"Oh, no, she is not her own mistress, she is oppressed by a bogie. I don't know the name of the bogie, or anything about it; but it is shadowing all Maggie's life; it is taking the sunshine away from her, and it is making it impossible for her to marry Mr. Hammond. They are both so fond of each other; they have both noble hearts, but the dreadful bogie spoils everything— it keeps them apart. Dear Miss Heath, I want you to come and kill the bogie."
"I must find out its name first," said Miss Heath.
AT THE ELLIOT-SMITHS PARTY
ROSALIND MERTON had been in the wildest spirits all day; she had laughed with the gayest, joined in all the games, thrown herself heart and soul into every project which promised fun, which gave a possibility for enjoyment. Rosalind's mood might have been described as reckless. This was not her invariable condition. She was a girl who, with all her gay spirits, took life with coolness. She was not given to over-excitement; her nerves were too well balanced for anything of this kind.
To-day, however, something seemed wrong with these equable nerves of hers: she could not keep still; her voice was never quiet; her laugh was constant. Once or twice she saw Annie Day's eyes fixed upon her; she turned from their glance; a more brilliant red than usual dyed her cheeks; her laugh grew louder and more insolent.
On this evening the Elliot-Smiths would give their long-promised party. The wish of Annie Day's heart was gratified; she had angled for an invitation to this merry-making and obtained it. Lucy Marsh was also going, and several other St. Benet's girls would be present.
Early in the evening Rosalind retired to her own room, locked her door, and, taking out her new white dress, laid it across the bed. It was a very pretty dress, made of soft silk, which did not rustle, but lay in graceful puffs and folds on body and skirt. It was just the dress to make this young, slight figure of Rosalind's look absolutely charming. She stood over it now and regarded it lovingly. The dress had been obtained, like most of Rosalind's possessions, by manoeuvres. She had made up a piteous story, and her adoring mother had listened and contrived to deny herself and some of Rosalind's younger sisters to purchase the white robe on which the young girl's heart was set.
Deliberately and slowly Rosalind made her toilet, her golden, curling hair was brushed out and then carefully coiled round her head. Rosalind had no trouble with her hair: a touch or two, a pin stuck here, a curl arranged there, and the arrangement became perfect— the glistening mass lay in natural waves over the small, graceful head.
Rosalind's hair arranged to her satisfaction, she put on her lovely white dress. She stood before her long glass, a white-robed little figure, smiles round her lips, a sweet, bright color in her cheeks, a dewy look in her baby-blue eyes. Rosalind's toilet was all but finished; she stood before her glass now and hesitated. Should she go to the Elliot-Smiths' as she was or should she give the last finishing touch to render herself perfect? Should she wear her beautiful coral ornaments?
The coral was now her own, paid for to the uttermost farthing; Polly Singleton could not come up to Rosalind now and disgrace her in public by demanding her coral back again. The coral was no longer Polly's; it was Rosalind's. The debt was cleared off; the exquisite ornaments were her own. Unlocking a drawer in her bureau, she took out a case, which contained her treasures; she touched the spring of the case, opened it and looked at them lovingly. The necklace, the bracelets, the earings and pins for the hair looked beautiful on their velvet pillow. For the sake of the pink coral, Rosalind had manoeuvred for her white dress; for its sake she had knowingly stinted her mother and sisters; for its sake she had also stolen a five-pound note from Maggie Oliphant. She dreamt many times of the triumphs which would be hers when she appeared at the Elliot-Smiths' in her white silk dress, just tipped with the slight color which the pink coral ornaments would bestow. Rosalind had likened herself to all kinds of lovely things in this beautiful yet simple toilet— to a daisy in the field, to a briar rose: in short, to every flower which denoted the perfection of baby innocence.
Yet, as she held the coral necklace in her hand tonight, she hesitated deeply whether it would be wise to appear at the Elliot-Smiths' in her treasured ornaments.
Rose had not felt comfortable all day. She had banished thought with the usual device of extra hilarity: she had crushed the little voice in her heart which would persistently cry, "Shame! shame!" which would go on telling her, "You are the meanest, the most wicked girl in St. Benet's; you have done something for which you could be put in prison." The voice had little opportunity of making itself heard that day, and, as Maggie Oliphant evidently did not intend to investigate the matter, Rosalind had every hope that her sin would never be found out. Nevertheless, she could not help feeling uneasy; for why did Annie Day, her own chosen and particular friend, so persistently avoid her? Why had Lucy Marsh refused to walk with her yesterday? and why did Annie so often look at her with meaning and inquiry in her eyes? These glances of Annie's caused Rosalind's heart to beat too quickly; they gave her an undefined sense of uneasiness.
She felt as she stood now before her glass that, after all, she was doing a rash thing in wearing her coral. Annie Day knew of her money difficulties; Annie knew how badly Rosalind had wanted four guineas to pay the debt she still owed for the ornaments. If Rosalind wore them to-night, Annie would ask numerous questions. Oh, yes, there was a risk— there was a decided risk— but Rosalind's vanity was greater than her fears.
There came a knock at her room door. To Rosalind's surprise, Annie Day's voice, with an extremely friendly tone in it, was heard outside.
"Are you ready, Rosie?" she cried; "for, if you are, there is just room for you in the fly with Lucy Marsh and Miss Singleton and myself."
"Oh, thank you!" cried Rosalind from the other side of the door; "just wait one moment, Annie, and I will be with you."
Both fear and hesitation vanished at the friendly tones of Annie's voice. She hastily fastened on her necklace and earrings, slipped on her bracelets and stuck the coral pins in her hair. She saw a dazzling little image in the glass and turned away with a glad, proud smile.
"We can't be kept waiting. Are you ready?" called Miss Day's voice in the passage.
"Yes, yes; in one moment, Annie, dear," replied Rosalind. She wrapped herself from head to foot in a long white opera cloak, pulled the hood over her head, seized her gloves and fan and opened the door. The coral could not be seen now, and Annie, who was also in white, took her hand and ran with her down the corridor.
A few moments later the four girls arrived at the Elliot-Smiths' and were shown into a dressing-room on the ground floor to divest themselves of their wraps. They were among the earliest of the arrivals, and Annie Day had both space and opportunity to rush up to Rosalind and exclaim at the perfect combination of white silk and pink coral.
"Lucy, Lucy!" she said, "do come and look at Rosalind's coral! Oh, poor Polly! you must miss your ornaments; but I am obliged frankly to confess, my dear, that they are more becoming to this little cherub than they ever were to you."
Polly was loudly dressed in blue silk. She came up and turned Rosalind round, and, putting her hand on her neck, lifted the necklace and looked at it affectionately.
"I did love those ornaments," she said; "but, of course, I can't grudge them to you, Rose. You paid a good sum for them— didn't you, dear?— although nothing like what they were worth, so, of course, they are yours by every right."
"You have paid off the debt? I congratulate you, Rose," said Annie Day.
"Yes," said Rosalind, blushing.
"I am glad you were able to get the money, my dear."
"And I wish she hadn't got it," retorted Polly. "Money is of no moment to me now. Dad is just rolling in wealth, and I have, in consequence, more money than I know what to do with. I confess I never felt crosser in my life than when you brought me that five-pounds note last Monday night, Miss Merton."
Rosalind colored, then grew very pale; she saw Annie Day's eyes blaze and darken. She felt that her friend was putting two and two together and drawing a conclusion in her own mind. Annie turned abruptly from Rosalind, and, touching Lucy Marsh on the arm, walked with her out of the dressing-room. The unsuspecting Polly brought up the rear with Rosalind.
The four girls entered the drawing-room, and Rosalind tried to forget the sick fear which was creeping round her heart in the excitement of the moment.
Nearly an hour later Maggie Oliphant arrived. She was also in white, but without any ornament, except a solitary diamond star which blazed in the rich coils of her hair. The beautiful Miss Oliphant was received with enthusiasm. Until her arrival Rose had been the undoubted belle of the evening, but beside Maggie the petite charms which Rose possessed sank out of sight. Maggie herself never felt less conscious of beauty; the heaviness of her heart made her cheeks look pale and gave her brown eyes a languid expression; she was indifferent to the admiration which greeted her. The admiration which greeted her gave her a momentary feeling of surprise— almost of displeasure.
Meta Elliot-Smith and her mother buzzed round Maggie and expressed their gratitude to her for coming.
"We expect a friend of yours to arrive presently," said Meta— "Mr. Hammond. You know Mr. Hammond, don't you? I have had a note from him. He says he will look in as soon after ten as possible. I am so glad; I was dreadfully afraid he couldn't come, for he had to go suddenly into the country at the beginning of this week. You know Mr. Hammond very well, don't you, Miss Oliphant?"
"Yes," replied Maggie in her careless voice; "he is quite an old friend of mine."
"You will be glad to see him?"
Meta looked at her in a puzzled way. Reports of Hammond's love affair had reached her ears. She had expected to see emotion and confusion on Maggie's face; it looked bright and pleased. Her "very glad" had a genuine ring about it.
"I am so delighted he is coming!" repeated Meta. "I do trust he will be here in good time."
She led Miss Oliphant to a prominent seat at the top of the room as she spoke.
"I shall have to leave soon after ten," replied Maggie, "so, if Mr. Hammond cannot arrive until after that hour, I shall not have the pleasure of seeing him."
"Oh, but you must really stay later than that; it would be too cruel to leave us so early."
"I am afraid I cannot. The gates are closed at St. Benet's at eleven o'clock, and I do not care to remain out until the last moment."
Meta was obliged, with great reluctance, to leave her guest, and a moment later Annie Day came up eagerly to Maggie's side.
"It's all right," she said, drawing Miss Oliphant into the shelter of a window; "I have found out all I want to know."
"What is that?" asked Maggie.
"Rosalind Merton is the thief."
"Miss Day, how can you say such dreadful things?"
"How can Rosalind do them? I am awfully sorry— indeed, I am disgusted— but the facts are too plain." Miss Day then in a few eager whispers, which Maggie in vain endeavored to suppress, gave her chain of evidence. Rosalind's distress; her passionate desire to keep the coral; her entreaties that Miss Day would lend her four guineas; her assurances that she had not a penny in the world to pay her debt; her fears that it was utterly useless for her to expect the money from her mother. Then the curious fact that, on the very same evening, Polly Singleton should have been given a five-pound note by her. "There is not the least doubt," concluded Miss Day, "that Rosalind must have gone into your room, Miss Oliphant, and stolen the note while Priscilla was absent. You know Miss Peel said that she did leave your room for a moment or two to fetch her Lexicon. Rosalind must have seized the opportunity; there cannot be a doubt of it."
Maggie's face turned white; her eyes were full of indignation and horror.
"Something must be done," continued Annie. "I am no prude, but I draw the line at thieves. Miss Merton ought to be expelled; she is not fit to speak to one of us."
"The affair is mine," said Maggie after a pause. "You must let me deal with it."
"I certainly will."
"I cannot say. I must think. The whole thing is terrible, it upsets me."
"I thought you would feel it. I am a good bit upset myself and so is Lucy Marsh."
"Does Miss Marsh know, too? In that case, Miss Day, it will, I fear, be my duty to consult Miss Heath. Oh, I must think; I can do nothing hastily. Please, Miss Day, keep your own counsel for the present, and ask Miss Marsh to do the same."
Annie Day ran off, and Maggie stood by the open window looking out at the starry night. Her head ached; her pulses beat; she felt sick and tired. The noise and laughter which filled the gaily thronged rooms were all discordant to her— she wished she had not come. A voice close by made her start— a hand not only clasped hers, but held it firmly for a moment. She looked up and said with a sudden impulse, "Oh, Geoffrey! I am glad you are here." Then, with a burning blush, she withdrew her hand from Hammond's.
"Can I help you?" he asked. His heart was beating fast; her words were tingling in his ears, but his tone was quiet. "Can I help you?" he repeated. "Here is a seat." He pulled a chair from behind a curtain, and Maggie dropped into it.
"Something is wrong," she said; "something dreadful has happened."
"May I know what it is?"
"I don't think I have any right to tell you. It is connected with the college; but it has given me a blow, and I was tired beforehand. I came here against my will, and now I don't want to talk to any one."
"That can be easily managed. I will stand here and keep off all intruders."
"Thank you." Maggie put her hand to her forehead.
The headache, which had scarcely left her for a fortnight, was now so acute that all her thoughts were confused; she felt as if she were walking in a dream. It seemed perfectly right and natural that Hammond should stand by her side and protect her from the crowd; it seemed natural to her at that moment, natural and even right to appeal to him.
After a long pause he said:
"I am afraid I also have bad news!"
"I went to see my uncle, Mr. Hayes."
"Yes; it was good of you— I remember."
"I failed in my mission. Mr. Hayes says that Miss Peel, our Prissie's aunt, would rather die than accept help from any one."
"Oh, how obstinate some people are!" replied Maggie wearily. "Happiness, help and succor come to their very door and they turn these good things away."
"That is true," replied Hammond. "I am firmly convinced," he added, "that the good angel of happiness is within the reach of most of us once at least in our lives, but for a whim— often for a mere whim— we tell him to go."
Maggie's face grew very white. "I must say 'good-by': I am going home," she said, rising. Then she added, looking full at Hammond, "Sometimes it is necessary to reject happiness; and necessity ought not to be spoken of as a whim."
"IF I HAD KNOWN YOU SOONER"
AS MAGGIE was leaving the crowded drawing-room she came face to face with Rosalind. One of those impulses which always guided her, more or less, made her stop suddenly and put her hand on the young girl's shoulder.
"Will you come home with me?" she asked.
Rosalind was talking gaily at the moment to a very young undergraduate.
"I am obliged to you," she began; "you are kind, but I have arranged to return to St. Benet's with Miss Day and Miss Marsh."
"I should like you to come now with me," persisted Maggie in a grave voice.
Something in her tone caused Rosalind to turn pale. The sick fear, which had never been absent from her heart during the evening, became on the instant intolerable. She turned to the young lad with whom she had been flirting, bade him a hasty and indifferent "good night" and followed Maggie out of the room.
Hammond accompanied the two girls downstairs, got their cab for them and helped them in.
After Rosalind consented to come home Miss Oliphant did not address another word to her. Rosalind sat huddled up in a corner of the cab; Maggie kept the window open and looked out. The clear moonlight shone on her white face and glistened on her dress. Rosalind kept glancing at her. The guilty girl's terror of the silent figure by her side grew greater each moment.
The girls reached Heath Hall and Maggie again touched Rosalind on her arm.
"Come to my room," she said; "I want to say something to you."
Without waiting for a reply she went on herself in front. Rosalind followed abjectly; she was shaking in every limb.
The moment Maggie closed her room door Rosalind flung her cloak off her shoulders, and, falling on her knees, caught the hem of Maggie's dress and covered her face with it.
"Don't, Rosalind; get up," said Miss Oliphant in a tone of disgust.
"Oh, Maggie, Maggie, do be merciful! Do forgive me! Don't send me to prison, Maggie— don't!"
"Get off your knees at once, or I don't know what I shall do," replied Maggie.
Rosalind sprang to her feet; she crouched up against the door; her eyes were wide open. Maggie came and, faced her.
"Oh, don't!" said Miss Merton with a little shriek, "don't look at me like that!" She put up her hand to her neck and began to unfasten her coral necklace. She took it off, slipped her bracelets from her arms, took her earrings out and removed her pins.
"You can have them all," she said, holding out the coral; "they are worth a great deal more— a great deal more than the money I— took!"
"Lay them down," said Maggie. "Do you think I could touch that coral? Oh, Rosalind," she added, a sudden rush of intense feeling coming into her voice, "I pity you! I pity any girl who has so base a soul."
Rosalind began to sob freely. "You don't know how I was tempted," she said. "I went through a dreadful time, and you were the cause— you know you were, Maggie. You raised the price of that coral so wickedly, you excited my feelings. I felt as if there was a fiend in me. You did not want the sealskin jacket, but you bid against me and won it. Then I felt mad, and, whatever you had offered for the coral, I should have bidden higher. It was all your fault; it was you who got me into debt. I would not be in the awful, awful plight I am in to-night but for you, Maggie."
"Hush!" said Maggie. The pupils of her eyes dilated curiously; she put her hand before them.
"The fruits of my bad half-hours," she murmured under her breath. After a long pause, she said:
"There is some truth in your words, Rosalind; I did help you to get into this false position. I am sorry; and when I tell Miss Heath the whole circumstance— as I must to-morrow— you may be sure I shall not exonerate myself."
"Oh, Maggie, Maggie, you won't tell Miss Heath! If you do, I am certain to be expelled, and my mother— my mother will die; she is not over strong just now, and this will kill her. You cannot be so cruel as to kill my mother, Maggie Oliphant, particularly when you yourself got me into this."
"I did not get you into this," retorted Maggie. "I know I am not blameless in the matter; but could I imagine for a moment that any girl, any girl who belonged to this college, could debase herself to steal and then throw the blame on another. Nancy Banister has told me, Rose, how cruelly you spoke to Priscilla— what agony your cruel words cost her. I did wrong, I own, but no act of mine would have tempted another girl to do what you have done. Now, stop crying; I have not brought you here to discuss your wickedness with you. I shall tell the whole circumstance to Miss Heath in the morning. It is my plain duty to do so, and no words of yours can prevent me."
With a stifled cry Rosalind Merton again fell on her knees.
"Get up," said Maggie, "get up at once, or I shall bring Miss Heath here now. Your crime, Rosalind, is known to Miss Day and to Miss Marsh. Even without consulting Miss Heath, I think I can take it upon me to say that you had better leave St. Benet's by the first train in the morning."
"Oh, yes— yes! that would be much the best thing to do."
"You are to go home, remember."
"Yes, I will certainly go home. But, Maggie, I have no money— I have literally no money."
"I will ask Priscilla Peel to go with you to the railway station, and I will give her sufficient money to pay your fare to London— you live in London, don't you?"
"Yes, at Bayswater."
"What is your address''
"19 Queen Street, Bayswater."
"Priscilla shall telegraph to your mother, when you start, and ask her to meet you at King's Cross."
Rosalind's face grew paler and paler. "What excuse am I to give to mother?" she asked.
"That is your own affair; I have no doubt you will find something to say. I should advise you, Rosalind, to tell your poor mother the truth, for she is certain to hear all about it from Miss Heath the following morning."
"Oh, what a miserable, miserable girl I am, Maggie!"
"You are a very miserable and sinful girl; It was a wretched day for St. Benet's when a girl such as you are came to live here. But I don't want to speak of that now, Rosalind; there is something you must do before you leave."
"What is that?"
"You must go to Priscilla Peel and humbly beg her pardon."
"Oh, I cannot, I cannot! You have no idea how I hate Priscilla."
"I am not surprised; the children of darkness generally hate those who walk in the light."
"Maggie, I can't beg her pardon."
"You can please yourself about that: I certainly shall not force you; but, unless you beg Priscilla's pardon and confess to her the wicked deed you have done, I shall lend you no money to go home. You can go to your room now, Rosalind; I am tired and wish to go to bed. You will be able to let me know your decision in the morning."
Rosalind turned slowly away. She reached her room before the other girls had arrived home, and tossing the coral ornaments on her dressing-table, she flung herself across her bed and gave way to the most passionate, heart-broken sobs that had ever rent her baby frame.
She was still sobbing, but more quietly, for the force of her passion had exhausted her, when a very light touch on her shoulder caused her to raise herself and look up wildly. Prissie was bending over her.
"I knocked several times," she said, "but you did not hear me, so I came in. You will be sick if you cry like this, Rose. Let me help you go to bed."
"No, no; please don't touch me. I don't want you, of all people, to do anything for me."
"I wish you would let me undress you. I have often helped Aunt Raby to go to bed when she was very tired. Come, Rose, don't turn away from me. Why should you?"
"Priscilla, you are the last person in the world who ought to be kind to me just now; you don't know, you can never, never guess, what I did to you."
"Yes, I can partly guess, but I don't want to think of it."
"Listen, Prissie: when I stole that money, I hoped people would accuse you of the theft."
Prissie's eyes filled with tears. "It was a dreadful thing to do," she said faintly.
"Oh, I knew you could never forgive me."
"I do forgive you."
"What! aren't you angry? Aren't you frantic with rage and passion?"
"I don't wish to think of myself at all: I want to think of you. You are the one to be pitied."
"I? Who could pity me?"
"Well, Rosalind, I do," answered Priscilla in a slow voice; "you have sunk so low, you have done such a dreadful thing, the kind of thing that the angels in heaven would grieve over."
"Oh, please don't talk to me of them."
"And then, Rosalind," continued Prissie, "you look so unlike a girl who would do this sort of thing. I have a little sister at home— a dear, little innocent sister, and her eyes are blue like yours, and she is fair, too, as you are fair. I love her, and I think all good things of her. Rosalind, I fancy that your mother thinks good things of you. I imagine that she is proud of you, and that she loves to look at your pretty face."
"Oh, don't— don't!" sobbed Rosalind. "Oh, poor mother, poor mother!" she burst into softened and sorrowful weeping. The hardness of her heart had melted for the time under the influence of Priscilla's tender words.
"I wish I had known you sooner," whispered Rose when Prissie bent down and kissed her before leaving her for the night. "Perhaps I might have been a good girl if I had really known you sooner, Priscilla Peel."
EARLY the next morning Rosalind Merton left St. Benet's College never to come back. She took all her possessions with her, even the pink coral, which, to their credit be it spoken, not a girl in the college would have accepted at her hands. Annie Day and Lucy Marsh were not the sort of people to keep their secret long, and before the day of her departure had expired nearly everyone at Heath Hall knew of Rosalind's crime. Miss Heath was made acquainted with the whole story at an early hour that morning.
"I may have done very wrong to let her go without obtaining your permission, Miss Heath," said Maggie, when the story was finished. "If so, please forgive me, and also allow me to say that, were the same thing to occur again, I fear I should act in the same way. I think my primary object in giving Rosalind money to go home this morning was to save the college from any open slur being cast upon it."
Miss Heath's face had grown very pale while Maggie was speaking. She was quite silent for a moment or two after the story was finished; then, going up to Miss Oliphant, she took her hand and kissed her.
"On the whole, my dear," she said, "I am obliged to you. Had this story been told me while Miss Merton, was in the house I should have been obliged to detain her until all the facts of this disgraceful case were laid before the college authorities, and then, of course, there would have been no course open but to publicly expel her. This, at least, you have spared St. Benet's, and I am relieved from the terrible responsibility. I'll say nothing now about the rule you have broken, for, of course, you had no right to assist Rosalind to go home without permission. It lies within my discretion to forgive you, Maggie, however, so take my kiss, dear."
The vice-principal and Miss Oliphant talked for some little time longer over Rosalind's terrible fall, and, as Miss Heath felt confident that the story would get abroad in the college, she said she would be forced to mention the circumstances to their principal, Miss Vincent, and also to say something in public to the girls of Heath Hall on the subject.
"And now we will turn to something else," she said. "I am concerned at those pale cheeks, Maggie. My dear," as the young girl colored brightly, "your low spirits weigh on my heart."
"Oh, don't mind me," said Maggie hastily.
"It is scarcely kind to say this to one who loves you. I have been many years vice-principal of this hall, and no girl, except Annabel Lee, has come so close to my heart as you have, Maggie. Some girls come here, spend the required three years and go away again without making much impression on any one. In your case this will not be so. I have not the least doubt that you will pass your tripos examination with credit in the summer; you will then leave us, but not to be forgotten. I, for one, Maggie can never forget you."
"How good you are!" said Maggie.
Tears trembled in the eyes which were far too proud to weep except in private.
Miss Heath looked attentively at the young student, for whom she felt so strong an interest. Priscilla's words had scarcely been absent from her night or day since they were spoken.
"Maggie ought to marry Mr. Hammond. Maggie loves him and he loves her, but a bogie stands in the way." Night and day Miss Heath had pondered these words. Now, looking at the fair face, whose roundness of outline was slightly worn, at the eyes which had looked at her for a moment through a veil of sudden tears, she resolved to take the initiative in a matter which she considered quite outside her province.
"Sit down, Maggie," she said. "I think the time has come for me to tell you something which has lain as a secret on my heart for over a year."
Maggie looked up in surprise, then dropped into a chair and folded her hands in her lap. She was slightly surprised at Miss Heath's tone, but not as yet intensely interested.
"You know, my dear," she said, "that I never interfere with the life a student lives outside this hall. Provided she obeys the rules and mentions the names of the friends she visits, she is at liberty, practically, to do as she pleases in those hours which are not devoted to lectures. A girl at St. Benet's may have a great, a very great friend at Kingsdene or elsewhere of whom the principals of the college know nothing. I think I may add with truth that were the girl to confide in the principal of her college in case of any friendship developing into— into love, she would receive the deepest sympathy and the tenderest counsels that the case would admit of. The principal who was confided in would regard herself for the time being as the young girl's mother."
Maggie's eyes were lowered now; her lips trembled; she played nervously with a flower which she held in her hand.
"I must apologize," continued Miss Heath, "for having alluded to a subject which may not in the least concern you, my dear. My excuse for doing so is that what I have to tell you directly bears on the question of marriage. I would have spoken to you long ago, but, until lately, until a few days ago, I had not the faintest idea that such a subject had even distantly visited your mind."
"Who told you that it had?" questioned Maggie. She spoke with anger. "Who has dared to interfere— to spread rumors? I am not going to marry. I shall never marry."
"It is not in my power at present to tell you how the rumor has reached me," continued Miss Heath, "but, having reached me, I want to say a few words about— about Annabel Lee."
"Oh, don't!" said Maggie, rising to her feet, her face pale as death. She put her hand to her heart as she spoke. A pang, not so much mental as bodily, had gone through it.
"My dear, I think you must listen to me while I give you a message from one whom you dearly loved, whose death has changed you, Maggie, whose death we have all deeply mourned."
"A message?" said Maggie; "a message from Annabel! What message?"
"I regarded it as the effects of delirium at the time," continued Miss Heath, "and as you had fever immediately afterward, dreaded referring to the subject. Now I blame myself for not having told you sooner, for I believe that Annabel was conscious and that she had a distinct meaning in her words."
"What did she say? Please don't keep me in suspense."
"It was shortly before she died," continued Miss Heath; "the fever had run very high, and she was weak, and I could scarcely catch her words. She looked at me. You know how Annabel could look, Maggie; you know how expressive those eyes could be, how that voice could move one."
Maggie had sunk back again in her chair; her face was covered with her trembling hands.
"Annabel said," continued Miss Heath, "'tell Maggie not to mistake me. I am happy. I am glad she will marry'— I think she tried to say a name, but I could not catch it— tell her to marry him, and that I am very glad.'"
A sob broke from Maggie Oliphant's lips. "You might have told me before!" she said in a choked voice.
THE great event of the term was to take place that evening. The Princess was to be acted by the girls of St. Benet's, and, by the kind permission of Miss Vincent, the principal of the entire college, several visitors were invited to witness the entertainment. The members of the Dramatic Society had taken immense pains; the rehearsals had been many, the dresses all carefully chosen, the scenery appropriate— in short, no pains had been spared to render this lovely poem of Tennyson's a dramatic success. The absence of Rosalind Merton had, for a short time, caused a little dismay among the actors. She had been cast for the part of Melissa:
"A rosy blonde, and in a college gown That clad her like an April daffodilly."
But now it must be taken my some one else.
Little Ada Hardy, who was about Rosalind's height, and had the real innocence which, alas! poor Rosalind lacked, was sent for in a hurry, and, carefully drilled by Constance Field and Maggie Oliphant, by the time the night arrived she was sufficiently prepared to act the character, slight in itself, which was assigned to her. The other actors were, of course, fully prepared to take their several parts, and a number of girls were invested in the
"Academic silks, in hue The lilac, with a silken hood to each, And zoned with gold."
Nothing could have been more picturesque, and there was a buzz of hearty applause from the many spectators who crowded the galleries and front seats of the little theater when the curtain rose on the well-known garden scene, where the Prince, Florian and Cyril saw the maidens of that first college for women— that poet's vision, so amply fulfilled in the happy life at St. Benet's.
There One walk'd, reciting by herself, and one In this hand held a volume as to read, And smoothed a petted peacock down with that: Some to a low song oar'd a shallop by, Or under arches of the marble bridge Hung, shadow'd from the heat: some hid and sought In the orange thickets: others tost a ball Above the fountain jets, and back again With laughter: others lay about the lawns, Of the older sort, and murmur'd that their May Was passing: what was learning unto them? They wish'd to marry: they could rule a house; Men hated learned women. . . ."
The girls walked slowly about among the orange groves and by the fountain jets. In the distance the chapel bells tolled faint and sweet. More maidens appeared, and Tennyson's lovely lines were again represented with such skill, the effect of multitude was so skilfully managed that the
"Six hundred maidens, clad in purest white,"
appeared really to fill the gardens,
"While the great organ almost burst his pipes, Groaning for power, and rolling thro' the court A long melodious thunder to the sound Of solemn psalms, and silver litanies."
The curtain fell, to rise in a few moments amid a burst of applause. The Princess herself now appeared for the first time on the little stage. Nothing could have been more admirable than the grouping of this tableau. All the pride of mien, of race, of indomitable purpose was visible on the face of the young girl who acted the part of the Princess Ida.
"She stood Among her maidens, higher by the head, Her back against a pillar."
It was impossible, of course, to represent the tame leopards, but the maidens who gathered round the Princess prevented this want being apparent, and Maggie Oliphant's attitude and the expression which filled her bright eyes left nothing to be desired.
"Perfect!" exclaimed the spectators: the interest of every one present was more than aroused; each individual in the little theater felt, though no one could exactly tell why, that Maggie was not merely acting her part, she was living it.
Suddenly she raised her head and looked steadily at the visitors in the gallery: a wave of rosy red swept over the whitness of her face. It was evident that she had encountered a glance which disturbed her composure.
The play proceeded brilliantly, and now the power and originality of Priscilla's acting divided the attention of the house. Surely there never was a more impassioned Prince.
Priscilla could sing; her voice was not powerful, but it was low and rather deeply set. The well-known and familiar song with which the Prince tried to woo Ida lost little at her hands.
"O Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South, Fly to her, and fall upon her gilded eaves, And tell her, tell her what I tell to thee. "O tell her, Swallow, thou that knowest each, That bright and fierce and fickle is the South, And dark and true and tender is the North. "Why lingereth she to clothe her heart with love, Delaying as the tender ash delays To clothe herself, when all the woods are green? "O tell her, brief is life but love is long, And brief the sun of summer in the North, And brief the moon of beauty in the South. "O Swallow, flying from the golden woods, Fly to her, and pipe and woo her, and make her mine, And tell her, tell her that I follow thee."
The wooing which followed made a curious impression; this impression was not only produced upon the house, but upon both Prince and Princess.
Priscilla, too, had encountered Hammond's earnest gaze. That gaze fired her heart, and she became once again not herself but he; poor, awkward and gauche little Prissie sank out of sight; she was Hammond pleading his own cause, she was wooing Maggie for him in the words of Tennyson's Prince. This fact was the secret of Priscilla's power; she had felt it more or less whenever she acted the part of the Prince; but, on this occasion, she communicated the sensations which animated her own breast to Maggie. Maggie, too, felt that Hammond was speaking to her through Priscilla's voice.
"I cannot cease to follow you, as they say The seal does music; who desire you more Than growing boys their manhood; dying lips, With many thousand matters left to do, The breath of life; O more than poor men wealth, Than sick men health— yours, yours, not mine— but half Without you; with you, whole; and of those halves You worthiest, and howe'er you block and bar Your heart with system out from mine, I hold That it becomes no man to nurse despair, But in the teeth of clench'd antagonisms To follow up the worthiest till he die."
In the impassioned reply which followed this address it was noticed for the first time by the spectators that Maggie scarcely did herself justice. Her exclamation—
"I wed with thee! I, bound by precontract Your bride, your bondslave!"
was scarcely uttered with the scorn which such a girl would throw into the words if her heart went with them.
The rest of the play proceeded well, the Prince following up his advantage until his last words—
"Accomplish thou my mandhood and thyself; Lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me,"
brought down the house with ringing applause.
The curtain fell and rose again. The Prince and Princess stood with hands clasped. The eyes of the conquered Princess looked again at the people in the gallery, but the eyes she wanted to see did not meet hers.
An hour later Maggie Oliphant had occasion to go back to the forsaken green-room to fetch a bracelet she had left there. Priscilla was standing in the corridor when she passed. Quick as lightning Prissie disappeared, and, making her way into the library, which was thrown open for a general reception that evening, sought out Hammond, and, taking his hand, said abruptly:
"I want you; come with me."
In surprise he followed her into the hall.
"Maggie is in the green-room. Go to her," said Priscilla.
He raised his brows; his eyes seemed to lighten and then grow dark. They asked Priscilla a thousand questions; his lips refused to ask one.
Replying to the look in his eyes, Priscilla said again: "It is cruel of you to leave her alone. Go to her; she is waiting for you— and oh, I know that her heart has been waiting for you for a long, long time."
"If I thought that," said Hammond's eyes.
He turned without a word and went down the long corridor which led to the little theater.
Late that evening, after all the bustle and excitement were over and most of the guests had left, Miss Heath was standing in her own sitting-room talking to Prissie.
"And you have quite made up your mind, Prissie?"
"Yes," answered Priscilla. "I heard from Aunt Raby to-day; she told me all about Mr. Hammond's visit, for Mr. Hayes went to see her and told her everything."
"Well, Prissie," said Miss Heath, "what have you decided? It is a great chance for you, and there is nothing wrong in it; indeed, for aught we can tell, this may be the direct guiding of Providence."
"But I don't think it is," said Priscilla in a slow voice. "I have thought it all over very carefully, and I don't think the chance offered by dear Maggie would be a good one for me."
"Why not, my dear? Your reasons must be strong when you say this."
"I don't know if they are strong," answered Priscilla, "but they are at least decided. My father and mother were poor and independent. Aunt Raby is very poor and also independent. I fancy that were I rich in comparison, I might cease to be independent. The strong motive power might go. Something might be taken out of me which I could never get back, so I——" Her lips trembled.
"Pause a minute, Prissie; remember what Maggie offers, a sufficient income to support your aunt, to educate your sisters and to enable you to pursue those studies at St. Benet's for which you have the greatest talent. Think of the honors that lie before you; think how brilliantly you may pass your tripos examination with your mind at rest."
"That's not the point," said Priscilla. There was a ring in her voice which she must have inherited from a long line of rugged, proud but worthy ancestors. "In a question of this kind, I ought never to content myself with looking at the brilliant and tempting side. Forgive me, Miss Heath. I may have done wrong after all; but, right or wrong, I have made my resolve. I will keep my independence."
"Have you considered your Aunt Raby in this?"
"She has put herself absolutely out of the question by declining all aid as far as she is concerned. She says such assistance would kill her in a week. If I can earn money to help her before she dies, she will accept it from me with thankfulness, but from no one else."
"Then you will give up your Latin and Greek?"
"For the present, I must."
"And you are quite happy?"
"If Maggie and Mr. Hammond will only marry one another, I shall be one of the happiest girls in the world."
There came a knock at the door. Priscilla opened it.
"Prissie, darling!" said Maggie Oliphant's voice. She flung her arms round the young girl's neck and kissed her several times.
"It's all right, Priscilla," said Hammond.
Miss Heath made a step or two forward.
"Come and tell Miss Heath," said Prissie. "Miss Heath, here is Maggie! Here is dear Maggie and here is Mr. Hammond, and it is all right." Tears of gladness filled Priscilla's eyes. She went up to Hammond, took one of his hands in both her own and said in a voice of rapture, "I did help you to-night, didn't I? You know I said I would do anything in the world for you."
"You have done everything for me, Priscilla," replied Hammond. "I shall bless you while I live."
Maggie Oliphant's arms were round Miss Heath's neck; her head rested against her breast. "We have come straight to you," she said; "you told me that if such an occasion came, you would act as a mother to me."
"So I can and so I will, dear child. God bless you. You are happy now."
"Happy!" Maggie's eyes were glistening through the softest rainbow of tears. Hammond came and took the hand which she had suddenly thrown at her side.
"We both owe everything to Priscilla," he said.
BEFORE Maggie Oliphant left St. Benet's she brought some of the honor which had long been expected from her to the dearly loved halls: she took a first class in her tripos examination. With her mind at rest, a great deal of the morbidness of her character disappeared, and her last term at St. Benet's reminded the students who had known her in Annabel Lee's time of the old, brilliant and happy Maggie. Miss Oliphant's bad half-hours became rarer and rarer, and Hammond laughed when she spoke to him of them and said that she could not expect him to believe in their existence.
Shortly after the conclusion of the summer term Maggie and Hammond were married, and her little world at St. Benet's had to get on without the presence which had always exerted the influence of a strong personality and which had been potent both for good and evil.
By this time, however, a girl whose personal charms were few, whose poverty was apparent and whose gaucherie was even now often extreme, was more than filling the place left vacant by Maggie. Extreme earnestness, the sincerity of a noble purpose, the truthfulness of a nature which could not stoop to deceit, was spreading an influence on the side of all that was good and noble. No girl did more honor to Heath Hall than she who, at one time, was held up to derision and laughed at as odd, prudish and uninteresting.
Every one prophesied well for Priscilla in the future which lay before her; her feet were set in the right direction; the aim of her life was to become— not learned, but wise; not to build up a reputation, but to gain character; to put blessedness before happiness— duty before inclination.
Women like Priscilla live at the root of the true life of a worthy nation. Maggie Oliphant had brilliance, beauty, wealth; she had also strong personal influence and the power of creating love wherever she went; but, when Priscilla Peel leaves St. Benet's, she will be more missed than was Maggie.