It was but a few days after Dr. Hull's visit that Miss Ludington had a sudden illness, lasting several days, which, during its crisis, caused much alarm.
Ida turned all the servants out of the sick-room and constituted herself nurse, watcher, and chambermaid, if she lay down at all it was only after leaving a substitute charged to call her upon the slightest occasion. Light and quick of step, strong and gentle of hand, patient, tireless, and tender, she showed herself an angel of the sick-room.
There was, indeed, something almost eager in the manner in which she seized upon this opportunity of devoting herself to Miss Ludington, and the zeal with which she made the most of every possibility of rendering her a service. She seemed, in fact, almost sorry when the patient had no further need of her especial attendance.
To Miss Ludington the revelation that she was so dear to Ida was profoundly affecting. It was natural that she should adore Ida, but that Ida should be correspondingly devoted to her touched her in proportion to its unexpectedness. "I should be glad to be sick always, with you to nurse me, my sister," she said. Whenever she addressed Ida by this title of sister her voice lingered upon the syllables as if she were striving to realize all the mysterious closeness and tenderness of the relation between them which its use implied.
The period of convalescence, during which Miss Ludington sat in her room, lasted several days, and one evening she sent for Paul. She was alone when he came in, and after he had inquired after her condition, she motioned him to a chair.
"Sit down, Paul," she said; "I want to have a little talk with you."
He sat down and she went on: "I find that I have been greatly enfeebled by this attack, and though the doctor tells me I may regain reasonable health, he warns me that I shall not live for ever, and that when I die I may die without much warning."
Expressions of mingled grief, surprise, and incredulity from Paul interrupted her at this point, but she presently went on:--
"It is really nothing to distress yourself over, my dear child. He does not say that I may not live on indefinitely, but only that when death comes he is likely to enter without knocking, and I'm sure any sensible person would much rather have it so. It was of Ida that I wanted to speak to you. Since I have been sick, and especially since what the doctor told me, I have been thinking what would become of her if I should die. Did you ever consider, Paul, that she has not even a name? The world does not recognize the way by which she came back into it, and in the eye of the law she has no right to the name of Ida Ludington, or to any other."
"I suppose not," said Paul.
"It does not matter while I live," pursued Miss Ludington; "but what if I should die?"
"Let us not talk of that," replied Paul, "or think of it. Yet even in that event I should be here to protect her."
Miss Ludington regarded the young man for some moments without speaking, and then, as a slight colour tinged her cheek she said, "Paul, do you love her?"
"Do you need to ask me that?" he answered.
"No, I do not," she replied; and then as she cast down her eyes, and the colour in her cheek grew deeper, she went on: "You know, Paul, that, as society is constituted, there is but one way in which a young man can protect a young girl who is not his relative, and that is by marrying her. Have you thought of that?"
Paul's face flushed a deep crimson, and his forehead reddened to the roots of the hair; after which the colour receded, and he became quite pale; and then he flushed again deeper than before, till his eyes became congested, and he saw Miss Ludington sitting there before him, with downcast eyes and a spot of colour in either cheek, as through a fiery mist.
Yes, he had thought of it.
The idea that, being of mystery though she was, Ida was still a woman, and that he might one day possess her as other men possess their wives, had come to him, but it had caused such an ungovernable ferment in his blood, and savoured withal of such temerity, that he had been fairly afraid to indulge it. In the horizon of his mind it had hovered as a dream of unimaginable felicity which might some day in the far future come to pass; but that was all.
Finally he said, in a husky voice, "I love her."
"I know you do," replied Miss Ludington. "No one but myself knows how you have loved her. You are the only man in the world worthy of her, but you are worthy even of her."
"But she would not marry me," said Paul. "She is very good to me, but she has never thought of such a thing. It is I that love her, and she is very good to let me; but she does not love me. How should she?"
"I think she does," said Miss Ludington, with a tone of quiet assurance. "I have never said anything to her about it; but I have observed her. A woman can generally read a woman in that particular, and it would be especially strange if I could not read her. I do not think that you need to be afraid of her answer. I shall not urge her by a word; but if she is willing to be your wife, it will be by far the best way her future could be provided for. Then, however soon I might die, she would not miss me."
Paul had heard distinctly only her first words, in which she had stated her belief that Ida loved him and would probably be his wife. This intimation had set up such a turmoil in his brain that he had not been able to follow what she had subsequently said. There was a roaring in his ears. Her voice seemed to come from very far away, nor did he remember how long afterwards it was that he left her.
As he went downstairs the door of the sitting-room stood open, and he looked in. Ida sat there reading.
The weather was very warm, and her dress was some gauzy stuff of a pale-green tint which set off her yellow hair and bare arms and throat with sumptuous effect. She was a ravishing symphony in white, pale green, and gold.
She had not heard his approach, and was unconscious of his gaze. As he thought of her as the woman who might be his wife, he grew so faint with love, so intimidated with a sense of his presumption in hoping to possess this glorious creature, that, not daring to enter, he fled out into the darkness to compose himself.
No experience of miscellaneous flirtations, or more or less innocent dalliance, had ever weakened the witchery of woman's charms to him, or dulled the keenness of his sensibility to the heaven she can bestow. For an hour he wandered about the dark and silent village street, waiting for the tumult of his emotions to subside sufficiently to leave him in some degree master of himself. When at last he returned to the house, his nerves strung with the resolution to put his fortune to the test, Ida was still in the sitting-room where he had left her.
Miss Ludington's conversation with Paul had left her in a mood scarcely less agitated than his. The sensation with which she had watched his devotion to Ida during the past weeks had been a sort of double-consciousness as if it were herself whom Paul was wooing, although at the same time she was a spectator. The thoughts and emotions which she ascribed to Ida agitated her almost as if they had been experienced in her proper person.
It was a fancy of hers that between herself and Ida there existed a species of clairvoyance, which enabled her to know what was passing in the latter's mind--a completeness of rapport never realized between any other two minds, but nothing more than might be expected to attend such a relationship as theirs, being a foretaste of the tie that joins the several souls of an individual in heaven. She had never had a serious love affair in her life, but now, in her old age, she was passing through a genuine experience of the tender passion through her sympathetic identification with Ida.
As she sat in her chamber after Paul had gone, fancying herself in Ida's place, imagining what she would hear him say, what would be her feelings, and what she would answer, her cheeks flushed, her breath came quickly, and there was a dew like that of dreaming girlhood in her faded eyes.
She was still flushing and trembling when there came a soft knock on her door, and Paul and Ida stood before her.
Ida was blushing deeply, with downcast face, and the long lashes hid her eyes. She stood slightly bending forward, her long beautifully moulded arms hanging straight down before her. She looked like a beautiful captive, and Paul, as he clasped her waist with his arm, and held one of her hands in his, looked the proudest of conquerors.
"I did not know but I might be dreaming it," he said, "and so I brought her for you to see. She says she will be my wife"