"Good morning, Mrs. Gerome. The inspection of your pictures has yielded me so much pleasure that I must tender you my very sincere thanks for your courtesy."
She bowed distantly; and, when he reached his buggy, he glanced back and saw that perfect, pallid face, pressed against the cedar facing of the oriel, looking seaward. He lifted his hat, but she did not observe the salute; and, as he drove away, she kept her eyes upon the murmuring waves, and repeated, as was her habit, the lines that chanced to present themselves,—
"Listen! you hear the solemn roar Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence, slow, and bring The eternal note of sadness in. Sophocles, long ago, Heard it on the AEgean, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery."
"Miss Dexter, where is Muriel?" asked Dr. Grey, glancing around the library, where the governess sat sewing, while Salome read aloud a passage in Ariosto.
"She is not very well, and went up stairs, two hours ago, to rest. Do you wish to see her immediately?"
"Yes. Call her down."
When the teacher left the room, Dr. Grey approached the table where Salome sat, and looked over her shoulder.
"I went to the Asylum to-day, and found little Jessie very well, but quite dissatisfied because you visit her so rarely. You should see her as often as possible, since she is so dependent upon you for sympathy and affection."
"Miss Dexter gives a flattering report of your aptitude for acquiring languages, and assures me that you will soon speak Italian fluently."
"Miss Dexter doubtless believes that praise of a pupil reflects credit on the skill of the teacher. Unfortunately for her flattering estimate of me, I must disclaim all polyglot proclivities, and have no intention of eclipsing Mezzofanti, Max Muller, or Giovanni Pico Mirandola. I needed, for a special purpose, a limited acquaintance with Italian; and, as I have attained what I desired, I shall not trouble myself much longer with dictionaries and grammars."
"And that special purpose—"
"Concerns nobody else, consequently I keep it to myself."
He turned from her and advanced to meet his ward, who came rapidly forward, holding out both hands.
"Doctor, where have you been all day? I did not see you at breakfast or dinner, and it seems quite an age since yesterday afternoon. You see I am moping, horribly."
"My dear child, I see you are looking pale and weary, which is overt and unpardonable treason. I sent for you to ask if it would be agreeable to you to walk, or drive with me."
"Certainly,—either or both."
She had placed her hands in his, and stood looking up joyfully into his quiet countenance.
"Get your hat, while I order my buggy brought to the door."
"Thank you, my dear doctor. The very thing I longed for, as I noticed you riding up the avenue. I never saw you on horseback until to-day. It is a delightful evening for a drive."
She gaily swung his hands, like a gratified child, and started off for her hat, but, ere she crossed the threshold, turned back, and, walking up to her guardian, laid her arm on his shoulder and whispered something.
He laughed, and put his hand under her chin, saying, as he did so,—
"Little witch! How did you know it?"
Her reply was audible only to the ears for which it was framed, and she darted away, evidently much happier than she had seemed for many days.
While awaiting her return, Dr. Grey picked up her sketch-book, and was examining the contents, when Salome rose and hurried towards the door. As she passed him, his back was turned, and her muslin dress swept within reach of his spur, which caught the delicate fabric. She impatiently jerked the dress to disengage it, but it clung to the steel points, and a long rent was made in the muslin. With a half-smothered ejaculation, she tried to wrench herself free, but the dress only tore across the breadth from seam to seam. Dr. Grey turned, and stooped to assist her.
"Wait an instant, Salome; you have almost ruined your dress."
He was endeavoring to disentangle the shreds from the jagged edge of the spur, but she bent down, and, seizing the skirt in both hands, tore it away, leaving a large fragment trailing from the boot-heel.
"'More haste, less speed.' Patience is better than petulance, my young friend."
His grave, reproving voice, rendered her defiant; and, with a forced, unnatural laugh, she bowed, and hurried away, saying, as she looked over her shoulder,—
"And spurs than persuasion? You mistake my nature."
Dr. Grey had been riding, all the morning, across a broken stretch of country, where the roads were exceedingly insecure, and, as he removed the troublesome spur and laid it on the mantelpiece, he folded up the strip of muslin and put it into his pocket.
"I am waiting for you," cried Muriel, from the hall door.
He sighed, and went to his buggy; but the cloud did not melt from his brow, for, as he drove off, he noticed Salome's gleaming eyes peering from the window of her room; and pity and pain mingled in the emotions with which he recalled his sister's warning words.
"Muriel, here is your letter, and, better still, Gerard will be with us to-morrow. Diplomatic affairs brought him temporarily to Washington, and he will spend next week with us. I cordially congratulate you, my dear child, and hastened home to bring you the good news, which I felt assured you would prefer to receive without witnesses."
Muriel's blushing face was bent over her letter; but she put her hand on her guardian's, and pressed it vigorously.
"A thousand thanks for all your goodness! Gerard writes that it was through your influence he was enabled to visit Washington; and, indeed, dear Dr. Grey, we are both very grateful for your kind interest in our happiness. Even poor papa could not be more considerate."
"For several days past I have observed that you were unusually depressed, and that Miss Dexter looked constrained. Are you not pleasantly situated in my sister's house. Do not hesitate to speak frankly."
Muriel's eyes filled with tears, and she answered, evasively,—
"Miss Jane is very kind and affectionate."
"Which means that Salome is not."
"Dr. Grey, why does she dislike me so seriously? I have tried to be friendly and cordial towards her; but she constantly repels me. I really admire her very much; but I am afraid she positively hates me."
"No, that is impossible; but she is a very peculiar, and, I am sorry to be forced to say, an unamiable girl, and is governed by every idle caprice. I hope that you will not allow yourself to be annoyed by any want of courtesy which she may unfortunately have displayed. Although a member of the household, Salome has no right to dispense or to withhold the hospitalities of my sister's home, or to insult her guests; and I trust that her individual whims will have no effect whatever upon you, unless they create a feeling of compassion and toleration in your kind heart. She has some good traits hidden under her brusquerie, and when you know her better you will excuse her rudeness."
"Why is she so moody? I have not seen a pleasant smile on her face since I came here."
"My dear child, let us select some more agreeable topic for discussion. Gerard will probably arrive on the early train, which will enable him to breakfast with us to-morrow. He will endeavor to persuade you to return at once to Europe; but I must tell you, in advance of his proposal, that I hope you will not yield to his wishes, since it would grieve me to part with you so soon."
Muriel turned aside her head to avoid her guardian's penetrating gaze, and silently listened to his counsel concerning the course she should pursue towards her betrothed.
For a year they had been affianced without the knowledge of her father, from whom she had been separated; but the frankness with which both had discussed the matter with Dr. Grey forbade the possibility of his withholding his approbation of the engagement; though he assured them he could not consent to its speedy consummation, as Muriel was too young and childish to appreciate the grave responsibility of such a step. Gerard Granville was several years older than his betrothed, and Dr. Grey had been astonished at his choice; but a long and intimate acquaintance led him to esteem the young man so highly, that, while he felt that Muriel was far inferior, he strove to stimulate her ambition, and hoped she would one day be fully worthy of him.
To-day Dr. Grey drove for an hour through quiet, unfrequented country roads; and finally, when Muriel expressed herself anxious to catch a glimpse of the sea and a breath of its brine, he turned into a narrow track that led down to some fishermen's huts on the beach.
While they paused on the edge of the low, yellow strand, and inhaled the fresh ocean air, Dr. Grey grew silent, and his companion fell into a blissful reverie relative to to-morrow's events. Suddenly he placed his hand on her arm, and said, "Listen! What a wonderfully sweet, flexible voice! Surely, fishermen's wives are not singing Mendelssohn's compositions? Did you hear that gush of melody? It comes not from that house, but seems floating from the opposite direction. Such strains almost revive one's faith in the Hindoo Gandharvas,—musical genii, filling the air with ravishing sounds. There! is it not exquisite? Hold these reins while I ascertain who owns that marvellous voice."
Eager and curious as a boy, he sprang from the buggy, and, following the bend of the beach, passed two small deserted huts, and plunged into a grove of stunted trees, whence issued the sound that attracted his attention. Ere he had proceeded many yards he saw a woman sitting on a bank of sand and oyster-shells, and singing from an open sheet of music, while she made rapid gestures with one hand. Her face was turned from him, but, as he cautiously approached, the pose of the figure, the noble contour of the head and neck, and a certain muslin dress which matched the strip in his pocket, made his heart beat violently. Intent only on solving the mystery, he stepped softly towards her; but just then a brace of plover started up at his feet, and, as they whirred away, the woman turned her head, and he found himself face to face with his musician.
"Well, Dr. Grey."
She had risen, and a beautiful glow overspread her cheeks, as she met his eyes.
"What brings you to this lonely spot, three miles from home, when the sun has already gone down?"
"Have I not as unquestionable a right to walk alone to the seaside as you to drive your ward whithersoever you list? Poverty, as well as wealth, sometimes makes people strangely independent. What have you done with Miss Muriel Manton?"
There was such a sparkle in her eyes, such a bright flush on her polished cheeks and parted lips, that Dr. Grey wondered at her beauty, which had never before impressed him as so extraordinary.
"Salome, why have you concealed your musical gift from me? Who taught you to sing?"
"I am teaching myself, with such poor aid as I can obtain from that miserable vagabond, Barilli, who is generally intoxicated three days out of every six. Did you expect to find Heine's yellow-haired Loreley, or a treacherous Ligeia, sitting on a rock, wooing passers-by to speedy destruction?"
"I certainly did not expect to meet my friend Salome alone at this hour and place. Child, do not trifle with me,—be truthful. Did you come here to meet any one?"
"One never knows what may or may not happen. I came here to practise my music lesson, sans auditors, and I meet Dr. Grey,—the last person I expected or desired to see."
He came a step nearer, and put his hand on her shoulder.
"Salome, you distress and perplex me. My child, are you better or worse than I think you?"
She lifted her slender hand and laid it lightly on his, which still rested upon her shoulder.
"I am both,—better and worse. Better in aim than you believe; worse in execution than you could realize, even if I confessed all, which I have not the slightest intention of doing. Ah, Dr. Grey, if you read me thoroughly, you would not be surprised, or consider it presumptuous that I sometimes think I am that anomalous creature, whom Balzac defined as 'Angel through love, demon through fantasy, child through faith, sage through experience, man through the brain, woman through the heart, giant through hope, and poet through dreams.'"
As Dr. Grey looked down into the splendid eyes, softened and magnified by a crystal veil of unshed tears, he sighed, and answered,—
"You are, indeed, a bundle of contradictions. Why have you so sedulously concealed the existence of your fine voice, which the majority of girls would have been eager to exhibit?"
"It was not lack of vanity, but excess, that prompted me to keep you in ignorance, until I could astonish you by its perfection. You have anticipated me only by a few days, and I intended singing for you next week."
"It is not prudent for you to venture so far from home, especially at this hour."
"We paupers are not so fastidious as our lucky superiors, and cannot afford timid airs, and affectation of extreme nervousness. Having no escort, and expecting none, I walk alone in any direction I choose, with what fearlessness and contentment I find myself able to command."
"It will be dark before you can reach the public road."
"No, sir; there is a young moon swinging above the tree-tops, to light me on my lonesome ramble; and I come here so often that even the rabbits and whippoorwills know me. Where is Miss Muriel?"
"Waiting in the buggy, on the beach. I must go back to her."
"Yes. Pray do not delay an instant, or she will imagine that some dire calamity has befallen her knight, who, in hunting a siren, encountered Scylla or Charybdis. Good evening, Dr. Grey."
"I am unwilling to leave you here so unprotected. Come and ride with Muriel, and I will walk beside the buggy. My horse is so gentle that a child can guide him."
"Thank you. Not for a ten-acre lot in Mohammed's Paradise would I mar Miss Muriel's happiness, or punish myself by a tete-a-tete with her. It would be positively 'discourteous' in me to accept your proposal; and, moreover, I abhor division,—tout ou rien."
"Wilful, silly child! It is not proper for you to wander along that dreary road in the dark. Come with me."
"Not I. Make yourself easy by recollecting that 'naught is never in danger.' See yonder in the west,—
'Where, lo! above the sandy sunset rose The silver sickle of the green-gowned witch.'"
She laughed lightly, derisively, and collected the sheets of music scattered on the bank.
Silently Dr. Grey returned to his ward, who exclaimed, at sight of him,—
"I am glad to see you again, for you stayed so long I was growing frightened. Did you find the singer?"
"What is the matter? You look troubled and solemn."
"I am merely annoyed by circumstances beyond my control."
"Dr. Grey, who was that sweet singer?"
"How can such a thing be possible, when I have never heard a note from her lips? You told me she had no musical talent."
"I was not aware that she sang at all, until this afternoon, and your surprise does not equal mine."
"Where did you find her?"
"Sitting on a mound of sand, singing to the sea."
"Who is with her?"
"No one. I requested her to come with us, and offered to walk beside my buggy; but she declined. Please be so considerate as to say nothing about this occurrence, when you reach home; because animadversion only hardens that poor girl in her whimsical ways. Now we will dismiss the matter."
Muriel endeavored to render herself an agreeable companion during the remainder of the drive; but her guardian, despite his efforts to become interested in her conversation, was evidently distrait, and both felt relieved when they reached Grassmere, where Miss Jane and the governess welcomed their return.
Dr. Grey dismissed his buggy and entered the hall; but passed through the house, and, crossing the orchard, followed the road leading seaward.
Only a few summer stars were sprinkling their silvery rays over the gray gloom of twilight, and the shining crescent in the violet west had slipped down behind the silent hills that girded the rough, winding road.
When Salome put her fingers on the gloved hand which, in the surprise of their unexpected meeting, Dr. Grey had involuntarily placed on her shoulder, she had felt that he shrank instantly from her touch, and withdrew his hand hastily, as if displeased with the familiarity of the action. All the turbid elements in her nature boiled up. Could it be possible that he really loved his rosy-faced, bright-eyed, prattling ward? She set this conjecture squarely before her, and forced herself to contemplate it. If he desired to marry Muriel, of course he would do so whenever he chose, and the thought that he might call her his wife, and give her his name, his caresses, wrung a cry of agony from Salome's lips. She threw herself on the sand-bank, and, resting her chin on her folded arms, gazed vacantly across the yellow strand at the glassy, leaden sea that stared back mockingly at her.
She was too miserable to feel afraid of anything but Dr. Grey's marriage; and, moreover, she had so often, during the early years of her life, gone to and fro in the darkness, that she was a stranger to that timidity which girls usually indulge under similar circumstances. The fishermen had abandoned the neighboring huts some months before, and "Solitude," one mile distant, was the nearest spot occupied by human beings.
She neither realized nor cared that it was growing darker, and, after awhile, when the sea was no longer visible through the dun haze that brooded over it, she shut her eyes and moaned.
Dr. Grey had walked on, hoping every moment to meet her returning home; and, more than once, he was tempted to retrace his steps, thinking that she might have taken some direct path across the hills, instead of the circuitous one bending around their base. Quickening his pace till it matched his pulse, which an indefinable anxiety accelerated, he finally saw the huts dimly outlined against the starry sky and quiet sea.
Pausing, he took off his hat to listen to
"The water lapping on the crag, And the long ripple washing in the reeds,"
and, while he stood wiping his brow, there came across the beach,—
"A cry that shivered to the tingling stars, And, as it were one voice, an agony Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills All night in a waste land, where no one comes, Or hath come since the making of the world."
In the uncertain light he ran towards the clump of trees where he had left Salome, and strained his eyes to discover some moving thing. He knew that he must be very near the spot, but neither the expected sound nor object greeted him, and, while he stopped and held his breath to listen, the silence was profound and death-like. He was opening his lips to call the girl's name, when he fancied he saw something move slightly, and simultaneously a human voice smote the oppressive stillness. She was very near him, and he heard her saying to herself, with mournful emphasis,—
"Have I brought Joy, and slain her at his feet? Have I brought Peace, for his cold kiss to kill? Have I brought youth, crowned with wild-flowers sweet, With sandals dewy from a morning hill, For his gray, solemn eyes, to fright and chill? Have I brought Scorn the pale, and Hope the fleet, And First Love, in her lily winding-sheet,— And is he pitiless still?"
Dr. Grey knew now that she was not crying. Her hard, ringing, bitter tone, forbade all thought of sobs or tears; but his heart ached as he listened, and surmised the application she was making of the melancholy lines.
Unwilling that she should know he had overheard her, he waited a moment, then raised his voice and shouted,—
"Salome! Salome! Where are you?"
There was no answer, and, fearing that she might elude him, he stretched out his arms, and advanced to the spot, which he felt assured was only a few yards distant.
She had risen, and, standing in the gloom of the coming night, deepened by the interlacing boughs above her, she felt Dr. Grey's hand on her dress, then on her head, where the moisture hung heavily in her thick hair.
"Salome, why do you not answer me?"
Shame kept her silent.
He passed his hand over her hot face, then groped for her fingers, which he grasped firmly in his.
"Come home with your best friend."
He knew that she was in no mood to submit to reprimand, to appreciate argument, or even to listen to entreaty, and that he might as profitably undertake to knead pig-iron as expostulate with her at this juncture.
For a mile they walked on without uttering a word; then he felt the fingers relax, twitch, and twine closely around his own.
"Dr. Grey, where is Muriel? Where is your buggy?"
"Both are at home, where others should have been, long ago."
"You walked back to meet me?"
"How did you find me, in the dark?"
"I heard your voice."
"But not the words?"
"Why? Are you ashamed for me to hear what any strolling stranger, any unscrupulous vagabond, might have listened to?"
"It is such a desolate, lonely place, I thought no one would stumble upon me, and I have been there so often without meeting a living thing except the crabs and plover."
"You are no longer a child, and such rashness is altogether unpardonable. What do you suppose my sister would think of your imprudent obstinacy?"
They walked another mile, and again Salome convulsively pressed the cool, steady, strong hand, in which hers lay hot and quivering.
"Dr. Grey, tell me the truth,—don't torture me."
"What shall I tell you? You torture yourself."
"Did you hear what I was saying to my own heart?"
"I heard you repeating some lines which certainly should possess no relevancy for the real feeling of my young friend."
She snatched her fingers from his, and he knew she covered her face with them.
They reached the gate at the end of the avenue, and Salome stopped suddenly, as the lights from the front windows flashed out on the lawn.
"Go in, and leave me."
She threw herself on the sward, under one of the elm-trees, and leaned her head against its trunk.
"I shall do no such thing, unless you desire the entire household to comment upon your reckless conduct."
"Oh, Dr. Grey, I care little now what the whole world thinks or says! Let me be quiet, or I shall go mad."
"No; come into the house, and sing something to compensate me for the anxiety and fatigue you have cost me. I do not often ask a favor of you, and certainly in this instance you will not refuse to grant my request."
She did not reply, and he bent down and softly stroked the hair that was damp with dew and sea-fog.
The long-pent storm broke in convulsive sobs, and she trembled from head to foot, while tears poured over her burning cheeks.
"Poor child! Can you not confide in me?"
"Dr. Grey, will you forget all that has passed to-day? Will you try never to think of it again?"
"On condition that you never repeat the offence."
"You do not despise me?"
"You pity me?"
"I pity any human being who is so unfortunate as to possess your wilful, perverse, passionate disposition. Unless you overcome this dangerous tendency of character, you may expect only wretchedness and humiliation in coming years. I am sincerely sorry for you, but I tell you unhesitatingly, that I find it difficult to tolerate your grave and obtrusive faults."
She raised her clasped hands, and said, brokenly,—
"This is the last time I shall ever ask you to forgive me. Will you?"
"As freely and fully as a grieved brother ever forgave a wayward sister."
He took the folded hands, lifted her from the grass, and led her to a side door opening upon the east gallery.
"Dr. Grey, give me one kind word before I go."
The lamp-light from the hall shone full on his pale face, which was sterner than she had ever seen it, as he forcibly withdrew his hands from her tight clasp, and, putting her away from him, said, very coldly,—
"I exhausted my store of kind thoughts and words when I called you my sister."
He saw that she understood him, for she tried to hide her face, but a spasm passed over it, and she would have fallen had he not caught her in his arms and carried her up to her own room.
Stanley was asleep with his head pillowed on his open geography, but the candle burned beside him, and Dr. Grey placed Salome on a lounge near the window, and sprinkled her face with water.
Kneeling by the low couch, he rubbed her hands vigorously with some cologne he found on her bureau; and, watching her pale, beautiful features, his heart swelled with compassion, and his calm eyes grew misty. Consciousness very soon returned, and when she saw the noble, sorrowful countenance, bent anxiously over her, she covered her face with her hands and moaned rather than spoke,—
"I can't endure your pity. Leave me with my self-contempt and degradation."
"My little sister, I leave you in God's merciful hands, and trust you to the guidance of your womanly pride and self-respect. Good-night. We will not engrave this unfortunate day on our tablets, but forget its record, save one fact, that for all time it makes me your brother; and, Salome,—
"'So we'll not dream, nor look back, dear, But march right on, content and bold, To where our life sets heavenly clear,— Westward, behind the hills of gold.'"
"Dr. Grey, who is that beautiful girl to whom Muriel introduced me this morning? I was so absorbed in admiration of her face that I lost her name."
As he spoke, Mr. Gerard Granville struck the ashes from his cigar, and walked up to the table where Dr. Grey was sealing some letters.
"Her name is Salome Owen, and she is my sister's adopted child."
"What is her age, if I may be pardoned such impertinent queries?"
"I believe she has entered her eighteenth year."
"She is a regal beauty, and shows proud blood as plainly as any princess."
"Take care, Granville; imagination has cantered away with your penetration. Salome's family were coarse and common, though doubtless honest people. Her father was a drunken miller, who died in an attack of delirium tremens, and left his children as a legacy to the county. I merely mention these deplorable facts to show you that your boasted penetration is not entirely infallible."
"Miller or millionaire,—the girl would grace any court in Europe, and only lacks a dash of aplomb to make her irresistible. I have seen few faces that attracted and interested me so powerfully."
"Yes, she certainly is very handsome; but I do not agree with you in thinking that she lacks aplomb. Granville, if you have finished your cigar, we will adjourn to the parlor, where the ladies are taking their tea."
Dr. Grey collected his letters and walked away, followed by his guest; and, a moment after, a low, scornful laugh, floated in through the window which opened on the little flower-garden.
Miss Jane had requested Salome to gather the seeds of some apple and nutmeg geraniums that were arranged on a shelf near the western window of the library; and, while stooping over the china jars, and screened from observation by a spreading lilac-bush, the girl had heard the conversation relative to herself.
Excessive vanity had never been numbered among the faults that marred her character, but Dr. Grey's indifference to personal attractions, which strangers admitted so readily, piqued, and thoroughly aroused a feeling that was destined to bring countless errors and misfortunes in its train; and, henceforth,—
"There was not a high thing out of heaven, Her pride o'ermastereth not."
Hitherto the love of one man had been the only boon she craved of heaven; but now, conscious that the darling hope of her life was crushed and withering under Dr. Grey's relentless feet, she resolved that the admiration of the world should feed her insatiable hunger,—a maddening hunger which one tender word from his true lips would have assuaged,—but which she began to realize he would never utter.
During the last eighteen hours, a mournful change had taken place in her heart, where womanly tenderness was rapidly retreating before unwomanly hate, bitterness, and blasphemous defiance; and she laughed scornfully at the "idiocy" that led her to weary heaven with prayers for the preservation of a life that must ever run as an asymptote to her own. How earnestly she now lamented an escape, for which she had formerly exhausted language in expressing her gratitude; and how much better it would have been if she could mourn him as dead, instead of jealously watching him,—living without a thought of her.
All the girlish sweetness and freshness of her nature passed away, and an intolerable weariness and disappointment usurped its place. Since her acquaintance with Dr. Grey, he had been her sole Melek Taous, adored with Yezidi fervor; but to-day she overturned, and strove to revile and desecrate the idol, to whose vacant pedestal she lifted a colossal vanity. Her bruised, numb heart, seemed incapable of loving any one, or anything, and a hatred and contempt of her race took possession of her.
The changing hues of Muriel's tell-tale face when Mr. Granville arrived, and the excessive happiness that could not be masked, had not escaped Salome's lynx vision; and very accurately she conjectured the real condition of affairs, relative to which Dr. Grey had never uttered a syllable. Bent upon mischief, she had, malice prepense, dressed herself with unusual care, and arranged her hair in a new style of coiffure, which proved very becoming.
Now, as the hum of conversation mingled with the sound of Muriel's low, soft laugh, reached her from the parlor, her chatoyant eyes kindled, and she hastily went in to join the merry circle.
"Come here, child, and sit by me," said Miss Jane, making room on the sofa, as her protegee entered.
"Thank you, I prefer a seat near the window."
Dr. Grey sat in a large chair in the centre of the floor, with Muriel on an ottoman close to him, and Mr. Granville leaned over the back of the chair, while Miss Dexter shared Miss Jane's old-fashioned ample sofa. In full view of the whole party, Salome seated herself at a little distance, and, with admirably assumed nonchalance, began to enclose and sew up the geranium-seeds, in some pretty, colored paper bags, prepared for the purpose.
After a few minutes Mr. Granville sauntered across the room, looked at the cuckoo clock, and finally went over to the window, where he leaned against the facing and watched Salome's slender white fingers.
She was dressed in a delicate muslin, striped with narrow pink lines, and flounced at the bottom of the skirt, and wore a ribbon sash of the same color; while in the broad braids of hair raised high on her head, she had fastened a superb half-blown Baron Provost rose, just where two long glossy curls crept down. The puffed sleeves, scarcely reaching the elbows, displayed the finely rounded white arms, and the exactness with which the airy muslin fitted her form, showed its symmetrical outline to the greatest advantage.
Muriel touched her guardian, and whispered,—
"Did you ever see Salome look so beautiful? Her coiffure to-night is almost Parisian, and how very becoming!"
Dr. Grey was studying the innocent, happy countenance of his unsuspecting ward, and he could not repress a sigh, when, turning his eyes towards Salome, he noticed the undisguised admiration in Mr. Granville's earnest gaze.
A nameless dread made him take Muriel's hand and lead her to the piano.
"Play something for me. I am music-hungry."
"Is Saul sad to-night?" she asked, smiling up at him.
"A little fatigued and perplexed, and anxious to have his cares exorcised by the magic of your fingers."
With womanly tact she selected a fantasia which Mr. Granville had often pronounced the gem of her repertoire, and momentarily expected to hear his whispered thanks; but page after page was turned, and still her lover did not approach the piano, where Dr. Grey stood with folded arms and slightly contracted brows. Muriel played brilliantly, and was pardonably proud of her proficiency, which Mr. Granville had confessed first attracted his attention; and to-night, when the piece was concluded and she commenced a Polonaise, she looked over her shoulder hoping to meet a grateful, fond glance. But his eyes were riveted on the fair rosy face at his side, and his betrothed bit her pouting lip and made sundry blunders.
As she rose from the piano-stool, Mr. Granville exclaimed,—
"Miss Muriel, you love music so well that I trust you will add your persuasions to mine, and induce Miss Owen to sing for us, as she declares she is comparatively a tyro in instrumental music, and would not venture to perform in your presence."
"She has never sung for me, but I hope she will not refuse your request. Salome, will you not oblige us?"
Muriel's eyes were dim with tears, but her sweet voice did not falter.
"I was not aware that you sang at all," said Miss Dexter, looking up from a mat which she was crocheting.
"She has a fine voice, but is very obstinate in declining to use it. Come, Salome, don't be childish, dear. Sing something," coaxed Miss Jane.
The girl waited a few seconds, hoping that another voice would swell the general request, but the lips she loved best were mute; and, suddenly tossing the paper bags from her lap, she rose and moved proudly to the piano.
"Miss Manton, will you or Miss Dexter be so kind as to play my accompaniment for me? I am neither Liszt, nor Thalberg, and the vocal gymnastics are all that I can venture to undertake."
Muriel promptly resumed her seat before the instrument, and played the symphony of an aria from "Favorite," which Salome placed on the piano-board. Barilli had assured her that she rendered this fiery burst of rage and hatred as well as he had ever heard it; and, folding her fingers tightly around each other she drew herself up to her full height, and sang it.
Mr. Granville leaned against the piano, and Dr. Grey was standing in the recess of the window when the song began, but ere long he moved forward unconsciously and paused, with his hand on his ward's shoulder and his eyes riveted in astonishment on Salome's countenance. She knew that the approbation and delight of this small audience was worth all the encore shouts of the millions who might possibly applaud her in future years; and if ever a woman's soul poured itself out through her lips, all that was surging in Salome's heart became visible to the man who listened as if spell-bound.
Miss Jane grasped her crutches, and rose, leaning upon them, while a look of mingled joy and wonder made her sallow face eloquent; and Miss Dexter dropped her ivory needle, and gazed in amazement at the singer. Muriel forgot her chords,—turned partially around, and watched in breathless surprise the marvelous execution of several difficult passages, where the rich voice seemed to linger while improvising sparkling turns and trills that were strangely intricate, and indescribably sweet.
As she approached the close of her song, Salome became temporarily oblivious of pride, wounded vanity, and murdered hopes,—forgot all but the man at her side, for whose commendation she had toiled so patiently, and turning her flushed, radiant face, toward him, her magnificent eyes aflame with triumph looked appealingly up at his, and her hands were extended till they rested on his arm.
So the song ended, and for a moment the parlor was still as a tomb. Dr. Grey silently enclosed the girl's two hands in his, and, for the first time since she had known him, Salome saw tears swimming in his grave, beautiful eyes, and noticed a slight tremor on his usually steady lips.
"There is nothing in the old world or the new comparable to that voice, and I flatter myself I speak ex cathedra. Miss Owen, you will soon have the public at your feet."
She did not heed Mr. Granville's enthusiastic eulogy. She saw nothing but Dr. Grey's admiring eyes,—felt nothing but the close warm clasp, in which her folded fingers lay,—and her ears ached for the sound of his deep voice.
"Salome, I shall not soon forgive you for keeping me in ignorance of the existence of the finest voice it has ever been my good fortune to hear. Knowing your adopted brother's fondness for music, how could you hoard your treasure so parsimoniously, denying him such happiness as you might have conferred?"
He untwined her fingers, which clung tenaciously to his, and saw that the blood ebbed out of cheeks and lips as she listened to his carefully guarded language. Silently she obeyed Miss Jane's summons to the sofa.
"You perverse witch! Where have you been practising all these months, that have made you such a wonderful cantatrice? Child, answer me."
"I did not wish to annoy the household by thrumming on the piano and afflicting their ears with false flat scales, consequently I followed the birds, and rehearsed with them, under the trees, and down on the edge of the sea. If you like my voice I am glad, because I have studied to perfect it."
"Like it, indeed! As if I could avoid liking it! But you must have had good training. Who taught you?"
"I took lessons from Barilli."
"Aha,—Ulpian! Now you can understand how he contrives to feed his family. Salome's sewing-money explains it all. Kiss me, dear. I always believed there was more in you than came to the surface."
"Miss Owen ought to go upon the stage. Such gifts as hers belong to the public, who would soon crown her queen of song."
Salome glanced at the handsome stranger, and bowed.
"It is my purpose, sir, to dedicate myself and future to the Opera, where I trust I shall not utterly fail, as I have been for a year studying with reference to this step."
A bomb-shell falling in that quiet circle, would scarcely have startled its members more effectually; and, anxious to avoid comment, Salome quitted the parlor and ran out on the lawn.
After awhile she heard Muriel's skilful touch on the piano, and, when an hour had elapsed, the echo of voices died away, and soon a profound silence seemed to reign over the house.
The hot blood was coursing thick and fast in her veins, and evil purposes brooded darkly over her oppressed and throbbing heart. She was thoroughly cognizant of the intense admiration with which Mr. Granville regarded her, and to-night she had compared his handsome face with the older, graver, and less regular features of Dr. Grey, and wondered why the latter was so much more fascinating. Her beauty transcended Muriel's, and it would prove an easy task to supplant her in the affections of her not very ardent lover. Life in Paris, spiced with the political intrigues incident to diplomatic circles, would divert her thoughts, and might possibly make the coming years endurable. Was the game worth the candle? No thought of Muriel's misery entered for an instant into this entirely sordid calculation, or would have deterred her even momentarily, had it presented itself in expostulation. The girl's heart had suddenly grown callous, and her hand would have ruthlessly smitten down any object that dared to cross her path, or retard the accomplishment of her schemes. Weary at last of pacing the dim starlit avenue, and yet too wretched to think of sleeping, she re-entered the house, and cautiously locking the door, threw herself into a corner of the parlor sofa, which stood just beneath the portrait she so often studied.
If she had not at this juncture been completely absorbed in gazing upon it, she might have seen the original, who soon rose and came forward from the shadow of the curtains.
"Salome, I wish to make you my confidante,—to tell you something which I have not yet mentioned even to Janet. Can I trust you, little sister?"
Resting against the arm of the sofa, he looked intently into her face, reading its perturbed lines.
"I presume you are amusing yourself by tantalizing my curiosity, as your experiments appear to have thoroughly satisfied you that I am utterly unworthy of trust. I follow the flattering advice you were so kind as to give me some time since, and make no promises, which shatter like crystal under the hammer of the first temptation. You see, sir, you are teaching me to be cautious."
"You are teaching yourself lessons in dissimulation and maliciousness, that you will heartily rue some day, but your repentance will come too tardily to mend the mischief."
She tried to screen her countenance, but he was in no mood for trifling, and putting his palm under her chin, forced her to submit to his scrutiny.
"Salome, if I did not cherish a strong faith in the latent generosity of your soul, I would not come to you as I do now to offer confidence, and demand it in return."
She guessed his meaning, and her eyes glowed with all the baleful light that he had hoped was extinguished forever.
"Dr. Grey makes a grace of necessity, and a pretence of confiding that which has ceased to be a secret. Is such his boasted candor and honesty?"
"If I believed that you were already acquainted with what I propose to divulge, I would not fritter away my time in appealing to a nobility of feeling which that fact alone would prove the hopelessness of my ever finding in you."
He felt her face grow hot, and for an instant her eyes drooped before his, stern and almost threatening.
"Well, sir; I wait for your confidential disclosures. Is there a Guy Fawkes, or Titus Oates, plotting against the peace and prosperity of the house of Grey?"
"Verily I am disposed to apprehend that there may be."
She endeavored to wrench her face from his hand, but he held it firmly, and continued,—
"I wish to say to you that Muriel is very sensitive, and I hope that during Mr. Granville's visit, you will try to be as considerate and courteous as possible, to both. Salome, Gerard Granville has asked Muriel to be his wife, and she has promised to marry him at the expiration of a year."
The girl laughed derisively, and exclaimed,—
"Pray, Dr. Grey, be so good as to indulge me with your motive in furnishing this piece of information?"
"Your astuteness forbids the possibility of any doubt with reference to my motives,—which are, explicitly, anxiety for Muriel's happiness, and for the preservation of your integrity and self-respect."
"What jeopardizes either?"
"Your heartless, contemptible vanity, which tempts you to demand a homage and incense that should be offered only where it is due,—at another, and I grieve to add, a purer shrine."
"Ah! My unpardonable sin consists in having braided my black locks, and made myself comely! If you will procure an authentic portrait of the Witch of Endor, I will do proper penance by likening my appearance thereunto. Poor little rose! Can't you open your pink lips and cry peccavi? Come down, sole ally and accomplice of my heinous vanity, and plead for me, and make the amende honorable to this grim guardian of Miss Muriel's peace!"
She snatched the drooping rose from her hair, and tossed it at his feet.
"Salome, you forget yourself!"
His stern displeasure rendered her reckless, and she continued,—
"True, sir. I did forget that the poor miller's child had no right to obtrude her comeliness in the presence of the banker's daughter. I confess my 'high crime and misdemeanor' against the pet of fortune, and await my condign punishment. Is it your sovereign will that I shear my shining locks like royal Berenice, and offer them in propitiation? Or, does it seem 'good, meet, and your bounden duty,' to have me promptly inoculated with small-pox, for the destruction of my skin, which is unjustifiably smoother and clearer than—"
He laid his hand over her lips, and, for a while, there was an awkward pause.
"If it were only possible to inoculate your heart with a little genuine womanly charity,—if it were possible to persuade you to adopt as your rule of conduct that golden one which Christ gave as a patent of peace to all who followed it. But it is futile, hopeless. You will not, you will not,—and my fluttering dove is at the mercy of a famished eagle, already poised to swoop. I 'reckoned without my host' when I so confidently appealed to your magnanimity, to your feminine integrity of soul. You are a 'deaf adder that stoppeth her ear.'"
"Which will not 'hearken to the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.' Dr. Grey, what has the pampered heiress, the happy fiancee of that handsome man upstairs, to fear from the poverty-stricken daughter of a miller, who you conscientiously inform your guest passed from time to eternity through the gate opened by delirium tremens. Mark you, my 'adder ears' have not been sealed all the evening."
She had taken his hand from her lips, and thrown it from her.
"People who condescend to listen to conversations that are not intended for them, generally deserve the punishment of hearing unpleasant truths discussed. Salome, our interview is at an end."
"Not yet. Do you sincerely desire to see Muriel Mr. Granville's wife?"
"I do, because I know that she is strongly attached to him."
"And you are sufficiently generous to sacrifice your happiness, in order to promote hers? Oh, marvellous magnanimity!"
"Your insinuation is beneath my notice."
"How long have you known of her engagement?"
"Since the first interview I had with her, after her father's death."
"Let me see your face, Dr. Grey. If truth has not been hunted out of the earth, it took refuge in your eyes. There, I am satisfied. You never loved her. I think I must have been insane, or I would not have imagined it possible. No, no; she never touched your heart, save with a feeling of compassion. Don't go, I want to say something to you. Sit down, and let me think."
She walked up and down the room for ten minutes, and, with his face bowed on his hand, Dr. Grey watched and waited.
Finally he stooped to pick up the crushed rose on the floor, and then she came back and stood before him.
"I promise you I will not lay a straw in the path of Muriel's happiness, and it shall not be my fault if Mr. Granville fails in a lover's devoir. I was tempted to entice him from his sworn allegiance. Why should I deny what you know so well? But I will not, and when I give my word, it shall go hard with me but I keep it; especially when you hold the pledge. Are you satisfied? I know that you have little cause to trust me, but I tell you, sir, when I deceive you, then all heaven with its hierarchies of archangels can not save me."
After all, Ulpian Grey was only a man of flesh and blood, and his heart was touched by the beauty of the young face, and the mournful sweetness of the softened voice.
"Thank you, Salome. I accept your promise, and rely upon it. As a pledge of your sincerity I shall retain this rose, and return it to you when little Muriel is a happy wife."
She clasped her hands, and looked at him with a mournful, wistful expression, that puzzled him.
"My friend, my little sister, what is it? Tell me, and let me help you to do your duty, for I see that you are wrestling desperately with some great temptation."
"Dr. Grey, be merciful to me. Send me away. Oh, for God's sake, send me away!"
She had grown ghastly pale, and her whole face indexed a depth of anguish and despair that baffled utterance.
"My dear child, where do you desire to go? If your wishes are reasonable they shall be granted."
"Will you persuade Miss Jane to take Jessie in my place, and send me to France or Italy?"
"To study music with the intention of becoming a prima donna?"
"My young friend, I cannot conscientiously advise a compliance with wishes so fraught with danger to yourself."
"You fear that my voice does not justify so expensive an experiment?"
"On the contrary, I have not a doubt that your extraordinary voice will lift you to the highest pinnacle of musical celebrity; and, because your career on the stage promises to prove so brilliant, I shudder in anticipating the temptations that will unavoidably assail you."
"You are afraid to trust me?"
"Yes, my little sister; you are so impulsive, so prone to hearken to evil dictates rather than good ones, that I dread the thought of seeing you launched into the dangerous career you contemplate, without some surer, safer, more infallible pilot than your proud, passionate heart. If you were homely, and a dullard, I should entertain less apprehension about your future."
Her broad brow blackened with a frown that became a terrible scowl, and her eyes gleamed like lightning under the edge of a thunderous summer cloud.
"What is it to you whether I live or die? The immaculate soul of Ulpian Grey, M.D., will serenely wing its way up through the stars, on and on to the great Gates of Pearl,—oblivious of the beggar who, from the lowest Hades, where she has fallen, eagerly watches his flight."
"The anxious soul of Ulpian Grey will pray for yours, as long as we remain on earth. Salome, I am the truest friend you will ever find this side of the City of God; and, when I see you plunging madly into ruin, I shall snatch you back, cost me what it may. Your jeers and struggle have not deterred me hitherto, nor shall they henceforth. You are as incapable of guiding yourself aright, as a rudderless bark is of stemming the gulf-stream in a south-west gale; and I am afraid to trust you out of my sight."
"Yes, I understand you; the good angel in your nature pities the demon in mine. But your pity stifles me; I could not endure it; and, besides, I cannot stay here any longer. I must go out into the world, and seize the fortune that people tell me my voice will certainly yield me."
Flush and sparkle had died out of her face, which, in its worn, haggard pallor, looked five years older than when she entered the parlor, three hours before.
"Pecuniary considerations must not influence you, because, while Janet and I live, you shall want nothing; and when either dies, you will be liberally provided for. Dismiss from your mind a matter that has long been decided, and which no wish of yours can annul or alter."
With an impatient wave of the hand, she answered,—
"Give to poor little Jessie and Stanley what was intended for me. They are helpless, but I can take care of myself; and, moreover, I am not contented here. I want to see something of the world in which—bon gre mal gre—I find myself. Let me go. Rousseau was a sage. 'Le monde est le livre des femmes.'"
He shook his head, and said, sorrowfully,—
"No, your instincts are unreliable; and if you roam away from Jane and from me, you will sip more poison than honey. Be wise, and remain where Providence has placed you. I will bring Jessie here, and you shall teach her what you choose, and Stanley can command all the educational advantages he will improve. After a while, you shall, if you prefer it, have a pleasant home of your own, and dwell there with the two little ones. Such has long been my scheme and purpose; but, during my sister's life, she will never consent to give you up; and you owe it to her not to desert her in the closing years, when she most urgently requires the solace of your love and society."
Salome covered her face with her hands, and something like a heavy dry sob shook her frame; but the spring of bitterness seemed exhaustless, and her voice was indescribably scornful in its defiant ring.
"You are very charitable, Dr. Grey, and I thank you for all your embryonic benevolent plans for me and my pauper relatives; but I have drawn a very different map for my future years. You seem to regard this house as a second 'La Tour sans venin,' which, like its prototype near Grenoble, possesses an atmosphere fatal to all poisonous, noxious things; but surely you forget that it has long sheltered me."
"No, it has never arrogated the prerogative of 'La Tour sans venin,' but of one thing, my poor wilful child, you shall never have reason to be skeptical,—that dear Jane and I will indefatigably strive to serve you as faithfully and successfully, as did in ancient days, the Psylli whom Plutarch immortalized."
While he spoke Dr. Grey had been turning over the leaves of the old family Bible, which happened to lie within his reach; and now, without premonition, he read aloud the fifty-fifth Psalm.
She listened, not willingly, but ex necessitate rei, and rebelliously; and, when he finished the Psalm, and knelt, with his face on his arms, which were crossed upon the back of a chair, she stood haughtily erect and motionless beside him.
His prayer was brief and fervent, that God would aid her in her efforts to curb her passionate temper, and to walk in accordance with the teachings of Jesus; and that he would especially overrule all things, and guide her decision in the important step she contemplated. He rose, and turned towards her, but her countenance was hidden.
"Good night, Salome. God bless you and direct you."
She raised her face, and her eyes sought his with a long, questioning, pleading gaze, so full of anguish that he could scarcely endure it. Then he saw the last spark of hope expire; and she bent her queenly head an instant, and silently passed from the parlor.
"I have watched my first and holiest hopes depart, One after one; I have held the hand of Death upon my heart, And made no moan."
"Pardon my intrusion, Mrs. Gerome, and ascribe it to Elsie's anxiety concerning your health. In compliance with her request, I have come to ascertain whether you really require my attention."
Dr. Grey placed his hat and gloves on the piano, and established himself comfortably in a large chair near the arch, where Mrs. Gerome, palette in hand, sat before her easel.
"Elsie's nerves have run away with her sound common sense, and filled her mind with vagaries. She imagines that I need medicine, whereas I only require quiet and peace, which neither she nor you will permit me to enjoy."
She did not even glance at the visitor, but mixed some colors rapidly, and deepened the rose-tints in a cluster of apple-blossoms she was scattering in the foreground of a picture.
"If it is not of vital importance that those pearly petals should be finished immediately, I should be glad to have you turn your face towards me for a few moments. There,—thank you. Mrs. Gerome, do I look like a nervous, whimsical man, whose fancy mastered his professional judgment, or blunted his acumen?"
"You certainly appear as phlegmatic, as utterly unimaginative, as any lager-loving German, whom Teniers or Ostade ever painted 'Unter den linden.'"
"Then my words should possess some influence when they corroborate Elsie's statement, that you are far from well. Do not be childishly incredulous, and impatiently shake your head; from a woman of your age and sense one expects more dignity and prudence."
"Sir, your rudeness has at least a flavor of stern honesty that makes it almost palatable. Do you propose to take my case into your skilful hands?"
"I merely propose to expostulate with you upon the unfortunate and ruinous course of life you have decided to pursue. No eremite of the Thebaid, or the Nitroon, is more completely immured than I find you; and the seclusion from society is quite as deleterious as the want of out-door air and sunshine. Your mind, debarred from communion with your race and denied novel and refreshing themes, centres in its own operations and creations, broods over threadbare topics until it has grown morbid; and, instead of deriving healthful nourishment from the world that surrounds it, exhausts and consumes itself, like fabled Araline, spinning its substance into filmy nothings."
"Filmy nothings! Thank you. I flatter myself, when I am safely housed under marble, the world will place a different estimate upon some things I shall leave behind to challenge criticism."
"How much value will public plaudits possess for ears sealed by death? Mrs. Gerome, you are too lonely; you must have companionship that will divert your thoughts."
"Not I, indeed! All that I require, I have in abundance,—music, books, and my art. Here I am independent, for remember that he was a petted son of fame, who said, 'Books are the true Elysian fields, where the spirits of the dead converse, and into these fields a mortal may venture unappalled. What king's court can boast such company,—what school of philosophy such wisdom?' Verily if you had ever examined my library you would not imagine I lacked companionship. Why sir, yonder,—
'The old, dead authors throng me round about, And Elzevir's gray ghosts from leathern graves look out.'
Count Oxenstiern spoke truly, when he declared, 'Occupied with the great minds of antiquity, we are no longer annoyed by contemporaneous fools.'"
She rose and pointed to the handsome cases in the rear room, filled with choice volumes; and, while she stood with one arm resting on the easel, Dr. Grey looked searchingly at her.
To-day there was a spirituelle beauty in the white face that he had never seen before; and the large eloquent eyes were full of dreamy sunset radiance, unlike their wonted steely glitter. A change, vague and indefinable, but unmistakable, had certainly passed over that countenance since its owner came to reside at "Solitude," and, instead of marring, had heightened its loveliness. The features were thinner, the cheeks had lost something of their pure oval moulding, and the delicate nostrils were almost transparent in their waxen curves; but the arch of the lip was softened and lowered, and the face was like that of some marble goddess on which mid-summer moonshine sleeps.
Her white mull robe was edged at the skirt and up the front with a rich border of blue morning-glories, and a blue cord and tassel girded it at her waist, while the broad braids of hair at the back of her head were looped and fastened with a ribbon of the same color. Her sleeves were gathered up to keep them clear of the paint on the palette, and the dimples were no longer visible in her arms. The ivory flesh was shrinking closer to the small bones, and the diaphanous hands were so thin that the sapphire asp glided almost off the slender finger around which it was coiled.
"Mrs. Gerome, you have lost twenty pounds of flesh within the last two months, and your extreme pallor alarms me."
"All things look pallid in these rooms, for the light is bluish, reflected from carpet, furniture, and curtains."
"I have noticed that you invariably wear blue, to the exclusion of all other colors."
"Yes. Throughout the Levant it is considered a mortuary color; and, moreover, I like its symbolism. The Mater dolorosa often wears blue vestments; also the priests during Lent; and even the images of Christ are veiled in blue, as holy week approaches. Azure, in its absolute significance, represents truth, and is the symbol of the soul after death; so, as I walk the earth,—a fleshy 'death in life,'—I clothe myself symbolically. In pagan cosmogonies the Creator is always colored blue. Jupiter Ammon, Vischnou, Cneph, Krischna,—all are azure. And because it is a solemn, consecrated color, mystic and mournful, I wear it."
"My dear madam, this is a morbid whimsicality that trenches closely upon monomania, and would be more tolerable in a lackadaisical school-girl, than in a mature, intelligent, and gifted woman. Some of your fantasies would be positively respectable in a Bedlamite, and you seem an anomalous compound of eccentricities peculiar to extreme youth and to advanced age."
"I believe, sir, that you are entirely correct in your analysis. I stand before you, young in years, but forsaken by that 'blue-eyed Hope' who frolics hand in hand with youth; and yet utterly devoid of that philosophy and wisdom which justly belong to the old age of my heart."
Her tone was indescribably weary, and, as she laid aside her brush and folded her hands together on the cross-beam of the easel, the transient light died out of her countenance, and the worn, tired look, came back and settled on every feature.
... "The soft, sad eyes, Set like twilight planets in the rainy skies,— With the brow all patience, and the lips all pain,"
wove a strange spell over the visitor, whose gaze was riveted on the only woman who had ever aroused even temporary interest in his heart.
She was always beautiful, but to-day there was a helpless, hopeless abandonment in her listless demeanor, that appealed successfully to the manly tenderness and chivalry of his nature; and into his strong, true, noble soul, came a longing to cheer, and guide, and redeem this strange, desolate woman, whose personal loveliness would have made her regnant over the gay circles of fashionable life, yet whose existence was more lonely than that of an eaglet in some mountain eyrie.
Rising, he leaned against the easel and looked down into the colorless face that possessed such a wondrous charm for him.
"Mrs. Gerome, for natures diseased like yours, the only remedy, the only cure, is earnest, vigorous labor; and the regimen you really require is mournfully at variance with your present habits and modes of thought."
"I do labor incessantly; more indefatigably than any plowman, or mason, or carpenter. Your prescription has been thoroughly tested, and found worthless, as an antidote to my malady,—hopelessness."
"Unfortunately the labor has all been mental; heart and soul have stood aloof, while the brain almost wore itself out. This canvas is destroying you; your creations are too rapid, too exhausting."
"Dr. Grey, you grievously misapprehend the whole matter, for my work reminds me of what Canova once said of West's pictures, 'He groups; he does not compose.'"
Dr. Grey put his hand on her wrist, and counted the rapid, feeble, irregular pulse.
She made an effort to throw off his fingers, but they clung tenaciously to the polished arm.
"How many hours do you sleep, during the twenty-four?"
"Sometimes three, occasionally one, frequently none."
"How much longer do you suppose your constitution will endure such merciless taxation?"
"I know very little about these things, and care still less, but as Horne Tooke said, when a foreigner inquired how much treason an Englishman might venture to write without being hanged, 'I cannot inform you just yet, but I am trying.'"
"Has life become such an intolerable burden that you are impatient to shake it off?"
"Even so, Dr. Grey. When Elsie dies the last link will have snapped, and I trust I shall not long survive her. If I prayed at all, it would be for speedy death."
"If you prayed at all, existence would not prove so wearisome; for resignation would cure half your woes."
"Confine your prescriptions to the body,—that is tangible, and may be handled and scrutinized; but venture no nostrums for a heart and soul of which you know nothing. Once I was almost a Moslem in the frequency and fervor of my prayers; but now, the only petition I could force myself to offer would be that prayer of Epictetus, 'Lead me, Zeus and Destiny, whithersoever I am appointed to go; I will follow without wavering; even though I turn coward and shrink, I shall have to follow, all the same.'"
Dr. Grey sighed heavily, and answered,—
"It is painful to hear from feminine lips a fatalism so grim as to make all prayer a mockery; and it would seem that the loss of those dear to you, would have insensibly and unavoidably drawn your heart heavenward, in search of its transplanted idols."
He knew from the sudden spasm that seized her calm features, and shuddered through her tall figure, that he had touched, perhaps too rudely, some chord in her nature which—
"Made the coiled memory numb and cold, That slept in her heart like a dreaming snake, Drowsily lift itself, fold by fold, And gnaw, and gnaw hungrily, half-awake."
"Ah, indeed, my heart was drawn after them,—but not heavenward! No, no, no! My idols were not transplanted,—they were shattered!—shattered!"
She leaned forward, looking up into his face; and, raising her hand impressively, she continued in a voice so mournful, so hopelessly bitter, that Dr. Grey shivered as he listened.
"Oh, sir, you who stand gazing down in sorrowful reproach upon what you regard as my unpardonable impiety, little dream of the fiery ordeal that consumed my childlike, beautiful faith, as flames crisp and blacken chaff. I am alone, and must ever be, while in the flesh; and I hoard my pain, sparing the world my moans and tears, my wry faces and desperate struggles. I tell you, Dr. Grey,—
'None know the choice I made; I make it still. None know the choice I made, and broke my heart, Breaking mine idol; I have braced my will Once, chosen for once my part. I broke it at a blow, I laid it cold, Crushed in my deep heart where it used to live. My heart dies inch by inch; the time grows old, Grows old in which I grieve.'"
He did not comprehend her, but felt that her past must have been melancholy indeed, of which the bare memory was so torturing.
"At least, Mrs. Gerome, let us thank God, that beyond the grave there remains an eternal reunion with your idol, and—"
"God forbid! You talk at random, and your suggestion would drive me mad, if I believed it. Let me be quiet."
She walked away, and seemed intently watching the sea, of whose protean face she never wearied; and, puzzled and tantalized, Dr. Grey turned to examine the unfinished picture.
It represented an almost colossal woman, kneeling under an apple-tree, with her folded hands lifted towards a setting sun that glared from purple hills, across waving fields of green and golden grain. The azure mantle that enveloped the rounded form, floated on the wind and seemed to melt in air, so dim were its graceful outlines; and on one shoulder perched a dove with head under its wing, nestling to sleep,—while a rabbit nibbled the grass at her feet, and a squirrel curled himself comfortably on the border of her robe. In the foreground were scattered sheaves of yellow wheat, full ears of corn, bunches of blue, bloom-covered grapes, clusters of olives, and various delicate flowers whose brilliant hues seemed drippings from some wrung and broken rainbow.
The face was unlike flesh and blood,—was dim, elfish, wan, with large, mild eyes, as blue and misty as the nebulae that Herschel found in Southern skies,—eyes that looked at nothing, but seemed to penetrate the universe and shed soft solemn light over all things. Back from the broad, low brow, floated a cloud of silky yellow hair, that glittered in the slanting rays of sunshine as if powdered with gold dust; and over its streaming strands fluttered two mottled butterflies, and a honey-laden bee. On distant hill-slopes cattle browsed, and at the right of the kneeling woman a young lamb nibbled a cluster of snowy lilies, while a dappled fawn watched the gambols of a dun kid; and on the left, in a tuft of bearded grass, a brown snake arched its neck to peer at a brood of half-fledged partridges.
"Mrs. Gerome, will you be so kind as to explain this mythologic design?"
She came back to the easel, and took up her palette.
"If it requires an explanation it is an egregious failure, and shall find a vacant corner in some rubbish garret."
"It is exceedingly beautiful, but I do not fully comprehend the symbolism."
"If it does not clearly mean the one thing for which it was intended, it means nothing, and is worthless. Look, sir, she—
'Forgets, remembers, grieves, and is not sad; The quiet lands and skies leave light upon her eyes; None knows her weak, or wise, or tired, or glad.'"
Dr. Grey bit his lip, but shook his head.
"You must read me your painted riddle more explicitly. Is it Ceres?"
"No, sir; a few sheaves do not make a harvest. I am a stupid bungler, spoiling canvas and wasting paint, or else you are as obtuse as the critics who may one day hover hungrily over it. Try the aid of one more clew, and if you fail to catch my purpose, I will dash my brush all loaded with ochre, right into those mystic, prescient eyes, and blur them forever. Listen, and guess,—
'This is my lady's praise; God after many days Wrought her in unknown ways, In sunset lands; This was my lady's birth, God gave her might and mirth And laid his whole sweet earth Between her hands.'"
"Pray do not visit the sin of my stupidity upon that fascinating picture. I am not familiar with the lines you quote, but know that you have represented Nature, have embodied an ideal Isis, or Hertha, or Cybele; though I can not positively name the phase of the Universal Mother, which you have seized and perpetuated."
He caught her arm, and removed from her fingers the palette and brushes.
"Dr. Grey, it is more than either or all of the three you mention; for Persian mythology, like Persian wines and Persian roses, is richer, more subtle, more fragrant, more glowing than any other. That woman is 'Espendermad.'"
"Thank you; now I comprehend the whole. God has endowed you with wonderful talent. The fruit and flowers in that foreground must have cost you much labor, for indeed you seem to have faithfully followed the injunction of Titian, 'Study the effect of light and shade on a bunch of grapes.' That luscious amber cluster lying near the poppies is tantalizingly suggestive of Rhineland, and of the vines that garland the hills of Crete and Cyprus."
A shade of annoyance and disappointment crossed the artist's face.
"Now, I quite realize what Cespedes felt, when, finding that visitors were absorbed by the admirable finish of some jars and vases in the foreground of the 'Last Supper,' upon which he had expended so much time and thought, he called his servant and exclaimed in great chagrin, 'Andres, rub me out these things, since, after all my care and study, people choose to see nothing but these impertinences.'"
"If Zeuxis' grandest triumph consisted in painting grapes, you assuredly should not take umbrage at my praise of that fruit on your canvas, which hints of Tokay and Lachrima Christi. I am not an artist, but I have studied the best pictures in Europe and America, and you must acquit me of any desire to flatter when I tell you that background yonder is one of the most extraordinary successes I have ever seen, from either amateur or professional painters."
Mrs. Gerome arched her black brows slightly, and replied,—
"Then the success was accidental, and I stumbled upon it, for I bestow little study on the backgrounds of my work. They are mere dim distances of bluish haze, and do not interest me, and, since I paint for amusement, I give most thought to my central figure."
"Have you forgotten the anecdote of Rubens, who, when offered a pupil with the recommendation that he was sufficiently advanced in his studies to assist him at once in his backgrounds, laughed, and answered, 'If the youth was capable of painting backgrounds he did not need his instruction; because the regulation and management of them required the most comprehensive knowledge of the art.'"
"Yes, I am aware that is one of the dogmata of the craft, but Rubens was no more infallible than you or I, and his pictures give me less pleasure than those of any other artist of equal celebrity. Dr. Grey, if I am even a tolerable judge of my own work, the best thing I have yet achieved is the drapery of that form. Perhaps I am inclined to plume myself upon this point, from the fact that it was the opinion of Carlo Maratti that 'The arrangement of drapery is more difficult than drawing the human figure; because the right effect depends more upon the taste of the artist than upon any given rules.' That sweep of blue gauze has cost me more toil than everything else on the canvas."
"Pardon the expression of my curiosity concerning your modes of composition in these singular and quaint creations, for which you have no models; and tell me how this ideal presented itself to your imagination."
"Dr. Grey, I am not a great genius like Goethe, and unfortunately can not candidly echo his declaration, that, 'Nothing ever came to me in my sleep.' I can scarcely tell you when this idea was first born in my busy, tireless brain, but it took form one evening after I had read Charlotte Bronte's 'Woman Titan,' in 'Shirley,' and compared it with that glowing description of Jean Paul Richter, 'And so the Sun stands at the border of the Earth, and looks back on his stately Spring, whose robe-folds are valleys, whose breast-bouquet is gardens, whose blush is a vernal evening, and who, when she rises, will be Summer.' Still it was vague, and eluded me, until I found somewhere in my most desultory reading, an account of 'Espendermad,' one of the six angels of Ormuzd, to whom was entrusted the guardianship of the earth. That night I dreamed that I stood under a vine at Schiraz, gathering golden-tinted grapes, when a voice arrested me, and, looking over my shoulder, I saw that face peeping at me across a hedge of crimson roses. Next day I sketched the features as they had appeared in my dream, but I was not fully satisfied, and waited and pondered. Finally, I read 'Madonna Mia,' and then all was as you see it now, startlingly distinct and palpable."
"Why did you not select some dusky-haired, dusky-eyed, olive-tinted oriental type, instead of a blonde who might safely venture into Valhalla as a genuine Celtic Iduna?"
"With the exception of the yellow locks, I suspect the face of my 'Espendermad' might easily be matched among the maidens of the Caucasus, who furnish the most perfect types of Circassian beauty. You know there is a tradition that when Leonardo da Vinci chanced to meet a man with an expression of character that he wished to make use of in his work, he followed him until he was able to delineate the face on canvas; but, on the contrary, the countenances I paint present themselves to my imagination, and pursue me inexorably until I put them into pigment. I do not possess ideals,—they seize and possess me, teasing me for form and color, and forcing me to object them on canvas. Such is the modus operandi of whims that give me my 'Espendermad' praying to the Sun for benisons on the Earth, which she is appointed to guard. Ah, if like the lambkins and birds, I, too, could creep to the starry border of her azure robe, and lay my weary head down and find repose. Some day, if my mind ever grows calm enough, I want to paint a picture of Rest, that I can hang on my wall and look upon when I am worn out in body and soul, when, indeed,—
'My feet are wearied, and my hands are tired, My heart oppressed, And I desire, what I long desired, Rest,—only Rest.'"
"My dear madam, unless you speedily change your present mode of life, you will not paint that contemplated picture, for a long rest will soon overtake you."
A gleam that was nearer akin to joy than any expression he had yet seen, passed from eye to lip, and she answered, almost eagerly,—
"If that be true, it offers a premium for the continuance of habits you condemn so strenuously; but I dare not hope it, and I beg of you not to tantalize me with vain expectations of a release that may yet be far, far distant."
Dr. Grey's heart stirred with earnest sympathy for this lonely hopeless soul, who, standing almost upon the threshold of life, stretched her arms so yearningly to woo the advance of death.
The room was slowly filling with shadows, and, leaning there against her easel, she looked as unearthly as the pearly forms that summer clouds sometimes assume, when a harvest-moon springs up from sea foam and fog, and stares at them. When she spoke again, her voice was chill and crisp.
"My malady is beyond your reach, and baffles human skill. You mean only kindness, and I suppose I ought to thank you, but alas! the sentiment of gratitude is such a stranger in my heart, that it has yet to learn an adequate language. Dr. Grey, the only help you can possibly render me is to prolong Elsie's life. As for me, and my uncertain future, give yourself no charitable solicitude. Do you recollect what Lessing wrote to Claudius? 'I am too proud to own that I am unhappy. I shut my teeth, and let the bark drift. Enough that I do not turn it over with my own hands.' Elsie is signalling for me. Do you hear that bell? Good-night, Dr. Grey."
"I have had a long conversation with Ulpian, and find him violently opposed to the scheme you mentioned to me several days since. He declares he will gladly share his last dollar with you sooner than see you embark in a career so fraught with difficulties, trials, and—"
Miss Jane paused to find an appropriate word, and Salome very promptly supplied her.
"Temptations. That is exactly what you both mean. Go on."
"Well, yes, dear. I am afraid the profession you have selected is beset with dangerous allurements for one so inexperienced and unsophisticated as yourself."
"Bah! Speak out. I am sick of circumlocution. What do you understand by unsophisticated?"
"Why, I mean,—well, what can I mean but just what the word expresses,—unsophisticated? That is, young, thoughtless, ignorant of the ways of the world, and the excessive cunning and deceit of human nature."
"Begging your pardon, it has another significance, which you will find if you look into your dictionary,—that blessed Magna Charta of linguistic rights and privileges. I do not claim the prerogatives of Ruskin's class of the 'well educated, who are learned in the peerage of words; know the words of true descent and ancient blood at a glance, from words of modern canaille;' but I venture the assertion that I am sufficiently sophisticated to plunge into the vortex of public life, and yet keep my head above water."
"I don't want to see my little girl an actress, or a prima donna, bold, forward, and eager to face a noisy, clamorous crowd, who feel privileged to say just what they please about her. It would break my heart; and, if you are bent on such a step, I hope you will wait, at least, till I am dead."
"You ought to be willing to see me do anything honest, that will secure my dependent brother and sister from want."
"The necessity of laboring for them is not especially imperative at this juncture, and why should you be more sensitive now than formerly? Do not deceive yourself, dear child, but face the truth, no matter how ugly it may possibly be. It is not a sense of duty to the younger children, but an inflated vanity, that prompts you to parade your beauty and your wonderful voice on the stage, where they will elicit applause and flattering adulation. My little girl, that is the most dangerous, the most unhealthy atmosphere, a woman can possibly breathe."
"Pray tell me how you learned all this? You, who have spent your life in this quiet old house, who have been almost as secluded as some Cambrian Culdee, can really know nothing of that public life you condemn so bitterly."
"The history of those who have walked in the path you are now preparing to follow, proves the deleterious influences and ruinous associations that surround that class of women."
"Jenny Lind and Sarah Siddons redeem any class, no matter how much maligned."
"But what assurance have I, that, unlike the ninety-nine, you will resemble the one-hundredth?"
"Only try me, Miss Jane."
"Ah, child! A rash boy said the same thing when he tried to drive the sun, and not only consumed himself but nearly burned up the world. There is rather too much at stake to warrant such reckless experiments."
"Quit mythology,—it is not in your line,—and come back to stern facts and serious realities. Because I wish to dance a quadrille or cotillion, and acquit myself creditably, does it ensue as an inexorable consequence, that I shall join some strolling ballet troupe, and out-Bayadere the Bayaderes?"
"That depends altogether upon your agility and grace. If you could reasonably hope to rival your Hebrew namesake, I am afraid my little girl would think it 'her duty' to dance instead of to sing, for the acquisition of a fortune; and insist upon executing wonderful things with her heels and toes, instead of her voice."
"You and Dr. Grey seem to have simultaneously arrived at the charitable conclusion that my heart is pretty much in the same condition that the Hebrew temple was, when Christ undertook to drive out the profane. Thongs in hand you two have overturned my motives, and, by a very summary court-martial, condemned them to be scourged out. Now, mark you, I am neither making change nor selling doves, and still less are you and your brother—Jesus. Dr. Grey does me the honor to indulge a chronic skepticism concerning the possibility of any good and unselfish impulse in my nature, and I am sorry to see that you have caught the contagious doubt of me, and of my motives."
She began the sentence in a challenging, sneering voice, but it was ended in a lower and faltering tone.
"While in the light of her large angry eyes, Uprose and rose a slow imperious sorrow."
"My dear, don't attempt to whip Ulpian over my shoulders. You know very well that I have invested in you an amount of faith that the united censure of the world cannot shake; and if Ulpian does not follow my example, whose fault is it, I should be glad to know? Evidently not his,—certainly not mine,—but undoubtedly yours. I have noticed that you took extraordinary care and a very peculiar pleasure in making him believe you much worse in all respects than you really are; and since you have labored so industriously to lower yourself in his estimation, it would be a poor compliment to your skill and energy if I told you that you had not entirely succeeded in your rather remarkable aim. Before he came home you were as contented, and amiable, and happy, as my old cat there on the rug; but Ulpian's appearance affected you as the entrance of a dog does my maltese, who arches her back, and growls, and claws, as long as he is in sight. I am truly sorry you two could never agree, but I feel bound to tell you that you have only yourself to blame. I do not claim that my sailor-boy is a saint, but he is assuredly some inches nearer sanctification than my poor little Salome. Don't you think so? Be honest, dear."
Miss Jane's hand tenderly caressed the beautiful head; and, as Salome was too sullen or too much mortified to reply, the old lady continued,—
"Nevertheless, Ulpian is a true and devoted friend, and can not bear the thought of your leaving us, for any purpose, much less the one you contemplate. Last night he said, 'Janet, I am her brother, and think you I shall allow my sister to go out from the sacred precincts of home, and become a target for the envy and malice of the better classes who will criticise her, and for the coarse plaudits of the pit? Do you suppose I can willingly see her bare feet turned towards a path paved with glowing ploughshares? Tell her, for me, that if ever she should carry her unfortunate freak into execution, I shall never wish to touch her hand again, for I shall feel that it has lost its purity in the clasp of many to whom she can not refuse it during a professional career.'"
The orphan lifted her head from the arm of Miss Jane's chair, where it had rested for some minutes, and striking her palms forcibly together, she exclaimed, proudly,—
"Tell Dr. Grey I humbly thank him, but the threat has lost its sting; and if I should chance to meet him years hence, though my hands shall be pure and clean as Una's, and as unsullied as his own,—so help me heaven! I will never thrust my touch on his, nor so far forget myself as to suffer his fingers to approach mine. When I pass from this threshold, we will have shaken hands forever."
"Dr. Grey's ears are not proof against such elevated, ringing tones of voice, and he could not avoid hearing, as he came up the steps, the childish words which he assures you he has no intention of believing or remembering."
He had tapped twice at the half-open door, and now came forward with a firm, quick step, to the ottoman where Salome sat. Taking her hands, he patted the palms softly against each other, and smiling good-humoredly, continued,—
"They are very white, and shapely, and pure, and I am not afraid that my little sister will soil them. Her brother looks forward to the day when they will gently and gracefully help him in his work among God's suffering poor. I have not forgotten how dexterous and docile I found your fingers, when I had temporarily lost the use of my own, and I shall not fail to levy contributions of labor in the coming years."
She had snatched her fingers from his, and no sooner had he ceased speaking, than she bowed haughtily, and answered,—
"Our reconciliations all belong to the Norman family, and are quite as lasting as Lamourette's. Ceaseless war is preferable to a violated truce, and since I have not swerved from my purpose, I shall not falter in its enunciation. If I live it shall not be my fault if I fail to go upon the stage. I am not so fastidious as Dr. Grey, and one who sprang from canaille must be pardoned if she betrays a longing for the 'flesh-pots of Egypt.'"
She would have given her right hand to recall her words,—when, a moment later, she met the gaze of profound pity and disappointment with which Dr. Grey's eyes dwelt upon her countenance, hardened now by its expression of insolent haughtiness; but he allowed her no opportunity for retraction, even had she mastered her overweening pride, and stooping to whisper a brief sentence in his sister's ear, he took a medical book from the table, and left the room.
The silence that ensued seemed interminable to Salome, and at last she turned, bowed her head in Miss Jane's lap, and muttered through set teeth,—
"You see it is best that I should go. Even you must be weary of this strife."
The old lady's trembling hands were laid lovingly on the girl's hot brow and scorched cheeks.
"Not half so weary as your own oppressed heart. My dear child, why do you persist in tormenting yourself so unmercifully? Why will you say things that you do not mean?—that are absolute libels on your actual feelings? I have often seen and deplored affectations of generosity and refinement, but you are the first person I ever met who delighted in a pretence of meanness, which her genuine nature abhorred. Salome, I have tried to prove myself a mother to you since the day that I took you under my roof; and now, when I am passing away from the world,—when a few short months will probably end my feeble life, I think you owe it to me to give me no sorrow that your hands can easily ward off. Don't leave me. When I am gone there will be time and to spare, for all your schemes. Stay here, and let me have peace and sunshine about me, in my last fading hours. Ah, dear, you can't be cruel to the old woman who has long loved you so tenderly."
The orphan pressed the withered hands to her lips, and, covering her face with the folds of Miss Jane's black silk apron, exclaimed passionately,—
"Do not think me ungrateful,—do not think me insensible to your love and kindness; but, indeed I am very miserable here. Oh, Miss Jane! if you knew how I have suffered, you would not chide, you would only pity and sympathize with me; for your heart will never steel itself against your poor wretched Salome!"
She lost control of herself, and sobbed violently.
"My dear little girl, tell me all your sorrows. To whom can you reveal your trials and griefs, if not to me? For some weeks past I have observed that you shunned my gaze, and seemed restless when I endeavored to discover how you were employing your time; and I have realized that you were sorely distressed, but I disliked to force your confidence, or appear suspicious. Now, I have a right to ask what makes you miserable in my house? Is the little girl ashamed to show me her heart?"
"One month since, I would have gone to the stake rather than have shown it to you, or have had any one dream of the wretchedness locked in its chambers; but a week ago I was overwhelmed with humiliation, and now I am not ashamed to tell you. Now that Dr. Grey knows it, I would not care if the whole world were hissing and jeering at my heels, and shouting my shame with a thousand trumpets. I tried to keep it from him, and failing, the world is welcome to roll it as a sweet morsel under its busy, stinging, slanderous tongue. Miss Jane, I have intended to be sincere in every respect, but it appears that, after all, I have probably been an arrant hypocrite if you believe that I dislike your brother. I want to go away, because I can no longer endure to live in the same house with Dr. Grey, who shows me more plainly every hour that he can never return the affection I have been idiotic and presumptuous enough to cherish for him. There! I have said it,—and my lips are not blistered by the unwomanly confession, and you still permit my head to rest in your lap. I expected you would be indignant and insulted, and gladly send such a lunatic from your family circle,—or that you would dismiss me coolly, with lofty contempt; but only a woman can properly pity a woman's weakness, and you are crying over me. Ah, if your tears were falling on my grave, instead of my face!"
Miss Jane was weeping bitterly, but now and then she stooped and kissed the quivering lips of her unhappy charge, who found some balm in the earnest sympathy with which her appeal was received.
"My precious child, why should you be ashamed of your love for the noblest man who ever unconsciously became a woman's idol? I do not much wonder at your feelings, because you have seen no one else in any respect comparable to him, and it is difficult for you to realize the disparity in your ages. Poor thing! It must be terrible, indeed, to one who loves him as you do, to have no hope of possessing his affection in return. But I suppose it can't be helped,—and one half the world seem to pour out their love on the wrong persons, and find misery where they should have only joy and peace. Thank God, all this mischief is shut out of heaven! Dear, don't hide your face, as if you had stolen half of my sheep; whereas my poor innocent sailor-boy has unintentionally stolen my little girl's heart."