But she did not feel that she was now worse than she had been. On the contrary, she had longings for a better life and a broader culture such as she had never experienced before. The artist's eyes, in searching for her woman's soul, revealed to her that she had been a fool; but now she would gladly become a woman if some one would only point out the way.
"Mother and Ik might learn that I am not wholly bad if they would only take the trouble to find out," she murmured. "Ik used to be kind-hearted, and I thought he cared a little for me, in spite of our sparing. Why is he so hard on me of late? Why can't he believe that I am just as capable of detesting Sibley as he is? Perhaps he does mean to say a kind word, and give me a chance to explain."
These thoughts passed through her mind as she lighted the gas and bathed her face, that she might, to some extent, remove the evidences of grief.
Stanton misunderstood her wholly. The new Ida, that deep feeling and recent events were developing, was unknown to him, and he had been too preoccupied to see the changes, even had they been more apparent. He did feel a sort f commiseration for her evident suffering, for he was too kind-hearted not to sympathize even when he believed pain to be well-deserved. But he thought he must still deal with her as a wayward, passionate child, as he had in the past, when she cried till she obtained what she wished, right or wrong. He now believed that she was as fully bent on carrying out her own unreasonable will, but remembered that she was no longer a child, and might be guilty of folly that society would not forgive as childish. Therefore he wished to see her face, and was disposed to be wary and observant.
He gave her a quick, keen glance as he entered and then said:
"What's the matter, Ida? Why do you sit here in the shadows? It's as dark as a pocket;" and he turned the gas higher.
She did not answer, but sat down with her face averted from him and the light. "He has come here as a spy, and not as a comforter," she thought.
He looked at her a moment, mistook her silence as an expression of the settled obstinacy of her purpose.
"Well, Ida," he said, a little irritably, "I know you of old. I suppose you will have your own way as usual. If we must submit, why then we must; but you can't expect us to do so with any grace. If you won't give up this Sibley, for heaven's sake let your mother arrange the matter after the fashion of the day! Out of regard for your family, go through all the regular formalities."
She started violently and then leaned back in her chair as if she were faint, and half stunned by a blow. He regarded her manner as evidence of guilt, or, at least, of proposed criminal imprudence on her part, and went on still more plainly:
"If you can't exist without Sibley—why, marry him; but see to it that there is a plenty of priest, altar, and service; for you know, or you ought to, that he's a man who can't be trusted a hair's breadth."
She averted her face still farther, and said in a low constrained tone:
"My family, then, consent that I should marry Mr. Sibley?"
"No; we submit to the marriage as an odious necessity, on condition that you put the whole matter into your mother's hands and allow her to arrange everything according to society's requirements."
"Please let me understand you," she said in a lower voice. "My family offer to submit to the marriage as a dire necessity lest my relations with Mr. Sibley cover them with a deeper shame?"
"Well, in plain English, yes."
"It is indeed extraordinarily plain English—brutally plain. And does—does Mr. Van Berg share in your estimate of me?"
Her manner and words began to puzzle Stanton, and he remembered the artist's question—"Are you absolutely sure that Sibley is the cause of her trouble?" He thought that perhaps it might be good policy to contrast the two men.
"To be frank," he replied, "I think Mr. Van Berg has both wished and tried to think well of you. He admired your beauty immensely, and sought to find something in your character that corresponded with it. Even after your studied rudeness to him, your open preference of Sibley's society to his, and your remark explaining your course, 'congenial society or none at all'" (Ida fairly groaned as he recalled her folly), "he tried to treat you politely. That you should refuse the society of a gentleman like my friend for the sake of such a low fellow as Sibley, is to us all a disgusting and fathomless mystery. The belief that you could throw yourself and your rare beauty into this abominable slough, was so revolting to Van Berg, that he never would wholly accept of it until to-day."
She rose to her feet and turned upon him. Her eyes were fairly blazing with indignation, and her face was white and terrible from her anger. In tones such as he had never heard any woman use before, she said:
"But to-day you have succeeded in satisfying him that this is not only possible, but the most natural thing for me to do. You have told him that my family will submit to my marriage with a loathsome wretch, who got drunk in the presence of ladies, insulted an orphan girl, and attempted murder—and all in one Sunday afternoon. I suppose you thought me captivated, and carried away by such a burst and blaze of villainy; and so my high-toned family explain to the faultless and aristocratic Mr. Van Berg that they will submit to an odious marriage lest I clandestinely follow the scoundrel who was very properly driven away, like the base cur he is. This is why you received me to-night as if I were a pestilence. This is why I was treated at the table as if I were a death's head. This is why your perfect friend looked towards me as if my chair were vacant. He refused even to recognize the existence of such a loathsome thing as my family explain to him that I am. Great heaven! may I never live to receive a deeper humiliation than this!"
"But, Ida," cried Stanton, deeply alarmed and agitated by her manner, "how else could we explain your action and your reckless words to your mother?"
"Oh, I admit that circumstances are against me, but there is no excuse for this outrage! I don't know what I did say to mother. I've been too wretched and discouraged to remember. She IS my mother, and I'll say nothing against her, though, heaven knows, she has been a strange mother to me. Would to God I had a father that I could go to, or a brother! But it seems I have not a friend in the great, scornful world. Don't interrupt me. Words count for nothing now, and mine least of all. If you were all ready to believe me capable of what you have plainly intimated, you need something stronger than words to convince you to the contrary. Of one thing I shall make sure—you and your faithless friend shall never have the chance to insult me again. I wish you to leave my room."
"Oh come, Ida, listen to reason," Stanton began coaxingly.
"I admitted you," she interrupted with a repellant gesture, "in the hope of receiving a little kindness, for which I was famishing, but I would rather you had stabbed me than have said what you have. Hush, not a word more. The brutal wrong has been done. Will you not go? This is my private apartment. I command you to leave it; and if you will not obey I will summon Mr. Burleigh;" and she placed her hand on the bell.
Her manner was at once so commanding and threatening that Stanton, with a gesture of deprecation and protest, silently obeyed.
He was so surprised and unnerved by the interview in which the maiden had turned upon him with a fiery indignation that was almost volcanic, that he wished to think the affair all over and regain his composure before meeting any one. Clearly they had failed to understand Ida of late, and had misjudged her utterly. And yet, guided by appearances, he felt that they could scarcely have come to any other conclusion.
Now that he had been jostled out of his preoccupation, he began to realize that Ida had not appeared of late like the frivolous girl that had accompanied him to the country. Changes were taking place in her as well as in himself, "but not from the same cause," he thought. "After her words and manner to-night, I cannot doubt that Sibley has disgusted her as well as the rest of us, although she had a strange way of showing it. It cannot be that a woman would speak of a man for whom she had any regard, as Ida did of the wretch with whom we were associating her; and as for Van Berg, she has taken no pains to conceal her strong dislike for him from the first day of their meeting. I can't think of anyone else at present (although there might be a score) who is disturbing the shallow waters of her mind.
"I'm inclined to think that she is deeply mortified at the false position in which Sibley has placed her, and is too proud to make explanations. It may be also that she is realizing more fully the disgrace of her father's course, and it is also possible that she is waking up to a sense of her own deficiencies. Although she could not fail to dislike such people as Jennie Burton and Van Berg, she would be apt to contrast herself with them and the impression which she and they made on society. Confound it all! I wish I had not taken it for granted that she was pining for Sibley and ready to throw herself away for his sake. It has placed me in a deucedly awkward position. I doubt if she ever fully forgives me, and I can't blame her if she doesn't."
"Well?" said Mrs. Mayhew, as Stanton moodily approached her.
"Come with me," he said. When they were alone he prefaced his story with the irritable remark:
"It's a pity you can't understand your daughter better. She detests Sibley."
"Thank heaven for that," exclaimed the mother.
"I should be more inclined to thank both heaven and yourself if you had discovered the fact before sending me on such an intensely disagreeable mission. You must manage your daughter yourself hereafter, for she'll never take anything more from me;" and he told her substantially the nature of his interview, and his surmises as to the real causes of her trouble.
"I think you are right," said Mrs. Mayhew, whose impressions were as changeable as superficial; "and I'm excessively glad to think so. With her beauty, Ida can, in spite of her father, make a brilliant match, in every sense of the word;" and with the prospect of this supreme consummation of life regained, the wife and mother gave a sigh of great relief.
"But she's in an awful mood, I can tell you," said Stanton, dubiously. "I never knew a woman to look and speak as she did to-night. If you don't manage better she'll make us trouble yet."
"Oh, I'm used to Ida's tantrums. They don't last. Nothing does with her. Time and another admirer will bring her around."
"Well, you ought to know," said Stanton with a shrug; "but I retire from the management. I can't help saying, however, that something in her looks and words makes me uneasy. I regret exceedingly I spoke as I did, and shall apologize at the first opportunity."
"You'll have that in the morning. Things are so much better than I feared that I am greatly relieved. She'll come around now if nothing more is said. Roiled water always settles when kept quiet;" and Mrs. Mayhew returned to the parlor in much better spirits.
Stanton followed his aunt and joined a small group that had gathered around Miss Burton. Van Berg gave him a quick, questioning look, but gathered the impression only that he had been subjected to a very painful interview.
"She has evidently realized his worst fears," he thought; "curses on her!" and his face grew fairly black for a moment with anger and disgust.
But Jennie Burton's silver tongue soon charmed away the evil spirits from both the young men.
She had fine conversation powers, and her keen intuition and her controlling passion to give pleasure enabled her to detect and draw out the best thoughts of others. Her evident sympathy put every one at ease, and gave people the power of such happy expression that they were surprised at themselves, and led to believe that they not only received but gave something better than average. Therefore, under the magic of her good-will, both eyes and minds kindled, and even common-place persons became almost brilliant and eloquent.
Stanton's was the only clouded face in her circle that evening; and true to her instinct, she set about banishing his trouble, whatever it might be—an easy task with her power over him.
Since it daily became more evident to her that she must wound his vanity, and perhaps his heart a little, she tried to make amends by showing him such public consideration as might rob his disappointment of humiliation and bitterness.
Stanton, therefore, soon forgot Ida's desperate face, and was enjoying himself at his best.
Yet Ida's face but faintly revealed her heart. It seemed that the end had now come in very truth, and she was conscious chiefly of a wild impulse to escape from her shame and suffering. There was also a bitter sense of wrong and a wish to retaliate.
"I'll teach them all a lesson," she muttered, as she paced her room swiftly to and fro. "This proud artist thinks he can look at me as if I were empty air; that he can forget me as he has the rose-bud he tossed away. I will insure that he looks at me once with a face as white as mine will then be, and that he remembers me to his dying day."
After becoming more calm, and as if acting under a sudden impulse, she hastily made a simple but singular toilet.
When completed, her mirror reflected a plain, close-fitting, black gown, which left her neck and arms bare. Around her white throat she placed a black velvet band, and joined it by a small jet poniard studded with diamonds. Her sunny hair was wound into a severely simple coil, and also fastened with a larger poniard, from the haft and guard of which glistened diamonds of peculiar brilliancy. She took off all her rings, and wore no other ornaments. Then taking from her table a book, bearing conspicuously as its title the word "Misjudged," she went down to the parlor.
She paused a moment on the threshold before she was noticed. Her mother was eagerly gossiping with two or three fashionable women about a scandal that she hoped might cause her own family's short-comings to be forgotten in part. Miss Burton was telling a story in her own inimitable style, and ripples of smiles and laughter eddied from her constantly. Stanton's and Van Berg's faces were aglow with pleasure, and it was plain the speaker absorbed all their thoughts.
"In the same way he will forget me, after I am dead," said the unhappy girl to herself, and the thought sent a colder chill to her heart, and a deeper pallor to her face.
Her gaze seemed to draw his, for he looked up suddenly. On recognizing her his first impulse was to coldly avert his eyes, but in a second her unusual appearance riveted his attention. She saw the impulse, however, and would not look towards him again. She entered as quietly and as unexpectedly as a ghost, and the people seemed as much surprised and perplexed as if she were a ghost.
She took a seat somewhat apart from all others, and apparently commenced reading. She was not so far away but that Van Berg could decipher the title, "Misjudged," and having made out the significant word, its letters grew luminous like the diamonds in her hair.
Never before had he been so impressed by her beauty, and yet there was an element in it which made him shiver with a dread he could not explain to himself. He was surprised and shocked to find how pale and wan her face had become, but in every severe marble curve of her features he saw the word, "Misjudged." He could scarcely recognize her as the blooming girl that he had first seen in the concert garden. Suffering, trouble of mind, was evidently the dark magician that was thus transforming her; but why did she suffer so deeply? As she sat there before him, not only his deeper instincts, but his reason refused almost indignantly to associate her any longer with Sibley. There was a time when she seemed akin to him; but now she suggested deep trouble, despair, death even, rather than a gross "bon vivant." Was she ill! Yes, evidently, but he doubted if her malady had physical causes.
"What a very strange toilet she has made!" he thought; "simple and plain to the last degree, and yet singularly effective and striking. Her fingers were once loaded with rings, but she has taken them all off, and now her hands are as perfect as her features. She does not wear a single ornament, save those ominous poniards. Does she mean to signify by these that she is wounded, or that she proposes to inflict wounds? Ye gods! how strangely, terribly, exasperatingly beautiful she is! I have certainly both misjudged and misunderstood her."
These thoughts passed through his mind as he stole an occasional glance at their object, who sat with her profile towards him almost in the line of his vision. At the same time he was apparently listening to a prosy and interminable story from one of the group of which he was a member. They had been telling anecdotes of travel, and the last speaker's experience was, like his journey, long and uninteresting.
Van Berg soon observed that many others besides himself were observing Miss Mayhew. She seemed to fascinate, perplex, and trouble all who looked towards her. The singular beauty and striking toilet might account, in part, for the lingering glances, but not for the perplexity and uneasiness they caused. If Ida had been dead her features could not have been more colorless; and they had a stern, hard, desperate expression that was sadly out of harmony with what should be the appearance of a happy young girl.
Her presence seemed to cause an increasing chill and restraint. The healthful and normal minds of those about her grew vaguely conscious of another mind that had been deeply moved, shaken to its foundations, and so had become almost abnormal and dangerous in its impulses.
There is a very general tendency both to observe and to shrink from that which is unnatural, and if the departure from what is customary is shown in unexpected and unusual mental action, the stronger become the uneasiness and dread in those who witness it. All who saw Ida recognized that she was not only unlike herself, but unlike any one in an ordinary state of mind, and people who were intimate looked at each other significantly, as if to ask—"What is the matter with Miss Mayhew? What is the matter with us all?"
Were it not that the maiden occasionally turned a leaf, in order to keep up the illusion that she was reading, she might have been a statue, so motionless was her form, and so pallid her face. But she felt that she was perplexing and troubling those who had wounded her, and the consciousness gave secret satisfaction. Her past experience taught her to appreciate stage effect, and, since she meditated a tragedy, she proposed that everything should be as tragic and blood-curdling as possible.
There is usually but a short step between high tragedy and painful absurdity, which exasperates us while we laugh at it; but poor Ida's thoughts were so desperately dark and despairing, and her exquisite features, made almost transparent by grief and fasting, so perfectly interpreted her unfeigned wretchedness, that even those who knew her but slightly were touched and troubled in a way that they could not explain even to themselves.
Miss Burton was evidently meditating how she could approach Ida, who seemed encased in a repellant atmosphere. Van Berg saw that Stanton looked anxious and perplexed, and that Mrs. Mayhew was exceedingly worried and annoyed. At last he hastily approached her daughter and whispered,
"For heaven's sake, Ida, what's the matter? You look as if you had gone into mourning."
The young lady glanced coldly up and said stonily:
"You have at least taught me to dress appropriately."
"Nonsense," continued the mother, in a low, irritable tone. "Why can't you cheer up and act like other people? Don't you see you're giving us all the shivers?"
She slowly swept the room with her eyes, and saw that not a few curious glances were directed towards her. Then, with bowed head, she glided from the room without a word.
Miss Burton caught up with her in the hall-way. "You are ill, Miss Mayhew," she said, with gentle solicitude.
"Yes," Ida replied, in the same stony, repellant manner; "but you are not a physician, Miss Burton. Good evening." And she went swiftly up to her own room, as if determined to speak with no one else that evening.
Chapter XXXVI. Temptation's Voice
Van Berg had been so near that he could not help overhearing Mrs. Mayhew's words which had led to the abrupt and silent departure of her daughter from the parlor.
"There is some misunderstanding here," he thought, "whose effects are becoming outrageously cruel. The poor girl was driven away from the supper-table, and now she is driven out of the parlor. She has been an anomaly from the moment I saw her, and I now mean to fathom the mystery. Her exquisite face indicates that she is almost desperate from some kind of trouble. She is becoming ill—she is wasting under it. Sibley would be a fatal malady to any respectable girl, but I must give up all pretence of skill at diagnosis if he is the cause; for were her heart set on him why the mischief can't she go to him with all her old reckless flippancy? There is no need of any elopement, as Ik fears. She can easily compel her mother to go to the city, and her father would have no power to prevent the alliance, were she bent upon it. I believe her family misunderstand and are wronging her, and I may have occasion to go down on my knees myself, metaphorically, and ask her pardon for my superior airs."
These and kindred other thoughts passed through his mind as he slowly paced up and down a side piazza which he often sought when he wished to be alone. Stanton, having lost Miss Burton for the evening, soon joined him, and threw himself dejectedly into a chair.
"Van," he said, "I used to be rather self-complacent. I thought I had learned to take life so philosophically that I should have a good time as long as my health lasted. But to-night I feel as if life were a horribly heavy burden which I, an overladen jackass, must carry for many a weary day. How little we know what we are and what is before us! I've been a fool; I am a fool!"
"Well, Ik," replied Van Berg with a shrug, "I imagine there is a pair of us. My reason—all that's decent in me—refuses to regard Sibley as the cause of your cousin's most evident distress. For heaven's sake don't confirm your words of this afternoon, or I shall feel like taking the first train, in order to escape from the most exasperating paradox that ever contradicted a man's senses."
"Van, you are right. I am mortified with myself beyond measure, and I am bitterly ashamed that my aunt, her own mother, should have so grossly misjudged her. Sibley, no doubt, IS the occasion of her trouble in part, for she seems fairly to writhe under the false position in which he has placed her by leading every one to associate her name with his; but I now believe that she loathes and detests him more than you or I can. Certainly no woman could speak of a man in harsher or more scathing terms than she spoke of him to-night. Well, to sum up the whole miserable trough, by taking her mother's view for granted, I made such a mess of it that I doubt if she ever speaks civilly to either of us again."
"Why! was my name mentioned?" asked Van Berg, quickly.
"Yes, confound it all! When things are going wrong there is a miserable fatality about them, and the worst always happens. She asked me point-blank if you shared my estimate of her, and I suppose got the impression you did."
"Well really, Stanton," said Van Berg, with some irritation, "I think you must have been unfortunate in your language."
"Worse than unfortunate. The whole blunder is unpardonable. Still, do me justice. I could not answer her question with a bold lie. And what would have been its use? How could you explain your bearing towards her at the supper table? Your manner would have frozen Jezebel herself."
"I was an infernal fool," groaned Van Berg.
"It is due to us both that I should say I told her you had tried to form a good opinion of her, and very reluctantly received the view her mother suggested. I said, in effect, you wished to think well of her, although she had treated you so badly."
"Treated me badly! I have treated her a thousandfold worse. She, at least, has never insulted me, and I can never forgive myself for the insult I have offered her.
"Well, I hope to find her in the mood to accept an apology in the morning," said Stanton.
"I'm in a confoundedly awkward position to apologize," growled Van Berg. "Any reference to such an affair will be like another insult;" and the friends parted in an unsatisfactory state of mind towards each other, and especially towards themselves.
But that was a sad and memorable night to Ida Mayhew. She felt that it might be her last on earth; for her dark purpose was rapidly taking definite form.
she was passing into that unhealthful condition of mental excitement, in which the salutary restraints of the physical nature lose their power. In the place of drowsiness and weariness, she began to experience an unnatural exaltation which would make any reckless folly possible, if it took the guise of sublime and tragic action.
Few realize to what degree the mind can become warped and disordered, even with a brief time, by trouble and the violation of the laws of health; and some, by education and temperament, are peculiarly predisposed to abnormal conditions. Science has taught men how to build ships with water-tight compartments, so that if disaster crushes in on one side, the other parts may save from sinking. There are fortunate people who are built on the same safe principle. They have cultivated minds, and varied resources in artistic and scientific pursuits. Above all else, they may have faith in God and a better life to come; such possessions are like the compartments of a modern ship. Few disasters can destroy them all, and in the loss of one or more the soul is kept afloat by the others.
But it would seem that poor Ida's character had been constructed with fatal simplicity, and when the cold waves of trouble rushed in there was nothing to prevent her from sinking beneath them like a stone. Her mind was uncultivated, and art, science, literature offered her as yet no resources, no pursuits. She had a woman's heart that might have been filled with sustaining love, but in its place had come a sudden and icy flood of disappointment and despair. She loved, with all the passion and simplicity of a narrow, yet earnest nature, the man who had awakened the woman within her, and he, she believed, would never give her aught in return, save contempt. She naturally thought that she had been degraded in his estimation beyond all ordinary means of redemption; therefore, in her desperation and despair, she was ready to take an extraordinary method of compelling at least his respect.
Moreover, Ida was impatient and impetuous by nature. She had a large capacity for action, but little for endurance. It would be almost impossible for her to reach woman's loftiest heroism, and sit "like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief." It would be her disposition rather to rush forward, and dash herself against an adverse fate, meeting it even more than half way. All the influences of her life had tended to develop imperiousness, willfulness, and now her impulse was to enter a protest against her hard lot that was as passionate and reckless as it was impotent.
Apart from her supreme wish to fill Van Berg with regret, and awaken in him something like respect, the thought of dragging on a wretched existence through the indefinite years to come was intolerable. The color had utterly faded out of life, and left it bald and repulsive to the last degree.
Fashionable dissipation promised her nothing. She had often tasted this, to the utmost limit of propriety, and was well aware that the gay whirl had nothing new to offer, unless she plunged into the mad excitement of a life which is as brief as it is vile. It was to her credit that death seemed preferable to this. It was largely due to her defective training and limited experience, that a useful, innocent life, even though it promised to be devoid of happiness, was so utterly repulsive that she was ready to throw it away in impatient disgust.
As yet she was incapable of Jennie Burton's divine philosophy of "pleasing not" herself. he who "gave his life for others" was but a name at the pronunciation of which, in the Service, she was accustomed to bow profoundly, but to whom, in her heart, she had never bowed or offered a genuine prayer. Religion seemed to her a sort of fashion which differed with the tastes of different people. She was a practical atheist.
It is a fearful thing to permit a child to grow up ignorant of God, and of the sacred principles of duty which should be inwrought in the conscience, and enforced by the most vital considerations of well-being, both for this world and the world to come.
But Ida Mayhew thought not of God or duty, but only of her thwarted, unhappy life, from which she shrank weakly and selfishly, assuring herself that she could not and would not endure it. In her father she saw only increasing humiliation; in her mother, one for whom she had but little affection and less respect, and who would of necessity irritate the wounds that time might slowly heal, could she live in an atmosphere of delicate, unspoken sympathy; in herself, one whom she now believed to be so ignorant and faulty that the man she loved had turned away in disgust on finding her out. If all this were not bad enough, unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances, even more than her own folly, had brought about a humiliation from which she felt she could never recover. In her blind, desperate effort to hide her passion from the man she loved, she had made it appear that she was infatuated with the man she loathed, and who had shown himself such a contemptible villain that her association with him was the scandal of the house. If her own mother and cousin could believe that she was ready to throw herself away for the sake of such a wretch, what must the people of the hotel think? What kind of a story would go abroad among her acquaintances in the city? She fairly cringed and writhed at the thought of it all.
It seemed to the tortured and morbidly excited girl that there was but one way out of her troubles, and dark and dreadful as was that path, she thought it could lead to nothing so painful as that from which she would escape.
But after all, her chief incentive to the fatal act was the hope of securing Van Berg's respect, and of implanting herself in his heart as an undying memory, even though a sad and terrible one. With her ideas of the fitness of things this would be a strong temptation at best; but the present conditions of her life, as we have seen, so far from restraining, added greatly to the temptation.
And, as has been said, while the act seemed a stern and dreadful alternative to worse evils, it was not revolting to her. She had seen so many of her favorite heroines in fiction and actresses on the stage "shuffle off the mortal coil" with the most appropriate expressions and in the most becoming toilets and attitudes, that her perverted and melodramatic taste led her to believe that Van Berg would regard her crime as a sublime vindication of her honor.
Her only task now, therefore, was to frame a letter that would best accomplish this end, and at the same time wring his soul with unavailing regret.
But she was too sincere and sad to write diffusely and vaguely. After a few moments' thought she rapidly traced the following lines:
"Mr. Van Berg:
"You first saw me at a concert, and your judgement of me was correct, though severe. Your eyes have since been very cold and critical. I have followed your exploring glances, and have found that I am, indeed, ignorant and imperfect—that I was like the worm-eaten rose bud that you tossed contemptuously down where it would be trampled under foot. Seldom is that unfortunate little emblem of myself out of my thoughts. If I dared to appeal to God I would say that he knows that I would have tried to bloom into a better life, even though imperfectly, if some one had only thought it worth while to show me how. It is too late now. Like my counterpart, that you threw away, I shall soon be forgotten in the dust.
"Although your estimate has been so harsh, I will not dispute it. Circumstances have been against me from the first, and my own folly has added whatever was wanting to confirm your unfavorable opinion. But to-day your thoughts wronged me cruelly. You have slain all hope and self-respect. I do not feel that I can live after seeing an honorable man look at me as you looked this evening. You believed me capable of flying to he man who attempted your life—who insulted and orphan girl. You looked at me, not as a lady, but an object beneath contempt. This is a humiliation that I cannot and will not survive. When you know that i have sought death rather than the villain with whom you are associating me, you may think of me more favorably. Possibly the memory of Ida Mayhew may lead you, when again you see a worm-eaten bud, to kill the destroyer and help the flower to bloom as well as it can. But now, like my emblem, I have lost my one chance.
The night was now far spent. Her mother, having been refused admittance, had fumed and fretted herself to sleep. The house was very still. She opened her window and looked out. Clouds obscured the stars, and it was exceedingly dark.
"The long night to which I'm going will be darker still," sighed the unhappy girl. "Well, I will live one more day. To-morrow I will go out and sit in the sunlight once more. I wish I could go now, for already I seem to feel the chill of death. Oh, how cold I shall be by this time to-morrow night!"
She shuddered as she closed the window.
After pacing her room a few moments, she exclaimed, recklessly,
"I must sleep—I must get through with the time until I bring time to an end," and she dropped a powerful opiate into a glass.
Holding it up for a moment with a smile on her fair young face that was terrible beyond words, she said slowly,
"After all it's only taking a little more, and then—no waking."
Chapter XXXVII. Voices of Nature.
Before retiring, Ida had unfastened her door, so that her mother, finding her sleeping, might leave her undisturbed as late as possible the following day; and the sun was almost in mid-heaven before she began slowly to revive from her lethargy.
But as her stupor departed she became conscious of such acute physical and mental suffering that she almost wished she had carried out her purpose the night before. Her headache was equaled only by her heartache, and her wronged, overtaxed nervous system was jangling with torturing discord. But with the persistence of a simple and positive nature she resolved to carry out the tragic programme that she had already arranged.
She was glad to find herself alone. Her mother, with her usual sagacity, had concluded that she would sleep off her troubles as she often had before, and so left her to herself.
The poor, lost child made some pathetic attempts to put her little house in order. She destroyed all her letters. She arranged her drawers with many sudden rushes of tears as various articles called up memories of earlier and happier days. Among other things she came across a little birthday present that her father had given her when she was but six years of age, and she vividly recalled the happy child she was that day.
"Oh, that I had died then!" she sobbed. "What a wretched failure my life has been! Never was there a fitter emblem than the imperfect flower he threw away. I wish I could find the poor, withered, trampled thing, and that he might find it in my hand with his letter."
She wrote a farewell to her father that was inexpressibly sad, in which she humbly asked his forgiveness, and entreated him, as her dying wish, to cease destroying himself with liquor.
"But it is of no use," she moaned. "He has lost hope and courage like myself, and one can't bear trouble for which there is no remedy. I'm afraid my act will only make him do worse; but I can't help it."
To her mother she wrote merely, "Good-by. Think of me as well as you can till I am forgotten."
Her thoughts of her mother were very bitter, for she felt that she had been neglected as a child, and permitted to grow up so faulty and superficial that she repelled the man her beauty might have aided her in winning; and it was chiefly through her mother that her last bitter and unendurable humiliation had come.
Mrs. Mayhew bustled in from her drive with Stanton, just before dinner, and commenced volubly:
"Glad to see you up and looking so much better." (Ida knew she was almost ghastly pale from the effects of the opiate and her distress, but she recognized her mother's tactics.) "Come now, go down with me and make a good dinner; then a drive this afternoon, to which Ik has invited you, and you will look like your old beautiful self."
"I do not wish to look like my old self," said Ida coldly.
"Who in the world ever looked better?"
"Every one who had a cultivated mind and a clear conscience."
"I declare, Ida, you've changed so since you came to the country that I can't understand you at all."
"Do not try to any longer, mother, for you never will."
"Won't you go down to dinner?"
"I don't wish to, for one thing; and I'm too ill, for another. Send me up something, if it's not too much trouble."
"I'm going to have a doctor see you this very afternoon," said Mrs. Mayhew, emphatically, as she left the room.
To do her justice she did send up a very nice dinner to Ida before eating her own. As far as doctors and dinners were concerned, she could do her whole duty in an emergency.
"Isn't Ida coming down?" whispered Stanton to his aunt.
"No. I can't make her out at all, and she looks dreadfully. You must go for a doctor, right after dinner."
Van Berg could not hear their words, but their ominous looks added greatly to his disquietude. He had been too ill at ease to seek even Miss Burton's society during the morning, and had spent the time in making a sketch of Ida as she stood in the doorway before entering the parlor the previous evening.
But Jennie Burton did not seem to feel or resent his neglect in the slightest degree. Indeed, her thoughts, like his own, were apparently engrossed with the one whose chair had been vacant so often of late, and who, when present, seemed so unlike her former self.
"I fear you daughter is more seriously indisposed than you think," she said anxiously to Mrs. Mayhew.
"I'm going to take Ida in hand," replied the matter-of-fact lady. "She IS ill—far more so than she'll admit. I'm going to have the doctor at once and put her under a course of treatment."
"Curse it all!" thought Van Berg, "that is just the trouble. She has been under a course of treatment that would make any woman ill, save her mother, and I'm inclined to think that I was the veriest quack of them all in my treatment."
"I wish she would let me call upon her this afternoon," said Miss Burton, gently.
"Oh, I think she'll be glad to see you!—at least she ought to be;" but it was too evident that Mrs. Mayhew was at last beginning to grow very anxious, and she made a simpler meal than usual. Stanton in his solicitude, hastened through dinner, and started at once for the physician who usually attended the guests of the house.
Ida, in the meantime, had forced herself to eat a little of the food sent to her, and then informing the woman who had charge of their floor that she was going out for a walk, stole down and out unperceived, and soon gained a secluded path that led into an extensive tract of woodland.
Stanton brought the doctor promptly, but no patient could be found. All that could be learned was that "Miss Mayhew had gone for a walk."
"Her case cannot be very critical," the physician remarked, smilingly; "I will call again."
Stanton and his aunt looked at each other in a way that proved the case was beginning to trouble them seriously.
"She knew the doctor would be here," said Mrs. Mayhew.
"I fear her complaint is one that the doctors can't help, and that she knows it," replied the young man, gloomily. "But you seem to know less about her than any one else. I shall try to find her."
But he did not succeed.
"Miss Burton," said Van Berg, after dinner, "I wish you would call on Miss Mayhew. I think she is greatly in need of a little of your inimitable tact and skill. 'A wounded spirit who can bear?' And in such an emergency, you are the best surgeon I know of. I think some of us wounded her deeply and unpardonably by continuing to associate her with Sibley, after he revealed what an unmitigated rascal he was. Strong as appearances were against her, I feel that I cannot forgive myself that I took anything for granted in a case like that."
"I am glad," she answered, "that you have come to my own conclusion, that Miss Mayhew, with all her faults, is too good a girl to be guilty of a passion for a man like Sibley. If she regards him in any such way as I do, I do not wonder that it has made her ill to be so misjudged. I must plead guilty also to having wronged her in my thoughts. While I try to exercise the broadest charity, my calling, as a teacher, has brought me in contact with many girls that—through immaturity and innate foolishness—are guilty of conduct that taxes one's faith in human nature severely. Goodish sort of girls are sometimes infatuated with very bad men. I suppose it is evident to all that Miss Mayhew's early and, indeed, present influences are sadly against her; but unfortunate as have been her associations of late, I am coming to the belief that, however faulty she may be, she is not naturally either silly or weak. But my acquaintance with her is very slight, and I must confess I do not understand her very well. For some reason she shuns me and has evidently disliked me from the first."
"I don't understand her at all," said Van Berg, in a tone that proved him greatly annoyed with himself. "I have thought that I had sounded the shallow depths of her character several times, and then some new and perplexing phase would present itself, and put me all to sea again. It may seem ludicrous to you that her beauty should irritate me so greatly because of its incongruous associations."
"Not at all," she replied, with a little nod. "I was not long in discovering that you were a pagan, and that beauty was your divinity."
"Correct in all respects save the divinity," he answered promptly; and he would have said more, but she passed into the parlor among the other guests.
Ida found herself too weak and unnerved to walk far, but she discovered a secluded nook into which the sunlight streamed with a grateful warmth; for although the day was warm, she shivered with cold as if the chill in her heart had diffused itself even to her hands and feet. Dense shrubbery hid her from the path along which she saw Stanton pass in his fruitless quest.
For a long time she sat in dreary apathy, almost as motionless as the mossy rock beneath her, and was conscious only of her throbbing forehead and aching heart. Gradually, however, nature's vital touch began to revive her. The sunlight warmed and tranquilized the exquisite form that had been entering its shuddering protest against the chill and corruption of the grave. The south wind, laden with fresh woodland odors, fanned her cheeks, and whispered that there were flowers blooming that she could not see, and that the future also might reveal joys now hidden and unknown, if she would only be patient. Every rustling leaf that fluttered in the gale, but did not fall, called to her with its tiny voice: "Cling to your place, as we do, till the frost of age or the blight of disease brings the end in God's own time and way." A partridge with her brood rustled by along the edge of the forest, and the poor girl imagined she saw in the parent bird, as she led forward her plump little bevy, the pride and complacency of a happy motherhood, which now would never be hers; and from the depths of her woman's heart came nature's protest. Then her heavy eyes were attracted by the sport of two gray squirrels that were racing to the top of one tree, scrambling down another, falling and catching again, and tumbling over each other in their mad excitement. She felt that, at her age, their exuberant life and enjoyment should be a type of her own, but their wild, innocent fun, in contrast with her despair, became so unendurable that she sprang up and frightened them away.
But after she was quiet they soon returned, barking vociferously, and sporting with their old abandon. It was not long since they had left the next in the old hemlock tree, and they were still like Ida, before she had learned that there was anything in the world that could harm her. Other wild creatures flew or scampered by, some stopping to look at her with their bright quick eyes, as if wondering why she was so still and sad. the woods seemed full of joyous midsummer life, and Ida sighed:
"Innocent, happy little things; but if they knew what was in my heart, they would be so frightened they could scarcely creep away to hide."
Then with a sudden rush of passionate grief, she cried:
"Oh, why cannot I life and be happy, too?" and she sobbed till she lay exhausted on the mossy rock.
Whether she had swooned, or from weakness had become unconscious, she did not know, when, considerably later, she roused herself from what seemed like a heavy and unrefreshing sleep. Her dress was damp with dew, the sun had sunk so low as to fill the forest with a sombre shade; the happy life that had sported around her was hushed and hidden, and the wind now sighed mournfully through the trees. Gloom and darkening shadows had taken the place of the light and joyousness she first had seen. In the face and voices of nature, as in those of earthly friends, the changes are often so great that we are tempted to ask in dismay, are they—can they be the same?
She was stiff and cold as she rose from her rocky couch, but she wearily turned her face towards the hotel, muttering, as she plodded heavily along,
"The little people of the woods are happy while they can be, as I was, but the sportsman's gun, or the hawk, or winter's cold, will soon bring to them bitter pain, and death. their brief day will soon be over, as mine is."
"Ah, the sun is sinking behind that cloud," she said, in a low tone, as she came out into the open fields. "I shall not see it again; it will not be able to warm me to-morrow;" and with a slight gesture of farewell, she continued on her way with bowed head.
Chapter XXXVIII. A Good Man Speaks.
As Ida approached the hotel, Van Berg and Stanton saw her, and the latter hastened down the steps to join her.
"Why, Ida!" he exclaimed, "where have you been? I've searched for you high and low."
"You had no right to do so, sir," she said coldly, as she passed on.
"Wait a moment, Ida, please. I wish to speak with you—to ask your pardon—to apologize in the strongest terms."
She would not break again her ominous silence, but continued on with bowed head, up the steps, and through the hall. Stanton, to save appearances before the guests who were near, walked at her side, but her manner chilled and embarrassed him so greatly, that only as she was about to enter her room did he again address her, and now entreatingly:
"Ida, won't you speak to me?"
"No!" was her stern, brief response; and she locked her door against him.
"Van," said Stanton gloomily, "I'd give a year's income if I had not spoken to my cousin as I did last night. She'll never forgive me. It seems as if my words had turned her into ice, she is so cold and calm; and yet her eyes were red with weeping. I have strange misgivings about the girl."
"Yes, Ik," said the artist, gloomily, "we have both made an unpardonable blunder. If Miss Burton cannot thaw her out, I shall not dare to try."
"With her usual perversity," replied Stanton, "she dislikes Miss Burton, and I doubt if she will listen to her."
"I have great faith in her tact and genuine goodwill. It was wonderful how quickly she brought Mr. Mayhew under her genial spells. She has promised to see your cousin this evening."
"I'm sorry," said Stanton, gloomily, "that it should have been at your request rather than mine. But I suppose your wishes are becoming omnipotent with her."
"No, Ik; I regret to say that they weigh with her only as those of a friend," was Van Berg's quiet response.
"Well, well, Van, bear with me, for I'm in a devil of a scrape."
Even Miss Burton's efforts could not brighten the clouded faces that gathered at the supper-table. In truth, her attempts were brief and fitful, for she seemed absorbed in thought herself. She heard Mrs. Mayhew whisper to Stanton,
"If I were a perfect stranger she could not keep me at a greater distance. I can do nothing with her or for her."
To their surprise, Ida quietly walked in and took her place. Her face was very grave and very pale; the traces of her grief were still apparent, and they caused in Van Berg the severest compunction. She was now dressed richly, but plainly and unobtrusively. Her manner was quiet and self-possessed, but there was an expression of desperate trouble in her eyes that soon filled Van Berg with a strong and increasing uneasiness. She returned his bow politely, but distantly. Poor Stanton scarcely dared to look towards her. At supper, on the previous evening, he had taken no pains to conceal his contempt and displeasure; now he was unable to hid his embarrassment and fear. As in the parlor on the previous evening so now again, there was an element in Ida Mayhew's appearance or in herself that caused deep disquietude.
"I'm very glad, Ida, you've changed your mind and come down," began Mrs. Mayhew, volubly.
"I have not changed my mind," she replied, with such sad, stern emphasis that they all involuntarily looked at her for a moment.
Poor Mrs. Mayhew was so quenched and depressed that she did not venture to speak again.
Only Miss Burton was able to maintain her self-possession and tact, and she was intently but unobtrusively studying Miss Mayhew. Her college-life had made her acquainted with so many strange feminine problems that she had the nerve and experience of a veteran, but she could not penetrate the dark mystery in which Ida had now shrouded herself. Resolving, however, that she would not succumb to the chill and restraint that paralyzed the others, she persisted in conversing with her in simple, natural tones.
Ida replied in perfect courtesy and not with unnecessary brevity, but if her words were polished, they were also as cold and hard as ice. Nothing that Miss Burton said could bring the glimmer of a smile athwart her features that were growing so thin and transparent that even an approach to a pleasant thought would have lighted them up with a momentary gleam. Miss Burton found her task a difficult one.
"She affected me as strangely," she afterwards said to Van Berg, "as if a dead maiden were sitting at my side, who had still, by some horrible mystery, the power of speech."
As for Van Berg, he had hitherto supposed that his quiet, well-bred ease would be equal to every social emergency, but he now found himself tongue-tied and embarrassed to the last degree. He could not speak to the woman whom he felt he had so deeply wronged in his thoughts and manner, and who was also well aware of the fact. He felt that he had no right to speak to her until he had first asked and secured her forgiveness. This could not be done in public, and he greatly doubted whether she ever would pardon him. As a chivalric man of honor, he was overwhelmed with a sense of the insult he had unwittingly offered to the maiden opposite him, who now appeared as if mortally wounded. Beyond a few forced remarks to Stanton and Miss Burton, he made a show of eating his supper in silence. But he longed to escape from his present ordeal, and resolved to leave the table as soon as appearances permitted.
One thing in Ida's manner perplexed him greatly. She now looked at him as if he were an object, scrupling not to meet his eye with her strange, unwavering gaze. There was nothing of the haughty indifference which she had manifested the evening before in her occasional glances. She rather looked as one who is trying to fix an object in his memory that he may carry an accurate picture of it away with him.
The thought crossed his mind more than once, "We have wakened our Undine's sleeping mind with a vengeance, but have jostled it so rudely that I fear the frail article is hopelessly shattered."
Miss Burton tried once more to make the conversation general, but her effort ended rather disastrously.
"Mr. Van Berg," she said, "I've been reading an essay this afternoon in which the writer tries to prove that science has done more for humanity than art and religion combined. Now I suppose you would be inclined to take the same ground in regard to art that I ought in respect to religion."
Van Berg was about to reply, when his attention was caught by a vivid gleam in the face of Ida, who looked up as if she wished to speak.
"I think Miss Mayhew has an opinion on this subject," he said, with a bow.
She looked steadily at him as she replied promptly, "I have a decided opinion, though I base it on such poor and narrow grounds as personal experience. I think art is by far the most potent. It has accomplished for me much more than science or religion ever did, or could."
"What has it done for you, Miss Mayhew?" he asked, dreading the answer.
"It has filled me with despair," she replied with a glance and tone which he never afterwards forgot. Then, with the same cold, quiet manner in which she had come, she left the table.
Van Berg turned very pale, for he at once understood her reference to the emblematic rose-bud he had thrown away, and his remark, "Art can tolerate no such imperfection."
Her words and manner hopelessly perplexed the others, but Van Berg believed he had found light on the problem that had hitherto baffled him, but so far from being reassured, he had never been at such bitter odds with himself before.
He also soon after left the table, hoping to find an opportunity to express his regret that he had been so harsh by prejudice; but Miss Mayhew was not to be found.
"Can it be," he thought, as he strode off into the shrubbery, "that I have been blind to the very effects that I hoped to cause? Can it be that she has been made to feel her imperfection so keenly, and in such a way as to create only utter discouragement? She evidently understands the worm-eaten rose-bud I tossed away to be the emblem of herself. Oh, the curse of Phariseeism—the 'holier than thou' business, whatever form it takes. It has made an egregious fool of me."
"But her relations with Sibley, confound it all! I can't understand them. Why did she associate with him so constantly, and then say, 'Congenial society, or none at all'? Seems to me she ought to have seen what he was before he showed his cloven feet so plainly. Well, perhaps the most rational as well as charitable explanation is that her eyes were opened to see him in his true colors, as well as herself. Had Titania's eyes been disenchanted when she was fondling the immortal Weaver, she might have perished with disgust; and it is scarcely strange that Miss Mayhew should be ill on finding that she was infatuated with a man who was both ass and villain. She evidently sees things now as they are, and since her vision has become so good, I am very sorry I do not appear to better advantage. People who stalk along through life with elevated noses, are not pleasing or edifying spectacles."
His disquietude soon caused him to return to the hotel, in hopes of seeing the object of his thoughts.
He had hardly reached the piazza before Ida appeared, dressed in a plain walking suit. She hesitated a moment in the door-way as if undecided in her course. A party of gay young people were just starting on a stroll to a neighboring village. With apparent hesitancy, she said to one of the young girls:
"I have an errand to the village; may I walk with you for company?"
"Oh, certainly," replied the girl, but evidently not welcoming this addition to their party, and Ida went away with them, but not as one of them, isolated more, however, by her own manner than by the bearing of her companions.
The explanation of her action was this: on opening her drawer after returning to her room, she found, with a sense of dismay—as if a misfortune had occurred instead of an incident that gave a chance for better thought—that in taking the opiate the night before, she had replaced the cork in the phial insecurely, and that nearly all its contents had oozed away. Some might have regarded this incident as an omen or a providential interference; but Ida was neither superstitious nor speculative in her nature; she was positive and willful, rather, and the current of her purposes always flowed strongly, though it might be in narrow channels.
"There is nothing left for me to do," she muttered, "but go to the village. I don't know whether Mr. Burleigh has laudanum, and my asking for it might excite suspicion."
It was terrible to see her fair young face grow hard like marble in her stern determination to carry out her awful design, and the impress of this remorseless purpose filled Van Berg with so great foreboding that he could not resist the impulse to follow the desperate girl. If harm should come to her through the harshness of others, and as he now feared, more especially his own, he would never forgive himself.
Mrs. Mayhew and Stanton did not see her departure—they were in anxious consultation in one of the small private parlors, and the artist, to disarm suspicion of his design, entered the hotel, and passed out again by a side door, from which he took a short-cut across the field intending to watch Ida, without being himself observed.
Having found some dense copse-wood by the road-side, and near to the village, he sat down and waited. The gay, chattering party soon passed, Ida walking by herself on the opposite side of the road, with head bowed as if wholly wrapped in her own thoughts. Her unhappy face appealed to his sympathy even more than her graceful carriage to his sense of beauty, and he longed to join her and make such amends as were possible.
He now followed at too great a distance for recognition in the deepening twilight, and saw the young people enter a confectionery shop, but observed, with increased uneasiness, that Miss Mayhew parted from them and went to an adjacent drug-store. She soon joined the party again, however, and they all apparently started homeward.
Van Berg at once determined to go to this drug-store and learn, if possible, if there were anything to confirm the horrible suspicion that crossed his mind. He remembered that despair and desperate deeds often went together, and the daily press had taught him how many people, with warped and ungoverned moral natures, place their troubles beyond remedy by the supreme folly of self-destruction.
By a considerable detour through a side street, he reached the store unperceived, and found the druggist rather disquieted himself.
"Are you staying at Burleigh's?" he asked.
"I am," Van Berg replied.
"Do you know a young lady boarding there with large dark eyes and auburn hair?"
"Is there—is there anything wrong about her?"
"Why should there be? Why do you ask?"
"She has just been in here, and she looked sick and strangely, and all she wanted was a large phial of laudanum. Somehow her looks and purchase have made me uneasy. I never saw so white a face in my life, and she seemed weak and very tired. If she's sick, how comes it she's walking to the village? Besides, she seemed to have very little to do with the party she joined after leaving here."
Van Berg controlled himself only by a powerful effort, and was very glad that the brim of his soft hat concealed the pallor of his own face. He managed to say quietly:
"The young lady you describe has not been well, and has probably found the walk longer and more wearisome than she supposed. As for the laudanum, that's used in many ways. Some cigars, if you please—thank you. I'll join the lady and see that she reaches home safely," and he hastily left the store and walked swiftly away.
"He wouldn't go as fast as that if he wasn't a little uneasy, too," muttered the druggist, whose dearth of business gave him abundant leisure to see all that was going on, and to imagine much more.
Van Berg determined to overtake Ida before she reached the hotel, and his strides were as long and swift as mortal dread could make them.
In the meantime, while the artist was making the detour necessary to reach the drug-store without meeting Ida, she and her companions had started homeward. As they approached a church on the outskirts of the village, the bell in the steeple commenced tolling.
"What's that for?" asked a young man of the party of a plain, farmer-like appearing man, who was just about to enter.
"For prayer-meetin'," was the good-natured reply. "It wouldn't hurt you to come to it;" and the speaker passed into the lecture-room.
"I call this frivolous assemblage to order," cried the youth, turning around to his companions. "If any one of our number has ever attended a prayer-meeting, let him hold up his right hand. I use the masculine pronoun, because the man always embraces the woman—when he gets a chance."
No hands were held up.
"Heathen, every mother's son of us," cried the first speaker. "The daughters are angels, of course, and don't need to go to prayer-meetin', as he of the cowhide sandals just termed it. But for the novelty of the thing, and for the want of something better to do, I move that we all go to-night. If it should be borous, why, we can come out."
The proposition pleased the fancy of the party, and with gay words and laughter that scarcely ceased at the vestibule, they entered the place of prayer and lighted down among the sober-visaged, soberly-dressed worshippers like a flock of tropical birds.
Ida reluctantly followed them. At first she half decided to walk home alone, but feared to do so. She who had resolved on facing the "King of Terrors" shrank, with a woman's instinct, from a lonely walk in the starlight.
She sat in dreary preoccupation a little apart from the others and paid no more heed to the opening services than to their ill-concealed merriment.
the minister was away on his August vacation. Prayer-meetings were out of season, and very few were present. The plain farmer was trying to conduct the service as well as he could, but it was evident he would have been much more at ease holding the handle of a plow or the reins of his rattling team, than a hymn-book. Dr. Watts and John Wesley might have lost some of their heavenly serenity could they have heard him read their verses, and certainly only a long-suffering and merciful God could listen to his prayer. And yet rarely on the battle-field is there more moral courage displayed than plain Thomas Smith put forth that night in his conscientious effort to perform an unwonted task; and when at last he sat down and said, "Bruthren, the meetin' is now open," he was more exhausted than he than he would have been from a long day of toil.
"The Lord looketh at the heart" is a truth that chills many with dread, but it was a precious thought to Farmer Smith as he saw that his fellow church members did not look very appreciative, and that the gay young city-people often giggled outright at his uncouth words and manner.
Ida would have been as greatly amused as any of them a few weeks since, but now she scarcely heard the poor man's stumblings, or the wailing of the hymns that were mangled anew by the people. She sat with her eyes fixed on vacancy, thinking how dreary and empty the world had become; and it seemed to her that religion was the most dreary and empty thing in it.
"What good can this wretched little meeting do any one?" she thought, more than once.
She was answered.
Near her was a very old man who had been regarding the ill-behaved party with an expression of mingled displeasure and pity. Now that the meeting was open to all he rose slowly to his feet, steadying himself with his cane.
"He looks like the Ancient Mariner," giggled an exceedingly immature youth, who sat next to Ida.
She turned upon him sharply and said, in a low tone, "If you have the faintest instincts of a gentleman you will respect that venerable man."
The youth was so effectually quenched that he bore the aspect of a turnip-beet during the remainder of the service.
"My young friends," began the old main in tones of gentle dignity, "will you listen patiently and quietly to one that you see will not have the chance to speak many more words. My eyes are a little dim, but you all appear young and happy; and yet I am sorry for you, very sorry for you. You don't realize what you are and what is before you. You remind me of a number of pleasure boats just starting out to sea. I have been across this ocean, and have almost reached the other shore. I know what terrible storms and dangers you will meet. You can't escape these storms, my young friends. No one can, and you don't seem prepared to meet them.
"Your manner has pained me very much, and yet, as my Master said, so I have felt, you 'know not what you do.' There is a Kingly Presence in this place that you have not recognized. Do you not remember who it was that said, 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them'?
"I am very old, but my memory is good. It seems but a short time ago that I was as young thoughtless as any one of you, and yet it was seventy years ago. I have tested the friendship of Jesus Christ for over half a century. Have I not then a right to speak of it? Ought I not to know something about him?
"Do you ask me if my Master has kept me from trouble and suffering all these years? Far from it. Indeed, I think he has caused me a good deal of trouble and pain in addition to that which I brought on myself by my own folly and mistakes; but I now see that he caused it only as the good physician gives pain, in order to make the patient strong and well. But one thing is certainly true. He has stood by me as a faithful friend all these years, and has brought good to me out of all the evil. I have been in sore temptations and deep discouragement. My heart at times has seemed breaking with sorrow. Mine has been the common lot. But when the storm was loudest and most terrible, his hand was on the helm, and now I am entering the quiet harbor. There has been much that was dark and hard to understand; there is much still; but there is plenty to prove that my Heavenly Father is leading me home as a little child.
"It is a precious, blessed truth that I wish to bring you fact to face with to-night, and yet it may become a very sad and terrible truth, if you shut your eyes to it now and remember it only when it is too late. I wish to assure you, on the ground of simple, down-right experience, through all these years, that God's 'unspeakable gift,' his only Son, is just what our poor human nature needs. Jesus Christ 'is able to save them ot the uttermost that come to God by him.' He helps us overcome that awful disease—sin. He brings to our unhappy hearts immortal life and health. I know it as I know that I exist. He has helped me when and where there was no human help. I have often seen his redeeming work in the lives of other faulty, sinful people like myself.
"The question therefore which you must each decide is not whether you will believe this or that doctrine, or do what this or that man teaches. The question is this:—Here is a tender, merciful, Divine Friend. He offers to lead you safely through all the dangers and hard places in this world, as a shepherd leads his flock through the wilderness. Will you follow him, or will you remain in the wilderness and perish when the night comes, as it surely will? If you will follow him as well as you can, he'll bring you to a happy and eternal home. Thanks to his patient kindness which never falters, he has brough me almost there.
"And now, my young friends, beat with an old man, and let me say, in conclusion, that you all need the kind, patient, faithful Friend that I found so long ago. No evil, no misfortune can come into any human life that is beyond his power to remedy and finally banish forever. I you have not found this Friend, this Life-giver, I am younger and happier than you are to-day, although I am eighty-eight years old."
Once before a rash, despairing man lifted his hand against his life, but God's message to him, through his apostle, was, "Do thyself no harm." And now again a faithful servant, speaking for him whose coming was God's supreme expression of good-will towards men, had brought a like merciful message to another poor soul that had taken counsel of despair. Ida Mayhew might learn, as did the jailer of Philippi, that God has a better remedy than death for seemingly irretrievable disasters.
The old gentleman's words came home to her with such a force of personal application that she was deeply moved, and even awed. They seemed like a divine message—nay more, like a restraining hand. "How strange it was," she thought, that she had come to this place!—how strange that a serene old, man, with heaven's peace already on his brow, should have uttered the words best adapted to her desperate need. If he had spoken of duty, obligation, of truth in the abstract, his tones would have been like the sound of a wintry wind. But he had spoken of a Friend, as tender, patient, and helpful as he was powerful. What was far more, he spoke with the strong convincing confidence of personal knowledge. He had tried this Friend through all the vicissitudes of over half a century, and found him true. Could human assurance—could human testimony go farther? Deep in her heart she was conscious that hope was reviving again—that the end had not yet come.
The gay young party, touched and subdued, passed out quietly with the others. But Ida lingered.
"Who is that old gentleman?" she asked of a lady near her.
"That is Mr. Eltinge—Mr. James Eltinge," was the reply.
Ida passed slowly towards the door, looking wistfully back at the old man, who stopped to greet cheerily one and another.
"No one need be afraid to speak to him," she thought. "His every look and tone show him to be kind and sincere. I'll see him before—before"—she shuddered, and scarcely dared to put her dark purpose in thought in the presence of one who had lived patiently at God's will for nearly a century.
She stepped out into the night and watched for his coming. In a moment or two the old gentleman also passed out, and stood waiting for his carriage.
Timidly approaching him, she said, "Mr. Eltinge, may I speak with you?"
He stepped with her a little aside from the others.
"Mr. Eltinge," she continued, in a voice that trembled and was broken by her feeling, "I am one of the young people you spoke to this evening. I'm in trouble—deep trouble. I want such a Friend as you described to-night."
He took her hand and said, in a hearty voice, "God bless you, my child. He wants you more than you want him."
"May I come and see you to-morrow morning?" asked Ida, hurriedly, for his tones of kindness, for which her heart was famishing, were fast breaking down her self-control.
"I'll come and see you," was his prompt and cordial response.
"No," she faltered, "let it be as I wish. Please tell me where to find you."
As he finished directing her, she stooped down and kissed his hand, and then vanished in the darkness.
"Perhaps I'm not yet a cumberer of the ground," murmured the old man, wiping a sudden moisture from his eyes.
Chapter XXXIX. Van Berg's Escape.
Ida found the party, on whose companionship she had in a measure forced herself, waiting and calling for her. The words of the old gentleman had inspired them with kinder and more considerate feeling.
"I'm coming," she answered; "don't wait for me, I'll keep near you."
As they had already observed her evident wish to be left to herself, they complied with her request.
The icy calm of her despair was now broken.
"God bless him for his kindness!" she murmured, and "God bless him for his hearty, hopeful words; they may save me yet," and she followed the others, crying softly to herself like a little child. It would seem as if every warm tear fell on her heart, that had been so hard and desperate before, so rapidly did it melt at the thought of the old man's kindness.
But before she reached the hotel she began to grow excessively weary. She had not only overtaxed her powers of endurance, but had over-estimated them.
At last, as she was about to ask her companions to walk more slowly, lest she should be left alone by the roadside in her weakness, she heard the sound of strong, rapid steps.
"Where is Miss Mayhew?" was the anxious query of a voice that made her heart bound and color come into her face, even at the moment of almost mortal weakness and weariness.
"Here is Miss Mayhew," said one of the half-grown youths. "She prefers to walk by herself, it seems."
"Thank you," replied Van Berg, decisively. "I will see her safely home;" and the part went on, leaving him face to face with the maiden whom he now believed he had very greatly wronged, and who, he feared might yet proved herself capable of a terrible crime.
She stood before him with bowed head. In her weakness and agitation she trembled so violently that even in the starlight he could not help seeing her distress, and it filled him at once with pity and alarm.
"You are ill, Miss Mayhew," he said, anxiously.
"Yes," she answered; then, conscious of her growing need, she said, appealingly, "Mr. Van Berg, with all my faults I am at least a woman. Please help me home. I'm so weak and weary that I'm almost ready to faint."
He seized her hand and faltered hoarsely, "Miss Mayhew, you have not—you have not taken that drug—-"
She was so vividly conscious of her own dark secret, and so impressed by his power to discover all the evil in her nature, that she replied in a low tone,
"Hush. I understand you. Not yet."
"Thank God!" he ejaculated, with such a deep sigh of relief that she looked at him in surprise. The he drew her hand within his arm, and weary as she was, she could not help noting that it trembled as if he had an ague.
For a few moments they walked on without speaking. Then the artist addressed her.
"Mr. Van Berg," she said, hastily interrupting him. "Spare me to-night. I'm too weary even to think."
Again they walked on in silence, but his agitation was evidently increasing.
"Let me enter by that side door, please," she said as they approached the hotel.
"Miss Mayhew," he began in a low, hurried tone, "I must speak. You said you were a woman. As such I appeal to you. A woman may, at times, have no pity on herself, but it rarely happens that she is pitiless towards others, and it is said that she is often the most generous and merciful towards those who have wronged her. I have wronged you cruelly and unpardonably. I knew it as soon as you entered the parlor last evening. There is no excuse for me—I will never forgive myself, but I do most sincerely apologize and ask your forgiveness. Miss Mayhew, I appeal to your generosity—I appeal to your woman's heart. If you should consummate the awful purpose which I fear has been in your mind, I should go mad with remorse. You would destroy me as surely as yourself. Pardon me for speaking thus, but I fear so greatly—O God! can she have already committed the fatal act?"
Ida's overtaxed powers had given way, and she would have fallen had he not sustained her. His words had overwhelmed her, and, taken in connection with those spoken by old Mr. Eltinge, had given a glimpse of the awful abyss into which she had well nigh plunged, dragging others, perhaps, after her. She recoiled from it all so strongly that she became sick and faint from dread; and Van Berg was compelled to support her to a rustic seat near the path. He was bout to leave her in order to obtain assistance, when she put her hand on his arm and gasped:
"Wait—give me time—I'll soon be better. Do not call any one, I beg."
"Let me quietly bring you a little wine, then, from my own room?"
She bowed her assent.
The stimulant soon revived her. He stood at her side waiting with intense anxiety till she should speak. At last she rose slowly and weakly, saying in a low tone:
"Mr. Van Berg, I suppose I have now reached the lowest depth in your estimation, but I cannot help it. I admit that I was in an awful and desperate mood, and was about to act accordingly. There is no use of trying to hid anything from you. But a good man spoke kindly to me to-night, and the black spell is broken. There is the drug I purchased," and she handed him the phial of laudanum. "You many now dismiss all fears. I will explain further another time if you care to hear. Please let me go in by myself."
"Pardon me for saying, no," he answered, gently. "I think I am best able to-night to judge of what is right. You must go in at the main entrance, and on my arm. Henceforward I shall treat you with respect, and I intend that all others shall also."
With a low sob, she said, impulsively: "Oh, Mr. Van Berg, forgive me! but that was my motive. I meant to compel your respect; and I thought there was no other way. I thought that if I went to my grave, instead of going to the man who attempted your life, you would see that you had misjudged me. Here is a letter which I wrote you. It should go with the poison. It is all that I can offer in excuse or extenuation."
"Good God!" he exclaimed. "I have escaped a worse fate than yours would have been," and she felt his arm again trembling violently beneath her hand.
"I did not think you would care so greatly," she murmured.
"Miss Mayhew," he said, in a deep voice, "promise me, before God, that you will never harbor such a thought again."
"I hope I never may," she replied, despondently, "but I've lost all confidence in myself, Mr. Van Berg."
"Poor child! What a brute I've been," he muttered; but she heard him.
As the mounted the piazza, they met Stanton and Mrs. Mayhew.
"Why, Ida," exclaimed her mother, "I thought you were in your room."
"I walked to the village with a party of young people," was her hasty reply, "and Mr. Van Berg met me on our return. I'm very tired. Good-night," and she went directly to her room.
The artist's manner in parting was polite and respectful, and by this simple act, he did much to reinstate her in the social position she had well nigh lost, through her supposed infatuation with the man who was now a synonym in the house for everything that was vile.
On the following day, through the aid of Miss Burton, he caused the impression to be generally given that Miss Mayhew had been exceedingly mortified that she had ever associated with such a villain as Sibley had shown himself to be, and still more pained to think that she should be imagined capable of any other feeling save contempt for him, after learning of his disgraceful words and actions. These explanations gave an entirely new aspect to the matter, and sufficiently accounted for her increasing indisposition and rather odd behavior. Indeed, people placed it to her credit that she was so deeply affected, and were all the more inclined to make amends for having misjudged her.
Mrs. Mayhew accompanied her daughter to her room, but Ida told her that she was too weary to answer a single question, and that she wished to be alone.
"Van, may I speak with you?" Stanton had asked, anxiously.
When they were sufficiently far from the house to ensure privacy he began again: "Van, what's the matter? You were as white as if you had seen a ghost."
"I'm not afraid of ghosts," said the artist, almost sternly, "but there are things which I mortally fear, and chief among these are blunders—stupid, irrational acts, but involving results that may be beyond remedy. You and I have just made one that might have cost us dear. Of course you will treat your cousin hereafter as you please, but I most decidedly request that you do and say nothing that involves any reference to me. I wish her to form her opinions of my attitude towards her solely from her own observation."
"I think you are a trifle severe, but I suppose I deserve it," said Stanton, stiffly.
"I admit that I am strongly moved. I do not excuse myself in the least; and yet you know I was misled. I must tell you plainly that Ida Mayhew is not a girl to be trifled with. I fear her mother wholly fails in understanding her, and from what you yourself have told me of her father, she has no help there. She has no brother, and you should take the place of one, as far as possible. The only right I have to speak thus is on the ground of the great wrong I have done her, and for which I can never forgive myself. Miss Mayhew and I are comparative strangers and our brief summer sojourn here will soon be over. By mere accident facts have come to my knowledge to-night which prove in the most emphatic manner, that she requires kind, unobtrusive, but vigilant care. I never knew of a girl who needed a brother more than she. She is not bad at heart—far from it, but she is fearfully rash, and she is warped by education, or its lack, and by the vile literature she has read, to such a degree that she cannot see things in their true moral aspects. I'll give you a plain hint, and then you must not ask me anything further, for both you and I must be able to say that the history of my last interview was never given. My hint is this—I do not believe that self-destruction ever appeared to Miss Mayhew as an awful and revolting crime. Her actual life, hitherto, has been a round of frivolity. Only on the stage or in the absurd woes of her stilted heroes and heroines, has she given any attention to the sad and serious side of life. Men and women committing suicide to slow music is the chief stock in trade in some quarters, and when serious trouble came to her this devil's comedy had been robbed of its horror by the clap-trap of stage effect. That is the only way in which I can account for it all or excuse her. But the fact that she recoiled from Sibley so strongly and felt the disgrace of her association so keenly, proves that she possesses a true woman's nature. But, as I said, she needs a brother's care. You are nearest of kin, Stanton, and you must give it. Indeed, Ik, pardon the freedom of an old friend whom circumstances have strangely mixed up in this affair, I think you are honor-bound to give this brother's protection; and you ARE a man of honor if you pass your word."
"Do you—do you think there is still any danger that she will—-"
"No; the danger is passed for this occasion; but you must guard her from deep despondency or strong provocation in the future."
"The task you require is a difficult one. I doubt whether she ever forgives me even."
"I think she will. I have also learned to-night that genuine kindness and sympathy have great weight with her. Pledge me your word that you will do the best you can."
"Well, Van, I suppose I ought—I will. But your words have quite unnerved me."
"Unnerved! I'm worse than that. I feel as if I had passed through a month's illness. Never breathe a whisper of all this to any one. Good-night." And he strode away in the darkness.
Having reached a secluded spot, he ground the phial of laudanum that Ida had given him under his heel with the vindictiveness with which he would stamp out the life of a poisonous reptile.
Then he returned to his room and took out Ida's letter, but his hands trembled so that he could scarcely open it. As he read, they trembled still more, and his face became almost ashen in its hue. He was so appalled at what might have happened that his heart seemed for a second to cease its pulsations.
"Great God!" he said, in a hoarse whisper—"what an escape I've had!"
Hour after hour passed, but he sat motionless, staring at the abyss into which he had almost stumbled.
The song of a bird without reminded him that morning was near. He drew the curtain and saw that the dawn was reddening the sky.
"Thank God," he cried, fervently, "for the escape we both have had!"
Then, in order to throw off the horrible nightmare that had oppressed him, he stole quietly out into the fresh, cool, dewy air.
Chapter XL. Van Berg's Conclusions.
Van Berg knew that the word "discouragement" was in the dictionary, and he supposed he understood its meaning, but Ida Mayhew's farewell letter proved to him that he was mistaken. There are some things we never learn until taught by the severe logic of events and experience. There had been nothing in his own history or character that enabled him to realize the dreary sinking of heart—the paralyzing despondency of those who believe or fear that they have been defeated and thwarted in life. Through the weaknesses and dangers of early life he had been shielded with loving vigilance. His mind and taste had been fostered with untiring care, and yet every new development praised as unstintedly as if all were of native growth. Fortunately he abounded in virile force and good sense, and so gradually passed from self-complacency and conceit to the self-reliance and courage of a strong man, who, while aware of his ability and vantage-ground, also recognizes the fact that nothing can take the place of skillfully directed industry in well-defined directions. The confidence that had been created by the favorable conditions of his lot had been increased far more by the knowledge that he could go out into the world and hold his own among men on the common ground of hard work and innate strength. He expected esteem, respectful courtesy—and even admiration—as a matter of course. They were in part his birthright and partly the result of his own achievement, and he received them as quietly as his customary income. Their presence was like his excellent health, to which he scarcely gave a thought, but their withdrawal would have affected him keenly, although he had never considered the possibility of such a thing.