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- Many Kingdoms - 3/34 -
And because you think you suffer, it is almost as hard for you as if you did. But you are not really hurt, you know. You are not suffering. It is all in the dream. You are sound asleep, far, far away."
He forced a sardonic laugh from his stiff throat.
"Not this time," he managed to articulate. "Whatever the others may have been, this is no dream. This is the real thing--and death!"
She smoothed the hair back from his damp brow with a beautiful, caressing touch. He felt her fingers tremble.
"No," she said. "It is a dream, and almost over."
"Then will you stay with me," he gasped, "to the end?"
"Yes," she promised. "Try to bear it just a moment longer. Courage, dear heart! for already you are waking--you are waking--_you--are-- awake!_"
He was, and it was daylight, and around him were the familiar objects of his own room. He wiped his forehead, which was cold and wet. He felt utterly exhausted.
"Stay with me to the end!"
If she only would! If he could find her--find her in this warm, human world, away from that ghastly border-land where they two met. For in that hour he knew he loved--what? A woman or a ghost? A creature of this world or a fantasy of the night? Wherever she was, whatever she was, he loved her and he wanted her. And in that hour of his agony her eyes had told that she loved and wanted him.
It was eight months before they met again. Varick's friends thought him changed, and quite possibly he was. The insouciant boy of twenty- eight had become a man, a sympathetic, serious, thoughtful man, still given to sports and outdoor life, but more than all devoted to a search which had taken him to no end of out-of-the-way European towns. He was sleeping in one of these one night (not _the_ one, alas!--he had not found that) when the veil, now so warmly welcome, fell for the fourth time.
He was in an exquisite Italian garden, a place all perfume and May breezes and flooding sunshine and overarching blue sky. As he entered it he saw her coming to meet him, and he went forward to greet her with his pulses bounding and a light in his eyes which no eyes but hers had ever seen there. Even in that supreme moment the wonderfully _real_ atmosphere of it all impressed him. He heard a dry twig crack under his foot as he walked, and he recognized the different perfumes of the flowers around him--the heavy sweetness of a few belated orange blossoms, the delicate breath of the oleander, the reminiscent perfume of the rose. Then their hands met and their eyes, and each drew a long breath, and neither spoke for a moment. When Varick found words they were very commonplace.
"Oh, my love, my love!" he said. And she, listening to them with sudden tears in her brown eyes, seemed to find in them the utmost eloquence of the human tongue.
"It has been so long, so long!" he gasped. "I began to think I was never to see you again."
They drifted side by side along a winding, rose-hedged path, past an old sun-dial, past a triumphant peacock strutting before his mild little mate, past a fountain whose spray flung out to them a welcome. She led the way with the accustomed step of one who knew and loved the place. They came to a marble seat, half hidden by a tangle of vines and scarlet blossoms, and sheltered by overhanging oleander branches; there she sat down and moved her skirts aside that he might sit close to her. Her brown eyes, raised now to his hungry gray ones, looked at him with the softened brilliance he had sometimes seen in those of a happy child.
"Should you have missed me," she asked, softly, "if you had never seen me again? Should you have been sorry?"
He drew a long breath.
"I love you," he said. "Whatever you are, wherever you come from, whatever all this means, I love you. I don't understand anything else, but I know that. It's the one sure thing, the one real thing, in all this tangle."
Without a word she put her hand in his. He could feel distinctly its cool, soft, exquisite texture. With an exclamation of delight he drew her toward him, but she held herself away, the expression of her beautiful face softening the effect of the recoil.
"Not yet, dear," she said, gently. "We must be very careful. You do not understand. If you do anything abrupt or sudden you will wake--and then we shall be parted again, who knows for how long!"
There were tears in her eyes as she spoke. Seeing them, he buried his face in his hands and groaned, while the sense of his utter helplessness rolled over him like a flood.
"God!" he broke out, with sudden fierceness. "What devil's trick is this? It's not a dream. It can't be a dream. Here we are, two human beings in a human world--I'll swear it. Smell that oleander. Listen to that bird sing. Hear the trickle of that fountain. And yet you tell me that we are asleep!"
She laid her head in the curve of her arm, resting on the ivy-covered back of the low seat. Bending over her, he saw that her cheeks were wet. The sight made him desperate.
"Don't!" he cried, hoarsely. "Don't do that! Tell me what is expected of me. Whatever it is, no matter how hard it is, or how long it takes, I'll do it."
She did not reply, but she made a quick little gesture with the hand nearest him. It signified hopelessness, almost despair. Darkness began to fall, and an early moon hung pale in the heavens. Somewhere in the thick bushes near them a nightingale began to sing. To Varick's excited fancy there was a heart-breaking pathos in the soft notes. They seemed to have been together, he and she, for a long time--for hours. He bent his head till it touched hers.
"But you love me?" he asked. She moved a little and wiped her eyes with an absurdly tiny, lace-edged square of linen. One corner, he noticed, bore an embroidered coronet.
"Yes," she said, very quietly, "I love you."
Her tone as she spoke expressed such entire hopelessness that the full sense of her words did not at once come to him. When it did, slowly, sweetly, she was speaking again.
"But oh, dearest, dearest!" she broke out, "why do we love? To what can love lead us--two poor shadows in a dream world, in which alone we can meet?"
He was silent. There seemed, somehow, nothing that he could say, though later he thought of many words with which he might have filled that throbbing silence. The dusk deepened around them. Off in the thicket the nightingale still warbled passionately, and now the stars began to come out over their heads, pale as yet against the warm blue of the heavens. Varick, sitting stiffly on the old marble bench, became conscious of an odd dizziness, and set his teeth with a sudden determination to show no evidence of it. She had risen and was moving about among the rose-bushes just behind them. Almost before he missed her she had returned, holding in her hand a beautiful salmon-hued rose, with a flame-colored, crumply heart. He had never before seen one like it. As she held it near him it exhaled an exquisitely reminiscent perfume--a perfume which seemed to breathe of old joys, old memories, and loves of long ago.
"Is it not beautiful?" she said. "It is called the _Toinnette_. Take it, dear, and keep it--for memory." Then, as he took it from her, her eyes widened in a sudden anguish of dread and comprehension.
"Oh, you're leaving me!" she said. "You're waking. Dearest, dearest, stay with me!"
The words and the look that accompanied them galvanized him into sudden action. He sprang to his feet, caught her in his arms, held her there, crushed her there, kissing her eyes, her hair, her exquisitely soft mouth.
"I will not leave you!" he raved. "I swear I won't! I defy the devil that's back of this! I swear--" But she, too, was speaking now, and her words came to his ears as from a long, long distance, sobbingly, with a catch in the breath, but distinct.
"Alas!" she cried, "you have ruined everything! You have ruined everything! You will never see me again. Dearest, dearest--"
He awoke. His heart was thumping to suffocation, and he lay exhausted on his pillow. It was a dark morning, and a cold rain beat dismally against the window-panes. Gone were the Dream Woman, the Italian garden, the song of the nightingale, the perfume of flowers. How definite that perfume had been! He could smell it yet, all around him. It was like--what was it like? He became suddenly conscious of an unusual sensation in his hand, lying on the bedspread. He glanced at it and then sat up with a sudden jerk that almost threw him off his balance. In his upturned palm was a rose--a salmon-colored rose, slightly crushed, but fresh and fragrant, with a flame-colored, crumply heart. Varick stared at it, shut his eyes, opened them, and stared again. It was still there, and, with the discovery that it was, Varick became conscious of a prickling of the scalp, a chill along the spine. His brown face whitened.
"Well, by all the gods!" he gasped. "How did that thing get here?"
No one ever told him. Possibly no one could except the Dream Woman, and her he never saw again; so the mystery was unfathomable. He put the rose between the leaves of the Bible his mother had given him when he went to college, and which he had not opened since until that morning; and the rose became dry and faded as the years passed, quite as any other rose would have done.
Varick paid a second and quite casual visit to his medical friend, who scoffed at him rudely and urged him to go on a long hunting trip. He went, and was singularly successful, and came back with considerable big game and a rich, brown complexion. When the doctor asked him whether he still awoke from his innocent slumbers to find his little hands full of pretty flowers, Varick swore naturally and healthfully, turned very red, and playfully thumped the medical man between the shoulders with a force that sent that gentleman's eye-glasses off his nose. But, notwithstanding all these reassuring incidents, Varick has
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