ROBERT W. CHAMBERS
"It is at best but a mixture of a little good with much evil and a little pleasure with much pain; the beautiful is linked with the revolting, the trivial with the solemn, bathos with pathos, the commonplace with the sublime."
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY NEW YORK AND LONDON 1910
COPTRIGHT, 1910, BY
ROBERT W. CHAMBERS
Copyright, 1910, by The Curtis Publishing Company
Published August, 1910
TO THE CONQUERORS WHO WON IMMORTAL VICTORY
"Arm yourselves and be Valiant Men, and see that ye rise up in readiness against the Dawn, that ye may do Battle with These that are Assembled against us. . . .
"For it is better to die in Battle than live to behold the Calamities of our own People. . . ."
"Lord, we took not the Land into Possession by our own Swords; neither was it our own Hands that helped us; but Thy Hand was a Buckler; and Thy right Arm a Shield, and the Light of Thy Countenance hath conquered forever."
AND TO THE VANQUISHED WHO WON IMMORTALITY
"We are the fallen, who, with helpless faces Low in the dust, in stiffening ruin lay, Felt the hoofs beat, and heard the rattling traces As o'er us drove the chariots of the fray.
"We are the fallen, who by ramparts gory, Awaiting death, heard the far shouts begin, And with our last glance glimpsed the victor's glory For which we died, but dying might not win.
"We were but men. Always our eyes were holden, We could not read the dark that walled us round, Nor deem our futile plans with Thine enfolden— We fought, not knowing God was on the ground.
"Aye, grant our ears to bear the foolish praising Of men—old voices of our lost home-land, Or else, the gateways of this dim world, raising, Give us our swords again, and hold Thy hand."
—W. H. WOODS.
Among the fifty-eight regiments of Zouaves and the seven regiments of Lancers enlisted in the service of the United States between 1861 and 1865 it will be useless for the reader to look for any record of the 3d Zouaves or of the 8th Lancers. The red breeches and red fezzes of the Zouaves clothed many a dead man on Southern battle-fields; the scarlet swallow-tailed pennon of the Lancers fluttered from many a lance-tip beyond the Potomac; the histories of these sixty-five regiments are known. But no history of the 3d Zouaves or of the 8th Lancers has ever been written save in this narrative; and historians and veterans would seek in vain for any records of these two regiments—regiments which might have been, but never were.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"'It is there, in you—all that I believed'"
"What an insolently reckless head it was!"
"'I won it fairly, and I'm going to stake it all on one last bet'"
"'Is Ormond your name?'"
"'Must you go so soon? So soon?'"
"He dismounted and clutched the senseless carbineer"
"She dropped on her knees at his bedside and hid her face on his hands"
"'Phillip—Phillip—my lover, my country, my God—worshipped and adored of men!'"
The butler made an instinctive movement to detain him, but he flung him aside and entered the drawing-room, the servant recovering his equilibrium and following on a run. Light from great crystal chandeliers dazzled him for a moment; the butler again confronted him but hesitated under the wicked glare from his eyes. Then through the brilliant vista, the young fellow caught a glimpse of a dining-room, a table where silver and crystal glimmered, and a great gray man just lowering a glass of wine from his lips to gaze at him with quiet curiosity.
The next moment he traversed the carpeted interval between them and halted at the table's damask edge, gazing intently across at the solitary diner, who sat leaning back in an arm-chair, heavy right hand still resting on the stem of a claret glass, a cigar suspended between the fingers of his left hand.
"Are you Colonel Arran?"
"I am," replied the man at the table coolly. "Who the devil are you?"
"By God," replied the other with an insolent laugh, "that's what I came here to find out!"
The man at the table laid both hands on the edge of the cloth and partly rose from his chair, then fell back solidly, in silence, but his intent gaze never left the other's bloodless face.
"Send away your servants, Colonel Arran!" said the young man in a voice now labouring under restraint. "We'll settle this matter now."
The other made as though to speak twice; then, with an effort, he motioned to the butler.
What he meant by the gesture perhaps he himself scarcely realised at the moment.
The butler instantly signalled to Pim, the servant behind Colonel Arran's chair, and started forward with a furtive glance at his master; and the young man turned disdainfully to confront him.
"Will you retire peaceably, sir?"
"No, but you will retire permanently if you touch me. Be very careful."
Colonel Arran leaned forward, hands still gripping the table's edge:
"You may go."
The small gray eyes in the pock-pitted face stole toward young Berkley, then were cautiously lowered.
"Very well, sir," he said.
"Close the drawing-room doors. No—this way. Go out through the pantry. And take Pim with you."
"Very well, sir."
"When I want you I'll ring. Until then I don't want anybody or anything. Is that understood?"
"That is all."
"Thank you, sir."
The great mahogany folding doors slid smoothly together, closing out the brilliant drawing-room; the door of the butler's pantry clicked.
Colonel Arran slowly wheeled in his place and surveyed his unbidden guest:
"Well, sir," he said, "continue."
"I haven't yet begun."
"You are mistaken, Berkley; you have made a very significant beginning. I was told that you are this kind of a young man."
"I am this kind of a young man. What else have you been told?"
Colonel Arran inspected him through partly closed and heavy eyes; "I am further informed," he said, that at twenty-four you have already managed to attain bankruptcy."
"Perfectly correct. What other items have you collected concerning me?"
"You can retrace your own peregrinations if you care to. I believe they follow a vicious circle bisecting the semi-fashionable world, and the—other. Shall we say that the expression, unenviable notoriety, summarises the reputation you have acquired?"
"Exactly," he said; "both kinds of vice, Colonel Arran—respectable and disreputable."
"Oh! And am I correct in concluding that, at this hour, you stand there a financially ruined man—at twenty-four years of age——"
"I do stand here; but I'm going to sit down."
He did so, dropped both elbows on the cloth, and balancing his chin on the knuckles of his clasped hands, examined the older man with insolent, unchanging gaze.
"Go on," he said coolly, "what else do you conclude me to be?"
"What else is there to say to you, Berkley? You have evidently seen my attorneys."
"I have; the fat shyster and the bow-legged one." He reached over, poured himself a glass of brandy from a decanter, then, with an unpleasant laugh, set it aside untasted.
"I beg your pardon. I've had a hard day of it. I'm not myself," he said with an insolent shrug of excuse. "At eleven o'clock this morning Illinois Central had fallen three more points, and I had no further interest in the market. Then one of your brokers—" He leaned farther forward on the table and stared brightly at the older man, showing an edge of even teeth, under the receding upper lip:
"How long have your people been watching me?"
"Long enough to give me what information I required."
"Then you really have had me watched?"
"I have chosen to keep in touch with your—career, Berkley."
Berkley's upper lip again twitched unpleasantly; but, when at length he spoke, he spoke more calmly than before and his mobile features were in pallid repose.
"One of your brokers—Cone—stopped me. I was too confused to understand what he wanted of me. I went with him to your attorneys—" Like lightning the snarl twitched his mouth again; he made as though to rise, and controlled himself in the act.
"Where are the originals of those letters?" he managed to say at last.
"In this house."
"Am I to have them?"
"I think so."
"So do I," said the young man with a ghastly smile. "I'm quite sure of it."
Colonel Arran regarded him in surprise.
"There is no occasion for violence in this house, Berkley."
"Where are the letters?"
"Have you any doubts concerning what my attorneys have told you? The originals are at your immediate disposal if you wish."
Then Berkley struck the table fiercely, and stood up, as claret splashed and trembling crystal rang.
"That's all I want of you!" he said. "Do you understand what you've done? You've killed the last shred of self-respect in me! Do you think I'd take anything at your hands? I never cared for anybody in the world except my mother. If what your lawyers tell me is true—" His voice choked; he stood swaying a moment, face covered by his hands,
The young man's hands fell; he faced the other, who had risen to his heavy six-foot height, confronting him across the table.
"Berkley, whatever claim you have on me—and I'm ignoring the chance that you have none——"
"By God, I tell you I have none! I want none! What you have done to her you have done to me! What you and your conscience and your cruelty and your attorneys did to her twenty-four years ago, you have done this day to me! As surely as you outlawed her, so have you outlawed me to-day. That is what I now am, an outlaw!"
"It was insulted civilisation that punished, not I, Berkley——"
"It was you! You took your shrinking pound of flesh. I know your sort. Hell is full of them singing psalms!"
Colonel Arran sat silently stern a moment. Then the congested muscles, habituated to control, relaxed again. He said, under perfect self-command:
"You'd better know the truth. It is too late now to discuss whose fault it was that the trouble arose between your mother and me. We lived together only a few weeks. She was in love with her cousin; she didn't realise it until she'd married me. I have nothing more to say on that score; she tried to be faithful, I believe she was; but he was a scoundrel. And she ended by thinking me one.
"Even before I married her I was made painfully aware that our dispositions and temperaments were not entirely compatible. I think," he added grimly, "that in the letters read to you this afternoon she used the expression, 'ice and fire,' in referring to herself and me."
Berkley only looked at him.
"There is now nothing to be gained in reviewing that unhappy affair," continued the other. "Your mother's family are headlong, impulsive, fiery, unstable, emotional. There was a last shameful and degrading scene. I offered her a separation; but she was unwisely persuaded to sue for divorce."
Colonel Arran bent his head and touched his long gray moustache with bony fingers.
"The proceeding was farcical; the decree a fraud. I warned her; but she snapped her fingers at me and married her cousin the next day. . . . And then I did my duty by civilisation."
Still Berkley never stirred. The older man looked down at the wine-soiled cloth, traced the outline of the crimson stain with unsteady finger. Then, lifting his head:
"I had that infamous decree set aside," he said grimly. "It was a matter of duty and of conscience, and I did it without remorse. . . . They were on what they supposed to be a wedding trip. But I had warned her." He shrugged his massive shoulders. "If they were not over-particular they were probably happy. Then he broke his neck hunting—before you were born."
"Was he my father?"
"I am taking the chance that he was not."
"You had reason to believe——"
"I thought so. But—your mother remained silent. And her answer to my letters was to have you christened under the name you bear to-day, Philip Ormond Berkley. And then, to force matters, I made her status clear to her. Maybe—I don't know—but my punishment of her may have driven her to a hatred of me—a desperation that accepted everything—even you!"
Berkley lifted a countenance from which every vestige of colour had fled.
"Why did you tell me this?"
"Because I believe that there is every chance—that you may be legally entitled to my name. Since I have known who you are, I—I have had you watched. I have hesitated—a long while. My brokers have watched you for a year, now; my attorneys for much longer. To-day you stand in need of me, if ever you have stood in need of anybody. I take the chance that you have that claim on me; I offer to receive you, provide for you. That is all, Berkley. Now you know everything."
"Knows what you did to my mother?"
"Some people among the families immediately concerned," replied Colonel Arran coolly.
"Who are they?"
"Your mother's relatives, the Paiges, the Berkleys—my family, the Arrans, the Lents——"
"What Lents?" interrupted the young man looking up sharply.
"They live in Brooklyn. There's a brother and a sister, orphans; and an uncle. Captain Josiah Lent."
"Oh. . . . Who else?"
"A Mrs. Craig who lives in Brooklyn. She was Celia Paige, your mother's maid of honour."
"A sister-in-law of Mrs. Craig, formerly my ward. She is now a widow, a Mrs. Paige, living on London Terrace. She, however, has no knowledge of the matter in question; nor have the Lents, nor any one in the Craig family except Mrs. Craig."
"I see. . . . And, as I understand it, you are now stepping forward to offer me—on the chance of—of——"
"I offer you a place in this house as my son. I offer to deal with you as a father—accepting that belief and every responsibility, and every duty, and every sacrifice that such a belief entails,"
For a long time the young fellow stood there without stirring, pallid, his dark, expressionless eyes, fixed on space. And after a while he spoke.
"Colonel Arran, I had rather than all the happiness on earth, that you had left me the memory of my mother. You have chosen not to do so. And now, do you think I am likely to exchange what she and I really are, for anything more respectable that you believe you can offer?
"How, under God, you could have punished her as you did—how you could have reconciled your conscience to the invocation of a brutal law which rehabilitated you at the expense of the woman who had been your wife—how you could have done this in the name of duty and of conscience, I can not comprehend.
"I do not believe that one drop of your blood runs in my veins."
He bent forward, laying his hands flat on the cloth, then gripping it fiercely in clenched fists:
"All I want of you is what was my mother's. I bear the name she gave me; it pleased her to bestow it; it is good enough for me to wear. If it be hers only, or if it was also my father's, I do not know; but that name, legitimate or otherwise, is not for exchange! I will keep it, Colonel Arran. I am what I am."
He hesitated, rigid, clenching and unclenching his hands—then drew a deep, agonised breath:
"I suppose you have meant to be just to me, I wish you might have dealt more mercifully with my mother. As for what you have done to me—well—if she was illegally my mother, I had rather be her illegitimate son than the son of any woman who ever lived within the law. Now may I have her letters?"
"Is that your decision, Berkley?"
"It is. I want only her letters from you—and any little keepsakes—relics—if there be any——"
"I offer to recognise you as my son."
"I decline—believing that you mean to be just—and perhaps kind—God knows what you do mean by disinterring the dead for a son to look back upon——"
"Could I have offered you what I offer, otherwise?"
"Man! Man! You have nothing to offer me! Your silence was the only kindness you could have done me! You have killed something in me. I don't know what, yet—but I think it was the best part of me."
"Berkley, do you suppose that I have entered upon this matter lightly?"
Berkley laughed, showing his teeth. "No. It was your damned conscience; and I suppose you couldn't strangle it. I am sorry you couldn't. Sometimes a strangled conscience makes men kinder."
Colonel Arran rang. A dark flush had overspread his forehead; he turned to the butler.
"Bring me the despatch box which stands on: my study table."
Berkley, hands behind his back, was pacing the dining-room carpet.
"Would you accept a glass of wine?" asked Colonel Arran in a low voice.
Berkley wheeled on him with a terrible smile.
"Shall a man drink wine with the slayer of souls?" Then, pallid face horribly distorted, he stretched out a shaking arm. "Not that you ever could succeed in getting near enough to murder hers! But you've killed mine. I know now what died in me. It was that! . . . And I know now, as I stand here excommunicated by you from all who have been born within the law, that there is not left alive in me one ideal, one noble impulse, one spiritual conviction. I am what your righteousness has made me—a man without hope; a man with nothing alive in him except the physical brute. . . . Better not arouse that."
"You do not know what you are saying, Berkley"—Colonel Arran choked; turned gray; then a spasm twitched his features and he grasped the arms of his chair, staring at Berkley with burning eyes.
Neither spoke again until Larraway entered, carrying an inlaid box.
"Thank you, Larraway. You need not wait."
"Thank you, sir."
When they were again alone Colonel Arran unlocked and opened the box, and, behind the raised lid, remained invisibly busy for some little time, apparently sorting and re-sorting the hidden contents. He was so very long about it that Berkley stirred at last in his chair; and at the same moment the older man seemed to arrive at an abrupt decision, for he closed the lid and laid two packages on the cloth between them.
"Are these mine?" asked Berkley.
"They are mine," corrected the other quietly, "but I choose to yield them to you."
"Thank you," said Berkley. There was a hint of ferocity in his voice. He took the letters, turned around to look for his hat, found it, and straightened up with a long, deep intake of breath.
"I think there is nothing more to be said between us, Colonel Arran?"
"That lies with you."
Berkley passed a steady hand across his eyes. "Then, sir, there remain the ceremonies of my leave taking—" he stepped closer, level-eyed—"and my very bitter hatred."
There was a pause. Colonel Arran waited a moment, then struck the bell:
"Larraway, Mr. Berkley has decided to go."
"You will accompany Mr. Berkley to the door."
"And hand to Mr. Berkley the outer key of this house."
"And in case Mr. Berkley ever again desires to enter this house, he is to be admitted, and his orders are to be obeyed by every servant in it."
Colonel Arran rose trembling. He and Berkley looked at each other; then both bowed; and the butler ushered out the younger man.
"Pardon—the latch-key, sir."
Berkley took it, examined it, handed it back.
"Return it to Colonel Arran with Mr. Berkley's undying—compliments," he said, and went blindly out into the April night, but his senses were swimming as though he were drunk.
Behind him the door of the house of Arran clanged.
Larraway stood stealthily peering through the side-lights; then tiptoed toward the hallway and entered the dining-room with velvet tread.
"Port or brandy, sir?" he whispered at Colonel Arran's elbow.
The Colonel shook his head.
"Nothing more. Take that box to my study."
Later, seated at his study table before the open box, he heard Larraway knock; and he quietly laid away the miniature of Berkley's mother which had been lying in his steady palm for hours.
"Pardon. Mr. Berkley's key, with Mr. Berkley's compliments, sir." And he laid it upon the table by the box.
"Thank you. That will be all."
"Thank you, sir. Good night, sir."
The Colonel picked up the evening paper and opened it mechanically:
"By telegraph!" he read, "War inevitable. Postscript! Fort Sumter! It is now certain that the Government has decided to reinforce Major Andersen's command at all hazards——"
The lines in the Evening Post blurred under his eyes; he passed one broad, bony hand across them, straightened his shoulders, and, setting the unlighted cigar firmly between his teeth, composed himself to read. But after a few minutes he had read enough. He dropped deeper into his arm-chair, groping for the miniature of Berkley's mother.
As for Berkley, he was at last alone with his letters and his keepsakes, in the lodgings which he inhabited—and now would inhabit no more. The letters lay still unopened before him on his writing table; he stood looking at the miniatures and photographs, all portraits of his mother, from girlhood onward.
One by one he took them up, examined them—touched them to his lips, laid each away. The letters he also laid away unopened; he could not bear to read them now.
The French clock in his bedroom struck eight. He closed and locked his desk, stood looking at it blankly for a moment; then he squared his shoulders. An envelope lay open on the desk beside him.
"Oh—yes," he said aloud, but scarcely heard his own voice.
The envelope enclosed an invitation from one, Camilla Lent, to a theatre party for that evening, and a dance afterward.
He had a vague idea that he had accepted.
The play was "The Seven Sisters" at Laura, Keene's Theatre. The dance was somewhere—probably at Delmonico's. If he were going, it was time he was afoot.
His eyes wandered from one familiar object to another; he moved restlessly, and began to roam through the richly furnished rooms. But to Berkley nothing in the world seemed familiar any longer; and the strangeness of it, and the solitude were stupefying him.
When he became tired trying to think, he made the tour again in a stupid sort of way, then rang for his servant, Burgess, and started mechanically about his dressing.
Nothing any longer seemed real, not even pain.
He rang for Burgess again, but the fellow did not appear. So he dressed without aid. And at last he was ready; and went out, drunk with fatigue and the reaction from pain.
He did not afterward remember how he came to the theatre. Presently he found himself in a lower tier box, talking to a Mrs. Paige who, curiously, miraculously, resembled the girlish portraits of his mother—or he imagined so—until he noticed that her hair was yellow and her eyes blue. And he laughed crazily to himself, inwardly convulsed; and then his own voice sounded again, low, humorous, caressingly modulated; and he listened to it, amused that he was able to speak at all.
"And so you are the wonderful Ailsa Paige," he heard himself repeating. "Camilla wrote me that I must beware of my peace of mind the moment I first set eyes on you——"
"Camilla Lent is supremely silly, Mr. Berkley——"
"Camilla is a sibyl. This night my peace of mind departed for ever."
"May I offer you a little of mine?"
"I may ask more than that of you?"
"You mean a dance?"
"More than one."
"All of them. How many will you give me?"
"One. Please look at the stage. Isn't Laura Keene bewitching?"
"Your voice is."
"Such nonsense. Besides, I'd rather hear what Laura Keene is saying than listen to you."
"Do you mean it?"
"Incredible as it may sound, Mr. Berkley, I really do."
He dropped back in the box. Camilla laid her painted fan across his arm.
"Isn't Ailsa Paige the most enchanting creature you ever saw? I told you so! Isn't she?"
"Except one. I was looking at some pictures of her a half an hour ago."
"She must be very beautiful," sighed Camilla.
"Oh. . . . Is she dead?"
Camilla looked at the stage in horrified silence. Later she touched him again on the arm, timidly.
"Are you not well, Mr. Berkley?"
"You are so pale. Do look at Ailsa Paige. I am completely enamoured of her. Did you ever see such a lovely creature in all your life? And she is very young but very wise. She knows useful and charitable things—like nursing the sick, and dressing injuries, and her own hats. And she actually served a whole year in the horrible city hospital! Wasn't it brave of her!"
Berkley swayed forward to look at Ailsa Paige. He began to be tormented again by the feverish idea that she resembled the girl pictures of his mother. Nor could he rid himself of the fantastic impression. In the growing unreality of it all, in the distorted outlines of a world gone topsy-turvy, amid the deadly blurr of things material and mental, Ailsa Paige's face alone remained strangely clear. And, scarcely knowing what he was saying, he leaned forward to her shoulder again.
"There was only one other like you," he said. Mrs. Paige turned slowly and looked at him, but the quiet rebuke in her eyes remained unuttered.
"Be more genuine with me," she said gently. "I am worth it, Mr. Berkley."
Then, suddenly there seemed to run a pale flash through his brain,
"Yes," he said in an altered voice, "you are worth it. . . . Don't drive me away from you just yet."
"Drive you away?" in soft concern. "I did not mean——"
"You will, some day. But don't do it to-night." Then the quick, feverish smile broke out.
"Do you need a servant? I'm out of a place. I can either cook, clean silver, open the door, wash sidewalks, or wait on the table; so you see I have every qualification."
Smilingly perplexed, she let her eyes rest on his pallid face for a moment, then turned toward the stage again.
The "Seven Sisters" pursued its spectacular course; Ione Burke, Polly Marshall, and Mrs. Vining were in the cast; tableau succeeded tableau; "I wish I were in Dixie," was sung, and the popular burlesque ended in the celebrated scene, "The Birth of the Butterfly in the Bower of Ferns," with the entire company kissing their finger-tips to a vociferous and satiated audience.
Then it was supper at Delmonico's, and a dance—and at last the waltz promised him by Ailsa Paige.
Through the fixed unreality of things he saw her clearly, standing, awaiting him, saw her sensitive face as she quietly laid her hand on his—saw it suddenly alter as the light contact startled both.
Flushed, she looked up at him like a hurt child, conscious yet only of the surprise.
Dazed, he stared back. Neither spoke; his arm encircled her; both seemed aware of that; then only of the swaying rhythm of the dance, and of joined hands, and her waist imprisoned. Only the fragrance of her hair seemed real to him; and the long lashes resting on curved cheeks, and the youth of her yielding to his embrace.
Neither spoke when it had ended. She turned aside and stood motionless a moment, resting against the stair rail as though to steady herself. Her small head was lowered.
He managed to say: "You will give me the next?"
"Then the next——"
"No," she said, not moving.
A young fellow came up eagerly, cocksure of her, but she shook her head—and shook her head to all—and Berkley remained standing beside her. And at last her reluctant head turned slowly, and, slowly, her gaze searched his.
"Shall we rest?" he said.
"Yes. I am—tired."
Her dainty avalanche of skirts filled the stairs as she settled there in silence; he at her feet, turned sideways so that he could look up into the brooding, absent eyes.
And over them again—over the small space just then allotted them in the world—was settling once more the intangible, indefinable spell awakened by their first light contact. Through its silence hurried their pulses; through its significance her dazed young eyes looked out into a haze where nothing stirred except a phantom heart, beating, beating the reveille. And the spell lay heavy on them both.
"I shall bear your image always. You know it."
She seemed scarcely to have heard him.
"There is no reason in what I say. I know it. Yet—I am destined never to forget you."
She made no sign.
"Ailsa Paige," he said mechanically.
And after a long while, slowly, she looked down at him where he sat at her feet, his dark eyes fixed on space.
All the morning she had been busy in the Craig's backyard garden, clipping, training, loosening the earth around lilac, honeysuckle, and Rose of Sharon. The little German florist on the corner had sent in two loads of richly fertilised soil and a barrel of forest mould. These she sweetened with lime, mixed in her small pan, and applied judiciously to the peach-tree by the grape-arbour, to the thickets of pearl-gray iris, to the beloved roses, prairie climber, Baltimore bell, and General Jacqueminot. A neighbour's cat, war-scarred and bold, traversing the fences in search of single combat, halted to watch her; an early bee, with no blossoms yet to rummage, passed and repassed, buzzing distractedly.
The Craig's next-door neighbour, Camilla Lent, came out on her back veranda and looked down with a sleepy nod of recognition and good-morning, stretching her pretty arms luxuriously in the sunshine.
"You look very sweet down there, Ailsa, in your pink gingham apron and garden gloves."
"And you look very sweet up there, Camilla, in your muslin frock and satin skin! And every time you yawn you resemble a plump, white magnolia bud opening just enough to show the pink inside!"
"It's mean to call me plump!" returned Camilla reproachfully. "Anyway, anybody would yawn with the Captain keeping the entire household awake all night. I vow, I haven't slept one wink since that wretched news from Charleston. He thinks he's a battery of horse artillery now; that's the very latest development; and I shed tears and the chandeliers shed prisms every time he manoeuvres."
"The dear old thing," said Mrs. Paige, smiling as she moved among the shrubs. For a full minute her sensitive lips remained tenderly curved as she stood considering the agricultural problems before her. Then she settled down again, naively—like a child on its haunches—and continued to mix nourishment for the roses.
Camilla, lounging sideways on her own veranda window sill, rested her head against the frame, alternately blinking down at the pretty widow through sleepy eyes, and patting her lips to control the persistent yawns that tormented her.
"I had a horrid dream, too," she said, "about the 'Seven Sisters.' I was Pluto to your Diavoline, and Philip Berkley was a phantom that grinned at everybody and rattled the bones; and I waked in a dreadful fright to hear uncle's spurred boots overhead, and that horrid noisy old sabre of his banging the best furniture.
"Then this morning just before sunrise he came into my bedroom, hair and moustache on end, and in full uniform, and attempted to read the Declaration of Independence to me—or maybe it was the Constitution—I don't remember—but I began to cry, and that always sends him off."
Ailsa's quick laugh and the tenderness of her expression were her only comments upon the doings of Josiah Lent, lately captain, United States dragoons.
Camilla yawned again, rose, and, arranging her spreading white skirts, seated herself on her veranda steps in full sunshine.
"We did have a nice party, didn't we, Ailsa?" she said, leaning a little sideways so that she could see over the fence and down into the Craig's backyard garden.
"I had such a good time," responded Ailsa, looking up radiantly.
"So did I. Billy Cortlandt is the most divine dancer. Isn't Evelyn Estcourt pretty?"
"She is growing up to be very beautiful some day. Stephen paid her a great deal of attention. Did you notice it?"
"Really? I didn't notice it," replied Camilla without enthusiasm. "But," she added, "I did notice you and Phil Berkley on the stairs. It didn't take you long, did it?"
Ailsa's colour rose a trifle.
"We exchanged scarcely a dozen words," she observed sedately.
"It didn't take you long," she repeated, "either of you. It was the swiftest case of fascination that I ever saw."
"You are absurd, Camilla."
"But isn't he perfectly fascinating? I think he is the most romantic-looking creature I ever saw. However," she added, folding her slender hands in resignation, "there is nothing else to him. He's accustomed to being adored; there's no heart left in him. I think it's dead."
Mrs. Paige stood looking up at her, trowel hanging loosely in her gloved hand.
"Did anything—kill it?" she asked carelessly.
"I don't think it ever lived very long. Anyway there is something missing in the man; something blank in him. A girl's time is wasted in wondering what is going on behind those adorable eyes of his. Because there is nothing going on—it's all on the surface—the charm, the man's engaging ways and manners—all surface. . . . I thought I'd better tell you, Ailsa."
"There was no necessity," said Ailsa calmly. "We scarcely exchanged a dozen words."
As she spoke she became aware of a shape behind the veranda windows, a man's upright figure passing and repassing. And now, at the open window, it suddenly emerged into full sunlight, a spare, sinewy, active gentleman of fifty, hair and moustache thickly white, a deep seam furrowing his forehead from the left ear to the roots of the hair above the right temple.
The most engaging of smiles parted the young widow's lips.
"Good morning, Captain Lent," she cried gaily. "You have neglected me dreadfully of late."
The Captain came to a rigid salute.
"April eleventh, eighteen-sixty-one!" he said with clean-cut precision. "Good morning, Mrs. Paige! How does your garden blow? Blow—blow ye wintry winds! Ahem! How have the roses wintered—the rose of yesterday?"
"Oh, I don't know, sir. I am afraid my sister's roses have not wintered very well. I'm really a little worried about them."
"I am worried about nothing in Heaven, on Earth, or in Hell," said the Captain briskly. "God's will is doing night and day, Mrs. Paige. Has your brother-in-law gone to business?"
"Oh, yes. He and Stephen went at eight this morning."
"Is your sister-in-law well. God bless her!" shouted the Captain.
"Uncle, you mustn't shout," remonstrated Camilla gently.
"I'm only exercising my voice,"—and to Ailsa:
"I neglect nothing, mental, physical, spiritual, that may be of the slightest advantage to my country in the hour when every respiration, every pulse beat, every waking thought shall belong to the Government which I again shall have the honour of serving."
He bowed stiffly from the waist, to Ailsa, to his niece, turned right about, and marched off into the house, his white moustache bristling, his hair on end.
"Oh, dear," sighed Camilla patiently, "isn't it disheartening?"
"He is a dear," said Ailsa. "I adore him."
"Yes—if he'd only sleep at night. I am very selfish I suppose to complain; he is so happy and so interested these days—only—I am wondering—if there ever should be a war—would it break his poor old heart if he couldn't go? They'll never let him, you know."
Ailsa looked up, troubled:
"You mean—because!" she said in a low voice.
"Well I don't consider him anything more than delightfully eccentric."
"Neither do I. But all this is worrying me ill. His heart is so entirely wrapped up in it; he writes a letter to Washington every day, and nobody ever replies. Ailsa, it almost terrifies me to think what might happen—and he be left out!"
"Nothing will happen. The world is too civilised, dear."
"But the papers talk about nothing else! And uncle takes every paper in New York and Brooklyn, and he wants to have the editor of the Herald arrested, and he is very anxious to hang the entire staff of the Daily News. It's all well enough to stand there laughing, but I believe there'll be a war, and then my troubles will begin!"
Ailsa, down on her knees again, dabbled thoughtfully in the soil, exploring the masses of matted spider-wort for new shoots.
Camilla looked on, resignedly, her fingers playing with the loosened masses of her glossy black hair. Each was following in silence the idle drift of thought which led Camilla back to her birthday party.
"Twenty!" she said still more resignedly—"four years younger than you are, Ailsa Paige! Oh dear—and here I am, absolutely unmarried. That is not a very maidenly thought, I suppose, is it Ailsa?"
"You always were a romantic child," observed Ailsa, digging vigorously in the track of a vanishing May beetle. But when she disinterred him her heart failed her and she let him scramble away.
"There! He'll probably chew up everything," she said. "What a sentimental goose I am!"
"The first trace of real sentiment I ever saw you display," began Camilla reflectively, "was the night of my party."
Ailsa dug with energy. "That is absurd! And not even funny."
"You were sentimental!"
"I—well there is no use in answering you," concluded Ailsa.
"No, there isn't. I've seen women look at men, and men look back again—the way he did!"
"Dear, please don't say such things!"
"I'm going to say 'em," insisted Camilla with malicious satisfaction. "You've jeered at me because I'm tender-hearted about men. Now my chance has come!"
Ailsa began patiently: "There were scarcely a dozen words spoken——"
Camilla, delighted, shook her dark curls.
"You've said that before," she laughed. "Oh, you pretty minx!—you and your dozen words!"
Ailsa Paige arose in wrath and stretched out a warning arm among her leafless roses; but Camilla placed both hands on the fence top and leaned swiftly down from the veranda steps,
"Forgive me, dear," she said penitently. "I was only trying to torment you. Kiss me and make up. I know you too well to believe that you could care for a man of that kind."
Ailsa's face was very serious, but she lifted herself on tiptoe and they exchanged an amicable salute across the fence.
After a moment she said: "What did you mean by 'a man of that kind'?"
Camilla's shrug was expressive. "There are stories about him."
Ailsa looked thoughtfully into space. "Well you won't say such things to me again, about any man—will you, dear?"
"You never minded them before. You used to laugh."
"But this time," said Ailsa Paige, "it is not the least bit funny. We scarcely exchanged——"
She checked herself, flushing with annoyance. Camilla, leaning on the garden fence, had suddenly buried her face in both arms. In feminine plumpness, when young, there is usually something left of the schoolgirl giggler.
The pretty girl below remained disdainfully indifferent. She dug, she clipped, she explored, inhaling, with little thrills, the faint mounting odour of forest loam and sappy stems.
"I really must go back to New York and start my own garden," she said, not noticing Camilla's mischief. "London Terrace will be green in another week."
"How long do you stay with the Craigs, Ailsa?"
"Until the workmen finish painting my house and installing the new plumbing. Colonel Arran is good enough to look after it."
Camilla, her light head always ringing with gossip, watched Ailsa curiously.
"It's odd," she observed, "that Colonel Arran and the Craigs never exchange civilities."
"Mrs. Craig doesn't like him," said Ailsa simply.
"You do, don't you?"
"Naturally. He was my guardian."
"My uncle likes him. To me he has a hard face."
"He has a sad face," said Ailsa Paige.
Ailsa and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Craig, had been unusually reticent over their embroidery that early afternoon, seated together in the front room, which was now flooded with sunshine—an attractive, intimate room, restful and pretty in spite of the unlovely Victorian walnut furniture.
Through a sunny passageway they could look into Ailsa's bedroom—formerly the children's nursery—where her maid sat sewing.
Outside the open windows, seen between breezy curtains, new buds already clothed the great twisted ropes of pendant wistaria with a silvery-green down.
The street was quiet under its leafless double row of trees, maple, ailanthus, and catalpa; the old man who trudged his rounds regularly every week was passing now with his muffled shout:
Any old hats Old coats Old boots! Any old mats Old suits, Old flutes! Ca-ash!
And, leaning near to the sill, Ailsa saw him shuffling along, green-baize bag bulging, a pyramid of stove-pipe hats crammed down over his ears.
At intervals from somewhere in the neighbourhood sounded the pleasant bell of the scissors grinder, and the not unmusical call of "Glass put in!" But it was really very tranquil there in the sunshine of Fort Greene Place, stiller even for the fluted call of an oriole aloft in the silver maple in front of the stoop.
He was a shy bird even though there were no imported sparrows to drive this lovely native from the trees of a sleepy city; and he sat very still in the top branches, clad in his gorgeous livery of orange and black, and scarcely stirred save to slant his head and peer doubtfully at last year's cocoons, which clung to the bark like shreds of frosted cotton.
Very far away, from somewhere in the harbour, a deep sound jarred the silence. Ailsa raised her head, needle suspended, listened for a moment, then resumed her embroidery with an unconscious sigh.
Her sister-in-law glanced sideways at her.
"I was thinking of Major Anderson, Celia," she said absently.
"So was I, dear. And of those who must answer for his gove'nment's madness,—God fo'give them."
There was no more said about the Major or his government. After a few moments Ailsa leaned back dreamily, her gaze wandering around the sunny walls of the room. In Ailsa Paige's eyes there was always a gentle caress for homely things. Just now they caressed the pictures of "Night" and "Morning," hanging there in their round gilt frames; the window boxes where hyacinths blossomed; the English ivy festooned to frame the window beside her sister-in-law's writing-desk; the melancholy engraving over the fireplace—"The Motherless Bairn"—a commonplace picture which harrowed her, but which nobody thought of discarding in a day when even the commonplace was uncommon.
She smiled in amused reminiscence of the secret tears she had wept over absurd things—of the funerals held for birds found dead—of the "Three Grains of Corn" poem which, when a child, elicited from her howls of anguish.
Little golden flashes of recollection lighted the idle path as her thoughts wandered along hazy ways which led back to her own nursery days; and she rested there, in memory, dreaming through the stillness of the afternoon.
She missed the rattle and noise of New York. It was a little too tranquil in Fort Greene Place; yet, when she listened intently, through the city's old-fashioned hush, very far away the voices of the great seaport were always audible—a ceaseless harmony of river whistles, ferry-boats signalling on the East River, ferry-boats on the North River, perhaps some mellow, resonant blast from the bay, where an ocean liner was heading for the Narrows. Always the street's stillness held that singing murmur, vibrant with deep undertones from dock and river and the outer sea.
Strange spicy odours, too, sometimes floated inland from the sugar wharves, miles away under the Heights, to mingle with the scent of lilac and iris in quiet, sunny backyards where whitewashed fences reflected the mid-day glare, and cats dozed in strategical positions on grape trellis and tin roofs of extensions, prepared for war or peace, as are all cats always, at all times.
Celia Craig looked up tranquilly.
"Has anybody darned Paige's stockings?"
"No, she hasn't, Honey-bell. Paige and Marye must keep their stockings da'ned. I never could do anything fo' myse'f, and I won't have my daughters brought up he'pless."
Ailsa glanced humorously across at her sister-in-law.
"You sweet thing," she said, "you can do anything, and you know it!"
"But I don't like to do anything any mo' than I did befo' I had to," laughed Celia Craig; and suddenly checked her mirth, listening with her pretty close-set ears.
"That is the do'-bell," she remarked, "and I am not dressed."
"It's almost too early for anybody to call," said Ailsa tranquilly.
But she was wrong, and when, a moment later, the servant came to announce Mr. Berkley, Ailsa regarded her sister-in-law in pink consternation.
"I did not ask him," she said. "We scarcely exchanged a dozen words. He merely said he'd like to call—on you—and now he's done it, Celia!"
Mrs. Craig calmly instructed the servant to say that they were at home, and the servant withdrew.
"Do you approve his coming—this way—without anybody inviting him?" asked Ailsa uneasily.
"Of co'se, Honey-bell. He is a Berkley. He should have paid his respects to us long ago."
"It was for him to mention the relationship when I met him. He did not speak of it, Celia."
"No, it was fo' you to speak of it first," said Celia Craig gently. "But you did not know that."
"There are reasons, Honey-bud."
"They are not yo' business, dear," said her sister-in-law quietly.
Ailsa had already risen to examine herself in the mirror. Now she looked back over her shoulder and down into Celia's pretty eyes—eyes as unspoiled as her own.
In Celia Craig remained that gracious and confident faith in kinship which her Northern marriage had neither extinguished nor chilled. The young man who waited below was a Berkley, a kinsman. Name and quality were keys to her hospitality. There was also another key which this man possessed, and it fitted a little locked compartment in Celia Craig's heart. But Ailsa had no knowledge of this. And now Mrs. Craig was considering the advisability of telling her—not all, perhaps,—but something of how matters stood between the House of Craig and the House of Berkley. But not how matters stood with the House of Arran.
"Honey-bud," she said, "you must be ve'y polite to this young man."
"I expect to be. Only I don't quite understand why he came so unceremoniously——"
"It would have been ruder to neglect us, little Puritan! I want to see Connie Berkley's boy. I'm glad he came."
Celia Craig, once Celia Marye Ormond Paige, stood watching her taller sister-in-law twisting up her hair and winding the thick braid around the crown of her head a la coronal. Little wonder that these two were so often mistaken for own sisters—the matron not quite as tall as the young widow, but as slender, and fair, and cast in the same girlish mould.
Both inherited from their Ormond ancestry slightly arched and dainty noses and brows, delicate hands and feet, and the same splendid dull-gold hair—features apparently characteristic of the line, all the women of which had been toasts of a hundred years ago, before Harry Lee hunted men and the Shadow of the Swamp Fox flitted through the cypress to a great king's undoing.
Ailsa laid a pink bow against her hair and glanced at her sister-in-law for approval.
"I declare. Honey-bud, you are all rose colour to-day," said Celia Craig, smiling; and, on impulse, unpinned the pink-and-white cameo from her own throat and fastened it to Ailsa's breast.
"I reckon I'll slip on a gay gown myse'f," she added mischievously. "I certainly am becoming ve'y tired of leaving the field to my sister-in-law, and my schoolgirl daughters."
"Does anybody ever look at us after you come into a room?" asked Ailsa, laughing; and, turning impulsively, she pressed Celia's pretty hands flat together and kissed them. "You darling," she said. An unaccountable sense of expectancy—almost of exhilaration was taking possession of her. She looked into the mirror and stood content with what she saw reflected there.
"How much of a relation is he, Celia?" balancing the rosy bow with a little cluster of pink hyacinth on the other side.
Celia Craig, forefinger crooked across her lips, considered aloud.
"His mother was bo'n Constance Berkley; her mother was bo'n Betty Ormond; her mother was bo'n Felicity Paige; her mother——"
"Oh please! I don't care to know any more!" protested Ailsa, drawing her sister-in-law before the mirror; and, standing behind her, rested her soft, round chin on her shoulder, regarding the two reflected faces.
"That," observed the pretty Southern matron, "is conside'd ve'y bad luck. When I was a young girl I once peeped into the glass over my ole mammy's shoulder, and she said I'd sho'ly be punished befo' the year was done."
"And were you?"
"I don't exactly remember," said Mrs. Craig demurely, "but I think I first met my husband the ve'y next day."
They both laughed softly, looking at each other in the mirror.
So, in her gown of rosy muslin, bouffant and billowy, a pink flower in her hair, and Celia's pink-and-white cameo at her whiter throat Ailsa Paige descended the carpeted stairs and came into the mellow dimness of the front parlour, where there was much rosewood, and a French carpet, and glinting prisms on the chandeliers,—and a young man, standing, dark against a bar of sunshine in which golden motes swam.
"How do you do," she said, offering her narrow hand, and: "Mrs. Craig is dressing to receive you. . . . It is warm for April, I think. How amiable of you to come all the way over from New York. Mr. Craig and his son Stephen are at business, my cousins, Paige and Marye, are at school. Won't you sit down?"
She had backed away a little distance from him, looking at him under brows bent slightly inward, and thinking that she had made no mistake in her memory of this man. Certainly his features were altogether too regular, his head and body too perfectly moulded into that dark and graceful symmetry which she had hitherto vaguely associated with things purely and mythologically Olympian.
Upright against the doorway, she suddenly recollected with a blush that she was staring like a schoolgirl, and sat down. And he drew up a chair before her and seated himself; and then under the billowy rose crinoline she set her pretty feet close together, folded her hands, and looked at him with a smiling composure which she no longer really felt.
"The weather," she repeated, "is unusually warm. Do you think that Major Anderson will hold out at Sumter? Do you think the fleet is going to relieve him? Dear me," she sighed, "where will it all end, Mr. Berkley?"
"In war," he said, also smiling; but neither of them believed it, or, at the moment, cared. There were other matters impending—since their first encounter.
"I have thought about you a good deal since Camilla's theatre party," he said pleasantly.
"Have you?" She scarcely knew what else to say—and regretted saying anything.
"Indeed I have. I dare not believe you have wasted as much as one thought on the man you danced with once—and refused ever after."
She felt, suddenly, a sense of uneasiness in being near him.
"Of course I have remembered you, Mr. Berkley," she said with composure. "Few men dance as well. It has been an agreeable memory to me."
"But you would not dance with me again."
"I—there were—you seemed perfectly contented to sit out—the rest—with me."
He considered the carpet attentively. Then looking up with quick, engaging smile:
"I want to ask you something. May I?"
She did not answer. As it had been from the first time she had ever seen him, so it was now with her; a confused sense of the necessity for caution in dealing with a man who had inspired in her such an unaccountable inclination to listen to what he chose to say.
"What is it you wish to ask?" she inquired pleasantly.
"It is this: are you really surprised that I came? Are you, in your heart?"
"Did I appear to be very much agitated? Or my heart, either, Mr. Berkley?" she asked with a careless laugh, conscious now of her quickening pulses. Outwardly calm, inwardly Irresolute, she faced him with a quiet smile of confidence.
"Then you were not surprised that I came?" he insisted.
"You did not wait to be asked. That surprised me a little."
"I did wait. But you didn't ask me."
"That seems to have made no difference to you," she retorted, laughing.
"It made this difference. I seized upon the only excuse I had and came to pay my respects as a kinsman. Do you know that I am a relation?"
"That is a very pretty compliment to us all, I think."
"It is you who are kind in accepting me."
"As a relative, I am very glad to——"
"I came," he said, "to see you. And you know it."
"But you couldn't do that, uninvited! I had not asked you."
"But—it's done," he said.
She sat very still, considering him. Within her, subtle currents seemed to be contending once more, disturbing her equanimity. She said, sweetly:
"I am not as offended as I ought to be. But I do not see why you should disregard convention with me."
"I didn't mean it that way," he said, leaning forward. "I couldn't stand not seeing you. That was all. Convention is a pitiful thing—sometimes—" He hesitated, then fell to studying the carpet.
She looked at him, silent in her uncertainty. His expression was grave, almost absent-minded. And again her troubled eyes rested on the disturbing symmetry of feature and figure in all the unconscious grace of repose; and in his immobility there seemed something even of nobility about him which she had not before noticed.
She stole another glance at him. He remained very still, leaning forward, apparently quite oblivious of her. Then he came to himself with a quick smile, which she recognised as characteristic of all that disturbed her about this man—a smile in which there was humour, a little malice and self-sufficiency and—many, many things she did not try to analyse.
"Don't you really want an unreliable servant?" he asked.
His perverse humour perplexed her, but she smiled.
"Don't you remember that I once asked you if you needed an able-bodied man?" he insisted.
"Well, I'm that man."
She assented, smiling conventionally, not at all understanding. He laughed, too, thoroughly enjoying something.
"It isn't really very funny," he said, "Ask your brother-in-law. I had an interview with him before I came here. And I think there's a chance that he may give me a desk and a small salary in his office."
"How absurd!" she said.
"It is rather absurd. I'm so absolutely useless. It's only because of the relationship that Mr. Craig is doing this."
She said uneasily: "You are not really serious, are you?"
"About a—a desk and a salary—in my brother-in-law's office?"
"Unless you'll hire me as a useful man. Otherwise, I hope for a big desk and a small salary. I went to Mr. Craig this morning, and the minute I saw him I knew he was fine enough to be your brother-in-law. And I said, 'I am Philip Ormond Berkley; how do you do!' And he said, 'How do you do!' And I said, 'I'm a relation,' and he said, 'I believe so.' And I said, 'I was educated at Harvard and in Leipsic; I am full of useless accomplishments, harmless erudition, and insolvent amiability, and I am otherwise perfectly worthless. Can you give me a position?'"
"And he said: 'What else is the matter?' And I said, 'The stock market.' And that is how it remains, I am to call on him to-morrow."
She said in consternation: "Forgive me. I did not think you meant it. I did not know that you were—were——"
"Ruined!" he nodded laughingly. "I am, practically. I have a little left—badly invested—which I'm trying to get at. Otherwise matters are gay enough."
She said wonderingly: "Had this happened when—I saw you that first time?"
"It had just happened. I looked the part, didn't I?"
"No. How could you be so—interesting and—and be—what you were—knowing this all the while?"
"I went to that party absolutely stunned. I saw you in a corner of the box—I had just been hearing about you—and—I don't know now what I said to you. Afterward"—he glanced at her—"the world was spinning, Mrs. Paige. You only remained real—" His face altered subtly. "And when I touched you——"
"I gave you a waltz, I believe," she said, striving to speak naturally; but her pulses had begun to stir again; the same inexplicable sense of exhilaration and insecurity was creeping over her.
With a movement partly nervous she turned toward the door, but there sounded no rustle of her sister's skirts from the stairs, and her reluctant eyes slowly reverted to him, then fell in silence, out of which she presently strove to extract them both with some casual commonplace.
He said in a low voice, almost to himself:
"I want you to think well of me."
She gathered all her composure, steadied her senses to choose a reply, and made a blunder:
"Do you really care what I think?" she asked lightly, and bit her lip too late.
"Do you believe I care about anything else in the world—now?"
She went on bravely, blindly:
"And do you expect me to believe in—in such an exaggerated and romantic expression to a staid and matter-of-fact widow whom you never saw more than once in your life?"
"You do believe it."
Confused, scarcely knowing what she was saying, she still attempted to make light of his words, holding her own against herself for the moment, making even some headway. And all the while she was aware of mounting emotion—a swift inexplicable charm falling over them both.
He had become silent again, and she was saying she knew not what—fortifying her common-sense with gay inconsequences, when he looked up straight into her eyes.
"I have distressed you. I should not have spoken as I did."
"No, you should not——"
"Have I offended you?"
Matters were running too swiftly for her; she strove to remain cool, collected, but confusion was steadily threatening her, and neither resentment nor indifference appeared as allies.
"Mrs. Paige, can you account for—that night? The moment I touched you——"
She half rose, sank back into her seat, her startled eyes meeting his.
"I—don't know what you mean."
Flushed, voices unsteady, they no longer recognised themselves.
"You have never seen me but once," she said. "You cannot believe——"
"I have not known a moment's peace since I first saw you."
She caught her breath. "It is your business worries that torment you——"
"It is desire to be near you."
"I don't think you had better say such a thing——"
"I know I had better not. But it is said, and it is true. I'm not trying to explain it to you or to myself. It's just true. There has not been one moment, since I saw you, which has been free from memory of you——"
"I scarcely know what I am saying—but it's true!" He checked himself. "I'm losing my head now, which isn't like me!" He choked and stood up; she could not move; every nerve in her had become tense with emotions so bewildering that mind and body remained fettered.
He was walking to and fro, silent and white under his self-control. She, seated, gazed at him as though stunned, but every pulse was riotously unsteady.
"I suppose you think me crazy," he said hoarsely, "but I've not known a moment's peace of mind since that night—not one! I couldn't keep away any longer. I can't even hold my tongue now, though I suppose it's ruining me every time I move it. It's a crazy thing to come here and say what I'm saying."
He went over and sat down again, and bent his dark gaze on the floor. Then:
"Can you forgive what I have done to you?"
She tried to answer, and only made a sign of faint assent. She no longer comprehended herself or the emotions menacing her. A curious tranquillity quieted her at moments—intervals in which she seemed to sit apart watching the development of another woman, listening to her own speech, patient with her own silences. There was a droop to her shoulders now; his own were sagging as he leaned slightly forward in his chair, arms resting on his knees, while around them the magic ebbed, eddied, ebbed; and lassitude succeeded tension; and she stirred, looked up at him with eyes that seemed dazed at first, then widened slowly into waking; and he saw in them the first clear dawn of alarm. Suddenly she flushed and sprang to her feet, the bright colour surging to her hair.
"Don't!" he said. "Don't reason! There will be nothing left of me if you do—or of, these moments. You will hate them—and me, if you reason. Don't think—until we see each other again!"
She dropped her eyes slowly, and slowly shook her head.
"You ask too much," she said. "You should not have said that." All the glamour was fading. Her senses were seeking their balance after the incredible storm that had whirled them into chaos.
Fear stirred sharply, then consternation—flashes of panic pierced her with darts of shame, as though she had been in physical contact with this man.
All her outraged soul leaped to arms, quivering now under the reaction; the man's mere presence was becoming unendurable; the room stifled her. She turned, scarce knowing what she was doing; and at the same moment her sister-in-law entered.
Berkley, already on his feet, turned short: and when she offered him a hand as slim and white as Ailsa's, he glanced inquiringly at the latter, not at all certain who this charming woman might be.
"Mrs. Craig," said Ailsa.
"I don't believe it," he said. "You haven't grown-up children!"
"Don't you really believe it, Mr. Berkley? Or is it just the flattering Irish in you that natters us poor women to our destruction?"
He had sense and wit enough to pay her a quick and really graceful compliment; to which she responded, still laughing:
"Oh, it is the Ormond in you! I am truly ve'y glad you came. You are Constance Berkley's son—Connie Berkley! The sweetest girl that ever lived."
There was a silence. Then Mrs. Craig said gently:
"I was her maid of honour, Mr. Berkley."
Ailsa raised her eyes to his altered face, startled at the change in it. He looked at her absently, then his gaze reverted to Ailsa Paige.
"I loved her dearly," said Mrs. Craig, dropping a light, impulsive hand on his. "I want her son to know it."
Her eyes were soft and compassionate; her hand still lingered lightly on his, and she let it rest so.
"Mrs. Craig," he said, "you are the most real person I have known in many years among the phantoms. I thought your sister-in-law was. But you are still more real."
"Am I?" she laid her other hand over his, considering him earnestly. Ailsa looking on, astonished, noticed a singular radiance on his face—the pale transfiguration from some quick inward illumination.
Then Celia Craig's voice sounded almost caressingly:
"I think you should have come to see us long ago." A pause. "You are as welcome in this house as your mother would be if she were living. I love and honour her memory."
"I have honoured little else in the world," he said. They looked at one another for a moment; then her quick smile broke out. "I have an album. There are some Paiges, Ormonds, and Berkleys in it——"
Ailsa came forward slowly.
"Shall I look for it, Celia?"
"No, Honey-bell." She turned lightly and went into the back parlour, smiling mysteriously to herself, her vast, pale-blue crinoline rustling against the furniture.
"My sister-in-law," said Ailsa, after an interval of silent constraint, "is very Southern. Any sort of kinship means a great deal to her. I, of course, am Northern, and regard such matters as unimportant."
"It is very gracious of Mrs. Craig to remember it," he said. "I know nothing finer than confidence in one's own kin."
She flushed angrily. "I have not that confidence—in kinsman."
For a moment their eyes met. Hers were hard as purple steel.
"Is that final?"
The muscles in his cheeks grew tense, then into his eyes came that reckless glimmer which in the beginning she had distrusted—a gay, irresponsible radiance which seemed to mock at all things worthy.
He said: "No, it is not final. I shall come back to you."
She answered him in an even, passionless voice:
"A moment ago I was uncertain; now I know you. You are what they say you are. I never wish to see you again."
Celia Craig came back with the album. Berkley sprang to relieve her of the big book and a box full of silhouettes, miniatures, and daguerreotypes. They placed the family depository upon the table and then bent over it together.
Ailsa remained standing by the window, looking steadily at nothing, a burning sensation in both cheeks.
At intervals, through the intensity of her silence, she heard Celia's fresh, sweet laughter, and Berkley's humorous and engaging voice. She glanced sideways at the back of his dark curly head where it bent beside Celia's over the album. What an insolently reckless head it was! She thought that she had never before seen the back of any man's head so significant of character—or the want of it. And the same quality—or the lack of it—now seemed to her to pervade his supple body, his well-set shoulders, his voice, every movement, every feature—something everywhere about him that warned and troubled.
Suddenly the blood burnt her cheeks with a perfectly incomprehensible desire to see his face again. She heard her sister-in-law saying:
"We Paiges and Berkleys are kin to the Ormonds and the Earls of Ossory. The Estcourts, the Paiges, the Craigs, the Lents, the Berkleys, intermarried a hundred years ago. . . . My grandmother knew yours, but the North is very strange in such matters. . . . Why did you never before come?"
He said: "It's one of those things a man is always expecting to do, and is always astonished that he hasn't done. Am I unpardonable?"
"I did not mean it in that way."
He turned his dark, comely head and looked at her as they bent together above the album.
"I know you didn't. My answer was not frank. The reason I never came to you before was that—I did not know I would be welcomed."
Their voices dropped. Ailsa standing by the window, watching the orioles in the maple, could no longer distinguish what they were saying.
He said: "You were bridesmaid to my mother. You are the Celia Paige of her letters."
"She is always Connie Berkley to me. I loved no woman better. I love her still."
"I found that out yesterday. That is why I dared come. I found, among the English letters, one from you to her, written—after."
"I wrote her again and again. She never replied. Thank God, she knew I loved her to the last."
He rested on the tabletop and stood leaning over and looking down.
"Dear Mr. Berkley," she murmured gently.
He straightened himself, passed a hesitating hand across his forehead, ruffling the short curly hair. Then his preoccupied gaze wandered. Ailsa turned toward him at the same moment, and instantly a flicker of malice transformed the nobility of his set features:
"It seems," he said, "that you and I are irrevocably related in all kinds of delightful ways, Mrs. Paige. Your sister-in-law very charmingly admits it, graciously overlooks and pardons my many delinquencies, and has asked me to come again. Will you ask me, too?"
Ailsa merely looked at him.
Mrs. Craig said, laughing: "I knew you were all Ormond and entirely Irish as soon as I came in the do'—befo' I became aware of your racial fluency. I speak fo' my husband and myse'f when I say, please remember that our do' is ve'y wide open to our own kin—and that you are of them——"
"Oh, I'm all sorts of things beside—" He paused for a second—"Cousin Celia," he added so lightly that the grace with which he said it covered the impudence, and she laughed in semi-critical approval and turned to Ailsa, whose smile in response was chilly—chillier still when Berkley did what few men have done convincingly since powdered hair and knee-breeches became unfashionable—bent to salute Celia Craig's fingertips. Then he turned to her and took his leave of her in a conventional manner entirely worthy of the name his mother bore,—and her mother before her, and many a handsome man and many a beautiful woman back to times when a great duke stood unjustly attainted, and the Ormonds served their king with steel sword and golden ewer; and served him faithfully and well.
Camilla Lent called a little later. Ailsa was in the backyard garden, a trowel in her hand, industriously loosening the earth around the prairie roses.
"Camilla," she said, looking up from where she was kneeling among the shrubs, "what was it you said this morning about Mr. Berkley being some unpleasant kind of man?"
"How funny," laughed Camilla. "You asked me that twice before."
"Did I? I forgot," said Mrs. Paige with a shrug; and, bending over again, became exceedingly busy with her trowel until the fire in her cheeks had cooled.
"Every woman that ever saw him becomes infatuated with Phil Berkley," said Camilla cheerfully. "I was. You will be. And the worst of it is he's simply not worth it."
"Why did you think not?"
"I don't know why."
"He can be fascinating," said Camilla reflectively, "but he doesn't always trouble himself to be."
"Doesn't he?" said Ailsa with a strange sense of relief.
Camilla hesitated, lowered her voice.
"They say he is fast," she whispered. Ailsa, on her knees, turned and looked up.
"Whatever that means," added Camilla, shuddering. "But all the same, every girl who sees him begins to adore him immediately until her parents make her stop."
"How silly," said Ailsa in a leisurely level voice. But her heart was beating furiously, and she turned to her roses with a blind energy that threatened them root and runner.
"How did you happen to think of him at all?" continued Camilla mischievously.
"He called on—Mrs. Craig this afternoon."
"I didn't know she knew him."
"They are related—distantly—I believe——"
"Oh," exclaimed Camilla. "I'm terribly sorry I spoke that way about him, dear——"
"I don't care what you say about him," returned Ailsa Paige fiercely, emptying some grains of sand out of one of her gloves; resolutely emptying her mind, too, of Philip Berkley.
"Dear," she added gaily to Camilla, "come in and we'll have tea and gossip, English fashion. And I'll tell you about my new duties at the Home for Destitute Children—every morning from ten to twelve, my dear, in their horrid old infirmary—the poor little darlings!—and I would be there all day if I wasn't a selfish, indolent, pleasure-loving creature without an ounce of womanly feeling—Yes I am! I must be, to go about to galleries and dances and Philharmonics when there are motherless children in that infirmary, as sick for lack of love as for the hundred and one ailments distressing their tender little bodies."
But over their tea and marmalade and toast she became less communicative; and once or twice the conversation betrayed an unexpected tendency to drift toward Berkley.
"I haven't the slightest curiosity concerning him, dear," said Ailsa, attempting corroboration in a yawn—which indiscretion she was unable to accomplish.
"Well," remarked Camilla, "the chances are that you've seen the last of him if you showed it too plainly. Men don't come back when a girl doesn't wish them to. Do they?"
After Camilla had gone, Ailsa roamed about the parlours, apparently renewing her acquaintance with the familiar decorations. Sometimes she stood at windows, looking thoughtfully into the empty street; sometimes she sat in corners, critically surveying empty space.
Yes, the chances were that he would scarcely care to come back. A man of that kind did not belong in her sister-in-law's house, anyway, nor in her own—a man who could appeal to a woman for a favourable opinion of himself, asking her to suspend her reason, stifle logic, stultify her own intelligence, and trust to a sentimental impulse that he deserved the toleration and consideration which he asked for. . . . It was certainly well for her that he should not return. . . . It would be better for her to lay the entire matter before her sister-in-law—that was what she would do immediately!
She sprang to her feet and ran lightly up-stairs; but, fast as she fled, thought outran her slender flying feet, and she came at last very leisurely into Celia's room, a subdued, demure opportunist, apparently with nothing on her mind and conscience,
"If I may have the carriage at ten, Celia, I'll begin on the Destitute Children to-morrow. . . . Poor babies! . . . If they only had once a week as wholesome food as is wasted in this city every day by Irish servants . . . which reminds me—I suppose you will have to invite your new kinsman to dine with you."
"There is loads of time for that, Honey-bud," said her sister-in-law, glancing up absently from the note she was writing.
"I was merely wondering whether it was necessary at all," observed Ailsa Paige, without interest.
But Celia had begun to write again. "I'll ask him," she said in her softly preoccupied voice, "Saturday, I think."
"Oh, but I'm invited to the Cortlandt's," began Ailsa, and caught her under lip in her teeth. Then she turned and walked noiselessly into her bedroom, and sat down on the bed and looked at the wall.
It was almost mid-April; and still the silvery-green tassels on the wistaria showed no hint of the blue petals folded within; but the maples' leafless symmetry was already veined with fire. Faint perfume from Long Island woodlands, wandering puffs of wind from salt meadows freshened the city streets; St. Felix Street boasted a lilac bush in leaf; Oxford Street was gay with hyacinths and a winter-battered butterfly; and in Fort Greene Place the grassy door-yards were exquisite with crocus bloom. Peace, good-will, and spring on earth; but in men's souls a silence as of winter.
To Northland folk the unclosing buds of April brought no awakening; lethargy fettered all, arresting vigour, sapping desire. An immense inertia chained progress in its tracks, while overhead the gray storm-wrack fled away,—misty, monstrous, gale-driven before the coming hurricane.
Still, for the Northland, there remained now little of the keener suspense since those first fiery outbursts in the South; but all through the winter the dull pain throbbed in silence as star after star dropped from the old galaxy and fell flashing into the new.
And it was a time of apathy, acquiescence, stupefied incredulity; a time of dull faith in destiny, duller resignation.
The printed news was read day after day by a people who understood nothing, neither the cautious arming nor the bold disarming, nor the silent fall of fortified places, nor the swift dismantling of tall ships—nor did they comprehend the ceaseless tremors of a land slowly crumbling under the subtle pressure—nor that at last the vast disintegration of the matrix would disclose the forming crystal of another nation cradled there, glittering, naming under the splendour of the Southern skies.
A palsied Old Year had gone out. The mindless old man—he who had been President—went with it. A New Year had come in, and on its infant heels shambled a tall, gaunt shape that seated itself by the White House windows and looked out into the murk of things with eyes that no man understood.
And now the soft sun of April spun a spell upon the Northland folk; for they had eyes but they saw not; ears had they, but they heard not; neither spoke they through the mouth.
To them only one figure seemed real, looming above the vast and motionless mirage where a continent stood watching the parapets of a sea-girt fort off Charleston.
But the nation looked too long; the mirage closed in; fort, sea, the flag itself, became unreal; the lone figure on the parapet turned to a phantom. God's will was doing. Who dared doubt?
"There seems to be no doubt in the South," observed Ailsa Paige to her brother-in-law one fragrant evening after dinner where, in the dusk, the family had gathered on the stoop after the custom of a simpler era.
Along the dim street long lines of front stoops blossomed with the light spring gowns of women and young girls, pale, dainty clusters in the dusk set with darker figures, where sparks from cigars glowed and waned in the darkness.
Windows were open, here and there a gas jet in a globe flickered inside a room, but the street was dusky and tranquil as a country lane, and unilluminated save where at far intervals lamp-posts stood in a circle of pale light, around which a few moths hovered.
"The rebels," repeated Ailsa, "appear to have no doubts, honest or otherwise. They've sent seven thousand troops to the Charleston fortifications—the paper says."
Stephen Craig heard his cousin speak but made no response. He was smoking openly and in sight of his entire family the cigar which had, heretofore, been consumed surreptitiously. His mother sat close to his shoulder, rallying him like a tormenting schoolgirl, and, at intervals, turning to look back at her husband who stood on the steps beside her, a little amused, a little proud, a little inclined to be critical of this tall son of his who yesterday had been a boy.
The younger daughters of the house, Paige and Marye, strolled past, bareheaded, arms linked, in company with Camilla and Jimmy Lent.
"O dad!" called out Paige softly, "Jim says that Major Anderson is to be reinforced at once. There was a bulletin this evening."
"I am very glad to hear it, sweetheart," said her father, smiling through his eye-glasses.
Stephen bent forward across his mother's shoulder. "Is that true, father?"
"Camilla's brother has probably been reading the Tribune's evening bulletin. The Herald bulletin says that the Cabinet has ordered the evacuation of Fort Sumter; the Times says Major Anderson is to be reinforced; the World says that he abandoned the fort last night; and they all say he has been summoned to surrender. Take your choice, Steve," he added wearily. "There is only one wire working from the South, and the rebels control that."
"Are you tired, Curt?" asked his wife, looking around and up at him.
He seated himself and readjusted his eye-glasses.
"No, dear—only of this nightmare we are living in"—he stopped abruptly. Politics had been avoided between them. There was a short silence; he felt his wife's hand touch his in the darkness—sign of a tender respect for his perplexity, but not for his political views.
"Forgive me, dear, for using the word 'rebel,'" he said, smiling and straightening his shoulders. "Where have you and Ailsa been to-day? Did you go to New York?"
"Yes. We saw the Academy, and, oh, Curt! there are some very striking landscapes—two by Gifford; and the cutest portrait of a girl by Wiyam Hunt. And your friend Bierstadt has a Western scene—all fireworks! and, dear, Eastman Johnson was there—and Kensett sent such a cunning little landscape. We lunched at Taylor's." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Ailsa did look too cute fo' words. I declare she is the most engaging little minx. Eve'y man sta'ed at her. I wish she would marry again and be happy. She doesn't know what a happy love affair can be—poor baby."
"Do you?" asked her husband.
"Are you beginning to co't me again, Curt?"
"Have I ever ceased?—you little Rebel!"
"No," she said under her breath.
"By the way, Celia," he said smiling, "that young man—cousin of yours—Berkley, turned up promptly to-day. I gave him a room in the office."
"That was certainly ve'y frien'ly of you, Curt!" she responded warmly. "You will be patient with him, won't you?"
"I've had to be already. I gave him a commission to collect some rents and he came back fifty dollars short, calmly explaining that one of our lodgers looked poor and he hated to ask for the rent."
"O Curt—the boy is ve'y sweet and wa'm-hearted. Were you cross with him?"
"Not very. I imparted a few plain truths—very pleasantly, Celia. He knew better; there's a sort of an impish streak in him—also an inclination for the pleasant by-ways of life. . . . He had better let drink alone, too, if he expects to remain in my office. I told him that."
"Does he—the foolish baby!"
"Oh, probably not very much. I don't know; he's likable, but—he hasn't inspired me with any overwhelming respect and confidence. His record is not exactly savoury. But he's your protege, and I'll stand him as long as you can."
"Thank you, Curt. We must be gentle to him. I shall ask him to dinner and we can give a May dance perhaps—something informal and pretty—What is the matter, Curt?"
"Nothing, dear. . . . Only I wouldn't plan anything just yet—I mean for the present—not for a few days, anyway——"
He shrugged, removed his glasses, polished them on his handkerchief, and sat holding them, his short-sighted eyes lost in reverie.
His wife endured it to the limit of patience:
"Curt," she began in a lower voice, "you and I gen'ally avoid certain matters, dear—but—ev'ything is sure to come right in the end—isn't it? The No'th is going to be sensible."
"In the—end," he admitted quietly. And between them the ocean sprang into view again.
"I wonder—" She stopped, and an inexplicable uneasiness stirred in her breast. She looked around at her son, her left hand fell protectingly upon his shoulder, her right, groping, touched her husband's sleeve.
"I am—well cared for—in the world," she sighed happily to herself. "It shall not come nigh me."
Stephen was saying to Ailsa:
"There's a piece of up-town property that came into the office to-day which seems to me significant of the future. It would be a good investment for you, Cousin Ailsa. Some day Fifth Avenue will be built up solidly with brown-stone mansions as far as the Central Park. It is all going to be wonderfully attractive when they finish it."
Ailsa mused for a moment. Then:
"I walked down this street to Fort Greene this afternoon," she began, "and the little rocky park was so sweet and fragrant with dogwood and Forsythia and new buds everywhere. And I looked out over the rivers and the bay and over the two cities and, Steve, somehow—I don't know why—I found my eyes filling with tears. I don't know why, Steve——"
"Feminine sentiment," observed her cousin, smoking.
Mrs. Craig's fingers became restless on her husband's sleeve; she spoke at moments in soft, wistful tones, watching her younger daughters and their friends grouped under the trees in the dusk. And all the time, whatever it was that had brought a new unease into her breast was still there, latent. She had no name to give it, no reason, no excuse; it was too shadowy to bear analysis, too impalpable to be defined, yet it remained there; she was perfectly conscious of it, as she held her husband's sleeve the tighter.
"Curt, is business so plaguey poor because of all these politics?"
"My business is not very flourishing. Many men feel the uncertainty; not everybody, dear."
"When this—matter—is settled, everything will be easier for you, won't it? You look so white and tired, dear."
Stephen overheard her.
"The matter, as you call it, won't be settled without a row, mother—if you mean the rebellion."
"Such a wise boy with his new cigar," she smiled through a sudden resurgence of uneasiness.
The boy said calmly: "Mother, you don't understand; and all the rest of the South is like you."
"Does anybody understand, Steve?" asked his father, slightly ironical.
"Some people understand there's going to be a big fight," said the boy.
"Oh. Do you?"
"Yes," he said, with the conviction of youth. "And I'm wondering who's going to be in it."
"The militia, of course," observed Ailsa scornfully. "Camilla is forever sewing buttons on Jimmy's dress uniform. He wears them off dancing."
Mr. Craig said, unsmiling: "We are not a military nation, Steve; we are not only non-military but we are unmilitary—if you know what that means."
"We once managed to catch Cornwallis," suggested his son, still proudly smoking.
"I wonder how we did it?" mused his father.
"They were another race—those catchers of Cornwallis—those fellows in, blue-and-buff and powdered hair."
"You and Celia are their grandchildren," observed Ailsa, "and you are a West Point graduate."
Her brother-in-law looked at her with a strange sort of humour in his handsome, near-sighted eyes:
"Yes, too blind to serve the country that educated me. And now it's too late; the desire is gone; I have no inclination to fight, Ailsa. Drums always annoyed me. I don't particularly like a gun. I don't care for a fuss. I don't wish to be a soldier."
Ailsa said: "I rather like the noise of drums. I think I'd like—war."
"Molly Pitcher! Molly Pitcher! Of what are you babbling," whispered Celia, laughing down the flashes of pain that ran through her heart. "Wars are ended in our Western World. Didn't you know it, grandchild of Vikings? There are to be no more Lake Champlains, only debates—n'est ce pas, Curt?—very grand debates between gentlemen of the South and gentlemen of the North in Congress assembled——"
"Two congresses assembled," said Ailsa calmly, "and the debates will be at long range——"
"By magnetic telegraph if you wish, Honey-bell," conceded Celia hastily. "Oh, we must not begin disputin' about matters that nobody can possibly he'p. It will all come right; you know it will, don't you, Curt?"
"Yes, I know it, somehow."
Silence, fragrance, and darkness, through which rang the distant laugh of a young girl. And, very, very far away sounds arose in the city, dull, indistinct, lost for moments at a time, then audible again, and always the same sounds, the same monotony, and distant persistence.
"I do believe they're calling an extra," said Ailsa, lifting her head to listen.
Celia listened, too.
"Children shouting at play," she said.
"They are calling an extra, Celia!"
"No, little Cassandra, it's only boys skylarking."
For a while they remained listening and silent. The voices still persisted, but they sounded so distant that the light laughter from their neighbour's stoop drowned the echoes.
Later, Jimmy Lent drifted into the family circle.
"They say that there's an extra out about Fort Sumter," he said. "Do you think he's given up, Mr. Craig?"
"If there's an extra out the fort is probably safe enough, Jim," said the elder man carelessly. He rose and went toward the group of girls and youths under the trees.
"Come, children," he said to his two daughters; and was patient amid indignant protests which preceded the youthful interchange of reluctant good-nights.
When he returned to the stoop Ailsa had gone indoors with her cousin. His wife rose to greet him as though he had been away on a long journey, and then, passing her arms around her schoolgirl daughters, and nodding a mischievous dismissal to Jimmy Lent, walked slowly into the house. Bolts were shot, keys turned; from the lighted front parlour came the notes of the sweet-toned square piano, and Ailsa's voice:
—"Dear are her charms to me, Dearest her constancy, Aileen aroon—"
"Never mind any more of that silly song!" exclaimed Celia, imprisoning Ailsa's arms from behind.
"Youth must with time decay, Aileen aroon, Beauty must fade away, Aileen aroon—"
"Don't, dear! please——"
But Ailsa sang on obstinately:
"Castles are sacked in war, Chieftains are scattered far, Truth is a fixed star, Aileen aroon."
And, glancing back over her shoulder, caught her breath quickly.
"Celia! What is the matter, dear?"
"Nothing. I don't like such songs—just now——"
"I don't know, Ailsa; songs about war and castles. Little things plague me. . . . There's been altogether too much talk about war—it gets into ev'ything, somehow. I can't seem to he'p it, somehow——"
"Why, Celia! You are not worrying?"
"Not fo' myse'f, Honey-bud. Somehow, to-night—I don't know—and Curt seemed a little anxious."
She laughed with an effort; her natural gaiety returned to buoy her above this indefinable undercurrent of unrest.
Paige and Marye came in from the glass extension where their father was pacing to and fro, smoking his bedtime cigar, and their mother began her invariable running comment concerning the day's events, rallying her children, tenderly tormenting them with their shortcomings—undarned stockings, lessons imperfectly learned, little household tasks neglected—she was always aware of and ready at bedtime to point out every sin of omission.
"As fo' you, Paige, you are certainly a ve'y rare kind of Honey-bird, and I reckon Mr. Ba'num will sho'ly catch you some day fo' his museum. Who ever heard of a shif'less Yankee girl except you and Marye?"
"O mother, how can we mend everything we tear? It's heartless to ask us!"
"You don't have to try to mend ev'ything. Fo' example, there's Jimmy Lent's heart——"
A quick outbreak of laughter swept them—all except Paige, who flushed furiously over her first school-girl affair.
"That poor Jimmy child came to me about it," continued their mother, "and asked me if I would let you be engaiged to him; and I said, 'Certainly, if Paige wants to be, Jimmy. I was engaiged myse'f fo' times befo' I was fo'teen——'"
Another gale of laughter drowned her words, and she sat there dimpled, mischievous, naively looking around, yet in her careful soul shrewdly pursuing her wise policy of airing all sentimental matters in the family circle—letting in fresh air and sunshine on what so often takes root and flourishes rather morbidly at sixteen.
"It's perfectly absurd," observed Ailsa, "at your age, Paige——"
"Mother was married at sixteen! Weren't you, dearest?"
"I certainly was; but I am a bad rebel and you are good little Yankees; and good little Yankees wait till they're twenty odd befo' they do anything ve'y ridiculous."
"We expect to wait," said Paige, with a dignified glance at her sister.
"You've four years to wait, then," laughed Marye.
"What's the use of being courted if you have to wait four years?"
"And you've three years to wait, silly," retorted Paige. "But I don't care; I'd rather wait. It isn't very long, now. Ailsa, why don't you marry again?"
Ailsa's lip curled her comment upon the suggestion. She sat under the crystal chandelier reading a Southern newspaper which had been sent recently to Celia. Presently her agreeable voice sounded in appreciative recitation of what she was reading.
"Hath not the morning dawned with added light? And shall not evening call another star Out of the infinite regions of the night To mark this day in Heaven? At last we are A nation among nations; and the world Shall soon behold in many a distant port Another flag unfurled!" "Listen, Celia," she said, "this is really beautiful:
A tint of pink fire touched Mrs. Craig's cheeks, but she said nothing. And Ailsa went on, breathing out the opening beauty of Timrod's "Ethnogenesis":
"Now come what may, whose favour need we court? And, under God, whose thunder need we fear?"
She stopped short, considering the printed page. Then, doubtfully:
"And what if, mad with wrongs themselves have wrought, In their own treachery caught, By their own fears made bold, And leagued with him of old Who long since, in the limits of the North, Set up his evil throne, and warred with God— What if, both mad and blinded in their rage Our foes should fling us down the mortal gauge, And with a hostile horde profane our sod!"
The girl reddened, sat breathing a little faster, eyes on the page; then:
"Nor would we shun the battleground! . . . The winds in our defence Shall seem to blow; to us the hills shall lend Their firmness and their calm, And in our stiffened sinews we shall blend The strength of pine and palm! Call up the clashing elements around And test the right and wrong! On one side creeds that dare to preach What Christ and Paul refused to teach——"
"Oh!" she broke off with a sharp intake of breath; "Do they believe such things of us in the South, Celia?"
The pink fire deepened in Celia Craig's cheeks; her lips unclosed, tightened, as though a quick retort had been quickly reconsidered. She meditated. Then: "Honey-bell," she said tranquilly, "if we are bitter, try to remember that we are a nation in pain."
"Dear, we have always been that—only the No'th has just found it out. Charleston is telling her now. God give that our cannon need not repeat it."
"But, Celia, the cannon can't! The same flag belongs to us both."
"Not when it flies over Sumter, Honey-bird." There came a subtle ringing sound in Celia Craig's voice; she leaned forward, taking the newspaper from Ailsa's idle fingers:
"Try to be fair," she said in unsteady tones. "God knows I am not trying to teach you secession, but suppose the guns on Governor's Island were suddenly swung round and pointed at this street? Would you care ve'y much what flag happened to be flying over Castle William? Listen to another warning from this stainless poet of the South." She opened the newspaper feverishly, glanced quickly down the columns, and holding it high under the chandelier, read in a hushed but distinct voice, picking out a verse here and there at random:
"Calm as that second summer which precedes The first fall of the snow, In the broad sunlight of heroic deeds A city bides her foe.
"As yet, behind high ramparts stem and proud Where bolted thunders sleep, Dark Sumter like a battlemented cloud Towers o'er the solemn deep.
"But still along the dim Atlantic's line The only hostile smoke Creeps like a harmless mist above the brine From some frail floating oak.
"And still through streets re-echoing with trade Walk grave and thoughtful men Whose hands may one day wield the patriot's blade As lightly as the pen.
"And maidens, with such eyes as would grow dim Over a wounded hound Seem each one to have caught the strength of him Whose sword-knot she hath hound.
"Thus, girt without and garrisoned at home, Day patient following day, Old Charleston looks from roof and spire and dome Across her tranquil bay.
"Shall the spring dawn, and she, still clad in steel, And with an unscathed brow, Watch o'er a sea unvexed by hostile keel As fair and free as now?
"We know not. In the Temples of the Fates God has inscribed her doom; And, all untroubled in her faith she waits Her triumph or her tomb!"
The hushed charm of their mother's voice fascinated the children. Troubled, uncertain, Ailsa rose, took a few irresolute steps toward the extension where her brother-in-law still paced to and fro in the darkness, the tip of his cigar aglow. Then she turned suddenly.
"Can't you understand, Ailsa?" asked her sister-in-law wistfully.
"Celia—dearest," she stammered, "I simply can't understand. . . . I thought the nation was greater than all——"
"The State is greater, dear. Good men will realise that when they see a sovereign people standing all alone for human truth and justice—standing with book and sword under God's favour, as sturdily as ever Israel stood in battle fo' the right!—I don't mean to be disloyal to my husband in saying this befo' my children. But you ask me, and I must tell the truth if I answer at all."
Slender, upright, transfigured with a flushed and girlish beauty wholly strange to them, she moved restlessly back and forth across the room, a slim, lovely, militant figure all aglow with inspiration, all aquiver with emotion too long and loyally suppressed.
Paige and Marye, astonished, watched her without a word. Ailsa stood with one hand resting on the mantel, a trifle pale but also silent, her startled eyes following this new incarnation wearing the familiar shape of Celia Craig.
"Can you think evil of a people who po' out their hearts in prayer and praise? Do traitors importune fo' blessings?"
She turned nervously to the piano and struck a ringing chord, another—and dropped to the chair, head bowed on her slim childish neck. Presently there stole through the silence a tremulous voice intoning the "Libera Nos," with its strange refrain:
"A furore Normanorum Libera nos, O Domme!" Then, head raised, the gas-light flashing on her dull-gold hair, her voice poured forth all that was swelling and swelling up in her bruised and stifled heart:
"God of our fathers! King of Kings! Lord of the earth and sea! With hearts repentant and sincere We turn in need to thee."
She saw neither her children nor her husband nor Ailsa now, where they gathered silently beside her. And she sang on:
"In the name of God! Amen! Stand for our Southern rights; On our side. Southern men, The God of Battles fights! Fling the invader far— Hurl back his work of woe— His voice is the voice of a brother, But his hands are the hands of a foe. By the blood which cries to Heaven. Crimson upon our sod Stand, Southrons, fight and conquer In the Name of the Living God!"
Like receding battle echoes the chords, clashing distantly, died away.
If she heard her husband turn, enter the hallway, and unbolt the door, she made no sign. Ailsa, beside her, stooped and passed one arm around her.