It was almost dark when he reached the secluded house where he had passed so many days and nights of anxiety, and went into the quiet room in which only a dim light was permitted to burn. Katie was sitting near the bed, but rose at his approach, and softly withdrew.
Emaciated and ghastly, save where two scarlet spots burned on the hollow cheeks, Mrs. Gerome lay, with her wasted arms thrown over her head, and her eyes fixed on vacancy. Even when delirium was at its height she yielded to the physician's voice and touch, like some wild creature who recognizes no control save that of its keeper; and from his hand alone would she take the medicines administered.
Whether the influence was merely magnetic, he did not inquire, but felt comforted by the assurance that his presence had power to tranquillize her.
Now, as he drew her arms down from the pillow, and took her thin hot hand in his cool palms, a shadowy smile stole over her features, and she fixed her eyes intently on his.
"I knew you would protect me from him."
"Protect you from whom?"
"From Maurice. He is hiding yonder,—behind the window-curtain."
She pointed across the room, and a scowl darkened her countenance.
"You have only been dreaming."
"No, I am awake; and if you look behind the curtain you will find him. His eyes are burning my face."
Willing to dispel this fantasy, Dr. Grey went to the window, and, drawing aside the lace drapery, showed her the vacant recess.
"Ah, he has escaped! Well, perhaps it is better so, and there will be no blood shed. Let him go back to Edith,—'golden-haired Edith Dexter,'—and live out the remnant of his days. He came hoping to find me dead, but I am not as accommodating now as formerly. Where are those violets? Tell Elsie to bring the jars in, where I can smell them."
He took a bunch of the fragrant flowers from his coat pocket, and put them in her hand, for during her illness she was never satisfied unless there was a bouquet near her; and now, having feebly smelled them, her eyes closed.
More than once she had mentioned the name of Edith Dexter, always coupling it with that of Maurice, who she evidently believed was lurking with evil purposes around her home; and Dr. Grey was sorely perplexed to follow the thread that now and then appeared, but failed to guide him to any satisfactory solution of the mystery. He knew that since she made "Solitude" her place of residence, Mrs. Gerome had never met Muriel's governess, and he conjectured that she had either known her in earlier years or now alluded to another person bearing the same name. Miss Dexter was very fair, with a profusion of light yellow hair, and suited in all respects the incoherent description that fell from the sick woman's lips.
While at home for a short time that afternoon, Dr. Grey had spoken of the dangerous condition of his patient, and asked the governess if she had ever seen or known Mrs. Gerome. Without hesitation, Edith Dexter quietly replied in the negative.
Formerly he had indulged little curiosity with reference to the widow's history, but since she had become endeared to him, he was conscious of an earnest desire to possess himself of a record of all that had so darkened and chilled the life of the only woman he had ever loved.
Once she had been merely an interesting psychological puzzle, and in some degree a physiological anomaly: but from the day of Elsie's death, his heart had yielded more and more to the strange fascination she exerted over him; and now, as he sat looking into her face, so mournfully sharpened and blanched by disease, he acknowledged to his own soul that if she should die the brightest and dearest hopes that ever gladdened his life would be buried in her grave.
Thoroughly convinced that his happiness depended on her recovery, he prayed continually that if consistent with God's will, He would spare her to him, and save him from the anguish of a lonely life, which her love might bless and brighten.
But above the petition,—above all the strife of human love, and hope, and fear,—rose silvery clear, "Nevertheless, Father, not my will, but Thine."
During his long vigils he had allowed imagination to paint beautiful pictures of the To-Come, wherein shone the figure of a lovely wife whose heart was divided only between God and her husband,—whose life was consecrated first to Christ, secondly to promoting the happiness of the man who loved her so truly.
The apprehension of losing her was rendered still more acute by the reflection that her soul was not prepared for its exit from the realm of probation, and the thought of a separation that would extend through endless aeons, was well-nigh intolerable.
If she survived this attack, he believed that his influence would redeem and sanctify her life; if she died, would God have mercy on her wretched soul?
His faith in Providence was no jagged, quivering reed, but a strong, staunch, firm staff that had never yet failed him, and in this hour of severe trial he leaned his aching heart confidently and calmly upon it.
That some mysterious circumstances veiled the earlier portion of Mrs. Gerome's life, he had inferred from Elsie's promise of confidence, and since death denied her the desired revelation, he had put imagination upon the rack, in order to solve the riddle.
What could the old nurse wish to tell him, that she was unwilling to divulge until her latest breath? Could the stain of crime cling to that pale face on the pillow, or to those white hands that rested so helplessly in his? Had she soiled her life by any deed that would bring a blush to those thin sunken cheeks, or a flush of shame to the brow of the man who loved her? Now bending fondly over her, the language of his heart was,—
"Let her dead past bury its dead! Let the bygone be what it may,—come sorrow, come humiliation, but I will dauntlessly shield her with my name, defend her with my strong arm, uphold her by my honor, save her soul by my prayers, comfort and gladden her heart with my deathless love."
He was well aware that this night must decide her fate,—that her feeble frame could not much longer struggle with the disease that had almost vanquished it,—and leaning his forehead against her hand, he silently prayed that God would speedily restore her to health, or give him additional grace to bear the bitter bereavement.
She slept more quietly than she had been able to do for some days, and Dr. Grey sent for Robert, who was pacing the walk that led to the stables. They sat down together on the steps at the rear of the house, and the gardener asked in a frightened, husky tone,—
"Is there bad news?"
"I see little change since noon, except that she is more quiet, which is certainly favorable; but she is so very ill that I thought it best to consult you about several matters. Do you know whether she has made a will?"
"No, sir. How should I know it, even if she had?"
"Who is her agent?"
Robert hesitated, and pretended to be busy filling and lighting his pipe.
"Maclean, I have no desire to pry into Mrs. Gerome's affairs, but it is necessary that those who direct or control her estate should be appraised of her condition. It is supposed that her fortune is ample, and her heirs should be informed of her illness."
"She has no heirs, except—"
He paused, and after a few seconds exclaimed,—
"Don't ask me! All I know is that I heard her say she intended to leave her fortune to poor painters."
"To whom shall I write, or rather telegraph? Where did she live before she came to 'Solitude'? Who were her friends?"
"Mr. Simonton, of New York, is her lawyer and agent. Two letters have come from him since she has been sick. Of course I did not open them, but I know his handwriting. They are behind the clock in the back parlor."
"Would it not be better to telegraph him at once?"
"What good could he do? Better send for the minister, and have her baptized. Oh! but this is truly a world of trouble, and I almost wish I was safely out of it."
"If she were conscious, she would not submit to baptism; and it would not be right to take advantage of her delirium and force a ceremony to which she is opposed."
"Not even, sir, to save her soul?"
"Her soul can not be affected by the actions of others, unless her will cooperates, which is impossible in her present condition. Robert, after your mother was partially paralyzed, she said that she desired to confide something to me just before her death, and intimated that it referred to Mrs. Gerome. She wished me to befriend her mistress, and felt that I ought to know the particulars of her early history. Unfortunately, Elsie was speechless when I arrived, and could not tell me what she had intended to acquaint me with. I mention this fact to assure you that if your mother could trust me, you need not regard me so suspiciously."
"Dr. Grey, as far as I am concerned, you are very welcome to every thought in my head and feeling in my heart; but where it touches my mistress I have nothing to say. I will not deny that I know more than you do, but when my poor mother told me, she held my hand on the Bible and made me swear a solemn oath that what she told me should never pass my lips to any man, woman, or child. So you must not blame me, sir."
"Certainly not, Robert. But if she has any friends it is your duty to send for them at once."
Dr. Grey rose and went into the library, where for some moments he walked to and fro, perplexed and grieved. As his eye rested on the escritoire, he recollected the key which he had kept in his pocket since the hour that he picked it up from the carpet.
Doubtless a few minutes' search in its drawers and casket would place him in possession of the facts which Elsie wished to confide; but notwithstanding the circumstances that might almost have justified an investigation, his delicate sense of honor forbade the thought. Taking the letters from the mantelpiece, he turned them to the lamp-light.
Mrs. Agla Gerome, Care of Robert Maclean, Box 20. —— ——.
They were post-marked New York, and from the size and appearance of the envelopes he suspected that they contained legal documents. Perhaps one of them might prove a will, awaiting signature and witnesses. Dr. Grey carried them into the room where his patient still slept, and placed them on the dressing-table. Accidentally his glance fell on a large worn Bible that lay contiguous, and brightening the light, he opened the volume, and turned to the record of births.
"Vashti Evelyn, born June 10th, 18—.
"Henderson Flewellyn, born April 17th, 18—.
"Vashti Flewellyn, born January 30th, 18—."
On the marriage record he found,
"Married, July 1st, 18—, Vashti Evelyn to Henderson Flewellyn.
"Married, September 8th, 18—, Evelyn Flewellyn to Maurice Carlyle."
The only deaths recorded were those of Henderson and Vashti Flewellyn.
Whatever the mystery might be, Dr. Grey resolved to pursue the subject no further; but wait patiently and learn all from the beautiful lips of the white-faced sphinx, who alone possessed the right to unseal the record of her blighted life.
"Who might have been—ah, what, I dare not think! We all are changed. God judges for us best. God help us do our duty, and not shrink, And trust in heaven humbly for the rest."
The profound stillness that pervades a room where life and death grapple for mastery, invites and aids that calm, inexorable introspection, which Gotama Buddha prescribes as an almost unerring path to the attainment of peace; and, in the solemn silence of his last and memorable vigil, Dr. Grey brought his heart into complete unmurmuring subjection to the Divine will. A soi-disant "resignation" that draws honied lips to the throne of grace, leaving a heart of gall in the camp of sedition, could find no harbor in his uncompromisingly honest nature; and though the struggle was severe, he felt that faith in Eternal wisdom and mercy had triumphed over merely human affection and earthly hopes, and his strong soul chanted to itself the comforting strains of Lampert's "Trust Song."
No mere gala barge, gay with paint and gaudy with pennons, was his religion; no fair summer-day toy bearing him lightly across the sun-kissed, breeze-dimpled sea of prosperity and happiness, and frail as the foam that draped its prow with lace; but a staunch, trim, steady, unpretending bark, that with unfaltering faith at the helm, rode firmly all the billows of adversity, and steered unerringly harborward through howling tempests and impenetrable gloom. Human friendships and sympathy he considered unstable and treacherous as Peter, when he shrank from his Lord; but Christian trust was one of the silver-tongued angels of God, ringing chimes of patience and peace, far above the din of wailing, bleeding hearts, and the fierce flames of flesh martyrdom.
One o'clock found Dr. Grey sitting near the pillow, where for five hours Mrs. Gerome had slept as quietly as a tired child. The fever-glow had burned itself out, and left an ashen hue on the lips and cheeks.
Wishing to arouse her, he spoke to her several times and raised her head, but though she drank the powerful stimulant he held to her mouth, her heavy eyelids were not lifted, and when he smoothed the pillow and laid her comfortably upon it, she slumbered once more.
At the foot of the bed, with his keen yellow eyes fastened on his mistress, crouched the greyhound, his silky head on his paws; and on a pallet in one corner of the room slept Katie, ready to render any assistance that might be required.
The apartment was elegantly furnished, and green and gold tinted all its appointments. On an Egyptian marble table stood a work-box curiously inlaid with malachite and richly gilded, and there lay some withered flowers, a small thimble, and a pair of scissors with mother-of-pearl handles. Around the walls hung a number of paintings, which, with one exception, were landscapes or ocean-views; and as Dr. Grey sat watching the shimmer of lamp-light on their carved frames and varnished surfaces, they seemed to furnish images of
"Green glaring glaciers, purple clouds of pine, White walls of ever-roaring cataracts; Blue thunder drifting over thirsty tracts, Rose-latticed casements, lone in summer lands,— Some witch's bower; pale sailors on the marge Of magic seas, in an enchanted barge Stranded at sunset, upon jewelled sands. Some cup of dim hills, where a white moon lies, Dropt out of weary skies without a breath In a great pool; a slumb'rous vale beneath, And blue damps prickling into white fire-flies."
No sweet-lipped, low-browed Madonnas, no rapt Cecilias, no holy Johns nor meek Stephens, no reeling Satyrs nor vine-clad Bacchantes relieved the eye, weary of mountain ghylls, red-ribbed deserts, and stormy surfage.
One long narrow picture baffled interpretation, and excited speculations that served in some degree to divert the sad current of the physician's thoughts.
It was a dreary plain, dotted with the "fallen cromlechs of Stonehenge," and in front of the desecrated stone altars stood a veiled woman, with her hands clasped over a silver crescent-curved knife, and her bare feet resting on oaken chaplets and mistletoe boughs, starred and fringed with snowy flowers. Under the dexterously painted gauze that shrouded the face, the outline of the features was distinctly traceable, end behind the film,—large, oracular, yet mournful eyes, burned like setting stars, seen through magnifying vapors that wreathe the horizon.
It was a solemn, desolate, melancholy picture, relieved by no flush of color,—gray plain, gray distance, gray sky, gray temple tumuli, and that ghostly white woman, gazing grimly down at the gray-haired sufferer on the low bed beneath her.
Under some circumstances, certain pictures seem basilisk-eyed, riveting a gaze that would gladly seek more agreeable subjects, and it chanced that Dr. Grey found a painful fascination in this piece of canvas that hung immediately in front of him. Wherein consisted the magnetism that so powerfully attracted him, he could not decide, but several times when the wind blew the scalloped edge of the lace curtain between the lamp and the picture, and threw a dim wavering shadow over the figure on the wall, he almost expected to see the veil float away from the stony face, and reveal what the artist had adroitly shrouded. Now it looked a doomed "Norma," and anon the Nemesis of a dishonored faneless faith, that was born among Magi, and had tutored Pythagoras; and finally Dr. Grey rose and turned away to escape its spectral spell.
Waking Katie, he charged her to call him if any change occurred in his patient, and went to the front of the house for a breath of fresh air.
Narcissus-like, a three-quarter moon was staring down at her own image, rocked on the bosom of the sea, while dim stars printed silver photographs on the deep blue beneath them,—
"And the hush of earth and air Seemed the pause before a prayer."
The wind that had blown steadily for two days past from the south-east, had gone down into some ocean lair; but the sullen element refused to forget its late scourging, and occasionally a long swelling billow dashed itself into froth against the stone piers of the boat-house, and the cliffs which stood like a phantom fleet along the southern bend of the beach, were fringed with a white girdle of incessant breakers.
Far out from shore the rolling mass of water was darkly blue, but now and then a wave broke over its neighbor, and in the distance the foam flashed under moonshine like some reconnoitring Siren-face, peeping landward for fresh victims; or as the samite-clad arm that Arthur and Sir Bedivere saw rise above the mere to receive Excalibar.
Following the beckoning of those snowy hands, and listening to the low musical monologue that sea uttered to shore, Dr. Grey started in the direction of the terrace, whence he could see the whole trend of the beetling coast, but some unaccountable impulse induced him to pause and look back.
The dense shadow of the trees shut out from the spot where he stood the golden radiance of the moon, but over the lawn it streamed in almost unearthly splendor,—and there he saw some white object glide swiftly towards the group of deodars. The first solution that occurred to his mind was that Katie had fallen asleep, and Mrs. Gerome in her delirium making her way out of the house, was seeking her favorite walk; but a moment's reflection convinced him that she was too utterly prostrated to cross the room, still less the grounds, and, resolved to satisfy himself, he followed the moving object that retreated before him.
Walking rapidly but stealthily in the shadow of the trees and shrubbery, he soon ascertained that it was a woman's figure, and saw that it stopped at Elsie's grave, and bent down to touch the head-board. Creeping forward, he had approached within ten yards of her, when his hat struck the lower limbs of a large acacia, and startled a bird that uttered a cry of terror and darted out. The sound caused the figure to turn her head, and catching a glimpse of Dr. Grey, she ran under the dense boughs of the deodars, and disappeared.
He followed, and groped through the gloom, but when he emerged, no living thing was visible; and, perplexed and curious, he stood still.
After some moments he heard a faint sound, as of some one smothering a cough, and pursuing it, found himself at the boundary of the grounds. Here a thick hedge of osage orange barred egress, and he saw the woman disentangling her drapery from the thorns that had seized it.
Springing forward, he exclaimed,—
"Stand still! You can not escape me. Who are you?"
A feigned and lugubrious voice answered,—
"I am the restless spirit of Elsie Maclean, come back to guard her grave."
In another instant he was at her side, and laying his hand on the white netted shawl with which she was veiling her features, he tore it away, and Salome's fair face looked defiantly at him.
"If I had known that my pursuer was Dr. Grey, I would not have troubled myself to play the ghost farce, for of course I could not expect to frighten you off; but I hoped you were one of the servants, who would not very diligently chase a spectre. I did not suppose that you could be coaxed or driven thus far from your arm-chair beside the bed where Mrs. Gerome is asleep."
Astonishment kept him silent for some seconds, and, in the awkward pause, the girl laughed constrainedly—nervously.
"After all your show of bravery in pursuing a woman, I verily believe you are too much frightened to arrest me if I chose to escape."
"Salome, has something terrible happened at home, that you have come here at midnight to break to me?"
"Nothing has happened at home."
"Then why are you here? Are you, too, delirious?"
Her scornful laugh rang startlingly on the still night air.
"Oh, Salome! You grieve, you shock me!"
"Yes, Dr. Grey, you have assured me of that fact too frequently—too feelingly—to permit me to doubt your sincerity. You need not repeat it; I accept the assertion that you are shocked at my indiscretions."
Compassion predominated over displeasure, as he observed the utter recklessness that pervaded her tone and manner.
"I am unwilling to believe that you would, without some very cogent reason, violate all decorum by coming alone at dead of night two miles through a dreary stretch of hills and woods. Necessity sometimes sanctions an infraction of the rules of rigid propriety, and I am impatient to hear your defence of this most extraordinary caprice."
She was endeavoring to disengage the fringe of her shawl from the hedge, but finding it a tedious operation, she caught her drapery in both hands and tore it away from the thorns, leaving several shreds hanging on the prickly boughs.
"Dr. Grey, I have no defence to offer."
"Tell me what induced you to come here."
"An eminently charitable and commendable interest in your fair patient. I came here simply and solely to ascertain whether Mrs. Gerome would die, or whether she could possibly recover."
Unflinchingly she looked up into his eyes, and he thought he had never seen a fairer, prouder, or lovelier face.
"How did you expect to accomplish your errand by wandering about these grounds, exposing yourself to insult and to injury?"
"I have been on the gallery since twilight, looking through the lace curtains at Mrs. Gerome lying on her bed, and at you sitting in the arm-chair. Her eyes are keener than yours, for she saw me peeping through the window, and told you so. When you left the room I came out among the trees to escape observation. I scorn all equivocation, and have no desire to conceal the truth, for if I am not dowered
'With blood trained up along nine centuries, To hound and hate a lie,'
at least I hold my pauper soul high above the mire of falsehood; and
... 'The things we do, We do: we'll wear no mask, as if we blushed.'"
They had walked away from the hedge, and Dr. Grey paused at the mound, where the Ariadne gleamed cold and white in the moonbeams that slanted across it like silver lances.
Revolving in his mind the best method of extricating the orphan from the unfortunate predicament in which her rashness had plunged her, he did not answer immediately, and Salome continued, impatiently,—
"If you imagine that I came here to act as spy upon your actions, you most egregiously mistake me, for I know all that the most rigid surveillance could possibly teach me. I heard you say that this night would prove a crisis in Mrs. Gerome's case, and I was so anxious to learn the result that I could not wait quietly at home until morning. I begged you to bring me, and you refused; consequently, I came alone. Deal frankly with me,—tell me, will that woman die?"
The breathless eagerness with which she bent towards him, the strained, almost ferocious expression of her keen eyes, sickened his soul, and he put his hand over his face to shut out the sight of hers.
"Tell me the truth. I must and will know it."
Her sweet clear voice had become a low hoarse pant, and the knotted lines were growing harder and tighter on her beautiful brow.
"I pray ceaselessly that God will spare her to me, and I hope all things from His mercy. Another hour will probably end my suspense, and decide the awful question of life or death. Salome, if she should die, my future will be very lonely,—and my heart bereft of the brightest, dearest hopes, that have ever cheered it."
A half-smothered cry struggled across the orphan's trembling lips that had suddenly grown colorless, and he saw her clutch her fingers.
"And if she lives?"
"If she lives, and will accept the affection I shall offer her, the remainder of my years will be devoted to the work of making her forget the sorrows that have darkened the early portion of her life. I do not wish to conceal the fact that she is inexpressibly dear to me."
During the long silence that ensued, a lifetime of agony seemed compressed into the compass of a few moments, but Salome stood motionless, with her arms pressed over her aching heart, and her head thrown haughtily back, while the moonlight streamed down on her face where pride and pain were struggling for right to reign.
When all expectation of earthly happiness is smothered in a proud, passionate soul, and the future robes itself in those dun hues that only the day-star of eternity can gild, nerves and muscles shrink and shiver at the massacre of hopes which despair hews down, in the hour that it "storms the citadel of the heart, and puts the whole garrison to the sword."
Dr. Grey could not endure the sight of that fixed, hardened face, and sorely distressed by the consciousness of the suffering which he had unintentionally inflicted on one so young, he moved away, and for some time walked slowly under the arching laurestines. Although his stern integrity of purpose acquitted him of all blame, and he could accuse himself of no word or deed that might be held amenable to conscience for the mischief and misery that had resulted from his acquaintance with this unfortunate girl, he regretted that he had remained in the same house, and, by constant association, fed the flame that absence might have extinguished.
While he pitied the weakness that had induced her to yield so entirely to the preference she indulged for him, he felt humiliated at the thought that he, who had intended to guide and elevate this wayward child of nature, had been instrumental in darkening and embittering her young life.
When he came back to the spot, whence she had not moved, and laid his hand gently on her shoulder, she smiled strangely, and
"Unbent the grieving beauty of her brows. But held her heart's proud pain superbly still."
"My little sister, you must not stay here any longer. Would you prefer to go home at once in my buggy, or remain in the parlor until daylight?"
"Neither. Let me sit down on the stone terrace till the end comes. I will disturb no one. It will be three hours before day breaks, and when you know whether your idol will live or die, come and tell me. Take your hand from my shoulder."
He had endeavored to detain her, but she shrank away from his grasp, and glided down the smooth sward to the terrace which divided it from the ripple-barred and ringed sands of the shelving beach.
As he returned to the house, the wind sprang up and moaned through the dense foliage above him, and an owl, perched in some clustering bough that overhung the portico, screamed and hooted dismally. The sound was so startling that the greyhound leaped to his feet and set up an answering howl, which almost froze Katie with fright, and caused even Mrs. Gerome's heavy eyelids to unclose.
Salome sat down on the paved terrace, crossed her arms over the low stone balustrade, and resting her chin upon them, looked out at the burnished bosom of the ocean. Just beneath her, and near enough to moisten the granite with the silvery spray,—
"Its waves are kneeling on the strand, As kneels the human knee, Their white locks bowing to the sand, The priesthood of the sea."
If the old Rabbinical legend of Sandalphon be grounded in some solemn vision granted to the saints of eld, who walked in Syria, then peradventure on this night, the angel must have been puzzled indeed concerning the petitions that floated up, and demanded admission to the Eternal ear.
From the anxious heart of the sincere and humble Christian who knelt at the bedside of the invalid, rose a fervent prayer that if consistent with the Father's will, He would lay His healing hand upon the sufferer, and restore her to health and strength; while the wretched girl on the terrace prayed vehemently that God would crush the feeble flicker of life in Mrs. Gerome's wasted frame, would take from the world a woman whose existence was a burden to herself and threatened to prove a curse to others.
The passionate cry of Salome's soul was,—
"Punish me in any way, and all other ways! Send sickness, destitution, humiliation,—let every other affliction smite me; but save me from the intolerable anguish of seeing that woman his wife! O my God! the world is not wide enough to hold us both. Take her, or else call me speedily hence. I am not fit to die, but I shall never be better, if I am doomed to witness this marriage. I would sooner go down to perdition now, than live to see that thing of horror. Of two hells, I choose that which takes me farthest from her."
For the first time in her life she felt that the hours were flying, that the day of doom was rushing to meet her, and she shuddered when one after another the constellations slipped softly and solemnly down the sky, and vanished behind the dim shadowy outline of the western hills. Gradually the moon sank so low that the sea could no longer reflect her beams, and as the mighty waste of waters slowly darkened, and the wind stiffened, and the song of the surf swelled like a rising requiem, the girl felt that all nature was preparing to mourn with her over the burial of her only hope of earthly peace.
If Mrs. Gerome died, a quiet future stretched before the orphan, and she could bear to live without the love which she had the grim satisfaction of knowing brightened no other woman's life.
The happiness of the man for whom she almost impiously prayed, was a matter of little importance compared with the ease of her own heart; and she had yet to learn that the welfare and peace of the object she loved so selfishly would one day become paramount to all other aims and considerations. That pure and sublime spirit of self-abnegation which immolates every hope and wish that is at variance with the happiness of the beloved had not yet been born in Salome's fiery nature; and she cared little for the anguish that might be Dr. Grey's portion, provided her own heart could be spared the pang of witnessing his wedded bliss.
Through the trees, she could see the steady light of the lamp that burned in the room where the sick woman lay, and so she watched and waited, shivering in the shadow that fell over earth and ocean just before the breaking of the new day.
Along the eastern horizon, the white fires of rising constellations paled and flickered and seemed to die, as a gray light stole up behind them; and the gray grew pearly, and the pearly opaline, and ere long the sky crimsoned, and the sea reddened until its waves were like ruby wine or human gore.
In the radiant dawn of that day which would decide the earthly destinies of three beings, Salome saw Dr. Grey coming across the lawn. His step was quiet,—neither slow nor hasty, and she could not conjecture the result; but as he approached, she rose, wrapped her shawl about her, and advanced to meet him. He paused, took off his hat, and she knew all before a syllable passed his lips.
"Salome, God has heard my prayers,—has mercifully taken my darling from the arms of death, and given her to me. I do not think I am too sanguine in saying that she will ultimately recover, and my heart can not find language that will interpret its gratitude and joy."
Never before had such a light shone in his clear, calm blue eyes, and illumined his usually grave countenance; and though continued vigils and keen anxiety had left their signet on his pale face, his great happiness was printed legibly on every feature, and found expression even in the deepened and softened tones of his voice.
The girl did not move or speak, but looked steadily into his bright eyes, and the calmness with which she listened, comforted and encouraged him to hope that ere long she would conquer her preference.
How could he know that at that instant she was impiously vowing that heaven had heard her last prayer?—that never again should a petition cross her lips? God had granted one prayer,—had decided against hers,—had denied her utterly; and henceforth she would not weary Him,—she would not mock herself and her misery.
Dr. Grey saw that there was no quiver on the still, pale lips, no contraction of the polished forehead; but the rigidity of her face broke up suddenly in a smile of indescribable mournfulness,—a smile where self-contempt and pity and hopeless bitterness all lent their saddest phases.
"Dr. Grey, in your present happy mood, you certainly can not be so ungracious as to deny me a favor?"
"Have I ever refused my little sister anything she asked?"
"The only favor you can ever grant me will be to persuade Miss Jane to consent to my departure. Look to it, sir, that I am allowed to go, and that right speedily; for go I certainly shall, at all hazards. Convince your sister that it is best, and let me go away forever, without incurring the displeasure of the only friend I ever had or ever shall have."
She moved away as if to leave the grounds, but he caught her arm.
"Wait five minutes, Salome, and I will take you home in my buggy. It is not right for you to walk alone at this early hour, and I will not allow it."
She shook off his hand as if it had been an infant's; and, as she walked away, he heard her laugh with a degree of savage bitterness that stabbed his generous heart like a dagger; while behind her trailed the hissing echo,—
... "Oh, alone, alone,— Not troubling any in heaven, nor any on earth."
In the pure, clear light of early morning, "Grassmere," with its wide, smooth lawn, and old-fashioned brick house, weather-stained and moss-mantled, looked singularly peaceful and attractive. Against the sombre mass of tree-foliage, white and purple altheas raised their circular censers, as if to greet the sun that was throwing level beams from the eastern hill-top, and delicate pink, and deep azure, and pearl-pale convolvulus held up their velvet trumpets all beaded with dew, to be drained by the first kiss of the great Day-God. Up and down the comb of the steep roof, beautiful pigeons with necklaces that rivalled the trappings of Solomon, strutted and cooed; on the eaves, busy brown wrens peeped into the gutters,—
"And of the news delivered their small souls,"—
gossiping industriously; while from a distant nook some vagrant partridge whistled for its mate, and shy doves swinging in the highest elm limbs, moaned plaintively of the last hunting-season, that had proved a St. Barthlomew's day to the innocent feathered folk.
On the lawn a flock of turkeys were foraging among the clover-blossoms, and over the dewy grass a large brood of young guineas raced after their mother, or played hide-and-seek, like nut-brown elves, under the white and purple tufts of flowers. Save the bird-world—always abroad early—no living thing seemed astir, and the silence that reigned was broken only by the distance-softened bleating of Stanley's pet lamb.
As Salome walked slowly and wearily up the avenue, she saw that the housemaid had opened the front door, and when the orphan ascended the steps, all within was still as a tomb, except the canary that sprang into its ring and began to warble a reveille as she approached the cage. Miss Jane was usually an early riser, and often aroused her servants, but to-day the household seemed to have overslept themselves, and when Salome had rearranged her dress, and waked her little brother, she rang the bell for Rachel, who soon obeyed the summons.
"Is Miss Jane up?"
"No, ma'am, I suppose not, as she has not rung for me. You know I always wait for her bell."
"Perhaps she is not very well this morning. I will go and see whether she intends to get up."
Salome went down stairs and knocked at the door of Miss Jane's room, but no sound was audible within, and she softly turned the bolt and entered.
The lamp was burning very dimly on a table close to the bed, and upon the open Bible lay the spectacles which the old lady had placed there twelve hours before, when she finished reading the nightly chapter that generally composed her mind and put her to sleep.
Salome conjectured that she had forgotten to extinguish the lamp, and as she cautiously turned the wick down, her eyes rested on the open page where pencil-lines marked the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, and enclosed the sixth and seventh verses, "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."
Removing the glasses, the girl closed the book, and leaned over the pillow to look at the sleeper. She had turned her face towards the wall, and one hand lay under her head, pressed against her cheek, while the other held her handkerchief on the outside of the counterpane.
Very softly she slumbered, with a placid smile half breaking over her aged, wrinkled features; and unwilling to shorten the morning nap in which she so rarely indulged, Salome sat down at the foot of the bed, and leaning her head on her hands, fell into a painful and profound reverie.
Nearly an hour passed, unheeded by the unhappy girl, whose anguish rendered her indifferent to all that surrounded her; and after a while a keen pang thrilled her heart, as she heard Dr. Grey's pleasant voice jesting with Stanley on the lawn. His happiness seemed an insult to her misery, and she stopped her ears to exclude the sound of his quiet laugh.
A half hour elapsed, and then his well-known rap was heard at the door. Miss Jane did not answer, and Salome was in no mood to welcome him home; but he waited for neither, and came in, gently closing the door behind him.
At sight of the orphan, he started slightly, and said,—
"Is my sister sick?"
"I don't know, but she is sleeping unusually late. I thought it best not to disturb her."
The look of dread that swept over his countenance frightened her, and she rose as he moved hastily to the bedside.
"Salome, open the blinds. Quick! quick!"
She sprang to the window, threw the shutters wide open, and hastened back. Dr. Grey's hand was on his sister's wrist, and his ear pressed against her heart,—strained to catch some faint pulsation. His head went down on her pillow, and Salome held her breath.
"Oh, Janet! My dear, patient, good sister! This is indeed hard to bear. To die alone—unsoothed—unnoticed; with no kind hands about you! To die—without one farewell word!"
He hid his face in his hands, and Salome staggered to the bed, and grasped Miss Jane's rigid, icy fingers.
In the silence of midnight, Death stole her spirit from its clay garments, and while she slept peacefully had borne her beyond the confines of Time, and left her resting forever in the City Celestial.
A life dedicated to pure aims and charitable deeds had been rewarded with a death as painless as the slumber of a tired child on its mother's bosom, and, without struggle or premonition, the soul had slipped from the bondage of flesh into the Everlasting Peace that remaineth for the children of God.
It was impossible to decide at what hour she had died; and when the members of the appalled household were questioned, Muriel and Miss Dexter stated that she had kissed them good night and appeared as well as usual at her customary time of retiring; and Rachel testified that after she was in bed, she rang her bell and directed her to tell the cook that as Dr. Grey would probably come home about daylight, she must get up early and have a cup of coffee ready when he arrived. Sobbing passionately, Rachel added,—
"When I asked her if I should put out the lamp, she said, 'No; Ulpian may lose his patient, and come home sad, and then he will come in and talk to me awhile.' And just as I was leaving the room, she called to me, 'Rachel, what coat did Ulpian wear? It turns so cool now before daylight that he will take cold if he has on that linen one.' I told her I did not know, and she would not be satisfied till I went to his room and found that the linen coat was hanging in the closet, and the gray flannel one was missing. Then she opened her Bible and said, 'Ah, that is all right. The flannel one will do very well, and my boy will be comfortable.'"
Dr. Grey's grief was deep, but silent; and, during the dreary day and night that succeeded, he would allow no one to approach him except Muriel, whose soft little hands, and tearful, tender caresses, seemed in some degree to comfort him.
One month before, Salome would have wept and mourned with him, but the fountain of her tears was exhausted and scorched by the intense bitterness and despairing hate that had taken possession of her since the day of Elsie's burial; and stunned and dry-eyed, she watched the preparations for the obsequies of her benefactress.
Her love for Miss Jane had never been sufficiently fervent to render her distress very poignant; but in the death of this devoted friend she was fully aware that at last she was set once more adrift in the world, without chart or rudder save that furnished by her will.
Life to-day was not the beautiful web, all aglow with the tangling of gold and silver threads, that had once charmed and dazzled her, for the mildew of hopelessness had tarnished the gilding, and the mesh was only a mass of dark knots, and subtle crossings, and inextricable confusion.
Like that lost star that once burned so luridly in Cassiopeia, and flickered out, leaving a gulf of gloom where stellar glory was, the one most precious hope that lights and sanctifies a woman's heart had waned and grown sickly, and finally had gone out utterly, and dust and ashes and darkness filled the void. In natures such as hers, this hope is not allied to the phoenix, and, once crushed, knows no resurrection; consequently she cheated herself with no vain expectation that the mighty wizard, Time, could evoke from corpse or funeral-pyre even a spark to cheer the years that were thundering before her.
A few months ago the future had glistened as peaceful and silvery as the Dead Sea at midnight, when a full-orbed Syrian moon glares down, searching for the palms and palaces that once marked Gomorrah's proud places; and, like some thirsty traveller smitten with surface sheen, she had laid her fevered lips to the treacherous margin, and, drinking eagerly, had been repaid with brine and bitumen.
Disappointment was with her no meek, mute affair, but a savage fiend that browbeat and anathematized fate, accusing her of rendering existence a mere Nitocris banquet, where, while every sense is sharpened and pampered, and fruition almost touches the outstretched hands of eager trust, the flood-gates of the mighty Nile of despair are lifted, and its chill, dusky waves make irremediable wreck of all.
With the quiet thoughtfulness and good sense that characterized her unobtrusive conduct, Miss Dexter had prepared from Muriel's wardrobe an entire suit of mourning, which she prevailed upon Salome to accept and wear; and, on the morning of the funeral, the latter went down early into the draped and darkened parlor, where the coffin and its cold tenant awaited the last offices that dust can perform for dust.
She had not spoken to Dr. Grey for twenty-four hours, and, finding him beside the table where his sister's body lay, the orphan would have retreated, but he caught the rustling sound of her crape and bombazine, and held out his hand.
"Come in, Salome."
She took no notice of the offered fingers, but passed him, and went around the table to the opposite side.
The wrinkled, sallow face, still wore its tranquil half-smile, and, under the cap-border of fine lace, the grizzled hair lay smooth and glossy on the sunken temples.
In accordance with a wish which she had often expressed, the ghostly shroud was abandoned, and Miss Jane was dressed in her favorite black silk. Salome had gathered a small bouquet of the fragile white blossoms of apple-geranium, of which the old lady was particularly fond, and, bending over the coffin, she laid them between the fingers that were interlaced on the pulseless heart.
With a quiet mournfulness, more eloquent than passionate grief, the girl stood looking for the last time at the placid countenance that had always beamed kindly and lovingly upon her since that dreary day, when, under the flickering shadow of the mulberry-tree, she had called her from the poor-house and given her a happy home.
She stooped to kiss the livid lips, that had never spoken harshly to her; and, for some seconds, her face was hidden on the bosom of the dead. When she raised it, the dry, glittering eyes and firm mouth, betokened the bitterness of soul that no invectives could exhaust, no language adequately express.
"Dr. Grey, if the exchange could be made, I would not only willingly, but gladly, thankfully, lie down here in this coffin, and give your sister back to your arms. The Reaper, Death, has cut down the perfect, golden grain, and left the tares to shiver in the coming winter. Some who are useless and life-weary bend forward, hoping to meet the sickle, but it sweeps above them, and they wither slowly among the stubble."
He looked at her, and found it difficult to realize that the pale, quiet, stern woman, standing there in sombre weeds, was the same fair young face that he had seen thirty-six hours before in the moonlight that brightened Elsie's grave. He thought that only the slow, heavy rolling of years could have worn those lines about her faded lips, and those dark purplish hollows under the steady, undimmed eyes. That composed, frigid Salome, watching him from across the corpse and coffin, seemed a mere chill shadow of the fiery, impetuous, radiant girl, whose passionate waywardness had so often annoyed and grieved him. The alabaster vase was still perfect in form, but the lamp that had hitherto burned within, lending a rosy glow to clay, had fluttered and expired, and the change was painful indeed.
His attention was so riveted upon the extraordinary alteration in her appearance, that her words fell on his ear, as empty, as meaningless, as the echoes heard in dreams, and when she ceased speaking, he looked perplexed, and sighed heavily.
"What did you say? I do not think I understand you; my mind was abstracted when you spoke."
"True; you never will understand me. Only the dead sleeping here between us fully comprehended me, and even unto the end of my life-chapter I must walk on misapprehended. When the coffin-lid is screwed down over that dear, kind face, I shall have bidden adieu to my sole and last friend; for in the Hereafter she will not know me. Ah, Miss Jane! you tried hard to teach me Christianity, but it was like geometry, I had no talent for it,—could not take hold of it,—and it all slipped through my fingers. If there is indeed an inexorable and incorruptible Justice reigning behind the stars, you will be so happy that I and my sins, and my desolation will not trouble you. Good-by, dear Miss Jane; it is not your fault that I missed my chance of being coaxed into the celestial fold with the elect sheep, and find myself scourged out with the despised goats. God grant you His everlasting rest."
She turned, but Dr. Grey stretched his arm across his sister's body, and caught the orphan's dress.
"Salome, God has called my own sister to her blessed rest in Christ, but my adopted sister He has left to comfort, to sympathize with me. Here, in the sacred presence of my dear dead, I ask you to take her place, and be to me throughout life the true, loving, faithful friend whom nothing can alienate, and of whom only death can deprive me. My little sister, let the future ripen and sanctify our confidence, affection, and friendship."
"No, sir; sinners can not fill the niches of the saints; and to-day we are more completely divided than if the ocean roared between us. Once I struggled hard to cure myself of my faults,—to purify and fashion my nature anew, but the incentive has died, and I have no longer the proud aspirations that lifted me like eagle's wings high above the dust into which I have now fallen,—and where I expect to remain. You need not fear that I shall commit some capital sin, and go down in disgrace to my grave; for there must be some darling hope, some precious aim, that goads people to crime,—and neither of these have I. I do not want your friendship, and I will not allow your dictation; and, if you are as generous as I have believed you, I think you will spare me the manifestation of your pity. Miss Jane was the only link that united us in any degree, and now we are asunder and adrift. You see at least I am honest, and since I have not your confidence, I decline your compassion and espionage, and refuse to accept a sham friendship,—to trust myself upon a gossamer web that stretches across a dismal gulf of gloom, and wretchedness, and endless altercation. When I am in one continent, and you are in another, we shall be better friends than now."
Her cold, slow, measured accents, and the calm pallor of her features told how complete was the change that had set its stern seal on body and soul; and Dr. Grey's heart ached, as he realized how withering was the blight that had fallen on her once buoyant, sanguine nature.
"My dear Salome, for Janet's sake, and in memory of all her love and counsel, let me beg you not to indulge feelings that can only result in utter—"
"Dr. Grey, let there be silence and peace between us, at least in the presence of the dead. Expostulation from your lips only exasperates and hardens me; so pray be quiet. No! do not touch me! Our hands have not clasped each other so often nor so closely that they must needs miss the warmth and pressure in the coming years of separation, and I will not soil your palm with mine."
She coldly put aside the hand that endeavored to take hers, and, after one long, sad gaze at the marble face in the coffin, turned away, and went back to her own room.
Miss Jane's charities had carried her name even to the secluded nooks of the county, and, when her death was announced, many humble beneficiaries of her bounty came to offer the last testimonial of respect and gratitude, by following the remains to their final resting-place. As the hour approached for the solemn rites, the house was filled with friends and acquaintances; and the members of the profession to which Dr. Grey belonged came to attend the funeral, and officiate as pall-bearers.
Seated beside Dr. Grey, on one of the sofas, Salome's dry eyes noted all that passed while the services were performed; and, when the hearse moved down the avenue, she took his offered arm, and was placed in the same carriage.
It was a long, dreary drive to the distant cemetery, and she was relieved to some extent when they found themselves at the family vault. Miss Jane had always desired to be buried under the slab that covered her brother, and had directed a space left for that purpose. Now the marble was removed, and the coffins of Jane and Enoch Grey rested side by side. The voice of the minister ceased, and only little Stanley's sobs broke that mournful silence which always ensues while spade or trowel does its sad work. Then the sculptured slab was replaced, and brother and sister were left to that blessed repose which is granted only to the faithful when "He giveth His beloved sleep."
"Write, 'Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord, Because they rest,' ... because their toil is o'er. The voice of weeping shall be heard no more In the Eternal City. Neither dying Nor sickness, pain nor sorrow, neither crying, For God shall wipe away all tears. Rest,—rest."
In the death of his sister, Dr. Grey mourned the loss of the only mother he had ever known, for his earliest recollections were of Miss Jane's tender care and love, and his affection was rather that of a devoted son than brother; consequently, the blow was doubly painful: but he bore it with a silent fortitude, a grave and truly Christian resignation, that left an indelible impression upon the minds of Miss Dexter and Muriel, and taught them the value of a faith that could bring repose and trust in the midst of a trial so severe.
His continued vigils at "Solitude," and the profound grief that could not find vent in tears or words, had printed characters on his pale, wearied face, that should have commanded the sympathy of all who shared his friendship; but the sight of his worn features and the sound of his slow step only embittered the heart of the orphan, who saw in these evidences of fatigue and anxiety new manifestations of affection for the patient who was not yet entirely beyond danger.
Four days after the funeral, Dr. Grey came in to breakfast later than usual, having driven over very early to "Solitude;" and, as he seated himself at the table and received from Muriel's hand a cup of coffee, he leaned forward and kissed her rosy cheek.
"Thank you, my child. You are very kind to wait for me."
"How is that poor Mrs. Gerome? Will she never be well enough to dispense with your services?"
Once, Salome would have answered, "He hopes not;" but now she merely turned her head a little, to catch his reply.
"She is better to-day than I feared I should find her, as some alarming symptoms threatened her yesterday; but now I think I can safely say the danger has entirely passed."
Muriel hung over the back of his chair, pressing him to try several dishes that she pronounced excellent, but he gently refused all except the coffee; and, when he had pushed aside the empty cup, he drew the face of his ward close to his own, and murmured a few words that deepened the glow on her fair cheeks, while she hastily left the room to read a letter.
For some moments he sat with his head resting on his hand, thinking of the dear old face that usually watched him from the corner of the fire-place, and of the kind words that were showered on him while he breakfasted; but to-day the faded lips were frozen forever, and the dim eyes would never again brighten at his approach.
He sighed, brushed back the hair that clustered in glossy brown rings on his forehead, and rose.
"Salome, if you are not particularly engaged this morning, I should be glad to see you in the library."
"At what hour?"
"Immediately, if you are at leisure."
The orphan put aside the fold of crape which she was converting into a collar, and inclined her head slightly.
Since that brief and painful interview held beside Miss Jane's coffin, not a syllable had passed between them, and the girl shrank with a vague, shivering dread from the impending tete-a-tete.
Silently she followed the master of the house into the library, where Dr. Grey drew two chairs to the table, and, when she had seated herself in one, he took possession of the other.
Opening a drawer, he selected several papers from a mass of what appeared to be legal documents, and spread them before her.
"I wish to acquaint you with the contents of my sister's will, which I examined last night. Will you read it, or shall I briefly state her wishes?"
"Tell me what you wish me to know."
She swept the papers into a pile, and pushed them away.
"Have you ever read a will?"
She leaned her elbows on the table, and rested her face in her hands.
"All these pages amount simply to this,—dear Jane made her will immediately after my return from Europe, and its provisions are: that this place, with house, land, furniture, and stock, shall be given to and settled upon you; and moreover that, for the ensuing five years, you shall receive every January the sum of one thousand dollars. Until the expiration of that period, she desired that I should act as your guardian. By reference to the date and signature of these papers, you will find that this will was made as soon as she was able to sit up, after her illness produced by pneumonia; but appended to the original is a codicil stating that the validity of the distribution of her estate, contained in the former instrument, is contingent upon your conduct. Feeling most earnestly opposed to your contemplated scheme of going upon the stage as a prima donna, she solemnly declares, that, if you persist in carrying your decision into execution, the foregoing provisions shall be cancelled, and the house, land, and furniture shall be given to Jessie and Stanley; while only one thousand dollars is set apart as your portion. This codicil was signed one month ago."
Dr. Grey glanced over the sheets of paper, and refolded them, allowing his companion time for reflection and comment, but she remained silent, and he added,—
"However your views may differ from those entertained by my sister, I hope you will not permit yourself to doubt that a sincere desire to promote your life-long happiness prompted the course she has pursued."
Five minutes elapsed, and the orphan sat mute and still.
"Salome, are you disappointed? My dear friend, deal frankly with me."
She lifted her pale, quiet face, and, for the first time in many weeks, he saw unshed tears shining in her eyes, and glittering on her lashes.
"I should be glad to know whether Miss Jane consulted you, in the preparation of her will?"
"She conferred with me concerning the will, and I cordially approved it; but of the codicil I knew nothing, until her lawyer—Mr. Lindsay—called my attention to it yesterday afternoon."
"You are very generous, Dr. Grey, and no one but you would willingly divide your sister's estate with paupers, who have so long imposed upon her bounty. I had no expectation that Miss Jane would so munificently remember me, and I have not deserved the kindness which she has lavished on me, for Jessie and Stanley I gratefully accept her noble gift, and it will place them far beyond the possibility of want; while the only regret of which I am conscious, is, that I feel compelled to pursue a career, which my best, my only friend disapproved. In the name of poor little Jessie and Stanley, I thank you, sir, for consenting to such a generous bequest of property that is justly yours. You, who—"
"Pray do not mention the matter, for independent of the large legacy left me by my sister, my own fortune is so ample that I deserve no thanks for willingly sharing that which I do not need. My little sister, you must not rashly decide a question which involves your future welfare, and I can not and will not hear your views at present. Take one week for calm deliberation, weigh the matter prayerfully and thoughtfully, and at the expiration of that time, meet me here, and I will accept your decision."
She shook her head, and a dreary smile passed swiftly over her passionless face.
"Twenty years of reflection would not alter, or in any degree bend my determination, which is as firmly fixed as the base of the Blue-Ridge; and—"
"Pardon me, Salome, but, until the week has elapsed, I do not wish or intend to receive your verdict. Before this day week, recollect all the reasons which dear Janet urged against your scheme; recall the pain she suffered from the bare contemplation of such a possibility, and her tender pleadings and wise counsel. Ah, Salome, you are young and impulsive, but I trust you will not close your ears against your brother's earnest protest and appeal. If I were not sincerely attached to you, I should not so persistently oppose your favorite plan, which is fraught with perils and annoyances that you can not now realize. Hush! I will not listen to you to-day."
He rose, and laying his hands softly on her head, added, in a solemn but tremulously tender tone,—
"And may God in His infinite wisdom and mercy overrule all things for your temporal and eternal welfare, and so guide your decision, that peace and usefulness will be your portion, now and forever."
"Yes, Dr. Grey, I am better than I ever expected or desired to be in this world."
"Mrs. Gerome, this is scarcely the recompense that my anxious vigilance and ceaseless exertions merit at your hands."
The invalid leaned far back in her cushioned easy-chair, and, as the physician rested his arm on the mantelpiece and looked down at her, he thought of the lines that had more than once recurred to his mind, since the commencement of their acquaintance,—
"What finely carven features! Yes, but carved From some clear stuff, not like a woman's flesh, And colored like half-faded, white-rose leaves. 'Tis all too thin, and wan, and wanting blood, To take my taste. No fulness, and no flush! A watery half-moon in a wintry sky Looks less uncomfortably cold. And ... well, I never in the eyes of a sane woman Saw such a strange, unsatisfied regard."
"I suppose I ought to be grateful to you, Dr. Grey, for Katie and Robert have told me how patiently and carefully you nursed and watched over me, during my illness; but instead of gratitude, I find it difficult to forgive you for what you have done. You fanned into a flame the spark of life that was smouldering and expiring, and baffled the disease that came to me as the handmaid of Mercy. Death, transformed into an angel of pity, kindly opened the door of escape from the woe and weariness of this sin-cursed world, into the calmness and dreamless rest of the vast shoreless Beyond; and just when I was passing through, you snatched me back to my burdens and my bitter lot. I know, of course, that you intended only kindness, but you must not blame me if I fail to thank you."
"You forget that life is intended as a season of fiery probation, and that without suffering there is no purification, and no reward. Remember, 'Calm is not life's crown, though calm is well;' and those who forego the pain must forego the palm."
"I would gladly forego all things for a rest,—a sleep that could know no end. Katie tells me I have been ill a month, and from this brief season of oblivion you have dragged me back to the existence that I abhor. Dr. Grey, I feel to-day as poor Maurice de Guerin felt, when he wrote from Le Val, 'My fate has knocked at the door to recall me; for she had not gone on her way, but had seated herself upon the threshold, waiting until I had recovered sufficient strength to resume my journey. "Thou hast tarried long enough," said she to me; "come forward!" And she has taken me by the hand, and behold her again on the march, like those poor women one meets on the road, leading a child who follows with a sorrowful air.'"
"There is a better guide provided, if you would only accept and yield to his ministrations. For the flint-faced fate that you accuse so virulently, substitute that tender and loving guardian the Angel of Patience.
'To weary hearts, to mourning homes, God's meekest Angel gently comes. . . . . . . . . . . There's quiet in that Angel's glance, There's rest in his still countenance! . . . . . . . . . . The ills and woes he may not cure He kindly trains us to endure. . . . . . . . . . . He walks with thee, that Angel kind, And gently whispers, 'Be resigned.'
A moment since, you quoted De Guerin, and perhaps you may recollect one of his declarations, 'I have no shelter but resignation, and I run to it in great haste, all trembling and distracted. Resignation! It is the burrow hollowed in the cleft of some rock, which gives shelter to the flying and long-hunted prey.' You will never find peace for your heart and soul until you bring your will into complete subjection to that of Him 'who doeth all things well.' Defiance and rebellious struggles only aggravate your sorrows and trials."
She listened to the deep, quiet voice, as some unlettered savage might hearken to the rhythmic music of Homer, soothed by the tones, yet incapable of comprehending their import; and as she looked up at the grave, kingly face, her eyes fell upon the broad band of crape that encircled his straw hat, which had been hastily placed on the mantelpiece.
"Dr. Grey, you ought to speak advisedly, for Robert told me that you had recently lost your sister, and that you are now alone in the world. You, who have severe afflictions, should know how far resignation lightens them. I was much pained to learn that your sister died while you were absent,—while you were sitting up with me. Ah, sir! you ought to have watched her, and left me to my release. You have been very kind and considerate toward one who has no claim upon aught but your pity; and I would gladly lie down in your sister's grave, and give her back to your heart and home."
Her countenance softened for an instant, and she held out her hand. He took the delicate fingers in his, and pressed them gently.
"God grant that your life may be spared, until all doubt and bitterness is removed from your heart, and that when you go down into the grave it may be as bright with the blessed faith of a Christian as that which now contains my sister Janet. Do not allow the gloom of earthly disappointment to cloud your trust, but bear always in mind those cheering words of Saadi,—
'Says God, "Who comes towards me an inch through doubtings dim, In blazing light I do approach a yard towards him."'"
"If I am to be kept in this world until all the bitterness is scourged out of me, I might as well resign myself to a career as endless as that of Ahasuerus. I tell you, sir, I have been forced to drink out of quassia-cups until my whole being has imbibed the bitter; and I am like that tree to which Firdousi compared Mahmoud, 'Whose nature is so bitter, that were you to plant it in the garden of Eden, and water it with the ambrosial stream of Paradise, and were you to enrich its roots with virgin honey, it would, after all, discover its innate disposition, and only yield the acrid fruit it had ever borne.'"
"What right have you to expect that existence should prove one continued gala-season? When Christ went down meekly into Gethsemane, that such as you and I might win a place in the Eternal City, how dare you demand exemption from grief and pain, that Jesus, your God, did not spare Himself? Are you purer than Christ, and wiser than the Almighty, that you impiously deride and question their code for the government of the Universe, in which individual lives seem trivial as the sands of the desert, or the leaves of the forest? Oh! it is pitiable, indeed, to see some worm writhing in the dust, and blasphemously dictating laws to Him who swung suns and asterisms in space, and breathed into its own feeble fragment of clay the spark that enabled it to insult its God. Put away such unwomanly scoffing,—such irreverent puerilities; sweep your soul clean of all such wretched rubbish, and when you feel tempted to repine at your lot, recollect the noble admonition of Dschelaleddin, 'If this world were our abiding-place, we might complain that it makes our bed so hard; but it is only our night-quarters on a journey, and who can expect home comforts?'"
"I can not feel resigned to my lot. It is too hard,—too unjust."
"Mrs. Gerome, are you more just and prescient than Jehovah?"
She passed her thin hand across her face, and was silent, for his voice and manner awed her. After a little while, she sat erect in her chair, and tried to rise.
"Doctor, if you could look down into the gray ruins of my heart, you would not reprove me so harshly. My whole being seems in some cold eclipse, and my soul is like the Sistine Chapel in Passion-week, where all is shrouded in shadow, and no sounds are heard but Misereres and Tenebrae."
"Promise me that in future you will try to keep it like that Christian temple, pure and inviolate from all imprecations and rebellious words. If gloom there must be, see to it that resignation seals your lips. What are you trying to do? You are not strong enough to walk alone."
"I want to go into the parlor,—I want my piano. Yesterday I attempted to cross the room, and only Katie's presence saved me from a severe fall."
She stood by her chair, grasping the carved back, and Dr. Grey stepped forward, and drew her arm under his.
In her great weakness she leaned upon him, and when they reached the parlor door, she paused and almost panted.
"You must not attempt to play,—you are too feeble even to sit up longer. Let me take you back to your room."
"No,—no! Let me alone. I know best what is good for me; and I tell you my piano is my only Paraclete."
Holding his arm for support, she drew a chair instead of the piano-stool to the instrument, and seated herself.
Dr. Grey raised the lid, and waited some seconds, expecting her to play, but she sat still and mute, and presently he stooped to catch a glimpse of her countenance.
"I want to see Elsie's grave. Open the blinds."
He threw open the shutters, and came back to the piano.
Through the window, the group of deodars was visible, and there, bathed in the mild yellow sunshine was the mound, and the faded wreath swinging in the breeze.
For many minutes Mrs. Gerome gazed at the quiet spot where her nurse rested, and with her eyes still on the grave, her fingers struck into Chopin's Funeral March.
After a while, Dr. Grey noticed a slight quiver cross her pale lips, and when the mournful music reached its saddest chords, a mist veiled the steely eyes, and very soon tears rolled slowly down her cheeks.
The march ended, she did not pause, but began Mozart's Requiem, and all the while that slow rain of tears dripped down on her white fingers, and splashed upon the ivory keys.
Dr. Grey was so rejoiced at the breaking up of the ice that had long frozen the fountain of her tears, that he made no attempt to interrupt her, until he saw that she tottered in her chair. Taking her hands from the piano, he said gently,—
"You are quite exhausted, and I can not permit this to continue. Come back to your room."
"No; let me stay here. Put me on the sofa in the oriel, and leave the blinds open."
He lifted her from the chair and led her to the sofa, where she sank heavily down upon the cushions.
Without comment or resistance, she drank a glass of strong cordial which he held to her lips, and lay with her eyes closed, while tears still trickled through the long jet lashes.
She wore a robe of white merino, and a rich blue shawl of the same soft material which was folded across her shoulders, made the wan face look like some marble seraph's, hovering over an altar where violet light streams through stained glass.
For some time Dr. Grey walked up and down the long room, glancing now and then at his patient, and when he saw that the tears had ceased, he brought from a basket in the hall an exquisitely beautiful and fragrant bouquet of the flowers which he knew she loved best,—heliotrope, violets, tube-rose, and Grand-Duke jessamine, fringed daintily with spicy geranium leaves, and scarlet fuchsias.
Silently he placed it on her folded hands, and the expression of surprise and pleasure that suddenly lighted her countenance, amply repaid him.
"Dr. Grey, it has been my wish to except services from no one,—to owe no human being thanks; but your unvarying kindness to my poor Elsie and to me, imposes a debt of gratitude that I can not easily liquidate. I fear you are destined to bankrupt me, for how can I hope to repay all your thoughtful, delicate care, and generous interest in a stranger? Tell me in what way I can adequately requite you."
Dr. Grey drew a chair close to the sofa, and answered,—
"Take care lest your zeal prove the contrary, for you know a distinguished philosopher asserts that, 'Too great eagerness to requite an obligation is a species of ingratitude;' and such an accusation would be unflattering to you, and unpleasant to me."
Turning the bouquet around in order to examine and admire each flower, Mrs. Gerome toyed with the velvet bells, and said, sorrowfully,—
"Their delicious perfume always reminds me of my beautiful home near Funchal, where heliotrope and geraniums grew so tall that they looked in at my window, and hedges of fuchsias bordered my garden walks. Never have I seen elsewhere such profusion and perfection of flowers."
"When were you in Madeira?"
"Two years ago. The villa I occupied was situated on the side of a mountain, whose base was covered with vineyards; and from a grove of lemon and oleanders that stood in front of the house I could see the surging Atlantic at my feet, and the crest of the mountain clothed with chestnuts, high above and behind me. In one corner of my vineyard stood a solitary palm, which tradition asserted was planted when Zarco discovered the island; and the groves of orange, citron, and pomegranate trees were always peopled with humming-birds, and flocks of green canaries. There, surrounded by grand and picturesque scenery of which I never wearied, I resolved to live and die; but Elsie's desire to return to America, which held the ashes of her husband and child, overruled my inclination and the dictates of judgment, and reluctantly I left my mountain Eden and came here. Now, when I smell violets and heliotrope, regret mingles with their aroma; and, after all, the sacrifice was in vain, and Elsie would have slept as calmly there, under palm and chestnut, as yonder, where the deodar-shadows fall."
"Is your life here a faithful transcript of that portion of it passed at Funchal?"
"Yes; except that there I saw no human being but the servants, who transacted any business that demanded interviews with the consul."
"It was fortunate that Elsie's wise counsel prevailed over your caprice, for many of your griefs proceed from the complete isolation to which you so strangely doom yourself; and until you become a useful member of that society you are so fully fitted to adorn and elevate, you need not hope or expect the peace of mind that results only from the consciousness of having nobly discharged the sacred obligations to God, and to your race. 'Bear ye one another's burdens,' was the solemn admonition of Him who sublimely bore the burdens of an entire world. Now tell me, have you ever stretched out a finger to aid the toiling multitudes whose cry for help wails over even the most prosperous lands? What have you done to strengthen trembling hands, or comfort and gladden oppressed hearts? How dare you hoard within your own home the treasure of fortune, talent, and sympathy, which were temporarily entrusted to your hands, to be sown broadcast in noble charities,—to be judiciously invested in promoting the cause of Truth in the fierce war Evil wages against it? Hitherto you have lived solely for yourself, which is a sin against humanity; and have pampered a morbid and rebellious spirit, that is a grevious sin against your God. Shake off your lethargy and cynicism, and let a busy future redeem a vagrant and worthless past. 'He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.'"
The flowers dropped on her bosom, and, clasping her hands across her forehead, she turned her face towards the sea, and seemed pondering his words.
"Dr. Grey, my purse has always been open to the needy, and Elsie was my almoner. Whenever you find a destitute family, or hear an appeal for help, I shall gladly respond, and constitute you the agent for the distribution of my charity-fund. As for bearing the sorrows of others, pray excuse me. I am so weighed down with my own burdens that I have no strength or leisure to spare to my neighbors, and since I ask no aid, must not be censured for rendering none. It is utterly useless to urge me to enter society, for like that sad pilgrim in Brittany, 'In losing solitude I lose the half of my soul. I go out into the world with a secret horror. When I withdraw, I gather together and lock up my scattered treasure, but I put away my ideas sorely handled, like fruits fallen from the tree upon stones.' No, no; in seclusion I find the only modicum of peace that earth can ever yield me, and can readily understand why Chateaubriand avoided those crowds which he denominated, 'The vast desert of men.'"
"You must not be offended, if, in reply, I remind you of the rude but vigorous words of that prince of cynics, Schopenhauer, 'Society is a fire at which the wise man from a prudent distance warms himself; not plunging into it, like the fool who after getting well blistered, rushes into the coldness of solitude, and complains that the fire burns.' Of the two evils, reckless dissipation and gloomy isolation, the latter is probably an economy of sin; but since neither is inevitable, we should all endeavor to render ourselves useful members of society, and unfurl over our circle the banner of St. Paul, 'Use this world as not abusing it.' Mrs. Gerome, do not obstinately mar the present and future, by brooding bitterly over the trials of the past; but try to believe that, indeed,—
... 'Sorrows humanize our race; Tears are the showers that fertilize this world. And memory of things precious keepeth warm The heart that once did hold them.'"
He watched her eagerly yet gravely, hoping that her face would soften; but she raised her hand with a proud, impatient motion.
"You talk at random, concerning matters of which you know nothing. I hate the world and have abjured it, and you might as well go down yonder and harangue the ocean on the sin of its ceaseless muttering, as expect to remodel my aimless, blank life."
Pained and disappointed, he remained silent, and, as if conscious of a want of courtesy, she added,—
"Do not allow your generous heart to be disquieted on my account, but leave me to a fate which can not be changed,—which I have endured seven years, and must bear to my grave. Now that you see how desolate I am, pity me, and be silent."
"It will be difficult for you to regain your strength here, where so many mournful associations surround you, and I came to-day to beg you to take a trip somewhere, by sea or land. Almost any change of scene and air will materially benefit you, and you need not be absent more than a few weeks. Will you take the matter under consideration?"
"No, sir; why should I? Can hills or waves, dells or lakes, cure a mind which you assure me is diseased? Can sea breeze or mountain air fan out recollections that have jaundiced the heart, or furnish an opiate that will effectually deaden and quiet regret? I long ago tried your remedy—travelling, and for four years I wandered up and down, and over the face of the old world; but amid the crumbling columns of Persepolis, I was still Agla Gerome, the wretched; and when I stood on the margin of the Lake of Wan, I saw in its waves the reflection of the same hopeless woman who now lies before you. Change of external surroundings is futile, and no more affects the soul than the roar of surface-surf changes the hollow of an ocean bed where the dead sleep; and, verily,—
'My heart is a drear Golgotha, where all the ground is white With the wrecks of joys that have perished,—the skeletons of delight.'"
He saw that in her present mood expostulation would only aggravate the evil he longed to correct, and hoping to divert the current of her thoughts, he said,—
"I trust you will not deem me impertinently curious if I ask what singular freak bestowed upon you the name of 'Agla'?"
A startling change swept over her features, and her tone was haughtily challenging.
"What interest can Dr. Grey find in a matter so trivial? If I were named Hecate or Persephone, would the world have a right to demur, to complain, or to criticise?"
"When a lady bears the mystic name, which, in past ages, was given to the Deity, by a race who, if superstitious, were at least devout and reverent, she should not be surprised if it excites wonder and comment. Forgive me, however, if my inquiry annoyed you."
He rose and took his hat, but her hand caught his arm.
"Do you know the import of the word?"
"Yes; I understand the significance of the letters, and the wonderful power attributed to them when arranged in the triangles and called the 'Shield of David.' Knowing that it was considered talismanic, I could not imagine why you were christened with so mystical a name."
"I was never christened."
He could not explain the confusion and displeasure which the question excited, and anxious to relieve her of any feeling of annoyance, he added,—
"Have you ever looked into the nature of the Aglaophotis?"
She struggled up from her cushions, and exclaimed, with a vehemence that startled him,—
"What induced you to examine it? I know that it is a strange plant, growing out of solid marble, and accounted a charm by Arab magicians. Well, Dr. Grey, do not I belong to that species? You see before you a human specimen of Aglaophotis, growing out of a marble heart."
Sometimes an exaggerated whimsicality trenches so closely upon insanity, that it is difficult to discriminate between them; and, as Dr. Grey noted the peculiarly cold glitter of her large eyes, and the restless movement of her usually quiet hands, he dreaded that the crushing weight on her heart would ultimately impair her mind. Now he abruptly changed the topic.
"Mrs. Gerome, whenever it is agreeable to you to drive down the beach or across the woods and among the hills, it will afford me much pleasure to place my horse, buggy, and myself at your disposal; and, in fine weather like this, a drive of a few miles would invigorate you."
"Thank you. I shall not trouble you, for I have my low-swung easy carriage, and my grays—my fatal grays. Ah if they would only serve me as they did my poor Elsie! When I am strong enough to take the reins, I will allow them an opportunity. Dr. Grey, if I seem rude, forgive me. You are very kind and singularly patient, and sometimes when you have left me, I feel ashamed of my inability to prove my sincere appreciation of your goodness. For these beautiful flowers, I thank you cordially."
She held out her hand, and, as he accepted it, he drew from his pocket the silver key which he had so carefully preserved.
"Accident made me the custodian of this key, which I found on the floor the day of Elsie's burial. Knowing that it belonged to your escritoire, whence I saw you take it, I thought it best not to commit it to a servant's care, and have kept it in my pocket until I thought you might need it."
Although the room was growing dim, he detected the expression of dread that crossed her countenance, and saw her bite her thin lip with vexation.
"You have worn for one month the key of my desk, where lie all my papers and records; and when I was so desperately ill, I presume you looked into the drawers, merely to ascertain whether I had prepared my will?"
The mockery of her tone stung him keenly, but he allowed no evidence of the wound to escape him. Bending over her as she sat partially erect, supported by cushions, he took her white face tenderly in his hands, and said, very calmly and gently,—
"When you know me better, you will realize how groundless is your apprehension that I have penetrated into the recesses of your writing-desk. Knowing that it contained valuable papers, I guarded it as jealously as you could have done; and, upon the honor of a gentleman, I assure you I am as ignorant of its contents as if I had never entered the house. When I consider it essential to my peace of mind to become acquainted with your antecedents, I shall come to you and ask what I desire to learn. While you were so ill, I told Robert that your friends should be notified of your imminent danger, and inquired of him whether you had made a will, as I deemed it my duty to inform your agent of your alarming condition. He either could not or would not give me any satisfactory reply, and there the matter ended. When I am gone, do not reproach yourself for having so unjustly impugned my motives, for I shall not allow myself to believe that you really entertain so contemptible an opinion of me; and shall ascribe your hasty accusation to mere momentary chagrin and pique."
"Ah, sir! you ought not to wonder that I am so suspicious; you—but how can you understand the grounds of my distrust, unless—"
"Hush! We will not discuss a matter which can only excite and annoy you. Mrs. Gerome, under all circumstances you may unhesitatingly trust me, and I beg to assure you I shall never divulge anything confided to me. You need a friend, and perhaps some day you may consider me worthy to serve you in that capacity; meantime, as your physician, I shall continue to watch over and control you. To-day you have cruelly overtasked your exhausted system, and I can not permit you to remain here any longer. Come immediately to your own room."
His manner was so quietly authoritative that she obeyed instantly, and when he lifted her from the sofa, she took his arm, and walked towards the door. Before they had crossed the hall, he felt her reel and lean more heavily against him, and silently he took the thin form in his arms, and carried her to her room.
The gray head was on his shoulder, and the cold marble cheek touched his, as he laid her softly down on her bed and arranged her pillows. He rang for Katie, and, in crossing the floor, stepped on something hard. It was too dusky in the closely curtained apartment to see any object so small, but he swept his hand across the carpet and picked up the key that had slipped from her nerveless fingers. Placing it beside her, he smiled and said,—
"You are incorrigibly careless. Are you not afraid to tax my curiosity so severely, and tempt me so pertinaciously, by strewing your keys in my path? The next time I pick up this one, which belongs to your escritoire, I shall engage some one to act as your guardian. Katie, be sure she takes that tonic mixture three times a day. Good-night."
When the sound of his retreating footsteps died away, Mrs. Gerome thrust the key under her pillow, and murmured,—
"I wonder whether this Ulpian can be as true, as trusty, as nobly fearless as his grand old Roman namesake, whom not even the purple of Severus could save from martyrdom? Ah! if Ulpian Grey is really all that he appears. But how dare I hope, much less believe it? Verily, he reminds me of Madame de Chatenay's description of Joubert, 'He seems to be a soul that by accident had met with a body, and tried to make the best of it.'"
"Did you speak to me, ma'am?" asked Katie, who was bustling about, preparing to light the lamp.
"No. The room is like a tomb. Open the blinds and loop back all the curtains, so that I can look out."
"And the sunset paled, and warmed once more With a softer, tenderer after-glow; In the east was moon-rise, with boats off-shore And sails in the distance drifting slow."
"Doctor Grey, sister says she wants to see you, before you go to town."
Jessie Owen came softly up to the table where Dr. Grey sat writing, and stood with her hand on his knee.
"Very well. Tell sister I will come to her as soon as I finish this letter. Where is she?"
"In the library."
"In ten minutes I shall be at leisure."
He found Salome with a piece of sewing in her hand, and her young sister leaning on her lap, chattering merrily about a nest full of eggs which she and Stanley had found that morning in a corner of the orchard; while the latter swung on the back of her chair, winding over his finger a short curl that lay on her neck. It was a pleasant, peaceful, homelike picture, worthy of Eastman Johnson's brush, and for thirty years such a group had not been seen in that quiet old library.
Dr. Grey paused at the threshold, to admire the graceful pose of Jessie's fairy figure,—the lazy nonchalance of Stanley's posture,—and the finely shaped head that rose above both, like some stately lily, surrounded by clustering croci; but Salome was listening for his footsteps, and turned her head at his entrance.
"Stanley, take Jessie up to my room, and show her your Chinese puzzle. When I want either or both of you, I will call you. Close the door after you, and mind that you do not get to romping, and shake the house down."
"How very pretty Jessie has grown during the last year. Her complexion has lost its muddy tinge, and is almost waxen," said the doctor, when the children had left the room and scampered up stairs.
"She is a very sweet-tempered and affectionate little thing, but I never considered her pretty. She is too much like her father."
"Salome, death veils all blemishes."
"That depends very much on the character of the survivors; but we will not discuss abstract propositions,—especially since I have resolved to follow the old oriental maxim,—
'Leave ancestry behind, despise heraldic art, Thy father be thy mind, thy mother be thy heart. Dead names concern not thee, bid foreign titles wait; Thy deeds thy pedigree, thy hopes thy rich estate!'
Dr. Grey, the week has ended, and I took the liberty of reminding you of the fact, as I am anxious to acquaint you with my purposes for the future."
He drew a chair near hers, and seated himself.
"Well, Salome, I hope that reflection has changed your views, and taught you the wisdom of my sister's course with reference to yourself."
"On the contrary, the season of deliberation you forced upon me has only strengthened and intensified my desire to carry into execution the project I have so long dreamed of; and to-day I am more than ever firmly resolved to follow, at all hazards, the dictates of my own judgment, no matter with whose opinions or wishes they may conflict."
She expected that he would expostulate, and plead against her decision, but he merely bowed, and remained silent.
"My object in asking this interview was to ascertain how soon it would be convenient for you to place in my hands the legacy of one thousand dollars which was bequeathed to me on condition that I went upon the stage; and also to inquire what you intend to do with the children, of whom Miss Jane's will constitutes you the guardian?"
"You wish me to understand that you are determined to defy the wishes of your best friend, and take a step which distressed her beyond expression?"
"I shall certainly go upon the stage."
"I have no alternative but to accept your decision, which you are well aware I regard as exceedingly deplorable. The money can be paid to you to-morrow, if you desire it. Hoping that you would abandon this freak, I had intended to keep the children here, under your supervision, while I removed to my house in town, and left their tuition to Miss Dexter; but since you have decided otherwise, I shall remain here for the present, keeping them with me, at least until after Muriel's marriage. The income from this farm averages two thousand dollars a year, and will not only amply provide for their wants and education, but will enable me to lay aside annually a portion of that amount. When Muriel marries, Miss Dexter may not be willing to remain here, and if she leaves us I shall endeavor to find as worthy and reliable a substitute. Have you any objection to this arrangement?"
"I have no right to utter any, since you are the legal guardian of the children. But contingencies might arise for which it seems you have not provided."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I can trust Jessie and Stanley to you, but when you are married I prefer that they should find another home; or, if need be, Jessie can come to me."
An angry flush dyed Dr. Grey's olive face, and kindled a fiery gleam in his usually mild, clear, blue eyes, but looking at the girl's compressed and trembling lips, and noting the underlying misery which her defiant expression could not cover, his displeasure gave place to profound compassion.
"Salome, dismiss that cause of anxiety from your mind, and trust the assurance I offer you now,—that when I marry, my wife will be worthy to assist me in guiding and governing my wards."
She was prepared to hear him retort that the career she had chosen would render her an unsuitable counsellor for little Jessie; and conscious that she had deeply wounded him, his calm reply was the sharpest rebuke he could possibly have administered.
"Dr. Grey, I have no extraordinary amount of tenderness for the children, because they are indissolubly associated with that period of my life to which I never recur without pain and humiliation that you can not possibly realize or comprehend; still, I am not exactly a brute, and I do not wish them to be trained to regard me as a Pariah, or to be told that I have forfeited their respect and affection. When I am gone, let them think kindly of me."
"Your request is a reflection upon my friendship, and is so exceedingly unjust that I am surprised and pained; but let that pass. I am sure I need not tell you that your wishes shall be complied with. I have often thought that after Stanley completed his studies, I would take him into my office, and teach him my own profession. Have you any objection to this scheme?"
"No, sir. I am willing to trust him implicitly to you. He has one terrible fault which I have been trying to correct, and which I hope you will not lose sight of. The boy seems constitutionally addicted to telling stories, and prefers falsehood to truth. I have punished him repeatedly for this habit, and you must, if possible, save him from the pauper vice of lying, which is peculiarly detestable to me. I know less of the little one's character, but believe that she is not afflicted with this evil tendency."
"Stanley's fault has not escaped me, and two days ago I was obliged to punish him for a gross violation of the truth; but as he grows older, I trust he will correct this defect, and I shall faithfully endeavor to show him its enormity. Is there anything else you wish to say to me about the children? I will very gladly hear any suggestions you can offer."
"No, sir. I have governed myself so badly, that it ill becomes me to dictate to you how they should be trained. God knows, I am heartily glad they were mercifully thrown into your hands; and if you can only make Stanley Owen such a man as you are, the old blot on the name may be effaced. From Mark and Joel I have not heard for several months, and presume they will be sturdy but unlettered mechanics. If I succeed, I shall interfere and send them to school; otherwise, they must take the chances for letters and a livelihood."
"Salome, you are bartering life-long peace and happiness for the momentary gratification of a whim, prompted solely by vanity. How worthless are the brief hollow plaudits of the world (which will regard you merely as the toy of an hour), in comparison with the affection and society of your own family? Here, in your home, how useful, how contented you might be!"
Her only reply was a hasty, imperious wave of the hand, and a long silence followed.
In the bright morning light that streamed in through the tendrils of honeysuckle clambering around the window, Dr. Grey looked searchingly at the orphan, and could scarcely realize that this pale, proud, pain-stricken face, was the same rosy round one, fair and fearless, that had first met his gaze under the pearly apple-blossoms.
Then, pink flesh, hazel eyes, vermillioned lips, and glossy hair had preferred incontestable claims to beauty; now, an artist would have curiously traced the fine lines and curves daintily drawn about eyes, brow and mouth, by the stylus of care, of hopelessness, of wild bursts of passion. Her figure retained its rounded symmetry, but the countenance traitorously revealed the struggles, the bitter disappointments, the vindictive jealousy, and rudely-smitten and blasted hopes, that had robbed her days of peace and her nights of sleep.
Until this moment, Dr. Grey had not fully appreciated the change that had been wrought by two tedious years, and as he scrutinized the sadly sharpened and shadowed features, a painful feeling of humiliation and almost of self-reproach sprang from the consciousness that his inability to reciprocate her devoted love had brought down this premature blight upon a young and whilom happy, careless girl,—transforming her into a reckless, hardened, hopeless woman.