With a fierce scowl of defiance Harney called for Rocket. Suspecting something wrong the animal refused to come out, and planting his fore feet firmly upon the floor of the stable, kept them all at bay. With a fierce oath, the brutal Harney gave him a stinging blow, which made the tender flesh quiver with pain, but the fiery gleam in the noble animal's eye warned him not to repeat it. Suddenly among the excited group of dusky faces he spied that of Claib, and bade him lead out the horse.
"I can't. Oh, mas'r, for the dear—" Claib began, but Harney's riding whip silenced him at once, and he went submissively in to Rocket, who became as gentle beneath his touch as a lamb.
Did the sagacious creature think then of Hugh, and fancy Claib had come to lead him home? We cannot tell. We only know how proudly he arched his graceful neck, as with dancing, mincing steps, he gamboled around Claib, rubbing his nose against the honest black face, where the tears were standing, and trying to lick the hands which had fed him so often at Spring Bank.
Loud were the cries of admiration which hailed his appearance.
The bids were very rapid, for Rocket was popular, but Harney bided his time, standing-silently by, with a look on his face of cool contempt for those who presumed to think they could be the fortunate ones. He was prepared to give more than any one else. Nobody would go above his figure, he had set it so high—higher even than Rocket was really worth. Five hundred and fifty, if necessary. No one would rise above that, Harney was sure, and quietly waited until the bids were far between, and the auctioneer still dwelling upon the last, seemed waiting expectantly for something.
"I believe my soul the fellow knows I mean to have that horse," thought Harney, and with an air which said, "that settles it," he called out in loud, clear tones, "Four hundred," thus adding fifty at one bid.
There was a slight movement then in the upper balcony, an opening of the glass door, and a suppressed whisper ran through the crowd, as Alice came out and stood by the colonel's aide.
The bidding went on briskly now, each bidder raising a few dollars, till four hundred and fifty was reached, and then there came a pause, broken only by the voice of the excited Claib, who, as he confessed to Hugh, had ventured to speak for himself, and was rewarded for his temerity by a blow from Harney. With that blow still tingling about his ears and confusing his senses, Claib could not well tell whence or from whom came that silvery, half-tremulous voice, which passed so like an electric shock through the eager crowd, and rousing Harney to a perfect fury.
There was no mistaking the words, and with a muttered curse at the fair bidder shrinking behind the colonel, and blushing, as if in shame, Harney yelled out his big price, all he had meant to give. He was mad with rage, for he knew well for whom that fair Northern girl was interested. He had heard much of Alice Johnson—had seen her occasionally in the Spring Bank carriage as she stopped in Frankfort; and once she had stopped before his store, asking, with such a pretty grace, that the piece of goods she wished to look at might be brought to her for inspection, that he had determined to take it himself, but remembered his dignity as half millionaire, and sent his head clerk instead.
Beneath Harney's coarse nature there was a strange susceptibility to female beauty, and neither the lustrous blue of Alice's large eyes, nor yet the singular sweetness of her voice, as she thanked the clerk for his trouble, had been forgotten. He had heard that she was rich—how rich he did not know—but fancied she might possibly be worth a few paltry thousands, not more, and so, of course, she was not prepared to compete with him, who counted his gold by hundreds of thousands. Five hundred was all she would give for Rocket. How, then was he surprised and chagrined when, with a coolness equal to his own, she kept steadily on, scarcely allowing the auctioneer to repeat his bid before she increased it, and once, womanlike, raising on her own.
"Fie, Harney! Shame to go against a girl! Better give it up, for don't you see she's resolved to have him? She's worth half Massachusetts, too, they say."
These and like expressions met Harney on every side, until at last, as he paused to answer some of them, growing heated in the altercation, and for the instant forgetting Rocket, the auctioneer brought the hammer down with a click which made Harney leap from the ground, for by that sound he knew that Rocket was sold to Alice Johnson for six hundred dollars!
Meantime Alice had sought the friendly shelter of Ellen's room, where the tension of nerve endured so long gave way, and sinking upon the sofa she fainted, just as down the Lexington turnpike came the man looked for so long in the earlier part of the day. She could not err, in Mr. Liston's estimation, and Alice grew calm again, and in a hurried consultation explained to him more definitely than her letter had done, what her wishes were—Colonel Tiffton must not be homeless in his old age. There were ten thousand dollars lying in the —— Bank in Massachusetts, so she would have Mosside purchased in her name for Colonel Tiffton, not as a gift, for he would not accept it, but as a loan, to be paid at his convenience. This was Alice's plan, and Mr. Liston acted upon it at once. Taking his place in the motley assemblage, he bid quietly, steadily, until at last Mosside, with its appurtenances, belonged ostensibly to him, and the half-glad, half-disappointed people wondered greatly who Mr. Jacob Liston could be, or from what quarter of the globe he had suddenly dropped into their midst.
Colonel Tiffton knew that nearly everything had been purchased by him, and felt glad that a stranger rather than a neighbor was to occupy what had been so dear to him, and that his servants would not be separated. With Ellen it was different. A neighbor might allow them to remain there a time, she said, while a stranger would not, and she was weeping bitterly, when, as the sound of voices and the tread of feet gradually died away from the yard below, Alice came to her side, and bending over her, said softly, "Could you bear some good news now—bear to know who is to inhabit Mosside?"
"Good news?" and Ellen looked up wonderingly.
"Yes, good news, I think you will call it," and then as deliberately as possible Alice told what had been done, and that the colonel was still to occupy his old home, "As my tenant, if you like," she said to him, when he began to demur.
When at last it was clear to the old man, he laid his hand upon the head of the young girl and whispered huskily, "I cannot thank you as I would, or tell you what's in my heart, God bless you, Alice Johnson."
Alice longed to say a word to him of the God to whom he had thus paid tribute, but she felt the time was hardly then, and after a few more assurances to Ellen started for Spring Bank, where Mrs. Worthington and Adah were waiting for her.
They had kept it all from Hugh, telling him only that a stranger had purchased Mosside. He had not asked for Rocket, or even mentioned him, though his pet was really uppermost in his mind, and when he awoke next morning from his feverish sleep and remembered Alice's proposal to ride, he said to himself, "I cannot go, much as I might enjoy it. No other horse would carry me as gently as Rocket. Oh! Rocket!"
It was a bright, balmy morning, and Hugh, as he walked slowly to the window and inhaled the fragrant air, felt that it would do him good, "But I shan't go," he said, and when, after breakfast was over, Alice came, reminding him of the ride, he began an excuse, but his resolution quickly gave way before her sprightly arguments, and he finally assented, saying, however: "You must not expect a gay cavalier, for I am still too weak, and I have no horse fit to ride with you, at least."
"Yes, I know," and Alice ran gayly to her room and donned her riding dress, wondering what Hugh would say and how Rocket would act.
He was out in the back yard now, pawing and curvetting, and rubbing his nose against all who came near him, while Claib was holding him by his new bridle and talking to him of Mas'r Hugh.
Even an ugly woman is improved by a riding costume, and Alice, beautiful though she was, looked still more beautiful in her closely-fitting habit.
"There, I'm ready," she said, running down to Hugh.
At sight of her his face flushed, while a half sigh escaped him as he thought how proud he would once have been to ride with her; but that was in the days of Rocket, when rider and horse were called the best in the county.
"Where's Jim?" Hugh asked, glancing around in quest of the huge animal he expected to mount, and which he had frequently likened to a stone wall.
"Claib has your horse. He's coming," and with great apparent unconcern Alice worked industriously at one of her fairy gantlets.
Suddenly Adah flew to Hugh's side, and said, eagerly:
"Hugh, please whistle once, just as you used to do for Rocket—just once, and let Miss Johnson hear you."
Hugh felt as if she were mocking him, but he yielded, while like a gleam of lightning the shadow of a suspicion flitted across his mind. It was a loud, shrill whistle, penetrating even to the woods, and the instant the old familiar sound fell on Rocket's ear he went tearing around the house, answering that call with the neigh he had been wont to give when summoned by his master. Utterly speechless, Hugh stood gazing at him as he came up, his neck arched proudly, and his silken mane flowing as gracefully as on the day when he was led away to Colonel Tiffton's stall.
"Won't somebody tell me what it means?" Hugh gasped, stretching out his hands toward Rocket, who even attempted to lick them.
At this point Alice stepped forward, and taking Rocket's bridle, laid it across Hugh's lap, saying, softly:
"It means that Rocket is yours, purchased by a friend, saved from Harney, for you. Mount him, and see if he rides as easily as ever. I am impatient to be off."
But had Hugh's life depended upon it, he could not have mounted Rocket then. He knew the friend was Alice, and the magnitude of the act overpowered him.
"Oh, Miss Johnson," he cried, "what made you do it? It must not be. I cannot suffer it."
"Not to please me?" and Alice's face wore its most winning look. "It's been my fixed determination ever since I heard of Rocket, and knew how much you loved him. I was never so happy doing an act in my life, and now you must not spoil it all by refusing."
"As a loan, then, not as a gift," Hugh whispered. "It shall not be a gift."
"It need not," Alice rejoined, as a sudden plan for carrying out another project crossed her mind. "You shall pay for Rocket if you like, and I'll tell you how on our ride. Shall we go?"
Once out upon the highway, where there were no mud holes to shun, no gates to open and shut, Hugh broached the subject of Rocket again, when Alice told him unhesitatingly how he could, if he would, pay for him and leave her greatly his debtor. The scrap of paper, which Muggins had saved from the letter thrown by Hugh upon the carpet, had been placed by the queer little child in an old envelope, which she called her letter to Miss Alice. Handing it to her that morning with the utmost gravity, she had asked her to read "Mug's letter," and Alice had read the brief lines written by 'Lina: "Hugh must send the money, as I told him before. He can sell Mug; Harney likes pretty darkies." There was a cold, sick feeling at Alice's heart, a shrinking with horror from 'Lina Worthington, and then she came to a decision. Mug should be hers, and so, as skillfully as she could she brought it around, that having taken a great fancy both to Lulu and Muggins, she wished to buy them both, giving whatever Hugh honestly thought they were worth. Rocket, if he pleased, should be taken as part or whole payment for Mug, and so cease to be a gift.
"I have no mercenary motives in the matter," she said, "With me they will be free, and this, I am sure, will be an inducement for you to consent to my proposal."
A slave master can love his bond servant, and Hugh loved the little Mug so much that the idea of parting with her as he surely must at some future time if he assented to Alice's plan, made him hesitate. But he decided at last, influenced not so much by need of money as by knowing how much real good the exchange of ownership would be to the two young girls. In return for Rocket, Alice should have Muggins, while for Lulu she might give what she liked.
"Heaven knows," he added, "it is not my nature to hold any one in bondage, and I shall gladly hail the day which sees the negro free. But our slaves are our property. Take them from us and we are ruined wholly. Miss Johnson, do you honestly believe that one in forty of those Northern abolitionists would deliberately give up ten—twenty—fifty thousand dollars, just because the thing valued at that was man and not beast? No, indeed. Southern people, born and brought up in the midst of slavery, can't see it as the North does, and there's where the mischief lies."
He had wandered from Lulu and Muggins to the subject which then, far more than the North believed, was agitating the Southern mind. Then they talked of 'Lina, Hugh telling Alice of her intention to pass the winter with Mrs. Ellsworth, and speaking also of Irving Stanley.
"By the way, Ad writes that Irving was interested in you, and you in him," Hugh said, rather abruptly, stealing a glance at Alice, who answered frankly:
"I can hardly say that I know much of him, though once, long ago—"
She paused here, and Hugh waited anxiously for what she would say next. But Alice, changing her mind, only added:
"I esteem Mr. Stanley very highly. He is a gentleman, a scholar and a Christian."
"You like him better for that, I suppose—better for being a Christian, I mean," Hugh replied, a little bitterly.
"Oh, yes, so much better," and reining her horse closer to Hugh, Alice rode very slowly, while in earnest tones she urged on Hugh the one great thing he needed. "You are not offended?" she asked, as he continued silent.
"No, oh, no. I never had any religious teaching, only once; an angel flitted across my path, leaving a track of glorious sunshine, but the clouds have been there since, and the sunshine is most all gone."
Alice knew he referred to the maiden of whose existence Mug had told her, and she longed to ask him of her. Who was she, and where was she now? Alas, that she should have been so deceived, or that Hugh, when she finally did ask, "Who was the angel that crossed his path?" should answer evasively.
Just before turning into the Spring Bank fields, a horseman came dashing down the pike, checking his steed a moment as he drew near, and then, with a savage frown, spurring on his foam-covered horse, muttering between his teeth a curse on Hugh Worthington.
"That was Harney?" Alice said, stopping a moment outside the gate to look after him as he went tearing down the pike.
"Yes, that was Harney," Hugh replied. "There's a political meeting of some kind in Versailles to-day, and I suppose he is going there to raise his voice with those who are denouncing the Republicans so bitterly, and threatening vengeance if they succeed."
"The South will hardly be foolish enough to secede. Why, the North would crush them at once," returned Alice, still looking after Harney, as if she knew she were gazing after one destined to figure conspicuously in the fast approaching rebellion, his very name a terror and dread to the loyal, peace-loving citizens of Kentucky.
HUGH AND ALICE
Three weeks had passed away since that memorable ride. Mr. Liston, after paying to the proper recipients the money due for Mosside, had returned to Boston, leaving the neighborhood to gossip of Alice's generosity, and to wonder how much she was worth. It was a secret yet that Lulu and Muggins were hers, but the story of Rocket was known, and numerous were the surmises as to what would be the result of her daily, familiar intercourse with Hugh. Already was the effect of her presence visible in his improved appearance, his gentleness of manner, his care to observe all the little points of etiquette never practiced by him before, and his attention to his own personal appearance. His trousers were no longer worn inside his boots, or his soft hat jammed into every conceivable shape, while Ellen Tiffton, who came often to Spring Bank, and was supposed to be good authority, pronounced him almost as stylish looking as any man in Woodford.
To Hugh, Alice was everything, and he did not know himself how much he loved her, save when he thought of Irving Stanley, and then the keen, sharp pang of jealous pain which wrung his heart told him how strong was the love he bore her. And Alice, in her infatuation concerning the mysterious Golden Hair, did much to feed the flame. He was to her like a beloved brother; indeed, she had one day playfully entered into a compact with him that she should be his sister, and never dreaming of the mischief she was doing, she treated him with all the familiarity of a pure, loving sister. It was Alice who rode with him almost daily. It was Alice who sang his favorite songs. It was Alice who brought his armchair in the evening when his day's work was over; Alice who worked his slippers; Alice who brushed his coat when he was going to town; Alice who sometimes tied his cravat, standing on tiptoe, with her fair face so fearfully near to his that all his powers of self-denial were needed to keep from touching his lips to the smooth brow gleaming so white and fair before his eyes.
Sometimes the wild thought crossed his mind that possibly he might win her for himself, but it was repudiated as soon as formed, and so, between hope and a kind of blissful despair, blissful so long as Alice stayed with him as she was now, Hugh lived on, until at last the evening came when Adah was to leave Spring Bank on the morrow. She had intended going immediately after the sale at Mosside, but Willie had been ailing ever since, and that had detained her. Everything which Alice could do for her had been done. Old Sam, at thoughts of parting with his little charge, had cried his dim eyes dimmer yet. Mrs. Worthington, too, had wept herself nearly sick, for now that the parting drew near she began to feel how dear to her was the young girl who had come to them so strangely.
"More like a daughter you seem to me," she had said to Adah, in speaking of her going; "and once I had a wild—" here she stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished, for she did not care to tell Adah of the shock it had given her when Hugh first pointed out to her the faint mark on Adah's forehead.
It was fainter now even than then, for with increasing color and health it seemed to disappear, and Mrs. Worthington could scarcely see it, when with a caressing movement of her hand she put the silken hair back from Adah's brow and kissed the bluish veins.
"There is none there. It was all a fancy," she murmured to herself, and then thinking of 'Lina, she said to Adah what she had all along meant to say, that if the Richards' family should question her of 'Lina, she was to divulge nothing to her disparagement, whether she were rich or poor, high or low. "You must not, of course, tell any untruths. I do not ask that, but I—oh, I sometimes wish they need not know that you came from here, as that would save all trouble, and 'Lina is so—so—"
Mrs. Worthington did not finish the sentence, for Adah instantly silenced her by answering frankly:
"I do not intend they shall know, not at present certainly."
Adah retired early, as did both Mrs. Worthington and Densie, for all were unusually tired; only Hugh, as he supposed, was up, and he sat by the parlor fire where they had passed the evening. He was very sorry Adah was going, but it was not so much of her he was thinking as of Alice. Had she dreamed of his real feelings, she never would have done what she did, but she was wholly unconscious of it, and so, when, late that night, she returned to the parlor in quest of something she had left, and found him sitting there alone, she paused a moment on the threshold, wondering if she had better join him or go away. His back was toward her, and he did not hear her light step, so intently was he gazing into the burning grate, and trying to frame the words he should say if ever he dared tell Alice Johnson of his love.
There was much girlish playfulness in Alice's nature, and sliding across the carpet, she clasped both her hands before his eyes, and exclaimed:
"A penny for your thoughts."
Hugh started as suddenly as if some apparition had appeared before him, and blushing guiltily, clasped and held upon his face the little soft, warm hands which did not tremble, but lay still beneath his own. It was Providence which sent her there, he thought; Providence indicating that he might speak, and he would.
"I am glad you have come. I wish to talk with you," he said, drawing her down into a chair beside him, and placing his arm lightly across its back. "What sent you here, Alice? I supposed you had retired," he continued, bending upon her a look which made her slightly uncomfortable.
But she soon recovered, and answered laughingly:
"I, too, supposed you had retired. I came for my scissors, and finding you here alone, thought I would startle you, but you have not told me yet of what you were thinking."
"Of the present, past and future," he replied; then, letting his hand drop from the back of the chair upon her shoulder, he continued: "May I talk freely with you? May I tell you of myself, what I was, what I am, what I hope to be?"
Her cheeks burned dreadfully, and her voice was not quite steady, as, rising from her seat, she said:
"I like a stool better than this chair. I'll bring it and sit at your feet. There, now I am ready," and seating herself at a safe distance from him, Alice waited for him to commence.
She grew tired of waiting, and turning her lustrous eyes upon him, said gently:
"You seem unhappy about something. Is it because Adah leaves to-morrow? I am sorry, too; sorry for me, sorry for you; but, Hugh, I will do what I can to fill her place. I will be the sister you need so much. Don't look so wretched; it makes me feel badly to see you."
Alice's sympathy was getting the better of her again, and she moved her stool a little nearer to Hugh, while she involuntarily laid her hand upon his knee. That decided him; and while his heart throbbed almost to bursting, he began by saying:
"I am in rather a gloomy mood to-night, I'll admit. I do feel Adah's leaving us very much; but that is not all. I have wished to talk with you a long time—wished to tell you how I feel. May I, Alice?—may I open to you my whole heart, and show you what is there?"
For a moment Alice felt a thrill of fear—a dread of what the opening of his heart to her might disclose. Then she remembered Golden Hair, whose name she had never heard him breathe, save as it passed his delirious lips. It was of her he would talk; he would tell her of that hidden love whose existence she felt sure was not known at Spring Bank. Alice would rather not have had this confidence, for the deep love-life of such as Hugh Worthington seemed to her a sacred thing; but he looked so white, so careworn, so much as if it would be a relief, that Alice answered at last:
"Yes, Hugh, you may tell, and I will listen."
He began by telling Alice first of his early boyhood, uncheered by a single word of sympathy save as it came from dear Aunt Eunice, who alone understood the wayward boy whom people thought so bad.
"Even she did not quite understand me," he said; "she did not dream of that hidden recess in my heart which yearned so terribly for a human love—for something or somebody to check the evil passions so rapidly gaining the ascendant. Neither did she know how often, in the silent night, the boy they thought so flinty, so averse to womankind, wept for the love he had no hope of gaining.
"Then mother and Ad came to Spring Bank, and that opened to me a new era. In my odd way, I loved my mother so much—so much; but Ad—say, Alice, is it wicked in me if I can't love Ad?"
"She is your sister," was Alice's reply; and Hugh rejoined:
"Yes—my sister. I'm sorry for it, even, if it's wicked to be sorry. She gave me back only scorn and bitter words, until my heart closed up against her, and I harshly judged all others by her—all but one!" and Hugh's voice grew very low and tender in its tone, while Alice felt that now he was nearing the Golden Hair.
"Away off in New England, among the Yankee hills, there was a pure, white blossom growing; a blossom so pure, so fair, that few, very few, were worthy even so much as to look upon it, as day by day it unfolded some new beauty. There was nothing to support this flower but a single frail parent stalk, which snapped asunder one day, and Blossom was left alone. It was a strange idea, transplanting it to another soil; for the atmosphere of Spring Bank was not suited to such as she. But she came, and, as by magic, the whole atmosphere was changed—changed at least to one—the bad, wayward Hugh, who dared to love this fair young girl with a love stronger than his life. For her he would do anything, and beneath her influence he did improve rapidly. He was conscious of it himself—conscious of a greater degree of self-respect—a desire to be what she would like to have him.
"She was very, very beautiful; more so than anything Hugh had ever looked upon. Her face was like an angel's face, and her hair—much like yours, Alice;" and he laid his hand on the bright head, now bent down, so that he could not see that face so like an angel's.
The little hand, too, had slid from his knee, and, fastlocked within the other, was buried in Alice's lap, as she listened with throbbing heart to the story Hugh was telling.
"In all the world there was nothing so dear to Hugh as this young girl. He thought of her by day and dreamed of her by night, seeing always in the darkness her face, with its eyes of blue bending over him—hearing the music of her voice, like the falling of distant water, and even feeling the soft touch of her hands as he fancied them laid upon his brow. She was good, too, as beautiful; and it was this very goodness which won on Hugh so fast, making him pray often that he might be worthy of her—for, Alice, he came at last to dream that he could win her; she was so kind to him—she spoke to him so softly, and, by a thousand little acts, endearing herself to him more and more.
"Heaven forgive her if she misled him all this while; but she did not. It were worse than death to think she did—to know I've told you this in vain—have offered you my heart only to have it thrust back upon me as something you do not want. Speak, Alice! in mercy, speak! Can it be that I'm mistaken?"
Alice saw how she had unwittingly led him on, and her white lips quivered with pain. Lifting up her head at last, she exclaimed:
"You don't mean me, Hugh! Oh, you don't mean me?"
"Yes, darling," and he clasped in his own the hand raised imploringly toward him. "Yes, darling, I mean you. Will you be my wife?"
Alice had never before heard a voice so earnest, so full of meaning, as the one now pleading with her to be what she could not be. She must do something, and sliding from her stool she sank upon her knees—her proper attitude—upon her knees before Hugh, whom she had wronged so terribly, and burying her face in Hugh's own hands, she sobbed:
"Oh, Hugh, Hugh! you don't know what you ask. I love you dearly, but only as my brother—believe me, Hugh, only as a brother. I wanted one so much—one of my own, I mean; but God denied that wish, and gave me you instead. I'm sorry I ever came here, but I cannot go away. I've learned to love my Kentucky home. Let me stay just the same. Let me really be what I thought I was, your sister. You will not send me away?"
She looked up at him now, but quickly turned away, for the expression of his white, haggard face was more than she could bear, and she knew there was a pang, keener even than any she had felt, a pang which must be terrible, to crush a strong man as Hugh was crushed.
"Forgive me, Hugh," she said, as he did not speak, but sat gazing at her in a kind of stunned bewilderment. "You would not have me for your wife, if I did not love you?"
"Never, Alice, never!" he answered. "But it is not any easier to bear. I don't know why I asked you, why I dared hope that you could think of me. I might have known you could not. Nobody does. I cannot win their love. I don't know how."
Alice neither looked up nor moved, only sobbed piteously, and this more than aught else helped Hugh to choke down his own sorrow for the sake of comforting her. The sight of her distress moved him greatly, for he knew it was grief that she had so cruelly misled him.
"Alice, darling," he said again, this time as a mother would soothe her child. "Alice, darling, it hurts me more to see you thus than your refusal did. I am not wholly selfish in my love. I'd rather you should be happy than to be happy myself. I would not for the world take to my bosom an unwilling wife. I should be jealous even of my own caresses, jealous lest the very act disgusted her more and more. You did not mean to deceive me. It was I that deceived myself. I forgive you fully, and ask you to forget that to-night has ever been. It cut me sorely at first, Alice, to hear you tell me so, but I shall get over it; the wound will heal."
"Oh, Hugh, don't; you break my heart. I'd rather you should scorn, or even hate me, for the sorrow I have brought. Such unselfish kindness will kill me," Alice sobbed, for never had she been so touched as by this insight into the real character of the man she had refused.
He would not hold her long in his arms, though it were bliss to do so, and putting her gently in the chair, he leaned his own poor sick head upon the mantel, while Alice watched him with streaming eyes and an aching heart, which even then half longed to give itself into his keeping. At last it was her turn to speak, hers the task to comfort. The prayer she had inwardly breathed for guidance to act aright had not been unheard, and with a strange calmness she arose, and laying her hand on Hugh's arm, bade him be seated, while she told him what she had to say. He obeyed her, sinking into the offered chair, and then standing before him, she began:
"You do not wish me to go away, you say. I have no desire to go, except it should be better for you. Even though I may not be your wife, I can, perhaps, minister to your happiness; and, Hugh, we will forget to-night, forget what has occurred, and be to each other what we were before, brother and sister. There must be no particular perceptible change of manner, lest others should suspect what has passed between us. Do you agree to this?"
He bowed his head, and Alice drew a step nearer to him, hesitating a moment ere she continued:
"You speak of a rival. I do not know that you have one. Sure it is I am bound to no one by any pledge, or promise, or tie, unless it be a tie of gratitude."
Hugh glanced up quickly now, and the words, "You are mistaken; it was not Irving Stanley," trembled on his lips, but his strong will fought them back, and Alice went on.
"I will be frank with you, and say that I have seen one who pleased me, both for the noble qualities he possessed, and because I had thought so much of meeting him, of expressing to him my thanks for a great favor done when I was only a child. There's a look in your face like his; you remind me of him often; and, Hugh—" the little hand pressed more closely on Hugh's shoulder, while Alice's breath came heavily, "And, Hugh, it may be, that in time I can conscientiously give you a different answer from what I did to-night. I may love as your wife should love you; and—and, Hugh, if I do, I'll tell you so at the proper time."
There was a gleam of sunshine now to illumine the thick darkness, and, in the first moments of his joy Hugh wound his arm around the slight form, and tried to bring it nearer to him. But Alice stepped back and answered:
"No, Hugh, that would be wrong. It may be I shall never come to love you save as I love you now, but I'll try—I will try," and unmindful of her charge to him, Alice parted the damp curls clustering around his forehead, and looked into his face with an expression which made his heart bound and throb with the sudden hope that even now she loved him better than she supposed.
It was growing very late, and the clock in the adjoining room struck one ere Alice bade Hugh good-night, saying to him:
"No one must know of this. We'll be just the same to each other as we have been."
"Yes, just the same, if that can be," Hugh answered, and so they parted.
The night express from Rochester to Albany was crowded. Every car was full, or seemed to be, and the clamorous bell rang out its first summons for all to get on board, just as a pale, frightened-looking woman, bearing in her slender arms a sleeping boy, whose little face showed signs of suffering, stepped upon the platform of the rear carriage, and looked wistfully in at the long, dark line of passengers filling every seat. Wearily, anxiously, she had passed through every car, beginning at the first, her tired eyes scanning each occupant, as if mutely begging some one to have pity on her ere exhausted nature failed entirely, and she sank fainting to the floor. None had heeded that silent appeal, though many had marked the pallor of her girlish face, and the extreme beauty of the baby features nestling in her bosom. She could not hold out much longer, and when she reached the last car and saw that, too, was full, the delicate chin quivered perceptibly, and a tear glistened in the long eyelashes, sweeping the colorless cheek.
Slowly she passed up the aisle until she came to where there was indeed a vacant seat, only a gentleman's shawl was piled upon it, and he, the gentleman, looking so unconcernedly from the window, and apparently oblivious of her close proximity to him, would not surely object to her sitting there. How the tired woman did wish he would turn toward her, would give some token that she was welcome, would remove his heavy plaid, and say to her courteously, "Sit here, madam." But no, his eyes were only intent on the darkness without; he had no care for her, Adah, though he knew she was there.
The oil lamp was burning dimly, and the girl's white face was lost in the shadow, when the young man first glanced at her, so he had no suspicion of the truth, though a most indefinable sensation crept over him as he heard the timid footfall, and the rustling of female garments as Adah Hastings drew near with her boy in her arms. He knew she stopped before him; he knew, too, why she stopped, and for a brief instant his better nature bade him be a man and offer her what he knew she wanted. But only for an instant, and then his selfishness prevailed. "He would not seem to see her, he would not be bothered by a woman with a brat. If there was anything he hated it was a woman traveling with a young one, a squalling young one. They would never catch his wife, when he had one, doing a thing so unladylike. A car was no place for children. He hated the whole of them."
Adah passed on, her weary sigh falling distinctly on his ear, but falling to awaken a feeling of remorse for his unmanly conduct.
"I'm glad she's gone. I can't be bothered," was his mental comment as he settled himself more comfortably, feeling a glow of satisfaction when the train began to move, and he knew no more women with their babies would be likely to trouble him.
With that first heavy strain of the machinery Adah lost her balance, and would have fallen headlong but for the friendly hand put forth to save the fall.
"Take my seat, miss. It is not very convenient, but it is better than none. I can find another."
It was the friendliest voice imaginable which said these words to Adah, and the kind tone in which they were uttered wrung the hot tears at once from her eyes. She did not look up at him. She only knew that some one, a gentleman, had arisen and was bending over her; that a hand, large, white and warm, was laid upon her shoulder, putting her gently into the narrow seat next the saloon; that the same hand took from her and hung above her head the little satchel which was so much in her way, and that the manly voice, so sympathetic in its tone, asked if she would be too warm so near the fire.
She did not know there was a fire. She only knew that she had found a friend, and with the delicious feeling of safety which the knowledge brought, the tension of her nerves gave way, and burying her head on Willie's face she wept for a moment silently. Then, lifting it up, she tried to thank her benefactor, looking now at him for the first time, and feeling half overawed to find him so tall, so stylish, so exceedingly refined and aristocratic in every look and action.
Irving Stanley was a passenger on that train, bound for Albany. Like Dr. Richards, he had hoped to enjoy a whole seat, even though it were not a very comfortable one, but when he saw how pale and tired Adah was, he arose at once to offer his seat. He heard her sweet, low voice as she tried to thank him. He saw, too, the little, soft, white hands, holding so fast to Willie. Was he her brother or her son? She was young to be his mother. Perhaps she was his sister; but, no, there was no mistaking the mother-love shining out from the brown eyes turned so quickly upon the boy when he moaned, as if in pain, and seemed about to waken.
"He's been sick most all the way," she said. "There's something the matter with his ear, I think, as he complains of that. Do children ever die with the earache?"
Irving Stanley hardly thought they did. At all events, he never heard of such a case, and then, after suggesting a remedy, should the pain return, he left his new acquaintance.
"A part of your seat, sir, if you please," and Irving's voice was rather authoritative than otherwise, as he claimed the half of what the doctor was monopolizing.
It was of no use for Dr. Richards to pretend he was asleep, for Irving spoke so like a man who knew what he was doing, that the doctor was compelled to yield, and turning about, recognized his Saratoga acquaintance. The recognition was mutual, and after a few natural remarks, Irving explained how he had given his seat to a lady, who seemed ready to drop with fatigue and anxiety concerning her little child, who was suffering from the earache.
"By the way, doctor," he added, "you ought to know the remedy for such ailments. Suppose you prescribe in case it returns. I do pity that young woman."
Dr. Richards stared at him in astonishment.
"I know but little about babies or their aches," he answered at last, just as a scream of pain reached his ear, accompanied by a suppressed effort on the mother's part to soothe her suffering child.
The pain must have been intolerable, for the little fellow, in his agony, writhed from Adah's lap and sank upon the floor, his waxen hand pressed convulsively to his ear, and his whole form quivering with anguish as he cried, "Oh, ma! ma! ma! ma!"
The hardest heart could scarce withstand that scene, and many now gathered near, offering advice and help, while even Dr. Richards turned toward the group gathering by the door, experiencing a most unaccountable sensation as that baby cry smote on his ear. Foremost among those who offered aid was Irving Stanley. His was the voice which breathed comfort to the weeping Adah, his the hand extended to take up little Willie, his the arms which held and soothed the struggling boy, his the mind which thought of everything available that could possibly bring ease.
"Who'll give me a cigar? I do not use them myself. Ask him," he said, pointing to the doctor, who mechanically took a fine Havana from the case and half-grudgingly handed it to the lady, who hurried back with it to Irving Stanley.
To break it up and place it in Willie's ear was the work of a moment, and ere long the fierce outcries ceased as Willie grew easier and lay quietly in Irving Stanley's arms.
"I'll take him now," and Adah put out her hands; but Willie refused to go, and clung closer to Mr. Stanley, who said, laughingly: "You see that I am preferred. He is too heavy for you to hold. Please trust him to me, while you get the rest you need."
And Adah yielded to that voice as if it were one which had a right to say what she must do, and leaning back against the window, rested her tired head upon her hand, while Irving carried Willie to his seat beside the doctor! There was a slight sneer on the doctor's face as he saw the little boy.
"You don't like children, I reckon," Irving said, as the doctor drew back from the little feet which unconsciously touched his lap.
"No, I hate them," was the answer, spoken half-savagely, for at that moment a tiny hand was deliberately laid on his, as Willie showed a disposition to be friendly. "I hate them," and the little hand was pushed rudely off.
Wonderingly the soft, large eyes of the child looked up to his. Something in their expression riveted the doctor's gaze as by a spell. There were tears in the baby's eyes, and the pretty lip began to quiver at the harsh indignity. The doctor's finer feelings, if he had any, were touched, and muttering to himself, "I'm a brute," he slouched his riding cap still lower down upon his forehead, and turning away to the window, relapsed into a gloomy reverie.
As they drew near to Albany, another piercing shriek from Willie arose even above the noise of the train. The paroxysms of pain had returned with such severity that the poor infant's face became a livid purple, while Adah's tears dropped upon it like rain. Again the sympathetic women gathered around, again Dr. Richards, aroused from his uneasy sleep, muttered invectives against children in general and this one in particular, while again Irving Stanley hastened to the rescue, his the ruling mind which overmastered the others, planning what should be done, and seeing that his plans were executed.
"You cannot go on this morning. Your little boy must have rest and medical advice," he said to Adah, when at last the train stopped in Albany. "I have a few moments to spare. I will see that you are comfortable. You are going to Snowdon, I think you said. There is an acquaintance of mine on board who is also bound for Snowdon. I might—"
Irving Stanley paused here, for certain doubts arose in his mind, touching the doctor's willingness to be troubled with strangers.
"Oh, I'd rather go on alone," Adah exclaimed, as she guessed what he had intended saying.
"It's quite as well, I reckon," was Mr. Stanley's reply, and taking Willie in his arms, he conducted Adah to the nearest hotel.
"If you please, you will not engage a very expensive room for me. I can't afford it," Adah said, timidly, as she followed her conductor into the parlor of the Delavan.
She was poor, then. Irving would hardly have guessed it from her appearance, but this frank avowal which many would not have made, only increased his respect for her, while he wished so much that she might have one of the handsome sitting-rooms, of whose locality he knew so well.
It was a cozy, pleasant little chamber into which she was finally ushered, too nice, Adah feared, half trembling for the bill when she should ask for it, and never dreaming that just one-half the price had been paid by Irving, whose kind heart prompted him to the generous act.
There were but a few moments now ere he must leave, and standing by her side, with her little hand in his, he said:
"The meeting with you has been to me a pleasant incident, and I shall not soon forget it. I trust we may meet again. There is my card. I am acquainted North, South, East and West. Perhaps I know your husband. You have one?" he added quickly, as he saw the hot blood stain her face and neck to a most unnatural color.
He had not the remotest suspicion that she had never been a wife; he only thought from her agitation that she possibly was a widow, and unconsciously to himself the idea was fraught with a vague feeling of gladness, for, to most men, it is pleasanter knowing they have been polite to a pretty girl, or even a pretty widow, than to a wife, whose lord might object, and Irving was not an exception. Was she a widow, and had he unwittingly touched the half-healed wound? He wished he knew, and he stood waiting for her answer to his question, "You have a husband?"
At a glance Adah had read the name upon the card, knowing now who had befriended her. It was Irving Stanley, Augusta's brother, second cousin to Hugh, and 'Lina was with his sister in New York. He was going there, he might speak of her, and if she told her name, her miserable story would be known to more than it was already. It was a false pride which kept Adah silent when she knew that Irving Stanley was waiting for her to speak, wondering at her agitated manner. He was looking at her eyes, her large brown eyes, which dared not meet his, and as he looked a terrible suspicion crept over him. Involuntarily he felt for her third finger. It was ringless, and he dropped it suddenly, but with a feeling that he might be unjust, that all were not of his church and creed, he took it again, and said his parting words. Then, turning to Willie, he smoothed the silken curls, praised the beauty of the sleeping child, and left the room.
Adah knew that he was gone, that she should not see him again, and that, at the very last, there had arisen some misunderstanding, she hardly knew what, for the shock of finding who he was had prevented her from fully comprehending the fact that he had asked her for her husband. She never dreamed of the suspicion which, for an instant, had a lodgment in his breast, or she would almost have died where she stood, gazing at the door through which he had disappeared.
"I ought to have told him my name, but I could not," she sighed, as the sound of his rapid footsteps died upon the stairs.
They ceased at last, and with a feeling of utter desolation, as if she were now indeed alone, Adah sank upon her knees, and covering her face with her hands, wept bitterly. Anon, however, holier, calmer feelings swept over her. She was not alone. They who love God can never be alone, however black the darkness be around them. And Adah did love Him, thanking Him at last for raising her up this friend in her sore need, for putting it into Irving Stanley's heart to care for her, a stranger, as he had done. And as she prayed, the wish arose that George had been, more like him. He would not then have deserted her, she sobbed, while again her lips breathed a prayer for Irving Stanley, thoughts of whom even then made her once broken heart beat as she had never expected it to beat again.
So absorbed was Adah that she did not hear the returning footsteps as Irving came across the hall. He had remembered some directions he would give her, and at the risk of being left, had come back a moment. She did not hear the turning of the knob, the opening of the door, or know that he for whom she prayed was standing so near to her that he heard distinctly what she said, kneeling there by the chair where he had sat, her fair head bent down and her face concealed from view.
"God in heaven bless and keep the noble Irving Stanley."
* * * * *
In the office below, Dr. Richards, who had purposely stopped for the day in Albany, smoked his expensive cigars, ordered oysters and wine sent to his room—the very one adjoining Adah's—made two or three calls, wrote an explanatory note to 'Lina—feeling half tempted to leave out the "Dear," with which he felt constrained to preface it—thought again of Lily—poor Lily, as he always called her—thought once of the strange woman and the little boy, in whom Irving Stanley had been so interested, wondered where they were going, and who it was the boy looked a little like—thought somehow of Anna in connection with that boy; and then, late in the afternoon, sauntered down to the Boston depot, and took his seat in the car, which, at about ten o'clock that night would deposit him at Snowdon. There were no "squalling brats" to disturb him, for Adah, unconscious of his proximity, was in the rear car—pale, weary, and nervous with the dread which her near approach to Terrace Hill inspired. What, if after all, Anna, should not want her? And this was a possible contingency, notwithstanding Alice had been no sanguine.
Darkly the December night closed in, and still the train kept on, until at last Danville was reached, and she must alight, as the express did not stop again until it reached Worcester. With a chill sense of loneliness, and a vague, confused wish for the one cheering voice which had greeted her ear since leaving Spring Bank, Adah stood upon the snow-covered platform, holding Willie in her arms, and pointing out her trunk to the civil baggage man, who, in answer to her inquiries as to the best means of reaching Terrace Hill, replied: "You can't go there to-night; it is too late. You'll have to stay in the tavern kept right over the depot, though if you'd kept on the train there might have been a chance, for I see the young Dr. Richards aboard; and as he didn't get out, I guess he's coaxed or hired the conductor to leave him at Snowdon."
The baggage man was right in his conjecture, for the doctor had persuaded the polite conductor, whom he knew personally, to stop the train at Snowdon; and while Adah, shivering with cold, found her way up the narrow stairs into the rather comfortless quarters where she must spend the night, the doctor was kicking the snow from his feet and talking to Jim, the coachman from Terrace Hill.
It was a sad morning at Spring Bank, that morning of Adah's leaving, and many a tear was shed as the last good-by was spoken. Mrs. Worthington, Alice and Hugh accompanied Adah to Frankfort, and Alice had never seemed in better spirits than on that winter's morning. She would be gay; it was a duty she owed Hugh, and Adah, too. So she talked and laughed as if there was no load upon her heart, and no cloud on Adah's spirits. Outwardly Mrs. Worthington suffered most, wondering why she should cling so to Adah, and why this parting was so painful. All the farewell words had been spoken, for Adah would not leave them to the chance of a last moment. She seemed almost too pretty to send on that long journey alone, and Hugh felt that he might be doing wrong in suffering her to depart without an escort. But Adah only laughed at his fears. Willie was her protector, she said, and then, as the train came up she turned to Mrs. Worthington, who, haunted with the dread lest something should happen to prevent 'Lina's marriage, said softly:
"You'll be careful about 'Lina?"
Yes, Adah would be careful, and to Alice she whispered:
"I'll write after I get there, but you must not answer it at least not till I say you may. Good-by."
* * * * *
"Come, mother, we are waiting for you," Hugh said.
At the sound of Hugh's voice she started and replied:
"Oh, yes, I remember—we are to visit the penitentiary. Dear me," and in a kind of absent way, Mrs. Worthington took Hugh's arm, and the party proceeded on their way to the huge building known as the Frankfort Penitentiary. Hugh was well acquainted with the keeper, who admitted them cheerfully, and ushered them at once into the spacious yard.
Pleased with Alice's enthusiastic interest in everything he said, the keeper was quite communicative, pointing out the cells of any noted felons, repeating little incidents of daring attempts to escape, and making the visit far more entertaining than the party had expected.
"This," he said, opening a narrow door, "this belongs to the negro stealer, Sullivan. You know him, Mrs. Worthington. He ran off the old darky you now own, old Sam, I mean."
"I'd like to see Mr. Sullivan," Alice said. "I saw old Sam when he was in Virginia."
"We'll find him on the ropewalk. We put our hardest customers there. Not that he gives us trouble, for he does not, and I rather like the chap, but we have a spite against these Yankee negro stealers," was the keeper's reply, as he led the way to the long low room, where groups of men walked up and down—up and down—holding the long line of hemp, which, as far as they were concerned, would never come to an end until the day of their release.
"That's he," the keeper whispered to Alice, who had fallen behind Hugh and his mother. "That's he, just turning this way—the one to the right."
Alice nodded in token that she understood, and then stood watching while he came up. Mrs. Worthington and Hugh were watching too, not him particularly, for they did not even know which was Sullivan, but stood waiting for the whole long line advancing slowly toward them, their eyes cast down with conscious shame, as if they shrank from being seen. One of them, however, was wholly unabashed. He thought it probable the keeper would point him out; he knew they used to do so when he first came there, but he did not care; he rather liked the notoriety, and when he saw that Alice seemed waiting for him, he fixed his keen eyes on her, starting at the sight of so much beauty, end never even glancing at the other visitors, at Mrs. Worthington and Hugh, who, a little apart from each other, saw him at the same moment, both turning cold and faint, the one with surprise, and the other with a horrid, terrible fear.
It needed but a glance to assure Hugh that he stood in the presence of the man who with strangely winning powers had tempted him to sin—the villain who had planned poor Adah's marriage—Monroe, her guardian, whose sudden disappearance had been so mysterious. Hugh never knew how he controlled himself from leaping into that walk and compelling the bold wretch to tell if he knew aught of the base deserter, Willie Hastings' father. He did, indeed, take one forward step while his fist clinched involuntarily, but the next moment fell powerless at his side as a low wail of pain reached his ear and he turned in time to save his fainting mother from falling to the floor.
She, too, had seen the ropemaker, glancing at him twice ere sure she saw aright, and then, as if a corpse buried years ago had arisen to her view, the blood curdled about her heart which after one mighty throe lay heavy and still as lead. He was not dead; that paragraph in the paper telling her so was false; he did not die, such as he could not die; he was alive—alive—a convict within those prison walls; a living, breathing man with that same look she remembered so well, shuddering as she remembered it, 'Lina's father and her own husband!
"It was the heat, or the smell, or the parting with Adah, or something," she said, when she came back to consciousness, eagerly scanning Hugh's face to see if he knew too, and then glancing timidly around as if in quest of the phantom which had so affected her.
"Let's go home, I'm sorry I came to Frankfort," she whispered, while her teeth chattered and her eyes wore a look of terror for which Hugh could not account.
He never thought of associating her illness with the man who had so affected himself. It was overexertion, he said. His mother could not bear much, and with all the tenderness of an affectionate son he wrapped her shawl about her and led her gantry from the spot which held for her so great a terror. It was not physical fear; she had never been afraid of bodily harm, even when fully in his power. It was rather the olden horror stealing back upon her, the pain which comes from the slow grinding out of one's entire will and spirit. She had forgotten the feeling, it was so long since it had been experienced, but one sight of him brought it back, and all the way from Frankfort to Spring Bank she lay upon Hugh's shoulder quiet, but sick and faint, with a shrinking from what the future might possibly have in store for her.
In this state of mind she reached Spring Bank, where by some strange coincidence, if coincidence it can be called, old Densie Densmore was the first to greet her, asking, with much concern, what was the matter. It was a rare thing for Densie to be at all demonstrative, but in the suffering expression of Mrs. Worthington's face she recognized something familiar, and attached herself at once to the weak, nervous woman, who sought her bed, and burying her face in the pillow cried herself to sleep, while Densie, like some white-haired ghost, sat watching her silently.
"The poor thing has had trouble," she whispered, "trouble in her day, and it has left deep furrows in her forehead, but it cannot have been like mine. She surely, was never betrayed, or deserted, or had her only child stolen from her. The wretch! I cursed him once, when my heart was harder than it is now. I have forgiven him since, for well as I could, I loved him."
There was a moaning sound in the winter wind howling about Spring Bank that night, but it suited Densie's mood, and helped to quiet her spirits, as, until a late hour, she sat by Mrs. Worthington, who aroused up at intervals, saying, in answer to Densie's inquiries, she was not sick, she was only tired—that sleep would do her good.
And while they were thus together a convict sought his darkened cell and laid him down to rest upon the narrow couch which had been his bed so long. Drearily to him the morning broke, and with the struggling in of the daylight he found upon his floor the handkerchief dropped inadvertently by Mrs. Worthington, and unseen till now. He knew it was not unusual for strangers to visit the cells, and so he readily guessed how it came there, holding it a little more to the light to see the name written so plainly upon it.
"Eliza Worthington." That was what the convict read, a blur before his eyes, and a strange sensation at his heart. "Eliza Worthington."
How came she there, and when? Suddenly he remembered the event of yesterday, the woman who fainted, the tall man who carried her out, the beautiful girl who had looked at him so pityingly, and then, while every nerve quivered with intense excitement, he whispered:
"That was my wife! I did not see her face, but she saw me, fainting at the sight."
Hard, and villainous, and sinful as that man had been, there was a tender chord beneath the villain exterior, and it quivered painfully as he said "fainted at the sight." This was the keenest pang of the whole, for as Densie Densmore had moaned the previous night, "I loved him once," so he now, rocking to and fro on his narrow bed, with that handkerchief pressed to his throbbing heart, murmured hoarsely:
"I loved Eliza once, though she would not believe it."
Then the image of the young man and the girl came up before him, making him start again, for he guessed that man was Hugh, his stepson, while the girl—oh, could that beautiful creature—be—his—daughter!
"Not Adaline, assuredly," he whispered, "nor Adah, my poor darling Adah. Oh, where is she this morning? I did love Adah," and the convict moistened Eliza Worthington's handkerchief with the tears he shed for sweet Adah Hastings.
Outwardly, that day the so-called Sullivan was the same, as he paced up and down the walk, but never since first he began the weary march, had his brain been the seat of thoughts so tumultuous as those stirring within him, the day succeeding Mrs. Worthington's visit. Where were his victims now? Were they all alive? And would he meet them yet? Would Eliza Worthington ever come there again, or Hugh, and would he see them if they did? Perhaps not, but some time, a few months hence, he would find them, would find Hugh at least, and ask if he knew aught of Adah—Adah, more terribly wronged than even the wife had been.
And while he thus resolved, poor Mrs. Worthington at home moved nervously around the house, casting uneasy glances backward, forward, and sideways, as if she were expecting some goblin shape to rise suddenly before her and claim her for its own. They were wretched, uneasy days which followed that visit to Frankfort—days of racking headache to Mrs. Worthington, and days of anxious thought to Hugh, who thus was led in a measure to forget the pain he would otherwise have felt at the memory of Alice's refusal.
ADAH AT TERRACE HILL
The next morning was cold and frosty, as winter mornings in New England are wont to be, and Adah, accustomed to the more genial climate of Kentucky, shivered involuntarily as from her uncurtained window she looked out upon the bare woods and the frozen fields covered with the snow of yesterday.
Across the track, near to a dilapidated board fence, a family carriage was standing, the driver unnecessarily, as it seemed to Adah—holding the heads of the horses, who neither sheered nor jumped, nor gave other tokens that they feared the hissing engine. She had not seen that carriage when it drove up before the door, nor yet the young man who had alighted from it; but as she stood there, a loud laugh reached her ear, making her start suddenly, it was so like his—like George's.
"It could not be George," she said; that were impossible, and yet she crept softly out into the hall, and leaning over the banister, listened eagerly to the sounds from the room below, where a crowd of men were assembled.
The laugh was not repeated, and with a dim feeling of disappointment she went back to the window where on Willie's neck she wept the tears which always flowed when she thought of George's desertion. There was a knock at the door, and the baggageman appeared.
"If you please, ma'am," he began, "the Terrace Hill carriage is here. I told the driver how't you wanted to go there. Shall I give him your trunk?"
Adah answered in the affirmative, and then hastened to wrap up Willie, glancing again at the carriage, which, now that it was associated with the gentle Anna, looked far better to her than it had at first. She was ready in a moment and descended to the room where Jim, the driver, stood waiting for her.
"A lady," was his mental comment, and with as much politeness as if she had been Madam Richards herself, he opened the carriage door and held Willie while she entered, asking if she were comfortable, and peering a little curiously in Willie's face, which puzzled him somewhat. "A near connection, I guess, and mighty pretty too. Them old maids will raise hob with the boy,—nice little shaver," thought the kind-hearted Jim.
Once, as Adah caught his good-humored eye, she ventured to say to him:
"Has Miss Anna procured a waiting maid yet?"
There was a comical gleam in Jim's eye now, for Adah was not the first applicant he had taken up to Terrace Hill. He never suspected that this was Adah's business, and he answered frankly:
"No, that's about played out. Madam turned the last one out doors."
"Turned her out doors?" and Adah's face was as white as the snow rifts they were passing.
The driver felt that he had gossiped too much, and relapsed into silence, while Adah, in a paroxysm of terror, sat with clasped hands and closed eyes. Leaning forward, at last she said, huskily:
"Driver, driver, do you think she'll turn me off, too?"
"Turn you off!" and in his surprise at the sudden suspicion which for the first time darted across his mind, Jim brought his horses to a full stop, while he held a parley with the pale, frightened creature, asking so eagerly if Mrs. Richards would turn her off. "Why should she? You ain't going there for that, be you?"
"Not to be turned out of doors, no," Adah answered; "but I—I—I want that place so much. I read Miss Anna's advertisement; but please turn back, or let me get out and walk. I can't go there now. Is Miss Anna like the rest?"
"Miss Anna's an angel," he answered. "If you get her ear, you're all right; the plague is to get it with them two she-cats ready to tear your eyes out. If I'se you, I'd ask to see her. I wouldn't tell my arrent either, till I did. She's sick upstairs; but I'll see if Pamely can't manage it. That's my woman—Pamely; been mine for four years, and we've had two pair of twins, all dead; so I feel tender toward the little ones," and Jim glanced kindly at Willie, who had succeeded in making Adah notice the house standing out so prominently against the winter sky, and looking to the poor woman-girl more like a prison than a home.
It might be pleasant there in the summer, Adah thought; but now, with snow on the roof, snow on the walk, snow on the trees, snow everywhere, it presented a cheerless aspect. Only one part of it seemed inviting—the two crimson-curtained windows opening upon a veranda, from which a flight of steps led down into what must be a flower garden.
"Miss Anna's room," the driver said, pointing toward it; and Adah looked wistfully out, vainly hoping for a glimpse of the sweet face she had in her mind as Anna's.
But only Asenath's grim, angular visage was seen, as it looked from Anna's window, wondering whom Jim could be bringing home.
"It's a handsome trunk—covered, too. Can it be Lottie?" and mentally hoping it was not, she busied herself again with bathing poor Anna's head, which was aching sadly to-day, owing to the excitement of her brother's visit and the harsh words which passed between him and his sisters, he telling them, jokingly at first, that he was tired of getting married, and half resolved to give it up; while they, in return, had abused him for fickleness, taunted him with their poverty, and sharply reproached him for his unwillingness to lighten their burden, by taking a rich wife when he could get one.
All this John had repeated to Anna in the dim twilight of the morning, as he stood by her bedside to bid her good-by; and she, as usual, had soothed him into quiet, speaking kindly of his bride-elect, and saying she should like her.
He had not told her all of Lily's story, as he meant to do. There was no necessity for that, for the matter was fixed. 'Lina should be his wife, and he need not trouble Anna further; so he had bidden her adieu, and was gone again, the carriage which bore him away bringing back Adah and her boy.
Jim opened the wide door for her, and showing her first into the parlor, but finding that dark and cold, he ushered her next into a little reception-room, where the Misses Richards received their morning calls.
Willie seemed perfectly at home, seating himself upon a little stool, covered with some of Miss Eudora's choicest worsted embroidery, a piece of work of which she was very proud, never allowing anything to touch it lest the roses should be jammed, or the raised leaves defaced. But Willie cared neither for leaves, nor roses, nor yet for Miss Eudora, and drawing the stool to his mother's side, he sat kicking his little heels into a worn place of the carpet, which no child had kicked since the doctor's days of babyhood. The tender threads were fast giving way to the vigorous strokes, when two doors opposite each other opened simultaneously, and both Mrs. Richards and Eudora appeared.
"Are you—ah, yes—you are the lady who Jim said wished to see me," Mrs. Richards began, bowing politely to Adah, who had not yet dared to look up, and who when at last she did raise her eyes, withdrew them at once, more abashed, more frightened, more bewildered than ever, for the face she saw fully warranted her ideas of a woman who could turn a waiting maid from her door just because she was a waiting maid.
Something seemed choking Adah and preventing her utterance, for she did not speak until Mrs. Richards said again, this time with a little less suavity and a little more hauteur of manner, "Have I had the honor of meeting you before?"—then with a low gasp, a mental petition for help, Adah rose up and lifting to Mrs. Richards' cold, haughty face, her soft, brown eyes, where tears were almost visible, answered faintly: "We have not met before. Excuse me, madam, but my business is with Miss Anna, can I see her please?"
There was something supplicating in the tone with which Adah made this request, and it struck Mrs. Richards unpleasantly. She answered haughtily, though still politely, "My daughter is sick. She does not see visitors. It will be impossible to admit you to her chamber, but I will take your name and your errand."
Adah felt as if she should sink beneath the cold, cruel scrutiny to which she knew she was subjected by the woman on her right and the woman on her left. Too much confused to remember anything distinctly, Adah forgot Jim's injunction; forgot that Pamelia was to arrange it somehow; forgot everything, except that Mrs. Richards was waiting for her to speak. An ominous cough from Eudora decided her, and then it came out, her reason for being there. She had seen Miss Anna's advertisement, she wanted a place, and she had come so far to get it; had left a happy home that she might not be dependent but earn, her bread for herself and her little boy, for Willie. Would they take her message to Anna? Would they let her stay?
"You say you left a happy home," and the thin, sneering lips of Eudora were pressed so tightly together that the words could scarcely find egress. "May I ask, if it was so happy, why you left it?"
There was a flush on Adah's cheek as she replied, "Because it was a home granted at first from charity. It was not mine. The people were poor, and I would not longer be a burden to them."
"And your husband—where is he?"
This was the hardest question of all, and Adah's distress was visible as she replied, "I will be frank with you. Willie's father left me, and I don't know where he is."
An incredulous, provoking smile flitted over Eudora's face as she returned, "We hardly care to have a deserted wife in our family—it might be unpleasant."
"Yes," and the old lady took up the argument, "Anna is well enough without a maid. I don't know why she put that foolish advertisement in the paper, in answer, I believe, to one equally foolish which she saw about 'an unfortunate woman with a child.'"
"I am that woman. I wrote that advertisement when my heart was heavier than it is now, and God took care of it. He pointed it out to Miss Anna. He caused her to answer it. He sent me here, and you will let me see her. Think if it were your own daughter, pleading thus with some one."
"That is impossible. Neither my daughter, nor my daughter-in-law, if I had one, could ever come to a servant's position," Mrs. Richards replied, not harshly, for there was something in Adah's manner and in Adah's eyes which rode down her resentful pride; and she might have yielded, but for Eudora, whose hands had so ached to shake the little child, now innocently picking at a bud.
How she did long to box his ears, and while her mother talked, she had taken a step forward more than once, but stopped as often, held in check by the little face and soft blue eyes, turned so trustingly upon her, the pretty lips once actually putting themselves toward her, as if expecting a kiss. Frosty old maid as she was, Eudora could not harm that child sitting on her embroidery as coolly as if he had a right; but she could prevent her mother from granting the stranger's request; so when she saw signs of yielding, she said, decidedly, "She cannot see Anna, mother. You know how foolish she is, and there's no telling what fancy she might take."
"Eudora," said Mrs. Richards in a low tone, "it might be well for Anna to have a maid, and this one is certainly different from the others who have applied."
"But the child. We can't be bothered with a child. Evidently he is not governed at all, and brother's wife coming by and by."
This last caught Adah's ear and changed the whole current of her thoughts and wishes. Greatly to Mrs. Richards' surprise, she said abruptly, "If I cannot see Miss Anna, I need not trouble you longer. When does the next train go west?"
Adah's voice never faltered, though her heart seemed bursting from her throat, for she had not the most remote idea as to where the next train going west would take her. She had reached a point when she no longer thought or reasoned; she would leave Terrace Hill; that was all she knew, except that in her mind there was a vague fancy or hope that she might meet Irving Stanley again. Not George, she did not even think of him, as she stood before Dr. Richards' mother, who looked at her in surprise, marveling that she had given up so quietly what she had apparently so much desired.
Very civilly she told her when the next train went west, and then added kindly, "You cannot walk. You must stay here till car-time, when Jim will carry you back."
At this unexpected kindness Adah's calmness gave way, and sitting down by the table, she laid her face upon it and sobbed almost convulsively.
"Mamma tie, mam-ma tie," and he pulled Mrs. Richards' skirts vigorously indicating that she must do something for mamma.
Just then the doorbell rang. It was the doctor, come to visit Anna, and both Mrs. Richards and Eudora left the room at once.
"Oh, why did I come here, and where shall I go?" Adah moaned, as a sense of her lonely condition came over her.
"Will my Father in heaven direct me? will He tell me what to do?" she murmured brokenly, praying softly to herself that a way might be opened for her, a path which she could tread.
She could not tell how it was, but a quiet peace stole over her, a feeling which had no thought or care for the future, and it had been many nights since she had slept as sweetly or soundly as she did for one half hour with her head upon the table in that little room at Terrace Hill, Dr. Richards' home and Anna's. She did not see the good-humored face which looked in at her a moment, nor hear the whispering in the hall; neither did she know when Willie, nothing loath, was coaxed from the room and carried up the stairs into the upper hall, where he was purposely left to himself, while Pamelia, the mother of Jim's two pairs of twins, went to Anna's room, where she was to sit for an hour or so, while the ladies had their lunch. Anna's head was better; the paroxysms of pain were leas frequent than in the morning, and she lay upon her pillow, her eyes closed wearily, and her thoughts with Charlie Millbrook. Why had he never written?—why never come to see her?
So intently was she thinking of Charlie that she did not hear the patter of little feet in the hall without. Tired of staying by himself, and spying the open door, Willie hastened toward it, pausing a moment on the threshold as if to reconnoiter. Something in Anna's attitude, as she lay with her long hair falling over the pillow, must have reminded him of Alice, for, with a cry of delight, he ran forward, and patting the white cheek with his soft baby hand, lisped out the word "Arn-tee, arn-tee," making Anna start suddenly and gaze at him in wondering surprise.
"Who is he?" she said, drawing him to her at once and pressing a kiss upon his rosy face.
Pamelia told her what she knew of the stranger waiting in the reception-room, adding in conclusion: "I believe they said you did not want her, and Jim is to take her to the depot when it's time. She's very young and pretty, and looks so sorry, Jim told me."
"Said I did not want her! How did they know?" and something of the Richards' spirit flashed from Anna's eyes. "The child is so beautiful, and he called me 'Auntie,' too! He must have an auntie somewhere. Little dear! how she must love him! Lift him up, Pamelia."
"I must see his mother," Anna said. "She must be above the ordinary waiting maids. Perhaps I should like her. At all events I will hear what she has to say. Show her up, Pamelia; but first smooth my hair a little and arrange my pillows."
Pamelia complied with her request; then leaving Willie with Anna, she repaired to the reception-room, and arousing the sleeping Adah, said to her hurriedly:
"Please, miss, come quick; Miss Anna wants to see you. The little boy is up there with her."
ANNA AND ADAH
For a moment Anna was inclined to think that Pamelia had made a mistake. That beautiful face, that refined, ladylike manner, did not suit well a waiting maid, and Anna's doubts were increasing, when little Willie set her right by patting her cheek again, while he called out: "Mamma, arntee."
The look of interest which Anna cast upon him emboldened Adah to say:
"Excuse him, Miss Richards; he must have mistaken you for a dear friend at home, whom he calls 'Auntie,' I'll take him down; he troubles you."
"No, no," and Anna passed her arm around him. "I love children so much. I ought to have been a wife and mother, my brother says, instead of a useless old maid."
Anna smiled faintly as she said this, while thoughts of Charlie Millbrook flashed across her mind. Adah was too much a stranger to disclaim against Anna's calling herself old, so she paid no attention to the remark, but plunged at once into the matter which had brought her there. Presuming they would rather be alone, Pamelia had purposely left the room, meeting in the lower hall with Mrs. Richards and her daughter, who, in much affright, were searching for the recent occupants of the reception-room. Pamelia quieted them by saying: "The lady was in Miss Anna's room."
"How came she there? She must be a bold piece, upon my word!" she said, angrily, while Pamelia replied:
"The little boy got upstairs, and walked right into Miss Anna's room. She was taken with him at once, and asked who he was. I told her and she sent for the lady. That's how it happened."
Mrs. Richards hurried up to Anna's chamber, where Willie still was perched by Anna's pillow, while Adah, with her bonnet in her lap, sat a little apart, traces of tears and agitation upon her cheeks, but a look of happiness in the brown eyes fixed so wistfully on Anna's fair, sweet face.
"Please, mother," said Anna, motioning her away, "leave us alone a while. Shut the door, and see that no one comes near."
Mrs. Richards obeyed, and Anna, waiting until she was out of hearing, resumed the conversation just where it had been interrupted.
"And so you are the one who wrote that advertisement which I read. Let me see—the very night my brother came home from Europe. I remember he laughed because I was so interested, and he accidentally tore off the name to light his cigar, so I forgot it entirely. What shall I call you, please?"
Adah was tempted to answer her at once, "Adah Hastings"—it seemed so wrong to impose in any way on that frank, sweet woman; but she remembered Mrs. Worthington's injunction, and for her sake she refrained, keeping silent a moment, and then breaking out impetuously: "Please, Miss Richards, don't ask my real name, for I'd rather not give it now. I will tell you of the past, though I did not ever mean to do that; but something about you makes me know I can trust you." And then, amid a shower of tears, in which Anna's, too, were mingled, Adah told her sad story.
"But why do you wish to conceal?" she asked, after Adah had finished. "Is there any reason?"
"At first there was none in particular, save a fancy I had, but there came one afterward—the request of one who had been, kind to me as a dear mother. Is it wrong not to tell the whole?"
"I think not. You have dealt honestly with me so far, but what shall I call you? You must have a name."
"Oh, may I stay?" Adah asked eagerly, forgetting her late terror of 'Lina.
"Of course you may. Did you think I would turn you away?" was Anna's reply; and laying her head upon the white counterpane of the bed, Adah cried passionately; not a wild, bitter cry, but a delicious kind of cry which did her good, even though her whole frame quivered and her low, choking sobs fell distinctly on Anna's ear.
"Poor child!" the latter said, laying her soft hand on the bowed head. "You have suffered much, but with me you shall find rest. I want you for a companion, rather than a maid. I, too, have had my heart troubles; not like yours, but heavy enough to make me wish I could die."
It was seldom that Anna alluded to herself in this way, and to do so to a stranger was utterly foreign to the Richards' nature. But Anna could not help it. There was something about Adah which interested her greatly. She could not wholly shield her from her mother's and sisters' pride, but she would do what she could.
"Oh, pride, pride," she whispered to herself, "of how much pain hast thou been the cause."
Pride had sent her Charlie over the sea without her; pride had separated her brother from the Lily she was sure he loved, as he could never love the maiden to whom he was betrothed; and pride, it seemed, had been at the root of all this young girl's sorrow. Blessed Anna Richards—the world has few like her—so gentle, so kind, so lovely, and as no one could long be with her and not feel her influence, so Adah, by the touch of the fingers still caressing her, was soothed into peaceful quiet.
When she had grown quite calm, Anna continued: "You have not told me yet what name to give you, or shall I choose one for you?"
"Oh, if you only would!" and Adah looked up quickly.
Anna began to enjoy this mystery, wondering what name she should choose. Adah should be Rose Markham, and she repeated it aloud, asking Adah how it sounded.
"If it did not seem so much like deceiving," Adah said. "You'll tell your family it is not my real name, won't you?"
Anna readily agreed to Adah's proposal, and then, remembering that all this time she had been sitting in her cloak and fur, she bade her lay them aside. "Or, stay," she added, "touch that bell, if you please, and ring Pamelia up. There's a little room adjoining this. I mean to give you that. You will be so near me, and so retired, too, when you like. John—that's my brother—occupied it when a boy. I think it will answer nicely for you."
Obedient to the ring, Pamelia came, manifesting no surprise when told by Anna to unlock the door and see if the little room was in order for "Mrs. Markham."
Pamelia cast a rapid glance at Adah, who winced as she heard the new name, and felt glad when Anna added: "Pamelia, I can trust you not to gossip out of the house. This young woman's name is not Markham, but I choose to have her called so."
Another glance at Adah, more curious than the first, and then Pamelia did as she was bidden, opening the door and saying, as she did so: "I know the room is in order. There's a fire, too; Miss Anna has forgot that Dr. John slept here last night."
"I do remember now," Anna replied. "Mrs. Markham can go in at once. Pamelia, send lunch to her room, and tell your husband to bring up her trunk."
Again Pamelia bowed and departed to do her young mistress' bidding, while Adah entered the pleasant room where Dr. Richards had slept the previous night.
On the marble hearth the remains of a cheerful fire were blazing, while on the mantel over the hearth was a portrait of a boy, apparently ten or twelve years of age, and a young girl, who seemed a few years older. The girl was Anna. But the boy, the handsome, smooth-cheeked boy, in his fancy jacket, with that expression of vanity plainly visible about his mouth. Who was he? Had Adah any knowledge of him? Had they met before? Never that she knew of. Dr. Richards was a stranger to her, for she guessed this was the doctor, 'Lina's betrothed, scrutinizing him closely, and wondering if the man retained the look of the boy. And as she gazed, the features seemed to grow familiar. Surely she had met a face like this, but where she could not guess, and turning from him she inspected the rest of the room, wondering if Alice Johnson were ever in this room.