"Miss Jane, you are too good,—too kind. Do not help me to excuse myself,—do not teach me to palliate my pitiable weakness. It is a grievous, a shameful, a disgraceful thing, for a woman to allow herself to love any man who gives her no evidence of affection, and shows her beyond all doubt that he is utterly indifferent to her. This is a sin against womanly pride and delicacy that demands sackcloth and ashes, and penance and long years of humiliation and self-abasement; and I tell you this is the one sin which my proud soul will never pardon in my poor weak, despised heart."
"If you feel this so keenly, you will soon succeed in conquering and casting out of your heart an affection, which, having nothing to feed upon, will speedily exhaust itself. You are young, and your elastic nature will rebound from the pressure that you now find so painful. My dear, a few months or years will bring comparative oblivion of this period of your life."
"No; they will engrave more deeply the consciousness that I have missed my sole chance of earthly happiness, for Dr. Grey is the only man I shall ever love,—is the only man who can lift me to his own noble height of excellence. I know it is customary to laugh at a girl's protestations of undying devotion, and that the theory of feminine constancy is as entirely effete as the worship of the Cabiri, or the belief in Blokula and its witches; but, unfortunately, the world has not sneered it entirely out of existence, and I am destined to furnish a mournful exemplification of its reality. Whether my nature is unlike that of the majority of women, I shall not undertake to decide; but this I know,—God gave me only so much love to spend, and I poured it all out, I deluged my idol with it, instead of doling it carefully through the future years. Like the woman of Bethany, I have broken my box of alabaster, and spilled all my precious ointment, which might have served for a lifetime of anointing, and I cannot renew the shattered receptacle, nor gather back the wasted fragrance; and so my heart must remain without spikenard or balm during its earthly sojourn. I have been prodigal,—have beggared my womanly nature,—and henceforth shall feast on husks. But this piece of folly can be laid on no shoulders but my own, and I must not wince if they are galled by burdens which only I have imposed. Some women, under similar circumstances, console themselves by fostering a tender and excessive gratitude, which they pet and fondle and call second love; but the feeling belongs to a different species, and is to strong, earnest, genuine love, what the stunted pines of second growth are to the noble, stalwart, unapproachable oaks, that spring from the primitive virgin soil."
Miss Jane lifted the bowed face, and rested the head against her bosom.
"If you are so thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of mastering this affection, why talk of going away? You will be happier here, under any circumstances, than among strangers."
"Do not misapprehend me. I do not intend to cherish my weakness,—to caress and pamper it. I mean to strangle, and mangle, and bury it, if possible. I meant, not that I should always love Dr. Grey, but that I should never be able to regard any one else as I once loved him. I can not stay here, seeing him daily trample my alabaster and ointment under his feet. I can not endure the humiliation that has for some days past made this house more intolerable than I may one day find Phlegethon. I want to go into the whirl and din of life, where my thoughts can dwell on some more comforting theme than the peerless preeminence of the man who is master here, where I can spend hours in elaborating toilettes and coiffures that will show to the greatest advantage my small stock of personal charms; where the admiration and love of other men will at least amuse and soothe the heart that has no more love for anybody, or anything. Miss Jane, if I had never become so deeply attached to Dr. Grey, it might perhaps be unsafe for me to venture into the career which now lies before me; but when a woman's heart is cold and dead in her bosom, there is no peril she need fear; for only her warm, pleading heart, can ever silence the iron clang of conscience and the silvery accents of reason. Worshipping some clay god, my loving, yearning heart, might possibly have led me astray; but now, pride and ambition stand as sentinels over its corpse, and a heartless woman, desirous only of amassing a fortune and making herself a celebrity in musical circles, is as safe from harm as the bones of her grandmother, twenty years buried."
The agony that convulsed the orphan's features, and shivered the smoothness of her usually sweet voice, touched the old lady's sympathy, and she wept silently; straining her imagination for some argument that would make an impression on the adamantine will with which she found her own in conflict.
"My child, tell me how long you have had this trouble. When did you first feel an interest in Ulpian?"
Unhesitatingly Salome related all that had occurred in her intercourse with Dr. Grey, and her companion was surprised at the frankness and mercilessness with which she analyzed her own feelings at each stage of the acquaintance that proved so disastrous to her peace of mind; and not only held her weakness up for scorn, but exonerated Dr. Grey from all censure.
The minuteness of the confession was exceedingly painful; and, at its conclusion, she pressed her palms to her cheeks, and moaned,—
"There, Miss Jane, I have not winced; I have kept back nothing. I have been as patient and inexorable in laying open my nature, in treating you to a post-mortem examination of my heart, as a dentist in scraping and chiselling a sensitive tooth, or a surgeon in cutting out a cancer that baffled cauterization. Now you know all that I can tell you, and I here lay the past in a sepulchre, and roll the stone upon it, and henceforth I trust you will respect the dead; at least, let silence rest upon its ashes. Hic jacet cor cordium."
Salome extricated herself from the arms of her best friend, and smoothed the hair that constant strokes had somewhat disordered.
"Salome, I can not live much longer."
"I know that, dear Miss Jane, and it pains me even to think of leaving the only person who ever really loved me."
"For my sake, dear child, bear the trial of remaining here a little longer; at least, until I die. Do not desert me in my last hours. I do not want the hands of strangers about me, when I am cold and stiff."
Salome rose and walked several times up and down the room; then paused beside the easy-chair, and laid her clasped hands in Miss Jane's.
"You alone have a right to control me. Do with me as you think best. I will not forsake the true, tender friend, who has done more for me than all else on earth, or in heaven. For the present I remain here; but allow me to say that I do not abandon my scheme. I relinquish none of its details,—I only bide my time."
"'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.' Thank you, my precious little girl, for yielding to my wishes when they conflict with yours. Some day you will rejoice that you made what seemed a sacrifice of inclination on the altar of duty. Now, listen to me. Ulpian is so enraptured with your voice, that, while he will never consent to this stage-struck madness, he is exceedingly anxious that you should enjoy every musical advantage, and is curious to ascertain to what degree of perfection your voice can be trained. After consulting me, he wrote two days ago to a celebrated professor of music in Philadelphia or New York (I really forget where the man is now residing), and offered him a handsome salary if he would come and teach you for at least six months, or as much longer as he deems requisite. I believe the gentleman is delicate and threatened with consumption, which obliges him to spend the winters in a warm climate, and Ulpian first met him in Italy. My boy thinks that the opinion of this Professor Von Somebody is oracular in musical matters; and, as he has trained some of the best singers in Europe, Ulpian wishes him to have charge of your voice. Say nothing about it until we hear whether he can accept our offer. Kiss me."
Salome's face crimsoned, and she said, hesitatingly,—
"Miss Jane, I can not consent that Dr. Grey should contribute one cent toward my musical tuition. I can humbly and gratefully accept your charitable aid, but not his. You love me, and therefore your bounty is not oppressive or humiliating, but he only pities and tolerates me, and I would starve in some gutter rather than live as the recipient of his charity. If you can conveniently spare the money necessary to give me additional cultivation, I shall thankfully receive it, for Barilli has taught me all of which he is master, and there is no one else in town in whom I have more confidence. It was my desire and determination that the work of my hands should pay for polishing my voice, but embroidery-fees would not suffice to defray the expenses of the professor to whom you allude; and, if Dr. Grey pays for his services, I must in advance assure you and him that I shall decline them, and rely upon Barilli and myself."
"Pooh! pooh! It is poor philosophy to quarrel with your bread and butter, no matter who happens to hand it to you. Don't be so savage on Ulpian, who really cares more for you than you deserve. But if it comforts your proud, fierce spirit, you are welcome to know that I—Jane Grey—pay Professor Von—whatever his name may be; and Ulpian's pocket, about which you seem so fastidious, will not be damaged one dollar by the transaction. Are you satisfied,—you pretty piece of beggarly pride?"
"I am more grateful to you, dear Miss Jane, than I shall ever be able to express. God only knows what would have become of me if you had not mercifully snatched me, soul and body, from the purlieus of ruin."
She stooped to receive the fond kiss of her benefactress, and went into her own room.
Nearly an hour later she slowly descended the stairs, and took her hat from the stand in the hall. As she adjusted it on her head, and tied the ribbons behind her knot of hair, Mr. Granville came out of the parlor and seized her hand.
"Why will you torment me so cruelly? I have been waiting and watching for you, at least half an hour."
She haughtily took her fingers from his, and indignantly drew herself up,—
"Mr. Granville presumes on his position as guest, to intrude upon some who do not desire his society. I was not aware, sir, that I had any engagement with you."
"Forgive me, Salome! How have I offended you? If you could realize how much pleasure your presence affords me, you would not punish me by absenting yourself as you have persistently done for three days past."
He bent his handsome face closer to hers, looking appealingly into her beautiful flashing eyes; but she put up her hands to push him aside, and answered,—
"I shall be happy to entertain you in the evenings, when the remainder of the household assemble in the parlor; and will, with great pleasure, sing for you whenever Miss Muriel will kindly oblige me by playing my accompaniments; but I prefer to confine our acquaintance to such occasions."
"Will you not allow me the privilege of accompanying you in the walk for which you seem prepared?"
"No, sir; I respectfully decline your attendance."
She saw his cheek flush, and he said, hastily,—
"Salome, I shall begin to hope that you fear to trust your own heart."
"Do not forget yourself, sir. If you knew where my heart is housed, you would spare yourself the fruitless trouble, and me the annoyance, of attentions and expressions of admiration which I avail myself of this opportunity to assure you are particularly disagreeable to me. I wish to treat you courteously, as the guest of those under whose roof I am permitted to reside, but 'thus far, and no farther,' must you venture. Moreover, Mr. Granville, since we are merely comparative strangers, I should be gratified if you will in future do me the honor to recollect that it is one of my peculiarities,—one of my idiosyncrasies,—to prefer that only those I respect and love should call me Salome. Good afternoon, sir."
She took her music-book, bowed coolly, and made her exit through the front door, which she closed after her.
In the hammock that was suspended on the eastern side of the piazza, Dr. Grey had thrown himself to rest; and meanwhile, to search for some surgical operation recorded in one of his books.
Just behind him a window opened from the hall, and to-day, though a rose-colored shade was lowered, the sash had been raised, and every word that was uttered in the passage floated distinctly to him.
The whole conversation occurred so rapidly that he had no opportunity of discovering his presence to the persons within, and though he cleared his throat and coughed rather spasmodically, his warning was unheeded by those for whom it was intended.
He knew that Salome could not possibly have guessed his proximity, as he was not accustomed to use this hammock, and was completely shielded from observation; and, while pained and surprised by Mr. Granville's dishonorable course, which threatened life-long wretchedness for poor Muriel, Dr. Grey's heart throbbed with joy at the assurance that Salome was not so ungenerous as he had feared. Probably no other human being would have so highly appreciated her conduct on this occasion; and, as he mused, with his thumb and forefinger thrust between the leaves of the book, a glad smile broke over his grave face.
"God bless the girl! Her prayers and mine have not been in vain, and she is putting under her feet the baser impulses that mar her character. Granville is considered by the world exceedingly handsome and agreeable, and many,—yes, the majority of women, would have yielded, and indulged in a 'harmless flirtation,' where Salome stood firm. There was something akin to the scornful ring of Rachel's voice in that child's tones, when she told Gerard he presumed on his position as guest; and I will wager my hand that her large eyes did not exactly resemble a dove's when she informed him it was not his privilege to call her Salome. She has a fierce, imperious, passionate temper, that goads her into mischief; but, after all, she is—she must be—nobler than I have sometimes thought her. God grant it! God bless her!"
"But blame us women not,—if some appear Too cold at times; and some too gay and light. Some griefs gnaw deep. Some woes are hard to bear. Who knows the Past? And who can judge us right?"
"Doctor Grey, are you awake? Dr. Grey, here is a note from 'Solitude,' and the messenger begs that you will lose no time, as one of the servants is supposed to be dying."
Salome had knocked twice at Dr. Grey's door, without arousing him, and the third time she beat a tattoo that would have broken even heavier slumbers than his.
"I am awake, and will strike a light in a moment."
She heard him stumbling about the room, and finally there was a crash, as of a broken vase or goblet.
"What is the matter? Can't you find your matches?"
"No; some one has removed the box from its usual place, and I am fumbling about at random, and smashing things indiscriminately. Will you be so good as to bring me a match?"
"I have a candle in my hand, which you can take, while I order Elbert to get your buggy ready."
"Thank you, Salome."
She placed the candle on the mat before his door, laid the note beside it, and went down to the servants' rooms to call the driver.
It was two o'clock, and Dr. Grey had come home only an hour before, from a patient who resided at some distance.
Dressing himself as expeditiously as possible, he read the blurred and crumpled note.
"Dr. Grey: For God's sake come as quick as possible. I am afraid my mother is dying.
Three days before, when he visited Elsie, he found her more composed and comfortable than she had been for several weeks, and Mrs. Gerome had seemed almost cheerful, as she sat beside the bed, crimping the borders of the invalid's muslin caps which the laundress had sent in, stiff and spotless.
Recollecting Elsie's desire to confide something to him before her death, and dreading the effect which this sudden termination of her life might have upon her mistress, in whom he was daily becoming more deeply interested, Dr. Grey hurried down stairs and met the orphan.
"Elbert is not quite ready, but will be at the door directly. I told him the case was urgent."
"You are very considerate, Salome, and I am much obliged for your thoughtfulness; though I regret that the messenger waked you, instead of Rachel or me. I have never before known Rachel fail to hear the bell, and I was so weary that I think a ten-inch columbiad would scarcely have aroused me."
"I was not asleep,—was sitting at my window; and hearing some one slam the gate and gallop up the avenue, I went to the door and opened it, to prevent the ringing of the bell and waking of the entire household."
"You should have been asleep four hours ago, and I had no idea you were still up, when I came home. There was no light in your room. Are you quite well?"
"Thank you, I am quite well."
She was dressed as he had seen her at dinner, and now, as she stood resting one hand on the balustrade of the stairway, he thought she looked paler and more weary than he had ever observed her.
The scarlet spray of pelargonium had withered from the heat of her head, where it had rested all the evening, and the large creamy Grand Duke jasmine fastened at her throat by a sprig of coral, was drooping and fading, but still exhaled its strong delicious perfume.
"Your appearance contradicts your assertion. Is your wakefulness attributable to any anxiety or trouble which I can remove?"
"No, sir. I hear Elbert opening the gate. Who is sick at 'Solitude'?"
"The servant who was so severely injured many months ago, by a fall from a carriage, has grown suddenly worse."
Salome accompanied him to the front door, in order to lock it after his departure; and, as he descended the steps, he turned and said, in a subdued voice,—
"You have probably heard that Mrs. Gerome is a very peculiar,—indeed, a decidedly eccentric person?"
"Yes, sir; it is reported that she is almost a lunatic."
"Which is totally false. She is very sensitive, and shrinks from strangers, and consequently has no friends here. If I should find Elsie dying, or if I need you, I wish you to come promptly. It may be necessary to have some one beside the household, and you are the only person I can trust. Try to go to sleep immediately, for I may send for you very early in the morning."
"I shall be ready to come when I am needed."
The buggy rolled up to the steps, and Dr. Grey sprang into it and drove swiftly down the avenue.
Salome crept softly back up stairs, but Miss Jane called out,—
"Who is there, in the hall? What is the matter?"
The girl opened the door, and put her head inside.
"Dr. Grey has been called to see a sick woman at 'Solitude,' and I have just locked the door after him."
"Why could not Rachel do that, and save you from coming down stairs? What time of night is it?"
"About half-past two. Rachel is asleep. Good-night."
"'Solitude,' did you say?"
"Well, if people will persist in burrowing in that unlucky den, they must take the consequences. Ulpian, poor fellow, will be completely worn out. Good-night, dear; don't get up to breakfast, if you feel sleepy."
Salome went to her own room, changed her dress, laid gloves, hat, and shawl in readiness upon the bed, and threw herself down on the lounge to rest, and if possible to sleep.
When Dr. Grey reached "Solitude," he found Robert Maclean pacing the paved walk that led to the gate.
"Oh, doctor! Have you come at last? It seems to me I could have crawled twice to your house, since Jerry came back."
"What change has taken place in your mother's condition? She was better than usual, when I saw her last."
"We thought she was getting along very well, till all of a sudden she became speechless. Go in, sir; don't stop to knock."
Mrs. Gerome sat at the bedside, mechanically chafing one of the hands that lay on the coverlet, and the face of the dying woman was not more ghastly than the one which bent over her. As Dr. Grey approached, the mistress of the house rose, and put out her hands towards him, with a wistful, pleading, childish manner, that touched him inexpressibly.
"Do not let her die."
He leaned over the pillow, and put his finger on the scarcely palpable pulse.
"Elsie, tell me where or how you suffer."
A ray of recognition leaped up in her sunken eyes, and she looked at him with a yearning, imploring expression, that was pitiable and distressing indeed.
He saw that she was struggling to articulate, but failing in the effort, a groan escaped her, and tears gathered and trickled down her pinched face. He smoothed her contracted forehead, and said, soothingly,—
"Elsie, you feel that I will do all that I can to relieve you. You can not talk to me, but you know me?"
She inclined her head slightly, and in examining her he discovered that only one side was completely paralyzed, and that she could still partially control her left arm. When he had done all that medical skill could suggest, he stood at her side, and she suddenly grasped his fingers.
He put his face close to hers, and observing her tears start afresh, whispered,—
"You wish to tell me something before you die?"
A gurgling sound, and a faint motion of her lips was the only reply of which she was capable.
He placed a pencil between her fingers, but she could not use it intelligibly, and he noticed that her eyes moved from his to those of her mistress, as if to indicate that she was the subject of the desired conversation.
It was distressing to witness her efforts to communicate her wishes, while the tears dripped on her pillow; and unable to endure the sight of her anguish, Mrs. Gerome sank on her knees and hid her face in the coverlet.
Dr. Grey gently lifted Elsie's arm and placed her hand on the head of her mistress, and the expression of her face assured him he had correctly interpreted her feelings. Something still disturbed her, and he suggested,—
"Mrs. Gerome, put your hand in hers."
She silently obeyed him, and then the old woman's eyes looked once more intently into his. He could not conjecture her meaning, until, in feeling her pulse, he found that she was trying to touch his fingers with hers.
He slipped his own into the palm where Mrs. Gerome's lay, and, by a last great effort, she pressed them feebly together.
Even then, the touch of those white, soft fingers, thrilled his heart as no other hand had ever done, and he said,—
"Elsie, you mean that you leave her in my care? That you put her in my hands? That you trust her to me?"
It was impossible to mistake the satisfied expression that flashed over her countenance.
"I accept the trust. Elsie, I promise you that while I live she shall never want a true and faithful friend. I will try to take care of her body, and pray for her soul. I will do all that you would have done."
Once more, but very faintly, she pressed the two hands she had clasped, and closed her eyes.
"Oh, doctor, can't you save her?" sobbed Robert.
In the solemn silence that ensued Mrs. Gerome lifted her face, and Dr. Grey never forgot the wild, imploring gaze, that met his. He understood its import, and shook his head. She rose instantly, moved away from the bed, and left the room.
For nearly an hour Dr. Grey hung over the prostrate form, which lay with closed eyes, and gradually sank into the heavy lethargic sleep, from which he knew she could never awake.
Leaving her to the care of Robert and two female servants, he went in search of the mistress of the silent and dreary house.
Taking a lamp from the escritoire in the back parlor, he went from room to room, finding nowhere the object he sought, and at length became alarmed. As he stood in the front door, perplexed and anxious, the thought presented itself that she might have gone down to the beach. He went back to the apartment occupied by the dying woman,—felt once more the sinking pulse, and took a last look at the altered and almost rigid face.
"Robert, I can do her no good. Her soul will very soon be with her God."
"Oh, sir, don't leave her! Don't give her up, while there is life in her body!" cried the son, grasping the doctor's sleeve.
Dr. Grey put his hand on the Scotchman's shoulder, and whispered,—
"I am going to hunt for Mrs. Gerome. She is not in the house. I may be able to render her some service, but your mother is beyond all human aid."
"Is there any pulse?"
"It is so feeble now, I can scarcely count it."
"Please, doctor, stay here by her while she breathes. Don't desert the dear soul. My poor mother!"
Robert lost all control of himself, and wept like a child.
Loth to forsake him in this hour of direst trial, Dr. Grey leaned against the bed, and for some moments watched the irregular convulsive heaving of the woman's chest.
"Oh, sir, if my mistress hadn't a heart of stone, she would have let her die peacefully. She might at least have granted her dying prayer."
"What was it?"
"All of yesterday afternoon she pleaded with her to be baptized. My mother—God bless her dear soul!—my mother told her that she could not consent to die until she saw her baptized; and, with the tears pouring down her poor face, she begged and prayed that I might fetch the minister from town, and that she might see the ceremony performed. But my mistress walked up and down the floor, and said, 'Never! never! I have done with mockeries. I have washed my hands of all that,—long, long ago.' And now—it is too late; and my poor mother can never—God be merciful to us! is it all over?"
Dr. Grey raised the head, but the breathing was imperceptible and, after a little while, he softly pressed down the lids that were partially lifted from the glazed eyes, and quitted the room.
His buggy stood at the rear gate, and the driver was asleep, but his master's voice aroused him.
"Elbert, go home, and ask Miss Salome please to come over as soon as you can drive her here."
The east was purple and gold, the sea a purling mass of molten amber, and only two stars were visible low in the west, where a waning moon swung on the edge of the distant misty hills. The air was chill, and a silvery haze hung above the moaning waves, and partially veiled the windings of the beach. Under the trees that clustered so closely around the house, the gloom of night still lingered like a pall, but as Dr. Grey approached the terrace, he felt the pure fresh presence of the new day. Up and down the sands his eyes wandered, hoping to discern a woman's figure, but no living thing was visible, except the flamingo and yellow pheasant still perched where they had spent the night, on the stone balustrade that bordered the terrace. He took off his hat to enjoy the crystalline atmosphere, and while he faced the brightening east, the sharp peculiar bark of the Arab greyhound broke the solemn silence that brooded over sea and land.
The sound proceeded from the boat-house, and he hastened towards it, startling a mimic army of crabs and fiddlers that had not yet ended their nightly marauding. The tide was higher than usual at this early hour, and the waves were breaking sullenly against the stone piers.
As Dr. Grey ascended the iron steps leading to the pavilion, the dog growled and showed his teeth, but the visitor succeeded in partially winning him over, and now passed unmolested into the circular room. A cushioned seat extended around the wall, where windows opened at the four points of the compass; and on the round table in the centre of the marble-tiled floor lay a telescope.
At the eastern window sat Mrs. Gerome, with her head resting on her crossed arms. Although Dr. Grey's steps echoed heavily, as he trod the damp mosaic where the mist had condensed, she gave no evidence of having discovered his presence until he stood close beside her. Then she raised one hand, with a quick gesture of caution and silence. He sat down near her, and watched the countenance that was fully exposed to his scrutiny.
No tears had dimmed the wide, mournful, almost despairing eyes, that gazed with strange intentness over the amber sea, at the golden radiance that heralded the coming sun; and every line and moulding of her delicate features seemed cold and rigid enough for a cenotaph. Even the lips were still and compressed, and a bluish shadow lay about their dimpled corners, and under the heavy jet eyelashes. Her silver comb had become loosened, and was finally dragged down by the coil of hair that slipped slowly until it fell upon the morocco cushion of the seat, and the glistening waves of gray hair rolled around her shoulders, and rippled low on her brow. Sea fog had dampened and sea wind tossed this mass of white locks, till it made a singular burnished frame for the wan face that looked out hopeless and painfully quiet.
Her silk robe de chambre of leaden gray, bordered with blue, was unbuttoned at the throat, and showed its faultless curve and contour; while the full, open sleeves, blown back by the strong breeze, bared the snowy arms, where one of the jet serpents that formed her bracelets, pressed so heavily on the white flesh that a purple band was visible when the hand was raised and the bracelet slipped back.
Watching her intently, Dr. Grey could not detect the slightest quiver of nerve or muscle; and she breathed so low and softly that he might have doubted whether she was really conscious, if he had not correctly interpreted the strained expression of the unwinking gray eyes whose pupils contracted as the sky flushed and kindled.
On the floor lay a dainty handkerchief, and stooping to pick it up, he inhaled the delicate, tenacious perfume of tube-rose, which, blended with orange-flowers, he had frequently discovered when standing near her.
Placing it within reach of her fingers, he said, very gently and more tenderly than he was aware of,—
"Hush! I know what you have come to tell me. I knew it when I came away. Let me alone, now."
She raised her head, and turned her eyes to meet his, and he shuddered at the hard, bitter look, that came swiftly over the blanched features. For some seconds they gazed full at each other, and Dr. Grey's eyes filled with a mist that made hers seem large and radiant as wintry stars.
He knew then that his heart was no longer his own,—that this wretched, solitary woman, had installed herself in its most sacred penetralia; that she had not suddenly, but gradually, become the dearest object that earth possessed.
He did not ask himself whether she filled all his fastidious and lofty requirements,—whether she rose full-statured to his noble standard,—whether reverence, perfect confidence, and unqualified admiration would follow in the footsteps of mere affection. He neither argued, nor trifled, nor deceived himself, but bravely confessed to his own true soul, that, for the first time in his life, he loved warmly and tenderly the only woman whose touch had power to stir his quiet, steady pulses.
He had not intended to surrender his affections to the custody of any one until reason and judgment had analyzed, weighed, and cordially endorsed the wisdom of his choice; and now, although surprised at the rashness with which his heart, hitherto so tractable and docile, vehemently declared allegiance to a new sovereign, he did not attempt to mask or varnish the truth. Thoroughly comprehending the fact that it was neither friendship nor compassion, he gravely looked the new feeling in the face, and acknowledged it,—the tyrant which sooner or later wields the sceptre in every human heart.
Had he faithfully kept his compact with himself, and followed the injunction of Joubert, "Choose for a wife only the woman, whom, were she a man, you would choose for your friend"?
Because he found a fascination in her society, should he conclude that it was a healthful atmosphere for his sturdy, exacting, uncompromising nature?
To-day he swept aside all these protests and questions, postponing the arraignment of his heart before the tribunal of slighted and indignant reason, and allowed the newly mitred pontiff to lead him whither she chose.
Unconscious of the emotions that brought an unusual glow to his face and light to his eyes, Mrs. Gerome had dropped her head once more on her arms, and the weary, despairing expression of her countenance, as she looked at the gilded horizon, where sea and sky seemed divided only by a belt of liquid gold,—might have served for the face of some careless Vestal, who, having allowed the fire to expire on the altar she had sworn to guard sleeplessly, sat hopeless, desolate, and doomed,—watching from the dim, cheerless temple of Hestia, the advent of that sun whose rays alone could rekindle the sacred flame, and which, ere its setting, would witness the execution of her punishment.
Dr. Grey bent over her, and said,—
"I came here in quest of you, hoping to persuade you to return to the house."
"No. You came to tell me that Elsie is dead. You came to break the news as gently as possible,—and to pity and try to comfort me. You are very good, I dare say; but I wish to be alone."
"You have been too long alone, and I can not consent to leave you here."
At the sound of his subdued voice, she turned her face towards him, and, for a moment,—
"A strange slow smile grew into her eyes, As though from a great way off it came And was weary ere down to her lips it fluttered, And turned into a sigh, or some soft name Whose syllables sounded likest sighs Half-smothered in sorrow before they were uttered."
"Dr. Grey, my loneliness transcends all parallels, and is beyond remedy. Why should I not stay here? All places are alike to me, now. That cold, silent corpse at the house, is not Elsie; and, since she has been taken, I shall be utterly alone, go where I may."
She shivered, and he picked up a crape shawl lying in a heap under the table, and wrapped it around her. The soft folds were damp, and, as he lifted the veil of hair, to draw the shawl closer about her shoulders and throat, he felt that it was moist from the humid atmosphere.
"Sir, I am not cold,—I wish I were. It is useless to wrap up my body so warmly, and leave my heart shivering until death freezes it utterly."
Dr. Grey took her beautiful white hands in his warm palms, and held them firmly.
"Mrs. Gerome, you do not know what is best for you, and must be guided by one who will prove himself your truest friend."
"Don't mock my misery! I never had but one friend, and henceforth must live friendless. I knew what was before me, and therefore I dreaded this dark, dark day, and begged you to save her. She was the world to me. She supplied the place of father, mother, husband, society, and because God saw that her loving sympathy and care made my existence a trifle less purgatorial than He saw fit to render it, He took her away. My poor Elsie would quit the highest throne in heaven to come back to her desolate, dependent child; for only she knew how and why I trusted and leaned upon her. Ah, God! it is hard that I who have so long shunned strangers should be at their mercy, in the last hour of trial that can be devised by fiends, or allowed by heaven to afflict me."
She struggled to free her hands and hide her face, but her companion clasped them in one of his, and attempted to draw her head down to his shoulder.
"No, sir! The grave is the only resting-place for my poor, accursed head. Do not touch me."
She shrank as far as possible from him, and her voice, hitherto so firm and dry, trembled.
"Mrs. Gerome, I intend to take Elsie's place. You had confidence in her sagacity and penetration, and know that she was cautious in all things. During her long illness she studied my character and antecedents, and finally begged me to take you under my guardianship when she could no longer watch over you. She was importunate in her appeal, and to comfort and compose her I gave her a solemn promise that at her death I would take her place. You may deem me intrusive, and perhaps presumptuously impertinent, but time proves all things, and, after a little while, you will cling to me as you so long clung to her. I shall wait patiently for your confidence; shall deserve,—and then exact it. You need a strong arm to curb and guide you,—you need a true, honest heart, to sympathize with your sorrows and difficulties,—you need a fearless friend to defend you from the assaults of gossip and malice; and all these, if God spares my life, I am resolved to be to you. You can not repulse, or offend, or chill, or wound me, for my word is sacredly pledged to the dead; and, by the grace of God, I will strictly and fully redeem it, when we meet at the last day."
The earnestness of his manner, the grave resolution of his tone, and the invincible fearlessness with which his clear, calm, penetrating eyes, looked into hers, seemed momentarily to overawe her; and she sat quite still, pondering his unexpected words. Pressing her cold fingers very gently, he continued,—
"Elsie had such confidence in my discretion, and friendly interest in your welfare, that she requested me to warn her of her approaching dissolution in order that she might communicate something, which she assured me she desired to confide to me before her death. The paralysis of her tongue prevented the fulfilment of her wish, but you saw how keenly she suffered from her inability to utter what was pressing on her heart. You can not have forgotten that her last act was to put your hand in mine, and you heard my solemn acceptance of the charge committed to me."
An expression of dread that bordered on horror, came over her ghastly face, and her hands grasped his, almost spasmodically.
"Did she hint what she wished to tell you? Did you guess it all?"
"No. Whatever her secret may have been, it passed unuttered into that realm where all mysteries are solved. I neither know nor surmise the nature of her desired revelation, but some day when you fully understand me, I shall ask you to tell me that which she believed I ought to know. My dear madam, when I come to you and demand your confidence, I have no fear that you will withhold it."
She closed her eyes as if to shut out some painful vision, and drooped her head lower, till it rested on her chest.
The sun flashed up from his ocean bed, and, as the first beams fell on the woman's hair, Dr. Grey softly passed his broad white hand over its perfumed masses, redolent of orange flowers.
"The air is too damp for you. Come with me to the house."
She did not heed his words, and perhaps his touch on her head recalled some exquisitely painful memory, for she shook it off, and exclaimed,—
"Doubtless, like the remainder of the curious herd, you are wondering at my 'crown of glory,'—and conjecturing what dire tragedy bequeathed it to me. Sir,—
'My hair was black, but white my life: The colors in exchange are cast! The white upon my hair is rife, The black upon my life has passed.'
Dr. Grey, I understand you; but you need not stay here to keep guard over me, as if I were an imbecile or a refugee from an insane asylum. That I am not the one or the other, is attributable to the fact that my powers of endurance are almost fabulous. You fear that in my loneliness and complete isolation I may turn coward, at the last ordeal I am put through,—and, like Zeno cry out, and in a fit of desperation strangle myself? Dr. Grey, make yourself easy. I do not love my Creator so devotedly that I must needs hurry into his presence before He sees proper to send me a summons.'"
"I am afraid to leave you here, for any woman who does not love and reverence her Maker, requires a guardian. Of course you will do as you like, but I shall remain here as long as you do."
He rose, and crossing his arms on his chest, began to walk about the pavilion. She caught up her hair, twisted it hastily into a knot, and secured it with her comb. As she did so, a small cluster of double violets dropped into her lap. She had gathered them the preceding afternoon, had carried them as an offering to Elsie, who insisted that she should wear them in her hair, "they looked so bonnie just behind the little roguish ear." At her request Mrs. Gerome had placed them at the side of her head, and the old woman made her lean down that she might smell them, and leave a kiss on their blue petals. Now the sight of the withered flowers melted her icy composure, and, as she lifted the little crushed, faded bouquet, and pressed it against her wan cheek, a moan broke from her colorless lips.
"Oh, Elsie,—Elsie! How could you desert me? You knew you were all I had to love and trust,—and how could you die and leave me alone,—utterly alone, in this miserable world that has so cruelly injured me!"
She clasped her hands passionately over the flowers, and the motion caused the sapphire ring, which was now much too large, to slip from the thin finger, and roll ringing across the marble floor.
Dr. Grey picked it up, and as he replaced it, drew her hand under his arm, and led her out of the boat-house. They walked slowly, and as they ascended the steps, he saw his buggy approaching the side gate.
Opening the parlor door, he drew his companion into the room, where the Psyche lamp still burned brightly.
"Mrs. Gerome, will you trust me?"
He had hoped that a return to the house would touch her heart and make her weep, but the cold, dry glitter of her eyes disappointed him.
"Dr. Grey, I trust neither men nor women, nor even the angels in heaven; for one of them turned serpent, and if tradition be true, made earth the dismal 'Bochin' I have found it."
She turned from him, and threw herself wearily upon the divan that filled the recess of the oriel window.
Securing the door of the library, he extinguished the lamp, and closing the parlor went out to meet Salome.
"Doctor Grey, you look weary and anxious."
"I feel so, for this has been a memorable night."
"The servant who opened the gate for us said that the poor old woman died about day-break."
"Yes; when I arrived I found her speechless, and of course could do nothing but watch her die. Come down this walk, I wish to talk to you before you go into the house."
He pointed to a serpentine walk, overarched by laurustinus, and they had proceeded some yards before he spoke again.
"Salome, I believe you told me that you had met Mrs. Gerome?"
"Yes, sir; once upon the cliffs, a mile below, I saw her for a few moments."
"She is a very eccentric woman."
"I should judge so, from her appearance."
"Her life seems to have been blighted by early griefs, and she has grown cynical and misanthropic. Loving no one but her faithful and devoted nurse, she has completely isolated herself, and consequently the death of this servant—companion—nay, foster-mother—is a terrible blow to her. I want your promise that what you may hear or witness in this house shall not travel beyond its walls to feed the worse-than-Ugolino hunger of never-satiated scandal and gossip."
Salome's brow contracted and darkened.
"Do you class me among newsmongers and character-cannibals?"
"If I did, you certainly would not be here at this instant. I sent for you to come and take my place temporarily, as I am compelled to see a patient many miles distant, who is dangerously ill. The majority of women might go away, and comment upon the occurrences of this melancholy day, but I wish to keep sacred all that Mrs. Gerome desires to screen from public gaze and animadversion. Because she is not fond of society, it revenges itself by circulating reports detrimental to the owner of a house which is elegantly furnished, not for popular praise, but solely for her own comfort and gratification. While I regard her course as very deplorable, and particularly impolitic for one so young and unprotected, I am totally unacquainted with the reasons that control her; and, in this hour of grief and bitterness, I earnestly desire to shield her from intrusion and impertinent scrutiny."
"In other words, you wish me to have eyes and yet see not,—and having ears to hear not? You must indeed have little confidence in my good sense, and still less in my feminine sympathy for the afflicted, if you suppose that under existing circumstances I could come to the house of mourning to collect materials to be rolled as sweet morsels under the slanderous tongues, that already wag so industriously concerning 'Solitude' and its solitary mistress. Verily, I occupy a lofty niche in your estimation, and it would doubtless be pardonably prudent in you to reconsider, and bid Elbert take me home with all possible dispatch, before I see Fatima or Bluebeard."
"When will you cease to be childish, and remember that a woman's work lies before you?"
"You may date that desirable transmogrification from the hour when you cease to stir up the mud and dregs in my nature, by doubting the possibility that they will ever settle, and leave a pure medium between your soul and mine. Just so soon,—and no sooner."
"My young friend, you are too sensitive. I now offer you the strongest proof of confidence that I can ever hope to command. Will you take charge of this stricken household in my absence, and not only superintend the arrangements necessary for the funeral, but watch over Mrs. Gerome and see that no one disturbs her?"
"You may trust me to execute her wishes and your orders."
"Thank you. There certainly is no one except you whom I would trust in this emergency. One thing more; if Mrs. Gerome leaves the house, do not lose sight of her. It may be necessary to keep a very strict surveillance over her, and I will return as soon as possible, and relieve you."
As they entered the house, Salome said,—
"You will stop at home and get your breakfast?"
"No, I shall not have time."
"Let me make you a cup of coffee before you start."
"Thank you, it is not necessary; and besides, the house is in such confusion that it would be difficult to obtain anything. Come with me."
She followed him into the dim room, where the tall but emaciated form of Elsie Maclean had been dressed for its last long sleep. The housemaid sat at the bedside, and Robert stood at one of the windows.
The first passionate burst of grief had spent itself, and the son was very calm.
At a sign from Dr. Grey he came forward, and bowed to the stranger.
"Robert, I am obliged to be absent for several hours, and Miss Owen will remain until I return. If you need advice or assistance come to her, and do not disturb Mrs. Gerome, who is lying on a sofa in the parlor. I will drive through town, and send your minister out immediately."
"You are very good, sir. Do you think the funeral should take place before to-morrow? I want to speak to my mistress about it."
"For her sake, it is advisable that it should not be delayed beyond this afternoon. It is very harrowing to know that the body is lying here, and I think she would prefer to leave all these matters to you. It would be better for all parties to have the funeral ceremonies ended this evening."
"I suppose, sir, you know that my poor mother will be buried here, in the grounds."
"For what reason? The cemetery is certainly the best place."
Robert handed a slip of paper to Dr. Grey, who read, in a remarkably beautiful chirograph, the following words,—
"Robert, it was your mother's desire and is my wish that she should be buried near that cluster of deodar cedars, just beyond the mound. Send for an undertaker, and for the minister who visited her during her illness; and let everything be done as if it were my funeral instead of hers. Put some geranium leaves and violets in her dear hands, and upon her breast."
"When did you receive this?" asked Dr. Grey.
"A moment ago, Phoebe, the cook, brought it to me from my mistress."
"Of course you have no choice, but must comply with her wishes and those of the dead. Still, I regret this decision."
"Yes, sir; it is ill luck to keep a grave near the eaves of a house, and it will be bad for my mistress to have it always in sight; for she mopes enough at best, and does not sleep o' nights, and the Lord only knows what will become of her with my poor mother's corpse and coffin within ten yards of her window. Sir, how does she take this awful blow? It comforted me to know you were with her."
"She bears this affliction as she seems to have endured all others that have overtaken her, in a spirit of rebellious bitterness and defiance. I am afraid that the excitement will seriously injure her. Salome, I will return as early as the safety of a patient will permit."
Robert followed the doctor to his buggy, to consult him with reference to some of the sad details of the impending funeral, and after a hasty glance at the placid countenance of the dead, Salome went back to the hall, and sat down opposite to the parlor door, which had been pointed out to her. Her nerves were strong, healthy, and firm, but the presence of death, the profound silence that reigned, the chill atmosphere, and dreary aspect of the house,—all conspired to oppress her heart.
Through the open door she could see the ever restless sea, and hear its endless murmuring monotone, and imagination seizing the ill-omened legends she had heard recounted concerning this spot, peopled the corners of the hall with phantoms, and every flitting shadow on the lawn became a spectre.
Now and then the servants—two middle-aged women—passed softly to and fro, and twice Robert crossed the passage, but not a sound issued from the parlor; and once, when Phoebe came with her mistress's breakfast on a waiter, and tried the bolt, she found the door locked. She knocked several times, but receiving no answer went quietly back to the kitchen.
Weary of sitting on one of the hard, uncomfortable walnut chairs, that stood with its high carved back close to the wall, Salome rose, and amused herself by studying the engravings that surrounded her. In the midst of her investigations she was startled by a loud, doleful, blood-curdling sound, that seemed to proceed from some spot immediately beneath the floor of the hall. It was different from anything she had ever heard before, but resembled the prolonged howl of a dog, and rose and fell on the air like a cry from some doomed spirit.
Robert came out of the room which his mother had always occupied, and, as he passed Salome, she asked,—
"What is the matter? What is the meaning of that horrible noise?"
"Only the greyhound howling at the dead that he knows is lying over his head. Ah, ma'am! The poor brute sees what we can't see, and his death-baying is awful."
"Where is he? The sound seems to come through the floor."
"He is so savage that I was afraid he would hurt some of the strangers who will come here to-day, so I chained him in the basement. Hist, ma'am! Did you ever hear anything so dreadful? It raises the hair off my head."
He went down stairs, and the howling, which was caused by the fact that the dog was hungry and unaccustomed to being chained, ceased as soon as he was set free. Ere long Robert came back, followed by the greyhound, whose collar he grasped firmly. At sight of Salome he growled and plunged towards her, but Robert was on the alert, and held him down. Leading him to the parlor door, the gardener knocked, and put his mouth to the key-hole.
"If you please, ma'am, will you let Greyhound in? It won't do to leave him at large, and when I chain him he almost lifts the roof with his howls."
No reply reached Salome's strained ears, but the door was opened sufficiently to admit the dog, who eagerly bounded in, and then the click of the lock once more barred intrusion; and when the joyful barking had ceased, all grew silent once more.
From a basket of fresh flowers brought in by the boy who assisted Robert, Salome selected the white ones and made a wreath, which she laid aside and sprinkled; then gathering some rose and nutmeg geranium-leaves, and a few violets blooming in jars that stood on the gallery, she cautiously glided into the chamber of death, and arranged them in Elsie's rigid hands.
Soon after, the undertaker and minister arrived, and while they conferred with Robert concerning the burial service, the girl went back to her vigil before the parlor door, and endeavored to divert her thoughts by looking into a volume of poems that lay on the hall table. The book opened at "Macromicros," where a brilliant verbena was crushed between the leaves, and delicate undulating pencil-lines enclosed the passage beginning,—
"O woman, woman, with face so pale! Pale woman, weaving away A frustrate life at a lifeless loom."
Slowly the hours wore away, and at noon Elsie's body was placed in the coffin and left on a table in the room opposite the parlor.
It was two o'clock when Dr. Grey came up the steps, looking more fatigued than Salome had ever seen him. He sat down beside her on the gallery, and sighed as he caught a glimpse of the men who were bricking up the grave that yawned on the right hand side of the lawn.
"Where is Mrs. Gerome?"
"In the parlor. Once I heard her pacing the floor very rapidly, and saying something to her dog. Since then—two hours ago—not a sound has reached me."
"She has taken no food?"
"No, sir. The servant who prepared her breakfast knocked twice at the door, but was refused admittance."
Dr. Grey went into the hall, and rapped vigorously on the door, but there was no movement within.
"Mrs. Gerome, please permit me to speak to you for a few minutes. If it were not necessary, I would not disturb you."
The appeal produced no effect; and, without hesitating, he walked to the door of the library or rear parlor,—took the key from his pocket, opened it, and entered.
The dog was asleep on the velvet rug before the hearth, and his mistress sat at her escritoire, with her arms resting on the blue desk, and her face hidden upon them. A number of letters and papers were scattered about, and, in an open drawer a silver casket was visible, with a pearl key in its lock.
Before the marble Harpocrates stood two slender violet-colored Venetian glasses, representing tulips, and filled with fuchsias and clematis that were dropping their faded velvet petals, and the atmosphere was sweet with the breath of carnations and mignonette blooming in the south window.
Dr. Grey hoped that Mrs. Gerome had fallen asleep; but when he bent over her, he saw in the mirror above her that the large, bright eyes were gazing vacantly into the recess of the desk.
She noticed his image reflected in the glass, and instantly sat upright, spreading her hands over her papers as if to screen them. He drew a chair near hers, and put his finger on her pulse, which throbbed so rapidly he could scarcely count it.
"Have you slept at all, since I left you this morning?"
"You promised that you would not attempt to destroy yourself."
"I have kept my word."
"Yes; you 'keep it to our ear, and break it to our hope,' for you must know that unless you take some rest and refreshment, you will be seriously ill."
He saw a spark leap up in her eyes, like a bubble tossed into sunshine by a sudden ripple, and she shook back the hair that seemed to oppress her.
"Do not tease and torment me, now. I want to be quiet."
"My task is an unpleasant one, therefore I shall not postpone it. In a short time—within the next hour—Elsie will be buried, and you owe a last tribute of gratitude and respect to her remains. Will you refuse it to the faithful friend to whom you are indebted for so much affection and considerate care?"
"She would not wish me to do anything that is so repugnant, so painful to me."
"Have you no desire to look at her kind, placid face once more?"
"I wish to remember it as in life,—not rigid and repulsive in death."
"She looks so tranquil you would think she was sleeping."
"No,—no! Don't ask me. I never saw but one corpse, and that was of a sailor drowned in mid ocean, and I shall never be able to forget its ghastliness and distortion as it lay on deck, under sickly moonshine."
"Mrs. Gerome, you must follow Elsie's body to the grave. Believe that I have good reasons for this request, and grant it."
She shook her head.
"Your habits of seclusion have subjected you to uncharitable remarks, and your absence from the funeral would create more gossip than any woman can afford to give grounds for. There is a rumor that you are deranged, and the best refutation will be your quiet presence at the grave of your faithful nurse."
She straightened herself, haughtily.
"Seven years ago I turned my back upon the world, and scorned its verdict."
"The men or women who defy public opinion invite social impalement, and rarely fail to merit the branding and opprobrium they invariably receive. Madam, I should imagine that to a nature so refined and shrinking as yours, almost any trial would seem slight in comparison with the certainty of becoming a target for sarcasm, pity, and malice, in every kitchen in the neighborhood. Permit my prudence to prevail over your reluctance to the step I have advised, and some day you will thank me for my persistency. You have time to make the proper changes in your dress, and, when the hour arrives, I will knock at your own door. My dear madam, do not delay."
She rose, and began to replace the papers in the drawers of her desk, which she closed and locked.
"Dr. Grey, why should you care if I am slandered?"
"Because I am now your best friend, and must tell you frankly your foibles and dangers, and endeavor to guard you from the faintest breath of detraction."
"I am very suspicious concerning the motives of all who come about me; and, at times, I have been so unjust as to ascribe even my poor Elsie's devotion to a desire to control my fortune for the benefit of herself and child. Do you expect me to trust you more implicitly than I ever trusted her?"
"I shall make it impossible for you to doubt me. Come to your room. Elsie's few acquaintances will soon be here."
Mrs. Gerome thrust the key of her desk into her pocket, but a moment after, when she drew out her handkerchief, it fell on the carpet, and without observing it, she passed swiftly across the hall, and into her own apartment.
As Dr. Grey lingered to secure the door, his eye fell upon the silver key on the floor; and, placing it in his vest pocket, he rejoined Salome.
At four o'clock several of Robert's friends came and seated themselves in the room where the coffin sat wreathed with flowers; and immediately after, Mr. and Mrs. Spiewell made their appearance, accompanied by two ladies whose features were concealed by thick veils. Robert and the servants soon joined them, and Salome stole into the room and sat down in one corner.
Dr. Grey tapped softly at the door of Mrs. Gerome's apartment, and she came out instantly, and walked firmly forward till she stood in the presence of the dead. She was dressed in black silk, and wore two heavy lace veils over her bonnet, which effectually screened her countenance. Crossing the floor, she stood at Robert's side, and the minister rose and began the burial service.
When a prayer was offered, all the other persons present bowed their heads, but the mistress of the mansion remained erect and motionless; and, as the pall-bearers took up the coffin and proceeded to the grave, she followed Robert.
Dr. Grey stepped to her side and offered his arm, but she took no notice of the act, and walked on as if she were an automaton.
The service was concluded, the coffin lowered, and, amid Robert's half-smothered sobs, the mound was raised under the deodars, whose long shadows slanted athwart it, in the dying sunlight.
The little group dispersed, and Mr. Spiewell led his wife to the owner of "Solitude."
"Mrs. Gerome, Mrs. Spiewell and I have long desired the pleasure of your acquaintance, and hope, if you need friends, you will permit us—"
"Thank you for your kindness in visiting my faithful old Elsie."
The tall, veiled figure had cut short his speech by a quick, imperative gesture of her hand; and, turning instantly away, disappeared in one of the densely shaded walks that wound through the grounds.
Dr. Grey escorted the party to their carriages, and as he handed Mrs. Spiewell in, she said, in her sharp nasal tones,—
"I heard that Mrs. Gerome was devotedly attached to the poor old creature who had nursed her, but she certainly seems to me very indifferent and heartless."
"She is more deeply afflicted by her loss than you can possibly realize, and I am exceedingly apprehensive that she will be ill in consequence of her inability to sleep or eat. My dear madam, we must not judge too hastily from appearances, else we shall deserve similar treatment. Who are those two ladies veiled so closely?"
"Friends, I presume, or they would not be here."
But the little woman seemed uneasy, and flushed under the doctor's searching gaze.
"I hope dear Miss Jane is as well as one can ever expect her to be in this life. Come, Charles; you forget, my dear, that we have a visit to make before tea-time. I notice, doctor, that you have a new carpet on the floor of your pew, and a new cushion-cover to match; and, indeed, you are so fine that the remainder of the church seems quite faded and shabby. Good evening, doctor; my love to all at home."
The clergyman's gray pony trotted off with his master and mistress, and Dr. Grey returned to Salome, who waited for him at the steps of the terrace.
"What do you suppose brought Mrs. Channing and Adelaide to the poor old woman's funeral?" asked the orphan.
"How did you discover them?"
"I found this handkerchief, whose initials I embroidered two months ago, and recognize as belonging to Mrs. Channing. As for Miss Adelaide, when she moved her veil a little aside to peep at Mrs. Gerome, I caught a glimpse of her pretty face. Do they visit here?"
"Certainly not; nobody visits here but the butcher, baker, and doctor. Those ladies came solely on a tour of inspection, and to gratify a curiosity that is not flattering to their characters. My dear child, you look tired."
"Dr. Grey, what is there so mysterious about this house and its owner that all the town is agog and agape when the subject is mentioned? What is Mrs. Gerome's history?"
"I am totally unacquainted with its details, and only know that since she became a widow, she has been a complete recluse. She is very unhappy, and we must exert ourselves to cheer her. This has been a lonely, dreary day to you, I fear, and I trust it will not be necessary for me to ask you to remain here to-night."
The sun had set, leaving magnificent cloud-pictures on sky and sea, and while the orphan turned to enjoy the glorious prospect above and around her, Dr. Grey went in search of the lonely women who now continually occupied his thoughts.
She was standing under the pyramidal cedars, looking down at the new grave, where Salome's wreath hung on the head-board, and hearing approaching footsteps would have moved away, but he said, pleadingly,—
"Do not avoid me."
She paused, and suddenly held out her hands to him.
"Ah,—is it you? Dr. Grey, what shall I do? How can I bear to live here,—alone,—alone."
He took her hands and looked down into her white, chill face.
"My dear friend, take your suffering heart to God, and He will heal, and comfort, and strengthen you. If He has sorely afflicted you, try to believe that Infinite love and mercy directed all things, and that ultimately every sorrow of earth will be overruled for your eternal repose and happiness. Remember that this world is but a threshing-floor, where angels use afflictions as flails, to beat the chaff and dust from our hearts, and present them as perfect grain for the garners of God. I know that you are desolate, but you can never be utterly alone, since the precious promise, 'Lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.'"
Despairingly she shook her head.
"All that might comfort some people, but it falls on my ears and heart like the sound of the clods on Elsie's coffin. I have no religion,—no faith,—no hope,—in time or eternity. My miserable past entombs all things."
"Do not unearth your woes,—let the grave seal them. Your life stands waiting to be sanctified,—dedicated to Him who gave it. My dear friend,—
'Cleanse it and make it pure, and fashion it After His image: heal thyself; from grief Comes glory, like a rainbow from a cloud.'"
The sound of his voice, more than the import of his words, seemed to soothe her, for her eyes softened; but the effect was transitory, and presently she exclaimed,—
"Mere 'sounding brass, and a tinkling cymbal!' Pretty words, and musical; but empty as those polished shells yonder that echo only hollow strains of the never silent sea. Once, Dr. Grey,—"
She paused, and a shiver crept through her stately form; then she slowly continued, in a tone of indescribable pathos,—
"Once I could have listened to your counsel, for once my soul was full of holy aims, and my heart as redolent of pure Christian purposes as a June rose is of perfume; but now,—
'They are past as a slumber that passes, As the dew of a dawn of old time; More frail than the shadows on glasses, More fleet than a wave or a rhyme.'"
Dr. Grey drew her arm through his, and silently led her to the house, and into the parlor. He noticed that her breathing was quick and short, and that she sank wearily upon the sofa, as if her strength had well-nigh failed her.
He untied her bonnet-strings and removed it, and she threw her head down on the silken cushion, as a spent child might have done.
Taking a vial from his pocket, he dropped a portion of the contents into a wine-glass, and filled it with sherry wine.
"Mrs. Gerome, drink this for me. It will benefit you."
She swallowed the mixture, and remained quiet for some seconds; then a singularly scornful smile curved her mouth as she said,—
"You drugged the wine. Well, so be it. Nepenthe or poison are alike welcome, if they bring me death, or even temporary oblivion."
Katie came in and lighted the lamp, and Dr. Grey sat beside the sofa and watched the effect of his prescription.
Tired at length of the sober sea and dark gloomy grounds, Salome came back to the house and stood on the threshold of the parlor door, looking curiously at the quiet, silent group, and at the pictures on the walls.
She could see very distinctly the beautiful white face of the mistress pressed against the blue damask cushion, and clear in outline as she had once observed it on the background of ocean; and she noticed that the features were sharper and that the figure was thinner. From the silvery lamp-light the gray hair seemed to have caught a metallic lustre on the ripples that ebbed back from the blue-veined temples, and the woman looked like a marble snow-crowned image, draped in black.
With one elbow on his knee, and his cheek resting in his hand, Dr. Grey leaned forward, studying the features turned towards him, and watching her with almost breathless interest. He was not aware of Salome's presence, and was unconscious of the strained, troubled gaze, that she fixed upon him.
The tender love that filled his heart looked out of his grave deep eyes, which never wandered from the face so dear to him, and moved his lips in an inaudible prayer for the peace and welfare of the lonely waif whom Providence or fate had brought into his path, to evoke all the tenderness latent in his sturdy, manly nature.
In the twinkling of an eye, Salome had learned the whole truth and standing there, she staggered and grasped the doorway for support, wishing that the heavens and earth would pass away—that death might smite her, and end the agony that never could be patiently endured.
Recently she had tutored herself to bear the loss of his love and the deprivation of his caresses,—she had mapped out a future in which her lot was one of loneliness,—but through all the network of coming years there ran like a golden cord binding their destinies the precious hope that at least Dr. Grey would die as he had lived hitherto,—without giving to any woman the coveted place in his heart, where the orphan would sooner have reigned than upon the proudest throne in Europe.
She had prayed that, with this assurance, God would help her to be contented—would enable her to make her life useful and pure, and, like Dr. Grey's, a blessing to those about her.
It had never occurred to her that the man whom she reverenced above all things human or divine, and whose exalted ideal of feminine perfection soared as far above her as the angels in Lebrun's "Stoning of St. Stephen" soared above the sinning multitude below them—that the man whose fastidiousness concerning womanly character and deportment seemed exaggerated and almost morbid, could admire or defend, much less love that gray-haired widow, whom the world pronounced either a lunatic, or a scoffing, misanthropic infidel.
The discovery was so unexpected, so startling, that it partially stunned her; and, like one addicted to somnambulism, she softly crossed the room and stood behind Dr. Grey's chair.
He had taken Mrs. Gerome's hand to examine her pulse, and retained it in his, looking fondly at the dainty moulding of the fingers and the exquisite whiteness of the smooth skin. How long she stood there Salome never knew, for paralysis seemed creeping, numb and cold, over her heart and brain.
Dr. Grey saw that his exhausted patient was asleep, and knew that the opiate he had administered in the wine would not relinquish its hold until morning; and when her breathing became more quiet and regular he bent his head and softly kissed the hand that lay heavily in his.
Salome covered her face and groaned; and rising, he was for the first time cognizant of her presence. His face flushed deeply.
"How long have you been here?"
"Long enough to discover why you visit 'Solitude' so often."
He could not see her countenance, but her unnaturally hollow tone pained and shocked him.
"You are very much fatigued, my dear child, and as soon as I have given some directions to Robert, I will take you home. Get your bonnet, and meet me at the door."
He took a shawl that was lying on the piano and laid it carefully over the sleeper, then bent one knee beside the sofa, and mutely prayed that God would comfort and protect the woman who was becoming so dear to him.
With one long, anxious, tender look into her hopeless yet beautiful face, he left the room and went in search of Robert and Katie. When he had given the requisite directions, and descended the steps, he found Salome waiting, with her fingers grasping the side of the buggy. Silently he handed her in; and, as she sank back in one corner and muffled her face, they drove swiftly through the sombre grounds, where the aged trees seemed murmuring in response to the ceaseless mutter of the sullen sea.
"Whom first we love, you know, we seldom wed. Time rules us all. And Life indeed is not The thing we planned it out ere hope was dead. And then we women cannot choose our lot."
"Ulpian, you certainly do not intend to sit up again to-night? Even brass or whitleather would not stand the wear and tear that your constitution is subjected to. You really make me unhappy."
"My dear Jane, it would make you still more unhappy if from mere desire to promote my personal ease and comfort, I could forget the solemn responsibility imposed by my profession. Moreover, my physical strength is quite equal to the tax I exact from it."
"I doubt it, for we have all remarked how pale and worn you look."
"My jaded appearance is attributable to mental anxiety, rather than bodily exhaustion."
"If Mrs. Gerome is so ill as to require such unremitting care and vigilance, she should have a nurse, instead of expecting a physician to devote all his time and attention to her. Where is Hester Denison?"
"I have placed her at the steam-mill above town, where there is a bad case of small-pox, and even if she were not thus engaged, I should not take her to 'Solitude.'"
"Pray, why not? She took first-rate care of me when I was so sick last year."
"Mrs. Gerome is morbidly sensitive at all times, and at this juncture I should be afraid to introduce a stranger into her sick room."
"When people are so excessively nervous about being seen, I can't help feeling a little suspicious. Do you suppose that Mrs. Gerome loved her husband so much better than the majority of widows love theirs, that seven years after his death she can't bear to be looked at? I like to see a woman show due respect to her husband's memory, but I tell you my experience—or rather my observation—leads me to believe that these young widows who make the greatest parade of their grief, and load themselves with crape and bombazine till they can scarcely stagger under their flutings, flounces, and jet-fringes, are the most anxious to marry again."
"Stop, my darling sister! Who has been filling your tongue and curdling all the 'milk of human kindness' in your generous heart? If women refuse to each other due sympathy in sorrow, to what quarter can they turn for that balm which their natures require? I never before heard you utter sentiments that trenched so closely upon harsh uncharitableness. Your lips generally employ only the silvery language of leniency, which I so much love to hear, but to-day they adopt the dialect of Libeldom. Recollect, my dear sister, that even the pagan Athenians would never build a temple to Clemency, which they contended found her most appropriate altars in human hearts."
"Pooh, Ulpian! You need not preach me such a sermon, as if I were a heathen. Facts, when they happen to be real facts, are the best umpires in the world, and to their arbitrament I leave my character for charity. When Reuben Chalmers died, his wife was so overwhelmed with grief that she shut herself up like a nun; and when she drove out for fresh air wore two heavy crape veils, and never allowed any one to catch a glimpse of her countenance. Not even to church did she venture, until one morning, at the end of two years, she laid aside her weeds, clad herself in bridal array, was married in her own parlor, and the next Sunday made her first appearance in public after the death of her husband, leaning on the arm of her second spouse. Now, that is true,—is no libel,—pity it is not! Though 'one swallow does not make a summer,' I can't help feeling suspicious of very young and hopelessly inconsolable widows, and am always reminded of Anastasia Chalmers. So you see, my blue-eyed preacher, when your old Janet talks of these things, she is not caught 'reckoning without her host.'"
"One deplorable instance should not bias you against an entire class, and the beautiful constancy of Panthea ought to neutralize the example of a hundred Anastasia Chalmers. Is it not unfortunate that poor human nature so tenaciously recollects all the evil records, and is so oblivious of the noble acts furnished by history? Do cut the acquaintance of the huge family of on dits, who serve the community in much the same capacity as did the cook of Tantalus, when he dressed and garnished Pelops for the banquet table. Unluckily, devouring malice can not furnish the 'ivory shoulder' requisite to mend its mischief. We are all prone to forget the injunction, 'Judge not, that ye be not judged,' and instead of remembering that we are directed to bear one another's burdens, we gall the shoulders of many, by increasing the weights we should lighten. Janet, don't flay all the poor young widows; leave them to such measures of peace as they may find among their weeds."
Miss Jane listened to her brother's homily with a half-smile lurking about the puckered corners of her eyes and mouth, and putting her finger in the button-hole of his coat, drew him closer to her, as they sat together on the sofa.
"How long since you took the tribe of widows under your special protection?"
"Since the moment, that, owing to some inexplicable freak, my dear Janet suffered 'evil communications to corrupt' her 'good manners,' and absolutely forgot to be just and generous."
He kissed his sister and rose, but the troubled look that settled once more on his countenance did not escape her observation.
"Ulpian, is Mrs. Gerome very ill?"
"Yes, I am exceedingly unhappy about her. She is dangerously ill with a low, nervous, fever that baffles all my remedies."
Dr. Grey walked up and down the room, and Miss Jane pressed her spectacles closer to her nose, and watched him.
"If the poor woman leads such a lonely, miserable life, I should think that death would prove a blessed release to her. Of course it is natural and reasonable that you should desire to save all your patients, but why are you so very unhappy about her?"
He did not answer immediately, and when he spoke his deep tone was tremulous with fervent feeling.
"Because I find that she is dearer to me than all the other women in the world, except my sister; and her death would grieve me more than any trial that has yet overtaken me—more than you can realize, or than I can express."
He took Miss Jane's face in his hands, kissed her, and left the room.
Meeting Muriel and Salome in the hall, the former seized his arm, and exclaimed,—
"You shall not leave home again! Let me tell Elbert to put up your buggy. If you continue to work yourself down, as you are now doing, you will be prematurely old, and gray, and decrepit. Come into the parlor, and let me play you to sleep."
"I heartily wish I could follow your pleasant prescription, but duty is inexorable, and knows no law but that of obedience."
"Must you sit up to-night? Is that poor lady no better?"
"I can see no improvement, and must remain until I do."
"You are afraid that she will die?"
"I hope that God will spare her life."
His serious tone awed Muriel, who raised his hand to her lips, and murmured,—
"My dear doctor, I wish I could help you. I wish I could do something to make you look less troubled."
"You can help me, little one, by being happy yourself, and by aiding Salome in cheering my sister, while I am forced to spend so much time away from her. Good evening. Take care of yourselves till I come home."
Humming a bar of a Genoese barcarole, Muriel ran up stairs to join her governess; but Salome turned and followed the master of the house to the front door.
"Dr. Grey, can I render you any assistance at 'Solitude'?"
"Thank you,—the time has passed when you might have aided me. Two weeks ago, when I requested you to go with me, Mrs. Gerome was rational and would have yielded to your influence, but now she is delirious and you could accomplish nothing. The servants are faithful and attentive, and can be trusted during my absence to execute my orders."
A bright flush rose to Salome's temples, and her eyes drooped beneath his, so anxious and yet so calmly sad.
"At the time you spoke to me I could not go, but now I really should be glad to accompany you. Will you take me?"
"Your reason, Dr. Grey?"
"Is one whose utterance would pain you, consequently I trust you will pardon me for withholding it."
"At my own peril, I demand it."
"The motive which prompts your offer precludes the possibility of my acceptance."
"How dare you sit in judgment on my motives? You who prate and homilize of charity! charity! and who quote the 'golden rule' solely for the edification and guidance of those around you. Example is more potent than precept, and we are creatures of imitation. Suppose I should question the disinterestedness of your motives in allowing one patient to monopolize your attention to the detriment of the remainder? Of course you would be shocked and think me presumptuous, for one's sins and follies often play hide and seek, and sometimes we insult our own pet fault when we find it housed in some other piece of flesh."
"Good night, Salome. I shall endeavor to forget all this, since I am too sincerely your friend to desire to set your hasty words in the storehouse of memory."
He looked down pityingly, sorrowfully, into her angry imperious eyes, and sudden shame smote her, making her cheeks glow and tingle as if from the stroke of an open hand.
"Dr. Grey, wait one moment! Let me say something, that will show,—that will—"
"Only make matters worse. No, Salome, I have little time for trifling, still less for recrimination, none at all for dissimulation; and, in your present mood, the least we can say will prove the most powerful for good."
He went down to his buggy, but stopped and reflected; and fearing that he might have been too harsh, he turned and approached her, as she stood leaning against one of the columns of the gallery.
"Do not think me rude. I am not less your friend than formerly, though I am anxious, and doubtless appear preoccupied. Let us shake hands in peace."
He extended his own, but the girl stood motionless, and the remorseful anguish and humiliation of her uplifted face touched his heart.
"Dr. Grey, if you really forgive and forget, prove it by taking me to 'Solitude.'"
"Do not ask what you well know I have quite determined it is best that I should not grant."
The spark leaped up lurid as ever, in her dilating eyes.
"You take this method to punish me for my refusal to comply with your wishes a fortnight since?"
"I have neither the right nor inclination to punish you in any respect, and you must pardon my inability to accede to a request which my judgment does not approve. Good-by."
He put his hand into his pocket, and left her; and while she stood irresolute and disappointed, a servant summoned her to Miss Jane's presence.
"Can I do anything for you?" asked the orphan, observing the cloud on the old lady's brow.
"Yes, dear; sit down here and talk to me. I feel lonely, now that Ulpian is away so constantly. He seems very uneasy about that woman at 'Solitude,' and I never saw him manifest so much anxiety about any one. By the by, Salome, tell me something concerning her."
"I have already told you all I know of her."
"Wherein consists her attractiveness?"
"Who said she was attractive? She is handsome, and there is something peculiar and startling about her, but she is by no means a beauty. I have heard Dr. Grey say that she possessed remarkable talent, but I have been favored with no exhibition of it. Why do you not question your brother? Doubtless it would afford him much pleasure to furnish an inventory of her charms and accomplishments, and dilate upon them ad libitum."
"What makes you so savage?"
"Simply because there happens to be a touch of the wild beast in my nature, and I have not a doubt that if the doctrine of metempsychosis be true, I was a tawny dappled leopardess or a green-eyed cougar in the last stage of my existence. Miss Jane, sometimes I feel as if it would be a luxury—a relief—to crunch and strangle something or somebody,—which is not an approved trait of orthodox Christian character, to say nothing of meek gentility and lady-like refinement."
She laughed with a degree of indescribable scorn and bitterness that was pitiable indeed in one so young.
"There is an evil fit on Saul."
"Yes; and you are neither my harp nor my David."
"Does my little girl expect to find a 'cunning player,' who will charm away all the barbarous notions that occasionally lead her astray, and tempt her to wickedness?"
"Verily,—no. The son of Jesse has forsaken his own household, and made unto himself an idol elsewhere; and I—Saul—surrender to Asmodeus."
Miss Jane laid her hand on the girl's arm, and said, in a hesitating, troubled manner,—
"Has Ulpian told you?"
"Why should he tell me? My eyes sometimes take pity on my ears,—and seeing very distinctly, save the necessity of hearing. My vision is quite as keen now as when in my anterior existence, I crouched in jungles, watching for my prey. Oh, Miss Jane! if you could look here, and know all that I have suffered during the past three weeks, you would not wonder that the tiger element within me swallows up every other feeling."
She struck her hand heavily upon her heart, and the old lady was frightened and distressed by the glitter of the eyes and the dilation of the slender nostrils.
"When I came in, I knew from your countenance that you had heard something which you desired to prepare me for,—which you intended to break gently to me. But your kindness is unavailing. The truth crashed in on my heart without premonition; and I saw, and understood, and accepted the inevitable; and since then,—ah, my God! since then—"
Her head drooped upon her bosom, and a groan concluded the sentence.
"Perhaps Ulpian only pities the poor woman's desolation, and will lose his interest in her when she recovers her health. You know how tenderly he sympathizes with all who suffer, and I dare say it is more compassion than love."
"What hypocrites we often are, in our desire to comfort those whom we see in agony! Miss Jane, your kind heart is holding a hand over the mouth of conscience, to smother its cries and protests while you utter things in which you know there is no truth. You mean well; but you ought to know better than to expect to deceive me. I understand the difference between love and compassion, and so do you; and Dr. Grey has not kept the truth from you. He has given his heart to that gray-haired, gray-eyed woman,—and if she lives, he will marry her; and then, if there were twenty oceans, I should want them all to roll between us. I tell you now, I can not and will not stay here to see the day that makes that pale gray phantom his wife. I should go mad, and do something that might add new horrors to that doomed and abhorred 'Solitude,' that has become Dr. Grey's Mecca. I could live without his love, but I can not stand tamely by and see him lavish it on another. Some women,—such, for instance, as we read of in novels, would meekly endure this trial, as one appointed by Heaven to wean them from earth; would fold their hands, and grow devout, and romantically thin and wan,—and get sweet, patient, martyr expressions about their unkissed lips; but I am in no respect a model heroine, and it will prove safer for us all if I am far away when Dr. Grey brings his bride to receive your sisterly embrace. If you are lonely, send for Muriel and Miss Dexter, and let them entertain you. Just now, I am not fit company for any but the dwellers in Padalon; so let me go away where I can be quiet."
"Stay, Salome! Where are you going?"
The orphan disengaged her dress from Miss Jane's fingers, which had clutched its folds to detain her, and made her escape just as Muriel tapped at the door.
During the three weeks that had elapsed since Elsie's death Mrs. Gerome had not left the house, and the third day after the funeral she laid her head down on the pillow from which it seemed probable she would never again lift it.
A low steady fever seized her, and at length her brain became so seriously affected that all hope of recovery appeared futile and delusive. In the early stages of her illness, Dr. Grey requested Salome to assist him in nursing her, but the girl dared not trust herself to witness the manifestations of an affection that nearly maddened her, and had almost rudely refused compliance.
As the days wore drearily on, and Dr. Grey's haggard, anxious countenance, told her that her rival was indeed upon the brink of dissolution, a wild hope whispered that perhaps she might be spared the fierce ordeal she so much dreaded; that if Mrs. Gerome died, the future might brighten,—life would be endurable. In her wonted impulsive manner, the girl had thrown herself on her knees, and passionately prayed the Almighty to remove from earth the one woman who proved an obstacle to all her hopes of peace and contentment.
She did not pause to inquire whether her petition was not an insult to Him who alone could grant it; she neither analyzed, nor felt self-rebuked for her sinful emotions and intense hatred of the sick woman,—but vowed repeatedly that she would lead a purer, holier life, if God would only interpose and prevent Dr. Grey from becoming the husband of any one.
She had no faith in the superior wisdom of her Maker, and would not wait patiently for the developments of His divine will toward her; but chose her own destiny, and demanded that Omnipotence should become an ally for its accomplishment. Like many who are less honest in confessing their faith, this girl professed allegiance to her Creator only so long as He appeared a coadjutor in her schemes; and, when thwarted and disappointed, fierce rebellion broke out in her heart, and annulled her oaths of fealty and obedience.
Dr. Grey was not ignorant of the emotions that swayed and controlled her conduct, and when she declared herself ready to attend the invalid, he was thoroughly cognizant of the fact that she longed to witness the death which she deemed impending; and he could not consent to see her eager eyes watching the feeble breathing of the woman whom he now loved so fervently.
While he believed that in most matters Salome would not deceive him, he realized that in one of her passionate moods of jealous hate, irremediable mischief might result, and prudently resolved to keep her beyond the pale of temptation.