"How we glow over these novels of passion, when the story is told with any spark of truth and nature! And what fastens attention, in the intercourse of life, like any passage betraying affection between two parties? Perhaps we never saw them before, and never shall meet them again. But we see them exchange a glance, or betray a deep emotion, and we are no longer strangers. We understand them, and take the warmest interest in the development of the romance. All mankind love a lover."
Lost for the sixth or seventh time in Emerson's heady discourse on Love, Rose did not immediately notice the person standing in the doorway to the study, where she sat poring over the treasured volume in her hands. A low "Ahem!" made her glance up, startled out of her reverie.
Dr. Alec was looking curiously at her, his eyes as warm and thoughtful as ever, and the curly brown hair and beard streaked with gray gave Rose a sudden unbidden image of Mac, twenty or thirty years hence, coming into their shared study in long-standing custom… She felt her face flush a little at the unexpected wanderings of her mind – too much Emerson, clearly.
Rose shook her head to clear the fanciful vision and smiled at her visitor.
He was outfitted with bear-fur coat and boots, and had two pairs of shining skates slung over his arm.
"Can I tempt my scholar to join me for a spin?"
Scholar indeed. She closed the book and slipped it under the throw of the plush velvet chair. Dr. Alec's sharp eyes would not miss it, she was sure, but Rose couldn't help the self-consciousness at her indulgence in the Essays when she could have been attending to much more solemn studies. She was dreadfully behind on her and hadn't practiced her German in several days…
"That sounds delightful," said Rose, rising and bounding across the study. "The first skate of the winter!" She looked forward to it every year, and her uncle was an even livelier companion than her cousins upon the ice, for he had kept up the sport when the boys had long abandoned it.
Rose glanced at the clock upon the mantel as she passed. Dulce would sleep for at least another hour, by her count. They would have a good crack at the pond in the meantime. It was just the thing to distract her from her fanciful musings.
She accompanied him down the hallway and staircase to the first floor, and just as Rose expected, Dr. Alec didn't hesitate to mention her preoccupation. "May I ask what was so engrossing? I was at the door for a good three minutes before you noticed my presence," he teased.
Rose attempted an air of non-chalance as she answered, "A book of essays that has been a favorite of late."
"Indeed." They paused in the hallway before the front door while she put on her winter things. He gave her fur-trimmed hood a fond tug. "You have a number of new favorites of late, I've noticed."
Feeling her color rise at the insinuation, Rose was glad that she need not meet his eyes while she leaned to pull her overshoes on.
The unusually brisk late November wind cooled her cheeks immediately upon stepping outside. She took Dr. Alec's free arm as they set off down the avenue, trotting to keep up with his long strides. Her breath made little puffs of steam in the freezing air.
Rose considered how best to bring up the puzzling matter with her uncle, who surely had an inkling of the reason for the new awkwardness between her and Mac. If she had been quite sure of her own feelings on the subject, there would be no hesitation, and she could be quite free in discussing it with Dr. Alec. The only trouble was – she wasn't sure what her feelings were at the moment. But at the very least, he might be able to shed some light on the wisdom of this course.
"Uncle, I think you have some idea what's been going on these past few days. What is your opinion on Mac's latest – notion?" Rose stumbled over what to call Mac's suit.
"Ah, my dear, I've been wondering when you would mention it! I first noticed symptoms of his 'notion', as you call it, a number of weeks ago. And then last week, when you no longer wondered at Mac's frequent absences, I suspected what might be the cause."
Dr. Alec turned to her mid-stride and gave her a brief examining glance. "This morning my suspicions were confirmed; Mac confided the whole matter to me. He says that he, at least, is quite serious in this undertaking. And yet I understand he intends to set off for Lowell the day after next, and study with Dr. Broughton there."
"Yes," said Rose, seizing on this safe turn of conversation that Dr. Alec was offering. "I urged him to go, and concentrate on his ambitions without distraction. For his own sake."
"It would be a relief," Rose admitted, though she did not admit to herself what exactly sort of relief it might be.
"I am glad to hear you say so, Rose. I had feared the feeling was mutual, and that you might be swept up by youthful ardor and promise in haste without consideration of the obstacles."
"I have made no promises," said Rose quickly, "but surely you don't fault Mac?"
"Fault him? Far from it, my dear. Were he not your cousin, I would find his devotion most admirable and satisfactory. I could not ask for a better man to lay his heart at your feet. But I must caution you against yielding to the flattery of his affections."
"I am in no danger of that," said Rose, not entirely convinced of the truth of her statement. "But, Uncle, won't you tell me why? What are the obstacles you speak of?"
Dr. Alec looked quite seriously at her. "My dear, I know you would not persuade yourself to be in love simply because you are loved; I trust your judgment there. I will speak out, however, as I have spoken to Mac, against the unwiseness of cousins marrying. It is a course I cannot approve of, and I am glad to find that my fears were unfounded. I could never in good conscience give my blessing such a marriage.” And the good doctor’s look showed mingled relief and regret, for his sentimental nature yearned to see a happy love affair.
Rose absorbed this information for a long moment, not sure how to respond. "I think I understand," she said after careful thought of what concerns he could be referring to. For her part, she did not think the familial bonds between cousins was so great an objection as to preclude any deeper affection; nor, for that matter, did the rest of society to her knowledge, for there had never been any whispers to the contrary when she and Charlie were rumored to be a match, or the Curtis cousins who had recently become engaged.
She continued in a rush, "But you needn't worry about me as far as Mac is concerned. I'm quite sure he'll forget all about this fancy once he's been in Lowell for a week or two. And I have no such preference to forget; my feelings towards Mac are purely platonic."
"Your color says otherwise," said Dr. Alec with a slight smile, surveying her glowing cheeks.
"How can I be calm, when he continues to trouble me so with the knowledge of his affection?" exclaimed Rose, unable to contain herself. "That is why I told him to go to Lowell. I won't be able to be still until he is gone, and neither will he. Time and distance will work its cure, I'm sure of it."
"Perhaps, my dear. And yet sometimes the old adage about absence's effect on the heart proves true."
Rose could not deny this possibility, not even to herself. Her mind cast back to Mac's words to her at their last meeting: "I'll go at once, and see if absence won't help you 'to think, to know, and to be sure,' as it did me."
She was already reflecting on how lonely the winter would be without his companionship, without his fond amusing presence and thought-provoking conversations to look forward to during the week. Rose thought it very likely that she would know for sure how she felt toward her enigmatic cousin before he returned home.
Rose looked up to discover that they had reached the pond, scattered with the gay figures of the few people skating there: a group of children, several schoolgirls, an older couple hand-in-hand. There was a wrought bench now underneath the little pine tree where once upon a time she had waited for Mac, on that fateful day when he could not come and she had grown ill from the bitter cold. The memory of her family's care of her on that occasion, Dr. Alec's tenderness, Aunt Plenty's worry, and Mac's distress at her illness, all flooded back to her at the sight.
She took a seat beside Dr. Alec and strapped on her skates, tugging them tightly about her ankles under the warm fur pelisse. Finally she rose and glanced at her uncle, who had one blade upon the ice already. His eyes were dancing with mischief.
Rose squealed with girlish laughter as he grabbed her by the arms and swung her onto the pond. This led to a merry chase in which Dr. Alec was quite the loser, for Rose had the head start in pursuit of him. He laughed heartily as she pounced and threw her arms around him.
"Ah, lass, you're as quick as ever!" Dr. Alec cried approvingly, steadying them as she nearly toppled him over. "I'm glad my girl hasn't quite outgrown her youthful vigor!"
"Never, Uncle," she said, flashing him a winning smile. "Now, just try to catch me!"
Rose darted off, anxious to show him that she had not lost a bit of that "youthful vigor" he had encouraged in her. A quick glance over her shoulder proved that neither had Dr. Alec, for he was fast on her heels and grinning as he gave chase.
Within a few moments he had caught her easily amidst peals of laughter, and spun her in his arms. "There, my girl, we are evenly matched, and may enjoy a respectable turn around the pond as befits our advanced years."
Breathlessly she whirled around him for a few more spins, before settling into a graceful glide, arm in arm with Dr. Alec. "I will never believe it," Rose declared with an impish smile. "You are not even as old as I am, Uncle – you are simply growing younger, as I grow older."
"I will be content with that fate," said Dr. Alec, glancing fondly at her, "as long as you remain my Rose, no matter how young I grow."
"I think I can safely promise that."
Two months later, Rose could not say the same. She found herself poring over the brief infrequent letters from Lowell, scanning them for any trace of the passionate lover in their carefully scripted phrases. There was almost nothing in them that could not have been written by a close acquaintance or casual correspondent; only an omitted comma here, a slip of endearment there, a turn of phrase that could mean so much or so little, hinted at the sleeping fervor behind the seeming tranquility. Rose treasured one short missive that concluded so elusively,
For surely a wordsmith of his caliber could not have left out a critical possessive by accident.
Over and over the words of Emerson turned in her head:
"We feel that what we love is not in your will, but above it. It is not you, but your radiance. It is that which you know not in yourself, and can never know."
It was a kind of knowledge entirely different than any Rose was accustomed to, this indescribable awareness of the agreement of her heart and mind, both drawn inescapably to the same desire. She could no longer doubt the sureness of her feelings, for they did not waver but grew stronger day by day, and the waiting grew almost unbearable. She longed to see Mac again, to speak with him as a friend and as more than a friend, and to know what her heart felt instinctively that she should answer him.
When the newly-published Songs and Sonnets made its rounds after New Years and was in constant quotation by all of her proud relations, Rose found that this only confirmed her feelings and kept the ever more beloved author in her thoughts. The slender volume was full of simple beauty and true nobility, but in between the heartfelt lines of "Nature's deepest secrets," Rose saw much more than the mere smell of pine and hum of insects. The honest, uplifted soul of her cousin was evident in every word, and she felt almost as though he had written it in response to the beauty they had shared together in the mountains. The poems were for all to read; the experiences that they recalled were for her.
It was startling, then, to hear them discussed so freely and their meanings bandied about. This was a frequent source of entertainment for the Campbell clan, to Rose's mingled amusement and distraction. Over the breakfast table one morning, Dr. Alec and Aunt Plenty fell to discussing lines from the little volume, and came upon this mysterious couplet:
From heaven's clouds descending to the sea
I passed a river-nymph, and laughing, she passed me.
"It sounds very well, I'll admit, but heathenish, if he's referring to himself!" said Aunt Plenty, adjusting her spectacles as she examined the page carefully.
"I'm quite sure it's meant figuratively," said Dr. Alec with a smile. "I would be quite surprised to find our Mac has been consorting with nymphs in his travels."
Rose listened to this exchange with private laughter; she knew the occasion to which these lines referred, and that Mac's Sabrina was not figurative in the slightest.
Of course, life went on, and there were art classes to teach and tenants to visit patiently and little parent-less tots to watch over in the Rose-Garden. This last occupation was her favorite, and Rose fell into an easy habit of joining her little orphanage around lunchtime and playing with the children. Often Dr. Alec would join her there when his schedule permitted, and they both would forget their dignified responsibilities in a grand romp of lions and tigers, before collapsing in a laughing heap of weary limbs and delighted shrieks.
"Wose!" Dulce would wail if she was too far away, and Rose would gather her little mouse and shower her with kisses and give her all the love that the sweet tiny soul craved. The sound of Dulce's laughter and the fervent clasp of her arms about Rose's neck brought delight to her day, as she little by little coaxed her baby into the kind of health and joy that Dr. Alec had given to Rose herself.
And thus days were busy with tasks that kept her hands and mind gratefully occupied, but nights were her own, and Rose found that memories flooded the space between waking and sleeping. Every interaction in the long years of knowing and caring for Mac seemed colored with a new glow as she realized a part of her had always loved him. Even in their teens, he had been her knight, and she his gentling lady, for she knew the rough boyish Mac had been deeply affected by the long months together during his convalescence. Her memories of the youthful trip to the mountains echoed their recent meeting there, and Rose smiled to think of the joyful times of both occasions.
Perhaps even then she had felt something she hadn't given a name. The knowledge of having awakened a sudden tenderness in Mac was enthralling, and Rose recalled the gallant way he had attended to her then. When she could not confide her sprained ankle to her uncle, she did to Mac, and the memory of him gathering her up and carrying her safely to her room sent an unexpected thrill through the adult Rose as she replayed the scene over in her mind, this time with a very appealing older version of Mac in the heroic role. Her imagination suggested an ending to this tableau much like that of a later convalescence, when he was distraught over her terrible illness from waiting in the cold for him, and she had consoled him with a tender kiss. Rose did not need the inspiration of French novels to supply the details of such a tête-à-tête.
She needed only to draw the treasured page of verses written in his own scrawling hand for her, only for her, to be assured that his passion would not fade with the months between them. She murmured the stanzas to herself, rolling the words over her tongue til her dreams echoed with the words of "To Psyche":
When daylight fails and dawn cannot be borne
When noon is dim and night like sickness lingers
I feel my way with outstretched, groping fingers –
Cupid, wandering blindly in the night
Searching, wishing, yearning for a light –
Then chilly silence whispers into song
And Psyche's lamp glows gentler than the dawn.
My love's sweet soul shines softer than the morn.
Those dreams were very sweet, their pleasure only to be rivaled by the day when they would be fulfilled. There was little danger, as one wise author asserted, of hers being such "a slight, thin sort of inclination…that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.” No, she thought with a smile, hers must be the "fine, stout, healthy love" that made her lover's poetry truly the food of her thoughts and hopes for the future.
But in the daylight hours, Rose carefully tucked these pleasing daydreams away with the precious page under her pillow where they would be safe from prying eyes. She tried to behave as naturally and unaffectedly as possible, though it pained her to hide her true feelings from her uncle. However, she knew him well enough to realize that discretion was the better part of wisdom in this matter, at least until she was reunited with Mac and could discuss how best to soothe Dr. Alec's concerns.
And when the roses were putting out the first green shoots of new growth once more in the garden, coaxed by the first warmth of March air, Rose knew she would willingly call him her Mac if his heart had not changed. Her own brimmed with constant desire to fly to him and tell him so, and to feel the joy of her love returned.
Then one evening late in March, Dr. Alec announced his intention to travel to Lowell and see the illustrious artists of the family for himself. Rose longed to join him and at last give Mac the answer he hoped for, and she prayed it was an answer he still sought from her. But before she could work up the proper calmness to propose she accompany her uncle there, her sweet Dulce came down with croup the next day. Rose could not bring herself to release the poor fragile tot to anybody else's care but her own and Aunt Plenty's. So she bid farewell to Dr. Alec with a wistful thought that he might bring her knight errant home with him in the end.
Instead, there followed an agonizing month and a half of waiting for news of the poor doctor, who had fallen deathly ill with a malignant fever in Lowell. Unable to go to him by his own orders that she should stay safe from contagion, Rose prayed as she had never prayed before, that Phebe's and Mac's hands would be enough to rescue her beloved uncle from the grasp of eternal sleep.
And then came the telegram from Mac: "Saved – thanks to God and Phebe."
Rose thought he had never penned more beautiful words than those.
"You are never to leave home again," Rose declared into his greatcoat.
"No fear of that anytime soon," Dr. Alec said with the ghost of a twinkle, before he was whisked away by the horde of Campbell boys and safely deposited on the sofa.
At the head of the horde was Mac, tall and distinguished in his long coat and owlish glasses, striding with the authority of physician and managing the unruly pack with a sure hand. Rose felt her heart quicken its pace as she stole glances at him from her position of honor next to Dr. Alec. For a moment their eyes met, and Rose caught her breath at the sight of Mac's steadfast gaze; the devotion and tenderness she saw there promised everything she had hoped and dreamt of. Rose breathed again.
Then he was ordering everybody out of the sickroom except her and Aunt Plenty, and ensuring that the patient was well taken care of, before slipping out himself. Rose smiled at the brown-and-gray curls resting in her lap; her uncle was safe, and her Mac had come back to her at last.
It almost was too wonderful to be true, but being here with him was even better than a dream. He was really and truly hers now, and they had weeks and months apart to make up for. Time seemed of little consequence now; all she wanted was to linger there and talk with him. There was so much to know, she couldn't think where to begin, so the thread of their conversation twisted and turned for a great while as they talked of medical school and poetry and "hope deferred" and heartsickness during the long wait.
Every bit of him was growing more and more dear to her by the minute, and Rose surveyed his new air of distinguished masculinity with great satisfaction. He had let his hair grow back to a respectable length, and had not quite lost his old habit of running his fingers through it as he spoke heatedly, a habit Rose was tempted to try for herself on her lion's mane. His neatly trimmed beard also met with her approval, and she ran admiring fingers down his jaw as she grew bolder with her Cupid.
But although time seemed to stand still, the mantel clock told otherwise.
"I don't want this moment to end," Rose said wistfully. "But Aunt Plenty will be wanting to oversee tonight's feast, so I really should go back and relieve her of her post." She had left a sleeping Dr. Alec in her aunt's capable hands, with the promise to return before dinner.
Despite this, she made no move to let go of Mac, wanting to savor every precious minute with him until it was absolutely necessary to part.
"Before you slip away, Rose…" Mac's voice was much soberer than before, and she looked up at him questioningly. "Have you spoken with our uncle about any of this?"
The thought that Rose had been pushing to the back of her mind was now unavoidable: what would Dr. Alec think of this? Mac's serious expression beneath his reflective frames bespoke a similar concern. "We discussed it just before you left," she said. "He told me he did not approve of cousins marrying, and I told him – well, I led him to believe there was no cause for concern."
"He had a similar conversation with me, and in my case there was cause for concern," said Mac. "I don't suppose his views have changed since then."
"You know Uncle. That isn't likely." Unease at the prospect of Dr. Alec's disapproval began to settle over Rose, and she bit her lip as she contemplated when – and whether – they should tell him.
Mac seemed to sense the source of her worry. He tightened his arm around her waist in a comforting squeeze. "We don't have to say anything right away. I think the best plan is to let him get some strength back, and not borrow trouble till then."
This seemed a wise course of action to Rose, and she nodded and returned the embrace.
"Besides," and here Mac's face softened from a considerative look into a more lover-like one, "I wouldn't mind keeping you all to myself for a day or two. Just to get used to the idea, you know." When Rose met his eyes directly, she found him gazing upon her with unwavering devotion, and Rose had to force herself not to shy away from such fervor, unused to it from this new heroic Mac. He was looking at her like she was the morning sun and he a sun worshipper from pagan days of old. She did not deserve the love he offered…but she would not have changed it for the world.
"Then for today," said Rose, pushing a wayward lock of hair behind his ear, "I'm all yours."
"Dangerous last words, Rose," he murmured, bringing one hand to cradle her face, and then his lips were touching hers, gently and sweetly just as he had in her dreams. Yet it was not the same at all, for kissing Mac as a lover made her knees go weak and her frame quiver with exhilaration beyond anything her imagination could have supplied. Rose felt as though she had been asleep her whole life up till then, and only now was awakening to the dazzling glow of vitality that this love was stirring in her. It thrilled her even as it took her breath away with its suddenness and intensity.
All too soon it ended, leaving her craving more of this enticing delight. Rose peered up shyly at Mac. "Mightn't we stay here just a little longer?"
He laughed, a rich wonderful sound that warmed her as surely as his touch did, and took her by the hand. "Patience, my Psyche."
Rose let out a breath of frustration as he led her to the door of the sanctum. "That is not one of my stronger virtues," she said regretfully.
Mac grinned at her. "I know."
He opened the door for her, and while she passed through he bent his head to her ear. "But it is one of mine."
"Bless you, child," said Aunt Plenty, adjusting her cap where it had slipped down her forehead and patting a few gray strands back into place. "But there is so much to do and so little time to do it! Three kinds of puddings! Dear Alec loves my plum pudding, and I am the only one who can make it properly. And Dolly may have missed something…yes, I must go set things right at once." Having settled all this in hushed undertones with Rose, Aunt Plenty bustled away toward the kitchen, enlivened by the thought of the feast that night, which most certainly needed her careful supervision.
It was a grand affair, unparalleled in either size or quantity, and the table leafs positively creaked under the weight of it all: soups and biscuits and potatoes and roast loin and crab cakes and lobster salad and three kinds of pudding. Even the appetites of the hearty Campbell clan proved insufficient to make a serious dent in the spread, and Aunt Plenty shook her head and passed the potatoes round again, convinced that nobody had eaten near enough.
Full of plum pudding and happiness, Rose sat back and absorbed the warmth of seeing so many dear faces all gathered together once more. Uncle Jem would be home for at least a week, and Aunt Jessie glowed with joy at having both her husband and her brother-in-law safely returned to her. Phebe and Archie, who had been sworn to secrecy by Rose and Mac while passing through the parlor, bore matching smiles that could easily be explained away by the pleasure of their own long-awaited engagement. At the far end of the table, the Cadets were pulling rank and relieving Jamie of the two last biscuits, and poor Aunt Myra, who considered it her duty to keep an eye of the rapscallion young man, was shaking her head at all the rich food he would surely regret eating later.
A little ways down sat Steve, whose graceful table manners far and away outstripped anyone else's there, and Kitty, who was keeping a weather eye on Aunt Jane at her elbow. That stern matron, however, had graced the occasion with her best gray silk and expression of placidity. Uncle Mac, on the other hand, was unusually garrulous, and kept addressing his youngest brother with ill-concealed delight at his safe return.
Dr. Alec, of course, had the seat of honor at the head of the table, with Rose on one side and Aunt Plenty on the other. Rose had had a flustered moment upon first seeing Mac seated close by and facing her, and knowing that a good many scrutinizing eyes there would catch any sign of conspiracy she might let slip. But his smile was as warm as ever, and his outlandish remarks as amusing as she remembered. Mac's ease put her at rest, and Rose found herself laughing quite naturally with the rest of them over one of his funny speeches.
When finally Dr. Alec swore he could eat no more, and his face showed the signs of tiredness that his speech did not, Aunt Plenty declared that he must have rest. The cousins fought for the honor of bearing their uncle up to his room, and in the end they very nearly all were his honor guard.
Rose kissed her uncle goodnight and adjourned to the parlour with her aunts and Phebe and Kitty. Messieurs Jem and Mac had fled when the talk turned (as it often did when Kitty was present) to the upcoming nuptials and their necessary preparations. Rose watched the departure of her uncles with something like envy. Kitty's and Phebe's weddings were all very well to exclaim over, but Aunt Jane had her sagacious eye upon Rose all too often for comfort.
"We would delay it a month, you know, if we could just convince Rose to settle things and be a dear!" exclaimed Kitty. "June flowers would look very well, and then my Paris trousseau will arrive in time!"
Rose tried not to fidget under Aunt Jane's frank scrutiny (a trait her Mac had inherited), knowing that an involuntary blush or smile could give her away to her aunt. A part of her wished she could tell her happy news, for she knew it would bring Aunt Jane joy as well, in her own way. Time enough for that, Rose told herself. When Uncle knows…
And so when it came time for everyone to depart for the night, after her cousins had trooped downstairs as quietly as six young and energetic young men can, Rose hugged them all with equal warmth, laughing as Jamie squirmed and protested the display of affection. In response, she squeezed harder and planted a resounding smack on his cheek, to the shouts of laughter from the other boys.
"I couldn't be happier for you," said Archie in her ear as she pulled him close.
"Don't be too happy yet," she said under her breath. "Not till we know…"
He nodded, well knowing the trials that might be ahead should the road prove rocky.
"Tomorrow then?" said Mac when she leaned in for her farewell hug. "The hospital?"
"Quite so. Goodbye, my Mac." Rose dropped her voice as she uttered this final address. Under the shadow of his beard, she saw him smile.
Entering the house with blooming cheeks and quick breaths, Rose found Dr. Alec already downstairs, and Aunt Plenty fluttering around him with a blanket in one hand and a fork in the other. "You should not be exerting yourself so soon, Alec!" she cried as Rose came into the breakfast room.
Rose could not help but laugh at the amusing sight of her aunt trying to decide whether to wrap him up or feed him first, like a mother bird with a very large chick.
Dr. Alec surveyed the good lady's efforts with admirable patience. "My dear woman, I'm quite warm enough. Ah, Rose! I see you are in good health this morning as well. Hungry, no doubt. Aunt Plen, won't you fetch Rose a plate?" His eyes were twinkling with mirth at this diversion.
Rose was very pleased indeed to see his spirits returning. She grinned at his cleverness in distracting Aunt Plenty with a hungry soul to feed.
With breakfast came "a dish of talk," for Dr. Alec was much improved with a sound night's rest and was as eager as Rose to catch up on what he had missed during his illness. They chatted long after their plates had been refilled by a hovering Aunt Plenty.
"Well then, my dear, what are your plans for today?"
"I think I shall help Aunty receive all of your numerous visitors this morning – oh, Uncle, are you prepared for the onslaught?"
"I am now," he said with a chuckle.
"There were dozens waiting for you to come home! And you shall tell us who you want to see and who you want us to inform that you are ‘regretfully indisposed.’" Rose tossed him an impish look at this, for she knew full well that he would not turn away any visitors, no matter how tiresome.
"A sound plan. And then to the Garden?"
"The hospital today, Uncle," said Rose, trying not to give away by any peculiarity of voice or look the additional incentive to her visit.
Dr. Alec nodded, and Rose thought longingly of when they would be able to tell him, for keeping this most important information from him was sitting strangely with her.
After lunch (and the expected deluge of well-wishers), as good as her word, Rose brought over her usual stock of treasures to the hospital, accompanied by her little shadow Dulce. There they spent a happy hour playing with the bedridden children, who welcomed the sight of the pretty blonde lady and her meek baby, for they always brought bright toys and even brighter smiles.
And there, she did not have to hide the joy that illuminated her face when Mac joined them for a few minutes, outfitted in a new white coat and bearing tidings of his re-acceptance into the program.
"Not that there was any doubt," Rose commented wryly, for Mac had been an illustrious student there before his expedition to Lowell, and could now boast of having studied with the renowned Dr. H–––.
With Dulce on one arm and an even smaller boy clambering over his other shoulder, Mac grinned. "Lady Bountiful is also an excellent ally to have," he said with as much of a bow as his armfuls would allow. Then his coat pockets were subjected to a thorough inspection by the young acrobats amidst clamors for “sweeties!” and further conversation was made quite impossible by the ensuing horde that descended upon them as word spread of the new doctor’s store of goodies.
“If he is as opposed to the idea as he was in November, we may have a hard go of it,” said Mac with a shake of his head. “This might distress him as well. We’ll have to consider how to go about it.”
“Oh, do you think he is well enough?” asked Rose anxiously. “I would wait, but keeping anything from Uncle is nearly impossible!”
“He should be much improved by tomorrow,” said Mac, sidling Odysseus closer to Rosa’s glossy flanks. “But I’ll stop by tonight and assess his condition.”
“Please do! I’m eager on both counts - Uncle to regain his strength, and us to tell him.”
Dulce leaned forward and patted Rosa’s silky mane. Instinctively Rose secured her arm around the little girl in front of her on the saddle.
“Do you want me with you, then?” inquired Mac thoughtfully. “Perhaps it would be less distressing for him to hear it from you alone.”
Rose considered for a moment. “I’d be glad to have you with me,” she said in the spirit of full confession, “but if I have a chance of persuading him to yield his views on this, I’d better take it, hadn’t I?”
Mac reached across the gap between them and covered her gloved hand where it held the reins. “You have the best chance of us all, Rose, when it comes to our uncle.”
A low voice murmur at the door made her start and glance up. "You look very much like Beatrice tonight, for before me
"Appears a lady under a green mantle,
Vested in colour of the living flame."
"Mac!" She sat up and greeted him joyfully. "You really must stop comparing me to these goddesses, you know, or else I fear you will dreadfully disappointed in my shortcomings as one."
"They weren't goddesses, you know," said Mac, stealing another kiss as he joined her on the sofa. "Simply very exalted and virtuous women."
"I still don't measure up to that! Am I to expect to find an idealized version of myself in all your publishings from now on?"
"I'm afraid so, Sabrina," he said with a grin, and she felt a flush of pleasure at the allusion.
"Even if I am not at all like her…still, for you to include that in your book! Mac, that was us! Passing each other in the mountains, never knowing…" She settled against his side and looked very sweetly at him. "I could see your heart revealed very plainly for my eyes alone in those poems."
"I'm glad it had the intended effect." Mac wound his arms around her tightly and they sat before the fire in silence for several moments, savoring the warmth of each other's company.
"How did you find Uncle tonight?"
"Much stronger today, after resting from the journey. Certainly well enough for tomorrow, if your plan has not changed."
"The sooner the better; then we may know and plan without fear of what he will say."
The dim light of the hearth before them illuminated the shadows of concern that crossed Mac's face. "And if he says no?"
"I do not need Uncle's permission to marry you," said Rose, her brows gathering. She had given the matter a great deal of thought, and no matter how she turned it over in her mind, she could only come to one conclusion.
She took a deep breath and looked steadfastly into his eyes, which were fixed on her with unwavering concentration. "Whether or not he approves, my heart will not change. I could never love another as I love you." She placed her hand over his. "I will be yours as long as you will have me."
Her declaration brought forth the most pleasing response of a fervent embrace and tender lips on her hair and forehead. She felt his approval in the impassioned way he clasped her close to him, the slight breath of air he exhaled as if he'd been holding it.
"Thank God!" he murmured. "That was my one fear, that this would affect your decision. You can be assured of mine – it has not changed, and never will. I would wait a thousand lifetimes if you were there in the thousandth and first."
The love behind both his words and caresses was unmistakable. Trembling with happiness, Rose lifted up her face and was rewarded with the sight of his expressive eyes shining with emotion behind the lenses. "I could not leave my Cupid, 'wandering blindly in the night.'"
"Your light was all I ever needed…My love's sweet soul shines softer than the morn." And with these words Mac lowered his head and kissed her. Where there was sweetness before, now there was urgency, warmth, need in the way his mouth wooed hers. Rose had never been kissed like this before, with this kind of abandon and fervency, this undoing force seeking her surrender to its power. She felt hot and trembling at the taste of the passion that it promised. Something fierce and insistent within her demanded more, deeper, greater satiation of its knowledge.
Enthralled, Rose pressed closer to Mac as she returned the kiss, boldy slipping a hand under his jacket. Her pulse skittered wildly when she felt him lean into her and urge her back against the cushions of the couch, the firmness of his frame against her own a wholly foreign and intoxicating sensation. Rose gasped at the feeling of connection between them, the warmth of lips and arms and body surrounding her. And he was kissing her and kissing her until the intoxication was nearly overwhelming…
And then Mac broke away and sat bolt upright, holding her at arms' length. "Love," he said breathlessly, "that's my cue to leave."
Rose felt her own breath come fast and panting as she stared blinking at him. "Must you leave so soon?" Even to her own ears, the question sounded wistful, pleading.
"I'm afraid it would be now or not at all," said Mac, in a low strained voice. Rose saw his gaze flicker to the quiet sanctuary around them, illuminated only by the dwindling fire and soft lamplight, and she was suddenly aware of how very alone they were. The implications of Mac's words struck her, and a hot blush flooded her cheeks. She had begged him to stay! Even now she wished very much she did not have to send him away.
Rose put her hands to her burning face. "You're right, of course. I don't know what came over me."
"I am only a mortal, my Psyche." Mac stood and turned to her. "So I will take my farewell of you before you bewitch me any further. Goodnight and sweetest dreams."
Rose felt her hand taken and raised to his lips, and she glanced very shyly up at Mac, who had one hand on the door and was cradling her palm in the other. "Goodnight, my unlikely Cupid," she said with a slight smile.
Reluctantly, Mac made his way to the door, then halted at the last second and smiled over his shoulder. "Still, I think my dreams will be very pleasant tonight."
And with that he disappeared into the dark hallway.
"Rose, there you are! Come in." Dr. Alec, looking almost his old self again, greeted her from the oversized chair in his study.
Rose entered, breathing deeply to steady her rising nerves. Here, the neat rows of books and shelves, the comfortable furniture perfect for long hours of reading, and the odds and ends picked up in her uncle’s travels usually brought an instant sensation of peace and warmth upon entering the quiet study. Today, though, she could only think of how to ask the only father she had known for nearly a decade for his blessing if not his agreement.
Her uncle had a single journal open upon the old oaken desk, which tended to be clear of papers and neatly organized unless he was "on a tear" as Jamie would say. Upon her approach, however, he closed the volume and turned to her with a warm look of invitation.
"Is all well at the Rose-Garden?" he asked as she took a seat on the other side of the desk.
"Oh yes, I couldn't be happier with our new nannies! Catherine manages the children splendidly. And Dulce begged so pitifully to stay and play with her little friends till this afternoon, I couldn't help but give in."
"Rose, you know you shall have to say no to your charge sometime," said Dr. Alec with a strange sort of smile.
Rose looked steadily at her uncle, though her heart was racing at the thought of what was coming. "I do know," she replied, "and I shall endeavor to guide her as well as you have always guided me, Uncle. But I won't deny her without good reason."
Dr. Alec nodded and reached across the desk to take her hand, holding it tenderly. “Neither will I, lass. Now, will you tell me what’s been making you smile so these past few days?”
“Other than you being home?” she said quite truthfully.
“You’re too kind, my dear. But that should not make you blush! My Rose has been remarkably blooming of late, more so than mere exercise alone would account for.”
“You are right,” said Rose, working up the courage to tell him the reason. “I have been changed since you came back. Please hear me out, Uncle.”
She took a deep breath and looked steadily at him. “I cannot help loving Mac - I tried my very best not to, but I only succeeded in loving him more. He is so very dear to me, for he has earned not only my friendship and respect but my love and trust. We want only your blessing for our happiness to be complete. Please, Uncle, don’t look like that!”
Rose clutched his hand and studied his stricken face, over which expressions of wistfulness, regret, and conviction passed in succession. He shook his head, growing graver by the minute. Finally he spoke.
“I’m not entirely surprised, Rose, but I had hoped against hope that this would pass. I wish with all my heart that I could give you the answer you want. It pains me all the more that you have picked exactly the kind of man I would wish for you. Confound it all, I want you to be happy! You chose a worthy man to love...I could not be prouder of any living man than I am of my godson!”
Dr. Alec’s sudden outburst, and his earnest squeeze of her hand, testified to the truth of his statement. Rose listened with growing anguish, dreading the answer that he would give. “You know I could not give you up to any man whom I did not know and trust entirely,” he said, his voice growing rough with emotion. “I have tried to steer you right as much as I could, Rose, and I would be a poor first mate if I did not warn you of the dangers of this course.”
“What dangers could there possibly be?” she cried. “You have yourself said Mac is worthy! We know our own hearts; they will not change!”
“My dear Rose, if he were anybody but your cousin, I would gladly give my blessing to this union. But I see no way around it - he is your cousin, and that is something no amount of wishing will change.”
Rose sat frozen with alarm at her uncle’s confirmation of all her fears. It made no sense, that he would care more about what a flock of prudish busybodies said than the happiness of two souls perfectly suited for each other. It was not like her uncle at all! She would not give up Mac and all her hopes for such nonsensical objections.
Suddenly awakened to argue her case, she said impetuously, “I did not think you would care so much what society says."
"Society?" Dr. Alec looked taken aback. "You are correct – I do not care what foolish people may say, and I would never base my own opinion on such idle chatter. ‘Society’ may think Archie is making a poor match, but that is no objection when two people of such sterling character are well suited.”
Rose bit her lip. Then she and Mac –
Dr. Alec caught her pleading look and held her hand more tightly. "My dear, I would move heaven and earth to give you happiness. You two are well suited, and it breaks my heart to think of separating you.”
He sighed. “But on this I am unmovable. For I do care what science says about consanguinity.”
"What do you mean?"
"Here. I will show you. Bring your chair round while I look through these journals.” Dr. Alec rose and moved to one of the many bookcases lining the room, selecting a handful of scientific journals from the rows of volumes there. He searched for several moments and drew out an additional volume or two from another shelf, then returned and spread them across the desk in piles.
Rose came to sit beside him, looking over the mass of papers as he flipped through the journals and laid them open upon the desk.
"You know I have always been honest with you," he said with conviction as he continued to search through the volumes. "I can do no less now. The source of my concern is the general consensus on cousin marriage and its ill effects on future generations. The A.M.A.'s Dr. Berniss is not alone in his conclusion – you can read his report – there, ‘that multiplication of the same blood by in-and-in marrying does incontestably lead in the aggregate to the physical and mental deprivation of the offspring.' "
Rose took the offered journal automatically; the words Dr. Alec was saying almost did not register in her head from the shock.
"Perhaps you are unaware of the many states that are passing laws against the marriage of first cousins for this very reason," he continued, "among them New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Our own governor in 1846 conducted a study that concluded cousin marriage is implicated in the rise of mental incapacity. I am surprised Massachusetts did not follow suit in banning the practice after that study."
Rose felt her breath coming faster as she finished the damning report and absorbed the implications of Dr. Alec's statements. He, though, was still digging through the piles of journals to find the next piece of evidence. "And this one – Journal of the Statistical Society of London – George Darwin conducted an extensive study examining this question of idiocy and consanguinity. The results are inconclusive – he does not seem to think there is a great link – but he does advise that 'various maladies take an easy hold of the offspring of consanguineous marriages.' He agrees with Dr. Crichton's assessment – here," and Rose read the passage he pointed to, trying to calm her growing alarm:
“It has always seemed to me that the great danger attending such marriages consists in the intensification of the morbid constitutional tendencies, which they favour. Hereditary diseases and cachexiae are much more likely to be shared by cousins than by persons who are in no way related… (and these) are transmitted with more than double intensity when they are common to both parents…"
"And this – Darwin's conclusion regarding infant mortality rates amongst consanguineous marriages – his examinations of the studies 'give some evidence of a slightly lowered vitality amongst the offspring of first cousins.' "
Rose looked at Dr. Alec in consternation. "Do you think all this is true?"
"There are others that support his conclusions: Arthur Mitchell in Scotland – he studied orphanages, as you can see here – and Lewis Morgan's Ancient Society, that’s this collection, he is strongly against the practice. Drs. Moudin and Dally, the previous studies Darwin mentioned among the blind and dumb schools – they all recommend that such close marriage be avoided."
As he spoke, Dr. Alec gestured to each article in turn, though she could only glance at them briefly, too overwhelmed by the implications of their findings to absorb the details.
"And what do you think?" Rose heard her own voice shaking and gripped the arms of the chair.
"I think that you should very seriously consider the consequences of bringing a child into this world who would be condemned to a life of deficiency, pain, even early mortality," said Dr. Alec, his gaze softening despite the clinical detachment of his warning. “Your mother had a weak heart; your father likely had anemia. You may very well have both, Rose. Would you risk intensifying those conditions in a child by adding a cousin’s genes to them?”
Rose could not respond to this for several moments. The impact of this future struck her – the risks that no amount of love could do away with – the selfishness of making a child suffer needlessly. Her work at the hospital and orphanage had brought her into daily contact with children who did suffer so, who felt the affliction of not just neglect from a life of poverty but also the wasting consequences of disease and mental distress. How could she possibly consider adding to this number?
Slowly Rose nodded, her heart in her throat. "I know you are right, Uncle…” She tried to blink back tears, but they rose up despite any effort to resist. Her optimistic hopes of persuading Dr. Alec that his concerns could be overcome, her happy plans for the future she and Mac would build, her beautiful dreams of Mac caring for their own children as he had for others’ – in the space of a morning, they were all fading before her eyes. She brushed at the hot tears that spilled onto her cheeks. “But it is so very hard!"
"My sweet Rose." Dr. Alec pulled her onto his lap and held her close, pressing her to his heart in the old comforting way. "I am more sorry than I can say. Would that I could spare you this heartache. I know too well how it is to feel so. It distresses me to know end that I must be the one to tell you no, when my heart says yes."
He stroked her hair while she buried her face on his shoulder and hid the tears that kept coming. Rose clutched his jacket in her hands, unable to think of anything but the peril of all that she had hoped for. Tears brought no peace, only a release of the anguish that this knowledge brought, and they flowed with stormy passion and then melancholy reflection. He held her patiently through it all, until gradually her grief subsided into a dull ache.
She turned her head against his shoulder, feeling the cloth there soaked. "I will keep loving him, Uncle," she murmured. "I can't help it."
"It would be a poor love, that stopped at a moment's notice," said Dr. Alec in a low voice. "I would not ask you to give it up, only to hold firm to what you believe, above all else. This may the hardest test of all. To do what you know is right, above what will make you happy…"
Even in her distressed state, Rose could the raw undertone behind his words. Suddenly she realized that he knew more than anyone what it was to let a beloved go. "My mother," she said softly, having pieced together the mystery a while ago but always too shy to bring it up with him.
"Yes," he acknowledged. "I still wonder what might have been…had things been different."
"Tell me," Rose begged.
"There is not much to tell," said Dr. Alec, but the huskiness of his voice betrayed him. "I was very young, and far too outspoken for my own good. She was the most sought-after woman in Boston – not simply an heiress, but kind-hearted, gracious, well-spoken…and the most beautiful soul I knew. I could not help being in love with her."
Rose sniffled and gave a little nod, the descriptions of her mother and Dr. Alec's youthful devotion touching her very profoundly. He had never spoken of her like this before. He continued, "I do not blame George for it, now. But it was hard, as you say. Very hard. I was young and brash, unused to wooing, too used to doing as I pleased and saying what I would; I was the youngest, you know, and terribly spoiled as a young man. I realized too late that love should make you want to be a better man."
This picture of Dr. Alec was very different than the one Rose knew. "You must have been very angry at my father," she said thoughtfully.
"For a long time, I was; furious, in fact. George was like Charlie – larger-than-life, and charming, the suave older brother that all the girls flocked to. He knew I fancied her, and laughed at my blind devotion; 'puppy love,' he called it. His own suit, when he fell in love with her himself, was ardent and sure, and in the end he won her heart."
Dr. Alec's voice dropped to a low husk. "She wanted to remain my friend. I couldn't bear the thought of her friendship without her love. For her I became a better man – but it was too late, her heart was given, and she and George were married, and I set off to sea the very next month.
"I could not bear to speak to George for years; I did not write, and was, I'm sorry to say, glad when he moved away with your mother, that I need not see him when I came home. Even when you were born, and after your mother died, and all said he was a changed man, he still did not invite me to come, and I was too proud to write first. I should have made things right then, for we both deeply mourned your mother's loss. And I might have known you sooner."
He pressed Rose tighter, dropping a kiss to the top of her head. "I think he knew I would love you, for her sake and your own. You are very much like her, you know."
Rose smiled a little. "I think she would have loved you too," she said, though her voice still shook with the effort of blinking back tears.
"I have never forgotten her," he said fervently. "But with the passing years, I found my road a very lonely one. It is not a course I recommend for you, my dear. It makes for a good story, but a rather empty home." His voice was wistful as he spoke these last words.
"You have me," said Rose shyly.
Dr. Alec looked very tenderly down at her. "That I do. No father could be prouder of you than I am of my Rose."
Knowing any further demonstrations would unleash the floodgates again, Rose extricated herself reluctantly. "I will consider all you have said, Uncle," she promised before taking her leave. "You are the only parent I have now…and I could not ask for a better one."
"Rose? Is that you? Good heavens, child, what's gotten into you?" Aunt Jane had of course heard her rushed entrance and clicking heels in the hallway, and had come to investigate. "Is Alec all right?"
"Oh yes – nothing's wrong, Aunt. I apologize for startling you." Rose was certain Aunt Jane's sharp eyes would notice something amiss with her, although she had smoothed down her hair and bathed her face quite thoroughly before saddling Rosa and riding out to her aunt and uncle's house.
"I suppose you are looking for Mac then – he is in the library. But that is no surprise." Aunt Jane gave her a very fixed look, studying her face carefully. "Are you two engaged, Rose?"
Rose felt both relief and discomfort at her aunt's forthrightness. "Yes it is," she answered honestly, "but we haven't made it known yet. I'm afraid Uncle Alec has raised some serious objections to the engagement."
"Objections? What kind of objections?" Aunt Jane spoke sharply, for it was no secret that she considered Rose a necessary installment of the family.
Rose considered for a moment just how much to share with her at this moment, but realized she needed all of the advice she could get. "He is troubled by the recent studies regarding consanguinity and greater chance of disease in offspring," she said, trying to speak objectively to avoid another rush of emotion. "Cousin marriage has been banned in several states now because of it."
Aunt Jane frowned. "Yes, I've read those studies – thoroughly suspect, if you ask me. And the effects of those laws are simply disgraceful! There is far more scrupulous morality behind the Comstock decrees than actual science. You do not intend to break the engagement over that, do you?"
"Not if we can find a way around it," said Rose, feeling a tiny spark of hope from her aunt's measured encouragement. "I was hoping to speak to Mac about it, to see what he thinks."
"Naturally. There are ways around it, you know. Mac, of course, will be more well-versed in the modern medicines, being late from the university. But as you have no mother to speak with you about such things, you are free to ask what you will on these subjects to me. I was quite well-educated on such matters as a young married woman." Here Aunt Jane gave a satisfied nod as if pleased with her store of knowledge.
Rose was thoroughly confused by these allusions, although she was very much encouraged by Aunt Jane's implicit support and suggestion of hope. "Thank you, Aunt. I will be sure to come to you with any questions."
The library was flooded with light as Rose entered the quiet haven. She stood staring at the broad figure that rose to meet her. "Mac!" Overwhelmed with sudden emotion at the sight of him, Rose threw herself into his arms impulsively and held him tightly. For one beautiful moment nothing else mattered; he was here, with her, as though he would never let her go. For a moment Rose felt the pure happiness of being reunited with Mac once more. She was reluctant to let go, but air soon became a pressing concern. "So, not an unwelcome visitor?" she asked, breathing heavily.
"Never," declared Mac. "Do you have news?"
Rose felt the weight of her concerns settle once more in a heavy cloud around her. "I spoke with Uncle," she said, taking Mac's hands in hers. "He showed me the evidence against us marrying – the risks for any children we might have." Her cheeks flushed as she spoke, but she knew Mac would not mind her frankness. "The studies about consanguinity – have you seen them?"
"I have," said Mac, growing quite serious. "I suppose he puts great credence in the Darwin findings?"
"Yes, and all the others. There was so much evidence against it! I don't know what to think any more. Do you really think it…it's a reason to…"
Mac shook his head thoughtfully. He paced a few steps and raked his fingers through his hair till it stood on end, in his familiar thinking custom. "It's a good question, this consanguinity issue. I've seen some studies that are quite valid, linking the health risks of children conclusively to this effect…"
Rose looked down. So many hopes and beautiful castles in the sky, built over months of expectation, that could crumble in an afternoon…She exhaled a long, shuddering breath.
The next moment, strong arms were encircling her from behind and pulled her close against him. "Sorry, was thinking out loud. A bad habit. I’m used to working things out on my own."
Rose nodded, leaning into the strength of Mac's embrace. She rested her head against his chest and closed her eyes as he kissed her hair. "There's hope, though," he said thoughtfully. "A great deal of it, in fact."
Mac turned her slightly to look at him. "Will you trust me, Rose? To find us a solution?"
"I will!" she declared, heartened immediately by the inspiration that seemed to be striking him. "But can't I help?"
Mac gave her a final embrace and released her, striding toward the door as though fired up by some idea that needed immediate attention. "Yes, but first I must make a few calls, and if you don't want the jig to be up right away, you may not want to accompany me quite yet."
"I do wish you weren't right so much," Rose said, shaking her head a little. "Very well, I shall let you go on your mysterious mission. Hurry back, please!"
"It's from 'Mat'," said Rose, giving her the fragrant flower to play with. Dulce rapturously inhaled the rose's scent and began tucking the stem here and there and admiring the effect.
Rose meanwhile was rapidly scanning the note. Mac had left abruptly on a mysterious mission that afternoon and she was eager to see what he had found.
How it thrills me to write those two brief words! You deserve a proper love letter after such an auspicious beginning, but I am afraid this note has a much more prosaic task. Enclosed you will find two pamphlets which I have on indefinite loan from some rather enlightened friends. I know you will not ascribe any prurient motive to their contents; they are purely practical, as relates to our earlier conversation. I have marked several helpful chapters, but you may also find the others interesting. I do recommend discretion in your choice of location when opening and reading these volumes; they are considered contraband, although they could do much good if they were more widely distributed.
Although I declared this would not be a love letter, I cannot contain myself from adding a few short lines that are not quite prosaic. You are ever in my mind, your dear face the light of my morning and the last vision of my waking night. I live for the day when we may become one and never again be separated. Then it may well be said of us,
Their cords of love so public are,
They intertwine the farthest star.
Until tomorrow morning, when I shall eagerly await our meeting in the drawing room, as you used to come every morning so long ago, I remain always
P.S.: I sent a book for Dulce as well.
Rose found the first part of this letter highly curious, while the latter made her alternately reminisce, smile, and wish that tomorrow morning might come very quickly. Dulce was toying with the strings of the parcel, trying to work out the knots.
"Come, sweetling, let's go to my rooms. Mat sent you a book!"
Her eyes widened as she skimmed the chapter indicated. If she understood correctly, it was outlining various means for preventing pregnancy. Rose of course was aware of the general means of conception from her studies of anatomy and biology, but she had never heard of the possibility of "checks" as the book described them. She read with interest (and not a few moments of flushed cheeks) about the various ways a couple might accomplish this.
The chapters that came before illuminated the philosophy behind this idea of "reproductive control," and Rose found herself nodding at the descriptions of the poor unwanted children who were abandoned, willingly or unwillingly, for lack of care or means. And then she came to a passage that made her start:
"Others there are who ought never to become parents; because, if they do, it is only to transmit to their offspring grievous hereditary diseases; perhaps that worst of all diseases, insanity. Yet, they will not lead a life of celibacy. They marry. They become parents, and the world suffers by it. That a human being should give birth to a child, knowing that he transmits to it hereditary disease, is, in my opinion an immorality. But it is a folly to expect that we can induce all such persons to live the lives of Shakers. Neither is it necessary. All that duty requires of them is to refrain from becoming parents. Who can estimate the beneficial effect which rational moral restraint may thus have on the health, beauty and physical improvement of our race, throughout future generations. But apart from these latter considerations, is it not most plainly, clearly, uncontrollably desirable, that parents should have the power to limit their offspring, whether they choose to exercise it or not? Who can lose by having this power? and how many can gain?"
She and Mac could still be together, could still marry and know each other fully while they decided whether or not to risk having children of their own. That choice was not out of their hands – it was something she could actually decide when (and whether) to proceed with! This knowledge was indeed a wonderful revelation to Rose, for the knowledge of her mother's weak heart and father's susceptibility to illness had weighed heavily on her
Dulce cooed sleepily from her perch at the window. Rose smiled as she picked up the drowsy tot and carried her to the nursery, her charge still clutching the precious gift from her knight. In a way, Mac had already made her a mother, the day that he brought Dulce to her. She would not lack for children, not with an entire houseful of love-starved orphans and even more amongst her babies at the hospital. And with careful research into their family medical history, perhaps the day might come when they could be sure of their own children's healthy birth.
"Rose!" he greeted her warmly, catching her in a bear-like embrace. "I may truly call you daughter now. We are all delighted to hear the news. And what's this Jane tells me? Alec disapproves? My brother's gone quite mad, it seems."
Uncle Mac paused for breath after this monologue which was quite lengthy for him. Rose took the chance to reply, "I'm afraid Uncle has recently been reading quite a bit on the subject. But then, so have I," she added with a grin. "It shouldn't be an impediment."
"I should say not. I shall have to have words with Alec tonight," muttered Uncle Mac darkly.
"It isn't necessary," Rose hastened to assure him, "but we are very thankful for your endorsement, all the same!"
"Of course, my dear. I couldn't be happier – I would never have thought – but then Mac surprised us all with his burst of genius, and I shouldn't wonder that he made the same leaps and bounds in love. We were overjoyed to hear the news – and all the more that it was so unexpected. I am very proud of Steve and Kitty of course…but you are family." And here Uncle Mac pressed Rose in a crushing hug once more, and she did not even take a care for the danger to her hat, so warmed was she by her uncle's joy at gaining her as a daughter.
In an even cheerier mood than before, Rose entered the house and made her way to the drawing room, a familiar path to her since her girlhood, when she had spent many a morning and afternoon reading there to Mac during his long banishment from books while his eyes recovered. Seeing the room still recalled the memories of those long days, some trying, others sweet and peaceful, and her earliest connection with the cousin who had become her unlikely companion and confidante.
It was just as she remembered it: the curtains drawn, with just one sliver of light falling upon the small chair where she used to sit; the piano in the corner that she would play softly sometimes, when her voice was tired from reading and singing; the pile of books on the little table, ever at the ready; and Mac sitting on the sofa with a hopeful expression on his face, waiting for her entrance. But in contrast to the boy she recalled growling over the ban on his beloved books, this Mac was half-contemplating a volume on his lap, which was quickly forgotten as he welcomed her eagerly. Rose could not stop smiling, even as she returned his kiss very enthusiastically.
"Did you find anything of interest in your readings?" asked Mac, after a proper (or so Rose thought at least) period of greeting. He had a knowing grin at the inquiry.
Rose flashed him a wicked glance. "It was very illuminating. Where on earth did you get such books? I've never come across such practical assessment of the matter – or any assessment, for that matter."
"Well, you may already be aware that such materials – and the devices mentioned therein – are illegal, thanks to the absurd interference of the Comstalk Laws. But I have a number of, shall we say, helpful friends, both in the medical community and certain movements that call themselves 'free love' societies, who were only too happy to provide me with the requested information."
Mac took her hands, growing contemplative for a moment. "And what was your opinion? Would you – be content with those conditions, waiting till we are sure?"
There could be no doubt of her answer. "Oh yes, Mac! Of course!"
He pressed her hand tightly. "I could ask for nothing more then."
She did not answer him; her look was answer enough.
After a moment, Mac said, "Nevertheless, I do have something I want to ask you…a question you have very nearly rendered unnecessary. But indulge me."
Rose found herself seated on the sofa, in his usual place, and Mac was sitting in her old chair and picked up something from on top of the stack of books beside him. Rose recognized the slip of fabric with a start. It was one of the green shades she had sewn for him, so many years ago, when he was confined to the darkened room and constant rest of his eyes.
"You kept it? All this time?"
"I couldn't help it," said Mac in a low voice. "That was when I first fell in love with you, although I didn't know it then."
This revelation was overwhelmingly touching to Rose, who herself looked upon that time as when her heart was first softened to her rough cousin.
"I listened hour after hour to your voice, and half the time I didn't even hear what you were reading, just the rhythm and beauty of what you were speaking."
"Why, Mac!" Rose still found this more sentimental side of Mac surprising, but delightfully so.
He leaned forward and slipped the shade over her head and secured it in front of her eyes. "And you would soothe me when I raved at my helplessness so, and tend to me with the patience of a saint when I growled and grumped, and never deserted me even on my worst of days."
Unable to see him any longer, Rose found herself concentrating on the sound of Mac's voice and the touch of his hands upon her own. She remembered how Mac would cling to her when the pain or frustration was too great, and how she could always manage to bring him comfort.
"You were my saving grace – the only thing I looked forward to," he continued, cradling her hands in his. "And even though I didn't call it love back then, I knew that you were the one person I wanted more than anyone else."
"Especially then. And every day since then you have become more and more precious to me, until finally I couldn't deny it any longer. I knew it was too much to hope that you would feel the same, but I had to try all the same. 'My passion gives me courage' as a wise poet of Persia once said. I would have waited a lifetime and been content to worship from afar…and I dared not dream in Lowell what awaited me when I returned."
"I was waiting," murmured Rose. "Oh, how I wanted you to come home, to come home to me!"
"Had I known that for sure, I think it very likely I would have come, studies or no. But at long last I was home…and my Psyche flew into my arms at long last. It's the most beautiful memory of them all." She could hear the smile in his voice, and as he spoke there was a rustling sound she could not identify.
"I would not trade the vision of my Rose telling me I had won her, not for any fame or fortune. But you took me quite unaware…I was not expecting such quick and decisive declaration…and so I must beg your forgiveness in the delay of this question. My Psyche, I will ask you again, lift up your lamp and behold the mortal who loves you before you choose."
Mac gently removed the shade from her eyes, and Rose blinked as she adjusted to the sudden light. And suddenly she realized what Mac held in his hand. She watched with wide eyes as he knelt before the sofa and took her hand in his free one.
"Is this your choice, Rose? Will you wear this ring and take me as your beloved?"
For answer, Rose knelt beside him and gave him her other hand as well, to slip the gleaming sapphire onto her finger. "Only if you will take me as your mortal lover," she replied. "I'm afraid I'm neither Goddess nor Muse, just a woman very much in love with you."
With Mac's steady gaze upon her and his tender words lingering in her ears, Rose could not put her full depth of feeling into words as he could, but she could certainly show him.
Mac's response to her passionate assent was highly demonstrative, and for a good while the quiet drawing room bore witness to no words whatsoever.
"Mac, dear, shall you be staying for dinner later? I will tell Jane to set another place setting. Is there anything you would like – why, Rose! Whatever is the matter?" Aunt Plenty paused on her way to marshalling the dinner plans and peered at her worriedly.
There was no use trying to keep it a secret any longer, not when the rest of the family knew already. Rose brushed away the dampness from the corners of her eyes, too distressed to put things delicately. "Mac and I are engaged, Aunty. And Uncle Alec – we just spoke with him – he disapproves – he believes we are making a grave mistake."
"Mercy on us!” Aunt Plenty exclaimed. “This is all very sudden – you children are settling like ducks these days! But my sweet Rose – and Mac, my dear boy – why yes it is a most suitable match. But what's this about Alec disapproving?"
Rose could not answer for a moment. Their discussion with Dr. Alec had been a difficult and painful one for them all, for he had not thought their solution viable. Oh Uncle…
Mac squeezed her hand and said, "Uncle Alec thinks the degree of our relation is a concern, for the prevailing scientific opinion is that consanguineous marriage can be genetically detrimental."
"Speak plainly, boy, I have not attended medical school!"
"Children, Aunty," said Rose quietly. "Because we are cousins, Uncle worries for the health and sanity of any children born to us. And he thinks we wouldn't be able to hold out against having them over the years."
"Rose!" Aunt Plenty looked shocked. "The indelicacy – "
"That is the plain truth, Aunt, as you requested," Mac pointed out.
"And this is his only objection?" said Aunt Plenty, with a peculiarly sharp glance at Rose.
"Yes," answered Rose, sighing. "Otherwise he would be very glad to give his blessing…if we only were not cousins."
Aunt Plenty pursed her lips and tapped a restless finger, as if trying to work out some complex idea unrelated to lobster salad and place settings. Finally she nodded, smoothed her apron, and set her cap more squarely on her head. "Then there's only one thing to do. Everything will be right soon enough, when all is known…but who should know? Oh dear, this is so dreadfully sudden. Yes, you both will have to be told, and Alec, but oh! what would our blessed ancestress Lady Marget say?"
Rose could not imagine what Aunt Plenty meant by this mysterious speech. Had the strain of all her hostessing of late addled her wits? She exchanged questioning glance with Mac.
"Hard to tell, Aunt, until we know what you have to say," said Mac.
"Hush, young man, I must think on this for a while, for this is a very serious matter! And there must be an engagement dinner soon, but I fear the cupboards have grown bare since Alec's return…I shall have to plan the menu and send the invitations…Jem sails in two days, so it must be tomorrow night…oh dear!"
The good lady was working herself into a "state," unnecessarily so, for if Dr. Alec could not be persuaded to relent, then an engagement dinner would be the least of their concerns. Swallowing her distress at the thought, Rose took her by the hand. "Aunty, don't put yourself to any trouble for us. That all can come later. Right now, I'm most worried about Uncle."
"You're right, deary, of course, we must put Alec's fears to rest! I am not equal to the task right now, though…"
"There's no hurry," Rose assured her, although secretly more than a little impatient to know if Aunt Plenty might actually have a solution. But seeing how distraught her aunt was over whatever plans were troubling, Rose knew she must forbear. An afternoon rest would do her good, and she would get no sense from her until later. "Why don't you lie down for a few minutes while I collect Dulce? Do you want me to finish planning dinner tonight?"
"No, child, but thank you. My duty is clear. I'm all but done with this menu, and then I must think about tomorrow night's, before I can rest comfortably."
Rose did not want to think about tomorrow night. "Very well, Aunty. We'll leave you to it." Rose kissed her plump cheek and turned to go.
Alone in the foyer with Mac, she whispered, "What do you think that was all about?"
"Knowing Aunt Plenty, we'll find out soon enough, in her own time, and not a moment sooner." Mac looked thoughtfully at her, and his expression changed from bemusement to concern. "What do you think of what Uncle had to say? Do you agree with him?"
Rose glanced down the hall. "Come with me and I'll tell you along the way."
In the privacy of the carriage, and the luxury it afforded of tangible closeness, Rose admitted the degree to which Dr. Alec's reaction had affected her. "He simply doesn't understand how dedicated we are to this plan. I know it will be hard – we will both have to sacrifice for it – but we can do this, can't we?"
"For my part, I can and I will. No matter what Uncle says." Mac ran his fingers through his hair until it stood on end and yanked at his ascot until it came completely undone. The characteristically moody gestures made Rose smile for a moment, for she could see that Mac was also reflecting very seriously on what Dr. Alec had told them.
Mac shook his head, his eyes dark and purposeful beneath the lenses of his glasses. "He says we're too young to know what we are committing to for a lifetime. That over time our resolve will waver, when longing or inconvenience becomes too great to withstand. I may not have the advantage of age, but I know my own mind, and I do know what I'm committing to. I will do everything in my power to ensure our family is happy and healthy – even if it means giving up certain dreams. I would give up much more than that for you." At the unexpectedly sentimental conclusion of this speech, he turned to her and pressed her hand fervently, the strength of his conviction indubitable.
Rose thought her lover in all his disarray had never looked more noble. Mac drew her arm around him and pulled her close to rest against his broad shoulders. "I would do the same," she murmured, resting for a moment in the relief of his steadfastness and implicit aid in ensuring that they would not make any rash decisions.
She sighed as she remembered Dr. Alec's difference of opinions on this matter. "If only we could convince our uncle of all this. He seems to think we will abandon carefulness within the first year!"
"I think we have more willpower than that, my Psyche."
"This is all very new to me," Rose said a little shyly, "but I should hope so!"
"Well then, we may yet prove our good Uncle wrong." Mac's voice dropped to a low, tender pitch. "I know how greatly you desire his approval, and how much it has troubled you to defy him so."
Rose leaned against Mac’s chest and felt the prickle of tears rise behind her eyes. She knew what she would have to do if Dr. Alec remained convinced of his views, and it was a fate she was dreading. "He is just as determined as we are. If this couldn't change his mind – what will?"
Mac gave a rueful laugh into her hair. "An act of God?"
Choking back a sob, Rose felt a hysterical inclination to giggle. "Surely Aunt Plenty would meet that definition?"
"She is a force to be reckoned with."
"Particularly when she has on her newest cap – it reaches cumulus proportions of height."
"Then by all means, she should wear it whenever she tells him her mysterious news."
"If it would help, I would urge her to wear all her caps at once," Rose said gravely, and Mac laughed. "Perhaps even add some more inches of trimmings myself."
"He may have braved the high seas and perilous lands, but Uncle Alec surely cannot withstand Aunt Plenty and her headdresses."
Rose smiled and pushed aside the thought of what she would have to do if even Aunt Plenty's bedecked fortitude proved insufficient to sway her uncle. "Will you return before dinner? She may have news for us by then."
"Surely…and send word if you need additional reinforcement from Mother's sewing basket," said Mac, kissing her goodbye as they stopped in front of the driveway.
Dulce, upon spotting her, ran up to Rose and dropped tiny treasures in her lap – a smooth white stone, spotted feather and crinkly leaf– and Rose kissed the top of her head before the child rejoined her friends to finish their cheerful game.
Dulce was as dear to her as any child of her own blood could ever be, the laughter and love she offered just as sweet as if she had always been Rose's and Mac's. Yes, thought Rose, their family could be complete and whole just as it was, and in that moment she felt a peace settle over her. She knew she would have the strength to resist Dr. Alec's disapproval, even though it would be painful for both of them, and defy his recommendation for the sake of her love for Mac, and for Dulce and any children they might adopt in the future.
After ensuring all was well at the orphanage and they did not lack for anything, Rose collected her tot and loaded her into the carriage. On the ride home, Dulce was unusually talkative (no doubt inspired by the vociferousness of her more boisterous playmates) and kept Rose distracted from any anxious reflections. The little girl was very impressed with Rose's new ring and insisted on learning its name ("wing") and origins ("from Mat!"), making them both laugh merrily. The playtime must have worn her out, though, since Dulce was already half-asleep by the time Rose carried her upstairs to lay her down in the nursery for an afternoon nap.
"Rose, child, are you home?" Aunt Plenty's voice carried from her rooms, down the hallway where Rose was half turning to go downstairs.
"Yes, Aunty, I'm here."
"Come in, dear, I want to speak with you."
Rose slipped into the quaint old chamber, with its comfortable little sitting room and tidy knickknacks, unchanged by the passing of time since she was a young girl. She did not see her aunt there however. A quick glance into the bedroom, where Aunt Plenty often indulged in an afternoon nap, did not reveal anyone either.
"In here, Rose dear."
Aunt Plenty was in the old inner room, sitting on the bed with Peace's wrapper about her shoulders and the fading quilt in her lap. The shutters were open and afternoon sun was glancing gently on the geraniums that graced the windowsill. For a moment the gray-headed aunt in her white cap and restful pose reminded Rose vividly of Aunt Peace, who used to welcome her there with a smile. But Plenty bore an expression of deep solemnity; a small testament was cradled in her deeply veined hands, and beside her was Peace's book of prayers.
Rose took all this in with a single concerned glance. "Are you ill, Aunty?"
"No, not ill. I have been considering all afternoon how to tell you, Rose. It is clearly my duty to do so, now, but after all these years…If only I had sister Peace here to help me!" Plenty dabbed at her eyes with the corner of the quilt. "And now I am the only one left who knows."
"Come sit with me, dear."
Highly curious, Rose sat beside her on the narrow bed, and Aunt Plenty gathered her close in a display of sentiment that made Rose wonder what could be so troubling. "You are the best niece an old auntie could ask for. You do the Campbell family proud. I can hardly bear to say this…"
Rose thought she would burst from the suspense, but she only replied very gently, "Whatever it is, I am willing to hear it, Aunt."
"Oh my dearest girl!" Aunt Plenty pressed her hand tightly. "You must brace yourself for the dreadful truth …"
There was no indication of whether this boded fair or foul for him, but Mac was ready for either and prepared to argue his case valiantly. At some point, Dr. Alec should let them make their own decision and not doubt their single-mindedness. And it wasn't fair to Rose to make her choose between the man she wanted to marry and the only father she had known for nearly a decade. This was distressing her to no end, when she should only be happy with her choice.
Well, he would give her every bit of support that he possibly could. Mac hurried up the stairs and knocked on the study door.
“Come in, Mac,” Dr. Alec said.
Mac pushed open the door. For once the sight of thousands of books left no impression on him. All he could see was Rose, sitting with Dr. Alec in the large armchair, traces of tears on her face and a look of great confusion in her eyes. His heart dropped.
Dr. Alec gave Rose one last embrace and murmur, then rose and wound his way past the desk and shelves of books. He caught Mac by the shoulders, his face full of emotion. "Dear boy, you'll have to forgive me," he said roughly. "I've caused you both considerable distress, and for that I am sorry. I'll let Rose tell you the rest."
Now Mac was well and truly alarmed. The omission of apology for holding firm to his views did not escape Mac, but he nodded and returned his uncle's greeting.
When Dr. Alec had departed, Mac turned to Rose for explanation. "You have news then?"
"Yes," said Rose softly. "Won't you sit?"
Her attitude seemed to suggest that he should take the chair facing her, and Mac did so with growing apprehension. Rose was clasping her hands and staring down at her lap, as she did when she was steeling herself for a difficult speech. He felt instinctively that he should prepare himself to hear the worst news of all. But better to hear it and know than to live in dread of it.
"Tell me plainly, Rose,” he urged.
"There's something you need to know about me; something that might change everything. I don't want you to feel you need to keep any – any promise given in ignorance."
Mac stared hard at her, his breath coming quicker. "Please, Rose! What could you possibly mean?"
"Mac, I'm – I'm not a true Campbell!"
This was the very last thing he was expecting her to say. He sat back in astonishment,
She finally looked up and met his eyes for the first time, her own beseeching. "My father was not a Campbell," she whispered. "He was adopted into the family, just after your father was born. It was kept secret all this time; only Aunt Plenty and now Uncle Alec knows. It means…we aren't cousins."
Hope sprang up to replace the anxiety of but a moment before. Mac leaned forward eagerly and caught her hands. "Rose, this is good news, isn't it?"
"But – but I'm not family anymore!" she cried. "I'm not the same person you knew! I could be anybody!"
Oh dear, sweet Psyche. Don't you know you will never lose your place in my heart?
Sometimes words weren't enough. Mac bounded up and took her in his arms, pulling her onto his lap in the big armchair. He held her close for a long moment, considering how best to reassure her. His own hopes rose with wild abandon at the near-miraculous resolution of all obstacles to marrying Rose. For him, this changed everything, and nothing at all.
"I love thee still,” he murmured, the lines of Tennyson coming back to him. “Let no man dream but that I love thee still.”
She sniffled and nodded into his coat. Mac considered what she must be feeling, having thought herself a Campbell her whole life and then suddenly thinking she wasn’t, that she was a different person entirely. "This doesn't change your place in our family, Rose. You are still one of us, and always will be. You are still Rose, no matter who your father was. And now I can always be your Mac…if that's still what you want."
"Oh yes, Mac, always!" Rose hugged him tightly, though two little tears escaped her eyelids and fell to her cheeks. "I have been thinking on how wondrous it is – that there is nothing to come between us now. And then I was afraid that this would change how you feel about me."
"Never. I am glad – glad beyond words!" And Mac returned her embrace eagerly, wishing to never let her go. "My only regret is that you doubt your place as a true Campbell. Dear Rose, don't ever doubt that you will be a part of this family for the rest of your life. For we have our uncle's blessing now, don't we?"
"With all his heart," said Rose. "The news came as a shock to him too. But in the end, he was overjoyed to give us his blessing."
“Well then, one less thing to worry about, right?" Mac said, brushing the wetness from her cheeks gently. "We're in this together now."
"Thank God," she murmured fervently.
With the relief of every hindrance now gone, Mac considered the curiousness of the news, that something of that magnitude should have been hidden for so many years. "There must be quite a story behind it all,” he said. “But I can wait – I am used to it."
This had the intended effect, for Rose recognized the allusion and smiled in spite of herself. "Oh, but I want to tell you everything!" she said, coming to life a bit as she started into the tale. "It's a fascinating story, really, and terribly secret. Aunt Plenty could barely tell me the details, she thought it so scandalous, but that is how it was then – adopting a child I mean. In most cases, orphaned children sadly became indentured servants for the families that took them in."
"Even our own Phebe was an example of this…until you and Uncle Alec came and made her part of the family," Mac said.
"Indeed, just so. And Grandmother Elizabeth was so kind-hearted, she couldn't bear for the child to be treated thus; but actually adopting a foundling as a family member simply wasn’t done, especially in such a prominent family.”
“Hence all the secrecy, even to this day."
It occurred to Mac that Dr. Alec must be undergoing a similar transformation in his understanding of who his brother was, and by extension his niece. But knowing his uncle, Mac was sure it would not change his feelings for Rose one whit. "Do you know who your father's family was?" he asked thoughtfully.
"Yes!” Rose spoke with heartening enthusiasm. “He was born to the Kirkpatricks of Virginia, who our grandparents were friends with. Mac, they ran an Underground Railroad station! Certainly the secrecy is better explained."
"Quite a history to be proud of, then."
"Oh yes, but their poor daughter – she was but sixteen when she ran away to be married, and they had no idea where she went, until Grandmother Elizabeth discovered her in Richmond, seven months with child and abandoned by the cad who had promised to marry her. She and Grandfather Campbell stayed with the girl and cared for her until the baby was born.”
“What a generous thing for them to do,” Mac said, genuinely touched by his grandparents’ kindness. “And then they brought the baby back home to Boston and raised him as their own?”
“They did, for the girl had pleaded with them to take him in. She wanted her son to be raised as a gentleman in good society with the hope of a future she could never give him.”
"They altered the entire course of his life," said Mac, thinking of the many fates that might have befallen his Uncle George, and how that would have changed so many things for them as well.
"And mine," said Rose, her voice dropping as she looked up at him with a wistful smile. "I might never have been born, never have known you."
Mac kissed her very sweetly – he could hardly resist, when she looked at him like that – and breathed a silent thanks to their grandparents for their long-reaching kindness.
"I can hardly imagine how Aunt Plenty managed to tell you some of the details," Mac said, several kisses later.
"It was a herculean effort, to be sure, her embarrassment was so great. She is still a-flutter from it, no doubt."
"Immensely. But she does have our engagement dinner to occupy her tomorrow, so I am sure she shall recover quite prodigiously."
"Oh yes. The dinner. Mac…would it be very bad if I didn't tell the family, just yet?"
"Rose, you don't have to tell another soul, ever. It is completely in your hands."
"It would be a relief," she admitted, "to have just a little time to myself before anyone else knows."
"Then that is what we shall do. And everyone will be shocked that Uncle Alec changed his mind, for once."
"Shocked and awed," said Rose, smiling. "His stubbornness is legendary by now."
From down the hall, a plaintive cry of "Wose!" drifted from the nursery. Life went on, after all, in spite of revelations and resolutions, and the love it brought did not care for blood or birth, but for the happiness it might give to others.
Rose smiled at Dulce's familiar call and made a move to rise. But there was just one more thing left to do before another moment went by.
Mac took his beloved by the hand. "Rose, who is not my cousin, will you still marry me?"
"No matter how many times you ask me, my answer will always be yes." Rose drew him down for one more kiss, and Mac marveled, not for the first time, that he should be the fortunate mortal to call her his Rose.