"Have you any news from father?"
"What makes you think she has news?" Mrs. Blake asked.
"I dreamed last night you brought me a letter, and I was afraid to open it, and woke up all trembling and frightened. When I saw you coming to-day, my heart stood still for a second or two."
"Your dream is partly true, only the news is good. Dr. MacKenzie told me they have every hope that your father will see as well as ever."
I was not prepared for the effect, my words produced. A pallor overspread her face; before Mrs. Blake could reach her she had fainted. That good woman was always ready for any emergency. She very calmly laid her down on the floor and proceeded to bring her back to consciousness. The children raised a dismal wail; but this she instantly quieted by marching them off to the bedroom.
While she applied cold water vigorously, and rubbed the nerveless hands, I asked in much alarm, seeing how long and deathlike was her swoon: "Is she really dead?"
"Bless you, no. She's one of them high-strung women that takes everything hard. She fainted over and over when her husband was fetched home dead. I did think then she'd drop off; but joy don't kill like trouble."
Presently the poor creature struggled back to consciousness.
"I am afraid I have frightened you," she said, with a feeble attempt at apology.
"Pray do not think of us. I may have been to blame in breaking the news so suddenly."
"No, indeed; the fault was not in you; but I have had so many shocks the least thing upsets me. Dr. MacKenzie told me that my heart is not in a healthy state."
"I should say that was the matter with your whole body. It's a pretty rickety concern, like my old rocking-chair. Every day I'm looking for it to go to pieces under me," Mrs. Blake remarked.
"I am not nearly so bad as that; I do not expect to fall to pieces for a good many years, now that father has got his sight. He will be able to keep us comfortable, like we used to be years ago."
Mrs. Blake having got her patient back into the chair, administered wine and water to prevent a recurrence of the malady.
A week or two after this Esmerelda informed me one morning that there were great rejoicings in the Mill Road.
"I think they would like to see you there. I heard Mr. Bowen and some of them talking about you last night, after meeting."
"Mr. Bowen—was he there?"
"Oh, yes; and he sees as well as anybody."
"I will go to-day," I said, with difficulty restraining my delight.
"Some of the people who attend Beech Street Church think you are a little above everybody in Cavendish."
Esmerelda spoke with great cordiality. Now that I had been to New York, and the dressmakers there had transformed me, outwardly, into a fashionable woman, I noticed that her respect had considerably increased; and, furthermore, that some of her own costumes had been made in almost exact imitation of mine. No higher compliment than this could Esmerelda have paid me; neither could I help acknowledging that she looked very graceful and lady-like in her Sunday garment, and often I fell to speculating how she would have appeared if half her life had been spent at a first-class boarding-school. A painful sensation, probably akin to jealousy, suggested that probably she would have satisfied my guardian's fastidious tastes better than I could ever do.
But I could never treat her in the same cordial way that I treated Mrs. Blake and the Larkums, and several others of her class. These instinctively made me feel that, no matter how friendly I might be, there was no danger of their trying to assert an equality, which I suppose has existed among the members of the human family since shortly after the expulsion from Eden. With Esmerelda the case was different.
That day I betook myself to the Mill Road with a good deal of expectancy. I was anxious to see the look of recognition in those once sightless, disfigured eyes, and to hear how the long-concealed delights of a visible world once more appeared. As I was walking rapidly along the street, I saw, approaching me on the Mill Road, one whom I had never noticed there before. He walked with a quick, energetic step, as if existence was a rapture and yet I saw, beneath the soft felt hat, gray hairs that betokened him a man past the prime of life. Strange to say, I did not recognize the pedestrian and was surprised to see him pause, and hold out his hand uncertainly, as if he were hardly sure of my identity.
"I think this is Miss Selwyn." Swiftly the assurance came to me that this was Mr. Bowen.
"Is it possible you should first recognize me? I did not for an instant think it was you."
"I had the conviction all along that I should know you, no matter where our first meeting might take place."
"Persons are generally disappointed in the looks of their friends after sight has been restored. You must be an exception to the general rule, or else your perceptions are keener than the average sufferers from loss of sight." I looked closely into the eyes of my companion, and saw that they were unusually fine and expressive. He turned with me, saying, with a beautiful deference:
"May I walk back with you?"
"I shall be disappointed if you do not give me a little of your time. I only heard to-day that you were at home, and have come on purpose to see you. My curiosity has been extreme to know how the world looks after your long night."
"Nearly everything is changed, but mostly man and his works. When the bandages were finally removed, and all the other necessary restrictions, I asked to have my first glimpse of the outer world into the starry night. I do not think our language has a well deep enough to express what I felt in that first glimpse. But the human faces are sadly changed. Poverty and care, I find, are not beautifiers. My own daughter looks a stranger; only when I hear her speak. My own face surprised me most. It is changed past recognition."
He spoke a little sadly. I could think of no comforting words. After we had walked on some time in silence, he said:
"I do not think the revelations after death will be any stranger than those of the past few weeks. My blindness and restoration to sight have, in a measure, anticipated the full return of all the faculties that death, for a brief season, takes from us."
"Do you think any experience we have in this world touches on those mysteries of the first hours of immortal life? I cannot imagine any sensation that will be common to the two existences."
"There is certainly one—probably very, very many. I cannot believe there will be much change in the relationship that exists between the consecrated soul and its centre of attraction. Deepened, intensified, it no doubt will be; but not radically changed."
My thoughts instantly turned to the words the oculist had written. No wonder a man living so far within the confines of the unseen should be able to exercise almost superhuman patience under the most trying exigencies of life. When we reached the broken gate leading into the house, he paused and turned to me. He was silent for a few seconds, and then said, apparently with an effort: "I want to thank you for what you have done for me. Last night, on my way home from the house of prayer, I was hunting up the constellations that once I loved to trace and call by name, and, in some way, you were brought to mind with all that you have generously done for me; and then, and there, I tried to frame some words of gratitude by which to express what I felt. In Heaven I may be able; for only there we shall have language for our utmost stretch of thought."
"Perhaps before we meet there, as I pray God we may do, I may have more reason for gratitude than you. Have you not told me that your daily prayer is for my salvation?"
I said good-bye hurriedly without waiting for a reply, and turned my face homeward. Gradually there was coming into my heart the hope that ere long I might come into the same wealthy place where he walked with such serenity even amid life's sore trials.
Christmas was rapidly approaching, and the pleasant English custom of celebrating it with good cheer, and in a festive way, Mrs. Flaxman told me, was a fixed rule at Oaklands. The dinner provided for the master's table was sufficient in quantity for every member of the household to share, down to the ruddy-haired Samuel. In addition to this, Mr. Winthrop remembered each one of his domestics when distributing his Christmas gifts. Mrs. Flaxman confided to me that Samuel was consumed with a desire to have his gift in the shape of a watch. I proceeded forthwith to gratify, if possible, this humble ambition, and first went to the different jewelers' establishments in Cavendish to see how much one would cost. On careful examination I was surprised to find a fine large watch could be got so reasonably. At the time I was as ignorant as Samuel himself of the interior mechanism of these clever contrivances to tell the hours. The day before Christmas I presented myself as was always the case, with some trepidation, before my guardian, following him into the library shortly after breakfast, even though I knew it was his busiest hour.
"I wish to consult with you about a couple of my Christmas gifts," I said directly, "if you have leisure to give me a few moments."
"I am never too busy to hear anything you may wish to say, especially anything in connection with your benevolent projects," he said, quite genially.
"Are you going to buy the stable boy a watch?"
"Certainly not anything so unnecessary for that wooden-headed youth. I doubt if he could make out the hour if he possessed one."
"Oh, yes he could. Boys are not nearly so stupid as you might imagine," I responded assuringly. "He is very anxious for one. I have been examining the jeweller's stock and can get a very nice-looking watch for five dollars. I was surprised, and think they are marvels of cheapness."
"You go entirely by looks, I see, in the matter; but that is all that bright-hued youth will require. Yes, by all means get the watch. Thereby you will add considerably to the pile of human happiness, for a short time, at all events."
"Would five dollars be too high to pay for one?" I asked doubtfully.
"If you can secure one at a lower price do so by all means," he said with apparent sincerity.
"There were some for two and a half dollars; but they looked rather large for a boy of his size."
"The less boy the more watch, I should say; but be sure and get a large chain. If the watch gets to be trying on his nerves, he can use the chain to put an end to his troubles."
"If he needed them, there are plenty of straps and rope ends about the stable; but Samuel enjoys life too keenly to be easily disconcerted at a few trials. I was looking at the chains too. I did not know before that jewelry was so low priced."
"Yes?" he responded, more as a question than affirmation.
"I saw elegant watch chains at one of the stores for fifty cents. I told the clerk who I wanted them for, and he very kindly interested himself, and showed me some that he called 'dead bargains.'"
"Go then, by all means, and secure a bargain for the boy. I will advance the money."
"Oh, thank you, I prefer making the gift myself. I want also to get something for Thomas, and I cannot think of anything but a gun or a book. Do you know if he likes to shoot things?"
"If Thomas developed a taste for fire-arms he might take to shooting promiscuously, and life at Oaklands would no longer be so safe as at present. I should certainly advise a book."
"But some of them say he cannot read."
"It is high time, then, for him to learn. Thomas is a marvel of thrift, and he won't be satisfied to have the book bring in no return. A school book would be a judicious selection."
"I saw a book down town about horses and their diseases and treatment. Cook says, 'Thomas dearly loves to fix up medicines for his horses.'"
"Very well. Now that matter is settled, have you any further inquiries to make about Christmas presents?"
"Not any more, thank you."
"Then I will tell you a bit of news. I expect Mr. Bovyer here this evening. It is a great favor for him to confer on us at this season—coming to brighten our Christmas."
"I fancied we had the prospect of a very joyous Christmas without help from abroad. To look at the pantry one might imagine we were going to entertain half of Cavendish to-morrow."
"I noticed a wistful look on your face when you came in that the purchase of a gun and watch could not wholly account for. Tell me, what is it?"
"Mr. Winthrop, can you really read my thoughts?" I exclaimed, in genuine alarm.
"Suppose I try. You would like to have a spread for your Mill Road pensioners; possibly at the Blakes or among some of them, and thereby utilize our overplus of provisions. Have I read aright?" My face flushed hotly, for this certainly had been in my mind for days; but I had not courage to make the request.
"You do not answer my question," he said, after awhile, seeing me stand silent.
"One cannot be punished for their thoughts, Mr. Winthrop."
"Then this was your thought?" he questioned.
"Surely you must be angry with me for wishing to do it. I did not mention it to Mrs. Flaxman, or any one."
"Why, not, indeed. If cook is willing to share her good things with the Mill Road people, and Mrs. Flaxman will accompany you to preserve the proprieties, I do not see anything to hinder. I will provide all the apples and confectionery your hungry crowd can consume for dessert."
I stood in amazement, scarce knowing how to express my gratitude. A sudden desire seized me to put my arms around his neck and give him a genuine filial caress.
"I wish you were my father, Mr. Winthrop," I exclaimed, impulsively.
"I might be able then to thank you in some comfortable fashion."
"I understand what you mean, little one. I told you once that I was not anxious to have you regard me in a filial way." Then turning the subject abruptly he said:
"You can make all your arrangements regardless of any reasonable expense. One may permit themselves to be a trifle generous and childish once a year. If you see any more remarkable bargains, you can secure them and have a Christmas tree. Have the goods charged to me."
I did not attempt a reply. My heart just then was too near bubbling over to permit speech to be safe or convenient. I slipped quietly from the room. I had a comfortable feeling that my guardian could actually read my thoughts, and knew how I regarded his act and himself.
I went directly to Mrs. Flaxman. She entered cordially into my plans, but looked a good deal surprised when I told her it was Mr. Winthrop's suggestion.
"I believe, dear, in your unselfish, impulsive way, you have taken the very wisest possible course with him. I never hoped to see this day."
"I believe it amuses him. I have the impression that he is working me up into a book, only making me out more ridiculous than he ought. You cannot imagine how I long, and yet dread to see the book."
"But he does not write stories; so you need not be troubled about that."
"He can write them if he chooses, and very clever ones too, I am certain. He may be encouraging me to go on just to find out how it will all end, but I am only one in a universe full of souls; and if others, many others, get benefited, there will be far greater gain than loss."
"That is the true, brave spirit to have, and the only kind that will bring genuine happiness."
"Now to return to our festival. Do you think cook will be willing to share her abundance with us?"
"Go and ask her, I do not think she will disappoint you."
I went directly to the large, cheery kitchen, a favorite haunt of mine of late. It was always so clean and homely, and cook was usually in a gracious mood and permitted me to assist in any of her culinary undertakings when I was so minded.
Among my other enterprises I had an ambition to become a practical housekeeper in case I might some day be married to a poor man, and have a family to bake and brew for with my own hands.
When I entered the kitchen I found her more than usually busy, with both Reynolds and Esmerelda pressed into the service.
"Shall we ever get all your dainties eaten? Won't they spoil on your hands?"
"I dare say some of them will; but Christmas time we expect a little to go to waste."
"Don't you give away some?" I asked.
"All that's asked for."
"I am so glad to hear it. I want some ever so much."
"What's up now?" she asked, scarcely with her accustomed deference.
"I want so much to have a little treat for my friends, if you will only help. It all depends on you."
"Why certainly; it's my place to cook for all the parties you choose to make. It's not my place to dictate how the victuals is to be used."
"You do not understand me. It is not here that I wish to entertain my friends. Mr. Winthrop has given his permission, on condition you are willing." She was greatly mollified at this and responded heartily. "Of course I'm willing; and, bless me, there's plenty to give a good share to them that needs it; and I guess it's them you're wanting to give it to."
"Thank you very, very much. Now you must come to my Christmas tree, and see how much pleasure you have been able to confer. Without your consent nothing would have been done."
"Yes, I'll come and help you too, and you'll need me," she said, with much good humor. I did not wait long in the kitchen, so much now must be done. Alas, Christmas day was so near I could not celebrate my festival on that day; but another day might find us just as happy; and after all it would be "curdling" too much joy into one of the shortest of our days.
I put on my wraps and went immediately to confer with Mrs. Blake. I found her, like every one else, in the midst of busy preparations for Christmas.
"Dan'el got me a twelve-pound turkey and lots of other things; and he wants a regular old-fashioned Christmas, with all the Larkums here; and then I have one or two little folks I'm going to have in to please myself. Poor little creatures, with a drunken father and no mother worth speaking about."
"Have you very much trade now?"
"Well, consid'able; but if you're wanting me for anything I can set up later to-night."
"Oh, no, indeed. I just wanted to consult you about something, and I will help you stone these raisins while I sit with you."
"Dear heart, you needn't do that; I'll get the pudding made in plenty of time, but what kindness have you in your plans now?"
"A Christmas tree. I want you to tell me what to do, and where to have it."
"Why, the Temperance Hall, of course, just past the mills. I guess you've never seen it."
"That will be excellent. I did not know you had one here. Now, when shall we have it? To-morrow will be too soon, I am afraid."
"Yes, and it seems a pity to have so many good things all to onct. Most everybody has a Christmas of some sort. How would Friday do."
"Very nicely. That will be two days after Christmas. Little folks will have recovered from the effects of their feasting by that time."
"Well, Dan'el 'll get a tree and fix up the Hall; and tell, then, who you'll want to invite."
"All the children on the Mill Road may come. We will have something for each of them."
"I'm very glad; for there's a few children around here that hardly knows what it is to have anything good to eat; and it'll be something for 'em to think and talk about. They'll not forget it, or you, for a good many years, I can tell you. If rich folks only knew how much good they might do, I think they'd not be so neglectful."
I soon left Mrs. Blake to continue her Christmas preparations alone, feeling much relieved that Daniel was going to assume the responsibility of securing the Hall, providing the tree, and notifying my guests. I got my presents for Thomas and Samuel, and then set about the purchase of gifts for the Christmas tree. Picture-books, jack-knives, dolls, and other toys comprised my selection. These, I concluded, would give the children more pleasure than the more necessary articles which an older and wiser person would naturally have selected. I had got so absorbed in my work that I quite forgot our expected guest until I went into the dining-room, unfortunately a little late, and found them already engaged at dinner, and Mr. Bovyer with them. Mr. Winthrop explained my tardiness in such a way that I was left a little cross and uncomfortable, and took my dinner something after the fashion of a naughty child suffering from reproof. Before the evening was over, however, I had forgotten my passing dissatisfaction; for Mr. Bovyer was in one of his inspired moods when he sat at the piano.
I noticed afterward that Mrs. Flaxman's eyes were very red; but while he was playing my attention was taken up in part with the music, and partly in furtively watching Mr. Winthrop. He seemed ill at ease, and restless; while Mr. Bovyer's utmost efforts were powerless to move him to tears. When we had all drawn cosily around the fire, after the music was ended, I remarked with some regret, "I do not think Mr. Winthrop has any tears to shed. His eyes were as dry as a bone."
"The night is too fine for such an effect. Wait until we have a storm," he said, with a smile.
"Your nerves are too strong for a storm to affect them. Something very different will be required. I am afraid we must give you up."
"Life is too smooth with him for music or anything aesthetic to ruffle the deeper springs. Wait until he has storms and whirlwinds to withstand." Mr. Bovyer said, calmly.
"Oh I hope he will never have them, he has not patience like—some," I added, after a pause. I was going to say Mr. Bowen.
"You must know that my ward has taken my measure very correctly. She is better than a looking-glass. Indeed I was not aware until lately that I had so many shortcomings."
"Medicine for a mind diseased, administered by a gentle hand, cannot be hard to take."
"The softest hand can sometimes wound the deepest."
"Mr. Winthrop, surely I have never wounded you! I have not the power. To think so would give me pain; for, in your way, you have been kind to me—more so than I deserve," I said, impulsively.
"We are always trembling in the verge of tragedy," he said lightly, and then rang for refreshments; and after that we retired.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE.
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear, the one drawback the lack of snow. Thomas had everything in readiness, and every one in the house was looking forward to a sleigh-ride. However, all the other Christmas customs were observed. Before breakfast was the general distribution of gifts. We were all assembled at the usual breakfast hour in the dining-room, when Mrs. Flaxman rang the bell for the servants to come in. Reynolds was the first to appear. She took her seat nearest to Mr. Winthrop; then Mrs. Jones, the cook, and Thomas, Esmerelda, and Samuel came in.
Reynolds got her present first—a nice black silk dress. I saw by the pleased flush in her face that she was considerably astonished. The others, each a five-dollar bill; and for Samuel, a jack-knife that would be the envy of all his comrades. Mrs. Flaxman had something for each one of them, and then I followed. When I reached Samuel and handed him the watch from which was suspended a glittering chain, his politeness quite forsook him. "Golly, but that's a stunner," he ejaculated involuntarily. Suddenly remembering himself he said, very humbly: "Thank you, ma'am." Thomas regarded his book with some apprehension; but turning over the leaves, the pictures of so many handsome horses reconciled him. After they had filed out I took my opportunity to deliver the gifts I had prepared with much care for Mr. Winthrop and Mrs. Flaxman; for the latter an idealized portrait of Hubert, in a heavy gilt frame, which I had painted from a photograph; and for Mr. Winthrop a much better picture of Oaklands than the one he already possessed.
I turned to Mr. Bovyer uncertainly, and, after a moment hesitation, said: "I have a bit of my work here for you; but it is so little worth. I am ashamed to offer it." I handed him the folded leaves, tied with ribbons, of Longfellow's "Reapers and the Angels," which I had spent some time in trying to illustrate, with the hope one day of turning it into cash. He thanked me, I thought, with unnecessary fervor, considering the smallness of the gift, and stood examining my poor attempt to express the poet's meaning by brush and pencil.
"I say, Winthrop, this is really clever for one so young."
Mr. Winthrop took the book and turned over the leaves.
"You have reason to be proud, Medoline, that one of our severest art critics has pronounced favorably on your work. Perhaps the being remembered on Christmas morning has made him blind to its faults."
"I find Mr. Winthrop a very healthy corrective against any flattering remarks of my other friends, I accept him as a sort of mental tonic," I said, turning to Mr. Bovyer.
"Our morning's work is not yet completed," Mr. Winthrop said. "Please excuse me a moment." He went into the library, and returning shortly, he went first to Mrs. Flaxman and gave her a good sized parcel. I was waiting so eagerly to see her open it that I scarce thought if I, too, should be remembered; but after standing for a few seconds by the fire he came to my side and gave me a tiny box done up carelessly in a bit of paper. I opened it, when the most beautiful diamond ring I ever saw glittered a moment after on my finger.
"Oh, Mr. Winthrop, is this really and truly mine?"
"Really and truly, yes."
In my surprise and delight I lifted the ring to my lips and kissed it.
"That is the prettiest compliment paid to a gift I ever witnessed," Mr. Bovyer said, with a smile.
"Medoline has her own way of doing things. I find her refreshingly original."
"That is almost better than the ring," I murmured gratefully, looking up into his face.
"Shall we have breakfast served now?" He turned abruptly round and touched the bell. I bethought me of Mrs. Flaxman and looked just in time to see her slipping off an elegant sealskin dolman, while her eyes looked very dewy and tender.
"Mr. Winthrop, you are making this Christmas-tide positively regal with your gifts. So many of us that you have gladdened—Mill Road folks and all," I said, not able wholly to restrain my affectionate impulses as I laid my hand lightly on his—the first time I had ever so touched him.
He folded his other hand over mine for an instant, and then we sat down to the breakfast which had just been brought in.
Mr. Winthrop and Mr. Bovyer spent the greater part of the day together alone. After breakfast they took a long horseback ride across country, only reaching home in time for luncheon, and then Mr. Winthrop had some choice additions to his library to exhibit, that kept them employed until dinner. Mrs. Flaxman smiled at the way Mr. Bovyer's time was engrossed by my guardian, but I do not think either of us regretted it; for we had so many happy fancies of our own to dwell upon that the brief December day seemed all too short. Just before dinner I went to the kitchen to see how Samuel was getting on with his timepiece, but found that he had been away all day.
"That watch of his has been more talked about in Cooper's Lane, where his folks live, than anything else, I'll warrant, this day," Thomas assured me. "He'll be back soon. The smell of dinner always fetches him home."
We had scarce done speaking when I heard his step at the door, and presently he came in. His watch-chain was arranged in most conspicuous fashion across his waistcoat, and caught the light very cheerfully as he stood near the lamp.
"What's the time?" Thomas asked soberly; but Samuel was too smart to be so easily trapped.
"There's the clock right afore your eyes."
"The time maybe'd be better from a bran new watch."
I did not linger to hear more of their badinage, but the look of satisfaction on Samuel's face found a reflection in my own heart, and I wondered in what way I could have spent a few dollars to procure a larger amount of happiness. We had quite a large dinner party that evening. Mr. Hill, our minister, was there, with his wife and grown-up daughter, and some half-dozen others of our Cavendish acquaintances. I found the hour at dinner rather heavy and tiresome. My neighbors on my right and left being—the one a regular diner-out whose conversation was mostly gustatory, and the other a youth whose ideas never seemed to rise above the part of his hair or cut of his garments. I noticed Mr. Bovyer sitting further up on the other side of the table looking quite as bored as I felt, his next neighbor being a young lady the exact counterpart in ideas and aims of the youth beside me. The dinner itself was a triumph of cook's skill, and, as is usually the case with a dinner suitably prepared, its effect was composing. Mr. Winthrop neither drank wine nor smoked, and did not encourage these habits in his guests; so that we all left the table together and proceeded to the drawing-room. I was the last of the ladies to pass from the room, and Mr. Bovyer joined me and accompanied me into the drawing-room. I was getting interested in his conversation, when Mr. Winthrop came and urged for some music.
"It is impossible just now; I do not feel as if I could do justice even to 'Hail Columbia.'"
"Then, Medoline, you will give us some of your German songs, and, by the time you are through, Mr. Bovyer will be in the mood to enchant us."
"With the exception of our school examinations, I never played before so many persons in my life. I shall find it very hard," I said, already beginning to tremble with nervousness.
"It will be an excellent opportunity to display your ring."
My face crimsoned. Possibly I had allowed the hand that wore my diamond ring a little too much freedom; but the sparkle of the beautiful gem, that just now reminded me of a huge tear-drop, pleased me; for I was still much of a child at heart.
As we were crossing the room, I said: "It is not good taste for me to take the piano first. There are others here who should have been invited."
"Tut, child; I never ask them. They would distract me with their noise."
"Is that not an indirect compliment for me?" I said, looking up at him, my good humor partially restored.
"I shall be compelled to designate you the mark of interrogation—call you rogue for shortness."
"After this morning's experience, I shall not be able to find any name nice enough for you," I said, gently.
"That is cruel—literally smothering me with coals of fire."
I turned over my music with trembling fingers; for, more than all, I dreaded Mr. Bovyer. Selecting one of the simplest songs, I sat down, determined to go resolutely through with it. When I ceased, I found that Mr. Bovyer had joined us. I rose hastily. "I am so glad you have come; you will reward my obedience to Mr. Winthrop, surely?"
"Yes—by asking for some more of that tender music of the Fatherland. My mother used to croon that song over us in childhood."
Mr. Winthrop joined his commands; so I complied, with a German martial song; and then, rising quickly, I went to the further side of the room, and took a seat beside Mrs. Hill.
"You have got tired before the rest of us, dear."
"I would not like to tire you. Mr. Bovyer is going to play now, and we shall none of us be in danger of weariness."
And he did play as I had never heard him do before, filling the room with harmonies that sometimes grew painful in their excess of sweetness. Conversation ceased utterly—a compliment not usually paid to musicians, I had noticed, in Cavendish.
I glanced occasionally at Mr. Winthrop, who had taken a seat not far from where I was sitting. He sat with eyes closed, but not betraying, by a single muscle of the strong, self-contained face, that the music was affecting him in the slightest.
"This evening has given us something to remember until our dying day," Mrs. Hill said, with a deep sigh of satisfaction, after Mr. Bovyer ceased playing. "It was exceedingly kind in Mr. Winthrop permitting us to share in the evening's enjoyment."
"Was it for this he invited you?" I asked, with surprise.
"That was the inducement to leave our homes on Christmas Day. But we do not need a special inducement to come to Oaklands; we always consider it a high privilege to be Mr. Winthrop's guest."
"Yes, he can be very charming when he chooses," I said, unthinkingly, but very sorry for my remark directly it was uttered. "Then you were only invited here this morning, since Mr. Bovyer had only just arrived?" I asked.
"Oh, no, indeed; our invitations were received a week ago. Mr. Winthrop knew he was coming."
All these people knew Mr. Bovyer was coming, and a gala time planned for Christmas, and I was kept in ignorance. Mr. Winthrop don't regard me of enough importance to be intrusted with the merest trifles of everyday life, I thought, sorrowfully; but just then my eye fell on the ring, when it flashed into my gloomy heart a ray of light brighter than any sunbeam.
The two following days I was so absorbed in my Christmas tree that I paid very little attention to our guest, or anything going on about me, save what was directly connected with the duty in hand. A list of all the names had first to be got, and then each gift properly labeled. Muslin bags, ornamented with bright-colored wools, were to be made, and filled with nuts and confectionery; and, last of all, the tree had to be dressed. Mr. Bowen and Daniel Blake entered so heartily into the spirit of the undertaking that I found my own labors greatly lessened. Thomas cheerfully gave up his most cherished plans to carry the supplies to the hall, and things generally went on very satisfactorily. Others, too, sent in hampers filled with Christmas dainties; among the rest, one from Mrs. Hill, to whom I had very fully described my undertaking. Mrs. Blake watched the heap slowly accumulating with a very preoccupied face; at last she spoke her mind freely:
"It seems a pity to have all these things eat up, and get no good from 'em. Now, I'd like to charge a trifle, and let every one come that wants to."
"What would be done with the money?"
"There's plenty of ways to spend it; but if I could have a say in the matter I'd like to give it to them poor little creatures I had for dinner Christmas. The mother's jest heart-broke. I believe you could count their bones; leastways all of them that's next the skin. I railly thought I could not get them filled; but I did at last, and then they was stupid like, they'd been short of victuals so long."
"Are their clothes as poor as their bodies?"
"Yes, indeed; and it does seem hard this cold weather for little children to have neither flesh nor flannels over the bones."
"I am perfectly willing to make a small charge, if you can let it be known in time for the people to be prepared."
"Oh, Dan'el and Mr. Bowen 'll see to that. Put up a notice in the mill and post-office; everybody 'll find it out."
So it was agreed that we should make the grown up folk pay something; but I insisted the price must not exceed twenty-five cents.
I went home to luncheon on Friday, very tired, but also very enthusiastic over our tree. If I could secure Mr. Winthrop's consent to a plain dinner, our entire domestic force could attend, and they were all eager to do so. He and Mr. Bovyer were engaged in a warm discussion over some knotty subject as they entered the dining-room, thereby compelling me to leave my question for sometime unasked. But Mr. Bovyer presently turned to me and said,
"Really, Miss Selwyn, you must think we have forgotten your existence."
"Oh, no, indeed; but I should like you to converse on something within nearer range of my faculties for a little while."
"We are all attention."
I turned to Mr. Winthrop as he spoke:
"Is it really imperative that you have a regular dinner to-day? Could you not take something easily prepared, a cup of tea, for instance, and some cold meats, and the like?"
"You propose a genuine funeral repast. Is anything about to happen?"
"Our Christmas tree; and our entire household is eager to go, yourself excepted."
"Why can't we all go?" Mr. Bovyer suggested, with considerable eagerness.
Mr. Winthrop looked aghast.
"They would think on the Mill Road the millennium was dawning if Mr. Winthrop were to step down among them," I said.
"Then by all means let us foster the illusion."
"I will take the baked meats, Medoline, or a cracker and cheese—anything rather than that crowd."
"That is ever so kind. I will come home to brew you a cup of tea myself. Ever since I was a child I have wanted to prepare a meal all alone—it will be really better than the Christmas tree; I mean more enjoyable."
"You have the greatest capacity for simple pleasures of any one I ever knew. We shall accept your services. Before you are through, you may find the task not so enjoyable as you think; but at the very worst we will give our help."
"Thank you very much; but one ignoramus blundering in the kitchen will be better than three."
Mrs. Flaxman looked greatly amused, but she very willingly gave her consent for me to come home while the guests were absorbed with their supper, and gratify my life-long yearning. The others were quite as well pleased as I; and cook permitted me to concoct, unaided, some special dishes for our repast. I laid the table myself, not accepting the slightest help from any one. My cooking ventures turned out quite successfully, and after a while my preparations were completed, so far as was possible, until the finishing touches just before dinner was served. I went and dressed myself for the evening's entertainment. I took equal pains with my costume, as if I were going to entertain a party of friends at home, and it may be I was foolish enough to have a feeling of elation that my Mill Road friends should see me for once dressed like a real lady. The picture that my glass gave back when the pleasant task was all completed was comfortably reassuring. Mrs. Flaxman I found waiting for me, when I went downstairs. Thomas had brought out at her direction a huge, old-fashioned carriage, that in the old days they had christened "Noah's Ark," and into it we all crowded, even including Samuel, who had an ambition for once in his life to have a drive with the aristocracy.
When we reached the hall, we found it already crowded, although it wanted a full hour before supper was to be announced. Mr. Bowen was doorkeeper, and on the table at his side I was glad to see a goodly heap of coin. Mrs. Blake stood near, regarding the money with unconcealed satisfaction, which considerably deepened when Mrs. Flaxman stepped up and shook hands with her. Daniel seemed to be master of ceremonies, and was walking around with a mixed air of anxiety and satisfaction. The work was new to him, and he was somewhat uncertain all the time what to do next. But on the whole he managed everything with good common sense. He had the children seated directly in front of the tree, some fifty of them, he assured me. Their faces were a picture of genuine childish delight. Probably memory would hold this scene clearly pictured on some of their hearts long after I was sleeping under the daisies. Long tables were ranged down each side of the house, on which was placed the food the people had come to enjoy. We walked slowly past them, and were surprised at the judgment and good taste of the arrangements. I waited until the children's tea was over. They were really the guests of the evening, and must be first served. Then in the bustle of getting the table in readiness for the older ones, I made my escape.
Thomas was waiting near to drive me home, his face quite radiant at the success of our enterprise. Arrived at Oaklands, I entered with great glee into our culinary operations, and soon had the dinner prepared. When my gentlemen came into the dining-room I was sitting, hot, and a trifle anxious, at the head of the table awaiting them. My respect for the powers in the kitchen that carried on our domestic machinery with so little jar, greatly increased. We had a laughable time changing the plates for our different courses. Thomas, who was installed in Esmerelda's place at the back of my chair, was about as awkward in his new situation as I was; but at the close of our repast, Mr. Winthrop, with apparent sincerity, assured us he had not enjoyed a dinner so much since his boyhood—a compliment that fully repaid me for my worry until I had thought it well over, and saw that it was capable of several meanings. I entertained them with a lively description of the scene going on at the Temperance Hall. Mr. Bovyer declared his intention of accompanying me on my return—a resolution, I could see, that was anything but pleasing to Mr. Winthrop. I was secretly very glad, since it was possible he might make a donation to our doorkeeper. Once on the way, Thomas drove his horses as I had never seen him do before. Possibly he was afraid the supper might all be consumed. He had paid his fee, and was resolved to get his money's worth. He may have hoped that by some happy chance he might sit down with those with whom he could not expect on any other occasion to have a similar privilege. I paid particular attention to Mr. Bovyer. As we passed Mr. Bowen's table I saw him drop, in quiet fashion, a bank note upon it. Mr. Bowen hastened to make change, but Mr. Bovyer shook his head and passed on. I turned to look at Mr. Bowen, and saw his face suddenly light up so cheerfully that I concluded he had received a generous donation. I led Mr. Bovyer up where the children, growing now very curious over the Christmas Tree, were with difficulty preserving the proprieties of the occasion. He looked them over carefully, as if they were some distinct species from another planet, and then turning to me, said, "Did you say these were all poor children?"
"Their fathers are day laborers, and some of them are without that useful adjunct to childhood."
"They look rosy and happy."
"I presume they would look happy under present circumstances if their fathers were tramps. You should see the homes some of them will return to when they leave here. You would wonder at the forgetfulness of childhood."
"How did you chance to think of this merry gathering?"
"I am not sure it was chance. All our thoughts do not come in that way."
"Are the children here who are to reap the largest benefit from this affair?"
"Yes. Do you see those pale, pinched-faced girls with the pink-cotton frocks on, sitting at the end of that farthest bench, and these two boys just in front with clothes several sizes too large?"
He stood silently regarding them for some time, and then said: "The world is strangely divided. It is one of the reasons that makes me doubt the existence of a beneficent All-Father."
"But these may get safely into the light and fullness of Heaven."
"Yes," he said, thoughtfully; "but how few of them will live up to the requirements of admittance to that perfect place?"
"The rich have as many shortcomings as the poor. Sometimes I think they have even more."
"You are very democratic."
"Is that a serious charge against me? The one perfect Being our world has seen chose poverty, and a lot among the lowly. When the world grows older, and men get wiser, possibly they will make the same choice."
"There have been solitary instances of the like along the ages—men of whom the world was not worthy—but the most of us are not such stuff as heroes are made of."
I turned to him with kindling eyes: "Wouldn't you like to be one of them, Mr. Bovyer?"
He gave me a look that some way I did not care to meet, and turned my eyes away quickly to a restless black-eyed little girl who was stretching eager hands to a pink-cheeked dollie.
"You feel the sorrows of the poor and suffering more keenly than the most of us, I fear, Miss Selwyn," he said—more to draw me into conversation than anything else.
"My sympathies are of a very easy-going, aesthetic kind. Some of your splendid music makes me cry. While I listen, I think of the hungry and broken-hearted. I seem to hear their moans in the sob and swell of the music. It was that which made Beethoven's Symphony so sad."
He did not say anything for a good while, and fell to watching the longing in the children's faces, and my heart grew very pitiful towards them. They were so near and yet so far from the objects of their desire. So I resolved while the supper table was being cleared to begin the distribution of my gifts, or rather, of Mr. Winthrop's.
I set Mr. Bovyer to work gathering the bags of confectionery, while I carried them around to the excited children, taking bench by bench in regular order, and filling the little outstretched hands, usually so empty of any such dainties. The people came crowding around to watch, while I began stripping the tree of its more enduring fruits. Mothers with tears in their eyes, as they saw their little tots growing rapturous over an unclothed dollie, or some other toy, beautiful to the unaccustomed eyes of the poor little creatures. The tree was stripped at last, and the children absorbed in the examination of their own or each other's presents. Most of them seemed perfectly content, but a few of the little boys looked enviously at the jack-knife in a companion's hand, while casting dissatisfied glances at what had fallen to themselves.
It was time at last for the little folks to go home, and mothers soon were busy hunting up children and their wraps.
The closing scene in the entertainment was the public announcement of the evening's receipts; and we all looked with surprised faces at each other when Mr. Bowen informed us that there was within a few cents of one hundred dollars. "Some of our guests this evening have treated us very generously; notably one gentleman in particular, who dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the table beside me," Mr. Bowen said, in conclusion. I gave Mr. Bovyer a meaning glance and also a very grateful one; but it was apparently thrown away; for not a muscle of his face moved in response to my smile. Mrs. Blake went around for a while like one in a dream. "Deary me! it'll be jest like a fortin' to 'em," she ejaculated at last; "but Miss Selwyn 'll have to take charge of it, or that mis'able Bill Sykes 'll drink it up in no time."
And then it was decided to act on Mrs. Blake's suggestion, and the money was given to me to expend on Mrs. Sykes and her children as they required,—a task soon accomplished when their need was so urgent. We went home that night very elated at the success of our venture. Cook was slightly inclined to assume a large share of the credit, and as her labor in the matter of cake and pastry making was so much greater than anything I had done, I gracefully yielded her all the credit she could desire. No doubt, in all undertakings, from the capture of a kingdom to a tea meeting, there are many among to whom the honors by right belong.
THREE IMPORTANT LETTERS.
One evening when I returned from a long walk, Esmerelda gave me a letter directed in the most fashionable style of ladies' handwriting. I was a good deal surprised at receiving a letter through such a source, especially as Esmerelda whispered me to secrecy. I had no time to break the seal, for callers were waiting; and when they left, Mr. Winthrop summoned me to the study for a review of the week's reading. This was a custom he had some time before instituted, and I was finding it increasingly interesting. He selected my course of reading, and a very strong bill of fare I was finding it, some of the passages straining my utmost power of brain to comprehend. He had, as yet, confined me chiefly to German literature, mainly Kant and Lessing, with a dip into Schiller now and then, he said, by way of relaxation. He seemed gratified at the interest I took in his efforts to develop my intellectual powers, and sometimes he sat chatting with me, after the lesson was ended, by the firelight, until we were summoned to dinner. His mind appeared like some rich storehouse where every article has its appointed place; and while it held many a treasure from foreign sources, its own equipment was equal to the best. I could not always follow him. He gave me credit, I believe, for much greater brain power than I possessed; but what I could not comprehend made me the more eager to overcome the impediment of ignorance and stupidity. In these hours in his own study, where very few, save myself, were permitted to enter, he laid aside all badinage and severe criticism. I blundered sadly, at times, over the meaning of some specially difficult passages; but he helped me through with a quiet patience that amazed me. I mentioned it one day to Mrs. Flaxman, expressing my surprise that he should so patiently endure my ignorance, and stupidity.
"It is just like him. He has a world of patience with any one really trying to do good work. I think he begins to understand you better. He is prejudiced against our sex in the mass. He thinks we are more fond of pleasure than of anything else in the world; but if he once finds his mistake, his atonement is complete."
"Why is he so prejudiced?" I asked, hoping Mrs. Flaxman would continue the story Thomas had begun.
"He has had good reason. He is not one to rashly condemn one."
"But is it not rash to misjudge the many for the wrong doing of the single individual? It does not prove all are alike."
"Have you ever heard anything, Medoline?" She asked anxiously.
"Merely a hint, but I have built many a story on that."
"You must not trust servants or ignorant folks' gossip. I hope your Mill Road friends do not talk about your guardian."
"They scarcely mention his name. Mrs. Blake certainly expressed surprise, a long time ago, when we gave those vegetables away, that such a thing should take place at Oaklands. I would not permit any one to speak unkindly of Mr. Winthrop in my hearing," I said, proudly.
"That is right; he is not easy to understand, but one day you will find he is true as steel."
She left the room abruptly. I fancied she was afraid I might ask troublesome questions. Now as I sat in the study, I began to listen and dream together, wondering what sort of woman it was he could love and caress, and how she could lightly trample on his love. The tears came to my eyes as I looked and listened, picturing him the central sun of a perfect home, with wife and children enriching his heart with their love. When those deep gray eyes looked into mine, my drooping lashes tried to conceal from their searching gaze, my mutinous thoughts. Strange that this particular evening, while I sat with the half forgotten letter in my pocket, imagination was busier than ever, while I found it more than usually difficult to comprehend Lessing's ponderous thoughts; and the desire seized me to leave these high thinkers, on their lonely mountain heights, and, with my guardian, come down to the summer places of everyday life.
He noticed my abstraction at last, for he said abruptly:
"Are you not interested in to-day's lesson, Medoline?"
I faltered as I met his searching eye.
"I am always interested in what you say, Mr. Winthrop; but to-day my thoughts have been wandering a good deal."
"Where have they been wandering to?"
My face crimsoned, but I kept silent.
"I would like to know what you were thinking about?" he said, gently.
"A young girl's foolish fancies would seem very childish to you, after what you have been talking about."
"Nevertheless, we like sometimes the childish and innocent. I have a fancy for it just now, Medoline."
"Please, Mr. Winthrop, I cannot tell you all my thoughts. They are surely my own, and cannot be torn from me ruthlessly."
"What sort of persons are you meeting now at your Mill Road Mission?"
He suddenly changed the conversation, to my intense relief.
"The very same that I have met all along, with the exception of the Sykes family—they are a new experience."
"Were you thinking of any one you know there just now, that caused your inattention?"
"Why, certainly not, Mr. Winthrop. I do not care so very much for them as that."
He was silent for a good while, in one of his abstracted moods; and, thinking the lesson was over for that day, I was about to leave the room. He arose, and, going to the window, stood looking out into the night—I quietly watching him, and wondering of what he was so busily thinking. Presently he turned, and, coming to the table where I was sitting, stood looking down intently at me.
"Medoline, has it ever occurred to you that you are an unusually attractive bit of womanhood?"
I drew back almost as if he had struck me a blow. He smiled.
"You are as odd as you are fascinating," he said.
He went to his writing-desk. I watched him unlock one of the drawers and take out two envelopes. He came back and stood opposite me at the table.
"I received, a few days ago, a letter from my friend Bovyer, in which he enclosed one for you, which I was at liberty to read. Probably I should have submitted it to you earlier, but——"
He did not finish the sentence, and stood quietly while I read the letter. The hot blood was crimsoning my neck and brow, and, without raising my eyes, I pushed the letter across the table, without speaking. He handed me another. A strong impulse seized me to fly from the room, but I had not courage to execute my desire. The second letter was fully as surprising as the first. It was from another of Mr. Winthrop's friends, who had frequented our hotel in New York. I recalled his face readily, and the impression his manners and conversation had made on my mind. He had fewer years to boast than Mr. Bovyer, but more good looks. I finished his letter, and, still holding it in my hand, unconsciously fell to recalling more distinctly my half-forgotten impressions of his personality. I remembered he could say brilliant things in an off-hand way, as if he were not particularly proud of the fact. I remembered, too, that he had genuine humor, and had often convulsed me with a merriment I was ashamed to betray; but, strange to say, of all those who had haunted Mr. Winthrop's parlors in those two weeks, not one had paid me so little attention as this Maurice Graem; and now both he and Mr. Bovyer had written, asking my guardian's permission to have me as life-long companion and friend.
"What shall it be, Medoline? You cannot say yes to both of them."
The question startled me.
"Are you very anxious for me to leave Oaklands?" My lips quivered as I spoke.
"Why, child, that is my trouble just now. I am not willing ever to lose you—certainly not so soon as these impetuous youths desire."
"Mr. Bovyer is not young," I said, with a lightened heart.
"What shall I say to them, then?"
"That I do not want to leave Oaklands. I am so happy here."
He made me no reply, but turned again to his writing-desk, and was locking the letters safely away when I left the room. Then I bethought me of the letter still unopened in my pocket, and was hastening to my room, when Mrs. Flaxman intercepted me.
"Won't you come into my room, Medoline, just for a few minutes?"
I followed her with some reluctance; for Mrs. Flaxman's few minutes, I imagined, might extend into a good many, if she got to talking.
"I want to show the presents Mr. Bovver has sent us from New York—one for each of us."
She lifted the cover from a box on her stand, and handed me the most superbly-bound book I had ever seen.
"Yours is the prettiest," she said, admiringly, as I turned over the leaves, looking at the engravings.
"Don't you like it, dear?" she asked, surprised that I was so silent over my prize.
"Yes—if it had not come from Mr. Bovyer."
"Why, Medoline! not like a gift coming from one so kind and true as he is?"
"I wish I had never seen him." I threw down the book and burst into tears.
"Surely, Medoline, you have not fallen in love with him? I should be so sorry, for he is not a marrying man."
"No, indeed," I cried, indignantly; "but——" And then I stopped; for what right had I to tell his secret?
"Oh, Mrs. Flaxman, is it not dreadful to be young? Men are such a trouble."
"Why, my child, what is the matter? You act so strangely I do not understand you."
"No? Well, I cannot explain. But won't you ask Mr. Winthrop, please, if I must keep this book?"
"Why, certainly you must keep it. It would be rude to return Mr. Bovyer's gift."
"But you will ask?"
"Oh, yes, if you insist; but he will only smile, and say it is one of Medoline's oddities."
I went to my room. But the traces of my tears must be removed, and the dinner-bell was already ringing. However, at the risk of being late, I broke the seal of my letter. I was getting terrified lest it might be another proposal of marriage from some unexpected quarter; for, I reflected, when misfortunes begin to come they generally travel in crowds; but this was not a love-letter. It read:
"Dear Miss Selwyn:—I have been informed of your kindness of heart and sympathy for all who are in distress, and therefore am emboldened to come to you for help. If you would call on me to-morrow, at 3 P. M., at Rose Cottage, Linden Lane, you would confer a lasting favor on a sorrowing sister. I am yours, very respectfully,
"Hermione Le Grande."
P. S.—I must ask for perfect secrecy on your part, and that no mention whatever of my name, or letter, be made at Oaklands. I trust to your honor in the matter.
I locked the letter up in my drawer and hastened to the dinner that certainly would not be kept waiting for me. I was hoping that the question about Mr. Bovyer's book would be asked and answered in my absence; but was disappointed; for just as Mr. Winthrop arose from the table, at the close of dinner, Mrs. Flaxman mentioned the arrival of the books, and whence they came.
"It is quite profitable, chaperoning young ladies, you will find;" he said, dryly.
"But, Medoline does not wish to keep hers. She acted quite strangely about it; and insists that I must ask you, if she shall keep it."
"Mr. Bovyer would feel aggrieved if we returned his present. I think you must keep it," he said, turning to me.
"Most young ladies I have known are proud to get keepsakes from your sex."
"I hope Medoline is not going to be a regulation young lady."
"Why, Mr. Winthrop, what has caused you to change your mind? You used to condemn me for being so very unconventional."
"I have made the discovery that you have something better in its stead," he said, quietly. I looked up quickly to speak my thanks, but kept silent.
"Yes, Medoline is the only one of us that tries to do her duty by others. She has helped the poor more in the few months she has been here, than I have done in nearly twenty years."
"But she confines her benefits to the poor and bereaved solely. She seems to forget the prosperous may be heavy-hearted," Mr. Winthrop suggested with a smile.
"I do not intermeddle with that which lies beyond my skill to relieve. Any person can relieve poverty if they have money."
"Possibly you are wise to confine your helpfulness to the simpler cases of sorrow."
"I think the griefs of the rich are mostly imaginary and selfish. In this beautiful world, if we have our freedom, and health, and plenty of money, we are simply foolish to be down-hearted; only when death takes away our dear ones; and after a time the pain he gives ceases to smart."
"You are very practical, Medoline, and look through spectacles dipped in sunshine."
"Well, I believe she is right," Mrs. Flaxman said, with an air of sudden conviction. "We are not half thankful enough for our blessings and persist in wearing the peas in our shoes for penance, when we might as well soften them like that wise-hearted Irishman. It would be a blessing if Medoline had medicine for other griefs than those poverty causes."
I saw her cast a meaning look at Mr. Winthrop, which brought the color to my cheek, and set me to soberly thinking if I might not bring him surcease from bitter thoughts, and then it occurred to me, with all this commendation was there not grave danger of my getting uplifted unduly?
"It seems to me that you and Mr. Winthrop go to extremes in your estimate of me. First, you keep me so low in the valley of humiliation that I well nigh lose heart, and then you hoist me on a pedestal, making me grow dizzy with conceit. I suggest that we pass a law not to talk about each other at all."
"But you cannot hope to be perfect unless wise friends point out your foibles," Mr. Winthrop assured me.
"I have never expected to reach such a height. It would be so lonely for me, you know—no society of my own kind, save here and there a poor and humble soul," I said, wickedly.
"Nevertheless, one should make the effort to stand on the top round of the ladder of human excellence."
"It is a long ladder, and the climb is wearisome, and death soon interposes and ends our ambition," I said, wearily.
"But you have such perfect assurance respecting the to-morrow of death, you must believe that excellence gained here will be so much capital to carry with you into that life; but you implicit believers very often voice your faith rather than live it," Mr. Winthrop remarked, with a touch of his accustomed sarcasm.
"Mr. Bowen lives his quite as well as he talks it, but he is the nearest perfection of any human being I ever expect to meet."
"That is hard on our set, Mrs. Flaxman. Medoline, it seems, has fished out of the slums a veritable saint, and handsome as he is good. If I remember right he is a widower."
"Yes, certainly, he is the one she got the suit of clothes for when she was in New York."
He turned to me abruptly and asked,
"How old is he?"
"I have never asked him," I said mischievously, "but he looks older than you."
"Medoline, what are you saying? He was a grandfather years ago."
"And I am afraid that is an honor which Mr. Winthrop will never attain," I tried to say sympathetically.
Mrs. Flaxman cast him a startled look; but he smiled very calmly as if the words had merely amused him.
MRS. LE GRANDE.
I was impatient for the appointed hour to come when I was expected at Rose Cottage. I had tried to get further information from Esmerelda respecting Mrs. Le Grande; but she seemed unwilling to say much about her, leaving me more mystified than ever.
"You will know all pretty soon from her own lips, Miss, and it would cost me my place if Mr. Winthrop knew I was meddling with what didn't concern me."
"Mr. Winthrop is not a severe master. I think he interferes very little with our household matters."
"But this is different; and please, Miss Selwyn, don't let on to a soul that I gave you that letter. Mrs. Le Grande said if I didn't take it some one else would; and it was an easy way to earn a trifle."
"But if there is anything wrong in the matter it is the hardest way in the world to get money," I said, perplexed at her words.
Linden Lane lay back from Oaklands a mile or more, and led me on a road I had never traversed before, although I had often planned to take it on some of my exploring journeys. But it led away from the sea shore, and that probably was the reason I had hitherto neglected it. There was a strip of woodland belonging to the Oaklands estate through which a part of the road lay. There had been a recent fall of snow and this was still clinging heavily to the trees, especially to the spruce and hemlocks, bringing strangely to mind the muffled, mysterious figures of the Sisters of Charity and Nuns, as I used to see them gliding about the streets of the old world cities. Here and there interspersed with the evergreens were beech, and maple, and other hardwood growths, with their graceful leafless branches stretching up like dumb pleading hands toward the pitiful sky. I grew so interested seeking out specially picturesque forest growths, and glimpses into the still woodland depths under the white snow wraith which I might come again to study more closely, and put on my canvas, that I so far forgot the business of the hour as to find myself a half hour after the appointment at still some distance from Linden Lane. Shutting my eyes resolutely on the rarest bits of landscape caught now and then through a chance opening in the trees, I walked at my best speed along the drifted road. Esmerelda had described the cottage so minutely that I had no trouble in recognizing it. Once past the strip of woodland, a bend in the road brought me at once into a thick cluster of houses with a few linden trees bordering the street that had given to it its rather poetical and alliterative name. One house much more pretentious than the rest, I at once recognized to be Rose Cottage. I rang the bell and was so quickly admitted, I concluded the tidy looking little maid had been posted at the door on the lookout for me. I gave her my card and inquired for Mrs. Le Grande; a formality quite unnecessary, as she assured me she knew who I was and that the lady was already waiting for me.
"Just come this way. She has a parlor upstairs; and my! but its a stunner."
I received the information in perplexed silence. But the little maid apparently did not look for encouragement, for she continued chattering until the door of the "stunning" apartment was closed behind her. A bright fire was burning in the grate at my left. In the swift glance with which I took in all the appointments of the room I acknowledged that the girl's description was correct. The walls were lined with pictures which I could see were gems; rich Turkish rugs concealed the common wood floor; while on brackets and stands were ornaments of rarest design and workmanship. I had only a few moments, however, to gratify my curiosity; for a portiere at the farther end of the room was lifted, and a vision of female loveliness met my view such as I had never seen before. Probably the surroundings, and the unexpected appearance of this beautiful woman, heightened the effect.
She paused and looked at me intently. Instinctively I shrank into myself. She seemed to be in some swift, clear-sighted way taking my measure, and labeling the visible marks of my personality. Then she came graciously forward, her step reminding me, in its smooth, gliding motion, of some graceful animal of the jungle that might both fascinate and slay you.
Her eyes were of that dark, velvety blue, that under strong emotion turns to purple, and when she chose could melt and appeal like a dumb creature's, whose only means of communicating their wants is through their eyes. The lashes were long and curved; her complexion delicate as a rose leaf, with a fitful color vanishing and re-appearing in the peachy cheek apparently as she willed it. Her hair, a rare tint of golden auburn was wreathed around her head in heavy coils that reminded me of the aureoles the old masters painted about the beautiful Madonna faces. Her mouth, I concluded, was the one defect in the otherwise perfect face. The teeth were natural and purely white, but long, and sharp, reminding one in a disagreeable way of the fangs of an animal of prey; the lips, a rich scarlet, were too thin, and tightly drawn for a judge of faces to admire; the chin was clear-cut and firm—a face on the whole, I decided, that might drive a man, snared by its beauty, to desperation. There was passion and power both lurking behind the pearl-tinted mask.
Her attitudes were the perfection of grace—apparently, too, of unstudied grace, which is the mark of the highest art in posing. She sat in a purple velvet easy-chair, whose trying color set off her fine complexion perfectly. Her voice was low and well modulated, but it had no sympathetic chords; and therefore I could not call it musical or pleasing. She thanked me in very exaggerated terms for having responded to her appeal.
I exclaimed, rather impulsively, in reply—
"I expected to find the author of that pathetic letter in great distress, and came, hoping to relieve; but I cannot be of any service here." I glanced around the luxuriously appointed room, and then let my eyes rest on her elaborate costume.
She smiled, "You are young, and have not yet learned that rags and poverty seldom go hand in hand with the bitterest experiences of life."
"That is the only kind of trouble I am sufficiently experienced to meddle with. For imaginary or abstract woe you should seek some older helper. I would suggest Mrs. Flaxman. She has more patience with refined mourners than I."
"Mrs. Flaxman could do me no good."
Tears stood in her eyes, making them more beautiful than ever, and quite softening my heart.
"Won't you lay aside some of your wraps? I shall feel then as if you will not desert me at any moment. The room is warm, and they are only an incumbrance."
I complied, and removed my hat and fur cloak, which were beginning to make me uncomfortably warm. She wheeled another easy-chair and bade me take that; my eyes, grown suddenly keen, took in the fact that the velvet covering was suited to my complexion.
"What artistic taste you must have when you are so fastidious about harmony in colors," I said, admiringly.
"One might as well get all the possible consolation out of things. The time for enjoying them is short, and very uncertain."
She drew a low ottoman and sat down close to me. "I have a long, sad story to tell you, and I want to be within touch of your hand. You will perhaps be too hard on me."
She sat, her face turned partly from me, gazing intently into the fire. Perhaps she had a natural dread of going over a chapter in her life she might wish had never been written.
Meanwhile the wonder kept growing on me why this exquisite woman should come to me for sympathy. A feeling of pride, too, began swelling my heart to think that I could be of use to others than the hungry and naked, while I thought of the surprising account I should have to give at the dinner-table that evening, of my adventure. My self-complacency was destined to a rude shock. She turned to me suddenly, and asked, "How old would you take me to be?" I looked my surprise, no doubt, but began directly to examine critically the face before me. "I want you to tell me the truth. We don't value flattery from our own sex; at least, I do not."
I could see no trace of time's unwelcome tooth in that smooth, ivory skin, as unwrinkled as a baby's face, while the rounded outlines and dimples would have graced a debutante.
"You are a long time deciding," she said, playfully—the color coming fitfully under my scrutiny.
"I will hazard twenty, but you may be older."
"You think not any younger than that?" The curving lashes drooped and an entirely new expression swept over the charming face.
"Now you look almost a child," I exclaimed with surprise. "You are a mystery to me, and I won't try to guess any more, for it is pure guess work."
She laughed merrily. "You are greatly mistaken. I was twenty-six yesterday." I may have looked incredulous, and she was very keen to read my thoughts.
"You do not believe me. Did you ever hear of a woman over twenty making herself out older than she was?"
"My experience is but limited." I still believed that for some reason of her own she was deceiving me respecting her age.
"When you hear my story your surprise will be that I do not look six and thirty, instead of a decade younger."
Her next question was more startling than the first. "How do you like Mr. Winthrop?"
I replied guardedly that I liked him very well.
"Excuse me, but that is not a correct reply. No one that cares for him at all does so in that moderate fashion. They either love or hate him."
"Have you ever known him intimately enough to be able to say how he is liked, or deserves to be?"
She answered me by a low ripple of laughter. My perplexity was increasing, but I quite decided this Hermione Le Grange, as she called herself, had not a very sad heart to get comforted.
"Do you find Mr. Winthrop very amiable, in fact would you call him a lady's man?"
I paused to think carefully what answer I should give. "If he were a lady's man, probably before this he would have taken one for a wife."
"You have only answered half of my question," she said so gently I could not resent it.
"My guardian is very patient and indulgent with me. If he were more so I should find it hard to leave him some day."
"You mean when the day of marriage comes?"
"I have not thought anything of marriage yet. I mean, not seriously. Every young girl has her dreams, I suppose; but mine as yet are very vague and unreal. At twenty-one I am my own mistress. Then probably my life of ease will come to an end."
"Ah, you have dreams of a career. From what my servants tell me I concluded you were not one of our regulation, conventional young ladies."
My cheeks flushed; for this was a tender place for her to touch.
"Is Mr. Winthrop pleased that you are so thoughtful of the poor, and so generous in your impulses?"
"Really, Mrs. Le Grande, you would make an excellent lawyer. I do not think I have had so many personal questions since I came to America. School girls forget themselves sometimes, when they are of a very inquisitive disposition."
She looked me fully in the eyes as she said: "You have been wonderfully patient and very circumspect. I am sure in his heart Mr. Winthrop respects you even if he is at times a trifle cavalier in his behavior." Her eyes were still upon me with the innocent, childlike expression on her face I was beginning to understand and fear. I said very calmly: "He can be exceedingly fascinating when he chooses, and if he really cared for one, I cannot imagine anything he would hesitate to do for them, provided it was honorable. I could not conceive him stooping to a mean or unworthy action."
"Mr. Winthrop will be flattered when I repeat your words."
"Then you know him?"
"You will think so when you hear my story."
MRS. LE GRANDE'S STORY.
"Did you ever hear that Mr. Winthrop was within one day of being married?"
My surprise at first rendered me speechless; but at last I murmured, "No."
"Then you have never heard the tragedy of his life. You have heard that for some reason he was embittered against our sex."
"A mere hint."
"So I should judge, or the rest would also have been told. Your acquaintance have been remarkably guarded. Well, I will tell you all about it."
"I do not wish you to tell me. I think Mr. Winthrop desires I should never know the particulars of that circumstance, else Mrs. Flaxman would have told me."
"You are very sensitive about your guardian. Women cannot afford such fine sense of honor. Men do not treat us in that way. If they find we have a skeleton concealed somewhere, they will not rest until it is brought out into the glaring light, for every evil eye to gloat on."
"Not every man. Many of them would help us to conceal what gave us pain. I believe Mr. Winthrop is one of them. Then should I listen to what he wishes buried in oblivion?"
"It may be for his happiness that you should, dear; and my story and his are, for awhile, the same."
I had risen to put on my hat and cloak to get away from the temptation she pressed upon me; but at her last words I sank back into the chair.
"Can you be the woman he loved and was to marry?"
"Would it surprise you very much if I said Yes?"
"It would, and it would not."
"Your words are ambiguous. I was told you were exceedingly frank and impulsive, but one cannot always believe the public verdict."
I was silent. I recognized I had a clever woman to deal with, and for some reason she wished to use me for her own purpose, I was assured. She arose, and crossing the room disappeared through the tapestry portiere. I watched her as she moved gracefully away, her long silken robe seeming to give additional height to her already tall figure. She presently returned, bringing a richly bound album, and laid it, open, on my knee. I glanced at it, and saw my guardian's pictured face looking at me, brighter, happier than it had ever done in reality.
"Does he look like that now?"
I studied the picture before I answered.
"His face looked nobler as I watched it last night while he was talking of some of his favorite authors. It is stronger now, though. Noble thoughts have matured the lines that were then only imperfectly formed."
"Does he admit you to his study and converse on his favorite themes?" she asked, the childlike expression vanishing suddenly from her face.
"Do you understand and enjoy what he says?"
"I do not understand all he says. I am trying to lift myself to a nearer level with him."
"Ah, you aim to be learned. His tastes must have greatly changed, if he admires such females." Her eyes fell, but I fancied there was a gleam in them not altogether pleasant to behold. I remained silent, not caring to explain it was Mr. Winthrop's wish that I should continue, to some extent, the work that had occupied so many years of my life. She turned the leaf of the album, and her own face looked out at me, not any more beautiful than now, but still as perfect as a poet's dream.
"We had these taken the same day!"
She turned still another leaf and they sat together, she looking sweetly at me, but his eyes, I could fancy resting on her with a look in them I had never seen.
"He had the artist destroy the negative, but I secured this one, he fancies the flames have swallowed them all. You will have no further scruples listening to his story?"
"Yes, I have scruples. Much as I would like to hear it, I desire you to tell me nothing but what you feel certain he would be willing for me to hear. Otherwise I cannot look into his eyes without a feeling of guilt."
"I did not think there was such a ridiculously conscientious woman on the earth. Believe me, you are formed after a very unusual pattern. But you must at least hear my story; otherwise you cannot help me."
"I have been waiting with what patience I could command for the last hour to hear it. I must be home before nightfall, and it is now approaching sunset."
She turned partly away, thereby giving me the better opportunity to admire the perfect contour of face and neck, with the color coming and going fitfully as she talked.
"Like you," she said, "I was an orphan, and like you I was very rich."
I started with surprise. She looked at me in her keen, intuitive way.
"What! did you not know you were an heiress?"
"I have never had the curiosity to ask. Mr. Winthrop will explain everything at the proper time."
"An old-fashioned woman, truly, patterned after the immortal Sarah, who called Abraham her lord," she said, with a soft little laugh that angered me exceedingly.
"The beginning of our destiny has been something alike—both orphans, and both rich beyond our utmost need. I too was educated on the other side of the sea, first in a quiet little English town, Weston-Super-Mer, where my grandmother lived, and afterward in Paris. If I had never gone to the latter place, I might not be sitting here compelling a scrupulous listener to hear my story."
She was silent awhile, a half-suppressed sigh escaping her, over these bygone memories. She continued her story:
"I was quick to learn, soon acquiring the accomplishments necessary for a woman of the world to know; and, finding my guardian easy to manage, I escaped from the restraints of the school-room much earlier than is usual, and plunged into the gayeties, first of Parisian, and afterward of New York society. I became a belle from my first ball, and was soon almost wearied with conquests that caused me no effort. One evening I met Mr. Winthrop. My chaperone, the following day, gave me a detailed history of himself and fortune, and recommended me to secure him for a husband. I resolved to bring him to my feet, reserving the privilege of accepting or not, as I chose. I subsequently found, in order to meet him, it was necessary for me to forsake, occasionally, the ball-room, and to frequent, in its stead, the concert and lecture hall. By degrees I gained his notice, and the very difficulty of winning him made the task all the more congenial. Like you, I developed a fondness for literature, and, in order the more quickly to gain the desired knowledge, I consulted dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and hired private tutors to cram me with poetry, history, and information generally of art and its manufacturers. At first I could see he was more amused than fascinated at my shallow acquirements. But gradually my personal charms, rather than mental, conquered his proud reserve, and the glance of his eye came to express more than mere amusement at my exhibitions of knowledge, or cold admiration for the beauty I strove more than ever to heighten. If I found him hard to conquer, the exultation when my task was achieved was correspondingly great, while I knew his judgment rebelled against giving his love to one his inferior in those things he best esteemed. But, to skip a long bit of the story, we were engaged and the marriage day set; but as our intimacy ripened, the conviction grew upon me that I should have a master as well as husband; and I made the discovery, before very long, that the greater part of our time was to be passed at Oaklands, since the solitude best suited his literary tastes. I knew very well that he would soon get absorbed in those pursuits from which I had been able to draw him for a brief time, and then I would be compelled to satisfy myself with the mild excitement of conjugal affection, housekeeping, and the insipid tea-drinkings for which Cavendish has been noted. Not very long after our engagement, I met, at a grand society ball, George Le Grande. He professed to have fallen in love with me at first sight, and his wooing had all the passionate ardor of a Southern nature; for he was born in the Sunny South, his father being a wealthy French planter. After my betrothed's somewhat Platonic love, his passionate worship was acceptable, and, as the hour of my pastoral life at Cavendish drew near, my fancy turned, irresistibly, towards the free, gay life Le Grande offered me. We had grown so intimate I confessed to him my repugnance to the mild joys awaiting me. Here I made my great mistake; for, with his brilliant imagination, he drew charming pictures of what our life might be, tied to no particular spot, but free to roam, citizens of all lands. My trousseau was nearly completed; but the choosing and trying on of fine garments did not still the mutinous thoughts seething in my brain. One evening—shall I forget it in a thousand years?—while Mr. Winthrop was at Oaklands, overseeing some special preparations to do honor to the home-coming of his bride, I met Le Grande at a ball. He danced superbly, and he was my partner that evening in so many dances that my chaperone began to look darkly at me; while I saw many a meaning glance directed at us. But I was fancying myself more in love with my gay partner than ever, and once, in a pause of the dances, when he whispered, 'If to-night would only last forever, with you at my side, I should be content.'
"I came swiftly to the conclusion that life without George Le Grande would be tasteless, and resolved then and there to yield to his entreaties and fly from my solemn bridegroom. But my mind was wavering, and I kept putting it off until the very night before my marriage morn that was to be. We left the city by a midnight train, and after travelling until morning we stopped at a country village—really I forget the name, if I ever knew it—and were married in a little country church by a dull, old minister who regarded us suspiciously all the time he was performing the ceremony. I was sure he thought us a runaway couple, but that did not trouble me so much as that obscure marriage with a heavy-looking pair brought in from a cottage near at hand to witness the ceremony. I kept contrasting it with the stately ceremony that was to have taken place nearly at the same hour, in old Trinity, with the organ pealing forth the wedding march, the rush of guests and sight-seers, orange blossoms and perfumes, and all the bewildering vanities of a fashionable wedding. Before I had signed my maiden name for the last time, I began to regret my rash step, and ere the month was ended the thorns of my ill-advised sowing were springing up around me. We were neither of us so constituted as to make the best of a bad bargain, and our married life had scarce begun when we began magnifying each other's failings, and soon our brief passion had burnt itself out. Ah, me! with what regret I used to look back to this quiet town, and the stately calm of Oaklands, after one of our vulgar quarrels. I learned too soon that my husband was a gambler, and that my fortune had been a more coveted prize than myself; but fortunately, neither of us could touch anything but the interest until my eldest child should come of age. So often in my free-hearted days we had made merry over my father's ridiculous will! Now how I thanked him for his wise forethought while my husband stormed because it was so far beyond his reach! We might have lived in all my accustomed style on the interest if my husband had been just; but now, instead of sumptuous apparel I had to make the best of garments bought before my marriage, while cheap hotels took the place of my former elegant surroundings. My one passionate desire was to be free from this hated union and many a time, no doubt, I was a murderess in my heart in my longing to see him dead. At last my wish was granted. He was brought home to me one night, a pistol-shot through his heart, received in a low gambling hell. I did not trouble to inquire the particulars. He has been dead a year. I have returned to America—for, at the time of his death, we were in Europe. I have waited a decent time; and now, can you guess what has brought me to Cavendish?"