When I opened my eyes, I lay without moving, staring and unconscious of life as if I had never been. Presently, tiring with the effort, I sank back into the blackness and stillness of night. Awakening anew, and yet not knowing that I lived, something touched my lips, and I opened them as a young bird will, and swallowed what was given me. Drifting again into somber nothingness, I revived, but after what length of time or wherefore I did not know. Then a face bent over mine, and looking down into my glazed and staring eyes, started back with a sob or stifled cry. Now I began to watch the shadows of the room, as a child might, without knowing they were shadows or what they signified. Relapsing once more into unconsciousness, I awakened, and after a while fell to tracing the objects about me, and with some thought that I had seen them before, but distrustfully, so weak was my understanding. Thus days passed, wherein a shadowy face bent over mine, with sorrowful eyes that were always anxious and often filled with tears. Gaining strength, I made out, little by little, the things about me, and doing so, smiled as children will in their sleep or when a toy is flashed before their eyes. By and by the objects more distinct began to fix themselves, and in the guise of friends, but drifting, and purposely, as if to elude me.
Thus the past came back, until at last I need no longer study the great canopied bed with its dangling laces, nor the faces of the king and his minister staring at me from off the wall. They were friends, and craning my neck, I looked about for the curious table, and in the sweep of my eye caught sight of my old enemy, the timber-wolf, above the door. I was not at Wild Plum, then! That was gone; but next to it, and now as dear, at the Dragon—Constance’s home. Beyond the window were the big trees and Little Sandy, and about me the treasures that Constance and her father loved. Here it was I had dined and gone to sleep, and strange that it should seem so long when only a night had passed! It was time to rise, and with the thought I sought to lift my head, but all in vain. Falling back and resting, other thoughts came, and not like shadows: the flight from Wild Plum, Moth, the jail, Murderer’s Hollow! At this last I shuddered, so real did it appear. Was it a dream after all, or was I dreaming now? Surely the one or the other! Worn out, I raised my hand; but how white and thin it looked! I had been ill, then, and so had never left the Dragon and Little Sandy. That was it; the things I remembered were visions and nothing else. Reasoning thus, I sighed as one will whose heart is weak or breaking; and scarce had it passed my lips ere a face dearer to me than all else in life bent over mine with a look of pity and tenderest love.
“Come nearer, dearest, so I can see you better,” I whispered, after awhile, afraid to speak aloud lest the vision vanish.
“My face touches yours, Gilbert.”
“Then kiss me and put your arms about my neck,” I answered, partly reassured.
“Yes, you dear child! I’ll do anything you say.”
“Oh, I am so weary and tired, Constance,” I answered, striving to return her caress.
“Yes, but you will be stronger soon if you lie still”; and the sweet angel laid her fingers on my lips, keeping her face close to mine as I had asked. Kissing her hand, I had no wish to disobey if only I might look into her eyes and feel her breath upon my face; and lest it should be only a dream, I lay still, and looking into her eyes, sank into a gentle sleep.
Awakening, I found her bending over me with anxious eyes and troubled face.
“Constance! you are still there?”
“Yes, always.”
“Tell me I’m awake.”
“Yes, and better, you dear boy!”
“I’m at the Dragon, and you are surely Constance?” I asked, ready to cry out.
“Yes, you know I’m Constance”; and she bent over and kissed me as if the better to reassure me.
“I’ve had such dreams, Constance! such terrible dreams!”
“It’s nothing, Gilbert. People with fevers always have dreams,” she answered, caressing my face.
“I thought I left Little Sandy with Uncle Job, and then a lot of things happened.”
“Yes; but don’t think of it any more. Dreams never come true, you know,” she answered, placing her face beside mine.
“I won’t; only I’m glad I’m in Little Sandy,” I answered, lying still. When I next awoke Uncle Job and Setti were beside me, my hands clasped in theirs.
“You are better, Gilbert,” Uncle Job spoke up, stopping short, as if something choked him.
“I’m all right,” I answered, feeling stronger.
“You are a Little Prince, and my True Knight forever,” Setti exclaimed, bending over me and taking my face in both her hands.
“I’ll be anything you wish, Setti, you know,” I answered, striving to answer with some spirit.
“Then I must be careful,” she answered, smiling through her tears and kissing me.
“No, you mustn’t,” I cried, in great spirits. Then turning to Uncle Job I went on: “I’m sorry to have kept you here, uncle, but I couldn’t help it. I’ve never been very strong, you know,” I added, thinking how little a thing it took to upset me.
“I said I wanted to stay longer in Little Sandy, you remember,” he replied, with a show of being cheerful.
“Your business needed you, though.”
“Men always say that, Gilbert,” he answered, as if it were nothing.
“What about Aunt Jane?” I asked, fearing to speak her name.
“Oh, she will never bother you any more.”
“I’m glad of that, for I dreamed she had a man who followed me everywhere, giving me no peace.”
“Poor boy! but you must lie still, the doctor says, if you want to get well,” he answered, turning away.
“I’ve a lot I want to say, Uncle Job,” I cried, following him with my eyes.
“Yes, but not now, Gilbert,” Constance interposed, coming to my side and laying her hand on my lips. “Your fever will surely come back if you don’t keep quiet.”
“I must talk, or you’ll all vanish and it will turn out to be a dream, I know it will,” I answered, holding tight to her hand.
“No, for it’s all real. Please lie still now, Gilbert; for my sake,” she whispered, bending over me.
“I will if you’ll stay and sit where I can see you”; and reaching out I sought to lay hold of her, but eluding me, as if she were a shadow, her form faded from my sight and I knew no more. Coming to again, my first thought was of her, and she, sweet angel, as if knowing it would be so, was there to meet my anxious look. When, however, I would have spoken, she placed her hand on my lips, saying:
“You must not talk”; and kissing her hand, I was fain to do as she said.
In this way many days passed, Constance giving me nourishment, and sitting beside me, her hand clasped in mine. When sometimes I would have talked in spite of her, she would leave her seat as if to go away; at which I would do as she wished, only looking always into her sweet face and gathering there some new hope of life and happiness.
“You are my little mother, Constance, only different from her, and not different either,” I said one day.
“Yes, always your little mother,” she answered, taking my hand.
“You will not go away as she did, though?” I answered, the fear of losing her being always uppermost in my mind, so sore was my heart.
“You dear boy, you know I will never leave you,” she answered, smiling and patting my hand.
Lying thus, my thoughts would sometimes wander, in spite of me, to the visions of my sickness, but if I sought to speak of them and so free my mind and have an end of it, Constance would not listen, saying dreams always came to those who had a fever. So, after a while, not being able to speak of them, they faded away, as such things will when treated irreverently. Thus, at last, I got the peace of mind I needed. Save a visit each day from 31Uncle Job and Setti, no one came near me except Constance and the doctor. When I slept, Constance rested beside me in a great chair, never seeming to eat nor sleep, nor desire to do either. The doctor I had never seen before, but that was not strange, not having much need of medicine up to this time. He had little to say save to tell me I would soon be on my feet if I but did as Constance told me. One day, however, more talkative than usual, he said, smiling on her, and softly tapping his medicine-case:
“You have been ill to death, my lad, and but for this little woman, and the calomel and jalap, would have surely died.”
“I know it; and except for her I’d not care to live,” I answered, my throat filling. Nothing, indeed, could exceed my love for the sweet girl, and it added to my happiness now to think I should always owe my life to her and her tender care.
As I grew stronger, Setti came and sat beside me, and I have ever been grateful for this chance that made the gentle being known to me. For with her shy ways I else had never known her as the tender and good in woman should be by those who hold them in respect. As I gained strength Uncle Job’s visits were more frequent, but further than caressing my hand or face he scarce said a word, so soft was his heart. The great care with which they watched over me I must believe to have been needed; for one day, when I disregarded some order of Constance’s, I fell into such a dreadful faint that all their efforts to bring me to were vain, until Uncle Job and the doctor had been sent for; and thus I found them grouped about my bed when I revived. When at last I had gained strength and was pronounced out of danger, I one day asked Constance if Aunt Jane had been to see me, thinking it strange if she had not, even in one so cold. For a time Constance did not reply, and when she did it was not like her, but as if she were acting a part.
“No, your aunt has not been here, Gilbert. Do you care much?”
“I don’t know. Only I thought she might have come while I was sick.”
“It’s so far, Gilbert, you know.”
“So far! her farm is scarce half an hour’s ride, Constance. She can’t care for me. Or haven’t you told her?”
“No, she doesn’t know, Gilbert.”
“Oh,” I answered, not wondering much, but still feeling as if she ought to have been told. “Didn’t you want her to know?”
“We thought to write her, but put it off from day to day, hoping you would be better.”
“To write her?” I answered, only the more puzzled.
“You don’t understand, Gilbert,” Constance answered, moving about the room, as she had a way of doing when anyway disturbed. After a while, recovering herself, she went on, “Suppose your aunt is farther away than you think, Gilbert?”
“I don’t understand, Constance, unless she is dead or has moved away,” I answered, greatly disturbed.
“Suppose this is not Little Sandy, but Appletop. What would you say to that, Gilbert?” she asked, kissing me.
At this I was more bewildered than ever, not being able in any way to make out the sense of what she was saying.
“How can that be and you here?” I answered at last.
“Well, would it be so very strange? I might be in Appletop, you know,” she answered, as if leading me on.
“This room, too! It couldn’t be in both places!” I cried, thinking that for some reason she was seeking to mislead me.
“Might we not have moved to Appletop and brought these things with us? That would make it clear,” she answered, bending over me.
“Yes—I don’t know—only tell me quick!” I answered.
“That is how it is, Gilbert. This is not Little Sandy, but Appletop,” she replied, pressing her face down close beside mine. After a while, raising her head and smiling on me in tenderest love, she added: “Are you glad, Gilbert!”
“Yes, you being here,” I answered, not so much surprised after all, if the truth were told, for I could never quite make myself believe that some part of my dream was not true. “I so longed to see you after we left Little Sandy,” I went on, “that I always wished myself back, though a hundred Moths and Aunt Janes were in the way.”
“Then you are not worried?” she asked, kissing me again.
“No; why should I be? but have I been sick long?”
“Yes, many weeks.”
“How did it happen? I can’t remember that I was ailing,” I answered.
“You broke down that morning when you came to our door, and for weeks knew nobody, but raved continually about Moth and Burke and the wild animals that had you imprisoned in a tree of some kind.”
“Did I talk about such things?” I asked
“I’m a poor stick, always breaking down and making a show of myself,” I answered, ashamed of my weakness.
“No, you are not. The doctor said your sickness was brought on by fatigue and lack of food and sleep. It was your coming to, though, he most dreaded, fearing you would lose your mind.”
“Now I see why I am in this room, and why you have made it like the old one,” I answered, tears coming to my eyes at the thought of their kindness.
“Yes, we fixed it up like the other so you would think you were in Little Sandy. See,” she added, going to the window and throwing back the curtain, “this is not the old square, but another, larger and finer, with a house hidden away in the trees.”
“Where all the roads meet, as Uncle Job said,” I answered, putting my arm about her and kissing her in such delight of living as I had never known before.
“There; you will bring on your fever again if you act in that way, you wild boy!” she answered, drawing back.
“I don’t care if I do,” I answered, reaching out and taking her hand and pressing it to my lips.
“Then you don’t mind my not telling you all this before?” she asked, as if she had been in doubt how I would take the part she had played in misleading me.
“No, for now I’ll not have to leave you again. Tell me, Constance,” I asked, after a while, “why has your father not been to see me? I’ve looked for him every day.”
“He had to go back to Little Sandy, but will be here in a few days. It was he who caught you that morning.”
“Was it? I couldn’t see.”
“We never expected to hear you speak again, for you lay for hours as if dead. Then sleeping and waking you uttered frightful cries, and for weeks we stood about your bed, watching and praying,” Constance answered, tears dimming her soft eyes at the remembrance.
The next day, being stronger than ever, Constance said I might talk, and with that I fell to questioning her about everything that had happened, and particularly about Uncle Job, who, next to her, was ever uppermost in my thoughts.
“Did some one go to Uncle Job that night?” I asked.
“Yes; papa and the doctor.”
“What did they find?” I asked, lifting myself up.
“They found your Uncle Job guarding Burke and trying to bring the other man to life,” she replied.
“Did he succeed?” I asked, remembering poor Blott, and with what courage he had stood up at the last.
“No; but the doctor soon brought him to.”
“How is he now?”
“He is well and at work about the stables. Papa doesn’t think he is bad, only weak, and that Burke misled him.”
“Burke!” I exclaimed, a tremor creeping over me at the thought of that cruel villain and his soft, purring way. “What did they do with him?”
“They put him in prison, but when Blott refused to appear against him he was released.”
“Why wouldn’t Blott appear?” I asked, surprised.
“Every one urged him to, but he said he was as bad as Burke.”
“They ought not to have let Burke go!” I cried, thinking of Uncle Job.
“That is what papa said, but the jail was full and they would have had to board him, and the town being poor, they didn’t want to do that, no one appearing against him.”
“It’s too bad,” I answered, all Burke’s cunning and wickedness rising before me. “Didn’t Uncle Job try to detain him?”
“No; and he seemed much relieved when Burke was released and left the town, at which we all wondered.”
“It was like him not to think of himself,” I answered, remembering the Singletons, and why Uncle Job should wish Burke anywhere but in Appletop.
“Has he anything to fear from Burke any more than others?” Constance asked, as if my alarm had in some way communicated itself to her.
“Oh, hasn’t he told you?” I asked, stopping short; for if uncle had said nothing about the conspiracy to kill him, ought I to tell?
At this I wondered, not being able to see any reason why he should not have told Mr. Seymour. Anyway, I determined to tell Constance, and this I did, but without referring to the Singletons or what happened on the boat. Constance thought it strange, and straightway began to wonder who there could be in Appletop that wished Uncle Job harm, but fruitlessly. Indeed, after a while we concluded it was but a ruse of Burke’s to give him an excuse for keeping more than his share of the money. This, we made up our minds, was what Uncle Job thought, and so when he came to visit me I ventured to say as much, but without his vouchsafing any reply.
“Did Uncle Job get hurt that night?” I asked, continuing my talk with Constance, the better to keep her by my side.
“No; but when he saw you on his return he was nearly crazed, blaming himself for all you suffered. Nor did he leave the house until the doctor pronounced you out of danger. He was like one out of his mind, and would not go to his room, but slept on a cot before your door. Had you died it would have killed him, the doctor said, so much was he wrought up over your misfortunes.”
“Poor uncle! he was in no way to blame,” I answered. “Tell me, Constance, how it was that you came to leave Little Sandy?” I asked, flying from one thing to another, as people will whose minds are weak. “You had no thought of it when I came away.”
“No; but papa had grown to dislike the place. After my mother died he wanted to leave, and when your father and mother were gone, he was still more inclined that way. So when your Uncle Job wrote to him to come to Appletop, he did not wait to write, but taking everything, we drove across the country, following the route you took. When we got here we were disappointed not to find you, papa not less than I, for you know he has loved you as if you were his son since that day you saved my life.”
At this, too full for speech, I drew her to my side and kissed her. For the doctor would have it that I should lie in bed part of the day, to ease my heart, he said—though why my heart should need easing I could not understand; but doctors—once they get you at a disadvantage—exact all kinds of things of you, as every one knows, though for good reasons, it is probable, in most cases.
“How long have you been in Appletop?” I went on, that I might still hear her voice.
“We had only been here a little while when you came.”
“How did you find time to fix this room?” I asked, wondering, it was so like the other.
“It gave us a lot of trouble, for carpenters are hard to get here; but papa is pleased, for it is dearer to him than everything else.”
“I know; and have you named this place the Dragon?” I asked, smoothing out her hair, which was ever inclined to fly apart as if impatient of restraint.
“Yes; for any other would seem odd.”
“The sign, too, is it like the old one?”
“Worse, because better painted, papa says. He does better in water-colors though.”
“Did he paint it?”
“Can he paint real pictures, too?” I asked, thinking how beautiful she was with the sun shining in her hair.
“Yes, but no one is to know it,” she replied; “though why, I don’t know.”
“No?” I answered, gazing on her dear form and thinking how much more fortunate I was than other youths, and all because of her love and tender ways.