Mr. Allston shrugged his shoulders, and Mrs. Murray exclaimed:
"I sound a truce! For heaven's sake, St. Elmo, lock up your learning with your mummies, and when you will say barbarous things, use language that will enable us to understand that we are being snubbed. Now, who do you suppose comprehends 'Papia Poppasa?' You are insufferably pedantic!"
"My dear mother, do you remember ever to have read or heard the celebrated reply of a certain urbane lexicographer to the rashly ambitious individual who attempted to find fault with his dictionary? Permit me, most respectfully, to offer it for your consideration. 'I am bound to furnish good definitions, but not brains to comprehend them.'"
"I think, sir, that it is a very great misfortune for those who have to associate with you now that you were not raised in Sparta, where it was everybody's privilege to whip their neighbor's vicious, spoiled children. Such a regimen would doubtless have converted you into an amiable, or at least endurable member of society."
Miss Harding tapped his hand with her fan.
"That is problematical, my fair cousin, for if my provocative playmate had accompanied me, I'll be sworn but I think the supply of Spartan birch would have utterly failed to sweeten my temper. I should have shared the fate of those unfortunate boys who were whipped to death in Lacedaemon, in honor of Diana; said whipping- festival (I here remark parenthetically, for my mother's enjoyment) being known in classic parlance as Diamastigosis!"
Her mother answered laughingly:
"Estelle is quite right; you contrived to grow up without the necessary healthful quota of sound whipping which you richly deserved."
Mr. Murray did not seem to hear her words; he was looking down intently, smiling into his cousin's handsome face, and, passing his arm around her waist, drew her close to his side. He murmured something that made her throw her head quickly back against his shoulder and look up at him.
"If such is the end of all your quarrels, it offers a premium for unamiability," said Mr. Allston, who had been studying Edna's face, and now turned again to his cousin. Curling the end of his moustache, he continued:
"St. Elmo, you have travelled more extensively than any one I know, and under peculiarly favorable circumstances. Of all the spots you have visited, which would you pronounce the most desirable for a permanent residence?"
"Have you an idea of expatriating yourself—of 'quitting your country for your country's good'?"
"One never knows what contingencies may arise, and I should like to avail myself of your knowledge; for I feel assured only very charming places would have detained you long."
"Then, were I at liberty to select a home, tranquil, blessed beyond all expression, I should certainly lose no time in domesticating myself in the Peninsula of Mount Athos."
"Ah! yes; the scenery all along that coast is described as surprisingly beautiful and picturesque."
"Oh, bah! the scenery is quite as grand in fifty other places. Its peculiar attraction consists in something far more precious."
"To what do you refer?"
"Its marvelous and bewildering charm is to be found entirely in the fact that, since the days of Constantine, no woman has set foot on its peaceful soil; and the happy dwellers in that sole remaining earthly Eden are so vigilant, dreading the entrance of another Eve, that no female animal is permitted to intrude upon the sacred precincts. The embargo extends even to cats, cows, dogs, lest the innate female proclivity to make mischief should be found dangerous in the brute creation. Constantine lived in the latter part of the third and the beginning of the fourth century. Think of the divine repose, the unapproachable beatification of residing in a land where no woman has even peeped for fifteen hundred years!"
"May all good angels help me to steer as far as possible from such a nest of cynics! I would sooner confront an army of Amazons headed by Penthesilea herself, than trust myself among a people unhumanized and uncivilized by the refining influence and companionship of women! St. Elmo, you are the most abominable misogamist I ever met, and you deserve to fall into the clutches of those 'eight mighty daughters of the plow,' to which Tennyson's Princess consigned the Prince. Most heartily I pity you!"
"For shame, St. Elmo! A stranger listening to your gallant diatribe would inevitably conclude that your mother was as unnatural and unamiable as Lord Byron's; and that I, your most devoted, meek, and loving cousin, was quite as angelic as Miss Edgeworth's Modern Griselda!"
Affecting great indignation, Estelle attempted to quit his side; but, tightening his arm, Mr. Murray bowed and resumed:
"Had your imaginary stranger ever heard of the science of logic, or even dreamed of Whately or Mill, the conclusion would, as you say, be inevitable. More fortunate than Rasselas, I found a happy spot where the names of women are never called, where the myths of Ate and Pandora are forgotten, and where the only females that have successfully run the rigid blockade are the tormenting fleas, that wage a ceaseless war with the unoffending men, and justify their nervous horror lest any other creature of the same sex should smuggle herself into their blissful retreat. I have seen crowned heads, statesmen, great military chieftains, and geniuses, whose names are destined to immortality; but standing here, reviewing my certainly extended acquaintance, I swear I envy above all others that handsome monk whom Curzon found at Simopetra, who had never seen a woman! He was transplanted to the Holy Mountain while a mere infant, and though assured he had had a mother, he accepted the statement with the same blind faith, which was required for some of the religious dogmas he was called on to swallow. I have frequently wondered whether the ghost of poor Socrates would not be allowed, in consideration of his past sufferings and trials, to wander forever in that peaceful realm where even female ghosts are tabooed."
"There is some terrible retribution in store for your libels on our sex! How I do long to meet some woman brave and wily enough to marry and tame you, my chivalric cousin! to revenge the insults you have heaped upon her sisterhood!"
"By fully establishing the correctness of my estimate of their amiability? That were dire punishment indeed for what you deem my heresies. If I could realize the possibility of such a calamity, I should certainly bewail my fate in the mournful words of that most astute of female wits, who is reported to have exclaimed, in considering the angelic idiosyncrasies of her gentle sisterhood, 'The only thought which can reconcile me to being a woman is that I shall not have to marry one."
The expression with which Mr. Murray regarded Estelle reminded Edna of the account given by a traveller of the playful mood of a lion, who, having devoured one gazelle, kept his paw on another, and, amid occasional growls, teased and toyed with his victim.
As the orphan sat bending over her work listening to the conversation, she asked herself scornfully:
"What hallucination has seized me? The man is a mocking devil, unworthy the respect or toleration of any Christian woman. What redeeming trait can even my partial eyes discover in his distorted, sinful nature? Not one. No, not one!"
She was rejoiced when he uttered a sarcasm or an opinion that shocked her, for she hoped that his irony would cauterize what she considered a cancerous spot in her heart.
"Edna, as you are not well, I advise you to put aside that embroidery, which must try your eyes very severely," said Mrs. Murray.
So she folded up the piece of cambric and was putting it in her basket, when Mr. Allston asked, with more effrontery than the orphan was prepared for:
"Miss Earl, have I not seen you before to-day?"
"May I ask where?"
"In a chestnut grove, where you shot Mr. Dent."
"Indeed! Did you witness that affair? It happened many years ago."
There was not a shadow of pain or sorrow in his countenance or tone, and, rising, Edna said, with unmistakable emphasis:
"I saw all that occurred, and may God preserve me from ever witnessing another murder so revolting!"
In the silence that ensued she turned toward Mrs. Murray, bowed, and said as she quitted the parlor:
"Mrs. Murray, as I am not very well, you will please excuse my retiring early."
"Just what you deserve for bringing the subject on tapis; I warned you not to allude to it." As St. Elmo muttered these words, he pushed Estelle from him, and nodded to Mr. Allston, who seemed as nearly nonplussed as his habitual impudence rendered possible.
Thoroughly dissatisfied with herself, and too restless to sleep, the orphan passed the weary hours of the night in endeavoring to complete a chapter on Buddhism, which she had commenced some days before; and the birds were chirping their reveille, and the sky blanched and reddened ere she lay down her pen and locked up her MS. Throwing open the blinds of the eastern window, she stood for some time looking out, gathering strength from the holy calm of the dewy morning, resolving to watch her own heart ceaselessly, to crush promptly the feeling she had found there, and to devote herself unreservedly to her studies. At that moment the sound of horse's hoofs on the stony walk attracted her attention, and she saw Mr. Murray riding from the stables. As he passed her window, he glanced up, their eyes met, and he lifted his hat and rode on. Were those the same sinister, sneering features she had looked at the evening before? His face was paler, sterner, and sadder than she had ever seen it, and, covering her own with her hands, she murmured:
"God help me to resist that man's wicked magnetism! Oh, Grandpa! are you looking down on your poor little Pearl? Will you forgive me for allowing myself ever to have thought kindly and tenderly of this strange temptation which Satan has sent to draw my heart away from my God and my duty? Ah, Grandpa! I will crush it—I will conquer it! I will not yield!"
Avoiding as much as possible the society of Mrs. Murray's guests, as well as that of her son, Edna turned to her books with increased energy and steadfastness, while her manner was marked by a studied reticence hitherto unnoticed. The house was thronged with visitors, and families residing in the neighborhood were frequently invited to dinner; but the orphan generally contrived on these occasions to have an engagement at the parsonage; and as Mrs. Murray no longer required, or seemed to desire her presence, she spent much of her time alone, and rarely saw the members of the household, except at breakfast. She noticed that Mr. Allston either felt or feigned unbounded admiration for Estelle, who graciously received his devoted attentions; while Mr. Murray now and then sneered openly at both, and appeared daily more impatient to quit the home, of which he spoke with undisguised disgust. As day after day and week after week slipped by without bringing tidings of Edna's MS., her heart became oppressed with anxious forebodings, and she found it difficult to wait patiently for the verdict upon which hung all her hopes.
One Thursday afternoon, when a number of persons had been invited to dine at Le Bocage, and Mrs. Murray was engrossed by preparations for their entertainment, Edna took her Greek books and stole away unobserved to the parsonage, where she spent a quiet evening in reading aloud from the Organon of Aristotle.
It was quite late when Mr. Hammond took her home in his buggy, and bade her good-night at the doorstep. As she entered the house she saw several couples promenading on the veranda, and heard Estelle and Clinton Allston singing a duet from "Il Trovatore." Passing the parlor door, one quick glance showed her Mr. Murray and Mr. Leigh standing together under the chandelier—the latter gentleman talking earnestly, the former with his gaze fastened on the carpet, and a chilling smile fixed on his lip. The faces of the two presented a painful contrast—one fair, hopeful, bright with noble aims, and youthful yet manly beauty; the other swarthy, cold, repulsive as some bronze image of Abaddon. For more than three weeks Edna had not spoken to Mr. Murray, except to say "good-morning," as she entered the dining-room or passed him in the hall; and now, with a sigh which she did not possess the courage to analyze, she went up to her room and sat down to read.
Among the books on her desk was Machiavelli's Prince and History of Florence, and the copy, which was an exceedingly handsome one, contained a portrait of the author. Between the regular features of the Florentine satirist and those of the master of the house, Edna had so frequently found a startling resemblance, that she one day mentioned the subject to Mrs. Murray, who, after a careful examination of the picture, was forced to admit, rather ungraciously, that, "they certainly looked somewhat alike." To- night, as the orphan lifted the volume from its resting-place, it opened at the portrait, and she looked long at the handsome face which, had the lips been thinner, and the hair thicker and more curling at the temples, might have been daguerreotyped from that one downstairs under the chandelier.
One maxim of the Prince had certainly been adopted by Mr. Murray, "It is safer to be feared than to be loved"; and, while the orphan detested the crafty and unscrupulous policy of Niccolo Machiavelli, her reason told her that the character of St. Elmo Murray was scarcely more worthy of respect.
She heard the guests take their departure, heard Mrs. Murray ask Hagar whether "Edna had returned from the parsonage," and then doors were closed and the house grew silent.
Vain were the girl's efforts to concentrate her thoughts on her books or upon her MS., they wandered toward the portrait; and, finally remembering that she needed a book of reference, she lighted a candle, took the copy of Machiavelli, which she determined to put out of sight, and went down to the library. The smell of a cigar aroused her suspicions as she entered, and, glancing nervously around the room, she saw Mr. Murray seated before the window.
His face was turned from her, and, hoping to escape unnoticed, she was retracing her steps when he rose.
"Come in, Edna. I am waiting for you, for I knew you would be here some time before day."
Taking the candle from her hand, he held it close to her face, and compressed his lips tightly for an instant.
"How long do you suppose your constitution will endure the tax you impose upon it? Midnight toil has already robbed you of your color, and converted a rosy, robust child into a pale, weary, hollow-eyed woman. What do you want here?"
"What business have you with Norse myths, with runes and scalds and sagas? You can't have the book. I carried it to my room yesterday, and I am in no mood to-night to play errand-boy for any one."
Edna turned to place the copy of Machiavelli on the shelves, and he continued:
"It is a marvel that the index expurgatorius of your saintly tutor does not taboo the infamous doctrines of the greatest statesman of Italy. I am told that you do me the honor to discover a marked likeness between his countenance and mine. May I flatter myself so highly as to believe the statement?"
"Even your mother admits the resemblance."
"Think you the analogy extends further than the mere physique, or do you trace it only in the corporeal development?"
"I believe, sir, that your character is as much a counterpart of his as your features; that your code is quite as lax as his."
She had abstained from looking at him, but now her eyes met his fearlessly, and in their beautiful depths he read an expression of helpless repulsion, such as a bird might evince for the serpent whose glittering eyes enchained it.
"Ah! at least your honesty is refreshing in these accursed days of hypocritical sycophancy! I wonder how much more training it will require before your lips learn fashionable lying tricks? But you understand me as little as the world understood poor Machiavelli, of whom Burke justly remarked, 'He is obliged to bear the iniquities of those whose maxims and rules of government he published. His speculation is more abhorred than their practice.' We are both painted blacker than—"
"I came here, sir, to discuss neither his character nor yours. It is a topic for which I have as little leisure as inclination. Good- night, Mr. Murray."
He bowed low, and spoke through set teeth:
"I regret the necessity of detaining you a moment longer, but I believe you have been anxiously expecting a letter for some time, as I hear that you every day anticipate my inquiries at the post- office. This afternoon the express agent gave me this package."
He handed her a parcel and smiled as he watched the startled look, the expression of dismay, of keen disappointment that came into her face.
The frail bark had struck the reefs; she felt that her hopes were going down to ruin, and her lips quivered with pain as she recognized Mr. Manning's bold chirography on the paper wrapping.
"What is the matter, child?"
"Something that concerns only myself."
"Are you unwilling to trust me with your secret, whatever it may be? I would sooner find betrayal from the grinning skeletons in monastic crypts than from my lips."
Smothering a sigh, she shook her head impatiently.
"That means that red-hot steel could not pinch it out of you; and that, despite your boasted charity and love of humanity, you really entertain as little confidence in your race as it is my pleasure to indulge. I applaud your wisdom, but certainly did not credit you with so much craftiness. My reason for not delivering the parcel more promptly was simply the wish to screen you from the Argus scrutiny with which we are both favored by some now resident at Bocage. As your letters subjected you to suspicion, I presumed it would be more agreeable to you to receive them without witnesses."
He took a letter from his pocket and gave it to her.
"Thank you, Mr. Murray; you are very kind."
"Pardon me! that is indeed a novel accusation! Kind, I never professed to be. I am simply not quite a brute, nor altogether a devil of the most malicious and vindictive variety, as you doubtless consider it your religious duty to believe. However, having hopelessly lost my character, I shall not trespass on your precious time by wasting words in pronouncing a eulogy upon it, as Antony did over the stabbed corpse of Caesar! I stand in much the same relation to society that King John did to Christendom, when Innocent III. excommunicated him; only I snap my fingers in the face of my pontiff, the world, and jingle my Peter-pence in my pocket; whereas poor John's knees quaked until he found himself at the feet of Innocent, meekly receiving Langton, and paying tribute! Child, you are in trouble; and your truthful countenance reveals it as unmistakably as did the Phrygian reeds that babbled of the personal beauties of Midas. Of course, it does not concern me—it is not my business—and you certainly have as good a right as any other child of Adam, to fret and cry and pout over your girlish griefs, to sit up all night, ruin your eyes, and grow rapidly and prematurely old and ugly. But whenever I chance to stumble over a wounded creature trying to drag itself out of sight, I generally either wring its neck, or set my heel on it, to end its torment; or else, if there is a fair prospect of the injury healing by 'first intention,' I take it gently on the tip of my boot, and help it out of my way. Something has hurt you, and I suspect I can aid you. Your anxiety about those letters proves that you doubt your idol. You and your lover have quarreled? Be frank with me; tell me his name, and I swear upon the honor of a gentleman I will rectify the trouble—will bring him in contrition to your feet."
Whether he dealt in irony, as was his habit, or really meant what he said, she was unable to determine; and her quick glance at his countenance showed her only a dangerous sparkle in his eyes.
"Mr. Murray, you are wrong in your conjecture; I have no lover."
"Oh, call him what you please! I shall not presume to dictate your terms of endearment. I merely wish to say that if poverty stands forbiddingly between you and happiness, why, command me to the extent of half my fortune, I will give you a dowry that shall equal the expectations of any ambitious suitor in the land. Trust me, child, with your sorrow and I will prove a faithful friend. Who has your heart?"
The unexpected question alarmed and astonished her, and a shivering dread took possession of her that he suspected her real feelings, and was laughing at her folly. Treacherous blood began to paint confusion in her face, and vehement and rapid were her words.
"God and my conscience own my heart. I know no man to whom I would willingly give it; and the correspondence to which you allude contains not a syllable of love. My time is rather too valuable to be frittered away in such trifling."
"Edna, would you prefer to have me a sworn ally or an avowed enemy?"
"I should certainly prefer to consider you as neither."
"Did you ever know me fail in any matter which I had determined to accomplish?"
"Yes, sir; your entire life is a huge, hideous, woeful failure, which mocks and maddens you."
"What the d—l do you know of my life? It is not ended yet, and it remains to be seen whether a grand success is not destined to crown it. Mark you! the grapple is not quite over, and I may yet throttle the furies whose cursed fingers clutched me in my boyhood. If I am conquered finally, take my oath for it, I shall die so hard that the howling hags will be welcome to their prey. Single-handed, I am fighting the world, the flesh, and the devil, and I want neither inspection, nor sympathy, nor assistance. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir. And as I certainly desire to thrust neither upon you, I will bid you good-night."
"One moment! What does that package contain?"
"The contents belong exclusively to me—could not possibly interest you—would only challenge your sarcasm, and furnish food for derision. Consequently, Mr. Murray, you must excuse me if I decline your question."
"I'll wager my title to Le Bocage that I can guess so accurately that you will regret that you did not make a grace of necessity and tell me."
A vague terror overshadowed her features as she examined the seals on the package, and replied:
"That, sir, is impossible, if you are the honorable gentleman I have always tried to force myself to believe."
"Silly child! Do you imagine I would condescend to soil my fingers with the wax that secures that trash? That I could stoop to an inspection of the correspondence of a village blacksmith's granddaughter? I will give you one more chance to close the breach between us by proving your trust. Edna, have you no confidence in me?"
"None, Mr. Murray."
"Will you oblige me by looking me full in the face, and repeating your flattering words?"
She raised her head, and though her heart throbbed fiercely as she met his eyes, her voice was cold, steady and resolute.
"None, Mr. Murray."
"Thank you. Some day those same red lips will humbly, tremblingly crave my pardon for what they utter now; and then, Edna Earl, I shall take my revenge, and you will look back to this night and realize the full force of my parting words—voe victis!"
He stooped and picked up a bow of rose-colored ribbon which had fallen from her throat, handed it to her, smiled, and, with one of those low, graceful, haughty bows so indicative of his imperious nature, he left the library. A moment after, she heard his peculiar laugh, mirthless and bitter, ring through the rotunda; then the door was slammed violently, and quiet reigned once more through the mansion.
Taking the candle from the table, where Mr. Murray had placed it, Edna went back to her own room and sat down before the window.
On her lap lay the package and letter, which she no longer felt any desire to open, and her hands drooped listlessly at her side. The fact that her MS. was returned rung a knell for all her sanguine hopes, for such was her confidence in the critical acumen of Mr. Manning that she deemed it utterly useless to appeal to any other tribunal. A higher one she knew not; a lower she scorned to consult.
She felt like Alice Lisle on that day of doom, when Jeffreys pronounced the fatal sentence; and, after a time, when she summoned courage to open the letter, her cheeks were wan and her lips compressed so firmly that their curves of beauty were no longer traceable.
"MISS EARL: I return your MS., not because it is devoid of merit, but from the conviction that were I to accept it, the day would inevitably come when you would regret its premature publication. While it contains irrefragable evidence of extraordinary ability, and abounds in descriptions of great beauty, your style is characterized by more strength than polish, and is marred by crudities which a dainty public would never tolerate. The subject you have undertaken is beyond your capacity—no woman could successfully handle it—and the sooner you realize your overestimate of your powers, the sooner your aspirations find their proper level, the sooner you will succeed in your treatment of some theme better suited to your feminine ability. Burn the enclosed MS., the erudition and archaisms of which would fatally nauseate the intellectual dyspeptics who read my 'Maga,' and write sketches of home life-descriptions of places and things that you understand better than recondite analogies of ethical creeds and mythologic systems, or the subtle lore of Coptic priests. Remember that women never write histories or epics; never compose oratorios that go sounding down the centuries; never paint 'Last Suppers' and 'Judgment Days'; though now and then one gives the world a pretty ballad that sounds sweet and soothing when sung over a cradle, or another paints a pleasant little genre sketch which will hang appropriately in some quiet corner and rest and refresh eyes that are weary with gazing at the sublime spiritualism of Fra Bartolomeo, or the gloomy grandeur of Salvator Rosa. If you have any short articles that you desire to see in print, you may forward them, and I will select any for publication, which I think you will not blush to acknowledge in future years.
"Your obedient servant,
"DOUGLASS G. MANNING."
Unwrapping the MS., she laid it with its death-warrant in a drawer, then sat down, crossed her arms on the top of her desk, and rested her head upon them. The face was not concealed, and, as the light shone on it, an experienced physiogomist would have read there profound disappointment, a patient weariness, but unbending, resolution and no vestige of bitterness. The large, thoughtful eyes were sad but dry, and none who looked into them could have imagined for an instant that she would follow the advice she had so eagerly sought. During her long reverie, she wondered whether all women were browbeaten for aspiring to literary honors; whether the poignant pain and mortification gnawing at her heart was the inexorable initiation-fee for entrance upon the arena where fame adjudges laurel crowns, and reluctantly and sullenly drops one now and then on female brows. To possess herself of the golden apple of immortality was a purpose from which she had never swerved; but how to baffle the dragon critics who jealously guarded it was a problem whose solution puzzled her.
To abandon her right to erudition formed no part of the programme which she was mentally arranging as she sat there watching a moth singe its filmy, spotted wings in the gas-flame; for she was obstinately wedded to the unpardonable heresy that, in the nineteenth century, it was a woman's privilege to be as learned as Cuvier, or Sir William Hamilton, or Humboldt, provided the learning was accurate, and gave out no hollow, counterfeit ring under the merciless hammering of the dragons. If women chose to blister their fair, tender hands in turning the windlass of that fabled well where truth is hidden, and bruised their pretty, white feet in groping finally on the rocky bottom, was the treasure which they ultimately discovered and dragged to light any the less truth because stentorian, manly voices were not the first to shout Eureka?
She could not understand why, in the vineyard of letters, the laborer was not equally worthy of hire, whether the work was successfully accomplished in the toga virilis or the gay kirtle of contadina.
Gradually the expression of pain passed from the girl's countenance, and, lifting her head, she took from her desk several small MSS., that she had carefully written from time to time, as her reading suggested the ideas embodied in the articles. Among the number were two, upon which she had bestowed much thought, which she determined to send to Mr. Manning.
One was an elaborate description of that huge iconoclasm attributed to Alcibiades, and considered by some philosophic students of history the chief cause of the ruin of Athens. In order to reflect all possible light on this curious occurrence, she had most assiduously gleaned the pages of history, and massed the grains of truth; had studied maps of the city and descriptions of travellers, that she might thoroughly understand the topography of the scene of the great desecration. So fearful was she of committing some anachronism, or of soaring on the wings of fancy beyond the realm of well-authenticated facts, that she searched the ancient records to ascertain whether on that night in May, 415 B. c., a full or a new moon looked down on the bronze helmet of Minerva Promachus and the fretted frieze of the Parthenon.
The other MS., upon which she had expended much labor, was entitled "Keeping the Vigil of St. Martin Under the Pines of Grutli"; and while her vivid imagination revelled in the weird and solemn surroundings of the lonely place of rendezvous, the sketch contained a glowing and eloquent tribute to the liberators of Helvetia, the Confederates of Schweitz, Uri, and Underwalden.
Whether Mr. Manning would consider either of these articles worthy of preservation in the pages of his magazine, she thought exceedingly doubtful; but she had resolved to make one more appeal to his fastidious judgment, and accordingly sealed and directed the roll of paper.
Weary but sleepless, she pushed back the heavy folds of hair that had fallen on her forehead, brightened the gaslight, and turned to the completion of a chapter in that MS. which the editor had recommended her to commit to the flames. So entirely was she absorbed in her work that the hours passed unheeded. Now and then, when her thoughts failed to flow smoothly into graceful sentence moulds, she laid aside her pen, walked up and down the floor, turning the idea over and over, fitting it first to one phrase, then to another, until the verbal drapery fully suited her.
The whistle of the locomotive at the station told her that it was four o'clock before her task was accomplished; and, praying that God's blessing would rest upon it, she left it unfinished, and threw herself down to sleep.
But slumber brought no relaxation to the busy brain that toiled on in fitful, grotesque dreams; and when sunshine streamed through the open window at the foot of her bed, it showed no warm flush of healthful sleep on the beautiful face, but weariness and pallor. Incoherent words stirred the lips, troubled thought knitted the delicately arched brows, and the white, dimpled arms were tossed restlessly above her head.
Was the tired midnight worker worthy of her hire? The world would one day pay her wages in the currency of gibes, and denunciation, and envious censoriousness; but the praise of men had not tempted her to the vineyard, and she looked in faith to Him "who seeth in secret," and whose rewards are at variance with those of the taskmasters of earth. "Wherefore," O lonely but conscientious student! "be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain."
Literary women, whose avocation is selected simply because they fancy, it easier to write than to sew for bread, or because they covet the applause and adulation heaped upon successful genius, or desire mere notoriety, generally barter their birthright of quiet, life-long happiness in the peaceful seclusion of home for a nauseous mess of poisoned pottage that will not appease their hunger; and they go down to untimely graves disappointed, embittered, hating the public for whose praises they toiled, cheated out of the price for which they bargained away fireside joys and domestic serenity.
The fondest hope of Edna's heart was to be useful in "her day and generation"—to be an instrument of some good to her race; and while she hoped for popularity as an avenue to the accomplishment of her object, the fear of ridicule and censure had no power to deter her from the line of labor upon which she constantly invoked the guidance and blessing of God.
The noble words of Kepler rang a ceaseless silvery chime in her soul, and while they sustained and strengthened her, she sought to mould her life in harmony with their sublime teachings:
"Lo! I have done the work of my life with that power of intellect which thou hast given. If I, a worm before Thine eyes, and born in the bonds of sin, have brought forth anything that is unworthy of Thy counsels, inspire me with Thy spirit, that I may correct it. If by the wonderful beauty of Thy works I have been led into boldness— if I have sought my own honor among men as I advanced in the work which was destined to Thine honor, pardon me in kindness and charity, and by Thy grace grant that my teaching may be to Thy glory and the welfare of all men. Praise ye the Lord, ye heavenly harmonies! and ye that understand the new harmonies, praise ye the Lord!"
"Mr. Hammond, are you ill? What can be the matter?"
Edna threw down her books and put her hand on the old man's shoulder. His face was concealed in his arms, and his half-stifled groan told that some fierce trial had over-taken him.
"Oh, child! I am troubled, perplexed, and my heart is heavy with a sorrow which I thought I had crushed."
He raised his head for a moment, looked sadly into the girl's face, and dropped his furrowed cheek on his hand.
"Has anything happened since I saw you yesterday?"
"Yes, I have been surprised by the arrival of some of my relatives, whose presence in my house revives very painful associations connected with earlier years. My niece, Mrs. Powell, and her daughter Gertrude, came very unexpectedly last night to make me a visit of some length; and to you, my child, I can frankly say the surprise is a painful one. Many years have elapsed since I received any tidings of Agnes Powell, and I knew not, until she suddenly appeared before me last night, that she was a widow, and bereft of a handsome fortune. She claims a temporary home under my roof; and, though she has caused me much suffering, I feel that I must endeavor to be patient and kind to her and her child. I have endured many trials, but this is one of the severest I have yet been called to pass through."
Distressed by the look of anguish on his pale face, Edna took his hand between both hers, and stroking it caressingly, said:
"My dear sir, if it is your duty, God will strengthen and sustain you. Cheer up; I can't bear to see you looking so troubled. A cloud on your face, my dear Mr. Hammond, is to me like an eclipse of the sun. Pray do not keep me in shadow."
"If I could know that no mischief would result from Agnes's presence, I would not regard it so earnestly. I do not wish to be uncharitable or suspicious; but I fear that her motives are not such as I could—"
"May I intrude, Uncle Allan?"
The stranger's voice was very sweet and winning, and as she entered the room Edna could scarcely repress an exclamation of admiration; for the world sees but rarely such perfect beauty as was the portion of Agnes Powell.
She was one of those few women who seem the pets of time, whose form and features catch some new grace and charm from every passing year; and but for the tall, lovely girl who clung to her hand and called her "mother," a stranger would have believed her only twenty-six or eight.
Fair, rosy, with a complexion fresh as a child's, and a face faultless in contour, as that of a Greek goddess, it was impossible to resist the fascination which she exerted over all who looked upon her. Her waving yellow hair flashed in the morning sunshine, and as she raised one hand to shade her large, clear, blue eyes, her open sleeve fell back, disclosing an arm dazzlingly white and exquisitely moulded. As Mr. Hammond introduced his pupil to his guests, Mrs. Powell smiled pleasantly, and pressed the offered hand; but the eyes, blue and cold as the stalactites of Capri, scanned the orphan's countenance, and when Edna had seen fully into their depths, she could not avoid recalling Heine's poem of Loreley.
"My daughter Gertrude promises herself much pleasure in your society, Miss Earl; for uncle's praises prepare her to expect a most charming companion. She is about your age, but I fear you will find great disparity in her attainments, as she has not been so fortunate as to receive her education from Uncle Allan. You are, I believe, an adopted daughter of Mrs. Murray?"
"No, madam; only a resident in her house until my education is pronounced sufficiently advanced to justify my teaching."
"I have a friend, Miss Harding, who has recently removed to Le Bocage, and intends making it her home. How is she?"
"Quite well, I believe."
Mr. Hammond left the study for a moment, and Mrs. Powell added:
"Her friends at the North tell me that she is to marry her cousin, Mr. Murray, very soon."
"I had not heard the report."
"Then you think there are no grounds for the rumor?"
"Indeed, madam, I know nothing whatever concerning the matter."
"Estelle is handsome and brilliant."
Edna made no reply; and, after waiting a few seconds, Mrs. Powell asked:
"Does Mr. Murray go much into society now?"
"I believe not."
"Is he as handsome as ever?"
"I do not know when you saw him last, but the ladies here seem rather to dread than admire him. Mrs. Powell, you are dipping your sleeve in your uncle's inkstand."
She by no means relished this catechism, and resolved to end it. Picking up her books, she said to Mr. Hammond, who now stood in the door:
"I presume I need not wait, as you will be too much occupied to-day to attend to my lessons."
"Yes; I must give you holiday until Monday."
"Miss Earl, may I trouble you to hand this letter to Miss Harding? It was entrusted to my care by one of her friends in New York. Pray be so good as to deliver it, with my kindest regards."
As Edna left the house, the pastor took his hat from the rack in the hall, and walked silently beside her until she reached the gate.
"Mr. Hammond, your niece is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen."
He sighed heavily, and answered, hesitatingly:
"Yes, yes. She is more beautiful now than when she first grew up."
"How long has she been a widow?"
"Not quite a year."
The troubled expression settled once more over his placid face, and when Edna bade him good-morning, and had walked some distance, she happened to look back, and saw him still leaning on the little gate under the drooping honeysuckle tendrils, with his gray head bent down on his hand. That Mrs. Powell was in some way connected with Mr. Murray's estrangement from the minister Edna felt sure, and the curiosity which the inquiries of the former had betrayed, told her that she must be guarded in her intercourse with a woman who was an object of distrust even to her own uncle.
Very often she had been tempted to ask Mr. Hammond why Mr. Murray so sedulously shunned him; but the shadow which fell upon his countenance whenever St. Elmo's name was accidentally mentioned, made her shrink from alluding to the subject which he evidently avoided discussing.
Before she had walked beyond the outskirts of the village, Mr. Leigh joined her and she felt the color rise in her cheeks as his fine eyes rested on her face, and his hand pressed hers. "You must forgive me for telling you how bitterly I was disappointed in not seeing you two days ago. Why did you absent yourself from the table?"
"Because I had no desire to meet Mrs. Murray's guests, and preferred to spend my time with Mr. Hammond."
"If he were not old enough to be your grandfather, I believe I should be jealous of him. Edna, do not be offended, I am so anxious about you—so pained at the change in your appearance. Last Sunday as you sat in church I noticed how very pale and worn you looked, and with what weariness you leaned your head upon your hand. Mrs. Murray says you are very well, but I know better. You are either sick in body or mind; which is it?"
"Neither, Mr. Leigh. I am quite well, I assure you."
"You are grieved about something, which you are unwilling to confide to me. Edna, it is keen pain that sometimes brings that quiver to your lips, and if you would only tell me! Edna, I know that I—"
"You conjure up a spectre. I have nothing to confide, and there is no trouble which you can relieve."
They walked on silently for a while, and then Gordon said:
"I am going away day after to-morrow, to be absent at least for several months, and I have come to ask a favor which you are too generous to deny. I want your ambrotype or photograph, and I hope you will give it to me without hesitation."
"I have never had a likeness of any kind taken."
"There is a good artist here; will you not go to-day and have one taken for me?"
"No, Mr. Leigh."
"Oh, Edna! Why not?"
"Because I do not wish you to think of remembering me. The sooner you forget me entirely, save as a mere friend, the happier we both shall be."
"But that is impossible. If you withhold your picture it will do no good, for I have your face here in my heart, and you cannot take that image from me."
"At least I will not encourage feelings which can bring only pain to me and disappointment to yourself. I consider it unprincipled and contemptible in a woman to foster or promote in any degree an affection which she knows she can never reciprocate. If I had fifty photographs I would not give you one. My dear friend, let the past be forgotten; it saddens me whenever I think of it, and is a barrier to all pleasant, friendly intercourse. Good-bye, Mr. Leigh. You have my best wishes on your journey."
"Will you not allow me to see you home?"
"I think it is best—I prefer that you should not. Mr. Leigh, promise me that you will struggle against this feeling which distresses me beyond expression."
She turned and put out her hand. He shook his head mournfully, and said as he left her:
"God bless you! It will be a dreary, dreary season with me till I return and see your face again. God preserve you till then!"
Walking rapidly homeward, Edna wondered why she could not return Gordon Leigh's affection—why his noble face never haunted her dreams instead of another's—of which she dreaded to think.
Looking rigorously into the past few weeks, she felt that long before she was aware of the fact, an image to which she refused homage must have stood between her heart and Gordon's.
When she reached home she inquired for Miss Harding, and was informed that she and Mrs. Murray had gone visiting with Mr. Allston; had taken lunch, and would not return until late in the afternoon. Hagar told her that Mr. Murray had started at daylight to one of his plantations about twelve miles distant, and would not be back in time for dinner; and, rejoiced at the prospect of a quiet day, she determined to complete the chapter which she had left unfinished two night previous.
Needing a reference in the book which Mr. Murray had taken from the library, she went up to copy it; and as she sat down and opened the volume to find the passage she required, a letter slipped out and fell at her feet. She glanced at the envelope as she picked it up, and her heart bounded painfully as she saw Mr. Murray's name written in Mr. Manning's peculiar and unmistakable chirography.
The postmark and date corresponded exactly with the one that she had received the night Mr. Murray gave her the roll of MS., and the strongest temptation of her life here assailed her. She would almost have given her right hand to know the contents of that letter, and Mr. Murray's confident assertion concerning the package was now fully explained. He had recognized the handwriting on her letters, and suspected her ambitious scheme. He was not a stranger to Mr. Manning, and must have known the nature of their correspondence; consequently his taunt about a lover was entirely ironical.
She turned the unsealed envelope over and over longing to know what it contained.
The house was deserted—there was, she knew, no human being nearer than the kitchen, and no eye but God's upon her. She looked once more at the superscription of the letter, sighed, and put it back into the book without opening the envelope.
She copied into her note-book the reference she was seeking, and replacing the volume on the window-sill where she had found it, went back to her own room and tried to banish the subject of the letter from her mind.
After all, it was not probable that Mr. Murray had ever mentioned her name to his correspondent; and as she had not alluded to Le Bocage or its inmates in writing to Mr. Manning, St. Elmo's hints concerning her MS. were merely based on conjecture. She felt as if she would rather face any other disaster sooner than have him scoffing at her daring project; and more annoyed and puzzled than she chose to confess, she resolutely bent her thoughts upon her work.
It was almost dusk before Mrs. Murray and her guests returned; and when it grew so dark that Edna could not see the lines of her paper, she smoothed her hair, changed her dress, and went down to the parlor.
Mrs. Murray was resting in a corner of the sofa, fanning herself vigorously, and Mr. Allston smoked on the veranda, and talked to her through the open window.
"Well, Edna, where have you been all day?"
"With my books."
"I am tired almost to death! This country visiting is an intolerable bore! I am worn out with small talk and back-biting. Society nowadays is composed of cannibals—infinitely more to be dreaded than the Fijians—who only devour the body and leave the character of an individual intact. Child, let us have some music by way of variety. Play that symphony of Beethoven that I heard you practicing last week."
She laid her head on the arm of the sofa, and shut her eyes, and Edna opened the piano and played the piece designated.
The delicacy of her touch enabled her to render it with peculiar pathos and power; and she played on and on, unmindful of Miss Harding's entrance—oblivious of everything but the sublime strains of the great master.
The light streamed over her face, and showed a gladness, an exaltation of expression there, as if her soul had broken from its earthly moorings, and was making its way joyfully into the infinite sea of eternal love and blessedness.
At last her fingers fell from the keys, and as she rose she saw Mr. Murray standing outside of the parlor door, with his fingers shading his eyes.
He came in soon after, and his mother held out her hand, saying:
"Here is a seat, my son. Have you just returned?"
"No, I have been here some time."
"How are affairs at the plantation?"
"I really have no idea."
"Why? I thought you went there to-day."
"I started; but found my horse so lame that I went no further than town."
"Indeed! Hagar told me you had not returned, when I came in from visiting."
"Like some other people of my acquaintance, Hagar reckons without her host. I have been at home ever since twelve o'clock, and saw the carriage as you drove off."
"And pray how have you employed yourself, you incorrigible ignis fatuus? O my cousin! you are well named. Aunt Ellen must have had an intuitive insight into your character when she had you christened St. Elmo; only she should have added the 'Fire—' How have you spent the day, sir?"
"Most serenely and charmingly, my fair cousin, in the solitude of my den. If my mother could give me satisfactory security that all my days would prove as quiet and happy as this has been, I would enter into bonds never to quit the confines of Le Bocage again. Ah! the indescribable relief of feeling that nothing was expected of me; that the galling gyves of hospitality and etiquette were snapped, and that I was entirely free from all danger of intrusion. This day shall be marked with a white stone; for I entered my rooms at twelve o'clock, and remained there in uninterrupted peace till five minutes ago; when I put on my social shackles once more, and hobbled down to entertain my fair guest."
Edna was arranging some sheets of music that were scattered on the piano; but as he mentioned the hour of his return, she remembered that the clock struck one just as she went into the sitting-room where he kept his books and cabinets; and she knew now that he was at that very time in the inner room, beyond the arch. She put her hand to her forehead, and endeavored to recollect the appearance of the apartment. The silk curtains, she was sure, were hanging over the arch; for she remembered distinctly having noticed a large and very beautiful golden butterfly which had fluttered in from the terrace, and was flitting over the glowing folds that fell from the carved intrados to the marble floor. But though screened from her view, he must have heard and seen her, as she sat before his book- case, turning his letter curiously between her fingers.
She dared not look up, and bent down to examine the music, so absorbed in her own emotions of chagrin and astonishment, that she heard not one word of what Miss Harding was saying. She felt well assured that if Mr. Murray were cognizant of her visit to the "Egyptian museum," he intended her to know it, and she knew that his countenance would solve her painful doubt.
Gathering up her courage, she raised her eyes quickly in the direction of the sofa, where he had thrown himself, and met just what she most dreaded, his keen gaze riveted on her face. Evidently he had been waiting for this eager, startling, questioning glance; for instantly he smiled, inclined his head slightly, and arched his eyebrows, as if much amused. Never before had she seen his face so bright and happy, so free from bitterness. If he had said, "Yes, I saw you: are you not thoroughly discomfited, and ashamed of your idle curiosity? What interest can you possibly have in carefully studying the outside of my letters? How do you propose to mend matters?"—he could not have more fully conveyed his meaning. Edna's face crimsoned, and she put up her hand to shield it; but Mr. Murray turned toward the window, and coolly discussed the merits of a popular race-horse, upon which Clinton Allston lavished extravagant praise.
Estelle leaned against the window, listening to the controversy, and after a time, when the subject seemed very effectually settled by an oath from the master of the house, Edna availed herself of the lull in the conversation to deliver the letter.
"Miss Harding, I was requested to hand you this."
Estelle broke the seal, glanced rapidly over the letter and exclaimed:
"Is it possible? Can she be here? Who gave you this letter?"
"Mrs. Powell, Mr. Hammond's niece."
"Yes. Agnes Powell."
During the next three minutes one might have distinctly heard a pin fall, for the ticking of two watches was very audible.
Estelle glanced first at her cousin, then at her aunt, then back at her cousin. Mrs. Murray involuntarily laid her hand on her son's knee, and watched his face with an expression of breathless anxiety; and Edna saw that, though his lips blanched, not a muscle moved, not a nerve twitched; and only the deadly hate, that appeared to leap into his large shadowy eyes, told that the name stirred some bitter memory.
The silence was growing intolerable when Mr. Murray turned his gaze full on Estelle, and said in his usual sarcastic tone:
"Have you seen a ghost? Your letter must contain tidings of Victor's untimely demise; for, if there is such a thing as retribution, such a personage as Nemesis, I swear that poor devil of a Count has crept into her garments and come to haunt you. Did he cut his white womanish throat with a penknife, or smother himself with charcoal fumes, or light a poisoned candle and let his poor homoeopathic soul drift out dreamily into eternity? If so, Gabriel will require a powerful microscope to find him. Notwithstanding the fact that you destined him for my cousin, the little curly creature always impressed me as being a stray specimen of an otherwise extinct type of intellectual Lacrymatoria. Is he really dead? Peace to his infusorial soul! Who had the courage to write and break the melancholy tidings to you? Or perhaps, after all, it is only the ghost of your own conscience that has brought that scared look into your face."
She laughed and shrugged her shoulders.
"How insanely jealous you are of Victor! He's neither dead nor dreaming of suicide, but enjoying himself vastly in Baden-Baden. Edna, did Mrs. Powell bring Gertrude with her?"
"Do you know how long she intends remaining at the parsonage?"
"I think her visit is of indefinite duration."
"Edna, will you oblige me by inquiring whether Henry intends to give us any supper to-night? He forgets we have had no dinner. St. Elmo, do turn down that gas—the wind makes it flare dreadfully."
Edna left the room to obey Mrs. Murray's command, and did not return immediately; but, after the party seated themselves at the table, she noticed that the master seemed in unusually high spirits; and when the meal was concluded, he challenged his cousins to a game of billiards.
They repaired to the rotunda, and Mrs. Murray beckoned to Edna to follow her. As they entered her apartment she carefully closed the door.
"Edna, when did Mrs. Powell arrive?"
"Did you see her?"
"Is she very pretty?"
"She is the most beautiful woman I ever met."
"How did Mr. Hammond receive her?"
"Her visit evidently annoys him, but he gave me no explanation of the matter, which I confess puzzles me. I should suppose her society would cheer and interest him."
"Oh, pooh! Talk of what you understand. She surely has not come here to live?"
"I think he fears she has. She is very poor."
Mrs. Murray set her teeth together and muttered something which her companion did not understand.
"Edna, is she handsomer than Estelle?"
"Infinitely handsomer, I think. Indeed, they are so totally unlike it would be impossible to compare them. Your niece is very fine- looking, very commanding; Mrs. Powell is beautiful."
"But she is no longer young. She has a grown daughter."
"True; but in looking at her you do not realize it. Did you never see her?"
"No; and I trust I never may! I am astonished that Mr. Hammond can endure the sight of her. You say he has told you nothing about her?"
"Nothing which explains the chagrin her presence seems to cause."
"He is very wise. But, Edna, avoid her society as much as possible. She is doubtless very fascinating; but I do not like what I have heard of her, and prefer that you should have little conversation or intercourse with her. On the whole, you might as well stay at home now; it is very warm, and you can study without Mr. Hammond's assistance."
"You do not mean that my visits must cease altogether?"
"Oh! no; go occasionally—once or twice a week—but certainly not every day, as formerly. And, Edna, be careful not to mention that woman's name again; I dislike her exceedingly."
The orphan longed to ask for an explanation, but was too proud to solicit confidence so studiously withheld.
Mrs. Murray leaned back in her large rocking-chair and fell into a reverie. Edna waited patiently for some time, and finally rose.
"Mrs. Murray, have you anything more to say to me tonight? You look very much fatigued!"
"Nothing, I believe. Good-night, child. Send Hagar to me."
Edna went back to her desk and resolutely turned to her work; for it was one of the peculiar traits of her character that she could at will fasten her thoughts upon whatever subject she desired to master. All irrelevant ideas were sternly banished until such season as she chose to give them audience; and to-night she tore her mind from the events of the day, and diligently toiled among the fragments of Scandinavian lore for the missing links in her mythologic chain.
Now and then peals of laughter from the billiard-room startled her; and more than once Mr. Murray's clear, cold voice rose above the subdued chatter of Estelle and Clinton.
After a while the game ended, good-nights were exchanged, the party dispersed, doors were closed, and all grew silent.
While Edna wrote on, an unexpected sound arrested her pen. She listened, and heard the slow walk of a horse beneath her window. As it passed she rose and looked out. The moon was up, and Mr. Murray was riding down the avenue.
The girl returned to her MS., and worked on without intermission for another hour; then the last paragraph was carefully punctuated, the long and difficult chapter was finished. She laid aside her pen, and locked her desk.
Shaking down the mass of hair that had been tightly coiled at the back of her head, she extinguished the light, and drawing a chair to the window, seated herself.
Silence and peace brooded over the world; not a sound broke the solemn repose of nature.
The summer breeze had rocked itself to rest in the elm boughs, and only the waning moon seemed alive and toiling as it climbed slowly up a cloudless sky, passing starry sentinels whose mighty challenge was lost in vast vortices of blue, as they paced their ceaseless round in the mighty camp of constellations.
With her eyes fixed on the gloomy, groined archway of elms, where an occasional slip of moonshine silvered the ground, Edna watched and waited. The blood beat heavily in her temples and throbbed sullenly at her heart; but she sat mute and motionless as the summer night, reviewing all that had occurred during the day.
Presently the distant sound of hoofs on the rocky road leading to town fell upon her strained ear; the hard, quick gallop ceased at the gate, and very slowly Mr. Murray walked his horse up the dusky avenue, and on toward the stable.
From the shadow of her muslin curtain, Edna looked down on the walk beneath, and after a few moments saw him coming to the house.
He paused on the terrace, took off his hat, swept back the thick hair from his forehead, and stood looking out over the quiet lawn.
Then a heavy, heavy sigh, almost a moan, seemed to burst from the depths of his heart, and he turned and went into the house.
The night was far spent, and the moon had cradled herself on the tree-tops, when Edna raised her face all blistered with tears. Stretching out her arms she fell on her knees, while a passionate, sobbing prayer struggled brokenly across her trembling lips:
"O my God! have mercy upon him! save his wretched soul from eternal death! Help me so to live and govern myself that I bring no shame on the cause of Christ. And if it be thy will, O my God! grant that I may be instrumental in winning this precious but wandering, sinful soul back to the faith as it is in Jesus!"
... "More things are wrought by prayer Than this world dreams of. Wherefore let thy voice Rise like a fountain for him night and day. For what are men better than sheep or goats, That nourish a blind life within the brain, If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer Both for themselves, and those who call them friend?"
"Where are you going, St. Elmo? I know it is one of your amiable decrees that your movements are not to be questioned, but I dare to brave your ire."
"I am going to that blessed retreat familiarly known as 'Murray's den,' where, secure from feminine intrusion, as if in the cool cloisters of Coutloumoussi, I surrender my happy soul to science and cigars, and revel in complete forgetfulness of that awful curse which Jove hurled against all mankind, because of Prometheus's robbery."
"There are asylums for lunatics and inebriates, and I wonder it has never occurred to some benevolent millionaire to found one for such abominable cynics as you, my most angelic cousin! where the snarling brutes can only snap at and worry one another."
"An admirable idea, Estelle, which I fondly imagined I had successfully carried out when I built those rooms of mine."
"You are as hateful as Momus, MINUS his wit! He was kicked out of heaven for grumbling, and you richly deserve his fate."
"I have a vague recollection that the Goddess Discord shared the fate of the celestial growler. I certainly plead guilty to an earnest sympathy with Momus's dissatisfaction with the house that Minerva built, and only wish that mine was movable, as he recommended, in order to escape bad neighborhoods and tiresome companions."
"Hospitable, upon my word! You spin some spiteful idea out of every sentence I utter and are not even entitled to the compliment which Chesterfield paid to old Samuel Johnson, 'The utmost I can do for him is to consider him a respectable Hottentot.' If I did not know that instead of proving a punishment it would gratify you beyond measure, I would take a vow not to speak to you again for a month; but the consciousness of the happiness I should thereby bestow upon you, vetoes the resolution. Do you know that even a Comanche chief, or a Bechuana of the desert, shames your inhospitality? I assure you I am the victim of hopeless ennui, am driven to the verge of desperation; for Mr. Allston will probably not return until to- morrow, and it is raining so hard that I can not wander out of doors. Here I am shut up in this dreary house, which reminds me of the descriptions of that doleful retreat for sinners in Normandy, where the inmates pray eleven hours a day, dig their own graves every evening, and if they chance to meet one another, salute each other with 'Memento mori!' Ugh! if there remains one latent spark of chivalry in your soul, I beseech you be merciful! Do not go off to your den, but stay here and entertain me. It is said that you read bewitchingly, and with unrivalled effect; pray favor me this morning. I will promise to lay my hand on my lips; it is not white enough for a flag of truce? I will be meek, amiable, docile, absolutely silent."
Estelle swept aside a mass of papers from the corner of the sofa, and, taking Mr. Murray's hand, drew him to a seat beside her.
"Your 'amiable silence,' my fair cousin, is but a cunningly fashioned wooden horse. Timco Danaos et dona ferentes! I am to understand that you actually offer me your hand as a flag of truce? It is wonderfully white and pretty; but excuse me, C'est une main de fer, gantee de velours! Your countenance, so serenely radiant, reminds me of what Madame Noblet said of M. de Vitri, 'His face looked just like a stratagem!' Reading aloud is a practice in which I never indulge, simply because I cordially detest it, and knowing this fact, it is a truly feminine refinement of cruelty on your part to select this mode of penance. Nevertheless, your appeal to my chivalry, which always springs up, armed cap-a-pie 'to do or die'; and since read I must, I only stipulate that I may be allowed to select my book. Just now I am profoundly interested in a French work on infusoria, by Dujardin; and as you have probably not studied it, I will select those portions which treat of the animalcula that inhabit grains of sugar and salt and drops of water; so that by the time lunch is ready, your appetite will be whetted by a knowledge of the nature of your repast. According to Leeuwenhoek, Muller, Gleichen, and others, the campaigns of Zenzis-Khan, Alexander, Attila, were not half so murderous as a single fashionable dinner; and the battle of Marengo was a farce in comparison with the swallowing of a cup of tea, which contains—"
"For shame, you tormentor! when you know that I love tea as well as did your model of politeness, Dr. Johnson! Not one line of all that nauseating scientific stuff shall you read to me. Here is a volume of poems of the 'Female Poets'; do be agreeable for once in your life, and select me some sweet little rhythmic gem of Mrs. Browning, or Mrs. Norton, or L. E. L."
"Estelle, did you ever hear of the Peishwah of the Mahrattas?"
"I most assuredly never had even a hint of a syllable on the subject. What of him, or her, or it?"
"Enough, that though you are evidently ambitious of playing his despotic role at Le Bocage, you will never succeed in reducing me to that condition of abject subjugation necessary to make me endure the perusal of 'female poetry.' I have always desired an opportunity of voting my cordial thanks to the wit who expressed so felicitously my own thorough conviction, that Pegasus had an unconquerable repugnance, hatred, to side-saddles. You vow you will not listen to science; and I swear I won't read poetry! Suppose we compromise on this new number of the—Magazine? It is the ablest periodical published in this country. Let me see the contents of this number."
It was a dark, rainy morning in July. Mrs. Murray was winding a quantity of zephyr wool, of various bright colors, which she had requested Edna to hold on her wrists; and at the mention of the magazine the latter looked up suddenly at the master of the house.
Holding his cigar between his thumb and third finger, his eye ran over the table of contents.
"'Who smote the Marble Gods of Greece?' Humph! rather a difficult question to answer after the lapse of twenty-two centuries. But doubtless our archaeologists are so much wiser than the Athenian Senate of Five Hundred, who investigated the affair the day after it happened, that a perusal will be exceedingly edifying. Now, then, for a solution of this classic mystery of the nocturnal iconoclasm; which, in my humble opinion, only the brazen lips of Minerva Promachus could satisfactorily explain."
Turning to the article he read it aloud, without pausing to comment, while Edna's heart bounded so rapidly that she could scarcely conceal her agitation. It was, indeed, a treat to listen to him; and as his musical voice filled the room, she thought of Jean Paul Richter's description of Goethe's reading: "There is nothing comparable to it. It is like deep-toned thunder blended with whispering rain-drops."
But the orphan's pleasure was of short duration, and as Mr. Murray concluded the perusal, he tossed the magazine contemptuously across the room, and exclaimed:
"Pretentious and shallow! A tissue of pedantry and error from beginning to end—written, I will wager my head, by some scribbler who never saw Athens! Moreover, the whole article is based upon a glaring blunder; for, according to Plutarch and Diodorus, on the memorable night in question there was a new moon. Pshaw! it is a tasteless, insipid plagiarism from Grote; and if I am to be bored with such insufferable twaddle, I will stop my subscription. For some time I have noticed symptoms of deterioration, but this is altogether intolerable; and I shall write to Manning that, if he cannot do better, it would be advisable for him to suspend at once before his magazine loses its reputation. If I were not aware that his low estimate of female intellect coincides fully with my own, I should be tempted to suppose that some silly but ambitious woman wrote that stuff, which sounds learned and is simply stupid."
He did not even glance toward Edna, but the peculiar emphasis of his words left no doubt in her mind that he suspected, nay, felt assured, that she was the luckless author. Raising her head which had been drooped over the woolen skeins, she said, firmly, yet very quietly:
"If you will permit me to differ with you, Mr. Murray, I will say that it seems to me all the testimony is in favor of the full-moon theory. Beside, Grote is the latest and best authority; he has carefully collected and sifted the evidence, and certainly sanctions the position taken by the author of the article which you condemn."
"Ah! how long since you investigated the matter? The affair is so essentially Paganish that I should imagine that it possessed no charm for so orthodox a Christian as yourself. Estelle, what say you concerning this historic sphinx?"
"That I am blissfully ignorant of the whole question, and have a vague impression that it is not worth the paper it is written on, much less a quarrel with you, Monsieur 'Le Hutin'; that it is the merest matter of moonshine—new moon versus full moon, and must have been written by a lunatic. But, my Chevalier Bayard, one thing I do intend to say most decidedly, and that is, that your lunge at female intellect was as unnecessary and ill-timed and ill-bred as it was ill-natured. The mental equality of the sexes is now as unquestioned, as universally admitted, as any other well-established fact in science or history; and the sooner you men gracefully concede us our rights, the sooner we shall cease wrangling, and settle back into our traditional amiability."
"The universality of the admission I should certainly deny, were the subject of sufficient importance to justify a discussion. However, I have been absent so long from America, that I confess my ignorance of the last social advance in the striding enlightenment of this most progressive people. According to Moleschott's celebrated dictum—'Without phosphorus no thought,' and if there be any truth in physiology and phrenology, you women have been stinted by nature in the supply of phosphorus. Peacock's measurements prove that in the average weight of male and female brains, you fall below our standard by not less than six ounces. I should conjecture that in the scales of equality six ounces of ideas would turn the balance in favor of our superiority."
"If you reduce it to a mere question of avoirdupois, please be so good as to remember that even greater differences exist among men. For instance, your brain (which is certainly not considered over average) weighs from three to three and a half pounds, while Cuvier's brain weighed over four pounds, giving him the advantage of more than eight ounces over our household oracle! Accidental difference in brain weight proves nothing; for you will not admit your mental inferiority to any man, simply because his head requires a larger hat than yours."
"Pardon me, I always bow before facts, no matter how unflattering, and I consider one of Cuvier's ideas worthy of just exactly eight degrees more of reverence than any phosphorescent sparkle which I might choose to hold up for public acceptance and guidance. Without doubt, the most thoroughly ludicrous scene I ever witnessed was furnished by a 'woman's rights' meeting,' which I looked in upon one night in New York, as I returned from Europe. The speaker was a raw- boned, wiry, angular, short-haired, lemon-visaged female of very certain age; with a hand like a bronze gauntlet, and a voice as distracting as the shrill squeak of a cracked cornet-a-piston. Over the wrongs and grievances of her down-trodden, writhing sisterhood she ranted and raved and howled, gesticulating the while with a marvelous grace, which I can compare only to the antics of those inspired goats who strayed too near the Pythian cave, and were thrown into convulsions. Though I pulled my hat over my eyes and clapped both hands to my ears, as I rushed out of the hall after a stay of five minutes, the vision of horror followed me, and for the first and only time in my life, I had such a hideous nightmare that night, that the man who slept in the next room broke open my door to ascertain who was strangling me. Of all my pet aversions my most supreme abhorrence is of what are denominated 'gifted women'; strong-minded (that is, weak-brained but loud-tongued), would-be literary females, who, puffed up with insufferable conceit, imagine they rise to the dignity and height of man's intellect, proclaim that their 'mission' is to write or lecture, and set themselves up as shining female lights, each aspiring to the rank of protomartyr of reform. Heaven grant us a Bellerophon to relieve the age of these noisy Amazons! I should really enjoy seeing them tied down to their spinning-wheels, and gagged with their own books, magazines, and lectures! When I was abroad and contrasted the land of my birth with those I visited, the only thing for which, as an American, I felt myself called on to blush, was my country-women. An insolent young count who had traveled through the Eastern and Northern States of America, asked me one day in Berlin, if it were really true that the male editors, lawyers, doctors and lecturers in the United States were contemplating a hegira, in consequence of the rough elbowing by the women, and if I could inform him at what age the New England girls generally commenced writing learned articles, and affixing LL.D., F.E.S., F.S.A., and M.M.S.S. to their signature?"
"'Lay on, Macduff!' I wish you distinctly to understand that my toes are not bruised in the slightest degree; for I am entirely innocent of any attempt at erudition or authorship, and the sole literary dream of my life is to improve the present popular recipe for biscuit glace. But mark you, 'Sir Oracle,' I must 'ope my lips' and bark a little under my breath at your inconsistencies. Now, if there are two living men whom, above all others, you swear by, they are John Stuart Mill and John Ruskin. Well do I recollect your eulogy of both, on that ever-memorable day in Paris, when we dined with that French encyclopaedia, Count W—, and the leading lettered men of the day were discussed. I was frightened out of my wits, and dared not raise my eyes higher than the top of my wineglass, lest I should be asked my opinion of some book or subject of which I had never even heard, and in trying to appear well-educated, make as horrible a blunder as poor Madame Talleyrand committed, when she talked to Denon about his man Friday, believing that he wrote 'Robinson Crusoe.' At that time I had never read either Mill or Ruskin; but my profound reverence for the wisdom of your opinions taught me how shamefully ignorant I was, and thus, to fit myself for your companionship, I immediately bought their books. Lo, to my indescribable amazement, I found that Mill claimed for women what I never once dreamed we were worthy of—not only equality, but the right of suffrage. He, the foremost dialectician of England and the most learned of political economists, demands that, for the sake of equity and 'social improvement,' we women (minus the required six ounces of brains) should be allowed to vote. Behold the Corypheus of the 'woman's rights' school! Were I to follow his teachings, I should certainly begin to clamor for my right of suffrage—for the lady-like privilege of elbowing you away from the ballot-box at the next election.
"I am quite as far from admitting the infallibility of man as the equality of the sexes. The clearest thinkers of the world have had soft spots in their brains; for instance, the daemon belief of Socrates and the ludicrous superstitions of Pythagoras; and you have laid your finger on the softened spot in Mill's skull, 'suffrage.' That is a jaded, spavined hobby of his, and he is too shrewd a logician to involve himself in the inconsistency of 'extended suffrage' which excludes women. When I read his 'Representative Government' I saw that his reason had dragged anchor, the prestige of his great name vanished, and I threw the book into the fire and eschewed him henceforth. Sic transit."
Here Mrs. Murray looked up and said:
"John Stuart Mill—let me see—Edna, is he not the man who wrote that touching dedication of one of his books to his wife's memory? You quoted it for me a few days ago, and said that you had committed it to memory because it was such a glowing tribute to the intellectual capacity of woman. My dear, I wish you would repeat it now! I should like to hear it again."
With her fingers full of purple woolen skeins, and her eyes bent down, Edna recited, in a low, sweet voice the most eloquent panegyric which man's heart ever pronounced on woman's intellect:
"To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part, the author, of all that is best in my writings, the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward, I dedicate this volume. Like all that I have written for many years, it belongs as much to her as to me; but the work as it stands has had, in a very insufficient degree, the inestimable advantage of her revision; some of the most important portions having been reserved for a more careful re-examination, which they are now never destined to receive. Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom."
"Where did you find that dedication?" asked Mr. Murray.
"In Mill's book on liberty."
"It is not in my library."
"I borrowed it from Mr. Hammond."
"Strange that a plant so noxious should be permitted in such a sanctified atmosphere! Do you happen to recollect the following sentences? 'I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions!' 'There is a Greek ideal of self-development which the Platonic and Christian ideal of self-government blends with but does not supersede. It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either.'"
"Yes, sir. They occur in the same book; but, Mr. Murray, I have been advised by my teacher to bear always in mind that noble maxim, 'I can tolerate every thing else but every other man's intolerance'; and it is with his consent and by his instructions that I go like Ruth, gleaning in the great fields of literature." "Take care you don't find Boaz instead of barley. After all, the universal mania for match-making schemes and manoeuvers which continually stir society from its dregs to the painted foam-bubble dancing on its crested wave, is peculiar to no age or condition, but is an immemorial and hereditary female proclivity; for I defy Paris or London to furnish a more perfectly developed specimen of a 'manoeuvring mamma' than was crafty Naomi, when she sent that pretty little Moabitish widow out husband-hunting."
"I heartily wish she was only here to outwit you!" laughed his cousin, nestling her head against his arm as they sat together on the sofa.
"Who? The widow or the match-maker?"
"Oh! the match-maker, of course. There is more than one Ruth already in the field."
The last clause was whispered so low that only St. Elmo heard it, and any other woman but Estelle Harding would have shrunk away in utter humiliation from the eye and the voice that answered:
"Yourself and Mrs. Powell! Eat Boaz's barley as long as you like— nay, divide Boaz's broad fields between you; and you love your lives, keep out of Boaz's way."
"You ought both to be ashamed of yourselves. I am surprised at you, Estelle, to encourage St. Elmo's irreverence," said Mrs. Murray, severely.
"I am sure, Aunt Ellen, I am just as much shocked as you are; but when he does not respect even your opinions, how dare I presume to hope he will show any deference to mine? St. Elmo, what think you of the last Sibylline leaves of your favorite Ruskin? In looking over his new book, I was surprised to find this strong assertion ... Here is the volume now—listen to this, will you?"
"'Shakespeare has no heroes; he has only heroines. In his labored and perfect plays you find no hero, but almost always a perfect woman; steadfast in grave hope and errorless purpose. The catastrophe of every play is caused always by the folly or fault of a man; the redemption, if there be any, is by the wisdom and virtue of a woman, and failing that, there is none!'"
"For instance, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Regan, Goneril, and last, but not least, Petruchio's sweet and gentle Kate! De gustibus!" answered Mr. Murray.
"Those are the exceptions, and of course you pounce upon them. Ruskin continues: 'In all cases with Scott, as with Shakespeare, it is the woman who watches over, teaches and guides the youth; it is never by any chance the man who watches over or educates her; and thus—'"
"Meg Merrilies, Madge Wildfire, Mause Headrigg, Effie Deans, and Rob Roy's freckle-faced, red-haired, angelic Helen!" interrupted her cousin.
"Don't be rude, St. Elmo. You fly in my face like an exasperated wasp. I resume: 'Dante's great poem is a song of praise for Beatrice's watch over his soul; she saves him from hell, and leads him star by star up into heaven—'"
"Permit me to suggest that conjugal devotion should have led him to apostrophize the superlative charms of his own wife, Gemma, from whom he was forced to separate; and that his vision of hell was a faint reflex of his domestic felicity."
"Mask your battery, sir, till I finish this page, which I am resolved you shall hear: 'Greek literature proves the same thing, as witness the devoted tenderness of Andromache, the wisdom of Cassandra, the domestic excellence of Penelope, the love of Antigone, the resignation of Iphigenia, the faithfulness of—'"
"Allow me to assist him in completing the list: the world-renowned constancy of Helen to Menelaus, the devotion of Clytemnestra to her Agamemnon, the sublime filial affection of Medea, and the bewitching—"
"Hush, sir! Aunt Ellen, do call him to order! I will have a hearing, and I close the argument by the unanswerable assertion of Ruskin: 'That the Egyptians and Greeks (the most civilized of the ancients) both gave to their spirit of wisdom the form of a woman, and for symbols, the weaver's shuttle and the olive!"
"An inevitable consequence of the fact, that they considered wisdom as synonymous with sleepless and unscrupulous cunning! Schiller declares that 'man depicts himself in his gods'; and even a cursory inspection of the classics proves that all the abhorred and hideous ideas of the ancients were personified by woman. Pluto was affable, and beneficent, and gentlemanly, in comparison with Brimo; ditto might be said of Loke and Hela, and the most appalling idea that ever attacked the brain of mankind, found incarnation in the Fates and Furies, who are always women. Unfortunately the mythologies of the world crystallized before the age of chivalry, and a little research will establish the unflattering fact that human sins and woes are traced primarily to female agency; while it is patent that all the rows and squabbles that disgraced Olympus were stirred up by scheming goddesses!"
"Thank heaven! here comes Mr. Allston; I can smooth the ruffled plumes of my self-love in his sunny smiles, and forget your growls. Good morning, Mr. Allston; what happy accident brought you again so soon to Le Bocage and its disconsolate inmates?"
Edna picked up the magazine which lay in one corner, and made her escape.
The gratification arising from the acceptance and prompt publication of her essay, was marred by Mr. Murray's sneering comments; but still her heart was happier than it had been for many weeks, and as she turned to the Editor's Table and read a few lines complimenting "the article of a new contributor," and promising another from the same pen for the ensuing month, her face flushed joyfully.
While she felt it difficult to realize that her writings had found favor in Mr. Manning's critical eyes, she thanked God that she was considered worthy of communicating; with her race through the medium of a magazine so influential and celebrated. She thought it probable that Mr. Manning had written her a few lines, and wondered whether at that moment a letter was not hidden in St. Elmo's pocket.
Taking the magazine, she went into Mrs. Murray's room, and found her resting on a lounge. Her face wore a troubled expression, and Edna saw traces of tears on the pillow.
"Come in, child; I was just thinking of you."
She put out her hand, drew the girl to a seat near the lounge, and sighed heavily.
"Dear Mrs. Murray, I am very, very happy, and I have come to make a confession and ask your congratulations."
She knelt down beside her, and, taking the white fingers of her benefactress, pressed her forehead against them.
"A confession, Edna! What have you done?"
Mrs. Murray started up and lifted the blushing face.
"Some time ago you questioned me concerning some letters which excited your suspicion, and which I promised to explain at some future day. I dare say you will think me very presumptuous when I tell you that I have been aspiring to authorship; that I was corresponding with Mr. Manning on the subject of a MS. which I had sent for his examination, and now I have come to show you what I have been doing. You heard Mr. Murray read an essay this morning from the—Magazine, which he ridiculed very bitterly, but which Mr. Manning at least thought worthy of a place in his pages. Mrs. Murray, I wrote that article."
"Is it possible? Who assisted you—who revised it, Mr. Hammond? I did not suppose that you, my child, could ever write so elegantly, so gracefully."
"No one saw the MS. until Mr. Manning gave it to the printers. I wished to surprise Mr. Hammond, and therefore told him nothing of my ambitious scheme. I was very apprehensive that I should fail, and for that reason was unwilling to acquaint you with the precise subject of the correspondence until I was sure of success. Oh, Mrs. Murray! I have no mother, and feeling that I owe everything to you— that without your generous aid and protection I should never have been able to accomplish this one hope of my life, I come to you to share my triumph, for I know you will fully sympathize with me. Here is the magazine containing Mr. Manning's praise of my work, and here are the letters which I was once so reluctant to put into your hands. When I asked you to trust me, you did so nobly and freely; and thanking you more than my feeble words can express, I want to show you that I was not unworthy of your confidence."
She laid magazine and letters on Mrs. Murray's lap, and in silence the proud, reserved woman wound her arms tightly around the orphan, pressing the bright young face against her shoulder, and resting her own cheek on the girl's fair forehead.
The door was partly ajar, and at that instant St. Elmo entered.
He stopped, looked at the kneeling figure locked so closely in his mother's arms, and over his stern face broke a light that transformed it into such beauty as Lucifer's might have worn before his sin and banishment, when God—
"'Lucifer'—kindly said as 'Gabriel,' 'Lucifer'—soft as 'Michael'; while serene He, standing in the glory of the lamps, Answered, 'My Father,' innocent of shame And of the sense of thunder!"
Yearningly he extended his arms toward the two, who, absorbed in their low talk, were unconscious of his presence; then the hands fell heavily to his side, the brief smile was swallowed up by scowling shadows, and he turned silently away and went to his own gloomy rooms.
"Mrs. Powell and her daughter to see Miss Estelle and Miss Edna."
"Why did you not say we were at dinner?" cried Mrs. Murray, impatiently, darting an angry glance at the servant.
"I did, ma'am, but they said they would wait."
As Estelle folded up her napkin and slipped it into the silver ring, she looked furtively at St. Elmo, who, holding up a bunch of purple grapes, said in an indifferent tone to his mother:
"The vineyards of Axarquia show nothing more perfect. This cluster might challenge comparison with those from which Red Hermitage is made, and the seeds of which are said to have been brought from Schiraz. Even on the sunny slopes of Cyprus and Naxos I found no finer grapes than these. A propos! I want a basketful this afternoon. Henry, tell old Simon to gather them immediately."
"Pray what use have you for them? I am sure the courteous idea of sending them as a present never could have forced an entrance into your mind, much less have carried the outworks of your heart!"
As his cousin spoke she came to the back of his chair and leaned over his shoulder.
"I shall go out on the terrace and renew the obsolete Dionysia, shouting 'Evoe! Eleleus!' I shall crown and pelt my marble Bacchus yonder with the grapes till his dainty sculptured limbs are bathed in their purple sacrificial blood. What other use could I possibly have for them?"
He threw his head back and added something in a lower tone, at which Estelle laughed, and put up her red, full lip.
Mrs. Murray frowned, and said sternly:
"If you intend to see those persons, I advise you to do so promptly."
Her niece moved toward the door, but glanced over her shoulder.
"I presume Gertrude expects to see Edna, as she asked for her."
The orphan had been watching Mr. Murray's face, but could detect no alteration in its expression, save a brief gleam as of triumph when the visitors were announced. Rising, she approached Mrs. Murray, whose clouded brow betokened more than ordinary displeasure, and whispered:
"Gertrude is exceedingly anxious to see the house and grounds; have I your permission to show her over the place? She is particularly anxious to see the deer."
"Of course, if she requests it; but their effrontery in coming here caps the climax of all the impudence I ever heard of. Have as little to say as possible."
Edna went to the parlor, leaving mother and son together.
Mrs. Powell had laid aside her mourning garments and wore a dress of blue muslin which heightened her beauty, and as the orphan looked from her to Gertrude she found it difficult to decide who was the loveliest. After a few desultory remarks she rose, saying:
"As you have repeatedly expressed a desire to examine the park and hothouses, I will show you the way this afternoon."
"Take care, my love, that you do not fatigue yourself," were Mrs. Powell's low, tenderly spoken words as her daughter rose to leave the room.
Edna went first to the greenhouse, and though her companion chattered ceaselessly, she took little interest in her exclamations of delight, and was conjecturing the probable cause of Mrs. Murray's great indignation.
For some weeks she had been thrown frequently into the society of Mr. Hammond's guests, and while her distrust of Mrs. Powell, her aversion to her melting, musical voice, increased at every interview, a genuine affection for Gertrude had taken root in her heart.
They were the same age, but one was an earnest women, the other a fragile, careless, gleeful, enthusiastic child. Although the orphan found it impossible to make a companion of this beautiful, warm- hearted girl, who hated books and turned pale at the mention of study, still Edna liked to watch the lovely, radiant face, with its cheeks tinted like sea-shells, its soft, childish blue eyes sparkling with joyousness; and she began to caress and to love her, as she would have petted a canary or one of the spotted fawns gamboling over the lawn.
As they stood hand in hand, admiring some goldfish in a small aquarium in the centre of the greenhouse, Gertrude exclaimed:
"The place is as fascinating as its master! Do tell me something about him; I wonder very often why you never mention him. I know I ought not to say it; but really, after he has talked to me for a few minutes, I forget every thing else, and think only of what he says for days and days after."
"You certainly do not allude to Mr. Murray?" said Edna.
"I certainly do. What makes you look so astonished?"
"I was not aware that you knew him."
"Oh! I have known him since the week after our arrival here. Mamma and I met him at Mrs. Inge's. Mr. Inge had some gentlemen to dinner, and they came into the parlor while we were calling. Mr. Murray sat down and talked to me then for some time, and I have frequently met him since; for it seems he loves to stroll about the woods almost as well as I do, and sometimes we walk together. You know he and my uncle are not friendly, and I believe mamma does not like him, so he never comes to the parsonage; and never seems to see me if I am with her or Uncle Allan. But is he not very fascinating? If he were not a little too old for me, I believe I should really be very much in love with him."
An expression of disgust passed swiftly over Edna's pale face; she dropped her companion's hand, and asked coldly:
"Does your mother approve of your walks with Mr. Murray?"
"For heaven's sake, don't look so solemn! I—she—really I don't know! I never told her a word about it. Once I mentioned having met him, and showed her some flowers he gave me; and she took very little notice of the matter. Several times since he has sent me bouquets, and though I kept them out of uncle's sight, she saw them in my room, and must have suspected where they came from. Of course he can not come to the parsonage to see me when he does not speak to my uncle or to mamma; but I do not see any harm in his walking and talking with me, when I happen to meet him. Oh! how lovely those lilies are, leaning over the edge of the aquarium! Mr. Murray said that some day he would show me all the beautiful things at Le Bocage; but he has forgotten his promise, I am afraid and I—"
"Ah! Miss Gertrude, how could you doubt me? I am here to fulfill my promise."
He pushed aside the boughs of a guava which stood between them, and, coming forward, took Gertrude's hand, drew it under his arm, and looked down eagerly, admiringly, into her blushing face.
"Oh, Mr. Murray! I had no idea you were anywhere near me. I am sure I could—"
"Did you imagine you could escape my eyes, which are always seeking you? Permit me to be your cicerone over Le Bocage, instead of Miss Edna here, who looks as if she had been scolding you. Perhaps she will be so good as to wait for us, and I will bring you back in a half-hour at least."
"Edna, will you wait here for me?" asked Gertrude.
"Why can not Mr. Murray bring you to the house? There is nothing more to see here."
"Allow us to judge for ourselves, if you please. There is a late Paris paper, which will amuse you till we return."
St. Elmo threw a newspaper at her feet, and led Gertrude away through one of the glass doors into the park.
Edna sat down on the edge of the aquarium, and the hungry little fish crowded close to her, looking up wistfully for the crumbs she was wont to scatter there daily; but now their mute appeal was unheeded.
Her colorless face and clasped hands grew cold as the marble basin on which they rested, and the great, hopeless agony that seized her heart came to her large eyes and looked out drearily.
It was in vain that she said to herself:
"St. Elmo Murray is nothing to me; why should I care if he loves Gertrude? She is so beautiful and confiding and winning. Of course, if he knows her well he must love her. It is no business of mine. We are not even friends; we are worse than strangers; and it can not concern me whom he loves or whom he hates."
Her own heart laughed her words to scorn, and answered defiantly: "He is my king! my king! I have crowned and sceptred him, and right royally he rules!"
In pitiable humiliation she acknowledged that she had found it impossible to tear her thoughts from him; that his dark face followed—haunted her, sleeping and waking. While she shrank from his presence, and dreaded his character, she could not witness his fond manner to Gertrude without a pang of the keenest pain she had ever endured.
The suddenness of the discovery shocked her into a thorough understanding of her own feelings. The grinning fiend of jealousy had swept aside the flimsy veil which she had never before fully lifted; and looking sorrowfully down into the bared holy of holies, she saw standing between the hovering wings of golden cherubim an idol of clay demanding homage, daring the wrath of conscience, the high priest. She saw all now, and saw, too, at the same instant, whither her line of duty led.
The atmosphere was sultry, but she shivered; and if a mirror could have been held before her eyes, she would have started back from the gray, stony face so unlike hers.
It seemed so strange that the heart of the accomplished misanthrope- -the man of letters and science, who had ransacked the world for information and amusement—should surrender itself to the prattle of a pretty young thing, who could sympathize in no degree with his pursuits, and was as utterly incapable of understanding his nature as his Tartar horse or his pet bloodhound.
She had often heard Mrs. Murray say, "If there is one thing more uncertain even than the verdict of a jury—if there is one thing which is known neither in heaven, earth, or hell, and which angels and demons alike waste time in guessing at—it is what style of woman any man will fancy and select for his wife. It is utterly impossible to predict what matrimonial caprice may or may not seize even the wisest, most experienced, most practical, and reasonable of men; and I would sooner undertake to conjecture how high the thermometer stands at this instant on the crest of Mount Copernicus up yonder in the moon, than attempt to guess what freak will decide a man's choice of a bride."