Part II
Chapter XX. A Love-Letter
 

Some beautiful days followed, so beautiful to Grizel that as they passed away she kissed her hand to them. Do you see her standing on tiptoe to see the last of them? They lit a fire in the chamber of her soul which is the home of all pure maids, and the fagots that warmed Grizel were every fond look that had been on her lover's face and every sweet word he had let fall. She counted and fondled them, and pretended that one was lost that she might hug it more than all the others when it was found. To sit by that fire was almost better than having the days that lit it; sometimes she could scarcely wait for the day to go.

Tommy's fond looks and sweet words! There was also a letter in those days, and, now that I remember, a little garnet ring; and there were a few other fagots, but all so trifling it must seem incredible to you that they could have made so great a blaze--nothing else in it, on my honour, except a girl's heart added by herself that the fire might burn a moment longer.

And now, what so chilly as the fire that has gone out! Gone out long ago, dear Grizel, while you crouched over it. You may put your hand in the ashes; they will not burn you now. Ah, Grizel, why do you sit there in the cold?

The day of the letter! It began in dread, but ended so joyfully, do you think Grizel grudged the dread? It became dear to her; she loved to return to it and gaze at the joy it glorified, as one sees the sunshine from a murky room. When she heard the postman's knock she was not even curious; so few letters came to her, she thought this must be Maggy Ann's monthly one from Aberdeen, and went on placidly dusting. At last she lifted it from the floor, for it had been slipped beneath the door, and then Grizel was standing in her little lobby, panting as if at the end of a race. The letter lay in both her hands, and they rose slowly until they were pressed against her breast.

She uttered some faint cries (it was the only moment in which I have known Grizel to be hysterical), and then she ran to her room and locked herself in--herself and it. Do you know why that look of elation had come suddenly to her face? It was because he had not even written the address in a disguised hand to deceive the postmistress. So much of the old Grizel was gone that the pathos of her elation over this was lost to her.

Several times she almost opened it. Why did she pause? why had that frightened look come into her eyes? She put the letter on her table and drew away from it. If she took a step nearer, her hands went behind her back as if saying, "Grizel, don't ask us to open it; we are afraid."

Perhaps it really did say the dear things that love writes. Perhaps it was aghast at the way she was treating it. Dear letter! Her mouth smiled to it, but her hands remained afraid. As she stood irresolute, smiling, and afraid, she was a little like her mother. I have put off as long as possible saying that Grizel was ever like her mother. The Painted Lady had never got any letters while she was in Thrums, but she looked wistfully at those of other people. "They are so pretty," she had said; "but don't open them: when you open them they break your heart." Grizel remembered what her mother had said.

Had the old Grizel feared what might be inside, it would have made her open the letter more quickly. Two minds to one person were unendurable to her. But she seemed to be a coward now. It was pitiable.

Perhaps it was quite a common little letter, beginning "Dear Grizel," and saying nothing more delicious or more terrible than that he wanted her to lend him one of the doctor's books. She thought of a score of trivialities it might be about; but the letter was still unopened when David Gemmell called to talk over some cases in which he required her counsel. He found her sitting listlessly, something in her lap which she at once concealed. She failed to follow his arguments, and he went away puckering his brows, some of the old doctor's sayings about her ringing loud in his ears.

One of them was: "Things will be far wrong with Grizel when she is able to sit idle with her hands in her lap."

Another: "She is almost pitifully straightforward, man. Everything that is in Grizel must out. She can hide nothing."

Yet how cunningly she had concealed what was in her hands. Cunning applied to Grizel! David shuddered. He thought of Tommy, and shut his mouth tight. He could do this easily. Tommy could not do it without feeling breathless. They were types of two kinds of men.

David also remembered a promise he had given McQueen, and wondered, as he had wondered a good deal of late, whether the time had come to keep it.

But Grizel sat on with her unopened letter. She was to meet Tommy presently on the croquet lawn of the Dovecot, when Ailie was to play Mr. James (the champion), and she decided that she must wait till then. She would know what sort of letter it was the moment she saw his face. And then! She pressed her hands together.

Oh, how base of her to doubt him! She said it to herself then and often afterwards. She looked mournfully in her mother's long mirror at this disloyal Grizel, as if the capacity to doubt him was the saddest of all the changes that had come to her. He had been so true yesterday; oh, how could she tremble to-day? Beautiful yesterday! but yesterday may seem so long ago. How little a time had passed between the moment when she was greeting him joyously in Caddam Wood and that cry of the heart, "How could you hurt your Grizel so!" No, she could not open her letter. She could kiss it, but she could not open it.

Foolish fears! for before she had shaken hands with Tommy in Mrs. McLean's garden she knew he loved her still, and that the letter proved it. She was properly punished, yet surely in excess, for when she might have been reading her first love-letter, she had to join in discussions with various ladies about Berlin wool and the like, and to applaud the prowess of Mr. James with the loathly croquet mallet. It seemed quite a long time before Tommy could get a private word with her. Then he began about the letter at once.

"You are not angry with me for writing it?" he asked anxiously. "I should not have done it; I had no right: but such a desire to do it came over me, I had to; it was such a glory to me to say in writing what you are to me."

She smiled happily. Oh, exquisite day! "I have so long wanted to have a letter from you," she said. "I have almost wished you would go away for a little time, so that I might have a letter from you."

He had guessed this. He had written to give her delight.

"Did you like the first words of it, Grizel?" he asked eagerly.

The lover and the artist spoke together.

Could she admit that the letter was unopened, and why? Oh, the pain to him! She nodded assent. It was not really an untruth, she told herself. She did like them--oh, how she liked them, though she did not know what they were!

"I nearly began 'My beloved,'" he said solemnly.

Somehow she had expected it to be this. "Why didn't you?" she asked, a little disappointed.

"I like the other so much better," he replied. "To write it was so delicious to me, I thought you would not mind."

"I don't mind," she said hastily. (What could it be?)

"But you would have preferred 'beloved'?"

"It is such a sweet name."

"Surely not so sweet as the other, Grizel?"

"No," she said, "no." (Oh, what could it be!)

"Have you destroyed it?" he asked, and the question was a shock to her. Her hand rose instinctively to defend something that lay near her heart.

"I could not," she whispered.

"Do you mean you wanted to?" he asked dolefully.

"I thought you wanted it," she murmured.

"I!" he cried, aghast, and she was joyous again.

"Can't you guess where it is?" she said.

He understood. "Grizel! You carry my letter there!"

She was full of glee; but she puzzled him presently.

"Do you think I could go now?" she inquired eagerly.

"And leave me?"

It was dreadful of her, but she nodded.

"I want to go home."

"Is it not home, Grizel, when you are with me?"

"I want to go away from home, then." She said it as if she loved to tantalize him.

"But why?"

"I won't tell you." She was looking wistfully at the door. "I have something to do."

"It can wait."

"It has waited too long." He might have heard an assenting rustle from beneath her bodice.

"Do let me go," she said coaxingly, as if he held her.

"I can't understand----" he began, and broke off. She was facing him demurely but exultantly, challenging him, he could see, to read her now. "Just when I am flattering myself that I know everything about you, Grizel," he said, with a long face, "I suddenly wonder whether I know anything."

She would have liked to clap her hands. "You must remember that we have changed places," she told him. "It is I who understand you now."

"And I am devoutly glad," he made answer, with humble thankfulness. "And I must ask you, Grizel, why you want to run away from me."

"But you think you know," she retorted smartly. "You think I want to read my letter again!"

Her cleverness staggered him. "But I am right, am I not, Grizel?"

"No," she said triumphantly, "you are quite wrong. Oh, if you knew how wrong you are!" And having thus again unhorsed him, she made her excuses to Ailie and slipped away. Dr. Gemmell, who was present and had been watching her narrowly, misread the flush on her face and her restless desire to be gone.

"Is there anything between those two, do you think?" Mrs. McLean had said in a twitter to him while Tommy and Grizel were talking, and he had answered No almost sharply.

"People are beginning to think there is," she said in self-defence.

"They are mistaken," he told her curtly, and it was about this time that Grizel left. David followed her to her home soon afterwards, and Maggy Ann, who answered his summons, did not accompany him upstairs. He was in the house daily, and she left him to find Grizel for himself. He opened the parlour door almost as he knocked, and she was there, but had not heard him. He stopped short, like one who had blundered unawares on what was not for him.

She was on her knees on the hearth-rug, with her head buried in what had been Dr. McQueen's chair. Ragged had been the seat of it on the day when she first went to live with him, but very early on the following morning, or, to be precise, five minutes after daybreak, he had risen to see if there were burglars in the parlour, and behold, it was his grateful little maid repadding the old arm-chair. How a situation repeats itself! Without disturbing her, the old doctor had slipped away with a full heart. It was what the young doctor did now.

But the situation was not quite the same. She had been bubbling over with glee then; she was sobbing now. David could not know that it was a sob of joy; he knew only that he had never seen her crying before, and that it was the letter in her hands that had brought tears at last to those once tranquil and steadfast eyes.

In an odd conversation which had once taken place in that room between the two doctors, Gemmell had said: "But the time may come without my knowing it." And McQueen's reply was: "I don't think so, for she is so open; but I'll tell you this, David, as a guide. I never saw her eyes wet. It is one of the touching things about her that she has the eyes of a man, to whom it is a shame to cry. If you ever see her greeting, David, I'm sore doubting that the time will have come."

As David Gemmell let himself softly out of the house, to return to it presently, he thought the time had come. What he conceived he had to do was a hard thing, but he never thought of not doing it. He had kept himself in readiness to do it for many days now, and he walked to it as firmly as if he were on his professional rounds. He did not know that the skin round his eyes had contracted, giving them the look of pain which always came there when he was sorry or pitiful or indignant. He was not well acquainted with his eyes, and, had he glanced at them now in a glass, would have presumed that this was their usual expression.

Grizel herself opened the door to him this time, and "Maggy Ann, he is found!" she cried victoriously. Evidently she had heard of his previous visit. "We have searched every room in the house for you," she said gaily, "and had you disappeared for much longer, Maggy Ann would have had the carpets up."

He excused himself on the ground that he had forgotten something, and she chided him merrily for being forgetful. As he sat with her David could have groaned aloud. How vivacious she had become! but she was sparkling in false colours. After what he knew had been her distress of a few minutes ago, it was a painted face to him. She was trying to deceive him. Perhaps she suspected that he had seen her crying, and now, attired in all a woman's wiles, she was defying him to believe his eyes.

Grizel garbed in wiles! Alack the day! She was shielding the man, and Gemmell could have driven her away roughly to get at him. But she was also standing over her own pride, lest anyone should see that it had fallen; and do you think that David would have made her budge an inch?

Of course she saw that he had something on his mind. She knew those puckered eyes so well, and had so often smoothed them for him.

"What is it, David?" she asked sympathetically. "I see you have come as a patient to-night."

"As one of those patients," he rejoined, "who feel better at mere sight of the doctor."

"Fear of the prescription?" said she.

"Not if you prescribe yourself, Grizel."

"David!" she cried. He had been paying compliments!

"I mean it."

"So I can see by your face. Oh, David, how stern you look!"

"Dr. McQueen and I," he retorted, "used to hold private meetings after you had gone to bed, at which we agreed that you should no longer be allowed to make fun of us. They came to nothing. Do you know why?"

"Because I continued to do it?"

"No; but because we missed it so much if you stopped."

"You are nice to-night, David," she said, dropping him a courtesy.

"We liked all your bullying ways," he went on. "We were children in your masterful hands."

"I was a tyrant, David," she said, looking properly ashamed. "I wonder you did not marry, just to get rid of me."

"Have you ever seriously wondered why I don't marry?" he asked quickly.

"Oh, David," she exclaimed, "what else do you think your patients and I talk of when I am trying to nurse them? It has agitated the town ever since you first walked up the Marrywellbrae, and we can't get on with our work for thinking of it."

"Seriously, Grizel?"

She became grave at once. "If you could find the right woman," she said wistfully.

"I have found her," he answered; and then she pressed her hands together, too excited to speak.

"If she would only care a little for me," he said.

Grizel rocked her arms. "I am sure she does," she cried. "David, I am so glad!"

He saw what her mistake was, but pretended not to know that she had made one. "Are you really glad that I love you, Grizel?" he asked.

It seemed to daze her for a moment. "Not me, David," she said softly, as if correcting him. "You don't mean that it is me?" she said coaxingly. "David," she cried, "say it is not me!"

He drooped his head, but not before he had seen all the brightness die out of her face. "Is it so painful to you even to hear me say it?" he asked gravely.

Her joy had been selfish as her sorrow was. For nigh a minute she had been thinking of herself alone, it meant so much to her; but now she jumped up and took his hand in hers.

"Poor David!" she said, making much of his hand as if she had hurt it. But David Gemmell's was too simple a face to oppose to her pitying eyes, and presently she let his hand slip from her and stood regarding him curiously. He had to look another way, and then she even smiled, a little forlornly.

"Do you mind talking it over with me, Grizel?" he asked. "I have always been well aware that you did not care for me in that way, but nevertheless I believe you might do worse."

"No woman could do better," she answered gravely. "I should like you to talk it over, David, if you begin at the beginning"; and she sat down with her hands crossed.

"I won't say what a good thing it would be for me," was his beginning; "we may take that for granted."

"I don't think we can," she remarked; "but it scarcely matters at present. That is not the beginning, David."

He was very anxious to make it the beginning.

"I am weary of living in lodgings," he said. "The practice suffers by my not being married. Many patients dislike being attended by a single man. I ought to be in McQueen's house; it has been so long known as the doctor's house. And you should be a doctor's wife--you who could almost be the doctor. It would be a shame, Grizel, if you who are so much to patients were to marry out of the profession. Don't you follow me?"

"I follow you," she replied; "but what does it matter? You have not begun at the beginning." He looked at her inquiringly. "You must begin," she informed him, "by saying why you ask me to marry you when you don't love me." She added, in answer to another look from him: "You know you don't." There was a little reproach in it. "Oh, David, what made you think I could be so easily taken in!"

He looked so miserable that by and by she smiled, not so tremulously as before.

"How bad at it you are, David!" she said.

And how good at it she was! he thought gloomily.

"Shall I help you out?" she asked gently, but speaking with dignity. "You think I am unhappy; you believe I am in the position in which you placed yourself, of caring for someone who does not care for me."

"Grizel, I mistrust him."

She flushed; she was not quite so gentle now. "And so you offer me your hand to save me! It was a great self-sacrifice, David, but you used not to be fond of doing showy things."

"I did not mean it to be showy," he answered.

She was well aware of that, but--"Oh, David," she cried, "that you should believe I needed it! How little you must think of me!"

"Does it look as if I thought little of you?" he said.

"Little of my strength, David, little of my pride."

"I think so much of them that how could I stand by silently and watch them go?"

"You think you have seen that!" She was agitated now.

He hesitated. "Yes," he said courageously.

Her eyes cried, "David, how could you be so cruel!" but they did not daunt him.

"Have you not seen it yourself, Grizel?" he said.

She pressed her hands together. "I was so happy," she said, "until you came!"

"Have you not seen it yourself?" he asked again.

"There may be better things," she retorted, "than those you rate so highly."

"Not for you," he said.

"If they are gone," she told him, with a flush of resentment, "it is not you who can bring them back."

"But let me try, Grizel," said he.

"David, can I not even make you angry with me?"

"No, Grizel, you can't. I am very sorry that I can make you angry with me."

"I am not," she said dispiritedly. "It would be contemptible in me." And then, eagerly: "But, David, you have made a great mistake, indeed you have. You--you are a dreadful bungler, sir!" She was trying to make his face relax, with a tremulous smile from herself to encourage him; but the effort was not successful. "You see, I can't even bully you now!" she said. "Did that capacity go with the others, David?"

"Try a little harder," he replied. "I think you will find that I submit to it still"

"Very well." She forced some gaiety to her aid. After all, how could she let his monstrous stupidity wound a heart protected by such a letter?

"You have been a very foolish and presumptuous boy," she began. She was standing up, smiling, wagging a reproachful but nervous finger at him. "If it were not that I have a weakness for seeing medical men making themselves ridiculous so that I may put them right, I should be very indignant with you, sir."

"Put me right, Grizel," he said. He was sure she was trying to blind him again.

"Know, then, David, that I am not the poor-spirited, humble creature you seem to have come here in search of--"

"But you admitted--"

"How dare you interrupt me, sir! Yes, I admit that I am not quite as I was, but I glory in it. I used to be ostentatiously independent; now I am only independent enough. My pride made me walk on air; now I walk on the earth, where there is less chance of falling. I have still confidence in myself; but I begin to see that ways are not necessarily right because they are my ways. In short, David, I am evidently on the road to being a model character!"

They were gay words, but she ended somewhat faintly.

"I was satisfied with you as you were," was the doctor's comment.

"I wanted to excel!"

"You explain nothing, Grizel," he said reproachfully. "Why have you changed so?"

"Because I am so happy. Do you remember how, in the old days, I sometimes danced for joy? I could do it now."

"Are you engaged to be married, Grizel?"

She took a quiet breath. "You have no right to question me in this way," she said. "I think I have been very good in bearing with you so long."

But she laid aside her indignation at once; he was so old a friend, the sincerity of him had been so often tried. "If you must know, David," she said, with a girlish frankness that became her better, "I am not engaged to be married. And I must tell you nothing more," she added, shutting her mouth decisively. She must be faithful to her promise.

"He forbids it?" Gemmell asked mercilessly.

She stamped her foot, not in rage, but in hopelessness. "How incapable you are of doing him justice!" she cried. "If you only knew----"

"Tell me. I want to do him justice."

She sat down again, sighing. "My attempt to regain my old power over you has not been very successful, has it, David? We must not quarrel, though"--holding out her hand, which he grasped. "And you won't question me any more?" She said it appealingly.

"Never again," he answered. "I never wanted to question you, Grizel. I wanted only to marry you."

"And that can't be."

"I don't see it," he said, so stoutly that she was almost amused. But he would not be pushed aside. He had something more to say.

"Dr. McQueen wished it," he said; "above all else in the world he wished it. He often told me so."

"He never said that to me," Grizel replied quickly.

"Because he thought that to press you was no way to make you care for me. He hoped that it would come about."

"It has not come about, David, with either of us," she said gently. "I am sure that would have been sufficient answer to him."

"No, Grizel, it would not, not now."

He had risen, and his face was whiter than she had ever seen it.

"I am going to hurt you, Grizel," he said, and every word was a pang to him. "I see no other way. It has got to be done. Dr. McQueen often talked to me about the things that troubled you when you were a little girl--the morbid fears you had then, and that had all been swept away years before I knew you. But though they had been long gone, you were so much to him that he tried to think of everything that might happen to you in the future, and he foresaw that they might possibly come back. 'If she were ever to care for some false loon!' he has said to me, and then, Grizel, he could not go on."

Grizel beat her hands. "If he could not go on," she said, "it was not because he feared what I should do."

"No, no," David answered eagerly, "he never feared for that, but for your happiness. He told me of a boy who used to torment you, oh, all so long ago, and of such little account that he had forgotten his name. But that boy has come back, and you care for him, and he is a false loon, Grizel."

She had risen too, and was flashing fire on David; but he went on.

"'If the time ever comes,' he said to me, 'when you see her in torture from such a cause, speak to her openly about it. Tell her it is I who am speaking through you. It will be a hard task to you, but wrestle through with it, David, in memory of any little kindness I may have done you, and the great love I bore my Grizel.'"

She was standing rigid now. "Is there any more, David?" she said in a low voice.

"Only this. I admired you then as I admire you now. I may not love you, Grizel, but of this I am very sure"--he was speaking steadily, he was forgetting no one--"that you are the noblest and bravest woman I have ever known, and I promised--he did not draw the promise from me, I gave it to him--that if I was a free man and could help you in any way without paining you by telling you these things, I would try that way first."

"And this is the way?"

"I could think of no other. Is it of no avail?"

She shook her head. "You have made such a dreadful mistake," she cried miserably, "and you won't see it. Oh, how you wrong him! I am the happiest girl in the world, and it is he who makes me so happy. But I can't explain. You need not ask me; I promised, and I won't."

"You used not to be so fond of mystery, Grizel."

"I am not fond of it now."

"Ah, it is he," David said bitterly, and he lifted his hat. "Is there nothing you will let me do for you, Grizel?" he cried.

"I thought you were to do so much for me when you came into this room," she admitted wistfully, "and said that you were in love. I thought it was with another woman."

He remembered that her face had brightened. "How could that have helped you?" he asked.

She saw that she had but to tell him, and for her sake he would do it at once. But she could not be so selfish.

"We need not speak of that now," she said.

"We must speak of it," he answered. "Grizel, it is but fair to me. It may be so important to me."

"You have shown that you don't care for her, David, and that ends it."

"Who is it?" He was much stirred.

"If you don't know----"

"Is it Elspeth?"

The question came out of him like a confession, and hope turned Grizel giddy.

"Do you love her, David?" she cried.

But he hesitated. "Is what you have told me true, that it would help you?" he asked, looking her full in the eyes.

"Do you love her?" she implored, but he was determined to have her answer first.

"Is it, Grizel?"

"Yes, yes. Do you, David?"

And then he admitted that he did, and she rocked her arms in joy.

"But oh, David, to say such things to me when you were not a free man! How badly you have treated Elspeth to-day!"

"She does not care for me," he said.

"Have you asked her?"--in alarm.

"No; but could she?"

"How could she help it?" She would not tell him what Tommy thought. Oh, she must do everything to encourage David.

"And still," said he, puzzling, "I don't see how it can affect you."

"And I can't tell you," she moaned. "Oh, David, do, do find out. Why are you so blind?" She could have shaken him. "Don't you see that once Elspeth was willing to be taken care of by some other person----I must not tell you!"

"Then he would marry you?"

She cried in anxiety: "Have I told you, or did you find out?"

"I found out," he said. "Is it possible he is so fond of her as that?"

"There never was such a brother," she answered. She could not help adding, "But he is still fonder of me."

The doctor pulled his arm over his eyes and sat down again. Presently he was saying with a long face: "I came here to denounce the cause of your unhappiness, and I begin to see it is myself."

"Of course it is, you stupid David," she said gleefully. She was very kind to the man who had been willing to do so much for her; but as the door closed on him she forgot him. She even ceased to hear the warning voice he had brought with him from the dead. She was re-reading the letter that began by calling her wife.