"This brings me to another subject to which I desire to call your immediate attention. I wish her to select a couple of dresses suitable for your wear on the night of our reception-party, and at others which will, undoubtedly, be given in our honor. She objects to doing this unless I obtain from you a written request that she should thus aid me. She fears you may consider her action 'premature and officious.' Write to her at once, requesting her to do this sisterly favor for you, setting forth your distance from the city, the meagre assortment of the goods to be had in the Richmond stores, etc., and giving her carte blanche as to cost and style. It will be an inestimable advantage to your appearance on the occasions named should she oblige you in this particular. I earnestly desire that you should look your best at your introduction to her."
"'Maroon and green!' a 'baronial' hall, and new party-dresses for insignificant me!" Mabel stopped to say aloud in great amusement. "What would my sage brother have said to such paltry memoranda six months ago? He is an apt scholar, or he has an able teacher. Ah, well! love is a marvellous transmogrifier!"
With this apothegm from the storehouse of her lately acquired wisdom, she passed to the next paragraph.
"Now for another matter about which I meant to write to you yesterday, but I was prevented by our expedition to Lowell. The evenings I of course devote to Clara. I have not been so engrossed by my own very important concerns as to neglect yours. I stopped a day in Philadelphia, illy as I could afford the time, to make such investigations as I could, without exciting invidious suspicion, into the character of the person whom I found domesticated at Ridgeley on my return from my summer tour. The information I picked up in that cautious city was so meagre and tantalizing as to provoke me into the belief that he had selected his references with an eye to the slenderness of their knowledge of his personal history. Accident, however, has since placed within my reach a means of learning all that I wish to know. Without wearying you with explanations, which, indeed, I have no time to write—being engaged to drive out with Clara in an hour from this time—I will transcribe a portion of a letter received by me, two days since, from a gentleman of unexceptional standing, and upon whose word you may safely depend.
"He says: 'In reply to your queries as to my acquaintanceship with one Frederic Chilton, now a practising lawyer in the city of Philadelphia, I would, if conscience permitted, repay your frankness by evasion of a disagreeable truth. But in the circumstances which induced your appeal, I have no option. Hesitation or concealment would be unkind and dishonorable. I knew the man you speak of well—I may say intimately, while we were fellow-students in the—— law school, in 18—. He was then—what I have but too much reason for believing him at this day—a plausible, unprincipled man of pleasure. Our intercourse, which commenced at the card-table, terminated with a severe horsewhipping I administered to him in punishment of an offence offered a married lady—a relative of my own. Taking advantage of the protracted absence of her husband, who was a naval officer, he offered her many attentions, received by herself as tokens of innocent and friendly regard, until he forgot himself so far as to make her open and insulting proposals, even urging her to consent to an elopement, and threatening, in the event of her refusal, to ruin her by infamous calumnies. Her father was infirm; her husband in a foreign land. His base persecution would have met with no chastisement, had not I espoused the terrified woman's cause. These are the bare facts of the case. He merited a flogging—as you, a chivalric Virginian, will admit. I—a Northern man, with cooler blood, but I hope, as true a sense of honor and right as your own—inflicted this, as I am prepared to testify before any number of witnesses.'"
[Mabel was reading very fast, her eyes hurrying from side to side of the page, her face blanching, and her hands more numb with every word.]
"The above is a verbatim copy of that portion of my friend's letter which pertains to your affair," continued Mr. Aylett. "I shall write to Mrs. Sutton's protege by the mail that carries this, informing him of my opportune discovery, through no instrumentality of his providing, of the poverty of his claims to the title of gentleman, and the audacity of his pretensions to my sister's hand. Have what letters, etc., you have received from him ready packed to return to his address when I come home. My principal regret, in the review of the unfortunate entanglement, is that he ever visited Ridgeley and was known in the vicinity as your suitor. You will suffer from this, in the future, more than you can now suppose. A woman hardly ever outlives such a stigma.
"You may expect me on Thursday next, the 21st, at which time I hope to see most of the alterations I have ordered in an encouraging state of forwardness. Should Jenkyns be in town when you get this, write out my directions clearly and in full, and send them, with sample of damask, by mail.
"Your affectionate brother,
The clammy, nerveless hands dropped—the fatal sheet below them—into Mabel's lap. She did not cry out or moan. Things stricken to the heart generally fall dumbly. It was not her cramped position within the window-seat that paralyzed her limbs, nor the chill of the twilight that crept through vein and bone. For one sick second she believed herself to be dying, and would not have stirred a muscle or spoken a syllable to save the life which had suddenly grown worthless—worthless, since she was never to see Frederic again; be no more to him than if she had never laid her head upon his bosom; never felt his kisses upon lip and forehead; never lived upon his words of love as rapt mortals, admitted in trances to the banquet of the gods, eat ambrosia, and drink to divinest ecstacy of nectar—the elixir of immortal life and joy, sparkling in golden chalices.
She had had her dream—ravishing and brief—but the awakening was terrible as the struggle back to life from a swoon or deathful lethargy. As to thinking, I believe nobody thinks at such seasons. Nature shrinks in speechless horror at sight of the descending weight, and when it has fallen, lies motionless, gasping in breath to enable her to support the intolerable anguish, not speculating how to avert the next stroke. Frederic and she were parted! Had not Winston said so! And when was he known to reverse a verdict! She had nothing to do but sit still and let the waters go over her head.
Rosa was seated upon the upper step of the west porch, her chin cradled in her hand, her elbow on her knee, gazing on the darkening sky, and crooning Scotch ballads in a pensive, dreamy way. Mabel, from her perch, eyed her as if she were a creature belonging to another world—seen dimly, and comprehended yet more imperfectly. Yet it could not have been half an hour—thirty fleeting minutes—since the two had talked as dear friends out of the fulness of their hearts. Where were the hopes and happy memories that had made hers then a garden of pleasant things, a fruitful field which Heaven had blessed? In that little inch of time, the flood had come and taken them all away.
Would the dry aching in her throat and chest ever be less? Tears had gushed freely and healthfully after her last leave-taking with Frederic—the looked farewell, which was all Winston's surveillance had granted them. She had been wounded then by her brother's singular want of tact or feeling. She had not the spirit to resent anything to-night, unless it were that God had made and suffered to live a being so wretched and useless as herself. She supposed it was wicked—but she did not care! She ought to be resigned to the mysterious dispensations of Providence—that was the prescribed phraseology of pious people. She had heard the cant times without number. What more would they have than her utter destitution of love and bliss? Was she not miserable enough to satisfy the sternest believer in purgatorial purification? to appease the wrath even of Him who had wrought her desolation? It must be the judgment of a retributive Deity upon her idolatrous affection that she was bearing—her worship of Frederic. Yes, she had loved him; she loved him now better than she did anything else upon earth—better than she did anything in Heaven.
In the partial insanity of her woe and despair, she lifted her gray face and vacant eyes to the vast, empty vault, beyond which dwelt her Maker afar off, and said the words aloud—spat them at Him through hard, ashy lips.
"I love him! I love him! You have taken him from me—but I will love him for all that!"
Heaven—or Fate—her blasphemous mood did not distinguish the one from the other—was a robber. Her brother was pitiless as the death that would not answer to her call. Between them she was bereaved.
It was but a touch—the lightest breath of natural feeling that broke up the hot crust, that shut down the fountain of tears—Rosa's voice, tuneful and sad as a nightingale's, chanting the border-lays she loved so well:
"When I gae out at e'en. Or walk at morning air, Ilk rustling bush will seem to say I used to meet thee there. Then I'll sit down and cry, And live beneath the tree. And when a leaf falls in my lap, I'll oa' it a word from thee."
She had sung it herself to Frederic the night before he left her, and as she finished the artless ballad, he took her in his arms and kissed her.
As he would never do again!
"My darling! my darling!" she cried aloud.
Then the grief-drops came in a flood.
The servant who summoned Mabel to supper brought down word that she was not feeling well, and did not wish any.
"Not well! Bless me!" exclaimed Mrs. Sutton, starting up. "Rosa, love, excuse me for three seconds, please. I must see what is the matter. I do hope there is no bad news from—" (arrested by the recollection that there were servants in the room, she substituted for the name upon her lips)—"in her letters."
"I don't think she's much sick ma'am," said the maid. "She is a-settin' in the window."
"Where I left her with her letters, an hour and more ago," observed Rosa. "Don't hurry back if she needs you, Aunt Rachel. I will make myself at home; shall not mind eating alone for once."
Not withstanding the array of dainties before her, she only nibbled the edge of a cream biscuit with her little white teeth, and crumbled the rest of it upon her plate in listlessness or profound and active reverie, while the hostess was away. She, too, had her conjectures and her anxieties—a knotty problem to work out, and the longer she pondered the more confident was she that she had grasped at least one filament of the clue leading to elucidation.
Mabel had not stirred from her place—sat yet with her brother's letter in her lap, her hands lying heavily upon it, although her muslin dress was ghostly in the stream of moonlight flowing across the chamber. She had wept her eyes dry, and her voice was monotonous, but unfaltering.
"I am not really sick, aunt, but I have no appetite, and having a great deal to think of, I preferred staying here to going to the table," was her answer to Mrs Sutton's inquiries.
"Your hands are cold and lifeless as clay, my child. What is the matter? It is not like you to be moping up here, alone in the dark."
"Won't you leave me to myself for a while, and keep Rosa down-stairs?" asked Mabel, more patiently than peevishly. "Before bed-time I will see you in your room, and we can talk of what has disturbed me."
"My daughter," murmured the gentle-hearted chaperone, trying to draw the erect head to her shoulder, as she stood by her niece.
Mabel resisted the kindly force.
"No, no, aunt. I cannot bear that yet. I have just begun to think connectedly, and petting would unnerve me."
This was strange talk from the frank-hearted child she had reared from babyhood, and while she desisted from further attempts at consolation, Aunt Rachel took a very sober visage back to the supper-room with her, and as little appetite as Rosa had manifested. The meal was quickly over, and by way of obeying the second part of Mabel's behest, the innocent diplomatist begged Rosa to go to the piano.
"I always enjoy your delightful music, my dear. It makes the house more lively."
"Thank you, dear Mrs. Sutton. I should take pleasure in obliging you; but if Mabel is out of sorts, I don't believe she will care to have the house lively to-night," was the amiable rejoinder. "Moreover, I am dying to finish 'David Copperfield.' Will you allow me to curl myself up in the big chair here, and read for an hour?"
Mrs. Sutton gave a consent that was almost glad in its alacrity, and pretended to occupy herself with the newspapers brought by the evening mail, until she judged that Mabel had had season in which to compose her thoughts. Then she muttered something about "breakfast," "muffins," and "Daphne," caught up her key-basket, and bustled out.
Rosa's book fell from before her face at the sound of the closing door. The liquid eyes were turbid; her features moved by some passion mightier far than curiosity or compassion for her friend's distress.
"I have done nothing—literally nothing, to bring this on!" was the reflection which brought most calm to her agitated mind. "If it should be as I think, I am guiltless of treachery. My skirts are clear. My hands are clean! Yet there have been moments when I could have dipped them in blood that this end might be attained!"
Too restless to remain quiet, she tossed her book aside and wandered from side to side of the room, halting frequently to hearken for Mrs. Sutton's return, or some noise from the conference chamber that might alleviate her suspense.
"I tried to put her on her guard," she broke forth at length, bent, it would seem, upon self-justification against an invisible accuser. "I saw aversion in Winston's eye the day he came home to find the other here. He would never forgive his slave the presumption of choosing a husband for herself. Did I not tell her so? Yet this has caught her like a rabbit in a trap—unprepared for endurance or resistance. The spiritless baby! Would I give him up, except with life, if he loved me as he does her?"
It was not a baby's face that was confronting Mrs. Sutton's just then. It was no weak, spiritless slave who sustained the pelting shower of her comments, her wonderment and her entreaties that Mabel would refuse to abide by her brother's decision—her guardian though he was—and if she would not write to Frederic with her own hand, empower her aunt to apply to him for an explanation of the disgraceful mystery.
"We should condemn no man unheard," she argued.
"It is but fair to give him an opportunity of telling his side of the story."
"Winston's letter will inform him of what and by whom he is accused," said Mabel. "He will have the opportunity you speak of. I should not be content with my brother's action, were this not so. I have been over the whole ground again and again, since sunset. We—you and I—are powerless. This story is either true or false. If what we have read really happened, what could arise from our correspondence with the offender against honor and virtue? It would but complicate difficulties. If he is unjustly accused, he can prove it, and put his slanderers to shame without our promptings. Our interference would be an intimation that he needed our championship."
"I believe he will clear himself of every stain," returned Mrs. Sutton earnestly. "This is either a vile plot concocted by some secret foe, or the Frederic Chilton mentioned here," pushing the letter away from her on the table, with a gesture of loathing, "is another person."
"That is very unlikely!"
Mabel leaned her forehead wearily upon her hand, and did not finish the sentence immediately.
"I will be candid with you, aunt, upon this subject, as I have tried to be in every other confidence with which I have burdened you. Frederic Chilton was a student in the law-school, which was also attended by Winston's correspondent, and at the date specified by him. I have reason to think there was something unpleasant—something he wished to conceal from me, and perhaps from everybody else, connected with his stay there. He referred to it ambiguously on the last evening of his visit here, as a folly, a youthful indiscretion. I have the impression, moreover, that a married woman was mixed up in this trouble, whatever it was—a lady, some years older than himself, whose husband, a naval officer, was absent upon a long cruise. This may be the germ of the story related here, and it may have nothing whatever to do with it."
In saying "here," she pointed to the letter. Both avoided touching it as it lay between them, the big seal uppermost, and looking more like bright, fresh blood than ever, in the lamplight.
"My dear, all this proves nothing—absolutely nothing—except that the shock and overmuch solitary musing have made you morbid and unreasonable."
Mrs. Sutton assumed a collected air, and delivered herself with the mien of one who was determined to submit to no trifling, and to credit no scrap of evidence against her friend which counter-reasoning could set aside.
"My husband's godson—we must remember he is that, Mabel!—could never be guilty of the infamous conduct ascribed to this Chilton by Winston Aylett's anonymous friend. I am accounted a tolerable judge of character, and I maintain that it is a moral impossibility for my instincts and experience to be so utterly at fault as these two men would make you believe. As to the corroboration of your 'impression,' that would be consummate nonsense in the eye of the law. Let us sift the pros and cons of this affair as rational, unprejudiced beings should—not jump at conclusions. And I must say, Mabel"—was the consistent peroration of this address, uttered in a mildly-aggrieved tone, while the blue eyes began to shine through a rising fog—"it seems to me very singular—really wounds me—is not what I looked for in you—that you should rank yourself with my poor boy's enemies!"
"I, his enemy!" The word was a sharp cry—not loud, but telling of unfathomed deeps of anguish, from the verge of which the listener drew back with a shudder. "I would have married him without a single glance at the past! Let him but say 'it is untrue—all that you fear and they declare,' and I would disbelieve this tale, instantly and utterly, though a thousand witnesses swore to the truth of it. Or, let him be all that they say, I would marry him to-night, if I had the right to do it. But I promised—and to promise with an Aylett is to fulfil—that I would be ruled by my guardian's will, should the investigation, to which Frederic himself did not object, terminate unfavorably for my hopes, and contrary to his declaration."
"It was a rash promise, and such are better broken than kept."
"Your Bible, Aunt Rachel—to-night, I cannot call it mine!—commends him who swears to his own heart and changes not," replied the niece, with restored steadiness. "It would have been the same had I refused my consent to Winston's proposal. I am a minor, and who would wait two years for me?"
"Anybody who loved you, provided your trust in him equalled his in you," said Mrs. Sutton, slyly.
Mabel's answer was direct.
"You want me to say that I do not believe this tale of Mr. Chilton's early errors; to brand it as a mistake or fabrication. You insinuate that, in reserving my sentence until I shall have heard both sides of it, I show myself unworthy of the love of a true man; betray of what mean stuff my affection is made. I suppose blind faith is sublime! But for my part, I had rather be loved in spite of my known faults, than receive wilfully ignorant worship."
The daring stroke at Mrs. Sutton's hypothesis of the inseparable union between esteem and affection, excited her into an impolitic admission.
"My child, you make my blood run cold! You do not mean that you could love a man for whose character you had no respect!"
"There is a difference between learning to love and continuing to love," said Mabel, sententiously. "But we have had enough of useless talk, aunt. In two days more Winston will be here. Until then, let matters remain as they are. You can tell Rosa as much or as little as you like of what has happened. She must suspect that something has gone awry. To-morrow, I will look up this Mr. Jenkyns, and deliver the messages with which I am charged—likewise consult the mason about the 'baronial' fireplace," smiling bitterly.
"You never saw another creature so altered as she is," Mrs. Sutton bewailed to Rosa, in rehearsing the scene. "If this thing should turn out to be true, she is ruined and heart-broken for life. She will become a cold, cynical, unfeeling woman—a feminine copy of her granite brother."
"If!" reiterated Rosa, testily. "There is not one syllable of truth in it from Alpha to Omega! I know he is your nephew, and that it is one af the Medo-Persian laws of Ridgeley that the king can do no wrong; but I would sooner believe that Winston Aylett invented the slander throughout, than question Fred Chilton's integrity. There is foul play somewhere, as you will discover in time—or out of it!"
To Mabel, Frederic's spirited champion said never a word of the event that held their eyes waking until dawn—each motionless as sleepless lest her bed fellow should discover her real state.
"I have had no share in causing the rupture. I am not called upon to heal it," meditated she. "In this, the law of self-preservation is my surest guide."
Her resolve to remain neutral was sharply and unexpectedly tested the next afternoon.
The two girls went out for a ramble about four o'clock, taking the beaten foot-path that led through cultivated fields, and between wooded hills, to a small post-town two miles distant. The day was sunless, but not chilly, and when they had outwalked the hearing of the murmur of rural life that pervaded the barnyard and adjacent "quarters," the silence was oppressive, except when broken by the whirr of a partridge, the melancholy caw of the crows, scared from their feast upon the scattered grains knocked from over-ripe ears of corn during the recent "fodder-pulling," and, as they neared it, by the fretting of a rapid brook over its stony bottom.
The pretence of social converse had been given up before the friends cleared the first field beyond the orchard. Rosa's exquisite tact witheld her from obtruding commonplaces upon the attention of a mind torn by suspense—distracted between disappointment and outraged pride, and Mabel had not besought her sympathy in her grievous strait. They walked on swiftly, the one staring straight forward, yet seeing nothing; the other, although thoughtful, losing not one feature of the landscape—the light-gray sky, the encircling forest, the yellow broom-straw clothing the hill-sides, the crooked fences, lined with purple brush, golden-rod, black-bearded alder and sumach, flaming with scarlet berry cones and motley leaves. It was her principle and habit to seize upon whatever morsels of delight were dropped in her way, and she had a taste for attractive bits of scenery, as for melody. There was no reason why the evil estate of her companion should debar her from quiet enjoyment of the autumn day. She was sorry that Mabel was suffering. It was unpleasant to see pain or grief. Smiles were prettier than glum looks. She hoped she had enough humanity about her to enable her to recognize these facts. But, in her soul, she despised the girl for her tacit acquiescence in her brother's decree; contemned her yet more for her partial credence of the rumor of her lover's unworthiness. It was as well, taking these things into account, that Mabel was not communicative with regard to the great change that had befallen her since this hour yesterday, when she had exultingly proclaimed that her trust was "founded upon a rock."
"Varium et mutabile semper faemina!" reflected Rosa, who knew that much Latin—and attracted by the waving of the bright grasses beneath the waves of the rivulet they were crossing, she stopped to lean over the railing and poke them aside from the stones with a chincapin switch she had picked up a little way back.
Mabel did not look around; apparently did not observe that she walked on alone.
"I dare say she would not miss me for the next mile!" soliloquized the idle lounger, snatching foam-flakes from their nestling-places behind the rocks, and watching them as they danced down the stream.
Something, whiter and more regular in shape than they, lay upon the margin of the brook, partly concealed by a clump of sedge. A letter, with the address uppermost! Rosa's optics were keen. She easily made out the direction upon the envelope from where she stood. It was Frederic Chilton's name in Mrs. Sutton's quaint, old-fashioned "back-hand" chirography. An hour before, as Rosa now recollected, she had seen, from her window, a negro man take the path to the village, arranging some papers in the crown of his tattered straw hat. He had dropped this, the most important of all, probably in stooping to drink from his hollowed palms at the spring-stream. However this might be, there it lay—the warning to the calumniated lover that his traducers were making clean (or foul) work with his fair fame in the quarter where he wished to stand at his best; perhaps citing him to appear and answer the damaging charges in person before the same tribunal.
"If she would only let me drop him a friendly line asking him, for her sake, to contradict this horrid slander!" the distraught matron had sighed, last night, in her recapitulation of the conversation with her obdurate niece. "But she will not hear of it."
"I hardly think he would like it either," Rosa had rejoined. "It would hint at distrust on your part or on hers. Mr. Aylett's letter should be sufficient to elicit the defence you crave."
"You are in the right, perhaps!" But Mrs. Sutton had looked miserably discontented. "Yet to be frank with you, Rosa, Winston is not apt to be conciliatory in his measures when he takes it into his head that the family honor is assailed. I am afraid he has written haughtily, if not insolently, to poor Frederic."
Rosa had no doubt of this, even while she answered, "Neither haughtiness nor downright insolence would prevent a man who has so much at stake as has Mr. Chilton, from taking instant steps to re-establish himself in the respect of the family he desires to enter. This is a very delicate matter—take what view of it we may. Hadn't you better wait a few days before you interfere? Nothing can be lost—something may be gained by prudent delay."
"And I suppose Winston WOULD be very much displeased at my officiousness, as he would term it," had been Mrs. sutton's reluctant concession to her young guest's discreet counsels. "But it is very hard to remain quiet, and see everything going to destruction about one!"
She had evidently reconsidered her resolution to let things take their wrong-headed course, and in virtue of her prerogatives as match-maker and mender, had thrust her oar into the very muddy whirlpool boiling about the bark of her darling's happiness.
Rosa wrought out this chain of sequences, with many other links, stretching far past present exigences and possibilities, ere Mabel's figure disappeared behind the shoulder of the hill rising beyond the brook. Should Frederic Chilton receive that letter, in less than a week—in three days, perhaps, for he was a man prompt to resolve and to do—he would present himself at Ridgeley to speak in his own behalf—an event Rosa considered eminently undesirable. Certainly Mabel's pusillanimity merited no such reward. She had no right to question the rectitude that one she professed to love, nor her aunt the right to act as mediator. If Mabel Aylett, with her found sense and judgment, and her inherent strength of will, would not hold fast to her faith in her affianced husband, and defy her brother to sunder them, let her lose that which she prized so lightly.
If the epistle, soaking slowly there in the wet, had been committed to Rosa's charge, she would have scorned to intercept it; would have deposited it safely and punctually in the post-office. As it was, if she left it alone, Frederic would never get it, and Mrs. Sutton remain unconscious of its fate—unless some other passer-by should perceive and rescue it from illegibility and dissolution; unless Mabel should espy it on their return-walk, or, coming back, the next moment, to seek her truant mate, catch sight of the snowy leaflet of peace in its snuggery under the sedge.
A startled partridge flew over Rosa's head from the thither rising ground, and in the belief that he was the harbinger of the approach she dreaded, she dislodged the envelope from its covert, with a quick touch of her little wand, and it floated down the stream.
Slowly—all too gradually at first—swinging lazily wound in the eddies, catching, now against a jutting stone, now entangled by a blade of grass—Rosa's heart in her throat as she watched it, lest Mabel's footsteps should be audible upon the rocky path, Mabel's hat appear above the spur of the hill. Then the channel caught it, whirled it over and over, faster and faster, and sucked it downward.
Mrs. Sutton was at the tea-table with the girls that evening, when Johnson, the sable Mercury, showed himself at the door, to inform his superior that he had "got everything at de sto' she sent him fur to buy."
"You mailed the letters, Johnson?" said the mild mistress, rather anxiously.
"All on dem, Mistis!"
"The unconscionable liar!" thought Rosa, virtuously, "he ought to be flogged! But it is none of my business to contradict him."
She did not say now, "My hands are clean!"
"YOUR letter notifies me, in general terms, that the answers returned to your inquiries as to my antecedents and present reputation are the reverse of satisfactory. You feel constrained, you add, in view of the information thus obtained, to interdict my further intercourse with your sister or any other member of your family. Since I cannot battle with shadows, or refute insinuations the drift of which I do not in the least comprehend, may I trouble you to put the allegations to which you refer into a definite and tangible shape? Let me know who are my accusers, and what are the iniquities with which they charge me. The worst criminal against human and divine laws has the right to demand thus much before he is convicted and sentenced.
"As to your prohibition of my continued correspondence with Miss Aylett, I shall consider her my promised wife, and write to her regularly as such, until you have made good your indictment against me, or until I receive the assurance under her own hand and seal that my conduct in thus addressing her is obnoxious to herself.
"I have the honor, sir, of signing myself
"Your obedient servant,
"FREDERIC S. CHILTON."
The cool contempt of the reply to his imperative dismissal of whatever claims the presumptuous adventurer his aunt had encouraged believed he had upon Mabel's notice or affection, was likely to irk Winston Aylett as more intemperate language could not. It did more. It baffled him, for a time. He could, and he meant, to withhold the lover's letter from his sister's eyes. He could—and upon this also he was determined—command her, in the masterful manner that heretofore had never failed to work submission, never to meet, speak, or write again to the man he almost hated; will her to forget her childish fancy for his handsome face and glozing arts, and in the fulness of time, to bestow her in marriage upon a partner of his own providing. He had no misgivings as to his ability to accomplish all this, if the blackguard aforesaid could be kept out of her way until that remedial agent, Time, and lawful authority had a chance to do their work.
But he was openly defied to prevent communication between the betrothed pair, unless his injunction had Mabel's endorsement; and, upon alighting from the stage at the village, on his return to Ridgeley, he had taken from the post-office, along with the impertinent missive addressed to himself, one for Mabel, superscribed by the same hand. From the first, he had no intention of transferring it to the keeping of the proper owner, It was forwarded in direct disobedience to his commands, and the writer should be made to understand the futility of opposition to these. For several hours, his only purpose respecting it was to enclose it, unopened, in an envelope directed by himself, and send it back to the audacious author, by the next mail. He was balked in this project by no fastidious scruples as to his right thus to dispose of his ward's property. Nature, or what he assumed was natural affection, concurred with duty in urging him to hinder an alliance by which Mabel's happiness would be imperilled and her relatives scandalized. But when, in the solitude of his study, he vouchsafed a second reading to Frederic's letter, preparatory to the response he designed should annihilate his hopes and chastise his impudence, a doubt of the efficacy of his schemes attacked him for the first time. "Under her own hand and seal," were terms the explicitness of which commended them to his grave consideration. His next thought was to oblige Mabel to indite a formal renunciation of her unworthy suitor. There were several objections to this measure.
Firstly, he disliked whatever smacked of scenic effect, and women were apt to get up scenes—hysterics, attitudes, and the like—upon trivial provocation, He wanted to get the thing over quietly and soon.
Secondly, he was not very sure that he should find in Mabel the docile puppet she had appeared to him for so many years of tutelage. She had matured marvelously of late. Her very manner of meeting him that afternoon impressed him by its self-possession and freedom from the emotion that used to gush from eyes and lips, in happy tears, and broken, delighted greeting at his approach. For aught he knew to the contrary, she might have accepted his fiat as just, if not merciful, and not a dream of rebellion been fostered thereby. The grave tranquillity of her demeanor might arise from the chastening influences of the mortification she had sustained, and a consciousness of ill-desert that bred humility. He would fain have believed all this, but until he broached the subject to her, his incertitude could not be removed, and in a step so momentous as that which he meditated, it behooved him to try well the solidity of the ground beneath him.
Lastly, our blood-prince of the kingdom of Ridgeley was, whether he confessed it or not, acting under orders.
"Be very tolerant with that poor little deceived sister of yours!" his fiancee had implored, her diamond eyes bedimmed by quick-springing damps of commiseration. "Recollect that the consciousness of wasted love is always harder to bear than what is commonly known as bereavement. If you find her refractory, be patient and persuasive, instead of dictatorial. Craft often effects what overt violence would attempt in vain."
"Craft!" The word struck unpleasantly upon the Virginia lordling's ear, and he echoed it with a suspicion of a frown upon his brow. "I am not an adept in chicanery!"
"But you are a born diplomatist!" seductively. "And because I am of the same credulous sex as our mistaken little darling, you will not proceed to open warfare with her, even should she be both to resign her lover? It is the glory of the strong to show charity to the weak and erring."
For her sake, then, our flattered diplomatist would try the effect of guile, instead of brutality, upon the helpless girl, the balance of whose fate was grasped by his shapely hand. For one base second, the idea of attempting an imitation of his sister's handwriting flashed through his mind. But he was a gentleman, and forgery is not a gentlemanly vice, any more than is counterfeiting bank-notes. Finally, the author of craft—the subtle, refined virtue bepraised by his bride-elect—the devil—came to his help.
Mabel, like most other girls, had a dainty and fantastic taste in the matter of letter-paper and envelopes. She used none but French stationery, stamped with her monogram—a curious device, wrought in two colors—and at the top of each sheet stood out in bas-relief the Aylett crest. With these harmless whimsies Frederic was, without doubt, familiar. If his letter were returned to him, wrapped in a blank page, taken from her papetiere and within one of her envelopes, it would not signify so much whose handwriting was upon the exterior. Papetiere and writing-desk were in Mabel's bed-room, but she was in the parlor, practising an instrumental duet with Rosa—a favorite with Miss Dorrance. Winston had brought it south with him, and asked his sister to learn it forthwith, in just the accent he used to employ when prescribing what studies she should pursue at school. There was nothing in his errand that he should be ashamed of, he reminded himself with impatient severity, as he traversed the upper hall on tip-toe to the western chamber. He had, on sundry previous occasions, sought, in the receptacles he was about to ransack, for sealing-wax, pencils, and the like trifles. Mabel was too wise a woman not to keep her secrets under lock and key, and if there were private documents left in his way, he was too honorable to pry into them.
Shutting the door cautiously, that the snap and blaze might not betray him, he struck a wax match, warranted to burn a minute-and-a-half, and raised the lid of the desk. His unseen but wily coadjutor had guided him cunningly. In fingering a heap of envelopes in order to find one large enough for his purpose, he brought to light one addressed to "Mr. Frederic Chilton, Box 910, Philadelphia, Penn."
Upon the reverse was a small blot that had condemned it in Mabel's sight, as unfit to be sent to her most valued correspondent, and which she had not observed before writing the direction. Selecting another, she had thrown this back carelessly into the desk, meaning to burn it when it should be convenient, and forgotten all about it.
The livid dints were deep and restless in Winston's nostrils, as seen by the light of the tiny taper he raised to extinguish, when his prize was secured. The devil supplied him with another crafty hint, as he was in the act of folding one edge of Frederic's letter that it might fit into the new cover. Why not strip off the letter entirely, that it might seem to have been opened, read, and then flung back upon the writer's hands with contumely? Half-way measures were unsafe and foolish. Stratagem, to be efficient, should be not only deft, but thorough; else it was bungling, not diplomacy. His hand did not shake in divesting the closely-written sheet of its wrapping, but in one respect his behavior was in consonance with the gentlemanly instincts he vaunted as a proof of pure old blood. He averted his eyes lest he should see a line the lover had penned to his mistress. The letter slipped smoothly into the quarters prepared for it—smoothly as Satan's mark usually goes on until his tool has made his damnation sure.
"Well done?" said Diabolus.
"That was a clever hit!" chimed in his assistant, complacently, after he had put the sealed envelope into his portfolio for safe-keeping, and burned the torn one he had removed. "Nobody but an idiot or a madman would persist in following a girl up after such a quietus."
He replied to Frederic's note to himself shortly and with disdain, using the third person throughout, and informing Mr. Chilton with unmistakable distinctness that Miss Aylett had offered no opposition whatever to her brother's will in this unfortunate affair. So far as he—Mr. Aylett—could judge, her views coincided exactly with his own. Mr. Chilton's letters and presents should be returned to him at an early day, and thus should be finished the closing chapter of a volume which ought never to have been begun.
All this done to his mind, he set the door of his room ajar, and watched for Mabel's passage to hers.
He had not to wait long. The young ladies had fallen into habits of early retiring of late—a marked change from their olden fashion of singing and talking out the midnight hour. Himself unseen, Mr. Aylett scrutinized the two mounting the stairs side by side—Rosa's dark, mobile face, arch with smiles, while she chattered over a bit of country gossip she had heard that afternoon from a visitor, and the weary calm of Mabel's visage, the drooping eyelids, and, when appealed to directly by her volatile comrade, the measured, not melancholy cadence of her answer, The girl had had a sore fight, and won a Pyrrhian victory. She was not vanquished, but she was worsted. Some men, upon appreciating what this meant, and how her grief had been wrought, would have had direful visitings of conscience, surrendered themselves to the mastery of doubts as to the righteousness and humanity of stringent action such as he had just consummated. He was not unmoved. He really loved his only sister, as proud, selfish men love those of their own lineage who have never disputed their supremacy, and derogated from their importance. He said something under his breath before he called her, but the curse was not upon himself.
"The low-bred hound!" he muttered. "This is his doing!"
Mabel halted at the stair-head, the blood suddenly and utterly forsaking her cheeks when he spoke her name, although his address was purposely kind, and, he thought, inviting.
"Can you spare me a moment?" he continued, smilingly, to win her advance. "I will not detain you long. I know you are agonizing to have your talk out, Miss Rosa."
Rosa laughed, with a saucy retort, and turned into her chamber.
Mabel entered her brother's, and without speaking, took the seat he offered. She was to be sentenced, and she must reserve her forces to sustain the pain without a groan.
"You saw Jenkyns—did you not?" began Mr. Aylett, with the manner of one at peace with himself, and those of his fellow-men whose existence he chose to acknowledge.
"I did. He made memoranda of your orders, and said all should be done as you wished."
"I ordered the masons, this evening, to begin the hall-chimney to-morrow. While the work is going on, you had better occupy some other bed-room. I shall hurry it forward, day and night, or it will not be done in season for us when we return from our bridal-tour. The carpets must be down, and the paper dry by the fifteenth at farthest. Clara bought your dresses, and offers to have them made, if you will send her an accurate measurement. You are about her height, although not so well-proportioned. Your figure is angular, where hers is round. She is your senior by several years, yet one might easily mistake her for a girl of twenty, her complexion is so fresh. Her twenty-five years show themselves in nothing except her ease of manner, maturity of thought, and elegance of diction."
He would have sneered at this strain in another as hyperbolical and fatuous. The absurdity of it in his mouth consisted mainly in the cool arrogance of the assumption that whatever belonged to him was above adverse criticism, and would be maligned if it were referred to without appending an encomium. Much of fervor might and did mingle in his thoughts of her he was to wed, but none warmed his enumeration of her perfections. He did nothing con amore, unless it were exalting the dignity and glory of the Aylett name, and maintaining his right to support their ancient honors.
Mabel did not respond to his gratuitous praise of the fair and benevolent Clara. While he was talking, he seemed to recede a great way from her; his tones to ring hollowly upon her hearing, his form to grow indistinct. Was he playing with her suspense, or could it be that he—a being with heart and nerves like hers, had no conception of the rack on which she waa stretched—no suspicion that every one of his deliberate sentences was a turn of the screw that redoubled her torture? The Ayletts were a strong-willed race, and she repressed all sign of suffering save intense pallor; made this less palpable by screening her eyes from the lamp-light with a paper she took from the table, and thereby throwing her features into deep shadow.
"But it is not my intention to trouble you with matters that concern me alone," he pursued, without varying his intonations. "As I anticipated, Mr. Chilton declines explaining the ugly story relative to his eariier career of dissipation and deceit, which I forwarded to you. He indulges, instead, in a tirade of personal abuse touching my right to control you, declaring his purpose to pursue you with letters and attentions until he shall be discarded by yourself. We will not stay to discuss the gentlemanliness and delicacy of his behavior in this regard. I merely declare, that, having had a fair opportunity of honest confession or denial of statements detrimental to his principles and pursuits, and having shirked both, he has placed himself outside the pale of respectful consideration. Has he written to you since his receipt of my letter?"
Mabel was staring at a figure in the carpet, on a line with her feet. Had she regarded her brother never so attentively, she would have detected no change in his countenance. He did not prepare questions without also studying how to deliver them.
"I am glad he has the moral decency to forbear carrying out his threat of persecution."
He could say it with the greater hardihood in the remembrance that the "persecution" had been attempted.
"I wish he had written!" rejoined Mabel, abruptly, but without passion. "He was right to protest against accepting his dismissal from any other than myself."
She had not removed her eyes from the spot on the carpet, or lowered the paper screen. She looked like a statue and spoke like an automaton.
Mr. Aylett's nostrils quivered ominously.
"Is it your wish to recommence the correspondence I have ended?"
"You know that I would strike off my right hand sooner than do it. But if he had written to me, I should have answered his letter, if it had been only to bid him farewell. Since he has not chosen to do this, I cannot take the initiative."
If Winston had never entertained a favorable opinion of his own sagacity prior to hearing this avowal, it would have forced itself upon him now. How timely was the thought, how felicitous the accident, that had aided him to ward off the disaster of renewed intercourse!
Involuntarily his fingers crept nearer to the closed portfolio.
"No good could have come of that!" returned he coldly. "When an amputation is to be performed, wise people submit to it without useless preliminaries. The exchange of farewells in this case would be inexpedient in the highest degree. You would compromise yourself by continued acknowledgment of this fellow's acquaintance. My will is that you and the world should forget, as soon as it can be done, that you ever saw or heard of him. The connection was degrading."
"Don't abuse him, brother! Let the knowledge that we are parted forever, satisfy your resentment. Since he has not appealed to me from your verdict, I am left to suppose that, upon second thoughts, he has resolved to acquiesce in your will. I do not blame him for the change of purpose." Still impassive in feature and voice, still not withdrawing her fixed gaze from that one point upon the floor. "He, too, has pride, and it matches yours. I do not say mine. I question, sometimes, if I have any."
"If your conjecture be correct, you cannot object to return the letters you have already received from him," said Winston, pressing on to the conclusion of a disagreeable business. "Since you are not likely to add to your stock of these valuables, you do not care to retain them, I suppose? I believe the rule is total surrender of souvenirs when a rupture is pronounced hopeless."
"I shall keep them a week longer!"
She assigned no reason for the resolution, and her manner, without being sullen, aggravated her brother into wrath, the effusion of which was a withering sneer.
"Your hope in his repentance is creditable to the strength—or weakness—of woman's love. But have your way. The illustrious record of his former life is a powerful argument in favor of clemency. In a week, then!"
He nodded dismissal, wheeled his chair around to the table, dipped a pen in the standish, and pulled an account-book toward him.
He was surprised and not pleased, nevertheless, that Mabel retired without other reply than a simple "Good-night," said without temper, or any evidence of excitement. A month before, a milder sarcasm, the lightest breath of reproof, would have brought her to his feet in a paroxysm of tears, to implore pardon for her contumacy, and to promise obedience for all time to come. She was getting beyond his control the while she offered no open resistance to his government. Was sorrowful shame, or her infatuation for the adventurer he cursed in his heart by his gods, the influence that was petrifying her into this unlovely caricature of her once bright and affectionate self?
She presented herself, unsummoned, in his study at the expiration of the period she had designated, a pacquet in her hand, neatly done up and sealed.
"I will trouble you to direct it," was all she said, as she laid it before him.
"This is done of your own free will—remember!" he said, impressively. "In after years, should you be so unreasonable as to regret it, there must be no misconception on the subject between us. If you wish, at this, the eleventh hour, to draw back, I shall not oppose you."
"You will write the address, then, if you please!" was Mabel's reply, showing him the surface intended for it.
Then she left him.
"A sensible girl, after all! a genuine Aylett, in will and stoicism!" commented the master of the situation, beginning in his round, legible characters, the inscription he hoped never to trace again. "So endeth her first lesson in Cupid's manual!"
He never knew that Mrs. Sutton had bolstered the Aylett will and stoicism into stanchness at this closing scene. In a fit of despondency, she had that morning imparted to Mabel the fact that she had written to Frederic, ten days before, and had no answer, although she had besought an immediate one.
"I have expected him confidently every day for a week," she lamented. "I didn't suppose he would stay at Ridgeley, after what has happened; but there's the hotel in the village, and, as I told him, he could accomplish more by an hour's talk with you than by fifty letters. It is very mysterious—his continued silence! He always appeared so frank and reasonable. Nothing else like it has ever occurred in my experience—and I have had a great deal, my dear!"
"I am sorry you wrote, aunt," replied Mabel, sorrowfully dignified. "Sorry you have subjected yourself to unnecessary mortification. I am past feeling it for myself. We cannot longer doubt that Mr. Chilton desires to hold no further communication with any of us."
Within the hour she made up the pacquet and carried it to her brother.
ALMOST sixteen months had passed since the dewless September morning, when Mabel had gathered roses in the garden walks, and her brother's return had shaken the dew with the bloom from her young heart. It was the evening of Christmas-day, and the tide of wassail, the blaze of yule, were high at Ridgeley. Without, the fall of snow that had commenced at sundown, was waxing heavier and the wind fiercer. In-doors, fires roared and crackled upon every hearth; there was a stir of busy or merry life in every room. About the spacious fire-place in the "baronial" hall was a wide semicircle of young people, and before that in the parlor, a cluster of elders, whose graver talk was enlivened, from time to time, by the peals of laughter that tossed into jubilant surf the stream of the juniors' converse.
Nearest the mantel, on the left wing of the line, sat the three months' bride, Imogene Barksdale, placid, dove-eyed, and smiling as of yore, very comely with her expression of satisfied prettiness nobody called vanity, and bedecked in her "second day's dress" of azure silk and her bridal ornaments. Her husband hovered on the outside of the ring, now pulling the floating curls of a girl-cousin (every third girl in the country was his cousin, once, twice, or thrice-removed, and none resented the liberties he, as a married man, was pleased to take), anon whispering in the ear of a bashful maiden interrogatories as to har latest admirer or rumored engagement; oftenest leaning upon the back of his wife's chair, a listener to what was going on, his hand lightly touching her lace-veiled shoulders, until her head gradually inclined against his arm. They were a loving couple, and not shy of testifying their consent to the world.
"They remind me irresistibly of a pair of plump babies sucking at opposite ends of a stick of sugar candy!" Rosa Tazewell said aside to the hostess, as the latter paused beside her on her way through the hall to the parlor.
"The candy is very sweet!" replied Mrs. Aylett, charitably, but laughing at the conceit—the low, musical laugh that was at once girlish in its gleefulness, yet perfectly well-bred.
Mr. Aylett heard it from his stand on the parlor-rug, and sent a quick glance in that direction. It was slow in returning to the group surrounding him. He had married a beautiful woman—so said everybody—and a fascinating, as even everybody's wife did not dispute. In his sight, she was simply and entirely worthy of the distinction he had bestowed upon her; an adornment to Ridgeley and his name. From their wedding-day, his deportment toward her had been the same as it was to-night—attentive, but never officious; deferential, yet far removed from servility; a manner that, without approximating uxoriousness, yet impressed the spectator with the conviction that she was with him first and dearest among women; a partner of whom, if that were possible, he was more proud than fond—and of the depth and reality of his affection there could be no question.
She declined to seat herself in the circle, although warmly importuned by her guests thus to add brilliancy to their joyous party, yet remained standing near Rosa, interested and amused by the running fire of compliment and badinage that went to make up the hilarious confusion. If the family record had been consulted, the truth that she had counted her thirty-second summer would have astonished her husband, with her new neighbors. Apparently she was not over twenty-five. Her chestnut hair was a marvel for brightness and profusion, her broad brow smooth and white, her figure, as Winston had described it to his sister, rounded, even to voluptuousness, yet supple as it had been at fifteen. In her cheeks, too, the blushes fluctuated readily and softly, and when she smiled, her teeth showed like those of a little child in size and purity. Her voice matched her beauty well, never loud, always melodious, with a peculiar, gliding, legato movement of the graceful sentences, for the pleasing effect of which she was indebted partly to Nature, and much more to Art. She appeared on this evening in a green silk dress, matronly in shade and general style, but not devoid of coquettish arrangement in the square corsage, the opening of which was filled with foam-like puffs of thulle, threatening, when her bust heaved in mirth or animated speech, to overflow the sheeny boundaries. A chaplet of ivy-leaves encircled her head, and trailed upon one shoulder; her bracelets were heavy, chased gold without gems of any kind; a single diamond glittered—a point of prismatic light at her throat. Her wedding-ring was her only other ornament.
"Very sweet, I grant you, and very flavorless," returned Rosa. "And alarmingly apt to turn sour upon the stomach. I had rather be fed upon pepper lozenges."
"You should have been born in the Spice Islands," said the hostess, tapping the dark cheek with her fore finger. "But we could not spare you from our wassail-cup to-night, my dear Lady Pimento!"
She bent slightly, that the flattery might reach no other ear. She may not have known that Rosa's Creole skin was at a wretched disadvantage, as seen against the green silk background; but others noticed it, and thought how few complexions were comparable to the wearer's. She had the faculty of converting into a foil nearly every woman who approached her.
"Thank you! So I am pimento, am I?" queried Rosa, pertly. "And each of us is to personate some condiment—sweet, ardent, or aromatic—in the exhilarating draught! Which shall Mr. Harrison here be?
"'Cinnamon or ginger, nutmeg or cloves?'"
"That is a line of a college drinking-song!"
The speaker was a young man of eight-and-twenty; who sat between Rosa and Mabel, and whose attentions to the latter were marked. Of medium height, with sandy hair and whiskers, high cheek-bones, that gave a Gaelic cast to his physiognomy; which was remarkable for nothing in particular when at rest, and followed somewhat tardily the operations of his mind when he talked, he would probably have been the least likely person present to rivet a stranger's notice but for the circumstance that he played shadow to the host's sister and was Mrs. Aylett's brother. With regard to the feeling entertained by the former of those ladies for him, there were many and diverse opinions, but his sister's partiality was unequivocally exhibited. Of her three brothers, this—the youngest, the least handsome, and the only bachelor—was her favorite. She took pains to apprise his fellow-guests of this interesting fact by petting him openly, and exerting her fullest artifices to bring him out in becoming colors.
"It is," she answered him now, admiringly. "What a memory you have, my dear Herbert! Now I am never positive with whom to credit a quotation. I recollect, since you have spoken, that your famous quartette-club ussd to render that with much eclat, and how it was encored at the brilliant private concert you gave in behalf of some popular charity or other."
Thus encouraged, Mr. Dorrance proceeded to enlarge the fragment:
"Nose, nose, jolly red nose! Where got you that jolly red nose? Nutmeg and ginger, cinnamon and cloves, These gave me this jolly red nose.'
"You did not quote the third line correctly, Miss Tazewell."
"Never having been a college bacchanalian, I am excusable for the inaccuracy," she retorted. "I did not even know where I picked up the foolish bit. Having ascertained the origin to be of doubtful respectability, I shall never use it again."
"My sister has alluded to our quartette-club," pursued Mr. Dorrance, turning from the caustic beauty to Mabel, without noticing the impertinent thrust. "It was the most successful thing of the kind I ever knew of, being composed of thoroughly-trained musicians— amateurs, of course—and practising nothing but classic music, the productions of the best masters. There is something both instructive and elevating in such an association."
"Especially when the theme of their consideration is the 'Jolly Red Nose,'" interposed the wicked minx at his other elbow.
Two giddy girls tittered, unawed by Mrs. Aylett's proximity and her brother's owl-like stare at his critic.
"You may not be aware, Miss Tazewell, that the lyric to which you have reference is celebrated, both for its antiquity, and the pleasing harmonies that must ever commend it to the taste of the true lover of music; although I allow that to a disciple of the modern and more flimsy school of this glorious art, it may seem puerile and ridiculous," he remarked, in grandiose patronage. Then, again to Mabel, "There were four of us—as I said—all students. What is it, Clara?"
"I have dropped my bracelet upon the floor, between you and Miss Tazewell," stooping to shake out Rosa's full skirts from which the trinket fell with a clinking sound.
Three gentlemen darted forward to pick it up, but her husband noted approvingly that while she accepted it graciously from the lucky finder, and thanked the others for their kindly interest in the fate of her "bauble," she held out her arm to her brother, that he might clasp it again in its place. Affable always, winning whomsoever she chose to admiration of her personal and mental endowments, she never departed from matronly decorum. The company agreed silently, or in guarded asides, that she was charming. No tongue—even the most reckless or venomous—ever lisped the dread word, levity, in connection with her name.
"Take care, my dear brother! you will pinch me!" those near heard her say, and she twisted the golden circlet that the clasp might be uppermost.
Rosa's alert ear caught the hurried murmur which succeeded, and was muffled, so to speak, by her affectionate smile of gratitude.
"What were you about to say? Will you never learn prudence?"
"The dove has talons, then?" mused the eavesdropper, "But what was he in danger of revealing?"
If the interdicted revelation had connection, close or remote, with the famous quartette club, he kept well away from it after this reminder, beginning, when he resumed his seat, to discourse upon the comparative excellence of wood and coal fires, of open chimney- places and stoves.
Mrs. Aylett smiled an engaging and regretful "au revoir" to the circle, and passed on to look after the comfort and pleasure of her elder visitors, and Rosa soon discovered that her awakened curiosity would be in no wise appeased by listening to the steady, pattering drone of Mr. Dorrance's oration. Oratorical he was to a degree that excited the secret amusement of the facile Southern youths about him. With them, the art of light conversation had been a study from boyhood, the topics suitable for and pleasing to ladies' ears carefully culled and adroitly handled. To amuse and entertain was their main object. Erudite dissertations upon science and literature; abstruse arguments—whatever resembled a moral thesis, a political, religious, or philosophical lecture met with the sure ban of ridicule from them, as from the fair whose devoted cavaliers they were. If they laughed, when it was safe and not impolitic to do so, at the ponderous elocution of the Northern barrister, they marvelled exceedingly more at Mabel's indulgence of his attentions. That a girl, who, in virtue of her snug fortune and attractive face, her blood and her breeding, might, as they put it, have the "pick of the county," if she wanted a husband, should lend a willing ear to the pompous platitudes, the heavy rolling periods of this alien to her native State—a man without grace of manner or beauty—in their nomenclature, "a solemn prig," defied all ingenuity of explanation, was an increasing wonder outlasting the prescribed nine days. He rode with the ill assurance of one who, accustomed to the sawdust floor, treadmill round, and enclosing walls of a city riding-school, was bewildered by the unequal roads and free air of the breezy country. He talked learnedly of hunting, quoting written authorities upon this or that point, of whom the unenlightened Virginians had never heard, much less read; equipped himself for the sport in a bewildering arsenal of new-fangled guns, game-bags, shot-pouches, and powder-horns, with numerous belts, diagonal, perpendicular, and horizontal, and in the field carried his gun a la Winkle; never, by any happy accident, brought down his bird, but was continually outraging sporting rules by firing out of time, and flushing coveys prematurely by unseasonable talking and precipitate strides in advance of his disgusted companions.
Yet he was not a fool. In the discussion of graver matters—politics, law, and history—that arose in the smoking-room, he was not to be put down by more fluent tongues; demolished sophistry by solid reasoning, impregnable assertions, and an array of facts that might be prolix, but was always formidable—in short, sustained fully the character ascribed to him by his brother-in-law, of a "thoroughly sensible fellow."
"No genius, I allow!" Mr. Aylett would add, in speaking of his wife's bantling among his compatriots, "but a man whose industry and sound practical knowledge of every branch of his profession will make for him the fortune and name genius rarely wins."
With the younger ladies, his society was, it is superfluous to observe, at the lowest premium civility and native kindliness of disposition would permit them to declare by the nameless and innumerable methods in which the dear creatures are proficient. To Rosa Tazewell he could not be anything better than a target for the arrows of her satire, or the whetstone, upon the unyielding surface of which she sharpened them. But she showed her prudential foresight in never laughing at him when out of his sight, and in Mabel's. At long ago as the night of Mr. Aylett's wedding-party at Ridgeley, her sharp eyes had seen, or she fancied they did, that the hum-drum groomsman was mightily captivated by the daughter of the house, and she had divined that Mrs. Aylett's clever ruses for throwing the two together were the outworks of her design for uniting, by a double bond, the houses of Dorrance and Aylett. She knew, furthermore, that Herbert Dorrance had travelled with the Ridgeley family for three weeks in October, and that he had now been domesticated at the homestead for ten days. Mrs. Aylett's show of fondness for him was laughable, considering what an uninteresting specimen of masculinity he was; but the handsome dame was too worldly-wise, too sage a judge of quid pro quo, to entice him to waste so much of the time he was addicted to announcing was money to him, for the sake of a good so intangible as sisterly sentimentality.
Unless there were some substantial and remunerative ulterior object to be gained by his tarrying in the neighborhood, cunning Rosa believed that "dear Bertie" would have been packed off to Buffalo, or whatever outlandish place he lived in, so soon as the bridal festivities were over, and not showed his straw-colored whiskers again in Virginia in three years, at least, instead of running down to the plantation every three months.
"If such an ingredient as the compound, double-distilled essence of flatness is to be infused into the wassail-cup, it is he who will supply it!" thought the spicy damsel, with a bewitching shrug of the plump shoulder nearest him, while engaged in a lively play of words with a gentleman on her other hand. "What can possess Mabel to encourage him systematically in her decorous style, passes my powers of divination. Maybe she means to use him as a poultice for her bruised heart. In that case, insipidity would be no objection."
Mabel had not the air of one whose heart is bruised or torn. That she had gained in queenliness within the past year was not evidence of austerity or the callousness that ensues upon the healing of a wound. The Ayletts were a stately race, and the few who, while she was in her teens, had carped at her lack of pride because of her disposition to choose friends from the walks of life lower than her own, and criticised as unbecoming the playful familiarity that caused underlings and plebeians—the publicans and sinners of the aristocrat's creed—to worship the ground on which she trod—the censors in the court of etiquette conferred upon her altered demeanor the patent of their approbation, averring, for the thousandth time, that good blood would assert itself in the long run and bring forth the respectable fruits of refinement, self- appreciation, and condescension. The change had come over her by perceptible, but not violent, stages of progression, dating—Mrs. Sutton saw with pain; Rosa, with enforced respect—from the sunset hour in which she had read her brother's sentence of condemnation upon her then betrothed, now estranged, lover. After that one evening, she had not striven to conceal herself and her hurt in solitude. Neither had she borrowed from desperation a brazen helmet to hide the forehead the cruel letter had, for a brief space, laid low in the dust of anguished humiliation.
If a whisper of her disappointment and the attendant incidents crept through the ranks of her associates, it died away for want of confirmation in her clear level-lidded eyes, elastic footfall and the willingness and frequency with which she appeared and played her part in the various scenes of gayety that made the winter succeeding her brother's marriage one long to be remembered by the pleasure-seekers of the vicinity. She had not disdained the assistance of her sister-in-law's judgment and experience in the choice of the dresses that were to grace these merry-makings, and, thanks to her own naturally excellent taste, now tacitly disputed the palm of elegant attire with that lady. Her Christmas costume, which, in many others of her age, would have been objected to by critical fashionists, as old-maidish and grave, yet set off her pale complexion—none of the Ayletts were rosy after they reached man's or woman's estate—and heightened her distingue bearing into regal grace. Yet it was only a heavy black silk, rich and glossy as satin, cut, as was then the universal rule of evening dress, tolerably low in the neck, with short sleeves; bunches of pomegranate-blossoms and buds for breast and shoulder-knots, and among the classic braids of her dark hair a half-wreath of the same.
She had the valuable gift of sitting still without stiffness, and not fidgetting with fan, bouquet, or hand-kerchief, as she listened or talked. Rosa's mercurial temperament betrayed itself, every instant, in the bird-like turn of her small head, the fluttering or chafing of her brown fingers, and not unfrequently by an impatient stamp, or other movement of her foot that exposed fairy toe and instep. Contemplation of the one rested and refreshed the observer; of the other, amused and excited him. Mr. Dorrance's phlegmatic nature found supreme content in dwelling upon the incarnation of patrician tranquillity at his right hand, and he regarded the actions of his frisky would-be tormentor very much as a placid, well-gorged salmon would survey, from his bed of ease upon the bottom of a stream, the gyrations of a painted dragon fly overhead.
A lull in the geteral conversation—the reaction after a hearty laugh at a happy repartee—gave others besides Mabel the opportunity of profiting by his learned remarks.
"But does not that seem to yon a short-sighted policy," he was urging upon his auditor, with the assistance of a thumb and forefinger of one hand, joined as upon a pinch of snuff, and tapping the centre of the other palm; "does not that appear inexcusable profligacy of extravagance, which fells and consumes whole surface forests of magnificent trees—virgin growth—(I use the term as it is usually applied, although, philosophically considered, it is inaccurate) giants, which centuries will not replace, instead of seeking beneath the superficial covering of mould, nourishing these, for the exhaustless riches, carboniferous remains of antediluvian woods, hidden in the bowels of your mountains, and underlying your worn-out fields?"
Rosa was shaking with internal laughter—she would give no escape except through her dancing eyes.
Indeed, Mr. Dorrance's was the only staid countenance there, as Mabel said, pleasantly, moving her chair beyond the bounds of the ring, "I, for one, find the combustion of the upper forest growth too powerful, just at this instant. This is a genuine Christmas-storm—is it not? Listen to the wind?"
In the stillness enjoined by her gesture, the growl of the blast in the chimney and in the grove; the groaning, tapping, and creaking of the tree branches; the pelting sleet and the rattle of casements all over the house brought to the least imaginative a picture of out-door desolation and fireside comfort that prolonged the hush of attention. Tom Barksdale's pretty wife slipped her hand covertly into his tight grasp, and their smile was of mutual congratulation that they were brightly and warmly housed and together. Rosa, preternaturally grave and quiet, lapsed into a profound study of the mountain of red-hot embers. Several young ladies shuddered audibly, as well as visibly, and were reassured by a whispered word, or the slightest conceivable movement of their gallants' chairs nearer their own.
"I think we have the grandest storms at Ridgeley that visit our continent," resumed Mabel thoughtfully. "I suppose because the house stands so high. The wind never sounds to me anywhere else as it does here on winter nights."
Yielding to the weird attraction of the scene invoked by her fancy, she arose and walked to the window at the eastern extremity of the hall, pulling aside the curtain that she might peer into the wild darkness. The crimson light of the burning logs and the lamp rays threw a strongly defined shadow of her figure upon the piazza floor, distinct as that projected by a solar microscope upon a sheeted wall; sent long, searching rays into the misty fall of the snow, past the spot from which she had her last glimpse of Frederic Chilton, so many, many months agone, showing the black outline of the gate where he had looked back to lift his hat to her.
What was there in the wintry night and thick tempest to recall the warmth and odor of that moist September morning, the smell of the dripping roses overhead, the balmy humidity of every breath she drew? What in her present companion that reminded her of the loving clasp that had thrilled her heart into palpitation? the earnest depth of the eyes that held hers during the one sharp, yet sweet moment of parting—eyes that pledged the fealty of her lover's soul, and demanded hers then and forever? His conscience might have been sullied by crimes more heinous than those charged upon him by her brother and his friends; he might—he HAD—let her go easily, as one resigns his careless hold upon a paltry, unprized toy; but when her hand had rested thus in his, and his passionate regards penetrated her soul, he loved her, alone and entirely! She would fold this conviction to her torpid heart for a little while before she turned herself away finally from the memories of that love-summer and battle-autumn of her existence. If it aroused in the chilled thing some slight pangs of sentiency, it would do her no hurt to realize through these that it had once been alive.
She saw a shadow approaching to join itself to hers upon the whitened floor without, before Mr. Dorrance interrupted her reverie by words.
"The fury of the tempest you admire proves its paternity," he said, with a manifest effort at lightness. "It emanates from the vast magazines of frost, snow, and wintry wind that lie far to the north-east even of my home, and THAT is in a region you would think drear and inhospitable after the more clement airs of of your native State."
"We have very cold weather in Virginia sometimes," returned Mabel, still scanning the sentinel gate-posts, and the pyramidal arbor-vitae trees flanking them.
Her gaze was a mournful farewell, but she neglected none of the amenities of hospitality. She was used to talking commonplaces.
"We feel it all the more, too, on account of the mildness of the greater part of the winter," she subjoined.
"Allow me!" said the other, looping back the curtain she had until now held in her hand. "Whereas our systems are braced by a more uniform temperature to endure the severity of our frosts, and high, keen blasts."
"I suppose so," assented Mabel, mechanically, and unconscious as himself that meaning glances were stolen at them from the fireside circle, while the hum and conversation was continuous and louder, for the good-natured intent on the speakers' part to afford the supposed lovers the chance of carrying on their dialogue unheard.
"But our houses are very comfortable—often very beautiful," Mr. Dorrance persevered, keeping to the scent of his game, as a trained pointer scours a stubble-field, narrowing his beat at every circuit; "and the hearts of those who live in them are warm and constant. It is not always true that
"'The cold in clime are cold in blood; Their love can scarce deserve the name.
"I have thought sometimes that that feeling is strongest and most enduring, the demonstration of which is guarded and infrequent, as the deepest portion of the channel is the most quiet."
If his philosophical and scientific talk were heavy and solid, his poetry and metaphors were ponderous and labored. Yet Mabel listened to him now, neither facing nor avoiding him, looking down at her hands, laid, one above the other, upon the window-sill, the image of maidenly and courteous attention.
Why should she affect diffidence, or seek to escape what she had foreseen for weeks, and made no effort to ward off? She had come to the conclusion in October that Herbert Dorrance would, when the forms he considered indispensable to regular courtship had been gone through with, ask her to marry him, and coolly taken her resolution to accept him. This morning, on the reception of a handsome Christmas gift from him, and discovering in his actions something more pointed than his customary punctilious devoirs, and in his didacticism the outermost of the closing circle of pursuit she had furthermore concluded that his happy thought was to celebrate the festal season by his betrothment. She was quite ready for the declaration, which, she anticipated, would be pompous and formal. She would have excused him from "doing" the poetical part of it; but, since it was on the programme, it was not her province to interfere.
"I am no enthusiast," he next averred,—Rosa would have said, very unnecessarily—"the tricks of sighing lovers are beyond—or beneath—my imitation. I could not 'write a sonnet to my mistress' eyebrow,' or move her to tearful pity by sounding declarations of my adoration of her peerless charms, and my anguish at the bare imagination of the possibility that these would ever be another's. But, so far as the earnest affection and sincere esteem of an honest man can satisfy the requirements of a good woman's heart, yours shall be filled, Mabel, if you will be my wife. I have admired you from the first day of our meeting. For six months I have been truly attached to you, and seriously meditated this declaration. Your brother is satisfied with the exhibit I have made of my affairs and my prospects, and sanctions my addresses. I can maintain you more than comfortably, and it shall be one of the principal aims of my life to consult your welfare in all my plans for my own advancement. I have been settled in the large and flourishing city of Albany about seven years, and—ignoring the trammels of mock humility, let me say to you—have, within that period, gained to a flattering extent the confidence of the most respectable portion of the community; have built up an excellent and growing business connection, and secured the entree of the best society there. These are the pecuniary and social aspects of the alliance I propose for your consideration. Through my sister, and by means of the intimate association into which her marriage with your brother has drawn you and myself, you have been enabled, within the twelvemonth that has elapsed since our introduction, one to the other, to learn whatever you wished to know with respect to my personal character, my tastes, temper, and habits. It has given me heartfelt pleasure to discover that these are, in the main, analogous to your own. I have built upon this similarity—or harmony would be the better word—sanguine hopes of our future happiness, should you see your way clear to accept my proffered hand, consent to link your future with mine."
"I beg to lay the 'ouse in Walcot Square, the business and myself, before Miss Summerson, for her acceptance," said magnanimous Mr. Guppy, thus clinching his declaration that "the image he had supposed was eradicated from his 'art was NOT eradicated."
It was more in keeping with Rosa's character than Mabel's to recollect the comic scene in the book they had read together lately, but the latter did remember it at this instant, and despite the momentous issues involved in her immediate action, was strongly tempted to laugh in her wooer's solemn face.
Then—so abrupt and fearful are the transitions from the extremes of one emotion to another—arose before her another picture. As in a dissolving view, she beheld herself walking with Frederic Chilton in the moonlighted alleys of the garden; midsummer flowers blooming to the right and left, her head drooping, in shy happiness, as the lily-bell bows to shed its freight of dew; his face glowing with the ardor of verbal confession of that he had already sought to express by letter—heard his fervent, pleading murmur, "Mabel! look up, my darling! and tell me again that you will not send me away beggared and starving. I cannot yet believe in the reality of my bliss!"
These were the love-words of an "enthusiast"—these—-
The vision vanished at the short, hard breath, she drew in unclasping her locked hands, and lifting her grave, tranquil eyes to the level of her suitor's.
"I will follow your example in repudiating spurious sentiment, Mr. Dorrance. I believe you to be a good, true man and that the attachment you profess for me is sincere. I believe, moreover, that my chances of securing real peace of mind will be fairer, should I commit myself to your guardianship, than if I were to surrender my affections to the keeping of one whose vows were more impassioned, who, professing to adore me as a divinity, should yet be destitute of your high moral principle and stainless honor. When I was younger and more rash in judgment and feeling, I was led into a sad mistake by the evidence of eye, ear, and a girl's imagination. I ought to tell you this, if you have not already heard the story. I will not deceive you into the persuasion that I can ever feel for you, or any other man, the love, or what I thought was love, I knew in the few brief weeks of my early betrothal. But you must know how that ended, and I have no desire to repeat the mad experiment of risking my earthly all upon one throw of fate. If friendship—if esteem, and the resolve to show myself a worthy recipient of your generous confidence—will content you, all else shall be as you wish."
In her determination to be candid, to leave him in no uncertainty as to her actual sentiments, she had concerted a response but a degree less stilted than his proposal. She would have been ashamed of it had he appeared less gratified.
His dull eyes brightened; his face flushed and beamed with unfeigned delight, and in his transport he said the most natural and graceful thing that ever escaped him during his wooing.
"I am content! The second love of Mabel Aylett must ever be more to me than the first of any other woman!"
True, he nearly spoiled all the next minute, by producing from his pocket a wee velvet case, from which he extracted a valuable diamond ring, and proceeded, then and there, in the shadow of the accommodating curtain, to fit it upon her finger. He had foreseen that she would not be hardly won, and with characteristic providence had prepared himself for the event.
The blood leaped to Mabel's temples and the fire to her eye, at the prompt seal set by the practical non-enthusiast upon the contract, but she bit her lip, and submitted after a second of thought. He owed his exemption from rebuke to her memory of his latest utterance. She could not mistake the tone of genuine feeling, and she overlooked the breach of taste that followed; treasured up the heart-saying as one of the few souvenirs she cared to preserve of his courtship.
"If he is content, I need not be miserable," was the consolatory reflection with which she took upon herself her new and binding obligations.
THE FACE AT THE WINDOW.
MRS. AYLETT was in her best feather that night; the suave chatelaine, the dutiful consort; the tactful warder of the interesting pair whose movements she had not ceased to watch from the moment they took their places with the party about the fire-place in the hall until she, alone of all the company, saw Herbert Dorrance draw the diamond signet from its receptacle, and the sparkle of the jewel as it slipped to its abiding-place upon Mabel's finger.
Lest something unusual in their look or behavior should excite the suspicions of their companions, make them the focus of inquisitive observation and whispered remark, the diplomate passed again into the hall, sweeping along in advance of them when they deserted their curtained recess, and would have joined the rest of the company.
"Are we to have no dancing this evening?" she said, in hospitable solicitude. "It wants an hour yet of supper-time. The exercise will do you all good, particularly the young ladies, who have not stirred beyond the piazzas to-day. I have been waiting for an invitation to play for you, but my desire for your welfare has overcome native humility. Will you accept my services as your musician?"
The suggestion was acceded to by acclamation, and while one gentleman led her to the grand piano which stood between the front windows of the drawing-room, and another opened a music-book which she named, a set was quickly formed in the long apartment, the soberer portion of the crowd ranging themselves along the walls as lookers-on.
Mrs. Aylett was a proficient in dance-music. She never volunteered to perform that which she was not conscious of doing well. She had occasionally taken the floor for a single quadrille, to oblige a favored guest—always a middle-aged or elderly gentleman—or moved through a cotillion with ease and spirit as partner to her husband, but she declined dancing, as a rule; was altogether indifferent to the amusement, while she delighted to oblige her friends by playing for them whenever and as long as they required her aid. Without saying, in so many words, that she disapproved of the waltz for unmarried ladies, and frowned upon promiscuous dancing for matrons, she yet managed to regulate the social code of the neighborhood in both these respects, was imitated and quoted by the most discreet of chaperones and belles.
Mr. Dorrance was Mabel's partner; Rosa stood up with Randolph Harrison, a gay youth, who was her latest attache; Tom Barksdale led out a blushing, yet sprightly school-girl, and Imogene was his vis-a-vis supported by an ancient admirer, who had comforted himself for her preference for another man by falling in love with a prettier woman. The room was decorated with garlands of running cedar—a vine known in higher latitudes as "ground-pine," and which carpeted acres of the Ridgeley woods. The vases on the mantel were filled with holly, and other gayly colored berry boughs, while roses, lemon and orange blossoms, mignonette and violets from the conservatory were set about on tables and brackets, blending fresher and more wholesome odors with those of the Parisian extracts wafted from the ladies' dresses and handkerchiefs.
Mr. Aylett had—accidentally, it would seem—his wife understood that the action was premeditated—stationed himself at an angle to the piano that allowed him a fair view of her, and did not grudge the merriest bachelor there his share of enjoyment, while he could keep furtive watch upon the changeful countenance, the Sappho-like head, and the delicate hands which one could have thought made the music, rather than did the obedient keys they touched. The wedded lovers had taste and pride in equal proportions, and a parade of their satisfaction in one another for the edification or amusement of indifferent spectators would have been revolting to both, but the ray that sped from half-averted eyes, from time to time, and was returned by a kindling glance, also shot sidelong beneath dropped lashes, said more to each other than would a quarto volume of stereotyped protestations and caresses, such as Tom Barksdale dealt out profusely to his beauteous Imogene. Clearly, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Winston Aylett was fond of sugar-candy.
Mabel's faith in the sincerity of her sister-in-law's agreeable sayings and ways was not invariable nor absolute. She liked her after a certain fashion; got along swimmingly with her, the amazed public decided "SO much better than could have been expected, and than was customary with relations by marriage, and not by descent;" yet her more upright nature and different training helped her to detect the petty artifices with which Clara cajoled the unwary, moulded the plastic at her will. But she had never questioned the reality of her love for Winston. As a wife, her deportment was exemplary, her devotion too freely and consistently rendered to have its spring in policy or affectation. She gloried in her handsome, courtly lord, and in his attachment for herself. Whether she would have espied the same causes for loving exultation in him, had he been a poor clergyman or merchant's clerk, was an irrelevant consideration. The master of Ridgeley was not to be contemplated apart from the possessions and dignities that were his inalienable pedestal. Clara Dorrance was a clever woman, and she had given these due weight in accepting his hand; and they may have had their influence in moving her to unceasing, yet unobtrusive endeavor to make herself still more necessary to his happiness, to strengthen her hold upon him by every means an affectionate and beloved wife has at her command. She had done well for herself—she was thinking while he concluded as silently within himself that the slight pensiveness tempering the expressive face was its loveliest dress.