At the eleventh hour Nesbit Thorne had decided to accompany his relatives in their flitting, instead of waiting to visit them later in the season. He was incited thereto by idleness and ennui, leavened by curiosity as to the manner in which their future life would be ordered, and also by a genuine desire to be of service to them in the troublesome move. Perhaps there was, besides, an unacknowledged feeling in his breast, that with the departure of his kindred, New York would become lonelier, more wearisome than ever. They had given him a semblance of a home, and there was in the man's nature an undercurrent of yearning after love and the rounding out of true domestic life, that fretted and chafed in its obstructed channel, and tried here and there blindly for another outlet.
Thorne's coming with them seemed to the Smiths a very natural proceeding. His aunt proposed it one day, when he had been more than usually helpful, vowing that she scarcely knew how to get along without him, and Thorne fell in with the proposal at once; it made little difference, since he was coming for the shooting anyway. If Norma had another theory in regard to his unwillingness to be separated from them, she was careful to keep it hidden.
The country gentry, led and influenced by the Masons, extended the right hand of fellowship to the new-comers, and wrapped the folds of the social blanket cordially around them. The worldly affairs of the Virginians, like their surroundings, were in a more or less perceptible state of dilapidation, and their means frequently failed to match their hospitality. But their intentions were the best, and the Smiths (well-bred people, neither arrogant, nor purse-proud) speedily became reconciled to informality and lack of system, and learned to overlook deficiencies, or to piece them out with kindness.
From the first they were thrown much into the society of the Lanarth family, for the Masons at once assumed right of property in them, being bent with simple loyalty on defraying some portion of their debt of gratitude. When their loved one was "sick and in prison" these strangers had extended to him kindness, and now that opportunity offered, that kindness should be returned, full measure, pressed down and running over. For the general, Pocahontas conceived a positive enthusiasm, a feeling which the jolly old soldier was not slow in discovering, nor backward in reciprocating; the pair were the best of friends.
Ever since the finding of the letter, the girl's mind had been filled with the story of the brother whom she scarcely remembered. With tender imagination, she exaggerated his youth, his courage, his hardships, and glorified him into a hero. Every thing connected with him appeared pitiful and sacred; his saber hung above the mantle, crossed with his father's, and she took it down one morning and half-drew the dulled blade from the scabbard. The brass of the hilt, and the trimmings of the belt and scabbard were tarnished, and even corroded in places. She got a cloth and burnished them until they shone like gold. When she replaced it, the contrast with the other sword hurt her, and a rush of remorseful tenderness made her take that down also, and burnish it carefully. Poor father! almost as unknown as the young brother, she was grieved that he should have been the second thought.
She was restoring her father's sword to its place, and re-arranging the crimson sash, faded and streaked in its folds, from wear and time, when Norma and Blanche arrived, escorted by Nesbit Thorne. Little Sawney had been sitting on the hearth-rug watching her polish the arms, and offering suggestions, and Pocahontas dispatched him to invite her guests into the parlor, while she ran up-stairs to remove the traces of her work. The young people from Shirley often walked over in the afternoons; the way was short and pleasant, and the brother and sister usually accompanied them part of the way home.
Thorne was fond of these informal visits; his interest in Pocahontas had increased; the chord, instead of merely vibrating, was beginning to give out faint, sweet notes, like a far-off dream of music, just stirring toward embodiment. He took a keen artistic pleasure in her, she satisfied him, and at first he was almost shy of pressing the acquaintance lest she should fail somewhere. He had been disappointed so many times, had had so many exquisite bubbles float before him, to break at a touch and leave only dirty soap-suds. He let himself be interested slowly, drawing out the pleasure, and getting its full flavor. Then, when he found that it was true metal and might be worked at will without fear of baseness, or alloy, he gave himself up to the pleasure of it. Then, his instinct being always to draw to himself what he desired, he strove to awaken an interest in her. He was a man of unusually brilliant attainments, and he spared no pains. He began to seek her society, and, when in it, to exert himself and appear always at his best, trying to fascinate her as she was, unconsciously, beginning to fascinate him. He would entrap her into ventilating her old-fashioned ideas and prejudices; her primitive notions of life and conduct. Her straightforwardness, simplicity, absolute truthfulness, struck him as quaint and delicious; even her romance and almost German sentiment were attractive to him. He felt like a scientist, who discovers old truths in an absolutely new development. Early in their acquaintance he discovered her fondness for old legends, and her perfect acceptance of, and faith in them; and it was his delight to beguile her into relating tales of her kindred, and of the olden times so dear to the hearts of Virginians. Her remarks and comments often touched, always interested him, although sometimes they well-nigh convulsed him with amusement. To the mind of the man of the world they appeared so—almost obsolete.
Pocahontas was generally willing enough to tell her stories, unless indeed Norma happened to be present, and then the improvisatrice was dumb. Pocahontas was not in sympathy with Norma. Norma thought old stories great rubbish, and did not scruple to show that such was her opinion, and Pocahontas resented it. One evening, in the beginning of their acquaintance, the three girls had walked down to the old willows at the foot of the lawn, and Pocahontas, for the amusement of her guests, had related the little story connected with them.
"I think it was all great foolishness," Norma declared. "If she loved the man, why not marry him at once like a sensible woman? The idea of making him wait three years, and watch a rubbishing little tree, just because his brother would have made a scene. What if he did make a scene? He would soon have submitted to the inevitable, and made friends. The lady couldn't have cared much for her lover, to be willing to put up with that driveling probation."
"She did love him," retorted Pocahontas, with annoyance, "and she proved it by being willing to sacrifice a little of her happiness to spare him the bitterness of a quarrel with his own brother. The men were twins, and they loved one another, until unnatural rivalry pushed family affection into the background. If the matter had been settled when both were at white heat, an estrangement would have ensued which it would have taken years to heal—if it ever was healed. There's no passion so unyielding as family hate. They were her kinsmen, too, men of her own blood; she must think of them, outside of herself. The welfare of the man she didn't love must be considered as well as that of the man she did love—more, if any thing, because she gave him so much less. How could she come between twin brothers, and turn their affection to hatred? She knew them both—knew that her own true lover would hold firm for all the years of his life, so that she could safely trust him for three. And she knew that the lighter nature would, in all probability, prove inconstant; and if he left her of his own freewill, there could be no ill-feeling, and no remorse."
Norma laughed derisively. "And in this fine self-sacrifice she had no thought of her lover," quoth she. "His pain was nothing. She sacrificed him, too."
"And why not? Surely no man would grudge a paltry three years out of his whole life's happiness to avoid so dreadful a thing as ill blood between twin brothers. If she could wait for his sake, he could wait for hers. A woman must not cheapen herself; if she is worth winning, she must exact the effort."
"I think it is a lovely story," Blanche interposed, decidedly. "The lady behaved beautifully; just exactly as she should have done. A quarrel between brothers is awful, and between twin brothers would be awfuler still."
In her eager partisanship, Blanche's language was more concise than elegant, but she wanted Pocahontas to know that she sided with her.
Norma regarded her sister with amusement not unmixed with chagrin. These new friends were stealing away her follower. Blanche was becoming emancipated.
"Any woman who trifles with her happiness, because of a scruple, is a fool," she repeated, dogmatically.
Pocahontas held back the angry retort that was burning on the tip of her tongue, and let the subject drop. Norma was her guest, and, after all, what did it matter what Norma thought? But after that she refrained from repeating old stories before her; and of the two sisters, Blanche became her favorite.
As she entered the parlor with smiles and words of welcome, Blanche held out her hands filled with late roses and branches of green holly, bright with berries.
"See," she said, "two seasons in one bouquet. The roses are for your mother. I found them on a bush in a sheltered corner; and as we came along I made Nesbit cut the holly for me. I never can resist holly. That tree by your gate is the loveliest thing I have ever seen; just like those in the store windows at home for Christmas. Only we never had such a profusion of berries, and I don't think they were as bright. Do you think the holly we get at home is as bright, Norma?"
"Oh, yes; it looked always pretty much the same. We got beautiful holly every Christmas," replied Norma, who did not like Virginia exalted at the expense of her native place.
"But not with such masses of berries. Just look at this branch; was there ever any thing more perfect? Princess, please give me something to put it in. It's far too pretty to throw away. Can I have that vase on the piano?"
Pocahontas smiled assent. She could have holly by the cart-load, but she liked Blanche's enthusiasm. While the others chatted, Blanche decked the vase with her treasure; then two others which she found for herself on a table in the corner. There were still some lovely rich bits, quite small twigs, left when she had finished, and she once more clamored for something to put them in.
Pocahontas, in the midst of an eager discussion with Thorne and Norma, in which both were arrayed against her, glanced around carelessly. There was a cup and saucer on a small stand near her, and she picked up the cup thoughtlessly and held it out to Thorne. Just as their hands met in the transfer, both of them talking, neither noticing what they were doing, Berkeley entered suddenly and spoke, causing them to start and turn. There was a quick exclamation from Pocahontas, a wild clutch into space from Thorne, and on the floor between them lay the fragile china in half a dozen pieces.
Pocahontas bent over them regretfully. It was the cup with the dreaming Indian maiden on it—the cup from which Jim Byrd had taken his coffee on that last evening. There were tears in her eyes, but she kept her head bent so that no one should see them. She would rather any cup of the set should have come to grief than that one.
She had brought it into the parlor several days before to show to a visitor, who wished a design for a hand-screen for a fancy fair, and had neglected to replace it in the cabinet. She reproached herself for her carelessness as she laid the fragments on the piano, and then the superstition flashed across her mind. Could it be an omen? The idea seemed foolish, and she put it aside.
"Don't feel badly about it," she said to Thorne, who was humbly apologetic for his awkwardness, "it was as much my fault as yours; we neither of us were noticing. Indeed, it's more my fault, for if I hadn't neglected to put it away, the accident could not have happened. You must not blame yourself so much."
"In the actual living present, I'm the culprit," observed Berkeley, "since my entrance precipitated the catastrophe. I startled you both, and behold the result! Nobody dreamed of convicting me, and this is voluntary confession, so I expect you all to respect it; the smallest unkindness will cause me to leave the room in a torrent of tears."
Every one laughed, and Pocahontas put the fragments out of sight behind a pile of music books. She could not put the subject out of her mind so easily, although she exerted herself to an unusual degree to prevent her guests from feeling uncomfortable; the superstition rankled.
As they took leave, Thorne held her hand in a warmer clasp than he had ever before ventured on, and his voice was really troubled as he said:
"I can't tell you how worried I am about your beautiful cup. I never had a small accident trouble me to the same extent before. I feel as though a serious calamity had befallen. There was no tradition, no association, I hope, which made the cup of special value, beyond its beauty, and the fact of its being an heirloom."
Pocahontas was too truthful for evasion.
"There were associations of course," she answered gently, "with that cup as well as with the rest of the china. It has been in the family so many generations, you know. Don't reproach yourself any more, please—remember 'twas as much my fault as yours. And broken things need not remain so," with an upward glance and a bright smile, "they can be mended. I shall have the cup riveted."
She would not tell him of the superstition; there was no use in making him feel worse about the accident than he felt already. She did not wish him to be uncomfortable, and had gladly assumed an equal share of blame. It was extremely silly in her to allow her mind to dwell on a foolish old tradition. How could the breakage of a bit of china, no matter how precious, presage misfortune? It was ill doing that entailed ill fortune, not blind chance, or heathen fate. She would think no more of foolish old portents.
Still!—she wished the cup had not been broken—wished with all her heart that it had not been that cup.
Blanche Smith was not at all a clever girl—not like Norma. Norma had always stood first in her classes, had borne off prizes and medals, but with Blanche it was otherwise. No amount of coaching ever sufficed to pull her through ah examination, or to remove her from the middle of her class. Blanche was a dunce confessedly; she hated books, and the acquisition of knowledge by labor. If people told her things and took the trouble to explain them, she remembered them sometimes; sometimes not. To accomplishments she took as a duck to water—danced beautifully, was a fair musician, sang with taste and sweetness, and chattered French with absolute self-confidence and a tolerable accent, although her rudimentary knowledge of the tongue was of the vaguest.
At school she had been more popular than her cleverer sister; the girls affirmed that she was sweeter tempered and more obliging. At home also, she was the favorite. Her father idolized her, her brothers domineered over, and petted her; even the mother made an unconscious difference between the girls; she admired Norma more—was prouder of her, but she depended upon Blanche. Norma saw the difference, and sometimes it vexed her, but generally she was indifferent to it. Her people did not understand her; she was not like them; when barn-door fowls unwittingly hatched eaglets, it was natural that the phenomenon should be beyond their comprehension, and that their ignorance should prefer the tamer members of their brood. Not that Norma actually instituted such comparison, and deliberately set herself above her kindred; she simply acted upon the hypothesis unconsciously, and when the warmest of the family affection settled around Blanche, felt sure that it was due to natural difference, and could be no fault of hers.
Little Blanche, in her deep content with her new surroundings, wondered how she could ever have been so besotted as to object to the move. The place, the people, the mode of life were all delicious to her, and for the family at Lanarth, her enthusiasm was touching. Mrs. Mason was just her idea of "Mrs. Washington, or Cornelia, or Lady de Bourgainville," she explained to Norma, mixing history and fiction, as usual, and was laughed at for her pains.
Pocahontas never laughed at her—at least not offensively, or in a way to make her feel her ignorance. She thought sometimes that her foolish society was preferred by her new friend to that of her clever sister; certainly the quaint old tales which Pocahontas poured unreservedly into her delighted ears were never told to Norma. What impression lay in the girl's mind of handsome Berkeley Mason, had best remain uncanvassed. It is ill work, violating feminine sanctuaries unless the need be urgent; an empty coat-sleeve, carelessly carried, is a powerful agent for converting a man into a hero.
Christmas, the grand high festival of the year, was approaching, and all the community was stirred with deep desire for its worthy celebration. Sociability ceased, or at best was sustained in limp, half-hearted fashion by the men. The ladies had other things to think of; for on them rested the sole responsibility of the Christmas preparations—the providing of copious lodging for expected guests, the bedecking of rooms with evergreens and holly, the absorption of store-room and kitchen, the never-ending consultations with the cook—all the wonderful machinations, the deep mysteries and incantations, which would result in glittering hospitality later on. Realizing this, they suffered lesser matters to pass unheeded, caring naught for social converse, intellectual pleasures, or intelligence of church or state. Women might elope, men embezzle, dynasties fall, ministries change, or public faith be broken, and they viewed the result, if indeed they noted it, with absolute composure. But let eggs be unattainable, jellies become murky, the fruit in cake or pudding sink hopelessly to the bottom, and Rachel weeping for her children could not have made more wild acclaim.
At Lanarth, the week of preparation (good old Virginia housekeepers always allowed a week at least, and Mrs. Mason adhered to the time-honored custom) passed busily. Every thing turned out unusually well, and the store-room was a picture. Jellies, in slender glasses, glittered in exquisite amber perfection, or glowed warmly crimson, with points of brighter hue where the sun fell on them. Heaps of old-fashioned "snowballs" hid golden hearts under a pure white frosting, and cakes, baked in fantastic shapes, like Turks' heads and fluted melons, were rich, warm, brown, or white and gleaming as Christmas snow. The pastry showed all shades from palest buff to tender delicate brown, and for depth of tone there were their rich interiors of dark mincemeat and golden custards. Of the pleasures of this beautiful world not the least is the sight of beautiful food.
And it was Christmas eve.
The shadows were gathering, and the sun sending in his resignation to the night, when Pocahontas, tying on her pretty scarlet hood and wrappings, armed herself with a small basket of corn, and proceeded to the poultry yard to house her turkeys for the night. They usually roosted in an old catalpa tree near the back gate, earlier in the season; but as Christmas approached Pocahontas found it expedient to turn the key upon them, since leaving them out caused weaker brothers to offend. As she passed the kitchen door she called to little Sawney, whose affection for his grandmother increased at Christmas, to come out and help her.
The little fellow had that morning been invested by a doting parent with a "pa'r o' sto' boots" purchased entirely with reference to the requirements of the future. They were many sizes too large for him: the legs adorned with flaming scarlet tops, reached nearly to his middle; they flopped up and down at every step, and evinced an evil propensity for wabbling, and bringing their owner with sorrow to the ground. They were hard-natured, stiff-soled, uncompromising—but! they were boots!—"sto' boots, whar cos' money!"—and Sawney's cup of bliss was full.
Any one who has experience in the ways and wiles of the domestic treasure, must be aware of the painful lack of consideration sometimes evinced by turkeys in this apparently simple matter of allowing themselves to be housed. Some evenings, they march straight into their apartment with the directness and precision of soldiers filing into barracks; on others the very Prince of Darkness, backed by the three Fates and the three Furies, apparently takes possession of the perverse, shallow-pated birds. They wander backward and forward, with an air of vacancy as though they knew not what to do; they pass and repass the yawning portal of the turkey house, with heads erect and eyes fixed on futurity, not only as if they did not see the door, but actually as if there were no door there to see. And when the maddened driver, wrought to desperation, hurls into their midst a stick or stone, hoping fervently and vengefully that it may break a neck or a leg, they leap nimbly into the air with "put-putterings" of surprise and rebuke, and then advance cautiously upon the missile and examine it.
The Lanarth turkeys were behaving in just this reprehensible manner, and Pocahontas was working herself into a frenzy over them. Three times she engineered the flock successfully up to the open door, and three times the same old brown hen advanced, peered cautiously into the house, started tragically aside as though she beheld some evil thing, and produced a panic and a stampede.
"You miserable wretch!" exclaimed Pocahontas, hurling her empty basket impotently at the dusky author of her woe, "I could kill you! Shoo! shoo! Sawney, why don't you help me? Head them! Run round them! Shoo! shoo! you abominable creatures!"
Sawney essayed to obey, grasping the straps of his boots, and lifting his feet very high.
"Take them off and run," commanded Pocahontas. But Sawney would as soon have parted with his skin. "I dwine ter run," he responded, and gripped his boots valiantly. It was of no use. Sawney had gotten too much boot for his money, and if walking in them was difficult, running was impossible. He held on to them bravely, but that only impeded progress further; the faithless cowhides wabbled, twisted, and finally landed him sprawling on his back in the middle of the flock, which promptly retired to distant parts of the poultry yard, "puttering" and dodging.
"Sawney proves a broken reed, as usual," called a pleasant voice from somewhere in the background; "here, let me help you," and Nesbit Thorne leaped over the fence, and advanced, gun in hand, to the rescue.
"It's the fault of his 'sto' boots,'" Pocahontas explained, laughing, as she extended her hand. "Sawney's intentions were honorable enough. I shall be glad of your assistance—as usual," with a merry glance, "for these aggravating birds are shattering my nerves, and ruining my temper."
Then, together, the pair pursued the unruly fowls, and pressed upon them and buffeted them, until the turkeys were right glad to defy the vision of the old brown sensationalist, and take refuge in their house. Pocahontas closed the door with a sharp bang almost upon the tail of the hindmost one, locked it, and then turned cordially to her companion and invited him to remain and take tea with them.
Thorne glanced down at his splashed boots and corduroys. "I'm scarcely in trim for a lady's tea table," he said, smiling, "you must excuse me, and let me come some other time. I met your brother on the low grounds as I came up. I've been shooting over his land, and called to leave your mother a few birds."
"Had you good sport?" inquired Pocahontas, with interest, watching him empty the pockets of his shooting-coat on the top of an adjacent chicken-coop, and admiring the soft shades, and exquisite markings of the plumage of the dead birds.
"Here's old 'bur-rabbit,'" said Thorne, reaching his hand behind his back, and drawing out the pretty brown beast by the legs. "I knocked him over just below your garden fence in a little patch of briers. It was a pretty shot; see, right through the head. I hate to mangle my game. I'd pretty fair sport; the birds are a little wild, though, and I had no dog. I lost a fine duck—a canvas-back, this afternoon, by its falling into deep water. I must send North for a brace of good dogs."
"That isn't necessary," said Pocahontas, touching the birds gently, and stroking their soft feathers. "Berke and Royall both have good dogs, trained retrievers, and used to the country. Strange dogs don't do so well over unaccustomed ground. It's a shame that you had no dog, and dreadfully neglectful of the boys not to have noticed. No, no!" as Thorne moved away from the coop, "you must not leave all those; you have none for yourself, and you'll be disgraced as a sportsman if you go home empty-handed. They won't believe you've killed a thing. We never do, when our men come home with nothing to show. Jim Byrd never dared face Nina, or me, without, at least, half a dozen birds."
"Who is Jim Byrd?" demanded Thorne quickly. "I never heard you mention him before."
"Haven't you?" regarding him with great surprise. "Well that is curious, for he is one of our oldest, dearest friends, Berke's and mine. A year ago I couldn't have imagined life possible without Jim's dear old face near us. He formerly lived at Shirley; it was the Byrd patrimony for generations. His sisters were the closest girl-friends Grace and I ever had, and for years the two families were as one. There were financial troubles handed down from father to son, growing always greater; the old place had finally to be sold, and your uncle bought it. Jim is in Mexico now, engineering, and the girls are all married. I wonder you have never heard me mention Jim. I think, and speak of him frequently. We all do."
So perfectly unembarrassed was the girl's manner, that despite a faint wistfulness discernible in her face, Thorne put aside the half-thought formulated in his brain by the familiar mention of Jim Byrd's name. He allowed himself to be persuaded to re-pocket part of the game, particularly a brace of ducks, which the soul of the general loved. As he rose from his seat on the chicken-coop, Pocahontas noticed the handsome gun beside him, and leaning forward with a woman's instinctive desire to handle dangerous things, she took it in her hands with an exclamation of admiration.
"Is it loaded?" she inquired, raising it to her shoulder, and laying her finger lightly on the trigger.
"Yes," Thorne answered, drawing nearer, "take care, Miss Mason. It always makes me nervous to see a gun in a woman's hands. Don't pull the trigger, please; the charge is heavy and the recoil will hurt you."
But the warning came too late; intentionally, or unintentionally, she did pull the trigger, and the gun carelessly held, recoiled sharply, striking against her shoulder with such force that she staggered and would have fallen, if Thorne had not caught her in his arms. The gun slipped to the ground, but fortunately did not discharge the second barrel.
Thorne regarded the white face upon his breast with trepidation, amazed even amid his anxiety at the fierce pang that shot through his heart at the sight of its pallor. Suppose she should be seriously hurt! Brute that he had been, not to have taken better care of her. Fool! fool! to have let her touch that accursed gun! His hand trembled as he loosened her cloak, and passed it tenderly over her shoulder. Dislocated? No; such cruel harm had not befallen her: a bruise, a little stiffness was the worst in store. A passionate relief, bewildering in its intensity, thrilled through him; his dark cheek rivaled hers in pallor; his eyes glowed.
Then her lids quivered, the gray eyes unclosed, and the color flushed back warmly, covering cheek and brow and neck with a mighty surge of crimson. With a quick effort, Pocahontas disengaged herself from his arms, and leaned against the fence, a few steps away from him. Struggling for self-mastery, Thorne made his anxious inquiries, striving by a fierce exercise of will to still his bounding pulses, and banish from his eyes the expression he felt glowing within them. And Pocahontas, with her paleness in force again, replied to his inquiries with tremulous but determined lightness, putting aside his self reproaches, and assuming the blame with eager incoherence. She made a terrible mess of it, but Thorne was past all nicety of observation; his only thought, now that he was assured of her safety, was to get himself away without further betrayal of his feelings. His mind was in a tumult, and his heart rose up and choked him. For a moment he held the small, tremulous fingers in a strong, warm clasp, then with a quick "good-night" relinquished them, sprang over the fence and walked rapidly away in the direction of Shirley.
Walking home in the still dusk of the winter gloaming, Thorne found himself compelled at last to look the situation in the face without disguise or subterfuge; to "take stock" of it all, as it were, and ask himself what should be the result. He had lingered in Virginia, lengthening his stay from week to week, because the old world quaintness of the people, the freshness and yet antiquity of thought prevalent among them, charmed him, pleased the aesthetic side of his nature, as the softness of their voices pleased his ear, and the suavity of their manners, his taste. He was tired to death of the old routine, weary beyond expression of the beaten track, of the sameness of the old treadmill of thought. Here he had found variety.
For somewhat the same reason he had sought Pocahontas, charily at first, dreading disappointment, but finally, as his interest deepened, without reserve. She was different from other women, more candid, less impressible. He could not discover what she thought of him, beyond her surface interest in his talents and conversation. She piqued and stimulated him; in her presence he exerted himself and appeared at his best, which is always pleasant to a man. Even old thoughts, and hackneyed theories donned new apparel when about to be presented to her notice.
He had played with fire, and was forced now to admit that the fate of the reckless had overtaken him. He loved her. The truth had been dawning on his mind for weeks past, but he had put it aside, willfully blinding himself because of his contentment with the present. Now, self delusion was no longer possible; the report of his gun had blown away the last rays of it forever. When Pocahontas lay well-nigh senseless in his arms, when her fair face rested on his breast and her breath touched his cheek, he knew, and acknowledged to himself that he loved her with a passionate intensity such as in all his careless, self-indulgent life he had never before felt for a woman.
And he had no right to love her; he was a married man.
When this idea flashed across his mind it almost stunned him. He had been free in heart and mind so long that he had ceased to remember that he was bound in fact. The substance had so withdrawn itself into the background of his life that he had forgotten that the shadow still rested on him. He was free, and he was bound. Thorne turned the idea over in his mind, as one turns a once familiar thing that has grown strange from being hidden long from sight. Was he a married man?—undoubtedly—the idea appalled him.
Two years had passed since the separation and there had been no divorce. Thorne had thought the matter out at the time, as a man must, and had decided to wait, and to let any initial steps be taken by his wife. He had no love left for her, and he realized with grim intensity that their marriage had been a terrible mistake, but there was sufficient chivalry if his nature to make him feel that the mother of his child had claims upon him—to make him willing, for the child's sake, to leave her the protection of his home and name as long as she cared to keep it. Then, too, the habit of thought in his family, and all his early influences were against divorce. The idea had not presented itself spontaneously, as the natural solution of his domestic difficulties; he had been obliged to familiarize himself with it. His family had been Catholics for generations, his mother had become one on her marriage, and had been ardent and devout, as is usual with proselytes. Thorne was not a religious man himself, but he respected religion, and in an abstract way considered it a beautiful and holy thing. He had never thought of it with any reference to his own life, but it made a halo around the memory of his mother. Her views had influenced him in his decision in the matter of a divorce. The world had given him credit for religious scruples of his own, but the world had done him more than justice; he was only haunted by the ghosts of his mother's scruples.
Thorne leaned on the fence of the field where he had first seen Pocahontas, and went over his former experience of love. What a miserable thing it had been, at best! How feverish, vapory and unsatisfying! What a wretched fiasco his marriage had proved! And yet he had loved his wife! Her beauty was of a type that insures its possessor love of a certain sort—not the best, but strong enough to stand the wear and tear of well-to-do existence, if only it is returned. If Ethel had loved him, Thorne would have held to his lot, and munched his husks, if not with relish, certainly with decency and endurance. But Ethel did not love him.
Their marriage, from Ethel's standpoint, had been mercantile; for his wealth and position, she had willingly bartered her youth and beauty, and if he would have been content with face value, she would have been content. Why should people trouble the depths of life when the surface was so pleasant and satisfying? She liked Thorne well enough, but his ceaseless craving for congeniality, deep affection, community of interest, and the like, wearied, bored and baffled her. Why should they care for the same things, cultivate similar tastes, have corresponding aspirations? If they differed in thought and life and expression, let them differ—it was of no consequence. She found her husband's exactions tiresome. He had her birthright, she had his pottage; let the matter end there, and each be satisfied.
But Thorne was not satisfied. He had married a transcendently beautiful woman, but he had no wife. Half the men of his acquaintance envied him, but he did not rejoice, nor plume himself. He wanted his wife to lean on him, to clothe the strength of his manhood with the grace of her womanhood—and his wife showed herself not only capable of standing alone, but of pushing him away with both hands. His mood underwent many changes, and finally he let her go, with some disgust, and a deep inward curse at his past folly. It was not a pleasant retrospect.
Night had fallen; the air was still and brooding; across the sky scudded ragged masses of clouds, advanced guard of the storm that was mustering along the horizon; everywhere there was a feeling that foreboded snow. In the sky, few stars were visible, and those glimmered with a cold, wan light; at the zenith a solitary planet burned steadfastly. The road stretched away into the night; it was dark under the trees beside the fence; away in the distance the echo of footsteps sounded.
Thorne thought of Pocahontas. His face softened, and his eyes shone tenderly. How true she was, how thorough and noble. Her pure face and fearless gray eyes rose before him; with the love of such a woman to bless him, her hand in his, her influence surrounding him, to what might not a man aspire! There were no insincerities, no half-truths, no wheels within wheels, such as Ethel delighted in, about this other woman. Even her occasional fits of impatience and temper were indulged in frankly—a sudden flurry of tempest and then the bright, warm sunshine; no long-continued murkiness, and heavy sodden depression for hours and days.
Did she love him? As he asked himself the question, Thorne's heart bounded, and the blood coursed hotly through his veins. He had tried to make her love him—had he succeeded? Thorne was no fatuous fool, blinded by his own vanity, but his power over women had been often tried, fully proven, and he had confidence in himself. Once only had he failed of securing the love he sought, and it was the memory of that failure which made him pause and question now. He was not sure. She liked him, was pleasant and gracious, but he had seen her so to other men. Never until this evening had she changed color at his touch. She liked him—and Thorne felt within him a fierce desire to change her passivity of regard into wild activity of passion. He could do it. That tide of crimson, a vague terror and awakening in the gray eyes, as they met his gaze on re-opening to consciousness, had shown him a tiny cleft which his hand might broaden, until it should flood their two lives with the light of love.
The echo of the footsteps deepened, merged into actual sound, drew nearer. Thorne, in the deep obscurity of the trees, listened, moving near to the dusky, trunk of an old magnolia; he was in no mood for passing civilities, and in this friendly country all wayfarers exchanged greetings. In the sound of the advancing steps, he could distinguish an unmistakable shuffle which proclaimed race—two negroes returning from the little village, beyond Shirley, whither they had gone to make Christmas purchases. They walked by the light of a flaring pine knot, which was encouraged to burn by being swung around violently from time to time; it lighted the men's dark faces, and reflected itself in intermittent flashes on the sides of a bright tin bucket which the younger man carried, but it intensified the gloom around them. Both had on their backs bags filled with lumpy things, like bundles. They were talking cheerfully, and the sound of their rough voices and guttural laughter reached Thorne before the men themselves came abreast of his position. The negro with the bucket was relating an anecdote. Thorne caught part of it.
"Yes, sar," he was saying, "dat was de fust ov it. Mars Jim, he clumb right spang up to de tip-top de tree, an' de ice was cracklin', an' slippin', an' rattlin' down like broke up lamp chimblys. De little gals was 'pon de groun' watchin' him, an' hollerin' an' wringin' deir han's. I was loadin' de ox-cart wid pine kindlin's back in de woods, an' when I hearn de chil'en hollerin', I came runnin' to see what was de matter wid 'em."
"What he clumb arter?" questioned the other negro; "hit's mighty dangersome gittin' up trees when dey got sleet 'pon 'em."
"Mighty dangersome," acquiesced the narrator, "dat's what I 'lowed ter myse'f when I seed him. He was arter a lump o' dat green truck wid white berries 'pon it—mizzletoe, dey calls its name. When I got dar, he was comin' down de tree holdin' it by de stem wid he teef. He wouldn't fling it down, kase he's feard he'd spile de berries. Time he totch de groun' good, Miss Grace, she hauled off, she did, an' smacked his jaws ez hard ez she could stave, an' axed him how dar'ed he skeer 'em like dat? An' Mars Jim, he larfed out loud, and said: 'Princess wanted it,' an' den he put de truck he'd resked his nake ter git in Miss Pocahontas's arms, an' she hugged it up tight, an' went long to de house cryin'."
Thorne moved involuntarily, and the gun in his hand struck against the trunk of the tree behind which he stood. The negroes paused and glanced around alertly, the man with the torch swinging it backward and forward, with a muttered "What's dat?" Nothing of any consequence; a bird, or a rabbit, perhaps—nothing worth investigation. The man with the bucket set his burden on the ground, and opened and shut his hand rapidly several times. The wire of the handle had cramped his fingers. Both men transferred their bags from the right shoulder to the left, and leaned against the tree stems to rest themselves a moment.
The elder man resumed the subject.
"Love her! Lord-er-mussy 'pon me! Jim Byrd was fa'rly foolish wid love. De groun' warn't fitten fur Miss Pocahontas ter set her foots 'pon in his notion; he'd er liked ter spread hissef down to save her slippers. T'want no question 'bout lovin' wid Mars Jim!"
"But he gone away," objected the torch-bearer. "I reckon Miss Pocahontas done kick him; dat how come he lef. What he doin' in Nexican ef he kin get what he want here? He gone!"
"Dat ain't nothin'. He was bleeged ter go out yander ter git money ter buy back de old place. Money mighty plentiful out dar, Aunt Vi'let say. Gwine way ain't nothin' ter a man; he kin come back 'gin. I went 'way ter Richmond onct myse'f ter rake up money 'nouf ter buy one mule, an' rent er scrop o' lan', so ez I could marry Sarah. Mars Jim's comin' back; las' word he sed ter Aunt Vi'let, was dat. Miss Pocahontas ain't kick him n'other. What she gwine kick him fur? Mars Jim's er likely man, an' all de ginnerashuns o' de Byrds an' Masons bin marryin' one n'other ever sence Virginny war er settlemint. My ole gran'daddy, whar war ole Mr. Dabney Byrd's kyar'ege driver, allus sed—Lord, a-mussy! what DAT!!"
The speaker paused with his mouth open and a chilly sensation about the back, as though a lump of ice were traveling down his spine. A sound, as of scriptural denunciation, low, but intense, had caught his ear. A bat, circling low, had grazed Thorne's face and caused him to throw up his hand with an impatient oath. The wisdom of the defunct "kyar'ege driver" was overwhelmed in the flood of perturbation which seized his descendant. The man swung his torch around nervously and peered into the darkness, conscious of a distrust of his surroundings that amounted to positive pain. The other negro said nothing; but addressed himself to the adjustment of his burden in the manner least likely to impede retreat.
Among the colored folks this portion of the road enjoyed an evil reputation, particularly after nightfall, for in a field near by there was an ancient graveyard, and the rumor went, that the denizens thereof were of a specially unruly, not to say malicious spirit, and found pure delight in ambuscades along the road side, and in sallies upon unsuspecting travelers with results too painful for description.
"Haunts was mighty rank 'bout dar," the negroes said, and after sundown that part of the road was destitute of attractions. The graveyard had not been used for many years; but that only made the danger greater, for ghosts, grown bold with long immunity of office, were held capable of deeper malignity, than would be within the range of ghosts oppressed with the modesty of debutants. The fact that the occupants of the place had, in life, been of their own race, inspired the negroes with no feeling of kinship or confidence. They were earnestly afraid of all spirits, be they white, black, or red; but most of all of black ones, because they seemed most in league with the devil.
When, therefore, the light of the flickering pine torch fell obliquely on Thorne's dark figure and caught a gleam from the polished mountings of his gun, and another from the brass of the cartridge belt, which to the terrified darkeys looked like a cincture of fire, they became possessed with the idea that the most malevolent of all the spirits, perhaps the devil himself, was upon them. Calling on their Maker with more urgence than they ever did at "pray'r meetin'," they grabbed up their belongings and addressed themselves to flight. The bags, flopping up and down on their backs, held them to their speed, by corporeal reminder of what they had to lose if the devil should overtake them, and the molasses in the bucket slopped over the sides and sweetened the dust at every jump. The bucket top had bounced off in the first burst and sped down the road before them, and the owner, feeling that he had no time to lose, never dreamed of stopping to look for it. Every now and then the bucket banged against his leg causing him to feel that the evil one might be gaining, and to yell "Oh, Lawdy! Oh, Lawdy!!" at the top of his lungs. The torch-bearer had flung away his light, thinking to elude the devil in the darkness, and all his soul was in his heels.
Thorne laughed a little, in a mirthless fashion; but he was too miserable to be amused. While the men talked, black jealousy had crept around the old magnolia and linked arms with him. Twice in the same evening this name had crossed him. Who the devil was this Jim Byrd? These men had spoken of him as the avowed lover of Pocahontas, the man she would eventually marry. The girl herself had admitted him to be a dear and valued friend—a friend so dear that his going had left a blank in her life. The power he had but now felt to be his own, suddenly appeared to be slipping into other hands. Another sickle was sharpening for the harvest; other eyes had recognized the promise of the golden grain; other hands were ready to garner the rich sheaves.
Thorne's heart grew hot; angry blood surged from it and inflamed his system; every nerve tingled; his eyes glowed, and his fingers tightened on the barrel of the gun beside him. His consciousness of antagonism grew so intense that it seemed to annihilate space and materialize his distant rival into an actual presence; his feeling was that which animates brutes when they lock horns, or fly at each other's throats; and, could the emotional force which swayed his soul have been converted into physical force and projected through space, Jim would never have seen the light of another day.
Poor Thorne! If suffering may be pleaded in extenuation of moods whose cause is mingled love and pain, he certainly was not without excuse. Imagination, wounded by jealousy, leaped forward into the future and ranged amid possibilities that made him quiver—noble, beautiful possibilities, filled with joy and light and sweetness—and filled for his rival—not for him. As in a mirror he beheld his love in his rival's arms, resting on his bosom, as an hour ago she had rested on his own; only in this man's embrace, he pictured her glowing, sentient, responsive to look and caress; not cold, lifeless and inanimate. Should this thing be? No! a thousand times no! Must he always have a stone for bread? Must his garners always stand empty while other men's overflowed with corn?
Deeply the man cursed his past folly; bitterly he anathematized the weakness which had allowed shadowy scruples and a too fastidious taste to rule his judgment in the matter of a divorce. He would wait no longer; he would break at once and forever the frail fetter that still bound him to a union from which all reality, all sanctity had fled. He would be free in fact, as he was in heart and thought, to pit his strength against that of his rival. This prize should not slip from his grasp uncontested. No man should approach the shrine unchallenged.
The wind rose, sighing fitfully; the clouds gathered and formed an army which stormed the zenith and threatened to overwhelm the pure light of the planet. The lesser stars vanished, two or three falling in their haste and losing themselves forever in infinity. The night thickened; snow began to fall.
The Christmas festivities were to close on New Year's Eve with a grand ball at Shirley. It was to be a sumptuous affair with unlimited Chinese lanterns, handsome decorations, a magnificent supper, and a band from Washington. The Smiths were going to requite the neighborhood's hospitality with the beating of drums, the clashing of cymbals, and the flowing of champagne. This cordial friendly people had welcomed them kindly, and must have their courtesy returned in fitting style. Mrs. Smith suggested a simpler entertainment, fearing contrast, and any appearance of ostentation, but the general gauged his neighbors better. They were at once too well bred, and too self-satisfied for any idea of comparison to occur to them. They would eat his fruit-cake, or make him welcome to their corn-bread with the same hearty unconcern. His wealth, and their own poverty troubled them equally little; they were abstract facts with which hospitality had nothing to do. But in their way they were proud; having given their best without grudge or stint, they would expect his best in return, and the general was determined that they should have it. The risk of offense lay in simplicity, not grandeur.
Mrs. Royall Garnett came over to Lanarth a day or so before the grand event, bearing her family in her train, to assist in the weighty matter of a suitable toilet for Pocahontas. She was a tall, handsome woman, with a noble bearing, and great decision of character; and on most matters—notably those pertaining to the sacred mysteries of the wardrobe, her word with her family was law. Grace's taste was admitted to be perfect.
After an exhaustive discussion of the subject, at which both Berke and Royall ignorantly and gratuitously assisted, and were flouted for their pains, it was irrevocably decided that Pocahontas should appear in pure white unrelieved by a single dash of color.
"She looks cheap and common in any thing but dead black, or pure white, at a party," pronounced Grace with sisterly frankness, and of course that settled the matter, although Mrs. Mason did venture on the modest protest that it would look "bride-like and unusual."
"I want her to look unusual," declared Grace; "to make her so, is at present the object of my being. I shall hesitate at nothing short of cutting off her nose to secure that desirable result. To be admired, a woman must stand out distinctly from the throng; and I've set my heart on Princess's being the belle of the ball. Have you plenty of flowers, dear? As flowers are to be your sole garniture, you must have a profusion. I can't tolerate skimpy, rubbishing bouquets."
"None at all, Grace," confessed Pocahontas, ruefully, "except a single calla. I cut my last white rosebuds and camellias to send to Nina Byrd Marion the very day before I heard about the Shirley ball. Isn't it provoking?"
"Then somebody must get you some," Grace responded promptly, pausing in her preparations, and regarding her sister with the air of an autocrat; "if the men are not lost to all sense of honor and decency, you'll have plenty. Of course you must have plenty. If only they will have sufficient intellect to select white ones! But they won't. I'd better instruct Roy and Berkeley at once."
On the morning of the ball, Berkeley entered his mother's room, where the three ladies sat in solemn conclave regarding with discontent a waiter full of colored flowers which a thoughtful neighbor had just sent over to Pocahontas. He held in his hand a good-sized box which he deposited in his sister's lap with the remark:
"Look, Princess! Here's a New Year's gift just come for you. I don't know the writing. I wonder what it is!"
"A subtle aroma suggests—fruit," hazarded Grace, sniffing curiously.
"Perhaps flowers," suggests Mrs. Mason, who that morning was a woman with one idea.
Pocahontas wrestled with the cords, unfolded the wrappers, and lifted the cover. Then she uttered a long drawn "oh" of satisfaction.
"What is it?" demanded the others with lively impatience.
Pocahontas lifted a card and turned it in her hand, and a smile broke over her face as she answered: "Flowers; from Jim Byrd."
Then she removed the damp moss and cotton, and lifted spray after spray of beautiful snowy jasmin—Cape Jasmin, pure and powerful, and starry wreaths of the more delicate Catalonian. Only white flowers—all jasmin, Jim's favorite flower; and with them were tropical ferns and grasses. As she held the exquisite blossoms in her hands and inhaled their rich perfume, the girl was conscious that when her old friend penned the order for the fragrant gift, his heart had been full of home, and of the evening beside the river when she had worn his flowers in hair and dress, and had bidden him farewell.
"How beautiful they are!" exclaimed Grace, excitedly, "and just in time for to-night. To think of the way I've made that wretched husband of mine charge through the country since day-break, this morning, in pursuit of white flowers, and here they come like a fairy story. It was very nice of Jim. I'd no idea there was so poetical an impulse in the old fellow; as the selection of these flowers appears to indicate."
"You don't appreciate Jim, Grace. You do him injustice. If thought and care and love for others, combined with tenderness, and delight in giving pleasure, constitutes poetical impulses, then Jim Byrd is the noblest poet we are likely ever to meet." Pocahontas spoke warmly, the color flushing to her cheeks, the light coming to her eyes. Poor Jim!—so far away. Was it disloyal to her old friend to go that night to dance among strangers in the rooms that had been his,—that were full of associations connected with him? At all events, no flowers would she wear save his; no other ornaments of any kind. It would seem, then, as though he participated in her pleasure; rejoiced in her joy. Jim loved always to see her happy. For reasons of their own, the two elder ladies had decided on remaining at home, so that Pocahontas repaired to the ball in male custody alone. Blanche, who was on the watch for the Lanarth party, came forward the instant of their arrival, accompanied by her father, to welcome them, and to bear Pocahontas away to the upper regions to warm herself and remove her wrappings. The rooms were a little chill, she explained, with a shiver, in spite of the splendid fires the general had kept roaring in them all day. Pocahontas must remain where she was and warm herself thoroughly, and she would send one of the boys for her presently. And after a little girlish gossip and mutual admiration of each others' appearance, the small maiden tripped away to her duties below.
Soon there was a knock at the door, and Pocahontas, catching up fan, bouquet and handkerchief, opened it and stepped into the hall. Nesbit Thorne, slender and distinguished looking, was awaiting her, Blanche having encountered and dispatched him immediately on her return to the parlors. As the girl stood an instant framed by the open door, thrown into relief by the soft glowing background of the warmly lighted room, Thorne's heart swelled with mingled gladness and impatience. Joy in the pure perfection of her beauty; impatience at the restraint circumstances forced him still to put upon his love.
At the foot of the stairs they were pounced upon by Percival, who had selected that coigne of vantage as least likely to attract his mother's attention, there to lay in wait for the cards of the unwary. He had been strictly forbidden to importune grown young ladies for dances unless they happened to be wall-flowers, and the injunction lay heavy on his soul. "I will ask girls other men ask," he muttered, darkly, "I hate putting up with refuse and leavings. I'm going to ask the ones I want to ask," and he intrenched himself beside the stairway with intent to black-mail such girls as he should fancy.
Pocahontas, who had a natural affinity for boys, and a great fondness for Percival, yielded to his demand readily enough, surrendering her card to him in gay defiance of Thorne's outspoken reprobation, and laughing mischievously as the boy scrawled his name triumphantly opposite a waltz.
"B.M.! Who's B.M., Miss Princess?" he questioned, as he dextrously avoided Thorne's extended hand, and placed the card in Pocahontas's.
"You've got him down just above me, and you wrote it yourself. Who is he? Benevolent Missionary? Brother Mason?"
"Exactly!" she answered, smiling, and watching Thorne scribble his name in several places on her card. "It is Berkeley. The Byrd girls and I always saved a waltz for him to prevent his feeling left out. He don't like to ask girls generally; his one arm makes it look awkward, and he knows they wouldn't like to refuse, because they all feel sorry for him. We put a hand on each shoulder, and don't care how it looks. Berke is adroit, and manages quite nicely. Often, too, it's an advantage to have a dance you can dispose of later on, so I continue to put the initials, although Berke seldom dances now. He liked waltzing with the Byrd girls best."
"You were very intimate with the Byrds, I think you said," Thorne remarked idly, bowing to an acquaintance as he spoke.
"Very intimate. See what came to me this morning; all these exquisite flowers, just when I needed them for to-night. Roy searched the neighborhood through for white flowers without success, and then these came. Aren't they beautiful?" And she lifted her bouquet toward his face.
"Extremely beautiful!" he assented, bending his head to inhale their fragrance. "It was very kind and thoughtful of your friends to send them. I suppose, from the connection, that they are a Byrd offering."
Pocahontas laughed softly. "Yes," she said, "but they did not come from Belle, or Nina, and Susie is in California. Jim ordered them for me. I am so pleased."
Thorne instantly raised his head and stiffened his back as though the delicate perfume were some noxious poison, and moved on with her toward the parlors in silence.
"I wish you knew Jim, Mr. Thorne," pursued the happy voice at his side; "he's such a good fellow, so noble, generous, and unselfish; we're all so fond of Jim. I wish he were here to-night to tread a measure with me in the old rooms. You would be sure to fraternize with Jim. You could not help liking him."
Thorne drew in his lips ominously. He could help liking Jim Byrd well enough, and felt not the faintest desire for either his presence or his friendship. The intervention of a woman with whom two men are in love has never yet established amity between them; the very suggestion of such a thing on her lips is sufficient to cause an irruption of hatred, malice and all unkindness.
Moreover, Thorne was in a fury with himself. He had thought of sending for flowers for Pocahontas at the same time he dispatched the order to the Richmond florist for his aunt. He had feverishly longed to do it, and had pondered the matter fully half an hour before deciding that he had better not. He had not scrupled to pay Pocahontas attentions before he realized that he was in love with her, but that fact, once established in his mind, placed her in a different position in regard to him.
She was no longer the woman he wished to draw into a flirtation pour passer le temps; she was the woman he wished to marry—was determined to marry, if possible. The instinct, common to every manly man, to hold in peculiar respect the woman whom he wishes to make his wife, led Thorne to feel that, until he should be free from the fetter that bound him, he should abstain from paying Pocahontas marked attention; to feel that she would have cause of complaint against him if he did not abstain.
So he argued the case in cold blood; but now his blood was boiling and he dubbed himself fool in language concise and forcible. See what had come of his self-denial? Another man had done what he had left undone; another hand had laid in hers the fragrant offering it should have been his to bestow. Fool that he had been, to stand aside and let another man seize the opportunity!
Jasmin, too! Pah! The heavy perfume made him ill. He was conscious of a fierce longing to snatch the blossoms from her hand and crush them down into the heart of the fire and hold them there—the pale, sickly things. He would have given her roses, passionate, glorious roses, deep-hearted and crimson with the wine of love.
Pocahontas had small time for wondering over her cavalier's sudden moroseness, for no sooner had she entered the parlors than old friends crowded forward to speak to her and claim a dance; the girl was popular among the young people of the vicinity. She was a wonderful success that night. Not even Norma, for all her rich tropical beauty, was more admired.
"Our little squaw is smashing things, Berke," remarked Roy Garnett, later in the evening, as he joined his brother-in-law in the recess by the fireplace. "The men all swear she's the handsomest woman in the room—and on my soul I believe they're right."
"She does look well," responded Mason with all a brother's calm moderation. "Her dress is in good taste, and she moves gracefully. But she isn't the handsomest woman in the room by long odds. Look at Norma Smith."
"I have looked at her," retorted Roy shortly, "and so I suppose have the other men. There's no more comparison between her and Princess than there is between a gorgeous, striped tulip, and a white tea rose." (For some inscrutable reason Roy had never been able to endure Norma, and even grudged acknowledgment of her undeniable beauty). "Look at that fellow Thorne, now!" he added, with the pleased alacrity of one producing an unexpected trump, "I should say that he shared my opinion. He hasn't danced voluntarily with another woman in the room, nor left her side a moment that he could help. It looks as though he were pretty hard hit, doesn't it?"
Garnett was right; for after the episode with Jim Byrd's flowers, Thorne had thrown self-control to the winds. He danced with Pocahontas as frequently as she would allow him, hovered constantly in her vicinity, and only lost sight of her when dragged off by his aunt for duty dances. Twice during the evening—and only twice—did he leave her voluntarily, and then it was to dance with Norma, whose suspicions he did not wish to arouse. The instinct of rivalry had overthrown all restraint and for this evening he was madly determined to let things take their course. They were here, he and his family, in Jim Byrd's place; living in the house that had been his, entertaining the friends that had been his, in the very rooms that so short a time ago had echoed to his footsteps and resounded with his laugh. He had been thrust aside, and must continue to stand aside; the past had been his, let him keep out of the present; let him beware how he marred the future. And for the bond that held himself, Thorne had forgotten all about it. In his passion and excitement it was a thing without existence.
Later in the evening, there came a gleam of brightness for little Blanche; a blissful hour which indemnified her for the boredom so unflinchingly endured. As Norma only did what pleased her, most of the drudgery of entertaining fell upon Blanche, whose grievous portion it was to attend to the comfort of dowagers; to find partners for luckless damsels unable to find them for themselves, and to encourage and bring out bashful youths. As the latter considered that the true expression of their gratitude lay in devoting themselves exclusively and eternally to their pretty little preceptress, Blanche had lately come to hold this part of her duty a wearisome affliction.
She was seated on a tiny sofa surrounded by a band of uneasy and enamored youths ranging in age from sixteen to twenty, when Mason caught sight of her pretty, fatigued, but resolutely courteous face, and came instantly to her rescue. He was very fond of Blanche, and teased and petted her with almost cousinly freedom. He felt himself a middle-aged man beside her, and admired her sweet face, and gentle unselfishness as unreservedly as he would have done those of a child. Moving her draperies aside with a kindly, if unceremonious hand, he ensconced himself beside her right willingly and devoted his best energies to her amusement, and that of her small court; lifted the burden of their entertainment from her shoulders with ready tact, and waked the boys up vigorously, causing them to enjoy themselves, and forget that they were young; and lonesome, and foolish. Kind, thoughtful Berkeley! No wonder the silly little heart beside him fluttered joyously, and the shy blue eyes were raised to his grave handsome face with full measure of content.
And so the hours sped, golden-footed, silver-footed; and the pipers piped and the men and maidens danced and the elders gossiped, drank champagne, and reveled in the fleshpots, yawning surreptitiously behind fans and handkerchiefs as the evening waned.
Pocahontas, roused from a dream of enjoyment by Roy's mandate, sped lightly up stairs to the dressing-room, and arrayed herself hastily in her mufflings. At the stairway Thorne joined her, and as her foot touched the lowest step he took her unresisting hand and raised it to his lips murmuring softly; "A happy New Year to you—my darling! my queen!"
Then good-night to host and hostess, a swift, impulsive kiss to Blanche, and Berkeley put her into the carriage; Roy tightened the reins and they drove rapidly away in the chill gray of the January dawn. The ball was over; the New Year begun.
Thorne, standing by the steps watching the receding carriage, noticed the bouquet of half-faded jasmin blossoms, which had slipped unheeded from the girl's hand, and lay neglected and forgotten on the frozen ground. The impulse came to him to raise them tenderly because her hands had touched them, and then the thought of who had given them arose and struck down the impulse. He set his heel upon them.
For him also, the New Year had begun.
The day after a ball is always a languid, wearisome period, to be dozed or yawned through, on bed or sofa, in a state of total collapse. Life for the time is disorganized, disenchanted; there is a feeling of flatness everywhere, the rooms lately brilliant and joyous with light and color; fade out in the chilling glare of day, and appear like "banquet halls deserted," which each individual "treads alone," surrounded by an atmosphere of fatigue, ennui and crossness. In the country the flatness falls with full perfection, for there is seldom the anticipation of more excitement to buoy one up and keep the effervescence of the cup of pleasure up to the proper sparkle.
At a late—a very late breakfast, the morning after the Shirley ball, the Smiths were assembled with the exception of Blanche, who had entreated to be left undisturbed, since she must sleep or die, and Percival, who had breakfasted sketchily on scraps and confectionery, hours before, and was away in the woods with his gun.
The mail, always deposited in a little heap beside the general's plate, had been distributed. There was very little—two newspapers, a couple of letters for Nesbit Thorne, and one for Norma from a New York friend, claiming a promised visit, and overflowing with gossip and news of Gotham, full of personalities also, and a faint lady-like suspicion of wickedness—a racy, entertaining letter. The writer, a Mrs. Vincent, was Norma's most intimate friend, and she often sacrificed an hour of her valuable time to the amusement of the girl, whom she felt convinced was bored to death down in that country desert. The letter in question was unusually diffuse, for Mrs. Vincent was keeping her room with a heavy cold, and had herself to amuse as well as Norma. Norma read scraps of it aloud for the edification of her mother, and the young men; the general, with his nose in his paper, let the tide of gossip pass.
Thorne, after a comprehensive glance at his own correspondence, slipped his letters quietly into his pocket, and gave his best attention to his cousin's. He had a rooted objection to reading even indifferent letters under scrutiny, and these he felt convinced were not indifferent; for one was addressed in the handsome large hand of his wife, and the writing on the other was unknown to him—it had a legal aspect. They were letters whose perusal might prove unpleasant; so Thorne postponed it.
There is an old adage relative to thoughts of the power of darkness being invariably followed by the appearance of his emissaries, and although Mrs. Thorne was far from being the devil, or her letter one of his imps, the arrival of the one, so promptly upon the heels of thoughts of the other, was singular; her husband felt it so.
"Mamma," observed Norma, glancing up from her letter, "Kate says that Cecil Cumberland is engaged, or going to be engaged, I can't exactly make out which. Kate words it a little ambiguously; at all events there appears to be considerable talk about it. Kate writes: 'Cecil looks radiantly worried, and sulkily important. His family are ranged in a solid phalanx of indignant opposition, which, of course, clinches the affair firmly. Eva Cumberland was here this morning in a white heat of passion over it; and I believe apoplexy or hydrophobia is imminent for the old lady. The fact of Mrs.——'" Norma's voice trailed off into an unintelligible murmur, and she read on silently.
"Mrs.—who, my dear?" questioned her mother, with lively interest. "Is Cecil going to marry an objectionable widow?"
"Wait a moment, mamma. Kate writes so indistinctly, I'll be able to tell you presently," there was a shade of reserve perceptible in Norma's voice.
"But why do the family oppose it?" persisted Mrs. Smith. A warning look from her daughter admonished her to let the matter rest; that there were facts connected with Mr. Cumberland's marriage, the investigation and discussion of which had better be postponed. Mrs. Smith's tongue burned with inquiries, but she bravely held them back, and sought to produce a diversion by idle conjectures about Percival.
Norma parried the curiosity of the others adroitly, and declining any more breakfast, betook herself and her letter to the back parlor, where she drew a deep arm-chair to the fire, and settled herself comfortably to re-peruse that portion of her friend's epistle, which related to Cecil Cumberland's affairs.
Thorne presently followed her, and established himself opposite. He was great friends with Norma; once, in the days before his marriage, there had appeared a likelihood of their becoming more than friends. All that had been forgotten by the man; the woman's memory was more tenacious. They were wonderfully good friends still, these two; they never worried or jarred on one another.
Thorne, having no special desire to read his own letters, lighted a cigar, stirred the fire to a glorious blaze, and waxed conversational. The theme he selected for discussion was the topic introduced and interdicted at the breakfast table a few moments previously—the debatable engagement of their New York acquaintance. On this subject he chose to exhibit an unusual—and as Norma felt, unnecessary, degree of curiosity. He cross-questioned the girl vigorously, and failing to elicit satisfactory replies, laughingly accused her of an attempt to earn a cheap notoriety by the elaboration of a petty mystery.
"I wish you'd stop trying to put me on the witness stand, Nesbit!" she exclaimed in vexation; "why don't you read your own letters? One is from Ethel, I know. See what she says."
Thorne took his wife's missive from his pocket, opened, and glanced through it hurriedly; then turned back to the first page, and re-read it more carefully, the expression of his face hardening into cynicism, slightly dashed with disgust. The letter was penned in a large running hand and covered eight pages of dainty cream-laid paper. It was rambling in phraseology, and lachrymose in tone, but it indicated a want, and made that want clear.
Mrs. Thorne gave no special reason for desiring release from her marriage vows; she dwelt at length on her "lonely and unprotected" condition, and was very sorry for herself, and considered her case a hard one; suggesting blame to her husband in that he had not taken the necessary steps for her release long before. She intimated that he had been selfish and lacking in proper consideration for her in leaving it to her to take the initial steps in the matter. He should have arranged about the divorce at the time of the separation, she said, and so have spared her annoyance. As he had not done so, she hoped he would show some consideration for her now, and help her to arrange the disagreeable business as speedily and privately as possible. He really owed her indulgence "after all that had passed"; the last words were heavily underscored.
Thorne, conscious that the present position of matters between them, as well as the past unhappiness, was quite as much her fault as his, and the act of separation more so—he having been the passive and consenting party, did not consider it specially incumbent on him to make things easy for his wife. In his irritation and disgust at her heartless selfishness, he half determined to make them very much the reverse. He was not surprised at his wife's communication; he knew perfectly well that she would seek a divorce sooner or later, as the liberality of the world in such matters made it natural that she should do. He also knew that it was the larger command of the income which he had allowed her for his child's sake, combined with the lack of strong personal motive, which had prevented her from getting a divorce before. Her letter irritated him, not because she desired to break the shadowy bonds which still held her, but because he had behaved well to her, and she had taken it as her right with careless ingratitude. What he had done, he had done for his son's sake, but he was none the less provoked that Ethel had failed of appreciation and acknowledgment.
"Read that!" he said, and tossed the letter into Norma's lap. While she was doing so, he broke the seal of the other letter which proved to be a communication from a firm of solicitors in a small town in Illinois, in whose hands Mrs. Thorne had placed her case. It was delicately and ambiguously worded, as became the nature of the business, and contained simply a courteous notification of their client's intentions.
Norma had been prepared for Mrs. Thorne's letter by that of her friend Mrs. Vincent; and perhaps also by a secret hope on which she had fed for years—a hope that this would happen. She read the letter therefore without emotion, and returned it without comment.
"Well?" he queried impatiently.
"Well!" she echoed.
"What do you think of it?"
"I think that Mrs. Thorne wishes to marry again."
"No!—do you?" The tone was thoughtful; the interrogation delivered slowly. The idea was a new one, and it put a different complexion upon the matter, because of the child; there were still several years during which the personal custody of the boy was the mother's of right. It behooved him to look into this matter more closely.
"Yes, I'm sure of it," responded Norma; "it's town talk. See what Kate Vincent says about it."
She handed him her letter folded down at this paragraph: "People have been mildly excited, and the gossips' tongues set wagging by a rumor which floated down from the Adirondacks last summer, and has been gaining body and substance ever since. You remember how Cecil Cumberland philandered after a certain lady of our acquaintance last winter, and how unremitting were his attentions? Friendship, my dear! Harmless friendship on a pure platonic platform; you understand—honi soit qui mal y pense. Well this autumn the plot thickened; the platonism became less apparent; the friendship more pronounced. Nothing painfully noticeable—oh no; the lady is too clever—still, the gossips began to take a contract, and work on it in slack seasons, and latterly with diligence. It is openly predicted that madam will seek a divorce, and then!—we shall see what we shall see. Cecil looks radiantly worried and sulkily important. His family are ranged in a solid phalanx of indignant opposition, which of course clinches the matter firmly. Eva Cumberland was here this morning in a white heat of passion over it, and I believe apoplexy or hydrophobia is imminent for the old lady. The fact of Mrs. Thorne's being still a married woman gives the affair a queer look to squeamish mortals, and the Cumberland women are the quintessence of conservative old-fogyism; they might be fresh from the South Carolina woods for all the advancement they can boast. It's wicked, and I'm ashamed of myself, but whenever I think of Ethel Thorne trying conclusions with those strait-laced Cumberlands, I'm filled with unholy mirth." Then followed belated apologies for this careless handling of a family matter, and copious explanations. Mrs. Vincent was a wordy woman, fond of writing and apt to be diffuse when not pressed for time.
Thorne returned the letter to his cousin, and announced his intention of returning to New York immediately.
"By using dispatch I can catch the boat at Wintergreen this afternoon," he said. "I wish you'd tell your mother, Norma, only your mother, please; it will be time enough to acquaint the others when the whole affair is out. And, Norma, I can trust you, I know; keep the matter quiet here as long as possible. These people are strangers; they know nothing. I don't want to be in every body's mouth—a nine days' wonder, here as well as in New York. It will be bad enough there. Promise me to keep it quiet, Norma."
Thorne had reasons for the request. He had ascertained, beyond all doubt, that no hint of his story had as yet reached Pocahontas. He was surprised at first, for he thought all women gossiped, and the affair had never been a secret. He did not conceive for a moment, that the fact of his divorce would be a permanent stumbling block in the way of his happiness, but he realized something of the conservatism of her surroundings, and the old world influences and prejudices amid which she had been reared. She would be shocked and startled at first; she would have to grow accustomed to the idea, then reconciled to it. He recognized at a glance the immense advantage it would be to him to tell his story himself, and, in his own way, to enlist her sympathy and to arouse her indignation and her partisanship.
The explanation of the girl's ignorance is simple and natural. The intercourse between the two families was cordial and frequent, but there were reservations—tracts of territory which were never trenched on. There was about the Masons a certain fine reserve which discouraged promiscuous and effusive confidences. Exhaustive investigation of their neighbors' affairs had never been their practice; it was a proud family; a conservative family.
The Smiths had seen no reason to give publicity to their own particular family scandal. Other people's skeletons were interesting, but the rattling of the bones of their own annoyed them. Then, too, it was such an old story, its interest as gossip had passed, its piquancy had evaporated. These people knew none of the parties; it could be to them of no possible interest even as narrative. There had been no definite determination on the part of the Smiths to say nothing of the affair; but nothing had been said. Thorne did not correspond with his wife, nor did any member of his family, so there were no tell-tale letters to excite comment or curiosity at the village post-office. How was Pocahontas to know?
With Thorne's good pleasure, her ignorance would remain until he himself should lift it.
Norma gave the required promise willingly. She, too, objected to this affair obtaining publicity. While Thorne sought her father to explain a sudden call to New York "on business," she communicated the contents of Mrs. Vincent's letter to her mother, and informed her of Thorne's determination. Then leaving the good lady to get the better of her consternation by herself, and to make impossible suggestions, to the empty air, she repaired to her cousin's room, and assisted him in his hurried preparations.
Norma was exultant. The thing she had longed, thirsted and well-nigh prayed for, was coming to pass. Thorne would be a free man once more, free to come back to her, free to bring again the old sweetness to her life, free to renew the spring of years ago. Sitting by the library fire in the gloaming after her cousin's departure, Norma dreamed dreams and was happy—her eyes softened, and her lips smiled. Then her face darkened slowly, and the hands in her lap clinched themselves. In her fierce joy in the possibility of her reward coming to her at last, was mingled a dread that the cup might be dashed from her lips a second time.
During the first couple of months after the removal to Virginia, Norma had relaxed her constant, imperceptible watch over Thorne. He had accompanied them to the new home unsolicited; and having come, he had remained. Small wonder that Norma had been deceived; for vanity aside, she could not help but know that no woman in that region—not even Pocahontas Mason—was her peer in beauty, wit, or accomplishments. What had she to fear, with habit and contrast both in her favor? Norma neglected to provide against one subtle and most powerful element—novelty.
For the past few weeks, first one thing, then another; trifles light as air, but forging a chain heavy enough to link suspicion with certainty, had filled the girl with the old fever of unrest. Was she never to be at rest? Would the glory of the past never shine upon the present?
Like most women who allow their minds to dwell constantly on one theme, Norma exaggerated the past. When she first left school there had been a little semi-sentiment and a good deal of rather warm cousinly attentions on Thorne's part, but without serious intention. As has been stated, Thorne liked women; he sought their society and was apt to endeavor to awaken their interest, to gain their affection. He thought that the restless craving of his nature was for love to be given him. It was not. It was the wild passion in his breast seeking to give itself. What he needed was not more love drawn into the reservoir of his heart, but an outlet for that already accumulated. This he had never had since he had reached manhood, save only in his affection for his child, and that was as yet too small a channel to afford vent for the power of love behind. And so it came to pass that in his need for an outlet, he had made a great deal of love to a great many women, and had looked more than he made.
As Norma budded into beautiful womanhood, he had been attracted by her, and had yielded to the attraction, intending no harm but accomplishing a good deal. He had liked and admired his cousin then, and in exactly the same manner and degree, he liked and admired her now.
To the young lady, the affair wore a totally different aspect; the flirtation, which had meant nothing to him and had been long ago effaced from his memory, meant every thing of value on earth to her, and was as fresh in her mind as though the years that had passed had been days or hours. Thorne's marriage had been a great blow to her—great and unexpected. She had observed his attentions to Ethel Ross, and raged at them in secret; but she had seen him equally devoted to a score of other women, and the devotion had been evanescent; with her rage and jealousy, had mingled no definite alarm. The engagement—an affair of six weeks, had been contracted while she was away from home, and the first intimation she had of it came through a letter from Ethel Ross inviting her to officiate as bridesmaid. Norma read and the heart within her died, but she made no sound, for she was a proud woman—as proud as she was passionate. She even acceded to the bride's request and, as Thorne's next of kin, led the bevy of girls selected, from the fairest of society to do honor to the occasion; her refusal would have excited comment. But as she stood behind the woman, who she felt had usurped her place, a fierce longing was in her heart to strike her rival dead at her feet.
After the marriage she continued her intimacy with Mrs. Thorne—and with Mr. Thorne. When clouds began to gather along the matrimonial horizon, and "rifts within the lute" to make discord of life's music, she beheld the one, and hearkened to the other with savage thrills of satisfaction. She did nothing to widen the breach—Norma was too proud to be a mischief-maker, but she did nothing to lessen it. She watched with sullen pleasure the cleft increase to a crack, the crack to a chasm. When the separation became an accomplished fact, it found Norma, of course, ranged strongly on the husband's side.
During the year which had elapsed since Thorne's return from abroad, Norma had contrived to establish considerable influence over her cousin. She studied him quietly, and adapted herself to his moods, never boring him with an over-display of interest, never chilling him with an absence of it. Her plan was to make herself necessary to him, and in part she succeeded. Thorne, lonely and cut adrift, came more and more frequently to his aunt's house and exhibited more and more decidedly his preference for his cousin's society. The thin end of the wedge was in, and but for the move to Virginia, and its ill-starred consequences, the inevitable result must have followed.
Would it follow now? A vision of Pocahontas, with her fair face, and her sweet gray eyes framed in a soft cloud of white, standing on the lower step of the stairway, with Thorne beside her, his head bent low over the hand he clasped, rose before Norma's eyes and caused them to burn with jealous anger. Here was the old thing repeating itself; here was flirtation again, the exact extent of which she could not determine. It must be stopped at once, trampled out ere the flame should do irremediable damage.
But how? With the question came the answer. Norma was sure that, as yet, no knowledge of Thorne's marriage had ever reached Pocahontas. She would enlighten her; and in such a way that, if there had been aught of love-making on the gentleman's part (and Norma, knowing her cousin, thought it probable there had been), every look and word and tone should seem a separate insult.
She also decided that it would be better to accept Mrs. Vincent's invitation, and return to New York for awhile. She knew very well why the invitation had been given, and saw through the shallow maneuvers to win her acceptance of it. Hugh Castleton, Mrs. Vincent's favorite brother, was in New York again, and she had not abandoned her old scheme of a match between him and her friend. Norma felt quite competent to foil her friend's plans in the present as she had foiled them in the past, so had no hesitation, on that score, in accepting the invitation. It would be better to be in New York—on the spot, while this matter should be pending. Thorne might need advice, certainly would need sympathy and petting; he must not learn to do without her. Even if he had only been amusing himself here, after his reprehensible wont, her presence in New York could do no harm and might be productive of good.
One afternoon, several days after Thorne's departure, Norma donned her warmest wraps and set out for a walk over to Lanarth. It was a dull afternoon following on a morning of uncertain brightness; dark clouds, heavy with snow, hung sullenly along the horizon; and above, the sky was of a somber, leaden hue. The air felt chill and clinging, like that of a vault; and heaven above, and earth beneath betrayed a severity of mood infinitely depressing. Norma shivered in spite of her heavy furs, and hurried on, burying her hands in her muff.
Pocahontas, duly notified of Norma's approach by the vigilant Sawney, met her guest at the door, and drew her in with words of welcome, and praises of her bravery in venturing abroad in such gloomy weather. The girls did not kiss each other—as is too much the custom with their sex. Pocahontas did not like effusive embraces; a kiss with her meant a good deal.
In the sitting-room Mrs. Mason and Berkeley added their welcome, and established Norma in the coziest corner of the hearth, where the fire would comfort without scorching her. Pocahontas stooped to remove her furs and wraps, but Norma staid her hand; it would not be worth while, she said; she had only come to call.
"Do stay to tea!" entreated Pocahontas. "Berke will take you home afterward. We haven't looked on a white face except our own for two whole days. We are pining for change and distraction, and beginning to hate each other from very ennui. Take pity on us and stay."
"Yes, my dear, you must consent," added Mrs. Mason. "You haven't taken tea with us for a long time. Berkeley, help Norma with her wrappings. And, Princess, suppose you run and tell Rachel to make waffles for tea. Norma is so fond of them."
Norma yielded to their persuasions, feeling a little curiously, but hardening her heart. What she had come to say, she intended to say; but it would be best to wait an opportunity. She let Berkeley take her wraps, and established herself comfortably, bent on making the time pass pleasantly, and herself thoroughly agreeable.
The meal was a merry one, for Norma exerted herself unusually, and was ably seconded by Pocahontas, who, for some reason, appeared in brilliant spirits. After tea they discovered that it was snowing heavily. The threatened storm had come—evenly, slowly, in a thick, impenetrable cloud, the white flakes fell, without haste, excitement or the flurry of wind. Already the ground was covered and the trees were bending with the weight of the white garment the sky was throwing over them. It was unfit weather for a lady to encounter, or indeed for anything feminine to be abroad in, save a witch on a broomstick. Norma was fain to accept Mrs. Mason's invitation and remain for the night at Lanarth.
When the two girls, in dressing gowns and slippers, sat over the fire in Pocahontas's room, brushing out their long hair, Norma found the opportunity for which she had lain in wait the entire evening. It was the hour for confidences, the house was quiet, the inmates all dispersed to their several couches. Norma, brush in hand and hair flowing in a heavy, black veil around her, had quitted her own room across the passage, and established herself in a low rocking-chair beside Pocahontas's bright fire. She was far too clever a diplomatist to introduce her subject hastily; she approached it gradually from long range—stalked it delicately with skillful avoidance of surprise or bungling. The game must be brought down; on that she was determined; but there should be no bludgeon blows, no awkward carnage. The death-stab should be given clean, with scientific skill and swiftness, and the blow once given, she would retire to her own room and let her victim find what solace she could in solitude. Norma was not wantonly cruel; she could impale a foe, but she had no desire to witness his contortions. After a death-scene she shrank from the grewsomeness of burial; she preferred a decent drop-curtain and the grateful darkness.
After some idle conversation, she deftly turned the talk upon New York, and the life there, and rallied all her powers to be picturesque and entertaining. She held her listener entranced with rapid, clever sketches of society and the men and women who composed it, drawing vivid pictures of its usages, beliefs, and modes of thought and expression. Gradually she glided into personalities, giving some of her individual experiences, and sketching in an acquaintance or two, with brilliant, caustic touches. Soon Thorne's name appeared, and she noticed that the listener's interest deepened. She spoke of him in warm terms of admiration—dwelt on his intellect, his talents and the bright promise of his manhood; and then, observing that the brush had ceased its regular passes over the bright brown hair, and that the gray eyes were on the fire, without pause or warning she spoke of his hurried courtship and sudden marriage. She winced involuntarily as she saw the cold, gray pallor creep slowly over the girl's face, and noted the sudden tremor that passed through her limbs; but she steeled herself against compassion, and proceeded with her brushing and her narrative like one devoid of sight and understanding.
"I can not expect you, who know Nesbit so slightly, to be much interested in all this," she said, watching Pocahontas through her lashes; "I fear I only bore you with my story, but my mind has been so exercised over the poor fellow's troubles again lately, that I must unburden it to some one. You have no personal interest in the matter, therefore you will forgive my trespassing on your courtesy—especially when I tell you that I've no one at home to talk to. Nesbit wishes particularly that his story shouldn't get abroad here, and if I should revive it in Blanche's mind, she might mention it to others. Mamma would not; but unfortunately mamma and I rarely look at a thing from the same standpoint. It's been a relief to speak to you—far greater than speaking to Blanche. Blanche is so excitable."
Yes; Blanche was excitable, Pocahontas assented absently; she was bracing her will, and steeling her nerves to endure without flinching. Not for worlds would she—even by the quivering of an eyelash—let Norma see the torture she was inflicting. She felt that Norma had an object in this disclosure, and was dimly sure that the object was hostile. She would think it all out later; at present Norma must not see her anguish. A woman would sooner go to the stake and burn slowly, than allow another woman, who is trying to hurt her, to know that she suffers.
Norma continued, speaking gently, without haste or emotion, telling of the feverish brightness of those early days of marriage, and of the clouds that soon obscured the sunshine—telling of the ennui and unhappiness, gradually sprouting and ripening in the ill-assorted union—shielding the man, as women will, and casting the blame on the woman. Finally she told of the separation, lasting now two years, and of the letter from his wife which had caused Thorne's precipitate departure the day after the Shirley ball.