through the maples that shaded either side of the narrow, dusty road.
Miss Sabina finished her coffee and wiped her fingers daintily. In the fading glow her pale hair turned almost golden, and her soft cheeks took a deeper tint one realized what a charmingly pretty girl she must have been. She looked long at the green before them and broke the friendly silence:
"How well the grass is looking, monsieur, for this time of year!"
M. Laroche beamed expressively on the grass. "But how charming, Mlle. Sabine, and how green! It is also neat—so neat!"
Miss Sabina sighed.
"I suppose that in England it is much, much finer," she said softly. "I suppose we haven't the least idea of the parks there one must see them."
M. Laroche shrugged his shoulders.
"Ah, ze parrks! C'est possible—it may be. But zey are damp, verry damp n'est-ce pas?"
Miss Sabina smiled gently to herself, with eyes that saw beyond the little green.
"And the abbeys, monsieur! Westminster and Oxford and Melrose! Only think of standing—of my standing by Melrose Abbey!"
M. Laroche raised his brows eloquently and appeared lost in contemplation of the picture.
"Ah, yes! Indeed!" he sighed. "Zat is a great abbey—Mel-h-rose!"
"And London, monsieur, and the Tower! And Fleet Street, and Piccadilly, and the Strand! How strange it is to feel that you know them so well, that you love them so well, and yet that you've never seen them. When we used to play, my cousins and I, in Grandfather Endicott's house, and choose what pictures we would have, I always took 'Melrose Abbey from the South' and a big engraving of Windsor Castle. The children used to laugh at me, but I always chose them. Cousin Frank used to tease me and say that I'd never get there, and that girls couldn't travel around like boys. Grandmother Endicott, too, she was so cold and distant toward me; you see, she hated poor mother so. When Cousin Frank's will was read she was very, very angry. I don't know whether I told you that she said quite publicly that it was absurd for a woman of my age to be so crazy for travelling. I thought that rather unkind, for she's been so much herself. But then, she's so old, perhaps she's not quite responsible. She's eighty-four, you know."
"Ah," said M. Laroche, with admiration, "she is verry old, verry old indeed, your grandmozzer!"
He was as charmingly attentive, as gallantly interested, as if he had not heard it all before a hundred times over. Every movement of his expressive, whimsical face meant courteous regard; every attitude of his figure, a little bent now, in clothes a little shabby, but so exquisitely mended and brushed and polished that the necessity for such artistic care seemed almost fortunate, expressed close and deferential sympathy with the eager, vivid soul beside him.
And the interest might well have been unfeigned, for under those smooth gray folds beat a vigorous, determined heart that forty years of denial and monotony could not still nor tame. The soft, calm eyes of this New England spinster had never looked beyond her native town; but in fancy she had voyaged the seas for years, and in her dreams she wandered through strange and wonderful streets of foreign lands and heard the speech of all the peoples of the world. No schoolboy was ever more thirsty for the ends of the earth than she; this little stay-at-home knew all the routes by sea and land, and delighted in the customs of the fortunate dwellers in the places of her lifelong desire.
To-night her hand shook as she laid the coffee-cup aside, and the flush in her cheeks did not die with the sunset. A twinge of remorse defied her tremulous joy; a nervous fear of her unworthiness came over her, and it was with an uncertain voice that she approached her friend.
"It seems as if I were almost too old, monsieur. Perhaps some younger person ought to have it, after all. I've gone on so long without it—
"I asked Mr. Alden about it last Sunday, after morning service. I said it seemed dreadful to be so perfectly happy, and Cousin Frank just dead! But how can I help it? Frank knew just how I'd feel. It's just as he said: 'When I go to heaven, Sabina shall go to Europe, if she's alive, and I don't know which ofbe the happier.' And then to think of Miss Ellsworth and her friends going, and wanting me to go with them—it seemed too good to be true! I asked Mr. Alden if he thought Grandmother Endicott ought to have said the will was blasphemous, and he said no,that it was a nice will and a kind one. And I nearly cried right there. I could just get out, Oh, Mr. Alden, you don't know what this means to me—you don't know! and then I had to run right away, or I'd have broken down."
M. Laroche nodded sympathetically. "Zat is a good man, M. Aldenne, très aimable—most kind. I sink every one likes heem. It is but yesterday zat he has asked me, 'And where do you go when Mees Sabina is away, monsieur? You will not find anozzer soch landlady, hein? I sink not. He is a kind man."
"Miss Ellsworth wanted me to take some German lessons, and there was a 'Life of Goethe' she wanted me to read. But I couldn't do that. The time's so short now. And I'm too old to go to school again. So I just had to tell her then and there.
" 'Miss Ellsworth,' I said, 'it isn't quite the same with me as 'tis with you. You've been before and you know all the places from experience, not just as I do from books, so I'm glad to go with you. But I must tell you, Miss Ellsworth, that I'm not going to learn, the way you are. I'm just going for pleasure and happiness and comfort, and nothing else. You know how it is with me. All my life I've had to stay right here, and I could only live decently and as father would have wanted me to live—we're Endicotts, you know, if we are the poor branch—by scrimping and saving and being very, very careful, and making things last. Almost the last thing poor father said to me was to keep things up.
" ' "There's just enough, Sabina, if you're careful, to do it," he said. "I want you should always have the house neat, and a good, plain, nice little dinner with the silver, and a cup of coffee after, and a bottle of wine kept, in case mother should ever come in. And the engravings and the pianoforte and those mahogany things, and the mother-o'-pearl cabinet—never let em go, Sabina. When they come in to our funerals I don't want anybody to be ashamed of the Endicotts—it's a gentleman's house."
" 'So I've kept everything up,' I said, 'though many's the time I'd have given the world to let Hannah go, and do for myself, and sell the things, and just get to Europe, and tramp through it, if I had to, like those two teachers from your school. But of course 'twould have been ridiculous—a woman of my age! And I didn't dare take the money for the funeral and if sickness should come, and go with that, for it would break father's heart—he had it all planned out. And of course a woman doesn't need to go—'tisn't as if I were a man—'"
M. Laroche pursed his lips and shook his head thoughtfully.
"But if zat is ze sing you want, what deeference is it zat you are not a man?" he asked luminously.
Miss Sabina threw him a grateful glance.
" 'So you see, Miss Ellsworth,' I said, 'here's my chance. Now, I don't care if I don't understand them in Paris or Berlin. I can see them, I can hear them, I can walk on the sidewalks and breathe the air, can't I? I can see the shops and the houses and the palaces and the canals, and how the sky looks there. I can go from one country to another, and be on the ocean, and perhaps I can see the Alps. I don't need to know French and German to appreciate them, do I? I want to just go and drink it in and realize that it's really I—that I'm there. There's only ten weeks or so, and then I'll come home, but I'll live on it all the rest of my life! Oh, monsieur, what will I care that I haven't any money then?"
Her eyes were glowing, her breath came fast; she was home again, in fancy, with her precious load of memories and experiences, and down on her knees before the treasures that were to adorn her henceforth quiet life.
M. Laroche looked at her with admiration.
"Mam'selle, vous êtes grande dame vous," he said, wondering at the pink flush and the thrown-back head.
She sank back, ashamed of such a display of feeling.
"I run on like a chatterbox of a girl," she said shyly. "You'll think I'm a selfish, talkative old thing, monsieur."
He bowed gallantly.
"Zat would never be, Mlle. Sabine," he said. "And your affairs, are zey not mine? But yes! Indeed!"
They sat quietly for a time, in the dusk, watching the evening star grow before them, enjoying the cool stillness and the scent of the freshly watered green. The young people strolling by now and then smiled at them for a contented pair of middle-aged friends, and thought their pleasant quiet the placid repose of those who have tacitly done with life and its strong tides of feeling.They could not know that the woman with the softly parted hair was all a-tremble for romance, thirsty for adventure, bohemian-souled and utterly fearless; they could not see the heart of the little foreigner with the shabby clothes and gray imperial, how it was eaten up with homesickness and regret—with all his gratitude to his gentle hostess—for France, with her queen city, her familiar sights and smells, her zest and color, and more than all, the fishing-coast where his mother had rocked him to sleep in sight of the sails.
They sighed together, and blushed, and glanced quickly aside, and Miss Sabina rose hastily and slipped through the long French window.
"Shall I sing?" she asked, not waiting for an answer to a question of such long usage. While she felt through the dusk to the old pianoforte, M. Laroche lit his cigarette and waited with gentle expectation. The lilacs from the next yard drifted in and met the faint odor from the old china rose-jar that stood on the polished mahogany table inside. The first few notes of the piano carried with them to him who knew the room so well a never-fading picture of the peaceful, old-time parlor: the willow plates in the mother-o'-pearl cabinet, the "Sistine Madonna" and Correggio's "Holy Night," the dim oil-paintings that great-grandmother Endicott had made so long ago, the bronze Chinese idol that squatted near the rose-jar, the dusky, elusive pier-glass with its dull gilding of another generation and its mysterious, haunting reflections—they were all confused with the tune that Miss Sabina's sweet, reedy voice had so often quavered through; a tune that she would not have known by its title of "Fair Harvard":
Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
That I gaze on so fondly to-day,
Were to change by to-morrow and to fleet in my arms,
Like fairy gifts fading away,
Thou wouldst still be adored as this moment thou art,
Let thy loveliness fade as it will,
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still.
Miss Sabina knew other songs—"When other lips and other hearts," and "Joys that we've tasted," and "Come with thy lute to the fountain"; but into this one she threw most marvellously all the passion of her yet girlish, tender heart; and the yellow keys yielded to her tremulous touch a throbbing, jarring melody that came to the listener like an old perfume from some dusty, just found rose-jar of a long-dead beauty.
It is not while beauty and youth are thine own,
And thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear,
That the fervor and faith of a soul can be known,
To which time will but make thee more dear.
M. Laroche smiled.
"'And zy chicks onprofenned by a tearr,'" he repeated softly. "Ah, yes! Indeed!"
No; the heart that has truly lov'd never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close,
As the sunflower turns on her god, when he sets,
The same look which she turn'd when he rose.
The last faint quaver died away, there was a light rustle of skirts, and Miss Sabina stood at the window.
"Good night, monsieur," she said softly.
M. Laroche tossed away the end of his cigarette.
"Vous chantez très bien, mademoiselle," he said, with his inimitable bow. "Good night."
And with this, his invariable phrase, he went to his room off the piazza.
Miss Sabina had been waiting a long time when he came to breakfast the next morning, heavy-eyed from a night which he admitted to have been sleepless, and too tired to present his apologies with the whimsical grace that gave his simplest words and acts such a kindly flavor. His hostess watched his untouched plate with concern, and suddenly cut short her small, friendly confidences of ways and means for the summer, struck by his languid manner and weary eyes.
"Why, monsieur, you're eating nothing! Is it the headache again? You surely won't go out to-day and try to teach—it's too much!"
He tried to rally, and smiled bravely at her anxious eyes, made his little negative gesture that was half gratitude to the questioner, and would have turned the talk; but Miss Sabina was alarmed in earnest. The thought that he might be alone and sick in the summer cut sharply for a second, and her quick fancy saw him in the agony of his terrible head aches, housed with strangers, lonely and too proud to ask for help. Her eyes filled with tears, and she leaned impulsively across the table.
"Oh, monsieur, you're ill—you're really ill!" she cried. "Go to the doctor—promise me you'll go! You've not been the same for a week, now; you've been so tired and worn. I've noticed it ever since last week. It was when I first got the notice from Cousin Frank's lawyer that the money was in the bank that you had that terrible headache; don't you know how we sat and talked till so late, and I was so excited? And I've been talking so much and planning so hard that I haven't thought—oh, I'm very selfish, monsieur! It's terrible to think of you being sick just when I'm so happy. You'll go to the doctor? Promise me you will!"
He shook his head.
"But zere is no need for a doctorre, Mlle. Sabine, indeed no! It is only to-day—I am well to-morrow. Not to sleep, it makes one weary for the day—n'est-ce pas? It is not a good country for sleep, I have found. In France I have always slept, ah, most easily! But here, no. In France—"
He paused a moment, and the room was perfectly still. He looked at her, but he did not see her, and Miss Sabina had a strange, swift memory of her little brother who died at school, and the look in his eyes when he cried to be taken home.
It was over in a moment, and M. Laroche shrugged his shoulders lightly.
"One imagines I come to America to sleep, hein?" he asked her, with such a humorous, friendly smile that she half-forgot her anxiety. But before he left for the old school, where dwindling classes lessened his scanty salary every year, she had made him promise to see the doctor before night.
"And a cup of tea with your lunch—don't forget, monsieur!" she called after him as he walked off—she hated to realize how slowly, nowadays. They were good friends, these two, and they knew it well: if she came back and he was not there—her heart contracted and seemed to wait while she caught her breath and shook the thought away.
"We're not so old as that," she whispered under her breath. "We're not really old, either of us!"
All day she thought about him, and to her just quickened sight much that the excitement of the past had made trivial loomed suddenly large before her. She realized how quiet he had grown of late, how seldom he essayed the jokes, the small kindly nonsense, the half-serious homage to her charm of personality that brightened her life so much—that had been, indeed, almost her only social pleasure. It occurred to her that he had been less quick of comprehension than ever before, less ready to follow her mood with that wonderful delicacy of perception that had enabled her—shy, secluded, half troubled at the restlessness of her own eager heart—to talk to him as she had never been able to talk to her only sister. She remembered how every innocent ruse for concealing the scantiness of a meal had succeeded of late, and how unconsciously he had, at any excuse of hers, eaten what he would once have indignantly insisted that she should share. But more than all this, he had talked as he had never talked before of his childhood and his childhood's home. Miss Sabina had learned her Paris well from him long ago. For years in the winter evenings, when they could not enjoy the piazza and the green, they had sat by the Franklin grate in the sitting-room, and she had followed him breathlessly through "Les Misérables"—his rapid and broken translation heightening incalculably the sense of strangeness and intensity—or he had led her about Paris and its outskirts till she had grown to an actual intimacy with that city of his dreams; for hitherto it had been Paris that he had spoken of as his home, where he had lived since he was a boy of ten with his older brother Jules, who had written a "French Grammar for Beginners" and was enrolled by M. Laroche among the great lights of his native literature.
But of late when he spoke of France it was to no city that he carried his eager listener, but to a little fishing-village, with the nets drying on the sand, and the setting sun on the sails, and the clatter of his white-capped mother's sabots as she led him down to the beach to kiss his sunburnt father. The rush and clamor of the city streets died away before the sleepy Breton cradle-song, and the lights of the boulevard faded as he watched the stars shine down upon the sea in that land so far from him.
Miss Sabina thought how her father toward the end had told her over and over of the games at school and the holidays at the old Endicott home, and had even described the old play-room to her, as if his mother had never ceased to love him and mend his broken toys. Did men always remember, then, at the end? Did it mean—but she threw it off again and told herself, "We're not so old as that! We're not really old!"
At dinner that night she would have talked of nothing but his health and her fears for his lonely summer, but he would have none of that.
"I do quite well, you shall see, chère mademoiselle; I greet you in ze autom' at ze—ze docke. You are surprise', you do not know me—I am so restored! Est-ce possible! ce pauv' Laroche! Comme il se porte bien—how he is well!"
His expressive pantomime, his laugh, his old kindly smile as he met her eyes, frankly, yet with that confidential regard that seemed to say more than his words, almost deceived her; but even as she laughed, his lids drooped, his smile faded, and he fingered the cloth restlessly under her steady gaze.
"I don't know, monsieur, I don't know," she said, in her soft, troubled minor voice. "You weren't so well this last fall, you know; the heat wore on you dreadfully. I wish you could go away somewhere and rest this summer, and not take those vacation classes—I wish you would!"
He shook his head. "R-h-est? R-h-est?" he said softly to himself, and with the throaty little r that was so marked when he was absent-minded. "In zis country? Jamais, jamais, mademoiselle. It is queeck, queeck! immédiatement—at once! Teach me zis moment—it is no matter zat it takes you a lifetime to learn—teach me zis moment—I mus know it zis verry day! I mus' run now to somesing else, but I come ag-gain, and you teach me immediately ag-gain, for I have forgotten it all. But zere is no time to lose—no, indeed!"
She was amazed at the bitterness of his tone; she could hardly understand, he poured out the words so quickly, but she could see that this was more than a passing irritation, that his years of teaching were beginning to tell on him. Before she could reply he had risen and opened the door, and she found herself passing through to the porch without the formula of invitation that preceded the coffee. When he joined her with the neglected cups the storm had passed, and as he talked quietly of the preparation for the voyage that had formed the subject of their evening conversation for weeks, she could hardly realize the depths of weariness and loathing that the sudden glimpse of exhausted patience had shown her.
That night Miss Sabina did not sing. She played through two or three of the stiff, sweet little preludes, but the lilacs were so strong, the old melodies waked such confused, excited sadness in her, that the songs would not come. The sight of that keen, drooping profile dark against the orange glow reproached her somehow with its loneliness—how many weeks he would sit alone!—and she rose hastily and went out again.
"You do not sing? You have not ze mood, hein? Eh bien, not to sing, it is well sometimes."... And they sat in silence long after the stars came out.
That night Miss Sabina slept lightly. Strange, confused dreams, half-conscious delusions, troubled her with voices that she knew were unreal, that yet murmured and muttered and droned, till, in her effort to dismiss them and sink to deeper sleep, she woke with a start. Surely some one was talking! She hesitated, and from somewhere below her came the sound of a voice that rose and fell almost monotonously—not loud, but clear and continuous. Without a moment's hesitation she got out of bed, put on a dressing-gown and slippers, and opening her door quietly, paused a moment at the head of the stairs before going down. Without doubt it was a voice, and only one. The fear that a more timid woman would have felt in the first uncertainty of waking came to her now with the conviction that this was no thief, no stranger, but her ten years' friend, speaking with a passionate earnestness that terrified her; appealing—to whom?—with a sadness, a despair, that wrung her heart.
She slipped like a shadow down the stair, and crouching on the lowest step, she listened breathlessly for a moment. Ah, yes! It was to her he was talking! Her own name, in his strange, sweet, French handling of it, came to her through the half-open door. She looked through the warped and widened crack at the side, where the light streamed through, unconscious of the time, the place, even of her silent, peering attitude, knowing only that a deep, ominous excitement thrilled her to the very centre of her soul.
He had sunk exhausted on the narrow white bed, a thin, pathetic figure in a faded, mended silk dressing-gown, with a tired white face and black eyes that glowed like coals. His hands were clinched between his knees, his head hung upon his breast. His voice was weak and strained now, no longer the deep tone that had waked her, and his quaint broken English, as if he saw her there before him, was sadder than any eloquence.
" 'But you will go to ze doctorre—promise me you will go.' Ah, mon Dieu, Mlle. Sabine, what good is zat? I want no doctorre—me; I want my home! To you, what is it? But only a strange land, a new people, a voyage, and you come back. Ah, me, I am twelve years away! Twelve years away!
" 'You work too hard, you need rest.' I tell heem I must work; I come here to work—would I rest here?
" 'You must go back to France, you fret yourself too much; you have ze weak heart, monsieur, you are here too long already.' Dame! Is it zat I stay for my pleasure?
" 'I have no medicine for you, monsieur; it is not ze doctorre nor ze tonique nor ze r-h-est for you—it is to go home. Ze systemme it runs down, down, zen ze heart it grows weak, weak, and zen, monsieur, vous savez, it stops.'...
" 'Mais, monsieur, I cannot go, I have not ze money—ze school grows small, I am so often sick.' Ah, mademoiselle, figure to yourself! I, Sylvestre Laroche, say zis to a stranger—I speak so!
" 'It is to regret, monsieur. Zere is no friend—?'
" 'Monsieur, I have no money but a little; how shall I pay?
"Ah, Mlle. Sabine, how can I laugh wiz you? How shall I stay alone? But how can I go? I know so few. I say, 'Lend me money so zat I go home,' and zey say to me, 'Mon Dieu, M. Laroche, how do you pay zis money? To-morrow? Next year?' I do not know. I cannot tell zem....
" 'And if I go, monsieur, I am well? I need fear no more ze heart?' 'Ah, monsieur, who can tell? Maybe yes, maybe no. It is to guard well against ze worry, ze alarrm, ze queeck starrt—vous savez? Ten years, five years, one year—I cannot tell, monsieur.'
"C'est terrible, n'est-ce pas, Mlle. Sabine? Vous partez demain. You are so soon gone, and I stay here! And I am twelve years away from home—and I have ze weak heart. Vous me dites 'au revoir,' mademoiselle—moi, je vous dis 'adieu.' "
The woman crouching on the stair bit her lip and pressed her finger-nails into her hands to keep back the sobs that shook her. It seemed to her that he must hear the beating of her heart, that every long, hard breath would surely startle him. So helpless, so poor, so horribly, hopelessly sad! She had read of terrible homesickness—the Swiss for his Alps, the peasant for his farm; they seemed romantic, elemental, vague. But this little Frenchman, this dapper chatterer of the light-heartedest language in all the world, did he harbor this tragedy? For to her tender, unworn heart the tragedy was remorselessly clear. This bent figure in its faded dressing-gown; this face almost strange to her in its worn, gray anguish; these nerveless, half-open hands—she read them all too well.
"Oh, no, he mustn't, he mustn't!" she whispered, and grasped the banisters, and tried to turn away her eyes: for his own filled slowly before her.
She got up the stairs, her fingers in her ears, stumbling over the long wrapper, seeming to herself to wake the house with every misstep. She closed her eyes not to see that strained, white face, and saw it plainer in the dark. Her thoughts were all a confused pain, an incoherent revolt at the cruelty of it, the helplessness; for what could she do? Even she, who cared for him so—ah, how she cared!-what could she—
Her hand jumped to her heart and clutched rigidly there; her breath went, and she gasped like the drowning man under the last sucking breaker; her strength left in a great sickening ebb, and she grasped the bedpost with all her might.
"No, no! Oh, no, no!" she cried weakly. "Oh, no!" She felt her way to the bed and dropped on it, utterly unconscious that she had moved since that wave of desolation broke on her. She seemed to have been standing by the bedpost, grasping it hard and thinking there, for years.
She saw him as he had come to her so long ago: handsome, polite, younger then, and merrier perhaps, with his inimitable bow and the neat printed card:
M. Sylvestre Laroche,
Irregular Verbs a Specialty.
Conversation Classes Formed.
How she had admired him! She had felt sure that father would never have objected to his lodging there, recommended by Mr. Alden, too! How amusing he had been, how constantly cheerful; how exquisitely sympathetic when her sister died! She could not send him away then.
He had been so gentle, so thoughtful, so interested in all her small affairs, so forgetful of his own. How grateful he was for the slightest attendance when his terrible headaches weakened him for days, and how charmingly he had thanked her for what she had done! Hardly a day during that long winter sickness, when she would have died if left alone to her nervous melancholy, that he did not bring home some flower or bit of fruit. She guessed later what meagre lunches had made their purchase possible. One of his pupils would have taken him South for the winter vacation, but he had refused and stayed with her. And the cold tried him so.
"I shall never forget this, monsieur," she had said, when she found it out; she had not thought to be able to repay that quiet sacrifice.
How sweetly, how sympathetically he had listened to her plans; how he had helped, suggested, advised, admired, and congratulated! The very pattern of her travelling-dress, the marking of her trunk—and he sick for home, dying in a foreign land!
"C'est terrible, n'est-ce pas, Mlle. Sabine?"
What was it, that strange pain that never ceased, that hopeful, hopeless yearning? She had never left her home or country; she knew only the happy dream of one day seeing another, not her own, fair, strange, and distant; she was homesick for new lands. Did he feel what she felt—did he feel perhaps more? Her heart cried out that this could not be, but she hushed it, and saw him growing slowly old, old, waiting for the lurking death—how soon would it come? a year, a month?—dreaming of France and youth, waking to the dull reality; sitting alone in a strange, cheap boarding-house, while she went gayly from land to land.
"Vous me dites 'au revoir,' mademoiselle—moi, je vous dis 'adieu.' "
She knew little French, but she understood that, and as that harsh sob rang in her ears again, as she saw that bent figure, that hopeless face, she knew in one quick, far-seeing flash of bereavement that it was over, that she could bear her own sorrow, but not his; she could stay—she could not let him. Waves of pain broke against her resolution, tugging remonstrance, momentary weakness, passionate prayers to make this happiness possible for both of them, but beneath it all was the certainty: it was done.
She met him at breakfast with a nervous flush that hid the pallor of the night, with a voice whose cheerfulness amazed her, with an excitement she had never thought to feel again. He was gaunt and hollow-eyed, and yielded readily to her persuasions to stay at home, rousing himself to assure her that he would allow this small indulgence only because she was going so soon.
"It is but four—five days now, and you are gone, Mlle. Sabine, and zen I shall not want ze vacation, hein? So I stay. I have but one class only, and I sink I do not teach it well to-day," he said, with elaborate cheerfulness. She poured the coffee and drank a little of her own.
"I'm not so sure I shall be gone in four or five days, monsieur," she returned easily.
He stared vaguely at her. "No? You wait for some one take ze place of M. Ellsworse?"
She drew a long breath and clasped her hands beneath the table.
"Monsieur," she said, with an almost humorous smile, "I suppose you'll think I'm a very silly woman, but I can't help it—I've about decided I'm not going at all."
"Mais, mademoiselle, qu'avez-vous donc? What is zis zat you say? Mon Dieu!"
She shook her head.
"You see, I've lived here now more than forty years, and when I came to think of leaving Hannah and the house and father's things—and the house isn't insured—and when I remembered how Miss Ellsworth is seasick—"
"Mais, Mlle. Sabine, ce n'est pas possible; zis is in fon zat you talk—"
"Indeed, it is not, monsieur; I'm in earnest. You see, I'm at home"—her voice fell, and she paused a moment—"I'm quite safe here. If I should get sick in—in England, who'd take care of me? It is not as if I were young and strong; it is not as if Miss Ellsworth was to be with me always. And I can't speak French or German, and—and all these steamer accidents frighten me terribly! I just lie awake nights imagining—"
"Mais, mais, Mlle. Sabine—"
His startled, tired face was too much for her: he was too exhausted to adjust himself to this sudden turn, and some instinct warned her to go straight ahead and say it all, before he had time to notice her dark-ringed eyes and nervous, broken voice.
"Don't you see, monsieur, what I'm trying to say? " she asked quickly. "Don't you see that we've both been planning wrong? that it's I who ought to stay, and you who ought to go? No, no; let me finish! Here am I, a fussy old maid, born and brought up here all my life, silly enough to imagine I could ever really like it away from home. Why, monsieur, do you like it away from home? And here are you, who want a vacation, who'd like to see your friends and your family, who'd thoroughly enjoy every minute of it. It's you who can take Mr. Ellsworth's berth, dear monsieur! We're such old friends, you and I—"
"Mlle. Sabine! I take your money, par exemple! I go—ah, jamais de la vie! C'est impossible—"
He dropped his head upon his arms, and she leaned over him, stroking his hair, holding his hands, her timidity utterly gone, her heart carried away and exalted above all girlishness in the magnitude of her love and sacrifice. For this hour he was hers—her child to comfort, her brother to help, her lover, for whom any offering was too small. She was no longer the ignorant, untravelled little spinster: she had flung away all her own hopes and fears to be the life and happiness of one poor soul that had none but her, and at that height the world seems small indeed.
"Mais, mademoiselle, I take your money and go home, I restore myself, I return—how do I pay? I sink till now zat you desire to go more zan to do anysing—I say nossing zen. Now zat you fear to go, you want your home (ah, Mlle. Sabine, vous avez raison: to be home, c'est le paradis!), now I tell you zat, I, too, I die if I go not back to France! I am too long away.... But how do I pay? I pay someway, vous savez, I will not go else!"
"But, monsieur, you will get it when you get there! Don't you remember your brother's book—the Grammar? You always said that if ever you got to France you could make them give you that share. It's yours, monsieur: you ought to have it!"
His face flushed; he seized her hands and clutched them till she could have screamed with the pain. He babbled incoherent thanks and blessings. He saw himself returned with double her loan. His delight was childish to think that! he should have forgotten that! And when, struck by sudden misgiving, he let go her hands:
"Ah, mademoiselle, it is long ago, all zat! It is mine, yes; but if I cannot get it? Ce n'est pas sûr, ça—I cannot tell if I shall have from all zat one single sou—"
"Monsieur," she said, with sincerity and pride, "I have been poor all my life. You would have done this for me, I am sure—you did something just like it once. Will you not let me give as I should like to for once in my life? I believe you will pay it back: if you can't, are you too proud to please an old friend?"
He took her hand again and kissed it. "Vous êtes tout à fait grande dame, mademoiselle," he said simply. "Vous me sauvez la vie. I will go."
After that the days were hours to her, the hours minutes. She tasted the full sweet of her renunciation, she rode on the top wave of the strange, excited joy that urged her on to the minutest preparations for his comfort. He moved in a waking dream, a confused tremble of happiness; he could not know her alternations of fierce regret and quiet resignation, he did not see how the hand shook that filled his plate, nor how the eyes that smiled so kindly and serenely into his were red with crying. Le bon Dieu had laid in his lap the blessing he was hungering and thirsting after, and he took it with the happy blindness of a starving child.
The days flew in preparations. He was utterly helpless with delight, and while she packed and mended and brought out in a very luxury of giving the little conveniences of travel that had pleased her so in that far-away last week, he sang his old French songs, and kissed her hand, and was a boy again in the home he was to see so soon.
Only when she laid a certain embroidered case in the trunk, filled with tiny pockets whose uses she had once so delightedly explained to him, did her expression vaguely trouble him.
"You are sad, Mlle. Sabine! You would go? You change ze mind—" But she smiled at him and said that she was selfish enough to want him to stay, now that he was going so soon.
But he would soon be back; he would be with her in ten weeks!
The last day was gone, the last evening; the last breakfast lay untouched before them: she could do no more for him now. His carriage was at the door; then would come the train, then the noisy seaport city, then the wonderful great boat—he would be half the world away. Their hearts were too full for speech. This old Frenchman with his jaunty air, his shining boots, his mended gloves, this quiet, middle-aged woman with the pale, lined face, were not romantic to look upon; but one was struggling with a passionate gratitude that choked him, and the other was sending away from her—perhaps forever—the love and youth and brightness of her life.
The driver called; they loosed hands. He walked silently down the steps, but with an inarticulate cry she summoned him back. She put her arms around him, as about a child she would send away to school, and laid her cheek softly against his. He caught in her eyes what sent his hand to his heart.
"Mlle. Sabine! What is it you have done? You would go—mon Dieu, you have lied to me!"
With one last effort she smiled away his sudden fear.
"Why, no!" she said through her tears. "Why, no, monsieur! I only miss my friend! Good-by!" And then, to please him, "Bon voyage, mon ami!"
When the carriage was out of sight she went in and cried by the old pianoforte—but not all for sorrow.
"He may come! He may come!" she sobbed over the yellow keys, and the old sounding-board thrilled softly and called back to her with a jangling minor cadence.
Her sobbing quieted to a sigh; beneath her tears her cheeks burned with a soft hot flush. "Maybe he will! Maybe he will!" she whispered, and "I know he will if he can!" while her hands clasped each other tightly, with fingers intertwisted like a girl's. She sat there in the morning sunlight that turned her hair to yellow, lost in strange, vague dreams; a shy happiness curved her lips even while the new haunting pain that tugged at her heart brought a tiny wrinkle between her slender eyebrows. She went about her simple household duties half unconsciously. The old servant watched her curiously. She could not understand why her mistress should wipe her eyes, if later she could sing till the dim parlor thrilled to the sweet old tunes. Nor did Miss Sabina herself quite certainly know. She was of a simple, modest generation that analyzed little: the rose of her life she could shut away forever, hidden in some precious yellowed book, but she could not tear apart the leaves, even to know it better.
To Miss Ellsworth, who came in later, hurried and amazed, she was inexplicable. She had travelled much, this successful, ordinary woman, and she was well educated, as women count such matters to-day; but this quiet spinster, sitting out of the strong currents of life, alone in her quaint, old-time parlor with its rose-leaves and mahogany of another day, had somehow left her behind with all her experiences and acquisitions, and bade her good-by with a manner that obliterated forever from her friend's mind the image of deprecating gentleness she had so long patronized.
For she had travelled the great way of all, had Miss Sabina, and the pride and happiness of her waiting heart had come to her in the steepest places of that wonderful road. The teacher of women since the beginning had spared no pains with this simple, eager soul, and she grew at once young and wise under the dear and unrelenting discipline.
"He will—he will if he can!" she whispered, as she waited for him on the porch, while the children played in the distance with faint, cheerful cries, and the roses grew strong toward dusk. And even to herself her tears seemed not wholly sad.