"'It is better so, Wilfred,' she said to me, just before she died. 'I have been only 'an encumberer of the ground.' I can be better spared than others, for my life has benefited nobody. There will be few to miss me.'
"'Oh, Gracia!' I exclaimed, shocked at the thought.
"'Nay,' she answered me, 'but it is true, and right. I have been selfish and unlovable, and more than that, sinful. Do you think God will pardon me!'
"'Can you doubt that He who sent His Only Son to die for us, and to save not the righteous but sinners, will hearken unto our supplications?' I said, earnestly. 'My dear sister, you have been weak and perhaps wicked, but surely none of us are perfect.'
"'But you do not know all,' said Gracia, averting her face. 'I have so longed to tell you, but have lacked courage. There remains but little for me to do in this world, but I cannot die until I have retrieved, by the humblest confession and fullest reparation, the great sin of my life.'
"She covered her face with her hands and wept softly, and then said, in a voice shaken by emotion, 'You remember the young girl, Clemence Graystone, who interested you so strangely, and whom I engaged as governess, with your sanction. It was to destroy her happiness that this wicked act was consummated. For a reason which her woman's heart will too surely tell her, I conceived from the first a violent dislike to the young teacher. She had not been long in my employ before I began watching her closely, in the hope of detecting some fault that would render a sufficient and plausible excuse for my discharging her. I knew that in such straitened circumstances the position she held was a lucrative one, and so great was my antipathy to one who had never knowingly injured me, that I could not bear the thought of benefiting this orphan girl in the smallest degree. At last, coming to the conclusion that there was not the slightest hope of discovering anything against her that would bear inspection, and discovering that she was every day growing more and more in favor with the entire household, I resolved quietly to resort to artifice to accomplish that which I could not hope to bring about in any other way. It was very easy to steal into the school-room after hours, unobserved, and, after some practice, imitate her handwriting closely enough to have it pass for genuine with any one not familiar with it. This I did, and then discharged her. When you asked the reason, I placed in your hands that which was in itself enough to blast the character of a young, unprotected girl. But I repented,' she said, excitedly, watching my face, which at this unlooked-for revelation must have expressed all the horror and repugnance I felt. 'Wilfred, don't quite despise me. Forgive me, or I cannot die in peace.'
"I remembered her condition, then, and soothed her as I would an infant. Against my entreaties, almost commands, she proceeded with the harrowing story: 'I felt supremely wretched after I committed this wrong deed, and at length, after some months, I traced the girl out in the hope of doing something to aid her, and thus quiet my uneasy conscience. But she had gone from her former place of residence. A woman who gave her name as Bailey told me all I wished to know, and I felt quite relieved and happy. She said the girl's mother had died, and that after a long illness this Clemence Graystone had gone away with a gentleman, giving me to understand that I need not feel troubled about her being in want, for the girl was not friendless, but had those to aid her of the same sort as herself. Of course, if this young governess were really unworthy of all this anxiety, as the woman had intimated, then I had not done so much mischief as I feared, and there was not so much to regret. I threw off the recollection, and the whole circumstance had completely faded from my memory, when I learned the truth of the matter from a seamstress who had lodgings in the same building. This woman gave me an entirely different version of the case, describing in eloquent terms the girl's filial devotion to her mother in their dire necessity. I learned now for the first time the real magnitude of the sin I had committed. I wanted to tell you all then, but dared not. Now, however, with the grave yawning beneath me, I have no longer anything to hope or fear in this world. There is one thing yet which I can do to repair my error and show that my repentance is sincere. My poor lost darlings had a fortune of fifty thousand dollars left to them jointly by a deceased uncle. They were to come into possession of this money when Alice had reached the age of eighteen and Gracia twenty-one. In case of their death it was to revert to me. I want to convey this sum to Clemence Graystone, because I willfully and maliciously misrepresented her character to the man who would have made her his loved and honored wife. It was a cowardly and cruel act. I shudder to think what the consequences may have been. It may be that want and grief have plunged her into crime. I could never learn her fate, but the thought of her sweetness and purity has comforted me when I have thought distractedly of her. I could never connect anything but guileless innocence with those calm, clear eyes, and that lofty brow, whereon intellect sat enthroned.'
"'But, Gracia,' I interrupted, 'are you aware of the import of your own words?'
"'I am,' she said, 'and I mean to fulfill them. My mind is perfectly clear upon the subject. There is no necessity for a lawyer. I will write out my wishes in a few words, and sign my name without witnesses. I shall give this into your charge, Wilfred. It is a sacred trust. Find this girl, if you have to search the wide world over, and tell her of this conversation by my dying bed.'
"I told her all then that I had learned in the last few months, and promised faithfully to perform the sad office. It almost made her happy. She died soon after.
"When the funeral obsequies were over I sought my late brother's lawyer, intending to place the business in his hands before I sought you. However, he laughed at the whole story as a piece of absurdity; told me that the pretty governess was doubtless married to some honest fellow in her own sphere in life, and advised me to destroy the unimportant slip of paper, pocket the fifty thousand, and say nothing. I left in disgust, resolving to keep the whole affair, for the future, in my own hands. I immediately hurried to Mrs. Linden with the marvelous story, and she gave me your address and a God speed. That is all that I have to tell, except that I am here to congratulate you upon the change in your fortune."
"Don't jest," she said, looking at him with tear-filled eyes. "It was only over these graves, two of which hide those who were dear to me, that I have gained this great good."
"Then I will stop jesting," he said, gravely, "and utter only the truth. Clemence, I had another reason for seeking you. You have learned my secret, and know, now, my deep love for you. Tell me if I may hope for its return."
For answer, she extended her hand in silence, and across the grave of the child who had worshipped her, he clasped and raised it reverently to his lips.
Its pallid whiteness struck him mournfully. He kissed it again and again. "A brave right hand to wield in one's own defense, and battle with a cold and selfish world. It is like nothing in the world but a snowflake, as light and as pure."
"Now, you are laughing at me," she said, the deep carnation blooms in her cheeks making her beautiful.
He gave her a glance of adoration. "Here," he said, having disengaged something from his watch-chain, "is a ring that belonged to an only and beloved sister who died in early youth. I have a fancy it would fit your finger, and I always intended it for my wife, as the most highly valued gift I could bestow upon her. How would you fancy it for an engagement ring?" slipping it upon her finger, where it hung loosely.
"I should prize it more than a Queen's diadem," said Clemence, eloquently.
"You shall have the diamonds, by-and-by," giving her another glance that riveted her own, and then he kissed her, as the seal of their betrothal.
"I was just thinking of you, Betsey," said Mrs. Wynn, as the figure of the spinster appeared in the doorway of her little sitting room. "Set right down, and I'll have a cup of tea ready in less than five minutes."
"Thank'ee, I believe I will," said Miss Pryor, "though I didn't intend to stay only long enough to tell you the news. I put this shawl over my head and run just as I was."
"That's right, I'm glad of it. We'll have a sociable time now, Mr. Wynn's cleared out. I never could bear a man around my kitchen. But what news do you mean!"
"Why, ain't you heard?"
"Not a livin' word of anything. What on earth can have happened so wonderful?"
"Well, that does beat all. Just to think! And you ain't seen a certain magnificent gentleman, as grand as a prince, that sailed up to Widder Hardyng's and asked for Miss Clemence Graystone? Every girl in town is in love with him already."
"Do tell! And here I be tied to the house waitin' on Rose, and never dreamin' all that's goin' on. You might have come over and told me before, Betsey. I'd have done the same by you."
"Seein' as how it all happened yesterday, and I only found it out last evening after prayer meeting', and it ain't ten o'clock in the forenoon yet, I calkerlate I ain't done anything so very monstrous," said that individual, in an injured tone.
However, the sight of a steaming cup of tea that filled the air with its appetizing fragrance, soon mollified her, and after dispatching one cup at boiling point, she paused to take breath before partaking of a second.
"You see this is all there is of it: The elegantest man you ever saw drove up all of a sudden to the tavern and wanted to know where Miss Graystone was boarding. You'd better believe they asked him a few questions, but he waved them all off, polite-like, but in a way that convinced every one that he knew his own particular business better than anybody else knew it for him; and dashed off in the direction of Widder Hardyng's. Mrs. Swan's little girl happened to be down there on an errand for her mother, and she heard all that transpired. His name's Vaughn, and he's Miss Graystone's beau. He staid and talked a long time with Mrs. Hardyng while he was waiting for the schoolmistress, who had gone away; but after a time, when she didn't come back, he was so impatient he went off trying to find her."
"And you didn't see him at all?" queried Mrs. Wynn.
"Oh, maybe I didn't," said Betsey, with a toss of her head; "trust me for finding out anything I once set my mind on. I called in, carelessly, on my way down here this morning, and had an introduction to the gentleman himself. Not knowin' what else to say to start conversation, I asked him if he was a relative of Miss Graystone's, though of course I knew better. I praised her up to the skies, and you had ought to have seen his face, beaming with smiles. He seemed to take a sort of notion to me after that. I 'spose, though, Mrs. Hardyng gave me a settin' out as soon as my back was turned, by the one-sided smirk she gave when the gentleman shook hands with me cordially when I came away, and thanked me for being so good to his young friend. I see Ruth playing on the street corner, and quizzed her. So putting this and that together, it seems that this girl, that everybody called an upstart and an adventuress, has been a rich lady once, and never known what it was to soil her hands with work of any description."
"I knew it," said Mrs. Wynn; "I always said so. It shows my superior penetration. I'm glad I stood her friend in the dark hour of adversity, and shall hasten as soon as possible to learn the exact truth of all these rumors."
"So you are here, Betsey?" exclaimed Mrs. Swan, putting her head in at the door. "I thought I saw you go by, and followed as soon as I could get my things on."
"Well, I never!" said Mrs. Wynn; "come in; you are just in time. Set by and I'll put on another cup and saucer. We was just talking over the new arrival in the village."
"I believe half the population are similarly employed," laughed the little lady. "Every one I met stopped and spoke to me about it, and as luck would have it, as I was turning down a cross street I saw Mrs. Hardyng ahead of me and joined her at once. She told me the whole story. This Mr. Vaughn is a rich gentleman, who has come down here to marry the schoolmistress. It seems, too, that she's lately inherited some property by the death of somebody, I couldn't make out who—some relative I suppose—though it don't matter. Any ways, a cool fifty thousand has fell to her, and I don't know as I could point out a more deservin' person."
"Wonders will never cease!" exclaimed Mrs. Wynn, staring blankly, into her empty tea cup. "Clemence Graystone turned out to be a rich heiress, after bein' perfectly abused the whole live-long summer by everybody in the town of Waveland but me. It's beyond my comprehension. But I always knew she was a lady, and stuck to her through 'evil and good report.'"
"Fifty thousand dollars!" gasped Miss Pryor; "do I hear aright? I wonder what Mrs. Dr. Little, and the Briers, and all them that turned against her, will say to that? It will be a particularly sweet morsel for the Owens. I must call round and visit each one of them, to enjoy their discomfiture."
"What a thing it is to be ignorant and narrow-minded," added Mrs. Wynn. "I can't see how people get along through life without any knowledge of human nature. Our poor departed Elder used to say he never could quite make up his mind what to think of a new-comer until he had my opinion of them, and, if I do say it, as shouldn't say it, I've used these eyes thus far to pretty good advantage."
"If she'd have used them less about her neighbors and a little more in looking after that precious daughter of hers," whispered the spinster, maliciously, as the old lady rose to put away the dishes, "it would have been better for all concerned, I guess."
"Why, Betsey, how you do talk!" replied Mrs. Swan. Then in a louder tone: "I came near forgetting another thing that I wanted to ask you about. I've sustained a dreadful shock. It's on account of these new people at the Burton place. I had a long confidential talk with Sister Arguseye, lately, and I haven't had a peaceful moment since. She called in to see me to warn me about associating with them. You know she came from the same place that they did, and knew all about the family."
"What did she say?" chorused both voices.
"Well, I'm grieved to say her report wasn't favorable. It seems the elder Mrs. Garnet, who appears to be a perfect pattern of propriety, has a grown-up, illegitimate daughter, whose existence they are trying to conceal from strangers, whom they think they can successfully impose upon."
"They have come to the wrong place for that. Vice will be exposed in this community, and the workers of iniquity receive their reward," responded Mrs. Wynn, oracularly, and pursing up her thin lips and sniffing her sharp nose higher in the air; "we must ferret this out, Betsey."
"We must, indeed," echoed the spinster, looking as if nothing would delight her more; "such a state of affairs cannot be tolerated in our midst."
"The worst part of it is," continued Mrs. Swan, "they say that the modest-looking daughter-in-law, whom I have felt so interested in, is equally culpable, and married the son for similar reasons. I feel dreadfully about the affair, for I was expecting a good deal of enjoyment in their society."
"They seem very intelligent and agreeable people; but I can't doubt Sister Arguseye's positive assertion. A minister's wife couldn't lie," said the elder lady, in a tone that showed deep conviction of an unpleasant truth. "There is but one way to find out; to go and state the facts, and have the truth elicited."
"But who is to do it?" asked Mrs. Swan. "I can't."
"Are you equal to the emergency, Betsey?" asked. Mrs. Wynn.
"I believe I possess the Christian fortitude to do my duty, however disagreeable it may be," replied that personage, with the air of a martyr being led to the stake.
"There, it is settled," said the old lady. "We will go together"—which they did that very day.
Pretty little Mrs. Garnet had finished her work for the day, donned a fresh calico that fitted her plump form without a wrinkle, and sat crooning a soft lullaby to that objectionable baby, when they entered. She welcomed the ladies hospitably, but eyed askance their sombre and awful countenances.
"It's a pleasant day," she said, by way of starting conversation.
"There's nothing pleasant to me, in this wicked world," said Miss Pryor, dolorously.
"How is your rheumatism, Mrs. Wynn?" she asked again, after a prolonged silence, hoping better success from this question regarding that worthy lady's manifold ailments.
"It's heavenly in comparison with the state of my mind," was the unlooked-for response.
Then there was another dreadful pause, broken at length by the elder of the group. "I've a revelation to make, neighbor, that is of such a nature that I shudder to speak upon the subject, and which closely concerns more than one person in this immediate vicinity."
Thereupon the good lady proceeded to unfold the story that had emanated from the minister's wife, in regard to the deplorable state of the morals of these new-comers in the quiet village.
Instead of being shocked at the recital, and literally extinguished, as she undoubtedly ought to have been, by the knowledge that her former little peccadillos had come to light, the bright-eyed hostess burst out laughing in the very faces of the lugubrious guests.
"It's turned out as I expected," she said, at last, when she had done laughing. "Now, ladies, so far as these slanderous reports concern myself, I care very little about them, for I can refute them by bringing convincing proof to the contrary." Thus saying, she rose, and, after a short disappearance, returned with a marriage certificate and the family records. "Here," she said, "is the date of my marriage, some three years back, and the birth of our only child—just one year ago. Baby was twelve months old yesterday.
"But now comes the disagreeable part of the story. My husband's mother, whom I love and respect, for having, in the years since I first knew her, been all that I could ask in a parent, had one painful episode in her life. She was to have been married to a wealthy gentleman, whom she loved devotedly; but, on the day appointed for the wedding, the expected bridegroom met with an accident, which proved immediately fatal. After he was buried, the object of his fondest affection found what his loss at such a moment had become to her. A dreadful truth was revealed to her, which became immediately known to those most interested in her welfare. Furious with rage, and forgetting that his child needed now his tenderest care, the outraged father drove her from his door, with the command never to enter it. It was then that a former lover, who had worshipped her from afar in the days of her prosperity, came forward and offered her his protection and an honorable name, that had never been sullied by disgrace.
"In her distressed circumstances, she accepted him thankfully. They were married immediately, and not long after this child of the former lover was born. It was the one false step of a young, inexperienced girl, and bitterly repented and atoned for in after life. The story is well known where these facts occurred, as there was not the least attempt at concealment."
"Then you admit, Madam, that your relative did commit a grievous wrong at one portion of her life," said Miss Pryor, with a glance of severe virtue.
"But she repented, Betsey, and was forgiven, we trust," said Mrs. Wynn, gently, thinking of one at home who had wrung her aged heart by a similar misstep.
"That is not all I have to say upon the subject, either," said Mrs. Garnet, spiritedly. "Since the minister's dashing lady has commenced this cowardly attack upon one I love, I shall not hesitate to speak the entire truth. This widow, who was never a wife until she lately married her present husband, and who, I regret to say, has thereby imposed upon a very worthy man, has a grown daughter of unsound mind, who is bound out to a family, where it is well known she has not been treated any too kindly. The heartless mother, engrossed in the pursuit of some victim of sufficient credulity to easily fall into her snares, has spent her time, and what money she could earn, in beautifying and displaying her bold-looking face and unwieldy figure, totally regardless of this unhappy being, who has never known a mother's love and care. I can imagine the reason for her opening hostilities in this manner. Knowing that we were perfectly familiar with every portion of her former history, and judging by her own spiteful self that we would improve the first opportunity to make the facts known, she thought to poison the minds of the community, so that our story would not be believed. However, this was all labor spent in vain. Mother and I mutually agreed, that if the woman chose to reform, we would be the last to injure her in the estimation of others."
"Can you prove this?" demanded Miss Pryor, gazing stolidly at the animated speaker.
"I can, by producing the lady's own daughter, of whose very existence, I doubt not, the pious Elder is at this moment in profound ignorance," said Mrs. Garnet.
"That alters the case materially, then," said Mrs. Wynn. "These facts must be carefully investigated, and if they are true, it's very likely our new minister will have occasion to resign before long. You don't bear any hardness, I hope, neighbor. It's been a very tryin' task, but somebody had to undertake it."
"Of course," was the reply. "Our object is to elicit the truth, and I am willing to help probe this matter to the bottom."
"Now," said Betsey Pryor, when they were again upon the street, "we will stir up some excitement, I guess. Let's go to the minister's as straight as ever we can."
Miss Pryor had never uttered a truer remark than the one at the close of our last chapter. There was an excitement in the little village, before which the sensation created by the pretty schoolmistress, became as nothing. The wordy war raged fiercely, and life-long enmities were created between those who had been intimate friends, endeared to each other by years of pleasant intercourse.
Meanwhile the offending Garnets were socially ostracized. Only little Mrs. Swan resolutely defended them. It seemed that this determined lady was destined to become the champion of all the persecuted of her own sex in the tiny village.
Of course, this matter found its way before the dignitaries of the church, over which the worthy Elder presided. Dr. Little, as one of its most influential members, hastened to give his support to his professional brother, and bitterly denounced these intruders, who sought to create disturbance by their idle tales. The minister's wife and the doctor's lady became like sisters in their friendship, and it followed that the feminine portion of the Garnet family were under a ban that excluded them from speech or friendly intercourse with any but the single exception we have before mentioned.
If that had been all, these innocent objects of aversion might have stood aloof and cared little, in the conscious power of rectitude. At first they trusted that some new excitement might arise to absorb public attention, and they be released from their painful position and disagreeable notoriety. But, with time, their trouble seemed to increase instead of diminish, and only added to the difficulties of their situation.
At length old Mr. Garnet rose in righteous wrath. "Wife," he said, emphatically, "I never had anything to do with a woman's quarrel before. I did think that after this Prudence Penrose, that has imposed upon the parson, found we wasn't going to say nothin' about her half-witted daughter, that she'd take the hint and let us alone; but I see she needs a lesson. I am sorry, seein' how things has turned out, that I hadn't interfered before the affair went so far, but it isn't too late now. There's the minister, and Dr. Little, and Deacon Jones, and a lot more of them, goin' to hold a meetin' about sueing my little daughter-in-law for slander, against the character of a woman that never had any to lose. So I reckon I will have my say on the subject, too." Which he set about doing directly.
Shortly after the irate old gentleman was seen in close conversation with the village constable, and after some plotting, that worthy started with the swiftest team in all Waveland for Ainsworth, the former residence of both the Garnet family and the minister's lady.
Mrs. Swan was sitting with little baby Garnet on her lap, at her friend's house, the next evening, when the door burst open and Mr. Garnet, senior, appeared in a state of excitement, such as he had never been seen before by the little brown-eyed woman, who looked up with a startled glance at his unexpected entrance.
"Richie's come," he shouted, waving his hat triumphantly. "I've sent for her, and here she is. I gave the Constable a commission, and he's been and brought Richie, and got all the proofs of her parentage."
"Thank Heaven!" said Mrs. Swan, giving the baby a toss in the air, while its little soft-hearted mother hid her head on the old man's shoulder, and shed a few tears of thankfulness and relief.
"What! crying just at the hour of triumph?" said her spirited friend. "I did not know how cruelly you had suffered from these base suspicions, until now."
"There, there, child," said Mr. Garnet, gently, smoothing the satin hair with his horny hand, "get on your things and wrap up the baby. There's a select few up at Dr. Little's to-night, and, though he ain't a particular friend of mine, I've a notion to give him a surprise party, a kind of comin' out occasion, you know, for the minister's new step-daughter."
The spacious parlors of the doctor's residence were as brilliantly lighted as the illuminating power of six large kerosene lamps, in full blaze, would allow, and as Mr. Garnet had declared, a "select few" of that gentleman's friends were there assembled, to talk over the feasibility of the minister's calling the detractors of his amiable wife to a speedy account before the proper authorities of the village.
That injured lady sat enthroned in easy chair, in a quiet corner, casting martyr-like looks upon her sympathizers. Just as we are observing that stately personage, she interrupted the Elder, who had been speaking, with great volubility, "Don't say another word upon this painful subject, husband. I can't bear it. To think that all my well-meant efforts should be rewarded with such base ingratitude, wounds me deeply. Still I would use no harsh measures, but ever incline to the side of mercy."
"But justice must be done, my dear sister," said the doctor. "In your generous disinterestedness, you must not forget that you owe something to your husband and the church, over which he presides. Your dignity must be sustained, and it would never do to pass over this matter, since it has become the theme of idle gossip for the whole town. I advise my brother to call in the aid of the law, without delay."
"Oh, I could never think of that," returned the lady; "something else will have to be decided upon. I do not wish the Elder to be drawn into a lawsuit on my account. I can live down these foul aspersions. In time, these people, whom I have come among, will know me as I am."
It seemed as if the lady's prophetic forebodings were to be literally verified then and there. As she ceased speaking, there came an imperious summons at the street door, that turned all eyes immediately toward the one mode of entrance and exit.
"Ahem!" said the host, moving with majestic tread to answer the knock, "it seems that we are to have some more visitors." "What! who!" as the corpulent figure of old Mr. Garnet appeared upon the threshold.
"Good evening, doctor; you did not expect me, I know," said that gentleman, coming forward, "but I thought I'd drop in unceremoniously with my friends, here," (turning and revealing the little group behind him,) "as I had some particular business with two of your guests, that could not possibly be delayed."
At that moment a piercing shriek was heard from the corner, where the minister's lady sank in a terror of guilt and shame. She had caught sight of a slender, ill-clad figure, that stood peering in from the darkness without, at the light and warmth of the cheerful room. The great, wild, haggard eyes glanced curiously and searchingly around, till they reached the woman's hiding place, and rested upon a form strangely familiar; then, with a slow, shuffling, uncertain gait, Richie Penrose strayed into the room, regardless of those who watched her, and went directly up to the rigid figure, that bore on its white, set features the very impress of despair.
"Mother," the girl said, kneeling before her, and speaking in confused, stammering accents, "they told me you sent for me to come to you and be cared for, and have food and warm, pretty clothing, and no hard work or cross words or blows, such as they gave me in the home I left. You used to promise me, mother, that when you got somebody with gold enough to buy all these, that you'd take me away from there. So, when that man came for me, I hurried and got away before they should be sorry, and come and take me back again. Is this the pretty home you used to tell me about? and is that man my father?"
There was no reply to this last question. The minister's wife had fainted.
All eyes were now turned toward her unfortunate husband. He rose to his feet, reeling from the effects of the sudden shock, and the dreary hopelessness of his face touched every heart. "My friends," he said, huskily, "there is little to be said. This sudden revelation has crushed me, till my soul grows faint with the bitterness of a terrible woe. Believe me, I have had no part in this wicked deception, but only considered that I was in the pathway of stern duty, in defending the character of my wife from those who I was led to believe were her enemies. I ask your forgiveness and sympathy;" then, without a word of adieu, groping like one shut from broad daylight into thick darkness, he passed out from among them, while those who looked on with moistened eyes knew that this cruel blow had broken his heart.
Old Mr. Garnet drew the back of his rough hand across his eyes. "I'm a'most sorry I meddled," he said, regretfully. "It's the first and last woman's quarrel I ever mix up in. But I couldn't have them grieving my little Daisy to death. What possessed the woman to stir up this piece of mischief?"
"What's to become of the girl?" interrogated Dr. Little. "I don't want her left on my hands. And allow me to say, sir, that I consider this intrusion in my house an unpardonable liberty."
"Very well," was the reply, "our business is ended, and we will withdraw. As for this unfortunate child, I will care for her until her proper guardians manifest a disposition to relieve me of the charge."
Not a little to the surprise of all Waveland, the woman who suddenly found herself the center of observation, and whose haughty spirit could not brook humiliation, disappeared immediately after this eventful episode, leaving no clue to her whereabouts.
The unfortunate Richie was provided with a comfortable home, and upon the death of her mother's husband, which occurred not long after, she came into possession of a sum sufficient to provide for her maintenance during the rest of her life.
Years after, a woman haggard and old, with traces of crime upon her hardened features, passed through the little village, begging her way to a neighboring city. A simple-minded girl, sitting in a doorway, whom she accosted for alms, emptied all her little store of pocket money into the poor wayfarer's outstretched palm. This girl was none other than Richie, and the woman who failed to recognize the vacant but placid face, was her own unhappy mother.
It was the eve of the New Year. The snow had folded its white mantle over the earth, and in the gardens, where the flowers had hidden their fragile beauty from the ruthless fingers of the Frost King, it gleamed whitely from amid the sombre foliage of the hardy evergreens. On lawn and terrace it lay in uneven drifts, tossed at will by the chilling winter winds. Pendant from tree and shrub hung glittering icicles, and on the window panes the frostwork looked like the invisible effort of some fairy spirits, that a breath from mortals would dissolve.
The bright New Year is ever welcomed as a season of enjoyment for those who have happy homes, where friends meet around well-laden boards, to return thanks for past prosperity, and form plans for future happiness. But to others, friendless, forsaken, and perhaps weary of a life of ill-requited toil, the retrospection is often inexpressibly mournful.
Alone in her room, at her friend's humble cottage, sat Clemence Graystone, watching for the noiseless incoming of another year. The light gleamed redly out from the blazing wood fire, lighting up the small apartment with its cheerful glow, but failed to call anything like warmth or color to the marble face that drooped low with its weight of painful thought.
The morrow was to be her wedding day. She raised her head and glanced around the room, which was filled with all the paraphernalia of the wedding toilet.
An undefined dread took possession of her. It seemed as though this happiness, that appeared so near, was yet to elude her. A mirror stood where she could behold her own image. A sadness stole over the girl's spirit as she looked at the semblance of herself there reflected. As she gazed, she seemed to be communing with some invisible presence, and she found herself pitying the young face in the mirror, as if it were another than her own.
While she looked sorrowfully, a second shadow became dimly outlined behind it. Clemence started in momentary terror. The thought occurred to her of the old-time superstition connected with this illusion. She remembered that an old nurse had told her in childhood that it was an omen of death to behold this spectral shadow. In spite of her freedom from vulgar superstition, her lips grew colorless, and her heart beat with alarm. She sank down again into her chair, cowering close to the cheerful fire.
An hour passed thus. The clock struck twelve. The girl roused herself again at this—remembered that this was to be the most eventful day of her existence. "I must retire," she soliloquized; "it will never do to have pale cheeks or troubled thoughts for my wedding day. Would that I could make myself beautiful for his dear sake."
A smile of hope and joy wreathed the lips of the soft-eyed dreamer. She paced the floor absently backward and forward, with far-off gaze; then knelt at her bedside and breathed to the kind All Father a prayer for guidance and strength for what might come to her.
Clemence Graystone's future seemed, for the first time since her father's sudden death, to hold in it somewhat of happiness for her portion. The dreary waste had changed to a smiling landscape, that glowed beneath skies of a roseate hue. There was surely nothing now to fear. With the love of one powerful to protect her from life's ills, means to lavish upon the wistful-eyed child who had grown each day deeper into her affections, and a firm, trusting faith in the guidance of One who ruleth over the world He has created, a faith that had kept her from despair in the darkest hour, and made her young life beautiful; with hope beckoning, with smiling eyes, to the crowning glory of womanhood, this girl, who had suffered so much from fate, ought to have been content and happy. But the mysterious shadow of her coming doom brooded darkly over her.
At length, inspired with a sudden feeling, for which she could hardly account, Clemence rose, and seated herself at her writing-desk. If she had been given to spiritual sympathies, she would have said that her hand was controlled by some unseen power. As it was, there was a look of awe upon the pallid face that bent to the task, and the girl was whiter than the paper before her, as she wrote thus:
MY DEAREST FRIEND: Something within me, a strange, mysterious influence, the whisperings, perhaps, of some angel spirit sent to call me hence, impels me to write these few words of farewell.
If nothing should happen me, if my life should flow on tranquilly into the valley of peace that my fond fancy pictured, then I will keep this to laugh over, as the wild vagaries of an over-wrought, excited imagination. But, if death should find me at my labor of love, you will know how irrevocably my heart has been given to you, and realize somewhat of the depths of that affection which my lips have never dared to frame. Oh, my darling, had I been permitted to live, I would have worshipped you; and if God calls me, I will still hover around you, and be the first to welcome one I loved to Heaven. All that you have been to the weary-hearted girl, you will never know. Life seemed hopeless, but your affection has made it a dream of happiness. I have wanted to tell you how deeply your image was graven on my heart; how one face that was dear to me haunted my sleeping and waking dreams. I would have lived for you, and can die breathing a blessing for your future.
There is one other that I have cared for as a mother would the babe she carried in her bosom. My patient, tender-eyed Ruth—watch over her when I am gone. Sometimes, when thinking of this hour, I have prayed that its bitterness might be averted. Realizing the agony of parting, the cruel severing of the clinging tendrils of unselfish affection, I have shrunk from the trial. But now I feel that my strength is sufficient, even unto the end. Though I walk through the "valley of the shadow of death," I do not fear, for I can behold the light that breaks beyond, "over the delectable mountains."
My own Love! Strive to meet me there. Others have gone before—the fond eyes that watched over my cradle, the mother who nursed me during the hours of helpless infancy, and he who sheltered and protected my early youth with tenderest care. I shall know and love them again. The thought makes me happy.
I have one last request to make. During my years of loneliness, when I have met with so much to dishearten and discourage me in my efforts to earn an honest livelihood, I have learned to pity the struggling, self-supporting ones of my sex, as only those can pity and sympathize who have suffered from a similar cause. I have often wished that I had means to provide a home, not for "fallen women," but for those patient toilers who are breasting the cruel, overwhelming waves of adversity. There are many such, thrown from loving homes upon the charities of a cold and selfish world. It is my desire to benefit them, and, with this end in view, I would leave the money which has so lately come to me, to be expended in the erection of a home to shelter helpless and unprotected women, who are incapable of self-support, either wholly or in part.
This is no school-girl fancy, but a plan long matured, formed from experience and observation. It is a sorrowful fact, that has come within my own knowledge, that more than one delicately-reared girl, having an innate love of virtue and horror of vice, has fallen into infamy from this cause. They have resorted to crime from a total inability to sustain themselves in even the humblest manner, or provide the coarsest food and clothing by their own unaided efforts. I would be glad to give what means and influence I may possess for so worthy an object, and I trust you to carry out these my last wishes.
I can write no more. God be with and comfort you, my own, own love.
That was all. The pen dropped from the nerveless grasp. Clemence bent her head wearily on the table, and fell into a trance-like slumber.
The night waned. The dawn of the New Year found the pale sleeper with her golden head still pillowed on her arm, and the last words that the slender fingers would ever trace, waiting for the coming of one to break the spell of silence, that had hushed the pale-browed sleeper into everlasting rest.
"Dead! dead! dead!" moaned Ulrica Hardyng, bending in agony over the lifeless form, and looking vainly for some answering gleam of recognition in the blue eyes, that had ever beamed upon her with glances of love and sympathy.
And this was the end of all these months of working and waiting, which was to be crowned with a glorious fruition that had filled all hearts with joyous anticipation.
But there was no time for idle sorrow. A little white-robed figure, with great wild eyes, and tangled curls falling over dimpled shoulders, stole into the room, and flung herself at the feet of the still figure, that drooped now in the woman's arms; and then a cry rang through the house, so fraught with anguish, that people hurrying by, in the early morning light, stood with startled faces, and questioned as to its cause, then reverently entered the house of woe.
Below, in the little parlor of the cottage, they laid all that was mortal of Clemence Graystone, and there, he who had hastened to meet the loved one, passed the long hours of that New Year's day alone with his dead.
Grief, like joy, should be sacred from stranger eyes, and we will not linger over the scene, but glide softly from the place that has been made desolate by the dread presence of the destroyer.
They buried the young teacher by the side of the child she had loved in life, and whose sad dream was thus fulfilled. The people whom she had come among, only to be slighted, and more than that, persecuted with malignant energy, united at her death in awarding the meed of praise they had denied her in life. It mattered little, though, to one who had left the cares and trials of earth behind, what remorseful tears were shed over her mortal remains. It was all over now, and the troubled heart had found peace, and that pure joy which "floweth like a river."
In the little cemetery at Waveland there is one carefully-tended spot, that is the shrine at which a little group of sable-clad mourners meet, to mingle their tears and prayers together. Two of them are elderly women, who greet each other as "Alicia" and "Ulrica," and the others, a grave-faced man, leading by the hand a young, delicate-looking girl, are Ruth, and her guardian, Wilfred Vaughn.
The marble slab before which they kneel, bears this upon its pure surface: "Clemence Graystone, aged 21 years." And underneath, the simple but expressive words, "At rest."