She had struck off his hand, and while struggling up into a sitting posture, her eyes kindled, and her voice shook with the tempest of feeling that broke over her.
Mr. Palma crimsoned, but motioned Mrs. Palma away, and Regina exclaimed:
"In her feeble state this excitement may be fatal. Have you no mercy, Mr. Palma?"
"Because I wish to be merciful to her, I desire you will leave the room."
Mrs. Palma seized the girl's hand and drew her hastily away, and while the two sat on the staircase near the door of the sickroom, Regina learned from a hurried and fragmentary narration that her guardian had for years contributed to the comfort and maintenance of Mr. Eggleston's mother and sister, that his influence had been exerted to induce a friend in Philadelphia to purchase the artist's "California Landscape," and that his persistent opposition to Olga's marriage had been based upon indubitable proofs that Mr. Eggleston had deceived her; had addressed three other ladies during the seven years' clandestine correspondence, and had merely trifled with the holiest feelings of the girl's trusting heart. In conclusion Mrs. Palma added:
"Erle was too proud to defend himself, and sternly prohibited me from acquainting her with some of his friendly acts. Even those two helpless Eggleston women do not dream that their annual contribution of money and fuel comes from him. He would leave Olga in her prejudice and animosity, did he not think that a knowledge of all that has occurred might prove to her how unworthy that man is. She stubbornly persists that my stepson is weary of supporting us, and desires to force a this marriage with Mr. Congreve; whereas he has from the beginning assured me he deemed it inexpedient, and dreaded the result."
"Mrs. Palma, she insists that she will never marry any one now, and intends to join one of the Episcopal Church sisterhoods in a western city."
"She certainly will not marry Mr. Congreve, for Erle called upon him and requested him to release Olga from the engagement, alleging, among other reasons, that her health was very much broken, and that she would spend some time in Europe. This sisterhood scheme he declares he will not permit her to accomplish."
Between the two fell a profound silence, and Regina could think of nothing but her guardian's flushed confused countenance, when Olga taxed him with his love for Mrs. Carew. How deeply his heart must be engaged, when his stem, cold, noncommittal face crimsoned?
It seemed a long time since they sat down there, and Regina was growing restless when the front door-bell rang. The servant who brought up a telegram addressed to Mr. Palma, informed Mrs. Palma that Mr. Roscoe was waiting in the dining-room to see her.
"My dear, knock at the door, and hand this to Erle. I will come back directly."
She went downstairs, and, glad of any pretext to interrupt an interview which she believed must be torturing to poor Olga, Regina tapped at the door.
Standing on the threshold, she merely said:
"Here is a telegraphic despatch, which may require a reply."
"Come in," repeated Mr. Palma.
Advancing, she saw with amazement that he was kneeling close to the couch, with Olga's hand in his, and his bowed head close to her face. When she reached the lounge she found that Olga was weeping bitterly, while now and then heavy sobs convulsed her feeble frame.
"Mr. Palma, do you want to throw her back into delirium by this cruel excitement? Do go away, and leave us in peace."
"She will feel far happier after a little while, and tears will ease her heart. Olga, you have not yet given me your promise."
"Be patient! Some day you will learn perhaps that though the idol you worshipped so long has fallen from the niche where you set it, even the dust is sacred; and you want no strange touch to defile it. Oh the love, the confidence, the idolatry—I have so lavishly squandered! Because it was wasted, and all—all is lost, can I mourn the less?"
"At least give me your promise to wait two years, to follow my advice, to accede to my plan for your future."
He wiped the tears from her cheek, and after some hesitation she said brokenly:
"How can you care at all what becomes of me? But since you have saved me from Mr. Congreve, and contrived to conceal the traces of my disguise and flight from Albany, I owe you something, owe something to your family pride. I will think over all you wish, and perhaps after a time, I can see things in a different light. Now—all is dark, ruined—utterly——"
She wept passionately, hiding her face in her hands; and rising, Mr. Palma placed some open letters on the chair beside her. He walked to the window, opened and read the telegram, and Regina saw a heavy frown darken his brow. As if pondering the contents, he stood for more than a minute, then went to the door, and said from the threshold:
"The papers, Olga, are intended for no eye but yours. In reviewing the past, judge me leniently, for had you been born my own sister I should have no deeper interest in your welfare. Henceforth try to trust me as your brother, and I will forgive gladly all your unjust bitterness and aspersion."
He disappeared, and almost simultaneously Mrs. Palma came back and kissed her daughter's forehead.
With a low piteous wail, Olga threw her white hands up about her mother's neck, and sobbed:
"Oh, mamma! mamma! take me to your heart! Pity me!"
Since the night of Olga's return, Regina had taken her meals in the sick-room, gladly availing herself of any pretext for avoiding the dreadful tete-a-tete breakfasts.
On the morning after the painful interview between Olga and Mr. Palma, the former desired to remove into her own apartment, and the easy chair in which she sat was wheeled carefully to the hearth in her room.
"Come close to me, dear child."
Olga held her companion for some seconds in a tight embrace, then kissed her cheek and forehead.
"Patient, true little friend; you saved me from destruction. How worn and white you look, and I have robbed you so long of sleep! When I am stronger, I want to talk to you; but to-day I must be alone, must spend it among my dead hopes, sealing the sepulchres. Jean Ingelow tells us of 'a Dead Year' 'cased in cedar, and shut in a sacred gloom;' but I have seven to shroud and bury; and will the day ever dawn when I can truly say:
Silent they rest, in solemn salvatory'?
Go out, dear, into the sunshine; you look so weary. Leave me alone in the cold crypts of memory; you need not be afraid, I have no second vial of poison."
She seemed so hopeless, and her voice was so indescribably mournful, that Regina's eyes filled with tears, but Mrs. Palma just then called her into the hall.
"Erle says you must put on your hat, wrap up closely, and come downstairs. He is waiting to take you to ride."
She had not seen her guardian since he left Olga's sofa the previous day, and answered without reflection.
"Ask him to excuse me. I am not very well, and prefer remaining in my own room."
From the foot of the stairs, Mr. Palma's voice responded:
"Fresh air will benefit you. I insist upon your coming immediately."
She leaned over the railing, and saw him buttoning his overcoat.
"Please, Mr. Palma, excuse me to-day."
"Pardon me, I cannot. The carriage is waiting."
She was tempted to rebel outright, to absolutely refuse obedience to his authority, which threatened her with the dreaded interview, but a moment's reflection taught her that resistance to his stubborn will was useless, and she went reluctantly downstairs, forgetting her gloves in her trepidation. He handed her into the carriage, took a seat beside her, and directed Farley to drive to Central Park.
The day though cold was very bright, and he partly lowered the silk curtains to shut out the glare of the sun. For a half-hour they rolled along the magnificent Avenue, and only casual observations upon weather, passing equipages, and similar trivial topics, afforded Regina time to compose her perturbed thoughts. With his overcoat buttoned tight across his broad chest, and hat drawn a little low on his brow, Mr. Palma sat, holding his gloved fingers interlaced; and his brilliant eyes rested now and then very searching upon the face at his side, which was almost as white as the snowy fur sack that enveloped her.
"What is the matter with your cheek?" he said at length.
"Why do you ask?" She instantly shielded it with her hand.
"It has a slightly bluish, bruised appearance."
"It is of no consequence, and will soon disappear."
"Olga must indeed have struck you a heavy blow, to leave a mark that lingers so long. She told me how desperately you wrestled to stay her suicidal course, and as a family we owe you much for your firm brave resistance."
"I am sorry she has betrayed what passed. I hoped you would never suspect the distressing facts."
"When a girl deliberately defies parental wishes and counsel, and scorns the advice and expostulation of those whom experience has taught something of life and the world, her fate sooner or later is sad as Olga's. A foolish caprice which young ladies invariably denominate 'love,' but which is generally merely flattered vanity, not unfrequently wrecks a woman's entire life; and though Olga will rally after a time, she cannot forget this humiliating episode, which has blighted the brightest epoch of her existence. Her rash, blind obstinacy has cost her very dear. Here, let us go out; I want you to walk awhile."
They had entered the Park, and, ordering the driver to await them at a specified spot, Mr. Palma turned into the Ramble. For some moments they walked in silence, and finally he pointed to a rustic seat somewhat secluded, and beyond the observation of the few persons strolling through the grounds. Regina sat with her muff in her lap, and her bare hands nervously toying with her white silk tassel. Her guardian noticed the tremulousness of her lip, and at that moment the sun, smiting the ring on her finger, kindled the tiny diamonds into a circle of fire. Mr. Palma drew off his gloves, put them in his pocket, and just touched the opal, saying coldly:
"Is that a recent gift from your mother? I never saw you wear it until the night you bathed poor Olga's forehead."
Involuntarily she laid her palm over the jewels that was beginning to grow odious in her own sight.
"May I inquire how long it has been in your possession?"
"Since before I left the parsonage. I had it when I came to New York."
"Why then have you never worn it?"
"What interest can such a trifle possess for you, sir?"
"Sufficient at least to require an answer."
She sat silent.
"I hear you, Mr. Palma."
"Then show me the courtesy of looking at me when you speak. Circumstances have debarred me until now from referring to a letter from India, which I gave you before I went to Washington. I presume you are aware that the writer in enclosing it to me acquainted me with its tenor and import. Will you permit me to read it?"
"I sent it to my mother nearly a week ago."
She had raised her eyes, and looked at him almost defiantly, nerving herself for the storm that already darkened his countenance.
"Mr. Lindsay very properly informed me that his letter contained an offer of marriage, and though I requested you to defer your answer until my return, I could not of course doubt that it would prove a positive rejection, since you so earnestly assured me he could never be more than a brother to you. At least, let me suggest that you clothe the refusal in the kindest possible terms."
Her face whitened, and she compressed her lips, but her beautiful eyes became touchingly mournful in their strained gaze. Mr Palma took off his glasses, and for the first time in her life she saw the full, fine bright black eyes, without the medium of lenses. How they looked down into hers?
She caught her breath, and he smiled:
"My ward must be frank with her guardian."
"I have been frank with my mother, and since nothing has been concealed from her, no one else has the right to catechise me. To her it is incumbent upon me to confide even the sacred details to which you allude, and she knows all; but you can have no real interest in the matter."
"Pardon me, I have a very deep interest in all that concerns my ward; especially when the disposal of her hand is involved. What answer have you given 'Brother Douglass'?"
As he spoke, he laid his hand firmly on both of hers, but she attempted to rise.
"Oh, Mr. Palma! Ask me no more, spare me this inquisition. You transcend your authority."
"Sit still. Answer me frankly. You declined Mr. Lindsay's offer?"
She felt his hand suddenly clutch hers, and grow cold.
The very tone was like a prayer. Presently, he said sternly:
"You must not dare to trifle with me. You cannot intend to accept him?"
"Mother will determine for me."
Mr. Palma had become very pale, and his glittering teeth gnawed his lower lip.
"Is your acceptance of that man contingent only on her consent and approval?"
For a moment she looked away at the blue heavens bending above her, and wondered if the sky would blacken when she had irretrievably committed herself to this union. The thought was hourly growing horrible, and she shivered.
He stooped close to her, and even then she noted how laboured was his breathing, and that his mouth quivered:
"Answer me; do you mean to marry him?"
"I do, if mother gives me permission."
Bravely she met his eyes, but her words were a mere whisper, and she felt that the worst was over; for her there could be no retraction.
It was the keenest blow, the most bitter disappointment of Erle Palma's hitherto successful life, but his face hardened, and he bore it, as was his habit, without any demonstration, save that discoverable in his mortal paleness.
During the brief silence that ensued, he still held his hand firmly on hers, and when he spoke his tone was cold and stern.
"My opinion of your probable course in this matter was founded entirely upon belief in the truthfulness of your statement that Mr. Lindsay had no claim on your heart. Only a short time since you assured me of this fact, and my faith in your candour must plead pardon for my present profound surprise. Certainly I was credulous enough to consider you incapable of deceit."
The scorn in his eyes stung her like a lash, and clasping her fingers spasmodically around his hand, she exclaimed:
"I never intended to deceive you. Oh, do not despise me!"
"I presume you understand the meaning of the words you employ; and when I asked you if I would be justified in softening your rejection of my cousin by assuring him that your affections were already engaged you emphatically negatived that statement, saying it would be untrue."
"Yes, and I thought so then; but did not know my own heart."
Her shadowy eyes looked appealingly into his, but he smiled contemptuously.
"You did not know your affections had travelled to India, until the gentleman formally asked for them? Do you expect me to believe that?"
"Believe anything except that I wilfully deceived you."
The anguish, the hopelessness written in her blanched face, and the trembling of the childishly small hands that had unconsciously tightened around his touched him.
He put his right hand under her chin and lifted the face.
"Lily, I want the truth. I intend to have it; and all of it. Now look me in the eye and answer me solemnly, remembering that the God you reverence hears your words. Do you really love Mr. Lindsay?"
"Yes; he is so good, how can I help feeling attached to him?"
"You love him next to your mother?"
"I think I do."
The words cost her a great effort, and her eyes wandered from his.
"Look straight at me. You love him so well you wish to be his wife?"
"I want to make him happy if I can."
"No evasions, if you please. Answer yes, or no. Is Mr. Lindsay dearer to you than all else in the world?"
"Next to mother's his happiness is dearest to me."
"Yes—or no—this time; is there no one you love better?"
Earth and sky, trees and rocks, seemed whirling into chaos, and she shut her eyes.
"You have no right to question me farther. I will answer no more."
Was the world really coming to an end? She heard her guardian laugh, and the next moment he had caught her to his heart. What did it mean? Was she too growing delirious with brain fever? His arm held her pressed close to his bosom, and his cheek leaned on her head, while strangely sweet and low were his words:
"Ah, Lily! Lily! Hush. Be still."
She wished that she could die then and there, for the thought of Mr. Lindsay sickened her soul. But the memory of the ring appalled her, and she struggled to free herself.
"Let me go! Do let us go home. I am sick."
His arm drew her closer still.
"Be quiet, and let me talk to you, and remember I am your guardian. Lily, I am afraid you are tempted to stray into dangerous paths, and your tender little heart is not a safe counsellor. You are sincerely attached to your old friend, you trust and honour him, you are very grateful to him for years of kindness during your childhood; and now when his health has failed, and he appeals to you to repay the affection he has long given you, gratitude seems to assume the form of duty, and you are trying to persuade yourself that you ought to grant his prayer. Lily, love is the only chrism that sanctifies marriage, and though at present you might consent to become Mr. Lindsay's wife, suppose that in after years you should chance to meet some other man, perhaps not so holy, so purely Christian as this noble young missionary, but a man who seized, possessed your deep—deathless womanly love, and who you knew loved you in return? What then?"
"I would still do my duty to my dear Douglass."
"No doubt you would try. But you would do wrong to marry your friend feeling as you do; and you ought to wait and fully explain to him the nature of your sentiments. You are almost a child, and scarcely know you own heart yet, and I, as your guardian, cannot consent to see you rashly forge fetters that may possibly gall you in future. The letter to your mother has not yet been forwarded. Hattie, to whom you entrusted it, did not give it to me until this morning, alleging in apology, that she put it in her pocket and forgot it. I have reason to believe that in a very short time you will see your mother: let this matter rest until you can converse fully with her, and if she sanctions your decision I, of course, shall have no right to expostulate. Lily, I want to see you happy, and while I profoundly respect Mr. Lindsay, who I daresay is a most estimable gentleman, I should not very cordially give you away to him."
She rose and stood before him, clasping her hands tightly over each other; tearless, tortured, striving to see the path of duty.
"Mr. Palma, if I can only make him happy! I owe him so much. When I remember all that he did so tenderly for years, and especially on that awful night of the storm, I feel that I ought not to refuse what he asks of me."
"If he knew how you felt, I think I could safely promise for him that he would not accept your hand. The heart of the woman he loves, is the boon that a man holds most precious. Lily, you know your inmost heart does not prompt you to marry Mr. Lindsay."
Did he suspect her secret folly? The blood that had seemed to curdle around her aching heart surged into her cheeks, painting them a vivid rose, and she said hastily:
"Indeed he is very dear to me. He is the noblest man I ever knew. How could I fail to love him?"
He took her left hand and examined the ring.
"You wear this, as a pledge of betrothal? Is it not premature when your mother is in ignorance of your purpose? Tell me, my ward, tell me, do you not rather keep it here to stimulate your flagging sense of duty? To strengthen you to adhere to your rash resolve?"
"He wrote that if I had faithfully kept my farewell promise to him he wished me to wear it."
"May I know the nature of that promise?"
"That I would always love him next to my mother."
"But I think you admitted that possibly you might some day meet your ideal who would be dearer even than mother and Douglass. I do not wish to distress you needlessly, but while you are under my protection I must unflinchingly do all that honour demands of a faithful guardian. I can permit no engagement without your mother's approval; and I honestly confess to you, that I am growing impatient to place you in her care. Do you still desire your letter forwarded?"
"If you please."
"Sit down. I have sad news for you."
He unbuttoned his coat, took an envelope from his pocket, and she recognized the telegram which had arrived the previous day. "Regina, many guardians would doubtless withhold this, but fairness and perfect candour have been my rule of life, and I prefer frankness to diplomacy. This telegraphic despatch arrived yesterday, and is intended for you, though addressed to me."
He put it in her hand, and filled with an undefined terror that chilled her she read:
"MR. ERLE PALMA,—Tell your ward that Douglass is too ill to travel farther. If she wishes to see him alive she must come immediately. Can't you bring her on at once?
The despatch fluttered to the ground and the girl moaned and bowed her face in her hands. He waited some minutes, and with a sob she said:
"Oh, let me go to him! It might be a comfort to him, and if he should die? Oh, do let me go!"
"Do you think your mother would consent to your taking so grave a step?"
"I do not know, but she would not blame me when she learned the circumstances. If I waited to consult her he might—oh! we are wasting time! Mr. Palma, pity me! Send me to him—to the friend who loves me so truly, so devotedly!"
She started up and wrung her hands, as imagination pictured the noble friend ill, perhaps dying, and longing to see her.
"Regina, compose yourself. That telegram has been delayed by an unprecedented fall of snow that interrupts the operation of the wires, and it is dated three days ago. Last night I telegraphed to learn Mr. Lindsay's condition, but up to the time of our leaving home, the wires were not working through to San Francisco; and the trains on the Union Pacific are completely snowbound. The agent told me this morning that it was uncertain when the cars would run through, as the track is blocked up. Until we ascertain something definite let me advise you to withhold your letter, enclosing his; for I ought to tell you that I am daily expecting a summons to send you to Europe. Come, walk with me and try to be patient."
He offered her his arm, and they walked for some time in profound silence. At last she exclaimed passionately:
"Please let me go home. I want to be alone."
They finally reached the carriage, and Mr. Palma gave the coachman directions to drive to the telegraph office. During the ride Regina leaned back, with her face pressed against the silken curtain on the side, and her eyes closed. Her companion could see the regular chiselled profile, so delicate and yet so firm, and as he studied the curves of her beautiful mouth, he realized that she had fully resolved to fulfil her promise; that at any cost of personal suffering she would grant the prayer of the devoted young minister.
Scientists tell us that "there are in the mineral world certain crystals, certain forms, for instance of fluor-spar, which have lain darkly in the earth for ages, but which nevertheless have a potency of light locked up within them. In their case the potential has never become actual, the light is, in fact, held back by a molecular detent. When these crystals are warmed, the detent is lifted, and an outflow of light immediately begins." How often subtle analogies in physical nature whisper interpretations of vexing psychological enigmas?
Was Erle Palma an animated, human fluor-spar? Had the latent capacity, the potentiality of tenderness in his character been suddenly actualized, by the touch of that girl's gentle hands, the violet splendour of her large soft eyes, which lifted for ever the detent of his cold isolating selfishness?
The long-hidden light had flashed at last, making his heart radiant with a supreme happiness which even the blaze of his towering and successful ambition had never kindled; and to-day he found it difficult indeed to stand aside, with folded arms and sealed lips, while she reeled upon the brink of an abyss, which was so wide and deep, that it threatened to bury all his hopes of that sacred home life—which sooner or later sings its dangerous siren song in every man's heart.
To his proud worldly nature this dream of pure, deep, unselfish love, had stolen like the warm, rich spicy breath of June roses—swung unexpectedly over a glacier, bringing the flush and perfume of early summer to the glittering blue realms of winter; and he longed inexpressibly to open all his heart to the sweet sunshine, to gather it in, garnering it as his own for ever. How his stern soul clung to that shy, shrinking girl, who seemed in contrast to the gay brilliant self-asserting women he met in society as some white marble-lidded Psyche, standing on her pedestal, amid a group of glowing Venetian Venuses! He had seen riper complexions, and more rounded symmetry; and had smiled and bowed at graceful polished persiflage, more witty than aught that ever crossed her quiet, daintily carved lips; but though he had admired many lovely women of genius and culture, that pale girl, striving to hide her grieved countenance against his carriage curtain, was the only one he had ever desired to call his wife. That any other man dared hope to win or claim her seemed sacrilegious; and he felt that he would rather see her lying in her coffin, than know that she was profaned by any touch save his.
Neither spoke, and when the carriage stopped at the telegraph office, Mr. Palma went in and remained some time. As he returned, she felt that he held her destiny for all time in his hands, and in after years he often recalled the despairing, terrified expression of the face that leaned forward, with parted quivering lips, and eyes that looked a prayer for pity.
"The wires are not yet working fully, but probably messages will go through during the day. Regina, try to be patient, and believe that you shall learn the nature of Mrs. Lindsay's answer as soon as I receive it. Tell Mrs. Palma I shall not come home to dine, have pressing business at court, and cannot tell how long I may be detained at my office. Good-bye. The despatch shall be sent to you without delay."
He lifted his hat, closed the carriage door, and motioned to Farley to drive home.
Locked in her own apartment Olga denied admittance to even her mother, who improved the opportunity to answer a number of neglected letters, and Regina was left to the seclusion of her room. As the day wore slowly away, her restlessness increased, and she paced the floor until her limbs trembled from weariness. Deliberately she recalled all the incidents of the long residence at the parsonage, and strove to live again the happy season, during which the young minister had contributed so largely to her perfect contentment. The white pets they had tended and caressed together, the books she had read with him, the favourite passages he had italicized, the songs he loved best, the flowers he laid upon her breakfast plate, and now and then twined in her hair; above all, his loving persuasive tone, quiet gentle words of affectionate counsel, and tender pet name for her, "my white dove."
How fervent had been his prayer that when he returned, he might find her "unspotted from the world." Was she? Could she bear to deceive the brave loyal heart that trusted her so completely?
Once at church she had witnessed a marriage, heard the awfully solemn vows that the bride registered in the sight of God, and to-day the words flamed like the sword of the avenging angel, like a menace, a challenge. Would Douglass take her for his wife, if he knew that Mr. Palma had become dearer to her than all the world beside? Could she deny that his voice and the touch of his hand on hers magnetized, thrilled her, as no one else had power to do? She could think without pain of Mr. Lindsay selecting some other lady and learning to love her as his wife, forgetting the child Regina; but when she forced herself to reflect that her guardian would soon be Mrs. Carew's husband, the torture seemed unendurable.
Unlocking a drawer, she spread before her all the little souvenirs Mr. Lindsay had given her. The faded flowers that once glowed under the fervid sun of India, the seal and pen, the blue and gold Tennyson, and Whittier, and the pretty copy of Christina Rossetti's poems, he had sent from Liverpool. One by one she read his letters ending with the last which Mr. Palma had laid on her lap when he left the carriage.
Despite her efforts, above the dear meek gentle image of the consecrated and devout missionary towered the stately proud form of the brilliant lawyer, with his chilling smile and haughty marble brow; and she knew that he reigned supreme in her heart. He was not so generous, so nobly self-sacrificing, so holy and pious as Mr. Lindsay, nor did she reverence him so entirely; but above all else she loved him. Conscience, pride, and womanly delicacy all clamoured in behalf of the absent but faithful lover; and the true heart answered, "Away with sophistry, and gratitude, pitying affection, and sympathy! I am vassal to but one; give me Erle Palma, my king."
If she married Douglass and he afterward discovered the truth, could he be happy, could he ever trust her again? She resolved to go to San Francisco, to tell Mr. Lindsay without reservation all that she felt, withholding only the name of the man whom she loved best; and if he could be content with the little she could give in return for his attachment, then with no deception flitting like a ghoul between them, she would ask her mother's permission to dedicate the future to Douglass Lindsay. She would never see her guardian again, and when he was married it would be sinful even to think of him, and her duties and new ties must help her to forget him.
Pleading weariness and indisposition, she had absented herself from dinner, and when night came it was upon leaden wings that oppressed her. Feverish and restless she raised the sash, and though the temperature was freezing outside, she leaned heavily on the sill and inhaled the air. A distant clock struck eleven, and she stood looking at the moon that flooded the Avenue with splendour, and shone like a sheet of silver on the glass of a window opposite.
Very soon a peculiarly measured step, slow and firm, rung on the pavement beneath her, and ere the muffled figure paused at the door, she recognized her guardian. He entered by means of a latch-key, and closing the window Regina sat down and listened. Her heart beat like a drum, drowning other sounds, and all else was so still that after a little while she supposed no message had been received, and that Mr. Palma had gone to sleep.
She dreaded to lie down, knowing that her pillow would prove one not of roses, but thorns. She prayed long and fervently that God would help her to do right under all circumstances, would enable her to conquer and govern her wilful, riotous heart, subduing it to the dictates of duty; and in conclusion she begged that the heavenly Father would spare and strengthen His feeble, suffering, consecrated minister, spare a life she would strive to brighten.
Rising from her knees she opened a little illustrated Testament Mr. Lindsay had given her on her thirteenth birthday, and which she was accustomed to read every night. The fourteenth chapter of St. John happened to meet her eye.
"Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid; ye believe in God, believe also in Me." Just then she heard a low, cautious tap upon her door. Her heart stood still, she felt paralyzed, but found voice to say hoarsely:
The door was partly opened but no one entered, and she went forward to the threshold. Mr. Palma was standing outside, with his face averted, and in his outstretched hand she saw the well-known telegraphic envelope, which always arouses a thrill of dread, bearing so frequently the bolt of destruction into tranquil households. Shaking like aspens when the west wind blows, she took it.
"Tell me, is he better?"
Mr. Palma turned, gave one swift pitying glance at her agonized face, and as if unable to endure the sight, walked quickly away. She shut the door, stood a moment, spellbound by dread, then held the sheet to the light.
"MR. ERLE PALMA,—My Douglass died last night.
"Though Duty's face is stern, her path is best; They sweetly sleep who die upon her breast."
"Your bed is untouched, you did not undress! Why did you sit up all night, and alone?"
"Because I knew it was folly to attempt to sleep; and to watch the bay and the beauty of the night was less wearying than to toss on a pillow staring at the ceiling. Mrs. Waul, what brings you here so early?"
"A package of letters which must have arrived yesterday, but William only received them a few minutes since. Mrs. Orme, will you have your coffee now?"
"After a little while. Have everything in order to leave at a moment's notice, for I may not return here from Paestum. Give me the letters."
Mrs. Orme tossed back her hair which had been unbound, and as the letters were placed in her hand, she seemed almost to forget them, so abstracted was the expression with which her eyes rested on the dancing waves of the Bay of Naples. The noise of the door closing behind Mrs. Waul seemed to arouse her, and glancing at the letters she opened one from Mr. Palma.
The long and harrowing vigil which had lasted from the moment of bidding General Laurance good-night, on the previous evening, had left its weary traces in the beautiful face; but rigid resolution had also set its stem seal on the compressed mouth, and the eyes were relentless as those of Irene, waiting for the awful consummation in the Porphyry chamber at Byzantium.
The spirit of revenge had effectually banished all the purer, holier emotions of her nature; and the hope of an overwhelming Nemesis beckoned her to a fearful sacrifice of womanly sensibility, but just now nothing seemed too sacred to be immolated upon the altar of her implacable Hate. To stab the hearts of those who had wronged her, she gladly subjected her own to the fiery ordeal of a merely nominal marriage with her husband's father, resolving that her triumph should be complete. Originally gentle, loving, yielding in nature, injustice and adversity had gradually petrified her character; yet beneath the rigid exterior flowed a lava tide, that now and then overflowed its stony barriers, and threatened irremediable ruin.
Fully resolved upon the revolting scheme which promised punishment to the family of Laurance, and
"Self-girded with torn strips of hope,"
she opened the New York letter.
The first few lines riveted her attention. She sat erect, leaned forward, with eyes wide and strained, and gradually rose to her feet, clutching the letter, until her fingers grew purple. As she hurried on, breathing like one whose everlasting destiny is being laid in the balance, a marvellous change overspread her countenance. The blood glowed in lip and cheek, the wild sparkle sank, extinguished in the tears that filled her eyes, the hardness melted away from the resolute features, and at last a cry like that of some doomed spirit suddenly snatched from the horrors of perdition and set for ever at rest upon meads of Asphodel and Amaranth, rolled through the room.
After so many years of reckless hopelessness the transition was overpowering, and the miserable wife and mother rescued upon the extreme verge of utter lifelong ruin, fell forward upon her knees, sobbing and laughing alternately.
From the hour when she learned of her husband's second marriage she had ceased to pray, abandoning herself completely to the cynicism and vindictiveness that overflowed her soul like a wave of Phlegethon; but now the fountain of gratitude was unsealed, and she poured out a vehement, passionate, thanksgiving to God. Alternately praying, weeping, smiling, she knelt there, now and then re-reading portions of the letters, to assure herself that it was not a mere blessed dream, and at length when the strain relaxed, she dropped her head on a chair, and like a spent feeble child, cried heartily, unrestrainedly.
Mr. Palma wrote that after years of fruitless effort he had succeeded in obtaining from Peleg Peterson a full retraction of the charges made against her name, whereby General Laurance had prevented a suit against his son. Peterson had made an affidavit of certain facts, which nobly exonerated her from the heinous imputations with which she was threatened, should she attempt legal redress for her wrongs, and which proved that the defence upon which General Laurance relied, was the result of perjury and bribery.
In addition to the recantation of Peterson, Mr. Palma communicated the joyful intelligence that Gerbert Audre, who was believed to have been lost off the Labrador coast fifteen years before, had been discovered in Washington, where he was occupying a clerical desk in one of the departments; and that he had furnished conclusive testimony as a witness of the marriage, and a friend of Cuthbert Laurance.
The lawyer had carefully gathered all the necessary links of evidence, and was prepared to bring suit against Cuthbert Laurance for desertion and bigamy; assuring the long-suffering wife that her name and life would be nobly vindicated.
Within his letter was one addressed to Mrs. Orme by Peleg Peterson, and a portion of the scrawl was heavily underlined.
"For all that I have revealed to Mr. Palma and solemnly sworn to, for this clearing of your reputation, you may thank your child. But for her, I should never have declared the truth—would have gone down to the grave, leaving a blot upon you; for my conscience is too dead to trouble me, and I hate you, Minnie! Hate you for the wreck you helped to make of me. But that girl's white angel face touched me, when she said (and I knew she meant it), 'If I find from mother that you are indeed my father, then I will do my duty. I will take your hand—I will own you my father—face the world's contempt, and we will bear our disgrace together as best me may.' She would have done it, at all risk, and I have pitied her. It is so clear her, and give her the name she is entitled to, that at last I have spoken the truth. She is a noble brave girl, too good for you, too good for her father; far too good to own Rene Laurance for her grandfather. When he sees the child he paid me to claim, he will not need my oath to satisfy him that in body she is every inch a Laurance; but where she got her white soul God only knows—certainly it is neither Merle nor Laurance. You owe your salvation to your sweet, brave child, and have no cause to thank me, for I shall always hate you."
Had some ministering angel removed from her hand the hemlock of that loathsome vengeance she had contemplated, and substituted the nectar of hope and joy, the renewal of a life unclouded by the dread of disgrace that had hung over her like a pall for seventeen years? When gathering her garments about her to plunge into a dark gulf replete with seething horror, a strong hand had lifted her away from the fatal ledge, and she heard the voice of her youth calling her to the almost forgotten vale of peace; while supreme among the thronging visions of joy gleamed the fair face of her blue-eyed daughter. Had she been utterly mad in resolving to stain her own pure hand by the touch of Rene Laurance?
In the light of retrospection the unnatural and monstrous deed she had contemplated, seemed fraught with a horror scarcely inferior to that which lends such lurid lustre to the "Oedipus;" and now she cowered in shame and loathing as she reflected upon all that she had deliberately arranged while sitting upon the terrace of the Villa Reale. Could the unbridled thirst for revenge have dragged her on into a monomania that would finally have ended in downright madness? Once nominally the wife of the man whom she so thoroughly abhorred, would not reason have fled before the horrors to which she linked herself? The rebellious bitterness of her soul melted away, and a fervent gratitude to Heaven fell like dew upon her arid stony heart, waking words of penitence and praise to which her lips had long been strangers.
Adversity in the guise of human injustice and wrong generally indurates and embitters; and the chastisements that chasten are those which come directly from the hand of Him "who doeth all things well."
When Mrs. Waul came back Mrs. Orme was still kneeling, with her face hidden in her arms, and the letters lying beside her. Laying her wrinkled hand on the golden hair, the faithful old woman asked:
"Did you hear from your baby?"
"Oh! I have good news that will make me happy as long as I live. I shall soon see my child; and soon, very soon, all will be clear. Just now I cannot explain; but thank God for me that these letters came safely."
She rose, put back her hair, and rapidly glanced over two other letters, then walked to and fro, pondering the contents.
"Where is Mr. Waul?"
"Reading the papers in our room."
"Ask him to come to me at once."
She went to her desk, and wrote to General Laurance that letters received after their last interview compelled her to hasten to Paris, whither she had been recalled by a summons from the manager of the Theatre. She had determined, in accordance with his own earnestly expressed wishes, that from the day when the world knew her as Mrs. Laurance it should behold her no more upon the stage; consequently she would hasten the arrangements for the presentation of her own play "Infelice," and after he had witnessed her rendition of the new role, she would confer with him regarding the day appointed for the celebration of their marriage. Until then, she positively declined seeing him, but enclosed a tress of her golden hair, and begged to hear from him frequently; adding directions that would insure the reception of his letters. Concluding she signed: "Odille Orme, hoping by the grace of God soon to subscribe myself—Laurance."
"Mr. Waul, I have unexpectedly altered my entire programme, and, instead of going to Paestum, must start at once to Paris. This fortunately is Tuesday, and the French steamer sails for Marseilles at three o'clock. Go down at once and arrange for our passage, and be careful to let no one know by what route I leave Naples. On your way call at the telegraph office and see that this despatch is forwarded promptly; and do send me a close carriage immediately. I wish to avoid an unpleasant engagement, and shall drive to Torre del Greco, returning in time to meet you at the steamer instead of at this house. See that the baggage leaves here only time enough to be put aboard by three o'clock, and I shall not fail to join you there. When General Laurance calls, Mrs. Waul will instruct the servant to hand him the note, with the information that I have gone for a farewell drive around Naples."
Hurriedly completing her preparations, she entered the carriage, and was soon borne along the incomparably beautiful road that skirts the graceful curves of the Bay of Naples. But the glory of the sky, and the legendary charms of the picturesque scenery that surrounded her, appealed in vain to senses that were wrapped in the light of other days, that listened only to the new canticle which hope long dumb was now singing through all the sunny chambers of her heart.
Returning again and again to the perusal of the letters to assure herself that no contingency could arise to defraud her of her long-delayed recognition, she felt that the galling load of half her life had suddenly slipped from her weary shoulders; and the world and the future wore that magic radiance which greeted Miriam, as singing she looked back upon the destruction escaped, and on toward the redeemed inheritance awaiting her.
Reunion with her child, and the triumphant establishment of her unsullied parentage, glowed as the silver stars in her new sky; while a baleful lurid haze surrounded the thought of that dire punishment she was enabled to inflict upon the men who had trampled her prayers beneath their iron heels.
She recalled the image of the swarthy, supercilious, be-diamonded woman who sat that memorable night in the minister's box, claiming as husband the listless handsome man at her side; and as she pictured the dismay which would follow the sudden rending of the name of Laurance from the banker's daughter, and her helpless child, Mrs. Orme laughed aloud.
Slowly the day wore on, and General Laurance failed to call at the appointed hour to arrange the preliminaries of his marriage. His servant brought a note, which Mrs. Orme read when she reached the steamer, informing her that sudden and severe indisposition confined him to his bed, and requested an interview on the ensuing morning. Mrs. Waul had received the note and despatched in return that given her by her mistress.
In the magical glow of that cloudless golden afternoon Mrs. Orme saw the outlines of St. Elmo fade away, Capri vanish like a purple mist, Ischia and Procida melt insensibly into the blue of the marvellous bay; and watching the spark which trembled on the distant summit of Vesuvius like the dying eye of that cruel destiny from which she fled, the rescued happy woman exulted in the belief that she was at last sailing through serene seas.
Dreaming of her child, whose pure image hovered in the mirage hope wove before her—
"She seemed all earthly matters to forget, Of all tormenting lines her face was clear, Her wide brown eyes upon the goal were set, Calm and unmoved as though no foe were near."
Since the memorable day of Regina's visit to Central Park many weeks had elapsed, and one wild stormy evening in March she sat at the library table writing her translation of a portion of "Egmont."
The storm—now of sleet, now of snow—darkened the air, and the globes of the chandelier representing Pompeian lamps were lighted above the oval table, shedding a bright yet mellow glow over the warm quiet room.
Upon a bronze console stood a terra-cotta jar containing a white azalea in full bloom, and the fragrance of the flowers breathed like a benediction on the atmosphere; while in the tall glass beneath Mrs. Orme's portrait two half-blown snowy camellias nestled amid a fringe of geranium leaves.
Close to the fire, with her feet upon a Persian patterned cushion, Olga reclined in the luxurious easy chair that belonged to Mr. Palma's writing desk, and open on her lap lay a volume entitled "The Service of the Poor." The former brilliancy of her complexion seemed to have forsaken her for ever, banished by a settled sallowness; and she looked thin, feeble, dejected, passing her fingers abstractedly through the short curling ruddy hair that clustered around her forehead and upon her neck.
As if weary of the thoughts suggested by her book, she turned and looked at the figure writing under the chandelier, and by degrees she realized the change in the countenance, which three months before had been pure, serene, and bright as a moonbeam.
The keen and prolonged anguish which Regina had endured left its shadow, faint, vague, but unmistakable; and in the eyes lay gloom, and around the mouth patient yet melancholy lines, which hinted of a bitter struggle in which the calm-hearted girl died, and the wiser, sadder woman was born.
Her grief had been silent but deep for the loss of the dear friend who symbolized for her all that was noble, heroic, and godly in human nature; and her suffering was not assuaged by letters from Mrs. Lindsay, furnishing the sorrowful details of the last illness of the minister, and the dying words of tender devotion to the young girl whom he believed his betrothed bride.
Over these harrowing letters she had wept long and bitterly, accusing herself continually of her unworthiness in allowing another image to usurp the throne where the missionary should have reigned supreme; and the only consolation afforded was in the reflection that Douglass had died believing her faithful, happy in the perfect trust reposed in her. He had been buried on a sunny slope of the cemetery not far from the blue waves of the Pacific, and his mother remained in San Francisco with her sister, in whose house Mr. Lindsay had quietly breathed his life away, dying as he had lived, full of hope in Christ and trust in God.
Mrs. Palma and Olga only knew that Regina had lost a dear friend whom she had not seen for years, and none but her guardian understood the nature of the sacred tie that bound them.
Day and night she was haunted by memories of the kind face never more to be seen this side of the City of Peace, and when at length she received a photograph taken after death, in which, wan and emaciated, he seemed sleeping soundly, she felt that her life could never again be quite the same, and that the grey shadowy wings of Regret drooped low over her future pathway.
Accompanying the photograph was a brief yet loving note written by Mr. Lindsay the evening before his death; and to it were appended the lines from "Jacqueline":
"Nor shall I leave thee wholly. I shall be— An evening thought,—a morning dream to thee,— A silence in thy life, when through the night, The bell strikes, or the sun with sinking light, Smites all the empty windows. As there sprout Daisies, and dimpling tufts of violets, out Among the grass where some corpse lies asleep, So round thy life, where I lie buried deep, A thousand little tender thoughts shall spring, A thousand gentle memories wind and cling."
As if the opal were a talisman against the revival of reflections that seemed an insult to the dead, Regina wore the ring constantly; and whenever a thrill warned her of the old madness, her right hand caressed the jewels, seeking from their touch a renewal of strength.
Studiously she manoeuvred to avoid even casual meetings with her guardian, and except at the table, and in the presence of the family, she had not seen him for several weeks. Business engagements occupied him very closely; he was called away to Albany, to Boston, and once to Philadelphia, but no farewells were exchanged with his ward, and as if conscious of her sedulous efforts to avoid him, he appeared almost to ignore her presence.
During these sad days the girl made no attempt to analyze the estrangement which she felt was hourly increasing between them. She presumed he disapproved of her resolution to accept Mr. Lindsay, because he was poor, and offered no brilliant worldly advantages, such as her guardian had been trained to regard as paramount inducements in the grave matter of marriage; and secluding herself as much as possible she fought her battle with grief and remorse as best she might, unaided by sympathy. If she could only escape from that house, with her secret undiscovered, she thought that in time she would crush her folly and reinstate herself in her own respect.
After several interviews with Mr. Palma, the details of which Olga communicated to no one, she had consented to hold her scheme of the "Sisterhood" in abeyance for twelve months, and to accompany her mother to Europe, whither she had formerly been eager to travel; and Mrs. Palma, in accordance with instructions from her stepson, had perfected her preparations, so as to be able to leave New York at a day's notice.
Mrs. Carew had returned to the city, and now and then Mr. Palma mentioned her name, and delivered messages from her to his stepmother; but Olga abstained from her old badinage, and Regina imagined that her forbearance sprang from a knowledge of the engagement which she supposed must exist between them. She could not hear her name without a shiver of pain, and longed to get away before the affair assumed a sufficiently decided form to compel her to notice and discuss it. To-day, after watching her for some time, Olga said:
"You are weary, and pale almost to ghastliness. Put away your books, and come talk to me."
Regina sighed, laid down her pen, and came to the fireplace.
"I thought you promised to go very early to Mrs. St. Clare's and assist Valeria in arranging her bridal veil?"
"So I did, and it will soon be time for me to dress. How I dislike to go back into the gay world, where I have frisked so recklessly and so long. Do you know I long for the hour when I shall end this masquerade, and exchange silks and lace and jewellery for coarse blue gown, blue apron, and white cap?"
"Do you imagine the colour of your garments will change the complexion of your heart and mind? You remind me of Alexander's comment upon Antipater: 'Outwardly Antipater wears only white clothes, but within he is all purple.'"
"Ah! but my purple pride has been utterly dethroned, and it seems to me now that when I find rest in cloistered duties the quiet sacred seclusion will prove in some degree like the well Zem-Zem, in which Gabriel washed Mohammed's heart, filled it with faith, and restored it to his bosom. Until I am housed safely from the roar and gibes and mockery of the world, I shall not grow better; for here
'God sends me back my prayers, as a father Returns unoped the letters of a son Who has dishonoured him.'
"To conquer the world is nobler than to shun it, and to a nature such as yours, Olga, other lines in that poem ought to appeal with peculiar force:
'If thy rich heart is like a palace shattered, Stand up amid the ruins of thy heart, And with a calm brow front the solemn stars— A brave soul is a thing which all things serve.'"
The scheme which you are revolving now is one utterly antagonistic to the wishes of your mother, and God would not bless a step which involved the sacrifice of your duty to her."
"After a time mamma will approve; till then I shall be patient. She has consented for me to go to the Mother House at Kaiserswerth, and to some of the Deaconess establishments in Paris and Dresden, in order that I may become thoroughly acquainted with the esoteric working of the system. I am anxious also to visit the institution for training nurses at Liverpool, and unless we sail directly for Havre, we shall soon have an opportunity of gratifying my wishes."
Regina took the book from her hand, turned over the leaves, and read:
"'All probationers must be unbetrothed, and their heart still free.'... 'A short life history of the previous inward and outward experiences of the future Deaconess pupil. It must be composed and written by herself.' Olga, what would you do with your past?"
"I have buried it, dear. All the love of which I was capable I poured out, nay, I crushed the heart that held it; as the Syrian woman broke the precious box of costly ointment, anointing the feet of her God! When my clay idol fell I could not gather back the wasted trust and affection, and so, all—all is sepulchred in one deep grave. I have spent my wealth of spicery; the days of my anointing are for ever ended. To true deep-hearted women it is given to love once only, and all such scorn to set a second, lesser, lower idol, where formerly they bowed in worship. Even false gods hold sway long after their images are defiled, their temples overthrown, and as the Dodonian Groves still whisper of the old oracular days, to modern travellers, so a woman's idolatry leaves her no shrine, no libation, no reverence for new divinities; mutilated though she acknowledges her Hermae, no fresh image can profane their pedestal. Memory is the high priestess who survives the wreck of altars and of gods, and faithfully ministers amid the gloom of the soul's catacombs. I owe much to mamma, and something to Erle Palma, who is a nobler man than I have deemed him, less a bronze Macchiavelli, with a heart of quartz; and I shall never again as heretofore rashly defy their advice and wishes. But I know myself too well to hope for happiness in the gay frivolous insincere world, where I have fluttered out my butterfly existence of fashionable emptiness.
'I kissed the painted bloom off Pleasure's lips And found them pale as Pain's.'
I have bruised and singed my Psyche wings, and le beau monde has no new, strong pinions to replace those beat out in its hard tyrannous service. You think me cynical and misanthropic, but, dear, I believe I am only clear-eyed at last. If I had married him for whom I dared so much, and found too late that all the golden qualities I fondly dreamed that he possessed were only baser metal, gaudy tinsel that tarnished in my grasp, I am afraid it would have maddened me beyond hope of reclamation. I have made shipwreck; but a yet sadder fate might have overtaken me, and at least my soul has outridden the storm, thanks to your frail babyish hands, so desperately strong when they grappled that awful night with suicidal sin. Few women have suffered more keenly than I, and yet, in Murial's sweet patient words,—
'God has been good to me; you must not think That I despair. There is a quiet time Like evening in my soul. I have no heart.'"
There was more peace in Olga's countenance as she clasped one of Regina's hands in hers than her companion had yet seen, and after a moment, she continued:
"You know, dear, that we are only waiting for Congress to adjourn, in order to have Mr. Chesley's escort across the ocean, and he will arrive to-morrow. Erle Palma is exceedingly anxious that you should accompany us, and I trust your mother will sanction this arrangement, for I should grieve to leave you here. Perhaps you are not aware that your guardian has recently sold this house, and intends purchasing one on Murray Hill."
"Mr. Palma cannot possibly desire my departure half so earnestly as I do, and if I am not summoned to join my mother, I shall insist upon returning to the convent whence he took me seven years ago. There I can continue my studies, and there I prefer to remain until I can be restored to my mother. Olga, how soon will Mr. Palma be married?"
"I do not know. He communicates his plans to no one; but I may safely say, if he consulted merely his own wishes, it would not be long delayed. Until quite recently, I did not believe it possible that that man's cold, proud, ambitious, stony heart would bow before any woman, but human nature is a riddle which baffles us all—sometimes. I must dress for the wedding, and mamma will scold me if I am late. Kiss me, dear child. Ah, velvet violet eyes! if I find a resting-place in heaven, I shall always want even there to hover near you."
She kissed the girl's colourless cheek, and left her; and when the carriage bore Olga and her mother to Mrs. St. Clare's, Regina retreated to her own room, dreading lest her guardian should return and find her in the library.
At breakfast he had mentioned that he would dine at his club, in honour of some eminent judge from a distant State, to whom the members of the "Century" had tendered a dinner, but she endeavoured to avoid even the possibility of meeting him alone. Had she been less merciless in her self-denunciation, his avowed impatience to send her to her mother might have piqued her pride; but it only increased her scorn of her own fatal folly, and intensified her desire to leave his presence. Was it to gratify Mrs. Carew's extravagant taste that he had sold this elegant house, and designed the purchase of one yet more costly?
In the midst of her heart-ache she derived some satisfaction from the reflection, that at least Mr. Palma's wife would never profane the beautiful library, where his ward had spent so many happy days, and which was indissolubly linked with sacred memories of its master. Unwilling to indulge a reverie so fraught with pain and humiliation, she returned to her "Egmont," resuming her translation of a speech by "Claerchen." Ere long Hattie knocked at the door:
"Mr. Palma says, please to come down to the library; he wishes to speak to you."
"Ask him if he will not be so kind as to wait till morning? Say I shall feel very much obliged if he will excuse me tonight."
In a few minutes she returned:
"He is sorry he must trouble you to come down this evening, as he leaves home to-morrow."
She went to the drawer that contained all her souvenirs of Mr. Lindsay, and lingered some minutes, looking sorrowfully at the photograph; then passed her lips to the melancholy image, and as if strengthened by communion with the dead face, went down to the library.
Mr. Palma was walking slowly up and down the long room, and had paused in front of the snowy azalea. As she approached he put out his hand and took hers, for the first time since they had sat together in the Park.
"How deliciously this perfumes the room, and it must be yours, for no other member of the household cares for flowers, and I see a cluster of the same blossoms in your hair."
"I had forgotten that Olga fastened them there this afternoon. I bought it from the greenhouse in —— Street, where I often get bouquets to place under mother's picture. Azaleas were Mr. Lindsay's favourite flowers, and that fact tempted me to make the purchase. We had just such a one as this at the parsonage, and on his birthday we covered the pot with white cambric, fringed the edge with violets, and set it in the centre of the breakfast-table; and the bees came in and swung over it."
She had withdrawn her hand, and folding her fingers, leaned her face on them, a position which she often assumed when troubled. Her left hand was uppermost, and the opal and diamonds seemed pressed against her lips, though she was unconscious of their close proximity. Mr. Palma broke off a cluster of three half-expanded flowers, twisted the stem into the buttonhole of his coat, and answered coldly:
"Flowers are always associated in my mind with early recollections of my mother, who had her own greenhouse and conservatories. They appear to link you with the home of your former guardian, and the days that were happier than those you speed here."
"That dear parsonage was my happiest home, and I shall always cherish its precious memories."
"Happier than a residence under my roof has been? Be so good as to look at me; it is the merest courtesy to do so, when one is being spoken to."
"Pardon me, sir, I was not instituting a comparison; and while I am grateful for the kindness and considerate hospitality shown me by all in this pleasant house, it has never seemed to me quite the home that I found the dear old parsonage."
"Because you prefer country to city life? Love to fondle white rabbits, and pigeons, and stand ankle deep in clover blooms?"
"I daresay that is one reason; for my tastes are certainly very childish still."
"Then of course you regret the necessity which brought you to reside here?"
He bent an unusually keen look upon her, but she quietly met his eyes, and answered without hesitation:
"You must forgive me, sir, if your questions compel me to sacrifice courtesy to candour. I do regret that I ever came to live in this city; and I believe it would have been better for me, if I had remained at V—— with Mr. Hargrove and the Lindsays."
"You mean that you would have been happier with them than with me?"
As she thought of the keen suffering her love for him had entailed upon her, of the dreary days and sleepless nights she had recently passed in that elegant luxurious home, her eyes deepened in tint, saddened in expression, and she said:
"You have been very kind and generous to me, and I gratefully appreciate all you have done; but if you insist on an answer, I must confess I was happier two years ago than I am now."
"Thank you. The truth, no matter how unflattering, is always far more agreeable to me than equivocation, or disingenuous-ness. Does my ward believe that it will conduce to her future happiness to leave my roof, and find a residence elsewhere?"
"I know I should be happier with my mother."
"Then I congratulate myself as the bearer of delightful tidings Regina, it gives me pleasure to relieve you from your present disagreeable surroundings, by informing you of the telegram received to-day by cable from your mother. It was dated two days ago at Naples, and is as follows: 'Send Regina to me by the first steamer to Havre. I will meet her in Paris.'"
Involuntarily the girl exclaimed:
The joyful expression of her countenance rendered it impossible to doubt the genuineness of her satisfaction at the intelligence; and though Mr. Palma kept close guard over his own features lest they should betray his emotion, an increasing paleness attested the depth of his feelings.
"How soon can I go?"
"In two days a steamer sails for Havre, and I have already engaged a passage for you. Doubtless you are aware that Mrs. Palma and Olga hold themselves in readiness to start at any hour, and your friend and admirer Mr. Chesley will go over in the same steamer; consequently with so chivalrous an escort you cannot fail to have a pleasant voyage. Since you are so anxious to escape from my guardianship, I may be pardoned for emulating your frankness, and acknowledging that I am heartily glad you will soon cease to be my ward. Mr. Chesley is ambitious of succeeding to my authority, and I have relinquished my claim as guardian, and referred him to your mother, to whose hands I joyfully resign you. A residence in Europe will, I hope, soon obliterate the unpleasant associations connected with my house."
"A lifetime would never obliterate the memory of all your kindness to me, or of some hours I have passed in this beautiful library. For all you have done I now desire, Mr. Palma, to thank you most sincerely."
She looked up at the grave, composed face so handsome in its regular, high-bred outlines, and her mouth trembled, while her deep eyes grew misty.
"I desire no thanks for the faithful discharge of my duty as a guardian: my conscience acquits me fully, and that is the reward I value most. If you really indulge any grateful sentiments on the eve of your departure, oblige me by singing something. I bought that organ, hoping that now and then when my business permitted me to spend a quiet evening at home, I might enjoy your music; but you sedulously avoid touching it when I am present. This is the last opportunity you will have, for I must meet Mr. Chesley at noon to-morrow in Baltimore, and thence I go on to Cincinnati, where I shall be detained, until the steamer has sailed. After to-night I shall not see my ward again."
They were standing near the azalea, and Regina suddenly put her hand on the back of a chair. To see him no more after this evening—to know that the broad ocean rolled between—that she might never again look upon the face that was so inexpressibly dear;—all this swept over her like a bitter murderous wave, drowning the sweetness of her life, and she clung to the chair.
She was not prepared for this sudden separation, but though his eyes were riveted upon her she bore it bravely. A faint numb sensation stole over her, and a dark shadow seemed to float through the room, yet her low voice was steady, when she said:
"I am sorry I disappointed any pleasant anticipations you indulged with reference to the organ, which has certainly been a source of much comfort to me. I have felt very timid about singing before you, sir; but if it will afford you the least pleasure, I am willing to do the best of which I am capable."
"You sang quite successfully before a large audience at Mrs. Brompton's, and displayed sufficient self-possession."
"But those were strangers, and the opinion of those with whom we live is more important, their criticism is more embarrassing."
"I believe I was present, and heard you on that occasion."
She moved away to the organ, and sat down, glad of an excuse, for her limbs trembled.
"Regina, what was that song you sang for little Llora Carew the night before she left us? Indeed there were two, one with the other without an accompaniment?"
"You were not here at that time."
"No matter; what were they? The child fancies them exceedingly, and I promised to get the words for her."
"Kuecken's 'Schlummerlied,' and a little 'Cradle Song' by Wallace."
"Be so good as to let me hear them."
Would Mrs. Carew sing them for him when she was far away, utterly forgotten by her guardian? The thought was unutterably bitter, and it goaded her, aided her in the ordeal.
With nerves strung to their extreme tension, she sang as he requested, and all the while her rich mellow voice rolled through the room, he walked very slowly from one end of the library to the other. She forced herself to sing every verse, and when she concluded he was standing behind her chair. He put his hands on her shoulders, and prevented her rising, for just then he was unwilling she should see his countenance, which he feared would betray the suffering he was resolved to conceal.
After a moment, he said:
"Thank you. I shall buy the music in order to secure the words. Lily——"
He paused, bent down, and rested his chin on the large coil of hair at the back of her head, and though she never knew it his proud lips touched the glossy silken mass.
"Lily, if I ask a foolish trifle of you, will you grant it, as a farewell gift to your guardian?"
"I think, sir, you do not doubt that I will."
"It is a trivial thing, and will cost you nothing. The night on which you sang those songs to Llora is associated with something which I treasure as peculiarly precious; and I merely wish to request that you will never sing them again for any one unless I give you permission."
Swiftly she recalled the fact that on that particular evening he had escorted Mrs. Carew to a "German" at Mrs. Quimbey's, and she explained his request by the supposition that her songs to Mrs. Carew's child commemorated the date of his betrothal to the grey-eyed mother. Could she bear even to think of them in coming years?
She hastily pushed back the ivory stops, and shaking off his detaining palms, rose:
"I am sorry that I cannot do something of more importance to oblige my kind guardian; for this trifle involves not the slightest sacrifice of feeling, and I would gladly improve a better opportunity of attesting my gratitude. You may rest assured I shall never sing those words again under any circumstances. Do not buy the music; I will leave my copies for Llora, and you and her mother can easily teach her the words."
"Thanks! You will please place the music on the organ, and when I come back from Cincinnati it will remind me. I hope your mother will be pleased with you progress in French German, and music. Your teachers furnish very flattering reports, and I have enclosed them with some receipts, bills, and other valuable papers in this large sealed envelope, which you must give to your mother as soon as you see her."
He went to his desk, took out the package, and handed it to her. Seating himself at the table where she generally wrote and studied, he pointed to a chair on the opposite side, and mechanically she sat down.
"Perhaps you may recollect that some months ago, Mrs. Orme wrote me she was particularly desirous you should be trained to read well. It is a graceful accomplishment, especially for a lady, and I ordered a professor of elocution to give you instruction twice a week. I hope you have derived benefit from his tuition, as he has fitted one or two professional readers for the stage, and I should dislike to have your mother feel disappointed in any of your attainments. Now that I am called upon to render an account of my stewardship, I trust you will pardon me, if I examine you a little. Here is Jean Ingelow, close at hand, and I must trouble you to allow me an opportunity of testing your proficiency."
The book which she had been reading that day lay on the table, and taking it up he leisurely turned over the leaves. A premonitory dread seized her, and she wrung her hands, which were lying cold in her lap.
"Ah!—here is your mark; three purple pansies, crushed in the middle of 'Divided,'—staining the delicate cream-tinted paper with their dark blood. Probably you are familiar with this poem, consequently can interpret it for me without any great effort. Commence at the first, and let me see what value Professor Chrysostom's training possesses. Not too fast; recollect Pegasus belongs to poets,—never to readers."
He leaned across the marble table, and placed the open book before her.
Did he intentionally torture her? With those bright eyes reading her unwomanly and foolish heart, was he amusing himself, as an entomologist impales a feeble worm, and from its writhing deduces the exact character of its nervous and muscular anatomy?
The thought struck her more severely than the stroke of a lash would have done, and turning the page to the light, she said quickly:
"'Divided' is not at all dramatic, and as an exercise is not comparable to 'High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire,' or 'Songs of Seven,' or even that most exquisite of all, 'Afternoon at a Parsonage.'"
She dared not refuse lest he should despise her utterly, interpreting correctly her reluctance. For an instant the print danced before her, but the spirit of defiance was fast mastering her trepidation, and she sat erect, and obeyed him.
Thrusting one hand inside his vest, where it rested tightly clenched over his heart, Mr. Palma sat intently watching her, glad of the privilege afforded him to study the delicate features. Her excessive paleness reminded him of the words:
"That white, white face, set in a night of hair,"
and though the chastening touch of sorrow and continued heart-ache—that most nimble of all chisellers—had strangely matured the countenance which when it entered that house was as free from lines and shadows as an infant's, it still preserved its almost child-like purity and repose.
The proud fair face, with its firm yet dainty scarlet lips, baffled him; and when he reflected that a hundred contingencies might arise to shut it from his view in future years he suddenly compressed his mouth to suppress a groan. His vanity demanded an assurance that her heart was as entirely his as he hoped, yet he knew that he loved her all the more tenderly, and reverently, because of the true womanly delicacy that prompted her to shroud her real feelings, with such desperate tenacity.
She read the poem with skill and pathos, but no undue tremor of the smooth, deliciously sweet voice betrayed aught save the natural timidity of a tyro, essaying her first critical trial. Tonight she wore a white shawl draped in statuesque folds over her shoulders and bust, and the snowy flowers in her raven hair were scarcely purer than her full forehead, borne up by the airy arched black bows that had always attracted the admiration of her fastidious guardian; and as the soft radiance of the clustered lamps fell upon her, she looked as sweet and lovely a woman as ever man placed upon the sacred hearth of his home, a holy priestess to keep it bright, serene, and warm.
On that same day, but a few hours earlier, she had perused these pages, wondering how the unknown gifted poetess beyond the sea had so accurately etched the suffering in her own young heart, the loneliness and misery that seemed coiled in the future like serpents in a lair. Now, holding that bruised palpitating heart under the steel-clad heel of pride, she was calmly declaiming that portraiture of her own wretchedness, as any elocutionist might a grand passage from the "Antigone," or "Prometheus." Not a throb of pain was permitted to ripple the rich voice that uttered:
"But two are walking apart for ever, And wave their hands in a mute farewell."
Farther on, nearing the close, Mr. Palma observed a change in the countenance, a quick gleam in the eyes, a triumphant ring in the deep and almost passionate tone that cried exultingly:
"Only my heart to my heart will show it As I walk desolate day by day."
He leaned forward and touched the volume:
"Thank you. Give me the book. I should render the concluding verses very much as I heard them recently from my fair client, Mrs. Carew—so."
In his remarkably clear, full, musical and carefully modulated voice he read the two remaining verses, then closed the volume and looked coolly across the table at the girl.
With what a flash her splendid eyes challenged his, and how proudly her tender lips curled, as with pitiless scorn she answered:
"Not so—oh, not so. Jean Ingelow would never recognize her own jewelled handiwork. She meant this, and any earnest woman who prized a faithful lover could not fail to read it aright."
Her eyes sank till they rested on her ring, and slipping it to and fro upon her slender finger till the diamonds sparkled, she repeated with indescribable power and pathos:
"And yet I know, past all doubting, truly,— A knowledge greater than grief can dim— I know, as he loved, he will love me duly, Yea better, e'en better than I love him. And as I walk by the vast calm river, The awful river so dread to see, I say 'Thy breadth and thy depth for ever— Are bridged by his thoughts that cross to me.'"
"Regina, do you interpret that the River of Death?"
She pointed to the jewels on her hand, and the blue eyes cold as steel met his.
"Only the river of death could have 'divided' Douglass and me."
A frown overshadowed his massive brow, but he merely added composedly:
"I did not suspect until to-night that you were endowed with your mother's histrionic talent. Some day you will rival her as an actress, and at least I may venture to congratulate you upon the fact that she will scarcely be disappointed in your dramatic skill."
For nearly a moment, neither spoke.
"Mr. Palma, you have no objection, I hope, to my carrying mother's portrait with me?"
"It is undeniably your property, but since you will so soon possess the original, I would suggest the propriety of leaving the picture where it is, until your mother decides where she will reside."
"I understood that you had sold this house, and feared that in the removal it might be injured."
"It will be carefully preserved with my own pictures, and if your mother wishes it forwarded I will comply with her instructions. All the business details of your voyage I have arranged with Mrs. Palma and Mr. Chesley; and you have only to pack your trunks and bid adieu to such friends as you may deem worthy of a farewell visit. Have you a copy of Jean Ingelow?"
"Then oblige me by accepting mine. I have no time for poetry."
He took the book to his desk, wrote upon the fly leaf: "Lily, March the 10th;" then marked "Divided," and returning to the table held the volume toward her.
"Thank you, but indeed, sir, I do not wish to accept it. I much prefer that you should retain it."
He inclined his head, and replaced the book on the marble slab. She rose, and he saw the colour slowly ebbing from her lips.
"Mr. Palma, I hope you will not deny me one great favour. I cannot leave my dog; I must have my Hero."
"Indeed! I thought you had quite forgotten his existence. You have ceased to manifest any interest in him."
"Yes, to manifest, but not to feel. You took him from me, and I was unwilling to annoy you with useless petitions and complaints. You assured me he was well cared for, and that I need not expect to have him while I remained here; now I am going away for ever, I want him. You gave him to me once; he is mine; and you have no right to withhold him any longer."
"Circumstances have materially altered. When you were a little girl I sent you a dog to romp with. Now you are a young lady preparing for European conquests, and having had his day, Hero must retire to the rustic shade of your childhood."
"Years have not changed my feeling for all that I love."
"Are you sure, Lily, that you have not changed since you came to live in New York?"
"Not in my attachment to all that brightened my childhood, and Hero is closely linked with the dear happy time I spent at the parsonage. Mr. Palma, I want him."
Her guardian smiled, and played with his watch chain.
"Officers of the ocean steamers dislike to furnish passage for dogs; and they are generally forwarded by sailing vessels. My ward, I regret to refuse you, particularly when we are about to say good-bye, possibly for ever. Wait six months, and if at the expiration of that time, you still desire to have him cross the ocean, I pledge myself to comply with your wishes. You know I never break a promise."
"Where is Hero? May I not at least see him before I go?"
"Just now he is at a farm on Staten Island, and I am sorry I cannot gratify you in such a trivial matter. Trust me to take care of him."
Her heart was slowly sinking, for she saw him glance at the clock, and knew that it was very late.
"I will bring you good tidings of your pet, when I see you in Europe. If I live, I shall probably cross the ocean some time during the summer; and as my business will oblige me to meet your mother, I shall hope to see my ward during my tour, which will be short."
He was watching her very closely, and instead of pleased surprise, discerned the expression of dread, the unmistakable shiver that greeted the announcement of his projected trip. After all, had he utterly mistaken her feeling, flattered himself falsely?
She supposed he referred to his bridal tour, and the thought that when they next met he would be Brunella Carew's husband, goaded her to hope that such torture might be averted by seeing him no more.
While both stood sorrowful and perplexed, the front door bell rang sharply. Soon after Terry entered, with a large official envelope, sealed with red wax.
"From Mr. Rodney, sir."
"Yes, I was expecting it. Tell Octave I must have a cup of coffee at daylight, and Farley must not fail to have the coupe ready to take me to the depot. Let the gas burn in the hall to-night. That is all."
Mr. Palma broke the seals, glanced at the heading of several sheets of legal cap, and laid the whole on his desk.
"Regina, all the money belonging to you I shall leave in Mrs. Palma's hands, and she will transmit it to you. Mr. Chesley will take charge of you to-morrow, soon after his arrival, and in the chivalric new guardian I presume the former grim custodian will speedily be forgotten. I have some letters to write, and as I shall leave home before you are awake, I must bid you good-bye to-night. Is there anything you wish to say to me?"
Twice she attempted to speak, but no sound was audible.
Mr. Palma came close to her, and held out his hand. Silently she placed hers in it, and when he took the other, holding both in a warm tightening clasp, she felt as if the world were crumbling beneath her unsteady feet. Her large soft eyes sought his handsome pale face, wistfully, hungrily, almost despairingly, and oh, how dear he was to her at that moment! If she could only put her arms around his neck, and cling to him, feeling as she had once done the touch of his cheek pressing hers; but there was madness in the thought.
"Although you are so anxious to leave my care and my house, I hope my ward will think kindly of me when far distant. It is my misfortune that you gave your fullest confidence and affection, to your guardian Mr. Hargrove; but since you were committed to nay hands, I have endeavoured faithfully, conscientiously, to do my duty in every respect. In some things it has cost me dear,—how dear I think you will never realize. If I should live to see you again, I trust I shall find you the same earnest, true-hearted, pure girl that you leave me, for in your piety and noble nature I have a deep and abiding faith. My dear ward, good-bye."
The beautiful face with its mournful tender eyes told little of the fierce agony that seemed consuming her, as she gazed into the beloved countenance for the last time.
"Good-bye, Mr. Palma. I have no words to thank you for all your care and goodness."
"Is that all, Lily? Years ago, when I left you at the parsonage, looking as if your little heart would break, you said, 'I will pray for you every night.' Now you leave me without a tear and with no promise to remember me."
Tenderly his low voice appealed to her heart, as he bent his head so close that his hair swept across her brow.
She raised the hand that held hers, suddenly kissed it with an overwhelming passionate fervour, and holding it against her cheek, murmured almost in a whisper:
"God knows I have never ceased to pray for you, and, Mr. Palma, as long as I live, come what may to both of us, I shall never fail in my prayers for you."
She dropped his hand, and covered her face with her own.
He stretched his arms toward her, all his love in his fine eyes, so full of a strange tenderness, a yearning to possess her entirely, but he checked himself, and, taking one of the hands, led her to the door. Upon the threshold she rallied, and looked up:
"Good-bye, Mr. Palma."
He drew her close to his side, unconscious that he pressed her fingers so tight that the small points of the diamonds cut into the flesh.
"God bless you, Lily. Think of me sometimes."
They looked in each other's eyes an instant, and she walked away. He turned and closed the door, and she heard the click of the lock inside. Blind and tearless, like one staggering from a severe blow, she reached her own room, and fell heavily across the foot of her bed.
Through the long hours of that night she lay motionless, striving to hush the moans of her crushed heart, and wondering why such anguish as hers was not fatal. Staring at the wall, she could not close her eyes, and the only staff that supported her in the ordeal was the consciousness that she had fought bravely, had not betrayed her humiliating secret.
Toward dawn she rose, and opened her window. The sleet had ceased, and the carriage was standing before the door. An impulse she could not resist drove her out into the hall, to catch one more glimpse of the form so precious to her. She heard a door open on the hall beneath, and recognized her guardian's step. He paused, and she heard him talking to his stepmother, bidding her adieu. His last words were deep and gentle in their utterance.
"Be very tender and patient with Olga. Wounds like hers heal slowly. Take good care of my ward. God bless you all."
Descending the steps she saw him distinctly, enveloped in an overcoat buttoned so close that it showed the fine proportions of his tall figure; and as he stopped to light his cigar at a gas globe which a bronze Atalanta held in a niche half way up the stairs, his nobly formed head and gleaming forehead impressed itself for ever on her memory.
Slowly he went down, and leaning over the balustrade to watch the vanishing figure, the withered azaleas slipped from her hair, and floated like a snowflake down, down to the lower hall.
Fearful of discovery she shrank back, but not before he had seen the drifting flowers, and one swift upward glance showed him the blanched suffering face pale as a summer cloud, retreating from observation. Stooping, he snatched the bruised wilted petals that seemed a fit symbol of the drooping flower he was leaving behind him, kissed them tenderly, and thrust them into his bosom.
The blessed assurance so long desired seemed nestling in their perfumed corollas making all his future fragrant; and how little she dreamed of the precious message they breathed from her heart to his!
"What could he do indeed? A weak white girl Held all his heartstrings in her small white hand; His hopes, and power, and majesty were hers, And not his own."
"No, mother; no. Not less, but more beautiful; not so pale as when you hang over me at the convent, baptizing me with hot, fast dripping tears. Now a delicate flush like the pink of an apple bloom overspreads your cheeks; and your eyes, once so sad, eyes which I remember as shimmering stars, burning always on the brink of clouds, and magnified and misty through a soft veil of April rain, are brighter, happier eyes than those I have so fondly dreamed of. Oh, mother! mother! Draw me close, hold me tight. Earth has no peace so holy as the blessed rest in a mother's clasping arms. After the long winter of separation, it is so sweet to bask in your presence, thawing like a numb dormouse in the sunshine of May. I knew I should find joy in the reunion, but how deep, how full, anticipation failed to paint; and only the blessed reality has taught me."
On the carpet at her mother's feet, with her head in her mother's lap and her arms folded around her waist, Regina had thrown herself, feasting her eyes with the beauty of the face smiling down upon her. It was the second day after her arrival in Paris, and hour after hour she had poured into eagerly listening ears the recital of her life at the quiet parsonage, at the stately mansion on Fifth Avenue; and yet the endless stream of talk flowed on, and neither mother nor child took cognizance of the flight of time.