"Shall we not return to Naples? You look weary, and unhappy," said Mr. Waul, who did not like the expression of the hopeless, fixed blanched lips.
"No, no! We go to Avernus. That is the mouth of Hell, you know, and to Hecate and all the infernal gods I dedicate this fateful day, and those that will follow. It is only the storm-beaten worthless wreck of a life; let it drift—on—on, down! Had I ten times more to lose, I would not shrink back now; I would offer all—all as an oblation to Nemesis."
"The gods have made us mighty certainly—That we can bear such things, and yet not die."
"Regina, will you touch the bell for Hattie, that she may come and carry away all this breakfast, which I have not touched, and the bare sight of which surfeits me? From the amount supplied, one might imagine me a modern Polyphemus, or, abjuring the classics, a second old Mrs. Philipone, who positively drank four cups of tea at the last 'Kettledrum.' How fervently she should pray for continued peace with China, and low tariff on Pekoe? I scarcely know which is the greater hardship, to abstain from food when very hungry, or to impose upon one's digestive apparatus when it piteously protests, asking for 'rest, only rest.'"
It was twelve o'clock on a bright, cold day in December, but Olga was still in bed; and as she raised herself, crushing the pillows under her shoulder for support, Regina, sewing beside her, thought she had never seen her look so handsome.
The abundant ruddy hair tossed about in inextricable confusion, curled and twined, utterly regardless of established style, making a bright warm frame for the hazel eyes that seemed unusually keen and sparkling, and the smooth fair cheeks bore a rich scarlet tinge, rather remarkable from the fact that their owner had danced until three o'clock that morning.
"Instead of impairing your complexion, late hours seem to increase its brilliancy."
"Regina, never dogmatize; it is a rash and unphilosophic habit that leads you to ignore secondary causes. I have a fine colour to-day, ergo the 'German' is superior to any of the patent chemical cosmetics? No such thing. I am tired enough in body to look just like what I feel, that traditional Witch of Endor; but a stroke of wonderful good fortune has so elated my spirits, that despite the fatigue of outraged muscles and persecuted nerves, my exultant pride and delight paint my cheeks in becoming tints. How puzzled you look! You pretty, sober, solemn, demure blue-eyed Annunciation lily, is there such a thing among flowers? If I tripped in the metaphor, recollect that I am no adept in floriculture, only know which blossoms look best on a velvet bonnet or a chip hat, and which dainty leaves and petals laid upon my Lucretia locks make me most resemble Hebe. Are you consumed by curiosity?"
"Not quite; still I should like to know what good fortune has rendered you so happy?"
"Wait until Hattie is beyond hearing. Come, take away these dishes, and be sure to eat every morsel of that omelette, for I would not willingly mortify Octave's vanity. When you have regaled yourself with it, show him the empty dish, tell him it was delicious, and that I send thanks. Hattie, say to mamma I shall not be able to go out to-day."
"Miss Regina, I was told to tell you that you must dress for the rehearsal, as Mrs. Palma will take you in the carriage."
"Very well. I shall be ready, if go I must."
"Bravo! How gracefully you break to harness! But when these Palmas hold the bit, it would be idle to plunge, kick, or attempt to run. They are for rebellious humanity, what Rarey was for unruly horseflesh. Once no fiery colt of Ukraine blood more stubbornly refused the bridle than I did; but Erle Palma smiled and took the reins, and behold the metamorphosis! Did he command your attendance at this 'Cantata'?"
"Not exactly; but he said he would be displeased if I failed to comply with Mrs. Brompton's request, because she was an old friend; and moreover that Professor Hurtsel had said they really required my voice for the principal solo."
"Did it occur to you to threaten to break down entirely, burst into tears, and disgrace things generally, if forced to sing before such an audience? Pride is the only lever that will move him the billionth fraction of an inch; and he would never risk the possibility of being publicly mortified by his ward's failure. He dreads humiliation of any kind, far more than cholera or Asiatic plague, or than even the eternal loss of that infinitesimal microscopic bit of flint, which he is pleased in facetious moments to call his soul."
"Of course I could not threaten him; but I told him the distressing truth, that I am very much afraid I shall fail if compelled to attempt a solo in public, for I know the audience at Mrs. Brompton's will be critical, and I feel extremely timid."
"And he dared you—under penalty of his everlasting wrath—to break down? Forbade you at your peril, to allow your frightened heart to beat the long-roll, or the tattoo?"
"No, though very positive, he was kind, and urged me to exert my will; reminding me that the effort was in behalf of destitute orphans, and that the charitable object should stimulate me."
"Charity! Madame Roland incautiously blundered in her grand apostrophe, hastily picked up the wrong word to fling at the heads of her brutal tormentors. Had she lived in this year of grace, she would certainly have said: 'Oh, Charity! how much hypocrisy is practised in thy name!' How many grim and ghastly farces are enacted in thy honour! Oh, Charity! heavenly maid! what solemn shameful shams are masked beneath thy celestial garments? Of late this fashionable amusement called 'Charity' has risen to the dignity of a fine art; and old-fashioned Benevolence that did its holy work silently and slyly in a corner, forbidding left hand to eavesdrop, or gossip with right hand, would never recognize its gaudy, noisy, bustling modern sister. Understand, it is not peculiar to our own great city,—is a rank growth that flourishes all over America, possibly elsewhere. At certain seasons, when it is positively wicked to eat chicken salad, porter-house steak, and boned turkey, and when the thought of attending the usual round of parties gives good people nightmare, and sinful folks yet in the bonds of iniquity a prospective claim to the pleasant and enticing style of future amusements which Orcagna painted at Pisa, then Charity rushes to the rescue of ennuied society, and mercifully bids it give Calico Balls for a Foundling Hospital, or The Musicale for the benefit of a Magdalen Home, or a Cantata and Refreshments to build a Sailors' Bethel, or help to clothe and feed the destitute. A few ladies dash around in open carriages and sell tickets, and somebody's daughters make ample capital for future investments, as Charity Angels, by riding, dancing, singing, and eating in becoming piquant costumes, for the 'benefit of the afflicted poor.'"
"Oh, Olga! how unjustly severe you are! How exceedingly uncharitable! How can you think so meanly of the people with whom you associate intimately?"
"I assure you I am not maligning 'our set,' only refer to a universal tendency of this advancing age. I merely strip the outside rind, and look at the kernel, and therefore I 'see the better, my dear,' horrified little rustic Red Ridinghood! Now, you are quite in earnest, and you trudge along carrying your alms to this poor old Grandmother Charity; but before long you will have your eyes opened roughly, and learn as I did that the dear pitiful grandmother is utterly dead and gone; and the fangs and claws of the wolf will show you which way your cake and honey went. A most voracious wolf, this same Public Charity, and blessed with the digestion of an ostrich. But go you to the Cantata, and sing your best, and if you happen to fall at the feet of pretty little Cecile Brompton, you will hear in the distance a subdued growl; the first note of the lupine fantasia that inevitably awaits you. Oh! I wonder if ever this green earth knew a time when hypocrisy and cant did not prowl even among the young lambs, pasturing in innocence upon the 'thousand hills' of God? It seems to me that cant cropped out in the first pair that ever were born, and Cain has left an immense family. Cant everywhere, in science and religion; in churches and in courts; cant among lawyers, doctors, preachers; cant around the hearth; cant even around the hearse. It is the carnival of cant, this age of ours, and heartily as I despise it, I too have been duly noosed and collared, and taught the buttery dialect, and I am meekly willing to confess myself 'born thrall' of cant."
Regina smiled and shook her head, and tossing her large strong white hands restlessly over her pillow, Olga continued:
"Indeed, I am desperately in earnest, and it is a melancholy truth that Longfellow tells us: 'Things are not what they seem.' You appear disinclined to believe that I am one of those 'whited sepulchres,' outwardly fair and comely, but filled with unsavoury dust and ugly grinning skulls? Life is a huge sham, and we are all masked puppets, jumping grotesquely, just as the strongest hands pull the wires. Regina, I have gone to and fro upon the earth long enough to learn that the most acceptable present is never labelled advice; nevertheless, I would fain warn your unsophisticated young soul against some of the pitfalls into which I floundered, and got sadly bruised. Never openly defy or oppose your apparent destiny, so long as it is in the soft hands of that willow wand—your present guardian. Strategy is better than fierce assault, bloodless cunning than a gory pitched battle; Cambyses' cats took Pelusium more successfully than the entire Persian army could have done, and the head dresses Hannibal arranged for his oxen, delivered him from the clutches of Fabius and the legions. In my ignorance of polite and prudent tactics, I dashed into the conflict, yelled, clawed (metaphorically, you understand), and fought like the Austrians at Wagram; but of course came out always miserably beaten, with trailing banners and many gaping wounds. Regina, you might just as well stand below the Palisades, and fire at them with cartridges of boiled rice, as make open fight with Erle Palma. Be wise and assume the appearance of submission, no matter how stubbornly you are resolved not to give up. Don't you know that Cilician geese outwit even the eagles? In passing over Taurus, the geese always carry stones in their mouths, and thus by bridling their gabbling tongues they safely cross the mountain infested with eagles, without being discovered by their foes. I commend to you the strategy of silence."
"Do not counsel me to be insincere and deceitful. I consider it dishonourable and contemptible."
"Why will you persist in using words that have been out of style as long as huge hoop-skirts, coal-scuttle bonnets, and long-tailed frock-coats? Once, I know, ugly things and naughty ways were called outright by their proper, exact names; but you should not forget that the world is improving, and nous avons change tout cela!
'We have that sort of courtesy about us, We would not flatly call a fool a fool.'
I daresay some benighted denizens of the remote rural districts might be found, who still say 'tadpole,' whereas we know only that embryonic batrachians exist: and it is just possible that in the extreme western wilds a poor girl might rashly state that being sleepy she intended 'going to bed,' which you must admit could be an everlasting stigma and disgrace here, where all refined people merely 'retire;' leaving the curious world to conjecture whither,—into the cabinet of a diplomatist, the confession box of a cathedral, the cell of an anchorite, or to that very essential and comfortable piece of household furniture which at this instant I fully appreciate, and which the Romans kept in their cubiculum. Even in my childhood, when I was soaped and rubbed and rinsed by my nurse, the place where the daily ablution was performed was frankly called a bath-rub in a bathroom; but now creme de la creme know only 'lavatory.' Just so, in the march of culture and reform, such vulgarly nude phrases as 'deceitful' have been taken forcibly to a popular tailor, and when they are let loose on society again you never dream that you meet anything but becomingly dressed 'policy;' and fashionable 'diplomacy' has hunted 'insincerity'—that other horrid remnant of old-fogyism—as far away from civilization as are the lava beds of the Modocs. If ghosts have risible faculties, how Machiavelli must laugh, watching us from the Elysian Fields! Sometimes silence is power; try it."
"But is seems to me the line of conduct you advise is cowardly, and that, I think, I could never be."
"It is purely from ignorance that you fail to appreciate the valuable social organon I want to teach you. Of course you have heard your guardian quote Emerson? He is a favourite author with some who frequent the classic halls of the 'Century;' but perhaps you do not know that he has investigated 'Courage,' and thrown new light upon that ancient and rare attribute of noble souls? Now, my dear, in dealing with Erle Palma, if you desire to trim the lion's claws, and crimp his mane, adopt the courage of silence."
"Have you found it successful?"
"Unfortunately I did not study Emerson early in life, else I night have been saved many conflicts, and much useless bloodshed. Now I begin to comprehend Tennyson's admonition, 'Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers,' and I generously offer to economize your school fees, and give you the benefit of my dearly bought experience."
"Thank you, Olga; but I would rather hear about the wonderful piece of good fortune, of which you promised to tell me."
"Ah, I had almost forgotten. Wonderful, glorious good fortune! The price of Circassian skins has gone up in the matrimonial slave-market."
Regina laid aside her sewing, opened her eyes wider, and looked perplexed.
"You have not lived in moral Constantinople long enough to comprehend the terms of traffic? You look like a stupid fawn, the first time the baying of the hounds scares it from its quiet sleep on dewy moss and woodland violets! Oh you fair pretty, innocent young thing! Why does not some friendly hand strangle you right now, before the pack open on your trial? You ought to be sewed up in white silk, and laid away safely under marble, before the world soils and spoils you."
For a moment a mist gathered in the bright eyes that rested so compassionately, so affectionately on the girlish countenance beside her, and then Olga continued in a lighter and more mocking tone:
"Can you keep a secret?"
"I think so. I will try."
"Well, then, prepare to envy me. Until yesterday I was poor Olga Neville, with no heritage but my slender share of good looks, and my ample dower of sound pink and white, strawberry and cream flesh, symmetrically spread over a healthy osseous structure. Perhaps you do not know (yet it would be remarkable if some gossip has not told you) that poor mamma was sadly cheated in her second marriage; and after bargaining with Mammon never collected her pay, and was finally cut off with a limited annuity which ceases at her death. My own poor father left nothing of this world's goods, consequently I am unprovided for. We have always been generously and kindly cared for, well fed, and handsomely clothed by Mr. Erle Palma, who, justice constrains me to say, in all that pertains to our physical well-being, has been almost lavish to both of us. But for some years I have lost favour in his eyes, have lived here as it were on sufferance, and my bread of late has not been any sweeter than the ordinary batch of charity loaves. Yesterday I was a pensioner on his bounty, but the god of this world's riches—i.e., Plutus—in consideration no doubt of my long and faithful worship at his altars, has suddenly had compassion upon me, and to-day I am prospectively one of the richest women in New York. Now do you wonder that Circassia is so jubilant?"
"Do you mean that some one has died, and left you a fortune?"
"Oh no! you idiotic cherub! No such heavenly blessing as that. Plutus is even shrewder than a Wall Street broker, and has a sharp eye to his own profits. I mean that at last, after many vexatious and grievous failures, I am promised a most eligible alliance, the highest market price. Mr. Silas Congreve has offered me his real estate, his stocks of various kinds, his villa at Newport, and his fine yacht. Congratulate me."
"He gives them to you? Adopts and makes you his heiress? How very good and kind of him, and I am so glad to hear it."
"He offers to many me, you stupid dove!"
"Not that Mr. Congreve who dined here last week, and who is so deaf?"
"That same veritable Midas. You must know he is not deaf from age; oh no! Scarlet fever when he was teething."
"You do not intend to marry him?"
"Why not? Do you suppose I have gone crazy, and lost the power of computing rents and dividends? Are people ever so utterly mad as that? If I were capable of hesitating a moment, I should deserve a strait-jacket for the remainder of my darkened days. Why, I am reliably informed that his property is unencumbered, and worth at least two millions three hundred thousand dollars! I think even dear mamma, who mother-like overrates my charms, never in her rosiest visions dreamed I could command such a high price. The slave trade is looking up once more; threatens to grow brisk, in spite of Congressional prohibition."
She sat quite erect, with her hands clasped across the back of her head; a crimson spot burning on each cheek, and an unnatural lustre in her laughing eyes.
"Olga, do you love him?"
"Now I am sure you are the identical white pigeon that Noah let out of the ark; for nothing less antediluvian could ask such obsolete, such utterly dead and buried questions! I love dearly and sincerely rich laces, old wines, fine glass, heavy silver, blooded horses fast and fiery, large solitaires, rare camei; and all these comfortable nice little things I shall truly honour, and tenaciously cling to, 'until death us do part,' and as Mrs. Silas Congreve—hush! Here comes mamma."
"Olga, why are you not up and dressed? You accepted the invitation to 'lunch' with Mrs. St. Clare, and what excuse can I possibly frame?"
"I have implicit faith in your ingenuity, and give you carte blanche in the manufacture of an apology."
"And my conscience, Olga?"
"Oh dear! Has it waked up again? I thought you had chloroformed it, as you did the last spell of toothache a year ago. I hope it is not a severe attack this time?"
She took her mother's hand, and kissed it lightly.
"My daughter, are you really sick?"
"Very, mamma; such fits of palpitation."
"I never saw you look better. I shall tell no stories for you to Mrs. St. Clare."
"Cruel mamma! when you know how my tender maidenly sensibilities are just now lacerated by the signal success of such patient manoeuvring! Tell Mrs. St. Clare that like the man in the Bible who could not attend the supper, because he had married a wife, I stayed at home to ponder my brilliant prospects as Madame Silas——"
"Olga!" exclaimed Mrs. Palma, with a warning gesture toward Regina.
"Do you think I could hide my bliss from her? She knows the honour proffered me, and has promised to keep the secret."
"Until the gentleman had received a positive and final acceptance, I should imagine such confidence premature."
Mrs. Palma spoke sternly, and withdrew her fingers from her daughter's clasp.
"As if there were even a ghost of a doubt as to the final acceptance! As if I dared play this heavy fish an instant, with such a frail line? Ah, mamma! don't tease me by such tactics! I am but an insignificant mouse, and you and Mr. Congreve are such a grim pair of cats, that I should never venture the faintest squeak. Don't roll me under your velvet paws, and pat me playfully, trying to arouse false hopes of escape, when all the while you are resolved to devour me presently. Don't! I am a wiry mouse, proud and sensitive, and some mice, it is said, will not permit insult added to injury."
"Regina, are you ready? I shall take you to Mrs. Brompton's, and it is quite time to start."
Mrs. Palma looked impatiently at Regina, and as the latter rose to get her hat and wrappings from her own room, she saw the mother lean over the pillows, saw also that the white arms of the girl were quickly thrown up around her neck.
Soon after, she heard the front door-bell ring, and when she started down the steps, Olga called from her room:
"Come in. Mamma has to answer a note before she leaves home. When you go down, please ask Terry to give a half-bottle of that white wine with the bronze seal to Octave, and tell him to make and send up to me as soon as possible a wine-chocolate. Mrs. Tarrant's long-promised grand affair comes off to-night, and I must build myself up for the occasion."
"Are you feverish, Olga? Your cheeks are such a brilliant scarlet?"
"Only the fever of delicious excitement, which all young ladies of my sentimental temperament are expected to indulge, when assured that the perilous voyage of portionless maidenhood is blissfully ended in the comfortable harbour of affluent matrimony. Does that feel like ordinary fever?"
She put out her large well-formed hand, and, clasping it between her own, Regina exclaimed:
"How very cold! You are ill, or worse still, you are unhappy. Your heart is not in this marriage."
"My heart? It is only an automatic contrivance for propelling the blood through my system, and so long as it keeps me in becoming colour, I have no right to complain. The theory of hearts entering into connubial contracts, is as effete as Stahl's Phlogiston! One of the wisest and wittiest of living authors, recognizing the drift of the age, offers to supply a great public need, by—'A new proposition and suited to the tendencies of modern civilization, namely, to establish a universal Matrimonial Agency, as well ordered as the Bourse of Paris, and the London Stock Exchange. What is more useful and justifiable than a Bourse for affairs? Is not marriage an affair? Is anything else considered in it but the proper proportions? Are not these proportions values capable of rise and fall, of valuation and tariff? People declaim against marriage brokers. What else, I pray you, are the good friends, the near relations who take tie field, except obliging, sometimes official brokers?' Now, Regina, 'M. Graindorge,' who makes this proposal to the Parisian world, has lived long in America, and doubtless received his inspiration in the United States. Hearts? We modern belles compress our hearts, as the Chinese do their feet, until they become numb and dwarfed; and some even roast theirs before the fires of Moloch until they resemble human pate de foie gras. There are a great many valuable truths taught us in the ancient myths, and for rugged unvarnished wisdom commend me to the Scandinavian. Did you ever read the account of Iduna's captivity in the castle of Thiassi in Joetunheim?"
"I never did, and what is more, I never will, if it teaches people to think as harshly of the world as you seem to do."
"You sweet, simple blue-eyed dunce! How shamefully your guardian neglects your education! Never even heard of the Ellewomen? Why, they compose the most brilliant society all over the world. Iduna was a silly creature, with a large warm heart, and loved her husband devotedly; and in order to cure her of this arrant absurd folly she was carried away and shut up with the Ellewomen, very fair creatures always smiling sweetly. The more bitterly the foolish young wife wept and implored their pity, the more pleasantly they smiled at her; and when she examined them closely she found that despite their beauty they were quite hollow, were made with no hearts at all, and could compassionate no one. I have an abiding faith that they had Borgia hair, hazel eyes, red lips, and sloping white shoulders just like mine. They have peopled the world; a large colony settled in this country, we are nearly all Ellewomen now, and you are an ignorant, wretched little Iduna, minus the apples, and must get rid of your heart at once, in order to smile constantly as we do."
"Olga, don't libel yourself and society so unmercifully. Don't marry Mr. Congreve. Think how horrible it must be to spend all your life with a man whom you do not love!"
"I assure you, that will form no part either of his programme, or of mine. I shall have my 'societies' (charitable, of course), my daily drives, my 'Luncheons,' and box the opera with occasional supper at Delmonico's; and Mr. Congreve will have his Yacht affairs, and Wall Street 'corners' to look after, and will of course spend the majority of his evenings at that fascinating 'Century,' which really is the only thing that your quartz-souled guardian cherishes any affection for."
"But Mr. Palma is not married, and when you are Mr. Congreve's wife, of course instead of going to his club, your husband will expect to remain at home with you."
"That might be possible in the old-fashioned parsonage where you imbibed so many queer outlandish doctrines; but I do assure you, we have quite outgrown such an intolerable orthodox system of penance. The less married people see of each other these days, the fewer scalps dangle around the hearthstone. The customs of the matrimonial world have changed since that distant time when sacrificing to Juno as the Goddess of Wedlock, the gall was so carefully extracted from the victim and thrown behind the altar; implying that in married life all anger and bitterness should be exterminated. If Tacitus could revisit this much-civilized world of the nineteenth century, I wonder if he could find a nation who would tempt him to repeat what he once wrote concerning the sanctity of marriage among the Germans? 'There vice is not laughed at, and corruption is not called the fashion.' Mr. Silas Congreve is much too enlightened to prefer his slippers at home to his place at the club. As for sitting up as a rival in the 'Century,' female vanity never soared to so sublime a height of folly! and if Erle Palma were married forty times, his darling club would still hold the first place in his flinty affections. It must be a most marvellously attractive place, that bewitching 'Century,' to magnetize so completely the iron of his nature. I have my suspicion that one reason why the husbands cling so fondly to its beloved precincts is because it corresponds in some respects to the wonderful 'Peacestead' of the AEsir, whose strongest law was that 'no angry blow should be struck, and no spiteful word spoken within its limits.' Hence it is a tempting retreat from the cyclones and typhoons that sometimes sing among a man's Lares and Penates. In view of my own gilded matrimonial future, I reverently salute my ally—the 'Century!' There! Mamma calls you. Go trill like a canary at the Cantata, and waste no sighs on the smiling Ellewoman you leave behind you. Tell Octave to hurry my wine-chocolate."
She drew the girl to her, looked at her with sparkling merry eyes, and kissed her softly on each cheek.
When Regina reached the door and looked back, she saw that Olga had thrown herself face downward on the bed, and the hands were clasped above the tanged mass of ruddy hair.
During the drive, Mrs. Palma was unusually cheerful, almost loquacious, and her companion attributed the agreeable change in her generally reticent manner to maternal pride and pleasure in the contemplated alliance of her only child.
No reference was made to the subject, and when they reached Mrs. Brompton's, Regina was not grieved to learn that the rehearsal had been postponed until he following day, in consequence of the sickness of Professor Hurtzsel.
"Then Farley must take you home, after I get out at Mrs. St. Clare's. The carriage can return for me about four o'clock."
"That will not be necessary. I wish to go and see Mrs. Mason, who has been out of town since July, and I can very easily walk. She has changed her lodgings."
"Have you consulted Erle on the subject?"
"No, ma'am; but I do not think he would object."
"At least it would be best to obtain his permission, for only last week when you stayed so long at that floral establishment, he said he should forbid your going out alone. Wait till to-morrow."
"To-morrow I shall have no time, and all my studies are over for to-day. Why should he care? He allows me to go to Mrs. Mason's in the carriage."
"It is entirely your own affair, but my advice is to consult him. At this hour he is probably in his office; drive down and see him, and if he consents, then go. Here is Mrs. St. Clare's. Farley, take Miss Orme to Mr. Palma's office, and be sure you are back here at half-past three. Don't keep me waiting."
Never before had Regina gone to the law-office, and to-day she very reluctantly followed the unpalatable advice; but the urgency of Mrs. Palma's manner constrained obedience. When the carriage stopped, she went in, feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed, and secretly hoping that her guardian was absent. At a large desk near the door sat a young man intently copying some papers, and as the visitor entered, he rose and stared. "Is Mr. Palma here?"
"He will be in a few moments. Take a seat."
Hoping to escape before his return, she said hastily: "I have not time to wait. Can you give me a pencil and piece of paper? I wish to leave a note."
There were two desks in the apartment, but glancing at their dusty appearance, and then at the dainty pearl-tinted gloves of the stranger, the young man answered hesitatingly:
"You will find writing materials on the desk in the next room. The door is not locked."
She hurried in, sat down before the desk where a number of papers were loosely scattered, and took up a pen lying near a handsome bronze inkstand.
How should she commence? She had never written him a line, and felt perplexed. While debating whether she should say Dear Mr. Palma or My Dear Guardian, her eyes wandered half unconsciously about the apartment, until they were arrested by a large portrait hanging over the mantlepiece. It was a copy of the picture her mother had directed to be painted by Mr. Harcourt, and which had been sent to Europe.
This copy differed in some respects from the original portrait; Hero had been entirely omitted, and in the hands of the painted girl were clusters of beautiful snowy lilies.
Surprised and gratified that he deemed her portrait worthy of a place in his office, she hastily wrote on a sheet of legal cap:
"DEAR MR. PALMA,—Having no engagements until to-morrow, I wish to spend the afternoon with Mrs. Mason, who has removed to No. 900, East —— Street, but Mrs. Palma advised me to ask your permission. Hoping that you will not object to my making the visit, without having waited to see you, I am,
"Very respectfully Your ward, REGINA ORME."
Leaving it open on the desk, where he could not fail to see it, she glanced once more at the portrait, and hurried away, fearful of being intercepted ere she reached the carriage.
"Drive to No. 900, East —— Street."
The carriage had not turned the neighbouring corner, when Mr. Palma leisurely approached his office door, with his thoughts intent upon an important will case, which was creating much interest and discussion among the members of the Bar, and which in an appeal form he had that day consented to argue before the Supreme Court. As he entered the front room, the clerk looked up.
"Stuart, has Elliott brought back the papers?"
"Not yet, sir. There was a young lady here a moment ago. Did you meet her?"
"No. What was her business?"
"She did not say. Asked for you, and would not wait."
"Did not give any. Think she left a note on your desk. She was the loveliest creature I ever looked at."
"My desk? Hereafter in my absence allow no one to enter my private office. I did not consider it necessary to caution you, or inform you that my desk is not public property, but designed for my exclusive service. In future when I am out keep that door locked. Step around to Fitzgerald's and get that volume of Reports he borrowed last week." The young man coloured, picked up his hat, and disappeared; and the lawyer walked into his sanctum and approached his desk.
Seating himself in the large revolving chair, his eyes fell instantly upon the long sheet, with the few lines traced in a delicate feminine hand.
Over his cold face swept a marvellous change, strangely softening its outlines and expression. He examined the writing curiously, taking off his glasses and holding the paper close to his eyes; and he detected the alteration in the "Dear," which had evidently been commenced as "My."
Laying it open before him, he took the pen, wrote "my" before the "dear," and drawing a line through the "Regina Orme," substituted above it "Lily."
In her haste she had left on the desk one glove, and her small ivory porte-monnaie which her mother had sent from Rome.
He took up the little pearl-grey kid, redolent of Lubin's "violet," and spread out the almost childishly small fingers on his own broad palm, which suddenly closed over it like a vice; then with a half smile of strange tenderness, in which all the stony sternness of lips and chin seemed steeped and melted, he drew the glove softly, caressingly over his bronzed cheek.
Pressing the spring of the purse, it opened and showed him two small gold dollars, and a five dollar bill. In another compartment, wrapped in tissue paper, was a small bunch of pressed violets, tied with a bit of blue sewing silk. Upon the inside of the paper was written:
"Gathered at Agra. April 8th, 18—."
He knew Mr. Lindsay's handwriting, and his teeth closed firmly as he refolded the paper, and put the purse and glove in the inside breast pocket of his coat. Placing the note in an envelope, he addressed it to "Erle Palma," and locked it up in a private drawer.
Raising his brilliant eyes to the lovely girlish face on the wall, he said slowly, sternly:
"My Lily, and she shall be broken, and withered, and laid to rest in Greenwood, before any other man's hand touches hers. My Lily, housed sacredly in my bosom; blooming only in my heart."
Dismissing the carriage at the corner of the square, near which she expected to find Mrs. Mason located in more comfortable lodging, Regina walked on until she found the building of which she was in quest, and rang the bell. It was situated in a row of plain, unpretending but neat tenement houses, kept thoroughly repaired; and the general appearance of the neighbourhood indicated that the tenants though doubtless poor were probably genteel, and had formerly been in more affluent circumstances.
The door was opened by a girl apparently half grown, who stated that Mrs. Mason had rented the basement rooms, and that her: visitors were admitted through the lower entrance, as a different set of lodgers had the next floor. She offered to show Regina the way, and knocking at the basement door, the girl suddenly remembered that she had seen Mrs. Mason visiting at the house directly opposite.
"Wait, miss, and I will run across and call her."
While standing at the lower door, and partly screened by the flight of steps leading to the rooms above, Regina saw a figure advancing rapidly along the sidewalk, a tall figure whose graceful carriage was unmistakable; and as the person ran up the steps of the next house in the row, and impatiently pulled the bell, Regina stepped forward and looked up.
A gust of wind just then blew aside the thick brown veil that concealed the countenance, and showed for an instant only the strongly marked yet handsome profile of Olga Neville.
The door opened; her low inaudible question was answered in the affirmative, and Olga was entering, when the skirt of her dress was held by a projecting nail, and in disengaging it, she caught a glimpse of the astonished countenance beneath the steps. She paused, leaned over the balustrade, threw up both hands with a warning gesture, then laid her finger on her lips, and hurried in, closing the door behind her.
"The lady says Mrs. Mason was there, but left her about a quarter of an hour ago. What name shall I give when she comes home?"
"Tell her Regina Orme called, and was very sorry she missed seeing her. Say I will try to come again on Sunday afternoon, if the weather is good. Who lives in the next house?"
"A family named Eggleston. I hear they sculp and paint for a living. Good-day, miss. I won't forget to tell the old lady you called."
Walking leisurely homeward, Regina felt sorely perplexed in trying to reconcile Olga's plea of indisposition and her lingering in bed, with this sudden appearance in that distant quarter of the city, and her evident desire to conceal her face, and to secure silence with regard to the casual meeting. Was Mrs. Palma acquainted with her daughter's movements, or was the girl's nervous excitement of the morning indirectly connected with some mystery, of which the mother did not even dream? That some adroitly hidden sorrow was the secret spring of Olga's bitterness toward Mr. Palma, and the unfailing source of her unjust and cynical railings against that society into which she plunged with such inconsistent recklessness, Regina had long suspected; and her conjecture was strengthened by the stony imperturbability with which her guardian received the sarcasms often aimed at him. Whatever the solution, delicacy forbade all attempts to lift the veil of concealment, and resolving to banish unfavourable suspicion concerning a woman to whom she had become sincerely attached, Regina directed her steps toward one of the numerous small parks that beautify the great city, and furnish breathing and gambolling space for the helpless young innocents, who are debarred all other modes of "airing," save such as are provided by the noble munificence of New York. The day, though cold, was very bright, the sky a cloudless grey-blue, the slanting beams of the sun filling the atmosphere with gold-dust; and in crossing the square to gain the street beyond Regina was attracted by a group of children romping along the walk, and laughing gleefully.
One a toddling wee thing, with a scarlet cloak that swept the ground, and a hood of the same warm tint drawn over her curly yellow hair and dimpled round face, had fallen on the walk, unheeded by her boisterous companions, and becoming entangled in the long garment could not get up again. Pausing to lift the little creature to her feet, and restore the piece of cake that had escaped from the chubby hand, Regina stood smiling sympathetically at the sport of the larger children, and wondering whether all those rosy-cheeked "olive branches" clustered around one household altar.
At that moment a heavy hand was placed on her shoulder, and turning she saw at her side a powerful man, thick set in stature, and whose clothing was worn and soiled. Beneath a battered hat drawn suspiciously low she discerned a swarthy, flushed, saturnine countenance, which had perhaps once been attractive, before the seal of intemperance marred and stained its lineament. Somewhere she certainly had seen that dark face, and a sensation of vague terror seized her.
"Regina, it is about time you should meet and recognize me."
The voice explained all; she knew the man whom Hannah bad met in the churchyard on the evening of the storm.
She made an effort to shake off his hand, but it closed firmly upon her, and he asked:
"Do you know who I am?"
"Your name is Peleg, and you are a wicked man, an enemy of my mother."
"The same, I do not deny it. But recollect I am also your father."
She stared almost wildly at him, and her face blanched and quivered as she uttered a cry of horror.
"It is false! You are not—you never could have been! You—Oh! never—never!"
So terrible was the thought that she staggered, and sank down on an iron seat, covering her face with her hands.
"This comes of separating father and child, and rising you above your proper place in the world. Your mother taught you to hate me, I knew she would; but I have waited as long as I can bear it, and I intend to assert my rights. Who do you suppose is your father? Whose child did she say you were?"
"She never told me, but I know—O God, have mercy upon me! You cannot be my father! It would kill me to believe it!"
She shuddered violently, and when he attempted to put his hand on hers, she drew back and cried out, almost fiercely:
"Don't touch me! If you dare, I will scream for a policeman."
"Very well, as soon as you please, and when he comes I will explain to him that you arc my daughter; and if necessary I will carry you both to the spot where you were born, and prove the fact. Do you know where you were born? I guess Minnie did not see fit to tell you that, either. Well, in was in that charity hospital on —— Street, and I can tell you the year, and the day of the month. My child, you might at least pity, and not insult your poor unhappy father."
Could it be possible after all? Her head swam; her heart seemed bursting; her very soul sickened, as she tried to realize all that his assertion implied. What could he expect to accomplish by such a claim, unless he intended, and felt fully prepared, to establish it by irrefragable facts?
"My girl, your mother deserted me before you were born, and has never dared to let you know the truth. She is living in disguise in Europe, under an assumed name, and only last week I found out her whereabouts. She calls herself Mrs. Orme now, and has turned actress. She was born one; she has played a false part all her life. Do you think your name is Orme? My dear child, it is untrue, and I, Peleg Peterson, am your father."
"No, no! My mother, my beautiful, refined mother never, never could have loved you! Oh! it is too horrible! Go away, please go away! or I shall go mad."
She bound her hands tightly across her eyes, shutting out the loathsome face, and in the intensity of her agony and dread she groaned aloud. If it were true, could she hear it, and live? What would Mr. Lindsay think, if he could see that coarse brutal man claiming her as his daughter? What would her haughty guardian say, if he who so sedulously watched over her movements, and fastidiously chose her associates, could look upon her now?
Born in a. hospital, owning that repulsive countenance there beside her as parent?
Heavy cold drops oozed out, and glistened on her brow, and she shivered from head to foot, rocking herself to and fro.
Almost desperate as she thought of the mysterious circumstances that seemed to entangle her mother as in some inextricable net, the girl suddenly started up, and exclaimed:
"It is a fraud, a wicked fraud, or you would never have left me so long in peace. My father was, must have been, a gentleman; I know, I feel it! You are—you—Save me, O Lord in heaven, from such a curse as that!"
He grasped her arm and hissed:
"I am poor and obscure, it is true; but Peterson is better than no name at all, and if you are not my child, then you have no name. That is all; take your choice."
What a pall settled on earth and sky! The sun shining so brightly in the west grew black, and a shadow colder and darker than death seized her soul. Was it the least of alternate horrors to accept this man, acknowledging his paternal claim, and thereby defend her mother's name? How the lovely sad face of that young mother rose like a star, gilding all this fearful blackness; and her holy abiding faith in her mother proved a strengthening angel in this Gethsemane.
Rallying, she forced herself to look steadily at her companion.
"You say that your name is Peleg Peterson; why did you never come openly to the parsonage and claim me? I know that my mother was married in that house, by Mr. Hargrove."
"Because I never could find out where you were hid away, until my aunt, Hannah Hinton, told me the week before the great storm. Then she promised me the marriage license, which she had found in a desk at the parsonage, on condition that I would not disturb you; as she thought you were happy and well-cared for, and would be highly educated, and I was too miserably poor to give you any advantages. You know the license was burned by lightning, else I would show it to you."
"Proving that you are my mother's legal husband?"
"Certainly, else what use do you suppose I had for it."
"Oh no! You intended to sell it. Hannah told me so."
"No such thing. Minnie does not want to own me now, and I intended to show the license to the father of the man for whom she deserted both you and me. She has followed him to Europe, though she knows he is a married man."
"It is false! How dare you! You shall not slander her dear name. My mother could never have done that! There is some foul conspiracy to injure her; not another word against her! No matter what may have happened, no matter how dark and strange things look, she was not to blame. She is right, always right; I know, I feel it! I tell you, if the sun and the stars, and the very archangels in heaven accused her, I would not listen, I would not believe—no—never! She is my mother, do you hear me? She is my mother, and God's own angels would go astray as soon as she!"
She looked as white and rigid as a corpse twelve hours dead, and her large defiant eyes burned with a supernatural lustre.
He comprehended the nature with which he had to deal, and after a pause, said sullenly:
"Minnie does not deserve such a child, and it is hard that you, my own flesh and blood, refuse to recognize me. Regina, I am desperately poor, or I would take you now, forcibly if necessary; and if Minnie dared deny my claim, I would publish the facts in a court of justice. Even your guardian is deceived, and many things would come to light, utterly disgraceful to you, and to your father and mother. But at present I cannot take care of you, and I am in need, actual need. Will my child see her own father want bread and clothing, and refuse to assist him? Can you not contribute something toward my support, until I can collect some money due me? If you can help me a little now, I will try to be patient, and leave you where you are, in luxury and peace; at least till I can hear from Minnie, to whom I have written."
"Why do you not go at once to my guardian, and demand me?"
"If you wish it I will, before sunset. Come, I am ready. But when I do, the facts will be blazoned to the world, and you and Minnie and I shall all go down together in disgrace and ruin. If you are willing to drag all the shameful history into the papers, I am ready now."
He rose, but she shrank away, and putting her hand in her pocket, became aware of the loss of her purse. Had she been robbed, or had she dropped her porte-monnaie in the carriage?
"I have not a cent with me. I have lost my purse since I left home."
She saw the gloomy scowl that lowered on his brow. "When can you give me some money? Mind, it must not be known that I am literally begging. I am as proud, my daughter, as you are, and if people find out that I am getting alms from you, I shall explain that it is from my own child I receive aid."
A feeble gleam of hope stole across her soul, and rapidly she reflected on the best method of escape.
"I have very little money, but to-morrow I will send you through the post office every cent I possess. How shall I address it?"
He shook his head.
"That would not satisfy me. I want to see you again, to look at your sweet face. Do you think I do not love my child? Meet me here this time to-morrow."
Each word smote like pelting hailstones, and he saw all her loathing printed on her face.
"I have an engagement that may detain me beyond this hour; but if I live, I will be as punctual as circumstances permit."
"If you tell Palma you have seen me, he must know everything, for Minnie has hired him to help her deceive you and the world, and all the while she has kept the truth from him. Shrewd as he is, she has completely duped him. If he learns you have been with me, I shall unmask everything; and when he washes his hands of you and your mother, I will take you where you shall never lay your eyes again on the two who have taught you to hate me—Minnie and Palma. My child, do you understand me?"
She shuddered as he leaned toward her, and stepping back, she answered resolutely:
"That threat will prove very effectual. I will meet you here, bringing the little money I have, and will keep this awful day a secret from all but God, who never fails to protect the right."
"You promise that?"
"What else is left me? My guardian shall know nothing from me until I can hear from my mother, to whom I shall write this night. Do not detain me. My absence will excite suspicion."
"Good-bye, my daughter."
He held out his hand.
She looked at him, and her lips writhed as she tried to contemplate for an instant the bare possibility that after all he might be her parent. She forced herself to hold out her left hand which was gloved, but he had scarcely grasped her fingers, when she snatched them back, turned and darted away, while he called after her:
"This time to-morrow. Don't fail."
The glory of the world, and the light of her young life had suddenly been extinguished, and fearful spectres vague and menacing thronged the future. Death appeared a mere trifle in comparison with the lifelong humiliation, perhaps disgrace, that was in store for her; and bitterly she demanded of fate, why she had been reared so tenderly, so delicately, in an atmosphere of honour and refinement, if destined to fall at last into the hands of that coarse vicious man? The audacity of his claim almost overwhelmed her faint hope that some infamous imposture was being practised at her expense; and the severity of the shock, the intensity of her mental suffering, rendered her utterly oblivious of everything else.
At another time she would doubtless have heard and recognized a familiar step that followed her from the moment she quitted the square; but to-day, almost stupefied, she hurried along the pavement, mechanically turning the corners, looking neither to right nor left.
Fifth Avenue was a long way off, and it was late in the afternoon when she reached home, and ran up to her own room, anxious to escape observation.
Hattie was arranging some towels on the washstand, and turning around, exclaimed:
"Good gracious, miss! You are as white as the coverlid on the bed! I guess something has happened?"
"I am not well. I am tired, so tired. Have they all come home?"
"Yes, and there will be company to dinner. Two gentlemen, Terry said. Are you going to wear that dress?"
"I don't want any dinner. If they ask for me, tell Mrs. Palma I feel very badly, and that I beg she will excuse me. Where is Olga?"
"Busy trimming her overskirt with flowers. You know Mrs. Tarrant gives her ball to-night, and Miss Olga says she has saved herself, rested all day, to be fresh for it. Lou-Lou has just come to dress her hair. What a pity you can't go too, you look quite old enough. Miss Olga has such a gay, splendid time."
"I do not want to go. I only wish I could lie down and sleep for ever. Shut the door, and ask them all please to let me alone this evening."
How the richness of the furniture and the elegance that prevailed throughout this house mocked the threadbare raiment and poverty-stricken aspect of the man who threatened to drag her down to his own lower plane of life and association? Her innate pride, and her cultivated fondness for all beautiful objects, rebelled at the picture which her imagination painted in such sombre hues, and with a bitter cry of shame and dread she bowed her head against the marble mantlepiece.
For many years she had known that some unfortunate cloud hung over her own and her mother's history, but faith in the latter, and a perfect trust in the wisdom and goodness of Mr. Hargrove, had encouraged her in every previous hour of disquiet and apprehension. Until to-day the positive and hideous ghoul of disgrace had never actually confronted her, and with the intuitive hopefulness of youth, she had waved aside all forebodings, believing that at the proper time her mother would satisfactorily explain the necessity for the mystery of her conduct. Was Mr. Lindsay acquainted with some terrible trouble that threatened her future when in bidding her farewell he had said he would gladly shield her, were it possible, from trials that he foresaw would be her portion?
Did he know all, and would he love her less, if that bold bad man should prove his paternal claim to her? Her father! As she tried to face the possibility, it was with difficulty that she smothered a passionate cry, and throwing herself across the foot of the bed, buried her face in her hands.
If she could only run away and go to India, where Mr. Lindsay would shield, pity, and love her! How gratefully she thought of him at this juncture,—how noble, tender, and generous he had always been! what a haven of safety and rest his presence would be now!
As a very dear brother she had ever regarded him, for her affection, though intense and profound, was as entirely free from all taint of sentimentality, as that which she entertained for his mother; and her pure young heart had never indulged a feeling that could have coloured her cheek with confusion had the world searched its recesses.
Were Douglass accessible, she would unhesitatingly have sprung into his protecting arms, as any suffering young sister might have done, and, fully unburdening her soul, would have sought brotherly counsel; but in his absence, to whom was it possible for her to turn?
To her guardian? As she thought of his fastidious overweening pride, his haughty scorn of everything plebeian, his detestation of all that appertained to the ranks of the ill-bred, a keen pang of almost intolerable shame darted through her heart, and a burning tide surged over her cheeks, painting them fiery scarlet. Would he accord her the shelter of his roof, were he aware of all that had occurred that day?
She started up, prompted by a sudden impulse to seek him and divulge everything; to ask how much was true, to demand that he would send her at once to her mother.
Perhaps he could authoritatively deny that man's statements, and certainly he was far too prudent to assume guardianship of a girl whose real parentage was unknown to him.
Implicit confidence in his wisdom and friendship, and earnest gratitude for the grave kindness of his conduct toward her since she became an inmate of his house, had gradually displaced the fear and aversion that formerly influenced her against him; and just now the only comfort she could extract from any quarter arose from the reflection that in every emergency Mr. Palma would protect her from harm and insult, until he could place her under her mother's care.
Two years of daily association had taught her to appreciate the sternness and tenacity of his purpose, and his stubborn iron will, so often dreaded before, now became a source of consolation, a tower of refuge to which in extremity she could retreat.
But if she were indeed the low-born girl that man had dared to assert, and Mr. Palma should learn that he had been deceived, how could she ever meet his coldly contemptuous eyes?
Some one tapped at the door, but she made no response, hoping she might be considered asleep. Mrs. Palma came in, groping her way.
"Why have you not a light?"
"I did not need one. I only wanted to be quiet."
"Where are the matches?"
"On the mantlepiece."
Mrs. Palma lighted the gas, then came to the bed.
"Regina, are you ill, that you obstinately absent yourself when you know there is company to dinner?"
"I feel very badly indeed, and I hoped you would excuse me."
"Have you fever? You seemed very well when I parted from you at Mrs. St. Clare's door."
"No fever, I think; but I felt unable to go downstairs. I shall be better to-morrow."
"Erle desired me to say that he wishes to see you this evening, and you must come down to the library about nine o'clock. He has gone to his office, and you know he will be displeased if you fail to obey him."
"Please, Mrs. Palma, tell him I am not able. Ask him to excuse me this evening. Intercede for me, will you not?"
"Oh! I never interfere when Erle gives an order. Beside, I shall not see him again before midnight. I am going with Olga to Mrs. Tarrant's, and must leave home quite early because I promised to call for Melissa Gardner and chaperon her. Of course she will not be ready, young ladies never are, and we shall have to wait. It is only eight o'clock now, and an hour's sleep will refresh you. I will direct Hattie to call you, when your guardian comes in. Do you require any medicine? You do look very badly."
"Only rest, I think. Can't you persuade Mr. Palma to go to the party, or ball, or whatever it may be?"
"He has promised to drop in, toward the close of the evening and escort us home. Quite a compliment to Mrs. Tarrant, for Erle rarely deigns to honour such entertainments; but her husband is a prominent lawyer, and a college friend of Erle's. Good-night."
She went out, closing the door softly, and Regina felt more desolate than ever. Was Mr. Palma displeased, because she had gone visiting without waiting for his consent? If she had been more patient, might not this fearful discovery have been averted? Was her sorrow part of the wages of her disobedient haste?
What had become of her purse? How could she without exciting suspicion obtain the money she had so positively promised?
She rang the bell, and sent Hattie to request Farley to examine the carriage, and see if she had not dropped her porte-monnaie into some of its crevices. It was a long time before the servant returned, alleging in excuse that she had been detained to assist is dressing Miss Olga. Farley had searched everywhere, and could not find the purse.
Hattie hurried away to Mrs. Palma, and Regina unlocked a small drawer of her bureau, and took out what remained of her semi-annual allowance of pocket money. She counted it carefully, but found only thirteen dollars.
If she could have recovered her porte-monnaie she would have had twenty dollars to offer, and even that seemed mockingly insufficient, as the price of silence, of temporary escape from humiliation.
What could she do? She had never asked a cent from her guardian, and the necessity of appealing to him was inexpressibly mortifying; but to whom could she apply?
"'But Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these'—society tiger lilies."
The door swung wide open, and as she spoke Olga seemed to swim into the room, so quick yet noiseless was her entrance.
At the sound of her voice, Regina dropped the money back into the drawer, and turned to inspect the elegant toilette, which consisted of gold-coloured silk and Mechlin lace, rich yellow roses with sulphurous hearts, and a very complete set of topaz, which flashed amber rays over the neck, ears, and arms of the wearer. With her brilliant complexion, sparkling eyes, and hair elaborately powdered with gold dust, she seemed a vision of light, at whom Regina gazed with unfeigned admiration.
"Beautiful, Olga; beautiful."
"The textile fabrics, the silk and lace? Or the human framework, the flesh and blood machine that serves as lay figure to show off the statuesque folds, the creamy waves of cosily Mechlin, the Persian roses, and expensive pebbles?"
"Both. The dress, and the wearer. I never saw you look so well."
"Thanks. Behold the result of the morning's self-denial, of a day passed quietly in bed, with only the companionship of pillows and dreams. I was forced to choose between Mrs. St. Clare's 'lunch' and Mrs. Tarrant's 'crush,' 'not that I love Caesar less, but that I love Rome more;' and the success of my strategy is brilliant. Am I not the complete impersonation of sunshine? How deadly white and chill you look! Come closer and warm yourself in my glorious rays. Do you scout oneiriomancy as a heathenish fable? To-day I unexpectedly became a convert to its sublime secrets. After you and mamma deserted me for Cantata and Luncheon, I fell into a heavy sleep, and dreamed that I was Danae, with a mist of gold drizzling over me; and lo! when I began to dress this evening, my dazzled eyes beheld these superb topaz gems. 'Compliments of Mr. Erle Palma, who thought they would harmonize with the gold-coloured silk, and ordered them for the occasion.' So said the card lying on the velvet case! Do you wonder if the world is coming to its long-predicted end? Not at all; merely the close of Olga Neville's career; the sun of my maidenhood setting in unexpected splendour. Do you understand that scriptural paradox: 'To him that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken,' etc., etc? Once when I was better than I am now, and studied my Bible, it puzzled me; now I know it means that stiff-necked Olga Neville finds no favour in Mr. Palma's eyes; but the obedient, and amiable, prospective Mrs. Silas Congreve shall be furnished with gewgaws, which very soon she will possess in abundance, and to spare. Just now mamma gave me the delightful intelligence that, having been informed of my intention to trade myself off for stocks and brown-stone-fronts, her very distinguished and magnanimous stepson signified his approbation by announcing his determination to settle ten thousand dollars on this Lucretia Borgia head, upon the day when it wears a bridal veil."
All this was uttered volubly, as if she feared interruption; and she stood surveying her brilliant image in the mirror, shaking out the silk skirt, looping the lace, arranging the rose leaves and turning, so as to catch her profile reflection.
Regina readily perceived that she adopted this method of ignoring the casual meeting in East —— Street, and resolved to tacitly accept the cue; but before she could frame a reply, Olga hurried on:
"Were you really sick and unable to dine, or are you practising the first steps, the initial measure of that policy system, so cordially commended to your favourable regard? You missed an unusually good dinner. Octave seems to have days of culinary inspiration, and this has been one. The turbot a la creme was fit for Lucullus, the noyeau-flavoured gauffres as crisp as criticism, as light as one of Taglioni's movements, the marbled glaces simply perfect. But when your chair remained vacant your guardian darkened like a thunder-cloud in an August sky, and Roscoe, poor Elliott Roscoe, looked precisely as I imagine a hungry wolf feels, when crouching to catch a tender ewe lamb he finds that the watchful shepherd has safely locked it in the fold. Evidently he believes that you and Erle Palma have conspired to starve him out, and really he is ludicrously irate. Don't trifle with his expanding affections; they are not quite fledged yet, and are easily bruised. Deal with him kindly; he is better than his cousin, better than any of us. What have you done to render him so unmanageable?
"I have not seen Mr. Roscoe for a week."
"Certainly he has seen you in much less time—he imagines, as recently as this afternoon; but appearances are desperately deceitful, and our fancy often manufactures likenesses. In this world of fleeting shadows we are often called upon to reject the evidence of all five of the senses, and what madness, what culpable folly, to credit that of mere treacherous sight! Shall I tell Elliott that he was dreaming, and did not see you?"
"I have no message for him. That he may have seen me sometime to-day, walking upon the street, is quite possible, but certainly of no consequence. Your bracelet has become unfastened."
She bent down to clasp the topaz crescent, and Olga laid her hand on the girl's shoulder.
"Something pains you very much, and your face has not yet learned the great feminine art of masking misery in smiles, and burying it in dimples. Mind, dear, I do not ask, I do not wish to know what your hidden fox is, preying so ravenously upon your vitals. Sooner or later the punishment of the Spartan thief overtakes us all, and after a while you will learn to bear the gnawing as gaily as I do. I don't want to know your secret wound, I should only lacerate it with my callous policy handling, only torment you by pouring into its gaping mouth the vitriol of my fashionable worldly philosophy, which consumes what it touches. How I wish stupid society would stand aside and let me do you a genuine kindness; open your blue veins and let out gently—slowly—all the pangs and throbs. Dear, it would be a blessing, like that man in the East who stabbed his devoted wife at her request, because he loved her and wished to put her at rest; but something very blind indeed, and which under the cloak of Law mocks and outrages justice, would blindly hang me! This is the age of Law; even miracles are severely forbidden, and if the herd of Gadarene swine had miraculously perished in this generation and country, our Lord and His disciples would have inevitably been sued for damages. Don't you know that Erle Palma would have been engaged for the prosecution? Yes, mamma! quite ready, and coming, Go to sleep, snowdrop, and dream that you are like me, a topaz-bedizened odalisque swimming in sunshine."
She stooped, kissed the girl softly on both cheeks, and looked tenderly, pityingly at her; then suddenly gathered her close to her heart, holding her there an instant, as if to shelter her from some impending storm.
"If you love your mother, and she loves you, run away now and join her, before the chains are tightened. Your guardian is setting snares; little white rabbit, flee for your life, while escape is possible."
She floated away like some dazzling gilded cloud, and a moment later her peculiarly light merry laugh rang through the hall below, as she ran down to join her mother.
Unable to throw off the load of painful apprehension that weighed so heavily on her heart, Regina derived some consolation from the reflection that she was entirely alone in the house, and could at least escape scrutiny and curious criticism; for she hoped that Mr. Palma, forgetting her, would go directly from his office to Mrs. Tarrant's, allowing her a reprieve until morning. During the second year of her residence beneath his roof, she had at his request taken her breakfast with him, sitting at the head of the table, where Mrs. Palma presided at all other times. Olga and her mother generally slept quite late, and consequently Regina now looked forward with dread to the tete-a-tete awaiting her next morning.
A few days subsequent to the Sunday afternoon on which her guardian had so unexpectedly accompanied her to church, she had been pleasantly surprised by finding in the library a handsome Mason & Hamlin parlour organ; on which lay a slip of paper, expressing Mr. Palma's desire that she would consider it exclusively hers, and sometimes play upon it for him. But an unconquerable timidity and repugnance to using the instrument when he was at home had prevented a compliance with the request, which was never repeated.
To-night the thought of the organ brought dear and comforting memories, and feeling quite secure from intrusion she went down to the library. As usual the room was bright and comfortable as gas and anthracite could make it, and failing to observe a sudden movement of the curtains hanging over the recess behind the writing-desk, Regina entered, closed the door and walked up to the glowing grate.
Beneath her mother's portrait sat the customary floral offering, which on this occasion consisted of double white and blue violets, and standing awhile on the hearth, the girl gazed up at the picture with mournful, longing tenderness. Could that proud lovely face ever have owned as husband, the coarser, meaner, and degraded clay, who that afternoon had dared with sacrilegious presumption to speak of her as "Minnie"?
What was the mystery, and upon whom must rest the blame, possibly the lifelong shame?
"Not you, dear sad-eyed mother. Let the whole world condemn, deride, and despise us; but only your own lips shall teach me to doubt you. Everything else may crumble beneath me, all may drift away; but faith and trust in mother shall stand fast—as Jacob's ladder, linking me with the angels who will surely come down its golden rounds and comfort me. Oh, mother I the time has come when you and I must clasp hands and fight the battle together; and God will be merciful to the right."
Standing there in her blue cashmere dress, relieved by dainty collar and cuffs of lace, she seemed indeed no longer a young almost childish girl, but one who had passed the threshold and entered the mysterious realm of early womanhood.
Rather below than above medium height, her figure was exquisitely moulded, and the beautiful head was poised on the shoulders with that indescribable proud grace one sometimes sees in perfect marble sculpture. But the delicate woeful Oenone face, as white and gleaming under its shining coil of ebon hair, as a statue carved from the heart of Lygdos; how shall mere words ever portray its peculiar loveliness, its faultless purity? Unconsciously she had paused in the exact position selected for that beautiful figure of "Faith" which Palmer has given to the world; and standing with drooping clasped hands and uplifted eyes gazing upon her mother's portrait, as the "Faith" looks to the lonely cross above her the resemblance in form and features was so striking, that all who have studied that exquisite marble can readily recall the countenance of the girl in the library.
Turning away, she opened the organ, drew out the stops and began to play.
As the soft yet sacredly solemn strains rolled through the long room, hallowed associations of the old parsonage life floated up, clustering like familiar faces around her. Once more she heard the cooing of ring-doves in the honeysuckle, and the loved voices, now silent in death, or far, far away among the palms of India.
"Cast thy burden on the Lord" had been one of their favourite selections at V——, and now hoping for comfort she sang it.
It was the first time she had attempted it since the evening before the storm, when Mr. Lindsay had sung it with her, while Mr. Hargrove softly hummed the base, as he walked up and down the verandah, with his arm on his sister's shoulder.
How many holy memories rushed like a flood over her heart and soul, burying for a time the bitter experience of to-day!
Unable to conclude the song, she leaned back in her chair, and gave way to the tears that rolled swiftly down her cheeks.
So wan and hopeless was her face that Mr. Palma, watching her from the curtained alcove, came quickly forward.
He was elegantly dressed in full evening toilette, and, throwing his white gloves on the table, approached his ward.
At sight of him she started up, and hastily wiped away the tears that obstinately dripped despite her efforts.
"Oh, sir! I hoped you would forget to come home, and would go to Mrs. Tarrant's. I did not know you were in the house."
"I never forget my duties, and though I am going to Mrs. Tarrant's after a while, I attend to 'business before pleasure'; it has been my lifelong habit."
His new suit of black, and the white vest and cravat were singularly becoming to him. He was aware of the fact; and even in the midst of her anxiety and depression, Regina thought she had never seen him look so handsome.
"I wish to ask you a few questions. Was it actual bodily sickness, physical pain, that kept you in your room during dinner, at which I particularly desired your attendance?"
"I cannot say that it was."
"You had no fever, no headache, no fainting-spell?"
"Then why did you absent yourself?"
"I felt unhappy, and shrank from seeing any one: especially strange guests."
"Unhappy? About what?"
"My heart ached, and I wished to be alone."
"Heart-ache, so early? However, you are in your seventeenth year, quite old enough, I suppose, for the premonitory symptoms. What gave you heart-ache?"
She was silent.
"You feared my displeasure, knowing I had cause to feel offended, when making a pretence of deferring to my wishes, you hurried away from my office, just as I was returning to it? Why did you not wait?"
"I was afraid you would refuse your permission, and I wanted so very much to go to Mrs. Mason's."
Above all other virtues he reverenced and admired stern unvarnished truth, and this strong element of her reticent nature had powerfully attracted him.
"Little girl, am I such a stony-hearted ogre?" A strangely genial smile wanned and brightened his usually grave cold face, and certainly at that moment Erle Palma showed one aspect of his nature never exhibited before to any human being.
"What a fascinating person this poor old Mrs. Mason must be; absolutely tempting you to disobedience. Does she not correspond with the saints in Oude?"
"If you mean Mr. Lindsay and his mother, she certainly hears from them occasionally."
"Why not phrase it Mrs. Lindsay and her son? Was it the dreadful news that malarial fever is epidemic at the Missions, or that the Sepoys are threatening another revolt, that destroyed your appetite, unfitted you for the social amenities at the dinner-table, and gave you heart-ache?"
"If there is such bad news, I did not hear it Mrs. Mason was not at home."
"Indeed! Then whom did you see?"
"When I ascertained she was absent, I had already sent the carriage away, and I came home, after stopping a few moments in —— Square."
She grew very white as she spoke, and he saw her lips quiver.
"Regina, what is the matter?"
She did not reply; and bending toward her, he said in a low, winning voice entirely unlike his usual tone:
"Lily, trust your guardian."
Looking into his brilliant eyes, she felt tempted to tell him all, to repose implicitly upon his wisdom and guidance, but the image of Peleg Peterson rose like a hideous warning spectre.
Readily interpreting the varying expression of a countenance which he had so long and carefully studied, he continued:
"You wish to tell me frankly, yet you shrink from the ordeal. Lily, what have you done that you blush to confess to me?"
"Why then do you hesitate?"
"Because other persons are involved. Oh, Mr. Palma! I am very unhappy."
She clasped her hands, and bowed her chin upon them, a peculiar position into which sorrow always drove her.
"I inferred as much, from your manner while at the organ. I am very sorry that my house is not a happy home for my ward. Have you been subjected to any annoyances from the members of my household?"
"None whatever. All are kind and considerate. But I can never be satisfied till I see my mother. I shall write tonight, imploring her permission to join her in Europe, and I beg that you will please use your influence in favour of my wishes. Oh, sir, do help me to go to my mother!"
His smile froze, his face hardened; and he led her to a low sofa capable of seating only two persons, and drawn near the fire.
"Madame Orme does not want her daughter just yet"
"But I want my mother. Oh, I must go!"
He took both her hands as they lay folded in her lap, opened the clenched fingers, clasping them softly in his own, so white and shapely, and his black eyes glittered:
"Am I cruel and harsh to my Lily, that she is so anxious to run away from her guardian?"
"No, sir, oh no! Kind and very good, consulting what you consider my welfare in all things. But you can't take mother's place in my heart."
"I assure you, little girl, I do not want your mother's place."
Something peculiar in his tone arrested her notice, and lifting her large lovely eyes she met his searching gaze.
"That is right, keep your eyes so, fixed steadily on mine, while I discharge a rather delicate and embarrassing duty, which sometimes devolves upon the grim guardians of pretty young ladies. In your mother's absence I am supposed to occupy a quasi parental position toward you; and am the authorized custodian of your secrets, should you, like most persons of your age, chance to possess any. Your mother, you are aware, invested me with this right as her vicegerent, consequently you must pardon the inquisition into the state of your affections, which just now I am compelled to make. Although I consider you entirely too young for such grave propositions, it is nevertheless proper that I should be the medium of their presentation when they become inevitable. Upon the tender and very susceptible heart of Mr. Elliott Roscoe it appears that either with 'malice prepense,' or else, let us hope, in innocent unconsciousness, you have been practising certain feminine wiles and sorcery, which have so far capsized his reason, that he is incapacitated for attending to his business. When I remonstrated against the lunacy into which he is drifting, he in very poetic and chivalric style—which it is unnecessary to repeat here—assured me that you were the element which had utterly deranged his cerebral equipoise. Elliott Roscoe is my cousin, is a young gentleman of good character, good mind, good education, good heart, and good manners, and in due time may command a good income from his profession; but just now, in pecuniary matters, he would not be considered a brilliant match. Mr. Roscoe informs me that he desires an interview with you to-morrow, for the purpose of offering you his heart and hand; and while protesting on the ground of your youth, I have promised to communicate his wishes to you, and should he be favourably received, write to your mother at once."
Perplexed and confused, she had not fully comprehended his purpose until he uttered the closing sentence, and painful astonishment kept her silent, while as if spellbound her gaze met his.
"Now it remains for you to answer one question. Should your mother give her consent, does Miss Regina Orme intend to become my cousin?"
"Oh, never! You distress me; you ought not to talk to me of such things. I am so young, you know mother would not approve of it."
She blushed scarlet, and attempted to withdraw her hands, but found it impossible.
"Quite true, and if crazy young gentlemen could be prevailed upon to keep silent, rest assured I should never have broached a subject, which I regard as premature. But while I certainly applaud your good sense, it is rather problematical whether I should feel gratified at your summary rejection of an alliance with my cousin. Are you fully resolved that I shall never be related to you, except as your guardian?"
"Yes, sir. I do not wish to be your cousin."
Once more the smile shone out suddenly, making sunshine in his face.
"Thank you. At what hour will you see Mr. Roscoe?"
"At none. Please do not let him come here, or speak to me on that subject; it would be so extremely painful. I should never meet him afterward without feeling distressed, and things would be intolerably disagreeable. Please, Mr. Palma, shield me from it."
She involuntarily drew closer to him, as if for protection, and noting the movement, he smiled, and tightened his clasp of her hands.
"I cannot positively forbid him to address you on this terrible topic, but if you wish it, I will endeavour to dissuade him. Elliott has Palma blood in his veins, and that has certain unmistakable tendencies to obstinacy, though its conduct in love affairs yet remains to be tested; but it occurs to me that if you are in earnest in desiring to crush this foolish whim in the bud, you can very easily accomplish it by empowering me to make to my cousin a simple statement, which will extinguish the matter beyond all possibility of resurrection."
"Then tell him whatever your judgment dictates."
"My judgment must be instructed by facts, and the simple statement I propose might involve grave consequences. Do you authorize me to close the discussion of this matter at once and for ever, by informing Mr. Roscoe that you cannot entertain the thought of granting him an interview because his suit is hopeless from the fact that your affections are already engaged?"
She was too much embarrassed by his piercing merciless eyes, to notice that he slipped one finger upon the pulse at her wrist, keeping her hands firmly in his warm clasp; or that he leaned lower as he spoke, until his noble massive head very nearly approached hers.
"I could not ask you to tell him that. It would be untrue."
"Are you sure, Lily?"
"Yes, Mr. Palma."
"Have you forgotten Mr. Lindsay?"
He thought for an instant that the pulse stood still, then beat regularly calmly on, and he wondered if his own tight pressure had baffled his object.
"No, I never forget Mr. Lindsay."
She did not shrink or colour, but a sad hopeless look crept into her splendid eyes at the mention of his name.
"You are certain that the young missionary will not prove the obstacle to your becoming more closely related to your guardian? Thus far, I have found you singularly truthful in all things; be careful that just here you deceive neither yourself nor me. There is a tradition that in the river Inachus is found a peculiar stone resembling a beryl, which turns black in the hands of those who intend to bear false witness; and you can readily understand that lawyers find such stones invaluable in the court-room. I have placed you on the witness stand, and my beryl-tinted seal ring presses your palm at this instant. Be frank; are you not very deeply attached to Mr. Lindsay?"
Suddenly a burning flush bathed her brow, she struggled to free her hands in order to hide her face from his glowing probing eyes, but his hold was unyielding as a band of steel; and hardly conscious where she found shelter, she turned and pressed her cheek against his shoulder, striving to avoid that inquisitorial gaze.
She did not see his face grow grey and stony, or that the white teeth gnawed the lower lip; but when he spoke his voice was stern, and indescribably icy.
"My ward should study her heart before she empowers her guardian to consider it unoccupied property. You should at least inform your mother that it has become a mere missionary station."
With her hot cheeks still hidden against his shoulder, she exclaimed:
"No, no! You do not at all understand me. I feel to him, to Douglass, exactly as I did when he went away."
"So I infer. Your feeling is sufficiently apparent."
"Not what you imagine. When he left me I promised him I would always love him as I did then; and I told him what was true: I loved him next to my mother. But not as you mean, oh no! If God had given me a brother, I should think of him exactly as I do of dear Douglass. I miss him very much, more than I can express; and I love him, and want to see him. But I never had any other thought, except as his adopted sister, until this moment when you spoke, and it shocked, it almost humiliated me. Indeed my feeling for him is almost holy, and your thought, your meaning seems to me sacrilegious. He is my noble true friend, my dear good brother, and you must not think such things of him and of me; it hurts me."
For nearly a moment there was silence.
Mr. Palma dropped one of her hands, and his arm passed quickly around her shoulder, while his open palm pressed her head closer against him.
"Is my ward sure that if he wished to be more than a brother, she would never reciprocate, would never cherish a different feeling, a stronger affection?"
"He could never wish that. He is so much older and wiser and better than I am; and looks on me only as a little sister."
"Is superiority in years and wisdom the only obstacle you can imagine?"
"I have never thought of it at all until you spoke, and it is painful to me. It seems disrespectful to connect such ideas as yours with the name of one whom I honour as my brother."
He put his hand under her chin, turning her face to view despite her struggle to prevent it, and bending his head—he did not kiss her! Oh no! Erle Palma had never kissed any one since his childhood; but for one instant his dark cheek was laid close to hers, with a tender caressing touch, that astonished her as completely as if one of the bronze statuettes on the console above her head had laughed aloud, and clapped its metallic hands.
"Henceforth the 'disrespectful idea' shall never be associated with the name of Mr. Douglass Lindsay, and in the future I warn you, there shall be none but a purely fraternal niche allowed him; moreover, it is not requisite that you should speak of him as 'dear Douglass' in order to assure me of your sisterly regard. What I shall do with my unfortunate young cousin is not quite so transparent; for Elliott will not receive his rejection by proxy."
He had withdrawn his arm, and released her hand, and rising she exclaimed impetuously:
"Tell him that Regina Orme will never permit him to broach that subject; and tell him, too, that I am a waif, a girl over whose parentage hangs a shadow dark and chill as a pall. Oh! tell him I want my mother, and an honourable unsullied name, and until I can find these I have no room in my mind or heart for a lover!"
As the events of the day, temporarily banished from her thoughts by the unexpected character of the interview, rushed back with renewed force and bitterness, the transient colour died out of her face, leaving it strangely wan and worn in aspect; and Mr. Palma saw now that purple shadows lay beneath the deep eyes, rendering them more than ever prophetic in their solemn mournful expression.
"What unusual occurrence has stimulated your interest and curiosity concerning your parentage?"
"It never slumbers. It is the last thought at night, and the first when the day dawns. It is a burden that is never lifted, that galls continually; and sometimes, as to-night, I feel that I cannot endure it much longer."
"You must be patient, for awhile at least——"
"Yes, I have heard that for ten long years, and I have been both patient and silent: but the time has come when I can bear no more. Anything positive, definite, susceptible of proof, no matter how distressing, would be more tolerable than this suspense, this maddening conjecture. I will see my mother; I must know the truth, be it what it may!"
The witchery of childhood had vanished for ever. Even the glimmer of hope seemed paling in the almost supernatural eyes, that had grown prematurely womanly; viewing life no more through the rainbow lenses of sanguine girlhood, but henceforth as an anxious woman haunting the penetralia of sorrow, never oblivious of the fact that over her path hovered the gibing spectre of disgrace.
The unwonted recklessness of her tone and mien annoyed and surprised her guardian, and while a frown gathered on his brow he rose and stood beside her.
"Your petulant vehemence is both unbecoming and displeasing; and in future you would do well to recollect that, as a child submitted to my guidance by your mother's desire, it is disrespectful both to her and to me to insist upon a course at variance with our judgment and wishes."
"I am not a child. To-day I know, I feel, I have done for ever with my old—happy childhood; I am—what I wish I were not, a woman. Oh, Mr. Palma, be merciful, and send me to mother!"
He looked down into the worn face gleaming under the gas-lamps of the chandelier, into the shadowy eloquent eyes, and noting the bloodless lips drawn sharply into curves of pain, his hand fell upon her shoulder.
"Lily, because I am merciful I shall keep you here. I am not a patient man, am unaccustomed to teasing importunity, and it would pain me to harshly bruise the white flower I have undertaken to shelter from storm and dust; therefore you must be quiet, docile, and annoy me no more with fruitless solicitations. Your mother does not want you in Europe."
"You will not let me go?"
"I will not. Let this subject rest henceforth, until I renew it."
With a faint moan, she shut her eyes and shivered; and again he took her little white cold hands.
"Little snow-statue, why will you not trust me? Tell me what has so suddenly changed the soft white Lily-bud of yesterday into this hollow-eyed, defiant young woman?"
The temptation was powerful to unburden her heart, to demand of him the truth, with which she suspected he was at least partly acquainted; but the thought of casting so fearful an imputation upon her mother sealed her lips. Moreover, she felt assured that her entreaties would never prevail upon him to disclose what he deemed it expedient to conceal.
He watched and understood the struggle, and a cold smile moved his handsome mouth.
"You have resolved to withhold your confidence. Very well, I shall never again solicit it. It is not my habit to petition for that which I have a right to command. You merely force me to draw the reins where I preferred you should at least imagine you were unbridled."
He dropped her hands, looked at his watch, and took up his gloves; adding, in an entirely altered and indifferent voice:
"What have you lost to-day?"
It was with difficulty that she restrained the words: "My youth, my peace of mind, my hope and faith in my future."
Raising her hands wearily, she rested her chin upon them, and answered slowly:
"Many things, I fear."
"Valuable articles? Faded flowers, perfumed with choice Oriental reminiscences?"
"Yes, sir, I lost my purse, and my Agra violets."
"What reward will you offer for the recovery of such precious relics of fraternal affection? A promise of implicit obedience to your guardian? Certainly, they are worth that trifle?"
"They are very precious indeed. Where did you find my purse?"
"On the desk at my office."
He held up the ivory toy, then laid it on the table.
"Thank you, sir. Mr. Palma, will you grant me a great favour?"
"As I never forfeit my word, I avoid entangling myself rashly in the meshes of promise. Just now I am in no mood to grant your unreasonable petitions; still, I will be glad to hear what my ward desires of her guardian."
Her lip quivered, and his heart smote him as he observed her wounded expression. She was silent, still resting her drooped head on her folded hands.
"Regina, I am waiting to hear you."
"It is useless. You would refuse me."
"Probably I should; yet I prefer that you should express your wishes, and afford me an opportunity of judging of their propriety."
She sighed and shook her head.
"I shall not permit such childish trifling. Tell me at once what you wish me to do."
"Will you be so kind as to lend me twenty-five dollars, until I receive my remittance?"
His eyes fell beneath her timidly pleading gaze, and a deep flush of embarrassment passed over his face.
"That depends upon the use you intend to make of it. If you desire to run away from me, I am afraid you must borrow of some one else. Do you wish to pay your passage to Europe?"
"Oh no! I wish that I could. You allow me no such comforting hope."
"What do you want with it?"
"I cannot tell you."
"Because you know that your object is improper?"
"No, sir; but you would not understand my motives."
"I will not I hoped you would have sufficient confidence in me to grant my request without demanding my reasons."
"I have confidence in the purity of your motives. I do not question the goodness of your heart, or the propriety of your intentions; but I gravely doubt the correctness of your youthful judgment. Do not force me to refuse you such a trivial thing. Tell me your purpose."
A proud grieved look crossed her delicate features.
He walked away, reached the door, then came back for one of his gloves which had fallen on the rug.
"Well, Miss Orme."
He looked down into her beautiful sad eyes, and his heart began to throb fiercely.
"Lily, I will."
"Some day I will explain everything."
"When do you want the money?"
"To-morrow morning, if you please."
"At breakfast you will find it in an envelope under your plate."
"Thank you, sir. It is for——"
"Hush! Tell me nothing till you tell me all. I prefer to trust you entirely, and I shall wait for the hour when no concealment exists between us; when your secret thoughts are as much my property as my own. Less than that will never content your exacting guardian, but that hour is very distant."
She took his hand and pressed her soft lips upon it, ere he could snatch it away.
"God grant that hour may come speedily."
"Amen, Lily. You look strangely worn and ill; and your eyes are distressingly elfish and shadowy. Go to sleep, little girl, and forget that you forced me to be stem and harsh. Remember that your guardian, in defiance of his judgment, trusts you fully—entirely."
He turned quickly and quitted the library before she could reply, and soon after, hearing the street door close, she knew he had gone to Mrs. Tarrant's.
The letter which Regina wrote that night was earnest, almost passionate, in its appeal that she might be permitted to join her mother; yet no hint of the bete noire of the square darkened its contents, for the writer felt that only face to face, eye to eye, could she ask her mother that fearful question, upon which all her future peace depended.
Having sealed and addressed the envelope, she extinguished the light, and tried to find in sleep that blessed oblivion which nature mercifully provides for aching hearts and heavily laden brains; but about three o'clock she heard the carriage at the front door, the voices of the trio ascending the stairs, and once a ringing triumphant laugh which was peculiarly Olga's, then all grew still in the house, and quiet in the street.