She held out her hand and drew the girl's face within reach of her lips, saying,—
"My child, I am afraid you have had rather a lonely day."
"Decidedly the loneliest and longest I ever spent, and I believe I never was half so glad to see you come home as just now when the carriage stopped at the door."
Ah, what hypocrisy is sometimes innocently masked by the earnest utterance of the truth! And what marvels of industry are accomplished by self-love, which seeks more assiduously than bees for the honied drops of flattery that feed its existence!
Miss Jane was pardonably proud that her presence was so essential to the happiness of the orphan whom she fondly loved, and gratification spread a pleasant smile over her worn features.
"Where is Stanley? The child ought not to be out so late."
"He went down to the sheep-pen to count the lambs and look after one that broke its leg yesterday. Miss Jane, are you too much fatigued to read a letter which I found this morning in your box at the post-office?"
"Is it from Ulpian? I was wondering to-day why I did not hear from him. Dear me, what have I done with my spectacles? They are the torment of my life, for the instant I take them off my nose they seem to find wings. Give me the letter, and see whether I left my glasses on the bed where I put my bonnet."
Salome went into the next room and unsuccessfully searched the bed, bureau, table, and wardrobe; and in an agony of impatience, returned to the invalid.
"You must have lost them before you came home; I can't find them anywhere. Let me read the letter to you."
"No; I must have my glasses. Perhaps I dropped them in the carriage. Send word to the driver to look for them. It was very careless in me to lose them, but I am growing so forgetful. Rachel, do hunt for my spectacles."
Salome ground her teeth to suppress a cry of vexation; and, to conceal her impatience, joined heartily in the search.
Finally she found the glasses on the front steps, where they had fallen when their owner left the carriage; and, feeling that adverse fate could no longer keep her in suspense, she hurried into the house and adjusted them on Miss Jane's eagle nose.
Conscious that she was fast losing control over the nerves that were quivering from long-continued tension, Salome stepped to the open window and stood waiting. Would the old lady never finish the perusal? The minutes seemed hours, and the pulsing of the blood in the girl's ears sounded like muttering thunder.
Miss Jane sighed heavily,—cleared her throat, and sighed again.
"It is very sad, indeed! It is too bad,—too bad!"
Salome turned around, and exclaimed, savagely,—
"Why can't you speak out? What is the matter? What has happened?"
"Ulpian's friend is dead."
"For shame! How can you be so heartless?"
"If the man could not recover I should think you would be glad that he is at rest, and that your brother can come home."
"But the worst of the matter is that Ulpian is not coming home. Mr. Manton wished him to act as guardian for his daughter, who is in Europe, and Ulpian will sail in the next steamer for England, to attend to some business connected with the estate. It is too provoking, isn't it? He says it is impossible to tell when we shall see him again."
There was no answer, and, when Miss Jane wiped her eyes and looked around, she saw the girl tottering towards the door, groping her way like one blind.
"Salome,—come here, child!"
But the figure disappeared in the hall, and when the moonlight looked into the orphan's chamber the soft rays showed a girlish form kneeling at the window, with a white face drenched by tears, and quivering lips that moaned in feeble, broken accents,—
"God help me! I might have known it, for I had a presentiment of terrible trouble when he went away. How can I trust God and be patient, while the Atlantic raves and surges between me and my idol? After all, it was an angel of mercy whose tender white hands held back this bitter blow for nine hours. Gone to Europe, and not one word—not one line—to me! Oh, my darling! you are trampling under your feet the heart that loves you better than everything else in the universe,—better than life, and its hopes of heaven!"
"Salome, where did you learn to sing? I was astonished this morning when I heard you."
"I have not yet learned,—I have only begun to practise."
"But, my child, I had no idea you owned such a voice. Where have you kept it concealed so long?"
"I was not aware that I had it until a month ago, when it accidentally discovered itself."
"It is very powerful."
"Yes, and very rough; but care and study will smooth and polish it. Miss Jane, please keep your eye on Stanley until I come home; for, although I left him with his slate and arithmetic, it is by no means certain that they will not part company the moment I am out of sight."
"Where are you going?"
"To carry back some work which would have been returned yesterday had not the weather been so inclement."
In addition to the package of embroidered handkerchiefs, Salome carried under her arm a roll of music and an instruction-book; and, when she reached the outskirts of the town, turned away from the main street and stopped at the door of a small comfortless-looking house that stood without enclosure on the common.
Two swart, black-eyed children were playing mumble-peg with a broken knife, in one corner of the room; a third, with tears still on its lashes, had just sobbed itself to sleep on a strip of faded carpet stretched before the smouldering embers on the hearth; while the fourth, a feeble infant only six months old, was wailing in the arms of its mother,—a thin, sickly woman, with consumption's red autograph written on her hollow cheeks, where the skin clung to the bones as if resisting the chill grasp of death. As she slowly rocked herself, striving to hush the cry of the child, her dry, husky cough formed a melancholy chorus, which seemed to annoy a man who sat before the small table covered with materials for copying music. His cadaverous, sallow complexion, and keen, restless eyes, bespoke Italian origin; and, although engaged in filling some blank sheets with musical notes, he occasionally took up a violin that lay across his knees, and, after playing a few bars, laid aside the bow and resumed the pen. Now and then he glanced at his wife and child with a scowling brow; but, as his eyes fell on their emaciated faces, something like a sigh seemed to heave his chest.
When Salome's knock arrested his attention he rose and advanced to the half-open door, saying, impatiently,—
"Well, miss, have you brought me any money?"
"Good morning, Mr. Barilli. Here are the ten dollars that I promised, but I wish you to understand that in future I shall not advance one cent of my tuition-money. When the month ends you will receive your wages, but not one day earlier."
"I beg pardon, miss; but, indeed, you see—"
He did not conclude the sentence, but waved his hand towards the two in the rocking-chair and proceeded to count the money placed in his palm.
"Yes, I see that you are very destitute, but charity begins at home, and I have to work hard for the wages that you have demanded before they are due. Good morning, madam; I hope you feel better to-day. Come, Mr. Barilli, I have no time to waste in loitering. Are you ready for my lesson?"
"Quite ready, miss. Commence."
For three-quarters of an hour he listened to her exercises, which he accompanied with his violin, and afterwards directed her to sing an air from a collection of songs on the table. As her deep, rich contralto notes swelled round and full, he shut his eyes and nodded his head as if in an ecstacy; and, when she concluded, he rapped his violin heavily with the bow, and exclaimed,—
"Some day when you sing that at Della Scala, remember the poor devil who taught it to you in a hovel. Soaked as those old walls are with music from the most famous lips the world ever applauded, they hold no echoes sweeter than that last trill. After all, there is no passion—no pathos—comparable to a perfect contralto crescendo. It is wonderful how you Americans squander voices that would rouse all Europe into a furore."
"I am afraid your eager desire for pupils biases your judgment, and invests my voice with fictitious worth," answered Salome, eyeing him suspiciously.
"Ha! you mean that I flatter, in order to keep you. Not so, miss. If St. Cecilia herself asked tuition without good pay, I should shut the door in her face; but, much as I need money, I would not risk my reputation by praising what was poor. If one of my children—that miserable little Beatrice, yonder—only had your voice, do you think I would copy music, or teach beginners, or live in this cursed hole? You have a fortune shut up in your throat, and some day, when you are celebrated, at least do me the justice to tell the world who first found the treasure; and, out of your wealth, spare me a decent tombstone in the Campo Santo of—of—"
He laughed bitterly, and, seizing his violin, filled the room with mournful miserere strains.
"How long a course of training do you think will be necessary before the inequalities in my voice can be corrected and my vocalization perfected?"
"You are very young, miss, and it would not do to strain your voice, which is well-nigh perfect in itself; but, of course, your execution is defective,—just as a young nightingale cannot warble all its strains before it is full-feathered. If you study faithfully, in one year, or certainly one and a half, you will be ready for your engagement at Della Scala. Hist! see if you can follow me?"
He played a subtle, chromatic passage, ending in a trill, and the orphan echoed it with such accuracy and sweetness that the teacher threw down his bow, and, while tears stood in his glittering eyes, he put his brown hand on the girl's head, and said, earnestly,—
"There ought to be feathers here instead of hair, for no nightingale, nestled in the olive groves of Italy, ever warbled more easily and naturally. Don't go out to the world as Miss Owen,—make it call you Rosignuolo. Take the next page in the instruction-book for a new lesson, and practise the old scales over before you touch the new,—they are like steps in a ladder, and save jumps and jars. God made your voice wonderful, and, if you are only careful not to undo his work, it will develop itself every year in fresh power and depth. Ha! if my poor squeaking Beatrice only had it! But there is no more music stored in her throat and chest than in a regiment of rats. Good day, miss. Your lesson is ended, and I go to buy some wood for my miserable shiverers."
He seized his hat and walking-stick and quitted the house, leaving his pupil to gather up her music and conjecture, meanwhile, whether the wood-yard or a neighboring bar-room was his real destination.
His dissipated habits had greatly impaired her faith in the accuracy of his critical acumen touching professional matters, and, as she rolled up the sheet of paper in her hands, Salome approached the feeble occupant of the rocking-chair, and said, rather abruptly,—
"Madam Barilli, you ought to know when your husband speaks earnestly and when he is merely indulging in idle flattery, and I wish to learn his real opinion of my voice. Will you tell me the truth?"
"Yes, miss, I will. I am no musician, and never was in Europe, where he studied; but he talks constantly of your voice, and tells me there is a fortune in it. Only last night he swore that if he could control it, he would not take a hundred thousand dollars for the right; and then, poor fellow, he fell into one of his fierce ways and boxed my little Beatrice's ears, because, he said, all the teachers in the Conservatoire could not put into her throat the trill that you were born with. Ah, no, he flatters no one now! He has forgotten how, since the day that I was coaxed to run away from my father's elegant home and marry the tenor singer of an opera troupe and the professor who taught me the gamut at boarding-school. Miss, you may believe him, for Sebastian Barilli means what he says."
"One hundred thousand dollars! I promise him and you that if one-half of that amount can be 'trilled' into my pocket you shall both be comfortable during the remainder of your days."
"Mine are numbered, and will end before your career begins; and, when you sing in Della Scala, I trust I shall be singing up yonder behind the stars, where cold and hunger and heart-ache and cruel words cannot follow me. But, miss, when I am gone, and Sebastian is over at the corner trying to drown his troubles, and my four helpless little ones are left here unprotected, for God's sake look in upon them now and then, and don't let them cry for bread. My own family long ago cast me off, and here I am a stranger; but you, who have felt the pangs of orphanage, will not stand by and see my darlings starve! Oh, miss, the poor who cannot pity the poor must be hard-hearted indeed!"
The suffering woman pressed her moaning babe closer to her bosom, and, taking Salome's hand between her thin, hot fingers, bowed her tear-stained face upon it.
Grim recollections of similar scenes enacted in the old house behind the mill crowded upon the mind of the miller's daughter, hardening instead of melting her heart; but, withdrawing her fingers, she said in as kind a tone as she could command,—
"The poor are sometimes too poor to aid each other, and pity is most unpalatable fare; but, if your husband has not grossly deceived himself and me with reference to my voice, I will promise that your children shall not suffer while I live. For their sake do not despond, but try to keep up your spirits, else your husband will be utterly ruined. Gloomy hearthstones make club-rooms and bar-rooms populous. Good-by. When I come again, I will bring something to stimulate your appetite, which seems to require coaxing."
She stooped and looked for a minute at the gaunt, white face of the half-famished infant pressed against the mother's feverish breast, and an irresistible impulse impelled her to stroke back the rings of black hair that clustered on its sunken temples; then, snatching her music and bundle, she hurried out of the close, untidy room, and, once more upon the grassy common, drew a long, deep breath of pure fresh air.
Autumn, with orange dawns, and mellow, misty moons, when
"Sweet, calm days, in golden haze Melt down the amber sky,"
had died on bare brown stubble-fields and vine-veined hill-sides, purple with clustering grapes on leafless branches; and wintry days had come, with sleety morns and chill, crisp noons, and scarlet sunset banners flouting the silver stars in western skies, where the shivering, gasping old year had woven,—
"One strait gown of red Against the cold."
None of the earlier years of Salome's life seemed to her half so drearily long as the four monotonous months that followed Dr. Grey's departure; and, during the intervals between his brief letters to his sister, the orphan learned a deceptive quietude of manner, at variance with the tumultuous feelings that agitated her heart; for painful suspense which is borne with clenched hands and firmly-set teeth is not the more patient because sternly mute.
Which suffered least, Philoctetes howling on the shores of Lemnos, or the silent Trojan priest, writhing in a death-struggle with the serpent folds that crushed him before the altar of Neptune?
If any messages intended for Salome found their way across the ocean, they finally missed their destination, and reached the dead-letter office of Miss Jane's vast and inviolate pocket; and, while this apparent neglect piqued the girl's vanity, the blessed assurance that the absent master was alive and well proved a sovereign balm for all the bleeding wounds of amour propre.
In order to defray the expense of her musical tuition, which was carried on in profound secrecy, it was necessary to redouble her exertions; and all the latent energy of her character developed itself in unflagging work, which she persistently prosecuted early and late, and in quiet defiance of Miss Jane's expostulations and predictions that she would permanently impair her sight.
Paramount to the desire of amassing wealth that would enable her to provide for Jessie and Stanley rose the hope that the cultivation of her voice would invest her with talismanic influence over the man who was singularly susceptible of the magic of music; and, jealously guarding the new-found gift, she spared no toil to render it perfect.
Fearful that her suddenly acquired fondness for singing might arouse suspicion and inquiry, she rarely practised at home unless Miss Jane were absent; and, having procured a tuning-fork, she retreated to the most secluded portion of the adjoining forest and rehearsed her lessons to a mute audience of grazing cattle, sombre pines, nodding plumes of golden-rod, and shivering white asters, belated and overtaken by wintry blasts. Alone with nature, she warbled as unrestrainedly as the birds who listened to her quavering crescendos; and more than once she had become so absorbed in this forest practising, that twinkling stars peeped down at her through the fringy canopy of murmuring firs.
In fulfilment of a promise given to Stanley, with the hope of stimulating him to more earnest study, Salome one day took a piece of sewing and her music-book, and set off with her brother for the sea-shore, where he was sometimes allowed to amuse himself by catching crabs and shrimps. The route they were compelled to take was very circuitous, since strangers were now forbidden to stroll through the grounds attached to "Solitude," which was the nearest point where land and ocean met. Following a cattle-path that threaded the bare brown hills and wound through low marsh meadows, Salome at length climbed a cliff that overhung the narrow strip of beach running along the base of the promontory, and, while Stanley prepared his net, she applied herself vigorously to the completion of a cluster of lilies of the valley which she had begun to embroider the preceding night.
It was a mild, sunny afternoon, late in December, with only a few flakes of white curd-like cirri drifting slowly before the stiffening south wind that came singing a song of the tropics over the gently heaving waste of waters—
"Where the green buds of waves burst into white froth flowers."
Two glimmering sails stood like phantoms on the horizon; and a silent colony of snowy gulls, perched in conclave on a bit of weed-wreathed drift floating landward, were the only living things in sight, save the childish figure on the yellow beach under the bleaching rocks, and the girlish one seated on the tallest cliff, where a storm-scarred juniper, bending inland, waved its scanty fringe in the fresh salt breeze.
No note of human strife entered here, nor hum of noisy business marts; and the solemn silence, so profound and holy, was broken only by the soft, mysterious murmur of the immemorial ocean, as its crystal fingers smote the harp of rosy shells and golden sands.
Clasped in the crescent that curved a mile northward lay the house, and grove, and grounds of "Solitude," looking sombre in the distance, as the shadow of surrounding hills fell upon the dense foliage that overhung its quiet precincts, and toned down the garish red of the boat-house roof, which lent a brief dash of color to the peaceful picture. Beyond the last guarding promontory that seemed to have plunged through the shelving strand to bathe in blue brine and cut off all passage along its base, a strong well-trained eye might follow the trend of the coast even to the dim outlines and thread-like masts, that told where the distant town hugged its narrow harbor; and, in the opposite direction, low, irregular sand hills and brown marshes crept southward, as if hunting the warmth that alone could mantle them with living verdure.
As the afternoon wore away, the sinking sun dipped suddenly behind a wooded eminence, which, losing the warm purples it had worn since noon, grew chill and blue as his rays departed; and, weary of her work, Salome put it aside and began to practise her music lesson, beating time with her slender fingers on the bare juniper-roots, from which wind and rain had driven the soil. Running her chromatic scales, and pausing at will to trill upon any minor note that wooed her vagrant fancy, she played with her flexible voice as dexterous violinists toy with the obedient strings they hold in harmonious bondage to their bows.
Finally she pushed the exercises away, and began a fantasus from "Traviata," which she had heard Mr. Barilli play several times; and so absorbed was she in testing her capacity for vocal gymnastics that she failed to observe the moving figure dwarfed by distance and pacing the sands in front of "Solitude."
The rich, fresh tones which seemed occasionally to tremble with the excess of melody that burdened them played hide-and-seek among the hills, startling whole choruses of deep-throated echoes, and attending and retentive ocean, catching the strains on her beryl strings, bore them whither—and how far? To palm-plumed equatorial isles, where dying auricular nerves mistook them for seraphic utterances? To toiling mariners, tossed helplessly by fierce typhoons, who, pausing in their scramble for spars, listened to the weird melody that presaged woe and wreck? To the broken casements of fishermen's huts, on distant shores, where anxious wives peered out in the blackening tempest, and shrank back appalled by sounds which sea-tradition averred were born in coral caves, mosaiced with blanching human skulls? What hoary hierophant in the mysteries of cataphonics and diacoustics will undertake to track those trills across the blue bosom of the Atlantic or the purplish billows of the Indian Ocean?
The wind went down with the sun; silver-edged cirri lost their glitter, and swift was
... "The spread Of orange lustre through these azure spheres Where little clouds lie still like flocks of sheep, Or vessels sailing in God's other deep."
In that wondrous and magical after-glow which tenderly hovers over the darkening face of the dying day, like the strange, spectral smile that only sheds its cold, supernatural light on lips twelve hours dead, Salome's fair face and graceful pose was as softly defined against the western sky as some nimbussed saint or madonna on the golden background of old Byzantine pictures. Her small straw hat, wreathed with scarlet poppies, lay at her feet; and around her shoulders she had closely folded a bright plaid flannel cloak, which tinted her complexion with its ruddy hues, as firelight flushes the olive portraits that stare at it from surrounding walls, and the braided black hair and large hazel eyes showed every brown tint and topaz gleam.
Leaning her arms on the top of her music-book, she rested her chin upon them, and sat looking seaward, singing a difficult passage, in the midst of which her nimble voice tripped on an E flat, and, missing the staccato step, rolled helplessly down in a legato flood of melody; whereupon, with an impatient grimace she shut her eyes, weary of watching the wave-shimmer that almost dazzled her. After a few seconds, when she opened them, there stood just on the edge of the cliff, as if poised in air, a woman whose face and form were as sharply cut in profile on the azure sea and sky as white cameo features on black agate grounds.
Around the tall figure shining folds of silver poplin hung heavy and statuesque, and over the shoulders a blue crape shawl was held by a beautiful blue-veined hand, where a sapphire asp kept guard; while a cluster of double violets fastened behind one shell-like ear breathed their perfume among glossy bands of gray hair.
"There was no color in the quiet mouth, Nor fulness; yet it had a ghostly grace, Pathetically pale,"
and wan, and woful—the still face turned seaward, fronting a round white moon that was lifting its full disk out of the line where air and water met—she stood motionless.
Lifting her head, Salome shivered involuntarily, and grew a shade paler as she breathlessly watched the apparition, expecting that it would fade into blue air or float down and mingle with the waters that gave it birth. But there was no wavering mistiness about the shining drapery; and, presently, when she turned and came forward, the orphan, despite her sneers at superstition, felt the hair creep and rise on her temples, and, springing to her feet, they faced each other. As the stranger advanced, Salome unconsciously retreated a few steps, and exclaimed,—
"Gray-eyed, gray-haired, gray-clad, gray-faced, and rising out of that gray sea, I suppose I have at last met the gray ghost that people tell me haunts old 'Solitude.' But how came such a young face under that drift of white hair? If all ghosts have such finely carved, delicate noses and chins, such oval cheeks and pretty brows, most of us here in the flesh might thank fortune for a chance to 'shuffle off this mortal coil.' Say, are you the troubled evil spirit that haunts 'Solitude'?"
The voice was so mournfully sweet that it thrilled every nerve in Salome's quivering frame.
"Phantom or flesh—which are you?"
"Mrs. Gerome, the owner of 'Solitude.'"
"Oh, indeed! I beg your pardon, madam, but I took you for a wraith! You know the place has always been considered unlucky—haunted—and you are such an extraordinary-looking person I was inclined to think I had stumbled on the traditional ghost. I am neither ignorant nor stupidly superstitious; but, madam, you must admit you have an unearthly appearance; and, moreover, I should be glad to know how you rose from the beach below to the top of this cliff? I see no feathers on your shoulders—no balloon under your feet!"
"I was walking on the sands in front of my door, and, hearing some very sweet strains that came floating down from this direction, I followed the sound, and climbed by means of steps cut in the side of this cliff. Since you regarded me as a spectre, I may as well tell you that I was beginning to fancy I was listening to one of the old sea-sirens, until I saw your rosy face and red lips, far too human for a dripping mermaid or a murderous, mocking Aglaiopheme."
"No more a siren, madam, than you are a ghost! I am only Salome Owen, the miller's child, waiting for that boy yonder, whose sublimest idea of heaven consists in the hope that its blessed sea of glass is brimming with golden shrimp. Stanley, run around the cliff, and meet me. It is too late for us to be here. We should have started home an hour ago."
"Who taught you 'Traviata'?"
"I am teaching myself, with what small help I can obtain from a vagabond musician, who calls himself Signor Barilli, and claims to have been a tenor singer in an opera troupe at Milan."
"You ought to cultivate your voice as thoroughly as possible."
"Why? Is it really good? Tell me, is it worth anything? No one has heard it except that Italian violinist; and, if he praises it, I sometimes fear it is because he is so horribly dissipated that he confounds my bravura runs with the clicking of his wine-glasses and the gurgling of his flask. Do you know much about music?"
"I have heard the best living performers, vocal and instrumental, and to a finer voice than yours I never listened; but you need study and practice, for your execution is faulty. You have a splendid instrument; but you do not yet understand its management. Where do you live?"
"At 'Grassmere,' a farm two miles behind those hills, and in a house hidden under elm and apple trees. Madam, it is very late, and I must bid you good-evening. Before I go, I should like to know, if you will not deem me unwarrantably impertinent, whether you are a very young person with white hair, or whether you are a very old woman with a wonderfully young face?"
For a moment there was no answer; and, supposing that she had offended her, the orphan bowed and was turning away, when Mrs. Gerome's calm, mournful tones arrested her:
"I am only twenty-three years old."
She walked away, turning her countenance towards the water, where moonlight was burnishing the waves; and, when Salome and Stanley had reached the bend in their path that would shut out the view of the beach, the former looked back and saw the silver-gray figure standing alone on the silent shore, communing with the silver sea, as desolate and as hopeless as Buchanan's "Penelope,"—
"An alabaster woman, whose fixed eyes Stare seaward, whether it be storm or calm."
"Doctor Sheldon, do you think she is dangerously ill?"
"I am afraid, Salome, that she will soon become so; for she is threatened with a violent attack of pneumonia, which would certainly be very dangerous to a woman of her age. It is a great misfortune that her brother is absent."
"Dr. Grey reached New York three days ago."
"Indeed! I will telegraph immediately, and hasten his return."
Dr. Sheldon was preparing a blister in the room adjoining the one occupied by Miss Jane, and the orphan stood by his side, twisting her fingers nervously over each other, and looking perplexed and anxious. He returned to his patient, and when he came out some moments later, and took up his hat, his countenance was by no means reassuring.
"Although I know that you are very much attached to Miss Jane, and would faithfully endeavor to nurse her, you are so young and inexperienced that I do not feel quite willing to leave her entirely to your guardianship; and, therefore, shall send a woman here to-night who will fully understand the case. She is a professional nurse, and Dr. Grey will be relieved to hear that his sister is in her hands, for he has great confidence in her good sense and discretion. I shall stop at the telegraph office, as I go home, and urge him to return at once. Give me his address. Do not look so dejected. Miss Grey has a better constitution than most persons are disposed to believe, and she may struggle through this attack."
The new year was ushered in by heavy and incessant rains, and, having imprudently insisted upon superintending the drainage of a new sheepfold and the erection of an additional cattle-shed, Miss Jane had taken a severe cold, which resulted in pneumonia.
Assiduously and tenderly Salome watched over her, and even after the arrival of Hester Dennison, the nurse, the orphan's solicitude would not permit her to quit the apartment where her benefactress lay struggling with disease; while Miss Jane shrank from the stranger, and preferred to receive the medicine from the hand of her adopted child.
When Dr. Sheldon stood by the bed early next morning, and noted the effect of his treatment, Salome's keen eye observed the dissatisfied expression of his face, and she drew sad auguries from his clouded brow. He took a paper from his pocket, and said, cheerfully,—
"Come, Miss Jane, get up a smile to pay me for the good news I bring. Can you guess what this means?" holding an envelope close to her eyes.
"More blisters and fever mixtures, I suppose. Doctor, my poor side is in a dreadful condition."
As she laid her hand over her left lung, she winced and groaned.
"How much would you give to have your brother's hand, instead of mine, on your pulse?"
"All that I am worth! But my boy is in Europe, and can't come back to me now, when I need him most."
"No, he is in New York. You have been dreaming, and forget that he has reached America."
"No, I never knew it. Salome, is there a letter?"
"No letter, but a dispatch announcing his arrival. I told you; but you must have fallen asleep while I was talking to you."
"No such thing! I have not slept a wink for a week."
"That is right, Miss Jane; scold as much as you like; it will do you no harm. But, meantime, let me tell you I have just heard from Dr. Grey, and he is now on his way home."
Salome was sitting near the pillow, and suddenly her head bowed itself, while her lips whispered, inaudibly,—
The invalid's face brightened, and, stretching her thin, hot hand towards the orphan, she touched her shoulder, and said:—
"Do you hear that, my child? Ulpian is coming home. When will he be here?"
"Day after to-morrow evening, I hope, if there is no detention and he makes all the railroad connections. I trust you will prove sufficiently generous to bear testimony to my professional skill, by improving so rapidly that when he arrives there will be nothing left to do but compliment my sagacity, and thank me for relieving you so speedily. Is not your cough rather better?"
She did not reply; and, bending down, he saw that she was asleep.
"Doctor, I am afraid she is not much better."
He sighed, shook his head, and beckoned Hester into the hall in order to question her more minutely concerning the patient.
That night and the next she was delirious, and failed to recognize any one; but about noon on the following day she opened her eyes, and, looking intently at Salome, who stood near the foot of the bed, she said, as if much perplexed,—
"I saw Ulpian just now. Where is he?"
"He will be here this afternoon, I hope. The train is due at two o'clock, and it is now a quarter past twelve."
"I tell you I saw him not ten minutes since."
"You are feverish, dear Miss Jane, and have been dreaming."
"Don't contradict me! Am I in my dotage, think you? I saw my boy, and he was pale, and had blood on his hands, and it ran down his beard and dripped on his vest. You can't deceive me! What is the matter with my poor boy? I will see him! Give me my crutches this instant!"
She struggled into a partially upright position, but fell back upon her pillow exhausted and panting for breath.
"You were delirious. I give you my word that he has not yet come home. It was only a horrible dream. Hester will assure you of the truth of what I say. You must lie still, for this excitement will injure you."
The nurse gave her a powerful sedative, and strove to divert her thoughts; but ever and anon she shuddered and whispered,—
"It was not a dream. I saw my dear sailor-boy, and he was hurt and bleeding. I know what I saw; and if you and Hester swore till every star dropped out of heaven, I would not believe you. If I am old and dying, my eyes are better than yours. My poor Ulpian!"
Despite her knowledge of the feverish condition of the sick woman, and her incredulity with reference to the vision that so painfully disturbed her, Salome's lips blanched, and a vague, nameless, horrible dread seized her heart.
Very soon Miss Jane fell into a heavy sleep, and, while the nurse busied herself in preparing a bottle of beef-tea, the orphan sat with her head pressed against the bedpost, and her eyes riveted on the face of the watch in her palm, where the minute-hand seemed now and then to stop, as if for breathing-time, and the hour-hand to have forgotten the way to two o'clock.
For nearly six months Salome had counted the weeks and days,—had waited and hoped for the hour of Dr. Grey's return as the happiest of her life,—had imagined his greeting, the bright, steady glow in his fine eyes, the warm, cordial pressure of his white hand, the friendly tones of his pleasant voice; for, though he had failed to bid her good-by, fate could not cheat her out of the interview that must follow his arrival. Fancy had painted so vividly all the incidents that would characterize this longed-for greeting, that she had lived it over a thousand times; and, now that the meeting seemed actually at hand, she asked herself whether it were possible that disappointment could pour one poisonous drop into the brimming draught of joy that rose foaming in amber bubbles to her parched lips.
In the profound silence that pervaded the darkened room, the ticking of the watch was annoyingly audible, and seemed to Salome's strained and excited nerves so unusually loud that she feared it might disturb the sleeper. At a quarter to two o'clock she went to the hearth and noiselessly renewed the fire, laying two fresh pieces of oak across the shining brass andirons, whose feet represented lions' heads.
She swept the hearth, arranged some vials that were scattered on the dressing-table, and gave a few improving touches to a vase filled with white and orange crocuses, then crept back to the bedside and again picked up the watch. It still lacked fifteen minutes of two, and, looking more closely, she found that it had stopped. Tossing it into a hollow formed by the folds of the coverlid, and repressing an impatient ejaculation, she listened for the sound of the railroad whistle, which, though muffled by distance, had not failed to reach her every day during the past week.
Presently the silence, which made her ears ache, throbbed so suddenly that she started, but it was only the "cuckoo! cuckoo!" of the painted bird on the gilded clock. That clock was fifteen minutes slower than Miss Jane's watch; and Salome put her face in her hands, and tried to still the loud thumping sound of the blood at her heart.
The train was behind time. Only a few moments as yet, but something must have happened to occasion even this slight delay; and, if something,—what?
Hester came in and whispered,—
"Dinner is ready, and Stanley is hungry. Has Miss Jane stirred since I went out?"
"No; what time is it?"
"Half after two."
"Oh, nonsense! You are too fast."
"Not a minute,—begging your pardon. My brother stays at the depot, and keeps my watch with the railroad time."
Salome went to the dining-room, gave Stanley his dinner, and, anxious to escape observation, shut herself in the dim, cold parlor, where she paced the floor until the cuckoo jumped out, chirped three times, and, as if frightened by the girl's fixed eyes, fluttered back inside the clock. More than an hour behind time! Now, beyond all hope or doubt, there had been an accident! Loss of sleep for several consecutive nights, and protracted anxiety concerning Miss Jane, had so unnerved the orphan that she was less able to cope successfully with this harrowing suspense than on former occasions; still the sanguine hopefulness of youth battled valiantly with the ghouls that apprehension conjured up, and she remembered that comparatively trivial occurrences had sometimes detained the train, which finally brought all its human freight safely to the depot.
The day had been very cold and gloomy; and thick, low masses of smoke-colored cloud scudded across the chill sky, whipped along their skirts by a stinging north-east blast into dun, ragged, trailing banners. Despite the keenness of the air, Salome opened one of the parlor windows and leaned her face on the broad sill, where a drizzling rain began to show itself. She had read and heard just enough with reference to the phenomena of clairvoyance to sneer at them in happy hours, and to recur helplessly to the same subject with a species of silent dread when misfortune seemed imminent. To-day, as Miss Jane's delirious utterances haunted every nook and cranny of her excited brain, permeating all topics of thought, she recalled many instances, on legendary record, where the dying were endowed with talismanic power over the secrets of futurity. Could it be possible that Miss Jane had really seen what was taking place many miles distant? Reason shook her hoary head, and jeered at such childish fatuity; but superstitious credulity, goaded by an intense anxiety, would not be silenced nor put to the blush, but boldly babbled of Swedenborg and burning Stockholm.
Once she had heard Dr. Grey tell his sister, in answer to some inquiry concerning the arcana of mesmerism, that he had bestowed much time and thought upon the investigation of the subject, and was thoroughly convinced that there existed subtle psychological laws whose operations were not yet comprehended, but which, when analyzed and studied, would explain the remarkable influence of mind over mind, and prove that the dread and baffling mysteries of psychology were merely normal developments of intellectual power instead of supernatural or spiritual manifestations.
This abstract view of the matter was, however, most unsatisfactory at the present juncture; and the current of Salome's reflections was abruptly changed by the sound of the locomotive whistle,—not the prolonged, steady roar, announcing arrival, but the sharp, short, shrill note of departure. Soon after, the clock struck four, and, ere the echoes fell asleep once more in the sombre corners of the quiet parlor, Dr. Sheldon drove up to the front door and entered the house. Springing into the hall, Salome met him, and laid her hand on his arm.
"Salome, your face frightens me. How is Miss Jane? Has she grown worse so rapidly since I was here this morning?"
"I see little change in her. But you have locked bad news behind your set teeth. Oh, for God's sake, don't torture me one second longer! Tell me the worst. What has happened?"
"The down-train was thrown from an embankment twenty feet high, and the cars took fire. Many lives have been sacrificed, and it is the most awful affair I ever heard of."
He had partially averted his head to avoid the sight of her whitening and convulsed features; but, laying her hands heavily upon his shoulders, she forced him to face her, and her voice sank to a husky whisper,—
"Is he dead?"
"I hope not."
"Speak out,—or I shall go mad! Is he dead?"
"Calm yourself, Salome, and let us hope for the best. We know nothing of the particulars of this dreadful disaster, and have learned the names of none of the sufferers. I have little doubt that Dr. Grey was on the train, but there is no certainty that he was injured. The regular up-train could not leave as usual, because the track was badly torn up; but a locomotive and three cars ran out a while ago with several surgeons and articles required for the victims. Pray sit down, my poor child, for you are unable to stand."
"Where did it happen?"
"Near Silver Run water-tank,—about forty miles from here. The accident occurred at twelve o'clock."
Salome's grasp suddenly relaxed, and, tossing her hands above her head, she laughed hysterically,—
"Ha, ha! Thank God, he is not dead! He is only hurt,—only bleeding. Miss Jane saw it all, and he is not dead, or she would have known it. Thank God!"
Dr. Sheldon was a stern man and renowned for his iron nerves, but he shuddered as he looked at the pinched, wan face, and heard the unnatural, hollow sound of her unsteady voice. Had care, watching, and suspense unpoised her reason?
Something of that which passed through his mind looked out of his eyes, and interpreting their amazed expression, the girl waved her hand towards the door, and added,—
"I am not insane. Go in, and Hester will explain."
He turned away, and she went back to the dusky room and threw herself down on the sofa, opposite to the portrait of the U.S. surgeon.
Of what passed during the following two hours, she retained, in after years, only a dim, confused, painful memory of prayers and promises made to God in behalf of the absent.
Once before, when Miss Jane's death seemed imminent, she had been grieved and perplexed by the possibility that Dr. Grey would inherit the estate and usurp her domains; but to-day, when the Great Reaper hovered over the panting, emaciated sufferer, and simultaneously threatened the distant brother and sole heir of the extended possessions which this girl had so long coveted, the only thought that filled her heart with dread and wrung half-smothered cries from her lips was,—
"Spare his life, oh, my God! Leave me penniless—take friends, relatives, comforts, hopes of wealth—take all—take everything, but spare that precious life and bring him safely back to me! Have mercy on me, O Lord, and do not snatch him away! for, if I lose him now, I lose faith in Christ—in Thee—I lose all hope in time and eternity, and my sinful, wrecked soul will go down forever in a night that knows no dawning!"
For six months she had been indeed,—
"A faded watcher through the weary night— A meek, sweet statue at the silver shrines, In deep, perpetual prayer for him she loved;"
but patience, dragging anchor, finally snapped its cable, and now, instead of an humble suppliant for the boon that alone made existence endurable, she fiercely demanded that her idol should not be broken, and, battling with Jehovah, impiously thrust her life down before Him as an accursed and intolerable burden, unless her prayers were granted. Ah, what scorpions and stones we gather to our boards, and then dare charge the stinging mockeries against a long-suffering, loving God! Ten days before, Salome had meekly prayed, "Thy will be done," and had comforted herself with the belief that at last she was beginning to grow pious and trusting, like Miss Jane; but, at the first hint of harm to Dr. Grey, she sprang up, utterly oblivious of the protestations of resignation that were scarcely cold on her lips, and furious as a tigress who sees the hunter approach the jungle where all her fierce affections centre. God help as all who pray orthodoxly for His will, and yet, when the emergency arrives, fight desperately for our own, feeling wofully aggrieved that He takes us at our word, and moulds the clay which we make a Pharisaical pretense of offering!
A slow drizzling rain whitened the distant hills, that seemed to blanch in their helplessness as the wind smote them like a flail; and it wove a grayish veil over the leafless boughs of bending, shivering elms, on the long, dim avenue. The wintry afternoon closed swiftly, and, in its dusky dreariness, Salome listened to the tattoo of the rain on the roof, and to the miserere that wailed through the lonely chambers of her soul. The chill at her heart froze her to numbness and oblivion of the coldness of the atmosphere, and, when a servant came in to close the window against the slanting sleet, she lay so still that the woman thought her asleep, and stole away on tip-toe. The room grew dark; but, through the half-opened door, the light from the hall lamp crept in and fell on the gilded frame and painted face of the portrait, tracing a silvery path along the gloomy wall. As the night deepened, that wave of light rippled and glittered until the handsome features in the picture seemed to belong to some hierarch who peeped from a window of heaven, into a world drenched with unlifting darkness.
That oval piece of canvas had become the one fetich to which Salome's heart clung in silent adoration, defiant of the iconoclastic touch of reason and the adverse decree of womanly pride; for natures such as hers will always grovel in the dust, hugging the mutilated fragments of their idol, rather than bow at some new, fretted shrine, where other images hold sway, commanding worship. Looking up almost wolfishly at that tranquil, shining countenance, she said to her sullen, mourning heart,—
"There are no more like him, and, if we lose him, there is nothing left in life, and all hope is at an end, and finis shall be printed on the first page of the book of our existence; and ruin, like a pitiless pall, shall cover what might have been a happy, possibly a grand and good, human career. We did not intend to love him,—no, no; we tried hard to hate him who stood between us and affluence and indolent ease, but he conquered us by his matchless magnanimity, and shamed our ignoble aims and base selfishness, and put us under his royal feet; and now we would rather be trampled by Ulpian, our king, than crowned by any other man. Let us plead with Christ to spare the only pilot who can save us from eternal shipwreck."
Lying there so helpless yet defiant in her desolation, some subtle thread of association, guided, perhaps, by the invisible fingers of her guardian angel, led her mind to a favorite couplet often quoted by Dr. Grey,—
"I heard faith's low, sweet singing, in the night, And, groping through the darkness, touched God's hand."
If the painted lips in the aureola on the wall had parted and audibly uttered these words, they would scarcely have impressed her more powerfully as a message from the absent; and, rising instantly, the orphan prayed in chastened, humbled tones for strength to be patient, for ability to trust God's wisdom and mercy.
How often, when binding our idolized Isaacs upon the altar, and, meekly submissive to what appears God's inexorable mandates, we unmurmuringly offer our heart's dearest treasure, the sacrificial knife is stayed, and our loathed and horrible Moriahs, that erst smelt of blood and echoed woe, become hallowed Jehovah-jirehs, all aglow, not with devouring flames, but the blessed radiance of God's benignant smile, and musical with thanksgiving strains. But Abraham's burden preceded Abraham's boon, and the souls who cannot patiently endure the first are utterly unworthy of the rapture of the last.
As the girl's mind grew calmer under the breath of prayer—which stills the billows of human passion and strife as the command of Jesus smoothed the thundering surf of Genesareth,—she recollected that she had absented herself from the sick-room for an unusually long time. How long, she could not conjecture, for the face of the clock was invisible, and she had ceased to count the cuckoo-notes; but her limbs ached, and a fillet of fire seemed to circle her brow.
With a lingering gaze upon the radiant portrait, she quitted the parlor, and went wearily back to renew her vigil.
Hester Dennison was cowering over the hearth, spreading her bony hands towards the crackling flames, and, walking up to the mantelpiece, Salome touched the nurse, and whispered,—
"Hester, what did the doctor say? Is there any change?"
"Hush!" The woman laid a finger on her lip, and glanced over her shoulder.
There was only a subdued light of a shaded lamp mingling with the flicker of the fire, and, as Salome's eyes followed those of the nurse, they rested upon the figure of a man kneeling at the bedside, and leaning his head against the pillow where Miss Jane's white hair was strewn in disorder.
A cry of delight, which she had neither the prudence nor power to repress, rang through the silent chamber, startling its inmates, and partially arousing the invalid. Salome forgot that life and death were grappling over the prostrate form of the aged woman,—forgot everything but the supreme joy of knowing that her idol had not been rudely shattered.
Springing to the bedside, she put out her hands, and exclaimed, rapturously:
"Oh, Dr. Grey! Were you much hurt? Thank God, you are alive and here! Indeed, He is merciful—"
"Hush! Have you no prudence? Quit the room, or be quiet."
Dr. Grey lifted his haggard face from the pillow, and the light showed it pallid and worn by acute suffering, while a strip of plaster pressed together the edges of a deep cut on his cheek. His clothes glistened with sleet, and bore stains that in daylight were crimson, though now they were only ominously dark.
The stern tones of his voice, suppressed though it was, stung the girl's heart; and she answered, in a pleading whisper,—
"Only tell me that you are not severely injured. Speak one kind word to me!"
"I am not dangerously hurt. Hush! Remember life hangs in the balance."
"Oh, Dr. Grey! will you not even shake hands with me, after all these dreary months of absence? This is hard, indeed."
She had stood at his side, with her hands extended imploringly; and now he moved cautiously, and, silently holding up one hand swathed in linen bands, pointed to his left arm, which was tightly splintered and bandaged.
The mute gesture explained all, and, sinking to the carpet, she pressed her lips to the linen folds, and to the coat-sleeve, where sleet and blood-spots mingled.
He could not have prevented her, even had he desired to do so; but at that instant his sister moaned faintly, and, bending forward to examine her countenance, he seemed for some minutes unconscious of the presence of the form crouching close by his side.
After a little while he looked down, sighed, and whispered,—
"My child, do go to bed. You can do no good here, and too much watching has already unstrung your nerves. Go to your room, and pray that God will spare our dear Janet to us."
Was this the welcome for which she had waited and longed—of which she had dreamed by day and by night? Not a touch, barely a brief, impatient glance, and a few reproving, indifferent words. She had rashly dared fate to cheat her out of this long-anticipated greeting, and the grim, grinning crone had accepted the challenge, and now triumphantly snapped her withered fingers in the face of the vanquished.
When coveted fruit that has been hungrily watched through the slow, tedious process of ripening finally falls rosy and mellow into eagerly uplifted fingers, and breaks in a shower of bitter dust on the sharpened and fastidious palate, it rarely happens that the half-famished dupe relishes the taste; and Salome rose, feeling stunned and mocked.
In one corner of the room stood a chintz-covered lounge, and, creeping to it, she laid herself down; and, shading her features with her hand, looked through her fingers at the pale, grieved face of the anxious brother. Sometimes he stood up, studying the placid countenance of the sufferer, and now and then he walked softly to the fire-place, and held whispered conferences with Hester relative to the course of treatment that had been pursued.
But everywhere Salome's eyes followed him; and finally, when he chanced to glance at the couch, and noticed its occupant, whom he imagined fast asleep, he pointed to a blanket lying on a chair, and directed Hester to spread it over the girlish figure. The thoughtful act warmed the orphan's heart more effectually than the thick woollen cover; and when he sat down in an easy-chair close to the bed, and within range of Salome's vision, she yielded to the comforting consciousness of his presence. And, while her lips were moving in thanks for his preservation and return, exhausted nature seized her dues, and the girl fell asleep and dreamed that Dr. Grey stood by the lounge, and whispered,—
"No star goes down, but climbs in other skies; The rose of sunset folds its glory up To burst again from out the heart of dawn, And love is never lost, though hearts run waste, And sorrow makes the chastened heart a seer; The deepest dark reveals the starriest hope, And Faith can trust her heaven behind the veil."
"Yes, Hester, the danger is past; and, if the weather continues favorable, my sister will soon be able to sit up. My gratitude prompts me to erect an altar here, where the mercy of God stayed the Destroying Angel, as in ancient days David consecrated the threshing-floor of Araunah."
"Dr. Grey, if you can possibly spare me, I should like to go back to town to-day as Dr. Sheldon has sent for me to take charge of a patient at his Infirmary."
"You ought not to desert me while I am so comparatively helpless; and I should be glad to have you remain, at least until I recover the use of my hands."
"Miss Salome can take my place, and do all that is really necessary."
"The child is so inexperienced I am almost afraid to trust her; still—"
"Don't speak so loud. She is standing behind the window-curtain."
"Indeed! I thought she left the room when I entered it. Of course, Hester, I will not detain you if it is necessary that you should be at the Infirmary; but I give you up very reluctantly. Salome, if you are at leisure, please come and see how Hester dresses my hand and arm, for I must rely upon your kind services when she leaves us. Notice the manner in which she winds the bandages. There, Hester,—not quite so tight."
"Dr. Grey, I never had an education, and am at best an ignorant, poor soul: therefore, not knowing what to think about many curious things that happen in sick-rooms, I should be glad to hear what you have to say concerning that vision of your sister. Remember, she saw it at the very minute that the accident happened. I don't believe in spirit-rapping, and such stuff as dancing tables, and spinning chairs, and pianos that play tunes when no human being is near them; but I have heard and seen things that made the hair rise and stand on my head."
"The circumstance that occurred three days since is certainly rather singular and remarkable, but by no means inexplicable. My sister knew that I was then travelling by railroad,—that I would, without some unusual delay, reach the depot at a certain hour, and, being in a delirious condition, her mind reverted to the probability of some occurrence that might detain me. Having always evinced a peculiar aversion to railroads, which she deems the most unsafe method of travelling, she had a feverish dream that took its coloring from her excited apprehension of danger to me; and this vision, born of delirium, was so vivid that she could not distinguish phantom from reality. In ninety-nine cases out of every hundred similar ones, the dream passes without fulfilment, and is rarely recollected or mentioned; but the hundredth—which may chance by some surprising coincidence to seem verified—is noised abroad as supernatural, and carefully preserved among 'well-authenticated spiritual manifestations.' If I had escaped injury, the freaks of my sister's delirium would have made no more impression on your mind than the ravings of a lunatic; and, since I was so unfortunate as to be bruised and burned, you must not allow yourself to grow superstitious, and attach undue importance to a circumstance which was entirely accidental, and only startling because so exceedingly rare. Presentiments, especially when occurring in cases of fever, are merely Will-o-the-wisps floating about in excited, diseased brains. While at sea, and constantly associated with sailors, whose minds constitute the most favorable and fruitful soil for the production of phantasmagoria and diablerie, I had frequent opportunities of testing the fallacy and absurdity of so-called 'presentiments and forebodings.' I am afraid it is the absence of spirituality in the hearts of the people, that drives this generation to seek supernaturalism in the realm of merely normal physics. The only true spiritualism is that which emanates from the Holy Ghost,—conquers sinful impulses, and makes a Christian heart the temple of God."
Here Miss Jane called Hester into the adjoining room; and turning to Salome, Dr. Grey added,—
"Notwithstanding the vaunted destruction of the ancient Hydra of superstition by the darts and javelins of modern rationalism, and the ponderous hot irons of empirics, it is undeniably true that the habit of 'seeking after a sign' survived the generation of Scribes and Pharisees whom Christ rebuked; and manifests itself in the middle of the nineteenth century by the voracity with which merely material phenomena are seized as unmistakable indications of preternatural agencies. The innate leaven of superstition triumphs over common sense and scientific realism, and men and women are awed by coincidences that reason scouts, but credulity receives with open arms. Salome, I regret exceedingly that I am forced to trouble you, but there are some important letters which I wish to mail to-day, and you will greatly oblige me by acting as amanuensis while I dictate. My present disabled condition must apologize for the heavy tax which I am imposing upon your patience and industry. Will you come to the library?"
She made no protestations of willingness to serve him, and confessed no delight at the prospect of being useful, but merely bowed and smiled, with an expression in her eyes that puzzled him.
Seated at the library-table, and writing down the sentences that he dictated while pacing the floor, Salome passed one of the happiest hours of her life; for it brought the blessed assurance that, for the present at least, he acknowledged his need of her.
One of the letters was addressed to Mr. Gerard Granville, an attache of the American legation at Paris, and referred principally to financial affairs; and the other, directed to Muriel Manton, contained an urgent request that she and her governess would leave New York as speedily as possible and become inmates of his sister's house.
When she had folded the letters and sealed them with his favorite emerald signet,—bearing the words, "Frangas non Flectes,"—Salome looked up, and asked,—
"How old is your ward, Miss Manton?"
"About your age,—though she looks much more childish."
"Pretty, of course?"
"Why 'of course'?"
"Simply because in novels they are always painted as pretty as Persephone; and the only wards I ever knew happen to be fictitious characters."
"Novels are by no means infallible mirrors of nature, and few wards are as attractive as my black-eyed pet. Muriel will be very handsome, I hope, when she is grown; but now she impresses me as merely sweet, piquant, and pretty."
"Did you know her prior to your recent visit?"
"Yes; her father's house was my home whenever I chanced to be in New York, and I have seen her, occasionally, since she was a little girl. For your sake, as well as mine, I am glad she will reside here, because I hope she will prove in every respect a pleasant companion for you."
"Thank you; but, unfortunately, that is one luxury of which I never felt the need, and with which, permit me to tell you, I can readily dispense. I have little respect for women, and no desire to be wearied with their inane garrulity."
She leaned back in her chair, and tapped restlessly with the end of the pen-staff on the morocco-covered table.
Dr. Grey looked down steadily and gravely into her provokingly defiant face, and replied very coldly,—
"Were I in your place, I think I should jealously guard my lips from the hasty utterance of sentiments that, if unfeigned, ought to bring a blush to every true woman's cheek; for I fear that she who has no respect for her own sex bids fair to disgrace it."
A scarlet wave rolled up from throat to temples, and the lurking yellow gleamed in her eyes, but the bend of her nostril and curve of her lips did not relax.
"Which is preferable, hypocrisy or irreverence?"
"Both are unpardonable, in a woman."
"Where is your vast charity, Dr. Grey?"
"Busy in sheltering that lofty ideal of genuine female perfection which you seem so pertinaciously ambitious to sully and degrade."
"You are harsh, and scarcely courteous."
"You will never find me less so when you vauntingly exhibit such mournful blemishes of character."
"At least, sir, I am honest, and show myself just what God saw fit to allow misfortune to make me."
"Hush, Salome! Do not add impiousness to the long catalogue of your sinful follies. I hoped that there was a favorable change in you before I left home, but I very much fear that, instead of exorcising the one evil spirit that possessed you, you have swept, and garnished, and settled yourself comfortably with seven new ones."
"And, like R. Chaim Vital, you come to pronounce Nidui! and banish my diabolical guests. If cauterization cures moral ulcers as effectually as those that afflict the flesh, then, verily, you intend I shall be clean and whole. You are losing patience with your graceless neophyte."
"Yes, Salome; because forced to lose faith in her inclination and capacity to sublimate her erring nature. Once for all, let me say that habitual depreciation of your own sex will not elevate you in the estimation of mine; for, however fallen you may find mankind, they nevertheless realize amid their degradation that,—
''Tis somewhat to have known, albeit in vain, One woman in this sorrowful, bad earth, Whose very loss can yet bequeath to pain New faith in worth.'"
There was no taunt, no bitterness, in his voice; but grievous disappointment, too deep for utterance; and the girl winced under it, though only the flush burning on cheek and brow attested her vulnerability.
"Remember, sir, that humanity was not moulded entirely from one stratum of pipe-clay. Only a few wear paint, enamelling, and gold as delicate costly Sevres; and, while the majority are only coarse pottery, it is scarcely kind—certainly not generous—in dainty, transparent china, belonging to king's palaces, to pity or denounce the humble Delft or Wedgewoodware doing duty in laborer's cottages."
"Very true, my poor little warped, blotched bit of perverse pottery; but of one vital truth permit me to assure you: the purity and elevation of our race depend upon preserving inviolate in the hearts of men a belief that women's natures are crystalline as that celebrated glass once made at Murano, which was so exceedingly fine and delicate that it burst into fragments if poison was poured into it."
"Then, obviously, I am no Venetian goblet; else long ago I should have shattered under the bitter, black juices poured by fate. It seems I am not worthy to touch the lips of doges and grand dukes; but let them look to it that some day, when spent and thirsty, they stretch not their regal hands for the common clay that holds what all their costly, dainty fragments can never yield. Nous verrons! 'The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.'"
Dr. Grey had resumed his walk, but the half-suppressed, passionate protest, whose underswell began to agitate her voice, arrested his attention, and he came to the table and stood close to the orphan.
"What is the matter with my headstrong young friend?"
She made no answer; but her elfish eyes sought his, and braved their quiet rebuke.
"This is the last opportunity I shall offer you to tell me frankly what troubles you. Can I help you in any way? If so, command me."
"Once you could have helped me, but that time has passed."
"Perhaps not. Try me."
"It is too late. You have lost faith in me."
"No; you have lost all faith in yourself, if you ever indulged any,—which I very much doubt. It is you who are faithless concerning your own defective character."
"Not I, indeed! I know it rather too well, either to set it aloft for adoration or to trample it in the mire. When your faith in me expired, mine was born. Do you recollect that beautiful painted window in Lincoln Cathedral which the untutored fingers of an apprentice fashioned out of the despised bits of glass rejected by the fastidious master-builder? It is so vastly superior to every other in the church that the vanquished artist could not survive the chagrin and mortification, and killed himself. My faith is very strong, that, please God, I shall some day show you similar handiwork."
"You grow enigmatical, and I do not fully understand you."
"No; you do not in the least comprehend me. The girl whom you left six months ago has changed in many respects."
"For better, or for worse?"
"Perhaps neither one nor yet the other; but, at least, sir, 'my future will not copy fair my past.'"
"Since my return, I have noticed an alteration in your deportment, which, I regret to say, I cannot consider an improvement; and I should feel inclined to attribute your restless impatience to nervous disease were I not assured by your appearance that you are in perfect health. Remember, that quietude of manner constitutes a woman's greatest charm; and, unfortunately, you seem almost a mimic maelstrom. But, pardon me, I did not intend to lecture you; and, hoping all things, I will patiently wait for the future that you seem to have dedicated to some special object. I will try to have faith in my perverse little friend, though she sometimes renders it a difficult task. May I trouble you to stamp those letters?"
He could not analyze the change that passed swiftly across her face, nor the emotion that made her suddenly clinch her hands till the rosy nails grew purple.
"Dr. Grey, don't you believe that if Judas Iscariot had only resisted the temptation of the thirty pieces of silver, and stood by his master instead of betraying him, that his position in heaven would have been far more exalted than that of Peter, or even of John?"
"That is a question which I have never pondered, and am not prepared to discuss. Why do you propound it?"
She did not answer immediately; and, when she spoke, her glittering eyes softened in their expression, and resembled stars rising through the golden mist of lingering sunset splendor.
"God gave you a nobler heart than mine, and left it an easy, pleasant matter for you to be good; while, struggle as I may, I am constantly in danger of tumbling into some slough of iniquity, or setting up false gods for my soul to bow down to. Because it is so much more difficult for me to do right than for you, it is only just that my reward should be correspondingly greater."
"I am neither John nor Peter, nor are you Judas; and only He who knows our mutual faults and follies, our triumphs and defeats in the life-long campaign with sin, can judge us equitably. I am too painfully conscious of my own imperfections not to sympathize earnestly with the temptations that may assail you; and, moreover, we should never lose sight of the fact,—
'What's done we partly may compute, But know not what's resisted.'"
"Dr. Grey, you have great confidence in the efficacy of prayer?"
"Yes; for without it human lives are rudderless, drifting to speedy wreck and ruin."
"If I ask a favor, will you grant it?"
"Have I ever denied you anything that you asked?"
"Yes, sir,—your good opinion."
"I knew that had you really desired that, you would long since have rendered it impossible for me to withhold it. But to the point,—what is your petition?"
"I want you to pray for me."
"Salome, are you serious? Are you really in earnest?"
"Mournfully in earnest."
"Then rest satisfied that henceforth you will always have a place in my prayer; but do not forget the greater necessity of praying for yourself. Now, tell me how you have been employed during my long absence. Where are the accumulated exercises which I promised to examine and correct when I returned?"
"You forget that I did not see you the day you left, and that you did not even bid me good-by."
"I referred to your French exercises in a brief and hurried note that I left for you."
"Left where? I never received—never heard of it."
"I laid it upon your plate, where I supposed you would certainty notice it when you came home to dinner."
"Why did not you give it to Miss Jane?"
"Simply because she was not in the room when I wrote it. It is rather surprising that it escaped your observation, as I laid it in a conspicuous place."
She did not deem it necessary to inform him that on that unlucky day she had suddenly lost her appetite, and failed to go to the table; and now she put her fingers over her eyes to conceal the blaze of joyful light that irradiated them, as he mentioned the circumstance, comparatively trivial, but precious in her estimation, since it was freighted with the assurance that at least he had thought of her on the eve of his unexpected departure. What inexpressible comfort that note might have contributed during all those tedious months of silence and separation! While she sat there thinking of the dreary afternoon when, down in the orchard-grass she lay upon her face, Dr. Grey came nearer to her, and said,—
"I hope you have not abandoned your French?"
"No, sir; but I devote less time than formerly to it."
"If agreeable to you, we will resume the exercises as soon as I can wield my pen."
"If you can teach me Italian, I should prefer it; especially since I have learned to pronounce French tolerably well?"
"What use do you expect to have for Italian,—at least, at present? French is much more essential."
"I have a good reason for desiring to make the change, though just now I do not choose to be driven into any explanations."
"Pardon me. I had no intention of forcing your confidence. When in Italy, I always contrive to understand and make myself understood; but my knowledge and use of the language is rather too slip-shod to justify my attempting to teach you idioms, hallowed as the medium through which Dante and Ariosto charmed the world. Miss Dexter, Muriel's governess, is a very thorough and accomplished linguist, and speaks Italian not only gracefully but correctly. I have already engaged her to teach you whatever she may deem advisable when she comes here to live."
"You are very kind. Is she a young person?"
"She is a very highly cultivated and elegant woman, probably twenty-five or six years old, and has been in Florence with Muriel."
Involuntarily and unconsciously the orphan sighed, and the muscles in her broad forehead tangled terribly.
"Salome, please put your hand in the right pocket of my vest, and take out a key that ought to be there. No,—not that; a larger steel one. Now you have it. Will you be so good as to open that trunk which came by express yesterday (it is in the upper hall), and bring me a box wrapped in pink tissue-paper? I would not trouble you with so many commissions if I could use my hands."
Unable longer to repress her feelings, the girl exclaimed eagerly,—
"If you could imagine what pleasure it affords me to render you the slightest service, I am very sure you would not annoy me with apologies for making me happy."
In a few moments she returned to the library, bearing in her hand a small but heavy package, which she placed on the table before him.
"Please open it, and examine the contents."
She obeyed him; and, after removing the wrapping, found a blue velvet case that opened with a spring and revealed a parcel enclosed in silver paper. Dr. Grey turned and walked to the window; and, as Salome took off the last covering, a watch and chain met her curious gaze. One side of the former was richly and elaborately chased, and represented Kronos leaning on his scythe; the other was studded with diamonds that flashed out the name "Salome." Astonishment and delight sealed the orphan's lips, and, in silence, far more eloquent than words, she bowed her head upon the table. After a few moments had elapsed, Dr. Grey attempted to steal out of the room; but, being obliged to pass close by her chair, she put out her hand and arrested his movement.
"It is the most beautiful watch I have ever seen; but, oh, sir! how shall I sufficiently thank you? How can I express all that is throbbing here in my proud, grateful heart? Although the costly gift is elegant and tasteful, I hold still more precious the fact which it attests,—that during your absence you thought of me. How shall I begin to prove my gratitude for your kindness and generosity?"
"Do not thank me, my little friend; for, indeed I require no verbal assurances that my souvenir is kindly received and appreciated. Wear the watch; and let it continually remind you not only of the sincerity of my friendship, but of the far more important fact that every idle or injudiciously employed hour will cry out in accusation against us in the final assize, when we are called upon to render an account of the distribution of that invaluable time which God allows us solely for the accomplishment of His work on earth. It is so exceedingly difficult for young persons to realize how marvellously rapid is the flight of time, that you will, I trust, forgive me if I endeavor to impress upon you the vital importance of making each day fragrant with the burden of some good deed, the resistance of some sore temptation, some service rendered to God or to suffering humanity which shall make your years mellow with the fruitage that will entitle you to a glorious record in the golden book of Abou Ben Adhem's angel. Let this little jewelled monitress of the fleeting, mocking nature of time, this ingenious toy, whose ticking is but the mournful, endless knell of dead seconds, remind you that,—
"This life of ours, what is it? A very few Soon ended years, and then—the ceaseless psalm, And the eternal Sabbath of the soul."
As Salome looked up into his tranquil, happy face, two tears glided across her cheeks, and fell upon the pretty bauble.
"You will find a key in the case, and can wind it up, and set it by the clock in the parlor."
"Dr. Grey, are you willing that my watch shall bear daily testimony of something which I hold far above its diamonds,—that you have faith in Salome Owen?"
"Perfectly willing that you should make it eloquent with all friendly utterances and sympathy. Hester has bound my arm so tightly that it impedes the circulation, and is very painful. Please loosen the bandage."
She complied as carefully as possible, though her hands trembled; and, when the ligature had been comfortably adjusted and the arm restored to its sling, she stooped and pressed her lips softly and reverently to the cold, white fingers, that protruded from the linen bands. He endeavored ineffectually to prevent the caress, which evidently embarrassed him; but she left two kisses on the bruised hand, and, snatching her watch and chain from the table, hastily quitted the room.
In after years, when loneliness and disappointment pressed heavily upon her heart, she looked back to the three weeks that succeeded Dr. Grey's return as the halcyon days, as the cloudless June morning of her life; and, in blissful retrospection, temporarily found Elysium.
She wrote his letters, read aloud from his favorite books, dressed and bandaged his blistered hand and fractured arm, and surrendered her heart to an intense and perfect happiness such as she had scarcely dared to hope would ever be her portion.
"Bring her into my office. Steady, men! There may be broken bones, and jarring would be torture. Don't stumble over that book on the floor. Lay her here on the sofa, and throw open the blinds."
"Dr. Grey, is she dead?"
"No, only badly stunned; and the contusion on the head seems to be very severe. Stand back, all of you, and give her air. When did it happen?"
"About twenty minutes ago. She is a stout, heavy woman, and we could not walk very fast with such a burden. Ah! you intend to bleed her?"
"Yes, I fear nothing else will relieve her. Mitchell, hold the arm for me."
"How did she receive this injury?" asked Dr. Mitchell, who had been holding a consultation with Dr. Grey relative to some perplexing case.
"Those gray ponies which we were admiring a half-hour since, as they trotted by the door, took fright at a menagerie procession coming up from the depot to the Hippodrome,—and ran away. In steering clear of the elephant, who was covered from head to foot, and certainly looked frightful, the horses ran into a mass of lumber and brick at the corner of Fountain and Franklin streets, where a new store is being erected, and the carriage was upset. Unfortunately the harness was very strong, and did not give away until the carriage had been dragged some yards among the rubbish, and one of the horses finally floundered into a bed of mortar, and broke the traces. The driver kept his hold upon the reins to the last, but was badly bruised, and this woman was thrown out on a pile of bricks and granite-caps. The municipal authorities should prohibit these menagerie parades, for the meekest plough-horse in the State could scarcely have faced that band of musicians, flanked by the covered elephant and giraffe, and the cages of the beasts,—much less those fiery grays, who seem snuffing danger even when there is no provocation."
"Who is this woman?"
"She is a total stranger to me," answered Dr. Grey, bending down to put his ear to the heart of the victim.
A bystander seemed better informed, and replied,—
"She is a servant or housekeeper of the lady who lives at 'Solitude.' But here comes the driver, limping and making wry faces."
Robert Maclean approached the sofa, and his scratched and bleeding face paled as he leaned over the prostrate form of his mother.
"Oh, doctors, surely two of you can save her! For God's sake, don't let her die! Does she breathe?"
"Yes, the bleeding has already benefitted her. She breathes regularly, and the action of her heart is better. Sit down, my man,—you look ghastly. Mitchell, give him some brandy, and sew up that gash in his cheek, while I write a prescription."
"Never mind me, doctor; only save my poor mother. She looks like death itself. Mother, mother, it is all over now! Come, wake up, and speak to me!"
He seized one of her cold hands, and chafed it vigorously between both of his, while tears and blood mingled, as they dripped from his face to hers.
"Doctor, tell me the truth; is there any hope?"
"Certainly, my friend; there is every reason to believe she will ultimately recover, though you need not be surprised if she remains for some hours in a heavy stupor. Remember, a pile of brick is not exactly a feather pillow, and it may be some time before the brain recovers from the severity of the contusion. What is your name?"
"Elsie Maclean. Poor, dear creature! How she labors in her breathing. Suppose I lift her head?"
"No; let her rest quietly, just as she is, and I trust all will be well. Come to the table, and allow me to put some plaster over that cut which bleeds so freely. Trust me, Maclean, and do not look so woe-begone. I am not deceiving you. There may be serious internal injuries that I have not discovered, but this stupor is not alarming. I can find no fractured bones, and hope the blow on the head is the most troublesome thing we shall have to contend with."
Dr. Grey proceeded to sponge the bruised and stained face and, hoping to divert the man's anxious thoughts, said, nonchalantly,—
"I believe you are in Mrs. Gerome's employment?"
"How long have you been at 'Solitude'?"
"I came here, sir, and bought the place, while she was in Europe. Ah, doctor, if my mother should die, I believe it would kill my mistress."
"You are old family servants?"
"My mother took her when she was twelve hours old, and has never left her since. She loves Mrs. Gerome even better than she loves me—her own flesh and blood. I can't go home and tell my mistress I have nearly killed my mother. She would never endure the sight of me again. Her own mother died the day after she was born, and she has always looked on that poor dear soul yonder as her foster-mother."
Robert limped back to the sofa, and, seating himself on a chair, looked wistfully into his mother's countenance; then hid his face in his hands.
"Come, be a man, Maclean; and don't give way to nervousness! Your mother's condition is constantly improving, though of course it is not so apparent to you as to me. What has been done with the carriage and horses?"
"Oh, the carriage is a sweet pudding; and the grays—curses on 'em!—are badly bruised. One of them had his flank laid open by a saw lying on a lumber-pile; and I only wish it had sawed across the jugular. They are vicious brutes as ever were bitted, and it makes my blood run cold sometimes to see their devilish antics when Mrs. Gerome insists on driving them. They will break her neck, if I don't contrive to break theirs first."
"I should judge from their appearance that it was exceedingly unsafe for any lady to attempt to control them. They seem very fiery and unmanageable. What has been done with them?"
"The deuce knows!—knocked in the head, I trust. I asked two men, who were in the crowd, to take them to the livery-stable. Mrs. Gerome is not afraid of anything, and one of her few pleasures is driving those gray imps, who know her voice as well as I do. I have seen them put up their narrow ears and neigh when she was a hundred yards off; and sometimes she wraps the reins around her wrists and quiets them, when their eyes look like balls of fire. But Rarey himself could not have stopped them a while ago, when they determined to run over that menagerie show. My mistress will say it was my fault, and she will stand by the gray satans through thick and thin. Hist, doctor, my mother groans!"
"Would it not be best for you to go home and acquaint Mrs. Gerome with what has occurred?"
"I would not face her without my mother for—twenty kingdoms! You have no idea how she loves her 'old Elsie,' and I couldn't break the news to her,—I would sooner break my head."
"This is not a proper place for your mother, and I advise you to remove her to the hospital, which is not very far from my office. She can be carried on a litter."
"Oh, my mistress would never permit that! She will let no one else nurse my mother; and, of course, she could not go to a public place like a hospital, for you know she is so dreadful shy of strangers."
After many suggestions, and much desultory conversation, it was finally decided that Elsie should be placed on a mattress, in the bottom of an open wagon, and carried slowly home. A careful driver was provided, and when Dr. Grey had seen his patient comfortably arranged, and established Robert on the seat with the driver, he yielded to the solicitations of the son, that he would precede them to "Solitude," and acquaint Mrs. Gerome with the details of the accident.
Although ten months had elapsed since the latter took possession of her new home, so complete had been her seclusion that she remained an utter stranger; and, when visitors flocked from town and neighborhood to satisfy themselves concerning the rumors of the elegant furniture and appointments of the house, they were invariably denied admittance, and informed that since her widowhood Mrs. Gerome had not re-entered society.
Curiosity was piqued, and gossip wagged her hundred busy tongues over the tormenting fact that Mrs. Gerome had never darkened the church-door since her arrival; and, occasionally, when she rode into town, wore a thick veil that thoroughly screened her features; and, instead of shopping like other people, made Elsie Maclean bring the articles to the carriage for her inspection.
The servants seemed to hold themselves as much aloof as their mistress, and though Robert and his mother attended service regularly every Sabbath, they appeared as gravely silent and ungregarious as Sphinxes. The ministers of various denominations called to pay their respects to the stranger, but only the clerical cards succeeded in crossing the threshold; and, while rumors of her boundless wealth crept teasingly through Newsmongerdom, no one except Salome Owen had yet seen the new-comer.
Cases of books and pictures occasionally arrived from Europe, and never failed to stir the pool of gossip to its dregs; for the wife of the express-agent was an intimate friend of Mrs. Spiewell, whose husband was pastor of the church which Elsie and Robert attended, and who felt personally aggrieved that the Rev. Charles Spiewell was not welcomed as the spiritual guide of the mistress of "Solitude."