Of her past the girl withheld only the acknowledgment of her profound interest in Mr. Palma, and when questioned concerning his opposition to her engagement with Mr. Lindsay she had briefly announced her belief that he was hastening the preparations for his marriage with Mrs. Carew. Of him she spoke only in quiet terms of respect and gratitude, and her mother never suspected the spasm of pain that the bare mention of his name aroused.
Thus far no allusion had been hazarded to the long-veiled mystery of her parentage, and Mrs. Orme wondered at the exceeding delicacy with which her daughter avoided every reference that might have been construed into an inquiry. As the soft motherly hand passed caressingly over the forehead resting so contentedly on her knee, Regina continued:
"In all the splendid imagery that makes 'Aurora Leigh' deathless, nothing affected me half so deeply as the portrait of the motherless child; and often when I could not sleep, I have whispered in the wee sma' hours:
"I felt a mother want about the world, And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb Left out at night, in shutting up the fold, As restless as a nest-deserted bird, Grown chill through something being away, though what— It knows not. So mothers have God's license to be missed."
"My guardians were noble, kind, high-toned, honourable gentlemen, and I owe them thanks, but ah! a girl should be ward only to those who gave her being; and, mother, brown-eyed mother, sweet and holy, it would have been better for your child had she shared her past with none but you. Do I weary you with my babble? If so, lay your hand upon my mouth, and I will watch your dear face, and be silent."
In answer, the mother stooped and kissed many times the perfect lips that smiled at the pressure; but the likeness to a mouth dangerously sweet, treacherously beautiful, mocked her, and Regina saw her turn away her eyes, and felt rather than heard the strangled moan.
"Mother-kisses, the sweetest relic of Eden that followed Eve into a world of pain. All these dreary years I have kept your memory like a white angel-image, set it up for worship, offered it the best part of myself; and I know I have grown jealously exacting, where you are concerned. I studied because I wished you to be proud of me; I practised simply that my music might be acceptable and pleasant to you; and when people praised me, said I was pretty, I rejoiced that one day I might be considered worthy of you. Something wounded me when at last we met. Let me tell you, my dearest, that you may take out the thorn, and heal the grieved spot. The day I came,—how long ago? for I am in a delicious dream, have been eating the luscious lotos of realized hope,—the day I came, and saw a new, glorious sun shining from my mother's eyes, you ran to meet me. I hear you again, 'My baby! my baby!' as you rushed across the floor. You opened your arms, and when you clasped me to your bosom you bent my head back, and gazed at me—oh! how eagerly, hungrily; and I saw your face turn ghastly white, and a great agony sweep across it, and the lips that kissed me were cold and quivering. To me it was all sweet as heaven; but the cup of delight I drained, had bitter drops for you. Mother, tell me, were you disappointed in your daughter?"
"No, darling; no. The little blue-eyed child has grown into a woman, of whom the haughtiest mother in the land might be proud. My darling is all I wish her."
"Ah, mother! the flattery is inexpressibly sweet, falling like dew on parched leaves; but the eyes of your idolatrous baby have grown very keen, and I know that the sight of me brings you a terrible pain you cannot hide. Last night, when Mrs. Waul made me shake out my hair to show its length, and praised it and my eyebrows, you dropped my hand, and walked away; and in the mirror on the wall, I saw your countenance shaken with grief. What is it? We have been apart so long, do take me into your heart fully; tell me why you look at me, and turn aside and shiver?"
Her clasping arms tightened about her mother's waist, and after a short silence, Mrs. Orme exclaimed:
"It is true. It has always been so. From the hour when you were born, and your little round head black with silky locks was first laid upon my arm, your face stabbed me like a dagger, and your eyes are blue steel that murder my peace. My daughter, my daughter, you are the exact counterpart, the beautiful image of your father! It is because I see in your eyes so wonderfully blue the reproduction of his, and about your mouth and brows the graceful lines of his, that I shudder while I look at you. Ah, my darling! is it not hard that your beauty should sting like a serpent the mother whose blood filled your veins? The very tones of your voice, the carriage of your head, even the peculiar shape of your fingers and nails, are his—all his! Oh, my baby! my white lamb! my precious little one, if I had not fed you from my bosom—cradled you in my arms—realized that you were indeed flesh of my flesh—my own unfortunate, unprotected disowned baby, I believe I should hate you!"
She bowed her head in her hands, and groaned aloud.
"Forgive me, mother. If I had imagined the real cause, I would never have inquired. Let it pass. Tell me nothing that will bring such a storm of grief as this. God knows I wish I resembled you—only you."
She covered her mother's hands with kisses, and tears gathered in her eyes.
"No; God knew best, and in His wisdom, His mercy for widowhood and orphanage, He stamped your father's unmistakable likeness indelibly upon you. Providentially a badge of honourable parentage was set upon the deserted infant, which neither fraud, slander, nor perjury can ever remove. The laws God set to work in nature defy the calumny, the corruption, the vindictive persecution and foul injustice cloaked under legal statutes, human decrees; and though a world swore to the contrary, your face proclaims your father, and his own image will hunt him through all his toils and triumphantly confront him with his crime. No jury ever empanelled could see you side by side with your father, and dare to doubt that you were his child! No, bitter as are the memories your countenance recalls, I hold it the keenest weapon in the armoury of my revenge."
"Let us talk of something that grieves and agitates you less. May I sing you a song always associated with your portrait, an invocation sacred to my lovely mother?"
"No, sometime you must know the history I have carefully hidden from all but Mr. Palma and your dead guardian; and now that the bitter waves are already roaring over me, why should I delay the narration? It was not my purpose to tell you thus, I though it would too completely unnerve me, and I wrote the story of my life in the form of a drama, and called it Infelice! But the recital is in Mr. Chesley's hands for perusal; and I shall feel stronger, less oppressed, when I have talked freely with you. Kiss me, my pure darling, my own little nameless treasure, my fatherless baby; for indeed I need the elixir of my daughter's love to keep me human when I dwell upon the past."
She strained the girl to her heart, then put her away and rose. Opening a strong metallic box concealed in a drawer of the dressing-table, she took out several papers, some yellowed with age, and blurred with tears, and while Regina still sat, with her arm resting on the chair, Mrs. Orme locked the door, and began to walk slowly up and down the room.
"One moment, mother. I want to know why my heart is drawn so steadily and so powerfully toward Mr. Chesley, and why something in his face reminds me tenderly of you? Are you quite willing to tell me why he seems so deeply interested in me?"
"Regina, have you never guessed? Orme Chesley is my uncle, my mother's only brother."
"Oh, how rejoiced I am! I hoped he was in some mysterious way related to us, but I feared to lean too much upon the pleasant thought, lest it proved a disappointment. My own uncle? What a blessing! Does Mr. Palma know it?"
"Mr. Palma first suspected and traced the relationship, and it was from him that Uncle Orme learned of my existence, for it appears he believed me dead. Mr. Palma has long held all the tangled threads of my miserable history in his skilful hands, and to his prudent, patient care you and I shall owe our salvation. For years he has been to me the truest, wisest, kindest friend a deserted and helpless woman ever found."
Regina sank her head upon the chair, afraid that her radiant face might betray the joy his praises kindled; and while she walked, Mrs. Orme began her recital:
"My grandfather, Hubert Chesley, was from Alsace; my grandmother originally belonged to the French family of Ormes. They had two children, Orme the eldest, and Minetta, who while very young married a travelling musician from Switzerland, named Leon Merle. A year after she became his wife her father died, and the family resolved to emigrate to America. On the voyage, which was upon a crowded emigrant ship, I was born; and a few hours after my mother died. They buried her at sea, and would to God I too had been thrown into the waves, for then this tale of misery would never torture innocent ears. But children who have only a heritage of woe, and ought to die, fight for existence defying adversity, and thrive strangely; so I lucklessly survived.
"My first recollections are of a pauper quarter in a large city, where my father supported us scantily by teaching music. Subsequently we removed to several villages, and finally settled in one where were located a college for young gentlemen, and a seminary for girls. In the latter my father was employed as musical professor, and here we lived very comfortably until he died of congestion of the lungs. Uncle Orme at that time was in feeble health, and unable to contribute toward our maintenance, and soon after father's death he went out to California to the mining region. I was about ten years old when he left, and recollect him as a pale, thin, delicate man. In those days it cost a good deal of money to reach the gold mines, and this alone prevented him from taking us with him.
"We were very poor, but grandmother was foolishly, inconsistently proud, and though compelled to sew for our daily bread, she dressed me in a style incompatible with our poverty, and contrived to send me to school. Finally her eyes failed, and with destitution staring open-jawed upon us, she reluctantly consented to do the washing and mending for three college boys. She was well educated, and inordinately vain of her blood, and how this galling necessity humiliated her! We of course could employ no servant, and once when she was confined to her bed by inflammatory rheumatism, I was sent to the college to carry the clothes washed and ironed that week. It was the only time I was ever permitted to cross the campus, but it sufficed to wreck my life. On that luckless day I first met Cuthbert Laurance, then only nineteen, while I was not yet fifteen. Think of it, my darling; three years younger than you are now, and you a mere child still! While he paid me the money due, he looked at and talked to me. Oh, my daughter! my daughter! as I see you at this instant, with your violet eyes, watching me from under those slender, black arches, it seems the very same regular, aristocratic, beautiful face that met me that wretched afternoon, beneath the branching elms that shaded the campus! So courteous, so winning, so chivalric, so indescribably handsome did he present himself to my admiring eyes. I was young, pretty, an innocent, ignorant, foolish child, and I yielded to the fascination he exerted.
"Day by day the charm deepened, and he sought numerous opportunities of seeing me again; gave me books, brought me flowers, became the king of my waking thoughts, the god of my dreams. In a cottage near us lived a widow, Mrs. Peterson; whose only child Peleg, a rough overgrown lad, was a journeyman carpenter, and quite skilful in carving wooden figures. We had grown up together, and he seemed particularly fond of and kind to me, rendering me many little services which a stalwart man can perform for a delicate petted young creature such as I was then.
"As grandmother's infirmity increased, and her strict supervision relaxed, I met Cuthbert more frequently, but as yet without her knowledge; and gradually be won my childish heart completely. His father, General Rene Laurance, was a haughty wealthy planter residing in one of the Middle States, and Cuthbert was his only child, the pride of his heart and home. Those happy days seem a misty dream to me now, I have so utterly outgrown the faith that lent a glory to that early time. Cuthbert assured me of his affection, swore undying allegiance to me; and like many other silly, trusting, inexperienced, doomed young fools, I believed every syllable that he whispered in my ears.
"One Sabbath when grandmother supposed I was saying my prayers in the church, which I had left home to attend, I stole away to our trysting place in a neighbouring wood, that bordered a small stream. Oh, the bitter fruits of that filial disobedience! The accursed harvest that ripened for me, that it seems I shall never have done garnering! Clandestine interviews concealed, because I knew prohibition would follow discovery! I am a melancholy monument of the sin of deception; and that child who deliberately snatches the reins of control from the hands where God decrees them, and dares substitute her will and judgment for those of parents or guardians, drives inevitably on to ruin, and will live to curse her folly. That day Peleg was fishing, and surprised us at the moment when Cuthbert was bending down to kiss me. Having heard all that passed, he waited till evening, and finding me in the little garden attached to our house, he savagely upbraided me for preferring Cuthbert's society to his, claimed me as his, by right of devotion; and when I spurned him indignantly, and forbade him to speak to me in future, he became infuriated, rushed into the cottage, and disclosed all that he had discovered."
"I knew it! I felt assured you must always have loathed him!" exclaimed Regina, with kindling eyes; and catching her mother's dress as she passed beside her.
"Why, my darling?"
"Because he was coarse, brutal! When he dared to call you 'Minnie,' if I had been a man I would have strangled him!"
Her mother kissed her, and answered sadly:
"And yet he loved me infinitely better than the man for whom I repulsed, nay insulted him. He was poor, unpolished, but at that time he would have died to defend me from harm. It was reserved for his courtly, high-bred, elegant rival to betray the trust he won! The storm that followed Peleg's revelation was fierce, and availing herself of his jealous surveillance, grandmother allowed me no more stolen interviews. After a fortnight, Cuthbert came one day and demanded permission to see me, alleging that we were betrothed, and that he would give satisfactory explanations of his conduct. Grandmother was obdurate, but unfortunately I ventured in, and, seizing me in his arms, he swore that all the world should not separate us. To her he explained that his father desired him to marry an heiress who lived not far from the paternal mansion, and possessed immense estates, upon which the covetous eyes of the Laurances' had long been fixed; but until he completed his collegiate course matters must be delayed. He protested that he could love no one but me, and solemnly vowed that as soon as freed by his majority from parental control he would make me his wife. I was sufficiently insane to believe it all; but grandmother was wiser, and sternly interdicted his visits.
"A month went by, during which Peleg persecuted me with professions of love, and offers of marriage. How I detested him, and by contrast how godlike appeared my refined, polished, proud young lover! At length Cuthbert wrote to me, entrusting the letter to a college chum Gerbert Audre, but Peleg's Argus scrutiny could not be baffled, and again I was detected.
"Meantime grandmother's strength was evidently failing, and Uncle Orme was far away in western wilds; who would save me from my own rash folly if she should die, and leave me unprotected? This apprehension preyed ceaselessly on her mind, she grew morose, moody, tyrannical; and when finally Cuthbert came once more, forcing an entrance into the little cottage, and asking upon what conditions he might be permitted to visit me, she bluntly told him that she had determined to take me at all hazards to a convent, and shut me up for ever, unless within forty-eight hours he married me. The though of separation made him almost frantic, and after some discussion, it was arranged that we should be married very secretly in a distant town, with only grandmother and his room-mate Andre as witnesses. Our union would be concealed rigidly until Cuthbert had left college and attained his majority, which was then nearly two years distant; at which time he would enter upon the possession of a certain amount of property left by his mother. An approaching recess of several days, which would enable him to absent himself without exciting suspicion, was selected as an auspicious occasion for the consummation we all so ardently desired, and very quietly the preliminary steps were taken.
"By what stratagem or fraud a license was obtained, I never learned, and was too ignorant and unsuspicious to question or understand the forms essential to legality. One stormy night we were driven across the country to a railway station, hurried aboard the train, and next morning reached the town of V——. At the parsonage you know so well we found Mr. Hargrove, who appeared very reluctant to accede to our wishes. I was only fifteen, a simple-hearted child, and Cuthbert, though well grown, was too youthful to assume the duties of the position for which he presented himself as candidate. The faithful, prudent pastor expostulated, and declared himself unwilling to bind a pair of children by ties so solemn and indissoluble; but the license was triumphantly exhibited as a release from ministerial responsibility, and grandmother urged in extenuation that in the event of her death I would be thrown helpless upon the world, and she as my sole surviving protector and guardian desired to see me entitled to a husband's care and shelter.
"At last, with an earnest protest, the conscientious man consented, and standing before him that sunny morning, in the presence of God, and of grandmother and Mr. Audre, Cuthbert Laurance and Minnie Merle were solemnly married! Oh, my daughter! when I think of that day, and its violated vows—when I remember what I was, and contrast the Minnie Merle of my girlhood with the blasted, wretched ruin that I am, my brain reels, my veins run fire!"
She clasped her palms across her forehead and moaned, as the deluge of bitter recollections overflowed her.
Tears were stealing down Regina's cheeks, as she watched the anguish she felt powerless to relieve, and she began to realize the depth of woe that had blackened all her past.
"He promised to love, honour, cherish me, as long as life lasted, and Mr. Hargrove pronounced me his wife, and blessed me. How dared we expect a blessing! Cuthbert knew that he was defying, outraging his father's wishes, and I had earned my title by deception and disobedience. God help all those who build their hopes upon the treacherous sands of human constancy. Mr. Hargrove laid his hand upon my head, and said in a strangely warning tone, I might have known was prophetic: 'Mrs. Laurance, you are the youngest wife I ever saw, you are not fit to be out of the nursery; but I trust this union will not fulfil my forebodings, that the result will sanction my most reluctant performance of this hallowed ceremony.'
"How supremely happy I was! How unutterably proud of my handsome tender husband! I do not know whether even then he truly loved me, or if he merely intended me as a pretty toy to amuse him during the tedium of college sessions; I only remember my delirious delight, my boundless exultation. We returned home, and Cuthbert resumed his college studies, but through the co-operation of his room-mate, he spent much of his time in our cottage. Peleg became troublesome, and invidious reports were set afloat. I am not aware whether grandmother had always intended to publish the marriage as soon as consummated, or whether her breach of faith sprang from some facts she subsequently discovered; but certainly she distrusted Cuthbert's sincerity of purpose, and taking Peleg into her confidence, despatched him to inform General Laurance of all that had occurred. From that hour Peleg Peterson became my most implacable and dangerous foe.
"Dreaming of no danger, Cuthbert and I had spent but three weeks of wedded happiness, when, without premonition, the sun of my joy was suddenly blotted out. A letter arrived, speedily followed by a telegram summoning him to the bedside of his father, who was dangerously ill. Oh, fool that I was! I fancied heaven designed to remove a cruel parent, and thus obliterate all obstacles to the completion of my bliss. What blind dolts young people are! Cuthbert was restless, suspicious, unwilling to leave me, or appeared so, and when we parted, he took me in his arms, kissed away my tears, implored heaven to watch over his bride, his treasure, his wife; and swore that at the earliest possible moment he would hold 'darling Minnie' to his heart once more. Turn away your face, Regina, for it too vividly, too intolerably recalls his image as he stood bidding me farewell; his glossy black hair clinging in rings around his white brow, his magnetic blue eyes gazing tenderly into mine! Oh, the wonderful charm of that beautiful treacherous face! Oh, husband of my love I father of my innocent baby!"
She threw herself into a corner of the sofa, and the dry sob that shook her frame told how keen was the torture. Regina followed, kneeling in front of her, burying her face in her mother's dress.
"I saw him enter the carriage and drive away, and thirteen years passed before I looked upon him again. Of course the reported illness was a mere ruse to lull his apprehensions. His father received him with a hurricane of reproaches, threats, maledictions. He taunted, jeered him with having been hoodwinked, cajoled, outwitted by a 'wily old washwoman,' who had inveigled him into a disgraceful misalliance in order to betray him, to fasten upon and devour his wealth. One letter only I received from Cuthbert, denouncing grandmother's treachery, and announcing his father's rage and threats to disinherit and disown him if he did not repudiate the marriage, which he stated was invalid on account of his son's minority. He wrote that he would be compelled for the present to accede to his father's wishes, since for nearly two years at least he was wholly dependent on his bounty; but assured me that on the day when he could claim his inheritance from his mother he would acknowledge his marriage at all hazards, and proclaim me his wife. That letter, the first and last I ever received from my husband, you can read at your leisure. Three days after it was dated, he and his father sailed for Europe, and he has never returned to America.
"Although it was a cruel blow to all my brilliant anticipations, I did not even then dream of the fate designed for me. I loved on, trusted on, hoped—oh, how sanguinely! My pride was piqued at General Laurance's haughty, supercilious scorn of my birth and blood, and I determined to fit myself for the proud niche I would one day fill as Cuthbert's wife. My grandmother spoke French fluently, it was her vernacular; and my father had left some valuable and choice books. To these I turned with avidity, prosecuting my studies with renewed zest. About three months after my husband left me, Uncle Orme sent money to defray our expenses to California. Grandmother who foreboded the future, told me I had been sacrificed, abandoned, repudiated, and urged me to accompany her. In return, I indignantly refused, charging her with having fired the temple of my happiness, by the brand of her betrayal of the secret. Recriminations followed, we parted in anger and she left me, to join Uncle Orme; but not before acquainting me with the startling fact that Peleg Peterson had declared his determination to annul the marriage by furnishing infamous testimony against my character.
"After her departure a man who acted as agent for General Laurance called to negotiate for a separation, advising me to make the best terms in my power, as it was useless for me to attempt to cope with General Laurance, who would mercilessly crush me if necessary, by the publication of disgraceful slanders which my 'old lover Peleg Peterson' had sworn to prove in open court. He offered me five thousand dollars and my passage to San Francisco, on condition of my renouncing all claim to the hand and name of Cuthbert Laurance. My husband he assured me had reached his father's house in a state of intoxication; and had since become convinced of my unworthiness, and of the necessity of severing for ever all connection with me. Not for an instant did I credit him. It seemed a vile machination, and I scornfully rejected all overtures for separation, proclaiming my resolution to assert and maintain my rights as a lawful wife. It was open war, and how they derided my proud demand for recognition!
"Mr. Audre left college the week after Cuthbert was called so unexpectedly away, and disappeared; and grandmother died suddenly with rheumatism of the heart, when only a few miles distant from the harbour of her destination. Peleg audaciously proposed that we should ignore the empty worthless marriage ceremony, accept the Laurance bribe, and go away to the far west, where we might begin life anew. He told me my husband believed me unworthy, that he had convinced him I would dishonour his noble name, and that my reputation was at his own mercy. In my amazement and horror I defied him, dared him to do his worst; and recklessly he accepted the rash challenge. Leaving no clue (as I imagined), I secretly quitted the village, where gossip was busy with my name, and went to New York. My scanty means rapidly melted away, and I hired myself as a seamstress in a wealthy family. Not even at this stage of affairs did I lose faith in my husband, and bravely I confronted the knowledge that at no distant period I should be forced to provide for a helpless infant.
"One day, in going down a steep flight of steps, with a heavy waiter in my hands, I missed my footing, fell, and was picked up senseless on the tiled floor at the foot of the stairs. A physician living near was called in, and as I was only the seamstress, the information he gave my employer induced her to send me immediately to the hospital for pauper women. One of my ankles was fractured, and the day after my admission to the hospital you were born prematurely. In a ward of that hospital, surrounded by strange but kind sympathetic faces, you, my darling, opened your blue eyes, unwelcomed by a father's love, unnoticed by your wretched mother; for I was delirious for many days, and you were three weeks old when first I knew you were my baby. Ah, my daughter! why did not a merciful God order us both out of the world then, before it persecuted and bruised us so cruelly? I have wished a thousand times that you had died before I ever recognized you as mine!"
"Oh, mother, mother, pity me! Do not reproach me with the life I owe to you."
Regina's features writhed, and, pressing her face closer against her mother's knee, she sobbed unrestrainedly:
"My darling, blessings often come so thoroughly disguised that we brand them as curses, learning later that they garner all our earthly hopes, sometimes our heavenly; and when I look at you now, my soul yearns over you with a love too deep for utterance. I know that you were born to avenge your wrongs and mine, to aid by your baby fingers in lifting the load of injustice and libel that has so long borne me down. You are the one solitary comfort in all the wide earth, and but for you I should have given up the struggle long ago."
Softly she stroked the silky hair and tearful cheek, and leaning back continued:
"While I was still an inmate of the hospital, where I was known as Minnie Merle, Peleg Peterson found me, and proclaimed himself your father. He was partly intoxicated at the time, and was forcibly ejected; but the excitement of that dastardly horrible charge threw me into a relapse, and I was dangerously ill. Lying beside me on my cot, I watched your little face, through the slow hours of convalescence, and your tiny hands seemed to strengthen me for the labour that beckoned me back to life. For your dear sake I must brave the future. To one of the noble-hearted gentle Sisters of Charity who visited the hospital and ministered like an angel of mercy to you and me, I told enough of my history to explain my presence there, and through her influence when I was strong enough to work, I was placed in a position where I was permitted to keep you with me for a year. I knew that my only safety lay in hiding for a time from my enemy, and destroying all trace of my departure from the hospital, I assumed the name of Odille Orphia Orme, which had belonged to a sister of my grandmother.
"I was not sixteen when you were born, and, having had my head shaved during my illness, my hair grew out the bright gold you see it now, instead of the dark brown it had hitherto been. A strange freak of nature, but a providential aid to the disguise I wished to maintain. I wrote to Cuthbert, informing him of your birth, praying his speedy return, but no reply came; and again and again I repeated the petition. At length I was answered by the return of all my letters, without a line of comment. Then I began to suspect what was in store for me, but it threatened to drive me wild; and I shut my eyes and refused to think, set my teeth, and hoped, hoped still. The two years had almost expired, and when Cuthbert was of age he would fly to his wife and child, solacing them for all they had endured. I could not afford to doubt; that way lay madness!
"When you were fourteen months old, I put you in an Orphan Asylum, where I could see you often, and took a situation as upper maid and seamstress in a fashionable family on Fifth Avenue. My duties were light, my employers were considerate and kind, and the young ladies, observing my desire to improve myself, gave me the privileges of the library, which was well selected and extensive. They were very cultivated, elegant people, and I listened to their conversation, observed their deportment, and modelled my manners after the example they furnished. I was so anxious to astonish Cuthbert by my grace and intelligence, when he presented me to his father, and I exulted in the thought that even he might one day be proud of his son's wife.
"How I struggled and toiled, sowing by day, reading, studying by night. Finding Racine, Euripides, and Shakespeare in the library, I perused them carefully, and accidentally I discovered my talent. The ladies of the house on one occasion had private theatricals, and the play was one with which I chanced to be familiar. At the last rehearsal, on the night of the play, one of the young ladies was suddenly seized with such violent giddiness, that she was unable to appear in the character she personated, and in the dilemma I was summoned. So successful was my performance that I saw the new path opening before me, and began to fit myself for it. I gave every spare moment to dramatic studies, and was progressing rapidly when all hope was crushed.
"Cuthbert's birthday came; days, weeks, months rolled by, and I wrote one more passionate prayer for recognition; pleading that at least he would allow me to see him once again, that he would just once look at the lovely face of his child; then if he disowned both wife and child we would ask him no more. How I counted the weeks that crawled away! how fondly I still hoped that now, being of age and free, he would fulfil his promise!
"You were two years and a half old, and I went one Sunday to visit you.
"How well I recollect your appearance on that fatal day! Your bare pearly feet gleaming on the floor over which I guided your uncertain steps, as you tottered along clinging to my finger, your dimpled neck and arms displayed by the white muslin slip my hands had fashioned, your jetty hair curling thick and close over your round head, your small milk-white teeth sparkling through your open lips, as your large soft violet eyes laughed up in my face!—so glad you were to see me! You had never seemed so lovely before, and I knelt down and hugged you, my darling. I kissed your dainty feet and hands, your lips and eyes so like Cuthbert's, and I know as I caressed you my heart swelled with the fond pride that only mothers can understand and feel, and I whispered, 'Papa's baby! Papa's own darling! Cuthbert's baby!'
"It was harder than usual to quit you that day; you clung to me, nestled close to me, stole your little hand into my bosom, and finally fell asleep. When I laid you softly down in your low truckle-bed, the tears would come and hang on my lashes, and while I lingered, passing my hand over your dear pretty feet, I determined that if Cuthbert did not come, or write very soon, I would take you and go in search of him. What man could shut his arms and heart against such a lovely babe who owed him her being?
"It was late when I got home, and the lady with whom I lived sent for me in great haste. Guests had unexpectedly come from a distance, dinner must be served, and the butler had been called away inopportunely to one of his children, who had been terribly scalded. Could I oblige her by consenting to serve the visitors at table? She was a good mistress to me, and of course I did not hesitate. One of the guests was a nephew of the host, and recently returned from Europe, as I learned from the conversation. When the desert was being set upon the table, he said: 'No, I rather liked him; none are perfect, and he has sowed his wild oats, and settled down. Marriage is a strong social anchor, and his bride is a very heavy-looking woman, though enormously rich, I hear. It is said that his father manoeuvred the match, for Cuthbert liked being fancy free.'
"The name startled me, and the master of the house asked, 'Of whom are you speaking?' 'Cuthbert Laurance and his recent marriage with Abbie Ames the banker's daughter. My mistress pulled my dress and directed me to bring a bottle of champagne from the side table. I stood like a stone, and she repeated the command. As I lifted the wine and started back, the stranger added: 'Here is an account of the wedding; quite a brilliant affair, and as I witnessed the nuptials I can testify the description is not exaggerated. They were married in Paris, and General Laurance presented the bride with a beautiful set of diamonds.' The bottle fell with a crash, and in the confusion I tottered toward the butler's pantry and sank down insensible.
"Oh, the awful, intolerable agony that has been my portion ever since! Do you wonder that Laurance is a synonym for all that is cruel, wicked? Is it strange that at times I loath the sight of your face, which mocks me with the assurance that you are his as well as mine? Oh, most unfortunate child! cursed with the fatal beauty of him who wrecked your mother's life, and denies you even his infamous name!"
She sprang up, broke away from her daughter's arms, and resumed her walk.
"After that day I was a different woman, hard, bitter, relentless, desperate. In the room of hope reigned hate, and I dedicated the future to revenge. I had heard Mr. Palma's name mentioned as the most promising lawyer at the bar, and though he was a young man then, he inspired all who knew him with confidence and respect. Withholding only my husband's name, I gave him my history, and sought legal advice. A suit would result in the foul and fatal aspersion, which Peleg was waiting to pour like an inky stream upon my character, and we ascertained that he was in the pay of the Laurances, and would testify according to their wishes and purposes. There was no proof of my marriage, unless Mr. Hargrove had preserved the license, the record of which had been destroyed by the burning of the court-house. Where were the witnesses? Grandmother was dead, and it was rumoured Mr. Audre had perished in a fishing excursion off the Labrador coast.
"Mr. Palma advised me to wait, to patiently watch for an opportunity, pledging himself to do all that legal skill could effect; and nobly he has redeemed his promise to the desolate, friendless, broken-hearted woman who appealed to him for aid.
"I succeeded after several repulses, in securing a very humble position in one of the small theatres, where I officiated first with scissors and needle, in fitting costumes and in various other menial employments; studying ceaselessly all the while to prepare myself for the stage. The manager became interested, encouraged me, tested me at rehearsals, and at last after an arduous struggle, I made my debut at the benefit of one of the stock actors. My name was adroitly whispered about, one or two mysterious paragraphs were published at the expense of the actor, and so—curiosity gave me an audience and an opportunity.
"That night seemed the crisis of my destiny; if I failed, what would become of my baby? Already, my love, you were my supreme thought. But I did not, my face was a great success; my acting was pronounced wonderful by the dramatic critic to whom the beneficiary sent a complimentary ticket, and after that evening I had no difficulty in securing an engagement that proved very successful.
"A year after I learned that Cuthbert had married a second time, I went to V—— to see Mr. Hargrove, and obtain possession of my license. The good man only gave me a copy, to which he added his certificate of the solemnization of my marriage; but he sympathized very deeply with my unhappy condition, and promised in any emergency to befriend you, my darling. A few hours after I left the parsonage it was entered and robbed, and the license he refused me was stolen. Long afterward I learned he suspected me."
Here Regina narrated her discovery of the mysterious facts connected with the loss of the paper, and her first knowledge of Peleg Peterson. As she explained the occurrences that succeeded the storm, Mrs. Orme almost scowled, and resumed:
"He has been the bete noire of my ill-starred life, but even his malice has been satiated at last. Anxious to shield you from the possibility of danger, and from all contaminating influences and association, I carried you to a distant convent; the same with which grandmother had threatened me, and placed you under the sacred shadow of the Nuns' protection. Then, assured of your safety and that your education would not be neglected, I devoted myself completely to my profession. From city to city I wandered in quest of fame and money, both so essential to the accomplishment of my scheme; a scheme that goaded me sleeping and waking, leaving no moment of repose.
"One night in Chicago, having overtaxed my strength, I fainted on the street, en route from the theatre, and while my servant fled for assistance, I was found by Mr. and Mrs. Waul, and taken to their home. Their kind hearts warmed toward me, and no parents could have been more tenderly watchful than they have proved ever since. They supplied a need of protection, of which I was growing painfully conscious, and I engaged them to travel with me.
"Once I took three days out of my busy life, and visited the old family homestead of General Laurance. The owner was in Europe, the house closed; but, standing unnoticed under the venerable oaks that formed the avenue of approach to the ancestral halls of my husband, I looked at the stately pile and the broad fields that surrounded it, and called upon Heaven to spare me long enough to see my child the regnant heiress of all that proud domain. There I vowed that cost what it might, I would accomplish my revenge, would place you there as owner of that noble inheritance.
"Through Mr. Palma's inquiries concerning the records, I ascertained that this property had been settled upon Cuthbert on the week of his second marriage. You were ten years old when I determined to go to Europe and consummate my plan. Peleg had disappeared, and I knew that the other agent of the Laurances had lost all trace of me. You were so grieved because I left for Europe without bidding you good-bye! Ah, my sweet child! You never knew that it was the hardest trial of my life to put the ocean between us, and that I was too cowardly to witness your distress at the separation that was so uncertain in duration.
"Could I have gone without the sight of my precious baby? I reached the convent about dusk, and informed the sisters that I deemed it best to transfer you to the guardianship of two gentlemen, one of whom would come and take you away the ensuing week. Through a crevice of the dormitory door I watched you undress, envied the gentle nun who gathered up your long hair and tied over it the little white ruffled muslin cap; and when you knelt by your small curtained bed, and repeated your evening prayers, adding a special petition that 'Heavenly Father would bless dear mother, and keep her safe,' I stifled my sobs in my handkerchief. When you were asleep I crept in on tiptoe, and while Sister Angela held the lamp, I drew aside the curtain and looked at you. How the sweet face of my baby stirred all the tenderness that was left in my embittered nature! As you slumbered, you threw your feet outside the cover, and murmured in your musical childish babble something indistinct about 'mother, and our Blessed Lady.'
"My heart yearned over you, but I could not bear the thought of hearing your peculiarly plaintive wailing cry, which always pierced my soul so painfully, and I softly kissed your feet and hurried away. Come, put your arms around my neck, and kiss me, my lovely fatherless child!"
For some seconds Mrs. Orme held her in a warm embrace. "There sit down. Little remains to be told, but how bitter! Here in Paris, while playing 'Amy Robsart,' I saw once more, after the lapse of thirteen years, the man who had so contemptuously repudiated me. Regina, if ever you are so unfortunate, so deluded, as to deeply and sincerely love any man, and live to know that you are forgotten, that another woman wears the name and receives the caresses that once made heaven in your heart, then, and only then, can you realize what I suffered, while looking at Cuthbert, with that other creature at his side, acknowledged his wife! I thought I had petrified, had ceased to feel aught but loathing and hate, but ah! the agony of that intolerable, that maddening sight! Ask God for a shroud and coffin, rather than endure what I suffered that night!"
She was too much engrossed by her mournful retrospective task, to observe the deadly pallor that overspread Regina's face, as the girl rested her head on the arm of the sofa and passed her fingers across her eyes, striving to veil the image of one beyond the broad Atlantic's sweep and roar.
"At last I began to taste the sweet poison of my revenge. Cuthbert did not suspect my identity, but he was strangely fascinated by my face and acting. Openly indifferent to the woman with whom his father had linked him, and provided with no conscientious scruples, he audaciously expressed his admiration, and contrived an interview to commence his advances. He avowed sentiments disloyal to the heiress who wore his name and jewels, and insulting to me had I been what he supposed me, merely Odille Orme a pretty actress. I repulsed and derided him, forbidding him my presence; and none can appreciate the exquisite delight it afforded me to humiliate and torture him. When it was a crime in the sight of man, he really began to love the woman, who—in God's sight—was his own lawful wife; and his punishment was slowly approaching.
"My health gave way under the unnatural pressure of acting evening after evening, with his handsome magnetic face watching every feature, every inflection of my voice. I was ordered to rest in Italy, and when I learned I should there meet General Laurance, I consented to go. Before leaving Paris, I saw the only child of that hideous iniquitous sham marriage; and, darling, when I contrasted you, my own pure pearl, with the deformed, dwarfish, repulsive daughter, whom the Nemesis of my wrongs gave to Cuthbert, in little Maud Laurance, I almost shouted aloud in my great exultation. You so beautiful, with his own lineaments in every feature, disowned for that misshapen, imbecile heiress of his proud name. Oh, mills of the Gods! how delicious the slow music of their grinding!
"Thus far, my daughter, I have shown you all your mother's wretched past, and now I shrink from the last blotted pages. Hitherto my record was blameless, but even now take care how you judge the mother, who if she has gone astray did it for you, all for you. For some time I had known that Cuthbert was living in reckless extravagance, that the affairs of the father-in-law were dangerously involved, and that without his own father's knowledge Cuthbert had borrowed large sums in London and Paris, securing the loans by mortgages on his real estate in America; especially the elegant homestead, preserved for several generations in his family. Employing two shrewd Hebrew brokers, I by degrees bought up those mortgages, straining every effort to effect the purchase.
"When I reached Milan, I sat one night pondering what was most expedient. It was apparent that in a suit for and publication of my real title and rights, I should be defeated by the disgrace hurled upon me; and to subject the Laurances to the humiliation of a court scandal would poorly indemnify me for the horrible stain which Peterson's foul claim would entail upon your innocent but premature birth. My health was feeble, consumption threatened my lungs, and Mr. Palma urged me to attempt no legal redress for my injuries. I could not die without one more struggle to see you lighted, clothed with your lawful name.
"My daughter, my darling, let all my love for you plead vehemently in my defence, when I tell you that for your dear sake I made a desperate, an awful, a sickening resolve. General Laurance was infatuated by my beauty, which has been as fatal to his house as his name to me. Like many handsome old men, he was inordinately vain, and imagined himself irresistible; and when he persecuted me with attentions that might have compromised a woman less prudent and prudish than I bore myself, I determined to force him to an offer of his hand, to marry him."
With a sharp cry Regina sprang up.
"Mother, not him! Not my father's father!"
"Yes, Rene Laurance, my husband's father."
With a gesture of horror the girl groaned and covered her white convulsed face.
"Mother! Could my mother commit such a loathsome, awful crime against God, and nature?"
"It was for your sake, my darling!" cried Mrs. Orme, wringing her hands, as she saw the shudder with which her child repulsed her.
"For my sake that you stained you dear pure hands! For my sake that you steeped your soul in guilt that even brutal savages abhor, and loaded your name and memory with infamy! In his desertion my father sinned against me, and freely because he is my father I could forgive him; but you, the immaculate mother of my lifelong worship, you who have reigned white-souled and angelic over all my hopes, my aspirations, my love and reverence, oh, mother! mother, you have doubly wronged me! The disgrace of your unnatural and heinous crime I can never, never pardon!"
With averted head she stood apart, a pitiable picture of misery, that could find no adequate expression.
"My baby, my love, my precious daughter!"
Ah the pleading pathos of that marvellous voice which had swayed at will the emotions of vast audiences, as soft fitful zephyrs stir and bow the tender grasses in quiet meadows! Slowly the girl turned around, and reluctantly looked at the beloved beautiful face, tearful yet smiling, beaming with such passionate tenderness upon her.
Mrs. Orme opened her arms, and Regina sprang forward, sinking on her knees at her mother's feet, clinging to her dress.
"You could not smile upon me so, with that sin soiling your soul! Oh, mother, say you did it not!"
"God had mercy, and saved me from it."
"Let us praise and serve Him for ever, in thanksgiving," sobbed the daughter.
"I see now that my punishment would have been unendurable, for I should have lost the one true, pure heart that clings to me. How do mothers face their retribution, I wonder, when they disgrace their innocent little ones, and see shame and horror and aversion in the soft faces that slept upon their bosoms, and once looked in adoration at the heaven of their eyes? Even in this life the pangs of the lost must seize all such.
"I did not marry General Laurance, though I entertained the purpose of a merely nominal union, and he acceded to my conditions, signing a marriage contract to adopt you, give you his name, settled upon you all his remaining fortune, except the real estate which I knew he had transferred to his son. I think my intense hate and thirst for vengeance temporarily maddened me; for certainly had I been quite sane I should never have forced myself to hang upon the verge of such an odious gulf. I was tempted by the prospect of making you the real heiress of the Laurance name and wealth, and of beggaring Cuthbert, his so-called wife and crippled child, by displaying the mortgage I held; and which will yet sweep them to penury, for the banker has failed, and Abbie Ames is penniless as Minnie Merle once was.
"While I floated down the dark stream to ruin, a blessed interposing hand arrested me. Mr. Palma wrote that at last a glorious day of hope dawned on my weary, starless night. Gerbert Audre was alive and anxious to testify to the validity of my marriage, and the perfect sanity and sobriety of Cuthbert when it was solemnized (his father was prepared to plead that he was insane from intoxication when he was inveigled into the ceremony); and oh, better, best of all, my persecutor had relented! Peleg swore that his assertions regarding my character were untrue, were prompted by malice, stimulated by Laurance gold. Having been arrested by Mr. Palma and carried before a magistrate, he had written and signed a noble vindication of me. To you he avows I owe his tardy recantation and complete justification of my past; and you will find among those papers his letter to me upon this subject.
"My daughter, what do we not owe to Erle Palma? God bless him—now—and for ever! And may the dearest, fondest wishes of his heart be fulfilled as completely as have been his promises to me."
Regina's face was shrouded by her mother's dress, but thinking of Mrs. Carew, she sank lower at Mrs. Orme's feet, knowing that her sad heart could not echo that prayer.
"As yet my identity has not been suspected, but the end is at hand, and I am about to break the vials of wrath upon their heads. Mr. Palma only waits to hear from me to bring suit against Cuthbert for desertion and bigamy, and against Rene Laurance, the arch-demon of my luckless carried life, for wilful slander, premeditated defamation of character. My lawful unstained wife-hood will be established, your spotless birth and lineage triumphantly proclaimed; and I shall see my own darling, my Regina Laurance, reigning as mistress in the halls of her ancestors. To confront you with your father and grandfather, I have called you to Paris, and when I have talked with Uncle Orme, whose step I hear, I shall be able to tell you definitely of the hour when the thunderbolt will be hurled into the camp of our enemies. Kiss me good-night. God bless my child."
After a sleepless night, Cuthbert Laurance sat in dressing gown and slippers before the table, on which was arranged his breakfast. In his right hand he held, partly lifted, the cup of coffee; upon the left he rested his head, seeming abstracted, oblivious of the dainty dishes that invited his attention.
The graceful insouciance of the Sybarite had vanished, and though the thirty-seven years of his life had dealt very gently with his manly beauty, leaving few lines about his womanishly fair brow, he seemed to-day gravely preoccupied, anxious, and depressed. Pushing back his chair, he sat for some time in a profound and evidently painful reverie, and when his father came in, and closed the door behind him, the cloud of apprehension deepened.
"Good-morning, Cuthbert, I must compliment you on your early hours. How is Maud?"
"I have not seen her this morning. Victorine usually takes her out at this time of the day. I hope after a night's reflection and rest, you feel disposed to afford me more comfort than you extended last evening. The fact is, unless you come forward and help me, I shall be utterly ruined."
General Laurance lighted his cigar, and, standing before his son, answered coldly:
"I beg you to recollect that my resources are not quite inexhaustible, and last year when I gave that Chicago property to you, I explained the necessity of curbing your reckless extravagance. Were I possessed of Rothschild's income, it would not suffice to keep upon his feet a man who sells himself to the Devil of the gaming table, and entertains with the prodigality of a crown prince. I never dreamed until last night that the real estate at home is encumbered by mortgages, and it will be an everlasting shame if the homestead should be sacrificed; but I can do no more for you. This failure of Ames is a disgraceful affair, and I understand soils his reputation—past all hope of purification. How long does Abbie expect to remain in Nice? It does not look well, I can tell you, that she should go off and leave Maud with her bonne."
"Oh! for that matter, Maud is better off here, where she can be seen regularly by the physician, and Victorine knows much better what to do for her than her mother. Abbie is perfectly acquainted with the change in her father's and in my own affairs, and I should suppose she would have returned immediately after the receipt of the intelligence, especially as I informed her that we should be compelled to return to America."
"I shall telegraph her to come back at once, for I hear that she is leading a very gay life at Nice, and that her conduct is not wholly compatible with her duties as a wife and mother."
An expression of subdued scorn passed over Cuthbert's face, as he answered sarcastically:
"Probably your influence may avail to hasten her return. As for her peculiar views, and way of conducting herself, I imagine it is rather too late for you to indulge in fastidious carpings, as you selected and presented her to me as a suitable bride, particularly acceptable to you for a daughter-in-law.
"When men live as you have done since your marriage, it is scarcely surprising that wives should emulate their lax example. You have never disguised your indifference as a husband."
"No, sir. When I made merchandise of my hand, I deemed that sacrifice sufficient, and have never pretended to include my heart in the bargain. But why deal in recrimination? Past mistakes are irremediable, and it behooves me to consider only the future. Were it not for poor Maud, I really should care very little, but her helplessness appeals to me now more forcibly than all other considerations. You say, sir, that you cannot help me—why not? At this crisis a few shares of stock, and some of those sterling bonds would enable me to pay off my pressing personal debts; and I could get away from Paris with less annoying notoriety and scandal, which above all things I abhor. I only ask the means of retiring from my associations here without disgrace, and once safely out of France I shall care little for the future. You certainly cannot consent to see me stranded here, where my position and menage have been so proud?"
General Laurance puffed vigorously at his cigar for some seconds, then tossed it down, put his hands in his pockets, and said abruptly:
"When I told you last night that I could not help you, I meant it. The stocks and bonds you require have already been otherwise appropriated. I daresay, Cuthbert, you will be astonished at what I am about to communicate, but whatever your opinion of the step I have determined to take, I request in advance, that you will refrain from any disagreeable comments. For thirty-seven years I have devoted myself to the promotion of your interest and happiness, and you must admit you have often sorely tried my patience. If you have at last made shipwreck of your favourable financial prospects, it is no longer in my power to set you afloat again. Cuthbert, I am on the eve of assuming new responsibilities that require all the means your luxurious mode of living has left me. I am going to marry again."
"To marry again! Are you approaching your dotage?"
The son had risen, and his handsome face was full of undisguised scorn, as his eyes rested on his father's haughty and offended countenance.
"Whatever your dissatisfaction, you will be wise in repressing it at least in your remarks to me. I am no longer young, but am very far from senility; and finding no harmony in your household, no peaceful fireside where I can spend the residue of my days in quiet, I have finally consulted the dictates of my own heart, and am prompted by the hope of great happiness with the woman whom I sincerely love—to marry her. Under these circumstances you can readily appreciate my inability to transfer the stocks, which it appears you have relied upon to float you out of this financial storm."
Cuthbert bowed profoundly, and answered contemptuously:
"They have, I presume, already been transferred in the form of a marriage contract? Pardon me, sir; but may I inquire whom you design to fill my mother's place?"
"I expect within a few days to present to you as my wife the loveliest woman in all Europe, one as noble, refined, modest, and delicate as she is everywhere conceded to be beautiful,—the celebrated Madame Odille Orme."
An unconquerable embarrassment caused his eyes to wander from his son's face as he pronounced the name, else he would have discovered the start, the pallor with which the intelligence was received. Cuthbert turned and stood at the window, with his back to his father, and the convulsive movement of his features attested the profound pain which the announcement caused.
"Madame Orme is not an ordinary actress, and has always maintained a reputation quite rare among those of her profession. I have carefully studied her character, think I have seen it sufficiently tested to satisfy even my fastidious standard of female propriety and decorum; and knowing how proudly and jealously I guard my honour and my name, you may rest assured I have not risked anything in committing both to the keeping of this woman, to whom I am very deeply and tenderly attached. She told me she had met you once. How did she impress you?"
It cost him a strong effort to answer composedly.
"She certainly is the most beautiful woman I have seen in Europe."
"Ah! and sweet as she is lovely! My son, do not diminish my happiness by unkind thoughts and expressions, which would result in our estrangement. No father could have devoted himself more assiduously to a child than I have done to you, and in my old age, if this marriage brings me so much delight and comfort, have I not earned the right to consider my own happiness? It is quite natural that you should be surprised, and to some extent chagrined at my determination to settle a portion of my property upon a new claimant for my love and protection; but I hope, for the sake of all concerned, you will at least indulge in no harsh or disrespectful remarks. I have been requested to invite you to accompany me to the Theatre to-night to witness Madame Orme's farewell to the stage, in a drama of her own composition. After this evening she appears no more in public, and at the close of the play she desires that we shall meet her at her hotel. I trust you will courteously fulfil the engagement I have made for you, as I assured her she might expect us both."
He lighted a fresh cigar, and drew on his gloves.
Cuthbert hastily snatched a glass of water from the stand near him, and laying his hand on the bolt of the door leading to his sleeping room, looked over his shoulder at his father.
The face of the son was whitened and sharpened by acute suffering, and his blue eyes flushed with a peculiarly cold sarcastic light as he exclaimed bitterly:
"That General Laurance should so far forget the aristocratic associations and memories of the past, as to wrap his ambitious name around the person and character of a pretty coulisse queen, certainly surprises his son, in whom he would never have forgiven such a mesalliance; but chacun a son gout! Permit me, sir, to hope that my father may display the same infallible judgment in selecting a bride for himself that he so successfully manifested in the choice of one for his son; and the sincere wish of my heart is, that your wedded life may prove quite as rose-coloured and blissful as mine."
He bowed low, and disappeared; and after a few turns up and down the room, during which he smoothed his ruffled brow, rejoicing that the announcement had been made, General Laurance went down to his carriage, and was driven to the hotel, where he hoped to find Mrs. Orme.
For several days after the narration of her history to Regina, the mother had seen comparatively little of her child, her time being engrossed by numerous rehearsals and the supervision of some scene painting, which she considered essential to the success of the play.
Only on the morning of the day appointed for its presentation, did Regina learn that in "Infelice" her mother had merely written and dramatically arranged an accurate history of her own eventful life. By this startling method she had long designed to acquaint General Laurance and his son with her real name, and the play had been very carefully cast and prepared; but Regina heard with deep pain and humiliation of the vindictive nature of the surprise arranged, and eloquently plead that the sacred past should not be profaned by casting it before the public for criticism.
Mr. Chesley earnestly seconded her entreaties that even now a change of programme might be effected, but Mrs. Orme sternly adhered to her purpose, declared it was too late for alteration, and that she would not consent to forfeit the delight of the vengeance, which alone sweetened the future, neither would she permit her daughter to absent herself. A box had been secured where, screened from observation, Regina and Mr. Chesley could not only witness the play, but watch the two men whose box was opposite.
When General Laurance called and sent up a basket of choice and costly flowers, begging for a moment's interview, Mrs. Orme sent down in reply a tiny perfumed note, stating that she was then hurrying to the last rehearsal, which it was absolutely necessary she should attend; and requesting that after the close of the play General Laurance and his son would do her the honour to take supper at her hotel, where she would give him a final and very definite answer with regard to their nuptials. While he read the billet and was pencilling a second appeal for the privilege of escorting her to the rehearsal, she ran lightly downstairs, sprang into a carriage, and eluded him.
Left in possession of all the records relative to her mother's history, and furnished for the first time with a printed copy of "Infelice," Regina spent a melancholy day in her own room. Among the papers she found her father's letter, promising to claim his wife as soon as he attained his majority; and as she noted the elegant chirography and glanced from the letter to the ambrotype which represented Cuthbert as he looked at the period of his marriage, a strangely tender new feeling welled up in her heart, dimming her eyes with unshed tears.
It was her father's face upon which she looked, and something in those proud high-bred features plead for him to the soul of his child. True he had disowned them, but could that face deliberately hide premeditated treachery? Might there not be some defence, some extenuating circumstance, that would lessen his crime?
Suddenly she sprang up and began to array herself in a walking suit. She would go and see her father, learn what had induced his cruel course, and perhaps some mistake might be discovered and corrected. She knew that this step would subject her to her mother's displeasure, but just then the girl's heart was hardened against her, in consequence of her persistency in dramatizing a record which the daughter deemed too mournfully solemn and sacred for the desecration of the boards and footlights.
Grieved and mortified by this resolution, over which her passionate invective and persuasion exerted not the slightest influence, she availed herself of the absence of her mother and Mrs. Waul to leave the hotel and get into a carriage.
The Directory supplied her with the address she sought, and ere many moments she found herself in front of the stately, palatial pile, in which Cuthbert Laurance had long dwelt Desiring to see Mr. Laurance on business, she was shown into the elegant salon, and when the servant returned to say that he had left the house but a few minutes before she entered, she still lingered.
"Can I see Mrs. Laurance?"
"Madame is at Nice. Only Mademoiselle Maud is at home."
At that instant a side door opened, and a stout, middle-aged woman pushed before her into the room a low chair placed on wheels, in which sat Maud. At sight of the stranger, Victorine turned to retreat with her charge, but Regina made a quick gesture to detain her, and went to the spot where the chair rested.
Maud sat with her lap full of violets and mignonette, which she was trying to weave into a bouquet, but arrested in her occupation, her weird black eyes looked wonderingly on the visitor. How vividly they contrasted, the slender, symmetrical figure of Regina, her perfect face and graceful bearing, with the swarthy, sallow, dwarfed, and helpless Maud! As the former looked at the melancholy features, prematurely aged by suffering, a well of pity gushed in her heart, and she bent down and took one of the thin hands from which the flowers were slipping unnoticed.
"Is this little Maud?"
"My name is Maud Ames Laurance. What is your name? Why, you are just like papa! Do you know my papa?"
"No, dear; but I shall some day. I should very much like to know you."
"You look so much like papa. You may kiss me if you like."
She turned her sallow cheek for the salute, and Victorine said:
"Is mademoiselle a relative? You are quite the image of Mr. Laurance."
"Do you think so? Where can I find General Laurance? Does he reside here?"
"Oh no! He never has lived with us. Grandpapa was here this morning, but we were out in the park. Will you have some flowers? Your eyes just match my violets! So like papa's."
Regina gazed sorrowfully at the afflicted figure, and holding those thin, hot fingers in hers, she silently determined that if possible the impending blow should be warded off from this pitiable little sufferer.
"Did you come to see me?" queried Maud.
"No, I called to see your papa—on some business, and I am sorry he is absent. Before long I shall come and see you, and we will make bouquets and have a pleasant time. Good-bye, Maud."
Remembering that she was her half-sister, Regina lightly kissed the hollow cheek of the invalid.
"Good-bye. I shall ask papa where you got his eyes; for they are my papa's lovely eyes."
"Has mademoiselle left her card with Jean?" asked Victorine, whose curiosity was thoroughly aroused.
"I have not one with me."
"Then be pleased to give me your name."
"No matter now. I will come again, and then you and Maud shall learn my name."
She hastened out of the room, and when she reached her mother's lodgings, met her uncle pacing the floor of the reception-room.
"Regina, where have you been? You are top total a stranger here to venture out alone, and I beg that you will not repeat the imprudence. I have been really uneasy about your mysterious absence."
"Uncle Orme, I wanted to see my father, and I went to his home."
She threw her hat upon the sofa, and sighed heavily.
"My dear child, Minnie will never forgive your premature disclosure!"
"I made none, because he was not at home. Oh, uncle, I saw something that made my heart turn sick with pity. I saw that poor little deformed girl, Maud Laurance, and it seems to me her haggard face, her utter wretchedness and helplessness would melt a heart of steel! I longed to take the poor forlorn creature in my arms, and cry over her; and I tell you, Uncle Orme, I will not be a party to her ruin and disgrace! I will not, I will not! I am strong and healthy, and God has given me many talents, and raised up dear friends, you uncle, the dearest of all, after mother; but what has that unfortunate cripple? Nothing but her father (for she has been deserted by her mother), and only her father's name. Do you think I could see her beggared, reduced to poverty that really pinched, in order that I might usurp her place as the Laurance heiress? Never."
"My dear girl, the usurpation is on their part, not yours. The name and inheritance is lawfully yours, and the attainment of these rights for you has sustained poor Minnie through her sad, arduous career."
"Abstract right is not the only thing to be considered at such a juncture as this. Suppose I could change places with that poor little deformed creature, would you not think it cruel, nay wicked, to turn me all helpless and forlorn out of a comfortable home, into the cold world of want, a nameless waif. Uncle, I know what it is to be fatherless and nameless! All of that bitterness and humiliation has been mine for years, but now that my heart is at rest concerning my parentage, now that I know there is no blemish on mother's past record, I care little for what the world may think, and much, much more, what that poor girl would suffer. To-day, when I looked at her useless feet and shrunken hands and deep hollow eyes, I seemed to hear a voice from far Judean hills: 'Bear ye one another's burdens;' and, Uncle Orme, I am willing to bear Maud's burden to the end of my life. My shoulders have become accustomed to the load they have carried for over seventeen years, and I will not shift it to poor Maud's. I am strong, she is pitiably feeble. I have never known the blessing of a father's love, have learned to do without it; she has no other comfort, no other balm, and I will not rob her of the little God has left her. I understand how mother feels, I cannot blame her; and while I know that her care and anxiety in this matter are chiefly on my account, I could never respect, never forgive myself, if to promote my own importance or interest I selfishly consented to beggar poor Maud. She cannot live long; death has set a shadowy mark already upon her weird eyes, and until they close in the peace of the grave let us leave her the name she seems so proud of. She pronounced it Maud Ames Laurance, as though it were a royal title. Let her bear it. I can wait."
As Mr. Chesley watched the pale gem-like face, with its soft holy eyes full of a resolution which he knew all the world could not shake, a sudden mist blurred her image, and taking her hand, he kissed her forehead.
"My noble child, if the golden rule you seek to practise were in universal acceptation and actualization, injustice, fraud, and crime would overturn the bulwarks of morality and decency. When men violate the laws of God and man as Cuthbert Laurance certainly has done, even religion as well as justice requires that his crime should be punished; although in nearly all such instances the innocent suffer for the sins of the guilty. Your mother owes it to you, to me, to herself, to society, to demand recognition of her legal rights; and though I do not approve all that she proposes (at least, the manner of its accomplishment), I cannot censure her; and you, dear child, for whose sake she has borne so much, should pause before you judge her harshly."
"God forbid that I should! But oh, uncle! it seems to me something dreadful, sacrilegious, to act over before a multitude of strangers those mournful miserable events that ought to be kept sacred. The thought of being present is very painful to me."
"None but General Laurance and his son will dream that it is more than a mere romance. None but they can possibly recognize the scenes, and the audience cannot suspect that Minnie is acting her own history. When a suit is instituted, it will probably result in a recognition of the marriage, and thereupon a large alimony will be granted to your mother, who will at once apply for a divorce. In the present condition of their financial affairs this cannot fail to beggar the Laurances, for I had a cable despatch this morning from Mr. Palma, intimating that the stock panic had grievously crippled several of General Laurance's best investments. This news will be delightful to Minnie, but I see it distresses you. Now, Regina, regnant, listen to me. Have no controversy with your mother; she is just now in no mood to bear it, and I want no distrust to grow up between you. Whether you wish it or not, she will establish her claim, and she is right in doing so. Now I wish to make a contract with you. Keep quiet, and if we find that the Laurances will really be reduced to want, I will supply you with the funds necessary to provide a comfortable home for them, and you shall give it to your father and little Maud. Minnie must not know of the matter, she would never forgive us, and neither can I consent that your father should consider me as his friend. But all that I have, my sweet girl, is yours, and Laurance may feel indebted to his own repudiated child for the gift. It is a bargain?"
"Oh, Uncle Orme! how good and generous you are! No wonder my heart warmed to you the first time I ever saw you! How I love and thank you, my own noble uncle! You have no idea how earnestly I long for the time when you and mother and I can settle down together in a quiet home somewhere, shut out from the world that has used us all so hardly, and safe in our love, and confidence for and in each other."
She had thrown her arms around his neck, and pressing her head against his shoulder, looked at him with eyes full of hope and happiness.
"I am afraid, my dear girl, that as soon as our imaginary Eden is arranged satisfactorily, the dove that gives it peace and purity will be enticed away, caged in a more brilliant mansion. You will love Minnie and me very much I daresay until some lover steals between us and lures you away."
She hid her countenance against his shoulder, and her words impressed him as singularly solemn and mournful.
"I shall have no lover. I shall make it the aim and study of all my future life to love only God, mother, and you. My hope of happiness centres in the one word Home! We all three have felt the bitter want of one, and I desire to make ours that serene, holy ideal Home of which I have so long dreamed: 'We will bear our Penates with us; their atrium, the heart. Our household gods are the memories of our childhood, the recollections of the hearth round which we gathered; of the fostering hands which caressed us, of the scene of all the joys, anxieties, and hopes, the ineffable yearnings of love, which made us first acquainted with the mystery and the sanctity of home.' Such a home, dear uncle, let us fashion, somewhere in sight of the blue Pacific; and into its sacred rest no lover shall come."
Mrs. Orme had carefully instructed Mrs. Waul concerning the details of her daughter's toilette, and selected certain articles which she desired her to wear; but Regina saw her mother no more that day, and late in the afternoon, when she knocked at the door, soliciting admission, for a moment only, the mother answered from within:
"No; my child would only unnerve me now, and there is too much at stake. Uncle Orme understands all that I wish done to-night."
Regina heard the quick restless tread across the floor, betraying the extreme agitation that prevailed in her mind and heart; and sorrowfully the girl went back to her uncle, in whose society she daily found increasing balm and comfort.
The theatre was crowded when Mr. Chesley and Regina entered their box; and though the latter had several times attended the opera in New York, the elegance and brilliance of the surrounding scene surpassed all that she had hitherto witnessed. Mrs. Orme had created a profound impression by her earlier roles at this theatre, and the sudden termination of her engagement by the illness that succeeded her extraordinarily pathetic and touching "Katherine," had aroused much sympathy, stimulated curiosity and interest; consequently her reappearance in a new play, of whose plot no hint had yet been made public, sufficed to fill the house at an early hour.
Soon after their entrance, Mr. Chesley laid his hand on his companion's and whispered:
"Will you promise to be very calm and self-controlled, if I show you your father?"
He felt her hand grow cold, and in reply she merely pressed his fingers.
"When I hold the curtain slightly aside, look into the second box immediately opposite, where two gentlemen are sitting. They are your father and grandfather."
She leaned and looked, and how eagerly, how yearningly her eyes dwelt upon the handsome face which still closely resembled the Cuthbert of college days, and the ambrotype she had studied so carefully since her arrival in Paris.
As she watched her breathing became rapid, laboured, her eyes filled, her face quivered uncontrollably, and she half rose from her seat, but Mr. Chesley held her back, and dropped the curtain.
"Oh, uncle! How handsome, how refined, how noble-looking! Poor darling mother! how could she help giving him her heart? In all my dreams and fancies, I never even hoped to find him such a man! My father, my father!"
She trembled so violently that Mr. Chesley said hastily:
"Compose yourself, or I shall be forced to take you home, and your mother will be displeased; for she particularly desired that I would watch the effect of the play on those two men opposite."
She leaned back, shut her eyes, and bravely endeavoured to conquer her agitation, and luckily at this moment the stage-curtain rose.
By the aid of photographs procured in America, and by dint of personal supervision and suggestions, Mrs. Orme had successfully arranged the exact reproduction of certain localities: the college—the campus—the humble cottage of old Mrs. Chesley with its peculiar porch, whose column caps were carved to represent dogs' heads—the interior of a hospital, of an orphan asylum, and of the library at the parsonage.
Leaning far back in his chair, a prey to gloomy and indescribably bitter reflections, as he accustomed himself to the contemplation of the fact that the beautiful woman in whom his own fickle wayward heart had become earnestly interested, would sell herself to the grey-bearded man beside him, Cuthbert gnawed his silky moustache; while his father watched with feverish impatience for the opening of the play, and the sight of his enchantress.
The curtain rose upon a group sitting on the sward before the cottage door. Minnie Merle in the costume of a very young girl, with her golden hair all hidden under a thick wig of dark curling locks, that straggled in childish disorder around her neck and shoulders, while her sun-bonnet, the veritable green and white gingham of other days, lay at her feet. Beside her a tall youth, who represented Peleg Peterson, in the garb of a carpenter, with a tool-box on the ground, and in his hands a wooden doll, which he was carving for the child.
In the door of the cottage sat the grandmother knitting and nodding, with white hair shining under her snowy cap-border; and while the carpenter carved and whistled an old-fashioned ditty, "Meet me by moonlight alone," the girl in a quavering voice attempted to accompany him.
Minnie sat with her countenance turned fully to the audience, and when Cuthbert Laurance's eyes fell on the cottage front, and upon the face under that cloud of dark elfish locks, he caught his breath, and his eyes seemed almost starting from their sockets. His hand fell heavily on his father's knee, and he groaned audibly.
General Laurance turned and whispered:
"For God's sake, what is the matter? Are you ill?"
There was no answer from the son, who tightened his clutch upon the old man's knee, and watched breathlessly what was passing on the stage.
The scene was shifted, and now the whole facade of the college rose before him, with a pretty picture in the foreground; a tall handsome student, leaning against the trunk of an ancient elm, and talking to the girl who sat on the turf, with a basket of freshly-ironed shirts resting on the grass beside her. The identical straw hat, which Cuthbert had left behind him when summoned home, was upon the student's head, and as the timid shrinking girl glanced up shyly at her companion, Cuthbert Laurance almost hissed in his father's ear: "Great God! It is Minnie herself!"
General Laurance loosened the curtain next the audience, and as the folds swept down, concealing somewhat the figure of his son, he whispered:
"What do you mean? Are you drunk, or mad?"
Cuthbert grasped his father's hand, and murmured:
"Don't you know the college? That is Minnie yonder!"
"Minnie? My son, what ails you? Go home, you are ill."
"I tell you, that is Minnie Merle, so surely as there is a God above us. Mrs. Orme—is Minnie—my Minnie! My wife! She has dramatized her own life!"
"Impossible, Cuthbert! You are delirious—insane. You are——"
"That woman yonder is my wife! Now I understand why such strange sweet memories thrilled me when I saw her first in 'Amy Robsart.' The golden hair disguised her. Oh, father!"
The blank dismay in General Laurance's countenance was succeeded by an expression of dread, and as he looked from his son's blanched convulsed face to that of the actress under the arching elms of the campus, the horrible truth flashed upon him like a lurid glimpse of Hades. He struck his hand against his forehead, and his grizzled head sank on his bosom. All that had formerly perplexed him was hideously apparent, startlingly clear; and he saw the abyss to which she had lured him, and understood the motives that had prompted her.
After some moments he pushed his seat back beyond the range of observation from the audience, and beckoned his son to follow his example, but Cuthbert stood leaning upon the back of his chair, with eyes riveted on the play.
The courtship, the clandestine meetings, the interview in which Peleg intruded upon the lovers, the revelation to the grandmother, were accurately delineated, and in each scene the girl grew taller, by some arrangement of the skirts, which were at first very short, while she appeared in a sitting posture.
When the secret marriage was decided upon, and the party left the cottage by night, Cuthbert turned, rested one hand on his father's shoulder, and as the scene changed to the quiet parsonage, he pressed heavily, and muttered:
"Even the very dress that she wore that day! And—there is the black agate! On her hand—where I put it! Don't you know it? How she turns it!"
In the tableau of the marriage ceremony she had taken her position with reference to the locality of the box, and as near it as possible, and in the glare of the footlights the ring was clearly revealed.
Lifting his lorgnette, General Laurance inspected the white hand he had once kissed so rapturously, and by the aid of the lenses he recognized the costly ring, the valued heirloom, for the recovery of which he had offered five hundred dollars. Had he still cherished a shadowy hope that Cuthbert was suffering from some fearful delusion, the sight of that singular and fatal ring utterly overthrew the last lingering vestige of doubt. Stunned, miserable, dimly foreboding some overwhelming denouement, he sat in stony stillness, knowing that this was but the prelude to some dire catastrophe.
When the telegram, arrived and the young husband took his bride in his arms, the girlish face was lifted, and the passionate gleam of the dilating brown eyes sent a strange thrill to the hearts of both father and son. Vowing to return very soon and claim her, the husband tore himself away, and as he vanished through a side door near the box, Minnie followed, stretched out her arms, and looking up full at its two tenants she breathed her wild passionate prayer which rang with indescribable pathos through that vast building:
"My husband! My husband—do not forsake me!"
Cuthbert put his hand over his eyes, and but for the voices on the stage his shuddering groan would have been heard outside the box. In the scene where Peleg's advances were indignantly repulsed, and his threats to unleash the bloodhounds of slander, hunting her to infamy, were fully developed, Cuthbert seemed to rouse himself from his stupor and a different expression crossed his features.
Skilfully the part played by General Laurance in bribing Peleg, and returning the letters of the wretched wife, the disgraceful threats, the offers to buy up and cancel her conjugal claims, were all presented.
When the grandmother departed, and the child-wife secretly made her way to New York, seeking service that would secure her bread, and still hopeful of her husband's return, Cuthbert grasped his father's arm and hissed in his ear:
"You deceived me! You told me she went with that villain to California to hide her disgrace!"
Cowed and powerless, the old man sat, recognizing the faithful portraiture of his own dark schemes in those early days of the trouble, and growing numb with a vague prophetic dread that the foundations of the world were crumbling away.