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- His Sombre Rivals - 20/66 -
about it. Miss Grace, for your sake and on this evening, I might wish that there was a coolness between us, but from your kind greeting I see there is not. Good-evening, major; I have brought with me a slight proof that I do not forget my friends;" and he handed him a large package of newspapers, several of them being finely illustrated foreign prints.
"I promote you on the spot," cried the delighted veteran. "I felt that fate owed me some amends for this long, horrid day. My paper did not come this morning, and I had too much regard for the lives of my household to send any one up the hot streets after one."
"Oh, papa!" cried Grace, "forgive me that I did not discover the fact. I'm sure I saw you reading a paper."
"It was an old one. I read it through again, advertisements and all. Oh, I know you. You'd have turned out the whole garrison at twelve M., had you found it out."
Graham dropped carelessly into an easy-chair, and they all noted the pleasure with which the old gentleman adjusted his glasses, and scanned the pictures of the world's current history. Like many whose sight is failing, and to whom the tastes and memories of childhood are returning, the poor old man found increasing delight in a picture which suggested a great deal, and aided him to imagine more; and he would often beguile his tedium by the hour with the illustrated journals.
"Mr. Graham," said Grace, after a pause in their talk, "have you seen your aunt since your return?"
"No," he replied, turning hastily toward her.
"She is not very well; I've been to see her twice."
He gave her a momentary but searching glance, rose instantly, and said: "Please excuse me, then. I feel guilty that I have delayed a moment, but this piazza was so inviting!" and he hastened away.
"Does he look and act like a man who 'hid a secret sorrow'?" whispered Hilland, confidently. "I never saw him appear so well before."
Grace smiled, but kept her thoughts to herself. To her also Graham had never appeared so well. There was decision in his step and slightest movement. The old easy saunter of leisure was gone; the old half- dreamy and slightly cynical eyes of the student showed a purpose which was neither slight nor indefinite; and that brief, searching glance-- what else could it be than a query as to the confidences his aunt may have bestowed during the day? Moreover, why did he avoid looking at her unless there was distinct occasion for his glance?
She would have known too well had she heard poor Graham mutter: "My will must be made of Bessemer steel if I can see her often as she looked to-night and live."
In the evening Hilland walked over to call on his friend and make inquiries. Through the parlor windows he saw Graham reading to his aunt, who reclined on a lounge; and he stole away again without disturbing them.
The next few days passed uneventfully away, and Graham's armor was almost proof against even the penetration of Grace. He did not assume any mask of gayety. He seemed to be merely his old self, with a subtle difference, and a very unobtrusive air of decision in all his movements. He was with his friend a great deal; and she heard them talking over their old life with much apparent zest. He was as good company for the major as ever, and when a whist played so good a game as to show that he was giving it careful attention. There was a gentleness toward his aunt that rather belied his character of stoic philosopher. Indeed, he seemed to have dropped this phase also, and was simply a well-bred man of the world, avoiding reference to himself, and his past or present views, as far as possible.
To a question of Hilland's one day he replied: "No; I shall not go back to my studies at present. As I told you the other night, my excursion into the world has shown me the advantage of studying it more fully. While I shall never be a Croesus like yourself, I am modestly independent; and I mean to see the world we live in, and then shall know better what I am studying about."
When Hilland told Grace of this purpose, she felt it was in keeping with all the rest. It might mean what was on the surface; it might mean more. It might be a part of the possible impulse that had driven him into the Vermont woods, or the natural and rational step he would have taken had he never seen her. At any rate, she felt that he was daily growing more remote, and that by a nice gradation of effort he was consciously withdrawing himself. And yet she could scarcely dwell on a single word or act, and say: "This proves it." His manner toward her was most cordial. When they conversed he looked at her steadily and directly, and would respond in kind to her mirthful words and Hilland's broad raillery; but she never detected one of the furtive, lingering glances that she now remembered with compunction were once frequent. It was quite proper that this should be so, but it was unnatural. If hitherto she had only pleased his taste and satisfied his reason, it would be a safe and harmless pastime for him to linger near her still in thought and reality. If he was struggling with a passion that had struck its root deep, then there was good reason for that steady withdrawal from her society which he managed so naturally that no one observed it but herself. Hilland had no misgivings, and she suggested none; but whenever she was in the presence of Graham or Mrs. Mayburn, although their courtesy and kind manner were unexceptionable, she felt there was "something in the air."
"I WISH HE HAD KNOWN"
The heat continued so oppressive that the major gave signs of prostration, and Grace decided to take him to his old haunt by the seashore. The seclusion of their cottage was, of course, more agreeable to Hilland and herself under the circumstances; but Grace never hesitated when her father was concerned. Shortly after the decision was reached, Hilland met his friend, and promptly urged that he and Mrs. Mayburn should accompany them.
"Certainly," was the quiet reply, "if my aunt wishes to go."
But for some cause, if not for the reasons given, the old lady was inexorable that evening, even though the major with much gallantry urged her compliance. She did not like the seashore. It did not agree with her; and, what was worse, she detested hotels. She was better in her own quiet nook, etc. Alford might go, if he chose.
But Graham when appealed to said it was both his duty and his pleasure to remain with his aunt, especially as he was going abroad as soon as he could arrange his affairs. "Don't put on that injured air," he added, laughingly, to Hilland. "As if you needed me at present! You two are sufficient for yourselves; and why should I tramp after you like the multitude I should be?
"What do you know about our being sufficient for our-selves, I'd like to ask?" was the bantering response.
"I have the best authority for saying what I do--written authority, and that of a sage, too. Here it is, heavily under-scored by a hand that I imagine is as heavy as your own. Ah! Miss Grace's conscious looks prove that I am right," he added, as he laid the open volume of Emerson, which he had returned, before her. "I remember reading that paragraph the first evening I came to my aunt's house; and I thought it a very curious statement. It made me feel as if I were a sort of polyp or mollusk, instead of a man."
"Let me see the book," cried Hilland. "Oh, yes," he continued, laughing; "I remember it all well--the hopes, the misgivings with which I sent the volume eastward on its mission--the hopes and fears that rose when the book was acknowledged with no chidings or coldness, and also with no allusions to the marked passage--the endless surmises as to what this gentle reader would think of the sentiments within these black lines. Ha! ha! Graham. No doubt but this is Sanscrit; and all the professors of all the universities could not interpret it to you."
"That's what I said in substance on the evening referred to--that Emerson never learned this at a university. I confess that it's an experience that is and ever will be beyond me. But it's surely good authority for remaining here with my aunt, who needs me more than you do."
"How is it, then, Mr. Graham, that you can leave your aunt for months of travel?" Grace asked.
"Why, Grace," spoke up Mrs. Mayburn, quickly, "you cannot expect Alford to transform himself into an old lady's life-long attendant. He will enjoy his travel and come back to me."
The young girl made no answer, but thought: "Their defensive alliance is a strong one."
"Besides," continued the old lady, after a moment, "I think it's very kind of him to remain with me, instead of going to the beach for his own pleasure and the marring of yours."
"Now, that's putting it much too strong," cried Hilland. "Graham never marred our pleasure."
"And I hope he never will," was the low, earnest response. To Grace's ear it sounded more like a vow or the expression of a controlling purpose than like a mere friendly remark.
The next day the St. John cottage was alive with the bustle of preparation for departure. Graham made no officious offers of assistance, which, of course, would be futile, but quietly devoted himself to the major. Whenever Grace appeared from the upper regions, she found her father amused or interested, and she smiled her gratitude. In the evening she found a chance to say in a low aside: "Mr. Graham, you are keeping your word to be my friend. If the sea- breezes prove as beneficial to papa as your society to-day, I shall be glad indeed. You don't know how much you have aided me by entertaining him so kindly."
Both her tone and glance were very gentle as she spoke these words, and for a moment his silence and manner perplexed her. Then he replied lightly: "You are mistaken, Miss Grace. Your father has been entertaining me."
They were interrupted at this point, and Graham seemed to grow more remote than ever.
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