"Van, you are a noble, generous fellow," said the impulsive Stanton, grasping his friend's hand. "I must admit that you have been a fair and considerate rival. Even my jealousy could find no fault." Then he added, in deep despondency: "But it is of no use. You have virtually won her already."
"No," said Van Berg, thoughtfully, "I wish you were not mistaken, but you are. There is something in her manner towards me at times which I cannot understand; but I have a conviction that I have not touched her heart."
"She does not avoid you as she does me," said Stanton, moodily.
"No, she accepts my society much too frankly and composedly," answered Van Berg with a shrug. "I fear that I can join her anywhere and at any time without quickening her pulse or deepening the color in her cheeks. Now, Ik, we understand each other. Happy the man who wins, and if you are the fortunate one, I'll dance at your wedding, and no one shall see that I carry a thousand pounds weight, more or less, in my heart."
"I can't promise to do as much for you, Van," said Stanton, trying to smile. "I could not come to your wedding. In fact, Van, I—I hardly know what I would do—what I will do. A few weeks since and the world was abundantly satisfactory. Now it is becoming a vacuum. I fear I haven't a ghost of a chance, and I—I—don't like to think of the future. Ye gods! What a change one little woman can make in a man's life! I used to laugh at these things, and for the past few years thought myself invulnerable. And yet, Van," he added with sudden energy, "I think the better of myself that I can love and honor that woman. Did I regard her now as I supposed I would when you first uttered your half-jesting prophecy, what a base, soulless anatomy I would be—-"
"SACRE! here comes Sibley and others of the same ilk, gabbling like the unmitigated fools that they are."
Van Berg turned his back upon the advancing party in an unmistakable manner, and Stanton smoked with a stolid, impassive face that had anything but welcome in it. Sibley was just sufficiently excited by wine to act out recklessly his evil self.
"What's the matter, Stanton?" he exclaimed. "Your phiz is as long as if the world looked black and blue as a prize-fighter's eye. Is Sunday an off day in your flirtation? Does the little school-ma'am take after her Puritan daddies, and say 'Hold thy hand till Monday?' Get her out of the crowd, and you'll find it all a pretence."
Stanton rose to his feet, but was so quiet that Sibley did not realize the storm he was raising. Van Berg remained on the ground with his back to the party, but was smoking furiously.
By an effort at self-control that made his voice harsh and constrained, Stanton said, briefly:
"Mr. Sibley, I request that you never mention that lady's name to me again in any circumstances. I request that you never mention her name to any one else except in tones and words of the utmost respect. I make these requests politely, as is befitting the day and my own self-respect; but if you disregard them the consequences to you will be very serious."
"Good Lord, Stanton! has she treated you so badly! But don't take it to heart. It's all Yankee thrift, designed to enhance her value. We are all men of the world here, and know what women are. If it is true every man has his price, every woman has a smaller—-"
Before he could utter another word a blow in his face from Stanton sent him sprawling to the earth. He sprang up and was about to draw a concealed weapon, when his companions interfered and held him.
"I shall settle with you for this," he half shouted, grinding his teeth.
"You shall indeed, sir," said Stanton, "and as early, too, as the light will permit to-morrow. Here is my friend Mr. Van Berg," pointing to the artist who stood beside him, "and you have your friends with you. You must either apologize, or meet me as soon as Sunday is past."
"I'll meet you now," cried Sibley, with a volley of oaths. "I want no cowardly subterfuge of Sunday."
Stanton hesitated a moment, and then said decidedly:
"No; I'm not a blackguard like yourself, and out of respect for the Sabbath and others I will have nothing more to do with you to-day; but I will meet you tomorrow as soon as it is light;" and Stanton turned away to avoid further provocation.
Van Berg thus far had stood quietly to one side, but his face had that white, rigid aspect which indicates the rare but dangerous anger of men usually quiet and undemonstrative in their natures.
"Now that you are through, Stanton, I have something to say concerning this affair," he began, in words that were as clean-cut and hard as steel. "If you propose to give this fellow a dog's whipping to-morrow, I will go with you and witness the well-deserved chastisement. But if you are intending a conventional duel, I'll have nothing to do with it, for two reasons. The first reason this fellow will not understand. Dueling is against my principles, and he knows nothing of principle. But even if I accepted the old and barbarous code, I should insist that a friend of mine should fight with a gentleman, and not a low blackguard."
"You use that epithet again at your peril," hissed Sibley, advancing a step towards him.
Van Berg made a gesture of contempt toward the speaker as he turned and said:
"You understand me, Stanton; it is not from any lack of loyalty toward you as my friend; but I would not be worthy of your friendship were I false to my sense of duty and honor."
"You are both white-livered cowards," roared Sibley. "One sneaks off under cover of the day—I never saw a fellow taken with a pious fit so suddenly before. The other, in order to keep his skin whole, prates of his dread lest his principles be punctured. the devil take you both for a brace of champion sneaks;" and he turned on his heel and was about to stalk away with a grand air of superiority, when Van Berg said, emphatically:
"Wait a moment; I'm not through with you yet. I give you but a brief half-hour to complete your arrangements for leaving the hotel."
"What do you mean?" said Sibley, turning fiercely upon him.
"I mean, sir, that your presence in that house is an insult to every lady in it, which I, as a gentleman, shall no longer permit. Curse you, had you no mother that you could thus insult all good women by the remark you made a few moments since?"
Half beside himself with rage, Sibley drew a pistol; but before he could aim correctly one of his companions struck up his hand and the bullet whizzed harmlessly over Van Berg's head.
There was a faint scream from the house, which indicated that the scene had been witnessed by some lady there.
The intense passion of the artist, which manifested itself characteristically, held him unflinching to his purpose.
"So you can be a murderer also?" he said, scornfully. "It would almost compensate a man for being SHOT, if, as a result, you could be HUNG."
Sibley's companions speedily disarmed him, strongly remonstrating in the meantime. He, in sudden revulsion, began to realize what he had attempted, and his flushed face became very pale.
"Let them leave me alone," he growled sullenly, "and I'll leave them alone."
"For Heaven's sake, Mr. Van Berg," cried Sibley's companions, "let the matter end here, lest worse come of it."
In the same steely, relentless tones, which made very word seem like a bullet, Van Berg took out his watch, and said:
"It is now four o'clock, sir. After half-past four, you must not show your libertine's face in that house again, while there's a lady in it that I respect."
"Burleigh is proprietor of that house," replied Sibley, doggedly; "and I'll stay up the entire week, just to spite you."
"Let us go to Burleigh, then," said the artist, promptly. "We will settle this question at once."
Sibley readily agreed to this appeal to his host, fully believing that he would try to smooth over matters and assure Van Berg that he could not turn away a wealthy and profitable guest; and so, without further parley, they all repaired to Mr. Burleigh's private office, arousing that gentleman from an afternoon nap to a state of mind that effectually banished drowsiness for the remainder of the day.
"Mr. Burleigh," began Sibley, indignantly, "this fellow, Van Berg, has the impudence to say that I must leave this house within half an hour. I wish you to inform him that YOU are the proprietor of this establishment."
"Humph," remarked Mr. Burleigh, phlegmatically, "that is your side of the story. Now, Mr. Van Berg, let us have yours."
"Mr. Burleigh," said Van Berg, in tones that straightened up the languid host in his easy chair, "would you permit a known and recognized disreputable woman to be flaunting about this hotel?"
"You know me better than to ask such a question," said the landlord, the color of his ruddy cheeks suddenly deepening.
"Well, sir, I claim that a man who bears precisely the same character is no more to be tolerated; and I have learned to respect you as one whom no consideration could induce to permit the presence of a human beast, whose every thought of woman is an insult."
"It's all an infernal lie," began Sibley. "I only made a slight, half-jesting allusion to that prudish little school-ma'am that these fellows are so cracked over; and they have gone on like mad bulls ever since."
Mr. Burleigh started to his feet with a tremendous oath.
"You made an 'allusion,' as you term it, to Miss Burton, eh!—the young lady who was put under my charge, and who comes from one of the best families in New England. I know what kind of allusions fellows of your kidney make;" and the incensed host struck his bell sharply.
"Send the porter here instantly," he said to the boy who answered.
"What do you mean to do?" asked Sibley, turning pale.
"I mean to put you out of my house within the next ten minutes," said Mr. Burleigh, emphatically. "You might as well have made an allusion to my wife as to Miss Burton; and let me tell you that if you wag your wanton tongue again, I'll have my colored waiters whip you off the premises."
"But where shall I go?" whined Sibley, now thoroughly cowed.
"Go to the nearest kennel or sty you can find. Either place would be more appropriate for you than my house. Mr. Van Berg and Mr. Stanton, I think you for your conduct in this affair. You are correct in supposing that I wish to entertain only gentlemen and ladies."
Sibley now began to bluster about law and vengeance.
"Be still, sir," thundered Mr. Burleigh. "One of the carriages will take you to the depot or landing as you choose. After that, trouble me or mine again at your peril. Now, be off. No, I'll not take any of your dirty money; and if these friends of yours wish to go with you, they are welcome to do so."
"We are only acquaintances of Mr. Sibley's," chorused his late companions, "and came in merely to see fair play."
"Well, you haven't seen 'fair play,'" growled Mr. Burleigh. "I've treated the fellow much better than he deserves."
Before Sibley could realize it, a carriage whirled him and his baggage away. His reckless anger having evaporated, the base and cowardly instincts of his nature resumed their sway, and he was glad to slink off to New York, thus escaping further danger and trouble.
Chapter XXIX. Evil Lives Cast Dark Shadows.
Changes in the world without often make sad havoc in our content and happiness. Loss of fortune and friends, removal to new scenes, death and disaster, sometimes so alter the outlook that we have to ask ourselves: Is this the same earth in which we have dwelt hitherto? But the changes that can most blast and blacken, or, on the other hand, glorify the world about us, are those which take place within our souls.
Such a radical change had apparently taken place in Ida Mayhew's world. She was bewildered with her trouble, and could not understand the dreary outlook. She had come to the Lake House but a few weeks before, a vain, light-hearted maiden, looking upon life with laughing and thoughtless glances, and having no more definite purposes than the butterfly that flits from flower to flower, caring not which are harmless and which poisonous, so that they yield a momentary sweetness.
But now, for causes utterly unforeseen and half-inexplicable, all flowers had withered, and the old pleasures once so exhilarating were a weariness even in thought. Her world, once a pleasure garden, had been transformed into a path so thorny and flinty that every step brought new bruises and lacerations; and it led away among shadows so cold and dark, that she shivered at the thought of her prospective life.
Her heart had so suddenly and thoroughly betrayed her, that she was overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness and perplexity. The spoiled and flattered girl had always been accustomed to have her own way. Self-gratification had been the rule and habit of her life. If Van Berg had only admired and complimented her, if he had joined the honeyed chorus of flattery that had waited on her sensuous beauty, his voice would probably have been unheeded and lost among many others. But his sharp demand for something more than a face and form had awakened her, and to her dismay she learned that her real and lasting self was as dwarfed and deformed as her transient and outward self was perfect.
The artist seemed to her princely, regal even, in his strong cultivated manhood, his lofty calling and ambition, and his high social rank. As for herself, it now appeared that her beauty, whose spell she had thought no man could resist, had lured him to her side only long enough to discover what she was and who she was, and then he had turned away in disgust.
From their first moment of meeting, she felt that she had been peculiarly unfortunate in the impressions she had made upon him. Her attendant at the concert-garden had been a fool; and now he was associating her with a man whom he more than despised. She believed that he pitied her father as the victim of a wife's heartlessness and a daughter's selfishness and frivolity, and that he felt a repugnance toward her mother which his politeness could not wholly disguise. He was probably learning to characterize them in his mind by her father's horrible words—"froth and mud."
Such miserable thoughts were flocking round her like croaking ravens as she sat rigid and motionless in her room, her form tense from the severity of her mental distress. Suddenly Sibley's loud tones, and her cousin's voice in reply, caught her attention, and she opened the lattice of the blinds. She had scarcely done so before she saw Stanton strike the blow which had felled Sibley to the earth.
With breathless interest she watched the scene till Van Berg stepped forward. Then she sprang to a drawer, and taking out a small field-glass which she carried on her summer excursions was able to see the expression of the young men's faces, although she could not distinguish their words. The stern, menacing aspect of the artist made her tremble even at her distance, and it was evident that his words were throwing Sibley into a transport of rage; and when in his passion he tried to shoot Van Berg, she could not repress the cry that attracted their attention.
Her mother, in the adjoining room, commenced knocking at the door, asking what was the matter, but received no answer until Ida saw that the young men were coming toward the house. Then she threw open the door, and told Mrs. Mayhew that she had seen something that looked like a large spider, and that nothing was the matter. Without waiting for further questioning she flitted hastily down-stairs and from one concealed post of observation to another until she saw the angry party enter Mr. Burleigh's private office. A small parlor next to it was empty, and once within it, the loud tones spoken on the other side of the slight partition were distinctly heard.
As she listened to the words which Van Berg and Mr. Burleigh addressed to the man whom all in the house had regarded as her accepted lover, or at least her congenial friend, her cheeks grew scarlet, and when he was dismissed from the house, she fled to her room; wishing that it were a place in which she might hide forever, so overwhelming was her sense of shame and humiliation.
How could she meet the guests of the Lake House again? Worse than all, how could she meet the scornful eyes of the man who had driven from the place the suitor that she was supposed to favor as he might have scourged away a dog.
She could not now explain that Sibley was and ever had been less than nothing to her—that she had both detested and despised him. She had permitted herself to touch pitch, and it had of necessity left its stain. To go about now and proclaim her real sentiments toward the man who apparently had been her favorite, would seem to others, she thought, the quintessence of meanness. She felt that she had been caught in the meshes of an evil web, and that it was useless to struggle.
Despairing, hopeless, her cheeks burning with shame as with a fever, she sat hour after hour refusing to see any one. She would not go down to supper. She left the food untasted that was sent to her room. She sat staring at vacancy until her face became a dim pale outline in the deepening twilight, and finally was lost in the shadow of night. But the darkness that gathered around the poor girl's heart was deeper and almost akin to the rayless gloom that positive crime creates, so nearly did she feel that she was associated with one from whom her woman's soul, perverted as it was, shrank with inexpressible loathing.
"Ida is in one of her worst tantrums," whispered Mrs. Mayhew to Stanton; "I never knew her to act so badly as she has of late. I wouldn't have thought that such a man as you have found Sibley to be could gain so great a hold upon her feelings. But law! she'll be all over it in a day or two. Nothing lasts with Ida, and least of all, a beau."
"Well," said Stanton, bitterly, "she is disgracing herself and all related to her by her inexcusable folly in this instance. Those who pretended to be Sibley's friends at dinner, are now trying to win a little respectability by turning against him, and the story of his behavior is circulating through the house. All will soon know that he shot at Van Berg, and that he made insulting remarks about Miss Burton. It will appear to every one as if Ida were sulking in her room on Sibley's account; and people are usually thought to be no better than their friends."
"Oh, dear!" half sobbed Mrs. Mayhew, "won't you go up to her room and show her the consequences of her folly?"
"No," said Stanton, irritably; "not to-night. I know her too well. She will take no advice from me or any one else at present. To-morrow I will have one more plain talk with her; and if she won't listen to reason I wash my hands of her. Where is Uncle?"
"Don't ask me. Was there ever a more unfortunate woman? With such a husband and daughter, how can I keep up appearances?"
Stanton walked away with a gesture of disgust and impatience.
"Curse it all!" he muttered; "and their shadows fall on me too. What chance have I with the snow-white maiden I'd give my life for when followed by such associations?"
Chapter XXX. The Deliberate Wooer Speaks First.
Mr. Burleigh was one of those fortunate men who when the weather is rough outside—as was often the case in his calling—can always find smooth water in the domestic haven of a wife's apartment. Thus Mrs. Burleigh soon learned the cause of his perturbation; and as she knew Jennie Burton would hear the story from some one else, could not deny herself the feminine enjoyment of being the first to tell it, and of congratulating her on the knightly defender she had secured; for the quarrel had come before Mr. Burleigh in such a form as to make Van Berg the principal in the affair.
Miss Burton's cheek flushed deeply and resentfully as she heard the circumstances in which her name had been spoken, and she said with emphasis:
"Mr. Van Berg impressed me as a chivalric man from the first day of our meeting. But I wish he had paid no heed to the words of such a creature as Mr. Sibley. That his life was endangered on my account pains me more than I can tell you;" and she soon grew so white and faint that Mrs. Burleigh made her take a glass of wine.
"Death seems such a terrible thing to a young, strong man," she added, shudderingly, after a moment, and she pressed her hands against her eyes as if to shut out a vision from which she shrank. "May he not still be in danger from this ruffian's revenge?" she asked, looking up in sudden alarm.
"I'm afraid that he will be," said Mrs. Burleigh, catching the infection of her fears. "I will have Mr. Burleigh see that he is kept away from this place."
Soon after, as Miss Burton was passing through the main hall-way, she met the artist, and stepping into one of the small parlors that was unoccupied, she said:
"Mr. Van Berg, I wish to speak with you. I wish both to thank you, and to ask a favor."
"Please do the latter only," he replied, smiling.
"Mr. Van Berg," she resumed, looking into his face with an expression that made his heart beat more quickly, "your life was endangered on my account this afternoon."
"That's a pleasant thought to me," he said, taking her hand, "that is if you are not offended that I presumed to be your knight."
"It is a dreadful thought to me," she answered, earnestly; then in a strange and excited manner she added: "You cannot know—death to some is a horrible thing—it prevents so much—I've known—let it come to the old and sad—I could welcome it—but to such as you—O merciful Heaven! Grant me, please grant me, the favor I would ask," she continued, clinging to his hand. "They say this man Sibley is very passionate and revengeful. He may still try to carry out his dreadful purpose. Please shun him, please avoid him—in mercy do. I've more than I can bear now; and if—if—" and she buried her face in her hands.
"And can my poor life be of such value to you, Miss Burton?" he asked, in a deep low tone.
"Ah! you cannot understand," she said, with a sudden and passionate gesture, "and I entreat you not to ask me to explain. From the first you have been kind to me. I have felt from the day we met that I had found a friend in you; and your risk, your care for me to-day, gives you a peculiar claim as a friend, but in mercy do not ask me to explain why I am so urgent in my request. I cannot, indeed I cannot—at least not now, in this place. Something happened—Sudden death in one young, strong, and full of hope, like you, seems to me horrible—horrible. In mercy promise to incur no risk on my account," she said passionately, and almost wildly.
"My poor little friend, how needlessly frightened you are!" he said, soothingly and gently. "There, I will promise you anything that a man of honor can. But a word against you, Jennie Burton, touches me close, very close. As said the Earl of Kent, 'It invades the region of my heart.'"
She looked up swiftly and questioningly, and then a sudden crimson suffused her face. With a strong and uncontrollable instinct she appeared to shrink from him.
"Kent served one who had lost the power to make return," she said, shaking her head sadly as she turned away.
"Let me reply with Kent again," he earnestly responded. "'You have that in your countenance'—in your character—'which I would fain call master'; and I am mastered, nor can I be shaken from my allegiance. I can at least imitate Kent's faithfulness, if not his obtrusiveness, in the service of his king. You have already claimed me as a friend, and so much at least I shall ever be. Let me win more if I can."
She became very quiet now, and looked steadily into his flushed, eager face with an expression of sorrowful regret and pain that would have restrained him had a ten-fold stronger and more impetuous love been seeking utterance, and by a gesture, simple yet eloquently impressive, she put her finger to her lips. Then giving him her hand she said, with strong emphasis:
"Mr. Van Berg, I would value such a FRIEND as you could be to me more than I can tell you."
"I shall be to you all that you will permit," he said, gently yet firmly. "As you now appear I could as soon think of urging my clamorous human love on a sad-eyed saint that had suffered some cruel form of martyrdom for her faith, and then, as the legends teach, had been sent from heaven among us mortals upon some errand of mercy."
"Your words are truer than you think," she replied, the pallor deepening in her face. "I have suffered a strange, cruel form of martyrdom. But I am not a saint, only a weak woman. I would value such a friend as you could be exceedingly. Indeed—indeed," she continued hesitatingly, "there are peculiar reasons why I wish we might meet as friends occasionally. If you knew—if you knew all—you would not ask to be more. Can you trust one who is clouded by sadness and mystery?"
He took her hand in both of his and answered, "Jennie Burton, there could no greater misfortune befall me than to lose my faith in you. I associate you with all that is most sacred to me. Every instinct of my heart assures me that although the mystery that enshrouds your life may be as cold as death, it is, as far as you are concerned, as white as snow."
"Yes, and as far as another is concerned also," she said solemnly. "Your trust is generous, and I am very, very grateful. Perhaps—possibly I may—some time—tell you, for you risked your life for me; and—and—there is another reason. But I have never spoken of it yet. Good-night."
"Stay," he said, "I cannot begin being a true friend to you by being a false friend to another. I am ashamed that I have been so preoccupied with myself that I have not spoken of it before. Mr. Stanton resented Sibley's insulting language more promptly than I did. I have been basely accepting a gratitude that rightly belongs to him, and I assure you he is in far more danger from Sibley than I am."
Her brow contracted in a sudden frown, and there was something like irritation in her tones as she said:
"Danger again! and to another, for my sake! Must I be tortured with fear and anxiety, because a low fellow, true to his nature, will be scurrilous? Mr. Van Berg," she continued, with a sudden flash of her eyes, "are you and Mr. Stanton quarrelling with Mr. Sibley on your own account, or on mine? From henceforth I refuse to have the remotest relation to such a quarrel. No remarks of a man like Sibley can insult me, and hereafter any friend of mine who lowers himself to resent them, or has aught to do with the fellow, will both wound and humiliate me."
"After such words, Miss Burton," Van Berg answered with a smile, "rest assured I shall avoid him as I would a pestilence. But remember, I have been as guilty as Stanton, yes, more so; for Stanton received the first provocation, and he is naturally more impetuous than I am. But I have been thanked, as well as warned and justly rebuked. I think," he added, as if the words cost him an effort, " that if you will kindly ask Stanton to have nothing more to do with Sibley, he will accede to your wishes; and whatever he promises, he will perform."
"Is your friend, then, so honorable a man?" she asked.
"He is, indeed," replied Van Berg, earnestly, while a generous flush suffused his face, "a true, noble-hearted fellow. He shows his worst side at once, but you would discover new and good traits hin him every day."
She turned away with a low laugh. "Since you are so loyal to your old friend," she said, "I think you will prove true to your new one. I shall put Mr. Stanton to the test, and discover whether he will give up his quarrel with Mr. Sibley for the sake of such poor thanks as I can give. Once more, good-night."
She was hastening away, when he seized her hand and said:
"Why do you go with averted face? Have I offended you?"
She trembled violently. "Please do not look at me so," she said, falteringly. "I cannot endure it. Pity my weakness."
His hand tightened in its warm grasp, and the expression of his face grew more ardent.
She looked up with a sudden flash in her eyes, and said, almost sternly:
"You must not look at me in that way, or else even friendship will be impossible and we must become strangers. Perhaps, after all, this will be the wisest course for us both," she added, in a gentler tone.
He dropped her hand, but said firmly, "No, Miss Jennie, you have given me the right to call you my friend, and I have seen friendship in your eyes, and friends at least we shall be till the end of time. I shall not say good-night. I shall not let you go away and brood by yourself. I have learned that cheering others is the very elixir of your life; so, come into the parlor. I will find Stanton and our friend with the soprano voice, and the guests of the house shall again bless the stars that sent you to us, as I do daily."
She smiled faintly and said:
"I'll join you there after a little while," and she flitted out into the darkening hall-way, and sought her room by a side stair.
A few moments later Stanton, finding the object of his thoughts did not appear among the guests who sought to escape the sultriness of the evening on the wide piazzas or in the large, spacious parlor, began to wander restlessly in a half-unconscious search. A servant was just lighting the gas in the small and remote reception-room as he glanced in. The apartment was empty, and no echoes of the words just spoken were lingering.
A little later Miss Burton came down the main stair-way in her breezy, cheery manner, and his jealous fears were quieted.
He joined her at once, saying that it was the unanimous wish that she should give them some music again that evening.
She would join with him and others, she said; and her manner was so perfectly frank and cordial, so like her bearing towards a lady friend to whom she next spoke, that he fairly groaned in despair of touching a heart that seemed to overflow with kindness toward all.
Van Berg soon appeared, but Miss Burton, on this occasion, managed that the singing should be maintained by quite a large group about the piano, and on account of the sultriness of the evening the service of song was brief.
While Van Berg was leading a hymn that had been asked for by one of the guests, Miss Burton found the opportunity of saying, "Mr. Stanton, I wish to thank you for your chivalric defence to-day of one who is poor and orphaned. Mr. Van Berg told me of your generous and friendly course. Thus far I can believe that your conduct has been inspired by the truest and most manly impulses. But if in any way you again have aught to do with Mr. Sibley, I shall feel deeply wounded and humiliated. I refuse to be associated with that man, even in the remotest degree. Your delicate sense of honor will teach you that if any further trouble grows out of this affair no effort on your part can separate my name from it. The world rarely distinguishes between a gentlemanly quarrel and a vulgar brawl, especially where one of the parties is essentially vulgar. As a gentleman you will surely shield me from any such associations."
Stanton, remembering his appointment with Sibley, bowed low to hide his confusion.
"I would gladly shield you with my life from anything that could cause you pain," he said, earnestly.
"I do not make any such vast and tragic demands," she replied, smilingly, and holding out her hand; "only simple and prosaic self-control, when tipsy, vulgar men act according to their nature. Good-night."
He was about to kiss her hand, when she gently withdrew it, remarking:
"We plain people of New England are not descended from the Cavaliers, remember."
He watched until in despair of her appearing again that evening, and then strolled out into the night, feeling in his despondency that no star in the summer sky was more unattainable than the poor and orphaned girl, the impress of whose warm clasp still seemed within his hand.
Chapter XXXI. An Emblem.
For some time Ida Mayhew neither heeded nor heard the choral music in the parlor below, but at last a clearer, louder strain, in which Van Berg's voice was pre-eminent, caught her attention and she started up and listened at the window.
"He is singing songs of Heaven with Jennie Burton, and I—can there be any worse perdition than this?" she said in a low, agonized tone.
As if by a sudden impulse she quietly unfastened the door that led to her father and mother's room. Perceiving that her mother was not there, she stole noiselessly in, and turned up the lamp.
Mr. Mayhew reclined upon a lounge in the deep stupor of intoxication, his dark hair streaked with gray falling across his face in a manner that made it peculiarly ghastly and repulsive.
"This is my work," she groaned. "Jennie Burton made a noble-looking man of him last evening. I have made him this." She writhed and wrung her hands over his unconscious form, appearing as might one of Milton's fallen angels that had lost Heaven and happiness but not the primal beauty of his birth-place.
"Well," she exclaimed with the sudden recklessness which was one of her characteristics, "if I have caused your degradation I can at least share in it;" and she took an opiate that she knew would produce speedy and almost as deep a lethargy as that which paralyzed her father; then threw herself, dressed, upon her couch, and did not waken until late the following day.
Stanton was sorely troubled over his rash promise that he would meet Sibley at daylight on Monday morning. After Miss Burton's words he felt that he could not keep his appointment, and yet he shrank from the ridicule he believed Sibley would heap upon him. His perturbation was so great that he hunted up Van Berg before retiring, and told him of his dilemma. The artist greatly relieved his mind by saying:
"I think we both have had a lesson, Stanton, in regard to quarreling with such fellows as Sibley, although I hardly see how we could have acted differently. But villains are usually cowards after their passion cools and they become sober. The case in hand is no exception. Burleigh tells me he has just learned that Sibley took a late boat to the city, and so does not mean to keep the appointment to-morrow. Therefore, sleep the sleep of the just, old fellow. Good-night."
The throbbing pain in Ida's head was so great when she awoke on Monday that she half forgot the ache in her heart. She found that her father had gone to the City and that the day was well advanced. Her mother sat looking at her with an expression in which anxiety and reproach were equally blended.
The unhappy woman had learned from her husband's habits to know what remedies to employ, and so was able gradually to relieve her daughter's physical distress; but Ida's weary lassitude and reticence were proof against all her questions and reproaches. It seemed as if nothing could rouse or sting her out of the dull apathy into which she had reacted after the desperate excitement of the preceding day. She pleaded illness, and stubbornly refused to go down to dinner. At last her mother, much to her relief, left her to herself, and went out to drive with Stanton, hoping that she might hit upon some plan of action in regard to the two difficult problems presented in her husband and daughter.
Towards evening Ida slowly and languidly dressed for supper, and then sauntered down to the main piazza for a little fresh air.
The poor girl did not exaggerate the shadow that had fallen upon her association with Sibley, and her supposed grief and resentment at his treatment. Two or three whom she met bowed coldly and distantly, and one passed without recognition. Even Jennie Burton had been indignant all day that one of her sex could be infatuated with such a fellow; and in her charitable thoughts she would be glad to explain such perversity as the result of a disordered and uncurbed fancy, rather than of a depraved heart.
It was not strange, however, that she should suppose Ida's manner and indisposition were caused by Sibley's ignominious ejectment from the house, when her own mother and cousin shared the same view.
What an unknown mystery each life is, even to the lives nearest to it!
As with slow, heavy steps, Ida approached the main entrance, she noted the distant manner of those she met, and divined the cause; but her apathy was so great that neither anger nor shame brought the faintest color to her cheeks.
She stood in the doorway and looked out a few moments; but the lovely summer landscape, with the cool shadows lengthening across it, was a weariness, and she turned from it as the miserable do from sights that only mock by their pleasant contrast.
The piazza was nearly empty, but before she stepped out upon it she saw not far away a gentleman reading, who at last did cause the blood to rush tumultuously into her face.
At another time she would have turned hastily from him; but in her present morbid mood she acted from a different impulse. The artist had not observed her approach, and standing a little back in the shadow of the hall-way she found a cruel fascination in comparing the man she loved with the low fellow whose shadow now fell so darkly across her own character. She looked steadily at his downcast face until every line and curve in his strong profile was impressed on her memory. In the healthful color of his finely-chiseled features there were no indications of that excess which already marred Sibley's countenance. The decided contour corresponded with the positive nature. The unhappy girl felt instinctively that if he were on her side, he would be a faithful ally; but if against her, she would find his inflexible will a granite wall against all the allurements of her beauty. The face before her indicated a man controlled by his higher, not lower nature; and in her deep humiliation she now felt that even if he knew all that was passing in her heart, he would bestow only transient pity, mingled with contempt.
She believed she could hope for nothing from him; and yet, did not that belief leave her hopeless? To what else, to whom else could she turn? Nothing else, no one else then seemed to promise any help, any happiness. Her wretched experience had come as unexpectedly as one of those mysterious waves that sweep the sunny shore of Peru. Whither it would carry her she did not know, but every moment separated her more hopelessly from him who appeared like an immovable rock in his quiet strength.
She was turning despondently away when she heard Jennie Burton's voice, and a moment later that young lady mounted the adjacent steps and said to Van Berg:
"See what a prize I captured at this late season. Roses early in August are like hidden treasures. See, they are genuine hybrids. Have I not had rare good fortune?"
Van Berg rose at once, and met her at the top of the steps; and Ida, who still remained unseen in the hall, now stepped forward into the doorway, so that she might not seem a furtive listener, as he was standing with his back towards her.
"Had I my way, Miss Burton," said the artist, "you should have this rare good fortune every day of the year."
She blushed slightly, and said, rather coldly, "Good evening, Miss Mayhew," thus rendering Van Berg aware of the latter's presence. The artist only frowned, and gave no other recognition of Ida's proximity.
"Since you can't have your way, I shall make the most of my present good fortune. Is not that a beautiful cluster?"
"It is indeed, with one exception. Do you not see that this defective bud mars the beauty of all the others?"
"A 'worm I' the bud fell on its damask cheek.' I took it out and killed it, and was in hopes that if I placed the injured flower in water with the others it might still make a partial bloom. You will think me absurd when I tell you I felt sorry for it, and thought how many roses and lives would be more perfect were it not for some gnawing 'worm i' the bud.'"
"The 'worm' in Shakespeare's allusion," said the artist, lightly, "is redeemed by its association and symbolism; but the one that has been at work here was a disagreeably prosaic thing that you rightly put your foot upon. The bud, as it now appears, suggest the worm more than anything else. So, please, let me cut it out; for art cannot tolerate anything so radically marred and defective. Its worm-eaten heart spoils the beauty of the entire cluster."
"I fear you artists become too critical and exacting. Well, cut it out. I will submit to art in roses, but feel that marred and defective lives should have very different treatment."
"That depends. If people persist in cherishing some worm of evil, they cannot expect to be held in the same esteem as those who are aiming at a more perfect development. There, now! does not our cluster appear much better?"
"Yes; and yet I cannot help feeling sorry for the poor little bud that has missed its one chance to bloom, and all will wither unless I hasten to my room and put them in water."
In her prejudice against Ida she had not looked towards her while talking with Van Berg, but in passing, a hasty glance almost caused her to stay and speak to her, for she thought she saw her eyes full of unshed tears. But her glance was brief and her prejudice strong. Miss Burton had not a little of the wholesome feminine intolerance for certain weaknesses in her sex. She would counsel a wife to endure a bad husband with a meek and patient spirit. But gentle as she was, she would scorn the maiden who could be attracted by a corrupt man, and almost loathe her for indulging in such an affinity. She could pity Ida—she could pity any one; but the poor girl's unfortunate association with Sibley, and her seeming interest in him, would subordinate pity to indignation and contempt. Her thought was this:
"Miss Mayhew is still a maiden free to choose. Shame on her that she chooses so ignobly! Shame on her that she turns her eyes longingly to fetid pools, instead of upward to the breezy hills. What kind of nature is that which prompts such a choice?"
The artist was more capable of Jennie Burton's indignation and contempt than of her pity; and although he knew Ida still stood in the doorway he did not turn to speak to her. His very attitude seemed to indicate to the unhappy girl a haughty indifference, and yet she was so unhappy, so in need of a kind word or reassuring glance that she could not turn away.
"What a wretched mystery it all is," she thought. "I ought to hate, yet I love him. Proud as I have thought myself, I could kneel at his feet for one such word and glance as he just gave Miss Burton. For contempt I return him honor and admiration. I cannot help myself. By some strange perversity of my heart, I have become his very slave. How can he be so blind! He thinks me pining for a man that I despise and hate more than he ever can, though the fellow attempted his life. Sibley has come between me and that which is more than life—my chance for happiness and right living. I shall become desperate and bad, like him, if this continues. How strange it is that some sense, some instinct does not tell him there that the girl who stands so near is lavishing every treasure of her soul upon him!
"That poor little rose-bud represents me to his mind. How ruthlessly he is pulling open its heart! Will he see anything else there save the work of the destroyer? Can it not awaken a thought of pity? I will—I must speak to him."
She took a hesitating step or two towards him. She could almost hear her heart beat. Twice, thrice, words died upon her lips. When was she ever so timid before! If he would only give her an encouraging glance! If he would only turn a little towards her and relax that haughty, unbending attitude—-
"Mr. Van Berg," she said at last, in a voice that was constrained and hard from her effort to be calm, "you seem very vindictive towards that poor little flower."
He turned partially towards her and coldly said, "Good evening Miss Mayhew;" then, after a second, added carelessly: "I admit that this worm-eaten bud is rather vexatious. It has—what is left of it—exquisite color, and in form nature had designed it to be perfect; but" (with a slight contemptuous shrug) "you see what it is," and he tossed it down into the roadway.
Her face was very pale and her voice low, as she answered: "And so you condemn it to be trampled under foot."
"I condemn it! Not at all. Its own imperfection condemns it."
"The result is all the same," she replied, with sudden change of manner. "It is tossed contemptuously away to be trodden under foot. Dull and ignorant as you discovered me to be, Mr. Van Berg, I am not so stupid but that I can understand you this evening. Imperfect as I am I could pity that unfortunate flower whose fragrance rose to you like a low appeal for a little consideration, at least. Would it not have bloomed as perfectly as the others if the worm had let it alone? But, I suppose, with artist, if roses or human lives are imperfect, that is the end of them. Misfortune counts for nothing."
Van Berg listened in surprise to these words, and his haughty complacency was decidedly disturbed. He was about to reply that "Evil chosen and cherished was not a misfortune but a fault," when she turned from him with more than her former coldness and entered the house.
An impulse that he would have found difficult to analyze led him to descend the steps and pick up the symbolic bud, now torn and withering fast, and to place it between the leaves of his note-book.
If she had only seen this act it would have made a great difference; but, ever present to her thought, it lay where he had tossed it, the emblem of herself.
Chapter XXXII. The Dangers of Despair.
Discouragement and despair are dangerous and often destructive to character. This would be especially true of one like Ida Mayhew; for even in her imperfection she possessed a simplicity and unity which made it impossible for a part of such moral nature as she possessed to stand, if another part were undermined or broken down. The whole fabric would stand or fall together.
She had been a wayward child, more neglected than petted, and had naturally developed a passion for having her own will, right or wrong. As she grew older, her extraordinary dower of beauty threatened to be a fatal one. It brought her attention continuous admiration and flattery from those who cared nothing for her personally. She had received in childhood but little of the praise which love prompts, the tender, indulgent idolatry which, although dangerous indeed to one's best development, sometimes softens and humanizes, instead of rendering selfish and arrogant.
Mrs. Mayhew petted and scolded her child according to her mood, but was quite consistent in her general neglect. Mr. Mayhew was a tired, busy man, who visited at his own home rather than lived there. Thus the growing girl was left chiefly to her own impulses, and average human nature ensured that the habit of thinking of herself first and of pleasing herself at all times should be early formed. Then, as she saw and became capable of understanding the homage that waits on mere beauty, the world over, pride and vanity grew in overshadowing rankness. The attention she received, however, was chiefly made up of the bold stare of strangers, and the open flattery of those who admired her beauty as they would that of a picture, unconsciously but correctly leaving the impression that they cared for her only because of her beauty. That the girl's nature should grow hard and callous under such influences was what might have been expected.
Neglect and a miserable sham of an education had dwarfed her mind. She had been "finished" by an ultra fashionable school before she understood the meaning of the studies which she passed over in a dainty quickstep, scarcely touching the surface.
Her heart and moral nature were almost equally undeveloped. Hitherto she had known but little experience tending to evoke gentle feeling or generous action. She had confounded the few genuine admirers, who, infatuated with her beauty, endowed her with all heavenly graces, awaiting only the awakening hand of their love, with the heartless or brainless fellows who were not particular about heavenly graces, provided a girl had a fine figure and a fair face.
When the artist first met her at the concert garden, she was in truth a modern Undine. She had feminine qualities and vices, but not a woman's soul. She was not capable of any strong, womanly action or feeling. Her scheme of life was simple indeed, although she was learning to be very artful in carrying it out. It was to have "a good time," as she would phrase it, and at any and every cost to others. After wearying of the life of a belle, she proposed to marry the best establishment that came her way, and became a leader of fashion.
It would seem that not a few fine ladies carry out this simple scheme of life, and never receive a woman's soul. There are Undines at sixty as well as at sixteen.
The artist had been attracted by her beauty, like so many others, but unlike others he had not (as was the case with not a few sensible men) given an admiring glance at the face, and then, recognizing the fact that there was not a woman back of it, passed on indifferently; nor had he bestowed upon her imaginary virtues; and much less had he been satisfied with more flesh and blood.
His manner had been exploring, questioning. He was looking for her woman's soul, even though he might find it unawakened, like the fabled beauty in the mythical castle.
His keen eyes had disturbed her equanimity from the first. As he pursued his quest, her undefined fears and misgivings increased. At last she was compelled to follow his questioning glances, and look past outward beauty to her real self within. From that hour the rank and evil weeds of pride and vanity began to wither. Honest self-scrutiny was like a knife at their roots.
But these traits give a transient support like a false stimulant. As they failed there was nothing to take their place—no faith in God, no self-respect or self-reliance. She could not turn to her own family for sustaining sympathy, such as many fin din their homes, and which is all the more grateful because not inquisitive nor expressed in formal terms. In her selfish pleasure-seeking life she found that she had made an endless number of acquaintances, but no friends. She had not even the resources of a cultivated mind that could exist upon its own stores through this sudden famine which had impoverished her world, nor could she think of a single innocent, attractive, pursuit by which she could fill the weary days. She was like a child that had dwelt in a tropical oasis, the flowers and fruits of which had seemed as limitless as its extent. She had supposed that the whole world would be like this oasis, and the only necessity ever imposed on her would be that of choice from its rich profusion. But ere she was aware she had lost herself in a desert; the oasis had vanished like a mirage, and she had no choice at all. That which her heart craved with an intensity which fairly made it ache, seemed as hopeless as a sudden bloom and fruitage from arid sands.
Instead of going down to supper she returned to the solitude of her own room, but the apathy of the earlier part of the day had vanished utterly. Indeed, body ad soul seemed to quiver with pain like a wounded nerve. Anger, which had given a brief support, faded out, and left only shame and despair as in memory she saw the emblem, representing herself, tossed contemptuously into the carriage-way by the man she loved.
"I remember reading," she groaned, "when at school, how conquerors put their feet on the necks of their captives. He has put his spurning foot on my heart. Oh, hateful riddle! Why should I love the man that despises me?"
Her mother, and then Stanton, called at her door and asked her to come down to supper.
"No," she said, briefly to each.
"If you knew what people were saying and surmising you would not continue to make a spectacle of yourself," said her cousin, through the closed door.
"That is one reason why I do not come down," she replied. "I'm not in the mood to make a spectacle of myself. I have been shown how one perfect member of society regards me, and I am not equal to meeting any more faultless people to-night."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Stanton, irritably. "You must come down."
"Break in the door then, and carry me down," was the sharp reply.
With a muttered oath he descended to the supper-room, and his moody and absent manner revealed to Mrs. Mayhew and Van Berg that his interview with his cousin had been anything but satisfactory.
For a time the artist seemed rather "distrait" also, as if a memory were troubling him. He often looked around when any one entered, and his eyes at times rested on Ida's vacant chair. But he soon passed under the spell of Jennie Burton's genial talk, which seemingly glowed with the sunshine that had enveloped her during her quest of the roses, and the poor girl, who was fairly quivering with pain because of his significant act and words on the piazza, was forgotten.
She knew she was forgotten. The hum of voices, the cheerful clatter from the lighted supper-room, came up to her darkening apartment, and only increased her sense of loneliness and isolation. Her quick ear caught Van Berg's mellow laugh, evoked by one of Miss Burton's sallies.
It is a dreary sensation to find one's self wholly forgotten by mere acquaintances; but to find that we have no place in the thoughts of those we love, seems in a certain sense like being annihilated. But for poor Ida was reserved a deeper suffering still, since she believed that the man she loved did not dismiss her from his mind indifferently, but rather with aversion and disgust.
She felt her isolation terribly. To whom could she turn in her trouble? The thought of her father was both a reproach and a humiliation. He was drifting hopelessly, and almost unresistingly, towards final wreck, and, so far from seeking to restrain, she had added to the evil impetus. She shrank from the very idea of confiding in her garrulous, superficial mother. She felt that her cousin detested as well as despised her. The flattered girl, who a little before thought the world was at her feet, now felt friendless and alone, scarcely tolerated by her own family, and scorned by others.
Of course she exaggerated the evil of her lot. The young an inexperienced are ever prone to look, for the time, on the earlier misfortunes of their lives as irretrievable. In after years they may smile at their causeless despair; but the world is full of tragedies that to the wise and sober minded had slight cause.
Ida's troubles, however, were scarcely slight, and she, above all others, was the least fitted to bear trouble and thwarting. To be refused anything would be a new and disagreeable experience, but to be denied that which her heart craved supremely, tended to call out all the passionate recklessness of her ungoverned, undisciplined nature. The child from whom something is taken, will often cast away in anger all that is offered in its place; and in like hasty folly many a man and woman, to their eternal regret, have thrown away life itself. Suicide is often the product of passion as well as of despair; the irritable, headlong protest against evils that might have been and should have been remedied.
As Ida sat alone in her desolation and shame, the thought of self-destruction had surged up in the lava of other tumultuous thoughts occasioned by the artist's scorn, and at first she had shrunk from it with natural and instinctive dread. But the awful thought began to fascinate her like a dizzy height from which it seems so easy to fall and end everything.
In her morbid condition and to her poisoned imagination the act did not appear so revolting after all. She had been made familiar with it in her favorite novels. She had often seen it simulated with applause on the stage, with all the melodramatic accessories with which it is produce mere effect. Indeed, from her education, she might also think self-destruction was the only dignified and high-spirited thing to do.
For a time her thoughts took the coloring of high tragedy. She would teach this proud artist a lessen, even though at supreme cost to herself. If he would never love her, she would make it certain that he could not longer despise her. She would write him a letter that would harrow his very soul, informing him that she had taken his hint and followed his suggestion. Since he had thrown away the emblem of herself as a worthless and unsightly thing, she had thrown herself away, so that faultless taste and faultless people might be no more offended by the presence of so much imperfection.
For a moment her eyes glowed with exultation over his imagined dismay as he read this message from one to whom no reparation could be made; and then better and more wholesome feelings resumed their sway. Perverted, misguided, and uncounselled as she was, she was too young, too near the mother heart of nature, not to react from the false and the evil towards the simple and the true.
She threw herself upon her couch. "Oh, that I might live and be happy!" she sobbed. "If in the place of the bitter frost of his words and manner he would give me but one ray of kindness, I would try to bloom, even though but a poor worm-eaten bud."
Frowns blight far more flowers than October nights.
Chapter XXXIII. "Hope dies Hard."
When alone with his friend after supper, Stanton broke out, "Since Ida can't exist without the sight of that wretch, Sibley, I wish she would follow him to New York. If she dotes on such scum, they had better be married, as far as such people can be, and so relieve her relatives of an incubus that is well-nigh intolerable."
"Are you absolutely sure that she does dote on Sibley, and that he is the cause of her evident trouble?" asked Van Berg, with a perplexed frown lowering on his brow.
"I'm not sure of anything concerning her save that she was born to make trouble. I know she was with him all the time he was here, and since he was metaphorically kicked off the premises she has sulked in her room. I suppose, of course, that she is mortified, and hates to meet people. Indeed, from a remark she made, some one must have snubbed her vigorously to-day; but her course makes everything a hundredfold worse. I am besmirched because of my relationship. I can see this in the bearing of more than one, and even Miss Burton, who could not be consciously unkind to any one, keeps me at a distance by barriers, which, although seemingly viewless, are so real I cannot pass them."
Van Berg surmised that the evasive tact which Miss Burton exercised towards his friend was not caused by his relationship to Ida, and yet was compelled to admit that her frank and friendly bearing towards himself was scarcely less dispiriting. Her manner, as a rule, was so plainly that of a friend only, that were it not for occasional and furtive glances which he intercepted, he would deem his prospects little better than Stanton's, in spite of all that had passed between them. Even in these stolen, questioning, longing glances, there was an element that trouble and perplexed him, and the strange thought crossed his mind that when she looked most intently she did not see Harold Van Berg, but an intervening vision. Her mystery, however, rendered her only the more attractive, and she seemed like a good angel that had come from an unknown world concerning which she could not speak, and perhaps he could not understand.
Her society was like a delicate wine, delightfully exhilarating while enjoyed, but whose effect is transient. He was provoked at himself to find how well he endured her absence, and how content he was with the genuine friendship she was evidently forming for him. Sometimes he even longed for more of the absorbing passion which he saw had wholly mastered Stanton; but tried to satisfy himself by reasoning that his love was in accordance with his nature, which was calm and constant, rather than impulsive and passionate.
"All the higher faculties of my soul are her allies," he thought, complacently. "I admire honor, and even reverence her. She could walk through life as my companion, my equal, and in many respects, my superior;" and so with all the delicate and unobtrusive tact of which he was the master he proposed to press his suit.
Since Jennie Burton had plainly intimated that, like King Lear, she had lost her woman's kingdom—her heart—and so was not able to reward such suit and service, how came it she kept poor Stanton at a distance, but welcomed the society of Van Berg? Possibly her intuition recognized the fact that in the case of Stanton she had touched the heart, but had won the mind of the artist. The first seemed disposed to give all and to demand all. Stanton's all did not count for very much thus far in her estimation. She had recognized the character he had brought to the Lake House—that of a pleasure-loving man of the world—and she was far too modest to suppose that she could work any material change in this character. Self-indulgent by nature, she believed that he had proposed to enjoy a summer flirtation with one whom he would easily forget in the autumn, and, while this impression lasted, she punished him by requiring that he should be the chivalric attendant of every forlorn female in the house. When she believed, however, that such heart as he possessed was truly interested, she became as unapproachable as the afternoon horizon, whose rich glow is seemingly near, but can never be reached. While she recognized the genuineness of his passion, she did not, as before intimated, regard it as a very serious affair.
"Good dinners and fairer faces than mine will comfort him before Christmas," she thought.
Few know themselves—their own capabilities of joy, suffering, or achievement. As with Ida, Stanton was at a loss to understand the changes in his own character. It was quite possible, therefore, that Miss Burton should misunderstand him. Indeed he had, as yet, but little place in her sad and preoccupied thoughts.
For some reason, however, Van Berg's society had for her a peculiar fascination that she could not resist. She scarcely knew whether she derived from it more of pleasure than of pain. She often asked herself this question:
"Which were better for a traveller in the desert—to see a mirage, or the sands only in all their barren reality?"
Her judgment said, the latter; but when the elusive mirage appeared, she looked often with a longing wistfulness that might well suggest a pilgrim that was athirst and famishing.
In spite of her quickness, Van Berg occasionally caught something of this expression, and while he drew encouragement from it, he was too free from vanity and too acute an observer to conclude that all would result as he hoped. The unwelcome thought would come that he was only the occasion and not the cause, of these furtive glances. Was her heart already wedded to a memory, and was she interested in him chiefly because for some reason he gave vividness and reality to that memory? If this were true, what more had he to hope for than Stanton? If this were true, was he not in a certain sense pursuing a shadow? Woud success be success? Would he wish to clasp, as his wife, a woman whose heart had been buried in a sepulchre from which the stone might never be rolled away?
His first impression, that Miss Burton had passed through some experience, some ordeal of suffering that separated her from ordinary humanity, often reasserted itself more strongly than ever. At times her flame-like spirit would flash up with a glow and brilliancy that lighted and warmed his very soul, but the feeling began to grow upon him that this genial fire consumed the costliest of all offerings—self. Did not her own broken heart and shattered hopes supply the fuel? Instead of brooding apart over some misfortune that would have crushed most natures, was she not seeking to make her life an altar on which she laid as a gift to others the best treasures of her woman's soul?
The more closely he studied her character, and the controlling impulses of her life, the more sincere became his admiration, and the deeper his reverence. He felt with truth that she WAS of different and finer clay from himself.
So strong was this impression, that the thought occurred to him that in this and kindred reasons might be found the explanation of the peculiar regard he felt for her. He had virtually offered himself, and would again if he could find the opportunity. If he were sure the he would win her, he would exult as one might who had secured the revenue of a kingdom, the purest and largest gem in the world, or some other possession that was unique and priceless. The whole of his strong intellectual nature would be jubilant over the great success of his life. He was also conscious that some of the deepest feelings of his soul were interested. She was becoming like a religion to him, and he imagined that his regard for her was somewhat akin to that of a devout Catholic for a patron saint.
And yet he was compelled to admit to himself that he did not lover her as he supposed he would love the woman he hoped to make his wife. Why was his heart so tranquil and his pulse so steady? Certainly not because of assured success. Why did his regard differ so radically from Stanton's consuming passion? Should Stanton win her he felt that he could still seek her society and enjoy her friendship. The prospect of never winning her himself did not rob life of its zest and color. On the contrary, he believed that she would ever be an inspiration, an exquisite ideal realized in actual life. As such he could not lose her any more than those women whom poetry, fiction, and history had placed as stars in his firmament, and this belief so contented him as to awaken surprise.
As he returned from a long and solitary stroll on Monday evening he soliloquized complacently, "I am making too great a mystery of it all. She is not an ordinary woman. Why should I feel towards her the ordinary and conventional love which any woman might evoke? There is more of spirit than of flesh and blood in her exquisite organization. Sorrow has refined away every gross and selfish element, and left a saint towards whom devotion is far more seemly and natural than passion. She awakens in me a regard corresponding to her own nature, and I thank heaven that I am at least finely enough organized to understand her and so can seek to win her in accordance with the subtle laws of her being. She would shrink inevitably from a downright, headlong passion like that of Stanton's, no matter how honest it might be or how good the man expressing it. No hand, however strong, will ever grasp this 'rara avis,' this good angel, rather. Her wings must be pinioned by gossamer threads of patient kindness, delicate sympathy, nice appreciation, and all woven and wound so unobtrusively that the shy spirit may not be startled. What a fool I was to blurt out my feelings last evening! What rare good fortune is mine in the fact that she gives me the vantage-ground of friendship from which to urge a suit wherein must be combined sincerity with consummate skill. I fear I must efface some other image before I can implant my own. How fortunate I am that my cool and well-poised nature will enable me to work under the guidance of judgment rather than impulse."
Feeling that he had much to gain and was in danger of irretrievable loss, he lightly mounted the steps of the hotel, bent on finding at once the object of his thoughts.
He saw her leaving a group in the parlor, of which Stanton was one, and he hastened to intercept her in the hall-way. Just as he was about to speak to her, Mr. Burleigh came bustling up and said:
"Miss Burton, a stranger—not to fame or fortune, nor to you probably, but a stranger to me—is inquiring for you—a stranger from the South. He would not give his name, and—good heaven, Miss Burton! are you ill?"
Van Berg led her into a private parlor near. She certainly had grown very white and faint. But after a moment there came a flash of hope and eager expectation into her face that no words could have expressed.
"His name—his name?" she gasped.
Mr. Burleigh looked at her a second, and then said: "Stay quietly here, I'll bring him to you; and then, Mr. Van Berg, perhaps you and I might form an enormous crowd."
"Had I not better leave you at once?" the artist asked when they were alone.
"Wait a moment. I—I—am very weak. It cannot be—but hope dies hard."
Trembling like a leaf, and with eyes aflame with intense, eager hope, she watched the door.
A moment later Mr. Burleigh ushered in a middle-aged gentleman, who commenced saying:
"Pardon me, Miss Burton, for not sending my name, but you would not have known it"—then the young lady's appearance checked him.
The effect of his coming was indeed striking. It was as if a gust of wind had suddenly extinguished a lamp. The luminous eyes closed for a moment, and the face became so pallid and ashen in its hue as to suggest death. It was evident to Van Berg that her disappointment was more bitter than death.
"Miss Burton took a long walk this afternoon," he said, hastily, "and, I fear, went much beyond her strength. Perhaps she had better see you to-morrow."
"Oh, certainly, certainly; I will remain, if there is need," the gentleman began.
By a strong and evident effort Miss Burton regained self-control, and said, with a faint smile that played over her face a moment like a gleam of wintry sunshine:
"You strong men often call women weak, and we, too often, prove you right. As Mr. Van Berg suggests, I am a little overtaxed to-night. Perhaps I had better see you in the morning."
"I am a transient guest, and ought to be on my way with the first train," said the gentleman. "My errand is as brief as it is grateful to me. Do not leave, sir," he said to Van Berg. "If you are a friend of Miss Burton it will be pleasant for you to hear what I have to say; and, I warrant you that she will never tell you nor anyone else herself."
"May I stay?" he asked.
She felt so weak and unnerved, so in need of a sustaining hand and mind that she looked at him appealingly, and said:
"Yes. This gentleman cannot disgrace me more than I have myself this evening."
"Disgrace you! Miss Burton," exclaimed the gentleman. "Your name is a household word in our home, and our honor for it is only excelled by our love. You remember my invalid daughter, Emily Musgrave—our only and unfortunate child. She attended the college in which you are an instructress. Before she came under your influence her infirmities were crushing her spirit and embittering her life. So morbid was she becoming that she apparently began to hate her mother and myself as the authors of her wretched existence. But by some divine magic you sweetened the bitter waters of her life, and now she is a fountain of joy in our home. In her behalf and her mother's, I thank you; and even more, if possible, in my own behalf, for the reproachful, averted face of my child was killing me;" and tears stood in the strong man's eyes.
There was nothing conventional in the way in which Jeannie Burton received his warm gratitude. She leaned wearily back in her chair, and for a moment closed her eyes. There was far more resignation than of pleasure in her face, and she had the air of one submitting to a fate which one could not and ought not to resist.
"Your three lives are much happier then?" she said, gently, as if wishing to hear the reassuring truth again.
"You do not realize your service to us," said Mr. Musgrave, eagerly. "Our lives were not happy at all. There seemed nothing before us but increasing pain. You have not added to a happiness already existing merely, but have caused us to exchange positive suffering for happiness. Emily seems to have learned the art of making every day of our lives a blessing, and she says you taught her how. I would go around the world to say to you, 'God bless you for it!'"
"Such assurances ought to make one resigned, if not content," she murmured in a low tone, as if half speaking to herself. Then rising, by an evident effort, she cordially gave her hand to Mr. Musgrave, and said:
"You see, sir, that I am scarcely myself to-night. I think I could give you a better impression of your daughter's friend to-morrow. Give her my sincere love and congratulations. She is evidently bearing her burden better than I mine. You cannot know how much good your words have done me to-night. I needed them, and they will help me for years to come."
The gentleman's eyes grew moist again, and he said, huskily:
"I know you are rather alone in the world, but if it should ever happen that there is anything that I could do for you were I your father, call on John Musgrave. There, I cannot trust myself to speak to you any more, though I have so much to say. Good-night, and good-by;" and he made a very precipitate retreat, thoroughly overcome by his warm Southern heart.
"I dread to leave you looking so sad and ill, or else I would say good-night also," said Van Berg.
She started as if she had half forgotten his presence, and kept her face averted as she replied:
"I will say good-night to you, Mr. Van Berg. I would prove poor company this evening."
"Before you go I wish to thank you for letting me stay," he said, hastily. "As Mr. Musgrave asserted, you would indeed never have told me what I have heard, and yet I would not have missed hearing it for more than you will believe. How many lives have you blessed, Jennie Burton?"
"Not very many, I fear, but I half wish I knew. Each one would be like an argument."
"Arguments that should prove that you ought to let the dead past bury its dead, and live in the richer present," he said, earnestly.
"The richer present!" she repeated slowly, and her face grew almost stern in its reproach.
"Forgive me—in the present you so enrich, then," he said, eagerly.
Again she averted her face, and he saw that for some reason she wished to avoid his eyes.
"I am too weak and unnerved to do more than say good-night again," she said, trying to smile. "You are fast learning that if you would be my friend you must be a patient and generous one."
"Thank heaven I came to the Lake House!" ejaculated the artist as he strolled out into the star-light. Thank heaven for this mingling mystery and crystal purity. It does me good to trust her. There is a deep and abiding joy in the very generosity she inspires. I am learning the spell under which Emily Musgrave came. But how strange it all is! She expected some one to-night, whom she would have welcomed as she never will me. "The only rival I have to fear may not be dead, as I supposed, and yet my perverse heart is more full of pity for her than jealousy. I had no idea that I was capable of such self-abnegation. Has she the art of spiritual alchemy, and so can transmute natures full of alloy into fine gold?"
Van Berg was an acute observer, and had large acquaintance with the world in which he lived, and its inhabitants. He was in the main, however, an unknown quantity to himself.
Chapter XXXIV. Puzzled.
Tuesday was dreary enough to more than one at the Lake House. Clouds covered the sky, yet they gave little promise of the rain which the thirsty earth so needed. To Ida, as she looked out late in the morning, they seemed like a leaden wall around her, shutting off all avenues of escape.
Her mother joined her as she went down to a cold and dismal breakfast, long after all the other guests had left the dining-room, and she commenced fretting and fuming, as was her custom when the world did not arrange itself to suit her mood.
"Everything is on the bias to-day," she said, "and you most of all from your appearance. I wish I could see things straightened out for once. The little school-ma'am, who turns everybody's head, is sick in her room, and did not come down to breakfast. Therefore we had a Quaker meeting. If you had been present with your long face, the occasion would have been one of oppressive solemnity. Ik appeared as dejected as if he were to be executed before dinner, and scarcely ate a mouthful; I never saw a fellow so changed in all my life. Although your artist friend had a rapt, absorbed look, he was still able to absorb a good deal of steak and coffee. I saw him and Miss Burton emerge from a private parlor last night, and he probably understands Miss Burton's malady better than the rest of us. Why—what's the matter? Would to heaven I understood your malady better! Are you sick?"
"Yes," said Ida, rising abruptly from the table, "I am sick—sick of myself, sick of the world."
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Mrs. Mayhew, sharply, "are you so wrapt up in that fellow Sibley, that you can't live without him?"
Ida made a slight but expressive gesture of protest and disgust; then said, in a low tone, as if to herself: "If my own mother so misjudges me, what can I expect of others?"
Mrs. Mayhew followed her daughter to her room with a perplexed and worried look.
"Ida," she began, "you are all out of sorts; you are bilious; you've got this horrid malaria, that the doctors are always talking about, in your system. Let me send for our city physician, Doctor Betts. Never was such a man at diagnosis. He seems to look right inside of one and see everything that's going on wrong."
"For heaven's sake don't send for him then!" exclaimed Ida.
Mrs. Mayhew looked askance at her daughter a moment, and then asked bluntly:
"Why? What's going on wrong in you?"
"I do not know of anything that's going on right,—to use your own phraseology."
"You mean to say, then, that there is something wrong?"
"You intimated at the breakfast-table that everything was going wrong. So it has seemed to me, for some time. But come, mother, drugs can't reach my trouble, and so you can't help me. You must leave me to myself."
"I think you might tell your own mother what is the matter," whined Mrs. Mayhew.
"I think I might also," said Ida, coldly. "It is not my fault but my great misfortune that I cannot."
At this Mrs. Mayhew whimpered: "You are very cruel to talk to me in that way."
"I suppose I'm everything that's bad," Ida answered recklessly. "That seems to be the general verdict. Perhaps it would be best for you all were I out of the way. I can scarcely remember when I have had a friendly look from any one. Things could not be much worse with me than they are now. I think I would like a change, and may have a very decided one." Then seizing her hat, she left her mother to herself.
Mrs. Mayhew sank into a chair, and a heavy frown gathered on her brow as she thought deeply for a few moments.
"That girl means mischief," she muttered. "I wonder if she is holding any communication with Sibley? I always thought Ida would take care of herself, but she'll bear watching now. She hasn't been like herself since she came to this place. I must consult Ik at once. Things are bad enough now, heaven knows; but if Ida should do anything disgraceful, I'd have to throw up the game." (Mrs. Mayhew was an inveterate card-player, and her favorite amusement often colored her thoughts and words.)
Stanton was found smoking and pretending to read a newspaper in a retired corner of the piazza, but from which, nevertheless, he could see whether Miss Burton made her appearance during the morning.
Mrs. Mayhew explained her fears, and the young man used very strong language in expressing his disgust and irritation.
"A curse upon it all!" he concluded. "Since she must, and apparently will gratify this low taste, can you not return to New York, patch up the fellow into some sort of respectability and marry them with a blare of brazen instruments that will drown the world's unpleasant remarks?"
"That would be better than the scandal of an elopement," mused perplexed Mrs. Mayhew. "From what you say, Sibley is bad enough, and Ida seems reckless enough to do anything. I wish we had never come here."
"So do I," groaned Stanton. "No, I don't, either. In fact I'm in a devil of a mess myself. You know it, and I suppose all see it. I can't help it if they do. My passion, no doubt, is vain, but it's to my credit. Ida's is disgraceful to herself and to us all. If I'd been here alone and Van Berg had not come, I might have succeeded; but NOW"—and with a despairing gesture he turned away.
"Ik, come back," cried his aunt, "of course I feel for you. You are independent, and can marry whom you please, though heaven knows you could do better than—-"
"Heaven knows nothing of the kind," he interrupted, irritably, "and if you were nearer heaven—but there, what's the use."
"You're right now, Ik. We can't afford to quarrel. You must talk to Ida. We must watch her. Find out if you can what is in her mind, and if the worst comes to the worst, they will have to be married. I suppose it will be wise to hint to her that if she WILL marry Sibley she had better do it in as respectable and quiet a way as possible."
"The idea of anything being respectable and quiet where they are concerned!" snarled Stanton.
"Well, well," groaned Mrs. Mayhew, "do your best."
But Ida was not to be found.
She appeared at dinner, however, and not a few looked at her, and stole furtive glances again and again. Among these observers was the artist, and it was evident that he was both perplexed and troubled. Was this cold, marble-cheeked woman the butterfly that had fluttered into the country a few weeks since?
"She may be a bad woman," he thought, "but she has become a woman in the last few days. She looks years older. I thought her shallow, but she's too deep for me. For some reason I can't associate that face, as it now appears, with Sibley, and yet it is so full of mingled pain and defiance, that one might almost think she meditated a crime. She looks ill. She is ill—she is growing thin and hollow-eyed. What a magnificent study she would make of a half-famished captive; or of beauty chained—not married to a man hateful and hated; or, possibly, of innocence meditating guilt, and yet seeking vainly to disguise the dark thoughts by a marble mask. There is some transforming process going on in Ida Mayhew's mind, and from her appearance I rather dread the outcome; but her face is becoming a rare study."
Although with the exception of a slight response to his formal bow she had sought to ignore his presence and to avoid his eyes, she was still conscious of this furtive scrutiny, and it hurt her cruelly. It seemed as if he were studying her as one might a peculiar specimen.
"His critical eyes are trying to look into me heart as they did into the poor little rose-bud," she thought; and her face grew more rigid and inscrutable under his gaze. as early as possible she left the table.
"I wish I knew just what her trouble was," thought the artist. "If not connected with that wretch Sibley, I could pity her with all my heart. Well, take all the good the gods send, I'll sketch her face this afternoon as I have last seen it."
"Your cousin begins to look decidedly ill," he said to Stanton, after dinner.
His friend's only reply was an imprecation.
"Your remark is emphatic enough, but I don't understand it any better than I do Miss Mayhew."
"It's to your credit you don't. Her mother has reason to believe that there is some deviltry on foot between her and Sibley. I'm to find out and thwart her if I can. I suppose I shall have to say, in substance: 'Since you will throw yourself away on the fellow, go through all the formalities that society demands. In such case your family will submit, if they can't approve. You see I'm frank with you, as I've been from the first.' Would to heaven she had never come here, and now think of it there has been a change in her for the worse ever since she came. It must be the influence of that cursed Sibley. Some women are fools to begin with; but from a fool infatuated with a villain, good Lord deliver us!"
"You fear an elopement then?" said Van Berg, his face darkening into his deepest frown.
"I fear worse than that. Sibley is as treacherous as a quagmire. If a woman ventured into a false position with him he would marry her only when compelled to do so. I'm savage enough to shoot them both this afternoon. I see but one way out. I must warn her promptly, and in language so emphatic that she will understand it, that everything must be after the regulation style."
Van Berg made a gesture of contempt, but said to his friend:
"Stanton, I'm sorry for you. Such trouble as this would cut me deeper than any other kind. If I can do anything to help you, count on me. I'm in the mood myself to shoot Sibley, for he has spoiled for me the fairest face that evil ever perverted."
Van Berg did not sketch Ida Mayhew's face that afternoon. On the contrary, he resolutely sought to banish her image from his mind. When last he saw that face, it seemed made of Parian marble. Now it rose before him so blackened and besmirched that he thought of it only with anger and disgust.
Ida kept herself so secluded in the afternoon that Stanton could not find her, but this very seclusion, which the poor girl sought in order to hide her wounds, only increased his own and Mrs. Mayhew's fears deepened their suspicions.
She was a little late in appearing at the super-table, for her return from the wanderings of the afternoon had required more time than she supposed. She was very weary; moreover, the hours spent in solitude with nature had quieted her overstrung nerves. The sun had shone upon her, though the world seemed to frown. Flowers had looked shyly and sweetly into her face as if they saw nothing there to criticise. She had plucked a few and fastened them into her breast-pin, and their faint perfume was like a low, soothing voice. She was in a softened and receptive mood, and a kind word, even a kind glance, might have tuned the scale in favor of better thoughts and better living.
But she did not receive them. Her coming to the table was greeted with an ominous silence, for each one was conscious of thoughts so greatly to her prejudice that they scarcely wished to meet her eye. Mrs. Mayhew looked excessively worried and anxious. Stanton was flushed and angry. The artist was icy as he only knew how to be when he deemed there was sufficient occasion; and in his opinion, the presence of the prospective and willing bride of the man who had attempted his life, and, what was far worse, insulted the woman he most honored, was occasion, indeed.
From time to time he gave her a cold, curious glance, as one might look at some strange, abnormal thing for which there is no accounting; but his slight scrutiny was no longer furtive. He looked at her openly as he would at an OBJECT, and not at a woman whose feelings he would not wound for the world. His thought was: "A creature akin to Sibley deserves no consideration, and can put in no just claim for delicacy."
Indeed he felt a peculiar vindictiveness towards her to-night, because she had so thwarted him, and was about to carry her extraordinary dower of beauty to the moral slough that seemingly awaited her. Therefore, his glance swept carelessly over her with a cold indifference that chilled her very soul.
But these transient glances caught enough to trouble him with a vague uneasiness. Although he was steeled against her by prejudice and anger, something in her appearance so pleaded in her favor that misgivings would arise. Once he thought she met his eyes with something like an appeal in her own, but he would not look long enough to be sure. A moment later he was vexed with himself that he had not.
The silence or the forced remarks at the table were equally oppressive, and Ida immediately felt that she was the cause of the restraint. She was about to leave the table in order to relieve them of her presence, when Miss Burton unexpectedly entered and took her chair, which hitherto had been vacant. She was a little pale and wan, but this only made her look the more interesting, and both Stanton and Van Berg welcomed her as they would the sunshine after a dreary storm. Even Mrs. Mayhew seemed to find a wonderful relief in her coming, and added her voluble congratulations.
"I have had nervous headaches myself, and know how to sympathize with you," she concluded.
"She does not know how to sympathize with me," sighed her daughter.
The sigh caught Van Berg's attention, and he was surprised to see that the maiden's eyes were full of tears. She bowed her head a moment to hide them, and then abruptly left the table and the room.
The artist's misgivings ended in something like compunction, as he thought: "Her tears are caused by the contrast between the icy reception we gave her, and the cordial welcome we have just given Miss Burton. Confound it all! I wish I knew the exact truth, or that she would leave for parts unknown where I could never see her again."
Miss Burton glanced wistfully after the retreating maiden, but no explanation was offered. Then, as if feeling that she had lost a day's opportunity for diffusing sunshine, she became more genial and brilliant than Van Berg had ever known her to be. They lingered long at the table; Mr. Burleigh and others joined them. Their laughter rang out and up to the dusky room in which poor Ida was sobbing,
"I wish I were dead and out of every one's way."
Van Berg laughed with the others, but never for a moment did he lose the uneasy consciousness that he might possibly be misjudging Ida Mayhew. Although Mr. Burleigh's portly form occupied her chair, it did not prevent him from seeing a pale tearful face that was far too beautiful, far too free from all gross and sensual elements, to harmonize with the character he was supposing her to possess. He re-called what she had said about the "fragrance" of the rose-bud he had torn and tossed away, rising to him like "a low, timid appeal for mercy." Had she shyly and timidly appealed to him for a kinder judgement that evening, and had he been too blind and prejudiced to see anything save the stains left by Sibley's name? If she proposed to go to Sibley, why was she not like him in manner? It was strange that one akin to such a fellow should fasten wild flowers on her bosom, and still more strange that they should be so becoming.
The cool and sagacious Van Berg, who so prided himself on his correct judgment, was decidedly perplexed and perturbed.
Chapter XXXV. Desperately Wounded.
Stanton basked in Miss Burton's smiles until a significant look from Mrs. Mayhew reminded him of his disagreeable task, for the performance of which there seemed a greater urgency than ever. Ida's rather precipitate withdrawal from the supper-room was another proof in their eyes that some mischief was brewing.
He listened at her door for a moment, and could not fail to hear the stifled sound of her passionate grief; then knocked, but there was no response.
"Ida," he said, in a kinder tone than usual, "I want to see you."
She tried to quiet her sobbing, and after a moment faltered: "You had better leave me to myself."
"No, I must see you," he said kindly but firmly. "I have something to say to you."
The poor girl was so lonely and heart-broken, that she was ready for the least ray of comfort. She now saw that she was ignorant and exceedingly faulty. She was ready to admit the fact that she had acted very foolishly and unwisely, and that circumstances were against her. Ill-omened circumstances have brought to condemnation and death innocent men. Ida would not now claim that she was innocent of blame, but events had seemed so unfortunate of late, that she was half ready to think that some vindictive hand was shaping them.