Mabel's arm was about his neck, her hand upon his mouth.
"No more! no more! if you love me!" she whispered in an agony. "Should he guess all, he would murder her!"
"You are prepared to certify that he is dead NOW, are you, Mr. Dorrance?" queried Winston, suspicious of this by-play.
"I am!" sulkily.
"It is a pity!" was the ambiguous rejoinder.
Something clicked upon the hearth. It was the fragments of the toy stiletto, broken by an uncontrollable twitch of the small fingers that held it.
Then Mrs. Aylett arose, pale as a ghost, but unquailing in eye or mien.
"May I know your lordship's pleasure respecting your cast-off minion?"
"In the morning, yes!" glancing up disdainfully. "Meantime, let me wish you 'good-night' and happy dreams."
"NO, no! my dear!" said Mrs. Sutton, earnestly. "I am shocked and astonished that you should ever have labored under such a delusion. Frederic told me the story, and a dreadful one it was, the day old Mrs. Tazewell was buried. Wasn't it wonderful that he never knew whom Winston had married until he saw her leaning upon his arm in the graveyard? He recognized Mr. Dorrance in the house, but supposed him to be a visitor at Ridgeley and a relative of Mrs. Aylett, having heard that her maiden name was Dorrance. As to his being your husband, it did not at first occur to him, so bewildered was he by your meeting and the thoughts awakened by it. But at sight of HER the truth rushed over him, nearly depriving him of his wits. He soon got out of me all that I knew, and by putting this and that together, we made out the mystery. I was so grieved and indignant and horrified that I was for sending him forthwith to Winston, that he might clear himself of the shocking charges they had preferred against him, by exposing the motives of his accusers. But he was stubborn and independent. 'It can do no good now,' he said. 'Fifteen years ago this discovery would have been my temporal salvation. And Dorrance is Mabel's husband. I cannot touch him without wounding her.' I could not reconcile this mode of reasoning with my conscience. If wrong had been done, it ought to be righted. I did not sleep a wink all night. I wept over my noble, generous, slandered boy, and over you, my darling! but my chief thought was anger at the shameless depravity, the cold-blooded cruelty of the brazen-faced adventuress who sat in your angel mother's place. For aught Frederic or I knew, her real husband was still alive. He had never heard of the divorce, you see, and the circumstance of her marrying Winston under her maiden name looked black.
"Well! I pondered upon the horrible affair until I could hold my peace no longer. Frederic and Florence went home with Mary Trent next morning, and knowing that Winston must pass the upper gate on his way to court, I put on my bonnet soon after breakfast, and strolled in that direction. By and by he rode up, stopped his horse, and began to talk so sociably that before I quite knew what I was doing, I was in the middle of my story. I wonder now how I did it, but I was excited, and he listened so patiently, questioned so quietly, that I did not realize, for several hours afterward, what a blaze I must have kindled in his heart and home, whether he believed me or not. The next thing I heard was not, as I expected, that he and his wife had quarrelled, or that he was going to challenge Frederic for having belied him, but that poor Dorrance was very ill with some affection of the brain. It was not until a year later—just after his death—that people began to talk about the strange carryings-on at Ridgeley; how Mr. and Mrs. Aylett occupied separate apartments, and never sat, or walked, or rode together, or spoke to one another, even at table, unless there were visitors present. Nobody could imagine what caused the estrangement, and for the sake of the family honor I guarded my tongue. She must be a wretched woman, if all of this be true. She is breaking fast under it, in spite of her pride and skill in concealment. I ought not to pity her when I remember how wicked she has been; but there is a look in her eye when she is not laughing or talking that gives me the heart-ache."
"She is very unhappy!" replied Mabel, sighing. "And so, I doubt not, is Winston, although he will not own it, and affects to ignore the fact of her failing health and spirits. It is one of these miserably delicate family complications with which the nearest of kin cannot meddle. They are very kind to me, and I think my visits have been a comfort to Clara. The solitude of the great house is a terrible trial to one so fond of company. For days together sometimes she does not exchange a word with anybody except the servants. It is a dreary, wretched evening of an ambitious life. I ventured to tell Winston, last week, that this wonld probably be my last visit to Ridgeley, since I was to be married next month.
"To Mr. Chilton, I suppose?" he said.
I answered, "Yes!"
"You must be almost forty," he next remarked. "You have worn passably well, but you are no longer young."
"I am thirty-seven!" said I.
"Well!" he answered. "Yon are certainly old enough to know your own business best."
"That was all that passed. But I was glad to remember, as I looked at his whitening hair and bowed shoulder, that Frederic had not—as I was foolish enough to suppose for a while—told him the story that had blighted his life. Not that I could have blamed him had he done this. He had endured so much obloquy, suffered so keenly and so long, that almost any retaliatory measure would have been pardonable."
Herbert Dorrance's widow was, as had been said, on a farewell visit to her native State, and after spending a week at Ridgeley was concluding a pleasanter sojourn of the same length at William Sutton's. In another month her home in Philadelphia was to be the refuge of her aunt's declining years—a prospect that delighted her as much as it afflicted those among whom this most benevolent and lovable of match-makers had dwelt during Mabel's first marriage.
The marriage it was now her constant purpose to forget—not a difficult task in the happiness that diffused an Indian summer glow over her maturity of years and heart. After Herbert's death she had continued to reside in Albany, devoting herself—so soon as she recovered from the fatigue of mind and body consequent upon her severe and protracted duties as nurse—to the scarcely less painful work of attending his mother, who had contracted the seeds of consumption in the bleak sea-air of Boston. Grateful for an abode in the house of one who performed a daughter's part to her when her own children were content to commit her to the care of hirelings, the old lady lingered six months, and died, blessing her benefactress and engaging, in singleness of belief in the affection his wife had borne him, "to tell Herbert how good she had been to his mother."
None of the Dorrances could wag a tongue against their sister-in-law, when, at the expiration of her year of widowhood, she wrote to them, to announce her "re-engagement" to Frederic Chilton. She had been a faithful wife to their brother in sickness and imbecility; a ministering angel to their parent, and there was now no tie to bind her to their interest. They had a way of taking care of themselves, and it was not surprising if she had learned it.
They behaved charmingly—this pair of elderly lovers—said the young Suttons when Mr. Chilton arrived to escort his affianced back to Albany on the day succeeding the conversation from which I have taken the foregoing extracts, while Aunt Rachel's deaf old face was one beam of gratification.
"All my matches turn out well in the long run!" she boasted, with modest exultation. "I don't undertake the management of them, unless I am very sure that they are already projected in Heaven. And when they are, my loves, a legion of evil spirits or, what is just as bad, of wicked men and women, cannot hinder everything from coming right at last."
While she was relating, in the same sanguinely pious spirit, the tales that most entrance young girls, and at which their seniors smile in cynicism, or in tender recollection, as their own lives have contradicted or verified her theory of love's teachings and love's omnipotence, Frederic and Mabel, forgetting time and care, separation and sorrow, in the calm delight of reunion, were strolling upon the piazza in the starlight of a perfect June evening.
They stopped talking by tacit consent, by and by, to listen to Amy Sutton, a girl of eighteen, the vocalist of the flock, who was testing her voice and proficiency in reading music at sight by trying one after another of a volume of old songs which belonged to her mother.
This was the verse that enchained the promenaders' attention:
"But still thy name, thy blessed name, My lonely bosom fills; Like an echo that hath lost itself Among the distant hills. That still, with melancholy note, Keeps faintly lingering on, When the joyous sound that woke it first Is gone—forever gone!"
"It is seventeen years since we heard it together, dearest!" said Frederic, bending to kiss the tear-laden eyes. "And I can say to you now, what I did not, while poor Rosa lived, own to myself—that, try to hush it though I did, in all that time the lost echo was never still."
Her answer was prompt, and the sweeter for the blent sigh and smile which were her tribute to the Past, and greeting to the Future:
"An echo no longer, but a continuous strain of of heart music!"