"What claim had she on you, when the promise was extorted?"
"She had none, save such as human misery always has on human sympathy. I performed the marriage ceremony for her when she was a mere child, and felt profound compassion for the wretchedness that soon overtook her as a wife and mother."
"Then, my dear brother, there is no alternative, and you must do your duty; and I shall not fail to help you to the fullest extent of my feeble ability. Since it cannot be averted, let us try to put our hearts as well as hands into the work of receiving the waif. Where has the child been living?"
"For nearly seven years in a convent."
"Tant mieux! We may at least safely infer she has been shielded from vicious and objectionable companionship. How is her education to be conducted in future?"
"Her mother has arranged for the semi-annual payment of a sum quite sufficient to defray all necessary expenses, including tuition at school; but she urges me, if compatible with my clerical duties, to retain the school fees, and teach the child at home, as she dreads outside contaminating associations, and wishes the little one reared with rigid ideas of rectitude and propriety. Will you receive her among your music pupils?"
"Have I a heart of steel, and a soul of flint? And since when did you successfully trace my pedigree to its amiable source in—
'Gorgons and hydras and chimeras dire'?
"What is her name?"
Mr. Hargrove hesitated a moment, and, detecting the faint colour that tinged his olive cheek, his sister smilingly relieved him.
"Never mind, dear. What immense latitude we are allowed! If she prove a meek, sweet cherub, a very saint in bib-aprons,—with velvety eyes brown as a hazel nut, and silky chestnut ringlets,—I shall gather her into my heart and coo over her as—Columba, or Umilta, or Umbeline, or Una; but should we find her spoiled, and thoroughly leavened with iniquity,—a blonde, yellow-haired tornado,—then a proper regard for the 'unities will suggest that I vigorously enter a Christian protest, and lecture her grimly as Jezebel, Tomyris,—Fulvia or Clytemnestra.'"
"She shall be called Regina Orme, and if it will not too heavily tax your kindness, I should like to give her the small room next your own, and ask Douglass to move across the hall and take the front chamber opening on the verandah. The little girl may be timid, and it would comfort her to feel that you are within call should she be sick or become frightened. I am sure Douglass will not object to the change."
"Certainly not. Blessings on his royal heart! He would not be my own noble boy if he failed to obey any wish of yours."
I will at once superintend the transfer of his books and clothes, for if the child comes to-day you have left me little time for preparation.
She put away the crochet basket and, looking affectionately at the grave face that watched her movements, said soberly:
"Do not look so lugubrious; remember Abraham's example of hospitality, and let us do all we can for this motherless lamb, or kid,—whichever she may prove. One thing more, and here-after I shall hold my peace. You need not live in chronic dread, lest the Guy Fawkes of female curiosity pry into, and explode your mystery; for I assure you, Peyton, I shall never directly or indirectly question the child, and until you voluntarily broach the subject I shall never mention it to you. Are you satisfied?"
"Fully satisfied with my sister, and inexpressibly grateful for her unquestioning faith in me."
She swept him an exaggerated courtesy, and, despite the grey threads that began to glint in her auburn hair, ran up the stairway as lightly as a girl of fifteen.
For some time he stood with his hands behind him, gazing abstractedly through the open window, and now and then he heard the busy patter of hurrying feet in the room over head, while snatches of Easter anthems, and the swelling "Amen" of a "Gloria" rolled down the steps, assuring him that all doubt and suspicion had been ejected from the faithful, fond, sisterly heart.
Taking his broad-brimmed gardening hat from the table, the pastor went down among his flower-beds, followed by Bioern, to whose innate asperity of temper was added the snarling fretfulness of old age.
A fine young brood of white Brahma chickens, having surreptitiously effected an entrance into the sacred precincts of the flower-garden, were now diligently prosecuting their experiments in entomotomy right in the heart of a border of choice carnations. When Bioern had chased the marauders to the confines of the poultry yard, and watched the last awkward fledgling scramble through the palings, his master began to repair the damage, and soon became absorbed in the favourite task of tying up the spicy tufts of bloom that deluged the air with perfume as he lifted and bent the slender stems. His straw hat shut out the sight of surrounding objects, and he only turned his head when Mrs. Lindsay put her hand on his shoulder, and exclaimed:
"Peyton, 'the Philistines be upon thee'!"
"Do you mean that she has come?"
"I think so; there is a carriage at the gate, and I noticed a trunk beside the driver."
He rose hastily, and stood irresolute, visibly embarrassed.
"Why, Peyton! Recollect your text last Sunday: 'No man having put his hand to the plough,' etc., etc., etc. It certainly is rather hard to be pelted with, one's own sermons, but it would never do to turn your back upon this benevolent furrow. Come, pluck up courage, and front the inevitable."
"Elise, how can you jest? I am sorely burdened with gloomy forebodings of coming ill. You cannot imagine how I shrink from this responsibility."
"It is rather too late, dear, to climb upon the stool of repentance. Take this beast of Bashan by the horns, and have done with it. There is the bell! Shall I accompany you?"
Hannah met them, and held up a card.
ERLE PALMA, New York City.
As the minister entered his parlour, Mr. Palma advanced to meet him, holding out his hand.
"I hope Dr. Hargrove has been prepared for my visit, and understands its object?"
"I am glad to know you, sir, and had reason to expect you. Allow me to present Mr. Palma to my sister, Mrs. Lindsay. I am exceedingly——"
The sentence was never completed, and he stood with his eyes fastened on the child who leaned against the window watching him with an eager breathless interest as some caged creature eyes a new keeper, wondering, mutely questioning, whether cruelty or kindness will predominate in the strange custodian.
For a moment, oblivious of all else, each gazed into the eyes of the other, and a subtle magnetic current flashed from soul to soul, revealing certain arcana, which years of ordinary acquaintance sometimes fail to unveil. From the pastor's countenance melted every trace of doubt and apprehension; from that of the girl all shadow of distrust.
Studying the tableau, Mr. Palma saw the clergyman smile, and as if involuntarily open his arms; and he was astonished when the shy, reticent child who had repulsed all his efforts to become acquainted, suddenly glided forward and into the outstretched arms of her new guardian. Weary from the long journey and rigid restraint imposed upon her feelings, the closely pent emotion broke all barriers, and, clinging to the minister Regina found relief in a flood of tears. Mr. Hargrove sat down, and, keeping his arm around her, said tenderly:
"Are you so unwilling to come and live under my care? Would you prefer to remain with Mr. Palma?" She put her hands up, and, clasping them at the back of his head, answered brokenly:
"No—no I it is not that. Your face shows me you are good—so good! But I can't help crying,—I have tried so hard to keep from it, ever since I kissed the Sisters good-bye,—and everything is so strange—and my throat aches, and aches—oh, don't scold me! Please let me cry!"
"As much as you please. We know your poor little heart is almost breaking, and a good cry will help you."
He gathered her close to his bosom, and the lawyer was amazed at the confiding manner in which she nestled her head against the stranger's shoulder. Mrs. Lindsay untied and removed the hat and veil, and, placing a glass of water to the parched trembling lips, softly kissed her tearful cheek, and whispered:
"Now, dear, try to compose yourself. Come with me and bathe your face, and then you will feel better."
"Don't take me away. I have stopped crying. It rests me so, to feel somebody's arms around me."
"Well—suppose you try my arms awhile? I assure you they are quite ready to take you in, and hug you close. Just let me show you how I put my arms around my own child, though he is a man. Come, dear."
Mrs. Lindsay gently disengaged the clasped hands resting on her brother's neck, and drew Regina into her arms, while, won by her sweet voice and soft touch, the latter allowed herself to be led into another room.
They had scarcely disappeared when Mr. Palma said:
"I find I was mistaken in supposing that you and your ward were strangers."
"We are strangers, at least I never saw her until to-day."
"Did you mesmerize her?"
"Not that I am aware of. What suggests such an idea?"
"She receives your friendly overtures so graciously, and rejected mine with such chill politeness. I presume you are aware of the fact that we have a joint guardianship over this child?"
"If you will walk into the library, where we can escape intrusion, I should like to have some confidential conversation with you."
When he had placed his visitor in his own easy chair, and locked the door of the library, Mr. Hargrove sat down beside the oval table, and, folding his hands before him, leaned forward scrutinizing the handsome non-committal face of the stranger, and conjecturing how far he would be warranted in unburdening his own oppressed heart.
Coolly impassive, and without a vestige of curious interest, the lawyer quietly met his incisive gaze.
"Mr. Palma, may I ask whether Regina's mother has unreservedly communicated her history to you?"
"She has acquainted me with only a few facts, concerning which she desired legal advice."
"Has she given you her real name?"
"I know her only as Madame Odille Orphia Orme, an actress of very remarkable beauty and great talent."
"Do you understand the peculiar circumstances that attended her marriage?"
"I merely possess her assurance that she was married by you."
"Have you been informed who is Regina's father?"
"The name has always been carefully suppressed, but she told me that Orme was merely an alias."
"Have you ever suspected the truth?"
"Really, that is a question I cannot answer. I have at times conjectured, but only in a random unauthorized way. I should very much like to know, but my client declined giving me all the facts, at least at present; and while her extreme reticence certainly hampers me, it prevents me from asking you for the information, which she promises ere long to give me."
Mr. Hargrove bowed and leaned back more easily in his chair, fully satisfied concerning the nature of the man with whom he had to deal.
"You doubtless think it singular that Mrs. Orme should commit her daughter to my care, while keeping me in ignorance of her parentage. A few days since she signed in the presence of witnesses a cautiously worded instrument, in which she designated you and me as joint guardians of Regina Orme, and specified that should death or other causes prevent you from fulfilling the trust, I should assume exclusive control of her daughter until she attained her majority, or was otherwise disposed of. To this arrangement I at length very reluctantly assented, because it is a charge for which I have no leisure, and even less inclination; but as she seems to anticipate the time when a lawsuit may be inevitable, and wishes my services, she finally overruled my repugnance to the office forced upon me."
"I must ask you one question, which subsequent statements will explain. Do you regard her in all respects as a worthy, true, good woman?"
"The mystery of an assumed name always casts a shadow, implying the existence of facts or of reports inimical to the party thus ambushed; and concealment presupposes either indiscretion, shame, or crime. This circumstance excited unfavourable suspicions in my mind, but she assured me she had a certificate of her marriage, and that you would verify this statement. Can you do so? Was she legally married when very young?"
"She was legally married in this room eleven years ago."
"I am glad it is susceptible of proof. This point established, I can easily answer your question in the affirmative. As far as I am acquainted with her record, Mrs. Orme is a worthy woman, and I may add, a remarkably cautious circumspect person for one so comparatively unaccustomed to the admiration which is now lavished upon her. I believe it is conceded that she is the most beautiful woman in New York, but she shelters herself so securely in the constant presence of a plain but most respectable old couple, with whom she resides, and who accompany her when travelling, that it is difficult to see her, except upon the stage. Even in her business visits to my office she has always been attended by old Mrs. Waul."
"Can you explain to me how one so uneducated and inexperienced as she certainly was has so suddenly attained, not only celebrity (which is often cheaply earned), but eminence in a profession, involving the amount of culture requisite for dramatic success?"
A slight smile showed the glittering line of the lawyer's teeth.
"When did you see her last?"
"Seven years ago."
"Then I venture the assertion that you would not recognize her should you see her in one of her favourite and famous roles. When, where, or by whom she was trained I know not, but some acquaintance with the most popular ornaments of her profession justifies my opinion that no more cultivated or artistic actress now walks the stage than Madame Odille Orme. She is no mere amateur or novice, but told me she had laboriously and studiously struggled up from the comparatively menial position of seamstress. Even in Paris I have never heard a purer, finer rendition of a passage in Phedre than one day burst from her lips in a moment of deep feeling, yet I cannot tell you how or where she learned French. She made her debut in tragedy, somewhere in the West, and when she reappeared in New York her success was brilliant. I have never known a woman whose will was so patiently rigid, so colossal, whose energy was so tireless in the pursuit of one special aim. She has the vigilance and tenacity of a Spanish bloodhound."
"In the advancement of her scheme, do you believe her capable of committing a theft?"
"What do you denominate a theft?"
The piercing black eyes of the lawyer were fixed with increased interest upon the clergyman.
"Precisely what every honest man means by the term. If Mrs. Orme resolved to possess a certain paper to which she had been denied access, do you think she would hesitate to break into a house, open a secret drawer, and steal the contents?"
"Not unless she had a legal right to the document, which was unjustly withheld from her, and even then my knowledge of the lady's character inclines me to believe that she would hesitate, and resort to other means."
"You consider her strictly honest and truthful?"
"I am possessed of no facts that lead me to indulge a contrary opinion. Suppose you state the case?"
Briefly Mr. Hargrove narrated the circumstances attending his last interview with Regina's mother, and the loss of the tin box, dwelling in conclusion upon the perplexing fact that in the recent letter received from her relative to her daughter's removal to the parsonage, Mrs. Orme had implored him to carefully preserve the license he had retained as the marriage certificate in her possession might not be considered convincing proof, should litigation ensue. He could not understand the policy of this appeal, nor reconcile its necessity with his conviction that she had stolen the license.
Joining his scholarly white hands with the tips of his fingers forming a cone, Mr. Palma leaned back in his chair and listened, while no hint of surprise or incredulity found expression in his cold, imperturbable face. When the recital was ended, he merely inclined his head.
"Do you not regard this as strong evidence against her? Be frank, Mr. Palma."
"It is merely circumstantial. Write to Mr. Orme, inform her of the loss of the license, and I think you will find that she is as innocent of the theft as you or I. I know she went to Europe believing that the final proof of her marriage was in your keeping; for in the event of her death, while abroad, she has empowered me to demand that paper from you, and to present it with certain others in a court of justice."
"I wish I could see it as you do. I hope it will some day be satisfactorily cleared up, but meanwhile I must indulge a doubt. On one point at least my mind is at rest; this little girl is unquestionably the child of the man who married her mother, for I have never seen so remarkable a likeness as she bears to him."
He sighed heavily, and patted the shaggy head which Bioern had some time before laid unheeded on his knee.
During the brief silence that ensued the lawyer gazed out of the window, through which floated the spicy messages of carnations, and the fainter whispers of pale cream-hearted Noisette roses; then he rose and put both hands in his pockets.
"Dr. Hargrove, you and I have been—with, I believe, equal reluctance—forced into the same boat, and since bongre malgre we must voyage for a time together, in the interest of this unfortunate child, candour becomes us both. Men of my profession sometimes resort to agencies that the members of yours usually shrink from. I too was once very sceptical concerning the truth of Mrs. Orme's fragmentary story, for it was the merest disjecta membra which she entrusted to me, and my credulity declined to honour her heavy drafts. To satisfy myself, I employed a shrewd female detective to 'shadow' the pretty actress for nearly a year, and her reports convinced me that my client, whilst struggling with Napoleonic ambition and pertinacity to attain the zenith of success in her profession, was as little addicted to coquetry as the statue of Washington in Union Square, or the steeple of Trinity Church; and that in the midst of flattery and adulation she was the same proud, cold, suffering, almost broken-hearted wife she had always appeared in her conferences with me. Induging this belief, I have accepted the joint guardianship of her daughter, on condition that whenever it becomes necessary to receive her under my immediate protection, I shall be made acquainted with her real name."
"Thank you, my dear sir, for your frankness, which I would most joyfully reciprocate, were I not bound by a promise to make no revelations until she gives me permission, or her death unseals my lips. I hope you fully comprehend my awkward position. There is a conspiracy to defraud her and her child of their social and legal rights, and I fear both will be victimized; but she insists that secrecy will deliver her from the snares of her enemies. I suppose you are aware that General——"
He paused, and bit his lip, and again the lawyer's handsome mouth disclosed his perfect teeth.
"There is no mischief in your dropped stitch; I shall not pick it up. I know that Mrs. Orme's husband is in Europe, and I was assured that motives of a personal character induced her to make certain professional engagements in England and upon the Continent. I am not enthusiastic, and rarely venture prophecies, but I shall be much disappointed if her Richelieu tactics do not finally triumph."
"Can you tell me why she does not openly bring suit against her husband for bigamy?"
"Simply because she has been informed that the policy of the defence would be to at once attack her reputation, which she seems to guard with almost morbid sensitiveness on account of her daughter. She has been warned of the dangerous consequences of a suit, but if forced to extremities will hazard it; hence I bide my time."
He threw back his lordly head, and his brilliant eyes seemed to dilate, as though the suggestion of the suit stirred his pulse, as the breath of carnage and the din of distant battle that of the war-horse, panting for the onward dash.
A species of human petrel,—a juridic Procellaria Pelagica whose habitat was the court-house,—Erle Palma lived amid the ceaseless surges of litigation, watching the signs of rising tempests in human hearts, plunging in defiant exultation where the billows rode highest, never so elated as when borne triumphantly upon the towering crest of some conquering wave of legal finesse, or impassioned invective, and rarely saddened in the flush of victory by the pale spectres of strangled hope, fortune, or reputation which float in the debris of the wrecks that almost every day drift mournfully away from the precincts of courts of justice.
The striking of the clock caused him to draw out his watch and compare the time.
"I believe the regular train does not leave V—— until night, but the conductor told me I might catch an excursion train bound south, and due here about half-past one o'clock. It is necessary for me to return with as little delay as possible, and after I have spoken to Regina I must hasten to the depot You will find my address pencilled on the card, and I presume Mrs. Orme has given you hers. Should you desire to confer with me at any time relative to the child, I shall promptly respond to your letters, but have no leisure to spend in looking after her. The semiannual remittance shall not be neglected, and Regina has a package for you containing money for contingent expenses."
They entered the hall, and found the little stranger sitting alone on the lowest step of the stairway, where Mrs. Lindsay had left her, while she went to prepare luncheon for the travellers. She was very quiet, bore no visible traces of tears, but the tender lips wore a piteously sad expression of heroically repressed grief, and the purlish shadows under her solemn blue eyes rendered them more than ever—pleadingly beautiful.
As the two gentlemen stood before her she rose, and caught her breath, pressing one little palm over her heart, while the other grasped the balustrade.
"Don't you think, dear, that you ought to be well cared for, when you have two guardians—two adopted fathers, Mr. Palma and I—to watch over you? We both intend that you shall be the happiest little girl in the State. Will you help us?"
"I will try to be good."
Her voice was very low, but steady, as if she realized she was making a compact.
"Then I know we shall all succeed."
Mr. Hargrove walked to the front door, and the lawyer put on his hat and came back to the steps.
"Regina, I have explained to you that I brought you here because your mother so directed me, and I believe Dr. Hargrove will be a kind, good friend. Little one, I do not like to leave you so soon among strangers, but it cannot be helped. Will you be contented and happy?"
There was singular emphasis in her reply.
"I shall never complain to you, Mr. Palma."
"Because you think I would not 'Sympathize with you? I am not a man given to soft words, nor am I accustomed to deal with children, but indeed I should be annoyed if I thought you were unhappy here."
"Then you must not be annoyed at all."
His quick nervous laugh seemed to startle her unpleasantly, for she shrank closer to the balustrade.
"How partial you are, preferring Dr. Hargrove already, and flying into his arms at sight! Do you wish to make me jealous?"
His eyes gleamed mischievously, and he saw the blood rising in her white cheeks.
"Dr. Hargrove opened his arms to me, because he saw how miserable I was."
"If I should chance to open mine, do you think that by any accident you would rush into them?"
"You know you would never have dreamed of doing such a thing. Are you going away now?"
"In a moment. If you get into trouble, or need anything, will you write to me? Remember, I am your mother's friend."
"Is not Mr. Hargrove also?"
He took her hands, and bending down looked kindly into the delicate lovely face.
"Good-bye, Mr. Palma."
"I hope, little girl, that we shall always be friends."
"You are very good to wish it. Thank you for taking care of me. Because you are my mother's best friend, I shall pray for you every night."
His sternly moulded lips twitched with some strange passing reminiscence of earlier years, but the emotion vanished, and, pressing her hands gently, he turned and went down the walk leading to the gate.
"Please let me come in, and help you."
Regina knocked timidly at the door of the parsonage guest's chamber, and Mrs. Lindsay answered from within:
"Come in? Of course you may, but what help do you imagine you can render, you useless piece of prettiness? Shall I set you on the mantlepiece between the china kittens, and the glass lambs, right under the sharp nose of my grandmother's portrait, where her great solemn eyes will keep you in order? Whence do all those delectable odours come? Are you a walking sachet?"
She was kneeling before an open drawer of the bureau, methodically arranging sundry garments, and, pausing in the task, looked over her shoulder at the girl who stood near, holding her hands behind her.
"I am sure I could help you, if I were only allowed to try. I am quite a large girl now, more than a year older than when I came here, and Hannah has taught me to do ever so many things. She says I will be a famous cook some day. You didn't know that I made up the Sally Lunn for tea?"
"What an ambitious bit of majesty you are! You wish to reign in the kitchen, rule in the poultry yard, and now presume to invade my province—my special kingdom of making things ready for the Bishop? Have you been anointing yourself with a whole vial of Lubin's extract of—Ah!—delicious—what is it?"
"Whatever it may be, will you let me fix it to suit myself on the Bishop's bureau?"
"No, you impertinent, wily Delilah in short clothes! I never promise in the dark; show it to me first, and then perhaps I may negotiate with you. You know as well as I do that the Bishop dearly loves perfumes, and if I should generously concede you the privilege of presenting 'sweet-smelling savours' unto him you might some day depose me—and I wish you distinctly to understand that I intend to reign over him as long as I live; not an inch of territory shall you filch."
Regina held up her hands, displaying in one several feathery sprays of Belgian honeysuckle, with half of its petals pearl, half of the palest pink; in the other a bunch of double violets of the rarest shade of delicate lilac, so unusual in the floral kingdom.
"You should be called 'Mab,' and ride about the world on a butterfly, or a streak of moonshine. How did you coax or conjure that honeysuckle into blooming before its appointed time?"
"Here are three pieces, two for the Bishop, and one for you. May I fasten it in your hair?"
"You recite a lesson in history every day, don't you?"
"Have you come to the Salem-witches yet?"
"Not yet. What has my history to do with this honeysuckle?"
"When you study metaphysics and begin the chase after that psychological fox—the-law-of-association-of-ideas, you will understand. Meanwhile, thank your stars, dear, that you did not live in Massachusetts some years ago, or you would certainly nave gone to heaven in the shape of smoke. How you stare, you white owl! As if you thought St. Vitus had rented my tongue for a dancing-saloon. It is all because the Bishop is coming. My blessed Bishop! Yes, put the handsomest spray in my hair, and then, if you make me look young and very pretty, you may do as you like with the others."
Still kneeling, she inclined her head, while Regina twisted the wreath around the coil of neatly braided hair. Then, kissing the girl lightly on her cheek, Mrs. Lindsay closed the drawer and rose. Drawing a silver cup from her pocket, Regina filled it with water, placed it close to the mirror, and proceeded to arrange the violets and honeysuckle. Stepping back to inspect the effect, she folded her hands and smiled.
"Mrs. Lindsay, tell him I gathered them for him, because he was kind to me when I came here a stranger, and I wish to thank him. When he is at home it seems always summer-time, don't you think so?"
The mother's eyes filled, and, laying a hand on the girl's head, she answered:
"Yes, dear, he is my sunshine, and my summer-time."
"How long will he stay with us?"
"He could not say positively when his last letter was written, but I hope to keep him several months. You know it is possible he may be forced to go to England, in order to complete some of his studies before—oh, Regina! could we bear to have two oceans swelling between our Bishop and us?"
"Why, then, will you let him go?"
"Can I help it?"
"You are his mother, and he would never disobey you."
"But he is a man, and I cannot tie him to my apron strings as I do my bunch of keys. I must not stand in the way, and prevent him from doing his duty."
"I suppose I don't yet know everything about such matters, but I should think it was his duty first to please you. How devoted he is to 'duty'? It must be horrible to leave all one loves, and go out to India among the heathens."
"Pray, what do you know about the heathens?" said a manly voice, and instantly two strong arms gathered the pair in a cordial embrace.
"My son! You stole a march upon me! Oh, Douglass, I never was half so glad to see you as now!"
"If you do not stop crying, I shall feel tempted to doubt you. Tears are so unusual in your eyes that I shall be disposed to regard your welcome as equivocal."
He kissed her on cheek and lips, and added:
"Regina, can't you contrive to say you are a little glad to see me?"
There was no reply, and, turning to look for her, he found she had vanished.
"Queer little thing, she has gone without a word, though she insisted on dressing her silver cup with those flowers, which she thought would suggest to you her gratitude for your numerous little acts of kindness. Have you seen your uncle?"
"Yes, mother, I stopped a few moments at the church, where he is engaged with one of the committee. Uncle Peyton is not looking well. Has he been sick?"
"He has suffered a good deal with his throat since you left us, and now and then I notice he coughs. He is overworked, and now that you can fill his pulpit he will have an opportunity to rest. Oh, my son! in every respect your visit is a blessing."
Leaning her head on his breast, she looked up with proud and almost adoring tenderness, and, drawing his face down to hers, held it close, kissing him with that intense clinging fervour which only mother-love kindles.
"Does my little mother know that she is spoiling her boy by inches; making a nursery darling, instead of a hardy soldier of him? You are weaving silken bonds to fasten me more securely here, when you ought rather to aid me in snapping the fetters of affection, habit, and association. Come, be so good as to brush the dust out of my hair, while you tell me everything about everybody, which you have failed to write during these long months of absence."
For some time they talked of family matters, of occurrences in V——, of some invidious and unkind remarks, some caustic personal criticisms upon the pastor's household affairs, which had emanated from Mrs. Prudence Potter, a widowed member of the congregation, who had once rashly dreamed of presiding over the clerical hearth as Mrs. Peyton Hargrove, and having failed to possess her kingdom had become a merciless spy upon all that happened in the forbidden realm.
"Poor Mrs. Prue! what a warfare exists between her name and her character. She should petition the legislature to allow her to be called—Mrs. Echidna! My son, I think modern civilization will remain incomplete, will not perform its mission, until it relieves society from the depredations of these scorpions, by colonizing them where they will expend their poison without dangerous results. If sting they must, let it be among themselves. If I were lunatic enough to desire to vote, I should spend my franchise in favour of a 'Gossip Reservation'—somewhere close to the Great Western Desert, to which the disappointed widows, spiteful old maids, and snarling dyspeptic bachelors of this much-suffering generation should be relegated for domiciliation and reform. Freedom serves America much as AEsop's stork did the frogs: we are appallingly free to be devoured by envy, stabbed by calumny, strangled by slander. I believe if I were a painter, and desired to portray Cleopatra's death, I would assuredly give to the asp the baleful features and sneering smirk of Mrs. Prudence. Every Sunday when she twists those two curls on her forehead till they lift themselves like horns, puts up her eye-glasses and pays her respects to our pew, I catch myself whispering 'Cerastes!' and wishing that I were only the camera of a photographer."
"Take care, mother! would you accept a homestead in your contemplated 'Reservation'?"
She pinched his ear.
"Don't presume, sir, to preach to me. Really, I often wonder how Peyton can force himself to smile and parry the vinegar cruets that woman throws at him in the shape of observations upon the 'rapid decline of evangelical piety,' and the 'sadly backslidden nature' of the clergy."
"Because he is the very best man in the world, and faithfully practises what he preaches—Christian charity. What is Mrs. Pru's latest grievance?"
"That Peyton does not admit her to his confidence, and supply her with all the particulars of Regina's history and family, which he withholds even from you and me, and about which we should never dream of catechizing him. In a better cause, her bold effrontery would be sublime. Fortunately she was absent in Vermont for some months after the child came, and curiosity had subsided into indifference until she returned,—when lo! a geyser of righteous anxiety and suspicion boiled up in the congregation, and wellnigh scalded us. What do you suppose she blandly asked me one day, in the child's presence? 'Were not Mr. Hargrove's friends mistaken in believing he had never married?' Now I contend that the law of the land should indict for just such cruel and wicked innuendoes, because these social crimes that the statutes do not reach work almost as much mischief and misery as those offences against public peace which the laws declare penal. I confess Mrs. Potter is my bete-noire, and I feel as no doubt Paul did when he wrote to Timothy: 'Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil; the Lord reward him according to his works.'"
"Mother, what reply did you make to her? I can imagine you towering like Mrs. Siddons."
"You may be sure I unmasked a battery. I looked straight into her little faded grey eyes, which straggle away from each other as if ashamed of their mutual ferret experiences,—for you know one looks out so, and one turns always up,—and I answered, that my brother had been exceedingly fortunate, as, notwithstanding the numerous matrimonial nets adroitly spread for him, he had escaped, like the Psalmist, 'as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers,' and fled for safety unto the mountain of celibacy. Bishop, if the new school of science lack the link that binds us to the ophidian type, I can furnish a thoroughly 'developed' specimen of an 'evolved' Melusina; for Mrs. Pru's ancestors must have been not very remotely, cobra-capellos. Such a chronic blister as she is keeps up more inflammation in a church than all the theology at Andover can cool. As for general society here in V——, she damages it more than all the three hundred foxes of Samson did the corn-fields, vineyards, and olives of the Philistines. What are you laughing at?"
"The ludicrous dismay that will seize you when the constablery of your progressive civilization notify you that you must emigrate to the Gossip and Slander Reservation. Poor Mrs. Prudence Potter! from my earliest recollection she has been practising archery upon the target of her neighbours' characters, and she seeks social martyrdom as diligently as Sir Galahad hunted the Sangreal. In the form of ostracism, I think she is certainly reaping her reward. Mother, let her rest."
"With all my heart! ''tis a consummation devoutly to be wished;' but that is just the last thing she proposes, until the muscles of her tongue and eyes are paralyzed. Rest indeed! Did you ever see a hyena caged in a menagerie? Did you ever know it to rest for an instant from its snarling, snapping, grinning round? My son, I would not for my right hand malign or injure her, but how can I sincerely indulge charitable reflections concerning a person who has so persistently persecuted your uncle?"
"Then, dear little mother, do not think of her at all. Be assured her ill-natured shafts will fall as blunt and harmless upon the noble well-tried armour of my uncle's Christian character, as a bombardment of cambric needles against the fortress of Cronstadt. How rapidly Regina has grown, since she came among us? Her complexion is perfect. Is she the same straightforward, guileless child I left her?"
"Unchanged except in the rapid expansion of her mind, which develops surprisingly. She is the most mature child I have ever met, and I presume it is attributable to the fact that she has never been thrown with children, and having always associated with older persons, has insensibly imbibed their staid thoughts, and adopted their quiet ways. I should not be more astonished to see my prim puritanical grandmother yonder step down from the frame, and turn a somersault on the carpet, or indulge in leap-frog, than to find Regina guilty of any boisterous hoidenish behaviour, or unrefined, undignified language. If she had been born on the Mayflower, raised on Plymouth Rock, and fed three times a day on the 'Blue Laws' of Connecticut, she could not possibly have proved a more eminently 'proper' child. Even Hannah, who you may recollect was so surly, harsh, and suspicious when she first came here, and who really has as little cordiality or enthusiasm in her nature as a gridiron or a rolling-pin, seems now to be completely devoted to her; as nearly infatuated as one of her flinty temperament can be,—and who conquers old Hannah's heart—you will admit—must be wellnigh perfect."
"Does my uncle continue to teach her?"
"Yes, and I think it is one of his greatest pleasures. She is ambitious and studious, and Peyton is never too weary to explain whatever puzzles her. She is exceedingly fond of him, and he said last week that she was his 'Jabez;' he had received her so reluctantly, and she proved such a comfort and blessing?"
"I presume her mother writes to her occasionally?"
"Regularly every fortnight she receives a letter. Sometimes for days after Regina looks perplexed and sorrowful, but she never divulges the contents. Once, about two months ago, I found her lying on the rug in her own room, with her face in her hands, and her mother's last letter beside her. I asked if she had received any bad news, for I knew she was crying in her quiet way, and she looked up, and said in a tone that was really piteous: 'There is nothing new. It is always the same old thing!—she does not know yet when she can come, and I must be good and patient. Oh, Mrs. Lindsay! I am so hungry to see my mother! When I look at her picture, I feel as if I would be willing to die if I could only kiss her, and hear her say once more, "My baby! My darling!" Last night I dreamed she took me in her arms and hugged me tight, and looked at me as she used to do when she came to the convent, and said, "Papa's own baby! Papa's poor stray lamb!" Mrs. Lindsay, when I waked I had the pillow in my arms, and was kissing it.' Now, Douglass, it is a great mystery how a mother could voluntarily separate herself from such a child as Regina. I asked her to show me the picture, and she cried a good deal, and said: 'I have often wished to show it to you, but she says I must let no one see it. Oh! she is so beautiful! Lovelier than the Madonnas in the Chapels; only she always has tears in her eyes. I never saw her when she did not weep. Mrs. Lindsay, help me to be good, teach me to be smart in everything, that I may be some comfort to my mother.' The saddest feature in the whole affair is, that Regina begins to suspect there is some discreditable mystery about her mother and herself; but Peyton says it is marvellous how delicately she treats the subject. She came home one day from Sunday school and told him that Mrs. Prudence asked her in the presence, of her class how her mother could afford to dress her in such costly clothes; and whether she had ever seen her father? Peyton wished to know what reply she made, and she said her answer was: 'Mrs. Potter, if I were you and you were Regina Orme, I think I would have my tongue cut out, before it should ask you such questions.' Then Peyton told me she looked at him as if she were reading his secret soul, and added; 'It is hard not to understand everything, but I will be patient, for mother writes that some day I shall know all; and no matter what people say—no matter how strange things may seem—I will believe in my mother, as I believe in God!' Most girls of her age would be curious to discover what is concealed from her, but although your uncle thinks she is uncertain whether her father be living or dead, she carefully shuns all reference to the subject. There is the doorbell! Hannah will let somebody in before I can fly down and tell her to excuse me. How stupid of people not to know that my Bishop has come! Oh dear! it is Mrs. Cartney, and she has come for the aprons I promised to make for the Asylum children, and they have not been touched! Yes, Hannah, I am coming. Why didn't you say I was engaged with my son?"
She disappeared, and after awhile Douglass Lindsay went down to the library, and thence through the door opening upon two steps that led into the garden.
It was one of those rare golden-aired days that sometimes break over the bleak brows of brawling March in sunny prophecy of yet distant summer; windless days, when rime and haze are equally unknown, and tender fingers of the timid spring, lifting the shrouding sod, advance tendril and leaf and bud as heralds of the annual resurrection. Double daffodils stood erect and conspicuous like commissioned officers along the line of yellow jonquils that bordered the walks, and snowy narcissus and purple and rose hyacinths made a fragrant mosaic over which the brown bees swung, and hummed their ceaseless hymn—laborare est orare. Following the winding path that led to the palings which shut out the poultry realm, the young minister leaned against the gate, overshadowed by a tall lilac, and looked across at the feathered folk, of which from boyhood he had been particularly fond.
In the centre of the enclosure was a handsome pigeon-house, circular in form, and easily accessible by a flight of steps, while upon the top of a cupola that sprung from the roof was built a small but prettily painted martin's home, in the quaint shape of the ark as we find it in Scriptural illustrations. Throughout the length and breadth of the Continent, probably no other mere amateur fowl fancier possessed such a collection as Mr. Hargrove had patiently and gradually gathered from various sources. The peculiarity consisted in the whiteness of the fowls;—turkeys, guineas, geese, ducks, English Pile, Leghorn, Brahma chickens all spotlessly pure, while the pigeons resembling drifting snow-flakes,—and the pheasants gleamed like silver.
Upon one of the steps of the columbary sat Regina, with a basket of mixed grain by her side, and in her lap a pair of white rabbits which she was feeding with celery and cabbage leaves. At her feet stood two beautiful Chinese geese, whose golden bills now and then approached the edge of the basket, or encroached upon the rabbits' evening meal. The girl was bareheaded, and the fading sunshine lingered lovingly upon the glossy hair and delicate lovely face which had lost naught of the purity that characterized it eighteen months before, while during that time she had grown much taller, and gave promise of attaining unusual height and symmetry.
The dress of Marie-Louise blue merino was relieved at the throat by a neatly crimped ruffle, and, as in days of yore, she wore the white apron with pretty pockets, and ruffled bands passing over her shoulders and down to the belt behind, where broad strings of linen were looped into a bow. Her abundant hair was plaited in two long thick braids, and passed twice around her head, forming a jet coronal, and imparting a peculiarly classic contour.
There was in this quiet fowlyard scene something so innocent, so peaceful, that it was inexpressibly soothing and attractive to the man who stood beneath the lilac boughs, jaded with unremitting study, and laden with wearying schemes of future labour. Douglass Lindsay was only twenty-five, but the education and habits of a theological student had stamped a degree of gravity on his handsome face, which was doubtless enhanced by a slight yet undeniable baldness.
Closely resembling his mother, except in the brownness of his fine eyes, his countenance lacked the magnetic warmth and merry shifting lights that rendered hers so pleasant, yet none who looked earnestly upon it could doubt for an instant that he would prove a stanch, faithful, worthy ensign of that Banner of Peace, which Jesus unfurled among the olive-girdled hills of holy Judea.
With no leprous taint of bigotry to sully his soul, blur his vision, or cramp his sphere of action, the broad stream of Christian charity flowed from his noble, generous heart, sweeping away obstacles that would have impeded the usefulness of a minister less catholic in sympathy, more hampered by creed ligaments and denominational fetters. To an almost womanly tenderness and susceptibility regarding the sufferings of his fellow-creatures, he united an inflexible adherence to the dictates of justice and the rigorous promptings of conscience; and while devoutly yielding allegiance solely to the Triune God, to whose service he had reverently dedicated his young life, there were times when in almost ascetic self-abnegation he unconsciously bowed down to that stem-lipped, stony Teraph who, under the name of "Duty," sat a cowled and shrouded idol in the secret oratory of his unselfish heart. Are there not seasons when even the most orthodox wonder whether the Dii Involuti passed away for ever, with the paterae and fibulae that once rendered service in the classic shades of Chusium and Monte-pulciana?
Scholarly in tastes, neither Mr. Lindsay's habits nor inclination led him often into the flowery mazes of fashionable society, but, standing upon the verge of Vanity Fair, he had looked curiously down at the feverish whirl, the gilded shams, the maddening, murderous conflict for place,—the empty mocking pageantry of the victorious, the sickening despair and savage irony of the legions of the defeated; and after the roar and shout and moan of the social maelstrom, as presented in the great city where his studies had been pursued, it was pleasant this afternoon to watch the fluttering white creatures that surrounded that calm beautiful child, and to listen to the soft cooing of the innocent lovers in the dovecote above her.
Opening the latticed gate he walked toward the group, and lifting the basket, sat down on the steps.
"Why did you not wait, and invite me to come out and inspect your pretty pets?"
"I thought your mother could not spare you this first afternoon, she had so much to say to you; but I am very glad you have not quite forgotten us. Do you see how tall the China geese have grown? When the gander stretches his neck he can touch my shoulder with his bill. Isn't he beautiful?"
"Decidedly the handsomest gander of my acquaintance. When I went away you were trying to find a name for him. Did you succeed?"
"Yes, I call him Alcibiades."
"Why? Do you wish to insult the memory of the great Athenian?"
"I wish to compliment him, because he was so graceful and beautiful, and was so fond of birds he carried them about in his bosom. My Alcibiades is so good-natured he never fights or hisses at my pigeons, and just now one of them lighted on his back, and picked up the barley that had fallen on his feathers. Mr. Hargrove promises me that just as soon as I can make money enough to pay the brickmason, he will have a large cemented basin built near the pump, where the geese and ducks can swim about every day."
"How do you propose to make money?" asked Douglass, lifting one of the rabbits into his lap, and offering it a crisp morsel of celery.
"Don't you know that I sell the eggs? Those of the white guineas bring three dollars a dozen, and I could sell more of the white turkeys, at the same price, than we can spare. Our new pigeon palace was paid for entirely out of the poultry money."
"Who keeps the poultry book? Have you at last learned to multiply fractions?"
She looked up, smiling into his laughing eyes.
"Mr. Lindsay, I am not so stupid as when you tried so hard to explain that sum to me. I keep the account, and your uncle examines it once a week. He says it will teach me to be accurate in my figures."
"What did you pay for your rabbits? I have a pair of Angolas for you, but the man from whom I bought them advised me not to remove them until all danger of cold weather had passed, as they are quite young."
"Thank you, Mr. Lindsay. You are very kind to remember that I wished for them last year. I did not buy these——"
She raised the rabbit from her apron, and rubbed her cheek against its soft fur, then added in a lower and touching tone:
"My mother sent them to me. I can't tell how she found out that of all things I wished most to have them, but you know, sir, that mothers seem inspired, they always understand what is in their children's hearts and minds, and need no telling. So I love these more than all my pets; they are the latest message from my mother."
She held out her hand, and interpreting the expression in her superb eyes, he placed the other rabbit in her arms, and for a moment she pressed them close.
"I must shut them up until to-morrow, or the owls might make a supper of them, as happened to some the Sisters kept at the convent."
She opened the door of a wired apartment beneath the pigeon-house, where in an adjoining division the pheasants were settling upon their perch, and carefully deposited the bouncing furry creatures on a bed of wheat straw.
"Mr. Lindsay, the fowls are all going to roost, and you must wait till morning to see the squabs, and broods of Brahmas and Leghorns. They look like snowballs rolling about after their food."
As she locked up the grain, and balanced the key on her fingers, her companion said:
"I must persuade Uncle Peyton to get some black Spanish, and a few Poland chickens."
"Oh no! We don't want any black things; if they laid a dozen eggs a day they could not come here. We never raise a fowl that has coloured feathers; all our beauties must be like snow."
"I see you have converted my uncle to your pet doctrine, and before long I suppose you will persuade him to sell his pretty bay, and buy a white pony?"
"No, sir, I like 'Sultan' too well to care much about his colour, and beside, Mr. Hargrove is attached to him. There is one thing we both want very much indeed, and that is a white Ava cow. Your uncle read me a description of those cattle last week, and said when you went to the East he would ask you to try and send him one."
As he looked down at her perfect face, then at one of the doves that had perched on her shoulder, and thought of treacherous swart Sepoys, of Bengal tigers, of all the tangled work that lay before him in Hindoostan jungles, a shadow fell over the young man's brow, and a dull pain seemed to tighten the valves of his heart. Just then his appointed lot in the Master's vineyard did not smile as alluringly as the sunny slopes of Eschol; but he put aside the contrast.
"Regina, I saw Mr. Palma in New York."
"I hope he is well."
"He certainly looked so. Among other things, he asked if the art of writing had been altogether omitted in your education. I told him I was unacquainted with your accomplishments in that line, as I had written you two letters which remained unanswered."
"But your mother thanked you for them in my name."
"Which was very sweet and good in my dear mother, but questionably courteous in you. Mr. Palma sent you a present."
"He is very kind indeed, but if I am expected to write and thank him, I would much rather not receive it."
"Do you dislike him?"
"How could I dislike my mother's best friend? I daresay he has a good heart—of course he must have; but whenever I think of him I feel a queer chill creep to my very finger-tips, as if the north wind blew hard upon me, or an iceberg sailed by."
"Guess what he sent you."
"A copybook, pen, and ink?"
"He is too polished a gentleman to punish you so severely. Come and let me show you his gift."
He led the way to the gallery at the rear of the house, and here they found Mr. Hargrove and Mrs. Lindsay admiring a young Newfoundland dog, which was chained to the balusters.
"Look, Regina! it is a waddling snow-bank! So round, so soft and white! Did he come from Nova Zembla, or Hammerfest, or directly from 'Greenland's icy mountains'?"
"Mr. Palma looked all over New York and Brooklyn before he found a pure white dog to suit him. It seems he knew Regina's fondness for snowy pets, and this is the only Newfoundland I have ever seen who had not even a dark hair. Mr. Palma put this handsome collar and chain upon him, and asked me to bring him to Regina. He will be very large when grown; now he is only a few months old."
Regina softly patted the woolly head, and her eyes glistened with delight.
"How did Mr. Palma guess that I wanted a dog?"
"He requested me to suggest something that would please you, and I told him that all at the parsonage were grieving over the death of poor old Bioern. He immediately decided to send you a dog, and this is a noble sagacious creature."
"What is his name?"
"That is left entirely to your taste; but I hope you will not go all the way to Greece to find a title, as you did for your classic gander."
"Then I will call him whatever Mr. Hargrove likes best."
As she spoke Regina nestled her fingers into the pastor's hand, and he smiled down into her radiant face.
"My dear child, exercise your own preference. Have you no choice?"
"Suppose you name him 'Erl-King' in compliment to Mr. Palma?"
"I should never dare to call him that; it would seem impertinent. He is such a splendid dog, I should like a fine, uncommon, grand name out of some of Mr. Hargrove's learned books."
"Oh don't, Regina! It will be positively cruel to turn Peyton loose among his folios, and invite him to afflict that innocent orphaned brute with some dreadful seven-syllabled abomination, which he will convince you is Arabic, or Sanscrit, classic or mediaeval, Gaelic, Finnish or Norse, but which I warn you will serve your jaws (more elegant form—'maxillary bones') very much as an attack of mumps would, and will torture the victim into hydrophobia. Be pitiful, and say Teazer, Tiger, Towser, but don't throw the sublime nomenclature of the classics literally to the dogs!"
"Now, mother, I protest against your infringement of Uncle Peyton's accorded rights. Be quiet, please, and let him give Regina a few historic names, from which she can select one."
Douglass passed his arm over Mrs. Lindsay's shoulder, and both watched the eager intent face which the girl lifted to the pastor.
He took off his glasses, wiped them with the end of his coat, and, readjusting them on his nose, addressed himself to his ward.
"There is an East Indian tradition that a divinely appointed greyhound guards the golden herds of stars and sunbeams for the Lord of Heaven, and collects the nourishing rain-clouds as the celestial cows to the milking-place. That greyhound was called Sarama. Will that suit you?"
She shook her head.
"The Greeks tell us of a dog which was kept in the temple of AEsculapius at Athens, and on one occasion when a robber entered and stole the gold and silver treasures from the altar, the dog followed him for several days and nights, until the thief, who could neither beat him away nor persuade him to eat meat, was captured and carried back to Athens. Now, dear, this was a very shrewd and courageous animal, and his name was Capparus."
"Why did not his owner change it for something handsome, after he performed such service?"
Regina spoke dubiously, and looked down at the new pet, who wagged his plumy tail as if to deprecate the punishment of such a title.
"When Pyrrhus died, his favourite and devoted dog refused to stir from the body, but when it was carried out of the house he leaped upon the bier, and finally sprang into the funeral pile, and was burned alive with his master's remains. This exceedingly faithful creature was Astus."
"Mr. Hargrove, are all the classic names so ugly?"
"I am afraid the little girl's ear is not sufficiently cultivated to appreciate them. I will try once more. The Welsh Prince Llewellyn had a noble deerhound, whom he trusted to watch the cradle of his baby boy while he himself was absent. One day returning home, he found the cradle upset and empty, the clothes and the dog's mouth dripping with blood. Concluding that the hound had devoured the child, the father drew his sword and slew the dog, but a moment after the cry of the babe from behind the cradle showed him his boy was alive. Looking around, the prince discovered the body of a huge wolf, which had entered the house to attack and devour the child, but which had been kept off and killed by this brave dog, who was named Gillert."
Fearing from the expression of the girl's eloquent face, that Wales would win the game, Mrs. Lindsay exclaimed with an emphasis that made the dog prick up his ears:
"Gwrach y Rhibyn—be merciful! The poor wretch looks as if he were ready to howl at the bare mention of such a heathen, fabulous name. Anything would be an improvement on the Welsh—Cambyses, Sardanapalus, are euphonic in comparison.
"Mr. Hargrove, I am much obliged to you for your goodness in telling me so much about celebrated dogs, and if the queer names sound any sweeter to me after I am well educated, and grow learned, I will take one of them; but just now I believe would rather call my dog Hero."
"Regina Orme! you benighted innocent! Don't make Peyton's hair rise with horror at your slaughter of the 'unities.' Why, my dear, Hero was a young lady who lived in Sestos a few thousand years ago, and was not considered a model of prudent behaviour, even then."
"Are not brave noble men called heroes? Did not Mr. Hargrove say last week that Philo Smith was a hero, when he jumped into the mill-pond and saved Lemuel Martin from drowning? Does not my history call Leonidas a hero? I don't know exactly who the 'unities' are, but until I learn more I intend to call my dog Hero. To me it seems to mean everything I wish him to be—good, faithful, brave, grand, and I shall call him Hero. Come along, Hero, and get some supper."
"Mrs. Orme, now that you are comfortable in your wrapper and slippers, let me take down your hair, and then I will bring you a cup of tea; not the vile lukewarm stuff they give us here, but good genuine tea made out of my own caddy, that has some strength, and will build you up. Rehearsals don't often serve you so badly."
"Thank you, Mrs. Waul, but the tea would only make me more nervous, and that is a risk I cannot afford to incur. Please raise both windows, fresh air, even Parisian air, is better for me than anything else."
"You have not seemed quite yourself since we came here, and I don't understand at all why two nights in Paris serve you worse than a week's acting elsewhere."
"Have I not told you that I dread above every other ordeal the critical Parisian audience?"
"But you passed so successfully through it! Last night the galleries absolutely thundered, and people seemed half wild with delight. William says the papers are full of praise."
Mrs. Waul crossed the room to lay upon the bureau the steel pins she had taken from her mistress's hair, and the latter muttered audibly:
"For me the 'ides of March' are come indeed, but not passed."
"Did you speak to me?"
"There comes your husband. I hear his slow, heavy step upon the stairs. Open the door."
As an elderly white-haired man entered, Mrs. Orme put put her hand.
"Letters from home, Mr. Waul?"
"One from America, two from London, and a note from the American minister."
"You saw the minister then? Did he give you the papers we shall require?"
"He has been sick, I believe, but said he would be at the theatre to-night, and would call and see you to-morrow."
"Hear this sentence, good people, from his note: 'Only indisposition prevented my attendance at the theatre last night to witness the brilliant triumph of my countrywomen. Since the palmy days of Rachel I have not heard such extravagant eulogies, and as an American I proudly and cordially congratulate you——'"
"Are you going to faint! Stand back, William, and let me bathe her face with cologne. What is the matter, Mrs. Orme? You shake as if you had an ague."
But her mistress sat with eyes fixed upon a line visible only to herself: "Your countrymen here are very much elated, and to-night I shall be accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Cuthbert Laurance, son of General Rene Laurance, whose wealth and social eminence must have at least rendered his name familiar to all Americans travelling in Europe."
"Be quick, Phoebe, and get her a glass of wine. She has no more colour in her lips than there is in my white beard."
"No—give me nothing. I only want rest—quiet."
She crushed the delicate satin paper in her hand, and rallied her composure. After a moment she added:
"A slight faintness, that is all. Mr. Waul, before the curtain rises to-night, I wish you to ascertain in what portion of the house the American minister's box is located; write it on a slip of paper and send it to the dressing-room by your wife. Just now I believe I have no other commissions. If I do not ring my little bell, do not disturb me until five o'clock, then bring me a cup of strong coffee. And, Mrs. Waul, please baste a double row of swan's-down around the neck and sleeves of the white silk I shall wear to-night. Let no one disturb me; not even the manager."
As the husband and wife withdrew, she followed them to the door, locked it on the inside, and returned to the easy chair. With a whitening, hardening face she reread the note, and thrust it into one of the silk pockets of her robe.
Although nine years had elapsed since we saw her first, in the mellow lamplight of Mr. Hargrove's library, time had touched her so daintily, so lovingly, that only two lines were discernible about the mouth, where habitual compression has set its print; and it would have been difficult to realize that she was twenty-eight, had not the treacherous eyes betrayed the gloom, the bitterness, the ceaseless heartache that filled them with shadows, which prematurely aged the whole countenance.
The added years seemed only to have ripened and perfected her exquisite beauty, but with the rounded smoothness, and the fresh, pure colouring of youth was mingled a weird indescribable expression of stern hopelessness, of solemn repose, as if she had deliberately shaken hands for ever with all that makes life bright and precious, and were fronting with calm smile and quiet pulses a grim and desperate conflict, which she well knew could have an end only in the peace of the pall, that long truce, whose signal is the knell and the requiem.
Had she been reared amid the fatalistic influences of Arabia, she could not have more completely adopted and exemplified the marble motto: "Despair is a free man; Hope is a slave." For her the rosy mist that usually hovers over futurity had been swept rudely aside, the softening glow of the To-Come had been precipitated into a dull, pitiless leaden ever present, at which she never raved nor railed, but inflexibly fought on, expecting neither sunshine nor succour, unappalled and patient as some stony figure of Fate, which chiselled when the race was young, feels the shrouding sands of centuries drifting around and over it, but makes no moan over the buried youth, and watches the approaching night with the same calm, steadfast gaze that looked upon the starry dawn, and the golden glory of the noon.
The cautious repression which necessity had long ago rendered habitual had crystallized into a mask, which even when alone she rarely laid aside for an instant. In actual life, and among strong positive natures, the deepest feelings find no vent in the effervescence of passionate verbal outbreaks, and outside the charmed precincts of the tragic stage, the world would not tolerate the raving Hamlets and Othellos, the Macbeths and Medeas, that scowl and storm and anathematize so successfully in the magic glow of the footlights.
To-day, as Madame Odille Orme leaned back in her luxuriously cushioned chair, she seemed quite as a statue, save the restless movements of her slender fingers, which twined and intertwined continually; while the concentrated gaze of the imperial eyes never stirred from the open window, whence she saw—not Parisian monuments of civic glory and martial splendour—only her own past, her haunting skull and cross-bones of the Bygone. Her violet-coloured dressing-gown was unbuttoned at the throat, exposing the graceful turn of the neck, and the proud poise of the perfectly modelled head, from which the shining hair fell like Danae's shower, framing the face and figure on a back ground as golden as that of some carefully preserved Byzantine picture.
At last the heavily fringed lids quivered, drooped, the magnificent eyes closed as if to shut out some vision too torturing even for their brave penetrating gaze, and in her rigid whiteness she seemed some unearthly creature, who had done for ever with feverish life and the frail toys of time.
Raising her arms above her head, she rested her clasped hands upon her brow, and in a low, strangely quiet tone her words dropped like icicles.
"It was a groundless fear, that when the long-sought opportunity came my weak womanish nature would betray me, and I should fail, break down utterly under the crushing weight of tender memories, sacred associations. What are they?
"Three dreamy weeks of delirious wifehood, balanced by thirteen years of toil, aspersion, hatred, persecution; goaded by want, pursued ceaselessly by the scorpion scourge whose slanderous lash coiled ever after my name, my reputation. Three weeks a bride,—unrecognized as such even then,—twelve years an outcast,—repudiated, insulted,—mother and child, denied, derided,—cast off as a serpent's skin!—Ah, memory! thou hast no charm to stir the blackened ashes in a heart extinguished by the steady sleet of a husband's repudiation. When love is dead, and regret is decently buried, and the song of hope is hushed for ever, then revenge mounts the chariot and gathers the reins in her hands of steel; and beyond the writhing hearts whose blood dyes her rushing wheels sees only the goal. Some wise anatomists of that frail yet invincible sphinx—woman's nature, babble of one weighty fact, one conquering law,—that only the mother-joy, the mother-love, fully unseals the slumbering sweetness and latent tenderness of her being; for me, maternity opened the sluices of a sea of hate and gall. Had I never felt the velvet touch of tiny fingers on my cheek, a husband's base desertion might in time have been forgiven, possibly at least, forgotten; but the first wail from my baby's lips awoke the wolf in me. My wrongs might slumber till that last assize, when the pitying eyes of Christ sum up the record, but hers—have made a hungry panther of my soul. Come, memory, unlock your treasure house, uncoil your spells, chant all your witching strains, and let us see whether the towers of Notre Dame will not tremble and dissolve as soon as I?"
Bending to a trunk near her chair, she unlocked it, and taking out a papier-mache box, opened it with a small key that hung from her watch chain, and placed it on the table before her, where she had thrown the unread letters. Leaning forward, she crossed her arms upon the marble, and looked down on the contents of the box,—her child's letters,—her own unanswered appeals in behalf of her babe,—a photograph of the latter,—and most prominent of all, a large square ambrotype of a handsome boyish face, with a short curl of black hair lying inside the case.
"Idolatrous? Yes all women are, embryo pagans, and the only comfort is, that when the idol crumbles into clay, mocking our prayers and offerings, we still worship at the same old shrine, having dusted and garnished and set thereon—maybe the Furies, which bid fair to survive the wreck of gods, of creeds, and of time. Like Oenone, we are all betrayed sooner or later by our rose-lipped Paris,—
'Beautiful Paris, evil-hearted Paris,'
and after the inevitable foolish tears of vain regret we dry our eyes, and hunt Cassandra, to listen to the muttering of the thunder that is gathering to avenge us—in Troy. Bride and bridegroom, face to face— Cuthbert! So you looked, when we parted, when you strained me to your heart, and swore that before a fortnight passed you would hold 'darling Minnie in your arms once more!' Did you mean it even then? No, no, already the hounds of slander were snuffing in my path, and the toils were spread for my unwary feet. Here, look back at me, my husband, with those fond peerless eyes, as on that day when I saw you last—all mine! To-night—across the gulf of separation, and of shameful wrong—we shall look into each other's faces once more, while another woman wears my name, fills my place at your side. Fair treacherous face of my first and only love,—handsome as a god!—false as Apollyon!"
She had lifted the ambrotype and held it close to her eyes, then her hand sank until the picture dropped back into its place, and the lonely desolate woman buried her face in her palms. The pretty guilt clock on the mantle ticked monotonously, and the hum of life, and the busy roll of vehicles in the vast city, was borne in through the window, like the faint roar of yet distant Niagara; and after awhile when the sharp stroke of the clock announced four the bowed figure raised herself.
Sweeping back the blinding veil of hair, her brilliant brown eyes shone calm and dry, dimmed by no tears of fond womanly regret, and as they fell upon the photograph of Regina, a smile of indescribable bitterness curled the lovely lips that might have served as model for Psyche's.
"'The trail of the serpent is over all.' Can there be pardon for the man who makes me shrink shudderingly at times from her whose little veins were fed from mine, whose pulses are but a throb from my heart, my baby! My own baby, who, when I snatch her in my arms, smiles at me with his wonderful eyes of blue; and wellnigh maddens me with the very echo of a voice whose wily sweetness won my love, to make an hour's pastime, a cheap toy, soon worn out, worthless and trodden under foot after three weeks' sport! Stooping over my baby, when she stretched her little hands and coaxed me to lift her on my lap, I have started back from the sight of her innocent face, as if a hooded viper fawned upon me; for the curse of her father's image has smitten my only darling, my beautiful, proud child! O God! that we had both died in that dim damp ward of the Hospital, where she first opened her eyes, unwelcomed by the father, whose features she bears!"
But beneath this Marah tide that was surging so fiercely over her long-suffering heart, bubbled the pure, sweet, incorruptible fount of mother-love, and while she studied the fair childish face her own softened, as that of some snow image whose features gradually melt as the sunlight creeps across it. It was a picture taken after Regina's removal to the parsonage, and represented her with the white rabbits nestling in her arms.
"My proud little Regina! my pure sensitive darling! How much longer must we be separated? Will the time ever come when the only earthly rest that remains for me can be taken in her soft clinging arms? Patience—patience. If it were not for her—for my baby—I might falter even now,—but she must, she shall be righted—at any sacrifice, at every cost; and may the widow's and the orphan's God be pitiful—be pitiful—at last."
She raised her child's picture in her clasped hands, as if appealing indeed to the justice of Him who "never slumbers, nor sleeps," and the tremor of her lips and voice told how passionate was the affection for her daughter, how powerful the motives that sustained her in the prolonged and torturing ordeal.
Restoring the portraits to their hiding-place, she locked the trunk, and as she resumed her seat seemed suddenly to recollect the letters lying on the table.
One was a brief note, from the manager of the London theatre where she had recently been engaged; the second from a celebrated money-lender, which bore only the signature, "Simon," and was as follows:
"DEAR MADAME,—Since our last conversation relative to the purchase of a certain mortgage, I have ascertained that you can secure it, by adding one hundred pounds to the amount specified by the holder. Should you still desire me to effect the transfer, delay might thwart your negotiation, and I respectfully solicit prompt instructions."
Twice she read these lines, then slowly tore the paper into strips, shredded and threw them toward the grate, while a stony expression settled once more upon her features. The remaining letter was post-marked New York, and addressed, in a bold, round, mercantile hand, but when the envelope had been removed, the formal angular chirography of a schoolgirl displayed itself, and as the sheet was opened there issued thence a delicate perfume that gushed like a breath of spring over the heart of the lonely mother.
Several leaves of lemon-verbena and a few violets fell from the folds of the paper, and, picking them up, Mrs. Orme spread them on her palm. Only a few withered leaves and faded petals that had crossed the Atlantic to whisper fragrant messages of love, from the trusting brave young soul whose inexperienced hand had stiffly traced at the top of the page—"My darling mother."
Ah! what a yearning tenderness glorified the woman's frozen face, as the flowers in her hand babbled of the blue eyes that had looked last upon them, of the childish fingers that brushed the dew from their purple velvet, of the dainty, almost infantile, lips that had fondly pressed them, of the holy prayer breathed over them, that ere the time of violets came again mother and child might be reunited.
Just now she dared not read the letter, dared not surrender to the softening influences that might melt the rigid purpose of her soul, and, kissing the flowers reverently, the mother laid them aside until a more convenient season, and began to walk slowly to and fro....
The play that night was "Kenilworth," and had been cast to admit some alterations made in the dramatization by Madame Orme, who frequently introduced startling innovations in her rendering of her parts, and in almost all her favourite roles refused rigid adherence to the written text. The reputation of her beauty and former triumphs, the success achieved on the previous nights, and certain tart criticisms upon the freedom of her interpretation of Scott's lovely heroine—Leicester's wife—combined to draw a crowded house; and ere the curtain rose every box was occupied save one on the second tier near the stage.
As the crash of the orchestra died away, and the play opened with the interview between Lambourn and Foster, followed by Tressilian, and the encounter with Varney, the door of the box opened, and the American minister entered, accompanied by a lady and gentleman, who, after seating themselves and gathering back the folds of the box curtains, proceeded to scan the audience.
As they disposed themselves comfortably a white-haired man, watching through a crevice in the side scene, scribbled on a piece of paper which was handed into the dressing-room: "Second box, second tier, right-hand side. Two gentlemen, and a lady wearing a scarlet cloak."
Sitting between the minister and her husband, Mrs. Laurance with her brilliant wrappings was the most prominent of the group, and in the blaze of the gaslight looked at least thirty-five; a woman of large proportions compactly built, with broad shoulders that sustained a rather short thick neck, now exposed in extreme decollete style, as if to aid the unsuccessful elongation of nature. Her sallow complexion was dark, almost bistre, and the strongly marked irregular features were only redeemed from positive plainness by the large fiery black eyes, whose beauty was somewhat marred by the intrusive boldness of their expression. Bowing to some one opposite, her very full lips parted smilingly over a set of sound strong teeth, rather uneven in outline, and of the yellowish cast often observed in persons of humble birth and arduous life. Her dusky hair, belonging to the family of neutral-brown, was elaborately puffed and frizzed, and in her ears hung large solitaire diamonds that glowed like globes of fire, and scattered rays that were reflected in the circlet around her throat.
Beside her sat her husband, leaning back with negligent grace, and carelessly stroking his silky black moustache with one gloved hand, while the other toyed with a jewelled opera glass. Although only two years her junior, she bore the appearance of much greater seniority, and the proud patrician cast of his handsome face contrasted as vividly with the coarser lower type of hers, as though in ancient Roman era he had veritably worn the clavus and the bulla, while she trudged in lowly guise among the hard-handed heroines of the proletarii.
Over his dreamy violet eyes arched the peculiarly fine jet brows that Mr. Palma had found so distinctive in Regina's face, and his glossy hair and beard possessed that purplish black tint so rarely combined with the transparent white complexion, which now gleamed conspicuously in his broad, full, untanned forehead.
The indolent insouciance of his bearing was quite in accord with his social record, as a proud high-born man of cultivated elegant tastes, and unmistakably dissipated tendencies, which doubtless would long ago have fructified in thoroughly demoralized habits had not his wife vigorously exerted her exigeant guardianship.
"Have you heard the last joke at Count T——'s expense?" said Mrs. Laurance, tapping the arm of the minister with her gilded fan.
"Do you refer to the contretemps of the masks at the Grand Ball?"
"No, something connected with Madame Orme. It seems the Count saw her in London, became infatuated, as men always are about pretty actresses, and the first night she played here he was almost frantic; wrote a note between the acts, and sent it to her twisted in that costly antique scarf-ring he is so fond of telling people once belonged to the Duke of Orleans. Before the play ended it was returned, with the note torn into several strips and bound around it. Fancy his chagrin! Colonel Thorpe was in the box with him, and told it next day, when we met at dinner. When I asked T—— his opinion of Madame, he answered:
"She is perfectly divine! But alas! only an inspired icicle. She should be called 'Sulitelma,' which I believe means—Cuthbert, what did you tell me it meant?"
"Queen of Snows. Abbie, do lower your voice a trifle." He answered without even glancing at her, and she continued:
"I wanted to see her last night in 'Medea,' but Cuthbert had an opera engagement, and beside, little Maud had the croup——"
A storm of applause cut short the nursery budget, and all turned to the stage where Amy Robsart entered, followed by Janet and by Varney. Advancing with queenly grace and dignity to a pile of cushions in the centre of the drawing-room at Cumnor Place, she stood a moment with downcast eyes, till the acclamation ceased, and Varney renewed his appeal.
Her satin dress was of that exquisite tint which in felicitous French phraseology is termed de couleur de fleur de pecher, and swept down from her slender figure in statuesque folds that ended in a long court train, particularly becoming in the pose she had selected. The Elizabethan ruff, with an edge of filmy lace, softened the effect of the bodice cut squares across the breast, and revealed the string of pearls—Leicester's last gift—that shone so fair upon his countess's snowy neck. From the mass of hair heaped high upon her head soft tendrils clustered to the edge of her brow, and here and there a long curl strayed over her shoulder, and glittered like burnished gold in the glare of the quivering footlights. The lovely arms and hands were unburdened by jewels, and save the pearls around her throat and the aigrette of brilliants in the upper bandeau of her hair, she wore no ornaments. The perfect impersonation of a beautiful, innocent, happy bride, impatiently expectant of her husband's entrance, she stood listening to his messenger, a tender smile parting her rosy lips.
The chair of state chanced to be placed in the direction of the minister's box, and only a few feet distant, and when Varney attempted to place her upon it, she waved him back, and, raising her right hand toward it, said in that calm, deep, pure voice which had such thrilling emphasis in its lowest cadences:
"No good, Master Richard Varney, I take not my place there, until my lord himself conducts me. I am for the present a disguised countess, and will not take dignity upon me, until authorized by him, from whom I derived it."
In that brief sentence she knew her opportunity and seized it, for her glance followed her uplifted hand, mounted into the box, and, sweeping across the minister, dwelt for some seconds on the dark womanly countenance beside him, and then fastened upon the face of Mr. Laurance.
Some whose seats were on that side of the house, and who chanced to have their lorgnettes levelled at her just then, saw a long shiver creep over her, as if a blast of cold air had blown down through the side scene, and a sudden spark blazed up in the dilating eyes, as a mirror flashes when a candle flame smites its cold dark surface; but not a muscle quivered in the fair proud face, and only the Varney at her side noticed that when the slight hand fell back it sought its mate with a quick groping motion, and the delicate fingers clutched each other till the nails grew purple.
For fully a moment that burning gaze rested on the features that seemed to possess some subtle fascination for her, and wandering back to the wife, a shadowy smile hovered around the lips that were soon turned, away to answer Varney. As she moved in the direction of a window, to listen for the clatter of horse's hoofs, Mrs. Laurance whispered:
"Is not she the loveliest creature you ever beheld? I never saw such superb eyes, they absolutely seemed to lighten just now. Cuthbert, did you only notice how she looked right at me? I daresay my solitaires attracted her attention—and no wonder, they are the largest in the house, and these actresses always have an eye to the very best jewellery. Of course it must have been my diamonds."
From the moment when Amy Robsart entered, Cuthbert Laurance felt a strange magnetic thrill dart through every fibre of his frame; his sluggish pulse stirred, and as her mesmeric brown eyes, luminous, overmastering, met his, he drew his breath in quick gasps, and his heart in its rapid throbbing seemed to pour liquid fire into the bounding arteries. Some vague bewildering reminiscence danced through the clouded chambers of his brain, pointing like a mocking fiend now this way, then in an opposite direction; one instant assuring him that they had somewhere met before, the next torturing him with the triumphant taunt that he had hitherto never known any one half so lovely. Was it merely some lucky accident that had so unexpectedly brought them during that long flattering gaze thoroughly en rapport?
He no more heard his wife's hoarse whisper, than if a cyclone had whirled between them, and, leaning forward to catch the measured melody that floated from the countess's lips, a crimson glow fired his cheek as he caught the lofty words.
"I know a cure for jealousy. It is to speak truth to my lord at all times; to hold up my mind, my thoughts, before him as pure as that polished mirror, so that when he looks into my heart he shall see only his own features reflected there.[*] Can he who took my little hands and made them wifely, laying therein the precious burden of his honour, afford to doubt the palms are clean?"
[Footnote: * Mrs. Orme's interpolations are all italicized.]
No wonder Varney stared, and the prompter anathematized the sudden flicker of the gas jet that caused him to lose his place; there was no such written sentence as the last, and the rehearsal proved no sure index of all the countess uttered that night, but the play rolled on, and when the folding doors flew open and Amy sprang to meet her noble husband, the house began to warm into an earnest sympathy.
In the scene that followed she sat with childlike simplicity and grace on the footstool at Leicester's feet, while he exhibited the jewelled decorations of his princely garb, and explained the significance of the various orders; and in the face upturned to him who filled the chair of state there was a wealth of loving tenderness that might have moved colder natures than that which now kindled in the deep violent eyes that watched her from the minister's box.
Gradually the curious, timid, admiring bride is merged in the wife, with ambition budding in her heart, and exacting pride pleading for recognition and wifely dignities, and in this transformation the power of the woman asserted itself.
Bending toward Leicester, until from the low seat she sank unintentionally upon her knees, she prayed with passionate fervour:
"But shall not your wife, my love, one day soon be surrounded with the honour which arises neither from the toils of the mechanic who decks her apartment, nor from the silks and jewels with which your generosity adorns her, but which is attached to her place among the matronage, as the avowed wife of England's noblest earl? 'Tis not the dazzling splendour of your title that I covet, but the richer, nobler, dearer coronet of your beloved name, the precious privilege of fronting the world as your acknowledged wife."
Again, in answer to his flattering evasive sophistries, she asked in a voice whose marvellous modulations in the midst of intense feeling seemed to penetrate every nook of that vast building:
"But why can it not be? Why can it not immediately take place, this more perfect uninterrupted union, for which you say you wish, and which the laws of God and man alike command? Think you my unshod feet would shrink from glowing ploughshares, if crossing them I found the sacred shelter of my husband's name? Ah, husband! dost blanch before the storm of condemnation, which has no terrors for a wife's brave heart? It would seem but scant and tardy justice to own thy wedded wife!"
The earl had led her behind the scenes, and the minister had twice addressed him ere Mr. Laurance recovered himself sufficiently to perceive that his companions were smiling at his complete absorption.
"Why—Cuthbert—wake up. You look like some one walking open-eyed in sleep. Has Madame's beauty dazed you as utterly as poor Count T——?"
His wife pinched his arm, but without heeding her he looked quite past her into the laughing eyes of the minister, and asked:
"Do you know her? Is her husband living?"
"I shall call by appointment to-morrow, but this is the first time I have seen her. Of her history I know nothing, but rumour pronounces her a widow."
"Which generally means that these pretty actresses have drunken, worthless husbands, paid comfortable salaries to shut their eyes and keep out of the way," added Mrs. Laurance, lengthening the range of her opera glass, and levelling it at a group where the shimmer of jewels attracted her attention.
How the words grated on her husband's ear, grown strangely sensitive within an hour?
Carelessly glancing over the sea of faces beneath and around him, the minister continued:
"English critics contend that Madame Orme's 'Amy Robsart' is so far from being Scott's ideal creation, that he would fail to recognize it were he alive; still where she alters the text, and intensifies the type, they admit that the dramatic effect is heightened. She appears to have concentrated all her talent upon the passionate impersonation of one peculiar phrase of feminine suffering and endurance—that of the outraged and neglected wife; and her favourite roles are 'Katherine' from Henry VIII., 'Hermione,' and 'Medea,' though she is said to excel in 'Deborah.' My brother who saw her last night as 'Medea' pronounced her fully equal to Rachel, and said that in that scene where she attempted to remove her children from the side of the new wife, the despairing fury of her eyes literally raised the few thin hairs that still faithfully cling to the top of his head. Ah—the parting with Leicester—how marvellously beautiful is she!"
Leaning against a dressing-table loaded with toilet trifles and bijouterie, Amy stood, arrayed in the costume which displayed to greatest advantage the perfect symmetry of form and the dazzling purity of her complexion.
The cymar of white silk bordered with swan's-down exposed the gleaming dimpled shoulders, and from beneath the pretty lace coif the unbound glory of her long hair swept around her like a cataract of gold, touching the hem of her silken gown, where, to complete the witchery, one slippered foot was visible. When her husband entered to bid her adieu, and the final petition for public acknowledgment was once more sternly denied, the long-pent agony in the woman's heart burst all barriers, overflowed every dictate of wounded pride, and with an utter abandon of genuine poignant grief, she gave way to a storm that shook her frame with convulsive sobs, and deluged her cheeks with tears. Despite her desperate efforts to maintain her self-control, the sight of her husband's magnetic handsome face, after thirteen weary years of waiting, unnerved, overwhelmed her. There in the temple of Art, where critical eyes were bent searchingly upon her, Nature triumphantly asserted itself, and she who wept passionately from the bitter realisation of her own accumulated wrongs, was wildly applauded as the queen of actresses, who so successfully simulated imaginary woes.
By what infallible criterion shall criticdom decide the boundaries of the Actual and the Ideal? Who shall compute the expenditure of literal heartache that builds up the popularly successful Desdemonas, Camilles, and Marie Stuarts; the scalding tears that gradually crystallize into the classic repose essential to the severe simplicity of the old Greek tragedies?
The curtain fell upon a bowed and sobbing woman, and the tempest of applause that shook the building was prolonged until after a time Amy Robsart, with tears still glistening on her cheeks, came forward to acknowledge the tribute, and her silken garments were pelted with bouquets. Among the number that embroidered the stage lay a pyramid of violets edged with rose geranium leaves, and raising it she bent her lovely head to the audience and kissed the violets, in memory (?) of her far-off child—whose withered floral tribute was more precious to the woman's heart than all the laudatry chaplets of the great city, which did homage to her genuine tears.
Some time elapsed while the play shifted to the court, recounting the feuds of Leicester and Sussex, and when Amy Robsart appeared again it was in the stormy interview where Varney endeavours to enforce the earl's command that she shall journey to Kenilworth as Varney's wife. The trembling submissiveness of earlier scenes was thrown away for ever, and, as if metamorphosed into a Fury, she rose, towered above him, every feature quivering with hatred, scorn, and defiance.
"Look at him, Janet! that I should go with him to Kenilworth, and before the Queen and nobles, and in presence of my own wedded lord, that I should acknowledge him,—him there, that very cloak-brushing, shoe-cleaning fellow,—him there, my lord's lackey, for my liege lord and husband! I would I were a man but for five minutes!—but go! begone!"
She paused panting, then threw back her haughty head, rose on tiptoe, and, shaking her hand in prophetic wrath and deathless defiance, almost hissed into the box beneath which Varney stood:
"Go, tell thy master that when I, like him, can forget my plighted troth, turn craven, bury honour, and forswear my marriage vows, then, oh then! I promise him, I will give him a rival, something worthy of the name!"
Was the avenging lash of conscience uncoiled at last in Cuthbert Laurance's hardened soul that the blood so suddenly ebbed from his lips, and he drew his breath like one overshadowed by a vampire? Only once had he caught the full gleam of her indignant eyes, but that long look had awakened torture's that would never entirely slumber again, until the solemn hush of the shroud and the cemetery was his portion. No suspicion of the truth crossed his mind, even for an instant,—for what resemblance could be traced between that regal woman, and the shy, awkward, dark-haired little rustic, who thirteen years before had frolicked like a spaniel about him,—loving but lowly?
In vain he sought to arrest her attention; the actress had only once looked at the group, and it was not until the close that he succeeded in catching her glance.
After her escape from Varney, Amy Robsart reached in disguise the confines of Kenilworth, and standing there, travel-worn, weary, dejected, in sight of the princely castle, with its stately towers and battlements, she first saw the home whose shelter was denied her, the palatial home where Leicester bowed in homage before Elizabeth. As a neglected, repudiated wife, creeping stealthily to the hearth where it was her right to reign, Amy turned her wan, woeful face to the audience, and, fixing her gaze with strange mournful intentness upon the eyes that watched her from the box, she seemed to throw her whole soul into the finest passage of the play.
"I have given him all that woman has to give. Name and fame, heart and hand, have I given the lord of all this magnificence—at the altar, and England's Queen could give him no more. He is my husband; I am his wife. I will be bold in claiming my right; even the bolder, that I come thus unexpected and forlorn. Whom God hath joined, man cannot sunder."
The irresistible pathos of look and tone electrified that wide assemblage, and in the midst of such plaudits as only Paris bestows she allowed her eyes to wander almost dreamily over the surging sea of human heads, and as if she were in truth some hunted, hopeless, homeless waif appealing for sympathy, she shrouded her pallid face in the blue folds of her travelling cloak, and disappeared.
"She must certainly recognize her countrymen, for that splendid passage seemed almost thrown to us, as a tribute to our nationality. What a wonderful voice! And yet—she is so tender, so fragile," said the minister.
"Did you observe how pale she grew toward the last, and so hollow-eyed, as if utterly worn out in the passionate struggle?" asked Mrs. Laurance.