After Four Years
THE Northumberland Valley lies smiling under June skies blue as Italy's, and bending over a happy country, once more at peace.
It is the June of '65; the war is over, and Eunice is coming, at the earnest invitation of the Charltons, to spend Commencement with them. She steps from the train into the same busy scene that had bewildered her almost five years before, and there is the same scholarly figure waiting to meet her with the same beaming smile in the kind blue eyes, but bending now to greet her with a kiss as he says in his cordial way, "I am very glad to see you, my dear Eunice."
There is but little change in his dress. Still the high silk stock and the swallowtail and the beaver hat; but Eunice notes changes in the face that has become very dear to her. There are lines about the eyes and mouth that did not use to be there, and they tell of great anxieties and wearing cares. The figure is alittle more bent, and the temples are whitened; but it is a beautiful face to Eunice, and she glows with pleasure at his kiss, which she modestly returns.
"Judge," absolutely unchanged, is waiting for her trunk, grinning delightedly, and pulling his bunch of wool energetically at her kind "How do you do, 'Judge'?"
And on the Burton steps are almost the same group watching the arrival of the train as on that golden September morning. Not quite the same. Miss Lydia is not there, nor the young officer; for Miss Lydia is Mrs. Lieutenant Watson of the barracks, and another officer has taken the lieutenant's place. And Rex is not there, of course, but a figure so much like his is standing in much the same attitude in which she first saw him, that Eunice with difficulty, represses an eager start.
They pass through the Iron Gate, and hear it clang behind them, a sound fraught with so many memories, and some of them so sad, that the quick tears spring to Eunice's eyes. And then through Lover's Lane, beautiful in its heavy June leafage, and hallowed ground to Eunice, who feels like one who treads reverently in sacred places.
At the door are Mrs. Charlton and Lucy, the "Big Boys" and the younger children, and, in the background, Alcinda, Charles Cook, junior, and little Cindie. Alcinda's doleful prediction that she would never return had not been fulfilled. Nothing could keep her long away from her loved Bellaire.
What changes four years can make! Mrs. Charlton's glossy curls have many a streak of gray, and the strain of those terrible years shows itself in lines graven by a hard and cruel chisel; but her eyes are as bright and her voice as sweet as of old when she clasps Eunice in her arms. Lucy shows no signs of care. She has blossomed into a beautiful womanhood, and the greeting of the two girls has lost none of its warmth by so long an absence. The "Big Boys" are almost young men now, and come forward bashfully to shake hands with Miss Eunice. Millie is a shy, graceful girl just entering her teens, and the three younger children have grown out of all recognition, though not of remembrance; and by the time she has shaken hands with Alcinda, Charles Cook, junior, and Cindie, and received their hearty greetings, Eunice feels she has had a royal welcome home.
In the evening she steals away a few minutes from the family circle, who are so happy to have her with them that they can hardly bear to have her out of their sight for a moment, and goes down by the little gate that leads into Lovers' Lane, and there for a few hallowed moments lives over that last meeting with Rex, the most intense hour of all her life, and takes from its hiding-place the little note she received the morning he left Bellaire and reads it over and over with such smiles and tears and ardent kisses that had there been any spectator he would never have recognized the demure and prim little Yankee school-teacher.
How has her tender heart been torn afresh by revisiting these scenes so allied with memories of him! Every leaf on the trees above her whisper to her of Rex, and, with eyes uplifted to the skies, she breathes now the vows Rex could not compel from her then.
She does not dare to stay long away, but goes back to the parlor and sits in the very chair Rex sat in that December morning when he first told her his love. In her lap sits Baby Ned, a big six-year-old boy, but still the baby, and by her side is Millie, looking with beaming eyes on the Miss Eunice of her childish adoration.
"Where is your shuttle, Eunice?" says the doctor, pleasantly; "I shall not feel you are quite at home until I see that in your hands."
"Oh, I have given up my tatting," Eunice answers, smiling; "I like to sit now with idle hands and dream."
And somehow the doctor and his wife feel that this is an outward sign of an intangible change that has come over Eunice.
She sleeps in her old room that night, and rising early the next morning from restless dreams, she slips quietly down-stairs, and out into the beautiful dewy morning, and wanders around the dear old garden, now a wilderness of roses, greeting every remembered bush and tree, and pinning in her hair a white-rose like the one she had once thrown down to Rex.
When it is near enough to breakfast-time to be in no danger of disturbing the sleepers with her music, she goes back to the parlor. The long windows are open on the veranda; the honeysuckle on the lattice is in full bloom, and the room is filled with its fragrance, mingled with the sweet breath of roses from the garden. She has just heard a train pass, and thinks of the early train that bore Rex away that April morning. Her heart is filled with love and longing, and she sits down to the familiar piano and sings, "Lorena," that old-fashioned song, powerless now to evoke any stronger emotion than a smile of toleration, but new then an esteemed as the very soul of pathos.
She does not hear a step on the veranda; her whole heart is in the words she is singing. But the step is there, nevertheless, and it belongs to a tall figure clad in a suit of gray evidently new and roughly made, but sitting with a certain grace on the symmetrical form, and in the buttonhole is a dingy bit of ribbon. He carries in his hand his hat, a broad palmetto, and his noble head, covered with thick, dark curls, is bent eagerly forward, listening to the song.
She is singing with infinite tenderness:
"A duty stern and pressing brokeAfter a while he ventures to step inside the window, and still Eunice does not hear him. She is singing now:
"A hundred months have passed, Lorena,He cannot see her,-she is in the farther parlor,- but he would have fancied the voice was one he had once known, but for the pathos and soul in the tones he had sometimes thought a little hard and cold. He ventures a little farther, where he can see the singer, and still Eunice sings on and neither hears nor sees him. And now she has come to the last verse, and with what holy rapture she sings:
"There is a future-oh, thank God,If this is Eunice, it is a more beautiful Eunice than the Eunice of his dreams. The face has grown softer and rounder; the curls, caught back and tied loosely behind, give a more graceful contour to the head; and the brown hair, no longer brushed into severe plainness, ripples in soft waves about the face. He cannot be quite sure it is Eunice: only the clinging gray dress and the white rose in her hair are unchanged. He waits until the last word of her song dies away, and then he says softly:
She springs from the piano and looks at him with a startled, unrecognizing glance. There is no mistaking those blue-gray eyes with their long lashes, and quiet even now with that startled look in them. She sees before her a tall, bronzed man with heavy closely trimmed beard, whose dark eyes gaze steadily into hers. There is no boldness in their gaze, and there lurks a sadness in their depths that future years of joy can never wholly drive away. But there is a look of love in them, too, that Eunice has never seen in any other eyes, and at last she knows him. She starts toward him and murmurs "Rex," and then would have fallen, but that he catches her and, holding her in his arms, calls upon her by every endearing name, kissing her forehead her drooping lids, her hands, but never once her lips until she opens her eyes and smiles up at him. And then what does this coy Puritan maiden do, but lift her arms and put them about his neck and whisper, "Rex, I love you, and I will be your wife." And at last he takes from her lips the kiss for which he has been waiting for more than four years.
It is half an hour later. Rex has been warmly welcomed by the family; with shouts of delight from the younger children, who have not forgotten "Cousin Rex"; with shy pleasure by Lucy, who can hardly realize that this bronzed and bearded stranger is the young exquisite of four years ago; and with a handclasp from the doctor more cordial than any Rex had ever received in his college days. But next to Eunice's greeting, Mrs. Charlton's touches him most. She looks up at him, while her dark eyes shine with something softer and brighter than their natural brilliance, and when he would have bent to kiss the hand that trembles in his she checks him and, putting her arm around his neck just as his mother would have done, whispers, "My dear boy, thank God you have come back to us!" and kisses him as his mother would have kissed him.
Now, a half-hour later, he is sitting at the pleasant breakfast-table, where he sat on that December morning four and a half years before. It is not December now. No glowing fire is filling the room with ruddy warmth. The windows and the glass doors opening on the piazza all stand open wide, and the room is full of the sweet odors of honeysuckle and roses, and a soft summer zephyr stirs the muslin draperies at the windows flecked with shadows from the great linden outside. He is not now sitting opposite Eunice. Mrs. Charlton has divined at once, though no explanation has been offered, that he has a right to claim the seat she has given him at Eunice's side. He takes it proudly, and there is no attempt at concealment in the tenderness that beams from his eyes whenever they fall upon Eunice, or the love and devotion in his air when he offers her the simplest courtesies of the table.
And as Rex looks around the familiar room, so unchanged, he feels as if the last four years must be some awful dream. Mrs. Charlton, in the excitement of the moment, looks scarcely a day older than when he saw her last. The lines of care and anxiety will return after a while; but joy, the great rejuvenator, has smoothed them all out for the time, and she sits at the head of the table, in the freshest of breakfast-caps and the daintiest of morning gowns, the same beaming and gracious hostess he remembers so well.
As for the doctor-well, the doctor is guilty of one of his most execrable puns, and Mrs. Charlton not only does not frown it down, but hails it as a happy omen. For in the dark and terrible days of the war, when the burden of the college and his own burdens rested so heavily on him, and even the fate of his beloved country seemed sometimes doubtful, the good doctor had almost forgotten how to pun. Now, as Charles Cook, junior, grinning from ear to ear with delight at "Marse Rex's" return, brings in the fragrant and steaming coffee-pot, the doctor, rubbing his hands slowly with anticipatory delight partly in the delicious draught he is expecting and partly in the pun he is about to perpetrate, says with the old twinkle in his eye:
"Mr. McAllister, during the war we were reduced to drinking pure and unadulterated rye-oh; but now, if my olfactory nerves do not moch-a me, we can offer you something better."
In his palmiest days the doctor had never made a worse pun, but tears of joy actually stand in Mrs. Charlton's eyes to see him so like his old self once more.
There is much innocent hilarity throughout the meal. Charles Cook, junior's, broad grin expands occasionally into a half-suppressed chuckle of delight, and little Cindie, under the pretext of helping her brother, comes in with a tray, and stands where her round eyes of wonder and admiration never leave Rex's face. Even Alcinda is not willing to be left entirely out. She brings in one plate of waffles herself (and never have Alcinda's waffles been so crisp and delicately browned and altogether perfect as on this morning), and announces her desire of "seeing Marse Mac alive again with her own eyes," shakes hands with her, and his "Howdy, aunty?" has much of the old gay ring in it, while Alcinda stands a minute after he has dropped her hand and shakes her head solemnly:
"You s shore 'nuff changed, honey. Dunno's I'd 'a' knowed you, you's got to be sech a fine, handsome genelman." At which doubtful compliment everybody laughs, and Alcinda, much abashed or pretending to be, retreats to her kitchen.
But now the happy meal, at which everybody has talked much and eaten little, is over. The big Bible is brought out, the thanksgiving psalm is read, and tenderly and earnestly Dr. Charlton offers up his petition for blessings on the two dear ones, and grateful thanks that "it has been permitted us to see their faces once more." A little hush rests on them all as they rise from their knees, and Alcinda is audibly sniffling-for the Charltons have never departed from the good old custom of having the servants in to family prayers. To cover her weakness she sends Charles Cook, junior, flying for the dish-pan and towels with even more than her usual asperity, and impresses Cindie into the service of helping to clear the table. And in a very few minutes the heavy dishes have all been carried out to the kitchen, and Mrs. Charlton and Lucy, in the whites of aprons, are deep in the mysteries of "doing the breakfast dishes"; for no good Southern housewife would omit that after-breakfast ceremony by which she is assured that at least once a day silver and glass and china are as immaculate as plenty of hot water and soap and polishing with clean, dry towels can make them.
It is the beginning of the long summer vacation, and the boys have flown, like arrows released from the bow, the moment prayers are over, and carried Millie with them to show her a bumblebee's nest which they have discovered in the orchard and which they intend to "take" this morning.
The doctor and Eunice and Rex are lingering in the deep alcove by the open doors, enjoying the sweet sights and sounds and odors of the June morning. Suddenly the doctor turns to Rex:
"Mr. McAllister, I can hardly understand how you came to make us this visit, so soon after the close of the war and with the country still in such an unsettled state. I should think you would have found it very difficult."
"I did find some difficulties, sir," answers Rex. "Many of the railroads are not yet in running order. I had to tramp part of the way, but I generally found an old farm-wagon going my road and got a 'lift.' It is a slow way to travel,-I have been almost two weeks on the road,-but I did not mind it; I had the hope before me of hearing something of a dear friend at the end of my journey. I would joyfully have footed every step of the way if I had she was waiting for me here."
Rex speaks with a proud ring in his voice carries his words to Mrs. Charlton. She drops her towel and listens, her face glowing with eager sympathy. Rex goes on, his dark eyes bent on Eunice, full of love and tenderness, but with a touch of humility and hesitation in their depths, and in the voice that trembles as he speaks, that are very new and strange to see in the proud South Carolinian:
"I hope to take her home with me, doctor; and yet I hardly dare ask her to share the fortunes of a ruined man, when I had hoped to surround her with every luxury a queen could command. There is nothing left to me but the land and the old home,-thank God, that did not lie in Sherman's path! A now I must go to work with my own hands and with what brains I posses, if I am ever to recover even a fragment of my shattered fortunes. But if she will go with me, labor will be joy, and no hardship severe enough to prove my love."
Eunice does not speak, but she turns to him and puts her hand in his, and looks up at him with such love and trust shining in her eyes, it is better than any answer she could have made.
It is Dr. Charlton who speaks, and who for the first time drops the formal "Mr. McAllister."
"God bless you, Rex!" he says earnestly and solemnly; and as he speaks he lays his hand gently on Eunice's brown curls, and so includes her in the benediction.