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CHAPTER XXXVI - LIGHT
Harold had been in a state of increasing restlessness. The month of waiting which Dr. Hilton had laid down for him seemed to wear away with extraordinary slowness; this was increased by the lack of companionship, and further by the cutting off of even the little episodes usual to daily life. His patience, great as it was naturally and trained as it had been by the years of self-repression, was beginning to give way. Often and often there came over him a wild desire to tear off the irksome bandages and try for himself whether the hopes held out to him were being even partially justified. He was restrained only by the fear of perpetual blindness, which came over him in a sort of cold wave at each reaction. Time, too, added to his fear of discovery; but he could not but think that his self-sought isolation must be a challenge to the curiosity of each and all who knew of it. And with all these disturbing causes came the main one, which never lessened but always grew: that whatever might happen Stephen would be further from him than ever. Look at the matter how he would; turn it round in whatsoever possible or impossible way, he could see no relief to this gloomy conclusion.
For it is in the nature of love that it creates or enlarges its own pain. If troubles or difficulties there be from natural causes, then it will exaggerate them into nightmare proportions. But if there be none, it will create them. Love is in fact the most serious thing that comes to man; where it exists all else seem as phantoms, or at best as actualities of lesser degree. During the better part of two years his troubles had but slept; and as nothing wakes the pangs of old love better than the sound of a voice, all the old acute pain of love and the agony that followed its denial were back with him. Surely he could never, never believe that Stephen did not mean what she had said to him that morning in the beech grove. All his new resolution not to hamper her with the burden of a blind and lonelyhearted man was back to the full.
In such mood had he been that morning. He was additionally disturbed because the Doctor had gone early to Port Lannoch; and as he was the only person with whom he could talk, he clung to him with something of the helpless feeling of a frightened child to its nurse.
The day being full of sunshine the window was open, and only the dark-green blind which crackled and rustled with every passing breeze made the darkness of the room. Harold was dressed and lay on a sofa placed back in the room, where the few rays of light thus entering could not reach him. His eyes and forehead were bandaged as ever. For some days the Doctor, who had his own reasons and his own purpose, had not taken them off; so the feeling of blind helplessness was doubly upon him. He knew he was blind; and he knew also that if he were not he could not in his present condition see.
All at once he started up awake. His hearing had in the weeks of darkness grown abnormally acute, and some trifling sound had recalled him to himself. It might have been inspiration, but he seemed to be conscious of some presence in the room.
As he rose from the sofa, with the violent motion of a strong man startled into unconscious activity, he sent a shock of fear to the eager child who had strayed into the room through the open window. Had he presented a normal appearance, she would not have been frightened. She would have recognised his identity despite the changes, and have sprung to him so impulsively that she would have been in his arms before she had time to think. But now all she saw was a great beard topped with a mass of linen and lint, which obscured all the rest of the face and seemed in the gloom like a gigantic and ominous turban.
In her fright she screamed out. He in turn, forgetful for the moment of his intention of silence, called aloud:
'Who is that?' Pearl, who had been instinctively backing towards the window by which she had entered, and whose thoughts in her fright had gone back to her mother - refuge in time of danger - cried out:
'Mother, Mother! It is him! It is The Man!' She would have run towards him in spite of his forbidding appearance; but the shock had been too much for her. The little knees trembled and gave way; the brain reeled; and with a moan she sank on the floor in a swoon.
Harold knew the voice the instant she spoke; there was no need for the enlightening words
'Pearl! Pearl!' he cried. 'Come to me, darling!' But as he spoke he heard her moan, and the soft thud of her little body on the thick carpet. He guessed the truth and groped his way towards where the sound had been, for he feared lest he might trample upon her in too great eagerness. Kneeling by her he touched her little feet, and then felt his way to her face. And as he did so, such is the double action of the mind, even in the midst of his care the remembrance swept across his mind of how he had once knelt in just such manner in an old church by another little senseless form. In his confusion of mind he lost the direction of the door, and coming to the window pushed forward the flapping blind and went out on the balcony. He knew from the freshness of the air and the distant sounds that he was in the open. This disturbed him, as he wished to find someone who could attend to the fainting child. But as he had lost the way back to the room now, he groped along the wall of the Castle with one hand, whilst he held Pearl securely in the other. As he went he called out for help.
When he came opposite the window of the Mandarin room Mrs. Stonehouse saw him; she ran to him and caught Pearl in her arms. She was so agitated, so lost in concern for the child that she never even thought to speak to the man whom she had come so far to seek. She wailed over the child:
'Pearl! Pearl! What is it, darling? It is Mother!' She laid the girl on the sofa, and taking the flowers out of a glass began to sprinkle water on the child's face. Harold knew her voice and waited in patience. Presently the child sighed; the mother, relieved, thought of other things at last and looked around her.
There was yet another trouble. There on the floor, where she had slipped down, lay Lady de Lannoy in a swoon. She called out instinctively, forgetting for the moment that the man was blind, but feeling all the old confidence which he had won in her heart:
'Oh! Mr. Robinson, help me! Lady de Lannoy has fainted too, and I do not know what to do!' As she spoke she looked up at him and remembered his blindness. But she had no time to alter her words; the instant she had spoken Harold, who had been leaning against the window-sash, and whose mind was calmer since with his acute hearing he too had heard Pearl sigh, seemed to leap into the room.
'Where is she? Where is she? Oh, God, now am I blind indeed!'
It gave her a pang to hear him and to see him turn helplessly with his arms and hands outstretched as though he would feel for her in the air.
Without pause, and under an instinctive and uncontrollable impulse, he tore the bandages from his eyes. The sun was streaming in. As he met it his eyes blinked and a cry burst from him; a wild cry whose joy and surprise pierced even through the shut portals of the swooning woman's brain. Not for worlds would she ever after have lost the memory of that sound:
'Light! light! Oh, God! Oh, God! I am not blind!'
But he looked round him still in terrified wonder:
'Where is she? Where is she? I cannot see her! Stephen! Stephen! where are you?' Mrs. Stonehouse, bewildered, pointed where Stephen's snow-white face and brilliant hair seemed in the streaming sunlight like ivory and gold:
'There! There!' He caught her arm mechanically, and putting his eyes to her wrist, tried to look along her pointed finger. In an instant he dropped her arm moaning.
'I cannot see her! What is it that is over me? This is worse than to be blind!' He covered his face with his hands and sobbed.
He felt light strong fingers on his forehead and hands; fingers whose touch he would have known had they been laid on him were he no longer quick. A voice whose music he had heard in his dreams for two long years said softly:
'I am here, Harold! I am here! Oh! do not sob like that; it breaks my heart to hear you!' He took his hands from his face and held hers in them, staring intently at her as though his passionate gaze would win through every obstacle.
That moment he never forgot. Never could forget! He saw the room all rich in yellow. He saw Pearl, pale but glad-eyed, lying on a sofa holding the hand of her mother, who stood beside her. He saw the great high window open, the lines of the covered stone balcony without, the stretch of green sward all vivid in the sunshine, and beyond it the blue quivering sea. He saw all but that for which his very soul longed; without to see which sight itself was valueless . . . But still he looked, and looked; and Stephen saw in his dark eyes, though he could not see her, that which made her own eyes fill and the warm red glow on her face again . . . Then she raised her eyes again, and the gladness of her beating heart seemed the answer to his own.
For as he looked he saw, as though emerging from a mist whose obscurity melted with each instant, what was to him the one face in all the world. He did not think then of its beauty - that would come later; and besides no beauty of one born of woman could outmatch the memorised beauty which had so long held his heart. But that he had so schooled himself in long months of gloomy despair, he would have taken her in his arms there and then; and, heedless of the presence of others, have poured out his full heart to her.
Mrs. Stonehouse saw and understood. So too Pearl, who though a child was a woman-child; softly they rose up to steal away. But Stephen saw them; her own instincts, too, told her that her hour had not come. What she hoped for must come alone! So she called to her guests:
'Don't go! Don't go, Mrs. Stonehouse. You know now that Harold and I are old friends, though neither of us knew it - till this moment. We were brought up as . . . almost as brother and sister. Pearl, isn't it lovely to see your friend . . . to see The Man again?'
She was so happy that she could only express herself, with dignity, through the happiness of others.
Pearl actually shrieked with joy as she rushed across the room and flung herself into Harold's arms as he stooped to her. He raised her; and she kissed him again and again, and put her little hands all over his face and stroked, very, very gently, his eyes, and said:
'Oh, I am so glad! And so glad your poor eyes are unbind again! May I call you Harold, too?'
'You darling!' was all he could say as he kissed her, and holding her in one arm went across and shook hands with Mrs. Stonehouse, who wrung his hand hard.
There was a little awkwardness in the group, for none of them knew what would be best to do next. In the midst of it there came a light knock at the door, and Mr. Hilton entered saying:
'They told me you wished to see me at once - Hulloa!' He rushed across the room and took Harold by the shoulders, turning his face to the light. He looked in his eyes long and earnestly, the others holding their breaths. Presently he said, without relaxing his gaze:
'Did you see mistily at first?'
'Seeing at the periphery; but the centre being opaque?'
'Yes! How did you know? Why, I couldn't see' - see pointing to Stephen - 'Lady de Lannoy; though her face was right in front of me!'
Dr. Hilton took his hands from his patient's shoulders and shook him warmly by both hands:-
'I am glad, old fellow! It was worth waiting for, wasn't it? But I say, it was a dangerous thing to take off those bandages before I permitted. However, it has done no harm! But it was lucky that I mistrusted your patience and put the time for the experiment a week later than I thought necessary . . . What is it?' He turned from one to the other questioningly; there was a look on Harold's face that he did not quite comprehend.
'H-s-h,' said the latter warningly, 'I'll tell you all about it . . . some time!'
The awkward pause was broken by Pearl, who came to the Doctor and said:
'I must kiss you, you know. It was you who saved The Man's eyes. Stephen has told me how you watched him!' The Doctor was somewhat taken aback; as yet he was ignorant of Pearl's existence. However, he raised the child in his arms and kissed her, saying:
'Thank you, my dear! I did all I could. But he helped much himself; except at the very last. Don't you ever go and take off bandages, if you should ever have the misfortune to have them on, without the doctor's permission!' Pearl nodded her head wisely and then wriggled out of his arms and came again to Harold, looking up at him protectingly and saying in an old-fashioned way:
'How are you feeling now? None the worse, I hope, HAROLD!'
The Man lifted her up and kissed her again. When he set her down she came over to Lady de Lannoy and held up her arms to be lifted:
'And I must kiss you again too, Stephen!' If Lady de Lannoy hadn't loved the sweet little thing already she would have loved her for that!
The door was opened, and the butler announced:
'Luncheon is served, your Ladyship.'
After a few days Harold went over to Varilands to stay for a while with the Stonehouses. Mr. Stonehouse had arrived, and both men were rejoiced to meet again. The elder never betrayed by word or sign that he recognised the identity of the other person of the drama of whom he had told him and who had come so accidentally into his life; and the younger was grateful to him for it. Harold went almost every day to Lannoy, and sometimes the Stonehouses went with him; at other times Stephen paid flying visits to Varilands. She did not make any effort to detain Harold; she would not for worlds have made a sign which might influence him. She was full now of that diffidence which every woman has who loves. She felt that she must wait; must wait even if the waiting lasted to her grave. She felt, as every woman does who really loves, that she had found her Master.
And Harold, to whom something of the same diffidence was an old story, got the idea that her reticence was a part of the same feeling whose violent expression had sent him out into the wilderness. And with the thought came the idea of his duty, implied in her father's dying trust: 'Give her time! . . . Let her choose!' For him the clock seemed to have stopped for two whole years, and he was back at the time when the guardianship of his boy life was beginning to yield to the larger and more selfish guardianship of manhood.
Stephen, noticing that he did not come near her as closely as she felt he might, and not realising his true reason - for when did love ever realise the true reason of the bashfulness of love? - felt a chillness which in turn reacted on her own manner.
And so these two ardent souls, who yearned for each other's love and the full expression of it, seemed as if they might end after all in drifting apart. Each thought that their secret was concealed. But both secrets were already known to Mrs. Stonehouse, who knew nothing; and to Mr. Stonehouse, who knew everything. Even Pearl had her own ideas, as was once shown in a confidence when they were alone in Stephen's bedroom after helping her to finish her dressing, just as Stephen herself had at a similar age helped her Uncle Gilbert. After some coy leading up to the subject of pretty dresses, the child putting her little mouth to the other's ear whispered:
'May I be your bridesmaid, Stephen?' The woman was taken aback; but she had to speak at once, for the child's eyes were on her:
'Of course you will, darling. But I - I may never be married.'
'You! You must! I know someone who will make you!' Stephen's heart beat hard and rapidly. The child's talk, though sweet and dear, was more than embarrassing. With, however, the desire to play with fire, which is a part of the nature of women, she answered:
'You have some queer ideas, little one, in that pretty knowledge-box of yours.'
'Oh! he never told me. But I know it all the same! And you know it too, Stephen!' This was getting too close to be without danger; so she tried to divert the thought from herself:
'My darling, you may guess about other people, though I don't say you ought; but you must not guess about me!'
'All right!' then she held up her arms to be lifted on the other's knee and said:
'I want to whisper to you!' Her voice and manner were so full of feeling that somehow the other was moved. She bent her head, and Pearl taking her neck in her little palms, said:
'I thought, oh! long ago, that I would marry him myself. But you knew him first . . . And he only saved me . . . But you saved him!' . . . And then she laid her head down on the throbbing bosom, and sobbed . . .
And Stephen sobbed too.
Before they left the room, Stephen said to her, very gravely, for the issue might be one of great concern:
'Of course, Pearl dear, our secrets are all between ourselves!' Pearl crossed her two forefingers and kissed them. But she said nothing; she had sworn! Stephen went on:
'And, darling, you will remember too that one must never speak or even think if they can help it about anyone's marrying anyone else till they say so themselves! What is it, dear, that you are smiling at?'
'I know, Stephen! I musn't take off the bandage till the Doctor says so!'
Stephen smiled and kissed her. Hand in hand, Pearl chattering merrily, they went down to the drawing-room.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXXVII - GOLDEN SILENCE