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Then with the heat of his anger still upon him, and not waiting for Betty, Richard got his hat and quitted the house. After that scene, the air of the room stifled him. He could not be sorry for what he had done, but he must go straight to Joscelyn and tell her himself, and make what peace with her he might. He could better afford to bear her anger than to hear her maligned by those who would be utterly incapable of her courage or her sacrifice. He had always known he must tell his story if he heard her slandered.
He was very weak from his long stay indoors, and the excitement of the scene through which he had just pa.s.sed had left his brain dizzy, so that he was all unfit to take the homeward journey alone. He did not notice the ice on the crossing until suddenly he felt himself slipping--faster, faster. He made one frantic effort to regain his balance, missed his footing, and came down with a crash and a groan upon the jagged cobblestones. He heard a woman's voice scream out in terror, saw Joscelyn kneel beside him, and then he fainted.
It destroyed his last chance,--that terrible fall,--the doctors said; for the arm had again been fractured and lacerated beyond cure, and to lose it was the one hope of life; and even that hope was but a slender one. When Joscelyn heard this, she stayed all the afternoon in her room, holding the gold piece very hard and tight and weeping bitterly.
But the operation was successful; and for long days the patient lay quiet, getting back his hold on the world. His recovery was slower even than had been expected, but it was sure, and that was enough for thankfulness. His mother was telling him this one gusty April twilight, when Joscelyn came into the room on one of her rare visits. The door was open, so they had not known she was there; and stopping to remove her wrap, for the day was cool and showery, she heard the end of their talk.
"Fretting is wrong, Richard. You should be thankful for so sure a recovery."
"Perchance I should; but what avails health when a man may not have that which is dearer than the strength of giants?"
"And what may that be, my son?"
"Joscelyn. I love her--love her beyond all words, all thoughts; and now I shall never possess her."
"I had long ago guessed your love for her," his mother said slowly; then added, after a pause, "but I see not why you should not possess her; you have a true heart, a goodly property, and a shapely figure which this accident will scarcely mar; a man like that has but to ask--"
"Nay, that is just it; a man maimed like me has no right to hamper a woman's life--to ask her love. She is grateful for the protection I have brought her, but she has no thought for me beside. I lie here and watch that clock every hour of every day, longing to see her come, hoping for some sign of awakened love, but there is none. That she comes so seldom is evidence that she means me to understand this. I shall never dare ask her again to marry me, but I shall love her always--always."
There was an infinite pathos in the last words that silenced his mother, and drew something like a sob from the girl in the shadow of the curtained door. How generous he was; how brave and true he had always been! Never once, even in their days of quarrel and make-up, had she known him lacking in courage and generosity. What would her life be now without him, for had he not made all the crooked ways straight before her; had he not given her back the love and esteem of her neighbours, her old place in the community? Was it not to him she owed all this, and her mother's happiness besides? Grat.i.tude, did he say? Surely that was not all there was in her heart, for grat.i.tude did not make a girl shy and sensitive and dreamy. It was not grat.i.tude that had made her weep so pa.s.sionately over his suffering and his loss, and kiss a senseless coin in the dark of her chamber. From that hour she had worn it in a silken bag about her neck; she drew it out now and held it in her trembling fingers.
Presently Mistress Clevering rose and quitted the room by another door, unwilling that Richard should see her emotion. Joscelyn hesitated upon the threshold, held back by a palpitant timidity, until across the firelit silence there came her name in a sigh that was half a sob:--
Then with a sudden resolve she came out of the shadow into the dim light of the room, and kneeling by his couch, drew his one arm over her shoulder and laid her head on his breast.
"I am here--Richard."
"You? Dear love, dear love, what does this mean?"
"Can you not guess?" she whispered, slipping the gold piece into his hand, her own tremulous with emotion.
"I dare not."
"What was the gold piece to be?" Her voice was scarcely more than a thread of sound.
"Our wedding ring--at least, I hoped so once."
She pressed his fingers together over it, her face still hidden on his breast. "Give it back to me sometime--in that shape."
"You mean you will marry me? Speak quick, beloved!"
"I mean that--that the war is over, and I surrender myself--your prisoner, an you will take me."
"My heart's prisoner for time and eternity; thank G.o.d!"
A burned-out log snapped and fell to either side of the andirons, sending a shower of golden sparks up the wide chimney. She raised her head and looked at him, and by the fleeting gleam of the fire he found at last the love-light for which he had so long waited s.h.i.+ning in the depths of her sea-blue eyes.