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Sacrifices

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Everyone else agreed that it was a miracle. Uncle Alec told him so directly; the aunts whispered it outside his door.

It did not feel like a miracle to Charlie. He was alive, yes; after many long days and nights blurred by pain, he had finally awakened to Uncle Alec's smile and hearty words of joy. But when Charlie asked when he would be able to rise from his bed, Uncle Alec's smile faded, and it was long minutes before he finally broke the dreadful news. Cousin Mac had later corroborated it: Charlie would be a cripple for many years, probably for life.

As he lay in his bed, he tried to remember that last evening. Riding into town to meet Mr. Chapman, who had offered to buy Charlie's horse; meeting Gorham on the way, and stopping at the dinner party just for a few minutes, a few parting glasses.... Afterwards was only a vague memory of suffering. Perhaps that was best, that he could not remember how it had felt to fall down the embankment, to lie there all night in the cold rain, to be carried home by the workmen who had found him.

At least I shall keep my promise to Rose now. I will never drink wine with my friends again.

A tap on the door roused Charlie from his reverie, and Archie came in with a supper tray. "Hello, cousin! How long have you been awake?"

"Not long." The broth smelled hearty, but Charlie had no appetite for it. "How's business?"

"Well enough. I finally made it back into the office today."

He remembered the fever dreams, a particular blond head there soothing him and whispering to him. "Were you really here with me, then?"

Archie looked hurt. "Where else would I have been, when you were almost dying? Rose would have come too, if Uncle Alec hadn't ordered that she stay away, but he couldn't order me off."

Charlie considered this new proof of his cousin's devotion, stronger than he had ever expected or deserved. "Uncle Alec told you about my back, didn't he?"

"Yes," Archie said soberly. "I wish you could go about again; it won't be the same walking on Sunday without you. But I'm so glad we didn't lose you." Archie fumbled in his satchel, as if to hide a telltale expression. When he sat up, he held books. "I thought, if you like, I could read to you for a while."

"I'd enjoy that. Thank you. Pick anything; it's all the same to me."

Archie began to read a story about a wounded knight; Charlie listened idly at first but was soon caught up in the tale: the knight's wound bled day and night, and how he sought in country after country until he came into an enchanted forest, where a pale maiden told him that he must do penance for his many sins before his wound would heal. So the knight gave everything he had to the poor, gave up all the friends that had led him astray, and prayed day and night for deliverance, and at last the pale maiden had come bearing a herb that stanched the blood. And they married and lived happily ever after.

The moral was obvious, and Archie seemed embarrassed to have chosen it, but Charlie considered the story long into the evening.

I have much to repent for. But what can I sacrifice? The money he had would now be needed to pay nurses. There was the wine, of course, but he wasn't truly sacrificing that, when he could no longer get it even if he wanted it. And he would never see Gorham's set again, not while he was an invalid; Uncle Alec had refused to admit them.

He resolved to watch and see. Surely there would be something....

***

Charlie made the first sacrifice a few days later, after overhearing Uncle Alec grumble, "Clara will be the death of this lad if she doesn't cease her interference!"

"Mother," Charlie said that evening, picking at the too-rich supper she had fixed him. "Go to Father and tell him."

His mother looked horrified. "And leave my precious boy?"

"I don't want Father to hear from a letter. If I could come, I would, but Uncle Alec forbids me to go. Please, Mother, do this for me. The ship's been delayed in the harbor, they say. You can still take the berth reserved for us."

She protested, but he persisted, and in the end she said, "Well, we'll see."

***

The Rajah sailed at last, and Mrs. Clara was aboard.

"Hard on you, old chap," Archie said on an evening visit.

Yes, Charlie privately agreed. Already he missed her fussing over him, her praise. "I'll be all right."

Archie picked up the blanket that had fallen on the floor and arranged it on the table, where Charlie could reach it. "You know you can call on me any time you need anything. And Rose will give you all the woman's touch you need. Uncle Alec says you're well enough that she may visit now."

***

All his resolution to do better collapsed the moment Rose entered the room and ran to his side. "Oh, Charlie, I'm so glad you weren't killed!" She kissed his cheek. "I was so worried about you after the fall, and then you were so ill...."

"I'm sorry," he said. "I broke my promise to you."

"You did not, for I would not let you make one."

"I can promise now that I will never go out drinking again."

She knelt by him and took his hand. "Uncle Alec told me how bravely you bore the pain, and how you convinced your mother to leave when you realized it was best for both of you. I was so proud when he told me that."

He basked in her approval for a moment. Then he saw her bare left hand, and imagined a ring on it.

Suddenly it was as if an icy hand had touched his heart.

I could make her love me, now. I am broken, a sad creature, and I could convince her to care for me for the rest of my life. She would give up all the gaieties of her life to change my clothes, clean my body, move me from bed to sofa, for as long as we both shall live.

The impulses warred within him, desire versus love. There was still, it seemed, a sacrifice for him to make.

"Rose, dearest Rose." He squeezed her hand, then pulled away. "I think it would be best if you not visit too often."

She looked puzzled. "Why?"

What could he tell her? Perhaps it was best to be honest. "Right now you remind me too much of what could have been, had I been stronger. In a few months I may be able to bear it, but...."

Rose gazed soberly at him. "If that is truly what you want."

No, never. "Yes, truly."

She nodded, kissed his cheek again, and left.

***

A few days later, when Mac was examining Charlie in Uncle Alec's stead, Charlie finally said, "You love Rose, don't you?"

Mac shrugged. "We all love her."

"No evasions. You love her."

Mac looked directly at him. "Yes."

When Mac subjected you to his stare, you wanted to squirm away from that cold glance, but Charlie held his ground. "If you can win her heart, you have my blessing."

"Ceding the field? How gracious of you."

"Don't talk to me like that!" Charlie tried to yank the blanket aside, but could only uncover part of his leg. "What woman would want this? I'm a bedridden cripple. My bones are showing. My legs are wasting away. I can't do anything but lie here and read business papers. I can't escort her places. I can't..." He inhaled, and spat it out. "I can't ever be a full husband to her."

"Rose wouldn't mind. She doesn't need money, after all. And she'd be proud to care for you."

He would have to be blunt. "And will she be happy without children?"

Mac's blush told Charlie that he'd finally understood. After a long silence, Mac said, "But she's in love with you."

"No, she's not." And whose fault was that? His own. "She told me so herself, before the accident. And now I wouldn't want her to be. Someone should keep her in the family, but I won't be the one."

***

"Rose has gone to the seaside with the baby she's adopted," Archie said to Charlie a few days later, as he rubbed liniment into Charlie's shoulders. "And Mac has taken it into his head that he must go with them."

"Good," Charlie replied. The news stung like the liniment, of course, but somehow Archie's strong hands on his back eased the pain in his heart as well as in his shoulders. "The air will be good for all of them."

"Charlie...you two haven't quarreled, have you?"

"No."

"When she left so suddenly, I wondered...." Archie's voice trembled, but his hands remained firm. "Being apart from Phebe is hard, and we parted with kind words. I can't imagine being parted from her after a quarrel."

Charlie still wondered why Archie saw fit to love a girl from the poorhouse, but surely he himself was proof that those of good family were not necessarily good.... "We did not quarrel, but parted on amiable terms. And please God, we will always stay friends, or as brother and sister. But no more."

After a silence, Archie said, "It must take courage to admit that. I still can't admit that with Phebe."

Charlie chuckled, warmed by the praise. "And Rose always said that I might have the physical courage, but you had the moral. But...." The words, oddly, stuck in his throat, but he forced them out anyway. "Someday you will be able to wed Phebe, I'm sure."

Archie's voice lightened again. "If not, we shall just have to live together as two old bachelors."

Charlie's heart leapt at the thought. "Verily."

***

When the news of Uncle Alec's illness came, Archie barely left Charlie's side. They talked of their uncle, and Charlie listened to Archie's fears for Phebe, nursing Uncle Alec and facing disease and death for his sake. Every night, he prayed for Uncle Alec as he had never prayed before. I will sacrifice him if I must, but please, not yet, not yet.

One night, Archie said, "I fear sometimes that because you were spared me, Phebe's going to die instead."

Which of us would you rather have? But an upright person would never ask that question. Charlie said instead, "If she comes through this alive, she deserves your love."

Archie nodded, staring at the fire.

No wonder people rarely did right, Charlie thought, if it was always as cold and harsh as this. "What is that road, that narrow road, o'ergrown with thorns and briars? That is the road, the road to Heaven, though after it but few inquires."

***

But Uncle Alec recovered, and Phebe did not take ill, and Archie went to L___ to help bring them home.

And the next day, he came into Charlie's room, alight with joy. "She said yes, at last!"

Charlie forced a smile. "I congratulate you, sir."

Archie glowed with a noble passion. Like I could have, if I had been a better man. Or a worse.

"We want you to live with us."

That surprised Charlie. "I couldn't. Phebe won't want to...."

"Phebe told me that if she can nurse Uncle in the face of death, she can surely nurse you." Archie gripped Charlie's shoulder. "And that would only be when I must go to the office. I shall have the care of you when I'm home."

The hand was so warm, so strong. Charlie blinked. "I don't want to be in the way...."

"Charlie. Do you remember David's lament for Jonathan? 'Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.' I never knew what that meant until your accident. Of course I love Phebe, but it won't feel like home unless you're there too."

And if I told you that you are more to me than any woman, even Rose? And if I tried to embrace you as I would the woman I loved? Except that his withered body could only wish for that.

The long years ahead glared at him. Cold and empty, bereft of joy as well as temptation. Or ever half-satisfied, ever seeing before him what he could never have, even if he were whole. Ever seeing Archie, his Archie, now Phebe's.

Archie looked at him, face questioning.

Half of Archie, or none of Archie.

There was one thing that he could not sacrifice.

Charlie managed a smile. "I'll be glad to live with you two, then."