The fire burned low, and in its dull flicker the shadows thickened; while the rising wind sobbed and wailed mournful as a coranach around the desolate old house, whence so many generations had glided into the sheltering bosom of the adjoining necropolis.
Across the solemn gloomy stillness ran the sharp shivering sound of the door-bell, and when the jarring had ceased Esau entered with his lantern in his hand.
"The carriage is at the gate. The schedule was changed last week, and the driver says it is nearly train time. Give me the satchels and basket."
Slowly the two figures followed the lantern-bearer down the dim bare hall, and the sound of their departing footsteps echoed strangely, dismally through the empty, forsaken house. At the front door both paused and looked back into the darkness that seemed like a vast tomb, swallowing everything, engulfing all the happy hallowed past.
But Regina imagined that in the dusky library, by the wan flicker of the dying fire, she could trace the spectral outline of a white draped table, and of a tall prostrate form bearing a Grand Duke jasmine in its icy hand. Shuddering violently, she wrapped her shawl around her and sprang down the steps into the drizzling rain, while Mrs. Lindsay slowly followed, weeping silently.
"Were it mine I would close the shutters, Like lids when the life is fled, And the funeral fire should wind it, This corpse of a home that is dead."
The snow was falling fast nest morning, when with a long hoarse shriek the locomotive dashed into New York, and drew up to the platform, where a crowd of human beings and equipages of every description had assembled to greet the arrival of the train.
The din of voices, ringing of bells, whistle of engines, and all the varied notes of that Babel diapason that so utterly bewilders the stranger stranded on the bustling streets of busy Gotham, fell upon Regina's ears with the startling force of novelty. She wondered if there were thunder mixed with swiftly falling snow—that low, dull, ceaseless roar—that endless monologue of the paved streets—where iron and steel ground down the stone highways, along which the Juggernaut of Traffic rolled ponderously, day in and day out.
Gazing curiously down from her window at the sea of faces wherein cabmen, omnibus drivers, porters, vociferated and gesticulated, each striving to tower above his neighbour, like the tame vipers in the Egyptian pitcher, whereof Teufelsdroeckh discourses in Sator Resartus, Regina made no attempt to leave her seat, until the courteous conductor to whose care Mrs. Lindsay had consigned her touched her arm to arrest her attention.
"You are Miss Orme, I believe, and here is the gentleman who came to meet you."
Turning quickly, with the expectation of seeing Mr. Palma, she found herself in the presence of an elegantly dressed young gentleman, not more than twenty-two or three years old, who wore ample hay-coloured whiskers brushed in English style, after the similitude of the fins of a fish, or the wings of a bat. A long moustache of the same colour drooped over a mouth feminine in mould, and as he lifted his brown fur cap and bowed she saw that his light hair was parted in the middle of his head.
He handed her a card on which was printed, "Elliott Roscoe."
"Regina Orme, I presume. My cousin Mr. Palma desired me to meet you at the train, and see you safely to his house, as he is not in the city. I guess you had a tiresome trip; you look worn out. Have you the checks for your baggage?"
She handed them to him, took her satchel, and followed him out of the car, through the dense throng, to a coupe.
The driver, whose handsome blue coat with its glittering gilt buttons was abundantly embroidered with snow-flakes, opened the door, and as Mr. Roscoe assisted the stranger to enter, he said:
"Wait, Farley, until I look after the baggage."
"Yonder is O'Brien with his express waggon. Give him the checks, and he will have the trunks at home almost as soon as we get there. Michael O'Brien!"
As the ruddy, beaming pleasant countenance of the express man approached, and he received the checks, Mr. Roscoe sprang into the carriage, but Regina summoned courage to speak.
"If you please, I want my dog."
"Your dog! Did you leave it in the car? Is it a poodle?"
"Poodle! He is a Newfoundland, and the express agent has him."
"Then O'Brien will bring him with the trunks," said Mr. Roscoe, preparing to close the door.
"I would not like to leave him behind."
"You certainly do not expect to carry him in the carriage?" answered the gentleman, staring at her, as if she had been a refugee from some insane asylum.
"Why not? There seems plenty of room. I am so much afraid something might happen to him among all these people. But perhaps you would not like him shut up in the carriage."
For an instant she seemed sorely embarrassed, then leaning forward, addressed the coachman.
"Would you mind taking my dog up there with you? thank you very much if you will please be so kind."
Before the wistful pleading of the violet eyes, and the sweet tones of the hesitating voice, the surly expression vanished from Farley's countenance, and, touching his hat, he replied cheerfully:
"Aye, miss; if he is not venomous, I will take him along."
"Thank you. Mr. Roscoe, if you will be so good as to go with me to the express car, I can get my dog."
"That is not necessary. Besides it is snowing hard, and your wraps are not very heavy. Give me the receipt, and I will bring him out."
There was some delay, but after a little while Mr. Roscoe came back leading Hero by a chain attached to his collar. The dog looked sulky and followed reluctantly, but at sight of his mistress, sprang forward, barking joyfully.
"Poor Hero! poor fellow! Here I am."
When he had been prevailed upon to jump up beside the driver, and the carriage rolled homeward, Mr. Roscoe said:
"That is a superb creature. The only pure white Newfoundland I ever saw. Where did you get him?"
"He was bought in Brooklyn several years ago, and sent to me."
"What is his name?"
"How very odd. Bruno, or Nero, or Ponto, or even Fido, would be so much more suitable."
"Hero suits him, and suits me."
Mr. Roscoe looked curiously into the face beside him, and laughed.
"I presume you are a very romantic young miss, and have been dreaming about some rustic Leander in round jacket."
"My dog was not called after the priestess at Sestos. It means hero the common noun, not Hero the proper name. Holding torches to guide people across the Hellespont was not heroism."
If she had addressed him in Aramaic he would not have been more surprised; and for a moment he stared.
"I am afraid your Hero will not prove a thoroughly welcome addition to my cousin's household. He has no fondness whatever for dogs, or indeed for pets of any kind, and Mrs. Palma, who has a chronic terror of hydrophobia, will not permit a dog to come near her."
He saw something like a smile flicker across the girl's mouth, but she did not look up, and merely asked:
"Where is Mr. Palma?"
"He was unexpectedly called to Philadelphia two days ago, on urgent business. Do you know him?"
"I have not seen him for several years."
She turned away, fixing her attention upon the various objects of interest that flitted by, as they rolled rapidly along one of the principal streets. The young gentleman who in no respect resembled Mr. Palma, found it exceedingly pleasant to study the fair delicate face beside him, and not a detail of her dress, from the shape of her hat to the fit of her kid gloves, escaped his critical inspection.
Almost faultily fastidious in his Broadway trained tastes, he arrived at the conclusion that she possessed more absolute beauty than any one in his wide circle of acquaintance; but her travelling suit was not cut in the approved reigning style, and the bow of ribbon at her throat did not exactly harmonize with the shade of the feather in her hat, all of which jarred disagreeably.
As the carriage entered Fifth Avenue, and drew up before one of the handsome brown-stone front mansions that stretch like palatial walls for miles along that most regal and magnificent of American streets, Mr. Roscoe handed his companion out, and rang the bell.
Hero leaped to the sidewalk, and, patting his head, Regina said:
"Driver, I am very much obliged to you for taking care of him for me."
"You are quite welcome, miss. He is an uncommon fine brute, and I will attend to him for you if you wish it."
The door opened, and Regina was ushered in, and conducted by Mr. Roscoe into the sitting-room, where a blazing coal fire lent pleasant warmth and a ruddy glow to the elegantly furnished apartment.
"Terry, tell the ladies we have come."
The servant disappeared, and, holding his hands over the fire, Mr. Roscoe said:
"I believe you are a stranger to all but my cousin; yet you are probably aware that his stepmother and her daughter reside with him."
Before she could reply the door suddenly opened wide, as if moved by an impatient hand, and a middle-aged lady, dressed in black silk that rustled proudly at every step, advanced toward Regina. Involuntarily the girl shivered, as if an icy east wind had blown upon her.
"Mrs. Palma, I have brought this young lady safely, and transfer her to your care. This is Regina Orme."
"Miss Orme has arrived on a cold day, and looks as if she realized it."
She put out her hand, barely touched the fingers of the stranger, and her keen, probing, inquisitorial eyes of palest grey wandered searchingly over the face and figure; while her haughty tone was chill—as the damp breath of a vault.
Catching sight of Hero she started back, and exclaimed with undisguised displeasure:
"What! A dog in my sitting-room! Who brought that animal here?"
Regina laid a protecting hand on the head of her favourite, and said timidly, in a voice that faltered from embarrassment:
"It is my dog. Please, madam, allow me to keep him; he will disturb no one; shall give no trouble."
"Impossible! Dogs are my pet aversion. I would not even allow my daughter to accept a lovely Italian greyhound which Count Fagdalini sent her on her last birthday. That huge brute there would give me hysterics before dinner-time."
"Then you shall not see him. I will keep him always out of eight; he shall never annoy you."
"Very feasible in a Fifth Avenue house! Do you propose to lock him up always in your own chamber? How absurd!"
She touched the bell, and added:
"It always saves trouble to start exactly as we expect or intend to continue. I cannot endure dogs—never could, and yours must be disposed of at once."
Pitying the distress so eloquently printed on the face of the girl, Mr. Roscoe interposed:
"Strike, but hear me! Don't banish the poor fellow so summarily. He can't go mad before May or June, if then; and at least let her keep him a few days. She feels strange and lonely, and it will comfort her to have him for a while."
"Nonsense, Elliott! Terry, tell Farley I shall want the carriage in half an hour, and meantime ask him to come here and help you take out this dog. We have no room for any such pests. Send Hattie to show this young lady to her own room."
Mr. Roscoe shrugged his shoulder, and closely inspected his seal ring.
There was an awkward silence. Mrs. Palma stirred the coals with the poker, and at last asked abruptly:
"Miss Orme, I presume you have breakfasted?"
"I do not wish any, thank you."
Something in her quiet tone attracted attention, and as the lady and gentleman turned to look at her, both noticed a brilliant flush on her cheek, a peculiar sparkle dancing in her eyes.
Passing her arm through the handle of her satchel, she put both her hands upon Hero's silver collar.
"Hattie will show you up to your room, Miss Orme; and if you need anything call upon her for it. Farley, take that dog away, and do not let me see him here again."
The blunt but kind-hearted coachman looked irresolute, glancing first at his mistress, and then pityingly at the girl. As he advanced to obey, Regina said in a quiet but clear and decisive tone:
"Don't you touch him. He is mine, and no one shall take him from me. I am sorry, Mrs. Palma, that I have annoyed you so much, and I have no right to force unpleasant things upon you, even if I had the power. Come, Hero! we will find a place somewhere; New York is large enough to hold us both. Good-bye, Mr. Roscoe. Good-day, Mrs. Palma."
She walked toward the door, leading Hero, who rubbed his head caressingly against her.
"Where are you going?" cried Mr. Roscoe following, and catching her arm.
"Anywhere—away from this house," she answered very quietly.
"But Mr. Palma is your guardian! He will be dreadfully displeased."
"He has no right to be displeased with me. Beside, I would not for forty guardians give up my Hero. Please stand aside, and let me pass."
"Tell me first, what you intend to do."
"First to get out, where the air is free. Then to find the house of a lady, to whom I have a letter of introduction from Mrs. Lindsay."
Mrs. Palma was sorely perplexed, and though she trembled with excess of anger and chagrin, a politic regard for her own future welfare, which was contingent upon the maintenance of peaceful relations with her stepson, impelled her to concede what otherwise she would never have yielded. Stepping forward she said with undisguised scorn:
"If this is a sample of his ward's temper, I fear Erle has resumed guardianship of Tartary. As Miss Orme is a total stranger in New York, it is sheer madness to talk of leaving here. This is Erle Palma's house, not mine, else I should not hesitate a moment; but under the circumstances I shall insist upon this girl remaining here at least until his return, which must be very soon. Then the dog question will be speedily decided by the master of the establishment."
"Let us try and compromise. Suppose you trust your pet to me for a few days, until matters can be settled? I like dogs, and promise to take good care of yours, and feed him on game and chicken soup."
He attempted to put his hand on the collar, but Hero, who seemed to comprehend that he was a casus belli, growled and showed his teeth.
"Thank you, sir, but we have only each other now. Mrs. Palma, I do not wish to disturb or annoy you in any way, and as I love my dog very much, and you have no room for him, I would much rather go away now and leave you in peace. Please, Mr. Roscoe, let me pass."
"I can fix things to suit all around, if madam will permit," said the coachman.
"Well, Farley, what is your proposition?"
His mistress was biting her lip from mortification and ill-concealed rage.
"I will make a kennel in the corner of the carriage-house, where he can be chained up, and yet have room to stretch himself; and the young miss can feed him, and see him as often as she likes, till matters are better settled."
"Very well. Attend to it at once. I hope Miss Orme is satisfied?"
"No, I do not wish to give so much trouble to you all."
"Oh, miss I it is no trouble worth speaking of; and if you will only trust me, I will see that no harm happens to him."
For a moment Regina looked up at the honest, open, though somewhat harsh Hibernian face, then advanced and laid the chain in his hand.
"Thank you very much. I will trust you. Be kind to him, and let me come and see him after awhile. I don't wish him ever to come into the house again."
"The baggage-man has brought the trunks," said Terry.
"Have them taken upstairs. Would you like to go to your room, Miss Orme?"
"If you please, madam."
"Then I must bid you good-bye," said Mr. Roscoe, holding out his hand.
"Do you not live here?"
"Oh no! I am only a student in my cousin's law-office, but come here very often. I hope the dog-war is amicably settled, but if hostilities are reopened, and you ever make up your mind to give Hero away, please remember that I am first candidate for his ownership."
"I would almost as soon think of giving away my head. Good-bye, sir."
As she turned to follow the servant out of the room, she ran against a young lady who hastily entered, singing a bar from "Traviata."
"Bless me! I beg your pardon. This is——"
"Miss Orme; Erle's ward."
"Miss Orme does not appear supremely happy at the prospect of sojourning with us, beneath this hospitable roof. Mamma, I understand you have had a regular Austerlitz battle over that magnificent dog I met in the hall,—and alas! victory perched upon the standard of the invading enemy! Cheer up, mamma! there is a patent medicine just advertised in the Herald that hunts down, worries, shakes, and strangles hydrophobia, as Gustave Billon's Skye terrier does rats. Good-morning, Mr. Elliott Roscoe! Poor Miss Orme looks strikingly like a half-famished and wholly hopeless statue of Patience that I saw on a monument at the last funeral I attended in Greenwood. Hattie, do take her to her room, and give her some hot chocolate, or coffee, or whatever she drinks."
She had taken both the stranger's hands, shook them rather roughly, and in conclusion pushed her toward the door.
Olga Neville was twenty-two, tall, finely formed, rather handsome; with unusually bright reddish-hazel eyes, and a profusion of tawny hair, which nine persons in ten would unhesitatingly have pronounced red, but which she persistently asserted was of exactly the classic shade of ruddy gold, that the Borgia gave to Bembo. Her features were large, and somewhat irregular in contour, but her complexion was brilliant, her carriage very graceful, and though one might safely predict that at some distant day she would prove "fair, fat, and forty," her full figure had not yet transgressed the laws of symmetry.
As the door of the sitting-room closed, she put her large white hands on her mother's shoulders, shook her a little, and kissed her on the cheek.
"Do, mamma, let us have fair play, or I shall desert to the enemy. It was not right to open your batteries on that little thing before she got well into position, and established her line. If I am any judge of human nature, I rather guess from the set of her lips, and the stars that danced up and down in her eyes, that she is not quite as easily flanked as a pawn on a chessboard."
"I wish, Olga, that you were a better judge of common sense, and of the courtesy due to my opinions. I can tell you we are likely to see trouble enough with this high-tempered girl added to the family circle."
"Why, she has not Lucretia-coloured tresses like my own lovely-spun gold? I thought her hair looked very black."
"I will warrant it is not half as black as her disposition. She looked absolutely diabolical when she pretended to march out into the world, playing the role of injured, persecuted innocence."
"Now, mamma! She is decidedly the prettiest piece of diabolism I ever saw. Elliott, what do you think of her?"
"That some day she will be a most astonishing beauty. Can you recollect that lovely green and white cameo pin set with diamonds that Tiffany had last spring? Ned Bartlett bought it for his wife the day they started to Saratoga. Well, this girl is exactly like that exquisite white cameo head; I noticed the likeness as soon as I saw her. But she needs polish, city training, society marks, and her clothes are at least two seasons old in style. I think too your mother is quite right in believing she has a will of her own. She was really in earnest, and would have walked out, if Farley had not come to the rescue. Olga, what are you laughing at?"
"I am anticipating the sport in store for me when her will and Erle Palma's come in conflict. Won't the sparks fly! We shall have a domestic shower of meteors to enliven our daily dull routine! You know the stately and august head of this establishment savours of Fitz-James, and in all matters of controversy acts fully out what Scott only dreamed:
'Come one, come all! this rock shall fly From its firm base, as soon as I!'
I daresay it is his terrapin habit that helps Erle Palma to his great success as a lawyer; when he once takes hold, he never lets go. Now, mamma, if you do not hoist a white flag as far as that poor girl is concerned, I shall certainly ask your wary stepson to give her a sprig of phryxa from Mount Brixaba. Do you understand, Elliott?"
"Of course not I rarely do understand you when you begin your spiteful challenges. Now, Olga, I always preserve an unarmed neutrality, so do let me alone."
He made a deprecating gesture, and put on his hat.
"Free schools and universal education is one of my spavined hobbies, and a brief canter for your improvement in classic lore would be charitable, so I proceed: Agatho the Samian says that in the Scythian Brixaba grows the herb phryxa (hating the wicked), which especially protects step children; and whenever they are in danger from a stepmother (observe the antiquity of Stepmotherly characteristics!) the phryxa gives them warning by emitting a bright flame. You see Erle Palma remembers his classics, and early in life turned his attention to the cultivation of phryxa, which flourishes——"
"Olga, you vex me beyond endurance. Put on your furs at once; it is time to go to the Studio. Elliott, will you ride down with us, and look at the portrait?"
"Thanks! I wish I could, but promised to write out some legal references before my cousin returns, and must keep my word; for you very well know he has scant mercy on delinquents."
"I only hope he will bring his usual iron rule to bear upon this new element in the household, else her impertinent self-assertion will be unendurable. Will you be at Mrs. Delafield's reception to-night?"
"I promised to attend. Suppose I call for you and Olga about nine?"
"Quite agreeable to all parties. I shall expect you. Good-morning."
When Regina left the sitting-room she followed the housemaid up two flights of steps, and into a small but beautifully furnished apartment, where a fire was not really necessary, as the house was heated by a furnace, still the absence of the cheerful red light she had left below made this room seem chill and uninviting.
The trunks had been brought up, and after lowering the curtain of the window that looked down on the beautiful Avenue, Hattie said:
"Will you have tea, coffee, or chocolate?"
"Neither, I thank you."
"Have you had any breakfast?"
"I do not want any."
"It is no trouble, miss, to get what you like."
Regina only shook her head, and proceeded to take off her hat and wrappings.
"Are you an orphan?" queried Hattie, her heart warming toward a stranger who avoided giving trouble.
"No; but my mother is in——is too far for me to go to her."
"Then you aren't here on charity?"
"Charity! No, indeed! Mr. Palma is my guardian until I go to my mother."
"Well, miss, try to be contented. Miss Olga has a kinder heart than her mother, and though she has a bitter tongue and rough ways she will befriend you. Don't fret about your dog, we folks belowstairs will see that he does not suffer. We will help you take care of him."
"Thank you, Hattie. I shall be grateful to all who are kind to him. Please give him some water and a piece of bread when you go down."
It was a great relief to find herself once more alone, and, sinking down wearily into a rocking chair, she hid her face in her hands.
Her heart was heavy, her head ached; her soul rose in rebellion against the cold selfishness and discourtesy that had characterized her reception by the inmates of her guardian's house.
Everything around her betokened wealth, taste, elegance; the carpets and various articles of furniture were of the most costly materials, but at the thought of living here she shuddered. Fine and fashionable in all its appointments, but chilly, empty, surface gilded, she felt that she would stifle in this mansion.
By comparison, how dear and sacred seemed the old life at the parsonage I how desolate and dreary the present! how inexpressibly lonely and hopeless the future!
From the thought of Mr. Palma's return, she could borrow no pleasant auguries, rather additional gloom and apprehension; and his absence had really been the sole redeeming circumstance that marked her arrival in New York. With an unconquerable dread which arose from early childish prejudice and which she never attempted to analyze, she shrank from meeting him.
There came a quick low rap on the door, but she neither heard nor heeded it, and started when a warm hand removed those that covered her face.
"Just as I expected, you are having a good cry all to yourself. No, your eyes are dry and bright as stars. I daresay you have set us all down as a family of brutes; as more cruel than the Piutes or Modocs; as stony hearted as Solomon, when he ordered the poor little baby to be cut in half and distributed among its several mothers. But there is so little justice left in the world, that I imagine each individual would do well to contribute a moiety to the awfully slender public stock. Suppose you pay tithes to the extent of counting me out of this nest of persecutors? Thank Heaven! I am not a Palma! My soul does not work like the piston of a steam-engine,—is not regulated by a gauge-cock and safety-valve to prevent all explosions, to keep the even, steady, decorous, profitable tenor of its sternly politic way. I am a Neville. The blood in my veins is not 'blue' like the Palma's, but red,—and hot enough to keep my heart from freezing, as the Palma's do, and to melt the ice they manufacture, wherever they breathe. I am no Don Quixote to redress your grievances, or storm windmills; for verily neither mamma nor Erle Palma belongs to that class of harmless innocuous bugaboos, as those will find to their cost who run against them. I am simply Olga Neville, almost twenty-three, and quite willing to help you if possible. Shall we enter into an alliance—offensive and defensive?"
She stood by the mantlepiece, slowly buttoning her glove, and looked quite handsome, and very elegant in her rich wine-coloured silk and costly furs.
Looking up into her face, Regina wondered how far she might trust that apparently frank open countenance, and Olga smiled, and added:
"You are a cunning fledgling, not to be caught with chaff. Have they sent you anything to eat?"
"I declined having anything. My head aches."
"Then do as I tell you, and you will soon feel relieved. There is a bath-room on this floor. Ring for Hattie, and tell her you want a good hot bath. When you have taken it, lie down and go to sleep. One word before I go. Do try not to be hard on mamma. Poor mamma! She married among these Palmas, and very soon from force of habit and association she too grew politic, cautious; finally she also froze, and has never quite thawed again. She is not unkind,—you must not think so for an instant; she only keeps her blood down to the safe, wise prudent temperature of sherbet. Poor mamma! She does not like dogs; once she was dreadfully bitten, almost torn to pieces by one, and very naturally she has developed no remarkable 'affinity' for them since that episode. Hattie will get you anything you need. Take your bath and go to sleep, and dream good-natured things about mamma."
She nodded, smiled pleasantly, and glided away as noiselessly as she came, leaving Regina perplexed, and nowise encouraged with reference to the stern cold character of her guardian.
She had eaten nothing since the previous day, had been unable to close her eyes after bidding Mrs. Lindsay farewell; and now, quite overcome with the reaction from the painful excitement of yesterday's incidents, she threw herself across the foot of the bed, and clasped her hands over her throbbing temples. No sound disturbed tier, save the occasional roll of wheels on the street below, and very soon the long lashes drooped, and she slept the heavy deep sleep of mental and physical exhaustion.
Led by poppy-wreathed wands, through those fabled ivory gates that open into the enchanted realm of dreams, the weary girl forgot her woes, and found blessed reunion with the absent dear ones, whose loss had so beclouded the morning of her life.
Under the burning sun of India, through the tangled jungles of Oude, she wandered in quest of the young missionary and his mother, now springing away from the crouching tigers that glared at her as she passed; now darting into some Himalayan cavern to escape the wild ferocious eyes of Nana Sahib, who offered her that wonderful lost ruby that he carried off in his flight, and when she seized it, hoping its sale would build a church for mission worship, it dissolved into blood that stained her fingers. With a fiendish laugh Nana Sahib told her it was a part of the heart of a beautiful woman butchered in the "House of Massacre" at Cawnpore. On and on she pressed, footsore and weary but undaunted, through those awful mountain solitudes, and finally hearing in the distance the bark of Hero, she followed the sound, reached the banks of Jumna, and there amid the ripple of fountains, and the sighing of the cypress, in the cool shadow cast by the marble minarets and domes of Shah Jehan's Moomtaj mausoleum, Mr. and Mrs. Lindsay joyfully welcomed her; while upon the fragrant air floated divine melodies that Douglass told her were chanted by angels in her mother's grave, beneath the clustering white columns.
When after many hours she awoke, it was night. A faint light trembled in one of the globes of the gas chandelier, and a blanket had been laid over her. Starting up she saw a figure sitting at the window, apparently watching what passed in the street below.
"I hope you feel refreshed. I can testify you have slept as soundly as the youths whom Decius put to bed some time since near Ephesus."
Olga rose, turned on the gas that flamed up instantly, and showed her elaborately dressed in evening toilette. Her shoulders and arms, round and pearly white, were bare save the shining tracery of jewels in necklace and bracelets; and in the long train of blue silk that flowed over the carpet, she looked even taller than in the morning walking suit. Her ruddy hair, heaped nigh on her head, was surmounted by a jewelled comb, whence fell a cataract of curls of various lengths and sizes, that touched the filmy lace which bordered her shoulders like a line of foam where blue silk broke on dimpled flesh.
As Regina gazed admiringly at her, Olga came closer, and stood under the gas-light.
"A penny for your thoughts! Am I handsome? Somebody says only 'fools and children tell the truth.' You are not exactly the latter; certainly not the former; nevertheless, being a rustic, all unversed in the fashionable accomplishment of 'fibbing,' you may dispense with the varnish pot and brush. Tell me, Regina, don't you feel inclined to fall at my feet and worship me?"
"Not in the least. But I do think you very handsome, and your dress is quite lovely. Are you going to a party or a ball?"
"To a 'Reception,' where the people will be crowded like sardines, where my puffs will be mashed as flat as buckwheat cakes, and my train will go home with various gentlemen, clinging in scraps to their boot-heels! Were you ever at the seashore? If you have ever chanced to walk into a settlement of fiddlers, and seen them squirming, wriggling, backward, forward, sideways, you may understand that I am going into a similar promiscuous scramble. Human ingenuity is vastly fertile in the production of fashionable tortures; and when that outraged and indignant poet savagely asserted, that 'Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn,' I have an abiding conviction that he had just been victimized at a 'Reception,' or 'German,' or 'Kettle-drum,' or 'Masque Ball,'—or some such fine occasion, where people are amused by treading on each other's toes, and gnawing (metaphorically) their nearest neighbour's vertebrae."
"Do you not enjoy going into society?"
"Cela depend! You are an unsophisticated little package of innocent rusticity, and have yet to learn
'Society is now one polished horde, Formed of two mighty tribes, The Bores and Bored!'
I speak advisedly, for lo these four years I have energetically preyed, and been preyed upon. When I was your age, I was impatient to break away from my governess, and soar into the flowery pastures of fashionable gaiety, with the crowd of other butterflies that seemed so happy, so lovely; but now that I have bruised my pretty wings, and tarnished the gilding, and rubbed off the fresh enamelling, I would if I could crawl back into a safe brown cocoon, or hide in some quiet and forgotten chrysalis. Did you ever hear of Moloch?"
"Yes, of course; I know it was a brazen image, heated red hot, in whose arms children were placed by idolatrous heathen parents."
"No such thing! that is a foolish, obsolete Rabbinical myth. You must not talk such old-fashioned folly. Hearken to the solemn truth that underlies that fable; Moloch reigns here, in far more pomp and splendour than the Ammonites ever dreamed of. Crowned and sceptred, he is now called 'Wealth and Fashion,' holds daily festivals and mighty orgies where salads, boned turkeys, charlotte russe, fistachio souffles, creams, ices, champagne-julep, champagne frappe, and persicot call the multitude to worship; and there while the stirring notes of Strauss ring above the sighs and groans of the heroic victims, fathers and mothers bring their sons and daughters bravely decked in broadcloth and satin, white kid and diamonds, and offer them in sacrifice; and Moloch clasps, scorches, blackens all! Wide wonderful blue eyes, how shocked you look!"
Olga laughed lightly, shook out the fringed ends of her broad white silk sash, and glanced in the mirror of the bureau, to see the effect.
"Regina, don't begin city life by a system of starvation that would do infinite credit to a Thebaid anchorite. Eat abundantly. Take generous care of your body, for spiritual famine is inevitably ahead of you. Yonder on the table, carefully covered, is your dinner. Of course it is cold, stone-cold as this world's charity; but people who sleep until eight o'clock, ought not to expect smoking hot viands. A good meal gives one far more real philosophy and fortitude, than all the volumes Aristotle and Plato ever wrote. Do you hear that bell? It is a signal to attend the festival of Milcom. Oh, Mammon I behold I come."
She moved towards the door, and said from the threshold:
"I say unto you—eat. Then come downstairs and amuse yourself looking about the house. There are some interesting things in the parlours, and if you are musical, you will find a piano that cost one thousand dollars. When I am away, there are no skeletons in this house, so you need not fear sleeping here alone. My room is on the same floor. Good-night."
Refreshed by her sound sleep, Regina bathed her face, rearranged her hair, and ate the dinner, which although cold, was very temptingly prepared. When Hattie came to carry down the silver tray containing the delicate green and gold china dishes, she complimented the stranger upon the improvement in her appearance, adding:
"Miss Olga directed me to show you the house, and anything you might like to look at, so I lighted the palours and reception-room; and the library always has a fire, and the gas burning. That is next to Mr. Palma's bedroom, and is his special place. He comes and goes so irregularly that we never can tell when he is in it. Once last year he got home at nine o'clock unexpectedly, and sat up all night writing there in the cold. Next morning he gave orders for fire and light in that room, whether he was at home or not. Miss, if you don't mind looking about yourself, I should like to run around to Eighth Avenue for a few minutes, to see my sick aunt. Terry has gone out, and Mary promised to answer the bell, if any one called. Farley says be easy about your dog; he had a hearty dinner of soup and meat, and is on a softer bed than some poor souls lie on to-night. Can I go?"
"Certainly, I am not afraid; and when I get sleepy I will come up and go to bed. When will Mrs. Palma and Miss Neville come home?"
"Not before midnight, if then."
She explained to Regina how to elevate and extinguish the gas, and the two went down to the sitting-room, whence Hattie soon disappeared. Raising the silk curtain that divided this apartment from the parlours, Regina walked slowly up and down upon the velvet carpet in which her feet seemed to sink, as on a bed of moss; and her eyes wandered admiringly over the gilded stands, gleaming bronzes, marble statuettes, papier mache, ormolu, silk, lace, brocatel, moquette, satin and silver which attracted her gaze.
Beautiful pictures adorned the tinted walls, and the ceiling was brilliantly frescoed, while one of the wide bay-windows contained a stand filled with a superb array of wax flowers. Regina opened the elegant grand piano, but forbore to touch the keys, and at last when she had feasted her eyes sufficiently upon some lovely landscapes by Gifford and Bierstadt, she quitted the richly decorated parlours, and slowly went up the stairs that led to the room which Hattie had pointed out as Mr. Palma's library.
Leaving the door partly open, she entered a long lofty apartment, the floor of which was of marquetry, polished almost as glass, with furred robes laid here and there before tables, and deep luxurious easy chairs.
Four spacious lines of book shelves with glass doors bearing silver handles, girded the sides of the room, and the walls were painted in imitation of the Pompeian style; while the corners of the ceiling held lovely frescoes of the season, and in the centre was a zodiac. Bronze and marble busts shone here and there, and where the panels of the wall were divided by representations of columns, metal brackets and wooden consoles sustained delicate figures and groups of sculpture.
Filled with wonder and delight the girl glided across the shining mosaic floor, gazing now at the glowing garlands, and winged figures on the wall, and now at the elegantly bound books Whose gilded titles gleamed through the plate glass.
She had read of such rooms in "St. Martin's Summer," a volume Mrs. Lindsay never tired of quoting; but this exquisite reality transcended all her previous flights of imagination, and, approaching the bright coal fire, she basked in the genial glow, in the atmosphere of taste, culture, and rare luxury. A quaint clock inlaid with designs in malachite, ticked drowsily upon the low black marble mantle, which represented winged lions bearing up the slab, and near the hearth was an ebony and gold escritoire which stood open, revealing a bronze inkstand and velvet penwiper. Before it sat the revolving chair, with a bright-coloured embroidered cushion for the feet to rest upon; and in a recess behind the desk, and partly screened by the sweep of damask Curtains, hung a man's pearl-grey dressing-gown, lined with silk; while under it rested a pair of black velvet slippers encrusted with vine leaves and bunches of grapes in gold bullion.
Wishing to see the effect, Regina took a taper from the Murrhine cup on the mantle, and standing on a chair lighted the cluster of burners shaped like Pompeian lamps, in the chandelier nearest the grate; then went back to the rug before the fire, and enjoyed the spectacle presented.
What treasures of knowledge were contained in this beautiful, quiet, brilliant room!
Would she be permitted to explore the contents of those book shelves, where hundreds of volumes invited her eager investigation? Could she ever be as happy here as in the humble yet hallowed library at the dear old parsonage?
An oval table immediately under the gas-globes held a china stand filled with cigars, and seeing several books lying near it, she took up one.
It was Gustave Dore's "Wandering Jew," and, throwing herself down on the rug, she propped her head with one hand, while the other slowly turned the leaves, and she examined the wonderful illustrations. She was vaguely conscious that the clock struck ten, but paid little attention to the flight of time, and after awhile she closed the book, drew the cushion before the desk to the rug in front of the fire, laid her head on it, and soothed by the warmth and perfect repose of the room fell asleep.
Soon after the door opened wider, and Mr. Palma entered, and walked half way down the room ere he perceived the recumbent figure. He paused, then advanced on tiptoe and stood by the hearth, warming his white scholarly hands and looking down on the sleeper.
With the careless grace of a child, innocent of the art of attitudinizing, she had made herself thoroughly comfortable; and as the light streamed full upon her, all the marvellous beauty of the delicate face and the perfect modelling of the small hands and feet were clearly revealed. The glossy raven hair clung in waving masses around her white full forehead, and the long silky lashes lay like jet fringe on her exquisitely moulded cheeks; while the remarkably fine pencilling of her arched brows, which had attracted her guardian's notice when he first saw her at the convent, was still more apparent in the gradual development of her features.
Studying the face and form, and rigidly testing both by the fastidious canons that often rendered him hypercritical, Mr. Palma could find no flaw in contour or in colouring, save that the complexion was too dazzlingly white, lacking the rosy tinge which youth and health are wont to impart.
Stretching his arm to the escritoire, he softly opened a side drawer, took out an oval-shaped engraving of his favourite Sappho, and compared the nose, chin, and ear with those of the unconscious girl. Satisfied with the result, he restored the picture to its hiding-place. Four years had materially changed the countenance he had seen last at the parsonage, but the almost angelic purity of expression which characterized her as a child, had been intensified by time and recent grief, and watching her in her motionless repose he thought that unquestionably she was the fairest image he had ever seen in flesh; though a certain patient sadness about her beautiful lips told him that the waves of sorrow were already beating hoarsely upon the borders of her young life.
Standing upon his own hearth, a man of magnificent stature and almost haughty bearing, Erle Palma looked quite forty, though in reality younger; and the stern repression, the cautious reticence which had long been habitual, seemed to have hardened his regular handsome features. Weary with the business cares, the professional details of a trip that had yielded him additional laurels and distinction, and gratified his towering pride, he had come home to rest; and found it singularly refreshing to study the exquisite picture of innocence lying on his library rug.
He wondered how the parents of such a child could entrust her to the guardianship of strangers; and whether it would be possible for her to carry her peculiar look of holy purity safely into the cloudy Beyond—of womanhood?
While he pondered the clock struck, and Regina awoke.
At sight of that tall stately figure, looming like a black statue between her and the glow of the grate, she sprang first into a sitting posture, then to her feet.
He made no effort to assist her, only watched every movement, and when she stood beside him, he held out his hand.
"Regina, I am glad to see you in my house; and am sorry I could not have been at home to receive you."
Painfully embarrassed by the thought of the position in which he had found her, she covered her face with her hand; and at the sound of his grave deep voice the blood swiftly mounted from her throat to the tip of her small shell-shaped ears.
He waited for her to speak, but she could not sufficiently conquer her agitation, and with a firm hand he drew down the shielding fingers, holding, them in his.
"There is nothing very dreadful in your being caught fast asleep, like a white kitten on a velvet rug. If you are never guilty of anything worse, you and your guardian will not quarrel."
Her face had drooped beyond the range of his vision, and when he put one hand under her chin and raised it, he saw that the missing light in the alabaster vase had been supplied, and her smooth cheeks were flushed to brilliant carmine.
How marvellously lovely she was in that rush of colour that dyed her dainty lips, and made the large soft eyes seem radiant as stars, when they bravely struggled up to meet his, so piercing, so coolly critical.
"Will you answer me one question, if I ask it?"
"Certainly, Mr. Palma; at least I will try.
"Are you afraid of me?"
The sweet mouth quivered, but the clear lustrous eyes did not sink.
"Yes, sir; I have always been afraid of you."
"Do you regard me as a monster of cruelty?"
"Will your conscience allow you to say, 'My guardian, I am glad to see you'?"
She was silent.
"That is right, little girl. Be perfectly truthful, and some day we may be friends. Sit down."
He handed her a chair, and, rolling forward one of the deep cushioned seats, made himself comfortable in its soft luxurious latitude. Throwing his massive head back against the purple velvet lining, he adjusted his steel-rimmed spectacles, joined his hands, and built a pyramid with his fingers; while he scrutinized her as coldly, as searchingly as Swammerdam or Leeuwenhoek might have inspected some new and as yet unclassified animalculum, or as Filippi or Pasteur studied the causes of "Pebrine."
"What do you think of New York?"
"It seems a vast human sea, in which I could easily lose myself, and be neither missed nor found."
"Have you studied mythology at all? Or was your pastor-guardian afraid of paganizing you? Did you ever hear of Argus?"
"Yes, sir, I understand you."
"He was merely a dim prophecy of our police system; and when adventurous girls grow rebellious and essay to lose themselves a hundred Arguses are watching them. You seem to like my library?"
"It is the most beautiful room I have ever seen."
"Wait until you examine the triumph of upholstering skill and genius which Mrs. Palma calls her parlours."
"I saw all the pretty things downstairs, but nothing will compare with this lovely place." She glanced around with undisguised admiration.
"Pretty things! Objets de luxe! Oh, ye gods of fashionable bric-a-brac! verily 'out of the mouths of babes,' etc., etc. Be very careful to suppress your heretical and treasonable preference in the presence of Mrs. Palma, who avoids this pet library of mine as if it were a magnified Pandora's box. Regina, I have reason to apprehend that you and she declared war at sight."
"I know she does not like me."
"And you fully reciprocate the prejudice?"
"Mrs. Palma of course has a right to consult her own wishes in the management of her home and household."
"Just here permit me to correct you. My house, if you please, my household, over which at my request she presides. Upon your arrival you did not find her quite as cordial as you anticipated?"
Her gaze wandered to the fire, and she was silent.
"Be so good as to look at me when I speak to you. Mrs. Palma appeared quite harsh to you to-day?"
"I have made no complaint against your mother."
"Pardon me, Mrs. Palma, my father's wife, if you please. Tell me the particulars of your reception here."
The beautiful face turned pleadingly to him.
"You must excuse me, sir. I have nothing to tell you."
"And if I will not excuse you?"
She folded her hands together, and compressed her lips.
"Then I have some things to tell you. I am acquainted with all that occurred to-day."
"I thought you were in Philadelphia? How could you know?'
"Roscoe told me everything, and I have questioned Farley, who has not taken your vow of silence. Mrs. Palma has some prejudices, which, as far as is compatible with reason, a due sense of courtesy constrains me to respect; and as I have invited her to officiate as mistress of my establishment, it is eminently proper that I should consult her opinions, and encourage no rebellion against her domestic regulations. One of her sternest mandates, inexorable as Mede and Persian statutes, prohibits dogs. Now what do you expect of me?"
He leaned forward, eyeing her keenly.
"That you will do exactly——"
"As I please?" he interrupted.
"No, sir, exactly right."
"That amounts to the same thing, does it not?"
She shook her head.
"Your impression is, that I will not please to do exactly right?"
"I have not said so, sir."
"Your eyes are very brave honest witnesses, and need no support from your lips. Suppose we enter into negotiations and compromise matters between Mrs. Palma and you? This troublesome dog is a pestiferous creature, which might possibly be tolerated in country clover fields, but is most woefully out of place in a Fifth Avenue house. Beside, you will soon be a young lady, and your beaux will leave you no leisure to pet him. You are fifteen?"
"Not yet; and if I were fifty it would make no difference. I don't want any beaux, sir; but—I must have my Hero."
"Of course, all misses in their teens believe that their favourite is a hero."
"Mr. Palma, Hero is my dog's name."
He could detect a quiver in her slender nostril, and understood the heightening arch of her lip.
"Oh! is it indeed? Well, no dog that ever barked is worth a household hurricane. You must make up your mind to surrender him, to shed a few tears and say vale Hero! Now I am disposed to be generous for once, though understand that is not my habit, and I will buy him. I will pay you—let me see—thirty-five, forty—well, say fifty dollars? That will supply you with Maillard's bonbons for almost a year; will sweeten your bereavement."
She rose instantly, with a peculiar sparkle leaping up in her splendid eyes.
"There is not gold enough in New York to buy him."
"What! I must see this surly brute, that in your estimation is beyond all price. Tell me truly, do you cling to him so fondly, because some schoolboy sweetheart, some rosy-cheeked lad in V—— gave him to you as a love token? Trust me; we lawyers are locked iron safes for all such tender secrets, and I will never betray yours."
The rich glow overflowed her cheeks once more.
"I have no sweetheart. I love my Hero, because he is truly noble and sagacious; because he loves me, and because he is mine—all mine."
"Truly satisfactory and sufficient reasons. I might ask how he came into your possession; but probably you shrink from divulging your little secret, and I am unwilling to force your confidence."
She looked curiously into his face, but the handsome mouth and chin might have been chiselled in stone for any visible alteration in their fixed stern expression, and his piercing black eyes seemed diving into hers through microscopic glasses.
"At least, Regina, I venture the hope that he came properly and honestly into your heart and hands?"
"I hope so too, because you gave him to me."
"Yes, sir. You know perfectly well that you sent him to me."
"I sent you a dog? When? Is he black, brown, striped, or spotted?"
"Snow-white, and you know as well as I do that you asked Mr. Lindsay to bring him to me soon after you left me at V——."
"Indeed! Was I guilty of so foolish a thing? Did you thank me for the present?"
"I asked dear Mr. Hargrove to tell you when he wrote that I was exceedingly grateful for your kindness."
"Certainly it appears so. All these years the dog was not worth even a simple note of thanks; now all the banks in Gotham cannot buy him."
The chill irony of his tone painfully embarrassed her.
"You positively refuse to sell him to me?"
"Because you love him?"
"Because I love him more than I can ever make you comprehend."
"You regard me as a dullard in comprehending canine qualities?"
"I did not say so."
"Do you really find yourself possessed of any sentiment of gratitude toward me? If so, will you do me a favour?"
"Certainly, if I can."
"Thank you. I shall always feel exceedingly obliged. Pray do not look so uneasy, and grow so white; it is a small matter. I gave you the dog years ago, little dreaming that I was thereby providing future discord for my own hearthstone. With a degree of flattering delicacy, which I assure you I appreciate, you decline to sell what was a friendly gift; and now I simply appeal to your generosity, and ask you please to give him back to me."
She recoiled a step, and her fingers clutched each other.
"Oh, Mr. Palma! Don't ask me. I cannot give up my Hero. I would give you anything, everything else that I own."
"Rash little girl! What else have you to give? Yourself?"
He was smiling now, and the unbending of his lips, and glitter of his remarkably fine teeth, gave a strange charm to his countenance, generally so grave.
"You would give yourself away, sooner than that unlucky dog?"
"I belong to my mother. But he belongs to me, and I never, never will part with him!"
"Jacta est alea!" muttered the lawyer, still smiling.
"Mr. Palma, I hope you will excuse me. It may seem very selfish and obstinate in me, and perhaps it really is so, but I can't help it. I am so lonely now, and Hero is all that I have left to comfort me. Still I know as well as you or any one else, that it would be very wrong and unkind to force him into a house where dogs are particularly disliked; and therefore we will annoy no one here,—we will go away."
"Will you? Where?"
He rose, and they stood side by side.
Her face wore its old childish look of patient pain, reminding him of the time when she stood with the cluster of lilies drooping against her heart. He saw that tears had gathered in her eyes, tendering them larger, more wistful.
"I do not know yet. Anywhere that you think best, until we can write and get mother's permission for me to go to her. Will you not please use your influence with her?"
"To send you from the shelter of my roof? That would be eminently courteous and hospitable on my part. Besides your mother does not want you."
Observing how sharply the words wounded her, he added:
"I mean, that at present she prefers to keep you here, because it is best for your own interests; and in all that she does, I believe your future welfare is her chief aim. You understand me, do you not?"
"I do not understand why or how it can be best for a poor girl to be separated from her mother, and thrown about the world, burdening strangers. Still, whatever my mother does must be right."
"Do you think you burden me?"
"I believe, sir, that you are willing for mother's sake to do all you can for me, and I thank you very much; but I must not bring trouble or annoyance into your family. Can't you place me at school? Mrs. Lindsay has a dear friend—the widow of a minister—living in New York, and perhaps she would take me to board in her house? I have a letter to her. Do help me to go away from here."
He turned quickly, muttering something that sounded very like a half-smothered oath, and took her little trembling hand, folding it gently between his soft warm palms.
"Little girl, be patient; and in time all things will be conquered. As long as I have a home, I intend to keep you, or until your mother sends for you. She trusts me fully, and you must try to do so, even though sometimes I may appear harsh,—possibly unjust. Of course Hero cannot remain here at present, but I will take him down to my office, and have him carefully attended to; and as often as you like you shall come and see him, and take him to ramble with you through the parks. As soon as I can arrange matters, you shall have him with you again."
"Please, Mr. Palma! send me to a boarding school; or take me back to the convent."
He spoke sternly, and his face suddenly hardened, while his fingers tightened over hers like a glove of steel.
"I shall never be contented here."
"That remains to be seen."
"Mrs. Palma does not wish me to reside here."
"It is my house, and in future you will find no cause to doubt your welcome."
She knew that she might as efficaciously appeal to an iron column, and her features settled into an expression that could never have been called resignation,—that plainly meant hopeless endurance. She attempted twice to withdraw her hand, but his clasp tightened. Bending his haughty head, he asked:
"Will you be reasonable?"
A heavy sigh broke over her compressed mouth, and she answered in a low, but almost defiant tone:
"It seems I cannot help myself."
"Then yield gracefully to the inevitable, and you will learn that when struggles end, peace quickly follows."
She chose neither to argue, nor acquiesce, and slowly shook her head.
She merely lifted her eyes.
"I want you to be happy in my house."
"Thank you, sir."
"Don't speak in that sarcastic manner. It does not sound respectable to one's guardian."
She was growing paler, and all her old aversion to him was legible in her countenance.
"Let us be friends. Try to be a patient, cheerful girl."
"Patient,—I will try. Cheerful,—no, no, not here! How can I be happy in this house? Am I a brute, or a stone? Oh! I wish I could have died with my dear, dear Mr. Hargrove, that calm night when he went to rest for ever while I sang!"
One by one the tears stole over her long lashes, and rolled swiftly down her cheeks.
"Will you tell me the circumstances of his death?"
"Please do not ask me now. It would bring back all the sad things that began when Mr. Lindsay left me. Everything was so bright until then,—until he went away. Since then nothing but trouble, trouble."
A frown clouded the lawyer's brow; then with a half smile he asked:
"Of the two ministers, who did you love best? Mr. Hargrove, or the young missionary?"
"I do not know, both were so noble, good, and kind; and both are so very dear to me. Mr. Palma, please let go my hand; you hurt me."
"Pardon me! I forgot I held it."
He opened his hands, and, looking down at the almost childish fingers, saw that his seal ring had pressed heavily upon, and reddened the soft palm.
"I did not intend to bruise you so painfully, but in some respects you are such a tender little thing, and I am only a harsh, selfish strong man, and hurt you without knowing it. One word more, before I send you off to sleep. Olga has the most kindly ways, and really the most affectionate heart under this roof of mine, and she will do all she can for your comfort and happiness. Be respectful to Mrs. Palma, and she shall meet you half way. This is as you say the most attractive room in the house, this is exclusively and especially mine; but at all times, whether I am absent, or present, you must consider yourself thoroughly welcome, and recollect, all it contains in the book line is at your service. To-morrow I will talk with you about your studies, and examine you in some of your text-books. A propos! I take my breakfast alone, before the other members of the family are up, and unless you choose to rise early and join me at the seven o'clock table, you need not be surprised if you do not see me until dinner, which is usually at half-past six. If you require anything that has not been supplied in your room, do not hesitate to ring and order it. Try to feel at home."
"Thank you, sir."
She moved a few steps, and he added:
"Do not imagine that Hero is suffering all the torments painted in Dante's 'Inferno'; but go to sleep like a good child, and accept my assurance that he is resting quite comfortably. When I came home, I took a light, went out and examined his kennel; found him liberally provided with food, water, bed, every accommodation that even your dog, which all New York can't buy, could possibly wish. Good-night, little one. Don't dream that I am Blue Beard or Polyphemus."
"Good-night, Mr. Palma."
"Mrs. Orme, I am afraid you will overtax your strength. You seem to forget the doctor's caution."
"No, I am not in the least fatigued, and this soft fresh air and sunshine will benefit me more than all the medicine in your ugly vials. Mrs. Waul, recollect that I have been shut up for two months in a close room, and this change is really delicious."
"You have no idea how pale you look."
"Do I? No wonder, bleached as I have been in a dark house. I daresay you are tired, and I insist that you sit yonder under the trees, and rest yourself while I stroll a little farther. No, keep the shawl, throw it around your own shoulders, which seem afflicted with a chronic chill. Here is a New York paper; feast on American news till I come back."
Upon a seat in the garden of the Tuileries Mrs. Orme placed her grey-haired Duenna attendant, and gathering her black-lace drapery about her turned away into one of the broad walks that divided the flower-bordered lawns.
Thin, almost emaciated, she appeared far taller than when last she swept across the stage, and having thrown back her veil, a startling and painful alteration was visible in the face that had so completely captivated fastidious Paris.
Pallid as Mors, the cheeks had lost their symmetrical oval, were hollow, and under the sunken eyes clung dusky circles that made them appear unnaturally large, and almost Dantesque in their mournful gleaming. Even the lips seemed shrunken, changed in their classic contour; and the ungloved hand that clasped the folds of lace across her bosom was wasted, wan, diaphanous.
That brilliant Parisian career, which had opened so auspiciously, closed summarily during the second week of her engagement in darkness that threatened to prove the unlifting shadow of death. The severe tax upon her emotional nature, the continued intense strain on her nerves, as night after night she played to crowded houses—shunning as if it contained a basilisk, the sight of that memorable box—where she felt, rather than saw, that a pair of violet eyes steadily watched her, all this had conquered even her powerful will, her stern resolute purpose, and one fatal evening the long-tried woman was irretrievably vanquished.
The role was "Queen Katherine," and the first premonitory faintness rendered her voice uneven, as, kneeling before King Henry, the unhappy wife uttered her appeal:
..."Alas, sir, In what have I offended you? What cause Hath my behaviour given to your displeasure, That thus you should proceed to put me off, And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness, I have been to you a true and humble wife."...
As the play proceeded, she was warned by increasing giddiness, and a tremulousness that defied her efforts to control it; and she rushed on toward the close, fighting desperately with physical prostration.
Upon the last speech of the dying and disowned wife she had safely entered, and a few more minutes would end her own fierce struggle with numbing faintness, and bring her succour in rest. But swiftly the blazing footlights began to dance like witches of Walpurgis night on Brocken heights; now they flickered, suddenly grew blue, then black, an icy darkness as from some ghoul-haunted crypt seized her, and while she threw out her hands with a strange groping motion, like a bird beating the air with dying wings, her own voice sounded far off, a mere fading echo:
"Farewell—farewell. Nay, Patience——"
She could only hear a low hum, as of myriads of buzzing bees; she realized that she must speak louder, and thus blind, shivering, reeling, she made her last brave rally:
..."Strew me o'er With maiden flowers, that all the world may know I was a chaste wife to my grave; embalm Then lay me forth;—although unqueened,—yet— Yet—like—like——"
The trembling shadowy voice ceased; the lips moved to utter the few remaining words, but no sound came. The wide eyes stared blankly at the vast audience, where people held their breath, watching the ghastly livid pallor that actually settled upon the face of the dying Queen, and in another instant the proud lovely head drooped like a broken lily, and she fell forward senseless.
As the curtain was rung hastily down, Mr. Laurance leaned from his box, and hurled upon the stage a large crown of white roses, which struck the shoulder of the prostrate figure, and shattering, scattered their snowy petals over the marble face and golden hair.
The enthusiastic acclaim of hundreds of voices announced the triumph of the magnificent acting; but after repeated calls and prolonged applause, during which she lay unconscious, the audience was briefly informed that Madame Orme was too seriously indisposed to appear again, and receive the tribute she had earned at such fearful cost.
Recovering slowly from that long swoon, she was carefully wrapped up, and led away, supported by the arms of Mr. Waul and his wife. As they lifted her into the carriage at the rear entrance of the theatre, she sank heavily back upon the cushions, failing to observe a manly form leaning against the neighbouring lamp-post, or to recognize the handsome face where the gas shone full lighting up the anxious blue eyes that followed her.
For several days she was too languid to move from her couch, where she persisted in reclining, supported by pillows; still struggling against the prostration that hourly increased, and at last the disease asserted itself fever, ensued, bringing unconsciousness and delirium.
Not the scorching violent type that rapidly consumes the vital forces, but a low tenacious fever that baffled all opposition, and steadily gained ground, creeping upon the nerve centre, and sapping the foundations of life.
For many weeks there seemed no hope of rescue, and two physicians, distinguished by skill and success in their profession, finally admitted that they were powerless to cope with this typhoid serpent, whose tightening folds were gradually strangling her.
At length most unexpectedly, when science laid down its weapons to watch the close of the struggle, and nature the Divine Doctor quietly took up the gage of battle, the tide of conflict turned. Slowly the numbed brain began to exert its force, the fluttering thready pulse grew calmer, and one day the dreamer awoke to the bitter consciousness of a renewal of all the galling burden of woes which the tireless law of compensation had for those long weeks mercifully loosed and lifted.
Although guarded with tender care by the faithful pair, who had followed her across the Atlantic, she convalesced almost imperceptibly, and out of her busy life two months fruitful alone in bodily pain glided away to the silent grey of the past.
Dimly conscious that days and weeks were creeping by unimproved, she retained in subsequent years only a dreamy reminiscence of the period dating from the moment when she essayed to utter the last words of Queen Katherine, words which ran zigzag, hither and thither like an electric thread through the leaden cloud of her delirium, to the hour, when with returning strength, keen goading thrusts from the unsheathed dagger of memory, told her that the Sleeping Furies had once more been aroused on the threshold of the temple of her life.
Noticing some rare hothouse flowers in a vase upon the table near her bed, Mrs. Waul hastened to explain to the invalid that every other day during her illness, bouquets had been brought to their hotel by the servant of some American gentleman, who was anxious to receive constant tidings of Mrs. Orme's condition, adding that the physicians had forbidden her to keep the flowers in the sick-room, until all danger seemed passed. No card had been attached, no name given, and by the sufferer none was needed. Gazing at the superb heart's-ease, whose white velvet petals were enamelled with scarlet, purple, and gold, the mockery stung her keenly, and with a groan she turned away, hiding her face on the pillow. Hearts-ease from the man who had bruised, trampled, broken her heart? She instructed Mrs. Waul to decline receiving the bouquet when next the messenger came, and to request him to assure his master that Madame Orme was fully conscious once more and wished the floral tribute discontinued. During the tedious days of convalescence she contracted a cold that attacked her lungs, and foreboded congestion; and though yielding to medical treatment, it left her as souvenir, a. troublesome cough.
Her physician informed her that her whole nervous system had received a shock so severe that only perfect and prolonged rest of mind and freedom from all excitement could restore its healthful tone. Interdicting sternly the thought of dramatic labour for at least a year, they urged her to seek a quiet retreat in Italy, or Southern France, as her lungs had already become somewhat involved.
More than once she had been taken in a carnage through the Bois de Boulogne, but to-day for the first time since her recovery she ventured on foot, in quest of renewed vigour from outdoor air and exercise.
Wrapped in a mental cloud of painful speculation concerning her future career, a cloud unblessed as yet by silver lining, and unfringed with gold, she wandered aimlessly along the walk, taking no notice of passers-by until she approached the water, where swans were performing their daily regatta evolutions for the amusement of those who generally came provided with crumbs or grain wherewith to feed them.
The sound of a sob attracted Mrs. Orme's attention, and she paused to witness a scene that quickly aroused her sympathy.
A child's carriage had been pushed close to the margin of the basin, to enable the occupant to feast the swans with morsels of cake, and in leaning over to scatter the food a little hat composed of lace, silk, and flowers, had fallen into the water. Near the carriage stood a boy apparently about ten years old, who with a small walking-stick was maliciously pushing the dainty millinery bubble as far beyond reach as possible.
In the carriage, and partly covered by a costly and brilliant afghan, reclined a forlorn and truly pitiable creature, who seemed to have sunk down helplessly on the cushions. Although her age was seven years, the girl's face really appeared much older, and in its shrunken, sallow, pinched aspect indicated lifelong suffering.
The short thin dark hair was dry and harsh, lacking the silken gloss that belongs to childhood, and the complexion a sickly yellowish pallor. Her brilliant eyes were black, large and prominent, and across her upper lip ran a diagonal scar, occasionally seen in those so afflicted as to require the merciful knife of a skilful surgeon to aid in shaping the mouth.
The unfortunate victim of physical deformity, increased by a fall which prevented the possibility of her ever being able to walk, nature had with unusual malignity stamped her with a feebleness of intellect that at times bordered almost on imbecility.
Temporarily deserted by her nurse, the poor little creature was crying bitterly over the fate of her hat. Walking up behind the boy, who was too much engrossed by his mischievous sport to observe her approach, Mrs. Orme seized his arms.
"You wicked boy! How can you be so cruel as to torment that afflicted child?"
Taking his pretty mother-of-pearl-headed cane, she tried to touch the hat, but it was just beyond her reach, and, resolved to rescue it, she fastened the cane to the handle of her parasol, using her handkerchief to bind them together. Thus elongated it sufficed to draw the hat to the margin, and, raising it, she shook out the water, and hung the dripping bit of finery upon one of the handles of the carriage.
"Give me my walking-stick," said the boy, whose pronunciation proclaimed him thoroughly English.
"No, sir. I intend to punish you for your cruelty. You tyrannized over that helpless little girl, because you were the strongest. I think I have more strength than you, and you shall feel how pleasant such conduct is."
Untying the cane, she raised it in the air, and threw it with all the force she could command into the middle of the water.
"Now if you want it, wade in with your best boots and Sunday clothes and get it; and go home and tell your parents, if you have any, that you are a bad, rude, ugly-behaved boy. When you need your toy, think of that hat."
The cane had sunk instantly, and with a sullen scowl of rage at her, and a grimace at the occupant of the carriage, the boy walked sulkily away.
With her handkerchief, Mrs. Orme wiped off the water that adhered to the hat, squeezed and shook out the ribbons and laid it upon the afghan, in reach of the fingers that more nearly resembled claws than the digits of a human hand.
"Don't cry, dear. It will soon dry now."
The solemn black eyes, still glistening with tears, stared up at her, and impelled by that peculiar pitying tenderness that hovers in the hearts of all mothers, Mrs. Orme bent down and gently smoothed the elfish locks around the sallow forehead.
"Has your nurse run away and left you? Don't be afraid; nothing shall trouble you. I will stay with you till she comes back."
"Hellene is gone to buy candy," said the dwarf, timidly,
"My dear, what is your name?"
"Maud Ames Laurance."
The stranger had compassionately taken one of the thin hands in her own, but throwing it from her as if it had been a serpent, she recoiled, involuntarily pushing the carriage from its resting-place. It rolled a few steps and stopped, while she stood shuddering.
Her first impulse was to hurry away; the second was more feminine in its promptings, and conquered. Once more she approached the unfortunate child, and scrutinized her, with eyes that gradually kindled into a blaze.
She bore in no respect the faintest resemblance to her father, but Mrs. Orme fancied she traced the image of the large-featured bold-eyed mother; and as she contrasted this feeble deformed creature with the remembered face and figure of her own beautiful darling girl, a bitter but intensely triumphant laugh broke suddenly on the air.
"Maud Ames Laurance! A proud name truly—and royally you grace it! Ah, Nemesis! Christianity would hunt you down as a pagan myth, but all honour, glory to you, incorruptible pitiless Avenger! Accept my homage, repay my wrongs, and then demand in sacrificial tribute what you will, though it were my heart's best blood! Aha! will she lend lustre to the family name? Shall the splendour of her high-born aristocratic beauty gild the crime that gave her being? Yes verily, it seems that after all, even for me the Mills of the Gods do not forget to grind. 'The time of their visitation will come, and that inevitably; for, it is always true, that if the fathers have eaten sour grapes, the children's teeth are set on edge' Command my lifelong allegiance, oh Queenly Nemesis!"
Sometimes grovelling in the dust of gross selfishness which clings more or less to all of us, we bow worshipping before the gods, into which we elevate the meanest qualities of our own nature, apotheosizing sinful lusts of hate and vengeance; and while we vow reckless tribute and measureless libations, lo, we are unexpectedly called upon for speedy payment!
Looking down with exultant delight on the ugly deformity who stared back wonderingly at her, Mrs. Orme's wan thin face grew radiant, the brown eyes dilated, glowed, and the blood leaped to her hollow cheeks, burning in two scarlet spots; but the invocation seemed literally answered, when she was suddenly conscious of a strange bubbling sensation, and over her parted, laughing lips crept the crimson that fed her heart.
At this moment the child's nurse, a pretty bright-eyed young coquette, hurried toward the group, accompanied by a companion of the same class; and as she approached and seized the handles of the carriage, Mrs. Orme turned away. The hemorrhage was not copious, but steady, and lowering her thick veil, she endeavoured to stanch its flow. Her handkerchief, already damp from contact with the wet hat, soon became saturated, and she was obliged to substitute the end of her lace mantle.
Fortunately Mrs. Waul, impatiently watching for her return, caught a glimpse of the yet distant figure and hastened to meet her.
"Are you crying? What is the matter?"
"My lungs are bleeding; lend me a handkerchief. Try and find a carriage."
"What caused it? Something must have happened?"
"Don't worry me now. Only help me to get home."
Screened both by veils and parasols, the two had almost gained the street, when they met a trio of gentlemen.
One asked in unmistakable New-England English:
"Laurance, where is your father?"
And a voice which had once epitomized for Minnie Merle the "music of the spheres," answered in mellow tones:
"He has been in London, but goes very soon to Italy."
Mrs. Waul felt a trembling hand laid on her arm, and turned anxiously to her companion.
"Give me time. My strength fails me. I can't walk so fast."
The excitement of an hour had overthrown the slow work of weeks; and after many days the physicians peremptorily ordered her away from Paris.
"Home! Let us go home. You have not been yourself since we reached this city. In New York you will get strong."
As Mrs. Waul spoke she stroked one of the invalid's thin hands, that hung listlessly over the side of the sofa.
"I think Phoebe is right. America would cure you," added the grey-haired man, whose heart was yearning for his native land.
Alluring, seductive as the Siren song that floated across Sicilian waves, was the memory of her fair young daughter to this suffering weary mother; and at the thought of clasping Regina in her arms, of feeling her tender velvet lips once more on her cheek, the lonely heart of the desolate woman throbbed fiercely.
Her sands of life seamed ebbing fast,—the end might not be distant; who could tell? Why not go back—give up the chase for the empty shadow of a name—gather her baby to her bosom, and die, finding under an humble cenotaph the peace that this world denied her?
An intolerable yearning for the sight of her child, for the sound of her voice, broke over her like some irresistible wave bearing away the vehement protests of policy, the sterner barriers of vindictive purpose, and with a long shivering moan she clasped her hands and shut her eyes.
Impatiently the old man and his wife watched her countenance, confident that the decision would not long be delayed, trusting that the result would be a compliance with their wishes. But hope began to fade as they noticed the gradual compression of her pale sorrowful mouth,—the slow gathering of the brows that met in a heavy frown,—the tightening of the clenched fingers,—the greyish shadow that settled down on the face where renunciation was very legibly written. The temptation had been fierce, but she put it aside, after bitter struggles to hush the wail of maternal longing; and before she spoke the two friends looked at each other and sighed.
Lifting her marble eyelids that seemed so heavy with their sweeping brown lashes, the invalid raised herself on one elbow, and said mournfully:
"Not yet,—oh! not yet. I cannot give up the fight without one more struggle, even if it should prove that of death to me. I must not return to America until I win what I came for; I will not. But, my friends,—for such I consider you, such you have proved,—I will not selfishly prolong your exile; will not exact the sacrifice of your dearest wishes. Go back home at once, and enjoy in peace the old age that deserves to be so happy. I am going to Italy, hoping to regain my health,—possibly to die; but still I shall go. How long I may be detained, I know not, but meanwhile you shall return to those you love."
"Idle words—all idle words; not worth the waste of your breath. Phoebe and I are homesick,—we do not deny it, and we are sorry you can't see things as we do; but since that night when I stumbled over you in the snow, and carried you to my own hearth, you have been to Phoebe and me—as the child we lost; and unless you are ready to go home with us, we stay here. You know we never will forsake you, especially now. Hush,—don't speak, Phoebe. Come away, wife; she is crying like a tired child. I never saw her give way like that before. It will do her good. Every tear softens the spasms that wring her poor heart when she thinks of her baby. In crossing the ocean she said that every rolling wave seemed to her a grave, in which she was burying her blue-eyed baby. Let her alone to-day; keep out of her sight. To-morrow we will arrange to quit Paris, I hope for ever."
"Mrs. Palma, if you are at leisure, I should like to see you for a moment."
"Certainly, Miss Orme; come in."
Mrs. Palma looked up for an instant only from the blue sash which she was embroidering with silver.
"Is your discourse confidential? If so, I shall certainly retire, and leave you and mamma to tender communings, and an interchange of souls," said Olga, who reclined on a lounge in her mother's room, and slowly turned the leaves of a volume of Balzac.
"Not at all confidential. Mrs. Palma, I have reason to fear that my practising has long annoyed you."
"Upon what do you base your supposition? During the year I have not found fault with you, have I?"
"Hattie told me that you often complained that you could no longer enjoy your morning nap, because the sound of the piano disturbed you; and I wish to change the hour. The reason why I selected that time was because I always rose early and practised before breakfast until I came here; and because later in the day company in the parlours or reception-room keep me out. I am anxious to do whatever is most agreeable to you."
"It is very true that when I am out frequently until two and three o'clock, with Olga, it is not particularly refreshing to be aroused at seven by scales and exercises. People who live as continually in society as we do must have a little rest.
"I have been trying to arrange, so as to avoid annoying you, but do not well see how to correct the trouble. From nine until one Mr. Van Kleik comes to attend to my Latin, German, French, and mathematics, and from four until five Professor Hurtzsel gives me my lessons. In the interval persons are frequently calling, and of course interrupt me. If you will only tell me what you wish, I will gladly consult your convenience.
"Indeed, Miss Orme, I do not know when the tiresome practising will be convenient, though of course it is a necessary evil and must be borne. The fact is, that magnificent grand piano downstairs ought never to be thrummed upon for daily practising. I told Erle soon after you came that it was a shame to have it so abused, but men have no understanding of the fitness of things."
"Pray, mamma, do not forget your Bible injunction: 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's,' and to music, the matters that belong to its own divine art. Until Regina came among us that melodious siren in the front parlour had a chronic lock-jaw from want of use. Some of the white keys stuck fast when they were touched, and the black ones were so stiff they almost required a hammer to make them sound. Do let her limber them at her own 'sweet will.' Who wants a piano locked up, like that hideous old china and heavy glass that your grandfather's fifth cousin brought over from Amsterdam?"
"At what time of day did you practise when you were a young girl?" asked Regina, appealing to the figure now coiled up on the lounge.
"At none, thank fortune! Regard me as a genuine rara avis, a fashionable young lady with no more aptitude for the 'concord of sweet sounds,' than for the abstractions of Hegel, or Differential Calculus. It is traditional, that while in my nurse's arms, I performed miracles of melody such as Auld Lang Syne, with one little finger; but such undue precocity, madly stimulated by ambitious mamma and nurse Nell, resulted fatally in the total destruction of my marvellous talent, which died of cerebro-musical excitement when confronted with the gamut. Except as the language in which Strauss appeals to my waltzing genius, I have no more use for it than for ancient Aztec. Thank Heaven! this is a progressive age, and girls are no longer tormented as formerly by piano fiends, who once persisted in pounding and squeezing music into their poor struggling nauseated souls, as relentlessly as girls' feet are still squeezed in China. My talent is not for the musical tones of Pythagoras."