"I feel as the old alchemists must have done," he often thought. "Here is a base metal. Why can I not transmute it into gold?"
But as the conviction of his impotence grew upon him he felt something like resentment toward the one who had thwarted his purpose; and so it naturally happened that when they met again at the supper-table, his cool and indifferent manner corresponded with that of Miss Mayhew to a degree that gave her a deeper pain than she could understand.
"Why should she care?" she asked herself a hundred times that evening. But the unpleasant truth hourly grew more plain to her that she did care.
Stanton and her mother quietly ignored her "foolish pique," as they termed it. In truth the former was so preoccupied with Miss Burton, and with jealousy of his friend, that he had few thoughts for anything else.
He admitted to himself that he had never before been so thoroughly fascinated and awakened; and it was in accordance with his pleasure-loving, self-indulgent nature to drift on this shining tide withersoever it might carry him.
But with a growing feeling of disquietude he saw that Van Berg also was deeply interested in Miss Burton, and, what was worse, he thought he detected an answering interest on her part.
Occasionally, when the artist's face was turned away so that she obtained a good profile view of it, Stanton observed her looking at him with an expression which both puzzled and troubled him. She seemed to forget everything and every one, and to gaze for a moment with a wistful, longing intensity that he would give his fortune for were the glance directed toward himself. And yet when Van Berg addressed her, sought her society, met her suddenly, there was no heightening of color, nor a trace of the "sweet confusion" that is usually inseparable from a new and growing affection in a maiden's heart.
Apart from this occasion, furtive, and wistful look during which her cheeks would grow pale and she appear for the moment oblivious of present surroundings, her manner toward the artist was as frank and natural as toward any one else. It was evident that she liked and respected him, but even his jealousy could not detect the certainty of anything more.
But what was the tendency of Van Berg's mind toward her? That was the question which troubled him more and more every day. From the time of their parting on the previous Sabbath evening there had been a growing reluctance on the part of each to speak of one who so largely occupied the thoughts of both. The old jest and banter about the "school ma'am" ceased utterly, and they mentioned her only occasionally as "Miss Burton." The old frank confidence between them diminished daily, and in their secret consciousness they began to recognize the fact that they might soon become open rivals.
The attitude of Van Berg toward the young stranger who had so deeply interested him from the first hour of their meeting, was peculiar but characteristic. His reason approved of her. Never before had he met a woman who had seemed endowed with so many attractive qualities. She was not beautiful,—a cardinal virtue with him—but her face often lighted up with something so near akin to beauty as to leave little cause to regret its absence and the conviction grew upon him that the spirit enshrined within the graceful and fragile form was almost perfection itself.
It became clearer to him every day that some deep experience or sorrow has so thoroughly refined away the dross of her nature as to make her seem the embodiment of truth and purity. What though she still maintained complete reticence as to the past, avoiding in their conversation all allusion to herself, as far as possible; he still, in his inmost soul, knew he could trust her, and that while her smiling face, like the sunlit rippling surface of mountain lakes not far away, might hide dark, silent depths, it concealed nothing impure.
He also felt that there was no occasion to imagine any deep mystery to be part of her past history. The facts that she was poor and orphaned suggested all the explanations needed, and he felt sure that the sorrows she so sacredly and unselfishly shrouded from the general view would be frankly revealed to the man who might win the right to comfort and sustain her.
Could he win that right? Did he wish to win it? As day after day passed he felt this question to be growing more and more vitally important.
He was not one he believed who, like Stanton, could be carried away by a sudden and absorbing passion. In any and every case, reason, judgment, and taste would offer their counsel, and their advice would be carefully weighed. With increasing distinctness, this cabinet within his own breast urged him to observe this maiden well lest the chief opportunity of his life pass beyond recall.
And he did study her character carefully. Stanton, with the keen pain of jealousy, and Ida Mayhew with a disquiet and sinking of heart that she could not understand, noted that he very quietly and unobtrusively sought her society. When she spoke, he listened. When it was possible without attracting attention his eyes followed her, and yet his conduct was governed so thoroughly by good taste and chivalric regard for the lady herself, that only eyes rendered penetrating by the promptings of the heart would have seen anything more than the general friendliness which she inspired on every side.
Stanton, on the contrary, grew more undisguised and demonstrative in his attentions, although he aimed to conceal his feeling under the humorous and bantering style of address that was habitual with him. The guests of the house were not very long in recognizing in him an admirer of Miss Burton, but they imagined that his devotion was caused more by a wish to while away his idle hours than from any other motive; and it was also quite evident that the young lady herself took the same view. She gave a light and humorous aspect to everything she said, and permitted him scarcely an opportunity for a solitary "tete-a-tete." In vain he placed his bays and buggy at her disposal.
"I am social and gregarious in my tastes," she would reply, "and need the exhilaration of a party to enjoy myself."
Thus Stanton was led to a course of action decidedly in contrast with his past tendencies. He would attach his bays to a roomy carriage, giving her a "carte-blanche" in making up the party if she would be one of the number. He would perspire like a hero in any boating excursion or picnic that she would originate; and thus the fastidious and elegant fellow often found himself in unwonted company, for, with an instinct peculiarly her own, she soon found out the comparatively poor and neglected in the hotel, and appeared to derive her chief pleasure in enlivening their dull days. Quick-witted Stanton early learned that the surest way to winning a smile from her was to be polite to people that, hitherto, he had habitually ignored. To Miss Burton herself he made no secret of the fact that his course was prompted only by a desire to please her, but she smiling persisted in ascribing it all to his good-nature and kindness of heart.
Chapter XIX. Man's Highest Honor.
Van Berg had not been very long in discovering that Miss Burton had a ruling passion, and it seemed to him a rather unique one. He was familiar with the many forms of self-seeking, common in society; he knew of those who were devoted to literature, science, or some favorite calling, as he was to his art; he had seen a few who apparently so abounded in genial good-nature that they rarely lost an opportunity of performing a kind act; and there were men and women in the world who, he believed, had fully consecrated themselves to the work of doing good from the purest and divinest motives: but he did not remember of ever having met with one whose whole thought appeared bent on disseminating immediate sunshine.
And yet this seemed true of Miss Burton. With admirable tact, with a tireless patience, and an energy out of proportion in one so fragile, she kept herself quietly and unobtrusively busy among the miscellaneous people of the house. Her charity was wide enough for all. Wherever she could discover gloom, despondency, dulness, or pain, there she tried to shine like a sunbeam, as if that were the primal law of her being. She rarely sought to "do good" in the ordinary acceptance of the term; still more rarely did she speak of her own personal faith; to cheer and to brighten appeared to be her one constant impulse. It was evident that this had become a kind of second nature in her now; but the thought occurred more than once to Van Berg that she had adopted this course at first to escape from herself and her own unhappy memories. Every day increased the conviction that sorrow was the black, heavy soil that produced this constant bloom of unselfish deeds.
Before the week was over she gave him special reason to believe that this was true. They were walking up and down the piazza one evening and had been talking with much animation on a subject of mutual interest. But she proved that there was in her mind a deeper and stronger current of thought than that which had been apparent. As the duskiness increased, and as in their promenade their faces were turned away from those who might have observed them, she said a little abruptly and yet with tremulous hesitancy:
"Mr. Van Berg, does your philosophy teach you to believe, as you sung, on Sabbath evening, that
'There is no power to sever The strong and true in mind?'"
Before answering he turned to look at her. Her face seemed to stand out from the gloom of the night with a light of its own, and was so white and eager as to be almost spirit-like. His tones were sad as he replied:
"I wish I could answer you otherwise than as I must, for the impulse to say some words of comfort, which I feel you need, is very strong. I only sang of what I wished on Sunday evening. I have little philosophy, and still less of definite belief in regard to the future life. While I am not a theoretic skeptic, all questions of faith are to me so vague and incomprehensible that I am a practical materialist, and live only in the present hour."
"But, Mr. Van Berg," she said, in a low tremulous tone, "can you not understand that some people cannot live in the present hour, try as they may? Oh, how desperately hard I try to do so! Can you not imagine that something in one's past may make a future necessary to save from despair? If I lost my hold on that future I should go mad," she added in a whisper. "How can any materialistic philosophy be true when it fails us and so bitterly disappoints us in our need?"
"I do not say it is true," he replied, earnestly. "Indeed your words and manner prove to me, as could no labored argument, what a poor superficial thing it is. I feel, with the force of conviction, that it can no more meet your need than could the husks which the swine did eat."
"Since you were sincere, I will be also," she continued in the same low tone, looking away from him into the dark cloudy sky. "As the hymn I sung may have suggested to you, I have not got very far beyond mere submission and hope. Something in my own soul as well as in revelation tells me that there is a 'happier shore,' and I am trying to reach it; but the way, too often, is like that sky, utterly opaque and rayless."
"I regret more deeply than you can ever know, Miss Burton, that I find nothing in my own knowledge or experience to help you. All I can offer is my honest sympathy, and that you have had from the first; for from the time of our first meeting the impression has been growing upon me that your character had obtained its power and beauty through some deep and sorrowful experience. But while I am unable to give you any help, perhaps I can suggest a pleasant thought from your own illustration. The black clouds yonder which seem to you a true type of the shadows that have fallen across your path, are, after all, but a film in the sky. The sun, and a multitude of other luminous worlds, are shining beyond them in the heavens. I would I had your chances of reaching a 'happier shore.'"
"That's a pretty sentiment," she said, shaking her head slowly; "but those luminous worlds are a great way off, with cold and vast reaches of space between them. Besides, a luminous world would not do me one bit of good. I want—-" she stopped abruptly with something like a low sob. "There, there," she resumed hastily dashing away a few tears. "I have occupied your thoughts too long with my forlorn little self. I did not mean to show this weakness, but have been betrayed into doing os, I think, because you impressed me as being honest, and I thought that perhaps—perhaps your man's reason might have thought of some argument or probably conjecture relating to the subject that, for causes obvious to you, would be naturally interesting to one so alone in the world as I am."
"I am sorry indeed that I never used my reason to so good a purpose," he replied; "and yet, as I said at first, these subjects have ever seemed to me so above and beyond my reason that I have carelessly given them the go-by. My profession has wholly absorbed me since I have been capable of anything worth the name of thought, and the world, toward which your mind is turning, is so large and vague that I cannot even follow you, much less guide."
She sighed: "It is indeed 'large and vague.'" Then she added in firm, quiet tones: "Mr. Van Berg, please forget what I have said. The weak must show their weakness at times in spite of themselves, and your kindness and sincerity have beguiled me into inflicting myself upon you."
"You ask that which is impossible, Miss Burton," he replied earnestly. "I cannot forget what you have said, nor do I wish to. I need not assure you, however, that I regard your confidence as sacred as if it came from my own sister. Will you also let me say that I never felt so honored before in my life as I have to-night, in the fact that I seemed to your woman's intuition worthy of your trust."
They were now turned towards the light that streamed dimly from one of the windows. She looked up at him with a bright, grateful smile, but she apparently saw something in his eager face and manner which checked her smile as suddenly as if he had been an apparition.
she gave him her hand, saying hastily, "Good-night, Mr. Van Berg; I thank you. I—I—do not feel very well," and she passed swiftly to a side door and disappeared.
Chapter XX. A Wretched Secret that Must be Kept.
The interview described in the previous chapter touched Van Berg deeply, but its close puzzled him. Under the influences of his aroused feelings had his face expressed more than mere sympathy? Had her strong intuition, that was like a second sight, interpreted his heart more clearly than he had been able to understand it himself as yet? Reason and judgement, his privy council, had already begun to advise him to win if possible this unselfish maiden, who with a divine alchemy transmuted her shadows into sunshine for others, and often suggested the thought, if she can do this in sorrow, how inexpressibly happy she might make you and your aged father and mother if you could first find out in some way how to make her happy.
Indeed, so clear a case did these counsellors make out, that conscience added her authoritative voice also, and assured him that he would be false to himself and his future did he not, to the utmost, avail himself and his future did he not, to the utmost, avail himself of the opportunity of winning one whose society from the first had been an inspiration to better thoughts and better living.
Until this evening his heart had remained sluggish. Sweet and potent as her voice had been, it had not penetrated to the "holy of holies" within his soul. But had not her low sad tones echoed there to-night in the half involuntary confidence she had given him?
In his deep sympathy, in the answering feeling evoked by her strong but repressed emotion, he thought his heart had been stirred to its depths, and that henceforth its chief desire would be to banish the sorrowful memories typified to her mind by the black clouds above him. Had his face revealed this impulse of his heart before he had been fully conscious of it himself? Was it an unwelcome discovery, that she so hastily fled from it? Or had she been only startled—her maidenly reserve shrinking from the first fore-shadowing of the supreme request that she should unveil the mysteries of her life to one who but now had been a stranger? He did not know. He felt he scarcely understood her or himself; but he was conscious of a hope that both might meet their happy fate in each other.
He leaned thus for a time absorbed in thought against a pillar where she had left him, then sauntered with bowed head and preoccupied manner to the main entrance, down the steps and out into the darkness. He did not even notice that he passed Ida Mayhew, where she stood among a group of gay chattering young people. Still less did he know that she had been furtively watching his interview with Miss Burton, and that when he passed her without a glance her face was as pale as had been that of the object of his thoughts. But he had not strolled very far down a gravelled path before she compelled him to distinguish her reckless laugh and tones above all the others.
With an impatient gesture he muttered, "God made them both, I suppose; and so there's another mystery."
As Van Berg's interest in Miss Burton had deepened, it had naturally flagged toward the one whose marvelously fair features had first caught his attention and now promised to be links in a chain of causes that might produce effects little anticipated. He had virtually abandoned the project of seeking to ennoble and harmonize these features that suggested new possibilities of beauty to almost every glance, for the reason that he not only believed there was no mind to be awakened, but also because he had been led to think the girl so depraved and selfish at heart that the very thought of a larger, purer life was repugnant to her. He believed she disliked and even detested him, not so much on personal grounds as because he represented to her mind a class of ideas and a self-restraint that were hateful. Circumstances had associated her in his mind with Sibley, who thus cast a baleful shadow athwart even her beauty and made it repulsive. Indeed the mocking perfection of her features irritated him, and he began to make a conscious and persistent effort not to look toward her. He now regarded his hope to illumine her face from within, by delicate touches of mind, thought, and motive, as vain as an attempt to carve the Venus of Milo out of mottled pumice-stone. Still he did not regret to-night the freak of fancy that had brought him to the Lake House, since it had led to his meeting a woman who was to him a new and beautiful revelation of the rarest excellence and grace.
But there was no such compensating outlook for poor Ida. To her, his coming promised daily to result in increasing wretchedness. From the miserable Sunday night on which she had sobbed herself to sleep, the consciousness had continually grown clearer that she could never find in her old mode of life any satisfying pleasure. She had caught a glimpse of something so much better, that her former world looked as tawdry as the mimic scenery of a second-rate theatre. A genuine man, such as she had not seen or at least not recognized before, had stepped out before the gilt and tinsel, and the miserable shams were seen in contrast in their rightful character.
But, in bringing the revelation, it happened he had so deeply wounded her pride, that she had assured herself, again and again, she would hate his very name as long as she lived. Did she hate him as she saw him absorbed in conversation with Miss Burton whenever he could obtain the opportunity? Did she hate him as she saw that his eyes consciously avoided her and rested approvingly on another woman? Were hate and love so near akin? Could the belief that he despised her make her so wretched if she only hated him?
During the early part of the present week she had struggled almost fiercely to retain her hold on her old life. Uniting herself to a clique of thoughtless young people, who made amusement and excitement their only pursuit, she seemed to be the gayest and most reckless of them all, while her heart was sinking like lead. Every glance toward the cold, averted face of the artist, inspired her with more than his own scorn toward what she was and the frivolities of her life. She tried to shut her eyes to the truth, and clung desperately to every impeding trifle; but felt all the time that an irresistible tide of events was carrying her toward the revelation that she loved a man who despised her, and always would despise her.
And on this night, when she saw their dim forms and heard their low tones as Miss Burton and Van Berg talked earnestly on the farther end of the piazza; when she saw that they grasped hands in parting, and noted the rapt look upon his face as he passed her by uncaringly and unnotingly—the revelation came. It was as sharply and painfully distinct as if he had stopped and plunged a knife into her heart.
With all her faults and follies, Ida had never been a pale shadowy creature, full of complex psychological moods which neither she nor any one else could untangle. She knew whom and what she liked and disliked, and it was not her nature to do things by halves. There had always been a kind of simplicity and straightforwardness even in her wickedness; and she usually seemed to people quite as bad, and indeed worse, than she really was.
Why of all others she loved this man, and how it all had come about, was a mystery that puzzled her sorely; but she had no labyrinthine heart in which to play hide and seek with her own consciousness. And so vividly conscious was she now of this new and absorbing passion, that she hastily turned her face from her companions toward the cloudy sky, that looked as dark to her as it had to Jennie Burton, and for a moment sought desperately to recover from a dizzy, reeling sense of pain that was well-nigh overwhelming. Then the womanly instinct to hide her secret asserted itself, and a moment later her laugh jarred discordantly on Van Berg's ears, and he interpreted it as wisely as have thousands of others who fail to recognize the truth that often no cry of pain is so bitter as a reckless laugh.
A little later, however, her companions missed her. Later still her mother sought admission to her room in vain.
When she came down to breakfast the next morning, she was very quiet and self-possessed, but her face was so pale and the traces of suffering were so manifest, that her mother insisted that she was not well.
She coldly admitted the fact.
The voluble lady launched out into an indefinite number of questions and suggestions of remedies.
"Mother," said Ida, with a flash of her eyes and an accent which caused not only that lady but several others to look toward her with a little surprise, "if you have anything further to say to me in regard to my health, please say it in my own room."
Van Berg glanced towards her several times after this, and was compelled to admit that whatever fault he might justly find, the face with which she confronted him that morning was anything but weak and trivial in its expression.
But her icy reserve and coldness did not compare favorably with Miss Burton, who had now fully regained her smiling reticence, acting as usual as if the only law of her being was to utter genial words and to bestow with consummate tact little gifts of attention and kindness on every side, as the summer sun without was scattering its vivifying rays.
Chapter XXI. A Deliberate Wooer.
Miss Burton's bearing toward Van Berg was very friendly, but he failed to detect in her manner the slightest proof that she had ever thought of him otherwise than as a friend. There was no sudden drooping of her eyelashes, or heightening of color when he spoke to her, or permitted his eyes to dwell upon her face with an expression that was rather more than friendly. He could detect no furtive glances, nothing to indicate that she had caught a glimpse of that secret so interesting to every woman that she would look again, though cold as ice toward the man cherishing it. Nor was there the slightest trace of the constraint and reserve by which all women who are not coquettes seek to check, as with an early frost, the first growth of an unwelcome regard. Her manner was simply what would be natural toward a gentleman she thoroughly respected and liked, with whom her thoughts, for no hidden cause, were especially preoccupied.
Why then had she looked at him so strangely the preceding evening? Why had she apparently shrunk from the expression of his face, as if she had seen there a revelation so sudden and overwhelming that she trembled at it as a shy, sensitive maiden might in recognizing the fact that a strong, resolute man was seeking entrance to the very citadel of her heart? He felt himself utterly unable to explain her action.
What was more, he was puzzled at himself. The sympathy he felt for Miss Burton the previous evening had not by any means left him, but it was no longer a strong and absorbing emotion. His pulse was as calm and quiet as the breathless summer morning. He was conscious of no premonitory chills and thrills, which, according to his preconceived notions of the "grand passion," ought to be felt even in its incipiency. He even found himself criticising her face, and wondering how features so ordinary in themselves could combine in so winning and happy an effect; and then he mentally cursed his cold-bloodedness, and positively envied Stanton in whose manner, in spite of his efforts at concealment, an ardent affection began to manifest itself.
During the day it occurred to him more than once that her course was changing toward Stanton. There was no less return on her part of his light bantering style of conversation. Indeed, she seemed to take great pains to give a humorous twist to everything he said, as if she regarded even the words in which he tried to unfold his deeper thoughts as mere jests. But Van Berg imagined she began to make herself more inaccessible to Stanton. She entrenched herself among other guests in the parlor; she took pains to be so occupied as to make him feel that his approach would be an interruption; and whenever they did meet at the table and elsewhere, it appeared as if she were trying to teach him by a smiling, friendly indifference that he was not in her thoughts at all.
The positive coldness and aversion Ida sought to manifest toward Van Berg would not have been so disheartening as Miss Burton's device of seeming to be so agreeably preoccupied with other people that she could not or would not see the offering Stanton was eager to lay at her feet.
He felt this keenly, and chafed under it; but her woman's tact made her shining armor invulnerable. She persisted in regarding him as the gay, self-seeking, pleasure-loving man of the world that she had recognized him to be on the fist day of their acquaintance. He imagined that a great and radical change had taken place in his nature, but she gave him no opportunity of telling her so. At first she had, with laughing courtesy, ignored his gallantry, as if it were only a fashion of his towards any woman who for the time happened to take his fancy; but so far from shunning him she had seemed inclined to employ what she regarded as a caprice or a bit of male coquetry, as the means of adding to the enjoyment of as many as possible; and Van Berg had often smiled to see his languid friend of yore seconding Miss Burton's efforts with an apparent zeal that was quite marvellous. To Stanton's infinite relief, Van Berg did not twit him concerning this surprising departure from his old ways. Indeed, Miss Burton had become too delicate and sacred a theme in both of their minds to permit of their old banter. They had been friends and were so still, yet each recognized the fact that events were coming that would sorely test and perhaps destroy their friendship. While they gradually fell aloof, as men will who are learning that their dearest interests are destined to conflict, they each tried nevertheless to maintain an honorable rivalry, and their bearing toward each other, although tinged with a growing reticence and dignity, was genuinely kind and courteous.
As the week drew to a close, however, it gave Van Berg pleasure—though not by any means in the same degree that it caused Stanton pain—to observe that Miss Burton was shunning the latter's society as far as politeness permitted.
At the same time, while she evidently enjoyed his companionship, Van Berg observed that she did not seem to specially crave it; nor in truth did he find himself when away from her "distrait," vacant, and miserable, as was manifestly the case with his friend. He concluded that it was difference of temperament—that it was his nature to be governed by judgment and taste, as it was that of Stanton to be swayed by feeling and passion. All the higher faculties of his mind gave their voice for this woman with increasing emphasis. His heart undoubtedly would slowly and surely gravitate in the same direction.
How to win her therefore was gradually becoming the one interesting and most difficult question he had to solve. Although she was poor and alone in the world, it was evident that mere wealth and position would count but little with her. Stanton was handsome, rich, well-connected, and intelligent; but it seemed clear, as she recognized the sincerity of his suit, she withdrew from it. Some coarse, ill-natured people in the house, who at first, with significant nods, had intimated that "the little school-ma'am" was bent on bettering her fortunes, were soon nonplussed by her course.
Thus far Van Berg's name had not been associated with hers in any such manner as Stanton's. His cooler head, or heart more correctly, had enabled him to act very prudently. He would enjoy a walk or conversation with her, and there it would end. Neither by lingering glances nor steps did he show that he could not interest himself in other people and things. He did not attend the excursions or rides to which Stanton invited her, and others to please her, because he knew his friend "doted on his absence." He felt too that the occasion was Stanton's private property, and that it would be mean not to leave him the full advantage of the device, which might cause him more effort in a forenoon or an evening than he had been accustomed to put forth in a week.
But poor Stanton soon learned that his labors of love were destined to be very promiscuous. He never could manage to carry her off alone in a light skiff upon the lake; he could never inveigle her into the narrow seat of his buggy, nor could his most wily strategy long separate her from their companions on a picnic that had offered to his ardent fancy a chance for a stroll into some favoring solitude by themselves. Had she been a princess of the blood, surrounded by a guard of watchful duennas, she could not have been more unapproachable to lover-like advances. Yet, with a vexation akin to that of old Tantalus himself, he constantly cursed his stupidity for not making better progress toward securing the smiling affable maiden, who by every law of his pas experience ought to second his efforts to win her.
Van Berg, who remained at the hotel, or went off by himself on rambles and sketching expeditions, would watch his opportunity and quietly and naturally join her on the piazza or in the parlor, as he might approach any other lady. As a result they had long animated conversations, and found they had much in common to talk about.
Stanton would gnaw his lip with envy at these interviews and wonder how Van Berg brought them about so easily, but found he could not secure them, save in the immediate presence of others. Thus it came about that Van Berg practically enjoyed much more of Miss Burton's society than the one who made such untiring efforts to obtain it.
In Stanton's too eager suit, Van Berg thought he saw the danger he must avoid, and he complacently congratulated himself that he possessed a temperament which permitted thoughtful and wary approaches. He would not frighten this shy bird by too hasty advances. Through unobtrusive companionship he would first grow familiar to her thoughts; and then, if possible, would make himself inseparable from them.
He reached this conclusion during a ramble on Saturday morning, and with elastic tread returned to the hotel to carry out his well digested policy. As he mounted the steps he saw Miss Burton in the parlor, and at once entered through an open window. She was seated in a corner of the room with two or three little girls around her, and was dressing dolls.
"Do you enjoy that?" he asked, incredulously.
"I'm not a star," she replied looking up with a quiet smile, "but only a planet—one of the smaller asteroids—and shine with borrowed light. These little women enjoy this hugely; and I receive a pale reflection of their pleasure."
"You are certainly happy in your answer, if not in your work," he remarked.
"Mr. Van Berg," said one of the children emphatically, "Miss Burton is the best lady that ever lived."
"I agree with you, my dear," responded the artist, with answering emphasis.
"Yes, children," said Miss Burton, her eyes dancing with mischief, "and I want you to appreciate Mr. Van Berg's genius too. He is the greatest artist that ever lived, and there never were such pictures as he paints."
"Miss Burton, I beg off," interrupted Van Berg, laughing. "You always get the better of one. No, children," he continued in answer to their looks of wonder, "I know less about painting pictures, in comparison, than you do of dressing dolls."
"But Miss Burton always tells us the truth," persisted the child.
"Now you see the result of our folly," said the young lady, shaking her head at him. "We have given this child an example of insincerity. We were jesting, my dear. Mr. Van Berg and I did not mean what we said."
"But I did mean what I said," replied the child, earnestly.
"Since only downright honesty," the artist resumed with a laugh, "is permitted in this little group, so near nature's heart, I think I must follow this small maiden's example, and stick to my original statement. For once, Miss Burton, we have won the advantage over you, and have proved that yours are the only insincere words that have been spoken. But I know that if I stay another moment I shall be worsted. So I shall leave the field before victory is exchanged for another reverse."
As he turned laughingly away he saw—what he had not observed before—that Ida Mayhew was sitting near. She was ostensibly reading; but even his brief glance assured him that her downcast eyes were not following the lines. Her face was so pale, so rigid, so like a sculptured ideal of some kind of suffering he could not understand, that it haunted him.
He had given but little thought to her for the past two days, and indeed had rarely seen her. She had managed to take her meals when he was not present, and on one or two occasions had had them sent to her room, pleading illness as the reason. Indeed her flagging appetite and altered appearance did not make much feigning on her part necessary.
She had evidently heard the conversation just narrated; and she believed that Van Berg had echoed the child's belief in regard to Miss Burton more in truth than in jest.
The ruling passion of the artist was aroused. A plain woman might have looked unutterable things, and he would have passed on with a shrug, or but a thought of commiseration. But that oval, downcast face followed him. Its sadness and pain interested him because conveyed to his eye by a perfect contour.
"Was it a trick?" he thought, "or a fortuitous combination of the features themselves, that enabled them to express so much! It must be so, for surely the shallow coquette had not much to express."
"A plague on the perversity of nature," he exclaimed, "to give the girl such features. If Jennie Burton had them, she would be the ideal woman of the world."
The practical result, however, was that he half forgot during dinner that she was "the best woman that ever lived" in his furtive effort to study Ida's face in its present aspect; and that he also spent most of the afternoon in his room sketching it from memory.
Chapter XXII. A Vain Wish.
As the witch-hazel is believed to have the power of indicating springs of water however far beneath the surface, so Miss Burton, by a subtle affinity, seemed to become speedily conscious of the sorrows and troubles of others, even when sedulously hidden from general observation.
She discovered that something was amiss with Ida almost as soon as did the troubled girl herself; but for once her quick perception of causes failed her. She had explained Ida's apparent antipathy to Van Berg on the ground of the natural resentment of a frivolous society girl toward the man who had, by his manner and character, asked her to think and be a woman. It appeared to her, from her limited acquaintance, that Ida was developing into the counterpart of her mother; and for such a person as Mrs. Mayhew, Van Berg could never have anything more than polite toleration.
Miss Burton was aware that the artist's manner toward Ida had indeed been humiliating. During the previous week he had sought her society; but in the emphatic language of his action, he had almost the same as said of late:
"Even for the sake of your beauty I cannot endure your shallowness and moral deformity."
Little wonder that the flattered belle should feel hate or at least spite toward the man who had virtually given her such a stinging rebuke.
But while this fact and the differences of character explained Ida's manner toward the artist, it did not account for the expression of pain and perplexity that she occasionally detected in the young girl's face. It did not explain why she should sit for an hour at a time, as she had that morning in the parlor, her eyes fixed on vacancy, and her face full of dread and trouble, as if there were something present to her mind from which she shrank inexpressibly. She tried several times to make advances toward the unhappy girl, but was in every instance repelled, coldly and decidedly.
"What IS preying upon Miss Mayhew's mind?" she queried with increasing frequency. Her experience as a teacher of young girls made her quick to detect the presence of those dangerous thoughts which beset the entrance on mature womanhood. With a frown that formed a marked contrast with her customary gentle and genial expression, she surmised: "Can Sibley, or any one else, be seeking to tempt and lead her astray?"
As the most plausible explanation she finally concluded that Ida was brooding over her father's unhappy tendencies. Mrs. Burleigh had told Miss Burton the whole story; and she had listened, not as to a bit of scandal, but as to another instance of that kind of trouble which ever evoked from her more of sympathy than censure.
Ida might treat her fancied rival, therefore, as coldly as she chose, but the fact of suffering and the shadow resting upon her from her father's course, would bind Jennie Burton to her as a watchful friend with a tie that only returning happiness could sunder.
Stanton and Van Berg were standing together on Saturday evening, when Mrs. Mayhew and her daughter came down to await the arrival of the stage. Ida did not see them at first, and Van Berg was again struck by the pallor and stony apathy of her face. She looked like one wearied by conflict of mind; but the quiet of her face was not that of peace or decision. It was simply the vacancy and languor of one worn out with contending emotions.
"I once said," thought Van Berg, "that she would be beautiful if she were dead, and her frivolous mind could no longer mar the repose of her features with the suggestion of petty thoughts and ignoble vices. By Jove, I never realized how true my words were. As her motionless figure and pallid expression appear in yonder door-way, she would make a good picture of the clay of Eve, before God breathed life into the perfect form. Oh! that I had such power! I would give years to light up that face there with the expressions of which it is capable."
Then Ida saw him, and she turned hastily away, but not before he caught a glimpse of the blood mounting swiftly to her face. She was beginning to puzzle him, and to suggest that possibly his estimate of her character had been superficial.
"Your cousin has not seemed well for the past few days," he remarked to Stanton.
"Oh! Ida is as full of moods as an April day, only they scarcely have a vernal simplicity," was the satirical answer. From some caprice or other she is affecting the pale and interesting style now. See! she has dressed herself this evening with severe simplicity; but the minx knows that thin white drapery is more becoming to her marble cheeks and neck than the richest colors. Besides, she remembers that it is a sultry evening, and so gets herself up as cool as a cucumber. By all the jolly gods! but she is statuesque, isn't she? Say what you please Van, the best of you artists couldn't imagine a much fairer semblance of a woman than you see yonder—but when you come to her mental and moral furniture—the Good Lord deliver us!"
"'Tis pity, 'tis pity," said Van Berg, in a low, regretful tone.
"An' pity 'tis, 'tis true," added Stanton, with a shrug.
"I can't think it is only affection that has made her appear ill the last two or three days," resumed Van Berg, musingly. "Her face suggests trouble and suffering of some kind."
"Touch of dyspepsia, like enough. However, Sibley will be here in a few minutes and he will cheer her up, never fear. I'm disgusted with her that she takes so to that fellow; for although no saint myself, I can't stomach him."
At the mention of Sibley's name, Van Berg frowned, turned on his heel and walked away.
"If Stanton is right about that fellow's power over her," he muttered, "I'll tear up the sketch I made this afternoon and never give her another thought."
The moment Ida became conscious of Van Berg's observant eyes her languor passed away. She had scarcely glanced at him while at dinner, but she had felt, by some subtle power of perception, that he was furtively watching her, and she also felt there was more of curiosity than kindliness in his regard. With an instinct as strong as that of self-preservation, she sought to hide her secret, and when a few moments later the stage was driven to the door, she was prepared to welcome the man she now detested, in order to conceal her heart from the man she loved.
Van Berg, leaning against a pillar near, saw Mr. Mayhew with his sallow, listless face and lifeless tread mount the steps to greet his wife and daughter; but, before he could take Ida's hand, Sibley, in snowy linen and a coat from which the stains and dust of earth seemed ever kept miraculously, brushed past him, and seizing the daughter's hand, exclaimed:
"You see I've kept my promise, and am here." And then he whispered in her ear: "By Jupiter, Miss Ida, you look like a houri just from Paradise to-night."
Mr. Mayhew paused a moment and looked from the forward youth to his daughter's scarlet face, frowned heavily, and then gave her and her mother a very cool greeting before passing on to his room.
Ida could not forbear stealing a look at Van Berg, and her face grew pale again as she encountered his scornful glance. Pride was one of her predominant traits, and his manner touched it to the quick. She resolved to return him scorn for scorn, and to show him that in spite of her heart that had turned against her and become his ally, she could still be her old gay self. Therefore she gave Sibley back his badinage in kind; and in repartee that was bright and sharp as well as reckless, she answered the compliments of other gay young fellows who also gathered around her.
"Did I not tell you Sibley would revive her?" Stanton remarked as they went down to supper. "Such humdrum fellows as you and I are not to the taste of one who has been brought up on a diet of cayenne pepper and chocolate cream."
"But what kind of blood does such a diet make?"
"Judge for yourself. It looks well as it comes and goes in a pretty face."
"Look here, Stanton," said Van Berg, pausing at the dining room door; "there is that Sibley at our table."
"Oh, certainly! He claims to be Ida's friend, and you see that Mrs. Mayhew is very gracious to him. He's rich, and will inherit his father's business also; and my sagacious aunt inquires no further."
"Stanton, we both fee that he is not fit to sit at the same table with Miss Burton."
"You are right, Van," Stanton replied with a deep flush; "but I can do nothing without drawing attention to my relatives. After all, it is only a casual and transient association in a public place, over which we have no control. While she seems too near to him there you know that heaven is as near to hell as they are to each other. For the sake of poor Mr. Mayhew, if for no one else, let the matter pass."
"Very well, Stanton; but it must not happen so another week;" and then the young men who had withdrawn into the hall-way entered, but the expression of coldness and displeasure did not wholly pass from their faces.
Chapter XXIII. Jennie Burton's "Remedies."
Fortunately Mr. Mayhew had been placed at the supper-table next to Miss Burton, and Van Berg speedily became absorbed in watching the impression made on each other by these two characters that were so utterly diverse. It needed but a glance to see that Mr. Mayhew was a heavy-hearted, broken-spirited man. His shrunken inanimate features, and slight, bent form, looked all the more dim and shadowy in contrast with his stout, florid wife, who even in public scarcely more than tolerated his presence. This evening she devoted herself to Sibley, who sat between her and her daughter.
Mr. Mayhew seemed unusually depressed even for him, and began to make a supper only in form. Jennie Burton stole a few shy glances at his sallow face, and seemed to find an attraction in it she could not resist. Two handsome lovers sat near her, but she evidently forgot them wholly save when they addressed her; and she wooed the elderly man at her side with consummate tact and grace.
At first he was unconscious of her presence. She was but another human atom, and of no more interest to him than the chair on which she sat. Mechanically he declined one or two things she passed to him, and in an absent manner replied to the few casual remarks by which she sought to engage him in conversation. At last she said, in a voice that was indescribably winning and sympathetic:
"Mr. Mayhew, your sultry week in town has wearied you. Our country air will do you good."
There was so much more in her tones than in her words that he turned to look at her, and then, for the first time, became aware that he was not sitting at the side of an ordinary, well-bred lady.
"Country air is good as far as it goes," he said slowly, scanning her face as he spoke; "but it does not make much difference with me."
"There are other remedies," she resumed in her low gentle tone, "which, like the air, are not exactly tangible, and yet are more potent."
"Indeed," he said, the dawning interest deepening in his face; "what are they?"
"I do not mean to tell you," she replied with a little piquant nod and smile. "I've learned better than those people who have a dozen infallible medicines at their tongues' end for every trouble under heaven. I never name my remedies; for if I did, people would turn away in contempt for such commonplace simples."
"I can guess one of them already," he said with a pleased light coming into his eyes.
"So quickly, Mr. Mayhew? I doubt it."
"Kindness," he said, in a low tone.
"Well," she replied with a slight flush, "I can stoutly assert that this remedy did me good when all the long-named drugs in the 'Materia Medica' could not have helped me."
He looked at her searchingly a moment, and then said in the same low tone:
"And so you are trying to apply your remedy to me? It certainly is very good of you. Most people when they are cured, throw away the medicine, forgetting how many others are sick."
"Perhaps we can never exactly say we are cured in this life; but I think we can all get better."
"It depends a great deal upon the disease," he replied, with a shrug.
"No, Mr. Mayhew," she said; and, although her tone was low, it was almost passionate in its earnestness. "God forbid that there should be a disease without a remedy."
He again looked at her with a peculiar expression, and then slowly turned toward his wife and daughter. Mrs. Mayhew was too preoccupied to heed him, and Sibley was just saying:
"Miss Ida, I claim you for the first waltz this evening, and only wish that it would last indefinitely."
"Pardon me for saying it to one so young and hopeful as yourself, Miss Burton," Mr. Mayhew resumed gloomily, "but that which both God and good-sense forbid seems the thing most sure to take place in this world."
Although so dissimilar, deep and sad experiences made them kin, and Miss Burton found she must make an effort not to let their thoughts color their words too darkly for the time and place.
"I shall not let you destroy my faith in my old-fashioned simples," she said in tones that were lighter than her meaning. "You must not be sure that because you are so much my senior, all my complaints have been merely children's troubles. Appearances are often misleading, you know."
"Not in your case, I think, Miss Burton. I have lost faith in almost everything, and most of all in myself; but this unexpected little talk has touched me deeper than you can know, and I cannot help having faith in you."
"I will believe it," she said with a smile, "if you will give me a little of your society before you go back to the city."
He looked at her with sudden suspicion. "Do you mean what you say?"
"Why do you wish my society?"
His face darkened still more, for he remembered what he was, and how little this young and lovely girl had in common with him.
"Answer me truly," he insisted; "why should you wish my society? I've not a particle of vanity. I know what I am, and you undoubtedly know also. If you wish to advise me and preach at me, let me tell you plainly but courteously that your efforts, however, well intentioned, would be in vain, and not altogether welcome. I can conceive of no other reason why you should wish for my society."
Her face became very pale, but she looked him full in his eyes as she replied:
"I do not wish to preach or advise at all. Can you not understand that one may ease one's own pain by trying to relieve the suffering of another? Now you see how selfish I am."
His face softened instantly, and he said:
"Miss Burton, that is too divine a philosophy for me to grasp at once. As the world goes now, I think you are founding a school of your own. You will find me an eager listener, if not an apt scholar, whenever you will honor me with your company." And smiling his thanks he rose and left the table.
This conversation had been carried on in tones too low and quiet to be heard by others in the crowded and noisy dining-room. Van Berg, who sat opposite, had taken pains not to follow it and to appear oblivious, and yet he could not refrain from observing its general drift and scope in Mr. Mayhew's manner; and his eyes glowed with admiration for her winning tact and kindness. The glance he bent upon her was perhaps more ardent and approving than he was aware, for she, looking up from the abstraction which the recent conversation had occasioned, seemed strangely affected by it, for she trembled and her face blanched with a sudden pallor, while her eyes were riveted to his face.
"You are not well, Miss Burton," said Stanton hastily, but in a low tone. "Let me get you some wine."
She started perceptibly, and then a sudden crimson suffused her face as she became conscious that other eyes were upon her.
In almost a second she recovered herself fully, and replied, with a smile:
"No, I think you, Mr. Stanton. A cup of tea is a panacea for all a woman's troubles, and you see I have it here. I did not feel well for a moment, but am better now."
The eyes of Stanton and Ida met. Both had seen this little episode, and each drew from it conclusions that were anything but inspiriting. But Van Berg was thoroughly puzzled. While as he felt hen he would have gladly drawn encouragement from it, and perhaps did so to some extent, he still felt there was something peculiar in her manner, of which he seemed the occasion, but was not the adequate cause.
Miss Burton soon after sought her room, and for a few moments paced it in deep disquiet, and her whole form seemed to become tense and rigid. In low tones she communed with herself:
"Is my will so weak? Shall I continue betraying myself at any unexpected moment? Shall I show to strangers something that I would hide from all eyes save those of God? Let me realize it at once, and so maintain self-control henceforth. This is an illusion—a mere trick of my overwrought mind; and yet it seemed so like—-"
A passion of grief interrupted further words. Such bitter, uncontrollable sorrow in one so young was terrible. She writhed and struggled with this anguish for a time as helplessly as if she were in the grasp of a giant.
At last she grew calm. There were no tears in her eyes. She was beyond such simple and natural expression of sorrow. She had ready tears for the troubles of others, but now her eyes were dry and feverish.
"O God," she gasped, "teach me patience! Keep me submissive. Let me still say, 'Thy will be done.' And yet the time is drawing near when—oh, hush! hush! Let me not think of it—-
"There, there, be still," she said more quietly with her hand upon her side. "Hundreds of other hearts besides your own are aching. Forget yourself in relieving them."
She bathed her face, put some brighter flowers in her hair, and went down among the other guests, seemingly the very embodiment of sunshine. All eyes save those of Ida Mayhew welcomed her; the children gathered round her; Stanton and Van Berg were both eager for her society in the dance, or better still, for a promenade; but she saw Mr. Mayhew looking wistfully at her, and she went straight to him.
With unerring tact she found out the subjects that were interesting to him, and reviving his faith in his own intelligence, led his mind through sunny, breezy ranges of thought that made the time he spent with her like an escape from the narrow walls and stifling air and gloom of a prison.
Chapter XXIV. A Hateful, Wretched Life.
The advent of half a score of young men from the city naturally made dancing the order of the occasion on Saturday evening. Mr. Burleigh, however, gave Sibley a hint that the features he had introduced the previous week must be omitted tonight, since nothing that would in the slightest degree lower the character of his house would be tolerated. The excitement therefore that Sibley had formerly received from Cognac, he now sought to obtain by pursuing with greater ardor his flirtation with Ida. Indeed, to such a nature as his, her beauty was quite as intoxicating as the "spirit of wine." There was a brilliancy in her appearance to night and a piquancy in her words that struck him as very unusual.
Nor was he alone in his admiration. The young men from the city thronged about her, and her hand was soon engaged for every dance until late in the evening; but on this occasion she had no opportunity, as before, of declining invitations from Van Berg. The solicitations of others went for little, the admiring eyes that she saw following her on every side could not compensate for the lack of all attention from him. He danced several times, but it was with those who seemed to be neglected by others. In his quiet, dignified bearing, in his unselfish affability toward those who otherwise would have had a dull evening, he appeared to her in most favorable contrast to the giddy young fellows who fluttered around her, and whose supreme thoughts were always of themselves, and of her only as she could minister to their pleasure.
"Miss Burton has so plainly won him," she thought, "that he has adopted her tactics of looking after those whom every one neglects. I could soon show him the one he has the greatest power of cheering, and I know that she has the deepest need of cheer of any one in this crowded house, but I'd rather die than give one hint of our first meeting he has humiliated me, and I in return love him! But he shall never know it. My looks can be as cold as his."
And so they were toward him, but for all others she had had the gayest smiles and repartee. Vividly conscious of the secret she would so jealously guard, she sought by every means in her power to mask it from him and all others. She would even permit her name for a time to be associated with a man she detested and despised, since thus the truth could be more effectively concealed.
Sibley's attentions were certainly ardent enough to attract attention, and occasionally there was a boldness in his compliments, which she, even in her reckless mood, sharply resented. His eyes seemed to grow more wolfish every time she encountered them, and more than once the thought crossed her mind:
"What a heaven it would be to look up into the eyes of a man I could trust, and who honored me."
What torture it was to see such a man present, and yet to feel that he justly scorned her.
Excitement and her strong will kept her up for a long time, but as the evening advanced despondency and weariness began to gain the mastery. Sibley came to her and said: "Miss Ida, I have your hand for the next waltz, but I see you are worn and tired. Let us go out on the cool piazza instead of dancing."
Listlessly she took his arm and passed through one of the open windows near. Van Berg had disappeared some time before, and there was no longer any motive to keep up the illusion of gayety.
Hardly had she stepped on the piazza before she heard her father say:
"Miss Burton, if it will give you any pleasure to know that you have made this evening memorably bright to one whose life is peculiarly clouded, you can certainly enjoy that assurance in the fullest measure. You have kept your word and have not preached at me at all; and yet I feel I ought to be a better man for this interview."
"O, Miss Ida," exclaimed Sibley, "this is the opportunity that I have been wishing for all the evening. I cannot tell you how gladly I exchange the glare of that room for the light of your eyes only. Would that life were but one long summer evening, and your eyes the only starts in my sky."
"Absurd," she carelessly replied; and then they passed out of hearing.
"Good-night, Miss Burton," said Mr. Mayhew abruptly; and he hastily descended the steps and was soon lost from view in the darkness.
His daughter and the man who seemed to be the companion of her choice, brought back at once the old conditions of his life. The prison walls closed around him again, the air seemed all the more foul and stifling in contrast with the pure atmosphere which he had been breathing, and the gloom of the night was light in comparison with his thoughts as he muttered:
"If Ida were only like this good angel she might save even me; but after my long absence she leaves me wholly to myself for the sake of a man who ought to be an offence to her. If I tell her and her mother what his reputation in New York is they will not listen to me. Although he is the known slave of every vice, my daughter smiles upon him. Froth and mud we are now and ever will be. After a glimpse into the life of that pure, good woman who has tried to be God's messenger to me to-night, I can find no words to express my loathing of the slough in which I and mine have mired. My only child, by the force of natural selection, bids fair to add to our number a drunkard and a libertine; and I am powerless to prevent it. The mother that should guard and guide her child, is blind to everything save that he is rich. Froth and mud! Froth and mud!"
Unable to endure his thoughts, he went to his room and found oblivion in the stupor of intoxication.
On reaching the end of the long piazza, Sibley led Ida to a veranda little frequented at that hour, saying, as he did so:
"Let us get away from prying eyes. I always feel when with you that three is an enormous crowd."
A gentleman who had been smoking rose hastily at this broad hint, which he could not help overhearing, and walked haughtily away.
Ida, with a regret deeper than she could have thought possible, saw that it was Van Berg. Her first impulse was to compel her companion to go back; but that would look like following him. Weary, disheartened by the fate that seemed ever against her, she sank into the chair he had just vacated.
For a time she did not heed or scarcely hear Sibley's characteristic flatteries, but at last he said plainly:
"Miss Ida, do you know that you are the one woman of all the world to me?"
"Oh, hush!" she replied, rising. "I know you say that to every pretty woman who will listen to you, as I shall no longer to-night. Come."
Baffled and puzzled also by the moody girl, who of late seemed so different from her former self, he had no resource but to accompany her back to the main entrance. Here, where the eyes of others were upon her, she said abruptly, but with a charming smile:
"Good-night, Mr. Sibley," and went directly to her room.
The young man looked rather nonplussed and muttered an oath as he walked away to console himself after the fashion of his kind.
"Is there no escape from this wretched life?" Ida sighed as she wearily threw herself into a chair on reaching her room. "A man whose addresses are an insult is my lover. The only man I can ever love associates me in his mind with this low fellow. My father obtains what little comfort he gets from the charity of a stranger. How can I face this prospect day after day. Oh, that I had never come here!"
"Ida," said her mother entering hastily, "what has happened to put your father out so? I had a headache this evening, and came up early. A little while ago he stalked in with his absurd tragic air. 'What is the matter,' I asked. 'Look to your daughter,' he said. 'What do you mean?' I asked, quite frightened. 'If you were a true mother,' he replied, 'you would no more leave her with that roue Sibley, than with so much pitch. Yet he is courting her openly; and what is worse, she receives his addresses, and permits herself to be identified with him.' 'Oh, pshaw,' I answered carelessly; 'Sibley is about on a par with half the young men in society, and Ida might do a great deal worse. No fear of her; for there isn't a girl living who knows how to take care of herself better than she.' 'Bah!' he said, 'if she knew how to take care of herself, she would permit a snake to touch her sooner than that man. Ida might do worse, might she? God knows how: I don't. A pretty family we shall be when he is added to our charming group. The mud will predominate then;' and with that he opened a bottle of brandy and drank himself stupid."
As Mrs. Mayhew rattled this conversation off in a loud whisper, Ida seemed turning into stone, but at its close she said icily:
"In speaking of such a union as possible, my parents have shown their opinion of me. Good-night. I wish to be alone."
"But did anything happen between you to set your father off so?" persisted Mrs. Mayhew.
"Nothing unusual. I suppose father heard one of Mr. Sibley's compliments; and that was enough to disgust any sensible man. Good-night."
"My gracious! You might as well turn me out of your room."
"Mother, I wish to be alone," said Ida, passionately.
"A pretty life I lead of it between you and your father," sobbed Mrs. Mayhew, retreating to her own apartment.
"A hateful, wretched life we all three shall lead to the end of time, for aught that I can see," Ida groaned as she restlessly paced her room; "but I have no better resource than to follow father's example."
She took an opiate, and so escaped from thought for a time in the deep lethargy it brought.
Chapter XXV. Half-truths.
A church bell was ringing in a neighboring village the following morning when Ida awoke. The sunlight streamed in at the open window through the half-closed blinds, flecking the floor with bars of light. Birds were singing in the trees without, and a southern breeze rustled through the foliage as a sweet low accompaniment. Surely it was a bright pleasant world on which her heavy eyes were opening.
Poor child! she was fast learning now that the darkest clouds that shadow our paths are not the vapors that rise from the earth, but the thoughts and memories of an unhappy and a sinful heart.
The sunlight mocked her; and her spirit was so out of tune that the sweet sounds of nature made jarring discord.
But the church bell caught her attention. How natural and almost universal is the instinct which leads us when in trouble to seek the support of some Higher power. No matter how wayward the human child may have been, how hardened by years of wrong, or arrogantly entrenched in some phase of rational philosophy, when the darkness of danger or sorrow blots out the light of earthly hopes, or hides the path which was trodden so confidently, then, with the impulse of frightened children whom night has suddenly overtaken, there is a longing for the Father's hand and the Father's reassuring voice. If there is no God to love and help us, human nature is a lie.
Thus far Ida Mayhew had no more thought of turning Heavenward for help than to the philosophy of Plato. Indeed, religion as a system of truth, and Greek philosophy were almost equally unknown to her. But that church-bell reminded her of the source of hope and help to which burdened hearts have been turning in all the ages, and with the vague thought that she might find some light and cheer that was not in the sunshine, she hastily dressed and went down in time to catch one of the last carriages. When she reached the church, she found her mother had preceded her, and that her cousin Ik Stanton was also there; but she correctly surmised that the only devotion to which he was inclined had been inspired by Miss Burton, who sat not far away. She was soon satisfied that Van Berg was not present.
As a general thing, when at church, Ida had given more consideration to the people and the toilets about her than to either the service or the sermon; but to-day she wistfully turned her thoughts to both, in the hope that they might do her good, although she had as vague an idea as to the mode or process as if both were an Indian incantation.
But she was thoroughly disappointed. Her thoughts wandered continually from the services. With almost the vividness of bodily presence, three faces were looking upon her—her father's with an infinite reproach; Sibley's, with smiling lips and wolfish eyes; and Van Berg's, first coolly questioning and exploring in its expression, and then coldly averted and scornful in consequence of what he had discovered. Not houses, but minds are haunted.
The clergyman, however, was an able, forcible speaker, and held her attention from the first. His sermon was topical rather than textual in its character; that is, he enlarged on what he termed "the irreconcilable enmity between God and the world," taking as his texts the following selections:
"The carnal mind is enmity against God."
And again, "Whosoever, therefore, will be a friend of the world, is the enemy of God."
The sermon was chiefly an argument; and the point of it was that there could be no compromise between these contending powers—God on one side, the world on the other—and he insisted that his hearers must be, and were with one party or the other. The trouble was, that in concentrating his thoughts on the single point he meant to make, he took too much for granted—namely, that all his hearers understood sufficiently the character of God, and the sense in which the Bible uses the term "world," not to misapprehend the nature of his "enmity." To seasoned church-goers the sermon was both true and very satisfactory.
But when the minister reached the conclusion of his argument with the words, "So then, they that are in the flesh cannot please God," poor Ida drew a long dreary sigh, and wished she had remained at home. She was certainly "in the flesh," if any one were; and in addition to the fact that she neither pleased herself nor any one else that she respected and loved, she was now given the assurance, apparently fortified by Holy Writ, that she could not "please God." The simple and divine diplomacy by which this "enmity" is removed was unknown to her.
She turned to note how Miss Burton received a message that was so unwelcome to herself, and saw that she was not listening. There was a dreamy far-away look in her eyes that clearly was not inspired by the thought of "enmity."
"She is probably thinking of the artist and the ideal future that he can give her. How foolish it is in poor Ik there to try to rival HIM! It was an unlucky day for us both, cousin of mine, when we came to this place!"
More disheartened and despondent than ever, she rode homeward with her mother, answering questions only in monosyllables. All that religion had said to her that morning was: "Give up the world—all with which you have hitherto been familiar, and have enjoyed." God was an infinite, all-powerful, remote abstraction, and yet for His sake she must resign everything which would enable her to forget, or at least disguise the pain and jealousy which were at times almost unendurable; and she knew of no substitute with which to replace "the world" she was asked to forego.
This religion of mere negation, expulsion, and restraint is too often presented to the mind. Dykes and levees are very useful, and in some places essential; but if low malarial shores could be lifted up into breezy hills and table-lands, this would be better. This is not only possible, but it is the true method in respect to the human soul; and one should seek to grow better not by sedulous effort to keep out an evil world, but rather to fill up his heart with a good pure world such as God made and blessed.
The sermon Ida heard that morning, therefore, only added to the burden that was already too heavy to be carried much longer.
Chapter XXVI. Sunday Table-talk.
To the relief of all save Mrs. Mayhew, Sibley dined with a couple of young, fast men, who enforced their invitation by the irresistible attraction of a bottle of wine.
"There is too much starch and dignity at that table to suit me, any way," he remarked. "There are those two model saints, who led our devotions last Sunday evening, flirting with ponderous gravity with that deep little school-ma'am, who has turned both their heads, but can't make up her mind which of them to capture, both being such marvellously good game for one of her class. Cute Yankee as she believes herself to be, she's a fool to think that either of them is more than playing with her. By Jupiter! but it would be sport to cut 'em both out; and I could do it if I were up here a week. Those who know the world know that such women cipher out these matters in the spirit of New England thrift, and you have only to mislead them with sufficient plausible data to capture them body and soul." And Sibley complacently sipped his wine as if he had stated all there was to be said on the subject. Few men prided themselves more on a profound knowledge of the world than he.
Ida's despondency while at dinner was so great she could not throw it off. Listlessly and wearily she barely tasted of the different courses as they were passed to her. She consciously made only one effort, and that was to appear utterly indifferent to Van Berg; and both circumstances and his contemptuous neglect made but little feigning necessary. The evening before had associated her so inseparably in his mind with Sibley, that he was beginning to regard her with aversion.
"Trivial natures are disturbed by trivial causes," he thought; "and she looks as if the world had turned black because Sibley has been lured from her side for an hour by a bottle of wine. He'll revive her again before supper."
"How wintry that old gentleman looks who is just entering!" Stanton remarked. "It makes one shiver to think of becoming as frosty and white as he."
"Oh, don't speak of being old!" cried Mrs. Mayhew. "Remember there are some at the table who are in greater danger of that final misfortune than you young people."
"Do you dread being old, Miss Burton?" Van Berg asked.
"No; but I do the process of growing old."
"For once we think alike, Miss Burton," said Ida abruptly. "To think of plodding on through indefinite dreary years toward the miserable conclusion of old age! and yet it is said nothing is so sweet as life."
"Really, Cousin, your advance down the ages reminds one more of a quickstep than of 'plodding,'" remarked Stanton.
"The step matters little," she retorted, "as long as you feel as if you were going to your own funeral. I agree with Miss Burton, that growing old is worse than being old, thought Heaven knows that both are bad enough."
"I'm not sure that Heaven would agree with either of us," said Miss Burton, gently.
"I fear the sermon did not do you much good, Coz," said Stanton, maliciously.
"No; it did not. It did me harm, if such a thing were possible," was the reckless reply.
"Human nature is generally regarded as capable of improvement," remarked Stanton, sententiously.
"I was not speaking of human nature generally," said Ida; "I was thinking of myself."
"As usual, my charming Cousin."
She flushed resentfully, but did not reply.
"And I feel that Miss Mayhew has done herself injustice in her thought," said Miss Burton, with a sympathetic glance at Ida. "And how is it with you, Mr. Van Berg? Do you dread growing old?"
"I fear my opinion will remind you of Jack Bunsby," replied the artist. "Growing old is like a prospective journey. So much depends upon the country through which you travel and your company. My father and mother are taking a summer excursion through Norway and Sweden, and I know they are enjoying themselves abundantly. They have had a good time growing old. Why should not others?"
Ida appeared to resent his words bitterly; and with a tone and manner that surprised every one she said:
"Mr. Van Berg, I could not have believed that you were capable of making so superficial a reply. Why not say, if the poor were rich, if the ugly were beautiful, if the sick were well, if the bad were good, and we all had our heart's desires, we could journey on complacently and prosperously?"
The artist flushed deeply under this address, coming from such an unexpected quarter; but he replied quietly:
"That allusion with which I prefaced my remark, Miss Mayhew, proved that I regard my opinion as of little value; and yet I have no better one to offer. Nothing is more trite than the comparison of life to a journey or a pilgrimage. If one were compelled to travel with very disagreeable people, in fifth-rate conveyances, and through regions uninteresting or repulsive, the journey, or to abandon the figure, growing old, might well be dreaded. From my soul I would pity one condemned to such a fate. It would, indeed, be 'dreary plodding' where one's best hope would be that he might stumble upon his grave as soon as possible. But I do not believe in any such dreary fatalism. We are endowed with intelligence to choose carefully our paths and companions; and I cannot help thinking that the majority might choose wisely enough to make life an agreeable journey in the main."
"Look here, Van; I'm no casuist," said Stanton with a shrug; "but I can detect a flaw in your philosophy at once. Suppose one wanted good company and could not get it."
"He had better jog on alone, in that case, than take bad company."
"And heavy jogging it might be too," muttered Stanton, with a frown.
Ida's head dropped low and her face became very pale. Her impulsive cousin in expressing his own tormenting fear, had unconsciously defined what promised to be her wretched experience. She felt that the artist's eyes were upon her; and in the blind impulse to shield her secret, which then was so vividly plain to her consciousness, she raised her head suddenly, and with a reckless laugh remarked:
"For a wonder I also can half agree with Mr. Van Berg—congenial society for me or none at all."
A second later she could have bitten her tongue out before uttering words virtually claimed Sibley as her most congenial companion.
"Miss Mayhew is better than most of us in that she lives up to her theories," Van Berg remarked, coldly.
Her eyes shot at him a sudden flash of impotent protest and resentment, and then she lowered her head with a flush of the deepest shame.
At that moment a loud discordant laugh from Sibley caused many to look around toward him, and not a few shook their heads and exchanged significant glances, intimating that they thought the young man was in a "bad way."
"Your philosophy, Mr. Van Berg," said Miss Burton, "may answer very well for the wise and fortunate, for those whose lives are as yet unspoiled and unblighted by themselves or others. But even an artist, who by his vocation gives his attention to the beautiful, must nevertheless see that there are many in the world who are neither wise nor fortunate—who seem predestined by their circumstances, folly, and defective natures to blunder and sin till they reach a point where reason and intelligence can do little more for them than reveal how foolish and wrong they have been, or how great a good they have missed and lost irrevocably. The past, with its opportunities, has gone, and the remnant of earthly life offers such a dismal prospect, and they find themselves so shut up to a certain lot, so shackled by the very conditions in which they exist, that they are disheartened. It is hard for many of us not to feel that we have been utterly defeated and so sink into fatal apathy."
Mr. Mayhew, who had been coldly impassive and resolutely taciturn thus far, now leaned back in his chair, and his eyes glowed like two lamps from beneath the eaves of his shaggy brows. A young and lovely woman was giving voice to his own crushed and ill-starred nature; and strange to say, she identified herself with the class for which she spoke. in the depths of his heart he bowed down, reverenced, and thanked her for claiming this kinship to himself, even thought he knew it must be misfortune and not wrong that had marred her life.
If Van Berg had not been so preoccupied with the speaker, he would have seen that the daughter also was hanging on the lips that were expressing simply and eloquently the thoughts with which her own heavy heart was burdened. But when the artist began to speak, Ida's face grew paler than ever as she saw the glow of admiration and sympathy that lighted up his features. Compliments she had received in endless variety all her life, but never had she seen a man look at her with that expression.
"Pardon me, Miss Burton," he said, "if I protest against your using the pronoun you did. No one will ever be able to associate the word 'defeat' with you. I do not understand your philosophy; but I know it is far better than mine. While I admit the truth of your words that I do professionally shut my eyes as far as possible to all the ugly facts of life, still I have been compelled to note that the world is full of evils for which I can see no remedy, and as a matter of common experience they apparently never are remedied. Good steering and careful seamanship are immensely important; but of what use are they if one is caught in a tornado or maelstrom, or wedged in among rocks, so that going to pieces is only a question of time? Good seamanship ought to keep one from such a fate, it may be said. So it does in the majority of instances; but often the wisest are caught. If you will realize it, Miss Burton, all in this house, men, women, and children, are about as able to take a ship across the Atlantic, as to make the life voyage wisely and safely. As a rule we only sail and sail. Where we are going, and what we shall meet, the Lord only knows—we don't. I have travelled abroad at times, and have seen a little of society at home, and if growing selfish, mean, and vicious, is going to the bad, than it would seem that more find the bottom than any port."
"Oh, hush, Mr. Van Berg," cried Miss Burton. "You will fill the world with a blind, stupid fate and the best one can hope for is the rare good luck or the skilful dodging which enables one to escape the random blows and storms. I believe in God and law, although I confess I can understand neither. As the good Mussulman looks towards Mecca, so I look toward them and pray and hope on. This snarl of life will yet be untangled."
"I assure you that I try to do the same, but not with your success, I fear. Your illustration strikes me as unfortunate. The Moslem looks toward Mecca; but what is there in Mecca worth looking toward? If he only thought so, might he not as well look in any other direction?"
"Please don't talk so, Mr. Van Berg. Don't you see that he can't look in any other direction? He has been taught to look thither till it is part of his nature to do so. In destroying his faith you may destroy him. Pardon me, if I ask you to please remember that faith in God and a future life is more vitally important to some of us than our daily bread. We may not be able to explain it, but we must hope and trust or perish. To go back to your nautical illustration, suppose some who had been wrecked were clinging to a rocky shore, and trying to clamber up out of the cold spray and surf to warmth and safety; would it not be a cruel thing to go along the shore and unloosen the poor numb hands however gently and scientifically it might be done? Loosing that hold means sinking to unknown depths. With complacent self-approval and with learned Athenian airs, many of the savans of the day are virtually guilty of this horrible cruelty."
"I do not take sides with the Athenians who called St. Paul a babbler," said Van Berg, flushing; "yet truth compels me to admit that I could worship more sincerely at the 'Alter of the unknown God,' than before any conception of Deity that modern Theology has presented to my mind. That does not prove much, I am bound to say, for I have never given these subjects sufficient attention to be entitled to have opinions. Still, I like fair play, whatever be the consequences. Your arraignment of talking skeptics is a severe one and strikes me in a new light. Might they not urge, in self-defence, that there was a deeper and darker abyss on the farther side of the rock to which the wrecked were clinging? May they not argue that the grasp of faith may lead to a deeper and more bitter disappointment?"
"How can they know that? How can they know what shall be in the ages to come?" replied Miss Burton, speaking rapidly. "This is the situation:—I am clinging to some hope, something that I believe will be truth which sustains me, and the only force of the skeptic's words is to loosen my grasp. No better support is given, no new hope inspired. Believe me," she concluded passionately, "I would rather die a thousand deaths by torture than lose my faith that there is a God who will bring order out of this chaos of broken, thwarted lives, of which the world is full, and that those who seek a 'happier shore' will eventually find it."
"You will find it," said Van Berg, in low emphatic tones; and then he added with a shrug, as he rose from the table, "I wish my chances were as good."
Ida, who a few weeks before would have heard this conversation with unqualified disgust, had listened with eager eyes and parted lips, and she now said coldly, but with a deep sigh:
"Your God and happy shore, Miss Burton, are too vague and far away. Troubles and temptations are in our very hearts."
Van Berg looked hastily toward her, but she rose and turned her face from him.
Mr. Mayhew shook his head despondently, as if his daughter's words found a deep, sad echo in his own nature.
"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter; said the wise man of old, 'all is vanity and vexation of spirit,'" cried Stanton, with the air of one who was trying to escape from a nightmare.
Miss Burton at once became her old, smiling self.
"You do not quote 'the wise man' correctly," she said; "but you remind me that he did say 'a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.' It is like mercy 'twice blessed.' This much, at least, I know is true; and Mr. Van Berg's words have put us all at sea to such an extant that it is well to find one wee solid point to stand on."
As the artist passed out he found opportunity to whisper in her ear:
"I cannot tell you how much I honor the woman who with her SAD heart makes others 'merry.'"
She blushed and smiled, but only said: "How blind you are, Mr. Van Berg! Can't you perceive that nothing else does me so much good? Now you see how selfish I am."
Ida saw him whisper, and noted the answering smile and blush. Was it strange that so slight a thing should depress her more than all the evils of the present world and the world to come?
Surely, since human hearts are what they are, a far-away God would be like the sun of the tropics to the ice-bound at the poles.
Chapter XXVII. A Family Group.
The old adage, that "as the wine comes in the man steps out," was not true of Sibley, for the man had stepped out permanently long since. But not very much wine was required to overthrow the flimsy barriers of self-restraint and courtesy that he tried to interpose in his sober moments between his true self and society. Mr. Burleigh frowned at him more than once during the dinner-hour, and was glad to see him stroll off in the grounds with his boon companions.
Stanton followed the Mayhews to their rooms, for he wished to remonstrate with Ida and Mrs. Mayhew in regard to their apparent intimacy with the fellow.
"Ida," he said, "do you realized the force of your words to Mr. Van Berg at the table to-day, taken in connection with your action? You said, 'congenial society for me, or none at all.' Whatever Van's faults are, he is a perfect gentleman; and yet you treat him as rudely and coldly as you can, and assert by your actions that Sibley's society is by far the most congenial to you."
Ida's overstrained nerves gave way, and she said, irritably:
"You understood the cheerful questions of our appetizing table-talk to-day better than you understand me; so please be still."
"Oh, pshaw, Ik," commenced Mrs. Mayhew, who now began to wake up since the theme was quite within her sphere, "you are affecting very Puritanical views of late. It does not seem so very long since you and Sibley were good friends."
"It is within the memory of woman, if not of man," added Ida, maliciously, "since you drank his brandy, and considerable of it, too."
Stanton flushed angrily but controlled himself.
"He was never my friend—never more than an acquaintance," he said emphatically, "and I never before knew him as well as I do now. Moreover, I may as well say it plainly, I am through with that style of men, forever. There is little prospect of my ever becoming saint-like, but I shall, at least, cease to be vulgar in my associations. I protest against Sibley's coming to our table again."
"You are absurdly unreasonable," replied Mrs. Mayhew in an aggrieved tone. "Sibley is only sowing his wild oats now as you did in the past. I don't know why he is not as good as your friend Mr. Van Berg, who, as far as I can make out, is more of an infidel than anything else. I never could endure these doubting, unsettling people."
"I admit that Sibley is established," said Stanton. "There is little prospect of his ever getting out of the mire in which he is now imbedded."
"Nonsense! What has Sibley done that is particularly out of the way, more than you and other young men? I'm sure his family is quite as rich and fashionable as that of this artist."
"More rich and fashionable. There is just the difference between the Sibleys and the Van Bergs that there is between a drop curtain at a theatre and one of Bierstadt's oil paintings. There is more paint and surface in the former, but truth and genius in the latter. If you prefer paint and surface it is a matter of taste."
"I won't endure such insinuations from you," said Mrs. Mayhew, indignantly.
"Oh, hush mother!" said Ida, quietly. "I think Ik is very magnanimous in praising his friend in view of circumstances that are becoming quite apparent. Possibly he is exaggerating a little, in order to show us what a great, generous soul he has. For one, I would like to know wherein this superior race of Van Bergs differs from those who have had the presumption to suppose themselves at least equals."
Ida's allusion and tone stung Stanton into saying more than he intended, and thus the girl's artifice became successful. Hearing about Van berg and all that related to him was like looking out of a desert into a fruitful oasis; and yet cruel as was the fascination, it was also irresistible.
"The manner in which the Van Bergs live, would be a revelation to you," said Stanton, angrily, "and one undoubtedly not at all to your taste. In comparison with the Sibley show-rooms, which are stuffed and crowded with costly and incongruous trumpery, Mrs. Van Berg's house would seem very plain; but to one capable of distinguishing the difference, the evidence of mind and taste, instead of mere money, is seen on every side. Simplicity and beauty are united as far as possible. Everything is the best of its kind and devoid of veneer and sham. There is no lavish and vulgar profusion, and there is a harmony of color and decoration that makes every room a picture in itself. Moreover, the house does not grow suddenly shabby after you leave those parts which are seen by visitors. It is all genuine and high-toned, like the people who live in it."
"What sort of people are Mrs. Van Berg and her daughter?" Ida asked, with averted face and low constrained voice.
"Mrs. Van Berg comes of a family that has been aristocratic for several generations, and one that has been singularly free from black sheep. She appears to strangers somewhat reserved and stately, but when you become better acquainted you find she has a warm, kind heart. But she has a perfect horror of vulgarity. If she had seen this Sibley take more wine than he ought and make a spectacle of himself at a public table, she would no more admit him to her parlor than a Bowery rough. Mere wealth would not turn the scale a hair in his favor. If she has impressed on her son one trait more than another, it is this disgust with all kinds of vulgar people and vulgar vice. I don't think Van will sit down at the same table with Sibley again, or permit Miss Burton to do so."
Ida averted her face still farther, but said nothing.
"Indeed!" said Mrs. Mayhew; "and has Miss Burton given him the rights of a protector."
"Sorry to disappoint you, aunt; but I have no nice bit of gossip to report. Miss Burton is an orphan, and so any friend of hers has a right to protect her. I would have taken this matter into my own hands were it not out of consideration for you and Ida, who unfortunately have permitted yourselves to be identified with Sibley as his especial friends. Indeed, most in the house regard him as Ida's favored or accepted suitor. But I warn you to cut loose from him at once or you may suffer a severe humiliation. If you and Ida will continue to encourage him, then I tell you plainly I shall follow you no further into the slough."
The maiden stamped her foot and made an emphatic gesture of rage and protest, but did not trust herself to answer the cruel words, each one of which was like the thrust of a knife.
But Mrs. Mayhew, whose desire to be respectable was a ruling passion, now became thoroughly alarmed and said hastily:
"Mr. Sibley is certainly nothing to me, and I hope nothing to Ida. Get rid of him any way you can, since things have reached the pass you represent. If society is going to put him under ban, we must cut him; that's all there is about it, and his behavior at dinner gives us an excuse."
During this conversation Mr. Mayhew had been lying on the sofa with closed eyes, and as motionless as if he were dead. Now he said in low, bitter tones:
"Mark it well—an excuse, not a reason. O, virtue! how beautiful thou art!"
"You are the last one in the world to speak on this subject," said Mrs. Mayhew, angrily.
"Right again. You see, Ik, my family never before met a man who promised to make such an appropriate addition to our number. It's a pity you are interfering;" and he poured out a large glass of brandy.
"Would to God I had died before I had seen this day!" cried Ida in a tone of such sharp agony that all turned towards her in a questioning surprise; but she rushed into her own room and locked the door after her.
"Things have gone farther between her and Sibley than we thought," said Stanton, gloomily.
"Well, Ik," said Mr. Mayhew with a laugh that was dreadful to hear, "you had better cut loose from us. We are all going to the devil by the shortest cut."
"Would to heaven I had never seen you!" cried Mrs. Mayhew, hysterically. "YOU are the one who is dragging us down. If my nephew deserts us, I will brand him as a coward and no gentleman."
"I'll not desert you unless you desert yourself," said Stanton, with a gesture of disgust and impatience; "but if you persist in going down into the deepest quagmires you can find, you cannot expect me to follow you;" and with these words he left the room.
Mr. Mayhew was soon sunk in the deepest lethargy, and his wife spent the afternoon in impotently fretting and fuming against her "miserable fate," as she termed it, and in trying to devise some way of keeping up appearances.
Chapter XXVIII. Rather Volcanic.
Stanton was glad to escape from the house after the interview described in the previous chapter; and observing that Van Berg was reclining under a tree at some little distance from the hotel, stolled thither and threw himself down on the grass beside him. But his perturbation was so evident that his friend remarked:
"You are out of sorts, Ik. What's the matter?"
"I've been settling this Sibley business with my aunt and cousin," snarled Stanton; "and some women always make such blasted fools of themselves. But they won't have anything more to do with him; at least, I'm sure my aunt won't. As for Ida—but the less said the better. I'm so out of patience with her folly that I can't trust myself to speak of her."
"Stanton," said Van Berg, gloomily, "you have no idea of the regret and disquiet which that girl has caused me as an artist. I have seen her features now for weeks, and I cannot help looking at them, for they almost realize my idea of perfection. But the associations of this beauty are beginning to irritate me beyond endurance."
"It was a motley crowd that I was the means of bringing to your table," said Stanton, with an oath; "and I've no doubt you have wished us all away many times."
Van Berg laid his hand on his friend's arm, and looked into his eyes.
"Ik," he said slowly, "I was your friend when I came here—I am your friend still. If I cannot love you better than I do myself, you must forgive me. But I shall never take one unfair advantage of you, and I recognize the fact that you have equal rights with myself. Ik, let us be frank with each other this once more, and then the future must settle all questions. The woman we both love is too pure and good for either of us to do a mean thing to win her. Do your best, old fellow. If you succeed, I will congratulate you with an honest heart even thought it be a heavy one. I shall not detract from you in the slightest degree, or cease to show for you the thorough liking and respect that I feel. It shall simply be a maiden's choice between us two; and you know it is said that the heart makes this choice for reasons inexplicable even to itself."