"As well here and now, as anywhere and at any time!" returned Rosa, yet more resignedly. "And the end must come, sooner or later. This was what I was saying over to myself when you came in. I am a fool—a baby—to mind it!" angrily dashing away the obtrusive brine from her mournful eyelids. "I WISH you would leave me alone for a few minutes, Mr. Chilton, until I can behave myself!"
For a second it seemed that her companion would take her at her word, so puzzled and troubled was his countenance, and he moved slightly, as about to obey the petulant behest; then sat still.
"I have found no fault in your behavior!" he said, too coolly to please Rosa's notion.
"I know you despise me!" she burst forth, chokingly. "I believe I am hysterical, and the more I rail at my stupidity and folly, the more unmanageable my nerves—if it is my nerves that are out of order— become. But I have been so happy, so content and grateful, lately! And everything will be so different after—after TO-MORROW!"
Her voice had failed to a sobbing whisper, and the diaphanous cambric veiled her bowed face.
Frederic Chilton did not stir a finger or attempt to speak for a full minute, but in that minute he thought a volume, felt acutely.
This, then, was what he had been doing in his hours of relaxation from the business which had occupied his mind to the banishment of nearly every other consideration; that had driven into comparative obscurity the old gnawing grief which had incorporated itself with his being! The intimacy with a beautiful, sprightly girl had been a holiday diversion to him after arduous brain-labor, recreation sought conscientiously and systematically, that his mental powers might be clearer and fresher for the next day's toil in court and among perplexing records; in hunting up titles and disputed property, and proving their validity. He had gained the cause that had brought him to the capital, and cost him so much fatigue and anxiety, and was proud of his success. But what of this other piece of work? Would not the most cold-blooded flirt, who ever prated of fidelity, when he meant betrayal and desertion, blush to father this business? And she, poor, guileless lamb, must bear the pain, the mortification, perhaps the contumely, which ought to be his in seven-fold measure!
"Stay, Rosa!" he said, huskily, when she attempted to rise. "Do not leave me yet. I may not be altogether so unworthy, so basely callous as I have given you reason to suppose. Can it be that I have misconstrued what you have said, or do you really care that our separation is so near? I had not thought of this."
"I understand." She lowered her flag of distress and confronted him sorrowfully, not in resentment. "You believed me incapable of deep and lasting feeling; saw in me no more than the world does, a giddy coquette, feather-haired and shallow-hearted. Be it so. Perhaps it is best that you should not be undeceived. Such injustice and prejudice are the penalties a woman must suffer who wears a tinsel cloak over her finer affections—admits but few, sometimes but one, to her sanctum sanctorum. The gushing, loving, extensively-loving class fare better. You have been very kind and attentive to me in my strangerhood here, Mr. Chilton. I must always revert to your conduct with gratitude. By the way"—a hysterical laugh breaking into her dignified acknowledgment of benefits received—"that is the same, in substance, that you said to me a while ago, isn't it? So we are even—owe each other nothing."
"Except to love one another." The solemn accents hushed her reckless prattle. "Rosa, can you learn this lesson?"
She had shrunk down—sunk is not the word to convey an idea of the prostration of strength, the collapse of resolution, expressed by the figure cowering in the deep chair, its face upborne and hidden by the shaking hands. They were cold as ice, Frederic felt, when he would have drawn them aside.
"We will have no foolish reserves, my child. Much, if not all, the happiness of our future lives may depend upon our perfect sincerity now. You do not require to be told how poor is the offering of my heart. You are the only person who has ever entered into the secret of its emptiness and desolation; seen blight, where there should be bloom; ashes, where flame should glow. But such as it is, it is yours, if you will have it. If you are willing to trust yourself with me, I will cherish as I now honor you, truly and forever; leave no means untried that can add to your happiness. Dare you make the venture?"
Her unstudied caress was beautiful and pathetic in its lowliness of humility and earnest affection—too earnest for the commonplace outlet of words. It was to slip to her knees at his feet, and kiss his hand, then lay her cheek upon it, as some dumb, devoted thing might do.
Then she was lifted into his arms, and kissed with a fervor she mistook for awakening passion, and her heart bounded more madly in the belief that her victory was complete, that he would henceforward be hers in feeling as in name.
Yet the words breathed into her ear as her head rested upon his bosom might have taught her the fallacy of her conviction and her hopes.
"My noble, faithful girl! What have I to offer you in payment for all this?"
"I ask nothing, except the right to be with, and to serve you!" responded Rosa.
And she thought she spoke the whole truth for once.
AUNT RACHEL WAXES UNCHARITABLE.
"A SLY, artful, treacherous jade?" articulated Mrs. Sutton, energetically. "I have no patience with her. And they say she is so overjoyed at her conquest that she trumpets the engagement everywhere. Such shameless carrying on I never heard of. If she ever crosses my path I shall treat her to some wholesome truths."
"What good would that do, aunt?" asked Mabel Dorrance, without raising her head from her sewing. "And what has she done that should incense you or any one else against her? She was free to choose a husband, and we have no right to cavil at her choice. I hope she will be very happy. I used to love her—we loved each other very fondly once. There are some excellent traits in Rosa's character, and when she is once married she will be less volatile."
"Don't you believe it. Her flightiness and insincerity are ingrain! I believed in her once myself—she had such beguiling ways, it was hard to disapprove of anything she said or did. But I was secretly aware, all the time, that there was a radical defect in her composition. A woman who has been engaged, or as good as engaged, to six or eight different men, cannot retain much purity of mind or strength of affection. I heard you tell her yourself once that such unscrupulous flirtation and bandying of hearts were profane touches that rubbed the down from the peach."
"That was the extravagant talk of a silly, romantic girl," replied Mabel, with a smile that changed to a sigh before the sentence was finished. "I was somewhat given to lecturing other people, in those days, upon subjects of which I knew little or nothing. Nine men out of ten care little how roughly the peach has been rubbed, provided the flavor is not injured to their taste. It is only once in a great while that you meet with one whose palate is so nice that he can detect the difference between fruit that has been hawked through the market and that just picked from the tree. First love is a myth at which rational people laugh."
"Perhaps so," said Mrs. Sutton dubiously.
In view of the circumstances of Mabel's marriage, she felt that it behooved her to be circumspect in condemnation of transferred affections.
"But that does not alter the fact of Rosa Tazewell's infamous behavior to Alfred Branch and others of her beaux. Isn't the poor fellow drinking himself into his grave, all through his disappointment? And here she is going to be as honored a wife as if she had never perjured herself, or ruined an honest, loving man's prospects for life!"
Mabel went on with her work, and did not reply.
"I have had uncomfortable suspicions about certain passages in her intercourse with us, since I heard this news," continued Mrs. Sutton, edging her chair toward her niece, and dropping her voice. "I am afraid I can date the beginning of her cruelty to Alfred back to that September she spent here—to the latter part of it, I mean. Little scenes come to my memory that caused me trifling uneasiness then. I shall never forget, for instance, how she eyed you, the morning Winston came home so unexpectedly."
And she described the incident recorded in the latter part of our opening chapter.
"Can it be," she pursued, "that she had even then designs upon the man she is about to marry? She knew all the circumstances of the trouble that ensued, and if disposed to be meddlesome, she had the means at her command."
"I told her nothing," said Mabel briefly.
"But she pumped me pretty effectually," confessed the aunt shamefacedly. "I thought there could be no harm in giving her a synopsis of the case—she being your intimate friend."
Another gleam of pensive amusement crossed Mabel's face. She knew too well the nature of her aunt's "synopsis" to doubt that Rosa was conversant with every phase of the affair, concerning which her own lips had been so sternly sealed.
"You have nothing with which to reproach yourself," she said, tranquilly. "She marries with her eyes open."
"You don't imagine for one instant that she would be annoyed by any such scruples as beset you!" cried Mrs. Sutton scoffingly. "Why, the woman would sooner go to the altar with a handsome, dashing libertine, who had broken hearts by the dozen, than marry a quiet, honest Christian, who had never breathed of love to any ears except hers. The aim of her life is to create or experience a sensation. I don't quite see how she could have made trouble in that sad affair, but I should like to be positive that she did not."
"You may safely acquit her of that sin," rejoined Mabel. "There was neither need nor room for her interference. Whatever may have been her inclination, she was shrewd enough to perceive that the natural course of events was bringing about the desired end—if it were a desirable one to her—without her help or hindrance. But, aunt! doesn't it strike you that this is a very profitless talk, and very uncharitable? It is a sorry task, this volunteering our assistance to the dead past to bury its dead. And I, for one, have too much bound up in the future to offer my service in the painful work. Look! is not this pretty?"
She was embroidering a white merino cloak for an infant, in a pattern so rich and elaborate, that Mrs. Sutton groaned in commingled admiration and sympathy as she inspected it.
"You are throwing time and strength away upon this work!" she expostulated. "I don't know another lady in your circumstances who would not take her friends' advice, and put out all the sewing you need to have done. But your eyes and fingers have labored incessantly for six months upon the finest work you could devise, and you begin to look like a shadow. I don't wonder Mr. Dorrance seems uneasy sometimes. He complained this morning that you did not take enough exercise in the open air."
"He is not anxious, nor should he be. I am well, and stronger than you will believe. As to the work, it has been one great delight of my existence during the period you speak of. I could not endure that anybody but myself should assist in fashioning the dainty, tiny garments that make my hope an almost present reality. Every stitch seems to bring nearer the fulfilment of the dear promise. I only regret that this is the last of the set. I shall be at a loss for occupation for the next two months. And I fear from something Herbert said to-day, that he does not intend for me to return to Albany until the spring fairly opens. Dr. Williams has been talking to him about my cough."
"Dr. Williams is a fussy old woman, and Mr. Dorrance"—began Mrs. Sutton.
Mabel quietly took up the word.
"Mr. Dorrance is ignorant of diseases and medicines, as men usually are who have not studied these with a view to practise upon themselves or others. I have said that he is not really uneasy; but he says, and with truth, that the Northern March and April are raw and cold, and will try my strength severely. Winston and Clara share in his fears. It is very kind in them to tender me the hospitalities of their house for so long a time, but I should feel more at home in my own, during my illness and convalescence."
"Why not tell your husband this plainly?"
"Because it might bias his judgment and embarrass his action. I am willing to do as he thinks best."
There were not many subjects upon which Mrs. Sutton was irascible, but she patted the floor with her foot now as if this was one of them—her discontent finding vent at length in what she regarded as a perfectly safe query.
"Will he remain with you?"
"He cannot. His business is large and increasing. He can afford but this one fortnight vacation."
"How do you expect to get along without him?"
"I expect my dear old aunt to come often and see me," said Mabel affectionately, parrying the catechism "Clara suggested, of her own accord, when the extension of my visit was discussed, that you should be invited to be with me late in April—and I don't want you to refuse. Do you understand, and mean to be complaisant? You are all the mother I have ever known, auntie."
"My lamb! you need not fear lest I shall not improve every opportunity of seeing and comforting you. I shall return a civil and grateful reply to Mrs. Aylett's invitation, for your sake! and for the same reason try and remember, while I remain her guest, that her right to be and to reign at Ridgeley is superior to yours or mine."
The good lady was not to be harshly censured if she now and then, in private confabulation with her favorite, let fall a remark which was the reverse of complimentary to her niece-in-law. Mabel's marriage was the signal for a radical reorganization of the Ridgeley domestic establishment, by which Mrs. Sutton was reduced from the busy, responsible situation of housekeeper to the unenviable one of unnoticed and unconsulted supernumerary.
"Not that I wish you to desert your old quarters, still less to feel like a stranger with us," said Mrs. Aylett graciously, while she affixed shining brass labels to the keys of closets, sideboards, and store-rooms—the keys Aunt Rachel could distinguish from one another, and all others in the world, in the darkest night, without any labels whatever; which had grown smooth and bright by many years' friction of her nimble fingers. "But Mr. Aylett wishes me to assume the real, as well as nominal, government of the establishment"—Mrs. Aylett was fond of the polysyllable as conveying better than any other term she could employ the grandeur of her position as Baroness of Ridgeley. "He insists that the servants are growing worthless and refractory under the rule of so many. Hereafter—this is his law, not mine—hereafter, those attached to the house department are to come to me about their orders, and the plantation workmen to him. I shall undoubtedly have much trouble in curing the satellites appointed to me of their irregular habits, and reducing them to something resembling system; but Winston's extreme dissatisfaction with the anarchy that prevailed under the ancien regime moves me to the undertaking."
"They have always—for generations back, I may say—been called excellent servants; faithful in the discharge of their duties, and attached to their owners," returned Mrs. Sutton tremulously. "And since I have been in charge—ever since my dear sister's death, I have done my best with them, as with everything else committed by my nephew to my care. But of course I have nothing to urge against your plan. If I can help you in any way"—-
"Thank you! You are extremely kind, my dear madam," honeyedly. "But I should be ashamed and sorry to be compelled to call upon you for assistance in performing what you have done so easily and successfully for fifteen years. I must learn confidence in my own powers, if I would be respected by underlings. They would be quick to detect the power behind the throne; let me hold counsel with you ever so secretly, and my authority would be weakened by the discovery. I have not the vanity to believe that my maiden attempt at housewifery will be attended by the distinction that has crowned yours, but practice will perfect in this, as in other labors. And my dear Mrs. Sutton, Mr. Aylett bids me say, in his name, as it gives me pleasure to do in my own, that although your occupation is gone, you are ever welcome to a home at Ridgeley, free of all expense. It is our hope that you may still content yourself here, even if Mabel has gone from the nest. I suppose, however, nothing will satisfy her, when she goes to housekeeping, but having you with her as a permanent institution. My brother intimated as much to me before his marriage."
Declining with mild hauteur, that gave great, but secret amusement to her would-be benefactress, the handsome offer of a free asylum, Mrs. Sutton went to live with a cousin of her late husband's, whose snug plantation was situated about twelve miles from the Aylett place, and in the neighborhood of the Tazewells. It was a pleasant, but not a permanent arrangement, she gave out to her numerous friends, any of whom would have accounted themselves favored by an acceptance of a home for life in their families.
"Ridgeley was changed and lonely since Mabel's departure, and her own habits were too active to be conformed to those of so small a household. Indeed, there was nothing for her to do there any longer, so she was glad to avail herself of Mrs. William Sutton's invitation to stay a while with her. The children made the house so lively. In the fall, the house Mr. Dorrance was having built for his Southern bride would be ready for them, and Mabel's claim upon her aunt's society and services must take precedence of all others."
The fall came, and Mabel wrote detailed descriptions of the beautiful home Herbert had prepared for her; wrote, moreover, with more feeling and animation, of the new and precious hopes of happiness held out to her loving heart in the prospect of what the spring would give into her arms, but said nothing of her aunt's coming to her for the winter, or for an indefinite period, the bounds of which were to be set only by her beloved relative's wishes. The omission was trying enough to the foster-mother's heart and patience, even while she believed the knowledge of it to be confined to herself. She could still hold up her head bravely among her kindred and acquaintances, and talk of the "dear child's" good fortune and contentment with it; how popular and beloved she was among them, and what an elegant house her generous husband had bestowed upon her; could still hint at the instability of her own plans, and the possibility that she might, at any day or hour, determine to leave her native State and follow her "daughter" into what the latter represented was not an unpleasant exile.
An end was put to this innocent deception—for, if any deception can be termed innocent, it is surely that by which he who practises it is himself beguiled—the blameless guile was then arrested by a story repeated to her by her indignant hosts, as having emanated directly from Mrs. Aylett. She had given expression, publicly, at a large dinner-party, to her amazement and pity at the self-delusion under which "poor, dear Mrs. Sutton" labored, in expecting to take up her residence with Mr. and Mrs. Dorrance.
"My brother laments her hallucination as much, if not more than his wife does," she said, in her best modulations of creamy compassion. "But, indeed, my dear Mrs. Branch, they are not accountable for it. Not a syllable has ever escaped either of them which a reasonable person could construe into a request that she should become an inmate of their household. So careful have they been to avoid exciting her expectations in this regard, that they have refrained from extending to her an invitation for even a month. Those who are most familiar with the poor lady's peculiarities do not require to be told how ill-advised would be the arrangement she desires. Mabel is a thoroughly sensible woman, and too devoted a wife to advocate anything so injudicious, while her husband is naturally jealous for her dignity and the inviolability of her authority in her own house. Mrs. Sutton left Ridgeley in opposition to our earnest entreaties that she would spend the evening of her days with us. I was assured then, as I am now, that she would receive the same love and respect nowhere else. But she could not brook the semblance of interference with her rule where she had reigned so long and irresponsibly. And while we may deplore, we can hardly find fault with this weakness. It must have been a trial—and not an ordinary one—to be obliged, at her age, to resign the sceptre she had swayed for upward of fifteen years."
"'Their words are smoother than oil, but in their mouths is a drawn sword,'" quoted Mrs. Sutton, in meek protest against the sugared malice of this slander when it was told to her. "This is none of Mabel's doings. She loves me dearly as ever, but one might as well hope to move the Blue Ridge as to teach that pragmatical husband of hers to consult her wishes and her good, before he does his own. His head is hard as a flint, and his heart—never mind! Heaven forgive me if I am unjust to him! I should be thankful that he does not really mean to misuse my darling. Now, my dears, you see how undesirable an inmate of any house I am rated to be. If you wish to retract your offer of a hiding-place for my old head, I shall not take it amiss. Thanks to Providence and my dear Frederic I have enough, to maintain me decently anywhere in this country. I shall never be chargeable to anybody for my food, victuals, and lodgings. If you are willing to let me board here and do odd stitches for the children when they tear their aprons and rub out the knees of their trowsers—just to keep me out of mischief, you understand!—I promise to be as little officious in housewifely concerns as it is in my nature to be."
William Sutton and his wife—a woman who was both sagacious and amiable—reiterated their assurances that she could not confer a greater boon upon them than by remaining where she was, and with them she had stayed until Mr. Aylett sent over the Ridgeley carriage, one day in the third week in February, with a note from Mabel, begging her aunt to present herself, without needless delay, at the homestead, since she was not reckoned sufficiently strong to attempt the uneven and muddy roads that still separated them. Mrs. Aylett also dispatched a billet by the coachman, the graceful burden of which was the same as that of Mabel's petition, and the two long-sundered friends were speedily together; fellow-partakers of a bountiful and painstaking hospitality, which kept them continually in mind that they were guests, and not at home.
The dialogue relative to Rosa Tazewell's matrimonial project took place on the third day of Mrs. Sutton's visit, in Mabel's chamber, and when the former, having talked off the topmost bubbles of her righteous wrath, recollected several very important letters—business and friendly—she ought to have written a week ago, and trotted off to her room where she could perform the neglected duty without visible and outward temptation to that she was more fond of doing—to wit, talking—the young wife continued to work steadily, and with apparent composure. It was not a bright face on which the light from the western windows fell, yet it was not unhappy. She had never pretended to herself that her marriage was a step toward happiness, but she had believed that it would secure to her a larger share of peace, immunity from disturbance, and independence of thought and action, than fell to her lot in her brother's house, and for these negative benefits she longed wearily.
Mr. Aylett was not wantonly or openly unkind to his ward, and ungenerous persecution was utterly incompatible with the temper and habits of his lady wife, but between them they had contrived to make the girl's life very miserable. It was Winston's cue—adopted, let us hope, from the strict sense of duty he avowed had ever actuated him in his treatment of the charge bequeathed him by his father—to deport himself with calm, seldom-relaxed severity to one who had showed herself to be entirely unworthy of confidence; to exercise unremitting surveillance upon her personal association with young people out of the family and her correspondence, and to curb by look and oral reproof the most distant approach to what he condemned as indiscreet levity. In a thousand ways—many of them ingenious, and all severe, she was made to feel the curtailment of her liberty, and given to understand that it was the just retribution of her unlucky love-affair with an unprincipled adventurer. Mrs. Aylett professed to discountenance this policy—to be Mabel's secret friend and ally, while she deemed it unwise to combat her husband's will by overt measures for his sister's protection.
Thus, for a year, the object of his real displeasure and her affected commiseration lived under a cloud, too proud to complain of her thraldom, but feeling it every second; mourning, in the seclusion of the trebly barred chambers of her heart, over her shattered idol and squandered affections, and fancying, in the morbid distrust engendered by the discovery of her lover's baseness, and the weight of her brother's unsparing reprobation of her insane imprudence, that she descried in every face, save Aunt Rachel's, contempt or rebuke for the faux pas that had so nearly cast a stigma upon her name and lineage.
In Herbert Dorrance's honest admiration and assiduous courtship the most suspicious scrutiny could detect no tincture of either of these feelings, and it was not long before she took refuge in his society from the risk of being wounded and angered by the supposed exhibition of them in others. Here was one man who could not but know of her folly, in all its length, breadth, and depth, who was a witness of her daily chastisement for it at her guardian's hands, yet who esteemed her unsullied by the unworthy attachment, undegraded by punishment. Gratitude had a powerful auxiliary in her feverish longing to escape from scenes that kept alive to the quick, memories she would have annihilated, had her ability been commensurate with her will. All other associations with the house in which she, and her father before her, had been born, and in which she had passed her childhood and girlish days, were overrun by the thickly thronging and pertinacious recollections of the two short weeks Frederic Chilton had spent there with her. He haunted her walks and drives; trod, by her side, the resounding floor of the vine-covered portico, sat with her in parlor and halls; sang to her accompaniment when she would have exorcised the phantom by music—was always, whenever and wherever he appeared—the tender, ingenuous, manly youth she had loved and reverenced as the impersonation of her ideal lord; the demi-god whom she had worshipped, heart and soul—set, in her exulting imagination no lower than the angels, and beheld in the end,—with besmirched brow and debased mien, a disgraced sensualist, not merely a deceiver of another woman's innocent confidence, and her tempter to dishonor and wretchedness, but a poltroon—a whipped coward who had not dared to lift voice or pen in denial or extenuation of his crime.
The law of reaction is of more nearly universal application in moral and in physical science than men are willing to believe. We have seen how cunningly Rosa calculated upon it, and wiser people than she, every day, attribute the most momentous actions of their lives to its influence.
"My advice to every woman is to marry for GOODNESS—simple integrity of word and deed!" said a lady, once in my hearing.
She was an excellent scholar, attractive in person and in manner, gifted in conversation and opulent in purse. Her hand had been sought in marriage by more than one, and in early womanhood she had made choice among her suitors of a man whose plausible exterior was the screen of a black heart and infamous life. Convinced of her mistake barely in time to escape copartnership in his stained name and ruined fortunes, she set up the history of her deadly peril as a beacon to others as ardent and unwary as her old-time self. Either to put a double point upon the moral, or to insure herself against similar mishap in the future, she wedded an amiable and correct fool, a mere incidental in the work of human creation, who was as incapable of making his mark upon the age that produced him as an angle-worm is of lettering solid granite.
Mabel's husband was not a simpleton, or characterless; but if he had been, his prospetts of success would not have been materially damaged by her knowledge of his deficiencies. A union with him was a safe investment, and must be several degrees more supportable than was her position at Ridgeley, banned by its owner and patronized by his wife. I neither excuse nor blame her for thus deciding and transacting. Should I censure, a majority of my readers—nearly all of the masculine portion—would pick holes in my unpractical philosophy, scout my reasoning as illogical, brand my conclusions as pernicious—winding up their protest with the sigh of the mazed disciples, when stunned by the great Teacher's deliverance upon the subject of divorce, "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry!"
Which dogma I likewise decline to dispute—falling back thankfully upon the blessed stronghold of unambitious story-tellers—namely, that my vocation is to describe what IS—not make fancy-sketches of millennial days, when rectitude shall be the best, because most remunerative policy; when sincerity shall be wisdom—proven and indisputable, and consistency the rule of human faith and practice the world over, instead of being, as it now is, one of the lost (or never invented) fine arts.
"You are puttin' your eyes out, workin' so stiddy, honey, and it's gettin' dark."
Mabel aroused herself from her intent attitude, and looked at the window. There was a brassy glimmer in the cloudy west; the rest of the sky was covered by thick vapors.
"The days are still very short," she said, folding her work, and becoming aware that her eyes ached from long and close study of the intricate pattern.
It was Mammy Phillis who had interrupted her reverie, and she now laid an armful of seasoned hickory wood upon the hearth, and set herself about mending the fire, taking up the ashes which had accumulated since morning, putting the charred sticks together, and collecting the embers into a compact bed.
"We're goin' to have fallin' weather 'fore long," she observed, oracularly. "The wind has changed since dinner, and when the wind whirls about on a sudden, we upon this ridge is the fust to find it out. I must see that them lazy chil'len, Lena and Lizy, fills your wood-box to-night with dry wood; I'd be loth to have you ketch cold while you are here."
"You are very good, Mammy, but why do you trouble yourself to attend to my fire? You should have sent up Lena with that great load of logs."
"I ain't easy without I see to you myself, at least once a day. It 'minds me of the good ole times to wait upon you. O, Lord! how long?" shaking her tartan turban with a portentous groan, her chin almost scraping the hearth, as she stooped to blow into the crater of fiery coals.
Mabel was too well versed in the customs of the race and class to take alarm at the mysterious invocation. She watched the old woman's movements in a sort of pensive amusement at the recollection of an incident of her childhood, brought vividly to her mind by the servant's air and exclamation.
She was playing in the yard one day, when "Mammy" emerged from her cottage-door, and came toward her, with a batch of sweet cakes she had just baked for her nursling.
In crossing the gravel walk leading to the "house," she struck her toe against the brick facing of this, and the cakes flew in all directions.
"Good Lord! my poor toe and my poor chile's cakes!" was her vehement interjection; and as she bent to gather up the cookies, she grunted out the same adjuration, coupled with "my poor ole back!"—a negress' stock subject of complaint, let her be but twenty years old and as strong as an ox.
"Mammy!" said the privileged child, reprovingly, "I thought you were too good a Christian to break the commandments in that way. You shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain."
"Gracious! Sugar-pie! how you talk! Ef I don't call 'pon Him in time of trouble, who can I ask to help me?" was the confident reply.
With no thought of any more formidable cause of outcry than a cramp in the much-quoted spine, Mabel dreamed on sketchily and indolently, enjoying the sight of the once-familiar process of building a wood-fire, until the yellow serpents of flame crept, red-tongued through the interstices of the lower logs, and the larger and upper began to sing the low, drowsy tune, more suggestive of home-cheer and fireside comfort than the shrill, monotonous chirp of the famous cricket on the hearth. The pipe-clayed bricks on which the andirons rested were next swept clean; the hearth-brush hung up on its nail, and the architect of the edifice stepped back with a satisfied nod.
"I have often wished for a glimpse of one of your beautiful fires, Mammy, since I have been in Albany," said Mabel, kindly. "Our rooms and halls are all heated by furnaces. An open fireplace would be a novelty to Northerners, and such a roaring, blazing pile of hard wood as that, be considered at unpardonable extravagance."
"Humph! I never did have no 'pinion of them people." Phillis tossed her turban and cocked her prominent chin. "It's all make money, and save! save! If I was 'lowed to go with you, I'll be bound I'd see you have sech things as you've been 'customed to. The new folks, them what comed from nothin' and nowhar, and made every dollar they can call their own with their own hands, don't know how to feel for and look after real ladies."
"You are wrong about that, if you mean that I have not every comfort I could ask. My house is warm in the bitterest weather, and far more handsomely furnished than this. And I have many kind friends. I like the Northern people, and so would you, if you knew them well."
"They send dreadful poor samples down this way, then," muttered Phillis, significantly. "And, some as pertends to be somebody is nobody, or wuss, ef the truth was known. Don't talk to me 'bout 'em, Miss Mabel, darling! 'Twas a mighty black day for us when one on 'em fust laid eyes upon Mars' Winston. You've hearn, ain't you, that my house is to be tore down, and I'm to go into the quarters 'long with the field hands and sich like common trash? So long as our skins is all the same color, some folks can't see no difference in us."
"I had not heard it. I am sorry."
Mabel spoke earnestly, for "Mammy's house," a neat frame cottage a story-and-a-half high, embowered in locust-trees, and with a thrifty, although aged garden—honeysuckle clambering all over the front, was to her one of the dearest pictures of her early days. She could see herself, now—the motherless babe whom Aunt Rachel and Mammy had never let feel her orphanage—sitting on the door-step, bedecking her doll with the odorous pink-and-white blossoms in summer time, and in autumn with the light-red berries.
"Why is that done?" she asked.
"I spiles the prospect, honey!" fiercely—ironical. "Northern folks has tender eyes, and I hurts 'em—me and my poor little house what ole marster built for me when Mars' Winston was a baby, and your blessed ma couldn't be easy 'thout I was near her—WE spiles the prospect! So, it must be knocked down and carted away for rubbish to build pig-pens, I 'spose, and me sent off to live 'mong low-lived niggers, sech as I've always held myself above. She ain't never put it into Mars' Winston's head to cut down the trees that shets off the "prospect" of the colored people's burying-ground from her winder. There's some things she'd as lief not see. I oughtn't to mind this so much, I know, for I ain't got long for to stay here nohow, but I did hope to die in my nest!" sobbing behind her apron.
"I am very sorry—more grieved than you can think!" repeated Mabel. "If I could help you in any way, I would. But I cannot!"
"Bless your heart! Don't I know that, dear! Here, you ain't got no more power nor me. But I WAS a-thinkin' that maybe you wouldn't think me too old for a nuss when you come to want one, and could manage to take me with you when you went home. I'se a heap of wear in me yit, and there ain't nothing 'bout babies I don't understand."
Mabel colored painfully.
"If I had my way"—she began—then altered her plan of reply. "I could not enter into such an arrangement without consulting Mr. Dorrance, Mammy, and I am afraid he would not think as favorably of it as you and I do. He has been brought up with different ideas, you see."
An interjection capable of as many and as varied meanings in the mouth of a colored woman of her stamp as was little Jean Baptiste's "altro!" It signified now—"I comprehend a great deal more than you want me to perceive—you poor, downtrodden angel!"
"Um-HUM. I always did say he was his sister's own brother—for all they don't look a bit alike. What's born into a man never comes out!"
"Mr. Dorrance is my husband, Mammy! I shall not let you speak disrespectfully of him. He does what he believes to be right and just," returned Mabel, sternly.
"I ain't a-goin' to arger that with you, my sugar-plum! You're right to stand up for him. I beg your pardon ef I've seemed sassy or hurt your feelin's. And I dar' say, there mayn't be nothin' wuss 'bout him nor his outside. And that don't matter so much, ef people's insides is clean and straight in the sight of the Lord. But HER outside is all that's decent about her, ef you'll listen to me—"
"You are forgetting yourself again!" said Mabel, unable to suppress a smile. "Mrs. Aylett is your mistress—"
The woman's queer behavior arrested the remonstrance. Stepping on tiptoe to the door she locked it, and approached her young mistress with an ostentatious attempt at treading lightly, shaking her head and pursing up her mouth in token of secrecy, while she fumbled in her bosom for something that seemed hard to get at. Drawing it forth at last she laid it in Mabel's lap—a small leather wallet, glossy with use, tattered at the corners, and tied up with a bit of dirty twine.
"What is this, and what am I to do with it?"
Mabel shrank from touching it, so foul and generally disreputable was its appearance.
"Keep both your ears open, dearie, and I'll tell you all I know!"
And with infinite prolixity and numerous digressions she recounted how, in removing the sodden clothing of the unknown man who had been picked up on the lawn on that memorable stormy Chistmas night, more than a year before, this had slipped from an inner breast-pocket of the coat, "right into her hand." Not caring to disturb the doctor's examination of his patient, or to tempt the cupidity of her fellow-servants by starting the notion that there might be other valuables hidden in the articles they handled so carelessly, she had pocketed it, unobserved by them, guessing that it would be of service at the inquest. Her purpose of producing it then was, according to her showing, reversed by Mrs. Aylett's stolen visit to the chamber and minute inspection of garments she would not have touched unless urged to the disagreeable task by some mighty consideration of duty, self-interest, or fear.
"'Then,' thinks I"—Phillis stated the various steps of her reasoning—"'you wouldn't take the trouble to pull over them nasty, muddy close, 'thout you expected to get some good out on 'em, or was afeard of somethin' or 'nother fallin' into somebody else's hands.' Whichsomever this mought be,'twasn't my business to be gittin' up a row and a to-do before the crowner and all them gentlemen. 'Least said soonest mended,' says I to myself, and keeps mum about the whole thing—what I'd got, and what I'd seen. But when I come to think it all over arterward, I was skeered for true at what I'd done, and for fear Mars' Winston wouldn't like it. What reason could I give him for hidin' of the pocketbook, ef I give it up to him? Ef I tole all the truth, SHE'D be mad as a March hare, and like as not face me down that all I had said was a dream or a lie, or that I was drunk that night and couldn't see straight. I'd hearn her tell too many fibs with a smooth tongue and a sweet smile not to be sure of that! So, all I should git for my care of the repertation of my fam'ly would be her ill-will, and to be 'cused by other people of stealin', and for the rest of my days she'd do all she could to spite me. For I'm sure as I stand here, Miss Mabel, that she knew, or thought she knew, somethin' 'bout that poor, despisable wretch that died up in the garret. What else brought him a-spyin' 'round here, and what was there to make her faint when she ketched sight of him a-lookin' in at her through the winder? and what COULD a sent her upstars when everybody else was asleep, fur to haul his close about, and poke them fine white fingers of hern into his pockets, and pull his WHISKERY face over to the light so's to see it better? Depend 'pon it, there's a bad story at the bottom of this somewhere. I've hearn of many a sich that came of gentlemens' marrying forringers what nobody knowed anything about. Anyhow, I want you to take keer of this 'ere pocketbook. Ef I was to die all of a suddent, and 'twas found 'mong my things, some mischief mought be hatched out on it. It's safer in your hands nor it is in mine. Now, I'll jest light your lamp, and you can 'xamine it, and pitch it into the fire, ef you like, when you're through."
In a cooler moment Mabel would have hesitated to obey the advice of an ignorant, prejudiced person, her inferior in station and intelligence. But in the whirl of astonishment, incredulity, and speculation created by the tale she had heard, she untied the string which formed the primitive fastening of the worn wallet, and unclosed it.
The main compartment contained four tickets, issued by as many different pawnbrokers, testifying that such and such articles had been deposited with them for and in consideration of moneys advanced by them to Thomas Lindsay; a liquor-seller's score against William Jones—unpaid; and a tavern bill, in which brandy and water, whiskey and mint-juleps, were the principal items charged against Edmund Jackson. This last was the only paper which bore the indorsement "Rec'd payment," and this circumstance had, probably, led to its preservation. The adjoining division of the wallet was sewed up with stout black thread and Mabel had to resort to her scissors before she could get at its contents. These were a couple of worn envelopes, crumpled and dog-eared, and stained with liquor or salt water, but still bearing the address, in a feminine hand, of "Lieutenant Julius Lennox, U. S. N." In addition to this, one was directed to Havana, Cuba; the other to Calcutta, in care, of a mercantile or banking-house at each place. A third cover bore the superscription, "CERTIFICATE," in bold characters.
The negress' watchful eyes dilated with greedy expectancy at Mrs. Dorrance's ghastly face when this last had been examind, but she was foiled if she hoped for any valuable addition to her store of information, or anything resembling elucidation of her pet mystery.
"It will take me some time to read all these," remarked Mabel, still scanning the half-sheet she held. "You had better not wait, Mammy. They are safe with me. No one else shall see them, and no harm can come to you through them."
She promised mechanically what she supposed would soonest buy for her privacy and needed quiet, and gave no heed to the manifest disappointment of her visitor.
When she was at last alone, Mrs. Dorrance relocked the door, and bent close to the lamp, as if more light upon the surface of the document would tend to clear up the terrible secret thus strangely committed to her discretion and mercy. The paper was a certificate, drawn up in regular form, and signed by a clergyman, whose address was appended below, in a different hand writing—of a marriage between Julius Lennox and Clara Louise Dorrance.
"Her very name!" repeated the whitening lips. "I remember asking her once what the 'L' in her signature stood for."
But while she said it, there was a look in the reader's eye that bespoke inability or reluctance to grapple with the revelation threatened by the discovery.
"The letters may tell me more!" she added, in the same frightened whisper, refolding the certificate.
They did—for they were in the long, sloping chirography of her sister-in-law, and signed "Your ever-fond, but lonely wife." Each contained, moreover, allusions to "Ellis," to "Clermont," to "Julia," and to "Herbert"—all family names in the Dorrance connection; spoke gratefully of her parents' kindness to his "poor Louise" in the absence of "her beloved Julius;" and was liberally spiced with passionate protestations of her inconsolableness and yearnings for his return. Both were dated ten years back, and the paper was yellow with time, besides being creased and thumbed as by many readings.
"What am I to do?" thought Mabel, sinking into her chair, trembling all over with terror and incertitude.
If there were one sentiment in Winston Aylett's heart that equalled his haughtiness, it was love for his wife. But could it be that he had totally forgotten pride and his habitual caution in the selection of the woman who was to be the partner of his home, fortune, and reputation—possibly the mother of children who were to perpetuate the noble name he bore? By what miracle of unrighteous craft, what subornation of witnesses, what concealments, what barefaced and unscrupulous falsehoods had this adventuress been imposed upon him as unmarried, when the evidence of her former wedlock was held by a low stroller—a drunken wretch who might betray it in an unguarded or insane hour, and who, judging from his exterior, would not be averse to publishing or selling the information if he could make more money by doing this than by preserving the secret. And how came he by these papers?
Confused, partly by his numerous aliases, more by incapacity to conceive of such depth and complication of horror as were revealed by the idea, the perplexed thinker did not, for a while, admit to herself the possibility that the nameless vagabond may have been Clara's living husband, instead of a mercenary villain who had secured surreptitiously the proofs of a marriage she wished the world to forget. Having learned that she had wedded, a second time, in her maiden name, and that her antecedents were unsuspected in her present home, the thought of extorting a bribe to continued silence, from the wealthy lady of Ridgeley, would have occurred to any common rascal with more audacity than principle. It was but a spark—the merest point of light that showed her the verge of the precipice toward which one link after another of the chain of circumstantial evidence was dragging her.
Groping dizzily among her recollections of that Christmas night, there gleamed luridly upon her the vision of Mrs. Aylett's strange smile, as she said, "It may be that his wife, if she were cognizant of his condition, would not lift a finger or take a step to save his life, or to prolong it for an hour!"
Then, in response to Mabel's indignant reply—the momentary passion darting from her hitherto languorous orbs, and vibrating in her accents, in adding—"There are women in whose hearts the monument to departed affection is a hatred that can never die."
If this man were a stranger, from whom she had nothing to fear, why her extraordinary agitation at seeing him, even imperfectly, through the window? She must have known him well to recognize him in the darkness and at that fleeting glimpse. Perhaps she had believed him dead, until then! This would account for her clandestine visit to his chamber, to which Mrs. Sutton and her niece had gone, without effort at concealment; explain the rigid examination of his clothing ensuing upon her scrutiny of his features.
"I must be mad!" Mabel said, here, pressing her hand to her head. "There does not live the woman, however wicked and hypocritical, who could sit at ease in the midst of ill-gotten luxury, on an inclement night, and talk smilingly of other things, if she suspected that one she had known, much less loved, lay dying in wretchedness and solitude so near her."
The vagrant was some evil-disposed spy, whose person Clara knew, and whose intentions she had reason to dread were unfriendly. Had she dared—for she was daring—to attempt this nefarious plot against the fair fame and happiness of an honorable gentleman, her family would not have become her accomplices. They could not have blinded themselves to the perils of the enterprise, the extreme probabilities of detection, the consequences of Winston's anger. Herbert, at least, would have forbidden the unlawful deceit. When his sister was wedded to Winston, he believed that her first husband was no longer in the land of the living—as she must also have done.
"For he is a good—an upright man!" thought the wife. "But he was privy to the fact of her previous marriage! Why have I never heard of it? He has invariably spoken of Clara as having lived single in her mother's house up to the date of her union with my brother."
She could not but remember, likewise, that there was a certain tone about the Dorrance connection she had never quite comprehended or liked—a reticence with respect to details of family history, while they were voluble upon generalities, over-fond of lauding one another's exploits, virtues, and accomplishments; referring in wonderful pride to "our beloved father," and extolling "our precious mother," who, by the way, was so little in request among the children, that she had, since Clara's marriage, occupied apartments in a second-rate boarding-house in Boston. Mabel, when convinced of the futility of her hope of having Aunt Rachel with her, had proposed to offer Mrs. Dorrance a house in the commodious mansion of her youngest son; but Herbert, with no show of gratification at what he must have known was a sacrifice of her inclinations, had coolly reasoned down the suggestion. The whole tribe—if she excepted her husband, and perhaps Clara—had, to her perception, a tinge of Bohemianism, although all were in comfortable circumstances, and lived showily. Mabel had often chided herself for uncharitable judgment and groundless prejudice, in admitting these impressions of her relatives-in-law; but they returned upon her in this twilight reverie with the force of convictions she was, each moment, less able to combat. What darker secret lay back of the concealment her rectitude of principle and sense of justice declared to be unjustifiable? and might not this concerted and persistent reserve imply others yet more culpable?
It showed her correct estimate of her brother's character, that she never for a second accused him of connivance in the deceit practised upon his relations and neighbors. He would not have scrupled to wed a widow, knowing and acknowledging her to be such. Nothing—not love, tenfold more ardent and irrational than that he felt for his siren wife—could have wrought upon him to introduce to the world, as Mrs. Aylett of Ridgeley, one who had been before married, and was ashamed, for any cause whatever, to avow this. The blemish left by the acrid breath of common scandal upon a woman's fame was to him ineffaceable by any process yet discovered by pitying man or angels. The maligned one may not have erred from the straitest road of virtue and discretion, but she had been "talked about," and was no consort for him. In his State and caste, private marriages were things disallowed, and but one shade more respectable than liasons that did not pretend to the sanctity of wedlock. What would he say when the contents of this dingy pocket-book were spread before him? Ought his sister to do this?
COULD she? He had not earned compassionate consideration from her by any act of gentleness and forbearance. He had handled the lopping-knife without ruth, and let the gaping wounds bleed as long as the bitter ichor would ooze from her heart. She had learned hardness and self-control from the lesson, but not vindictiveness. Now that the power was hers to visit upon his haughty spirit something of the humiliation and distress he had not spared her; that it was her turn to harangue upon mesalliances and love-matches, and want of circumspect investigation into early records before committing one's self to a contract of marriage—she recoiled at the thought; felt, in her exceeding pity for the trustful husband, a stirring of the love she had herself once borne him in the days when the changed homestead was her world, and its master a king among men.
And yet—and yet—was it the truest friendship—the most prudent course to prolong the ignorance which left him liable at any moment to be shocked into the perpetration of some desperate deed by the discovery, through some other channel, of his wife's perfidy, and the abominable snare that bad been woven about him!
MABEL was still turning the vexed question of right and expediency over in her fast-heating brain, the next evening, as she sat in the parlor, and feigned to hearken to the diligent duett-practising going on at the piano, her husband and Mrs. Aylett being the performers.
Mrs. Sutton had gone home that afternoon, engaging to return for a longer sojourn in the course of a month. Mr. Aylett read his newspaper at one side of the centre table, and his sister employed her fingers and eyes at the other with a trifle of fancy-work—-an antimacassar she was crocheting for her hostess. Her industrious or fidgetty habits were chronic and inveterate, and people, in remarking upon them, did not reflect that this species of restlessness is in itself a disease, seldom analyzed, more seldom cured. There are few students or physicians of human nature, in this world of superficial observers, who go deep enough into the springs of man's action to distinguish the external symptoms of heart-cancer from ossification, or to learn ihe difference between satiety and atrophy. A night of nervous sleeplessness, a day of irresolution and dread, had aggravated almost beyond her control the restlessness which in Mabel was the unerring indication of unhealthiness of mind and body. To sit still was impracticable; to talk connectedly and easily would soon be as difficult. She was glad to see Aunt Rachel go—immeasurably relieved when a musical evening was proposed by the brother and sister, seconding the motion with alacrity that called forth a pleased smile from the one, and a look of surprised inquisitiveness from the other.
"You have grown more fond of instrumental music," said Mrs. Aylett, half interrogatively. "You used always to prefer vocal."
"Try me and see what an appreciative listener I am," rejoined Mabel, with a sickly smile, and the concert commenced.
Overmuch thought upon the revelation of the preceding day had begotten in her, fears of the imminence of the dangers to Winston's peace of mind—a persuasion that the birds of the air and the restless air itself might bear to him the news she still withheld. Mammy had averred, upon her cross-examination, that "not a living soul had ever seen the wallet" since it fell from the dying man's pocket—an affirmation Mabel could not decide whether to believe or discredit. If she could but be certain that the secret was all hers!
She trembled guiltily when her brother folded his last paper, and sauntered around to the back of her chair, leaning upon it, while he affected to be interested in her work, and the too-ready scarlet blood pulsed now hotly in her cheeks with each moment of his mute observation.
"I heard a piece of news to-day," he said, presently, in his most even tone; but Mabel's start upon her seat was almost a leap, while her fingers moved faster and more irregularly.
"I suspect, from your unsettled demeanor this evening, that it reached you before it did me," continued he. "I can attribute your badly suppressed pertubation to no other cause. Mrs. Sutton is such an indefatigable gossip, that this item could hardly have passed her by. Has she told you that Rosa Tazewell is shortly to become Mrs. Chilton?"
He thought she was nerving herself to a simulation of hardihood, and the long-indulged habit of censorship was strong upon him.
"I had trusted, until to-day, Mabel, that you had conquered that disgraceful weakness," he resumed, yet more pitilessly.
Domination was one of his besetting sins. He never saw a helpless or cowering thing without feeling the inclination to set his foot upon it, and the least show of resistance in such, piqued him into despotism.
"I was aware that it was not dead when you married a man worth a thousand such scoundrels as that fellow in Philadelphia. I believed that the sentiment was powerful in impelling you to that marriage, and that this irrevocable measure would be an antidote to the evil. It was a wise course, and I commended you for pursuing it. But I am too well read in your countenance and moods not to see that there is something far amiss with you. You have been playing a part for twenty-four hours, and you have played it wretchedly. Your nervous flutters and laugh, your sudden changes of complexion, and the incoherence of your language, would betray you to the least penetrating observer. I caution you to be on your guard lest your husband should take just offence at all this. The need of dissimulation is the evidence that something is radically wrong in your moral nature, and is derogatory to your lawful partner. I am ashamed to remind you of the golden maxim of wedded life—that without perfect and mutual confidence there can be no substantial happiness. Does Dorrance know of your escapade at the Springs?"
"If you refer to my engagement to Mr. Chilton, I told him of it before our marriage."
"I rejoice to hear it—am pleased at this one proof of good sense and right feeling," in lofty patronage. "You owed him no less. You have, without doubt been informed long since how I obtained the most important proof against that villain?"
"I have not heard Mr. Chilton's name in a year until yesterday," said Mabel, the scarlet spots ceasing to flicker, and her voice hard as was his own.
Unable to interpret her sudden steadiness of demeanor and accent, Winston leaped to the irritating conclusion that she was sullen, and meditated a defiant retreat from this untimely usurpation of his olden authority.
"It was injudicious—miserably ill-judged in Dorrance not to acquaint you with this. I have always feared lest his indulgence might not be the most salutary method of repressing your self-will and pride of opinion. You, more than any other woman I know, require the tight rein of vigilant discipline. I intimated as much to Dorrance when he asked my consent to your engagement. But this is his lookout, not mine. What I began to say was that, in MY opinion, he would have acted more sensibly had he not encouraged your squeamish repugnance to talking of your early fault and its mortifying consequences."
"Fortunately for me, my husband is a man of feeling and delicacy!" Mabel was goaded to boast. "I said to him, the evening of our betrothal, that the subject you have chosen to revive to-night was painful to me, and he has respected the reluctance you condemn."
"He would have overcome it more quickly and thoroughly had he informed you that he had had the honor of horse-whipping your ci-devant betrothed!" sneered Winston, with white dinted nostrils. "That he was the author of the letter, a portion of which I copied for your perusal, when I announced the dissolution of your provisional engagement—the main agent, in effect, of the rupture, since but for him I should have had much difficulty in proving what I had believed from the beginning—that the rascal ought to be shot for presuming to think of you in any other light than as the merest acquaintance. And he should never have been that, had I been with you that unlucky summer."
"We have been over that ground so often, Winston, that both of us should be tolerably familiar with it," rejoined Mabel, decidedly. "I prefer that, instead of reviewing the circumstances of what you term my 'early fault,' you should show me the evidence of your singular assertion respecting Mr. Dorrance's agency in a matter in which he could not at that time have had the slightest personal interest. Or, shall I ask him? It is an enigma to me."
Without other answer than a contemptuous laugh, Winston left the room, unnoticed by the musicians. But before she could form a conjecture as to the meaning of his abrupt movement, he was back with a letter in his hand.
"Documentary testimony!" he said, shortly, passing it to her. "I should have forwarded it entire, instead of transcribing an extract, but for Clara's fear lest yon should be led thereby to dislike her brother before you had ever seen him. I take it there is no danger of prejudicing you against him now!"
The letter was from Herbert Dorrance, and began thus:
"Dear Sir,—Your favor of the 15th, enclosed in one from my sister, reached me this morning."
Then followed the expose of Frederic Chilton's misdeeds, which Winston had transferred to his own epistle to Mabel, as the leading argument in his refusal to sanction her engagement.
Mabel read it through without flinching; then turned over to the first page and put her finger upon a paragraph.
"Who was the lady here mentioned?"
Mr. Aylett shrugged his fine shoulders.
"I have never interested myself to inquire. Beyond the statement of your friend's rascality, the story was nothing to me."
The ringing call—sharp and clear—checked the pianists in the middle of a bar.
"Step here a moment, if you please!"
The novelty of the imperative tone and the glitter of his wife's eyes moved Mr. Dorrance to more prompt compliance than he would have adjudged to be dignified and husbandly in the case of another man.
Mabel held out the letter at his approach, still pointing to the passage she had asked her brother to explain.
"To whom does this refer? Who was the relative whose husband was a naval officer?"
Herbert Dorrance's constitutional phlegm was a valuable ally in the very contracted quarters into which this question drove him, but his sister was his deliverer. Affecting forgetfulness of the letter and its contents, he glanced down one page, Mrs. Aylett leaning upon his arm, and reading with him.
"I don't think you need mind telling the name, here and at this late day, Herbert," she said, seriously and slowly, "provided Mabel will never repeat the story when it can do harm. Have you never heard any of us speak of poor Ellen Lester, my mother's niece, who died several years before your marriage?" accosting her sister-in-law, with a face so devoid of aught resembling cowardly or guilty fears, that Mabel's brain, tried and shaken, tottered into disbelief at her own wild surmises.
"Not that I remember!"
"Is that so? Yet it might easily have been. She accompanied her husband upon his last voyage, and the ship was never heard of again. Her parents are dead, too, so there are few to cherish her memory. She was a school-fellow of mine, and Herbert loved her as a sister."
Mabel was gazing fixedly at her husband's stolid countenance and averted eyes, and made no rejoinder until the silent intensity of her regards compelled him to look up. Reading distrust and alarm in these, he shook off his sister's warning hold.
"When you wish to catechise me upon family matters, Mabel, it is my wish that you should do it in private," he said, roughly. "Then you shall learn all that it concerns you to know. There are subjects into which only prurient curiosity cares to pry."
"I beg your pardon!" answered Mabel, quietly. "I have but to say, in self-defence, that I did not ask to see the letter."
"It is a matter of profound indifference to me whether you did or not," was the reply. "For aught that I know or cared, you may have read it a year and a half ago. I retract nothing that is set down there. Clara, shall we go on with our music?"
Glancing around stealthily at the finale of the (sic) he saw that Mabel's chair was vacant, and Mr. Aylett was reading composedly beneath the lamp.
Clara made the same discovery at the same moment, and came forward laughing to her husband.
"What had you been saying to our dear, excitable Mabel, that challenged the introduction of that unfortunate document?"
"Told her of Frederic Chilton's intended marriage!" curtly, and without laying aside his volume.
"I agree with you—but it is the truth."
Herbert stood apart glowing at the fire.
"You must have approached the subject unskilfully," urged the peacemaker. "These old sores are oest left alone."
"It is best for married woman to have none," retorted Winston, doggedly.
"She does not persist in doubting his unworthiness, does she?" queried the wife, aside, but not so cautiously that her brother did not hear her.
He wheeled about suddenly.
"She SHALL believe it, or call me a liar to my face!" he uttered, angrily. "I will put a stop to this sentimental folly!"
"You are late in beginning your reforms," observed Mr. Aylett, dryly.
"You are a less sensible man than I give you credit for being, if you ever begin!" interposed his sister.
"Leave Mabel to herself until she recovers from the shock—if it be one—of this intelligence. The surest means of keeping alive a dying coal is to stir and blow upon it. And even we"—lifting the heavy locks of her husband's hair in playful dalliance—"even we are mortal. We have had our peccadilloes and our repentances, and have now our little concealments of affairs that would interest nobody but ourselves. Do you hear what I am saying, Herbert! Leave off your high tragedy airs and attend to reason, as expressed in your sister's advice. While your wife is my invalid guest, I will not have her subjected to any inquisitorial process. There is a time for everything under the sun, saith the preacher. This is the season for tender forbearance, and if need be, of forgiveness."
Herbert blessed her humane tolerance in his alarmed heart, when Mabel awoke from her troubled slumbers at midnight, in extreme pain, that culminated before dawn, in convulsions.
Two physicians were hastily summoned, and when Mrs. Sutton arrived about noon, she met Phillis outside the door of the sick-chamber, carrying a lifeless infant in her arms, and weeping bitterly.
This was the end of the months of hopeful longing and glad anticipation which were Heaven's messengers of healing and comfort to the sick and lonely heart. The cunningly-fashioned robes were never to have a wearer, the clasping arms to remain still empty. Oh wondrous mystery—past finding out—of the human soul! Had the lungs once heaved with breath, the heart given one throb; the eyes caught one beam of Heaven's light ere they were sealed fast in eternal darkness, she, who travailed with the infant through the inexpressible agony of birth, would have been written a mother among women; have had the right accorded her, without the cavil of formalist or the disputations of science, to claim the precious thing as her own still—a living baby-spirit that had fluttered back to the bosom of the Almighty Father, after alighting, for one painful moment, upon the confines of the lower world. As it was, custom ordained that there should be no mourning for what had never really been. Anguish, hope, and the patient love at which we do not scoff when the mother-bird broods over the eggs that may never hatch—these were to be no more named or remembered. In silence and without sympathy she must endure her disappointment. The tenderest woman about whose knees cluster living children, and who has sowed in tears the blessed seed, that in the resurrection-morn shall be gathered in beauteous sheaves of richest recompense—would smile in pitying contempt over the tiny headstone which should be lettered—"Born Dead."
All this and much more Mabel was to learn with the return of health and reason, but she lay now, like one who had passed for herself the narrow sea that separates the Now from the Hereafter; her features chiselled into the unmoving outlines of a waxen image, only a feeble flutter of breath and pulse telling that this was lethargy, not death. They watched her all night, Mrs. Sutton on one side and Phillis on the other, the family physician stealing in with slippered tread from hour to hour, to note with his sensitive touch if the few poor drops of vital blood yet trickled from veins to heart, always with the same directions, "Give her the stimulant while she can swallow it. It is the only hope of saving her."
Armed with this, the two devoted women fought the Destroyer, praying inaudibly, while they wrought, for the life of the child they had reared to her sorrowful womanhood.
"HE'S asleep, and so is SHE!" whispered Phillis, once, pointing alternately to the adjoining room where Herbert Dorrance awaited the issue of this critical stage of his wife's illness, and to Mrs. Aylett's chamber across the hall. "The Lord forgive 'em both! It won't be they two that will shed many tears if so be she doesn't see the light of another day—the murdered lamb! They tormented the life out of her. I passed by her room last night before bed-time, and heard her a-sobbin' and talkin' to herself, and walkin' up and down the floor, and THEY a-bangin' away on the pyano down in the parlor!"
The faithful creature's prejudice wronged one of the hated pair. Mrs. Aylett's slumbers upon her downy couch might be none the less serene for her sister-in-law's danger, but Herbert's was the sleep of exhaustion, not callousness. He had been up all the previous night, and racked by the wildest anxiety throughout the intervening day, and to compass this vigil was beyond his physical powers. Mabel would not miss him, and he could do nothing for her—would only be in the way, being totally unpractised in the art of nursing, he reasoned; and there was no telling what new draught upon his strength the morrow might bring. He would just lie down for an hour; then he would be fresh for whatever service might be required of him. With this prudent resolve, he threw himself along the bed in the spare-room, and was oblivious of everything sublunary until sunrise.
"If there should be any change, call me!" Mrs. Aylett had enjoined, plaintively. "Winston will not hear of my sitting up, but I shall not close my eyes all night, so do not hesitate to disturb me, if I can be of any use whatever."
Which, it is idle to remark, was the last thing either of the nurses thought of doing. If their darling were, in truth, dying, they were the fittest persons to receive her latest sigh; for had they not been present at her birth, and did not her mother go to glory from their supporting arms?
There was a change, and not a favorable one, before daybreak. The patient, from mutterings and restless starts, passed into violent delirium, laughing, crying, and singing in a style so opposed to the prescribed diagnosis of her case, as to lash the provincial doctor to his wits' end, and extinguish in Aunt Rachel's sanguine heart the faint hope to which she had clung until now. Herbert, awakened finally by the turbulent sounds from the room he had been told must be kept perfectly quiet, jumped up, and showed himself, with disordered hair and blinking eyes, in the door of communication, just as Mabel struggled to rise, and pleaded weepingly with those who held her down that they would restore her child to her.
"I had her in my arms not a moment ago!" she insisted. "See! the print of her little head is here on my breast! You have taken her away among you! I saw it all—those who ordered that it should be done and those who did it, when I was too weak to hold her, or to keep them back!"
And passing from the height of furious invective to deadly and earnest calm, she told them off upon her fingers.
"Clara Aylett! Rosa Tazewell! Winston Aylett! (he married Clara Louise Dorrance, you know!) Herbert Dorrance! JULIUS LENNOX!"
The household was astir by this time, and Mrs. Aylett entered from the hall as her brother did from his bedroom. There was but one spectator who was sufficiently composed to note and marvel at the scared look exchanged by the two at the sound of the last name. This was Mr. Aylett, who, from his position behind his wife, had an excellent view of all the actors in the exciting tableau before she fell back, swooning, in his arms.
He was alone with her in their chamber when she revived, and the earliest effort of her restored consciousness was to seize both his hands in hers, and scan his face searchingly—it would seem agonizingly—until his fond smile dispelled the unspoken dread.
"Ah!" she murmured, hiding her face upon his bosom, "she is still alive, then! I thought—I thought"—a mighty sob—"Don't despise your weak, silly wife, darling! but it was very terrible! I believed it was the last struggle, and was appalled at the sight. And my poor Herbert! he was frightfully overcome. Did you notice him? Will you send him to me, dear? I can soothe him better than any one else—prepare him for what is, I fear, inevitable. I shall not give way again to my terrors."
The brother and sister were still together when word was brought, two hours later that Mabel had fallen into a profound sleep—a good omen, the doctor said.
"Thank Heaven!" ejaculated Herbert, fervently, his eyes softening until he turned away to conceal his emotion.
He was haggard with solicitude, while Mrs. Aylett's healthful bloom betokened slight interest in the termination of the seizure, a glance at which had thrown her into a faint. Nor did she echo the thanksgiving. She waited until the messenger had gone, and continued the conversation her entrance had interrupted.
"I incline to the belief that she caught the name, in some manner, on Christmas before last. HE was delirious, too, and although doctor and nurse reported that he did not speak articulately after he was brought in, she may have heard more than they. From what has been told me, I gather that she was in the room with him alone, while Mrs. Sutton was down-stairs looking for Dr. Ritchie. In a lucid interval he may have given his name—possibly some particulars of his history. Unless—are you positive there has been no indiscretion on your part, or that others may have talked negligently to her, because she was a member of the family?"
"There are topics of which we—your mother, sister, and brothers—never speak, even to one another. You may trust us that far," rejoined Herbert, emphatically. "Nor do I see what we can do, except wait for other proof that Mabel really knows anything beyond a name she has picked up at random and never, to my knowledge, repeated, save in her ravings. Should she recover, the test can be easily applied, and we can judge then, how to handle the dilemma."
"Should she recover!" He said the words reluctantly, as loth to express the doubt.
His sister's lips twitched nervously into a sinister smile. It was as if she would have whispered, had she dared, "Heaven forbid!"
"You have chosen a toilsome and a perilous path, Clara," he resumed, by and by. "I do not wonder that you are, with all your courage and sanguine trust in your own powers, sometimes disquieted, and often weary."
"Who says that I am ever weary? And did you ever know me to disquiet myself in vain?" with the low, musical ripple of laughter that belonged to her sunniest mood. "Had I been born in the classic age, I should have been a devout disciple of Epicurus. Don't imagine that my success has not, thus far, amply repaid me for my toil and ingenuity. Having lived upon excitement all my days, I should starve without it. Pleasure, like safety, is the dearer for being plucked from that evergreen nettle, Danger!"
THE GOOD SAMARITAN.
THE snows of ten winters had powdered the nameless stranger's grave in the servant's burial-ground of the Ridgeley plantation. For nine years the wallet taken from his person had lain unopened in a hidden drawer of Mabel Dorrance's escritoire, and the half-guessed secret been hidden in her breast. Mammy Phillis had followed her mistress to the tomb, six months after her removal from her beloved cottage to the despised "quarters." She never held up her head from the day of her degradation, died from a broken heart, murmured those who best knew her—of a "fit of spleen," said Mrs. Aylett, in cool reprehension of her unmannerly vassal.
Mabel had guarded the mystery well. Her husband examined her—covertly, as he thought; awkwardly, according to her ideas—with regard to the vagaries of her delirium, and was foiled by the grave simplicity of her manner and replies.
"All she knows or remembers is substantially this," Herbert jotted down in his notes for his sister's perusal: "she has associated in some way—she cannot tell exactly how or why—the name with the tramp who died in the garret. She is not sure that it was his designation. Thinks it was not, or that, if used by him, it was an alias. Has an impression that it was marked upon his clothing, or upon a paper found in his pocket. Showed no agitation and little interest in the subject, except when she inquired if I saw the stranger at all—living or dead. Was glad I could reply truly, 'No.' Answer seemed to gratify her, which you may consider a disagreeable augury. Am convinced that her illness resulted from natural and unavoidable causes—that neither F—-C—-nor J——L—-had any connection with it. It will be months before mind and body recover their tone."
"Lawyerly! ergo, absurd and unsatisfactory!" pronounced the reader, to whom the foregoing leaf had been committed on the morning of her brother's departure with his slowly-convalescing wife for their Albany home. "But until the nettle pricks more nearly, I shall continue to enjoy my roses."
They had blossomed thickly about her path during this decade. Her matronly beauty was the wonder and praise of the community. The changing seasons that had bleached the locks upon her husband's temples and heightened his forehead had spared the bronzed chestnut of her luxuriant tresses. Her figure was larger and fuller, but graceful, and more queenly than of yore—if that could be. There was not an untuneful inflection in her voice, or a furrow between her brows. Under her careful management the homestead wore every year an air of increased elegance. No other furniture for many miles on both sides of the river could compare with hers; no other servants were so well-trained, no grounds so beautifully ornamented and trimly kept.
"But for all that Ridgeley is a lonely, desolate place to me," said Mrs. Sutton, one early spring morning to her niece and crony, Mrs. William Sutton. "A house without children is worse than a last year's bird's nest. It is a riddle to me how Clara Aylett contrives to occupy her time."
"She should have some of these socks to darn, if it hangs upon her hands," replied Mrs. William, humorously, running her five fingers through the toe of one she had just picked up from the great willow basket set between the two upon the porch-floor.
"The Lord isn't very apt to make mothers out of that sort of material," said the elder lady. "Nor fathers out of Winston Ayletts. They are so wrapped up in their self-consequence as to have no thought for others."
"Yet they say Mr. Aylett regrets that he has no heir. It is a great pity Mabel lost her only child as she did. The family will become extinct in another generation. It is such a noble estate, too!"
"Large families were never the rule among the Ayletts," responded Aunt Rachel. "But I did hope my dear Mabel would be an exception to the rest in this respect. She would adopt a little girl, but her husband will not consent. Those Dorrances are a cold-hearted race. He, too, is heaping up riches, without knowing who shall gather them. Heigh-ho!"
Her darning-needle quilted the yawning heel of Tommy Sutton's sock with precision and celerity, and she ruminated silently upon the vicissitudes and failures of mortal life until she was interrupted by Mrs. William's exclamation:
"There is Mrs. Tazewell's carriage at the gate, and the driver has a letter in his hand. I hope the old lady is not worse!"
Aunt Rachel met the man at the steps, with neighborly anxiety.
"How is your mistress, Jack?"
"'Bout the same, ma'am. But Miss Rosa—she came last night very unexpected, and it kinder worsted Mistis to see her so poorly. This note is from Miss Rosa, ma'am, and I am to take back an answer."
Mrs. Sutton read it standing in the porch—the scented leaflet that had a look of the writer all over it, from the scarlet monogram at the top of the sheet and upon the envelope, to the flourish of the signature—"Rosa T. C."—the curl of the C carried around the rest like a medallion frame:
"DEAR, GOOD AUNT RACHEL,—I have come to Old Virginia to try and shake off an uncomfortable cough which has haunted me all winter. The Northern quacks can do nothing for me. One ray of this delicious sunshine is worth all their nostrums. I was not prepared to find mamma helpless, or I should not have descended upon her so unceremoniously. Being here, I cannot retreat in good order or with safety to my health, nor without wounding her. Frederic must return to Philadelphia next week, by which time I hope to be quite invigorated. Now for my audacious proposal. Can you come over and tell me how to get well in the quickest and least troublesome way? Dear Auntie! you loved me once. When you see what a poor, spiritless shadow I have grown—or lessened—to be, you will care a little bit for me again, for the sake of lang syne."
Mrs. Sutton wiped her spectacles and gave the note to her niece.
"There is but one thing for me to do, you see, my dear. Jack! I shall be ready in twenty minutes."
If the line of duty wavered before her sight during the three-mile drive, it lay straight and distinct ahead of her when she stood in Rosa's chamber.
"My child!" she ejaculated, upon the threshold "you did not tell me that you were confined to your bed!"
"I ought not to be!"
The rebellious pout and tone were Rosa's, as were also the black eyes—unnaturally large and bright though they were—but the pretty lips were wan, and strained by lines of pain; the pomegranate flush was no longer variable, and was nestled in hollows, and the hands were wasted to translucency.
"I am quite strong enough to be up, and would be, if my tyrannical doctors and their tractable tool, my lord and master, had not decreed that I shall lie here until midday, if I am very obedient; eat my meals; take their poisonous medicines, and abstain from coughing. If I offend in any of these particulars I am not to rise until three o'clock—when they are in an especially glum humor—not at all that day. But now you are here, we shall combat them valorously. Dear Auntie!" putting the thin arms about the old lady's plump neck, and laughing through a spring rain of tears, "how good and safe it is to be with you again! And you are the same kind, lovely darling! no older by a day—no uglier by a solitary wrinkle! I couldn't sleep last night, for fearing you would not come to me!"
"You should not have doubted it, dear!" said the motherly voice, blithe as affectionate, while soft, agile fingers undid the tight embrace, and commenced, from the force of habit, to arrange the tumbled bed-clothes. "Wherever I can be of most use is the place in which I wish to be."
"I know you have always lived for others," answered Rosa, with an involuntary sigh, a shadow glooming her eyes.
"For whom else should I live and work?" laughed Mrs. Sutton, in her cheerful, guileless fashion. "My personal wants are few and easily supplied, and I like to be busy. I account it a privilege to be able to fuss about my friends when they are ailing."
By way of doing as she liked, she attacked the disorderly room. Rosa's three trunks stood in a row against the wall—all of them open—the tray of the largest lying beside it upon the carpet, the lid of this thrown back and the contents in utter confusion; laces hanging over the sides and trailing upon the floor. A casket of medicines was uppermost in the next trunk, crushing a confused medley of collars, ribbons, gloves, and handkerchiefs. A dressing-gown lay upon the seat of one chair, a skirt over the back of another; boots and slippers peeped from the valance of the antique bedstead; there was a formidable array of bottles upon mantel and bureau—conspicuous among them cod-liver oil, cologne, and laudanum—incongruous appendages to the various appliances of the toilette scattered between them.
Mrs. Sutton understood it all—the hurry and agitation of the unlooked-for arrival; the faintness and prostration of the consumptive; the restless night, and the well-meant but inefficient ministrations of negroes in an establishment where the mistress had been feeble for years, and was now chained to her room and chair by paralysis.
"And Rosa was always an indolent flyabout in health; accustomed to have a score of servants at her heels to pick up whatever she dropped or threw aside," she said to herself. "My Mabel was a pink of neatness and order compared with her. Dear me! here is a bottle of oil, cracked, and an immense grease-spot in the front breadth of a splendid silk dress! I hope these things do not annoy her as they would me!"
Whether the universal disarray made Rosa uncomfortable or not, she enjoyed the aspect of the tidy apartment, when her nurse brought her noiseless labors to a close by exchanging her night-gown for a flannel wrapper; putting clean linen upon her and the bed; combing the tangled hair and washing her hands, wrists, and face in tepid water, interfused with cologne.
"It prevents a sick person from taking cold when bathed, and freshens her up wonderfully, I think," was her explanation of the fragrant preparation.
"YOU freshen me more than all things else combined!" said Rosa, gratefully. "Ah, auntie! how often I have thought of, and wished for you this tedious and dismal winter! I used to spend entire weeks in bed, attended by a horrid hired nurse, who took snuff and drank—ugh! and snubbed and terrified me whenever I—as she described it—'took a notion into my head;' that is, when I asked for something she thought was too troublesome for her ladyship to prepare, or wanted Fred to stay all night in my room, or sit by me in the evening, and pet me. She 'couldn't bear to have men around, cluttering up everything!' she would growl the instant his back was turned, with a deal more of the same talk, until I was afraid to ask him to take a seat the next time he came in. He was continually bringing home baskets of fruit, and game, and bouquets for me. She let me have the flowers, but she ate nine-tenths of the nice things herself, I never suspecting her, and he was too delicate to ask if I enjoyed his presents. At length he surprised her in the act of devouring a bunch of hot-house grapes, for which he had paid almost their weight in gold, and then all came to light, and he sent her off in a hurry. Poor Fred, there were great tears in his eyes when he learned what persecution I had undergone, rather than vex him by complaints."
"It would have been better had you told him sooner, dear! It would have spared you and him much suffering."
"I knew how engrossed he was by his business, and how ignorant he was of household or medical matters, and I saved him all the bother I could. I have tried, in some things and some times, to be a good wife, Aunt Rachel! But often I have failed, O, how egregiously! and"—beginning to weep—"the thought pierces my heart by day and by night. What if I never have an opportunity of doing any better, of covering up the traces of my footsteps?"
Mrs. Sutton patted the wasted hand with her cool one, but essayed no other soothing.
"Where is your husband now? I understood from your note that he was with you."
"He rode over to Dr. Ritchie's this morning, directly he had given me my breakfast. He thinks highly of his skill, and he would not be contented without bringing him to see me. I really believe he is anxious I should get well! Strange—isn't it? when I am such a burden upon his mind and hands."
Aunt Rachel smiled.
"Not at all strange, you ridiculous child! Two of the most dearly-loved wives I ever knew were invalids, and bedridden, not for weeks only, but for years. You can best show your gratitude for his affection and kindness by getting better rapidly while he is here, that he may leave you with a lighter heart."
"He is kind! too kind!" murmured Rosa, composing herself among the cushions, as if to sleep.
She was quiet so long that Mrs. Button had leisure for some reflections relating to her own personal action in the somewhat embarrassing position she occupied. She had never seen Frederic Chrlton from the day he left Ridgeley as Mabel's betrothed. His visits to the neighborhood since his marriage had been few and brief, and she had studied to avoid him whenever she happened to be with the William Suttons during one of these. He might have guessed her design, or unwittingly favored it on his own account. The meeting would not be more pleasant to him than to her. But why had he allowed his wife to send for her? The alteration in him must indeed be great, if he could, without a conflict with resentful and painful memories, bow his pride to sue for the services of a relative of the Ayletts, and formerly one of their household, even in such a cause as that which now commanded her sympathies.