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- An Original Belle - 40/94 -
she would give her trust and more. If he could not satisfy her on these points, as others had done so freely and spontaneously, he had no right to ask or expect more from her than ordinary courtesy.
Having thus resolutely considered antidotes for a tendency towards relentings not at all to her mind, and met, as she believed, her father's charge of unfairness, her thoughts, full of sympathy and hope, dwelt upon the condition of her friend. Recalling the past and the present, her heart grew very tender, and she found that he occupied in it a foremost place. Indeed, it seemed to her a species of disloyalty to permit any one to approach his place and that of Mr. Lane, for both formed an inseparable part of her new and more earnest life.
She, too, had changed, and was changing. As her nature deepened and grew stronger it was susceptible of deeper and stronger influences. Under the old regime pleasure, excitement, triumphs of power that ministered to vanity, had been her superficial motives. To the degree that she had now attained true womanhood, the influences that act upon and control a woman were in the ascendant. Love ceased to dwell in her mind as a mere fastidious preference, nor could marriage ever be a calculating choice, made with the view of securing the greatest advantages. She knew that earnest men loved her without a thought of calculation,--loved her for herself alone. She called them friends now, and to her they were no more as yet. But their downright sincerity made her sincere and thoughtful. Her esteem and affection for them were so great that she was not at all certain that circumstances and fuller acquaintance might not develop her regard towards one or the other of them into a far deeper feeling. In their absence, their manly qualities appealed to her imagination. She had reached a stage in spiritual development where her woman's nature was ready for its supreme requirement. She could be more than friend, and was conscious of the truth; and she believed that her heart would make a positive and final choice in accord with her intense and loyal sympathies. In the great drama of the war centred all that ideal and knightly action that has ever been so fascinating to her sex, and daily conversation with her father had enabled her to understand what lofty principles and great destinies were involved. She had been shown how President Lincoln's proclamation, freeing the slaves, had aimed a fatal blow at the chief enemies of liberty, not only in this land, but in all lands. Mr. Vosburgh was a philosophical student of history, and, now that she had become his companion, he made it clear to her how the present was linked to the past. Instead of being imbued with vindictiveness towards the South, she was made to see a brave, self-sacrificing, but misled people, seeking to rivet their own chains and blight the future of their fair land. Therefore, a man like Lane, capable of appreciating and acting upon these truths, took heroic proportions in her fancy, while Strahan, almost as delicate as a girl, yet brave as the best, won, in his straightforward simplicity, her deepest sympathy. The fact that the latter was near, that his heart had turned to her even from under the shadow of death, gave him an ascendency for the time.
"To some such man I shall eventually yield," she assured herself, "and not to one who brings a chill of doubt, not to one unmastered by loyal impulses to face every danger which our enemies dare meet."
Then she slept, and dreamt that she saw Strahan reaching out his hands to her for help from dark, unknown depths.
She awoke sobbing, and, under the confused impulse of the moment, exclaimed: "He shall have all the help I can give; he shall live. While he is weaker, he is braver than Mr. Lane. He triumphed over himself and everything. He most needs me. Mr. Lane is strong in himself. Why should I be raising such lofty standards of self-sacrifice when I cannot give love to one who most needs it, most deserves it?"
"MY FRIENDSHIP IS MINE TO GIVE."
STRAHAN'S convalescence need not be dwelt upon, nor the subtle aid given by Marian through flowers, fruit, and occasional calls upon his mother.
These little kindnesses were tonics beyond the physician's skill, and he grew stronger daily. Mrs. Strahan believed that things were taking their natural course, and, with the delicacy of a lady, was content to welcome the young girl in a quiet, cordial manner. Merwyn tacitly accepted the mother's view, which she had not wholly concealed in the sick-room, and which he thought had been confirmed by Marian's manner and interest. With returning health Strahan's old sense of humor revived, and he often smiled and sighed over the misapprehension. Had he been fully aware of Marian's mood, he might have given his physician cause to look grave over an apparent return of fever.
In the reticence and delicacy natural to all the actors in this little drama, thoughts were unspoken, and events drifted on in accordance with the old relations. Merwyn's self-imposed duties of nurse became lighter, and he took much-needed rest. Strahan felt for him the strongest good-will and gratitude, but grew more and more puzzled about him. Apparently the convalescent was absolutely frank concerning himself. He spoke of his esteem and regard for Marian as he always had done; his deeper affection he never breathed to any one, although he believed the young girl was aware of it, and he did not in the least blame her that she had no power to give him more than friendship.
Of his military plans and hopes he spoke without reserve to Merwyn, but in return received little confidence. He could not doubt the faithful attendant who had virtually twice saved his life, but he soon found a barrier of impenetrable reserve, which did not yield to any manifestations of friendliness. Strahan at last came to believe that it veiled a deep, yet hopeless regard for Marian. This view, however, scarcely explained the situation, for he found his friend even more reticent in respect to the motives which kept him a civilian.
"I'd give six months' pay," said the young officer, on one occasion, "if we had you in our regiment, and I am satisfied that I could obtain a commission for you. You would be sure of rapid promotion. Indeed, with your wealth and influence you could secure a lieutenant-colonelcy in a new regiment by spring. Believe me, Merwyn, the place for us young fellows is at the front in these times. My blood's up,--what little I have left,--and I'm bound to see the scrimmage out. You have just the qualities to make a good officer. You could control and discipline men without bluster or undue harshness. We need such officers, for an awful lot of cads have obtained commissions."
Merwyn had walked to a window so that his friend could not see his face, and at last he replied, quietly and almost coldly: "There are some things, Strahan, in respect to which one cannot judge for another. I am as loyal as you are now, but I must aid the cause in my own way. I would prefer that you should not say anything more on this subject, for it is of no use. I have taken my course, and shall reveal it only by my action. There is one thing that I can do, and shall be very glad to do. I trust we are such good friends that you can accept of my offer. Your regiment has been depleted. New men would render it more effective and add to your chances of promotion. It will be some time before you are fit for active service. I can put you in the way of doing more than your brother-officers in the regiment, even though you are as pale as a ghost. Open a recruiting office near your country home again,--you can act at present through a sergeant,--and I will give you a check which will enable you to add to the government bounty so largely that you can soon get a lot of hardy country fellows. No one need know where the money comes from except ourselves."
Strahan laughed, and said: "It is useless for me to affect squeamishness in accepting favors from you at this late day. I believed you saved my life last summer, and now you are almost as haggard as I am from watching over me. I'll take your offer in good faith, as I believe you mean it. I won't pose as a self-sacrificing patriot only. I confess that I am ambitious. You fellows used to call me 'little Strahan.' YOU are all right now, but there are some who smile yet when my name is mentioned, and who regard my shoulder-straps as a joke. I've no doubt they are already laughing at the inglorious end of my military career. I propose to prove that I can be a soldier as well as some bigger and more bewhiskered men. I have other motives also;" and his thought was, "Marian may feel differently if I can win a colonel's eagles."
Merwyn surmised as much, but he only said, quietly: "Your motives are as good as most men's, and you have proved yourself a brave, efficient officer. That would be enough for me, had I not other motives also."
"Hang it all! I would tell you my motives if you would be equally frank."
"Since I cannot be, you must permit me to give other proofs of friendship. Nor do I expect, indeed I should be embarrassed by receiving, what I cannot return."
"You're an odd fish, Merwyn. Well, I have ample reason to give you my faith and loyalty, as I do. Your proposition has put new life into me already. I needn't spend idle weeks--"
"Hold on. One stipulation. Your physician must regulate all your actions. Remember that here, as at the front, the physician is, at times, autocrat."
Mervvyn called twice on Marian during his friend's convalescence, and could no longer complain of any lack of politeness. Indeed, her courtesy was slightly tinged with cordiality, and she took occasion to speak of her appreciation of his vigils at Strahan's side. Beyond this she showed no disposition towards friendliness. At the same, time, she could not even pretend to herself that she was indifferent. He piqued both her pride and her curiosity, for he made no further effort to reveal himself or to secure greater favor than she voluntarily bestowed. She believed that her father looked upon her course as an instance of feminine prejudice, of resentment prolonged unnaturally and capriciously,--that he was saying to himself, "A man would quarrel and have done with it after amends were made, but a woman--"
"He regards this as my flaw, my weakness, wherein I differ from him
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