At thk Turn of the Stair
CTTv GREAT, wide handsoino stair it is, w itli coning fortal)U' steps and railintr ot' carved uak, and ^' somehow it seems to Starr that he h)ves it
more than any other part of the whole honse. Perhaps this is hecanse he always pictnres Aniee npon it, just as he saw her for the first time that Cliristmas morning h)ng ago.
He was sitting alone in the great hall before the l)ig open fire waiting for Kol)ert to come down, when a soft tread upon the steps made him look up, and he saw Anice. She had stopped at the hroad turn of the stair to pluek a hit of trailing vine that hung from the high arched window's ledge, and the early morning sun broke itself about her, besprinkling her blue dress and her gold-brown hair.
She came down when she saw him, holding out her hand. *' I am Anice," she said, simply. ^' Robert told us to expect you, and we are very glad you are come.''
That was all, but even then Starr loved her. She was only a slip of a girl in those days, and he was not a right young man, but he waited, watching for her
every morning during the holidays, and feeling glad the whole day through if he caught a glimpse of her as she came down the stair.
For three years Starr came at intervals with Robert, all the while growing more and more to love the young sister of his friend, and finding always a hearty welcome in his house. The Hastings were people whom everybody knew and everybody liked. Judge Hastings was a hearty, cheerful old man, well past middle life, and his wife w^as one of those rare beings who are ever young because of the youth in their hearts. Besides Anice was an older daughter, Betty, and these, with Robert, made up the family. The two girls belonged to the same general type, and to the casual observer seemed much alike. But the resemblance was slight at most, and Starr never saw it, always secretly resenting any observance of it by others.
Horace Starr was, as I have said, not a young man. His habits of life and character were well grounded, and grey hairs were beginning to show pretty thickly among the black above his temple, but, in spite of this, he was in some respects a man quite unused to the ways of the world. Big of limb and strong of body, he had a mind considerably above the average, which every advantage of travel and study had conspired to cultivate. Yet he was, in one respect, at least, a painfully timid man. He would have stood unflinchingly before the cannon's mouth, and was in all his relations with men a man, yet withal he had a most intense and ungovernable fear of women. Even his own mother inspired him with
a kind of awe wliicli lie could never (jiiite overcome, and it was with niueli the same feelintj^ that he regarded Anice, in spite of his great hjve for her. This made him timid Ix'fore her, and through all the years he had not spoken, only half fancying that she could over care for him, and living during the absences from her njion the picture of her with the sunlight on her face.
()ne morning—it was ('hristma>, the fourth since he had known Anic(—Starr sat before the fresh-bnilt lire in the wide hall, watching the tlame tongues Hare and Hicker and reHect themscKcs in the high brass hand-irons and pidished fender. lie wa< waiting till he sh(Md(l hear .Vniee's footfall on the stair. lie had studied her well througjj the years, and knew it was her custiuu to l)e I'arliest dow n in the morning, and he had always meant to stoji hei- sometime just at the turning wlieii the >un lighte<l all her fice, and tell her that he loved her.
Was she later than u>ual thi- iiioi'iiing, or only his own perturbation that made him think so'.' He felt his heart beat louder than the ci'ackling of the fire, and the passing minutes secmetl houi< in his eager expectancy.
But, at la>t I There was a sound of her footstep, and the soft, almost inaudible murmur of garments. She was coming I He waited till she paused iij)on the turn of the stair and then himself sprang up the few intervening steps to meet her. It seemed to him that his feet scarce touched the stair, and he trembled so that he held on to the railing for su])port. There she stood in the old place, to be sure, with her head
slightly turned and her sweet face making now only a blot against the pane, for the sun was streaming down to him and blinding his eyes.
" Do not come down, please/' he said very gently, holding out his hand to her. ^^ I have been waiting to speak to you just here. I wanted to tell you that I love you, and ask you to be my wife.''
His head was in a whirl, and he bowed it as if in prayer. He heard her take a step forward, he felt her put her little hand in his outstretched one, and, lifting his glad eyes, he found himself face to face with—Betty.
" I shall not say this is a surprise to me, Horace,'' she was saying, "for I have hoped for it always, and have loved you always."
But he heard as one in a dream, feeling his life-tide ebbing with every word, for behind her, coming down the stair, was Anice. Horace looked up at her as she came under the window, and would have thrown himself down at her feet for the very love of her, but Betty stood aside to let her pass, and she swept by him unheeding, her beautiful face all full of pain, and a look in her eyes that crushed him. AVas it for this he had waited? O God! O God! He fancied that he cried aloud in the enormity of his grief, and would have fallen, but Betty, all unheeding in her own joy, slipped her arm in his and led rather than followed him down the stairs.
" I have brought you a son for a Christmas present,^' she said gayly, as they met her father and niother on the way to the breakfast room, but Horace received their cheerful greeting silently. His heart
was l)urstin^, iind he longed to crv out his <:;reat love for Anicc and curse the confusion of his horrible blunder. Yet—he dared not! IJetty had said she loved, had ])roniised to be his wife I He was no longer free I He might never more wait f)r Anice on the stair, nor start up glad for her coming. Was this the price of a man's honor? O God! (3 (iod! Was the suffering only his to bear? What meant the strange look in An ice's eyes when she ])assed him? She had heard, and misunderstood, and now he could never tell her. () (lodl () (lod!
How the breakfast passed he never knew, exce})t that Anice did not come. Some one found her by and by, in the little copse behind the rose garden, lying j)rone upon the frosty earth with the same tense lo(dv on \\vv l)eautiful young face. They picked her up and carried her in, but, save for a pitiful moan as they bore her o'er the turning of the stair, she neither spoke nor uttered a sound. All through the weary days of waiting, as she hiy 'twixt life and death, no word escaped her; only the sharp look of silent suffering never left her face. But once when Betty carried Horace into the room to see her, she turned her big blue eyes up to him and smiled. Had she understood? But the eyelids (juivered, the smile faded from the poor still lips that might speak no more forever!
Horace buried his face in his hand and wept with the sorrow of a strong man stricken when they bore the poor prone body down the stair. The sun in his glory glinted on the silver of the coffin, and the trailing vine swept across it tenderly, but he might
not kiss the poor dead lips of the woman whom he loved!
Long years have passed since then, but the early Christmas morning finds Horace ever faithful at his vigil in the wide hall before the glowing fire, and sometimes he will start up, fancying he hears a step on the stair, and that he will see Anice coming to him across the weary waiting time.
"Have you come at last, Anice ?^' he will cry joyously, to hear Betty's voice call down to him: " It is I, Horace, dear. Why do you always call me Anice, at Christmas time, I wonder?^'
And he only puts his hand before his eyes to keep in yet a little while the picture of his love upon the turning of the stair.