by Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
“May I speak to you alone a few minutes, Doctor Burns?” murmured Daisie, following the physician out from breakfast the next morning.
“Certainly, Mrs. Sherwood,” he returned deferentially; but she turned back from the threshold of the little morning room they were entering, with a passionate gesture and heart-wrung cry:
“Not that—oh, not that—Miss Bell is my name!”
“I beg your pardon.”
He bowed, and followed her across the threshold, closed the door, and placed a chair for her, sitting down opposite, and surveying her critically through his gold-bowed glasses, thinking, perhaps, that her wonderful beauty was all the more striking for the deadly pallor it wore.
“I think you married Mr. Sherwood last night?” he remarked.
The violet eyes flashed and darkened, and[Pg 146] Daisie’s golden head crested itself with sudden anger.
“Perhaps you are aware of the circumstances of that marriage?” she asked, with icy hauteur.
“Yes; an ill-timed joke on the part of our hostess; but, unfortunately, binding until the law is invoked to release you. So you are really Mrs. Sherwood.”
“Do not remind me of that fact unless you wish to drive me mad!” she exclaimed entreatingly; and he gazed at her in simple wonder, replying:
“Perhaps, then, I am mistaken in believing that you were engaged to Mr. Sherwood, and only angry because the marriage was a premature one?”
“Yes, yes,” she said; then studied his face to see if she could trust him.
It was the face of a man of sixty years, genial and open, with a sympathy that encouraged her to exclaim:
“Doctor Burns, I am in sore trouble, and I need a friend’s advice. Will you be that friend?”
“Most gladly, my dear young lady,” he replied,[Pg 147] so kindly that she was emboldened to sketch for him, in few but moving words, her brief love story.
“Now you see where I stand, Doctor Burns—married to one man and in love with another. Could anything be more distressing?” she cried appealingly; and he agreed with her that it was most unpleasant, while he thought within himself that the world had far too many such distressing cases.
She continued eagerly:
“Mr. Bain promised to secure a lawyer to-day to take my case, so of course I should not even be here under the same roof with Mr. Sherwood; but——” She paused, and he added pityingly:
“The circumstances of the case made it impossible for you to decline returning here last night. Common humanity would have been outraged by a refusal. But why trouble yourself over the ethics of the case, my dear young lady? Divorce proceedings are not likely to be needed, since you may soon be a widow.”
She shuddered at the bluntness of the words; then rallied her courage, and said frankly:
“Doctor, that is why I wished to speak with[Pg 148] you, to ask you for the plain truth. Is Royall Sherwood going to live or die?”
“The issues of life and death are in God’s hands alone,” evasively.
“But you are skilled in reading the signs, and you told Mrs. Fleming that he had one chance of life.”
“Yes, I told her so; but it is so very slight, and life hangs on a thread. The operation to remove the bullet was very exhausting, but successful. He lies now in a comatose condition, from which he may rally to make a struggle for renewed existence, or he may sink soon into the sleep of death.”
“Death!” What an awfully solemn word it was! How it shook her nerves! She burst into hysterical sobs, and Doctor Burns hastily prepared a sedative, and forced her to swallow it.
“You need it. It will give you sleep,” he said gently.
After a painful struggle with her crowding emotions, she continued:
“You have promised to be my friend, so tell me what to do. You understand, I mean to be free of this marriage, whether Mr. Sherwood[Pg 149] lives or dies? Then what must I do? Leave the house to-day?”
“Most certainly not! To do so would destroy his one chance of life,” he exclaimed, with the anxiety of a physician.
“But, doctor, he need not know,” she cried piteously.
“It would be impossible to keep him from it, since in his waking hours he calls often for you. It would be harsh and cruel to destroy his one chance to live by the shock of such a desertion,” Doctor Burns replied, telling her the truth without disguise, in his anxiety over his patient.
He thought she was going to faint, she turned so white as she clasped her hands on her heart, where pity for Royall Sherwood struggled with passion for her absent lover.
His dark, tender eyes, his noble face, rose before her mind’s eye, and she sobbed:
“Oh, that I might see Dallas! He would tell me what to do.”
“Shall I bring him here to see you?” he asked quickly.
“Oh, if you only would!”
“Then I will do so this morning, and if he is[Pg 150] the noble man I take him for he will bid you stay and save his rival’s life, even though you desert him afterward—although, if my advice were asked, I should say make the best of a bargain, and keep the husband you have already won, since, after all, it’s not a bad match. Sherwood has loads of money, and isn’t at all a bad fellow.”
“I know—I know; but Love goes where it is sent, and I could never care for him as he deserved. Oh, Doctor Burns, don’t you turn against me, too, for all are in league to break my heart!” wildly.
“Poor girl—poor girl! Then I’ll take your part by going at once to bring Mr. Bain to consult with you. Where shall I find him?”
“At the hotel, I suppose,” she returned, adding: “May God bless you for your kindness to a poor, friendless girl!”
“Thank you. I have need of His blessing. And now go, like a good girl, and take a nap until I return with Dallas Bain.”
She returned to her room to follow his advice, thinking that, indeed, she would like to look a little fresher when Dallas came.
But in a few minutes Mrs. Fleming entered, saying:
“Royall is awake and asking for you. Will you come?”
Annette, who was dozing on the bed, looked up wearily, and exclaimed:
“Be kind to him, Daisie, so that he may get well. I will help to nurse him; indeed, I will.”
Daisie arose and followed Mrs. Fleming to the sick room.
The nurse who was watching by the patient quickly left the room at a gesture from the mistress of the house.
Royall, whose ghastly pallor made him look as if death had already claimed him for its own, smiled feebly on the visitors, and murmured:
“Lutie, you may go into the next room while I speak to Daisie.”
They were alone—the beautiful, wretched girl and the husband who loved her so vainly and was slipping away from her so fast into the darkness of death.
He gazed at her with adoration in his dim blue eyes, and faltered:
“You did not leave me, Daisie. I am so glad, for I do not expect to live long, and I will die happy if you stay by me to the last.”
Her heart was touched by his fervent love, and impulsively she smoothed his cold hand caressingly.
But he sighed, and continued:
“I do not deserve your kindness, and I would not dare to accept it—only that I believe I am—slipping away from life.”
“Oh, no, no—there is a chance!” she said gently.
“Would you wish me to live, Daisie?”
“For you, dear?” wistfully.
“Do not let us speak of that now. I—I am too nervous,” she murmured.
“I understand, and I will not tease you by begging for your love—for I have a confession to make to you—my dying confession—and when you have heard it I cannot blame you if you hate me.”
How she pitied him now—she who had hated him only last night. But death cancels all resentments.
She wiped the dew from his cold brow with her soft and gentle hand. She stroked his fair curls softly, thinking how handsome he was in his fair style—only no one could approach her splendid lover, Dallas.
“I shall pray God to let you live,” she whispered; and a sudden hatred came to her for the fiend whose cowardly bullet had laid low this promising life.
“Wait till I tell you all,” he sighed remorsefully. “Ah, Daisie, I have done you a cruel wrong, but I cannot go down to death without confessing it, and then you will hate my very memory.”
“No, no—I will forgive you!” she murmured, out of her womanly sympathy.
“Ah, you don’t know it yet,” Royall Sherwood cried, half accusingly, and added: “I told you last night that I did not know what Lutie had done, but it was false. I was in the plot to deceive you. I went to her with my troubles, and my fear of losing you, since you were going away, and she suggested the plan to get you to help us last night, and make the wedding a real[Pg 154] one. I agreed to it, and won you for my bride by a fraud, a hideous lie.”
Startled beyond the power of speech, she gazed at him in dumb horror.
“Ah, I knew you would hate me! But I could not die without making my peace with God,” he moaned faintly. “I told the preacher about it last night, and he prayed for me, and said I must tell you all, so as to win God’s forgiveness and yours. You can forgive me, can’t you, since I was so soon cut down in my wickedness, and forced to repent? And, Daisie, I have sent for my lawyer. I shall leave you my whole fortune in atonement, so that you may one day be happy with Dallas Bain.”
“I will not accept it—I do not want it!” she cried hastily, adding: “Take my forgiveness freely. You sinned against me through your great love, so I cannot hate you.”
A glad smile irradiated his features, and he was about to thank her for her goodness when Doctor Burns entered softly, having returned from his mission into the town.
He expressed his pleasure at seeing Royall “getting on so nicely,” as he expressed it. Then[Pg 155] he called in the nurse, and beckoned Daisie from the room.
Her heart gave a wild throb of joy, and she followed him eagerly, expecting to behold Dallas the very next moment.
The Strength of Love by Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
Author: Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
Native Language: English