"I thank you, Mr. Murray; the ring is, by far, the most beautiful I have ever seen, but I certainly can not accept it."
"Bithus contra Bacchium!" exclaimed Mr. Murray, with a short, mirthless laugh that made his companion shrink back a few steps.
Holding the ring at arm's length above his head, he continued:
"To the 'infernal flames,' your fit type, I devote you, my costly Queen of Samothrace!"
Leaning over the grate, he dropped the jewel in the glowing coals.
"Oh, Mr. Murray! save it from destruction!"
She seized the tongs and sprang forward, but he put out his arm and held her back.
"Stand aside, if you please. Cleopatra quaffed liquid pearl in honor of Antony, Nero shivered his precious crystal goblets, and Suger pounded up sapphires to color the windows of old St. Denis! Chacun a son gout! If I choose to indulge myself in a diamond cremation in honor of my tutelary goddess Brimo, who has the right to expostulate? True, such costly amusements have been rare since the days of the 'Cyranides' and the 'Seven Seals' of Hermes Trismegistus. See what a tawny, angry glare leaps from my royal jacinth! Old Hecate holds high carnival down there in her congenial flames."
He stood with one arm extended to bar Edna's approach, the other rested on the mantel; and a laughing, reckless demon looked out of his eyes, which were fastened on the fire.
Before the orphan could recover from her sorrowful amazement the library door opened and Henry looked in.
"Mr. Leigh is in the parlor, and asked for Miss Edna."
Perplexed, irresolute, and annoyed, Edna stood still, watching the red coals; and after a brief silence, Mr. Murray smiled, and turned to look at her.
"Pray, do not let me detain you, and rest assured that I understand your decree. You have entrenched yourself in impenetrable silence, and hung out your banner, 'noli me tangere!' Withdraw your pickets; I shall attempt neither siege nor escalade. Good morning. Leave my De Guerin on the table; it will be at your disposal after to-day."
He stooped to light a cigar, and she walked away to her own room.
As the door closed behind her, he laughed and reiterated the favorite proverb that often crossed his lips, "Bithus contra Bacchium!"
The darling scheme of authorship had seized upon Edna's mind with a tenacity that conquered and expelled all other purposes, and though timidity and a haunting dread of the failure of the experiment prompted her to conceal the matter, even from her beloved pastor, she pondered it in secret, and bent every faculty to its successful accomplishment. Her veneration for books—the great eleemosynary granaries of human knowledge to which the world resorts—extended to those who created them; and her imagination invested authors with peculiar sanctity, as the real hierophants annointed with the chrism of truth. The glittering pinnacle of consecrated and successful authorship seemed to her longing gaze as sublime, and well-nigh as inaccessible, as the everlasting and untrodden Himalayan solitudes appear to some curious child of Thibet or Nepaul; who gamboling among pheasants and rhododendrons, shades her dazzled eyes with her hand, and looks up awe-stricken and wondering at the ice-domes and snow-minarets of lonely Deodunga, earth's loftiest and purest altar, nimbused with the dawning and the dying light of the day. There were times when the thought of presenting herself as a candidate for admission into the band of literary esoterics seemed to Edna unpardonably presumptuous, almost sacrilegious, and she shrank back, humbled and abashed; for writers were teachers, interpreters, expounders, discoverers, or creators—and what could she, just stumbling through the alphabet of science and art, hope to donate to her race that would ennoble human motives or elevate aspirations? Was she, an unknown and inexperienced girl, worthy to be girded with the ephod that draped so royally the Levites of literature? Had God's own hand set the Urim and Thummim of Genius in her soul? Above all, was she mitred with the plate of pure gold—"Holiness unto the Lord?"
Solemnly and prayerfully she weighed the subject, and having finally resolved to make one attempt, she looked trustingly to heaven for aid and went vigorously to work. To write currente calamo for the mere pastime of author and readers, without aiming to inculcate some regenerative principle, or to photograph some valuable phase of protean truth, was in her estimation ignoble; for her high standard demanded that all books should be to a certain extent didactic, wandering like evangels among the people, and making some man, woman, or child happier, or wiser, or better—more patient or more hopeful—by their utterances. Believing that every earnest author's mind should prove a mint, where all valuable ores are collected from the rich veins of a universe—are cautiously coined, and thence munificently circulated—she applied herself diligently to the task of gathering, from various sources the data required for her projected work: a vindication of the unity of mythologies. The vastness of the cosmic field she was now compelled to traverse, the innumerable ramifications of polytheistic and monotheistic creeds, necessitated unwearied research, as she rent asunder the superstitious veils which various nations and successive epochs had woven before the shining features of truth. To-day peering into the golden Gardens of the Sun at Cuzco; to-morrow clambering over Thibet glaciers, to find the mystic lake of Yamuna; now delighted to recognize in Teoyamiqui (the wife of the Aztec God of War) the unmistakable features of Scandinavian Valkyrias; and now surprised to discover the Greek Fates sitting under the Norse tree Ygdrasil, deciding the destinies of mortals, and calling themselves Nornas; she spent her days in pilgrimages to mouldering shrines, and midnight often found her groping in the classic dust of extinct systems. Having once grappled with her theme, she wrestled as obstinately as Jacob for the blessing of a successful solution, and in order to popularize a subject bristling with recondite archaisms and philologic problems, she cast it in the mould of fiction. The information and pleasure which she had derived from the perusal of Vaughan's delightful Hours with the Mystics, suggested the idea of adopting a similar plan for her own book, and investing it with the additional interest of a complicated plot and more numerous characters. To avoid anachronisms, she endeavored to treat the religions of the world in their chronologic sequence, and resorted to the expedient of introducing pagan personages. A fair young priestess of the temple of Neith, in the sacred city of Sais—where people of all climes collected to witness the festival of lamps— becoming skeptical of the miraculous attributes of the statues she had been trained to serve and worship, and impelled by an earnest love of truth to seek a faith that would satisfy her reason and purify her heart, is induced to question minutely the religious tenets of travellers who visited the temple, and thus familiarized herself with all existing creeds and hierarchies. The lore so carefully garnered is finally analyzed, classified, and inscribed on papyrus. The delineation of scenes and sanctuaries in different latitudes, from Lhasa to Copan, gave full exercise to Edna's descriptive power, but imposed much labor in the departments of physical geography and architecture.
Verily! an ambitious literary programme for a girl over whose head scarcely eighteen years had hung their dripping drab wintry skies, and pearly summer clouds.
One March morning, as Edna entered the breakfast-room, she saw unusual gravity printed on Mrs. Murray's face; and observing an open letter on the table conjectured the cause of her changed countenance. A moment after the master came in, and as he seated himself his mother said:
"St. Elmo, your cousin Estelle's letter contains bad news. Her father is dead; the estate is wretchedly insolvent; and she is coming to reside with us."
"Then I am off for Hammerfest and the midnight sun! Who the deuce invited her I should like to know?"
"Remember she is my sister's child; she has no other home, and I am sure it is very natural that she should come to me, her nearest relative, for sympathy and protection."
"Write to her by return mail that you will gladly allow her three thousand a year, provided she ensconces herself under some other roof than this."
"Impossible! I could not wound her so deeply."
"You imagine that she entertains a most tender and profound regard for both of us?"
"Certainly, my son; we have every reason to believe that she does."
Leaning back in his chair, St. Elmo laughed.
"I should really enjoy stumbling upon something that would overtax your most marvellous and indefinitely extensible credulity! When Estelle Harding becomes an inmate of this house I shall pack my valise, and start to Tromso! She approaches like Discord, uninvited, armed with an apple or a dagger. I am perfectly willing to share my fortune with her, but I'll swear I would rather prowl for a month through the plague-stricken district of Constantinople than see her domesticated here! You tried the experiment when she was a child, and we fought and scratched as indefatigably as those two amiable young Theban bullies, who are so often cited as scarecrows for quarrelsome juveniles. Of course, we shall renew the battle at sight."
"But, my dear son, there are claims urged by natural affection which it is impossible to ignore. Poor Estelle is very desolate, and has a right to our sympathy and love."
"Poor Estelle! Hoeredipetoe! The frailties of old Rome survive her virtues and her ruins!"
Mr. Murray laughed again, beat a tattoo with his fork on the edge of his plate, and, rising, left the room.
Mrs. Murray looked puzzled, and said: "Edna, do you know what he meant? He often amuses himself by mystifying me, and I will not gratify him by asking an explanation."
"Hoeredipetoe were legacy-hunters in Rome, where their sycophantic devotion to people of wealth furnished a constant theme for satire."
Mrs. Murray sighed heavily, and the orphan asked:
"When do you expect your niece?"
"Day after to-morrow. I have not seen her for some years, but report says she is very fascinating, and even St. Elmo, who met her in Europe, admits that she is handsome. As you heard him say just now, they formerly quarreled most outrageously and shamefully, and he took an unaccountable aversion to her; but I trust all juvenile reminiscences will vanish when they know each other better. My dear, I have several engagements for to-day, and I must rely upon you to superintend the arrangement of Estelle's room. She will occupy the one next to yours. See that everything is in order. You know Hagar is sick, and the other servants are careless."
Sympathy for Miss Harding's recent and severe affliction prepared Edna's heart to receive her cordially, and the fact that an irreconcilable feud eristed between the stranger and St. Elmo, induced the orphan to hope that she might find a congenial companion in the expected visitor.
On the afternoon of her arrival, Edna leaned eagerly forward to catch a glimpse of her countenance, and as she threw back her long mourning-veil, and received her aunt's affectionate greeting, the first impression was, "How exceedingly handsome—how commanding she is!" But a few minutes later, when Mrs. Murray introduced them, and the stranger's keen, bright, restless eyes fell upon the orphan's face, the latter drew back, involuntarily repelled, and a slight shiver crept over her, for an unerring instinctive repulsion told her they could never be friends.
Estelle Harding was no longer young; years had hardened the outline of her features, and imparted a certain staidness or fixedness to her calm countenance, where strong feeling or passionate impulse was never permitted to slip the elegant mask of polished suavity. She was surprisingly like Mrs. Murray, but not one line of her face resembled her cousin's. Fixing her eyes on Edna, with a cold, almost stern scrutiny more searching than courteous, she said:
"I was not aware, Aunt Ellen, that you had company in the house."
"I have no company at present, my dear. Edna resides here. Do you not remember one of my letters in which I mentioned the child who was injured by the railroad accident?"
"True. I expected to see a child, certainly not a woman."
"She seems merely a child to me. But come up to your room; you must be very much fatigued by your journey."
When they left the sitting-room Edna sat down in one corner of the sofa, disappointed and perplexed.
"She does not like me, that is patent; and I certainly do not like her. She is handsome and very graceful, and quite heartless. There is no inner light from her soul shining in her eyes; nothing tender and loving and kind in their clear depths; they are cold, bright eyes, but not soft, winning, womanly eyes. They might, and doubtless would, hold an angry dog in check, but never draw a tired, fretful child to lean its drooping head on her lap. If she really has any feeling, her eyes should be indicted for slander. I am sorry I don't like her, and I am afraid we never shall be nearer each other than touching our finger-tips."
Such was Edna's unsatisfactory conclusion, and dismissing the subject, she picked up a book, and read until the ladies returned and seated themselves around the fire.
To Mrs. Murray's great chagrin and mortification her son had positively declined going to meet his cousin, had been absent since breakfast, and proved himself shamefully derelict in the courtesy demanded of him. It was almost dark when the quick gallop of his horse announced his return, and, as he passed the window on his way to the stables, Edna noticed a sudden change in Estelle's countenance. During the next quarter of an hour her eyes never wandered from the door, though her head was turned to listen to Mrs. Murray's remarks. Soon after, Mr. Murray's rapid footsteps sounded in the hall, and as he entered she rose and advanced to meet him. He held out his hand, shook hers vigorously, and said, as he dropped it:
"Mine ancient enemy, declare a truce and quiet my apprehensions; for I dreamed last night that, on sight, we flew at each other's throats, and renewed the sanguinary scuffles of our juvenile acquaintance. Most appallingly vivid is my recollection of a certain scar here on my left arm, where you set your pearly teeth some years ago."
"My dear cousin, as I have had no provocation since I was separated from you, I believe I have grown harmless and amiable. How very well you look, St. Elmo."
"Thank you. I should like to return the compliment, but facts forbid. You are thinner than when we dined together in Paris. Are you really in love with that excruciating Brummell of a Count who danced such indefatigable attendance upon you?"
"To whom do you allude?"
"That youth with languishing brown eyes, who parted his 'hyacinthine tresses' in the middle of his head; whose moustache required Ehrenberg's strongest glasses—and who absolutely believed that Ristori singled him out of her vast audiences as the most appreciative of her listeners; who was eternally humming 'Ernani' and raving about 'Traviata.' Your memory is treacherous—as your conscience? Well, then, that man, who I once told you reminded me of what Guilleragues is reported to have said about Pelisson, 'that he abused the permission men have to be ugly.'"
"Ah! you mean poor Victor! He spent the winter in Seville. I had a letter last week."
"When do you propose to make him my cousin?"
"Not until I become an inmate of a lunatic asylum."
"Poor wretch! If he only had courage to sue you for breach of promise, I would, with pleasure, furnish sufficient testimony to convict you and secure him heavy damages; for I will swear you played fiancee to perfection. Your lavish expenditure of affection seemed to me altogether uncalled for, considering the fact that the fish already floundered at your feet."
The reminiscence evidently annoyed her, though her lips smiled, and Edna saw that, while his words were pointed with a sarcasm lost upon herself, it was fully appreciated by his cousin.
"St. Elmo, I am sorry to see that you have not improved one iota; that all your wickedness clings to you like Sinbad's burden."
Standing at his side, she put her hand on his shoulder.
As he looked down at her, his lips curled.
"Nevertheless, Estelle, I find a pale ghost of pity for you wandering up and down what was once my heart. After the glorious intoxication of Parisian life, how can you endure the tedium of this dullest of humdrum—this most moral and stupid of all country towns? Little gossip, few flirtations, neither beaux esprits nor bons vivants—what will become of you? Now, whatever amusement, edification, or warning you may be able to extract from my society, I here beg permission to express the hope that you will appropriate unsparingly. I shall, with exemplary hospitality, dedicate myself to your service—shall try to make amends for votre cher Victor's absence, and solemnly promise to do everything in my power to assist you in strangling time, except parting my hair in the middle of my head, and making love to you. With these stipulated reservations, command me ad libitum."
Her face flushed slightly, she withdrew her hand and sat down.
Taking his favorite position on the rug, with one hand thrust into his pocket and the other dallying with his watch-chain, Mr. Murray continued:
"Entire honesty on my part, and a pardonable and amiable weakness for descanting on the charms of my native village, compel me to assure you, that, notwithstanding the deprivation of opera and theatre, bal masque and the Bois de Bologne, I believe you will be surprised to find that the tone of society here is quite up to the lofty standard of the 'Society of Areueil,' or even the requirements of the Academy of Sciences. Our pastors are erudite as Abelard, and rigid as Trappists; our young ladies are learned as that ancient blue-stocking daughter of Pythagoras, and as pious as St. Salvia, who never washed her face. For instance, girls yet in their teens are much better acquainted with Hebrew than Miriam was, when she sung it on the shore of the Red Sea (where, by the by, Talmudic tradition says Pharaoh was not drowned), and they will vehemently contend for the superiority of the Targum of Onkelos over that on the Hagiographa, ascribed to one-eyed Joseph of Sora! You look incredulous, my fair cousin. Nay, permit me to complete the inventory of the acquirements of your future companions. They quote fluently from the Megilloth, and will entertain you by fighting over again the battle of the school of Hillel versus the school of Shammai! Their attainments in philology reflect discredit on the superficiality of Max Muller; and if an incidental allusion is made to archaeology, lo! they bombard you with a broadside of authorities, and recondite terminology that would absolutely make the hair of Lepsius and Champollion stand on end. I assure you the savants of the Old World would catch their breath with envious amazement, if they could only enjoy the advantage of the conversation of these orthodox and erudite refugees from the nursery! The unfortunate men of this community are kept in pitiable terror lest they commit an anachronism, and if, after a careful reconnoissance of the slippery ground, they tremblingly venture an anecdote of Selwyn or Hood, or Beaumarchais, they are invariably driven back in confusion by the inquiry, if they remember this or that bon mot uttered at the court of Aurungzebe or of one of the early Incas! Ah! would I were Moliere to repaint Les Precieuses Ridicules!"
Although his eyes had never once wandered from his cousin's face, toward the corner where Edna sat embroidering some mats, she felt the blood burning in her cheeks, and forced herself to look up. At that moment, as he stood in the soft glow of the firelight, he was handsomer than she had ever seen him; and when he glanced swiftly over his shoulder to mark the effect of his words, their eyes met, and she smiled involuntarily.
"For shame, St. Elmo! I will have you presented by the grand jury of this county for wholesome defamation of the inhabitants thereof," said his mother, shaking her finger at him.
Estelle laughed and shrugged her shoulders.
"My poor cousin! how I pity you, and the remainder of the men here, surrounded by such a formidable coterie of blues."
"Believe me, even if their shadows are as blue as those which I have seen thrown upon the snow of Eyriks Jokull, in Iceland, where I would have sworn that every shade cast on the mountain was a blot of indigo. Sometimes I seriously contemplate erecting an observatory and telescope, in order to sweep our sky and render visible what I am convinced exist there undiscovered—some of those deep blue nebulae which Sir John Herschel found in the southern hemisphere! If the astronomical conjectures be correct, concerning the possibility of a galaxy of blue stars, a huge cluster hangs in this neighborhood and furnishes an explanation of the color of the women."
"Henceforth, St. Elmo, the sole study of my life shall be to forget my alphabet. Miss Earl, do you understand Hebrew?"
"Oh, no; I have only begun to study it."
"Estelle, it is the popular and fashionable amusement here. Young ladies and young gentlemen form classes for mutual aid and 'mutual admiration' while they clasp hands over the Masora. If Lord Brougham, and other members of the 'Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,' could only have been induced to investigate the intellectual status of the 'rising generation' of our village, there is little room to doubt that, as they are not deemed advocates for works of supererogation, they would long ago have appreciated the expediency of disbanding said society. I imagine Tennyson is a clairvoyant, and was looking at the young people of this vicinage, when he wrote:
'Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.'
Not even egoistic infallible 'Brain Town'—that self-complacent and pretentious 'Hub,' can show a more ambitious covey of literary fledgelings!"
"Your random firing seems to produce no confusion on the part of your game," answered his cousin, withdrawing her gaze from Edna's tranquil features, on which a half smile still lingered.
He did not seem to hear her words, but his eyebrows thickened, as he draw a couple of letters from his pocket and looked at the superscription.
Giving one to his mother, who sat looking over a newspaper, he crossed the room and silently laid the other on Edna's lap.
It was post-marked in a distant city and directed in a gentleman's large, round business handwriting. The girl's face flushed with pleasure as she broke the seal, glanced at the signature, and without pausing for a perusal, hastily put the letter into her pocket.
"Who can be writing to you, Edna?" asked Mrs. Murray, when she had finished reading her own letter.
"Oh! doubtless some Syrian scribe has indited a Chaldee billet-doux, which she can not spell out without the friendly aid of dictionary and grammar. Permit her to withdraw and decipher it. Meantime here comes Henry to announce dinner, and a plate of soup will strengthen her for her task."
Mr. Murray offered his arm to his cousin, and during dinner he talked constantly, rapidly, brilliantly of men and things abroad; now hurling a sarcasm at Estelle's head, now laughing at his mother's expostulations, and studiously avoiding any further notice of Edna, who was never so thoroughly at ease as when he seemed to forget her presence.
Estelle sat at his right hand, and suddenly refilling his glass with bubbling champagne, he leaned over and whispered a few words in her ear that brought a look of surprise and pleasure into her eyes. Edna only saw the expression of his face, and the tenderness, the pleading written there astonished and puzzled her. The next moment they rose from the table, and as Mr. Murray drew his cousin's hand under his arm, Edna hurried away to her own room.
Among the numerous magazines to which St. Elmo subscribed was one renowned for the lofty tone of its articles and the asperity of its carping criticisms, and this periodical Edna always singled out and read with avidity.
The name of the editor swung in terrorum in the imagination of all humble authorlings, and had become a synonym for merciless critical excoriation.
To this literary Fouquier Tinville, the orphan had daringly written some weeks before, stating her determination to attempt a book, and asking permission to submit the first chapter to his searching inspection. She wrote that she expected him to find faults—he always did; and she preferred that her work should be roughly handled by him, rather than patted and smeared with faint praise by men of inferior critical astuteness.
The anxiously expected reply had come at last, and as she locked her door and sat down to read it, she trembled from head to foot. In the centre of a handsome sheet of tinted paper she found these lines:
"MADAM: In reply to your very extraordinary request I have the honor to inform you, that my time is so entirely consumed by necessary and important claims, that I find no leisure at my command for the examination of the embryonic chapter of a contemplated book. I am, madam,
"DOUGLASS G. MANNING."
Tears of disappointment filled her eyes and for a moment she bit her lip with uncontrolled vexation; then refolding the letter, she put it in a drawer of her desk, and said sorrowfully:
"I certainly had no right to expect anything more polite from him. He snubs even his popular contributors, and of course he would not be particularly courteous to an unknown scribbler. Perhaps some day I may make him regret that letter; and such a triumph will more than compensate for this mortification. One might think that all literary people, editors, authors, reviewers, would sympathize with each other, and stretch out their hands to aid one another! but it seems there is less free-masonry among literati than other guilds. They wage an internecine war among themselves, though it certainly can not be termed 'civil strife,' judging from Mr. Douglass Manning's letter."
Chagrined and perplexed she walked up and down the room, wondering what step would be most expedient in the present state of affairs; and trying to persuade herself that she ought to consult Mr. Hammond. But she wished to surprise him, to hear his impartial opinion of a printed article which he could not suspect that she had written, and finally she resolved to say nothing to any one, to work on in silence, relying upon herself. With this determination she sat down before her desk, opened the MS. of her book, and very soon became absorbed in writing the second chapter. Before she had finished even the first sentence a hasty rap summoned her to the door.
She opened it, and found Mr. Murray standing in the hall, with a candle in his hand.
"Where is that volume of chess problems which you had last week?"
"It is here, sir."
She took it from the table, and as she approached him, Mr. Murray held the light close to her countenance, and gave her one of those keen looks which always reminded her of the descriptions of the scrutiny of the Council of Ten, in the days when "lions' mouths" grinned at the street-corners in Venice.
Something in the curious expression of his face, and the evident satisfaction which he derived from his hasty investigation, told Edna that the book was a mere pretext. She drew back and asked:
"Have I any other book that you need?"
"No; I have all I came for."
Smiling half mischievously, half maliciously, he turned and left her.
"I wonder what he saw in my face that amused him?"
She walked up to the bureau and examined her own image in the mirror; and there, on her cheeks, were the unmistakable traces of the tears of vexation and disappointment.
"At least he can have no idea of the cause, and that is some comfort, for he is too honorable to open my letters."
But just here a doubt flashed into her mind.
"How do I know that he is honorable? Can any man be worthy of trust who holds nothing sacred, and sneers at all religions? No; he has no conscience; and yet—"
She sighed and went back to her MS., and though for a while St. Elmo Murray's mocking eyes seemed to glitter on the pages, her thoughts ere long were anchored once more with the olive-crowned priestess in the temple at Sais.
If the seers of geology are correct in assuming that the age of the human race is coincident with that of the alluvial stratum, from eighty to one hundred centuries, are not domestic traditions and household customs the great arteries in which beat the social life of humanity, linking the race in homogeneity? Roman women suffered no first day of May pass without celebrating the festival of Bona Dea; and two thousand years later, girls who know as little of the manners and customs of ancient Italy, as of the municipal regulations of fabulous "Manoa," lie down to sleep on the last day of April, and kissing the fond, maternal face that bends above their pillows, eagerly repeat:
"You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear: To- morrow'll be the happiest time of all the glad new-year; Of all the glad new-year, mother, the maddest, merriest day, For I'm to be Queen o' the May, mother; I'm to be Queen o' the May."
For a fortnight Edna had been busily engaged in writing colloquies and speeches for the Sabbath-school children of the village, and in attending the rehearsals for the perfection of the various parts. Assisted by Mr. Hammond and the ladies of his congregation, she had prepared a varied programme, and was almost as much interested in the success of the youthful orators, as the superintendent of the school, or the parents of the children. The day was propitious— clear, balmy, all that could be asked of the blue-eyed month—and as the festival was to be celebrated in a beautiful grove of elms and chestnuts, almost in sight of Le Bocage, Edna went over very early to aid in arranging the tables, decking the platforms with flowers, and training one juvenile Demosthenes, whose elocution was as unpromising as that of his Greek model.
Despite her patient teaching this boy's awkwardness threatened to spoil everything, and as she watched the nervous wringing of his hands and desperate shuffling of his feet, she was tempted to give him up in despair. The dew hung heavily on grass and foliage, and the matin carol of the birds still swelled through the leafy aisles of the grove, when she took the trembling boy to a secluded spot, directed him to stand on a mossy log, where two lizards lay blinking, and repeat his speech.
He stammered most unsatisfactorily through it, and, intent on his improvement, Edna climbed upon a stump and delivered his speech for him, gesticulating and emphasizing just as she wished him to do. As the last words of the peroration passed her lips, and while she stood on the stump, a sudden clapping of hands startled her, and Gordon Leigh's cheerful voice exclaimed:
"Encore! Encore! Since the days of Hypatia you have not had your equal among female elocutionists. I would not have missed it for any consideration, so pray forgive me for eavesdropping." He came forward, held out his hand and added: "Allow me to assist you in dismounting from your temporary rostrum, whence you bear your 'blushing honors thick upon you.' Jamie, do you think you can do as well as Miss Edna when your time comes?"
"Oh! no, sir; but I will try not to make her ashamed of me."
He snatched his hat from the log and ran off, leaving his friends to walk back more leisurely to the spot selected for the tables. Edna had been too much disconcerted by his unexpected appearance, to utter a word until now, and her tone expressed annoyance as she said:
"I am very sorry you interrupted me, for Jamie will make an ignominious failure. Have you nothing better to do than stray about the woods like a satyr?"
"I am quite willing to be satyrized even by you on this occasion; for what man, whose blood is not curdled by cynicism, can prefer to spend Mayday among musty law books and red tape, when he has the alternative of listening to such declamation as you favored me with just now, or of participating in the sports of one hundred happy children? Beside, my good 'familiar,' or rather my sortes Proenestinoe, told me that I should find you here; and I wanted to see you before the company assembled: why have you so pertinaciously avoided me of late?"
They stood close to each other in the shade of the elms, and Gordon thought that never before had she looked so beautiful, as the mild perfumed breeze stirred the folds of her dress, and fluttered the blue ribbons that looped her hair and girdled her waist.
Just at that instant, ere she could reply, a rustling of the undergrowth arrested further conversation, and Mr. Murray stepped out of the adjoining thicket, with his gun in his hand, and his grim pet Ali at his heels. Whatever surprise he may have felt, his countenance certainly betrayed none, as he lifted his hat and said:
"Good morning, Leigh. I shall not intrude upon the Sanhedrim, on which I have happened to stumble, longer than is necessary to ask if you are so fortunate as to have a match with you? I find my case empty."
Mr. Leigh took a match from his pocket, and while Mr. Murray lighted his cigar, his eyes rested for an instant only on Edna's flushed face.
"Are you not coming to the children's celebration?" asked Gordon.
"No, indeed! I own that I as lazy as a Turk; but while I am constitutionally and habitually opposed to labor, I swear I should prefer to plough or break stones till sundown, sooner than listen to all the rant and fustian that spectators will be called on to endure this morning. I have not sufficient courage to remain and witness what would certainly recall 'the manner of Bombastes Furioso making love to Distaffina!' Will you have a cigar? Good morning."
He lifted his hat, shouldered his gun, and calling to his dog, disappeared among the thick undergrowth.
"What an incorrigible savage!" muttered Mr. Leigh, replacing the match-case in his pocket.
His companion made no answer and was hurrying on, but he caught her dress and detained her.
"Do not go until you hear what I have to say to you. More than once you have denied me an opportunity of expressing what you must long ago have suspected. Edna, you know very well that I love you better than every thing else—that I have loved you from the first day of our acquaintance; and I have come to tell you that my happiness is in your dear little hands; that my future will be joyless unless you share it; that the one darling hope of my life is to call you my wife. Do not draw your hand from mine! Dear Edna, let me keep it always. Do I mistake your feelings when I hope that you return my affection?"
"You entirely mistake them, Mr. Leigh, in supposing that you can ever be more to me than a very dear and valued friend. It grieves me very much to be forced to give you pain or cause you disappointment; but I should wrong you even more than myself, were I to leave you in doubt concerning my feeling toward you. I like your society, and you have my entire confidence and highest esteem; but it is impossible that I can ever be your wife."
"Because I never could love you as I think I ought to love the man I marry."
"My dear Edna, answer one question candidly. Do you love any one else better than you love me?"
"No, Mr. Leigh."
"Does Mr. Murray stand between your heart and mine?"
"Oh! no, Mr. Leigh."
"Then I will not yield the hope of winning your love. If your heart is free, I will have it all my own one day! O Edna! why can not you love me? I would make you very happy. My darling's home should possess all that fortune and devoted affection could supply; not one wish should remain ungratified."
"I am able to earn a home; I do not intend to marry for one."
"Ah! your pride is your only fault, and it will cause us both much suffering, I fear. Edna, I know how sensitive you are, and how deeply your delicacy has been wounded by the malicious meddling of ill-mannered gossips. I know why you abandoned your Hebrew recitations, and a wish to spare your feelings alone prevented me from punishing certain scandal-mongers as they deserved. But, dearest, do not visit their offences upon me! Because they dared ascribe their own ignoble motives to you, do not lock your heart against me and refuse me the privilege of making your life happy."
"Mr. Leigh, you are not necessary to my happiness. While our tastes are in many respects congenial, and it is pleasant to be with you occasionally, it would not cause me any deep grief if I were never to see you again."
"O Edna! you are cruel, unlike yourself!" "Forgive me, sir, if I seem so, and believe me when I assure you that it pains me more to say it than you to hear it. No woman should marry a man whose affection and society are not absolutely essential to her peace of mind and heart. Applying this test to you, I find that mine is in no degree dependent on you; and, though you may have no warmer friend, I must tell you it is utterly useless for you to hope that I shall ever love you as you wish, Mr. Leigh, I regret that I can not; and if my heart were only puppet of my will, I would try to reciprocate your affection, because I appreciate so fully and so gratefully all that you generously offer me. To-day you stretch out your hand to a poor girl, of unknown parentage, reared by charity—a girl considered by your family and friends an obscure interloper in aristocratic circles, and with a noble magnanimity, for which I shall thank you always, you say, 'Come, take my name, share my fortune, wrap yourself in my love, and be happy! I will give you a lofty position in society, whence you can look down on those who sneer at your poverty and lineage.' O, Mr. Leigh! God knows I wish I loved you as you deserve! Ambition and gratitude alike plead for you; but it is impossible that I could ever consent to be your wife."
Her eyes were full of tears as she looked in his handsome face, hitherto so bright and genial; now clouded and saddened by a bitter disappointment; and suddenly catching both his hands in hers, she stooped and pressed her lips to them.
"Although you refuse to encourage, you cannot crush the hope that my affection will, after a while, win yours in return. You are very young, and as yet scarcely know your own heart, and unshaken constancy on my part will plead for me in coming years. I will be patient, and as long as you are Edna Earl—as long as you remain mistress of your own heart—I shall cling fondly to the only hope that gladdens my future. Over my feelings you have no control; you may refuse me your hand—that is your right—but while I shall abstain from demonstrations of affection, I shall certainly cherish the hope of possessing it. Meantime, permit me to ask whether you still contemplate leaving Mrs. Murray's house? Miss Harding told my sister yesterday that in a few months you would obtain a situation as governess or teacher in a school."
"Such is certainly my intention; but I am at a loss to conjecture how Miss Harding obtained her information, as the matter has not been alluded to since her arrival."
"I trust you will pardon me the liberty I take, in warning you to be exceedingly circumspect in your intercourse with her, for I have reason to believe that her sentiments toward you are not so friendly as might be desired."
"Thank you, Mr. Leigh. I am aware of her antipathy, though of its cause I am ignorant; and our intercourse is limited to the salutations of the day, and the courtesies of the table."
Drawing from her finger the emerald which had occasioned so many disquieting reflections, Edna continued:
"You must allow me to return the ring, which I have hitherto worn as a token of friendship, and which I cannot consent to retain any longer. 'Peace be with you,' dear friend, is the earnest prayer of my heart. Our paths in life will soon diverge so widely that we shall probably see each other rarely; but none of your friends will rejoice more sincerely than I to hear of your happiness and prosperity, for no one else has such cause to hold you in grateful remembrance. Good-bye, Mr. Leigh. Think of me hereafter only as a friend."
She gave him both hands for a minute, left the ring in his palm, and, with tears in her eyes, went back to the tables and platforms.
Very rapidly chattering groups of happy children collected in the grove; red-cheeked boys clad in white linen suits, with new straw hats belted with black, and fair-browed girls robed in spotless muslin, garlanded with flowers, and bright with rosy badges. Sparkling eyes, laughing lips, sweet, mirthful, eager voices, and shadowless hearts. Ah! that Mayday could stretch from the fairy tropic-land of childhood to the Arctic zone of age, where snows fall chilling and desolate, drifting over the dead but unburied hopes which the great stream of time bears and buffets on its broad, swift surface.
The celebration was a complete success; even awkward Jamie acquitted himself with more ease and grace than his friends had dared to hope. Speeches and songs were warmly applauded, proud parents watched their merry darlings with eyes that brimmed with tenderness; and the heart of Semiramis never throbbed more triumphantly than that of the delighted young Queen of May, who would not have exchanged her floral crown for all the jewels that glittered in the diadem of the Assyrian sovereign.
Late in the evening of that festal day Mr. Hammond sat alone on the portico of the old-fashioned parsonage. The full moon, rising over the arched windows of the neighboring church, shone on the marble monuments that marked the rows of graves; and the golden beams stealing through the thick vines which clustered around the wooden columns, broidered in glittering arabesque the polished floor at the old man's feet.
That solemn, mysterious silence which nature reverently folds like a velvet pall over the bier of the pale, dead day, when the sky is
"Filling more and more with crystal light, As pensive evening deepens into night,"
was now hushing the hum and stir of the village; and only the occasional far-off bark of a dog, and the clear, sweet vesper-song of a mocking-bird singing in the myrtle tree, broke the repose so soothing after the bustle of the day. To labor and to pray from dawn till dusk is the sole legacy which sin-stained man brought through the flaming gate of Eden, and, in the gray gloaming, mother Earth stretches her vast hands tenderly over her drooping, toil-spent children, and mercifully murmurs nunc dimillis.
Close to the minister's armchair stood a small table covered with a snowy cloth, on which was placed the evening meal, consisting of strawberries, honey, bread, butter and milk. At his feet lay the white cat, bathed in moonshine, and playing with a fragrant spray of honeysuckle which trailed within reach of her paws, and swung to and fro, like a spicy censer, as the soft breeze stole up from the starry south. The supper was untasted, the old man's silvered head leaned wearily on his shrunken hand, and through a tearful mist his mild eyes looked toward the churchyard, where gleamed the monumental shafts that guarded his mouldering household idols, his white-robed, darling dead.
His past was a wide, fair, fruitful field of hallowed labor, bounteous with promise for that prophetic harvest whereof God's angels are reapers; and his future, whose near horizon was already rimmed with the light of eternity, was full of that blessed 'peace which passeth all understanding.' Yet to-night, precious reminiscences laid their soft, mesmeric fingers on his heart, and before him, all unbidden, floated visions of other Maydays, long, long ago, when the queen of his boyish affections had worn her crown of flowers; and many, many years later, when, as the queen of his home, and the proud mother of his children, she had stood with her quivering hand nestled in his, listening breathlessly to the Mayday speech of their golden-haired daughter,
"Why does the sea of thought thus backward roll? Memory's the breeze that through the cordage raves, And ever drives us on some homeward shoal, As if she loved the melancholy waves That, murmuring shoreward, break o'er a reef of graves."
The song of the mocking-bird still rang from the downy cradle of myrtle blossoms, and a whip-poor-will answered from a cedar in the churchyard, when the slamming of the parsonage gate startled the shy thrush that slept in the vines that overarched it, and Mr. Leigh came slowly up the walk, which was lined with purple and white lilies whose loveliness, undiminished by the wear of centuries, still rivaled the glory of Solomon.
As he ascended the steps and removed his hat, the pastor rose and placed a chair for him near his own.
"Good evening, Gordon. Where did you immure yourself all day? I expected to find you taking part in the children's festival, and hunted for you in the crowd."
"I expected to attend, but this morning something occurred which unfitted me for enjoyment of any kind; consequently I thought it best to keep myself and my moodiness out of sight."
"I trust nothing serious has happened?"
"Yes, something that threatens to blast all my hopes, and make my life one great disappointment. Has not Edna told you?"
"She has told me nothing relative to yourself, but I noticed that she was depressed and grieved about something. She was abstracted and restless, and went home very early, pleading fatigue and headache."
"I wish I had a shadow of hope that her heart ached also! Mr. Hammond, I am very wretched, and have come to you for sympathy and counsel. Of course you have seen for a long time that I loved her very devotedly, that I intended if possible to make her my wife. Although she was very shy and guarded, and never gave me any reason to believe she returned my affection, I thought—I hoped she would not reject me, and I admired her even more because of her reticence, for I could not value a love which I knew was mine unasked. To-day I mentioned the subject to her, told her how entirely my heart was hers, offered her my hand and fortune, and was refused most decidedly. Her manner more than her words distressed and discouraged me. She showed so plainly that she felt only friendship for me, and entertained only regret for the pain she gave me. She was kind and delicate, but oh! so crushingly positive! I saw that I had no more place in her heart than that whip-poor-will in the cedars yonder. And yet I shall not give her up; while I live I will cling to the hope that I may finally win her. Thousands of women have rejected a man again and again and at last yielded and accepted him; and I do not believe Edna can withstand the devotion of a lifetime."
"Do not deceive yourself, Gordon. It is true many women are flattered by a man's perseverance, their vanity is gratified. They first reproach themselves for the suffering they inflict, then gratitude for constancy comes to plead for the inconsolable suitor, and at last they persuade themselves that such devotion can not fail to make them happy. Such a woman Edna is not, and if I have correctly understood her character, never can be. I sympathize with you, Gordon, and it is because I love you so sincerely that I warn you against a hope destined to cheat you."
"But she admitted that she loved no one else, and I can see no reason why, after a while, she may not give me her heart."
"I have watched her for years. I think I know her nature better than any other human being, and I tell you, Edna Earl will never coax and persuade herself to marry any man, no matter what his position and endowments may be. She is not a dependent woman; the circumstances of her life have forced her to dispense with companionship, she is sufficient for herself; and while she loves her friends warmly and tenderly, she feels the need of no one. If she ever marries, it will not be from gratitude or devotion, but because she learned to love, almost against her will, some strong, vigorous thinker, some man whose will and intellect masters hers, who compels her heart's homage, and without whose society she can not persuade herself to live."
"And why may I not hope that such will, one day, be my good fortune?"
For a few minutes Mr. Hammond was silent, walking up and down the wide portico; and when he resumed his seat, he laid his hand affectionately on the young man's shoulder, saying:
"My dear Gordon, your happiness as well as hers is very dear to me. I love you both, and you will, you must, forgive me if what I am about to say should wound or mortify you. Knowing you both as I do, and wishing to save you future disappointment, I should, even were you my own son, certainly tell you. Gordon, you will never be Edna's husband, because intellectually she is your superior. She feels this, and will not marry one to whose mind her own does not bow in reverence. To rule the man she married would make her miserable, and she could only find happiness in being ruled by an intellect to which she looked up admiringly. I know that many very gifted women have married their inferiors, but Edna is peculiar, and in some respects totally unlike any other woman whose character I have carefully studied. Gordon, you are not offended with me?"
Mr. Leigh put out his hand, grasped that of his companion, and his voice was marked by unwonted tremor as he answered:
"You pain and humiliate me beyond expression, but I could never be offended at words which I am obliged to feel are dictated by genuine affection. Mr. Hammond, might not years of thought and study remove the obstacle to which you allude? Can I not acquire all that you deem requisite? I would dedicate my life to the attainment of knowledge, to the improvement of my faculties."
"Erudition would not satisfy her. Do you suppose she could wed a mere walking encyclopaedia? She is naturally more gifted than you are, and, unfortunately for you, she discovered the fact when you were studying together."
"But, sir, women listen to the promptings of heart much oftener than to the cold, stern dictates of reason."
"Very true, Gordon; but her heart declares against you."
"Do you know any one whom you regard as fully worthy of her—any one who will probably win her?"
"I know no man whose noble, generous heart renders him so worthy of her as yourself; and if she could only love you as you deserve, I should be rejoiced; but that I believe to be impossible."
"Do you know how soon she expects to leave Le Bocage?"
"Probably about the close of the year."
"I cannot bear to think of her as going among strangers—being buffeted by the world, while she toils to earn a maintenance. It is inexpressibly bitter for me to reflect, that the girl whom I love above everything upon earth, who would preside so gracefully, so elegantly over my home, and make my life so proud and happy, should prefer to shut herself up in a school-room, and wear out her life in teaching fretful, spoiled, trying children! Oh, Mr. Hammond! can you not prevail upon her to abandon this scheme? Think what a complete sacrifice it will be."
"If she feels that the hand of duty points out this destiny as hers, I shall not attempt to dissuade her; for peace of mind and heart is found nowhere, save in accordance with the dictates of conscience and judgment. Since Miss Harding's arrival at Le Bocage, I fear Edna will realize rapidly that she is no longer needed as a companion by Mrs. Murray, and her proud spirit will rebel against the surveillance to which I apprehend she is already subjected. She has always expressed a desire to maintain herself by teaching, but I suspect that she will do so by her pen. When she prepares to quit Mrs. Murray's house I shall offer her a home in mine; but I have little hope that she will accept it, much as she loves me, for she wants to see something of that strange mask called 'life' by the world. She wishes to go to some large city, where she can command advantages beyond her reach in this quiet little place, and where her own exertions will pay for the roof that covers her. However we may deplore this decision, certainly we can not blame her for the feeling that prompts it."
"I have racked my brain for some plan by which I could share my fortune with her without her suspecting the donor; for if she rejects my hand, I know she would not accept one cent from me. Can you suggest any feasible scheme?"
Mr. Hammond shook his head, and after some reflection answered:
"We can do nothing but wait and watch for an opportunity of aiding her. I confess, Gordon, her future fills me with serious apprehension; she is so proud, so sensitive, so scrupulous, and yet so boundlessly ambitious. Should her high hopes, her fond dreams be destined to the sharp and summary defeat which frequently overtakes ambitious men and women early in life, I shudder for her closing years and the almost unendurable bitterness of her disappointed soul."
"Why do you suppose that she aspires to authorship?"
"She has never intimated such a purpose to me; but she can not be ignorant of the fact that she possesses great talent, and she is too conscientious to bury it."
"Mr. Hammond, you may be correct in your predictions, but I trust you are wrong; and I can not believe that any woman whose heart is as warm and noble as Edna's, will continue to reject such love as I shall always offer her. Of one thing I feel assured, no man will ever love her as well, or better than I do, and to this knowledge she will awake some day. God bless her! she is the only woman I shall ever want to call my wife."
"I sympathize most keenly with your severe disappointment, my dear young friend, and shall earnestly pray that in this matter God will overrule all things for your happiness as well as hers. He who notes the death of sparrows, and numbers even the hairs of our heads, will not doom your noble, tender heart to life-long loneliness and hunger."
With a long, close clasp of hands they parted. Gordon Leigh walked sadly between the royal lily-rows, hoping that the future would redeem the past; and the old man sat alone in the serene, silent night, watching the shimmer of the moon on the marble that covered his dead.
"It is impossible, Estelle! The girl is not a fool, and nothing less than idiocy can explain such conduct!"
Flushed and angry, Mrs. Murray walked up and down the floor of the sitting-room; and playing with the jet bracelet on her rounded arm, Miss Harding replied:
"As Mrs. Inge happens to be his sister, I presume she speaks ex cathedra, and she certainly expressed very great delight at the failure of Gordon Leigh's suit. She told me that he was much depressed in consequence of Edna's rejection, and manifested more feeling than she had deemed possible under the circumstances. Of course she is much gratified that her family is saved from the disgrace of such a mesalliance."
"You will oblige me by being more choice in the selection of your words, Estelle, as it is a poor compliment to me to remark that any man would be disgraced by marrying a girl whom I have raised and educated, and trained as carefully as if she were my own daughter. Barring her obscure birth, Edna is as worthy of Gordon as any dainty pet of fashion who lounges in Clara Inge's parlors, and I shall take occasion to tell her so if ever she hints at 'mesalliance' in my presence."
"In that event she will doubtless retort by asking you in her bland and thoroughly well-bred style, whether you intend to give your consent to Edna's marriage with my cousin, St. Elmo?"
Mrs. Murray stopped suddenly, and confronting her niece, said sternly:
"What do you mean, Estelle Harding?"
"My dear aunt, the goodness of your heart has strangely blinded you to the character of the girl you have taken into your house, and honored with your confidence and affection. Be patient with me while I unmask this shrewd little intrigante. She is poor and unknown, and if she leaves your roof, as she pretends is her purpose, she must work for her own maintenance, which no one will do from choice, when an alternative of luxurious ease is within reach. Mr. Leigh is very handsome, very agreeable, wealthy and intelligent, and is considered a fine match for any girl; yet your protegee discards him most positively, alleging as a reason that she does not love him, and prefers hard labor as a teacher to securing an elegant home by becoming his wife. That she can decline so brilliant an offer seems to you incredible, but I knew from the beginning that she would not accept it. My dear Aunt Ellen, she aspires to the honor of becoming your daughter-in-law, and can well afford to refuse Mr. Leigh's hand, when she hopes to be mistress of Le Bocage. She is pretty, and she knows it, and her cunning handling of her cards would really amuse and interest me, if I were not grieved at the deception she is practicing upon you. It has, I confess, greatly surprised me that, with your extraordinary astuteness in other matters, you should prove so obtuse concerning the machinations which the girl carries on in your own house. Can you not see how adroitly she natters St. Elmo by pouring over his stupid MSS., and professing devotion to his pet authors? Your own penetration will show you how unnatural it is that any pretty young girl like Edna should sympathize so intensely with my cousin's outre studies and tastes. Before I had been in this house twenty-four hours, I saw the game she plays so skillfully, and only wonder that you, my dear aunt, should be victimized by the cunning of one on whom you have lavished so much kindness. Look at the facts. She certainly has refused to marry Mr. Leigh, and situated as she is, how can you explain the mystery by any other solution than that which I have given, and which I assure you is patent to every one save yourself?"
Painful surprise kept Mrs. Murray silent for some moments, and at last shaking her head, she exclaimed:
"I do not believe a word of it! I know her much better than you possibly can, and so far from wishing to marry my son, she fears and dislikes him exceedingly. Her evident aversion to him has even caused me regret, and at times they scarcely treat each other with ordinary courtesy. She systematically avoids him, and occasionally, when I request her to take a message to him, I have been amused at the expression of her face, and her manoeuvres to find a substitute. No! no! she is too conscientious to wear a mask. You must tax your ingenuity for some better solution."
"She is shrewd enough to see that St. Elmo is satiated with flattery and homage; she suspects that pique alone can force an entrance into the citadel of his heart, and her demonstrations of aversion are only a ruse de guerre. My poor aunt! I pity the disappointment and mortification to which you are destined, when you discover how complete is the imposture she practices."
"I tell you, Estelle, I am neither blind nor exactly in my dotage, and that girl has no more intention of—"
The door opened, and Mr. Murray came in. Glancing round the room, and observing the sudden silence—his mother's flushed cheeks and angry eyes, his cousin's lurking smile, he threw himself on the sofa, saying:
"Tantoene animis coelestibus iroe? Pray what dire calamity has raised a feud between you two? Has the French Count grown importunate, and does my mother refuse her consent to your tardy decision to follow the dictates of your long outraged conscience, and bestow speedily upon him that pretty hand of yours, which has so often been surrendered to his tender clasp? If my intercession in behalf of said Victor is considered worthy of acceptance, pray command me, Estelle, for I swear I never keep Runic faith with an ally."
"My son, did it ever occur to you that your eloquence might be more successfully and agreeably exercised in your own behalf?"
Mrs. Murray looked keenly at her niece as she spoke:
"My profound and proverbial humility never permitted the ghost of such a suggestion to affright my soul! Judging from the confusion which greeted my entrance, I am forced to conclude that it was mal apropos. But prudent regard for the reputation of the household urged me to venture near enough to the line of battle to inform you that the noise of the conflict proclaims it to the servants, and the unmistakable tones arrested my attention even in the yard. Family feuds become really respectable if only waged sotto voce."
He rose as if to leave the room, but his mother motioned him to remain.
"I am very much annoyed at a matter which surprises me beyond expression. Do you know that Gordon Leigh has made Edna an offer of marriage, and she has been insane enough to refuse him? Was ever a girl so stupidly blind to her true interest? She can not hope to make half so brilliant a match, for he is certainly one of the most promising young men in the State, and would give her a position in the world that otherwise she can never attain."
"Refused him! Refused affluence, fashionable social stains! diamonds, laces, rose-curtained boudoir, and hot-houses! Refused the glorious privilege of calling Mrs. Inge 'sister,' and the opportunity of snubbing le beau monde who persistently snub her. Impossible! You are growing old and oblivious of the strategy you indulged in when throwing your toils around your devoted admirer, whom I, ultimately had the honor of calling my father. Your pet vagrant, Edna, is no simpleton; she can take care of her own interests, and, accept my word for it, intends to do so. She is only practising a little harmless coquetry—toying with her victim, as fish circle round and round the bait which they fully intend to swallow. Were she Aphaea herself, I should say Gordon's success is as fixed as any other decree—
'In the chamber of Fate, where, through tremulous hands, Hum the threads from an old-fashioned distaff uncurled, And those three blind old women sit spinning the world!'
Be not cast down, O my mother! Your protegee is a true daughter of Eve, and she eyes Leigh's fortune as hungrily as the aforesaid venerable mother of mankind did the tempting apple."
"St. Elmo, it is neither respectful nor courteous to be eternally sneering at women in the presence of your own mother. As for Edna, I am intensely provoked at her deplorable decision, for I know that when she once decides on a course of conduct neither persuasion nor argument will move her one iota. She is incapable of the contemptible coquetry you imputed to her, and Gordon may as well look elsewhere for a bride."
"You are quite right, Aunt Ellen; her refusal was most positive."
"Did she inform you of the fact?" asked Mr. Murray.
"No, but Mr. Leigh told his sister that she gave him no hope whatever."
"Then, for the first time in my life, I have succeeded in slandering human nature! which, hitherto, I deemed quite impossible. Peccavi, peccavi! O my race! And she absolutely, positively declines to sell herself? I am unpleasantly startled in my pet theories concerning the cunning, lynx selfishness of women, by this feminine phenomenon! Why, I would have bet half my estate on Gordon's chances; for his handsome face, aided by such incomparable coadjutors as my mother here and the infallible sage and oracle of the parsonage constituted a 'triple alliance' more formidable, more invincible, than those that threatened Louis XIV. or Alberoni! I imagined the girl was clay in the experienced hands of matrimonial potters, and that Hebrew strategy would prove triumphant! Accept, my dear mother, my most heartfelt sympathy in your ignominious defeat. You will not doubt the sincerity of my condolence when I confess that it springs from the mortifying consciousness of having found that all women are not so entirely unscrupulous as I prefer to believe them. Permit me to comfort you with the assurance that the campaign has been conducted with distinguished ability on your part. You have displayed topographical accuracy, wariness, and an insight into the character of your antagonist, which entitle you to an exalted place among modern tacticians; and you have the consolation of knowing that you have been defeated most unscientifically, and in direct opposition to every well-established maxim and rule of strategy, by this rash, incomprehensible, feminine Napoleon! Believe me—"
"Hush, St. Elmo! I don't wish to hear anything more about the miserable affair. Edna is very obstinate and exceedingly ungrateful after all the interest I have manifested in her welfare, and henceforth I shall not concern myself about her future. If she prefers to drudge through life as a teacher, I shall certainly advise her to commence as soon as possible; for if she can so entirely dispense with my counsel, she no longer needs my protection."
"Have you reasoned with her concerning this singular obliquity of her mental vision?"
"No. She knows my wishes, and since she defies them, I certainly shall not condescend to open my lips to her on this subject."
"Women arrogate such marvellous astuteness in reading each other's motives, that I should imagine Estelle's ingenuity would furnish an open sesame to the locked chamber of this girl's heart, and supply some satisfactory explanation of her incomprehensible course."
Mr. Murray took his cousin's hand and drew her to a seat beside him on the sofa.
"The solution is very easy, my dear cynic. Edna can well afford to decline Gordon Leigh's offer when she expects and manoeuvres to sell herself for a much higher sum than he can command."
As Miss Harding uttered these words, Mrs. Murray turned quickly to observe their effect.
The cousins looked steadily at each other, and St. Elmo laughed bitterly, and patted Estelle's cheek, saying:
"Bravo! 'Set a thief to catch a thief!' I knew you would hit the nail on the head! But who the d—l is this fellow who is writing to her from New York? This is the second letter I have taken out of the office, and there is no telling how often they come; for, on both occasions, when I troubled myself to ride to the post-office, I have found letters directed to her in this same handwriting."
He drew a letter from his pocket and laid it on his knee, and as Estelle looked at it, and then glanced with a puzzled expression toward her aunt's equally curious face, Mr. Murray passed his hand across his eyes, to hide their malicious twinkle.
"Give me the letter, St. Elmo; it is my duty to examine it; for as long as she is under my protection she has no right to carry on a clandestine correspondence with strangers."
"Pardon me if I presume to dispute your prerogative to open her letters. It is neither your business nor mine to dictate with whom she shall or shall not correspond, now that she is no longer a child. Doubtless you remember that I warned you against her from the first day I ever set my eyes upon her, and predicted that you would repent in sackcloth and ashes your charitable credulity? I swore then she would prove a thief; you vowed she was a saint! But, nevertheless, I have no intention of turning spy at this late day, and assisting you in the eminently honorable work of waylaying letters from her distant swain."
Very coolly he put the letter back in his pocket.
Mrs. Murray bit her lip, and held out her hand, saying peremptorily:
"I insist upon having the letter. Since you are so spasmodically and exceedingly scrupulous, I will carry it immediately to her and demand a perusal of the contents, St. Elmo, I am in no mood for jesting."
He only shook his head, and laughed.
"The dictates of filial respect forbid that I should subject my mother's curiosity to so severe an ordeal. Moreover, were the letter once in your hands, your conscience would persuade you that it is your imperative duty to a 'poor, inexperienced, motherless' girl, to inspect it ere her eager fingers have seized it. Beside, she is coming, and will save you the trouble of seeking her. I heard her run up the steps a moment ago."
Before Mrs. Murray could frame her indignation in suitable words, Edna entered, holding in one hand her straw hat, in the other basket, lined with grape leaves, and filled with remarkably large and fine strawberries. Exercise had deepened the color in her fair, sweet face, which had never looked more lovely than now, as she approached her benefactress, holding up the fragrant, tempting fruit.
"Mrs. Murray, here is a present from Mr. Hammond, who desired me to tell you that these berries are the first he has gathered from the new bed, next to the row of lilacs. It is the variety he ordered from New York last fall, and some roots of which he says he sent to you. Are they not the most perfect specimens you ever saw? We measured them at the parsonage and six filled a saucer."
She was selecting a cluster to hold up for inspection, and had not remarked the cloud on Mrs. Murray's brow.
"The strawberries are very fine. I am much obliged to Mr. Hammond."
The severity of the tone astonished Edna, who looked up quickly, saw the stern displeasure written on her face, and glanced inquiringly at the cousins. There was an awkward silence, and feeling the eyes of all fixed upon her, the orphan picked up her hat, which had fallen on the floor, and asked:
"Shall I carry the basket to the dining-room, or leave it here?"
"You need not trouble yourself to carry it anywhere."
Mrs. Murray laid her hand on the bell-cord and rang sharply. Edna placed the fruit on the centre-table, and suspecting that she must be de trop, moved toward the door, but Mr. Murray rose and stood before her.
"Here is a letter which arrived yesterday."
He put it in her hand, and as she recognized the peculiar superscription, a look of delight flashed over her features, and raising her beaming eyes to his, she murmured, "Thank you, sir," and retreated to her own room.
Mr. Murray turned to his mother and said carelessly:
"I neglected to tell you that I heard from Clinton to-day. He has invited himself to spend some days here, and wrote to say that he might be expected next week. At least his visit will be welcome to you, Estelle, and I congratulate you on the prospect of adding to your list of admirers the most fastidious exquisite it has ever been my misfortune to encounter."
"St. Elmo, you ought to be ashamed to mention your father's nephew in such terms. You certainly have less respect and affection for your relatives than any man I ever saw."
"Which fact is entirely attributable to my thorough knowledge of their characters. I have generally found that high appreciation and intimate acquaintance are in inverse ratios. As for Clinton Allston, were he my father's son, instead of his nephew. I imagine my flattering estimate of him would be substantially the same. Estelle, do you know him?"
"I have not that pleasure, but report prepares me to find him extremely agreeable. I am rejoiced at the prospect of meeting him. Some time ago, just before I left Paris, I received a message from him, challenging me to a flirtation at sight so soon as an opportunity presented itself."
"For your sake, Estelle, I am glad Clinton is coming, for St. Elmo is so shamefully selfish and oblivious of his duties as host, that I know time often hangs very heavily on your hands."
Mrs. Murray was too thoroughly out of humor to heed the dangerous sparkle in her son's eyes.
"Very true, mother, his amiable and accommodating disposition commends him strongly to your affection; and knowing what is expected of him, he will politely declare himself her most devoted lover before he has been thirty-six hours in her society. Now, if she can accept him for a husband, and you will only consent to receive him as your son, I swear I will reserve a mere scanty annuity for my traveling expenses; I will gladly divide the estate between them, and transport myself permanently and joyfully beyond the animadversion on my inherited sweetness of temper. If you, my dear coz, can only coax Clinton into this arrangement for your own and my mother's happiness, you will render me eternally grateful, and smooth the way for a trip to Thibet and Siberia, which I have long contemplated. Bear this proposition in mind, will you, especially when the charms of Le Bocage most favorably impress you? Remember you will become its mistress the day that you marry Clinton, make my mother adopt him, and release me. If my terms are not sufficiently liberal, confer with Clinton as soon as maidenly propriety will permit, and acquaint me with your ultimatum; for I am so thoroughly weary and disgusted with this place that I am anxious to get away on almost any terms. Here come the autocrats of the neighborhood, the nouveaux enrichis! your friends the Montgomeries and Hills, than whom I would sooner shake hands with the Asiatic plague! I hear Madame Montgomery asking if I am not at home, as well as the ladies! Tell her I am in Spitzbergen or Mantchooria, where I certainly intend to be ere long."
As the visitors approached the sitting-room, he sprang through the window opening on the terrace and disappeared.
The contents of the unexpected letter surprised and delighted Edna much more than she would willingly have confessed. Mr. Manning wrote that upon the eve of leaving home for a tour of some weeks' travel, he chanced to stumble upon her letter, and in a second perusal some peculiarity of style induced him to reconsider the offer it contained, and he determined to permit her to send the manuscript (as far as written) for his examination. If promptly forwarded it would reach him before he left home, and expedite an answer.
Drawing all happy auguries from this second letter, and trembling with pleasure, Edna hastened to prepare her manuscript for immediate transmission. Carefully enveloping it in a thick paper, she sealed and directed it, then fell on her knees, and, with clasped hands resting on the package, prayed earnestly, vehemently, that God's blessing would accompany it, would crown her efforts with success.
Afraid to trust it to the hand of a servant, she put on her hat and walked back to town.
The express agent gave her a receipt for the parcel, assured her that it would be forwarded by the evening train, and with a sigh of relief she turned her steps homeward.
Ah! it was a frail paper bark, freighted with the noblest, purest aspirations that ever possessed a woman's soul, launched upon the tempestuous sea of popular favor, with ambition at the helm, hope for a compass, and the gaunt spectre of failure grinning in the shrouds. Would it successfully weather the gales of malice, envy and detraction? Would it battle valiantly and triumphantly with the piratical hordes of critics who prowl hungrily along the track over which it must sail? Would it become a melancholy wreck on the mighty ocean of literature, or would it proudly ride at anchor in the harbor of immortality, with her name floating for ever at the masthead?
It was an experiment such as had stranded the hopes of hundreds and thousands; and the pinched, starved features of Chatterton, and the white, pleading face of Keats, stabbed to death by reviewers' poisoned pens, rose like friendly phantoms and whispered sepulchral warnings.
But to-day the world wore only rosy garments, unspotted by shadows, and the silvery voice of youthful enthusiasm sung only of victory and spoils, as hope gayly struck the cymbals and fingered the timbrels.
When Edna returned to her room, she sat down before her desk to reperuse the letter which had given her so much gratification; and, as she refolded it, Mrs. Murray came in and closed the door after her.
Her face was stern and pale; she walked up to the orphan, looked at her suspiciously, and when she spoke her voice was hard and cold.
"I wish to see that letter which you received to-day, as it is very improper that you should, without my knowledge, carry on a correspondence with a stranger. I would not have believed that you could be guilty of such conduct."
"I am very much pained, Mrs. Murray, that you should even for a moment have supposed that I had forfeited your confidence. The nature of the correspondence certainly sanctions my engaging in it, even without consulting you. This letter is the second I have received from Mr. Manning, the editor of—Magazine, and was written in answer to a request of mine, with reference to a literary matter which concerns nobody but myself. I will show you the signature; there it is—Douglass G. Manning. You know his literary reputation and his high position. If you demand it, of course, I can not refuse to allow you to read it; but, dear Mrs. Murray, I hope you will not insist upon it, as I prefer that no one should see the contents, at least at present. As I have never deceived you, I think you might trust me when I assure you that the correspondence is entirely restricted to literary subjects."
"Why, then, should you object to my reading it?"
"For a reason which I will explain at some future day, if you will only have confidence in me. Still, if you are determined to examine the letter, of course I must submit, though it would distress me exceedingly to know that you can not, or will not, trust me in so small a matter."
She laid the open letter on the desk and covered her face with her hands.
Mrs. Murray took up the sheet, glanced at the signature, and said:
"Look at me; don't hide your face, that argues something wrong."
Edna raised her head, and lifted her eyes full of tears to meet the scrutiny from which there was no escape.
"Mr. Manning's signature somewhat reassures me, and beside, I never knew you to prevaricate or attempt to deceive me. Your habitual truthfulness encourages me to believe you, and I will not insist on reading this letter, though I can not imagine why you should object to it. But, Edna, I am disappointed in you, and in return for the confidence I have always reposed in you, I want you to answer candidly the question I am about to ask. Why did you refuse to marry Gordon Leigh?"
"Because I did not love him."
"Oh, pooh! that seems incredible, for he is handsome and very attractive, and some young ladies show very plainly that they love him, though they have never been requested to do so. There is only one way in which I can account for your refusal, and I wish you to tell me the truth. You are unwilling to marry Gordon because you love somebody else better. Child, whom do you love?"
"No, indeed, no! I like Mr. Leigh as well as any gentleman I know; but I love no one except you and Mr. Hammond."
Mrs. Murray put her hand under the girl's chin, looked at her for some seconds, and sighed heavily.
"Child, I find it difficult to believe you."
"Why, whom do you suppose I could love? Mr. Leigh is certainly more agreeable than anybody else I know."
"But girls sometimes take strange whims in these matters. Do you ever expect to receive a better offer than Mr. Leigh's?"
"As far as fortune is concerned, I presume I never shall have so good an opportunity again. But, Mrs. Murray, I would rather marry a poor man, whom I really loved, and who had to earn his daily bread, than to be Mr. Leigh's wife and own that beautiful house he is building. I know you wish me to accept him, and that you think me very unwise, very short-sighted; but it is a question which I have settled after consulting my conscience and my heart."
"And you give me your word of honor that you love no other gentleman better than Gordon?"
"Yes, Mrs. Murray, I assure you that I do not."
As the mistress of the house looked down into the girl's beautiful face, and passed her hand tenderly over the thick, glossy folds of hair that crowned the pure brow, she wondered if it were possible that her son could ever regard the orphan with affection; and she asked her own heart why she could not willingly receive her as a daughter.
Mrs. Murray believed that she entertained a sincere friendship for Mrs. Inge, and yet she had earnestly endeavored to marry her brother to a girl whom she could not consent to see the wife of her own son. Verily, when human friendships are analyzed, it seems a mere poetic fiction that—
"Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might; Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, passed in music out of sight."
One afternoon, about ten days after the receipt of Mr. Manning's letter, when Edna returned from the parsonage, she found the family assembled on the front veranda, and saw that the expected visitor had arrived. As Mrs. Murray introduced her to Mr. Allston, the latter rose, advanced a few steps, and held out his hand. Edna was in the act of giving him hers, when the heart-shaped diamond cluster on his finger flashed, and one swift glance at his face and figure made her snatch away her hand ere it touched his, and draw back with a half-smothered exclamation.
He bit his lip, looked inquiringly around the circle, smiled, and returning to his seat beside Estelle, resumed the gay conversation in which he had been engaged.
Mrs. Murray was leaning over the iron balustrade, twining a wreath of multiflora around one of the fluted columns, and did not witness the brief pantomime; but when she looked around she could not avoid remarking the unwonted pallor and troubled expression of the girl's face.
"What is the matter, child? You look as if you were either ill or dreadfully fatigued."
"I am tired, thank you," was the rather abstracted reply, and she walked into the house and sat down before the open window in the library.
The sun had just gone down behind a fleecy cloud-mountain and kindled a volcano, from whose silver-rimmed crater fiery rays of scarlet shot up, almost to the clear blue zenith; while here and there, through clefts and vapory gorges, the lurid lava light streamed down toward the horizon.
Vacantly her eyes rested on this sky-Hecla, and its splendor passed away unheeded, for she was looking far beyond the western gates of day, and saw a pool of blood—a ghastly face turned up to the sky—a coffined corpse strewn with white poppies and rosemary—a wan, dying woman, whose waving hair braided the pillow with gold—a wide, deep grave under the rustling chestnuts, from whose green arches rang the despairing wail of a broken heart:
"Oh, Harry! my husband!"
Imagination travelling into the past, painted two sunny-haired, prattling babes, suddenly smitten with orphanage, and robed in mourning garments for parents whose fond, watchful eyes were closed forever under wild clover and trailing brambles. Absorbed in retrospection of that June day, when she stood by the spring, and watched
"God make himself an awful rose of dawn,"
she sat with her head resting against the window-facing, and was not aware of Mr. Murray's entrance until his harsh, querulous voice startled her.
"Edna Earl! what apology have you to offer for insulting a relative and guest of mine under my roof?"
"What! How dare you treat with unparalleled rudeness a visitor, whose claim upon the courtesy and hospitality of this household is certainly more legitimate and easily recognized than that of—"
He stopped and kicked out of his way a stool upon which Edna's feet had been resting. She had risen, and they stood face to face.
"I am waiting to hear the remainder of your sentence, Mr. Murray."
He uttered an oath, and hurled his cigar through the window.
"Why the d—l did you refuse to shake hands with Allston? I intend to know the truth, and it may prove an economy of trouble for you to speak it at once."
"If you demand my reasons, you must not be offended at the plainness of my language. Your cousin is a murderer, and ought to be hung! I could not force myself to touch a hand all smeared with blood."
Mr. Murray leaned down and looked into her eyes.
"You are either delirious or utterly mistaken with reference to the identity of the man. Clinton is no more guilty of murder than you are, and I have been led to suppose that you are rather too 'pious' to attempt the role of Marguerite de Brinvillers or Joanna of Hainault! Cufic lore has turned your brain; 'too much learning hath made thee mad.'"
"No, sir, it is no hallucination; there can be no mistake; it is a horrible, awful fact, which I witnessed, which is burned on my memory, and which will haunt my brain as long as I live. I saw him shoot Mr. Dent, and heard all that passed on that dreadful morning. He is doubly criminal—is as much the murderer of Mrs. Dent as of her husband, for the shock killed her. Oh! that I could forget her look and scream of agony as she fainted over her husband's coffin!"
A puzzled expression crossed Mr. Murray's face; then he muttered:
"Dent? Dent? Ah! yes; that was the name of the man whom Clinton killed in a duel. Pshaw! you have whipped up a syllabub storm in a tea-cup! Allston only took 'satisfaction' for an insult offered publicly by Dent."
His tone was sneering and his lip curled, but a strange pallor crept from chin to temples; and a savage glare in his eyes, and a thickening scowl that bent his brows till they met, told of the brewing of no slight tempest of passion.
"I know, sir, that custom, public opinion, sanctions—at least tolerates that relic of barbarous ages—that blot upon Christian civilization which, under the name of 'duelling,' I recognize as a crime, a heinous crime, which I abhor and detest above all other crimes! Sir, I call things by their proper names, stripped of the glozing drapery of conventional usage. You say 'honorable satisfaction'; I say murder! aggravated, unpardonable murder; murder without even the poor palliation of the sudden heat of anger. Cool, deliberate, willful murder, that stabs the happiness of wives and children, and for which it would seem that even the infinite mercy of Almighty God could scarcely accord forgiveness! Oh! save me from the presence of that man who can derive 'satisfaction' from the reflection that he has laid Henry and Helen Dent in one grave, under the quiet shadow of Lookout, and brought desolation and orphanage to their two innocent, tender darlings! Shake hands with Clinton Allston? I would sooner stretch out my fingers to clasp those of Gardiner, reeking with the blood of his victims, or those of Ravaillac! Ah! well might Dante shudder in painting the chilling horrors of Cama."
The room was dusky with the shadow of coming night; but the fading flush, low in the west, showed St. Elmo's face colorless, rigid, repulsive in its wrathful defiance.
He bent forward, seized her hands, folded them together, and grasping them in both his, crushed them against his breast.
"Ha! I knew that hell and heaven were leagued to poison your mind! That your childish conscience was frightened by tales of horror, and your imagination harrowed up, your heart lacerated by the cunning devices of that arch maudlin old hypocrite! The seeds of clerical hate fell in good ground, and I see a bountiful harvest nodding for my sickle! Oh! you are more pliable than I had fancied! You have been thoroughly trained down yonder at the parsonage. But I will be- -"
There was a trembling pant in his voice like that of some wild creature driven from its jungle, hopeless of escape, holding its hunters temporarily at bay, waiting for death.
The girl's hand ached in his unyielding grasp and after two ineffectual efforts to free them, a sigh of pain passed her lips and she said proudly:
"No, sir; my detestation of that form of legalized murder, politely called 'duelling,' was not taught me at the parsonage. I learned it in my early childhood, before I ever saw Mr. Hammond; and though I doubt not he agrees with me in my abhorrence of the custom, I have never heard him mention the subject."
"Hypocrite! hypocrite! Meek little wolf in lamb's wool! Do you dream that you can deceive me? Do you think me an idiot, to be cajoled by your low-spoken denials of a fact which I know? A fact, to the truth of which I will swear till every star falls!"
"Mr. Murray, I never deceived you, and I know that however incensed you may be, however harsh and unjust, I know that in your heart you do not doubt my truthfulness. Why you invariably denounce Mr. Hammond when you happen to be displeased with me, I can not conjecture; but I tell you solemnly that he has never even indirectly alluded to the question of 'duelling' since I have known him. Mr. Murray, I know you do entirely believe me when I utter these words."
A tinge of red leaped into his cheek, something that would have been called hope in any other man's eyes looked out shyly under his heavy black lashes, and a tremor shook off the sneering curl of his bloodless lips.
Drawing her so close to him that his hair touched her forehead, he whispered:
"If I believe in you, my—it is in defiance of judgment, will, and experience, and some day you will make me pay a most humiliating penalty for my momentary weakness. To-night I trust you as implicitly as Samson did the smooth-lipped Delilah; to-morrow I shall realize that, like him, I richly deserve to be shorn for my silly credulity."
He threw her hands rudely from him, turned hastily and left the library.
Enda sat down and covered her face with her bruised and benumbed fingers, but she could not shut out the sight of something that astonished and frightened her—of something that made her shudder from head to foot, and crouch down in her chair cowed and humiliated. Hitherto she had fancied that she thoroughly understood and sternly governed her heart—that conscience and reason ruled it; but within the past hour it had suddenly risen in dangerous rebellion, thrown off its allegiance to all things else, and insolently proclaimed St. Elmo Murray its king. She could not analyze her new feelings, they would not obey the summons to the tribunal of her outraged self-respect; and with bitter shame and reproach and abject contrition, she realized that she had begun to love the sinful, blasphemous man who had insulted her revered grandfather, and who barely tolerated her presence in his house.
This danger had never once occurred to her, for she had always believed that love could only exist where high esteem and unbounded reverence prepared the soil; and she was well aware that this man's character had from the first hour of their acquaintance excited her aversion and dread. Ten days before she had positively disliked and feared him; now, to her amazement, she found him throned in her heart, defying ejection. The sudden revulsion bewildered and mortified her, and she resolved to crush out the feeling at once, cost what it might. When Mr. Murray had asked if she loved any one else better than Mr. Leigh, she thought, nay she knew, she answered truly in the negative. But now, when she attempted to compare the two men, such a strange, yearning tenderness pleaded for St. Elmo, and palliated his grave faults, that the girl's self-accusing severity wrung a groan from the very depths of her soul.
When the sad discovery was first made, conscience lifted its hands in horror, because of the man's reckless wickedness; but after a little while a still louder clamor was raised by womanly pride, which bled at the thought of tolerating a love unsought, unvalued; and with this fierce rush of reinforcements to aid conscience, the insurgent heart seemed destined to summary subjugation. Until this hour, although conscious of many faults, she had not supposed that there was anything especially contemptible in her character; but now the feeling of self-abasement was unutterably galling. She despised herself most cordially, and the consistent dignity of life which she had striven to attain appeared hopelessly shattered.
While the battle of reason versus love was at its height, Mrs. Murray put her head in the room and asked: "Edna! Where are you, Edna?"
"Here I am."
"Why are you sitting in the dark? I have searched the house for you." She groped her way across the room, lighted the gas, and came to the window.
"What is the matter, child? Are you sick?"
"I think something must be the matter, for I do not feel at all like myself," stammered the orphan, as she hid her face on the window- sill.
"Does your head ache?"
She might have said very truly that her heart did.
"Give me your hand, let me feel your pulse. It is very quick, but shows nervous excitement rather than fever. Child, let me see your tongue, I hear there are some typhoid cases in the neighborhood. Why, how hot your cheeks are!"
"Yes, I shall go up and bathe them, and perhaps I may feel better."
"I wish you would come into the parlor as soon as you can, for Estelle says Clinton thought you were very rude to him; and though I apologized on the score of indisposition, I prefer that you should make your appearance this evening. Stop, you have dropped your handkerchief."
Edna stooped to pick it up, saw Mr. Murray's name printed in one corner, and her first impulse was to thrust it into her pocket; but instantly she held it towards his mother.
"It is not mine, but your son's. He was here about an hour ago and must have dropped it."
"I thought he had gone out over the grounds with Clinton. What brought him here?"
"He came to scold me for not shaking hands with his cousin."
"Indeed! you must have been singularly rude if he noticed any want of courtesy. Change your dress and come down."
It was in vain that Edna bathed her hot face and pressed her cold hands to her cheeks. She felt as if all curious eyes read her troubled heart. She was ashamed to meet the family—above all things to see Mr. Murray. Heretofore she had shunned him from dislike; now she wished to avoid him because she began to feel that she loved him, and because she dreaded that his inquisitorial eyes would discover the contemptible, and, in her estimation, unwomanly weakness.
Taking the basket which contained her sewing utensils and a piece of light needlework, she went into the parlor and seated herself near the centre-table, over which hung the chandelier.
Mr. Murray and his mother were sitting on a sofa, the former engaged in cutting the leaves of a new book, and Estelle Harding was describing in glowing terms a scene in "Phedre," which owed its charm to Rachel's marvelous acting. As she repeated the soliloquy beginning:
"O toi, qui vois la honte ou je suis descendue, Implacable Venus, suis—je assez confondue!" Edna felt as if her own great weakness were known to the world, and she bent her face close to her basket and tumbled the contents into inextricable confusion.
To-night Estelle seemed in unusually fine spirits, and talked on rapidly, till St. Elmo suddenly appeared to become aware of the import of her words, and in a few trenchant sentences he refuted the criticism on Phedre, advising his cousin to confine her comments to dramas with which she was better acquainted.
His tone and manner surprised Mr. Allston, who remarked:
"Were I Czar, I would issue a ukase, chaining you to the steepest rock on the crest of the Ural, till you learned the courtesy due to lady disputants. Upon my word, St. Elmo, you assault Miss Estelle with as much elan as if you were carrying a redoubt. One would suppose that you had been in good society long enough to discover that the fortiter in re style is not allowable in discussions with ladies."
"When women put on boxing-gloves and show their faces in the ring, they challenge rough handling, and are rarely disappointed. I am sick of sciolism, especially that phase where it crops out in shallow criticism, and every day something recalls the reprimand of Apelles to the shoemaker. If a worthy and able literary tribunal and critical code could be established, it would be well to revive an ancient Locrian custom, which required that the originators of new laws or propositions should be brought before the assembled wisdom, with halters around their necks, ready for speedy execution if the innovation proved, on examination, to be utterly unsound or puerile. Ah! what a wholesale hanging of socialists would gladden my eyes!"
Mr. Murray bowed to his cousin as he spoke, and rising, took his favorite position on the rug.
"Really, Aunt Ellen, I would advise you to have him re-christened, under the name of Timon," said Mr. Allston.
"No, no. I decidedly object to any such gratification of his would- be classic freaks; and, as he is evidently aping Timon, though, unfortunately, nature denied him the Attic salt requisite to flavor the character, I would suggest, as a more suitable sobriquet, that bestowed on Louis X., 'Le Hutin'—freely translated, The Quarrelsome!' What say you, St. Elmo?"
Estelle walked up to her cousin and stood at his side.
"That is very bad policy to borrow one's boxing-gloves; and I happened to overhear Edna Earl when she made that same suggestion to Gordon Leigh, with reference to my amiable temperament. However, there is a maxim which will cover your retreat, and which you can conscientiously utter with much emphasis, if your memory is only good in repeating all the things you may have heard: Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt! Shall I translate?"
She laughed lightly and answered:
"So much for eavesdropping! Of all the gentlemen of my acquaintance, I should fancy you were the very last who could afford to indulge in that amusement."
"Miss Estelle, is this your first, second or third Punic war? You and St. Elmo, or rather, my cousin, 'The Quarrelsome,' seem to wage it in genuine Carthaginian style."
"I never signed a treaty, sir, and, consequently, keep no records."
"Clinton, there is a chronic casus belli between us, the original spring of which antedates my memory. But at present, Estelle is directing all her genius and energy to effect, for my individual benefit, a practical reenactment of the old Papia Poppoea, which Augustus hurled at the heads of all peaceful, happy bachelordom!"
For the first time during the conversation Edna glanced up at Estelle, for, much as she disliked her, she regretted this thrust; but her pity was utterly wasted, and she was surprised to find her countenance calm and smiling.