Grey made an effort to spring from his chair, but had not the power to do so. The shock had been too great, and he sank back half fainting, whispering as he did so:
"Tell me everything—now—at once. It will not harm me; joy seldom kills. Tell me the whole."
So she told him all she knew, and the particulars of her finding Bessie among the steerage passengers, and having her removed to her room.
"Yes, I see—I understand how the mistake occurred." Grey said. "But why did not Neil tell me he had been to see her off?"
"He was probably ashamed to let you know that she was in the steerage. He hoped you would not find her," Miss Grey replied; and Grey exclaimed:
"The coward! If it were not wrong, I should have him;" while a fierce pang shot through his heart that Bessie was bound to Neil, and that, though living, she was no nearer to him than if she were dead and in that grave by which he had so lately stood.
Still it would be something to see her again, to hear her voice, to look into her eyes, and have her all to himself for the remainder of the voyage, which he now wished had just commenced.
"Thank God she lives, even though she does not live for me," he said to himself; and then, at his aunt's suggestion, he tried to control his nerves and bring himself into a quieter, calmer condition before going down to see her.
It was nearly an hour before he felt himself strong enough to do it, and when at last he reached the narrow passage, and knew there was but a step between him and Bessie, he trembled so that his aunt was obliged to support him as he steadied himself against the door of the state-room. Glancing in for an instant, Miss Grey put her finger upon her lip, saying to him:
"She is asleep; sit quietly down till she wakens."
There was a buzzing in Grey's ears and a blur before his eyes, so that he did not at once see distinctly the face which lay upon the pillow resting on one hand, with the bright hair clinging about the neck and brow. Bessie had fallen asleep while waiting for him, and there was a smile upon her lips and a flush upon her cheek, which made her more like the Bessie he knew at Stoneleigh than like the white-faced girl he had left in Rome, and whom he had never thought to see again.
"It is Bessie and she is alive," he said, under his breath, and bending over her he softly kissed her forehead saying as he did so, "My darling! just for the moment mine, if Neil's by and by."
For an instant Bessie moved uneasily, then slept again, while Grey watched her with a great hunger in his heart and a longing to take her in his arms, and, in spite of a hundred Neils, tell her of his love. How beautiful she was in that calm sleep, and Grey noted every point of beauty, from the sheen of her golden hair to the dimpled hand which was just within his reach.
"Poor little hand," he said, laying his own carefully upon it; "how much it has done for others. Oh, if I could only call it mine, it should never know toil again."
He might have raised it to his lips if just then the eyes had not unclosed, as with a start Bessie awoke and looked wonderingly at him for an instant; then, instead of withdrawing her hand from his, she held the other towards him, and raising herself up, cried out:
"Oh, Mr. Jerrold, I am so glad! Nothing is half so dreary now that I know you are on the ship, and you will tell Neil it was not my fault that you found me. He may be very angry."
At the mention of Neil a feeling of constraint crept over Grey, and he quietly released his hands from Bessie's lest he should say to her words he ought not to say to one who was plighted to another. And Bessie noticed the change in him, and her lip quivered in a grieved kind of way, as she said:
"You thought me dead, and you were sorry just a little?"
"Oh, Bessie," and with a mighty effort Grey managed to control himself, "you will never know how sorry, or how glad I am to find you still alive; but you must not talk to me now. You must rest, so as to go on deck and get some strength and some color back to your cheeks. I promised auntie not to stay long. I will come again by and by."
Drawing the covering around her as deftly as a woman could have done, he went out and left her alone to wonder at his manner. Bessie had never forgotten the words spoken to her in Rome, and which she had said he must never repeat.
Over and over again, at intervals, had sounded in her ears, "I love you with my whole heart and soul, and whether you live or die you will be the sweetest memory of my life." She had not died—she had lived; she had seen him again and found him changed. Perhaps it was better so, she reasoned, and yet she was conscious of a feeling of disappointment or loss, though it was such joy to know he was near her, and that, by and by he would come to her again. And he came after lunch, and the steward carried her on deck and wrapped her in Miss Grey's warm rug, and Grey himself sat down beside her and talked to her of America, and she told him that she was not going to be a burden to her aunt, or even a guest very long, but to work and earn money with which to pay her debts. And Grey let her do most of the talking, and even promised, if he did not succeed in Allington, to see if he could find something for her to do in in Boston.
"I am very sure that I could find you a situation there if I tried," he said, with a merry look in his eyes which was lost on Bessie, whose thick vail was over her face, and who was gazing off upon the waves bearing her so fast toward the strange land to which she was going.
The next day she was able to walk the deck for some hours with Grey as her attendant; and when, at last, land was in sight, she seemed almost as well and bright as ever as she stood looking eagerly upon either shore, and declaring America beautiful as a picture. It had been arranged that she should stop for a few hours at the hotel with Miss Lucy and Grey, and then go on with them to Allington. But their plans were changed when they reached the wharf, for there they were met by a messenger who had been sent from Mr. Burton Jerrold with the intelligence that Grey's mother was very ill, and that Lucy must come at once with Grey without stopping at her own home.
"I am sorry, for I wished to take you to your aunt myself," Lucy said to Bessie, adding after a moment, "but I will give you a letter of introduction, if you like."
"No, thank you," Bessie replied; "I would rather go to her alone, so that if she is kind I shall know it is to me, and not to you, or because she thinks it will please you."
"No danger of that," Grey said, laughingly; "she is a great stickler for the naked truth, as she expresses it, and all the Aunt Lucys in the world could not make her say she liked you if she did not. She is a singular specimen, but she is sure to like you, and if she does not, go to my Aunt Hannah; she would welcome you as a Godsend. She is the auntie who lives in the pasture-land. I shall soon come to Allington and see you," he added, as he bade her good-by, for he and his aunt were to take the express, which did not stop at Allington, and she was to take the accommodation, which did.
He had made all the arrangements for her, and seen that her baggage was checked and her ticket bought; but still she felt very desolate and helpless when he left her and she was alone with Jennie, who staid by her to the last, promising to let her know if she heard of any situation either as governess or companion.
Mrs. Goodnough had gone at once with her daughter who had met her at the wharf, but Jennie's cousin, who lived out of the city, had sent her husband to the ship, and, as he was porter in one of the large warehouses, and did not go home till night, Jennie had leisure to attend to Bessie, whom she saw to the train, and to whom she said at parting:
"Keep yer vail down, honey, for there's spalpeens an' bla'guards everywhere, and they might be for spakin to ye. Good-by; God bless ye."
BESSIE MEETS HER AUNT.
The accommodation train from New York to Boston was late that day. There was a detention at Hartford and another at Springfield, so that the clock on Miss Betsey McPherson's mantel struck seven when she heard the whistle of the locomotive as the cars stopped at the Allington station. As Miss Betsey was when we last saw her so she was now—tall, and angular, and severe, and looking, as she sat in her hard, straight-back chair, like the very embodiment of the naked truth, from the fit of her dress to the scanty handful of hair, twisted in a knot at the back of her head.
She had heard of Daisy's death from her brother only a few days before, and had felt a pang of regret that she had treated her quite so harshly on the occasion of her visit to her.
"I might, at least, have been civil to her, though it did make me so mad to see her smirking up into my face, with all those diamonds on her, and to know that she was even trying to fool young Allen Browne."
And then her thoughts went after Bessie, for whom her brother had asked help, saying she was left entirely alone in the world, and was, for aught he knew, a very nice girl.
"It is impossible for me to care for her," he wrote, "and as my wife paid all the expenses of her sickness in Rome and for bringing the body home, she will do no more. So it rests with you to care for Bessie, I should think you would like some young person with you in your old age."
"In my old age!" Miss Betsey repeated to herself, as she sat thinking of John's letter, "Yes, I suppose it has come to that, for I am in my sixties, and the boys call me the old woman when I order them out of the cherry tree, and still I feel almost as young as I did forty years ago when Charlie died. Oh, Charlie, my life would have been so different had you lived;" and in the eyes usually so stern and uncompromising there were great tears, as the lonely woman's thoughts went back to the long ago, and the awful tragedy which had darkened all her life.
And then it was that, in the midst of her softened mood, a little girlish figure, dressed in black, came up the steps and knocked timidly at the open door. Bessie had left her luggage at the station, and walked to the house which was pointed out to her as Miss McPherson's by a boy who volunteered to show her the way, and who said to her:
"She's a queer old cove, and if you don't mind your p's and q's she will take your head off. She's game, she is."
This was not very reassuring, and Bessie's heart beat rapidly as she went up the steps to the door. She saw the square, straight figure in the chair, and was prepared for the quick, sharp "Come in!" which answered her knock.
Adjusting her spectacles to the right focus, Miss Betsey looked up at her visitor in that scrutinizing, inquisitive manner usual with her, and which made Bessie's knees shake under her as she advanced into the room.
"Who are you?" the look seemed to say, and without waiting to have it put into words Bessie went straight to the woman, and stretching out her hands said, imploringly:
"Oh, Aunt Betsey, do you remember a little girl who came to you on the Terrace at Aberystwyth years ago? Little Bessie McPherson, to whom you sent a ring? Here it is," and she pointed to it upon her finger, "and I am she—Bessie, and mother is dead—and I—I am all alone, and I have come to America—to you—not to have you keep me—not to live upon you, but to earn my living—to work for money with which to pay my debts. Two hundred and fifty pounds to Lady Jane for mother's sickness and burial, and five pounds to Anthony. That is the sum—two hundred and fifty-five pounds. Will you let me stay to-night? Can you find me something to do?"
Bessie had told her whole story, and as she told it her face was a study, with its look of eagerness and fear and the bright color which came and went so rapidly, but as she finished speaking left it white as ashes. Miss Betsey's face was a study, too, as she regarded the girl fixedly until she stopped talking; then, motioning her to a chair, she said:
"Sit down, child, before you faint away; you are pale as a cloth. Take off your bonnet and have some tea. I suppose you are hungry."
She rang the bell for Susan to bring hot tea and toast, which she made Bessie eat, pressing it upon her until she could take no more.
"Now, then," she said, when the tray had been removed, "one can always talk better on a full stomach. So tell me what you want, and what you expect me to do. But sit over there, where I can see you better; and don't get excited. I shall not eat you; at least, not to-night."
She wanted Bessie in a good light, where she could see her face, from which she never took her eyes, as the girl repeated in substance what she had said at first, making some additions to her story, and speaking of the ship in which she had come, but not of Miss Lucy or Grey.
"Where did you get the money? It costs something to cross the ocean," Miss Betsey asked, a little sharply, and Bessie replied:
"It did not cost me much, for I came out as a steerage passenger. I had just enough for that and my ticket here."
"You came in the steerage?" and in her surprise Miss Betsey arose from her chair and walked once or twice across the floor, while Bessie looked at her wistfully, wondering if she, too, were ashamed like Neil.
But shame had no part in Miss Betsey's feelings, which were stirred by a far different emotion. Resuming her seat after a moment, she said:
"And you have come here to work—to earn money? What can you do?"
"I thought I might teach French, perhaps; and German, I am a pretty good scholar in both," Bessie replied, and her aunt rejoined:
"French and German! Fiddlesticks! There are more fools teaching those languages now than there are idiots to learn them. Why, my washerwoman's daughter is teaching French at twenty-five cents a lesson, though she can no more speak it than a jackdaw. French, indeed! You must try something else, or you will never earn that two hundred and fifty-five pounds."
This was not very encouraging, and Bessie felt the color dyeing her face, and her heart sinking, as she said:
"I might sew. I am handy with my needle, I have made all my own dresses, and Dorothy's, too."
"Yes, you might sew, and twist your spine all out of shape, and get the liver complaint," Miss Betsey interposed; and then, poor Bessie, fearing that everything was slipping from her, said, with a choking sob:
"I might be a housemaid to some one. Surely there are such situations to be had, and I would try so hard to please, and even work for less than other girls of more experience. Oh, Aunt Betsey, you must know of some place for me! You will help me to find one! You do not know how greatly I desire it, or how poor I am. These are the only boots I have," and she put out a much worn boot, which had been blacked until the leather was nearly cracked apart. "And this my only decent dress, except a dark calico. But I do not care so much for that. It is not clothes I want. It is to pay that money to Lady Jane."
The tears were falling like rain from Bessie's eyes, and starting again from her chair Miss McPherson went to an open window and shut it as if she were cold; then returning to her seat, she said, abruptly:
"I thought you were engaged to Neil—he wrote me to that effect."
Bessie's face was scarlet as she answered:
"I was engaged to him then; I am not now."
"Did he break it, or you?" was the next question.
"I broke it," was the low response.
"Why?" came next from Miss McPherson, and Bessie replied:
"He did not wish me to come as steerage, and bade me choose between that and him; and as I must come, and had no money for a first-class ticket, I gave him back the ring, and he was free."
"Are you sorry?"
This was spoken sharply, and Miss McPherson's little round, black eyes rested curiously upon Bessie, who answered promptly:
"No, oh, no. I am very glad. It is better so. We were not suited to each other."
"I should think not!" and again the strange woman arose, and going to the window, opened it, as if in sudden heat.
Then, returning to her niece, she continued:
"Were you in earnest when you said you would take a position as housemaid?"
"Yes," was the reply; and Miss McPherson went on:
"Do you think you could fill it?"
"I know I could, I have been housemaid at home all my life. We never kept any female servant but Dorothy."
There was a moment's silence, while Miss McPherson seemed to be thinking, and then she said:
"Will you take that place with me?"
"With you?" Bessie repeated, a little bewildered; and her aunt replied:
"Yes, with me. Why not? Better serve me than a stranger. My second girl, Sarah, was married a few weeks ago!—more fool she!—and I have no one as yet in her place. If you will like it, and fill it as well as she did, I will give you what I gave her, two dollars and a half a week, and more if you earn it. What do you say?"
"I will take the place," Bessie answered, unhesitatingly, feeling that, singular as it might seem to serve her aunt, she would rather do that than go to a stranger. "I will take the place, and do the best I can, and if I fail in some things at first, you will tell me what to do. How long will it take to earn two hundred and fifty-five pounds at two dollars and a half a week?"
Miss Betsey must have felt cold again, for she rushed to the open window and shut it with a bang, while for an instant she wavered in her determination. Then, thinking to herself, "I may as well see what stuff she really is made of," she returned to Bessie, who, if she had not been quite so anxious and nervous, would have felt amused at her eccentric behavior.
Without telling how long it would take to earn two hundred and fifty-five pounds at two dollars and a half a week, Miss Betsey said:
"Then it is a bargain, and you are my housemaid really, and willing to do a housemaid's duties, and take a house maid's place. Do you understand all that means?"
"I think so," Bessie answered, wondering if she should have to share the cook's bed.
As if divining her thoughts, her aunt rejoined:
"One exception I shall make in your favor. You will occupy the little room next my own, at the head of the stairs. You can go up there at once if you like, and I will see that your trunks are brought from the station."
"Oh, thank you," Bessie said, and in her eyes there was a look of gratitude which nearly upset Miss McPherson's resolution again, and did make her open the window as she passed it on her way up stairs with Bessie.
Just as the room had been fitted up years ago, when she was expecting the child Bessie, just so it was now when the girl Bessie entered it. The same single bed with its muslin hangings, the same little bureau, with its pretty toilet-set, now somewhat faded and passee in style, but showing what it had been, and in a corner the big doll with all its paraphernalia around it.
"Oh, auntie," Bessie cried, as she stepped across the threshold, "what a lovely little room! and it almost looks as if it had been intended for me when I was younger."
"It was meant for you years ago, when I wrote to your father and asked him to give you to me. Fool that I was, I thought he would let you come; but he did not, and so the room has waited."
"I never knew you sent for me," Bessie said, "but father could not have spared me; and oh, auntie, I cannot tell you how it makes me feel to know you have kept me in your mind all these years. Let me kiss you; please," and throwing her arms around her aunt's neck. Bessie sobbed hysterically for a few moments, while the Stern face bending over her relaxed in its severity, and Miss Betsey's voice was very kind and soothing, as she said:
"There, there, child; don't get up a headache. I am glad you like the room; glad you are here. You had better go to bed, and not come down again."
She did not kiss the girl, but she put her hand on her head and smoothed the curly hair, and Bessie felt that it was a benediction. When she was alone she sank upon her knees by the bedside, and burying her face in her hands, prayed earnestly that she might know what was right to do, and be a comfort and help to the woman whose peculiarities she began in part to understand. She was so glad to be there, so glad for the shelter, of a home, that the fact of being a housemaid did not trouble her at all, though she did wonder what Neil would say, and if he would not think it quite as bad as steerage, and wondered, too, if Grey would ever come to see her, and if he would recognize her in her new position.
"It will make no difference with Grey Jerrold what you are," something said to her, and comforted, with this assurance she fell asleep, in her new home.
MISS McPHERSON'S HOUSEMAID.
Bessie meant to be up with the sun, but she was so tired and the room so quiet, that she slept soundly until awakened by the long clock in the lower hall striking seven.
"This is a bad beginning," she thought, as she made her hasty toilet.
She found her trunks outside her door, and selecting from them her new calico dress, which she had bought just before leaving home, she put it on, together with one of the pretty white aprons which Neil had so detested and Grey had so admired.
"I ought to have a housemaid's cap," she thought, is she looked at herself in the glass and tried to smooth and straighten her hair, which would curl around her forehead in spite of all she could do.
A clean collar, with cuffs at her wrists, completed her costume, and it was a very neat, attractive little housemaid which entered the room where Miss McPherson was leisurely finishing her plain breakfast of toast, and tea, and eggs.
"Oh, auntie," Bessie began advancing to her side, "I am so sorry I overslept. I was very tired, and the bed was so nice. It shall not happen again. What can I do for you? Let me make you a fresh slice of toast."
"No, thanks. I am through. You can clear the table if you like," Miss Betsey replied, shoving back her chair and eyeing her niece curiously as she gathered up the dishes and carried them to the kitchen, where she took her own breakfast with the cook, who instructed her in her duties as well as she could.
"She is mighty queer and mighty particular, but if you get the soft side of her you are all right," she said to Bessie, who moved about the house almost as handily as if she had lived there all her life.
Never had the china been washed more carefully or quickly, or the furniture better dusted, or the table better arranged for dinner, and had Bessie been a trained servant from the queen's household she could not have waited upon her aunt more deftly or respectfully than she did. But the strain upon her nerves began to tell upon her, and after her dishes were washed, and she was assured by the cook that there was nothing more for her to do until tea-time, she went to her room for a little rest, just as a carriage dashed up to the door, and the bell rang fiercely. Scarcely, however, had Bessie reached the hall on her way to answer the ring, when her aunt, who, it seemed to her, was everywhere present, darted out from some quarter, and seizing her by the shoulder said, quickly:
"Go back to your room. I'll let her in myself."
Was she angry, and if so, at what? Bessie wondered, as she returned to her room, and sitting down by the bed laid her tired head upon the pillow, while a few tears rolled down her cheeks as she recalled her aunt's sharp tones. Was this to be all the commendation she was to receive for the pains she had taken to please? It was hard, and there began to steal over her a feeling of utter hopelessness and homesickness, when suddenly a sound came up to her from the parlor below, which made her start and listen as to something familiar. Surely she had heard that loud, uncultivated voice before, and after a moment it came to her—the tea party in the dear old garden at home when Mrs. Rossiter-Browne was the guest, and had so disgusted her with her vulgarity. And this was Mrs. Browne, who had come in state to call, and who, after declaring the weather hot enough to kill cattle, and saying that Gusty was in Saratogy, and had had twelve new dresses made to take with her, spoke next of Allen and Lord Hardy, who were in Idaho, or Omaho, or some other ho, Mrs. Browne could not remember which. At the mention of Lord Hardy's name all Bessie's old life seemed to come back to her, and she lived again through the dreary days at the crowded hotels, and ate her dinner of dry bread and shriveled grapes in the back room of the fourth floor, and saw her mother radiant with smiles bandying jests with the young Irish lord, while her father looked on with a sorry expression on his face, the very memory of which brought a rain of tears to Bessie's eyes. Allen had just written to his mother a description of his travels, and she was giving Miss McPherson her version of it. Another lord had joined them, she said, a regular English swell, and they attracted so much attention, and the people were so curious to see them, that they were actually obliged to travel in a cognito, though what under the sun that was she was sure she didn't know. She thought she had been in most everything there was goin, but she'd never seen a cognito, which must be some Western contrivance or other. At this ludicrous mistake, so characteristic of Mrs. Rossiter-Browne, Bessie forgot her tears and laughed hysterically until she heard her mother's name, when she instinctively grew quiet and rigid as a piece of marble, for what Mrs. Browne said was this:
"And so the poor little critter is dead! Well, I must say she was about the prettiest woman I ever saw, but I guess she wasn't just what I s'posed she was when I took such a shine to her. She was a born flirt, and mebbe couldn't help it, but she might have let Allen alone—a mere boy. Why, he was that bewitched after her that he fairly lost flesh, and told me to my face that he should never see another woman he liked as he did her, and he'd never got over it neither if Lord Hardy hadn't taken him in hand and told him something—I've no idea what, for Allen would never tell me, only it did the business, and there was no more whimperin' for that woman."
"Oh, mother! poor mother!" Bessie moaned, as she covered her face with her hands, feeling that her shame was greater than she could bear.
Going to the door she closed it, and so did not hear Mrs. Browne when she said next:
"She had a lovely daughter, though, with a face like an angel. I'd swear she was all right. Do you ever hear from her?"
For a moment Miss Betsey hesitated, for it was not a part of her plan to let Mrs. Browne or any one see Bessie just yet; but her love for the naked truth prevailed, and she replied:
"Yes, she is here. She came yesterday in the Germanic. I will call her."
"Crying? What's that for?" she said to Bessie as she entered the room, and feeling almost as guilty as if she had been caught in some wrong act, Bessie sobbed: "The door was open at first, and I knew it was Mrs. Rossiter-Browne, whom I have seen at Stoneleigh. I heard what she said of mamma, and oh, auntie, I am her daughter, and she is dead, and she was good at the last!"
In her sympathy for Bessie, Miss McPherson was even ready to do battle for Daisy, and she replied:
"Mrs. Browne is a fool, and Allen is a bigger one, and Lord Hardy biggest of all. Don't cry. She wants to see you. Wash your face, and take off your apron and come down."
Five minutes later Bessie was shaking hands with Mrs. Browne, who told her "she did not look very stubbed, that was a fact—that she guessed seasickness had not agreed with her, and she'd better keep herself swaddled up in flannel for a spell till she got used to the climate, which was not like England."
"You come in the Germanic, your aunt tells me," she continued, as Bessie took a seat beside her. "Then you must have seen Miss Lucy Grey and her nephew, for they were on that ship, and I hear were met by somebody sent from Boston to tell 'em to come right on, for Miss Jerrold was very sick."
Bessie felt rather than saw the questioning eyes which her aunt flashed upon her, and her face was scarlet as she answered:
"Yes, I saw Miss Grey. She was very kind to me when I was sick. She did go directly to Boston."
"What is the matter with Mrs. Jerrold?" Miss Betsey asked, and Mrs. Browne replied:
"The land only knows. Heart complaint, the last report, I believe. I saw Hannah at the depot this morning; she'd been sent for, too. Geraldine always wants her when she's sick; but the minit she is better, the old maid sister is in the way, and not good enough for my lady's fine friends. I know Geraldine Jerrold pretty well, and if I's Hannah I wouldn't run to every beck and call, when nothing under the sun ails her but hypo. She has had everything, I do believe—malary, cancers, spinal cords, nervous prostration, and now it's her heart. Humbug! More like hysterics. Burton Jerrold has got his hands full, and I pity him. Why, he looks like an old, broken-down man, and his hair is as white as snow."
Here Mrs. Browne, who had the conversation all to herself, stopped to take breath. She was not an ill-natured woman, or one who often talked of her neighbors, and after a moment, as if ashamed of her tirade, she said:
"I've went it pretty glib against poor Miss Jerrold, hain't I? I dare say she is sick and nervous, and I have not charity enough for her." Then, rising from her chair preparatory to leaving, she said to Bessie: "I am glad you have come, and I hope we shall see you often, after Gusty comes home. I s'pose I shall lose her in October. 'Tain't no secret now, and so I may as well tell you that she is to be married to Lord Hardy, from Dublin. You've seen him, I b'lieve?"
"Yes, when I was a little girl," Bessie answered, with a pang of pain as she remembered the days when Lord Hardy was their constant companion.
"I never really b'lieved he wanted Gusty," Mrs. Browne continued, "till he said so in plain words; and there's folks now mean enough to say it's her money he's after, and I don't myself suppose he'd thought of her if she hadn't had money; but I think he likes her, and I know she likes him, and it's something to be Lady Hardy."
As she said this, Mrs. Browne drew herself up rather loftily, as if some of her daughter's honor had fallen upon her; and with a stately bow and good-afternoon, went out to where her handsome carriage and high-booted driver were waiting for her.
"There goes as nice a woman as ever lived made over into a fool by money and a little nincompoop of a lord," was Miss Betsey's comment, as she watched the carriage moving away across the common. Then turning suddenly to Bessie, she added: "Why didn't you tell me Miss Lucy was on the ship with Grey?"
Bessie hesitated a moment, and then answered frankly:
"Perhaps I ought to have done so, but I thought I would rather, if you liked me at all and were kind to me, that it should be for myself and not because I had met Miss Grey, who offered to give me a note to you. Did I do wrong?"
"No; perfectly right," Miss Betsey said: "and now tell me all about it. You said she was kind when you were sick. How did she find you in the steerage?"
In as few words as possible Bessie repeated the story of her acquaintance with Miss Lucy, dwelling at length upon her kindness, but saying little of Grey; indeed, a casual stranger listening to the recital would hardly have known that he was mentioned at all. But Miss Betsey was far-seeing; she knew the signs, for she had had her day and experience, and from the very fact that Bessie did not say more of Grey, she drew her own conclusions. But to be quite sure, she said:
"You had seen Grey, before you met him on the ship, had you not?"
"Yes," Bessie answered. "He once spent a day at Stoneleigh with Neil, and he came again when father died, and was so kind to me. I was alone, for mother, you know, was on the ocean, and he did everything a man could do. Then, when I was sick in Rome, he was there too, and gave up his room to mother, and took every care from her. Oh, auntie, he is the noblest man I ever knew. He told Neil once that he tried to make somebody happy every day, either by a pleasant word, or look, or act of kindness; and only think, if he lives to be old, how many, many people will have been happier because he has lived."
In the excitement, Bessie forgot everything but her enthusiasm for and her interest in Grey Jerrold; and her aunt, who was watching her closely, guessed the truth pretty accurately. But she made no remark except to say that from the garret window one could see Grey's Park, where Miss Lucy lived, and which Grey would probably one day inherit. Nor was she at all surprised when later in the afternoon she knew by certain sounds that Bessie was at the garret window looking at the park.
The next day was a hard and busy one, for there was sweeping to be done, and the silver to be cleaned, and the dining-room windows to be wiped; and Bessie went through it all patiently and uncomplainingly, serving her aunt at breakfast and dinner, taking her own meals with the cook, and never by a sign showing that she was other than the hired maid she had chosen to be. But when the last thing was done which belonged to her to do, the fatigue and the heat overcame her, and, sitting down in the shaded porch, by the kitchen door, she leaned her aching head against the back of her chair and fell asleep. And there Miss Betsey, who had scarcely lost sight of her during the day, found her, and for a few moments stood looking at her intently, noticing every curve, and line, and feature, and feeling a lump in her throat as she saw about the sweet mouth that patient, sorry expression which had come there years ago when Bessie was a child, and had deepened with every succeeding year.
"Poor little girl, you have had a hard time, I know," she said; and at the sound of her voice Bessie awoke and with a bright smile and blush, started up, saying:
"Excuse me; I was very tired and warm, and must have fallen asleep. My work is done, and now, if you have any sewing, please let me have it."
"Aren't you tired? You look pale," Miss Betsey asked so kindly that Bessie's lip quivered as she replied:
"Yes, a little; but I do not mind that. I should like to do something for you."
"Then go out into the garden in the fresh air and stay there till you are rested," Miss Betsey answered, abruptly, and, turning on her heel, she walked away to her own room, where she held communion with herself, wondering how much longer she could or ought to hold out, "I have tried her pretty well, and she has not flinched a hair; but I guess I will wait a day or two, till I have heard from Sarah," she thought, but this resolution she did not carry out for two reasons, one of which was found in the letter which she received that afternoon, and the other in the fact that at tea-time Bessie fainted dead away as she stood by her auntie's chair.
She had borne so much and suffered so much during the last few months that nature refused to bear any longer, and it was more than a headache which brought the faintness upon her. Taking her in her arms, Miss Betsey carried her to her room, and placing her upon the bed, sat down beside her.
"Why are you crying?" she asked, as she saw the great tears roll down Bessie's cheeks faster than she could wipe them away.
"Because," Bessie answered, with a choking sob, "I have tried so hard to do right, and have wanted work so much, and just as I have found it, I am afraid I am going to be sick, for I feel so strange and cold, as if all the life had gone from me, and I cannot work any more, and you will have to send me away, and I have nowhere to go, for Stoneleigh is very far away, and I have no money to get there. Oh, auntie, if I could die! Life has been so dreary to me!"
Here Bessie broke down entirely, and sobbed for a few moments convulsively, while Miss McPherson was scarcely less agitated.
Kneeling down by the low bed and laying her old face by the side of the young one upon the pillow, she, too, cried for a few moments like a child. Then, lifting up her head and brushing away her tears with an impatient movement, as if she were ashamed of them, she said:
"I cannot hold out any longer, and I must tell you that what I have been doing was never intended to last; I was only trying you, to see if you were true, and now that I know you are, do you think I will not take you to my heart as my child, my very own? I believe I have always loved you, Bessie, since the day your eyes looked at me on the sands of Aberystwyth, and I have wanted you so much, and tried so many times to get you, and right here where I am kneeling now, I have often knelt by this little bed prepared for you years ago, and prayed God to keep you innocent and pure, and send you to me some day. And he has done all this. He has kept you pure and good, and send you to me just when I want you most, I am a queer, crabbed old woman, but I believe I can make you happy, and by and by you may learn to love me a little. Few have ever done that; none in fact, since my mother died, but one, and he—oh, Bessie, I would give my life to have him back, and more than my life to know that it was well with him. Charlie, oh, Charlie, my love, my love!"
Bessie's tears were all dried now, and her arms were around the neck of this strange woman, weeping for her lost love as women never weep save when the memory of that love brings far more pain than joy.
"Dear auntie," Bessie said, "I do not quite under stand what you mean, but if I can comfort you I will, and work for you, too, I do not in the least mind that, and I must do something to pay—"
"Hush child!" Miss Betsey rejoined, almost impatiently, as she drew herself from Bessie's embrace and rose to her feet. "Never again trouble your head about your debts. I sent the two hundred and fifty pounds to my brother's wife yesterday, and told her what I was doing to you, and what I meant to do if you passed the ordeal unscathed, and any time you choose you can write to Anthony and send him twenty pounds, or more, if you like. What is mine is yours, so long as my opinion of you remains unchanged. I did not like your mother; I am free to tell you that. I was angry with your father for marrying her, and angrier still when I heard of the life she led—heard of her at Monte Carlo, of which I never think without a shudder."
Miss McPherson had seated herself in a chair by this time, and over her white face there came a rapt far-off look, and her hands were locked together as she continued:
"Bessie, I may as well tell you now why I hate that place, and hate all who frequent it. Charlie seems very near me to-night; my boy lover, with the soft brown eyes and hair, and the sweet voice which always spoke so tenderly to me, even when I was in my fitful moods. That was more than forty years ago when he walked with me along the rose-scented lanes and told me of his love, and talked of the happy future when I would be his wife. Alas, he little dreamed what the future had in store, or of the dreary, lonely life I should lead, while he—oh, Charlie, my love, my love!"
She paused a moment, while she seemed trying to repress some powerful emotion, and then resumed her story:
"When he was twenty-one, and I was twenty, we went abroad in company with some relatives of mine, and found ourselves at last at Monte Carlo. Your grandfather was with us, and together we went into the gambling hall where men and women sell their souls for money, and there my brother played, and I—shame that I must tell it—I, too, tried my luck, while Charlie looked on reproachfully, and tried to get me away, but I only laughed at him, and bade him stay to keep me company. Then I called him a coward, and badgered him until one night he put down a five-franc piece and won, and then he put down another, and another—doubling and trebling sometimes, and always winning, as it is said Satan, who rules that den, lets the novices do. The next day Charlie played with a recklessness which half alarmed me, and made me remonstrate with him. But to no purpose.
"'You called me a coward,' he said, laughingly; 'and besides that, I rather like it, the gold comes so easily. I have scarcely lost a pound.'
"Soon, however, the tide turned, and he began to lose; not small, but large sums. But, as if that made him more determined than ever, he played on and on, always the first to enter and the last to leave, while I watched him with a dread foreboding at my heart which I could not define. Oh, how rashly he played and what heavy sums he staked! His fortune was not large, nor was mine then what it is now; but we had planned together to buy a lovely place we knew of on the Isle of Wight, and had furnished it in fancy many times.
"'I am bound to get back what I have lost, or we cannot have Rose Lawn,' he would say, with a smile; and once, when I begged him to desist, and told him I did not care for Rose Lawn he answered me:
"'But I do, and you must not complain. You made me play, you know.'
"After that I was silent and watched him sadly, as the infatuation increased. At last he said to me one night:
"'Betty,' that was the name he gave me, 'this evening will see the end. Something tells me I shall get back all I have lost, and I am resolved to stake everything I have. But whether I lose or win, it is my last chance. Don't look so reproachfully at me. Remember, you taught me to play, but you did not know how strong was the desire in me to do it. A love for the gaming-table is the besetting sin of my family, and I had sworn to conquer it in myself, but you were too strong for me; so, whatever happens, do not blame me too much. And now give me a kiss as a guaranty of success.'
"How handsome he was in the moonlight, for we were in the beautiful grounds around the Casino—were standing in a sheltered spot close to a bed of great white lilies, whose perfume even then made me faint, I cannot smell them now without a throb of pain, they are so associated with that awful night when I bade Charlie good-by, and went back to the hotel. I did not go with him, nor did he wish it, I disconcerted him, he said. And so I sat by my window and watched the full moon rising higher and higher, and listened to the moan and dash of the sea against the shore below, and saw the people going and coming, until at last it was twelve o'clock, the hour for closing, and I saw the crowds come out, men and women, young and old, those who had lost and those who had won, and leaning from the casement I tried to single out Charlie, but could not. I felt almost sure that if he had been successful he would stop at my door and tell me so. But he did not come.
"As I sat and waited, I cannot tell you the horror and dread which took possession of me. I knew that the moon was still shining—that patches of silvery light were falling upon the sea, and the shrubs and flowers outside, but to me all was black as midnight, and I actually groped my way to my bed, on which I threw myself at last, shivering with cold, for the October air was blowing up chill from the water. For a few moments I slept, and then started suddenly as I fancied I heard Charlie call my name.
"Oh-h, Betty," was what he said, and in his voice there was a note of agony and fear, which made me shiver in every limb, as I tottered to the window and looked out.
"Oh, what a glorious night it was, rich and sweet with tropical bloom and beauty, and the full moon in the sky now moving down to the west, for it was past two o'clock.
"Every thing was still, and after listening a moment I went back to bed, and slept heavily until morning, when my brother came to my door and spoke to me in a voice I did not at first recognize, it was so strange and unnatural.
"What is it?' I asked, as I opened the door and looked at his white face.
"'Sister,' he said, stepping into the room. 'Can you bear some dreadful news?'
"'Yes,' I answered with a sensation as if I were turning into stone. 'Charlie is dead! He has killed himself!'
"How I knew it I cannot tell, but know it I did. Charlie was dead. He had lost everything and gone from the scene of his ruin to the very spot where he had kissed and said good-by to me, and there had put a bullet through his brain—close by the clump of lilies which were wet with his blood when they found him lying on his back with his fair young face upturned to the moonlit sky, and a smile on his lips as if the death struggle had been a painless one.
"I knew then that at the last, when his soul was parting from his body, he had called my name, and I had heard him just as I often hear him now when I am all alone, and the night, like that one, is full of moonlight and beauty.
"We took him to England and laid him in his grave, where I buried my heart, my life, and hope, and since then I have grown into the strange, unlovable woman you find me. But do you wonder that I shrink with horror from the gaming-table and those who frequent it, or that I could not respect your mother when I heard of her so often at Monte Carlo, where Charlie died and where your grandfather ruined himself for he, too, was possessed with a mania for play?"
"Oh, auntie, how sorry I am for you," Bessie said, throwing her arms around Miss McPherson's neck and kissing her through her tears. "I mean to love you so much," she continued, "and do so much for you, if you will let me I do not mind being your housemaid at all, only just now I feel so tired and sick, as if I could never work any more;" and, wholly exhausted, she sank back upon her pillow, where she lay for a few moments so white and still that her aunt felt a horrible pang of fear lest the prize she so much coveted might be slipping from her almost before she possessed it.
But after a little Bessie rallied, and, smiling upon her aunt, said to her:
"You cannot guess how happy I am to be here with you, but I do not think I quite understand what you meant by trying me."
"I meant," Miss McPherson replied, "to see if you were in earnest when you said you were willing to do anything to earn money, I knew the McPherson pride, and thought you might have some of it. But I know better now. I have tried you and proved you, and do not want you as housemaid any longer. Nor shall I need your services, for a new girl comes to-morrow—Sarah's cousin. She is in New York, and will be here on the morning train. A regular greenhorn I imagine; but if she is honest and willing, I can soon train her in my ways. And now I will leave you, for you must sleep to-night, so as to be well to-morrow;" and with a fond good-night, Miss McPherson left the room.
With the morrow the new housemaid came, but Miss McPherson was too anxious about her niece to observe more than that the girl was fresh, and bright, and clean, with a wonderful brogue and a clear, ringing voice. Miss Betsey had called the village doctor, who, after carefully examining his patient, said she was suffering either from nervous prostration or malaria, he could not tell which, until he had seen her again; then, prescribing quinine for the latter, and perfect rest for the former, he left just as the new girl appeared and with her volubility and energy seemed to fill the house. As quickly as possible Miss Betsey got her into the kitchen, and then went to her niece's room.
"I must have been asleep," Bessie said, "for I dreamed that I heard Jennie's voice, and I was so glad that it woke me, and I thought I heard it again. She was the Irish girl who was so kind to me on the ship. You remember I told you of her."
"Yes," Miss Betsey replied, "I think you liked her very much."
"Oh, yes, very, very much, and I would give a great deal to see her again, I believe I should get well at once, there is something so strong and hearty about her."
To this Miss McPherson made no reply, but all the rest of the morning she seemed very restless and excited, and was constantly hushing the new girl, whom she once bade the cook gag, if she could not quiet her in any other way.
"I have a sick niece up stairs, and you will disturb her," she said to the girl, who replied:
"An' sure thin, mum, I'll whisper."
But her whisper seemed to penetrate everywhere, and Miss McPherson was glad when at last the toast and tea and jelly intended for Bessie's dinner were ready upon the tray which she bade the girl take up stairs to the young lady whose room was at the end of the hall.
"An' indade I'd take off me shoes and go in me stockin' feet to be quiet: an' it's niver a word I'll spake," the girl said, as she started on her errand, while her mistress listened at the foot of the stairs.
Miss McPherson was prepared for a demonstration if some sort, but did not quite expect what followed, for the moment the girl stepped into the room, Bessie sprang up with the loud glad cry: "Oh, Jennie, Jennie, where did you come from? I am so glad!"
There was an answering cry of surprise and joy, and then the tray, with everything upon it, went crashing to the floor, while Jennie exclaimed:
"An', be jabers, the plather an' the tay is all one smash together, in me fright at seem' you here before me, when it's meself was goin' to ask her to take you. May the saints be praised, if it's not the happiest day since I left Ireland," and bending over Bessie the impulsive Irish girl kissed her again and again, talking, and laughing, and crying, until Bessie said to her:
"There, Jennie, please; I am very tired, and your sudden coming has taken my strength away."
She did look very white and faint, and Jennie saw it, and tried to be calm, though she kept whispering to herself as she gathered up the debris on the floor, and with a most rueful expression took it down stairs, saying to her mistress:
"An' faith it's a bad beginnin' I've made, mum, but sure an' I'll pay you every farthing with me first wages, and now, if you plase, I'll do up my fut, for it's blistered, that it is, with the bilin' tay."
The foot was cared for, and another tray of toast and tea prepared. This, Miss Betsey took herself to Bessie, explaining that Jennie was the cousin who had come to take her former housemaid's place.
"But I had no idea," she said, "that she was such a behemoth. I am afraid she will not answer my purpose at all."
But Bessie pleaded for the girl, whose kindness of heart she knew, and who, she felt sure, could be molded and softened by careful and judicious training, and that afternoon, when Jennie came up to her she told her that her aunt did not like a noise, and that she must be very quiet and gentle if she wished to please.
Jennie listened to her, open-eyed, and when she was through responded:
"Is it quiet she wants? I told her I would whasper, an' faith I wull; for I'm bound to stay with you, and get me tin shillings a week."
The case seemed hopeless, and Jennie might have lost her place but for the serious illness which came upon Bessie, taking away all her vitality, and making her weak and helpless as a child. It was then that Jennie showed her real value, and by her watchful tenderness and untiring devotion, more than made amends for all her awkwardness.
Day after day, and night after night, she staid in the sick room, ministering to Bessie as no one else could have done, lifting her tenderly in her strong arms, and sometimes walking with her up and down the large chamber into which she had been carried when the physician said her sickness might be of weeks' duration, for she was suffering from all the fatigue and worry of the last two years, when the strain upon her nerves had been so great.
All through the remaining weeks of summer, and the September days which followed, Bessie lay in her bed, scarcely noticing any thing which was passing around her, and saying to her aunt when she bent over her, asking how she felt:
"Tired, so tired, and it is nice to rest."
And so the days went by, and everybody in Allington became interested in the young girl whom few had seen, but of whom a great deal was told by Mrs. Rossiter-Browne, whose carriage often stood at Miss McPherson's door, bringing sometimes the lady herself, and sometimes Augusta, who had returned from Saratoga, and was busy with the preparations for her wedding, which was to take place in October.
Lord Hardy, who had come from the West, and established himself at the Ridge House, called several times and left his card, which Miss McPherson promptly burned.
She did not like Lord Hardy. He was just a fortune-hunter, she said, and cared no more for Augusta Browne than he did for her, except that Augusta was the younger of the two, and she could not forget how he had looked, smirking and mincing by the side of Archie's wife at Aberystwyth; poor, weak Daisy, who, but for him, might not have gone so far astray as she did.
For Bessie's sake Miss McPherson was almost ready to forgive poor Daisy, as she always called her now when thinking of her. For Bessie's sake she felt that she could do a great deal that was contrary to her nature, but she could not feel kindly disposed toward Neil, for immediately after the receipt of her letter to his mother, containing two hundred and fifty pounds, and the announcement that she intended to take Bessie as her own child, Neil had written her a long, penitent letter, blaming himself as a coward, and telling of his remorse and regret for the past, and saying that, unless he was forbidden to do so, he should come to America in September, and renew his offer to Bessie.
This letter Miss McPherson read with sundry expressions of disgust, and then, taking from its peg her sun-hat, almost as large as a small umbrella, she started for the telegraph office, and several hours later Neil McPherson, in London, was reading the following laconic dispatch from Allington:
"Stay at home and mind your own business!
"Perhaps I did wrong to send it, for maybe the girl likes him after all," the spinster thought, as she walked back to her house.
But it was too late now, and for the next two or three days she was too anxious to think of anything except Bessie, who was much worse, and seemed so weak and unconscious of everything, that the physician looked very grave, and the clergyman came at Miss McPherson's request, and said the prayers for the sick, but Bessie did not hear them, for she lay like one in a deep sleep, scarcely moving or seeming to breathe.
Before leaving the room the clergyman went softly to the bedside to look at the sick girl, wondering much at the likeness in her face to some one he had seen before, and wondering too why it should remind him of Hannah Jerrold, and the night when he went in the wintery storm to hear her father's confession.
"Poor Hannah!" he said to himself, as he left the house, and walking slowly across the common to the church-yard, sat down upon a bench near to a head-stone, which bore this inscription: "Sacred to the memory of Martha, beloved wife of the Rev. Charles Sanford, who died January 1st, 18—. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord."
Since we last saw him, years ago, the Rev. Charles Sanford had grown an old man, though he was scarcely sixty-three, an age when many men are in their prime. There was a stoop in his shoulders as if the burden of life were heavy, and his hair was as white as snow, while upon his face was a look which only daily discipline, patiently borne, can ever write upon the human visage And patiently had he borne it, until he almost forgot that he was bearing it, and then one day it was removed and by the lightness and freedom he felt, he knew how heavy it had been.
"Poor Martha!" he said to himself, as he glanced at his shining coat-sleeves, and the spot on the knee of his pants, which was almost threadbare, and at his boots, which certainly had not been blacked that day. "Poor Martha! What would she say if she could see these clothes, which, though they may not look well, are very comfortable." Then, as his eye rested upon the word beloved, he continued: "Is that a lie, I wonder, which that marble is telling to the world? If so, it is Martha's fault, for she wrote her own epitaph, just as she ordered all the details of her funeral, and what preceded it. It was a strange fancy of hers to ask that Hannah should lay her out Poor Martha! Devoted would have been better than beloved, though God knows I tried to do my best by her," and with a sigh, both for what had been and what might have been, the rector arose and started for his home, meeting at the gate of Grey's Park with Grey himself, who was in Allington for the first time since his return from Europe.
Lucy had come up a few days before, and had been at once to see Bessie, of whose illness she had written to Grey, and that had brought him as soon as he could leave his mother.
"Grey, my boy, how are you?" the rector said, offering his hand, which Grey took, saying as he did so:
"How is she this morning?"
Mr. Sanford did not know that Grey had ever seen or heard of Bessie McPherson, but something told him that he meant her, and he replied:
"Very weak and sick. Poor girl! she is too young to die."
"Mr. Sanford," and Grey spoke with great vehemence, "you do not think Bessie will die? She must not die!" and in his voice and manner there was something which betrayed his secret to the older man, who said to him:
"I hope not, Grey, God knows. Pray for her, my boy; pray earnestly. Prayer can move a mountain, or at least make a way through it. Pray for the girl you call Bessie."
To one accustomed as Grey was to take everything, however small, to God, prayer was an easy thing, and every thought was a prayer as he walked rapidly toward Miss McPherson's house.
"She is sleeping now," Miss Betsey said to him. "We trust she will be better when she wakens. It is rest she needs more than anything else. She has had a hard life so far. You have seen a great deal of her, I believe?"
"I cannot say I have seen a great deal of her, though I feel as though I had known her always. Yes, she has had a hard life. You do not think she will die?" was Grey's reply; and in his face and voice Miss Betsey detected what the rector had discovered.
"No," she said; "I do not believe she will die. Sit down and wait till she is awake."
So Grey sat down, and waited three hours, during which time the train, which would have taken him back to Boston, went rushing by, and Bessie still slept as quietly as an infant. It was Jennie who came at last and told him that she was awake and better, though too weak to see any one.
"Thank God!" Grey exclaimed, and slipping a bill into the girl's hand, he continued: "Take good care of her, Jennie, and when she is able tell her I came to see her."
"An' sure I'll tell her ivery blessed word, and that you left your love."
"I did not say that," Grey answered her, laughingly, as he bade her good-by and walked away.
For a week or more Bessie scarcely spoke or moved, it was such happiness to rest, with every wish anticipated either by her aunt or Jennie, whose voice was a whasper most of the time, and who was learning to be more quiet and subdued. At last, however, Bessie began to talk, and said to Jennie one day:
"I believe I am getting better, and I am afraid I am not as glad as I ought to be—the world holds so little for me, and so few who care for me beside auntie and you."
"An', faith," Jennie began, "it's not for ye to be sayin' the likes of that. Nobody to care for you, indade, with the gentry comin' every day to inquire for you, the praste a readin' his prayers in this very room, and the foine gintleman who was on the ship a sittin' down stairs three mortal hours waitin' to know if you waked up dead or alive, and thankin' God when it was alive I told him you was."
"Who, Jennie? What gentleman?" Bessie asked.
"Mr. Grey, to be sure," Jennie replied; "and he left his compliments for ye, and thanked God when I told him you was better. Oh, but he's very fine, and Grey's Park is like them places in the old country where the grandees live."
Whether it was that Bessie was thoroughly rested, or that the fact that Grey had not forgotten her was in itself a restorative, her recovery was very rapid, though she still looked like some fragile flower which a breath might blow away, and Miss McPherson watched her with a tender solicitude, astonishing in one as cold and impassive as she had always seemed to be.
BESSIE GOES TO GREY'S PARK.
It was a lovely day in early October when Bessie made her first visit to Grey's Park, of which she had heard such glowing descriptions from Jennie, who took her there in an invalid chair sent for the purpose by Miss Lucy.
The grass in the park was fresh and green from recent rains, and the late autumn flowers gave a brightness to the place scarcely equaled in summer.
"Oh, how lovely it is! pretty almost as the Kensington Gardens," Bessie exclaimed, as she entered the gate and looked around her. "I think I should like to live here," she continued; and then there came to her a thought of Grey, who would probably one day be master of the place, and she blushed guiltily, as if she had said some immodest thing.
Miss Lucy met her at the door, and, taking her to her room, made her lie down till they were joined, by Miss McPherson, who came to lunch, which was served in the breakfast-room, and was just the kind to tempt an invalid.
Bessie enjoyed it immensely, and felt herself growing stronger and better in the brightness and freshness of this beautiful home which was one day to be Grey's.
On the wall, beside Blind Robin's, there was a picture of Grey, taken in Europe when he was fourteen, and just before the great sorrow came upon him and robbed his face of a little of the assurance and boyish eagerness which the artist had depicted upon the canvas. But it was like him still—like him, as he was now, in his young manhood, when to do good to others, to make somebody happy every day, was the rule of his life. And Bessie's eyes were often fixed upon it, as, after lunch was over they still sat in the breakfast-room, because of the sunshine which came in so brightly at the windows. And while they sat there the elder women talked of Grey and what he would probably do, now that his travels in Europe were ended.
"He ought to marry and settle down. Is there any hope of his doing so?" Miss Betsey said, and Lucy replied:
"I think so, yes, I am quite sure of it, if everything goes well, as I think it will."
Bessie was sitting with her back partly turned to the ladies, who did not see the crimson spots which covered her face for a moment and then left it deathly pale, as she heard that Grey Jerrold was to be married. For an instant everything around her turned black, and when she came to herself she felt that she could not breathe in that room with Grey's picture on the wall, and his eyes looking at her as they had looked that day, in Rome, when he had said to her words she would almost give half her life to hear again. Bessie was no dissembler. She could not sit there in her pain and make no sign, and, turning to her aunt, she said:
"Please, auntie, let Jennie take me into the air, I am sick and faint; I—"
She could not say anything more lest she should break down entirely; and, glancing significantly at each other, the two ladies called Jennie, and bade her take her young mistress into the garden.
"Go to the rose-arbor. It is warmer there," Miss Lucy said; but only Jennie heard, for Bessie was too conscious of the blow which had fallen so suddenly upon her, to heed what was passing around her.
Grey was going to be married; her Gray, whom she now knew that she loved as she had never loved Neil McPherson even in the first days of her engagement, when he was all the world to her. Her Grey, who certainly had loved her once, or he would never have said to her what he did. Her Grey, who had been so kind to her on the ship and looked the love he did not speak. Why had he changed so soon? Was it some love of his boyhood before he saw her, and had it again sprung into being, now that he had returned to its object? And oh, how dreary the world looked to the young girl with the certainty that Grey was lost to her forever. She did not notice the fanciful summer-house into which Jennie wheeled her; did not notice anything, or think of anything except her desolation and a desire to be alone, that she might cry just as she had never cried before.
"Please, Jennie, go away," she said; "I would rather be alone."
So Jennie left her, and, covering her face with her hands, Bessie sobbed, piteously:
"Oh, Father in heaven, is there never to be any joy for me? Must I always be so desolate and lonely, and is it wicked to wish that I were dead?"
For several minutes poor Bessie wept on, and then with a great effort she dried her tears, and, leaning her head back in her chair, began to live over again every incident of her life as connected with Grey Jerrold. And while she sat there thus, the Boston train stopped at the Allington station, and she heard the roar and the ring as it started on its way. Twenty minutes later she heard behind her the sound of a footstep, apparently hurrying toward her, and thought, if she thought at all, that it was Jennie coming for her. But surely Jennie's tread was never so rapid and eager as this, nor were Jennie's hands as soft and warm as the hands which encircled her face, nor Jennie's voice like this which said to her:
"Bessie, darling Bessie!"
Grey had come to Allington from Springfield, where he had been on business for his father, and both Lucy and Miss McPherson knew that he was coming, and had chosen that day for Bessie's visit to the park, and had purposely talked before her of his probable marriage, in order to test the nature of Bessie's feelings for him.
"We cannot be mistaken," Miss McPherson said to Lucy, after Bessie had left them; "but let me manage the young man."
And when, at last, Grey came, and, after greeting the ladies, asked after Bessie, Miss McPherson replied that she was better and had just left them for the garden; and then, as Grey made no move to go in search of her, she suddenly turned upon him with the exclamation:
"Grey Jerrold, you are a fool!"
"Ye-es?" he answered, interrogatively, as he regarded her with astonishment.
"I repeat it—you are either a fool or blind, or both!" she continued. "But I am neither, and I know you love my niece, and she loves you, and I know too that you think she is engaged to Neil McPherson, but she is not."
"What!" Grey exclaimed, starting to his feet. "What are you saying?"
"I am saying that Bessie's engagement was broken before she left England, and that she—"
"She—what?" Grey cried, almost pleadingly; and Miss McPherson rejoined:
"She is in the garden. You will find her in the rose-arbor."
Grey waited for no more, but went rapidly in the direction of the summer-house where Bessie sat with her back to him, and did not see him until his hands were upon her face and his voice said to her:
"Bessie, darling Bessie!"
Then she started suddenly, and when Grey came round in front of her, and taking her hands in his kissed her lips, she kissed him unhesitatingly, and then burst into a paroxysm of tears.
"What is it, Bessie? Why are you crying so?" Grey said, as he still held her hands and kept kissing her forehead and lips.
"They said you were going to be married," Bessie sobbed, as Grey knelt beside her, and laying her head upon his shoulder, tried to brush her tears away.
"Who said I was to be married?" he asked, in some surprise, and Bessie answered him:
"Your Aunt Lucy said she thought so, and I—oh, Grey, what must you think of me?" and lifting her head from his shoulder, Bessie covered her face with her hands, crying for very shame that she had betrayed what she ought to have kept to herself.
"What must I think of you?" Grey replied. "Why, this—that you are the dearest, sweetest little girl in all the world, and that I am the happiest man. I do not know what Aunt Lucy meant by saying I was going to be married; but I am, and very soon, too—just as soon as you are able to be present at the ceremony. Will that be at Christmas-time, do you think?"
He was taking everything for granted, and Bessie knew that he was, and knew what he meant, but she would scarcely have been a woman if she had not wished him to put his meaning in words which could not be mistaken, so she said to him amid her tears—glad, happy tears they were now:
"Whom are you to marry?"
"Whom?" he repeated. "Whom but you, Bessie McPherson, whom I believe I have loved ever since that Christmas I spent at Stoneleigh two years ago. Do you remember the knot of plaid ribbon you wore that night and which I won at play? I have it still, as one of my choicest treasures, and the curl of hair which Flossie cut from your head, in Rome, when we thought you would die, I divided that tress with Jack Trevellian the night we talked together of you, with breaking hearts, because we believed you were dead. He told me then of his love for you, and I confessed mine to him, though we both supposed that, had you lived, Neil would have claimed you as his. Oh, Bessie, those were dreary months to me, when I thought you dead, and may you never know the anguish I endured when I stood by that grave in Stoneleigh and believed you lying there. But God has been very good to me, far better than I deserve. He has given you to me at last and nothing shall separate us again."
While Grey talked, he was caressing Bessie's face and hair, and stooping occasionally to kiss her, while she sat dumb and motionless, so full was she of the great joy which had come so suddenly upon her, and which, as yet, she could not realize.
"We will be married at Christmas," Grey said; "the anniversary of the time when I first saw you, little dreaming then, that you would one day be my wife. Shall it not be so?"
What Bessie might have said or how long the interview might have lasted, we have no means of knowing, for a shrill cry in the distance of "None of that, misther! for I'm comin' meself to take the hide of ye," startled them from their state of bliss, and looking up they saw Jennie bearing swiftly down upon them, with both arms extended ready for fight.
Jennie, who knew nothing of Grey's arrival, had visited with the servants, until she concluded it was time to return to her young mistress. As she came within sight of the summer-house what was her horror to see a tall young man with his arms around Bessie, and, as it seemed to her, trying to take her from the chair.
"Thaves and murther!" she cried, "if there isn't a spalpeen thryin' to run away with Miss Bessie, body and bones;" and at her utmost speed she dashed on to the fray.
But at sight of Grey she stopped short, and with wide-open eyes and mouth, surveyed him a moment in astonishment; then a broad smile illumined her face as she exclaimed:
"An' faith that's right. Kiss her again as many times as ye likes. It's not meself will interfere, though if you'd been a bla'guard, as I thought you was, I'd of had yer heart's blood," and turning on her heel Jennie walked rapidly away, leaving the lovers a very little upset and disconcerted.
It was Grey who wheeled Bessie back to the house, and taking her in his arms carried her to his Aunt Lucy, to whom he said, as he put her down upon the couch:
"This is my little wife, or, rather, she is to be my wife on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day we are to spend here with you, who will make the old house brighter than ever it was before." Then, going up to Miss McPherson, he continued: "Kiss me, Aunt Betsey because I am to be your nephew, and because I am no longer a fool."
The kiss he asked for was given, and thus the engagement was sealed, and when next day Grey returned to Boston, he said to his Aunt Hannah, who was still with his mother:
"Bessie is to be my wife, and I must tell her our secret, and at your house, too, for, after she has seen you, I feel sure that she will forgive everything."
At last Mrs. Geraldine was better, and signified her willingness to let her sister-in-law return to her own home, from which she had been absent so long. She had received, with a good deal of equanimity, the news of her son's engagement with Bessie, whom she remembered as a lovely child, wholly unlike her mother.
"If that woman were living, I would never consent to the marriage," she said; "but as it is, I am willing, though I had hoped that in your travels abroad you might have found some high-born English girl with a title, but it is something to marry a niece of Lady Jane, and I dare say Miss McPherson will make the girl her heir; so I will welcome her as my daughter, and perhaps she will brighten up the house, which is at times insufferably dull, with your father growing more and more silent and gloomy every day. I should not wonder if he were to become crazy, like your grandfather."
Grey did not reply to this, or tell her that he could guess in part what it was which had made his father grow old so fast, and blanched his hair to a snowy white, unusual to one of his years. It was the secret hidden under the bed-room floor which had affected his whole life, and affected it all the more because he had brooded over it in silence, and never spoken to any one upon the subject. Once Hannah attempted to say something to him, but he had repulsed her so fiercely that she never tried again, and he did not guess what efforts Grey had made to find the rightful heirs of Joel Rogers. Like his wife, he did not object to Grey's engagement. Bessie was a desirable parti, as she would, in all probability, inherit her aunt's large fortune, and he signified his approval; and in all Boston there was not a happier man than Grey, on the morning when, with his Aunt Hannah, he at last started for Allington, telling her when he bade her good-by at the station that he should bring Bessie to her early the following day.
It was a most lovely October morning when Grey drove Bessie through the rocky lane in the pasture land up to the old house, of which he had told her on Christmas Eve, at Stoneleigh, almost two years ago, and which seemed neither new nor strange to Bessie, so strong an impression had his description made upon her.
"There she is; that is Aunt Hannah," Grey said, as a tall, slender woman, in a plain black dress, came to the open door and stood waiting for them.
"And I should have known her, too. What a sad face it is, just as if there was a history hidden under it." Bessie said, and Grey replied, as be lifted her from the phaeton:
"There is a history hidden there, and sometime I will tell it to you."
Then leading her to his aunt he said:
"Auntie, I have brought you Bessie."
"Yes," Hannah answered, with a gasp, as her cold hands were clasped by the soft, warm ones of the young girl, who looked up at her curiously, wondering at her manner.
At sight of Bessie, Hannah had been startled by the likeness to the picture hidden away so many years, every feature of which was indelibly stamped upon her memory. Had that picture taken life and form, and was it confronting her now? It seemed so, and for an instant she grew cold and faint, and stood staring at the girl.
"Auntie, won't you kiss Bessie?" Grey said, and then the spell was broken, and taking the girl in her arms, Hannah kissed and cried over her as a fond mother cries over the child which has been lost and is restored to her again.
Hannah could not define to herself the feeling which took possession of her from the moment she saw Bessie standing there in the low, old-fashioned room, with the October sunshine falling on her golden hair and lighting up her beautiful face, still pale and worn from recent sickness. It was as if an angel had come suddenly to her, bringing the peace and rest she had never known since that awful night more than forty years ago, and she felt all her olden horror rolling away, as she watched Bessie going over the house, with Grey—; now up the crooked stairs to the room under the roof where Grey used to sleep when a boy, and where there were still the remains of a horse, and a boat which he had sailed in the big iron kettle by the well—; now down the cellar stairs to see the foundation of the big chimney which occupied the center of the house, and in which the swallows built their nests; now out to the well where the bucket hung, and then to the little bench where Grey used to sit and kick the side of the house, while the terror-stricken old man looked on trembling, lest the boards should give way and show what was hidden there! It was there yet, dust and ashes now, but still there, and Bessie sat down alone beside it, while Grey shivered as his grandfather had done, and drew her away as quickly as possible.
"Where does this lead to?" she asked, laying her hand upon the door which was always closed.
"That was grandfather's room. No one goes in there," Grey said, hurriedly, as he put his arm around her, and told her she had seen enough, and must rest until after dinner.
He took her to the pleasant south room, where the early dinner was served, with the tiny silver teaspoons, marked with the initials of Hannah's mother, and the bits of old china, which modern fashion has made so choice and rare now. And Bessie enjoyed it with the keen relish of a returning appetite. She had improved rapidly within the last week, and declared herself is well and strong as ever, when, after dinner was over and the dishes cleared away she nestled down among the cushions of the chintz-covered lounge.
"This is such a dear old place," she said, "that I should like to stay here always. People say there is a skeleton in every house, but I am sure there can be none here, everything seems so peaceful and quiet."
"Why did she make that remark, of all others?" Grey thought, as, with a face whiter even than that of his Aunt Hannah, he sat down beside her, and drawing her closely to him, laid her golden head upon his shoulder.
"Bessie," he said, and his voice shook a little, "I am going to tell you something which perhaps I ought to have told you before I asked you to be my wife, and which I should have told you had I thought the telling would make any difference in your love for me."
"Nothing could make any difference in that," Bessie said, lifting up her sweet face to be kissed, and then dropping her head again upon Grey's arm, just as Hannah came in and took a seat on the other side of her.
Hannah had been up stairs to her room, where she now kept the box in which lay the picture which was so like Bessie McPherson.
"More like her than I supposed," she whispered, as she gazed upon the face which seemed each moment to grow more and more like the young girl to whom Grey was to tell the story.
He was only waiting for her to come in before he commenced, she knew, and putting the picture back in its place, she went down to the south room, and taking her seat beside Bessie, as Grey motioned her to do, waited for him to begin.
"Bessie," he said, and his aim tightened its clasp around her waist, "there is a skeleton here, and it has darkened all my Aunt Hannah's life, and thrown its shadow over me as well. Can you bear to have a little of it fall upon you, too?"
"Yes," she answered, fearlessly, "I have always lived with skeletons until I knew you loved me; they cannot frighten me."
"But, darling, would you love me as well, think you you knew that, in a way, there was a disgrace clinging my name?" he asked, and Bessie replied:
"A disgrace! What do you mean? I cannot imagine you to be in disgrace; but if you are, I am quite ready to share it with you."
"Even if it be murder?"
Grey spoke the last word in a whisper, as if afraid the walls had ears, but Bessie heard him distinctly, and with a great start, she drew herself away from him, and sat rigid as a stone, while she repeated:
"Murder! Oh, Grey, you surely do not mean that!"
"No, not exactly; it was manslaughter, done in self-defense," Grey answered her, and, with a sigh of relief, Bessie asked:
"Who was the killed, and who the killer?"
"My grandfather did the deed, in the heat of passion, and the victim has lain under the floor of that room into which I would not let you enter, for more than forty years. Now you know the skeleton there is in this old house."
"Ye-es," Bessie said, while a look of terror and pain crept into her eyes; but she did not move nearer either to Grey or his aunt.
Indeed, it seemed to both that she drew herself into as small a compass as possible, so that she might not touch them, and her face was very white and still as Grey commenced the story, which he made as short as possible, though he dwelt at length upon the life-long remorse of his grandfather, and the heavy burden which his Aunt Hannah had carried for years.
At this part of the story, Bessie's face relaxed, and one of the hands, which had been clasped so tightly together at first, went over to Hannah's hand, which it took and held until Grey told of the lonely days and dreary nights passed by the young girl in the old horror-haunted house, with no one but Rover for her companion. Then the hand went up with a soft, caressing motion to the face which Grey had once said looked as if Christ had laid his hands hard upon it, and left their impress there. It was pallid now, as the face of a corpse, and there were hard lines about the mouth, which quivered with pain. But, at the touch of Bessie's soft fingers, the hardness relaxed, and, covering her eyes, Hannah burst into a paroxysm of weeping.
"Dear auntie," Bessie said, "my auntie, because you are Grey's, how you must have suffered, and how I wish I could have come to you. There would have been no terror here for me, because, you see, it was not premeditated; it was an accident, not a crime, and God, I am sure, forgave it long ago. No, Grey;" and now she turned to him, and, winding her arms around his neck, went on: "It is not a disgrace you ask me to share it is a misfortune, a trouble; and do you think I would shrink from it a moment—I, who have borne so much that was disgrace?"
He knew she was thinking of her mother, but he said nothing except to fold her in his arms and kiss her flushed, eager face, while she went on:
"But who was this man? Where did he live, and had he no friends to make inquiries for him?"
Grey remembered now that he had simply said, the peddler, without giving the name, and he hastened to say:
"He was Joel Rogers, a Welshman, from Carnarvon, and it was for his sister Elizabeth, or her heirs, that I was searching, when I first came to Stoneleigh."
"Oh, Grey!" and Bessie sprang up almost as quickly as she had done when he spoke to her of murder; "oh, Grey! what if it should be my great-uncle, whose grave is under the floor? You once told me you were hunting for Elizabeth Rogers, and I said I would ask Anthony, who knew everybody for fifty miles around and for a hundred years back. But I forgot it until after father died, when it came to me one day, and I went to Anthony and asked if he knew any one in Carnarvon or vicinity by the name of Elizabeth Rogers.
"'No,' he said, 'I never knew Elizabeth Rogers; but I knew your grandmother, Elizabeth Baldwin, before she was married, and she had a half-brother, Joel Rogers, twenty years older than herself. A queer, roaming kind of chap, who went off to America, or Australia, or some such place, and never came back again. He was a good bit older than I am,' Anthony said, 'and would be over eighty if living now.'
"Then I remembered that when I was a child I once heard my grandmother Allen speak of a brother, who, she said, went to the States when she was a girl, and from whom she had not heard in many years. He must have been very fond of her, for she had several choice things he had given her, and among them a picture of herself, which, she said, was painted in London the only time she was ever there, and which was very beautiful."
"A picture, did you say? Would you know one like it if you were to see it?" Hannah asked, in a constrained voice and Bessie replied:
"Oh, yes; that portrait is still at Stoneleigh, for when grandma died, six or seven years ago, mother gave it to me, and I hung it in my room. It was like mother, only prettier, I think."
While Bessie was speaking Hannah had risen, and going from the room soon returned, bearing in her hand the box, which for so many years she had secreted, and which Grey had not seen since he was a boy, and Hannah told him the sad story which had blighted her life. He saw it now in his aunt's hands, and shuddered as if it were a long closed grave she was opening.
"Here is the watch," she said, with a strange calmness, as she laid in Bessie's lap the silver time-piece, whose white face seemed to Grey to assume a human shape, and look knowingly up at him. "You see it stopped at half-past eight. It has never been wound up since," Hannah continued, pointing to the hour and minute hands.