Finally, a morbid, meddling inquisitiveness goaded the chatty little woman beyond the bounds of ministerial decorum, and, having rashly wagered a pair of gloves that she would gain an entrance to the parlors (whereof the upholsterer's wife told marvellous tales), she armed herself with a pathetic petition for aid to build a "Widow's Row," and, with a subscription-list for a "Dorcas Society," and confident of ingress, boldly rang the bell. Unfortunately, Elsie chanced that day to be on post as sentinel, and, though she immediately recognized the visitor as the mother of the small colony of Spiewells who crowded every Sunday morning into the pew of the pastor, she courtesied, and gave the stereotyped rebuff,—
"Mrs. Gerome begs to be excused."
"Ah, indeed! But she does not know who has called, or she would make an exception in my favor. I am your minister's wife, and must really see her, if only for two minutes. Take my card to her, and say I call on important business, which cannot fail to interest her."
Not a muscle of Elsie's grave face moved, as she received the card, and answered,—
"I am very sorry, madam, but Mrs. Gerome sees no visitors, and my orders are positive."
Mrs. Spiewell bit her lip, and reddened.
"Then take these papers to her, and ask if she will please be so good as to examine their claims to her charity. In the meantime I will wait in the parlor, and must trouble you for a glass of water."
She thrust the petitions into Elsie's hand, and attempted to slip into the hall, through the partial opening of the door which the servant held during the parley; but, planting her massive frame directly in the way, the resolute woman effectually barred entrance, and, pointing to an iron tete-a-tete on the portico, said, decisively,—
"I beg pardon, madam, but you will find a seat there; and I will bring the water while Mrs. Gerome reads your letters. If you are fatigued, I will hand you luncheon and some wine."
Mortified and enraged, Mrs. Spiewell grew scarlet, but threw herself into the seat designated, resolved to snatch a glimpse of the interior the instant the servant had disappeared.
Very softly Elsie closed and securely latched the door on the inside, knowing that at that moment her mistress was sitting in the oriel window of the front parlor.
In vain the visitor tried and twisted the bolt, and, completely baffled, tears of chagrin moistened her eyes. She had scarcely time to regain her seat, when Elsie reappeared, bearing on a handsome salver a wine-glass, silver goblet, and an elegant basket filled with cake.
"Mrs. Gerome presents her compliments, and sends you this fifty dollar bill for whatever society you represent."
Too thoroughly discomfited to conceal her pique and indignation, Mrs. Spiewell snatched letters and donation, and, without lingering an instant, swept haughtily down the steps, "shaking off the dust of her feet" against "Solitude" and its incorrigible owner.
An innocent impertinence once coldly frustrated soon takes unto itself a sting and branding-irons, and thus, what was originally merely idle curiosity, becomes bitter malice; and henceforth the worthy minister's gossiping wife lost no opportunity of inveighing against the superciliousness of the stranger, and of insinuating that some very extraordinary circumstances led her "to fear that something was radically wrong about that poor Mrs. Gerome, for troubles that could not be poured into the sympathetic ears of pastors and of pastors' wives must be very dark, indeed."
Whenever the name of the new-comer was mentioned, Mrs. Spiewell compressed her lips, shook her head, and shrugged her round shoulders; and, of course, persons present surmised that the "minister's lady" was acquainted with melancholy facts which charity prevented her from divulging.
Many of the grievances and ills that afflict society spring not from sinful, envenomed hearts, but from weak souls and empty heads; and Mrs. Spiewell, who sat up with all the measle-stricken, teething, sick children in her husband's charge, and would have felt disgraced had she missed a meeting of the "Dorcas Society," or of the "Barefeet Relief Club," would have been duly shocked if any one had boldly charged her with slandering a woman whom she had never seen, and of whose antecedents she knew absolutely nothing. Verily, it is difficult, indeed, even for "the elect" to keep themselves "unspotted from the world;" and Zimmerman was a seer when he declared, "Who lives with wolves must join in their howls."
Absorbed by professional engagements, or fiscal cares, the gentlemen of a community are rarely interested in or informed of the last wreck of character which the whirlpool of scandal strews on the strand of society; but vague rumors relative to Mrs. Gerome's isolation had penetrated even into the quiet precincts of Dr. Grey's sanctum, and consequently invested his present mission with extraneous interest.
For the first time since her arrival he approached the confines of her residence, and, as he threw the reins over the dashboard of his buggy and stood under the lofty old trees that surrounded the house, he paused to admire the beauty of the grounds, the grouping of some statues and pot plants on a neighboring mound, and the far-stretching sheen of the rippling sea.
No living thing was visible except a golden pheasant and scarlet flamingo strutting along the stone terrace at the foot of the lawn, and silence and repose seemed brooding over house and yard; when suddenly a rapid, passionate, piano-prelude smote the stillness till the air appeared to throb and quiver, and a thrillingly sweet yet intensely mournful voice sang the wailing strains of Addio del Passato.
The indescribable yet almost overwhelming pathos of the tones affected Dr. Grey much as the tremolo-stop in some organ-overture in a dimly-lighted cathedral; and, as the singer seemed to pour her whole aching heart and wearied soul into the concluding "Ah! tutto-tutto fini!" he turned, and involuntarily followed the sound, like one in a dream.
The front door was closed; but the sash of the oriel window had been raised, and through the delicate lace curtains that were swaying in the salt breath of ocean he could see what passed in the parlor. A woman sat before the piano, running her snowy fingers idly across the keys, now striking fortissimo a wild stormy fugue theme, and then softly evoking a subtle minor chord that seemed the utterance of some despairing spirit breathing its last prayer for peace.
Her Marie-Louise blue dress was girded at the waist by a belt and buckle of silver, and the loose sleeve of the right arm was looped and pinned up, showing the dimpled elbow and daintily rounded wrist encircled by the jet serpent. Around her throat she had carelessly thrown a lace handkerchief, and from the mass of hair that seemed tiny, snow-capped waves, a cluster of blue nemophila leaned down to touch the white forehead beneath, and peep at the answering blue gleams in the large, shining, steely eyes. Her fingers strayed listlessly into a Nocturne; but from the dreamy expression of the face, upraised to gaze at the busts on the brackets above, it was evident that her thoughts had wandered far away from Addio del Passato, and were treading the drift-strewn strands of melancholy memory.
Presently she rose, walked twice across the room, and came back to an etagere where stood an azure Bohemian glass vase, supported by silver Tritons, and filled with late blue hyacinths and early pancratiums.
Bending her regal head, she inhaled the mingled perfumes, worthy of Sicilian or Cyprian meadows; and, while her slight fingers toyed with the fragile petals, a proud smile lent its sad light to the chill face, and she said aloud, as if striving to comfort herself,—
"'Not the ineffable stars that interlace The azure canopy of Zeus himself Have surer sweetness than my hyacinths When they grow blue, in gazing on blue heaven, Than the white lilies of my rivers, when In leafy spring Selene's silver horn Spills paleness, peace, and fragrance.'"
With a heavy sigh she turned away, and sat down in the rear room, near the arch, where an easel now stood, containing a large, unfinished picture; and, taking her ivory palette and brushes, she began to retouch the violet robe of one of the figures.
Dr. Grey had seen more beautiful women among the gilded pillars and frescoes of palaces, and amid the olives and vineyards of Parthenope; but in Mrs. Gerome he found a fascinating mystery that baffled analysis and riveted his attention. Neither young nor old, she had crowned herself with the glories of both seasons, and seemed some sweet, dewy spring, wrapped in the snows and frozen in the icy garb of winter.
He had expected to meet a middle-aged person, habited in widow's weeds, and meek from the severe scourging of a recent and terrible bereavement; but that anomalous white face and proud, queenly form were unlike all other flesh that his keen eyes had hitherto scanned; and he regarded her as curiously as he would have examined some abnormal-looking specimen of nerves and muscles laid upon the marble slab of a dissecting-table.
Recollecting suddenly that, if he did not present himself, the wagon would arrive before he had accomplished the object of his visit, he drew a card from his pocket, and, stepping over the low sill of the oriel window, advanced to the arch.
The mistress of the house sat with her back turned towards him, and was apparently absorbed in putting purple shadows into the folds of a mantle that hung from the shoulders of a kneeling figure on the canvas.
Face-downward on an ottoman near, lay a beautiful copy of Owen Meredith's poems; and, after a few seconds, she paused, brush in hand, and, taking up the book, slowly read aloud—glancing, as she did so, from page to picture,—
... "'Then I could perceive A glory pouring through an open door, And in the light five women. I believe They wore white vestments, all of them. They were Quite calm; and each still face unearthly fair, Unearthly quiet. So like statues all, Waiting they stood without that lighted hall; And in their hands, like a blue star, they held Each one a silver lamp.'"
Standing immediately behind her, Dr. Grey saw that she had seized the weird "Vision of Virgins," and was putting into pigment that solemn phantasm of the poet's imagination where five radiant women were passing to their reward,—and five wailing over flickering, dying lamps, were huddled helplessly and hopelessly under a black and starless midnight sky. Although unfinished, there was marvellous power in the picture, and the sickly gleam from the expiring wicks made the surrounding gloom more supernatural, like the deep shadows skulking behind the lurid glare in some old Flemish painting.
He saw also that she had followed the general outline of the poem; but one of the faces was so supreme in its mute anguish that he thought of Reni's "Cenci," and of a wan "Alcestis," and a desperate "Cassandra," he had seen at Rome; and, in comparison, the description of the poet seemed almost vapid,—
... "One as still as death Hollowed her hands about her lamp, for fear Some motion of the midnight, or her breath, Should fan out the last flicker. Rosy clear The light oozed through her fingers o'er her face. There was a ruined beauty hovering there Over deep pain, and dashed with lurid grace A waning bloom."
The room with its costly, quaint, and tasteful furniture,—the solitary and singularly beautiful woman; the wonderful picture, growing beneath her hand; the solemn silence, broken only by the deep, hollow murmur of the dimpling sea that sent its shimmer in at the window to meet the painted shimmer in a marine view framed on the wall,—all these wove a spell about the intruder that temporarily held him a mute captive.
The artist laid a delicate green on the stripped and scattered leaves from a wreath of Syrian lilies lying on the marble steps of the bridegroom's mansion, and once more she read a passage from the open book,—
... "'Then I beheld A shadow in the doorway. And One came Crown'd for a feast. I could not see the Face. The Form was not all human. As the Flame Streamed over it, a presence took the place With awe. He, turning, took them by the hand And led them each up the wide stairway, and The door closed.'"
The sound of her voice, low but clear, and burdened with a sadness that no language could exhaust or interpret, thrilled Dr. Grey's steady nerves as no music had ever done, and, stepping forward, he held out his card, and said,—
"Mrs. Gerome, a painful necessity has compelled me to intrude upon your seclusion, and I trust you will acquit me of impertinence."
Rising, she fronted him with a frown severe as that which clouded Artemis' brow when profane eyes peered through myrtle boughs into her sacred retreat, and the changed voice seemed thick with bristling icicles.
"Your business must be imperative, indeed, if it warrants this intrusion. What servant admitted you?"
"None. I came in haste, and, seeing the window open, entered without ringing. Madam, my card will explain my errand."
"Has Dr. Grey an unpaid bill? I was not aware the servants had needed your services; but if so, present your claim to Robert Maclean, my agent."
"Mrs. Gerome owes me nothing, and I came here reluctantly and in compliance with Robert Maclean's request, to inform her of an accident which happened this afternoon while—"
He paused, awed by the change that swept over her countenance, filling it with horrible dread.
"Those gray horses?"
"Not Elsie? Oh! don't tell me that my dear old Elsie was mangled! Hush! I will not hear it!"
Palette and brushes fell upon the carpet, and she wrung her fingers until the diamond-eyed asp set its blue fangs in her cold flesh.
"Robert was merely bruised, but his mother was very badly injured, and is still insensible. Every precaution has been taken to counteract the effect of the severe blow on her head, and I hope that after an hour or two she will recover her consciousness. Robert is bringing her home as carefully as possible, and you may expect them momentarily. Only his urgent entreaties that I would precede him and prepare you for the reception of his mother could have induced me to waive ceremony and thrust myself into the presence of a lady who seems little disposed to pardon the apparent presumption of my visit."
She evidently did not heed his words, and, suddenly clasping her hands across her forehead, she said, bitterly,—
"Coward! why can't you speak out, and tell me that the corpse will soon be here, and a coffin must be ordered? This is the last blow! Surely, God will let me alone, now; for there is nothing more that He can send to afflict me. Oh, Elsie,—my sole comfort! The only one who ever loved me!"
A bluish pallor settled about her mouth, and Dr. Grey shuddered as he looked into the dry, defiant eyes, so beautiful in form and color but so mournfully desperate in their expression.
"Mrs. Gerome, your servant is neither dead nor dying, and I have told you the worst. Down the road I can see the wagon coming slowly, and I would advise you to call the household together, in order to assist in lifting Elsie, who is very stout and heavy. Calm yourself, madam, and trust your favorite servant to my care."
"Servant! Sir, she is mother, father, husband, friends,—all,—everything to me! She is the only human being who cares for, or understands, or sympathizes with me,—and I could not live without her. Oh, sir, do not ask me to trust you! The time has gone by when I could trust anybody but Elsie. You are a physician,—you ought to know what should be done for her; and, Dr. Grey, if you have any pity in your soul, and any skill in your profession, save my old Elsie's life! Dr. Grey—"
She paused a few seconds, and added, in a whisper,—
"If she dies, I am afraid I might grow desperate, and commit what you happy people call a crime."
He felt an unwonted moisture dim his eyes, as he watched the delicate face, white as the hair that crowned it, and wondered if the wide, populous world could match her regal form and perfect features.
"Mrs. Gerome, I think I can promise that Elsie will recover from her injuries; but a prayer for her safety would bring you more comfort than my feeble words of assurance and encouragement. The mercy of God is surer than the combined medical skill of the universe."
"The mercy of God!" she repeated, with a gesture of scorn and impatience. "No, no! God set his face like a flint against me, long, long ago, and I do not mock myself by offering prayers that only call down smitings upon me. Seven years since I prayed my last prayer, which was for speedy death; and, from that hour, I seem to have taken a new lease on life. Now I stand still and keep silent, and I hoped that God had forgotten me."
She covered her face with her hands and Dr. Grey drew a chair close to her and endeavored to make her sit down, but she resisted and shrank from his touch on her arm.
"Madam, the wagon has stopped at the door. Will you direct your servants, or shall I?"
"If she is not dead, tell Robert to carry her into my room. Oh, Dr. Grey, you will not let her die!"
As she looked up imploringly into his calm, noble face, she met his earnest gaze, brimming with compassion and sympathy, and her lips and chin quivered.
"Trust your God, and have faith in me."
He went out to assist in removing his patient, and when they had carried the mattress and its occupant into the room opposite the parlor and laid it on the carpet near the window, he had the satisfaction of observing a favorable change in Elsie's condition. While he stood by a table preparing some medicine, Robert stole up, and asked:
"Do you notice any improvement? She groaned twice on the road, and once I am sure she opened her eyes."
"Yes; I think that very soon she will be able to speak, for her pulse is gaining strength every hour."
"How did my mistress take it?"
"She was much shocked and grieved. Maclean, where are her friends and relatives?"
There was no reply, and, glancing over his shoulder to repeat the inquiry, Dr. Grey saw Mrs. Gerome leaning against the door.
"Robert, have you killed her?"
"Oh, no, ma'am! She is doing very well, the doctor says."
She crossed the room, and sat down on the edge of the mattress, taking one of the large brown hands in both of hers and bending her face over the pillow.
"Elsie! mother! Elsie, speak to your poor child!"
That wailing voice pierced the stupor, and Dr. Grey was surprised to see the woman's eyes unclose and rest wonderingly upon the countenance hovering over her.
"My dear Elsie, don't you know me?"
"Yes, my bairn. What ails you?"
She spoke indistinctly, and shut her eyes once more, as if exhausted.
"If she was in her coffin, I verily believe she would rise, if she heard your voice calling her," said Robert, wiping away the tears of joy that trickled across his sunburnt cheeks.
Dr. Grey stooped to put his finger on Elsie's pulse, and Mrs. Gerome threw herself down on the carpet, and buried her face in the pillow, where her silver hair mingled with the grizzled locks that straggled from beneath the old woman's torn lace cap.
"Well, Ulpian, are you convinced that 'Solitude' is an unlucky place, and that misfortune dogs the steps of all who make it a home? Once you laughed at my 'superstition.' What think you now, my wiseacre?"
"My opinion has not changed, except that each time I see the place I admire it more and more; and, were it for sale, I should certainly purchase it."
"Not with the expectation of living there?"
Miss Jane had suspended for a moment the swift clicking of her knitting-needles in order to hear her brother's reply, and now she rejoined, almost sharply,—
"You will do no such silly thing while there is breath left in my body to protest, or to persuade. Pooh! you only talk to tease me; for five grains of observation and common sense will teach you that there is a curse hanging over that old piratical nest."
"Dear Janet, when headstrong drivers persist in carrying a pair of fiery, vicious horses into the midst of a procession of wild beasts that would have scared even your sober dull Dapples out of their lazy jog-trot, it is not at all surprising that snapped harness, broken carriage, torn flesh, and strained joints should attest the folly of the experiment. The accident occurred not far from my office, which is haunted by nothing worse than your harmless sailor-boy."
"All very fine, my blue-eyed oracle, but I notice that the horses belonging to 'Solitude' were the only ones that made mischief and came to grief; and I promise you that all the hawsers in Gosport Navy-Yard will never drag me inside the doomed place. How is your patient? If you expect her to get well, you had better take a 'superstitious' old woman's counsel, and send her away from that valley of Jehoshaphat."
"I am very sorry to tell you that she was more seriously hurt than I was at first inclined to believe. Her spine was so badly injured that although there is no danger of immediate death, she will never be able to sit up or walk again. She may linger many months, possibly years; but must, as long as life lasts, remain a bed-ridden cripple. It is one of the saddest cases I have had to deal with during my professional career; and Elsie Maclean bears her sufferings with such noble fortitude, such genuine Christian patience, coupled with stern Scotch heroism, that I cannot withhold my admiration and earnest sympathy. Yesterday I held a consultation with four physicians, and, when we told her the hopelessness of her condition, she received the announcement without even a sigh, and seemed only to dread that instead of an assistant she might prove a burden to her mistress."
"She appears to be a very important personage in the household."
"Yes; she is Mrs. Gerome's nurse, housekeeper, and counsellor,—and I have rarely seen such warm affection as exists between them. I wish, Janet, that you were strong enough to call at 'Solitude,' for its mistress leads a lonely, secluded life, and must require some society."
"But, Ulpian, I hear strange things about her, and it is hinted that she is deranged."
"Your knowledge of human nature should teach you how little truth is generally found in the floating on dits of social circles."
"How long has she been widowed?"
"I do not know, but presume that her affliction has not been very recent, as she wears no mourning."
"If she has discarded widow's weeds, and dresses in colors, why should she taboo society, and make herself the town-talk by refusing to receive even the clergy and their wives? She has lived here ten months, and I understand from Dolly Spiewell that not a soul has ever seen her. Of course such eccentricities provoke gossip and tickle the tongue of scandal, and if the world can't find out the real cause of such conduct, it very industriously sets to work and manufactures one."
"Which, in my humble opinion, constitutes a piece of unwarrantable impertinence on the part of meddling Mrs. Grundy. The world might be more profitably engaged in mending its own tortuous and mendacious ways, and allowing poor solitary wretches to fondle their whims and caprices. If Mrs. Gerome does not choose to receive visitors, what right has the public to grumble, or even discuss the matter?"
As Salome spoke, she plunged her stiletto vigorously into a piece of cambric, and her thin lip curled contemptuously.
"Abstractly true, my dear child; but, from the beginning of time, people have meddled; and, since gossip she must, even Eve chatted too freely with serpents. Besides, since we are in the world, we should not turn eremites, and bristle at the sight of one of our own race; for society has a few laws that are inexorable,—that cannot be violated without subjecting the offender to being stung to death by venomous tongues; and one of these statutes is, that all shall see and be seen, shall talk and be talked about, and shall visit and be visited. When a woman unaccountably turns recluse, she is at the mercy of public imagination, stimulated by disappointed curiosity; and very soon the verdict goes forth that she is either deformed or deranged."
"I dispute the prerogative of the public to dictate in such matters, and I shall rebel whenever it presumes to lay even a little finger across my path. What, pray tell me, is the world, but an aggregation of persons like you and me, and what possible concern can you or I have with the fact that Mrs. Gerome burrows like a mole, beyond our sight? If she sees fit to found a modern sect of Troglodytes, I can't understand that the wheels of society are thereby scotched, or that the public has a shadow of right to raise a hue-and-cry and strive to unearth her, as if she were a fox, a catamount, or a gopher. It is useless for society to constitute itself a turning-lathe for rounding off all individual angularities, and grinding people down to dull uniformity until they are as indistinguishable as a bag of unpainted marbles or of black-eyed peas; and, if God had intended that we should all invariably think, feel, and act after one pattern, He would have populated the world with Siamese twins; whereas, the first couple that were born on earth were so dissimilar that all the universe was not wide enough to hold them both, and manslaughter began when the race only numbered a quartette. If mankind had not arrogated the privilege of being its 'brother's keeper,' it would never have been forced to deny the fact. I admire the honesty and truth with which Alexander Smith bravely confessed, 'I love a little eccentricity; I respect honest prejudices. It is high time, it seems to me, that a moral game-law were passed for the preservation of the wild and vagrant feelings of human nature.'"
"That is a dangerous doctrine, my dear child, especially for a woman to entertain; because custom rules us with an iron rod, and flays us alive if we contravene her decrees."
"I should be exceedingly glad to learn by what authority or process Truth is provided with sex? Are some orthodox doctrines female and others male? Why have not we women as clear a right to any given set of principles as men? Truth is as much my property as that of the Czar of Russia, and, if I choose to lay hold of any special province of it, why must I perforce be dragged to the whipping-post of custom, simply because by an accident I am called Susan or Hepzibah instead of Peter or Lazarus? So long as my convictions of truth (which custom brands as vagaries) are innocuous, I have a perfect and inalienable right to indulge them; but the instant I become pestiferous to society, let me be consigned to the tender mercies of strait-jacket and insane-asylum regimen. If I creep quietly along my own intellectual and ethical trail, taking heed not to touch the sensitive toes of custom, why should it ungenerously insist upon bruising mine? My seer was right when he boldly declared, 'The world has stood long enough under the drill of Adjutant Fashion.' It is hard work, the posture is wearisome, and Fashion is an awful martinet, and has a quick eye, and comes down mercilessly on the unfortunate wight who can not square his toes to the approved pattern. It is killing work. Suppose we try 'standing at ease' for a little while? Wherefore, custom to the contrary notwithstanding, I contend that Mrs. Gerome has as indisputable a right to refuse admittance to Rev. Mrs. Spiewell as any anchorite of the Nitrian Sands to decline receiving a bevy of inquisitive European belles. If society rules like Russia or Turkey, then am I a candidate for knout and bastinado. I do not wish to be unwomanly, and honesty and candor are not necessarily unfeminine, because some coarse, rough-handed, bold-eyed woman has possibly rendered them unpopular."
Miss Jane laid down her knitting, folded her hands, and, as she watched the girl, her emotions were probably similar to those that agitate some meek and staid hen, who, leading a young brood of ducks from her nest, suddenly beholds them displaying their aquatic proclivities by plunging into the horse-pond, and performing all the evolutions of a regatta.
"Ah, child, I fear you think too little of what you wish or intend to make yourself!"
"Only have patience, Miss Jane, and some day I will show you all the graces of Griselda and Gudrun the second. Dr. Grey, have you seen Mrs. Gerome?"
"Yes,—on two occasions."
"Is she not the most extraordinary and puzzling person you ever looked at?"
"When and where could you have met her?"
"For a few minutes only, last winter, I saw her on the beach, near 'Solitude.' We exchanged a half-dozen words, and she left an impression on my mind which all time will not efface. Since that evening I have frequently endeavored to surprise her on the same spot, but only once I succeeded in catching a glimpse of a blue shawl that fluttered in the distance. She seemed to me a beautiful, pale priestess, consecrated to the ministry of the shrine of sorrow; and, when I hear snubbed-dom sneering at her, and remember the hopeless expression with which her wonderful, homeless eyes looked out across that grey, silent sea,—I cannot avoid thinking that she is very wise in barring her doors, and heeding the advice of Montenebi, 'Complain not of thy woes to the public: they will no more pity thee than birds of prey pity the wounded deer.'"
"My acquaintance with Mrs. Gerome is too slight to warrant the utterance of an opinion relative to her idiosyncrasies, but I am afraid cynicism rather than grief immures her from society. Her prematurely white hair and the remarkable pallor of her smooth complexion combine to render her appearance piquant and unnatural; and, certainly, there is something in her face strangely suggestive of old Norse myths, mystery, and magic. Her features, when analyzed, prove faultlessly regular, but her life is out of tune, and the expression of her countenance mars what would otherwise be perfect beauty. I can, in some degree, describe the impression she produced upon me by quoting the lines that were suggested when I saw her this morning, standing by Elsie Maclean's bed,—
'I saw a vision of a woman, where Night and new morning strive for domination; Incomparably pale, and almost fair, And sad beyond expression. Her eyes were like some fire-enshrining gem, Were stately, like the stars, and yet were tender; Her figure charmed me, like a windy stem, Quivering, and drooped, and slender. She measured measureless sorrow toward its length And breadth, and depth, and height.'"
Salome looked up from the eyelet she was working, but Dr. Grey had turned his head towards his sister who had fallen asleep in her chair, and the orphan could not see his face.
"Mrs. Gerome must have been very young when she married, and—"
"Hush! Janet looks so weary that I want her to have a long nap, and our voices might disturb her."
He took his hat and gloves and left the room, and Salome forgot her embroidery and fell into a reverie that proved neither pleasant nor profitable, and lasted until Miss Jane awoke.
In the afternoon of the following day, when the orphan returned from her clandestine visit to the Italian musician, she saw an unusual number of persons on the front gallery, and found that the long-expected party from New York had arrived during her absence. Miss Jane was talking to the governess—a meek-looking, but exceedingly handsome woman, of twenty-seven or eight years, with fair hair and quiet brown eyes; and every detail of her dress, speech, and bearing averred that Edith Dexter was no humble scion of proletariat. Her polished yet reserved manners bespoke high birth and aristocratic associations; but something in the composed, sad countenance, in the listless drooping of the pretty head, hinted that she had long since spilt the rosy sparkling foam of her cup of life, and was patiently drinking its muddy lees.
On the upper step sat Dr. Grey, with his arm encircling the form of his ward, whose head rested very confidingly against his shoulder. Muriel Manton was dressed in deep mourning, and had evidently been weeping, for her guardian was tenderly wiping the tears from her cheek when Salome came up the avenue; and, with a keen, jealous pang that she had never felt before, the latter scanned the stranger's claims to beauty.
Very black eyes, brilliant complexion, and fine teeth, she certainly possessed; but her features were rather coarse; her mouth was much too large for classic requirements; and Salome was rejoiced to find her nose indisputably retrousse.
Years hence she would doubtless be a large, well-formed, commanding woman, who could exhibit Lyons silk or Genoese velvet to the best advantage, and would be considered a fine-looking, rosy, robust personage; but at present the face, which from under a small straw hat anxiously watched hers, was infinitely handsomer, more attractive, more delicate, and intellectual; and the miller's child felt that she had little to apprehend from the merely personal charms of the wealthy ward.
Salome felt injured as she eyed the doctor's arm, which had never touched even her shoulder; and it was painful and humiliating to notice the affectionate manner in which his hand stroked one of Muriel's that lay on his knee,—and to remember that his fingers had not met hers in a friendly grasp since long before his visit to Europe,—had only clasped hers twice during their acquaintance.
"Come in, Salome, and let me introduce you to my ward Muriel, and to Miss Dexter, who is prepared to receive you as a pupil."
Muriel silently held out her hand; but Salome only bowed and ran lightly up the steps, as if she did not perceive the outstretched fingers. Miss Dexter rose and advanced to meet her, saying, in a tone that indexed great kindness of heart,—
"I am exceedingly glad to meet you, Miss Salome; for Dr. Grey has promised that I shall find in you a most exemplary and agreeable pupil."
"Thank you. I am indeed glad to hear that he has changed his opinion of me; and I must endeavor not to lose my newly acquired amiable character,—but he was rather rash to stand security for my good behavior."
She saw that Dr. Grey was surprised at her cold reception of his pet and protege, and perversity took possession of her. Going to the back of Miss Jane's old-fashioned rocking-chair she put her arms around her, and, leaning over, kissed her cheek several times. It was not her habit to caress any one or any thing,—not even her little brother,—and this unusual demonstrativeness puzzled and surprised the old lady who said, fondly,—
"I presume Ulpian is brave enough to encounter all the risks of standing security for your obedience and docility."
"Certainly I appreciate his chivalry, since none knows better than he the danger—nay, probability, of a forfeiture of the contract on my part."
Dr. Grey rose, and, looking steadily at her, said, in a tone which she well understood,—
"Promises are, in my estimation, peculiarly sacred things; and that which I made to Miss Dexter in your behalf was based upon one that I gave you some time since, namely, that I would have faith in you. Come with me, Muriel; I want to show you and Miss Dexter the finest cow this side of Ayrshire, and some sheep that are handsome enough to compare favorably with the best that ever browsed in the 'Court of Lions.'"
He took his ward's hand and led her away to the cattle-yard, whither Miss Dexter accompanied them.
As Salome looked after the trio her eyes flashed and scarlet spots burned on her cheeks, while a feeling of suffocation oppressed her heart.
"Why will you vex him, when you know that he tries so hard to like you?" asked Miss Jane in a distressed tone, stroking the girl's hot face, as she spoke.
The head was instantly lifted beyond her reach, and the answer came swiftly, sharp and defiant,—
"Do you mean to say that it is so extremely difficult for him to tolerate me?"
"You are obliged to know that you are not one of his favorites, like that sweet-tempered Muriel, to whom he seems so warmly attached; and it is all your own fault, for he was disposed to like you when he first came home. Ulpian loves quiet and amiable people, who are never rude and snappish; and it appears to me that you are trying to see how hateful and spiteful you can be. Why upon earth did you not shake hands with those strangers, and treat them politely?"
"Because I don't choose to be hypocritical,—and I don't like Miss Muriel Manton."
"Nonsense! Stuff! I only wish you were half as well-bred and courteous, and lady-like."
"Do you, really? Then, to be obedient and, oblige you, when they come back, I will imitate her example, and throw myself into Dr. Grey's arms, and rub my cheek against his shoulder, and fondle his hands. If this be 'lady-like,' then, indeed, I penitently cry 'peccavi!' and promise that in future you shall not have cause to complain of me."
"Pooh, pooh, child! What ails you? Muriel has known Ulpian all her life, and looks upon him now as her father. He has petted her since she was a little girl, and loves her almost as well as if she were his child, instead of his ward. You know she is an orphan; and it is very natural for her to cling to her guardian, who was for a great many years her father's most intimate friend."
"We are both orphans, and she is certainly not my junior, yet your propriety would be shocked if I behaved as she does. Where is Stanley?"
"Studying his geography lesson, with the assistance of the globe, in the library. What do you want with him?"
"I am going to the beach, and wish him to walk with me."
"It is too late for you to start for the seaside, and, moreover, it would appear very discourteous in you to absent yourself the first evening that these strangers spend here. Ulpian would be displeased."
"According to your statement a few minutes since, that is his chronic condition, as far as I am concerned; and, as I do not belong to the mimosa species, I think I may brave his frowns."
"That is not the worst you have to apprehend. Child, I think it would be bitter indeed, to bear Ulpian Grey's contempt."
"I shall take care not to deserve it; and Dr. Grey never forgets to be just."
"My dear little girl, what right have you to be jealous of his love for his young ward?"
The flame that was slowly dying out of her face leaped up fiercer than before, and she crimsoned to the edges of her hair.
"Jealous! Good heavens, Miss Jane, you must be dreaming! I merely question the taste that allows his 'lady-like' favorite to caress him so openly, and should not have expressed my disapprobation so strongly if you had not rated me soundly, and held her up as a model for my humble imitation. If she and her governess are to stir up strife between you and me, I shall heartily wish them a speedy passage to Halifax or heaven. Beyond all peradventure I shall get murderously jealous if you dare to give this sloe-eyed, peony-faced girl, my place in your dear old heart. She, of course, will fondle her guardian as much as she pleases, or as often as he sees fit to allow; but woe unto her if I catch her hands and lips about you, my dearest and best friend! Don't scold me and praise her, or some fine day I shall jump at and strangle her, which you know would not be 'well-bred' or 'lady-like,' much less moral and Christian."
She almost smothered the old lady in her arms, and kissed her several times.
"What has stirred up the evil spirit in you? You look as wicked as your mother Herodias, thirsting for the blood of John the Baptist; or as Jezebel plotting against the prophet—"
"And telling me that like her I am 'going to the dogs' is not the surest way to reform me. Stanley! Stanley! get your hat and come here."
"Your awful temper will be your ruin if you don't put a curb-bit on it. See here, Salome, don't be so utterly silly and childish! I do not wish you to go to the sea-shore this evening."
"Please, Miss Jane, don't order me to stay at home, because, then of course, I should feel bound to obey you, and I should not behave prettily, and you would wish me at the bottom of the sea, instead of on its brink. Let me go, and I will come back cool as a cucumber, and well-behaved as Miss Muriel Manton. Please don't prohibit me; and I promise I will lose my evil spirit in the sea, like that Gergesene wretch that haunted the tombs. Here comes Stanley. Don't shake your head. I am off."
Miss Jane would not receive the proffered farewell kiss, but tears gathered and dimmed her eyes as she looked after the graceful, girlish figure, swiftly crossing the lawn; and sad forebodings filled her affectionate heart when she thought of the unknown future that stretched before that impetuous, jealous, imperious nature.
Anxious that the strangers should feel thoroughly welcome and at home, she joined them as soon as possible after their return from the sheepfold, and exerted herself to keep the shuttlecock of conversation in constant motion; but her brother's watchful eyes discerned the perturbed feeling she sought to hide; and, when she insisted, for the first time in two years, upon taking her seat and presiding at the tea-table, he busied himself in arranging her cushions comfortably, and whispered,—
"How good and considerate you are, my precious sister. A thousand thanks for this generous effort, which I trust will not fatigue you."
He placed himself opposite, and was about to ask a blessing on the meal, but paused to inquire,—
"Where are the children, Salome and Stanley?"
"They have gone down to the beach, and we will not wait for them."
Soon after, Muriel said,—
"I think Salome is almost beautiful. She has splendid eyes and hair. Miss Edith, does she not remind you of a piece of sculpture at Naples?"
"Yes; I noticed a resemblance to the Julia-Agrippina, and the likeness must be remarkable, since it impressed us simultaneously. Salome's brow is fuller, and her chin more prominent than that of the Roman woman we admired so ardently; and, besides, I should judge that she had quite as much or more will than the daughter of Germanicus, for her lips are thinner."
Dr. Grey changed the topic of conversation, and Miss Dexter courteously followed the cue.
The moon was high in heaven when Salome and her brother came up the avenue; and, observing that the lights were extinguished in the front rooms, she surmised that the new-comers had retired very early, in consequence of fatigue from their long journey. Sending Stanley to bed, she sat down on the steps to rest a few moments before going upstairs, and began to fan herself with her straw hat.
She had grown very calm, and almost ashamed of her passionate ebullition in the presence of strangers; and numerous good resolutions were sending out fibrous roots in her heart. How long she rested there she knew not, and started when Dr. Grey said, in a subdued voice,—
"Salome, I am waiting to lock the door, and should be glad if you will come in now, or be careful to secure the inner bolt whenever you do. As I always shut up the house, I was afraid you might not think of it; and burglaries are becoming alarmingly frequent."
She rose instantly, and entered the hall.
"What time is it?"
"Is it possible? You know, sir, that the evenings are very short now."
He was removing a chair from the gallery and closing the Venetian blinds, and she could not see his face. Hoping to receive some friendly look, which she was painfully aware she did not deserve, she loitered till he turned around.
"Salome, have you a light in your room?"
"I do not know, but suppose so."
"There are two candles in the library, and you had better take one, rather than stumble along in the dark and wake everybody."
He brought out one, and handed it to her.
"Thank you. Good-night, Dr. Grey."
The candle-light showed no displeasure in his countenance, which was calm as usual, and there was not a hint of harshness in his unwontedly low voice; but she read disappointment in his grave, kind eyes. She knew that she could not sleep until she had made her peace with him; and, though it cost her a great effort to conquer her pride, she said, humbly,—
"'And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent,—thou shalt forgive him.'"
"Yes; but the frequency of the offence renders it difficult to believe the repentance genuine."
"Christ, your master, did not doubt it."
"I am less than the disciples whom he addressed; and they answered, 'Increase our faith.'"
"You did not pray for me this morning."
"I never neglect my promises. Why do you doubt that I fulfilled them this morning?"
"This has been one of my sinful days, when Satan runs rough-shod over all my good intentions, and drags me through the mire that I was trying to hold my soul far above. I tell you, sir, that the 'unclean spirit' that vexed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman was mild, and harmless, and well-mannered, in comparison with the demon that takes bodily possession of me, and whose name is not 'Suset'! but a fearful Ruach demanding the ban Cherem. I once thought all that part of Scripture which referred to the casting out of devils was metaphorical; but I know better now; for the one that Luther assaulted with his inkstand was not more palpable than that which enters into my heart every now and then, and overturns the altars of the 'true, good, and beautiful,' and sets up instead a small hall of Eblis, as full of horrible, mis-shapen things as that hideous 'Last Judgment' of Orcagna, in the Campo Santo at Pisa, which you once showed me in a portfolio of engravings. Oh, Dr. Grey! you ought to be merciful to me; for indeed God gave me a fearfully wicked and cunning spirit for a perpetual companion and tempter. Even Christ had Lucifer and Quarantina."
"Yes, and conquered both, and promised assistance to all who earnestly desire and resolve to follow his example."
"You cannot forgive my rudeness?"
"The act of incivility was very slight; but, my young friend, the unaccountable perversity of your character certainly fills my mind with serious apprehension concerning your future. Of course, I can very readily forgive the occasion that displayed it, but I cannot entirely forget the spirit that distresses me when I least expect it."
"If you will dismiss this afternoon from your mind, I will never—"
"Stop! Make me no more promises till you are strong enough to keep them inviolate. Promise less and pray more; I am not angry, but I am disappointed."
She drooped her head to avoid his grave, sad gaze, and for a moment there was silence.
"Dr. Grey, will you shake hands with me, in token of pardon?"
"Certainly, if you wish it."
He took her hand in both of his, pressed it kindly, and said, in a low, solemn tone,—
"Good-night, Salome. May God guide, and strengthen, and help you to be the noble woman, the consistent Christian, which only His grace and blessing can ever enable you to become. Remember the cheering words of Jean Paul Richter, 'Evil is like the nightmare, the instant you bestir yourself it has already ended.'"
"Ulpian, have you had any conversation with Salome?"
"Upon what subject?"
"Have you talked with her concerning her studies?"
"Not recently. Soon after Muriel and Miss Dexter came, I mentioned to her the fact that I should be glad to see her enter a class with Muriel and pursue the same studies, and that such an arrangement would be entirely agreeable to Miss Dexter; but she declined the proposition, saying she would only trouble the latter to teach her Italian. Do you know why she is so anxious to acquire that language?"
"No; to tell you the truth, I know less and less every day about her actions, for the child has suddenly grown very reserved. This morning she was walking up and down the library with her hands behind her and her eyes looking as if they were travelling to Jericho or Jeddo, and when I asked her why she was so unusually silent, she snapped like a toy-torpedo, 'I am silent because this is one of my wicked days, and I am fighting the devil; and if I open my lips I shall say something that will give him the victory.' I held out my hand to her and begged her to come and sit by me and tell me what troubled or tempted her,—and what do you suppose she said?"
"Something, I am afraid, that I shall be sorry to hear you repeat."
"She laid her hand on her heart and answered, 'You are very good, Miss Jane, but you can no more help me than the disciples could relieve that wretch whom only Christ healed.' 'This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.' Whereupon, she snatched a book from the table and left the room. I did not see her for several hours, and when I met her in the hall, a few moments since, I said, 'Well, dear, which won the victory, sin or my little girl?' She put her hands on my shoulders, laughed bitterly, and answered, 'It was a drawn battle. Neither has much to boast of, and we lie on our arms watching—nay, glaring at each other. Let me be quiet a little while, and don't ask me about it.'"
"Can you conjecture the cause of the present trouble?"
"I have a suspicion."
Miss Jane paused, sighed, and frowned.
"I should think you might persuade her to confide in you."
"Pooh! Persuade her? I would quite as soon undertake to persuade the Andes to dance a jig as attempt to discover what she has determined not to divulge. If you knew her as well as I do, you would appreciate the uselessness of trying to persuade her to do anything. But you men never see what lies right under your noses, and I believe if you lived in the same house with that child for five years longer you would understand her as little as you do to-day. Ulpian, shut the door, and sit down here close to me."
Dr. Grey complied; and, laying her shrunken hand on her brother's knee, Miss Jane said, hesitatingly,—
"My dear boy, I don't know whether I ought to tell you, and, indeed, I do not see my way clearly; but you seem so unsuspecting that I think it is my duty to talk to you."
"Pray come to the point, dear Janet. Your exordium is very tantalizing. Tell me frankly what disturbs you."
"It pains me to call your attention to a fact that I know cannot fail to produce annoyance."
He put his arm around her, and, drawing her head to his shoulder, answered, tenderly,—
"My precious sister, I have seen for some days that you were perplexed and anxious, but I abstained from questioning you because I felt assured whenever you deemed it best to confide in me, you would voluntarily unburden your heart. Now lay all your troubles upon me, and keep back nothing. Has Salome grieved you?"
"Oh, the child does not intend to grieve me! Ulpian, can't you imagine what makes her unhappy, and restless, and contrary?"
"She is very wayward, passionate, and obstinate, and any restraint upon her whims is peculiarly irksome and intolerable to her; but I believe she is really striving to correct the unfortunate defects in her character. She evidently dislikes our guests, and this proves a continual source of disquiet to her; for, while she endeavors to treat them courteously, I can see that she would be excessively rude if she dared to indulge her antipathies."
"Do you know why she dislikes Muriel so intensely?"
"No; I cannot even conjecture. Muriel is very amiable and affectionate, and seems disposed to become very fond of Salome, if she would only encourage her advances. Can you explain the mystery?"
"If you were not as blind as a mole, or the fish in Mammoth Cave, you would see that Salome is insanely jealous of your affection for your ward, and that is the cause of all the trouble."
"It is unreasonable and absurd in her to entertain such feelings; and, moreover, she has no right to cherish any jealousy towards my ward."
"Unreasonable! Yes, quite true; but did you ever know a woman to be very reasonable concerning the man she loves?"
Dr. Grey's quiet face flushed, and he rose instantly, looking incredulous and embarrassed.
"Surely, my dear sister, you do not intend to insinuate, or desire me to infer, that Salome has any—"
He paused, bit his lip, and walked to the window.
"I mean to say, in plain Anglo-Saxon, and I desire you to understand, that Salome is no longer a child; and that she loves you, my dear boy, better than she will ever love any other human being. These things are very strange, indeed, and girls' whims baffle all rules and disappoint all reasonable expectations; but, nevertheless, it does no good to shut your eyes to facts that are as clear as daylight. It is not a sudden freak that has seized the poor child; it has grown upon her, almost without her understanding herself; but I discovered it the day that you left home so unexpectedly for New York. Her distress betrayed her real feelings; and, since then, I have watched her, and can see how completely her thoughts centre in you."
"Oh, Janet, I hope you mistake her! I cannot believe it possible, for I recall nothing in her conduct that justifies your supposition; and I do not think I lack penetration. If she were really interested in me, as you imagine, she certainly would not thrust so prominently and constantly before me faults of character which she well knows I cannot tolerate. Moreover, my dear sister, consider the disparity in our years, the incompatibility of our tastes and habits, and the improbability that a handsome young girl should cherish any feeling stronger than esteem or friendship for a staid man of my age! No, no; it is too incredible to be entertained, and I am sorry you ever suggested such an annoying chimera to me. Salome is rather a singular compound, I willingly admit, but I acquit her of the folly you seem inclined to impute to her."
Dr. Grey walked up and down the library floor, and, as his sister watched him, a sad smile trembled over her thin, wrinkled face.
"Ulpian, you are considerably younger than our poor father was when he married a beautiful creature not one month older than Salome is to-day. Will you sit in judgment on your own young mother?"
"Nay, Janet; the parallelism is not as apparent as you imagine, for my manner toward Salome has been calculated to check and chill any sentiment analogous to that which my father sought to win from my mother. Pray, do not press upon me a surmise which is indescribably painful to me."
He resumed his seat, and, thrusting his fingers through his hair, leaned his head on his open hand.
"My dear boy, if true, why should it prove indescribably painful to you?"
"Cannot your womanly intuitions spare me an explicit reply?"
"No; speak frankly to me."
"No man of honor—no man who has any delicacy or refinement of feeling—can fail to be distressed and annoyed by the thought that he has unintentionally and unconsciously aroused in a woman's heart an interest which he cannot possibly reciprocate."
"But, if you have never considered the subject until now, how do you know that you may not be able to return the affection?"
"Because, when I examine my own heart, I find not even the germ of a feeling which years might possibly ripen into love."
"Will you candidly answer the question I am about to ask you?"
"Yes, I think I can safely promise that much, simply because I wish to conceal nothing from you; and I cannot conjecture any inquiry on your part from which I should shrink. What would you ask?"
"Is it because you are interested in some other woman, that you speak so positively of the hopelessness of my poor Salome's case?"
"No, my sister; no woman has any claim or hold on my heart stronger than that of mere friendship. I have never loved any one as I must love the woman I make my wife; and since I have seen and merely admired so many who were attractive, lovely, and lovable, I often think that I shall probably never marry.
... 'For several virtues I have liked several women; never any With so full a soul, but some defect in her Did quarrel with the noblest grace she owned, And put it to a foil.'
Of course this is a matter with reference to which I shall not dogmatize, for we are all more or less the victims of caprice; and, like other men, I may some day set the imperious feet of fancy upon the neck of judgment and sound reason. As yet, I have not met the perfect character whom I could ask to bear my name; still, I may be so fortunate as either to find my ideal, or imagine that I do; or else become so earnestly attached to some beautiful woman, that, for her sake, I will willingly lower my lofty standard. These are the merest possible contingencies, and I have little inclination to discuss them; but I wish at all times to be entirely frank with you. Salome would never suit me as a life-long companion. She meets none of the requirements of my intellectual nature, and her perverse disposition, and what might almost be termed diablerie, repel instead of attracting me. I pity the child, and can sympathize cordially with her efforts to redeem herself from the luckless associations of earlier years that wofully distorted her character; and I can truly say that I am interested in her welfare and improvement, and have a faint brotherly affection for her; but I thoroughly comprehend my own feelings when I assure you, Janet, that were Salome and I left alone in the world I could never for a moment entertain the idea of calling such a wayward child my wife. Are you satisfied?"
"Convinced, at least, that you are not deceiving me. But, Ulpian, the girl is growing very beautiful—don't you think so?—or, is it my love that makes me see her through flattering lenses?"
"Her lips are too thin, and her eyes too keen and restless for perfect beauty, which claims repose as one of its essential elements; but, notwithstanding these flaws, she has undoubtedly one of the handsomest faces I have ever seen, and certainly a graceful, fine figure."
"And you are such an admirer of beauty," said Miss Jane, slipping her fingers caressingly into her brother's hand.
"Yes; I shall not deny that I yield to no one in appreciation of lovely faces; but, if I am aware that, like some rich crimson June rose whose calyx cradles a worm, the heart beneath the perfect form is gnawed by some evil tendency, or shelters vindictive passion and sinful impulses, I should certainly not select it in making up the precious bouquet that is to shed perfume and beauty in my home, and call my thoughts from the din and strife of the outer world to holiness and peace."
"You have no mercy on the child."
"I ought to have no mercy on glaring faults which she should ere this have corrected."
"But she is so young—only seventeen! Think of it!"
Dr. Grey frowned, and partially withdrew his hand from his sister's clasp.
"Janet, you grieve me. Surely you are not pleading with me in behalf of Salome?"
Tears trickled over Miss Jane's sallow cheeks and dripped on the doctor's hand, as she replied,—
"Bear with me, Ulpian. The girl is very dear to me; and, loving you as she unquestionably does, I know that you could make her a noble, admirable woman,—for she has some fine traits, and your influence would perfect her character. Believe me, my dear boy, you, and you only, can remould her heart."
"Possibly,—if I loved her; for then I would be patient and forbearing towards her faults. But I cannot even respect that handsome, fiery, impulsive, unreasonable child, much less love her; and, if I ever marry, my wife must be worthy to remould my own defective life and erring nature. I am surprised, my dear sister, that you, whose sincere affection I can not doubt, should be willing to see me link my life with that of one so much younger, and, I grieve to say it, so far inferior in all respects. What congenial companionship could I promise myself? What confidence could I repose—what esteem could I entertain—for a silly girl, who, without warrant and utterly unsought, bestows her love (if, indeed, what you say be true) upon a man who never even dreamed of such folly, and is old enough to be her father?"
"I can not comprehend the logic that condemns Salome, and justifies your own mother; for, if there be any difference in their lines of conduct, I am too stupid to see it."
Miss Jane lifted her head from her brother's shoulder, resolutely dried her eyes, and settled her cap.
"My mother's tombstone should shelter her from all animadversion, especially from the lips that owe their existence to her. Do not, my sister, disturb the mouldering ashes of the long-buried past. The unfortunate fact you have mentioned, and which I should gladly doubt if you would only permit me to do so, renders it necessary for me to be perfectly candid with you, and you will, I trust, pardon what I feel compelled to say to you. I have remarked that you watch me quite closely whenever I am engaged in conversation with my ward or her governess, and yesterday, when Muriel came, stood by me, and leaned her arm on my shoulder, you frowned and looked harshly at the child. Once for all, let me tell you that there is no more possibility of my loving Muriel or Edith, than Salome. Of the three, I care most for Muriel, who looks upon me as her second father, and to whom I am deeply attached. If I caress the poor, stricken child, and allow her to approach me familiarly, you ought to understand your brother sufficiently well not to ascribe his conduct to any feeling which he would blush to confess to his sister. The day before Horace died, he said, 'Be a father to my daughter; take my place when I am gone.' If I were at liberty to divulge some matters confided to me, I could easily assure you that there is not a shadow of possibility that Muriel will ever grieve and mortify me as Salome has done. Now look at me, dear Janet, and kiss me, and trust your brother; for he will never deceive you, and can not endure a moment's estrangement from you."
Miss Jane put up her lips for the caress, and, after a short silence, Dr. Grey continued,—
"Tell me now what you think best under the circumstances, and I will endeavor to cooperate with you. Does Salome know you are cognizant of her weakness—her misfortune—"
He stammered, and again his face flushed.
"Upon my word, Ulpian, you are positively blushing! Don't worry yourself, dear, over what can not be helped, or at least is attributable to no fault of yours. No; you may be sure Salome would be drawn, quartered, and broiled, before she would confess to me the feeling which she does not suspect I have discovered. Poor thing! I can't avoid pitying her whenever you take Muriel's hand or caress her in any way. This morning you smoothed the hair back from her forehead while she was stooping over her drawing, and poor Salome's eyes flashed and looked like a leopard's. She clenched her fingers as if she were strangling something, and an expression came over her face that was dangerous, and made me shiver a little. Something must be done; but I am sure I do not know what to advise."
"How futile and mocking are merely human schemes! My principal object in bringing Muriel and Miss Dexter here, was to provide agreeable and improving companions for your pet and to afford her the privilege of sharing the educational advantages which Muriel enjoyed. L'homme propose, et Dieu dispose, if, indeed, an occurrence so earnestly to be deplored can be deemed providential. What are her plans relative to Jessie?"
"If she has matured any, she keeps them shut up in her own heart. Once she talked freely to me on all subjects, but recently she seems to avoid acquainting me with her intentions or schemes. Of course, Ulpian, you know I have always expected to leave her a portion of my property."
"Certainly, dear Janet; you ought to provide comfortably for the girl whom you have taught to rely upon your bounty. It would be cruel and unpardonable to foster hopes that you could not fully realize."
"It was my intention to put into your hands the share I intended for her, and to leave her also to your care, when I die; but now I know not what is best. If she could be separated from you, she might divert her thoughts and become interested in other things or persons; but so long as you are in the same house I know there will be nothing but wretchedness and disappointment for her."
After a long pause, during which Dr. Grey looked seriously pained and perplexed, he said, sorrowfully,—
"You are right in thinking separation would be best; and I will go away at once—"
"Go where?" exclaimed his sister, grasping his coat-sleeve.
"I will furnish the rooms over my office, and live there. It will be more convenient for my business; but I dislike to leave you and the dear old homestead."
"Stuff! You will churn the Atlantic, with the North Pole for a dasher! Ulpian Grey! come weal come woe, I don't intend to give you up. Here, right here, you will live while there is breath in my body,—unless you wish to make me sob it out and die the sooner. Pooh! Salome's shining eyes can not recompense me for the loss of my boy's blue ones, and I will not hear of such nonsense as the move you propose. You know, dear, I can't be here very long at the best, and while God spares me I want you near me. Besides, the separation of a few miles would not be worth a thimbleful of chaff; for, of course, Salome would hear of or see you daily, and the change would amount to nothing but anxiety and grief on my part. We will think the matter over, and do nothing rashly. But try to be patient with my little girl; and, for my sake, Ulpian, do not allow her to suspect that you dream of her feeling towards you. It is pitiable,—it is distressing beyond expression; and God knows, if I had thought for an instant that such a state of things would ever have come to pass, I would have left her in the poor-house sooner than have been instrumental in bringing such misery upon her young life. Last night I was suffering so much with my shoulder that I could not sleep, and I heard the child pacing her room until after three o'clock. It was useless to question her; for, of course, she would not confess the real cause, and I did not wish her to know that I noticed what I could not cure. But, my dearest boy, we are not to be blamed; so don't look so mortified and grieved. I would not have opened your unsuspecting eyes if I had not feared that your ignorance of the truth might increase the trouble, and I knew I could safely appeal to my sailor-boy's honor. Now you know all, and must be guided by your own good sense and delicacy in your future course toward the poor, proud young thing. Be guarded, Ulpian, and don't torment her by petting Muriel in her presence; for sometimes I am afraid there is bad blood in her veins, that brings that wicked glow to her eyes, and I dread that she might suddenly say or do some desperate thing that would plunge us all in sorrow. You know she is not a meek creature, and we must pity her weakness."
Dr. Grey had grown very pale, and the profound regret printed on his countenance found expression also in the deepened and saddened tones of his voice.
"Trust me, Janet! I will do all a man can to rectify the mischief, of which, God knows, I have been an innocent and entirely unintentional cause. Salome's course is unwomanly, and lowers her in my estimation; but she is so young I shall hope and pray that her preference for me is not sufficiently strong to prove more than an idle, fleeting, girlish fancy."
He took his gloves from the table and left the room; and, for some time after his departure, his sister sat rocking herself to and fro, pondering all that had passed. Finally, she struck her hand decisively upon the cushioned top of her crutch, and muttered,—
"Yes, he certainly is as nearly perfect as humanity can be; but, after all, Ulpian Grey is only flesh and blood, and despite his efforts to crush it, there must be some vanity hidden under his proud humility,—for certainly he is both humble in one sense, and inordinately proud in another; and I do not believe there lives a man of his age who would not be flattered by the love of a fresh young beauty like Salome. He thinks now that he is distressed and mortified; and, of course, he is honest in what he tells me; but I have studied human nature to very little purpose for the last fifty years, if, before long, he does not find himself more interested in Salome than he will be willing to confess. Her love for him will invest her with a charm she never possessed before, for men are vulnerable as women to the cunning advances of flattery. One thing is as sure and clear as that two and two make four,—if he is proof against Salome's devotion it will be attributable to the fact that he gives his heart to some one else; and I thought his blue eyes rather shied away from mine when he said he had yet to meet the woman he could marry. You don't intend to deceive me, my precious boy, I know you don't; but I should not be astounded if you had hoodwinked yourself,—a very little. But 'sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,' and I will wait,—and we shall see what we shall see."
"Elsie, it is worse than useless to talk to me. Once I could listen to you,—once I felt as you do now; but that time has gone by forever. I will read to you as often as you desire it, provided you do not make every chapter a text for a sermon. What do you wish to hear this morning?"
"The fortieth Psalm."
Mrs. Gerome opened the Bible, and, when she had finished the psalm designated, shut the book and laid it back close to Elsie's pillow.
The old woman placed her hand on the round, white arm of her mistress, who rested carelessly against the bed.
"You know, my child, that David's afflictions were sore indeed; but he declares, 'I waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.' You will not be patient, and God can't help you till you are. We are like children punished for bad conduct,—as long as we rebel and struggle, of course we must be still further chastised; but the moment we show real penitence, our parents notice that we are bearing correction patiently, and then they throw away the rod and stretch out their arms, and snatch us close to their loving hearts. Even so God holds one hand to draw us tenderly to Him; and, if we are obstinately sinful, with the other He scourges us into the right path,—determined to help us, even against our own wills. Ah, if I could see you waiting patiently for the Lord!"
"You will never see it. Patience was 'scourged' out of me, and now I stand still because I am worn out with struggling, waiting—not patiently, but wearily and helplessly—to see the end of my punishment. What have I done that I should feign a penitence I shall never feel? I was a happy, trusting, unoffending woman, when God smote me fiercely; and, because I was so innocent, I could not kiss my stinging rod, I grappled desperately with it. Elsie, don't stir up the bitter dregs in my soul, and mix them with every thought. Let them settle."
"My darling, I don't want them to settle. I pray either that they may be stirred up and taken out, or sweetened by the grace of God. Do you ever think of the day when you will face your sainted mother?"
"No. I think only of enduring this present life until death, my deliverer, comes to my rescue."
"But, my bairn, you are not fit to die."
"Fit to die as to live," answered her mistress, morosely.
"For God's sake, don't flout the Almighty in that wicked manner! If you would only be baptized and take refuge in prayer, as every Christian should, you would find peace for your poor, miserable soul."
"No; peace can't be poured out of a pitcher with the baptismal water; and all the waves tossing and glittering out there in the ocean could not wash one painful memory from my heart. I have had one baptism, and it was ample and thorough. I went down into the waters of woe, and all their black billows broke over me. Instead of the Jordan, I was immersed in the Dead Sea, and the asphaltum cleaves to me."
"Oh, dearie, you will break my heart! I wish now that you had died when you were only fourteen months old, for then there would have been one more precious lamb in the flock of the Good Shepherd, safe in heavenly pastures—one more dear little golden head nestling on Jesus' bosom,—instead of—of—"
Elsie's emotion mastered her voice, and she sobbed convulsively.
"Why did not you finish? 'Instead of a gray head waiting to go down into the pit of perdition.' Yes, it was a terrible blunder that I was not allowed to die in my infancy; but it can't be helped now, and I wish you would not fret yourself into a fever over the irremediable. Why will you persist in tormenting yourself and me about my want of resignation and faith, when you know that exhortation and persuasion have no more effect upon me than the whistle of the plover down yonder in the sedge and seaweed,—where I heartily wish I were lying, ten feet under the shells? Rather a damp pillow for my fastidious, proud head, but, at least, cool and quiet. Calm yourself, my dear Elsie, for God will not hold you responsible if I miss my place among the saints, when He divides the sheep from the goats, in the last day,—Dies irae dies illa. Let me straighten your pillow and smooth your cap-border, for I see your doctor coming up the walk. There,—dry your eyes. When you want me, send Robert or Katie to call me."
Mrs. Gerome leaned over the helpless, prostrate form on the bed, pressed her cheek against that of her nurse, where tears still glistened, and glided swiftly out of the room just before Dr. Grey entered.
Never had he seen his patient so completely unnerved; but, observing her efforts to compose herself, he forbore any allusion to an agitation which he suspected was referable to mental rather than physical causes. Bravely the stubborn woman struggled to steady her voice, and still the twitching tell-tale muscles about her mouth; but the burden of anxiety finally bore down all resolves, and, covering her face with her broad hand, she wept unrestrainedly.
In profound silence Dr. Grey sat beside her for nearly five minutes; then, fearful that the excitement might prove injurious, he said, gently,—
"I hope you are not suffering so severely from bodily pain? What distresses you, my good woman? Perhaps, if I knew the cause, I might be able to render you some service."
"It is not my body,—that, you know, is numb, and gives me no pain,—but my mind! Doctor, I am suffering in mind, and you have no medicine that can ease that."
"Possibly I may accomplish more than you imagine is within reach of my remedies. Of one thing you may rest assured,—you will never have reason to regret any confidence you may repose in me."
"Dr. Grey, I believe you are a Christian; at least, I have heard so; and, since my affliction, I have been watching you very closely, and begin to think I can trust you. Are you a member of the church?"
"I am; although that fact alone should not entitle me to your confidence. We are all erring, and full of faults, but I endeavor to live in such a manner that I shall not bring disgrace upon the holy faith I profess."
"Shut the door, and come back to me."
He bolted the door, which stood ajar, and resumed his seat.
"Dr. Grey, I know as well as you do that I can't last a great while, and I ought to prepare for what may overtake me any day. I have tried to live in accordance with the law of God, and I am not afraid to die; but I am afraid to leave my mistress behind me. When I am gone there will be no one to watch over and plead with her, and I dread lest her precious soul may be lost. She won't go to God for herself, or by herself, and who will pray for her salvation when I am in my shroud? Oh, I can not die in peace, leaving her alone in the world she hates and despises! What will become of my poor, bonnie bairn?"
Elsie sobbed aloud, and Dr. Grey asked,—
"Has Mrs. Gerome no living relatives?"
"None, sir, in America. There are some cousins in Scotland, but she has never seen them, and never will."
"Where are the members of her husband's family?"
A visible shudder crept over that portion of the woman's body which was not paralyzed, and her face grew dark and stern.
"He was an orphan."
"His loss seems to have had a terrible effect upon Mrs. Gerome, and rendered her bitter and hopeless."
"How hopeless, none but she and I and the God above us know. Once she was the meekest, sweetest spirit, that ever gladdened a nurse's heart, and I thought the world was blessed by her coming into it; but now she is sacrilegious and scoffing, and almost dares the Lord's judgments. Dr. Grey, it would nearly freeze your blood to hear her sometimes. Poor thing! she will have no companions, and so has a habit of talking to herself, and I often hear her arguing with the Almighty about her life, and the trouble He allowed to fall into it. Last night she was walking there under my window, begging God to take her out of the world before I die. Begging, did I say? Nay,—demanding. My precious, pretty bairn!"
"Elsie, be candid with me. Is not Mrs. Gerome partially deranged?"
She struggled violently to raise herself, but failing, her head fell back, and she lifted her finger angrily.
"No more deranged than you or I. That is a vile slander of busybodies whom she will not receive, and who take it for granted that no lady in her sound senses would refuse the privilege of gossiping with them. She is as sane as any one, though there is an unnatural appearance about her, and if her heart was only as sound as her head I could die easily. They started the report of craziness long, long ago, in order to get hold of her fortune; but it was too infamous a scheme to succeed."
Elsie's strong white teeth were firmly set, and her clenched fingers did not relax.
"Who started the report of her insanity?"
"One who injured her, and made her what you see her."
"She had no children?"
"Oh, no! Once I begged her to adopt a pretty little orphan girl we saw in Athens, but she ridiculed me for an old fool, and asked me if I wished to see her warm a viper to sting what was left of her heart."
"Mrs. Gerome has indulged her grief for her husband's loss, until she has become morbidly sensitive. She should go into the world, and interest herself in benevolent schemes; and, ultimately, her diseased thoughts would flow into new and healthful channels. The secluded life she leads is a hotbed for the growth of noxious fungi in heart and mind. If you possess any influence over her, persuade her to re-enter society. She is still young enough to find not only a cure for her grief, but an ample share of even earthly happiness."
Elsie sighed, and waved her hand impatiently.
"You do not know all, or you would understand that in this world she can not expect much happiness. Besides, she is peculiarly sensitive about her appearance; and, of course, when she is seen, people stare, and wonder how such a young thing got that pile of white hair. That is the reason she quit travelling and shut herself up here."
"Was it grief that prematurely silvered her hair?"
"Yes, sir; it was as black as your coat, until her trouble came; and then in a fortnight it turned as gray as you see it now. Doctor, I said she was not deranged, and I spoke truly; but sometimes I have feared that, when I am gone, she might get desperate, and, in her loneliness, destroy herself. You are a sensible man, and can hold your tongue, and I feel that I can trust you. Now, I know that Robert loves her, and while he lives will serve her faithfully; but you are wiser than my son, and I should be better satisfied if I left her in your charge, when I go home. Will you promise me to take care of her, and to try to comfort her in the day when she sees me buried?"
"Elsie, you impose upon me a duty which I am afraid Mrs. Gerome will not allow me to discharge; and, since she is so exceedingly averse to meeting strangers, I should not feel justified in thrusting myself into her presence."
"Not even to prevent a crime?"
"I hope that your excited imagination and anxious heart exaggerate the possibility of the danger to which you allude."
"No; exaggeration is not one of my habits, and I know my mistress better than she knows herself. She thinks that suicide is not a sin, but says it is cowardly; and she utterly detests and loathes cowardice. Dr. Grey, I could not rest quietly in my coffin if she is left alone in this dreary house, after I am carried to my long home. Will you stay here awhile, or take her to your house,—at least for a short time?"
"I will, at all events, promise to comply with your wishes as fully as she will permit. But recollect that I am comparatively a stranger to her, and her haughty reception of me the day I was compelled to come here on your account, does not encourage me to presume in future. Respect for her wishes, however unreasonable, and respect for myself, would forbid an intrusion on my part."
"If you saw an utter stranger drowning, would fear of being considered presumptuous or impertinent prevent your trying to save him? Your self-love should not hold you back from a Christian duty."
"And you may rest assured that it never shall, when I feel that interference—no matter how unwelcome or ungraciously received—will prove beneficial. But remember that your mistress is eccentric and shrinking, and all efforts to befriend her must be made very cautiously."
"True, doctor; yet sometimes, instead of consulting her, it is best to treat her as a wilful child. I believe you could obtain some influence over her if you would only try to break the ice, because she has spoken kindly of you several times since I have been so helpless, and asked what she could do to show her gratitude for your goodness to me. Yesterday she said she intended to direct Robert to take some fine fruit to your house, and she remarked that your eyes were, in comparison with other folks', what Sabbath is to working week-days,—were so full of rest, that tired anxious people might be refreshed by looking at them. Sir, that is more than I have heard her utter for seven years about anybody; and, therefore, I think you might do her some good."
Dr. Grey shook his head, but remained silent; and presently Elsie touched his arm, and continued,—
"There is something I wish to say to you before I die, but not now. I want you to promise me that when you see my end is indeed at hand, you will tell me in time to let me talk a little to you. Will you?"
"You may linger for months, and it is possible that you may die quite suddenly; consequently, it might be impracticable for me to fulfil the promise you require. Still, if I can do so, I will certainly comply with your wishes. Would it not be better to tell me at once what you desire me to know?"
"While I live it is not necessary that any one should know, and it is only when I am about to die that I shall speak to you. For my sake, for humanity's sake, try to become acquainted with my mistress and make her like you, as she certainly will, if she only knows you."
A tap at the door interrupted the conversation, and soon after, Dr. Grey quitted the sick-room.
He paused in the hall to examine a fine copy of Landseer's "Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner," and, while he stood before it, a large greyhound started up from the mat at the front door, and bounded towards him. Simultaneously Mrs. Gerome appeared at the threshold of the parlor.
"Come here, sir! Poor fellow, come here!"
The dog obeyed her instantly; and, pressing close to her, looked up wistfully in her face.
"Good morning, Mrs. Gerome. I must thank you for coming so promptly to my assistance. I have never seen this dog until to-day, and, consequently, was not on my guard."
"He arrived only yesterday, and is so overjoyed to be with me once more that he allows no one else to approach."
"He is by far the handsomest dog I have ever seen in America."
"Yes, I had great difficulty in obtaining him. My agent assures me that he belongs to the best that are reared in the tribe of Beni Lam; and that he is a genuine Arab, there can be no doubt."
"How long have you owned him?"
"Two years. Unfortunately he was bitten by a snake one day while wandering with me among the ruins at Paestum, and was so singularly affected that I was forced to leave him at Naples. Various causes combined to delay his restoration to me until last week, when he crossed the Atlantic; and yesterday he went into ecstasies when I received him from the express agent. Hush! no growling! Down, sir! Take care, Dr. Grey; he will bear no hand but mine, and it is rather dangerous to caress him, as you may judge from the fangs he is showing you."
The dog was remarkably tall, silky, beautifully formed, and of a soft mole-color; and around his neck a collar formed of four small silver chains, bore an oval silver plate on which was engraved in German text, "Ich Dien—Agla Gerome."
"I congratulate you upon the possession of such a treasure," said the visitor, with unfeigned admiration,—as, with the eye of a connoisseur, he noted the fine points about the sleek, slim animal, who eyed him suspiciously.
"Thank you. How is Elsie to-day?"
"More nervous than I have seen her since the accident, and some of her symptoms are rather discouraging, though there is no immediate danger. Do not look so hopeless; she may be spared to you for many months."
"Why will you not let me hope that she may ultimately recover?"
"Because it is utterly futile, and I have no desire to deceive you, even for an instant. Good morning, Robert."
The gardener approached with a large basket filled with peaches and nectarines, and, taking off his hat, bowed profoundly.
"My mistress ordered these placed in your buggy, as I believe our nectarines ripen earlier than any others in the neighborhood."
"Thank you, Maclean. Mrs. Gerome is exceedingly kind, and I have an invalid sister who will enjoy this beautiful fruit. Those nectarines would not disgrace Smyrna or Damascus, and are the first of the season."
Robert passed through the hall, bearing the basket to the buggy; and at that instant there was a startling crash, as of some heavy article falling in the parlor. The dog sprang up with a howl, and Dr. Grey followed Mrs. Gerome into the room to ascertain the cause of the noise. A glance sufficed to explain that a picture in a heavy frame had fallen from a hook above the mantelpiece, and in its descent overturned some tall vases, which now lay shattered on the hearth. Dr. Grey lifted the painting from the rubbish, and, as he turned the canvas towards the light, Mrs. Gerome said,—
"'Une tristesse implacable, une effroyable fatalite pese sui l'oeuvre de l'artiste. Cela ressemble a une malediction amere, lancee sur le sort de l'humanite.' There is, indeed, some fatality about that copy of Durer's 'Knight, Death, and the Devil,' which seems really ill-omened, for this is the second time it has fallen. Thank you, sir. The frame only is injured, and I will not trouble you to remove it. Let it lean against the grate, until I have it rehung more securely."
"It is too grim a picture for these walls, and stares at its companions like the mummy at Egyptian banquets."
"On the contrary, it impresses me as grotesque in comparison with Durer's 'Melancholy,' yonder, or with Holbein's 'Les Simulachres de la mort.'"
"Durer's figure of 'Melancholy' has never satisfied me, and there is more ferocity than sadness in the countenance, which would serve quite as well for one of the Erinney hunting Orestes, even in the adytum at Delphi. The face is more sinister than sorrowful."
"Since your opinion of that picture coincides so entirely with mine, tell me whether I have successfully grasped Coleridge's dim ideal."
Mrs. Gerome drew from a corner of the rear room an easel containing a finished but unframed picture; and, gathering up the lace curtain drooping before the arch, she held the folds aside, to allow the light to fall full on the canvas.
"Before you examine it, recall the description that suggested it."
"I am sorry to say that my recollection of the passage is exceedingly vague and unsatisfactory. Will you oblige me by repeating it?"
"Excuse me; your hand is resting upon the book, which is open at the fragment."
Dr. Grey bowed, and, lifting the volume from the table glanced rapidly over the lines designated, then turned to the picture, where, indeed,
"Stretched on a mouldering abbey's broadest wall, Where ruining ivies propped the ruins steep, Her folded arms wrapping her tattered pall, Had Melancholy mused herself to sleep. The fern was pressed beneath her hair, The dark green adder's tongue was there; And still as past the flagging sea-gale weak, The long, lank leaf bowed fluttering o'er her cheek. That pallid cheek was flushed; her eager look Beamed eloquent in slumber! Inly wrought, Imperfect sounds her moving lips forsook, And her bent forehead worked with troubled thought."
The beautiful face of the reclining figure was dreamily hopeless and dejected, yet pathetically patient; and, in the strange amber light reflected from a sunset sea, the fringy shadow of a cluster of fern-leaves seemed to quiver over the pale brow and still mouth, and floating raven hair, where the green snake glided with crest erect and forked tongue within an inch of one delicate, pearly ear. The gray stones of the lichen-spotted wall, the graceful sweep of the shrouding drab drapery, whose folds clung to the form and thence swung down from the edge of the rocky battlement, the mouldering ruins leaning against the quiet sky in the rear, and the glassy stretch of topaz-tinted sea in the foreground, were all painted with pre-Raphaelite exactness and verisimilitude, and every detail attested the careful, tender study, with which the picture had been elaborated.
Was it by accident or design that the woman on the painted wall bore a vague, mournful resemblance to the owner and creator? Dr. Grey glanced from Durer's "Melancholy" to the canvas on the easel; then his fascinated eyes dwelt on the dainty features of the artist, and he thought involuntarily of another Coleridgean image,—of the "pilgrim in whom the spring and the autumn, and the melancholy of both, seemed to have combined."
"Mrs. Gerome, in this wonderful embodiment of Coleridge's fragmentary ideal you have painted your own portrait."
"No, sir. Look again. My 'Melancholia' has a patient face, hinting of possible peace. When I design its companion, 'Desolation,' I may be pardoned if my canvas reflects what always fronts it."
"May I ask when you wrought out this extraordinary conception?"
"During the past month. The last touch was given this morning, and the paint is not yet dry on that cluster of purplish seaweed clinging to the base of the battlement. Last night I dreamed that Coleridge stood looking over my shoulder and while I worked he touched the sea, and it flushed a ruby red brighter than laudanum; and then he leaned down, and with a pencil wrote Dele across the fragment in his Sibylline Leaves.' To-day I tried the effect of the hint, but the amber water mellows the woman's features, and the ruby light rendered them sullen and rigid."
"Were I to judge from the bizarre themes that you select, I should be tempted to fear that the wizard spell of opium evoked some of these strangely beautiful creations of your brush. What suggested this picture?"
"You merely wish to complete your diagnosis of my psychological condition? If so, there is no reason why I should hesitate to tell you that while I was playing one of Chopin's Nocturnes the significance of the Polish 'Zael' perplexed me. In striving to analyze it, Coleridge's 'Melancholy' occurred to my mind, and teased and haunted me until I wrought it out palpably. My work there means more than his fragment, and includes something which I suppose Chopin meant by that insynonymous word 'Zael.'"
Standing under the arch, with one hand holding back the lace drapery, the other hanging nerveless at her side, she looked as weird as any of her ideal creations; and, in the greenish seashine breaking through the dense foliage of the trees about the house, her wan face, snowy muslin dress, and floating white ribbons, seemed unsubstantial as the figures on the wall. To-day there was no spot of color in face or dress, save the azure gleam of the large, brilliant ring, on her uplifted hand; and, as Dr. Grey scrutinized her appearance, he found it difficult to realize that blood pulsed in that marble flesh, and warm breath fluttered in that firm, frigid mouth. Glancing around the rooms, he said,—
"Solitude is indeed a misnomer for a home peopled with such creations as adorn these walls."
"No. Have you forgotten the definition of Epictetus? 'To be friendless is solitude.'"
"I hope, madam, that you may never find yourself in that unfortunate category, and certainly there are—"
"Sir, I know what Michael Angelo felt when he wrote from Rome, 'I have no friends; I need none.'"
She interrupted him with an indescribably haughty gesture, and an anomalous spasm of the lips that belonged to no known class of smiles.
"On the contrary, Mrs. Gerome, the hunger for true friends has rendered you morose and cynical."
He did not shrink from the wide eyes that flashed like blue steel in moonshine; and as his own, calm, steady, and magnetic, dwelt gravely on her face, he fancied she winced, slightly.
"No, sir. When I hunt or recognize friends, I shall borrow Diogenes' lantern. Good morning, Dr. Grey."
"Pardon me if I detain you for a moment to inquire who taught you to paint."
"The absolute necessity of self-forgetfulness."
"But you surely had some tuition in the art?"
"Yes; I had the usual boarding-school privilege of a master for perspective, and pastel. Dr. Grey, have you been to Europe?"
"Yes, madam; on several occasions."
"You visited Dresden?"
"Step forward a little,—there. Now, sir, do you know that painting hanging over my escritoire?"
"It is Ruysdael's 'Churchyard,' and, from this distance, seems a remarkably fine copy of that sombre, desolate, ghoul-haunted picture."
"Thank you. That is the only piece of work of which I feel really proud. Some day, when the light is pure and strong, come in and examine it. Now there is a greenish tinge over all things in the room thrown by sea-shimmer through the clustering leaves. Ah, what a long, low, presageful moan that was, which broke from foaming lips, on yonder strand!"