It was with premonitions of dreaded contact with Dr. Leighton, Regenia left her home for the school room the morning after the meeting described in the previous chapter. Around every corner, as she hastened to and from school she expected to come face to face with him. During the morning and until the last tardy pupil had come trooping in, her nerves received a new shock at each opening of the door. Her fears were unnecessary. Dr. Leighton did not annoy her with his presence for many days. He had wisely surmised that his sudden meeting with his cousin had served to increase rather than to lessen her fear of him.
The dictation of a wise policy, therefore, kept him out of sight until the old dislike consequent upon his unexpected appearance, was somewhat allayed.
On one Saturday afternoon, allowing a few weeks to elapse, the doctor called at Regenia's boarding house. He found her in the parlor, idly running over some music she had recently purchased.
Regenia drew back as if to leave the room when he entered.
"You need not run, my dear cousin, I do not intend to eat you up do-day. You are not in prime condition," he said with a laugh, referring to her attenuated appearance.
"The life of a school marm does not seem to agree with you," he continued, interrogatively.
"I have never been an Amazon," she said, laughing at the picture her words called up. "I have been flattering myself that I have grown stouter since I saw you last," a shade of sorrow instantly flitting across her face, at the remembrance of their last meeting at Mt. Clare.
Dr. Leighton immediately changed the trend of the conversation; it was verging toward a subject he feign would have blotted from the tablets of his mind.
"And do you really like your work?" he said, betraying an interest in her occupation he did not feel.
"Better than anything I ever did in my life," she enthusiastically replied.
"I can easily believe that," he said, laughing in his old way. "In what work or business did you engage previous to you entering upon the present fascinating pastime?"
"You understand what I mean," she said, laughing also. "I am truly fond of my work and love the children dearly. In fact, I never seemed to have lived or had any right to do so before. Now it is so different. I seem to be living with a purpose: living for one's self is not half so noble as living and laboring for others."
"A very excellent sentiment and wonderfully becoming to you my philanthropic little cousin, and one that would make the world happier, did everybody act upon it. The charity of the most of us, I fear, too often begins and ends in the same place—at home," he added.
"It would not begin and end there, I am sure," she said, "were it not that most people lack opportunity to have brought to their doors, through actual experience, the old heaven-sent truth, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" Regenia, like most young people that have not been tainted by temptation and soiled by sin, refused to believe the world as sordid and self-concentered as it is often portrayed.
"And yet, with all your faith in the ultimate good, that dwells native in the human heart, you pack up and run away from the only person whose right to look after you would pass unchallenged in any court in the world. How do you reconcile your faith with your actions?" he asked in an injured tone.
"Oh, I do not try to reconcile anything. I only know I could not have remained in Mt. Clare another day if I had been sure death awaited me only a few miles from the place. I was so bereaved, so thoroughly miserable with my double sorrow that death anywhere in the wide round world would have been preferable to life at the 'Elms.'"
"I can understand," he said kindly, "how you must have felt, but do you think I was happy? Two mysterious disappearances in so short a time unstrung me also. If you had only indicated that you wanted a change, I should have been glad to have offered any assistance consistent with my duty, as your guardian. But to have you leave as you did, with the ink that advertised the other lost one scarcely dry, put me in a whirlpool of crossed purposes, painful to relate," he said, covering his face with his hands, as if to banish the distracting remembrance. Dropping his voice and speaking as if struggling with his long pent up feelings, he continued: "I am at a loss even to surmise what designing wretch, playing upon the credulity engendered by your recent great sorrow, could have persuaded you to take a course so unnatural, so contrary to what would have been expected from a girl of such an open trustful disposition as I know you to have."
"I did what I though was best then and what I have thanked God every day since that I had the courage to do. I sought advice from no one, I simply followed the promptings of my own heart. I am past the years when the law requires that I should have a guardian, yet I am grateful to you," she said, relenting a little, "that you offered to act in that capacity. As I had to make my own way, I resolved the sooner I set about it the better, so, taking counsel with my own sense of right, I could not be dependent upon any one for my subsistence. Through the help of very kind friends, I obtained an opportunity to come here. I came and have nothing to regret."
"You were left, a not very liberal allowance, I admit," the doctor replied, "but of course, you must have understood that I intended to supplement that sufficiently to permit you to live on just as you had been living all your life."
"Very true, and I so understood it, but changes come and I would have perhaps been obliged to take up the burden of life when less inclined to bear it, so it is the best for all concerned that things happened as they did. You meant well by me, and I may have acted unadvisedly, not to say unworthily, but as all is well that ends well, let us each take up the threads of our fallen shuttle and weave away, careless of the texture of the cloth, conscious that the great loom master will credit us for our diligence at the last."
As she said this, she rose, indicating that the interview had shaped itself to a finality.
Dr. Leighton rose also, and, extending his hand, said: "Now that we understand each other, I hope that we shall at least be friends."
"As you like it," said Regenia, taking his hand. "I have no wish to be unfriendly to you or to judge too harshly what was perhaps providential," she said, as the doctor bowed himself down the steps.
Dr. Leighton owned to himself as he lighted a cigar and sauntered aimlessly down the street, that he had not accomplished his purpose as easily as he had intended. "How the girl has changed," he muttered, "thoroughly self possessed and as beautiful as Venus."
She had changed. The weak, weeping girl that he had thought to make the plaything of his caprice, had passed through the school of adversity since the day she left him in the library of her deceased relative. Some girls are never women; others leap to that estate, by suffering, in a day.
The sands of time, ran on in their usual groove. The changeable winds of March, followed by the showers of April, had given place to the delightful days of May. Dr. Leighton came in now and then to pass an hour, spend an afternoon or listen during the long balmy evenings, to Regenia play, but oftener to bring some piece of new music to
sing. These calls were not sufficiently frequent, nor so illy timed as to excite remark. The doctor had told Mrs. Landers frankly of the relation he bore to Regenia, and that discreet dame, pandering to an innate love for southern aristocracy, secretly rejoiced that she kept beneath her roof someone so nearly allied to this scion of "blue blood."
Regenia spent a great deal of her spare time among her pupils. No place was too humble, no home too sordid to daunt the missionary spirit of this sweet young woman. Like an angel of mercy, she moved in and out among the people, carrying the sunshine of a helpful sympathy wherever she went. If somebody was sick, some pupil detained to home, forth after nightfall sallied Regenia, to administer to the sick or look after the delinquent. She brought to the homes of the poor and neglected something more than the necessities of life. For while she administered, too often, it is to be feared, from her meager wages to their physical wants, she threw around them a subtle refinement, a gentleness of touch, a subdued sweetness more lasting than temporal blessings.
One evening as she passed out of one house into another just across the way, to make a last call, and spend a quiet hour with a sick scholar, whose convalescence seemed to depend upon her daily visits, she observed, as she entered the house, a buggy standing beside the board walk in front of the door. She turned the knob with gentle and continued pressure and glided like a sylph, unannounced, into the bed chamber of her little friend. Her intuition told her in a moment that a change for the worse had come over the patient. She heard the doctor and the mother of the child conversing in a low tone in the adjoining room. The little boy was groaning with pain and talking wildly. She knelt beside the bed, and stroking the sufferer's head, began to talk to him in that low, soothing key that the gracious Father has given only to the angel heart of woman. The doctor noted the cessation of hard breathing and with a motion toward the mother to quiet her fears, stepped lightly to the open door. As he started to the door, in his heart, he verily believed all was over. He stood a moment as if fixed to the spot. He rubbed his eyes and looked a second time. Kneeling at the bedside, her sad sweet face beside the little sufferer, her hat filled with loose roses, daily brought to comfort him, the child, under her magic touch had gone to sleep.
He motioned to the mother, who seeing Regenia, could not be restrained but pushing past the astonished doctor and clasping the girl in her big strong arms, lifted her to her feet, exclaiming: "God bless your dear life! You are an angel sent from heave, I do believe!"
"He is sleeping now," said Regenia. "Oh I hope he'll be better by morning."
She had not noticed that a third party was an interested observer. Seeing the doctor, she gave a little start, then instantly gaining her self-control she faced the stranger, whom in the dim light she failed to recognize.
Reaching out his hand, he said: "Do you not know me, Miss Underwood?"
"Dr. Stone!" she said, unable to hide her astonishment.
They stood there for some moments holding each other's hand, both too full of the thoughts of other days for utterance.
"This is indeed a doubly fortunate meeting—fortunate for the child, whose life not my medicine but your influence has saved, and fortunate for me. I never thought when I hurried out here tonight that my visit would be fraught with so much happiness."
"Nor did I think of seeing you," she replied.
"What a change from the scenes that surrounded us when last we met," said he, trying to divine if she too recurred to those happy days with regret.
"Pleasure then, but an hour of this is worth a lifetime of that," she replied, thinking of how little idle hours of fickle folly are to be compared with earnest sacrifice for the good of others.
"It depends upon the value of the standard we use a unit of comparison," he replied, thinking how readily he would exchange a month of the half-payed responsibilities of his thankless lot for about an hour of that blessed, care-free conclave week.
"I did not know you were in the South," he continued. "How long have you been here and what mad notion of self-sacrifice has driven you from the delights of Mt. Clare and the 'Elms' to try conclusions with the world in this hamlet of sin and vice?" In his heart he disliked the very idea of Regenia, the sweet Regenia of his dreams, living and laboring among such surroundings.
"To answer your first question," she said, "I have been here since last January, and while it will despoil my mission of half its poetic glamour to confess it, candor compels me to say that not fanatic notions of self sacrifice, but stern necessity, if not a harder, a more exacting master, brought me here to win my bread by teaching."
"You here and a teacher!" exclaimed the doctor, not knowing whether he was more astonished or delighted at the news his ears were hearing. "Where are you stopping?"
Regenia named the street.
"Oh, you are up in town. I drive past there. You will let me give you a lift?" he said, drawing on his gloves and hastily giving a few final instructions to the mother of the sick child.
After promising to return the next morning on her way to school, Regenia bade the grateful mother a cheery good night and was handed into Dr. Lotus Stone's buggy, where, as they drove along, never faster than a walk, the moon's broken reflections fell on a new life for them both.
Chapter 18 -- Chapter 20