They took long walks together in the woods that surrounded the pretty village. Clemence had an artist's eye, and she loved to wander amid these scenes of beauty, that had power to calm her troubled soul as nothing else could do.
Little Johnny Brier often joined them, and Clemence, whose heart ached for the little creature, with the white, wan face that spoke of suffering, used to cheer him, and try to inspire him with hope for the future.
But he would say, fastening his wistful eyes upon her, with a look that always gave her pain:
"I like best to have you tell me of heaven. I do not believe I shall ever be happy in this world; but, I want to try and do right, so that when I die, I may go to live with God and his holy angels."
"But you must not indulge in such a morbid state of feeling," Clemence would say gravely. "If your Heavenly Father sees fit to have you labor for Him upon earth, you should not murmur nor repine, but strive humbly for submission. You may be sure that there is something for you yet to accomplish. God witnesses your misery, and knows of your longing to go to Him; but, you are not yet prepared. The discipline of life is needed to prove that you can deny yourself for the good of others. You can show your trust in the loving hand that guides you, by striving to bear your present trials patiently, and in His own good time He will surely send relief."
"Do you really think that?" was the oft repeated question, and the troubled eyes would scan Clemence's face, till her own were filled with blinding drops. "I try so hard to be good and patient, but I can't hope for anything better. Something seems to stop me, when I try to pray to be made useful in this world, and it comes right out of my heart to ask, instead, only to let me die. Sometimes I have waited outside the graveyard, and watched a little spot under a shady tree, where no one ever goes, and I have thought how pleasant it would be to lie down there, with the daisies and violets to creep over me lovingly, and never wake again to any more pain. I don't think I would like to be happy, for you are not, dear Miss Graystone, and I don't think some people are ever made to be. I believe God means to make them feel how bad and wicked the world is, so they will want to leave it and go to Him. Don't you think He means that, when He tells us about there being no more sorrow nor crying in heaven? Oh, dear Miss Graystone, I know you sometimes feel just like that, for I have seen it in your eyes, and you look just as I have often dreamed my own dear mother did. And, don't be angry, but every night, when I say my prayer, I tell Him about you, and pray that you may be taken away from these wicked people, you and little Ruth. Last night I had a dream. I thought I stood upon the bank of a broad river, and the water moaned and whispered like human voices, and came up around me, and just as I was beginning to be afraid, a sweet, low voice came to me, borne across the waters, and mingled with their murmur, 'fear not,' and then I thought that I knew this was the river of death that you had told me about in the Sabbath School, and I clasped my hands together, and cried out for my dear, dear teacher, and then the water rose about me till, as it reached my lips, I awoke."
"Poor, little one," said Clemence, parting the boy's hair from off his forehead, with a mother touch, and as she gazed down into the innocent eyes, with their far-off, dreamy look, a foreboding of the future came to her, that she put away with a shudder.
"Come, children," she said, taking a hand of each, "we will retrace our steps homeward." She stooped and kissed the child's forehead, as she parted from him. "Good-bye, Johnny," she said cheerfully, "be a good boy, and try to remember all that I have told you."
The child gave the required promise, and turned away, but came back a moment after:
"Miss Graystone," he said, standing before her, and raising his eyes fearlessly to hers, "don't you think I have always tried to be good?"
"Yes, Johnny," she answered truthfully, "I know that you do. You are a real little hero, and your patience and fortitude have often set me an example, while I have grieved over the melancholy circumstances that have made you so old in sorrow."
"Oh, thank you for that, dear, dearest Miss Graystone." The child was sobbing convulsively, so that Clemence became frightened for him.
"Why, my poor child, you must not grieve so. I cannot bear to see you so unhappy," she said, bending down to him, "try and smile for me once, dear. Look now, at that cloud floating above you. See how it breaks, revealing the blue sky beyond, and think what I told you of the cloud with the silver lining. Don't you remember it, Johnny?"
"Remember it? oh yes," he said eagerly. "I have never forgotten a word you have ever uttered. I believe I shall think of them just before I die, and tell you about them in heaven. Kiss me again, please, and then I will go. I feel better now."
Clemence drew the child again into a close embrace, and then, releasing him, waited at a turn in the winding path, until he was out of sight.
It was about the same hour, nearly a week after, that Clemence was walking alone, musing upon her own unhappy fate, when, startled by a rustling of the branches near her, she turned, to behold little Johnny Brier rushing hastily past, without looking to one side or the other, and following the path that opened upon the margin of the lake.
A strange fear took possession of Clemence. She called several times, "Johnny!" authoritatively, but the child sped on, unheeding. The girl grew faint and dizzy, and though she turned to follow in the direction in which he had gone, her limbs refused to support her, and she sank down, nearly in a state of insensibility.
Footsteps again aroused her, and she started up with a feeling of hope animating her to renewed effort. A moment after, Mrs. Brier appeared upon the scene furious with rage, and flourishing in her right hand a large whip.
A look of guilty fear overspread her face, as she beheld Clemence's agitation.
"Have you seen Johnny?" she asked, breathlessly, Clemence pointed, without a word, toward the water. An awful look of terror leaped into the woman's eyes, and she turned and rushed frantically away.
When the girl could gain strength, she went after her, and there, at the water's edge, a crowd of people were collected, uttering ejaculations of horror over the lifeless remains of the child she had a few moments before beheld in all the agony of the wildest despair.
A woman turned from the crowd as Clemence approached. "He ran away," she said, "and I suppose came down here to play, and fell into the lake. It's no fault of mine. I've warned him often enough to keep away, and now he has only received the reward of all disobedient children."
Clemence strove to speak, and brand this woman as a murderess, in the sight of God, but the words died on her lips, and she fell down, where she stood, as lifeless as the still figure before them.
There had now happened to Clemence Graystone, that which, it seemed, in her forlorn situation, was the worst that fate could inflict upon her; her health failed entirely. She grew; sick, even "unto death." The long days of the late summer and the early autumn passed, and she lay, in her pale beauty, upon a couch of pain. The world, this busy, struggling, toilsome world, seemed slipping from her grasp, and heaven was very near to her. Her tired feet had borne her to the very brink of the dark river, whose waters chanted their solemn requiem, as the child had told her in his dream. She longed to follow him, and sometimes, in her delirium, would cry out his name suddenly, with every endearing accent. It seemed almost as if the words of the boy had been prophetic, and his strange dream was thus to be fulfilled.
He lay now in the very spot that his childish eyes had sought longingly, and one who remembered him came daily to place the beautiful flowers he had loved in life above his grave. Poor little Ruth! her days passed sadly enough. Her only friend might soon be taken from her. Her all was centred in the slight, attenuated form, that lay tossing restlessly upon what might be her death-bed. The little patient watcher grew each day paler as hope died out, and, notwithstanding the remonstrances of the elder woman, she only left Clemence's bedside for her daily walk to the graveyard.
Ulrica Hardyng cared for the two who had been so strangely committed to her care, as though they had been the sisters God had denied her. She hung over the sufferer, administering her medicine, and allowing none but the doctor and the hired nurse to approach her.
"There shall be none of these rude creatures about you, my darling," she would say determinedly; "they have done you harm enough already."
She despised these people, as was natural, from her very nature, which was generous, but given to strong likes and dislikes, and their treatment of the orphan girl had brought upon them her lasting contempt. She had also before had a specimen of their tender mercies, and was fully aware of the adverse judgment that had been passed upon her own actions upon her advent among them. She thought, therefore, that little good could be got from associating with any of them, though, like a real lady, she took care to be always civil and polite to every one.
When the news of Clemence's dangerous illness was spread throughout the town, there were many to grieve for the sweet-faced stranger, who had so lately come among them, and there were some to wonder what would become of her if she should linger along without finally recovering her health.
"Poor child," said Mrs. Wynn, brushing away the tears, "I have just been to see her, and she don't look to me as if she'd last the week out. I believe she is far more dangerous than the doctor thinks."
"And if she dies, what will they do with that girl of Lynn's?" queried Mrs. Brier. "She'll have to come on the town. I knew it was a perfect piece of folly for that schoolmistress to take her to support, with only her small salary. It's just as I predicted. Her strength has failed, and she can't do nothing more. 'Be just before you are generous,' is my motto."
Mrs. Brier never said a truer word than that in her whole life, for she had never been guilty of many generous or self-denying deeds, and no one could accuse her of erring in that respect.
The different benevolent Societies also met, and discussed the probability of little Ruth Lynn's being thrown upon their generosity. They finally decided that, in case of any such calamitous ending to the madness of Clemence Graystone, the child should be turned over to the proper authorities of the village, and they would wash their hands of the whole affair.
Their fears proved entirely groundless. By some inexplicable means, the two waifs, thrown thus strangely upon the protection of Widow Hardyng, managed to exist without either the aid or sympathy of the rest of the town. And Clemence, as the days grew cooler, rallied, and became rapidly convalescent.
With returning strength, came again the old anxiety for the future. She knew that her generous hostess, though willing to share her all with them, ought not to be thus burdened. Her means were limited, and the strictest economy was necessary to make their narrow income meet their present wants. Clemence realized that her illness had brought additional expense, which she knew not how to meet. The doctor's bill alone, which she had not the means to meet, was appalling; besides, there were others clamoring for a settlement of their dues. Mrs. Hardyng had repeatedly cautioned her not to retard her recovery by brooding over her unhappy position, and had taken these obligations upon herself.
In her feeble state of health, it was impossible for Clemence to undertake any employment. She was almost in despair. After all her superhuman efforts, she seemed placed in a worse predicament than when she first commenced to labor for her bread, and there was now another dependant upon her efforts. Long before she was really able, Clemence had begun to employ herself upon different articles of fancy work, such as she thought she could dispose of in Waveland.
She managed, by this means, to obtain, from time to time, small sums of money, which, if they did not materially aid her, at least made her feel a little more independent. Among other things, which her friend suggested that she might be able to dispose of to advantage, was a prettily shaped basket of some frosty white material, whose glittering, transparent beauty was relieved by bright-tinted flowers, with long, creeping vines, and leaves of a vivid green. It took some time for its completion, and when it was finished, Clemence hoped that its extreme beauty would captivate the eyes of somebody who had means to pay somewhat of its real value.
"Beautiful!" exclaimed the shop-keeper who purchased all Clemence's articles. "I'm afraid, Miss, you won't find ready sale for it here, though. There ain't many that can appreciate a thing like that in this village. I would not venture to run the risk myself, but if it was anything in the way of finery now, it would be different. If you will embroider some of those gay scarfs and slippers, and some more of the children's fixins, I'll buy them, for they take mightily."
"Then you don't think I can dispose of this at any rate?" asked Clemence, despondingly. "I need the money very much."
"I know you do," said the man compassionately, gazing into the girl's pale face. "You ought not to be working at anything after such a dangerous illness. Perhaps you had better leave it here for a few days, and I will see if I cannot get any orders for you."
"Very well," said Clemence, "I should be greatly obliged if you would," and she turned away more hopefully.
Upon her next inquiry, she found that a Mrs. Burton had desired her to call, with specimens of her work, at her house, which, by the way, was the mansion of the place. Clemence had heard much of this lady, but was not personally acquainted with her.
"It's all right," said the brisk, little storekeeper. "I think she is the very one for you to go to, for she has plenty of money at her command. She took quite a fancy to the basket of flowers, and inquired all about you, asking if you would not call and see her directly."
Clemence gladly followed the advice thus given her, and after a walk of about half a mile, found herself at Mrs. Burton's residence. The lady herself came to the door. Clemence introduced herself.
"Oh, yes, you are the one Mr. Weston was speaking about, and I told him I thought I might be able to help you in some manner."
Clemence thanked her, wondering inwardly, at the same moment, if it was as disgraceful to be poor as many people seemed to think it. This was not the first time this thought had arisen in her mind. She had suffered before having any experience in the matter, that, in a country like this, where nearly all of the wealthy and influential members of society have arisen from obscurity, that honest labor was really no disgrace, and that if a person offered a fair equivalent for money, either by the labor of the hands or brain, that it was a very laudable thing to do.
But, upon having to make the trial, she had been not a little astonished at the result. She found that if she offered her articles even below their real value, that it was considered an act of magnanimity for the purchaser to hand out the miserable pittance that was her due. She had many times been told, insolently, "I do this to help you, because Mr. or Miss, 'This, That or the Other' told me you were poor and obliged to support yourself by this means," and this, when the one who uttered it knew that they had got twice the worth of their money, and were congratulating themselves over thus taking advantage of another's necessities; nor was her own, as she well knew, by observation, an exceptional case. Everywhere vulgarity and ignorance can flaunt itself before the admiring eyes of the multitude, while gold hides with its glitter every defect.
Yet, what could she do to protect herself? If she resented these indignities with honest pride, what would become of her, and that other who looked to her for support? Whatever it is possible for manly pride and independence to achieve, there is nothing for a woman but submission.
Clemence Graystone had long ere this put away all hopes of earthly happiness, and lived only by the light of an approving conscience. She took her troubles to her Heavenly Father, and in His smile forgot that the world frowned. She had the consciousness within her of having done her whole duty, and she lived not for this world alone. She felt that she was only one of the many, and she cared not for distinction among those she despised. The fickle multitude elevate to-day and dethrone to-morrow, leaving their once petted favorite to whatever fate may await them.
Thoughts like these floated through Clemence's mind, as she followed Mrs. Burton into the parlor, and took a seat.
"You have seen a good deal of trouble, I believe," said the lady, scanning the girl's face closely. "Yes, madame," said Clemence, briefly.
"This is a world of trouble," she went on, applying her handkerchief to her eyes. "I, too, have my full share. I am deeply afflicted. Miss Graystone, I am an unloved wife."
She began to sob hysterically at this announcement, and to weave backwards and forwards in her chair, while her listener shifted a little uneasily upon her seat, wondering what could possibly be coming now.
"Yes," she said mournfully, "the man who vowed at the altar to love and cherish the treasure committed to his keeping, has proved recreant to the trust reposed in him. Look on this ethereal form, and upon this brow shadowed with grief, and at these eyes that have grown dim with weeping for one who is all unworthy of my devotion. Alas! that I should come to this, who was once surrounded by everything that could make life a blessing. This hand, that others prized, and sued for in vain, is unvalued now. On my wedding day, one of my rejected suitors came to my new-made husband, and exclaimed, in accents of deep despair,—'Charles Burton, you have won her from those who would have devoted their whole lives to her service, and counted it as nothing, that they might bask in the sunlight of her presence; and I warn you, guard well the priceless jewel. You have forever placed a bar to my happiness in this world, but if you never cause one feeling of regret for this day to rise in that gentle bosom, all is well. I can deny myself for one I love better than life itself.'
"This was the man whose suit I scorned, to listen to that of the perfidious being whose name I bear. I am a miserable victim. Life is unsupportable to me. Next spring, if my husband does not return, like the prodigal, remorseful and repentant, I shall become a missionary, and give my life for the cause I love."
Here came a renewal of tears and heart-rending sighs. Clemence watched the woman in undisguised amazement, as she arose and paced the room, wringing her hands in the most woe-begone manner imaginable. Her wild appearance immediately suggested the idea that she might be suffering from temporary aberration of mind.
Clemence rose with a quick thrill of fear. "Since you are indisposed for company," she said, "perhaps you would not care to be troubled with my little affairs at present. I can call again some time next week, if you desire it."
"Yes, yes," said Mrs. Burton, "come again, when I am feeling better. This pressure on my brain will be relieved. Hush! do not say more, the servant will hear you. I am watched, and have no liberty to speak of my troubles without watching my opportunity. Good-bye, now, you can leave the basket until you come again, when I will remunerate you sufficiently."
"The woman must be insane; do you not think so, Ulrica?" asked Clemence of her friend, after she had concluded a narrative of her interview.
"Perhaps," said Mrs. Hardyng, doubtingly. "It looks like it, her talking about being watched, but I am of the opinion that a jealous, passionate temper has more to do with these paroxysms than anything else. She has always had the name of ruling her husband, and her scowling, swarthy visage, and evil-looking eyes, seem to substantiate her claim to possessing strong, vixenish proclivities. I fancy they are quite well matched, however, and that clouds in their domestic horizon are of every day occurrence. Neither should I at all relish the idea of being taken into the lady's confidence, for after they have got over their quarrel, they will be apt to lay the blame upon a convenient third, and I should not covet the distinction."
"Well, I have only once more to go," said Clemence, "and shall take care to be guarded in my remarks."
Which resolution was followed to the letter, when she found herself again in Mrs. Burton's parlor. The lady was cool and dignified when they met, but soon relapsed into a tearful state. Clemence was again forced to listen patiently to a long recital of Mr. Burton's shortcomings and disagreeable qualities, both of a positive and negative order, and felt sure before it came to an end, that she was much better acquainted with the dark side of that gentleman's character than she cared to be.
Her position was a delicate one. Somehow, she could not help thinking, as she looked at the face before her, that, arrayed in its pleasantest smiles, it could, by the barest possibility, be only passable, and now looked really hideous in its disgusting and futile rage. Really, if there could be any excuse for such domestic infidelities as had been pictured so graphically, Mr. Burton certainly ought to have the benefit of them, for he seemed to be almost as much "sinned against as sinning."
As soon as she could get away without positive rudeness, she did so. Mrs. Burton had declined to become a purchaser of her articles, retreating from her former protestations of benevolence, under the plea that her wretch of a husband curtailed her supply of means, in order to gratify his own avaricious disposition.
"Just as I expected," said Mrs. Hardyng. "The true state of the case is this: that woman is a jealous, narrow-minded, illiberal creature, with a tongue 'hung in the middle.' She wanted to get you there simply to satisfy her own idle curiosity, and insult you with her insolent patronage. You have made another enemy, and that is all there is of it."
"I hope it will prove all there is of it," said Clemence, uneasily. "I am sure I owe her no ill will, and I can't imagine why any body should wish to injure me, for I try not to offend them, but simply wish to mind my own business, and allow others to do the same."
Mrs. Hardyng laughed musically. "Why, child, that is the supreme cause of all your unpopularity. You mind your own business too much for these good people. You are not as old as I am, and you seem to have got a one-sided view of matters and things generally. I dare say, at this moment your unsophisticated mind harbors some such creed as this, that if you pursue your own poor and worthy way in meekness and humility, without obtruding yourself upon other people's notice—in short, only ask to be left in peace to follow the bent of your own harmless inclination, that you do not ask what it is impossible to accomplish. But you are mistaken. There is no one so poor and humble but what these little great people will find time to criticise and find fault with whatever they may undertake. So, no matter how modest and unobtrusive you are, by comporting yourself in a dignified and lady-like manner, you offer an affront to these people, who, though themselves deficient in every attribute of politeness and good breeding, yet are sufficiently instructed by their dulled instincts, to realize your infinite superiority, and hate you accordingly."
"Why, Ulrica," said Clemence, startled by her friend's vehemence, "you quite overwhelm me. I wish, though," she added; with a sigh, "that I could doubt the truthfulness of the picture."
"What are you doing there, Clemence?" asked her friend; "not destroying that pretty article, I hope."
"Yes and no," was the reply. "Upon examination, I find that it has become quite soiled, and thought I would make another frame to put these same flowers into."
"Now, that is really too bad, making you so much extra trouble when you are feeling so ill. I noticed, though, that it had lost its freshness and purity—looking, in fact, as if some careless servant had swept on it."
"I presume that is the case," said Clemence; "any way, it is completely ruined now."
"What can this mean?" she exclaimed, a moment after, holding up a lady's gold pin. "Is it not somewhat remarkable to find an article of this description here?"
"No," said Ulrica Hardyng, coming forward, with an expression of contempt upon her fine features. "I can't say as I consider it so. I can understand precisely the motive that induced that woman to plot this piece of mischief. She meant to ruin you, Clemence, in the estimation of the whole community; in short, to brand you as dishonest. If you had effected a sale of the article, without examining it closely, you would never have detected the proximity of this valuable ornament, and when it was called for, which would surely have occurred, you could not, as a matter of course, have produced it. Do you not see the whole trap at a glance?"
"What have I not escaped?" ejaculated Clemence, pale with agitation. "What motive could possibly have led a comparative stranger to act thus?"
"There are numberless reasons," replied her friend. "The woman had placed herself, to a certain extent, in your power, by her uncalled for revelations of their domestic affairs, and she wished to have something to hold as a rod over you."
"Don't you think it might have been an accident?" willing, as usual, to believe every one but herself in the right.
"No," said Mrs. Hardyng, indignantly, "it was a premeditated act, as deliberate as it was infernal. My innocent darling, God has protected you, and vanquished your enemy."
"What base, designing people there are in the world," sighed the girl, sinking down by the couch upon which her friend reclined, upon her return from a walk the next evening. "You were right, Ulrica. I read in that woman's guilty face, to-night, the confirmation of my doubts."
"She did not admit it?" said the other, starting up eagerly.
"Not in words, but her looks proclaimed her part in the transaction more eloquently than any form of speech. She knew that I read her craven soul as I stood before her."
"This is too much?" said Mrs. Hardyng, rising and pacing the floor in violent agitation. "I will see to this matter myself, for it is too great an insult to be borne patiently without the charge of cowardice."
A few days after, as Clemence was walking, with downcast eyes, in the direction of her friend's residence, she met in the narrow pathway two gentlemen, one of whom raised his hat respectfully, and paused to speak with her.
It was Mr. Gilman, one of the school committee. Clemence respected and venerated him, and had on many an occasion felt grateful that his influence was generously exerted in her behalf.
The gentleman paused now to say that he had nothing to do with her dismissal from school, having used every argument in her favor, in vain. He concluded by professing himself more than satisfied with her services, and convinced of her ability as a teacher; desired her to refer to him for a recommendation to any situation that she might have in view.
Clemence thanked him gratefully, and walked on with a lightened heart. She remembered, afterwards, that this gentleman's companion had been introduced by the name of Burton.
This latter personage had a little burly figure, with head carried very erect upon a short, thick neck, that looked still shorter from the long, flowing beard, thickly sprinkled with gray.
He did not look like a "wretch," nor yet, as if he had sufficient energy or capacity for any deep scheme of villainy. Still she felt sure this was the individual whose shortcomings and misdeeds generally, she had heard descanted upon.
Clemence laughed, as she wondered how it was possible for any one to be so carried away by their feelings, as to be jealous of a submissive looking little man like this. Yet, having fallen in love with him once herself, and forgetting that youth had flown, and that the husband of her youth was only a plodding, middle-aged family man, it was not so very remarkable that a naturally jealous woman, like Mrs. Charles Burton, should imagine that her especial property was coveted by all those of her own sex who were not similarly blessed.
"Poor woman!" thought Clemence, "she is a victim to her own unhappy temper."
She forgot the circumstance altogether, and it was only recalled to mind when the village postmaster handed her a letter, which read thus:
MISS CLEMENCE GRAYSTONE:
Miss—On Thursday, the 23d instant, you were seen by certain parties, on a secluded avenue of this village, in earnest conversation with two gentlemen,—one of whom was Mr. Charles Burton. Report gives him the character of a perfidious and unfaithful husband. How then does it look for a young lady, whose name is now the subject of idle gossip, to indiscreetly hazard her reputation still more by such intercourse. There could be but one object in this, which was, doubtless, revenge. But, let me ask, what will it profit you, to add still greater pangs to that already suffered by one who mourns the loss of her husband's affections? Know that, through all, she will cling to him, for she loves him still, and is a devoted wife and mother. Nothing of coldness or neglect on his part can change her feelings, or turn her from the path of duty. As a friend and a Christian, the writer of this would calmly advise you to abandon all efforts either to see or communicate in any manner with the gentleman, upon any subject whatever; not even in the presence of a third party, as there is said to be an official who watches over the interests of a wronged and heart-broken wife. WATCHER.
"Really, this is assuming a tragical character," said Mrs. Hardyng, to whom Clemence went at once for advice. "'The plot thickens,' as the story-books say. Why, child, take courage; you will be a heroine yet, and I shall be thrown completely in the shade—left disconsolate and forlorn."
"Don't jest," said Clemence, shuddering. "You can't think, Ulrica, how all this pains me. I never dreamed of such a result of my efforts, but rather supposed, if we tried to do 'what their hand found to do,' patiently, they would be borne out in their undertakings. I am innocent of premeditated wrong to any one."
"There, don't cry!" said Mrs. Hardyng. "This is only a passing cloud, and your future will be all the brighter for the shadow which now threatens to envelop you in its gloomy folds."
"I wish I could think so," said Clemence. She took her hat mechanically as she said this, and went out, hardly knowing whither to bend her steps, but feeling stifled, and wanting to be alone.
By-and-by she found herself seated by a new-made grave. A memory of the pale, patient little face, that used to haunt her footsteps, came to her, and she thought sadly of the child's unhappy fate.
The daylight faded slowly out of the western heavens; the shades of evening gathered round. Suddenly, as the girl sat absorbed, a tiny hand stole into hers, and two sorrowful, tear-filled eyes sought her own. It was little Ruth, who had missed her, and whose loving heart would not allow her to rest while one she loved suffered.
They walked homeward together, under the starlit canopy, and Clemence thought that, whatever might come to her, there was one whose pure affection was wholly her own.
"Here, child, is another letter for you!" said Mrs. Hardyng, coming in from the village the following day. "You are getting to be a personage of some importance, I perceive."
"Why, who can it be from?" queried Clemence. "I have no correspondents."
"Perhaps another anonymous communication," said her friend. "Open it and see, for I am dying of curiosity."
"It is from dear Mrs. Linden," said Clemence. "Here is what she writes:"
"MY ABSENT DARLING: Why have you not written or come to me? By your long silence I have been led to infer that you may not have anything pleasant to communicate, and, therefore, fear to disturb me with the narration of your misfortunes. I have looked for your return for shelter from the home from which you went forth, like some weary bird with drooping wing and plaintive song. That home is always open to you, with its fond welcome. Can you have found new friends who have grown dearer than her who bade you good-bye with a prayer in her heart for your future? If you are happy, which God grant, then I am content. But I have a strong presentiment of evil; and I fear, I know not what, when my thoughts turn to you. There was a promise about coming back when tired of your experiment. I mean to hold my wayward one by that promise. Do you recollect being accused of too much independence? If I remember correctly, Mrs. Bailey thought that one of your greatest faults, that needed speedy correction. I don't want you to exercise it towards your old friend. Some of these days, if I do not hear from or see her, I shall come and claim my daughter.
"It can't be possible that you have found anybody in that out-of-the-way locality to feel particularly interested in—eh, Clemence? I have sometimes thought that some other more famed mortal engrossed the affection that belongs, by prior claim, to me. Don't encourage any of those rustics, for I have somebody here so infinitely superior to any one whom I ever met before that I have decided that there is only one girl in the world worthy of him. Now, if I have aroused your curiosity sufficiently to have you call for 'more,' I will change the subject, and give you a little of the gossip that I know will interest you.
"The last sensation is nothing else than the elopement of Melinda Brown with a curly-haired hotel waiter. Imagine the scene when the fact became known to the disconsolate Brown mere. The girl has found her level at last, my dear. It was all time and trouble thrown away trying to make anything of her. Melinda could not be a lady, because, as I always contended, it wasn't in her. She is now in her proper sphere. I hear that her husband has set up in the same business in which his worthy papa-in-law began life. Melinda lives in apartments over the grocery, and enjoys life hugely, as she never did in the elegant mansion she has left forever.
"I've still another wedding to chronicle. You surely have not forgotten our fair Cynthia, the former confidante of Mrs. P. Crandall Crane, but now, alas! her friend no longer, but that lady's deadliest foe. But to 'begin at the beginning:'
"Some months ago Mrs. Crane made the acquaintance of some new people, whom she hastened to describe and present to her dearest friend. One of them was a young gentleman, of fair, effeminate beauty and manners, and extreme youth. In fact, he had but just been emancipated from the strictest discipline of stern tutors. This fortunate youth was the sole heir of a wealthy and indulgent step-father, who had followed the remains of a second 'dear departed' to the grave, and was said to be inconsolable, living but to secure the happiness of this only son of his cherished and lost Amelia. The gentleman, whose name was Townsend, purchased an elegant villa at a convenient distance from the city, and installed therein a faraway cousin as housekeeper. This worthy person was immediately surrounded by the Crane clique, who made her long and oft-repeated visits, until, no doubt, she wondered greatly at the cause of her popularity. Of course, being only a poor dependent on the bounty of her relative, she was naturally pleased and flattered at being the object of so much friendly regard, and she took every pains to make herself agreeable to her new-found friends. Another fact proved the gratitude of her disposition, and that was the praises which were continually lavished upon the gentleman over whose mansion she presided. In this poor woman's estimation, Mr. Townsend was a model man. It had been her valued privilege to visit him occasionally during the lifetime of the second Mrs. T., and nothing from her description could have been more beautiful than his devotion to the lady during her long and lingering illness. Besides, he had taken her son to his home and heart, and had given every one to understand that this young Addison Brayton was to be the future possessor of that vast wealth. To come to the point at once, Mrs. P. Crandall Crane 'sighted them,' and mentally appropriated the young gentleman for her own Lucinda. To that end, she schemed and labored, and, just as the darling prospect seemed about to be brought to a final consummation, fate, in the person of her friend Cynthia, interfered to put a stop to the proceedings by marrying the young gentleman herself! Words are inadequate to describe the scene that followed upon this denouement. Mrs. Crane was in absolute despair for a time, until a new idea entered her fertile brain. Mr. Townsend, in the first paroxysm of rage, had disowned the recreant youth, and turned him from his doors without a farthing of the wealth that was to have been his princely inheritance. That much abused gentleman had no nearer relations than the far-removed cousin before referred to, and consequently here was a magnificent fortune, with only the encumbrance of a fine-looking, well-preserved gentleman, actually going a begging. The thing was not to be thought of for a moment.
"'Many a heart is caught in the rebound.' 'It would be a pretty piece of revenge!' soliloquized Mrs. Crane, complacently, 'if Lucinda should yet reign mistress of that mansion, for all Mr. Addison Brayton. How it would spite Cynthia!' With renewed energy, but this time more cautiously, the sagacious lady laid her trap for the unwary footsteps of the unconscious Townsend. He was a frequent visitor at the house, feeling always sure of a warm welcome from the urbane hostess. The plan worked admirably, and at last the gentleman called to solicit a private interview with the contractor.
"'Mr. Crane is not at home,' said his smiling lady, 'but you can leave the message with me.'
"'Ah, yes!' said Mr. Townsend, with evident embarrassment; 'no doubt you will do equally as well. I called, my dear madam, to—ah—solicit a great boon at your hands. You are aware how bitterly I have been betrayed by those whom I trusted.'
"'Yes,' put in Mrs. Crane, sympathetically.
"'And you have, I know, felt for my lonely and desolate situation.'
"'I have, indeed,' said the lady.
"'Since I have been intimately acquainted with your charming family, I have learned to value, and, in short, feel a deep attachment, for one whom, I believe, fate intended to fill the place of my lost loves!'
"'My own Lucinda!' interrupted the other, raising her handkerchief to conceal her satisfaction. 'Dear girl, it will be hard to part with her. You cannot realize a mother's feelings, Mr. Townsend!'
"'But,' cried the gentleman, in tones of surprise and alarm, 'I do not call upon you for so great a sacrifice. It was not Miss Lucinda that I meant, but another, to whom I have reason to think I am not altogether disagreeable. Surely you cannot be ignorant of my profound affection for your self-sacrificing sister, the widow of my late respected friend, Deane Phelps!'
"'Oh!' tittered Mrs. Crane, starting with great violence from her seat; 'you mean Jane. Well, I'm glad she's got somebody to think something of her at last. I congratulate you upon the prize you've won. I shall make all haste to impart the agreeable intelligence.'
"'You artful specimen of an underhand nobody!' said Mrs. P. Crandall, bursting into the room where the little widow stood, looking really pretty with her soft flush of happy expectation in her face. 'You'll rue this day, if I live!'
"'Oh, sister, don't!' said the low, grieved voice of the other. 'I do so want your love and sympathy.'
"'Love and sympathy be d-d-darned!' sputtered Mrs. Crane, working her long fingers convulsively. 'Walk out of this room in a hurry, before I scratch your eyes out, you soft little caterpillar!'
"'Ruined! ruined! ruined!' she cried, sinking down and bursting into a passionate flood of tears. 'Everything goes crossways. This is a doomed family. Crane can't keep up appearances a week longer, and Lucinda will be washing dishes in Jane Phelps' kitchen yet.' Which prophecy will, in all probability, yet become literally true.
"I had these facts from Mrs. Jane Phelps Townsend, who told me that her brother-in-law had lost all of his ill-gotten gains, and, unless her husband assisted them, they would sink into the lowest depths of poverty.
"I'm just hateful enough to feel glad of it, too, Clemence. I never knew, until lately, that I could be wicked enough to rejoice over other people's calamities. But I can't help it. Last week I took a roll of fine sewing to Mrs. Addison Brayton. 'What are you crying about now, Cynthia?' I asked of the disconsolate figure that sat crouched over a sewing machine.
"'Oh, Mrs. Linden, I'm so unhappy,' she whined. 'There is a cold winter coming on, and I don't know but we shall actually starve to death before spring.'
"I remembered the insolent remarks of this lady, and the rest of her set, when a certain little bright-haired pet of mine was similarly situated, and tormented, like Martha, about 'many things.'
"It needed all my Christian charity and forbearance to keep from actually twitting her on the spot. I can't help but pity the forlorn creature, though. She's married that little spendthrift, who was brought up in idleness to rely on his expectations. They don't either of them know anything about work, now they are thrown upon their own resources. That is not the worst of it. The boy has dissipated habits, that I fear will cause Cynthia yet to bitterly regret the step she has taken against the advice of their best friends. However, they must make the best of what cannot be recalled. Then, too, she is married; and, if it be true that happiness consists in securing the objects that allure us, then should Cynthia be happy that she has at length attained the object of her life-long ambition, and can at last write Mrs. to her name. She is no longer an old maid, which is something gained, in her estimation.
"The youthful husband seems the most to be pitied of the two. On my way home I met him, shabby and forlorn enough, and what do you suppose he was doing? Positively in the capacity of errand boy, carrying parcels to deliver. He is an under-paid drudge in a retail grocery, on starvation wages. He turned purple with mortification, and pretended not to see me. 'Oh, my countrymen, what a fall was there!'
"But I am afraid I have shocked your forgiving spirit by my hardness of heart until you are ready to deplore the depravity of human nature. My tender one! I am not like you. It comes hard for Alicia Linden to overlook injustice or forgive her enemies.
"She has always a place in her heart, though, for absent dear ones, and she often thinks regretfully of one sweet face that used to smile at her hearthstone.
"Can you not come to me, Clemence?
"Last Sabbath I went to place my offering of flowers at the graves of our buried dead. The golden glory of the autumn day poured its heavenly radiance into the far depths of my soul. How lovely looked the silent resting-place of our dear ones. I thought sadly of you, and wished you were near me, to mingle your tears with mine.
"As it is, I can only pray that God will guard you with loving care. Your affectionate ALICIA."
It was Thursday afternoon. The "Ladies' Charitable Society of Waveland" had assembled at the house of its President. The usual business of the meeting had been dispatched, and the ladies were engaged in the more congenial employment of retailing the village gossip.
"Have you observed," queried Mrs. Dr. Little, "how wretchedly ill that young Graystone woman is looking? The doctor was saying, only this morning, that he thought she was in a decline."
"I suppose its botheration, for one thing," said Mrs. Brier. "She had ought to have been more circumspect, and then she would have kept her position. I don't see how she can live without work, any more than anybody else. We can't be expected, though, to want a person with her morals contaminating our innocent children. That girl has travelled the downward road with awful rapidity since she came here. Just to think, she has been the talk of the town!"
"I have been greatly afraid," said Mrs. Little, "that the Society would be called upon to help her, if she gets worse again; She seems to be living, at present, on that widow Hardyng. How are those two to get through the winter, I should like to know? As for the child, it will have to be bound out to somebody who will make it work, and then there will be an end of all these mincing lady airs. One thing I know, it's out of our power to help them. She must have some relations somewhere, I should think. I wonder what her antecedents really are, any way. I could never quite make the girl out yet."
"Then I am a little shrewder than the rest of you, that's all," spoke up the voice of Mrs. Caroline Newcomer. "I found her out some time ago. Listen, ladies, all of you who have any curiosity upon the subject. I learned her whole history through one of my servants, who had lived in the same city from whence this mysterious personage came. By a curious coincidence, these Graystones, mother and daughter, came and took lodgings beneath the same lowly roof to which the poverty of this Mrs. Baily had driven her for shelter.
"Of their former life, my informant knew little, but when she first became acquainted with them, they were miserably poor, and in debt to their landlady. At length Miss Clemence Graystone succeeded, by the rarest good fortune, in obtaining a position as governess in a wealthy family. She was, however, afterwards dismissed, (as Mrs. Baily afterwards learned, through one of the employees,) in disgrace, for having designs upon a young gentleman of fortune—the uncle, I believe, of her pupils.
"How they managed to live on through the winter was a wonder to the whole household, or pay the expenses of the widow Graystone's sickness and death, which occurred in the spring. The landlady seemed to think everything of them, and refused to satisfy anybody's curiosity in regard to the matter. The girl Clemence went away with a strange woman, as soon as she recovered from an illness that followed her mother's death; and that was the last known of her until she turns up here, to make capital out of her pale face and mourning garments, which, I dare say, she thinks look interesting.
"So that is the whole story about this young woman, who is probably at this moment laughing quietly in her sleeve, at the clever way she has imposed upon the inhabitants of this benighted village. I took pains, since her dismissal by the School Committee, to write and find out these particulars; and while I was about it, I thought I would also make an effort to discover something of the former life of the woman who calls herself Ulrica Hardyng. I always had my suspicions of her, which you will see have been duly verified;"—and she proceeded to relate, with great animation, to the gaping crowd around her, a garbled account of the misfortunes of the divorced wife.
"And now, madam," said a calm, low voice behind her, as she finished speaking, "since you are so good at relating other people's histories, suppose you give these worthy persons, a similar account of your own proceedings and peregrinations?"
It was none other than Ulrica Hardyng, who stood before her in propria personae. She had, in pursuance of a resolution made some weeks before, determined to be present, although uninvited, at this meeting, and justify her friend before her numerous assailants.
"You here?" articulated the woman, guiltily, as she gazed fearfully at the stern, set face before her.
"Yes, I am here," was the reply, in a voice that trembled with outraged feeling, despite the powerful effort for self-control; "to prove that I know you at last, as the woman who won my husband from me.
"Good people," she said, turning to the astonished and abashed spectators, "this woman has told you the truth, mainly, concerning me, at least; but with one reservation. She is the daughter of this Mrs. Bailey, whom she represented as a servant, and the cast-off mistress of the Geoffrey Westbourne who was once my husband."
A denial trembled upon the lips of the woman, who shrank away in abject terror, but her voice failed her. The impassible face that looked down upon her seemed the very personification of unrelenting justice.
"Woman," she said coldly, "your sin has found you out."
The groveling figure suddenly erected itself with a defiant gesture. "Well, and what of that?" rising, and looking boldly around. "It must have happened some time or other, and I'm sick of this whining hypocrisy. I had rather go back to the old life again, where there is no restraint. But I am as good as the rest, I tell you, Ulrica Hardyng. These women, who profess Christianity, have deliberately robbed a poor, innocent, unoffending girl of her reputation, because they were jealous of her youth and fair looks, and mental superiority. Besides that, a dozen or more of these pious ladies were in love with the man who wanted to marry her, in the face of them all, and who was cooly rejected. I would have defended the poor thing myself, but you had to take up on her side, and then, because the friend of one I hate can only be my enemy, I sought to drag her down to my own level."
"And you put the finishing stroke to your malicious efforts," said that lady, "to-day by a tissue of falsehoods against her. At present I shall not attempt to refute these assertions, knowing that right will ultimately triumph. I understand your tactics thoroughly, Caroline Bailey, and I am not even surprised that you are ashamed to own your wretched parent, who has put you in possession of these few facts mixed with so much falsehood."
"How did you learn my real name?" asked the woman in amazement.
"Through an old friend whom I persuaded to trace out your whole career," was the reply. "I could have forgiven my wrongs at your hands, but when you saw fit to attack that inoffensive girl, I determined to unmask you."
"And much good may it do you," was the cool rejoinder. "I am tired of this monotonous existence, and had already decided soon to leave this humdrum village. As for proving your assertions, you need not be at the trouble. I do not deny a word you have uttered. It's all true, and more."
"I had a few twinges of conscience," she added sneeringly, "and thought I'd change my mode of life; but it was never in me to behave like a saint. People follow the bent of their inclinations most generally. I've heard many good, but mistaken persons pity women who had gone wrong, and try faithfully to reclaim them, but it's all lost labor. Most of them take the downward road because it's the easiest, and comes natural, and after a time it's impossible to reform them, with a precious few exceptions. I've found out, though, since my short and sweet experience in this community, that I ain't the worst creature in the world. Say what you will, I am just as good at this moment as the rest of the women here. This girl that they have persecuted is about the only decent body among them. That's why they hate her, for being a continual reproof to them."
"Oh, you need not nod, and wink, and draw away from me as though I was contagion," she said vindictively, "I know you all. I happen to be in the confidence of a certain gentleman that some of you know too intimately for your own good. You, for instance, Mrs. Brier, (glancing meaningly at the little woman,) and you, Mrs. Charles Burton, and you, and you, (pointing in rapid succession to several demure looking ladies who had eyed her with glances of apprehension.) It's about time for Mrs. Euphrasia Anastasia Strain to begin to keep an eye on her husband's movements, if she happens to be the least bit of a jealous nature."
These concluding remarks produced a decided sensation. Every lady rose simultaneously to their feet. Mrs. Brier fainted, and dropped limp and lifeless and unobserved. The Editor's lady went into hysterics, the demure-looking females "lifted up their voices and wept," and everybody but Betsey Pryor seemed struck with general consternation. "Thank goodness!" exclaimed the last mentioned lady, pursing up her thin lips, "I never had anything to do with the men. Nobody can accuse me of that, anyway."
Which was but too true.
The spinster having uttered this emphatic remark, folded her garments over her immaculate bosom and went forth to seek consolation in a cup of Mrs. Wynn's good tea.
Profiting by her example, the others immediately bent their steps to their respective homes, and that was the last meeting of the Society ever held in that village. It then and there, at the height of its apparent prosperity, came to an untimely end, to the lasting grief and shame of a few worthy souls, and the amusement of many more, who were wicked enough to rejoice over its ignominious downfall.
Soon after Mrs. Caroline Newcomer left Waveland to return no more, and not a little to the astonishment of every one, Mr. Charles Burton sold his residence to a wealthy gentleman and removed with his family to a distant city.
That was the only change that occurred except the departure of Mrs. Euphrasia Anastasia Strain, who went home about this time to visit her ma; and that of Rose Wynn, who left off going to church and Sabbath School, to become wholly invisible a few weeks after.
"So this was the 'Caroline' who favored you with all those anonymous communications," said Clemence to her friend when they were discussing the affair together.
"Yes, the very same," sighed Mrs. Hardyng. "She doubtless followed me at the instigation of Geoffrey Westbourne to spy upon my actions and report to him. I do not know what his object could have been, unless he feared that I might seek to communicate with his present wife, who I feel convinced is not a party to his base transactions, and who believes him an injured saint. Perhaps, too, he hoped to gain something against me from these gossips, or knowing that I was unaccustomed to poverty and isolation, believed that I might break through these self-imposed barriers and resort to crime. But he should know me better. It is no relief from misery to plunge into infamy, but only hurls the wretched victim into darker woes. I know that I have been far from perfect, but the soul of Ulrica Hardyng is free from the stain of crime. He whom she served faithfully and conscientiously ought to be the first to award the meed of praise, but in its place there is only the bitter brand of a life-long disgrace."
"I don't believe that even the best of men truly appreciate the value of a pure-minded woman," said Clemence, thoughtfully. "They are too gross and material, and I have met with very few whose society seemed to have a tendency to elevate. In the company of the majority of men I feel a constraint and like uttering the most commonplace remarks. Yet their idle curiosity leads them to seek to penetrate the very 'holy of holies' (if I may be allowed the expression) of the soul, and which they can neither understand nor appreciate."
"Oh, child!" said the elder woman, coming to her side; "my pure-browed darling, I pray God that you may never suffer misery like mine. I had rather the child's dream would be realized; that you might be permitted to follow him, though my lonely heart aches at the thought of losing you, than that you should be dragged down to a life for which you are not fitted. Never marry, Clemence, for you are more likely to be wretched than happy. I have so little faith in any man that I should fear for your future if you were to bestow your affections upon any one. I mean to guard you well hereafter; and I am sure that there cannot be the least possibility of your ever having met one to appreciate or awaken a feeling of interest in your mind."
The girl did not reply to this half-uttered query, but a faint rose-tint swept into the pale cheeks, and up to the blue-veined temples.
"But to be an old maid, Ulrica," she said a moment after, in a troubled tone; "it is a dreary future for any woman to contemplate. It used to be the one object of my ambition to devote my life to some good cause, thinking that thus I might rise above worldly cares, and grow nearer Heaven. But of late my whole being shrinks from such a course."
"It seems to me that a single woman cannot be as useful as one 'whom the dignity of wifehood invests as with a garment.' You know there is a stigma attached to old maids that must detract from their usefulness."
"Yes, I know," said Mrs. Hardyng; "and of late I am beginning to think that it is, perhaps, in some cases but too well merited. Do you know, dear, that all the spinsters of my acquaintance have got married on their very first offer? I can't help feeling a little mortified that some of my models that I have held up triumphantly as examples to prove the usefulness and necessity of their existence, should have failed me in the end."
"There is Miss Aylmar, who amassed a fortune by teaching a Ladies' Seminary. She was a pattern old maid in my estimation. However, much to my chagrin, when I thought she was nearly ready to receive, after a long and useful life, the rewards for her good deeds in another world, she suddenly assumed the airs of a sixteen-year old boarding-school miss, and, after trying in vain to captivate, by the weight of her golden attractions, a young and handsome, but penniless professor, succeeded at length in fastening a respectable widower. She trots him out regularly every Sunday with that ineffable smirk of satisfaction that only an old maid can assume. Then there was Miss Anthon, a demure little body, who wore her gray hair brushed back from her placid face, without resort to hair dyes, cosmetics, or other rejuvenating articles of the toilet. She kept her eyes open, though, and in her unobtrusive way, after lying in wait for her victim all these long and weary years, she suddenly pounced upon a fortune to reward her patient and persevering efforts. You see, this woman had no capital of beauty, intellect or money, and so she assumed the only role that a quaint little creature like her could carry through successfully. At the risk of her own life, she courageously sat through a case of malignant typhoid, in the hope of making an impression upon the heart of a good-looking youth, by restoring to him his invalid mother. Unfortunately for her purpose, the old lady died, and, after finding that her disinterested efforts to captivate the son were in vain, she turned her attention to the task of consoling the disconsolate widower, and is now mamma-in-law to the man she wanted to marry."
"You are not presenting a very attractive side of the picture," said the other, laughing.
"No, but a true one, nevertheless. I wish women would be true to themselves."
"There is another failing of our sex," said Clemence, "that has often come under my notice; and it is this: Let a gentleman enter society and have it whispered around that he is what is called a 'ladies' man,' with the added interest of one or two sensational anecdotes of a young lady who went insane out of a hopeless attachment for the gentlemanly scoundrel; or that this or that infuriated husband who has challenged him to mortal combat; and, though the stain of murder be upon that man's soul, women who call themselves virtuous will welcome him with approving smiles.
"Why, I have been completely disgusted, and that more than once, to hear women of the most exemplary character praise and hang upon the words of these smooth-tongued villains. I have now in my mind one in particular, whom the world looks upon as a devoted wife and mother, and who I think has never yet contemplated sin. Yet I know better than herself, that she is hovering on the brink of a precipice, that may, at some future day, engulf all she loves, with herself, in one common ruin.
"Society, as it is now constituted, is dangerous, and calculated to contaminate any pure-minded woman who enters it, unless she be blessed with sufficient decision of character to choose a strict line of conduct and abide by it, at the risk of being called dull, prudish, and uninteresting.
"Those of the old school, with their rigid notions of etiquette, their stately courtesy, and grave, dignified manners, were far preferable to the style assumed by Young America at the present day. Although not deficient in a love for my country, I hardly wonder that the people of the European cities which Americans visit complain that these 'plebeian Yankees,' with their 'loud' style, their fussy dressing to the extreme of fashion, their slang, and their still more intolerable 'double entendre,' exert an unfavorable influence upon society, and 'desecrate' the places where they tread."
"I believe you are right," said Mrs. Hardyng; "and it has struck me oddly enough that we, who are so extremely opposite in every respect, should find so many subjects upon which to agree. I have often grieved over these foibles of our sex, not having failed to observe, with regret, that there are fewer exceptions than there should be.
"Now, I should think, from the very nature of things, that a woman would always instinctively defend her own sex, and hurl contempt and scorn at those who basely sought to take advantage of her weakness. There seems to me to be one, all-powerful reason why they should do this, and it has puzzled me exceedingly to know why, with the self-love that all women possess in common with each other, and their natural tendency to jealousy, they should feel at all elated at a tale of flattery that they know has been rehearsed before, as often as there has been found one to listen.
"Now, it is no recommendation to my favor to realize that I am only one of a dozen, and that Frizzolinda in the parlor, or Jemima in the kitchen, would each prove equally as acceptable in their turn; that the arm that embraces me, has stolen with just as delicious uncertainty around the cook's buxom waist, and that the eyes that seek mine with such glances of affection have sought with an equal fondness in their melting depths those of every lady of my acquaintance. I'll confess, if it is a weakness, for a woman who gives everything to the man she loves, that I am exacting enough to demand a more exclusive attachment than this. 'Verily, these things ought not to be.' Women should look to it; for I think there are some few social reforms, that are of more vital importance to the sex than even the right of 'suffrage' and the dictatorship amid the councils of the nation. Few women care for this last honor. The majority in America marry early in life, and their highest ambition is to achieve distinction in the social circle."
"That brings me to think," said Clemence, "of the flirtations between married couples, that we see going on continually around us. I always had an idea that I should not enjoy quite such a risky love affair as they promise. Not but that, like every one else, I suppose, I think it's very agreeable to be admired; but then it's not tranquilizing to the nerves to remember that a jealous wife may be cultivating her finger nails with a view to exercising them upon one's countenance. I prefer the 'human face divine' in its natural state, being of the opinion with another that 'beauty unadorned is adorned most.' Do you know, Ulrica, that I lost my taste for guitar music listening to a little pink-cheeked, simpering married woman, eternally strumming to a Benedict of her acquaintance, in lovelorn tones—'I'll be true to thee,'—accompanied by the most languishing glances? I was the more disgusted, too, when I recollected that this woman was the lady Superintendent of an up-town Sabbath School, and considered a pattern by every one. Besides, she called herself a Christian, and a tender, loving mother, while she absolutely stinted her children's food, in the absence of her husband, who toiled early and late in the counting-room, to buy finery to air before her married beau, and make the jealous, passionate wife whom he left waiting at home (and whom, she knew, hated her as only a wronged woman can hate,) still more miserable.
"Oh," she added, shuddering at the contemplation of this grievous sin, from which her pure soul recoiled, "the Father knew the weakness of our common nature when He taught us the daily prayer to avert temptation."
"I declare!" said Mrs. Wynn, looking up from the gilt frames in Mrs. Swan's parlor, "the changes that have been going on in Waveland do beat everything. Only think of it! Why, the town hasn't been so lively for years before. There used to be only an occasional wedding or christening, or funeral; and now, strange faces that no one knows anything about, meet you at every turn."
"Oh, I don't know about that!" said Mrs. Swan. "There has only been one or two arrivals here; that new family who brought out the Burtons, and the new minister and his wife. By-the-bye, they say he married her just before he came here, and that she was a widow."
"Yes, I know that," replied the old lady. "I heard the report, and, thinkin' it was only natural that we should be a leetle curious about a woman who was a goin' to give tone to our society, I made bold to ask her about it. She put her handkercher to her eyes, and cried the least bit, when she spoke of her former pardner. 'Dear soul,' she said, 'he's in Heaven, but the Lord's got work for me to do in this world yet, Sister Wynn.' She's a leetle too dressy, and I'm most afraid will set the young folks here an example of extravagance; but I believe she means well, and expects to do her whole duty."
"Well, I shall wait for her works to prove her disposition," said Mrs. Swan. "I believe that 'actions speak louder than words.' I'll admit that Arguseye talks well—she's a gift that way; but I ain't drawn to her as I was to the dear motherly saint that has left us."
"No, you can't expect another like her. I don't know what the old Elder will do, now; but it won't be long before he'll follow her, in my opinion," was the rejoinder.
"She's gone to that happy land where the wicked can never enter," spoke up Betsey Pryor, who had been industriously stitching away during this dialogue.
"It's a good thing to realize that, Betsey," said Mrs. Wynn, slyly. "I'm glad you've found out the danger of evil communications."
"Don't say another word," said the spinster, showing signs of dissolving in tears. "I've learnt a lesson this past summer I shall never forget."
"I don't wonder that you feel so," rejoined Mrs. Wynn, smiling grimly. "I never look at you now, and remember the Secretary of the 'Ladies' Charitable Society,' without feeling thankful that you have riz like that—what do you call it?—from its ashes, and are once more an orderly and respectable member of society."
"Have you observed," asked the good-natured hostess, striving, out of pity for the disconcerted Betsey, to turn the conversation into another channel, "anything of these new people at the Burton place?"
"A leetle, but not much," said Mrs. Wynn. "I was so upset by their sellin' out so sudden like, when I thought they was as much fixtures here as the place itself, that I ain't had much time to think about these new folks."
"As for me," continued Mrs. Swan, "I like them already. Being such a near neighbor, I have a chance to see a good deal of them. Their names are Garnet, and that pretty younger lady is the wife of their only son."
"It took some money, I should imagine," pursued Mrs. Wynn. "Of course these folks must be rich."
"Yes, they paid twelve thousand, cash down, for their present home, and the old lady told me they had other property besides."
"Do tell!" and "Gracious sakes!" ejaculated both her listeners at once. "I must call right away." "It ain't neighborly to neglect strangers."
"I've another item for you," added the communicative Mrs. Swan. "They've bought that cottage down near the Widow Hardyng's, for the young couple to commence housekeeping for themselves."
"Why, what's that for?" was the next question; "don't they agree?"
"Oh, yes, perfectly; but the young people want a little home of their own, 'a play house,' the elder Mrs. Garnet calls it. For my part, I think it only natural. Mr. Swan and I did not want to stay with either of the old folks after we were married, but came off and set up for ourselves."
"That's the house that Mrs. Newcomer lived in, ain't it?" asked Betsey Pryor.
"The very identical one," replied Mrs. Wynn. "I am glad that woman has left, for it was a living disgrace to any respectable community, harboring such a character."
"But nobody ever dreamed anything of her true history. If they, had they wouldn't have associated with her," said Mrs. Swan. "She was a dreadful creature, and I can't make out yet why she should take all that pains to come here and persecute two unoffending women like Mrs. Hardyng and her young friend."
"But don't you see," reiterated Mrs. Wynn, "it was at the instigation of Mr. Westbourne, Mrs. Hardyng's former husband, and probably she wanted to gratify her own malice. I can understand her motive, for no doubt she cordially hated this woman, whom she felt she had wronged."
"But Miss Graystone?" queried Mrs. Swan. "I should think her sweet, patient face would have touched the heart of a stone."
"It seems she did have some compunctions," said the old lady; "don't you remember there at the last meeting of the Society, she said she would have taken the girl's part, only she thought she could hurt the widow still more by wounding this young girl? Betsey can tell you better about that, though," she added, wickedly; "ask the former Secretary to give you the particulars. I had not the honor of being present on that occasion myself."
"Don't ask me to rehearse it," said Miss Pryor, in subdued tones, "I can't bear it. My nerves have never yet recovered from the shock."
"We will excuse you, then, Betsey," said the other, magnanimously, "and proceed to the more congenial occupation of disposing of some of these nice biscuits and delicious tea that I see Mrs. Swan has prepared for us."
The pensive beauty of the mild Indian Summer flooded hill and valley now. Where the sombre shades of green had erst clothed the forest, brilliant pennons of flame-colored, and crimson-dyed, and paler tints, shading into amber, and gray, and russet brown, lit up the woods with their bright-hued splendor.
Clemence, with her little charge, loved to wander through these places, that nature had clothed in rarest beauty for her worshippers. This was her favorite season of the year. Sometimes a foreboding oppressed this young dreamer that it might be her last hours of earthly enjoyment. She used often to look with pity into the child's face, where a sweet seriousness lingered, and it gave her sympathetic heart pain to think that the child should be old beyond her years. Indeed, there was the same wistfulness about the younger face that we have noticed about our heroine, and there was a gravity of expression about the tender mouth that told of a capacity for suffering unusual in one so young. It was apparent that, like the tried friend who toiled daily to sustain her, sorrow had early marked the orphan girl for its own. If misfortune or death were to overtake this fragile creature who stood between her and the storms of life, what would become of Ruth?
There were trials, and temptations, and dangers lurking in the path of the innocent child. Would she surmount them all bravely, and achieve victory in the battle of life?
This thought haunted, continually, the mind of the young teacher, and gave her hourly pain. There was but little to attach her to life, and only for this child's love she would have longed for the hour when God should call her home. As it was, the girl had not sufficient faith to leave all in His hands. With her sad experience of life, she dreaded all that might come to her darling. And hope had nearly died out in her heart.
Seated by the little grave, which was the shrine at which she poured out her daily petitions, Clemence thought despondingly of the past, and how little there seemed for her in the future, to which every one around her looked forward with such eager anticipation.
The dreary waste stretched out unsmiling, and inexpressibly desolate. The path of duty seemed straight and thorny.
While she sat, sorrowful, the child, who had been watching her with tender eyes, came and knelt before her. "Let me come and sit with you," she pleaded, laying her soft, rounded cheek upon the two hands folded idly in Clemence's lap. "I cannot play while I know you are grieving on my account."
"Why," asked Clemence, arousing with a start from her reverie, "what put that odd fancy into your head, little one?"
"Oh, I have known it for a long time," said Ruth, earnestly. "Although I never have told you before, I realize more and more every day how much you deny yourself for my sake. I owe you more than I can ever hope to repay."
"There, there, child," said Clemence, astonished at her vehemence. "What on earth has put all this into your head? Who told you about self-denial? Have any of these rough villagers been seeking to wound you by speaking of your state of dependence?"
"No, oh no," protested the little one, wisely, "nobody told me except Johnny. We used to talk of it long ago, of how kind and good you were to two poor little children like us. Johnny used to think you must be an angel, like those we read about at Sabbath School, for nobody ever treated him kindly until you came. He said good people were always afflicted and persecuted."
"Poor little tired heart," said Clemence, commiseratingly, "it is now at rest. But, Ruth, you must not allow these recollections to sadden you. The little bound boy had not much to brighten his dreary life, and he knew not what it was to possess the buoyant hopefulness of childhood. Sorrow had made him wise beyond his years. Its weight crushed him down like a bruised lily. The Good Shepherd listened to his pitiful supplications, and he is now safe in the fold above. I don't want your life to be one of gloom, my little adopted sister. I have tried to make you feel happy, but I fear I am but dull company for a little girl."
"You are the best, the very best," persisted the little devotee, with worshipping eyes. "I would like to be always near you, and it is only the thought that I am a burden that clouds my face with one shade of care."
"How often have I told you, Ruth," returned Clemence, gravely, "not to disturb your mind with such fancies? It displeases me to have you talk upon these subjects, that a little girl ought not to think of at all. I have never told you of your obligations, and I do not wish it to form a topic of conversation between us. I want your love and obedience, and that is all that a little girl like you can give. You have not added greatly to my trials, and as yet I have experienced few inconveniences from having another to provide for. God has raised up a kind friend for us in Mrs. Hardyng, and we will not question His wisdom who has made us what we are, but strive always to remember in whose hands our future is placed."
A look of pain flitted over the child's open countenance, and a tear trembled upon the silken lashes.
"Have I offended you?" she whispered, creeping closer. "I only wanted to tell you what was in my heart. I don't want to hide anything from you."
"You have done quite right," said Clemence, embracing her; "run and play, now, dear; a race will do you good and dry these tear-drops."
She kissed the little one and pushed her gently away; then leaned her head upon her hand in the old attitude of weariness, and watched her until the slight form of the child was lost to view among the trees.
Little Ruth's remarks had disturbed her. There was too much foundation in their present circumstances for anxiety. Still there was one drop of comfort in the midst of her trials. The young teacher knew that time had dissipated the cloud of suspicion and distrust that had hung over her for so long, and which had been created by the basest envy. The School Committee had lately tendered her again her old position, which she had declined with thanks. She was too weak to labor now, either with hands or brain. What did this strange lassitude, this very weariness of spirit, betoken?
The sad-browed dreamer knew but too well the end of all this; though, whatever it might be, it was surely for the best, or it would not be suffered.
While her thoughts were engaged upon the subject, she resolved to write without delay to Alicia Linden, and speak to her about Ruth. Mrs. Hardyng should not have everything put upon her. She had trouble enough of her own.
Clemence, who felt as if she did not want to presume upon the generosity of her friend, knew that the masculine Alicia would be prepared for any emergency, having both the will and the ability to help her. It was only her extreme conscientiousness that had led her, thus far, to struggle on with her self-imposed burden. The girl had argued that it was not right to call upon others to relieve from that which she had assumed of her own free will.
Now, she beheld matters in a clearer light. There was a higher Will that took out of her hands the ordering of her own actions. She had tried to act wisely, and from the best and purest motives. Her strength having now failed utterly, it was her duty to strive and repress all these rebellious murmurings and go forward in the narrow path so many had trodden before her.
This was unusually difficult for one of Clemence Graystone's proud, independent spirit, but if pride conflicted with duty it must be conquered. There was but one way, to "be careful for nothing."
However, it was the fault of her nature to go to the other extreme, and despond when she could not see the path beyond marked out distinctly, and illumined by the star of Hope.
Now, life had nothing in it but the affection of this clinging, dependent child, to draw her from the contemplation of that future for which her soul had longed these weary months of sorrowful waiting, and where she hoped to gain the sweet reward for all her striving.
She had sought to live for the hour that was approaching, remembering, all these years, that "Heaven is won or lost on earth; the possession is there, but the preparation here."
The girl knew she had failed often, but she felt willing to trust herself to the mercy of Him who loves those He chasteneth. She repeated softly these words from a gifted woman's pen:—
"Though we fail, indeed, You—I—a score of such weak workers—He Fails never. If he cannot work by us, He will work over us."
A sudden footstep roused the young dreamer, and her startled gaze rested upon a form before her. A faint dash of crimson kindled the pallid coldness of the pure face. She rose and moved forward with outstretched hands, while the voice of Wilfred Vaughn asked, in sorrowful accents, "Can this be the Clemence Graystone I have known, or only her wraith?" He pressed the slender fingers tenderly in his own, and while every lineament of that noble face spoke of his grief at finding her thus, he said to the wondering girl, who looked upon his sorrow, "What a grievous sin has been committed here! My sweet-faced darling, they have sacrificed you to their cruelty. You have been the innocent victim of a dreadful wrong."
"Do you recognize this handwriting?" asked Mr. Vaughn, after a few moments desultory conversation, handing her a letter.
Clemence uttered an ejaculation of surprise, "Why, it looks like mine, though I never saw it before. What a singular resemblance."
"What is more singular still, it has your signature," said the gentleman; "read it."
The young girl obeyed, mechanically, and her companion watched her in interested silence, while the blushes came and went on her pure face.
Her look deepened into one of anxiety and consternation as she read. "What can it mean?" she asked, in distressed tones. "Who has sought thus to injure me?"
"A jealous, wicked woman," he returned, sadly. "It was a cruel deed, and brought its own bitter reward of remorse and shame. But I will give you the whole story."
"You doubtless wondered at your abrupt dismissal from Mrs. Vaughn's employment upon so slight a pretext as Gracia gave you. I never dreamed of the possibility until you were gone, and, when I questioned her as to the cause of the non-appearance of the face I had learned to watch for, she gave me this, telling me to thank her for having saved me from a dreadful fate.
"The letter seemed to explain itself. It opened my eyes to the state of my own heart.
"This shock, for a time, nearly overwhelmed me. I never believed, though, even in the darkest hour, that you could do anything really wrong. I knew that you were tried by poverty, and only pitied your sufferings, resolving to render whatever aid might lay in my power.
"In pursuance of this resolution, I therefore traced out your residence, secretly, and in my efforts learned something of your former history. I found that I had known Grosvenor Graystone in his days of prosperity, and took new courage in finding that you were the daughter of that upright man.
"Not wishing to make myself known at that time, I still hovered around you, thinking that, if you needed a protector, I would become visible at the right moment."
"And," interrupted Clemence, "you were the unknown friend who sent us, at our time of greatest need, the means that defrayed the expenses of my mother's last illness, and interment. How much I thank you, you can never know."
"I did not intend to speak of that," continued Mr. Vaughn. "I did nothing of what I had planned, on account of being called suddenly away to the death-bed of a distant relative.
"As soon as I could do so with decency, I returned, and my first visit was to your lodgings, where I had determined to present myself in person and make the acquaintance of Mrs. Graystone.
"What was my grief to learn that that estimable lady was no more, and that, after a long and dangerous illness, her I sought more particularly, as the one whose happiness was most dear to me on earth, had gone away with a lady whose name I could not learn.
"As I was turning away in despair, a voice called to me. I turned and beheld a woman beckoning to me from an upper window. This person I recognized immediately as having once seen, in your company, and joyfully retraced my steps, in the hope of hearing something that would give me a clue to your whereabouts.
"'I'm Mrs. Bailey,' said the woman, coming down and standing in the doorway, 'and I kalkilate you're after some news of that young girl that used to go out governessing.'
"I replied eagerly in the affirmative.
"'Well, there ain't much to tell,' she said, slowly. 'The mother took sick and died, and the girl herself just managed to live through a dreadful long illness. She was hardly able to sit up when she went away. I hear she's gone travellin' for her health. If that's so, somebody must have furnished the means, and it wasn't that widow, who was the only friend they had in the whole wide city. More like it was a certain handsome young gentleman I could tell you about.
"'I'll tell you what it is, Mr. Vaughn,' said the woman, eyeing me closely, 'you are wasting valuable time that might be better employed than in following up an adventuress. Take the advice of a disinterested friend, and let this Miss Graystone alone.'
"Of course, I then and there indignantly resented this officiousness; but she reiterated her caution in my unwilling ears, and, finally, when I was about to leave her, took from her pocket a small slip of paper.
"'Read that, Mr. Vaughn,' she said.
"I did so. It was a marriage notice of a Mr. Legrange to a Miss C. Elizabeth Graystone."
"A distant relative," said Clemence. "We were not intimately acquainted, and this is the first intimation that I have gained of Cousin Lottie's marriage."
"Being somewhat confused at the time," continued Mr. Vaughn, "I supposed, of course, that this was the lady I sought, and that farther search was fruitless. There seemed now no more to be done. Of my feelings of disappointment and regret, I will speak hereafter.
"Having now nothing to occupy my attention, I mingled more in society, at my sister-in-law's earnest solicitation, though I cared little for the strangers whom I met. More than a year passed in this aimless way.
"One evening, however, at a brilliant soiree, I met an elderly lady, with whom I got quite well acquainted in the course of an agreeable conversation. She was a woman of keen intellect, and it seemed to me rather a masculine mind. I was astonished to find such an one amid this idle crowd of gay worldlings, and I spoke at some length of the pleasure I had enjoyed. She told me, then, that we were not such entire strangers as I seemed to suppose, but that we had a mutual friend, a young lady who was then absent from the city.
"This, of course, piqued my curiosity, and, upon asking an explanation, she told me all she knew of the one whom I had so long been vainly seeking.
"In return, I gave her my whole confidence. She invited me to call at her residence the following day, which I did. It was the home where you had spent those long months of seclusion, and the lady was, as you must have guessed, Mrs. Linden.
"I learned from her everything that I wished to know save your present place of residence, which she refused to divulge.
"'I expect my pet will return to me, when she has wearied of her present mode of life,' she said, 'and then you can renew your acquaintance under more favorable auspices.'
"It was in vain I pleaded for farther confidences. She was inexorable. I had, therefore, only to exercise patience, and, as I had now everything to hope for, I was happier than I had been for many long months.
"To while away the time, which, in my present mood hung heavy on my hands, I started, in company with my sister-in-law and a party of friends, on a pleasure excursion. We took passage in a steamer bound for Lake Superior, every one anticipating an unusual amount of enjoyment. Alas! what a terrible ending to it all! Let me hasten over this dreadful tragedy; although I can never hope to drive the awful scene from my mind.
"We were in the height of our enjoyment; little groups, with bright, animated faces scattered here and there, and apart from the rest, either promenading the decks, or sheltered in some retired corner, happy lovers, whispering softly of the future that would never come to them, for already the sable wings of death hovered over our careless band.
"By some unforeseen accident, and owing to no carelessness on the part of the officers, the boat had taken fire, and when discovered by the passengers the flames were making such rapid headway that escape seemed impossible for the greater portion. It was a wild and awful scene.
"In the tumult I had sought out the children, Grace and Alice, and carried them with me to a position from which I intended to leap with them into the water after it became impossible for us to remain longer on the burning steamer. I was just securing the life preservers about them, when a heart-rending cry reached my ears, and the next moment my sister-in-law grasped my arm. She was nearly frantic with fear, and in the agony of the moment thought of nothing but her own preservation. The sight of her completely unnerved me. I pointed to the children, beseeching her to calm herself, and I would save them all. We were not far from land, and, being an expert swimmer, I believe I could have done so, had not my movements been impeded as they were. As it was, I could do nothing. Insane with fright, the instinct of the mother seemed to have died out. There was but one way. The flames were rapidly nearing us, and, giving instructions to the children—who seemed more like women than the shrinking creature who cowered before them—I made one more effort to impress upon Gracia's mind the necessity for implicit obedience to my instructions.
"I succeeded in gaining her attention and approval of my plan, but with the awful danger behind us, there were still precious moments wasted before I could induce Gracia to venture into the water, of which she seemed to have a horror. I made almost superhuman exertions to reach the land, and depositing my almost insensible burden, turned again to attempt the rescue of my darlings. But I was too late. Faint, and nearly exhausted, I was making but slow progress, when a heavy beam, floating in the water, struck and rendered me unconscious. A boat that had hurried to the scene of the disaster picked me up, with others; but I never saw again the two little beings whom I left, with their childish hands clasped, waiting for me to return and save them."
"Oh, heavens!" ejaculated Clemence, "not dead!—my two little pupils."
"Yes, dead," said Wilfred Vaughn, hoarsely; "buried beneath the waves, and their only requiem the moaning of an angry sea." He paused for a while, with his face buried in his hands, and then resumed:
"This awful visitation seemed to change Gracia. She had been a proud, ambitious, selfish woman. I never wanted my only brother to marry her, but he was infatuated with her splendid beauty, and when I saw that his happiness was at stake I ceased to oppose him. After he died I hovered near to watch over the children. But I never liked Gracia Vaughn, because I could not respect her. Now, on what proved to be her death-bed, I felt for the first time an affection for her, born of pity. I think if my sister-in-law could have lived she would have been a better woman. But the fiat had gone forth, and her days were numbered. Naturally delicate, the intense excitement and exposure so lately endured, set her into a low fever that at length terminated her life. As she neared the 'valley of the shadow of death' her vision seemed clearer. The scales fell from her eyes, and the repentant woman knew that her life had been a failure.