Was he pleased with her success, and would he deem to give her a morsel of commendation?
A moment after, she knew that he entertained no such purpose, and felt that she ought to rejoice; that it was far best he should not, for praise from his lips would be dangerously sweet.
Glancing at the floral tribute laid before her mother's portrait, he said:
"You certainly are a faithful devotee at your mother's shrine, and no wonder poor Roscoe is so desperately savage at his failure to engage a portion of your regard. Did you have a satisfactory interview with him on Tuesday last? I invited him for that purpose, as he avowed himself dissatisfied with my efforts as proxy, and demanded the privilege of pleading his own cause. Permit me to hope that he successfully improved the opportunity which I provided by requesting him to escort you to dinner."
Standing upon the rug, and immediately in front of her, he spoke with cool indifference, and though the words seemed to her a cruel mockery they proved a powerful tonic, bringing the grim comfort that at least her presumptuous madness was not suspected.
"I had very little conversation with Mr. Roscoe, as I declined to renew the discussion of a topic which was painful and embarrassing to me, and I fear I have entirely forfeited his friendship."
"Then after mature deliberation you still peremptorily refuse to become more closely related to me? Once there appeared a rosy possibility that you might one day call me cousin."
With a sudden resolution she looked straight at him for the first time since his entrance, and answered quietly:
"You will be my kind faithful guardian a little while longer, until I can hear from mother; but we shall never be any more closely related."
The reply was not exactly what he expected and desired; but with his chill, out-door conventional smile he added:
"Poor Roscoe! his heart frequently outstrips his reason."
Looking at him, she felt assured that no one could ever justly make that charge against him; and unwilling to prolong the interview, she rose.
"Pardon me, if, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, I detain you a few minutes from your Undine dreams. Be so good as to resume your seat."
There was an ominous pause, and reluctantly she was forced to look up.
He was regarding her very sternly, and as his eyes caught and held hers he put his fingers in his vest pocket, drawing therefrom a narrow strip of paper, folded carefully. Holding it out, he asked:
"Did you ever see this?"
Before she opened it she knew it contained the address she had given to Peleg Peterson on Tuesday, and a shiver crept over her. Mechanically glancing at it, she sighed; a sigh that was almost a moan.
"Regina, have the courtesy to answer my question."
"Of course I have seen it before. You know it is my handwriting."
"Did you furnish that address with the expectation of conducting a clandestine correspondence?"
An increasing pallor overspread her features, but in a very firm decided voice, she replied:
"Knowing that your legal guardian would forbid such an interchange of letters, you directed them enclosed under cover to Mrs. Mason?"
The slip of paper fluttered to the floor, and her fingers locked each other.
"A gentleman picked up that scrap of paper, in one of the squares located far up town, and recognizing the name of my ward, very discreetly placed it in the possession of her guardian."
"Mr. Palma, were you not in a carriage at that square on Tuesday?"
"I was not. My time is rather too valuable to be wasted in a rendezvous at out-of-the-way squares while a snowstorm is in full blast. What possible attraction do you imagine such folly could offer me?"
"I met you not very far from that square, and I thought——"
"Pray take time, and conclude your sentence."
She shook her head.
"Some important business connected with my profession, and involving a case long ago placed in my hands, called me, despite the unfavourable weather, to that section of the city. Having particularly desired and instructed you to come home as soon as the rehearsal at Mrs. Brompton's ended, I certainly had no right to suppose you intended to disobey me."
He paused, but she remained a pale image of silent sorrow.
"A few evenings since you asked me to trust you, and in defiance of my judgment I reluctantly promised to do so. Have you not forfeited your guardian's confidence?"
"Perhaps so; but it was unavoidable."
"Unavoidable that you should systematically deceive me?" he demanded very sternly.
"I have not deceived you."
"My duty as your guardian forces me to deal plainly with you. With whom have you arranged this disgraceful clandestine correspondence?"
Her gaze swept quite past him, ascended to the pitying brown eyes in her mother's portrait; and though she grew white as her Undine vesture, and he saw her shudder, her voice was unshaken.
"I cannot tell you."
"Representing your mother's authority, I demand an answer."
After an instant, she said:
"Though you were twenty times my guardian, I shall not tell you, sir."
She seemed like some marble statue, which one might hack and hew in twain, without extorting a confession.
"Then you force me to a very shocking and shameful conclusion."
Was there, she wondered, any conclusion so shameful as the truth, which at all hazard she was resolved for her mother's sake to hide?
"You are secretly meeting and arranging to correspond with some vagrant lover whom you blush so acknowledge."
"Lover! Oh, merciful God! When I need a father, and a father's protecting name—when I am heart-sick for my mother, and her shielding healing love—how can you cruelly talk to me of a lover? What right has a nameless, homeless waif to think of love? God grant me a father and a mother, a stainless name, and I shall never need, never wish, never tolerate a lover! Do not insult my misery."
She lifted her clenched hands almost menacingly, and her passionate vehemence startled her companion, who could scarcely recognize in the glittering defiant gaze that met his the velvet violet eyes over which the silken fringes had hung with such tender Madonna grace but a half-hour before.
"Regina, how could you deceive me so shamefully?"
"I did not intend to do so. I am innocent of the disgraceful motives you impute to me; but I cannot explain what you condemn so severely. In all that I have done I have been impelled by a stern, painful sense of duty, and my conscience acquits me; but I shall not give you any explanation. To no human being, except my mother, will I confess the whole matter. Oh, send me at once to her! I asked you to trust me, and you believe me utterly unworthy, think I have forfeited your confidence, even your respect. It is hard, very hard, for I hoped to possess always your good opinion. But it must be borne, and now at least, holding me so low in your esteem, you will not keep me under your roof; you will gladly send me to mother. Let me go. Oh! do let me go—at once; to-morrow."
She seemed inexplicably transformed into a woeful desperate woman, and the man's heart yearned to fold her closely in his arms, sheltering her for ever.
Drawing nearer, he spoke in a wholly altered voice.
"When you asked me to trust you, I did so. Now will you grant me a similar boon? Lily, trust me."
His tone had never sounded so low, almost pleading before; and it thrilled her with an overmastering grief, that when he who was wont to command, condescended to sue for her confidence, she was forced to withhold it.
"Oh, Mr. Palma, do not ask me! I cannot."
He took her hands, unwinding the cold fingers, and in his peculiar magnetic way softly folding them in his warm palms; but she struggled to withdraw them, and he saw the purple shadows deepening under her large eyes.
"Little girl, I would not betray your secret Give it to my safekeeping. Show me your heart."
As if fearful he might read it, she involuntarily closed her eyes, and her answer was almost a sob.
"It is not my secret, it involves others, and I would rather die to-morrow, to-night, than have it known. Oh! let me go away at once, and for ever!"
Accustomed to compel compliance with his wishes, it was difficult for him to patiently endure defiance and defeat from that fair young creature, whom he began to perceive he could neither overawe nor persuade.
For several minutes he seemed lost in thought, still holding her hands firmly; then he suddenly laughed, and stooped toward her.
"Brave, true little heart! I wonder if some day you will be as steadfast and faithful in your devotion to your husband, as you have been in your loving defence of your mother? You need not tell me your secret, I know everything; and, Lily, I can scarcely forgive you for venturing within the reach and power of that wretched vagabond."
He felt her start and shiver, and pitying the terrified expression that drifted into her countenance, he continued:
"Unconsciously, you were giving alms to your own and to your mother's worst enemy. Peleg Peterson has for years stood between you and your lawful name."
She reeled, and her fingers closed spasmodically over his, as white and faint, she gasped:
"Then he is not—my——"
The words died on her quivering lips.
"He is the man who has slandered and traduced your mother, even to her own husband."
"Oh! then, he is not, he cannot be my—father!"
"No more your father than I am! At last I have succeeded in obtaining——"
She was beyond the reach even of his voice, and as she drooped he caught her in his arms.
Since Monday the terrible strain had known no relaxation, and the sudden release from the horrible incubus of Peleg Peterson was overpowering.
Mr. Palma held her for some seconds clasped to his heart, and placing the head on his bosom, turned the white face to his. How hungrily the haughty man hung over those wan features, and what a wealth of passionate tenderness thrilled in the low trembling voice that whispered:
"My Lily. My darling; my own."
He kissed her softly, as if the cold lips were too sacred even for his loving touch, and gently placed her on the sofa, holding her with his encircling arm.
Since his boyhood no woman's lips had ever pressed his, and the last kiss he had bestowed was upon his mother's brow, as she lay in her coffin.
To-night the freshness of youth came back, and the cold, politic, non-committal lawyer found himself for the first time an ardent trembling lover.
He watched the faint quiver of her blue-veined lids, and heard the shuddering sigh that assured him consciousness was returning. Softly stroking her hand, he saw the eyes at last unclose.
"You certainly have been down among your uncanny Undine caves; for you quite resemble a drenched lily. Now sit up."
He lifted her back into the easy chair, as if she had been an infant, and stood before her.
As her mind cleared, she recalled what had passed, and said almost in a whisper:
"Did I dream, or did you tell me that horrible man is not my father?"
"I told you so. He is a black-hearted, vindictive miscreant, who successfully blackmailed you, by practising a vile imposture."
"Oh! are you quite sure?"
"Perfectly sure. I have been hunting him for years, and at last have obtained in black and white his own confession, which nobly exonerates your mother from his infamous aspirations."
"Thank God! Thank God!"
Tears were stealing down her cheeks, and he saw from the twitching of her face that she was fast losing control of her overtaxed nerves.
"You must go to your room and rest, or you will be ill."
"Oh! not if I am sure he will never dare to claim me as his child. Oh, Mr. Palma! that possibility has almost driven me wild."
"Dismiss it as you would some hideous nightmare. Go to sleep and dream of your mother, and of——"
He bit his lip to check the rash words, and too much agitated to observe his changed manner, she asked:
"Where is he now?"
"No matter where. He is so completely in my power, that he can trouble us no more."
She clasped her hands joyfully, but the tears fell faster, and looking at her mother's picture, she exclaimed:
"Have mercy upon me, Mr. Palma! Tell me—do you know—whom I am? Do you really know beyond doubt who was—or is—my father?"
"This much I can tell you, I know your father's name; but just now I am forbidden by your mother to disclose it, even to you. Come to your room."
He raised her from the chair, and as she stood before him, it was pitiable to witness the agonized entreaty in her pallid but beautiful face.
"Please tell me only one thing, and I can bear all else patiently. Was he—was my father—a gentleman? Oh! my mother could never have loved any—but a gentleman."
"His treatment of her and of you would scarcely entitle him to that honourable epithet; yet in the eyes of the world your father assuredly is in every respect a gentleman, is considered even an aristocrat."
She sobbed aloud, and the violence of her emotion, which she seemed unable to control, alarmed him. Leading her to the library door he said, retaining her hand.
"Compose yourself, or you will be really sick. Now that your poor tortured heart is easy, can you not go to sleep?"
"Oh, thank you! Yes, I will try."
"Lily, next time trust me. Trust your guardian in everything. Good-night. God bless you."
"'The dice of the gods are always loaded,' and what appears the merest chance is as inexorably fixed, predetermined, as the rules of mathematics, or the laws of crystallization. What madness to flout fate!"
Mrs. Orme laid down her pen as she spoke, and leaned back in her chair.
"Did you speak to me?" inquired Mrs. Waul, who had been nodding over her worsted work, and was aroused by the sound of the voice.
"No, I was merely thinking aloud; a foolish habit I have contracted since I began to aspire to literary laurels. Go to sleep again, and finish your dream."
Upon the writing desk lay a MS. in morocco cover, and secured by heavy bronze clasps, into which the owner put a small key attached to her watch chain, carefully locking and laying it away in a drawer of the desk.
Approaching a table in the corner of the room, Mrs. Orme filled a tall narrow Venetian glass with that violet-flavoured, violet-perfumed Capri wine, whose golden bubbles danced upon the brim, and, having drained the last amber drop, she rolled her chair close to the window, looped back the curtains, and sat down.
The lodgings she had occupied since her arrival in Naples were situated on the Riviera di Chiaja, near the Villa Reale, and not far from the divergence into the Strada Mergellina. Of the wonderful beauty of the scene beyond her front windows She had never wearied, and now in the ravishing afternoon glow, with the blue air all saturated with golden gleams, she yielded to the Parthenopean spell, which, once felt, seems never to be forgotten.
Had it the power to chant to rest that sombre past which memory kept as a funeral theme for ever on its vibrating strings? Was there at last a file for the serpent, that had so long made its lair in her distorted and envenomed nature?
At thirty-three time ceases to tread with feathery feet, and the years grow self-asserting, italicize themselves in passing; and across the dial of woman's beauty the shadow of decadence falls aslant. But although Mrs. Orme had offered sacrifice to that inexorable Terminus, who dwells at the last border line of youth, the ripeness and glow of her extraordinary loveliness showed as yet no hint of the coming eclipse.
Health lent to cheek and lip its richest, warmest tints, and though the silvery splendour of hope shone no longer in the eloquent brown eyes, the light of an almost accomplished triumph imparted a baleful brilliance, which even the long lashes could not veil.
Her pale lilac robe showed admirably the transparency of her complexion, and in her waving gilded hair she wore a cluster of delicate rose anemones.
Her gaze seemed to have crossed the blue pavement of sea, and rested on the purpling outlines of Ischia and Capri; but the dimpling smile that crossed her face sprang from no dreamy reverie of Parthenope legends, and her voice was low and deep like one rehearsing for some tragic outbreak.
"So Samson felt in Dagon's temple, amid the jubilee of his tormentors, when silent and calm, girded only by the sense of his wrongs, he meekly bowed to rest himself; and all the while his arms groped stealthily around the pillars destined to avenge him. Ah! how calm, how holy, all outside of my heart seems! How in contrast with that charnel-house yonder vision of peaceful loveliness appears as incongruous as the nightingales which the soul of Sophocles heard singing in the grove of the Furies? After to-day will the world ever look quite the same to me? Thirty-three years have brought me swiftly to the last fatal page; and shall the hand falter that writes finis?"
A strangely solemn expression drifted over her countenance, but at that moment a tall form darkened the doorway, and she smiled.
"Come in, General Laurance. Punctuality is essentially an American virtue, rarely displayed in this dolce far niente land; and you exemplify its nationality. Five was the hour you named, and my little Swiss tell-tale is even now sounding the last stroke."
She did not rise, seemed on the contrary, to sink farther back in her velvet-lined chair; and bending down General Laurance touched her hand.
"When a man's happiness for all time is at stake does he loiter on his way to receive the verdict? Surely you will——"
He paused and glanced significantly at the figure whose white cap was bowed low, as its wearer slumbered over the interminable crochet.
"May not this interview at least be sacred from the presence of your keepers?"
"Poor dear soul, she is happily oblivious, and will take no stenographic notes. I would as soon declare war against my own shadow as order her away."
Evidently chagrined, the visitor stood irresolute, and meanwhile the gaze of his companion wandered back to the beauty of the Bay.
He drew a chair close to that which she occupied, and holding his hat as a screen, should Mrs. Waul's spectacles chance to turn in that direction, spoke earnestly.
"Have I been unpardonably presumptuous in interpreting favourably this permission to see you once more? Have you done me the honour to ponder the contents of my letter?"
"I certainly have pondered well the contents."
She kept her hands beyond his reach, and looking steadily into his eager handsome face, she saw it flush deeply.
"Madame, I trust, I believe you are incapable of trifling."
"In which, you do me bare justice only. With me the time for trifling is past; and just now life has put on all its tragic vestments. But how long since General Laurance believed me incapable of—worse than trifling?"
"Ever since my infamous folly was reproved by you as it deserved. Ever since you taught me that you were even more noble in soul than lovely in person. Be generous, and do not humiliate me by recalling that temporary insanity. Having blundered fearfully, in my ignorance of your real character, does not the offer of yesterday embody all the reparation, all the atonement of which a man is capable?"
"You desire me to consider the proposal contained in your letter, as an expiation for past offences, as an amende honourable for what might have ripened into insult, had it not been nipped in the bud? Do I translate correctly your gracious diction?"
"No, you cruelly torment me by referring to an audacious and shameful offence, for which I blush."
"Successful sins are unencumbered by penitential oblations, and only discovered and defeated crimes arouse conscience, and paint one's cheeks with mortification. General Laurance merely illustrates a great social law."
"Do not, dear madame, keep me in this fiery suspense. I have offered you all that a gentleman can lay at the feet of the woman he loves."
A cold smile lighted her face, as some arctic moonbeams gleams for an instant across the spires and doomes of an iceberg.
"Once you attempted to offer me your heart, or what remains of its ossified ruins; which I declined. Now you tender me your hand and name, and indeed it appears that like many of the high-born class you so nobly represent, your heart and hand have never hitherto been conjoined in your devoir. It were a melancholy pity they should be eternally divorced."
Bending over her, he exclaimed:
"As heaven hears me, I swear I love you better than life, than everything else that the broad earth holds! You cannot possibly doubt my sincerity, for you hold the proof in your own hands. Be merciful, Odille, and end my anxiety."
He caught her hand, and as she attempted no resistance, he raised it to his moustached lip. Her eyes were resting upon the blue expanse of water, as if far away, across the vast vista of the Mediterranean she sought some strengthening influence, some sacred inspiration; and after a moment, turning them full upon his countenance, she said with grave stony composure:
"You have asked me to become your wife, knowing full well that no affection would prompt me to entertain the thought; and you must be thoroughly convinced that only sordid motives of policy could influence me to accept you. Do men who marry under such circumstances honour and trust the women, who as a dernier ressort bear their names? You are not so weak, so egregiously vain, as to delude yourself for one instant with the supposition that I could ever love you?"
"Once my wife, I ask nothing more. Upon my own head and life, be the failure to make you love me. Only give me this hand, and I will take your heart Can a lover ask less, and hazard more?"
"And if you fail—woefully, as fail you must?"
"I shall not. You cannot awe or discourage me, for I have yet to find the heart that successfully defies my worship. But if you remained indifferent—ah, loveliest! you would not! Even then, I should be blessed by your presence, your society—and that alone were worth all other women!"
"Even though it cost you the heavy, galling burden of marriage vows, an exorbitant price, which only necessity extorts? How vividly we of the nineteenth century exemplify the wisdom of the classic aphorisms? Quem Deus vult perdere, prius dementat. Have you no fear that you are seizing with bare fingers a glittering thirsty blade, which may flesh itself in the hand that dares to caress it?"
"I fear nothing but your rejection; and though you should prove Judith or Jael, I would disarm you thus."
Again he kissed the fair slender hand, and clasped it tenderly between both his own.
"A man of your years does not lightly forsake the traditions of his Caste, and the usages of his ancestors; and what can patricians like General Laurance hope to secure by stooping to the borders of proletaire?"
"The woman whom he loves. To you I will confess, that never until within the past six or eight months have I really comprehended the power of genuine love. Early in life I married a high-born, gentle, true-hearted woman, who made me a good faithful wife; but into that alliance my heart never entered, and although for many years I have been free to admire whom fickle fancy chose, and have certainly petted and caressed some whom the world pronounced very lovely, the impression made upon me was transient, as the perfume of a blossom plucked and worn for a few hours only. You have exerted over me a fascination which I can neither explain nor resist. For you I entertain feelings never aroused in my nature until now; and I speak only the simple truth, when I solemnly swear to you, upon the honour of a Laurance, that you are the only woman I have ever truly and ardently loved."
"The honour of a Laurance? What more sacred pledge could I possibly desire?"
The fingers of her free hand were toying with a small gold chain around her neck, to which was fastened the hidden wedding ring of black agate, with its white skull; and as she spoke her scarlet lips paled perceptibly, and her soft dreamy eyes began to glitter.
"Ah! I repeat, upon my honour as a gentleman and a Laurance; and a holier oath no man could offer. Of my proud unsullied name I am fastidiously careful, and can even you demand or hope a nobler one than that I now lay at your feet?"
"The name of Laurance? Certainly I think it would satisfy even my ambition."
He felt the pretty hand grow suddenly cold in his grasp, and saw the thin delicate nostril expand slightly, as she fixed her brilliant eyes on his, and smiled. Then she continued:
"Is it not too sacred and aristocratic a mantle to fling around an obscure actress, of whose pedigree and antecedent life you know nothing, save that widowhood and penury goaded her to histrionic exhibitions of a beauty, that sometimes threatened to subject her to impertinence and insult? Put aside the infatuation which not unfrequently attacks men, who like you are rapidly descending the hill of life, approaching the stage of second childlike simplicity, and listen for a moment to the cold dictates of prudence and policy. Suppose that ere you surrendered your reason to the magnetism of what you are pleased to consider my 'physical perfection,' one of your relatives, a brother, or say even your son, had met me at Milan as you did; and madly forgetting his family rank, his aristocratic ties, all the pride and worldly wisdom of heredity, had, while in a fit of complete dementia, offered as you have done to clothe my humble obscurity in the splendid name of Laurance? Would General Rene Laurance have pardoned him, and received me as his sister, or his daughter?"
"Could I censure any man for surrendering to charms which have so completely vanquished me? Thank heaven! I have neither brother nor son to rival me. My only child Cuthbert is safely anchored in the harbour of wedlock, and having his own family ties, I am free to consult only my heart in the choice of a bride. I have not journeyed so far down the hill of life as you cruelly persist in asserting, and the fervour of my emotions denies your unkind imputation. When I proudly show the world the lovely wife of my heart's choice, you will find my devotion a noble refutation of your unflattering estimate. But a moment since, you confessed that to exchange the name of Orme for that of Laurance would crown your ambition; my dearest, the truth has escaped you."
With a sudden gesture of loathing she threw off his hand, struck her palms together, and he started at the expression that seemed literally to blaze in her eyes, so vivid, so withering was the light that rayed out.
"Yes, the truth escaped my lips. The honourable name of Laurance is talismanic, and offers much to Odille Orme; yet I will stain my soul with no dissimulation. With love and romance, I finished long, long ago; and to-day I have not patience to trifle even with its phraseology. I am thirty-three, and in my early girlhood the one love dream of all my life was rudely broken, leaving me no more capacity to indulge a second, than belongs to those marbles in the Musee Bourbonique. For my dear young husband I felt the only intense, idolatrous, yes, blindly worshipping devotion, that my nature could yield to any human being. When I lost him, I lost my heart also; became doubly widowed, because my grief bereft me of the power of properly loving even our little baby. For years I have given my body and soul to the accomplishment of one purpose, the elevation of my social status, and that of my child. Had my husband been spared to me, we would not have remained obscure and poor, but after my widowhood the struggle devolved upon me. I have not had leisure to think of love, have toiled solely for maintenance and position; and have sternly held myself aloof from the world that dared to believe my profession rendered me easy of access. Titles have been laid at my feet, but their glitter seemed fictitious, did not allure me; and no other name save yours has ever for an instant tempted me. To-day you are here to plead my acceptance of that name, and frankly, I tell you, sir, it dazzles me. As an American I know all that it represents, all that it would confer on me, all that it would prove for my child, and I would rather wear the name of Laurance than a coronet! I confess I have but one ambition, to lift my daughter into that high social plane, from which fate excluded her mother; and this eminence I covet for her, marriage with you promises me. I have no heart to bring you; mine died with all my wifely hopes when I lost my husband. If I consent to give you my hand, and nominally the claim of a husband, in exchange for the privilege of merging Orme in Laurance, it must be upon certain solemn conditions, to the fulfilment of which your traditional honour is pledged. Is a Laurance safely bound by vows?"
Her voice had grown strangely metallic, losing all its liquid sweetness, and as her gaze searched his face, the striking resemblance she traced in his eyes and mouth to those of Cuthbert and Regina seemed to stab her heart.
To the man who listened and watched with breathless anxiety her hardening, whitening features, she merely recalled the memory of her own tragic "Medea" confronting "Jason" at Athens.
"Only accept my vows at the altar, and I challenge the world to breathe an imputation upon their sanctity. Rene Laurance never broke a promise, never forfeited a pledge; and to keep his name unsullied, his honour stainless, is his sole religion. Odille, my Queen——"
She rose and waved him back.
"Spare me rapsodies that accord neither with your years nor my sentiments. Understand, it is a mere bargain and a sale, and I am carefully arranging the conditions. For myself I ask little; but as you are aware, my daughter is grown, is now in her seventeenth year, and the man whom the world regards as my husband must share his name and fortune with my child. Doubtless you deem me calculating and mercenary, and for her dear sake I am forced to do so; for all the tenderness that remains in my nature is centred in my little girl. She has been reared as carefully as a princess, is accomplished and very beautiful, and when you see her I think you will scarcely refuse the tribute of your admiration and affection."
For an instant a grey pallor spread from lip to brow, and the unhappy woman shuddered; but rallying, she moved across the floor to her writing desk, and the infatuated man followed, whispering:
"If she resembles her mother, can you doubt her perfect and prompt adoption into my heart?"
"My daughter is unlike me; is so entirely the image of her lost father, that the sight of her beauty sometimes overwhelms me with torturing memories. Here. General Laurance is a carefully written paper, which I submit for your examination and mature reflection. When in the presence of proper witnesses you sign that contract, you will have purchased the right to claim my hand—mark you, only my hand—at the altar."
It was a cautiously worded marriage settlement, drawn up in conformity with legal requirements; and its chief exaction was the adoption of Regina, the transmission of the name of Laurance, and the settlement upon her of a certain amount of money in stocks and bonds, exclusive of any real estate. As he received the paper and opened it, Mrs. Orme added: "Take your own time, and weigh the conditions carefully and deliberately."
"Stay, Odille; do not leave me. A few moments will suffice for this matter, and I am in no mood to endure suspense."
"Within an hour you can at least comprehend what I demand. I am going to the terrace of the Villa Reale, and when in accordance with that contract you decide to adopt my child, and present her to the world as your own, you will find me on the terrace."
He would have taken her hand, but she walked away and disappeared, closing a door behind her.
His hat had rolled out of sight, and as he searched hurriedly for it, Mrs. Waul spoke from her distant recess:
"General Laurance will find his hat between the ottoman and the window."
The winding walks of the Villa were comparatively deserted, when Mrs. Orme began to pace slowly to and fro beneath the trees, whose foliage swayed softly in the mild evening air. When the few remaining groups had passed beyond her vision, she threw back the long thick veil that had effectually concealed her features, and approaching the parapet that overhung the sea, sat down. Removing her hat and veil, she placed them beside her on the seat, and resting her hands on the iron railing, bowed her chin upon them, and looked out upon the sea murmuring at the foot of the wall.
The flush and sparkle of an hour ago had vanished so utterly, that it appeared incredible that colour, light, and dimples could ever wake again in that frozen face, over whose rigid features brooded the calm of stone.
"A woman fair and stately, But pale as are the dead,"—
she seemed some impassive soulless creature, incapable alike of remorse or of hope, allured by no future, frightened by no past; silently fronting at last the one sunless, joyless, dreary goal, whose attainment had been for years the paramount aim of her stranded life. The rosy glow of dying day yet lingered in the sky and tinged the sea, and a golden moon followed by a few shy stars watched their shining images twinkling in the tremulous water; but the loveliest object upon which their soft light fell was that lonely, wan, lilac-robed woman.
So Jephtha's undaunted daughter might have looked, as she saw the Syrian sun sink below the palms and poppies, knowing that when it rose once more upon the smiling happy world, her sacrifice would have been accomplished, her fate for ever sealed; or so perhaps Alcestis watched the slow-coming footsteps of that dreadful hour, when for her beloved she voluntarily relinquished life.
To die for those we love were easy martyrdom, but to live in sacrificial throes fierce as Dirce's tortures, to endure for tedious indefinite lingering years, jilted by death, demands a fortitude higher than that of Cato, Socrates, or Seneca.
To all of us come sooner or later lurid fateful hours that bring us face to face with the pale Parcae; so close that we see the motionless distaff, and the glitter of the opening shears, and have no wish to stay the clipping of the frayed and tangled thread.
In comparison with the grim destiny Mrs. Orme had so systematically planned the hideous "death in life," upon which she was deliberately preparing to enter, a leap over that wall into the placid sea beneath would have been welcome as heaven to tortured Dives; but despite the loathing and horror of her sickened and outraged soul, she contemplated her future lot as calmly as St. Lawrence the heating of his gridiron.
Over the beautiful blue bay, where the moon had laid her pavement of gold, floated a low sweet song, a simple barcarolle, that came from a group of happy souls in a small boat
"Che cosi vual que pesci Fiduline! L'anel que me casca Nella bella mia barca Nella bella se ne va. Fiduline."
Approaching the shore, the ruddy light burning at one end of the boat showed its occupants; a handsome athletic young fisherman, and his pretty childish wife, hushing her baby in her arms, with a slow cradle-like movement that kept time to her husband's song.
"Te daro cento scudi Fiduline. Sta borsa riccama Por la bella sua barca Colla bella se ne va Fidulilalo, Fiduline."
Springing ashore he secured the boat, and held out his arms for the sleeping bud that contained in its folded petals all their domestic hopes; and as the star-eyed young mother kissed it lightly and laid it in its father's arms, the happy pair walked away, leaving the echo of their gay musical chatter lingering on the air.
To the woman who watched and listened from the parapet above, it seemed a panel rosy, dewy, fresh from Tempe, set as a fresco upon the walls of Hell, to heighten the horrors of the doomed.
From her chalice fate had stolen all that was sweet and rapturous in wifehood and motherhood, substituting hemlock; and as the vision of her own fair child was recalled by the sleeping babe of the Italian fisherman, she suffered a keen pang in the consciousness that those tender features of her innocent daughter reproduced vividly the image of the man who had blackened her life.
The face in Regina's portrait was so thoroughly Laurance in outline and Laurance in colour, that the mother had covered it with a thick veil, unable to meet the deep violet eyes that she had learned to hate in Rene Laurance and his son.
Yet for the sake of that daughter, whose gaze she shunned, she was about to step down into flames far fiercer than those of Tophet, silently immolating all that remained of her life.
Although she neither turned her head nor removed her eyes from the sea, she knew that the end was at hand. For one instant her heart seemed to cease beating, then with a keen spasm of pain slowly resumed its leaden labour.
The erect, graceful, manly figure at her side bent down, and the grizzled moustache touched her forehead.
"Odille, I accept your terms. Henceforth in accordance with your own conditions you are mine; mine in the sight of God and man."
Recoiling, she drew her handkerchief across the spot where his lips had rested, and her voice sounded strangely cold and haughty:
"God holds Himself aloof from such sacrilege as this, and sometimes I think He does not witness, or surely would forbid. Just yet, you must not touch me. You accept the conditions named, and I shall hold myself bound by the stipulations; but until I am your wife, until you take my hand as Mrs. Laurance, you will pardon me if I absolutely prohibit all caresses. I am very frank, you see, and doubtless you consider me peculiar, probably prudish, but only a husband's lips can touch mine, only a husband's arm encircle me. When we are married——"
She did not complete the sentence, but a peculiar musical laugh rippled over her lips, and she held out her hand to him.
"Remember, I promised General Laurance only my hand, and here I surrender it. You have fairly earned it, but I fear it will not prove the guerdon you fondly imagine."
He kissed it tenderly, and keeping it in his, spoke very earnestly:
"Only one thing, Odille, I desire to stipulate, and that springs solely from my jealous love. You must promise to abandon the stage for ever. Indeed, my beautiful darling, I could not endure to see my wife, my own, before the footlights. In Mrs. Laurance the world must lose its lovely idol."
"Am I indeed so precious in General Laurance's eyes! Will he hold me always such a dainty sacred treasure, safe from censure and aspersion? Sir, I appreciate the delicate regard that prompts this expression of your wishes, and with one slight exception, I willingly accede to them. I have written a little drama, adapting the chief role to my own peculiar line of talent and I desire in that play, of my own composition, to bid adieu to the stage. In Paris, where illness curtailed my engagement, I wish to make my parting bow, and I trust you will not oppose so innocent a pleasure? The marriage ceremony shall be performed in the afternoon, and that night I propose to appear in my own play. May I not hope that my husband will consent to see me on my wedding day in that role? Only one night, then adieu for ever to the glittering bauble! Can my fastidious lover refuse the first boon I ever craved?"
She turned and placed her disengaged hand on his shoulder, and as the moonlight shone on her smiling dangerously beguiling face, the infatuated man laid his lips upon the soft white fingers.
"Could I refuse you anything, my beautiful brown-eyed empress? Only once more then; promise me after that night to resign the stage, to reign solely in my heart and home."
"You have my promise, and when I break my vows, it will be the Laurance example that I follow. In your letter you stated that urgent business demanded your return to Paris, possibly to America. Can you not postpone the consummation of our marriage?"
"Impossible! How could I consent to defer what I regard as the crowning happiness of my life? I have not so many years in store, that I can afford to waste even an hour without you. When I leave Europe, I shall take my darling with me."
The moon was shining full upon her face, and the magnificent eyes looked steadily into his. There was no movement of nerve and muscle to betray all that raged in her soul, as she fought and conquered the temptation to spring forward, and hurl him over the parapet.
In the flush and enthusiasm of his great happiness, he certainly seemed far younger in proportion to their respective years than his companion; and as he softly stroked back a wave of golden hair that had fallen on her white brow, he leaned until his still handsome face was close to hers, and whispered:
"When may I claim you? Do not, my love, delay it a day longer than is absolutely necessary."
"To-morrow morning I will give you an answer. Then I am going away for a few days to Paestum, and cannot see you again till we meet in Paris. Recollect, I warned you, I bring no heart, no love; both are lost hopelessly in the ashes of the past. I never loved but one man—the husband of my youth, the father of my baby; and his loss I shall mourn till the coffin closes above me. General Laurance, you are running a fearful hazard, and the very marble of the altar should find a voice to cry out and stay your madness."
She shivered, and her eyes burned almost supernaturally large and lustrous.
Charmed by her beauty and grace, which had from the beginning of their acquaintance attracted him more powerfully than any other woman had ever done, and encouraged by the colossal vanity that had always predominated in his character, he merely laughed and caressed her hand.
"Can any hazard deter me when the reward will be the privilege, the right to fold you in my arms? I am afraid of nothing that can result from making you my wife. Do not cloud my happiness by conjuring up spectres that only annoy you, that cannot for an instant influence me. Your hands are icy and you have no shawl. Let me take you home."
Silently she accepted his arm, and as the fringy acacias trembled and sighed above her, she walked by his side; wondering if the black shadow that hung like a pall over the distant crest of Vesuvius were not a fit symbol of her own wretched doomed existence, threatening a sudden outbreak that would scatter ruin and despair where least expected?
Nearing the Villa gate General Laurance asked:
"What is the character of your drama? Is it historic?"
"In what era?"
"In the last eighteen or twenty years."
"When may I read the MS? I am impatient to see all that springs from your dear hands."
"The dramatic effect will be finer, when you see me act it. Pardon me if I am vain enough to feel assured that my little play will touch my husband's heart as ever Racine, Shakespeare, and Euripides never did!"
There was a triumphant, exultant ring in her silvery voice that only charmed her infatuated companion, and tenderly pressing the hand that lay on his arm, he added pleadingly;
"At least, my dear Odille, you will tell me the title?"
She shook off his fingers, and answered quietly:
"General Laurance, I call it merely—Infelice."
For some days subsequent to Mrs. Carew's departure, Regina saw little of her guardian, whose manner was unusually preoccupied, and entirely devoid of the earnest interest and sympathy he had displayed at their last interview. Ascribing the change to regret at the absence of the guest whose presence had so enlivened the house, the girl avoided all unnecessary opportunities of meeting him, and devoted herself assiduously to her music and studies.
The marriage of a friend residing in Albany had called Olga thither, and in the confusion and hurried preparation incident to the journey she had found, or at least improved, no leisure to refer to the subject of the remarks made by Mrs. Carew and Mr. Chesley relative to Mr. Eggleston.
Mr. Congreve and Mrs. Palma had accompanied Olga to the railroad depot, and she departed in unusually high spirits.
Several days elapsed, during which Mr. Palma's abstraction increased, and by degrees Regina learned from his stepmother that a long pending suit involving several millions of dollars was drawing to a close.
As counsel for the plaintiff, he was summing up and preparing his final speech. An entire day was consumed in its delivery, and on the following afternoon as Regina sat at the library table writing her German exercise, she heard, his footsteps ascending with unwonted rapidity the hall stairs. Outside the door he paused, and accosted Mrs. Palma who hastened to meet him.
"Madam, I have won."
"Indeed, Erle, I congratulate you. I believe it involves a very large fee?"
"Yes, twenty thousand dollars; but the victory yields other fruit quite as valuable to me. Judges McLemore and Mayfield were on the defence, and it cost me a very hard fight: literally—' Palma non sine pulvere.' The jury deliberated only twenty minutes, and of course I am much gratified."
"I am heartily glad, but it really is no more than I expected; for when did you ever fail in anything of importance?"
"Most signally in one grave matter, which deeply concerns me. Despite my efforts, Olga's animosity grows daily more intense, and it annoys, wounds me; for you are aware that I have a very earnest interest in her welfare. I question very much the propriety of your course in urging this match upon her, and you know that from the beginning I have discouraged the whole scheme. She is vastly Congreve's superior, and I confess I do not relish the idea of seeing her sacrifice herself so completely. I attempted to tell her so, about a fortnight since, but she stormily forbade my mentioning Congreve's name in her presence, and looked so like an enraged leopardess that I desisted."
"It will prove for the best, I hope; and nothing less binding, less decisive than this marriage will cure her of her obstinate folly. Time will heal all, and some day, Erle, she will understand you, and appreciate what you have done."
"My dear madam, I merely mean that I desire she should regard me as a brother, anxious to promote her true interests; whereas she considers me her worst enemy. Just now we will adjourn the subject, as I must trouble you to pack my valise. I am obliged to start immediately to Washington, and cannot wait for dinner. Will you direct Octave to prepare a cup of coffee?"
"How long will you be absent?"
"I cannot say positively, as my business is of a character which may be transacted in three hours, or may detain me as many days. I must leave here in half an hour."
The door was open, and hearing what passed, Regina bent lower over her exercise book when her guardian came forward.
Although toil-worn and paler than usual, his eyes were of a proud glad light, that indexed gratification at his success.
Leaning against the table, he said carelessly:
"I am going to Washington, and will safely deliver any message you feel disposed to send to your admirer, Mr. Chesley."
She glanced inquiringly at him.
"I hope you reciprocate his regard, for he expressed great interest in your welfare."
"I liked him exceedingly; better than any gentleman I ever met, except dear Mr. Hargrove."
"A very comprehensive admission, and eminently flattering to poor Elliott and 'Brother' Douglass."
"Mr. Chesley is a very noble-looking old man, and seemed to me worthy of admiration and confidence. He did not impress me as a stranger, but rather as a dear friend."
"Doubtless I shall find the chances all against me, when you are requested to decide between us."
A perplexed expression crossed the face she raised toward him.
"I am not as quick as Mrs. Carew in solving enigmas."
" A propos! what do you think of my charming fair client?"
Her heart quickened its pulsations, but the clear sweet voice was quiet and steady.
"I think her exceedingly beautiful and graceful."
"When I am as successful in her suit as in the great case I won to-day, I shall expect you to offer me very sincere congratulations."
He smiled pleasantly, as he looked at her pure face, which bad never seemed so surpassingly lovely as just then, with white hyacinths nestling in and perfuming her hair.
"I shall not be here then; but, Mr. Palma, wherever I am, I shall always congratulate you upon whatever conduces to your happiness."
"Then I may consider that you have already decided in favour of Mr. Chesley?"
"Mr. Palma, I do not quite understand your jest"
"Pardon me, it threatens to become serious. Mr. Chesley is immensely wealthy, and having no near relatives desires to adopt some pretty, well-bred, affectionate-natured girl, who can take care of and cheer his old age; and to whom he can bequeath his name and fortune. His covetous eye has fallen upon my ward, and he seriously contemplates making some grave proposals to your mother, relative to transferring you to Washington, and thence to San Francisco. As Mr. Chesley's heiress, your future will be very brilliant, and I presume that in a voluntary choice of guardians, I am destined to lose my ward."
"Very soon my mother will be my guardian, and Mr. Chesley is certainly a gentleman of too much good sense and discretion to entertain such a thought relative to a stranger, of whom he knows absolutely nothing. A few polite kindly worded phrases bear no such serious interpretation."
She had bent so persistently over her book, that he closed and removed it beyond her reach, forcing her to regard him; for after the toil, contention, and brain-wrestling of the courtroom, it was his reward just now to look into her deep calm eyes, and watch the expressions vary in her untutored ingenuous countenance.
"Men, especially confirmed old bachelors, are sometimes very capricious and foolish; and my friend Mr. Chesley appears to have fallen hopelessly into the depth of your eyes. In vain I assured him that Helmholtz has demonstrated that the deepest blue eye is after all only a turbid medium. In his infatuation he persists that science is a learned bubble, and that your eyes are wells of truth and inspiration. Of course you desire that I shall present your affectionate regards to your future guardian?"
"You can improvise any message you deem advisable, but I send none."
A faint colour was stealing into her cheeks, and the long lashes drooped before the bright black eyes, that had borne down many a brave face on the witness stand.
The clock struck, and Mr. Palma compared his watch with its record.
He was loath to quit that charming quiet room, which held the fair innocent young queen of his love, and hasten away upon the impending journey; but it was important that he should not miss the railway train, and he smothered a sigh:
"This morning I neglected to give you a letter which arrived yesterday, and of course I need expect no pardon when you ascertain that it is from 'India's coral strand.' If 'Brother Douglass' is as indefatigable in the discharge of his missionary as his epistolary labours, he deserves a crown of numerous converts. This letter was enclosed in one addressed to me, and I prefer that you should postpone your reply until my return. I intended to mention the matter this morning, but was absorbed in court proceedings, and now I am too much hurried."
She put the letter into her pocket, and at the same time drew out a small envelope containing the amount of money she had borrowed. Rising, she handed it to him.
"Allow me to cancel my debt."
As he received it, their fingers met, and a hot flush rushed over the lawyer's weary face. He bit his lip, and recovered himself before she observed his emotion.
"That alms-giving episode is destined to yield an inestimable harvest of benefits. But I must hurry away. Pray do not take passage for the jungles of Oude before I return, for whenever you leave me I should at least like the ceremony of bidding my ward adieu. Good-bye."
She gave him her hand.
"Good-bye, Mr. Palma. I hope you will have a pleasant trip."
As she stood before him, the rich blue of her soft cashmere dress rendered her pearly complexion fairer still, and though keen pain gnawed at her heart, no hint of her suffering marred the perfection of her face.
"Lily, where did you get those lovely white hyacinths? Yesterday I ordered a bouquet of them, but could procure none. Would you mind giving me the two that smell so deliciously in your hair? I want them—well—no matter why. Will you oblige me?"
"Certainly, sir; but I have a handsomer fresher spike of flowers in a glass in my room, which I will bring down to you."
She turned, but he detained her.
"No, these are sufficiently pretty for my purpose, and I am hurried. I trust I may be pardoned this robbery of your floral ornaments, since you will probably see neither Mr. Roscoe, Mr. Chesley, nor yet Padre Sahib this evening."
She laid the snowy perfumed bells in his outstretched hand, and said:
"I am exceedingly glad that even in such a trifle I can contribute to your pleasure, and I assure you that you are perfectly welcome to my hyacinths."
The sweet downcast face, and slightly wavering voice appealed to all that was tender and loving in his cold undemonstrative nature, and he was strongly tempted to take her in his arms, and tell her the truth, which every day he found it more difficult to conceal.
"Thank you. Some day, Lily, I will tell you their mission and fate. Should I forget, remind me."
He smiled, bowed, and hurried from the room, leaving her sadly perplexed.
At dinner Mrs. Palma said:
"I have promised to chaperon the Brace sisters to-night to the opera, and shall take tea at their house. Were I sure of a seat for you, I should insist upon taking you, for I dislike to leave you so much alone; but the box might be full, and then things would be awkward."
"You need have no concern on my account, for I have my books, and am accustomed to being alone. Moreover, I am not particularly partial to the music of 'Martha' which will be played to-night."
"Did your guardian tell you he has just won that great 'Migdol' case that created so much interest?"
"He mentioned it. Mrs. Palma, I thought he looked weary and jaded; as if he needed a rest, rather than a journey."
"Erle is never weary. His nerves are steel, and he will speedily forget his court-house cares in Mrs. Carew's charming conversation."
"But she is not in Washington?"
"She told me yesterday she would go there this afternoon, and showed me the most superb maize-coloured satin just received from Worth, which she intends wearing to-morrow evening at the French Ambassador's ball, or reception. You know she is very fascinating, and though Erle thinks little about women, I really believe she will succeed in driving law books, for a little while at least, out of his cool clear head. My dear, I am going to write a short note. Will you please direct Hattie to bring my opera hat, cloak, and glasses?"
With inexpressible relief, Regina heard the heavy silk rustle across the hall, when she took her departure, and rejoiced in the assurance that there was no one to intrude upon her solitude.
How she wished that she could fly to some desert, where undiscovered she might cry aloud, in the great agony that possessed her heart.
The thought that her guardian had hastened away to accompany that grey-eyed, golden-haired witch of a woman to Washington was intolerably bitter; and as she contemplated the possibility, nay the probability, of his speedy marriage, a wild longing seized her to make her escape, and avoid the sight of such a spectacle.
When she recalled his proud, handsome, composed face, and tried to imagine him the husband of Mrs. Carew, bending over, caressing her, the girl threw her arms on his writing desk, and sunk her face upon them, as if to shut out the torturing vision.
She knew that he was singularly reserved and undemonstrative; she had never seen him fondle or caress anything, and the bare thought that his stern marble lips would some day seek and press that woman's scarlet mouth made her shiver with a pang that was almost maddening.
How cruelly mocking that he should take her favourite snowy hyacinths to offer them to Mrs. Carew! Did his keen insight penetrate the folly she had suffered to grow up in her own heart, and had he coolly resorted to this method of teaching her its hopelessness?
If she could leave New York before his return, and never see him again, would it not be best? His eyes were so piercing, he was so accustomed to reading people's emotions in their countenance, and she felt that she could not survive his discovery of her secret.
What did his irony relative to India portend? Hitherto she had quite forgotten the letter from Mr. Lindsay, and now breaking the seal, sought an explanation.
A few faded flowers fell out as she unfolded it, and ere she completed the perusal a cry escaped her. Mr. Lindsay wrote that his health had suffered so severely from the climate of India that he had been compelled to surrender his missionary work to stronger hands, and would return to his native land. He believed that rest and America would restore him, and now he fully declared the nature of his affection, and the happiness with which he anticipated his reunion with her; reminding her of her farewell promise that none should have his place in her heart. More than once she read the closing words of that long letter.
"I had intended deferring this declaration until you were eighteen, and restored to your mother's care; but my unexpectedly early return, and the assurance contained in your letters that your love has in no degree diminished, determine me to acquaint you at once with the precious hope that so gladdens the thought of our approaching reunion. While your decision must of course be subject to and dependent on your mother's approval, I wish you to consult only the dictates of your heart, believing that all my future must be either brightened or clouded by your verdict. Open the package given to you in our last interview, and if you have faithfully kept your promise let me see upon your hand the ring which I shall regard as the pledge of our betrothal. Whether I live many or few years, God grant that your love may glorify and sanctify my earthly sojourn. In life or death, my darling Regina, believe me always,
Below the signature, and dated a week later, were several lines in Mrs. Lindsay's handwriting, informing her that her son had again been quite ill, but was improving; and that within the ensuing ten days they expected to sail for Japan, and thence to San Franciso, where Mrs. Lindsay's only sister resided. In conclusion she earnestly appealed to Regina, as the daughter of her adoption, not to extinguish the hope that formed so powerful an element in the recovery of her son Douglass.
Was it the mercy of God, or the grim decree of fatalism, or the merest accident that provided this door of escape, when she was growing desperate?
Numb with heart-ache, and strangely bewildered, Regina could recognize it only as a providential harbour, into which she could safely retreat from the storm of suffering that was beginning to roar around her. Recalling the peaceful happy years spent at the parsonage, and the noble character of the man who loved her so devotedly, who had so tenderly cared for her through the season of her childhood, a gush of grateful emotion pleaded that she owed him all that he now asked.
When she contrasted the image of the pale student, so affectionate, so unselfishly considerate in all things, with the commanding figure and cold, guarded, non-committal face of Mr. Palma, she shivered and groaned: but the comparison only goaded her to find safety in the sheltering love, that must at least give her peace.
If she were Douglass Lindsay's wife, would she not find it far easier to forget her guardian? Would it be sinful to promise her hand to one, while her heart stubbornly enshrined the other? She loved Mr. Lindsay very much: he seemed holy, in his supremely unselfish and deeply religious life; and after awhile perhaps other feelings would grow up toward him.
In re-reading the letter, she saw that Mr. Lindsay had informed Mr. Palma of the proposal which it contained; as he deemed it due to her guardian to acquaint him with the sentiments they entertained for each other.
Should she reject the priestly hand and loyal heart of the young missionary, would not Mr. Palma suspect the truth?
She realized that the love in her heart was of that deep exhaustive nature which comes but once to women, and since she must bury it for ever, was it not right that she should dedicate her life to promoting Mr. Lindsay's happiness? Next to her mother, did she not owe him more than any other human being?
As she sat leaning upon Mr. Palma's desk, she saw his handkerchief near the inkstand, where he had dropped it early that morning; and taking it up, she drew it caressingly across her check and lips. Everything in this room, where since her residence in New York she had been accustomed to see him, grew sacred from association with him, and all that he touched was strangely dear.
For two hours she sat there, very quiet, weighing the past, considering the future; and at last she slowly resolved upon her course.
She would write that night to her mother, enclose Mr. Lindsay's letter, and if her mother's permission could be obtained, she would give her hand to Douglass, and in his love forget the brief madness that now made her so wretched.
From the date of the postscript she discovered that the letter had been delayed en route, and computing the time from Yokohama to San Francisco, according to information given by Mr. Chesley, she found that unless some unusual detention had occurred, the vessel in which Mr. and Mrs. Lindsay intended to sail should have already reached California.
Mr. Palma's jest relative to India was explained; and evidently he had not sufficient interest in her decision even to pause and ask it. Knowing the contents, he had with cold indifference carried the letter for two days in his pocket, and handed it to her just as he was departing.
She imagined him sitting in the car, beside Mrs. Carew, admiring her beauty, perhaps uttering in her ear tender vows, never breathed by his lips to any other person; while she—the waif, the fatherless, nameless, obscure young girl—sat there alone desperately fighting the battle of destiny.
Bitter as was this suggestion of her aching heart, it brought strength; and rising, she laid aside the handkerchief, and quitted the apartment that babbled ceaselessly of its absent master.
Among some precious souvenirs of her mother she kept the package which had been given to her by Mr. Lindsay with the request that it should remain unopened until her eighteenth birthday; and how she unlocked the small ebony box that contained her few treasures.
The parcel was sealed with red wax, and when she removed the enveloping pasteboard, she found a heavy gold ring, bearing a large beautifully tinted opal, surrounded with small diamonds. On the inside was engraved "Douglass and Regina," with the date of the day on which he had left the parsonage for India.
Kneeling beside her bed, she prayed that God would help her to do right, would guide her into the proper path, would enable her to do her duty, first to her mother, then to Mr. Lindsay.
When she rose, the ring shone on her left hand, and though her face was worn and pallid her mournful eyes were undimmed, and she sat down to write her mother frankly concerning the feelings of intense gratitude and perfect confidence which prompted her to accept Mr. Lindsay's offer, provided Mrs Orme consented to the betrothal.
Ere she had concluded the task, her attention was attracted by a noise on the stairs that were situated near her door.
It was rather too early for Mrs. Palma's return from the opera, and the servants were all in a different portion of the building.
Regina laid down her pen, and listened. Slow heavy footsteps were ascending, and recognizing nothing familiar in the sound, she walked quickly to the door which stood ajar, and looked out.
A tall woman wrapped in a heavy shawl had reached the landing, and as the gaslight fell upon her, Regina started forward.
"Olga! we did not expect you until to-morrow, but you are disguised! Oh! what is the matter?"
Wan and haggard, apparently ten years older than when she ran down these steps a week previous departing for Albany, Olga stood clinging to the mahogany rail of the balustrade. Her large straw bonnet had fallen back, the heavy hair was slipping low on neck and brow, and her sunken eyes had a dreary stare.
"Are you ill? What has happened? Dear Olga, speak to me."
She threw her arms around the regal figure, and felt that she was shivering from head to foot.
As she became aware of the close clinging embrace in which Regina held her, a ghastly smile parted Olga's colourless lips, and she said said in a husky whisper:
"Is it you? True little heart; the only one left in all the world."
After a few seconds, she added:
"Where is mamma?"
"At the opera."
"To see Beelzebub? All the world is singing and playing that now, and you may be sure that you and I shall be in at the final chorus. Regina——"
She swept her hand feebly over her forehead, and seemed to forget herself.
Then she rallied, and a sudden spark glowed in her dull eyes, as when a gust stirs an ash heap, and uncovers a dying ember.
"Has gone to Washington."
"May he never come back! O God! a hundred deaths would not satisfy me! A hundred graves were not sufficient to hide him from my sight!"
She groaned and clasped her hand across her eyes.
"What dreadful thing has occurred? Tell me, you know that you can trust me."
"Trust! no, no; not even the archangels that fan the throne of God. I have done with trust. Take me in your room a little while. Hide me from mamma until to-morrow; then it will make no difference who sees me."
Regina led her to the low rocking chair in her own room, and took off the common shawl and bonnet which she had used as a disguise, then seized her cold nerveless hand.
"Do tell me your great sorrow."
"Something rare nowaday. I had a heart, a live, warm, loving heart, and it is broken; dead—utterly dead. Regina, I was so happy yesterday. Oh! I stood at the very gate of heaven, so close that all the glory and the sweetness blew upon me, like June breezes over a rose hedge; and the angels seemed to beckon me in. I went to meet Belmont, to join him for ever, to turn my back on the world, and as his wife pass into the Eden of his love and presence.... Now, another gate yawns, and the fiends call me to come down, and if there really be a hell, why then——"
For nearly a moment she remained silent.
"Olga, is he ill? Is he dead?"
A cry as of one indeed broken-hearted came from her quivering lips, and she clasped her arms over her head.
"Oh, if he were indeed dead! If I could have seen him and kissed him in his coffin! And known that he was still mine, all mine, even in the grave——"
Her head sank upon her bosom, and after a brief pause she resumed in an unnaturally calm voice.
"My world so lovely yesterday has gone to pieces; and for me life is a black crumbling ruin. I hung all my hopes, my prayers, my fondest dreams on one shining silver thread of trust, and it snapped, and all fall together. We ask for fish, and are stung by scorpions; we pray for bread—only bare bread for famishing hearts—and we are stoned. Ah! it appears only a hideous dream; but I know it is awfully, horribly true."
"What is true? Don't keep me in suspense."
Olga bent forward, put her large hands on Regina's shoulders as the latter knelt in front of her, and answered drearily:
"He is married."
"Not Mr. Eggleston?"
"Yes, my Belmont. For so many years he has been entirely mine, and oh, how I loved him! Now he is that woman's husband. Bought with her gold. I intended to run away and marry him; go with him to Europe, where I should never see Erle Palma's cold devilish black eyes again. Where in some humble little room hid among the mountains, I could be happy with my darling. I sold my jewellery, even my richest clothing, that I might have a little money to defray expenses. Then I wrote Belmont of my plans, told him I had forsaken everything for him, and appointed a place in this city where we could meet. I hastened down from Albany, disguised myself, and went to the place of rendezvous. After waiting a long time, his cousin came; brought me a letter, showed me the marriage notice. Only two days ago they—Belmont and that woman—were married, and they sailed for Europe at noon to-day, in the steamer upon which I had expected to go as a bride. He wrote that with failing health, penury staring him in the face, and, despairing at last of being able to win me, he had grown reckless, and sold himself to that wealthy widow who had long loved him, and who would provide generously for his helpless mother. He said he dared not trust himself to see me again. And so, all is over for ever."
She dropped her head on her clenched hands, and shuddered. "Dear Olga, he was not worthy of you, or he would never have deserted you. If he truly loved you, he never could have married another, for——"
She paused, for the shimmer of the diamonds on her hand accused her. Was she not contemplating similar treachery? Loving one man, how dare she entertain the thought of listening to another's suit. She was deeply and sincerely attached to Douglass, she reverenced him more than any living being; but she knew that it was not the same feeling her heart had declared for her guardian, and she felt condemned by her own words.
Olga made an impatient motion, and answered:
"Hush—not a word against him; none shall dishonour him. He was maddened, desperate. My poor darling! Erle Palma and mamma were too much for us, but we shall conquer at last. Belmont will not live many months; he had a hemorrhage from his lungs last week, and in a little while we shall be united. He will not long wait to join me."
She leaned back and smiled triumphantly, and Regina became uneasy as she noted the unnatural expression of her eyes.
"What do you mean, Olga? You make me unhappy, and I am afraid you are ill."
"No, dear; but I am tired. So tired of everything in this hollow, heartless, shameful world, that I want to lie down and rest. For eight years nearly I have leaned on one hope for comfort; now it has crumbled under me, and I have no strength. Will you let me sleep here with you to-night? I will not keep you awake."
"Let me help you to undress. You know I shall be glad to have you here."
Regina unbuttoned her shoes, and began to draw them off, while Olga mechanically took down and twisted her weighty hair. Once she put her hand on her pocket, and her eyes glittered.
"I want a glass of wine, or anything that will quiet me. Please go down to the dining-room, and get me something to put me to sleep. My head feels as if it were on fire."
The tone was so unusually coaxing, that Regina's suspicions were aroused.
"I don't know where to find the key of the wine closet."
"Then wake Octave, and tell him to give you some wine He keeps port and madeira for soups and sauces. You must I would do as much for you. I will go to Octave."
She attempted to rise, but Regina feigned acquiescence, and left the room, closing the door, but leaving a crevice. Outside, she knelt down and peeped through the key-hole.
Alarmed by the unnatural expression of the fiery hazel eyes, a horrible dread overshadowed her, and she trembled from head to foot.
While she watched, Olga rose, turned her head and listened intently; then drew something from her pocket, and Regina saw that it was a glass vial.
"I win at last. To-morrow, mamma and her stepson will not exult over this victory. If I have an immortal soul may God—my Maker and Judge—have mercy upon me!"
She drew out the cork with her teeth, turned, and as she lifted the vial to her lips, Regina ran in and seized her arm.
"Olga, you are mad! Would you murder yourself?"
They grappled; Olga was much taller and now desperately strong, but luckily Regina had her fingers also on the glass, and, dragging down the hand that clenched it, the vial was inverted, and a portion of the contents fell upon the carpet.
Feeling the liquid run through her fingers, Olga uttered la cry of baffled rage of despair, and struck the girl a heavy blow in the face that made her stagger; but almost frantic with terror Regina improved the opportunity afforded by the withdrawal of one of the large hands, to tighten her own grasp, and in the renewed struggle succeeded in wrenching away the vial. The next instant, she hurled it against the marble mantlepiece, and saw it splintered into numberless fragments.
As the wretched woman watched the fluid oozing over the hearth, she cried out and covered her face with her hands.
"Dear Olga, you are delirious, and don't know what you are doing. Go to bed, and when you lie down, I will get the wine for you. Please, dear Olga! You wring my heart."
"Oh, you call yourself my friend, and you have been most cruel of all! You keep me from going to a rest that would have no dreams, and no waking, and no to-morrow. Do you think I will live and let them taunt me with my folly, my failure? Let that iron fiend show his white teeth, and triumph over me? People will know I sold my clothes, and tried to run away, and was forsaken. Oh! if you had only let me alone! I should very soon lave been quiet; out of even Erle Palma's way! Now——"
She gave utterance to a low, distressing wail, and rocked herself, murmuring some incoherent words.
"Olga, your mother has come, and unless you wish her to hear you, and come in, do try to compose yourself."
Shuddering at the mention of her mother, she grew silent, moody, and suffered Regina to undress her. After a long while, during which she appeared absolutely deaf to all appeals, she rose, smiled strangely, and threw herself across the bed; but the eyes were beginning to sparkle, and now and then she laughed almost hysterically.
When an hour had passed, and no sound came from the prostrate figure, Regina leaned over to look at her, and discovered that she was whispering rapidly some unintelligible words.
Once she startled up, exclaiming:
"Don't have such a hot fire! My head is scorching."
Regina watched her anxiously, softly stroking one of her hands, trying to soothe her to sleep; but after two o'clock, when she grew more restless and incoherent in her muttering, the young nurse felt assured she was sinking into delirium, and decided to consult Mrs. Palma.
Concealing the shawl and bonnet, and gathering up the most conspicuous fragments of glass on the hearth, she put them out of sight, and hurried to Mrs. Palma's room.
She was astonished to find her still awake, sitting before a table, and holding a note in her hand.
"What is the matter, Regina?"
"Olga has come home, and I fear she is very ill. Certainly she is delirious."
"Oh! then she has heard it already! She must have seen the paper. I knew nothing of it until to-night, when Erle's hasty note from Philadelphia reached me, after I left the opera. I dreaded the effect upon my poor, unfortunate child. Where is she?"
"In my room."
During the protracted illness that ensued, Olga temporarily lost the pressure of the burden she had borne for so many years, and entered into that Eden which her imagination had painted, ere the sudden crash and demolition of her Chateaux en Espagne. Her delirium was never violent and raving, but took the subdued form of a beatified existence. In a low voice, that was almost a whisper, she babbled ceaselessly of her supreme satisfaction in gaining the goal of all her hopes—and dwelt upon the beauty of her chalet home—the tinkling music of the bells on distant heights where cattle browsed—the leaping of mountain torrents just beyond her window—the cooing of the pigeons upon the tall peaked roof—the breath of mignonette and violets stealing through the open door. When pounded ice was laid upon her head, an avalanche was sliding down, and the snow saluted her in passing; and when the physician ordered more light admitted that he might examine the unnaturally glowing eyes, she complained that the sun was setting upon the glacier and the blaze blinded her. Now she sat on a mossy knoll beside Belmont, reading aloud Buchanan's "Pan" and "The Siren," while he sketched the ghyll; and anon she paused in her recitation of favourite passages to watch the colour deepen on the canvas.
From the beginning Dr. Suydam had pronounced the case peculiarly difficult and dangerous, and as the days wore on, bringing no debatement of cerebral excitement, he expressed the opinion that some terrible shock had produced the aberration that baffled his skill, and threatened to permanently disorder her faculties.
Jealously Regina concealed all that had occurred on the evening of her return, and though Mrs. Palma briefly referred to her daughter's unfortunate attachment to an unworthy man, whose marriage had painfully startled her, she remained unaware of the revelations made by Olga. Although she evinced no recognition of those about her, the latter shrank from all save Regina whose tender ministrations were peculiarly soothing; and clinging to the girl's hand, she would smilingly talk of the peace and happiness reaped at last by her marriage with Belmont Eggleston, and enjoin upon her the necessity of preserving from "mamma and Erle Palma" the secret of her secluded little cottage home.
On the fourth night, Mrs. Palma was so prostrated by grief and watching, that she succumbed to a violent nervous headache, and was ordered out of the room by the physician, who requested that Regina might for a few hours be entrusted with the care of his patient.
"But if anything should happen? And Regina is so inexperienced?" sobbed the unhappy mother, bending over her child, who was laughing at the gambols of some young chamois, which delirium painted on the wall.
"Miss Orme will at least obey my orders. She is watchful and possesses unusual self-control, which you, my dear madam, utterly lack in a sick-room. Beside, Olga yields more readily to her than to any one else, and I prefer that Miss Orme should have the care of her. Go to bed, madam, and I will send you an anodyne that will compose you."
"If any change occurs, you will call me instantly?"
"You may rest assured I shall."
Mrs. Palma leaned over her daughter, and as her tears fell on the burning face of the sufferer, the latter put up her hands, and said:
"Belmont, it is raining and your picture will be ruined, and then mamma will ridicule your failure. Cover it quick."
"Olga, my darling, kiss mamma good-night."
But she was busy trying to shield the imaginary painting with one of the pillows, and began in a quavering voice to sing Longfellow's "Rainy Day." Her mother pressed her lips to the hot cheek, but she seemed unconscious of the caress, and weeping bitterly Mrs. Palma left the room. As she passed into the hall a cry escaped her, and the broken words:
"Oh, Erle, I thought you would never come! My poor child!"
Dr. Suydam closed the door, and drawing Regina to the window, proceeded to question her closely, and to instruct her concerning the course of treatment he desired to pursue. Should Olga's pulse sink to a certain stage, specified doses must be given; and in a possible condition of the patient he must be instantly notified.
"I am glad to find Mr. Palma has returned. Though he knows no more than a judge's gavel of what is needful in a sick-room, he will be a support and comfort to all, and his nerves never flag, never waver. Keep a written record of Olga's condition at the hours I have specified, and shut her mother out of the room as much as possible. I will try to put her to sleep for the next twelve hours, and by that time we shall know the result. Good-night."
Olga had violently opposed the removal from Regina's room, and in accordance with her wishes she had remained where her weary whirling brain first rested on the day of her return. Arranging the medicine and glasses, and turning down the light, Regina put on her pale blue dressing-gown girded at the waist by a cord and tassel, and loosely twisted and fastened her hair in a large coil low on her head and neck. She had slept none since Olga came home, and anxiety and fatigue had left unmistakable traces on her pale, sad face. The letter to her mother had been finished and signed, but still lay in the drawer of her portable writing desk, awaiting envelope and stamp; and so oppressed had she been by sympathy with Olga's great suffering, that for a time her own grief was forgotten, or at least put aside.
The announcement of Mr. Palma's return vividly recalled all that beclouded her future, and she began to dread the morrow that would subject her to his merciless bright eyes, feeling that his presence was dangerous. Perhaps by careful manoeuvring she might screen herself in the sick-room for several days, and thus avoid the chance of an interview, which must result in an inquiry concerning her answer to Mr. Lindsay's letter. Fearful of her own treacherous heart, she was unwilling to discuss her decision until assured she had grown calm and firm, from continued contemplation of her future lot; moreover, her guardian would probably return from Washington an accepted lover, and she shrank from the spectacle of his happiness, as from glowing ploughshares—lying scarlet in her pathway. In this room she would ensconce herself, and should he send for her, various excuses might be devised to delay the unwelcome interview.
Olga had grown more quiet, and for nearly an hour after the doctor's departure she only now and then resumed her rambling, incoherent monologue. Sitting beside the bed, Regina watched quietly until the clock struck twelve, and she coaxed the sufferer to take a spoonful of a sedative from which the physician hoped much benefit. She bathed the crimson cheeks with a cloth dipped in iced water, and all the while the hazel eyes watched her suspiciously. Other reflections began to colour her vision, and the happy phase was merging into one of terror, lest her lover should die or be torn away from her. Leaning over her, Regina endeavoured to compose her by assurances that Belmont was well and safe, but restlessly she tossed from side to side.
At last she began to cry, softly at first, like a fretful weary child; and while Regina held her hands, essaying to soothe her, a shadow glided between the gas globe and the bed, and Mr. Palma stood beside the two. He looked pale, anxious, and troubled, as his eyes rested sorrowfully on the fevered face upon the pillow, and he saw that the luxuriant hair had been closely clipped, to facilitate applications to relieve the brain. The parched lips were browned and cracked, and the vacant stare in the eyes told him that consciousness was still a long way off.
But was there even then a magnetic recognition, dim and vague, of the person whom she regarded as the inveterate enemy of her happiness? Cowering among the bedclothes, she trembled and said, in a husky yet audible whisper:
"Will you hide us a little while? Belmont and I will soon sail, and if Erle Palma and mamma knew it, they would tear me from my darling, and chain me to Silas Congreve, and that would kill me. Oh! I only want my darling; not the Congreve emeralds, only my Belmont, my darling."
Something that in any other man would have been a groan, came from the lawyer's granite lips, and Regina, who shivered at his presence, looked up, and said hastily:
"Please go away, Mr. Palma; the sight of you will make her worse."
He only folded his arms over his chest, sighed, and sat down, keeping his eyes fixed on Olga. It was one o'clock before she ceased her passionate pleading for protection from those whom she believed intent upon sacrificing her, and then turning her face to the wail she became silent, only occasionally muttering rapid indistinct sentences.
For some time Mr. Palma sat with his elbow on his knee, and his head resting on his hand, and even in that hour of deep anxiety and dread, Regina realized that she was completely forgotten; that he had neither looked at nor spoken to her.
Nearly a half-hour passed thus, and his gaze had never wandered from the restless sufferer on the bed, when Regina rose and renewed the cold cloths on her forehead. She counted the pulse, and while she still sat on the edge of the bed, Olga half rose, threw herself forward with her head in Regina's lap, and one arm clasped around her. Softly the girl motioned to her guardian to place the bowl of iced water within her reach, and, dipping her left hand in the water, she stole her fingers lightly across the burning brow. Olga became quiet, and by degrees the lids drooped over the inflamed eyes. Patiently Regina continued her gentle cool touches, and at last she was rewarded by seeing the sufferer sink into the first sleep that had blessed her during her illness.
Fearing to move even an inch lest she should arouse her, and knowing the physician's anxiety to secure repose, the slight figure sat like a statue, supporting the head and shoulders of the sleeper. The clock ticked on, and no other sound was audible, save a sigh from Mr. Palma, and the heavy breathing of Olga. The former was leaning back in his chair, with his arms crossed, and though Regina avoided looking at him, she knew from the shimmer of his glasses, that his eyes were turned upon her. Gradually the room grew cold, and she raised her hand and pointed to a large shawl lying on a chair within his reach. Very warily the two spread it lightly over the arms and shoulders, without disturbing the sleeper. One arm was clasped about Regina's waist, and the flushed face was pressed against her side.
So they watched until three o'clock, and then Mr. Palma saw that the girl was wearied by the constrained, uncomfortable position. He had been studying the colourless, mournful features that were as regular and white as if fashioned in Pentelicus, and noted that the heavy hair coiled low at the back of the head, gave a singularly graceful outline to the whole. She kept her eyes bent upon the face in her lap, and the beautiful lashes and snowy lids drooped over their blue depth. He knew from the paling of her lips that she was faint and tired, but he realized that she could be relieved only by the sacrifice of that sound slumber, upon which Olga's welfare was so dependent. If she stirred even a muscle the sleeper might awake to renewed delirium.
The next hour seemed the longest he had ever spent, and several times he looked at his watch, hoping the clock a laggard. To Regina the vigil was inexpressibly trying, and sitting there three feet from her guardian, she dared not lift her gaze to the countenance that was so dear.
At four o'clock he took a pillow and lounge cushion and placed them behind her as a support for her wearied frame, but she dared not lean against them sufficiently to find relief; and stooping he put his arm around her shoulder, and pressed her head against him. Laying his cheek on hers, he whispered very cautiously, for his lips touched her ear:
"I am afraid you feel very faint; you look so. Can you bear it a little while longer?"
His breath swept warm across her cold cheek, and she hastily inclined her head. He lowered his arm, but remained close beside her, and at last she beckoned to him to bend down, and whispered:
"The fire ought to be renewed in the furnace; will you go down, and attend to it?"
Shod in his velvet slippers, he noiselessly left the room.
How long he was absent, she was unable to determine, for her heart was beating madly from the pressure of his cheek, and the momentary touch of his arm; and gazing at the ring on her finger, she fiercely upbraided herself for this sinful folly. Wearing that opal, was it not unwomanly and wicked to thrill at the contact with one, who never could be more than her coolly kind, prudent, sagacious guardian? She felt numb, sick, giddy, and her heart—ah! how it ached as she tried to realize fully that some day he would caress Mrs. Carew!
Olga slept heavily, and when Mr. Palma returned, he brought his warm scarlet-lined dressing-gown and softly laid it around Regina's shoulders. She looked up to express her thanks, but he was watching Olga's face, and soon after walked to the mantlepiece and stood leaning, with his elbow upon it.
At last the slumberer moaned, turned, and after a few restless movements, threw herself back on the bolster, and fell asleep once more, with disjointed words dying on her lips. It was five o'clock, and Mr. Palma beckoned Regina to him.
"She will be better when she wakes. Go to her room, and go to sleep. I will watch her until her mother comes in."
"I could not sleep, and am unwilling to leave her until the doctor arrives."
"You look utterly exhausted."
"I am stronger than I seem."
"Mrs. Palma tells me that you have been made acquainted with the unfortunate infatuation which has overshadowed poor Olga's life for some years at least. I should be glad to know what you have learned."
"All that was communicated to me on the subject was under the seal of confidence, and I hope you will excuse me if I decline to betray the trust reposed in me."
"Do you suppose I am ignorant of what has recently occurred?"
"At least, sir, I shall not recapitulate what passed between Olga and myself."
"You are aware that she considers me the author of all her wretchedness."
"She certainly regards you and Mrs. Palma's opposition to her marriage with Mr. Eggleston as the greatest misfortune of her life."
"He is utterly unworthy of her affection, is an unscrupulous dissipated man; and it were better she should die to-day, rather than have wrecked her future by uniting it with his."
"But she loved him so devotedly."
"She was deceived in his character, and refused to listen to a statement of facts. When she knows him as he really is, she will despise him."
"I am afraid not"
"I know her better than you do. Olga is a noble high-souled woman, and she will live to thank me for her salvation from Eggleston. Her marriage with Mr. Congreve must not be consummated; I will never permit it in my house."
"She believes you have urged it, have manoeuvred to bring it to pass, and this has enhanced her bitterness."
"Manoeuvring is beneath me, and I am justly accused of much for which I am in no degree responsible. Poor Olga has painted me an inhuman monster, but her good sense will ere long acquit me, when this madness has left her and she is once more amenable to reason."
He walked softly across the floor, leaned over the bed, and for some minutes watched the sleeper, then quietly left the room.
Drawing his dressing-gown closely around her, Regina sat down near the bedside; and as she felt the pleasant warmth of the pearl-grey merino, and detected the faint odour of cigar smoke in its folds, she involuntarily pressed her lips to the garment that seemed almost a part of its owner.
Day broke clear and cold, and when the sun had risen Regina saw that the flush was no longer visible in Olga's face, and that to delirium had succeeded stupor.
The physician looked anxious, and changed the medicine, and he found some difficulty in arousing her sufficiently to administer it. Mrs. Palma resumed her watch at her daughter's side, and Dr. Suydam remained several hours, urging the pale young nurse to take some repose; but aware that the crisis of the disease had arrived, the latter could not consent to quit the room even for a moment. Twice during the day, Mr. Palma came up from his office, and into the darkened apartment where life and death were battling for their prostrate prey; but he exchanged neither word nor glance with his ward, and after brief consultation with the doctor glided noiselessly away.
About seven o'clock Mrs. Palma went down to dinner, leaving Regina alone with the sufferer, and scarcely five minutes later she heard a low moan from the figure that had not stirred for many hours.
Brightening the light, she peered cautiously at the face lying upon the pillow, and was startled to find the eyes wide open. Trembling with anxiety she said:
"Are you not better? You have slept long and soundly."
Mournfully the hazel eyes looked at her, and the dry brown lips quivered.
"I have been awake some time."
"Before your mother left?"
"Dear Olga, is your mind quite clear again?"
"Terribly clear. I suppose I have been delirious?"
"Yes, you have known none of us for five days. Here, drink this, the doctor said you must have it the instant you waked."
"To keep me from dying? Why should I live? I remember everything so vividly, and while custom made you all try to save me, you are obliged to know it would have been better, more kind and merciful, to have let me die at once. Give me some water."
After some seconds, she wearily put her hand to her head, and a ghostly smile hovered over her mouth.
"All my hair cut off? No matter now, Belmont will never see me again, and I only cared for my glossy locks because he was so proud of them. Poor darling."
She groaned, knitted her brows, and shut her eyes; and though she did not speak again, Regina knew that she lay wrestling with bitter memories. When her mother came back, she turned her face toward the wall, and Mrs. Palma eagerly exclaimed:
"My darling, do you know me? Kiss your mother."
Olga only covered her face with her hands and said wearily:
"Don't touch me yet, mamma. You have broken my heart."
At the expiration of the fifth day of convalescence, Olga was wrapped in warm shawls and placed on the couch, which had been drawn near the grate where a bright fire burned. Thin and wan, she lay back on the cushions and pillows, with her wasted hands drooping listlessly beside her. Moody, and taciturn, she refused all aid from any but Regina, and mercilessly exacted her continual presence. By day the latter waited upon and read to her; by night she rested on the same bed, where the unhappy woman remained for hours awake, and inconsolable, dwelling persistently upon her luckless fate. At Mrs. Palma's suggestion her stepson had not visited the sick-room since the recovery of Olga's consciousness; and being closely confined to the limits of the apartment, Regina had not seen her guardian for several days. About three o'clock in the afternoon, when she had finished brushing the short tangled hair that clung in auburn rings around the invalid's forehead, Olga said:
"Read me the 'Penelope.'"
Regina sat down on a low stool close to the couch, and while she opened the book and read, Olga's right arm stole over her shoulder. At the opposite side of the hearth her mother sat, watching the pair; and she saw the door open sufficiently to admit Mr. Palma's head. Quickly she waved him back with a warning gesture; but he shook his head resolutely, advanced a few steps, and stood in a position which prevented the girls from discovering his presence. As Regina paused to turn a leaf, Olga began a broken recitation, grouping passages that suited her fancy:
"Yea, love, I am alone in all the world, The past grows dark upon me where I wait.
* * * * *
Behold how I am mocked!
* * * * *
They come to me, mere men of hollow clay, And whisper odious comfort, and upbraid The love that follows thee where'er thou art.
* * * * *
And they have dragged a promise from my lips To choose a murderer of my love for thee, To choose at will from out the rest one man To slay me with his kisses!"——
She groaned, and gently caressing her hand, Regina read on, and completed the poem.
When she closed the book, Mr. Palma came forward and stood at the side of the couch, and in his hand he held several letters. At sight of him a flush mounted to Olga's hollow cheek, and she put her fingers over her eyes. He quietly laid one hand on her forehead and said pleadingly:
"Olga, dear sister, if you had died without becoming reconciled to me, I should never have felt satisfied or happy, and I thank God you have been spared to us; spared to allow me an opportunity of explaining some thirds which, misunderstood, have caused you to hate me. Regina let me have this seat a little while, and in half an hour you ard Mrs. Palma can come back. I wish to talk alone with Olga."
"To gloze over your deeds and machinations, to deny the dark cowardly work that has stabbed my peace for ever! No, no! The only service you can render me now is to keep out of my sight! Erle Palma, I shall hate you to my dying hour; and my only remaining wish—prayer—is, that she whom you love may give her pure hand to another; that you may live to see her belong to other arms than yours, even as you have helped to thrust Belmont from mine! Oh, I thank God! your cold selfish heart has stirred at last, and I shall have my revenge, when you come, like me, to see the lips you love kissed by another, and the hands that were so sacred to your fond touch clasped by some other man, wearing the badge and fetter of his ownership! When your darling is a wife—but not yours—then the agony that you have inflicted on me will be your portion. Because you love her, as you never yet loved even yourself, may you lose her for ever!"