While his inexorable conscience fully exonerated him from censure, his generous heart ached in sympathy for hers, and his chivalric tenderness for all things weaker than himself, bled at the reflection that he had been unintentionally instrumental in darkening a woman's life.
But hope,—beautiful, blue-eyed, sunny-browed hope,—whispered that this was a fleeting youthful fancy; and that absence and time would dispel the temporary gloom that now lay on her heart, like some dense cold vapor which would grow silvery, and melt in morning sunshine.
Under his steady gaze the blood rose slowly to its old signal-station on her cheeks, and she put up one hand to shield its scarlet banners.
"Salome, will you tell me when and where you intend to go? Since you have resolved to leave us, I desire to know in what way I can aid you, or contribute to the comfort of the journey you contemplate."
"From the last letter of Professor V——, declining your proposal that he should come here and instruct me, I learn that within the ensuing ten days he will sail for Havre, en route to Italy, where he intends spending the winter. If possible, I wish to reach New York before his departure, and to accompany him. The thousand dollars will defray my expenses until I have completed my musical training, which will fit me for the stage, and insure an early engagement in some operatic company. Knowing your high estimate of Professor V——, both as a gentleman and as a musician, I am exceedingly anxious to place myself under his protection; especially since his wife and children will meet him at Paris, and go on to Naples. Are you willing to give me a letter of introduction, commending me to his favorable consideration?"
The hesitating timidity with which this request was uttered, touched him more painfully than aught that had ever passed between them.
"My dear child, did you suppose that I would permit you to travel alone to New York, and thrust yourself upon the notice of strangers? I will accompany you whenever you go, and not only present you to the professor, but request him to receive you into his family as a member of his home-circle."
A quiver shook out the hard lines around her lips, and she turned her eyes full on his.
"You are very kind, sir, but that is not necessary; and a letter of introduction will have the same effect, and save you from a disagreeable trip. Your time is too valuable to be wasted on such journeys, and I have no right to expect that solely on my account you should tear yourself away—from—those dear to you."
"I think my time could not be more profitably employed than in promoting the happiness and welfare of my adopted sister, who was so inexpressibly dear to my noble Janet. It is neither pleasant nor proper for a young lady to travel without an escort."
He had risen, and laid his hand lightly on the back of her chair.
"She smiled; but he could see arise Her soul from far adown her eyes, Prepared as if for sacrifice."
"Is it a mercy, think you, Dr. Grey, to foster a fastidiousness that can only barb the shafts of penury? What right have toiling paupers to harbor in their thoughts those dainty scruples that belong appropriately to princesses and palaces? Why tell me that this, that, or the other step is not 'proper,' when you know that necessity goads me? Sir, I feel now like that isolated Florentine, and echo her words,—
... 'And since help Must come to me from those who love me not, Farewell, all helpers. I must help myself, And am alone from henceforth.'"
"You prefer that I should not accompany you to New York?"
"Yes, sir; but I gratefully accept a letter to Professor V——."
"Very well; it shall be in readiness when you wish it. Have you fixed any time for your departure?"
"This is Friday,—and I shall go on the six o'clock train, Monday morning."
"Is there any service that I can render you in the interim?"
"No, thank you."
"As you have no likeness of the children, would it be agreeable to you to have their photographs taken to-day,—and, at the same time, a picture of yourself to be left with them? If you desire it I will meet you in town, at the gallery, at any hour you may designate."
Standing before him, she answered, almost scornfully,—
"I shall not have time. Some day—if I succeed—I will send them my photograph, taken in gorgeous robes as prima donna; provided you promise that said robes shall not constitute a San Benito, and doom the picture to the flames. I will detain you no longer, Dr. Grey, as the sole object of the interview has been accomplished."
"Pardon me; but I have a word to say. Your career will probably be brilliantly successful, in which event you will feel no want of admirers and friends,—and will doubtless ignore me for those who flatter you more, and really love you less. But, Salome, failure may overtake you, bringing in its train countless evils that at present you can not realize,—poverty, disease, desolation, in the midst of strangers,—and all the woes that, like hungry wolves, attack homeless, isolated women. I earnestly hope that the leprous hand of disaster and defeat may never be laid upon your future, but the most cautious human schemes are fallible—often futile—and if you should be unsuccessful in your programme, and find yourself unable to consummate your plans, I ask you now, by the memory of our friendship, by the sacred memory of the dead, to promise me that you will immediately write and acquaint me with all your needs, your wishes, your real condition. Promise me, dear Salome, that you will turn instantly to me, as you would to Stanley, were he in my place,—that you will let me prove myself your elder brother,—your truest, best friend."
He put his hand on her head, but she recoiled haughtily from his touch.
"Dr. Grey, I promise you,
'I will not soil thy purple with my dust, Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass.'
I promise you that if misfortune, failure, and penury lay hold of me, you shall be the last human being who will learn it; for I will cloak myself under a name that will not betray me, and crawl into some lazaretto, and be buried in some potter's field, among other mendicants,—unknown, 'unwept, unhonored, and unsung.'"
If some motherless young chamois, rescued from destruction, and pampered and caressed, had suddenly turned, and savagely bitten and lacerated the hand that fondled and fed it, Dr. Grey would not have been more painfully startled; but experience had taught him the uselessness of expostulation during her moods of perversity, and he took his hat and turned away, saying, almost sternly,—
"Bear in mind that neither palace nor potter's field can screen you from the scrutiny of your Maker, or mask and shelter your shivering soul in the solemn hour when He demands its last reckoning."
"Which 'reckoning,' your eminently Christian charity assures you will prove more terrible for me than the Bloody Assizes. 'By the memory of our friendship!' Oh, shallow sham! Pinning my faith to the dictum, 'The tide of friendship does not rise high on the bank of perfection,' my fatuity led me to expect that your friendship was wide as the universe, and lasting as eternity. Wise Helvetius told me that, 'To be loved, we should merit but little esteem; all superiority attracts awe and aversion;' ergo, since my credentials of unworthiness were indisputable, I laid claim to a vast share of your favor. But, alas! the logic of the seers is well-nigh as hollow as my hopes."
He looked over his shoulder at her, with an expression of pity as profound as that which must have filled the eyes of the angel, who, standing in the blaze of the sword of wrath, watched Adam and Eve go mournfully forth into the blistering heats of unknown lands. Before he could reply, she laughed contemptuously, and continued,—
"Nil desperandum, Dr. Grey. Remember that, 'Faith and persistency are life's architects; while doubt and despair bury all under the ruins of any endeavor.' When I have trilled a fortune into that abhorred vacuum, my pocket, I shall go down to the Tigris, and catch the mate to Tobias' fish, and by the cremation thereof, fumigate my pestiferous soul, and smoke out the Asmodeus that has so long and comfortably dwelt there."
"God grant you a Raphael, as guide on your journey," was his calm, earnest reply, as he disappeared, closing the door after him.
When the sound of his buggy-wheels on the gravelled avenue told her he had gone, she threw herself on the floor, and crossing her arms on a chair, hid her face in them.
During Saturday, no opportunity presented itself for renewing the conversation, and early on Sunday morning Dr. Grey sent to her room a package marked $1,000.00—though really containing $1,500.00—and a letter addressed to Professor V——. Without examining either, she threw them into her trunk, which was already packed, and went down to breakfast.
She declined accompanying Miss Dexter and Muriel to church, alleging, as an excuse, that it was the last day she could spend with the children.
Dr. Grey approached her when the remainder of the family had left the table, where she sat abstractedly jingling her fork and spoon.
He noticed that her breakfast was untasted, and said, very gently,—
"I suppose that you wish to visit our dear Jane's grave, before you leave us, and, if agreeable to you, I shall be glad to have you accompany me there to-day."
"Thank you; but if I go, it will be alone."
He stooped to kiss Jessie, who leaned against her sister's chair, and, when he left the room, Salome caught the child in her arms, and pressed her lips twice to the spot where his had rested.
Late in the afternoon she eluded the children's watchful eyes, and stole away from the house, taking the road that led towards "Solitude." In one portion of the osage hedge that surrounded the place, the lower branches had died, leaving a small opening, and here Salome gained access to the grounds. Walking cautiously under the thick and dark masses of shrubbery and trees, she reached the arched path near the clump of pyramidal deodars, whose long, drooping plumes were fluttering in the evening wind.
Thence she could command a view of the house and grounds in front, and thence she saw that concerning which she had come to satisfy herself,—believing that the evidence of her own eyes would fortify her for the approaching trial of separation. Dr. Grey's horse and buggy stood near the side gate, and Dr. Grey was walking very slowly up and down the avenue leading to the beach, while Mrs. Gerome's tall form leaned on his arm, and the greyhound followed sulkily.
Salome had barely time to look upon the spectacle that fired her heart and well-nigh maddened her, ere the dog lifted his head, gave one quick, savage bark, and darted in the direction of the cedars.
Dread of detection and of Dr. Grey's pitying gaze was more potent than fear of the brute, and she ran swiftly towards the gap in the hedge, by which she had effected an entrance into the secluded grounds. Just as she reached it, the greyhound bounded up, and they met in front of the opening. He set his teeth in her clothes, tearing away a streamer of her black dress, and, as she silently struggled, he bit her arm badly, mangling the flesh, from which the blood spouted. Disengaging a shawl which she wore around her shoulders, she threw it over his head, and, as the meshes caught in his collar, and temporarily entangled him, she sprang through the gap, and seized a heavy stick which lay within reach. He followed, snarling and pawing at the shawl that ultimately dropped at Salome's feet; but finding himself beyond the boundary he was expected to guard, and probably satisfied with the punishment already inflicted, he retreated before a well-aimed blow that drove him back into the enclosure.
The instant he started towards the cedars Dr. Grey suspected mischief, and, placing Mrs. Gerome on a bench that surrounded an elm, he hurried in the same direction.
When he reached the spot, the dog was snuffing at a patch of bombazine that lay on the grass; and, confirmed in his sad suspicion, the doctor passed through the opening in the hedge and looked about for the figure which he dreaded, yet expected to see.
Bushy undergrowth covered the ground for some distance, and, hoping that nothing more serious than fright had resulted from the escapade, he stowed away the bombazine fragment in his coat pocket, and slowly retraced his steps.
Secreted by two friendly oaks that spread their low boughs over her, Salome had seen his anxious face peering around for the intruder, and when he abandoned the search and disappeared, she smothered a bitter laugh, and strove to stanch the blood that trickled from the gash by binding her handkerchief over it. Torn muscles and tendons ached and smarted; but the great agony that seemed devouring her heart rendered her almost oblivious of physical pain. In the dusk of coming night she crossed the gloomy forest, where a whippoorwill was drearily lamenting, and, walking over an unfrequented portion of the lawn, went up to her own room.
She bathed and bound up the wound as securely as the use of only one hand would permit, and put on a dress whose sleeves fastened closely at the wrist.
Ere long, Dr. Grey's clear voice echoed through the hall, and the sound made her wince, like the touch of some glowing brand.
"Jessie, where is sister Salome? Tell her tea is ready."
The orphan went down and took her seat, but did not even glance at the master of the house, who looked anxiously at her as she entered.
During the meal Jessie asked for some sweetmeats that were placed in front of her sister, and, as the latter drew the glass dish nearer, and proceeded to help her, the child exclaimed,—
"Oh, look there! What is that dripping from your sleeve? Ugh! it is blood."
"Nonsense, Jessie! don't be silly. Hush! and eat your supper."
Two drops of blood had fallen on the table-cloth, and the girl instantly set her cup and saucer over them.
She felt the slow stream trickling down to her wrist, and put her arm in her lap.
"Is anything the matter?" asked Dr. Grey, who had observed the quick movement.
"I hurt my arm a little, that is all."
Her tone forbade a renewal of inquiry, and, as soon as possible, she withdrew to her room, to adjust the bandage.
The children were playing in the library, and Muriel was walking with her governess on the wide piazza.
While Salome was trying by the aid of fingers and teeth to draw a strip of linen tightly over her wound, a tap at the door startled her.
"I am engaged, and can see no one just now."
"Salome, I want to speak to you, and shall wait here until I do."
"Excuse me, Dr. Grey. I will come down in ten minutes."
"Pardon me, but I insist upon seeing you here, and hope you will not compel me to force the door open."
She wrapped a towel around her arm, drew down her sleeve, and opened the door.
"To what am I indebted for the honor of this interview?"
"To my interest in your welfare, which cannot be baffled. Salome, what is the matter? You looked so pale that I noticed you particularly, and saw the blood on the table-cloth. My dear child, I will not be trifled with. Tell me where you are hurt."
"Pray give yourself no uneasiness. I merely scraped and bruised my arm. It is a matter of no consequence."
"Of that I beg to be considered the best judge. Show me your arm."
"I prefer not to trouble you."
He gently but firmly took hold of it, unwound the towel, and she saw him start and shudder at sight of the mangled flesh.
"An ugly gash! Tell me how you hurt yourself so severely."
"It is a matter that I do not choose to discuss; but since you have seen it, I wish you would be so good as to dress and bandage the wound."
"Oh, my little sister! Will you never learn to trust your brother?"
"Oh, Dr. Grey! will you never learn to let me alone, when I am indulging the 'Imp of the Perverse' in an audience, and do not wish to be interrupted?"
She mimicked his pleading tone so admirably that his face flushed.
"Come to the sitting-room. No one can disturb us there, and I will attend to your injury, which is really serious."
She followed him, and stood without flinching one iota, while he clipped away the jagged pieces of flesh, covered the long gash with adhesive plaster, and carefully bandaged the whole.
"Salome, you must dismiss all idea of starting to-morrow, for indeed it would not be safe for you to travel alone, with your arm in this condition. It may give you much trouble and suffering."
"Which, of course, nolens volens, I must bear as best I may; but, so surely as I live to see daylight, I shall start, even if I knew I should have to stop en route and bury my pretty arm, and be forced to buy a cork one, wherewith to gesticulate gracefully when I die as 'Azucena.' There! thank you, Dr. Grey; of course you are very good,—you always are. Shall I bid you all good-by now, or wait till morning? Better make my adieu to-night, so that I may not disturb the matutinal slumbers of the household."
There was a dangerous, starry sparkle in her eyes, that he would not venture to defy, and, sighing heavily, he answered,—
"I shall accompany you to the depot, and place you under the protection of the conductor."
"I do not desire to give you that trouble, and—"
"Hush! Do not grieve me any more than you have already done, by your hasty, unkind, unfriendly speeches. I shall see you in the morning."
He left the room abruptly, to conceal the distress which he did not desire her to discover; and having found Muriel and Miss Dexter, Salome bade them good-by, requested them not to disturb themselves next morning on her account, and called the children to her room.
For two hours they sat beside her on the lounge, crying over her impending departure, but when she had promised to take them as far as the depot, their thoughts followed other currents, and very soon after, both slumbered soundly in their trundle-bed.
With her cheek resting on her hand, Salome sat looking at them, noting the glossiness of their curling hair, the flush on their round faces, the regular breathing of peaceful childhood's sleep. Once she could have wept, and would have knelt and prayed over them; but now her own overmastering misery had withered all the tenderness in her heart, and, while her eyes of flesh rested on the orphans, her mental vision was filled with the figure of that gray-haired woman hanging on Dr. Grey's arm. In a dull, cold, abstract way, she hoped that the little ones would be happy,—how could they be otherwise when fortune had committed them to Dr. Grey's guardianship? But a numb, desperate feeling had seized her, and she cared for nothing, loved nothing, prayed for nothing.
How the hours of that night of wretchedness passed she never knew; but when the little bird in the parlor clock "cuckooed" three times, she was aroused from her reverie by the tramp of horses' hoofs on the gravel, and then the sharp clang of the bell echoed through the silent house.
It was not unusual for messengers to summon Dr. Grey during the night, and she was not surprised when, some moments later, she heard his voice in the hall. After the lapse of a quarter of an hour, his firm, well-known step approached and paused at her threshold.
"Salome, are you up?"
"Come into the passage."
She opened the door, and stood with the candle in her hand.
"I regret exceedingly that I am compelled to leave here immediately, as I must hasten to see a man and child who have been horribly burned and injured by the falling in of a roof. The parties live some distance in the country, and I fear I shall not be able to get back in time to go with you to the cars. I shall drive as rapidly as possible, and hope to accompany you, but if I should be detained, here is a note which I hastily scribbled to Mr. Miller, the conductor, whom you will find a very kind and courteous gentleman. I sincerely deplore this summons, but the sufferers are old friends of my sister, and I hope you will believe that nothing but a case of life and death would prevent me from seeing you aboard the train."
"I am sorry, sir, that you thought it necessary to apologize."
She was not yet prepared to part from him forever,—she had been nerving herself for the final interview at the depot; but now it came with a shock that utterly stunned her, and she reeled against the door-facing, as if recoiling from some fearful blow.
The livid pallor of her lips, and the spasm of agony that contracted her features, frightened him, and, as he sprang closer to her, the candle fell from her fingers. He caught it, ere it reached the mat, and placed it on a chair.
"My dear child, your arm pains you, and I beg you to defer your journey at least until Tuesday. I shall be anxious and miserable about you, if you go this morning, and, for my sake, Salome, if not for your own, remain here one day longer. I have not asked many things of you, and I trust you will not refuse this last request I may ever be allowed to make."
She attempted to speak, but there came only a quiver across her mouth, and a sickly smile that flickered over the ghastly proud face, like the lying sunshine of Indian summer on marble cenotaphs.
"Salome, you will, to oblige me, wait until Tuesday?"
She shook her head, and mastered her weakness.
"No, Dr. Grey; I must go at once. I take all the hazard."
"Then you will find on the mantelpiece in my room, a paper containing directions for the treatment of your arm, which demands care and attention. I am sorry you are so obstinate, and, if I possessed the authority, I would forbid your departure."
He could not endure the despairing expression of her eyes, which seemed supernaturally large and brilliant, and his own quailed, for the first time within his recollection. She knew that she was going away forever, to avoid the sight of his happiness with Mrs. Gerome; that, in comparison with that torture, all other trials, even separation, would be endurable, but the least evil was more severe than she had dreaded. Now, as she looked up at his noble face, overshadowed with anxiety and regret, and paler than she had ever seen it, the one prayer of her heart was, that, ere a wife's lips touched his, death might claim him for its prey.
"Salome, I am deeply pained by the course you persist in following, but I will not provoke and annoy you by renewed expression of a disapprobation that has proved so ineffectual in influencing your decision. God grant that the results may sanction your confidence in your own judgment,—your distrust of mine. I promised you once that I would pray for you, and I wish to assure you, that, while I live, I shall never lay my head upon my pillow without having first committed you to the mercy and loving care of that Guardian who never 'slumbers, nor sleeps.' May God bless and guide you, my dear young friend, and if not again in this world, grant that we may meet in the Everlasting City of Peace. Little sister, be sure to meet me in the Kingdom of Rest, where dear Janet waits for us both."
His calm eyes filled with tears, and his voice grew tremulous, as he took Salome's cold, passive hand, and kissed it.
"Good-by, Dr. Grey; if I find my way to heaven, it will be because you are there. When I am gone, let my name and memory be like that of the dead."
She stood erect, with her fingers lying in his palm, and the ring of her voice was like the clashing of steel against steel.
He bent down, and, for the first time, pressed his lips to her forehead; then turned quickly and walked away. When he reached the head of the stairs, he looked back and saw her standing in the door, with the candle-light flaring over her face; and in after years, he could never recall, without a keen pang, that vision of a girlish form draped in mourning, and of fair, rigid features, which hope and happiness could never again soften and brighten.
Her splendid eyes followed him, as if the sole light of her life were passing away forever; and, with a heavy sigh, he hurried down the steps, realizing all the mournful burden of that Portuguese sonnet,—
"Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore Alone upon the threshold of my door Of individual life, I shall command The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand Serenely in the sunshine as before, Without the sense of that which I forbore— Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine, With pulses that beat double. What I do And what I dream include thee, as the wine Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue God for myself, He hears that name of thine, And sees within my eyes the tears of two."
"I hope nothing has gone wrong, Robert? You look unusually forlorn and doleful."
Dr. Grey stepped out of his buggy, and accosted the gardener, who was leaning idly on the gate, holding a trowel in his hand, and lazily puffing the smoke from his pipe.
"I thank you, sir; with us the world wags on pretty much the same, but when a man has been planting violets on his mother's grave he does not feel like whistling and making merry. Besides, to tell the truth,—which I do not like to shirk,—I am getting very tired of this dismal, unlucky place. If I had known as much before I bought it as I do now, all the locomotives in America could not have dragged me here. I was a stranger, and of course nobody thought it their special duty to warn me; so I was bitten badly enough by the agent who sold me this den of misfortune. Now, when it is too late, there is no lack of busy tongues to tell me the place is haunted, and has been for, lo! these many years."
"Nonsense, Robert! I gave you credit for too much good sense to listen to the gossip of silly old wives. Put all these ridiculous tales of ghosts and hobgoblins out of your mind, man, and do not make me laugh at you, as if you were a child who had been so frightened by stories of 'raw-head and bloody-bones,' that you were afraid to blow out your candle and creep into bed."
"I am neither a fool nor a coward, and I will fight anything that I can feel has bone and muscle; but I am satisfied that if all the water in Siloam were poured over this place, it would not wash out the curse that people tell me has always rested on it since the time the pirates first located here. I can't admit I believe in witches, but undoubtedly I do believe in Satan, who seems to have a fee-simple to the place. It is not enough that my poor mother is buried yonder, but my wheat and oats took the rust; the mildew spoiled my grape crop; the rains ruined my melons; the worms ate up every blade of my grass; the cows have got the black-tongue; the gale blew down my pigeon-house and mashed all my squabs; and my splendid carnations and fuchsias are devoured by red spider. Nothing thrives, and I am sick at heart."
The dogged discontent written so legibly on his countenance, did not encourage the visitor to enter into a discussion of the abstract causes of blight, gales, and black-tongue, and he merely answered,—
"The evils you have enumerated are not peculiar to any locality; and all the farmers in this neighborhood are echoing your complaints. How is Mrs. Gerome?"
"Neither better nor worse. You know what miserable weather we have had for a week. This morning she ordered the small carriage and horses brought to the door, and when I took the reins, she dismissed me and said she preferred driving herself. I told her the grays had not been used, and were badly pampered standing so long in their stalls, and that I was really afraid they would break her neck, as she was not strong enough to manage them; but she laughed, and answered that if they did, it would be the best day's work they had ever accomplished, and she would give them a chance. Down the beach they went like a flash, and when she came home their flanks smoked like a lime-kiln. What is ever to be done with my mistress, I am sure I don't know. She makes the house so doleful, that nobody wants to stay here, and only yesterday Katie and Phoebe, the cook, gave notice that they wished to leave when the month was out. She has no idea what she will do, or where she will go. We have wanted a hot-house, and she ordered me to get the builder's estimate of the cost of two plans which she drew; but when I carried them to her, she pushed them aside, and said she would think of the matter, but thought she might leave this place, and therefore would not need the building. She is as notionate as a child; and no one but my poor mother could ever manage her. Hist! sir! Don't you hear her? You may be sure there is mischief brewing when she sings like that."
Dr. Grey walked towards the house, and paused on the portico to listen,—
"Quis est homo, qui non fleret Christi matrem si videret, In tanto supplicio."
The voice was not so strong as when he had heard it in Addio del Passata, but the solemn mournfulness of its cadences was better suited to the Stabat Mater, and indexed much that no other method of expression would have reached. After some moments she forsook Rossini, and began the Agnus Dei from Haydn's Third Mass,—
"Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere."
Surely she could not render this grand strain if her soul was in fierce rebellion; and, with strained ears and hushed breath, Dr. Grey listened to the closing
"Dona nobis pacem,—pacem,—pacem."
It was a passionate, wailing prayer, and the only one that ever crossed her lips, yet his heart throbbed with pleasure, as he noted the tremor that seemed to shiver her voice into silvery fragments; and as she ended, he knew that tears were not far from her eyes.
When he entered the room, she had left the piano, and wheeled a sofa in front of the grate, where she sat gazing, vacantly into the fiery fretwork of glowing coals.
A copy of Turner's "Liber Studiorum," superbly bound in purple velvet, lay on her knee, and into a corner of the sofa she had tossed a square of canvas almost filled with silken Parmese violets.
"Good-evening, Mrs. Gerome; I hope I do not interrupt you."
Dr. Grey removed the embroidery to the table, and seated himself in the sofa corner.
"Good evening. Interruption argues occupation and absorbed attention, and the term is not applicable to me. I who live as vainly, as uselessly, as fruitlessly, as some fakir twirling his thumbs and staring at his beard, have little right to call anything an interruption. My existence here is as still, as stagnant, as some pool down yonder in the sedge which last week's waves left among the sand hillocks, and your visits are like pebbles thrown into it, creating transient ripples and circles."
"You have gone back to the God of your aesthetic idolatry," said he, touching the "Liber Studiorum."
"Yes, because 'Beauty pitches her tents before him,' and his pencil is more potent in conjuring visions that enchant my wearied mind, than Jemschid's goblet or Iskander's mirror."
"But why stand afar off, trusting to human and fallible interpreters, when it is your privilege to draw near and dwell in the essence of the only real and divine beauty?"
"Better reverence it behind a veil, than suffer like Semele. I know my needs, and satisfy them fully. Once my heart was as bare of adoration as Egypt's tawny sands of crystal rain-pools; but looking into the realm of nature and of art, I chose the religion of the beautiful, and said to my famished soul,
'From every channel thro' which Beauty runs, To fertilize the world with lovely things, I will draw freely, and be satisfied.'"
"This morbid sentimentality, this sickly gasping system of aesthetics, soi-disant 'Religion of the Beautiful,' is the curse of the age,—is a vast, universal vampire sucking the life from humanity. Like other idolatries it may arrogate the name of 'Religion,' but it is simply downright pagan materialism, and its votaries of the nineteenth century should look back two thousand years, and renew the Panathenoea. The ancient Greek worship of aesthetics was a proud and pardonable system, replete with sublime images; but the idols of your emasculated creed are yellow-haired women with straight noses,—are purple clouds and moon-silvered seas,—and physical beauty constitutes their sole excellence. Lovely landscapes and perfect faces are certainly entitled to a liberal quota of earnest admiration; but a religion that contents itself with merely material beauty, differs in nothing but nomenclature from the pagan worship of Cybele, Venus, and Astarte."
A chill smile momentarily brightened Mrs. Gerome's features, and turning towards her visitor, she answered slowly,—
"Be thankful, sir, that even the worship of beauty lingers in this world of sin and hate; and instead of defiling and demolishing its altars, go to work zealously and erect new ones at every cross-roads. Lessing spoke for me when he said, 'Only a misapprehended religion can remove us from the beautiful, and it is proof that a religion is true and rightly understood when it everywhere brings us back to the Beautiful.'"
"Pardon me. I accept Lessing's words, but cavil at your interpretation of them. His reverence for Beauty embraced not merely physical and material types, but that nobler, grander beauty which centres in pure ethics and ontology; and a religion that seeks no higher forms than those of clay,—whether Himalayas or 'Greek Slave,'—whether emerald icebergs, flashing under polar auroras, or the myosotis that nods there on the mantelpiece,—a religion that substitutes beauty for duty, and Nature for Nature's God, is a shameful sham, and a curse to its devotees. There is a beauty worthy of all adoration, a beauty far above Antinous, or Gula or Greek aesthetics,—a beauty that is not the disjecta membra that modern maudlin sentimentality has left it,—but that perfect and immortal 'Beauty of Holiness,' that outlives marble and silver, pigment, stylus, and pagan poems that deify dust."
He leaned towards her, watching eagerly for some symptom of interest in the face before him, and bent his head until he inhaled the fragrance of the violets which clustered on one side of the coil of hair.
"'Beauty of Holiness.' Show it to me, Dr. Grey. Is it at La Trappe, or the Hospice of St. Bernard? Where are its temples? Where are its worshippers? Who is its Hierophant?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, as if to shut out some painful vision evoked by his words.
"Sir, do you recollect the reply of Laplace, when Napoleon asked him why there was no mention of God in his 'Mecanique Celeste?' 'Sire, je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothese.' I was not sufficiently insane to base my religion of beauty upon a holiness that was buried in the tomb supplied by Joseph of Arimathea,—that was long ago hunted out of the world it might have purified. Once I believed in, and revered what I supposed was its existence, but I was speedily disenchanted of my faith, for,—
'I have seen those that wore Heaven's armor, worsted: I have heard Truth lie: Seen Life, beside the founts for which it thirsted, Curse God and die.'
Dr. Grey, I do not desire to sneer at your Christian trust, and God knows I would give all my earthly possessions and hopes for a religion that would insure me your calm resignation and contentment; but the resurrection of my faith would only resemble that beautiful floral Palingenesis (asserted by Gaffarel and Kircher), which was but 'the pale spectre of a flower coming slowly forth from its own ashes,' and speedily dropping back into dust. Leave me in the enjoyment of the only pleasure earth can afford me, the contemplation of the beautiful."
"Unless you blend with it the true and good, your love of beauty will degenerate into the merely sensuous aesthetics, which, at the present day, renders its votaries fastidious, etiolated voluptuaries. The deification of humanity, so successfully inaugurated by Feuerbach and Strauss, is now no longer confined to realms of abstract speculation; but cultivated sensualism has sunk so low that popular poets chant the praises of Phryne and Cleopatra, and painters and sculptors seek to immortalize types that degrade the taste of all lovers of Art. The true mission of Art, whether through the medium of books, statues, or pictures, is to purify and exalt; but the curse of our age is, that the fashionable pantheistic raving about Nature, and the apotheosizing of physical loveliness,—is rapidly sinking into a worship of the vilest elements of humanity and materialism. Pagan aesthetics were purer and nobler than the system, which, under that name, finds favor with our generation."
She listened, not assentingly, but without any manifestation of impatience, and while he talked, her eyes rested dreamily upon the yellow beach, where,—
"Trampling up the sloping sand, In lines outreaching far and wide, The white-maned billows swept to land."
Whether she pondered his words, or was too entirely absorbed by her own thoughts to heed their import, he had no means of ascertaining.
"Mrs. Gerome, what have you painted recently?"
"Nothing, since my illness; and perhaps I shall never touch my brush again. Sometimes I have thought I would paint a picture of Handel standing up to listen to that sad song from his own 'Samson,'—'Total eclipse, no sun, no moon!' But I doubt whether I could put on canvas that grand, mournful, blind face, turned eagerly towards the stage, while tears ran swiftly from his sightless eyes. Again, I have vague visions of a dead Schopenhauer, seated in the corner of the sofa, with his pet poodle, Putz, howling at his master's ghastly white features,—with his Indian Oupnekhat lying on his rigid knee, and his gilded statuette of Gotama Buddha grinning at him from the mantelpiece, welcoming him to Nirwana. There stands my easel, empty and shrouded; and here, from day to day, I sit idle, not lacking ideas, but the will to clothe them. Unlike poor Maurice de Guerin, who said that his 'head was parching; that, like a tree which had lived its life, he felt as though every passing wind were blowing through dead branches in his top,' I feel that my brain is as vigorous and restless as ever, while my will alone is paralyzed, and my heart withered and cold within me."
"Your brush and palette will never yield you any permanent happiness, nor promote a spirit of contentment, until you select a different class of subjects. Your themes are all too sombre, too dismal, and the sole motif that runs through your music and painting seems to be in memoriam. Open the windows of your gloomy soul, and let God's sunshine stream into its cold recesses, and warm and gild and gladden it. Throw aside your morbid proclivities for the melancholy and abnormal, and paint peaceful genre pictures,—a group of sunburnt, laughing harvesters, or merry children, or tulip-beds with butterflies swinging over them. You need more warmth in your heart, and more light in your pictures."
"Eminently correct,—most incontestably true; but how do you propose to remedy the imperfect chiaro-oscuro of my character? Show me the market where that light of peace and joy is bartered, and I will constitute you my broker, with unlimited orders. No, no. I see the fact as plainly as you do, but I know better than you how irremediable it is. My soul is a doleful morgue, and my pictures are dim photographs of its corpse-tenants. Shut in forever from the sunshine, I dip my brush in the shadows that surround me, for, like Empedocles,—
... 'I alone Am dead to life and joy; therefore I read In all things my own deadness.'"
"If you would free yourself from the coils of an intense and selfish egoism that fetter you to the petty cares and trials of your individual existence,—if you would endeavor to forget for a season the woes of Mrs. Gerome, and expend a little more sympathy on the sorrows of others,—if you would resolve to lose sight of the caprices that render you so unpopular, and make some human being happy by your aid and kind words,—in fine, if, instead of selecting as your model some cynical, half-insane woman like Lady Hester Stanhope, you chose for imitation the example of noble Christian usefulness and self-abnegation, analogous to that of Florence Nightingale, or Mrs. Fry, you would soon find that your conscience—"
"Enough! You weary me. Dr. Grey, I thoroughly understand your motives, and honor their purity, but I beg that you will give yourself no further anxiety on my account. You cannot, from your religious standpoint, avoid regarding me as worse than a heathen, and have constituted yourself a missionary to reclaim and consecrate me. I am not quite a cannibal, ready to devour you, by way of recompense for your charitable efforts in my behalf, but I must assure you your interest and sympathy are sadly wasted. Do you remember that celebrated 'vase of Soissons,' which was plundered by rude soldiery in Rheims, and which Clovis so eagerly coveted at the distribution of the spoils? A soldier broke it before the king's hungry eyes, and forced him to take the worthless mocking fragments. Even so flint-faced fate shattered my happiness, and tauntingly offers me the ruins; but I will none of it!"
"Trust God's overruling mercy, and those fragments, fused in the furnace of affliction, may be remoulded and restored to you in pristine perfection."
"Impossible! Moreover, I trust nothing but the brevity of human life, which one day cannot fail to release me from an existence that has proved an almost intolerable burden. You know Vogt says, 'The natural laws are rude, unbending powers,' and I comfort myself by hoping that they can neither be bribed nor browbeaten out of the discharge of their duty, which points to death as 'the surest calculation that can be made,—as the unavoidable keystone of every individual life.' A grim consolation, you think? True; but all I shall ever receive. Dr. Grey, in your estimation I am sinfully inert and self-indulgent; and you conscientiously commend my idle hands to the benevolent work of knitting socks for indigent ditchers, and making jackets for pauper children. Now, although it is considered neither orthodox nor modest to furnish left-hand with a trumpet for sounding the praises of almsgiving right-hand, still I must be allowed to assert that I appropriate an ample share of my fortune for charitable purposes. Perhaps you will tell me that I do not give in a proper spirit of loving sympathy,—that I hurl my donations at my conscience, as 'a sop to Cerberus.' I have never injured any one, and if I have no tender love in my heart to expend on others, it is the fault of that world which taught me how hollow and deceitful it is. God knows I have never intentionally wounded any living thing; and if negatively good, at least my career has no stain of positive evil upon it. I am one of those concerning whom Richter said, 'There are souls for whom life has no summer. These should enjoy the advantages of the inhabitants of Spitzbergen, where, through the winter's day, the stars shine clear as through the winter's night.' I have neither summer nor polar stars, but I wait for that long night wherein I shall sleep peacefully."
"Mrs. Gerome, defiant pride bars your heart from the white-handed peace that even now seeks entrance. Some great sorrow or sin has darkened your past, and, instead of ejecting its memory, you hug it to your soul; you make it a mental Juggernaut, crushing the hopes and aims that might otherwise brighten the path along which you drag this murderous idol. Cast it away forever, and let Peace and Hope clasp hands over its empty throne."
From that peculiar far-off expression of the human eye that generally indicates abstraction of mind, he feared that she had not heard his earnest appeal; but after some seconds, she smiled drearily, and repeated with singular and touching pathos, lines which proved that his words were not lost upon her,—
"'Ah, could the memory cast her spots, as do The snake's brood theirs in spring! and be once more Wholly renewed, to dwell in the time that's new,— With no reiterance of those pangs of yore. Peace, peace! Ah, forgotten things Stumble back strangely! and the ghost of June Stands by December's fire, cold, cold! and puts The last spark out.'"
The mournful sweetness and calmness of her low voice made Dr. Grey's heart throb fiercely, and he leaned a little farther forward to study her countenance. She had rested her elbow on the carved side of the sofa, and now her cheek nestled for support in one hand, while the other toyed unconsciously with the velvet edges of the Liber Studiorum. Her dress was of some soft, shining fabric, neither satin nor silk, and its pale blue lustre shed a chill, pure light over the wan, delicate face, that was white as a bending lily.
The faint yet almost mesmeric fragrance of orange flowers and violets floated in the folds of her garments, and seemed lurking in the waves of gray hair that glistened in the bright steady glow of the red grate; and moved by one of those unaccountable impulses that sometimes decide a man's destiny, Dr. Grey took the exquisitely beautiful hand from the book and enclosed it in both of his.
"Mrs. Gerome, you seem strangely unsuspicious of the real nature of the interest with which you have inspired me; and I owe it to you, as well as to myself, to avow the feelings that prompt me to seek your society so frequently. For some months after I met you, my professional visits afforded me only rare and tantalizing glimpses of you, but from the day of Elsie's death, I have been conscious that my happiness is indissolubly linked with yours,—that my heart, which never before acknowledged allegiance to any woman, is—"
"For God's sake, stop! I cannot listen to you."
She had wrung her hand violently from his clinging fingers, and, springing to her feet, stood waving him from her, while an expression of horror came swiftly into her eyes and over her whole countenance.
Dr. Grey rose also, and though a sudden pallor spread from his lips to his temples, his calm voice did not falter.
"Is it because you can never return my love, that you so vehemently refuse to hear its avowal? Is it because your own heart—"
"It is because your love is an insult, and must not be uttered!"
She shivered as if rudely buffeted by some freezing blast, and the steely glitter leaped up, like the flash of a poniard, in her large, dilating eyes.
Shocked and perplexed, he looked for a moment at her writhing features, and put out his hand.
"Can it be possible that you so utterly misapprehend me? You surely can not doubt the earnestness of an affection which impels me to offer my hand and heart to you,—the first woman I have ever loved. Will you refuse—"
"Stand back! Do not touch me! Ah,—God help me! Take your hand from mine. Are you blind? If you were an archangel I could not listen to you, for—for—oh, Dr. Grey!"
She covered her face with her hands, and staggered towards a chair.
A horrible, sickening suspicion made his brain whirl and his heart stand still. He followed her, and said, pleadingly,—
"Do not keep me in painful suspense. Why is my declaration of devoted affection so revolting to you? Why can you not at least permit me to express the love—"
"Because that love dishonors me! Dr. Grey, I—am—a—wife!"
The words fell slowly from her white lips, as if her heart's blood were dripping with them, and a deep, purplish spot burned on each cheek, to attest her utter humiliation.
Dr. Grey gazed at her, with a bewildered, incredulous expression.
"You mean that your heart is buried in your husband's grave?"
"Oh, if that were true, you and I might be spared this shame and agony."
A low wail escaped her, and she hid her face in her arms.
"Mrs. Gerome, is not your husband dead?"
"Dead to me,—but not yet in his grave. The man I married is still alive."
She heard a half-stifled groan, and buried her face deeper in her arms to avoid the sight of the suffering she had caused.
For some time the stillness of death reigned around them, and when at last the wretched woman raised her eyes, she saw Dr. Grey standing beside her, with one hand on the back of her chair, the other clasped over his eyes. Reverently she turned and pressed her lips to his cold fingers, and he felt her hot tears falling upon them, as she said, falteringly,—
"Forgive me the pain that I have innocently inflicted on you. God is my witness, I did not imagine you cared for me. I supposed you pitied me, and were only interested in saving my miserable soul. The servants told me you were very soon to be married to a young girl who lived with your sister; and I never dreamed that your noble, generous heart felt any interest in me, save that of genuine Christian compassion for my loneliness and desolation. If I had suspected your feelings, I would have gone away immediately, or told you all. Oh, that I had never come here!—that I had never left my safe retreat, near Funchal! Then I would not have stabbed the heart of the only man whom I respect, revere, and trust."
Some moments elapsed ere he could fully command himself, and when he spoke he had entirely regained composure.
"Do not reproach yourself. The fault has been mine, rather than yours. Knowing that some mystery enveloped your early life, I should not have allowed my affections to centre so completely in one concerning whose antecedents I knew absolutely nothing. I have been almost culpably rash and blind,—but I could not look into your beautiful, sad eyes, and doubt that you were worthy of the love that sprang up unbidden in my heart. I knew that you were irreligious, but I believed I could win you back to Christ; and when I tell you that, after living thirty-eight years, you are the only woman I ever met whom I wished to call my wife, you can in some degree realize my confidence in the innate purity of your character. God only knows how severely I am punished by my rashness, how profoundly I deplore the strange infatuation that so utterly blinded me. At least, I am grateful that my brief madness has not involved you in sin and additional suffering."
The burning spots faded from her cheeks as she listened to his low, solemn words, and when he ended, she clasped her hands passionately, and exclaimed,—
"Do not judge me, until you know all. I am not as unworthy as you fear. Do not withdraw your confidence from me."
He shook his head, and answered, sadly,—
"A wife, yet bereft of your husband's protection! A wife, wandering among strangers, and a deserter from the home you vowed to cheer! Your own admission cries out in judgment against you."
He walked to the table and picked up his gloves, and Mrs. Gerome rose and advanced a few steps.
"Dr. Grey, you will come now and then to see me?"
"No; for the present I do not wish to see you."
"Ah! how brittle are men's promises! Did you not assure Elsie that you would never forsake her wretched child?"
"Our painful relations invalidate that promise,—cancel that pledge. I can not visit you as formerly; still, I shall at all times be glad to serve you; and you have only to acquaint me with your wishes to insure their execution."
"Remember how solitary, how desolate, I am."
"A wife should be neither, while her husband lives."
The cold severity of his tone wounded her inexpressibly, and she haughtily drew herself up.
"Dr. Grey will at least allow me an opportunity of explaining the circumstances that he seems to regard as so heinous?"
He looked at the proud but quivering mouth,—into the great, shadowy, gray eyes, and a heavy sigh escaped him.
"Perhaps it is better that I should know your history, for it will diminish my own unhappiness to feel assured that you are worthy of the estimate I placed upon you one hour ago. Shall I come to-morrow, or will you tell me now what you desire me to know?"
"I can not sleep until I have exonerated myself in your clear, truthful, holy eyes: I can not endure that you should think harshly of me, even for a day. This room is suffocating! I will meet you on the portico; and yonder, by the sea, I will show you my life."
She went to the escritoire, opened one of the drawers, and took out a package. Wrapping a cloak around her, she quitted the parlor, and found Dr. Grey leaning against one of the columns.
He did not offer her his arm as formerly, but slowly and silently they walked down towards the beach, where the surf was rolling heavily in with a steady roar, and tossing sheets of foam around the stone piers.
... "While far across the hill, A dark and brazen sunset ribbed with black, Glared, like the sullen eyeballs of the plague."
"Doctor Grey, had you possessed a tithe of the ingenuity of Peiresc, you might long ago have interpreted the deep, dark incisions in my character, which, like the indentations on his celebrated amethyst, show where the laminae of luckless events inscribed my history with mournful ciphers. Elsie's hints would have furnished any woman with a clew; but, since you have not availed yourself of their aid, I must lift the shroud that hides the corpse of my youth, my happiness, my faith in man, my hope in God. Ah! unto what shall I liken it? This ruined, wretched thing I call my life? To the Tauk e Kerra,—standing in a dreary waste, lifting its vast, keyless arch helplessly to heaven? Even such a crumbling arch, beautiful and grand in its glorious promise, is the incomplete, crownless life of Agla Gerome,—a lonely and melancholy monument of a gigantic failure. Two months before my birth, my father, Henderson Flewellyn, died, and when I was three hours old, my poor young mother followed him, leaving me to the care of her nurse, Elsie Maclean, and of an old uncle who was at that time residing in Copenhagen. Having no relatives to dictate, Elsie named me Vashti, for my mother; but my great-uncle wrote that my baptism must be deferred until he could be present, and instructed her to call me Evelyn, after himself. But the stubborn Scotch will would not bend, and my name was written in the family Bible, Vashti Flewellyn. Before the expiration of three years, Mr. Mitchell Evelyn died, bequeathing his fortune to me, as Evelyn Flewellyn, and consigning me to the guardianship of Mr. Lucian Wright, a widowed minister of New York. I was a feeble, sickly child, hovering continually upon the confines of death, and, as city air was deemed injurious to me, Elsie kept me at a farm-house on the Hudson, belonging to the estate that I was destined to inherit. Here I remained until my tenth year, when Mr. Wright removed me to the vicinity of Albany, and placed me under the care of his maiden sister, who had a small class of girls to educate. Elsie accompanied and watched over me, and here I spent four quiet, happy years; but the death of my teacher set me once more afloat, and I was carried to New York, and left at a large and fashionable boarding-school. I was fond of study, and boundlessly ambitious, and soon formed a warm, close friendship with a teacher who entered the institution after I became one of its inmates. I had no one to love but Elsie, who never left me, and consequently, I gave to Edith Dexter, the young teacher, all the affection that I would have lavished on parents, brothers, and sisters, had they been granted to me. She was several years my senior, and the loveliest woman I ever saw. Reared in affluence, her family had become impoverished, and Edith was thrown upon her own resources for a support. My father's fortune was very large, and the property left me by Mr. Evelyn swelled my estate to very unusual proportions. Mr. Wright had carefully attended to the investment of the income, and I was regarded as the heiress of enormous wealth. Tenderly attached to Edith, whose beauty, intelligence, and varied accomplishments rendered her peculiarly attractive, I loaded her with presents, and determined that as soon as my educational career ended, I would establish myself in an elegant residence on Fifth Avenue, take Edith to live under my roof, treat her always as my sister, and share my ample fortune with her. Dr. Grey, you can form no adequate conception of the depth of the love I entertained for her. Day and night my busy brain devised schemes for lightening her labors, for promoting her happiness; and I spared no exertion to shield her from the petty vexations and humiliating annoyances incident to her situation. Waking, I prayed for her; sleeping in her arms, I dreamed of the future we should spend together. At the close of the session, she went into Vermont to visit her invalid mother, and I to Mr. Wright's quiet home, to remain until the end of vacation. The minister was a kind-hearted but weak old man, who treated me tenderly, and humored every caprice that attacked my brain. I had never before been his guest, and here, at his house, on the second day of my sojourn, I met his favorite nephew, Maurice Carlyle."
Mrs. Gerome uttered the name through firmly set teeth, and the blue cords on her forehead tangled terribly.
Clenching her fingers, she drew a long breath, and continued,—
"At that time, he was by far the most fascinating, and certainly the handsomest man I have ever met, and when I recall the beauty of his face, the grace of his manner, the noble symmetry of his figure, and the sparkling vivacity of his conversation, I do not wonder that from the first hour of our acquaintance he charmed me. I was but a child, a proud, impulsive young thing, full of romance, full of wild dreams of manly chivalry and feminine constancy and devotion; and Maurice Carlyle seemed the perfect incarnation of all my glowing ideals of knightly excellence and heroism. He was thirty,—I not yet sixteen; he poor and fastidious,—I generous and trusting, and possessed of one of the largest estates on the continent. He had spent much of his life abroad, and was as polished as any courtier who ever graced St. Cloud or St. James; I an impetuous young simpleton, who knew nothing of the world, save those tantalizing glimpses snatched from behind the bars of a boarding-school. Here, examine these portraits, while the light still lingers, and you will see the woful disparity that existed between us at that period. They were painted a fortnight after I met him."
She opened a velvet case, and laid before her companion two oval ivory miniatures, richly set with large pearls.
Dr. Grey took them both in his hand, and, by the dull, lurid glow that tipped a ridge of clouds lying along the western horizon, he saw two pictures.
One, a remarkably handsome man, with brilliant black eyes and regular features, and a cast of countenance that forcibly reminded him of the likenesses of Edgar A. Poe, while the expression denoted more of chicane than chivalry in his character. The other, a fresh, sweet, girlish face, eloquent with innocence and purity, with clear, gray eyes, overhung by jetty lashes, and overarched by black brows, while a mass of dark hair was heaped in short curls on her forehead and temples, and fell in long ringlets over her neck.
Dr. Grey looked at Mrs. Gerome, and now at the portrait, but the resemblance could nowhere be traced, save in the delicate yet haughty arch of the eyebrows, and the dainty moulding of the faultless nose.
While he glanced from one to the other, she placed a third miniature beside those in his hand, and he started at sight of a surpassingly lovely countenance, which recalled the outlines of one that he had left in his library three hours before, where Miss Dexter sat reading to Muriel.
"There you have the gods of my old worship,—Edith and Maurice. Can you wonder at my infatuation?"
She took the pictures, and a derisive smile distorted her lips, as she looked shiveringly at them, and hastily replaced them on their velvet cushions. Closing the spring with a convulsive snap, she tossed the case on the terrace, whence it fell to the grass below; and drew her blue velvet drapery closer around her.
"Dr. Grey, you know quite enough of human nature to anticipate what followed. Three days after I met Maurice Carlyle, he swore deathless devotion to his 'gray-eyed angel,' and offered me his hand. Ah! when I recall that evening, and think of the words uttered so tenderly, so passionately, when I summon before me that radiant face, and listen again to the voice that so utterly bewitched me, the remembrance maddens me, and I feel a murderous hate of my race stirring my blood into fierce throbs. With my hands folded in his, we planned our future, painted visions that made my brain reel, and when his lips touched my forehead, as sacred seal of our betrothal, I felt that earth could add nothing to my blessed lot. Of course Mr. Wright warmly sanctioned my choice, drugging his conscience with the reflection that if Maurice was extravagant and inert, my fortune would obviate the necessity of his attending to his nominal profession, that of the law. The old man insisted, however, that as I was a mere child, we must defer our marriage two years. Mr. Carlyle frowned, and vowed he could not live more than twelve months without his 'peerless prize,' and like any other silly girl, I believed it as unhesitatingly as I did the lessons from the gospels that were read to us night and morning. What cloudless days flew over my young head, during the ensuing month; days wherein I never tired of kneeling and thanking God for the marvellous blessing of Maurice Carlyle's love. Life was mantling in a crystal goblet, like eau de vie de Dantzic, and I could not even taste it without watching the gold sparkles rise and fall and flash; and how could I dream, then, that the draught was not brightened with gilt leaves, but really flavored with curare? The only drawback to my happiness was Elsie's opposition to my engagement, and Mr. Carlyle's refusal to allow me to acquaint Edith with my betrothal. He was so 'furiously jealous of that yellow-haired woman whom his darling loved too well.' It would be quite time enough to inform her of my happiness when I returned to school. From the beginning, Elsie distrusted, disliked, and eyed him suspiciously, but her expostulations and arguments only strengthened his influence, and partially overthrew hers. One day Mr. Carlyle sought me in great haste, and with considerable agitation informed me that he had been unexpectedly summoned abroad. Business, with the details of which he tenderly forbore to weary me, would detain him many months in Europe, and he implored me to consent to a private marriage before his departure. Mr. Wright was in very feeble health, had been threatened with paralysis, and my ardent lover would be too unendurably miserable separated from me, when death might at any moment rob me of my guardian. I consented, and hastened to obtain Mr. Wright's sanction. That day chanced to be one of his despondent, hypochondriacal seasons, and after some persuasion on my part, and much sophistry from his nephew, the weak old man yielded. Then my lover pressed his advantage, and vowed he could never leave me, that his young bride must accompany him to London, that my mind would be too much engrossed by thoughts of him to permit the possibility of my studying advantageously in his absence, and that he would assume the responsibility of superintending and perfecting his wife's education. Mr. Wright demurred; Mr. Carlyle raved; I wept. Maurice clasped me in his arms, and in the midst of my tears and pleadings, my guardian succumbed. It was arranged that our marriage should take place within a fortnight, and that we should immediately start to Europe. Poor Elsie!—truest, wisest, best friend God ever gave me,—was enraged and distressed beyond expression. She wept, wrung her hands, and falling on her knees entreated me not to execute my insane purpose,—assured me I was a lamb led to sacrifice, was the victim of an infamous scheme between uncle and nephew to possess themselves of my estate, and she exhausted argument and persuasion in attempting to recall my wandering common sense. Much as I loved her, this bitter vituperation of my idol incensed and estranged me, and I temporarily forbade her to enter my presence. Poor, dear, devoted Elsie! When my heart relented, and I sought her to assure her of my forgiveness, tears and groans greeted me, and I found her sitting at the foot of her bed, with her face hidden in her apron."
Stretching her arms towards the grave, Mrs. Gerome paused; her lips quivered, and two tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Ah! dear old heart! Brave, true, tender soul! How different my lot would have been had I heeded her prayers and counsel! Not until I lie down yonder, and mingle my dust with hers, can I, even for an instant, forget her faithful, sleepless care and love. I believe she is the only human being who was ever tenderly and truly attached to me, and God knows I learned before I lost her how much her affection was worth."
The cold, ringing voice grew tremulous, wavering, and some moments passed before Mrs. Gerome continued,—
"Mr. Carlyle preferred a private wedding, but I insisted upon a ceremony at the church where Mr. Wright officiated, and immediately telegraphed to Edith, requesting her presence as bridesmaid, and offering to provide her outfit and defray all expenses, if she would accompany us to Europe. My betrothed bit his lip, and objected; but on this point, at least, I was firm, and assured him I would not be married unless Edith could be with me. She wrote, declining my invitation to Europe, but came to New York, the day of my wedding. When I look back at what followed, I have a vague, confused feeling, similar to that which results from taking opium. Mr. Carlyle had positively interdicted my taking Elsie to Europe, assuring me that his wife should not be in leading-strings to a spoiled and presumptuous nurse, and promising me that, when we returned to America, she might occupy the position of housekeeper in our establishment. Absorbed by my own supreme happiness, I scarcely saw Edith until we were dressed for the ceremony, and when she came and leaned against the table where the bridal presents were arranged, I noticed that she was pale and much agitated, but ascribed her emotion to grief at my approaching departure. Several of my schoolmates officiated as bridesmaids, and a large party assembled at the church to witness the marriage. Mr. Carlyle was a great favorite in society, and his friends were invited to the wedding breakfast at the parsonage. It was on the bright morning of my sixteenth birthday, when I stood before the altar and listened to and uttered the words that made me a wife. Every syllable, every intonation, of the minister's voice is branded on my memory as with a red-hot iron: 'Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance, in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, serve him, love, honor, and keep him, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?' And there, before the altar, with the stained glass making a rainbow behind the pulpit, I answered, 'I will.' Oh, Dr. Grey, pity me! pity me!"
A cry of anguish escaped her, and she extended her arms until her hands rested on her companion's shoulder.
In silence he bent his head, and put his lips to the tightly clasped fingers.
"Tell me, sir,—if that vow means that man may make a plaything of God's statutes? If it binds for one hour, does it not bind while life lasts?"
"'So long as ye both shall live,'" answered Dr. Grey, solemnly; and he gently removed her hand, and drew himself a little farther from her.
She was too painfully engrossed by sad reminiscences to notice the action, and resumed her narrative.
"There was a gay party at the breakfast, and I could not remove my fascinated eyes from the radiant face of my husband, who had never seemed half so princely as now, when he was wholly my own. Once he bent his handsome head to mine, and whispered, 'La Peregrina,' the pet name he had given me, because he averred that, in his estimation, my love was worth as many ducats as that celebrated pearl of Philip. 'La Peregrina,' indeed! Ah! he melted it in gall and hemlock, and drained it at his wedding feast. My heart was so overflowing with happiness that I slipped my fingers into his, and, in answer to his fond epithet, whispered, 'Maurice, my king.'"
The speaker was silent for a moment, and an expression of disgust and scorn usurped the place of mournfulness.
"Dr. Grey, I deserved my punishment, for no Aztec ever worshipped his stone God more devoutly than I did my black-eyed, smooth-lipped idol. 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.' Ah! my 'graven image' seemed so marvellously godlike that I bowed down before it; and there, in the midst of my adoration, the curse of idolatry smote me. Half bewildered by the rapture that made my heart throb almost to suffocation, I stole away from the guests and hid myself in the small hot-house attached to Mr. Wright's study, longing for a little quiet that would enable me to realize all the blessedness of my lot. With childish glee I toyed with my title,—with my new name,—Maurice Carlyle's wife—Evelyn Carlyle! How pretty it sounded,—how holy it seemed! My future was as brilliant as that vast enchanted hall into which poor Nouronihar was enticed through her insane love for Vathek, and, like hers, my illusion was dispelled by a decree that strangled hope in my heart, and enveloped it in flames."
Here the flood of melancholy memories drowned her words, and, crossing her arms on the stone balustrade, she sat silent and moody.
In the dusky, crepuscular light, Dr. Grey could no longer discern the emotions that printed themselves so legibly on her countenance; but the outline of her face, and the listless, hopeless droop of her figure, curved between him and the dun waste of waters.
Overhead a few dim, hazy stars shivered on the ragged skirts of trailing gray clouds, and the ceaseless rustle of the shuddering poplars formed a mournful accompaniment to the muttering of the ocean, whose weary waves were sobbing themselves to rest, like scourged but unconquered children.
"I thank you for your patience, Dr. Grey. You forbear to hurry me, even as you would shrink from rudely jostling or pushing forward the mattock which slowly digs into a grave,—removing human mould and crumbling coffin, searching for the skeleton beneath. Exhuming human bones is melancholy work, but sadder still is the mission of one who disinters the ashes of a woman's love, hope, and faith. Across the centre of Mr. Wright's hot-house ran a light trellis of fine lattice-work cut into an arch and covered with the dense luxuriant foliage of the bignonia trained over it. Behind this screen I had ensconced my happy self, and sat idly bruising the leaves of a rose geranium that chanced to be near me, when my blissful reverie was interrupted by the sound of that voice which had stolen my heart, my reason, my common sense. Believing that he had missed and was searching for his bride, I rose and peeped through the glossy leaves of the clambering vine that divided us. Not four feet distant stood my husband of an hour, with his arms clasped fondly around Edith, who, in a broken, passionate voice, denounced his perfidy and heartlessness. Vehemently he pleaded for an opportunity to exculpate himself, and there, tearful and sobbing, with her head on his bosom, my friend listened to an explanation that was destined to enlighten more than one person. From his lips I learned that he had become entangled in certain financial difficulties that involved his honor as a gentleman; he had used money to enable him to embark in a speculation which, if successful, would have afforded him the means of marrying in accordance with the dictates of his heart; but, like the majority of nefarious schemes, it failed signally, and fear of detection, and the absolute necessity of obtaining a large amount of money, had goaded him to the desperate step of sacrificing his happiness and offering his hand to me. He strained her to his breast, kissed her repeatedly, and impiously called God to witness that he loved her, and her only, truly, tenderly; that never for an instant had his affection wandered from her, 'his beautiful, idolized darling.' He bitterly denounced his folly, cursed the hour that had thrown me and my fortune in his path, and swore that he utterly loathed and despised the silly child whose wealth alone had made her his dupe; and, as he flatteringly expressed it, his 'hated and intolerable incubus.' He had intended to spare her and himself the agony of this hour,—had determined to remain always in Europe, where he could escape the mocking contrast of his bride and his beloved. With indescribable scorn, and a wonderful fertility of derisive epithets, he held me up, as on the point of a scalpel, and proved the utter impossibility of his having been influenced by any other than the most grossly mercenary motives; while, between the bursts of invective against me, he lavished upon her a hundred fond, tender, passionate phrases of endearment that had never been applied to me. Pressing one hand on her head, he raised the other, and called Heaven to witness, that, although the world might regard him as the husband of 'that sallow, gray-eyed, silly girl,' whose gold alone had bought his name, the only woman he could ever love was his own beautiful Edith; and, should death come to his aid and free him from the detested bond that linked him to the heiress, he swore he would not lose a day in claiming the lovely wife that fate had denied him. All this, and much more, which I have not now the requisite patience to recapitulate, fell on my ears, startling me more painfully than the trumpet-blast of the Last Judgment will ever do. Standing there, in my costly bridal robe, I listened to the revelation that blotted out all sun and moon and stars from my life,—that made earth a dismal Sheol and the future a howling desolation,—a dreary wilderness of woe. In my agony and shame I clenched my hands so savagely, one upon the other, that my diamond betrothal-ring cut sharply into the quivering flesh, and blood-drops oozed and dripped on my shining gossamer veil and white velvet dress. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, my whole nature was metamorphosed; and my coming years swept in panoramic vision before me, beckoning me to the prompt performance of a stern and humiliating duty. The blood in my veins seemed to hiss and bubble like a seething cauldron, and my heart fired with a hate for which language has no name, no garb, no provision; but my brain kept faithful guard, and reason calmly pointed out my future path. When Mr. Carlyle ended his tirade against me and his curses on his own folly, I moved forward into the arch and confronted my dethroned and defiled gods. If the tedious years of the primitive patriarchs could be allotted to me they would never suffice to efface the picture that lingers in deep, hot lines on my memory, and pursues me as ruthlessly as the avenging cross followed and tortured the miserable fugitive in Gustave Dore's 'Le Juif errant,' or the Eyeless Christ that proved a haunting Nemesis to the Empress Irene. Edith's lovely face was on his bosom, and his false, handsome lips were pressed to hers. So, I met my husband and my dearest friend, one hour after the utterance of vows that were perhaps still echoing in the courts of heaven. Such spectacles of human perfidy are the real Medusas that Gorgonize trusting, tender, throbbing hearts, and in view of this one I laughed aloud,—laughed so unnaturally that it was no marvel I was called a maniac. At sight of my desperate white face Edith shrieked and fainted, and Maurice blanched and stammered and cowered. Without a word of comment or recrimination I silently passed on to my own room, where Elsie was waiting to clothe me in my travelling-suit. In three hours the steamer would sail, and I had little leisure for resolution and execution. Summoning the lawyer to whose care my estate was entrusted, I requested him to call Mr. Wright and Mr. Carlyle into the dressing-room that adjoined my apartment, and there I held an audience with the three who were most interested in my career. Briefly I explained what had occurred, and announced my determination, then and there, to separate forever from the man who could never be more than my nominal husband. I told them I held marriage, next to the Lord's Supper, the holiest sacrament instituted by God, but mine had been an infamous mockery, an unpardonable sin against me, and an insult to Heaven, whose blessing could never rest upon it. Marriage, without sanctifying love, was unhallowed, was a transgression of divine law, and a crime against my womanhood which neither God nor man should forgive. Maurice Carlyle had perjured himself,—had never loved the woman who went with him to the altar,—and the affection that had stirred my heart one hour before, was now as dead as the Pharaohs hidden for centuries under the pyramids. We two, who had sworn to love, honor, and cherish one another, now hated and despised each other beyond all possibility of expression; and I considered it a heinous sin to perpetuate the awful mockery, to cling to the letter of a contract that bade defiance to every impulse of heart and soul,—to every dictate of reason and decree of conscience. Wedded lives and divided hearts I believed a crime, and while I admitted that man could not put asunder those whom God's statutes joined together, I contended that Mr. Carlyle's perjury rendered it sinful for him and me to reside under the same roof. I could not recognize the validity of divorces, for human hands could not unlink God's fetters, and man's law had no power to free either of us from the bonds we had voluntarily assumed in the invoked presence of Jehovah. I would neither accept nor permit a divorce, for, in my estimation, it was not worth the paper that framed it, and was a species of sacrilegious trifling; but I would never live as the wife of a man who had repeatedly declared he had not an atom of affection for me. Under some circumstances I deemed separation a woman's duty, and while I fully comprehended the awful import of the vow 'Till death us do part,' and denied that human legislators could free us, or annul the marriage, I was resolved, while life lasted, to consider myself a duped, an unloved, but a lawful wife,—a woman consecrated by solemn oaths that no human action could cancel. Since money was the bait, I was willing to divide my fortune as the price of a quiet separation; and though from that hour I intended to quit his presence forever, and regard the tie that linked us as merely nominal, I would allow him a liberal income until I attained my majority and would liquidate all his present debts. To your imagination, Dr. Grey, I leave the details of what ensued,—my guardian's remorseful grief, my lawyer's wonder and expostulation, Mr. Carlyle's confusion, chagrin, and rage. He pleaded, argued, threatened; but he might as well have attempted to catch and restrain in the hollow of his hand the steady sweep of Niagara, as hope to change my purpose. My terms were fixed, and I gave him permission to tell the world what he chose concerning this strange denouement of the wedding feast. If I could only go away at once, I cared not what the public thought or said; and finally, finding me no longer a yielding child, but a desperate, stern, relentless woman, my terms were acceded to. Briefly we discussed the legal provisions, and I signed some hastily prepared papers that settled a bountiful annuity upon Mr. Carlyle. My trunks were sent to the steamer, the carriage was brought to the door, and in the presence of my guardian and the lawyer, I announced my desire never to look again upon the man who had so completely blighted my life. In silence I laid upon the table my betrothal and wedding rings, and the sparkling diamond cross that had constituted my bridal present. No word of reproach passed my lips, for women love when they upbraid, and only aching, fond hearts furnish stinging rebukes; but I hated and scorned the author of my ruin too utterly to indulge in crimination and reproach. So we two, who had just been pronounced man and wife, who had clasped hands and linked hearts and lives until we should stumble into the tomb,—we, Maurice Carlyle and Evelyn, his bride, four hours married, stood up and looked at each other for the last time. During the interview I had addressed no remark to him, and the last words I ever uttered to him were contained in that sentence fondly whispered when he bent over me at the table, 'Maurice, my king.' As I bade adieu to my guardian, and paused before the princely figure whom the world called my husband, our eyes met, and he flushed, and muttered, 'You will rue your rashness.' Silently I looked on the handsome features that had so suddenly grown loathsome to me, and he snatched my wedding ring from the table and held it appealingly towards me, saying remorsefully, 'Evelyn, my wife, forgive your wretched husband!' Without a word, or a touch of his outstretched hands, I turned and went down to the carriage, where my faithful nurse sat weeping and waiting. One hour later, the vessel swung from her moorings, and Elsie and I were soon at sea. A girl only sixteen, four hours married, separated forever from husband and friends,—without hope or faith in either human or heavenly things,—hating, with most intolerable intensity, the man whose name she had just assumed, and to whom she felt indissolubly bound, in accordance with the vow 'So long as ye both shall live.'"
Out of the tossing, moaning sea, the moon had risen slowly, breaking through a rent scarf of cloud that barred her solemn, white disc, and silvering the foam of the racing waves that seemed to reflect the glittering fringe of the scudding vapor in the chill vault above them. There was no mellow radiance, no golden lustre such as southern moons are wont to shed, but a weird, fitful glitter on sea and land, that now shone with startling vividness, and anon waned, until sombre shadows seemed stalking in spectral ranks from some distant, gloomy ocean lair. It was one of those melancholy nights when the supernatural realm threatened to impinge upon the physical, that shuddered and shrank from the contact,—when the atmosphere gave vague hints of ghostly denizens, and every passing breeze seemed laden with sepulchral damps and vibrating with sepulchral sounds.
Mrs. Gerome sat erect, with her hands resting on the balustrade, and under that mysteriously white moon her pearl-pale face looked as hopelessly cold and rigid as any Persepolitan sphinx, that nightly fronts the immemorial stars which watch the ruined tombs of Chilminar.
Raising her fingers to her forehead, she lifted and shook a band of the shining white hair, and resumed her narration, in the same steady, passionless tone.
"These gray locks were the fruit of that bridal day, for, on the afternoon that we sailed, I was taken very ill with what was called congestion of the brain,—was unconscious throughout the voyage, and when we reached Liverpool, my hair, once so black and glossy, was as you see it now. Ah! how often, since that time, have I heard poor Elsie mourning over my mother's untimely death, and quoting that ancient superstition, 'You should never wean a child while trees are in blossom; otherwise it will have gray hair.' Mr. Wright was so prostrated by grief at what had occurred, that he survived my departure only a few weeks; and at his death, Mr. Carlyle attempted to seize and control my estate. Urging the plea of my minority, he insisted upon assuming the charge of my property, and in order to consummate his avaricious designs, and screen his name from opprobrium, he told the world that I was hopelessly insane; and that the discovery of this fact, one hour after his marriage, had induced him to send me abroad under the care of a faithful and judicious nurse. To give plausibility to this statement, a paragraph was inserted in the New York papers announcing that I was a raving maniac and an inmate of an English asylum for lunatics. Mr. Clayton, my lawyer, was the sole surviving witness of my final interview, and of its financial provisions; and, had he yielded to bribes and threats which were unsparingly offered, God only knows what would have been my fate, since the tender mercies of my husband destined me to the cheerful and attractive precincts of a mad-house. To Mr. Clayton's stern integrity and brave defence, I am indebted for the preservation of my fortune and the defeat of a daring and iniquitous scheme to arrest me in London and commit me to the custody of an asylum-warden. Fortunately for me, he lived long enough to transfer to my own guardianship, when I attained my majority, the estate which had cost me every earthly hope. Six months after my departure from America I bade farewell to Europe, and plunged into the most remote and unfrequented portions of the East, where I wished to remain unknown and unnoticed. In a half-defiant and half-superstitious mood, I had assumed the talismanic and mystical name of Alga Gerome, with the faint hope that it might shield me from the intrigues and persecutions which I felt assured would always dog the steps of Evelyn Carlyle. Having appointed a cautious and confidential agent in New York and Paris, I destroyed all traces of my whereabouts, and became as utterly lost to the world as though the portals of the grave had closed upon me. Without friends, and accompanied only by Elsie and her son Robert, I lived year after year in wandering through strange lands. Books and pictures were my solace, and to strangle time I first devoted myself to drawing and painting. After a while I came back to Rome, and frequented the studios and galleries, perfecting myself in the mechanical department of Art. But fear of encountering some familiar face drove me from the Eternal City, and a sudden whim took me to Madeira, where I spent the only portion of my life to which I recur with any degree of satisfaction. There, surrounded by magnificent scenery, and safe from intrusion, I intended to drag out the remainder of my dreary years; but poor Elsie grew so restless, so homesick, so impatient to visit the graves of her household band, that I finally allowed myself to be persuaded into returning to my native land. Robert preceded us, and purchased this secluded spot, which I had stipulated must be upon the sea-shore and secure from all intrusion. Avoiding New York, I came reluctantly to Boston, thence to 'Solitude,' without seeing or hearing of any whom I had once known. When I was twenty-one, I transferred to Mr. Carlyle the sum of thirty thousand dollars, as a final settlement; but my agent scrupulously obeyed my instructions, and no human being, save himself, is aware of my place of residence or the name under which I am sheltered. Strenuous efforts have been made by Mr. Carlyle to unearth his wretched dupe, but since I left England, nearly eight years ago, he has been unable to discover any trace of my location. From time to time I received bills, contracted by him, and paid by my lawyer after I left New York; and in my escritoire are two accounts of jewellers, where I find charged the flashing ring and costly diamond cross, which I refused to retain but for which I paid, after my separation. Prone to dissipation, Mr. Carlyle plunged into excesses that would have squandered royal portions, and my agent writes that his eagerness to ascertain where I am residing has recently increased, in consequence of his pecuniary necessities, although the terms of our separation deprive him of every shadow of claim upon me or my purse. Such, Dr. Grey, is the shattered idol of my girlish adoration,—such the divinity of dust upon which I spent the treasures of my love and trust. Gray-haired, gray-hearted, mocked, and maddened in the dawn of my confiding womanhood, nominally a wife, but in reality a nameless waif, shut out from happiness, and pitied as a maniac,—such, is that most desolate and isolated woman, whom, as Agla Gerome, you have known as the mistress of this lonely place. As for my name, I sometimes wonder whether in the last great gathering in the court of Heaven, my own mother will know what to call her unbaptized child,—whether the sins charged against me will be read out as those of Vashti, or Evelyn, or Agla. Elsie persistently clung to Vashti, and verily there seems a grim fitness in her selection,—a dismal analogy between my blasted life and that of the discrowned Persian Queen. Be that as it may, if I miss a name I surely shall not miss the equity that man denies me. 'So long as ye both shall live.' When I look out in springtime, over the blossoming earth, daisies, and violets, and primroses range themselves into lines that spell out these hated words of an ever-echoing vow, and if, in midnight hours, I raise my weary eyes, the sleepless stars revengefully group themselves, and flash back to me, in burning characters, 'Till death us do part.' Up yonder, behind sun, and planet, and nebulae, I shall look God in the face, and pointing to my withered heart and blighted life, can say truly, 'At least I kept the ruins free from perjury; there, at your feet, is the oath unsullied, that I called you to accept on the awful day when I knelt at your altar.' Love, honor, and obedience, Maurice Carlyle's unworthiness rendered impossible; but the vow which consecrated and set me apart, which forbade the thought that other men might offer homage and affection, or even ordinary tributes of admiration, I have kept sacredly and faithfully. I might have plunged into the whirlpool of fashionable life, and found temporary oblivion of my humiliation and disappointment; but from such a career my whole being revolted, and in seclusion I have dragged out a dreary series of years that can scarcely be termed life. Recently I have been honored by several proposals for a divorce, on condition of an additional settlement of money upon my eminently chivalric and devoted husband; but my invariable reply has been, human legislation is impotent to cancel the statutes of Almighty God, which declare that only death can free what Jehovah has joined together, and the legal provisions of man crumble and shrivel before the divine command, 'For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth.' With what impatience, what ceaseless yearning, I await the cold touch of that deliverer who alone can sever my galling, detested fetters, none but the God above us can understand and realize. The eagerness with which I once anticipated my bridal hour does not approximate the intensity of my longing for the day of my death. O merciful God! surely, surely, I have been sufficiently tortured, and the tardy release can not be far distant."
She raised her face skyward, as if invoking Divine aid, but her wan lips were voiceless; and only the song of the surf mingled with the whisper of trembling poplars, whose fading leaves gleamed ghostly and chill under the silver sheen of that broad white moon.
"There heavily, across the troubled night, A warning comet trails her hideous hair, And underneath, the wroth sea-waves are white."
During the hour in which Dr. Grey listened to the recital of this woman's hapless career, she became as utterly dead to him as though shroud and sepulchre had already claimed her; and when she ceased speaking, he looked as sorrowfully down at her fair, frozen face, as if the coffin-lid were shutting it forever from his view.
Henceforth she was as sacred in his sad eyes as some beloved corpse, and bowing his head upon his hands, he prayed long but silently that God would strengthen him for the duties of a desolate future,—would sanctify this grievous disappointment to his eternal welfare, and grant him power to lead heavenward the heart of the only woman whom he had ever desired to call his own.
Putting away the beautiful dreams wherein this regal form had moved to and fro as crown and queen of his home and heart, he calmly resigned the cherished scheme that linked this woman's life with his; and felt that he would gladly barter all his earthly hopes for the assurance, that, throughout eternity, he might be allowed the companionship which time denied him.
Mrs. Gerome rose, and folding her mantle around her, said proudly,—
"Married life, unhallowed by love, is more acceptable in your righteous eyes than my isolated existence; and you have passed sentence against me. So be it. Strange code of morality you Christians hug to your hearts, squeezing the form that holds no spirit; but some day I shall be acquitted by that incorruptible tribunal where God alone has the right to judge us. Till then, farewell."
She turned to leave the terrace, but he arrested the movement, and placed himself before her.
"You misinterpret my silence, if you suppose it was employed in censuring your course. Pondering all that you have recapitulated, I can conjecture no line of conduct towards your husband less deplorable than that which you have pursued; and I honor the stern honesty and integrity of purpose from which you have never swerved. Mrs. Carlyle, I acquit you of all guilt, save that of impious defiance, of rebellion against your God, whose grace could sweeten even the bitter dregs of the cup you have well-nigh drained."
At the sound of her name, so long unuttered, she winced and writhed as if some sensitive nerve had been suddenly pierced and torn; but without heeding her emotion, Dr. Grey continued,—
"If your earthly lot has been stinted of sunshine, can you not bear a little temporary gloom,—must you needs people it with adverse witnesses, must you thicken the darkness with imprecations? You forget that life is only the racecourse, not the goal,—that this world is for human souls what the plain of Dura proved for the Hebrew trio who braved its flames. Suppose you are lonely and bereft of the love that might have cheered you? Was not Christ far more isolated and loveless? In His fearful ordeal He was forsaken by God,—but to you remains the everlasting promise, 'I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.' O wretched woman! give your aching heart to Him who emptied it of earthly idols in order to fit it up for His own temple.
'Is God less God, that thou art left undone? Rise, worship, bless Him, in this sackcloth spun, As in that purple.'"
Silently she listened, looking steadily up at his noble face, where intense mental anguish had left unwonted pallor, and printed new ciphers on brow and lips; and when his adjuration ended, she put out her hand.
"That you do not condemn me is the most precious consolation you could offer, for your good opinion is worth much to my proud, sensitive soul. If all men were like you there would be no mutilated, ruined lives, such as mine,—no nominal wives roaming up and down the world in search of an obscure corner wherein to hide dishonored heads and crushed hearts. God grant you some day a wife worthy of the noblest man it has ever been my good fortune to meet. Good-by."
He did not accept the offered hand, and stood for a moment as if struggling to master some impulse to which he could not yield. Perhaps he dared not trust the touch of those gleaming, slender fingers that had clasped a living husband's; or perchance he was so absorbed by painful thoughts that he failed to observe them.
Laying his palm softly on her snowy head, he said tenderly,—
"Mrs. Carlyle, you have innocently, and I believe unconsciously, caused me the keenest suffering I have ever endured; and I feel assured you will not withhold the only reparation which you could render, or I accept. Will you promise to consecrate the remainder of your life to the service of Christ? Will you humble your defiant soul, and so spend your future, that when this brief earthly pilgrimage ends you can pass joyfully to the city of Rest? Girded with this hope, I can brave all trials,—can be content to look upon your face no more in this world,—can patiently wait for a reunion in that Eternal Home where they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage."
"Oh, Dr. Grey, if it were possible!"
She clasped her hands and bowed her chin upon them, awed by his tones, and unable to met his grave, pleading eyes.
"Faith and prayer are the talismans that render all things possible to an earnest Christian; and it has been truly said 'We mount to heaven mostly on the ruins of our cherished schemes, finding our failures were successes.' Recollect,—
'There is a pleasure which is born of pain: The grave of all things hath its violet,'
and do not indulge a corroding bitterness that has almost destroyed the nobler elements of your nature. I will exact no promise, but when I am gone, do not forget the request that my soul makes of yours. May God point out your work and help you to perform it faithfully. May His hand guide and uphold, and His merciful arms enfold you, now and forever, is and shall be my prayer."