At this point of her cogitation she became aware that Rosa's eyes were wide open, and staring at her with a whimsical blending of curiosity, melancholy, and gratification.
"Aunt Rachel!" she said, bluntly, "you are a very good woman! the best and most forgiving human being I ever heard of. I should not feel one particle of surprise to see you float up gently through the roof, at any minute—cap, spectacles, and all—translated to the society of your sister angels—and no questions asked by St. Peter at the gate of Paradise!"
Well as she knew her erratic disposition and wild style of speech, Mrs. Sutton moved her hand toward the patient's pulse.
"I am not raving! I speak the words of truth and soberness—very sad soberness, too! Believing as you do that Frederic was once the cause of much sorrow to you and to one you loved, and having no reason to care one iota for me, but rather to distrust me, you nevertheless obey my call upon you for service, as if I had every right to make it. And when here, you treat me just as you would Mabel, were her situation as deplorable, her need equal to mine."
"Why shouldn't I?" questioned Mrs. Sutton, simply. "I have no ground for a quarrel with you. And if I had—well, the truth is, my dear, I have a poor memory for such things!"
Rosa caught at the scarcely perceptible emphasis upon the "YOU," and disregarded the remainder of the remark.
"You cannot yet acquit Frederic of wrong-doing! Indeed, Mrs. Sutton, he has been foully wronged among you. It is not because he is my husband that I say this. Mabel's name has never passed his lips—- nor mine in his hearing, since I became his wife. And every one of the family has been equally guarded when he was by. I doubt, sometimes, if he has ever heard whom she married or where she lives—so carefully has he shunned every reference to her or any of the Ridgeley people. During the nine years we have lived together, he has given me no cause to suspect that he ever thinks of her, or laments the broken engagement. If I have made myself wretched by imagining the contrary, it was my fault, not his—my foolish, wicked jealousy. I would scorn to imply a doubt of his integrity, by reminding him of the charges proferred against him by Winston Aylett, and believed by his sister—much less ask him to contradict them. I never put any faith in them from the outset. It comforts me to recollect that my confidence in him stood fast when everybody else distrusted him—my noble, slandered darling! But my declaration of his innocence is founded upon his blameless life and upright principles. No one could be with him as I have been, and doubt him. He is a perfect man—if there was ever a sinless mortal—great-hearted, gentle, and sincere. Do not I know this? Have I not proved him to the utmost?"
Her rapid, impassioned declamation was ended by a copious flood of grief that provoked a frightful fit of coughing. When this was subdued she was weaker than a year-old infant, and lay between stupor and dreaming for so long a time, that Mrs. Sutton became alarmed.
There must be no repetition of this scene. She most ward off similar mishaps by whatever measures she could force or cajole her conscience into adopting. Rosa's state was more precarious than her account had led her friend to believe, or than the nurse's experienced eye had seen at their meeting. The main hope of her recovery was in the warmer climate and assiduous attendance. Above all, she should not be allowed to exhaust herself by talking, or hysterical paroxysms. She had no more self-control than a child, and she must be treated as such. Mrs. Sutton's jesuitical resolve was to humor her by every imaginable device, even to feigned friendship for Frederic Chilton.
Fortified by this resolution, she heard, without any show of pride or trepidation, the clatter of horses' hoofs in the yard; the sound of voices below stairs, as Mr. Chilton ushered the physician into the parlor, and the light, careful tread with which he mounted to his wife's apartment. His momentary pause at the entrance, and surprised look at beholding the other tenant of the chamber, were the best passport to her indulgence he could have desired. It was clear to her instantly that poor Rosa's passion for manoeuvring had survived the wreck of health and prostration of spirits. She had never chosen the straight path if she could find a crooked or a by-road, and her project for obtaining Mrs. Sutton's services and company had been put into execution, without consultation with her husband. However reprehensible this might be in the abstract, it was not in the kind old soul to betray her, as she advanced, placidly and civilly, to reassure the startled man.
"How are you, Mr. Chilton? You hardly expected to meet me here, I suppose? But I am a near neighbor of Mrs. Tazewell now, and hearing that Rosa was sick, I came over to see if I could do anything for her, knowing how infirm her mother is."
"You are very kind!" He grasped her hand more tightly than he intended, or was conscious of. "We were ignorant ourselves of Mrs. Tazewell's true condition. Mrs. Chilton's sisters have forwarded more encouraging reports to her of her mother's illness than they would have been warranted in doing by anything except the fear that a faithful account would operate injuriously upon the daughter's health. I should have chosen some other home for my wife, had I known the actual state of affairs here. Change of scene and climate was imperatively demanded."
He spoke low and rapidly—hardly above his breath; but the black eyes, unclosing, flashed upon him.
"So you have come back!" said Rosa's weak voice. "You stayed away an eternity!"
Her coquettish displeasure and the asperity of her accent contrasted so oddly with her vehemently expressed attachment for her husband and extolment of his virtues, that Mrs. Sutton regarded her in speechless amazement. She submitted to his kiss, without returning it—even raising her hand pettishly as to repel further endearments. "I should have died of the blue devils if Aunt Rachel hadn't, by the merest accident, heard that I was ailing, and driven over, like the Good Samaritan she is, to take pity upon me in my destitution; to pour oil—not cod-liver—into my wounds, and wine into my mouth. She is better than all the men-doctors that were ever created; so if you have brought your bearded Esculapius home with you, you may tell him, with my compliments, that I won't see him yet awhile. He was an old beau of mine, and I hope I have too much respect for what I used to be, to let him get a glimpse of me until Dr. Sutton has set me up in better flesh and looks. She brought me some enchanting jelly—one of her magical preparations for the amelioration of human misery, and I am to have a bowl of her unparalleled chicken-broth for dinner. I wish dinner-time were come! the very thought makes me ravenous. I am to do nothing for a week, but eat, drink, and sleep, at the end of which period I shall be dismissed as thoroughly cured. So, Mr. Chilton, you can go back to your beloved clients whenever you please!"
To Mrs. Sutton's apprehension this was an infelicitous introduction of herself to the husband's toleration. Certainly, she did not know many men who would have parried the thrusts at themselves with the dexterity he manifested, and acknowledged her merits and kindly offices willingly and gracefully. He did not apologize for his protracted absence, nor insist upon conveying his physician to the sick-chamber; but he chatted for five minutes or thereabouts upon such topics as he knew would entertain the captious invalid, and finally arose from the bed-side, where he had been sitting, fondling her hot hands, with a good-humored laugh.
"But all the while I am enjoying myself here, the hirsute Galen aforesaid is munching the invisible salad of the solitary in the parlor! I am to eject him incontinently, am I? My conscience will not let me withhold the admission, when I do this, that my wife's judgment in the matter of medical attendants is vastly superior to mine. While Mrs. Sutton is so good as to remain with you, you are right in thinking that you have need of no other physician."
Aunt Rachel would have entered a disclaimer, but Rosa spoke before she could open her mouth.
"I didn't say that, Frederic! There was never such another impatient and inconsiderate creature upon the globe as yourself. It would be unpardonably rude in us to send the man away, if he is a charlatan, without letting him see me. Have him up, by all means, and let us hear what priggish nonsense he has to say. He will feel the easier when it is done."
Dr. Ritchie's private report to Mrs. Sutton, who accompanied him to tne lower floor, under color of seeing that he was served with luncheon, was discouraging. The disease had made fearful inroads upon a constitution that had never been robust, and the nervous excitability of the patient was likely to accelerate her decline. She might linger for several months. It would not surprise him to hear that she had died within twelve hours after his visit. It was but fair and professional he added, that he should, through Mrs. Sutton, advise Mr. Chilton of her state, although, unless he were mistaken, he had already anticipated his verdict.
This Mrs. Sutton found was the case, when she essayed that evening to insure him against the awful shock of his wife's unexpected dissolution.
"She has never been entirely well since the death of our second child, a year ago," he said. "The little one was buried on a very stormy day, and the mother would not be dissuaded from going to the cemetery. The severe cold, acting upon a system enfeebled by grief, induced an attack of pneumonia. Dr. Ritchie but coincides with every other physician I have consulted."
"It is a pity you are obliged to leave her so soon," observed the sympathizing nurse. "Although she may be more comfortable a week hence than she is now."
"A week! I had no intention of returning in less than a month's time. I made all my arrangements to that effect before leaving home. Rosa's reference to my desire to go back to my clients was sheer badinage"—smiling mournfully. "You have heard her talk often enough to understand how little of earnest there is in the raillery." More insincerity! For, contradictory as it may appear, Mrs. Sutton felt constrained to believe his unsupported word, in opposition to his wife's written assertion that he designed to return to his practice the ensuing week.
"She thought I would be more apt to come if I imagined that he would soon be gone!" was her grieved reflection. "If she could beguile me hither by this assurance, she trusted to her coaxings and my compassion to retain me. O Rosa! Rosa! cannot even the honest hour teach you to be truthful?"
THE HONEST HOUR.
The shadow of death drew on apace to the sight of all, save the consumptive, and her semi-imbecile mother. These seemed alike blind to the fatal symptoms that were more strongly defined with every passing day. The paralytic sat in her wheeled chair, in the March sunshine, at the window of her chamber, and talked droningly of other times and paltry pleasures to that one of her daughters or grand-children whose turn it was to minister to her comfort and amusement, and insisted upon having all the neighborhood news repeated in her dull ear with wearisome—to the narrator—amplifications and reiterations, shaking with childish laughter at the humorous passages, and whimpering at the pathetic. Rosa cheated time of heaviness by unceasing demands upon her attendants for service and diversion. Unable to sleep, except at long intervals, in snatches of fitful dozing, she had a horror of being alone for an instant, from dusk until dawn; was ingenious in contrivances to surprise an unwary watcher nodding upon her post; plenteous and plaintive in lamentations, if the device succeeded. Fifty times a night her pillows must be shaken, her drink, food, or medicine given, and after each of these offices had been performed, occurred the petition:
"Now—sit where I can see you whenever I open my eyes! It drives me crazy to imagine for a moment that I am by myself. I want to be sure all the while that some living human being is near at hand. I have such frightful dreams! I awake always with the impression that I am drowning or suffocating, or floating away into a sea of darkness alone!"
With the light of day, her spirits revived, and her hopes of speedy recovery.
"You need not grudge waiting upon me now, for I shall be up and about shortly—well and spry as the best of you!" she would say. "And while I am playing invalid, I mean to have my quantum of attention. I have been avaricious of devotion all my life, and this is a golden chance that may never happen again."
Her husband she would not willingly suffer to leave her for an instant. But for Mrs. Sutton's management and kindly authority, he would have been condemned to take his meals at her bedside and from the same tray with herself. She would be removed from the bed to the lounge by no other arms than his, and at any hour of the twenty-four he was liable to be called upon to read, sing, or talk her into composure. Variable as ever in mood and fancy, and more capricious in the exhibition of these, she was fond, sullen, teasing, and mirthful with him as the humor of the moment dictated; sometimes assailing him with reproaches for his indifference and want of regard for her wishes and tastes, now that she was no longer young, pretty, and sprightly; at others, clinging to him with protestations of repentance and love, bewailing her waywardness and imploring his forbearance; then, taking him to task for the slightest inadvertence—the spilling of a drop of her medicine or jarring of her sofa or bed; anon lauding him to the skies as the most skilful nurse she had, and enjoining upon all about her to render verbal testimonial to his irreproachableness as husband and man—oh! it was a wearisome, oftentimes a revolting duty to listen to and bear with it all—keep in mind though one did that the intolerable restlessness preluded centuries of dreamless repose.
Mrs. Sutton could endure everything else better—and she believed that it was the same with Frederic—than the needless and puerile trickery to which Rosa resorted to achieve the most trivial purposes. If she wished that one of her sisters should pass the day with her, or to sit up for a part of the night, she worked upon her by means of others' intercessions, or broached the subject by covert passages, the end of which, she flattered herself, was successfully masked, until her train was ready for explosion. Did she set her fancy upon any particular article of diet, the same tortuous course was pursued to present the delicacy in question to the mind of him or her who, she designed, should be the provider. Under her sauciest rattle of fun or perversity lurked some subtle meaning. She had either some end to subserve, or wanted to possess herself of some bit of information she could have gained sooner and more easily by direct inquiry. Cajolery and intrigue had become a second nature, stronger than the original; and it never occurred to her that her wiles, in her mental and bodily decadence, were transparent as they had once been artful.
A discovery, made on the fourth day of her visit, excited Mrs. Sutton's sympathies in behalf of the much enduring husband to a pitch it required long and serious pondering upon the wife's weakness and critical condition to restrain from indignant demonstration.
Rosa was sleeping more soundly than usual under the influence of an anodyne, and Frederic, with a whispered apology to his coadjutor, went into the next room, leaving the door ajar. From her seat, Mrs. Sutton had a distinct view of him in an opposite mirror—a circumstance of which she was not aware for several minutes. Happening, then, to look up from her knitting she saw that he was writing, and half an hour afterward that he was leaning back in his chair, looking at something in the hollow of his hand, a mingling of such love and sadness in his countenance that she felt it would be unlawful prying into his most sacred feelings for her to watch him longer. He turned his head at the slight rustle she made in removing to another part of the room, and beckoned to her. At her approach, he arose and held out a morocco case, containing the miniature of a child—a bright-eyed, delicate-featured girl of seven or eight summers—exquisitely painted.
"You have never seen my little Florence, I think?"
"I have not. She is pretty—and resembles you strongly."
He did not color or laugh at the unconscious compliment, or seem pleased at her praise of his darling. Instead, there crept over his face a shade of more painful sadness, darkening his eyes and compressing his lip, as he answered—
"So every one says. She is the dearest child in the world—a sunbeam of gladness in any house—amiable, affectionate, and intelligent. I wish you would read her last letter to me. She is a better correspondent than many grown people." Then, smiling, apologetically, "If my commendation seem overstrained, you will excuse a father's partiality."
The letter—although the unformed chirography betrayed the writer's inexperience in pen-practice—was correctly spelled and easy in style, crowded with loving messages to "dear papa and mamma;" relating anecdotes of school and home life, and while expressive of her longings for her parents' return, professing willingness to stay where she was "until mamma should be well enough to come back."
"I pray every night that God will cure her, and make us all happy again," she wrote. "I dreamed one night last week that I saw her dressed for a party, all rosy and funny and laughing, as she used to be, and that she kissed me, and put her arm around me, and called me 'baby Florence' and 'little one,' in her sweet voice. Wasn't it strange? I awoke myself crying, I was so happy! I do try to be brave, and not fret about what cannot be helped, papa, because I promised you I would; but sometimes it is right hard work. It is always easier for a whole day after I get one of your nice, long letters. It is not QUITE as good as having real talk with you, but it is the best treat I can have when you are away."
Mrs. Sutton wiped her eyes.
"The dear child!" she said, in the subdued tone habitual to the frequenters of the sick-room. "No wonder you want to see her! Why didn't you give her a holiday, and bring her to Virginia with you?"
"I dreaded the effect of a child's high animal spirits and thoughtless bustle upon her mother's health"—the shadow thickening into trouble. "The next best thing to having her with me is to know that she is kindly and lovingly looked after by my married sister, of whom she is very fond. Florence is merrier, if not always happier, with her young cousins than if she were condemned to the repression and joyless routine of a house where the care of the sick is the most engrossing business to all."
The more Mrs. Sutton meditated upon this conversation, the more enigmatical it appeared that the mother never spoke of missing her only living child—never pined for the sound of her vivacious talk and the sight of her winning ways. Curiosity—her strong love for all children, and a lively interest in Florence and Florence's father, the two who assuredly did feel the separation—got the ascendency over discretion that night, when Rosa, too nervous to sleep, begged her to talk, "to scare away the horrors that were sitting, a blue-black brood, upon her pillow."
"Your little daughter would be an endless source of entertainment to you if she were here," said downright Aunt Rachel, with no show of circumlocution. "I am surprised you do not send for her."
"Children of that age are a nuisance!" returned Rosa, peevishly. "And of all tiresome ones that I ever saw, Florence is the most trying. She doesn't talk after I bid her hold her tongue, but her big, solemn eyes see and her ears hear all that passes. If there is one thing that pushes me nearer to the verge of distraction than another it is to have my own words quoted to me when I have forgotten that I ever uttered them. And she—literal little bore!—is always pretending to take all that I say in earnest. If I were to tell her to go to Guinea, it is my belief she would put on her bonnet, cloak, and gloves, pocket a biscuit for luncheon and a story-book to read by the way, and set out forthwith, asking the first decent-looking man she met in the street at what wharf she would find a vessel bound for Africa."
Mrs. Sutton was obliged to laugh.
"She must be a truthful, sincere little thing!"
"Didn't I tell you she is TOO outrageously literal and unimaginative? Just let me give you an example of how she tires and vexes me. One day, about a fortnight before I left home, she set her heart upon spending the whole of Saturday afternoon with me. Her father objected, for he understands, if he does not sympathize with me, what a trial she is to flesh and spirit. But I was moderately comfortable, and my nerves were less unruly than usual, so I said we would try and get on together.
"No sooner had he gone than the catechism commenced:
"'Now, mamma, what can I do to amuse you?'
"She talks like a woman of fifty.
"'What should you propose if I were to leave it to you?' I asked.
"'I suppose,' said my Lady Cutshort, 'that it would excite you too much to talk, so I had better read aloud. What book do you prefer?'
"I named one—a novel I had not finished—and resigned myself to martyrdom. She reads fluently—her father says prettily; but the piping voice rasped my auriculars to the quick, and I soon stopped the exhibition. Then we essayed conversation, but our range of themes was limited, and a dismal silence succeeded to a short dialogue. By and by I told her that I was sleepy, hoping she would take the hint and leave my room.
"'Then, mamma, I will just get my work-basket, and sit here, as still as a mouse, and prevent all disturbance.'
"With that, she gets out her miniature thimble and scissors, and falls to work upon a pair of slippers she was embroidering for her father's birthday present, sitting up, starched and prim as an old maid, her lips pursed, and her forehead gravely consequential. I could not close my eyes without seeing her still, like an undersized nightmare, her hair smooth to the least hair, her dress neat to the smallest fold, stitching, stitching, the affected, conceited marmoset!
"At last I said:
"'Put down your sewing, Florence, and look out of the window at the people going by. You must be very tired.'
"'Not in the least, mamma, dear,' answered Miss Pert. 'I like to work, and there is nothing interesting going on outside.'
"I tossed and sighed, and she was by me in a second.
"'Darling mamma! my poor, sweet little mother!' in her reed-like chirp; 'can I do nothing to make you feel better?' putting her hands upon my head and stroking my face until my flesh crawled.
"'Yes,' said I, out of all patience. 'Take yourself off, and don't let me see you again until to-morrow morning! You kill me with your teasing.'
"And would you believe it? she just put up her sewing in the basket and went directly out, without a tear or a murmur, and when her father came home he could not prevail upon her, by commands or persuasions, to accompany him further than the door of my chamber. So he, who won't admit that she can do anything wrong, instead of whipping her for her obstinacy, as he ought to have done, guessed she 'had some reason' for her disobedience which she did not like to tell, and interrogated poor, persecuted me. When he had heard my version of the manner in which we had spent the afternoon, he only said, 'I should have foreseen this. But the child—she is only a child, Rosa!—did her best!' and he looked so mournful that I, knowing he blamed me for his bantling's freak of temper, told him plainly that he cared a thousand times more for this diminutive bundle of hypocrisy than he ever did for me, and that his absurd favoritism was fast begetting in me a positive dislike for her. I couldn't endure the sight of the sulky little mischief-maker for a week after her complaint of barbarity had brought the look into his face I knew so well."
"O Rosa, she is your own flesh and blood! and, as her father said, a mere baby yet! You said, too, that she refused to assign any cause to him for her singular conduct."
"She might better have made open outcry than have left upon his mind the impression that I had banished her cruelly and unnecessarily. But I despair of giving you an idea of how provoking she can be. She is a Chilton, through and through, in feature, manner, and disposition—one of those 'goody' children, you know! a class of animals that are simply intolerable to me. She is too precocious and unbaby-like to be in the least interesting. You should have seen my little Violet to understand what a constant disappointment Florence is. She was myself in miniature, and moreover the most witching, prankish, peppery elf that was ever made. The best trait in Florence's character was her love for her baby-sister. She gave up everything to her while she was alive, and they told me that she would not eat, and scarcely slept, for days after her death. Her father will have it that she is singularly sensitive, and has marvellous depths of feeling; but if this be so, it is queer I never found it out. Nobody could help adoring Violet—my aweet, lost, beautiful angel!"
The hysterical sobs were pumping up the tears now in hot torrents, and these Mrs. Sutton was fain to assuage by loving arts she would not—but for the danger of allowing them to flow—have been in the temper to employ, so full was her heart of yearning pity for the hardly-used babe, and displeasure at the mother's weak selfishness. It was easier to forgive and forget Rosa's sins; to lessen, in the retrospect, her worst faults into foibles, than it would have been to overlook the more venal failings of one less mercurial, and whose personal fascinations did not equal hers.
Ere the close of another day, Mrs. Sutton had excused her unnatural insensibility to her child's virtues and affection, by representing to herself how fearfully disease had warped judgment and perception; had cast over the enormities she could not palliate the pall of solemn remembrance of the truth that death's dark door was already as surely shut between mother and daughter, as if the grave held the former. A week of chill March rains and wind was disastrous to the patient, who had seemed to draw her main supplies of strength from the sunshine admitted freely to her room, with the spring air, redolent with the delicious odors of the freshly-turned earth, the budding trees, and early blossoms from the garden heneath her windows. She shrank and shivered under the ungenial sky, while the drizzling mist soaked life and animation out of the fragile body. Occasional fits of delirium, increased difficulty of breathing, and a steady decline of the slender remains of vital force, warned her attendants that their care would not be required much longer. She was still obstinate in her disbelief of the grave nature of her malady. The most distant reference to her decease would arouse her to angry refutation of the hinted doubt of her recovery, and excited her to offer proof of her declaration that she was less ill than others supposed; she would summon up a poor counterfeit of energy and mirth, more ghastly than her previous lassitude; deny that she suffered from any cause, save the unfailing nervous depression consequent upon the unfavorable weather.
Then came a day on which the sun looked forth with augmented splendor from his sombrely curtained pavilion; when the naked branches of the deciduous trees, the serried lances of the evergreens, and the broad leaves of the tent-like magnolias—the pride of the Tazewell place—shone as from a bath of molten silver. The battered flowers ventured into later and healthier bloom, and a robin, swinging upon the lilac spray nearest Rosa's window, sang blithe greeting to the reinstated spring.
Rosa heard him—opened her eyes, and smiled.
"One—maybe the very same—used to sing there every morning when I was a girl—used to awake me from my second nap. I could sleep all night then, and never dream once!"
A messenger had been sent, at daybreak, for her sisters and brother, who resided several miles away, but as yet Mrs. Sutton and Frederic were her only nurses. She had dozed almost constantly during the night, and been delirious when awakened to take nourishment or tonics, muttering senseless and disconnected words, and moaning in pain, the location and nature of which she could not describe to the solicitous watchers.
"I remember that Mabel and I," she continued, dreamily, after a long pause—then correcting herself, "I ask your pardon, Frederic! I said I wouldn't speak of her ever again to you, but we were so much together in those days. Moreover, it has troubled me at times, that you did not know who your real friends were, and she did like you—and—and—what am I saying! You shouldn't let me run on so!"
She raised her hand with difficulty, and tried to wipe away the film gathering over her dilated eyes.
"Never mind, my darling! Do not attempt to talk! You are too weak and tired!" said her husband, tenderly.
"Tired!" catching at the word, "That is it! There is nothing else the matter, whatever Dr. Ritchie and the rest of them may say. Tired! for how many years I have been THAT! It seems like a thousand. This world is a tiresome place to most people, I think I shall never forget how jaded Mabel looked that week," breaking off, as before, with a frightened start, such as a dreamer gives when he fancies he is falling from an immeasurable height. "Indeed, Fred, dear!" feeling for his hand upon the coverlet, "I did not mean to wound or offend you. It was a terrible ordeal for you, my love! But you came out of it as silver seven times refined. That is what the text says—isn't it? And you and Aunt Rachel are friends once more! That is one good deed I have done. I hope it will be recorded up THERE! Heaven knows there are not so many that I can afford to have one overlooked!"
Another season of dozing, and she awoke, rubbing her hands feebly together, as to cleanse them.
"My hands ought to be whiter—purer! I know what ails them. I should have picked up the letter she—Mrs. Sutton—wrote you. But I loved you so—even then!" beseechingly. "You will not hate me when I am gone? I mean when you get back to Philadelphia, and I am well enough to be left here. I was sure, if you got it, you would come to Ridgeley, and I let it go down the stream—down—down! Frederic!"
"I am here, dearest!" slipping his arm under, and raising her, as her shrill cry rang out, and she grasped the empty air. "Rosa, my WIFE!"
"I thought I was strangling—in the water! I am your wife—am I not? She couldn't take you from me if she were here. I wish she were! I always liked Mabel. She was a good, true woman—but she did not love you as I did!"
Panting for breath, she leaned upon her husband's breast, and her eyelids fell together again. Only for a moment! Then a smile—fond, sweet, and penitent—played among the ashy shadows encircling her mouth. "Poor little Florence! I am sorry I was cross to her. Tell her so, papa!" Her husband stooped to kiss her, laid her back upon the pillows, closed the sightless eyes, and left Mrs. Sutton alone with the dead.
AFTER FIFTEEN YEARS.
"OLD Mrs. Tazewell has departed this life at last!" said Winston Aylett, entering his own parlor one bleak November evening on his return from the village post-office. "I met Al. Branch on the road just now. For a wonder he was sober—in honor of the occasion, I suppose. He and Gus. Tabb are to sit up with the corpse to-night."
"When did she die?" queried his wife, drawing her skirts aside, that he might get nearer the fire.
"At twelve o'clock to-day. That is, she ceased the unprofitable business of respiration at that hour. She died, virtually, five years ago. She has been little better than a mummy for that period."
"Poor old lady!" said Mabel Dorrance, regretfully, from her corner of the hearth. "Hers was a kind heart, while she could think and act intelligently. One of my earliest recollections is of the dainties with which she used to ply me when I visited Rosa. She was an indulgent parent and mistress, yet I suppose few even of those most nearly related to her will mourn her loss."
"It would be very foolish if they did!" Mr. Aylett picked up the tongs to mend the fire. "And very unnatural did they not rejoice at being rid of a burden. The old place has been going to destruction all these years, and it could not be sold while she cumbered the upper earth."
No one replied directly to this delicate and feeling observation, and Mrs. Aylett presently diverted the conversation slightly by saying,—
"And Alfred Branch has gone to tender his services to the family! There is something romantic in his constancy to a memory. From the day of Rosa's death, he has embraced every chance of testifying his respect for and wish to serve her friends. He is a sadder wreck than was Mrs. Tazewell. You would hardly recognize him, Mabel. His hair and beard are white as those of a man of sixty-five, and his face bloated out of all comeliness."
"White heat!" interjected Mr. Aylett. "He can not last much longer."
"And all because a pretty girl said him 'Nay!'" pursued the wife.
Mr. Aylett and Mr. Dorrance made characteristic responses in a breath.
"The greater blockhead he!" said one.
The other, "His was never a rightly balanced mind, I suspect. I always thought him weak and impressionable."
"Are your adjectives synonymous?" asked Mrs. Aylett playfully.
Her brother had been reading at a distant window, while the daylight sufficed to show him the type of his book. He now laid it by, and came forward into the redder circle of radiance cast by the burning logs. He was in his forty-third year, saturnine of visage, coldly monotonous in accent, a business machine that did its work in good, substantial style, and undertook no "fancy jobs." He had amassed a handsome fortune, built a handsome house, and married a handsome woman, all of which appendages to his consequence he contemplated with grim complacency. As regarded spiritual likeness, mutual affection, and assimilation of feeling and opinion, he and his wife had receded, the one from the other, in the fourteen years of their wedded life. There had been no decided rupture. Both disliked altercations, and where radical opposition of sentiment existed, they avoided the unsafe ground by tacit consent. Mabel's uniform policy was that of outward submission to the mandates of her chief.
"After all, it makes little difference!" she fell into the habit of saying in the earlier years of matronhood, and he interpreted her listless acquiescence in his decrees as faith in the soundness of his judgment, the infallibility of his decisions. No woman of sense and spirit ever becomes an exemplar in unquestioning obedience to a mortal man, unless through apathy—fatal torpor of mind or heart. Of this fact in moral history our respactable barrister was happily ignorant. He was no better versed in the lore of the heart feminine than when he accepted Mabel Aylett's esteem and friendly regard in lieu of the shy, but ardent attachment a betrothed maiden should have for the one she means to make her husband.
He respected her thoroughly, and loved her better than he did anybody else. She was the one woman he recognized as his sister's superior—supremacy due to the influence of single-minded integrity and modest dignity. What Mabel said, he believed without gainsaying; while Clara's clever dicta required winnowing to separate the probably spurious from the possibly true. If his tone, in addressing his wife, was seldom affectionate, it was never careless, as that which replied to his sister's raillery.
"Generally," he said in his metallic, unmodulated voice. "The man who would cast away health, usefulness, and fortune in his chagrin at not winning the hand of a shallow-pated, volatile flirt, must be both silly and susceptible."
"Rosa Tazewell may have been shallow of heart, but she was not of pate," answered Mr. Aylett, with a cold sneer. "She was a fair plotter, and not fickle of purpose when she had her desires upon a much-coveted object. Her marriage proved that. She meant to captivate Chilton before she had known him a month—yes, and to marry him, as she finally did. Her intermediate conquests were but the practice that was to perfect her in her profession. Does anybody know, by the way, if he has ever taken a second wife to his bereaved bosom?"
A brief silence, then Mrs. Aylett said, negligently, "I think not. Mrs. Trent, Rosa's sister, was expatiating to me a month since upon the beauty and accomplishments of his daughter, and she said nothing of a step-mother. Father and child live with a married sister of Mrs. Chilton, I believe."
"I had not heard that Rosa left a child," remarked Mabel, interested. "I understood that two died before the mother."
"Only one—and that the younger. Miss Florence is now twelve years old, Mrs. Trent says. I saw her at church once, when she was visiting her grandmother and aunts. She is really passable—but very unlike her mother."
Mabel did not join in the desultory talk that engaged the others until supper-time. There was a broken string in her heart, that jangled painfully when touched by an incautious hand.
"Twelve years old!" she was saying, inwardly. "My darling would have been thirteen, had she lived!"
And then flitted before her fancy a girlish form, with pure, loving eyes, and a voice melodious as a mocking-bird's. Warm arms were about her neck, and a round, soft cheek laid against hers—as no human arms and face would ever caress her—her, the childless, whose had been the hopes, fears, pains—never the recompence of maternity.
She had been to the graveyard that day—secretly, lest her husband should frown, Clara wonder, and Winston sneer at her love for and memory of that which had never existed, according to their rendering of the term. She had trimmed the wire-grass out of the little hollow, above which the mound had not been renewed since the day of her baby's burial, and, trusting to the infrequency of others' visits to the neglected enclosure, had laid a bunch of white rose-buds over the unmarked dust she accounted still a part of her heart, 'neath which it had lain so long. People said she had never been a mother; never had had a living child; had no hope of seeing it in heaven. God and she knew better.
"Clara, I wish you to attend Mrs. Tazewell's funeral this afternoon," said Mr. Aylett at breakfast the next day but one after this. "There were invidious remarks made upon your non-appearance at her daughter's, and I do not choose that my family shall furnish food for neighborhood scandal."
"My dear Winston, you must recollect what an insufferable headache I had that day."
"Don't have one to-day," ordered her husband laconically. "Mabel, do you care to go?"
"By all means. I would not fail, even in seeming, in rendering respect to one I used to like so much, and whose kindness to me was unvarying. You have no objection, Herbert?"
"None. I may accompany you—the day being fine, and the roads in tolerable order."
The funeral was conducted with the disregard of what are, in other regions, established customs that distinguish such occasions in the rural districts of Virginia.
Written notices had been sent out, far and near, the day before, announcing that the services would begin at two o'clock, but when the Aylett party arrived at a quarter of an hour before the time specified, there was no appearance of regular exercises of any kind. A dozen carriges besides theirs were clustered about the front gate, and a long line of saddle-horses tethered to the fence. Knots of gentlemen in riding costume dotted the lawn and porches, and within-doors ladies sat, or walked at their ease in the parlor and dining room, or gathered in silent tearfulness around the open coffin in the wide central hall.
The bed-room of the deceased was a roomy apartment in a wing of the building, and to this Mabel was summoned before she could seat herself elsewhere.
"Miss Mary's compliments and love, ma'am; and she says won't you please step in thar, and set with Mistis' friends and relations?" was the audible message delivered to her by Mrs. Trent's spry waiting-maid.
Herbert looked dubious, and Mrs. Aylett enlarged her fine eyes in a manner that might mean either superciliousness or well-bred amazement. But Mabel was neither surprised nor doubtful as to the proper course for her to pursue. Time was when she was as much at home here as Rosa herself, and Mrs. Tazewell's partiality for her was shared by others of the family. That she had met none of them in ten or twelve years, did not at a season like the present dampen their affection. They would rather on this account seize upon the opportunity of honoring publicly their mother's old favorite.
The chamber was less light than the hall she traversed to reach it.
She recognized Mary Trent, the daughter next in age to Rosa, who fell upon her neck in a sobbing embrace, then the other sisters and their brother, Morton Tazewell, with his wife, and was formally presented to their children.
Finally she turned inquiringly toward a gentleman who stood against the window opposite the door, with a little girl beside him.
Confused beyond measure, as the hitherto unthought-of consequences of her impulsive action in sending for her friend rushed upon her mind, Mrs. Trent faltered out:
"I forgot! You must excuse me, but I was so anxious to see you. My brother-in-law, Mr. Chilton. He arrived yesterday—not having heard of mother's death."
And for the first time since they looked their passionate farewell into each other's eyes under the rose-arch of the portico at Ridgeley, on that rainy summer morning, the two who had been lovers again touched hands.
"I hope you are quite well, Mr. Chilton," said Mabel's firm, gentle voice. "Is this your daughter?" kissing the serious-faced child on the forehead, and looking intently into her eyes in the hope of discovering a resemblance to her mother.
Then she went back to a chair next to Mrs. Trent's, and began to talk softly of the event that had called them together, not glancing again at the window until the outer hall was stilled, that the clergyman might begin the funeral prayer.
"The services will be concluded at the grave," was the announcement that succeeded the sermon; and there followed the shuffling of the bearers' feet, and their measured tramp across the floors and down the steps of the back porch.
The daughters and daughter-in-law let fall their veils and pulled on their gloves, and Herbert Dorrance beckoned somewhat impatiently to his wife from the parlor door. While she was on her way to join him, she saw his complexion vary to a greenish sallow, his mouth work spasmodically, and his eyes sink in anger or dismay.
Winston Aylett likewise noted and knew it, for the same look of abject terror he had observed upon the hard Scotch face when Mabel enumerated upon her fingers those she accused of having robbed her of her babe.
The wife attributed it to displeasure at seeing Frederic Chilton among the mourners. Her whilom guardian, never charitable overmuch, inclined the more to the belief begotten within him by other incidents, to wit: that his brother-in-law's talk was more doughty than his deeds, and his real sentiment upon beholding the man he boasted of having flogged as a libertine and coward, was physical dread for his own safety. Watchful alike of the other party to the ancient quarrel, he was rewarded by the sight of Chilton's irrepressible start and frown, when Mabel put her hand within her husband's arm, and stood awaiting the formation of the procession. The discarded lover gazed steadfastly into Dorrance's countenance in passing to his place, in recognition that scouted assimilarity with salutation, but his eye did not waver or his color fade.
"I would not be afraid to wager that this is but another version of the fable of the statue of the man rampant and the lion couchant," thought Mr. Aylett, following with his wife in the funeral train down the grass-grown alley leading through the garden to the family burying-ground. "It would be an entertaining study of human veracity if I could hear Chilton's story, and compare the two. He is either an audacious rascal, or there is something back of all that I have heard which will not bear the light."
It was not remorse at the thought of the total alteration in his sister's life and feelings that had grown out of this imperfect or false evidence, but simple curiosity to inspect the lineaments and note the actions of the cool rascal whose audacity commanded his admiration, and note his bearing in the event of his coming into closer contact with his former foe, that prompted him to single him out for scrutiny among those whose relationship to the deceased secured them places nearest the grave.
For a time the widower was gravely quiet, holding his child's hand and looking down steadfastly into the pit at his feet, perhaps remembering more vividly than anything else a certain sunny day in March, many years back, when another fissure yawned close by, where now a green mound—the ridged scar with which the earth had closed the wound in her breast—and a stately shaft of white marble were all that remained to the world of "Rosa, wife of Frederic Chilton." But, while the mould was being heaped upon the coffin, he raised his eyes, and let them rove aimlessly over the crowd, neither avoiding nor courting observation—the cursory regard of a man who had no strong interest in any person or group there. They changed singularly in resting upon the family from Ridgeley. A stare of stupefaction gave place to living fires of angry suspicion and amazement—lurid flame that testified its violence in the reddening of cheeks and brow, in the dilating nostril and quivering lips. Then he passed his hand downward over his features, evidently conscious of their distortion, and striving after a semblance of equanimity, and looked again in stern fixity, not at her from whom he had been parted in the early summer of his manhood, nor at his successful rival, nor yet at the guardian who had offered him gratuitous insult in addition to the injury of refusing to permit his ward's marriage with a disgraced adventurer—but at Mrs. Aylett, the chatelaine of Ridgeley, the wife whose serene purity had never been blemished by a doubting breath; chaste and polished matron; the admired copy for younger and less discreet, but not more beautiful women. He surveyed her boldly—if the imagination had not seemed preposterous—Mr. Aylett would have said scornfully, as he might study the face and figure of some abandoned wretch who had accosted him in the public thoroughfare as an acquaintance.
A haughty and uncontrollable gesture from the husband succeeded in diverting the offender's notice to himself for one instant—not more. But in that flash he detected a shade of difference in the expression that irked him; a ray, that was inquiry, sharp and eager, tempered by compassion, yet still contemptuous.
All this passed in less time than it has taken me to write a line descriptive of the pantomime. The mound was shaped, and the decorously mournful train turned from it to retrace their course to the house, Frederic Chilton imitating the example of those about him, but moving like a sleep-walker, his brows corrugated and eyes sightless to all surrounding objects. He had awakened when the Ridgeley carriage drove to the door. Mrs. Sutton detained Mabel in one of the upper chambers to concert plans for a visit to the homestead while the Dorrances should be there. Aunt and niece had not met since the arrival of the latter in Virginia, a fortnight before, the elder lady being in constant attendance upon Mrs. Tazewell.
"This is very stupid! And I am getting hungry!" said Mrs. Aylett, aside to her lord, as she stood near a front window, tapping the floor with her feet, while vehicle after vehicle received its load and rolled off. "We shall be the last on the ground. Herbert! can't you intimate to Mabel that we are impatient to be gone?"
"I don't know where she is!" growled the brother, for once non-complaisant to her behest, and not stirring from the chair in the corner into which he had dropped at his entrance.
His head hung upon his breast, and he appeared to study the lining of his hat-crown, balancing the brim by his forefingers between his knees. Mrs. Aylett had lowered her veil in the burying-ground or on her way thither, but it was a flimsy mass of black lace—richly wrought, yet insufficient to hide the paleness of the upper part of her visage. Mr. Aylett watched and wondered, with but one definite idea in his brain beyond the resolve to ferret out the entire mystery in his stealthy, taciturn fashion. Herbert Dorrance had been, in some manner, compromised by his association with this Chilton, had reason to dread exposure from him, and his sister was the confidante of his guilty secret.
"I shall know all about it in due season," thought the master of himself and his dependents.
Not that he meant to extort or wheedle it from his consort's keeping, but he had implicit faith in his own detective talents.
"Here she is at last!" he said, when Mabel came down the staircase, holding Aunt Rachel's hand, and talking low and earnestly, her noble face and even gliding step a refreshing contrast to Mrs. Aylett's nervousness and Herbert's dogged sullenness.
"I am sorry I have kept you so long, but there will be less dust than if we had gone sooner. The other carriages will have had time to get out of our way," she said, pleasantly. "Winston," coming up to her brother, and speaking in an undertone, "will it be quite convenient for you to send for Aunt Rachel on next Friday?"
"Entirely! The carriage shall be at your service at any hour or day you wish," with more cordiality than was common with him.
However treacherous others might be in their reserve and half-confessions, here was one who had never deceived him or knowingly misled him to believe her better, or otherwise, than she was. Honesty and truth were stamped upon her face by a life-long practice of these homely virtues—not by meretricious arts. It was tardy justice, but he rendered it without grudging, if not heartily.
A few words passed as to the hour at which the carriage was to call for Mrs. Sutton, and Mabel kissed her "Good-by," the others shaking hands with her, and with three or four of the Tazewell kinsmen who officiated as masters of ceremonies, and Mrs. Aylett made an impatient movement toward the front steps. Directly in her route, leaning against a pillar of the old-fashioned porch, was Frederic Chilton, no longer dreamy and perplexed, but on the alert with eye and ear—not losing one sound of her voice, or trick of feature. She inclined her head slightly and courteously, the notice due a friend of the house she, as guest, was about to leave. He did not bow, nor relax the rigor of his watch. Only, when she was seated in the carriage, he bent respectfully and mutely before Mabel, who followed her hostess, and paying as little attention to the two gentlemen as they did to him walked up to Mrs. Sutton, and said something inaudible to the bystanders. As they drove out of the yard, the Ridgeley quartette saw the pair saunter, side by side, to the extreme end of the portico, apparently to be out of hearing of the rest, but no one remarked aloud upon the renewed intimacy and then confidential attitude.
"If it is anything very startling, the old gossip will never keep it to herself," Mr. Aylett congratulated himself, while his wife's complexion paled gradually to bloodlessness, and Herbert sat back in his corner, sulky and dumb. "And she is coming to us on Friday!"
THUNDER IN THE AIR.
THE only malady that put Herbert Dorrance in frequent and unpleasant remembrance of his mortality was a fierce headache, which had of late years supervened upon any imprudence in diet, and upon excessive agitation of mind or physical exertion. His invariable custom, when he awoke at morning with one of these, was to trace it to its supposed source, and after determining that it was nothing more than might have been expected from the circumstance, to commit himself to his wife's nursing for the day.
She ought, therefore, to have been surprised when, while admitting that the pain in his head was intense, he yet, on the morrow succeeding Mrs. Tazewell's funeral, persisted in rising and dressing for breakfast.
"It must have been the roast duck at dinner yesterday," he calmly and languidly explained the attack. "It was fat, and the stuffing reeked with butter, sage, and onion. An ostrich could not have digested it. I was tired, too, and should not have eaten heartily of even the plainest food."
Mabel neither opposed nor sustained the theory. She had slept so ill herself as to know how restless he had been; had heard his hardly suppressed sighs and tossings to and fro, infallible indications with him of serious perturbation. Had his discomfort been bodily only, he would have felt no compunction in calling her to his aid, as he had done scores of times. Her sleepless hours had also been fraught with melancholy disquiet. Putting away from her—with firmness begotten by virtue born of will—and so much of this thoughtfulness as pertained to the bygone days with which Frederic Chilton was inseparable associated, she yet deliberated seriously upon the expediency of speaking out courageously to Herbert of the relation this man had once borne to her, the incidents of their recent meeting, and the effect she saw was produced upon her husband's mind by the sight of him.
"If we would have this negative happiness continue, this matter ought to be settled at once and forever," she said, inwardly. "He must not suspect me of weak and wicked clinging to the phantoms of my youth; must believe that I do not harbor a regret or wish incompatible with my duty as his wife. I will avail myself of the first favorable moment to assure him of the folly of his fears and of his discomfort."
Another consideration—the natural sequence of her conviction of his unhappiness—was a touching appeal to her woman's heart. If he had not loved her more fervently than his phlegmatic temperament and undemonstrative bearing would induce one to suppose, he would not dread the rekindling of her olden fancy for another. The image of him who, she had confessed, had taught her the depth and weight of her own affections, whom she had loved as she had never professed to care for him, would not have haunted his pillow to chase sleep, and torture him with forebodings.
"I must make him comprehend that Mabel Aylett at twenty, wilful, romantic, and undisciplined, was a different being from the woman who has called him 'husband,' without a blush, for fourteen years!"
It was these recollections that softened her kindly tones to tenderness; made the pressure of her hand upon his temples a caress, rather than a manual appliance for deadening pain; while she combated his intention of appearing at the breakfast-table.
"Lie down upon the sofa!" she entreated. "Let me bring up a cup of strong coffee for you; then darken the room, and chafe your head until you fall asleep, since you turn a deaf ear to all proposals of mustard foot-baths and Dr. Van Orden's panacea pills."
"No!" stubbornly. "Aylett and Clara would think it strange. They do not understand how a slight irregularity of diet or habit can produce such a result. They would attribute it to other causes. I may feel better when I have taken something nourishing."
The dreaded critics received the tidings of his indisposition without cavil at its imputed origin, treated the whole subject with comparative indifference, which would have mortified him a week ago, but seemed now to assuage his unrest. The breakfast hour was a quiet one. Herbert could not attempt the form of eating, despite his expressed hope of the curative effects of nourishment, and sipped his black coffee at tedious intervals of pain, looking more ill after each. Mabel was silent, and regardful of his suffering, while Mrs. Aylett toyed with the tea-cup, broke her biscuit into small heaps of crumbs upon her plate, and under her visor of ennui and indolent musing, kept her eye upon her vis-a-vis, whose face was opaque ice; and his intonations, when he deigned to speak, meant nothing save that he was controller of his own meditations, and would not be meddled with.
"You are not well enough to ride over to the Courthouse with me, Dorrance?" he said, interrogatively, his meal despatched. "It is court-day, you know?"
"What do you say, Mabel?" was Herbert's clumsy reference to his nurse. "Don't you think I might venture?"
"I would not, if I were in your place," she replied, cautiously dissuasive. "The day is raw, and there will be rain before evening. Dampness always aggravates neuralgia."
"It is neuralgia, then, is it?" queried Winston, shortly, drawing on his boots.
His sister looked up surprised.
"What else should it be?"
"Nothing—unless the symptoms indicate softening of the brain!" he rejoined, with his slight, dissonant laugh. "In either case, your decision is wise. He is better off in your custody than he would be abroad. I hope I shall find you convalescent when I return. Good morning!"
His wife accompanied him to the outer door.
"It is chilly!" she shivered, as this was opened. "Are you warmly clad, love?" feeling his overcoat. "And don't forget your umbrella."
Her hand had not left his shoulder, and, in offering a parting kiss, she leaned her head there also.
"I wish you would not go!" she said impulsively and sincerely.
"I cannot say—except that I dread to be left alone all day. You may laugh at me, but I feel as if something terrible were hanging over me—or you. The spiritual oppression is like the physical presentiment sensitive temperaments suffer when a thunder-storm is brooding, but not ready to break. Yet I can refer my fears to no known cause."
"That is folly." Mr. Aylett bit off the end of a cigar, and felt in his vest pocket for a match-safe. "You should be able always to assign a reason for the fear as well as the hope that is in you. You have no idea, you say, from what recent event your prognostication takes its hue?"
She laughed, and straightened her fine neck.
"From the same imprudence that has consigned poor Herbert to the house for the day, I suspect—a late and heavy dinner. I had the nightmare twice before morning. You will be home to supper?"
Hesitating upon the monosyllable, he took hold of her elbows, so as to bring her directly before him, and searched her countenance until it was dyed with blushes.
"Why do you color so furiously?" he asked in raillery that had a sad or sardonic accent. "I was about to ask if you would be inconsolable if I never came back. Perhaps your presentiment points to some such fatality. These little accidents have happened in better-regulated families than ours."
She gasped and blanched in pain or terror.
"What is the matter? Have I hurt you?" releasing his grasp.
"Yes—HERE!" laying his hand upon her heart, the beautiful eyes terrified and pathetic as those of a wounded deer. "For the love of Heaven, never stab me again with such suggestions. When you die, I shall not care to live. When you cease to love me, I shall wish we had died together on our marriage-day—my husband!"
He let her twine her arms about his neck, laid his cheek to her brow, clasped her tightly and kissed her impetuously, madly, again and yet again—disengaged himself, and ran down the steps. She was standing on the top one, still flushed and breathless from the violence of his embrace, when he looked back from the gate, her commanding figure framed by the embowering creepers, as Mabel's girlish shape had been when Frederic Chilton waved his farewell to her from the same spot.
Did either of them think of it, or would either have reckoned it an ominous coincidence, if the remembrance of that long-ago parting had presented itself then and there?
Herbert spent the day upon the lounge in the family sitting-room—a cosy retreat, between the parlor and the conservatory, which had been added to the lower floor in the reign of the present queen. Her brother's seizure was no trifling ailment. Alternations of stupor and racking spasms of pain defied, for several hours, his wife's application of the remedies she had found efficacious in former attacks. Her ultimate resort was chloroform, and by the liberal use of this, relaxation of the tense nerves and a sleep that resembled healing repose were induced by the middle of the afternoon. The weather continued to threaten rain, although none had fallen as yet, and the wind moaned lugubriously in the leafless branches of the great walnut before the end window of the narrow apartment. It was a grand tree, the patriarch of the grove that sheltered the house from the north winds. Mabel, relieved from watchfulness, and to some extent from anxiety, by her husband's profound slumber, lay back in her chair with a long-drawn sigh, and looked out at the naked limbs of the wrestling giant—the majestic sway and reel she used to note with childish awe—and thought of many things which had befallen her since then, until the steady rocking of the boughs and hum of the November breeze soothed her into languor—then drowsiness—then oblivion.
She awoke in alarm at the sense of something hurtful or startling hovering near her.
The fire had been trimmed before she slept, and now flamed up gayly; the window was dusky, as were the distant corners of the room, and Herbert was gazing steadfastly at her.
"I fell asleep without knowing it. I am sorry! Have you wanted anything? How long have you been awake?"
"Only a few minutes, my dearest!" with no change in the mesmeric intentness of his gaze. "I want nothing more than to have you always near me. You have been a good, faithful wife, Mabel, better and nobler—a thousandfold nobler than I deserved. I have thought it all over while you were sleeping so tranquilly in my sight. I wish my conscience were void of evil to all mankind as is yours. I awoke with an odd and awful impression upon my mind. The firelight flamed in a bright stream between your chair and me—and I must have dreamed it—or the chloroform had affected my head—I thought it was a river of light dividing us! You were a calm, white angel who had entered into rest—uncaring for and forgetful of me. I was lost, homeless, wandering forever and ever!"
Had her prosaic spouse addressed her in a rhythmic improvisation, Mabel could not have been more astounded.
"You are dreaming yet!" she said, kneeling by him and binding his temples with her cool, firm palms. "When we are divided, it will be by a dark—not a bright river."
"Until death do us part!" Herbert repeated, thoughtfully. "I wish I could hear you say, once, that you do not regret that clause of your marriage vow. I was not your heart's choice, you know, Mabel, however decided may have been the approval of your friends and of your judgment. The thought oppresses me as it did not in the first years of our wedded life."
"I am glad you have spoken of this," began the wife. "I would disabuse your mind—"
"All in the dark!" exclaimed Mrs. Aylett, at the door. "And what a stifling odor of chloroform!"
Mabel got up, and drew a heavy travelling-shawl that covered Herbert's lower limbs over his arms and chest.
"I will open the window!" she said, deprecatingly.
A sluice of cold air rushed in, beating the blaze this way and that, puffing ashes from the hearth into the room, and eliciting from Mrs. Aylett what would have been a peevish interjection in another woman.
"My dear sister! the remedy is worse than the offence. Chloroform is preferable to creosote, or whatever abominable element is the principal ingredient of smoke and cold! The thermometer must be down to the freezing-point!"
Mabel lowered the sash.
"You have been sitting in a room without fire, I suspect. The temperature here is delightful. I am sorry we have exiled you from such comfortable quarters."
"Don't speak of it! I cannot endure to sit here alone—or anywhere else. I have slept most of the afternoon. How the wind blows! I wish Winston were at home."
"It is a dark afternoon. He seldom returns from court so early as this. It is not six yet."
Mabel still essayed pacification of the other's ruffled mood.
"You are better, I see," Mrs. Aylett said abruptly to her brother. "You were not subject to these spells formerly. People generally outlive constitutional headaches—so I have noticed. It is queer yours should occur so often and wax more violent each time. You should have medical advice before they ripen into a more serious disorder."
Herbert shaded his eyes from the fire, and lay with out replying, until his wife believed he had relapsed into a doze.
She was convinced of her mistake by his saying, slowly and distinctly,—
"You do not enter into Clara's whole meaning, Mabel. We have been careful, all of us, never to tell you that our father was imbecile by the time he was fifty and died, in his sixtieth year, of the disease your brother named this morning—softening of the brain. I, of all his children, am most like him physically. If it be true that this danger menaces me, you should be informed of it, and know, furthermore, that it is incurable."
Mabel also paused before answering.
"I cannot assent to the hypothesis of your inherited malady, Herbert. These headaches may mean nothing. But let that be as it may, you should have told me of this before."
"You see," broke in Mrs. Aylett's triumphant sarcasm. "The reward of your maiden attempt at congugal confidence is reproof. What have I warned you from the beginning?"
"Not reproof," corrected Mabel, in mild decision. "My knowledge of the secret he deemed it wise and kind to withhold would have gained for him my sympathy, and my more constant and intelligent care of his health. It is the hidden fear that grows and multiplies itself most rapidly. Before it is killed it must be dragged to the light."
"That is YOUR hypothesis," was the bright retort. "We Dorrances have justly earned a reputation for dissretion by the excellent preservation of our own secrets, and those committed to our keeping by our friends. My motto is, tell others nothing about yourself which they cannot learn without your confession. An autobiography is always either a bore or a blunder. Not that I would regulate the number and nature of your divulgations to your wife, Herbert. As to Winston's unlucky hit this morning, it was mere fortuity. I have never felt myself called upon to enlighten him in family secrets, and his is an incurious disposition. He never asks idle questions. He has a marvellous faculty of striking home-blows in the dark, but that is no reason why one should betray his wound by crying out. Apropos to darkness, may I ring for a lamp, or will the light hurt your eyes?"
"The fire-light is more trying," rejoined Mabel, pushing a screen before the sofa, and placing herself where she could, in its shadow, hold her husband's hand.
It was cold and limp when she lifted it, but tightened upon hers with the instinctive grip of gratitude too profound to be uttered.
She had never been so near loving him as at the instant in which he believed he had incurred her ever-lasting displeasure. Generosity and pity were fast undoing the petrifying influences of her early disappointment, their mutual reserve, and tacit misunderstandings. If half he feared were true, his need of her affection, her counsel and companionship were dire. Whatever wrong he had done her by keeping back the tale of hereditary infirmity, he had suffered more from the act than she could ever do. Who knew how much of what she, with others, mistook for constitutional phlegm and studied austerity, was the outward sign of the battle between dread of his inherited doom and the resolve of an iron will to defy natural laws and the sentence of destiny herself, and hold reason upon her rickety throne?
Heaven's gentlest and kindest angels were busy with Mabel Dorrance's heart in that reverie, and, as they wrought, the cloud that had rested there for fifteen years broke into rainbow smiles that illumined her countenance into the similitude of the shining ones.
"I bless Thee, Father, the All-wise and Ever-merciful, that she is safe!" was her voiceless thanksgiving.
No more bitter tears over the lonely, sunken grave! no more hearkening, with aching, never-to-be-satisfied ears for the patter of the "little feet that never trod." The great sorrow of her life that had been good in His sight was at length a blessing in hers. Her "hereafter" of knowledge of His doings had come to her in this world.
"Does it rain, Peter?" questioned Mrs. Aylett of the lad who brought in lights.
"Yes, ma'am. It's beginnin' to storm powerful!" he said, respectfully communicative.
"Your master has not come?"
"See that the lantern over the great gate is lighted, and that some one is ready to take his horse. And, Peter," as he was going out, "tell Thomas not to bring in supper until Mr. Aylett returns."
She moved to the window, bowed her hands on either side of her eyes to exclude the radiance within, and strained them into the black, black night.
"He will have a dark and a disagreeable ride," she said, coming back to the fire.
Her uneasiness was so palpable as to excite Mabel's compassion.
"Every step of the road is familiar to him, and he is accustomed to night rides," she said, encouragingly. "Yes," absently. "But he will be very wet. Hear the rain!"
It plashed against the north window, and tinkled upon the tin roof of the conservatory, and Mabel, though aware of her brother's habitual disregard of wind and weather, could not but sympathize with the wifely concern evinced by the sober physiognomy and unsettled demeanor of one generally so calm. She observed, now, that her sister-in-law was arrayed more richly than usual, and her attire was always handsome and tasteful. A deep purple silk, trimmed upon skirt and waist with velvet bands of darker purple, showed off her clear skin to fine advantage, and was saved from monotony of effect by a headdress of lace and buff ribbons. A stately and a comely matron, she was bedight for her lord's return; weighed as heavy each minute that detained him from her arms.
She was still standing by the low mantel, her arm resting lightly upon it, the fire-blaze bringing out lustrous reflections in her drapery and hair, and tinging her pensive check with youthful carmine, when her husband entered.
IT was a peculiarity of Winston Aylett that he was never discomposed in seeming, however embarrassing or distressing might be his position. In his childhood he was one to whom, to use the common phrase, dirt would not stick. His face was clean and fair, his hands smooth, and his hair in order after rough and tumble experiences that sent his companions home begrimed, ragged, and unkempt frights. To-night, he had ridden a dozen miles in the teeth of the storm, and made no pause before appearing before his wife and sister, except to lay off his hat and overcoat in the hall. But had he expected to encounter a roomful of ladies, his costume could not have been more unexceptionable.
His linen was pure and fresh, even to the narrow line of wristband edging his coat sleeve; his clearly cut patrician features were tranquil in every line and tint; his step was the light, yet deliberate stride of an athlete without passion or bravado. Conscious power, inexorable will, and thorough self-command were stamped upon him from crown to foot, and his salutation to the small family party accompanied a smile as mirthless and cold as were his eyes.
Mrs. Aylett advanced a step, not more, and returned the bow that comprehended all present, with a pleased, not rapturous welcome.
"We were beginning to fear lest you might be wet," she said, emulating his polite equanimity. Genuine tact is always chameleon-like in quality. "It rains quite fast, does it not?"
"The storm is increasing, but I experienced no inconvenience from it, thank you."
He sat down in his favorite arm-chair, and spread his fingers before the fire.
"I am happy to see you so very much better"—to Herbert. "There were many kind inquiries for you at the court-house to-day. Dr. Ritchie wanted to know if you had ever taken nux vomica for these neuralgic turns. I invited him to come in with me and prescribe for you, but he said he must push on home, so we parted at the outer gate."
So affable as almost to put others at their ease in his company, he chatted until supper was announced; regretted civilly Herbert's inability to go to the table, and gave his sister his arm into the dining-room, Mrs. Aylett following in their wake. If he did not eat heartily, he praised, in gentlemanly moderation, the viands selected by his consort for his delectation after his wet ride, and pleaded a late dinner as the reason of his present abstinence. Then they adjourned to the apartment where they had left Mr. Dorrance, and the host produced his cigar-case.
"Mabel says that smoke never offends your olfactories, or affects your head unpleasantly, when you are suffering from this nervous affection," he said to Herbert.
"On the contrary, it often acts as a sedative," was the reply.
Winston lighted a cigar with an allumette from a bronze taper-stand—a Christmas gift from his wife, which she kept supplied with fanciful spiles twisted and fringed into a variety of shapes; drew several long breaths to be certain that the fire had taken hold of the heart of the Havana, tossed the pretty paper into the embers, and resumed his seat in the chimney corner.
"A sedative is a good thing for people who allow their nerves to get out of gear," he remarked, dryly and leisurely, puffing contentedly in the middle and at the end of the sentence. "But he who does this subverts the order of the ruler aad the ruled. I supposed I had nerves once, but it is an age since they have dared molest me. I know that I had my impulses when I was younger."
He stopped to fillip the ash forming upon the ignited end of his cigar, performing the operation with nicety, using the extreme tip of his middle-finger nail over the salver attached for the purpose to the bronze smoking-set.
"I obeyed one, above a dozen years ago. I learned only to-day that it was rash and unwise, and to how much evil it may lead."
"Not a very active evil, if you have just discovered it to be such."
The speaker was his sister. Herbert was motionless upon his couch. Mrs. Aylett, in the lounging-chair at the opposite side of the hearth from her husband, was cutting the leaves of a new magazine he had brought from the post-office, and did not seem to hear his remark.
"You reason upon the assumption that ignorance is bliss," said Mr. Aylett. "Allow me to express the opinion that the adage embodying that idea is the refuge of cowards and fools. No matter how grievous a bankrupt a man may be financially in spirit, he is craven or a blockhead to shrink the investigation of his accounts. Which allusion to bankruptcy brings me to the recital of a choicely offensive bit of scandal I heard to-day. It is seldom that I give heed to the like, but the delicious rottenness revealed by this tale enforced my hearing, and fixed the details in my mind. I could not but think, as I rode home, of the accessories which would add effectiveness, to-night, to my second-hand narrative. I had the whole scene, which is now before me, in my mind's eye—the warm firelight and the shaded lamp brightening all within, while the rain pattered without; the interesting invalid over there gradually stirring into interest as the story progressed; you, Mabel, calmly and critically attentive; and my Lady Aylett, too proud to look the desire she really feels to handle the lovely carrion."
"Your figures are not provocative of insatiable appetite," returned his wife, with inimitable sang-froid, staying her paper knife that she might examine an engraving.
"Your appetite needs further excitants, then? So did mine until I began to suspect that the history might be authentic, and not a figment of the raconteur's imagination. The hero's name at first disposed me to set down the entire relation as a fiction. It is romantic enough to perfume a three-volume novel—Julius Lennox!"
Mabel's instinctive thought was for her husband, but, in turning to him she could not but notice that Mrs. Aylett sat motionless, the paper-cutter between two leaves, and her left hand pressed hard upon the upper, but without attempting to sever them.
Herbert twisted his head upon the pillow until he faced the back of the sofa, and a convulsion went through him, hardly quelled by the clasp of Mabel's hand upon his.
"Julius Lennox!" reiterated Mr. Aylett, between the fragrant puffs, "A lieutenant in the navy—the good-looking, but, as the sequel proved, not over-steady, spouse of a lady who was the daughter of another naval officer of similar rank. The latter was compelled to leave the service on account of incipient idiocy, and retired, upon half-pay, to an unfashionable quarter of a certain great city, where his wife, a smart Yankee, opened a boarding-house for law and medical students, and contrived not only to keep the souls and bodies of her family together, but to marry off her two still single daughters—the one to a barrister, the other to a physician. The lovely Louise Lennox—a pretty alliteration, is it not?—remained meanwhile under the paternal roof, her husband's ship being absent most of the time, and the handsome Julius having unlimited privileges in the line condemned by "Black-eyed Susan" in her parting interview with her sailor lover—finding a mistress in every port. It is woman's nature and wisdom to seek consolation for such afflictions as the deprivation of the beloved one's society, and the almost certainty that he is basking his faithless self in the sunlight of another's eyes. Our heroine, being at once ardent and philosophical, put the lex talionis into force by falling in love with one of her mother's lodgers, a sprig of the legal profession. The favored youth—so says my edition of the romance—remained preternaturally unconscious of the sentiment he had inspired, attributing her manifestations of partiality to platonic regard, until she opened his modest eyes by proposing an elopement. He had completed his professional studies, taken out a license to practise law, was about to quit her and the city, and the no-longer-adored Julius was coming home—a wreck in health and purse—upon a six months' leave of absence. It must be owned the Lady Louise had some excuse for a measure that seemed to have amazed and horrified her cicisbeo. Recoiling from the proposition and herself with the virtuous indignation that is ever aroused in the manly bosom by similar advances, he packed up his trunk, double-locked it and his heart, paid his bill, and decamped from the dangerous precincts.
"Ignoble conclusion to a tender affair; but not so devoid of tragicality as would seem. Infuriated at the desertion of this modern Joseph, Louise, the lorn, avenged the slight offered her charms by declaring to her youngest brother, the only one who resided in the same city with herself, that Joseph had made dishonorable proposals to her—a proceeding which demonstrates that the feminine character has withstood the proverbially changing effects of time from age to age. My narrative is but a later and a Gentile version of the Jewish novelette to which I have referred. The role of Potiphar was cast for the unsophisticated brother, who, being unable to immure the unimpressible Joseph in the Tombs, attempted the only means of redress that remained to him, to wit: Personal chastisement.
"And here," continued the narrator, yet more slowly, "I find myself perplexed by the discrepancy between the statement I have had to-day and one of this section of the story furnished me several years since. In the latter the indignant fraternal relative flogged the would-be betrayer within a quarter of an inch of his life. The other account reverses the position of the parties, and makes Joseph the incorruptible also the invincible. However this may have been, the adventure seems to have quenched the loving Louise's brilliancy for a season. We hear no more of her until after her father's decease, when she re-enters the lists of Cupid in another State, as the blushing and still beautiful virgin-betrothed of a man of birth and means, who woos and weds her under her maiden cognomen—the entire family, including the valiant brother who figured as whippee or whipper, in the castigation exploit—being accomplices in the righteous fraud. I might, did I not fear being prolix, tell of sundry side-issues growing out of the main stalk of this plot, such as the ingenious manoeuvres by which the promising couple of conspirators averted, upon the eve of the sister's bridal, the threatened expose of their machinations to entrap the wealthy lover. Suffice it to say that the duped husband (by brevet) lived for a decade and a half in the placid enjoyment of the ignorance which my sagacious sister here is disposed to confound with rational bliss—nor is he quite sure, to this day, whether spouse No. 1 of the partner of his bosom still lives, or by clearance in what court of infamy or justice she managed to shuffle off her real name, and win a right to resume the title of spinster."
He lighted a fresh cigar, and for the space of perhaps a minute, a dead and ominous silence prevailed. Mabel, pallid and faint at heart, could not take her eyes from his countenance, with its cruel smile, frozen, shallow eyes, and the deep white dints coming and going in his nostrils.
He had judged without partiality. He would condemn without mercy. He would punish without remorse.
Herbert still faced the back of the lounge, but he had slipped his hand from the relaxing hold of hers, and pressed it over his eyes. She could not seek to possess herself of it again. Winston was not the only dupe of the nefarious fraud, the betrayal of which had overtaken the guilty pair thus late in their career of duplicity. Yet, however severely she had suffered in heart from their falsehood and her brother's intolerance, no stain would rest upon her name, while, terminate as the affair might, the disgraceful revelation would shipwreck her brother's happiness for life, if not bring upon the old homestead a storm of scandal that would leave no more trace of the honorable reputation heretofore borne by its owners than remained of the smiling plenty of the cities of the plain after the fiery wrath of the Lord had overthrown them.
Mrs. Aylett resumed the suspended operation of cutting the leaves of her new monthly; fluttered them to be certain that none were overlooked; laid down the periodical; brushed the scattered bits of paper from her silken skirt, and retaining the paper-knife—a costly toy of mother-of-pearl and silver—changed her position so as to look her husband directly in the eye.
"I believe I can give you the information you lack," she said, in curiously constrained accents, the concentration of some feeling to which she could or would not grant other vent. "Clara Louise Lennox obtained a divorce from her first husband on the grounds of drunkenness, failure to maintain her, infidelity, and personal ill-usage. He came home from sea, as you have said, the battered ruin of a MAN, fallen beyond hope of redemption. There was no law, written or moral, which obliged her, when once freed from it, to carry about with her and thrust upon the notice of others the loathsome body of death typified by his name and her matronly title. She commenced life anew at her father's death, contrary, let me say to the advice of all her friends, if I except the mother, who could refuse nothing to her favorite daughter. The scheme was boldly conceived. You have admitted that it was successfully carried out. In New York the family were not known beyond the circle with which they disdained to associate when the lodging-house business was abandoned. There were a thousand chances to one that in her new abode Miss Dorrance would be identified by some busybody with the divorced Mrs. Lennox. She risked her fortunes upon the one chance, and won. I do not expect you to believe that the impostor was moved by any other consideration in contracting her second marriage than the wish to seek the more exalted sphere of society and influence which Fate had hitherto denied her. You would sneer were I to hint, however remotely, at a regard for her high-born suitor the dashing, but dissipated officer had never awakened—"
Mr. Aylett lifted his hand, smiling more evilly than before.
"Excuse the interruption! but after your statement of the fact that such sentimental asseverations would be futile, you waste time in recapitulating the loves of the lady aforementioned, and we in hearing them. I think I express the opinion of the audience—fit, but few—when I say that we require no other evidence than that afforded by the story I have told of Mrs. Lennox's susceptibility and capacity for affection. We are willing to take for granted that the latter was illimitable."
"As you like!" idly tapping the nails of her left hand with the knife. "Is there anything else pertaining to this history into which you would like to inquire?"
It was a sight to curdle the blood about one's heart, this duel between husband and wife, with double-edged blades, wreathed with flowers. Mr. Aylett's attitude of lazy indifference was not exceeded by Clara's proud languor. He laughed a little at the last question.
"I have speculated somewhat—having nothing else in particular to engage my mind on my way home—upon the point I named just now, and upon one other akin to it. All that the novel needs to round it off neatly is an encounter between the real and the quasi consorts. I cannot specify them by name, in consequence of the uncertainty I have mentioned. One was a bona-fide husband—the other a bogus article, let New York divorce laws decide what they will, provided always that the fallen Julius had not bidden farewell to this lower earth before his loyal Louise plighted her faith to her Southern gallant. Death is the Alexander of the universe. There is no retying the knots he has cut."
From the pertinacity with which he returned to the question one could discern his actual anxiety to have it settled. Mabel understood that the only salve of possible application to his outraged pride and love was the discovery that Clara had been really a widow when he wedded her. The divorce and subsequent deception were sins of heinous dye against his ideas of respectability and unspotted honor, but he would never forgive the woman who had had two living husbands, freed from the former though she was by a legal fiction.
No one saw this more clearly than did she whose fate trembled upon the next words she should utter. With all her hardihood, she hesitated to reply. Luxury, wealth, and station were on one side; degradation and poverty on the other. The solitary hope of reinstatement in the affection, if not the esteem, of him she loved truly as it was in her to love anything beside herself, was arrayed against the certainty of alienation and the tearful odds of ignominious banishment.
Her answer, under the presure of the warring emotions, was a semitone lower, and less distinctly enunciated than those that had gone before it.
"The denouement you propose for your romance is impracticable. Julius Lennox died before the date of the second marriage."
Herbert drew himself to a sitting posture by clutching the back of the lounge. His red eyes and tumbled hair made him look more like a mad than a sick man.
"In the name of Heaven," he demanded hoarsely, "have we not had enough lies, every one of which has been a blunder, and a fatal one? I told you, years ago, that the scene of this evening was a mere question of time; that, without a miracle, an edifice founded upon iniquity and cemented by falsehood must crush you before you could lay the top-stone. You would not be warned—you held on your way without hesitation or compunction, and now you would add to sin fatuity. Do you suppose that after what your husband has learned of your untruthfulness he will accept your assertion on any subject without inquiry? And, how many in your own family and out of it—although these may not know you by the name you now bear—are cognizant of the fact that Julius Lennox was alive for almost fifteen months after you became Mrs. Aylett?"