AT THE MERCY OF TIBERIUS
AUGUSTA EVANS WILSON
Author of "A Speckled Bird," "Infelice," "Vashti," "Beulah," "St. Elmo," etc.
Fate steals along with silent tread, Found oftenest in what least we dread; Frowns in the storm with angry brow, But in the sunshine strikes the blow. —COWPER.
IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER, WHO HAS ENTERED INTO REST.
JTABLE 10 35 1
AT THE MERCY OF TIBERIUS
"You are obstinate and ungrateful. You would rather see me suffer and die, than bend your stubborn pride in the effort to obtain relief for me. You will not try to save me."
The thin, hysterically unsteady voice ended in a sob, and the frail wasted form of the speaker leaned forward, as if the issue of life or death hung upon an answer.
The tower clock of a neighboring church began to strike the hour of noon, and not until the echo of the last stroke had died away, was there a reply to the appeal.
"Mother, try to be just to me. My pride is for you, not for myself. I shrink from seeing my mother crawl to the feet of a man, who has disowned and spurned her; I cannot consent that she should humbly beg for rights, so unnaturally withheld. Every instinct of my nature revolts from the step you require of me, and I feel as if you held a hot iron in your hand, waiting to brand me."
"Your proud sensitiveness runs in a strange groove, and it seems you would prefer to see me a pauper in a Hospital, rather than go to your grandfather and ask for help. Beryl, time presses, and if I die for want of aid, you will be responsible; when it is too late, you will reproach yourself. If I only knew where and how to reach my dear boy, I should not importune you. Bertie would not refuse obedience to say wishes."
The silence which followed was so prolonged that a mouse crept from its covert in some corner of the comfortless garret room, and nibbled at the fragments of bread scattered on the table.
Beryl stood at the dormer window, holding aside the faded blue cotton curtain, and the mid-day glare falling upon her, showed every curve of her tall full form; every line in the calm, pale Sibylline face. The large steel gray eyes were shaded by drooping lids, heavily fringed with black lashes, but when raised in a steady gaze the pupils appeared abnormally dilated; and the delicately traced black brows that overarched them, contrasted conspicuously with the wealth of deep auburn hair darkened by mahogany tints, which rolled back in shining waves from her blue veined temples. While moulding the figure and features upon a scale almost heroic, nature had jealously guarded the symmetry of her work, and in addition to the perfect proportion of the statuesque outlines, had bestowed upon the firm white flesh a gleaming smoothness, suggestive of fine grained marble highly polished. Majesty of mien implies much, which the comparatively short period of eighteen years rarely confers, yet majestic most properly describes this girl, whose archetype Veleda read runic myths to the Bructeri in the twilight of history.
Beryl crossed the room, and with her hands folded tightly together, came to the low bed, on which lay the wreck of a once beautiful woman, and stood for a moment silent and pre-occupied. With a sudden gesture of surrender, she stooped her noble head, as if assuming a yoke, and drew one long deep breath. Did some prophetic intuition show her at that instant the Phicean Hill and its dread tenant, which sooner or later we must all confront?
"Dear mother, I submit. Obedience to your commands certainly ought not to lead me astray; yet I feel that I stand at the cross-roads, longing to turn and flee from the way whither your finger points. I have no hope of accomplishing any good, and nothing but humiliation can result from the experiment; but I will go. Sometimes I believe; that fate maliciously hunts up the things we most bitterly abhor, and one by one sets them down before us—labelled Duty. When do you wish me to start?"
"To-night, at nine o'clock. In the letter which you will take to father, I have told him our destitution; and that the money spent for your railway ticket has been obtained by the sacrifice of the diamonds and pearls, that were set around my mother's picture; that cameo, which he had cut in Rome and framed in Paris. Beryl so much depends on the impression you make upon him, that you must guard your manner against haughtiness. Try to be patient, my daughter, and if he should seem harsh, do not resent his words. He is old now, and proud and bitter, but he once had a tender love for me. I was his idol, and when my child pleads, he will relent."
Mrs. Brentano laid her thin hot fingers on her daughter's hands, drawing her down to the edge of the bed; and Beryl saw she was quivering with nervous excitement.
"Compose yourself, mother, or you will be so ill that I cannot leave you. Dr. Grantlin impressed upon us, the necessity of keeping your nervous system quiet. Take your medicine now, and try to sleep until I come back from Stephen & Endicott's."
"Do not go to-day."
"I must. Those porcelain types were promised for a certain day, and they should be packed in time for the afternoon express going to Boston."
"Come nearer to me. Give me your hand. My heart is so oppressed by dread, that I want you to promise me something, which I fancy will lighten my burden. Life is very uncertain, and if I should die, what would become of my Bertie? Oh, my boy! my darling, my first born! He is so impulsive, so headstrong; and no one but his mother could ever excuse or forgive his waywardness. Although younger, you are in some respects, the strongest; and I want your promise that you will always be patient and tender with him, and that you will shield him from evil, as I have tried to do. His conscience of course, is not sensitive like yours—because you know, a boy's moral nature is totally different from a girl's; and like most of his sex, Bertie has no religious instincts bending him always in the right direction. Women generally have to supply conscientious scruples for men, and you can take care of your brother, if you will. You are unusually brave and strong, Beryl, and when I am gone, you must stand between him and trouble. My good little girl, will you?"
The large luminous eyes that rested upon the flushed face of the invalid, filled with a mist of yearning compassionate tenderness, and taking her mother's hands, Beryl laid the palms together, then stooping nearer, kissed her softly.
"I think I have never lacked love for Bertie, though I may not always have given expression to my feelings. If at times I have deplored his reckless waywardness, and expostulated with him, genuine affection prompted me; but I promise you now, that I will do all a sister possibly can for a brother. Trust me, mother; and rest in the assurance that his welfare shall be more to me than my own; that should the necessity arise, I will stand between him and trouble. Banish all depressing forebodings. When you are strong and well, and when I paint my great picture, we will buy a pretty cottage among the lilacs and roses, where birds sing all day long, where cattle pasture in clover nooks; and then Bertie, your darling, shall never leave you again."
"I do trust you, for your promise means more than oath and vows from other people, and if occasion demand, I know you will guard my Bertie, my high-strung, passionate, beautiful boy! Your pretty cottage? Ah, child! when shall we dwell in Spain?"
"Some day, some day; only be hopeful, and let me find you better when I return. Sleep, and dream of our pretty cottage. I must hurry away with my pictures, for this is pay day."
Tying the strings of her hat under one ear, and covering her face with a blue veil, Beryl took a pasteboard box from a table, on which lay brushes and paints, and leaving the door a-jar, went down the narrow stairs.
At the window of a small hall on the next floor, a woman sat before her sewing-machine, bending so close to her work that she did not see the tall form, which paused before her, until a hand was laid on the steel plate.
"Mrs. Emmet, will you please be so good as to go up after a while, and see if mother needs anything?"
"Certainly, Miss, if I am here, but I have some sewing to carry home this afternoon."
"I shall not be absent more than two hours. To-night I am going South, to attend to some business; and mother tells me you have promised to wait upon her, and allow your daughter Maggie to sleep on a pallet by her bed, while I am gone. I cannot tell you how grateful I shall be for any kindness you may show her, and I wish you would send the baby often to her room, as he is so sweet and cunning, and his merry ways amuse her."
"Yes, I will do all I can. We poor folks who have none of this world's goods, ought to be rich at least in sympathy and pity for each other's suffering, for it is about all we have to share. Don't you worry and fret, for I will see your ma has what she needs. I was mothered by the best woman God ever made, and since she died, every sick mother I see has a sort of claim on my heart."
Pausing an instant to adjust the tucker of her machine, Mrs. Emmet looked up, and involuntarily the women shook hands, as if sealing a compact.
It was a long walk to the building whither Beryl directed her steps, and as she passed through the rear entrance of a large and fashionable photograph establishment, she was surprised to find that it was half-past two o'clock.
The Superintendent of the department, from whom she received her work, was a man of middle-age, of rather stern and forbidding aspect; and as she approached his desk, he pointed to the clock on the mantel-piece.
"Barely time to submit those types for inspection, and have them packed for the express going East. They are birthday gifts, and birthdays have an awkward habit of arriving rigidly on time."
He unrolled the tissue paper, and with a magnifying glass, carefully examined the pictures; then took from an envelope in the box, two short pieces of hair, which he compared with the painted heads before him.
"Beautifully done. The lace on that child's dress would bear even a stronger lens than my glass. Here Patterson, take this box, and letter to Mr. Endicott, and if satisfactory, carry them to the packing counter. Shipping address is in the letter. Hurry up, my lad. Sit down, Miss Brentano."
"Thank you, I am not tired. Mr. Mansfield, have you any good news for me?"
"You mean those etchings; or the designs for the Christmas cards? Have not heard a word, pro or con. Guess no news is good news; for I notice 'rejected' work generally travels fast, to roost at home."
"I thought the awards were made last week, and that to-day you could tell me the result."
"The awards have been made, I presume, but who owns the lucky cards is the secret that has not yet transpired. You young people have no respect for red tape, and methodical business routine. You want to clap spurs on fate, and make her lower her own last record? 'Bide awee. Bide awee'."
"Winning this prize means so much to me, that I confess I find it very hard to be patient. Success would save me from a painful and expensive journey, upon which I must start to-night; and therefore I hoped so earnestly that I might receive good tidings to-day. I am obliged to go South on an errand, which will necessitate an absence of several days, and if you should have any news for me, keep it until I call again. If unfavorable it would depress my mother, and therefore I prefer you should not write, as of course she will open any letters addressed to me. Please save all the work you can for me, and I will come here as soon as I get back home."
"Very well. Any message, Patterson?"
"Mr. Endicott said, 'All right; first-rate;' and ordered them shipped."
"Here is your money, Miss Brentano. Better call as early as you can, as I guess there will be a lot of photographs ready in a few days. Good afternoon."
"Thank you. Good-bye, sir."
From the handful of small change, she selected some pennies which she slipped inside of her glove, and dropping the remainder into her pocket, left the building, and walked on toward Union Square. Absorbed in grave reflections, and oppressed by some vague foreboding of impending ill, dim, intangible and unlocalized—she moved slowly along the crowded sidewalk—unconscious of the curious glances directed toward her superb form, and stately graceful carriage, which more than one person turned and looked back to admire, wondering when she had stepped down from some sacred Panathenaic Frieze.
Near Madison Square, she paused before the window of a florist's, and raising her veil, gazed longingly at the glowing mass of blossoms, which Nineteenth Century skill and wealth in defiance of isothermal lines, and climatic limitations force into perfection, in, and out of season. The violet eyes and crocus fingers of Spring smiled and quivered, at sight of the crimson rose heart, and flaming paeony cheeks of royal Summer; and creamy and purple chrysanthemums that quill their laces over the russet robes of Autumn, here stared in indignant amazement, at the premature presumption of snowy regal camellias, audaciously advancing to crown the icy brows of Winter. All latitudes, all seasons have become bound vassals to the great God Gold; and his necromancy furnishes with equal facility the dewy wreaths of orange flowers that perfume the filmy veils of December brides—and the blue bells of spicy hyacinths which ring "Rest" over the lily pillows, set as tribute on the graves of babies, who wilt under August suns.
From early childhood, an ardent love of beauty had characterized this girl, whose covetous gaze wandered from a gorgeous scarlet and gold orchid nodding in dreams of its habitat, in some vanilla scented Brazilian jungle, to a bed of vivid green moss, where skilful hands had grouped great drooping sprays of waxen begonias, coral, faint pink, and ivory, all powdered with gold dust like that which gilds the heart of water-lilies.
Such treasures were reserved for the family of Dives; and counting her pennies, Beryl entered the store, where instantaneously the blended breath of heliotrope, tube-rose and mignonette wafted her across the ocean, to a white-walled fishing village on the Cornice, whose gray rocks were kissed by the blue lips of the Mediterranean.
"What is the price of that cluster of Niphetos buds?"
"And that Auratum—with a few rose geranium leaves added?"
"Seventy-five cents. You see it is wonderfully large, and the gold bands are so very deep."
She put one hand in her pocket and fingered a silver coin, but poverty is a grim, tyrannous stepmother to tender aestheticism, and prudential considerations prevailed.
"Give me twenty-five cents worth of those pale blue double violets, with a sprig of lemon verbena, and a fringe of geranium leaves."
She laid the money on the counter, and while the florist selected and bound the blossoms into a bunch, she arrested his finishing touch.
"Wait a moment. How much more for one Grand Duke jasmine in the centre?"
"Ten cents, Miss."
She added the dime to the pennies she could ill afford to spare from her small hoard, and said: "Will you be so kind as to sprinkle it? I wish it kept fresh, for a sick lady."
Dusky shadows were gathering in the gloomy hall of the old tenement house, when Beryl opened the door of the comfortless attic room, where for many months she had struggled bravely to shield her mother from the wolf, that more than once snarled across the threshold.
Mrs. Brentano was sitting in a low chair, with her elbows on her knees, her face hidden in her palms; and in her lap lay paper and pencil, while a sealed letter had fallen on the ground beside her. At the sound of the opening door, she lifted her head, and tears dripped upon the paper. In her faded flannel dressing-gown, with tresses of black hair straggling across her shoulders, she presented a picture of helpless mental and physical woe, which painted itself indelibly on the panels of her daughter's heart.
"Why did you not wait until I came home? The exertion of getting up always fatigues you."
"You staid so long—and I am so uncomfortable in that wretchedly hard bed. What detained you?"
"I went to see the Doctor, because I am unwilling to start away, without having asked his advice; and he has prescribed some new medicine which you will find in this bottle. The directions are marked on the label. Now I will put things in order, and try my hands on that refractory bed."
"What did the Doctor say about me?"
"Nothing new; but he is confident that you can be cured in time, if we will only be patient and obedient. He promised to see you in the morning."
She stripped the bed of its covering, shook bolster and pillows; turned over the mattress, and beat it vigorously; then put on fresh sheets, and adjusted the whole comfortably.
"Now mother, turn your head, and let me comb and brush and braid all this glossy black satin, to keep it from tangling while I am away. What a pity you did not dower your daughter with part of it, instead of this tawny mane of mine, which is a constant affront to my fastidious artistic instincts. Please keep still a moment."
She unwrapped the tissue paper that covered her flowers, and holding her hands behind her, stepped in front of the invalid.
"Dear mother, shut your eyes. There—! of what does that remind you? The pergola—with great amber grape clusters—and white stars of jasmine shining through the leaves? All the fragrance of Italy sleeps in the thurible of this Grand-Duke."
"How delicious! Ah, my extravagant child! we cannot afford such luxuries now. The perfume recalls so vividly the time when Bertie—"
A sob cut short the sentence. Beryl pinned the flowers at her mother's throat, kissed her cheek, and kneeling before her, crossed her arms on the invalid's lap, resting there the noble head, with its burnished crown of reddish bronze braids.
"Mother dear, humor my childish whim. In defiance of my wishes and judgment, and solely in obedience to your command, I am leaving you for the first time, on a bitterly painful and humiliating mission. To-night, let me be indeed your little girl once more. My heart brings me to your knees, to say my prayers as of yore, and now while I pray, lay your dear pretty hands on my head. It will seem like a parting benediction; a veritable Nunc dimmitas."
"I do not want a carriage. If the distance is only a mile and a half, I can easily walk. After leaving town is there a straight road?"
"Straight as the crow flies, when you have passed the factory, and cemetery, and turned to the left. There is a little Branch running at the foot of the hill, and just across it, you will see the white palings, and the big gate with stone pillars, and two tremendous brass dogs on top, showing their teeth and ready to spring. There's no mistaking the place, because it is the only one left in the country that looks like the good old times before the war; and the Yankees would not have spared it, had it not been such comfortable bombproof headquarters for their officers. It's our show place now, and General Darrington keeps it up in better style, than any other estate I know."
"Thank you. I will find it."
Beryl walked away in the direction indicated, and the agent of the railway station, leaning against the door of the baggage room, looked with curious scrutiny after her.
"I should like to know who she is. No ordinary person, that is clear. Such a grand figure and walk, and such a steady look in her big solemn eyes, as if she saw straight through a person, clothes, flesh and all. Wonder what her business can be with the old general?"
From early childhood Beryl had listened so intently to her mother's glowing descriptions of the beauty and elegance of her old home "Elm Bluff," that she soon began to identify the land-marks along the road, alter passing the cemetery, where so many generations of Darringtons slept in one corner, enclosed by a lofty iron railing; exclusive in death as in life; jealously guarded and locked from contact with the surrounding dwellers in "God's Acre."
The October day had begun quite cool and crisp, with a hint of frost in its dewy sparkle, but as though vanquished Summer had suddenly faced about, and charged furiously to cover her retreat, the south wind came heavily laden with hot vapor from equatorial oceanic caldrons; and now the afternoon sun, glowing in a cloudless sky, shed a yellowish glare that burned and tingled like the breath of a furnace; while along the horizon, a dim dull haze seemed blotting out the boundary of earth and sky.
A portion of the primeval pine forest having been preserved, the trees had attained gigantic height, thrusting their plumy heads heavenward, as their lower limbs died; and year after year the mellow brown carpet of reddish straw deepened, forming a soft safe nidus for the seeds that sprang up and now gratefully embroidered it with masses of golden rod, starry white asters, and tall, feathery spikes of some velvety purple bloom, which looked royal by the side of a cluster of belated evening primroses.
Pausing on the small but pretty rustic bridge, Beryl leaned against the interlacing cedar boughs twisted into a balustrade, and looked down at the winding stream, where the clear water showed amber hues, flecked with glinting foam bubbles, as it lapped and gurgled, eddied and sang, over its bed of yellow gravel. Unacquainted with "piney-woods' branches," she was charmed by the novel golden brown wavelets that frothed against the pillars of the bridge, and curled caressingly about the broad emerald fronds of luxuriant ferns, which hung Narcissus-like over their own graceful quivering images. Profound quiet brooded in the warm, hazy air, burdened with balsamic odors; but once a pine burr full of rich nutty mast crashed down through dead twigs, bruising the satin petals of a primrose; and ever and anon the oboe notes of that shy, deep throated hermit of ravines—the russet, speckled-breasted lark—thrilled through the woods, like antiphonal echoes in some vast, cool, columned cloister.
The perfect tranquillity of the scene soothed the travel-weary woman, as though nestling so close to the great heart of nature, had stilled the fierce throbbing, and banished the gloomy forebodings of her own; and she walked on, through the iron gate, where the bronze mastiffs glared warningly from their granite pedestal—on into the large undulating park, which stretched away to meet the line of primitive pines. There was no straight avenue, but a broad smooth carriage road curved gently up a hillside, and on both margins of the graveled way, ancient elm trees stood at regular intervals, throwing their boughs across, to unite in lifting the superb groined arches, whose fine tracery of sinuous lines were here and there concealed by clustering mistletoe—and gray lichen masses—and ornamented with bosses of velvet moss; while the venerable columnar trunks were now and then wreathed with poison-oak vines, where red trumpet flowers insolently blared defiance to the waxen pearls of encroaching mistletoe.
On the other side, the grounds were studded with native growth, as though protective forestry statutes had crossed the ocean with the colonists, and on this billowy sea of varied foliage Autumn had set her illuminated autograph, in the vivid scarlet of sumach and black gum, the delicate lemon of wild cherry—the deep ochre all sprinkled and splashed with intense crimson, of the giant oaks—the orange glow of ancestral hickory—and the golden glory of maples, on which the hectic fever of the dying year kindled gleams of fiery red;—over all, a gorgeous blazonry of riotous color, toned down by the silver gray shadows of mossy tree-trunks, and the rich, dark, restful green of polished magnolias.
Half a dozen fine Cotswold ewes browsed on the grass, and the small bell worn by a staid dowager tinkled musically, as she threw up her head and watched suspiciously the figure moving under the elm arches. Beneath the far reaching branches of a patriarchal cedar, a small herd of Jersey calves had grouped themselves, as if posing for Landseer or Rosa Bonheur; and one pretty fawn-colored weanling ran across the sward to meet the stranger, bleating a welcome and looking up, with unmistakable curiosity in its velvety, long-lashed eyes.
As the avenue gradually climbed the ascent, the outlines of the house became visible; a stately, typical southern mansion, like hundreds, which formerly opened hospitably their broad mahogany doors, and which, alas! are becoming traditional to this generation—obsolete as the brave chivalric, warm-hearted, open-handed, noble-souled, refined southern gentlemen who built and owned them. No Mansard roof here, no pseudo "Queen Anne" hybrid, with lowering, top-heavy projections like scowling eyebrows over squinting eyes; neither mongrel Renaissance, nor feeble, sickly, imitation Elizabethan facades, and Tudor towers; none of the queer, composite, freakish impertinences of architectural style, which now-a-day do duty as the adventurous vanguard, the aesthetic vedettes "making straight the way," for the coming cohorts of Culture.
The house at "Elm Bluff" was built of brick, overcast with stucco painted in imitation of gray granite, and its foundation was only four feet high, resting upon a broad terrace of brickwork; the latter bounded by a graceful wooden balustrade, with pedestals for vases, on either side of the two stone steps leading down from the terrace to the carriage drive. The central halls, in both stories, divided the space equally into four rooms on each side, and along the wide front, ran a lofty piazza supporting the roof, with white smooth round pillars; while the upper broad square windows, cedar-framed, and deeply embrasured, looked down on the floor of the piazza, where so many generations of Darringtons had trundled hoops in childhood—and promenaded as lovers in the silvery moonlight, listening to the ring doves cooing above them, from the columbary of the stucco capitals. This spacious colonnade extended around the northern and eastern side of the house, but the western end had formerly been enclosed as a conservatory—which having been abolished, was finally succeeded by a comparatively modern iron veranda, with steps leading down to the terrace. In front of the building, between the elm avenue and the flower-bordered terrace, stood a row of very old poplar trees, tall as their forefathers in Lombardy, and to an iron staple driven into one of these, a handsome black horse was now fastened.
Standing with one foot on the terrace step, close to the marble vases where heliotropes swung their dainty lilac chalices against her shoulder, and the scarlet geraniums stared unabashed, Beryl's gaze wandered from the lovely park and ancient trees, to the unbroken facade of the gray old house; and as, in painful contrast she recalled the bare bleak garret room, where a beloved invalid held want and death at bay, a sudden mist clouded her vision, and almost audibly she murmured: "My poor mother! Now, I can realize the bitterness of your suffering; now I understand the intensity of your yearning to come back; the terrible home-sickness, which only Heaven can cure."
What is presentiment? The swaying of the veil of futurity, under the straining hands of our guardian angels? Is it the faint shadow, the solemn rustle of their hovering wings, as like mother birds they spread protecting plumes between blind fledglings, and descending ruin? Will theosophy ever explain and augment prescience?
"It may be— The thoughts that visit us, we know not whence, Sudden as inspiration, are the whispers Of disembodied spirits, speaking to us As friends, who wait outside a prison wall, Through the barred windows speak to those within."
With difficulty Beryl resisted an inexplicable impulse to turn and flee; but the drawn sword of duty pointed ahead.
Striking her hands together, as if thereby crushing her reluctance to enter, she waited a moment, with closed eyes, while her lips moved in silent prayer; then ascending the terrace, she crossed the stone pavement, walked up the stops and slowly advanced to the threshold. The dark mahogany door was so glossy, that she dimly saw her own image on its polished panels, as she lifted and let fall the heavy silver knocker, in the middle of an oval silver plate, around the edges of which were raised the square letters of the name "Darrington." The clanging sound startled a peacock, strutting among the verbena beds, and his shrill scream was answered by the deep hoarse bark of some invisible dog; then the heavy door swung open, and a gray-headed negro man, who wore a white linen apron over his black clothes, and held a waiter in one hand, stood before her.
"I wish to see Mr. Darrington."
"I reckon you mean Gin'l Darrington, don't you? Mr. Darrington, Marse Prince Darrington, is in Yurope."
"I mean Mr. Luke Darrington, the owner of this place."
"Jess so; Gin'l Luke Darrington. Well, you can't see him."
"Why not? I must see him, and I shall stay here until I do."
"'Cause he is busy with his lie-yer, fixin' of some papers; and when he tells me not to let nobody else in I'de ruther set down in a yaller jacket's nest than to turn the door knob, after he done shut it. Better leave your name and call ag'in."
"No, I will wait until he is at leisure. I presume my sitting on the steps here will not be a violation of your orders."
"To be shore not. But them steps are harder than the stool of repentance, and you had better walk in the drawing-room, and rest yourself. There's pictures, and lots and piles of things there, you can pass away the time looking at."
He waved his waiter toward a long, dim apartment, on the left side of the hall.
"Thank you, I prefer to sit here."
She seated herself on the top of the stone steps, and taking off her straw hat, fanned her heated brow, where the rich waving hair clung in damp masses.
"What name, miss, must I give, when the lie-yer finishes his bizness?"
"Say that a stranger wishes to see him about an important matter."
"Its mighty uncertain how long he will tarry; for lie-yers live by talking; turning of words upside down, and wrong side outards, and reading words backards, and whitewashing black things, and smutting of white ones. Marse Lennox Dunbar (he is our lie-yer now, since his pa took paralsis) he is a powerful wrastler with justice. They do say down yonder, at the court house, that when he gets done with a witness, and turns him aloose, the poor creetur is so flustrated in his mind, that he don't know his own name, on when he was born, or where he was born, or whether he was ever born at all."
Curiosity to discover the nature of the stranger's errand had stimulated the old man's garrulity, but receiving no reply, he finally retreated, leaving the front door open. By the aid of a disfiguring scar on his furrowed cheek, Beryl recognized him as the brave, faithful, family coachman, Abednego, (abbreviated to "Bedney")—who had once saved his mother's life at the risk of his own. Mrs. Brentano had often related to her children, an episode in her childhood, when having gone to play with her dolls in the loft of the stable, she fell asleep on the hay; and two hours later, Bedney remembering that he had heard her singing there to her dolls, rushed into the burning building, groped through the stifling smoke of the loft, and seizing the sleeping child, threw her out upon a pile of straw. When he attempted to jump after her, a falling rafter struck him to the earth, and left an honorable scar in attestation of his heroism.
Had she yielded to the promptings of her heart, the stranger would gladly have shaken hands with him, and thanked him, in the name of those early years, when her mother's childish feet made music on the wide mahogany railed stairs, that wound from the lower hall to the one above; but the fear of being denied an audience, deterred her from disclosing her name.
Educated in the belief that the utterance of the abhorred name of Brentano, within the precincts of "Elm Bluff," would produce an effect very similar to the ringing of some Tamil Pariah's bell, before the door of a Brahman temple, Beryl wisely kept silent; and soon forgot her forebodings, in the contemplation of the supreme loveliness of the prospect before her.
The elevation was sufficient to command an extended view of the surrounding country, and of the river, which crossed by the railroad bridge north of the town, curved sharply to the east, whence she could trace its course as it gradually wound southward, and disappeared behind the house; where at the foot of a steep bluff, a pretty boat and bath house nestled under ancient willow trees. At her feet the foliage of the park stretched like some brilliant carpet, before whose gorgeous tints, ustads of Karman would have stood in despair; and beyond the sea-green, undulating line of pine forest she saw the steeple of a church, with its gilt vane burning in the sunshine, and the red brick dome of the ante bellum court house.
Time seemed to have fallen asleep on that hot, still afternoon, and Beryl was roused from her reverie by the sound of hearty laughter in the apartment opposite the drawing-room—followed by the tones of a man's voice.
"Thank you, General. That is my destination this afternoon, and I shall certainly expect you to dance at my wedding."
Quick, firm steps rang on the oil-cloth-covered floor of the hall, and Beryl rose and turned toward the door.
With a cigar in one hand, hat and riding-whip in the other, the attorney stepped out on the colonnade, and pausing involuntarily, at sight of the stranger, they looked at each other. A man, perhaps, more, certainly not less than thirty years old, of powerful and impressive physique; very tall, athletic, sinewy, without an ounce of superfluous flesh to encumber his movements, in the professional palaestra; with a large finely modeled head, whose crisp black hair closely cut, was (contrary to the prevailing fashion) parted neither in the middle, nor yet on the side, but brushed straight back from the square forehead, thereby enhancing the massiveness of its appearance.
Something in this swart, beardless face, with its brilliant inquisitorial dark blue eyes, handsome secretive mouth veiled by no mustache—and boldly assertive chin deeply cleft in the centre—affected Beryl very unpleasantly, as a perplexing disagreeable memory; an uncanny resemblance hovering just beyond the grasp of identification. A feeling of unaccountable repulsion made her shiver, and she breathed more freely, when he hewed slightly, and walked on toward his horse. Upon the attorney her extraordinary appearance produced a profound impression, and in his brief scrutiny, no detail of her face, figure, or apparel escaped his keen probing gaze.
Glancing back as he untied his bridle rein, his unspoken comment was: "Superb woman; I wonder what brings her here? Evidently a stranger—with a purpose."
He sprang into the saddle, stooped his head to avoid the yellow poplar branches, and disappeared under the elm arches.
"Gin'l Darrington's compliments; and if your bizness is pressin' you will have to see him in his bedcharmber, as he feels poorly to-day, and the Doctor won't let him out. Follow me. You see, ole Marster remembers the war by the game leg he got at Sharpshurg, and sometimes it lays him up."
The old servant led Beryl through a long room, fitted up as a library and armory, and pausing before an open door, waved her into the adjoining apartment. One swift glance showed her the heavy canopied bedstead in one corner, the arch-shaped glass door leading out upon the iron veranda; and at an oblong table in the middle of the floor, the figure of a man, who rose, taller and taller, until he seemed a giant, drawn to his full height, and resting for support on the hand that was rested upon the table. Intensity of emotion arrested her breath, as she gazed at the silvered head, piercing black eyes, and spare wasted framp of the handsome man, who had always reigned as a brutal ogre in her imagination. The fire in his somewhat sunken eyes, seemed to bid defiance to the whiteness of the abundant hair, and of the heavy mustache which drooped over his lips; and every feature in his patrician face revealed not only a long line of blue-blooded ancestors, but the proud haughtiness which had been considered always as distinctively characteristic of the Darringtons as their finely cut lips, thin nostrils, small feet and unusual height.
Unprepared for the apparition that confronted him, Luke Darrington bowed low, surveyed her intently, then pointed to a chair opposite his own.
"Walk in, Madam; or perhaps it may be Miss? Will you take a seat, and excuse the feebleness that forces me to receive visits in my bed-room?"
As he reseated himself, Beryl advanced and stood beside him, but for a moment she found it impossible to utter the words, rehearsed so frequently during her journey; and while she hesitated, he curiously inspected her face and form.
Her plain, but perfectly fitting bunting dress, was of the color, popularly dominated "navy-blue," and the linen collar and cuffs were scarcely whiter than the round throat and wrists they encircled. The burnished auburn hair clinging in soft waves to her brow, was twisted into a heavy coil, which the long walk had shaken down till it rested almost on her neck; and though her heart beat furiously, the pale calm face might have been marble, save for the scarlet lines of her beautiful mouth, and the steady glow of the dilated pupils in her great gray eyes.
"Pray be seated; and tell me to whom I am indebted for the pleasure of this visit?"
"I am merely the bearer of a letter which will explain itself, and my presence, in your house."
Mechanically he took the preferred letter, and with his eyes still lingering in admiration upon the classic outlines of her face and form, leaned back comfortably against the velvet lining of his armchair.
"Are you some exiled goddess travelling incognito? If we lived in the 'piping days of Pan' I should flatter myself that 'Ox-eyed Juno' had honored me with a call, as a reward for my care of her favorite bird."
Receiving no reply he glanced at the envelope in his hand, and as he read the address—"To my dear father, Gen'l Luke Darrington"—the smile on his face changed to a dark scowl and he tossed the letter to the floor, as if it were a red-hot coal.
"Only one living being has the right to call me father—my son, Prince Darrington. I have repeatedly refused to hold any communication with the person who wrote that letter."
Beryl stooped to pick it up, and with a caressing touch, as though it were sentient, held it against her heart.
"Your daughter is dying; and this is her last appeal."
"I have no daughter. Twenty-three years ago my daughter buried herself in hopeless disgrace, and for her there can be no resurrection here. If she dreams that I am in my dotage, and may relent, she strangely forgets the nature of the blood she saw fit to cross with that of a beggarly foreign scrub. Go back and tell her, the old man is not yet senile and imbecile; and that the years have only hardened his heart. Tell her, I have almost learned to forget even how she looked."
His eyes showed a dull reddish fire, like those of some drowsy caged tiger, suddenly stirred into wrath, and a grayish pallor—the white heat of the Darringtons—settled on his face.
Twice Beryl walked the length of the room, but each time the recollection of her mother's tearful, suffering countenance, and the extremity of her need, drove her back to the chair.
"If you knew that your daughter's life hung by a thread, would you deliberately take a pair of shears and cut it?"
He glared at her in silence, and leaning forward on the table, pushed roughly aside a salver, on which stood a decanter and two wine glasses.
"I am here to tell you a solemn truth; then my responsibility ends. Your daughter's life rests literally in your hands; for unless you consent to furnish the money to pay for a surgical operation, which may restore her health, she will certainly die. I am indulging in no exaggeration to extort alms. In this letter is the certificate of a distinguished physician, corroborating my statement. If you, the author of her being, prefer to hasten her death, then your choice of an awful revenge must be settled between your hardened conscience and your God."
"You are bold indeed, to beard me in my own house, and tell me to my face what no man would dare to utter."
His voice was an angry pant, and he struck his clenched hand on the table with a force that made the glasses jingle, and the sherry dance in the decanter.
"Yes, you scarcely realize how much bravery this painful errand demands; but the tender love in a woman's heart nerves her to bear fiery ordeals, that vanquish a man's courage."
"Then you find that age has not drawn the fangs from the old crippled Darrington lion, nor clipped his claws?"
The sneer curved his white mustache, until she saw the outline of the narrow, bloodless underlip.
"That king of beasts scorns to redden his fangs, or flesh his claws, in the quivering body of his own offspring. Your metaphor is an insult to natural instincts."
She laid the letter once more before him, and looked down on him, with ill-concealed aversion.
"Who are you? By what right dare you intrude upon me?"
"I am merely a sorrowful, anxious, poverty-stricken woman, whose heart aches over her mother's sufferings and vho would never have endured the humiliation of this interview, except to deliver a letter in the hope of prolonging my mother's life."
"You do not mean that you are—my—"
"I am nothing to you, sir, but the bearer of a letter from your dying daughter."
"You cannot be the child of—of Ellice?"
After the long limbo of twenty-three years, the name burst from him, and with what a host of memories its echo peopled the room, where that erring daughter had formerly reigned queen of his heart.
"Yes, Ellice is my dear mother's name."
He stared at the majestic form, and at the faultless face looking so proudly down upon him, as from an inaccessible height; and she heard him draw his breath, with a labored hissing sound.
"But—I thought her child was a boy?"
"I am the youngest of two children."
"It is impossible that you are the daughter of that infernal, low-born, fiddling foreign vagabond who—"
"Hush! The dead are sacred!"
She threw up her hand, with an imperious gesture, not of deprecation, but of interdict; and all the stony calm in her pale face seemed shivered by a passionate gust, that made her eyes gleam like steel under an electric flash.
"I am the daughter of Ignace Brentano, and I love, and honor his memory, and his name. No drop of your Darrington blood runs in my veins; I love my dear mother—but I am my father's daughter—and I want no nobler heritage than his name. Upon you I have no shadow of claim, but I am here from dire necessity, at your mercy—a helpless, defenseless pleader in my mother's behalf—and as such, I appeal to the boasted southern chivalry, upon which you pride yourself, for immunity from insult while I am under your roof. Since I stood no taller than your knee, my mother has striven to inculcate a belief in the nobility, refinement, and chivalric deference to womanhood, inherent in southern gentlemen; and if it be not all a myth, I invoke its protection against abuse of my father. A stranger, but a lady, every inch, I demand the respect due from a gentleman."
For a moment they eyed each other, as gladiators awaiting the signal, then General Darrington sprang to his feet, and with a bow, stately and profound as if made to a duchess, replied:
"And in the name of southern chivalry, I swear you shall receive it."
"Read your daughter's letter; give me your answer, and let us cut short an interview—which, if disagreeable to you, is almost unendurable to me."
Turning away, she began to walk slowly up and down the floor; and smothering an oath under his heavy mustache, the old man sank back in his chair, and opened the letter.
Holding in leash the painful emotions that struggled for utterance, Beryl was unconscious of the lapse of time, and when her averted eyes returned reluctantly to her grandfather's face, he was slowly tearing into shreds the tear-stained letter, freighted with passionate prayers for pardon, and for succor. Rolling the strips into a ball, he threw it into the waste-paper basket under the table; then filled a glass with sherry, drank it, and dropped his head wearily on his hand. Five leaden minutes crawled away, and a long, heavy sigh quivered through Gen'l Darrington's gaunt frame. Seizing the decanter, he poured the contents into two glasses, and as he raised one to his lips, held the other toward his visitor.
"You must be weary from your journey; let me insist that you drink some sherry."
"Thank you, I neither wish nor require it."
"I find your name is Beryl. Sit down here, and answer a few questions." He drew a chair near his own.
She shook her head:
"If you will excuse me, I prefer to stand."
In turning, so as to confront her fully, his elbow struck from the table, a bronze paper-weight which rolled just beyond his reach. Instinctively she stooped to pick it up, and in restoring it, her fingers touched his. Leaning suddenly forward he grasped her wrists ere she was aware of his intention, and drew her in front of him.
"Pardon me; but I want a good look at you."
His keen merciless eyes searched every feature, and he deliberately lifted and examined the exquisitely shaped strong, white hands, the dainty nails, and delicately rounded wrists with their violet tracery of veins. It cost her an effort, to abstain from wrenching herself free; but her mother's caution: "So much depends on the impression you make upon father," girded her to submit to his critical inspection.
A grim smile crossed his face, as he watched her.
"Blood often doubles, like a fox; sometimes 'crops back,' but never lies. You can't play out your role of pauper; and you don't look a probable outcome of destitution and hard work. Your hands would fit much better in a metope of the Elgin Marbles, than in a wash-tub, or a bake-oven."
Drawing away quickly, she put them behind her, and felt her palms tingle.
"It is expected I should believe that for some time past, you have provided for your own, and your mother's wants. In what way?"
"By coloring photographs; by furnishing designs for Christmas and Easter cards, and occasionally (not often), by selling drawings used for decorating china, and wallpaper. At one time, I had regular pay for singing in a choir, but diphtheria injured my throat, and when I partly recovered my voice, the situation had been given to another person."
"I am informed also that before long, you intend to astonish the world with a wonderful picture, which shall distance such laggards as Troyon, Dore, and Ary Scheffer?"
She was looking, not at him, but out through the glass door, at the glowing western sky, where distant pine trees printed their silhouettes. Now her gaze came back to his face, and he noted a faint quiver in her full throat.
"If God will mercifully spare my mother to me, my loftiest and holiest ambition shall be to distance the wolfish cares and woes that have hunted her, ever since she became a widow. Any and all honest labor that can contribute to her comfort, will be welcome and sweet to me."
"The laws of heredity must be occult and complex. The offspring of a rebellious and disobedient child, is certainly entitled to no filial instincts; and some day the strain will tell, and you will overwhelm your mother with ingratitude, black as that which she showed me."
"When I do, may God eternally forsake me!"
A brief silence ensued, and the old man drummed on the table, with the fingers of his right hand.
"Who educated you?"
"My dear father."
"It seems there are two of you. Where is your brother?"
"At present, I do not know exactly where he is, but I think in the far West; possibly in Montana—probably in Canada."
"How does he earn his bread? By daubing, or fiddling?"
"Since he earns it honestly, that is his own affair. We have not heard from him for some months."
"I thought so! He inherits the worthless vagabond strain of—"
"He is his mother's idol, and she glories in his resemblance to you, sir; and to your father; hence his name—Robert L. Darrington."
"Then she must have one handsome child! I am not surprised that he is the favorite."
"Bertie certainly is her darling, and he is very handsome; not in the very least degree like me."
For the first time, their eyes met in a friendly glance, and a covert smile stirred the General's lips; but as he put out his hand toward her, she moved a step beyond his reach.
"Beryl, you consider me a dreadful, cruel old tyrant?"
She made no reply.
"You are my mother's father; and that word—father, means so much to me, that it shall shield even you, from the shadow of disrespect."
"Oh! very dutiful indeed, but dead as the days when daughters obeyed, and honored their fathers! Beggarly foreign professors wiped all that out of the minds of wealthy girls at boarding schools—just as they changed their backwoods pronunciation of French and Italian. Don't evade my question."
"I did not come here, sir, to bandy words; and I ended my mission by delivering the letter intrusted to me."
"You regard me as a vindictive old bear?"
"I had heard much of the Darringtons; I imagined a great deal more; but now, like the Queen of Sheba, I must testify—'Behold, the half was not told me.'"
He threw back his lion-like head, and laughed.
"That will do. Shake hands, child."
"No, thank you."
"And you will not sit down?"
"Frankly, I prefer not. I long to get away."
"You shall certainly be gratified, but there are a few things which I intend you shall hear. Of course you know that your mother was my only child, and an heiress; but you are ignorant probably of the fact that when she returned to boarding school for the last session, she was engaged in marriage to the son of my best friend—a man in every respect desirable, and thoroughly acceptable to me."
"So my mother told me."
"Indeed? She should blush to remember it. While she wore his engagement ring, she forgot her promise to him, her duty to me, her lineage, her birth, her position—and was inveigled by a low adventurer who—"
"Who was my own precious father—poor, but noble, and worthy of any princess! Unless you can refer to him respectfully, name him not at all, in his child's presence."
She suddenly towered over him, like some threatening fate, and her uplifted arm trembled from the intensity of her indignation.
"At least—you are loyal to your tribe!"
"I am, to my heart's core. You could pay me no higher compliment."
"Ellice wrote that she had bestowed her affections on—on—the 'exiled scion of a noble house,' who paid his board bill by teaching languages and music in the school; and who very naturally preferred to marry a rich fool, who would pay them for him. I answered her letter, which was addressed to her own mother—then quite ill at home—and I told her precisely what she might expect, if she persisted in her insane folly. As soon as my wife convalesced sufficiently to render my departure advisable, I started to bring my daughter home; but she ran away, a few hours before my arrival, and while, hoping to rescue Ellice, I was in pursuit of the precious pair, my wife relapsed and died—the victim of excitement brought on by her child's disgrace. I came back here to a desolate, silent house;—bereft of wife and daughter; and in the grave of her mother, I buried every atom of love and tenderness I ever entertained for Ellice. When the sun is suddenly blotted out at noon, and the world turns black—black, we grope to and fro aimlessly; but after awhile, we accommodate ourselves to the darkness;—and so, I became a different man—very hard, and I dare say very bitter. The world soon learned that I would tolerate no illusion to my disgrace, and people respected my family cancer, and prudently refrained from offering me nostrums to cure it. My wife had a handsome estate of her own right, and every cent of her fortune I collected, and sent with her jewelry to Ellice. Did you know this?"
"I have heard only of the jewels."
"As I supposed, the money was squandered before you could recollect."
"I know that we were reduced to poverty, by the failure of some banking house in Paris. I was old enough when it occurred, to remember ever afterward, the dismay and distress it caused. My father no doubt placed my mother's money there for safety."
"I wrote one long, final letter when I sent the checks for the money, and I told Ellice I wished never to see, never to hear from her again. I told her also, I had only one wish concerning her, and that was, that I might be able to forget her so completely, that if we should meet in the Last Judgment, I could not possibly know her. I assured her she need expect nothing at my death; as I had taken good care that my estate should not fall into the clutches of—her—'exiled scion of a noble house.' Now do you consider that she has any claim on me?"
"You must not ask me to sit in judgment on my parents."
"You shall decide a question of business facts. I provided liberally for her once; can you expect me to do so again? Has she any right to demand it?"
"Having defied your parental wishes, she may have forfeited a daughter's claim; but as a heart-broken sufferer, you cannot deny her the melancholy privilege of praying for your help, on her death-bed."
The proud clear voice trembled, and Beryl covered her face with her hands.
"Then we will ignore outraged ties of blood, and treat on the ground of mere humanity? Let me conclude, for it is sickening and loathsome to a man of my age, to see his long silent household graves yawn, and give up uncalled—their sheeted dead. For some years the money sent, was a quietus, and I was left in peace. I was lonely; it was, hard work to forget, because I could never forgive; and the more desolate the gray ruin, the more nature yearns to cover it close with vines and flowers; so after a time, I married a gentle, pure hearted woman, who made the best of what was left of me. We had no children, but she had one son of a former marriage, who proved a noble trustworthy boy; and by degrees he crept into my heart, and raked together the cinders of my dead affections, and kindled a feeble flame that warmed my shivering old age. When I felt assured that I was not thawing another serpent to sting me for my pains, I adopted Thorton Prince, and with the aid of a Legislative enactment, changed his name to Prince Darrington. Only a few months elapsed, before his mother, of whom I was very fond, died of consumption and my boy and I comforted each other. Then I made my second and last will, and took every possible precaution to secure my estate of every description to him. He is my sole heir, and I intend that at my death he shall receive every cent I possess. Did you know this?"
"I did, because your last endorsement on a letter of my mother's returned unopened to her, informed her of the fact."
"Why? Because in violation of my wishes she had persisted in writing, and soon began to importune me for money. Then I made her understand that even at my death, she would receive no aid; and since that endorsement, I have returned or destroyed her letters unread. My Will is so strong—has been drawn so carefully—that no contest can touch it; and it will stand forever between your mother and my property."
As he uttered these words, he elevated his voice, which had a ring of savage triumph in its harsh excited tones. Just then, a muffled sound attracted his attention, and seizing his gold-headed cane, he limped with evident pain to the threshold of the adjoining room.
Receiving no reply, he closed the door with a violence that jarred the whole room; and came slowly back to the table, where he stood leaning heavily on his stick.
"At least we will have no eavesdropping at this resurrection of my dead. That Ellice is now a miserable woman, I have no doubt; for truly: 'Quien se casa por amores, ha de vivir con dolores.' Of course you understand Spanish?"
"No, sir; but no matter; I take it for granted that you intend some thrust at my mother, and I have heard quite enough."
"Don't know Spanish? Why I fancied your—your 'exiled scion of a noble house'—taught all the languages under the sun; including that used by the serpent in beguiling Eve! Well, the wise old adage means: 'Who marries for love, lives with sorrow.' Ellice made her choice, and she shall abide by it; and you—being unluckily her daughter—will share the punishment. If 'fathers WILL eat sour grapes, the children's teeth MUST be set on edge.' I repudiate all claims on my parental treasury, save such as I have given to my son Prince. To every other draft I am bankrupt; but merely as a gentleman, I will now for the last time, respond to the petition of a sick woman, whose child is so loyal as to arouse my compassion. Ellice has asked for one hundred dollars. You shall have it. But first, tell me why she did not go to the hospital, and submit to the operation which she says will cure her?"
"Because I could not be with her there, and I will never be separated from her. The aneurism has grown so alarmingly, that I became desperate, and having no one to aid us, I reluctantly obeyed my mother's requirement that I should come here. I could not summon my brother, because I have no idea where a letter would reach him; and with no friend—but the God of the friendless—I am before you. There is one thing I ought to tell you; I have terrible forebodings of the result of the operation, from which the Doctor encourages her to hope so much. She will not be able to take anesthetics, at least not chloroform, because she has a weak heart, and—"
"Yes—a very weak heart! It was never strong enough to hold her to her duty."
"If you could see her now, I think even your vindictive hatred would be sufficiently gratified. So wasted, so broken!—and with such a ceaseless craving for a kind word from you. One night last week pain made her restless, and I heard her sob. When I tried to relieve the suffering, she cried bitterly: 'It is not my poor body alone—it is the gnawing hunger to see father once more. He loved me so fondly once and if I could crawl to his feet, and clasp his knees in my arms, I could at least die in peace. I am starving for just one sight of him—one touch.' My poor darling mother! My beautiful, bruised, broken flower."
Through the glittering mist of unshed tears, her eyes shone, like silver lamps; and for a moment Gen'l Darrington covered his face with one hand.
"If you could realize how bitterly galling to my own pride and self respect is this appeal to a man who hates and spurns all whom I love, I think, sir, that even you would pity me so heartily, that your hardened heart would melt into one last farewell message of forgiveness to your unfortunate daughter. I would rather carry her one word of love than all your fortune."
"No—I come of a flinty race. We never forgive insults; never condone wrongs; and expecting loyalty in our own blood, we cannot live long enough to pardon its treachery. Once, I made an idol of my beautiful, graceful, high-bred girl; but she stabbed my pride, dragged my name through the gutters, broke her doting mother's heart; and now, I tell you, she is as dead to me as if she had lain twenty-three years in her grave. I have only one message. Tell her she is reaping the tares her own hand sowed. I know her no more as child of mine, and my son fills her place so completely, I do not even miss her. That is the best I can say. No doubt I am hard, but at least I am honest; and I will not feign what I cannot feel."
He limped across the floor, to a recess on one side of the chimney, where a square vault with an iron door had been built into the wall. Leaning on his cane, he took from his pocket a bunch of keys, fitted one into the lock, and pushing the bolt, the door slid back into a groove, instead of opening on hinges. He lifted a black tin box from the depths of the vault, carried it to the table, sat down, and opened it. Near the top, were numerous papers tied into packages with red tape, and two large envelopes carefully sealed with dark-green wax. In removing the bundles, to find something beneath them, these envelopes were laid on the table; and as one was either accidentally or intentionally turned, Beryl saw the endorsement written in bold black letters, and heavily underscored in red ink: "Last Will and Testament of Robert Luke Darrington." Untying a small chamois bag, the owner counted out five twenty-dollar gold pieces, closed the bag, and replaced it in the box.
"Hold out your hand. Your mother asked fur one hundred dollars. Here is the exact amount. Henceforth, leave me in peace. I am an old man, and I advise you to 'let sleeping dogs lie.'"
If he had laid a red-hot iron on her palm, it would scarcely have been more scorching than the touch of his gold, and only the vision of a wan and woeful face in that far off cheerless attic room, restrained her impulse to throw it at his feet.
An almost intolerable humiliation dyed her pale cheeks a deep purplish crimson, and she proudly drew herself to her utmost height.
"Because I cannot now help myself, I accept the money—not as a gift, but as a loan for my mother's benefit; and so help me God! I will not owe it to you one moment longer than by hard labor I can earn and return it. Goodbye, Gen'l Darrington."
She turned toward the closed door leading to the library, but raising his cane, he held it out, to intercept her.
"Wait a moment. There is one thing more."
He took from the tin box an oblong package, wrapped in letter paper, yellowed by age, and carefully sealed with red wax. As he held it up, she read thereon: "My last folly." He tore off the paper, lifted an old fashioned morocco case, and attempted to open it, but the catch was obstinate, or rusty, and several ineffectual efforts were made, ere he succeeded in moving the spring. The once white velvet cushion, had darkened and turned very yellow, but time had robbed in no degree, the lustre of the magnificent sapphires coiled there; and the blue fires leaped out, as if rejoicing in the privilege of displaying their splendor. "This set of stones was intended as a gift to your mother, when she was graduated at boarding-school. The time fixed for the close of the session was only one month later than the day on which she eloped with that foreign fraud, who should never have been allowed in the school. My wife had promised that if your mother won the honor of valedictorian, she should have the handsomest present ever worn at a commencement. These costly sapphires were my poor wife's choice. Poor Helena! how often she admired them!" His voice faltered, and he bit his under lip to still its quiver.
Was there some necromancy in the azure flames, that suddenly revealed the beloved face of the wife of his youth, and the lovely vision of their only child? His eagle eyes were dim with tears, and his hand shook; but, as if ashamed of the weakness, he closed the jewel case with a snap, and held it out.
"Here—take them. I had intended to give them as a bridal present to my son's wife, when he marries to suit me—as he certainly will; but somehow, such a disposal seems hard on my dear Helena's wishes, and for her sake, I don't feel quite easy about leaving them to Prince's bride. Your mother never saw them, never knew of their existence. They are very valuable, and the amount they will bring must relieve all present necessities. Tell Ellice the sight of the case disturbs me, like a thorn in the flesh, so I send them away, to rid myself of an annoyance. She must not thank me; they come from her—dead mother."
"A knowledge of their history would give her infinitely more pain than the proceeds of their sale could bring comfort. I would not stab her aching heart for twenty times the value of the jewels."
"Then sell them, or do as you like. It matters not what becomes of them, if I am spared in future all reminders of the past. Put them in your pocket. What? The case is too large? Where is your trunk—your baggage?"
"I have none, except my basket and shawl."
She picked them up from the carpet near the library door, and dropped the case into her basket.
"You are a brave, and a loyal woman, and you appear to deserve far better parents than fell to your lot. Before you go, let me offer you a glass of wine, and a biscuit."
"Thank you—no. I could not possibly accept it."
"Well, we shall never meet again. Good-bye. Shake hands."
"I will very gladly do so if you will only give me just one gentle, forgiving kind word to comfort mother."
He set his teeth, and shook his head.
"Good-bye, Gen'l Darrington. When you lie down to die, I hope God will be more merciful to your poor soul, than you have shown yourself to your suffering child."
He bowed profoundly.
Her hand was on the knob of the door, when he pointed to the western veranda.
"You are going back to town? Then, if you please, be so good as to pass out through that rear entrance, and close the glass door after you. A side path leads to the lawn; and I prefer that you should not meet the servants, who pry and tattle."
When she stood on the veranda, and turned to close the wide arched glass door, whence the inside red silk curtain had been looped back, her last view of the gaunt, tall figure within, showed him leaning on his stick, with the tin box held in his left hand, and the dying sunlight shining on his silver hair and furrowed face.
Along the serpentine path which was bordered with masses of brilliant chrysanthemums, Beryl walked rapidly, feeling almost stifled by the pressure of contending emotions. Recollecting that these spice censers of Autumn were her mother's favorite flowers, she stooped and broke several lovely clusters of orange and garnet color, hoping that a lingering breath of perfume from the home of her girlhood, might afford at least a melancholy pleasure to the distant invalid.
Advancing into the elm avenue, she heard a voice calling, and looking back, saw the old negro man, Bedney, waving his white apron and running toward her; but at that moment his steps were arrested by the sudden, loud and rapid ringing of a bell. He paused, listened, wavered; then threw up his hands, and hurried back to the house, whence issued the impatient summons.
The sun had gone down in the green sea of far-off pine tops, but the western sky glowed like some vast altar of topaz, whereon zodiacal fires had kindled the rays of vivid rose, that sprang into the zenith and cooled their flush in the pale blue of the upper air. Under the elms, swift southern twilight was already filling the arches with purple gloom, and when the heavy iron gate closed with a sullen clang behind her, Beryl drew a long deep breath of relief. On the sultry atmosphere broke the gurgling andante music of the "branch," as it eddied among the nodding ferns, and darted under the bridge; and the weary, thirsty woman knelt on the mossy margin, dipped up the amber water in her palms, drank, and bathed her burning face which still tingled painfully.
Having learned from the station agent, who had already sold her a return ticket, that the north bound railway train, by which she desired to travel home, would not depart until 7.15, she was beguiled by the brilliance of the sky into the belief that she had ample time, to comply with her mother's farewell request. Mrs. Brentano had tied with a scrap of ribbon the bouquet of flowers, bought by her daughter on the afternoon of her journey south, and asked her to lay them on her mother's grave.
Anxious to accomplish this sacred mission Beryl took the faded blossoms from her basket, added a cluster of chrysanthemums, a frond of fern from the "branch" border, and hurried on to the cemetery. When she reached the entrance, the gate was locked, but unwilling to return without having gratified her mother's wish, she climbed into a spreading cedar close by the low brick wall, and swung herself easily down inside the enclosure.
Some time was lost in finding the Darrington lot, but at last she stood before a tall iron railing, that bristled with lance-like points, between the dust, of her ancestors and herself. In one corner rose a beautiful monument, bearing on its front, in gilt letters, the inscription "Helena Tracy, wife of R. L. Darrington."
Thrusting her hand through a space in the railing, Beryl dropped her mother's withered Arkja tribute on the marble slab. Her dress was caught by a sharp point of iron, and while endeavoring to disengage it, she heard the shrill whistle of the R. R. engine. Tearing the skirt away, she ran to the wall, climbed over, after some delay, and finding herself once more in the open road, darted on as fast as possible through the dusk, heedless of appearances, fearful only of missing the train. How the houses multiplied, and what interminable lengths the squares seemed, as she neared the brick warehouse and office of the station! The lamps at the street corners beckoned her on, and when panting for breath she rushed around the side of the tall building that fronted the railway, there was no train in sight.
Two or three coal cars stood on a siding, near a detached engine, where one man was lighting the lamp before the reflector of the headlight, and another, who whistled merrily, burnished the brass and copper platings. In the door of the ticket office the agent lounged, puffed his cigar, and fanned himself with his hat.
"What time is it?" cried Beryl.
"Oh! do not tell me I have missed the train."
"You certainly have. I told you it left at 7:15 sharp. It was ten minutes behind time on account of hot boxes, but rolled out just twenty minutes ago. Did you get lost hunting 'Elm Bluff,' and miss your train on that account?"
"No, I had no difficulty in finding the place, but having no watch, I was forced to guess at the time. Only twenty minutes too late!"
"Did you see the old war-horse?"
Beryl did not answer, and after a moment the agent added:
"That is Gen'l Darrington's nick-name all over this section."
"When will the next train leave here?"
"Not until 3:05 A.M."
Beryl sat down on the edge of a baggage truck, and pondered the situation. She knew that her mother, who had carefully studied the railway schedule, was with feverish anxiety expecting her return by the train, now many miles away; and she feared that any unexplained detention would have an injurious effect on the sick woman's shattered nerves.
Although she could ill afford the expense, she resolved to allay all apprehension, by the costly sedative of a telegram.
Only a wall separated the ticket office from that of the "telegraph," and approaching the operator, Beryl asked for a blank form, on which she wrote her mother's address, and the following message:
"Complete success required delay. All will be satisfactory. Expect me Saturday. B. B."
When she had paid the operator, there remained in her purse, exclusive of the gold coins received that afternoon, only thirty-eight cents. Where could she spend the next seven hours? Interpreting the perplexed expression of her face, the agent, who had curiously noted her movements, said courteously:
"There is a hotel a few blocks off, where you can rest until train time."
"I prefer to remain here."
"We generally lock up this office about half-past eight, and re-open at half-past two, which gives passengers ample accommodation for the 3:05 train."
"Would you violate regulations by leaving the waiting-room open to-night?"
"Not exactly; as of course we are obliged to keep open for delayed trains; but it will be lonesome waiting, for no one stays here, except the Night Train Despatcher, and the switch watchman. Still if it will oblige you, miss, I will not lock up, and you can doze away the time by spreading your shawl on two chairs. I am going to supper now, and shall turn down the lights. One burner will be sufficient."
"Thank you very much. Where can I find some water?"
"In the cooler in the ladies' dressing-room. It is most unaccountably hot tonight, and I never knew anything like it in October. There must be a cyclone brewing somewhere not far off."
He lifted his hat, as he passed her, and disappeared; and the tired girl seated herself near a window and stirred the dense, impure air by fanning herself with her straw hat. Gradually the few stragglers loitering about the station wandered away; the engineer stepped upon the locomotive; a piercing whistle broke suddenly on the silence settling down over the whilom busy precincts, and as the rhythmic measure of the engine bell rang farewell chimes, a pyramid of sparks leaped high, and the mighty mechanism fled down the track, hunting its own echoes. The man in charge of the express office came out, looked up and down the street; yawned, lighted his pipe, and after locking the office, wended his way homeward.
From the adjoining room came the slow monotonous clicking of the telegraph wires, as messages passed to other stations, and only the switch watchman was visible, sitting on an inverted tub, and playing snatches from "Mascotte" and "Olivette" upon a harmonicon.
Heat seemed radiating from the brick pavement outside, from the inner walls of the waiting-room; and Beryl, finding the atmosphere almost stifling, went out under the stars. Up and down she paced, until weary of the dusty thoroughfare, she turned into the street which, earlier in the day, had conducted her toward the suburbs. She knew that a full moon had climbed above the horizon, and some malign Morgana lured her on, with visions of cool pine glades paved with silver mosaics, and balmy with breath of balsam; where through vast forest naves echoed the melodious monody chanted by the reddish gold wavelets of the "branch." In the eastern sky the florid face of a hunter's moon looked down, from the level line of a leaden cloud, which striped the star emblazoned shield of night, like a bar sinister; and the white lustre of her rays was dimmed to a lurid dulness solemn and presageful.
As Beryl crossed the common near the station, and entered the pillared aisles of the pines, the air was less oppressive, but a dun haze seemed on every side to curtain the horizon, and the stars looked bleared and tired in the breathless vault above her. A man driving two cows toward town, stared at her; then a wagon drawn by four horses rattled along, bearing homeward a gay picnic party of young people, who made the woods ring with the echoes of "Hold the Fort." The grandeur of towering pines, the mysterious dimness of illimitable arcades, and the peculiar resinous odor that stole like lingering ghosts of myrrh, frankincense and onycha through the vaulted solitude of a deserted hoary sanctuary, all these phases of primeval Southern forests combined to weave a spell that the stranger could not resist.
After a while, fearful of straying too far, the weary woman threw her shawl on the brown straw, and sat down quite near the road. She leaned her bare head against the trunk of a pine, listened to the katydids gossiping in a distant oak that shaded the "branch," to the quavering strident song of a locust; and she intended, after resting for a few moments, to return to the station-house; but unexpected drowsiness overpowered her. Suddenly aroused from a sound sleep, she heard the clatter of galloping hoofs, and as she sprang up, the horse, startled by her movement, shied and reared within a few feet of the spot where she stood. The moon shone full on the glossy black animal, and upon his powerful rider, and Beryl recognized the massive head, swarthy face and keen eyes of the attorney, Lennox Dunbar. He leaned forward and said, as he patted the erect ears of his horse:
"Madam, you seem a stranger. Have you lost your way?"
"Pardon me; but having seen you this afternoon at 'Elm Bluff,' I thought it possible you had missed the road."
Standing so straight and tall, with the sheen of the moon on her faultless features, he thought she looked the incarnation of some prescient Norn, fit for the well of Urda.
She made no reply; and he touched his hat, and rode rapidly away in the direction of the town, carrying an indelible impression of the mysterious picture under the pines.
The sky had changed; the face of the moon had cleared, but tatters and scuds of smoke-colored cloud fled northward, as if scourged by a stormy current too high to stir the sultry stagnation of the lower atmospheric stratum. From its vaporous lair somewhere in the cypress and palm jungles of the Mexican Gulf borders, the tempest had risen, and before its breath the shreds of cloud flew like avant couriers of disaster. Already the lurid glare of incessant sheet lightning fought with the moon for supremacy, and from a leaden wall along the southeastern sky, came the long reverberating growl of thunder, that told where the electric batteries had opened fire. A vague foreboding, which for several days had haunted Beryl's mind, now pressed so heavily upon her, that she hurried back to the station, which was near the edge of the town; and more than once she started nervously at sight of grotesque shadows cast by the trees across the sandy road.
The streets were deserted, and lights gleamed only in upper windows of apartments, where sick sufferers tossed, or tender mothers sang soft lullabys to restless babies crooning in their cribs. Now and then a sudden gust of wind shook the yellow berries from the china trees, that bordered the pavements, and very soon the moonshine faded, then flashed fitfully, and finally vanished, as the blackening cloud swept over the face of earth and sky. The watchman dozed on his post of observation; a porter slept on a baggage truck under the awning, and as Beryl peeped into the telegraph office, she heard the snoring of the operator, whose head rested upon the table close to the silent instrument. She listened to the ticking of a clock in the ticket office, but could not see its face; wondered how late it was, and how long she had been absent. Feeling very lonely and restless she closed the door, and sat down in the deserted waiting-room, glad of the companionship of a tortoise-shell cat which was curled up on a chair next her own.
Gradually the storm approached, and she thought that an hour had elapsed, when the dust-tainted smell of rain came with the rush of cold air. There was no steady gale, but the tempest broke in frantic spasmodic gusts, as though it had lost its reckoning, and simultaneously assaulted all the points of the compass; while the lightning glared almost continuously, and the roar of the thunder was uninterrupted. Now and then a vivid zig-zag flash gored the intense darkness with its baleful blue death-light, followed by a crash, appalling as if the battlements of heaven had been shattered. Once the whole air seemed ablaze, and the simultaneous shock of the detonation was so violent, that Beryl involuntarily sank on her knees, and hid her eyes on a chair. The rain fell in torrents, that added a solemn sullen swell to the diapason of the thunder fugue, and by degrees a delicious coolness crept into the cisterns of the night.
When the cloud had wept away its fury, and electric fires burned low in the far west, a gentle shower droned on the roof, and lulled by its cadence Beryl fell asleep, still kneeling on the floor, with her head resting on the chair where the cat lay coiled.
In dreams, she wandered with her father and brother upon a Tuscan hillside draped with purple fruited grape vines, and Bertie was crushing a luscious cluster against her thirsty lips, when some noise startled her. Wide awake, she sprang to her feet, and listened.
"There ain't no train till daylight, 'cepting it be the through freight."
"When is that due?"
"Pretty soon; it's mighty nigh time now, but it don't stop here; it goes on to the water tank, whar it blows for the railroad bridge."
"How far is the bridge?"
"Only a short piece down the track, after you pass the tank."
Beryl had rushed to the window, and looked out, but no one was visible. She could scarcely mistake that peculiar voice, and was so assured of its identity, that she ran out under the awning and looked up and down the platform in front of the station buildings. The rain had ceased, but drops still pattered from the tin roof, and a few stars peeped over the ragged ravelled edge of slowly drifting clouds. By the light of a gas lamp, she saw an old negro man limping away, who held a stick over his shoulder, on which was slung a bundle wrapped in a red handkerchief; and while she stood watching, he vanished in some cul de sac. With her basket in her hand, and her shawl on her arm, she sped down the track, looking to right and left.
Once she fancied she discerned a form flying ahead of her, leaping from cross tie to cross tie to avoid the water, but when she called vehemently, only the sound of her own voice broke the silence.
Was it merely an illusion born of her vivid dream of her brother; and while scarcely awake, had she confounded the tones of a stranger, with those so long familiar? She could not shake off the conviction that Bertie had really spoken only a few yards from her, and while she stood irresolute, puzzling over the problem, the through freight train dashed by the station and left a trail of sparks and cinders. To avoid it she sprang on a pile of cross ties beside the track, and when the fiery serpent wound out of sight, she reluctantly retraced her steps. How long the night seemed! Would day never dawn again? She heard the telegraph operator whistling at his work, and as she re-entered the waiting-room, she saw the ticket agent standing in his office.
"What time is it?"
"Half-past two o'clock. I might as well have locked up as usual, for after all, you did not stay here."
"Yes I did."
He eyed her suspiciously.
"I came back from supper, and brought a pitcher of cold tea, thinking you might relish it, but you were not here. I waited nearly an hour; then I went home."
"It was so hot, I walked about outside. What a frightful storm."
"Yes, perfectly awful. Were you exposed to the worst of it?"
"No, I was here."
He shook his head, smiled, and went into the next room, knowing that when he returned to unlock his office she was not in the building, and that he had seen her coming up the railway track. The bustle of preparation soon began; the baggage wagons thundered up to the platform, porters called to one another; passengers collected in the waiting-room, carriages and omnibuses dashed about; then at 2:50 the long train of north bound cars swept in. With her shawl and basket in one hand, and the odorous bunches of chrysanthemums clasped in the other, Beryl stepped upon the platform. She found a seat at an open window, and made herself comfortable; placing her feet upon the basket which contained the jewels that constituted her sole earthly fortune. The bell rang, the train glided on, and as it passed the office door, she saw the agent watching her, with a strangely suspicious expression.
The cars wound around a curve, and she sank back and shut her eyes, rejoicing in the belief that her mission to "Elm Bluff," and its keen humiliation, were forever ended.
"I concede that point. Your lover is amply endowed with brains, and moreover has a vast amount of shrewdness, all that is requisite to secure success and eminence in his profession; but to-day, it seems as much a matter of astonishment to me—as it certainly was six months ago, when first you told me of your engagement—that you, Leo Gordon, could ever fancy just such a man as Lennox Dunbar."
"I am very sorry, Aunt Patty, that he finds no favor in your eyes, and I think he is aware of the fact that he is not in your good graces. You both look so vaguely uncomfortable when thrown into each other's presence; but for my sake you must try to like Lennox."
Miss Gordon bent her pretty head over a square of ruby velvet, whereon she was embroidering a wreath of pansies, and the delicate flush on her fair face, deepened to a vivid carnation.
"My likes or dislikes are a matter of moonshine, in comparison with your happiness. Because you are an orphan, I feel a sort of responsibility; and sometimes I am not exactly easy over the account of my stewardship I must render to my poor dead Marcia. The more I see of your lover, the more I dread your marriage. A man who makes no profession of religious belief, is an unsafe guardian of any woman's peace of mind. You who have been reared almost in the shadow of the altar, accustomed to hearing grace at your meals, to family prayers, to strict observance of our ritual, will feel isolated indeed, when transplanted to the home of a godless man, who rarely darkens the door of the sanctuary. 'Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.'"
Miss Patty Dent took off her spectacles, wiped them with the string of her white muslin cap, and adjusting them firmly on her nose, plucked nervously at the fluted lace ruffles around her wrists.
"Auntie, you are scarcely warranted in using such strong language. Because a man refrains from the public avowal of faith, incident to church membership, he is not necessarily godless; nor inevitably devoid of true religious feeling. Mr. Dunbar has a strong, reticent nature, habituated to repression of all evidences of emotion, but of the depth and earnestness of his real feeling, I entertain no doubt."
"I fear your line and plummet will never sound his depth. You often speak of his strength; but, Leo, hardness is not always strength; and he is hard, hard. I never saw a man with a chin like his, who was not tyrannical, and idolatrous of his own will. My dear, such men are as uncomfortable to live in the same house with, as a smoky chimney, or a woman with shattered nerves, or creaking doors, or draughty windows. They are a sort of everlasting east wind that never veers, blowing always to the one point, attainment of their own ends, mildewing all else. Ugh!"
Miss Patty shivered, and her companion smiled.
"What a grewsome picture, Auntie dear! Fortunately human taste is as diverse and catholic as the variety of human countenances. For example: Clara Morse raves over Mr. Dunbar's 'clear-cut features, so immensely classical'; and she pronounces his offending 'chin simply perfect! fit for a Greek God!'"
"A very thin and gauzy partition divides Clara Morse's brains from idiocy. In my day, all such feeble watery minds as hers were regarded as semi-imbecile, pitied as intellectual cripples, and wisely kept in the background of society; but, bless me! in this generation they skip and prance to the very edge of the front, pose in indecent garments without starch, or crinoline, or even the protection of pleats and gathers; and insult good, sound, wholesome common sense with the sickening affectations they are pleased to call 'aesthetics.' Don't waste your time, and dilute your own mind by quoting the silly twaddle of a poor girl who was turned loose too early on society, who falls on her knees in ecstasies before a hideous broken-nose tea-pot from some filthy hovel in Japan; and who would not dare to admire the loveliest bit of Oiron pottery, or precious old Chelsea claret-colored china in Kensington Museum, until she had turned it upside down, and hunted the potter's mark with a microscope. I say Mr. Dunbar has a domineering and tyrannical chin, and five years hence, if you do not agree with me, it will be because 'Ephraim is joined to his idols'—clay feet and all."
"Then follow the Bible injunction to 'let him alone.' I see Lennox through neither Clara's rosy lenses, nor your jaundiced glasses; and these circular discussions are as fruitless as they are unpleasant. Let us select some more agreeable topic. I gave you Leighton's letter. What think you of his scheme?"
"That it is admirable, worthy of the brain that conceived it. What a wonderful man he is, considering his age? Such a devout and fervent spirit, and withal such a marvel of executive ability. Ah! happy the woman who can command his wise guardianship, and renew her aspirations after holiness, in his spiritual society. I honor, even more than I love, Leighton Douglass."
"So do I, Aunt Patty. He is quite my ideal pastor, and when he marries, I hope his wife will be worthy of him in every respect. Only a very noble woman would suit my cousin."