"Salome, don't you love me a little?"
"Of course I do; Jessie, don't be so foolish."
"Please let me go with you and Stanley."
"Do you want to starve,—you poor silly thing?"
"Yes; I would rather starve with Buddie than stay here by myself."
"I want to hear no more of such nonsense. You have not tried starving, and you are too young to know what is really for your good. Now, listen to me. At present I am obliged to leave you here,—come, don't begin crying again; but, if you will be a good girl and try not to fret over what cannot be helped, I promise you that just as soon as I can possibly support you I will take you to live with me."
"How long must I wait?"
"Until I make money enough to feed and clothe you."
"Can't you guess when you can come for me?"
"No, for as yet I know not how I can earn a dollar; but, if you will be patient, I promise to work hard for you and Stanley."
"I will be good. Salome, I have saved a quarter of a dollar that the doctor gave me when I was sick,—because I let the blister stay on my side a half hour longer; and I thought I would send it to Buddie, to buy him some marbles or a kite; but I reckon I had better give it to you to help us get a house."
She drew from her pocket a green calico bag, and, emptying the contents into her hand, picked out from among brass buttons and bits of broken glass a silver coin, which she held up triumphantly.
"No, Jessie,—keep it. Stanley has plenty of playthings, and you may need it. Besides, your quarter would not go far, and I don't want it. Good-bye, little darling. Try to give Mrs. Collins no trouble, and recollect that when I promise you anything I shall be sure to keep my word."
Salome drew the child's head to her shoulder, and, as she bent over and kissed the sweet, pure lips, Jessie whispered, "When we say our prayers to-night, we will ask God to send us some money to buy a home, won't we? You know he made the birds feed Elijah."
"But we are not prophets, and ravens are not flying about with bags of money under their wings."
"We do not know what God can do, and if we are only good, He is as much bound to take care of us as of Elijah. He made the sky rain manna and partridges for the starving people in the desert, and He is as much our God as if we came out from Egypt under Moses. I know God will help us, if we ask Him. I am sure of it; for last week I lost Mrs. Collins' bunch of keys, and, when I could not find them anywhere, I prayed to God to help me, and, sure enough, I remembered I left them in the dairy where I was churning."
Jessie's countenance was radiant with hope and faith, which her sister could not share, yet felt unwilling to destroy; and, checking the heavy sigh that rose from her oppressed heart, she hastily quitted the house.
In the midst of confused and perturbed reflections, rose like some lonely rock-based beacon in boiling waves her sacred promise to the trusting child, and ingenuity was racked to devise some means for its prompt fulfilment. Consanguinity began to urge its claim vehemently, and long dormant tenderness pleaded piteously for exiled idols.
"If I were only a Christian, like Dr. Grey! His faith, like strong wings, bears him high above all sloughs of despond, all morasses of moodiness. People cannot successfully or profitably serve two masters. That is eminently true; not because it is scriptural, but vice versa; because it is so obviously true it could not escape a place in the Bible. Half work pays poor wages, and it is not surprising that neither God nor Mammon will patiently submit to it. I suppose the time has come when I must bargain myself to one or the other; for, hitherto, I have declared in favor of neither. I am not altogether sanctified, nor yet desperately wicked, but I hate Satan, who ruined my father, infinitely more than I dislike the restrictions of religion. I owe him a grudge for all the shame and suffering of my childhood,—which, if God did not interfere to prevent, at least there is strong presumptive evidence that he took no pleasure in witnessing. I don't suppose I have any faith; I scarcely know what it means; but perhaps if I try to serve God instead of myself, it will come to me as it came to Paul and Thomas. I wonder whether mere abstract love of righteousness and of the Lord drives half as many persons into Christian churches as the fear of eternal perdition. I don't deny that I am afraid of Satan, for if he contrives to smuggle so much sin and sorrow into this world what must his own kingdom be? If there be any truth in the tradition that every human being is afflicted by some besetting sin that crouches at the door of the soul, lying in ambush to destroy it, then my own 'Dweller of the Threshold,' is love of mine ease. Time was when I would have bartered my eternal heritage for a good-sized mess of earthly pottage, provided only it was well spiced and garnished; but to-day I have no inclination to be swindled like Esau. Idleness has well-nigh ruined me, so I shall take industry by the horns, and laying thereon all my sins of indolence, drive it before me as the Jews drove Apopompoeus."
She walked on in the direction of the town, turning her head neither to right nor left, and keeping her eyes fixed on the blue air before her, where imagination built a home, through whose spacious halls Stanley and Jessie sported at will. On the principal street stood a fashionable dress-making and millinery establishment, and thither Salome bent her steps, resolved that the sun should not set without having witnessed some effort to redeem the pledge given to Jessie.
Panoplied in Miss Jane's patronage, she demanded and obtained admission to the inner apartment of this Temple of Fashion, where presided the Pythoness whose oracular utterances swayed le beau monde.
What passed between the two never transpired, even among the apprentices that thronged the adjoining room; but when Salome left the house she carried under her arm a large bundle which furnished work for the ensuing fortnight.
Evening shadows overtook her, while yet a mile distant from home, and as she passed a small cottage, where candle-light flared through the open window, she saw Dr. Grey standing beside the bed, on which, doubtless, lay some sufferer.
Ere many moments had elapsed, she heard his well-known footstep on the rocky road, and involuntarily paused to greet him.
"What called you to old Mrs. Peterson's?"
"Her youngest grandchild is very ill with brain fever; so ill that I shall return and sit up with him to-night."
"I was not aware that physicians condescended to act as mere nurses,—to execute their own orders."
"Then I fear you have formed a very low estimate of the sacred responsibilities of my profession, or of the characters of those who represent it. The true physician combines the offices of surgeon, doctor, nurse, and friend."
"Mrs. Peterson is almost destitute, and to a great extent dependent on charity; consequently you need not expect to collect any fee."
"Knowing her poverty, I attend the family gratuitously."
"Is not your charity-list a very long one?"
"Could I divest myself of sympathy with the sufferings of those who compose it I would not curtail it one iota; for I feel like Boerhaave, who once said, 'My poor are my best patients; God pays for them.'"
"Then, after all, you are actuated merely by selfishness, and remit payments in earthly dross,—in 'filthy lucre,'—in order to collect your fees in a better currency, where thieves do not break through nor steal?"
"'He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker; but he that honoreth Him, hath mercy on the poor.' If a tinge of selfishness mingle with the hope of future reward, it will be forgiven, I trust, by the great Physician, who, in sublimating human nature, seized upon its selfish elements as powerful agencies in the regeneration of mankind. An abstract worship of virtue is scarcely possible while humanity is clothed with clay, and I am not unwilling to confess that hope of eternal compensation influences my conduct in many respects. If this be indeed only subtle selfishness, at least we shall be pardoned by Him who promised to prepare a place in the Father's mansion for those who follow His footsteps among the poor."
She looked up at him, with a puzzled, searching expression, that arrested his attention, and exclaimed,—
"How singularly honest you are! I believe I could have faith if there were more like you."
"Faith in what?"
"In the nobility of my race,—in the possibility of my own improvement,—in the watchful providence of God."
"Salome, there is much sound philosophy in the eighty-seventh and eighty-ninth maxims of cynical Rochefoucauld, 'It is more disgraceful to distrust one's friends than to be deceived by them. Our mistrust justifies the deceit of others.' My opportunities have been favorable for studying various classes of men, and my own experience corroborates the truth of Montaigne's sagacious remark, 'Confidence in another man's virtue is no slight evidence of a man's own.' Try to cultivate trust in your fellow creatures, and the bare show of faith will sometimes create worth."
"Did Christ's show of confidence in Judas save him from betrayal?"
"Let us hope that he was the prototype of a very limited class. You must not expect to find mankind divided into two great castes—one all angels, the other comprising hopeless demons. On the contrary, noble and most ignoble impulses alternately sway the actions and thoughts of the majority of our race; and the saint of to-day is not unfrequently tempted to become the fiend of to-morrow. Remember that the conflict with sinful promptings begins in the cradle—ends only in the coffin,—and try to be more charitable in your judgments."
They walked a few yards in silence, and at length Salome asked,—
"Were you not kept up all of last night?"
"Yes; I was obliged to ride fifteen miles to set a dislocated shoulder."
"Then you must be exhausted from fatigue, and unfit for watching to-night. Will you not allow me to relieve you, and take charge of Mrs. Peterson's grandchild? I admit I am very ignorant; but I will faithfully follow your directions, and I think you may venture to trust me."
Confusion flushed her face as she made this proposition, but in the pale, pearly lustre of the summer starlight, it was not visible.
"Thank you heartily, Salome. I could implicitly trust your intentions, but the case is almost hopeless, and I fear you are too inexperienced to render it safe for me to commit the child to your care. I appreciate your kindness, but am too much interested in the boy to leave him when the disease is at its crisis, and a cup of coffee will strengthen me for the vigil. You have been to the Asylum this afternoon; tell me something about little Jessie."
"She is still rather pale, but otherwise seems quite well again. Of course she is dissatisfied since Stanley has left, and thinks she ought to be allowed to follow his example; but I finally persuaded her to remain there patiently, at least for the present. It is well that the poor have their sensibilities blunted early in life, for they are spared many sorrows that afflict those who are pampered by fortune and rendered morbidly sensitive by years of indulgence and prosperity."
A metallic ring had crept into her voice, hardening it, and although he could not distinctly see her countenance, he knew that the words came through set teeth.
"Salome, I hope that I misunderstand you."
"No; unfortunately, you thoroughly comprehend me. Dr. Grey, were you situated precisely as I find myself, do you suppose you would feel your degradation as little as I seem to do? Do you think you would relish the bread of charity as keenly as one, who, for courtesy's sake, shall be nameless? Could you calmly stand by, and with utter sang froid see your brothers and sisters—your own flesh and blood—drift on every chance wave, like some sodden crust or withered weed on a stormy, treacherous sea? Would not your family pride bleed and die, and your self-respect wail and shrivel and expire?"
"You have so grossly exaggerated and overcolored your picture that I recognize little likeness to reality."
"I neither gloze nor mask; I simply front the facts, which are, briefly, that you were nurtured in independence and trained to abhor the crumbs that fall from other people's tables, while all heroic aspirations and proud chivalric dreams were fed by the milk that nourished you; whereas, I grew up in the wan, sickly atmosphere of penury; glad to grasp the crust that chance offered; taught to consider the bread of dependence precious as ambrosia; willing to forget family ties that were fraught only with humiliation and wretchedness; coveting bounty that I had not sufficient ambition to merit; and eager to live on charity, as long as it could be coaxed, hoodwinked, or scourged into supporting me comfortably. Yesterday I read a sentence that might have been written for me, so felicitously does it photograph me, 'Temperament is a fate oftentimes, from whose jurisdiction its victims hardly escape, but do its bidding herein, be it murder or martyrdom. Virtues and crimes are mixed in one's cup of nativity, with the lesser or larger margin of choice. Blood is a destiny.' You, Ulpian Grey, are what you are because your father was a gentleman, and all your surroundings were luxurious and refined; and I, the miller's child, am what you see me because my father was coarse and brutal; because my body and soul struggled with staring starvation,—physical, mental, and moral. Be just, and remember these things when you are tempted to despise me as a pitiable, spiritless parasite."
"My little friend, you have most unnecessarily tortured yourself, and grieved and mortified me. Have I ever treated you with contempt or disrespect?"
"You evidently pity me, and compassion is about as welcome to my feelings as a vitriol bath to fresh wounds."
"Are you not conscious of having more than once acted in such a manner as to necessitate my compassion?"
She was silent for some moments; but as they entered the avenue, she said, impetuously,—
"I want you to respect me."
"If you respect yourself and merit my good opinion, I shall not withhold it. But of one thing let me assure you; my standard of womanly delicacy, nobility, gentleness, and Christian faith is very exalted; and I cannot and will not lower it, even to meet the requirements of those who claim my friendship. Thoroughly cognizant of my opinions concerning several subjects, you have more than once, premeditatedly and obtrusively outraged them, and while I can and do most cordially overlook the offence, you should not deem it possible for me to entertain a very lofty estimate of the offender. When I came home you took such extraordinary pains to convince me that not a single noble aspiration actuated you that I confess you almost succeeded in your aim; but, Salome, I hope you are far more generous than you deign to prove yourself, and I promise you my earnest respect shall not lag behind,—shall promptly keep pace with your deserts. You can, if you so determine, make yourself an attractive, brilliant, noble woman; an ornament—and better still—a useful, honored member of society; but the faults of your character are grave, and only prayer and conscientious, persistent efforts can entirely correct them. I am neither so unreasonable nor so unjust as to hold you accountable for circumstances beyond your control; and, while I warmly sympathize with all your sorrows, I know that you are still sufficiently young to rectify the unfortunate warping that your nature received in its mournful early years. To ask me to respect you is as idle and useless and impotent as the soft murmur of this June breeze in the elm boughs above us; but you can command my perfect confidence and friendship solely on condition that you merit it. Salome, something very unusual has influenced you to-day, forcing you to throw aside the rubbish that you patiently piled over your better self until it was effectually concealed; and, if you are willing to be frank with me, I should be glad to know what has so healthfully affected you. I believe I can guess: has not little Jessie wooed and won her sister's heart, melting all its icy selfishness and warming its holiest recesses?"
At this moment Stanley bounded down the steps to meet them, and, bending over to receive his kiss and embrace, Salome gladly evaded a reply. That night, after she had taught her brother his lessons for the next day and made him repeat the prayer learned in the dormitory of the Asylum,—when she had read Miss Jane to sleep and seen the doctor set out on his mission of mercy, she brightened the lamp-light in her own room, and, opening the parcel, drew out and commenced the dainty embroidery which she had promised should be completed at an early day.
The night was warm, but the sea-breeze sang a lullaby in the trees that peeped in at her window, and now and then a strong gust blew the flame almost to the top of the lamp-chimney. Stanley slept soundly in his trundle-bed, occasionally startling her by half-uttered exclamations, as in his dreams he chased rabbits or found partridge-eggs. Oblivious of passing hours, and profoundly immersed in speculations concerning her future, the girl sewed on, working scallop after scallop, and flower after flower, in the gossamer cambric between her slender fingers. Stars that looked upon her early in the night had gone down into blue abysms below the horizon, and the midnight song of a mocking-bird, swinging in a lemon-tree beneath her window, had long since hushed itself with the chirp of crickets and gossip of the katydids.
A tap on the facing of her open door finally aroused her, and she hastily attempted to hide her work, as Dr. Grey asked,—
"What keeps you up so late? Are you dressing a doll for Jessie?"
"What brings you home so early? Is your patient better?"
"Yes; in one sense he is certainly better; for, free from all pain, he rests with his God."
"What time is it?"
"Half-past three. Little Charles died about an hour ago, and, as I shall be very busy to-morrow, I came upstairs to ask if you will oblige me by going over to Mrs. Peterson's and remaining with her until the neighbors assemble in the morning. It is an unpleasant duty, and unless you are perfectly willing I will not request you to perform it."
"Certainly, sir; I will go at once. Why should I hesitate?"
"Come down as soon as you are ready, and I will make Harrison drive you over in my buggy. As it is only a mile I walked home."
When she stood before him, waiting for the servant to adjust some portion of the harness, Dr. Grey wrapped her shawl more closely around her, and said,—
"What new freak keeps you awake till four o'clock?"
"It is no freak, but the beginning of a settled purpose that reaches in numberless ramifications through all my coming years. It does not concern you, so ask me no more. Good-night. I suppose I ought to tender you my thanks for deeming me worthy of this melancholy mission; and if so, pray be pleased to accept them."
"Jane, have you heard that we shall soon have some new neighbors at 'Solitude'?"
"No; who is brave enough to settle there?"
"Mrs. Gerome, a widow, has purchased and refitted the house, preparatory to making it her home."
"Do you suppose she knows the history of its former owners?"
"Probably not, as she has never seen the place. The purchase was made some months since by her agent, who stated that she was in Europe."
"Ulpian, I am sorry that the house will again be occupied, for some mournful fatality seems to have attended all who ever resided there; and I have been told that the last proprietor changed the name from 'Solitude' to 'Bochim.'"
"You must not indulge such superstitious vagaries, my dear, wise Janet. The age of hobgoblins, haunted houses, and supernatural influences has passed away with the marvels of alchemy and the weird myths of Rosicrucianism. Because many deaths have occurred at that place, and the residents were consequently plunged in gloom, you must not rashly impute eldritch influences to the atmosphere surrounding it. Knowing its ghostly celebrity, I have investigated the grounds of existing prejudice, and find that of the ten persons who have died there during the last fifteen years, three deaths were from hereditary consumption, one from dropsy, two from paralysis, one from epilepsy, one from brain-fever, one from drowning, and the last from a fall that broke the victim's neck. Were these attributable to any local cause, the results would certainly not have proved so diverse."
"Call it superstition, or what you will, no amount of coaxing, argument, or ridicule, no imaginable inducement could prevail on me to live there,—even if the house were floored with gold and roofed with silver. It is the gloomiest-looking place this side of Golgotha, and I would as soon crawl into a coffin for an afternoon nap as spend a night there."
"Your imagination invests it with a degree of gloom which is adventitious, and referable solely to painful associations; for intrinsically the situation is picturesque and beautiful, and the grounds have been arranged with consummate taste. This morning I noticed a quantity of rare and very superb lilies clustered in a corner of the parterre."
"Pray, what called you there?"
"A workman engaged in repairing some portion of the roof, slipped on the slate and broke his arm; consequently, they sent for me."
"Just what he might have expected. I tell you something happens to everybody who ever sleeps there."
"Do you suppose there is a squad of malicious spirits hovering in ambush to swoop upon all new-comers, and not only fracture limbs, but scatter to right and left paralysis, epilepsy, and other diseases? From your rueful countenance a stranger might infer that Pandora's box had just been opened at 'Bochim,' and that the very air was thick with miasma and maledictions."
"Oh, laugh on if you choose at my old-fashioned whims and superstition; but, mark my words, that place will prove a curse to whoever buys it and settles there! Has Mrs. Gerome a family?"
"I believe I heard that she had no children, but I really know little about her except that she must be a woman of unusually refined and cultivated tastes, as the pictures, books, and various articles of vertu that have preceded her seem to indicate much critical and artistic acumen. The entire building has been refitted in exceedingly handsome style, and the upholsterer who was arranging the furniture told me it had been purchased in Europe."
"When is Mrs. Gerome expected?"
"During the present week."
"What aged person is she?"
"Indeed, my dear, curious Janet, I have asked no questions and formed no conjectures; but I trust your baleful prognostications will find no fulfilment in her case."
"Ulpian, I had some very fashionable visitors to-day, who manifested an extraordinary interest in your past, present, and future. Mrs. Channing and her two lovely daughters spent the morning here, and left an invitation for you to attend a party at their house next Thursday evening. Miss Adelaide went into ecstasies over that portrait in which you wore your uniform, and asked numberless questions about you; among others, whether you were still heart-whole, or whether you had suffered some great disappointment early in life which kept you a bachelor. What do you suppose she said when I told her that you had never had a love-scrape in your life?"
"Of course she impugned the statement, which, to a young lady framed for flirtations, must indeed have appeared incredible."
"On the contrary, she declared that the woman who succeeded in captivating you would achieve a triumph more difficult and more desirable than the victory of the Nile or of Trafalgar. I was tempted to ask her if she might be considered the ambitious Nelson, but of course politeness forbade. Ulpian, she is the prettiest creature I ever looked at."
"Yes, as pretty as mere healthy flesh can be without the sublimation and radiance of an indwelling soul. There is nothing which impresses me so mournfully as the sight of a beautiful, frivolous, unscrupulous woman, who immolates all that is truly feminine in her character upon the shrine of swollen vanity; and whose career from cradle to grave is as utterly aimless and useless as that of some gaudy, flaunting ephemeron of the tropics. Such women act as extinguishers upon the feeble, flickering flame of chivalry, which modern degeneracy in manners and morals has almost smothered."
His tone and countenance evinced more contempt than Salome had known him to express on any former occasion, and, glancing at his clear, steady, grave blue eyes, she said to herself,—
"At least he will never strike his colors to Admiral Adelaide Channing, and I should dislike to occupy her place in his estimation."
"My dear boy, you must not speak in such ungrateful terms of my beautiful visitor, who certainly has some serious design on your heart, if I may judge from the very extravagant praise she lavished upon you. I daresay she is a very nice, sweet girl, and you know you told me once that if you should ever marry your wife must be a beauty, else you could not love her."
"Very true, Janet, and I have no intention of retracting or diminishing my rigid requirements, but my definition of beauty includes more than mere physical perfection,—than satin skin, pearl-tinted, fine eyes, faultless teeth, abundant silky tresses, and rounded figure. It demands that the heart whose blood paints lips and cheek, shall be pure, generous, and holy; that the soul which looks out at me from lustrous eyes shall be consecrated to another deity than Fashion,—shall be as full of magnanimity, and strength, and peace, as a harp is of melody; my beauty means meekness, faith, sanctity, and exacts mental, moral, and material excellence. Rest assured, my dear, sage counsellor, that if ever I bring a wife to my hearthstone I will have selected her in obedience to the advice of Joubert, who admonished us, 'We should choose for a wife only the woman we would choose for a friend, were she a man.'"
"You expect too much; you will never find your perfect ideal walking in flesh."
"I will content myself with nothing less—I promise you that."
"Oh, no doubt you will believe that the woman you marry is all that you dream or wish; but some fine morning you will present me with a sister as full of foibles and vanities and frailties as any other spoiled and cunning daughter of Eve. Of course every bridegroom classes as 'perfect' the blushing, trembling young thing who peeps shyly at him from under a tulle veil and an orange wreath; but, take my word for it, there is a spice of Delilah in every pretty girl, and the credulity of Samson slumbers in all lovers. Nevertheless, Ulpian, I would sooner see you in bondage to a pair of white hands and hazel eyes,—would rather know that like all your race you were utterly humbugged—hoodwinked—by some fair-browed belle, whose low voice rippled over pouting pink lips, than have you live always alone, a confirmed old bachelor. After all, I doubt whether you have really never had a sweetheart, for every schoolboy swears allegiance to some yellow-haired divinity in ruffled muslin aprons."
Dr. Grey laid his hand gently on the shrivelled fingers that were busily engaged in shelling some seed-beans, and answered, jocosely,—
"Have I not often told you, that my dear, old, patient sister Janet, is my only lady-love?"
"And your silly old Janet is not such an arrant fool as to believe any such nonsense,—especially when she remembers that from time immemorial sailors have had sweethearts in every port, and that her spoiled pet of a brother is no exception to his race or his profession."
He laughed, and smoothed her grizzled hair.
"Since my sapient sister is so curious, I will confess that once—and only once in my life—I was in dire danger of falling most desperately in love. The frigate was coaling at Palermo, and I went ashore. One afternoon, in sauntering through the orange and lemon groves which render its environs so inviting, I caught a glimpse of a countenance so serene, so indescribably lovely, that for an instant I was disposed to believe I had encountered the beatific spirit of St. Rosalie herself. The face was that of a woman apparently about eighteen years old, who evidently ranked among Sicilian aristocrats, and whose elegant attire enhanced her beauty. I followed, at a respectful distance, until she entered the garden of an adjacent convent and fell on her knees before a marble altar, where burned a lamp at the feet of a statue of the Virgin; and no painting in Europe stamped itself so indelibly on my memory as the picture of that beautiful votary. Her delicate hands were crossed over her heart,—her large, liquid, black eyes, raised in adoration,—her full, crimson lips parted as she repeated the 'Ave Maria' in the most musical voice I ever heard. Just above the purplish folds of her abundant hair drooped pomegranate boughs all aflame with scarlet blooms that fell upon her head like tongues of fire, as the wind sprang from the blue hollows of the Mediterranean and shook the grove. The sun was going swiftly down behind the stone turrets of a monastery that crowned a distant hill, and the last rays wove an aureola around my kneeling saint, who, doubtless, aware of the effect of her graceful attitudinizing, seemed in no haste to conclude her devotions. As I recalled the charming tableau, those lines wherein Buchanan sought to photograph the picturesqueness of the Digentia, float up from some sympathetic cell of memory,—
'Could you look at the leaves of yonder tree,— The wind is stirring them, as the sun is stirring me! The woolly clouds move quiet and slow In the pale blue calm of the tranquil skies, And their shades that run on the grass below Leave purple dreams in the violet's eyes! The vine droops over my head with bright Clusters of purple and green,—the rose Breaks her heart on the air; and the orange glows Like golden lamps in an emerald night.'
My Sicilian Siren finally disappeared in a gloomy arched-way leading into the convent, and I returned to the hotel to dream of her until the morning sunshine once more bathed Conca D'Oro in splendor,—when I instituted a search for the name and residence of my inamorata. Six hours of enthusiastic investigation yielded me the coveted information, but imagine the profound despair in which I was plunged when I ascertained from her own smiling lips that she was a happy wife and the proud mother of two beautiful children. As she rose to present her swarthy husband, I bowed myself out and took refuge aboard ship. Here ends the recital of the first and last bit of romance that ever threw its rosy tinge over the quiet life of your staid and humble brother—Ulpian Grey, M.D."
"Ah, my dear sailor boy, I am afraid thirty-five years of experience have rendered you too wary to be caught by such chaff as pretty girls sprinkle along your path! I should be glad to see your bride enter this door before I am carried out feet foremost to my final rest by Enoch's side."
"Do not despair of me, dear Jane, for I am not exactly Methuselah's rival; and comfort yourself by recollecting that Lessing was forty years old when he first loved the only woman for whom he ever entertained an affection—his devoted Eva Koenig."
Dr. Grey bent over his sister's easy-chair, and, taking her thin, sallow face tenderly in his soft palms, kissed the sunken cheeks—the wrinkled forehead; and then, laying her head gently back upon its cushions, entered his buggy and drove to his office.
"Salome, what makes you look so moody? There are as many furrows on your brow as lines in a spider's web, and your lips are drawn in as if you had dined on green persimmons. Child, what is the matter?"
Miss Jane lifted her spectacles from her nose, and eyed the orphan, anxiously.
"I am very sorry to hear that 'Solitude' will be filled once more with people, and bustle, and din. It is the nearest point where we can reach the beach, and I have enjoyed many quiet strolls under its grand, old, solemn trees. If haunted at all, it is by Dryads and Hamadryads, and I like the babble of their leaves infinitely better than the strife of human tongues. Miss Jane, if I were only a pagan!"
"I am not very sure that you are not," sighed the invalid.
"Nor I. I have lost my place,—I am behind my time in this world by at least twenty centuries, and ought to have lived in the jovial age of fauns and satyrs, when groves were sacred for other reasons than the high price of wood,—when gods and goddesses were abundant as blackberries, and at the beck and call of every miserable wretch who chose to propitiate them by offering a flask of wine, a bunch of turnips, a litter of puppies, or a basket of olives. Hesiod and Homer understood human nature infinitely better than Paul and Luther."
"Salome, you are growing shockingly irreverent and wicked."
"No, madam,—begging your pardon. I am only desperately honest in wishing that my salvation and future felicity could be secured beyond all peradventure, by a sacrifice of oatcakes, or white doves, or black cats, instead of a drab-colored life of prayer, penance, purity, and patience. I don't deny that I would rather spend my days in watching the gorgeous pageant of the Panathenaea, or chanting dithyrambics to insure a fine vintage, or even offering a Taigheirm, than in running neck and neck with Lucifer for the kingdom of heaven. I love kids, and fawns, and lambs, as well as Landseer; but I should not long hesitate, had I the choice, between flaying their tender flesh in sacrifice and mortifying my own as a devout life requires."
"But what would have become of your poor soul if you had lived in Pagan times?"
"What will become of it under present circumstances, I should be exceedingly glad to know. 'The heathen are a law unto themselves,' and I sometimes wish I had been born a Fejee belle, who lived, was tastefully tattooed, and died without having even dreamed of missionaries,—those officious martyrs who hope to wear a whole constellation on their foreheads as a reward for having been eaten by cannibals, to whom they expounded the unpalatable doctrine that, 'this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.' Moreover, I confess—"
"That is quite sufficient. I have already heard more than I relish of such silly and sacrilegious chat. At least, you might have more prudence and discretion than to hold forth so disgracefully in the hearing of your little brother."
Miss Jane's cheek flushed, and her feeble voice faltered.
"He has fallen fast asleep over the bean-pods; and, even if he had not, how much of the conversation do you imagine he would comprehend? His sole knowledge of Grecian theogony consists of a brief acquaintance with a bottle of pseudo Greek fire which burnt the pocket out of his best pantaloons."
"Salome, you distress me; and, if Ulpian had not left us, you would have kept all such heathenish stuff shut up in your sinful and wayward heart."
"Dr. Grey is no Gorgon, having power to petrify my tongue. I am not afraid of him; and my respect for your feelings is much stronger than my dread of his."
"Hush, child! You are afraid of him, and well you may be. I fear that all your Sabbath-school advantages—all your Christian privileges—have been wofully wasted; and I shall ask Ulpian to talk to you."
"No, thank you, Miss Jane. You may save yourself the trouble, for he has given me over to hardness of heart and 'a reprobate mind,' and his patience is not only 'clean gone forever,' but he has carefully washed his hands of all future interest in my rudderless and drifting soul. Let me speak this once, and henceforth I promise to hold my peace. I do not require to be 'talked to' by anybody,—I only need to be let alone. Sabbath-schools are indisputably excellent things,—and I can testify that they are ponderous ecclesiastical hammers, pounding creeds and catechisms into the mould of memory; but these nurseries of the church nourish and harbor some Satan's imps among their half-fledged saints; and while they certainly accomplish a vast amount of good, they are by no means infallible machines for the manufacture of Christians,—of which fact I stand in melancholy attestation. I have a vague impression that piety does not grow up in a night, like Jonah's gourd or Jack the Giant-killer's beanstalk; but is a pure, glittering, spiritual stalactite, built by the slow accretion of dripping tears. Do you suppose that you can successfully train my soul as you have managed my body?—that you can hold my nose and pour a dose of faith down my throat, like ipecac or cod-liver oil? In matters of theology I am no ostrich, and, if you afflict me ad nauseam with religious dogmas, you must not wonder that my moral digestion rebels outright. I shall not dispute the fact that in justice to your precepts and example I ought to be a Christian; but, since I am not, I may as well tell you at once and save future trouble, that I can neither be baited into the church like a hawk into a steel-trap, nor scared and driven into it like bees into a hive by the rattling of tin pans and the screaking of horns. Don't look at me so dolefully, dear Miss Jane, as if you had already seen my passport to perdition signed and sealed. You, at least, have done your whole duty,—have set all the articles of orthodoxy, well-flavored and garnished, before me; and, if I am finally lost, my spiritual starvation can never be charged against you in the last balance-sheet. I am not ignorant of the Bible, nor altogether unacquainted with the divers creeds that spring from its pages as thick, as formidable, as ferocious, as the harvest from the dragon's teeth; and, thanking you for all you have taught me, I here undertake to pilot my own soul in this boiling, bellowing sea of life. I doubt whether some of the charts you value will be of any service in my voyage, or whether the beacons by which you steer will save me from the reefs; but, nevertheless, I take the wheel, and, if I wreck my soul,—why, then, I wreck it."
In the magic evening light, which touches all things with a rosy, transitory glamour, the fresh young face with its daintily sculptured lineaments seemed marvellously and surpassingly fair; but, like morbidezza marble, hopelessly fixed and chill, and might have served for some image of Eve, when, standing on the boundary of eternal beatitude, she daringly put up her slender womanly fingers to pluck the fatal fruit. Her large, brilliant eyes followed the sinking sun as steadily—as unblinkingly—as an eagle's; but the gleam that rayed out was baleful, presaging storms, as infallibly as that sullen, lurid light, which glares defiantly over helpless earth when to-day's sun falls into the cloudy lap of to-morrow's tempest.
A heavy sigh struggled across Miss Jane's unsteady lips, as, removing her glasses, she wiped her eyes, and said, slowly,—
"Yes; I am a stupid, unsuspecting old dolt; but I see it all now."
"My ultimate and irremediable ruin?"
Salome approached the arm-chair, and, stooping, looked intently at the aged, wan face.
"What is it that you see? Miss Jane, when people stand, as you do, upon the borders of two worlds, the Bygone fades,—the Beyond grows distinct and luminous. Lend me your second sight, to decipher the characters scrawled like fiery serpents over the pall that envelops the future."
"I see nothing but the grim, unmistakeable fact that my little, clinging, dependent child, has, without my knowledge, put away childish things, and suddenly steps before me a wilful, irreverent, graceless woman, as eager to challenge the decrees of the Lord as was complaining Job before the breath of the whirlwind smote and awed him. Some day, Salome, that same voice that startled the old man of Uz will make you bend and tremble and shiver like that acacia yonder, which the wind is toying with before it snaps asunder. When that time comes the clover will feed bees above my gray head, but I trust my soul will be near enough to the great white throne to pray God to have mercy on your wretched spirit, and bring you safely to that blessed haven whither you can never pilot yourself."
Nervous excitement gave unwonted strength to the feeble limbs; and, grasping her crutches, Miss Jane limped into her own room and closed the door after her.
For some moments the girl stood looking out over the lawn, where fading sunshine and deepening shadow made fitful chiaroscuro along the primrose-paved aisles that stretched under the elm arches,—then, raising her fingers as if tracing lines on the soft, gold-dusted atmosphere that surrounded her, she muttered doggedly,—
"Yes; I am at sea! But, if God is just, Miss Jane and I will yet shake hands on that calm, surgeless, crystal sea, shining before the throne. So, now I take the helm and put the head of my precious charge before the wind, and only the Almighty can foresee the result. In His mercy I put my trust. So be it.
'Gray distance hid each shining sail, By ruthless breezes borne from me; And lessening, fading, faint, and pale, My ships went forth to sea.'"
"Mother, I am afraid Mrs. Gerome does not like this place, or the furniture, or something, for she has not spoken a kind word about the house since she came. She looks closely at everything, but says nothing. What do you suppose she thinks?"
Robert Maclean, the gardener at "Solitude," paused abruptly, as his mother pinched his arm sharply and whispered,—
"Whist! There she comes down the azalea walk; and no one likes to stumble upon their own name when they are not expecting the sound or sight of it. No; she has turned off towards the cedars, and does not see us. As to her likes and dislikes, there is nothing this side of heaven that will content her; and you might have known better than to suppose she would be much pleased with anything. No matter what she thinks, she seldom complains, and it is hard to find out her views; but she told me to tell you that she approved all you had done, and thanked you for the pains you have taken to arrange things comfortably."
Old Elsie tied the strings of her white muslin cap, and turned her back to the wind that was playing havoc with its freshly fluted frills.
"Mother, I heard her laugh yesterday, for the first time. It was a short, quick, queer little laugh, but it pleased me greatly. The cook had set some duck-eggs under that fine black Spanish hen; and, when they hatched, she marched off with the brood into the fowl-yard, where they made straight for the duck-pool and sailed in. The hen set up such a din and clatter that Mrs. Gerome, who happened to get a glimpse of them, felt sorry for the poor frightened fowl, and tried to drive the little ones out of the water; but, whenever she put her hand towards them to catch the nearest, the whole brood would quack and dive,—and, when she had laughed that one short laugh, she called to me to look after them and went back to the house. You don't know how strangely that laugh sounded."
"Don't I? Speak for yourself, Robert. I have heard her laugh twice, but it was when she was asleep, and it was an uncanny, bitter sound,—about as welcome to my ears as her death-rattle. Last night she did not close her eyes,—did not even undress; and the hall clock was striking three this morning when I heard her open the piano and play one of those dismal, frantic, wailing things she calls 'fugues,' that make the hair rise on my head and every inch of my flesh creep as if a stranger were treading on my grave. When she was a baby, cutting her eye-teeth, she had a spasm; and seeing her straighten herself out and roll back her eyes till only the white balls showed, I took it for granted she was about to die, and, holding her in my arms, I fell on my knees and prayed that she might be spared. Well, now, Robert, I am sorry I put up that petition, for the Lord knew best; and it would have been a crowning mercy if he had paid no attention to my half-crazy pleadings and taken her home then. What meddling fools we all are! I thought, at that time, it would break my heart to shroud her sweet little body; but ah! I would rather have laid my precious baby in her coffin, with violets under her fingers, than live to see that desperate, unearthly look, come and house itself in her great, solemn, hungry, tormenting eyes, that were once as full of sparkles and merriment as the sky is of stars on a clear, frosty night. My son, we never know what is good for us; for, many times, when we clamor for bread we break our teeth on it; and then, again, when we rage and howl because we think the Lord has dealt out scorpions to us, they prove better than the fish we craved. So, after all, I conclude Christ understood the whole matter when he enjoined upon us to say, 'Thy will be done.'"
The old nurse wiped her eyes with the corner of her black silk apron, and, leaning against the trunk of a tree, crossed her arms comfortably over her broad and ample chest, while Robert busied himself in repotting some choice carnations.
"But, mother, do you really think she will be satisfied to stay here, after travelling so long up and down in the world?"
"How can I tell what she will or will not do? You know very well that she goes to sleep with one set of whims and wakes up with new ones. She catches odd freaks as some people catch diseases. She said yesterday that she had had enough of travel and change, and intended to settle and live and die right here; but that does not prove that I may not receive an order next week to pack her trunks and start to Jericho or Halifax, and I should not think the world was upside down and coming to an end if such an order came before breakfast to-morrow. Poor lamb! My poor lamb! Yonder she comes again. Do you notice how fast she walks, as if the foul fiend were clutching at her skirts or she were trying to get away from herself,—trying to run her restless soul entirely out of her wretched body? Come away, Robert, and let her have all the grounds to herself. She likes best to be alone."
Mother and son walked off in the direction of the stables, and the advancing figure emerged from the dense shade where interlacing limbs roofed one of the winding walks, and paused before the circular stand on which lemon, rose, white, crimson, and variegated carnations, nodded their fringed heads and poured spicy aromas from their velvety chalices.
The face and form of Mrs. Gerome presented a puzzling paradox, in which old age and youth seemed struggling for mastery; and "death in life" found melancholy verification. Tall, slender, and faultlessly made, the perfection of her figure was marred by the unfortunate carriage of her head, which drooped forward so heavily that the chin almost touched her throat and nearly destroyed the harmony of the profile outline. The head itself was nobly rounded, and sternly classic as any well authenticated antique, but it was no marvel that it habitually bowed under the heavy glittering mass of silver hair, which wound in coil after coil and was secured at the back by a comb of carved jet, thickly studded with small silver stars. The extraordinary lustrousness of these waves of gray hair that rippled on her forehead and temples like molten metal, lent a weird and wondrous effect to the straight, regular, rigid features,—daintily cut as those of Pallas, and quite as pallid. The delicate and high arch of the eyebrows was black as ebony, and in conjunction with the long jetty lashes formed a very singular contrast to the shining white tresses, which lay piled like freshly fallen snow-drift above them. The brow was full, round, smooth, and fair as a child's; and more than one azure thread showed the subtle tracery of veins, whose crimson currents left no rosy reflex on the firm, gleaming white flesh, through which they branched.
Beneath that faultless forehead burned unusually large eyes, deep as mountain tarns, and of that pure bluish gray that tolerates no hint of green or yellow rays. The dilated pupils intensified the steel color, and faint violet lines ran out from the iris to meet the central shadows, while above and below the heavy black fringes enhanced their sombre depths, where mournful mysteries seemed to float like corpses just beneath the crystal shroud of ocean waves. The pale, passionless lips,—perfect in their pure curves, but defrauded of the blood which resolutely refused to come to the surface and tint the fine satin skin,—were lined in ciphers that the curious questioned and wondered over, but which few could read and none fully comprehend. The beautiful, frigid mouth, where all sweetness was frozen out to make room for hopelessness and defiance, would have admirably suited some statue of discrowned and smitten Hecuba; and no amount of sighs and sobs, no stormy bursts of grief or fierce invective, could rival the melancholy eloquence of its mute, calm pallor.
The wan face, with its gray globe-like eyes, and the metallic glitter of the prematurely silvered hair, matched in hue the pearl-colored muslin dress which fluttered in the wind; and, standing there, this gray woman of twenty-three looked indeed like Pygmalion's stone darling,—
"Fair-statured, noble, like an awful thing Frozen upon the very verge of life, And looking back along eternity With rayless eyes that keep the shadow Time."
Her frail, white hands, with their oval nails polished and opalescent, were exceedingly beautiful; and, where the creamy foam of the fine lace fell back from the dimpled wrists, quaintly carved jet serpents with blazing diamond eyes coiled around the throbbing thread-like pulses of sullen sang azure.
Bending over the carnations, she examined the gorgeous hues,—toyed with their fragile stems,—and then, glancing shyly over her shoulder like a startled fawn half expectant of hounds and hunter, she glided rapidly to an artificial mound crowned with a mouldering mossy plaster image of Ariadne and her pard, and stood surveying her new domain.
"Solitude" filled a semicircular hollow between low wooded hills, which ran down to lave their grassy flanks in the blue brine of the Atlantic, and constituted the horns of a crescent bay, on whose sloping sandy beach the billows broke without barrier.
The old-fashioned brick house—with sharp, peaked roof, turreted chimneys, and gable window looking down in front upon the clumsily clustered columns that supported the arched portico—was built upon a rocky knoll, of which nature laid the foundation and art increased the height; and, around and above it, towered a dense grove of ancient trees that shut out the glare of the sea and effectually screened the mansion from observation. The damp walls were heavily draped with the sombre verdure of ivy, whose ambitious tendrils clambered to the cleft chimney-tops, and peered impertinently over the broad stone window-sills, whence the indignant housemaid remorselessly sheared them away as often as their encroachments grew perceptible.
In the rear of the house, and toward the west, stretched orchard, vegetable garden, vineyard, and wheat-field, whose rolling green waves seemed almost to break against the ruddy trunks of cedars that clothed the hillside. To the left and north lay low, marshy, meadow land, covered with rank grass and frosted with saline incrustations; while south of the building extended spacious grounds, studded here and there with noble groups of deodars, Norway spruce, and various ornamental shrubs, and bounded by a tall impenetrable hedge of osage orange. Before the house, which faced the ocean and fronted east, the lawn sloped gently down to a terrace surmounted by a granite balustrade; and just beyond, supported by stone piers on the golden sands, stood an octagonal boat-house, built in the Swiss style, with red-tiled roof, and floored with squares of white and black marble, whence a flight of steps led to the little boat chained to one of the rocky piers. Along the entire length of the terrace a line of giant poplars lifted their aged, weather-beaten heads, high above all surrounding objects,—ever on the qui vive, looking seaward,—trim and erect as soldiers on dress parade, and defiant of gales that had shorn them of many boughs, and left ghastly scars on their glossy limbs.
Tradition whispered, with bated breath, that in the dim dawn of colonial settlement a rude log hut had been erected here by pirates, who came ashore to bury their ill-gotten booty, and rumors were rife of bloody deeds and midnight orgies,—all of which sprang into more vigorous circulation, when, in laying the foundations of the boat-house piers, an iron pot containing a number of old French and Spanish coins was dug out of the shells and sand.
Melancholy tales of stranded vessels and drowned crews, of a slaver burned to the water's edge to escape capture, and of charred corpses strewn on the beach, thickened the atmosphere of legendary gloom that enveloped the spot,—where the successive demise of several proprietors certainly sanctioned the feeling of dread and superstitious distrust with which it was regarded. That the unenviable celebrity it had attained was referable to local causes generating disease, appeared almost incredible; for, if miasmatic exhalations rose dank and poisonous from the densely shaded humid house, they were promptly dispelled by the strong, invincible ocean-breeze, which tore aside leafy branches and muslin curtains, and wafted all noxious vapors inland.
A committee of medical sages having cautiously examined the place, unanimously averred that its reputed fatality could not justly be ascribed to any topographical causes. Whereupon the popular nerve, which closely connected the community with supernaturaldom, thrilled afresh; and all the calamities, real and imaginary, that had afflicted "Solitude" from a period so remote that "the memory of man runneth not to the contrary," were laid upon the galled shoulders of some red-liveried, sulphur-scented Imp of Abaddon, whose peculiar mission was to haunt the "piratical nest;" and, in lieu of human victims, to addle the eggs, blast the grape crop, and make night hideous with spectral sights and sounds.
To an unprejudiced observer the hills seemed to have gleefully clasped hands and formed a half-circle, shutting the place in for a quiet breezy communion with garrulous ocean, whose waves ran eagerly up the strand to gossip of wrecks and cyclones, with the staid martinet poplars that nodded and murmured assent to all their wild romances.
Such was the pleasant impression produced upon the mind of the lonely woman who now owned it, and who hoped to spend here in seclusion and peace the residue of a life whose radiant dawn had been suddenly swallowed by drab clouds and starless gloom.
The Scotch are proverbially credulous concerning all preternatural influences; and, had Robert Maclean been cognizant of half the ghostly associations attached to the residence which he had selected in compliance with general instructions from his mistress, it is scarcely problematical whether the house would not have remained in the hands of the real-estate broker; but, fortunately for their peace of mind, Elsie and her son were as yet in blissful ignorance of the dismal celebrity of their new home.
Resting her folded hands on the bare shoulders of the Ariadne, which modest lichens and officious wreaths of purple verbena were striving to mantle, Mrs. Gerome scanned the scene before her; and a quick, nervous sigh, that was almost a pant, struggled across her lips.
"Unto this last nook of refuge have I come; and, expecting little, find much. Shut out from the world, locked in with the sea,—no neighbors, no visitors, no news, no gossip,—solitary, shady, cool, and quiet,—surely I can rest here. Forked tongues of scandal can not penetrate through those rock-ribbed hills yonder, nor dart across that defying sea; and neither wail nor wassail of men or women can disturb me more. But how do I know that it will not prove a mocking cheat like Baiae and Maggiore, or Copais and Cromarty? I have fled in disgust and ennui from far lovelier spots than this, and what right have I to suppose that contentment has housed itself as my guest in that old, mossy, brick pile, where mice and wrens run riot? Like Cain and Cartophilus, my curse travels with me, and I no sooner pitch my tent, than lo! the rattle and grin of my skeleton, for which earth is not wide enough to furnish a grave! Well! well! at least I shall not be stared to death here,—shall not be tormented by eye-glasses and sketch-books; can live in that dim, dark, greenish den yonder, unobserved and possibly forgotten and finally sleep undisturbed in the dank shade of those deodars, with twittering birds overhead and a sobbing sea at my feet. How long—how long before that dreamless slumber will fall upon my heavy lids,—weary with waiting? Only twenty-three yesterday! My God, if I should live to be an old woman! The very thought threatens insanity! Ten—twenty—possibly thirty years ahead of me. No; I could not endure it,—I should go mad, or destroy myself! If I were a delicate woman, if I only had weak lungs or a dropsical heart, or a taint of any hereditary infirmity that would surely curtail my days, I could be tolerably patient, hoping daily for the symptoms to develop themselves. But, unfortunately, though my family all died early, no two members, selected the same mode of escape from this bastile of clay; and my flesh is sound, and I am as strong and compact as that granite balustrade, and—ha! ha!—quite as hard. Au pis aller, if the burden of life becomes utterly intolerable I can shuffle it off as quickly as did that proud Roman, who, 'when the birds began to sing' in the dawn of a day heralded by tempestuous winds laden with perfume from the vales of Sicily, shut his eyes forever from the warm sparkling Mediterranean billows that broke in the roads of Utica, and pricked the memory of inattentive Azrael with the point of a sword. Neither Phaedo, family, nor fame, could coax Cato to respect the prerogative of Atropos; and if he, 'the only free and unconquered man,' quailed and fled before the apparition of numerous advancing years, what marvel that I, who am neither sage nor Roman, should be tempted some fine morning when the birds are sounding reveille around my chamber windows, to imitate 'what Cato did, and Addison approved'? After all, what despicable cowards are human hearts, and how much easier to die like Socrates, Seneca, and Zeno, than stagger and groan under the load of hated, torturing years, that are about as welcome to my shoulders as the 'old man of the sea' to Sinbad's! How long?—oh, how long?"
The gloomy gray eyes had kindled into a dull flicker that resembled the fitful, ghostly gleam of sheet lightning, falling through painted windows upon crumbling and defiled altars in some lonely ruined cathedral; and her low, shuddering tones, were full of a hopeless, sneering bitterness, as painfully startling and out of place in a woman's voice as would be the scream of a condor from the irised throats of brooding doves, or the hungry howl of a wolf from the tender lips of unweaned lambs. In the gloaming light of a soft gray sky powdered by a few early stars, stood this desolate gray woman, about whose face and dress there was no stain of color save the blue glitter of a large sapphire ring, curiously cut in the form of a coiled asp, with hooded head erect and brilliant diamond eyes that twinkled with every quiver of the marble-white fingers.
Impatiently she turned her imperial head, when the sound of approaching steps broke the stillness; and her tone was sharp as that of one suddenly roused from deep sleep,—
"Well, Elsie! What is it?"
"Tea, my child, has been waiting half-an-hour."
"Then go and get your share of it. I want none."
"But you ate no dinner to-day. Does your head ache?"
"Oh, no; my heart jealously monopolizes that privilege!"
The old woman sighed audibly, and Mrs. Gerome added,—
"Pray, do not worry yourself about me! When I feel disposed to come in I can find the way to the door. Go and get your supper."
The nurse passed her wrinkled hand over the drab muslin sleeves and skirt, and touched the folds of hair.
"But, my bairn, the dew is thick on your head and has taken all the starch out of your dress. Please come out of this fog that is creeping up like a serpent from the sea. You are not used to such damp air, and it might give you rheumatic cramps."
"Well, suppose it should? Does not my white head entitle me to all such luxuries of old age and decrepitude? Don't bother me, Elsie."
She put out her hand with a repellent gesture, but Elsie seized it, and clasping both her palms over the cold fingers, said, with irresistible tenderness,—
"Come, dearie!—come, my dearie!"
Without a word Mrs. Gerome turned and followed her across the lawn and into the house, whose internal arrangement was somewhat at variance with its unpretending exterior.
The rooms were large, with low ceilings; and fire-places, originally wide and deep, had been recently filled and fitted up with handsome grates, while the heavy mantelpieces of carved cedar, that once matched the broad facings of the windows and the massive panels of the doors, were exchanged for costly verd antique and lumachella. The narrow passage running through the centre of the building was also wainscoted with cedar and adorned with fine engravings of Landseer's best pictures, whose richly carved walnut frames looked almost cedarn in the pale chill light that streamed upon them through the violet-colored glass which surrounded the front door and effectually subdued the hot golden glare of the sunny sun. The old-fashioned folding doors that formerly connected the parlor and library had been removed to make room for a low, wide arch, over which drooped lace curtains, partially looped with blue silk cord and tassels, and both apartments were furnished with sofas and chairs of rosewood and blue satin damask, while the velvet carpet, with its azure ground strewn with wreaths of white roses and hyacinths, corresponded in color. Handsome book-cases, burdened with precious lore, lined the walls of the rear room; and on either side of a massive ormolu escritoire, bronze candelabra shed light on the blue velvet desk where lay delicate sheets of gossamer paper with varied and outre monograms, guarded by an exquisite marble statuette of Harpocrates, which stood in the mirror-panelled recess reserved for pen, ink, and sealing-wax. The air was fragrant with the breath of flowers that nodded to each other from costly vases scattered through both apartments; and, before one of the windows, rose a bronze stand containing china jars filled with pelargoniums, in brilliant bloom. An Erard piano occupied one corner of the parlor, and the large harp-shaped stand at its side was heaped with books and unbound sheets of music. Here two long wax candles were now burning brightly, and, on the oval marble table in the centre of the floor, was a superb silver lamp representing Psyche bending over Cupid, and supporting the finely-cut globe, whose soft radiance streamed down on her burnished wings and eagerly-parted sweet Greek lips. The design of this exceedingly beautiful lamp would not have disgraced Benvenuto Cellini, nor its execution have reflected discredit upon the genius of Felicie Fauveau, though to neither of these distinguished artificers could its origin have been justly ascribed. In its mellow, magical glow, the fine paintings suspended on the walls seemed to catch a gleam of "that light that never was on sea or land," for their dim, purplish Alpine gorges were filled with snowy phantasmagoria of rushing avalanches; their foaming cataracts braided glittering spray into spectral similitude of Undine tresses and Undine faces; their desolate red deserts grew vaguely populous with mirage mockeries; their green dells and grassy hill-sides, couching careless herds, and fleecy flocks, borrowed all Arcadia's repose; and the marble busts of Beethoven and of Handel, placed on brackets above the piano, shone as if rapt, transfigured in the mighty inspiration that gave to mankind "Fidelio" and the "Messiah."
On the sofa which partially filled the oriel window, where the lace drapery was looped back to admit the breeze, lay an ivory box containing materials and models for wax-flowers; and, in one corner, half thrust under the edge of the silken cushion, was an unfinished wreath of waxen convolvulus and a cluster of gentians. There, too, open at the page that narrated the death-struggle, lay Liszt's "Life of Chopin," pressed face downwards, with two purple pansies crushed and staining the leaves; and a small gold thimble peeping out of a crevice in the damask tattled of the careless feminine fingers that had left these traces of disorder.
The collection of pictures was unlike those usually brought from Europe by cultivated tourists, for it contained no Madonnas, no Magdalenes, no Holy Families, no Descents or Entombments, no Saints, or Sibyls, or martyrs; and consisted of wild mid-mountain scenery, of solemn surf-swept strands, of lonely moonlit moors, of crimson sunsets in Cobi or Sahara, and of a few gloomy, ferocious faces, among which the portrait of Salvator Rosa smiled sardonically, and a head of frenzied Jocasta was preeminently hideous.
As Mrs. Gerome entered the parlor and brightened the flame of the Psyche lamp, her eyes accidentally fell upon the bust of Beethoven, where, in gilt letters, she had inscribed his own triumphant declaration, "Music is like wine, inflaming men to new achievements; and I am the Bacchus who serves it out to them." While she watched the rayless marble orbs, more eloquent than dilating darkening human pupils, a shadow dense and mysterious drifted over her frigid face, and, without removing her eyes from the bust above her, she sat down before the piano, and commenced one of those marvellous symphonies which he had commended to the study of Goethe.
Ere it was ended Elsie came in, bearing a waiter on which stood a silver epergne filled with fruit, a basket of cake, and a goblet of iced tea.
"My child, I bring your supper here because the dining-room looks lonesome at night."
"No,—no! take it away. I tell you I want nothing."
"But, for my sake, dear—"
"Let me alone, Elsie! There,—there! Don't teaze me."
The nurse stood for some moments watching the deepening gloom of the up-turned countenance, listening to the weird strains that seemed to drip from the white fingers as they wandered slowly across the keys; then, kneeling at her side, grasped the hands firmly, and covered them with kisses.
"Precious bairn! don't play any more to-night. For God's sake, let me shut up this piano that is making a ghost of you! You will get so stirred up you can't close your eyes,—you know you will; and then I shall cry till day-break. If you don't care for yourself, dearie, do try to care a little for the old woman who loves you better than her life, and who never can sleep till she knows your precious head is on its pillow. My pretty darling, you are killing me by inches, and I shall stay here on my knees until you leave the piano, if that is not till noon to-morrow. You may order me away; but not a step will I stir. God help you, my bairn!"
Mrs. Gerome made an effort to extricate her hands, but the iron grasp was relentless; and, in a tone of great annoyance, she exclaimed,—
"Oh, Elsie! You are an intolerable—"
"Well, dear, say it out,—an intolerable old fool! Isn't that what you mean?"
"Not exactly; but you presume upon my forbearance. Elsie, you must not interrupt and annoy me, for I tell you now I will not submit to it. You forget that I am not a child."
"Darling, you will never be anything but a child to me,—the same pretty child I took from its dead mother's arms and carried for years close to my heart. So scold me as you may, my pet, I shall love you and try to take care of you just as long as there is breath left in my body."
She ended by kissing the struggling hands; and, striving to conceal her vexation, Mrs. Gerome finally turned and said,—
"If you will eat your supper, and stay with Robert, and leave me in peace, I promise you I will close the piano, which your flinty Scotch soul can no more appreciate than the brick and mortar that compose these walls. You mean well, my dear, faithful Elsie, but sometimes you bore me fearfully. I know I am often wayward; but you must bear with me, for, after all, how could I endure to lose you,—you the only human being who cares whether I live or die? There,—go! Good night!"
She threw her arms around Elsie's neck, leaned her wan cheek for an instant only on her shoulder, then pushed her away and hastily closed the piano.
Two hours later, when the devoted servant stole up on tip-toe, and peeped through the half-open door that led into the hall, she found the queenly figure walking swiftly and lightly across the room from oriel to arch, with her hands clasped over the back of her head, and the silvery lamp-light shining softly on the waves of burnished hair that rippled around her pure, polished forehead.
As she watched her mistress, Elsie's stout frame trembled, and hot tears streamed down her furrowed face while she lifted her heart in prayer, for the dreary, lonely, lovely woman, who had long ago ceased to pray for herself. But when the quivering lips of one breathed a petition before the throne of God, the beautiful cold mouth of the other was muttering bitterly,—
"Yea, love is dead, and by her funeral bier Ambition gnaws the lips, and sheds no tears; And, in the outer chamber Hope sits wild,— Hope, with her blue eyes dim with looking long."
"Ulpian, why do you look so grave and grieved? Does your letter contain bad news?"
Miss Jane pushed back her spectacles and glanced anxiously at her brother, who stood with his brows slightly knitted, twirling a crumpled envelope between his fingers.
"It is not a letter, but a telegraphic dispatch, summoning me to the death-bed of my best friend, Horace Manton."
"The man whose life you saved at Madeira?"
"Yes; and the person to whom, above all other men, I am most strongly and tenderly attached. His constitution is so feeble that I have long been uneasy about him; but the end has come even earlier than I feared."
"Where does he live?"
"On the Hudson, a few miles above New York City. I have no time to spare, for I shall take the train that leaves at one o'clock, and must make some arrangement with Dr. Sheldon to attend my patients. Will it trouble or tire you too much to pack my valise while I write a couple of business letters? If so, I will call Salome to assist you."
"Trouble me, indeed! Nonsense, my dear boy; of course I will pack your valise. Moreover, Salome is not at home. How long will you be absent?"
"Probably a week or ten days,—possibly longer. If poor Horace lingers, I shall remain with him."
"Wait one moment, Ulpian. Before you go I want to speak to you about Salome."
"Well, Janet, I lend you my ears. Has the girl absolutely turned pagan and set up an altar to Ceres, as she threatened some weeks since? Take my word for the fact that she does not believe or mean one half that she says, and is only amusing herself by trying to discover how wide her audacious heresies can expand your dear orthodox eyes. Expostulation and entreaty only feed her affected eccentricities and skepticism, and if you will persistently and quietly ignore them, they will shrivel as rapidly as a rank gourd-vine, uprooted on an August day."
"Pooh! pooh! my dear boy. How you men do prate sometimes of matters concerning which you are as ignorant as the yearling calves and gabbling geese that I suppose your learned astronomers see driven every day to pasture on that range of mountains in the moon—Eratosthenes—that modern science pretends to have discovered, and about which you read so marvellous a paper last week."
Miss Jane reverently clung to the dishonored remnants of the Ptolemaic theory, and scouted the philosophy of Copernicus which she vehemently averred was not worth "a pinch of snuff," else the water in the well would surely run out once in every twenty-four hours. Now, as she dived into the depths of her stocking-basket, collecting the socks neatly darned and rolled over each other, her brother smiled, and answered, good humoredly,—
"Dear Janet, I really have not time to follow you to the moon, nor to prove to you that your astronomical doctrines have been dead and decently buried for nearly three hundred years; but I should like to hear what you desire to tell me with reference to Salome. What is the matter now?"
"Nothing ails her, except a violent attack of industry, which has lasted much longer than I thought possible; for, to tell you the truth without stint or varnish, she certainly was the most sluggish piece of flesh I ever undertook to manage. Study she would not, keep house she could not, sewing gave her the headache, and knitting made her cross-eyed; but, behold! she has suddenly found out that her pretty little pink palms were made for something better than propping her peach-bloom cheeks. A few days ago I accidentally discovered that she was sitting up until long after midnight, and when I questioned her closely, she finally confessed that she had entered into a contract to furnish a certain amount of embroidery every month. Bless the child! can you guess what she intends to do with the money? Hoard it up in order to rent a couple of rooms, where she can take Jessie and Stanley to live with her. Ulpian, it is a praiseworthy aim, you must admit."
"Eminently commendable, and I respect and admire the motive that incites her to such a laborious course. At present she is too young and inexperienced to take entire charge of the children, and I know nothing of your plans or intentions concerning her future; but, let me assure you, dear Jane, that I will cordially cooperate in all your schemes for aiding her and providing a home for them, and my purse shall not prove a laggard in the race with yours. Recently I have been revolving a plan for their benefit, but am too much hurried just now to give you the details. When I return we will discuss it in extenso."
"You know that I ascribe great importance to blood, but strange as it may appear, that girl Salome has always tugged hard at my heart-strings, as if our proud old blood beat in her veins; and sometimes I fancy there must be kinship hidden behind the years, or buried in some unknown grave."
"Amuse yourself while I am away by digging about the genealogical tree of the house of Grey, and, if you can trace a fibre that ramifies in the miller's family, I will gladly bow to my own blood wherever I find it, and claim cousinship. Meantime, my dear sister, do keep a corner of your loving heart well swept and dusted for your errant sailor-boy."
He hastily kissed her cheek and turned away to write letters, while she went into the adjoining room to pack his clothes.
When Salome returned from town, whither she had gone to carry a package of finished work and obtain a fresh supply, she found Miss Jane alone in the dining-room, and wearing a dejected expression on her usually cheerful countenance.
"Did Ulpian tell you good-by?"
"No, I have not seen him. Where has he gone?"
"To New York."
The long walk and sultry atmosphere had unwontedly flushed the girl's face, and the damp hair clung in glossy rings to her brow; but, as Miss Jane spoke, the blood ebbed from cheeks and lips, and sweeping back the dark tresses that seemed to oppress her, she asked, shiveringly,—
"Is Dr. Grey going back to sea?"
"Oh no, child! An old friend is very ill, and telegraphed for him. Sit down, dear,—you look faint."
"Thank you, I don't wish to sit down, and there is nothing the matter with me. When will he come home?"
"I can not tell precisely, as his stay is contingent upon the condition of his friend."
"Is it a man or woman whom he has gone to see?"
The astonishment painted on Miss Jane's face would have been ludicrous to a careless observer, less interested than the orphan in her slow and deliberate reply.
"A man, of course."
"Did he tell you so?"
"Certainly. He went to see Mr. Horace Manton, with whom he was associated while abroad. But suppose it had been some winsome, brown-eyed witch of a woman, instead of a dying man, what then?"
"Then you would have lost your brother, and I my French pronouncing dictionary,—that is all. Did he leave any message about my grammar and exercises?"
"No, dear; but he started so hurriedly—so unexpectedly—he had not time for such trifles. Where are you going?"
"To put away my bonnet and bundle, and look after Stanley, who is romping with the kittens on the lawn."
The old lady laid down her knitting, leaned her elbows on the arms of her rocking-chair, and, clasping her hands, bowed her chin upon them, while a half-stifled sigh escaped her.
"Mischief,—mischief, where I meant only kindness! I sowed good seed, and reap thistles and brambles! My charity-cake turns out miserable dough! But how could I possibly foresee that the child would be such a simpleton? What right has she to be so unnecessarily interested in my brother, who is old enough to have been her father? It is unnatural, absurd, and altogether unpardonable in Salome to be guilty of such presumptuous nonsense; and, of course, it is not in the least my fault, for the possibility of this piece of mischief never once occurred to me! True, she is as old as Ulpian's mother was when father married her; but then Mrs. Grey was not at all in love with her white-haired husband, and had set her affections solely on that Mercer-Street house, with marble steps and plate-glass windows. How do I know that, after all, Salome is not in love with Ulpian's fortune instead of the dear boy's blue eyes, and handsome hair, and splendid teeth? However, I ought not to think so harshly of the child, for I have no cause to consider her calculating and selfish. Poor thing! if she really cares for him there are breakers ahead of her, for I am sure that he is as far from falling in love with her as I would be with the ghost of my great-grandfather's uncle. Thank Providence, all this troublesome, mischievous, Lucifer machinery of love and marriage is shut out of heaven, where we shall be as the angels are. Ah, Salome! I fear you are a giddy young idiot, and that I am a blind old imbecile, and I wish from the bottom of my heart you had never darkened my doors."
The quiet current of Miss Jane's secluded life had never been ruffled by a serious affaire du coeur; consequently she indulged little charity towards those episodes, which displayed what she considered the most humiliating weakness of her sex.
While puzzling over the best method of extricating her protegee from the snare into which she was disposed to apprehend that her own well-meant but mistaken kindness had betrayed her, she saw an unsealed note lying beneath the table, and, by the aid of her crutch, drew it within reach of her fingers. A small sheet of paper, carelessly folded and addressed to Salome, merely contained these words,—
"I congratulate you, my young friend, on the correctness of your French themes, which I leave in the drawer of the library-table. When I return I will examine those prepared during my absence; and, in the interim, remain,
Miss Jane wiped her glasses, and read the note twice; then held it between her thumb and third finger, and debated the expediency of changing its destination. Her delicate sense of honor revolted at the first suggestion of interference, but an intense aversion to "love-scrapes" finally strengthened her prudential inclination to crush this one in its incipiency; and she deliberately tore the paper into shreds, which she tossed out of the window.
"If Ulpian only had his eyes open he would never have scribbled one line to her; and, since I know what I know, and see what I see, it is my duty to take the responsibility of destroying all fuel within reach of a flame that may prove as dangerous as a torch in a hay-rick."
Limping into the library, she took from the drawer the two books containing French exercises and laid them in a conspicuous place on the table, where they could not fail to arrest the attention of their owner; after which she resumed her knitting, consoling herself with the reflection that she had taken the first step towards smothering the spark that threatened the destruction of all her benevolent schemes.
Up and down, under the spreading trees in the orchard, wandered Salome, anxious to escape scrutiny, and vaguely conscious that she had reached the cross-roads in her life, where haste or inadvertence might involve her in inextricable difficulties.
She was neither startled, nor shocked, nor mortified, that the unceremonious departure of the master of the house stabbed her heart with pangs that made her firm lips writhe, for she had long been cognizant of the growth of feelings whose discovery had so completely astounded Miss Jane.
The orphan had not eagerly watched and listened for the sight of his face—the sound of his voice—without fully comprehending herself; for, however ingeniously and indefatigably women may mask their hearts from public gaze and comment, they do not mock their own reason by such flimsy shams, and Salome could find no prospect of gain in playing a game of brag with her inquisitive soul.
In the quiet orchard, where all things seemed drowsy—where the only spectators were the mellowing apples that reddened the boughs above her, and her sole auditors the brown partridges that nestled in the tall grass, and the shy cicadae ambushed under the clover leaves—her pent-up pain and disappointment bubbled over in a gush of passionate words.
"Gone without giving me a syllable, a word, a touch! Gone, for an indefinite period, without even a cold 'good-by, Salome!' You call yourself a Christian, Dr. Grey, and yet you are cruel, now and then, and make me writhe like a worm on a fish-hook! He told Stanley he would return in two or three weeks, perhaps sooner,—but I know better. I have a dull monitor here that says it will be a long, dreary time, before I see him again. A wall of ice is rising to divide us—but it shall not! it shall not! I will have my own! I will look into his calm eyes! I will touch his soft, warm, white palms! I will hear his steady, low, clear voice, that makes music in my ears and heaven in my heart! It is three months since he shook hands with me, but all time cannot remove the feeling from my fingers; and some day I can cling to his hand and lean my cheek against it,—and who dare dispute my right? He says he never loved any woman! I heard him tell his sister he had yet to meet the woman whom he could marry,—and, if truth lingers anywhere in this world of sin, it finds a sanctuary in his soul! He never loved any woman! Thank God! I can't afford to doubt it. No one but his sister has touched his lips, or his noble, beautiful forehead. How I envied little Jessie when he put his arm around her and stooped and laid his cheek on hers. Oh, Dr. Grey, nobody else will ever love you as I do! I know I am unworthy, but I will make myself good and great to match you! I know I am beneath you, but I will climb to your proud height,—and, so help me God, I will be all that your lofty standard demands! He does not care for me now,—does not even think of me; but I must be patient and merit his notice, for my own folly sank me in his good opinion. When these apples were pale, pink blossoms, I dreaded his coming, and hoped the vessel would be wrecked; now, ere they are ripe, I am disposed to curse the cause of his temporary absence and think myself ill-used that no farewell privileges were granted me. Now I can understand why people find comfort in praying for those they love; for what else can I do but pray while he is away? Oh, I shall not, cannot, will not, miss my way to heaven if he gets there before me!"
In utter abandonment she threw herself down in the long yellow sedge-grass,—frightening a whole covey of gossiping young partridges and a couple of meek doves, all of which whirred away to an adjacent pea-field, leaving her with her face buried in her hands, and watched by trembling mute crickets and cicadae.
On the topmost twig of the tallest tree a mocking-bird poised himself, and sympathetically poured out his vesper canticle,—a song of condolence to the prostrate figure who, just then, would have preferred the echo of a man's deep voice to all Pergolese's strains.
After a little while pitying Venus swung her golden globe in among the apple-boughs, peeping compassionately at her luckless votary; and, finally, in the violet west,—
"Two silver beacons sphered in the skies, Eve in her cradle opening her eyes."
Two weeks dragged themselves away without bringing any tidings of the absent master; but, towards the close of the third, a brief letter informed his sister that the invalid friend was still alive, though no hope of his recovery was entertained, and that it was impossible to fix any period for the writer's return. Salome asked no questions, but the eager, hungry expression, with which she eyed the letter as it lay on the top of the stocking-basket, touched Miss Jane's tender heart; and, knowing that it contained no allusion to the orphan, she put it into her hand, and noticed the cloud of disappointment that gathered over her features as she perused and refolded it. Another week—monotonous, tedious, almost interminable—crept by, and one morning as Salome passed the post-office she inquired for letters, and received one post-marked New York and addressed to Miss Jane.
Hurrying homeward with the precious missive, her pace would well-nigh have distanced Hermes, and the dusty winding road seemed to mock her with lengthening curves while she pressed on; but at last she reached the gate, sped up the avenue, and, pausing a moment at the threshold to catch her breath and appear nonchalant, she demurely entered Miss Jane's apartment. The only occupant was a servant sewing near the window, and who, in reply to an eager question, informed Salome that the mistress had gone to spend the day with a friend whose residence was six miles distant.
The girl bit her lip until the blood started, and, to conceal her chagrin, took refuge in the parlor, where the quiet dimness offered a covert. Locking the door, she sat down in one of the cushioned rocking-chairs and looked at the letter lying between her fingers. The gilt clock on the mantel uttered a dull, clicking sound, and a little green and gold-colored bird hopped out and "cuckooed" ten times. Miss Jane would not probably return before seven, possibly eight o'clock, and what could be done to strangle those intervening nine hours?
The blood, heated by exercise and impatience, throbbed fiercely in her temples and thumped heavily at her heart, producing a half-suffocating sensation; and, in her feverish anxiety, the doom of Damiens appeared tolerable in comparison with the torturing suspense of nine hours on the rack.
The envelope was an ordinary white one, merely sealed with a solution of gum arabic, and dexterous fingers could easily open and reclose it without fear of detection, especially by eyes so dim and uncertain as those for which it had been addressed. A damp cloth laid upon the letter would in five minutes prove an open sesame to its coveted contents, and a legion of fiends patted the girl's tingling fingers and urged her to this prompt and feasible relief from her goading impatience. Secure from intrusion and beyond the possibility of discovery, she turned the envelope up and down and over, examining the seal; and the amber gleams lying perdu under the shadows of her pupils rayed out, glowing with a baleful Lucifer light, as infallibly indicative of evil purposes as the sudden kindling in a crouching cat's or cougar's gaze, just as they spring upon their prey.
It was a mighty temptation, cunningly devised and opportunely presented, and six months ago her parley with the imps of Apollyon who contrived it would not have lasted five minutes; but, in some natures, love for a human being will work marvels which neither the fear of God, nor the hope of heaven, nor yet the promptings of self-respect have power to accomplish.
Now while Salome dallied with the temper and gave audience to the clamors of her rebellious heart, she looked up and met the earnest gaze of a pair of sunny blue eyes in a picture that hung directly opposite.
It was an admirable portrait of Dr. Grey, clad in full uniform as surgeon in the U.S. Navy, and painted when he was twenty-eight years old. Up at that calm, cloudless countenance, the girl looked breathlessly, spell-bound as if in the presence of a reproving angel; and, after some seconds had elapsed, she hurled the unopened letter across the room, and lifted her hands appealingly,—
"No,—no! I did not—I cannot—I will not act so basely! I must not soil fingers that should be pure enough to touch yours. I was sorely tempted, my beloved; but, thank God, your blessed blue eyes saved me. It is hard to endure nine hours of suspense, but harder still to bear the thought that I have stooped to a deed that would sink me one iota in your good opinion. I will root out the ignoble tendencies of my nature, and keep my heart and lips and hands stainless,—hold them high above the dishonorable things that you abhor, and live during your absence as if your clear eyes took cognizance of every detail. Yea,—search me as you will, dear deep-blue eyes,—I shall not shrink; for the rule of my future years shall be to scorn every word, thought, and deed that I would not freely bare to the scrutiny of the man whose respect I would sooner die than forfeit. Oh, my darling, it were easier for me to front the fiercest flames of Tophet than face your scorn! I can wait till Miss Jane sees fit to show me the letter, and, if it bring good news of your speedy coming, I shall have my reward; if not, why should I hasten to meet a bitter disappointment which may be lagging out of mercy to me?"
Picking up the letter as suspiciously as if it had been dropped by the Prince of Darkness on the crest of Quarantina, she stepped upon a table and inserted the corner of the envelope in the crevice between the canvas and the portrait-frame, repeating the while a favorite passage that she had first heard from Dr. Grey's lips,—
"'God meant me good too, when he hindered me From saying "yes" this morning. I say no,—no! I tie up "no" upon His altar-horns, Quite out of reach of perjury!'"
Young though she was, experience had taught her that the most effectual method of locking the wheels of time consisted in sitting idly down to watch and count their revolutions; consequently, she hastened upstairs and betook herself vigorously to the work of embroidering a parterre of flowers on the front breadth of an infant's christening dress which her employer had promised should be completed before the following Sabbath.
Stab the laggard seconds as she might with her busy needle, the day was drearily long; and few genuine cuckoo-carols have been listened to with such grateful rejoicing as greeted those metallic gutturals that once in every sixty minutes issued from the throat of the gaudy automaton caged in the gilt clock.
True, nine hours are intrinsically nine hours under all circumstances, whether decapitation or coronation awaits their expiration; but to the doomed victim or the heir-apparent they appear relatively shorter or longer. At last Salome saw that the shadows on the grass were lengthening. Her head ached, her eyes burned from steady application to her trying work, and laying aside the cambric, she leaned against the window-facing and looked out over the lawn, where Time seemed to have fallen asleep in the mild autumn sunshine.
How sweet and welcome was the distance-muffled sound of tinkling cow-bells, and the low bleating of homeward-strolling flocks, wending their way across the hills through which the road crawled like a dusty gray serpent.
A noisy club of black-birds that had been holding an indignation meeting in the top of a walnut tree near the gate, adjourned to the sycamore grove that overshadowed the barn in the rear of the house; and Stanley's pigeons, which had been cooing and strutting in the avenue, went to roost in the pretty painted pagoda Dr. Grey had erected for their comfort. Finally, the low-swung, heavy carriage, with its stout dappled horses, gladdened Salome's strained eyes; and, soon after, she heard the thump of Miss Jane's crutches and her cheerful voice, asking,—
"Where are the children? Tell them I have come home. Bless me, the house is as dark as a dungeon! Rachel, have we neither lamps nor candles?"
The orphan stole down the steps, climbed upon the table in the parlor, and, seizing the letter, hurried into the dining-room, where, quite exhausted by the fatigue of the day, the old lady lay on the sofa.