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- His Sombre Rivals - 4/66 -
"What if he should place me under arrest?"
"Then Mrs. Mayburn and I will become your jailers, and we shall keep you here until you are one of the most accomplished whist-players in the land."
"If you will promise to stand guard over me some of the time I will submit to any conditions."
"You are already making one condition, and may think of a dozen more. It will be better to parole you with the understanding that you are to put in an appearance at the hour for whist;" and with similar light talk they went down the walk under the apple-boughs, whence in Graham's fancy the fair girl had had her origin. As they passed under the shadow he saw the dusky outline of a rustic seat leaning against the bole of the tree, and he wondered if he should ever induce his present guide through the darkened paths to come there some moonlight evening, and listen to the fancies which her unexpected appearance had occasioned. The possibility of such an event in contrast with its far greater improbability caused him to sigh, and then he smiled broadly at himself in the darkness.
When they had passed a clump of evergreens, a lighted cottage presented itself, and Miss St. John sprang lightly up the steps, pushed open the hall door, and cried through the open entrance to a cosey apartment, "No occasion for hostilities, papa. I have made a capture that gives the promise of whist not only this evening but also for several more to come."
As Graham and Mrs. Mayburn entered, a tall, white-haired man lifted his foot from off a cushion, and rose with some little difficulty, but having gained his feet, his bearing was erect and soldier-like, and his courtesy perfect, although toward Mrs. Mayburn it was tinged with the gallantry of a former generation. Some brief explanations followed, and then Major St. John turned upon Graham the dark eyes which his daughter had inherited, and which seemed all the more brilliant in contrast with his frosty eyebrows, and said genially, "It is very kind of you to be willing to aid in beguiling an old man's tedium." Turning to his daughter he added a little querulously, "There must be a storm brewing, Grace," and he drew in his breath as if in pain.
"Does your wound trouble you to-night, papa?" she asked gently.
"Yes, just as it always does before a storm."
"It is perfectly clear without," she resumed. "Perhaps the room has become a little cold. The evenings are still damp and chilly;" and she threw two or three billets of wood on the open fire, kindling a blaze that sprang cheerily up the chimney.
The room seemed to be a combination of parlor and library, and it satisfied Graham's ideal of a living apartment. Easy-chairs of various patterns stood here and there and looked as if constructed by the very genius of comfort. A secretary in the corner near a window was open, suggesting absent friends and the pleasure of writing to them amid such agreeable surroundings. Again Graham queried, prompted by the peculiar influences that had gained the mastery on this tranquil but eventful evening, "Will Miss St. John ever sit there penning words straight from her heart to me?"
He was brought back to prose and reality by the major. Mrs. Mayburn had been condoling with him, and he now turned and said, "I hope, my dear sir, that you may never carry around such a barometer as I am afflicted with. A man with an infirmity grows a little egotistical, if not worse."
"You have much consolation, sir, in remembering how you came by your infirmity," Graham replied. "Men bearing such proofs of service to their country are not plentiful in our money-getting land."
His daughter's laugh rang out musically as she cried, "That was meant to be a fine stroke of diplomacy. Papa, you will now have to pardon a score of blunders."
"I have as yet no proof that any will be made," the major remarked, and in fact Graham had underrated his acquaintance with the game. He was quite equal to his aunt in proficiency, and with Miss St. John for his partner he was on his mettle. He found her skilful indeed, quick, penetrating, and possessed of an excellent memory. They held their own so well that the major's spirits rose hourly. He forgot his wound in the complete absorption of his favorite recreation.
As opportunity occurred Graham could not keep his eyes from wandering here and there about the apartment that had so taken his fancy, especially toward the large, well-filled bookcase and the pictures, which, if not very expensive, had evidently been the choice of a cultivated taste.
They were brought to a consciousness of the flight of time by a clock chiming out the hour of eleven, and the old soldier with a sigh of regret saw Mrs. Mayburn rise. Miss St. John touched a silver bell, and a moment later the same negress who had reminded her of her father's impatience early in the evening entered with a tray bearing a decanter of wine, glasses, and some wafer-like cakes.
"Have I earned the indulgence of a glance at your books?" Graham asked.
"Yes, indeed," Miss St. John replied; "your martyr-like submission shall be further rewarded by permission to borrow any of them while in town. I doubt, however, if you will find them profound enough for your taste."
"I shall take all point from your irony by asking if you think one can relish nothing but intellectual roast beef. I am enjoying one of your delicate cakes. You must have an excellent cook."
"Papa says he has, in the line of cake and pastry; but then he is partial,"
"What! did you make them?"
"Oh, I'm not objecting. Did my manners permit, I'd empty the plate. Still, I was under the impression that young ladies were not adepts in this sort of thing."
"You have been abroad so long that you may have to revise many of your impressions. Of course retired army officers are naturally in a condition to import _chefs de cuisine_, but then we like to keep up the idea of republican simplicity."
"Could you be so very kind as to induce your father to ask me to make one of your evening quartette as often as possible?"
"The relevancy of that request is striking. Was it suggested by the flavor of the cakes? I sometimes forget to make them."
"Their absence would not prevent my taste from being gratified if you will permit me to come. Here is a marked volume of Emerson's works. May I take it for a day or two?"
She blushed slightly, hesitated perceptibly, and then said, "Yes."
"Alford," broke in his aunt, "you students have the name of being great owls, but for an old woman of my regular habits it's getting late."
"My daughter informs me," the major remarked to Graham in parting, "that we may be able to induce you to take a hand with us quite often. If you should ever become as old and crippled as I am you will know how to appreciate such kindness.'"
"Indeed, sir, Miss St. John must testify that I asked to share your game as a privilege. I can scarcely remember to have passed so pleasant an evening."
"Mrs. Mayburn, do try to keep him in this amiable frame of mind," cried the girl.
"I think I shall need your aid," said that lady, with a smile. "Come, Alford, it is next to impossible to get you away."
"Papa's unfortunate barometer will prove correct, I fear," said Miss St. John, following them out on the piazza, for a thin scud was already veiling the stars, and there was an ominous moan of the wind.
"To-morrow will be a stormy day," remarked Mrs. Mayburn, who prided herself on her weather wisdom.
"I'm sorry," Miss St. John continued, "for it will spoil our fairy world of blossoms, and I am still more sorry for papa's sake."
"Should the day prove a long, dismal, rainy one," Graham ventured, "may I not come over and help entertain your father?"
"Yes," said the girl, earnestly. "It cannot seem strange to you that time should often hang heavily on his hands, and I am grateful to any one who helps me to enliven his hours."
Before Graham repassed under the apple-tree boughs he had fully decided to win at least Miss St. John's gratitude.
THE VERDICT OF A SAGE
When Graham reached his room he was in no mood for sleep. At first he lapsed into a long revery over the events of the evening, trivial in themselves, and yet for some reason holding a controlling influence over his thoughts. Miss St. John was a new revelation of womanhood to him, and for the first time in his life his heart had been stirred by a woman's tones and glances. A deep chord in his nature vibrated when she spoke and smiled. What did it mean? He had followed his impulse to permit this stranger to make any impression within her power, and he found that she had decidedly interested him. As he tried to analyze her power he concluded that it lay chiefly in the mirthfulness, the joyousness of her spirit. She quickened his cool, deliberate pulse. Her smile was not an affair of facial muscles, but had a vivifying warmth. It made him suspect that his life was becoming cold and self- centred, that he was missing the deepest and best experiences of an existence that was brief indeed at best, and, as he believed, soon ceased forever. The love of study and ambition had sufficed thus far, but actuated by his own materialistic creed he was bound to make the
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