"Indeed, you cannot be insane enough to drive that horse such a night as this weather threatens. If go you will, in the face of a coming rain, leave Wildfire here, and drive one of the carriage-horses instead. I shall be uneasy if you start with that vicious, unmanageable incarnation of lightning. Let me ring the bell and direct Andrew to make the change."
She stepped into the parlour adjoining, and laid her fingers on the bell-cord, but he snatched up the hand and kissed it several times.
"No! I'll be hanged if I don't drive my own pearl of Arabia! I can manage him well enough; and, beside, what do you care whether he breaks my neck or not? Without compunction you broke my heart, which is much the greater catastrophe."
"Come into the library; you don't know what you are saying."
She drew him into the room, where a warm fire burned cheerfully, and made him sit down.
"Where did you go last night when you left here? Tell me."
"To Harry Neal's; a party of us were invited there to drink egg-nog, and, of course, found something stronger afterward. Then we had a game or so of poker, and ——, the grand finale is that I have had a deuced headache all day. Ah, my sweet saint! how shocked you are, to be sure! Now, don't lecture, or I shall be off like a flash."
Without answering, she rang the bell and quietly looped back the heavy crimson curtains.
"What is that for? Have you sent for John or old Nellie to carry me upstairs, like other bad boys sent to bed in disgrace without even the cold comfort of supper?"
"Hush, Hugh! hush."
Turning to John, who opened the door and looked in, she said—
"Tell William to make some strong coffee as soon as possible. Mas' Hugh has a headache, and wants some before he leaves."
"Thank you, my angel! my unapproachable Peri! Ugh! how cold it is. Pardon me, but I really must warm my feet."
He threw them carelessly on the fender of the grate.
"Shall I get you a pair of slippers?"
"Could not afford the luxury; positively have not the time to indulge myself."
With a prolonged yawn he laid his head back and closed his eyes. An expression of disgust was discernible in his companion's countenance, but it passed like the shadow of a summer cloud, and she sat down at the opposite side of the fireplace, with her eyes bent upon the hearth, and the long silky lashes sweeping her cheeks. A silence of some minutes ensued; finally she exclaimed—
"Here comes your coffee. Put the waiter on the table, John, and tell Andrew to take Mas' Hugh's buggy."
"Do nothing of the kind! but send somebody to open that everlasting gate, which would not have disgraced ancient Thebes. Are you classical, John? Be off, and see about it; I must start in five minutes."
"Hugh, be reasonable for once in your life; you are not in a proper condition to drive that horse. For my sake, at least, be persuaded to wait till morning. Will you not remain, to oblige me?"
"Oh, hang my condition! I tell you I must and I will go, if all the stars fall and judgment day overtakes me on the road. What splendid coffee you always have! The most fastidious of bashaws could not find it in his Moorish heart to complain."
He put on his hat, buttoned his costly fur coat, and, flourishing his whip, came close to his cousin.
"Good-bye, beauty. I hate to leave you; upon my word I do; but duty before pleasure, my heavenly-eyed monitress. I have not had my Christmas present yet, and have it I will."
"On one condition, Hugh; that you drive cautiously and moderately, instead of thundering down hills and over bridges like some express train behind time. Will you promise?"
"To be sure I will! everything in the world; and am ready to swear it, if you are sceptical."
"Well, then, good-bye, Hugh, and take care of yourself."
She allowed him to press his hot lips to hers, and, accompanying him to the door, saw him jump into the frail open-topped buggy. Wildfire plunged and sprang off in his usual style, and, with a crack of the whip and wave of his hat, Hugh was fairly started.
Seven hours later Irene sat alone at the library table, absorbed in writing an article on Laplace's Nebular Theory for the scientific journal to which she occasionally contributed over the signature of "Sabaean." Gradually her thoughts wandered from the completed task to other themes of scarcely less interest. The week previous she had accompanied Hugh to an operatic concert given by the Parodi troupe, and had been astonished to find Russell seated on the bench in front of her. He so rarely showed himself on such occasions that his appearance elicited some comment. They had met frequently since the evening at Mr. Mitchell's, but he pertinaciously avoided recognizing her; and, on this particular night, though he came during an interlude to speak to Grace Harris, who sat on the same row of seats with Irene, he never once directed his eyes toward the latter. This studied neglect, she felt assured, was not the result of the bitter animosity existing between her father and himself; and though it puzzled her for a while, she began finally to suspect the true nature of his feelings, and, with woman's rarely erring instincts, laid her finger on the real motive which prompted him. The report of his engagement to Grace had reached her some days before, and now it recurred to her mind like a haunting spectre. She did not believe for an instant that he was attached to the pretty, joyous girl whom rumour gave him; but she was well aware that he was ambitious of high social position, and feared that he might possibly, from selfish, ignoble reasons, seek an alliance with Judge Harris' only daughter, knowing that the family was one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic in the State. Life had seemed dreary enough before; but, with this apprehension added, it appeared insupportable, and she was conscious of a degree of wretchedness never dreamed of or realized heretofore. Not even a sigh escaped her; she was one of a few women who permit no external evidences of suffering, but lock it securely in their own proud hearts. The painful reverie might, perhaps, have lasted till the pallid dawn looked in with tearful eyes at the window, but Paragon, who was sleeping on the rug at her feet, started up and growled. She raised her head and listened, but only the ticking of the clock was audible, and the wailing of the wind through the leafless poplars.
"Down, Paragon! hush, sir!"
She patted his head soothingly, and he sank back a few seconds in quiet, then sprang up with a loud bark. This time she heard an indistinct sound of steps in the hall, and thought: "Nellie sees my light through the window, and is coming to coax me upstairs." Something stumbled near the threshold, a hand struck the knob as if in hunting for it, the door opened softly, and, muffled in his heavy cloak, holding his hat in one hand, Russell Aubrey stood in the room. Neither spoke, but he looked at her with such mournful earnestness, such eager yet grieved compassion, that she read some terrible disaster in his eyes. The years of estrangement, all that had passed since their childhood, was forgotten; studied conventionalities fell away at the sight of him standing there, for the first time, in her home. She crossed the room with a quick, uncertain step, and put out her hands toward him—vague, horrible apprehension blanching the beautiful lips, which asked shiveringly—
"What is it, Russell? What is it?"
He took the cold little hands tremblingly in his, and endeavoured to draw her back to the hearth, but she repeated—
"What has happened? Is it father, or Hugh?"
"Your father is well, I believe; I passed him on the road yesterday. Sit down, Miss Huntingdon; you look pale and faint."
Her fingers closed tightly over his; he saw an ashen hue settle on her face, and in an unnaturally calm low tone, she asked—
"Is Hugh dead? Oh, my God! why don't you speak, Russell?"
"He did not suffer much; his death was too sudden."
Her face had such a stony look that he would have passed his arm around her, but could not disengage his hand; she seemed to cling to it as if for strength.
"Won't you let me carry you to your room, or call a servant? You are not able to stand."
She neither heeded nor heard him.
"Was it that horse; or how was it?"
"One of the bridges had been swept away by the freshet, and, in trying to cross, he missed the ford. The horse must have been frightened and unmanageable, the buggy was overturned in the creek, and your cousin, stunned by the fall, drowned instantly; life was just extinct when I reached him."
Something like a moan escaped her as she listened.
"Was anything done?"
"We tried every means of resuscitation, but they were entirely ineffectual."
She relaxed her clasp of his fingers, and moved toward the door.
"Where are you going, Miss Huntingdon? Indeed, you must sit down."
"Russell, you have brought him home; where is he?"
Without waiting for an answer, she walked down the hall, and paused suddenly at the sight of the still form resting on a grey travelling-blanket, with a lantern at its head, and an elderly man, a stranger, sitting near, keeping watch. Russell came to her side, and, drawing his arm around her, made her lean upon him. He felt the long, long lingering shudder which shook the elegant, queenly figure; then she slipped down beside the rigid sleeper, and smoothed back from the fair brow the dripping, curling, auburn hair.
"Hugh, my cousin! my playmate! Snatched away in an hour from the life you loved so well. Ah! the curse of our house has fallen upon you. It is but the beginning of the end. Only two of us are left, and we, too, shall soon be caught up to join you."
She kissed the icy lips which a few hours ago had pressed hers so warmly, and, rising, walked up and down the long hall. Russell once more approached her.
"Are you entirely alone?"
"Yes, except the servants. Oh, Russell! how am I to break this to my father? He loves that boy better than everything else; infinitely better than he ever loved me. How shall I tell him that Hugh is dead—dead?"
"A messenger has already gone to inform him of what has happened, and this distressing task will not be yours. Herbert Blackwell and I were riding together, on our return from T——, when we reached the ford where the disaster occurred. Finding that all our efforts to resuscitate were useless, he turned back, and went to your father's plantation to break the sad intelligence to him."
His soothing, tender tone touched some chord deep in her strange nature, and unshed tears gathered for the first time in her eyes.
"As you have no friend near enough to call upon at present, I will, if you desire it, wake the servants, remain, and do all that is necessary until morning."
"If you please, Russell; I shall thank you very much."
As her glance fell upon her cousin's gleaming face, her lip fluttered, and she turned away and sat down on one of the sofas in the parlour, dropping her face in her hands. A little while after, the light of a candle streamed in, and Russell came with a cushion from the library lounge, and his warm cloak. He wrapped the latter carefully about the drooping form, and would have placed her head on the silken pillow; but she silently resisted without looking up, and he left her. It was a vigil which she never forgot.
The fire had died out entirely, the curtains were drawn back to let in the day; on the library table the startling glare of white linen showed the outlines of the cold young sleeper, and Russell slowly paced the floor, his arms crossed, as was their habit, and his powerful form unweariedly erect. She stood by the table half-irresolute, then folded down the sheet, and exposed the handsome, untroubled face. She studied it long and quietly, and with no burst of emotion laid her flowers against his cheek and mouth, and scattered the geraniums over his pulseless heart.
"I begged him not to start yesterday, and he answered that he would go, if the stars fell and judgment day overtook him. Sometimes we are prophets unawares. His star has set—his day has risen! Have mercy on his soul! oh, my God!"
The voice was low and even, but wonderfully sweet, and in the solemn morning light her face showed itself grey and bloodless; no stain of colour on the still lips, only the blue cord standing out between the brow, sure signs of a deep distress which found no vent. Russell felt a crushing weight lifted from his heart; he saw that she had "loved her cousin cousinly—no more"; and his face flushed when she looked across the table at him, with grateful but indescribably melancholy eyes, which had never been closed during that night of horror.
"I must now relieve you, Russell, from your friendly watch. Few would have acted as you have done, and for all your generous kindness to poor Hugh I thank you most earnestly as well for my father as myself. The day may come, perhaps, when I shall be able to prove my gratitude, and the sincerity of my friendship, which has never wavered since we were children together. Until that day, farewell Russell; but believe that I rejoice to hear of your successes."
She held out her hand, and as he took it in his, which trembled violently, he felt, even then, that there was no quiver in the icy-white fingers, and that his name rippled over her lips as calmly as that of the dead had done just before. She endured his long, searching gaze, like any other Niobe, and he dropped the little pearly hand and quitted the room. At ten o'clock Mr. Huntingdon returned, and, with his hat drawn over his eyes, went straight to the library. He kissed the face of the dead passionately and his sob and violent burst of sorrow told his child of his arrival. She lifted her rigid face, and extended her arms pleadingly.
"Father! father! here, at least, you will forgive me!"
He turned from her sternly, and answered, with bitter emphasis—
"I will not! But for you, he would have been different, and this would never have happened."
"Father, I have asked for love and pardon for the last time."
She bent down and kissed her cousin, and, with a hard, bitter expression in her countenance, went up to her own room, locking out Paragon and old Nellie, who followed cautiously at her heels.
It was a cold afternoon in November—
"And Autumn, laying here and there A fiery finger on the leaves,"
had kindled her forest conflagration. Golden maples and amber-hued cherries, crimson dog-woods and scarlet oaks shook out their flame-foliage and waved their glowing boughs, all dashed and speckled, flecked and rimmed with orange and blood, ghastly green, and tawny brown. The smoky atmosphere, which had hung all day in purple folds around the distant hills, took a golden haze as the sun sank rapidly; and to Irene's gaze river and woodland, hill-side and valley, were brimmed with that weird "light which never was on sea or land." Her almost "Brahminical" love of nature had grown with her years, but a holier element mingled with her adoration now; she looked beyond the material veil of beauty, and bowed reverently before the indwelling Spiritual Presence. Since Hugh's death, nearly a year before, she had become a recluse, availing herself of her mourning dress to decline all social engagements, and during these months a narrow path opened before her feet, she became a member of the church which she had attended from infancy, and her hands closed firmly over her life-work.
Sorrow and want hung out their signs among the poor of W——, and here, silently, but methodically, she had become, not a ministering angel certainly, but a generous benefactress, a noble, sympathetic friend—a counsellor whose strong good sense rendered her advice and guidance valuable indeed. By a system of rigid economy she was enabled to set apart a small portion of money, which she gave judiciously, superintending its investment; kind, hopeful words she scattered like sunshine over every threshold; and here and there, where she detected smouldering aspiration, or incipient appreciation of learning, she fanned the spark with some suitable volume from her own library, which, in more than one instance, became the germ, the spring of "joy for ever." Frequently her father threw obstacles in her way, sneering all the while at her "sanctimonious freaks." Sometimes she affected not to notice the impediments, sometimes frankly acknowledged their magnitude and climbed right over them, on to her work. Among the factory operatives she found the greatest need of ameliorating touches of every kind. Improvident, illiterate, in some cases, almost brutalized, she occasionally found herself puzzled as to the proper plan to pursue; but her womanly heart, like the hidden jewelled levers of a watch, guided the womanly hands unerringly.
This evening, as she approached the row of low white-washed houses, a crowd of children swarmed out, as usual, to stare at her. She rode up to a doorstep where a boy of some fourteen years sat sunning himself, with an open book on his knee and a pair of crutches beside him. At sight of her a bright smile broke over his sickly face and he tried to rise.
"Good evening, Philip; don't get up. How are you to-day?"
"Better, I thank you, ma'am; but very stiff yet."
"The stiffness will pass off gradually, I hope. I see you have not finished your book yet; how do you like it?"
"Oh! I could bear to be a cripple always, if I had plenty like it to read."
"You need not be a cripple; but there are plenty more, just as good and better, which you shall have in time. Do you think you could hold my horse for me a little while? I can't find a suitable place to tie him. He is gentle enough if you will only hold the reins."
"Certainly, ma'am; I shall be glad to hold him as long as you like."
She dismounted, and passed into the adjoining house. Sick-rooms, where poverty stands grim and gaunt on the hearth, are rarely enticing, and to this dreary class belonged the room where Bessie Davis had suffered for months, watching the sands of life run low, and the shadow of death growing longer across the threshold day by day. The dust and lint of the cotton-room had choked the springs of life, and on her hollow cheeks glowed the autograph of consumption. She stretched out her wasted hand, and said—
"Ah, Miss Irene! I heard your voice outside, and it was pleasant to my ears as the sound of the bell when work-hours are over. I am always glad to see your face, but this evening I was longing for you, hoping and praying that you would come. I am in trouble."
"About what, Mrs. Davis? Nothing serious, I hope; tell me."
"I don't know how serious it is going to be. Johnnie is sick in the next room, taken yesterday; and about noon to-day Susan had to knock off work and come home. Hester is the only one left, and you know she is but a baby to work. I don't like to complain of my lot, God knows, but it seems hard if we are all to be taken down."
"I hope they will not be sick long. What is the matter with Johnnie?"
"Dear knows! I am sure I don't; he complains of the headache and has fever, and Susan here seems ailing the same way. She is as stupid as can be—sleeps all the time. My children have had measles and whooping-cough, and chicken-pox and scarlet fever, and I can't imagine what they are trying to catch now. I hear that there is a deal of sickness showing itself in the Row."
"Have you sent for the doctor?" asked Irene, walking around to the other side of the bed, and examining Susan's pulse.
"Yes, I sent Hester; but she said he told her he was too busy to come."
"Why did you not apply to some other physician?"
"Because Dr. Brandon has always attended me, and, as I sent for him first, I didn't know whether any other doctor would like to come. You know some of them have very curious notions about their dignity."
"And sometimes, while they pause to discuss etiquette, humanity suffers. Susan, let me see your tongue. Who else is sick in the Row, Mrs. Davis?"
"Three of Tom Brown's children, two of Dick Spencer's, and Lucy Hall, and Mary Moorhead. Miss Irene, will you be good enough to give me a drink of water. Hester has gone to try to find some wood, and I can't reach the pitcher."
"I brought you some jelly; would you like a little now, or shall I put it away in the closet?"
"Thank you; I will save it for my Johnnie, he is so fond of sweet things; and, poor child! he sees 'em so seldom nowadays."
"There is enough for you and Johnnie too. Eat this, while I look after him, and see whether he ought to have any this evening."
She placed a saucer filled with the tempting amber-hued delicacy on the little pine table beside the bed, and went into the next room. The boy, who looked about seven or eight years old, lay on a pallet in one corner, restless and fretful, his cheeks burning, and his large brown eyes sparkling with fever.
"Johnnie, boy! what is the matter? Tell me what hurts you."
"My head aches so badly," and tears came to the beautiful childish eyes.
"It feels hot. Would you like to have it bathed in cold water?"
"If you please, ma'am. I have been calling Hettie, and she won't hear."
"Because she has gone out. Let me see if I can't do it just as well as Hettie."
She hunted about the room for a cloth, but, finding nothing suitable, took her cambric handkerchief, and, after laving his forehead gently for ten or fifteen minutes, laid the wet folds upon it, and asked smilingly—
"Doesn't that feel pleasant?"
"Ever so nice, ma'am—if I had some to drink."
She put the dripping gourd to his parched lips, and, after shaking up his pillow and straightening the covering of his pallet, she promised to see him again soon, and returned to his mother.
"How does he appear to be, Miss Irene? I had him moved out of this room because he said my coughing hurt his head, and his continual fretting worried me. I am so weak now, God help me!" and she covered her eyes with one hand.
"He has some fever, Mrs. Davis, but not more than Susan. I will ask Dr. Arnold to come and see them this evening. This change in the weather is very well calculated to make sickness. Are you entirely out of wood?"
"Very nearly, ma'am; a few sticks left."
"When Hester comes, keep her at home. I will send you some wood. And now, how are you?"
"My cough is not quite so bad; the pectoral holds it a little in check; but I had another hemorrhage last night, and I am growing weaker every day. Oh, Miss Irene! what will become of my poor little children when I am gone? That is such an agonizing thought." She sobbed as she spoke.
"Do not let that grieve you now. I promise you that your children shall be taken care of. I will send a servant down to stay here to-night, and perhaps some of the women in the Row will be willing to come in occasionally and help Hester till Susan gets able to cook. I left two loaves of bread in the closet, and will send more in the morning, which Hester can toast. I shall go by town, and send Dr. Arnold out."
"I would rather have Dr. Brandon, if you please."
"I have always heard that Dr. Arnold was so gruff and unfeeling, that I am afraid of him. I hate to be snapped up when I ask a question."
"That is a great mistake, Mrs. Davis. People do him injustice. He has one of the kindest, warmest hearts I ever knew, though sometimes he is rather abrupt in his manner. If you prefer it, however, I will see your doctor. Good-bye; I will come again to-morrow."
As she took her bridle from Philip's hand, the boy looked up at her with an expression bordering on adoration.
"Thank you, Philip; how did he behave?"
"Not very well; but he is beautiful enough to make up for his wildness."
"That is bad doctrine; beauty never should excuse bad behaviour. Is your mother at home?"
"When she comes, ask her I say please to step in now and then, and overlook things for Mrs. Davis; Susan is sick. Philip, if it is not asking too much of you, Johnnie would like to have you sit by him till his little sister comes home, and wet that cloth which I left on his head. Will you?"
"Indeed, I will; I am very glad you told me. Certainly I will."
"I thought so. Don't talk to him; let him sleep if he will. Good-bye."
She went first to a woodyard on the river, and left an order for a cord of wood to be sent immediately to No. 13, Factory Row; then took the street leading to Doctor Brandon's office. A servant sat on the step whistling merrily; and, in answer to her questions, he informed her that his master had just left town, to be absent two days. She rode on for a few squares, doubling her veil in the hope of shrouding her features, and stopped once more in front of the door where stood Dr. Arnold's buggy.
"Cyrus, is the doctor in his office?"
"Yes, Miss Irene."
"Hold my horse for me."
She gathered the folds of her riding-habit over her arm, and went upstairs. Leaning far back in his chair, with his feet on the fender of the grate, sat Dr. Arnold, watching the blue smoke of his meerschaum curl lazily in faint wreaths over his head; and as she entered, a look of pleasant surprise came instantly into his cold, clear eyes.
"Bless me! Irene; I am glad to see you. It is many a day since you have shown your face here; sit down. Now, then, what is to pay? You are in trouble, of course; you never think of me except when you are. Has old Nellie treated herself to another spell of rheumatism, or Paragon broke his leg, or smallpox broke out anywhere; or, worse than all, have the hawks taken to catching your pigeons?"
"None of these catastrophes has overtaken me; but I come, as usual, to ask a favour. If you please, I want you to go up to the Factory Row this evening. Mrs. Davis, No. 13, has two children very sick, I am afraid. I don't like the appearance of their tongues."
"Humph! what do you know about tongues, I should like to be informed?"
"How to use my own, sir, at least, when there is a necessity for it. They are what you medical savans call typhoid tongues; and from what I heard to-day, I am afraid there will be a distressing amount of sickness among the operatives. Of course you will go, sir?"
"How do you know that so well? Perhaps I will and perhaps I won't. Nobody ever looks after me, or cares about the condition of my health; I don't see why I must adopt the whole human race. See here, my child! do not let me hear of you at the Row again soon; it is no place for you, my lily. Ten to one it is some low, miserable typhus fever showing itself, and I will take care of your precious pets only on condition that you keep away, so that I shall not be haunted with the dread of having you, also, on my hands. If I lay eyes on you at the Row, I swear I will write to Leonard to chain you up at home. Do you hear?"
"I shall come every day; I promise you that."
"Oh! you are ambitious of martyrdom? But typhus fever is not the style, Queen. There is neither eclat nor glory in such a death."
A sad smile curved her mouth, as she answered slowly—
"That is problematical, Doctor. But it is getting late, and I wish, if you please, you would go at once to the Row."
"Stop! if any good is accomplished among those semi-savages up yonder, who is to have the credit? Tell me that."
"God shall have the thanks; you all the credit as the worthy instrument, and I as much of the gratification as I can steal from you. Are you satisfied with your wages, my honoured Shylock? Good night."
"Humph! it is strange what a hold that queer motherless child took upon my heart in her babyhood, and it tightens as she grows older."
He shook the ashes from his pipe, put it away behind the clock, and went down to his buggy. Before breakfast the following morning, while Irene was in the poultry-yard feeding her chickens and pigeons, pheasants and peafowls, she received a note from Dr. Arnold containing these few scrawling words:—
"If you do not feel quite ready for the day of judgment, avoid the Row as you would the plagues of Egypt. I found no less than six developed cases of rank typhus.
She put the note in her pocket, and, while the pigeons fluttered and perched on her shoulders and arms, cooing and pecking at her fingers, she stood musing—calculating the chances of contagion and death if she persisted. Raising her eyes to the calm blue sky, the perplexed look passed from her countenance, and, fully decided regarding her course, she went in to breakfast. Mr. Huntingdon was going to a neighbouring county with Judge Peterson, to transact some business connected with Hugh's estate, and, as the buggy came to the door, he asked, carelessly—
"What did Cyrus want?"
"He came to bring me a note from the doctor, concerning some sick people whom I asked him to see."
"Oh! John, put my overcoat in the buggy. Come, Judge; I am ready."
As he made no inquiry about the sick, she volunteered no explanation, and he bade her good-bye with manifest cold indifference. She could not avoid congratulating herself that, since he must take this journey soon, he had selected the present occasion to be absent, for she was well aware that he would violently oppose her wishes in the matter of the Row. When Dr. Arnold met her late in the afternoon of the same day, at little Johnnie's side, his surprise and chagrin found vent, first in a series of oaths, then, scowling at her like some thunder-cloud with the electricity expended, he said—
"Do you consider me a stark idiot, or a shallow quack?"
"Neither, sir, I assure you."
"Then, if I know anything about my business, I wrote you the truth this morning, and you treat my advice with cool contempt. You vex me beyond all endurance! Do you want to throw yourself into the jaws of death?"
"You forget, Doctor: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.'"
She slipped her hand into his, and looked up, smiling and calm, into his harsh, swarthy face.
"My child, you made a mistake; your life belongs to me, for I saved it in your infancy. I cradled you in my arms, lest death should snatch you. I have a better right to you than anybody else in this world. I don't want to see you die; I wish to go first."
"I know what I owe you, Doctor; but I am not going to die, and you have scolded me enough for one time. Do make peace."
"Remember, I warned you, and you would not heed."
From that hour she kept faithful vigil in No. 13, passing continually from one bedside to another. Susan's attack proved comparatively light, and she was soon pronounced convalescent; but little Johnnie was desperately ill, and for several nights Irene sat at his pillow, fearing that every hour would be his last. While his delirium was at its height, Hester was taken violently, and on the morning when Irene felt that her labour was not in vain, and that the boy would get well, his little sister, whom she had nursed quite as assiduously, grew rapidly worse, and died at noon. As is frequently observed in such diseases, this increased in virulence with every new case. It spread with astonishing celerity through the Row, baffling the efforts of the best physicians in W——; and finally, the day after Hester's death, as Irene sat trying to comfort the poor mother, a neighbour came in exclaiming—
"Oh, Miss Irene! Philip Martin is down too. He caught the fever from his mother, and his father says won't you please come over?"
She went promptly, though so wearied she could scarcely stand, and took a seat by the bed where tossed the poor boy in whom she had taken such an interest.
"You must go home, Miss Huntingdon; you are worn out. His father can watch him till his mother gets stronger," said Dr. Brandon, who was fully acquainted with the unremitting attendance at the next house.
"No, I must stay with Philip; perhaps he will know me when he wakes."
A hope doomed to disappointment, for he raved for four days and nights, calling frantically for the serene, sad woman who sat at his pillow, bending over him and laying her cold hand on his scorched brow. On the fifth day, being free from fever and utterly prostrated, he seemed sinking rapidly; but she kept her fingers on his pulse, and, without waiting for the doctor's advice, administered powerful stimulants. So passed two hours of painful anxiety; then Philip opened his eyes languidly, and looked at her.
"Philip, do you know me?"
She sank back as if some strong supporting hand had suddenly been withdrawn from her; and observing that she looked ghastly, Mr. Martin hastily brought her a glass of water. Just then Dr. Brandon entered, and examined his patient with evident surprise.
"What have you done to him, Miss Huntingdon?"
"Since daylight I have been giving him ammonia and brandy; his pulse was so feeble and thready, I thought he needed it, and was afraid to wait for you."
"Right! and you saved his life by it. I could not get here any earlier, and if you had delayed it until I came, it would probably have been too late. You may call him your patient after this."
She waited no longer, but staggered to the door; and Andrew, seeing how faint she was, came to meet her, and led her to the carriage. The ten days of watching had told upon her; and when she reached home, and Nellie brought her wrapper and unlaced her shoes, she fell back on her lounge in a heavy, deathlike sleep. Mr. Huntingdon had been expected two days before, but failed to arrive at the time designated; and having her fears fully aroused, Nellie despatched a messenger for Dr. Arnold.
"Do you see any change, Hiram?"
"None for the better."
Mr. Huntingdon dropped his head upon his hand again, and Dr. Arnold resumed his slow walk up and down the carpet. The blue damask curtains had been looped back from the western window, and the broad band of yellow belting in the sky threw a mellow light over the bed where lay the unconscious heiress of the grand old Hill. Fever rouged the polished cheeks usually pure as alabaster, and touched the parted lips with deeper scarlet, lending a brilliant and almost unearthly beauty to the sculptured features. Her hair, partially escaping from confinement, straggled in crumpled rings and folds across the pillow, a mass of golden netting; and the sparkling eyes wandered from one object to another, as if in anxious search. The disease had assumed a different type, and instead of raving paroxysms, her illness was characterized by a silent, wakeful unconsciousness, while opiates produced only the effect of increasing her restlessness. A week had passed thus, during which time she had recognized no one; and though numerous lady friends came to offer assistance, all were refused permission to see her. Mr. Huntingdon was utterly ignorant of the duties of a nurse; and though he haunted the room like an unlifting shadow, Dr. Arnold and Nellie took entire charge of the patient. The former was unremitting in his care, sitting beside the pillow through the long winter nights, and snatching a few hours' sleep during the day. Watching her now, as he walked to and fro, he noticed that her eyes followed him earnestly, and he paused at the bedside and leaned over her.
"Irene, what do you want? Does my walking annoy you?"
"Won't you shut your eyes, my darling, and try to sleep?"
The deep, brilliant eyes only looked into his with mocking intentness. He put his fingers on the lids and pressed them gently down, but she struggled, and turned away her face. Her hands crept constantly along the snowy quilt as if seeking for something, and taking them both, he folded them in his and pressed them to his lips, while tears, which he did not attempt to restrain, fell over them.
"You don't think she is any worse, do you?" asked the father, huskily.
"I don't know anything, except that she can't lie this way much longer."
His harsh voice faltered and his stern mouth trembled. He laid the hands back, went to the window and stood there till the room grew dusky and the lamp was brought in. As Nellie closed the door after her, the doctor came to the hearth, and said sharply—
"I would not be in your place for John Jacob Astor's fortune."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that, if you have any conscience left, you must suffer the pains of purgatory for the manner in which you have persecuted that child."
"In all that I have ever done I have looked only to her good, to her ultimate happiness. I know that she——"
"Hush, Leonard! hush! You are no more fit to be a father than I am to be a saint! You have tyrannized and fretted her poor innocent soul nearly out of her ever since she was big enough to crawl. Why the d——l could not you let the child have a little peace? There are ninety-nine chances to one that she has come to her rest at last. You will feel pleasantly when you see her in her shroud."
His hard face worked painfully, and tears glided down the wrinkled cheek and hid themselves in his grey beard. Mr. Huntingdon was much agitated, but an angry flush crossed his brow as he answered hastily,—
"I am the best judge of my family matters. You are unjust and severe. Of course I love my child better than anybody else."
"Heaven preserve her from such love as you have lavished on her! She is very dear to me. I understand her character; you either cannot or will not. She is the only thing in this world that I do really love. My pet, my violet-eyed darling!"
He shaded his face and swallowed a sob, and for some moments neither spoke. After a while the doctor buttoned up his coat and took his hat.
"I am going down to my office to get a different prescription. I will be back soon."
Contrary to his phlegmatic habit, the doctor had taken counsel of his fears until he was completely unnerved, and he went home more than usually surly and snappish. As he entered his office, Russell advanced to meet him from the window whence, for nearly an hour, he had been watching for his arrival.
"Good evening, doctor."
"What do you want?"
"How is Miss Huntingdon?"
"What is Miss Huntingdon to you?"
"She was one of my mother's best friends, though only a little girl at the time."
"And you love her for your mother's sake, I suppose? Truly filial."
"How is she to-night? Rumours are so unreliable, that I came to you to find out the truth."
"She is going to die, I am afraid."
A sudden pallor overspread Russell's face, but he sat erect and motionless, and, fastening his keen eyes upon him, the doctor added—
"She is about to be transplanted to a better world, if there is such a place. She is too good and pure for this cursed, pestiferous earth."
"Is the case so utterly hopeless? I cannot, I will not, believe it!" came indistinctly from the young man's bloodless lips.
"I tell you I know better! She stands on a hair stretched across her grave. If I don't succeed to-night in making her sleep (which I have been trying to accomplish for two days), she can't possibly live. And what is that whole confounded crew of factory savages in comparison with her precious life?"
"Is it true that her illness is attributable to nursing those people?"
"Yes. D——l take the Row! I wish the river would swallow it up."
"If I could only see her!" exclaimed Russell, and an expression of such intense agony settled on his features, usually so inflexible, that his companion was startled and astonished. The doctor regarded him a moment with perplexity and compassion mingled in his own face; then light broke upon him, and, rising, he laid his hand heavily on Russell's shoulder.
"Where are you going, Aubrey?"
"Back to my office."
"Is there any message which you would like for me to deliver to her, if she should recover consciousness? You may trust me, young man."
"Thank you; I have no message to send. I merely called to ask after her. I trust she will yet recover. Good night."
He walked on rapidly till he reached the door of his office. The gas was burning brightly over his desk, and red tape and legal-cap beckoned him in; but fathomless blue eyes, calm as mid-ocean, looked up at him, and, without entering, he turned, and went through the cold and darkness to the cemetery, to his mother's tomb. She had been his comfort in boyish sorrows, and habit was strong; he went to her grave for it still.
When Russell left him, Dr. Arnold carefully weighed out the powder and rode back to the Hill. He could perceive no change, unless it were a heightening of the carmine on cheeks and lips, and an increased twitching of the fingers, which hunted so pertinaciously about the bed-clothes.
"That everlasting picking, picking at everything is such an awful bad sign!" said poor Nellie, who was crying bitterly at the foot of the bed; and she covered her face with her apron to shut out the sight.
"You 'pick' yourself off to bed, Nellie! I don't want you snubbing and groaning around day and night."
"I am afraid to leave her a minute. I am afraid when my poor baby shuts her eyes she will never open 'em again till she opens 'em in heaven."
"Oh, go along to sleep! you eternal old stupid. I will wake you up, I tell you, if she gets worse."
He mixed one of the powders and stooped down.
"Irene—Irene, take this for me, won't you, dear?"
She gave no intimation of having heard him till he placed the wineglass to her mouth and raised her head tenderly; then she swallowed the contents mechanically. At the expiration of an hour he repeated the dose, and at ten o'clock, while he sat watching her intently, he saw the eyelids begin to droop, the long, silky lashes quivered and touched her cheeks. When he listened to her breathing, and knew that at last she slept, his grey head sank on his chest, and he murmured, inaudibly, "Thank God!" Patient as a woman, he kept his place at her side, fearing to move lest he should wake her; the dreary hours of night wore away; morning came, gloriously bright, and still she slept. The flush had faded, leaving her wan as death, and the little hands were now at rest. She looked like the figures which all have seen on cenotaphs, and anxiously and often the doctor felt the slow pulse, that seemed weary of its mission. He kept the room quiet, and maintained his faithful watch, refusing to leave her for a moment. Twelve o'clock rolled round, and it appeared, indeed, as if Nellie's prognostication would prove true, the sleeper was so motionless. At three o'clock the doctor counted the pulse, and, reassured, threw his head back against the velvet lining of the chair, and shut his aching eyes. Before five minutes had elapsed, he heard a faint, sweet voice say, "Paragon." Springing to his feet, he saw her put out her hand to pat the head of her favourite, who could not be kept out of the room, and howled so intolerably when they chained him, that they were forced to set him free. Now he stood with his paws on the pillow and his face close to hers whining with delight. Tears of joy almost blinded the doctor as he pushed Paragon aside, and said eagerly—
"Irene, one dog is as good as another! You know Paragon, do you know me, Queen?"
"Certainly—I know you, Doctor."
"God bless you, beauty! You haven't known me for a week."
"I am so thirsty—please give me some water."
He lifted her head, and she drank eagerly, till he checked her.
"There—we haven't all turned hydropathists since you were taken sick. Nellie! I say, Nellie! you witch of Endor! bring some wine-whey here. Irene, how do you feel, child?"
"Very tired and feeble, sir. My head is confused. Where is father?"
"Here I am, my daughter."
He bent down with trembling lips and kissed her, for the first time since the day of their estrangement, nearly three years before. She put her arms feebly around his neck, and as he held her to his heart, she felt a tear drop on her forehead.
"Father, have you forgiven me?"
He either could not or would not answer, but kissed her again warmly; and, as he disengaged her arms and left the room, she felt assured that at last she had been forgiven. She took the whey silently, and, after some moments, said—
"Doctor, have you been sitting by me a long time?"
"I rather think I have!—losing my sleep for nearly ten days, you unconscionable young heathen."
"Have I been so ill as to require that? I have a dim recollection of going on a long journey, and of your being by my side all the way."
"Well, I hope you travelled to your entire satisfaction, and found what, you wanted—for you were feeling about as if hunting for something, the whole time. Oh! I am so thankful that you know me once more. Child, you have cost me a deal of sorrow. Now be quiet, and go to sleep again; at least, don't talk to Nellie or Paragon. I shall take a nap on the sofa in the library."
She regained her strength very slowly, and many days elapsed before she was able to leave her room. One bright sunny morning she sat before the open window, looking down on the lawn where the pigeons flashed in and out of the hedges, and now and then glancing at the bouquet of choice hot-house flowers in the vase beside her. In her lap lay a letter just received from Harvey Young—a letter full of fond remembrance, grave counsel, and gentle encouragement—and the unbent lines about her mouth showed that her mind was troubled.
The doctor came in and drew up a chair.
"I should like to know who gave you leave to ride yesterday?"
"Father thought that I was well enough, and the carriage was close and warm. I hope, sir, that I shall not be on your hands much longer."
"What did I tell you? Next time don't be so hard-headed when you are advised by older and wiser persons. I trust you are quite satisfied with the result of your eleemosynary performances at the Row."
"Far from it, Doctor. I am fully acclimated now, and have nothing to fear in future. I am very sorry, sir, that I caused you all so much trouble and anxiety; I did not believe that I should take the fever. If Philip had not been so ill, I should have come out safely; but I suppose my uneasiness about him unnerved me in some way—for, when I saw that he would get well, all my strength left me in an instant. How is he, sir?"
"Oh! the young dog is as well as ever. Comes to my office every day to ask after his blessed Lady Bountiful."
Leaning forward carelessly, but so as to command a full view of her face, he added,—
"You stirred up quite an excitement in town, and introduced me generally to society. People who never inflicted themselves on me before thought it was incumbent on them to hang around my door to make inquiries concerning my fair patient. One night I found even that statue of bronze and steel, Russell Aubrey, waiting at my office to find out whether you really intended translation."
A change certainly passed swiftly over her countenance; but it was inexplicable, indescribable—an anomalous lightening of the eye and darkening of the brow. Before he could analyse it, her features resumed their wonted serenity, and he found her voice unfluttered.
"I was not aware that I had so many friends; it is a pleasant discovery, and almost compensates for the pain of illness. Take care, Doctor! You are tilting my flowers out of their vase."
"Confound the flowers, Queen! They are always in the way. It is a great pity there is such Theban-brother affection between your father and Aubrey. He has an amount of fine feeling hid away under that dark, Jesuitical, non-committal face of his. He has not forgotten your interest in his mother, and when I told him that I thought you had determined to take your departure from this world, he seemed really hurt about it. I always liked the boy, but I think he is a heretic in politics."
The doctor had scarcely taken his departure when Nellie's turbaned head showed itself at the door.
"That factory-boy, Philip, is downstairs; he brought back a book, and wants to see you. He seems in trouble; but you don't feel like being bothered to-day, do you?"
"Did he ask to see me?"
"Not exactly; but showed very plainly he wanted to see you."
"Let him come up."
As, he entered, she rose and held out her hand.
"Good morning, Philip; I am glad you are well enough to be out again."
He looked at her reverently, and, as he noticed the change her illness had wrought, his lips quivered and his eyes filled.
"Oh, Miss Irene! I am so glad you are better. I prayed for you all the time while you were so very ill."
"Thank you. Sit down, and tell me about the sick."
"They are all better, I believe, ma'am, except Mrs. Davis. She was wishing yesterday that she could see you again."
"I shall go there in a day or two. You are walking pretty well without your crutches. Have you resumed your work."
"I shall begin again to-morrow."
"It need not interfere with your studies. The nights are very long now, and you can accomplish a great deal if you feel disposed to do so. I think it possible I can obtain a situation for your father as carpenter on a plantation in the country, if he will promise to abstain from drinking. I have heard that he was a very good mechanic, and in the country he would not meet with such constant temptation. Do you suppose that he will be willing to leave town?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am! I think so. If you please, Miss Irene, I should be so glad if you would talk to him, and persuade him to take the pledge before he starts. I believe he would join the Temperance society if you asked him to do it. Oh! then I should have some heart to work."
"You and your mother must try to influence him and in a few days I will talk to him. In the meantime I will see about the situation, which is a very desirable one. Brighter days will soon come, I trust."
He took his cap from the carpet, rose, and looked at her with swimming eyes.
"Oh, Miss Irene! I wish I could tell you all I feel. I thank you more than I can ever express, and so does mother."
"You have finished your book, I see; don't you want another? Nellie will show you the library, and on the lower book-shelf, on the right-hand side of the door, you will find a large volume in leather binding—'Plutarch.' Take it with you, and read it carefully. Good-bye. I shall come down to the Row to-morrow or next day."
"Well, Irene, what is your decision about the party at Mrs. Churchill's to-night?"
"I will go with you, father, if it is a matter of so much interest to you, though, as I told you yesterday, I should prefer declining the invitation as far as I am concerned."
"It is full time for you to go into society again. You have moped at home long enough."
"'Moped' is scarcely the right word, father."
"It matters little what you call it, the fact is the same. You have shut yourself in till you have grown to look like a totally different woman. Indeed, Irene, I won't permit it any longer; you must come out into the world once more. I am, sick of your black looks; let me see you in colours to-night."
"Will not pure white content you, father?"
"No, I am tired of it. Wear something bright."
"I have a favour to ask at your hands, father, will you give me that large beautiful vacant lot with the old willow tree, on the corner of Pine Street and Huntingdon Avenue, opposite the court-house?"
"Upon my word! I must say you are very modest in your request! What the deuce do you want with it?"
"I know that I am asking a good deal, sir; but I want it as a site for an orphan asylum. Will you give it to me?"
"No! I'll be hanged if I do! Are you going entirely deranged? What business have you with asylums, I should like to know? Put all of that ridiculous stuff out of your head. Here is something for which I sent to Europe. Eric selected it in Paris, and it arrived yesterday. Wear it to-night."
He drew a velvet case from his pocket and laid it before her. Touching the spring, the lid flew open, and on the blue satin lining lay the blazing coils of a magnificent diamond necklace and bracelets.
"How beautiful! how splendidly beautiful!"
She bent over the flashing mass in silent admiration for some time, examining the delicate setting, then looked up at her father.
"What did they cost?"
"Why do you want to know that?"
"I am pardonably curious on the subject."
"Well, then, I was silly enough to give seven thousand dollars for them."
"And what was the value of that lot I asked for?"
"Five thousand dollars."
"Father, these diamonds are the finest I ever saw. They are superbly beautiful; a queen might be proud of them, and I thank you most earnestly for such a gorgeous present; but if you will not be offended, I will be candid with you—I would a thousand times rather have the lot than the jewels."
The expression of blank astonishment with which these words were received would have been ludicrous but for the ominous thickening of his brows.
She laid her fingers on his arm, but he shook off the touch, and, scowling sullenly, snatched the velvet case from her hand.
He went to town, and she met him no more till she was attired for the party. Standing before the mirror in her own room she arranged the flowers in her hair, and, when the leaves were disposed to suit her fastidious taste, she took up a pearl set which he had given her years before, intending to wear it. But just then raising her eyes, she saw her father's image reflected in the glass. Without turning she put up her arms, and, laying her head back on his shoulder, said eagerly—
"My dear, dear father, do let us be reconciled."
Clouds and moodiness melted from his handsome features as he bent over her an instant, kissing her fondly; then his hands passed swiftly over her neck, an icy shower fell upon it, and she was clothed with light.
"My beautiful child, wear your diamonds as a seal of peace. I can't let you have the Pine Street lot—I want it for a different purpose; but I will give you three acres on the edge of town, near the depot, for your asylum whim. It is a better location every way for your project."
"Thank you, father. Oh! thank you more than words can express."
She turned her lips to one of the hands still lingering on her shoulder.
"Irene, look at yourself. Diana of Ephesus! what a blaze of glory!"
Two days before the marriage of Charles Harris and Maria Henderson had been celebrated with considerable pomp, and the party to-night was given in honour of the event by Mrs. Churchill, a widowed sister of Judge Harris. She had spent several years in Paris superintending the education of a daughter, whom she had recently brought home to reside near her uncle, and dazzle all W—— with her accomplishments.
At ten o'clock there stood beneath the gas-lights in her elegant parlour a human fleshy antithesis, upon which all eyes were riveted—Salome Churchill—a dark imperious beauty, of the Cleopatra type, with very full crimson lips, passionate or pouting as occasion demanded; brilliant black eyes that, like August days, burned dewless and unclouded, a steady blaze; thick, shining, black hair elaborately curled, and a rich tropical complexion, clear and glowing as the warm blood that pulsed through her rounded graceful form. She wore a fleecy fabric, topaz-coloured, with black lace trimmings; yellow roses gemmed her hair, and topaz and ruby ornaments clasped her throat and arms. An Eastern queen she looked, exacting universal homage, and full of fiery jealousy whenever her eyes fell upon one who stood just opposite. Irene's dress was an airy blue tulle, flounced to the waist, and without trimming, save the violet and clematis clusters. Never had her rare beauty been more resplendent—more dazzlingly chilly; it seemed the glitter of an arctic ice-berg lit by some low midnight sun, and turn whither she would fascinated groups followed her steps. Salome's reputation as a brilliant belle had become extended since Irene's long seclusion, yet to-night, on the reappearance of the latter, it was apparent to even the most obtuse that she had resumed her sway—the matchless cynosure of that social system. Fully conscious of the intense admiration she excited, she moved slowly from room to room, smiling once or twice when she met her father's proud look of fond triumph fixed upon her.
Leaning against the window to rest, while Charles Harris went in search of a glass of water, she heard Aubrey's name pronounced by some one on the gallery.
"Well, the very latest report is that, after all, Aubrey never fancied Grace Harris, as the quidnuncs asserted—never addressed her, or anybody else—but is now, sure enough, about to bear off belle Salome, the new prize, right in the face of twenty rivals. I should really like to hear of something which that man could not do, if he set himself to work in earnest. I wonder whether it ever occurs to him that he once stood behind Jacob Watson's counter?"
"But Aubrey is not here to-night. Does not affect parties, I believe?"
"Rarely shows himself. But you mistake: he came in not twenty minutes ago; and you should have seen what I saw—the rare-ripe red deepen on Salome's cheeks when he spoke to her."
Irene moved away from the window, and soon after was about to accompany Charlie to the hall, when a Mr. Bainbridge came up and claimed her hand for the cotillion forming in the next room. As they took their places on the floor, she saw that Salome and Russell would be vis-a-vis.
Irene moved mechanically through the airy mazes of the dance, straining her ear to catch the mellow voice which uttered such graceful, fascinating nothings to Salome. Several times in the course of the cotillion Russell's hand clasped her, but even then he avoided looking at her, and seemed engrossed in conversation with his gay partner. Once Irene looked up steadily, and as she noted the expression with which he regarded his companion she wondered no longer at the rumour she had heard, and acknowledged to herself that they were, indeed, a handsome couple.
The dance ended; Irene declined to dance again. She looked about for Dr. Arnold, but he had disappeared; her father was deep in a game of euchre; and as she crossed the hall she was surprised to see Philip leaning against the door-facing, and peering curiously into the parlours.
"Philip, what are you doing here?"
"Oh, Miss Irene! I have been hunting for you ever so long. Mrs. Davis is dying, and Susan sent me after you. I went to your house two hours ago, and they said you were here. Will you come, ma'am!"
"Of course. Philip, find Andrew and the carriage, and I will meet you at the side door in five minutes."
She went to the dressing-room, asked for pencil and paper, and wrote a few lines, which she directed the servant to hand immediately to her father—found her shawl, and stole down to the side door. She saw the dim outline of a form sitting on the step, in the shadow of clustering vines, and asked—
"Is that you, Philip? I am ready."
The figure rose, came forward into the light, hat in hand, and both started visibly.
"Pardon me, Mr. Aubrey. I mistook you in the darkness for another."
Here Philip ran up the steps.
"Miss Irene, Andrew says he can't get to the side gate for the carriages. He is at the front entrance."
"Can I assist you, Miss Huntingdon?"
"I thank you; no."
"May I ask if you are ill?"
"Not in the least—but I am suddenly called away."
She passed him, and accompanied Philip to the carriage. A few minutes' rapid driving brought them to the Row, and, directing Andrew to return and wait for her father, Irene entered the low small chamber, where a human soul was pluming itself for its final flight home. The dying woman knew her even then in the fierce throes of dissolution, and the sunken eyes beamed as she bent over the pillow.
"God bless you! I knew you would come. My children—what will become of them? Will you take care of them? Tell me quick."
"Put your mind at rest, Mrs. Davis. I will see that your children are well cared for in every respect."
"Promise me!" gasped the poor sufferer, clutching the jewelled arm.
"I do promise you most solemnly that I will watch over them constantly. They shall never want so long as I live. Will you not believe me, and calm yourself?"
A ghastly smile trembled over the distorted features, and she bowed her head in assent.
"Mrs. Davis, don't you feel that you will soon be at rest with God?"
"Yes—I am going home happy—happy."
She closed her eyes and whispered—
Making a great effort to crush her own feelings, Irene sang the simple but touching words of "Home Again," and though her voice faltered now and then, she sang it through—knowing, from the expression of the sufferer's face, that the spirit was passing to its endless rest.
A passionate burst of sorrow from Johnnie followed the discovery of the melancholy truth, and rising from the floor Irene seated herself on a chair, taking the child on her lap, and soothing his violent grief. Too young to realize his loss, he was easily comforted, and after a time grew quiet. She directed Susan to take him into the next room and put him on his pallet; and when she had exchanged a few words with Philip's mother about the disposition of the rigid sleeper, she turned to quit the apartment, and saw Russell standing on the threshold. Had the dead mother suddenly stepped before her she would scarcely have been more astonished and startled.
He extended one hand, and hastily taking hers, drew her to the door of the narrow, dark hall, where the newly-risen moon shone in.
"Come out of this charnel-house into the pure air once more. Do not shrink back—trust yourself with me this once at least." The brick walls of the factory rose a hundred yards off, in full view of the Row, and leading her along the river bank he placed her on one of the massive stone steps of the building.
"What brought you here to-night, Mr. Aubrey?"
"An unpardonable curiosity concerning your sudden departure—an unconquerable desire to speak to you once more. I came here overmastered by an irresistible desire to see you alone, to look at you, to tell you what I have almost sworn should never pass my lips—what you may consider unmanly weakness—nay, insanity, on my part. We are face to face at last, man and woman, with the golden bars of conventionality and worldly distinction snapped asunder. I am no longer the man whom society would fain flatter, in atonement for past injustice; and I choose to forget for the time, that you are the daughter of my bitterest deadly foe—my persistent persecutor. I remember nothing now but the crowned days of our childhood, the rosy dawn of my manhood, where your golden head shone my Morning Star. I hurl away all barriers and remember only the one dream of my life—my deathless, unwavering love for you. Oh, Irene! Irene! why have you locked that rigid cold face of yours against me? In the hallowed days of old you nestled your dear hands into mine, and pressed your curls against my cheek, and gave me comfort in your pure, warm, girlish affection; how can you snatch your frozen fingers from mine now, as though my touch were contamination? Be yourself once more—give me one drop from the old overflowing fountain. I am a lonely man; and my proud, bitter heart hungers for one of your gentle words, one of your sweet, priceless smiles. Irene, look at me! Give it to me?"
He sat down on the step at her feet, and raised his dark magnetic face, glowing with the love which had so long burned undimmed, his lofty full forehead wearing a strange flush.
She dared not meet his eye, and drooped her head on her palms, shrinking from the scorching furnace of trial, whose red jaws yawned to receive her. He waited a moment, and his low mellow voice rose to a stormy key.
"Irene, you are kind and merciful to the poor wretches in the Row. Poverty—nay, crime, does not frighten away your compassion for them! Why are you hard and cruelly haughty only to me?"
"You do not need my sympathy, Mr. Aubrey, and congratulations on your great success would not come gracefully from my lips. Most unfortunate obstacles long since rendered all intercourse between us impossible still; my feeling for you has undergone no change. I am, I assure you, still your friend."
It cost her a powerful effort to utter these words, and her voice took a metallic tone utterly foreign to it. Her heart writhed, bled and moaned in the grip of her steely purpose, but she endured all calmly—relaxing not one jot of her bitter resolution.
"My friend? Mockery! God defend me from such henceforth. Irene, you loved me once—nay, don't deny it! You need not blush for the early folly, which, it seems, you have interred so deeply; and though you scorn to meet me even as an equal, I know, I feel, that I am worthy of your love—that I comprehend your strange nature as no one else ever will—that, had such a privilege been accorded me, I could have kindled your heart, and made you supremely happy. Cursed barriers have divided us always; fate denied me my right. I have suffered many things; but does it not argue, at least, in favour of my love, that it has survived all the trials to which your father's hate had subjected me? To-night I could forgive him all! all! if I knew that he had not so successfully hardened, closed your heart against me. My soul is full of bitterness which would move you, if one trait of your girlish nature remained. But you are not my Irene! The world's queen, the dazzling idol of the ball-room, is not my blue-eyed, angelic Irene of old! I will intrude upon you no longer. Try at least not to despise me for my folly; I will crush it; and if you deign to remember me at all in future, think of a man who laughs at his own idiocy, and strives to forget that he ever believed there lived one woman who would be true to her own heart, even though the heavens fell and the world passed away!"
He rose partially, but her hand fell quickly upon his shoulder, and the bowed face lifted itself, stainless as starry jasmines bathed in equatorial dews.
"Mr. Aubrey, you are too severe upon yourself, and very unjust to me. The circumstances which conspired to alienate us were far beyond my control; I regret them as sincerely as you possibly can, but as unavailably. If I have individually occasioned you sorrow or disappointment, God knows it was no fault of mine! We stand on the opposite shores of a dark, bridgeless gulf; but before we turn away to be henceforth strangers, I stretch out my hand to you in friendly farewell—deeply regretting the pain which I may have innocently caused you, and asking your forgiveness. Mr. Aubrey, remember me as I was, not as I am. Good-bye, my friend. May God bless you in coming years, and crown your life with the happiness you merit, is the earnest prayer of my heart."
The rare blue cord on her brow told how fiercely the lava-flood surged under its icy bands, and the blanched lip matched her cheek in colourlessness; save these tokens of anguish, no other was visible.
Russell drew down the hand from his shoulder, and folded it in both his own.
"Irene, are we to walk different paths henceforth—utter strangers? Is such your will?"
"Such is the necessity, which must be as apparent to you as to me. Do not doubt my friendship, Mr. Aubrey; but doubt the propriety of my parading it before the world."
He bent his cheek down on her cold hand, then raised it to his lips once, twice—laid it back on her lap, and taking his hat, walked away toward town.
For some time she remained just as Russell had left her; then the white arms and dry eyes were raised to the midnight sky.
"My God! my God! strengthen me in my desolation!"
She put back the folds of hair that, damp with dew, clung to her gleaming temples, and recrossing the wide road or street, approached the chamber of death.
Irene met at the door Dr. Arnold's buggy.
"Irene, are you ready to go home?"
"Yes. Mrs. Davis is dead."
"As I was leaving Mrs. Churchill's, your father told me where you were, and I thought I would come after you. Put on your shawl and jump in. You are in a pretty plight, truly, to stand over a deathbed! 'Vanity of vanities! all is vanity!' Here, let me wrap that gauze cloud around your head. Now then!"
The top of the buggy had been lowered, and as they rode homeward she leaned her head back, turning her face to the sickly moonlight.
They went into the house, and as he filled and lighted his pipe, his cavernous eyes ran curiously over her.
"How you have blazed to-night! Your diamonds are superb."
"Go to sleep at once, child. You look as if you had seen a ghost. What has knotted up your forehead in that style?"
"I have looked upon a melancholy death to-night, and have seen two helpless children orphaned. Come and see me soon; I want to consult you about an orphan asylum for which father has given me a lot. Good night, sir; I am very much obliged to you for your kindness in bringing me home. Nobody else is half so considerate and thoughtful."
In her own room she took off the jewels, withered violets and moist tulle—and drawing on her dressing-gown, went up to the observatory, and sat down on the threshold of one of the glass doors looking eastward.
"Think of a man who laughs at his own idiocy, and strives to forget that he ever believed there lived one woman who would be true to her own heart, though the heavens fell and the world passed away!"
These words of scorn were the burning shares over which her bare feet trod, and his bitter accents wailed up and down her lonely heart. Through the remainder of that cloudless night she wrestled silently. At last, when the sky flushed rosily, like an opal smitten with light, and holy Resignation—the blessing born only of great trial like hers—shed its heavenly chrism over the worn and weary, bruised and bleeding spirit, she gathered up the mangled hopes that might have gladdened, and gilded, and glorified her earthly career, and pressing the ruins to her heart, laid herself meekly down, offering all upon the God-built altar of Filial Obedience.
" ... early morning, when the air Was delicate with some last starry touch,"
she opened the door of her father's room and approached the bed. The noise wakened him, and raising himself on his elbow, he looked wonderingly at her.
"What is the matter, Irene? You look as if you had not closed your eyes."
"Father, you took me in your arms last night, and kissed me as you have not done before for years. Oh, father! my father! do not cast me off again! Whom have I in the world but you? By the memory of my sainted mother I ask—I claim your love!"
"You are a strange girl, Irene; I never did understand you. But I don't want to drive you from me, if you prefer to live here single. There shall be peace between us, my dear daughter."
He leaned forward, and laid his hand caressingly on her head, as she knelt at his bedside, pleading with uplifted arms.
The treacherous four year's lull was broken at last by the mutter of the storm which was so soon to sweep over the nation, prostrating all interests, and bearing desolation to almost every hearthstone in our once happy, smiling land of constitutional freedom. Aubrey was deeply impressed with the vital consequences of the impending election; and as the conviction forced itself upon his mind that, through the demoralization of the Northern wing of Democracy, Lincoln would be elected, he endeavoured to prepare the masses for that final separation which he foresaw was inevitable. Lincoln was elected. Abolitionism, so long adroitly cloaked, was triumphantly clad in robes of state—shameless now, and hideous, and while the North looked upon the loathsome face of its political Mokanna, the South prepared for resistance.
No surer indication of the purpose of the Southern people could have been furnished, than the temper in which the news was received. No noisy outbursts, expending resolve in empty words—no surface excitement—but a stern calm gloom, set lips, heavy bent brows, appropriate in men who realized that they had a revolution on their hands; not indignation meetings, with fruitless resolutions—that they stood as body-guard for the liberty of the Republic, and would preserve the trust at all hazards. It would seem that, for a time at least, party animosities would have been crushed; but bitter differences sprang up at the very threshold on the modus operandi of Southern release from Yankee-Egyptic bondage. Separate "State action" or "co-operation" divided the people, many of whom were earnestly impressed by the necessity and expediency of deliberate, concerted, simultaneous action on the part of all the Southern States, while others vehemently advocated this latter course solely because the former plan was advanced and supported by their old opponents. In this new issue, as if fate persistently fanned the flame of hate between Mr. Huntingdon and Russell Aubrey, they were again opposed as candidates for the State Convention.
W—— was once more convulsed, and strenuous efforts were made by both sides. Russell was indefatigable in his labours for prompt, immediate State action, proclaiming his belief that co-operation was impracticable before secession; and it was now that his researches in the dusty regions of statistics came admirably into play, as he built up his arguments on solid foundations of indisputable calculation.
The contest was close and heated, and resulted somewhat singularly in the election of a mixed ticket—two Secessionists being returned, and one Co-operationist, Mr. Huntingdon, owing to personal popularity.
While the entire South was girding for the contest, South Carolina, ever the avant courier in the march of freedom, seceded; and if doubt had existed before, it vanished now from every mind—for all felt that the gallant State must be sustained. Soon after, Russell and Mr. Huntingdon stood face to face on the floor of their own State convention, and wrestled desperately. The latter headed the opposition, and so contumacious did it prove, that for some days the fate of the State lay in dangerous equilibrium. Finally, the vigilance of the Secessionists prevailed, and, late in the afternoon of a winter day, the ordinance was signed.
Electricity flashed the decree to every portion of the State, and the thunder of artillery and blaze of countless illuminations told that the people gratefully and joyfully accepted the verdict. W—— was vociferous; and as Irene gazed from the colonnade on the distant but brilliant rows of lights flaming along the streets, she regretted that respect for her father's feelings kept the windows of her own home dark and cheerless.
The 12th and 13th of April were days of unexampled excitement throughout the Southern States. The discharge of the first gun from Fort Moultrie crushed the last lingering vestiges of "Unionism," and welded the entire Confederacy in one huge homogeneous mass of stubborn resistance to despotism. With the explosion of the first shell aimed by General Beauregard against Fort Sumter burst the frail painted bubble of "Reconstruction," which had danced alluringly upon the dark, surging billows of revolution. W—— was almost wild with anxiety; and in the afternoon of the second day of the bombardment, as Irene watched the avenue, she saw her father driving rapidly homeward. Descending the steps, she met him at the buggy.
"Beauregard has taken Sumter. Anderson surrendered unconditionally. No lives lost."
They sat down on the steps, and a moment after the roar of guns shook the atmosphere, and cheer after cheer went up the evening sky.
"Act I, of a long and bloody civil war," said Mr. Huntingdon gravely. "To-day I have come to a determination which will doubtless surprise you."
He paused, and eyed her a moment.
"No, father; I am not surprised that you have determined to do your duty."
"How, Irene? What do you suppose that it is?"
"To use Nelson's words, the Confederacy 'expects that every man will do his duty'; and you are going into the army."
"Who told you that?"
"My own heart, father; which tells me what I should do were I in your place."
"Well, I have written to Montgomery, to Clapham, to tender my services. We were at West Point together; I served under him at Contreras and Chapultepec, and he will no doubt press matters through promptly. The fact is, I could not possibly stay at home now. My blood has been at boiling heat since yesterday morning, when I read Beauregard's first dispatch."
"Did you specify any branch of the service?"
"Yes; told him I preferred artillery. What is the matter? Your lips are as white as cotton. By the way what shall I do with you? It won't do to leave you here all alone."
"Why not, father? Home is certainly the proper place for me, if you cannot take me with you."
"What! with nobody but the servants?"
"They will take better care of me than anybody else. Nellie, and Andrew, and John are the only guardians I want in your absence. They have watched over me all my life, and they will do it to the end. Give yourself no trouble, sir, on my account."
"I suppose your Uncle Eric will be home before long; he can stay here till I come back—or—till the troubles are over. In the meantime, you could be with the Harrises, or Hendersons, or Mrs. Churchill."
"No, sir; I can stay here, which is infinitely preferable on many accounts. I will, with your permission, invite Mrs. Campbell to shut up the parsonage in her husband's absence, and remain with me till Uncle Eric returns. I have no doubt that she will be glad to make the change. Do you approve the plan?"
"Yes. That arrangement will answer for the present, and Arnold will be here to take care of you."
At the close of a week a telegraphic dispatch was received, informing Mr. Huntingdon of his appointment as major in the provisional army of the Confederacy and containing an order to report immediately for duty.
Having completed his arrangements, and ordered the carriage to be in readiness at daylight next morning to convey him to the depot, he bade her good night much as usual, and retired to his own room.
But thought was too busy to admit of sleep. He turned restlessly on his pillow, rose, and smoked a second cigar, and returned, to find himself more wakeful than ever. The clock downstairs in the library struck one; his door opened softly, and, by the dim moonlight struggling through the window, he saw Irene glide to his bedside.
"Why don't you go to sleep, Irene?"
"Because I can't. I am too miserable."
Her voice was dry, but broken, faltering.
"Father, the future is dark and uncertain; and I feel that I want an assurance of your entire reconciliation and affection before you go. I came here to say to you that I deeply regret all the unfortunate circumstances of my life which caused you to treat me so coldly for a season—that if in anything I have ever seemed obstinate or undutiful, it was not because I failed in love for you, but from an unhappy difference of opinion as to my duty under very trying circumstances. Father, my heart ached very bitterly under your estrangement—the very memory is unutterably painful. I want your full, free forgiveness now, for all the trouble I have ever occasioned you. Oh, father! give it to me!"
He drew her close to him, and kissed her twice.
"You have my forgiveness, my daughter—though I must tell you that your treatment of poor Hugh has been a continual source of sorrow and keen disappointment to me. I never can forget your disobedience in that matter. I do not believe you will ever be happy, you have such a strange disposition; but since you took matters so completely in your own hands, you have only yourself to reproach. Irene, I very often wonder whether you have any heart—for it seems to me that if you have, it would have been won by the devotion which has been lavished on you more than once. You are the only woman I ever knew who appeared utterly incapable of love; and I sometimes wonder what will become of you when I am dead."
"God will protect me. I look continually to His guardianship. I won't keep you awake any longer, as you have a tedious journey before you. Good night, my dear father."
She kissed him tenderly and left him, closing the door softly behind her.
A spectral crescent moon flickered in the sky, and stars still burned in the violet East, when the carriage drove to the door, and Irene followed her father to the steps.
Even in that dim, uncertain grey light he could see that her face was rigid and haggard, and tears filled his cold, brilliant eyes as he folded her to his heart.
"Good-bye, Beauty. Cheer up, my brave child! and look on the bright side. After all, I may come back a brigadier-general, and make you one of my staff-officers! You shall be my adjutant, and light up my office with your golden head. Take care of yourself till Eric comes, and write to me often. Good-bye, my dear, my darling daughter."
She trembled convulsively, pressing her lips repeatedly to his.
"Oh, may God bless you, my father, and bring you safely back to me!"
He unwound her arms, put her gently aside, and stepped into the carriage.
William, the cook, who was to accompany him, stood sobbing near the door, and now advancing, grasped her hand.
"Good-bye, Miss Irene. May the Lord protect you all till we come back."
"William, I look to you to take care of father, and let me know at once if anything happens."
"I will, Miss Irene. I promise you I will take good care of master, and telegraph you if he is hurt."
He wrung her hand, the carriage rolled rapidly away, and the sorrow-stricken, tearless woman sat down on the steps and dropped her head in her hands.
To those who reside at the convulsed throbbing heart of a great revolution, a lifetime seems compressed into the compass of days and weeks; and men and women are conscious of growing prematurely old while watching the rushing, thundering tramp of events, portentous with the fate of nations. W—— presented the appearance of a military camp, rather than the peaceful manufacturing town of yore. Every vacant lot was converted into a parade-ground—and the dash of cavalry, the low, sullen rumbling of artillery, and the slow, steady tread of infantry, echoed through its wide, handsome streets. Flag-staffs were erected from public buildings, private residences, and at the most frequent corners, and from these floated banners of all sizes, tossing proudly to the balmy breeze the new-born ensign of freedom—around which clustered the hopes of a people who felt that upon them, and them only, now devolved the sacred duty of proving to the world the capacity of a nation for self-government.
W—— gave her young men liberally; company after company was equipped, furnished with ample funds by the munificence of citizens who remained, and sent forward to Virginia, to make their breasts a shield for the proud old "Mother of Presidents." The battle of Bethel was regarded as part of an overture to the opera of Blood, yclept "Subjugation," and people watched in silence for the crimson curtain to rise on the banks of the Potomac. Russell Aubrey had succeeded in raising a fine full company for the war, as contra-distinguished from twelve-months volunteers; and to properly drill and discipline it, he bent all the energy of his character. It was made the nucleus of a new regiment; recruits gathered rapidly, and when the regiment organized, preparatory to starting for Virginia, he was elected colonel, with Herbert Blackwell for lieutenant-colonel, and Charles Harris was appointed adjutant. They were temporarily encamped on the common between the railroad depot and Mr. Huntingdon's residence, and from the observatory or colonnade Irene could look down on the gleaming tents and the flag-staff that stood before the officers' quarters. Reveille startled her at dawn, and tattoo regularly warned her of the shortness of summer nights. As the fiery carriage-horses would not brook the sight of the encampment, she discarded them for a time, and when compelled to leave home rode Erebus at no slight risk of her life—for he evinced the greatest repugnance to the sound of drum or fife.
One afternoon she went over to the Row, and thence to the factory. A new company had been named in honour of her father; uniforms and haversacks were to be furnished, and Mr. Huntingdon had entrusted her with the commission. Selecting the cloth and accomplishing her errand, she returned by way of the orphan asylum, whose brick walls were rapidly rising under her supervision. One of the workmen took her horse, and she went over the building, talking to the principal mechanic about some additional closets which she desired to have inserted. Dr. Arnold chanced to be passing, but saw Erebus at the gate, stopped, and came in.
"I was just going up the Hill to see you, Queen—glad I am saved the trouble. Here, sit down a minute; I will clear the shavings away. When did you hear from Leonard?"
"I had a letter yesterday. He was well, and on outpost duty near Manassas."
"Well, I shall join him very soon."
"I say I shall join him very soon; don't you believe it? Why shouldn't I serve my country as well as younger men? The fact is, I am going as surgeon of Aubrey's regiment."
She looked at him, betraying neither surprise nor regret.
"When will you leave W——?"
"Day after to-morrow morning; can't get transportation any sooner. Aubrey has received orders to report at once to General Beauregard. Child, have you been sick?"
"No, sir. I am glad you are going with the regiment; very glad. Every good surgeon in the Confederacy should hasten to the front line of our armies. Since you leave home, I am particularly glad that you are going to Manassas, where you can be near father."
He mused a moment, watching her furtively.
"I suppose you have heard of the performance for to-morrow?"
"No, sir. To what do you allude?"
"The daughter of Herodias is preparing to dance."
"I don't understand you, Doctor."
"Oh, don't you, indeed? Well, then, she intends to present a splendid regimental flag with her own brown hands; and as Aubrey is to receive it, the regiment will march to Mrs. Churchill's, where the speeches will be delivered. Will you attend?"
"Scarcely, I presume, as I am not invited. I knew that Salome was having an elegant flag made, but was not aware that to-morrow was appointed for the ceremony of presentation. When will you come to see me? I want you to take a parcel to father for me; and then I want to have a long talk."
"I know what the long talk amounts to. I am coming, of course, after the flag ceremonies, where I am expected. At one o'clock I will be at the Hill—perhaps earlier. Where now?"
"I must go by Mrs. Baker's, to see about giving out some sewing for the 'Huntingdon Rifles.' I can't do it all at home, and several families here require work. I shall expect you at one o'clock—shall have lunch ready for you. By the way, Doctor, is there anything I can do for you in the sewing line? It would give me genuine pleasure to make something for you, if you will only tell me what you need. Think over your wants."