“Oh, but I do!—that is, I believe He cares. The things you spoke of are things I might easily be deprived of; and I choose to believe that He gives and continues them.”
He was quiet for a full minute, sitting with his knees drawn up to his chin and his hands tightly clasped over them. When he looked up at her his face was the face of one tormented.
“I wish you’d ask Him to let my mother live!” he said brokenly. “I’ve tried and tried, and the words just die in my mouth.”
There is a Mother of Sorrows in every womanly heart, to whom the appeal of the stricken is never made in vain. Ardea saw only a boy-brother crying out in his pain, and she dropped on her knees and put her arms around his neck and wept over him in a pure transport of sisterly sympathy.
“Indeed and indeed I will help, Tom! And you mustn’t let it drive you out into the dark. You poor boy! I know just how it hurts, and I’m so sorry for you!”
He freed himself gently from the comforting arms, got up rather unsteadily, and lifted her to her feet. Then the manly bigness of him sent the hot blood to her cheeks and she was ashamed.
“O Tom!” she faltered; “what must you think of me!”
He turned to gather up the scattered holly.
“I think God made you—and that was one time when His hand didn’t tremble,” he said gravely.
They had picked their way down the leaf-slippery mountain side and he was giving her the bunch of holly at the Dabney orchard gate before he spoke again. But at the moment of leave-taking he said:
“How did you know what I needed more than anything else in all the world, Ardea?”
She blushed painfully and the blue eyes were downcast.
“You must never speak of that again. I didn’t stop to think. It’s a Dabney failing, I’m afraid—to do things first and consider them afterward. It was as if we were little again, and you had fallen down and hurt yourself.”
“I know,” he acquiesced, with the same manly gentleness that had made her ashamed. “I won’t speak of it any more—and I’ll never forget it the longest day I live. Good-by.”
And he went the back way to his own orchard gate, plunging through the leaf beds with his head down and his hands in his pockets, struggling as he could to stem the swift current which was whirling him out beyond all the old landmarks. For now he was made to know that boyhood was gone, and youth was going, and for one intoxicating moment he had looked over the mountain top into the Promised Land of manhood.
The night was far spent and the Christmas dawn was graying in the remotest east when Tom, sleeping in his clothes on a lounge before the fire in the lower hall, roused himself and went noiselessly up stairs to beg his father to go and lie down for a little while.
There was a trained nurse from South Tredegar in charge of the sick-room; but from the beginning the three—husband, brother and son—had kept watch at the bedside of the stricken one. There was little to be done; nothing, in fact; and the nurse would have spared them the nights. Yet no one of the three would surrender his privilege.