Unable to compose herself, tossing restlessly on her bed, with hot throbbing temples and a sore heart Regina wearily listened for the low silvery strokes of the clock, and when it announced half-past three she began to long for daylight.
Suddenly, although warned by not even the faintest sound, she became aware that she was not alone; that a human being was breathing the same atmosphere. Starting into a sitting posture she exclaimed:
"Who is there?"
"Hush! I am no burglar. Don't make a noise."
Simultaneously she heard the stroke of a match, and a small wax taper was lighted and held high over Olga's head, showing her tall form enveloped in a cherry-coloured dressing-gown and shawl. Stepping cautiously across the floor, she lighted one of the gas burners, placed the taper on the bureau, and came to the bedside.
"Make room for me. I am cold, my feet are like ice."
"What is the matter? Has anything happened?"
"Nothing particularly new or strange. Something happens every hour, you know; people are born, bartered—die and are buried; lives get blackened and hearts bleed and are trampled by human hoofs, until they are crushed beyond recognition. My dear, civilization is a huge cheat, and the Red Law of Savages in primeval night is worth all the tomes of jurisprudence, from the Pandects of Justinian to the Commentaries of Blackstone, and the wisdom of Coke and Story. Oh halcyon days of prehistoric humanity! When instead of bowing and smiling, and chatting gracefully with one's deadliest foe, drinking his Amontillado and eating his truffles, people had the sublime satisfaction of roasting his flesh and calcining his bones, for an antediluvian dejeuner a la fourchette,—(only, to escape anachronism) sans fourchette! What a pity I have not the privilege of la belle sauvage, far away in some cannibalistic nook of pagan Polynesia."
She was sitting with the bedclothes drawn closely over her, and Regina could scarcely recognize in the pale, almost haggard face beside her the radiant, laughing woman who had seemed so dazzling a few hours before, as she burned away in her festive robes.
"Olga, you talk like a heathen."
"Of course. To be sincere, unselfish, honest, and womanly is nowaday inevitably heathenish. I wish I had a nose as flat as a buckwheat cake, and lips three inches thick, with huge brass rings dangling from them both! And for raiment, instead of Worth's miracles, a mantle of featherwork, or a deerskin cut into fringe, and studded with blue glass beads! Civilization is a gibing impostor, and religion is laughing in its sacerdotal sleeves at its own unblushing——"
"Hush, Olga! You are blasphemous. No wonder you shiver while you talk. New York is full of noble Christians, of generous charming people, and there must be some wickedness everywhere. Don't you know that God will ultimately overrule all, and evangelize the world?"
"Peut-etre! But I have not even the traditional grain of mustard seed to sow; and I might answer you as Laplace once did: 'Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothese.'"
"Had you a pleasant evening at Mrs. Tarrant's?" asked Regina, anxious to change the topic.
"Wonderfully brilliant, and quite a topaz success. I sparkled, blazed, and people complimented profusely (criticizing sotto voce), and envied openly; and when I bowed myself out at last, I felt like Sir Peter Teazle on quitting Lady Sneerwell's: 'I leave my character behind me.' Mamma was charmed with me, and Mr. Silas Midas looked proud possession, as if he had in his vest pocket a bill of sale to every pound of my white flesh,—and Mr. Erle Palma smiled as benignly as some cast-iron statue of Pluto, freshly painted white, and glistening in the sunshine. A propos! I asked him to-night if he would loosen his martinet rein upon you, and permit you to make your debut in society as my bridesmaid? How those maddening white teeth of his glittered, as he smiled approvingly at the proposition? Whenever they gleam out, they remind me of a tiger preparing to crunch the bones of a tender gazelle, or a bleating lamb. Now you comprehend what brings me here at this unseasonable hour? Armed with your noble guardian's sanction, I crave the honour of your services as bridesmaid at my approaching nuptials. Your dress, dear, must be gentian-coloured silk to match your eyes, and clouded over with tulle of the same hue, relieved by sprays of gentians with silver leaves glittering with icicles, and you shall look on that occasion as lovely as an orthodox Hebrew angel; or, what is far more stylish, beautiful as ox-eyed Here poised above Olympos, watching old Zeus flirt surreptitiously with Aphrodite! Will you be first bridesmaid?"
"No, I will not be your bridesmaid. I could never co-operate in the unhallowed scheme of wedding a man whom you despise. Oh, Olga! do not degrade yourself by such a mercenary traffic."
"My dear, uncontaminated innocent, don't you see that society, and mamma, and Erle Palma have all conspired to make an Isaac of me? Bound hand and foot, I lie on the Moriah of fashionable life; but the grim fact stares me in the face, that no ram will be forthcoming when the slaughter begins! No relenting hand will stay the uplifted knife. Diana will not snatch me into Tauris, and mamma cannot sail prosperously from the Aulis of Erle Palma's charity until I am sacrificed. Ah! the pitying tenderness of maternal love!"
She spoke with intolerable bitterness, and Regina put one arm around her.
"Olga, she loves you too well to doom you to lifelong misery. You always talk so mockingly, and say so many queer things you do not mean, that she does not realize your true sentiments. Show her your heart, your real feelings, and she will never consent to see you marry that man."
"Do you believe that I successfully mask my heart? Not from mamma, not from Erle Palma. They know all its tortures, all its wild desperate struggles, and they are confident that after awhile I shall wear out my own opposition, and sullenly succumb to their wishes. They have taken an inventory of Silas Congreve's worldly goods, and in exchange would gladly brand his name as title-deed upon my brow. To-night I have danced, laughed, chattered like a yellow parrot, ate, drank champagne, flattered, flirted, and fibbed, until I am wellnigh mad. It seems to me that a whole legion of demons lie in wait outside of your door to seize my shivering desolate soul."
She shuddered, and pressed her fingers over her glittering eyes.
"Regina, you are a silly young thing, as ignorant of the ways of the world as an unfledged Java sparrow; but your heart is pure and true, and your affection is no adroitly set steel-trap, to spring unawares, and catch and cut me. From the day when you first came among us with your sweet childish face and holy eyes, as much out of place in this house as Abel's saintly countenance would be in Caina, I have watched and believed in you; and my wretched worldly heart began to put out fibres toward you, as those hyacinths there in your bulb-glasses grow roots. Will it be safe for me to confide in you? Can I trust you?"
"I think so."
"Will you promise to keep secret whatever I may tell you?"
"Does it concern only yourself?"
"Only myself, and one other person whom you do not even know. If I venture to tell you anything, you must give me your solemn promise to betray me to no human being. I want your sympathy at least, for I feel desperate."
Looking pityingly at her pale sorrowful face and quivering mouth, Regina drew closer to her.
"You may trust me. I will never betray you."
"Not to mamma, not to your guardian? You promise?"
Her cold hand seized her companion's, and wistfully her hollow eyes searched the girl's face.
"Would you help me to escape from the misery of this fine marriage? Are you brave enough to meet your guardian's black frown and freezing censure?
"I hope I am brave enough to do right; and you certainly would not expect or desire me to do anything wrong."
Olga threw her arms around Regina, and leaned her head on her shoulder. She seemed for a time shaken by some storm of sorrow that threatened to bear away all her habitual restraint, and Regina silently stroked her glossy red hair, waiting to hear some painful revelation.
"I think I never should have ventured to divulge my misery to you if you had not seen me yesterday, and abstained from all allusion to the matter when you saw that I boldly ignored it. Do you suspect the nature of my errand to East —— Street?"
"I thought it possible that you were engaged in some charitable mission; at least I hoped so."
"Charitable! Then you considered the feigned sickness a 'pious fraud,' and did not condemn me? If charity carried me there, it was solely charity to my suffering starving heart, which cried out for its idol. You have heard of Dirce and Damiens dragged by wild beasts? Theirs was a mere afternoon airing in comparison with the race I am driven by the lash of your guardian, the spur of mamma, and the frantic wails of my famished heart. I wish I could speak without bitterness, and mockery, and exaggeration, but it has grown to be a part of my nature, as features habituated to a mask insensibly assume to some extent its outlines. I will try to put aside my flippant hollow attempts at persiflage, which constitute my worldly mannerism, and tell you in a few simple words. When I was about your age, I think my nature must have resembled yours, for many of your ideas and views of duty in this life remind me in a mournfully vague, tender way of my own early youth; and from that far distant time taunting reminiscences float down to me, whispers from my old self long, long dead. When I was seventeen, I went one June to spend some weeks with my Grandmother Neville, who was an invalid, and resided on the Hudson, near a very picturesque spot, which artists were in the habit of frequenting with their sketch-books. Allowed a degree of liberty which mamma never accorded me at home, I availed myself of the lax regimen of my grandmother, and roamed at will about the beautiful country adjacent. In one of these ill-fated excursions I encountered a young artist, who was spending a few days in the neighbourhood. I was a simple-hearted schoolgirl, untutored in worldly wisdom, and had always spent my vacations with grandmother, who was afflicted with no aristocratic whims and vagaries; who thought it not wholly unpardonable to be poor, and was so old-fashioned as to judge people from their merits, not by the amount of their income tax.
"Belmont Eggleston was then about twenty-five, very handsome, very talented, full of chivalric enthusiasm, and as refined and tender in sensibility as a woman. We met accidentally at a farmhouse, where a sudden shower drove us for shelter, and from that hour neither could forget the other. It was the old, old immemorial story—two fresh young souls united, two hearts exchanged, two lives for ever entangled. We walked and rode together, he taught me drawing, came now and then and spent the long summer afternoons, and grandmother liked and welcomed him; offered no obstacle to the strong current of love that ran like a golden stream for those few hallowed weeks, and afterward found only rapids and whirlpools. How deliriously happy I was! What a glory seems even now to linger about every tree and rock that we visited together! He told me he was very poor, and was encumbered with the care of an infirm mother and sister, and of a young brother who displayed great plastic skill, and gave promise of becoming renowned in sculpture, while Belmont was devoted to painting. He frankly explained his poverty, detailed his plans, expatiated with beautiful poetic fervour upon the hopes that gilded his future, and asked my sympathy and affection. While he was obscure he was unwilling to claim me, his love was too unselfish to transplant me from a sphere of luxury and affluence to one of pecuniary want; and he only desired that I would patiently wait until his genius won recognition. One star-lit night, standing on the bank of the river, with the perfume of jasmines stealing over us, I put my hand in his, and pledged my heart, my life for his. Nearly eight years have passed since then, but no shadow of regret has ever crossed my mind for the solemn promise I gave; and, despite all I have suffered, were it in my power to cancel the past I would not! Bitter waves have broken over me, but the memory of my lover, of his devotion, is sweeter, oh! sweeter than my hopes of heaven! God forgive me if it be sinful idolatry. It is the one golden link that held me back, that saves me now, from selling myself to Satan. In the midst of that rose-crowned June and July, in the height of my innocent happiness, mamma fell upon us, as a hawk swoops upon a dovecote, dividing a cooing pair. Disguising nothing, I freely told her all, and Belmont nobly pleaded for permission to prove his worthiness. Grandmother was a powerful ally, and perhaps the result might have been different, and mamma would have ultimately been won over, had not Erle Palma's counsel been sought. That cold-blooded tyrant has been the one curse of my life. But for him, I should be to-day a happy, loving wife. Do you wonder that I hate him? How I have longed for the seven Apocalyptic vials of wrath! He and mamma conferred. An investigation concerning the Egglestons elicited the fatal fact that some branch of the family had once been accused of embezzlement, had been prosecuted by Erle Palma, and in defiance of his efforts to convict him had been acquitted. Mamma and your guardian possessed then, as now, only one criterion:
'He is .poor, and that's suspicious; he is unknown, And that's defenceless!'
Then and there they sternly prohibited even my acquaintance with one to whom I had promised all that woman can give of affection, faith, and deathless constancy. No more pity or regard was shown to my agony of heart and mind than the cattle drover manifests in driving innocent dumb horned creatures from quiet clover meadows where they browsed in peace, to the reeking public shambles. Even a parting interview was denied me; but clandestinely I found an opportunity to renew my vows, to assure Belmont that no power on earth should compel me to renounce him, and that if necessary I would wait twenty years for him to claim me. Older and wiser than I, he realized what stretched before me, and while repeatedly assuring me his love was inextinguishable, he generously attempted to dissuade me from defying those who had legal control of me. So we parted, pledged irrevocably one to the other; and whenever we have met since that summer, it has been by strategy. My mother, from the day when the doom of my love was decreed, has been as deaf to my pleadings, and my heart-breaking cries, as the golden calf was to the indignant denunciations of Moses. I was hurried prematurely into society, thrown into a maelstrom of gaiety that whirled me as though I were a dancing dervish, and left me apparently no leisure for retrospection or regret, or for the indulgence of the rosy dream that lay like a lovely morning cloud above and behind me. My clothing was costly and tasteful; I was exhibited at Saratoga, Long Branch, and Newport, those popular human expositions, where wealth and fashion flock to display and compare their textile fabrics and jewellery, as less 'developed' cattle still on four feet are hurried to State fairs, to ascertain the value of their pearly short horns, thin tails, and satin-coated skins. No expense or pains were spared, and my mother's stepson certainly lavished his money as well as advice upon me. At long intervals I had stolen interviews with Belmont, then he went far south to study for a tropical landscape, and was absent two years. When he returned, beaming with hope, the cloud over our lives seemed silvering at the edges, and he was sanguine that his picture would compel recognition, and bring him fame, which in art means food. But Earl Palma had resolved otherwise. It was our misfortune, that in my haste to see the picture, I neglected my usual precautionary measures to elude suspicion, and your guardian tracked me to the attic, where the finishing touches were being put on. Unluckily Belmont was never a favourite among the artists, and he explained to me that it was because he was proud, reticent, and held himself aloof from their club life and social haunts. Taking advantage of his personal unpopularity, your magnanimous guardian organized a cabal against him. No sooner was the painting exhibited, than a tirade of ridicule and abuse was poured upon it, and the journal most influential in forming and directing artistic taste, contained an overwhelmingly adverse criticism, which was written by a particular friend and chum of Erle Palma, who, I am convinced, caused its preparation. Oh, Regina! it was a cruel, cruel stab, that entered my darling's noble tender heart, and almost maddened him. In literature, savage criticism defeats its own unamiable purpose, by promoting the sale of books it is designed to crush; but unfortunately this law does not often operate in the department of painting. In a fit of gloomy despondency, Belmont offered his lovely work for a mere trifle, but the picture dealers declined to touch it at any price, and rashly cutting it from the frame, he threw the labour of years into the flames. Meantime grand-mamma had died, and Belmont's mother became hopelessly bedridden, while his young brother had made his way to Europe, where he occupied a menial position in a sculptor's atelier at Florence. A more rigid surveillance was exerted over me, and the dancing dervishes crowned me queen of their revels. By day and by night I was surrounded with influence intended to beguile me from the past, to narcotize memory, to make me in reality the heartless, soulless, scoffing creature that I certainly seem. But Erle Palma has found me stiff tough clay, and despite his efforts, I have been true to the one love of my life. What I have suffered, none but the listening watching God above us knows; and sometimes I despise and loathe myself for the miserable subterfuges I am forced to practise in order to elude my keepers. Poor mamma loves me, after a selfish worldly fashion, and there are moments when I really think she pities me; but from Palma influence and association wealth has long been her most precious fetich. Poverty, obscurity terrify her, and for the fleshpots of fashion she would literally sell me, as she once sold herself to Godwin Palma. Repeatedly I have been urged to accept offers of marriage that revolted every instinct of my nature, that seemed insulting to a woman who long ago gave away all that was best, in her heart's idolatrous love. To-day my Belmont is ten-fold dearer, than when in the dawning flush of womanhood, I plighted my lifelong faith to him; and reigns more royally than ever over all that is good and true in my perverted and cynical nature. I cling to him, to my faith in his noble, manly, unselfish, undying love for me, unworthy as I have grown, even as a drowning wretch to some overhanging bough, which alone saves her from the black destruction beneath. Unable to conquer the opposition he encountered here, Belmont went West, and finally strayed into the solitudes of Oregon and British America. At one time, for a year, I did not know whether he were living or dead, and what torture I silently endured! Six months ago he returned, buoyed by the hope of retrieving his past; and one of his pictures was bought by a wealthy man in Philadelphia, who had commissioned him to paint two more landscapes. At last we began to dream of an humble little home somewhere, where at least we should have the blessing of our mutual love and presence. The thought was magnetic,—it showed me there was some good left in my poor scoffing soul; that I possessed capacity for happiness, for self-sacrificing devotion to my noble Belmont,—that made our future seem a canticle. Oh! how delicious was the release I imagined!"
She groaned aloud, and rocked herself to and fro, with a hopelessness that awed and grieved her pale mute listener.
"The Fates are fond of Erle Palma. They will pet him to the end, for he is a man after their own flinty hearts; pitiless as those grim three, whom Michael Angelo must have seen during nightmare. When I think how he will gloat over the overthrow of my darling hope, I feel that it is scarcely safe for me to remain under his roof; I am so powerfully tempted to strangle him. Exposure to the rigour of two winters in the far North-West has seriously undermined Belmont's health. His physician apprehends consumption, and orders him to hasten to Southern Europe, or South America."
For some moments Olga was silent, and her mournful eyes were fixed on the wall, with a half vacant stare, as her thoughts wandered to her unfortunate lover.
Regina could scarcely realize that this pallid face so full of anguish was the radiant mocking countenance she had hitherto seen only in mask, and taking her hand she pressed it gently to recall her attention.
"Feeling as you do, dear Olga, how can you think of marrying Mr. Congreve?"
"Marrying him! I do not; I am not yet quite so degraded as that implies. I would sooner buy a pistol, or an ounce of arsenic, and end all this misery. While Belmont lives, I belong to him; I love him as I never have loved any one else; but when he is taken from me, only Heaven sees what will be my wretched fate. Destiny has made a football of the most precious hope that ever gladdened a woman's heart, and when the end comes, I rather think Erle Palma will not curl his granite lips, and taunt me. My assent to the Congreve purchase is but a ruse; in other words, honest words, a disgraceful subterfuge, fraud, to gain time. I can bear the life I lead no longer, and ere many days I shall burst my fetters, and snatch freedom, no matter what cost I pay hereafter."
"Olga, you cannot mean that you intend——"
"No matter what I intend, I shall not falter when the time comes. Yesterday I went to see his mother—poor patient sufferer—and to learn the latest tidings from my darling. You saw me when I entered, and no doubt puzzled your brains to reconcile the inconsistency of my conduct. Your delicate reticence entitles you to this explanation. Now you know all my sorrow, and no matter what happens you must not betray my movements. From this house, my letters to Belmont have been intercepted, and our correspondence has long been conducted under cover to his mother."
"Where is he now?"
"How is he?"
"No better. His physician says January must find him en route to a warmer climate."
"When did you see him last?"
"In September. Even then his cough rendered me anxious, but he laughed at my apprehensions. O God! be merciful to him and to me! I know I am unworthy; I know I have a bitter wicked tongue, and a world of hate in my heart; but if God would be pitiful, if He only spares my darling's life, I will try to be a better woman."
She leaned her head once more on Regina's shoulder, and burst into a flood of tears, the first her companion had ever seen her shed. After some minutes the sympathizing listener said:
"Perhaps if you appealed frankly to Mr. Palma, and showed him the dreadful suffering of your heart, he would relent."
"You do not know him. Does a lion relent with his paw upon his prey?"
"His opposition must arise from an erroneous view of what would best promote your happiness. He cannot be actuated by merely vindictive motives, and I am sure he would sympathize with you if he realized the intensity of your feelings."
"I would as soon expect ancient Cheops to dissolve in tears at the recital of my woes; or that statue of Washington in Union Place to dismount and wipe my eyes! An Eggleston once defied and triumphed over him in the court-room; and defeat Erle Palma never forgets, never forgives. He proposes to give me ten thousand dollars as a bridal present, when owning millions, I need it not; and to-day one-half that amount would make me the happiest woman in all America, would enable Belmont to travel south and re-establish his health, would render two wretched souls everlastingly happy and grateful! Ah how happy!"
"Tell him so! Try him just once more, and I have an abiding faith that he will generously respond to your appeal."
Olga looked compassionately at her companion for an instant, and the old bitter laugh jarred upon the girl's ears.
"Poor little dove trying your wings in the upper air, flashing the silver in the sun; fancying you are free to circle in the heavens so blue above you! Your wary hawk watches patiently, only waiting for you to soar a little higher, venture a little farther from the shelter of the dovecote; then he will strike you down, fasten his talons in your heart. 'Be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.' The first yon have yet to leap, and with Erle Palma as your preceptor, your prospective tuition fees are heavy. You are a sweet good earnest-hearted child, but in this house you need to be something quite different—a Seraph. Do you understand? Now you are only a cherub, which in the original means dove; but some day, if you live here, you will learn the wisdom of the Seraph, which means serpent! I know little 'Latin, less of Greek,' no Hebrew; but a learned seer of New England taught me this."
She tossed aside the bedclothes, and sprang out upon the floor, wrapping herself in her cherry-coloured shawl.
"Five o'clock, I daresay. Out of doors it is grey daylight, and I must go back to my own room unobserved. What a world of sorrowful sympathy shines in your wonderful eyes! What a pity you can't die now, just as you are, for then your pure sinless soul would float straight to that Fifth Heaven of the Midrash, 'Gan-Eden,' which is set apart exclusively for the souls of noble women, and Pharaoh's daughter, who is presumed to be Queen there, would certainly make you maid of honour! One word more, before I run away. Do you know why Cleopatra is coming here?''
"Olga, I do not in the least understand half you are saying."
Olga's large white hand smoothed back the hair that clouded the girl's forehead, and she asked almost incredulously:
"Don't you really know that the Sorceress of the Nile drifts hither in her gilded barge? You have heard of Brunella Carew, the richest woman in the Antilles? She is the most dangerous of smooth-skinned witches, as fascinating as Phryne, but more wisely discreet. When you see her you will be at once reminded of Owen Meredith's 'Fatality':
'Live hair afloat with snakes of gold, And a throat as white as snow, And a stately figure and foot And that faint pink smile, so sweet, so cold.'
Just now this Cuban widow is the fashionable lioness; she is also a pet clientele of Erle Palma, and comes here to-day on a brief visit. Heaven grant she prove his Lamia! As she affects Oriental style, I call her Cleopatra, which pleases her vastly. Having been endowed at birth with beauty and fortune, her remaining ambition is to appear fastidious in literature, and dilettante in art, and if you wish to stretch her on St. Lawrence's gridiron, you have only to offer a quotation or illustration which she cannot understand. Beware of the poison of asps. There is an object to be accomplished by inviting her here, and you may safely indulge the belief that her own campaign is well matured. Keep your solemn sinless eyes wide open, and don't under any circumstances quarrel with poor Elliott Roscoe. One drop of his blood floats more generosity and magnanimity than all the blue ice in his cousin's body. He was in a savage mood last night, at Mrs. Tarrant's, and had some angry words with your guardian, who of course treated him as he would a spoiled boy. Roscoe at least has or had a heart. There is the day staring at us! I must be gone. Remember—I have trusted you."
She left the room, closing the door noiselessly, and Regina was lost in perplexing conjectures concerning the significance of her parting warning.
It was not yet eight o'clock when she descended to the breakfast-room, but Mr. Palma was already there, and stood at the window, with an open newspaper which he appeared to scan very intently.
In answer to her subdued "Good-morning," he merely bowed, without turning his head, and she rang the bell and took her place at the table.
While she scalded and wiped the cups (one of his requirements), he walked to the hearth, glanced at his watch, and said:
"Let me have my coffee at once. I have an early engagement. As it threatens snow, you must keep indoors today."
"I am obliged to attend the Cantata rehearsal at Mrs. Brompton's."
"Then I will order the carriage to be placed at your disposal. What hour?"
Upon her plate lay a sealed envelope, and as she put it in her pocket, his keen eyes searched her countenance.
"Did you sleep well? I should judge you had not closed your eyes."
"I wrote a long letter to mother, and afterward I could not sleep."
"You look as if you had grown five years older, since you gave me my coffee yesterday. When the rehearsal ends, I wish you to come directly home and go to sleep; for there will be company here to-day, and it might be rather unflattering to me as guardian, to present my ward to strangers, and imagine their comments on your weary hollow eyes and face as blanched, as 'pale as Seneca's Paulina.'"
Notwithstanding the snow which fell steadily at one o'clock, all who were to take part in the "Cantata," assembled punctually at Mrs. Brompton's, and as Regina hurried down to the carriage, she found that Mrs. Carew, her little daughter and maid, had just arrived. Avoiding a presentation, she proceeded at once to the "Rehearsal," and dismissed the carriage, assuring Farley that it was wrong to keep the horses out in such inclement weather; and as she was provided with "waterproof," overshoes, and umbrella, would walk home.
The musical exercises were unusually tedious, the choruses were halting and uneven, and the repetition seemed endless. The day darkened, and the great bronze chandeliers were lighted, and still Professor Hurtzsel mercilessly flourished his baton, and required new trials; until at length feverishly impatient, Regina having satisfactorily rendered her solos, requested and received permission to retire.
It was almost four o'clock, the hour designated for her meeting, when she enveloped herself in her waterproof cloak, drew the hood over her hat, and almost ran for several squares from Mrs. Brompton's, toward a line of street cars which would convey her to the vicinity of the park. She succeeded in meeting an upward-bound car, entered, and breathed more freely.
It was quite crowded, and, forced to stand up, Regina steadied herself by one of the leathern straps suspended from the roof. At her side was an elderly gentleman with very white hair, eyebrows, and moustache, who was muffled in a heavy overcoat, and leaned upon a gold-headed cane. Soon after, another passenger pressed in, elbowed his way forward, and, touching the old gentleman, exclaimed:
"Colonel Tichnor in America! And above all in a street car! When did you arrive?"
"Last week. These cars are too democratic for men with gouty feet; but I dislike to bring my horses out in such weather. Not more than a dozen people have stood on my toes during the last fifteen minutes. Ringold, how is Palma? Prosperous as ever?"
"If you had been at Mrs. Tarrant's last night, you would not need to inquire. Positively we younger men have no showing when he deigns to enter the beaux list. He is striding upward in his profession, and you know there is no limit to his ambition. Hitherto he had cautiously steered clear of politics, but it is rumoured that a certain caucus will probably tender him the nomination for——"
Here a child close to Regina cried out so sharply that she could not hear several sentences; and when quiet was restored, the young gentleman was saying:
"Very true; there is no accounting for taste. It does appear queer that after living a bachelor so long, he should at last surrender to a widow. But, my dear sir, she is a perfect Circe,—and I suspect those immense estates in Cuba and Jamaica are quite as potential with Palma as her other undeniable charms. Last night, as he promenaded with her, it was conceded that they were the handsomest couple in the room; and Mrs. Grundy has patted them on the head, and bestowed the approved,—'Heaven bless you, my children.' Palma is the proudest man in——"
"Here is my street. Good-day, Ringold."
The elderly gentleman left the car, and after awhile the young man also departed; but there seemed no diminution of the crowd, and as the track was heavy with drifting snow the horses moved slowly. At last they reached a point where the line of road turned away from the direction in which Regina desired to go, and quitting the car, she walked toward East —— Street.
After the heated atmosphere she had just left, the sharp biting cold was refreshing, and against the glistening needles of snow she pressed rapidly on, until finally the trees in the square gladdened her eyes.
Near one of the corners, stood a large close carriage whose driver was enveloped in a cloak, and protected by an umbrella, while the yellow silk inside curtains were drawn down over the windows.
Agitated by contending emotions of reluctance to meeting the man whose presence was so painful, and of dread lest he had grown impatient, and might present himself to her guardian, Regina hastened into the square, and looked eagerly about the deserted walks.
Pressed against the south side of a leafless tree whose trunk partly shielded him from the driving snow-laden north-east wind, Peleg Peterson stood watching her, and as she approached, he came forward.
"Better late than never. How long did you expect me to wait here, with the cold eating into my vitals?"
"Indeed I am very sorry, but I could not come a moment sooner."
"Who is in that carriage yonder?"
"I do not know. How should I?"
"There is something suspicious about it. Is it waiting for you?"
"Certainly not, No human being knows where I am at this moment. Here are forty-five dollars, every cent that I possess. You must not expect me to aid you in future, for I shall not be able; and moreover I shall be subjected to suspicion if I come here again."
She handed him the money rolled up in a small package, and he deposited it in his pocket.
"You might at least have made it a hundred."
"I have no more money."
"Do you still doubt that you are my child?"
"When you make your claim in a court of justice, as you yesterday threatened, the proofs must be established. Until then, I shall not discuss it with you. I have an abiding faith in the instincts of nature, and I believe that when I stand before my father, my heart will unmistakably proclaim it. From you it shrinks with dread and horror."
"Because Minnie taught you to hate me. I knew she would."
"Mother never mentioned your name to me. Only to Hannah am I indebted for any knowledge of you. Where is Hannah now?"
"I don't know. We quarrelled not long ago. Regina, I want your photograph. I want to wear my daughter's picture over my heart."
He moved closer to her, and put out his arm, but she sprang back.
"You must not touch me, at least not now; not until I can hear from mother. I have no photographs of myself. The only picture taken for years is a portrait which Mr. Palma had painted, and sent to mother. In any emergency that may occur, if you should be really ill, or in actual suffering and want, write to me, and address your letter according to the directions on this slip of paper. Mrs. Mason will always see that your note reaches me safely. You look very cold, and I must hasten back, or my absence might cause questions and censure. I shall find out everything from mother, for she will not deceive me; and if—if what you say is true, then I shall know what is my duty, and you must believe that I shall perform it. I pray to God that you may not be my father, and I cannot believe that you are; but if after all you prove your claim, I will do what is right. I will take your hand then, and face the world's contempt; and we will bear our disgrace together as best we may. When I know you are my father, I will pay you all that a child owes a parent. This I promise you."
Her face was wellnigh as white as the snow that covered and fringed her hood; and out of its pallid beauty, the sad eyes looked steadfastly into the bloated visage before her.
"I believe you! There spoke my girl! You are true steel, and worth a hundred of Minnie. Some day, my pretty child, you and I shall know one another, as father and daughter should."
He once more attempted to touch her, but vigilant and agile she eluded his hand, and said decisively:
"You have all that I can give you now—the money. Don't put your hand on me, for as yet I deny your parental claim. When I know I am your child, you shall find me obedient in all things. Now, sir, good-bye."
Turning, she ran swiftly away, and glanced over her shoulder, fearful of pursuit, but the figure stood where she had left him; was occupied in counting the money, and, breathing more freely, Regina shook the snow from her wrappings, from her umbrella, and walked homeward.
Had she purchased a sufficient reprieve to keep him quiet until she could hear from her mother, and receive the expected summons to join her? Or was this but an illusive relief, a mere momentary lull in the tempest of humiliation that was muttering and darkening around her?
She had walked only a short distance from the square, and was turning a corner, when she ran against a gentleman hurrying from the opposite direction.
"Pray pardon me, miss."
She could not suppress the cry that broke from her lips.
"Oh, Mr. Palma!"
He turned as though he had not until now recognized her, but there was no surprise in his stern fixed face.
"I thought Mrs. Brompton resided on West —— Street; had not heard of her change of residence. From the length of your rehearsal you certainly should be perfect in your performance. It is now half-past five, and I think you told me you commenced at one? Rather disagreeable weather for you to be out. Wait here, under this awning, till I come back."
He was absent not more than five minutes, and returned with a close carriage; but a glance sufficed to show her it was not the one she had seen in the neighbourhood of the square.
As he opened the door and beckoned her forward, he took her umbrella, handed her in, and with one keen cold look into her face, said:
"I trust my ward's dinner toilette will be an improvement upon her present appearance, as several guests have been invited. The Cantata must have bored you immensely."
He bowed, closed the door, directed the driven to the number of his residence on Fifth Avenue, and disappeared.
Sinking down in one corner, Regina shut her eyes, and groaned. Could his presence have been accidental? She had given no one a clue in her movements, and how could he have followed her circuitous route after leaving Mrs. Brompton's? He had evinced no surprise, had asked no explanation of her conduct, but would he abstain in future? Was his promise to trust her the cause of his forbearance? Or was it attributable to the fact that his thoughts were concentrated upon the lady with whose name people were associating his?
The strain upon her nerves was beginning to relax; her head ached, her eyes smarted, and she felt sick and faint. Like one in a perplexing dream, she was whirled along the streets, and at last reached home.
The house was already brilliantly lighted, for the day had closed prematurely, with the darkness of the increasing snow, and in the seclusion of her own room the girl threw herself down in a rocking chair.
Everything seemed dancing in kaleidoscopic confusion, and amid the chaos only one grim fact was immovable, she must dress and go down to dinner. Just now, unwelcome as was the task, she dared not neglect it, for her absence might stimulate the investigation she so much dreaded, and wearily she rose and began her toilette.
At half-past seven Hattie entered.
"Aren't you ready, miss? Mrs. Palma says you must hurry down, for the company are all in the parlour, and Mr. Palma has asked for you. Stop a minute, miss. Your sash is all crooked. There, all right. Let me tell you there is more lace and velvet downstairs than you can show, and jewellery! No end of it! But as for born good looks, you can outface them all."
"Don't I look very pale and jaded?"
"Very white, miss; you always do, and red cheeks would be as much out of your style as paint on a corpse. I can tell you what you do look like, more than ever I saw you before; that marble figure with the dove on its finger, which stands in the front parlour bay-window."
It was Mr. Palma's pet piece of sculpture, a statue of "Innocence," originally intended for his library, but Mrs. Palma had pleaded for permission to exhibit it downstairs.
During Regina's residence in New York scarcely a week elapsed without her meeting guests at the dinner-table, and the frequency of the occurrence had quite worn away the awkward shyness with which she had at first confronted strangers. Yet to-day she felt nervously timid as she approached the threshold of the brilliant room, and caught a glimpse of those within.
Two gentlemen stood on the rug talking with Olga, a third sat on a sofa engaged in conversation with Mrs. Palma, while Mrs. St. Clare and her daughter entertained two strangers in the opposite corner, and on a tete-a-tete drawn conspicuously forward under the chandelier were Mr. Palma and Mrs. Carew.
Regina merely glanced at Olga long enough to observe how handsome she appeared, in her rose-hued silk, with its rich black lace garniture, and the spray of crushed pink roses drooping against her neck, then her gaze dwelt upon the woman under the chandelier.
Unusually tall, and proportionately developed, her size might safely have been pronounced heroic, and would by comparison have dwarfed a man of less commanding stature than Mr. Palma; yet so symmetrical was the outline of face and figure that the type seemed wellnigh faultless, and she might have served as a large-limbed rounded model for those majestic women whom Buonaroti painted for the admiration of all humanity, upon the walls of the Sistine.
The face was oval, with a remarkably low but full brow, a straight finely-cut nose, very wide between the eyes, which were large, almond-shaped, and of a singularly radiant grey, with long curling gold-tinted lashes. Her complexion was of that peculiar creamy colourlessness, which is found in the smooth petals of a magnolia, and the lips were outlined in bright carmine that hinted at chemical combinations, so ripe and luscious was the tint.
Had she really stepped down from some glorious old Venetian picture, bringing that crown of hair, of the true "biondina" hue, so rare nowaday, and never seen in perfection save among the marbles and lagunes of crumbling Venice? Was it natural, that mass of very pale gold, so pale that it seemed a flossy heap of raw silk, or had she by some subtle stroke of skill discovered the secret of that beautiful artificial colouring, which was so successfully practised in the days of Giorgione?
Her dress was velvet, of that light lilac tint which only perfect complexions dare approach, was cut very low and square in front and trimmed with a profusion of gossamer white lace. Diamonds flashed on her neck and arms, and in the centre of the puffed and crimped hair a large butterfly of diamonds scattered light upon the yellow mass.
Mr. Palma was smiling at some low spoken sentence that rippled like Italian poetry over her full lips, when his eye detected the figure hovering near the door, and at once he advanced, and drew her in.
Without taking her hand, his fingers just touched her sleeve, as walking beside her he said:
"Mrs. Carew must allow me the pleasure of presenting my ward Miss Orme, who has most unpardonably detained us from our soup."
The stranger smiled and offered her hand.
"Ah, Miss Orme! I shall never pardon you for stealing the only heart whose loyalty I claim. My little Llora saw you at Mrs. Brompton's, heard you sing, and was enchanted with your eyes, which she assured me were 'blue as the sky, ma mere, and like violets with black lace quilled around them.'"
Regina barely touched the ivory hand encrusted with costly jewels, and Mr. Palma drew her near a sofa, where sat a noble-looking elderly gentleman, slightly bald, and whose ample beard and long moustache were snow-white, although his eyebrows were black, and his fine brown eyes sparkled with the fire and enthusiasm of youth.
"My ward, Miss Orme, has a juvenile reverence for Congressmen, whom knowing only historically, she fondly considers above and beyond the common clay of mankind, regards them as the worthy successors of the Roman Patres Conscripti, and in the Honourable Mr. Chesley she is doubtless destined to realize all her romantic ideas relative to American statesmen. Regina, Mr. Chesley represents California in the council of the nation, and can tell you all about those wonderful canons of which you were speaking last week."
The guest took her fingers, shook them cordially, and looking into his fine face, the girl felt a sudden thrill run through her frame. What was there in the soft brown eyes, and shape of the brow that was so familiar, that made her heart beat so fiercely?
Mechanically she sat down near him, failing to answer some trivial question from Mrs. Palma, and bowing in an absent preoccupied manner to the remainder of the guests.
Fortunately dinner was announced immediately, and as Mrs. Palma moved away on Mr. Chesley's arm, while Mr. Palma gave his to Mrs. Carew, Regina felt a cold hand seize hers, and lead her forward.
"Mr. Roscoe, where did you secrete yourself? I was not aware that you were in the room."
"Standing near the window, watching you bow to every one else. Your guardian requested me to hand you in to dinner."
Something in his voice and manner annoyed her, and looking up, she said coldly;
"My guardian is very kind; but I regret that his consideration in providing me an escort has taxed your courtesy so severely."
Before he could reply they had reached the table, and, glancing at the card attached to the bouquet at each plate, Regina found her chair had been placed next to Mr. Chesley's, while Olga was her vis-a-vis.
"If I ask you it question, will you answer it truly?" said Elliott.
"That depends entirely upon what it may prove. If a proper one, I shall answer it truly; otherwise, not at all."
"Was it of your own free will, without advice or bias, that you refused the interview I asked you to grant me?"
"My cousin influenced you adversely?"
"He is purely selfish in his course toward——"
"At least it is ungrateful and unbecoming in you to accuse him, and I will not hear you."
She turned her face toward Mr. Chesley, who was carrying on an animated conversation with Mrs. Palma, and some moments elapsed before Elliott resumed:
"Regina, I must see you alone, sometime this evening."
"To demand an explanation of what I have seen and heard,—otherwise I would not credit."
"I have no explanations to offer on any subject. If you refer to a conversation which Mr. Palma had with me yesterday at your request, let me say once for all, that I cannot consent to its revival. Mr. Roscoe, we are good friends now, I hope; but we should be such no longer, if you persist in violating my wishes in this matter."
"What I wish to say to you involves your own safety and happiness."
"I am grateful for your kind intentions, but they result from some erroneous impression. My individual welfare is bound up with those whom you know not, and at all events I prefer not to discuss it."
"You refuse me the privilege of a confidential talk with you?"
"Yes, Mr. Roscoe. Now be pleasant, and let us converse on some more agreeable topic. Did you ever meet Mrs. Carew until to-day?"
He was too angry to reply immediately; but after a little while mastered his indignation.
"I have the pleasure of knowing Mrs. Carew quite well."
"She is remarkably beautiful."
"Oh, unquestionably! And she knows it better than any other article in her creed. New York is spoiling her dreadfully."
He turned and addressed some remarks to Miss St. Clare, who sat on his right, and Regina rejoiced in the opportunity afforded her of becoming a quiet observer and listener. She had never seen her guardian so animated, so handsome as now, while he smiled genially and talked with his lovely guest, and watching them, Regina recollected the remark concerning their appearance which had been made by the gentleman in the car.
Was it possible that after all the lawyer's heart had been seriously interested? Could that satin-cheeked, grey-eyed Circe with pale yellow hair and lashes, hold him in silken bonds at her feet? The idea that he could be captivated by any woman seemed utterly incompatible with all that his ward knew of his life and character, and it had appeared an established fact that he was incapable of any tender emotion; but certainly at this instant the expression with which he was gazing down into Mrs. Carew's lotos face, was earnestly admiring. While Regina watched the pair, a cold sensation crept over her as on some mild starlit night, one suddenly and unconsciously drifts under the lee of some vast, slow-sailing iceberg, and knows not, dreams not, of danger until smitten with the fatal prophetic chill.
Suppose the ambitious middle-aged man intended to marry this wealthy, petted, lovely widow, was it not in all respects a brilliant suitable match, which le beau monde would cordially applaud? Was there a possibility that she would decline an alliance with that proud patrician, whose future seemed dazzling?
In birth, fortune, and beauty could he find her superior?
The flowers in the tall gold epergne in the centre of the table, and the wreath of scarlet camellias that swung down to meet them from the green bronze chandelier, began to dance a saraband. Silver, crystal, china, even the human figures appeared whirling in a misty circle, across which the orange, emerald, and blue tints of the hock glasses shot hither and thither like witch-lights on the Brocken; and indistinct and spectral, yet alluring, gleamed the almond-shaped grey eyes with their gold fringes.
With a quick unsteady motion Regina grasped and drained a goblet of iced-water, and after a little while the mist rolled away, and she heard once more the voices that had never for an instant ceased their utterances.
The shuttlecock of conversation was well kept up from all sides of the table, and when Regina's thoughts crept back from their numbing reverie, Mr. Chesley was eloquently describing some of the most picturesque localities in Oregon and California.
Across the table floated a liquid response.
"I saw in Philadelphia a large painting of that particular spot, and though not remarkably well done, it enables one to form an approximate idea of the grandeur of the scenery."
Mr. Chesley bowed to Mrs. Carew, and answered: "I met the artist, while upon his sketching tour, and was deeply interested in his success. At one time, I hoped he would cast matrimonial anchor in San Francisco, and remain among us; but his fickle fair one deserted him for a young naval officer, and after her marriage, California possessed few charms for him. I pitied poor Eggleston most cordially."
"Then permit me to assure you, that you are needlessly expending your sympathy, for I bear witness to the fact that his wounds have cicatrized. A fair Philadelphian has touched them with her fairy finger, and at present he bows at another shrine."
Shivering with sympathy for Olga, Regina could not refrain from looking at her, while Mrs. Carew spoke, and marvelled at the calm deference, the smiling insouciance with which her hazel eyes rested on the speaker. Then they wandered as if accidentally to the countenance of Mr. Palma, and a lambent flame seemed to kindle in their brown depths.
"Mr. Eggleston has talent, and I am surprised that he has not been more successful," replied the Congressman.
Mr. Palma was pressing Mrs. St. Clare to take more wine, and appeared deaf to the conversation, but Mrs. Carew's flute-like voice responded:
"Yes, a certain order of talent for mere landscape painting; but he should never attempt a higher or different style. He made a wretched copy of the Crucifixion for a wealthy retired tailor, who boasts of his investments in 'virtue and bigotry;' and I fear I gave mortal offence by venturing to say to the owner, that it reminded me of the criticism of Luis de Vargas on a similar failure: 'Methinks he is saying, Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.'"
"A propos! of pictures. Mrs. Carew, I must arrange to have you see a superb new painting recently hung upon the wall at the 'Century,' and ask your opinion of its merit——"
Regina did not catch the remainder of her guardian's sentence, which she felt assured was intended to divert the conversation and shield Olga, for just then Mr. Chesley asked to fill her glass, and the talk drifted away to less dangerous topics.
Irresistibly attracted by some subtle charm in his manner she found herself drawn into a pleasant dialogue with him relative to some startling incidents which he narrated of the early miners in the far West. Watching his face, she puzzled her brain with the solution of the singular familiarity it possessed. She had never met him until to-day, and yet her heart wanned toward him more and more.
At length she ventured the question: "Did you leave your family in California?"
"Unfortunately I have no family, and no relatives. My dear young lady, is it not melancholy to find a confirmed old bachelor, verging fast upon decrepitude, with no one to look after or care for him? When I was a good-looking young beau, and should have been hunting me a bonny blue-eyed bride, I was digging gold from the rocky ribs of mountains in Western solitudes. When I made my fortune, I discovered too late that I had given my youth in exchange."
"I should think, sir, that you might still marry, and be very happy."
His low pleasant laugh did not embarrass her, and he answered:
"You are very kind to kindle that beacon of encouragement, but I fear your charitable sympathy clouds your judgment. Do you imagine any fair young girl could brave my grey hairs and wrinkles?"
"A young girl would not suit you, sir; but there must be noble middle-aged ladies whom you could admire, and trust, and love?"
He bent his white head, and whispered:
"Such, for instance, as Mrs. Carew, who converts all places into Ogygia?"
Without lifting her eyes, she merely shook her head, and he continued:
"Miss Orme, all men have their roseleaf romance. Mine expanded very early, but fate crumpled, crushed it into a shapeless ruin, and leaving the wreck behind me, I went to the wilds of California. Since then, I have missed the humanising influence of home ties, of feminine association; but as I look down the hill, when the sun of my life is casting long shadows, I sometimes feel that it would be a great blessing had I a sister, cousin, niece, or even an adopted daughter, whom I could love and lean upon in my lonely old age. Once I seriously entertained the thought of selecting an orphan from some Asylum, and adopting her into my heart and home."
"When you do, I sincerely hope she will prove all that you wish, and faithfully requite your goodness."
She spoke so earnestly that he smiled, and added:
"Can you recommend one to me? I envy Palma his guardianship, and if I could find a young girl like you, I should not hesitate to solicit——"
"Pardon me, Mr. Chesley, but Mr. Palma is endeavouring to attract your notice," said Mrs. Palma.
The host held in his hand an envelope.
"A telegram for you. Shall I direct the bearer to wait?"
"With your permission, I will examine it."
Having glanced at the lines, he turned the sheet of paper over, and with a pencil wrote a few words; then handed it to Terry, requesting him to direct the bearer to have the answer promptly telegraphed.
"Nothing unpleasant, I trust?" said Mr. Palma.
"Thank you, no. Only a summons which obliges me to curtail my visit, and return to Washington by the midnight train."
Interpreting a look from her stepson, Mrs. Palma hastened the slow course of the dinner by a whisper to the waiter behind her chair; and as she asked some questions relative to mutual friends residing in Washington, Regina had no opportunity of renewing the conversation.
Mr. Roscoe was assiduous in his attentions to Miss St. Clare, and Regina looked over at Olga, who was talking very learnedly to a small gentleman, a prominent and erudite scientist, whose knitted eyebrows now and then indicated dissatisfaction with her careless manner of handling his pet theories.
Her cheeks glowed, her eyes sparkled, and a teasing smile sat upon her lips, as she recklessly rolled her irreverent ball among his technical ten pins; and repeated defiantly:
"Is old Religion but a spectre now, Haunting the solitude of darkened minds, Mocked out of memory by the sceptic day? Is there no corner safe from peeping Doubt?"
"But, Miss Neville, I must be allowed to say that you do not in the least grasp the vastness of this wonderful law of 'Natural Selection,' of the 'Survival of the Fittest,' which is omnipotent in its influence."
"Ah, but my reverence for Civilization cries out against your savage enactments! Look at the bulwarks of defence which Asylums and Hospitals lift against the operation of your merciless decree. The maimed, the feeble, the demented, become the wards of religion and charity; the Unfittest of humanity are carefully preserved, and the race is retarded it its development. Civilized legislation and philanthropy are directly opposed to your 'Survival of the Fittest;' and since I am not a tattooed princess of the South Pacific, allowed to regale myself with croquettes of human brains, or a ragout of baby's ears and hands, well flavoured with wine and lemon, I accepted civilization. I believe China is the best place for the successful testing of your theory, for there the unfittest have for centuries been destroyed; yet I have not heard that the superior, the 'Coming Race,' has appeared among the tea farms."
Elevating his voice, the small gentleman appealed to his host.
"I thought Mr. Palma too zealous a disciple of Modern Science to permit Miss Neville to indulge such flagrant heresies. She has absolutely denied that the mental development of a horse, or a dog, or ape is strictly analogous to that of man——"
"Quote me correctly, I pray you, Doctor; to that of women, if you please," interrupted Olga.
"She believes that it is not a difference of degree (which we know to be the case), but of kind; not comparative, but structural—you understand. How can you tolerate such schism in your household? Moreover, she scouts the great Spencerian organon."
"Olga is too astute not to discover the discrepancy between the theory of Scientists and the usages of civilized society, whose sanitary provisions thwart and neutralize your law in its operations upon the human race. 'Those whom it saves from dying prematurely, it preserves to propagate dismal and imperfect lives. In our complicated modern communities, a race is being run between moral and mental enlightenment, and the deterioration of the physical and moral constitution through the defeasance of the law of Natural Selection.'"
Lifting her champagne glass, Olga sipped the amber bubbles from its brim, and slightly bent her head in acknowledgment.
"Thanks. I disclaim any doubt of the accuracy of his pedigree from the monad, through the ape, up to the present erudite philosopher; but I humbly crave permission to assert a far different lineage for myself. Pray, Doctor, train your battery now upon Mr. Palma, and since he assails you with Greg, minus quotation marks, require him to avow his real sentiments concerning that sentence in 'De Profundis': 'That purely political conception of religion which regards the Ten Commandments as a sort of 'cheap defence' of property and life, God Almighty as an ubiquitous and unpaid Policeman, and Hell as a self-supporting jail, a penal settlement at the Antipodes!'"
Prudent Mrs. Palma rose at that moment, and the party left the dining-room.
Mrs. St. Clare called Regina to her sofa, to make some inquiries about the Cantata, and when the latter was released, he saw that both Mr. Chesley and Mr. Palma were absent.
A half-hour elapsed, during which Olga continued to annoy the learned small man with her irreverent flippancy, and Mrs. Carew seemed to fascinate the two gentlemen who hovered about her like eager moths around a lamp. Then the host and Congressman came in together, and Regina saw her guardian cross the room, and murmur something to his fair client, who smilingly assented.
Mr. Chesley looked at the widow, and at Olga, and his eyes came back, and dwelt upon the young girl who stood leaning against Mrs. Palma's chair.
Her dress was a pearl white alpaca, with no trimming, save tulle ruchings at throat and wrists, and a few violets fastened in the cameo Psyche that constituted her brooch.
Pure, pale, almost sad, she looked in that brilliant drawing-room like some fragile snowdrop, astray in a bed of gorgeous peonies and poppies.
Lifting her eyes to her host, as he leaned over the back of her sofa, Mrs. Carew said:
"Miss Orme poses almost faultlessly; she has evidently studied all the rules of the art. Quite pretty too; and her hair has a peculiar gloss that reminds one of the pounded peach-stones with which Van Dyck glazed his pictures."
The fingers of the hand that hung at his side clenched suddenly, but adjusting his glasses more firmly he said very quietly:
"My ward is not quite herself this evening, and is really too unwell to be downstairs; but appeared at dinner in honour of your presence, and in deference to my wishes. Shall I ring for your wrappings? The carriage is waiting."
"When I have kissed my cherub good-night, I shall be ready."
He gave her his arm to the foot of the stairs, and returning, announced his regret that Mrs. Carew was pledged to show herself at a party, to which he had promised to escort her. Whereupon the other ladies remembered that they also had promised to be present.
Mr. Chesley, standing at some distance, had been very attentively studying Regina's face, and now approaching her, took her hand with a certain tender courtesy that touched her strangely.
"My dear Miss Orme, I think we are destined to become firm fast friends, and were I not compelled to hurry back to Washington to oppose a certain bill, I should endeavour to improve our acquaintance. Before long I shall see you again, and meanwhile you must help me to find an adopted daughter as much like yourself as possible, or I shall be tempted to steal you from Palma. Good-bye. God bless you."
His earnest tone and warm pressure of her fingers thrilled her heart, and she thought his mild brown eyes held tears.
"Good-bye, sir. I hope we shall meet again."
"You may be sure we shall."
He leaned down, and as he looked at her, she saw his mouth tremble.
A wild conjecture flashed across her brain, and her hand clutched his spasmodically, while her heart seemed to stand still. Was Mr. Chesley her father?
Before she could collect her thoughts, he turned away and left the room, accompanied by Mr. Palma, who during the evening bad not once glanced toward her.
Mrs. Carew had arrived on Tuesday morning, and announced that a previous engagement would limit her visit to Saturday, at which time she had promised to become the guest of a friend on Murray Hill.
During Wednesday and Thursday the house was thronged with visitors. There was company to dinner and to luncheon, and every imaginable tribute paid to the taste and vanity of the beautiful woman, who accepted the incense offered as flowers the dew of heaven, and stars the light that constitutes their glory. Accustomed from her cradle to adulation and indulgence, she had a pretty, yet imperious manner of exacting it from all who ventured within her circle; and could not forgive the cool indifference which generally characterized Olga's behaviour.
Too well-bred to be guilty of rudeness, the latter contrived in a very adroit way to defy every proposition advanced by the fair guest, and while she never transcended the bounds of courtesy, she piqued and harassed and puzzled not only Mrs. Carew, but Mr. Palma.
At ten o'clock on Thursday night, when the guests invited to dinner had departed, and the family circle had collected in the sitting-room to await the carriage which would convey the ladies to a Wedding Reception, Mrs. Carew came downstairs magnificently attired in a delicate green satin, covered with an over dress of exquisite white lace, and adorned with a profusion of emeralds and pearls.
Her hair was arranged in a unique style (which Olga denominated "Isis fashion"), and above her forehead rested a jewelled lotos, the petals of large pearls, the leaves of emeralds.
As she stood before the grate, with the white lace shawl slipping from her shoulders, and exposing the bare gleaming bust, Olga exclaimed:
"O Queen of the Nile! What Antony awaits your smiles?"
As if aware that she were scrutinized, the grey eyes, sank to the carpet, then met Olga's.
"Miss Neville is not the only person who has found in me a resemblance to the Egyptian sorceress. When I return to Italy, Story shall immortalize me in connection with his own impassioned poem. Let me see, how does it begin:
'Here, Charmian, take my bracelets.'"
She passed her hand across her low wide brow, and, glancing furtively at Mr. Palma, she daringly repeated the strongest passages of the poem, while her flute-like tones seemed to gather additional witchery.
Sitting in one corner, with an open book in her hand, Regina looked at her and listened, fascinated by her singular beauty, but astonished at the emphasis with which she recited imagery that tinged the girl's cheek with red.
"If there be a 'cockatoo' in Gotham, doubtless you will own it to-morrow. But forgive me, oh, Cleopatra! if I venture the heresy that Story's poem—gorgeous, though I grant it—leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, like richly spiced wine, hot and sweet and deliciously intoxicating; but beware of to-morrow! 'Sometimes the poison of asps is not confined to fig-baskets; and with your permission, I should like to offer you an infallible antidote, Seraph of the Nile?"
Mrs. Carew smiled defiantly, and inclined her head, interpreting the lurking challenge in Olga's fiery hazel eyes.
Leaning a little forward to note the effect, the latter began and recited with much skill the entire words of "Maud Muller." Whenever the name of the Judge was pronounced, she looked at Mr. Palma, and there was peculiar emphasis in her rendition of the lines:
"But the lawyers smiled that afternoon, When he hummed in court an old love tune. * * * * * He wedded a wife of richest dower, Who lived for fashion, as he for power."
How had Olga discovered the secret which he believed so securely locked in his own heart? Not a muscle moved in his cold guarded face, but a faint flush stole across his cheek as he met her sparkling gaze.
Mrs. Carew's rosy lip curled scornfully:
"My dear Miss Neville, should you ever be smitten by the blasts of adversity, your charming recitative talent would prove wonderfully remunerative upon the stage."
"Thanks! but my observation leads me to believe that at the present day the profession of the Sycophants pays the heaviest dividends. Does Cleopatra's fondness for figs enable her to appreciate my worldly wisdom?"
Regina knew that Olga meant mischief to both host and guest, and though she did not comprehend the drift of her laughing words, she noticed the sudden smile that flashed over her guardian's countenance, and the perplexed expression of Mrs. Carew's eyes.
"Miss Neville has as usual floundered into her favourite blue mire, whose stale scraps of learning cannot tempt me to pursuit."
"Not into the mud of the Nile, oh celestial Isis! but into the classic lore of Hellas. Ask Mr. Palma why I am opposed to smuggling figs, especially rose-coloured figs?"
Olga's light laugh was particularly irritating and disagreeable at that moment, and her mother, who was a ubiquitous flag of truce on such occasions, hastened to interpose.
"My daughter, what possible connection can Mrs. Carew or anybody else find between the habit of sycophancy and baskets of figs?"
"Dear mamma, to explain it to you might be construed into an unfilial and irreverent reflection upon the insufficiency of your education, and of that admission nothing could induce me to be guilty. But Regina yonder is still in the clutches of Dominie Sampson, and as she is such an innocent stupid young dove, I will have mercy upon her curiously questioning eyes. My dear rustic 'Maud,' Sycophants means fig-blabbers; and when you are patient enough to study, and wise enough to appreciate Plutarch, you will learn the derivation of the title which justly belongs to multitudes of people."
Making as near an approach to a grimace as the lines of grace (which she never violated) would permit, Mrs. Carew lifted one shoulder almost out of its satin fetters, and turned to her host.
"Miss Neville should have reigned at the Hotel de Rambouillet when precieuse was more honoured than now. I fear if society suspected the vastness of her learning, it would create a panic wherever she goes."
Olga was leaving the room, had almost reached the door, but at the last words turned, and her face sparkled mischievously.
"Beautiful Egypt is acquainted with sphinxes, and should be quick at guessing riddles. Will Cleopatra or Antony answer my conundrum? When my erudition creates a panic, why am I like those who dwelt about Chemmis, when the tragical fate of Osiris was accomplished?"
Mr. Palma answered promptly:
"Because the Pans who inhabited that region were the first who learned of the disaster, and as they spread the fatal news among the people, all sudden public frights and shocks have been ever since called panics. The carriage is ready. We shall be late at the wedding. Olga, where is your shawl?"
As they quitted the room together, he added in an undertone:
"Your Parthian warfare would have justified me in returning your arrow, but I was never an expert in the use of small arms."
With her hand upon the balustrade of the stairs, which she was ascending, Olga looked down on him, and her eyes blazed with an intensity of scorn and defiance.
"To your empty quiver, not your leniency, I am indebted for my safety. Your arrows were all skilfully barbed, and even the venom of asps distilled upon them; but you have done your worst, and failed. Parthian tactics ill suit my temper, let me tell you, and just now I should infinitely prefer the Scythian style. Were I only for one brief hour Tomyris, I would carry your head, sir, where she held that of Cyrus, in a bag."
He walked on to the front door, and those in the sitting-room heard Olga run up the steps, singing with gusto that strain from Far Diavolo, ending, "Diavolo! Diavolo!"
The "Cantata of Undine" had been composed by a gifted and fashionable amateur, and was performed by young people who belonged to le beau monde, consequently at an early hour on Friday evening, the house was crowded to witness the appearance of a constellation of amateurs, among whom Regina shone resplendent. When after the opening chorus, she came first upon the stage, and stood watching the baton of the leader, a bum of admiration rose from the audience.
The costume was of some silvery gauze that hung like mist around her slender figure, and was encrusted here and there with the fragile white water-lilies that matched the spray which twined across her head, and strayed down among the unbound hair now floating free, far below her waist.
Very pale but calm, she began her solo, at first a little tremulously, but by degrees the rich voice gained its strength, asserted its spell, and nobly fulfilled the promise of Professor Hurtzsel, that New York should hear that night its finest contralto.
Startled by the burst of applause that succeeded her song, she looked for the first time at the audience, and saw her guardian's tall conspicuous figure leaning against a column near the spot where Mrs. Carew sat.
Very grave, coolly critical, and quite preoccupied he certainly looked, and none would have dreamed that the slight motion of his lips meant "My Lily."
Twice she sang alone, and finally in a duo which admirably displayed the compass and timbre of her very peculiar voice, and the floral hurricane that assailed her attested her complete triumph.
The unaffected simplicity of her bearing, as contrasted with the aplomb and artificial manner of the other young ladies who were performers,—the angelic purity and delicacy of the sweet girlish face, with a lingering trace of sadness in the superb eyes, which only deepened their velvet violet,—excited the earnest interest of all present, and many curious inquiries ran through the audience.
At the close of the Cantata, Mrs. Palma drew Regina away from the strangers who pressed forward to offer their congratulations, and, throwing a fur cloak around her, kissed her cheek.
It was the first caress the stately woman had ever bestowed, and as the girl looked up, gratified and astonished, the former said:
"You sang delightfully, my dear, and we are more than satisfied, quite proud. Your voice was as even and smooth as a piece of cream-coloured Persian satin. No, Mrs. Brompton, not to-night. Pardon me, Professor, but I must hurry her away, for Mrs. Carew and I have an engagement at Mrs. Quimbey's. I shall be obliged to take our 'Undine' home, and then return for my fair friend, who is as usual surrounded, and inextricable just now."
While she spoke, Regina's eyes wandered across the mass of heads, and rested on the commanding form of her guardian, standing among a group of gentlemen collected around Mrs. Carew, who clad in white moire antique, with a complete overdress of finest black lace, looped with diamond sprays, seemed more than usually regal and brilliant.
Mrs. Palma hurried Regina through a side entrance, and down to the carriage, and ere long, having seen her enter the hall at home, bade her good-night, and drove back for Mrs. Carew and Mr. Palma.
It was only a little after ten o'clock, and Regina went up to the library, her favourite haunt. She had converted the over-skirt of her dress into an apron, now filled with bouquets from among the number showered upon her; and selecting one composed of pelargoniums and heliotropes, she placed it in the vase beneath her mother's picture, and laid the remainder in a circle around it.
"Ah, mother! they praised your child; but your voice was missing. Would you too have been proud of me? Oh! if I could feel your lips on mine, and hear you whisper once more, as of old, 'My baby! my precious baby!'"
Gazing at the portrait, she spoke with a passionate fervour very unusual in her composed reserved nature, and unshed tears gathered and glorified her eyes.
The house was silent and deserted, save by the servants, by Mrs. Carew's child and nurse, and throwing off her cloak, Regina remained standing in front of the portrait, while her thoughts wandered into grey dreary wastes.
Since the day of Mrs. Carew's arrival she had not exchanged a syllable with her guardian, nor had she for an instant seen him alone, for the early breakfasts had been discontinued, and in honour of his guest and client, Mr. Palma took his with the assembled family.
There was in his deportment toward his ward nothing harsh, nothing that could have indicated displeasure; but he seemed to have entirely forgotten her from the moment when he presented her to Mr. Chesley.
He never even accidentally glanced at her, and patiently watching her immobile cold face, sparkling only with intelligence, as he endeavoured to entertain his exacting and imperious guest, Regina began to realize the vast distance that divided her from him.
His haughty Brahmimc pride seemed to lift him into some lofty plane, so far beyond the level of Peleg Peterson, that in contrasting them the girl groaned and grew sick at heart. She felt that she stood upon a mine already charged, and that at any moment that wretched man who held the fatal fuse in his brutal hand, might hurl her and all her hopes into irremediable chaos and ruin. If the fastidious and aristocratic people who had kindly applauded her singing a little while ago could have imagined the dense cloud of social humiliation that threatened to burst upon her, would she have even been tolerated in that assemblage? Ignorance of her parentage was her sole passport into really good society, and the prestige of her guardian's noble name an ermine mantle of protection, which might be rudely torn away.
During the last three days, left to the companionship of her own sad thoughts, and unable to see Olga alone for even a moment, more than one painful and unutterably bitter discovery had been made. She felt that indeed her childhood had flown for ever, that the sacred mysterious chrism of womanhood had been poured upon her young heart.
Until forced to observe the marked admiration which in his own house Mr. Palma evinced when conversing with Mrs. Carew, Regina had been conscious only of a profound respect for him, of a deeply grateful appreciation of his protecting care; and even when he interrogated her with reference to her affection for Mr. Lindsay, she had truthfully averred her conviction that her heart was wholly disengaged.
But sternly honest in dealing with her own soul, subsequent events had painfully shocked her into a realization of the feeling that first manifested itself as she watched Mr. Palma and Mrs. Carew at the dinner-table.
She knew now that the keen pang she suffered that day could mean nothing less solemn and distressing than the mortifying fact that she was beginning to love her guardian. Not merely as a grateful, respectful ward, the august lawyer who represented her mother's authority, but as a woman once, and once only in life, loves the man, whom her pure tender heart humbly acknowledges as her king, her high-priest, her one divinity in clay.
Although conscience acquitted her of any intentional weakness, her womanly pride and delicacy bled at every pore, when she arraigned herself for being guilty of this emotion toward one who regarded her as a child, who merely pitied her forlorn isolation; and whose eye would fill with fiery scorn, could he dream of her presumptuous, her unfeminine folly.
Despite the chronic sneers with which Olga always referred to his character and habitual conduct, Regina could not withhold a reverence for his opinion, and an earnest admiration of his grave, dignified, yet polished deportment in his household.
By degrees her early dread and repulsion had melted away, confidence and respect usurped their place; and gradually he had grown and heightened in her estimation, until suddenly opening her eyes wide she saw that Erle Palma filled all the horizon of her hopes.
During three sleepless nights she had kept her eyes riveted upon this unexpected and mournful fact, and while deeply humiliated by the discovery, she proudly resolved to uproot and cast out of her heart the alien growth, which she felt could prove only the upas of her future. Allowing herself absolutely no hope, no pardon, no quarter, she sternly laid the axe of indignant condemnation and destruction to the daring off-shoot, desperately hewing at her very heart-strings.
Mrs. Carew's manner left little doubt that she was leaning like a ripe peach within his reach, ready at a touch to fall into his hand; and though Regina felt that this low-browed, sibyl-eyed woman was vastly his inferior in all save beauty and wealth, she knew that even his failure to marry the widow would furnish no justification for the further indulgence of her own foolish and unsought preference.
The dread lest he might suspect it, and despise her, added intensity to her desire to leave New York, and find safety in joining her mother; for the thought of his cold contempt, his glittering black eyes, and curling lips, was unendurable.
Weeks must elapse ere she could receive an answer to her letter, praying for permission to sail for Europe, and during this trying interval, she determined to guard every word and glance, to allow no hint of her great folly to escape.
Peleg Peterson's daughter, or else "Nobody's Child," daring to lift her eyes to the lordly form of Erle Palma!
As this bitter thought taunted and stung her, she uttered a low cry of anguish and shame.
"What is the matter? Don't cry, it will spoil your pretty eyes."
Regina turned quickly, and saw little Llora Carew standing near, and arrayed only in her long white night dress, and pink rosetted slippers.
"Llora, how came you out of bed? You ought to have been asleep three hours ago."
"So I was. But I waked up, and felt so lonesome. Mammie has gone off and left me, and hunting for somebody I came here. Won't you please let me stay awhile? I can't go to sleep."
"But you will catch cold."
"No, the room is warm, and I have my slippers. Oh! what a pretty dress! And your arms and neck are like snow, whiter even than my mamma's. Please do sing something for me. Your voice is sweeter than my musical box, and then I am going away to-morrow."
She had curled herself like a pet kitten on the rug, and looking down at her soft dusky eyes, and rosy cheeks, Regina sighed.
"I am so tired, dear. I have no voice left."
"If you could sing before all the people at the Cantata, you might just one song for little me."
"Well, pet, I know I ought not to be selfish, and I will try. Come, kiss me. My mother is so far away, and I have nobody to love me. Hug me tight."
There was a door leading from Mr. Palma's sleeping-room, to the curtained alcove behind the writing desk, and having quietly entered by that passage soon after Regina came home, the master of the house sat on a lounge veiled by damask and lace curtains, and holding the drapery slightly aside, watched what passed in the library.
He was rising to declare his presence, when Llora came in, and somewhat vexed at the contretemps he awaited the result.
As Regina knelt on the rug and opened her arms, the pretty child sprang into them, kissed her cheeks, and assured her repeatedly that she loved her very dearly, that she was the loveliest girl she ever saw, especially in that gauze dress. Particularly fond of children, Regina toyed with, and caressed her for some minutes, then rose, and said:
"Now I will sing you a little song to put you to sleep. Sit here by the hearth, but be sure not to nod and fall into the fire."
She opened the organ, and although partly beyond the range of Mr. Palma's vision, he heard every syllable of the sweet mellow English words of Kuecken's "Schlummerlied," with its soothing refrain:
"Oh, hush thee now, in slumber mild, While watch I keep, oh sleep, my child."
She sang it with strange pathos, thinking of her own far distant mother, whom fate had denied the privilege of chanting lullabies over her lonely blue-eyed child.
Ending, she came back to the hearth, and Llora clasped her tiny hands, and chirped:
"Oh, so sweet! When you get to heaven, don't you reckon you will sit in the choir? Once more, oh! do, please."
"What a hungry little beggar you are! Come, sit in my lap, and I will hum you a dear little tune. Then you must positively scamper away to bed, or your mamma will scold us both, and your mammie also."
A tall yellow woman with a white handkerchief wound turban-style around her head, came stealthily forward, and said:
"Miss, give her to me. I went downstairs for a drink of water, and when I got back I missed her. Come, baby, let me carry you to bed or you will have the croup, and the doctors might cut your throat."
"Wait, mammie, till she sings that little tune she promised; then I will go."
Regina sat down in a low cushioned chair, took the little girl on her lap, and while the curly head nestled on her shoulder, and one arm clasped her neck, she rested her chin upon the brown hair, and sang in a very sweet, subdued tone that most soothing of all lullaby strains, Wallace's "Cradle Song."
As she proceeded, the turbaned head of the nurse kept time, swaying to and fro in the background, and a sweeter picture never adorned canvas than that which Mr. Palma watched in front of his library fire, and which photographed itself indelibly upon his memory.
Singer and child occupied very much the same position as the figures in the Madonna della Sedia, and no more lovely woman and child ever sat for its painter.
As Mr. Palma's fastidiously critical eyes rested on the sad perfect face of Regina, with the long black lashes veiling her eyes, and the bare arms and shoulders gleaming above the silver gauze of her drapery, he silently admitted that her beauty seemed strangely sanctified, and more spirituelle than ever before. Contrasting that sweet white figure, over whose delicate lips floated the dreamy rhythm of the cradle chant, with the hundreds of handsome, accomplished, witty, and brilliant women who thronged the ball-room he had just left, this man of the world confessed that his proud ambitious heart was hopelessly in bondage to the fair young singer.
"Sleep, my little one, sleep,— Sleep, my pretty one,—sleep."
At that moment he was powerfully tempted to delay no longer to take her to his bosom for ever; and it cost him a struggle to sit patiently, while every fibre of his strong frame was thrilling with a depth and fervour of feeling that threatened to bear away all dictates of discretion. Ah! what a divine melody seemed to ring through all his future as he leaned eagerly forward, and listened to the closing words, softly reiterated:
"Sleep, my little one, sleep,— Sleep, my pretty one,—sleep."
When she was his wife, how often in the blessed evenings spent here, in this hallowed room, he promised himself he would make her sing that song. No shadow of doubt that whenever he chose, he could win her for his own, clouded the brightness of the vision, for success in other pursuits had fed his vanity, until he believed himself invincible; and although he had studied her character closely, he failed to comprehend fully the proud obstinacy latent in her quiet nature.
Just then even the Chief Justiceship seemed an inferior prize, in comparison with the possession of that white-browed girl, and her pure clinging love; and certainly for a time Mr. Erle Palma's towering pride and insatiable ambition were forgotten in his longing to snatch the one beloved of all his arid life to the heart that was throbbing almost beyond even his rigid control.
For the first time within his recollection he distrusted his power of self-restraint, and rising passed quickly into his own room, and thence after some moments out into the hall. Near the stairs he met the mulatto nurse carrying Llora in her arms.
"Does Mrs. Carew permit that child to sit up so late?"
"Oh no, sir! She has been asleep once; but Miss Regina pets her a good deal, and had her in the library singing to her."
"Mr. Palma, shall I kiss you good-night?" asked the pretty creole, lifting her curly head from her "mammie's" shoulder.
"Good-night, Llora. Such tender birds should have been in their nests long before this. I shall go and scold Miss Orme for keeping you awake so late."
He merely patted her rosy round cheek, and went to the library.
Hearing his unmistakable step, Regina conjectured that he had escorted the ladies home much earlier than they were accustomed to return, and longing to avoid the possibility of a tete-a-tete with him, she would gladly have escaped before his entrance had been practicable.
He closed the door, and came forward, and, leaning back in the chair where she still sat, her hands closed tightly over each other.
"I fear my ward is learning to keep late hours. It is after eleven o'clock, and you should be dreaming of the cool, beryl, aquatic abodes you have been frequenting as Undine; for indeed you look a very weary naiad."