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Macaria
by Augusta Jane Evans Wilson
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Mr. Huntingdon moved uneasily, pondering the unpalatable advice.

"You certainly don't mean to say that she has inherited——?" He crushed back the words; could he crush the apprehension, too?

"I mean to say that, if she were my child, I would be guided by her, instead of striving to cut her character to fit the totally different pattern of my own."

He put on his hat, thrust his hands into his pockets, stood for some seconds frowning so heavily that the shaggy eyebrows met and partially concealed the cavernous eyes, then nodded to the master of the house, and sought his buggy. From that day Irene was conscious of a keener and more constant scrutiny on her father's part—a ceaseless surveillance, silent, but rigid—that soon grew intolerable. No matter how she employed her time, or whither she went, he seemed thoroughly cognizant of the details of her life; and where she least expected interruption or dictation, his hand, firm though gentle, pointed the way, and his voice calmly but inflexibly directed. Her affection had been in no degree alienated by their long separation, and, through its sway, she submitted for a time; but Huntingdon blood ill-brooked restraint, and, ere long, hers became feverish, necessitating release. As in all tyrannical natures, his exactions grew upon her compliance. She was allowed no margin for the exercise of judgment or inclination; her associates were selected, thrust upon her; her occupations decided without reference to her wishes. From the heartless, frivolous routine marked out, she shrank in disgust; and, painful as was the alternative, she prepared for the clash which soon became inevitable.

From verbal differences she habitually abstained; opinions which she knew to be disagreeable to him she carefully avoided giving expression to in his presence; and while always studiously thoughtful of his comfort, she preserved a respectful deportment, allowing herself no hasty or defiant words. Fond of pomp and ceremony, and imbued with certain aristocratic notions, which an ample fortune had always permitted him to indulge, Mr. Huntingdon entertained company in princely style, and whenever an opportunity offered. His dinners, suppers, and card-parties were known far and wide, and Huntingdon Hall became proverbial for hospitality throughout the State. Strangers were feted, and it was a rare occurrence for father and daughter to dine quietly together. Fortunately for Irene, the servants were admirably trained; and though this round of company imposed a weight of responsibilities oppressive to one so inexperienced, she applied herself diligently to domestic economy, and soon became familiarized with its details. Her father had been very anxious to provide her with a skilful housekeeper, to relieve her of the care and tedious minutiae of such matters; but she refused to accept one, avowing her belief that it was the imperative duty of every woman to superintend and inspect the management of her domestic affairs. Consequently, from the first week of her return, she made it a rule to spend an hour after breakfast in her dining-room pantry, determining and arranging the details of the day.

The situation of the house commanded an extensive and beautiful prospect, and the ancient trees that overshadowed it imparted a venerable and imposing aspect. The building was of brick, overcast to represent granite, and along three sides ran a wide gallery, supported by lofty circular pillars, crowned with unusually heavy capitals. The main body consisted of two stories, with a hall in the centre, and three rooms on either side; while two long single-storied wings stretched out right and left, one a billiard-room, the other a greenhouse.

A broad easy flight of white marble steps led up to the richly-carved front door, with its massive silver knocker bearing the name of Huntingdon in old-fashioned Italian characters; and in the arched niches, on either side of this door, stood two statues, brought from Europe by Mr. Huntingdon's father, and supposed to represent certain Roman penates.

The grounds in front, embracing several acres, were enclosed by a brick wall, and at the foot of the hill, at the entrance of the long avenue of elms, stood a tall, arched iron gate. A smoothly-shaven terrace of Bermuda grass ran round the house, and the broad carriage-way swept up to a mound opposite the door, surmounted by the bronze figure of a crouching dog. Such was Irene's home—stately and elegant—kept so thoroughly repaired that, in its cheerfulness, its age was forgotten.

The society of W—— was considered remarkably fine. There was quite an aggregation of wealth and refinement; gentlemen, whose plantations were situated in adjacent counties, resided here, with their families; some, who spent their winters on the seaboard, resorted here for the summer; its bar was said to possess more talent than any other in the State; its schools claimed to be unsurpassed; it boasted of a concert-hall, a lyceum, a handsome court-house, a commodious well-built jail, and half a dozen as fine churches as any country town could desire. I would fain avoid the term, if possible, but no synonym exists—W—— was, indisputably, an "aristocratic" place.

Thus, after more than four years' absence, the summers of which had been spent in travel among the beautiful mountain scenery of the North, the young heiress returned to the home of her childhood.

For several months after her return she patiently, hopefully, faithfully studied the dispositions of the members of various families with whom she foresaw that she would be thrown, by her father's wishes, into intimate relationship, and satisfied herself that, among all these, there was not one, save Dr. Arnold, whose counsel, assistance, or sympathy she felt any inclination to claim. In fine, W—— was not in any respect peculiar, or, as a community, specially afflicted with heartlessness, frivolity, brainlessness, or mammonism; the average was fair, reputable, in all respects. But, incontrovertibly, the girl who came to spend her life among these people was totally dissimilar in criteria of action, thought, and feeling. To the stereotyped conventional standard of fashionable life she had never yielded allegiance; and now stood a social free-thinker. For a season she allowed herself to be whirled on by the current of dinners, parties, and picnics; but soon her sedate, contemplative temperament revolted from the irksome round, and gradually she outlined and pursued a different course, giving to her gay companions just what courtesy required, no more.

Hugh had prolonged his stay in Europe beyond the period originally designated, and, instead of arriving in time to accompany his uncle and cousin home, he did not sail for some months after their return. At length, however, letters were received announcing his presence in New York, and fixing the day when his relatives might expect him.



CHAPTER XVI

THE LOAN REPAID

The carriage had been dispatched to the depot, a servant stood at the end of the avenue waiting to throw open the gate, Mr. Huntingdon walked up and down the wide colonnade, and Irene sat before the fire in her own room, holding in one palm the flashing betrothal ring which she had been forced to wear since her return from New York. The few years of partial peace had passed; she knew that the hour drew near when the long-dreaded struggle must begin, and, hopeless of averting it, quietly waited for the storm to break. Dropping the ring in her jewellery-box, she turned the key, and just then her father's voice rang through the house.

"Irene! the carriage is coming up the avenue."

She went slowly downstairs, followed by Paragon, and joined her father at the door. His searching look discovered nothing in the serene face; the carriage stopped, and he hastened to meet his nephew.

"Come at last, eh! Welcome home, my dear boy."

The young man turned from his uncle, sprang up the steps, then paused, and the cousins looked at each other.

"Well, Hugh! I am very glad to see you once more."

She held out her hands, and he saw at a glance that her fingers were unfettered. Seizing them warmly, he bent forward; but she drew back coldly, and he exclaimed—

"Irene! I claim a warmer welcome."

She made a haughty, repellent gesture, and moved forward a few steps, to greet the stranger who accompanied him.

"My daughter, this is your uncle, Eric Mitchell, who has not seen you since you were a baby."

The party entered the house, and, seated beside him, Irene gazed with mingled emotions of pain and pleasure upon her mother's only brother. He was about thirty, but looked older from life-long suffering; had used crutches from the time he was five years of age, having been hopelessly crippled by a fall during his infancy. His features were sharp, his cheeks wore the sallow hue of habitual ill-health, and his fine grey eyes were somewhat sunken. Resting his crutches against the sofa, he leaned back, and looked long and earnestly at his niece. Very dimly he remembered a fair, flaxen-haired baby whom the nurse had held out to be kissed when he was sent to Philadelphia to be treated for his lameness; soon after he heard of his sister's death, and then his tutor took him to Europe, to command the best medical advice of the old world.

"From the faint recollection which I have of your mother, I think you strongly resemble her," he said at last in a fond, gentle tone.

"I don't know about that, Eric. She is far more of a Huntingdon than a Mitchell. She has many of the traits of your family, but in appearance she certainly belongs to my side of the house. She very often reminds me of Hugh's mother."

Conversation turned upon the misfortune of the cripple; he spoke freely of the unsuccessful experiments made by eminent physicians, of the hopelessness of his case; and Irene was particularly impressed by the calmness and patience with which he seemed to have resigned himself to this great affliction. She felt irresistibly drawn toward him, careless of passing hours and of Hugh's ill-concealed impatience of manner. As they rose from the tea-table her cousin said laughingly—

"I protest against monopoly. I have not been able to say three words to my lady-cousin."

"I yield the floor from necessity. My long journey has unfitted me for this evening, and I must bid you all an early good night."

"Can I do anything for you, uncle?"

"No, thank you, Irene; I have a servant who thoroughly understands taking care of me. Go talk to Hugh, who has been wishing me among the antipodes."

He shook hands with her, smiled kindly, and Mr. Huntingdon assisted him to his room.

"Irene, come into the library and let me have a cigar."

"How tenacious your bad habits are, Hugh."

"Smoking belongs to no such category. My habits are certainly quite as tenacious as my cousin's antipathies."

He selected a cigar, lighted it, and drawing a chair near hers, threw himself into it with an expression of great satisfaction. "It is delightful to get back home, and see you again, Irene. I felt some regret at quitting Paris, but the sight of your face more than compensates me."

She was looking very earnestly at him, noting the alteration in his appearance, and for a moment his eyes drooped before hers. She saw that the years had been spent, not in study, but in a giddy round of pleasure and dissipation; yet the bright, frank, genial expression of boyhood still lingered, and she could not deny that he had grown up a very handsome man.

"Irene, I had a right to expect a warmer welcome than you deigned to give me."

"Hugh, remember that we have ceased to be children. When you learn to regard me simply as your cousin, and are satisfied with a cousin's welcome, then, and not until then, shall you receive it. Let childish whims pass with the years that have separated us; rake up no germs of contention to mar this first evening of your return. Be reasonable, and now tell me how you have employed yourself since we parted; what have you seen? what have you gleaned?"

Insensibly he found himself drawn into a narration of his course of life. She listened with apparent interest, making occasional good-humoured comments, and bringing him back to the subject whenever he attempted a detour toward the topic so extremely distasteful to her.

The clock struck eleven; she rose and said—

"I beg your pardon, Hugh, for keeping you up so late. I ought to have known that you were fatigued by railroad travel, and required sleep. You know the way to your room; it is the same you occupied before you went to college. Good night; I hope you will rest well."

She held out her hand carelessly; he took it eagerly, and holding it up to the light said, in a disappointed tone—

"Irene, where is my ring? Why are you not wearing it?"

"It is in my jewellery-box. As I gave you my reasons for not wearing it, when you offered it to me, it is not necessary to repeat them now. Good night, Hugh; go dream of something more agreeable than our old childish quarrels." She withdrew her fingers and left him.

A week passed, varied by few incidents of interest; the new-comers became thoroughly domesticated—the old routine was re-established. Hugh seemed gay and careless—hunting, visiting, renewing boyish acquaintances, and whiling away the time as inclination prompted. He had had a long conversation with his uncle, and the result was that, for the present, no allusion was made to the future. In Irene's presence the subject was temporarily tabooed. She knew that the project was not relinquished, was only veiled till a convenient season, and, giving to the momentary lull its full value, she acquiesced, finding in Eric's society enjoyment and resources altogether unexpected. Instinctively they seemed to comprehend each other's character, and while both were taciturn and undemonstrative, a warm affection sprang up between them.

On Sunday morning, as the family group sat around the breakfast-table waiting for Hugh, who lingered, as usual, over his second cup of chocolate, Mr. Mitchell suddenly laid down the fork with which he had been describing a series of geometrical figures on the fine damask, and said, "I met a young man in Brussels who interested me extremely, and in connexion with whom I venture the prediction that, if he lives, he will occupy a conspicuous position in the affairs of his country. He is, or was, secretary of Mr. Campbell, our minister to ——, and they were both on a visit to Brussels when I met them. His name is Aubrey, and he told me that he lived here. His talents are of the first order; his ambition unbounded, I should judge; and his patient, laborious application certainly surpasses anything I have ever seen. It happened that a friend of mine, from London, was prosecuting certain researches among the MS. archives at Brussels, and here, immersed in study, he says he found the secretary, who completely distanced him in his investigations, and then, with unexpected generosity, placed his notes at my friend's disposal. His industry is almost incredible. Conversing with Campbell concerning him, I learned that he was a protege of the minister, who spoke of his future in singularly sanguine terms. He left him some time since to embark in the practice of law. Do you know him, Huntingdon?"

"No, sir! but I know that his father was sentenced to the gallows, and only saved himself from it by cutting his miserable throat, and cheating the law."

The master of the house thrust back his chair violently, crushing one of Paragon's innocent paws as he crouched on the carpet, and overturning a glass which shivered into a dozen fragments at his feet.

Looking at his watch, he said, as if wishing to cut the conversation short: "Irene, if you intend to go to church to-day, it is time that you had your bonnet on. Hugh, what will you do with yourself? Go with Eric and your cousin!"

"No, I rather think I shall stay at home with you. After European cathedrals, our American churches seem excessively plain." Irene went to her room, pondering the conversation. She thought it remarkable that, as long as she had been at home, she had never seen Russell, even on the street.

Unlocking her writing-desk, she took out a tiny note which had accompanied a check for two hundred dollars, and had reached her a few months before she left boarding school. The firm, round, manly hand ran as follows—

"With gratitude beyond all expression for the favour conferred on my mother and myself, some years since, I now return to Miss Huntingdon the money which I have ever regarded as a friendly loan. Hoping that the future will afford me some opportunity of proving my appreciation of her great kindness,

"I remain, most respectfully,

"Her obliged friend,

"RUSSELL AUBREY.

"NEW YORK, September 5th."

She was conscious of a feeling of regret that the money had been returned; it was pleasant to reflect on the fact that she had laid him under obligation; now it all seemed cancelled. She relocked the desk, and, drawing on her gloves, joined her uncle at the carriage. Arriving at church later than was her wont, she found the family pew occupied by strangers, and crossed the aisle to share a friend's, but at that instant a tall form rose in Mr. Campbell's long-vacant pew, stepped into the aisle, and held open the door. She drew back to suffer her uncle to limp in and lay aside his crutches, saw him give his hand to the stranger, and, sweeping her veil aside as she entered, she saw Russell quietly resume his seat at the end of the pew.

Startled beyond measure, she looked at him intently, and almost wondered that she recognized him, he had changed so materially since the day on which she stood with him before his mother's gate. Meantime the service commenced, she gave her hymn-book to her uncle, and at the same moment Russell found the place, and handed her one of two which lay near him. As she received it their eyes met, and she held out her hand. He took it, she felt, his fingers tremble as they dropped hers, and then both faces bent over the books. When they knelt side by side, and the heavy folds of her elegant dress swept against him, it seemed a feverish dream to her; she could not realize that, at last, they had met again, and her heart beat so fiercely that she pressed her hand upon it, dreading lest he should hear its loud pulsations.

The discourse was ended, the diapason of the organ swelled through the lofty church, priestly hands hovered like white doves over the congregation, dismissing all with blessing. Once more Irene swept back the rich lace veil, fully exposing her face; once more her eyes looked into those of the man who politely held the pew door open; both bowed with stately grace, and she walked down the aisle. She heard Russell talking to her uncle just behind her, heard the inquiries concerning his health, the expression of pleasure at meeting again, the hope which Eric uttered that he should see him frequently during his stay in W——. Without even a glance over her shoulder, she proceeded to the carriage, where her uncle soon joined her.

She met his searching gaze calmly, and as they now neared the house he forbore any further allusion to the subject which he shrewdly suspected engaged her thoughts quite as fully as his own.



CHAPTER XVII

IRENE MEETS RUSSELL

"Surely, Uncle Eric, there is room enough in this large, airy house of ours to accommodate my mother's brother! I thought it was fully settled that you were to reside with us. There is no good reason why you should not. Obviously, we have a better claim upon you than anybody else; why doom yourself to the loneliness of a separate household? Reconsider the matter."

"Irene, I want a house of my own, to which I can feel privileged to invite such guests, such companions as I deem congenial, irrespective of the fiats of would-be social autocrats, and the social ostracism of certain cliques."

She was silent a moment, but met his keen look without the slightest embarrassment, and yet when she spoke he knew, from her eyes and voice, that she fully comprehended his meaning.

"Of course, it is a matter which you must determine for yourself. You are the best judge of what conduces to your happiness; but I am sorry, very sorry, Uncle Eric, that, in order to promote it, you feel it necessary to remove from our domestic circle. I shall miss you painfully."

He looked pained, puzzled, and irresolute; but she smiled, and swept her fingers over the bars of her bird-cage, toying with its golden-throated inmate.

"Have you any engagement for this morning?"

"None, sir. What can I do for you?"

"If you feel disposed, I shall be glad to have you accompany me to town; I want your assistance in selecting a set of china for my new home. Will you go?"

A shadow drifted over the colourless tranquil face, as she said sadly—

"Uncle Eric, is it utterly useless for me to attempt to persuade you to relinquish this project, and remain with us?"

"Utterly useless, my dear child."

"I will get my bonnet, and join you at the carriage."

Very near the cottage formerly occupied by Mrs. Aubrey stood a small brick house, partially concealed by poplar and sycamore trees, and surrounded by a neat, well-arranged flower-garden. This was the place selected and purchased by the cripple for his future home. Mr. Huntingdon had opposed the whole proceeding, and invited his brother-in-law to reside with him; but beneath the cordial surface the guest felt that other sentiments rolled deep and strong. He had little in common with his sister's husband, and only a warm and increasing affection for his niece now induced him to settle in W——. Some necessary repairs had been made, some requisite arrangements completed regarding servants, and to-day the finishing touches were given to the snug little bachelor establishment. When it was apparent that no arguments would avail to alter the decision, Irene ceased to speak of it, and busied herself in various undertakings to promote her uncle's comfort. She made pretty white curtains for his library windows, knitted bright-coloured worsted lamp-mats, and hemmed and marked the contents of the linen-closet. The dining-room pantry she took under her special charge, and at the expiration of ten days, when the master took formal possession, she accompanied him, and enjoyed the pleased surprise with which he received her donation of cakes, preserves, ketchups, pickles, etc., etc., neatly stowed away on the spotless shelves.

"What do those large square boxes in the hall contain?"

"Books which I gathered in Europe and selected in New York; among them many rare old volumes, which you have never seen. Come down next Monday, and help me to number and shelve them; afterward, we will read them together. Lay aside your bonnet, and spend the evening with me."

"No, I must go back; Hugh sent me word that he would bring company to tea."

He took her hand, and drew her close to his chair, saying gently—

"Ah, Irene! I wish I could keep you always. You would be happier here, in this little unpretending home of mine, than presiding as mistress over that great palatial house on the hill yonder."

He kissed her fingers tenderly, and, taking her basket she left him alone in his new home.

A few weeks passed without incident; Hugh went to New Orleans to visit friends, and Mr. Huntingdon was frequently absent at the plantation.

One day he expressed the desire that Judge Harris's family should dine with him, and added several gentlemen, "to make the party merry." Irene promptly issued the invitations, suppressing the reluctance which filled her heart; for the young people were not favourites, and she dreaded Charlie's set speeches and admiring glances, not less than his mother's endless disquisitions on fashion and the pedigree of all the best families of W—— and its vicinage. Grace had grown up very pretty, highly accomplished, even-tempered, gentle-hearted, but full of her mother's fashionable notions, and, withal, rather weak and frivolous. She and Irene were constantly thrown into each other's society, but no warmth of feeling existed on either side. Grace could not comprehend her companion's character, and Irene wearied of her gay, heedless chit-chat. As the latter anticipated, the day proved very tiresome; the usual complement of music was contributed by Grace, the expected quantity of flattering nothings gracefully uttered by her brother, the customary amount of execrable puns handed around the circle for patronage and Irene gave the signal for dinner. Mr. Huntingdon prided himself on his fine wines, and, after the decanters had circulated freely, the gentlemen grew garrulous as market-women.

Irene was gravely discussing the tariff question with Mr. Herbert Blackwell (whom Mrs. Harris pronounced the most promising young lawyer of her acquaintance), and politely listening to his stereotyped reasoning, when a scrap of conversation at the opposite end of the table, attracted her attention.

"Huntingdon, my dear fellow, I tell you I never made a mistake in my life, when reading people's minds; and if Aubrey has not the finest legal intellect in W——, I will throw up my judgeship. You have seen Campbell, I suppose? He returned last week, and, by the way, I half-expected to meet him to-day; well, I was talking to him about Aubrey, and he laughed his droll, chuckling laugh, snapped his bony fingers in my face; and said—

"'Aye! aye, Harris, let him alone; hands off! and I will wager my new office against your old one that he steps into your honour's shoes.' Now you know perfectly well that Campbell has no more enthusiasm than a brick wall, or a roll of red tape; but he is as proud of the young man as if he were his son. Do you know that he has taken him into partnership?"

"Pshaw! he will never commit such a faux pas."

"But he has; I read the notice in this morning's paper. Pass the Madeira. The fact is, we must not allow our old prejudices to make us unjust. I know Aubrey has struggled hard; he had much to contend——"

With head slightly inclined, and eyes fixed on Mr. Blackwell's face, Irene had heard all that passed, and as the gentleman paused in his harangue to drain his glass, she rose and led the way to the parlours. The gentlemen adjourned to the smoking-room, and in a short time Mrs. Harris ordered her carriage, pleading an engagement with Grace's mantua-maker as an excuse for leaving so early. With a feeling of infinite relief the hostess accompanied them to the door, saw the carriage descend the avenue, and, desiring one of the servants to have Erebus saddled at once, she went to her room and changed the rich dinner-dress for her riding-habit. As she sprang into the saddle, and gathered up the reins, her father called from the open window, whence issued curling wreaths of blue smoke—

"Where now, Irene?"

"I am going to ride; it threatened rain this morning, and I was afraid to venture."

He said something, but without hearing she rode off, and was soon out of sight, leaving the town to the left, and taking the rocky road leading up the hill-side to the cemetery gate. Dismounting she fastened the reins to one of the iron spikes, and, gathering the folds of her habit over her arm, carried her flowers to the family burying-ground. It was a large square lot, enclosed by a handsome railing and tall gate, bearing the name of "Huntingdon" in silver letters. As she approached, she was surprised to find a low brick wall and beautiful new marble monument close to her father's lot, and occupying a space which had been filled with grass and weeds a few weeks previous.

As she passed the new lot the gate swung open, and Russell stood before her.

"Good evening, Miss Huntingdon."

"Good evening, Mr. Aubrey."

The name sounded strange and harsh as she uttered it, and involuntarily she paused and held out her hand. He accepted it; for an instant the cold fingers lay in his warm palm, and as she withdrew them he said, in the rich mellow voice which she had heard in the church—

"Allow me to show you my mother's monument."

He held the gate open, and she entered and stood at his side. The monument was beautiful in its severe simplicity—a pure faultless shaft, crowned with a delicately chiselled wreath of poppy leaves, and bearing these words in gilt letters: "Sacred to the memory of my mother, Amy Aubrey." Just below, in black characters, "Resurgam"; and underneath the whole, on a finely fluted scroll, the inscription of St. Gilgen. After a silence of some moments Russell pointed to the singular and solemn words, and said, as if speaking rather to himself than to her—

"I want to say always, with Paul Flemming, 'I will be strong,' and therefore I placed here the inscription which proved an evangel to him, that when I come to my mother's grave I may be strengthened, not melted, by the thronging of bitter memories."

She looked up as he spoke, and the melancholy splendour of the deep eyes stirred her heart as nothing had ever done before.

"I have a few flowers left; let me lay them as an affectionate tribute, an 'in memoriam' on your mother's tomb—for the olden time, the cottage days, are as fresh in my recollection as in yours."

She held out a woodland bouquet which she had previously gathered; he took it, and strewed the blossoms along the broad base of the shaft, reserving only a small cluster of the rosy china cups. Both were silent; but as she turned to go, a sudden gust blew her hat from her head, the loosened comb fell upon the grass, and down came the heavy masses of hair. She twisted them hastily into a coil, fastened them securely, and received her hat from him, with a cool—

"Thank you, sir. When did you hear from Electra?"

They walked on to the cemetery gate, and he answered—

"I have heard nothing for some weeks. Have you any message? I am going to New York in a few days to try to persuade her to return to W—— with me."

"I doubt the success of your mission; W—— has little to tempt an artist like your cousin. Be kind enough to tender her my love, and best wishes for the realization of her artistic dreams."

They had reached the gate where Erebus waited, when Russell took off his hat.

"You have a long walk to town," said Irene, as Russell arranged her horse's reins.

"I shall not find it long. It is a fine piece of road, and the stars will be up to light it."

He held out his hand to assist her; she sprang easily to the saddle, then leaned toward him, every statue-like curve and moulding of her proud ivory face stamping themselves on his recollection as she spoke.

"Be so good as to hand me my glove; I dropped it at your feet as I mounted. Thank you. Good evening, Mr. Aubrey; take my best wishes on your journey and its mission."

"Good-bye, Miss Huntingdon." He raised his hat, and, as she wheeled off, the magnetic handsome face followed, haunted her. Erebus was impatient, out of humour, and flew up the next steep hill as if he, too, were haunted.

On through gathering gloom dashed horse and rider, over the little gurgling stream, through the gate, up the dark, rayless avenue to the doorstep. The billiard-room was a blaze of light, and the cheerful sound of mingled voices came out at the open window, to tell that the gentlemen had not yet finished their game. Pausing in the hall, Irene listened an instant to distinguish the voices, then ascended the long easy staircase. The lamp threw a mellow radiance on the steps, and as she reached the landing Hugh caught her in his arms, and kissed her warmly. Startled by his unexpected appearance, she recoiled a step or two and asked, rather haughtily—

"When did you get home?"

"Only a few moments after you left the house. Do change your dress quickly, and come down. I have a thousand things to say."

She waited to hear no more, but disengaged herself and went to her room.

When she went down she met her father at the dining room door.

"Come, Queen; we are waiting for you."

He looked at her fondly, took her hand, and drew her to the table; and, in after years, she recalled this occasion with mournful pleasure as the last on which he had ever given her his pet name.



CHAPTER XVIII

A REFUSAL

"Come out on the colonnade; the air is delicious." As he spoke, Hugh drew his cousin's arm through his, and led the way from the tea-table.

"Irene, how long do you intend to keep me in painful suspense?"

"I am not aware that I have in any degree kept you in suspense."

"You shall not evade me; I have been patient, and the time has come when we must talk of our future. Irene, dearest, be generous, and tell me when will you give me, irrevocably, this hand which has been promised to me from your infancy?"

He took the hand and carried it to his lips, but she forcibly withdrew it, and, disengaging her arm, said emphatically—

"Never, Hugh. Never."

"How can you trifle with me, Irene? If you could realize how impatient I am for the happy day when I shall call you my wife, you would be serious, and fix an early period for our marriage."

"Hugh, why will you affect to misconceive my meaning? I am serious; I have pondered, long and well, a matter involving your life-long happiness and mine, and I tell you, most solemnly, that I will never be your wife."

"Oh, Irene! your promise! your sacred promise!"

"I never gave it! On the contrary, I have never failed to show you that my whole nature rebelled against the most unnatural relation forced upon me."

"My dear Irene, have you, then, no love for me? I have hoped and believed that you hid your love behind your cold mask of proud silence. You must, you do love me, my beautiful cousin!"

"You do not believe your own words; you are obliged to know better. I love you as my cousin, love you somewhat as I love Uncle Eric, love you as the sole young relative left to me, as the only companion of my lonely childhood; but other love than this I never had, never can have for you. Hugh, my cousin, look fearlessly at the unvarnished truth; neither you nor I have one spark of that affection which alone can sanction marriage."

"Indeed, you wrong me, my worshipped cousin. You are dearer to me than anything else on earth. I have loved you, and you only, from my boyhood; you have been a lovely idol from earliest recollection."

"You are mistaken, most entirely mistaken; I am not to be deceived, neither can you hoodwink yourself. You like me, you love me, in the same quiet way that I love you; you admire me, perhaps, more than anyone you chance to know just now; you are partial to my beauty, and, from long habit, have come to regard me as your property, much in the same light as that in which you look upon your costly diamond buttons, or your high-spirited horses, or rare imported pointers. Hugh, I abhor sham! and I tell you now that I never will be a party to that which others have arranged without my consent."

"Ah! I see how matters stand. Having disposed of your heart, and lavished your love elsewhere, you shrink from fulfilling the sacred obligations that make you mine. I little dreamed that you were so susceptible, else I had not left you feeling so secure. My uncle has not proved the faithful guardian I believed him when I entrusted my treasure, my affianced bride to his care."

Bitter disappointment flashed in his face and quivered in his voice, rendering him reckless of consequences. But though he gazed fiercely at her as he uttered the taunt, it produced not the faintest visible effect.

"Confess who stands between your heart and mine. I have a right to ask; I will know."

"You forget yourself, my cousin. Your right is obviously a debatable question; we will waive it, if you please. I have told you already, and now I repeat it for the last time, I will not go with you to the altar, because neither of us has proper affection for the other to warrant such a union; because it would be an infamous pecuniary contract, revolting to every true soul. Hugh, cherish no animosity against me; I merit none. Because we cannot be more, shall we be less than friends?"

She turned to leave him, but he caught her dress, and exclaimed, with more tenderness than he had ever manifested before—

"Oh, Irene! do not reject me utterly! I cannot relinquish you. Give me one more year to prove my love—to win yours. If your proud heart is still your own, may I not hope to obtain it by——"

"No, Hugh! no. As well hope to inspire affection in yonder mute marble guardians. Forgive me if I pain you, but I must be candid at every hazard." She pointed to the statues near the door, and went through the greenhouse to the library, thence to the observatory, expecting, ere long, to be joined by her father. Gradually the house became quiet, and, oppressed with the painful sense of coming trouble, she sought her own room just as the clock struck twelve. Pausing to count the strokes, she saw a light gleaming through the keyhole of her father's door, opposite her own, and heard the sound of low but earnest conversation mingled with the restless tramp of pacing feet. She was powerfully tempted to cross the passage, knock, and have the ordeal ended then and there; but second thought whispered, "To-morrow will soon be here; be patient." She entered her room, and, wearied by the events of the day, fell asleep, dreaming of the new lot in the cemetery, and the lonely, joyless man who haunted it.

As she adjusted her riding-habit the following morning, and suffered Andrew to arrange her stirrup, the latter said good-humouredly—

"So, Mas' Hugh got the start of you? It isn't often he beats you."

"What do you mean?"

"He started a while ago, and, if he drives as he generally does, he will get to his plantation in time for dinner."

"Did father go, too?"

"No, ma'am; only Mas' Hugh in his own buggy."

Returning from her ride, she stood a moment on the front step, looking down the avenue. The Bermuda terrace blazed in the sunlight like a jewelled coronal, the billowy sea of foliage, crested by dewy drops, flashed and dripped as the soft air stirred the ancient trees, the hedges were all alive with birds and butterflies, the rich aroma of brilliant and countless flowers, the graceful curl of smoke wreathing up from the valley beyond, the measured musical tinkle of bells as the cows slowly descended the distant hills, and, over all, like God's mantling mercy, a summer sky.

Involuntarily she stretched out her arms to the bending heavens and her lips moved, but no sound escaped to tell what petition went forth to the All-Father. She went to her room, changed her dress, and joined her father at the breakfast-table. Half-concealed behind his paper, he took no notice of her quiet "good morning," seeming absorbed in an editorial. The silent meal ended, he said, as they left the table—

"I want to see you in the library."

She followed him without comment; he locked the door, threw open the blinds, and drew two chairs to the window, seating himself immediately in front of her. For a moment he eyed her earnestly, as if measuring her strength; and she saw the peculiar sparkle in his falcon eye, which, like the first lurid flash in a darkened sky, betokened tempests.

"Irene, I was very much astonished to learn the result of an interview between Hugh and yourself; I can scarcely believe that you were in earnest, and feel disposed to attribute your foolish words to some trifling motive of girlish coquetry or momentary pique. You have long been perfectly well aware that you and your cousin were destined for each other; that I solemnly promised the marriage should take place as soon as you were of age; that all my plans and hopes for you centred in this one engagement. I have not pressed the matter on your attention of late, because I knew you had sense enough to appreciate your position, and because I believed you would be guided by my wishes in this important affair. You are no longer a child; I treat you as a reasonable woman, and now I tell you candidly it is the one wish of my heart to see you Hugh's wife."

"Father, my happiness will not be promoted by this marriage, and if you are actuated solely by this motive, allow me to remain just as I am. I should be most miserable as Hugh's wife; most utterly miserable."

"Why so?"

"Father, my own feelings stand an everlasting barrier to our union. I do not love Hugh, and—I must tell you, sir, that I think it wrong for cousins to marry."

"You talk like a silly child; I thought you had more sense. Your objections I have listened to; they are imaginary and trifling; and I ask you, as a father has a right to ask his child, to waive these ridiculous notions, and grant the only request I have ever made of you. Tell me, my daughter, that you will consent to accept your cousin, and thereby make me happy."

He stooped and kissed her forehead, watching her countenance eagerly.

"Oh, father! do not ask this of me! Anything else! anything else."

"Answer me, my darling child; give me your promise."

His hold was painful, and an angry pant mingled with the pleading tones. She raised her head and said slowly—

"My father, I cannot."

He threw her hand from him, and sprang up.

"Ingrate! do you mean to say that you will not fulfil a sacred engagement?—that you will break an oath given to the dead."

"I do not hold myself bound by the oaths of another, though he were twice my father. I am responsible for no acts but my own. I, only, can give myself away. Why should you wish to force this marriage on me? Father, do you think that a woman has no voice in a matter involving her happiness for life?"

"Oh! I suspected that your cursed obstinacy would meet me here, as well as elsewhere in your life. You have been a source of trouble and sorrow from your birth; but the time has come to end all this. You know that I never menace idly, and if you refuse to hear reason, I will utterly disinherit you, though you are my only child. Ponder it well. You have been raised in luxury, and taught to believe yourself one of the wealthiest heiresses in the state; contrast your present position, your elegant home, your fastidious tastes gratified to the utmost; contrast all this, I say, with poverty—imagine yourself left in the world without one cent! Think of it! think of it! My wealth is my own, mark you, and I will give it to whom I please, irrespective of all claims of custom. Now the alternative is fully before you, and on your own head be the consequences. Will you accede to my wishes, as any dutiful child should, or will you deliberately incur my everlasting displeasure? Will you marry Hugh?"

"Father, I will not marry Hugh, so help me, God!".

Silence fell between them for several moments; something in that fixed, calm face of his child awed him, but it was temporary and, with a bitter laugh, he exclaimed—

"Oh, very well! Your poverty be upon your own head in coming years, when the grave closes over me. At my death every cent of my property passes to Hugh, and with it my name, and between you and me, as an impassable gulf, lies my everlasting displeasure. Understand that, though we live here in one house, as father and child, I do not, and will not, forgive you. You have defied me; now eat the bitter fruit of your disobedience."

"I have no desire to question the disposition of your wealth; if you prefer to give it to my cousin, I am willing, perfectly willing. I enjoy wealth as well as most people do, I suppose; but poverty does not frighten me half so much as a loveless marriage. Give Hugh your fortune, if you wish, but, father! father! let there be no estrangement between you and me. I can bear everything but your displeasure; I dread nothing so much as the loss of your love. Oh, father! forgive a disappointment which my conscience would not permit me to avert. Forgive the pain which, God knows, I would not have caused you if I could have avoided it without compromising principle. Oh, my father! my father! let not dollars and cents stand between you and your only child. I ask nothing now but your love."

She drew nearer, but he waved her off, and said with a sneering laugh—

"Away with all such cant! I gave you the choice, and you made your selection with your eyes fully open. Accept poverty as your doom, and with it my eternal displeasure. I intend to make you suffer for your obstinacy. You shall find, to your sorrow, that I am not to be trifled with, or my name is not Leonard Huntingdon. Now go your own way, and find what a thorny path you have made for yourself."

He pointed to the door as he had done years before, when the boarding-school decree went forth, and without remonstrance she left him, and sat down on the steps of the greenhouse. Soon after, the sound of his buggy wheels told her that he had gone to town, and, leaning her cheek on her hand, she recalled the painful conversation from first to last. That he meant all he had threatened, and more, she did not question for an instant, and, thinking of her future, she felt sick at heart. But with the shame and sorrow came also a thrill of joy; she had burst the fetters: she was free. Wounded affection bled freely, but brain and conscience exulted in the result.



CHAPTER XIX

RUSSELL VISITS ELECTRA

The patient work of twelve months drew to a close; the study of years bore its first fruit; the last delicate yet quivering touch was given; Electra threw down palette and brush, and, stepping back, surveyed the canvas. The Exhibition would open within two days, and this was to be her contribution. A sad-eyed Cassandra, with pallid, prescient, woe-struck features—an over-mastering face, wherein the flickering light of divination struggled feebly with the human horror of the To-Come, whose hideous mysteries were known only to the royal prophetess. In mute and stern despair it looked out from the canvas, a curious anomalous thing—cut adrift from human help, bereft of aid from heaven—yet, in its doomed isolation, scorning to ask the sympathy which its extraordinary loveliness extorted from all who saw it. The artist's pride in this, her first finished creation, might well be pardoned, for she was fully conscious that the cloud-region of a painful novitiate lay far beneath her; that henceforth she would never miss the pressure of long-coveted chaplets from her brow; that she should bask in the warm, fructifying rays of public favour; and measureless exultation flashed in her beautiful eyes.

The door opened, and Russell came into the studio. She was not expecting him; his sudden appearance gave her no time to adjust the chilling mask of pride, and all her uncontrolled affection found eloquent language in the joyful face.

"Russell! my own dear Russell!"

He drew his arm around her and kissed her flushed cheek, and each looked at the other, wondering at the changes which years had wrought.

"Electra, you have certainly improved more than anyone I ever knew. You look the impersonation of perfect health; it is needless to ask how you are." And again his lips touched the beaming face pressed against his shoulder. Her arms stole tremblingly around his neck, past indifference was forgotten in the joy of his presence.

"Sit down, and let me look at you. You have grown so tall and commanding that I am half afraid of my own cousin. You are less like Aunt Amy than formerly."

"Allow me to look at your painting first, for it will soon be too dark to examine it. This is the Cassandra of which you wrote me."

He stood before it for some moments in silence, and she watched him with breathless eagerness—for his opinion was of more value to her than that of all the dilettanti and connoisseurs who would soon inspect it. Gradually his dark cold face kindled, and she had her reward.

"It is a masterly creation; a thing of wonderful and imperishable beauty; it is a great success—as such the world will receive it—and hundreds will proclaim your triumph. I am proud of it, and doubly proud of you."

He held out his hand, and, as she put her fingers in his, her head drooped, and hot tears blinded her. Praise from the lips she loved best stirred her womanly heart as the applause of the public could never do.

"Come, sit down, Electra, and tell me something of your life, since the death of your friend, Mr. Clifton."

"Did you receive my last letter, giving an account of Mrs. Clifton's death?"

"Yes; just as I stepped upon the platform of the cars it was handed to me. I had heard nothing from you for so long, that I thought it was time to look after you."

"You had started, then, before you knew that I was going to Europe?"

"Yes."

He could not understand the instantaneous change which came over her countenance—the illumination, followed as suddenly by a smile, half compassionate, half bitter. She pressed one hand to her heart, and said—

"Mrs. Clifton never seemed to realize her son's death, though, after paralysis took place, and she became speechless, I thought she recovered her memory in some degree. She survived him just four months, and, doubtless, was saved much grief by her unconsciousness of what had occurred. Poor old lady! she suffered little for a year past, and died, I hope, without pain. I have the consolation of knowing that I did all that could be done to promote her comfort. Russell, I would not live here for any consideration; nothing but a sense of duty has detained me this long. I promised him that I would not forsake his mother. But you can have no adequate conception of the feeling of desolation which comes over me when I sit here during the long evenings. He seems watching me from picture-frames and pedestals; his face, his pleading, patient, wan face, haunts me perpetually. And yet I tried to make him happy; God knows I did my duty."

She sprang up and paced the room for some moments, with her hands behind her, and tears glittering on her cheeks. Pausing at last on the rug, she pointed to a large square object, closely shrouded and added—

"Yonder stands his last picture, unfinished. The day he died he put a few feeble strokes upon it, and bequeathed the completion of the task to me. For several years he worked occasionally on it, but much remains to be done. It is the 'Death of Socrates.' I have not even looked at it since that night; I do not intend to touch it until after I visit Italy; I doubt whether my hand will ever be steady enough to give the last strokes. Oh, Russell! the olden time, the cottage days, seem far, far off to me now!"

Leaning against the mantelpiece, she dropped her head on her hand, but when he approached and stood at the opposite corner, he saw that the tears had dried.

"Neither of us has had a sunny life, Electra; both have had numerous obstacles to contend with; both have very bitter memories. Originally there was a certain parallelism in our characters, but with our growth grew the divergence. You have preserved the nobler part of your nature better than I; for my years I am far older than you; none of the brightness of my boyhood seems to linger about me. Contact with the world is an indurating process; I really did not know how hard I had grown, until I felt my heart soften at sight of you. I need you to keep the kindly charities and gentle amenities of life before me, and, therefore, I have come for you. But for my poverty I never would have given you up so long; I felt that it would be for your advantage, in more than one respect to remain with Mr. Clifton until I had acquired my profession. I knew that you would enjoy privileges here which I could not give you in my straitened circumstances. Things have changed; Mr. Campbell has admitted me to partnership; my success I consider an established fact. Give up, for a season, this projected tour of Europe; wait till I can go with you—till I can take you; go back to W—— with me. You can continue your art studies, if you wish it; you can prosecute them there as well as here. You are ambitious, Electra; so am I; let us work together."

She raised her head and looked up at the powerful, nobly-proportioned form, the grand, kingly face, calm and colourless, the large, searching black eyes, within whose baffling depths lay all the mysteries of mesmerism, and a spasm of pain seized her own features. She shaded her brow, and answered—

"No, Russell; I could not entertain that thought an instant."

"Are you too proud to accept a home from me?"

"Not too proud, exactly; but, as long as I have health, I mean to make a support. I will not burden you."

"Full value received for benefit rendered is not charity; come to W——, share my future, and what fortune I may find assigned me. I have bought the cottage, and intend to build a handsome house there some day, where you and Mr. Campbell and I can live peacefully. You shall twine your aesthetic fancies all about it, to make it picturesque enough to suit your fastidious artistic taste. Come and save me from what you consider my worse than vandalian proclivities. I came here simply and solely in the hope of prevailing on you to return with me. I make this request, not because I think it will be expected of me, but for more selfish reasons—because it is a matter resting very near my heart."

"Oh, Russell! you tempt me."

"I wish to do so. My blood beats in your veins; you are the only relative I value, and were you indeed my sister, I should scarcely love you more. With all a brother's interest, why should I not claim a brother's right to keep you with me, at least until you find your Pylades, and give him a higher claim before God and man? Electra, were I your brother, you would require no persuasion; why hesitate now?"

She clasped her hands behind her, as if for support in some fiery ordeal, and, gathering up her strength, spoke rapidly, like one who fears that resolution will fail before some necessary sentence is pronounced.

"You are very kind and generous, Russell, and for all that you have offered me I thank you from the depth of a full heart. The consciousness of your continued interest and affection is inexpressibly precious; but my disposition is too much like your own to suffer me to sit down in idleness, while there is so much to be done in the world. I, too, want to earn a noble reputation, which will survive long after I have been gathered to my fathers; I want to accomplish some work, looking upon which, my fellow-creatures will proclaim: 'That woman has not lived in vain; the world is better and happier because she came and laboured in it.' I want my name carved, not on monumental marble only, but upon the living, throbbing heart of my age!—stamped indelibly on the generation in which my lot is cast. Perhaps I am too sanguine of success; a grievous disappointment may await all my ambitious hopes, but failure will come from want of genius, not lack of persevering patient toil. Upon the threshold of my career, facing the loneliness of coming years, I resign that hope with which, like a golden thread, most women embroider their future. I dedicate myself, my life, unreservedly to Art."

"You believe that you will be happier among the marble and canvas of Italy than in W—— with me?"

"Yes; I shall be better satisfied there. All my life it has gleamed afar off, a glorious land of promise to my eager, longing spirit. From childhood I have cherished the hope of reaching it, and the fruition is near at hand. Italy! bright Alma Mater of the art to which I consecrate my years. Do you wonder that, like a lonely child, I stretch, out my arms toward it? Yet my stay there will be but for a season. I go to complete my studies, to make myself a more perfect instrument for my noble work, and then I shall come home—come, not to New York, but to my own dear native South, to W——, that I may labour under the shadow of its lofty pines, and within hearing of its murmuring river—dearer to me than classic Arno, or immortal Tiber. I wrote you that Mr. Clifton had left me a legacy, which, judiciously invested, will defray my expenses in Europe, where living is cheaper than in this country. Mr. Young has taken charge of the money for me, and has kindly offered to attend to my remittances. Aunt Ruth's friends, the Richardsons, consented to wait for me until after the opening of the Exhibition of the Academy of Design, and one week from to-morrow we expect to sail."

"What do you know of the family?"

"Nothing, except that the lady, who is an old friend of my aunt, is threatened with consumption, and has been advised to spend a year or two in Florence. Aunt Ruth took me to see her the other day; she seems intelligent and agreeable, and I daresay I shall find her kind and pleasant enough."

"Since such is the programme you have marked out, I trust that no disappointments await you, and that all your bright dreams may be realized. But if it should prove otherwise, and you grow weary of your art, sick of isolation, and satiated with Italy, remember that I shall welcome you home and gladly share with you all that I possess. You are embarking in an experiment which thousands have tried before you, and wrecked happiness upon; but I have no right to control your future, and certainly no desire to discourage you. At all events, I hope our separation will be brief."

A short silence followed, broken at last by Electra, who watched him keenly as she spoke—

"Tell me something about Irene. Of course, in a small town like W——, you must see her frequently."

"By no means. I think I have seen her but three times since her childhood—once riding with her father, then accidentally at church, and again a few evenings before I left, at the graveyard, where she was dressing a tombstone with flowers. There we exchanged a few words for the first time, and this reminds me that I am bearer of a message yet undelivered. She inquired after you, and desired me to tender you her love and best wishes."

"I have her here in crayons; tell me what you think of the likeness."

She took down a portfolio and selected the head of her quondam playmate, holding it under the gaslight, and still scrutinizing her cousin's countenance. He took it, and looked gravely, earnestly, at the lovely features.

"It scarcely does her justice; I doubt whether any portrait ever will. Beside, the expression of her face has changed materially since this was sketched. There is a harder outline now about her mouth, less of dreaminess in the eyes, more of cold hauteur in the whole face. If you desire it, I can in one line of Tennyson photograph her proud beauty, as I saw her mounted on her favourite horse, the week that I left home—

"'Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null!'"

He laid the drawing back in the open portfolio, crossed the room, and took up his hat.

"Where are you going, Russell? Can't you spend the evening with me at Aunt Ruth's?"

"No, thank you; I must go. There is to be a great political meeting at Tammany Hall to-night, and I am particularly anxious to attend."

"What! are you, too, engaged in watching the fermentation of the political vat?"

"Yes, I am most deeply interested; no true lover of his country can fail to be so at this juncture."

"How long will you be in New York?"

"Since I cannot persuade you to return with me, my stay here will be shortened. One of our courts meets soon, and though Mr. Campbell will be there to attend to the cases, I want, if possible, to be present. I shall return day after to-morrow. And now good night; I will see you early in the morning."

The door closed behind him, and she remained standing for some time just as he left her. Slowly the folded hands shrank from each other, and dropped nerveless to her side; the bright glow in her cheeks, the dash of crimson on her lips, faded from both; the whole face relaxed into an expression of hopeless agony.



CHAPTER XX

A CANDIDATE FOR THE LEGISLATURE

"Don't you know that even granite millstones finally grind themselves into impalpable powder? You give yourself no rest, Aubrey, and human machinery wears rapidly. Simply for this reason, I sent for you to come and take a cup of tea with me."

"I have been too much engaged of late to spare an evening to merely social claims. A man whose life rests at his feet to be lifted to some fitting pedestal, has little leisure for the luxury of friendly visiting."

The two were in Eric Mitchell's pleasant library. Russell sat in an arm-chair, and the master of the house reclined on a lounge drawn near the hearth. The mellow glow of the lamp, the flash and crackle of the fire, the careless, lazy posture of the invalid, all betokened quiet comfort, save the dark fixed face, and erect, restless figure of the guest.

"But, Aubrey, you have not asked my opinion of your speech."

"I was not aware that you heard it."

"Of course not, but I read it; and let me tell you, it was a great speech, a masterly argument, that will make a lasting impression upon the people. It has greatly changed the vote of this county already."

"You mistake appearances; the seed fell in good soil, but party spirit came, as fowls of the air, and devoured it."

"At any rate, it produced a profound impression on public opinion, and startled some of our political patriarchs."

"No, a mere transitory effect; they have folded their arms and gone to sleep again. I am, of course, gratified by your favourable appreciation of my effort, but I differ with you as to its result. The surging waves of Northern faction and fanaticism already break ominously against our time-honoured constitutional dykes, and if the South would strengthen her bulwarks, there is no time to be slept or wrangled away."

As he spoke, Russell's eye fell upon a large oval vase on the mantelpiece filled with rare exotics, whose graceful tendrils were tastefully disposed into a perfumed fringe. Rising, he looked carefully at the brilliant hues, and said, as he bent to inhale their fragrance—

"Where did you grow such flowers at this season?"

"Irene brings them almost every day from the greenhouse on the hill. She takes a peculiar pleasure in arranging them in my vases. I think she stood a half-hour yesterday twining and bending those stems the way she wanted them to hang. They are so brittle that I snap the blossoms off, but in her hands they seem pliable enough."

Russell withdrew the fingers which had wandered caressingly amid the delicate leaves, and, reseating himself, took a book from his pocket.

He drew his chair nearer the lamp and began to read aloud. Nearly a half-hour passed thus, when the library door was opened hastily, and Irene came in, dressed magnificently in party costume. She stood a moment, irresolute and surprised, with her eyes fixed on Russell's, then both bowed silently, and she came to the fire.

"How are you, Uncle Eric? You look flushed, feverish." She laid her cold, pearly hand on his forehead, and stood at his side.

"Tolerably comfortable, thanks to Mr. Aubrey, who has made me almost forget my headache. You will be fashionably late at the party to-night."

"Yes! as usual; but for a better reason than because I wish to be fashionable. I wanted to know how you were, and as father was not quite ready, I came in advance, and sent the carriage back for him and Hugh. I was not aware that you were in Mr. Aubrey's hands for the evening. You were reading, I believe. Pardon my intrusion, and do not let me interrupt you."

She stood still a moment, listening.

"Good night, Uncle Eric; the carriage is coming. I believe I should know the tramp of those horses amid a regiment of cavalry."

"Why need you hurry off? Let your father come in."

"I will spare him that trouble. Good night, Mr. Aubrey."

She turned to leave the room, but, in gathering her cloak around her, dropped her fan. Russell stooped to pick it up, and, as he restored it, their hands met. His brow flushed, but not even the pale pearly glow of a sea-shell crept to her cheek. Again she raised her eyes to his, and a haughty, dazzling smile flashed over her face as she inclined her head.

"Thank you, sir."

There was a brief silence, broken by Eric, when the sound of the carriage had died away.

"Irene is the only perfectly beautiful woman I ever saw; and yet, Aubrey, it makes me sad to watch her countenance."

"Whenever I see her I cannot avoid recalling an old Scandinavian myth; she realizes so fully my ideal Iduna, standing at the portals of Valhalla, offering apples of immortality."

He returned at once to his book and read several pages, occasionally pausing to call attention to some special passage; finally he rose, and took his hat.

"It is early yet, Aubrey; don't go."

"Thank you; I must fulfil another engagement."

"A word before you leave; will you be a candidate for the legislature?"

"Yes; I was waited upon by a committee to-day, and my name will be announced to-morrow. Good night."

Slowly he walked back to town, and once upon the main street, took a new pair of gloves from his pocket, fitted them carefully, and directed his steps to the elegant residence, whose approach was well-nigh blocked up with carriages. This was the second time that he had been invited by the Hendersons, and he had almost determined to decline as formerly, but something in Irene's chill manner changed his resolution. He knew, from various circumstances, that the social edict against him was being revoked in fashionable circles; that because he had risen without its permission, aid, or countenance, and in defiance of its sneers, the world was beginning to court him. A gloomy scowl sat on his stern lips as he mounted the steps of the mansion from which his meek and suffering mother had borne bundles of plain work, or delicate masses of embroidery, for the mother and daughter who passed her in the street with a supercilious stare. Beau-monde suddenly awoke to the recollection that, "after all, Mrs. Aubrey belonged to one of the wealthiest and first families in the state." At first Russell had proudly repelled all overtures, but gradually he was possessed by a desire to rule in the very circle which had so long excluded his family. Most fully he appreciated his position and the motives which actuated the social autocrats of W——; he was no longer the poor disgraced clerk, but the talented young lawyer, and prospective heir of Mr. Campbell's wealth. Bitterly, bitterly came memories of early trial, and now the haughtiness of Irene's manner stung him as nothing else could possibly have done. He was at a loss to comprehend this change in one who had dared so much in order to assist his family, and proud defiance arose in his heart. It was ten o'clock, the fete was at its height; the sound of music, the shimmer of jewels and rustle of costly silks mingled with the hum of conversation, and the tread of dancing feet as Russell deposited hat and overcoat in the dressing-room and entered the blazing parlours. The quadrille had just ended, and gay groups chattered in the centre of the room; among these, Maria Henderson, leaning on Hugh's arm, and Grace Harris, who had been dancing with Louis Henderson. As Russell crossed the floor to speak to the host and hostess, all eyes turned upon him, and a sudden hush fell on the merry dancers.

"Coaxed at last within the pale of civilization! how did you contrive it, Louis?" asked Maria.

"Oh! he declined when I invited him; but I believe father saw him afterward and renewed the request. Do observe him talking to mother; he is as polished as if he had spent his life at court."

"He is a man whom I never fancied; but that two hours' speech of his was certainly the finest effort I ever listened to. Caesar's ambition was moderate in comparison with Aubrey's; and, somehow, even against my will, I can't help admiring him, he is so coolly independent," said Hugh, eyeing him curiously.

"I heard father say that the Democrats intend to send him to the legislature next term, and the opposition are bothered to match him fully. By the way, they speak of Mr. Huntingdon for their candidate. But here comes your hero, Miss Maria." As he spoke, Charlie Harris drew back a few steps, and suffered Russell to speak to the young lady of the house. Irene stood not far off, talking to the Governor of the state, who chanced to be on a brief visit to W——, and quite near her, Judge Harris and her father were in earnest conversation. Astonished at the sudden apparition, her eyes followed him as he bowed to the member of the central group; and as she heard the deep, rich voice above the buzz of small talk she waited to see if he would notice her. Soon Governor G—— gave her his arm for a promenade, and she found herself, ere long, very near Maria, who was approaching with Russell. He was saying something, at which she laughed delightedly; just then his eye fell on Irene; there was no token of recognition on the part of either; but the Governor, in passing, put out his hand to shake Russell's, and asked for Mr. Campbell. Again and again they met during the ensuing hour, but no greeting was exchanged; then he disappeared. As Irene leaned against the window-frame in the crowded supper-room, she heard Charlie Harris gaily bantering Maria on the events of the evening.

"What have you done with Aubrey? I will challenge him before to-morrow morning, for cutting me out of my schottische with his prosy chat."

"Oh! he left a half-hour ago; excused himself to mother, on the plea of starting off to court at daybreak. He is perfectly fascinating; don't you think so, Grace? Such eyes and lips; and such a forehead!"

Once more in his own room at the quiet boarding-house, Russell lighted the gas-burner over a small desk, and sat down to a mass of papers. The apartment was cold; the fire had long since died out; the hearth looked ashy and desolate. The measured tones of the watchman on the town-tower recalled him, finally, from his work; he took off his watch and wound it up. It wanted but three hours to dawn, but he heeded it not; the sight of the massive old watch brought vividly back the boyish days of sorrow, and he sat thinking of that morning of shame, when Irene came close to him, nestling her soft little hand in his, and from some long-silent, dark, chill chamber of memory leaped sweet, silvery, childish echoes—

"Oh, Russell! if I could only help you!"

Since his return from Europe he had accustomed himself to think of her as Hugh's wife; but he found it daily more difficult to realize that she could willingly give her hand to her heedless, self-indulgent cousin; and now the alteration in her manner toward him perplexed and grieved him. Did she suspect the truth, and fear that he might presume on her charity in bygone years? To his proud spirit this was a suggestion singularly insulting, and he had resolved to show her in future that he claimed not even a nod of recognition. Instead of avoiding her, as formerly, he would seek occasions to exhibit an indifference which he little thought that her womanly heart would rightly interpret. He had found it more difficult than he supposed to keep his attention chained to Maria's and Grace's gay nonsense; to prevent his eyes from wandering to the face whose image was enshrined in his lonely heart, and now, with complex feelings of tenderness and angry defiance, he sought his pillow for a short respite before the journey that waited but for daylight.

For a few weeks all W—— was astir with interest in the impending election: newspaper columns teemed with caustic articles, and Huntingdon and Aubrey clubs vilified each other with the usual acrimony of such occasions. Mr. Campbell's influence was extensive, but the Huntingdon supporters were powerful, and the result seemed doubtful until the week previous to the election, when Russell, who had as yet taken no active part, accepted the challenge of his opponent to a public discussion. The meeting was held in front of the court-house, the massive stone steps serving as a temporary rostrum. The night was dark and cloudy, but huge bonfires, blazing barrels of pitch, threw a lurid glare over the broad street, now converted into a surging sea of human heads.

Surrounded by a committee of select friends, Mr. Huntingdon sat, confident of success; and when the hiss of rockets ceased, he came forward, and addressed the assembly in an hour's speech. As a warm and rather prominent politician, he was habituated to the task, and bursts of applause from his own party frequently attested the effect of his easy, graceful style, and pungent irony. Blinded by personal hate, and hurried on by the excitement of the hour, he neglected the cautious policy which had hitherto been observed, and finally launched into a fierce philippic against his antagonist—holding up for derision the melancholy fate of his father, and sneeringly denouncing the "audacious pretensions of a political neophyte."

Groans and hisses greeted this unexpected peroration, and many of his own friends bit their lips, and bent their brows in angry surprise, as he took his seat amid an uproar which would have been respectable even in the days of the builders of Babel. Russell was sitting on the upper step, with his head leaning on his hand, and his eyes fixed on the mass of upturned, eager faces, listening patiently to the lengthy address, expecting just what he was destined to hear. At the mention of his family misfortunes he lifted his head, rose, and advancing a few steps, took off his hat, and stood confronting the speaker in full view of the excited crowd. And there the red light, flaring over his features, showed a calm, stern, self-reliant man, who felt that he had nothing to blush for in the past or to dread in future. When the tirade ended, when the tumult ceased and silence fell upon the audience, he turned and fixed his deep, glowing eyes full on the face of his opponent for one moment, smiling haughtily; then, as Mr. Huntingdon quailed before his withering gaze, he crossed his arms over his chest, and addressed the meeting.

He came, he said, to discuss questions of grave import to the State, not the pedigree or antecedents of his antagonist, with which, he supposed, the public had no concern. Briefly he stated the issues dividing the people of the State; warned the opposition of the probable results of their policy, if triumphant; and, with resistless eloquence, pleaded for a firm maintenance of the principles of his own party. He was, he averred, no alarmist, but he proclaimed that the people slept upon the thin heaving crust of a volcano, which would inevitably soon burst forth; and the period was rapidly approaching when the Southern States, unless united and on the alert, would lie bound at the feet of an insolent and rapacious Northern faction. He demanded that, through the legislatures, the States should appeal to Congress for certain restrictions and guarantees, which, if denied, would justify extreme measures on the part of the people. The man's marvellous magnetism was never more triumphantly attested; the mass, who had listened in profound silence to every syllable which had passed his lips, now vented their enthusiasm in prolonged and vociferous applause.

As he descended the steps and disappeared amid the shouts of the crowd, Judge Harris turned to Mr. Huntingdon and said, with ill-concealed annoyance—

"You have lost your election by your confounded imprudence."

The judge walked off, pondering a heavy bet which he had relative to the result.

By sunrise on the day of the election the roads leading to town were crowded with voters making their way to the polls. The drinking-saloons were full to overflowing; the side-walks thronged with reeling groups as the day advanced. Because the Huntingdon side bribed freely, the Aubrey partisans felt that they must, from necessity, follow the disgraceful precedent. Not a lady showed her face upon the street; drinking, wrangling, fighting was the order of the day. Windows were smashed, buggies overturned, and the police exercised to the utmost. Accompanied by a few friends, Mr. Huntingdon rode from poll to poll, encouraging his supporters, and drawing heavily upon his purse, while Russell remained quietly in his office, well assured of the result. At five o'clock, when the town polls closed, Russell's votes showed a majority of two hundred and forty-four. Couriers came in constantly from country precincts, with equally favourable accounts, and at ten o'clock it was ascertained, beyond doubt, that he was elected. Irene and her uncle rode down to learn the truth, and, not knowing where to find Mr. Huntingdon, stopped the carriage at the corner of the main street, and waited a few moments. Very soon a rocket whizzed through the air, a band of music struck up before Russell's office, and a number of his adherents insisted that he should show himself on the balcony. A crowd immediately collected opposite, cheering the successful candidate, and calling for a speech. He came out, and, in a few happy, dignified words, thanked them for the honour conferred, and pledged himself to guard most faithfully the interests committed to his keeping. After the noisy constituents had retired, he stood talking to some friends, when he chanced to recognize the fiery horses across the street. The carriage-top was thrown back, and by the neighbouring gaslight he saw Irene's white face turned toward him, then the horses sprang off. Mr. Campbell noticed, without understanding, the sudden start, and bitter though triumphant smile that crossed his face in the midst of pleasant gratulations.

"Go home, Andrew. I know now what I came to learn."

Irene sank back and folded her mantle closer around her.

"Don't you think, Irene, that Aubrey deserves to succeed?"

"Yes."

Her dreary tone disconcerted him, and he offered no further comment, little suspecting that her hands were pressed hard against her heart, and that her voiceless sorrow, was: "Henceforth we must be still more estranged; a wider gulf, from this night, divides us."



CHAPTER XXI

THE MINISTER'S LOVE

Two years rolled on, stained with the tears of many, ringing with the songs and laughter of a fortunate few. The witchery of Southern spring again enveloped W——, and Irene stood on the lawn surveying the "greenery of the outdoor world" that surrounded her.

In this woman's sad but intensely calm countenance, a joyless life found silent history. She felt that her life was passing rapidly, unimproved, and aimless; she knew that her years, instead of being fragrant with the mellow fruitage of good deeds, were tedious and joyless, and that the gaunt, numbing hand of ennui was closing upon her. The elasticity of spirits, the buoyancy of youth had given place to a species of stoical mute apathy; a mental and moral paralysis was stealing over her.

The slamming of the ponderous iron gate attracted her attention, and she saw a carriage ascending the avenue. As it reached a point opposite to the spot where she stood it halted, the door was thrown open, and a gentleman stepped out and approached her. The form was not familiar, and the straw hat partially veiled the features, but he paused before her, and said, with a genial smile—

"Don't you know me?"

"Oh, Harvey! My brother! My great guardian angel!"

A glad light kindled in her face, and she stretched out her hands with the eagerness of a delighted child. Time had pressed heavily upon him; wrinkles were conspicuous about the corners of his eyes and mouth, and the black hair had become a steely grey.

Holding her hands, he drew her nearer to him, scrutinized her features, and a look of keen sorrow crossed his own as he said, almost inaudibly—

"I feared as much! I feared as much! The shadow has spread."

"You kept Punic faith with me, sir; you promised to write and failed. I sent you one letter, but it was never answered."

"Through no fault of mine, Irene; I never received it, believe me. True, I expected to write to you frequently when I parted with you, but subsequently determined that it would be best not to do so. Attribute my silence, however, to every other cause than want of remembrance."

"God only knows how I have wanted, how I have needed you, to guide and strengthen me."

She raised the two hands that still held hers, and bowed her forehead upon them.

For some moments silence reigned; then, standing before him, Irene said, with touching pathos—

"My friend, I am so desolate! so lonely! I am drifting down the current of life aimless, hopeless, useless! What shall I do with my future? I believe I am slowly petrifying; I neither suffer nor enjoy as formerly; my feelings are deadened; I am growing callous, indifferent to everything. I am fast losing sympathy for the sorrows of others, swallowed up in self, oblivious of the noble aspirations of promise. Once more I ask you, what shall I do with my life?"

"Give it to God."

"Ah! there is neither grace nor virtue in necessity. He will not accept the worthless thing thrown at His feet, as a dernier ressort. Once it was my choice, but the pure, clear-eyed faith of my childhood shook hands with me when you left me in New York."

For a short while he struggled with himself, striving to overcome the unconquerable impulse which suddenly prompted him, and his face grew pallid as hers as he walked hastily across the smooth grass and came back to her. Her countenance was lifted toward the neighbouring hill, her thoughts evidently far away, when he paused before her, and said unsteadily—

"Irene, my beloved! give yourself to me. Go with me into God's vineyard; let us work together, and consecrate our lives to His service."

The mesmeric eyes gazed into his, full of wonder, and the rich ruby tint fled from her lips as she pondered his words in unfeigned astonishment, and shaking her regal head; answered slowly—

"Harvey, I am not worthy. I want your counsel, not your pity."

"Pity! you mistake me. If you have been ignorant so long, know now that I have loved you from the evening you first sat in my study looking over my foreign sketches. You were then a child, but I was a man, and I knew all that you had so suddenly become to me. Because of this great disparity in years, and because I dared not hope that one so tenderly nurtured could ever brave the hardships of my projected life, I determined to quit New York earlier than I had anticipated, and to bury a foolish memory in the trackless forests of the far West. I ought to have known the fallacy of my expectation; I have proved it since. Your face followed me; your eyes met mine at every turn; your glittering hair swept on every breeze that touched my cheek. Irene, you are young, and singularly beautiful, and I am a grey-haired man, much, much older than yourself; but, if you live a thousand years, you will never find such affection as I offer you now. There is nothing on earth which would make me so happy as the possession of your love. You are the only woman I have ever seen whom I even wish to call my wife—the only woman who, I felt, could lend new charm to life, and make my quiet hearth happier by her presence. Irene, will you share my future? Can you give me what I ask?"

The temptation was powerful—the future he held out enticing indeed. The strong, holy, manly love, the noble heart and head to guide her, the firm, tender hand to support her, the constant, congenial, and delightful companionship—all this passed swiftly through her mind; but, crushing all in its grasp, came the memory of one whom she rarely met, but who held undisputed sway over her proud heart.

Drawing close to the minister, she laid her hands on his shoulder, and, looking reverently up into his fine face, said, in her peculiarly sweet, clear voice—

"The knowledge of your priceless, unmerited love makes me proud beyond degree; but I would not mock you by the miserable and only return I could make you—the affection of a devoted sister. That I do not love you as you wish is my great misfortune; for I appreciate most fully the noble privilege you have tendered me. I trust that the pain I may give you now will soon pass away, and that, in time, you will forget one who is utterly undeserving of the honour you have conferred on her to-day. Oh, Harvey! do not, I beg of you, let one thought of me ever disquiet your noble, generous heart."

A shiver crept over her still face, and she dropped her pale forehead. She felt two tears fall upon her hair, and in silence he bent down and kissed her softly, tenderly, as one kisses a sleeping babe.

"Oh, Harvey! do not let it grieve you, dear friend!"

He smiled sadly, as if not daring to trust himself in words; then, after a moment, laying his hands upon her head, in the baptism of a deathless love, he gently and solemnly blessed her. When his fingers were removed she raised her eyes, but he had gone; she saw only the retreating form through the green arches of the grand old avenue.



CHAPTER XXII

"COUSINLY—NO MORE"

Says D'Alembert: "The industry of men is now so far exhausted in canvassing for places, that none is left for fulfilling the duties of them;" and the history of our government furnishes a melancholy parallel. The regular quadrennial storm had swept over the nation; caucuses had been held and platforms fiercely fought for, to be kicked away, plank by plank, when they no longer served as scaffolding by which to climb to office. Buchanan was elected, but destined to exemplify, during his administration, the truth of Tacitus' words: "He was regarded as greater than a private man whilst he remained in privacy, and would have been deemed worthy of governing if he had never governed." The heat of the canvass cooled, people settled down once more to a condition of lethargic indifference—bought and sold, sowed and reaped, as usual—little realizing that the temporary lull, the perfect calm, was treacherous as the glassy green expanse of waters which, it is said, sometimes covers the location of the all-destroying maelstrom of Moskoe. Having taken an active and prominent part in the presidential campaign, and made frequent speeches, Russell found himself again opposed by Mr. Huntingdon, who was equally indefatigable during the exciting contest. The old feud received, if possible, additional acrimony, and there were no bounds to the maledictions heaped upon the young and imperturbable legislator by his virulent antagonist. Many predicted a duel or a street encounter; but weeks passed, and though, in casual meetings, Mr. Huntingdon's glare of hate was always answered by a mocking smile of cold disdain, the cloud floated off without breaking into bloody showers.

Mr. Mitchell's health had failed so rapidly as winter approached, that Dr. Arnold persuaded him to try the efficacy of a sea-voyage, and he had accordingly sailed from New Orleans in a vessel bound for Genoa. Irene begged the privilege of accompanying him, but her father peremptorily refused; and she saw her uncle depart, and superintended the closing of his house, with silent sorrow, and the feeling of one who knows that the night is deepening around her.

Late in the afternoon of Christmas Day Irene went into the greenhouse to gather a bouquet for an invalid friend in town, and had almost accomplished her errand when the crash and whir of wheels drew her to the window that looked out on the lawn. Her father had gone to the plantation early that morning, and she had scarcely time to conjecture whom the visitor would prove, when Hugh's loud voice rang through the house, and, soon after, he came clattering in, with the end of his pantaloons tucked into his boots, and his whip trailing along in true boyish fashion. As he threw down his hat, scattering the petals of a snowy camellia, and drew near his cousin, she saw that his face was deeply flushed, and his eyes somewhat bloodshot.

"Hugh! what are you doing here? Father expected you to overtake him at Crescent Bend; you said last night that you would start by five o'clock."

"Merry Christmas, my beauty! I have come for my Christmas gift. Give it to me, like the queen you are."

He stooped as if to kiss her, but she shrank back instantly, and said gravely—

"You ought not to make promises which you have no idea of keeping; father will be annoyed, and wonder very much what has happened. He was anxious that you should go with him."

"Oh! confound the plantation! I wish it would sink! Of all other days none but Christmas will suit him to tramp down there through mud and mire. The fact is, I did not go to sleep till four o'clock, and nobody ought to be unchristian enough to expect me to wake up in an hour. You may be quiet, though, for I am on my way now to that paradise of black mud. I only stopped to get a glimpse of you, my Sappho! my Corinna! so don't homilize, I pray you."

"Better wait till daylight, Hugh; you know the state of the roads and condition of the bridges. It will be safer, and an economy of time, to defer it till morning, since you have made it so late."

"No; I must go to-night, for I have an engagement to ride with Maria Henderson, and I can't get back in time if I wait till to-morrow morning. I want to start back day after to-morrow. As for time, Wildfire will make it the better for the darkness, he is as much afraid of night and shadows as if he had a conscience, and had maltreated it, master-like. I shall convince him that all Tam O'Shanter's witches are in full pursuit, and his matchless heels his only salvation."

A shade of apprehension settled on her face, and, placing the bouquet in a basket, she turned to her cousin, saying—

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