The crackling logs and dancing flames in the huge old-fashioned fireplace in the hall, the tree with its myriad of lighted candles, the many guests from county’s end to county’s end, the delicious supper and foaming egg-nog, and, last of all, the Virginia reel danced in the vast parlors and led by Colonel Bushrod Ball and Madam Beverly, who had not missed a Christmas night at Elmwood since she was a bride some sixty years ago, made a memory to last through life, a memory more than beautiful if— He drew in a deep breath. There should be no “if.”
Through the days and the evenings of the days that followed there had been no word alone with Claudia, however. She had taken him to see the Prossers, but Jack and Janet had gone with them, and out-of-doors and indoors there was always some one else. Was this done purposely?
He leaned forward and threw a couple of logs on the fire. The room was cold. As the wood caught and the names curled around the rough bark, the big tester bed, with its carved posts and valance of white muslin, threw long shadows across the room, and in their brass candlesticks the candle-light flared fitfully from the mantel, touching lightly the bowl of holly with its scarlet berries, and throwing pale gleams of color on the polished panels of the old mahogany wardrobe on the opposite wall. For a moment he watched the play of fire and candle, then got up and began to walk backward and forward the length of the uncarpeted floor. Writing was a poor weapon with which to win a woman’s heart. Rather would he tell her of his love, ask her to be his wife, and, if she would marry him, compel her to say when; but he could not come as quickly as he could write. He must go away that he might tell her what no longer was to be withheld. Indecision had ever been unendurable, and uncertainty was not in him to stand. Without her, life would be—again he looked in the fire—without her, life would not be life.
Claudia parted the curtains of her bedroom window and, holding them aside, looked out upon the scene before her with eyes love-filled at its wonder and beauty.
Across the broad, terraced lawn the fresh-fallen snow was unbroken, and every crystal-coated branch and twig of the great trees upon it gleamed in the moonlight as though made of glass. In the distance the river between its low hills seemed a shining, winding path of silver, and over it the moon hung white and clear and passionless. The mystery of silence, the majesty of things eternal, brooded softly; and with a sudden movement of her hands Claudia held them as though in prayer.
“In all the world there is no place like this—for me. It is my place. My work is here. I could not—could not!”
With a slight indrawing breath that was half sigh, half shiver, she left the window and drew her chair close to the fire. For a long time she looked into its dancing depths, and gradually her eyes so narrowed that their long lashes touched her flame-flushed cheeks. After a while she got up, went over to her desk, took from it several letters locked in a small drawer, came back to the fire, and again looked into it.