For a moment his hand lingered as if in benediction upon the drooping gray head, then he quietly turned and walked away, knowing full well that he was bidding adieu to the most precious of all earthly objects,—that he too was shattering a lovely "graven image," before which his heart had fondly bowed.
As the sound of his firm step died away, the lonely woman lifted her face and looked after the form, vanishing in the gloom of the overarching trees. When he had disappeared, and she turned seaward, where the moon, as if inviting her to heaven, had laid a broad shining band of beaten silver from wave to sky,—the miserable wife raised her hands appealingly, and made a new covenant with her pitying God.
... "Wherefore thy life Shall purify itself, and heal itself, In the long toil of love made meek by tears."
"Merton, you are not conscious of the extent of your infatuation, which has already excited comment in our limited circle of acquaintances."
"Indeed! The members of 'our limited circle of acquaintances' are heartily welcome to whatever edification or amusement they may be able to derive from the discussion of my individual affairs, or the analysis of my peculiar tastes. You forget, my dear Constance, that to devour and in turn be devoured is an inexorable law of this world; and if my eccentricities furnish a ragout for omnivorous society, I should be philanthropically glad that tittle-tattledom owes me thanks."
The speaker did not lay aside the newspaper that partially concealed his countenance; and when he ceased speaking, his eyes reverted to the statistical table of Egyptian and Algerine cotton, which for some moments he had been attentively examining.
"My dear brother, you are spasmodically and provokingly philosophical! Pray do me the honor to discard that stupid Times, which you pore over as if it were the last sensation novel, and be so courteous as to look at me while you are talking," replied the invalid sister, beating a tattoo on the side of her couch.
"I believe I have nothing to communicate just now," was the quiet and unsatisfactory answer, as he drew a pencil from his pocket and made some numeral annotations on the margin of the statistics.
"Surely, Merton, you are not angry with your poor Constance?"
Merton Minge lowered his paper, restored the pencil to his vest pocket, and wheeling his chair forward, brought himself closer to the couch.
"I wish you were as far removed from fever as I certainly am from anger. Your eyes are too bright, my pretty one."
He put his fingers on her pulse, and when he removed them, compressed his lips to stifle a sigh.
"Why will you so persistently evade me?—why will you always change the subject when I allude to that young lady?"
"Because, when a man attains the sober and discreet age of forty years, he naturally and logically thinks he has earned, and is entitled to, an exemption from the petty teasing to which sophomores and sentimentalists are subjected. While I gratefully appreciate the compliment implied in your forgetfulness, permit to remind you of the disagreeable fact that I am no longer a boy."
"You lose sight of that same ugly and ill-mannered fact, much more frequently than I am in danger of doing; and I affectionately suggest that you stimulate your own torpid memory. Ah, brother! why will you not be frank, and confide in me? Women are not easily hoodwinked, except by their lovers,—and you can not deceive me in this matter."
"What pleasure do you suppose it would afford me to practice deceit of any kind towards my only sister? To what class of motives could you credit such conduct?"
"I think you shrink from acknowledging your real feelings, because you very well know that I could never sanction or consent to them."
Mr. Minge arched his heavy brows, and the sternly drawn lines of his large mouth relaxed, and threatened to run into curves that belonged to the ludicrous, as he turned his twinkling eyes upon his sister's face.
"What extraordinary hallucinations attack even sage, sedate, middle-aged men? Ten minutes ago I would have sworn I was your guardian; whereas, it seems your apron-strings are the reins that rule me. Don't pout, my Czarina, if I demand your credentials before I bow submissively to your ukase."
"Irony is not your forte; and, Merton, I beg you to recollect that I detest bantering,—it is so excessively ungenteel. No wonder you look nervous and ashamed, after your recent very surprising manifestation of—well, I might as well say what I mean—of mauvais gout."
Constance Minge impatiently threw off the light worsted shawl that rested on her shoulders, and propped her cheek on her jewelled hand.
Her brother's countenance clouded, and his lips hardened, but after one keen look at her flushed features, he once more resumed the perusal of the paper. Some moments elapsed, and his sister sobbed, but he took no notice of the sound.
"Merton, I never expected you would treat me so cruelly."
"Make out your charges in detail, and when you are sure you have included all the petty deeds of tyranny as well as the heinous acts of brutality, I will examine the indictment, and hear myself arraigned. Shall I bring you some legal cap, and loan you my pencil?"
For five minutes she held her handkerchief to her eyes, and then Mr. Minge rose and looked at his watch.
"You will not be so unkind as to leave me again this afternoon, and spend your time with that—"
"Constance, you transcend your privileges, and this is a most apropos and convenient occasion to remind you that presumption is one fault I find it particularly difficult to forgive. Since my forbearance only invites aggression, let me hear say (as an economy of trouble), that you are rashly invading a realm where I permit none to enter, much less to dictate. I hope you understand me."
"I knew it,—I felt it! I dreaded that artful girl would make mischief between us,—would alienate the only heart I had left to care for me. Oh, how I wish she had been forty fathoms under the sea before you ever saw her!—before you ceased to love me!"
A flood of tears emphasized the sentence, which seemed lost upon Mr. Minge, as he lighted a cigar, tried its flavor, threw it away, and puffed the smoke from a second.
"I am sorry you can't smoke and compose your nerves, as I am preparing to do,—though I confess I prefer to kiss your lips untainted by such odors. Shall I?"
He held his cigar aside to prevent the wind from wafting the curling column of smoke in her face, and bent his head close to hers; but she put up her hand to prevent the caress, and averted her face.
"As you like. But mark you, Constance, the next time our lips touch, you will find yourself in the nominative case, while I meekly fill an objective position. You are a poor, wilful, spoiled child, and I must begin to undo my own ruinous work."
He picked up his hat and walked off, followed by a pretty Italian mouse-colored greyhound, whose silver bell tinkled as she ran down the steps.
"Merton, come back! Do not leave me here alone, or I shall die. Brother!—"
On strode the stalwart figure, looking neither to right nor left, and behind him trailed the vaporous aroma of the fine cigar. Raising herself on her couch, the invalid elevated her voice, and exclaimed,—
"Please, dear Merton, come back,—at least long enough to let me kiss you. Please, brother!"
He paused,—wavered,—drew geometrical figures on the ground with the tip of his boot, and finally took off his hat, turned and bowed, saying,—
"Show some flag of truce, if you really want me to return."
She raised her hands and gracefully tossed him several kisses.
Slowly Mr. Minge retraced his steps, and, as he sat down once more close to his sister and pushed back his hat, she saw that he intended her to realize that her reign was at an end; and she trembled and turned pale at the expression with which he regarded her.
"Merton, don't you know—don't you believe—that I love you above everything else?"
She sat erect, and stole one arm around the neck that did not bend toward her, as was its habit.
"If you really loved me, you would desire to see me happy."
"I do desire it, earnestly and sincerely; and there is no sacrifice I would not make to see you really happy."
"Provided I selected your mode of obtaining the boon, and moreover consulted your caprices and antipathies; otherwise, my happiness would annoy and insult you."
"Don't scold,—kiss me." She put up her lips, but he did not respond to the motion, and she pettishly drew his head down and kissed him several times. "How obstinate you have grown!—how harsh towards me! It is all the result of that—"
She bit her lip, and her brother frowned.
"Take care! You seem continually disposed to stumble very awkwardly into forbidden realms."
The petted invalid nestled her pretty head on his bosom, and patted his cheek with one hot hand.
"Brother, Kate Sutherland was here this morning, and left—besides numerous kind messages for you—a three-cornered note that I ordered Adele to place in your dressing-case, where I felt sure you would see it."
"Yes, I saw it."
"An invitation to ascend Monte Pellegrini?"
"Which I respectfully decline."
"O Merton! Why not go?"
"Simply because I never premeditatedly, and with malice prepense, bore myself by joining parties composed of persons in whom I have not an atom of interest."
"But Kate is so lovely?"
"Not to me."
"Nonsense! She was the handsomest young girl in Paris, and was the acknowledged belle of the season."
"Possibly. Henna-dyed nails are considered irresistible in Turkey, but your opalescent ones attract me infinitely more pleasantly."
"Pray what have my nails to do with Kate's beauty?"
"Nothing destructive, I hope,—as I am disposed to think she has little to spare."
"Good heavens! You surely would not insinuate that you believe or consider,—or would admit, that she is not vastly superior to—to—there, Beauty, down! She is actually dining on the fringe of my pelerine!"
To cover her confusion, Constance addressed herself to the diminutive dog at her feet, and taking her flushed face in his hands, the brother looked steadily down, and answered,—
"I never insinuate. It impresses me as a cowardly and contemptible bit of plebeian practice that found favor after the royal purple was trailed in agrarian democratic dust; and lest you should unjustly impute abhorred innuendoes to me, I will say perspicuously, that the most attractive and beautiful woman I have ever seen is not your fair friend Miss Sutherland, nor any other darling of diamond and satin sheen, but a young lady whom I admire beyond expression, Miss Salome Owen."
An angry flush burned on the invalid's face, and her mouth curled scornfully.
"She is rather handsome sometimes,—so are gypsies and other waifs; but it is a wild sort of beauty,—if beauty you persist in terming it; and low birth and blood are visible in everything that appertains to her. I never expected to see my brother condescend to the level of opera-singers, and I am astonished at your infatuation. There! you need not expect to blast me with that fiery look, and besides, you know you mentioned her name, which I had scrupulously avoided. I confess I am very proud of my family, and of you, its sole male representative, and I wish it preserved from all taint."
"Untainted it shall remain, while a drop of the blood throbs in my veins, and I, who am jealous of my honor, have carefully pondered the matter, and maturely decided that he who entrusts his happiness to Salome Owen will be indeed an enviable man, and pardonably proud of his prize. Once I bartered myself away at the altar, and gave my name and hand for wealth, for aristocratic antecedents, for fashionable status, and five years of purgatorial misery was the richly merited penalty for the insult I offered my heart. Death freed me, and for ten years I have lived at least in peace, indulging no thought of a second alliance, and merely amused, or disgusted by the matrimonial snares that have lined my path. I no longer belong to that pitiable class who feel constrained to marry for position, and who convert the altar-steps into so many rounds of the social ladder; and I have earned the right to indulge my outraged heart in any caprice that promises to mellow, to gild the evening of my life with that home-sunshine that was denied its gloomy tempestuous morning. My future, my fortune, my social standing, my unblemished name, are all my own,—and I shall exercise my privilege of bestowing them where and when I please, heedless of the sneers and howls of disappointed mercenary schemers. Come weal, come woe, I here announce that neither you nor the world need hope to influence me one 'jot or tittle' in an affair where I allow no impertinent interference. I warn you this is the last time I shall permit even an indirect allusion to matters with which you have no legitimate concern; and provided you do not obtrude them upon me, it is a question of indifference to me what your opinion and that of your 'circle' may chance to be. Constance, you here have your ultimatum. Defy me, if you please, but prompt separation will ensue; and you will unexpectedly find yourself en route for America. Peace or war? Before you decide, recollect that all your future will be irretrievably colored by it."
"In my state of health it is positively cruel for you to threaten me; and some day when you follow my coffin to Mount Auburn, you will repent your harshness. I wish to heaven I had never left home!"
A passionate fit of weeping curtailed the sentence, and, while the face was covered with the lace handkerchief, the brother rose and made his escape.
Despite the fact that forty years had left their whitening touches on his head and luxuriant beard, Merton Minge, who had never been handsome, even in youth, was sufficiently agreeable in appearance to render him an object of deep interest in the circle where he moved. Medium-statured, and very robust, a healthful ruddy tinge robbed his complexion of that sallow hue which mercantile pursuits are apt to induce, and brightened the deep-set black eyes which his debtors considered mercilessly keen, cold, and incisive.
The square face, with its broad, full forehead, and deep curved furrow dividing the thick straight brows,—its well-shaped but prominent nose, and massive jaws and chin partially veiled by a grizzled beard that swept over his deep chest,—was suggestive of ledgers rent-roll, and stock-boards, rather than aesthetics, chivalry, or sentimentality. The only son of a proud but impoverished family, who were eager to retrieve their fortune, he had early in life married the imperious spoiled daughter of a Boston millionaire, whose dower consisted of five hundred thousand dollars, and a temper that eclipsed the unamiable exploits of ancient and modern shrews.
Hopeless of domestic happiness in a union to which affection had not prompted him, Mr. Minge devoted himself to the rapid accumulation of wealth, and by judicious and successful speculations had doubled his fortune, ere, at the comparatively early age of thirty, he was left a childless widower. Whether he really thanked fate for his timely release, his most intimate friends were never able to ascertain, for he wore mourning, badges for three years, and conducted himself in all respects with exemplary dignity and scrupulous propriety. But the frigid indifference with which he received all matrimonial overtures indicated that his conjugal experience was not so rosy as to tempt him to repeat the experiment.
His mother was a haughty, frivolous woman, jealously tenacious of her position as one of the oligarchs of le beau monde, and his fragile sister had from childhood been the victim of rheumatism that frequently rendered her entirely helpless. To these two and their fashionable friends, he abandoned his elegant home, costly equipages, and opera-box, reserving only a suite of rooms, his handsome riding-horse, and yacht.
Grave and unostentatious, yet not moody,—neither impulsively liberal and generous nor habitually penurious and uncharitable,—he led a quiet and monotonously easy life, varied by occasional trips to foreign lands, and comforted by the assurance that his income-tax was one of the heaviest in the state. Two years after the death of his mother, he took his sister a second time to Europe, hoping that the climate of the Levant might relieve her suffering; and upon the steamer in which he crossed the Atlantic he met Salome Owen.
Extravagantly fond of music, though unable to extract it from any instrument, his attention had first been attracted by her exquisite voice, which invested the voyage with a novel charm and rendered her a great favorite with the passengers.
Human nature is wofully inflexible and obstinate, and not all the Menus, Zoroasters, Solomons, and Platos have taught it wisdom; wherefore it is not surprising that a caustic wit and savage cynic asserts, "The vices, it may be said, await us in the journey of life like hosts with whom we must successively lodge; and I doubt whether experience would make us avoid them if we were to travel the same road a second time."
Habit may be second nature, but it is the Gurth, the thrall of the first,—the vassal of inherent impulses; and even the most ossified natures contain some soft palpitating spot that will throb against the hand that is sufficiently dexterous to find it. In every man and woman there lurks a vein of sentiment, which, no matter how heavily crushed by the super-incumbent mass of utilitarian, practical commonplaceisms, will one day trickle through the dusty debris, and creep like a silver thread over the dun waste of selfishness; or, Arethusa-like, burst forth suddenly after long subterranean wandering.
For forty years it had crawled silently and sluggishly under the indurated and coldly egoistic nature of Merton Minge,—had been dammed up at times by avarice and at others by grim recollections of his domestic infelicity; but finally, after tedious meandering in the Desert of Heartlessness, it struggled triumphantly to the surface one glorious autumn night, when a golden moon illumined the Atlantic waves and kindled a bewitching beauty in the face of Salome, who sat on deck, singing an impassioned strain from La Favorite.
Her silvery voice was the miraculous rod that smote his petrified affections, and a wellspring of tenderness gushed forth, freshening, softening, and clothing with verdure and bloom his arid, sterile, stony temperament. Long-buried dreams of his boyhood stirred in their chilly graves and flitted dimly before him, and a hope that had slumbered so soundly he had utterly ignored its memory, started up, eager and starry-eyed, as in the college days of eld,—the precious hope, underlying all other emotions in a man's heart, that one day he too would be loved and prayed for by a pure womanly heart, and pure, sweet, womanly lips.
Fifteen years before, he had vowed "to cherish," not the haughty girl whose hand he clasped, but the five hundred thousand dollars that gilded it; and faithfully he had kept his oath to the god of his idolatry, sacrificing the best half of his life to insatiate Kuvera.
On that cloudless October night, as he watched the shimmer of the moon on Salome's silky hair, and noted the purely oval outline of her daintily carved face, and the childish grace of her fine form,—as he listened to flute-like tones, as irresistible as Parthenope's, his cold, formal, non-committal mouth stirred, his hand involuntarily opened and closed firmly, as if grasping some "pearl of great price," and his slow, almost stagnant pulses, leaped into feverish activity, and soon ran riot. Perhaps more regular features, and deeper, richer carnation bloom had confronted him, but love makes sad havoc of ideals and abstract standards, and he who defined beauty, "the woman I love," was wiser than Burke and more analytical than Cousin.
The freshness, the brusquerie, the outspoken honesty, that characterized Salome, strangely fascinated this grave, selfish, blase aristocrat, who was weary of hollow, polished conventionalities and stereotyped society phrases; and, as he sat on deck watching her countenance, he would have counted out his fortune at her feet for the privilege of claiming her fair, slender hand, and her tremulous, scarlet lips, instinct with melody that entranced him.
Henceforth life had a different goal, a nobler aim, a tenderer and more precious hope; and all the energy of his vigorous character was bent to the fulfilment of the beautiful dream that one day that young girl would bear his name, grace his princely home, and nestle in his heart.
He did not ask, Can that fair, graceful, gifted young thing ever love a gray-haired man, old enough to call her his daughter? Nay, nay! Common sense was utterly dethroned and expelled,—romance usurped the realm, and draped the future with rainbows; and he only set his teeth firmly against each other, and said to his bounding heart and blinded soul, "Patience, ye shall soon possess her!"
To Paris, Lyons, Naples, he had followed her, and finally secured a villa at Palermo, where Prof. V—— had established himself and his household in a comfortable suite of rooms.
To-day, as he left his sister and approached the house where the professor dwelt, his countenance was moody and forbidding, but its expression changed rapidly, as he caught a glimpse of the white muslin dress that fluttered in the evening wind.
Salome was swiftly pacing the wide terrace that commanded a view of the Mediterranean, and her hands were clasped behind her, as was her habit when immersed in thought.
Over her head she had thrown a white gauze scarf of fringed silk, which, slipping back, displayed the elaborate braids of hair wound around the head, where a crescent of snowy hyacinths partially encircled the glossy coil, and drooped upon her neck.
Her face wore a haggard, anxious, restless expression, and the thin lips had lost their bright coral tint,—the smooth, clear cheeks something of their rounded perfection.
As Mr. Minge came forward, she paused in her walk and leaned against the marble railing of the terrace, where a lemon tree, white with bloom, overhung the mosaiced floor and powdered it with velvety petals.
He held out his hand.
"I hope I find you better?"
"Do I look so, think you?" said she, eyeing him impatiently, and keeping her hands folded behind her.
"Unfortunately, no; and if I possessed the right I have more than once solicited, other physicians should be consulted. Why will you tamper with so serious a matter, and unnecessarily augment the anxiety of those who love you?"
"I beg you to believe that my self-love is infinitely stronger than any other with which I am honored, and prompts me to all possible prudential precautions. Three doctors have already annoyed me with worthless prescriptions, and this morning I paid their bills and dismissed them; whereupon, one of them revenged himself by maliciously informing me that I should not be able to sing a note for one year at least."
"To what do they attribute the disease?"
"To that attack of scarlet fever, and also to the too frequent and severe cauterization of my throat. Time was when like other fond fools, I fancied Fate was not the hideous hag that wiser heads had painted her, but an affable old dame, easily cajoled and propitiated. With Carthaginian gratitude she repays my complimentary opinion by trampling my hopes and aims as I crush these petals, which yield perfume to their spoiler, while I could—"
She put her foot upon the drifting lemon blossoms, and bit her lip to keep back the bitter words that trembled on her tongue.
"Come and sit here on the steps, and confide your plans to one whose every scheme shall be subordinated to your wishes, your happiness."
Mr. Minge attempted to take her hand, but she drew back and repulsed him.
"Excuse me. I prefer to remain where I am; and when I am so fortunate and sagacious as to mature any plans, I shall be sure to lock them in my own heart beyond the tender mercies of meddling, marplot fortune."
Her whole face grew dark, sinister, almost dangerous in its sudden transformation, and, leaning against the railing, she impatiently swept off the snowy lemon leaves. Mr. Minge took the end of her scarf, and as he toyed with the fringe, sighed heavily.
"Of course you are forced to abandon your contemplated debut in Paris?"
"Yes. A debut minus a voice, does not tempt me. Ah! how bright the future looked when I sang for the agent of the Opera-House, and found myself engaged for the season. How changed, how cheerless all things seem now."
"Salome, fate is Janus-faced, and while frowning on you smiles benignantly on me. I joyfully hail every obstacle that bars your path, hoping that, weary of useless resistance, you will consent to walk in the flowery one I have offered you. My beautiful darling, why will you refuse the—"
"Silence! I am in no mood to listen to a repetition of sentiments which, however flattering to my vanity, have no power to touch my heart. Mr. Minge, I have twice declined the offer you have done me the honor to make; and while proud of your preference, my Saxon is not so ambiguous or redundant as to leave any margin for misconception of my meaning."
"My dear Salome, I fear your decision has been influenced by the consciousness that my poor, petted Constance has occasionally neglected the courtesies which you had a right to claim from the sister of the man who seeks to make you his wife."
"No, sir; your sister's sneers, and the petty slights and persecutions for which I am indebted to her friend, Miss Sutherland, have not sufficient importance to affect me in any degree. My decision is based upon the unfortunate fact that I do not love you."
"No woman can withstand such devotion as I bring you, and time would soon soften and deepen your feelings."
"Sir, you unduly flatter yourself. Neither time nor eternity would change me, and you would do well to remember that it is my voice, sir,—not my hand and heart,—that I offer for sale."
"Your stubborn rejection is explicable only by the supposition that you have deceived me,—that you have already bartered away the heart I long to call my own."
"I am a miller's child,—you a millionaire, but permit me to remind you that I allow no imputation on my veracity. Why should I condescend to deceive you?"
She petulantly snatched her scarf from the fingers that still stroked it caressingly; but an instant later a singular change swept over her countenance, and pressing her hands to her heart, she said in a proud, almost exultant tone,—
"Although I deny your right to question me upon this subject, you are thoroughly welcome to know that I love one man so entirely, so deathlessly, that the bare thought of marrying any one else sickens my soul."
Mr. Minge turned pale, and grasped the carved balustrade against which he rested.
"O Salome! you have trifled."
"No, sir. Take that back. I never stoop to trifling; and the curse of my life has been my almost fatal earnestness of purpose. If I ever deliberated one moment concerning the expediency of clothing myself first with your aristocratic name, afterwards with satin, velvet, and diamonds,—if I ever silenced the outcry of my heart long enough to ask myself whether gilded misery was not the least torturing type of the epidemic wretchedness,—at least I kept my parley with Mammon to myself; and if you obstinately cherished hopes of final success, they sprang from your vanity, not my dissimulation. Mark you, I here set up no claim to sanctity,—for indeed my sins are 'thick as leaves in Vallombrosa'; but my pedigree does not happen to link me with Sapphira, and deceit is not charged to me in the real Doomsday Book. Theft would be more possible for me than falsehood, for while both are labelled 'wicked,' I could never dwarf and shrivel my soul by the cowardly process of mendacity. Mr. Minge, had I been a trifle less honest and true than I find myself, I might have impaired my self-respect by trifling."
"Forgive me, Salome, if the pain I endure rendered me harsh or unjust. My dearest, I did not intend to wound you, but indeed you are cruel sometimes."
"Yes; truth is the most savagely cruel of all rude, jagged weapons, and leaves ugly gashes and quivering nerves exposed, and these are the hurts that never cicatrize—that gape and bleed while the heart throbs to feed them."
"Tell me candidly whether the heart I covet belongs to that Mr. Granville, who paid you such devoted attention in Paris."
A short, scornful, mirthless laugh rang sharply on the air, and turning quickly, Salome exclaimed contemptuously,—
"I said I loved a man,—a true, honest, brave, noble man,—not that perfumed, unprincipled, vain, foppish automaton, who adorns a corner of the diplomatic apartment where attaches of the American embassy 'most do congregate'! Gerard Granville is unworthy of any woman's affection, for maugre the indisputable fact that he is betrothed to a fond, trusting girl, now in the United States, he had the effrontery to attempt to offer his addresses to me. If an honest man be the noblest work of God, then, beyond all peradventure, the disgrace of creation is centred in an unscrupulous one, such as I have the honor to pronounce Mr. Granville."
Seizing her hands, Mr. Minge carried them forcibly to his lips, and said, in a voice that faltered from intensity of feeling,—
"Is it the hope that your love is reciprocated which bars your heart so sternly against my pleadings? Spare me no pangs,—tell me all."
She freed her fingers from his grasp, and retreating a few steps, answered with a passionate mournfulness which he never forgot,—
"If I were dowered with that precious hope, not all the crown jewels in Christendom and Heathendom could purchase it. Not the proudest throne on that continent of empires that lies yonder to the north, could woo me one hour from the only kingdom where I could happily reign,—the heart of the man I love. No—no—no! That hope is as distant as the first star up there above us, which has rent the blue veil of heaven to gaze pityingly at me; and I would as soon expect to catch that silver sparkle and fold it in my arms as dream that my affection could ever be returned. The only man I shall ever love could not bend his noble, regal nature to the level of mine, and towers beyond me, a pinnacle of unapproachable purity and perfection. Ah, indeed, he is one of those concerning whom it has been grandly said: 'The truly great stand upright as columns of the temple whose dome covers all,—against whose pillared sides multitudes lean, at whose base they kneel in times of trouble.' Mr. Minge, it is despair that crouches at my heart, not hope that shuts its portals against your earnest petition; for a barrier wider, deeper than a hundred oceans divides me from my idol, who loves, and ere this, is the husband of another."
She did not observe the glow that once more mantled his cheek, and fired his eyes, until he exclaimed with unusual fervor,—
"Thank God! That fact is freighted with priceless comfort."
Compassion and contempt seemed struggling for mastery, as she waved him from her, and answered, impatiently,—
"Think you that any other need hope to usurp my monarch's place,—that one inferior dare expect to wield his sceptre over my heart? Pardon me,—
'If there were not an eagle in the realm of birds, Must then the owl be king among the feathered herds?'
Some day a gentler spirit than mine will fill your home with music, and your heart with peace and sunshine; and, in that hour, thank honest Salome Owen for the blessings you owe to her candor. I must bid you good-night."
She drew the scarf closer about her head and throat, and turned to leave the terrace.
"Will you not allow me to drive you to-morrow afternoon on the Marino? Do not refuse me this innocent and inexpressibly valued privilege. I will not be denied! Good-night, my—Heaven shield you, my worshipped one! Hush!—I will hear no refusal."
He stooped, kissed the folds of the scarf that covered her head, and hurried down the steps of the terrace.
The glory of a Sicilian sunset bathed the face and figure that stood a moment under the lemon-boughs, watching the retreating form which soon disappeared behind clustering pomegranate, olive, and palm; and a tender compassion looked out of the large hazel eyes, and sat on the sad lips that murmured,—
"God help you, Merton Minge, to strangle the viper that coils in your heart, and gnaws its core. My own is a serpent's lair, and I pity the pangs that rend yours also. But after a little while, your viper will find a file,—mine, alas! not until death arrests the slow torture. To-morrow afternoon I shall be—where? Only God knows."
She shivered slightly, and raised her beautiful eyes towards the west, where golden gleams and violet shadows were battling for possession of a reef of cloud islets, which dotted the azure upper sea of air, and were reflected in the watery one beneath.
'Those who have nothing left to hope, Have nothing left to dread.'"
"Muriel, where can I find Miss Dexter?"
"She went out on the lawn an hour ago, to regale herself with what she calls, 'atmospheric hippocrene,' and I have not heard her come in, though she may have gone to her room. Pray tell me, doctor, why you wish to see my governess?—to inquire concerning my numerous peccadilloes?"
Muriel adroitly folded her embroidered silk apron over a package of letters that lay in her lap, and affected an air of gayety at variance with her dim eyes and wet lashes.
"I shall believe that conscience accuses you of many juvenile improprieties, since you so suspiciously attack my motives and intentions. Indeed, little one, you flatter yourself unduly, in imagining that my interview with Miss Dexter necessarily involves the discussion of her pupil. I merely wish to enlist her sympathy in behalf of one of my patients. Muriel, I would have been much more gratified if I had found you walking with her, instead of moping here alone."
"I am not moping."
The girl bit her full red lip, and strove to force back the rapidly gathering tears.
"At least you are not cheerful, and it pains me to see that anxious, dissatisfied expression on a face that should reflect only sunshine. What disturbs you?—the scarcity of Gerard's letters?"
Dr. Grey sat down beside his ward, and throwing her arms around his neck, she burst into a passionate flood of tears. The sudden movement uncovered the letters, which slipped down and strewed the carpet.
"Oh, doctor! I am very miserable!"
"Why, my dear child?"
"Because Gerard does not love me as formerly."
"What reason have you for doubting his affection?"
"He scarcely writes to me once a month, and then his letters are short and cold as icicles, and full of court gossip and fashion items, for which he knows I do not care a straw. Yesterday I received one,—the first I have had for three weeks,—and he requests me to defer our marriage at least six months longer, as he cannot possibly come over in May, the time appointed when he was here."
She hid her face on her guardian's shoulder, and sobbed.
An expression of painful surprise and stern displeasure clouded Dr. Grey's countenance, as he smoothed the hair away from the girl's throbbing temples.
"Calm yourself, Muriel. If Gerard has forfeited your confidence, he is unworthy of your tears. Do you apprehend that his indifference is merely the result of separation, or have you any cause to attribute it to interest in some other person?"
"That is a question I cannot answer."
"Cannot, or will not?"
"I know nothing positively; but I fear something, which perhaps I ought not to mention."
"Throw aside all hesitancy, and talk freely to me. If Granville is either fickle or dishonorable, you should rejoice that the discovery has been made in time to save you from life-long wretchedness."
"If we were only married, I am sure I could win him back to me."
"That is a fatal fallacy, that has wrecked the happiness of many women. If a lover grows indifferent, as a husband he will be cold, unkind, unendurable. If as a devoted fiancee you can not retain and strengthen his affection,—as a wife you would weary and repel him. Have you answered the last letter?"
"My dear child, do you not consider me your best friend?"
"Certainly I do."
"Then yield to my guidance, and follow my advice. Lose no time in writing to Mr. Granville, and cancel your engagement. Tell him he is free."
"Oh, then I should lose him,—and happiness, forever!" wailed Muriel, clasping her hands almost despairingly.
"You have already lost his heart, and should be unwilling to retain him in fetters that must be galling."
"Ah, Dr. Grey! it is very easy for you who never loved any one, to tell me, in that cold, business-like way, that I ought to set Gerard free; but you cannot realize what it costs to follow your counsel. Of course I know that in everything else you are much wiser than I, but persons who have no love affairs of their own are not the best judges of other people's. He is so dear to me, I believe it would kill me to give him up, and see him no more."
"On the contrary, you would survive much greater misfortune than separation from a man who is unworthy of you. I cannot coerce, but simply counsel you in this matter, and should be glad to learn what your own decision is. Do you intend to wait until Gerard Granville explicitly requests you to release him from his engagement?"
She winced, and the tears gushed anew.
"Oh, you are cruel! You are heartless!"
"No, my dear Muriel; I am actuated by the truest affection for my little ward, and desire to snatch her from future humiliation. My knowledge of human nature is more extended, more profound than yours, but since you seem unwilling to avail yourself of my experience, it only remains for you to acquaint me with your determination. Are you willing to tell me the nature of your answer?"
"I intend to accede to Gerard's wish, and will defer the marriage until November; but in the meantime, I shall endeavor to win back his heart, which I believe has been artfully enticed from me."
She made no reply, and lifting her head from his shoulder, Dr. Grey looked keenly into her face, and repeated his question.
"Do not urge me to express suspicions that may possibly be unjust."
"That are entirely unjust, you may rest assured," said he, almost vehemently.
"By what means did you so positively ascertain that fact?"
"The result will prove. Now, my dear child, you must acquit me of heartlessness and cruelty when I tell you, that, under existing circumstances, I cannot and will not consent to the solemnization of your marriage until you are of age. Once the conviction that an earlier consummation of your engagement was essential to the happiness of both parties, overruled the dictates of my judgment, and induced me to acquiesce in your wishes; but subsequent events have illustrated the wisdom of my former opposition, and now I am resolved that no argument or persuasion shall prevail upon me to sanction or permit your marriage until you are twenty-one."
With a sharp cry of chagrin and amazement, Muriel sprang to her feet.
"You surely do not mean to keep me in this torture, for nearly three years? I will not submit to such tyranny, even from Dr. Grey."
"As a faithful guardian, I can see no alternative, and fear of incurring your displeasure shall not deter me from the performance of a stern duty to the child of my best and dearest friend. I must and will do what your father certainly would, were he alive. My dear Muriel, control yourself, and do not, by harsh epithets and unjust accusations, wound the heart that sincerely loves you. To-day, as your guardian, I hearken to the imperative dictates of my conscience, and turn a deaf ear to the pleadings of my tender affection, which would save you from even momentary sorrow and disappointment. Since my decision is irrevocable, do not render the execution of my purpose more painful than necessity demands."
Seizing his hand, Muriel pressed it against her flushed cheek, and pleaded falteringly,—
"Do not doom your poor little Muriel to such misery. Oh, Dr. Grey! dear Dr. Grey, remember you promised my dying father to take his place,—and he would never inflict such suffering on his child. You have forgotten your promise!"
"No, dear child. It is because I hold it so sacred that I cannot yield to your entreaties; and I must faithfully adhere to my obligations, even though I forfeit your affection. I shall write to Mr. Granville by the next mail, and it is my wish that henceforth the subject should not be referred to. Cheer up, my child; three years will soon glide away, and at the expiration of that time you will thank me for the firmness which you now denounce as cruelty. Good-morning. Be sure to think kindly of your guardian, whose heart is quite as sad as your own."
She struggled and resisted, but he kissed her lightly on the forehead, and as he left the room heard her bitter invectives against his tyranny and hard-heartedness.
Crossing the elm-studded lawn, he approached a secluded walk, bordered with lilacs and myrtle, and saw the figure of the governess pacing to and fro.
During the four months that had elapsed since his last visit to "Solitude," he scrutinized and studied her character more closely than formerly, and the investigation only heightened and intensified his esteem.
No hint of her history had ever passed the calm, patient lips, which had forgotten how to laugh, and now, as he watched her pale, melancholy face, which bore traces of extraordinary beauty, he exonerated her from all blame in the ruinous deception that had blasted more lives than one; and honored the silent heroism which so securely locked her disappointment in her own heart. He knew that consumption was the hereditary scourge of her family, that she bore in her constitution the seeds of slowly but surely developing disease, and did not marvel at the quiet indifference with which she treated symptoms which he had several times pointed out as serious and dangerous.
To-day her manner was excited, and her step betrayed very unusual impatience.
"Miss Dexter, from the frequency of your cough I am afraid you are imprudent in selecting this walk, which is so densely shaded that the sun does not reach it until nearly noon. Are not your feet damp?"
"No, sir; my shoes are thick, and thoroughly protect them."
She paused before him, and, in her soft, brown eyes, he saw a strange, unwonted restlessness,—an eager expectancy that surprised and disturbed him.
"Are you at leisure this morning?"
"Do you need my services immediately?"
She answered evasively; and he noticed that she glanced anxiously toward the road leading into town.
"You will greatly oblige me, if some time during the day, you will be so good as to superintend the preparation of some calves'-feet jelly, for one of my poor patients. I would not trouble you, but Rachel is quite sick, and the new cook does not understand the process. May I depend upon you?"
"Certainly, sir; it will afford me pleasure to prepare the jelly."
Looking more closely at her face, he saw undeniable traces of recent tears, and drew her arm through his.
"I hope you will not deem me impertinently curious if I beg you to honor me with your confidence, and explain the anxiety which is evidently preying upon your mind."
Embarrassment flushed her transparent cheek, and her shy eyes glanced up uneasily.
"At least, Miss Dexter, permit me to ask whether Muriel is connected with the cause of your disquiet?"
"My pupil is, I fear, very unhappy; but she withholds much from me since she learned my disapproval of her approaching marriage."
"Will you acquaint me with your objections to Mr. Granville?"
"Against Mr. Granville, the gentleman, I have nothing to urge; but I could not consent to see Muriel wed a man, who, I am convinced, has no affection for her."
"Have you told her this?"
"Repeatedly; and, of course, my frankness has offended and alienated her. Oh, Dr. Grey! the child totters on the brink of a flower-veiled precipice, and will heed no warning. Perhaps I should libel Mr. Granville were I to impute mercenary motives to him,—perhaps he fancied he loved Muriel when he addressed her,—I hope so, for the honor of manhood; but the glamour was brief, and certainly he must be aware that he has not proper affection for her now."
"And yet, she is very lovable and winning."
"Yes,—to you and to me; but her good qualities are not those which gentlemen find most attractive. What is Christian purity and noble generosity of soul, in comparison with physical perfection? Muriel often reminds me of one whom I loved devotedly, whose unselfish and unsuspicious nature wrought the ruin of her happiness; and from her miserable fate I would fain save my pupil."
He knew from the tremor of her lips and hands, and the momentary contraction of her fair brow, to whom she alluded; and both sighed audibly.
"My convictions coincide so entirely with yours, that I have had an interview with my ward, and withdrawn my consent to her marriage until she is of age."
"Thank God! In the interim she may grow wiser, or some fortuitous occurrence may avert the danger we dread."
In the brief silence that ensued, the governess seemed debating the expediency of making some revelation; and, encountering one of her perplexed and scrutinizing glances, the doctor smiled and said, gravely,—
"I believe I understand your hesitancy; but I assure you I should never forfeit any trust you might repose in me. You have some cause of serious annoyance, entirely irrespective of my ward, and I may be instrumental in removing it."
"Thank you, Dr. Grey. For some days I have been canvassing the propriety of asking your advice and assistance; and my reluctance arose not from want of confidence in you, but from dread of the pain it would necessarily inflict upon me, to recur to events long buried. It is not essential, however, that I should weary you with the minutiae of circumstances which many years ago smothered the sunshine in my life, and left me in darkness, a lonely and joyless woman. I have resided here long enough to learn the noble generosity of your character, and to you, as a true Christian gentleman, I come for aid,—premising only that what I am about to say is strictly confidential."
"As such, I shall ever regard it; but if I am to become your coajutor in any matter, let me request that nothing be kept secret, for only entire frankness should exist between those who have a common aim."
A painful flush tinged her cheek, and the fair, thin face, grew indescribably mournful, as she clasped her hands firmly over his arm.
"Dr. Grey, when unscrupulous men or women deliberately stab the happiness of a fellow-creature, they have no wounded sensibilities, no haunting compunction,—and if remorse finally overtakes, it finds them well-nigh callous and indurated; but woe to that innocent being who is the unintentional and unconscious agent for the ruin of those she loves. I cannot remember the time when I did not love the only man for whom I ever entertained any affection. He was the playmate of my earliest years,—the betrothed of my young maidenhood,—and just before my poor father died, he joined our hands and left his blessing on my choice. Poverty was the only barrier to our union, but I took a situation as teacher, and hoarded my small gains in the hope of aiding my lover, who went abroad with a wealthy uncle, and completed his education in Germany. I knew that Maurice had contracted very extravagant and self-indulgent habits,—but in the court of love is there any 'high crime' or misdemeanor for which a woman's heart will condemn her idol? Nay, nay; she will plead his defence against the stern evidence of her own incorruptible reason; and, if need be, share his punishment,—die in his stead. I denied myself every luxury, and jealously husbanded my small salary, anticipating the happy hour when we might invest it in furniture for our little home; and, indeed, in those blessed days of hope, it seemed no hardship,—
'And joy was duty, and love was law.'
From time to time our marriage was deferred, but I well knew I was beloved, and so I waited patiently, until fortune should smile upon me. In the interim I became warmly attached to a young girl in the school where I taught, and whose affection for me was enthusiastic and ardent. Evelyn was an orphan, and the heiress of enormous wealth, which she seemed resolved to share with me; and, more than once, I was tempted to acquaint her with the obstacle that debarred me from happiness. Ah! if I had only confided in her, and trusted her faithful love, how much wretchedness would have been averted! But she appeared to me such an impulsive child that I shrank from unburdening my heart to her, while she acquainted me with every thought and aim of her pure, guileless life. She was singularly, almost idolatrously fond of me, and I loved her very sincerely, for her character was certainly the most admirable I have ever met.
"At vacation we parted for three months, and I hurried to meet my lover, who had promised to join me in Vermont, where my mother had gone to recruit her failing health. For the first time Maurice proved recreant, and wrote that imperative business detained him in New York. Did I doubt him, even then? Not in the least; but endeavored by cheerful letters to show him how patiently I could bear the separation that might result in pecuniary advantage to him. My mother looked anxious, and foreboded ill; but I laughed at her misgivings, and proudly silenced her warning voice. In the midst of my blissful dream came a lengthy telegraphic dispatch from my young girl-friend Evelyn, inviting me to hasten to New York, and accompany her on a bridal tour through Europe. In a brief and almost incoherent note, subsequently received, she accidentally omitted the name of her future husband, and designated him as 'my prince,' 'my king,' 'my liege lover.' The same mail brought me a long and exceedingly tender letter from my own betrothed, informing me that at the expiration of ten days he would certainly be with me to arrange for an immediate consummation of our engagement. A railroad accident delayed me twenty-four hours, and I did not reach New York until the morning of the day on which my friend was married. The ceremony took place at ten o'clock, and when I arrived, Evelyn was already in the hands of the hair-dresser. I was hurried into the room prepared for me, and while waiting for my trunk, noticed a basket containing some of the wedding cards. I picked up one, and you can perhaps imagine my emotions, when I saw that my own lover was the betrothed of my friend. Dr. Grey, eight miserable years have gone wearily over my head since then, but now, in the dead of night, if I shut my eyes, I see staring at me, like the rayless, glazed orbs of the dead, that silver-edged wedding card, bearing in silver letters—Maurice Carlyle, Evelyn Flewellyn. Oh, blacker than ten thousand death-warrants! for all the hopes of a lifetime went down before it. Every ray of earthly light was extinguished in a night of woe that can have no dawn, until the day-star of eternity shimmers on its gloom."
She shuddered convulsively, and the agonized expression of her face was so painful to behold that her companion averted his head.
"I was alone with my misery, and so overwhelming was the shock that I fainted. When the hair-dresser came to offer her services, she found me lying insensible on the carpet. How bitterly, how unavailingly, have I reproached myself for my failure to hasten to Evelyn, even then, and divulge all. But with returning consciousness came womanly pride, and I resolved to hide the anguish for which I knew there was no cure. As soon as I was dressed, we were summoned down stairs to meet the remainder of the bridal party, and there I saw the man whom I expected to call my husband talking gayly with his attendants.
"Evelyn impetuously presented me as her 'dearest friend,' and, without raising his eyes, he bowed profoundly and turned away. How I endured all I was called to witness that morning, I know not; but my strength seemed superhuman. The ceremony was performed in church, and after our return to the house, Mr. Carlyle asserted and claimed the right to kiss the bridesmaids. There were four, and I was the last whom he approached. I was standing in the shadow of the window-curtain, which I had clutched for support, and, as he came close to me, our eyes met for the first time that day, and I can never, never forget the pleading mournfulness, the passionate tenderness, the despair, that filled his. I waved him from me, but he seized my hand, and pressed his hot lips lingeringly to mine. Then he whispered, 'My only love, my own Edith, do not judge till you hear your wretched Maurice. Meet me in the hot-house when Evelyn goes to change her dress, and I will explain this awful, this accursed necessity.' A few moments later he stood with his bride at the head of the table in the breakfast-room, while I was placed close to Evelyn, and the mirror opposite reflected the group. I know now it was sinful, but, oh! how could I help it? As I looked at the reflection in the glass, and compared my face with that of the bride, I felt my poor wicked heart throb with triumph at the thought that my superior beauty could not soon be forgotten,—that, though her husband, he was still my lover. Dr. Grey, do not despise me for my weakness, as I should have despised him for his perfidy; and remember that a woman cannot in a moment renounce allegiance to a man who is the one love of her life. They forced me to drink some wine that fired my brain and made me reckless, and an hour after, when Maurice came up and offered his arm, inviting me to promenade for a few minutes in the hot-house, I yielded and accompanied him. He told me a tale of dishonorable financial transactions, into which he had been betrayed solely by the hope of obtaining money that would enable him to hasten our union; but the utter failure of the scheme threatened him with disgrace, possibly with imprisonment, and the only mode of preserving his name from infamy, was to possess himself of Evelyn's large fortune. Just as he clasped me in his arms, and vehemently declared his deathless affection for me,—his contempt and hatred of his poor childish bride,—I heard a strange sound that was neither a wail nor a laugh, a sound unlike any other that ever smote my ears, and looking up, I saw Evelyn standing before us."
Miss Dexter groaned aloud, and covered her eyes with her hand.
"Oh, my God! help me to shut out that horrible vision! If I could forget that distorted, death-like face, with livid lips writhing away from the gleaming teeth, and desperate, wide eyes, glaring like globes of flame! She looked twenty years older, and from her clenched hands,—her beautiful, exquisite hands,—that were wont to caress me so tenderly, the blood was dripping down on her lace veil and her white velvet bridal dress. How much she heard I know not, for I never saw her again. I swooned in Maurice's arms, and was carried to my own room; and when I finally groped my way to Evelyn's apartment, they told me she had been gone two hours,—had sailed for Europe, leaving her husband in New York. What passed in her farewell interview with him none but he and her lawyer knew; but they separated there on condition that his debts were cancelled. She went abroad with a faithful old Scotch woman who had been her nurse, and her husband told the world she was a maniac."
"Did he tell you so? Did you believe it?" exclaimed Dr. Grey, with a degree of vehemence that startled the governess.
"I have never seen Maurice Carlyle since that awful hour in the hot-house. He came repeatedly to my home, but I refused to meet him, and dozens of his letters have been returned unopened. Once, while I was absent, he obtained an interview with my mother, and besought her intercession in his behalf, pleading for my pardon, and assuring her that, as his wife was hopelessly insane, he would apply for a divorce, and then claim the hand of the only woman he had ever loved. I dreaded the effect upon Evelyn, and had no means of ascertaining her real condition. Soon after, I lost my mother, whose death was hastened by grief and humiliation; and, when I had laid her down beside my father, I went in search of Evelyn. Several times I had attempted to communicate with her, and with Elsie, the nurse, but my letters always came back unopened, and bearing the London stamp. Having been informed that she was in an insane asylum in England, I took the money that had been so carefully hoarded for a different purpose and went to London. One by one, I searched all the asylums in the United Kingdom, and finding no trace of her, came back to America. Finally, on the death-bed of Mr. Clayton, her lawyer, who understood my great anxiety to discover her, I was told in strict confidence that she was perfectly sane,—had never been otherwise,—but preferred that the false report in circulation should not be corrected, since her husband had set it in motion. I learned that she was well and pleasantly located somewhere in the East, but would never see the faces of either friends or foes, and absolutely refused all intercourse with her race. From one of her letters (which, a moment after, he burned in the grate) Mr. Clayton read me a paragraph: 'The greatest mercy you can show me is to allow me to forget. Henceforth mention no more the names of any I ever knew; and let silence, like a pall, shroud all the past of Vashti.' He died next day, and since then—"
The sad, sweet voice, which for some moments had been growing more and more unsteady, here sank into a sob, and the governess wept freely, while her whole frame shook with the violence of long-pent anguish, that now defied control.
"Oh, if I could find her! If I could go to her and tell her all, and exonerate myself! If I could show her that he was mine always,—mine long before she ever saw him,—then she would not think so harshly of me. I know not what explanation Maurice gave her, nor how much of our conversation she overheard; and I cannot live contentedly,—oh! I cannot die in peace till I see my poor crushed darling, and hear from her lips the assurance that she does not hold me responsible for her wretchedness. Dr. Grey, I love her with a pitying tenderness that transcends all power of expression. Perhaps if Maurice had ever loved her, I could not feel as I do towards her; for a woman's nature tolerates no rival in the affection of her lover, and, unprincipled as mine proved in other respects, I know that his heart was always unswervingly my own. My dear, noble Evelyn! My pure, loving little darling! Ah! I have wearied heaven with prayers that God would give her back to my arms."
Unable to conceal the emotion he was unwilling she should witness, Dr. Grey disengaged his arm and walked away, striving to regain his usual composure.
Did the governess suspect the proximity of her long-lost friend? If she claimed his assistance in prosecuting her search, what course would duty dictate?
Retracing his steps, he found that she had seated herself on a bench near one of the tallest lilacs, and having thrown aside her quilted hood of scarlet silk, her care-worn countenance was fully exposed.
She was gazing very intently at some object in her hand, which she bent over and kissed several times, and did not perceive his approach until he stood beside her.
"Dr. Grey, I believe my prayer has been heard, and that at last I have discovered a clew to the retreat of my lost Evelyn. Last week I went to a jewelry store in town, to buy a locket which I intended as a birthday gift for Muriel. Several customers had preceded me, and while waiting, my attention was attracted towards one of the workmen who uttered an impatient ejaculation and dashed down some article upon which he was at work. As it fell, I saw that it was an oval ivory miniature, originally surrounded with very large handsome pearls, the greater portion of which the jeweller had removed and placed in a small glass bowl that stood near him. I leaned down to examine the miniature, and though the paint was blurred and faded, it was impossible to mistake the likeness, and you cannot realize the thrill that ran along my nerves as I recognized the portrait of Evelyn. So great was my astonishment and delight that I must have cried out, for the people in the store all turned and stared at me, and when I snatched the piece of ivory from the work-table, the man looked at me in amazement. Very incoherently I demanded where and how he obtained it, and, beckoning to the proprietor, he said, 'Just as I told you; this has turned out stolen property.' Then he opened a drawer and took from it a similar oval slab of ivory, and when I looked at it and saw Maurice's handsome face, my brain reeled, and I grew so dizzy I almost fell. 'Madam, do you know these portraits?' asked the proprietor.
"I told him that I did,—that I had seen these jewelled miniatures eight years before on the dressing-table of a bride, and I implored him to tell me how they came into his possession. He fitted them into a dingy, worn case, which seemed to have been composed of purple velvet, and informed me that he purchased the whole from an Irish lad, who asserted that he picked it up on the beach, where it had evidently drifted in a high tide. On examination, he found that the case had indeed been saturated with sea-water, but the pearls were in such a remarkable state of preservation that he doubted the lad's statement. He had bought the miniatures in order to secure the pearls, which he assured me were unusually fine, and to satisfy himself concerning the affair had advertised two ivory miniatures, and invited the owners to come forward and prove property. After the expiration of a week, he discontinued the notice, and finally ordered the pearls removed from their gold frames. When I had given him the names of the originals, he consented that I should take the portraits which were now worthless to him, and gave me also the name of the boy. It was not until two days afterward that I succeeded in finding Thomas Donovan, a lad about fourteen years old, whose mother Phoebe is a laundress, and does up laces and fine muslins. When I called and stated the object of my visit he seemed much confused, but sullenly repeated the assertion made to the jeweller. Yesterday I went again and had a long conversation with his mother, who must be an honest soul, for she assured me she knew nothing of the matter, and would investigate it immediately. The boy was absent, but she promised either to send him here this morning or come in person, to acquaint me with the result. I offered a reward if he would confess where he obtained them; and if he proved obstinate, threatened to have him arrested. Now, Dr. Grey, you can understand why I have so tediously made a full revelation of my past, for I wish to enlist your sympathy and claim your aid in my search for my long-lost friend. These portraits inadequately represent the fascinating beauty of one of the originals, and the sweetness and almost angelic purity of the other."
She held up the somewhat defaced and faded miniatures for the inspection of her companion, but scarcely glancing at them, he said, abstractedly,—
"You are sure they belong to Mrs. Carlyle?"
"Yes. As she put on her diamonds just before going down stairs she showed me the portraits in her jewelry casket, where she had also placed a similar one of myself. Ah! at this instant I seem to see her beaming face, as she bent down, and sweeping her veil aside, kissed my picture and Maurice's."
"Do you imagine that she is in America?"
"No; I fear she is dead, and that these were stolen from the old nurse. Who is that yonder? Ah, yes,—Phoebe Donovan. Now I shall hear the truth."
Forgetting her shawl, and unmindful of the fact that the sun was streaming full on her head and face, she hurried to meet the woman who was ascending the avenue, and very soon they entered the house.
A quarter of an hour elapsed ere Phoebe came out, and walked rapidly away; and, unwilling to prolong his suspense, Dr. Grey went in search of the governess.
He met her in the hall, and saw that she was equipped for a walk. Her cheeks were scarlet, her brown eyes all aglow with eager expectation, and her lips twitched, as she exclaimed,—
"Oh, doctor, I hope everything; for I learn that the pictures were found on the lawn at 'Solitude,' where Phoebe was once hired as cook; and she recognized the case as the same she had one day seen on a writing-desk in the parlor. The boy confessed that he picked it up from the grass, and, after taking out the contents, soaked the case in a bucket of salt-water. Phoebe says the pictures belong to Mrs. Gerome, the gray-headed woman who owns that place on the beach, and I am almost tempted to believe she is Elsie, who may have married again. At all events, I shall soon know where she obtained the portraits."
"You are not going to 'Solitude'?"
"Yes, immediately. I cannot rest till I have learned all. God grant I may not be mocked in my hopes."
The unwonted excitement had kindled a strange beauty in the whilom passive face, and Dr. Grey could for the first time realize how lovely she must have been in the happy days of eld.
"Miss Dexter, Mrs. Gerome will not receive you. She sees no visitors, not even ministers of the gospel."
"She must—she shall—admit me; for I will assure her that life and death hang upon it."
"If Evelyn is alive, and I can discover her retreat, I will urge her to go to her husband, who needs her care. You know Mrs. Gerome,—she is one of your patients. Come with me, and prevail upon her to receive me."
In her eagerness she laid her hand on his arm, and even then noticed and wondered at the crimson that suddenly leaped into his olive face.
"Some day I will give you good reasons for refusing your request, which it is impossible for me to grant. If you are resolved to hazard the visit, I will take you in my buggy as far as the gate at 'Solitude,' and when you return will confer with you concerning the result. Just now, I can promise no more."
An expression of disappointment clouded her brow.
"I had hoped that you would sympathize with and be more interested in my great sorrow."
"Miss Dexter, my interest is more profound, more intense, than you can imagine, but at this juncture circumstances forbid its expression. My buggy is at the door."
Even at mid-day the grounds around "Solitude" were sombre and chill, for across the sky the winds had woven a thin, vapory veil, whose cloud-meshes seemed fine as lacework; and through this gilded netting the sun looked hazy, the light wan and yellow, and rifled of its customary noon glitter.
Following one of the serpentine walks, the governess was approaching the house, when her attention was attracted by the gleaming surface of a tomb, and she turned towards the pyramidal deodars that were swaying slowly in the breeze,—
"Warming their heads in the sun, Checkering the grass with their shade,"
and photographing fringy images on the shining marble.
A broad circle of violets, blue with bloom, surrounded a sexangular temple, whose dome was terminated by a mural crown and surmounted by a cross. The beautifully polished pillars were fluted, and wreathed with carved ivy that wound up to the richly-sculptured cornices, where poppies clustered and tossed their leaves along the architrave; and, in the centre, visible through all the arches, rose an altar, bearing two angels with fingers on their lips, who guarded an exquisite urn that was inscribed "cor cordium."
Beneath the eastern arch, that directly fronted the sea, were two steps leading into the mausoleum, and, as Miss Dexter stood within, she saw that the floor was arranged with slabs for only two tombs close to the altar, one side of which bore in golden tracery,—
"Elsie Maclean, 68. Amicus Amicorum."
Around the base of the urn were scattered some fresh geranium-leaves, and very near it stood a tall, slender, Venetian glass vase filled with odorous flowers, which had evidently been gathered and arranged that day.
For whom had the remaining slab and opposite side of the altar been reserved?
The heart of the governess seemed for a moment to forget its functions, then a vague hope made it throb fiercely; and rapidly the anxious woman directed her steps towards the house, that seemed as silent as the grave behind her.
The hall door had swung partially open, and, dreading that she might be refused admittance if she rang the bell, she availed herself of the lucky accident (which in Elsie's lifetime never happened), and entered unchallenged and unobserved.
From the parlor issued a rather monotonous and suppressed sound, as of some one reading aloud, and, advancing a few steps, the governess stood inside the threshold.
The curtains of the south window were looped back, the blinds thrown open, and the sickly sunshine poured in, lighting the easel, before which the mistress of the house had drawn an ottoman and seated herself.
To-day, an air of unwonted negligence marked her appearance, usually distinguished by extraordinary care and taste.
Her white merino robe de chambre was partially ungirded, and the blue tassels trailed on the carpet; her luxuriant hair instead of being braided and classically coiled, was gathered in three or four large heavy loops, and fastened rather loosely by the massive silver comb that allowed one long tress to straggle across her shoulder, while the folds in front slipped low on her temples and forehead.
Intently contemplating her work, she leaned her cheek on her hand, and only the profile was visible from the door, as she repeated, in a subdued tone,—
"I stanch with ice my burning breast, With silence balm my whirling brain, O Brandan! to this hour of rest, That Joppan leper's ease was pain."
The easel held the largest of many pictures, upon which she had lavished time and study, and her present work was a wide stretch of mid-ocean, lighted by innumerable stars, and a round glittering polar moon that swung mid-heaven like a globe of silver, and shed a ghostly lustre on the raging, ragged waves, above which an Aurora Borealis lifted its gleaming arch of mysterious white fires.
On the flowery shore of a tropic isle, under clustering boughs of lime and citron, knelt the venerable figure of Saint Brandan,—and upon a towering, jagged iceberg, whose crystal cliffs and diamond peaks glittered with the ghastly radiance reflected from arctic moon and boreal flames, lay Judas, pressing his hot palms and burning breast to the frigid bosom of his sailing sapphire berg.
No hideous, scowling, red-haired arch-apostate was this painted Iscariot,—but a handsome man, whose features were startlingly like those in the ivory miniature.
It was a wild, dreary, mournful picture, suggestive of melancholy mediaeval myths, and most abnormal phantasms; and would more appropriately have draped the walls of some flagellating ascetic's cell, than the luxuriously furnished room that now contained it.
Bending forward to deepen the dark circles which suffering and remorse had worn beneath the brilliant eyes of the apostle, the lonely artist added another verse to her quotation,—
"Once every year, when carols wake On earth the Christmas night's repose, Arising from the sinner's lake I journey to these healing snows."
The motion loosened a delicate white lily pinned at her throat, and it fell upon the palette, sullying its purity with the dark paint to which its petals clung. She removed it, looked at its defaced loveliness, and tossed it aside, saying moodily,—
"Typical of our souls, originally dowered with a stainless and well-nigh perfect holiness, but drooping dust-ward continually, and once tainted by the fall,—hugging the corruption that ruined it."
As the governess looked and listened, a half-perplexed, half-frightened expression passed over her countenance, and at length she advanced to the arch, and said, tremblingly,—
"Can I have a few moments' conversation with Mrs. Gerome, on important business?"
"My God! am I verily mad at last? Because I called up Judas, must I also evoke the partner of his crime?"
With a thrilling, almost blood-curdling cry Mrs. Gerome had leaped to her feet at the sound of Miss Dexter's voice, and, dropping palette and brush, confronted her with a look of horror and hate. The quick and violent movement shook out her comb, and down came the folds of hair, falling like a silver cataract to her knees.
Bewildered by memories which the face and form recalled, the governess looked at the shining white locks, and her lips blanched, as she stammered,—
"Are you Mrs. Gerome?"
Her scarlet hood had fallen back, disclosing her wealth of golden hair; and gazing at her thin but still lovely features, rouged by a hectic glow that lent strange beauty to the wide, brown eyes, Mrs. Gerome answered, huskily,—
"I am the mistress of this house. Who is the woman who has the audacity to intrude upon my seclusion, and vividly remind me of one whose hated lineaments have cursed my memory for years? Woman, if I believed she had the effrontery to thrust herself into my presence, I should fear that at this instant I am afflicted with the abhorred sight of Edith Dexter, than whom a legion of devils would be more welcome!"
The name fell hissingly from her stern mouth, and when she shook back the hair that drooped over her brow, the gray globe-like eyes glittered as polished blue steel under some fitful light.
A low, half-stifled cry escaped the governess, and springing forward she fell on her knees and grasped the white hands that had clutched each other.
"Evelyn! It must be Evelyn! despite this gray hair and wan, changed face! and I could never mistake these beautiful, beautiful hands—unlike any others in the world! Evelyn, my lost darling! oh, I thank God I have found you before I die!"
She covered the cold fingers with kisses, and pressed her face to a band of the floating hair; but with a gesture of loathing Mrs. Gerome broke away, and retreated a few steps.
"How dare you come into my presence? Goaded by a desire to witness the ruin you helped to accomplish? Your audacity at least astounds me; but fate decrees you the enjoyment of its reward. Lo! here I am! Behold the gray shadow of what was once a happy, confiding girl! Behold in the desolate, lonely woman, who hides her disgrace under the name of Agla Gerome, that bride of an hour, that Evelyn whose heart you stabbed! Does the wreck entirely satisfy you? What more could even fiendish malevolence desire?"
"Evelyn, you wrong me. For mercy's sake do not upbraid and taunt me so unjustly!"
In vain she held out her hands imploringly, while tears rolled over her crimsoned cheeks, and sobs impeded her utterance. Mrs. Gerome laughed bitterly.
"What! I wrong you? Have you gone mad, instead of your victim? Miss Dexter, you and I can scarcely afford to deal in mock tragedy, and though you make a pretty picture kneeling there, I have no mind to paint you yonder, where I put your colleague, Judas. Is it not a good likeness of your lover, as he looked that memorable day when the broad banana-leaves overshadowed his handsome head?"
She rapped the canvas with her clenched hand, and continued, in accents of indescribable scorn,—
"Do you kneel as penitent or petitioner? You come to crave my pardon, or my husband?"
The governess had bowed her face almost to the carpet, like some fragile flower borne down by a sudden flood; but now she rose, and, throwing her head back proudly, answered with firm yet gentle dignity,—
"Of Mrs. Gerome I crave nothing. Of Evelyn Carlyle I demand justice; simply bare justice."
"Justice! You are rash, Miss Dexter, to challenge fate; for, were justice meted out, the burden would prove more intolerable to you than that King Stork whom Zeus sent down as a Nemesis to quiet clamorous frogs. Justice, let me tell you, long ago fled from this hostile and inhospitable earth and took refuge beyond the stars, where, please God, you and I shall one day confront her and get our long-defrauded dues. Justice? Nay, nay! the thing I recognize as justice would crush you utterly, and you should flee to the Ultima Thule to avoid it. I divine your mission. You come as envoy-extraordinary from my honorable and chivalric husband, to demand release from the bonds that doom me to wear his name and you to live without that spotless aegis? Since my fortune no longer percolates through the sieve of his pocket, and legal quibbles can not now avail to wring thousands from my purse, he desires a divorce, in order to remove to your fair wrists the fetters which have proved more galling to mine than those of iron."
"Evelyn, insult must not be heaped upon injury. As God hears me, I tell you solemnly that you have seen your husband since I have. Upon Maurice Carlyle's face I have never looked since that fatal hour when I last saw yours, ghastly and rigid, against the background of guava-boughs. From that day until this, I have neither seen, nor spoken, nor written to him."
"Then why are you here, to torment me with the sight of your face, which would darken the precincts of heaven, if I met it inside of the gates of pearl?"
"I have come to exonerate myself from the aspersions that in your frenzy you have cast upon me. Evelyn, I am here to prove that my wrongs are greater than yours,—and if either should crave pardon, it would best become you to sue for it at my hands. But for you, I should have been a happy wife,—blessed with a devoted husband and fond mother; and now in my loneliness I stand for vindication before her who robbed me of every earthly hope, and blotted all light, all verdure, all beauty from my life. You had known Maurice Carlyle six weeks, when you gave him your hand. I had grown up at his side,—had loved, trusted, prayed, and labored for him,—had been his promised wife for seven dreary years of toil and separation, and was counting the hours until the moment when he would lead me to the altar. Ah, Evelyn,—"
A violent spell of coughing interrupted the governess, and when it ended she did not complete the sentence.
Impatiently Mrs. Gerome motioned to her to continue, and, turning her head which had been averted, the hostess saw that her guest was endeavoring to stanch a stream of blood that trickled across her lips. Involuntarily the former started forward and drew an easy-chair close to the slender figure which leaned for support against the corner of the piano.
"Are you ill? Pray sit down."
"It is only a hemorrhage from my lungs, which I have long had reason to expect."
Wearily she sank into the chair, and hastily pouring a glass of water from a gilt-starred crystal carafe, standing on the centre-table, Mrs. Gerome silently offered it. As the governess drained and returned the goblet, a drop of blood that stained the rim fell on the hand of the mistress of the house.
Miss Dexter attempted to remove it with the end of her plaid shawl, but her companion drew back, and taking a dainty, perfumed handkerchief from her pocket, shook out its folds and said, hastily,—
"It is of no consequence. I see your handkerchief is already saturated; will you accept mine?"
Without waiting for a reply, she laid it on the lap of the visitor, and left the room.
Soon after, a servant brought in a basin of water and towels, which she placed on the table, and then, without question or comment, withdrew.
Some time elapsed before Mrs. Gerome re-entered the parlor, bearing a glass of wine in her hand. Miss Dexter had bathed her face, and, looking up, she saw that the gray hair had been carefully coiled and fastened, and the flowing merino belted at the waist; but the brow wore its heavy cloud, and the arch of the lip had not unbent.
"I hope you are better. Permit me to insist upon your taking this wine."
She proffered it, but the governess shook her head, and tears ran down her cheeks, as she said,—
"Thank you,—but I do not require it; indeed I could not swallow it."
The hostess bowed, and, placing the glass within her reach, walked to the window which looked out on the marble mausoleum, and stood leaning against the cedarn facing.
Five, ten minutes passed, and the silence was only broken by the ticking of the bronze clock on the mantelpiece.
The voice was so sweet, so thrilling, so mournfully pleading, that it might have wooed even stone to pity; but Mrs. Gerome merely glanced over her shoulder, and said, frigidly,—
"Can I in any way contribute to Miss Dexter's comfort? The servants tell me there is no conveyance waiting for you; but, since you seem too feeble to walk away, my carriage is at your service whenever you wish to return. Shall I order it?"
"No, I will not trouble you. I can walk; and, after a little while, I will go away forever. Evelyn, do you think me utterly unprincipled?"
A moment passed before she was answered.
"While you are in my house, courtesy forbids the expression of my opinion of your character."
"Oh, Evelyn, my darling! God knows I have not merited this harshness, this cruelty from your dear hands. Eight tedious, miserable years I have searched and prayed for you,—have clung to the hope of finding you, of telling you all,—of hearing your precious lips utter those words for which my ears have so long ached, 'Edith, I hold you guiltless of my wretchedness.' But at last, when my search is successful, to be browbeaten, derided, denounced, insulted,—oh, this is bitter indeed! This is too hard to be borne!"
Her anguish was uncontrollable, and she sobbed aloud.
Across Mrs. Gerome's white lips crept a quiver, and over her frozen features rose an unwonted flush; but she did not move a muscle, or suffer her eyes to wander from the cross and crown on Elsie's tomb.
"Evelyn, I believe, I hope (and may God forgive me if I sin in hoping), that I have not many years, or perhaps even months to live; and it would comfort me in my dying hour to feel that I had laid before you some facts, of which I know you must be ignorant. You have harshly and unjustly prejudged me,—have steeled yourself against me; still I wish to tell you some things that weigh heavily upon my aching, desolate heart. Will you allow me to do so now? Will you hear me?"
There was evidently a struggle in the mind of the motionless woman beside the window, but it was brief, and left no trace in the cold, ringing voice.
"I will hear you."
Slowly and impressively the governess began the narrative, of which she had given Dr. Grey a hasty resume, and when she mentioned the midnight labors in which she had engaged, the copying of legal documents, the sale of her drawings, the hoarding of her salary in order to aid her mother and her betrothed, and to remove the obstacles to her marriage, Mrs. Gerome sat down, and, crossing her arms on the window-sill, hid her face upon them.
Unflinchingly Miss Dexter detailed all that occurred after her arrival in New York; and finally, approaching the window, she insisted that her listener should peruse the last letter received from her lover, and containing the promise that within ten days he would come to claim his bride. But the lovely hand waved it aside, and the proud voice exclaimed impatiently,—
"I need no additional proof of his perfidy, which, beyond controversy, was long ago established. Go on! go on!"
Upon all that followed the ceremony,—the departure of the wife,—and her own despairing grief, the governess dwelt with touching eloquence and pathos; and, at last, as she spoke of her fruitless journey to England,—her sad search through the insane asylums,—Mrs. Gerome lifted her queenly head, and bent a piercing glance upon the speaker.
Ah! what a hungry, eager expression looked out shyly from her whilom hopeless eyes, when, with an imperious gesture, she silenced her visitor, and asked,—
"You spent your hard earnings, not in trousseau, or preparations for housekeeping; but hunting for me in lunatic asylums? Suppose you had found me in a mad-house?"
"Then I should have become an inmate of the same gloomy walls; and, while you lived, should have shared with faithful Elsie the care and charge of you. God is my witness, I had resolved to dedicate my remaining years to the task of cheering and guarding yours. Oh, Evelyn! not until we stand in the great Court of Heaven can you realize how sincerely, how tenderly, and unwaveringly, I love you. My darling, how can you distrust my faithful heart?"
She sank on her knees, and, throwing her arms around the tall, slender form, looked with mournful, beseeching tenderness at the haughty features above her.
For a moment the proud, pale face glowed,—the great shadowy eyes kindled and shone like wintry planets in some crystalline sky; but doubt, murderous, cynical doubt, grappled with hope, and strangled it.
"Edith, I wish I could believe you. I am struggling desperately to lay hold of the fluttering garments of faith, but I cannot! Suspicion has walked hand in hand with me so long that I cannot shake off her numbing touch, and I distrust all human things, save the dusty heart that moulders yonder in my old Elsie's grave."
She pointed to the white columns of the temple, and then the uplifted fingers fell heavily on Edith's shoulder.
"Go on. I wish to learn whose treachery betrayed the secret of my retreat."
Pressing her feverish lips to the hand she admired so enthusiastically, Miss Dexter resumed her recital of what had occurred since her journey to London, and finally ended it with an account of her removal to 'Grassmere,' and of the discovery of the miniatures that guided her to 'Solitude.'
A long pause followed, and a heavy sigh, only partially smothered, indexed the contest that raged under Mrs. Gerome's calm exterior.
"Edith, would you have inferred from Dr. Grey's manner that he was not only acquainted with my history, but yours, at least, so far as it intersected mine? Did he furnish no hint, no clew, that aided you in your search?"
"None whatever. On the contrary, he appeared so preoccupied, so abstracted, that I reproached him with indifference to my troubles. It is not possible that he knew all, while I briefly summed up a portion of the past."
"At that moment he was thoroughly cognizant of everything that I could tell him. But, at least, one honorable, trustworthy man yet graces the race; one pure, incorruptible, and consistent Christian remains to shed lustre upon a church that can nowhere boast his peer. I confided all to Dr. Grey, and he has kept the trust. Ah, Edith, if you had only reposed the same confidence in me, during those halcyon days of our early friendship,—days that seem to me now as far off, as dim and unreal, as those starry nights when I lay in my little crib, dreaming of that mother whose face I never saw, whose smile is one of the surprises and blessings reserved for eternity,—how different my lot and yours might have been! Why did you not trust me with your happy hopes, your lover's name and difficulties? How differently I would have invested that fortune, which proved our common ruin, and doomed three lives to uselessness and woe. To-day you might have proudly worn the name that I utterly detest; and I, the outcast, the wanderer, the tireless, friendless waif, drifting despairingly down the tide of time,—even I, the unloved, might have been, not a solitary cumberer, not a household upas,—but why taunt the hideous Actual with a blessed and beautiful Impossible? Ah, truly, truly,—
"'What might have been, I know, is not: What must be, must be borne; But ah! what hath been will not be forgot, Never, oh! never, in the years to follow!'"
She closed her eyes and seemed pondering the past, and mutely the governess prayed that hallowed memories of their former affection might soften her apparently petrified heart.
Edith saw a great change overspread the countenance, but could not accurately interpret its import; and her own heart began to beat the long-roll.
The heavy black eyelashes lying on Mrs. Gerome's marble cheeks glistened, trembled, and tears stole slowly across her face. She raised her hand, but dropped it in her lap, and frowned slightly and sighed. Then she lifted it once more, and looking through the shining mist that magnified her splendid eyes, she laid her fingers on the golden head of the kneeling woman.
"You and I have innocently wronged and ruined each other; you with your beauty, I with my accursed gold. Time was when at your bidding I would have laid my throbbing heart at your feet, provided I could thereby save you one pang; for I loved you as women very rarely love one another. But now, lonely and hopeless, I have lost the power, the capacity to love anything, and I have no heart left in my bosom. I acquit you of much for which I formerly held you responsible, and I honor the purity of purpose that forbade your receiving the visits or letters of him who must one day answer for our worthless lives. I fully forgive you the suffering that made me prematurely old; but my affection is as dead as all my girlish hopes, and buried under the crushing years that have dragged themselves over my poor, proud, pain-bleached head. You are more fortunate, more enviable than I, for you have the comforting anticipation of a speedy release, the precious assurance that your torture will ere long be ended; while I must front the prospect of perhaps fourscore and ten years: for, despite my ivory skin and fever-blanched locks, I am maddeningly healthy. Friend of my childhood, friend of my happy, sunny, sinless days, I cordially congratulate you on your approaching deliverance. God knows I would pay you my fortune, if I could innocently and successfully inject into my veins and lungs the poison that will soon rob you of care and regret. If I was harsh to-day, forgive and forget it, for nothing rankles in the grave; and now, Edith, go away quickly, before I repent and recant the words I here utter. God comfort you, Edith Dexter, and remember that I hold you guiltless of my wrecked destiny."
"Oh, Evelyn! add one thing more. Say, 'Edith, I love you.'"
A strangely mournful smile parted Mrs. Gerome's perfect lips over her dazzling teeth, as she pushed the kneeling figure from her, and said coldly,—
"Rise, and leave me. I love no living thing, brute or human, for even my faithful dog lies buried a few yards hence. Maurice treated my warm, loving nature, as Tofana did her unsuspecting victims, and for that slow poison there is no antidote. The sole interest I have in life centres in my art, and when death mercifully remembers me, some pictures I have patiently wrought out will be given to the public; and the next generation will, perhaps,—
'Hear the world applaud the hollow ghost, Which blamed the living woman,'
and, smiling grimly in my coffin, I shall echo,—
'Hither to come, and to sleep, Under the wings of renown.'"
Both rose, and the two so long divided faced each other sorrowfully.
"Dear Evelyn, do not hug despair so stubbornly to your bosom. You might brighten your solitary existence if you would, and be comparatively happy in this lovely seaside home."
"You think 'Solitude' a very desirable and beautiful retreat? Do you remember the gay raiment and glittering jewels that covered the radiant bride of Giacopone di Todi? One day an accident at a public festival mangled her mortally, and when her gorgeous garments were torn off, lo!
'A robe of sackcloth next the smooth, white skin.'"
A sudden pallor crept over the delicate face of the governess, and, folding her hands, she exclaimed with passionate vehemence,—
"I cannot, I must not shrink from the chief object of my visit here. I came not only to exonerate myself, but to plead for poor Maurice."
Mrs. Gerome started back, and the pitiless gleam came instantly into her softened eyes.
"Do not mention his name again. I thought you had neither seen nor heard from him."
"I must plead his wretched cause, since he is denied the privilege of appealing to your mercy. Evelyn, my friends write me that he is almost in a state of destitution. Only last night I received this letter, which I leave for your perusal, and which assures me he is in want, and, moreover, is dangerously ill. Who has the right, the privilege,—whose is the duty, imperative and stern, to hasten to his bedside, to alleviate his suffering, to provide for his needs? Yours, Evelyn Carlyle, and yours alone. Where are the marriage-vows that you snatched from my lips eight years ago, and eagerly took upon your own? Did you not solemnly swear in the presence of heaven and earth to serve him and keep him in sickness, and, forsaking all others, to hold him from that day forward, for better, for worse, until death did part ye? Oh, Evelyn! do not scowl, and turn away. However unworthy, he is your husband in the sight of God and man, and your wedding oath calls you to him in this hour of his terrible need. Can you sleep peacefully, knowing that he is tossing with paroxysms of pain, and perhaps hungering and thirsting for that which you could readily supply? If it were right,—if I dared, I would hasten to him; but my conscience inexorably forbids the thought, and consigns my heart to torture, for which there is no name. You will tell me that you provided once, twice, for all reasonable wants,—that he has recklessly squandered liberal allowances. But will that satisfy your conscience, while you still possess ample means to aid him? Will you permit the man whose name you bear to live on other charity than your own,—and finally, to fill a pauper's grave? Oh, Evelyn! was it for this that you took my darling, my idol, from my clinging, loving arms? Will you see his body writhing in the agony of disease, and his precious, immortal soul in fearful jeopardy, while you stand afar off, surrounded by every luxury that ingenuity can suggest, and gold purchase? Oh, Evelyn! be merciful; do your duty. Like a brave, true, though injured woman, go to Maurice, and strive to make him comfortable; to lighten, by your pardon, his sad, heavily laden heart. By your past, your memories of your betrothal, your hopes of heaven, and above all, by your marriage vows, I implore you to discharge your sacred duties."
A bitter smile twisted the muscles about Mrs. Gerome's mouth, as she gazed into the quivering, eloquent face of her companion, and listened to the impetuous appeal that poured so pathetically over her burning lips.
"Edith, you amaze me. Is it possible that after all your injuries you can cling so fondly, so madly, to the man who slighted, and humiliated, and blighted you?"
"Ah! you are his wife, and I am the ridiculed and pitied victim of his flirtation, so says the world; but my affection outlives yours. Evelyn, I have loved him from the time when I can first recollect; I loved him with a deathless devotion that neither his unworthiness, nor time, nor eternity can conquer; and to-day, I tell you that he is dear to me,—dear to me as some precious corpse, over which a gravestone has gathered moss for eight weary, dreary years. The angels in heaven would not blush for the feeling in my heart towards Maurice Carlyle; and the God who must soon judge me will not condemn the pure and sacred love I cherish for the only man who could ever have been my husband, but whom I have resolutely refused to see, even when the world believed you dead. I cannot go to him, and comfort, and provide for him now; but, in the name of God, and your oath, and if not for your own sake, at least for his and for mine, I ask you once more, Evelyn Carlyle, will you hasten to your erring but unhappy husband?"
Her scarlet cheeks and lips, her glowing brown eyes, and waving yellow hair, formed a singular contrast to the colorless, cold face of her listener; whose steely gaze was fixed on the distant sea, that lay like a beryl mirror beneath the hazy sky.
When the sound of the sweet but strained voice had died away, Mrs. Gerome turned her eyes towards the governess, and answered,—