I.—HOW PROFESSOR VALEYON LOSES HIS HANDKERCHIEF
II.—SIGNS OF A THUNDER-SHOWER
III.—SOPHIE AND CORNELIA ENTER INTO A COVENANT
IV.—A BUSINESS TRANSACTION
V.—BRESSANT PICKS A TEA-ROSE
VI.—CORNELIA BEGINS TO UNDO A KNOT
VII.—PROFESSOR VALEYON MAKES A CALL
X.—ONLY FOR TO-NIGHT!
XI.—EVERY LITTLE COUNTS
XII.—DOLLY ACTS AN IMPORTANT PART
XV.—AN UNTIMELY REMINISCENCE
XVI.—PARTING AN ANCHOR
XVIII.—A FLANK MOVEMENT
XX.—BRESSANT CONFIDES A SECRET TO THE FOUNTAIN
XXI.—PUTTING ON THE ARMOR
XXIV.—A BIT OF INSPIRATION
XXVI.—BRESSANT TAKES A VACATION
XXVII.—FACT AND FANCY
XXXI.—MOTHER AND SON
XXXII.—WHERE TWO ROADS MEET
XXXIII.—TILL THE ELEVENTH HOUR
XXXIV.—THE HOUR AND THE MAN
HOW PROFESSOR VALEYON LOSES HIS HANDKERCHIEF.
One warm afternoon in June—the warmest of the season thus far—Professor Valeyon sat, smoking a black clay pipe, upon the broad balcony, which extended all across the back of his house, and overlooked three acres of garden, inclosed by a solid stone-wall. All the doors in the house were open, and most of the windows, so that any one passing in the road might have looked up through the gabled porch and the passage-way, which divided the house, so to speak, into two parts, and seen the professor's brown-linen legs, and slippers down at the heel, projecting into view beyond the framework of the balcony-door. Indeed—for the professor was an elderly man, and, in many respects, a creature of habit—precisely this same phenomenon could have been observed on any fine afternoon during the summer, even to the exact amount of brown-linen leg visible.
Why the old gentleman's chair should always have been so placed as to allow a view of so much of his anatomy and no more is a question of too subtle and abstruse conditions to be solved here. One reason doubtless lay in the fact that, by craning forward over his knees, he could see down the passage-way, through the porch, and across the grass-plot which intervened between the house and the fence, to the road, thus commanding all approaches from that direction, while his outlook on either side, and in front, remained as good as from any other position whatsoever. To be sure, the result would have been more easily accomplished had the chair been moved two feet farther forward, but that would have made the professor too much a public spectacle, and, although by no means backward in appearing, at the fitting time, before his fellow-men, he enjoyed and required a certain amount of privacy.
Moreover, it was not toward the road that Professor Valeyon's eyes were most often turned. They generally wandered southward, over the ample garden, and across the long, winding valley, to the range of rough-backed hills, which abruptly invaded the farther horizon. It was a sufficiently varied and vigorous prospect, and one which years had endeared to the old gentleman, as if it were the features of a friend. Especially was he fond of looking at a certain open space, near the summit of a high, wooded hill, directly opposite. It was like an oasis among a desert of trees. Had it become overgrown, or had the surrounding timber been cut away, the professor would have taken it much to heart. A voluntary superstition of this kind is not uncommon in elderly gentlemen of more than ordinary intellectual power. It is a sort of half-playful revenge they wreak upon themselves for being so wise. Probably Professor Valeyon would have been at a loss to explain why he valued this small green spot so much; but, in times of doubt or trouble, be seemed to find help and relief in gazing at it.
The entire range of hills was covered with a dense and tangled timber-growth, save where the wood-cutters had cleared out a steep, rectangular space, and dotted it with pale-yellow lumber-piles, that looked as if nothing less than a miracle kept them from rolling over and over down to the bottom of the valley, or where the gray, irregular face of a precipice denied all foothold to the boldest roots. There was nothing smooth, swelling, or graceful, in the aspect of the range. They seemed, hills though they were, to be inspired with the souls of mountains, which were ever seeking to burst the narrow bounds that confined them. And, for his part, the professor liked them much better than if they had been mountains indeed. They gave an impression of greater energy and vitality, and were all the more comprehensible and lovable, because not too sublime and vast.
In another way, his garden afforded as much pleasure to the professor as his hills. From having planned and, in a great measure, made it himself, he took in it a peculiar pride and interest. He knew just the position of every plant and shrub, tree and flower, and in what sort of condition they were as regarded luxuriance and vigor. Sitting quietly in his chair, his fancy could wander in and out along the winding paths, mindful of each new opening vista or backward scene—of where the shadow fell, and where the sunshine slept hottest; could inhale the fragrance of the tea-rose bush, and pause beneath the branches of the elm-tree; the material man remaining all the while motionless, with closed eyelids, or, now and then, half opening them to verify, by a glance, some questionable recollection. This utilization, by the mental faculties alone, of knowledge acquired by physical experience, always produces an agreeable sub-consciousness of power—the ability to be, at the same time, active and indolent.
In about the centre of the garden, flopped and tinkled a weak-minded little fountain. The shrubbery partly hid it from view of the balcony, but the small, irregular sound of its continuous fall was audible in the quiet of the summer afternoons. Weak-minded though it was, Professor Valeyon loved to listen to it. It suited him better than the full-toned rush and splash of a heavier water-power; there was about it a human uncertainty and imperfection which brought it nearer to his heart. Moreover, weak and unambitious though it was, the fountain must have been possessed of considerable tenacity of purpose, to say the least, otherwise, doing so little, it would not have been persistent enough to keep on doing it at all. It was really wonderful, on each recurring year, to behold this poor little water-spout effecting neither more nor less than the year before, and with no signs of any further aspirations for the future.
A flight of five or six granite steps led up from the garden to the balcony, and, although they were quite as old as the rest of the house, they looked nearly as fresh and crude as when they were first put down. The balcony itself was strongly built of wood, and faced by a broad and stout railing, darkened by sun and rain, and worn smooth by much leaning and sitting. Overhead spread an ample roof, which kept away the blaze of the noonday sun, but did not deny the later and ruddier beams an entrance. On either side the door-way, the windows of the dining-room and of the professor's study opened down nearly to the floor. Every thing in the house seemed to have some reference to the balcony, and, in summer, it was certainly the most important part of all.
From the balcony to the front door extended, as has already been said, a straight passage-way, into which the stairs descended, and on which opened the doors of three rooms. It was covered with a deeply-worn strip of oil-cloth, the pattern being quite undistinguishable in the middle, and at the entrances of the doors and foot of the stairs, but appearing with tolerable clearness for a distance of several inches out along the walls. A high wainscoting ran along the sides; at the front door stood an old-fashioned hat-tree, with no hats upon it; for the professor had a way of wearing his hat into the house, and only taking it off when he was seated at his study-table.
The gabled porch was wide and roomy, but had seen its best days, and was rather out of repair. The board flooring creaked as you stepped upon it, and the seams of the roof admitted small rills of water when it rained hard, which, falling on the old brown mat, hastened its decay not a little. A large, arched window opened on either side, so that one standing in the porch could be seen from the upper and lower front windows of the house. The outer woodwork and roof of the porch were covered by a woodbine, trimmed, however, so as to leave the openings clear. A few rickety steps, at the sides and between the cracks of which sprouted tall blades of grass, led down to the path which terminated in the gate. This path was distinguished by an incongruous pavement of white limestone slabs, which were always kept carefully clean. The gate was a rattle-boned affair, hanging feebly between two grandfatherly old posts, which hypocritically tried to maintain an air of solidity, though perfectly aware that they were wellnigh rotted away at the base. The action of this gate was assisted—or more correctly encumbered—by the contrivance of a sliding ball and chain, creating a most dismal clatter and flap as often as it was opened. The white-washed picket fence, scaled and patched by the weather, kept the posts in excellent countenance; and inclosed a moderate grass-plot, adorned with a couple of rather barren black cherry-trees, and as many firs, with low-spread branches.
Above the house and the road rose a rugged eminence, sparely clothed with patches of grass, brambles, and huckleberry-bushes, the gray knots of rock pushing up here and there between. On the summit appeared against the sky the outskirts of a sturdy forest, paradise of nuts and squirrels. The rough road ran between rude stone-fences and straggling apple-trees to the village, lying some two miles to the southeast. About two hundred yards beyond the Parsonage—so Professor Valeyon's house was called, he, in times past, having officiated as pastor of the village—it made a sharp turn to the left around a spur of the hill, bringing into view the tall white steeple of the village meeting-house, relieved against the mountainous background beyond.
They dined in the Parsonage at two o'clock. At about three the professor was wont to cross the entry to his study, take his pipe from its place on the high wooden mantel-piece, fill it from the brown earthen-ware tobacco-box on the table, and stepping through the window on to the balcony, takes his place in his chair. Here he would sit sometimes till sundown, composed in body and mind; dreaming, perhaps, over the rough pathway of his earlier life, and facilitating the process by exhaling long wreaths of thinnest smoke-layers from his mouth, and ever and anon crossing and recrossing his legs.
On the present afternoon it was really very hot. Professor Valeyon, occupying his usual position, had nearly finished his second pipe. He had thrown off the light linen duster he usually wore, and sat with his waistcoat open, displaying a somewhat rumpled, but very clean white shirt-bosom; and his sturdy old neck was swathed in the white necktie which was the only visible relic of his ministerial career. He had covered his bald head with a handkerchief, for the double purpose of keeping away the flies, and creating a cooling current of air. One of his down-trodden slippers had dropped off, and lay sole-upward on the floor. There was no symptom of a breeze in the still, warm valley, nor even on the jagged ridges of the opposing hills. The professor, with all his appliances for coolness and comfort, felt the need of one strongly.
Mellowed by the distance, the long shriek of the engine, on its way from New York, streamed upon his ears and set him thinking. A good many years since he had been to New York!—nine, positively nine—not since the year after his wife's death. It hardly seemed so long, looking back upon it. He wondered whether time had passed as silently and swiftly to his daughters as to him. At all events, they had grown in the interval from little girls into young ladies—Cornelia nineteen, and Sophie not more than a year younger. "Bless me!" murmured the professor aloud, taking the pipe from his mouth, and bringing his heavy eyebrows together in a thoughtful frown.
He would scarcely have believed, in his younger years, that he would have remained anywhere so long, without even a thought of changing the scene. But then, his society days were over long ago, and he had seen all he ever intended to see of the world. Here he had his house, and his daily newspaper, and his books, and his garden, and the love and respect of his daughters and fellow-townspeople. Was not that enough—was it not all he could desire? But here, insensibly, the professor's eyes rested upon the vacant spot at the summit of the hill opposite.
Very few people, be they never so old, or their circumstances never so good, would find it impossible to mention something which they believe they would be the happier for possessing. Perhaps Professor Valeyon was not one of the exceptions, and was haunted by the idea that, were some certain event to come to pass, life would be more pleasant and gracious to him than it was now. Doubtless, however, an ideal aspiration of some kind, even though it be never realized, is itself a kind of happiness, without which we might feel at a loss. If the professor's solitary wish had been fulfilled, and there had been no longer cause for him to say, "If I had but this, I should be satisfied," might it not still happen that in some unguarded, preoccupied moment he should start and blush to find his lips senselessly forming themselves into the utterance of the old formula? Would it not be a sad humiliation to acknowledge that the treasure he had all his life craved, did not so truly fill and occupy his heart as the mere act of yearning after it had done?
In indulging in these speculations, however, we are pretending to a deeper knowledge of Professor Valeyon's private affairs than is at present authorizable. After a while he withdrew his eyes from the hill-tops, sighed, as those do whose thoughts have been profoundly absorbed, and knocked the ashes out of his pipe. He began to debate within himself—for the mind, unless strictly watched, is apt to waver between light thoughts and grave—whether or no it was worth while to make a second journey into the study after more tobacco. Perhaps Cornelia was within call, and would thus afford a means of cutting the Gordian knot at once. No! he remembered now that she had walked over to the village for the afternoon mail, and would not be back for some time yet. And Sophie—poor child! she would not leave her room for two weeks to come, at least.
"I wonder whether they ever want to see any thing of the outside world?" said the old gentleman to himself, elevating his chin, and scratching his short, white beard. "Reasonable to suppose they could appreciate something better than the society hereabouts! A picnic once in a while—sleigh-ride in winter—sewing-bees—dance at—at Abbie's; and all in the company of a set of country bumpkins, like Bill Reynolds, and awkward farmers' daughters!
"It won't do—must be attended to! The good education I was at such pains to give them—it'll only make them miserable if they're to wear their lives out here. I'm getting old and selfish—that's the truth of the matter. I want to sit here, and have my girls take care of me! Pshaw!
"Sophie, now—well, perhaps she don't need it so much, yet; she's younger than her sister, and has a good deal more internal resource: besides, she's too delicate at present. But Neelie—Neelie ought to go at once—this very summer. She needs an enormous deal of action and excitement, bodily and mental both, to keep her in wholesome condition. Has that same restless, feverish devil in her that I used to have; never do to let it feed upon itself! must get her absorbed in outside things!
"But what am I to do?" resumed the professor, sitting up in his chair, and shaking out his shirt-sleeves—for the heat of his meditations had brought on a perspiration; "what can I do—eh? Sophie not in condition to travel—can't leave her to take Cornelia—no one else to take her—and she can't go alone, that's certain! Humph!"
Professor Valeyon paused in his soliloquy, like a man who has turned into a closed court under the impression that it is a thoroughfare, and stared down with upwrinkled forehead at the sole of the kicked-off slipper, indulging the while in a mental calculation of how many days it would take for the hole near the toe to work down to the hole under the instep, and thus render problematical the possibility of keeping the shoe on at all. It might take three weeks, or, say at the utmost, a month; one month from the present time. It was at the present time about the 15th of June, the 14th or the 15th, say the 15th! Well, then, on the 15th of July the slipper would be worn out; in all human probability the weather would be even hotter then than it was now; and yet, in the face of that heat he would be obliged to go over to the village, get Jonas Hastings to fit him with a new pair, and then go through the long agony of breaking them in! At the thought, great drops formed on the old gentleman's nose, and ran suddenly down into his white mustache.
But this digression of thought was but superficial, and the sense that something serious underlaid it remained always latent. The professor leaned back in his chair, and sighed again heavily. It was true that he was growing old, and now that he contemplated action, he felt that in the last nine years the inertia of age had gained upon him. Besides, he greatly loved his daughters, and though it is easy to say that the greatest love is the greatest unselfishness, yet do we find a weakness in our hearts which we cannot believe wholly wrong, strongly prompting us to yearn and cling—even unwisely—to those who have our best affection. "And what seems wise to-day may be proved folly to-morrow," is our argument, "so let us cling to the good we have."
And Professor Valeyon well knew that what time his daughters departed to visit the outer world was likely to be the beginning of a longer journey than to Boston or New York. They were attractive, and, it was to be supposed, liable to be attracted; he would not be so weak as to imagine that their love for their father could long remain supreme. But this old man, who had kept abreast of the learning of the world, and was scarred with many a bruise and stab received during his life's journey; who had filled a pulpit, too, and preached Christian humility to his fellow townspeople, had yet so much human heat and pride glowing like embers in his old heart as to feel strong within him a bitter jealousy and sense of wrong toward whatever young upstarts should intrude themselves, and venture to brag of a love for his flesh and blood which might claim precedence over his own. Doubtless the feeling was unworthy of him, and he would, when the time came, play his part generously and well; but, so long as the matter was purely imaginary, we may allow him some natural ebullition of feeling.
So powerful, indeed, was the effect produced upon Professor Valeyon by the succession and conflict of gloomy and painful emotions, that he laid down his black clay-pipe upon the broad arm of the easy-chair, and began to search in all directions for his handkerchief: indulging himself meanwhile with the base reflection that as there was no present probability of depriving himself of his daughters, that ceremony must, for a time at least, be postponed. While yet the handkerchief-hunt was in full cry, the professor's ears caught the rattle and flap of the opening gate, and following it the quick, vigorous tap of small boot-heels upon the marble flagstones. Next came a light, rustling spring up the creaking porch-steps, and ere the old gentleman could get his head far enough over his knees to see down the entry, a fresh-looking young woman appeared smiling in the door-way, dressed in a tawny summer-suit, and holding up in one hand a long, slender envelop, sealed with a conspicuous monogram, and stamped with the New York post-mark.
SIGNS OF A THUNDER-SHOWER.
Before the delivery of the letter, a very pretty little ceremony took place. The professor had stretched forth his hand to receive it, when, by a sudden turn of the wrist and arm, the young lady whisked it out of his reach and behind her back, and in place of it brought down her fresh, sweet face with its fragrant mouth to within two inches of his own wrinkled and bristly visage. A moment after, the ceremony was completed, the letter delivered, and the postman, stepping over her father's fallen slipper, leaned against the balcony-railing, and waited for further developments.
The professor took his spectacles from his waistcoat pocket, placed them carefully upon his strongly-marked nose, and scrutinized in turn the direction, post-mark, and seal. With a sniff of surprise, he then tore open the envelop, and became immediately absorbed in the contents of the inclosure, indicating his progress by much pursing and biting of his lips, wrinkling of his forehead, and drawing together of his heavy eyebrows. Having at length reached the end of the last page, he turned it sharply about, and went through it once more, with half-articulate grunts of comment; and finally, folding the letter carefully up, and replacing it in the torn envelop, he caught the spectacles off his nose, and, with them in one hand and the paper in the other, fixed his eyes upon the vacant spot at the summit of the hill.
His daughter meanwhile had taken off her brown straw-hat, and was using it as a fan, keeping up a light tattoo with one foot upon the plank flooring. Her face was glowing with her four-mile walk in the hot sun, but she showed no signs of weariness. The position in which she stood was easy and graceful, but there was nothing statuesque or imposing about it; it was evident that at the very next instant she might shift into another equally as happy. Her eyes wandered from one object to another with the absence of concentration of one whose mind is not fixed upon any thing in particular. From the letter between the professor's finger and thumb, they traveled upward to his thoughtful countenance; thence took a leap to the decrepit water-spout which depended weakly from the corner of the balcony-roof, and thence again ascended to a great, solid, white cloud, with turreted outline clear against the blue, which was slowly sliding across the sky from the westward, and threatened soon to cut off the afternoon sunshine.
The professor restlessly altered the position of his legs, thereby drawing his daughter's attention once more to himself. Thinking she had waited as long as was requisite for the maintenance of her dignity as a non-inquisitive person, she transferred herself lightly to the arm of her father's chair, grasping his beard in her plump, slender hand, and turned his face up toward hers.
"Well, papa! aren't you going to tell what the news is? Is it nice?"
"Very nice!" said papa, taking her irreverent hand into his own, and keeping it there. "At least you will think so," he added, looking half playful and half wistful.
Cornelia brought her lips into a pout, all ready to say, "what?" but did not say it, and gazed at her father with round, interrogating eyes.
"You'd be very glad to go away and leave me, of course," continued the professor, assuming an air of studied unconcern.
"Papa!" exclaimed the young lady, with an emphatic intonation of affection, indignation, and bewilderment.
"What! not be glad to go to New York, and to all the fashionable watering-places, and be introduced to all the best society?" queried the old gentleman, in hypocritical astonishment.
"Papa!" again exclaimed the young lady; but this time in a tone which the tumult of delight, anticipation, and a fear lest there should be a mistake somewhere, softened almost into a whisper. She had risen from the arm of the chair to her feet, and stood with her hands clasped together beneath her chin.
The professor laughed a short and rather unnatural laugh. "I thought you wouldn't be obstinate about it, when you came to think it over," said he, dryly. He folded up his spectacles and put them back in his waistcoat pocket with, unusual elaboration of manner. "So you would really like to have a change, would you? Well, I trust you will not be disappointed in your expectations of society and watering-places. At all events, you may learn to appreciate home more!" Here the professor laughed again, as if he considered it a joke.
Cornelia was too much entranced by the new idea to have any notion of what he was talking about; she was already hundreds of miles away, living in stately houses, driving in magnificent carriages, sweeping in gorgeous silks and laces through gilded and illuminated ballrooms, and listening to courtly compliments from handsome and immaculate gentlemen. But when, presently, her scattered faculties began to return to a more normal state, an unquenchable curiosity to know how the miracle was to be worked, seized upon her. She dropped on her knees beside her father's chair, took his hand in both of hers, and looked up in his face.
"But how is it to be, papa, dear? I mean, whom am I to go with? and when am I to go?—dear me, I haven't a thing to wear! Shall I have time to get any thing ready? Isn't Sophie invited too? How strange it all seems! I can hardly realize it, somehow. From whom is the letter?"
"Can you remember when you were about nine years old?" inquired the professor.
"I don't know, I am sure," replied Cornelia, in some surprise at the irrelevancy of the question. "Nothing particular. Oh! I know! we were in New York!" said she, beginning to see some connection, and breaking into a smile.
"Do you remember seeing a lady there," continued the professor, talking and looking straight at nothing, "who made a great deal of you and Sophie, and asked you to call her Aunt Margaret?"
"Oh—I believe—I do—," said Cornelia, slowly; "I think I didn't like her much, because she was deaf or something, and talked in such a high voice. She wasn't really our aunt, was she? Did she write the letter?"
"Yes, she did, my dear, and invites you and Sophie to spend the summer with her. You don't dislike her so much as to refuse, I suppose, do you?"
"O papa!" exclaimed his daughter, deprecatingly; for the old gentleman had spoken rather in a tone of reproof. "I'm sure she's as kind and good as she can be; I was only telling what I especially remembered about her, you know. How did she come to think of us after so long?"
"I used to know her quite well, long before you were born, my dear," replied the professor, tapping with his fingers on the arm of the chair; "and at that time I should not have been surprised at her offering me any kindness. I am surprised now," he added, with a good deal of feeling; "she's a better friend than I thought."
Cornelia remained silent for several moments, because, not in the least comprehending what sort of ground her papa was walking on, she feared that the questions and remarks she was anxious to advance might jar with his mood. At length, a sufficient time having elapsed to warrant, in her opinion, the introduction of intelligible topics, she looked up and spoke again.
"How soon, papa—how soon did you say—am I to go?"
"First of July, Aunt Margaret says. Will that give you time enough to make yourself fine?"
"Now, papa, you're making fun of me," exclaimed the young lady, delighted that he should be in the humor to do so, yet speaking in that semi-reproachful tone which ladies sometimes adopt when the other sex makes their costume the object of remark, "I can make myself as fine as I can be by that time, of course! But how is it about Sophie? Won't she be able to go too?"
Papa shook his head, and combed his bristly white beard with his fingers. "Sophie has been very ill," said he; "it wouldn't be safe to have her go anywhere this summer. We can't take too much care of her. Typhoid pneumonia is a dangerous thing, and though she's on the way to recovery now, she might easily relapse. And then," added the old gentleman, in a more inward tone, "she would recover no more."
Although he mumbled this sentence to himself, Cornelia caught his meaning, more, probably, from his manner than from any thing she heard; and being of an emotional and warmly-tender disposition, she began to cry. She loved her sister very much; and something must also be allowed to the fact that, having a great happiness in prospect for herself, she could afford to expend more sympathy on those less fortunate. As for the professor, he, for a second time that afternoon, gave evidence of possessing disgracefully little control over himself. He began another fruitless search after his handkerchief, and finally asked Cornelia, with some heat, whether she knew what had become of it.
"Why, it's on your head, papa!" warbled she, brightly changing a laugh for her tears; and papa, putting up his hand in great confusion, and finding that it was indeed so, laughed also, and this time in a perfectly natural manner; but he blew his nose very resoundingly, for all that.
The atmosphere being serene once more, the joy of the future became again strong in Cornelia's heart, and coupled with it, an earnest longing to disburden herself to some one, and who but her sister should be her confidant? So she rose from her knees, and picked up her brown straw hat, which, in the excitement, had fallen to the floor.
"Is there any thing you'd like to do, papa dear?" asked she, laying her forefinger caressingly upon his bald head. "Because if there isn't, I, I should like—I think I'd better go to Sophie."
Professor Valeyon nodded his head, being in truth desirous of taking solitary counsel with himself. The letter contained a good deal more than the invitation he had communicated to Cornelia, and he could not feel at ease until he had more thoroughly analyzed and digested it. So when his daughter had vanished through the door, with a smile and a kiss of the hand, he mounted his spectacles again, and spread the letter open on his knee.
After reading a while in silence, he spoke; though his voice was audible only to his own mental ears.
"There was a time," said he, "when I wouldn't have believed I could ever hear the news of that man's death, and take it so quietly! And now he sends me his son!—as it were bequeaths him to me. Can it be as a hostage for forgiveness, though so late? or is it merely because he knew I could not but feel a vital interest in the boy, and would instruct and treat him as my own? He was a shrewd judge of human nature—and yet, I must not judge him harshly now."
Here Professor Valeyon happened again to catch sight of his slipper, and interrupted his soliloquy to extend his stockinged toe, fork it toward himself, and having, with some trouble, got it right side uppermost, to put it on. And then he referred once more to the letter.
"I should like to know whether he was aware that Abbie was here, or that she was alive at all! Margaret says nothing about it in her letter. If he did, of course he must have written to her, or, if he was determined to die as for these last twenty years and more he has lived, he would never knowingly have sent the boy where she was, on any consideration. Well, well, I can easily find out how that is, from either Abbie or the boy. By-the-way, I wonder whether this incognito of his may have any thing to do with it? Hum! Margaret says it's only so that he may not be interrupted in his studies by acquaintances. Well, that's likely enough—that's likely enough!"
"By-the-way, where's the young man to stay? At Abbie's, of course, if—Margaret says, at some good boarding-house. Well, Abbie's is the only one in town. It's a singular coincidence, certainly, if it is a coincidence! Perhaps I'd better go down at once and see Abbie, and have the whole matter cleared up. I shall have time enough before supper, if I harness Dolly now."
As Professor Valeyon arrived at this conclusion, he uplifted himself, with some slight signs of the rustiness of age, from his chair, took his brown-linen duster from the balcony railing across which it had been thrown, and put it on, with laborious puffings, and a slight increase of perspiration. Then, first turning round, to make sure that he had all his belongings with him, he entered the hall-door, and passed through into his study.
The rooms in which we live seem to imbibe something of our characteristics, and the examination of a dwelling-place may not infrequently throw some light upon the inner nature of its occupant. The professor's study was of but moderate size, carpeted with a red-and-white check straw matting, considerably frayed and defaced in the region of the table, and faded where the light from the windows fell upon it. The four walls were hidden, to a height of about seven feet from the floor, with rows upon rows of books, of all sizes and varieties of binding, no small proportion being novels, and even those not invariably of a classical standard. The only picture was a stained engraving of the Transfiguration, over the mantel-piece, in a faded and fly-be-spotted gilt frame. In the centre of the room, occupying, indeed, a pretty large share of all the available space, stood an ample study-table, covered with green baize, darkened, for a considerable space around the inkstand, by innumerable spatterings of ink. It supported a confused medley of natural and unnatural accompaniments to reading and writing. A ponderous ebony inkstand, with solid cut-glass receptacles, one being intended for powder, though none was ever put in it, a mighty dictionary, which, being too heavy to be considered movable, occupied one corner of the table by itself: the earthen tobacco-jar, with a small piece chipped from the cover; pamphlets and books, standing or lying upon one another; heaps of rusty steel and blunted quill pens; a quire or two of blue and white letter-paper; a paper-knife, loose in the handle, but smooth of edge; a box of lucifer matches, and several burnt ends; an extra pipe or two; the professor's straw hat; a brass rack for holding letters and cards; and a great deal of pink blotting-paper scattered about everywhere.
Opposite the table stood a chair, straight-backed and severe, in which Professor Valeyon always sat when at work. He had a theory that it was not well to be too much at bodily ease when intellectually occupied. Directly behind the chair, upon the shelf of a bookcase, stood a plaster cast of Shakespeare's face, the nose of which was most unaccountably darkened and polished. It is doubtful whether even the professor himself could have cleared up the mystery of this deepened color in the immortal bard's nose. But whoever, during those hours set apart by the old gentleman for solitary labor and meditation, had happened to peep in at the window, would, ten to one, have beheld him tilted thoughtfully back in his chair, abstractedly tweaking, with the forefinger and thumb of his right hand, the sacred feature in question. He had done it every day, for many years past, and never once found himself out, and, doubtless, the great poet was far too broad-minded ever to think of resenting the liberty, especially as it was only in his most thoughtful moments that the professor meddled with him.
The room contained little else in the way of furniture, except a few extra chairs, and a malacca-joint cane, with an ivory head, which stood in a corner near the door. It produced an impression at once of cleanliness and disorder, therein bearing a strong analogy to the professor's own person and habits; and the disorder was of such a kind, that, although no rule or system in the arrangement of any thing was perceptible, Professor Valeyon would have been at once and almost instinctively aware of any alteration that might have been made, however slight.
On entering the study, the old gentleman first shuffled up to the fireplace, flapping the heels of his slippers behind him as he went, and deposited his pipe on the mantel-piece. Next, he put on his straw hat, and, turning to the engraving of the Transfiguration, which had served him as a looking-glass almost ever since it had hung there, he put himself to rights, with his usual fierce scowlings, liftings of the chin, and jerkings at collar and stock. When every thing seemed in proper trim, he took his ivory-headed cane from its place in the corner, and made his way along the entry to the front door.
"Bless me!" ejaculated the professor, as he emerged upon the porch, shading his eyes from the white dazzle of the road; "how hot it is, sure enough!" Scarcely had he spoken, however, when the sun, which had been coquetting for the last half-hour with the majestic white cloud which Cornelia had idly watched from the balcony, suddenly plunged his burning face right into its cool, soft bosom, and immediately a clear, gray shadow gently took possession of the landscape.
"Humph!" grunted the professor again, turning a sharp, wise eye to the westward, "we shall have a thunder-shower before long. I must take the covered wagon. But how's this? I declare I've forgotten to change my slippers! I'm growing old—I'm growing old, that's certain!"
As the old gentleman stood, shaking his head over this new symptom of approaching senility, he happened to turn his eyes in the direction of the village, and descried a figure approaching rapidly from the turn in the road, which at once arrested his attention.
"Who can that be?" muttered he to himself, frowning to assist his vision. "None of the town boys, that's certain. Never saw such a figure but once before! If any thing, this is the better man of the two. By-the-way, what if it should be—! Humph! I believe it is, sure enough."
By this time the stranger, a very tall and broadly built young man, with a close brown beard, and quick, comprehensive eyes, had arrived opposite the house, and stood with one hand on the gate.
"Is this the parsonage?" demanded he, speaking with great rapidity of utterance, and turning his head half sideways as he spoke, without, however, removing his eyes from the professor's face.
The old gentleman nodded his head, "It is known by that name, sir!" said he.
With the almost impatient quickness which marked every thing he did—a quickness which did not seem in any way allied to slovenliness or inaccuracy, however—the young man pushed through the gate, which protested loudly against such rough usage, and walked hastily up to the porch-steps. He paused a moment ere ascending.
"Are you Professor Valeyon?" he asked.
Again the professor bowed his head in assent. "And are you—?" began he.
The young man sprang up the steps, and grasping the other's half-extended hand, gave it a brief, hard shake.
"I'm Bressant," said he.
SOPHIE AND CORNELIA ENTER INTO A COVENANT.
When Cornelia left her father on the balcony, she danced up-stairs, and chasseed on tiptoe up to the door of Sophie's room. There she stopped and knocked.
Somehow or other, nobody ever went into that room without knocking. It never entered any one's head to burst in unannounced. The door was an unimposing-looking piece of deal, grained by some village artist into the portraiture of an as yet undiscovered kind of wood, and considerably impaired in various ways by time. It could not have been the door, therefore. Nor was the bolt ever drawn, save at certain hours of the morning and night. Sophie was not an ogre, either. Cornelia, who was very trying at times, would have found it hard to recall an occasion when Sophie had answered or addressed her sharply or crossly. If she exerted any influence, or wielded any power, it was not of the kind which attends a violent or morose temper. But no vixen or shrew, how terrible soever she may be, can hope at all times or from all people to meet with respect or consideration; while to Sophie Valeyon the world always put on its best face and manner, secretly wondering at itself the while for being so well-behaved.
As to the affair of knocking, Sophie herself had never said a word about it, one way or another. She always took it as a matter of course; indeed, had she been loquacious on the subject, or insisted upon the observance, Cornelia for one would have been very likely to laugh to scorn and disregard her, therein acting upon a principle of her own, which prompted her to measure her strength against any thing which seemed to challenge her, and never to give up if she could help it. But she had never had a trial of strength with Sophie, and possibly was quite contented that it should be so. She would have shrunk from thwarting or crossing her sister as she would from committing a secret sin: there might be no material or visible ill-consequence, but the stings of conscience would be all the sharper.
So Cornelia knocked and entered, and the quiet, cool room in which her sister lay seemed to glow and become enlivened by the joyous reflection of her presence. Yet the effect of the room upon Cornelia was at least as marked. She hushed herself, as it were, and tried, half unconsciously, to adapt herself to the tone of her surroundings; for, although her physical nature was sound and healthy, almost to boisterousness, her perceptions remained very keen and delicate, and occasionally rallied her upon the redundancy of her animal well-being with something like reproof.
It was singular, with how few and how simple means was created the impression of purity and repose that this chamber produced! It brought to mind the pearly interior of a shell, and a fanciful person might have listened for the sea-music whispering through. The walls were papered with pale gray, relieved by a light pink tracery, and the white-muslin curtains were set off by a pink lining. A bunch of wild-flowers and grasses, which Cornelia had gathered that morning, and Sophie had arranged, stood on the mantel-piece. There were four or five pictures—one, a bass-relief of Endymion, deep asleep, yet conscious in his dream that the moon is peeping shyly over his polished shoulder, had been copied from a famous original by Sophie herself. She had painted it in a pale-brown mezzotint, which was like nothing in nature, but seemed suitable of all others for the embodiment of the classic fable. This picture hung over the mantel-piece. Opposite Sophie's bed was an illumination of the Lord's Prayer, with clear gold lettering, and capitals and border of celestial colors. The dressing-table was covered with a white cloth, on which reposed a comb and brush and a pink pin-cushion with a muslin cover, and over which hung a crayon of the cherub of the Sistine Madonna, who leans his chin upon his hand.
Within reach of Sophie's hand as she lay, were suspended a couple of hanging shelves, which held her books. There were not a great many of them, but they all bore signs of having been well read, and there was at the same time a certain neatness and spotlessness in their appearance which no merely new books could ever possess, but which was communicated solely by Sophie's pure finger-touches. On the opposite side of the bed stood a small table, on which ticked a watch; and beside the watch was a work-basket, full of those multifarious little articles that only a woman knows how to get together.
Looking around the room, and noting the delicate nicety and precision of its condition and arrangement, one would have supposed that Sophie's own hands must have been very lately at work upon it. But it was many weeks since she had even sat in the easy-chair that stood in the rosy-curtained window; and, although now far advanced in convalescence, she had taken no part in the care of her room since her illness. Why it had still continued to retain its immaculateness was one of many similar mysteries which must always surround a character like Sophie's. Every thing she accomplished seemed not so much to be done, as to take place, in accordance with her idea or resolve; and there were always, in her manifestations of whatever kind, more spiritual than material elements.
When Cornelia entered, Sophie laid down her sewing, and looked up-with a smile in her eyes, which were large and gray, and the only regularly beautiful part of her face. She had a way of confining a smile to them, when wishing merely to express good-will or pleasure, which was peculiar to herself, and very effective. Cornelia walked quite soberly up to the bedside, kissed her sister, and then stood silent for several moments.
Compared with her recent exhilaration, this was very extraordinary behavior. She had rushed up-stairs intent upon pouring into Sophie's ears the whole gorgeous tale of her hopes and anticipations for the coming summer. Yet no sooner was she within the door than her excitement seemed to die out, and her enthusiasm ebb away. Extraordinary as it appeared, it was by no means a rare occurrence. Cornelia alone could have told how common; if, indeed, she ever reflected upon the matter. She was very quick to feel a divergence of interests between her sister and herself, and always inferred that Sophie could not sympathize with any thing for which she had no personal taste. In the present instance, it had all at once occurred to her that her sister would not be likely to care half so much about the gayeties of fashionable watering-places and city-life as she did, and might therefore treat with indifference what was to her an affair of the greatest moment; and a snub being one of those things which Cornelia found it most difficult, even in the mildest form, to endure, she had resolved, on the spur of the moment, to approach the topic of her proposed departure with the same coolness which she expected Sophie to manifest when she heard about it.
"Have you kept at that sewing ever since I went away?" asked she, idly examining the work which Sophie had laid down.
"I believe so," replied Sophie, stroking her chin to a point between her forefinger and thumb. "It's so pleasant to be able to sew again at all that I should consider it no hardship to have to sew all day."
Cornelia's thoughts immediately reverted to the dresses which the next two weeks must see made.
"You wouldn't be strong enough to do that, though, would you? I mean to sew on dresses, and all that sort of thing?"
"Dresses?" said Sophie, looking up inquiringly into her sister's face. "Oh, you mean your dress for Abbie's Fourth-of-July party? I thought you were going to wear your—"
"Oh, no, not that; I wasn't thinking of that," interrupted Miss Valeyon, with a gesture as if deprecating the idea of having ever entertained ideas so lowly. "I shall hardly be in town on the Fourth," she added, reflectively, as if calculating her engagements.
Sophie looked amazed, though it would have taken a keener observer than Cornelia was at the moment to detect the slight contraction of the under eyelids, and the barely perceptible droop of the corners of the mouth. She saw that her sister had something of moment to tell her, and was, for some reason, coquettish about bringing it out. Cornelia was often entertaining to Sophie when she least had intention of being so; but Sophie was far too tender of the young lady's feelings knowingly to let her suspect it.
"Not be in town?" repeated she, demurely taking up her work; "why, where are you going, dear?"
"Oh!" said Cornelia, with one of those little half-yawns wherewith we cover our nervousness or suspense, "I didn't tell you, did I? Papa received a letter from a lady in New York, the one who wanted us to call her 'Aunt Margaret' when we were there ever so long ago—the year after mamma died, you know—asking me to come to her house there, and go round with her to Saratoga and all the fashionable watering-places. The invitation was for about the first of July, so—"
Cornelia, speaking with a breathless rapidity which she intended for sang froid, had got thus far, when Sophie, who had dropped her work again, and had been regarding her with a beautiful expression of surprise, joy, and affection in her eyes, stretched forth her arms, cooed out a tender little cry of happy congratulation and sympathy, and hugged her sister around the neck for a few moments in a very eloquent silence.
"Why, Sophie!" murmured Cornelia, covered with an astonishment of smiles and tears, "how sweet you are! I didn't think you'd care; I thought you'd think it foolish in me to be glad, dear Sophie!"
"My darling!" said Sophie, with another hug. She felt rebuked and remorseful; for if, as Cornelia's words unconsciously implied, her sympathy was unexpected, it would appear she had gained a reputation for coldness and indifference which she was far from coveting. It often happens, certainly, that those whom we consider intellectually beneath us, and whom, supposing them too dull to comprehend the evolutions of our minds, we occasionally use for our amusement, possess an instinctive insight far keener than that of experience, enabling them to read our very souls with an accuracy which puts our self-knowledge to the blush, and might quite turn the tables upon us, could they themselves but appreciate their power.
"But tell me all about it," resumed Sophie; "all the particulars. And then we'll discuss the dresses. Dear me! I long to get to work upon them."
As a matter of fact, Cornelia had very few particulars to tell: all she knew was the simple fact she had already stated. But it needed only a small spark to enkindle her imagination; she plunged at once into a perfect flower-garden of bright thoughts and rainbow fancies; foreshadowed her whole journey from the arrival in New York to the latest grand ball and conquest; glowed over the horses, the houses, and the people; speculated profoundly in possible romances and romantic possibilities, and became so eloquent in a pretty, half-childish, half-womanish way she had, that Sophie's eyes shone, and she told herself that Neelie was the dearest, cunningest sister in the world.
From these glorious imaginings they descended—or ascended, perhaps—to the dresses, and then Sophie's low, steady voice mingled with Cornelia's rich, strenuous one, like pure water with red wine. Cornelia paced the little room backward and forward—she could never keep still when she was talking about what interested her, and now paused by the window, now before the mantel-piece, now leaned for a moment on the foot-board of Sophie's bed. She was very happy; indeed, this may have been the happiest hour of her life, past or to come. We all have our happiest hour, probably; and not always shall we find that happiness to have been caused by higher or less selfish considerations than those which animated Cornelia Valeyon.
During one of her visits to the window, she was arrested by the vision of an unknown young man coining up the road. She at once became silent.
"What is it?" demanded Sophie, presently.
"Some man—a new one—a gentleman—awfully big!" reported Cornelia, in detached sentences, with a look between each one.
"As big as Bill Reynolds?" asked Sophie, with a twinkle in her face.
"How absurd, Sophie! Bill Reynolds, indeed! He isn't up to this man's shoulder. Besides, this is a gentleman, and—oh!" exclaimed Cornelia, breaking off suddenly, and drawing back a step from the window.
"Has the gentleman had an accident?" inquired Sophie, still twinkling.
"He's stopped here—speaking to somebody—father, I believe; he's coming in—there! do you hear?" cried Cornelia, turning round with large eyes and her finger at her mouth, and speaking in a thrilling whisper. The sound of the quick, irregular tread of Mr. Bressant, following the professor into the study, was audible from below.
"Who can he be?" resumed she presently, as Sophie said nothing.
"If he's a gentleman, we don't need to know any more, do we?" replied her sister, from behind her sewing.
"Well, he is one," rejoined Cornelia, uncertain whether she was being made fun of or not. "He was dressed like one; not bandboxy, you know, but nicely and easily; and he stands and moves well; and then his face—"
"Is he handsome?" asked Sophie, as Cornelia paused.
"Oh! he has that refined look—I can't describe it—better than handsome," said she, giving a little wave with her hand to carry out her meaning.
"It's lucky he was so big," remarked Sophie, very innocently, "or you might not have been able to see so much of him in such a little time."
"Sophie!" said Cornelia, after a silence of some moments, speaking with tragic deliberation, "you're making fun of me; I think you're very unkind. I don't see what there is to laugh at in what I said; and if there was any thing, I think you might not laugh."
"O Neelie—dear Neelie!" exclaimed Sophie, coloring with regret and shame; "I didn't think you'd mind it; it was only my foolishness. Don't think I meant to be unkind to you, dear. I wish the man had never come here, whoever he is, if he is to come between us in any way. Won't you forgive me, darling?" and she held out her hand to Cornelia with a wistful, beseeching look in her eyes that thawed her sister's resentment immediately, and after a very brief struggle to preserve her dignity, she subsided with her face upon the pillow beside her sister's.
"We won't ever quarrel or any thing again, will we, Sophie?" said she, after a while.
"Never about that gentleman, at all events!" answered Sophie; and then they both laughed and kissed each other to seal the bargain.
Once, long afterward, Cornelia remembered that kiss, and the words that had accompanied it; and pondered over the bitter significance with which the simple act and playful agreement had become fraught.
But now, the subject was soon forgotten, and they fell to talking about the dresses once more; nor was the topic by any means exhausted when they were interrupted by the professor's voice calling to them from below.
A BUSINESS TRANSACTION.
Professor Valeyon led the way to the study, stood his cane in the corner, and placed a chair for his guest, in silence. "Just like his father!" said he to himself, as he repaired to the mantel-piece for his pipe; "not a bit of his mother about him. Who'd have thought so sickly a baby as they said he was, would have grown into such a giant?—Smoke?" he added, aloud.
"You must talk loud to me—I'm deaf," said the young man, with his hand to his ear.
"Pleasant thing in a pupil, that!" muttered the old gentleman, as he filled his pipe and lit it. "How it reminds one of his father—that bright questioning look, when he leans forward! One might know who he was by that and nothing else!" He sat down in his chair, and ruminated a moment.
"Hardly expected you up here so soon after your loss," observed he, in as kindly a tone and manner as was comportable with speaking in a very loud key.
"Loss! I've had no loss!" returned Bressant, with a look of perplexity. "Oh! you mean my father!" he exclaimed, suddenly, throwing his head back with a half-smile. He very seldom laughed aloud. "There was nothing to do. The funeral was the day before yesterday. I did all the business before then. Yesterday I packed up, and here I am!"
"Death couldn't have been unexpected, I presume?" said the professor, on whom Bressant's manner made an impression of resignation to his loss rather too complete.
"The hour of death can only be a matter of guess-work at any time," returned the young man. "My father had been expecting to die for some months past; but he'd been mistaken once or twice before, and I thought he might be this time. But he happened to guess right."
"Filial way of talking, that," thought Professor Valeyon, rather taken aback. "Didn't get that from his father; he was soft spoken enough, in all conscience! Queer now, this matter of resemblance! there's a certain something in his style of speaking, and in the way he looks just after he has spoken, that reminds me of Mrs. Margaret. Deaf people are all something alike, though; and he's been with her a great deal, I suppose. Well, well! as to the way he spoke about his father, what looked like indifference may have been merely embarrassment, or an attempt to disguise feeling; or perhaps it was but a deaf man's peculiarity. At all events, it can do no harm to suppose so."
"Were you with him during his last moments?" asked he.
"Oh, yes! I saw him die," answered Bressant, nodding, and pulling his close-cut brown beard.
Professor Valeyon smoked for a while in silence, occasionally casting puzzled and searching glances at the young man, who took up a book from the table—it happened to be a volume of Celestial Mechanics—and began to read it with great apparent interest. His face was an open and certainly not unpleasant one; very mobile, however, and vivid in its expressions; the eyebrows straight and delicate, and the eyes bright and powerful. The forehead was undeniably fine, prominently and capaciously developed. Nevertheless—and this was what puzzled the professor—there was a very evident lack of something in the face, in no way interfering with its intellectual aspect, but giving it, at times, an unnatural and even uncanny look. In meeting the young man's eyes, the old gentleman was ever and anon conscious of a disposition to recoil and shudder, and, at the same time, felt impelled, by what resembled a magnetic attraction, to gaze the harder. Did the very fact that some universal human characteristic was omitted from this person's nature endow him with an exceptional and peculiar power? There was an uncertainty, in talking and associating with him, as to what he would do or say; an ignorance of what might be his principles and points of view; an impossibility of supposing him governed by common laws. Such, at least, was the professor's fancy concerning him.
But again, turning his eyes to his pipe, or out of the window, was it not fancy altogether? Beyond that he was unusually tall and broad across the shoulders, and of a very intelligent cast of features, what was there or was there not in this young man different from any other? He had the muffled irregular voice, and alert yet unimpressible manner, peculiar to deafness. But was there any thing more? The professor took another look at him. He was reading, and certainly there were no signs of any thing strange in his appearance, more than that, at such a time, he should be reading at all. It was when speaking of his father that the uncanny expression had been especially noticeable. "Suppose," said Professor Valeyon to himself, "we try him on another subject."
"You've been educated at home, I understand," began he, from beneath his heavy eyebrows.
"Oh, yes!" replied Bressant, shutting his book on his knee, and returning the professor's look with one of exceeding keenness and comprehensiveness. "Educated to develop faculties of body and mind, not according to the ordinary school and college system." He drew himself up, with an air of such marvelous intellectual and physical efficiency, that it seemed to the professor as if each one of his five senses might equal the whole capacity of a common man. And then it occurred to him that he remembered, many years ago, having heard some one mention a theory of education which aimed rather to give the man power in whatever direction he chose to exercise it, than to store his mind with greater or less quantities of particular forms of knowledge. The only faculty to be left uncultivated, according to this theory, was that of human love—this being considered destructive, or, at least, greatly prejudicial, to progress and efficiency in any other direction. The professor could not at the moment recall who it was had evolved this scheme, but it became involuntarily connected in his mind with Bressant's peculiarities.
"According to the letter I received to-day, you come here to be trained to the ministry," resumed he. "Has all your previous education had this in view?"
"The education would have been the same, understand, whatever the end was to be," explained the young man, with a shrewd smile in his sharp eyes. "I am as well prepared to study theology as if I had been aiming at it all my life; but I might take up engineering or medicine as well as that. About a year ago, I decided to become a minister."
"And what led you to do that?" demanded the old gentleman, with rather a stern frown. He did not like the idea of approaching religion in other than a reverent and self-searching attitude.
"My father first suggested it," replied Bressant, on whom the frown produced no sort of impression. "At the time, it surprised me, especially from him. Afterward, I concluded I could not do better. No one has such a chance to move the world as a minister. I thought of Christ, and Paul, and Luther, and many before and since. They were all ministers, and who had greater power? I felt I had the ability, and I decided that it was as a minister I could best use it."
"But what are you going to use it for?" questioned the professor, settling his spectacles on his nose, and leaning across the table in his earnestness.
"The men I have mentioned used theirs to invent, or confirm, or overthrow, religious sects, and perhaps they couldn't have done better in their age. Their names are as well known now as ever, and that's the best test. But I hope I may discover a better method. I shall have the advantage of their experience and mistakes. Perhaps I shall develop and carry out to its conclusion the dogma of Christianity. That would be well as a beginning."
"Very well, that's certain!" assented the professor, dryly. "It's all I shall be able to give you any assistance in, too, so we needn't discuss what the next step will be. By-the-way, did you ever hear of doing any thing for the glory of God, and for the love of your fellow-men?"
"Oh, yes! they're pass-words of the profession, and have their use," returned Bressant, with another of his keen smiles. "If you want to climb above the world, the rounds in your ladder must be made of common woods that everybody knows the names of. The Bible is full of such, and some of them are works of genius in themselves. After all, it is the people who must immortalize us, and we must feed them with what they are in the habit of eating."
"What induced you to come here, sir?" asked the professor, abruptly.
"I never should have come of myself," answered the young man, with entire frankness. "I never heard your name mentioned until less than a year ago. It was the first time my father was expecting to die. He told me you were a wise man, and learned besides; he had known you when you were young; you would have some interest in teaching me; he would feel more at ease to die, if he knew you were directing me. I thought it over, as I said, and decided to come. Understand, I knew of no one except you, and I didn't want to go to a theological school."
"Humph!" grunted the professor, who was by no means well satisfied with the prospect, yet had reasons of his own for taking up the matter if possible. He smoked for a while longer, and Bressant resumed his book.
"By-the-way, about this incognito of yours," said the former at length, laying aside his pipe, and taking off his straw hat: he had forgotten to remove it on entering, and it had been oppressing him with a sense of vague inconvenience ever since. "What is the meaning of it? Do you mean to keep it strict? Is the idea you own?"
"Oh, no! I heard nothing of it till after my father was dead. It was Mrs. Vanderplanck—she who wrote you the letter—who first spoke to me of it, and said he had desired it. I don't know what the necessity of it is, but it must be kept a strict secret. Should any one besides you know who I am, I stand in danger of losing my fortune."
"Ah, ha! lose your fortune!" exclaimed the professor, frowning so portentously as to unseat his spectacles. "How does that happen, sir?"
Bressant looked considerably amused at the old gentleman's evident emotion; the more as he saw no occasion for it. "I never had the curiosity to ask how," said he, pulling at his beard. "I shall run no risks with my fortune. I'm satisfied to know there might be danger; there's no difficulty in keeping silence about a name."
Professor Valeyon rose from his chair and walked to the window. A mighty host of gray clouds, piled thickly one upon another, and torn and tunneled by feverish wind-gusts, were hastening swiftly and silently across the sky from the west. Beyond, where they were thickest and angriest, a yellowish, lurid tint was reflected against them. The valley darkened like a frowning face, and the summits of the western hills were blotted out of sight. A lightning-flash shivered brightly through the air, and then came the first growling, leaping, accumulating peal of thunder. A sudden, rustling breath swept through the garden, and, following it, in big, quick drops, and soon in an unintermittent myriad-footed tramp, the rustling, perpendicular down-pelting of the rain.
In less than a minute, a gray, wet veil had been drawn across the farther side of the valley, hiding it from the professor's sight. Even the outer limits of the garden grew indistinct. The leaves of the trees bobbed ceaselessly up and down, and glistened and dripped; the shrubs and flowers seemed to lift themselves higher from the earth, and stretch out their green fingers to the plenteous shower. The tinkle of the fountain was quite obliterated, and the ordinarily smooth surface of the basin sprang upward in thousands of tiny pyramids, as if madly welcoming the impact of the rain-drops. Small cataracts tore in desperate haste down the slope of the garden-paths, laying bare in their pigmy fury the lower strata of rough gravel and pebbles. Upon the roof of the balcony was maintained an evenly sonorous monotone of drubbing, as if innumerable fairy carpenters were nailing on the shingles. The invalid water-spout had a hard time of it; it was racked, shaken, and bullied, and continually choked itself with the volubility of its fluent utterances, which were instantly swallowed up in the bottomless depths of the waste-barrel. A strong, cool, earthy odor rose from the garden, and was wafted past the professor's nostrils, and into the heated house. The moist brown flower-beds exhaled a fragrant thankfulness, and the grass-blades looked twice as green and twice as tall as before. Meanwhile the heavy, regular pulse of the thunder had been beating intermittently overhead, and bounding ponderously from hill-side to hill-side; and ever and anon the lightning had showed startlingly in dazzling zigzags through the omnipresent shadow. But now it seemed that there was a little less weight in the fall, and gloom in the air. The pervading freshness of the breeze made itself more unmistakably perceptible. The west began to lighten, and the rain and darkness drifted to the east. As for Professor Valeyon, if his thoughts had been in a tumult, like the elements, might they not become quiet again also?
"After all," said the old gentleman to himself, "it's not the young fellow's fault. If his father was a heartless scoundrel, it doesn't follow that he knows it. Well, the man is dead—it can't be helped now, that's certain. But what a cunningly-contrived plot it is! Shuts my mouth by confiding to me the incognito and sending me the son to educate; destroys the last hope of setting an old wrong right; takes advantage, for base ends, of the deepest feelings of human hearts: not to speak of preventing the young man himself from being party to a noble and generous action. Did ever man carry such a load down to the grave!
"Suppose Margaret—no! it isn't likely she would know any thing about it. He wasn't the man to make confidants of women. She gave the message to the son, not knowing what it meant, probably. Why, he wouldn't have dared to tell her! And then inviting Cornelia—no, no! I've had some acquaintance with Margaret, and, with all her nonsense, I believe she's honest. Besides, what interest could she have to be otherwise? To be sure, she didn't give me the true reason for the incognito; but that's nothing; she's just the woman to tell a useless fib, and reserve the truth for important occasions only—or what she thinks such."
The professor remained a while longer at the window, abstractedly staring at the drops which hastened after one another from the wet eaves. Suddenly he turned around, and walked up to the table, flapping his slipper-heels, and settling his spectacles, as he went.
"Did any one ever speak to you of your mother, sir?" demanded he in the ear of the reading Bressant. "Confound the fellow!" passed at the same time through his mind; "does he think I'm a chair or a table?"
"My mother?" repeated the young man, looking up, and appearing somewhat surprised at the idea of his ever having possessed the article. "Oh, yes! my father once told me she was dead. It was long ago. I'd almost forgotten it."
"Told you she was dead, hey? Humph! just what I expected!" growled the old gentleman, who seemed, however, to become additionally wrathful at the intelligence. After a moment's scowl straight at his would-be pupil, he shuffled up to his chair, and sat solidly down in it. Bressant (to whom the professor had probably appeared to the full as peculiar as he to the professor), seeing signs of an approach to business in his action and attitude, tossed his book on the table, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, and fixed his eyes directly upon the old gentleman's glasses.
"You seem to be in the habit of speaking your own mind freely, sir," observed the latter; "and I shall do the same, on this occasion at least I'm going to accept you as a pupil, and shall do my best for you; but you must understand it's by no means on your own account I do it. As far as I have seen them, I don't like your principles, your beliefs, or your nature. You're the last man I should pick out for a minister, or for any other responsible position. In every respect, except intelligence and an unlimited confidence in yourself, you seem to me unfit to be trusted. In training you for the ministry, I shall do it with the hope—not the expectation—of instilling into you some true and useful ideas and elevated thoughts. If I succeed, I shall have done the work of a whole churchful of missionaries. If I fail, I shan't recommend you to be ordained. And never forget that you will be indebted for all this to some one you've never known, and who, I am at present happy to say, don't know you. Whether or not you'll ever become acquainted is known to God alone, and I'm very glad that the matter lies entirely in His hands. Now, sir, what have you to say?"
Bressant, who had been looking steadily and curiously at the professor during the whole of this long speech, now passed his hand from his forehead down over his face and beard—a common trick of his—smiled meditatively, and said:
"I'm glad you agree to take me. I don't care for your recommendation if I have your instruction. Shall we begin to-morrow?"
There followed a discussion relative to hours, methods, and materials, which lasted very nearly until tea-time. Then, as there was still some rain falling, the professor extended to his pupil an invitation to supper, on his accepting which the old gentleman shuffled out into the entry, and called to Cornelia to come down and make the necessary preparations.
BRESSANT PICKS A TEA-ROSE.
Supper was ready: Cornelia surveyed the table for the last time, to make sure it was all right. It was an extension-table, but the spare leaves had been removed, and it was reduced to a circle. A mellow western light from that portion of the sky unswathed in clouds streamed through the window, and did duty as a lamp. The cloth was white, and tapered down in soft folds at the corners; a pleasant profusion of sparkling china and silver, and of savory eatables, filled the circumference of the board, leaving just space enough to operate in, and no more. In the centre of the table, and perceptible both to eyes and nose on entering the room, was a tall glass dish, lined with wet green leaves, and pyramided with red strawberries. A comfortable steam ascended from the nose of the tea-pot, and vanished upward in the gloom of the ceiling; the brown toast seemed crackling to be eaten; the smooth-cut slices of marbled beef lay overlapping one another in silent plenteousness; and the knives and forks glistened to begin. Cornelia opened the entry-door, and called across to her papa in the study that supper was ready. Then she took up her position behind her chair, with one hand resting on its back, and a silent determination that the visitor, whoever he was, should be impressed with her dignity, condescension, and good looks.
"This is my daughter Cornelia. Mr. Bressant is going to be a pupil of mine, my dear," said the professor, as he and Bressant advanced into the room.
He gave his hand an introductory wave in Cornelia's direction as he spoke, but probably did not speak loud enough to be distinctly beard by his guest. Nevertheless, seeing the motion and the lady, Bressant inclined forward his shoulders with an elastic readiness of bearing which was customary with him, in spite of his unusual stature, and then took his place at the table without bestowing any further attention upon her. It passed through Cornelia's mind, as she lifted the tea-pot, that Mr. Bressant was outrageously conceited, and should be taken down at the first opportunity. She had made a very graceful courtesy, and it was not to be overlooked in that way with impunity.
"Milk and sugar, sir?" said she, interrogatively, raising her eyes to the young man's face with a somewhat gratuitous formality of manner, and holding a piece of sugar suspended over the cup.
Bressant had certainly been looking in her direction as she spoke; he had the opposite place to her at table; but instead of replying, even with a motion of the head, he, after a moment, turned to Professor Valeyon, who was gently oscillating himself in the rocking-chair he always occupied at meals, and asked him whether he knew any thing about a place in town called "Abbie's Boarding-house."
Cornelia laid down the sugar and tongs, and looked very insulted and flushed. What sort of a creature was this her papa had brought to his supper-table? Papa, who had noticed the awkward turn, and was tickled by the humor thereof, could not forbear to give evidence of amusement, insomuch that his daughter, who was by no means of a lymphatic temperament, was almost ready to leave the table, or burst into tears with injured and astonished dignity.
Bressant, with that exceeding quickness of perception which most persons with his infirmity possess under such circumstances, transferred his glance from the professor to the young lady, and at once arrived at a pretty correct understanding of the difficulty. He was not embarrassed, for it had probably never occurred to him that his deafness was so much a defect as a difference of organization, and he lost no time in explaining matters in his customary way.
"I'm deaf; when you talk to me you must speak loud," said he, looking full at Cornelia's disturbed face.
Miss Valeyon had never been so thoroughly discomfited. She was smitten on three sides at once. Bad enough to be insulted; worse, having become properly angry, to find no insult was meant; and, worst of all, to have been the means of drawing attention, by her bad temper, to a physical infirmity in her papa's guest. She abandoned upon the instant all intention of being ceremonious and imposing, and only thought how she might atone, to her papa and to Bressant, for her ill-behavior.
He would not take tea—nothing but water; and, as Cornelia proceeded in silence to pour out her papa's cup, the latter answered Bressant's question about the boarding-house.
"Know it very well, sir. Very good house. What have you heard about it?"
"Nothing more than that; I asked a man at the depot. My trunk has been taken there. I'm satisfied if the woman 'Abbie' is respectable, and gives me enough to eat." The young man had accepted Cornelia's tender of a slice of beef, and seemed fully equal to doing it again.
"The 'woman Abbie' respectable, sir!" exclaimed the professor in half-muzzled ire; but he checked himself suddenly, and tried to be contented with shoving his plate, tumbler, and tea-cup, to and fro before him. "I could not have recommended you to a better person," he added presently, evidently putting a restraint upon himself. "I have the highest—I hold her in very high estimation, sir."
Bressant nodded, and presently took some more of the beef.
"Have you seen Abbie yet, Mr. Bressant?" inquired Cornelia in a timid tone, which, however, was deprived of all melody by the effort to suit it to the young man's ears. But it was necessary to say something.
"Oh, no!" he replied, smiling at her in the pure good-nature of physical complacency, and noticing for the first time that she was an agreeable spectacle. He judged absolutely and primitively, never having had that experience of women which might have enabled him to make comparison the base of his opinion. "I came right up here from the depot. My trunk was sent to the boarding-house; it will hire a room for me, I suppose."
At this sally, Cornelia smiled very graciously, though ten minutes before she would have snubbed it promptly. She had had some experience with the young men of the village—easy victims—and had acquired a rather good opinion of her satirical powers. But Bressant was a peculiar case; his deafness enlisted her compassion and forbearance, and her own late rudeness made her gentle. Perhaps the young gentleman was not so far out of the way in failing to consider his infirmity a disadvantage.
Meanwhile, Professor Valeyon was swinging backward and forward, ever and anon pausing to take a bite or a sup, and eying the stem of the strawberry-dish, in deepest contemplation. Cornelia, who from a combination of causes, felt more embarrassed than ever in her remembrance, devoutly wished that he would rouse himself, and make some conversation. She did all she could, in the way of supplying the guest with eatables, and making little remarks upon them, to fill up awkward pauses; but she was conscious she was being stupid; and even when she thought of a good thing to say, the reflection that it must needs be shouted aloud made her pause until the available moment had gone by. It was some relief that Bressant ate well, and seemed in no way shy or cast down himself. There was a freshness and vivacity in his enjoyment of his supper which was pleasing to Cornelia for several reasons: it was evidently very far from being affected, was consequently indirectly complimentary to her, and showed a certain boyishness in him which contrasted very agreeably, or, as Cornelia would have said, "cunningly," with his mature and intellectual aspect. In fact, Bressant was in a particularly happy mood. The cool air and pleasant room, and the gratification of a healthy appetite, caused his senses to expand, and, as it were, sun themselves. Cornelia's beauty could not have been presented under more favorable auspices, especially as woman's loveliness had heretofore been an unturned page in the young man's life. True, it pleased him in the same way as, and probably not to a greater degree than, would the symmetrical elegance of a vase, or the tinted beauty of a flower; but he had not yet known the limitless additional charm given by life, variety, and emotion. Would he ever know it? or was he so profoundly ignorant of the matter as to run in danger of finding it out unexpectedly, and perhaps too late?
The strawberry pyramid sank and disappeared. Cornelia began anxiously to wonder what was to be done now. Bressant sat enjoying his sensations, and Professor Valeyon, who appeared to have arrived at some definite conclusion after his meditations, rolled up his napkin and shoved it into the ring, previous to setting it down with that peculiar tap which announced that the meal was over.
On leaving the table, Bressant sauntered out of the room and on to the balcony, with a disregard of what other people might intend, which caused Cornelia to recollect her first impression of him. Nevertheless, not knowing what else she could do, she followed, and found him leaning over the railing, and looking about him with serene enjoyment. The clouds had been mostly dispersed; a fresh air moved in the damp garden; and Cornelia was soon aware that the mosquitoes were abroad. Her muslin-covered arms and shoulders began to suffer.
Bressant raised himself at her approach, and stood with one hand against the railing, looking down upon her with a half-smile of interest and satisfaction, which made Cornelia feel not so much like a human being, as some rare natural curiosity which he was glad to have the opportunity of examining.
"You are one of the daughters?" said he, with the sudden scrutinizing contraction of the eyebrows that often accompanied his questions. "There are two, aren't there? Which one are you?"
"I'm Cornelia," replied she, provoked, as the words left her mouth, that she had not said "Miss Valeyon." But the question had surprised her out of her presence of mind, and the necessity of speaking loud, if nothing else, hindered her from making the correction.
"Is the other any thing like you?" resumed he, after a moment's more contemplation, which, spite of its directness, had in it a certain element of unsophisticatedness that prevented it from seeming rude.
"Who, Sophie?" exclaimed the young lady, bursting forth into an unexpected gurgle of laughter, to which Bressant at once responded in kind, though having no idea what the merriment was about. "I wish you could see her! There couldn't be a greater difference if I was a negro!"
The laugh died away in Bressant's eyes, and he pressed his hand rapidly down over his face, as if to sharpen his wits, or clear away cobwebs.
"That's natural," he remarked, reflectively. "I never saw any thing like you."
"If he'd said 'any body,'" thought Cornelia, "I should have said he meant to compliment. How funny he is! just like a boy in some ways. I believe I know more than he does, after all!"
"Have you any sisters, Mr. Bressant?" asked she aloud, looking up at him with more cordiality and confidence than she had yet felt or shown.
"Not any. I should think it would be a good thing. Do you like it?"
"Of course; but then I am a sister myself, so it don't apply," said Cornelia, with the sunshine of another laugh. It was delightful to look at her at such times; every part of her partook of the merriment, so that her hands, feet, and waist, might all be said to laugh for themselves. Cornelia could express a great deal more in a bodily than in a spiritual way. Her material self, indeed, seemed so completely and bounteously endowed as to leave little place or occasion for a soul. The warm, rounded, fragrant, wholesome personality which met the eye, satisfied it; the harmonious tumult of life, that thrilled in every movement, was contentment to the other perceptions; the thought of a soul, bringing with it that other of death, was cold and inconsistent. Such mortal perfection loses its full effect, unless we can look upon it as physically immortal: as soon as we begin to refine our ideas into the abstract, we sully our enjoyment.
"But your mother must have given you some idea of what a sister would be," continued Cornelia, presently.
"Would she? I wish I had one!" said the young man, unconscious that no such desire had ever entered his head till now, and yet at a loss to account for its presence. "Mine died more than twenty years ago," he explained.
"The poor boy! I believe he don't know what a woman is!" murmured Cornelia to herself, perhaps not displeased at the reflection that it lay with her to enlighten him. "No wonder he looked at me as if I were a mammoth squash, or something. I'm going down in the garden to pluck a tea-rose bud," added she aloud. "Won't you come?"
"Yes," said Bressant, following her down the glistening granite steps with an air of half-puzzled admiration. He liked his new sensations very much, but knew not what to make of them; and so had a sense of adventurous uncertainty, which was perhaps a pleasure in itself.
Cornelia walked down the path in front of him, picking her dainty steps to avoid stray spears of grass or weeds, and gathering up her light skirts in one hand, out of the way of the bushes which leaned lovingly forward to drop a tear upon her. At length she reached the tea-rose bush, and paused there. Bressant came up and stood beside her.
It was just dark enough to make the difference between a perfect and an imperfect bud a matter of some doubt. Cornelia peeped cautiously about, putting aside the wet twigs gingerly, and lifting up one flower after another; desisting every once in a while to slap at the fine sting of a mosquito on her arms or neck.
"Oh! there's one that looks nice!" exclaimed she, disposing her drapery to reach across the bush for a distant bud which looked in every respect satisfactory. But Bressant saw it, and plucked it without effort, drawing blood from his finger as he did so, however. He smelt it, and looked from it to Cornelia, apparently trying to identify an idea.
"Aren't you going to give me my bud?" demanded Miss Valeyon. "What's the matter, sir?"
"In some way it reminds me of you," replied he, giving it to her with a shake of the head. "I don't see how, but it does!"
Cornelia gave him a sharp side-look, to make out if he was sincere; but his face at the moment was in shadow.
"Perhaps because it pricked your finger," said she.
She had not spoken loud, and was almost startled when his reply showed he had heard her. There was again that expression of marvellous efficiency and power in his face and bearing, but combined with one partly doubt and partly shrewd scrutiny.
"I plucked the bud all the same," he remarked. Cornelia, for some reason, felt a little provoked and a little frightened. He wasn't entirely unsophisticated after all; and she felt quite uncertain where the ignorance ended and the knowledge began. She put the bud in her hair, and they walked on, Bressant being now at her side, instead of behind. The path was hardly wide enough for two, and now and then she felt her shoulder touch his arm. Every time this happened, she fancied her companion gave a kind of involuntary start, and looked around at her with a quick, inquiring expression—fancied, for she did not meet his look, being herself conscious of a sort of irregularity of the breath and pulse attending these contacts, which she could not understand, and did not feel altogether at ease about. Certainly, there was something odd in this Bressant! Cornelia hardly knew whether he strongly repelled or powerfully attracted her. She had half a mind to run back to the house.
At this moment, however, they arrived at the fountain, and stood silently contemplating its weak, persistent struggles. The heavy rain had not raised its spirits a whit; but neither had it lessened its sense of duty to be performed. It labored just as hard if not harder than ever.
Presently Bressant walked round to the opposite side of the basin, shook himself and stamped his feet, like one overcoming a feeling of drowsiness, and then, stooping down, put his hand in the water and brought some up to his forehead. It passed through Cornelia's mind that she had read in her "Natural Philosophy," at school, that water was a good conductor of electricity, but she could not establish any clear connection between her remembrance of this fact and Bressant's action. The results of thoughts often present themselves to us when the processes remain invisible.
"What an absurd little fountain!" observed he, coming round again to Cornelia, and looking down upon her with a smile that seemed to call for a responsive one from her. "What is the use of it?"
"Oh, we're used to it, you know; and then that little sound it makes is pleasant to listen to."
"Is it?" said Bressant, apparently struck by the idea. "I should like to hear it. 'A pleasant sound!' I never thought of a sound being pleasant."
"Poor fellow!" thought Cornelia again, with a strong impulse of compassion and kindliness. "What a dreary life, not even to know that sounds were beautiful! I suppose all the voices he hears must be harsh and unnatural, and those are the only kinds of sounds he would attend to." Looking at him from this new point of view, the feeling of mistrust and uncertainty of a few minutes before was forgotten. Standing near the margin of the basin was a rustic bench fantastically made of curved and knotted branches, the back and arms contrived in rude scroll-work, and the seat made of round transverse pieces, through whose interstices the rain-water had passed, leaving it comparatively dry. Cornelia sat down upon it and motioned Bressant to take his place by her side. As he did so, she could not help a slight thrill of dismay. He was so very big, and took up so much room!
Bressant sat looking straight before him, and said nothing. Stealing a side-glance at him, Cornelia was possessed by an absurd fancy that he was alarmed at his position. The idea of being able to scare such a giant excited the young lady's risibilities so powerfully that she could not contain herself, but, to her great horror, broke suddenly forth into a warbling ecstasy of laughter. Bressant looked around, in great surprise. It was an occasion for presence of mind. Something must be done at once.
"Hush! hold perfectly still! It was so absurd to see you sitting there, and not knowing! There—now—still!" Spat!
A mosquito, which, after considerable reconnoitring, had settled upon Bressant's broad hand, had sacrificed its life to rescue Cornelia from her dilemma.
Bressant felt the soft, warm fingers strike smartly, and then begin to remove, cautiously and slowly, because the mosquito was possibly not dead after all. What was the matter with the young man? His blood and senses seemed to quiver and tingle with a sensation at once delicious and confusing. In the same instant, he had seized the soft, warm fingers in both his hands, and pressed them convulsively and almost fiercely. Cornelia very naturally cried out, and sprang to her feet. Bressant, it would seem not so naturally, did the same thing, and with the air of being to the full as much astonished and startled as she.
"What do you mean, sir? how dare you—?" she said, paling after her first deep flush.
He looked at her, and then at his own hand, on which the accommodating mosquito was artistically flattened, and then at her again, with a slight, interrogative frown.