"I should be truly glad to learn in what direction it tends." said her mother, rather severely.
Up rose the head with its tawny crown, and there was evident emphasis in the ringing voice and in the fiery glance that darted from her laughing hazel eyes.
"Cruel mamma! Because Euterpe did not preside when I was lucklessly ushered into this dancing gilt bubble that we call the world, were all good gifts denied me? The fairies ordained that I should paint, should soar like Apelles, Angelo, and Da Vinci into the empyrean of pure classic art, but no sooner did I dabble in pigment, and plume my slender artistic pin-feathers, than the granite hands of Palma pride seized the ambitious ephemeron, cut off the sprouting wings, and bade me paint only my lips and cheeks, if dabble in paint I must. I am confident the soul of Zeuxis sleeps in mine, but before the ukase of the Palmas a stouter than Zeuxis would quail, lie low,—be silent. Hence I am a young miss who has no talent, except for appreciating Balzac, caramels, Diavolini, vanille souffle, lobster-croquettes, and Strauss' waltzes; though envious people do say that I have a decided genius for 'malapropos historic quotations,' which you know are regarded as unpardonable offences by those who cannot comprehend them. Come here, St. John, and let me rub your fur the wrong way. The world will do it roughly if you survive tender kittenhood, and it is merciful to initiate you early, and by degrees."
She took up a young black cat that was curled comfortably on the skirt of her dress, and stroking him softly, resumed her book.
Mrs. Palma compressed her lips, knitted her heavy brows, and turned the silk sash to the light to observe the effect of the silver snowdrops she was embroidering.
During her residence under the same roof, Regina had become accustomed to these verbal tournaments between mother and daughter, and having been kept in ignorance of the ground of Olga's grievance, she could not understand allusions that were frequently made in her presence, and which never failed to irritate Mrs. Palma.
Desirous of diverting the conversation from a topic that threatened renewed tilts, she said timidly:
"You do not in the least assist me, with reference to my music. Would you object to having a hired piano in the house? I could have it placed in my room, and then my practising in the middle of the day, or in the evening would never be interfered with, and you could have your morning nap."
"Indeed, Miss Orme, a very good suggestion; a capital idea. I will speak to Erle about it to-night."
Regina absolutely coloured at the shadowy compliment.
"Will it be necessary to trouble Mr. Palma with the matter? He is always so busy, and besides you know much better than a gentleman what——"
"I know nothing better than Erle Palma, where it concerns his menage, or the expenses incident to its control."
"But out of my allowance I will pay the rent, and he need know nothing of the matter."
"Of course that quite alters the case; and if you propose to pay the rent, there is no reason why he should be consulted."
"Then will you please select a piano, and order it to be sent up to-day or to-morrow? An upright could be most conveniently carried upstairs."
"Certainly, if you wish it. We shall be on Broadway this afternoon, and I will attend to the matter."
"Thank you, Mrs. Palma."
"Regina Orme! what an embryo diplomatist, what an incipient Talleyrand, Kaunitz, Bismarck you are! Mamma is as invulnerable to all human weaknesses as one of the suits of armour hanging in the Tower of London; and during my extended and rather intimate acquaintance with her, I have never discovered but one foible incident to the flesh, love of her morning nap! You have adroitly struck Achilles in the heel. Sound the timbrel and sing like Miriam over your victory; for it were better to propitiate one of the house of Palma, than to strangle Pharaoh. You should apply for a position in some foreign legation, where your talents can be fitly trained for the tangles of diplomacy. Now if you were only a man, how admirably you would suit the Hon. Erle Palma as Deputy——"
"He prefers to appoint his deputies without suggestion from others, and regrets he can find no vacant niche for you," answered Mr. Palma, from the threshold of the door where he had been standing for several moments, unperceived by all but the hazel eyes of the graceful figure on the lounge.
"Ah! you steal upon one as noiselessly, yet as destructive as the rats that crept upon the bowstrings at Pelusium! And the music of your eavesdropping voice;—
'Oh it came o'er my ear like the sweet south That breathes upon a bank of violets.'"
She rose, made him a profound salaam, and with the black kitten in her arms, quitted the room.
"Will you come, in, Erle? Do you wish to see me?"
Mrs. Palma always looked ill at ease when Olga and her stepbrother exchanged words, and Regina had long observed that the entrance of the latter was generally the signal of departure for the former.
"I came in search of Regina, but chancing to hear the piano question discussed, permit me to say that I prefer to take the matter in my own hands. I will provide whatever may be deemed requisite, so that this young lady's Rothschild's allowance may continue to flow uninterruptedly into the coffers of confectioners and flower-dealers. Mrs. Palma, if you can spare the carriage, I should like the use of it for an hour or two."
"Oh, certainly! I had thought of driving to Stewart's, but to-morrow will suit me quite as well."
"By no means. You will have ample time after my return. Regina, I wish to see you."
She followed him into the hall.
"In the box of clothing that arrived several days ago, there is a white cashmere suit with blue silk trimmings?"
"Be so good as to put it on. Then wrap up well, and when ready come to the library. Do not keep me waiting. Bring your hair-brush and comb."
Her mother had sent from Europe a tasteful wardrobe, which, when unpacked, Mrs. Palma pronounced perfect; while Olga asserted that one particular sash surpassed anything of the kind she had ever seen, and was prevailed upon to accept and wear it.
With many conjectures concerning the import of Mr. Palma's supervision of her toilette, Regina obeyed his instructions, and fearful of trespassing on his patience, hurried down to the library.
With one arm behind him, and the hand of the other holding a half-smoked cigar, he was walking meditatively up and down the polished floor, that reflected his tall shadow.
"Where do you suppose you are going?"
"I have no idea."
"Why do you not inquire?"
"Because you will not tell me till you choose; and I know that questions always annoy you."
"Come in. You linger at the door as if this were the den of a lion at a menagerie, instead of a room to which you have been cordially invited several times. I am not voracious, have had my luncheon. You are quite ready?"
She was slowly walking down the long room, and suddenly caught sight of something that seemed to take away her breath.
The clock on the mantle had been removed to the desk, and in its place was a large portrait neither square nor yet exactly kit-cat, but in proportion more nearly resembled the latter. In imitation of Da Vinci's celebrated picture in the Louvre, the background represented a stretch of arid rocky landscape, unrelieved by foliage, and against it rose in pose and general outline the counterpart of "La Joconde."
The dress and drapery were of black velvet, utterly bare of ornament, and out of the canvas looked a face of marvellous, yet mysteriously mournful beauty. The countenance of a comparatively young woman, whose radiant brown eyes had dwelt in some penetrale of woe, until their light was softened, saddened; whose regular features were statuesque in their solemn repose, and whose gold-tinted hair simply parted on her white round brow, fell in glinting waves down upon her polished shoulders. The mystical pale face of one who seemed alike incapable of hope or of regret, who gazed upon past, present, future, as proud, as passionless and calm as Destiny; and whose perfect hands were folded in stern fateful rest.
As Regina looked up at it she stopped, then run to the hearth, and stood with her eyes riveted to the canvas, her lips parted and quivering.
Watching her, Mr. Palma came to her side, and asked:
"Whom can it be?"
Evidently she did not hear him. Her whole heart and soul appeared centred in the picture; but as she gazed, her own eloquent face grew whiter, she drew her breath quickly, and tears rolled over her cheeks, as she lifted her arms toward the painting.
"Mother I my beautiful sad-eyed mother!"
Sobs shook her frame, and she pressed toward the mantelpiece till the skirt of her dress swept dangerously close to the fire. Mr. Palma drew her back, and said quietly:
"For an uncultivated young rustic, I must say your appreciation of fine painting is rather surprising. Few city girls would have paid such a tearful tribute of heartfelt admiration to my pretty 'Mona Lisa.'"
Without removing her fascinated eyes she asked:
"When did it come?"
"I have had it several days. I presume that you know it is a copy of Da Vinci's celebrated picture, upon which he worked four years, and which now hangs in the gallery of the Louvre at Paris?"
She merely shook her head.
"In France it is called 'La Joconde; but I prefer the softer 'Mona Lisa' for my treasure."
"Is it not mine? She must have sent it to me?"
"She? Are you dreaming? Mona Lisa has been dead three hundred years!"
"Mr. Palma, it is my mother. No other face ever looked like that, no other eyes except those in the Mater Dolorosa resemble these beautiful sad brown eyes, that rained their tears upon my head. Do you think a child ever mistook another for her own mother? Can the face I first learned to know and to love, the lovely—oh! how lovely—face that bent over my cradle ever—ever be forgotten? If I never saw her again in this world, could I fail to recognise her in heaven? My own mother!"
"Obstinate, infatuated little ignoramus! Read—and be convinced."
He opened and held before her a volume of engravings of the pictures and statues in the Louvre, and turning to the Leonardo Da Vinci's, moved his fingers slowly beneath the title.
Her eyes fell upon "La Joconde," then wandered back to the portrait over the fireplace; and through her tears broke a radiant smile.
"Yes, sir, I perfectly understand. Your engraving is of Da Vinci's painting, and of course I suppose it is very fine, though the face is not pretty; but up yonder! that is mother! My mother who kissed and cried over me, and hugged me so close to her heart. Oh! Your Da Vinci never even dreamed of, much less painted, anything half so heavenly as my darling mother's face!"
Closing the book, Mr. Palma threw it on the table, and as he glanced from the lovely countenance of the girl to that of the woman on the wall, something like a sigh heaved his broad chest.
Did the wan meek shadow of his own patient much-suffering young mother lift her melancholy image in the long silent adytum of his proud heart, over whose chill chambers ambition and selfishness had passed with ossifying touch?
Years ago, at the initial steps of his professional career, he had set before him one glittering goal, the Chief-Justiceship. In preparing for the long race that stretched ahead of him, seeing only the Judicial crown that sparkled afar off, he had laid aside his tender sensibilities, his warmest impulses of affection and generosity as so many subtle fetters, so much unprofitable luggage, so much useless weight to retard and burden him.
While his physical and mental development had brilliantly attested the efficacy of the stern regiment he systematically imposed,—his emotional nature long discarded, had grown so feeble and inane from desuetude, that its very existence had become problematical. But to-day, deeply impressed by the intensity of love which Regina could not restrain at the sight of the portrait, strange softening memories began to stir in their frozen sleep, and to hint of earlier, warmer, boyish times, even as magnolia, mahogany, and cocoa trunks stranded along icy European shores, babble of the far sweet sunny south, and the torrid seas whose restless blue pulses drove them to hyperborean realms.
"Is it indeed so striking and unmistakable a likeness? After all, the instincts of nature are stronger than the canons of art. Your mother is an exceedingly beautiful woman; but, little girl, let me tell you, that you are not in the least like her."
"I know that sad fact, and it often grieves me."
"You must certainly resemble your father, for I never saw mother and child so entirely dissimilar."
He saw the glow of embarrassment, of acute pain tinging her throat and cheeks, and wondered how much of the past had been committed to her keeping; how far she shared her mother's confidence. During the year that she had been an inmate of his house she had never referred to the mystery of her parentage, and despite his occasional efforts to become better acquainted had shrunk from his presence, and remained the same shy reserved stranger she appeared the week of her arrival.
"Is not the portrait for me? Mother wrote that she intended sending me something which she hoped I would value more than all the pretty clothes, and it must be this, her own beautiful precious face."
"Yes, it is yours; but I presume you will be satisfied to allow it to hang where it is. The light is singularly good."
"No, sir, I want it."
"Well you have it, where you can see it at any time."
"But I wish to keep it, all to myself, in my room, where it will be the last thing I see at night, the first in the morning—my sunrise."
"How unpardonably selfish you are. Would you deprive me of the pleasure of admiring a fine work of art, merely to shut it in, converting yourself into a pagan, and the portrait into an idol?"
"But, Mr. Palma, you never loved any one or anything so very dearly, that it seemed holy in your eyes; much too sacred for others to look at."
"Certainly not. I am pleased to say that is a mild stage of lunacy, with which I have as yet never been threatened. Idolatry is a phase of human weakness I have been unable to tolerate."
He saw a faint smile lurking about the perfect curves of her rosy mouth, but her eyes remained fixed on the picture.
"I should be glad to know what you find so amusing in my remark."
She shook her head, but the obstinate dimples reappeared.
"What are you smiling at?"
"At the assertion that you cannot tolerate idolatry."
"Well? Of all the men in New York, probably I am the most thoroughly an iconoclast."
"Yes, sir, of other people's gods; nevertheless, I think you worship ardently."
"Indeed! Have you recently joined the 'Microscopical Society'? I solicit the benefit of your discoveries, and shall be duly grateful if you will graciously point out the unknown fane wherein I secretly worship. Is it Beauty? Genius? Riches?"
"It is not done in secret. All the world knows that Mr. Palma imitates the example of Marcus Marcellus, and dedicates his life to two divinities."
Standing on either side of the gate, and each pressing a hand upon the slab of the mantle, the lawyer looked curiously down at the bright young face.
"You are quite fresh in foraging from historic fields,—and since I quitted the classic shade of Alma Mater I have had little leisure for Roman lore; but college memories suggest that it was to Honour and Valour that Marcellus erected the splendid double temple at the Capene Gate. I bow to your parallel, and gratefully appreciate your ingeniously delicate compliment."
He laughed sarcastically as he interpreted the protest very legible in her clear honest eyes, and waited a moment for her to disclaim the flattery. But she was silently smiling up at her mother's face.
"Does my very observant ward approve of my homage to the Roman deities?"
"Are your favourite divinities those before whom Marcellus bent his knee?"
Very steadily her large eyes, blue as the border of a clematis, were turned to meet his, and involuntarily he took his under lip between his glittering teeth.
"My testimony would not be admissible before the bar, at which I have been arraigned. Since you have explored the Holy of Holies, be so kind as to describe what you find."
"You might consider me presumptuous, possibly impertinent."
"At least I may safely promise not to express any such opinion. What is there, think you, that Erle Palma worships?"
"A statue of Ambition that stands in the vestibule of the temple of Fame."
"Olga told you that."
"Oh no, sir! Have not I lived here a year?"
His eyes sparkled, and a proud smile curled his lips.
"Do I offer sacrifices?"
"I think you would, if they were required."
"Suppose my stone god demanded my heart?"
"Ah, sir! you know you gave it to him long ago."
He laughed quite genially, and his whole face softened, warmed.
"At least let us hope my ambition is not sordid; is unstained with the dross of avarice. It is a stern god, and I shall not deny that 'Ephraim is joined to his idols! Let him alone.'"
A short silence followed, during which his thoughts wandered far from the precincts of that quiet room.
"Mr. Palma, will you please give me my picture?"
"It is yours of course, but conditionally. It must remain where it now hangs: first, because I wish it; secondly, because your mother prefers (for good reasons) that it should not be known just yet as her portrait; and if it should be removed to your bed-chamber, the members of the household would probably gossip. Remaining here, it will be called an imitation of 'Mona Lisa del Giocondo,' and none will ever suspect the truth. Pray don't straiten your lips in that grievously defiant fashion, as Perpetua doubtless did when she heard the bellowing of beasts or the clash of steel in the amphitheatre. Make this room your favourite retreat. Now that it contains your painted Penates, convert it into an atrium. Come when you may, you will never disturb me. In a long letter received this week, your mother directs that your portrait shall be painted in a certain position, and wishes you to wear the suit you have on. The carriage is ready, and I will take you at once to the artist. Put on your hat."
During the drive he was abstracted, now and then consulting a paper of memoranda, carried in the inside breast-pocket of his coat.
Once introduced into the elegant studio of Mr. Harcourt in Tenth Street, Regina found much to interest and charm her, while her guardian arranged the preliminaries, and settled the details of the picture. Then he removed the hat and cloak, and placed her in the comfortable seat already prepared.
The artist went into an adjoining room, and a moment after Hero bounded in, expressing by a succession of barks his almost frantic delight at the reunion with his mistress. Since her removal to New York, she saw him so rarely, that the pleasure was mingled with pain, and now with her arms around his neck, and her face hidden in his thick white hair, she cried softly, unable to keep back the tears.
"Come, Regina, sit up. Make Hero lie on that pile of cushions, which will enable you to rest one hand easily on his head. Crying! Mr. Harcourt paints no such weeping demoiselles. Dry your eyes, and take down your hair. Your mother wishes it flowing, as when she saw you last."
While she unbraided the thick coil, and shook out the shining folds, trying to adjust them smoothly, the lawyer stood patiently beside her; and once his soft white hand rested on her forehead, as he stroked back a rippling tress that encroached upon her temple.
The dress of pearly cashmere was cut in the style usually denominated "infant waist," and fully exposed the dazzling whiteness and dimpling roundness of the neck and shoulders; while the short puffed sleeves showed admirably the fine modelling of the arms.
Walking away to the easel, Mr. Palma looked back, and critically contemplated the effect; and he acknowledged it was the fairest picture his fastidious eyes had ever rested on.
He put one hand inside his vest, and stood regarding the girl, with mingled feelings of pride in "Erle Palma's ward," and an increasing interest in the reticent calm-eyed child, which had first dawned when he watched her asleep in the railroad car. It was no easy matter to stir his leaden sympathies, save in some selfish ramification, but once warmed and set in motion they proved a current difficult to stem.
In a low voice the artist said, as he selected some brushes from a neighbouring stand:
"How old is she? Her features have a singularly infantile delicacy and softness, but the eyes and lips seem to belong to a much older person."
"Regina, have you not entered upon your sixteenth year?"
"I believe, Mr. Palma, it is the loveliest living face I ever saw. It is so peculiar, so intensely—what shall I say?—prophet-eyed."
"Yes, I believe that is the right word. When she looks steadily at me she often reminds me of a Sibyl."
"But is this her usual, every-day expression?"
"Rather sadder than customary, I think."
He went back to the group, and, standing in front of his ward, looked gravely down in her upturned face.
"Could you contrive to appear a little less solemn?"
She forced a smile, but he made an impatient gesture.
"Oh, don't! Anything would be better than that dire conflict between the expression of your mouth, and that of your eyes. Have you any hermetically sealed pleasant thoughts hidden behind that smooth brow, that you could be prevailed upon to call up for a few moments, just long enough to cast a glimmer of sunshine over your face? I think you once indignantly denied ever indulging in the folly of possessing a sweetheart, but perhaps you have really entertained more affaires de coeur than you choose to confide to such a grim, iron guardian as yours? Possibly you may cherish cheerful memories of the kind-hearted young missionary, whose chances of hastening to heaven, per Sepoy passport, via Delhi route, seem at times to distress you? Does he ever write you?"
"His mother has written to me twice since she reached India, and once enclosed a note from him; but although she said he had written, and I hoped for a letter, none has come."
He noted the quick flutter of her lip, and the shadow that crept into her eyes.
"Then he went away with the expectation that you would correspond with him?"
"He is quite a bold, audacious young fellow, and you are a very disrespectful, imprudent, disobedient young ward, to enter into such an arrangement without my consent and permission. Suppose I forbid all communication?"
"I think, sir, you would scarcely be so unreasonable and unjust; and if you were, I should not obey you. I would appeal to my mother. Mr. Hargrove, dear good Mr. Hargrove, was my guardian when Mr. Lindsay went away, and he did not object to the promise I made concerning a correspondence."
The starry sparkle which during the last twelve months he had learned meant the signal of mutiny flashed up in her eyes.
"Take care! when iron gloves are recklessly thrown down, serious mischief sometimes ensues. My laws are rarely Draconian, until reason has been exhausted; but nature endowed me with a miserly share of patience, and I do not think it entirely politic in you to challenge me. Here is a document that has an intensely Hindustanee appearance, and is, as you see, at my mercy. Where it has been since it left Calcutta last June, I know not. That Padre Sahib penned it, I indulge no doubt. Pray sit still. So the sunshine has come to your countenance at last, and all the way from India! Verily, happiness is the best cosmetic, and hope the brightest illuminator; even more successful than Bengal lights."
He held up a letter post-marked Calcutta, and coldly watched the glow that overspread her face, as her gaze eagerly followed the motion of his hand.
"I have not touched the seal; but as your guardian, It is proper that I should be made acquainted with the contents. When you have devoured it, I presume you will yield to the promptings of respect due to my position and wishes. When I assume guardianship of any person or thing, I invariably exert all the authority, exact all the obedience, and claim all the privileges and perquisites to which the responsibility entitles me."
He placed the letter on the cushion, where Hero nestled, and turning to the artist, added:
"I leave Miss Orme in your care, Mr. Harcourt, and shall send Mr. Roscoe to remain during the sitting, and take her home. Paint her just as she is now. Good-morning."
Through the creamy lace curtains that draped the open windows, the afternoon sun shone into the library, making warm lanes of yellow light across the rich mosaic of many coloured woods that formed the polished floor. Upon one of the round tables was a silver salver, whereon stood a wine-cooler of the same material, representing Bacchus crushing ripe clusters into the receptacles, that now contained a bottle of Ruedesheim, and a crystal claret jug. In tempting proximity rose a Sevres epergne of green and gold, whose weight was upborne by a lovely figure, evidently modelled in imitation of Titian's Lavinia; and the crowning basket was heaped with purple and amber grapes, crimson-cheeked luscious peaches, and golden pears sun-flushed into carmine flecks.
Two tall glittering Venice glasses stood upon the salver, casting prismatic radiance over the silver, as the sunbeams smote their slender fluted sides, and a pair of ruby tinted finger-bowls completed the colour chord.
On one side of the table sat Mr. Palma, who had returned an hour before from Washington, and was resting comfortably in his favourite chair, with his head thrown back, and a cigar between his lips. His eyes were turned to the mantlepiece, where since the day the portrait was first suspended, ten months ago, Regina had never failed to keep a fresh dainty bouquet of fragrant flowers. This afternoon, the little vase held only apple-geranium leaves, and a pyramidal cluster of tuberoses; and her guardian had observed that when white blossoms could be bought, coloured ones were never offered in tribute.
Opposite the lawyer was his cousin protege, and occupied in peeling a juicy peach, with one of the massive silver fruit-knives.
"I have never doubted the success of the case; it was a foregone conclusion when you assumed charge of it. Certainly considering the strength of the defence, it is a brilliant triumph for you, and compensates for the toil you have spent upon it. I have never seen you labour more indefatigably."
"Yes, for forty-eight hours I did not close my eyes, and of course the result gratifies me, for the counsel for the defence was the most stubbornly contestant I have dealt with for a long time. The Government influence was immense. Where have Mrs. Palma and Olga gone?"
"To Manhattanville, I believe."
"How long since Regina left the house?"
"Only a few moments before you arrived. It seems to me singularly imprudent to allow her to wander about the city as she does."
"I offered to accompany her as escort, but she rather curtly declined my attendance."
"And in your estimation, that constitutes 'imprudence'?"
"I certainly consider it imprudent for any young girl to stroll around alone in New York on Sunday afternoon; especially one so very attractive, so conspicuously beautiful as Regina."
"During my absence has any one been kidnapped or garrotted in broad daylight?"
"I do not study the police records."
"Do you imagine that she perambulates about the sacred precincts of 'Five Points,' or the purlieus of Chatham Street?"
"I imagine nothing, sir; but I know that she frequents a distant portion of this city, where I should think young ladies of her social status would find no attraction."
"You have followed her then?" Mr. Palma raised himself and struck the ashes from his cigar.
"I have not; but others certainly have, and commented upon the fact."
"Will you oblige me with the remarks, and the name of the author?"
"No, Cousin Erle, certainly not the last. But I will tell you that a couple of young gentlemen met her on Eighth Avenue, and were so impressed by her face that they turned round and followed her; saw her finally enter one of a row of poor tenement buildings in —— Street. Soon after she came out and retraced her steps. They watched her till she entered your house, and next day one of them asked me if she were a sewing girl. No ward of mine should have such latitude."
"Not Elliott Roscoe; but I happen to be her guardian. She visits by my permission the house you so vaguely designate, and the first time she entered it I accompanied her and pointed out the location, and the line of street cars that would carry her almost to the square. At present the house is occupied by Mrs. Mason, the widow of a minister who was related to Mr. Hargrove, Regina's former guardian; and the references furnished me by the lady give satisfactory assurance that the acquaintance is unobjectionable, although the widow is evidently in very reduced circumstances. I consented some weeks ago that my ward should occasionally spend Sunday afternoon with her."
"I presume you are the best judge of the grave responsibility of your position," replied the young gentleman, stiffly.
"Certainly I think so, sir; and as you may possibly have observed, I am not particularly grateful for volunteer suggestions relative to my duty. Has it ever occurred to you that the green goggles you wear at present may accidentally lend an unhealthy tinge to your vision?"
A wave of vivid scarlet flowed to the edge of Mr. Roscoe's fair harvest-hued hair, as he answered angrily:
"You are the only person who could with impunity make such an insinuation."
"In insinuations I never indulge, and impunity I neither arrogate, nor permit in others. Keep cool, Elliott, or else change your profession. A man who cannot hold his temper in leash, and who flies emotional signals from every feature in his face, has slender chance of success in an avocation which demands that body and soul, heart and mind, abjure even secret signal service, and deal only in cipher. The youthful naivete with which you permit your countenance to reflect your sentiments, renders it quite easy for me to comprehend the nature of your feeling for my ward. For some weeks your interest has been very apparent, and while I am laying no embargo on your affections, I insist that jealousy must not jaundice your estimate of my duties, or of Regina's conduct. Moreover, Elliott, I suggest that you thoroughly reconnoitre the ground before beginning this campaign, for, my dear fellow, I tell you frankly, I believe Cupid has already declared himself sworn ally of a certain young minister, who entered, and enjoys pre-emption right over what amount of heart may have thus far been developed in the girl. In addition she is too young, not yet sixteen, and I rigidly interdict all love passages; besides her parentage is to some extent a secret; she has no fortune but her face; and you are poor in all save hope and social standing. Verbum, etc., etc."
Walking to the window, where he stood with his countenance averted, Mr. Roscoe said hesitatingly:
"I would rather my weakness had been discovered by the whole world than that you should know it; you, who never having indulged such emotions, regard them as the height of folly. I am aware that at this moment you think me an idiot."
"Not necessarily. A known weakness thoroughly conquered sometimes becomes an element of additional strength in human character. As the exercise of muscle builds up physical vigour, so the persistent exertion of will develops mental and moral power. Men who have a paramount aim in life should never hesitate in strangling all irrelevant and inferior appellants for sympathy. A comparatively briefless attorney should trample out as he would an invading worm the temptation to dream rose-coloured visions, wherein bows, arrows, and bleeding hearts are thick and plentiful as gooseberries. Love in a cottage with honeysuckle on the porch, and no provisions in the larder, belongs to the age of fables, is as dead as feudal tenure."
"That you are quite incapable of such impolitic weakness, I am well aware; for under the heel of your iron will your heart would not even struggle. But unfortunately I am an impulsive, foolish, human Roscoe, not a systematically organized, well-regulated, and unerring Palma." His cousin bowed complacently.
"Be kind enough to hand me the cigars. This is defective; will not smoke."
He leisurely lighted one, and resumed: "While on the cars to-day I read an article which contained a passage to this effect, and I offer it for your future reflection: 'That man, I think, has had a liberal education, who has been so trained in his youth, that his body is the ready servant of his will, and does with ease and pleasure all the work that as a mechanism it is capable of; whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine, with all its parts of equal strength and in smooth working order; ready like a steam-engine to be turned to their kind of work.' Elliott, young gentlemen should put their hearts in their pockets, until they fully decide before what shrine it would be most remunerative to offer them. The last time we dined at Judge Van Zandt's, certainly not more than three months ago, you were all devotion to his second daughter, Clara of the ruby lips and cedre hair."
"Clara Van Zandt, no thank you! I would not give Regina's pure face and sweet violet eyes for all the other feminine flesh in New York!"
Had his attention been fixed just then upon Mr. Palma, he might have detected the sudden flash in his black eyes, and the nervous clenching of his right hand that rested on the arm of the chair; but the younger man was absorbed by his own emotions, and very soon his cousin rose.
"In future we will not discuss this folly. At present, please recollect that my ward's face has not yet been offered in the matrimonial market; consequently your bid is premature. Those papers I spoke of must be prepared as early as possible in the morning, and submitted to me for revision. Be careful in copying the record. Have a cigar? I shall not be back before dark."
The happiest hours Regina had known during her residence in New York had been spent in the room where she now sat; a basement room with low ceiling, and faded olive-tinted walls. The furniture was limited to an old-fashioned square table of mahogany, rich with that colour which comes only from the mellowing touch of age, and polished until it reflected the goblet of white and crimson phlox, which Regina had placed in the centre; a few chairs, some swinging shelves filled with books, and a couch or lounge covered with pink and white chintz, whereon lay a pillow with a freshly ironed linen case, whose ruffled edges were crisply fluted.
Upon the whitewashed hearth were several earthen pots, filled with odorous geraniums; and over the two windows that opened on a narrow border of ground between the house wall and the street were carefully trained a solanum jasminoides white with waxen stars, and an abutilor, whose orange bells striped and veined with scarlet, swung in every breath of air that fluttered the spotless white cotton curtains, so daintily trimmed with a calico border of rose-coloured convolvulus. In the morning when the sun shone hot upon the front of the building, this room was very bright and cheerful, but its afternoon aspect was dim, cool, shadowy. A gentle breeze now floated across a bunch of claret-hued carnations growing in a wooden box on the window-sill, which was on a level with the ground outside, and brought on its waves that subtle spiciness that dwells only in the deep heart of pinks.
In an old-fashioned maplewood rocking chair sat Mrs. Mason, with her wasted and almost transparent hands resting on her open Bible. The faded face which in early years had boasted of unusual comeliness, bore traces of severe sorrows meekly borne; and the patient sweetness that sat on the lip, and smiled serenely in the mild grey eyes, invested it with that irresistible charm that occasionally renders ripe old age more attractive than flushing dimpled youth. Her hair, originally pale brown, was as snow-white as the tarlatan cap that now framed it in a crimped border; and her lustreless black dress was relieved at the neck and wrists by ruffles of the same material.
On the Bible lay her spectacles, and upon the third finger of the left hand was a gold ring, worn so thin that it was a mere glittering thread.
Near her sat Regina, playing with a large white and yellow cat that now and then sprang to catch a spray of lemon-scented geranium, which was swung teasingly just beyond the reach of her velvet paws.
"I am glad, my dear, to hear you speak so kindly of the members of your guardian's family. I have never yet seen that person who had not some redeeming trait. Many years ago, I knew Louise Neville very well. She was then the handsome happy bride of a young naval officer, who was soon after drowned in the Bay of Biscay; before the birth of their only child, Olga. At first Louise seemed heart-broken by the loss of her husband, but not more than two years afterward she married Mr. Godwin Palma, who was reputed very wealthy. I have not seen her since Olga was a child, but have heard that her second husband was an exceedingly stem, exacting man; treating her with far less tenderness than she received from poor Leo Neville, who was certainly very fond of her. Mr. Godwin Palma died suddenly one day, while riding down in his carriage to his office on Wall Street, but he had made a will only a few weeks previous, in which he bequeathed all his fortune—except a small annuity to Louise—to his son Erle, whose own mother had possessed a handsome estate. Louise contested the will, but the court sustained it; and I have heard that Mr. Erle Palma has always treated her with marked kindness and respect, and that he provides liberally for her and Olga. Louise is a proud, ambitious woman, fond of pomp and splendour; but in those tastes she was educated, and I always liked her, valued her kindness of heart, and strict integrity of purpose."
"You do not know my guardian?"
"I never met him till the day he brought you first to see me, and I was surprised to find him so comparatively young a man, for he is rapidly building up a very enviable reputation in his profession. He has been quite generous in his treatment of some relatives, who were at one time much reduced. His father's sister, Julia Palma, married a dissipated young physician named Roscoe, and your guardian has almost entirely educated one of the boys; sent him to college, and then took him into his law-office, besides assisting in the maintenance of Mrs. Roscoe, who died about three years ago. Regina, I had a letter from Elise Lindsay since you were here. She sends kindest messages of love to you, and says you must not allow new friends to supplant old ones. She mentioned also that the climate of India did not seem very desirable for Douglass, who has been quite sick more than once since his settlement in Rohilcund. I am glad that Elise has gone to Douglass, for his father died of consumption, and I always feared he might have inherited the tendency, though his constitution seems tolerably good. After Peyton's death, she had nothing to keep her from her noble boy. God grant that India may never prove as fatal to all her earthly hopes as it has been to mine."
A spasm of pain made her gentle patient face quiver, and Regina remembered that Mrs. Mason's only daughter had married a gentleman connected with the English Board of Missions, and with her husband and babe perished in the Sepoy butchery.
Dropping the fragrant geranium sprig that so tormented the cat, the girl's fingers interlaced tightly, and she asked almost under her breath:
"Is Mr. Lindsay's health seriously impaired?"
"I hope not Elise merely said he had had two severe attacks of pneumonia, and it rendered her anxious. No man of his age ranks higher in the ministry than Douglass Lindsay, and as an Oriental scholar I am told he has few equals in this country. His death would be a great loss to his church, and——"
"Oh, do not speak of it! How can you? It would kill his mother," cried Regina, passionately, clasping her hands across her eyes, as if to shut out some horrible vision.
"Let us pray God to mercifully avert such a heavy blow. But, my dear, keep this in mind: with terrible bereavement comes the strength to bear it. The strength of endurance,—a strength born only in the darkest hours of a soul's anguish; and at last when affliction has done its worst, and all earthly hope is dead, patience with tender grace and gentle healing mutely sits down in hope's vacant place. To-day I found a passage in a new book that impressed me as beautiful, strong, and true. Would you like to hear it?"
"If it will teach me patience, please let me hear it."
"Give me the book lying on the lounge."
She opened it, put on her spectacles, and read:
"There is the peace of surrendered, as well as of fulfilled, hopes,—the peace, not of satisfied, but of extinguished longings,—the peace, not of the happy love and the secure fireside, but of unmurmuring and accepted loneliness,—the peace, not of the heart which lives in joyful serenity afar from trouble and from strife, but of the heart whose conflicts are over, and whose hopes are buried,—the peace of the passionless as well as the peace of the happy;—not the peace which brooded over Eden, but that which crowned Gethsemane.'"
"My dear Regina, only religion brings this blessed calm; this is indeed that promised 'Peace that passeth all understanding,' and therefore we would all do well to heed the words of Isaiah: 'Their strength is to sit still.'"
Looking reverently up at her pale, worn placid face, the girl thought it might have been considered a psalm of renunciation. Almost sorrowfully she answered:
"I begin to see that there is far more shadow than sunshine in this world; the night is longer than the day."
"You are too young to realize such solemn things, and should endeavour to catch all the dew of life that glistens within your reach; for the withering heat of the noon will come soon enough to even the most favoured. An erroneous impression has too long prevailed, that religious fervour, and a cheerful, hopeful, happy spirit are incompatible; that devoutness manifests itself in a lugubrious or at least solemn visage, and that a joyous mirthful temperament is closely allied to 'the world, the flesh, and the devil.' A more mischievous fallacy never found favour. Innocent happiness in our hearts is acceptable worship to our God, who has given us the language of joy, as He gave to birds the power of song. In the universal canticle which nature sends up to its Creator, shall humanity, the noblest of the marvellous mechanism, alone be silent? The innocent joyousness of a pure heart is better than incense swung in the temples of the Lord."
"Mrs. Mason, I wish to consult you on a subject that has given me some anxiety. Would you approve of my attending the theatre and opera? I have never yet gone, because I think neither Mr. Hargrove nor Mr. Lindsay would have advised me to do so; and I am perplexed about the matter, for Mr. Palma says that next winter he shall insist on my seeing the best plays and operas. What ought I to do?"
"If you were a member of any church, which expressly prohibited such amusements, I should say, do not infringe the rules which you voluntarily promised to respect and obey; but as yet you have taken no ecclesiastical vows. Habitual attendance upon such scenes as you refer to is very apt, I think, to vitiate the healthful tone of one's thoughts and feelings, but an occasional visit would probably injure none but very weak minds. Your guardian is, I daresay, a prudent judicious man, and would be careful in selecting plays that could offend neither morality nor delicacy. There are many things upon the stage which are sinful, vicious, and vulgar, but there are hundreds of books quite as bad and dangerous. As we choose only the best volumes to read, so be sure to select only pure plays and operas. 'Lear' would teach you the awful results of filial disobedience; 'Merchant of Venice,' the sin of avarice; 'Julius Caesar' that of unsanctified ambition. There are threads of wisdom, patience, charity, and heroism which might be gathered from the dramatic spindle, and woven advantageously into the garment of our daily lives and thoughts. There is a marvellous pathos, fervour, sanctity, in the 'Casta Diva' of 'Norma' that appeals to my soul, as scarcely any other piece of music ever has done; and I really should be glad to hear it played on the organ every Sunday morning. Why? Because I recognize in it the spirit of prayer from a tortured erring human soul invoking celestial aid, and to me it is no longer a pagan Druid song, trilled by the popular Prima-Donna at the Academy of Music, but a hymn to the Heavenly powers, as consecrated as an Ave Maria, or as Rossini's 'Inflammatus.' Are we lower than the bees, who wisely discriminate between pure honey and poisonous sweets? Touching these things, Lowell has nobly set us an example of
'Pleading for whatsoever touches life With upward impulse: be He nowhere else, God is in all that liberates and lifts, In all that humbles, sweetens, and consoles,'
I think that in the matters you mention, you may safely defer to your guardian's wishes, bearing always in mind this fact, that he professes no religious faith; and praying God's Holy Spirit to guide you, and keep your heart faithful and pure."
Regina longed to ask something more explicit concerning the stage, but the thought of her mother peremptorily forbade a discussion that seemed to imply censure of her profession.
"There is the bell for service. Are you not going to church this afternoon?"
"No, dear, I am not very well; and besides, I promised to stay at home, and see a poor old friend, who has no time to visit during the week, and is just now in great affliction. You are not afraid to go alone?"
"Not afraid, Mrs. Mason, still I wish you could go with me. When you answer dear Mrs. Lindsay's letter ask her not to forget me, and tell her I am trying to do right in all things, as far as I can see my way. Good-bye, Mrs. Mason."
She bent her head, so that the faded placid lips could kiss her cheek, and went out into the quiet street.
Instead of turning homeward, she hastened in an opposite direction, toward a small brick church whose bell was ringing, and whose afternoon service she had several times attended with Mrs. Mason. Walking more slowly as she approached the building, she had not yet reached it, when steps which she had heard behind her for several minutes, paused at her side.
"Regina, is this the way home?"
"Good-evening, Mr. Palma. I am going to church."
Although he had been absent a week he did not even offer his hand, and it never occurred to her to remind him of the omission.
"Are you in the habit of coming here alone? If so, your visits to this neighbourhood cease."
"Mrs. Mason has always accompanied me until this after noon, and as she could not leave home I came alone."
"I prefer you should not attend strange churches without a companion, and now I will see you safely home."
She looked up, saw a few persons ascending the broad steps, and her soul rose in rebellion;
"What possible harm can overtake me in God's house? Don't try to stand between me and my duty."
"Do you not consider obedience to my wishes part of your duty?"
"Sometimes, sir; but not when it conflicts with my conscience."
"What is conscience?"
"The feeling God put into my soul when He gave it to me, to teach me right from wrong."
"Is it? And if you were a Calmuck or a Mongol, it would teach you to reverence Shigemooni as the highest god; and bid you fall down and worship Dalai-lama, praying him to give you a pill of consecrated dough."
"You mean that conscience is merely education? Even if it should be so—which is not true, I think—the Bible says 'the heathen are a law unto themselves,' and God knows they worship the best they can find until revelation shows them their error. But I do not live in Lassa, and my going to church here, is not akin to Lamaism. Nothing will happen to me, and I assure you, sir, I will come home as soon as the service is over."
"Is your eternal salvation dependent on church going?"
"I don't know, I rather think not; because if it were impossible for me to attend service the Lord would know it, and He only requires what He makes possible. But at least you must admit it cannot harm me; and I enjoy coming to this church more than any I have seen since I left our own dear old one at V——."
"It is a small, very plain affair, in no respect comparable to St. Thomas's Church, where Mrs. Palma takes you every Sunday morning. Where you not there to-day?"
"Yes, sir; but——"
"But—what? Speak out." "Perhaps I ought not to say so,—and it may be partly my fault, but indeed there seems to me more real religion in this plain little chapel, at least it does me more good to come here."
"For instance, it incites and helps you defy your guardian on the street!"
Until now she had resolutely kept her face set churchward, but as he uttered the last words in a severer tone than he often used in conversation with her, she turned quite around and retraced her steps.
Walking beside her, he could only see the long soft lashes of her downcast eyes, and the firm compression of her mouth.
"Little girl, are you very angry?"
She looked up quickly into his brilliant smiling eyes, and her cheek dimpled.
"Mr. Palma, I wanted so very much to go, and I do feel disappointed; but not angry."
"Then why do you not ask me to go with you?"
"You go there? Is it possible that you would ever do such a thing? Really would you go, sir?"
"Please Mr. Palma, go with me."
He raised his hat, bowed, and said:
"Oh, thank you!"
They turned and walked back in silence until they reached the door, and he asked:
"Are the pews free?"
"Yes, sir; but Mrs. Mason and I generally sit yonder by that column."
"Very well, you must pilot me."
She turned into the side aisle next the windows, and they seated themselves in a pew just beyond the projection of the choir gallery.
The edifice was small, but the altar and pulpit were handsome, and though the windows were unstained, the light was mellowed by buff inside blinds. The seats were by no means filled, and the congregation was composed of people whose appearance denoted that many belonged to the labouring class, and none to the Brahmin caste of millionnaires, though all were neatly and genteely apparelled.
As the silver-haired pastor entered the pulpit the organ began to throb in a low prelude, and four gentlemen bore shallow waiters through the assemblage, to receive the contribution for the "Destitute." Mr. Palma saw his companion take something from her glove, and when the waiter reached them and she put in her small alms, which he judged amounted to twenty-five cents, he slipped his fingers in his vest pocket and dropped a bill on the plate.
"Is all that huge sum going to India to the missionaries?" he gravely whispered.
"It is to feed the poor of this church."
As the organ swelled fuller and louder, Mr. Palma saw Regina start, and listen intently; then the choir begin to sing, and she turned very pale and shut her eyes. He could discover nothing remarkable in the music,—"Oh that I had wings!" but as it progressed the girl's emotion increased, became almost uncontrollable, and through the closed lids the tears forced themselves rapidly, while she trembled visibly, and seemed trying to swallow her sobs.
He moved closer to her, and the blue eyes opened and looked at him with such pleading deprecating misery in their beautiful depths, that he was touched, and involuntarily laid his ungloved hand on her little bare fingers. Instantly they closed around it, twining like soft tendrils about his, and unconsciously his clasp tightened.
All through the singing her tears fell unchecked, sliding over her cheeks and upon her white dress, and when the congregation knelt in prayer, Mr. Palma only leaned his head on the back of the pew in front, and watched the figure bowed on her knees, close beside him, crying silently, with her face in her hands.
When the prayer ended and the minister announced the hymn, she seemed to have recovered her composure, and finding the page, offered her pretty gilt hymn-book to her guardian. He accepted it mechanically, and during the reading of the Scriptures that soon followed he slowly turned over the leaves until he reached the title-page. On the fly-leaf that fluttered over was written: "Regina Orme. With the love and prayers of Douglass Lindsay."
Closing the book, he laid it in his lap, leaned back and folded his arms over his chest.
The preacher read the sixty-third Psalm, and from it selected his text: "My soul followeth hard after Thee."
Although certainly not a modern Chrysostom, he was an earnest, faithful, and enlightened man, full of persuasive fervour; and to the brief but interesting discourse he delivered—a discourse occasionally sprinkled with felicitous metaphors and rounded with several eloquent passages—Mr. Palma appeared to listen quite attentively. Once a half smile moved his mouth, as he wondered what his associates at the "Century" would think, if they could look in upon him there; otherwise his deportment was most gravely decorous. As he heard the monotonous rise and fall of the minister's tone, the words soon ceased to bear any meaning to ears that gradually caught other cadences long hushed; the voice of memory calling him from afar off, back to the dewy days of his early boyhood, when walking by his mother's side he had gone to church, and held her book as he now held Regina's. Since then, how many changes time had wrought! How holy seemed that distant, dim, church-going season!
At long intervals, and upon especially august occasions he had now and then attended service in the elegant church where his pew-rent was regularly paid; but not until to-day had he been attacked by the swarming reminiscences of his childhood, all eagerly babbling of the long-forgotten things once learned—
"At that best academe, a mother's knee."
From the benignant countenance of the earnest preacher his keen cold eyes began to wander, and after awhile rested upon the pale tender face at his side.
Except that the lashes were heavy with moisture that no longer overflowed in drops, there was no trace of the shower that had fallen; for hers was one of those rare countenances, no more disfigured by weeping, than the pictured Mater Dolorosa by the tear on her cheek.
To-day in the subdued sadness that filled her heart, while she pondered the depressing news from India, her face seemed etherealized, singularly sublimated; and as he watched the expression of child-like innocence, the delicate tracery of nose and brows, the transparent purity of the complexion, and the unfathomable purplish blue of the eyes uplifted to the pulpit, a strange thrill never experienced before stirred his cold stony heart, and quickened the beat of his quiet, slow steady pulse.
He had smiled and bowed before lovely women of various and bewitching types of beauty, had his abstract speculative ideal of feminine perfection, and had been feted, flattered, coaxed, baited, and welcomed to many shrines, whereon grace, wit, and wealth had lavished their choicest charms; but the carefully watched and well-regulated valvular machine he was pleased to designate his heart, had never as yet experienced a warmer sensation than that of mere critical admiration for classic contours, symmetrical figures, or voluptuous Paul Veronese colouring.
Once only, early in his professional career, he had coolly, dispassionately, sordidly, and with a hand as firm as Astraea's own, held the matrimonial scales, and weighed the influence and preferment that he could command by a politic and brilliant marriage, against the advantages of freedom, and the glory of unassisted success and advancement. For the lady herself—a bright, mirthful, pretty brunette, who in contrast with his frigid nature seemed a gaudy tropical bird fluttering around a stolid arctic auk—he had not even a shadow of affection; and looked quite beyond the graceful lay figure draped with his name to the lofty judicial eminence where her distinguished father held sway, and could rapidly elevate him.
No softer emotion than ambition had suggested the thought, and after a patient balancing of the opposing weights of selfishness, he had utterly thrown aside the thought of entangling himself in any Hymeneal snares.
Probably few men have attained his age without having breathed vows of love into some rosy ear; but his colossal professional pride and vanity had absolutely absorbed him—left him neither room nor time for other and softer sentiments.
The numerous attempts to entrap his dim chilly affections had somewhat lowered his estimate of female delicacy; and possessing the flattering assurance that no fair hand was held too high for his grasp, should he choose to claim it, he had grown rather arrogant. Of coquetry he was entirely innocent; it seemed too contemptible even for mere sport, and he scorned the thought of feeding his vanity by feminine sacrifices.
Too sternly proud to owe success to any but his own will and resolution, he had never proposed or even desired to marry any woman; and was generally regarded as a hopelessly icy bachelor, whom all welcomed with smiles, but despaired of captivating.
After forty years' sole undisputed mastery of his heart, something suddenly and unexpectedly wakened there, groped about, would not "down" at his bidding; and a new sensation made itself felt.
A brief sentence of Elliott Roscoe had like Moses' rod smitten the rock of his affections, and forthwith gushed a flood of riotous feelings never known before. At the thought of any man claiming Regina's perfect dainty lips and peerless imperial eyes a hot wave of indignant protest rolled over his whole being. That she should belong to another now seemed monstrous, sacrilegious, and all the strength of his own nature rose in mutiny.
Never until to-day had he analyzed his sentiments toward his ward, never had he deemed it possible for his wisely disciplined heart to bow before anything of flesh; but now, as he sat looking at the sweet face, he saw that rebellion desperate and uncompromising had broken out in his rigidly governed, long downtrodden nature, and with the prompt vigilance habitual to him he calmly counted the cost of crushing the insurrection.
Shading his countenance with his fingers he deliberately studied her features, even the modelling of the waxen hands folded together on her knee; and then and there, weighing all his achievements, all his pictured future, so dazzling with coveted ermine, he honestly confessed to his own soul that the universe held for him nothing so precious as that fair pure young girl.
How superlatively presumptuous appeared Elliott Roscoe's avowed admiration and preference! How dared that humble impecunious divinity student now sojourning in the "Land of the Veda," lift his eyes toward this priceless treasure, which Erle Palma wanted to call his own!
Just then Regina took her hymn-book to search for the closing verses designated by the minister, and as she opened the volume the inscription on the fly-leaf showed conspicuously. The lawyer set his teeth, and the fingers of his right hand opened, then closed hard and tight, a gesture in which he often unconsciously indulged when resolving on some future step.
The benediction was pronounced, and the congregation dispersed.
Walking silently beside her guardian, until they had proceeded some distance from the church, Regina wondered how she should interpret the grave preoccupied expression of his countenance. Had he been sadly bored, and did he repent the sacrifice made to gratify her caprice?
"Mr. Palma, I am very much obliged to you for kindly consenting to accompany me. Of course I know this church and service must seem dull and plain in comparison with that to which you are accustomed, but I hope you liked Mr. Kelsey's sermon?"
"In some respects this afternoon has been a revelation, and I am sure I shall never forget the occasion."
"Oh! I am so glad you enjoyed going," she said, with evident relief.
"I did not intend to convey that impression; you infer more than my words warrant. I was thinking of other and quite irrelevant matters, and to be frank, really did not listen to the sermon. Do you attend church from a conviction that penance conduces to a sanitary improvement of the soul?"
"Penance? I do not exactly understand you, sir."
"I certainly have never seen you weep so bitterly; not even when I ruthlessly tore you from the kind sheltering arms of Mother Aloysius and Sister Angela. You appeared quite heartbroken. Was it contrition for your manifold transgressions?"
"Oh no, sir!"
"You are resolved not to appoint me your confessor?"
"Mr. Palma——" her voice faltered.
"Well, go on."
"I was very much distressed; it made my heart ache."
"So I perceived. But was it the bare church, or the minister, or my ward's sensitive conscience?"
After a moment she lifted her misty eyes to meet his, and answered tremulously:
"It was the singing of 'Oh that I had wings!' I have not heard it since that dreadful time I sang it last, and you can't possibly understand my feelings."
"Certainly not, unless you deign to explain the circumstances."
"Dear Mr. Hargrove asked me to go in and play on the organ in the library, and sing that sacred song for him. I sang it, and played for awhile on the organ, and then went back to him on the verandah, and he had died—alone, in his chair, while I was singing 'Oh that I had wings!' To-day, when the choir began it, everything came back so vividly to me. The dear happy home at the parsonage, the supper I had set for my dear Mr. Hargrove, the flowers in the garden, the smell of the carnations, the sound of the ring-doves in the vines, the moonlight shining so softly on his kind face and white hair—and Oh!——"
They walked the length of two squares before either spoke again.
"I was not aware that you performed on the organ."
"Mrs. Lindsay gave me lessons, and I used the cabinet organ."
"Do you prefer it to the piano?"
"For sacred songs, I do."
"If we had one in the library, do you suppose you would ever sing for me?"
"If you really desired it, perhaps I would try; but of course I know very well that you care nothing for my music; and our dear old hymns and chants would only tire and annoy you."
"To whom does 'our' refer?"
"My dear Mr. Hargrove and Mrs. Lindsay and her son. We so often sang quartettes at home in the long, delicious, peaceful summer evenings, before the awful affliction came and separated us."
The lamps were lighted, and night closed in, with silvery constellations overhead, before Mr. Palma and his companion were near their destination. As they crossed a street, he said, abruptly breaking a long silence:
"Take my arm."
Never before had such a courtesy been tendered, and she looked up in unfeigned surprise.
He was so tall, so stately, that the proposition seemed to her preposterous.
"Can't you reach it?"
He took her hand, drew it beneath, and placed the fingers on his arm.
"Of late you have grown so rapidly, your head is almost on a level with my shoulder; and you are quite tall enough now to accept my escort."
When they were within a square of home, Mr. Palma said very gravely:
"This afternoon I indulged one of your whims: now will you recipricate, and gratify a caprice of your guardian?"
"Have you caprices? I think not but I will oblige you if I can do so."
"Thank you. In future you must never walk to see Mrs. Mason, always go in the carriage; and I am unwilling that you should be out as late as this, unless Mrs. Palma accompanies you, or I am with you. You need not ask my reasons; it is sufficient that I wish it, and it is my caprice to be obeyed without questions. One thing more: I do not at all like your name—never did. Latinity is not one of my predilections, and Regina, Reginae, Reginam, wearily remind me of the classic-slough of declensions and conjugations of my Livy, Sallust, Tacitus. In my mind you have always been associated with the white lilies that you held at the convent the first time I saw you, that you held to your heart while asleep on the cars; and hereafter when only you and I are present, I intend to indulge the caprice of calling my ward—Lily."
"Yonder they come! They have just left the carriage, and as usual she is escorted by her body-guard; those grim old fogies, who watch her like a pair of grey owls. Now, Doctor, you must contrive an introduction."
General Rene Laurance raised his gold eyeglass, and looked curiously toward a group of three persons who were walking amid the ruins of Pozzuoli.
His companion Dr. Plymley, who was examining an inscription, turned around and looked in the direction indicated.
"Are you sure? I am quite near-sighted."
"Very sure, for no other figure could be mistaken for hers. By all the gods ever worshipped here, she is the loveliest woman I ever saw, but as coy as a maid of fifteen. The fact that she secludes herself so rigidly only stimulates curiosity, and I have sworn a solemn oath to make her acquaintance; for it is something novel in my experience to have my overtures rejected, my courtesies ignored."
"Come this way, General. This encounter must appear purely accidental, for Madame Orme is very peculiar, very suspicious; and if she imagines we planned this excursion to meet her, or left Naples with the intention of joining her party, the chances are that I as well as you would be snubbed. In her desire to avoid society and personal attention, one might suppose her an escaped abbess from some convent, instead of a popular actress. It was with much difficulty that I prevailed on her to receive my son and wife one afternoon; as she remarked that her object in coming here was to secure health, not acquaintances. In treating her professionally, I was called upon to prescribe for what in her case is more than ordinary sleeplessness, is veritably pervigilium; and when she refused opiates, I asked if there were not some trouble weighing upon her mind which prevented her from sleeping. Her reply was singular: 'Many years have passed since I became a widow and was forced to leave my only child in America, and the power of sound healthy sleep has deserted me.' Even in Naples her beauty attracts attention wherever she is seen."
"Certainly I am not a tyro in these matters, and have probably had as much experience as any other man of my years and well improved opportunities, and you can form an estimate of my appreciation of her charms, when I tell you I have followed her since the night I first saw her on the stage at Milan. I see your wife beckoning us to join her."
Although sixty-five years old, General Laurance carried himself as erectly as the son he left in Paris, and his proud bearing and handsome face seemed to contradict the record of years that had passed so lightly over him. A profusion of silver threads streaked the black locks that scorned all artificial colouring, and his moustache and beard were quite grizzled; but as he stood tracing triangles on the sand with the point of his light cane, and pushed back the hat from his heated brow, no one unacquainted with his history would have deemed him more than fifty: a man of distinguished appearance, commanding stature, with rather haughty, martial mien, healthful ruddy complexion, and sparkling blue eyes keen and incisive.
From boyhood self had been his openly and devoutly worshipped god, and upon its altars conscience had long ago been securely bound and silenced. Pride of family, love of pomp, power, and luxury, and an inordinate personal vanity were the predominating characteristics of a man, who indulged his inclinations, no matter how devious the paths into which they strayed, nor how mercilessly obstacles must be tramped down, in order to facilitate the accomplishment of his purposes. Naturally neither cruel nor vindictive, he had gradually grown pitiless in all that conduced to self-aggrandizement or self-indulgence; incapable of a generosity that involved even slight sacrifice, a polished handsome epicurean, an experienced man of the world, putting aside all scruples in the attainment of his selfish aims.
From wholly politic motives, and in order to extend his estates and increase his revenue, he had married early in life, and his affection, never bestowed upon his wife, had centred in their only child Cuthbert. When death removed the unloved mother, freedom was joyfully welcomed, and the memory of his neglected bride rarely visited the heart, which was not invulnerable to grace and beauty.
The consummation of an alliance between his son and Abbie Ames, the banker's daughter, had cost him much manoeuvring and tedious diplomacy, for like his father, Cuthbert was fastidious in his tastes, and an ardent devotee to female beauty; but when finally accomplished, General Laurance considered his paternal obligations fully discharged, and henceforth roamed from city to city, sipping such enjoyment as money, aristocratic status, urbane manners, and a heritage of well-preserved good looks enabled him to taste at will.
Six months before, he had first seen Madame Orme as "Deborah," in Mosenthal's popular drama, and, charmed by her face and figure, had attempted to make her acquaintance. But his floral offerings had been rejected, his jewels and notes returned, his presentation refused, his visits interdicted; and as usually occurs in natures like his, opposition to his wishes intensified them, cold indifference and denial only deepened and strengthened his determination to crush all barriers. His pride was wounded, his vanity sorely piqued, and to compel her acknowledgment of his power, her submission to his sway, became for the while his special aim, his paramount purpose. Hence he loitered at Naples, seeking occasions, lying in wait for an opportunity to open a campaign that promised him new triumphs.
Dr. Plymley was an English physician travelling with an invalid wife and consumptive son, and having been consulted by Mrs. Orme on several occasions in Milan, had at length been prevailed upon by General Laurance to arrange an apparently casual introduction.
It was a cloudless spring day, and leaving Mr. and Mrs. Waul to read a package of American papers, Mrs. Orme walked away toward the lonely outlines of the Serapeon.
The delicious balmy atmosphere, the interest of the objects that lined the drive from Naples, and the exercise of wandering from point to point had brought a delicate glow to her cheeks, and a brighter carmine to her lips; and beneath the white chip hat, with its wreath of clustering pink convolvulus lying on her golden hair, the lovely face seemed almost unsurpassed in its witchery.
She wore a sea-green dress of some soft fabric that floated in the wind as she moved, and over her shoulders was wound a white fleecy mantle fastened at the throat by a costly green cameo, which also secured a spray of lemon flowers that lavished their fragrance on the bright warm air. Closing her parasol, she walked down to the ruined Temple, and approached the wonderful cipollino columns that bear such mysterious attestation of the mutations of land and sea, of time and human religions. Since the days of Agrippina and Julia, had a fairer prouder face shone under the hoary marble shafts, and mirrored itself in the marvellous mosaic floor, than that which now looked calmly down on the placid water flowing so silently over the costly pavements, where sovereigns once reverently trod?
In imagination she beheld the vast throng of worshippers, who two thousand years ago had filled the magnificent court, where the sun was now shining unimpeded; and above the low musical babble of wavelets breaking upon the chiselled marbles, rose the hum of the generations sleeping to-day in the columbaria, and the chant of the priests before the statue of Serapis, which sacrilegious hands had borne away from his ancient throne. Were the blue caverns of the Mediterranean not deep enough to entomb these colossal relics of that dim vast Past, whose feebly ebbing tide still drifts so mournfully, so solemnly, so mysteriously upon our listening souls? Did compassionate Neptune, tenderly guarding the ruins of his own desecrated fane, once resonant with votive paeans now echoing only sea-born murmurs, refuse sepulture to Serapis, and again and again return to the golden light of land the sculptured friezes, that could find permanent rest neither upon sea not shore?
To-day the lonely woman, standing amid crumbling cornices and architraves, wondered whether the sunken pavement of the Serapeon were a melancholy symbol of her own blighted youth, never utterly lost to view, often overwhelmed by surging waves of bitterness, hate, and despair, but now and then lifted by memory to the light, and found as fresh and glowing as in the sacred bygone? To-day buried beneath the tide of sorrow, to-morrow shining clear and imperishable?
Gazing out across the sapphire sea that mirrored a cloudless sapphire sky, Mrs. Orme's beautiful solemn face seemed almost a part of the classic surroundings, a statue of Fate shaken from its ancient niche; and the cameo Sappho on her breast was not more faultlessly cut and polished than the features that rose above it.
A shadow fell aslant the glassy water through which was visible the glint of the submerged pavement, and turning her head, she saw the familiar countenance of her quondam physician.
"A glorious day, Dr. Plymley?"
"Glorious indeed, Madame, for a dinner at Baiae. I hope you are feeling quite well, and bright as this delicious sunshine? Mrs. Orme, will you allow me the favour of presenting my friend General Laurance, who requests the honour of an introduction?"
She had been unaware of the presence of his companion, who was concealed from view, and as he stepped forward and took off his hat, she drew herself up, and at last they were face to face.
How her brown eyes widened, lightened, and what a sudden whiteness fell upon her features, as if June roses had been smitten with snow! Holding with both hands the frail fluted ivory handle of her parasol, it snapped, and the carved leopard that constituted the head fell with a ringing sound upon one of the marble blocks, thence into the sluggish water beneath; but her eyes had not moved from his,—seemed to hold them, as with some magnetic spell. A radiant smile parted her pale lips, and she said in her wonderfully sweet, rich, liquid tones which sank into people's ears and hearts, as some mellow old wine creeps through the grey cells of the brain, bringing lotos dreams: "Is the gentleman before me General Rene Laurance of America?"
"I am, Madame; and supremely happy in the accident which enables me to make an acquaintance so long and earnestly desired. Surely the ruins amidst which we meet must be those, not of the Serapeon, but of some antique shrine of Good Fortune, and I vow a libation worthy of the boon received."
With that unwavering gaze still upon his dark blue eyes, she drew off her glove and held out her fair hand, smiling the while, as Circe doubtless did before her.
"I am sincerely glad to meet General Laurance, of whom I heard the American minister at Paris speak in glowing terms of commendation. I believe I Also met a son of General Laurance in Paris? Certainly he resembles you most strikingly."
As he received into his own the pretty pearly hand, and bowed low over it, he felt agreeably surprised by the cordiality of a reception which appeared utterly inconsistent with her stern contemptuous rejection of his previous attempts to form her acquaintance; and he could not quite reconcile the beaming smile on her lip, and the sparkling radiance in her eyes, with the pallor which he saw settle swiftly upon her face when his name was first pronounced.
"Ah! My son Cuthbert? Handsome young dog, and like his father, finds beauty the most powerful magnet. Where did you meet him?"
"Once only, when he was introduced by our minister, who deputized him to deliver to me some custom-house regulations.
"Did you meet Mrs. Laurance?"
"Your wife, sir?"
Annoyance instantaneously clouded his countenance, and Dr. Plymley gnawed his lower lip to hide a smile.
"My son's wife. Cuthbert and I are the only survivors of my own immediate family."
"If Madame had not so rigidly adhered to her recluse habits, she could scarcely have failed to learn from his brilliant campaigns in gay society that the General is unfettered by matrimonial bonds, and almost as irresistible and popular as his naughty model D'Orsay."
"Madame, Plymley is a traitor, jealously stabbing my spotless reputation. I deny the indictment, and appeal to your heavenly charity, praying you to believe that I plead guilty only to the possession of a heart tenderly vulnerable to the shafts of grace and beauty."
The earnestness of his tone and manner was unmistakable, and beneath the bold admiration of his fine eyes, the carmine came swiftly back to her blanched cheek.
"Beau monde and its fashionable foibles constitute a sealed volume to me. My world is apart from that in which General Laurance wins myrtle crowns, and wears them so royally."
"When genius like Madame's monopolizes the bay, we less gifted mortals must even twine myrtle leaves, or else humbly bow, bare of chaplets. But may I ask why you so sternly taboo that social world which you are so pre-eminently fitted to grace and adorn? When your worshippers are wellnigh frenzied with delight, watching you beyond the footlights, you cruelly withdraw behind the impenetrable curtain of seclusion; and only at rare intervals allow us tantalizing glimpses of you, seated in mocking inaccessibility between those two most abominable ancient griffons, whose claws and beaks are ever ferociously prominent. When some desperate deluded adorer rashly hires a band of Neapolitan experts to stab, and bury that grim pair of jailers in the broad deep grave out there, toward Procida, the crime of murder will be upon Madame's fair head."
"And if I answer that that fine world you love so well is to me but as a grey stone quarry wherein I daily toil, solely for food and raiment for my child and myself, what then?"
"Then verily if that be possible, Pygmalion's cold beauty were no longer a fable; and I should turn sculptor. Do you not find that here in Parthenope you rapidly drift into the classic tide that strands you on Paganism?"
"Has it borne you one inch away from the gods of your life-long worship?"
As she spoke, she bent slightly forward, and searched his bright eyes, as if therein floated his soul.
"Indeed I can answer reverently, with my band upon my heart, Italy has given me a new worship, a goddess I never knew before. My divinity——"
"Belongs, sir, to the Dii Involuti! Fortunate provision of fate, which leaves us at least liberty to deify, you perhaps family pride, Venus, or even avaricious Pluto; I possibly ambition or revenge. We all have our veiled gods, shrouded close from curious gaze; 'the heart knoweth his own bitterness, and the stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy.'"
She had interrupted him with an imperious wave of her hand, and spoke through closed teeth, like one tossing down a gage of battle; but the brilliant smile still lighted her splendid eyes, and showed the curves of her temptingly beautiful mouth.
"Mrs. Orme, my wife and Percy are waiting for me at the amphitheatre, and we have an engagement to dine at Baiae. Can I persuade you to join our party? I promise you a delightful visit to the old home of Rome's proudest patricians in her palmiest days; and a dinner eaten in accordance with General Laurance's suggestion on the site of the temple of Venus, or if you prefer, upon that of Diana. Will you not contribute the charm of your presence to the pleasure of our excursion? Remember I am your physician, and this morning prescribe Baiae air."
"You are very kind, Doctor, but I devote to-day to Avernus, Cumae, and the infernal gods. Next week I shall bask at Baiae. Gentlemen, I bid you good-day, and a pleasant hour over your Falernian."
She turned once more to the mysterious solemn face of that wonderful legendary blue bay, and the light died out of her countenance, as in a room where the lamps are unexpectedly extinguished. She started visibly, when a voice close beside her asked:
"Permit me the pleasure of seeing you to your carriage."
"I am not going just yet. General Laurance should not detain the Doctor's party."
"They have a carriage. I am on horseback, and can easily overtake them; but if I dared, would beg the privilege of accompanying you, instead of drinking sour wine, and smoking poor cigars among the ivy-wreathed ruins that await me at Baiae Ah, may I hope? Be generous, banish me not. May I attend you to-day?
"No, sir. Go pay your devoir to friendship and courtesy. I have faithful guardians in the two coming yonder to meet me."
She pointed to the heads of Mr. and Mrs. Waul just visible over the mass of ruins that intervened, and lifting her handkerchief, waved it twice.
"You have established a system of signal service with those antique ogres, griffons? Really they resemble crouching cougars, ready to spring upon the unwary who dare penetrate to the sacred precincts that enclose you. Why do you always travel with that grim body-guard? Surely they are not relatives?"
"They are faithful old friends who followed me across the Atlantic, who are invaluable, and shield me from impertinent annoyances, to which all women of my profession are more or less subjected. The world to which you belong sometimes seem disposed to forget that beneath and behind the paint and powder, false hair and fine tragic airs and costumes they pay to strangle time for them at San Carlo, or Teatro de' Fiorentini there breathes a genuine human thing; a creature with a true, pure, womanly heart beating under the velvet, gauze, and tinsel, and with blood that now and then boils under unprovoked and dastardly insult. If I were cross-eyed, or had been afflicted with small-pox, or were otherwise disfigured, I should not require Mr. and Mrs. Waul; but Madame Orme, the lonely widow deprived by death of a father's or brother's watchful protection, finds her humble companions a valuable barrier against presumption and insolence. For instance, when strangers, pleased with my carefully practised jeu de theatre, send fulsome notes and costly bijouterie to my lodgings, praying in return a lock of my hair or a photograph, my griffons, as you facetiously term them, rarely even consult me, but generally send back the jewels by the bearer, and twist the billets-doux into tapers to light Mr. Waul's pipe. Sometimes I see them; often I am saved the trouble of knowing anything about the impertinence."
Her voice was sweet and mellow as a Phrygian flute sounding softly on moonlight nights through acacia and oleander groves, but the scorn burning in her eyes was intolerable, and before it the old man seemed to shrink, while a purplish flush swept across his proud face.
"Mrs. Orme is an anomaly among lovely women, and especially among popular tragediennes, and as I am suffering the consequences of that unexpected fact, may I venture, in pleading for pardon, to remind her of that grand prayer: 'Be it my will that my mercy overpower my justice.' Will she not nobly forgive errors committed in ignorance of the peculiar sensitiveness of her nature, the mimosa delicacy of her admirable character?"
Not until this moment had the likeness between father and son shown itself so conspicuously, and in the handsome features and insinuating, beguiling velvet voice she found sickening resemblances that made her heart surge, until she seemed suffocating. Hastily she loosened the ribbons of her hat that were tied beneath her chin.
"Is General Laurance pleading abstractly for forgiveness for his vain and presumptuous sex?"
"Solely for my own audacious impertinence, which, had I known you, would never have been perpetrated. My rejected emeralds accuse me. Pardon me, and I will immediately donate them in expiatory offering to some Foundling Asylum, Hospital, or other public charity."
"If I condone past offences, it must be upon condition that they are never repeated, for leniency is not one of my characteristics. Hitherto we have been strangers; you are from America the land of my adoption, and have been presented to me as a gentleman, as the friend of my physician. Henceforth consider that your acquaintance with me dates from to-day."
She suffered him to take her hand, and bow low over it, breathing, volubly his thanks for her goodness, his protestations of profound repentance, and undying gratitude; and all the while she shut her eyes as if to hide some approaching horror,—and the blood in her views seemed to freeze at his touch, gathered like icicles around her aching heart, turning her gradually to stone.
Taking his offered arm, they walked back toward the spot where she had desired her companions to await her return, and as he attempted to analyze the strange perplexing expression on her chiselled white face, he said:
"I trust this delicious climate has fully restored your health?"
"Thank you. I am as well as I hope to be, until I can go home to America, and be once more with my baby."
"It is difficult to realize that you are a mother. How old is this darling, who steals so many of your thoughts?"
"Oh, quite a large girl now! able to write me long delightful letters; still in memory and imagination she remains my baby, for I have not seen her for nearly seven years."
"Indeed I you must have married when a mere child?"
"Yes, unfortunately I did, and lost my husband, became a destitute widow when I was scarcely older than my own daughter now is. Mr. Waul, this is your countryman, General Laurance; and doubtless you have mutual acquaintances in the United States."
They proceeded to the carriage, and as he assisted her to enter it, General Laurance asked:
"Will you grant me the privilege of accompanying you next week to Baiae?"
"I cannot promise that."
"Then allow me to call upon you to-morrow."
"To-morrow will be the day for my exercises in Italian recitation and declamation. I am desirous of perfecting myself in the delicate inflections of this sweet intoxicating language, which is as deliciously soft as its native skies, and golden as its Capri vintage. I long to electrify these fervid enthusiastic yet critical Neapolitans with one of their own favourite impassioned Italian dramas."
She had taken off her hat which pressed heavily upon her throbbing brow, and as the sun shone full on the coil of glittering hair, with here and there a golden tress rippling low on her snowy neck and ear, her ripe loveliness seized the man's senses with irresistible witchery; and the thought of her reappearance as a public idol, of her exhibition of her wonderful beauty to the critical gaze of all Naples, suddenly filled him with jealous horror and genuine pain. As if utterly weary and indifferent, she leaned back, nestling her head against the cushions of the carriage; and looking eagerly, almost hungrily at her, General Laurance silently registered a vow, that the world should soon know her no more as the Queen of Tragedy, that ere long the only kingdom over which she reigned should be restricted to the confines of his own heart and life.
Pale as marble she coolly met the undisguised ardent admiration in his gaze, and bending forward he asked pleadingly:
"Not to-morrow? Then next day, Mrs. Orme?"
"Perhaps so, if I chance to be at home; which is by no means certain. Naples is a sorceress and draws me hither and thither at will. General Laurance, I wish you a pleasant ride to Baiae, and must bid you good-bye."
She inclined her head, smiled proudly, and closed her eyes; and, watching her as the carriage rolled away, he wondered if mere fatigue had brought that ghastly pallor to the face he knew he was beginning to love so madly.