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   Chapter 33 No.33

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 18079

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


A week later Ann Penhallow was told that she might see her husband. She entered his bedroom with timidity. "Oh, Ann, my most dear Ann!" he cried, as she kissed him. His expression of recovered intelligence overcame her for a moment.

She faltered, "How are you feeling, James-any better?"

"Better-I am well."

"Hardly, dear-do be careful." She was unable to accept as a wholesome reality this amazing resurrection of a mind.

He understood her need for some reassurance, and said, "Don't worry about me, Ann. It is like a vague dream, all these many months-but a dream you know fades fast. My own memories get clearer-some things are quite lost-some are as distinct as if they happened yesterday. The war is a puzzle to me-and-if I try to remember, it confuses me. But I must not talk war to you-I do remember that. I won't do it again, dear."

There was something so childlike in this that it almost overcame the woman's steadily guarded calm. She had been warned to be careful that there should be no excitement to agitate a mind which was slowly groping its way out of the shadows of half-illumined memories.

"Oh, my dear James," she said quietly, "talk of war or anything; it is over." Despite her cautious command of her voice it trembled with emotion as she said, "Nothing is of any moment but you-you. What do I care for the war or-or anything but to have you as you were? Oh, my God! I am thankful."

It disturbed him, as she saw. He felt and looked puzzled as he said, "I see-I am not quite clear-headed yet, Ann."

"No, but you will be. Don't try too hard, James. We must be patient and wait."

"I will-I will-and it is such a relief to have no pain and to see you."

Then as he asked about Leila and the mill work, the younger doctor came in and said, "Time is up, Mrs. Penhallow."

"What-already, Tom?"

"But I want to know more," said the Colonel. "Wasn't there a rummage-sale-"

"Yes; but now you must let Mrs. Penhallow go. You are mending daily. To-morrow Mrs. Penhallow may come again, and there will be to-morrow, and many happy to-morrows." She went out and downstairs singing in a low sweet voice-a long lost habit.

If to watch with an aching heart the hopeless decay of a mind be the most distressing of all human trials, surely there can be few greater joys than to see a disordered intellect emerge day by day into possession of its long lost capacities. James Penhallow was soon able to sign a power of attorney enabling John to reconstruct the old partnership with his own name added to the firm.

Very soon town and county shared in the growth of prosperity which followed the war. Rivers was the only one who was not what his friends desired, and never was his melancholy mood more noticeable.

The master of Grey Pine was, of course, many months in recovering his normal state of mind. The man's bodily strength had not been seriously impaired, and the return of his natural gaiety and his eager resumption one by one of his old habits filled his home with that cheerfulness which is the relieving and precious gift of convalescence. Penhallow's remembrances of the war were rapidly recovered as he talked to John, but much of his recent life was buried in the strange graveyard of memory, which gave up no reminding ghosts of what all who loved the man feared might haunt him.

When satisfied of the certainty of his uncle's recovery John Penhallow hurt by Leila's continual coldness and seeing for it no reasonable explanation gave more and more time to the mills in which the family fortunes were so seriously concerned. On the first of September he was glad to go away on business which carried him to several of the large cities, and resulted in orders which would keep the works busy for many months. He no longer wrote to Leila, nor did he expect letters from her. He considered any nearer relation than friendship to be at an end, but to lose that also seemed to him a quite too needlessly cruel loss, and now for the first time on returning he approached Grey Pine without pleasure. He had telegraphed to have a horse sent to meet him at Westways Crossing, that he might ride on to the mills after seeing his uncle.

Having taken the night train, it was about noon when Leila saw him coming up the avenue. She went forward to the roadside and as he sat in the saddle shook his hand, saying, "I am sorry you were delayed, John. You will be disappointed to know that Uncle Jim and Aunt Ann left home yesterday." She wished that he had not quite so clearly shown the limits of his regret, as he said quietly, "Well, I shall miss them, of course."

"A letter from aunt's brother, Henry Grey, asked them to visit him at the old Maryland home. I think it both pleased and surprised Aunt Ann. I am to join them later. Josiah is to matronize me-or, if you like, patronize me. Uncle Jim was delighted to be asked and hopes to reconcile the brothers. Henry's letter was very kind, but he is still suffering from his wound. Of course, Aunt Ann was happy."

He looked down at the upturned face as he sat in the saddle. She had given him no warm word of personal welcome. "Well, it can't be helped. I had much to talk over with uncle." Then he laughed.

"What amuses you, John?"

"Oh, I should like to see the interview. Both Uncle Jim and I had queer encounters with Henry Grey."

"Uncle Jim!-what-when?"

"Ask him. I should have liked to add George Grey to the party. As for your Uncle Henry"-John smiled-"a serious wound is rather productive of the unexpected, as I know. I will see you at dinner-now I must go on to the mills." He rode away thinking without pleasure of being alone with Leila.

The presence of the maids who waited at dinner kept their conversation on the Colonel's rapid gain in health, village incidents, and the mill life-mere loitering disconnected talk of no interest except to fill the hour of two people who would have preferred to be silent.

John said, as he rose from the table, "I have a letter to write, Leila, and so I must leave you to the better company of your book." Once-but a little while ago-he would have asked what book was now on hand. "Any messages for aunt or uncle?"

"None-I wrote this morning."

He sat down in the library at his old desk and wrote: "Dear Leila"-Then he stood up-the easy freedom of the letter was denied to him. He was in the mood when outspoken speech, always for him the more natural way of expressing himself, became imperative. He went back to the hall.

The book lay face down on her lap. "What is it, John?" she asked.

"I want to talk to you-not here. Come into the library; those maids hear everything."

"Certainly," she said, "if you want me."

She sat down, and John leaning against the mantel and looking down at her, said, "I came in here to write to you what is not easy to write or say-I prefer to put it into speech."

"Indeed! I am quite ready to listen."

"After your recent treatment of me, I have no inclination to make myself needlessly unpleasant. You have made it plain to me that what my heart longs for is to be put aside forever. There is something due to a man's self-respect. But if you were a man, Leila, I could say more easily something else. Are we-am I to lose also your friendship-or is even that at an end?"

The blue eyes became less adventurous as she said, "I don't understand you, John."

"I think you do. Long as I have known you, I cannot have known you fully. Blake used to say that everybody is several people, and just now-here has come into my life some one I don't know-and don't want to know."

"Indeed! It must be rather confusing to be several people. Your friend, Mr. Blake, as your letters showed, was rather given to enigmatical statements. I should like to know him. Would you please, John, to bring me my fan-I left it in that delightful book you interrupted."

"Certainly," he said, now a trifle more at ease. For Leila to ask of any one such a service was so unlike her that he felt it to be a betrayal of embarrassment, and was humorously pleased as he went and came again.

She took the fan and played with that expressive piece of a woman's outfit while John brought the talk back to its starting-point.

"Cannot you be the Leila I used to know-a frank girl; or are you to use one of your many disguises and just leave things as they have been of late?"

"If you will say plainly just what you mean, John"-the fan was in active use-"I will be as frank as possible."

"But you may not like it, Leila."

"Oh, go on. I know you are going to be unpleasant."

He looked at her with surprise. "We are fencing-and I hate it. Once at

West Point I was fencing with a man, my friend; the button broke off my

foil and I hurt him seriously. He fell dead beside me in the trenches at

Vicksburg-dead!"

"Oh, John!"-the fan ceased moving.

"What I mean is that one may chance, you or I, to say something that will leave in memory that which no years will blot out. Don't be vexed with me. I have had a

cruel summer. What with Uncle Jim and Aunt Ann-and now with you, I-well-you told me after that dreadful night when Uncle Jim was so wild that I had insulted you-"

"Don't talk of it," she cried. "I was put to shame before all those grinning people. You ought to have said nothing-or something better than that farmer boy said-"

"Well-perhaps, Leila; but the point is not what I said in my desire to help you and stop a man for the time insane. The point is that I did not insult you; for an insult to be really that it must be intentional."

"Then you think I was unreasonably angry?"

"Yes, I do; and ever since then you have been coldly civil. I cannot stand it. I shall never again ask you for what you cannot give, but if you are to continue to resent what I said, then Grey Pine is no home for me."

She stood up, the fan falling to the floor. "What do you want me to say,

John Penhallow?"

"Wait a little-just a word more. It was what poor Uncle Jim said that hurt you. You could not turn on him; in your quite natural dismay or disgust you turned on me, who meant only to help in a dreadful situation. You know I am right"-his voice rose as he went on-"it is I, not you, who am insulted. If you were a man, I should ask for an apology; as you are the woman I have hopelessly loved for years, I will not ask you to say you were wrong-I do not want you to say that. I want you to say you are sorry you hurt me."

"I am sorry I hurt you, John. Will that do?"-her eyes were filling.

"Yes-but-"

"But what?"

"Oh, I want you to feel sorry."

"Don't say any more," she returned. "Let us be friends again." She put out her hand, he took it, picked up her fan, laid it on the table, and saying "Thank you!" opened the door towards which she moved and closed it after her.

"And so"-she kept saying to herself-"we are to be no more than friends." She sat still staring across the hall, trying to read. She was fast losing control of the woman who was fenced in by social rule and custom, trained to suppress emotion and to be the steady mistress of insurgent passion. "My God," she murmured, "I should never have been angry when he bought me, if I had not loved him-and now it is all over-perhaps!"

Some readjustment there may have been, for when he reentered the hall an hour later, she was reading. He said, as she looked up, "I mean to have a long tramp to-morrow. I shall start early and walk to the mills and on to the ore-beds. Then I shall return over the hills back of Westways, and bring you, I hope, a few wood-pigeons. I may be a little late for dinner."

"But, John, it is quite twelve miles, and you will have to carry a gun-and your arm-"

John laughed happy laughter. "That was so like Aunt Ann!"

"Was it?-and now you will say 'yes, yes, you are quite right,' and walk away and do just as you meant to do, like Uncle Jim."

"I may, but I will not walk further than Grey Pine." The air had cleared-he had done some good!

"Good-night," he said, "it is late."

"Don't go too far, John. I shall read a while. This book is really so interesting. We will talk about it."

"Good-night, once more."

The woman he left in the hall laid her book aside. Her unreasonable vexation had gone, defeated by the quiet statement of his simply confessed unhappiness. She looked about the hall and recalled their youth and the love of which she still felt sure. The manliness of his ways appealed to her sense of the value of character. Why she had been so coldly difficult of approach she did not know. What woman can define that defensive instinct? "He shall ask me again, and I-ah, Heaven!-I love him." A wild passionate longing shook her as she rose to her feet.

At early morning John wandered away through the woods feeling the joyful relief from the hot air of cities. After his visit to the mills and the iron-mines, he struck across a somewhat unfamiliar country, found few birds, and the blackened ravage of an old forest fire. He returned to the well-known river-bank below the garden and the pines, and instead of going to Grey Pine as he had meant to do went on as far as the cabin, failing to get any more birds. He had walked some fourteen miles, and was reminded by a distinct sense of fatigue that the body had not yet regained its former vigour.

It was about five of the warm September day when he came to the old log-house. Smiling as he recalled the memories of his childhood, he went into the cabin and found its shelter pleasant and the cooling air of evening grateful. He took off his game bag, laid it on the floor, set his gun against the wall, and glad of a rest sat down. Having enjoyed his first smoke of the day, he let his head drop on the floor, and by no means intending it fell asleep.

Leila too was in a happier mood, and sure of not meeting John set out to walk through the forest. After a pleasant loitering stroll she stopped at the cabin door, and as she glanced in saw John Penhallow asleep. She leaned against the door post and considered the motionless sleeper in the shadows of the closing day. She was alone with him-alone as never before. He would neither question nor make answer. Strange thoughts came into her mind, disturbing, novel. How could he sleep without a pillow? It must be an army habit after tent-less nights of exhaustion in the deadly trenches. People-men-had tried to kill this living silent thing before her; and he too-he too had wanted to kill. She wondered at that as with the motion of a will-less automaton she drew nearer step by step. Her feet unwatched struck the half-filled game-bag. She stumbled, caught her breath, and had a moment of fear as she hung the bag on the wooden hook upon which as a child she used to hang her sun-bonnet.

Then again some natural yearning moved her, and unresisting as in a dream she drew still nearer-merely a woman in an unguarded moment once again under the control of a great passion which knew no social rule of conduct nor the maiden modesties of a serenely dutiful life. At each approach, she stood still, unashamed, innocent of guile, thrilling with emotion which before in quiet hours had been felt as no more disturbing than the wandering little breezes which scarcely stir the leafage of the young spring. She stood still until she won bodily mastery of this stormy influence with its faintly conveyed sense of maiden terror. Her thoughts wandered as she looked down on the sleeper. In voiceless self-whispered speech she said, "Ah me! he used to be so vexed when I said he was too young to ask me-a woman-to marry him. How young he looks now!" The wounded arm forever crippled lay across his breast. She caught her breath. "I wonder," she thought, "if we get younger in sleep-and then age in the daytime. Good Heavens! he is smiling like a baby. Oh! but I should like to know what he is thinking of." There was unresisted fascination in the little drama of passionate love so long repressed.

She knelt beside him, saw the one great beauty of the hardy bronzed face, the mouth now relaxed, with the perfect lip lines of a young Antinous. She bent over him intent, reading his face as a child reads some forbidden book, reading it feature by feature as a woman reads for the first time with understanding a passionate love-poem. Ah, if he would but open his eyes and then sleep again and never know. He moved, and she drew back ready for flight, shy and startled. And now he was quiet. "I must-I must," she murmured. "His lips? Ah! would they forgive?-and-if, if he wakens, I shall die of shame. Oh, naughty love of mine that was so cruel yesterday, I forgive you!" What would he do-must he do-if he wakened? The risk, the urgent passion of appealing love, gave her approach the quality of a sacred ceremonial. She bent lower, not breathing, fearful, helpless, and dropt on his forehead a kiss, light as the touch a honey-seeking butterfly leaves on an unstirred flower. He moved a little; she rose in alarm and backed to the door. "Oh! why did I?" she said to herself, reproachful for a moment's delicious weakness. She looked back at the motionless sleeper, as she stood in the doorway. "Why did I?-but then he does look so young-and innocent."

Once more in the world of custom, she fled through the forest shadows, and far away sank down panting. She caught up the tumbled downfall of hair, and suddenly another Leila, laughed as she remembered that he would miss the game-bag he had set at his side. How puzzled he would be when he missed it. Amused delight in his wondering search captured her. She saw again the beauty of his mouth and the face above it as she recalled what her Aunt Margaret Grey had mischievously said to her, a girl, of James Penhallow. "He has the one Penhallow beauty-the mouth, but then he has that monumental Penhallow nose-it might be in the way." She had not understood, but now she did, and again laughing went away homeward, not at all unhappy or repentant, for who would ever know, and love is a priest who gives absolution easily.

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