He scarcely gave her a glance. "Go, Marian," he said, not impatiently,--for he was too thoroughly courteous ever to be ungracious, even to a child,--but with a steady indifference that cut me with more pain than if he had struck her.
The sun dropped behind the horizon, the halo faded from the shining hair and every ray of light from the childish face. There came in its place that deep, wondering sadness which is more touching than any maturer sorrow,--just as a child's illness melts our hearts more than that of man or woman, it seems so premature and so plaintive. She turned away; it was the very first time I had ever seen the little face drawn down, or the tears gathering in the eyes. By some kind providence, the mother, coming in flushed and beautiful with walking, met Marian on the piazza, and caught the little thing in her arms with unwonted tenderness. It was enough for the elastic child. After one moment of such bliss she could go to Janet, go anywhere; and when the same graceful presence came in to us in the studio, we also could ask no more.
We had music and moonlight, and were happy. The atmosphere seemed more human, less unreal. Going up stairs at last, I looked in at the nursery, and found my pet rather flushed, and I fancied that she stirred uneasily. It passed, whatever it was; for next morning she came in to wake me, looking, as usual, as if a new heaven and earth had been coined purposely for her since she went to sleep. We had our usual long and important discourse,--this time tending to protracted narrative, of the Mother-Goose description,--until, if it had been possible for any human being to be late for breakfast in that house, we should have been the offenders. But she ultimately went downstairs on my shoulder, and, as Kenmure and Laura were already out rowing, the baby put me in her own place, sat in her mother's chair, and ruled me with a rod of iron. How wonderful was the instinct by which this little creature, who so seldom heard one word of parental severity or parental fondness, knew so thoroughly the language of both! Had I been the most depraved of children, or the most angelic, I could not have been more sternly excluded from the sugar-bowl, or more overwhelmed with compensating kisses.
Later on that day, while little Marian was taking the very profoundest nap that ever a baby was blessed with, (she had a pretty way of dropping asleep in unexpected corners of the house, like a kitten,) I somehow strayed into a confidential talk with Janet about her mistress. I was rather troubled to find that all her loyalty was for Laura, with nothing left for Kenmure, whom, indeed, she seemed to regard as a sort of objectionable altar, on which her darlings were being sacrificed. When she came to particulars, certain stray fears of my own were confirmed. It seemed that Laura's constitution was not fit, Janet averred, to bear these irregular hours, early and late; and she plaintively dwelt on the untasted oatmeal in the morning, the insufficient luncheon, the precarious dinner, the excessive walking and boating, the evening damps. There was coming to be a look about Laura such as her mother had, who died at thirty. As for Marian,--but here the complaint suddenly stopped; it would have required far stronger provocation to extract from the faithful soul one word that might seem to reflect on Marian's mother.
Another year, and her forebodings had come true. It is needless to dwell on the interval. Since then I have sometimes felt a regret almost insatiable in the thought that I should have been absent while all that gracious loveliness was fading and dissolving like a cloud; and yet at other times it has appeared a relief to think that Laura would ever remain to me in the fulness of her beauty, not a tint faded, not a lineament changed. With all my efforts, I arrived only in time to accompany Kenmure home at night, after the funeral service. We paused at the door of the empty house,--how empty! I hesitated, but Kenmure motioned to me to follow him in.
We passed through the hall and went up stairs. Janet met us at the head of the stairway, and asked me if I would go in to look at little Marian, who was sleeping. I begged Kenmure to go also but he refused, almost savagely, and went on with heavy step into Laura's deserted room.
Almost the moment I entered the child's chamber, she waked up suddenly, looked at me, and said, "I know you, you are my friend." She never would call me her cousin, I was always her friend. Then she sat up in bed, with her eyes wide open, and said, as if stating a problem which had been put by for my solution, "I should like to see my mother."
How our hearts are rent by the unquestioning faith of children, when they come to test the love that has so often worked what seemed to them miracles,--and ask of it miracles indeed! I tried to explain to her the continued existence of her mother, and she listened to it as if her eyes drank in all that I could say, and more. But the apparent distance between earth and heaven baffled her baby mind, as it so often and so sadly baffles the thoughts of us elders. I wondered what precise change seemed to her to have taken place. This all-fascinating Laura, whom she adored, and who had yet never been to her what other women are to their darlings,--did heaven seem to put her farther off, or bring her more near? I could never know. The healthy child had no morbid questionings; and as she had come into the world to be a sunbeam, she must not fail of that mission. She was kicking about the bed, by this time, in her nightgown, and holding her pink little toes in all sorts of difficult attitudes, when she suddenly said, looking me full in the face: "If my mother was so high up that she had her feet upon a star, do you think that I could see her?"
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