Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins (Chapter 11)
Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Hildegarde's sense of anxious responsibility had grown with every month that passed after her father sailed out of San Francisco harbor. Bound for-- "the Klondike!" people exclaimed with envy, rather than asked in any doubt.
"No--no," he had said, and then hastily--to keep outsiders off the track--"well, perhaps. Who knows?" Who did n't know! And, after all, why should any man stay at home who was n't obliged?
It was natural that no one else should take Mr. Mar's enterprise as seriously from the start as did his daughter. For she knew how large had been her share in it. She had been the first, the only one, to cheer him on. she it was who had got "the boys" to finance the undertaking. She who had broken the fact to her mother. But for his daughter, Nathaniel Mar would not now be--where was he? How faring? Many a time Hildegarde's heart contracted sharply, as in silence she framed the question. her own fault that she could n't answer--her fault that half Valdivia could no longer set their clocks by the big, lame man's passing--her doing that he sat no more of a morning in the warm, sunny room of the San Joaquin, sending out smoke and absorbing news. Others sat there in peace and safety, discussing their absent townsman;
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and Hildegarde sat at home trying to keep at bay the thought: if anything dreadful should happen to him!
It had eased her a little to write to Cheviot, and beg him to look out for her father. She was tempted to say, "Bring him back safe and there 's nothing I won't gladly do to prove--" But she had pulled herself up in time, and only promised an unending gratitude.
The steamer President, which had taken Mar north, brought on her return trip a brief letter from him, saying merely that the journey was safely accomplished as far as St. Michaels. His family knew they would probably not hear again till the following summer.
Life was easier when Bella was there. To her one might say, "Will he come back by the first boat in June, or shall we only have letters, do you think?" And say it in one form or another so often that, but for reasons unavowed, the speculation would have wearied friendship.
But Bella was full of sympathy and tonic suggestion, always prepared to pore over northern maps, always ready to discuss probably conditions "up there."
What a friend was Bella! "I 've talked of a standard," Hildegarde thought humbly, "but she lives up to it--in these days." It was a shame ever to remember the lapses long ago.
And how intelligent she was! How curiously well informed! But Bella was always surprising you.
"I keep thinking about him in the night. I lie awake wondering if he 's cold," Hildegarde confessed, and Bella, why, to look at her face you 'd think she knew all about that lying awake and wondering--did the same herself. "Father does so love a fire. Don't you remem-
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ber when all of us would be baking he used to draw closer to the hearth?"
"That was only because he lived so much indoors. He 'll be quite warm in that beautiful furry sleeping-bag. He 'll probably sleep better than he 's done since he was a child. They all do."
"Who do?" "Oh--a--people who--go to the Klondike."
Another time, "I am haunted by the certainty that he did n't take enough provisions. Trenn says that in intense cold people eat a great deal more than--"
"That 's true," said Bella sagely, "but it 'll be all right. People are very good to one another in such out-of-the-way places. They always share with anybody who runs short."
"How do you know?"
Well, that 's what the accounts all say."
"Oh, in the--the papers."
"I never see any such accounts. It 's all horrors--freezing and starving to death. Besides, father will be the one to do the sharing and then have to go without. Oh, why did I help him to--"
"Don't be absurd," Bella said, almost angrily. "In any case he 's not gone beyond the reach of supply depots." Neither met the other's eye.
"But suppose his money gives out--it will give out if it 's true they charge two dollars for a potato. He never could keep any money in his pockets. Oh, it 's all very well for you, your father is n't sitting on an iceberg starving to death."
A queer look came into Bella's little face. It was
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there, now and then, and gone like a ghost, leaving a troubled tenderness behind.
"It 's not as if he were near a settlement, as the Klondkiers are to Dawson City," Hildegarde went on, yearning for reassurance. "The place father was going to is quite uninhabited, except by a few Esquimaux. Often I can hardly eat for thinking--thinking"--her voice caught--"maybe he is hungry."
"That 's impossible. He 's much too sensible and clever."
"What good is it to be sensible and clever if you 've got nothing to eat?"
"But being sensible and clever will help him to find things to eat."
"How do you make that out?"
"Oh, as far south as that--"
As far south? Was she out of her mind?
"There are plenty of ptarmigan and rabbits and things, where Mr. Mar is."
"Are there? But he 's lame. How can he go shooting--"
"Other people can, especially the natives, and you may be sure your father will have his share. Besides, he 'll fish. Mr. Mar 'll like that part of it."
"How can you be so heartless!"
"What do you mean?"
"How is my father to fish in rivers frozen hard as iron?"
"Through holes in the ice, of course!" Bella defended the idea warmly. "You 'll see," she spoke as if she 'd personally tested the efficacy of the device; "you 'll see they 'll get fish all winter that way."
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"How do you know? Now don't say you get it out of the newspapers, for I never see these things, and I look for nothing else."
"No, I found that in a book."
It turned out to be a two-year-old volume upon Arctic Exploration. On the fly-leaf Bella's name and the date, 1896. A whole year before Cheviot went to the Klondike, or Mr. Mar to Alaska. The year that--
The light that had glimmered broke in a flood.
"Let us read it together, Bella," said Hildegarde softly.
"No, there 's a newer one I 've just sent for. We 'll read that if you like."
They finished it at the Waynes' country place. "I wish," said Hildegarde, "we had another book about--"
"There are plenty more." Bella unlocked a little chest. It was full of nothing but books, and the books were about nothing but arctic life and exploration. For nearly two years, Bella had been buying and reading everything she could hear of published on the subject in America or Europe.
Hildegarde hung above the store. "We must go through them all together. It is the most fascinating reading in the world."
"It is the most horrible in the world. The most ghastly, it makes you ill. But, yes; I agree with you one can't not know."
They read the books together. Even the honest-hearted Hildegarde, who began with her father agonizingly present in her mind, abandoned him presently to his probably less terrible fate, and pushed forward with
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strange men on their farther journey; fitting each new fortune or mischance to the One on the other side of the world, never mentioned either by her or Bella. Though Hildegarde kept her oath not to speak Galbraith's name, she felt a strange new excitement now in saying "He" as for her father, yet thinking of the One who had gone farther afield even than Cheviot, and much, much farther than Mr. Mar. Each girl played with the ruse. It gave to reading and speculation a subtilty--a sprit--that never flagged.
And now spring was here. Although still far too early for such forecasting, both felt the need of returning to Valdivia, to be within easier reach of papers, of telegrams, and of returning travelers. For all the world knew when once the spring was come up yonder, the summer followed hard. How natural it was to be looking forward to something great and wonderful that was to happen in June! Hildegarde and her father had done that as long ago as when the girl was in her early teens and Jack Galbraith expected back from his first arctic enterprise. What more natural than that Hildegarde and Bella should be doing very much the same to-day. To call their expectation by Mar's name, merely gave it manageability. For, apart from Bella's interdiction, the word "Galbraith" was, in this, like a hot iron. If it were to be touched in safety, some shield must come between you and the too ardent metal. "Galbraith" would scorch. But wrap "Mar" about the forbidden name, and you could use it to significant ends.
Summer and Mr. Mar! Oh, Mr. Mar served well as symbol of that mightier issue, that both dared hope for out of this year's opening of the ice gates of North.
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And yet the month of wonder, June, went by without a word or a sign coming down from the top of the world. July brought a letter from the Klondike--Cheviot's second. He had done well, and he was coming home. Hildegarde might look to see him by the next boat. No word of Mar; plain he had n't had Hildegarde's news when he wrote. Not the next boat, however, nor the next, brought Cheviot, nor any word of Mr. Mar.
"I don't know how I should get through this time but for you, Bella." Hildegarde and she were seldom apart.
Not till mid-August came the sign from Mar, a letter written from a queer-sounding place in early June, a letter strangely short and non-commital. He had reached St. Michaels too late the previous autumn to go any further than Golovin Bay, before navigation closed. He would push on as soon as travel was practicable. He was well. He sent his love. And no more that summer. No more up to the time the boats stopped running in the autumn.
Cheviot had not come after all. And silence, like the silence of the grave, wrapt the fate of that Other, on the far side of the world.
"I shall burn a joss to those who travel by land or by sea, by snow or by ice," said Bella, one day in December, and she lit the stick of incense on the flower altar, whence no heathen smoke of prayer had risen for a couple of years now. But more prayers than ever before had been offered up in the little white room. And what need of a face on the wall above the roses? The picture was not really shut away in a drawer. Vivid in each girl's mind, it was borne about as faithfully, as in the
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old days, when on Hildegarde's breast in a setting of silver it hung on a velvet string.
Now and then Bella remembered Cheviot, and when she remembered him, she spoke of him. Sometimes she spoke of him when she was thinking of him little enough. As on the night when she was n't well, and Hildegarde, sleeping on the sofa in her friend's room, had waked in misery over a dream she 'd had. Bella was lying wide-eyed in the dark, "A dream about--?"
"Yes," Hildegarde said hurriedly, "a snow-storm in the night, in the wind; a slipping down into blackness. I thought I saw him fall, and I knew it was the end."
"They go by contraries. Your father 's quite well and happy." Hildegarde had not said the dream concerned her father, but she offered no correction.
"Still," Bella went on, "for the moment it makes one feel--I 'll tell you! we must have a little light to comfort us."
"No, no; it will hurt my eyes," Hildegarde was surreptitiously crying. But Bella was already up, and before Hildegarde could forestall her, she had opened the door across the hall leading into the opposite room, and there she was striking a light. Hildegarde followed her, still a little dazed by the vivid horror of the dream, and when her eyes fell upon her own little white bed, she flung herself down there, and buried her face in the cool pillow.
"You are n't crying, are you, Hildegarde, over a silly dream? Look here, I 'm lighting a joss for Mr. Mar."
A little silence.
"I 've lit another," said Bella's hurried voice, still over there by the table, "one for Louis." Hildegarde,
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with face half-hidden, imagined rather than saw, that three slender smoke feathers were curling above the flowers, drowning the meeker fragrance of the roses.
She lay there feeling the oppression of the dream fading, and a waking oppression take its place. Yes, they "went by contraries." Galbraith had n't fallen and been swallowed in the gaping maw of a crevasse; but when he came back what was going to happen? He belonged to Bella. But he had left Bella. And he had belonged first of all to Hildegarde. What would befall friendship in that coming wrench!
"Go back to bed, Bella; you 'll be worse."
"You must come, too."
Hildegarde made no answer.
"You can't lie there with all these flowers in the room. I did n't know you had n't set them out. The doors can't be left open either."
"The windows can."
"I shan't go unless you come, too."
Hildegarde forced herself to get up. Bella put out the comforting light. But some things show plainer in the dark. Those symbols on the altar, they were only tendrils of smoke by day, or in the glare of gas. Now they were sparks of fire puncturing the blackness of the scented room. One fiery eye to watch over the fortunes of Nathaniel Mar, one to shine for Cheviot, and an unnamed third to pierce the darkness that shrouded the fate of that Other. Even when the two girls turned their backs, and groped their way to Bella's room clinging hold of each other in the dark, the third spark not only shone before their inner vision still, it pricked each bosom with its point of fire.
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What would happen when he came back?
Each wondered, and each held faster to the other with fear in the bottom of her heart.
MEANWHILE, life outwardly went on pretty much the same. With Trenn and Harry, Eddie Cox and others swains, the girls went to parties and picnics, to concerts, and the theater, and did all the usual things. The one unusual thing those days brought was the Charles Trennor fancy ball. It was going to be a great affair, and Valdivia conversation for weeks had begun by some such statements as, "I 'm going as the Goddess of Liberty. What shall you be?"
Of course Trenn and Harry were coming up for the great occasion, and their costumes called for endless consultation with that great authority, Bella. They had, moreover, told their sister she might on this occasion be as glorious as ever she liked, and they would "foot the bill." Hildegarde deeply appreciated such generosity, but what was more to the point, did Bella?
She only said: "Yes, Hildegarde 's going to be glorious. But I don't think it 's the kind of glory you can buy."
Even before the Mar boys had come forward in this magnificent way, Bella had decided that Hildegarde must go as Brunhild. Her gown was to be white cloth, embroidered with silver dragons--strictly adapted from an ancient Norse design. She was to wear silver sandals on her feet; on one bare arm would be a buckler, a spear in her right hand, and on her fair hair a silver helmet.
Bella was going as Amy Robsart, and that was easy enough. It was those dragons of Hildegarde's that took
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the time; and, as Bella had said, they would n't have been easy to buy. She and Hildegarde were embroidering them every spare minute, day and night. Even now, though almost, they were not quite done, which was a pity. Trenn and Harry were coming up from Siegel's again this evening--the excuse, the necessary inspection of Brunhild, at Bella's expresss invitation. For this had been the one costume not ready in time for the "dress-rehearsal" two nights before, when Bella and "the boys" had put on their Elizabethan finery, and peacocked about in great spirits.
"I want your brothers to be what they call 'knocked silly' when they first see you, Hildegarde. You must be all dressed and ready, and we can turn up the bottom of the skirt and work at that last dragon while we 're waiting."
In pursuance of this plan, the two girls had gone upstairs directly after supper, though it was hardly probable the boys could get there before half-past nine.
Mrs. Mar sat waiting for them in the parlor, on that side of the center table where the book rest supported an open volume. She rocked while she waited, and she crocheted while she rocked. At times she glanced at the clock--not once at the open book. Not for her own edification was the volume there, but for the enlargement of Hildegarde's literary horizon, while she and Bella stitched at silver dragons. But this latest choice in standard works had not pleased anyone. Victor Hugo was much too fond of fiery love-scenes to prosper with Mrs. Mar, but the miserable man had become a classic, and after all, Hildegarde was old enough not to be infected. Bella--she read everything, the minx!
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Although Hildegarde was in her twenty-fifth year, Mrs. Mar knew her so little, she felt no assurance that the girl would keep up her languages, or read "the best things" in any tongue, without her mother's dragging her by main force across the flowery fields of belles-lettres--as though over stubble and through brake.
Listening to Mrs. Mar's reading of a classic was an experience of some singularity. For if she macerated descriptive bits with a chin-chopper despatch, to get them out of the way (not disguising the fact that she considered these passages in the light of the salutary self-torture that no disciplined life should evade, any more than vaccination or a visit to the dentist), she did far deadlier things to scenes of sentiment or passion. These she approached with a sturdy determination not to give in to their nonsense, to make them at all events sound like sanity by sheer force of her own impregnable common-sense--a force so little to be withstood, that it could purge the most poetic page ever written. It made even Victor Hugo sound as reasonable as the washing list. If you did n't inwardly curse or secretly weep you must have laughed to see how effectually she could clip fancy's wings, slam the door on sentiment, bring high passion down to a sneaking shame, and effectually punish a great reputation. In short, listening to Mrs. Mar reading romance was so sure a way, not only to strip it bare of its traditional glory, but to rob it of every chance of "going home," that Hildegarde, as soon as she got wind of what was the next work to be attacked, hastened to borrow it of Bella, devoured it along and so got a first impression that could more or less hold its own against the maternal onslaught. It is but fair
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to say that to any comedy passage Mrs. Mar gave excellent effect, and, by way of appreciation, a grim smile peculiarly her own; while for a spirited encounter between wits sharp and merciless, she had open approval.
"That 's something like!" she would say. "Old Dumas" (or whoever it might be), "he can do it when he likes!" and the great one was patted on the back: This man 's going to live."
Bella had known that Mrs. Mar would sit in the half-light till even she could see no longer. But Hildegarde was not suffered to make her entrance in the dusk. Bella ran in first and "lit up." She did not stop to draw the blinds, she was in too great a hurry; besides, it was nice to let in the mild and beautiful night. "Now, Hildegarde! Look, Mrs. Mar," and Bella ushered in a living page from an old Icelandic Saga; "is n't she glorious?"
Mrs. Mar pecked at the regal figure with her hard, bright eyes, "White does n't make her any slimmer," she said.
"Oh, it would n't do for Brunhild to be a mean, little, narrow creature."
"That helmet, too! It makes her look ten feet high."
She wants to look high!-- and 'mighty!' and she does. No, no, stop Hildegarde, you must n't take it off."
"Just till we hear the boys coming. It--it 's--" Hildegarde contracted her broad brows under the helmet's weight.
But Bella flew to the rescue. "Don't, don't! Hands off! What does it matter if it is heavy? You must get used to it. You 've got to be a heroine!" she wound up severely, "so don't expect to be comfortable!" and
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Bella pulled a chair under the drop-light. "Sit here where Trenn and Harry can see you the minute they open the door. Now we can go on with the last dragon while we 're waiting."
Mrs. Mar cleared her throat, "'Acte Cinquième. La Noce.'" And the two girls, raising their eyes from the work, saw through the open window, in front of them, not the close-massed syringa underneath, nor the soft Californian night above, but "une terrasse du palais d' Arragon," in the town of Saragossa, four hundred years ago. And no sense visited them of any jarring contrast between the picture of life as they knew it best. Thanks to the poet that lives in most young hearts, even Victor Hugo's gallant vision of a civilization that was old before California was discovered, brought no envious sense of the difference between then and now--rather a naïve surprise that those others so far away, so long ago, should have understood so well.
Older, more self-critical, they might have lost this sense of comradeship--might have gone over to the gray majority that insists only the past is picturesque, or that if any grace remains unto this day, it must needs be far removed from places we know well, precariously surviving under other skies, speaking an alien tongue. Those who would persuade us there is no scene in our every-day life but what is sordid, barren, or at best (and worst) meanly commonplace--stuff unfit for poetry or even for noble feeling--what do the carpers by such comment on our times but confess an intellect abject, slavish, blind. To find the beauty and the dignity that lie in the difficult familiar days that we ourselves are
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battling through, to detect high courage in the common speech, to get glimpses of the deathless face of romance as we go about the common streets, is merely to know life as it is, and yet to walk the modern world as gloriously companioned as any Viking or Hidalgo of the past.
So true is early youth's apprehension of these things, that not even Mrs. Mar could make wide enough for envy or embarrassment the gulf in the two girls' minds between an Old World bandit chief, and a New World soldier of fortune. The transition, that to the sophisticated seems grotesque, between the Hernani of 1519 and the modern American pursuing perilous ways to the Pole--this feat was accomplished without misgiving although in Sargossa, "on entend des fanfares éloignées," and in Valdivia an indefatigable woman, on the other side of the street, was strumming the old tune, renamed, "The Boulanger March"; and now Mrs. Mar was beginning Scene III with an air of cold distrust, that Bella foresaw would mount by well-known degrees to a climax of scorn.
The lady turned the page.
Brûle--Eh! dis au volcan qu'il étouffe sa flamme,'--
"How long are they going on like this, I wonder?" she interrupted herself to durchblätter the pages.
"'Ah! qui n'oublierait tout à cette voix céleste!'"
And more fingering of the leaves. "Four more solid pages of this sort of thing," she announced. "Well, if
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the rest of the world has stood it, I suppose we must." And she went on--
"'Ta parole est un chant où rien d'humain ne reste--'"
And on, in a measured staccato, exactly as if she were adding up a column of figures, or telling off yards of tape.
Viens, ô mon jeune amant,
Dans mes bras.'"
Bella dropped the silver dragon, and with, "Wait, Mrs. Mar, dearest Mrs. Mar!" she seized the book.
"What 's the matter with you?"
"This is my part!" said Bella, shutting the volume convulsively. "I know it every bit."
"'Voilà notre nuit de noces commencée!
Je suis bien pâle, dis, pour une fiancée?'"
And on to--
"'Mort! non pas! nous dormons,
Il dort! c'est mon époux, vois-tu, nous nous aimons,
Nous sommes couchés là. C'est notre nuit de noce.
Ne le réveillez pas, seigneur duc de Mendoce,
Il est las. Mon amour, tiens-toi vers voi tourné.
Plus près--plus près encore--'"
Hildegarde, with tears, put out her hand and took
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Bella's. No word, just the clasp of hands, till they fell apart to work.
"H'm," said Mrs. Mar dryly. "I suppose you 've seen Sarah Bernhardt go on like that."
"No, oh, no. I don't like Sarah in this. I do it much better."
"A good many people seem to be able to put up with the other lady."
But Bella, smiling, shook her head, as she drew a new strand of silver thread through her needle. "I don't like seeing her make dear Doña Sol so--so snaky, and so wildly unnatural."
"Well, if you think Doña Sol 's a natural--"
Bella laughed. "You 'd think she was nature itself compared to Sarah."
"People said the same thing about Curly what 's-his-name."
"Yes, the Englishman who acted with the red-haired woman."
"Oh, you mean Kyrle--"
"Curl! Is that how he calls himself? Well, I 'm sure I 've no objection. I liked him. But people went about saying he was n't natural."
Bella looked up. "Did you think he was?"
"Certainly not. But I 'm a person who likes acting. I don't want them natural." She wound up in a tone of delicious contempt, "I can see people being natural every day of my life, without paying for it."
Bella laughed. "Oh, I 'm so glad I know you, dear Mrs. Mar!" That lady, unmoved by the tribute, began to do her duty by the notes. Bella never listened to
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notes, and by and by her little face took on again the tragic look with which she had declaimed, "La fatalité s'accomplit."
Bella was a good deal changed in this last year. Hildegarde, looking at her paling beauty, was sometimes stricken with fear. "What should I do without her!" The postman's ring. Bella jumped up without ceremony in the middle of Note 2, and ran out to see what had come. Only a paper. It was n't the postman. Merely the little boy outrageously late with "'The Evening News."
Bella returned to her dragon--Mrs. Mar read on.
After all, who could be sure but what that paper lying there--how did Bella know but it had a Norwegian telegram in it, saying word had come of the rescue in the arctic of a party of Russians under an American leader? Or no, the leader had done the rescuing--against awful odds. Not Bella alone, but two entire continents were celebrating his name. For this was the intrepid explorer of whom nothing had been heard for nearly four years--who had been given up for dead, by all but Bella Wayne.
And this man--oh, it made the heart beat--this man had discovered the Pole. That was why he 'd been so long away. It took four years to discover the Pole. But it was done. The whole civilized world was ringing with his name. And natural enough. It was the greatest achievement since Columbus' own, and the hero's name was--
No, no, it would n't be like that at all. He would want Bella to be the first to know. The next ring at the door would be a telegram for her. Or no, he would
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hardly want to break so long a silence in that brusque way. No, he would write her a beautiful long letter--telling her--explaining--No! Far more like him just to appear. Without writing--without telegraphing. Just take the swiftest steamer across the Atlantic, and the fastest train across the Continent, and some evening like this, she, little thinking in the hour that should bring such grace, she would lift up her eyes and there he would be!--standing before her. Not only without a long explanatory letter, without words, her face would be hidden in his breast.
"There!" Mrs. Mar interrupted an alternative soliloquy of Don Carlos, and Bella started. "They 're early! There are the boys, now!"
"I don't hear them." But as Hildegarde spoke the words she was conscious of steps on the graveled path, that wound its rather foolish way round this side of the house, leading nowhere. No one ever walked there but Hildegarde herself, cutting or tending flowers. She glanced at Bella, and saw in the wide hazel eyes a light she knew.
On the step came crunching gravel. Bella's needle arrested half through a stitch, and all Bella's face saying, "John! John Galbraith!"--and only Hildegarde, through her eyes, hearing. But even Mrs. Mar was under some spell of silence and strained expectation. Now the firm tread paused, and there--there, in front of the low uncurtained window, above the syringas, showed the head and shoulders of a man. Not Trenn, not Harry. Who? Hildegarde held her breath.
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