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- His Sombre Rivals - 6/66 -
"Yes, and more than my blessing."
"What do you mean by more than your blessing?"
"I shall not commit myself until you commit yourself, and I do not wish you to take even the first step without appreciating the risk of the venture."
"Why, bless you, aunt," said Graham, now laughing heartily, "how seriously you take it! I have spent but one evening with the girl."
The old lady nodded her head significantly as she replied, "I have not lived to my time of life without learning a thing or two. My memory also has not failed as yet. There were young men who looked at me once just as you looked at Grace last evening, and I know what came of it in more than one instance. You are safe now, and you may be invulnerable, although it does not look like it; but if you can see much of Grace St. John and remain untouched you are unlike most men."
"I have always had the name of being that, you know. But as the peril is so great had I not better fly at once?"
"Yes, I think we both have had the name of being a little peculiar, and my brusque, direct way of coming right to the point is one of my peculiarities. I am very intimate with the St. Johns, and am almost as fond of Grace as if she were my own child. So of course you can see a great deal of her if you wish, and this arrangement about whist will add to your opportunities. I know what young men are, and I know too what often happens when their faces express as much admiration and interest as yours did last night. What's more," continued the energetic old lady with an emphatic tap on the floor with her foot, and a decided nod of her head, "if I were a young man, Grace would have to marry some one else to get rid of me. Now I've had my say, and my conscience is clear, whatever happens. As to flight, why, you must settle that question, but I am sincere and cordial in my request that you make your home with me until you decide upon your future course."
Graham was touched, and he took his aunt's hand as he said, "I thank you for your kindness, and more than all for your downright sincerity. When I came here it was to make but a formal call. With the exception of one friend, I believed that I stood utterly alone in the world-- that no one cared about what I did or what became of me. I was accustomed to isolation and thought I was content with it, but I find it more pleasant than I can make you understand to know there is one place in the world to which I can come, not as a stranger to an inn, but as one that is received for other than business considerations. Since you have been so frank with me I will be equally outspoken;" and he told her just how he was situated, and what were his plans and hopes. "Now that I know there is no necessity of earning my livelihood," he concluded, "I shall yield to my impulse to rest awhile, and then quite probably resume my studies here or abroad until I can obtain a position suited to my plans and taste. I thank you for your note of alarm in regard to Miss St. John, although I must say that to my mind there is more of incentive than of warning in your words. I think I can at least venture on a few reconnoissances, as the major might say, before I beat a retreat. Is it too early to make one now?"
Mrs. Mayburn smiled. "No," she said, laconically,
"I see that you think my reconnoissance will lead to a siege," Graham added. "Well, I can at least promise that there shall be no rash movements."
Graham, smiling at his aunt and still more amused at himself, started to pay his morning visit. "Yesterday afternoon," he thought, "I expected to make but a brief call on an aunt who was almost a stranger to me, and now I am domiciled under her roof indefinitely. She has introduced me to a charming girl, and in an ostensible warning shrewdly inserted the strongest incentives to venture everything, hinting at the same time that if I succeeded she would give me more than her blessing. What a vista of possibilities has opened since I crossed her threshold! A brief time since I was buried in German libraries, unaware of the existence of Miss St. John, and forgetting that of my aunt. Apparently I have crossed the ocean to meet them both, for had I remained abroad a few days longer, letters on the way would have prevented my returning. Of course it is all chance, but a curious chance. I don't wonder that people are often superstitious; and yet a moment's reasoning proves the absurdity of this sort of thing. Nothing truly strange often happens, and only our egotism invests events of personal interest with a trace of the marvellous. My business man neglected to advise me of my improved finances as soon as he might have done. My aunt receives me, not as I expected, but as one would naturally hope to be met by a relative. She has a fair young neighbor with whom she is intimate, and whom I meet as a matter of course, and as a matter of course I can continue to meet her as long as I choose without becoming 'all eye and all memory.' Surely a man can enjoy the society of any woman without the danger my aunt suggests and--as I half believe--would like to bring about. What signify my fancies of last evening? We often enjoy imagining what might be without ever intending it shall be. At any rate, I shall not sigh for Miss St. John or any other woman until satisfied that I should not sigh in vain. The probabilities are therefore that I shall never sigh at all."
As he approached Major St. John's dwelling he saw the object of his thoughts standing by the window and reading a letter. A syringa shrub partially concealed him and his umbrella, and he could not forbear pausing a moment to note what a pretty picture she made. A sprig of white flowers was in her light wavy hair, and another fastened by her breastpin drooped over her bosom. Her morning wrapper was of the hue of the sky that lay back of the leaden clouds. A heightened color mantled her cheeks, her lips were parted with a smile, and her whole face was full of delighted interest.
"By Jove!" muttered Graham. "Aunt Mayburn is half right, I believe. A man must have the pulse of an anchorite to look often at such a vision as that and remain untouched. One might easily create a divinity out of such a creature, and then find it difficult not to worship. I could go away now and make her my ideal, endowing her with all impossible attributes of perfection. Very probably fuller acquaintance will prove that she is made of clay not differing materially from that of other womankind. I envy her correspondent, however, and would be glad if I could write a letter that would bring such an expression to her face. Well, I am reconnoitring true enough, and had better not be detected in the act;" and he stepped rapidly forward.
She recognized him with a piquant little nod and smile. The letter was folded instantly, and a moment later she opened the door for him herself, saying, "Since I have seen you and you have come on so kind an errand I have dispensed with the formality of sending a servant to admit you."
"Won't you shake hands as a further reward?" he asked. "You will find me very mercenary."
"Oh, certainly. Pardon the oversight. I should have done so without prompting since it is so long since we have met."
"And having known each other so long also," he added in the same light vein, conscious meantime that he held a hand that was as full of vitality as it was shapely and white.
"Indeed," she replied; "did last evening seem an age to you?"
"I tried to prolong it, for you must remember that my aunt said that she could not get me away; and this morning I was indiscreet enough to welcome the rain, at which she reminded me of her rheumatism and your father's wound."
"And at which I also hope you had a twinge or two of conscience. Papa," she added, leading the way into the parlor, "here is Mr. Graham. It was his fascinating talk about life in Germany that so delayed me last evening."
The old gentleman started out of a doze, and his manner proved that he welcomed any break in the monotony of the day. "You will pardon my not rising," he said; "this confounded weather is playing the deuce with my leg."
Graham was observant as he joined in a general condemnation of the weather; and the manner in which Miss St. John rearranged the cushion on which her father's foot rested, coaxed the fire into a more cheerful blaze, and bestowed other little attentions, proved beyond a doubt that all effort in behalf of the suffering veteran would be appreciated. Nor was he so devoid of a kindly good-nature himself as to anticipate an irksome task, and he did his utmost to discover the best methods of entertaining his host. The effort soon became remunerative, for the major had seen much of life, and enjoyed reference to his experiences. Graham found that he could be induced to fight his battles over again, but always with very modest allusion to himself. In the course of their talk it also became evident that he was a man of somewhat extensive reading, and the daily paper must have been almost literally devoured to account for his acquaintance with contemporary affairs. The daughter was often not a little amused at Graham's blank looks as her father broached topics of American interest which to the student from abroad were as little known or understood as the questions which might have been agitating the inhabitants of Jupiter. Most ladies would have been politely oblivious of her guest's blunders and infelicitous remarks, but Miss St. John had a frank, merry way of recognizing them, and yet malice and ridicule were so entirely absent from her words and ways that Graham soon positively enjoyed being laughed at, and much preferred her delicate open raillery, which gave him a chance to defend himself, to a smiling mask that would leave him in uncertainty as to the fitness of his replies. There was a subtle flattery also in this course, for she treated him as one capable of holding his own, and not in need of social charity and protection. With pleasure he recognized that she was adopting toward him something of the same sportive manner which characterized her relations with his aunt, and which also indicated that as Mrs. Mayburn's nephew he had met with a reception which would not have been accorded to one less favorably introduced.
How vividly in after years Graham remembered that rainy May morning! He could always call up before him, like a vivid picture, the old major with his bushy white eyebrows and piercing black eyes, the smoke from his meerschaum creating a sort of halo around his gray head, the fine, venerable face often drawn by pain which led to half-muttered imprecations that courtesy to his guest and daughter could not wholly suppress. How often he saw again the fire curling softly from the hearth with a contented crackle, as if pleased to be once more an essential to the home from which the advancing summer would soon
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