His son suddenly drew his chair a little forward and sat down, his elbow on his knee, his head on his hand; his gaze fixed on the woman who had contrived to reproduce even the fall that caused her removal to the hospital.
The ensuing scene represented the young mother, sitting on a cot in the hospital, with a babe lying across her knees, and the storm of horror, hate, and defiance with which she spurned Peleg from her, calling on heaven to defend her and her baby, and denouncing the treachery of General Laurance who had bribed Peterson to insult and defame her.
As he was dragged from the apartment, vowing that neither she nor her child should be permitted to enjoy the name to which they were entitled, the feeble woman, shorn of her brown locks, and wearing a close cap, lifted her infant, and with streaming eyes implored heaven to defend it and its hapless mother from cruel persecution.
In the wonderful power with which she proclaimed her deathless loyalty to the husband of her love, and her conviction that God would interpose to shield his helpless child, the audience recognized the fervour and pathos of the rendition, and the applause that greeted her, as she bowed sobbing over her baby, told how the hearts of her hearers thrilled.
The curtain fell, and Cuthbert's eyes, gleaming like steel, turned to his father's countenance.
"Is that true? Dare you deny it?"
The old man only stared blankly at the carpet on the floor, and his son's fingers closed like a vice around his arm.
"You have practised an infernal imposture upon me! You told me she followed him, and that the child was his."
"He said so."
General Laurance's voice was husky, and a grey hue had settled upon his features.
"You paid him to proclaim the base falsehood! You whom I trusted so fully. Father, where is my child?"
No answer; and the curtain rose on the fair young mother, came forward with her own golden hair in full splendour.
Involuntarily the audience testified their recognition of the beautiful actress who now appeared for the first time, looking as when she made her debut long ago in Paris. She was at the asylum, with a young child clinging to her finger, tottering at her side, and as she guided its steps, and hushed it in her arms, many mothers among the spectators felt the tears rush to their eyes.
Walking with the infant cradled on her bosom, she passed twice across the stage, then paused beneath the box, and murmured:
"Papa's baby—Papa's own precious baby!" and her splendid eyes humid with tears looked full, straight into those of her husband.
It was the first time they had met during the evening, and something she saw in that quivering face made her heart ache with the old numbing agony. Cuthbert could scarcely restrain himself from leaping down upon the stage and clasping her in his arms; but she moved away, and the sorely smitten husband bowed his face in his hand, luckily shielded from public view by the position in which he sat.
The dinner scene ensued, and the abrupt announcement of the second marriage. The anguish and despair of the repudiated wife were portrayed with a vividness, a marvellous eloquence and passionate fervour that surpassed all former exhibitions of her genius, and the people rose, and applauded, as audiences sometimes do, when the magnetic wave rolls from the heart and brain on the stage to those of the men and women who watch and listen completely en rapport.
The life of the actress began, the struggle to provide for her child, the constant care to elude discovery, the application for legal advice, the statement of her helplessness, the attempt to secure the license; all were represented, and at last the meeting with her husband in the theatre.
Gradually the pathos melted away, she was the stern relentless outraged wife, intent only upon revenge. She spared not even the interview in which the faithless husband sought her presence; and as Cuthbert watched her, repeating the sentences that had so galled his pride, he asked himself how he had failed to recognize his own wife?
In the meeting with the child of the second marriage, her wild exultation, her impassioned invocation of Nemesis, was one of the most effective passages in the drama; and it caused a shiver to creep like a serpent over the body of the father, who pitied so tenderly the afflicted Maud.
As the scheme of saying her own daughter, by sacrificing herself in a nominal marriage with the man whom she hated and loathed so intensely, developed itself, a perceptible chill fell upon the audience; the unnaturalness of the crime asserted itself.
While she rendered almost literally the interviews at Pozzuoli and at Naples, Cuthbert glanced at his father, and saw a purplish flush steal from neck to forehead, but the old man's eyes never quitted the floor. He seemed incapable of moving, Gorgonized by the beautiful Medusa whose invectives against him were scathing, terrible.
As the play approached its close and the preparation for the marriage, even the details of the settlement were narrated, suspense reached its acme. Then came the letters of reprieve, the deliverance from the bondage of Peterson's vindictive malice, the power of establishing her claim; and when she wept her thanksgiving for salvation, many wept in sympathy; while Regina, borne away in breathless admiration of her mother's wonderful genius, sobbed unrestrainedly.
When the letters of Peterson and of the lawyer were read, mapping the line of prosecution for the recovery of the wife's rights, the father slowly raised his eyes, and, looking drearily at his son, muttered:
"It is all over with us, Cuthbert. She has won; we are ruined. Let us go home."
He attempted to rise, but with a glare of mingled wrath and scorn his son held him back.
The last scene was reached; the triumphant vindication of wife and child, the condemnation of the two who had conspired to defraud them, the foreclosure of the mortgages, the penury of the proud aristocrats, and the disgrace that overwhelmed them.
Finally the second wife and afflicted child came to crave leniency, and the husband and the father pleaded for pardon; but with a malediction upon the house that caused her wretchedness, the broken-hearted woman retreated to the palatial home she had at last secured, and under its upas shadow died in the arms of her daughter.
Her play contained many passages which afforded her scope for the manifestation of her extraordinary power, and at its close the people would not depart until she had appeared in acknowledgment of their plaudits.
Brilliantly beautiful she looked, with the glittering light of triumph in her large mesmeric eyes, a rich glow mantling her cheeks, and rouging her lips; while in heavy folds the black velvet robe swept around her queenly figure. How stately, elegant, unapproachable she seemed to the man who leaned forward, gazing with all his heart in his eyes upon the wife of his youth, the only woman he had ever really loved, now his most implacable foe!
The audience dispersed, and Cuthbert and his father sat like those old Roman Senators, awaiting the breaking of the wave of savage vengeance that was rolling in upon them.
At length General Laurance struggled to his feet, and mechanically quitted the theatre, followed by his son. Reaching the carriage, they entered, and Cuthbert ordered the coachman to drive to Mrs. Orme's hotel.
"Not now! For God's sake, not to-night," groaned the old man.
"To-night, before another hour, this awful imposture must be confessed, and reparation offered. I sinned against Minnie, but not premeditatedly. You deceived me. You made me believe her the foul, guilty thing you wished her. You intercepted her letters, you never let me know that I had a child neglected and forsaken; and, father, God may forgive you, but I never can. My proud, lovely Minnie! My own wife!"
Cuthbert buried his face in his hands, and his strong frame shook as he pictured what might have been, contrasting it with the hideous reality of his loveless and miserable marriage with the banker's daughter, who threatened him with social disgrace.
During that drive General Laurance felt that he was approaching some offended and avenging Fury, that he was drifting down to ruin, powerless to lift his hand and stay even for an instant the fatal descent; that he was gradually petrifying, and things seemed vague and intangible.
When they reached the hotel, they were ushered into the salon already brilliantly lighted as if in expectation of their arrival. Cuthbert paced the floor; his father sank into a chair, resting his hands on the top of his cane.
After a little while, a silk curtain at the lower end of the room was lifted, and Mrs. Orme came slowly forward. How her lustrous eyes gleamed as she stood in the centre of the apartment, scorn, triumph, hate, all struggling for mastery in her lovely face.
"Gentlemen, you have read the handwriting on the wall. Do you come for defiance, or capitulation?"
General Laurance lifted his head, but instantly dropped it on his bosom; he seemed to have aged suddenly, prematurely. Cuthbert advanced, stood close beside the woman whose gaze intensified as he drew near her, and said brokenly:
"Minnie, I come merely to exonerate myself before God and man. Heaven is my witness, that I never knew I had a child in America until to-night, that until to-night I believed you were in California living as the wife of that base villain Peterson, who wrote announcing himself your accepted lover. From the day I kissed you good-bye at the cottage, I never received a line, a word, a message from you. When I doubted my father's and Peterson's statements concerning you, and wrote two letters, one to the President of the college, one to a resident professor, seeking some information of your whereabouts, in order at least to visit you once more, when I became twenty-one, both answered me that you had forfeited your fair name, had been forsaken by your grandmother, and had gone away from the village accompanied by Peterson, who was regarded as your favoured lover. I ceased to doubt, I believed you false. I knew no better until to-night. Father, my honour demands that the truth be spoken at last. Will you corroborate my statement?"
Pale and proud, he stood erect, and she saw that a consciousness of rectitude at least in purpose, sustained him.
"Mrs. Orme——" began General Laurance.
"Away with such shams and masks! Mrs. Orme died on the theatrical boards to-night, and henceforth the world knows me as Minnie Laurance! Ah! by the grace of God! Minnie Laurance!"
She laughed derisively, and held up her fair slender hand, exhibiting the black agate with its grinning skull lighted by the glow of the large radiant diamonds.
"Minnie, I never dreamed you were his wife; oh, my God! how horrible it all is!"
He seemed bewildered, and his son exclaimed:
"Who is responsible for the separation from my wife? You, father, or I?"
"I did it, my son. I meant it for the best. I naturally believed you had been entrapped into a shameful alliance, and as any other father would have done, I was ready to credit the unfavourable estimate derived from the man Peterson. He told me that Minnie had belonged to him until she and her grandmother conceived the scheme of inveigling you into a secret marriage; and afterward he informed me of the birth of his child. I did not pay him to claim it, but when he pronounced it his, I gave him money to pay the expenses of the two whom he claimed to California; and I supposed until to-night that both had accompanied him. I did not manufacture statements, I only gladly credited them; and believing all that man told me, I felt justified in intercepting letters addressed to you by the woman whom he claimed as mother of his child. Madame, do not blame Cuthbert. I did it all."
The abject wretchedness of his mien disconcerted her; robbed her of half her anticipated triumph. How could she exult in trampling upon a bruised worm which made no attempt to crawl from beneath her heel? He sat, the image of hopeless dejection, his hands crossed on the gold head of his cane.
Mrs. Orme walked to the end of the room, lifted the curtain, and at a signal Regina joined her. Clasping the girl's fingers firmly she led her forward, and when to front of the old man, she exclaimed:
"Rene Laurance, blood triumphs over malice, perjury, and bribery; whose is this child? Is she Merle, Peterson, or Laurance?"
Standing before them, in a dress of some soft snowy shining fabric, neither silk nor crape, with white starry jasmines in her raven hair and upon her bosom, Regina seemed some angelic visitant sent to still the strife of human passions, so lovely and pure was her colourless face; and as General Laurance looked up at her, he rose suddenly.
"Pauline Laurance, my sister; the exact, the wonderful image! Laurance, all Laurance, from head to foot."
He dropped back into the chair, and smiled vacantly.
Cuthbert sprang forward, his face all aglow, his eyes radiant, and eloquent.
"Minnie, is this indeed our child? Your daughter—and mine?"
He extended his arms, but she waved him back.
"Do not touch her! How dare you? This is my baby, my darling, my treasure. This is the helpless little one, whose wails echoed in a hospital ward; who came into the world cursed with the likeness of her father. This is the child you disowned, persecuted; this is the baby God gave to you and to me; but you forfeited your claim long years ago, and she has no father, only his name henceforth. She is wholly, entirely her mother's blue-eyed baby. You have your Maud."
As she spoke a wealth of proud tenderness shone in her eyes, which rested on the lily face of her child, and at that moment how she gloried in her perfect loveliness.
Her husband groaned, and clasped his hand over his face to conceal the agony that was intolerable, and in an instant, ere the mother could suspect or frustrate her design, the girl broke from her hand, sprang forward and threw herself on Cuthbert's bosom, clasping her arms around his neck, and sobbing:
"My father! Take me just once to your heart! Call me daughter; let me once in my life hear the blessed words from my own father's lips!"
He strained her to his bosom, and kissed the pure face, while tears trickled over his cheeks and dripped down on hers. Her mother made a step forward to snatch her back, but at sight of his tears, of the close embrace in which he held her, the wife turned away, unable to look upon the spectacle and preserve her composure.
A heavy fall startled all present, and a glance showed them General Laurance lying insensible on the carpet.
In the clear, cold analytical light which the "Juventui Mundi" pours upon the nebulous realm of Hellenic lore and Heroic legend, we learn that Homer knew "no destiny fighting with the gods, or unless in the shape of death, defying them,"—and that the "Nemesis often inaccurately rendered as revenge, was after all but self-judgment, or sense of moral law." Even in the dim Homeric dawn, Conscience found personification.
Aroused suddenly to a realization of the wrongs and wretchedness to which his inordinate pride and ambition had chiefly contributed, the Nemesis of self-judgment had opened its grim assize in General Laurance's soul, and he cowered before the phantoms that stood forth to testify.
No father of ordinary prudence and affection could have failed to oppose the reckless folly of his son's ill-starred marriage, or hesitated to save him, if compatible with God's law and human statutes, from the misery and humiliation it threatened to entail. But when he made a football of marriage vows, and became auxiliary to a second nuptial ceremony, striving by legal quibbles to cancel what only Death annuls, the hounds of Retribution leaped from their leash.
The deepest, strongest love of his life had bloomed in the sunset light, wearing the mellow glory of the aftermath; and his heart clung to the beautiful dream of his old age, with a fierce tenacity that destroyed it, when rudely torn away by the awful revelations of "Infelice." To lose at once not only his lovely idol, but that darling fetich—Laurance prestige; to behold the total eclipse of his proud reputation and family name; to witness the ploughshare of social degradation and financial ruin driven by avenging hands over all he held dearest, was a doom which the vanquished old man could not survive.
Perhaps the vital forces had already begun to yield to the disease that so suddenly prostrated him at Naples, dashing the cup of joy from his thirsty lips; and perchance the grim Kata-clothes had handed the worn tangled threads of existence to their faithful minister Paralysis, even before the severe shock that numbed him while sitting in the theatre loge.
When his eyes closed upon the spectacle of his son, folding in his arms his firstborn, they shut out for ever the things of time and sense, and consciousness that forsook him then never reoccupied its throne. He was carried from the brilliant salon of the popular actress to the home of his son; medical skill exhausted its ingenuity, and though forty-eight hours elapsed before the weary heart ceased its slow feeble pulsations, General Laurance's soul passed to its final assize, without even a shadowy farewell recognition of the son, for whom he had hoped, suffered, dared so much.
"Some men's sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after."
During the week that succeeded his temporary entombment in the sacred repose of Pere La Chaise, Mrs. Orme completed her brief engagement at the theatre where she had so dearly earned her freshest laurels; and though her tragic career closed in undimmed splendour, when she voluntarily abdicated the throne she had justly won, bidding adieu for ever to the scene of former triumphs, she heard above the plaudits of the multitude the stern whisper, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay."
The man whom she most intensely hated, and most ardently longed to humiliate and abase in public estimation, had escaped the punishment; housed from reproach by the stony walls of the tomb, mocking her efforts to requite the suffering he had inflicted; and the keenest anticipations of her vindictive purpose were foiled, vanquished.
One morning, ten days after the presentation of "Infelice," Mrs. Orme sat listening to her daughter, who, observing her restless, dissatisfied manner, proposed to read aloud. Between the two had fallen an utter silence with reference to the past, and not an allusion had been made to Cuthbert Laurance since the night he had first held his daughter to his heart. Death had dropped like a sacred seal upon its memorable incidents, which all avoided; but mother and child seemed hourly to cling more closely to each other.
To-day sitting on a low ottoman, with her arm thrown across her mother's knee, while the white hand wearing the black agate wandered now and then over her drooping head, Regina read the "Madonna Mia."
She had not concluded the perusal, when a card was brought in, and a glance at her mother's countenance left her no room to doubt the name it bore.
"After five minutes, show him in."
Mrs. Orme closed her eyes, and her lips trembled.
"My daughter, do you desire to be present at this last earthly interview?"
"No, mother. My wrongs I freely forgive, I told him so, but yours I can never forget; and I would prefer in future not to meet him. God pity and comfort you both."
She kissed her mother's cheek, lips, even her hands, and hastily retreated. As she vanished, Mrs. Orme threw herself on her knees, and her lips moved rapidly while she wrung her fingers; but the petition was inaudible, known only to the Searcher of hearts. Was it for strength to prosecute to the bitter end, or for grace to forgive?
She placed a strong metal box on the ormolu stand near her chair, and had just resumed her seat when Mr. Laurance entered, and approached her. He was in deep mourning, and his intensely pale but composed face bore the chastening lines of a profound and hopeless sorrow; but retained the proud unflinching regard peculiar to his family.
Of the two, he was most calm and self-possessed. Bowing in answer to the inclination of her head, he drew a chair in front of her, and when he sat down she saw a package of papers in his hand.
"I am glad, Mrs. Laurance, that you grant me this opportunity of saying a few words, which after to-day I shall seek no occasion to repeat; for with this interview ends all intercourse between us, at least in this world. These papers I found in poor father's private desk, and I have read them. They are your notes, and the marriage contract, which only awaited the signature he intended to affix."
She held out her hand, and a burning blush dyed her cheek, as she reflected on the loathsome purpose which had framed that carefully worded instrument.
"To-day I leave Paris for America, to front, as best I may, the changed aspect of life. I have not yet told Abbie of the cloud of sorrow and humiliation that will soon break over our family circle, for poor little Maud has been quite ill, and I deferred my bitter revelation until her mother's mind is composed and clear enough to grasp the mournful truth. In the suit which I presume you will commence, as soon as I land in America, you need apprehend no effort on my part to elude the consequences of my own criminal folly and rashness. I shall attempt no defence, beyond requiring my counsel to state that no communication ever reached me from you; that I believed you the wife of another; and I shall also insist upon the reading of the two letters in answer to those I wrote, requesting the President and Professor to ascertain where you were. I was assured that a marriage contracted during my minority was invalid, and without due investigation of the statutes of the State in which it was performed and which had unfortunately undergone a change, I believed it. Your right as a wife is clear, indisputable, inalienable, and cannot be withheld; and the divorce you desire will inevitably be granted. I cannot censure your resolution, it is due to yourself, doubly due to your child—our child! My child! Oh! that I had known the truth seventeen years ago! How different your fate and mine!"
She leaned back, closing her eyes, against the eloquent pleading of that mesmeric countenance which was slowly robbing her of her stern purposes; renewing the spell she had never been able to fully resist.
He saw the spasm of pain that wrinkled her brow, blanched her lips; and gazing into the lovely face so dear to him, he exclaimed:
"Minnie! Minnie! Oh, my wife! My own wife!"
He sank on his knees before her, and his handsome head fell upon the arm of her chair. She covered her face with her hands, and a smothered sob broke from her tortured heart.
"I have sinned, but not intentionally against you. God is my witness had I known all twenty oceans could not have kept me from my wife and my baby. When you lived it all over again that night, when I saw you ill, deserted, in a charity hospital, with the child you say is mine cradled in your arms, oh! then indeed I suffered what all the pangs of perdition cannot surpass. When you and I married we were but children, but I loved you; afterward when I was a man, I madly renewed those vows to one, whom I was urged, persuaded, to wed. I am not a villain, and I know my duties to the mother of my afflicted Maud, to the child of my loveless union, and I intend rigidly to discharge them. But, Minnie, God knows that you are my true, lawful wife, and I want here upon my knees, before we part for ever, to tell you that no other woman ever possessed my heart. I have tried to be a patient, kind, indulgent husband to Abbie, but when I look at you, and think of her, remembering that my own rash blindness shut me from the Eden that now seems so deliciously alluring, when I realize what might have been for you and me, my punishment indeed appears unendurable. Ah, no language can describe my feelings, as I looked at that noble, lovely girl. Oh the fond pride of knowing that she is mine as well as yours! My wife! my wife, let the holy blue eyes and pure lips of our baby, our daughter, plead her father's forgiveness——"
His voice faltered. There was a deep silence. Although kneeling so near, he made no attempt to touch her. For fifteen years she had struggled against all tender memories, and every softening recollection had been harshly banished. She had trained herself to despise and hate the man who had so blackened her life at its dewy threshold; but the mysterious workings of a woman's heart baffle experience, analysis, and conjecture.
Listening to the low cadence of the beloved voice that first waked her from the magic realm of childhood, and unsealed the fountain of affection, the days of their courtship stole back; the blissful hours of the brief honeymoon. He was her lover, her noble young husband; above all, he was the father of her baby; and yielding to the old irresistible infatuation she suddenly laid her hand upon his head. As yet she had not uttered a syllable since his entrance, but the floodgates were lifted, and he heard the despairing cry of her famished heart:
"Oh, my husband! My husband, my own husband!"
He threw his arms around her as she leaned toward him, and drew the head to his shoulder. So in silence they rested, and he felt that one arm tightened around him, as he knelt holding her to his heart.
"Minnie, your true heart forgives your unworthy husband. Tell me so, and it will enable me to bear all that the future may contain. Say, Cuthbert, I forgive you."
She struggled up, gazed into his eyes, and exclaimed:
"No; I loved you too well, too insanely ever to forgive, had loved you less, I might have forgiven more. There is no meekness in my soul, but an intolerable bitterness that mocks and maddens me. I ought to despise myself, and I certainly shall, for this unpardonable weakness. But very precious memories unnerved me just then, and I clung, not to you, not to Abbie Ames' husband, but to the phantom of the Cuthbert whom long ago I loved so well, to the vision of the young bridegroom I worshipped so blindly. Let me go. Our interview is ended."
She withdrew from his arms, and rose.
"Before I go, let me see our child once more. Let me tell her that her father is inexpressibly proud of the daughter who will honour his unworthy name again."
"She declines meeting you again."
"Minnie, don't teach her to hate me."
"I gave her the opportunity, and she made her own choice, saying she freely forgave the wrongs committed against her, but her mother's she could never forget. If I had asked of Heaven the keenest punishment within the range of vengeance, it seems to me none could exceed the wretchedness of the man who, owning my darling for his child, is yet debarred from her love, her reverence, her confidence, and the precious charm of her continual presence. My sweet, tender, perfect daughter! The one true heart in all the wide world that loves and clings to me. You forsook and disowned me, repudiated your vows, offered them elsewhere, making unto yourself strange new gods; profaning the altar, where other images should have stood. The banker's daughter, and the Laurance heiress she bore you, are entitled to what remains of your fickle selfish heart, and I trust that the two who supplanted my baby and me will suffice for your happiness in the future as in the past. Into my own and my darling's life you can enter no more. 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?' You deem me relentless and vindictive? Think of all the grey, sunless, woeful existence I showed you behind the footlights not many nights since, and censure me if you can. There is no pious resignation in my proud soul for indeed 'there are chastisements that do not chasten; there are trials that do not purify, and sorrows that do not elevate; there are pains and privations that harden the tender heart, without softening the stubborn will.' Of such are the sombre wrap and woof of my ill-starred life. When you reach New York Mr. Erle Palma, who is my counsel, will acquaint you with the course he deems it best to pursue."
She looked calm and stately as the Ludovisian Juno, and quite as lovely, in her pale pride.
"Minnie, do not part from me in anger. Oh, my wife, let me fold you in my arms once more! And once, just once, I pray you, let me kiss you! Are you not my own?"
She recoiled a step, her brown eyes lightened, and her words fell crisp as icicles:
"Since I was a bride, three weeks a wife, since you pressed them last, no man's lips have touched mine. I hold them too sacred to that dear buried past to be submitted to a pressure less holy—to be profaned by those of another woman's husband. Only my daughter kisses my lips. Yours are soiled with perjury, and belong to the wife and child of your choice. Go, pay your vows, be true at last to something. Good-bye."
He came closer, but her pitiless chill face repulsed him. Seizing her beautiful hand, white and cold as marble, he lifted it, but the flash of the diamonds smote his heart like a heavy flail.
"The death's head that you gave me as a bridal token! Is there not a fatality even in symbols? Upon my wedding ring stands the cinerary urn that soon sepulchred my peace, my hopes. A mockery so exquisite could not have been accidental, and faithfully that grinning skeleton has walked with me. The ghastly coat of arms of Laurance."
She had thrown off his clasp, raised her hand, and turned the ring over, till the jewels glowed, then it fell back nerveless at her side.
His voice was broken, but her lustrous eyes betrayed no hint of pity.
"My wife has no pardon for her erring husband. I have merited none, still I hoped for one kind farewell word from lips that are strangely dear to me. So be it. Tell my daughter, if her unhappy father dared to pray, he would invoke Heaven's choicest blessings on her young innocent head. And, Minnie love, let our baby's eyes and lips successfully plead pardon for her father's unintentional sins against the wife he never ceased to love."
He caught the hand once more, kissed the ring he had placed there eighteen years before, and, feeling his hot trembling lips upon her icy fingers, she shut her eyes. When she opened them—she was alone.
"We twain have met like ships upon the sea, Who hold an hour's converse, so short, so sweet;— One little hour! and then, away they speed, On lonely paths, through mist, and cloud and foam— To meet no more!"
From the window of one of those beautiful villas that encrust the shores of Como, nestling like white birds at the base of the laurel and vine-clad hills that lave their verdant feet in the blue waters, Regina watched the sunshine falling across the placid bosom of the lake. Far away, on the sky-line opposite, and towering above the intervening mountains, glittered the white fire of the snowy Alps, as if they longed to quench their dazzling lustre in the peaceful blue sleeping beneath.
Luxuriant vines clambered along the hillsides, and where the latter had been cut in terraces, and seemed swinging like the gardens of Semiramis, orange, lemon, myrtle, and olive trees showed all their tender green and soft grey tints, and longhaired acacias waved in the evening air, that was redolent of the faint delicious vesper incense swung from the pink chalices of climbing roses.
"No tree cumbered with creepers let the sunshine through, But it was caught in scarlet cups, and poured From these on amber tufts of bloom, and dropped Lower on azure stars."
Never weary of studying the wonderful beauty of the surrounding scenery, Regina surrendered herself to an enjoyment that would have been unalloyed had not a lurking shadow cast its unwelcome chill on all. Mr. and Mrs. Waul had returned to America, and for a month Mrs. Laurance, accompanied by Mr. Chesley and Regina, had been quietly ensconced in this lovely villa, whose terraces and balconies projected almost into the water, and commanded some of the finest views of the lake.
But anxiety had followed, taking up its dreary watch in the midst of that witchery which might have exorcised the haunting grey ghost of care; and though shrouded by every imaginable veil and garland of beauty, its grim presence was as fully felt as that of the byssus-clad mummy that played its allotted part at ancient Coptic feasts.
The steamer in which Mr. Laurance embarked with his family for America had been lost in mid Atlantic; and only one boat filled with a portion of the passengers and crew had been rescued by a West Indian ship bound for Liverpool. Among the published names of the few survivors that of Laurance did not appear.
Had old ocean mercifully opened its crystal bosom and gathered to coral caves and shrouding purple algae the unfortunate man, who had quaffed all the rosy foam beading the goblet of life, and for whom it only remained to drain the bitter lees of public humiliation and social disgrace?
When Mrs. Laurance received the first intimation that Cuthbert had probably perished, with his wife and child, she vehemently and stubbornly refused her credence. It seemed impossible that envious death could have so utterly snatched from her grasp the triumph upon which her eager fingers were already closing.
Causing advertisements to be inserted in various journals, and offering therein a reward for information of the missing passengers, she forbade the topic broached in her presence, and quitting Paris retired for a season to Lake Como, vainly seeking that coveted tranquillity which everywhere her own harrowing thoughts and ceaseless forebodings effectually murdered.
As time wore on she grew gloomy, taciturn, almost morose, and a restlessness beyond the remedy of medicine robbed her of the power of sleep. To-day she clung convulsively to her daughter, unwilling that she should leave her even for an instant; to-morrow she would lock herself in, and for hours refuse admittance to any human being. The rich bloom forsook her cheek, deep shadows underlined her large melancholy eyes, and her dimpled hands became so diaphanous, so thin, that the black agate ring with difficulty held its place upon the wasted fingers.
With patient loving care, Regina anticipated her wishes, indulged all her varying caprices, devoted herself assiduously to the task of diverting her mind, and comforting her heart by the tender ministrations of her own intense filial affection. By day she read, talked, sang to her. When in the tormenting still hours of night her mother refused the thorns of a sleepless pillow, the daughter drew her out upon the terrace against which the wavelets broke in a silvery monologue, and directed her thoughts to the glowing stars that clustered in the blue dome above, and shimmered in the azure beneath; or with an arm around the mother's waist, led her into the flowery garden, and up the winding walks that climbed the eminence behind the villa, where oleanders whitened the gloom, and passionate jasmines broke their rich hearts upon the dewy air; so, pacing to and fro, until the moon went down behind myrtle groves, and the bald brow of distant Alps flushed under the first kiss of day.
For Mrs. Laurance, nepenthe was indeed a fable, and while she abstained from even an indirect allusion to the subject that absorbed her, the nameless anxiety that seemed consuming her, Regina and her uncle watched her with increasing apprehension.
This afternoon she had complained of headache, and, throwing herself on a couch in the recess of the window that overlooked the lake, desired to be left alone, in the hope of falling asleep.
Stooping to kiss her, Regina said:
"Mother, let me sit by you, and while I fan you gently read the 'Lotos Eaters.' The drowsy rhythm will lull you into that realm of rest,—
'In which it seemed always afternoon.'
"No. To-day your blue eyes would stab my sleep. I will ring when I want you."
Dropping the filmy lace curtains, in order to lessen the reflection from the water, Regina softly stole away, and sat down at the window of the salon, where satin-leaved arums and dainty pearly orchids embellished the consoles, and fragrant heliotrope and geraniums were blooming in pots clustered upon the stone balcony outside.
Each day the favourite view of the lake and bending shore line, upon which she gazed from this spot, developed some new beauty, hidden hitherto under leafy laurel shadows, or behind the snowy soil of some fishing-boat, rocking idly upon the azure waves.
Now the burden of her reflections was:
"If we could only spend our lives in this marble haven, away from the turmoil and feverish confusion of the outside world—forgetting the past, contented with the society of each other—and shut in with God and nature, how peaceful the future would be! nay, how happy all might yet become!"
Sympathy with her mother had forced her to put temporarily aside the contemplation of her own sorrow, but in secret it preyed upon her heart; and whenever a letter arrived, she dreaded the announcement of Mr. Palma's marriage.
His parting allusion to a brief European visit she had by the aid of her fears interpreted to mean a bridal tour, curtailed by his business engagements; and though she never mentioned his name when it could be avoided, she could not hear it casually pronounced by her uncle or mother, without feeling her heart bound suddenly.
Once, soon after her arrival in Paris, her mother, in reading a letter from Mr. Palma, glanced at her, and said:
"Your guardian desires me to say, that in your undisguised devotion to Uncle Orme he presumes he is completely forgotten; but consoles himself with the reflection, that from time immemorial wards have been like the Carthaginians—proverbially ungrateful."
Regina made no response, and since then she had received no message.
While she sat gazing over Como, a mirage rose glistening between her eyes, and the emerald shore beyond: the dear familiar outlines of that Fifth Avenue library, the frescoed walls, polished floor, mellow gas lamps; and above all, the stately form, massive head, high brow, so like a slab of marble, and blight black eyes of the dear master.
She was glad when Mr. Chesley came in, with an open book in his hand, and stood near her.
"Is your mother asleep?"
"I hope so. She sent me away that she might get a nap."
"Just now I stumbled upon a passage which reminded me so vividly of the imaginary home you last week painted for us, somewhere along the Pacific shore, that I thought I would show it to you. That home, where you hope to indulge your bucolic tastes, your childish fondness for pets—doves, rabbits, pheasants—and similar rustic appendages to our cottage—in—the—air. Here, read it, aloud if you will."
She glanced over the lines, smiled, and read:
"'Mong the green lanes of Kent stood an antique home Within its orchard, rich with ruddy fruits; For the full year was laughing in his prime. Wealth of all flowers grew in that garden green, And the old porch with its great oaken door Was smothered in rose-blooms, while o'er the walls The honeysuckle clung deliciously. Before the door there lay a plot of grass Snowed o'er with daisies,—flower by all beloved, And famousest in song,—and in the midst A carved fountain stood,... On which a peacock perched and sunned itself; Beneath, two petted rabbits, snowy white, Squatted upon the sward. A row of poplars darkly rose behind, Around whose tops, and the old-fashioned vanes, White pigeons fluttered; and over all was bent The mighty sky, with sailing, sunny clouds."
"Thank you, Uncle Orme. The picture is as sweet as its honeysuckle blooms, and some day we will frame it with California mountains, and call it Home. I shall only want to add a gently sloping field, wherein pearly short-horns stand ankle deep in clover, while my dear old dog Hero basks upon the doorstep; and upon the lawn,—
'An almond tree Pink with her blossom and alive with bees, Standing against the azure.'"
"Yonder come the letters."
As he spoke, Mr. Chesley left the room, and soon after a servant entered with a letter addressed to Regina.
It was from Olga, dated Baden-baden; and the vein of subdued yet hopeless melancholy that wandered through its contents, now and then intertwined strangely with a thread of her old grim humour.
"Do you ever hear from that legal sphinx—Erle Palma? Mamma only now and then receives epistles fashioned after those once in vogue in Laconia. (I wonder if even the old toothless gossips in Sparta were ever laconic?) I am truly sorry for Erle Palma. That beautifully crystallized quartz heart of his is no doubt being ground between the upper and nether millstones of his love and his pride; and Hymen ought to charge him heavy mill-toll. My dear, have you seen Elliott Roscoe's little tinted-paper poem? Of course his apostrophe to 'violet eyes, overlaced with jet!' will sound quite Tennysonian to a certain little shy girl, now hiding at Como, and who 'inspired the strain.' But aside from the pleasant association that links you with the verses, they are—pardon me, dear—as thin and flavourless as—well, as the soup dished out at pauper restaurants. You are at liberty to consider me consumed by envy, green with jealousy, when I here spitefully record that Elliott's ambitious poem reminds me of M. de Bonald's biting criticism on Madame de Kruedener: 'I make bold to declare, with the Bible in my hand, that the poor we shall always have with us, were it only the poor in intellect.' Coke and Story will befriend poor Elliott much more effectually than the Muses, who have most ingloriously snubbed him. Are you really happy, little snowbird, nestling in the down of mother-love, which—like the veritable baby you are—you so pined for?
"Regina, I am going to tell you something. Bar the windows, lock the doors, shut it up for ever, close in your own heart. A few nights ago, I went with an English friend to the Conversationshaus. When we had leaned awhile against one of the columns, and watched the dancers in the magnificent saloon, he proposed to show me the grand gambling-room.
"As we walked slowly along, listening to the click of the gold that pattered down from trembling hands, I saw, sitting at a Roulette table, deeply immersed in the game (never tell it!) Belmont Eggleston. Not the same classic, god-like face that I would once have followed straight to Hades—not the man upon whom I wasted all the love that God gives a woman to glorify her life and home; but a flushed, bloated creature, as unlike the Belmont of my hopes and dreams as 'Hyperion to a Satyr!' I watched him till my very soul turned sick, and all Pandemonium seemed to have joined in a jeer at my former infatuation. Next day, I saw him reel from a saloon to the steps of his wife's carriage. Years ago, when Erle Palma told me that my darling drank and gambled, I denied it; and in return for the warning, emptied more wrath upon my informer than all the Apocalyptic vials held. Ah! for poor Belmont, I fought as fiercely as a tawny tigress, when her youngest cub is captured by the hunters. Ashes! Bitter ashes of love and trust! Truly 'there is no pardon for desecrated ideals.' I have lived to learn that—
'Man trusts in God; He is eternal. Woman trusts in man, And he is shifting sand.'"
The girl looked up, and saw her uncle with an open letter in his hand.
"What is it? Some bad news!"
"Dear little girl, you are indeed fatherless now."
She bent her head upon the ledge of the window, and after a moment Mr. Chesley sighed, and smoothed her hair.
"With all his faults, he was still your father; and having had several interviews with him in Paris, I was convinced he was more 'sinned against than sinning,' though of course he knew that he could never have legally married again while Minnie lived. God help us to forgive, even as we need and hope to be forgiven."
"He knows I forgave him. I told him so the night he held me to his heart and kissed me; and you never can know how that thought comforts me now. But mother! Uncle——"
She sprang up pale and tearful, but he detained her.
"Mr. Palma writes me that there remains no longer a doubt that Laurance perished in the wreck. He encloses a detailed account of the disaster, from an American naval surgeon, who was returning home on furlough, when the storm overtook them, and who was one of the few picked up by the West Indian vessel. Mr. Palma wrote to him, relative to your father, and it appears from his reply—in my hand—that he knew the Laurances quite well. He says that during the gale, he was called to prescribe for Maud, who was really ill, and rendered worse by terror. When it was evident the steamer could not outlive the storm, he saw Cuthbert Laurance place his wife in one of the boats, and return to the cabin for his sick child. Hastening back with the little cripple in his arms, he found the boats were beyond reach, and too crowded to admit another passenger. He shouted the nearest to take his child, only his child; but the violence of the gale rendered it impossible to do more than keep the boat from swamping, and with many others, he was left upon the doomed vessel. There was no remaining boat; night came swiftly on, the storm increased, and next day there was no vestige of boat or ship visible. Mrs. Laurance was in the second boat, the largest and strongest, but it was overladen, and about twilight it capsized in the fury of the gale, and all went down. The surgeon who heard the wild screams of the women knows that the wife perished, and says he cannot indulge the faintest hope that the father and child escaped. Cuthbert was a remarkably skilful swimmer; he had once contended for a wager off Brighton, with a party of naval officers, and Laurance won it; but none could live in the sea that boiled and bellowed around that sinking ship, and encumbered as he was with the helpless child, it was impossible that he would have survived. I would rather not tell Minnie now, but Mr. Palma writes that the sister and nephew of General Laurance will force a suit to secure the remnants of the property, and he wishes to anticipate their action. Come with me, dear. Minnie is not asleep. As I passed her door, I heard her walk across the floor."
"Uncle Orme, can't you wait till to-morrow? I do not know how this news will affect her, and I dread it."
"My dear child, her suspense is destroying her. After all, delay will do no good. Poor Minnie! There is her bell. She knows the hour our mail is due, and she will ask for letters."
Opening the door, both paused at the threshold, and neither could ever forget the picture she represented.
In a snowy peignoir, she sat on the side of the couch, with her long waving hair falling in disorder to the marble floor, and seemed indeed like Japhet's "Amarant":
"She in her locks is like the travelling sun, Setting, all clad in coifing clouds of gold."
The wan Phidian face was turned toward them, and was breathless in its anxious eagerly questioning expression. Her brown eyes widened, searching theirs; and reading all, in her daughter's tearful pitying gaze, what a wild look crossed her face!
Regina pushed her uncle back, closed the door and sprang to the couch, holding out the letters.
Sitting as still as stone, Mrs. Laurance did not appear to notice them.
"Darling mother, God knows what is best for us all."
Slowly the strained eyes turned to the appealing face of her kneeling child, and something there broke up the frozen deeps of her heart.
"Are you sure? Is there no hope?"
"No hope; except to meet him in heaven."
Throwing her hands above her head, the wretched woman wrung them despairingly, and the pain of all the bitter past wailed in her passionate cry:
"Lost for ever! And I would not forgive him! My husband! My own husband! When he begged for pardon I spurned, and derided, and taunted him! Oh! I meant sometime to forgive him; after I had accomplished all I planned. After he was beggared, and humiliated in the eyes of the world, and that woman occupied the position where they all sought to keep me, a mother and yet no lawful wife, after I had enjoyed my triumph a little while, I fully intended to listen to my heart long enough to tell him that I forgave him because he was your father! And now, where is my revenge? Where is my triumph? God has turned His back upon me; has struck from my hands all that I have toiled for fifteen years to accomplish. They all triumph over me now, in their quiet graves, resting in peace; and I live, only to regret! To regret!"
Her eyes were dry, and shone like jewels, and when her arms fell, her clenched hands rested unintentionally on her daughter's head.
"Mother, he knows now that you forgive him. Remember that for him all grief is ended; and try to be comforted."
"And for me? What remains for me?"
Her voice was so deep, so sepulchral, so despairing, that Regina clung closer to her.
"Your child, who loves you so devotedly; and the hope of that blessed rest in heaven, where marriages are unknown, where at last we shall all dwell together in peace."
For some time Mrs. Laurance remained motionless; then her lips moved inaudibly. At length she said:
"Yes, my child, our child is all that is left. When he asked to kiss me once more, I denied him so harshly, so bitterly! When he tried to draw me for the last time to his bosom, I hurled away his arms, would not let him touch me. Now I shall never see him again. My husband! The one only love of my miserable and accursed life! Oh, my beloved! do you know at last, that the Minnie of your youth, the bride of your boyhood has never, never ceased to love her faithless, erring husband?"
Her voice grew tremulous, husky, and suddenly bending back her daughter's head, she looked long at the grieved countenance.
"His last words were: 'Minnie love, let our baby's eyes and lips plead pardon for her father's unintentional sins.' They do; they always shall. Cuthbert's own wonderful eyes shining in his daughter's. My husband's own proud beautiful lips that kiss me so fondly every time I press his child's mouth! At last I can thank God that our baby is indeed her father's image; and because in death Cuthbert is my own again, I can cherish the memory, and pray for the soul of my husband! Kiss me, kiss me—oh, my darling!"
She kissed the girl's eyes and lips, held her off, gazing into her face through gathering mist, then drew her again to her bosom, and the long hoarded bitterness and agony found vent in a storm of sobs and tears.
"I must sit joyless in my place; bereft As trees that suddenly have dropped their leaves, And dark as nights that have no moon."
"Uncle Orme, are you awake?"
"My dear girl, what is the matter? Is Minnie ill?"
"No, sir; but this is mother's birthday, and, if you please, I want you. There are a few late peaches hanging too high for my arms, and such grape-clusters! just beyond my finger tips. Will you be so kind as to gather them for me? I intended to ask you yesterday afternoon, but mother kept me on the terrace until it was too late. I have not heard you moving about? Do get up; the morning air is so delicious, and the lake lies like a huge rose with crimped petals."
"You are a tormentingly early lark, chanting your hymns to sunrise, when you should be sound asleep. You waked me in the midst of a lovelier rose-coloured dream than your tiresome, stupid lake, and I shall not excuse you for disturbing me. Where is that worthless, black-eyed chattering monkey Giulio? Am I a boy to climb peach trees this time of the day, for your amusement? Oh, the irreverence of American youth!"
"Giulio has gone on a different errand, and I never should insult your venerable years by asking you to climb trees, even in honour of mother's birthday breakfast. You can easily reach all I want, and then you may come back and finish your dream, and I will keep breakfast waiting until you declare yourself ready. Here is the basket, I am going out to the garden."
Regina ran down into the flower-plot at the rear of the house, and after a little while she saw her uncle unencumbered by his coat, bearing the basket on his arm and ascending one of the winding walks that terraced the hill.
To her lifelong custom of early rising she still adhered, and in the dewy hours spent alone in watching the sun rise over Como she indulged precious recollections that found audience and favour at no other season.
It was her habit to place each morning a fresh bouquet upon her mother's plate, and also to arrange the flower stand, that since their residence at the villa had never failed to grace the centre of the breakfast-table.
It was a parsonage custom, and had always been associated in her mind with the pastor's solemn benediction at each meal.
To-day, while filling her basket with blossoms, some stray waft of perfume, or perhaps the rich scarlet lips of a geranium glowing against the grey stone of the wall, prattled of Fifth Avenue, and recalled a gay boutonniere she once saw Mrs. Carew fasten in Mr. Palma's coat.
Like a serpent this thought trailed over all, and the beauty of the morning suddenly vanished. Was that grey-eyed Cleopatra with burnished hair, low smooth brow, and lips like Lamia's, resting in her guardian's arms—his wife?
Three months had elapsed since the day on which Mr. Chesley received his last letter, containing tidings that bowed and broke the haughty spirit of Mrs. Laurance; and if Mr. Palma had written again, Regina had not been informed of the fact.
Was he married, and in his happiness as a husband had he for a time forgotten the existence of the friends in Europe?
A shadowy hopelessness settled in the girl's eyes when she reflected that this was probably the correct explanation of his long silence, and a deep yearning to see him once more rose in her sad heart. She knew that it was better so, with the Atlantic between them; and yet it seemed hard, bitter, to think of living out the coming years, and never looking upon him again.
A heavy sigh crossed her lips that were beginning to wear the patient lines of resignation, and turning from the red geranium which had aroused the memory coiled in her heart she stepped upon the terrace, leaned over the marble balustrade, and looked out.
The sun was up, and in the verdant setting of its shore the lake seemed a huge sapphire, girdled with emerald.
In the distance a fishing boat glided slowly, its taut sails gleaming as the sunlight smote them, like the snowy pinions of some vast bird brooding over the quiet water; and high in the air, just beneath a strip of orange cloud as filmy as lace, a couple of happy pigeons circled round and round, each time nearing the sun, that was rapidly paving the lake with quivering gold.
Solemn and serene the distant Alps lifted their glittering domes, which cut sharply like crystal against the sky that was as deeply, darkly blue as lapis-lazuli; and behind the white villas dotting the shore, vineyards bowed in amber and purple fruitage, plentiful as Eshcol, luscious as Schiraz.
The cool air was burdened with mysterious hints of acacias and roses, which the dew had stolen from drowsy gardens, and over the gently rippling waters floated the holy sound of the sweet-tongued bell, from
..."Where yonder church Stands up to heaven, as if to intercede For sinful hamlets scattered at its feet."
Into the house Regina passed slowly, a trifle paler from her matin reverie; and when she entered the pretty breakfast-room, Mr. Chesley had just deposited his fruity burden upon the floor.
"Thank you, dear Uncle Orme. Mother will enjoy her peaches when she knows you gathered them with the dew still upon their down. Go, finish your dream; Heaven grant it be sweet! No one shall even pass your door for the next hour, unless shod with velvet, or with silence. This is the first of mother's birthdays I have had an opportunity to celebrate, and I wish to surprise her pleasantly. Go back to sleep."
She stood on tiptoe and lightly kissed his swarthy cheek.
"Unfortunately my brain is not sufficiently vassal to my will, to implicitly obey its mandates; and dropping on my pillow and falling into slumber are quite different things. Beside (you need not arch your eyebrows any higher, when I assure you that), despite my honourable years, my hearing is as painfully acute as that of the giant fabled to watch 'Bifrost,' and who 'heard the grass growing in the fields, and the wool on the backs of young lambs.' Last night, just as I was lapsing into a preliminary doze, two vagrant nightingales undertook an opera that brought them to the large myrtle under my window, where I hoped they had reached the finale. But one of them—the female, I warrant you, from the clatter of her small tongue (if female nightingales can sing)—audaciously perched on the stone balcony in front of my open window, and such a tirade of hemi-demi-semi-quavers never before insulted a sleepy man. I clapped my hands, but they trilled as if all Persia had sent them a challenge. Now I am going to take a bath, and since you persisted in making me get up, I intend to punish you with my society, just as soon as I finish my toilette. If you see a brace of birds smothered in truffles on the dinner-table, you may suspect the fate of all who violate my dreams. Even feathered lovers are a pest. My little girl, before you begin your reign in my California home, I shall remind you of your promise, that no lover of yours will ever dare to darken my doors."
With a smile lingering about her lip, after her uncle's departure, Regina filled the epergne on the table with a mass of rose-coloured oleanders—her mother's favourite flowers, and fringed the edge with geraniums and fuchsias. On her plate she laid a cluster of tuberoses, grouped and tied in the shape of a heart, with spicy apple geranium leaves girdling the waxen petals. The breath of the oleanders perfumed the room, and when quite satisfied with the arrangement of the flowers, Regina piled the crimson peaches and golden grapes in a pyramid on the silver stand in the centre.
Drawing from her pocket a slender roll of sheet music fastened with rose ribbon, and a tiny envelope addressed to her mother, she placed them upon Mrs. Laurance's plate, crowning all with the white heart of tuberoses.
For some days she had been haunted by a musical idea, which gradually developed as she improvised into a Nocturne, full of plaintive minor passages; and this first complete musical composition, written out by her own hand, she had dedicated to her mother. It was called: "Dreams of my mother."
Standing beside the table, her hands folded before her, and her head slightly drooped, she fell into a brief reverie, wondering how she could endure to live without the society of this beloved mother, which imparted such a daily charm to her own existence, and as she reflected on the past an expression of quiet sadness stole over her countenance, and into—
"The eyes of passionless, peaceful blue Like twilight which faint stars gaze through."
In the doorway fronting the east, Mr. Palma had stood for some seconds unobserved, studying the pretty room and its fair young queen.
In honour of her mother's birthday, she wore a white India muslin, with a blue sash girding her slender waist, and only a knot of blue ribbon at her throat, where the soft lace was gathered. Her silky hair rolled in a heavy coil low at the back of her head, and was secured by a gold comb; and close to one small ear she had fastened a cluster of snowy velvet pansies, which contrasted daintily with the glossy blackness of her hair.
To the man who had crossed the ocean solely to feast his hungry eyes upon that delicate cameo face, it seemed as pure as an angel's. Although continual heart-ache, and patient uncomplaining need of something that she knew and felt God had removed for ever beyond her reach, had worn the cheek to a thinner oval, and left darker shadows in her calm eyes, Mr. Palma who had so long and carefully scrutinized her features, acknowledged now, that indeed—
"She grew fairer than her peers; Still her gentle forehead wears Holy lights of infant years."
Nearly eight years before, as he watched her asleep in the railway car, he had wondered whether it were possible that she could carry her tender loving heart, straightforward white soul, and saintly young face untarnished and unbruised into the checkered and feverish realm of womanhood?
To-day she stood as fair and pure as in her early childhood, a gentle image of renunciation, "all unspotted from the world," whose withering breath he had so dreaded for his flower.
Watching her, a sudden splendour of hope lighted his fine eyes, and a glow of intense happiness fired his usually pale cheek.
Slowly she turned away from the table, and against the glory of the sunlight streaming through the open door, she saw her guardian's tall figure outlined.
Was it a mere blessed vision, born of her recent reverie on the terrace; or had he died, and his spirit, reading the secret of her soul, had mercifully flown to comfort her by one farewell appearance?
He opened his arms and his whole face was radiant with passionate and tender love. She did not move, but her eyes gazed into his, like one in a happy dream, who fears to awake.
He came swiftly forward, and holding out his arms, exclaimed in a voice that trembled with the excess of his joy:
"My Lily! My darling!"
But she did not spring to meet him, as he hoped and expected, and thrilled by the music of his tone she grew paler standing quite still, with trembling lips and eyes that shone like stars when autumn mists begin to gather.
"My Lily, come to me, of your own dear will."
"Mr. Palma, I am glad, very glad, to see my guardian once more."
She put out her hand, which shook, despite her efforts to keep it steady, and her own voice sounded far, far off, like an echo lost among strange hills.
He came a step nearer, but did not take her hand, and when he leaned toward her, she suddenly clasped her hands and rested her chin upon them, in the old childish fashion he remembered so well.
"Does my Lily know why I crossed the Atlantic?"
A spasm of pain quivered over her features, and though he saw how white her lips turned at that instant, her answer was clear, cold, and distinct.
"Yes, sir. You came on your bridal tour. Is not your wife at Como?"
"I hope so. I believe so; I certainly expected to see her here."
He was smiling very proudly just then, but beginning to suspect that he had tortured her cruelly by the tacit imposture to which he had assented, his eyes dimmed at the thought of her suffering.
She misinterpreted the smile, and quickly rallied.
"Mr. Palma, I hope you brought Llora also with you?"
"No. Why should I? She is much better off at home with her mother."
"But, sir, I thought—I understood——"
She caught her breath, and a perplexed expression came into her wistful deep eyes, as she met those, fixed laughingly upon her.
"You thought, you understood what? That after living single all these years, I am at last foolish enough to want a wife? One to kiss, to hold in my arms, to love even better than I love myself? Well, what then? I do not deny it."
"And I hope, Mr. Palma, that she will make you very happy."
She spoke with the startling energy of desperation.
"Thank you, so do I. I believe, I know she will; I swear she shall! Can you tell me my darling's name?"
"Yes, sir, it is no secret. All the world knows it is Mrs. Carew."
She was leaning heavily upon her womanly pride; how long would it sustain her? Would it snap presently, and let her down for ever into the dust of humiliation?
Mr. Palma laughed, and putting his hand under her chin, lifted the face.
"All the world is very wise, and my ward quite readily accepted its teachings. None but Olga suspected the truth. I would not marry Brunella Carew, if she were the last woman left living on the wide earth. I do not want a fashion-moth. I would not have the residue of what once belonged to another. I want a tender, pure, sweet, fresh white flower that I know, and have long watched expanding from its pretty bud. I want my darling, whom no other man has kissed, who never loved any one but me; who will come like the lily she is, and shelter herself in my strong arms, and bloom out all her fragrant loveliness in my heart only. Will she come?"
Once more he opened his arms, and in his brilliant eyes she read his meaning.
The revelation burst upon her like the unexpected blinding glow of sunshine smiting one who approaches the mouth of a cavern, in whose chill gloom, after weary groping, all hope had died. She felt giddy, faint, and the world seemed dissolving in a rosy mist.
"My Lily, my proud little flower! You will not come? Then Erle Palma must take his own, and hold it, and wear it for ever!"
He folded his arms around her, strained her to his bosom, and laid his warm trembling lips on hers. What a long passionate kiss, as though the hunger of a lifetime could never be satisfied.
After his stern self-control and patient waiting, the proud man who had never loved any one but the fair young girl in his arms, abandoned himself to the ecstasy of possession. He kissed the eyebrows that were so lovely in his sight, the waving hair on her white temples, and again and again the soft sweet trembling lips that glowed under his pressure.
"My precious violet eyes, so tender and holy. My silver Lily, mine for ever. Erle Palma's first and last and only love!"
When, with his cheek resting on hers, he told her why his sense of honour had sealed his lips while she was a ward beneath his roof, entrusted by her mother to his guardianship, and dwelt upon the suffering it had cost him to know that others were suing for her hand, trying to win away the love, which his regard for duty prevented him from soliciting, she began to realize the strength and fervour of the affection that was now shining so deliciously upon her heart. She learned the fate of the glove he had found on his desk and locked up; of the two faded white hyacinths he had begged and worn in his breast pocket because they had rested on her hair; of the songs he wanted simply for the reason that he had heard them on the night when she fainted and he had first kissed her cold unconscious lips.
Would the brilliant New York Bar have recognized their cool, inflexible, haughty favourite in the man who was pouring such fervid passionate declarations into the small pearly ear that felt his lips more than once?
Erle Palma had much to tell to the woman of his love, much to explain concerning the events of the day when Elliott Roscoe witnessed her first interview with Peleg Peterson, and subsequently aided in his arrest, but this morning long audience was denied him.
In the midst of his happy whispers a step which he did not hear came down the stairs, a form for whom he had no eyes, stood awhile perplexed, and amazed on the threshold. Then a very stately figure swept across the marble tiles, and laid a firm hand on Regina's shoulder.
The girl looked up, startled, confused; but the encircling arms would not release her.
"My dear madam, do not take her away."
Mrs. Laurance did not heed him, her eyes were riveted on her child.
"My little girl, have you too deceived and forsaken your unfortunate mother?"
She broke away from her lover's clasp, and threw her arms around her mother's neck.
Pressing her tightly to her heart, Mrs. Laurance turned to Mr. Palma, and said sternly:
"Is there indeed no such thing as honour left among men? You who knew so well my loneliness and affliction—you, sir, to whom I trusted my little lamb—have tried to rob me of the only treasure I thought I possessed, the only comfort left to gladden my sunless life! You have tried to steal my child's heart, to win her from me."
"No, mother, he never let me know, and I never dreamed that—that he cared at all for me until this morning. He did not betray your trust, even for——"
"Let Mr. Palma plead his own defence, if he can; look you to yours," answered her mother, coldly.
"It is much sweeter from her lips, and you, my dear madam, are very cruel to deny me the pleasure of hearing it. Lily, my darling, go away a little while, not far, where I can easily find you, and let me talk to your mother. If I fail to satisfy her fully on all points, I shall never ask at her hands the precious boon I came here solely to solicit."
He took her hand, drew her from the arms that reluctantly relaxed, and when they reached the threshold smiled down into her eyes. Lifting her fingers, he kissed them lightly, and closed the door.
What ailed the birds that trilled their passionate strains so joyously as she ran down the garden walk, and into the rose-arbour? Had clouds and shadows flown for ever from the world, leaving only heavenly sunshine and Mr. Palma?
"I wonder if there be indeed a quiet spot on earth where I can hide; a sacred refuge, where neither nightingale nor human lovers will vex my soul, or again disturb my peace with their eternal madrigals?"
She had not seen her uncle, who was sitting in one corner, clumsily tying up some roses which he intended for a birthday offering to his niece.
At the sound of his quiet voice, Regina started up.
"Oh, Uncle Orme! I did not see you. Pray excuse me. I will not disturb you."
She was hurrying away, but he caught her dress.
"My dear, are you threatened with ophthalmia, that you cannot see a man three yards distant, who measures six feet two inches? Certainly I excuse you. A man who is kept awake all night by one set of love ditties, dragged out of his bed before sunrise, and after taking exercise and a bath that render him as hungry as a Modoc cut off from his lava-beds, is expected and forced to hold his famished frame in peace, while a pair of human lovers exhaust the vocabulary of cooing that man can patiently excuse much. Sit down, my dear girl. Because my beard is grey, and crow-feet gather about my eyes, do you suppose the old man's heart cannot sympathize with the happiness that throbs in yours, and that renews very sacredly the one sweet love-dream of his own long-buried youth? I know, dear; you need not try to tell me, need not blush so painfully. Mr. Palma reached Como last evening; I knew he was coming, and saw him early this morning. I can guess it all, and I am very glad. God bless you, dear child. Only be sure you tell Palma that we allow no lovers in our ideal home."
He put his hand on her drooping head, and drawing it down, she silently pressed it in her own. So they sat; how long, neither knew. She dreaming of that golden future that had opened so unexpectedly before her; he listening to memory's echoes of a beloved tone long since hushed in the grave.
When approaching voices were heard, he rose to steal away and tears moistened his mild brown eyes.
"Stay with me, please," she whispered, clinging to his sleeve.
Through the arched doorway of the arbour, she saw two walking slowly.
Mrs. Laurance leaned upon Mr. Palma's arm, and as he bent his uncovered, head, in earnest conversation, his noble brow was placid and his haughty mouth relaxed in a half-smile. They reached the arbour, and paused.
In her morning robe of delicate lilac tint, Mrs. Laurance's sad tear-stained face seemed in its glory of golden locks, almost as fair as her child's. But one was just preparing to launch her frail argosy of loving hopes upon the sunny sea that stretched in liquid splendour before her dazzled eyes; the other had seen the wreck of all her heart's most precious freight, in the storm of varied griefs, that none but Christ could hush with His divine "Be still."
The repressed sorrow in the countenance of the mother was more touching than any outbreak could have been, and after a strong effort, she held out her hand, and said:
Regina sprang up, and hid her face on her mother's neck.
"When I began to hope in a blind dumb way that nothing more could happen to wring my heart, because I had my daughter safe, owned her entire undivided love, and we were all in all to each other; just when I dared to pray that my sky might be blue for a little while, because my baby's eyes mirrored it, even then the last, the dearest is stolen away, and by my best friend too! Child of my love, I would almost as soon see you in your shroud as under a bridal veil, for you will love your husband best, and oh! I want all of your dear heart for my own. How can I ever give you away, my one star-eyed angel of comfort!"
Her white hand caressed the head upon her bosom, and clasping her mother's waist, the girl said distinctly:
"Let it be as you wish. My mother's happiness is far dearer to me than my own."
"Oh, my darling! Do you mean it? Would you give up your lover, for the sake of your poor desolate mother?"
She bent back the fair face and gazed eagerly into the girl's eyes.
"Mother, I should never cease to love him. Life would not be so sweet as it looked this morning, when I first learned he had given me his heart; but duty is better than joy, and I owe more to my suffering mother than to him, or to myself. If it adds to the cup of your many sorrows to give me even to him, I will try to take the bitter for my portion, and then sweeten as best I may the life that hitherto you have devoted to me. Mother, do with your child as seems best to your dear heart."
She was very white, but her face was firm, and the fidelity of her purpose was printed in her sad eyes.
"God bless my sweet, faithful, trusting child!"
Mrs. Laurance could not restrain her tears, and Mr. Palma shaded his eyes with his hand.
"My little girl, make your choice. Decide between us."
She moved a few steps, as if to free herself, but in rain; Regina's arms tightened around her.
"Between you? Oh no, I cannot. Both are too dear."
"To whom does your heart cling most closely?"
"Mother, ask me no more. There is my hand. If you can consent to give it to him. I shall be—oh, how happy! If it would grieve you too much, then, mother, hold it, keep it. I will never murmur or complain, for now, knowing that he loves me, I can bear almost anything."
Tears were streaming down the mother's cheeks, and pressing her lips to the white mournful face of her daughter she beckoned Mr. Palma to her side. For a moment she hesitated, held up the fair fingers and kissed them, then as if distrusting herself, quickly laid the little hand in his.
"Take my darling; and remember that she is the most precious gift a miserable mother ever yielded up."
After a moment Mrs. Laurance whispered something, and very won the lovely face flushed a brilliant rose, the soft tender eyes were lifted timidly to Mr. Palma's face, and as he drew her to aim, she glided from her mother's arms into his, feeling his lips rest like a blessing from God on her pure brow.
"Does my Lily love me best?"
Only the white arms answered his whisper, clasping his neck; and Mrs. Laurance and Mr. Chesley left them, with the dewy roses overhead swinging like censers in the glorious autumn morning and the sacred chimes of church bells dying in silvery echoes, among the olive and myrtle that clothed the distant hills.
In consenting to bestow Regina's hand on Mr. Palma, Mrs. Laurance had stipulated that the marriage should be deferred for one year, alleging that her daughter was yet very young, and having been so long separated she wished her to remain with her at least for some months. Mr. Palma reluctantly assented to conditions which compelled him to return to America without Regina, and in November Mrs. Laurance removed to Milan, where she desired that her child's fine voice and musical talent should be trained and developed by the most superior instruction.
Swiftly the twelve months sped away, and in revisiting the Mediterranean shores, linked by so many painful reminiscences with the period of her former sojourn, Mrs. Laurance, despite the efforts of her faithful and fond companion, seemed to sink into a confirmed melancholy.
By tacit agreement no reference was ever made to her past life, but a shadow chill and unlifting brooded over her, and the sleeplessness that no opiate could conquer—a sleeplessness born of heart-ache which no spell could narcotize—robbed her cheek of its bloom, and left weary lines on her patient, hopeless face.
Mr. Chesley had returned with Mr. Palma to the United States, and late in the following autumn Mrs. Laurance and Regina sailed for New York.
The associations of the voyage were peculiarly painful to the unhappy wife, whose lips never unclosed upon the topic that engrossed her thoughts, and soon after their arrival her physician advised a trip to Florida or Cuba, until the rigour of the winter had ended, as an obstinate cough again aroused fears of consumption.
To accompany her mother, Regina postponed her marriage until June, and notwithstanding Mr. Palma's avowed dissatisfaction and earnest protest, spent the winter and spring in the West Indies. Mrs. Laurance gradually regained health, but not cheerfulness, and in May, when they returned to New York, preparations were made for the wedding, which in deference to her mother's feelings, Regina desired should be very quiet.
Her husband's estate had long been in Mrs. Laurance's possession, and the stately mansion had been repaired and refurnished, awaiting its owner; but she shrank with a shiver from the mention of the place, announcing her intention to visit it no more, until she was laid to rest in the proud family tomb, whither the remains of General Rene Laurance had already been removed.
In accordance with her daughter's wishes, she had taken for the summer a villa on the Hudson, only a short distance from the city, and a week before the day appointed for the marriage they took possession of their country home.
As the time rapidly approached, Mrs. Laurance's depression of spirits seemed to increase; she jealously counted the hours that remained, and her sad eyes rested with fateful foreboding on her daughter's happy countenance.
On the afternoon previous to the wedding, the mother sat on the verandah overlooking the velvet lawn that stretched between the house and the river. The sun was setting, and the rich red glow rested upon the crest of distant hills, and smote the sails of two vessels gliding close to the opposite shore.
On the stone step sat Regina, her head leaning against her mother's knee, her hand half buried in the snowy locks of Hero, who crouched at her side.
"Mrs. Palma and Uncle Orme will not arrive until noon; but Olga comes early to-morrow; and, mother, I know you will be glad to learn that at last her brother has persuaded her to abandon her intention of joining the——"
She did not complete the sentence, for glancing up, she saw that Mrs. Laurance's melancholy eyes were fixed on the crimson sky and purpling hills far away, and she knew that her thoughts were haunting grey, ashy crypts of the Bygone.
For some moments silence prevailed, and mother and child presented a singular contrast. The former was clad in some violet-coloured fabric, and her wealth of golden hair was brushed smoothly back and twisted into a loose knot, where her daughter's fingers had inserted a moss rose with clustering buds and glossy leaves.
The girl wore a simple white muslin, high in the throat, where a quilling of soft lace was secured by a bunch of lemon blooms and violets; and around her coil of jet hair twined a long spray of Arabian jasmine that drooped almost to her shoulder.
One face star-eyed and beaming as Hope, with rosy dreams lurking about the curves of her perfect mouth; the other pale, dejected, yet uncomplaining, a lovely statue of Regret.
Very soon the white hand that wore the black agate, wandered across the daughter's silky hair.
"Yonder goes the train; and Mr. Palma will be here in a few minutes. How little I dreamed that cold, undemonstrative, selfish man would prove such a patient, tender lover! Truly—
'Beauty hath made our greatest manhoods weak.'
Kiss me, my darling, before you go to meet him. My blue-eyed baby! after to-morrow you will be mine no longer. In the hearts of wives husbands supplant mothers, and reign supreme. Do not speak, my love. Only kiss me, and go."
She bent over the face resting on her knee, and a moment after Regina, followed by the noble old dog, went down the circuitous walk leading to the iron gate. On either side stood deodar cedars, and behind one of these she sat down on a rustic seat.
She had not waited long when footsteps approached, and Mr. Palma's tall, handsome figure passed through the gate, accompanied by one who followed slowly.
The lawyer passed his arm around her, drew her to his side, and whispered:
"I bring you glad tidings. I bring my darling a very precious bridal present—her father."
Turning quickly, he put her in Mr. Laurance's arms.
"Can my daughter cordially welcome her unhappy and unworthy father?"
"Oh! how merciful God has been to me! My father alive and safe—really folding me to his heart? Now my mother can rest, for now she can utter the forgiveness which her heart long ago pronounced; but which, having withheld at your painful parting interview, has so sorely weighed down her spirits. Oh, how bright the world looks! Thank God! at last mother can find peace."
Looking fondly at her radiant face, Mr. Laurance asked in an unsteady voice:
"Will my Minnie's child plead with her, for the long-lost husband of her youth?"
"Oh, father! there is no need. Her love must have triumphed long ago over the sense of cruel wrong and the memory of the past, for since we learned that you were among those who perished she has silently mourned as only a wife can for the husband she loves. Because she sees in my face the reflex of yours, it has of late grown doubly dear to her; and sometimes at night when she believes me asleep, she touches me softly, and whispers, 'My Cuthbert's baby.' But why have you so long allowed us to believe you were lost on that vessel?"
Briefly Mr. Laurance outlined the facts of his escape upon a raft, which was hastily constructed by several of the crew when the boats were beyond their reach. Upon this he had placed Maud, and on the morning after the wreck of the vessel they succeeded in getting into one of the boats which was floating bottom upward, and providentially drifted quite near the raft. For several days they were tossed helplessly from wave to wave, exposed to heavy rains, and on the third evening, poor little Maud who had been unconscious for some hours, died in her father's arms. At midnight when the moon shone full and bright, he had wrapped the little form in his coat, and consigned her to a final resting-place beneath the blue billows, where her mother had already gone down amid the fury of the gale. He knew from the colour and lettering of the boat, that it was the same in which he had placed his terrified wife, and when it floated to their raft he could not doubt her melancholy fate. A few hours after Maud's burial, a Danish brig bound for Valparaiso discovered the boat and its signals of distress, and taking on board the four survivors, sailed away on its destined track. Mr. Laurance bad made his way to Rio Janeiro, and subsequently to Havana, but learning from the published accounts that his wife had indeed perished, and that he also was numbered among the lost, he determined not to reveal the fact of his existence to any one. Financially beggared, his ancestral home covered by mortgages which Mrs. Laurance held, and utterly hopeless of arousing her compassion or obtaining her pardon, he was too proud to endure the humiliation that would overwhelm him in the divorce suit he knew she intended to institute; and resolved never to return to the United States, where he could expect only disgrace and sorrow.
While in Liverpool, preparing to go to Melbourne, he accidentally found and read Mrs. Laurance's advertisement in the London Times, offering a reward for any definite information concerning Cuthbert Laurance, reported lost on Steamer ——. Had she relented, would she pardon him now? He was lonely, desolate; his heart yearned for the sight of his fair young daughter, doubly dear since the loss of poor Maud, and he longed inexpressibly to see once more the love of his early and his later life.
If still implacably vindictive, would she have continued the advertisement, which so powerfully tempted him to reveal himself? He was fully conscious of his own unworthiness, and of the magnitude of the wrongs inflicted upon her, but after a long struggle with his pride, which bled sorely at thought of the scornful repulse that might await him, he had written confidentially to Mr. Palma, and in accordance with his advice, returned to New York.
Only the day previous he had arrived, and now came to test the power of memory over his wife's heart.
"Father, she is sitting alone on the verandah, with such a world of sadness in her eyes, which have lost the blessed power of weeping. Go to her. I believe you need no ally to reach my mother's heart."
Mr. Laurance kissed her fair forehead, and walked away; and passing his arm around Regina, Mr. Palma drew her forward across the lawn till they reached a branching lilac near the verandah.
Here he paused, took off his glasses, and looked proudly and tenderly down into the violet eyes that even now met his so shyly.
"My Lily, to-morrow at this hour you will be my wife."
His haughty lips were smiling as they sought hers, and with her lovely flushed face half hidden on his shoulder, and one small hand clinging to his, she watched her father's figure approaching the steps.
Mrs. Laurance sat with her folded hands resting on the rail of the balustrade, her head slightly drooped upon her bosom; and the beautiful face was lighted by the dying sunset splendour, that seemed to kindle a nimbus around the golden head, and rendered her in her violet drapery like some haloed Mater Dolorosa, treading alone the Via Crucis.
Dusky shadows under the melancholy brown eyes made them appear darker, deeper, almost prophetic, and over her lips drifted a fragment from "Regret"
"Oh that word Regret! There have been nights and morns, when we have sighed, 'Let us alone Regret! We are content To throw thee all our past, so thou wilt sleep For aye.' But it is patient, and it wakes; It hath not learned to cry itself to sleep, But plaineth on the bed that it is bard."...
"Ahyes. In the room of revenge reigns regret. Where is my revenge? It gleamed like nectar, and when I drained it consuming poison clung to my lips. To revenge is to regret—for ever! To-day how utterly widowed; to-morrow—childless. Oh, stranded life! Infelice! Infelice!"
Upon the stone steps stood the man whom her eyes, turned toward the distant hill-tops, had not yet seen, but when the passionate pathos of that voice which had so often charmed and swayed its audiences died away in a sob, a musical yet very tremulous tone fell on the evening air:
"Minnie,—my wife! After almost twenty years of neglect, injustice, and wrong, can the husband of your youth, and the father of your child, hope for pardon?"
"There is no ruined life beyond the smile of heaven, And compensating grace for every loss is given, The Coliseum's shell is loved of flower and vine, And through its shattered rents the peaceful planets shine."
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