"Your solution seems plausible, but, pardon me, is totally inadmissible, from the fact that it blends crescent and cross, and ignores antagonisms that deluged centuries with blood."
"You forget, Mr. Leigh, that Mohammedanism is nothing but a huge eclecticism, and that its founder stole its elements from surrounding systems. The symbolism of the crescent he took from the mysteries of Isis and Astarte; the ethical code of Christ he engrafted on the monotheism of Judaism; his typical forms are drawn from the Old Testament or the more modern Mishma; and his pretended miracles are mere repetitions of the wonders performed by our Saviour—for instance, the basket of dates, the roasted lamb, the loaf of barley bread, in the siege of Medina. Even the Moslem Jehennam is a palpable imitation of the Hebrew Gehenna. Beside, sir, you know that Sabeanism reigned in Arabia just before the advent of Mohammed, and if you refuse to believe that the Star of Bethlehem was signified by this one shining here on the ram's horn, at least you must admit that it refers to stars studied by the shepherds who watched their flocks on the Chaldean plains. In a cabinet of coins and medals, belonging to Mr. Murray, I have examined one of silver, representing Astaroth, with the head of a woman adorned with horns and a crescent, and another of brass, containing an image of Baal—a human face on the head of an ox, with the horns surrounded by stars. However, I am very ignorant of these things, and you must refer the riddle of the ring to some one more astute and learned in such matters than your humble 'yokefellow' in Hebrew. 'Peace be with you.'"
"I repeat 'Peace be with thee,' during the new year on which we are both entering, and, as you have at least attempted to read the riddle, let me beg that you will do me the honor to accept and wear the ring in memory of our friendship and our student life."
He took her hand, and would have placed the ring on her finger, but she resisted.
"Thank you, Mr. Leigh, I appreciate the honor, but indeed you must excuse me, I cannot accept the ring."
"Why not, Miss Edna?"
"In the first place, because it is very valuable and beautiful, and I am not willing to deprive you of it; in the second, I do not think it proper to accept presents from—any one but relatives or dear friends."
"I thought we were dear friends? Why can we not be such?"
At this moment Mrs. Murray came into the dining-room, and as she looked at the two sitting there in the early sunshine, with the basket of flowers between them; as she marked the heightened color and embarrassed expression on one fair, sweet face, and the eager pleading written on the other, so full of manly beauty, so frank and bright and genial, a possible destiny for both flashed before her; and pleased surprise warmed her own countenance as she hurried forward.
"Good-morning, Gordon. I am very glad to see you. How is Clara?"
"Quite well, thank you, and entirely absorbed in preparations for her party, as you will infer from this note, which she charged me to deliver in person, and for which I here pray your most favorable consideration."
As Mrs. Murray glanced over the note Edna turned to leave the room; but Mr. Leigh exclaimed:
"Do not go just yet, I wish Mrs. Murray to decide a matter for me."
"Well, Gordon, what is it?"
"First, do you grant my sister's petition?"
"Certainly, I will bring Edna with me to-night, unless she prefers staying at home with her books. You know I let her do pretty much as she pleases."
"Now then for my little quarrel! Here is a curious old ring, which she will appreciate more highly than any one else whom I happen to know, and I want her to accept it as a birthday memento from me, but a few minutes ago she refused to wear it. Can you not come to my assistance, my dear Mrs. Murray?"
She took the ring, examined it, and said, after a pause:
"I think, Gordon, that she did exactly right; but I also think that now, with my approval and advice, she need not hesitate to wear it henceforth, as a token of your friendship. Edna, hold out your hand, my dear."
The ring was slipped on the slender finger, and as she released her hand, Mrs. Murray bent down and kissed her forehead.
"Seventeen to-day! My child, I can scarcely believe it! And you— Gordon? May I ask how old you are?"
"Twenty-five—I grieve to say! You need not tell me—"
The conversation was interrupted by the ringing of the breakfast bell, and soon after, Mr. Leigh took his departure.
Edna felt puzzled and annoyed, and as she looked down at the ring she thought that instead of "Peace be with thee," the Semitic characters must surely mean, "Disquiet seize thee!" for they had shivered the beautiful calm of her girlish nature, and thrust into her mind ideas unknown until that day. Going to her own room, she opened her books, but ere she could fix her wandering thoughts Mrs. Murray entered.
"Edna, I came to speak to you about your dress for to-night."
"Please do not say that you wish me to go, my dear Mrs. Murray, for I dread the very thought."
"But I must tell you that I insist upon your conforming to the usages of good society. Mrs. Inge belongs to one of the very first families in the State; at her house you will meet the best people, and you could not possibly make your debut under more favorable circumstances. Beside, it is very unnatural that a young girl should not enjoy parties and the society of gay young people. You are very unnecessarily making a recluse of yourself, and I shall not permit you to refuse such an invitation as Mrs. Inge has sent. It would be rude in the extreme."
"Dear Mrs. Murray, you speak of my debut, as if, like other girls, I had nothing else to do but fit myself for society. These people care nothing for me, and I am as little interested in them. I have no desire to move for a short time in a circle from which my work in life must soon separate me."
"To what work do you allude?"
"The support which I must make by teaching. In a few months I hope to be able to earn all I need, and then—"
"Then it will be quite time enough to determine what necessity demands; in the meanwhile, as long as you are in my house you must allow me to judge what is proper for you. Clara Inge is my friend, and I can not allow you to be rude to her. I have sent the carriage to town for Miss O'Riley, my mantua-maker, and Hagar will make the skirt of your dress. Come into my room and let her take the measure."
"Thank you for your kind thoughtfulness, but indeed I do not want to go. Please let me stay at home! You can frame some polite excuse, and Mrs. Inge cares not whether I go or stay. I will write my regrets and—"
"Don't be childish, Edna; I care whether you go or stay, and that fact should weigh with you much more than Mrs. Inge's wishes, for you are quite right in supposing that it is a matter of indifference to her. Do not keep Hagar waiting."
Mrs. Murray's brow clouded, and her lips contracted, as was their habit, when anything displeased her; consequently after a quick glance, Edna followed her to the room where Hagar was at work. It was the first time the orphan had been invited to a large party, and she shrank from meeting people whose standard of gentility was confined to high birth and handsome fortunes. Mrs. Inge came frequently to Le Bocage, but Edna's acquaintance with her was comparatively slight, and in addition to her repugnance to meeting strangers she dreaded seeing Mr. Leigh again so soon, for she felt that an undefinable barrier had suddenly risen between them; the frank, fearless freedom of the old friendship at the parsonage table had vanished. She began to wish that she had never studied Hebrew, that she had never heard of Basilides, and that the sheik's ring was back among the ruins of Chilminar. Mrs. Murray saw her discomposure, but chose to take no notice of it, and superintended her toilet that night with almost as much interest as if she had been her own daughter.
During the drive she talked on indifferent subjects, and as they went up to the dressing-room had the satisfaction of seeing that her protegee manifested no trepidation. They arrived rather late, the company had assembled, and the rooms were quite full as Mrs. Murray entered; but Mrs. Inge met them at the threshold, and Mr. Leigh, who seemed on the watch, came forward at the same instant, and offered Edna his arm.
"Ah, Mrs. Murray! I had almost abandoned the hope of seeing you. Miss Edna, the set is just forming, and we must celebrate our birthday by having the first dance together. Excuse you, indeed! You presume upon my well-known good nature and generosity, but this evening I am privileged to be selfish."
As he drew her into the middle of the room she noticed that he wore the flowers she had given him in the morning, and this, in conjunction with the curious scrutiny to which she was subjected, brought a sudden surge of color to her cheeks. The dance commenced, and from one corner of the room Mr. Hammond looked eagerly at his two pupils, contrasting them with the gay groups that filled the brilliant apartment.
Edna's slender, graceful figure was robed in white Swiss muslin, with a bertha of rich lace; and rose-colored ribbons formed the sash, and floated from her shoulders. Her beautiful glossy hair was simply coiled in a large roll at the back of the head, and fastened with an ivory comb. Scrutinizing the face lifted toward Mr. Leigh's, while he talked to her, the pastor thought he had never seen a countenance half so eloquent and lovely. Turning his gaze upon her partner, he was compelled to confess that though Gordon Leigh was the handsomest man in the room, no acute observer could look at the two and fail to discover that the blacksmith's granddaughter was far superior to the petted brother of the aristocratic Mrs. Inge. He was so much interested in watching the couple that he did not observe Mrs. Murray's approach until she sat down beside him and whispered:
"Are they not a handsome couple?"
"Gordon and Edna?"
"Indeed they are! I think that child's face is the most attractive, the most fascinating I ever looked at. There is such a rare combination of intelligence, holiness, strength and serenity in her countenance; such a calm, pure light shining in her splendid eyes; such a tender, loving look far down in their soft depths."
"Child! Why she is seventeen to-day." "No matter, Ellen; to me she will always seem a gentle, clinging, questioning child. I look at her often when she is intent on her studies, and wonder how long her pure heart will reject the vanities and baubles that engross most women; how long mere abstract study will continue to charm her; and I tremble when I think of the future to which I know she is looking so eagerly. Now, her emotional nature sleeps, her heart is at rest— slumbering also, she is all intellect at present—giving her brain no relaxation. Ah! if it could always be so. But it will not! There will come a time, I fear, when her fine mind and pure, warm heart will be arrayed against each other, will battle desperately, and one or the other must be subordinated."
"Gordon seems to admire her very much," said Mrs. Murray.
Mr. Hammond sighed, and a shadow crept over his placid features, as he answered:
"Do you wonder at it, Ellen? Can any one know the child well, and fail to admire and love her?"
"If he could only forget her obscure birth—if he could only consent to marry her—what a splendid match it would be for her?"
"Ellen! Ellen Murray! I am surprised at you! Let me beg of you for her sake, for yours, for all parties concerned, not to raise your little finger in this matter; not to utter one word to Edna that might arouse her suspicions; not to hint to Gordon that you dream such an alliance possible; for there is more at stake than you imagine—"
He was unable to conclude the sentence, for the dance had ended, and as Edna caught a glimpse of the beloved countenance of her teacher, she drew her fingers from Mr. Leigh's arm, and hastened to the pastor's side, taking his hand between both hers:
"O, sir! I am glad to see you. I have looked around so often; hoping to catch sight of you. Mrs. Murray, I heard Mrs. Inge asking for you."
When the lady walked away, Edna glided into the seat next the minister, and continued:
"I want to talk to you about a change in some of my studies."
"Wait till to-morrow, my dear. I came here to-night only for a few moments, to gratify Gordon and now I must slip away."
"But, sir, I only want to say, that as you objected at the outset to my studying Hebrew, I will not waste any more time on it just now, but take it up again after a while, when I have plenty of leisure. Don't you think that would be the best plan?"
"My child, are you tired of Hebrew?"
"No, sir; on the contrary, it possesses a singular fascination for me; but I think, if you are willing, I shall discontinue it—at least, for the present. I shall take care to forget nothing that I have already learned."
"You have some special reason for this change, I presume?"
She raised her eyes to his, and said frankly:
"Yes, sir, I have."
"Very well, my dear, do as you like. Good-night."
"I wish I could go now with you."
"Why? I thought you appeared to enjoy your dance very much. Edna, look at me."
She hesitated—then obeyed him, and he saw tears glistening on her long lashes.
Very quietly the old man drew her arm through his, and led her out on the dim veranda, where only an occasional couple promenaded.
"Something troubles you, Edna. Will you confide in me?"
"I feel as if I were occupying a false position here, and yet I do not see how I can extricate myself without displeasing Mrs. Murray, whom I can not bear to offend—she is so very kind and generous."
"Explain yourself, my dear."
"You know that I have not a cent in the world except what Mrs. Murray gives me. I shall have to make my bread by my own work just as soon as you think me competent to teach; and notwithstanding, she thinks I ought to visit and associate as she does with these people, who tolerate me now, simply because they know that while I am under her roof she will exact it of them. To-night, during the dance, I heard two of her fashionable friends criticising and sneering at me; ridiculing her for 'attempting to smuggle that spoiled creature of unknown parentage and doubtless low origin into really first circles.' Other things were said which I can not repeat, that showed me plainly how I am regarded here, and I will not remain in a position which subjects me to such remarks. Mrs. Murray thought it best for me to come; but it was a mistaken kindness. I thought so before I came—now I have irrefragable proof that I was right in my forebodings."
"Can you not tell me all that was said?"
"I shrink, sir, from repeating it, even to you."
"Did Mr. Leigh hear it?"
"I hope not."
"My dear child, I am very much pained to learn that you have been so cruelly wounded; but do not let your mind dwell upon it; those weak, heartless, giddy people are to be pitied, are beneath your notice. Try to fix your thoughts on nobler themes, and waste no reflection on the idle words of those poor gilded moths of fashion and folly, who are incapable of realizing their own degraded and deplorable condition."
"I do not care particularly what they think of me, but I am anxious to avoid hearing their comments upon me, and therefore I am determined to keep as much out of sight as possible. I shall try to do my duty in all things, and poverty is no stigma, thank God! My grandfather was very poor, but he was noble and honest, and as courteous as a nobleman; and I honor his dear, dear memory as tenderly as if he had been reared in a palace. I am not ashamed of my parentage, for my father was as honest and industrious as he was poor, and my mother was as gentle and good as she was beautiful."
There was no faltering in the sweet voice, and no bitterness poisoning it. Mr. Hammond could not see the face, but the tone indexed all, and he was satisfied.
"I am glad, my dear little Edna, that you look at the truth so bravely, and give no more importance to the gossip than your future peace of mind demands. If you have any difficulty in convincing Mrs. Murray of the correctness of your views, let me know, and I will speak to her on the subject. Good-night! May God watch over and bless you!"
When the orphan reentered the parlor, Mrs. Inge presented her to several gentlemen who had requested an introduction; and though her heart was heavy, and her cheeks burned painfully, she exerted herself, and danced and talked constantly until Mrs. Murray announced herself ready to depart.
Joyfully Edna ran upstairs for her wrappings, bade adieu to her hostess, who complimented her on the sensation her beauty had created; and felt relieved and comparatively happy when the carriage-door closed and she found herself alone with her benefactress.
"Well, Edna, notwithstanding your repugnance to going, you acquitted yourself admirably, and seemed to have a delightful time."
"I thank you, ma'am, for doing all in your power to make the evening agreeable to me. I think your kind desire to see me enjoy the party made me happier than everything else."
Gratefully she drew Mrs. Murray's hand to her lips, and the latter little dreamed that at that instant tears were rolling over the flushed face, while the words of the conversation which she had overheard rang mockingly in her ears:
"Mrs. Murray and even Mr. Hammond are scheming to make a match between her and Gordon Leigh. Studying Hebrew indeed! A likely story! She had better go back to her wash-tub and spinning-wheel! Much Hebrew she will learn! Her eyes are set on Gordon's fortune, and Mrs. Murray is silly enough to think he will step into the trap. She will have to bait it with something better than Hebrew and black eyes, or she will miss her game. Gordon will make a fool of her, I dare say, for, like all other young men, he can be flattered into paying her some little attention at first. I am surprised at Mrs. Inge to countenance the girl at all."
Such was the orphan's initiation into the charmed circle of fashionable society; such her welcome to le beau monde.
As she laid her head on her pillow, she could not avoid exclaiming:
"Heaven save me from such aristocrats! and commit me rather to the horny but outstretched hands, the brawny arms, the untutored minds, the simple but kindly-throbbing hearts of proletaire!"
When Mr. Hammond mentioned Edna's determination to discontinue Hebrew, Mr. Leigh expressed no surprise, asked no explanation, but the minister noticed that he bit his lip, and beat a hurried tattoo with the heel of his boot on the stony hearth; and as he studiously avoided all allusion to her, he felt assured that the conversation which she had overheard must have reached the ears of her partner also, and supplied him with a satisfactory solution of her change of purpose. For several weeks Edna saw nothing of her quondam schoolmate; and fixing her thoughts more firmly than ever on her studies, the painful recollection of the birthday fete was lowly fading from her mind, when one morning, as she was returning from the parsonage, Mr. Leigh joined her, and asked permission to attend her home. The sound of his voice, the touch of his hand, brought back all the embarrassment and constraint, and called up the flush of confusion so often attributed to other sources than that from which it really springs.
After a few commonplace remarks, he asked:
"When is Mr. Murray coming home?"
"I have no idea. Even his mother is ignorant of his plans."
"How long has he been absent?"
"Four years to-day."
"Indeed! so long? Where is he?"
"I believe his last letter was written at Edfu, and he said nothing about returning."
"What do you think of his singular character?"
"I know almost nothing about him, as I was too young when I saw him to form an estimate of him."
"Do you not correspond?"
Edna looked up with unfeigned astonishment, and could not avoid smiling at the inquiry.
A short silence followed, and then Mr. Leigh said:
"Do you not frequently ride on horseback?"
"Will you permit me to accompany you to-morrow afternoon?"
"I have promised to make a visit with Mr. Hammond."
"To-morrow morning then, before breakfast?"
She hesitated—the blush deepened, and after a brief struggle, she said hurriedly:
"Please excuse me, Mr. Leigh; I prefer to ride alone."
He bowed, and was silent for a minute, but she saw a smile lurking about the corners of his handsome mouth, threatening to run riot over his features.
"By the by, Miss Edna, I am coming to-night, to ask your assistance in a Chaldee quandary. For several days I have been engaged in a controversy with Mr. Hammond on the old battlefield of ethnology, and, in order to establish my position of diversity of origin, have been comparing the Septuagint with some passages from the Talmud. I heard you say that there was a Rabbinical Targum in the library at Le Bocage, and I must beg you to examine it for me, and ascertain whether it contains any comments on the first chapter of Genesis. Somewhere in my most desultory reading I have seen it stated that in some of those early Targums was the declaration, that 'God originally created men red, white and black.' Mr. Hammond is charitable enough to say that I must have smoked an extra cigar, and dreamed the predicate I am so anxious to authenticate. Will you oblige me by searching for the passage?"
"Certainly, Mr. Leigh, with great pleasure; though perhaps you would prefer to take the book and look through it yourself? My knowledge of Chaldee is very limited."
"Pardon me! my mental vis inertiae vetoes the bare suggestion. I study by proxy whether an opportunity offers, for laziness is the only hereditary taint in the Leigh blood."
"As I am very much interested in this ethnological question, I shall enter into the search with great eagerness."
"Thank you. Do you take the unity or diversity side of the discussion?"
Her merry laugh rang out through the forest that bordered the road.
"Oh, Mr. Leigh! what a ridiculous question! I do not presume to take any side, for I do not pretend to understand or appreciate all the arguments advanced; but I am anxious to acquaint myself with the bearings of the controversy. The idea of my 'taking sides' on a subject which gray-haired savants have spent their laborious lives in striving to elucidate seems extremely ludicrous."
"Still, you are entitled to an idea, either pro or con, even at the outset."
"I have an idea that neither you nor I know anything about the matter; and the per saltum plan of 'taking sides' will only add the prop of prejudice to my ignorance. If, with all his erudition, Mr. Hammond still abstains from dogmatizing on this subject, I can well afford to hold my crude opinions in abeyance. I must stop here, Mr. Leigh, at Mrs. Carter's, on an errand for Mrs. Murray. Good morning, sir; I will hunt the passage you require."
"How have I offended you, Miss Edna?"
He took her hand and detained her.
"I am not offended, Mr. Leigh," and she drew back.
"Why do you dismiss me in such a cold, unfriendly way?"
"If I sometimes appear rude, pardon my unfortunate manner, and believe that it results from no unfriendliness."
"You will be at home this evening?"
"Yes, sir, unless something very unusual occurs."
They parted, and during the remainder of the walk Edna could think of nothing but the revelation written in Gordon Leigh's eyes; the immemorial, yet ever new and startling truth, that opened a new vista in life, that told her she was no longer an isolated child, but a woman, regnant over the generous heart of one of the pets of society.
She saw that he intended her to believe he loved her, and suspicious as gossips had made her with reference to his conduct, she could not suppose he was guilty of heartless and contemptible trifling. She trusted his honor; yet the discovery of his affection brought a sensation of regret—of vague self-reproach, and she felt that in future he would prove a source of endless disquiet. Hitherto she had enjoyed his society, henceforth she felt that she must shun it.
She endeavored to banish the recollection of that strange expression in his generally laughing eyes, and bent over the Targum, hoping to cheat her thoughts into other channels; but the face would not "down at her bidding," and as the day drew near its close she grew nervous and restless.
The chandelier had been lighted, and Mrs. Murray was standing at the window of the sitting-room, watching for the return of a servant whom she had sent to the post-office, when Edna said:
"I believe Mr. Leigh is coming here to tea; he told me so this morning."
"Where did you see him?"
"He walked with me as far as Mrs. Carter's gate, and asked me to look out a reference which he thought I might find in one of Mr. Murray's books."
Mrs. Murray smiled, and said:
"Do you intend to receive him in that calico dress?"
"Why not? I am sure it is very neat; it is perfectly new, and fits me well."
"And is very suitable to wear to the Parsonage, but not quite appropriate when Gordon Leigh takes tea here. You will oblige me by changing your dress and rearranging your hair, which is twisted too loosely."
When she re-entered the room, a half-hour later, Mrs. Murray leaned against the mantelpiece, with an open letter in her hand and dreary disappointment printed on her face.
"I hope you have no unpleasant tidings from Mr. Murray. May I ask why you seem so much depressed?"
The mother's features twitched painfully as she restored the letter to its envelope, and answered:
"My son's letter is dated Philoe, just two months ago, and he says he intended starting next day to the interior of Persia. He says, too, that he did not expect to remain away so long, but finds that he will probably be in Central Asia for another year. The only comforting thing in the letter is the assurance that he weighs more, and is in better health, than when he left home."
The ringing of the door-bell announced Mr. Leigh's arrival, and as she led the way to the parlor, Mrs. Murray hastily fastened a drooping spray of coral berries in Edna's hair.
Before tea was ended, other visitors came in, and the orphan found relief from her confusion in the general conversation.
While Dr. Rodney, the family physician, was talking to her about some discoveries of Ehrenberg, concerning which she was very curious, Mr. Leigh engrossed Mrs. Murray's attention, and for some time their conversation was exceedingly earnest; then the latter rose and approached the sofa where Edna sat, saying gravely:
"Edna, give me this seat, I want to have a little chat with the doctor; and, by the way, my dear, I believe Mr. Leigh is waiting for you to show him some book you promised to find for him. Go into the library—there is a good fire there."
The room was tempting indeed to students, and as the two sat down before the glowing grate, and Mr. Leigh glanced at the warm, rich curtains sweeping from ceiling to carpet, the black-walnut book- cases girding the walls on all sides, and the sentinel bronze busts keeping watch over the musty tombs within, he rubbed his fingers and exclaimed:
"Certainly this is the most delightful library in the world, and offers a premium for recluse life and studious habits. How incomprehensible it is that Murray should prefer to pass his years roaming over deserts and wandering about neglected, comfortless khans, when he might spend them in such an elysium as this! The man must be demented! How do you explain the mystery?"
"Chacun a son gout! I consider it none of my business, and as I suppose he is the best judge of what contributes to his happiness, I do not meddle with the mystery."
"Poor Murray! his wretched disposition is a great curse. I pity him most sincerely."
"From what I remember of him, I am afraid he would not thank you for your pity, or admit that he needed or merited it. Here is the Targum, Mr. Leigh, and here is the very passage you want."
She opened an ancient Chaldee MS., and spreading it on the library table, they examined it together, spelling out the words, and turning frequently to a dictionary which lay near. Neither knew much about the language; now and then they differed in the interpretation, and more than once Edna referred to the rules of her grammar, to establish the construction of the sentences.
Engrossed in the translation, she forgot all her apprehensions of the morning, and the old ease of manner came back. Her eyes met his fearlessly, her smile greeted him cheerily as in the early months of their acquaintance; and while she bent over the pages she was deciphering, his eyes dwelt on her beaming countenance with a fond, tender look, that most girls of her age would have found it hard to resist, and pleasant to recall in after days.
Neither suspected that an hour had passed, until Dr. Rodney peeped into the room and called them back to the parlor, to make up a game of whist.
It was quite late when Mr. Leigh rose to say good-night; and as he drew on his gloves he looked earnestly at Edna, and said:
"I am coming again in a day or two, to show you some plans for a new house which I intend to build before long. Clara differs with me about the arrangement of some columns and arches, and I shall claim you and Mrs. Murray for my allies in this architectural war."
The orphan was silent, but the lady of the house replied promptly:
"Yes, come as often as you can, Gordon, and cheer us up; for it is terribly dull here without St. Elmo."
"Suppose you repudiate that incorrigible Vandal and adopt me in his place? I would prove a model son."
"Very well. I shall acquaint him with your proposition, and threaten an immediate compliance with it if he does not come home soon."
Mrs. Murray rang the bell for the servant to lock up the house, and said sutto voce:
"What a noble fellow Gordon is! If I had a daughter I would select him for her husband. Where are you going, Edna?"
"I left a MS. on the library table, and as it is very rare and valuable I want to replace it in the glass box where it belongs before I go to sleep."
Lighting a candle, she lifted the heavy Targum, and slowly approached the suite of rooms, which she was now in the habit of visiting almost daily.
Earlier in the day she had bolted the door, but left the key in the lock, expecting to bring the Targum back as soon as she had shown Mr. Leigh the controverted passage. Now, as she crossed the rotunda, an unexpected sound, as of a chair sliding on the marble floor, seemed to issue from the inner room, and she paused to listen. Under the flare of the candle the vindictive face of Siva, and the hooded viper twined about his arm, looked more hideous than ever, warning her not to approach, yet all was silent, save the tinkling of a bell far down in the park, where the sheep clustered under the cedars. Opening the door, which was ajar, she entered, held the light high over her head, and peered a little nervously around the room; but, here, too, all was quiet as the grave, and quite as dreary, and the only moving thing seemed her shadow, that flitted slightly as the candle-light flickered over the cold, gleaming white tiles. The carpets and curtains—even the rich silk hangings of the arch—were all packed away, and Edna shivered as she looked through both rooms, satisfied herself that she had mistaken the source of the sound, and opened the box where the MSS. were kept.
At sight of them her mind reverted to the theme she had been investigating, and happening to remember the importance attached by ethnologists to the early Coptic inscriptions, she took from the book-shelves a volume containing copies of many of these characters, and drawings of the triumphal processions carved on granite, and representing the captives of various nations torn from their homes to swell the pompous retinue of some barbaric Rhamses or Sesostris.
Drifting back over the gray, waveless, tideless sea of centuries, she stood, in imagination, upon the steps of the Serapeum at Memphis; and when the wild chant of the priests had died away under the huge propylaeum, she listened to the sighing of the tamarinds and cassias, and the low babble of the sacred Nile, as it rocked the lotus-leaves, under the glowing purple sky, whence a full moon flooded the ancient city with light, and kindled like a beacon the vast placid face of the Sphinx—rising solemn and lonely and weird from its desert lair—and staring blankly, hopelessly across arid yellow sands at the dim colossi of old Misraim.
Following the sinuous stream of Coptic civilization to its inexplicable source in the date-groves of Meroe, the girl's thoughts were borne away to the Golden Fountain of the Sun, where Ammon's black doves fluttered and cooed over the shining altars and amid the mystic symbols of the marvelous friezes.
As Edna bent over the drawings in the book, oblivious for a time of everything else, she suddenly became aware of the presence of some one in the room, for though perfect stillness reigned, there was a consciousness of companionship, of the proximity of some human being, and with a start she looked up, expecting to meet a pair of eyes fastened upon her. But no living thing confronted her—the tall, bent figure of the Cimbri Prophetess gleamed ghostly white upon the wall, and the bright blue augurous eyes seemed to count the dripping blood-drops; and the unbroken, solemn silence of night brooded over all things, hushing even the chime of sheep-bells, that had died away among the elm arches. Knowing that no superstitious terrors had ever seized her heretofore, the young student rose, took up the candle, and proceeded to search the two rooms, but as unsuccessfully as before.
"There certainly is somebody here, but I can not find out where."
These words were uttered aloud, and the echo of her own voice seemed sepulchral; then the chill silence again fell upon her. She smiled at her own folly, and thought her imagination had been unduly excited by the pictures she had been examining, and that the nervous shiver that crept over her was the result of the cold. Just then the candle-light flashed over the black marble statuette, grinning horribly as it kept guard over the Taj Mahal. Edna walked up to it, placed the candle on the slab that supported the tomb, and, stooping, scrutinized the lock. A spider had ensconced himself in the golden receptacle, and spun a fine web across the front of the temple, and Edna swept the airy drapery away, and tried to drive the little weaver from his den; but he shrank further and further, and finally she took the key from her pocket and put it far enough into the opening to eject the intruder, who slung himself down one of the silken threads, and crawled sullenly out of sight. Withdrawing the key, she toyed with it, and glanced curiously at the mausoleum. Taking her handkerchief, she carefully brushed off the cobwebs that festooned the minarets, and murmured that fragment of Persian poetry which she once heard the absent master repeat to his mother, and which she had found, only a few days before, quoted by an Eastern traveller: "The spider hath woven his web in the imperial palaces; and the own hath sung her watch-song on the towers of Afrasiab."
"It is exactly four years to-night since Mr. Murray gave me this key, but he charged me not to open the Taj unless I had reason to believe that he was dead. His letter states that he is alive and well; consequently, the time has not come for me to unseal the mystery. It is strange that he trusted me with this secret; strange that he, who doubts all of his race, could trust a child of whom he really knew so little. Certainly it must have been a singular freak which gave this affair into my keeping, but at least I will not betray the confidence he reposed in me. With the contents of that vault I can have no concern, and yet I wish the key was safely back in his hands. It annoys me to conceal it, and I feel all the while as if I were deceiving his mother."
These words were uttered half unconsciously as she fingered the key, and for a few seconds she stood there, thinking of the master of the house, wondering what luckless influence had so early blackened and distorted his life, and whether he would probably return to Le Bocage before she left it to go out and carve her fortune in the world's noisy quarry. The light danced over her countenance and form, showing the rich folds of her crimson merino dress, with the gossamer lace surrounding her white throat and dimpled wrists; and it seemed to linger caressingly on the shining mass of black hair, on the beautiful, polished forehead, the firm, delicate, scarlet lips, and made the large eyes look elfish under their heavy jet lashes.
Again the girl started and glanced over her shoulder, impressed with the same tantalizing conviction of a human presence; of some powerful influence which baffled analysis. Snatching the candle, she put the gold key in her pocket, and turned to leave the room, but stopped, for this time an unmistakable sound like the shivering of a glass or the snapping of a musical string, fell on her strained ears. She could trace it to no particular spot, and conjectured that perhaps a mouse had taken up his abode somewhere in the room, and, frightened by her presence, had run against some of the numerous glass and china ornaments on the etagere, jostling them until they jingled. Replacing the book which she had taken from the shelves, and fastening the box that contained the MSS., she examined the cabinets, found them securely closed, and then hurried out of the room, locked the door, took the key, and went to her own apartment with nerves more unsettled than she felt disposed to confess.
For some time after she laid her head on her pillow, she racked her brain for an explanation of the singular sensation she had experienced, and at last, annoyed by her restlessness and silly superstition, she was just sinking into dreams of Ammon and Serapis, when the fierce barking of Ali caused her to start up in terror. The dog seemed almost wild, running frantically to and fro, howling and whining; but finally the sounds receded, gradually quiet was restored, and Edna fell asleep soon after the scream of the locomotive and the rumble of the cars told her that the four o'clock train had just started to Chattanooga.
Modern zoologic science explodes the popular fallacy that chameleons assume, and reflect at will, the color of the substance on which they rest or feed; but, with a profound salaam to savants, it is respectfully submitted that the mental saurian—human thought— certainly takes its changing hues, day by day, from the books through which it crawls devouringly.
Is there not ground for plausible doubt that, if the work-bench of Mezzofanti had not stood just beneath the teacher's window, whence the ears of the young carpenter were regaled from morning till night with the rudiments of Latin and Greek, he would never have forsworn planing for parsing, mastered forty dialects, proved a walking scarlet-capped polygot, and attained the distinction of an honorary nomination for the office of interpreter-general at the Tower of Babel?
The hoary associations and typical significance of the numerous relics that crowded Mr. Murray's rooms seized upon Edna's fancy, linked her sympathies with the huge pantheistic systems of the Orient, and filled her mind with waifs from the dusky realm of a mythology that seemed to antedate all the authentic chronological computations of man. To the East, the mighty alma mater of the human races—of letters, religions, arts, and politics, her thoughts wandered in wondering awe; and Belzoni, Burckhardt, Layard, and Champollion were hierophants of whose teachings she never wearied. As day by day she yielded more and more to this fascinating nepenthe influence, and bent over the granite sarcophagus in one corner of Mr. Murray's museum, where lay a shrunken mummy shrouded in gilded byssus, the wish strengthened to understand the symbols in which subtle Egyptian priests masked their theogony.
While morning and afternoon hours were given to those branches of study in which Mr. Hammond guided her, she generally spent the evening in Mr. Murray's sitting-room, and sometimes the clock in the rotunda struck midnight before she locked up the MSS. and illuminated papyri.
Two nights after the examination of the Targum, she was seated near the book-case looking over the plates in that rare but very valuable volume, Spence's Polymetis, when the idea flashed across her mind that a rigid analysis and comparison of all the mythologies of the world would throw some light on the problem of ethnology, and in conjunction with philology settle the vexed question.
Pushing the Polymetis aside, she sprang up and paced the long room, and gradually her eyes kindled, her cheeks burned, as ambition pointed to a possible future, of which, till this hour, she had not dared to dream; and hope, o'erleaping all barriers, grasped a victory that would make her name imperishable.
In her miscellaneous reading she had stumbled upon singular correspondences in the customs and religions of nations separated by surging oceans and by ages; nations whose aboriginal records appeared to prove them distinct, and certainly furnished no hint of an ethnological bridge over which traditions traveled and symbolisms crept in satin sandals. During the past week several of these coincidences had attracted her attention.
The Druidic rites and the festival of Beltein in Scotland and Ireland, she found traced to their source in the worship of Phrygian Baal. The figure of the Scandinavian Disa, at Upsal, enveloped in a net precisely like that which surrounds some statues of Isis in Egypt. The man of rush sails used by the Peruvians on Lake Titicaca, and their mode of handling them, pronounced identical with that which is seen upon the sepulchre of Ramses III. at Thebes. The head of a Mexican priestess ornamented with a veil similar to that carved on Eastern sphinxes, while the robes resembled those of a Jewish high-priest. A very quaint and puzzling pictorial chart of the chronology of the Aztecs contained an image of Coxcox in his ark, surrounded by rushes similar to those that overshadowed Moses, and also a likeness of a dove distributing tongues to those born after the deluge.
Now, the thought of carefully gathering up these vague mythologic links, and establishing a chain of unity that would girdle the world, seized and mastered her, as if veritably clothed with all the power of a bath kol.
To firmly grasp the Bible for a talisman, as Ulysses did the sprig of moly, and to stand in the Pantheon of the universe, examining every shattered idol and crumbling, denied altar, where worshipping humanity had bowed; to tear the veil from oracles and sibyls, and show the world that the true, good and beautiful of all theogonies and cosmogonies, of every system of religion that had waxed and waned since the gray dawn of time, could be traced to Moses and to Jesus, seemed to her a mission grander far than the conquest of empires, and infinitely more to be desired than the crown and heritage of Solomon.
The night wore on as she planned the work of coming years, but she still walked up and down the floor, with slow, uncertain steps, like one who, peering at distant objects, sees nothing close at hand. Flush and tremor passed from her countenance, leaving the features pale and fixed; for the first gush of enthusiasm, like the jets of violet flame flickering over the simmering mass in alchemic crucibles, had vanished—the thought was a crystalized and consecrated purpose.
At last, when the feeble light admonished her that she would soon be in darkness, she retreated to her own room, and the first glimmer of day struggled in at her window as she knelt at her bedside praying:
"Be pleased, O Lord! to make me a fit instrument for Thy work; sanctify my heart; quicken and enlighten my mind; grant me patience and perseverance and unwavering faith; guide me into paths that lead to truth; enable me in all things to labor with an eye single to thy glory, caring less for the applause of the world than for the advancement of the cause of Christ. O my Father and my God! bless the work on which I am about to enter, crown it with success, accept me as an humble tool for the benefit of my race, and when the days of my earthly pilgrimage are ended, receive my soul into that eternal rest which Thou hast prepared from the foundations of the world, for the sake of Jesus Christ."
One afternoon about a week after Mr. Leigh's last visit, as Edna returned from the parsonage, where she had been detained beyond the usual time, Mrs. Murray placed in her hand a note from Mrs. Inge, inviting both to dine with her that day, and meet some distinguished friends from a distant State. Mrs. Murray had already completed an elaborate toilet, and desired Edna to lose no time in making the requisite changes in her own dress. The latter took off her hat, laid her books down on a table and said:
"Please offer my excuses to Mrs. Inge. I can not accept the invitation, and hope you will not urge me."
"Nonsense! Let me hear no more such childish stuff, and get ready at once; we shall be too late, I am afraid."
The orphan leaned against the mantelpiece and shook her head.
Mrs. Murray colored angrily and drew herself up haughtily.
"Edna Earl, did you hear what I said?"
"Yes, madam, but this time I cannot obey you. Allow me to give you my reasons, and I am sure you will forgive what may now seem mere obstinacy. On the night of the party given by Mrs. Inge I determined, under no circumstances, to accept any future invitations to her house, for I overheard a conversation between Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Montgomery which I believe was intended to reach my ears, and consequently wounded and mortified me very much. I was ridiculed and denounced as a 'poor upstart and interloper,' who was being smuggled into society far above my position in life, and pronounced an avaricious schemer, intent on thrusting myself upon Mr. Leigh's notice, and ambitious of marrying him for his fortune. They sneered at the idea that we should study Hebrew with Mr. Hammond, and declared it a mere trap to catch Mr. Leigh. Now, Mrs. Murray, you know that I never had such a thought, and the bare mention of a motive so sordid, contemptible, and unwomanly surprised and disgusted me; but I resolved to study Hebrew by myself, and to avoid meeting Mr. Leigh at the parsonage; for if his sister's friends entertain such an opinion of me, I know not what other people, and even Mrs. Inge, may think. Those two ladies added some other things equally unpleasant and untrue, and as I see that they are also invited to dine to-day, it would be very disagreeable for me to meet them in Mr. Leigh's presence."
Mrs. Murray frowned, and her lips curled, as she clasped a diamond bracelet on her arm.
"I have long since ceased to be surprised by any manifestation of Mrs. Montgomery's insolence. She doubtless judges your motives by those of her snub-nosed and excruciatingly fashionable daughter, Maud, who rumor says, is paying most devoted attention to that same fortune of Gordon's. I shall avail myself of the first suitable occasion to suggest to her that it is rather unbecoming in persons whose fathers were convicted of forgery, and hunted out of the State, to lay such stress on the mere poverty of young aspirants for admission into society. I have always noticed that people (women especially) whose lineage is enveloped in a certain twilight haze, constitute themselves guardians of the inviolability of their pretentious cliques, and fly at the throats of those who, they imagine, desire to enter their fashionable set—their 'mutual admiration association.' As for Mrs. Hill, whose parents were positively respectable, even genteel, I expected less nervousness from her on the subject of genealogy, and should have given her credit for more courtesy and less malice; but, poor thing, nature denied her any individuality, and she serves 'her circle' in the same capacity as one of those tin reflectors fastened on locomotives. All that you heard was excessively ill-bred, and in really good society ill-breeding is more iniquitous than ill-nature; but, however annoying, it is beneath your notice, and unworthy of consideration. I would not gratify them by withdrawing from a position which you can so gracefully occupy."
"It is no privation to me to stay at home; on the contrary, I prefer it, for I would not exchange the companionship of the books in this house for all the dinners that ever were given."
"There is no necessity for you to make a recluse of yourself simply because two rude, silly gossips disgrace themselves. You have time enough to read and study, and still go out with me when I consider it advisable."
"But, my dear Mrs. Murray, my position in your family, as an unknown dependent on your charity, subjects me to—"
"Is a matter which does not concern Mesdames Hill and Montgomery, as I shall most unequivocally intimate to them. I insist upon the dismissal of the whole affair from your mind. How much longer do you intend to keep me waiting?"
"I am very sorry you cannot view the subject from my standpoint, but hereafter I cannot accompany you to dinners and parties. Whenever you desire me to see company in your own house, I shall be glad to comply with your wishes and commands; but my self-respect will not permit me to go out to meet people who barely tolerate me through fear of offending you. It is exceedingly painful, dear Mrs. Murray, for me to have to appear disrespectful and stubborn toward you, but in this instance I can not comply with your wishes."
They looked at each other steadily, and Mrs. Murray's brow cleared and her lip unbent.
"What do you expect me to tell Mrs. Inge?"
"That I return my thanks for her very kind remembrance, but am closely occupied in preparing myself to teach, and have no time for gayeties."
Mrs. Murray smiled significantly.
"Do you suppose that excuse will satisfy your friend Gordon? He will fly for consolation to the stereotyped smile and delicious flattery of simpering Miss Maud."
"I care not where he flies, provided I am left in peace."
"Stop, my dear child; you do not mean what you say. You know very well that you earnestly hope Gordon will escape the tender mercies of silly Maud and the machinations of her most amiable mamma; if you don't, I do. Understand that you are not to visit Susan Montgomery's sins on Gordon's head. I shall come home early, and make you go to bed at nine o'clock, to punish you for your obstinacy. By the by, Edna, Hagar tells me that you frequently sit up till three or four o'clock, poring over those heathenish documents in my son's cabinet. This is absurd, and will ruin your health; and beside, I doubt if what you learn is worth your trouble. You must not sit up longer than ten o'clock. Give me my furs."
Edna ate her dinner alone, and went into the library to practise a difficult music lesson; but the spell of her new project was stronger than the witchery of music, and closing the piano, she ran into the "Egyptian Museum," as Mrs. Murray termed her son's sitting- room.
The previous night she had been reading an account of the doctrines of Zoroaster, in which there was an attempt to trace all the chief features of the Zendavesta to the Old Testament and the Jews, and now she returned to the subject with unflagging interest.
Pushing a cushioned chair close to the window, she wrapped her shawl around her, put her feet on the round of a neighboring chair, to keep them from the icy floor and gave herself up to the perusal of the volume.
The sun went down in a wintry sky; the solemn red light burning on the funeral pyre of day streamed through the undraped windows, flushed the fretted facade of the Taj Mahal, glowed on the marble floor, and warmed and brightened the serene, lovely face of the earnest young student. As the flame faded in the west, where two stars leaped from the pearly ashes, the fine print of Edna's book grew dim, and she turned the page to catch the mellow, silvery radiance of the full moon, which, shining low in the east, threw a ghastly lustre on the awful form and floating white hair of the Cimbrian woman on the wall. But between the orphan and the light, close beside her chair, stood a tall, dark figure, with uncovered head and outstretched hands.
She sprang to her feet, uttering a cry of mingled alarm and delight, for she knew that erect, stately form and regal head could belong to but one person.
"Oh, Mr. Murray! Can it be possible that you have indeed come home to your sad, desolate mother? Oh! for her sake I am so glad!"
She had clasped her hands tightly in the first instant of surprise, and stood looking at him, with fear and pleasure struggling for mastery in her eloquent countenance.
"Edna, have you no word of welcome, no friendly hand, to offer a man who has been wandering for four long years among strangers in distant lands?"
It was not the harsh, bitter voice whose mocking echoes had haunted her ears during his absence, but a tone so low and deep and mournful, so inexplicably sweet, and she could not recognize it as his, and, unable to utter a word, she put her hand in his outstretched palm. His fingers closed over it with a pressure that was painful, and her eyes fell beneath the steady, searching gaze he fixed on her face.
For fully a minute they stood motionless; then he took a match from his pocket, lighted a gas globe that hung over the Taj, and locked the door leading into the rotunda.
"My mother is dining out, Hagar informed me. Tell me, is she well? And have you made her happy while I was far away?"
He came back, leaned his elbow on the carved top of the cushioned chair, and partly shading his eyes with his hand, looked down into the girl's face.
"Your mother is very well indeed, but anxious and unhappy on your account, and I think you will find her thinner and paler than when you saw her last."
"Then you have not done your duty, as I requested?"
"I could not take your place, sir, and your last letter led her to believe that you would be absent for another year. She thinks that at this instant you are in the heart of Persia. Last night, when the servant came from the post-office without the letter which she confidently expected, her eyes filled with tears, and she said, 'He has ceased to think of his home, and loves the excitement of travel better than his mother's peace of mind.' Why did you deceive her? Why did you rob her of all the joy of anticipating your speedy return?"
As she glanced at him, she saw the old scowl settling heavily between his eyes, and the harshness had crept back to the voice that answered:
"I did not deceive her. It was a sudden and unexpected circumstance that determined my return. Moreover, she should long since have accustomed herself to find happiness from other sources than my society; for no one knows better my detestation of settling down in any fixed habitation."
Edna felt all her childish repugnance sweeping over her as she saw the swift hardening of his features, and she turned toward the door.
"Where are you going?"
"To send a messenger to your mother, acquainting her with your arrival. She would not forgive me if I failed to give her such good tidings at the very earliest moment."
"You will do no such thing. I forbid any message. She thinks me in the midst of Persian ruins, and can afford to wait an hour longer among her friends. How happened it that you also are not at Mrs. Inge's?"
Either the suddenness of the question, or the intentness of his scrutiny, or the painful consciousness of the true cause of her failure to accept the invitation, brought back the blood which surprise had driven from her cheeks.
"I preferred remaining at home."
"Home! home!" he repeated, and continued vehemently: "Do you really expect me to believe that a girl of your age, with the choice of a dinner-party among the elite, with lace, silk, and feathers, champagne, bon-mot, and scandal, flattering speeches and soft looks from young gentlemen, biting words and hard looks from old ladies, or the alternative of a dull, lonely evening in this cold, dreary den of mine, shut up with mummies, MSS., and musty books, could deliberately decline the former and voluntarily select the latter? Such an anomaly in sociology, such a lusus naturae, might occur in Bacon's 'Bensalem,' or in some undiscovered and unimagined realm, where the men are all brave, honest, and true, and the women conscientious and constant! But here! and now? Ah! pardon me! Impossible!"
Edna felt as if Momus' suggestion to Vulcan, of a window in the human heart, whereby one's thoughts might be rendered visible, had been adopted; for, under the empaling eye bent upon her, the secret motives of her conduct seemed spread out as on a scroll, which he read as well.
"I was invited to Mrs. Inge's, yet you find me here, because I preferred a quiet evening at home to a noisy one elsewhere. How do you explain the contradiction if you disbelieve my words?"
"I am not so inexperienced as to tax my ingenuity with any such burden. With the Penelope web of female motives may fates and furies forbid rash meddling. Unless human nature here in America has undergone a radical change, nay, a most complete transmogrification, since I abjured it some years ago; unless this year is to be chronicled as an Avatar of truth and unselfishness, I will stake all my possessions on the assertion that some very peculiar and cogent reason, something beyond the desire to prosecute archaeological researches, has driven you to decline the invitation."
She made no reply, but opened the book-case and replaced the volume which she had been reading; and he saw that she glanced uneasily toward the door, as if longing to escape.
"Are you insulted at my presumption in thus catechising you?"
"I am sorry, sir, to find that you have lost none of your cynicism in your travels."
"Do you regard travelling as a panacea for minds diseased?"
She looked up and smiled in his face—a smile so bright and arch and merry, that even a stone might have caught the glow.
"Certainly not, Mr. Murray, as you are the most incorrigible traveller I have ever known."
But there was no answering gleam on his darkening countenance as he watched her, and the brief silence that ensued was annoying to his companion, who felt less at ease every moment, and convinced that with such antagonism of character existing between them, all her peaceful, happy days at Le Bocage were drawing to a close.
"Mr. Murray, I am cold, and I should like to go to the fire if you have no more questions to ask, and will be so kind as to unlock the door."
He glanced round the room, and taking his grey travelling shawl from a chair where he had thrown it, laid it in a heap on the marble tiles, and said:
"Yes, this floor is icy. Stand on the shawl, though I am well aware you are more tired of me than of the room."
Another long pause followed, and then St. Elmo Murray came close to his companion, saying:
"For four long years I have been making an experiment—one of those experiments which men frequently attempt, believing all the time that it is worse than child's play, and half hoping that it will prove so and sanction the wisdom of their skepticism concerning the result. When I left home I placed in your charge the key of my private desk or cabinet, exacting the promise that only upon certain conditions would you venture to open it. Those contingencies have not arisen, consequently there can be no justification for your having made yourself acquainted with the contents of the vault. I told you I trusted the key in your hands; I did not. I felt assured you would betray the confidence. It was not a trust—it was a temptation, which I believed no girl or woman would successfully resist. I am here to receive an account of your stewardship, and I tell you now I doubt you. Where is the key?"
She took from her pocket a small ivory box, and opening it drew out the little key and handed it to him.
"Mr. Murray, it was a confidence which I never solicited, which has caused me much pain, because it necessitated concealment from your mother, but which—God is my witness—I have not betrayed. There is the key, but of the contents of the tomb I know nothing. It was ungenerous in you to tempt a child as you did; to offer a premium as it were for a violation of secrecy, by whetting my curiosity and then placing in my own hands the means of gratifying it. Of course I have wondered what the mystery was, and why you selected me for its custodian; and I have often wished to inspect the interior of that marble cabinet; but child though I was, I think I would have gone to the stake sooner than violate my promise."
As he took the key she observed that his hand trembled and that a sudden pallor overspread his face.
"Edna Earl, I give you one last chance to be truthful with me. If you yielded to the temptation—and what woman, what girl, would not?—it would be no more than I really expected, and you will scarcely have disappointed me; for, as I told you, I put no faith in you. But even if you succumbed to a natural curiosity, be honest and confess it!"
She looked up steadily into his inquisitorial eyes, and answered:
"I have nothing to confess."
He laid his hand heavily on her shoulder, and his tone was eager, vehement, pleading, tremulous:
"Can you look me in the eye—so—and say that you never put this key in yonder lock? Edna! more hangs on your words than you dream of. Be truthful! as if you were indeed in the presence of the God you worship. I can forgive you for prying into my affairs, but I can not and will not pardon you for trifling with me now."
"I never unlocked the vault; I never had the key near it but once— about a week ago—when I found the tomb covered with cobwebs, and twisted the key partly into the hole to drive out the spider. I give you my most solemn assurance that I never unlocked it, never saw the interior. Your suspicions are ungenerous and unjust—derogatory to you and insulting to me."
"The proof is at hand, and if I have indeed unjustly suspected you, atonement full and ample shall be made."
Clasping one of her hands so firmly that she could not extricate it, he drew her before the Taj Mahal, and stooping, fitted the key to the lock. There was a dull click as he turned it, but even then he paused and scrutinized her face. It was flushed, and wore a proud, defiant, grieved look; his own was colorless as the marble that reflected it, and she felt the heavy, rapid beating of his blood, and saw the cords thickening on his brow.
"If you have faithfully kept your promise, there will be an explosion when I open the vault."
Slowly he turned the key a second time; and as the arched door opened and swung back on its golden hinges, there was a flash and sharp report from a pistol within.
Edna started involuntarily notwithstanding the warning, and clung to his arm an instant, but he took no notice of her whatever. His fingers relaxed their iron grasp of hers, his hand dropped to his side, and leaning forward, he bowed his head on the marble dome of the little temple. How long he stood there she knew not; but the few moments seemed to her interminable as she silently watched his motionless figure.
He was so still, that finally she conjectured he might possibly have fainted from some cause unknown to her; and averse though she was to addressing him, she said timidly:
"Mr. Murray, are you ill? Give me the key of the door and I will bring you some wine."
There was no answer, and in alarm she put her hand on his.
Tightly he clasped it, and drawing her suddenly close to his side, said without raising his face:
"Edna Earl, I have been ill—for years—but I shall be better henceforth. O child! child! your calm, pure, guileless soul can not comprehend the blackness and dreariness of mine. Better that you should lie down now in death, with all the unfolded freshness of your life gathered in your grave, than live to know the world as I have proved it. For many years I have lived without hope or trust or faith in anything—in anybody. To-night I stand here lacking sympathy with or respect for my race, and my confidence in human nature was dead; but, child, you have galvanized the corpse."
Again the mournful music of his voice touched her heart, and she felt her tears rising as she answered in a low, hesitating tone:
"It was not death, Mr. Murray, it was merely syncope and this is a healthful reaction from disease."
"No, it will not last. It is but an ignis fatuus that will decoy to deeper gloom and darker morasses. I have swept and garnished, and the seven other devils will dwell with me forever! My child, I have tempted you, and you stood firm. Forgive my suspicions. Twenty years hence, if you are so luckless as to live that long, you will not wonder that I doubted you, but that my doubt proved unjust. This little vault contains no skeleton, no state secrets; only a picture and a few jewels, my will, and the history of a wrecked, worthless, utterly ruined life. Perhaps if you continue true, and make my mother happy. I may put all in your hands some day, when I die; and then you will not wonder at my aimless, hopeless, useless life. One thing I wish to say now, if at any time you need assistance of any kind—if you are troubled—come to me. I am not quite so selfish as the world paints me, and even if I seem rude and harsh, do not fear to come to me. You have conferred a favor on me, and I do not like to remain in anybody's debt. Make me repay you as soon as possible."
"I am afraid, sir, we never can be friends."
"Because you have no confidence in me, and I would much sooner go for sympathy to one of your bronze monsters yonder on the doorsteps, than to you. Neither of us likes the other, and consequently a sham cordiality would be intolerably irksome. I shall not be here much longer; but while we are in the same house, I trust no bitter or unkind feelings will be entertained. I thank you, sir, for your polite offer of assistance, but hope I shall soon be able to maintain myself without burdening your mother any longer."
"How long have you burdened her?"
"Ever since that night when I was picked up lame and helpless, and placed in her kind hands."
"I should like to know whether you really love my mother?"
"Next to the memory of my grandfather, I love her and Mr. Hammond; and I feel that my gratitude is beyond expression. There, your mother is coming! I hear the carriage. Shall I tell her you are here?"
Without raising his face, he took the key of the door from his pocket, and held it toward her. "No; I will meet her in her own room."
Edna hastened to the library, and throwing herself into a chair, tried to collect her thoughts and reflect upon what had passed in the "Egyptian Museum."
Very soon Mrs. Murray's cry of joyful surprise rang through the house, and tears of sympathy rose to Edna's eyes as fancy pictured the happy meeting in the neighboring room. Notwithstanding the strong antipathy to Mr. Murray which she had assiduously cultivated, and despite her conviction that he held in derision the religious faith, to which she clung so tenaciously, she was now disquieted and pained to discover that his bronzed face possessed an attraction—an indescribable fascination—which she had found nowhere else. In striving to analyze the interest she was for the first time conscious of feeling, she soothed herself with the belief that it arose from curiosity concerning his past life, and sympathy for his evident misanthropy. It was in vain that she endeavored to fix her thoughts on a book; his eyes met hers on every page, and when the bell summoned her to a late supper, she was glad to escape from her own confused reflections.
Mrs. Murray and her son were standing on the rug before the grate, and as Edna entered, the former held out her hand.
"Have you seen my son? Come and congratulate me." She kissed the girl's forehead, and continued:
"St. Elmo, has she not changed astonishingly? Would you have known her had you met her away from home?"
"I should certainly have known her under all circumstances."
He did not look at her, but resumed the conversation with his mother which her entrance had interrupted, and during supper Edna could scarcely realize that the cold, distant man, who took no more notice of her than of one of the salt cellars, was the same whom she had left leaning over the Taj. Not the faintest trace of emotion lingered on the dark, stony features, over which occasionally flickered the light of a sarcastic smile, as he briefly outlined the course of his wanderings; and now that she could, without being observed, study his countenance, she saw that he looked much older, more worn and haggard and hopeless, than when last at home, and that the thick, curling hair that clung in glossy rings to his temples was turning grey.
When they arose from the table, Mrs. Murray took an exquisite bouquet from the mantelpiece and said:
"Edna, I was requested to place this in your hands, as a token of the regard and remembrance of your friend and admirer, Gordon Leigh, who charged me to assure you that your absence spoiled his enjoyment of the day. As he seemed quite inconsolable because of your non- attendance, I promised that you should ride with him to-morrow afternoon."
As Edna glanced up to receive the flowers, she met the merciless gaze she so much dreaded, and in her confusion let the bouquet fall on the carpet. Mr. Murray picked it up, inhaled the fragrance, rearranged some of the geranium leaves that had been crushed, and, smiling bitterly all the while, bowed, and put it securely in her hand.
"Edna, you have no other engagement for to-morrow?"
"Yes, madam, I have promised to spend it with Mr. Hammond."
"Then you must excuse yourself, for I will not have Gordon disappointed again."
Too much annoyed to answer, Edna left the room, but paused in the hall and beckoned to Mrs. Murray, who instantly joined her,
"Of course, you will not have prayers to-night, as Mr. Murray has returned?"
"For that very reason I want to have them, to make a public acknowledgment of my gratitude that my son has been restored to me. Oh! if he would only consent to be present!"
"It is late, and he will probably plead fatigue."
"Leave that with me, and when I ring the bell, come to the library."
The orphan went to her room and diligently copied an essay which she intended to submit to Mr. Hammond for criticism on the following day; and as the comparative merits of the Solonian and Lycurgan codes constituted her theme, she soon became absorbed by Grecian politics, and was only reminded of the events of the evening, when the muezzin bell sounded, calling the household to prayer.
She laid down her pen and hurried to the library, whither Mrs. Murray had enticed her son, who was standing before one of the book- cases, looking over the table of contents of a new scientific work. The servants came in and ranged themselves near the door, and suddenly Mrs. Murray said:
"You must take my place to-night, Edna; I can not read aloud."
The orphan looked up appealingly, but an imperative gesture silenced her, and she sat down before the table, bewildered and frightened. Mr. Murray glanced around the room, and with a look of wrath and scorn threw down the book and turned toward the door; but his mother's hand seized his—
"My son, for my sake, do not go! Out of respect for me, remain the first evening of your return. For my sake, St. Elmo!"
He frowned, shook off her hands, and strode to the door; then reconsidered the matter, came back, and stood at the fireplace, leaning his elbow on the mantel, looking gloomily at the coals.
Although painfully embarrassed as she took her seat and prepared to conduct the services in his presence, Edna felt a great calm steal over her spirit when she opened the Bible and read her favorite chapter, the fourteenth of St. John.
Her sweet, flexible voice, gradually losing its tremor, rolled soothingly through the room; and when she knelt and repeated the prayer selected for the occasion—a prayer of thanks for the safe return of a traveller to the haven of home—her tone was full of pathos and an earnestness that strangely stirred the proud heart of the wanderer as he stood there, looking through his fingers at her uplifted face, and listening to the first prayer that had reached his ears for nearly nineteen weary years of sin and scoffing.
When Edna rose from her knees he had left the room, and she heard his swift steps echoing drearily through the rotunda.
"I do not wish to interrupt you. There is certainly room enough in this library for both, and my entrance need not prove the signal for your departure."
Mr. Murray closed the door as he came in, and walking up to the book-cases, stood carefully examining the titles of the numerous volumes. It was a cold, dismal morning, and sobbing wintry winds and the ceaseless pattering of rain made the outer world seem dreary in comparison with the genial atmosphere and the ruddy glow of the cosy, luxurious library, where choice exotics breathed their fragrance and early hyacinths exhaled their rich perfume. In the centre of the morocco-covered table stood a tall glass bowl, filled with white camellias, and from its scalloped edges drooped a fringe of scarlet fuchsias; while near the window was a china statuette, in whose daily adornment Edna took unwearied interest. It was a lovely Flora, whose slender fingers held aloft small tulip-shaped vases, into which fresh blossoms were inserted every morning. The head was so arranged as to contain water, and thus preserve the wreath of natural flowers which crowned the goddess. To-day golden crocuses nestled down on the streaming hair, and purple pansies filled the fairy hands, while the tiny, rosy feet sank deep in the cushion of fine, green mosses, studded with double violets.
Edna had risen to leave the room when the master of the house entered, but at his request resumed her seat and continued reading.
After searching the shelves unavailingly, he glanced over his shoulder and asked:
"Have you seen my copy of De Guerin's 'Centaur' anywhere about the house? I had it a week ago."
"I beg your pardon, sir, for causing such a fruitless search; here is the book. I picked it up on the front steps, where you were reading a few afternoons since, and it opened at a passage that attracted my attention."
She closed the volume and held it toward him, but he waved it back.
"Keep it if it interests you. I have read it once, and merely wished to refer to a particular passage. Can you guess what sentence most frequently recurs to me? If so, read it to me."
He drew a chair close to the hearth and lighted his cigar.
Hesitatingly Edna turned the leaves.
"I am afraid, sir, that my selection would displease you."
"I will risk it, as, notwithstanding your flattering opinion to the contrary, I am not altogether so unreasonable as to take offense at a compliance with my own request."
Still she shrank from the task he imposed, and her fingers toyed with the scarlet fuchsias; but after eyeing her for a while, he leaned forward and pushed the glass bowl beyond her reach.
"Edna, I am waiting."
"Well, then, Mr. Murray, I should think that these two passages would impress you with peculiar force."
Raising the book she read with much emphasis:
"Thou pursuest after wisdom, O Melampus! which is the science of the will of the gods; AND THOU ROAMEST FROM PEOPLE TO PEOPLE, LIKE A MORTAL DRIVEN BY THE DESTINIES. In the times when I kept my night- watches before the caverns, I have sometimes believed that I was about to surprise the thoughts of the sleeping Cybele, and that the mother of the gods, betrayed by her dreams, would let fall some of her secrets. But I have never yet made out more than sounds which faded away in the murmur of night, of words inarticulate as the bubbling of the rivers.
* * * * * * *
"Seekest thou to know the gods, O Macareus! and from what source men, animals, and the elements of the universal fire have their origin? The aged ocean, the father of all things, keeps locked within his own breast these secrets; and the nymphs who stand around sing as they weave their eternal dance before him, to cover any sound which might escape from his lips, half opened by slumber. Mortals dear to the gods for their virtue have received from their hands lyres to give delight to man, or the seeds of new plants to make him rich, but from their inexorable lips—nothing!"
"Mr. Murray, am I correct in my conjecture?"
"Quite correct," he answered, smiling grimly.
Taking the book from her hand he threw it on the table, and tossed his cigar into the grate, adding in a defiant, challenging tone:
"The mantle of Solomon did not fall at Le Cayla on the shoulders of Maurice de Guerin. After all, he was a wretched hypochondriac, and a tinge of le cahier vert doubtless crept into his eyes."
"Do you forget, sir, that he said, 'When one is a wanderer, one feels that one fulfills the true condition of humanity'? and that among his last words are these, 'The stream of travel is full of delight. Oh! who will set me adrift on this Nile?'"
"Pardon me if I remind you, par parenthese, of the preliminary and courteous En garde! which should be pronounced before a thrust. De Guerin felt starved in Languedoc, and no wonder! But had he penetrated every nook and cranny of the habitable globe, and traversed the vast zaarahs which science accords the universe, he would have died at last as hungry as Ugolino. I speak advisedly, for the true Io gad-fly, ennui, has stung me from hemisphere to hemisphere, across tempestuous oceans, scorching deserts, and icy mountain ranges. I have faced alike the bourrans of the steppes and the Samieli of Shamo, and the result of my vandal life is best epitomized in those grand but grim words of Bossuet: 'On trouve au fond de tout le vide et le neant.' Nineteen years ago, to satisfy my hunger, I set out to hunt the daintiest food this world could furnish, and, like other fools, have learned finally, that life is but a huge, mellow, golden Osher, that mockingly sifts its bitter dust upon our eager lips. Ah! truly, on trouve au fond de tout le vide et le neant!"
"Mr. Murray, if you insist upon your bitter Osher smile, why shut your eyes to the palpable analogy suggested? Naturalists assert that the Solanum, or apple of Sodom, contains in its normal state neither dust nor ashes, unless it is punctured by an insect (the Tenthredo), which converts the whole of the inside into dust, leaving nothing but the rind entire, without any loss of color. Human life is as fair and tempting as the fruit of 'Ain Jidy,' till stung and poisoned by the Tenthredo of sin."
All conceivable suaviter in modo characterized his mocking countenance and tone, as he inclined his haughty head and asked:
"Will you favor me by lifting on the point of your dissecting-knife this stinging sin of mine to which you refer? The noxious brood swarm so teasingly about my ears that they deprive me of your cool, clear, philosophic discrimination. Which particular Tenthredo of the buzzing swarm around my spoiled apple of life would you advise me to select for my anathema maranatha?"
"Of your history, sir, I am entirely ignorant; and even if I were not, I should not presume to levy a tax upon it in discussions with you; for, however vulnerable you may possibly be, I regard an argumentum ad hominem as the weakest weapon in the armory of dialectics—a weapon too often dipped in the venom of personal malevolence. I merely gave expression to my belief that miserable, useless lives are sinful lives; that when God framed the world, and called the human race into it, he made most munificent provision for all healthful hunger, whether physical, intellectual, or moral; and that it is a morbid, diseased, distorted nature that wears out its allotted years on earth in bitter carping and blasphemous dissatisfaction. The Greeks recognized this immemorial truth— wrapped it in classic traditions, and the myth of Tantalus constituted its swaddling-clothes. You are a scholar, Mr. Murray; look back and analyze the derivation and significance of that fable. Tantalus, the son of Pluto, or Wealth, was, according to Pindar, 'a wanderer from happiness,' and the name represents a man abounding in wealth, but whose appetite was so insatiable, even at the ambrosial feast of the gods, that it ultimately doomed him to eternal unsatisfied thirst and hunger in Tartarus. The same truth crops out in the legend of Midas, who found himself starving while his touch converted all things to gold."
"Doubtless you have arrived at the charitable conclusion that, as I am endowed with all the amiable idiosyncrasies of ancient cynics, I shall inevitably join the snarling Dives Club in Hades, and swell the howling chorus. Probably I shall not disappoint your kind and eminently Christian expectations; nor will I deprive you of the gentle satisfaction of hissing across the gulf of perdition, which will then divide us, that summum bonum of feminine felicity, 'I told you so!'"
The reckless mockery of his manner made Edna shiver, and a tremor crept across her beautiful lips as she answered sadly:
"You torture my words into an interpretation of which I never dreamed, and look upon all things through the distorting lenses of your own moodiness. It is worse than useless for us to attempt an amicable discussion, for your bitterness never slumbers, your suspicions are ever on the qui vive."
She rose, but he quickly laid his hand on her shoulder, and pressed her back into the chair.
"You will be so good as to sit still, and hear me out. I have a right to all my charming, rose-colored views of this world. I have gone to and fro on the earth, and life has proved a Barmecide's banquet of just thirty-eight years' duration."
"But, sir, you lacked the patience and resolution of Shacabac, or, like him, you would have finally grasped the splendid realities. The world must be conquered, held in bondage to God's law and man's reason, before we can hope to levy tribute that will support our moral and mental natures; and it is only when humanity finds itself in the inverted order of serfdom to the world, that it dwarfs its capacities, and even then dies of famine."
The scornful gleam died out of his eyes, and mournful compassion stole in.
"Ah! how impetuously youth springs to the battlefield of life! Hope exorcises the gaunt spectre of defeat, and fancy fingers unwon trophies and fadeless bays; but slow-stepping experience, pallid, blood-stained, spent with toil, lays her icy hand on the rosy veil that floats before bright, brave, young eyes, and lo' the hideous wreck, the bleaching bones, the grinning, ghastly horrors that strew the scene of combat! No burnished eagles nor streaming banners, neither spoils of victory nor paeans of triumph, only silence and gloom and death—slow-sailing vultures—and a voiceless desolation! Oh, child! if you would find a suitable type of that torn and trampled battlefield—the human heart—when vice and virtue, love and hate, revenge and remorse, have wrestled fiercely for the mastery—go back to your Tacitus, and study there the dismal picture of that lonely Teutoburgium, where Varus and his legions went down in the red burial of battle! You talk of 'conquering the world— holding it in bondage!' What do you know of its perils and subtle temptations—of the glistening quicksands whose smooth lips already gape to engulf you? The very vilest fiend in hell might afford to pause and pity your delusion ere turning to machinations destined to rouse you rudely from your silly dreams. Ah! you remind me of a little innocent, happy child, playing on some shining beach, when the sky is quiet, the winds are hushed, and all things wrapped in rest, save
'The water lapping on the crag, And the long ripple washing in the reeds'—
a fair, fearless child, gathering polished pearly shells with which to build fairy palaces, and suddenly, as she catches the mournful murmur of the immemorial sea, that echoes in the flushed and folded chambers of the stranded shells, her face pales with awe and wonder- -the childish lips part, the childish eyes are strained to discover the mystery; and while the whispering monotone admonishes of howling storms and sinking argosies, she smiles and listens, sees only the glowing carmine of the fluted reels, hears only the magic music of the sea sirens—and the sky blackens, the winds leap to their track of ruin, the great deep rises wrathful and murderous, bellowing for victims, and Cyclone reigns? Thundering waves sweep over and bear away the frail palaces that decked the strand, and even while the shell symphony still charms the ear, the child's rosy feet are washed from their sandy resting-place; she is borne on howling billows far out to a lashed and maddened main, strewn with human drift; and numb with horror she sinks swiftly to a long and final rest among purple algae! Even so, Edna, you stop your ears with shells, and my warning falls like snow-flakes that melt and vanish on the bosom of a stream.
"No, sirs I am willing to be advised. Against what would you warn me?"
"The hollowness of life, the fatuity of your hopes, the treachery of that human nature of which you speak so tenderly and reverently. So surely as you put faith in the truth and nobility of humanity, you will find it as soft-lipped and vicious as Paolo Orsini, who folded his wife, Isabella de Medici, most lovingly in his arms, and while he tenderly pressed her to his heart, slipped a cord around her neck and strangled her."
"I know, sir, that human nature is weak, selfish, sinful—that such treacherous monsters as Ezzolino and the Visconti have stained the annals of our race with blood-blotches, which the stream of time will never efface; but the law of compensation operates here as well as in other departments, and brings to light a 'fidus Achates' and Antoninus. I believe that human nature is a curious amalgam of meanness, malice and magnanimity, and that an earnest, loving Christian charity is the only safe touchstone, and furnishes (if you will tolerate the simile) the only elective affinity in moral chemistry. Because ingots are not dug out of the earth, is it not equally unwise and ungrateful to ridicule and denounce the hopeful, patient, tireless laborers who handle the alloy and ultimately disintegrate the precious metal? Even if the world were bankrupt in morality and religion—which, thank God, it is not—one grand shining example, like Mr. Hammond, whose unswerving consistency, noble charity, and sublime unselfishness all concede and revere, ought to leaven the mass of sneering cynics, and win them to a belief in their capacity for rising to pure, holy, almost perfect lives."
"Spare me a repetition of the rhapsodies of Madame Guyon! I am not surprised that such a novice as you prove yourself should, in the stereotyped style of orthodoxy, swear by the hoary Tartuffe, that hypocritical wolf, Allan Hammond—"
"Stop, Mr. Murray! You must not, shall not use such language in my presence concerning one whom I love and revere above all other human beings! How dare you malign that noble Christian, whose lips daily lift your name to God, praying for pardon and for peace? Oh! how ungrateful, how unworthy you are of his affection and his prayers!"
She had interrupted him with an imperious wave of her hand, and stood regarding him with an expression of indignation and detestation.
"I neither possess nor desire his affection or his prayers."
"Sir, you know that you do not deserve, but you most certainly have both."
"How did you obtain your information?"
"Accidentally, when he was so surprised and grieved to hear that you had started on your long voyage to Oceanica."
"He availed himself of that occasion to acquaint you with all my heinous sins, my youthful crimes and follies, my—"
"No, sir! he told me nothing, except that you no longer loved him as in your boyhood; that you had become estranged from him; and then he wept, and added, 'I love him still; I shall pray for him as long as I live.'"
"Impossible! You can not deceive me! In the depths of his heart he hates and curses me. Even a brooding dove—pshaw! Allan Hammond is but a man, and it would be unnatural—utterly impossible that he could still think kindly of his old pupil. Impossible!"
Mr. Murray rose and stood before the grate with his face averted, and his companion seized the opportunity to say in a low, determined tone:
"Of the causes that induced your estrangement I am absolutely ignorant. Nothing has been told me, and it is a matter about which I have conjectured little. But, sir, I have seen Mr. Hammond every day for four years, and I know what I say when I tell you that he loves you as well as if you were his own son. Moreover, he—"
"Hush! you talk of what you do not understand. Believe in him if you will, but be careful not to chant his praises in my presence; not to parade your credulity before my eyes, if you do not desire that I shall disenchant you. Just now you are duped—so was I at your age. Your judgment slumbers, experience is in its swaddling-clothes; but I shall bide my time, and the day will come ere long when these hymns of hero-worship shall be hushed, and you stand clearer-eyed, darker-hearted, before the mouldering altar of your god of clay."
"From such an awakening may God preserve me! Even if our religion were not divine, I should clasp to my heart the system and the faith that make Mr. Hammond's life serene and sublime. Oh! that I may be 'duped' into that perfection of character which makes his example beckon me ever onward and upward. If you have no gratitude, no reverence left, at least remember the veneration with which I regard him, and do not in my hearing couple his name with sneers and insults."
"'Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone!'" muttered the master of the house, with one of those graceful, mocking bows that always disconcerted the orphan.
She was nervously twisting Mr. Leigh's ring around her finger, and as it was too large, it slipped off, rang on the hearth, and rolled to Mr. Murray's feet.
Picking it up he examined the emerald, and repeating the inscription, asked:
"Do you understand these words?"
"I only know that they have been translated, 'Peace be with thee, or upon thee.'"
"How came Gordon Leigh's ring on your hand? Has Tartuffe's Hebrew scheme succeeded so soon and so thoroughly?"
"I do not understand you, Mr. Murray."
"Madame ma mere proves an admirable ally in this clerical matchmaker's deft hands, and Gordon's pathway is widened and weeded. Happy Gordon! blessed with such able coadjutors!"
The cold, sarcastic glitter of his eyes wounded and humiliated the girl, and her tone was haughty and defiant—
"You deal in innuendoes which I cannot condescend to notice. Mr. Leigh is my friend, and gave me this ring as a birthday present. As your mother advised me to accept it, and indeed placed it on my finger, her sanction should certainly exempt me from your censure."
"Censure! Pardon me! It is no part of my business; but I happen to know something of gem symbols, and must be allowed to suggest that this selection is scarcely comme il faut for a betrothal ring."
Edna's face crimsoned, and the blood tingled to her fingers' ends.
"As it was never intended as such, your carping criticism loses its point."
He stood with the jewel between his thumb and fore-finger, eyeing her fixedly, and on his handsome features shone a smile, treacherous and chilling as arctic snowblink.
"Pliny's injunction to lapidaries to spare the smooth surface of emeralds seems to have been forgotten when this ring was fashioned. It was particularly unkind, nay, cruel to put it on the hand of a woman, who of course must and will follow the example of all her sex, and go out fishing most diligently in the matrimonial sea; for if you have chanced to look into gem history, you will remember what befell the fish on the coast of Cyprus, where the emerald eyes of the marble lion glared down so mercilessly through the nets, that the fishermen could catch nothing until they removed the jewels that constituted the eyes of the lion. Do you recollect the account?"
"No, sir, I never read it."
"Indeed! How deplorably your education has been neglected! I thought your adored Dominie Sampson down yonder at the parsonage was teaching you a prodigious amount?"
"Give me my ring, Mr. Murray, and I will leave you."
"Shall I not enlighten you on the subject of emeralds?"
"Thank you, sir, I believe not, as what I have already heard does not tempt me to prosecute the subject."
"You think me insufferably presumptuous?"
"That is a word which I should scarcely be justified in applying to you."
"You regard me as meddlesome and tyrannical?"
She shook her head.
"I generally prefer to receive answers to my questions. Pray, what do you consider me?"
She hesitated a moment, and said sadly and gently:
"Mr. Murray, is it generous in you to question me thus in your own house?"
"I do not claim to be generous, and the world would indignantly defend me from such an imputation! Generous? On the contrary, I declare explicitly that, unlike some 'whited supulchres' of my acquaintance, I do not intend to stand labeled with patent virtues! Neither do I parade mezuzoth on my doors. I humbly beg you to recollect that I am not a carefully-printed perambulating advertisement of Christianity."
Raising her face, Edna looked steadfastly at him, and pain, compassion, shuddering dread filled her soft, sad eyes.
"Well, you are reading me. What is the verdict?"
A long, heavily-drawn sigh was the only response.
"Will you be good enough to reply to my questions?"
"No, Mr. Murray. In lieu of perpetual strife and biting words, let there be silence between us. We can not be friends, and it would be painful to wage war here under your roof; consequently, I hope to disarm your hostility by assuring you that in future I shall not attempt to argue with you, shall not pick up the verbal gauntlets you seem disposed to throw down to me. Surely, sir, if not generous you are at least sufficiently courteous to abstain from attacks which you have been notified will not be resisted?"
"You wish me to understand that hereafter I, the owner and ruler of this establishment, shall on no account presume to address my remarks to Aaron Hunt's grandchild?"
"My words were very clear, Mr. Murray, and I meant what I said, and said what I meant. But one thing I wish to add: while I remain here, if at any time I can aid or serve you, Aaron Hunt's grandchild will most gladly do so. I do not flatter myself that you will ever require or accept my assistance in anything, nevertheless I would cheerfully render it should occasion arise."
He bowed and returned the emerald, and Edna turned to leave the library.
"Before you go, examine this bauble."
He took from his vest pocket a velvet case containing a large ring, which he laid in the palm of her hand.
It was composed of an oval jacinth, with a splendid scarlet fire leaping out as the light shone on it, and the diamonds that clustered around it were very costly and brilliant. There was no inscription, but upon the surface of the jacinth was engraved a female head crowned with oak leaves, among which serpents writhed and hissed, and just beneath the face grinned a dog's head. The small but exquisitely carved human face was savage, sullen, sinister, and fiery rays seemed to dart from the relentless eyes.
"Is it a Medusa?"
"It is certainly very beautiful, but I do not recognize the face. Interpret for me."
"It is Hecate, Brimo, Empusa—all phases of the same malignant power; and it remains a mere matter of taste which of the titles you select. I call it Hecate."
"I have never seen you wear it."
"You never will."
"It is exceedingly beautiful."
Edna held it toward the grate, flashed the flame now on this side, now on that, and handed it back to the owner.
"Edna, I bought this ring in Naples, intending to ask your acceptance of it, in token of my appreciation of your care of that little gold key, provided I found you trustworthy. After your pronunciamento uttered a few minutes since, I presume I may save myself the trouble of offering it to you. Beside, Gordon might object to having his emerald over-shadowed by my matchless jacinth. Of course, your tender conscience will veto the thought of your wearing it?"