NEW YORK: 1870
CHAPTER I. DEWLESS ROSES
CHAPTER II. AN EXCHANGE OF CONFIDENCES
CHAPTER III. UNWHOLESOME VAPORS
CHAPTER IV. "FOUNDED UPON A ROCK"
CHAPTER V. CLEAN HANDS
CHAPTER VI. CRAFT—OR DIPLOMACY?
CHAPTER VII. WASSIL
CHAPTER VIII. THE FACE AT THE WINDOW
CHAPTER IX. HE DEPARTETH IN DARKNESS
CHAPTER X. ROSA
CHAPTER XI. ON THE REBOUND
CHAPTER XII. AUNT RACHEL WAXES UNCHARITABLE
CHAPTER XIII. JULIUS LENNOX
CHAPTER XIV. "BORN DEAD"
CHAPTER XV. THE GOOD SAMARITAN
CHAPTER XVI. THE HONEST HOUR
CHAPTER XVII. AFTER FIFTEEN YEARS
CHAPTER XVIII. THUNDER IN THE AIR
CHAPTER XIX. NEMESIS
CHAPTER XX. INDIAN SUMMER
Mrs. Rachel Sutton was a born match maker, and she had cultivated the gift by diligent practice. As the sight of a tendrilled vine suggests the need and fitness of a trellis, and a stray glove invariably brings to mind the thought of its absent fellow, so every disengaged spinster of marriageable age was an appeal—pathetic and sure—to the dear woman's helpful sympathy, and her whole soul went out in compassion over such "nice" and an appropriated bachelors as crossed her orbit, like blind and dizzy comets.
Her propensity, and her conscientious indulgence of the same, were proverbial among her acquaintances, but no one—not even prudish and fearsome maidens of altogether uncertain age, and prudent mammas, equally alive to expediency and decorum—had ever labelled her "Dangerous," while with young people she was a universal favorite. Although, with an eye single to her hobby, she regarded a man as an uninteresting molecule of animated nature, unless circumstances warranted her in recognizing in him the possible lover of some waiting fair one, and it was notorious that she reprobated as worse than useless—positively demoralizing, in fact—such friendships between young persons of opposite sexes as held out no earnest of prospective betrothal, she was confidante-general to half the girls in the county, and a standing advisory committee of one upon all points relative to their associations with the beaux of the region. The latter, on their side, paid their court to the worthy and influential widow as punctiliously, if not so heartily, as did their gentle friends. Not that the task was disagreeable. At fifty years of age, Mrs. Button was plump and comely; her fair curls unfaded, and still full and glossy; her blue eyes capable of languishing into moist appreciation of a woful heart-history, or sparkling rapturously at the news of a triumphant wooing; her little fat hands were swift and graceful, and her complexion so infantine in its clear white and pink as to lead many to believe and some—I need not say of which gender—to practise clandestinely upon the story that she had bathed her face in warm milk, night and morning, for forty years. The more sagacious averred, however, that the secret of her continued youth lay in her kindly, unwithered heart, in her loving thoughtfulness for others' weal, and her avoidance, upon philosophical and religions grounds, of whatever approximated the discontented retrospection winch goes with the multitude by the name of self-examination.
Our bonnie widow had her foibles and vanities, but the first were amiable, the latter superficial and harmless, usually rather pleasant than objectionable. She was very proud, for instance, of her success in the profession she had taken up, and which she pursued con amore; very jealous for the reputation for connubial felicity of those she had aided to couple in the leash matrimonial, and more uncharitable toward malicious meddlers or thoughtless triflers with the course of true love; more implacable to match-breakers than to the most atrocious phases of schism, heresy, and sedition in church or state, against which she had, from her childhood, been taught to pray. The remotest allusion to a divorce case threw her into a cold perspiration, and apologies for such legal severance of the hallowed bond were commented upon as rank and noxious blasphemy, to which no Christian or virtuous woman should lend her ear for an instant. If she had ever entertained "opinions" hinting at the allegorical nature of the Mosaic account of the Fall, her theory would unquestionably have been that Satan's insidious whisper to the First Mother prated of the beauties of feminine individuality, and enlarged upon the feasibility of an elopement from Adam and a separate maintenance upon the knowledge-giving, forbidden fruit. Upon second marriages—supposing the otherwise indissoluble tie to have been cut by Death—she was a trifle less severe, but it was generally understood that she had grave doubts as to their propriety—unless in exceptional cases.
"When there is a family of motherless children, and the father is himself young, it seems hard to require him to live alone for the rest of his life," she would allow candidly. "Not that I pretend to say that a connection formed through prudential motives is a real marriage in the sight of Heaven. Only that there is no human law against it. And the odds are as eight to ten that an efficient hired housekeeper would render his home more comfortable, and his children happier than would a stepmother. As for a woman marrying twice"—her gentle tone and eyes growing sternly decisive—"it is difficult for one to tolerate the idea. That is, if she really loved her first husband. If not, she may plead this as some excuse for making the venture—poor thing! But whether, even then, she has the moral right to lessen some good girl's chances of getting a husband by taking two for herself, has ever been and must remain a mooted question in my mind."
Her conduct in this respect was thoroughly consistent with her avowed principles. She was but thirty when her husdand died, after living happily with her for ten years. Her only child had preceded him to the grave four years before, and the attractive relict of Frederic Sutton, comfortably jointured and without incumbrance of near relatives, would have become a toast with gay bachelors and enterprising widowers, but for the quiet propriety of her demeanor, and the steadiness with which she insisted—for the most part, tacitly—upon her right to be considered a married woman still.
"Once Frederic's wife—always his!" was the sole burden of her answer to a proposal of marriage received when she was forty-five, and the discomfited suitor filed it in his memory alongside of Caesar's hackneyed war dispatch.
She had laid off crape and bombazine at the close of the first lustrum of her widowhood as inconvenient and unwholesome wear, but never assumed colored apparel. On the morning on which our story opens, she took her seat at the breakfast-table in her nephew's house—of which she was matron and supervisor-in-chief—clad in a white cambric wrapper, belted with black; her collar fastened with a mourning-pin of Frederic's hair, and a lace cap, trimmed with black ribbon, set above her luxuriant tresses. She looked fresh and bright as the early September day, with her sunny face and in her daintily-neat attire, as she arranged cups and saucers for seven people upon the waiter before her, instructing the butler, at the same time, to ring the bell again for those she was to serve. She was very busy and happy at that date. The neighborhood was gay, after the open-hearted, open-handed style of hospitality that distinguished the brave old days of Virginia plantation-life. A merry troup of maidens and cavaliers visited by invitation one homestead after another, crowding bedrooms beyond the capacity of any chambers of equal size to be found in the land, excepting in a country house in the Old Dominion; surrounding bountiful tables with smiling visages and restless tongues; dancing, walking, driving, and singing away the long, warm days, that seemed all too short to the soberest and plainest of the company; which sped by like dream-hours to most of the number.
Winston Aylett, owner and tenant of the ancient mansion of Ridgeley—the great house of a neighborhood where small houses and men of narrow means were infrequent—had gone North about the first of June, upon a tour of indefinite length, but which was certainly to include Newport, the lakes, and Niagara, and was still absent. His aunt, Mrs. Sutton, and his only sister, Mabel, did the honors of his home in his stead, and, if the truth must be admittbd, more acceptably to their guests than he had ever succeeded in doing. For a week past, the house had been tolerably well filled—ditto Mrs. Sutton's hands; ditto her great, heart. Had she not three love affairs, in different but encouraging stages of progression, under her roof and her patronage! And were not all three, to her apprehension, matches worthy of Heaven's making, and her co-operation? A devout Episcopalian, she was yet an unquestioning believer in predestination and "special Providences"—and what but Providence had brought together the dear creatures now basking in the benignant beam of her smile, sailing smoothly toward the haven of Wedlock before the prospering breezes of Circumstance (of her manufacture)?
While putting sugar and cream into the cups intended for the happy pairs, she reviewed the situation rapidly in her mind, and sketched the day's manoeuvres.
First, there was the case of Tom Barksdale and Imogene Tabb—highly satisfactory and creditable to all the parties concerned in it, but not romantic. Tom, a sturdy young planter, who had studied law while at the University, but never practised it, being already provided for by his opulent father, had visited his relatives, the Tabbs, in August, and straightway fallen in love with the one single daughter of his second cousin—a pretty, amiable girl, who would inherit a neat fortune at her parent's death, and whose pedigree became identical with that of the Barksdales a couple of generations back, and was therefore unimpeachable. The friends on both sides were enchanted; the lovers fully persuaded that they were made for one another, an opinion cordially endorsed by Mrs. Sutton, and they could confer with no higher authority.
Next came Alfred Branch and Rosa Tazewell—incipient, but promising at this juncture, inasmuch as Rosa had lately smiled more encouragingly upon her timid wooer than she had deigned to do before they were domesticated at Ridgeley. Mrs. Sutton did not approve of unmaidenly forwardness. The woman who would unsought be won, would have fared ill in her esteem. Her lectures upon the beauties and advantages of a modest, yet alluring reserve, were cut up into familiar and much-prized quotations among her disciples, and were acted upon the more willingly for the prestige that surrounded her exploits as high priestess of Hymen. But Rosa had been too coy to Alfred's evident devotion—almost repellent at seasons. Had these rebuffs not alternated with attacks of remorse, during which the exceeding gentleness of her demeanor gradually pried the crushed hopes of her adorer out of the slough, and cleansed their drooping plumes of mud, the courtship would have fallen through, ere Mrs. Sutton could bring her skill to bear upon it. Guided, and yet soothed by her velvet rein, Rosa really seemed to become more steady. She was assuredly more thoughtful, and there was no better sign of Cupid's advance upon the outworks of a girl's heart than reverie. If her fits of musing were a shade too pensive, the experienced eye of the observer descried no cause for discouragement in this feature. Rosa was a spoiled, wayward child, freakish and mischievous, to whom liberty was too dear to be resigned without a sigh. By and by, she would wear her shackles as ornaments, like all other sensible and loving women.
Thus preaching to Alfred, when he confided to her the fluctuations of rapture and despair that were his lot in his intercourse with the sometimes radiant and inviting, sometimes forbidding sprite, whose wings he would fain bind with his embrace, and thus reassuring herself, when perplexed by a flash of Rosa's native perverseness, Mrs. Sutton was sanguine that all would come right in the end. What was to be would be, and despite the rapids in their wooing, Alfred would find in Rosa a faithful, affectionate little wife, while she could never hope to secure a better, more indulgent, and, in most respects, more eligible, partner than the Ayletts' well-to-do, well-looking neighbor.
But the couple who occupied the central foreground of our match-maker's thoughts were her niece, Mabel Aylott, and her own departed husband's namesake, Frederic Chilton. She dilated to herself and to Mabel with especial gusto upon the "wonderful leading," the inward whisper that had prompted her to propose a trip to the Rockbridge Alum Springs early in July. Neither she nor Mabel was ailing in the slightest degree, but she imagined they would be the brighter for a glimpse of the mountains and the livelier scenes of that pleasant Spa—and whom should they meet there but the son of "dear Frederic's" old friend, Mr. Chilton, and of course they saw a great deal of him—and the rest followed as Providence meant it should.
"The rest" expressed laconically the essence of numberless walks by moonlight and starlight; innumerable dances in the great ball-room, and the sweeter, more interesting confabulations that made the young people better acquainted in four weeks than would six years of conventional calls and small-talk. They stayed the month out, although "Aunt Rachel" had, upon their arrival, named a fortnight as the extreme limit of their sojourn. Frederic Chilton was their escort to Eastern Virginia, and remained a week at Ridgeley—perhaps to recover from the fatigue of the journey. So soon as he returned to Philadelphia, in which place he had lately opened a law-office, he wrote to Mabel, declaring his affection for her, and suing for reciprocation. She granted him a gracious reply, and sanctioned by fond, sympathetic Aunt Rachel, in the absence of Mabel's brother and guardian, the correspondence was kept up briskly until Frederic's second visit in September. Ungenerous gossips, envious of her talents and influence, had occasionally sneered at Mrs. Sutton's appropriation of the credit of other alliances—but this one was her handiwork beyond dispute—hers and Providence's. She never forgot the partnership. She had carried her head more erect, and there was a brighter sparkle in her blue orbs since the evening Mabel had come blushingly to her room, Fred's proposal in her hand—to ask counsel and congratulations. Everybody saw through the discreet veil with which she flattered herself she concealed her exultation when others than the affianced twain were by—and while nobody was so unkind as to expose the thinness of the pretence, she was given to understand in many and gratifying ways that her masterpiece was considered, in the Aylett circle, a suitable crown to the achievements that had preceded it. Mabel was popular and beloved, and her betrothed, in appearance and manner, in breeding and intelligence, justified Mrs. Sutton's pride in her niece's choice.
The old lady colored up, with the quick, vivid rose-tint of sudden and real pleasure that rarely outlives early girlhood, when the first respondent to the breakfast-bell proved to be her Frederic's god-son.
"You are always punctual! I wish you would teach the good habit to some other people," she said, after answering his cordial "good-morning."
"None of us deserve to be praised on that score, to-day," rejoined he, looking at his watch. "I did not awake until the dressing-bell rang. Our riding-party was out late last night. The extreme beauty of the evening beguiled us into going further than we intended, when we set out."
"Yes! you young folks are falling into shockingly irregular habits—take unprecedented liberties with me and with Time!" shaking her head. "If Winston do not return soon, you will set my mild rule entirely at defiance."
Chilton laughed—but was serious the next instant.
"I expected confidently to meet him at this visit," he said, glancing at the door to guard against being overheard. "Should he not return to-day, ought I not, before leaving this to-morrow, to write to him, since he is legally his sister's guardian? It is, you and she tell me, a mere form, but one that should not be dispensed with any longer."
"That may be so. Winston is rigorous in requiring what is due to his position—is, in some respects, a fearful formalist. But he will hardly oppose your wishes and Mabel's. He has her real happiness at heart, I believe, although he is, at times, an over-strict and exacting guardian—perhaps to counterbalance my indulgent policy. He is unlike any other young man I know."
"His sister is very much attached to him."
"She loves him—I was about to say, preposterously. Her implicit belief in and obedience to him have increased his self-confidence into a dogmatic assertion of infallibility. But"—fearing she might create an unfortunate impression upon the listener's mind—"Winston has grounds for his good opinion of himself. His character is unblemished—his principles and aims are excellent. Only"—relapsing hopelessly into the confidential strain in which most of the conference had been carried—"between ourselves, my dear Frederic, I am never quite easy with these patterns to the rest of human-kind. I should even prefer a tiny vein of depravity to such very rectangular virtue."
"You are seldom ill at ease, if human perfection is all that renders you uncomfortable," responded Frederic. "There are not many in whose composition one cannot trace, not a tiny, but a broad vein of Adamic nature. What a delicious morning!" he added, sauntering to the window.
"And how sorry I am for those who did not get up in time to enjoy the freshness of its beauty!" cried a gay voice from the portico, and Mabel entered by the glass door behind him—her hands loaded with roses, herself so beaming that her lover refrained with difficulty from kissing the saucy mouth then and there.
He did take both her hands, under pretext of relieving her of the flowers, and Aunt Rachel judiciously turned her back upon them, and began a diligent search in the beaufet for a vase.
"Do you expect us to believe that you have been more industrious than we? As if we did not know that you bribed the gardener to have a bouquet cut and laid ready for you at the back-door," Frederic charged upon the matutinal Flora. "Else, where are other evidences of your stroll, in dew-sprinkled draperies and wet feet? Confess that you ran down stairs just two minutes ago! Now that I come to think of it, I am positive that I heard you, while Mrs. Sutton was lamenting your drowsy proclivities after sunrise."
"I have been sitting in the summer-house for an hour—reading!" protested Mabel, wondrously resigned to the detention, after a single, and not violent attempt at release. "If you had opened your shutters you must have seen me. But I knew I was secure from observation on that side of the house, at least until eight o'clock, about which time the glories of the new day usually penetrate very tightly-closed lids. As to dew—there isn't a drop upon grass or blossom. And, by the same token, we shall have a storm within twenty-four hours."
"Is that true? That is a meteorological presage I never heard of until now."
"There is a moral in it, which I leave you to study out for yourself, while I arrange the roses I—and not the gardener—gathered."
In a whisper, she subjoined—"Let me go! Some one is coming!" and in a second more was at the sideboard, hurrying the flowers into the antique china bowl, destined to grace the centre of the breakfast table.
"Good-morning, Miss Rosa. You are just in season to enjoy the society of your sister," Frederic said, lightly, pointing to the billows of mingled white and red, tossing under Mabel's fingers.
The new-comer approached the sideboard, leaned languidly upon her elbow, and picked up a half-blown bud at random from the pile.
"They are scentless!" she complained.
"Because dewless!" replied Mabel, with profound gravity. "It is the tearful heart that gives out the sweetest fragrance."
"I have more faith in sunshine," interrupted Rosa, a tinge of contempt in her smile and accent. "Or—to drop metaphors, at which I always bungle—it is my belief that it is easy for happy people to be good. All this talk about the sweetness of crushed blossoms, throwing their fragrance from the wounded part, and the riven sandal-tree, and the blessed uses of adversity, is outrageous balderdash, according to my doctrine. A buried thing is but one degree better than a dead one. What it is the fashion of poets and sentimentalists to call perfume, is the odor of incipient decay."
"You are illustrating your position by means of my poor oriental pearl," remonstrated Mabel, playfully, wresting the hand that was beating the life and whiteness out of the floweret upon the marble top of the beaufet. "Take this hardy geant de batailles, instead. My bouquet must have a cluster of pearls for a heart."
"What a fierce crimson!" Frederic remarked upon the widely-opened rose Miss Tazewell received in place of the delicate bud. "That must be the 'hue angry, yet brave,' which, Mr. George Herbert asserts, 'bids the rash gazer wipe his eye.'"
"More poetical nonsense!" said Rosa, deliberately tearing the bold "geant" to pieces down to the bare stem, "unless he meant to be comic, and intimate that the gazer was so rash as to come too near the bush, and ran a thorn into the pupil."
No one answered, except by the indulgent smile that usually greeted her sallies, howeve? absurd, among those accustomed to the spoiled child's vagaries.
Mabel was making some leisurely additions to her bouquet in the shape of ribbon grass and pendent ivy sprays, coaxing these with persuasive touches to trail over the edge and entwine the pedestal of the salver on which her bowl was elevated; her head set slightly on one side, her lips apart in a smile of enjoyment in her work and in herself. It was a picture the lover studied fondly—one that hung forever thereafter in his gallery of mental portraits. Beyond a pair of fine gray eyes, the pliant grace of her figure and the buoyant carriage of youth, health, and a glad heart, Mabel's pretensions to beauty were comparatively few, said the world. Frederic Chilton had, nevertheless, fallen in love with her at sight, and considered her, now, the handsomest woman of his acquaintance. Her dress was a simple lawn—a sheer white fabric, with bunches of purple grass bound up with yellow wheat, scattered over it; her hair was lustrous and abundant, and her face, besides being happy, was frank and intelligent, with wonderful mobility of expression. In temperament and sentiment; in capacity for, and in demonstration of affection, she suited Frederic to the finest fibre of his mind and heart. He, for one, did not carp at Aunt Rachel's declaration that they were intended to spend time and eternity together.
Still, Mabel Aylett was not a belle, and Rosa Tazewell was. Callow collegians and enterprising young merchants from the city; sunbrowned owners of spreading acres and hosts of laborers; students and practitioners of law and medicine, and an occasional theologue, had broken their hearts for perhaps a month at a time, for love of her, since she was a school-girl in short dresses. Yet there had been a date very far back in the acquaintanceship of each of these with the charmer, when he had marvelled at the infatuation which had blinded her previous adorers. She was "a neat little thing," with her round waist, her tiny hands and feet and roguish eye—but there was nothing else remarkable about her features, and in coloring, the picture was too dark for his taste. Why, she might be mistaken for a creole! And each critic held fast to his expressed opinion until the roguish eyes met his directly and with meaning, and he found himself diving into the bright, shimmering wells, and drowning—still ecstatically—before he reached the bottom whence streamed the light of passionate feeling, striking upward through the surface. What her glances did not effect was done by her dazzling smile and musical voice.
As one of her victims swore, "It was a dearer delight to be rejected by her than to be accepted by a dozen other girls—she did the thing up so handsomely! And yet, do you know, sir, I could have shot myself for a barbarous brute when I saw the pitying tears standing upon her lashes, and heard the tremor in her sweet tones, as she begged me to forgive her for not loving me!"
Those she had once captivated never quite rid themselves of the glamour of her arts; remained her trusty squires, ready to serve, or to defend her always afterward.
Aunt Rachel, intent, during the short pause, upon the movements of the servant who was setting the smoking breakfast upon the table, glanced around when all was properly arranged, to summon the two to their places—but something in Rosa's attitude and countenance held her momentarily speechless. Mabel still bent over her roses, in smiling interest, and Frederic Chilton was watching her—but not as the third person of the group about the beaufet watched them both between her half-closed lids, her black brows close together, and the glittering teeth visible under the curling upper lip.
"She looked like a panther lying in wait for her prey!" Mrs. Sutton said to her niece, many months later, in attempting to describe the scene. "Or like a bright-eyed snake coiled for a spring. The sight of her sent shivers all down my spine."
Her interruption of the tableau sounded oddly abrupt to ears used to her pleasant accents.
"Come, young people! how long are you going to keep me waiting? Breakfast is cooling fast!"
"I beg your pardon, Auntie! I did not notice that it had been brought in," apologized Mabel, drawing back, that Frederic might lift the loaded salver carefully to its place upon the board.
As they were closing about this, they were joined by Messrs. Barksdale and Branch, Miss Tabb delaying her appearance until the repast was nearly over, and meeting the raillery of the party upon her late rising with the sweet, soft smile her cousin-betrothed admired as the indication of unadulterated amiability. The breakfast-hour, always pleasant, was to-day particularly merry. Rosa led off in the laughing debates, the play of repartee, friendly jest, and anecdote that incited all to mirth and speech and tempted them to linger around the table long after the business of the meal wag concluded.
"This is the perfection of country life!" said Frederic Chilton, when, at last, there was a movement to end the sitting. "But it spoils one fearfully for the everyday practicalities of the city—a Northern city, especially."
"Better stay where you are, then, instead of deserting our ranks to-morrow," suggested Rosa, gliding by his side out upon the long portico at the end of the house. "What does your nature crave that Ridgeley cannot supply?"
"Work, and a career!"
"You still feel the need of these?" significantly.
"Otherwise I were no man!"
"You are right!"
Her disdainful eyes wandered to the farther end of the portico, where Alfred Branch, in his natty suit of white grasscloth, plucked at his ebon whiskers with untanned fingers, and talked society nothings with the ever-complaisant Imogene.
"Come what may, you, Mr. Chilton, have occupation for thought and hands; are not tied down to a detestable routine of vapid pleasures and common-place people!"
"You are—every independent woman and man—is as free in this respect as myself, Miss Rosa. None need be a slave to conventionality unless he choose."
She made a gesture that was like twisting a chain apon her wrist.
"You know you are not sincere in saying that. I wondered, moreover, when you were railing at the practicalities of city life, if you were learning, like the rest of the men, to accommodate your talk to your audience. Where is the use of your trying to disguise the truth that all women are slaves? I used to envy you when I was in Philadelphia, last winter, when you pleaded business engagements as an excuse for declining invitations to dinner-parties and balls. Now, if a woman defies popular decrees by refusing to exhibit herself for the popular entertainment, the horrible whisper is forthwith circulated that she has been 'disappointed,' and is hiding her green wound in her sewing-room or oratory. 'Disappointed,' forsooth! That is what they say of every girl who is not married to somebody by the time she is twenty-five. It matters not whether she cares for him or not. Having but one object in existence, there can be but one species of disappointment. Marry she must, or be PITIED!" with a stinging emphasis on the last word.
Tom Barksdale and Mabel were pacing the portico from end to end, chatting with the cheerful familiarity of old friends. Catching some of thin energetic sentence, Mabel looked over her shoulder.
"Who of us is fated to be pitied, did you say, Rosa dear?"
"Never yourself!" was the curt reply. "Rest content with that assurance."
Her restless fingers began to gather the red leaves that already variegated the foliage of the creeper shading the porch. Strangely indisposed to answer her animadversions upon the world's judgment of her sex, or to acknowledge the implied compliment to his betrothed, Frederic watched the lithe, dark hands, as they overflowed with the vermilion trophies of autumn. The September sunshine sifted through the vines in patches upon the floor; the low laughter and blended voices of the four talkers; the echo of Tom's manly tread, and Mabel's lighter footfall, were all jocund music, befitting the brightness of the day and world. What was the spell by which this pettish girl who stood by him, her luminous eyes fixed in sardonic melancholy upon the promenaders, while she rubbed the dying leaves into atoms between her palms—had stamped scenes and sounds with immortality, yet thrilled him with the indefinite sense of unreality and dread one feels in scanning the lineaments of the beloved dead? Had her nervous folly infected him? What absurd phantasy was hers, and what his concern in her whims?
A stifled cry from Mabel aroused him to active attention. A gentlemen had stepped from the house upon the piazza, and after bending to kiss her, was shaking hands with her companions.
"The Grand Mogul!" muttered Rosa, with a comic grimace, and not offering to stir in the direction of the stranger.
In another moment Mabel had led him up to her lover, and introduced, in her pretty, ladylike way, and bravely enough, considering her blushes, "Mr. Chilton" to "my brother, Mr. Winston Aylett."
AN EXCHANGE OF CONFIDENCES.
"And so you know nothing of this gentleman beyond what he has told you of his character and antecedents?"
Aunt Rachel had knocked at the door of her nephew's study after dinner, on the day of his return, and asked for an interview.
"Although I know you must be very busy with your accounts, and so forth, having been away from the plantation for so long," she said, deprecatingly, yet accepting the invitation to enter.
Mr. Aylett's eye left hers as he replied that he was quite at liberty to listen to whatever she had to say, but his manner was entirely his own—polished and cool.
Family tradition had it that he was naturally a man of strong passions and violent temper, but since his college days, he had never, as far as living mortal could testify, lifted the impassive mask he wore, at the bidding of anger, surprise, or alarm. He ran all his tilts—and he was not a non-combatant by any means—with locked visor. In person, he was commanding in stature; his features were symmetrical; his bearing high-bred. His conversation was sensible, but never brilliant or animated. In his own household he was calmly despotic; in his county, respected and unpopular—one of whom nobody dared speak ill, yet whom nobody had reason to love. There was a single person who believed herself to be an exception to this rule. This was his sister Mabel. Some said she worshipped him in default of any other object upon which she could expend the wealth of her young, ardent heart; others, that his strong will enforced her homage. The fact of her devotion was undeniable, and upon his appreciation of this Aunt Rachel built her expectations of a favorable hearing when she volunteered to prepare the way for Mr. Chilton's formal application for the hand of her nephew's ward. Between herself and Winston there existed little real liking and less affinity. She was useful to him, and his tolerance of her society was courteous, but she understood perfectly that he secretly despised many of her views and actions, as, indeed, he did those of most women. Her present mission was undertaken for the love she bore Mabel and her sister. It was not kind to send the girl to tell her own story. It was neither kind nor fair to subject their guest to the ordeal of an unheralded disclosure of his sentiments and aspirations, with the puissant lord of Ridgeley as sole auditor.
"Fred would never get over the first impression of your brother's chilling reserve," said the self-appointed envoy to Mabel, when she insisted that her affianced would plead his cause more eloquently than a third person could. "For, you, must confess, my love, that Winston, although in most respects a model to other young men, is unapproachable by strangers."
As she said "your accounts and so forth," she looked at the table from which Mr. Aylett had arisen to set a chair for her. There was a pile of account-books at the side against the wall, but they were shut, and over heaped by pamphlets and newspapers; while before the owner's seat lay an open portfolio, an unfinished letter within it. Winston wiped his pen with deliberation, closed the portfolio, snapped to the spring-top of his inkstand, and finally wheeled his office chair away from the desk to face his visitor.
"Is it upon business that you wish to speak to me?"
He always disdained circumlocution, prided himself upon the directness and simplicity of his address. This acted now as a dissuasive to the sentimental address Mrs. Sutton had meditated as a means of winning the flinty walls behind which his social affections and sympathies were supposed to be intrenched. Had her mission been in behalf of any other cause, she would have drawn off her forces upon some pretext, and effected an ignominious retreat. Nerved by the thought of Mabel's bashfulness and solicitude, and Frederic's strangerhood, she stood to her guns.
Winston heard her story, from the not very coherent preamble, to the warm and unqualified endorsement of Frederic Chilton's credentials, and her moved mention of the mutual attachment of the youthful pair, and never changed his attitude, or manifested any inclination to stay the narration by question or comment. When she ceased speaking, his physiognomy denoted no emotion whatever. Yet, Mabel was his nearest living relative. She had been bequeathed to his care, when only ten years old, by the will of their dying father, and grown up under his eye as his child, rather than a sister. And he was hearing, for the first time, of her desire to quit the home they had shared together from her birth, for the protection and companionship of another. Mrs. Sutton thought herself pretty well versed in "Winston's ways," but she had expected to detect a shade of softness in the cold, never-bright eyes and anticipated another rejoinder than the sentence that stands at the head of this chapter.
"And so you know nothing of this gentleman beyond what he has told you of his character and antecedents?" he said—the slender white fingers, his aunt fancied, looked cruel even in their idleness, lightly linked together while his elbows restod upon the arms of his chair.
"My dear Winston! what a question! Haven't I told you that he is my husband's namesake and godson! I was at his fathers house a score of times, at least, in dear Frederic's life-time. It was a charming place, and I never saw a more lovely family. I recollect this boy perfectly, as was very natural, seeing that his name was such a compliment to my husband. He was a fine, manly little fellow, and the eldest son. The christening-feast was postponed, for some reason I do not now remember, until he was two years old. It was a very fine affair. The company was composed of the very elite of that part of Maryland, and the Bishop himself baptized the two babies—Frederic, and a younger sister. I know all about him, you see, instead of nothing!"
"What was the date of this festival?" asked Winston's unwavering voice.
"Let me see! We had been married seven years that fall. It must have been in the winter of 18—."
"Twenty-three years ago!" said Winston, yet more quietly. "Doubtless, your intimacy with this estimable and distinguished family continued up to the time of your husband's death?"
Mrs. Button's color waned, And her voice sank, as the inquisition proceeded. "Dear Frederic's" death was not the subject she would have chosen of her free will to discuss with this man of steel and ice.
"I never visited them again. I could not—"
If she hoped to retain a semblance of composure, she must shift her ground.
"I returned to my father's house, which was, as you know, more remote from the borders of Maryland—"
"You kept up a correspondence, perhaps?" Winston interposed, overlooking her agitation as irrelevant to the matter under investigation.
"No! For many months I wrote no letters at all, and Mr. Chilton was never a punctual correspondent. The best of friends are apt to be dilatory in such respects, as they advance in life."
"I gather, then, from what you have ADMITTED"—there was no actual stress upon the word, but it stood obnoxiously apart from the remainder of the sentence, to Mrs. Sutton's auriculars—"from what you have admitted, that for twenty years you have lost sight of this gentleman and his relatives, and that you might never have remembered the circumstance of their existence, had he not introduced himself to you at the Springs this summer."
"You are mistaken, there!" corrected the widow, eagerly. "Rosa Tazewell introduced him to Mabel at the first 'hop' she—Mabel—attended there. He is very unassuming. He would never have forced himself upon my notice. I was struck by his appearance and resemblance to his father, and inquired of Mabel who he was. The recognition followed as a matter of course."
"He was an acquaintance of Miss Tazewell—did you say?"
"Yes—she knew him very well when she was visiting in Philadelphia last winter."
"And proffered the introduction to Mabel?" the faintest imaginable glimmer of sarcastic amusement in his eyes, but none in his accent.
"He requested it, I believe."
"That is more probable. Excuse my frankness, aunt, when I say that it would have been more in consonance with the laws controlling the conduct of really thoroughbred people, had your paragon—I use the term in no offensive sense—applied to me, instead of to you, for permission to pay his addresses to my ward. I am willing to ascribe this blunder, however, to ignorance of the code of polite society, and not to intentional disrespect, since you represent the gentleman as amiable and well-meaning. I am, furthermore, willing to examine his certificates of character and means, with a view to determining what are his recommendations to my sister's preference, over and above ball-room graces and the fact that he is Mr. Sutton's namesake, and whether it will be safe and advisable to grant my consent to their marriage. Whatever is for Mabel's real welfare shall be done, while I cannot but wish that her choice had fallen upon some one nearer home The prosecution of inquiries as to the reputation of one whose residence is so distant, is a difiicult and delicate task."
"If you will only talk to him for ten minutes he will remove your scruples,—satisfy you that all is as it should be," asserted Mrs. Sutton, more confidently to him than herself.
"I trust it will be as you say—but credulity is not my besetting sin. I am ready to see the gentleman at any hour you and he may see fit to appoint."
"I will send MR. CHILTON to you at once, then." Mrs, Sutton collected the scattering remnants of hope and resolution, that she might deal a parting shot.
"Winston is an AWFUL trial to my temper, although he never loses his own," she was wont to soliloquize, in the lack of a confidante to whom she could expatiate upon his eccentricities and general untowardness. His marked avoidance of Frederic's name in this conference savored to her of insulting meaning. She had rather he had coupled it with opprobious epithets whenever he referred to him, than spoken of him as "this" or "that gentleman." If he took this high and chilly tone, with Mabel's wooer, there was no telling what might be the result of the affair.
"Don't mind him if he is stiff and uncompromising for a while," she enjoined upon Frederic, in apprising him of the seignior's readiness to grant him audience, "It is only his way, and he is Mabel's brother."
"I will bear the latter hint in mind," rejoined the young man, with the gay, affectionate smile he often bestowed upon her." I don't believe he can awe me into resignation of my purpose, or provoke me into dislike of the rest of the family."
Mabel was in her aunt's room, plying her with queries, hard to be evaded, touching the tenor and consequences of her recent negotiations, when a servant brought a message from her brother. She was wanted in the study. The girl turned very white, as she prepared to obey, without an idea of delay or of refusal.
"O Auntie! what if he should order me to give Frederic up!" she ejaculated, pausing at the door, in an agony of trepidation. "I never disobeyed him in my life."
"He will not do that, dear, never fear! He can find no pretext for such summary proceedings. And should he oppose your wishes, be firm of purpose, and do not forsake your affianced husband," advised the old lady, solemnly. "There is a duty which takes precedence, in the sight of Heaven and man, of that you owe your brother. Remember this, and take courage."
Mabel's roses returned in profusion, when, upon entering the arbiter's dread presence, she saw Frederic Chilton, standing on the opposite side of the table from that at which sat her brother at his ease, his white fingers still idly interlaced, his pale patrician face emotionless as that of the bust of Apollo upon the top of the bookcase behind him. It was Frederic who led her to a chair, when she stopped, trembling midway in the apartment, and his touch upon her arm inspirited her to raise her regards to Winston's countenance at the sound of his voice.
"I have sent for you, Mabel, that I may repeat in you hearing the reply I have returned to Mr. Chilton's application for my sanction to your engagement—I should say, perhaps, to your reciprocal attachment. The betrothal of a minor without the consent, positive or implied, of her parent or guardian is, as I have just explained to Mr. Chilton, but an empty name in this State. I have promised, then, not to oppose your marriage, provided the inquiries I shall institute concerning Mr. Chilton's previous life, his character, and his ability to maintain you in comfort, are answered satisfactorily. He will understand and excuse my pertinacity upon this point when he reflects upon the value of the stake involved in this transaction."
In all their intercourse, Frederic had no more gracious notice from Mabel's brother than this semi-apology, delivered with stately condescension, and a courtly bow in his direction.
It sounded very grand to Mabel, whose fears of opposition or severity from her Mentor had shaken courage and nerves into pitiable distress. Frederic could desire nothing more affable than Winston's smile; no more abundant encouragement than was afforded by his voluntary pledge. Had not the thought savored of disloyalty to her lover, she would have confessed herself disappointed that his reply did not effervesce with gratitude, that his deportment was distant, his tone constrained.
"I appreciate the last-named consideration, Mr. Aylett, I believe, thoroughly, as you do. I have already told you that I invite, not shirk, the investigation you propose. I now repeat my offer of whatever facility is at my command for carrying this on. No honorable man could do less. Unless I mistake, you wish now to see your sister alone."
He bent his head slightly, and without other and especial salutation to his betrothed, withdrew.
Odd, white dints came and went in Winston's nostrils—the one and unerring facial sign of displeasure he ever exhibited, if we except a certain hardening of eye and contour that chiselled his lineaments into a yet closer resemblance to marble.
"He is very sensitive and proud, I know," faltered Mabel, hastily marking these, and understanding what they portended.
"You need not like him the less on that account, always provided that the supports of his pride are legitimate and substantial," answered her brother, carelessly transferring to his tablets several names from a sheet of paper upon the table—the addresses of persons to whom Frederic had referred him for confirmation of his statements regarding his social and professional standing.
"I hope, for your sake, Mabel," he pursueds pocketing the memoranda, "that this affair may be speedily and agreeably adjusted; while I cannot deny that I deprecate the unseemly haste with which Mrs. Sutton and her ally have urged it on, in my absence. Had they intended to court suspicion, they could not have done it more effectually. You could not have had a more injudicious chaperone to the Springs."
"Indeed, brother, she was not to blame," began the generous girl, forgetting her embarrassment in zealous defence of the aunt she loved. "It was not she who presented me to Mr. Chilton, and she has never attempted to bias my decision in any manner."
"I have heard the history in detail." Had his breeding been less fine, he would have yawned in her face. "I know that you are indebted for Mr. Chilton's acquaintanceship to Miss Tazewell's generosity. But in strict justice, Mrs. Sutton should be held responsible for whatever unhappiness may arise from the intimacy. You were left by myself in her charge."
"I do not believe it will end unhappily," Mabel was moved to reply, with spirit that became her better than the shyness she had heretofore displayed, or the submissive demeanor usual with her in tte—ttes with her guardian.
He smiled in calm superiority.
"I have expressed my hope to that effect. Of expectations it will be time enough to speak when I am better informed upon divers points. I am not one to take much for granted, am less sanguine than my romantic aunt, or even than my more practical sister. Assuming, however, that all is as you would have it, your wish would be, I suppose, for an early marriage?"
"There has been little said about that," responded Mabel, reddening—then rallying to add smilingly—"such an arrangement would have involved the taking for granted a good many things—your consent among them."
Winston passed over the addenda.
"But that little, especially when uttered by Mr. Chiiton, trenched upon the inexpediency of long engagements—did it not?"
Mabel was mute, her eyes downcast.
"I agree with him there, at any rate. You are nineteen years of age; he twenty-five. Your property is unincumbered, and can be transferred to your keeping at very short notice. Mr. Chiiton represents that his income from his patrimonial estate, eked out by professional gains, is sufficient to warrant him in marrying forthwith. I shall see that no time is lost in making the inquiries upon which depends the progress of the negotiation. Business calls me North in a week or ten days. I shall stop a day in Philadelphia, and settle your affair."
The frightfully business-like manner of disposing of her happiness appalled the listener into silence. The loss of Frederic; the destruction of her love-dream; the weary years of lonely wretchedness that would follow the bereavement, were to him only unimportant incidentals to her "affair;" weighed in the scale of his impartial judgment no more than would unconsidered dust. For the first time in the life to which he had been the guiding-star, she ventured to wonder if the unswerving rectitude that had elevated him above the level of other men, in her esteem and affection, were so glorious a thing after all; if a tempering, not of human frailty, but of charity for the shortcomings, sympathy for the needs, of ordinary mortals, would not subdue the effulgence of his talents and virtues into mild lustre, more tolerable to the optics of fallible beholders
Unsuspicious, with all his astuteness, of her sacrilegious doubts, Winston proceeded:
"In the event of your marriage, you would desire, no doubt, that Mrs. Sutton should take up her abode with you? You would find her useful in many ways, and she would get on amicably with her husband's godson."
"I do not think she expects to go with me," answered Mabel, staggered by his coolly confident air. "I certainly have never entertained the idea. I imagined that she would remain with you, while you needed her services."
"That will not be long. I shall be married on the 10th of October."
"Married! brother!" starting up in amazement. "You are not in earnest!"
"I should not jest upon such a theme," replied Winston, in grave rebuke. "My plans are definitely laid. It is not my purpose to keep them secret a day longer. I meant to communicate them to yourself and Mrs. Sutton this afternoon, but yours claimed precedence."
Mabel sat down again, totally confounded, and struggling hard with her tears. The thought of her brother's marriage was not in itself disagreeable. She had often lamented his insensibility to the attractions of such women as she fancied would add to his happiness, and grace the high place to which his wife would be exalted. She never liked to hear him called invulnerable; repelled the hypothesis of his incurable bachelorhood as derogatory to his heart and head. This unlooked-for intelligence, had it reached her in a different way, would have delighted as much as it astonished her. The fear lest her consent to wed Frederic and leave Ridgeley might be the occasion of discomfort and sadness to her forsaken brother had shadowed all her visions of future bliss. She ought to have hailed with unmixed satisfaction the certainty that he would not miss her sisterly ministrations, or feel the need of her companionship in that of one nearer and dearer than was his child-ward. She had striven not to resent even in her own mind, his cavalier treatment of her lover; had hearkened respectfully and without demur to his unsympathizing calculations of what was possible and what feasible in the project of her union with the man of her choice. For how could he know anything of the palpitations, the anxieties, the raptures of love, when he was a stranger to the touch of a kindred emotion? He meant well; he had her welfare in view; unfortunate as was his style of discussing the means for insuring this—for he loved her dearly, dearly!
She must never question this, although he had dealt the comfortable persuasion a cruel blow; wounded her in a vital part by withholding from her the circumstance of his attachment and betrothal until the near approach of the wedding day rendered continued secrecy inexpedient. No softening memory of his affianced had inclined him to listen with kindly warmth to her timid avowals, or Frederic's manly protestations of their mutual attachment. He recognized no analogy in the two cases; stood aloof from them in the flush of his successful love, as if he had never known the pregnant meaning of the word. Smarting under the sense of injury to pride and affection, her language, when she could trust her voice, was a protest that, in Winston's judgment, ill beseemed her age and station.
"Why did you not tell me of this earlier, brother? It was unjust and unkind to keep me in the dark until now."
"You forget yourself, Mabel. I am not under obligation to account to you for my actions."
He said it composedly, as if stating a truth wholly disconnected with feeling on his part or on hers.
"I have given you the information to which you refer, in season for you to make ample preparation for my wife's reception. And, mark me, she must see no sulkiness, no airs of strangeness or intolerance, because I have managed a matter that concerns me chiefly, as seemed to me best. Say the same to Mrs. Sutton, if you please; also that I will submit to no dictation, and ask no advice."
Mabel's anger seldom outlived its utterance. The hot sparkle in her eye was quenched by moisture, as she laid her hand caressingly upon her brother's.
"Winston! you cannot suppose that we could be wanting in cordiality to any one whom you love, much less to your wife. Let her come when she may, she will be heartily welcomed by us both. But this has fallen suddenly upon me, and I am a little out of sorts to-day, I believe—excited and nervous—and, O, my darling! my oldest and best of friends! I hope your love will bring to you the happiness you deserve."
The tears had their course, at last, bathing the hand she bowed to kiss. The simple ardor of the outbreak would have affected many men to a show of responsive weakness. Even Winston Aylett's physiognomy was more human and less statuesque, as he patted her head, and bade her be composed.
"If you persist in enacting Niobe, I shall believe that you are chagrined at the prospect of having the sister you have repeatedly besought me to give you," he said, playfully—for him. "You have not asked me her name, and where she lives. What has become of your curiosity? I never knew it to be quiescent before."
"I thought you would tell me whatever it was best for me to know," replied Mabel, drying her eyes.
If she had said that she was too well-trained to assail him with interrogatories he had not invited, it would have been nearer the mark.
"There is nothing relating to her which I desire to conceal," he rejoined, with some stiffness, "or she would never have become my promised wife. She is a Miss Dorrance, the daughter of a widow residing in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts. I met her first at Trenton Falls, where a happy accident brought me into association with her party. I travelled with them to the Lakes and among the White Mountains, and, while in Boston, visited her daily. We were betrothed a week ago, and having, as I have observed, an aversion to protracted engagements, I prevailed upon her to appoint the tenth of next mouth as our marriage day. There you have the story in brief. I have not Mrs. Sutton's talents as a raconteur, nor her disposition to turn hearts inside out for the edification of her auditors."
"Does she—Miss Dorrance—look like anybody I know?" asked Mabel, hesitating to declare herself dissatisfied with the skeleton love-tale, yet uncertain how to learn more.
"A roundabout way of asking if she is passable in appearance," Winston said, with his smile of conscious superiority. "Judge for yourself!" taking from his pocket a miniature.
"How beautiful! What a very handsome woman?" the sister exclaimed at sight of the pictured face.
"You are correct. She is, moreover, a thorough lady, and highly-educated. Ridgeley will have a queenly mistress. The likeness is considered faithful, but it does not do her justice."
He took it from Mabel, and they scanned it together; she resting against his shoulder. She felt his chest heave twice; heard him swallow spasmodically in the suppression of some mighty emotion, and the palpable effort drew her very near to him. She never doubted from that moment, what she had more cause in after days to believe, that he loved the woman he had won with a fervor of passion that seemed foreign to his temperament as the evidence of it was to his conduct.
The September sun was near the horizon, and between the bowed shutters one slender, gilded arrow shot athwart the portrait, producing a marvellous and sinister change in its expression. The large, limpid eyes became shallow and cunning; the smile lurking about the mouth was the more treacherous and deadly for its sweetness; while the burnished coils of hair brushed away from the temples had the opaline tints and sinuous roll of a serpent.
Mabel shrank back before the horror of the absurd imagination.
Winston raised the picture to his lips.
"My peerless one!"
"DORRANCE!" repeated Frederic, after his betrothed, when she rehearsed to him in their moonlight promenade upon the piazza the leading incidents of her brother's wooing. "She lives near Boston, you say, and her mother is a widow?"
"Yes. What have you ever heard about her?"
"Nothing whatever. I was startled by the name—but very foolishly! I once knew a family of Dorrances—New Yorkers—but the father, a retired naval officer, was alive, and all the daughters were married. The youngest of them would be, by this time, much older than you judge the original of the miniature to be."
"She is not more than twenty-two, at the most," Mabel was sure.
Frederic's hurried articulation and abstracted manner excited her curiosity, and unrestrained by Winston's curb, it was not "quiescent." The thought was spoken so soon as it was formed.
"There was something unpleasant in your intercourse with them, then? or something objectionable in the people themselves? Could they have been relatives of this widow and her daughter? The name is not a common one to my ears."
"Nor to mine; yet we have no proof to sustain your supposition. I should be very sorry—"
Mabel studied his perturbed countenance with augmented uneasiness.
"Was not the family respectable?"
"Perfectly, my shrewd little catechist!" seeming to shake off an uncomfortable incubus, as he laughed down at her serious face. "They vaunted themselves upon the antiquity of their line, and were more liberal in allusions to departed grandeur than was quite well-bred. When I knew them they were not wealthy, or in what they would have called 'society.' Indeed, the mother kept a private boarding-house near the law-school I attended. There were several sons—very decent, enterprising fellows. But one lived at home, and a daughter, the wife of a lieutenant in the navy, whom I never saw. I boarded with them for six months, or thereabout."
"You never saw the daughter! How was that?"
"I must have expressed myself awkwardly if I conveyed any such idea. I did not meet the seafaring husband who was off upon a long cruise. The wife I met constantly—knew very well. You need not look at me so intently, love, as if you feared that some dark mystery lurked behind this matter-of-fact recital. If I do not tell you every event of my former life, it is not because it was vile. I could not sustain the light of your innocent eyes if I had ever been guilty of aught dishonorable or criminal. But even the follies and mistakes of a young man's early career are not fit themes for your ears. And I was no wiser, no more wary, than other youths of the same age; was apt to believe that fair which was only specious, and that I might play, uninjured, with edged tools. Nor had I seen you then, my treasure—my snow-drop of purity! Mabel! do you know how solemn a thing it is to be loved and trusted by a man, as I love and confide in you? It terrifies me when I think of the absoluteness of my dependence upon your fidelity—of how rich I am in having you—how poor, wretched, and miserable I should be without you. I shall not draw a free breath until you are mine beyond the chance of recall."
"Nobody else wants me!" breathed Mabel in his ear, nestling within the arm that enfolded and held her tightly in the corner of the piazza shaded by the creeper. "The danger of losing me is not imminent to-night, at all events," she resumed, presently, with a touch of the sportiveness that lent her manner an airy charm in lighter talk than that which had engrossed her for the past hour.
The evening was warm and still to sultriness, and the moonlight, filtered into pensive pallor through a low-lying haze, yet sufficed to show how confidingly Imogene leaned upon her attendant in sauntering dowa the long main alley of the garden. Rosa was at the piano in the parlor, singing to the enamored Alfred. Mrs. Sutton had withdrawn to her own room to ruminate upon the astounding disclosure of her nephew's engagement, while Winston bent over his study-table busy with the interrupted letter his aunt had seen in his portfolio.
"There is no one here who has the leisure or the disposition to contest your rights, you perceive," said Mabel, running through a laughing summary of their companions' occupations.
"Betrothals are epidemic in this household and neighborhood," Winston was writing. "There are no fewer than three pairs of turtles cooing down stairs as I pen this to you, my bird of paradise. The case that next to mine—to ours—commands my interest is that of my sister. I came home to learn that the little Mabel I used to hold on my knee had entered into an engagement—conditional upon my sanction—with that traditional tricky personage, a Philadelphia lawyer—Mr. Frederic Chilton, at the door of whose manifold perfections, as set forth by my loquacious aunt, you may lay the blame of this delayed epistle. I know nothing of this aspirant to the dignity of brotherhood with myself, saving the facts that he is tolerably good looking, claims to be the scion of an old Maryland family, and that self-conceit is apparently his predominant quality."
"What is that?" asked Frederic, halting before the windows, of the drawing-room, as a wild, sorrowful strain, like the wail of a breaking heart, arose upon the waveless air.
Rosa was a vocalist of note in her circle, and she had never rendered anything with more effect than she did the song to which even the preoccupied strollers among the garden borders stayed their steps to listen. Through the open casement Mabel and her lover could see the face of the musician, slightly uplifted toward the moonlight; her eyes, dark and dreamy, as under the cloud of many years of weary waiting and final hopelessness. Her articulation was always pure, but the passionate emphasis of every word constrained the breathless attention of her audience to the close of the simple lay:
"Thy name was once the magic spell By which my thoughts were bound; And burning dreams of light and love Were wakened by the sound. My heart beat quick when stranger-tongues, With idle praise or blame, Awoke its deepest thrill of joy To tremble at thy name.
"Long years, long years have passed away, And altered is thy brow; And we who met so fondly once Must meet as strangers now. The friends of yore come 'round me still, But talk no more of thee, 'Twere idle e'en to wish it now, For what art thou to me?"
"Yet 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!"
"A neat conceit that last verse, and the music is a fair imitation of a dying bugle-echo!" said Winston Aylett to himself, resuming the writing he had suspended for a minute. "That girl should take to the stage. If one did not know better, her eyes and singing together would delude him into the idea that she had a heart. Honest Alfred evidently believes that she has, and that the patient labor of love will win it for himself. Bah!"
Frederic and Mabel retired noiselessly from their post of observation, as "honest Alfred" made a motion to take in his the hand lying prone and passive upon the finger-board. They exchanged a smile, significant and tender, in withdrawing.
"We understand the signs of the times," whispered Frederic, at the upper turn of their promenade. "Heaven bless all true lovers under the sun!"
"Don't!" said Rosa, vehemently, snatching away her hand from her suitor's hold. "Leave me alone! If you touch me again I shall scream! I think you were made up without nerves, either in the heart or in the brain—if you have any!"
Before the aghast Alfred rallied from the recoil occasioned by her gesture and words, her feet were pattering over the oaken hall and staircase in rapid retreat to her chamber.
"You are really happy, then?" queried Mabel. "Quite content?"
"Did I not tell you awhile ago that I was not satisfied?" returned Chilton. "Two months since I should, in anticipation of this hour, have declared that it would be fraught with unalloyed rapture. I was happier yesterday than I am to-day. It is not merely that we must part to-morrow, or that your brother's precautionary measures and disapproval of what has passed between us have acted like a shower-bath to the fervor of my newly born hopes. I am willing that my life should be subjected to the utmost rigor of his researches, and another month, at farthest, will reunite us. Nor do I believe in presentiments. I am more inclined to attribute the uneasiness that has hovered over me all the day to physical causes. We will call it a mild splenetic case, induced by the sultry weather, and the very slow on coming of the storm presaged by your dewless roses."
He laughed naturally and pleasantly. Having confessed to what he regarded as a ridiculous succumbing of his buoyant spirit to atmospheric influences, he shook off the nightmare as if it had never sat upon him.
Mabel was grave still.
"There is something weirdly oppressive in the night," she said, in a low, awed tone. "But the burden you describe has weighed me down since morning. While Rosa was singing, I felt suddenly removed from you by a horrid gulf. What if all this should be the preparation to us for some impending danger?"
"Sweet! these are unwholesome vapors of the imagination. Nothing can be a disaster that leaves us to one another," was the text of Frederic's fond soothing; and by the time Mrs. Sutton descended from her chamber of meditation, to remind Imogene that the seeds of ague and fever lurked in the river-fogs, the couple from the piazza came into the lighted parlor, all smiles and animation, wondering, jocosely, what had become of the recent occupants of the apartment.
Neither reappeared until breakfast-time next morning. Rosa was like freshly-poured champagne, in sweet and sparkle. Alfred, rueful and limp, as if the dripping clouds that verified Mabel's prediction had soaked him all night. He was dry and comfortable—to carry out the figure—within twenty minutes after his beloved fluttered, like a tame canary, into the chair next his own—in five more, was more truly her slave, living in, and upon her smiles—adoring her very caprices as he had never admired another woman's virtues—than he had been prior to the brief, but tempestuous scene over night. She was the life of the party assembled in the dining-room. Imogene had caught cold, walking bareheaded in the evening air, and Tom condoled with her upon her influenza and sore-throat too sincerely to do justice to the rest of his friends and his breakfast. Mr. Aylett was never talkative, and his unvarying, soulless politeness to all produced the conserving effect upon chill and low spirits that the atmosphere of a refrigerator does upon whatever is placed within it. Mrs. Sutton's motherly heart was yearning pityingly over the lovers who were soon to be sundered, while Mabel's essay at cheerful equanimity imposed upon nobody's credulity. Frederic comported himself like a man—the more courageously because the host's cold eye was upon him, and he surmised that sighs and sentimentality would meet very scant indulgence in that quarter. Moreover, he was not so unreasonable as to descry insupportable hardships in this parting. By agreement with Mr. Aylett and his sister, he was, if all went prosperously, to revisit Ridgeley at the end of six weeks, when his design was to entreat his betrothed to name the wedding day. The prospect might well support him under the present trial. He bore Rosa's badinage gallantly, tossing back sprightly and telling rejoinders that called forth the smiling applause of the auditors, and commanded her respectful recognition of him as a foeman worthy of her steel.
"Nine o'clock," said Winston, at length, consulting his watch, and pushing back his chair. "The carriage will be at the door in fifteen minutes, Mr. Chilton. The road is heavy this morning, and the stage passes the village at ten."
"I shall be ready," responded Frederic. "I am sorry your carriage and coachman must be exposed to the rain."
"That is nothing. They are used to it. I never alter my plan of travel on account of the weather, how ever severe the storm. This warm rain can hurt nobody."
"It is pouring hard," remarked Mrs. Button, solicitously. "And that stage is wretchedly uncomfortable in the best weather. I wish you could be persuaded to stay with us until it clears off, Mr. Chilton, and"—making a bold push—"I am sure my nephew concurs in my desire."
"Mr. Chilton should require no verbal assurance of my hospitable feelings toward him and my other guests," said Mr. Aylett, frigidly—smooth as ice-cream. "If I forbear to press him to prolong his stay, it is in reflection of the golden law laid down for the direction of hosts—'Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.'"
"You are both very kind, but I must go," Frederic replied, concisely and civilly, following Mabel into the parlor, whither the other visitors were fabled to have repaired. As he had guessed, his betrothed was the only person there; the quartette having dispersed with kindly tact, for which he gave them due credit.
"Don't think hardly of me, dear," he began, seating himself beside her on the sofa.
"Allow me to offer you a few of the finest cigars I have enjoyed for many years," said Mr. Aylett, entering in season to check Frederic's movement to encircle Mabel's drooping form with his arm. "You smoke, I believe? You may have an opportunity of indulging in this solace in an empty stage. At least, there is little probability that you will be denied the luxury by the presence of lady passengers. I procured those in Havana, last winter. In case you should like them well enough to order some for yourself, I will give you the address of the merchant from whom I purchased them."
He wrote a line upon a card, as he might sign a beggar's petition—with a supercilious parade of benevolence—and passed it to the other, who accepted it with a phrase of acknowledgment neither hearty nor grateful. Then the master of the house paced the floor with a slow, regular step, his hands behind him; his countenance placidly ruminative, his thoughts apparently engaged with anything rather than the pain upon the corner-sofa, whose leave-taking he had mercilessly marred. Frederic dumb and furious; Mabel equally dumb and amazed to alarm, knowing as she did that her brother's actions were never purposeless, sat still, their hands clasped stealthily amid the folds of Mabel's dress; their eyes saying the dear and passionate things forbidden to their tongues. Neither would feign indifference, or attempt a lame dialogue upon other topics than those that filled their minds. Mr. Aylett was not one to pay outward heed to hints when he chose to ignore them. He kept up his walk until the carriage was driven around to the front door, informed the parting guest that it awaited his commands, likewise that he would need all the time that remained to him if he hoped to catch the stage; without leaving the room, called to a servant to bring down Mr. Chilton's baggage, and did not lose sight of his sister's lover until the last farewell was said, and Frederic bestowed inside the vehicle. There was nothing offensively officious or malicious in all this. Having declared as an incontrovertible dogma, that a ward could form no engagement without the formal sanction of her legal guardian, he saw fit to put the seal upon the decision at this, their adieu, in a manner they were not likely to forget. An hour's harangue would not have imbued them with the sense of his authority, his determination to exercise it, and their impotency to resist it, as did this practical lesson.
Mrs. Sutton could scarcely restrain her tearful remonstrances against what was, to her perception, an act of arbitrary and wanton cruelty, and other spectators had their views upon the subject.
"Very inconsiderate in Aylett! I wonder how he would like the same game to be played upon himself!" commented Alfred, aside, to his Dulcinea.
Her lip curled in disdainful amusement.
"As if he had ever done an inconsiderate thing since he put off long clothes! There is method in all this, if we were clever enough to fathom it."
Within herself, she determined that she would solve the enigma before she was a week older.
Frederic cast one hasty, eager look at the portico, as the carriage turned out of the yard. Mabel stood in the foreground, her figure framed by the climbing roses drooping over the front steps. She was very pale, and, forgetful for the moment of the observation of the bystanders, leaned slightly forward, her eyes strained upon the carriage-window—one hand laid upon her heart, the other resting against the pillar nearest her, as for support. She waved her handkerchief, in response to his smile and lifted hat, and simultaneously with this interchange of adieux her brother took her by the arm.
"You are getting wet there, Mabel! Come into the house! It is well I have come back to look after you!"
"FOUNDED UPON A ROCK."
If Mrs. Sutton had raised horrified eyes and despairing hands upon learning the date of her nephew's proposed marriage, it was because she miscalculated his executive abilities, and the energy she had never until now seen fairly put forth. Within three days after his return, the homestead was alive with masons, carpenters, painters, and upholsterers, engaged by the prompt bridegroom on his passage through Richmond; and so explicit were his orders as to the minutest detail of the work appointed to each, that he could safely leave the scene of action at the time appointed for the flying trip northward, to which he had referred in his dialogue with Mabel on the afternoon of his arrival.
The party of visitors had emigrated to other regions, a couple of days after Frederic Chilton's departure, with the exception of Rosa Tazewell, who accepted Mabel's invitation to prolong her sojourn, the more willingly since she "flattered herself she could be of use in the general upheaving of the ancient foundations, and establishment of the new. If there was one thing she enjoyed above another, it was a tremendous bustle—a lively revolution."
She made her boast of personal utility good by installing herself forthwith as Mrs. Sutton's aid-de-camp, and rendering herself so far indispensable in the work of reconstruction that Mr. Aylett deigned to ask her not to desert her post in his absence.
"Yours is the genius of renovation, Miss Rosa," the potentate was pleased to say in his handsomest style. "Do not, I beg of you, forsake my aunt and sister in their need. Let me feel that I leave one head as the motive-power of the multitudinous hands."
She agreed, in the same strain, to oblige him—a decision greeted with satisfaction by the pair in whose behalf he besought her friendly offices. The versatile invention and deft fingers of the little brunette were welcome to the heavily-taxed housekeeper, as were her gay good-humor and words of cheer and affection to the younger of her companions. The two girls became more confidential in six days than eighteen years of neigbborly intercourse had sufficed to make them. Mabel's innate delicacy and excellent common sense would, in ordinary circumstances, have barred effusiveness upon the theme nearest her heart, but love at nineteen is rarely discreet, even when the persuasives to communicativeness are less powerful than were the sorcery of Rosa's sympathy and the confessions that paved the way to answering and trustful communicativeness on her friend's part.
They were having what she called "a good, long, comforting, as well as comfortable chat" over their sewing in Mabel's chamber on the afternoon of the eighth day of Winston's absence. The weather was lovely, with the mellow brightness and balmy airs that make Virginian autumns a joy and glory until November is half spent, and the atmosphere held, at sunset, the warmth and much of the radiance which had set the day—a perfect gem—in the heart of the golden month. Into the eastern windows gazed the full moon, a crimson globe upon the hazy horizon, while Venus lay, large and tremulous, among the dying fires of the west.
"'Lovers love the western star,'" quoted Rosa, merrily, taking Mabel's work from her and throwing it upon the bed. "Come and enjoy the holy hour with me."
They leaned together upon the window-sill, their young faces tinted by the changeful hues of the sky, both thoughtful and mute, until Rosa broke the silence by a heavy sigh.
"O Mabel, you should be a happy, happy girl; blessed among women. You can love—freely and joyously—and have pride and faith in the one beloved."
"As you will some day," rejoined the other, drawing nearer to her, "when you, in your turn, shall know the unspeakable sweetness of unquestioning faith—of utter dependence upon him to whom you have given your heart."
"Utter dependence!" echoed Rosa. "That would mean utter wreck of heart, hope—everything—should the anchor give way. It is a hazardous experiment, ma belle!"
The other looked down at her with simple fearlessness.
"'For it was founded upon a rock!'" she repeated softly; yet the exultant ring of her accent vibrated upon the ear like a joyous challenge.
Rosa's fretful movement was involuntary.
"Mine would drag in the sand at every turn of the tide, every rise of the wind, if I were to follow your advice, and say 'yes' to the pertinacious Alfred," she said reproachfully.
"Don't say advice, dear!" corrected the other. "I only endeavored to convince you that there must be latent tenderness beneath your sufferance of Mr. Branch's devotion; that if you really were averse to the thought of marrying him, you could not take pleasure in his society or enjoy the marks of his attachment which are apparent to you and to everybody else."
"Can't you understand," said the beauty, petulantly, "that it is one thing to flirt with a man in public, and another to cherish his image in private? There is no better touchstone of affection than the holiness and calm of an hour like this. If Frederic were with you, the scene would be the fairer, the season more sacred for its association with thoughts of him and his love. Whereas, my Alfred's adoring platitudes would disgust me with the sunset, with the world, and with myself, for permitting him to haunt my presence and hang upon my smile—foppish barnacle that he is! If you knew how I despise myself sometimes!"
"Dear Rosa! I shall never try again to persuade that you care for him as a woman should for the man GOD intended her to marry. But why not act worthily of yourself—justly to him, and reject him decidedly?"
"Because"—her face shrewd and wilful as it had been sorrowful just now—"I am by no means certain that I can do better than to marry him. He is rich, good-looking (so people say!), well-born, gentlemanly, and pleasant of temper. An imposing array of advantages, you see! I might go further, and fare very much worse. We shall not expect to pass our days in gazing at sunsets and walking in the moonlight, you know. It is not every woman who can marry the man she loves best. While the right to select and to woo is usurped by the masculine portion of the community, it must, perforce, be Hobson's choice with an uncountable majority of feminines. I should not complain. The stall allotted to me by Hobson—alias Fate—might hold a worse-conditioned animal than my worshipping swain."
"What a wicked rattle you are!" Mabel said, affecting to box her ears. "I could not love you if I believed you to be in earnest. As to your figure of the stabled steed—this disapproving customer has the consolation that she need not accept him, unless she wishes to do so. She has the invaluable privilege of saying 'no' as often and obstinately as she pleases."
"I deny it," said Rosa, perversely. "Parents, in this age, do not make a custom of locking up refractory daughters in nunneries or garrets until they consent to wed Baron Buncombe or my Lord Nozoo, but there are, nevertheless, compulsory marriages in plenty. Society warns me to make a creditable match, upon penalty, if I decline, of being pointed out to the succeeding—and a fast-succeeding generation it is! as a disappointed old maid—passe belle, who squandered her capital of fascinations, and has become a pauper upon public toleration, while my mother, sisters, and brothers are growing impatient at my many and profitless flirtations, and anxious to see me 'settled.' My mother's pet text, since I was sixteen, has been her prayerful desire that I, the last of her nestlings, should make choice of a tenable bough and helpful partner, and set up a separate establishment before she dies. When that event occurs, I shall be, in effect, homeless—a boarder around upon my rebukeful relatives, who 'always thought how my trifling would end,' and who will be forever scribbling 'vanitas vanitatum,' upon the tombstone of my departed youth—my day of beaux and offers. You may shake your head and look heroic with all your might! You are no better off than I, should your brother see cause to refuse his consent to your marriage with Mr. Chilton. He could, and probably would, coerce you into another alliance before you were twenty-one. There are so many ways of letting the life out of a woman's heart, when it is already faint from disappointment! The spirit is oftener broken by unyielding, but not seemingly cruel pressure, than by outrageous violence. And Winston would show himself an adept in such arts, if occasion offered."
"Rosa Tazewell! you are speaking of my brother, my friend and benefactor! one of the best, noblest, most disinterested creatures Heaven ever made!" cried Mabel, erect and indignant. "You have no warrant—I shall never give you the right—to asperse him in my presence. He is incapable of cruelty or unfairness. It is my duty to obey him, but it is no less a pleasure, for he is a hundred-fold wiser and better than I am—knows far more truly what is for my real advantage. As to his conduct in this affair of Frederic and myself, yon cannot deny that it has been generous and consistent throughout. He has been cautious—never harsh!"
"So!" said Rosa, scrutinizing the flushed countenance of the other, her own full of intense meaning, "you HAVE had your misgivings!"
Mabel reddened more warmly.
"Misgivings! What do you mean?"
"That the uncalled-for vehemence of your defence is a proof of disturbed confidence, of wanting belief in the infallibility of your semi-deity. The trailing robes of divinity have been blown aside by a chance breath of suspicion, and you had a glimpse of the clay feet. I am glad of it. Scepticism is the parent of rebellion, and the time is coming when fealty to your betrothed may demand disloyalty to the power that now is."
Mabel's smile was meant to be careless, but it was only uneasy, and gave the lie direct to her asseveration.
"I have no apprehensions of such a conflict. Winston's word is as good as another man's oath. It is pledged to my marriage with Frederic Chilton, in the event of the prosperous issue of his inquiries into his, Frederic's, character and prospects. That these will be answered favorably, I have the word of another, who is every whit as trustworthy. Where is there room for doubt?"
The brunette shook her head—unconvinced.
"Have your own way! I can afford to abide the showing of the logic of events."
"And I!" retorted Mabel, hastily, turning from her, without attempting to dissemble her chagrin, to answer a knock at the door.
It was a servant, with two letters. The annoyance passed from her brow, like the sheerest mist, as she read the superscriptions—one in her brother's handwriting, the other in Frederic's.
Rosa interfered to prevent the breaking of the seals.
"I am going to leave you to the undisturbed enjoyment of your feast," she said, in her most winsome manner. "But—won't it taste the sweeter if your antepast is the delight of forgiveness? Say you are not angry with me—mia cara!"
"You are a ridiculous child!" Mabel bent to kiss the pleading lips, then the great, melting eyes. "Who could be out of temper with you for half a minute at a time? You did try my patience with your nonsense, but since it WAS nonsense, I have forgotten it all, and love you none the less for your prankish humor—you gypsy!"
"She calls my prophecies humbug—turns a deaf ear to my warnings!" cried the incorrigible rattle, clasping her hands above her head and rolling her eyes tragically. "I have a lively appreciation, at this instant, of Cassandra's agonies when Troilus named her 'our mad sister!'—
'Woe! woe! woe! Let us pay betimes A moiety of that mass of moans to come!'"
Laughing anew at her frantic rush from the chamber, Mabel sat down in the broad window-seat to read her love-letter.
Frederic was too manly in feeling and habit of speech to deal in florid rhapsodies, but each line had its message from his heart to hers. He loved her purely and in truth, and there was not a sentence that did not tell her this, by inference, if not directly. He trusted her—and this, too, he told her, more as a husband might the wife of years than a lover of her he had won so lately. Their hopes were the same and their lives, and she dwelt longest upon the sketched plans for the future of these. It brought him closer to her than anything else—put her secret and reluctant imaginations of evil, and Rosa's daring insinuations, out of sight and recollection. She read slowly, and with frequent pauses, that she might take in the exquisite flavor of this and that phrase of endearment; set before herself in beauty and distinctness the scenes he portrayed as the adornment of the prospect which was theirs.
The second and yet more deliberate perusal over, she folded the sheet with lingering touches to every corner, thrust it into the envelope, and drew it forth again to peep once more at the signature—"Forever and truly, your own Frederic;" pressed it to her lips, then to her heart, and bestowed it securely in her writing- desk, before she unclosed her brother's epistle.
With her finger upon the seal—a big drop of red wax, like a petrified blood-gout, stamped with the Aylett coat-of-arms—she leaned through the casement to watch for the flutter of Rosa's white dress among the vari-colored maples shading the lawn—sang a clear, sweet second to the song that ascended to her eyrie:
"Why weep ye by the tide, ladye? Why weep ye by the tide? I'll wed ye to my youngest son, And ye shall be his bride. And ye shall be his bride, ladye, Sae comely to be seen; But aye she loot the tears down fa' For lock o' Hazeldean."
"MY DEAR MABEL" [wrote the lord of Ridgeley]—"I wish you, so soon as yon receive this, to communicate with Jenkyns and Smythe concerning the new parlor furniture I ordered from them. In talking it over, Clara and I have decided that it had better be covered with maroon, instead of green, as you advised. I enclose a sample of damask which they must match exactly. I would I write direct to them, but think it likely that Jenkyns, the managing man of the firm, is in your neighborhood at this time. He told me, when I was in town, of his intention to visit Mrs. Wilson, his sister, I believe, who lives on the White Oak road, about three miles from Ridgeley. Send for him, and put the samples into his hands. If he cannot get the precise color in Richmond, let him order it from New York.
"The carpets for the parlor, dining-room, and Clara's chamber I have bought in Lowell. Clara accompanied me thither, and gave me the benefit of her taste in the selection. I have resolved, also, to purchase wallpaper in Boston to match these. Say as much to Jenkyns. I shall have the boxes directed to his care and instruct him further respecting making the carpets and hanging the paper when I return.
"Ask Roberts (the mason) whether it will be practicable to build a fire-place in the large lower hall. Another chimney would be an unsightly appendage to the roof, but Clara agrees with me, since studying the plan of the house I brought on for her inspection, that a flue could be run through the closet in your room into the rear one of the west chimneys. She thinks the hall must be freezing cold in winter, and caught eagerly at my idea that a blazing fire at one end would lighten the sombre effect of the oaken wainscot and lofty ceiling. I proposed to tear down the panelling, but she was horrified at the thought. I could not take more pride and interest in preserving the antique character of the home of my forefathers than does she. She will have it that the hall, thus improved, and hung with a few old pictures, some bits of ancient armor, and carpeted with maroon and green will be truly baronial. You and she will agree admirably in your enthusiastic love of the venerable, and in your aesthetic tastes. I congratulate myself hourly upon my good fortune in securing such a companion for myself, and such an instructress for yourself. You cannot fail to derive infinite benefit from intercourse with her.