Mr. Eltinge's manner changed decidedly, and when Van Berg concluded he extended his hand and said cordially:
"After such manly, straightforward words I can give you the right hand of respect and confidence, if not of fellowship. To tell you the truth, sir, I was inclined to believe that my little friend here had a better opinion of you than you deserved, but now I can welcome you instead of scolding her for bringing you."
At the reference to herself Ida, seemingly, had an impulse to pluck a flower that was blooming at a little distance. The moment he was unobserved Van Berg seized the old gentleman's hand and said, earnestly, while tears sprang to his eyes:
"God bless you for the words you spoke to that poor child. I owe you more than she does. You have saved me from a life that I would dread more than death," and then he, too, turned away hastily and pretended to be very busy in finding the materials for his sketch.
Ida returned shyly, and it would seem that some of the color of her flower had found its way into her cheeks.
"Mr. Eltinge," she said, hesitatingly, "I don't believe I can make you understand how much I would like a picture of this pear-tree and yourself sitting under it as I have seen you for the past two days. I must admit that the wish to have such a sketch was one of the motives that led me to bring Mr. Van Berg." Then she added, with deepening color still, "my conscience troubles me when I hear Mr. Van Berg condemn himself so harshly. I have learned that I misjudged him as truly as he did me, and I have since realized how sadly both facts and appearances were against me."
"Well, Miss Ida," said the old gentleman, musingly, "I am inclined to think there has been more of misunderstanding than of intentional and deliberate harshness. My long life has taught me that it is astonishing how blind we often are to the thoughts and feelings of others. But I warn everybody to be careful how they visit this old garden, for it's a wonderful place for bringing out the truth. Nature is in the ascendant here," and he looked keenly and humorously at the artist, who remained, however, unconscious of his scrutiny, for his eyes were following Ida. She had suddenly turned her back upon them both again, and was soon bending over the little brook whose murmur he faintly heard.
"These allusions to the past are all painful to her," he thought, "and she refers to them only because, as she says, her conscience compels her to. It must be my task to make her forget the past in the present and future."
"Mr. Van Berg," she said, returning, "you have visited the Jordan I believe, but I doubt whether its waters did you more good than that little brook over there does me. That's right," she added, looking over his shoulder at the outlines he was rapidly tracing; "I'm glad you are losing no time."
"I remember the condition on which you allowed me to come," he replied, looking up with a smile into her face, "and I've already learned, as Mr. Eltinge suggests, that nothing will do in this garden but downright honesty." Something in her face caused his eyes to linger, and he added hastily: "You're right about the Jordan. The brook seems much more potent, for apparently it has washed your trouble all away, but has left—well you might think it flattery if I should tell you all I see. this garden seems to contain the elixir of life for you, Miss Ida. My heart was aching to see how pale you were becoming, but here—-"
"Mr. Van Berg," said Ida, abruptly, "will you pardon a suggestion?"
He looked up at her again a little wonderingly and bowed.
"There has been a sort of necessity," she resumed, "that my faulty self should be the theme of our conversation to-day, but all the mystery in which you imagined me enveloped must have vanished since you came here. I now must ask that we dwell hereafter on more agreeable subjects than Ida Mayhew."
"I must bring this tendency to personal allusions to an end at once," she thought, "or else I shall betray myself to my bitter mortification."
He looked up with a deprecating smile, "I am at your mercy," he replied, "and as I said before I will submit to any conditions."
"This is an easy one," said Ida, with emphasis, and then she took up the Bible and began reading to Mr. Eltinge, who from his seat under the pear-tree had been watching them with a pleased and placid interest on his serene old face. Their young life appeared beautiful now, and full of hope and promise, but he did not envy it. The prospect before him was better than the best that earth could offer.
Van Berg never forgot the hour that followed. His pencil was busy but his thoughts were busier. He felt his artist life and power kindling within him in a way that was exhilarating and grand. While his themes were simple he felt that they were noble and beautiful in the highest degree. The tree—a pretty object in itself—had been endowed with a human interest and suggested a divine philosophy. Mr. Eltinge, who sat at its foot, became to him one of the world's chief heroes—a man who had met and vanquished evil for almost a century. His white hair and silver beard were a halo of glory around the quiet face that was turned in kindly sympathy towards his companion, and Van Berg did his best to bring out the noble profile.
But the maiden herself—why did his eyes turn so often to her, and why did he, unasked, introduce her into the sketch with a care and lingering delicacy of touch that made even her pencilled image seem a living girl? When not affected or rendered conventional by society, her voice was singularly girlish and natural, and there would often be a tone in a plaintive and minor key that vibrated like a low, sweet chord in his heart rather than in his ears. It must be admitted that he gave little heed to the sacred words she read; but the flexible music of her voice, mingled with the murmur of the brook, the rustle of the leaves and the occasional song of a bird, all combined to form the sweetest symphony he had ever heard.
As an artist he exulted. His hand had not lost its cunning, and his ruling passion, which the strange experiences of the past few weeks had held in abeyance, was reasserting itself with a fuller, richer power than he had known before. That WAS Ida Mayhew's face that was growing beautiful and full of her new and better life under his appreciative and skilful touch, and the consciousness of success in the kind of effort in which success meant to him so much, filled him with a strong enthusiasm.
Once or twice Ida glanced shyly at him, and his appearance did not tend to fix her thoughts wholly on the sacred text.
At last Mr. Eltinge said: "That will do for to-day. I think, under the circumstances, you have given most praiseworthy attention to what you have read, and to what little I could say in the way of explanation. Now for the picture, and I confess I'm as eager as a child to see it;" and they came and looked over Van Berg's shoulder.
Almost instantly Ida clapped her hands, exclaiming with delight: "The tree is perfect, and oh, Mr. Eltinge, I shall always have you now, with your dear kind face turned towards me as I have seen it to-day!" Suddenly her manner changed, and in a tone full of disappointment she added, "Oh, Mr. Van Berg, how could you spoil my picture? You have put me in it."
"Certainly," he replied demurely, "you were a part of the picture."
"Not a necessary part. I did not ask you to do that," she answered, in a way that proved her feelings were hurt.
"I am willing to do more than you ask, and if you insist on it I will efface your image, although I should much regret to do so."
"I protest against that," cried Mr. Eltinge. "So far from spoiling the picture, your being there makes it invaluable to me. I'm going to tax Mr. Van Berg's generosity, and ask for this in the hope that he will make another drawing of the old man and the tree only, for you."
"Would you like to have it so very much?" said Ida, much pleased with this arrangement.
"Yes, my dear, very much indeed, and I'll place it near my favorite chimney corner, where I can see you all winter. Mr. Van Berg, I congratulate you; I'm not much of a judge of art, but this is my little friend here, true to life. You have been very happy in catching the expression which I am learning to know so well."
"Your words have a fuller meaning than you think," replied the artist, heartily. "I have indeed been very happy in my work. I never enjoyed a morning more in my life."
"But I'm to go home without any picture," said Ida, trying to hide her pleasure by assumed reproachfulness.
"There is no picture yet, for any one," he answered, "this is only a sketch from which I shall try to make two pictures that will suggest a scene particularly attractive to one of my calling, to say the least."
As he placed the sketch in his book, the work he had been engaged on that morning when Ida met him by the roadside, dropped out, and she saw herself leaning on the baluster rail of the staircase, with her hand half extended as a token of forgiveness and reconciliation. Her cheeks flushed instantly, but she was able to remark quietly:
"I suppose that is the way you artists keep a memorandum of current events."
He replied gravely, but with some answering color also: "Yes, Miss Mayhew, when the current is deep and strong."
Van Berg felt himself happy in securing from Mr. Eltinge an invitation to come again. As they were riding home, Ida remarked, shyly:
"I did not know you could draw so well."
"Nor did I either before. That old garden is enchanted ground."
"Yes," said Ida, "poor Eve was driven out of the Garden of Eden, but I feel as if I had found my way into it. I only wish I could stay there," and her sigh was long and deep.
"Does the world outside seem very full of thorns and thistles?" he asked, kindly.
After a moment she replied, simply and briefly, "Yes."
He looked at her sympathetically for a moment, and then said earnestly:
"Miss Ida, pardon me if I venture a prediction. Wherever you dwell, hereafter, all that is good and beautiful in life and character which the garden typifies will begin to take the place of thorns and thistles."
"I hope so," she faltered, "but that involves bleeding hands, Mr. Van Berg. I am not cast in heroic mould. I am weak and wavering, and as a proof I am dwelling on the very subject that I had forbidden. I trust that you will be too manly to take advantage of my weakness henceforth and will try to help me forget myself."
"That may be a harder task than you think, but I will attempt whatever you ask," and from her pleased and interested expression it would seem that during the next half hour he succeeded remarkably well. Suddenly, as if a happy thought had struck him, he said a little abruptly:
"I foresee that you and Miss Burton are destined to become great friends. You have not yet learned what a lovely character she possesses and how broad and deep are her sympathies."
Ida's silence caused him to turn and look at her, and he saw that the light and color had faded from her face, but she said, emphatically:
"Miss Burton is even more admirable than you think her to be, if that were possible."
"I am pleased to hear one lady speak so strongly and generously of another. It is not usual. I shall do my utmost to make you better acquainted with each other, and in this pleasant task am sure I shall render you a very great service."
"Mr. Van Berg, I beg you will not," she exclaimed, hastily, and he saw with surprise that she appeared painfully embarrassed.
"Pardon me, Miss Mayhew," he said; "I did not mean to be officious."
Ida saw no way of extricating herself save by promptly changing the subject, and this she did; but she could not fail to observe that her companion was hurt by her apparent unfriendliness towards one on whom he believed he had bestowed the best a man could give. The remainder of the drive was not enjoyed by either of them as the earlier part had been, and something like constraint tinged the manner and words of both.
As they drove up to the hotel Stanton gave a low whistle of surprise, but was in no mood for his old-time banter.
Chapter XLV. Problems Beyond Art.
When Van Berg left the garden he thought he had learned to understand Ida almost as clearly as he saw the pebbly bed of the little brook through the limpid current that flowed over it, and yet within a brief half-hour another baffling mystery had arisen. Why did she dislike Jennie Burton? Why she HAD disliked her was plain, but it seemed to follow inevitably that one who could love old Mr. Eltinge must also find a congenial friend in the woman he so greatly admired.
As the remainder of the day passed, this new cloud darkened and seemed to shadow even himself. While he could detect no flaw in her courtesy, he could not help feeling that she made a conscious effort to avoid them both. At dinner she conversed chiefly with her cousin. Van Berg's eyes would wander often to her face, but she never looked towards him unless he spoke to her. When he or Miss Burton addressed her there was not a trace of coldness in her manner of responding; a superficial observer would merely think they were people in whom she was not especially interested.
"Poor child," thought Jennie Burton, "she acts her part well," and she puzzled the artist still further by taking less notice of Ida than usual.
"But when I think of it," he mused, "it's just like my unique little friend. Only those in trouble interest her, and Miss Mayhew is on a straight road to happiness now, she believes, although the young lady herself seems to dread a world full of thorns and thistles, and her father and mother, at least, will insure an abundance of both in her own home. But her repulsion from Miss Burton, the very one towards whom I supposed she would be attracted in her new life, is what perplexes me most. I imagine all women are mysteries when you come to scrutinize their motives and impulses closely. The two who have occupied my thoughts this summer certainly are, and I'll stick to painting if I ever get out of this muddle."
After dinner he found a chance to ask Stanton if Mr. Mayhew was expected that evening.
"Yes," was the reply. "In memory of last Sunday he wrote he would not come, but Ida sent a telegram asking him to be here without fail. I took it over to the station for her, and made sure that my uncle received it. She will puzzle him more than she has the rest of us, I suppose, and I am quite curious to see the result."
The artist made no reply, but went to his room and tried to work on his pictures. He was more than curious—he was deeply interested, but felt that he was trenching on delicate ground. The relations between the father and daughter were too sacred, he believed, for even sympathetic observation on his part.
He soon threw aside his work. The inspiration of the morning was all gone, and in its place had come an unaccountable dissatisfaction with himself and the world in general. He had left the garden with a sense of exhilaration that made life appear beautiful and full of richest promise. He had been saved from disaster that would have been crushing; his object in coming to the country had been accomplished, and the Undine he discovered HAD received a woman's soul that was blending the perfect but discordant features into an exquisitely beautiful face. The result, certainly, had not been brought about as he expected, nor in a way tending to increase his self-complacency, but he felt that he would be a broader and better man for the ordeal through which he had passed. He also realized that the changes in Ida were not the superficial ones he had contemplated. he had regarded her face and character as little better than a piece of canvas on which there was already a drawing of great promise, but very defective. By erasures here and skillful touches there he had hoped to assist nature in carrying out her evident intentions. The tragedy that well-nigh resulted taught him that human lives are dangerous playthings, and that quackery in attempting spiritual reform involved more peril than ignorant interference with physical laws.
And yet that morning had proved that the desired change had been accomplished, even more thoroughly than he had hoped. The dangerous period of transition had been safely passed, and the beautiful face expressed that which was more than womanly refinement, thought and culture. These elements would develop with time. But the countenance on which he had seen the impress of vanity, pride, and insincerity, and later the despair of a wronged and desperate woman, had grown open and childlike again as she told him her story and read to Mr. Eltinge; and in it, as through a clear transparency, he had witnessed the kindling light of the Christian faith his mother had taught him to respect at least, long years before.
He had left the garden with the belief that he had secured the friendship of this rare Undine, and that she would bring to his art an inspiration like that of which he was so grandly conscious while making the picture in which she formed the loveliest feature. He had expected with instinctive certainty that she would now be drawn towards the woman he hoped to make his wife, and that friendships would be cemented that would last through life.
But in suggesting this hope and expectation to Ida it had been as if a cloud had suddenly passed before the sun, and now the whole sky was darkening. Jennie Burton seemed more shadowy and remote than ever—more wrapped up in a past in which she had no part; and the maiden into whose very soul he thought he had looked became inscrutable again in the distant courtesy of her manner. Even during the brief hour of dinner he was led to feel that he had no inevitable place in the thoughts of either of the ladies, and this impression was increased as he sought their society later in the day.
Moreover, in his changed mood he again began to chafe irritably at Ida's associations. She herself had been thoroughly redeemed in an artistic point of view, and it was his nature to look at things in this light. While he shuddered at her terrible purpose he recognized the high, strong spirit which in it perversion and wrong had rendered the deed possible, and her dark design made a grand and sombre background against which the maiden he had sketched that morning was all the more luminous. Hitherto everything connected with her change of character had been not only conventional, but had appealed to his aesthetic temperament as singularly beautiful. The quaint garden with its flowers, brook, and allegorical tree were associations that harmonized with Ida's loveliness, while Mr. Eltinge, who had rendered such an immeasurable service to them both, realized his best ideal of dignified and venerable age.
But when he compared her spiritual father with the man she expected that night, he found his whole nature becoming full of irritable protest and dissatisfaction.
"This morning," he muttered, "she appeared capable of realizing a poet's dreams, but already I see the hard and prosaic conditions of her lot dwarfing her growth and throwing their grotesque shadows across her beauty. What can she do while inseparable from such a father and mother? The more unlike them she becomes the more hideous they will appear. Mrs. Mayhew is essentially lacking in womanly delicacy, and mere coarseness is more tolerable than fashionable, veneered vulgarity. Mr. Mayhew is a spiritless wretch whose only protest against his wife's overbearance and indifference has been intoxication. Linked on either side to so much deformity, what chance has the daughter unless she escapes from them and develops a separate life? But are not the ties of nature too close to permit such escape, and would it not be wrong to seek it? It certainly would not be Christian, and I am confident Mr. Eltinge would not advise it. Her lot is indeed a cruel one. No wonder she clings to Mr. Eltinge and the garden, and that the outside world seems full of thorns and thistles. Well, I pity her from the depths of my heart, and cannot see how she will solve the harsh problem of her life. I imagine she will soon become discouraged and seek by marriage to obliterate her present ties as far as possible."
Having reached this unsatisfactory conclusion he threw his sketch impatiently aside and went down to the piazza. Ida and her mother were already there, for it was about time for arrivals from the earlier train. Van Berg felt almost sure that Ida must have been aware that he was standing near her, but she exhibited no consciousness of his presence. When a little later they met in promenade she bowed politely but absently, and in a way that would lead any who were observing them to think that he was not in her thoughts. So he was led to believe himself, but Miss Burton, who was reading in one of the parlor windows, smiled and whispered to herself, "Well done."
Ida was in hopes that her father would take the first opportunity of reaching the Lake House, and she was not disappointed. The telegram had flashed into his leaden-hued life that day like a meteor. Did it portend good or evil? Evil only, he feared, for it seemed to him that evil would ever be his portion. It was therefore with a vague sense of apprehension that he looked forward to meeting his wife and daughter.
As he emerged from the stage with the others he found Ida half-way down the steps to greet him.
"I'm so glad you've come!" she said in a low earnest voice, and she kissed him, not in the old formal way, as if it were the only proper thing to do, but as a daughter greeting her father. Then, before he could recover from his surprise, his light travelling bag was taken from him and the young girl's arm linked lovingly in his, and he led to Mrs. Mayhew, who also kissed him, but in a way, it must be admitted, that suggested a duty rather than a pleasure.
Her husband scarcely gave to her a glance, however, but kept his eyes fixed on his daughter.
"Ida is bewitched," said Mr. Mayhew.
"And I hope you will find me bewitching, father, for I want as much of your society as you will give me during this visit." She tried to speak playfully and naturally, but tears were gathering in her eyes, for his expression of perplexity was singularly pathetic and full of the keenest reproach. "O God," she murmured, "what have I been that he should be speechless from surprise, when I merely greet him as a daughter should!"
Van Berg turned hastily away, for he felt that scenes were coming, on which he had no right to look. There was nothing yet to indicate a wish on Ida's part to avoid inartistic associations, and deep in his heart he was compelled to admit that she had never appeared so supremely beautiful as when she looked love and welcome into the eyes of the smirched and disheartened man to whom nature gave the best right to claim these gifts.
"Come with me, father," said Ida, trying to give him a reassuring smile, "and I will answer your scared and questioning glances in your room," and he went with her as if walking in a dream.
Tears now gathered in Jennie Burton's eyes, but she smiled again as she thought, "Better done still, Ida Mayhew, and Mr. Van Berg, who is stalking away so rapidly yonder, is not the man I think him, if you have not now made your best and deepest impression on his heart."
"Ida," her father faltered, after they had reached the privacy of his room, "what does your telegram mean? What is important?"
"YOU are to me. O father, please, please forgive me," and she put her arms around his neck and burst into a passion of tears.
The bewildered man began to tremble. "Can it—can it be that my daughter has a heart?" he muttered.
"Yes, father, but it's broken because of my cruel treatment of you; I now hope better days are coming for us all."
He held her away from him and looked into her face with a longing intensity that suggested a soul perishing for the lack of love and hope.
"Father, father, I can't bear that look. Oh, God forgive me, how I have wronged you!" and she buried her face on his shoulder again.
"Ida," he said, slowly and pleadingly, "be very careful—be sure this is not a passing impulse, a mere remorseful twinge of conscience. I've been hoping for years—I would have prayed, if I dared to—for some token that I was not a burden to you and your mother. You seemed to love me some when you were little, but as you grew older you grew away from me. I've tried to forget that I had a heart. I've tried to become a beast because it was agony to be a man. why I have lived I scarcely know. I thought I had suffered all that I could suffer in this world, but I was mistaken. I left this place last Monday with the fear that my beautiful daughter was giving her love to a man even baser than I am, base and low from choice, base and corrupt in every fibre of his soul and body, and from that hour to this it has seemed as if I were ground between two millstones," and he shuddered as if smitten with an ague. "Ida," he concluded piteously, "I'm too weak, I'm too far gone to bear disappointment. This is more than an impulse, is it not? You will not throw yourself away? Oh, Ida, my only child, if you could be in heart what you were in your face as you greeted me to-night, I could die content!"
For a few minutes the poor girl could only sob convulsively on his breast. At last she faltered brokenly:
"Yes, father—it is an impulse—an impulse from heaven; but I shall pray daily that it be not a passing one. I—I have lost confidence in myself, but with my Saviour's help, I will try to be a loving daughter to you and make your wishes first in everything."
"Great God!" he muttered, "can this be true?"
"Yes, father, because God IS great, and very, VERY, kind."
His bent form became erect and almost steely in its tenseness. He gently but firmly placed her in a chair, and then paced the room rapidly a moment or two, his dark eyes glowing with a strong and kindling excitement. Ida began to regard him with wonder and almost alarm. Suddenly he raised his hand to heaven, and said solemnly:
"This shall be no one-sided affair so help me God!"
Then opening his valise, he took out a bottle of brandy and thew it, with a crash, into the empty grate.
Ida sprang towards him with a glad cry, exclaiming, "O father, now I understand you! Thank God! thank God!"
He kissed her tearful, upturned face again and again, as if he found there the very elixir of life.
"Ida, my dear little Ida," he said, huskily, "you have saved your father from a drunkard's end—from a drunkard's grave. I was in a drunkard's hell already."
Mr. Mayhew requested that supper should be served in his own room, for neither he nor his daughter was in a mood to meet strangers that evening. Ida called her mother, and tried to explain to her why they did not wish to go down, but the poor woman was not able to grasp very much of the truth, and was decidedly mystified by the domestic changes which she had very limited power to appreciate, and in which she had so little part. She was not a coarse woman, but matter of fact, superficial, and worldly to the last degree.
Van Berg could scarcely believe his eyes when Mr. Mayhew came down to breakfast with his family Sunday morning. The bondman had become free; the slave of a degrading vice had been transformed into a quiet, dignified gentleman. His form was erect, and while his bearing was singularly modest and retiring, there was nothing of the old cowering, shrinking manner which suggested defeat, loss of self-respect, and hopeless dejection. All who knew him instinctively felt that the prostrate man had risen to his feet, and there was something in his manner that made them believe he would hold his footing among other men hereafter.
The artist found himself bowing to the "spiritless wretch" with a politeness that was by no means assumed, and from the natural and almost cordial manner in which Mr. Mayhew returned his salutation, he was very glad to believe that Ida had not told him the deeper and darker secrets of her experience during the past week.
"This is her work," he thought, and Ida's radiant face confirmed the impression. She then felt that after her father's words, "You have saved me," she could never be very unhappy again. A hundred times she had murmured, "Oh, how much better God's way out of trouble has been than mine!"
Mr. Mayhew had always had peculiar attractions for Miss Burton, and they at once entered into conversation. But as she recognized the marvellous change in him, the pleased wonder of her face grew so apparent, that he replied to it in low tones:
"I now believe in your 'remedies,' Miss Burton; but a great deal depends on who administers them. My little girl and I have been discovering how nearly related we are."
Her eyes grew moist with her sympathy and gladness. "Mr. Mayhew," she said, "I'm inclined to think that heaven is always within a step or two of us, if we could only take the right steps."
"To me it has seemed beyond the farthest star," he replied, very gravely. "To some, however, the word is as indefinite as the place, and a cessation of pain appears heaven. I could be content to ask nothing better than this Sabbath morning has brought me. I have found what I thought lost forever."
Jennie Burton became very pale, as deep from her heart rose the query, "Shall I ever find what I have lost?" Then with a strong instinct to maintain her self-control and shun a perilous nearness to her hidden sorrow, she changed the subject.
It was touching to see how often Mr. Mayhew's eyes turned towards his daughter, as if to reassure himself that the change in her manner towards him was not a dream, and the expression of her face as she met his scrutiny seemed to brighten and cheer him like a coming dawn.
"What heavenly magic is transforming Miss Mayhew?" Jennie Burton asked of Van Berg, as they sauntered out on the piazza.
"With your wonted felicity, you express it exactly," he replied. "It is a heavenly magic which I don't understand in the least, but must believe in, since cause and effect are directly under my eyes. It has been my good fortune to witness as beautiful a scene as ever mortal saw. Since she refers naturally and openly to the friends whom she has visited during the past week, I may tell you about Mr. Eltinge's influence and teaching without violating any confidence," and in harmony with the frank and friendly relations which he now sustained to Miss Burton, he related his experience of the previous day, remaining scrupulously reticent on every point, however, that he even imagined Ida would wish veiled from the knowledge of others. "I cannot tell you," he concluded, "how deeply the scene affected me. It not only awoke all the artist in me, but the man also. In one brief hour I learned to revere that noble old gentleman, and if you could have seen him leaning against the emblematic tree, as I did, I think he would have realized your ideal of age, wholly devoid of weakness and bleakness. And then Miss Mayhew's face, as she read and listened to him, seemed indeed, in its contrast with what we have seen during the past summer, the result of 'heavenly magic.' It will be no heavy task to fulfil the conditions on which I was permitted to enter the enchanted garden. They expect more pencil sketches, but I shall eventually give them as truthful a picture as I am capable of painting, for it is rare good fortune to find themes so inspiring."
Guarded as Van Berg was in his narrative, Miss Burton was able to read more "between the lines" than in his words. He did not understand her motive when she said, as if it were her first obvious thought:
"The picture which you have presented, even to the eye of my fancy, is uniquely beautiful, and I think it must redeem Miss Mayhew in your mind, from all her disagreeable associations. But in my estimation she appeared to even better advantage in the greeting she gave her father last evening. Was there ever a more delicious surprise on earth, than that poor man had when he returned and found a true and loving daughter awaiting him? With her filial hands she has already lifted him out of the mire of his degradation, and to-day he is a gentleman whom you involuntarily respect. O Mr. Van Berg, I cannot tell ou how inexpressibly beautiful and reassuring such things are to me! You look at the changes we are witnessing from the standpoint of an artist, I from that of poor wounded humanity; and what I have seen in Ida Mayhew and her father, is proof to me that there is a good God above all the chaos around me, which I cannot understand and which at times disheartens me. Their happier and ennobled faces are a prophecy and an earnest of that time when the sway of evil shall be broken, when famishing souls and empty hearts shall be filled, when broken, thwarted lives are made perfect, and what was missed and lost regained."
She looked away from him into the summer sky, which the sun was flooding with cloudless light. There were no tears in her eyes, but an expression of intense and sorrowful longing that was far beyond such simple and natural expression.
"Jennie Burton," said Van Berg, in a low, earnest voice, "there are times when I could suffer all things to make you happy."
She started as if she had almost forgotten his presence, and answered quietly: "You could not make me happy by suffering. Only as I can banish a little pain and gloom here and there do I find solace. But I can do so very, very little. It reassures me to see God doing this work in his grand, large way. And yet it seems to me that he might brighten the world as the sun fills this sky with light. As it is, the rays that illumine hearts and faces glint only here and there between the threatening clouds of evil. Mr. Van Berg, you do not know—you never realized how shadowed humanity is. Within a mile of your studio, that is full of light and beauty, there are thousands who are perishing in a slow, remorseless pain. It is this awful mystery of evil—this continuous groan and cry of anguish that has gone up to heaven through all the ages—that appalls my heart and staggers my faith. But there—after what I have seen to-day I have no right to such gloomy thoughts. I suppose my religion seems to you no more than a clinging faith in a far-away, incomprehensible God, and so is not very attractive? I wish I could suggest to you something more satisfactory, but since I cannot I'll leave you to find better influences."
"It does seem to me that rash, faulty Ida Mayhew has a better faith than this," he thought; "she believes she has found a near and helpful Friend, while my sad-eyed saint has only a God, and is always in pathetic doubt whether her prayer can bridge the infinite distance between them. Who is right? Is either right? I used to be impressed with how much I knew; I'm glad the opposite impression is becoming so strong, for, as Miss Burton says, the hopeless fools are those who never find themselves out.
"She was right. Ida Mayhew will ever appear to better advantage in aiding her poor father to regain his manhood, than by the most artistic combination of circumstances that I could imagine. All the man in me recognizes the sacredness of the duty and the beauty of its performance. And yet but yesterday I was stupid enough to believe that her best chance for development was to escape from her father and live a separate life. It has taken only a few hours to prove how superficial was my philosophy of life. Guided simply by the instinct of love and duty, this faulty girl has accomplished more than I had supposed possible. But her mother will continue a thorn in her side," and Van Berg was not far astray.
Chapter XLVI. A Resolute Philosopher.
Mr. Mayhew attended church with his family that morning—a thing that he had not done for years—and in the afternoon Ida took him to see her spiritual birthplace, and to call on her spiritual father. The welcome that old Mr. Eltinge gave, and the words he spoke, did much towards establishing in the man who had been so disheartened, hope that a new and better future was opening before him.
When about to part he put his left arm around his daughter, and giving his hand to Mr. Eltinge, said, with a voice broken by his feelings:
"I am bewildered yet. I can't understand my happiness. Yesterday I was perishing in a boundless desert. To-day the desert has vanished, and I'm in this sweet old garden. There are no flowers or fruits in it, however, that can compare with the love and truth I now see in this child's face. I won't speak of the service you have rendered us both. It's beyond all words."
It was indeed greater than he knew, for Id had concluded never to speak again of her terrible secret. God had forgiven her, and nothing was to be gained by any reference to a subject that had become inexpressibly painful. "Remember," said the staunch and faithful old man as they were about to drive away, "nothing good lasts unless built up from the Author of all good. Unless you act on this truth you'll find yourself in the desert again, and all you are now enjoying will seem like a mirage."
Poor Mr. Mayhew could not endure to lose a moment of his daughter's society, for the long thirst of years was to be slaked. They took a round-about way home, and the summer evening deepened into twilight and dusk before they approached the hotel.
"See, father, there is the new moon, and it hangs over your right shoulder," cried Ida, gleefully.
"It's over your right shoulder, too, and that thought pleases me better still. I wish I could make you very happy. Tell me what I can do for you."
"Take me to New York with you to-morrow," said Ida, promptly.
"Now you are trying to make a martyr of yourself for me. You forget how hot and dusty the city is in August."
"I'm going with you," she said decisively, "unless you say no."
"I'm going to spend part of the time with you until your vacation begins next month, and then we'll explore every nook and corner of this region."
"There Ida, say no more to-day. My cup is overflowing now, and the fear is already growing that such happiness won't last—can't last in a world like ours."
"Father," said Ida, gently, "I've found a Friend that has promised me more than present happiness. He has promised me eternal life. He is pledged to make all seemingly evil result in my final good. How it can be I don't see at all, but I'm trying to take him at his word. You must not worry if I'm not always in good spirits. I suppose every one in the world has a burden to carry, but I don't think it can crush us if our Saviour helps us carry it. My faith is very simple, you see; I feel I'm like one of those little children he took in his arms and blessed, and I'm sure his blessing is not an empty form. It has made me love and trust him, and that's all the religion I have or know anything about. You must not expect great things of me; you must not watch me too closely. Just let me take my own quiet way in life, for I want my life henceforth to be as quiet and unobtrusive as the little brook that runs through Mr. Eltinge's garden, that is often in the shade, you know, as well as in the light, but Mr. Eltinge lets it flow after its own fashion; so you must let me. I'll always try to make a little low, sweet music for you, if not for the world. So please do not commence puzzling your poor tired brain how to make me happy or gay, or want to take me here and there. Just leave me to myself; let me have my own way for awhile at least; and if you can do anything for me I promise to tell you."
Ever since her drive with Van Berg the previous day, there had been a deep undercurrent of thought in Ida's mind, and she had at last concluded that she could scarcely keep her secret with any certainty while under his eyes, and especially those of Miss Burton. She was too direct and positive in her nature, and her love was too strong and absorbing for the cool and indifferent bearing she was trying to maintain. Her eyes, her cheeks, her tones, and even words, might prove traitors at any time and betray her. She longed to be alone, and teh large empty city house seemed the quiet refuge that she needed. At the same time it would give her deep satisfaction to be with her father after hs return from business, and make amends for years of neglect.
He looked at her wistfully, feeling, in a vague way, that he did not understand her yet. There was a minor chord in her voice, and there had been a sadness in her eyes at times which began to suggest to him that he had not learned all the causes that were so marvellously transforming her form her old self. Her mother would question and question. He, on the contrary, would wait patiently till the confidence was given, and so he merely said gently,
"All right, little girl; I'll try to make you happy in your own way."
Van Berg, going out for a walk after tea, again heard the girlish voice singing the quaint hymn tune that had awakened the memories of his childhood the previous day. He instantly concealed himself by the roadside, and in a moment or two Ida and her father drove by. He was able in the dusk to note only that her head rested on her father's shoulder, and her voice was sweet and plaintive as she sang words that he could not hear distinctly, but which were as follows, as far as he could catch them:
I know not the way he is leading me But I know he is leading me home; Though lonely the path and dark to me, It is safe and it wends to my home. Home of the blest, Home that is rest To the weary pilgrim's feet, to the weary pilgrim's heart.
and then her words were lost in the distance.
With an impulse he did not think of resisting he followed them back to the hotel and waited patiently till she and her father came out from supper.
"Miss Mayhew," he said, a little discontentedly, "I have scarcely had a chance to say a word to you to-day, and it seems to me that I have a great deal to say."
She looked at him with some surprise as she replied, "Well, I think I might at least become a good listener."
"Do you mean a patient one?"
"I never had any patience," she answered, with something like a smile.
"And I was never so possessed by the demon of impatience as I have been this afternoon. There hasn't been a soul around that I cared to talk with, and if you knew how out of conceit I am with my own company, you would feel some commiseration. How I envied you your visit to the garden this afternoon, for I felt sure you took your father thither. May I not go with you again to-morrow, or soon? I wish to make my sketch more accurate before beginning your picture."
She hesitated a moment, and he little know how he was tempting her. Then she replied, so quietly and decisively as to seem almost cold, "Mr. Eltinge, I'm sure, will be very glad to see you, but I shall go to the city with my father in the morning and remain in town all the week." She was puzzled at his unmistakable expression of regret and disappointment, and added, hastily, "Mr. Van Berg, you are taking far too much trouble. I would be more satisfied—I would be delighted with such a sketch as you made to-day, with the omission of myself."
"But if, instead of being trouble, it gave me great pleasure to make the picture with the utmost care?"
"I suppose," she replied, "that you have a high artistic sense that must be satisfied, and that you see imperfections that I cannot."
"You are too severe upon me, Miss Mayhew, but since you have such good reason, I cannot complain. Still, in justice to myself, I must say that satisfying my artistic sense was not my motive."
"I did not mean to be severe—I do not mean what you think," Ida began, very eagerly. Then she checked herself and added, after a moment, with a slight tinge of sadness in her tone, "I fear we are fated to misunderstand each other. Good-night, Mr. Van Berg," and she turned decisively away and joined her father who was talking with Stanton.
The artist was both hurt and perplexed, and he abruptly left the hall and started again on the walk which had been so unexpectedly interrupted. He strode away through the starlight with a swiftness that was scarcely in harmony with the warm, still summer night. Before he was aware of it he was a mile away. Stopping suddenly he muttered:
"I won't be so baffled and puzzled. I will learn to understand this Ida Mayhew before this summer is over. It's ridiculous that I should be so dull and stupid. She says she fears we are 'fated to misunderstand each other.' I defy such a blind stupid fate. I used to have some brains and tact before I came to this place, and I scarcely think I've become an idiot. I am determined to win that girl's friendship, and I intend to follow her career and watch the rare and beautiful development of her character. That one hour in the garden yesterday taught me what an inspiration her exquisite beauty can be in my profession, and surely with the vantage-ground I already possess I ought to have skill enough to win a place among her friends," and he walked back almost as quickly as he had stalked away.
Ida had seen his departure and recognized the fact that she had hurt his feelings. It was strange that so little a thing could depress her so greatly, for she felt that the first real Sabbath she had ever spent and which had been in truth a SUN-day to her thus far, was now ending in shadows darker than the night. "How weak I am," she thought; "I must go away as soon as possible, or else I shall be sorry. The companionship that he can give so easily and frankly when Miss Burton is not at hand to occupy him is impossible for me, and would only end in the betrayal of a secret that I would hide even more anxiously than the crime I could not conceal from him. My duty and my father must be everything hereafter," and she turned resolutely to him, saying:
"Father, take a seat in the parlor while I go and find mother. I want these people to see that you have a family who at least show that they appreciate all the luxuries and comforts you are providing for them."
Mr. Mayhew was more deeply gratified by her words than she could understand, for any recognition of his manhood and rightful position which was quiet and unobtrusive, was balm and healing to his wounded self-respect. Hitherto he had believed correctly that his family wished to keep him out of sight, and at no time before had he realized the change that had taken place in Ida more keenly than when she made this simple and natural proposition. His grateful smile as he complied with her request did her good, but she soon discovered that in her mother she had a very difficult subject to manage. She found that lady in her room wearing a gloomy and injured expression.
"You have condescended at last to come and see whether I was alive, I see," she said, as Ida entered the room.
Her daughter went directly to her and kissing her replied, "We haven't intended to leave you so long or to neglect you in the least, and I'll explain."
"Oh, no need of explaining. Excuses always make matters worse. Here is the fact—I've been left all the afternoon to myself."
"Have you noticed no other fact to-day, mother?" asked Ida, gravely.
"Yes, I've noticed that you and your father have been so wrapped up in each other that I'm nobody, and might as well be Mrs. John Smith as Mrs. Mayhew."
"Pardon me, mother, you are exaggerating," said Ida, firmly. "Father was very polite to you at breakfast and dinner, and he went to church with you this morning, and I can scarcely remember when he has done this before. I am chiefly to blame for keeping him away so long this afternoon, for I wanted him to see and talk with my friend Mr. Eltinge, who has done me so much good. I thought he might help father too, and I truly believe he has. I repeat to you again, in all sincerity and love, that we have not intended to neglect you, and father now wishes you to come down and join him in the parlor, so that we can, as a family, at last appear as we ought before the world. In the name of all that is sacred, encourage dear father now that he is trying to be what we have so often wished."
But Mrs. Mayhew's pets were like spells of bad weather and would run their course. She only looked more gloomy and injured than ever as she replied:
"It's all very well to talk. Mr. Mayhew must be encouraged and coaxed to do what any man ought to do. I might have enjoyed a ride this evening as well as your father."
"You said it was too warm to go out after dinner."
"Well, you might have waited till it wasn't too warm."
A sudden scarlet burned in Ida's cheeks, and there came an ominous sparkle in her eyes. "Mother," she said so abruptly and sternly that the lady looked up wonderingly, and encountered an expression in her daughter's face that awakened an undefined fear. In tones that were low, indignant, and authoritative Ida continued:
"I request—I demand that you cease this nonsense at once. As a Christian woman you ought to be on your knees thanking God that your husband is not lying intoxicated on that sofa, as he was last Sunday at this time. You ought to be thanking God that he is becoming his former self, and winning respect by acting like a true gentleman. It was our unutterable folly that was destroying him, and I say this folly must and shall cease. I will not permit my father's sensitive nature to be wounded as it has been. You shall not spoil this first bright day he has had after so many years. If you care for him why don't you try to win his affection? and whoever heard of a heart being won by whining and fault-finding? But of this be sure, you shall not spoil this day. I charge you as a wife and a lady to cease this childish petulance, and come down at once."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Mayhew, rising mechanically, "if you are going to make a scene—-"
"I am going to prevent scenes," said Ida, with all her old time imperiousness. "I insist that we appear in the future like a quiet, well-bred family, and I warn you that I will permit my father to be trifled with no longer. He SHALL have a chance. Wait, let me help you make a more becoming toilet for Sunday evening."
Ida was very strongly aroused, and the superior nature mastered the weaker. Mrs. Mayhew became as wax in her hands, although she made many natural and irritable protests against her daughter speaking to her as she had done. Ida paid no heed to her mother's words, and after giving a few finishing touches to her dress relieved her sternness by a judicious compliment, "I wish you to take the seat father is reserving for you," she said, "and appear the charming lady that you know how to be so well;" and without further parley they went down together.
Once in the social eye it would be Mrs. Mayhew's strongest impulse to make a good impression, and she behaved beautifully. Something in Ida's manner puzzled her father, but she smiled so reassuringly that he gave himself up to the quiet enjoyment of the situation that was so natural and yet so novel. He listened with a pleased expression to the music, and noted, with deep satisfaction, the friendly and respectful bearing of those near, towards both his wife and himself; but he exulted in the evident admiration that his daughter excited. The people at the Lake House had already discovered that there was a decided change for the better in the Mayhew family, and they greeted the improvement with a kindly but well-bred and unobtrusive welcome that was creditable to human nature. Of course there was a great deal of whispered surmise, but nothing offensive to the eye.
Stanton came and asked Ida to join in the singing at the piano, but she shook her head decidedly.
"Who has been hurting your feelings?" he asked, in a low tone.
By a scarcely perceptible gesture, she put her finger on her lips and said quietly, "They are waiting for you, Cousin Ik." Then she added, with a smile, "Somewhere I've heard a proverb expressing surprise that Saul should be among the prophets. I hardly think it will be in good taste for me to appear among them just yet."
"And I once believed her to be a fool," thought Stanton as he returned to his place.
Again, on this Sunday evening, keen eyes were watching her from the dusky piazza, but so far from being wolfish and ravenous, they were full of sympathy and admiration.
As Van Berg approached the parlor windows after his return, he saw Stanton standing by the piano at Jennie Burton's side, and she was looking up to him and speaking in a very friendly manner. He was not conscious of any appropriate pangs of jealousy, and indeed did not miss their absence, but he looked eagerly around for the problem his philosophical mind was so bent on solving.
At first the favorable impression made by the reunited family caught his attention, and he muttered, "There is some more of her magic. But what is the matter with Miss Mayhew herself. Her eyes are burning with a fire that is anything but tender and sacred, and there are moments when her face is almost stern, and again it is full of trouble."
Some one discovered him on the piazza, and there was a general wish expressed that he should sing with Miss Burton a duet that had become a favorite. After this and one or two other pieces, he again sought his place of observation. The color and fire had now wholly faded from Miss Mayhew's face, and she looked pale and sad. Her father turned to her, and said:
"Ida, I fear you don't feel well."
"I'm very tired, and think I had better go to my room."
He rose instantly, and gave her his arm, but on the way she reassured him: "A night's sleep, and the rest I shall have with you in the city are just what I need; so don't worry, for I shall be ready to take the train with you in the morning;" and Mr. Mayhew rejoined his wife, and completed a happier day than he ever expected to see again.
But poor Ida, when left alone, buried her face in her hands and sobbed, "I've wounded HIS feelings, I've given way to my old passionate anger, I've spoken to mother as a daughter never should. What will ever become of faulty Ida Mayhew? The worm-eaten emblem is true of me still."
Then, as if whispered to her by some good angel, the words Mr. Eltinge had spoken recurred to her. "Your Saviour will be as tender and patient with you as a mother with her baby that is learning to walk."
"Oh," she cried, in a low, passionate tone, "that is the kind of a God I need!"
She also remembered the reassuring words that Mr. Eltinge had quoted—"As one whom his mother comforteth so will I comfort you," and the promise was made good to her.
"Stanton," said Van Berg, a little abruptly, before they parted that evening, "I fear, from your cousin's appearance, she was ill when she left the parlor."
"I've given up trying to understand Ida. When she came down with her mother, she looked like an incensed goddess, and when she returned she reminded me of the fading white lily she wore in her hair. I give it up," concluded Stanton, whose language had become a trifle figurative and poetic of late.
"I don't," muttered the artist, after smoking the third consecutive cigar in solitude.
Chapter XLVII. The Concert Garden Again.
Van Berg had scarcely ever known a day to pass more slowly and heavily than Monday. He had taken pains to be present at Ida's departure with her father, and it had depressed him unaccountably that she had been so quiet as to seem even a little cold in her farewell. She would not look towards him, nor could he catch her eye or obtain one friendly expression. He did not know that the poor girl dared not smile or speak lest she should be too friendly, and that she avoided him with the instinct of self-preservation. His conclusion was: "She finds, after thinking it all over, that she has far more to forgive than she thought, and my presence reminds her of everything she would be glad to forget."
He tried once or twice to find Jennie Burton, but did not succeed. She made no apparent effort to avoid him, and was so cordial in her manner when they met that he had severe compunctions that he did not seek her society resolutely and press his suit. "The summer is drawing to a close," he muttered, "and nothing is settled. Confound it all! I'm the least settled of anything. The best chance I shall ever have is passing swiftly. Ever faculty I possess assures me that she is the one woman of all the world. I honor her, I reverence her, I admire her and everything she does and says. I trust her implicitly, even though she is so shrouded in mystery. What the mischief is the matter with my old water-logged heart that it should be so heavy and dumpish?"
But so it was. Jennie Burton smiled on him and others as brightly as ever, and yet he knew her heart was breaking, for she was growing slighter and more spirit-like daily. His desire to comfort her, however, by a life-long effort ebbed away, till he was cursing himself for a fickle, cold-blooded wretch. "I had better shut myself up in my studio," he said to himself. "I may make a painter, but I never will anything else;" and early on Tuesday he went doggedly to work on Mr. Eltinge's picture.
His perplexed and jarring thoughts gradually ceased their discord as he became absorbed in his loved and familiar tasks. Sweet and low at first, and in the faint, broken suggestion of his kindling fancy, the symphonic poem he had heard in the garden began again, but at last his imagination made it almost real. He listened once more to Ida's girlish, plaintive voice blending with the murmur of the brook, the sighing wind and rustling leaves, and the occasional trill of a bird. He leaned back in his chair, and his eyes became full of deep and dreamy pleasure. Gradually a heavy frown contracted his brow, and his face grew white and stern as he repeated words that she once had spoken to him: "I meant to compel your respect, and I thought there was no other way."
"Pharisee, fool that I was! If I had been kind and trustful at the time her family wronged her, she would not now shrink from me as if I summed up in my person the whole of that wretched experience. Even Stanton appreciated my unutterable folly, for he said: "You looked at her in a way that would have frozen even Jezebel herself," and now whenever I glance towards her she is reminded of that accursed stare. Would it be possible, in painting her likeness for Mr. Eltinge, to make her face so noble, womanly, and pure, that she would recognize my present estimate of her character, and so forgive me in very truth?"
The care and earnestness with which he filled in the outlines of his sketch proved how zealously he would make the effort. In the afternoon he drove over to the garden again, and made a careful drawing of the tree and of Mr. Eltinge sitting beneath it, for Ida, and he determined to go to the city the following day the he might avail himself of the resources of his studio, and by the aid of this hasty sketch make as fine a crayon picture as would be possible, before her return on Saturday.
The old gentleman's heart was naturally warm towards his protege, whom they both missed greatly, and he spoke of her often. He could not help noticing that the artist was ever an excellent listener at such times and would even suspend his work for a moment that he might not lose a word. "It seems to me he takes a wonderful deal of interest in her for a man who is seeking to engage himself to another lady," mused Mr. Eltinge. "I think the other lady had better be looking after him."
As Van Berg approached the hotel, he saw Miss Burton mounting the steps with a quantity of ferns in her hands. She evidently was returning from a long ramble, and when she came down to supper he saw that she had not been able to remove wholly all traces of grief. His conscience smote him sorely. He hesitated in his purpose of going to the city, and determined to speak of it frankly, and abandon it, if she showed, even by the expression of her face, that she would prefer he would remain, but he found himself both surprised and relieved that, so far from manifesting the least reluctance to have him go, she encouraged the plan.
"You have a noble theme," she said cordially, "and you can't do it justice in the room of a summer hotel. Besides I do think you owe it to Miss Mayhew to make all the amends in your power, and a fine picture of that emblematic tree, and her kind old friend beneath it, may be of very great help to her in her new life. I hope you will take me to see Mr. Eltinge on your return."
"I'll wait over a day and take you there to-morrow," he said promptly.
"No," she replied decisively; "you have not enough time as it is, before Saturday, to do justice to your work, and I want you to make Miss Mayhew's friend look as if he were speaking to her."
"Miss Jennie," said the artist rather impulsively, "you haven't a drop of selfish blood in your little body."
"I am under the impression that Mr. Van Berg's estimates of his lady acquaintances are not always correct. Not that I was any wiser, but then such positive assertions seem hardly the thing from people who have shown themselves so fallible."
"I'm right for once," Van Berg insisted. "Do you know that Miss Mayhew and I nearly had a falling out. Indeed she has been rather cool towards me ever since, and you were the cause. I believed with absolute certainty that the new Ida Mayhew that I had learned to know in Mr. Eltinge's garden would gravitate towards you as surely as two drops of dew run together when brought sufficiently near, and I began to speak quite enthusiastically of what friends you would surely become, when Miss Mayhew's manner taught me I had better change the subject. Oddly enough, she has never liked you, and yet, in justice to her, I must add that she acted conscientiously, and I have never heard one lady speak of another more favorably and sincerely, than she spoke of you, though it seemingly cost her an effort."
A sudden moisture came into Jennie Burton's eyes, and she said under her breath: "Poor child! that was noble and generous of her to speak so of me. Oh, how blind he is!" But with mock gravity she answered him:
"Your rather sentimental figure of speech, Mr. Van Berg, shows where your error lies. Miss Mayhew and myself are not pellucid drops of dew that you look through at a glance. We are women: and the one thing in this world which men never will learn to understand is a woman. I'm going to puzzle you still further. I am learning to have a very thorough respect for Miss Mayhew. I am beginning to admire her exceedingly, and to think that she is growing exquisitely beautiful; and yet were she here this week you would find that I would not seek her society. Give your mind to your art, and never hope to untangle the snarl of a woman's mind. Men, in attempting such folly, have become hopelessly entangled. Take a woman's word for it—what you see you can't reason out. I've no doubt but that Miss Mayhew has excellent reasons for disliking me, and the fact that you can't understand them is nothing against them."
"Miss Jennie," said Van Berg resolutely, "for once I cannot take your word for it. You two ladies have puzzled me all summer, and I'll never be content till I solve the mysteries which so baffle me. My interest is not curiosity, but friendship, to say the least, that I hope will last through life. You will tell me some day all your trouble, and you will feel the better for telling me."
She became very pale at these words, and said gravely: "I cannot promise that—I doubt it. You may have to trust me blindly till you forget me."
"I do not trust you blindly; I never will forget you," he began, impetuously.
"Good-night, Mr. Van Berg," she said, and in a moment he was alone on the piazza.
"She is an angel of light, he muttered, "and not a woman. I could worship her, but I'm too earthy in my nature to lover her as I ought."
He took the earliest train to New York, and so had a long afternoon in his studio. He was surprised to find how absorbed he soon became in his work. "Miss Jennie is right," he thought; "I'm an artist, and not a reformer or a metaphysician, and I had better spend my time here than in trying to solve feminine enigmas;" and he worked like a beaver until the fading light compelled him to desist. "There," he said, "that is a fair beginning. Two or three more days of work like this will secure me, I think, a friendlier glance than Miss Ida gave me last." From which words it might be gathered that he was thinking of other rewards than mere success in his art.
In the evening the wand of Theodore Thomas had a spell which he never thought of resisting, and it must be admitted that there lurked in his mind the hope that Ida and her father might be drawn to the concert garden also. If so, he was sure he would pursue his investigations.
He was rewarded, for Mr. Mayhew and his daughter soon entered and took seats in the main lobby, where he and Stanton had sat nearly three months before. Van Berg congratulated himself that he was outside in the promenade, and so had not been observed; and he sought a dusky seat from which he might seek some further knowledge of a character that had won and retained a deepening interest from the time of their first meeting, which now seemed an age ago. Events mark time more truthfully than the course of the sun.
At first she seemed only solicitous about her father, who lighted a cigar and said something to her that must have been very reassuring and pleasant, for a glad smile broke over her pale face. But it vanished quickly, and the artist saw that her habitual expression was sad, and even dejected. She did not look around with the breezy alertness natural to a young girl in such a place. The curiously diverse people around her excited no interest, and she appeared inclined to lapse into deep reveries, even when the music was light and gay, as was the character of the earlier part of the entertainment. At times she would start perceptibly when her father spoke to her, and hesitate in her answer, as if she had to recall her thoughts from far-off wanderings. It would seem that Mr. Mayhew was troubled by her sad face and absent manner. He justly felt that the brilliant music ought to enliven her like sunlight; and that it did not proved the presence of some intervening cloud.
Van Berg's sympathies and interest at last became so strong that he determined to speak to her at once, but before he could take a step towards her the orchestra began playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the very music she ignored for the sake of Mr. Minty's compliments when first she had so exasperated him by her marvellously perfect features, but disagreeable face. He had not looked at the programme, and that this symphony should now be repeated seemed such a fortunate coincidence that he could not resist the temptation of contrasting the woman before him with the silly and undeveloped girl he first had seen. Moreover, he knew that the music must remind her of him, and he might gain a hint of her present feelings toward him. Either the beauty or something familiar in the exquisite strains soon caught her attention, and she took up her programme, which hitherto had lain neglected on her lap. She crimsoned instantly, and her brow contracted into a frown; a moment later an expression of intense disgust passed over her face.
"Now I know what she thinks of me," he thought with a sinking heart. "I doubt whether I had better speak to her this evening, and at this place."
"What's the matter, Ida?" asked her father. "Don't you like the music?"
"I have disagreeable associations connected with it. The fault is wholly in me, and not the music."
"Ida, darling, you are making me so happy that I wish I could do as much for you."
"Don't worry, father," she said, trying to smile. "I'm happier than I deserve. Listen!"
As the last exquisite cadences died away, Van Berg saw that there were tears in her eyes. What did they mean? "Stanton repeated my harsh words and she recalls them," was the best explanation he could think of. "By the fates!" he exclaimed, "if there isn't Sibley with a toilet as spotless as he is himself smirched and blackened. Curse him! he actually has the impudence to speak to Miss Mayhew," and the artist started up threateningly, but before discovering himself, he remembered that Ida's natural protector was at her side. And yet he fairly trembled with rage and protest, that this fellow should be so near her again. He also saw that Mr. Mayhew rose and looked very menacing. But Ida was equal to the emergency, and extricated herself with womanly dignity, for while she blushed scarlet with shame, she was quiet and self-possessed, and paid no heed to his eagerly proffered hand.
"I was not myself that hateful day, Miss Ida," he said hastily.
"I fear you were, sir," she coldly replied. "At any rate, I am not my old self, and until you win and maintain the character of a gentleman, we must be strangers. Good evening, sir;" and she turned her back upon him.
His face became fairly livid with rage, but on encountering the stern and threatening eyes of Mr. Mayhew he slunk away and left the building.
"That's my peerless, noble Ida," whispered her father. "Oh thank God! thank God! I could not have survived if you had realized the fears I once had about that low scoundrel."
Ida's lip quivered as she said, "Father, please take me home. I don't enjoy myself here." They had taken but a few steps toward the door when the artist confronted them with eyes aglow with admiration and sympathy.
Poor Ida had no time to mask her feelings or check her impulses, and she took his extended hand as if she were sinking, while the color and light of welcome flashed brightly into her face. Then her beautiful confusion suggested that she felt her greeting had been too cordial, and she sought with indifferent success to regain her dignity.
"Please don't go just yet," said Van Berg eagerly. "The concert is but half over, and there are some pretty things still to come."
Ida hesitated and looked doubtfully at her father.
"I shall be very glad to stay," he said with a smile, "if you feel able to. My daughter is not very well, I fear," he added in explanation to the artist.
"Perhaps it has been a little close here in the lobby," suggested Van Berg, "and a walk in the open air will be agreeable. If you will trust your daughter to me, sir, I promise to bring her back before she is tired. I have much to tell her about her old friend, Mr. Eltinge, whom I visited yesterday, and the pictures. Perhaps you will go with us, for I know what I have to say will interest you also."
"I think I'll light another cigar and wait for you here," Mr. Mayhew answered quietly. "Old people like to sit still after their day's work, and if Ida feels strong enough I would enjoy hearing the rest of the concert."
"It would be hard to resist the temptation to hear anything about dear old Mr. Eltinge," said Ida, taking the artist's arm, and feeling as if she were being swept away on a shining tide.
"You WERE glad to see me, Miss Mayhew, and you can't deny it," Van Berg began exultantly.
"You almost crushed my hand, and it aches still," was her demure reply.
"Well, that was surely the wound of a friend."
"You are very good to speak to me at all, after all that's happened," she said in a low tone and with downcast face.
"What a strange coincidence! That is exactly what I was thinking of you. I almost feared you would treat me as you did Sibley. How much good it did me to see him slinking away like a whipped cur! I never realized before how perfectly helpless even brazen villainy is in the presence of womanly dignity."
"Why, were you present then?" she asked, with a quick blush.
"Not exactly present, but I saw your face and his, and a stronger contrast I scarcely expect to see again."
"You artists look at everything and everybody as pictures."
"Now, Miss Mayhew, you are growing severe again. I don't carry the shop quite as far as that, and I have not been looking at you as a picture at all this evening. I shall make known the whole enormity of my offence, and the if I must follow Sibley, I must, but I shall carry with me a little shred of your respect for telling the truth. I had a faint hope that you and your father would come to-night, and I was looking for you, and when you came I watched you. I could not resist the temptation of comparing the Miss Mayhew I now so highly esteem and respect, with the lady I first met at this place."
"Oh, Mr. Van Berg," said Ida, in a low, hurt tone, "I don't think that was fair to me, or right."
"I am confessing and not excusing myself, Miss Mayhew. I once very justly appeared to you like a prig, and now I fear I shall seem a spy; but after our visit to that old garden together, and your frankness to me, I feel under bonds to tell the whole truth. You said we were fated to misunderstand each other. I think not, for if you ever permit me to be your friend I shall be the frankest one you ever had;" at these words he felt her hand trembling on his arm, and she would not look up nor make any reply.
"Well," said he, desperately, "I expect Sibley's fate will soon be mine. I suppose it was a mean thing to watch you, but it would seem a meaner thing to me not to tell you. I was about to speak to you, Miss Mayhew, when by another odd coincidence the orchestra commenced playing music that I knew would remind you of me. I was gaining the impression before you left the country that as you came to think the past all over, you had found that there was more against me than you could forgive, or else that I was so inseparably associated with that which was painful that you would be glad to forget the one with the other. I must admit that this impression was greatly strengthened by the expression of your face, and I almost decided to leave the place without speaking to you. But I found I could not, and—well, you know I did not. You see I'm at your mercy again."
Ida was greatly relieved, for she now learned that he had discovered nothing in his favor, and that she was still mistress of the situation.
"I do not think you are very penitent; I fear you would do the same thing over again," she said.
"Indeed, Miss Mayhew, when I first met you here I thought I would always do the right and proper thing, and I fear I thought some things right because I did them. I've lived a hundred years since that time, and am beginning to find myself out. Didn't you think me the veriest prig that ever smiled in a superior way at the world?"
"I don't think I shall give you my opinion," she replied, averting her face to hide a blush and a laugh.
"No need. I saw your opinion in your face when you looked down at your programme half an hour since."
"You are mistaken; I was thinking of myself at that moment, for I could not help remembering what a fool I must have appeared to you on that occasion."
He looked at her in surprise. "Miss Burton was right," he ejaculated, "I never shall understand you."
"Was she talking about me?" asked Ida, in a low tone.
"Yes, and she spoke of you in the most complimentary way, as you did of her. Why the mischief you two ladies do not become the warmest friends is beyond me. Sit down here a little while, Miss Mayhew, for you are growing tired;" and she was very glad to comply.
As she made no effort to continue the conversation he resumed, "You haven't told me what my punishment is to be."
"Are you so anxious to be punished?" she asked, looking up shyly at him.
"Well, my conscience troubles me greatly, and I feel I ought to do something for you in the way of expiation."
"And so I gather that anything done for me would be such severe penance that your conscience would be appeased."
"Now, Miss Mayhew," he replied, looking earnestly into her face, "tell me truly, do you gather any such impression from my words and manner?"
But she kept her eyes resolutely on the ground, and said demurely, "Such was the obvious meaning of your words."
"Do you know why I am in the city?" he asked after a moment.
"I have not presumed to think why."
"Perhaps I can make a little inroad in your indifference when I tell you that I have spent several hours in my studio working on your picture, and that I intend to work the remainder of the week so as to have it ready for you Saturday evening."
She looked up now with a face radiant with surprise and pleasure, "O Mr. Van Berg, I did not dream of your taking so much trouble for me."
"That's a small payment on an old debt. What can I do for you while I am in the city, to atone for my rudeness?"
She looked at him hesitatingly and wistfully a moment.
"I know you wish something, but fear to ask it," he said, gently, "and I'm sorry to remember I've done so little to inspire your confidence."
"Mr. Van Berg," she said in a low tone, looking earnestly at him while she spoke, so as to learn from his expression how he received her request. "Your kindness does tempt me to ask a favor. Please remember I'm acting from an impulse caused by this unexpected talk we are having, and pardon me if I overstep the bounds of reserve or suggest a task that you might very naturally shrink from as disagreeable."
"I pledge you my word at once to do what you wish."
"No, don't do that. Wait till you hear all. If when it comes easily and naturally in your way you will do a little towards helping me keep father the man he can be, my gratitude will be deeper than you can understand. I am studying him very carefully and I find that any encouraging recognition from those who have known his past, has great weight with him. At the same time it must be very unobtrusive and come as a matter of course as it were. You gave him your society one Sunday morning last June in a way that did him a great deal of good, and if I had only seconded your efforts then, everything might have been different. I can never remember that day without a blush of shame. I can't help the past, but my whole soul is now bent on making amends to father. I fear, however, my deep solicitude has led me to ask more than good taste can sanction."
"Miss Mayhew," said the artist, eagerly, "this is one of the best moments of my life. You could not have made such a request unless you trusted me, unless you had fully forgiven me all the wrong I have done you. I doubted if I could ever win your friendship, but I think I can claim a friend's place already in your esteem, since you are willing to let me share in so sacred a duty. I renew my pledge with double emphasis."
He never forgot the smile with which she rewarded him, as she said, in a low tone, "That's better than I thought. You are very kind to me. But I'm staying too long from father."
"We'll understand each other eventually," he said gently. "Now I know why tears were in your eyes before the symphony was over."
"No you don't," she whispered to herself.
As they took their seats by Mr. Mayhew he remarked with a smile, "Mr. Van Berg must have had a long budget of news frm your good old friend."
Ida looked at the artist in dismay, and was still more embarrassed as she saw a sudden flash of mirth and exultation in his eyes. But he turned to Mr. Mayhew and replied, promptly, "Two pictures are growing out of my visits to Mr. Eltinge and his garden. The one that is for Mr. Eltinge contains a portrait of Miss Mayhew as I saw her reading to him. I wish you and your daughter would visit my studio to-morrow and see the sketches, and if Miss Mayhew would give me one or two sittings, I could make a much better picture for Mr. Eltinge than now is possible, and I'm anxious to do the very best I can for him."
"I would be very glad to come," said Mr. Mayhew, and his pleased expression confirmed his words. "Will a visit before I go down town be too early?"
"Not at all. I am always at work early."
"Well, Ida, does Mr. Eltinge miss your visits very much? It's selfish in me to let you stay in the city."
"He does indeed, sir," said the artist answering for her. "He talked to me continually about her yesterday, although I can't say I tried to change the subject."
"Father, Mr. Van Berg shall not shield my short-comings," said Ida, with crimson cheeks. "I forgot to ask about Mr. Eltinge. To tell the truth, we were talking of old times. I met Mr. Van Berg here last June and I made a very bad impression on him."
"And I at the same time made a worse impression on Miss Mayhew," added the artist.
"Well," said her father, with a doubtful smile and a puzzled glace from one to the other, "one almost might be tempted to believe that you had been revising your impressions."
"Mine has not been revised, but changed altogether," said Van Berg, decisively.
"Come, father, let us go at once lest Mr. Van Berg's impressions change again," and her mirthful glance as she gave him her hand in parting revealed a new element in her character. She was not developing the cloying sweetness of honey.
Chapter XLVIII. Ida's Temptation.
If Van Berg had given thought to himself that evening as he did to Ida Mayhew he might have discovered some rather odd phenomena in his varying mental states. Earlier in the summer he had been a very deliberate and conscientious wooer. He had leisurely taken counsel of his reason, judgment, and good taste; he mentally consulted his parents, and satisfied himself that Miss Burton would have peculiar charms for them, and so it had come to seem almost a duty as well as a privilege to seek that young lady's hand. The sagacity and nice appreciation of character on which he had so greatly prided himself led to the belief that fortune in giving him a chance to win such a maiden had been very kind. That his pulse was so even and his heart had so little to say in the matter was only a proof that he did not possess an unbalanced head-long nature like that of Stanton, who had soon become wholly mastered by his passion. He had at one time reasoned it all out to his satisfaction, and believed he was paying his suit to the woman he would make his wife in an eminently proper way. but now that he was merely trying to obtain a young girl's friendship, the cool and masterful poise which he had then been able to maintain, was apparently deserting him. He might have asked himself if he ever remembered being such an enthusiastic friend before. He might have considered how often he had kept awake and counted the hours till he should meet a friend from whom he had just parted. That these obvious thoughts and contrasts did not occur to him only proved that he was smitten already by that blindness which a certain spiritual malady usually occasions in its earlier stages.
As for poor Ida, she still felt that her little boat was being carried forward by a shining tide—whither she dared not think. She had come to the city to escape from the artist, and as a result she might spend long hours alone with him in his studio and see far more of him than if she had remained in the country. She had not sought it—she had not even dared to hope or dream of such a thing; but now that this exquisite cup of pleasure had been pressed to her very lips by other hands she could not refuse it.
Her father had watched her keenly but furtively since she had been his companion, and until the artist had accosted her the evening before had not been able to understand the depression which she could not disguise wholly from him; but the light and welcome that flashed into her face when greeting Van Berg had suggested her secret, and all that followed confirmed his surmise. The truth was plainer still when she came down to their early breakfast the next morning with color in her cheeks and a fitful light of excitement in her eyes.
As he realized the truth he fairly trembled with apprehension and longing. "Oh, if Ida could only marry that man I would be almost beside myself with joy," he thought; "but I fear it is rash even to hope for such a thing. Indeed, I myself am the obstacle that would probably prevent it all. The Van Bergs are a proud race, and this young man's father knows me too well. O God! I could be annihilated if thereby my child could be happy."
"Ida," he said, hesitatingly, "perhaps I had better not go with you this morning. I imagine Mr. Van Berg asked me out of politeness rather than from any wish to see me and—and—I think I had better not go."
She looked up at him swiftly, and the rich color mantled her face, for she read his thoughts in part. But she only said quietly:
"Then I will not go."
"That would not be right or courteous, Ida," but I think you young people will get on better without me."
"You are mistaken, Father; I never intend to get on without you, and any friend of mine who does not welcome you becomes a stranger from that hour. But I think you are doing Mr. Van Berg an injustice. At any rate we will give him a chance to show a better spirit."
"Ida, my child, if you only knew how gladly I would sacrifice myself to make you happy!"
She came to him and put her arms around his neck and looking up into his face said, with the earnestness and solemnity of a vow, "I will take no happiness which I cannot receive as your loving daughter. As long as you are the man you have been since Sunday I will stand proudly at your side. If you should ever be weak again you will drag me down with you."
He held her from him and looked at her as a miser might gloat over his treasure.
"Ida, my good angel," he murmured.
"Nonsense!" she exclaimed, trying to hide her feelings by a little brusqueness, "I'm as human a girl as there is in this city, and will try your patience a hundred times before the year is out. Come, let us go and visit this proud artist. He had better beware, or he may find an expression on my face that he won't like if I should decide to give him a sitting."
But the artist did like the expression of Ida's face as he glanced up from his work with great frequency and with an admiring glow in his eyes that was anything but cool and business-like. Even her jealous love had not detected a tone or act in his reception of her father that was not all she could ask, and she had never seen the poor man look so pleased and hopeful as when he left the studio for his office. There had not been a particle of patronage in Van Berg's manner, but only the cordial and respectful courtesy of a younger gentleman towards an elderly one. Mr. Mayhew had been made at home at once, and before he left, the artist had obtained his promise to come again with his daughter on the following morning.
"His bearing towards father was the perfection of good breeding," thought Ida, and it would seem that some of the gratitude with which her heart overflowed found its way into her tones and eyes.
"You look so pleasantly and kindly, that you must be thinking of Mr. Eltinge," said Van Berg.
"You are not to paint my thoughts," said Ida, with a quick flush.
"I wish I could."
"I'm glad you can't."
"You do puzzle one, Miss Mayhew. On the day of our visit to the old garden your thoughts seemed as clear to me as the water of the little brook, and I supposed I saw all that was in your mind. But before the day was over I felt that I did not understand you at all."