AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
.


 

CHAPTER VIII.

CONVALESCENCE.




TO be slowly recovering from a severe illness is almost like being again a very little child.  So thought Rose Macleod, as she lay between lavender-scented sheets, in the quaint stone cottage, whose deep old-fashioned window seats, and low whitewashed ceilings, were becoming as familiar to her as the stately halls of her home.  The protracted leisure of convalescence was growing burdensome to her.  So many days had she watched the lights and shadows woven throughout the greenery, just outside her window, or listened to the weird measure of the rain when the wind surged like a sea through the foliage, or held her breath for joy when a flying bird pulsed vividly across the sky, or counted the milk-white flowers of the locust tree, as they strewed the ground with blossoms, or noted the exact moment when the morning-glories softly clasped their purple petals together, as though unable to contain a greater fulness of joy than was brought by the summer morning.  It was now early evening, and Rose gave vent to a little uncontrollable sigh.  Mrs. Dunlop came as quickly to the bedside as though the sigh had been the sound of a trumpet.  She was a very pleasant object for weary invalid eyes to rest upon.  Her dark hair was satin-smooth, her voice and movements were quiet and refined.  There was in her face that mingling of shyness and sincerity, irradiated by a look of the keenest intelligence, which reminded Rose of Allan, between whom and his mother there was a strong resemblance.
     “I have something to tell you,” she said gently.  “As my prisoner you have behaved in such an exemplary manner, keeping all the rules of the institution, and making no attempt to run away, that I have decided to give you the freedom of another room.” [Page 88]
     “Oh, am I to go into another room?”  Had a voyage to Europe been proposed to her it could scarcely have suggested pleasanter ideas of change.  “A new wall-paper, and a new window!  What more could I ask for?  But how am I to get there?  What means of transportation have you?”
     “That is just what I am thinking of.  I could dress you in my gray wrapper, and then—would you mind if Allan were to help me to lift you to the couch in my room?”
     Rose shuddered a little.  A faint pink stained for a moment the whiteness of her cheek.  “I shouldn’t mind it if I were senseless,” she said, “but I don’t want him to think I have lost my senses again.  No, we’ll have to give up that idea.”
     But Mrs. Dunlop was not the sort of person to give up an idea without good cause.  “The mountain must then go to Mahomet,” said she, and wheeling the couch close to the sick-bed, she arranged the invalid cosily among the cushions, and pushed her slowly into her own apartment.  “If I were twice as large as you are,” she added, “instead of being just your size, I should have carried you in half the time.”
     But another and more serious consequence followed that same evening upon the striking similarity in figure between Mrs. Dunlop and Miss Macleod.  Golden twilight had changed to dim dusk, but Rose still lay with her fair head almost buried among the cushions.  She expected a visit from her father that evening, and the temptation to show him what she could do and dare was irresistible.  All her hostess’s hints that bed-time had arrived were wasted upon deaf ears.  At last, in a little anxiety as to the result of her experiment, if the Commodore did not arrive, Mrs. Dunlop went out to the front gate to see if there were signs of his approach.  At the same moment Allan entered the house by the back door, and looked about for his mother.  Impelled by a “fatalistic necessity” he went up to her room, the [Page 89] sound of his carefully modulated tread upon the stairway filling the heart of Rose with delight, for was not that her own father, who had probably been informed at the gate of the change in her condition and surroundings, and who was coming up so softly in order to surprise her.  Allan, meanwhile, glancing in, saw nothing in the gray gloom but a small figure in a well-known wrapper, stretched wearily upon the couch.  “Poor little mother,” he thought.  “She is quite tired out.”  He went up to her intending to bestow a filial caress upon her cheek, but before his design could be accomplished he was drawn close by a single arm around his neck, and repeatedly kissed.  “You blessed darling!” she softly exclaimed, “here I’ve been waiting for you and waiting for you and longing—Oh!”  That silky moustache and that chin, that was not stubby, could they belong to a gentleman of sixty years?  Her right arm fell limp and useless as the other.  “I thought you were my father,” she said in a weak voice of mingled disappointment, anger and shame.
     “And I thought you were my mother,” was all the guilty wretch could offer in extenuation of his conduct.
     The people whose parts this unfortunate pair had been playing with such ill success were now heard at the door below.  Allan felt like a criminal as he stole into the hall, and thence into his own room; but the Commodore could scarcely understand the propriety of a strange and otherwise objectionable young man holding a moonless tête-à-tête with his daughter.  In any case his presence would involve disagreeable explanations.  If her cheeks were as flushed as his own no doubt her doting parent would ascribe it to renewed health and strength.
     But the young man, sitting alone in the perfumed darkness of that summer night, with his hot head fallen upon the window-sill, did not imagine that the fire that burned along his own veins was an indication of health.  On the contrary, he feared it a symptom of a dreaded disease—the fever [Page 90] and delirium of love.  What was that little yellow-haired girl to him?  Nothing! nothing!  Yet her kisses burned upon his lips, and every drop of blood in his body seemed to contradict his nonchalant nothing with a passionate everything!  Yes, she was in truth the lamp of his life, but in that radiant light how pitiful his life appeared.  How pitiful, and yet how beautiful, for in the tender illumination of her imagined love rough places became smooth, dark ways bright, and the heights of possible achievement were faintly flushed with all the delicate tints of dawn—the dawn of a diviner day than any he had yet looked upon.  When he went to sleep it was to dream of walking in a wilderness of roses.  Pale and drooping, broken and dying, red and roguish, blushing, wanton, wild and warm, each bore some fantastic resemblance to Rose Macleod, and each was set about with “little wilful thorns.”  The hand which he eagerly outstretched to pluck the loveliest rose of all was pierced and bleeding.  Still he did not despair of reaching it.  But as his longing eyes drew nearer and nearer the stately little beauty turned suddenly a deep blood-red, and then he saw that the crimson drops falling from his own wounds had worked this transformation.  He hid her in his bosom, and held her there.  But the closer she was pressed the richer and more fragrant was the breath she exhaled, intoxicating all his senses, and the farther into his heart went the cruel thorns, until in mingled pain and rapture he awoke.
     This Allan Dunlop, though born and bred on a farm, had in him the spring of a higher and finer life.  He was a man of delicate instincts, refined feelings, and great native sensibility, inherited from his mother, at whose history we may take a rapid backward glance.
     Far away in one of the stately homes of “Merrie England,” when the eighteenth century was old, a gentlewoman, young, charming, and full of an habitually repressed life and [Page 91] gaiety, waited for her cavalier, the youthful riding-master who had little to recommend himself to her gracious kindness save that deep but indefinable charm which a handsome man on a spirited charger is so prone to exert on the feminine imagination.  The morning was fair, the lady was fairer, and the heart of her gallant attendant beat faster than the feet of his steed, as the flying skirt of her robe swept his stirrup, and the soft length of her mist-like veil blew before his eyes and caressed his brown cheek.  It was not the only mist that blew before his eyes nor before her’s either, poor child! for the rival contrast between this wild rush over hedge and ditch and bright green meadow and the stiffly guarded walks and ways of home had spurred her imagination also into a gallop.  “We will never come back,” he said jestingly, “we will ride away into a world of our own!” but there was something reckless in his laugh and a formidable note of earnestness in his jesting.  He never dreamed that her pulse beat quicker after his careless speeches, and he was in truth a good deal in awe of her, for the buckram propriety which had encased her like a garment ever since she could remember was not easily thrown aside.  This young pair, though as deeply in love with each other as it is possible for man and maid to be, had never acknowledged the fact by a syllable.  Anna Sherwood was too shy and prim; Richard Dunlop too poor and proud.  He had been a trooper in a cavalry regiment, afterwards riding-master in a garrison town in England, and since his coming to Canada, and before taking to farming, he held the position of fort-adjutant at Penetanguishene; at present he was tutor in equestrian arts to the young lady whom he passionately loved.  Of her there is little to tell except that until this dashing young fellow crossed her path she had experienced about as much change and variety in her life as though she had been a plant grown in a flower-pot.  On sunny days she was allowed the outside air; on stormy days she was kept within.  She toiled not, neither [Page 92] did she spin.  Nothing was required of her except colourless acquiescence in a life of torpid, unnatural, unendurable ennui
     The young lady’s only guardian was a wealthy maiden aunt, who was as rich as she was old maidish—a statement likely to thrill the heart of any mammon-worshipper among her acquaintance—and whose special pride was the exemplary manner in which she had brought up her brother’s child.  The daring young fellow who had presumed to fall in love with this model niece followed her uninvited into the family sitting-room on returning from their ride, a proceeding which rather alarmed the gentle Anna, though her much dreaded relative was absent.  He did not sit down, but took a decisive stand on the hearth-rug.  He looked like a man who has something he must say, though the saying of it will all but cost him his life.  She sat down with a strange foreboding at her heart of something terrible to come.  The austere influences of her aunt’s home were upon her.  She sat in prim composure, pale hands clasped, and pale lids drooping upon cheeks that had lost every particle of the warmth and glow gained by exercise.  “Miss Sherwood,” he began, “there is something I have been longing to say to you for weeks past, and though it is a perfectly useless, almost impertinent thing to say, still I cannot leave it burning in my heart any longer.  It is that you are dearer to me than any woman on earth—and always will be.”  His voice broke a little, but he went bravely on. “You need not think that I shall annoy you with frequent repetitions of this fact, or that I expect to gain anything by the statement of it.  I know that you are proud and self-sufficing, and,” a little bitterly, “that I can never be anything more to you than the dust thrown up by your horse’s heels—a necessary evil.  I don’t know why I should tell you this, except that I cannot suffer in silence any longer.  I am going to leave you now—to leave you forever.  Won’t you say good-bye?  Is there nothing you will say to me, little Nan?” [Page 93]
     In spite of himself his voice had sunk to a tone of caressing tenderness.  The pale proud girl had listened to him without moving a fibre or lifting an eyelash.  But now there came a great flow of blood to her face, a swift rush of tears to her eyes.
     “Nothing,” she said, “except”—
     She wrung her hands: pride dies very hard.
     “Except that I love you, Dick!”
     His eyes blazed.  “Then, by Heaven,” he cried, “we shall never part.”  He caught her to his breast and held her there a moment without speaking.  He was too dazed to speak.  The scene was dramatic; and Miss Maria Sherwood, who entered the room at that moment, did not approve of the drama.  She held that it was sensational in conduct, scurrilous in character, scandalous in its consequences; and it is highly probable that from this brief glimpse of it she saw no reason to change her opinions.  Act second, as may be imagined, was stormy and exiting, gaining in interest as it progressed, and the last scene in these private theatricals saw the hero and heroine shipped off to Canada—that better country, where the lives and loves of those to whom fate has been cruel are graciously spared, under conditions adverse enough but still endurable.
     That life and love can continue to exist beneath bleak foreign skies, when grim Poverty howls wolf-like at the door, and the winds of seemingly year-long winters are scarcely less fierce, was the proposition these courageous young people set themselves to prove.  No day dawned so dark that was not illumined for him by the repetition of that shamelessly unmaidenly speech, “I love you, Dick.”  As for her, she never ceased to smile at the blindness of a man who could imagine that luxurious imprisonment for life without him could be more alluring than the greatest hardships endured in the perpetual sunshine of his love.
     Of this pair, whose romance had outlasted the sordid [Page 94] cares and trials of life in the backwoods, Allan Dunlop, with his exquisite susceptibilities, and ambitious aims, was the honest fruit.  He was not visible to Rose for some days after their emotional and wholly involuntary encounter in his mother’s room, and then he brought her a great handful of her fragrant namesakes.  She had been promoted for half-an-hour to a huge well-cushioned chair, in which she reclined rather languidly.  The roses formed a pretext for a little desultory conversation, and then Allan, noticing the invalid’s little ears were turning pink, presumably at the recollection of their last meeting, could not forbear saying:
     “I feel that I ought to beg your pardon, Miss Macleod, for the way I treated you the other evening.  It was a brutal assault, though wholly unintentional.”
     Poor Rose, who remembered that it was she who made the assault, expressed the belief that she would rather it were forgotten than forgiven.
     “I’m afraid I can’t forget it.  Some things make too deep an impression.  Of course,” he added, in his embarrassment, “it was the last thing I should have wished to do.”
     “Of course!” echoed the miserable girl, wondering if he meant what he said.
     “Allan,” said his mother, entering the room at that moment, “what are you saying to distress my patient?  I don’t like the look of these feverish cheeks.”
     “I fear I have committed the unpardonable sin, as Miss Rose refuses to pardon it.”
     Mrs. Dunlop, who was in absolute ignorance of the subject of conversation, looked smilingly from one to the other.
     “Promise her that the offence will never be repeated, Allan,” she said, “and then it may receive forgiveness.”
     The young man coloured scarlet.  “The conditions are too hard,” he murmured.  “I think, on the whole, I should prefer to go unforgiven.”  And he hastily rose and left the room. [Page 95]
     But if Rose Macleod was not free from afflictions of a sentimental nature, her brother Edward was even less so.  This young man sorely missed the girlish society which his sister in happier days had constantly drawn about her.  One afternoon, when time hung particularly heavy on his hands, he decided to go over to “Bellevue,” ostensibly to give Madame DeBerczy the latest information concerning Rose, but really to solace his soul with a sight of the beautiful Hélène.  On his way over he chanced to overtake the Algonquin girl, Wanda, whom he proceeded to upbraid in no measured terms for the way in which she had treated him.
     “Ah, don’t!” she cried at last, covering her ears with her hands, “your words are like hailstones, sharp and cruel and cold.”
     “Then will you not say that you are sorry?” he pleaded, bending his fair head once more perilously near to the soft, brown neck.
     “Sorry that you deserved the blow? yes; certainly!”
     “Wanda,” cried Edward, an irrepressible smile breaking through his assumed anger, “you are a witch, and a wicked witch, too.  It is like your race to be cruel and merciless, indifferent to the pain you inflict, and—”
     “No, no,” retorted the girl, indignantly, “it is not true.”  She was irradiated by her wrath.  The usual faint yet warm redness of her face had changed to a deeper hue, and her eyes were smouldering fires.  Edward had never seen her look so handsome; but his attention was distracted from her at that instant by some rough, prickly shrubs, near which they were passing.  He put out his hand instinctively to keep them from touching his companion, and a sharp thorn pierced his palm.  He immediately affected to be in great pain.
     “It is easy for the pale-face to suffer,” she said tauntingly.
     “It is impossible for your race to be pitiful,” he replied in the same tone. [Page 96]
     Again she flushed hotly, and, as if to disprove his assertion, she seized his hand, and pressed it closely to her angrily-heaving bosom, as she tried to extract the thorn from it.  But it had penetrated too far, and with a quick impatient ah! she bent her warm red lips to his palm and strove to reach the thorn with her little white teeth.  After several attempts she was at last successful, and looked up with an air of innocent triumph.
     “I take back my cruel words,” Edward said.  “I am sure you can be a little pitiful.”  Then he put her gently but hastily aside, for they were close upon “Bellevue,” and he was eager to meet Hélène.
     With a grieved, child-like wonder the beautiful, ignorant savage watched him, as he hurried across the velvet lawn, among beds of brilliant flowers, to greet a lily-like maiden, clad in what, in her uncivilized eyes, appeared to be a mingling of mist and moonbeams.  It was the first time that he had shown a wish to leave her.  Hitherto she had been the object of his pursuit, of his devotion, of his ardent desire.  Now, like a cold blast, his neglect struck chill upon her heart, and she turned back into the forest solitudes with all the brightness suddenly and strangely gone out of her life.
     But instead of being translated to the earthly paradise of a beautiful woman’s favour, Edward, to his own great disappointment and chagrin, found himself in a very different atmosphere. Hélène was cold, nearly silent, utterly indifferent.  She was looking unusually well.  The rich harmonious contrasts of face and hair—the midnight darkness of the one breaking into the radiant dawn of the other—never before impressed him so vividly.  But she was terribly distant.  The young man assured himself rather bitterly that if she were a thousand miles off she could not have been more oblivious of his presence.  She was alluring even in her indifference, graceful, elegant, angelic—but an angel [Page 97] carved in ice.  “I have been so unfortunate as to offend you,” he said at parting, as they stood alone in the soft, moonless, summer dusk.
     I don’t know; is it a matter of much importance?” There was an accent of weariness in her voice, but the tone was hard.
     “Yes, to me.  You are as cold as death!”
     “What a very unpleasant fancy!”  She shivered lightly, and extended the tips of her very chilly fingers to him in a last good-night.
     Mademoiselle Hélène was intensely proud.  She had been an unobserved witness of the scene between Edward and Wanda in the wood, and of course, had made her own misinterpretation.  A man who could permit a low, untutored savage to fawn upon him in that way, kissing his hand repeatedly, and flushing with gratified vanity, presumably at his words of endearment, could scarcely expect to be treated otherwise than with disdain by the high-bred girl whom he had previously delighted to honour.  As for Edward he was sorely hurt and bewildered.  Hélène’s treatment of him he considered decidedly curt, and natural resentment burned within him at the thought.  But before he reached home his anger had passed away, and with it all remembrance of the cold maiden and the unpleasant evening she had given him.  In their place lived an intense recollection of a tawny woman, beautiful and warm-blooded; and his heart thrilled with a tumult of emotions at the memory of her lustrous velvet lips closely pressed within his wounded hand. [Page 98]


[Chapter IX]