Those who knew Nea Huntingdon in those early days say that she was wonderfully beautiful.
There was a picture of her in the Royal Academy, a dark-haired girl in a velvet dress, sitting under a marble column with a blaze of oriental scarves at her feet, and a Scotch deerhound beside her, and both face and figure were well-nigh faultless. Nea had lost her mother in her childhood, and she lived alone with her father in the great house that stood at the corner of the square, with its flower-laden balconies and many windows facing the setting sun.
Nea was her father's only child, and all his hopes were centered upon her.
Mr. Huntingdon was an ambitious man; he was more, he was a profound egotist. In his character pride, the love of power, the desire for wealth, were evenly balanced and made subservient to a most indomitable will. Those who knew him well said he was a hard self-sufficient man, one who never forgot an injury or forgave it.
He had been the creator of his own fortunes; as a lad he had come to London with the traditional shilling in his pocket, and had worked his way to wealth, and was now one of the richest merchant princes in the metropolis.
He had married a young heiress, and by her help had gained entrance into society, but she had died a dissatisfied, unhappy woman, who had never gained her husband's heart or won his confidence. In Mr. Huntingdon's self-engrossed nature there was no room for tenderness; he had loved his handsome young wife in a cool temperate fashion, but she had never influenced him, never really comprehended him; his iron will, hidden under a show of courtesy, had repressed her from the beginning of their married life. Perhaps her chief sin in his eyes had been that she had not given him a son; he had accepted his little daughter ungraciously, and for the first few years of her young life he had grievously neglected her.
No mother; left by herself in that great house, with nurses to spoil her and servants to wait on her, the little creature grew up wayward and self-willed; her caprices indulged, her faults and follies laughed at or glossed over by careless governesses.
Nea very seldom saw her father in those days; society claimed him when his business was over, and he was seldom at home. Sometimes Nea, playing in the square garden under the acacias, would look up and see a somber dark face watching her over the railings, but he would seldom call her to him; but, strange to say, the child worshiped him.
When he rode away in the morning a beautiful little face would be peeping at him through the geraniums on the balcony, a little dimpled hand would wave confidingly. "Good-bye, papa," she would say in her shrill little voice, but he never heard her; he knew nothing, and cared little, about the lonely child-life that was lived out in the spacious nurseries of Belgrave House.
But, thank Heaven, childhood is seldom unhappy.
Nea laughed and played with the other children in the square garden; she drove out with her governess in the grand open carriage, where her tiny figure seemed almost lost. Nea remembered driving with her mother in that same carriage—a fair tired face had looked down on her smiling.
"Mamma, is not Belgrave House the Palace Beautiful? look how its windows are shining like gold," she had said once.
"It is not the Palace Beautiful to me, Nea," replied her mother, quietly. Nea always remembered that sad little speech, and the tears that had come into her mother's eyes. What did it all mean? she wondered; why were the tears so often in her mother's eyes? why did not papa drive with them sometimes? It was all a mystery to Nea.
Nea knew nothing about her mother's heart-loneliness and repressed sympathies; with a child's beautiful faith she thought all fathers were like that. When Colonel Hambleton played with his little daughters in the square garden, Nea watched them curiously, but without any painful comparison. "My papa is always busy, Nora," she said, loftily, to one of the little girls who asked why Mr. Huntingdon never came too; "he rides on his beautiful horse down to the city, nurse says. He has his ships to look after, you know, and sometimes he is very tired."
"Papa is never too tired to play with me and Janie," returned Nora, with a wise nod of her head; "he says it rests him so nicely."
Somehow Nea went home not quite so happily that day; a dim consciousness that things were different, that it never rested papa to play with her, oppressed her childish brain; and that evening Nea moped in her splendid nursery, and would not be consoled by her toys or even her birds and kitten. Presently it came out with floods of tears that Nea wanted her father—wanted him very badly indeed.
"You must not be naughty, Miss Nea," returned nurse, severely, for she was rather out of patience with the child's pettishness; "Mr. Huntingdon has a lot of grand people to dine with him to-night. The carriages will be driving up by and by, and if you are good, you shall go into one of the best bedrooms and look at them." But Nea was not to be pacified by this; the tears ended in a fit of perverse sulking that lasted until bedtime. Nea would neither look at the carriages nor the people; the ice and fruit that had been provided as a treat were pushed angrily away; Nea would not look at the dainties—she turned her flushed face aside and buried it in her pillow. "I want papa," she sobbed, as nurse pulled down the blind and left her.
That night, as Mr. Huntingdon crossed the corridor that led to his bedroom, he was startled by seeing what looked like a mass of blue and white draperies flung across his door, but as he lowered his candlestick he saw it was Nea lying fast asleep, with her head pillowed on her arms, and her dark hair half hiding her face.
"Good heavens! what can nurse be about!" he exclaimed in a shocked voice, as he lifted the child, and carried her back to her bed. Nea stirred drowsily as he moved her, and said, "Dear papa," and one warm arm crept about his neck, but she was soon fast asleep again. Somehow that childish caress haunted Mr. Huntingdon, and he thought once or twice how pretty she had looked. Nurse had assured him that the child must have crept out of bed in her sleep, but Mr. Huntingdon did not feel satisfied, and the next morning, as he was eating his breakfast, he sent for Nea.
She came to him willingly enough, and stood beside him.
"What were you doing, my dear, last night?" he asked, kindly, as he kissed her. "Did nurse tell you that I found you lying by my bedroom door, and that I carried you back to bed?"
"Yes, papa; but why did you not wake me? I tried not to go to sleep until you came, but I suppose I could not help it."
"But what were you doing?" he asked, in a puzzled tone; "don't you know, Nea, that it was very wrong for a little girl to be out of her bed at that time of night?" But as Mr. Huntingdon spoke he remembered again how sweet the childish face had looked, pillowed on the round dimpled arm.
"I was waiting to see you, papa," replied Nea with perfect frankness; "you are always too busy or too tired to come and see me, you know, and nurse is so cross, and so is Miss Sanderson; they will never let me come and find you; so when nurse came to take away the lamp I pretended to be asleep, and then I crept out of the bed, and went to your door and tried to keep awake."
"Why did you want to see me, Nea?" asked her father, more and more puzzled; it never entered his head that his only child wanted him, and longed for him.
"Oh," she said, looking up at him with innocent eyes that reminded him of her mother, "I always want you, papa, though not so badly as I did yesterday; Colonel Hambleton was playing with Nora and Janie, and Nora said her papa was never too busy to play with them, and that made me cry a little, for you never play with me, do you, papa? and you never look up when I am waving to you from the balcony, and nurse says you don't want to be worried with me, but that is not true, is it, papa?"
"No, no!" but his conscience pricked him as he patted her head and picked out a crimson peach for her. "There, run away, Nea, for I am really in a hurry; if you are a good girl you shall come down and sit with me while I have dinner, for I shall be alone to-night;" and Nea tripped away happily.
From that day people noticed a change in Mr. Huntingdon; he began to take interest in his child, without being demonstrative, for to his cold nature demonstration was impossible; he soon evinced a decided partiality for his daughter's society; and no wonder, as people said, for she was a most engaging little creature.
By and by she grew absolutely necessary to him, and they were never long apart. Strangers would pause to admire the pretty child on her cream-colored pony cantering beside the dark, handsome man. Nea always presided now at the breakfast-table; the dimpled hands would carry the cup of coffee round to her father's chair, and lay flowers beside his plate. When he was alone she sat beside him as he ate his dinner, and heard about the ships that were coming across the ocean laden with goodly freights. Nea grew into a beautiful girl presently, and then a new ambition awoke in Mr. Huntingdon's breast. Nea was his only child—with such beauty, talents, and wealth, she would be a match for an earl's son; his heart swelled with pride as he looked at her; he begun to cherish dreams of her future that would have amazed Nea. A certain young nobleman had lately made their acquaintance, a handsome simple young fellow, with a very moderate allowance of brains; indeed, in his heart Mr. Huntingdon knew that Lord Bertie Gower was merely a feather-brained boy with a weak vacillating will that had already brought him into trouble.
Mr. Huntingdon was thinking about Lord Bertie Gower as he rode away that spring morning, while Nea waved to him from the balcony; he had looked up at her and smiled, but as he turned away his thoughts were very busy. Yes, Lord Bertie was a fool, he knew that—perhaps he would not own as much to any one else, certainly not if Lord Bertie became his son-in-law—but he was well-bred and had plenty of good nature, and—Well, young men were all alike, they would have their fling, and he was hardly the man to cast a stone at them. Then he was a good-looking fellow, and girls liked him; and if Nea laughed at him, and said that he was stupid, he could soon convince her that there was no need for her husband to be clever—she was clever enough for both; he would like to see the man, with the exception of himself, who could bend Nea's will. The girl took after him in that; she had not inherited her mother's soft yielding nature—poor Susan, who had loved him so well.
Lord Bertie needed a strong hand; as his son-in-law, Mr. Huntingdon thought that he could keep him in order. The boy was certainly in love with Nea. He must come to an understanding with him. True, he was only a second son; but his brother, Lord Leveson, was still a bachelor, and rather shaky in his health. The family were not as a rule long-lived; they were constitutionally and morally weak; and the old earl had already had a touch of paralysis. Yes, Mr. Huntingdon thought it would do; and there was Groombridge Hall for sale, he thought he would buy that; it should be his wedding-gift—part of the rich dowry that she would bring to her husband.
Mr. Huntingdon planned it all as he rode down to the city that morning, and it never entered his mind what Nea would say to his choice. His child belonged to him. She was part of himself. Hitherto his will had been hers. True, he had denied her nothing; he had never demanded even a trifling sacrifice from her; there was no fear that she would cross his will if he told her seriously that he had set his heart on this marriage; and he felt no pity for the motherless young creature, who in her beauty and innocence appealed so strongly to his protection. In his strange nature love was only another form of pride; his egotism made him incapable of unselfish tenderness.
Nea little knew of the thoughts that filled her father's mind as she watched him fondly until both horse and rider had disappeared.
It was one of those days in the early year when the spring seems to rush upon the world as though suddenly new born, when there is all at once a delicious whisper and rustle of leaves, and the sunshine permeates everything; when the earth wakes up fresh, green, and laden with dews; and soft breezes, fragrant with the promise of summer, come stealing into the open windows. Nea looked like the embodiment of spring as she stood there in her white gown. Below her was the cool green garden of the square where she had played as a child, with the long morning shadows lying on the grass; around her were the twitterings of the house-martins and the cheeping of sparrows under the eaves; from the distance came the perfumy breath of violets.
Such days make the blood course tumultuously through the veins of youth, when with the birds and all the live young things that sport in the sunshine, they feel that mere existence is a joy and a source of endless gratitude.
"Who so happy as I?" thought Nea, as she tripped through the great empty rooms of Belgrave House, with her hands full of golden primroses; "how delicious it is only to be alive on such a morning."
Alas for that happy spring-tide, for the joyousness and glory of her youth. Little did Nea guess as she flitted, like a white butterfly, from one flower vase to another, that her spring-tide was already over, and that the cloud that was to obscure her life was dawning slowly in the east.
I have no reason than a woman's reason; I think him so, because I think him so.
Before noon there was terror and confusion in Belgrave House. Nea, flitting like a humming-bird from flower to flower, was suddenly startled by the sound of heavy jolting footsteps on the stairs, and, coming out on the corridor, she saw strange men carrying the insensible figure of her father to his room. She uttered a shrill cry and sprung toward them, but a gentleman who was following them put her gently aside, and telling her that he was a doctor, and that he would come to her presently, quietly closed the door.
Nea, sitting on the stairs and weeping passionately, heard from a sympathizing bystander the little there was to tell.
Mr. Huntingdon had met with an accident in one of the crowded city lanes. His horse had shied at some passing object and had thrown him—here Nea uttered a low cry—but that was not all.
His horse had flung him at the feet of a very Juggernaut, a mighty wagon piled with wool bales nearly as high as a house. One of the leaders had backed on his haunches at the unexpected obstacle; but the other, a foolish young horse, reared, and in another moment would certainly have trodden out the brains of the insensible man, had not a youth—a mere boy—suddenly rushed from the crowded footpath and thrown himself full against the terrified animal, so for one brief instant retarding the movement of the huge wagon while Mr. Huntingdon was dragged aside.
It had all happened in a moment; the next moment the horses were plunging and rearing, with the driver swearing at them, and the young man had sunk on a truck white as death, and faint from the pain of his sprained arm and shoulder.
"Who is he?" cried Nea, impetuously, "what have they done with him?"
He was in the library, the butler informed her. The doctor had promised to dress his shoulder after he had attended to Mr. Huntingdon. No, his mistress need not go down, Wilson went on; it was only Mr. Trafford, one of the junior clerks. Only a junior clerk! Nea flashed an indignant look as Wilson spoke. What if he were the city messenger; her father should make his fortune, and she would go and thank him. But there was no time for this, for the same grave-looking doctor who had closed her father's door against her was now standing on the threshold; and Nea forgot everything in her gratitude and joy as he told her that, though severely injured, Mr. Huntingdon was in no danger, and with quiet and rest, and good nursing, he would soon be himself again. It would all depend on her, he added, looking at the agitated girl in a fatherly manner; and he bade her dry her eyes and look as cheerful as she could that she might not disturb Mr. Huntingdon. Nea obeyed him; she choked down her sobs resolutely, and with a strange paleness on her young face, stole into the darkened room and stood beside him.
"Well, Nea," observed her father, huskily, as she took his hand and kissed it; "I have had a narrow escape; another instant and it would have been all over with me. Is Wilson there?"
"Yes, papa," answered Nea, still holding his hand to her cheek, as she knelt beside him; and the gray-haired butler stepped up to the bed.
"Wilson, let Stephenson know that he is to get rid of Gypsy at once. She has been a bad bargain to me, and this trick of hers might have cost me my life."
"You are not going to sell Gypsy, papa," exclaimed the girl, forgetting the doctor's injunctions in her dismay; "not your own beautiful Gypsy?"
"I never allow people or animals to offend me twice, Nea. It is not the first time Gypsy has played this trick on me. Let Stephenson see to it at once. I will not keep her. Tell him to let Uxbridge see her, he admired her last week; he likes spirit and will not mind a high figure, and he knows her pedigree."
"Yes, sir," replied Wilson.
"By the bye," continued Mr. Huntingdon, feebly, "some one told me just now about a youth who had done me a good turn in the matter. Did you hear his name, Wilson?"
"Yes, papa," interrupted Nea, eagerly; "it was Mr. Trafford, one of the junior clerks, and he is down-stairs in the library, waiting for the doctor to dress his shoulder."
Nea would have said more, for her heart was full of gratitude to the heroic young stranger; but her father held up his hand deprecatingly, and she noticed that his face was very pale.
"That will do, my dear. You speak too fast, and my poor head is still painful and confused;" and as Nea looked distressed at her thoughtlessness, he continued, kindly, "Never mind, Doctor Ainslie says I shall be all right soon—he is going to send me a nurse. Trafford, you say; that must be Maurice Trafford, a mere junior. Let me see, what did Dobson say about him?" and Mr. Huntingdon lay and pondered with that hard set face of his, until he had mastered the facts that had escaped his memory.
"Ah, yes, the youngest clerk but one in the office; a curate's son from Birmingham, an orphan—no mother—and drawing a salary of seventy pounds a year. Dobson told me about him; a nice, gentlemanly lad; works well—he seems to have taken a fancy to him. He is an old fool, is Dobson, and full of vagaries, but a thoroughly good man of business. He said Trafford was a fellow to be trusted, and would make a good clerk by and by. Humph, a rise will not hurt him. One can not give a diamond ring to a boy like that. I will tell Dobson to-morrow to raise Trafford's salary to a hundred a year."
"Papa!" burst from Nea's lips as she overheard this muttered soliloquy, but, as she remembered the doctor's advice, she prudently remained quiet; but if any one could have read her thoughts at that moment, could have known the oppression of gratitude in the heart of the agitated girl toward the stranger who had just saved her father from a horrible death, and whose presence of mind and self-forgetfulness were to be repaid by the paltry sum of thirty pounds a year! "Papa!" she exclaimed, and then in her forbearance kept quiet.
"Ah, Nea, are you there still?" observed her father in some surprise; "I do not want to keep you a prisoner, my child. Wilson can sit by me while I sleep, for I must not be disturbed after I have taken the composing draught Dr. Ainslie ordered. Go out for a drive and amuse yourself; and, wait a moment, Nea, perhaps you had better say a civil word or two to young Trafford, and see if Mrs. Thorpe has attended to him. He shall hear from me officially tomorrow; yes," muttered Mr. Huntingdon, as his daughter left the room, "a hundred a year is an ample allowance for a junior, more than that would be ill-advised and lead to presumption."
Maurice Trafford was in the library trying to forget the pain of his injured arm, which was beginning to revenge itself for that moment's terrible strain.
The afternoon's shadows lay on the garden of the square, the children were playing under the acacia trees, the house-martins still circled and wavered in the sunlight.
Through the open window came the soft spring breezes and the distant hum of young voices; within was warmth, silence, and the perfume of violets.
Maurice closed his drowsy eyes with a delicious sense of luxurious forgetfulness, and then opened them with a start; for some one had gently called him by his name, and for a moment he thought it was still his dream, for standing at the foot of the couch was a girl as beautiful as any vision, who held out her hand to him, and said in the sweetest voice he had ever heard:
"Mr. Trafford, you have saved my father's life. I shall be grateful to you all my life."
Maurice was almost dizzy as he stood up and looked at the girl's earnest face and eyes brimming over with tears, and the sunlight and the violets and the children's voices seemed all confused; and as he took her offered hand a strange shyness kept him silent.
"I have heard all about it," she went on. "I know, while others stood by too terrified to move, you risked your own life to protect my father—that you stood between him and death while they dragged him out from the horses' feet. It was noble—heroic;" and here Nea clasped her hands, and the tears ran down her cheeks.
Poor impetuous child; these were hardly the cold words of civility that her pompous father had dictated, and were to supplement the thirty pounds per annum, "officially delivered." Surely, as she looked at the young man in his shabby coat, she must have remembered that it was only Maurice Trafford the junior clerk—the drudge of a mercantile house.
Nea owned afterward that she had forgotten everything; in after years she confessed that Maurice's grave young face came upon her like a revelation.
She had admirers by the score—the handsome, weak-minded Lord Bertie among them—but never had she seen such a face as Maurice Trafford's, the poor curate's son.
Maurice's pale face flushed up under the girl's enthusiastic praise, but he answered, very quietly:
"I did very little, Miss Huntingdon; any one could have done as much. How could I stand by and see your father's danger, and not go to his help?" and then, as the intolerable pain in his arm brought back the faintness, he asked her permission to reseat himself. "He would go home," he said, wearily, "and then he need trouble no one."
Nea's heart was full of pity for him. She could not bear the thought of his going back to his lonely lodgings, with no one to take care of him, but there was no help for it. So Mrs. Thorpe was summoned with her remedies, and the carriage was ordered. When it came round Maurice looked up in his young hostess's face with his honest gray eyes and frank smile and said good-bye. And the smile and the gray eyes, and the touch of the thin, boyish hand, were never to pass out of Nea's memory from that day.
* * * * *
The shadows grew longer and longer in the gardens of the square, the house-martins twitted merrily about their nests, the flower-girls sat on the area steps with their baskets of roses and jonquils, when Mr. Huntingdon laid aside his invalid habits and took up his old life again, far too soon, as the doctors said who attended him. His system had received a severer shock than they had first imagined, and they recommended Baden-Baden and perfect rest for some months.
But as well might they have spoken to the summer leaves that were swirling down the garden paths, as move Mr. Huntingdon from his usual routine. He only smiled incredulously, said that he felt perfectly well, and rode off every morning eastward on the new gray mare that had replaced Gypsy.
And Nea flitted about the room among her birds and flowers, and wondered sometimes if she should ever see Maurice Trafford again. While Maurice, on his side, drudged patiently on, very happy and satisfied with his sudden rise, and dreaming foolish, youthful dreams, and both of them were ignorant, poor children, that the wheel of destiny was revolving a second time to bring them nearer together.
For when November came with its short days, its yellow fogs, its heavy, damp atmosphere, a terrible thing happened in Mr. Huntingdon's office.
A young clerk, the one above Maurice—a weak, dissipated fellow, who had lately given great dissatisfaction by his unpunctuality and carelessness—absconded one day with five thousand pounds belonging to his employer. Mr. Huntingdon had just given authority to the manager to dismiss him when the facts of his disappearance and the missing sum were brought to their ears. The deed was a cool one, and so cleverly executed that more than one believed that an older hand was concerned in it; but in the midst of the consternation and confusion, while the manager stood rubbing his hands nervously together, and Mr. Huntingdon, in his cold, hard voice, was giving instructions to the detective, Maurice Trafford quietly asked to speak to him a moment, and offered to accompany the detective officer.
He knew George Anderson's haunts, he said, and from a chance word accidentally overheard, he thought he had a clew, and might succeed in finding him.
There was something so modest and self-reliant in the young man's manner as he spoke that, after a searching glance at him, Mr. Huntingdon agreed to leave the matter in his hands, only bidding him not to let the young villain escape, as he certainly meant to punish him.
Many were the incidents that befell Maurice and his companion in this his first and last detective case; but at last, thanks to his sagacity and the unerring instinct of the officer, they were soon on the right track, and before night had very far advanced were hanging about a low public-house in Liverpool, lurking round corners and talking to stray sailors.
And the next morning they boarded the "Washington," bound for New York, that was to loose anchor at the turn of the tide; and while Staunton, the detective, was making inquiries of the captain about the steerage passengers, Maurice's sharp eyes had caught sight of a young sailor with a patch over his eye, apparently busy with a coil of ropes, and he walked up to him carelessly; but as he loitered at his side a moment his manner changed.
"Don't look round, George," he whispered; "for Heaven's sake keep to the ropes or you are lost. Slip the pocket-book in my hand, and I will try and get the detective out of the boat."
"Would it be penal servitude, Maurice?" muttered the lad, and his face turned a ghastly hue at the thought of the human blood-hound behind him.
"Five or ten years at least," returned Maurice. "Were you mad, George? Give it to me—quick—quick! and I will put him on the wrong scent. That's right," as the shaking hands pushed a heavy brown pocket-book toward him. "Good-by, George; say your prayers to-night, and thank God that you are saved."
"Staunton," he said, aloud, as the detective approached him, "we are wrong; he is in the bow of the 'Brown Bess,' and he sails in the 'Prairie Flower;'" and as he uttered the first lie that he had ever told in his guileless young life Maurice looked full in the detective's face and led him quietly away.
But a couple of hours later—when Staunton was losing his temper over their want of success, and the "Washington" was steaming out of the dock—Maurice suddenly produced the pocket-book, and proposed that they should take the next train back for London. "For I am very tired," finished Maurice, with provoking good-humor; "and Mr. Huntingdon will sleep better to-night if we give him back his five thousand pounds."
"You let the rogue go!" exclaimed Staunton, and he swore savagely. "You have cheated justice and connived at his escape."
"Yes," answered Maurice, calmly. "Don't put yourself out, my good fellow. I will take all the blame. He sailed in the 'Washington,' and there she goes like a bird. You are out of temper because I was too sharp for you. Evil communications corrupt good manners, Staunton. I have taken a leaf out of your book—don't you think I should make a splendid detective?" continued Maurice, rattling on in pure boyish fun. "I got up the little fiction about the 'Brown Bess' and the 'Prairie Flower' when I saw him dressed like a sailor, with a patch over his eye, hauling in the ropes."
Then, as Staunton uttered another oath:
"Why, did you expect me to bring back my old chum, when I knew they would give him five or ten years of penal servitude? Do you think I am flesh and blood and could do it? No! I have kept my promise, and brought back the five thousand pounds, and not a farthing of it would he or you have seen but for me."
Perhaps Staunton was not as hard-hearted as he seemed, for he ceased blustering and shook Maurice's hand very heartily; nay, more, when they told their story, and Mr. Huntingdon frowned angrily on hearing Maurice had connived at the criminal's escape, he spoke up for Maurice. "You did not expect the young gentleman, sir, to put the handcuffs on his old pal; it is against human nature, you see."
"Perhaps so," returned Mr. Huntingdon, coldly; "but I should have thought better of you, Trafford, if you had sacrificed feeling in the matter. Well, it may rest now. I have struck off George Anderson's name as defaulter out of my book and memory, and I will tell Dobson to add his salary to yours. No thanks," he continued in rather a chilling manner, as Maurice's eyes sparkled, and he attempted to speak; "it is a fair recompense for your sagacity. Go on as well as you have begun, and your future will be assured. To-morrow I shall expect you to dine with me at Belgrave House. Dobson is coming, too," and with a slight nod Mr. Huntingdon dismissed him.
That night Maurice laid his head upon his pillow and dreamed happy dreams of a golden future. To-morrow he should see the dark-eyed girl who had spoken so sweetly to him; and as he remembered her words and glances of gratitude, and the touch of her soft, white hands, Maurice's heart gave quick throbs that were almost pain.
He should see that lovely face again, was his first waking thought; but when the evening was over Maurice Trafford went back to his lodgings a sadder and a wiser man.
He was dazzled and bewildered when he saw her again—the young girl in the white gown was changed into a radiant princess. Nea was dressed for a ball; she came across the great lighted room to greet Maurice in a cloud of gauzy draperies. Diamonds gleamed on her neck and arms; her eyes were shining; she looked so bewilderingly beautiful that Maurice grew embarrassed, all the more that Mr. Huntingdon's cold eyes were upon them.
Maurice never recalled that evening without pain. A great gulf seemed to open between him and his master's daughter; what was there in common between them? Nea talked gayly to him as well as to her other guests, but he could hardly bring himself to answer her.
His reserve disappointed Nea. She had been longing to see him again, but the handsome young clerk seemed to have so little to say to her. He was perfectly gentlemanly and well bred, but he appeared somewhat depressed.
Nea's vanity was piqued at last, and when Lord Bertie joined them in the evening she gave him all her attention. Things had not progressed according to Mr. Huntingdon's wishes. Nea could not be induced to look favorably on Lord Bertie's suit; she pouted and behaved like a spoiled child when her father spoke seriously to her on the subject. The death of one of Lord Bertie's sisters had put a stop to the wooing for the present; but it was understood that he would speak to Nea very shortly, and after a long and angry argument with her father she was induced to promise that she would listen to him.
Nea was beginning to feel the weight of her father's inflexible will. In spite of her gayety and merry speeches, she was hardly happy that evening. Lord Bertie's heavy speeches and meaningless jokes oppressed her—how terribly weary she would get of him if he were her husband, she thought. She was tired of him already—of his commonplace, handsome face—of his confidential whispers and delicately implied compliments—and then she looked up and met Maurice's thoughtful gray eyes fixed on her. Nea never knew why she blushed, or a strange, restless feeling came over her that moment; but she answered Lord Bertie pettishly. It was almost a relief when the carriage was announced, and she was to leave her guests. Maurice, who was going, stood at the door while Lord Bertie put her in the carriage—a little gloved hand waved to him out of the darkness—and then the evening was over.
Mr. Huntingdon had not seemed like himself that night; he had complained of headache and feverishness, and had confided to Dobson that perhaps after all Dr. Ainslie was right, and he ought to have taken more rest.
Somehow he was not the man he had been before his accident; nevertheless he ridiculed the idea that much was amiss, and talked vaguely of running down to the sea for a few days.
But not even that determined will of his could shake off the illness that was creeping over him, and one night when Nea returned from a brilliant reunion she found Belgrave House a second time in confusion. Mr. Huntingdon had been taken suddenly ill, and Dr. Ainslie was in attendance.
By and by a nurse arrived—a certain bright-eyed little Sister Teresa—and took charge of the sick man. After the first few days of absolute danger, during which he had been tolerably submissive, Mr. Huntingdon had desired that he should be kept informed of all matters connected with an important lawsuit of his at present pending; and during the tedious weeks of convalescence Maurice Trafford carried the daily report to Belgrave House. It seemed as though fate were conspiring against him; every day he saw Nea, and every day her presence grew more perilously sweet to him.
She had a thousand innocent pretexts for detaining him, little girlish coquetries which she did not employ in vain. She would ask him about her father, or beg him to tell her about the tiresome lawsuit, or show him her birds and flowers, anything, in fact, that her caprice could devise to keep him beside her for a moment; very often they met in her father's room, or Mr. Huntingdon would give orders that Mr. Trafford should stay to luncheon.
Nea, in her blindness, thought she was only amusing herself with an idle fancy, a girl's foolish partiality for a face that seemed almost perfect in her eyes; she little thought that she was playing a dangerous game, that the time was fast approaching when she would find her fancy a sorrowful reality.
Day by day those stolen moments became more perilous in their sweetness; and one morning Nea woke up to the conviction that Maurice Trafford loved her, that he was everything to her, and that she would rather die than live without him.
It was one afternoon, and they were together in the drawing-room. Maurice had come late that day, and a violent storm had set in, and Mr. Huntingdon had sent down word that Mr. Trafford had better wait until it was over. To do Mr. Huntingdon justice, he had no idea his daughter was in the house; she had gone out to luncheon, and he had not heard of her return.
The heavy velvet curtains had been drawn to shut out the dreary scene, and only the fire-light lit up the room; Nea, sitting in her favorite low chair, with her feet on the white rug, was looking up at Maurice, who stood leaning against the mantel-piece talking to her.
He was telling her about his father's early death, and of the sweet-faced mother who had not long survived him; of his own struggles and poverty, of his lonely life, his efforts to follow his parents' example. Nea listened to him in silence; but once he paused, and the words seemed to die on his lips. He had never seen her look like that before; she was trembling, her face was pale, and her eyes were wet with tears; and then, how it happened neither of them could tell, but Maurice knew that he loved her—knew that Nea loved him—and was holding her to his heart as though he could never let her go.
That thrilling, solemn, proud, pathetic voice, He stretched his arms out toward that thrilling voice, As if to draw it on to his embrace. I take her as God made her, and as men Must fail to unmake her, for my honor'd wife.
E. B. BROWNING.
Paradise itself could hardly hold an hour of purer and more perfect bliss than when those two young creatures stood holding each other's hands and confessing their mutual love.
To Nea it was happiness, the happiness for which she had secretly longed. To Maurice it was a dazzling dream, a madness, an unreality, from which he must wake up to doubt his own sanity—to tremble and disbelieve.
And that awakening came all too soon.
Through the long hours of the night he lay and pondered, till with the silence and darkness a thousand uneasy thoughts arose that cooled the fever in his veins and made him chill with the foreboding of evil.
What had he done? Was he mad? Had it been all his fault that he had betrayed his love? Had he not been sorely tempted? and yet, would not a more honorable man have left her without saying a word?
How could he go to Mr. Huntingdon and acknowledge what he had done? that he, a mere clerk, a poor curate's son, had dared to aspire to his daughter, to become the rival of Lord Bertie Gower—for Nea had confided to him her father's ambition. Would he not think him mad? groaned Maurice, or would he turn with that hard, dark look on his face that he knew so well, and give him a curt dismissal?
Maurice remembered George Anderson and trembled, as well he might; and then as the whole hopelessness of the case rushed upon him, he thought that he would tell his darling that he had been mad—dishonorable, but that he would give her up; that he loved her better than himself, and that for her own sweet sake he must give her up.
And so through the long, dark hours Maurice lay and fought out his first fierce battle of life, and morning found him the victor.
The victor, but not for long; for at the first hint, the first whispered word that he must tell her father, or that he must leave her forever, Nea clung to him in a perfect passion of tears.
The self-willed, undisciplined child had grown into the wayward, undisciplined girl. No one but her father had ever thwarted Nea, and now even his will had ceased to govern her; she could not and would not give up the only man whom she loved; nothing on earth should induce her now to marry Lord Bertie—she would rather die first; if he left her she should break her heart, but he loved her too well to leave her.
Poor Maurice! An honorable man would have nerved himself to bear her loving reproaches; would have turned sadly and firmly from her confused, girlish sophistries, and reproved them with a word. He would have told her that he loved her, but that he loved honor more; that he would neither sin himself nor suffer her to tempt him from his sense of right. But Maurice did none of these things; he was young and weak; the temptation was too powerful; he stayed, listened and was lost. Ah! the angels must have wept that day over Maurice's fall, and Nea's victory.
She told him what he knew already, that Mr. Huntingdon would turn him out of his office; that he would oppress her cruelly; that he would probably take her abroad or condemn her to solitude, until she had promised to give him up and marry Lord Bertie.
Could he leave her to her father's tender mercies, or abandon her to that other lover? and she wept so passionately as she said this that a stronger man than Maurice must have felt his strength waver.
And so Nea had the victory, and the days flew by on golden wings, and the stolen moments became sweeter and more precious to the young lovers until the end came.
Mr. Huntingdon was better—he could leave his room and walk up and down the corridor leaning on Sister Teresa's arm.
There was less pain and fewer relapses; and when Dr. Ainslie proposed that his patient should spend the rest of the spring in the south of France, Mr. Huntingdon consented without a demur.
They were to be away some months, Mr. Huntingdon informed Nea, and extend their tour to Switzerland and the Italian Tyrol. Lord Bertie had promised to join them at Pau in a month or so, and here her father looked at her with a smile. They could get the trousseau in Paris. Nea must make up her mind to accept him before they started; there must be no more delay or shilly-shallying; the thing had already hung fire too long. Lord Bertie had been complaining that he was not fairly treated, and more to the same purpose.
Nea listened in perfect silence, but it was well that her father could not see her face. Presently she rose and said that he was tired and must talk no more, for Mr. Trafford would be here directly; and then she made some pretext for leaving the room.
Maurice found her waiting for him when he came downstairs. As he took her in his arms and asked her why she looked so pale and strange, she clung to him almost convulsively and implored him to save her. Maurice was as pale as she, long before she had finished; the crisis had come, and he must either lose her or tempt his fate.
Again he tried to reason with her, to be true to himself and her; but Nea would not give him up or let him tell her father. She would marry Maurice at once if he wished it; yes, perhaps that would be the wisest plan. Her father would never give his consent, but when it was too late to prevent it he might be induced to forgive their marriage. It was very wrong, she knew, but it would be the only way to free her from Lord Bertie. Her father would be terribly angry, but his anger would not last; she was his only child, and he had never denied her anything.
Poor Nea! there was something pathetic in her blindness and perfect faith in her father; even Maurice felt his misgivings silenced as he listened to her innocent talk; and again the angels wept over Maurice's deeper fall, and Nea's unholy victory.
They had planned it all; in three weeks' time they were to be married. Mr. Huntingdon could not leave before then. On the day before that fixed for the journey the bond was to be sealed and signed between them, so that no power of man could part them. Mr. Huntingdon might storm ever so loudly, his anger would break against an adamantine fate. "Those whom God has joined together no man can put asunder"—words of sacred terror and responsibility.
The next three weeks were very troubled ones to Maurice; his brief interviews with Nea were followed by hours of bitter misgivings. But Nea was childishly excited and happy; every day her love for Maurice increased and deepened. The shadow of his moral weakness could not hide his many virtues. She gloried in the thought of being his wife. Oh, yes, her father would be good to them; perhaps, after all, they would go to Pau, but Maurice and not Lord Bertie would be with them.
Nea never hesitated, never repented, though Maurice's face grew thin and haggard with anxiety as the days went by.
They were to be married in one of the old city churches; and afterward Maurice was to take her to his lodgings in Ampton Street; and they were to write a letter to Mr. Huntingdon. Maurice must help her write it, Nea said. Of course her father would be angry—fearfully angry—but after a few hours he would calm down, and then he would send the carriage for her; and there would be a scene of penitence and reconciliation. Nea painted it all in glowing colors, but Maurice shook his head with a sad smile, and begged her not to deceive herself. Mr. Huntingdon might not forgive them for a long time, for he remembered George Anderson, and the inexorable will that would have condemned the young criminal to penal servitude.
And so one morning as Mr. Huntingdon was sitting by the open window watching the children play in the May sunshine and wondering why his daughter had not been to wish him good-morning, Nea had stolen out of her father's house, and was hurrying through the sunny square and green, deserted park until she found Maurice waiting for her, who silently took her hand, and put her into the carriage.
Nea said afterward that it was that silent greeting of Maurice's, and his cold touch, that first brought a doubt to her mind; during the long drive he spoke little to her—only held her hand tightly; and when at last they stood together in the dark old church with its gloomy altar and white, gleaming monuments, the poor child gave a shiver that was almost fear, and suddenly burst into tears. It had come upon her all at once what she was doing, and why she was there; but already it was too late, for while she was clinging to Maurice with low, frightened sobs, the curate had hurried from the vestry and had entered within the rails, and the pew-opener was beckoning them to take their places.
Too late! too late! Ten minutes more and the knot was tied that no hand could loosen, and Nea Huntingdon had become Nea Trafford.
* * * * *
But when they had left the gloomy old church in the distance, and were driving through the crowded streets with their babel of voices, Nea's courage and spirits revived; and presently she was tripping about Maurice's shabby rooms, re-arranging the bowls of jonquils and lilac, with which the landlady had made some show of festivity, unlooping the stiff folds of the muslin curtains, and peeping into the corner cupboards with the gleeful curiosity of a child, until, at her young husband's gentle remonstrance, her seriousness returned, and she sat down to write the formidable letter.
And how formidable it was Nea never imagined until she had tried and failed, and then tried again till she sighed for very weariness; and then Maurice came to her aid with a few forcible sentences; and so it got itself written—the saddest, most penitent little letter that a daughter's hand could frame.
But when she had laid down the burden of her secret, and the special messenger had been dispatched to Belgrave House, Nea put off thought for awhile, and she sat by the window and chatted to Maurice about the gay doings they would have at Pau, and Maurice listened to her; but always there was that sad, incredulous smile on his face.
And so the day wore on, but when they had finished their simple dinner and the afternoon had waned into evening, Nea grew strangely quiet and Maurice's face grew graver and graver as they sat with clasped hands in the twilight, with a barrier of silence growing up between them.
And when the dusk became darkness, and the lamp was brought in Nea looked at Maurice with wide anxious eyes and asked what it meant.
Were they not going to send the carriage for them after all? she wondered; must she go home on foot and brave her father's anger? he must be so very, very angry, she thought, to keep them so long in suspense.
"Hush!" exclaimed Maurice, and then they heard the rumbling of wheels that stopped suddenly before the door, and the loud pealing of a bell through the house.
"The carriage! the carriage!" cried Nea, and the flush rose to her face as she started to her feet, but Maurice did not answer; he was grasping the table to support himself, and felt as though another moment's suspense would be intolerable.
"A letter for Mrs. Trafford," observed the landlady in solemn awe-struck tones, "and a man in livery and the cabman are bringing in some boxes."
"What boxes?" exclaimed Nea; but as she tore open the letter and glanced over the contents a low cry escaped her.
"Maurice! Maurice!" cried the poor child; and Maurice, taking it from her, read it once, twice, thrice, growing whiter and whiter with each perusal, and then sunk on a chair, hiding his face in his hands, with a groan. "Oh! my darling," he gasped, "I have ruined you; my darling, for whom I would willingly have died, I have ruined and brought you to beggary."
They had sinned, and beyond doubt their sin was a heavy one; but what father, if he had any humanity, could have looked at those two desolate creatures, so young, and loving each other so tenderly, and would not have had pity on them?
The letter was as follows—
"MADAME,—I am directed by Mr. Huntingdon to inform you that from this day he will hold no communication with you or your husband.
"He wishes me to add that he has sent all clothes, jewels, and personal effects belonging to his daughter Nea Huntingdon, now styling herself Nea Trafford, to the inclosed address, and he has directed his manager, Mr. Dobson, to strike Mr. Maurice Trafford's name from the list of clerks. Any attempts to open any further correspondence with Mr. Huntingdon will be useless, as all such letters will be returned or destroyed.
"I remain, madame, "Your humble servant, "SISTER TERESA."
Inclosed was a check for two hundred pounds and a little slip of paper with a few penciled lines in Sister Teresa's handwriting.
"For the love of Heaven do not send or come—it would be worse than useless, he is nearly beside himself with anger; your maid interceded for you with tears, and has been sent away with her wages. No one dares to say a word."
Oh, fathers! provoke not your children to wrath. It was that hard, cruel letter that changed Nea's repentance to unrelenting bitterness.
Instinctively she felt the iron of her father's will enter into her soul. In a moment she understood, as she had never done before, the hardness and coldness of his nature, the inflexibility of his purpose; as well might she dash herself against a rock as expect forgiveness. Well, she was his own child, her will was strong too, and in the anguish of her despair she called upon her pride to support her, she leaned her fainting woman's heart upon that most rotten of reeds.
He had disinherited her, his only child; he had flung her away from him. Well, she would defy him; and then she remembered his ill-health, their projected trip to Pau, their happy schemes for the future, till her heart felt almost broken, but for all that she stood like a statue, crushing down the pain in the very stubbornness of her pride.
Ah, Nea, unhappy Nea! poor motherless, willful girl; well may she look round her with that scared, hunted look.
Was this her future home, these poor rooms, this shabby furniture? Belgrave House closed to her forever. But as she looked round with that fixed miserable glance, why did the tears suddenly dim her eyes?
Her glance had fallen on Maurice, still sitting motionless with his hands before his eyes—Maurice her husband; yes, there he sat, the man whom her own willfulness had dragged to the brink of ruin, whose faith and honor she had tempted, whose honest purpose she had shaken and destroyed, who was so crushed with remorse for his own weakness that he dared not look her in the face; and as she gazed at him, Nea's whole heart yearned with generous pity over the man who had brought her to poverty, but whom she loved and would love to her life's end.
And Maurice, sitting crushed with that awful remorse, felt his hands drawn down from his face, and saw Nea's beautiful face smiling at him through her tears, felt the smooth brown head nestle to his breast, and heard the low sobbing words—
"For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, till death us do part, have I not promised, Maurice? Take me to your heart and comfort me with your love, for in all the world I have no one but you—no one but you!"
IN DEEP WATERS.
Let our unceasing, earnest prayer Be, too, for light, for strength to bear Our portion of the weight of care That crushes into dumb despair One half the human race.
O suffering, sad humanity! O ye afflicted ones, who lie Steep'd to the lips in misery, Longing, and yet afraid to die, Patient though sorely tried! I pledge you in this cup of grief, Where floats the fennel's bitter leaf! The battle of our life is brief, The alarm, the struggle, the relief; Then sleep we side by side.
Nea had to learn by bitter experience that the fruits of disobedience and deceit are like the apples of Sodom, fair to the sight, but mere ashes to the taste, and in her better mood she owned that her punishment was just.
Slowly and laboriously, with infinite care and pains, she set herself to unlearn the lessons of her life. For wealth she had poverty; for ease and luxury, privation and toil; but in all her troubles her strong will and pride sustained her; and though she suffered, and Heaven only knew how she suffered! she never complained or murmured until the end came.
For her pride sustained her; and when that failed, her love came to her aid.
How she loved him, how she clung to him in those days, no one but Maurice knew; in her bitterest hours his words had power to comfort her and take the sting from her pain. When it was possible, she hid her troubles from him, and never added to his by vain repinings and regrets.
But in spite of Nea's courage and Maurice's patience, they had a terribly hard life of it.
At first Maurice's efforts to find another clerkship were in vain, and they were compelled to live on the proceeds of the check; then Nea sold her jewels, that they might have something to fall back upon. But presently Mr. Dobson came to their aid.
He had a large family, and could not do much, as he told them, sorrowfully; but he found Maurice, with some trouble, a small clerkship at eighty pounds a year, advising him at the same time to eke out their scanty income by taking in copying work of an evening.
Indeed, as Maurice discovered many a time in his need, he did not want a friend as long as the good manager lived.
And so those two young creatures took up the heavy burden of their life, and carried it with tolerable patience and courage; and as in the case of our first parents, exiled by a woman's weakness from the fair gardens of Paradise, so, though they reaped thorns and thistles, and earned their bread by the sweat of their brow, yet the bitter-sweet memories of their lost Eden abode with them, and in their poverty they tasted many an hour of pure unsullied love.
For they were young, and youth's courage is high, and the burden of those days was not yet too hard to be borne.
Nea longed to help Maurice, but her pride, always her chief fault, came as a stumbling-block in her way; she could not bear to go into the world and face strangers. And Maurice on his side could not endure the thought that his beautiful young wife should be exposed to slights and humiliations; so Nea's fine talent wasted by misuse.
Still, even these scruples would have faded under the pressure of severer needs, had no children come to weaken Nea's strength and keep her drudging at home.
Nea had never seen her father nor heard anything from him all this time. Maurice, it was true, had humbled himself again and again, but his letters had all been returned unopened.
But when her boy was born, Nea's heart, softened by the joys of maternity, yearned passionately for a reconciliation, and by her husband's advice, she stifled all feelings of resentment, and wrote as she had never written before, as she never could write again, but all in vain; the letter was returned, and in her weakened state Nea would have fretted herself to death over that unopened letter if it had not been for her husband's tenderness and her baby's innocent face.
How the young mother doated on her child! To her he was a miracle, a revelation. Nature had opened a fount of consolation in her troubles. She would lie patiently for hours on her couch, watching her baby in his sleep. Maurice, coming in jaded and weary from his work, would pause on the threshold to admire the picture. He thought his wife never looked so beautiful as when she had their boy in her arms.
And so the years passed on. Maurice worked, and struggled, and pinched, till his face grew old and careworn, and the hard racking cough began to make itself heard, and Nea's fine color faded, for the children were coming fast now, and the days were growing darker and darker.
By and by there was a baby girl, with her father's eyes, and beautiful as a little angel; then twin boys whom Nea kissed and fondled for a few weeks, and then laid in their little coffins; then another boy who only lived two years; and lastly, after a long lapse of time, another girl.
But when this one was born the end was fast approaching. Mr. Huntingdon had been abroad for a year or two, and had just returned to Belgrave House—so Mr. Dobson informed Nea when he dropped in one evening on one of his brief visits—and he had brought with him a young widowed niece and her boy.
Nea remembered her cousin Erle Huntingdon and the dark-eyed girl whom he had married and taken with him to Naples; but she had never heard of his death.
Doubtless her father meant to put Beatrice in her place, and make the younger Erle his heir; and Nea sighed bitterly as she looked at her boy playing about the room. Mr. Dobson interpreted the sight aright.
"Try again, Mrs. Trafford," he said, holding out his hand as he rose; "humble yourself in the dust, for the sake of your children." And Nea took his advice, but she never had any answer to her letter, and soon after that their kind old friend, Mr. Dobson, died, and then everything went wrong.
Maurice's employer gave up business, and his successor, a hard grasping man, found fault with Maurice's failing health, and dismissed him as an incompetent clerk; and this time Maurice found himself without friends.
For a little time longer he struggled on, though broken in heart and health.
They left their comfortable lodgings and took cheaper ones, and sold every article of furniture that was not absolutely necessary; and the day before her baby was born, Nea, weeping bitterly, took her last relic, her mother's portrait, from the locket set with pearls from her neck, and asked Maurice to sell the little ornament.
All through that long illness, though Heaven only knows how, Maurice struggled on.
Ill himself, he nursed his sick wife with patient care and tenderness.
Nea and her little ones had always plenty of nourishing food, though he himself often went without the comforts he needed; he kept the children quiet, he did all and more than all a woman would have done, before, worn out at last in body and mind, he laid himself down, never to rise again.
And Nea, going to him with her sickly baby in her arms, saw a look on his face that terrified her, and knelt down by his side, while he told her between his paroxysms of coughing what little there was to tell.
She knew it all now; she knew the poor, brave heart had been slowly breaking for years, and had given way at last; she knew what he had suffered to see the woman he loved dragged down to the level of his poverty, and made to endure such bitterness of humiliation; she knew, when it was too late, that the man was crushed under the consequences of his weakness, that his remorse was killing him; and that he would seal his repentance with his life. And then came from his pale lips a whispered entreaty that Nea shuddered to hear.
"Dearest," he had said, when she had implored him to say what she could do to comfort him, "there is one thing; go to your father. Yes, my darling," as she shivered at his words, "go to him yourself; let him see your dear face that has grown so thin and pale; perhaps he will see for himself, and have pity. Tell him I am dying, and that I can not die in peace until he has promised to forgive you, and take care of you and the children. You will do this for me, Nea, will you not? You know how I have suffered, and will not refuse me."
Had she ever refused him anything? Nea kissed the drawn pallid face without a word, tied on her shabby bonnet, and took her baby in her arms—it was a puny, sickly creature, and wailed incessantly, and she could not leave it—then with tears blinding her poor eyes, she walked rapidly through the dark streets, hardly feeling the cutting wind, and quite unconscious of the driving sleet that pelted her face with icy particles.
For her heart felt like a stone; Maurice was dying; but no! he should not die: with her own hands she would hold back her beloved from the entrance to the dark valley; she would minister to his fainting soul the cordial of a tardy forgiveness, though she should be forced to grovel for it at her father's feet. And then all at once she suddenly stopped, and found she was clinging, panting for breath, to some area railings, that the baby was crying miserably on her bosom, and that she was looking through the open door into her father's hall.
There was a carriage standing there, and a footman was shivering as he walked up and down the pavement. No one took notice of the beggar-woman as they thought her, and Nea, moved by a strange impulse and desire for warmth and comfort, crept a few steps nearer and looked in.
There was a boy in a velvet tunic sliding up and down the gilded balustrades; and a tall woman with dark hair, and a diamond cross on her white neck, swept through the hall in her velvet dress and rebuked him. The boy laughed merrily and went a few steps higher.
"Beatrice and the young Erle Huntingdon," said Nea to herself. And then a tall thin shadow fell across the door-way, and, uttering a half-stifled cry, Nea saw her father, saw his changed face, his gray hair and bowed figure, before she threw herself in his way.
And so, under the gas-light, with servants watching them curiously, Mr. Huntingdon and his daughter met again. One who stood near him says an awful pallor, like the pallor of death, came over his face for an instant when he saw her standing before him with her baby in her arms, but in the next he would have moved on had she not caught him by the arm.
"Father," she sobbed; "father, come with me. Maurice is dying. My husband is dying; but he says he can not die until he has your forgiveness. Come home with me; come home with your own Nea, father;" but he shook off her grasp, and began to descend the steps.
"Here, Stephen," he said, taking some gold from his pocket; "give this to the woman and send her away. Come, Beatrice, I am ready."
Merciful Heaven! had this man a human heart, that he should disown his own flesh and blood? Would it have been wonderful if she had spoken bitter scathing words to the unnatural parent who was driving her from his door? But Nea never spoke, she only turned away with a shudder from the sight of the proffered gold, and then drawing her thin cloak still closer round her child, turned wearily away.
True, she had sinned; but her punishment was a hundred times greater than her sin, she said to herself, and that was all. What a strange stunned quietness was over her; the pain and the fever seemed all burned out. She did not suffer now. If something that felt like an iron claw would leave off gripping her heart, she could almost have felt comfortable. Maurice must die, she knew that, but something else had died before him. She wondered if it were this same heart of hers; and then she noticed her baby's hood was crooked, and stopped at the next lamp-post to put it straight, and felt a vague sort of pity for it, when she saw its face was pinched and blue with cold, and pressed it closer to her, though she rather hoped to find it dead when she reached home.
"One less to suffer and to starve," thought Nea.
Maurice's wistful eyes greeted her when she opened the door, but she only shook her head and said nothing; what had she to say? She gave her half-frozen infant into a neighbor's care, and then sat down and drew Maurice's face to her bosom, still speechless in that awful apathy.
And there she sat hour after hour, till he died peacefully in her arms, and his last words were, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins."
* * * * *
When she had ceased to wish for them, friends came around her in her trouble, and ministered to her wants.
Kind faces followed Maurice to his last resting-place, and saved him from a pauper's grave.
The widow and her children were clothed in decent mourning, and placed in comfortable lodgings.
Nea never roused from her silent apathy, never looked at them or thanked them.
Their kindness had come too late for her, she said to herself, and it was not until long afterward that she knew that she owed all this consideration to the family of their kind old friend Mr. Dobson, secretly aided by the purse of her cousin Beatrice Huntingdon, who dare not come in person to see her. But by and by they spoke very firmly and kindly to her. They pointed to her children—they had placed her boy at an excellent school—and told her that for their sakes she must live and work. If she brooded longer in that sullen despair she would die or go mad; and they brought her baby to her, and watched its feeble arms trying to clasp her neck; saw the widow's passionate tears rain on its innocent face—the tears that saved the poor hot brain—and knew she was saved; and by and by, when they thought she had regained her strength, they asked her gently what she could do. Alas! she had suffered her fine talents to rust. They had nothing but impoverished material to use; but at last they found her a situation with two maiden ladies just setting up a school in the neighborhood, and here she gave daily lessons.
And so, as the years went on, things became a little brighter.
Nea found her work interesting, her little daughter Fern accompanied her to the school, and she taught her with her other pupils.
Presently the day's labor became light to her, and she could look forward to the evening when her son, fetching her on his way from school, would escort her home—a humble home it was true; but when she looked at her boy's handsome face, and Fern's innocent beauty, and felt her little one's caresses, as she climbed up into her lap, the widow owned that her lot had its compensations.
But the crowning trial was yet to come; the last drop of concentrated bitterness.
Not long after Maurice's death, Mr. Huntingdon made his first overture of reconciliation through his lawyer.
His niece, Beatrice, had died suddenly, and her boy was fretting sadly for his mother.
Some one had pointed out to Mr. Huntingdon one day a dark-eyed handsome boy in deep mourning, looking at the riders in Rotten Row, and had told him that it was his grandson, Percy Trafford.
Mr. Huntingdon had said nothing at the time, but the boy's face and noble bearing haunted him, he was so like his mother, when as a child she had played about the rooms at Belgrave House. Perhaps, stifle it as he might, the sobbing voice of his daughter rang in his ears, "Come home with your own Nea, father;" and in spite of his pride his conscience was beginning to torment him.
Nea smiled scornfully when she listened to the lawyer's overtures. Mr. Huntingdon was willing to condone the past with regard to her son Percy. He would take the boy, educate him, and provide for him most liberally, though she must understand that his nephew, Erle, would be his heir; still on every other point the boys should have equal advantages.
"And Belgrave House, the home where my boy is to live, will be closed to his mother?" asked Nea, still with that delicate scorn on her face.
The lawyer looked uncomfortable.
"I have no instructions on that point, Mrs. Trafford; I was simply to guarantee that he should be allowed to see you from time to time, as you and he might wish it."
"I can not entertain the proposal for a moment," she returned, decidedly; but at his strong remonstrance she at last consented that when her boy was a little older, the matter should be laid before him; but no doubt as to his choice crossed her mind. Percy had always been an affectionate child; nothing would induce him to give up his mother.
But she became less confident as the days went on; Percy grew a little selfish and headstrong, he wanted a man's will to dominate him; his narrow, confined life and the restraints that their poverty enforced on them made him discontented. One day he encountered the lawyer who had spoken to his mother—he was going to her again, with a letter that Mr. Huntingdon had written to his daughter—and as he looked at Percy, who was standing idly on the door-step, he put his hand on his shoulder, and bade him show him the way.
Nea turned very pale as she read the letter. It was very curt and business-like; it repeated the offer he had before made with regard to her son Percy, only adding that for the boy's future prospects it would be well not to refuse his terms. This was the letter that, after a moment's hesitation, Nea placed in her boy's hands.
"Well, mother," he exclaimed, and his eyes sparkled with eagerness and excitement, "I call that splendid; I shall be a rich man one of these days, and then you will see what I shall do for you, and Fern, and Fluff."
"Do you mean that you wish to leave us, Percy, and to live in your grandfather's house?" she returned, trying to speak calmly. "You know what I have told you—you were old enough to understand what your father suffered? and—and," with a curious faintness creeping over her "you see for yourself there is no mention of me in that letter. Belgrave House is closed to your mother."
"Yes, I know, and it is an awful shame, but never mind, mother, I shall come and see you very often;" and then when the lawyer had left them to talk it over, he dilated with boyish eagerness on the advantage to them all if he accepted his grandfather's offer. His mother would be saved the expense of his education, she would not have to work so hard; he would be rich himself, and would be able to help them. But at this point she stopped him.
"Understand once for all, Percy," she said with a sternness that he had never seen in her, "that the advantage will be solely for yourself; neither I nor your sisters will ever accept help that comes from Belgrave House; your riches will be nothing to me, my son. Think again, before you give up your mother."
He would never give her up, he said, with a rough boyish caress; he should see her often—often, and it was wicked, wrong to talk about refusing his help; he would talk to his grandfather and make him ashamed of himself—indeed there was no end to the glowing plans he made. Nea's heart sickened as she heard him, she knew his boyish selfishness and restlessness were leading him astray, and some of the bitterest tears she ever shed were shed that night.
But from that day she ceased to plead with him, and before many weeks were over Percy had left his mother's humble home, and after a short stay at Belgrave House, was on his way to Eton with his cousin Erle Huntingdon.
Percy never owned in his secret heart that he had done a mean thing in giving up his mother for the splendors of Belgrave House, that the thought that her son was living in the home that was closed to her was adding gall and bitterness to the widow's life; he thought he was proving himself a dutiful son when he came to see her so often, though the visits were scarcely all he wished them to be.
True, his mother never reproached him, and always welcomed him kindly, but her lips were closed on all that related to his home life. She could speak of his school-fellows and studies, but of his grandfather, and of his new pony and fine gun she would not speak, or even care to hear about them. When he took her his boyish gifts they were quietly but firmly returned to him. Even poor little Florence, or Fluff as they called her, was obliged to give back the blue-eyed doll that he had bought for her. Fluff had fretted so about the loss of the doll that her mother had bought her another.
Percy carried away his gifts, and did not come for a long time. His mother's white wistful face seemed to put him in the wrong. "Any other fellow would have done the same under the circumstances," thought Percy, sullenly; "I think my mother is too hard on me;" but even his conscience misgave him, when he would see her turn away sometimes with the tears in her eyes, after one of his boasting speeches. He was too young to be hardened. He knew, yes, surely he must have known? that he was grieving the tenderest heart in the world, and one day he would own that not all his grandfather's wealth could compensate him for being a traitor to his mother.
THE WEE WIFIE.
And that same God who made your face so fair, And gave your woman's heart its tenderness, So shield the blessing He implanted there, That it may never turn to your distress, And never cost you trouble or despair, Nor granted leave the granted comfortless, But like a river blest where'er it flows, Be still receiving while it still bestows.
So far, that my doom is, I love thee still, Let no man dream but that I love thee still.
"Shall we soon be home, Hugh?"
"Very soon, Wee Wifie."
"Then please put down that great crackling paper behind which you have been asleep the last two hours, and talk to me a little. I want to know the names of the villages through which we are passing, the big houses, and the people who live in them, that I may not enter my dear new home a perfect stranger to its surroundings;" and Lady Redmond shook out her furs, and settled herself anew with fresh dignity.
Sir Hugh yawned for the twentieth time behind his paper, rubbed his eyes, stretched himself, and then let down the window and looked absently down the long country road winding through stubble land; and then at the eddying heaps of dry crisp leaves now blown by a strong November wind under the horses' feet, and now whirling in crazy circles like witches on Walpurgis's night, until after a shivering remonstrance from his little wife he put up the window with a jerk, and threw himself back with a discontented air on the cushions.
"There is nothing to be seen for a mile or two, Fay, and it is growing dusk now; it will soon be too dark to distinguish a single object;" and so saying, he relapsed into silence, and took up the obnoxious paper again, though the words were scarcely legible in the twilight; while the young bride tried to restrain her weariness, and sat patiently in her corner. Poor Hugh, he was already secretly repenting of the hasty step he had taken; two months of Alpine scenery, of quaint old German cities, of rambling through galleries of art treasures with his child-bride, and Hugh had already wearied of his new bonds. All at once he had awakened from his brief delusion with an agony of remembrance, with a terrible heart longing and homesickness, with a sense of satiety and vacuum. Fay's gentleness and beauty palled on him; her artless questioning fatigued him. In his secret soul he cried out that she was a mere child and no mate for him, and that he wanted Margaret.
If he had only told his young wife, if he had confided to her pure soul the secret that burdened his, child as she was, she would have understood and pitied and forgiven him; the very suffering would have given her added womanliness and gained his respect, and through that bitter knowledge, honestly told and generously received, a new and better Fay would have risen to win her husband's love.
But he did not tell her—such a thought never entered his mind. So day by day her youth and innocent gayety only alienated him more, until he grew to look upon her as a mere child, who must be petted and humored, but who could never be his friend.
Yes, he was bringing home his bride to Redmond Hall, and that bride was not Margaret. In place of Margaret's grand face, framed in its dead-brown hair and deep, pathetic eyes, was a childish face, with a small rosebud mouth that was just now quivering and plaintive.
"Dear Hugh, I am so very tired, and you will not talk to me," in a sad babyish voice.
"Will talking rest you, Birdie," asked Hugh, dropping his paper and taking the listless little hand kindly.
Fay drooped her head, for she was ashamed of the bright drops that stole through her lashes from very weariness. Hugh would think her babyish and fretful. She must not forget she was Lady Redmond; so she answered without looking up,
"We have been traveling since day-break this morning, you know, Hugh, and it is all so fresh and strange to me, and I want to hear your voice to make it seem real somehow; perhaps I feel stupid because I am tired, but I had an odd fancy just now that it was all a dream, and that I should wake up in my little room at the cottage and find myself again Fay Mordaunt."
"Is not the new name prettier, dear?" observed her husband, gently.
Fay colored and hesitated, and finally hid her face in shy fashion on Hugh's shoulder, while she glanced at the little gold ring that shone so brightly in the dusk.
"Fay Redmond," she whispered. "Oh yes, it is far prettier," and a tender smile came to her face, an expression of wonderful beauty. "Did ever name sound half so sweet as that?"
"What is my Wee Wifie thinking about?" asked Hugh at last, rousing himself with difficulty from another musing fit.
Fay raised her head with a little dignity.
"I wish you would not call me that, Hugh."
"Not call you what?" in genuine astonishment. "Why, are you not my Wee Wifie? I think it is the best possible name I could find for you; is it not pretty enough for your ladyship?"
"Yes, but it is so childish and will make people smile, and Aunt Griselda would be shocked, and—" but here she broke off, flushed and looking much distressed.
"Nay, give me all your reasons," said Hugh, kindly. "I can not know all that is in my little wife's heart yet."
But Hugh, as he said this, sighed involuntarily, as he thought how little he cared to trace the workings of that innocent young mind.
The gentleness of his tone gave Fay courage.
"I don't know, of course—at least I forget—but I am really sure that—that—'The Polite Match-Maker' would not consider it right."
"What?" exclaimed Hugh, opening his eyes wide and regarding Fay with amazement.
"'The Polite Match-Maker,' dear," faltered Fay, "the book that Aunt Griselda gave me to study when I was engaged, because she said that it contained all the necessary and fundamental rules for well-bred young couples. To be sure she smiled, and said it was a little old-fashioned; but I was so anxious to learn the rules perfectly that I read it over three or four times."
"And 'The Polite Match-Maker' would not approve of Wee Wifie, you think?" and Sir Hugh tried to repress a smile.
"Oh, I am sure of it," she returned, seriously; "the forms of address were so different."
"Give me an example, then, or I can hardly profit by the rule."
Fay had no need to consider, but she hesitated for all that. She was never sure how Hugh would take things when he had that look on his face. She did not want him to laugh at her.
"Of course it is old-fashioned, as Aunt Griselda says; but I know the 'Match-Maker' considered 'Honored Wife,' or 'Dearest Madame,' the correct form of address." And as Hugh burst out laughing, she continued, in a slightly injured tone—"Of course I know that people do not use those terms now, but all the same, I am sure Aunt Griselda would not think Wee Wifie sufficiently respectful,"—and here Fay looked ready to cry—"and though the book is old-fashioned she said many of the rules were excellent."
"But, Fay," remonstrated her husband, "does it not strike you that the rules must be obsolete, savoring of the days of Sir Charles Grandison and Clarissa Harlowe? Pshaw!" with a frown, "I forgot I was gauging a child's intellect. Well," turning to her, "what is your busy little mind hatching now?"
"Dear Hugh?" stammered Fay, timidly, "I know I am very ignorant, and I ought to know better, and I will look in the dictionary as soon as I—but I do not know the meaning of the word obsolete."
"Pshaw!" again muttered Sir Hugh; then aloud, "The term, honored madame, signifies disused, out of date, ancient, antiquated, antique, neglected, and so on."
"Ah, Hugh, now I know you are laughing at me; but," rather anxiously, "the 'Match-Maker' can not be all wrong, can it? It is only what you call obsolete."
"My dear child," answered Hugh, gravely, "you can trust your husband's judgment, I hope, before even this wonderful book—in this matter I am sure you can; and in my opinion the prettiest name I could have selected is this 'Wee Wifie.' It pleases me," continued Hugh, his fine features working with secret pain. "It is no name of the past, it touches on no hoped-for future, and it reminds me of my little wife's claim to forbearance and sympathy from her extreme youth and ignorance of the world. To others you may be Lady Redmond, but to me you must ever be my Wee Wifie."
Fay clasped his neck with a little sob.
"Yes, you shall call me that. I know I am only a silly ignorant little thing, and you are so grand and wise; but you love your foolish little wife, do you not, Hugh?"
"Yes, of course;" but as Hugh hushed the rosy lips with that silencing kiss, his conscience felt an uneasy twinge. Did he really love her? Was such fondness worth the acceptance of any woman, when, with all his efforts, he could scarcely conceal his weariness of her society, and already the thought of the life-long tie that bound them together was becoming intolerable to him? But he shut his ears to the accusing voice that was ever whispering to him that his fatal error would bring its punishment. Well, he was responsible, humanly speaking, for the happiness of this young life; as far as he knew how, he would do his duty.
"Well, sweetheart," he observed, glancing enviously at Fay's bright face, now quite forgetful of fatigue—how could she be tired while Hugh talked to to her!—"what other amusing rules does this marvelous book contain?"
"I do think it is a marvelous book, though it is somewhat obsolete;" and here Fay stammered over the formidable word. "I know it said in one place that married people ought to have no secrets from each other, and that was why I told you about Frank Lumsden;" and here Fay blushed very prettily.
"Frank Lumsden," observed Hugh, in some perplexity; "I don't think I remember, Fay."
"Not remember what I told you that Sunday evening in the lane—the evening after we were engaged! How Mr. Lumsden wanted to tell me how he admired me, but I cried and would not let him; and he went away so unhappy, poor fellow. As though I could ever have cared for him," continued, Fay, with innocent scorn, as she looked up into Hugh's handsome face. He was regarding her attentively just then.
Yes, she was pretty, he knew that—lovely, no doubt, to her boy lovers. But to him, with the memory of Margaret's grand ideal beauty ever before him, Fay's pink and pearly bloom, though it was as purely tinted as the inner calyx of a rose, faded into mere color prettiness. And as yet the spell of those wonderful eyes, of which Frank Lumsden dreamed, had exercised no potent fascination over her husband's heart.
"Hugh," whispered Fay, softly, "you have not kept any secrets from me, have you? I know I am very young to share all your thoughts, but you will tell your little wife everything, will you not?"
No secrets from her! Heaven help her, poor child. Would she know—would she ever know? And with a great throb of pain his heart answered, "No."
"Why are you so silent, Hugh; you have no secrets surely?"
"Hush, dear, we can not talk any more now; we have passed the church and the vicarage already—we are nearly home;" and as he spoke they came in sight of the lodge, where Catharine was waiting with her baby in her arms.
Fay smiled and nodded, and then they turned in at the gate, and the darkness seemed to swallow them up.
The avenue leading to Redmond Hall was the glory of the whole neighborhood.
Wayfarers, toiling along the hot and dusty road that leads from Singleton to Sandycliffe, always paused to look through the great gate at the green paradise beyond.
It was like a glade in some forest, so deep was its shadowy gloom, so unbroken its repose; while the arrowy sun-shafts flickered patterns on the mossy footpaths, or drew a golden girdle round some time-worn trunk.
Here stood the grand old oaks, under whose branches many a Redmond played as a child in the days before the Restoration—long before the time when Marmaduke, fifth baronet of that name, joined the forces of Rupert, and fell fighting by the side of his dead sons.
Here too were the aged beeches; some with contorted boles, and marvelously twisted limbs, like Titans struggling in their death-throes, and others with the sap of youth still flowing through their woody veins, as they stood clothed in the beauty of their prime. Fay had often played in this wonderful avenue. She remembered, when she was a child, rambling with her nurse in the Redmond woods, with their copses of nut-trees and wild-rose thickets; and their tiny sylvan lawns, starred over with woodland flowers, such as Spenser would have peopled "with bearded Fauns and Satyrs, who with their horned feet do wear the ground, and all the woody nymphs—the fair Hamadryades;" but though she peered eagerly out in the darkness, she could see nothing but the carriage lamps flashing on some bare trunk or gaunt skeleton branches.
"Dear Hugh," she whispered, timidly, "how gloomy and strange it looks—just like an enchanted forest."
"They have not thought fit to cut down the trees to give light to your ladyship," observed her husband, laughing at her awe-struck tone. "Give me your hand, you foolish child; when we have passed the next turning you will see the old Hall. There will be light enough there;" and scarcely had the words passed his lips before the Hall burst upon them—a long low range of building, with its many windows brilliantly illuminated and ruddy with firelight, while through the open door the forms of the assembled servants moved hither and thither in a warm background of light.
"What a lovely old place," cried Fay, breathless with excitement. "I had almost forgotten how beautiful it was, but I shall see it better by daylight to-morrow."