The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XV. A Bridegroom of Snow
The doctor had taken his look, feeling a trifle guilty under his patient's counter gaze, yet glad to have relieved the good colonel's anxiety. If he loved to gossip, at least he was particular as to whom he gossiped with.
Moya closed the door after him and silently resumed her seat. Mrs. Bogardus helped herself to a sip of water. She was struggling with a dry constriction of the throat, and Moya protested a little, seeing the effort that it cost her to speak, even in the hoarse, unnatural tone which was all the voice she had left.
"I want to finish now," she said, "and never speak of this again. It was I who accused them first--and then I asked him:--if there was anything he could say in their defense, to say it, for Chrissy's sake! 'I will never break bread with them again,' said he,--'either Banks or Horace. I will not eat with them, or drink with them, or speak with them again!' Think of it! How are we to live? How are they to inhabit the same city? He thinks I have been weak. I am weak! The only power I have is through--the property. Banks will never marry a poor girl. But that would be a dear-bought victory. Let her keep what faith in him she can. No; in families, the ones who can control themselves have to give in--to those who can't. If you argue with Christine she simply gives way, and then she gets hysterical, and then she is ill. It's a disease. Mothers know how their children--Christine was marked--marked with trouble! I am thankful she has any mind at all. She needs me more than Paul does. I cannot be parted from my power to help her--such as it is."
"When she is Banks Bowen's wife she will need you more than ever!" said Moya.
"She will. I could prevent the marriage, but I am afraid to. I am afraid! So, as the family is cut in two--in three, for I"--Mrs. Bogardus stopped and moistened her lips again. "So--I think you and Paul had better make your arrangements and go as soon as you can wherever it suits you, without minding about the rest of us."
Moya gave a little sobbing laugh. "You don't expect me to make the first move!"
"Doesn't he say anything to you--anything at all?"
"He is too ill."
"He is not ill!" Mrs. Bogardus denied it fiercely. "Who says he is ill? He is starved and frozen. He is just out of the grave. You must be good to him, Moya. Warm him, comfort him! You can give him the life he needs. Your hands are as soft as little birds. They comfort even me. Oh, don't you understand!"
"Of course I understand!" Moya answered, her face aflame. "But I cannot marry Paul. He has got to marry me."
"What nonsense that is! People say to a girl: 'You can't be too cold before you are married or too kind after!' That does not mean you and Paul. If you are not kind to him now, you will make a great mistake."
"He is not thinking of marriage," said Moya. "Something weighs on him all the time. I cannot ask him questions. If he wanted to tell me he would. That is why I come downstairs and leave him. But he won't come down! Is it not strange? If we could believe such things I would say a Presence came with, him out of that place. It is with him when I find him alone. It is in his eyes when he looks at me. It is not something past and done with, it is here--now--in this house! What is it? What do you believe?"
The eyes she sought to question hardened under her gaze. Here, too, was a veil. Mrs. Bogardus sat with her hands clasped in her lap. She was motionless, but the creaking of her silks could be heard as her bosom rose and fell. After a moment she said: "Paul's tray is on the table in the dining-room. Will you take it when you go up?"
Moya altered her own manner instantly. "But you?" she hesitated. "I must not crowd you out of all your mother privileges. You have handed over everything to me."
"A mother's privilege is to see herself no longer needed. I can do nothing more for my son"--her smile was hard--"except take care of his money."
"My dear, do you suppose we mind? It is a very great privilege to be allowed to step aside when your work is done."
"Paul's mother!" Moya insisted.
Mrs. Bogardus rose. "You don't remember your own mother, my dear. You have an exaggerated idea of the--the importance of mothers. They are only a temporary arrangement." She put out her hands and the girl's cheek touched hers for an instant; then she straightened herself and walked calmly out of the room. Moya remained a little longer, afraid to follow her. "If she would not smile! If she would do anything but smile!"
Paul was walking about his room, half an hour later, when Moya stopped outside his door. She placed the tray on a table in the hall. The door was opened from within. Paul had heard his mother go up before, heard her pause at the stairs, and, after a silence, enter her own room.
"She knows that I know," he said to himself. "That knowledge will be always between us; we can never look each other in the face again." To Moya he endeavored to speak lightly.
"It sounded very gay downstairs to-night. You must have had a houseful."
"I have been with your mother the last hour," answered Moya, vaguely on the defensive. Since Paul's return there had been little of the old free intercourse in words between them, and without this outlet their mutual consciousness became acute. Often as they saw each other during the day, the keenest emotion attached to the first meeting of their eyes.
Paul was unnerved by his sudden recall from death to life. Its contrasts were overwhelming to his starved senses: from the dirt and dearth and grimy despair of his burial hutch in the snow to this softly lighted, close-curtained room, warm and sweet with flowers; from the gaunt, unshaven spectre of the packer and his ghostly revelations, to Moya, meekly beautiful, her bright eyes lowered as she trailed her soft skirts across the carpet; Moya seated opposite, silent, conscious of him in every look and movement. Her lovely hands lay in her lap, and the thought of holding them in his made him tremble; and when he recalled the last time he had kissed her he grew faint. He longed to throw off this exhausting self-restraint, but feared to betray his helpless passion which he deemed an insult to his soul's worship of her.
And she was thinking: "Is this all it is going to mean--his coming home--our being together? And I was almost his wife!"
"So it was my mother you were talking to in the study? I thought I heard a man's voice."
"It was the doctor. Your mother was not quite herself this evening. He came in to see her, but he does not think she is ill. 'Rest and change,' he says she needs."
Paul gave the words a certain depth of consideration. "Are you as well as usual, Moya?"
"Oh, I am always well," she answered cheerlessly. "I seem to thrive on anything--everything," she corrected herself, and blushed.
The blush made him gasp. "You are more beautiful than ever. I had forgotten that beauty is a physical fact. The sight of you confuses me."
"I always told you you were morbid." Moya's happy audacity returned. "Now, how long are you going to sit and think about that?"
"Do I sit and think about things?" His reluctant, boyish smile, which all women loved, captured his features for a moment. "It is very rude of me."
"Suppose I should ask you what you are thinking about?"
"Ah! I am afraid you would say 'morbid' again."
"Try me! You ought to let me know at once if you are going to break out in any new form of morbidness."
"I wish it might amuse you, but it wouldn't. Let me put you a case--seriously."
Moya smiled. "Once we were serious--ages ago. Do you remember?"
"Do I remember!"
"Well? You are you, and I am I, still."
"Yes; and as full of fateful surprises for each other."
"I bar 'fateful'! That word has the true taint of morbidness."
"But you can't 'bar' fate. Listen: this is a supposing, you know. Suppose that an accident had happened to our leader on the way home--to your Lieutenant Winslow, we'll say"--
"Your father's--the regiment's--Lieutenant Winslow 'of ours.' Suppose we had brought him back in a state to need a surgeon's help; and without a word to any one he should get up and walk out of the hospital with his hurts not healed, and no one knew why, or where he had gone? There would be a stir about it, would there not? And if such a poor spectre of a bridegroom as I were allowed to join the search, no one would think it strange, or call it a slight to his bride if the fellow went?"
"I take your case," said Moya with a beaming look. "You want to go after that poor man who suffered with you."
"Who went with us to save us from our own headstrong folly, and would have died there alone"--
"Yes; oh, yes!--before you begin to think about yourself, or me. Because he is nobody 'of ours,' and no one seems to feel responsible, and we go on talking and laughing just the same!"
"Do they talk of this downstairs?"
"To-night they were talking--oh, with such philosophy! But how came you to know it?"
Paul did not answer this question. "Then"--he drew a long breath,--"then you could bear it, dear?--the comment, even if they called it a slight to you and a piece of quixotic lunacy? Others will not take my case, remember."
"They will say: 'Why doesn't he send a better man? He is no trailer.' It is true. Money might find him and bring him back, but all the money in the world could not teach him to trust his friends. There is a misunderstanding here which is too bitter to be borne. It is hard to explain,--the intimacy that grows up between men placed as we were. But as soon as help reached us, the old lines were drawn. I belonged with the officers, he with the men. We could starve together, but we could not eat together. He accepted it--put himself on that basis at once. He would not come up here as the guest of the Post. He is done with us because he thinks we are done with him. And he knows that I must know his occupation is gone. He will never guide nor pack a mule again."
"Your mother and my father, they will understand. What do the others matter?"
"I must tell you, dear, that I do not propose to tell them--especially them--why I go. For I am going. I must go! There are reasons I cannot explain." He sighed, and looked wildly at Moya, whose smile was becoming mechanical. "I hate the excuse, but it will have to be said that I go for a change--for my health. My health! Great God! But it's 'orders,' dear."
"Your orders are my orders. You are never going anywhere again without me," said Moya slowly. Her smile was gone. She stood up and faced him, pale and beautiful. He rose, too, and stooped above her, taking her hands and gazing into her full blue eyes arched like the eyes of angels.
"I thought she was a girl! But she is a woman," he said in a voice of caressing wonder. "A woman, and not afraid!"
"I am afraid. I will not be left--I will not be left again! Oh, you won't take me, even when I offer myself to you!"
"Don't--don't tempt me!" Paul caught her to him with a groan. "You don't know me well enough to be afraid of me!"
"You! You will not let me know you."
"Oh, hush, dear--hush, my darling! This isn't thinking. We must think for our lives. I must take care of you, precious. We don't know where this search may take us, or where it will end, or what the end will be." He kissed the sleeve of her dress, and put her gently from him, so that he could look her in the eyes. She gave him her full pure gaze.
"It is the poor man again. You said he would spoil our lives."
"He is our poor man. You didn't go out of your way to find him. And your way is mine."
"It is so heavenly to be convinced! Who taught you to see things at a glance,--things I have toiled and bungled over and don't know now if I am right! Who taught you?"
"Do you think I stood still while you were away! Oh, my heart was sifted out by little pieces."
"You shall sift mine. You shall tell me what to do. For I know nothing! Not even if I may dare to take this angel at her word!"
"I knew you would not take me!" the girl whispered wildly. "But I shall go."