"Better wait altogether," said Strong. "You take the chances against you."
"I told her I should follow her, and I shall," repeated Hazard stiffly. He felt hurt, as though Esther had rebelled against his authority, and he was not well pleased that Strong should volunteer advice.
"Give me my orders then!" said Strong. "Can I do any thing for you?"
"I shall be there on Monday afternoon. Telegraph me if they should decide to leave the place earlier. Try and keep them quiet till I get there!"
"Shall I tell them you are coming?"
"Not for your life!" answered Hazard impatiently. "Do all you can to soothe and quiet her. Hint that in my place you would come. Try to make her hope it, but not fear it."
"I will do all that to the letter," said Strong. "I feel partly responsible for getting you and Esther into this scrape, and am ready to go a long way to pull you through; but this done I stop. If Esther is in earnest, I must stand by her. Is that square?"
Hazard frowned severely and hesitated. "The real struggle is just coming," said he. "If you keep out of the way, I shall win. So far I have never failed with her. My influence over her to-day is greater than ever, or she would not try to run away from it. If you interfere I shall think it unkind and unfriendly."
To this Strong answered pleasantly enough, but as though his mind were quite made up: "I don't mean to interfere if I can help it, but I can't persecute Esther, if it is going to make her unhappy. As it is, I am likely to catch a scoring from my aunt for bringing you down on them, and undoing her work. I wish I were clear of the whole matter and Esther were a pillar of the church."
With this declaration of contingent neutrality, Strong went his way, and as he walked musingly back to his rooms, he muttered to himself that he had done quite as much for Hazard as the case would warrant: "What a trump the girl is, and what a good fight she is making! I believe I am getting to be in love with her myself, and if he gives it up—hum—yes, if he gives it up,—then of course Esther will go abroad and forget it."
Hazard's solitary thoughts were not quite so pointless. The danger of disappointment and defeat roused in him the instinct of martyrdom. He was sure that all mankind would suffer if he failed to get the particular wife he wanted. "It is not a selfish struggle," he thought. "It is a human soul I am trying to save, and I will do it in the teeth of all the powers of darkness. If I can but set right this systematically misguided conscience, the task is done. It is the affair of a moment when once the light comes;—A flash! A miracle! If I cannot wield this fire from Heaven, I am unfit to touch it. Let it burn me up!"
Early the next morning, not a little to their own surprise, Strong and Wharton found themselves dashing over the Erie Road towards Buffalo. They had a long day before them and luckily Wharton was in his best spirits. As for Strong he was always in good spirits. Within the memory of man, well or ill, on sea or shore, in peril or safety, Strong had never been seen unhappy or depressed. He had the faculty of interesting himself without an effort in the doings of his neighbors, and Wharton always had on hand some scheme which was to make an epoch in the history of art. Just now it was a question of a new academy of music which was to be the completest product of architecture, and to combine all the senses in delight. The Grand Opera at Paris was to be tame beside it. Here he was to be tied down by no such restraints as the church imposed on him; he was to have beauty for its own sake and to create the thought of a coming world. His decorations should make a revolution in the universe. Strong entered enthusiastically into his plans, but both agreed that preliminary studies were necessary both for architects and artists. The old world must be ransacked to the depths of Japan and Persia. Before their dinner-hour was reached, they had laid out a scheme of travel and study which would fill a life-time, while the Home of Music in New York was still untouched. After dinner and a cigar, they fought a prodigious battle over the influence of the Aryan races on the philosophy of art, and then, dusk coming on, they went to sleep, and finished an agreeable journey at about midnight.
When at last they drove up to the hotel door in the frosty night, and stamped their feet, chilled by the sleigh-ride from the station, the cataract's near roar and dim outline under the stars did not prevent them from warmly greeting Mr. Murray who sallied out to welcome them and to announce that their supper was waiting. The three women had long since gone to bed, but Mr. Murray staid up to have a chat with the boys. He was in high spirits. He owned that he had enjoyed his trip and was in no hurry to go home. While his nephew and Wharton attacked their supper, he sipped his Scotch whisky, and with the aid of a cigar, enlivened the feast.
"We got over here before three o'clock," said he, "and of course I took them out to drive at once. Esther sat in front with me and we let the horses go. Your aunt thinks I am unsafe with horses and I took some pains to prove that she was right. The girls liked it. They wouldn't have minded being tipped into a snow-bank, but I thought it would be rough on your aunt, so I brought them home safe, gave them a first-rate dinner and sent them off to bed hours ago, sleepy as gods. To-morrow you must take them in hand. I have made to-day what the newspapers call my most brilliant forensic effort, and I'll not risk my reputation again."
"Keep out of our way then!" said Strong. "Wharton and I mean to spill those two girls over the cliff unless Canadian horses know geology."
Esther slept soundly that night while the roar of the waters lulled her slumbers. The sun woke her the next morning to a sense of new life. Her room looked down on the cataract, and she had already taken a fancy to this tremendous, rushing, roaring companion, which thundered and smoked under her window, as though she had tamed a tornado to play in her court-yard. To brush her hair while such a confidant looked on and asked questions, was more than Pallas Athene herself could do, though she looked out forever from the windows of her Acropolis over the Blue AEgean. The sea is capricious, fickle, angry, fawning, violent, savage and wanton; it caresses and raves in a breath, and has its moods of silence, but Esther's huge playmate rambled on with its story, in the same steady voice, never shrill or angry, never silent or degraded by a sign of human failings, and yet so frank and sympathetic that she had no choice but to like it. "Even if it had nothing to tell me, its manners are divine," said Esther to herself as she leaned against the window sash and looked out. "And its dress!" she ran on. "What a complexion, to stand dazzling white and diamonds in the full sunlight!" Yet it was not the manners or the dress of her new friend that most won Esther's heart. Her excitement and the strain of the last month had left her subject to her nerves and imagination. She was startled by a snow-flake, was reckless and timid by turns, and her fancy ran riot in dreams of love and pain. She fell in love with the cataract and turned to it as a confidant, not because of its beauty or power, but because it seemed to tell her a story which she longed to understand. "I think I do understand it," she said to herself as she looked out. "If he could only hear it as I do," and of course "he" was Mr. Hazard; "how he would feel it!" She felt tears roll down her face as she listened to the voice of the waters and knew that they were telling her a different secret from any that Hazard could ever hear. "He will think it is the church talking!" Sad as she was, she smiled as she thought that it was Sunday morning, and a ludicrous contrast flashed on her mind between the decorations of St. John's, with its parterre of nineteenth century bonnets, and the huge church which was thundering its gospel under her eyes.
To have Niagara for a rival is no joke. Hazard spoke with no such authority; and Esther's next idea was one of wonder how, after listening here, any preacher could have the confidence to preach again. "What do they know about it?" she asked herself. "Which of them can tell a story like this, or a millionth part of it?" To dilute it in words and translate bits of it for school-girls, or to patronize it by defense or praise, was somewhat as though Esther herself should paint a row of her saints on the cliff under Table Rock. Even to fret about her own love affairs in such company was an impertinence. When eternity, infinity and omnipotence seem to be laughing and dancing in one's face, it is well to treat such visitors civilly, for they come rarely in such a humor.
So much did these thoughts interest and amuse her that she took infinite pains with her toilet in order to honor her colossal host whose own toilet was sparkling with all the jewels of nature, like an Indian prince whose robes are crusted with diamonds and pearls. When she came down to the breakfast-room, Strong, who was alone there, looked up with a start.
"Why, Esther!" he broke out, "take care, or one of these days you will be handsome!"
Catherine too was pretty as a fawn, and was so honestly pleased to meet Wharton again that he expanded into geniality. As for broken hearts, no self-respecting young woman shows such an ornament at any well regulated breakfast-table; they are kept in dark drawers and closets like other broken furniture. Esther had made the deadliest resolution to let no trace of her unhappiness appear before her uncle, and Mr. Murray, who saw no deeper than other men into the heart-problem, was delighted with the gayety of the table, and proud of his own success as a physician for heart complaints. Mrs. Murray, who knew more about her own sex, kept her eye on the two girls with more anxiety than she cared to confess. If any new disaster should happen, the prospect would be desperate, and it was useless to deny that she had taken risks heavy enough to stagger a professional gambler. The breakfast table looked gay and happy enough, and so did the rapids which sparkled and laughed in the distance.
After breakfast the two young women, with much preparation of boots, veils and wraps, went off with Strong and Wharton for a stroll down to the banks of the river. The two older members of the party remained quietly in their parlor, thinking that the young people would get on better by themselves. As the four wandered down the road, Mr. Murray watched them, and noticed the natural way in which Esther joined Strong, while Catherine fell to Wharton. Standing with his hands in his trousers' pockets and his nose close to the window-pane, Mr. Murray looked after them as they disappeared down the bank, and then, without turning round, he made a remark as husbands do, addressed to the universe and intended for his wife.
"I suppose that is what you are driving at."
"What?" asked Mrs. Murray.
"I don't mind George and Esther, but I grudge Catherine to that man Wharton. He may be a good artist, but I think his merits as a husband beneath criticism. I believe every woman would connive at a love affair though the man had half a dozen living wives, and had been hung two or three times for murder."
"I wish Esther were as safe as I think Catherine," said Mrs. Murray. "It would surprise me very much if Catherine took Mr. Wharton now, but if Mr. Hazard were to walk round the corner, I should expect to see Esther run straight into his arms."
"Hazard!" exclaimed Mr. Murray. "I thought he was out of the running and you meant Esther for George."
"I am not a match-maker, and I've no idea that Esther will ever marry George," replied Mrs. Murray with the patience which wives sometimes show to husbands whom they think obtuse.
"Then what is it you want?" asked Mr. Murray, with some signs of rebellion, but still talking to the window-pane, with his hands in his pockets. "You encourage a set of clever men to hang round two pretty girls, and you profess at the same time not to want anything to come of it. That kind of conduct strikes an ordinary mind as inconsistent."
"I want to prevent one unhappy marriage, not to make two," replied his wife. "Girls must have an education, and the only way they can get a good one is from clever men. As for falling in love, they will always do that whether the men are clever or not. They must take the risk."
"And what do you mean to do with them when they are educated?" inquired he.
"I mean them to marry dull, steady men in Wall Street, without any manners, and with their hands in their pockets," answered Mrs. Murray, her severity for once mingled with a touch of sweetness.
"Thank you," replied her husband, at last turning round. "Then that is to be the fruit of all this to-do?"
"I am sure it is quite fruit enough," rejoined she. "The business of educating their husbands will take all the rest of their lives."
Mr. Murray reflected a few minutes, standing with his back to the fire and gazing at his wife. Then he said: "Sarah, you are a clever woman. If you would come into my office and work steadily, you could double my income at the bar; but you need practice; your points are too fine; you run too many risks, and no male judge would ever support your management of a case. As practice I grant you it is bold and has much to recommend it, but in the law we cannot look so far ahead. Now, why won't you let Esther marry George?"
"I shall practice only before women judges," replied Mrs. Murray, "and I will undertake to say that I never should find one so stupid as not to see that George is not at all the sort of man whom a girl with Esther's notions would marry. If I tried to make her do it, I should be as wrong-headed as some men I know."
"I suppose you don't mean to put yourself in George's way, if he asks her," inquired Mr. Murray rather anxiously.
"My dear husband, there is no use in thinking about George one way or the other. Do put him out of your head! You fancy because Esther seems bright this morning, that she might marry George to-morrow. Now I can see a great deal more of Esther's mind than you, and I tell you that it is all we can do to prevent her from recalling Mr. Hazard, and that if we do prevent it, we shall have to take her abroad for at least two years before she gets over the strain."
At this emphatic announcement that his life was to be for two years a sacrifice to Esther's love-affairs, Mr. Murray retired again to his window and meditated in a more subdued spirit. He knew that protest would avail nothing.
Meanwhile the two girls were already down on the edge of the icy river, talking at first of the scene which lay before their eyes.
"Think what the Greeks would have done with it!" said Wharton. "They would have set Zeus in a throne on Table Rock, firing away his lightnings at Prometheus under the fall."
"Just for a change I rather like our way of sticking advertisements there," said Catherine. "It makes one feel at home."
"A woman feels most the kind of human life in it," said Esther.
"A big, rollicking, Newfoundland dog sort of humanity," said Strong.
"You are all wrong," said Catherine. "The fall is a woman, and she is as self-conscious this morning as if she were at church. Look at the coquetry of the pretty curve where the water falls over, and the lace on the skirt where it breaks into foam! Only a woman could do that and look so pretty when she might just as easily be hideous."
"It is not a woman! It is a man!" broke in Esther vehemently. "No woman ever had a voice like that!" She felt hurt that her cataract should be treated as a self-conscious woman.
"Now, Mr. Wharton!" cried Catherine, appealing to the artist: "Now, you see I'm right, and self-consciousness is sometimes a beauty."
Wharton answered this original observation of nature by a lecture which may be read to more advantage in his printed works. It ended by Catherine requiring him to draw for her the design of a dress which should have the soul of Niagara in its folds, and while he was engaged in this labor, which absorbed Catherine's thoughts and gave her extreme amusement, Esther strolled on with Strong, and for nearly an hour walked up and down the road, or leaned against the rock in sheltered places where the sun was warm. At first they went on talking of the scenery, then Esther wanted to know about the geology, and quickly broke in on Strong's remarks upon this subject by questions which led further and further away from it. The river boiled at their feet; the sun melted the enormous icicles which hung from the precipice behind them; a mass of frozen spray was banked up against the American fall opposite them, making it look like an iceberg, and snow covered every thing except the perpendicular river banks and the dark water. The rainbow hung over the cataract, and the mist rose from the furious waters into the peace of the quiet air.
"You know what has happened?" she asked.
Strong nodded assent. He was afraid to tell her how much he knew.
"Do you think I have done wrong?"
"How can I tell without knowing all your reasons?" he asked. "It looks to me as though you were uncertain of yourself and cared less for him than he for you. If I were in his place I should follow you close up, and refuse to leave you."
Esther gave a little gasp: "You don't think he will do that? if he does, I shall run away again."
"Why run away? if you really want to get rid of him, why not make him run away?"
"Because I don't want to make him run away from me, and because I don't know how. If I could only get him away from his church! All I know about it is that I can't be a clergyman's wife, but the moment that I try to explain why, he proves to me that my reasons are good for nothing."
"Are you sure he's not right?" asked Strong.
"Perfectly sure!" replied Esther earnestly. "I can't reason it out, but I feel it. I believe you could explain it if you would, but when I asked you, in the worst of my trouble, you refused to help me."
"I gave you all the help I could, and I am ready to give you whatever you want more," replied Strong.
"Tell me what you think about religion!"
Strong drew himself together with a perceptible effort: "I think about it as little as possible," said he.
"Do you believe in a God?"
"Not in a personal one."
"Or in future rewards and punishments?"
"Old women's nursery tales!"
"Do you believe in nothing?"
"There is evidence amounting to strong probability, of the existence of two things," said Strong, slowly, and as though in his lecture-room.
"What are they, if you please?"
"Should you know better if I said they were mind and matter?"
"You believe in nothing else?"
"N-N-No!" hesitated Strong.
"Isn't it horrible, your doctrine?"
"What of that, if it's true? I never said it was pleasant."
"Do you expect to convert any one to such a religion?"
"Great Buddha, no! I don't want to convert any one. I prefer almost any kind of religion. No one ever took up this doctrine who could help himself."
Esther pondered deeply for a time. Strong's trick of driving her to do what he wanted was so old a habit that she had learned to distrust it. At last she began again from another side.
"You really mean that this life is every thing, and the future nothing?"
"I never said so. I rather think the church is right in thinking this life nothing and the future every thing."
"But you deny a future life!"
Strong began to feel uncomfortable. He wanted to defend his opinions, and it became irksome to go on making out the strongest case he could against himself.
"Come!" said he: "don't go beyond what I said. I only denied the rewards and punishments. Mind! I'll not say there is a future life, but I don't deny it's possibility."
"You are willing to give us a chance?" said Esther rather sarcastically.
"I don't know that you would call it one," replied Strong satisfied by Esther's irony that he had now gone far enough. "If our minds could get hold of one abstract truth, they would be immortal so far as that truth is concerned. My trouble is to find out how we can get hold of the truth at all."
"My trouble is that I don't think I understand in the least what you mean," replied Esther.
"I thought you knew enough theology for that," said George. "The thing is simple enough. Hazard and I and every one else agree that thought is eternal. If you can get hold of one true thought, you are immortal as far as that thought goes. The only difficulty is that every fellow thinks his thought the true one. Hazard wants you to believe in his, and I don't want you to believe in mine, because I've not got one which I believe in myself."
"Still I don't understand," said Esther. "How can I make myself immortal by taking Mr. Hazard's opinions?"
"Because then the truth is a part of you! if I understand St. Paul, this is sound church doctrine, leaving out the personal part of the Trinity which Hazard insists on tacking to it. Except for the rubbish, I don't think I am so very far away from him," continued Strong, now assuming that he had done what he could to set Esther straight, and going on with the conversation as though it had no longer a personal interest. As he talked, he poked holes in the snow with his stick, as though what he said was for his own satisfaction, and he were turning this old problem over again in his mind to see whether he could find any thing new at the bottom of it. "I can't see that my ideas are so brutally shocking. We may some day catch an abstract truth by the tail, and then we shall have our religion and immortality. We have got far more than half way. Infinity is infinitely more intelligible to you than you are to a sponge. If the soul of a sponge can grow to be the soul of a Darwin, why may we not all grow up to abstract truth? What more do you want?"
As he looked up again, saying these words without thinking of Esther's interest, he was startled to see that this time she was listening with a very different expression in her face. She broke in with a question which staggered him.
"Does your idea mean that the next world is a sort of great reservoir of truth, and that what is true in us just pours into it like raindrops?"
"Well!" said he, alarmed and puzzled: "the figure is not perfectly correct, but the idea is a little of that kind."
"After all I wonder whether that may not be what Niagara has been telling me!" said Esther, and she spoke with an outburst of energy that made Strong's blood run cold.
Strong kept his word about amusing the two girls. They were not allowed the time to make themselves unhappy, restless or discontented. This Sunday afternoon he set out with a pair of the fastest horses to be got in the neighborhood, and if these did not go several times over the cliff, it was, as Strong had said, rather their own good sense than their driver's which held them back. Catherine, who sat by Strong's side, made the matter worse by taking the reins, and a more reckless little Amazon never defied men. Even Strong himself at one moment, when wreck seemed certain, asked her to kindly see to the publication of a posthumous memoir, and Esther declared that although she did not fear death, she disliked Catherine's way of killing her. Catherine paid no attention to such ribaldry, and drove on like Phaeton. Wharton was carried away by the girl's dash and coolness. He wanted to paint her as the charioteer of the cataract. They drove by the whirlpool, and so far and fast that, when Esther found herself that night tossing and feverish in her bed, she could only dream that she was still skurrying over a snow-bound country, aching with jolts and jerks, but unable ever to stop. The next day she was glad to stay quietly in the house and amuse herself with sketching, while the rest of the party crossed the river to get Mr. Murray's sleeping-berth by the night train to New York, and to waste their time and money on the small attractions of the village. Mr. Murray was forced to return to his office. Wharton, who had no right to be here at all, for a score of pressing engagements were calling for instant attention in New York, telegraphed simply that his work would detain him several days longer at Niagara, and he even talked of returning with the others by way of Quebec.
While the rest of the party were attending to their own affairs at the railway station and the telegraph office, Wharton and Catherine strolled down to the little park over the American Fall and looked at the scene from there. Catherine in her furs was prettier than ever; her fresh color was brightened by the red handkerchief she had tied round her neck, and her eyes were more mutinous than usual. As she leaned over the parapet, and looked into the bubbling torrent which leaped into space at her feet, Wharton would have liked to carry her off like the torrent and give her no chance to resist. Yet, reckless as he was, he had still common sense enough to understand that, until he was fairly rid of one wife, he could not expect another to throw herself into his arms, and he awkwardly flitted about her, like a moth about a lantern, unable even to singe his wings in the flame.
"Then it is decided?" he asked. "You are really going abroad?"
"I am really going to take Esther to Europe for at least two years. We want excitement. America is too tame."
"May I come over and see you there?"
"No followers are to be allowed. I have forbidden Esther to think of them. She must devote all her time to art, or I shall be severe with her."
"But I suppose you don't mean to devote all your own time to art."
"I must take care of her," replied Catherine. "Then I have got to write some more sonnets. My hand is getting out in sonnets."
"Paris will spoil you; I shall wish you had never left your prairie," said Wharton sadly.
"It is you that have spoiled me," replied she. "You have made me self-conscious, and I am going abroad to escape your influence."
"Do me a favor when you are there; go to Avignon and Vaucluse; when you come to Petrarch's house, think of me, for there I passed the most hopeless hours of my life."
"No, I will not go there to be sad. Sadness is made only for poetry or painting. It is your affair, not mine. I mean to be gay."
"Try, then!" said Wharton. "See for yourself how far gayety will carry you. My turn will come! We all have to go over that cataract, and you will have to go over with the rest of us."
Catherine peered down into the spray and foam beneath as though she were watching herself fall, and then replied: "I shall stay in the shallowest puddle I can find."
"You will one day learn to give up your own life and follow an ideal," said Wharton.
Catherine laughed at his solemn speech with a boldness that irritated him. "Men are always making themselves into ideals and expecting women to follow them," said she. "You are all selfish. Tell me now honestly, would you not sell yourself and me and all New York, like Faust in the opera, if you could paint one picture like Titian?"
Wharton answered sulkily: "I would like to do it on Faust's conditions."
"I knew it," cried she exultingly.
"If ever the devil, or any one else," continued Wharton, "can get me to say to the passing moment, 'stay, thou art so fair,' he can have me for nothing. By that time I shall be worth nothing."
"Your temper will be much sweeter," interjected Catherine.
"Faust made a bargain that any man would be glad to make," growled Wharton. "It was not till he had no soul worth taking that the devil had a chance to win."
Catherine turned on him suddenly with her eyes full of humor: "Then that is the bargain you offer us women. You want us to take you on condition that we amuse you, and then you tell us that if we do amuse you, it will be because you are no longer worth taking. Thank you! I can amuse myself better. When we come home from Europe, I am going to buy a cattle ranche in Colorado and run it myself. You and Mr. Strong and Mr. Hazard shall come out there and see it. You will want me to take you on wages as cowboys. I mean to have ten thousand head, and when you see them you will say that they are better worth painting than all the saints and naiads round the Mediterranean."
Wharton looked earnestly at her for a moment before replying, and she met his eyes with a laugh that left him helpless. Unless taken seriously, he was beneath the level of average men. At last he closed the talk with a desperate confession of failure.
"If you will not go to Vaucluse, Miss Brooke, go at least to the British Museum in London, and when you are there, take a long look at what are called the Elgin marbles. There you will see Greek warriors killing each other with a smile on their faces. You remind me of them. You are like Achilles who answers his Trojan friend's prayer for life by saying: 'Die, friend; you are no better than others I have killed.' I mean to get Miss Dudley to give me her portrait of you, and I shall paint in, over your head: [Greek: PHILOS THANE KAI SY]; and hang it up in my studio to look at, when I am in danger of feeling happy."
With this they rambled back again towards their friends and ended for the time their struggle for mastery. The morning was soon over; all returned to their hotel, and luncheon followed; a silent meal at which no one seemed bright except Strong, who felt that the burden was beginning to be a heavy one. Had it not been for Strong, not one of the party would have moved out of the house again that day, but the Professor privately ordered a sleigh to the door at three o'clock, and packed his uncle and aunt into it together with Catherine and Wharton. Catherine's love of driving lent her energy, and Mrs. Murray, sadly enough, consented to let her take the reins. As they drove away, Strong stood on the porch and watched them till they had disappeared down the road. The afternoon was cloudy and gray, with flakes of snow dropping occasionally through a despondent air. After the sleigh had gone, Strong still gazed down the road, as though he expected to see something, but the road was bare.
He had stayed at home under the pretense of writing letters, and now returned to the sitting-room, where Esther was sketching from the window a view of the cataract. She went quietly on with her work, while he sat down to write as well as his conscience would allow him; for now that he saw how much good Esther's escape had done her, how quiet she had become again, and how her look of trouble had vanished, leaving only a tender little air of gravity, as she worked in the silence of her memories; and when he thought how violently this serenity was likely to be disturbed, his conscience smote him, he bitterly regretted his interference, and roundly denounced himself for a fool.
"Does Mr. Wharton really care for Catherine?" asked Esther, as she went on with her sketch.
"I guess he thinks he does," answered Strong. "He looks at her as though he would eat her."
"What a pity!"
"He is tough! Don't waste sympathy on him! If she took him, he would make her a slave within a week. As it is, his passion will go into his painting."
"She is a practical young savage," said Esther. "I thought at one time she was dazzled by him, but the moment she saw how unfit she was for such a man, she gave it up without a pang."
"I don't see her unfitness," replied Strong. "She has plenty of beauty, more common sense than he, and some money which would help him amazingly except that he would soon spend it. I should say it was he who wanted fitness, but you can't harness a mustang with a unicorn."
"He wants me to study in Paris," said Esther; "but I mean to go to Rome and Venice. I am afraid to tell him."
"When do you expect to be there?"
"Some time in May, if we can get any one to take us."
"Perhaps I will look you up in the summer. If I do not go to Oregon, I may run over to Germany."
"We shall be terribly homesick," replied Esther.
Silence now followed till Strong finished his letters and looked again at his watch. It was four o'clock. "If he is coming," thought Strong, "it is time he were here; but I would draw him a check for his church if he would stay away." The jingling of sleigh-bells made itself heard on the road below as though to rebuke him, and presently a cry of fright from Esther at the window told that she knew what was before her.
"What shall I do?" she cried breathlessly. "Here he is! I can't see him! I can't go through that scene again. George! won't you stop him?"
"What under the sun are you afraid of?" said Strong. "He'll not shoot you! If you don't mean to marry him, tell him so, and this time make it clear. Let there be no mistake about it! But don't send him away if you mean to make yourself unhappy afterwards."
"Of course I am going to be unhappy afterwards," groaned Esther. "What do you know about it, George? Do you think I feel about him as you would about a lump of coal? I was just beginning to be quiet and peaceful, and now it must all start up again. Go away! Leave us alone! But not long! If he is not gone within an hour, come back!"
The next instant the door opened and Hazard was shown into the room. His manner at this awkward moment was quiet and self-possessed, as though he had made it the business of his life to chase flying maidens. Having taken his own time, he was not to be thrown off his balance by any ordinary chance. He nodded familiarly to Strong, who left the room as he entered, and walking straight to Esther, held out his hand with a look of entreaty harder for her to resist than any form of reproach.
"I told you that I should follow," he said.
She drew back, raising her hand to check him, and putting on what she intended for a forbidding expression.
"It is my own fault. I should have spoken more plainly," she replied.
Instead of taking up the challenge, Hazard turned to the table where her unfinished drawing lay.
"What a good sketch!" he said, bending over it. "But you have not yet caught the real fall. I never saw an artist that had."
Esther's defense was disconcerted by this attack. Hazard was bent on getting back to his old familiar ground, and she let him take it. Her last hope was that he might be willing to take it, and be made content with it. If she could but persuade him to forget what had passed, and return to the footing of friendship which ought never to have been left! This was what she was made for! Her courage rose as she thought that perhaps this was possible, and as he sat down before the drawing and discussed it, she fancied that her object was already gained, and that this young greyhound at her elbow could be held in a leash and made to obey a sign.
In a few minutes he had taken again his old friendly place, and if she did not treat him with all the old familiarity, he still gained ground enough to warrant him in believing more firmly than ever that she could not resist his influence so long as he was at her side. They ran on together in talk about the drawing, until he felt that he might risk another approach, and his way of doing it was almost too easy and dexterous.
"What you want to get into your picture," he was saying; "is the air, which the fall has, of being something final. You can't go beyond Niagara. The universe seems made for it. Whenever I come here, I find myself repeating our sonnet: 'Siccome eterna vita e veder dio;' for the sight of it suggests eternity and infinite power." Then suddenly putting down the drawing, and looking up to her face, as she stood by his side, he said: "Do you know, I feel now for the first time the beauty of the next two verses:
'So, lady, sight of you, in my despair, Brings paradise to this brief life and frail.'"
"Hush!" said Esther, raising her hand again; "we are friends now and nothing more."
"Mere friends, are we?" quoted Hazard, with a courageous smile. "No!" he went on quickly. "I love you. I cannot help loving you. There is no friendship about it."
"If you tell me so, I must run away again. I shall leave the room. Remember! I am terribly serious now."
"If you tell me, honestly and seriously, that you love me no longer and want me to go away, I will leave the room myself," answered Hazard.
"I won't say that unless you force me to it, but I expect you from this time to help me in carrying out what you know is my duty."
"I will promise, on condition that you prove to me first what your duty is."
To come back again to their starting point was not encouraging, and they felt it, but this time Esther was determined to be obeyed even if it cost her a lover as well as a husband. She did not flinch.
"What more proof do you need? I am not fit to be a clergyman's wife. I should be a scandal in the church, and you would have to choose between it and me."
"I know you better," said Hazard calmly. "You will find all your fears vanish if you once boldly face them."
"I have tried," said Esther. "I tried desperately and failed utterly."
"Try once more! Do not turn from all that has been the hope and comfort of men, until you have fairly learned what it is!"
"Is it not enough to know myself?" asked Esther. "Some people are made with faith. I am made without it."
Hazard broke in here in a warmer tone: "I know you better than you know yourself! Do you think that I, whose business it is to witness every day of my life the power of my faith, am going to hesitate before a trifle like your common, daily, matter-of-course fears and doubts, such as have risen and been laid in every mind that was worth being called one, ever since minds existed?"
"Have they always been laid?" asked Esther gravely.
"Always!" answered Hazard firmly; "provided the doubter wanted to lay them. It is a simple matter of will!"
"Would you have gone into the ministry if you had been tormented by them as I am?" she asked.
"I am not afraid to lay bare my conscience to you," he replied becoming cool again, and willing perhaps to stretch his own points of conscience in the effort to control hers. "I suppose the clergyman hardly exists who has not been tormented by doubts. As for myself, if I could have removed my doubts by so simple a step as that of becoming an atheist, I should have done it, no matter what scandal or punishment had followed. I studied the subject thoroughly, and found that for one doubt removed, another was raised, only to reach at last a result more inconceivable than that reached by the church, and infinitely more hopeless besides. What do you gain by getting rid of one incomprehensible only to put a greater one in its place, and throw away your only hope besides? The atheists offer no sort of bargain for one's soul. Their scheme is all loss and no gain. At last both they and I come back to a confession of ignorance; the only difference between us is that my ignorance is joined with a faith and hope."
Esther was staggered by this view of the subject, and had to fall back on her common-places: "But you make me say every Sunday that I believe in things I don't believe at all."
"But I suppose you believe at last in something, do you not?" asked Hazard. "Somewhere there must be common ground for us to stand on; and our church makes very large—I think too large, allowances for difference. For my own part, I accept tradition outright, because I think it wiser to receive a mystery than to weaken faith; but no one exacts such strictness from you. There are scores of clergymen to-day in our pulpits who are in my eyes little better than open skeptics, yet I am not allowed to refuse communion with them. Why should you refuse it with me? You must at last trust in some mysterious and humanly incomprehensible form of words. Even Strong has to do this. Why may you not take mine?"
"I hardly know what to trust in," said Esther sadly.
"Then trust in me."
"I wish I could, but—"
"But what? Tell me frankly where your want of confidence lies."
"I want to tell you, but I'm afraid. This is what has stood between us from the first. If I told you what was on my lips, you would think it an insult. Don't drive me into offending you! If you knew how much I want to keep your friendship, you would not force me to say such things."
"I will not be offended," answered Hazard gayly. "I can stand almost any thing except being told that you no longer love me."
It wrung Esther's heart to throw away a love so pure and devoted. She felt ashamed of her fears and of herself. As he spoke, her ears seemed to hear a running echo: "Mistress, know yourself! Down on your knees, and thank heaven fasting for a good man's love!" She sat some moments silent while he gazed into her face, and her eyes wandered out to the gloomy and cloud-covered cataract. She felt herself being swept over it. Whichever way she moved, she had to look down into an abyss, and leap.
"Spare me!" she said at last. "Why should you drive and force me to take this leap? Are all men so tyrannical with women? You do not quarrel with a man because he cannot give you his whole life."
"I own it!" said Hazard warmly. "I am tyrannical! I want your whole life, and even more. I will be put off with nothing else. Don't you see that I can't retreat? Put yourself in my place! Think how you would act if you loved me as I love you!"
"Ah, be generous!" begged Esther. "It is not my fault if you and your profession are one; and of all things on earth, to be half-married must be the worst torture."
"You are perfectly right," he replied. "My profession and I are one, and this makes my case harder, for I have to fight two battles, one of love, and one of duty. Think for a moment what a struggle it is! I love you passionately. I would like to say to you: 'Take me on your own terms! I will give you my life, as I will take yours.' But how can I? You are trembling on the verge of what I think destruction. If I saw you tossing on the rapids yonder, at the edge of the fall, I could not be more eager to save you. Yet think what self-control I have had to exercise, for though I have felt myself, for weeks, fighting a battle of life and death for a soul much dearer to me than my own, I have gone forward as though I felt no alarm. I have never even spoken to you on the subject. I stood by, believing so entirely in you that I dared let your own nature redeem itself. But now you throw out a challenge, and I have no choice but to meet it. I have got to fight for myself and my profession and you, at the same time."
At last, then, the battle was fairly joined, and desperately as both the lovers had struggled against it, they looked their destiny in the face. With all Esther's love and sympathy for Hazard, and with all the subtle power which his presence had on her will, his last speech was unlucky. Here was what she had feared! She seemed to feel now, what she had only vaguely suspected before, the restraint which would be put upon her the moment she should submit to his will. He had as good as avowed that nothing but the fear of losing her had kept him silent. She fancied that the thunders of the church were already rolling over her head, and that her mind was already slowly shutting itself up under the checks of its new surroundings. Hazard's speech, too, was unlucky in another way. If he had tried not to shock her by taking charge of her soul before she asked for his interference, she had herself made a superhuman effort not to shock him, and never once had she let drop a word that could offend his prejudices. Since the truth must now come out, she was the less anxious to spare his pride because he claimed credit for respecting hers.
"Must you know why I have broken down and run away?" she said at last. "Well! I will tell you. It was because, after a violent struggle with myself, I found I could not enter a church without a feeling of—of hostility. I can only be friendly by staying away from it. I felt as though it were part of a different world. You will be angry with me for saying it, but I never saw you conduct a service without feeling as though you were a priest in a Pagan temple, centuries apart from me. At any moment I half expected to see you bring out a goat or a ram and sacrifice it on the high altar. How could I, with such ideas, join you at communion?"
No wonder that Esther should have hesitated! Her little speech was not meant in ridicule of Hazard, but it stung him to the quick. He started up and walked across the room to the window, where he stood a moment trying to recover his composure.
"What you call Pagan is to me proof of an eternal truth handed down by tradition and divine revelation," he said at length. "But the mere ceremonies need not stand in your way. Surely you can disregard them and feel the truths behind."
"Oh, yes!" answered Esther, plunging still deeper into the morass. "The ceremonies are picturesque and I could get used to them, but the doctrines are more Pagan than the ceremonies. Now I have hurt your feelings enough, and will say no more. What I have said proves that I am not fit to be your wife. Let me go in peace!"
Again Hazard thought a moment with a grave face. Then he said: "Every church is open to the same kind of attack you make on ours. Do you mean to separate yourself from all communion?"
"If you will create a new one that shall be really spiritual, and not cry: 'flesh—flesh—flesh,' at every corner, I will gladly join it, and give my whole life to you and it."
Hazard shook his head: "I can suggest nothing more spiritual than what came from the spirit itself, and has from all time satisfied the purest and most spiritual souls."
"If I could make myself contented with what satisfied them, I would do it for your sake," answered Esther. "It must be that we are in a new world now, for I can see nothing spiritual about the church. It is all personal and selfish. What difference does it make to me whether I worship one person, or three persons, or three hundred, or three thousand. I can't understand how you worship any person at all."
Hazard literally groaned, and his involuntary expression so irritated Esther that she ran on still more recklessly.
"Do you really believe in the resurrection of the body?" she asked.
"Of course I do!" replied Hazard stiffly.
"To me it seems a shocking idea. I despise and loathe myself, and yet you thrust self at me from every corner of the church as though I loved and admired it. All religion does nothing but pursue me with self even into the next world."
Esther had become very animated in the course of her remarks, and not the less so because she saw Hazard frown and make gestures of impatience as she passed from one sacrilege to another. At last he turned at bay, and broke out:
"Do you think all this is new to me? I know by heart all these criticisms of the church. I have heard them in one form and another ever since I was a boy at school. They are all equally poor and ignorant. They touch no vital point, for they are made by men, like your cousin George Strong, from whom I suppose you got them, who know nothing of the church or its doctrines or its history. I'll not argue over them. Let them go for whatever you may think they are worth. I will only put to you one question and no more. If you answer it against me, I will go away, and never annoy you again. You say the idea of the resurrection is shocking to you. Can you, without feeling still more shocked, think of a future existence where you will not meet once more father or mother, husband or children? surely the natural instincts of your sex must save you from such a creed!"
"Ah!" cried Esther, almost fiercely, and blushing crimson, as though Hazard this time had pierced the last restraint on her self-control: "Why must the church always appeal to my weakness and never to my strength! I ask for spiritual life and you send me back to my flesh and blood as though I were a tigress you were sending back to her cubs. What is the use of appealing to my sex? the atheists at least show me respect enough not to do that!"
At this moment the door opened and Strong entered. It was high time. The scene threatened to become almost violent. As Strong came in, Esther was standing by the fire-place, all her restless features flashing with the excitement of her last speech. Hazard, with his back to the window, was looking at her across the room, his face dark with displeasure. As Strong stepped between them, a momentary silence followed, when not a sound was heard except the low thunder of the falling waters. One would have said that storm was in the air. Suddenly Hazard turned on the unlucky professor and hurled at him the lightning.
"You are the cause of all this! what is your motive?"
Strong looked at him with surprise, but understood in a moment what had happened. Seeing himself destined in any case to be the victim of the coming wrath, he quietly made up his mind to bear the lot of all mediators and inter-meddlers.
"I am afraid you are half right," he answered. "My stupidity may have made matters a little worse."
"What was your motive?" repeated Hazard sternly.
"My motive was to fight your battle for you," replied Strong unruffled; "and I did it clumsily, that's all! I might have known it beforehand."
"Have you been trying to supplant me in order to get yourself in my place?" demanded Hazard, still in the tone of a master.
"No!" replied Strong, half inclined to laugh.
"You will never find happiness there!" continued Hazard, turning to Esther, and pointing with a sweep of his hand to Strong.
"Esther agrees with you on that point," said Strong, beginning to think it time that this scene should end. "I don't mind telling you, too, that since I have seen her stand out against your persecution, I would give any chance I have of salvation if she would marry me; but you needn't be alarmed about it,—she won't!"
"She will!" broke in Hazard abruptly. "You have betrayed me, and your conduct is all of a piece with your theories." Then turning to Esther, who still stood motionless and silent before the fire, he went on: "I am beaten. You have driven me away, and I will never trouble you again, till, in your days of suffering and anguish you send to me for hope and consolation. Till then—God bless you!"
The silence was awful when his retreating footsteps could no longer be heard. It was peace, but the peace of despair. As the sound of the jangling sleigh-bells slowly receded from the door, and Esther realized that the romance of her life was ended, she clasped her hands together in a struggle to control her tears. Strong walked once or twice up and down the room, buried in thought, then suddenly stopping before her, he said in his straight-forward, practical way:
"Esther, I meant it! you have fought your battle like a heroine. If you will marry me, I will admire and love you more than ever a woman was loved since the world began."
Esther looked at him with an expression that would have been a smile if it had not been infinitely dreary and absent; then she said, simply and finally:
"But George, I don't love you, I love him."