CRUEL AS THE GRAVE
BY MRS. EMMA D. E. N. SOUTHWORTH. AUTHOR OF "SELF-MADE," "ISHMAEL," "SELF-RAISED," "FAIR PLAY," "VIVIA," "MISSING BRIDE," "A BEAUTIFUL FIEND," "CHANGED BRIDES," "RETRIBUTION," "HOW HE WON HER," "A NOBLE LORD," "BRIDE'S FATE," "FALLEN PRIDE," "LADY OF THE ISLE," "THE MAIDEN WIDOW," "ALLWORTH ABBEY," "GYPSY'S PROPHECY," "LOST HEIRESS," "WIDOW'S SON," "INDIA," "THREE BEAUTIES," "BRIDE OF LLEWELLYN," "BRIDAL EVE," "DISCARDED DAUGHTER," "FATAL SECRET," "TWO SISTERS," "CURSE OF CLIFTON," "TRIED FOR HER LIFE," "PHANTOM WEDDING," "LOVE'S LABOR WON," "FORTUNE SEEKER," "FATAL MARRIAGE," "MOTHER-IN-LAW," "CHRISTMAS GUEST," "FAMILY DOOM," "WIFE'S VICTORY."
"He to whom I gave my heart, with all its wealth of love, Forsakes me for another."—MEDEA.
"And we saw Medea burning At her nature's-planted stake."—BROWNING.
NEW YORK: THE F. M. LUPTON PUBLISHING COMPANY, Nos. 72-76 Walker Street.
Copyright, 1888, By T. B. PETERSON & BROTHERS. Cruel as the Grave.
I.—THE BERNERS OF THE BURNING HEARTS 21
II.—JOHN LYON HOWE 26
III.—SYBIL BERNERS 32
IV.—THE BEAUTIFUL STRANGER 45
V.—THE LANDLORD'S STORY 48
VI.—ROSA BLONDELLE 59
VII.—DOWN IN THE DARK VALE 71
VIII.—BLACK HALL 76
IX.—THE GUEST-CHAMBERS 84
X.—THE JEALOUS BRIDE 91
XI.—LOVE AND JEALOUSY 104
XII.—"CRUEL AS THE GRAVE" 112
XIII.—MORE THAN THE BITTERNESS OF DEATH 126
XIV.—THE FIRST FATAL HALLOW EVE 132
XV.—THE MASQUERADE BALL 142
XVI.—ON THE WATCH 147
XVII.—DRIVEN TO DESPERATION 154
XVIII.—LYING IN WAIT 175
XIX.—SWOOPING DOWN 188
XX.—THE SEARCH 191
XXI.—SYBIL'S FLIGHT 198
XXII.—THE HAUNTED CHAPEL 207
XXIII.—THE SOLITUDE IS INVADED 218
XXIV.—THE VERDICT AND THE VISITOR 225
XXV.—THE FALL OF THE DUBARRYS 238
XXVI.—THE SPECTRE 250
XXVII.—FEARFUL WAITING 264
XXVIII.—A GHASTLY PROCESSION 273
XXIX.—GHOSTLY AND MYSTERIOUS 292
XXX.—FLIGHT AND PURSUIT 306
XXXI.—THE ARREST 324
XXXII.—A DESPERATE VENTURE 334
XXXIII.—A FATAL CRISIS 344
XXXIV.—THE PURSUIT 354
XXXV.—THE FUGITIVES 363
CRUEL AS THE GRAVE
THE BERNERS OF THE BURNING HEARTS.
"Their love was like the lava flood That burns in Etna's breast of flame."
Near the end of a dark autumn-day, not many years ago, a young couple, returning from their bridal tour arrived by steamer at the old city of Norfolk; and, taking a hack, drove directly to the best inn.
They were attended by the gentleman's valet and the lady's maid, and encumbered besides with a great amount of baggage, so that altogether their appearance was so promising that the landlord of the "Anchor" came forward in person to receive them and bow them into the best parlor.
The gentleman registered himself and his party as Mr. and Mrs. Lyon Berners, of Black Hall, Virginia, and two servants.
"We shall need a private parlor and chamber communicating for our own use, and a couple of bedrooms for our servants," said Mr. Berners, as he handed his hat and cane to the bowing waiter.
"They shall be prepared immediately," answered the polite landlord.
"We shall remain here only for the night, and go on in the morning, and should like to have two inside and two outside places secured in the Staunton stage-coach for to-morrow."
"I will send and take them at once, sir."
"Thanks. We should also like tea got ready as soon as possible in our private parlor."
"Certainly, sir. What would you like for tea?"
"Oh, anything you please, so that it is nice and neatly served," said Mr. Berners, with a slightly impatient wave of his hand as if he would have been rid of his obsequious host.
"Ah-ha! anything I please! It is easy to see what ails him. He lives upon love just now; but he'll care more about his bill of fare a few weeks hence," chuckled the landlord, as he left the public parlor to execute his guest's orders.
The bridegroom was no sooner left alone with his bride than he seated her in the easiest arm-chair, and began with affectionate zeal to untie her bonnet-strings and unclasp her mantle.
"You make my maid a useless appendage, dear Lyon," said the little lady, smiling up in his eyes.
"Because I like to do everything for you myself, sweet Sybil; because I am jealous of every hand that touches your dear person, except my own," he murmured tenderly as he removed her bonnet, and with all his worshipping soul glowing through his eyes, gazed upon her beautiful and beaming face.
"You love me so much, dear Lyon! You love me so much! Yet not too much either! for oh! if you should ever cease to love me, or even if you were ever to love me less,—I—I dare not think what I should do!" she muttered in a long, deep, shuddering tone.
"Sweet Sybil," he breathed, drawing her to his bosom and pressing warm kisses on her crimson lips—"sweetest Sybil, it is not possible for the human heart to love more than I do, but I can never love you less!"
"I do believe you, dearest Lyon! With all my heart I do!—Yet—yet—"
"Yet what, sweet love?"
She lifted her face from his bosom and gazing intently in his eyes, said:
"Yet, Lyon, if you knew the prayer that I never fail to put up, day and night! What do you think it is for, dear Lyon?"
"I know; it is for Heaven's blessing to rest upon our wedded lives."
"Yes, my prayer is for that always, of course! but that is not what I mean now! That is not the stronger, stronger prayer which I offer up from the deeps of my spirit in almost an agony of supplication!"
"And what is that prayer, so awful in its earnestness, dear love?"
"Oh, Lyon! it is that you may never love me less than now, or if you should, that I may never live to know it," she breathed with an intensity of suppressed emotion that drew all the glowing color from her crimson cheeks and lips and left them pale as marble.
"Why, you beautiful mad creature! You are a true daughter of your house! A Berners of the burning heart! A Berners of the boiling blood! A Berners of whom it has been said, that it is almost as fatal to be loved, as to be hated, by one of them! Dear Sybil! never doubt my love; never be jealous of me, if you would not destroy us both," he earnestly implored.
"I do not doubt you, dearest Lyon; I am not jealous of you! What cause, indeed, have I to be so? But—but——"
"But what, my darling?"
"—Ever since I have been in this house, a darkness and coldness and weight has fallen upon my spirits, that I cannot shake off—a burden, as of some impending calamity! And as there is no calamity that can possibly affect me so much as the lessening of your love, I naturally think most of that," she answered, with a heavy sigh.
"Dear love! this depression is only reaction! fatigue! the effect of this damp, dull, dreary room! We will change all this!" said Lyon Berners, cheerfully, as he pulled the bell-cord and rang a peal that presently brought the waiter to his presence.
"Are our rooms ready?" shortly demanded Mr. Berners.
"Just this moment ready, sir," answered the man, with a bow.
"Gather up these articles, then, and show us to our rooms," said Mr. Berners, pointing to a collection of outer garments and travelling bags that occupied a centre-table.
With another bow the man loaded himself with the personal effects of the guests and led the way up-stairs.
Mr. Berners, drawing his wife's arm through his own, followed the waiter to a cheerful little private parlor, where the bright red carpet on the floor, the bright red curtains at the windows, the bright red covers of the chairs and sofas, the glowing coal fire in the grate, and above all the neatly spread tea table, with its snowy damask table-cloth, and its service of pure French china, invited the hungry and weary travellers to refreshment and repose.
Through a pair of partly drawn sliding doors a vista was opened to a clean and quiet chamber, furnished to match the parlor, with the same bright-red carpet, window curtains, and chair covers, but also with a white-draperied tent-bedstead, with bed-pillows and coverings white and soft as swan's down. In the glow of the coal fire in the inner room sat and waited a pretty mulatto girl, Delia, or Dilly, the dressing maid of Mrs. Berners.
On seeing her mistress enter the parlor, Dilly quickly arose and met her, and handed a chair and relieved the waiter of his burden of portable personal property, which she hastened to carry into the chamber to put away.
"Bring in the tea immediately and send my own man Hannibal here to attend us," said the guest to the waiter, who promptly left the room to execute the orders.
"Come, my darling! Take this easy-chair in the corner and make yourself comfortable! Here is a scene to inspire the saddest heart with cheerfulness," said the bridegroom cordially, as he drew forward the easy arm-chair and led his bride to it.
She sank into the soft seat and smiled her satisfaction.
In a few moments the waiters of the inn entered and arranged a delicious little repast upon the table and then withdrew, leaving Hannibal, the faithful servant of the bridegroom, to attend his master and mistress at their tea.
The young pair sat down to the table. And in that quiet and cheerful scene of enjoyment, the young bride recovered her spirits. The transient shadow that had for a moment darkened the splendor of her joy, even as a passing cloud for an instant obscures the glory of the sun, had vanished, leaving her all smiles and gayety.
To say that these wedded lovers were very happy, would scarcely express the delirium of pure joy in which they had dreamed away their days and nights for the last few weeks—joy that both were too young and untried to know could not last for ever, could not indeed even last long—joy so elevated in its insanity as almost to tempt some thunderbolt of malignant fate to fall upon it with destroying force, even as the highly rarefied air sometimes draws on the whirlwind and the storm.
But then the story of their loves was rare and strange, and almost justified the intensity of their mutual devotion, and that story is briefly this:
JOHN LYON HOWE.
"A brow half martial and half diplomatic, An eye upsoaring like an eagle's wing."
John Lyon Howe was the younger son of a planter, residing in one of the wildest mountain regions in central Virginia. The elder Howe was blessed with a large family, and cursed with a heavily mortgaged estate—a combination of circumstances not unusual among the warm-hearted, generous and extravagant people of the Old Dominion.
John Lyon Howe had been educated in the Law School of the University of Virginia, where, at the age of twenty-three, he graduated with the highest honors.
Then, instead of commencing his professional life in one of the great Eastern cities, or striking out for the broad fields of enterprise opened in the Far West, young Howe, to the astonishment of all who were acquainted with the talents and ambition of the new lawyer, returned to his native county and opened his law office in Blackville, a small hamlet lying at the foot of the Black Valley, and enjoying the honor and profit of being the county-seat.
But the young lawyer had strong motives for his actions. He had great talent, an intense passion for politics, and quite as much State pride as personal ambition. He wished to distinguish himself; yes, but not in Massachusetts or Minnesota, nor in any other place except in his native State, his dear old Virginia.
Sometime to represent her in the National Congress, and to do her service and credit there, was the highest goal of his youthful aspirations.
For this cause, he settled in the obscure hamlet of Blackville, and opened his law office in one of the basement rooms of the county court-house.
While the courts were in session he attended them regularly, and did a good deal of business in the way of gratuitous counselling and pleading; advocating and defending with great ability and success the cause of the poor and oppressed, and winning much honor and praise, but very little money, not enough, indeed, to pay his office rent, or renew his napless hat and thread-bare coat.
Besides his unprofitable professional labors, he engaged in equally unprofitable political contests.
He took the liberal view of State craft, and sought to open the minds of his fellow-citizen to a just and wise policy, or what he, in his young enthusiasm, conceived to be such. He wrote stirring leaders for the local papers, and made rousing speeches at the political meetings.
He was everywhere spoken of as a rising young man, who was sure to reach a high position some day. Yes! some day; but that desired day seemed very far distant to the desponding young lawyer.
And to make his probation still more painful, he was in love! not as men are who are taken with a new face every year of their lives, but as the heroes of old used to be—for once and forever! profoundly, passionately, desperately in love, almost despairingly in love, since she whom he loved was at once the richest heiress, the greatest beauty, and the proudest lady in the whole community—Sybil Berners! Miss Berners, of Black Hall!—in social position as far above the briefless young lawyer as the sun above the earth; at least so said those who observed this presumptuous passion, and predicted for the young lover, should he ever really aspire to her hand, the fate of Phaeton, to be consumed in the splendor of her sphere, and cast down blackened to his native earth.
Had they who cavilled at his high-placed love but known the truth; how she whom he so worshipped, on her part, adored him? But this he himself did not know, or even suspect. Had he possessed much less of a fine, high-toned sense of honor, he might, by wooing the lady, have found this out for himself; but he, an almost penniless young man, was much too proud to ask the hand of the wealthy heiress. Or had he possessed a little more personal vanity, he might have suspected the truth; for certainly there was not a handsomer man in the whole county than was this briefless young lawyer with the napless hat and thread-bare coat. His person was of that medium height and just proportions necessary to give perfect elegance of form and grace of motion. His features were classic, with the straight forehead, hooked nose, short upper lip, and pointed chin of the strong old Roman type. His complexion was fair, his eyes blue, and his hair and beard a golden auburn. Added to these attractions, there was an intense magnetic power in the gaze of his dark eyes, and in the tone of his deep voice, a power that few could resist, and certainly not Sybil Berners.
But who and what besides heiress and beauty was Sybil Berners? To tell you all she was. I must first tell you something about her family, the "Berners of Black Hall."
Theirs was an old family, and a historical name interwoven with the destinies of the two hemispheres. Their house was older than the history of the new world, and almost as ancient as the fables of the old world.
They were among the first lords of the manor in Colonial Virginia, and they claimed descent from a ducal house whose patent of nobility dated back to the first months of the Norman Conquest of England.
They had been great in history and in story; great in the field and the forum; great in the old country and in the new. They had been a brave, fierce, cruel, and despotic race, equally feared and hated at home and abroad, equally loved and trusted as well; for never were such dangerous foes or such devoted friends as were these Berners; no one ever loved as these Berners loved, or hated as they hated. In the intensity of their love or their hate they were capable of suffering or inflicting death; these Berners, whose friendship was almost as fatal as their enmity; these Berners, who "never spared man in their hate or woman in their love;" these Berners of the burning heart; these Berners of the boiling blood; these Berners of Black Hall; and whose sole representative now was Sybil, the last daughter of their line, who concentrated in her own ardent, intense nature all the most beautiful, all the most terrible attributes of her strong and fiery race.
I said that she was the richest heiress as well as the most beautiful girl of the country.
She was the inheritor of the famous Black Valley manor, holding besides its own home plantation, several of the most productive and valuable farms in the neighborhood.
There is not in all the mountain region of Virginia a wilder, darker, gloomier glade than that forming the home manor of the Berners family, and known as the Black Valley. It is a long, deep, narrow vale, lying between high, steep ridges of iron-gray rock, half covered with a growth of deep-green stunted cedars.
At the head or northern extremity of the vale springs a cascade, called, for the darkness of its color, the Black Torrent. It rushes, roaring, down the side of the precipice, now hiding under a heavy growth of evergreen, now bursting into light as it foams over the face of some rock, until at length it tumbles down to the foot of the mountain and flows along through the bottom of the Valley, until about half way down its length, it widens into a little lake, called, from its hue, the Black Water, or the Black Pond; then narrowing again, it flows on down past the little hamlet of Blackville, situated at the foot or southern extremity of the Black Valley.
The ancient manor house, known as the Black Hall, stands on a rising ground on the west side of the Black Water with its old pleasure gardens running down to the very edge of the lake.
It is a large, rambling, irregularly-formed old house, built of the iron gray rocks dug from the home quarries; and it is scarcely to be distinguished from the iron-gray precipices that tower all around it.
The manor had been in the possession of the same family from the time of King James the First, who made a grant of the land to Reginald Berners, the first Lord of the Manor.
Bertram Berners was the seventh in descent from Reginald. He married first a lady of high rank, the daughter of the colonial governor of Virginia. This union, which was neither fruitful nor happy, lasted more than thirty years, after which the high-born wife died.
Finding himself at the age of sixty a childless widower and the last of his name, he resolved to marry again in the hope of having heirs. He chose for his second wife a young lady of good but impoverished family, the orphan niece of a neighboring planter.
But the new wife only half fulfilled her husband's hopes, when, a year after their marriage, she presented him with one fair daughter, the Sybil of our story.
Even this gift cost the delicate mother her life; for although she did not die immediately, yet from the day of Sybil's birth, she fell into a long and lingering decline which finally terminated in death.
Old Bertram Berners was nearly seventy years of age, when he laid his young wife in her early grave. Although he had been grievously disappointed in his hopes of a male heir, yet he was not mad enough, at his advanced period of life, to try matrimony again. He wisely determined to devote the few remaining days of his life to the rearing of his little daughter, then a child seven years of age.
Old Bertram loved and spoiled the infant as none but an old man can love or spoil his only child, who is besides the offspring of his age. He would not part with her to send her to school; but he himself became her instructor until she was more than ten years old.
After that, as she began to approach womanhood, he engaged a succession of governesses, each one of whom excessively annoyed him by persistently trying to marry him for his money, and who consequently got herself politely dismissed.
Next he tried a succession of tutors, but this second plan worked even worse than the first; for each one of the tutors in his turn tried to marry the heiress for the fortune, and, naturally enough, got himself kicked out of the house.
So the plan of home education prospered badly. Perhaps old Bertram had been singularly unfortunate in his selection of teachers. It must have been so indeed, since he had been accustomed to say that "they all were as bad as they could be; and each one was worse than all the rest."
Thus the literary training of the heiress had been carried on in the most capricious, fitful and irregular manner, the worst suited to her, who more than most girls required the discipline of a firm and steady rule.
The educational result to her was a very superficial knowledge of literature, arts, and sciences, and a very imperfect acquaintance with ancient and modern languages.
She was in the habit of saying sarcastically, that "she had an utter confusion of ideas on the subjects of algebra, astronomy, and all the other branches of a polite education;" that, for instance, she never could remember whether the "Pons Asinorum" were a plant or a problem, or if it was Napoleon Bonaparte that discovered America and Christopher Columbus who lost the battle of Waterloo, or vice versa.
And after all, this was but a trifling exaggeration of the neglected condition of her mind.
"All that's best of dark and bright Meet in her aspect and her eye."
Sybil Berners was at this time about eighteen years of age—a beautiful, black-haired, bright-eyed little brunette, full of fire, spirit, strength, and self-will. She was a law to herself. No one, not even her aged father, had the slightest control over her except through her affections, when they could be gained, or her passions, when they could be aroused; but this last means was seldom tried, for no one cared to raise the storm that none could quell.
Her father was now nearly eighty years old. And fondly, jealously, selfishly as he loved this darling daughter of his age, he wished to see her safely married before he should be called from the earth.
And certainly the beautiful heiress had suitors enough to select from—suitors drawn no less by her personal charms than by her great fortune. But one and all were politely refused by the fastidious maiden, who every one said was so very hard to please.
But even if Sybil Berners had accepted any one among the numerous suitors for her hand, the conditions of her father's consent would have been made rather difficult. The husband of the heiress would have been required to assume the name and arms of Berners in order to perpetuate the family patronymic, and to live with his wife at the old manor house in order not to separate the only child from her aged father. And it was not every proud young Virginian who would have given up his own family name either for a fortune or a beauty. But none of her suitors were put to the test, for Sybil promptly and unconditionally refused all offers of marriage.
And the reason of all this was, that Miss Berners of Black Hall loved a poor, briefless young lawyer, who had nothing but his handsome person, his brilliant mind, and his noble heart to recommend him. When, or where, or how her love for him began, she herself could never have told. Since his return from the university she had seen him every Sunday at church, and had grown to look and to long for his appearance there, until it came to this pass with her soul, that the very house of God seemed empty until his place was filled. And besides this, she often saw him and heard him speak at political and other public meetings, which she always attended only to beam in the sunshine of his presence, only to drink in the music of his voice. She took in all the local papers only to read his leaders and dream over his thoughts.
Moreover, she felt by a sure instinct that he passionately adored her, even while ignorant of her love for him, and silent upon the subject of his own passion.
This state of affairs exasperated the fiery and self-willed little beauty almost to phrensy. She had never in her life been contradicted or opposed. No desire of her heart had ever been left for a moment unsatisfied. She never knew until now the meaning of suspense or disappointment. And now here was a man whom she wildly loved, and who worshipped her, but who, from some delicate pride in his poverty, would not speak, while she, of course, could not.
Yet Sybil Berners was no weak "Viola," who would
"Let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, Feed on her damask cheek, and pine in thought."
She was rather a strong "Helena," who would dare all and bear all to gain her lover.
Sybil did all that a young lady of her rank could do in the premises. She made her doting father give dinner parties and invite her lover to them. But the briefless young lawyer in the napless hat and thread-bare coat never accepted one of these invitations, for the very simple reason that he had no evening dress in which to appear.
Under these circumstances, where any other young girl might have grown languid and sorrowful, Sybil became excitable and violent. She had always had the fiery temper of her race, but it had very seldom been kindled by a breath of provocation. Now, however, it frequently broke out without the slightest apparent cause. No one in the house could account for this accession of ill-temper—not her anxious father, nor Miss Tabitha Winterose, the housekeeper, not Joseph Joy, the house steward, nor any of the maids or men-servants under them.
"She's possessed of the devil," said Miss Winterose, to her confidant, the house steward.
"That's nothing new. All the Berners is possessed of that possession. It's entailed family property, and can't be got rid of," grimly responded Joe.
"Something has crossed her; something has crossed her very much," muttered her old father to himself, as he sat alone in his arm-chair in the warm chimney-corner of his favorite sitting-room.
Yes, indeed, everything crossed her. She was unhappy for the first time in her life, and she thought it was clearly the duty of her father or some other one of her slaves to make her happy. She was kept waiting, and it was everybody's fault, and everybody should be made to suffer for it. It was no use to reason with Sybil Berners. One might as well have reasoned with a conflagration.
It was about this time, too, that her aged father began to feel symptoms that warned him of the approach of that sudden death by congestion of the brain, which had terminated the existence of so many of his ancestors.
More than ever he desired to see his motherless daughter well married before he should be called away from her. So, one evening, he sent for Sybil to come into his sitting-room, and when she obeyed his summons, and came and sat down on a low ottoman beside his arm-chair, he said, laying his hand lovingly on her black, curly head:
"My darling, I am very old, and may be taken from you any day, any hour, and I would like to see you well married before I go."
"Dear father, don't talk so. You may live twenty years yet," answered the daughter, with a blending of affectionate solicitude and angry impatience in her tones and looks, for Sybil was very fond of the old man, and also very intolerant of unpleasant subjects.
"Well, well, my dear, since you prefer it, I will live twenty years longer to please you—if I can. But whether I live or die, my daughter, I wish to see you well married."
"Ah, father, why can you not leave me free?"
"Because, my darling, if anything should happen to me, you would be left utterly without protection; your hand would become the aim of every adventurer in the county; you would become the prey of some one among them who would squander your fortune, abuse your person, and break your heart."
"You know very well, father, that I should break such a villain's head first. I a victim—I the prey of a fortune-hunter, or the slave of a brute! I look as if I was likely to be—do I not? Father, you insult your daughter by the thought," exclaimed Sybil, with flushing cheeks and flashing eyes.
"There, there, my dear! don't flame up!" said the old man, laying his hand upon the fiery creature's head; "be quiet as you can, Sybil—I cannot bear excitement now, child."
"Forgive me, dear father, and forbear, if you love me, from such talk as this. I never could become an ill-used, suffering, snivelling wife. I detest the picture as I utterly despise all weak and whimpering women. I have no sympathy whatever for your abused wives—even for your dethroned or beheaded queens. Why should a wife permit herself to be abused, or a queen suffer herself to be dethroned or beheaded, without first having done something to redeem herself from the contemptible role of a victim, even if it was to change it for the awful one of criminal—"
"—Hush, Sybil, hush! You know not what you say. The Saviour of the world—"
"——Was a divine martyr, father," said Sybil, reverently bowing her head—"was a divine martyr, not a victim. All who suffer and die in a great cause are martyrs; but those who suffer and die for nothing but of their own weakness are victims, with whom I have no sympathy. I never could be a victim, father."
"Heaven help you, Sybil!"
"You need not fear for me, father. I can take care of myself as well as if I were a son, instead of a daughter of the House of Berners," said Sybil, haughtily.
"You may be able to protect yourself from all others, but can you always protect yourself from yourself?" sighed the old man.
Sybil did not answer.
"But, to come back to the point from which you started, like the fiery young filly that you are—Sybil, I greatly desire to see you married to some worthy young gentleman whom you can love and I approve."
"Where can you find such an one, father?" murmured Sybil, with a quick, strange, wild hope springing up in her heart.
What if he should speak of the young lawyer? But that was not likely. He spoke of some one else.
"There is Ernest Godfree. No better match for you in the county. And I'm sure he worships the very ground you walk on."
Sybil made an angry gesture, exclaiming:
"Then I wish he would have respect enough for the ground he worships to keep himself off it altogether! I hate that man!"
"Well, well, hate is a poor return for love! But we'll say no more of him. But there's Captain Pendleton, a brave young officer."
"I wish his bravery were better employed in fighting the Indians on the frontier instead of besieging our house. I cannot endure that man!"
"Let him pass then! Next there is Charles Hanbury—"
"Ugh! the ugly little wretch."
"But he is so good, so wise, for so young a man. And he is your devoted slave."
"Then I wish my slave would obey his owner's orders, and keep out of her sight."
"Sybil, you are incorrigible," sighed the old man, but he did not yield his main point.
One after another he proposed for her consideration all the eligible young bachelors of the neighborhood, who, he knew, were ready upon the slightest encouragement to renew their once rejected suits for the hand of the beauty and heiress.
But one after another Sybil, with some sarcastic word, dismissed.
"Sybil, you are a strange, wayward girl! It seems to me that for any man to love you is to take a sure road to your hatred! And yet, oh, my dear! I wish to see you safely married. Is there not one among those whom you might prefer to all the rest?"
"No, my father, not one whom I could endure for an instant as a lover."
"And oh! when I feel this fatal rising of the heart and fulness of the head—this Wave of Death that is sure to bear me off sooner or later to the Ocean of Eternity—Oh, then, my Sybil, how my soul travails for you!" groaned the old man.
"Father! do you so much wish to see me married?"
"I wish it more than anything else in the world, my child."
"Father, you have named every young man in the neighborhood whom you would like as a son-in-law?"
"Every one, my daughter."
"Are you sure?"
"Quite sure, my love. Why do you ask?"
She slid down from her low ottoman to the floor, and laid her arms upon his knees and her beautiful black ringleted head upon her folded hands, and whispered:
"Because, dear father, there is one whom you have forgotten to name: one who loves me, and is altogether well worthy to be called your son."
"Ah!" cried the old man fiercely, under his breath—"a fortune-hunter, on my life! the danger is nearer than I had even apprehended!"
"No, father, no! He is as far as possible from being what you say!" fervently exclaimed Sybil.
"He is wealthy, then?"
"No, no, no! he is poor in everything but in goodness and wisdom!"
"Oh, no doubt you think him rich in these! But who is he, unhappy child? What is his name?"
Very subdued came the answer. Old Bertram was obliged to bend his gray head to his daughter's lips, and put his shrivelled hand behind his ear to catch the sound of her low voice.
"He is the young lawyer newly settled in Blackville, whose praise is on everybody's lips."
"JOHN LYON HOWE!" exclaimed the old man, throwing up his head in astonishment.
"Yes, father," breathed the girl.
"And he loves you?"
"And you love him?"
She nodded again.
"A briefless young lawyer, with a long list of impoverished brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins! Bad enough; but not as it might have been. She can gain nothing by that connection! But then she need not lose anything either," murmured the old man to himself. After reflecting for a few moments, with his head upon his breast, he suddenly raised his eyes and exclaimed:
"But I have never seen the young man at this house!"
"Nor at any other house where we visit."
"No, father; for although he receives many invitations to visit his friends, he accepts none. Father, I think he cannot afford to do so."
"Cannot afford to visit! Why?"
"Visiting requires dress, and dress money. And he does so much gratuitous work now in the beginning of his career that he has but little money; and his father will not help him at all, because they differ in politics."
"Yes, I know they do; but the young man is quite right. I agree with his views perfectly. He will make his mark in the world some of these days, and then his father will be proud of him."
Sybil blushed with delight to hear her lover so praised by one in whose hands their happiness rested.
"But, my child, he was wrong and you were wrong to have entered into any engagement without my sanction," said the old man very gravely.
"There is no engagement, father," gently answered Sybil.
"Ah! no engagement? that is well! By my soul, though, it was not right for him even to have wooed you without my consent! Nor can I conceive what opportunity he has ever had to do so. He never comes here."
"He has never wooed me, dear father."
"He has never sought my hand."
"But I thought you gave me to understand that you love each other!"
"So we do, father."
"Then, if he loves you, why don't he come and tell me so like an honorable man?"
"Father, he has never even told me so."
"He has never breathed a word of love to me."
"Then how the deuce do you know that he loves you, girl?"
"Oh, by every glance of his eyes, by every tone of his voice, and by my own heart! Oh, father, do you think I would bear to tell you this, if I were not sure of it."
"Umph, umph! But why don't he speak?—that's what I want to know! Why don't he speak?"
"Dear father, can you not comprehend that he is too proud to do so?"
"Too proud! By my word! It is a new hearing that a Howe should be too proud to seek an alliance with a Berners!" exclaimed old Bertram hotly, rising from his chair.
"Old age ne'er cooled the Douglas blood,"
and it had not cooled his.
Sybil smiled to see how utterly he had misunderstood her, and making him sit down again, she said,
"You dear old darling, it is not that! It is the very opposite to that. It is because he is poor and we are rich, and he is too proud to be called a fortune-hunter."
"Oh, I understand! I understand!
'Among the rest young Edwin bowed, But never told his love. Wisdom, and worth were all he had.'"
"Yes, dear father, that is just the truth. You wish me to marry; but, dear, dear father, I can never bring myself to marry any one but him; and he loves me truly, but does not seek me?" she breathed in a low and tremulous tone, half smothered also by the hands with which she covered her blushing face.
"Now what am I to do in this case? I have nothing against the young man whatever, except his poverty and big long line of poor relations, that will be sure to be a burden to him!" grumbled old Bertram to himself.
"But, father, we are so rich! We have enough for so many people," pleaded Sybil.
"Not enough to enrich all the Howes, my dear! But I like the young man, I really do like him, and if he had more money, and less relations, I should prefer him to any young man in the neighborhood for a son-in-law."
"O father, dear father, thank you, thank you for saying that," exclaimed Sybil, fervently kissing his hands.
"And now that you have told me your mind, what do you want me to do, my darling?" he inquired, returning her caresses.
"Oh, dear father! an old man like you must know! I do want you to give Lyon help and encouragement as you know best how to do it, without wounding his pride. You sympathize with his political principles; let him know that you do. You admire his character; let him feel that you do."
"This. Since old Mr. Godwin died you have had no agent for your large estate, and its accounts must be falling into disorder, Lyon is a lawyer, you know. Offer him the agency of your estate, with a liberal salary."
"Upon my word, I never thought of that before. Here for three months I have been thinking whom I could get as an agent, and much as I esteemed that young man I never once thought of applying to him! But the fact is, I never looked upon him in the light of a business man, but only as a brilliant barrister, and eloquent pleader."
"Yet, father, you know he must be a good business man to have collected such great stores of statistics as he has always at command."
"Well, my love, I will go to-day and offer him the agency. Now what next?"
"He was too poor and too proud to come before, but as your agent, father, you must bring him often to the house on business."
"You must leave the rest to me."
Thus it was that the young lawyer became the agent for the great Black Valley Manor. This agency included not only the management of the revenues from several rich farms, but also those from the stone quarries, iron mines, and the water mill at the head of the valley, and also from the real estate in the village at the foot, all of which was included in the Black Valley Manor.
The new agent was frequently called to Black Hall, where he was always received with the utmost courtesy. And as the acquaintance between the proprietor and the agent ripened into intimacy, a deep and strong attachment grew between them.
"Youth never showed itself wiser or better than in this young man," murmured Mr. Berners to himself.
"Age was never so venerable and beautiful as in this old man," thought John Lyon Howe to himself.
The old man loaded the young one with many marks of his esteem and affection. The young man returned these with the warmest gratitude and highest reverence.
When John Lyon Howe, with his heart filled with love for Sybil Berners, first entered Black Hall, it was without the slightest suspicion of her responsive love for him. But when they were thrown so much together, he was not very long in making the discovery so delightful to his soul, and yet—so trying too! for, as a man of good principles, there seemed to be but one course left open to him—the course of self-denial! He loved the great heiress, and had unintentionally won her love! Therefore he must fly from her presence, trying to forget her, hoping that she might forget him.
He summoned up courage for the sacrifice, and went into the study of his employer and in a few words told him that he had come to say good-bye.
The astonished old man looked up for an explanation.
John Lyon Howe gave it to him.
"And so you wish to leave me, never to return to the Hall, because you love my daughter."
The young man bowed in silence; but could not conceal the misery it caused him to make this acknowledgment.
"But why should that oblige you to leave the house?" inquired Mr. Berners.
"Oh, sir! can you ask?" exclaimed Mr. Howe.
"Oh, I see! the little witch has refused you!" exclaimed old Bertram with a twinkle in his eye. "Come, is it not so?"
"Sir, I have never abused your confidence so far as to seek her hand! I could not make so base a return for your kindness to me."
"Oh, you have never asked her to marry you! How in the world, then, can you know whether she will accept you or not? or, consequently, whether it will be necessary for you to leave or not?"
"Oh, sir! what is it that you would say?" exclaimed the young man, in quick, broken tones, while his face turned pale with agitation.
"Nonsense, my boy! When I was young a youth didn't require so much encouragement to woo a maiden. Before you make up your mind to leave me, go and ask Sybil's consent to the step."
"Oh, sir! oh, Mr. Berners! do you mean this?" gasped the young man, catching at the back of the chair for support. He was inured to sorrow, but not to joy. And this joy was so sudden and overwhelming that he reeled under it.
"I mean what I say, Mr. Howe. I esteem and respect you. I sanction your addresses to my daughter," said old Bertram, speaking with more gravity and dignity than he had before displayed.
John Lyon fervently kissed his old friend's hand, and went immediately in search of Sybil. And that same night, old Bertram had the pleasure of joining their hands together in solemn betrothal.
"And now I can die happy," said the old man, earnestly; "for it was not another great fortune, but a good husband that I coveted for my darling child."
Ten days from this night, old Bertram Berners dropped into his last sleep. He was well and happy up to the last hour of his life. The "Wave of Death," found him in his arm-chair, and bore him off without a struggle to the "Ocean of Eternity." So old Bertram Berners was gathered to his fathers.
The year of mourning was permitted to pass, and then John Lyon Howe, having, according to the conditions of the marriage contract, assumed the name and arms of Berners, was united in marriage to the beautiful Sybil. And they set out on their bridal tour as Mr. and Mrs. Lyon Berners.
And now we will again look in upon them as they linger over their tea-table in the old inn at Norfolk, where we first introduced them to our readers.
THE BEAUTIFUL STRANGER.
"From the glance of her eye Shun danger and fly, for fatal's the glance."
Very happy were the married lovers as they sat over their tea, even though the scene of their domestic joy was just now but an inn-parlor. Both the young people had good appetites: gratified love had not deprived them of that.
They talked of their homeward journey and how pleasant it would be in this glorious autumn weather, and of their home and how glad they would be to reach it—yes, how glad! For, paradoxical as it may seem to say so, there is no happiness so perfect as that which looks forward to something still more perfect, if such could be possible in the future. They talked of the Black Valley, and how beautiful even that would look in its gorgeous October livery.
Suddenly in the midst of their sweet converse they heard the sound of weeping—low, deep, heart-broken weeping.
Both paused, looked at each other and listened.
The sound seemed to come from a room on the opposite side of the passage to their own apartment.
"What is that?" inquired Sybil, looking up to her husband's face.
"It seems to be some woman in distress," answered Lyon.
"Oh! see what it is, dear, will you?" entreated Sybil.
She was herself so happy, that it was really dreadful to be reminded just then that sorrow should exist in this world; at all.
"Oh, go and see what is the matter. Do, dear," she insisted, seeing that he hesitated.
"I would do so, dear, in a moment, but it might be indiscreet on my part. The lady may be a party to some little domestic misunderstanding, with which it would be impertinent in any stranger to interfere," answered the more thoughtful husband.
"A domestic misunderstanding! O, dear Lyon, that such things should be! Fancy you and I having a misunderstanding!" exclaimed Sybil, with a shiver.
"I cannot fancy anything of the sort, my darling; Heaven forbid that I could!" said Lyon, fervently.
"Amen to that! But listen! Ah! how she weeps and wails! Oh, Lyon, how I pity her! Oh, how I wish I could do something for her! Oh, Lyon, are you sure it would be improper for me to go and see if I can relieve her in any way?" pleaded Sybil.
"Quite sure, my darling; I am quite sure that you must not interfere, at least at this stage. If this should be a case in which we can be of service, we shall be likely to know it when the waiter answers the bell that I rung some five minutes since," said Lyon, soothingly.
But Sybil could not rest with the sound of that weeping and wailing in her ears. She left her chair and began to walk up and down the floor, and to pause occasionally at her door to listen.
Suddenly a door on the opposite side of the passage opened, and the voice of the landlord was heard, apparently speaking to the weeping woman.
"I beg you won't distress yourself, ma'am; I am sure I wouldn't do anything to distress you for the world. Keep up your spirits, ma'am. Something may turn up yet, you know," he said as he closed the opposite door again; and then crossing the passage, he knocked at the door of the Berners' apartments.
"Come in," said Lyon Berners eagerly, while Sybil paused in her restless walk and gazed breathlessly at the door.
Both were so interested, they could not have told why, in that weeping woman.
The landlord entered and closed the door behind him, and advanced with a bow and an apology.
"I am afraid that you and your good lady have been disturbed by the noise in the other room; but really I could not help it. I have done all I could to comfort the poor creature; but really you know, 'Rachel weeping for her children' was nothing to this woman. She's been going on in this way for the last three days, sir. I did hope she would be quiet this evening. I told her that I had guests in these rooms. But, Lord, sir! I might just as well try to reason with a thunderstorm as with her. I wish I had quieter rooms to put you in, sir."
"Pray do not think of us. It is not the disturbance we mind on our own account; it is to hear a fellow creature in so much distress. A guest of the house?" inquired Mr. Berners.
"Yes, sir; worse luck."
"She has lost friends or—fortune?" continued Berners delicately investigating the case, while Sybil looked and listened with the deepest interest.
"Both, sir! Both, sir! All, sir! Everything, sir! It is really a case of atrocious villainy, sir! And I may say, a case of extreme difficulty as well! A case in which I need counsel myself, sir," said the landlord, with every appearance of being as willing to give information as to take advice.
THE LANDLORD'S STORY.
"What wit so sharp is found in youth or age That can distinguish truth from treachery? Falsehood puts on the face of simple truth, And masks i' th' habit of plain honesty, When she in heart intends most villany."
"Sit down, Mr. Judson; sit down, and tell us all about this matter; and if we can aid either you or your distressed lodger in any way, we shall be glad to do so," said Mr. Berners, earnestly.
"Yes, indeed," added Sybil, throwing herself down in her easy-chair, with a deep breath of relief and anticipation.
"Well, sir, and madam," commenced the landlord, frankly accepting the offered seat, "the case is this: About ten days ago there arrived in this city, by the ship Banshee, from Cork, a lady, gentleman, and child, with two servants, who came directly to this house. The gentleman registered his party as Mr. and Mrs. Horace Blondelle, child, nurse, and valet, and he engaged the very best rooms in the house—the rooms corresponding to these on the opposite side of the passage, you know, madam."
"Yes," assented Mrs. Berners.
"Well, sir, and Mr. Horace Blondelle ordered, besides the best rooms, everything else that was best in the house, and, indeed, better than the house contained; for, for his supper that very night, I had to send by his directions, and procure Johanesberg, Moselle, and other rare and costly wines, such as are seldom or never called for here. But then you know, sir, he was a foreign gentleman."
"Certainly," agreed Lyon, with a smile.
"Next day, the finest horses and carriages from the livery stables. And so on in the highest scale of expense, until his week's bill ran up to seven hundred dollars. As a good deal of this was money paid out of my pocket for costly wines and costly horses, I sent in my account on the Saturday night. It is the usual thing, however, madam."
"I know," answered Mrs. Berners.
"Well, Mr. Horace Blondelle very promptly settled it by handing me a check on the local bank for the amount. It was too late then to cash my check, as the bank had been for some hours closed. But I resolved to take it to the bank the first thing on Monday morning to get the money; and I left Mr. Horace Blondelle's apartments with a secret feeling of commendation for his prudence in putting his ready money in the local bank, instead of keeping it about him in a crowded hotel like this. For, you know, sir, that the recent daring robbery at the Monroe House has proved to us that even the office safe is not always 'safe.'"
"Not always," echoed Mr. Berners.
"Well, sir, and madam, I was so well pleased with my guest's promptitude in settling his bill, that I redoubled my attentions to his comfort and that of his party. On the Sunday he commenced the week's account by giving a large dinner-party, for he had made acquaintances in the town. And again the most expensive delicacies and the mostly costly wines were ordered, with the most lavish extravagance. And they kept up the festivities in rather a noisy manner through the whole night, which was painful to me, I being a Churchman. But then, you know, madam, a landlord can not interfere with his guests to that extent."
"Certainly not," admitted Mrs. Berners.
"Well, sir, the next morning after such a carousal, I naturally expected my guests to sleep late, so I was not surprised that the stillness of their rooms remained unbroken by any sound even up to ten o'clock. At that hour however, the bank opened, and I went myself to get my check cashed. There, sir, I got another check. Judge of my astonishment when the cashier, after examining Mr. Horace Blondelle's paper, declared that he knew no such person, and that there was no money deposited in that bank to the credit of that name."
"It was a swindle!" exclaimed Mr. Berners, impulsively.
"It was a swindle," admitted the landlord. "Yes, sir, a swindle of the basest sort, though I did not know it even then. I was inclined to be angry with the cashier, but I reflected that there was probably a mistake of some sort; so I hurried back home and inquired if Mr. Horace Blondelle had shown himself yet. I was told that he had not yet even rung his bell. Then I went to his private parlor, which had been the scene of last night's dinner giving and Sabbath breaking. The servants of the house had removed all signs of the carousal, and were moving noiselessly about the room while restoring it to order, so as not to disturb the rest of Mr. and Mrs. Horace Blondelle in the bedroom adjoining. I told my people that, as soon as Mr. Blondelle should awake, they must tell him that I begged leave to wait on him on a matter of business. It is as well to say, that while I lingered in the room, the nurse came in with the child, a pretty, fair-haired boy of five years old. They occupied a little chamber at the end of the passage, in easy reach of the child's mother. The nurse came in, hushing and cautioning the child not to make a noise, lest he should wake up poor mamma and papa, who were so tired. I mention this little domestic incident because, in some strange way that I cannot begin to understand, it quieted my misgivings, so that I went below and waited patiently for the rising of Mr. Horace Blondelle. Madam, I might have waited till this time!" said the landlord, pausing solemnly.
"Why? go on and tell me!" impulsively exclaimed Mrs. Berners.
"Why? I will soon let you know. I waited until long after noon. And still no sound from the bedroom. I walked in and out of the sitting-room, where the table was set for breakfast, and still no sound from the bedroom. And in the sitting-room no sound of occupation but the waiting breakfast-table in the middle of the floor, and the nurse seated at one of the windows with the impatient child at her knee.
"'Your master and mistress sleep late,' I said.
"'Yes, sir, they were up late last night,' she replied while twisting the child's golden ringlets around her fingers, in pure idleness, for they did not need curling.
"I went away and staid away for about an hour, and then returned to the sitting-room. No sound from the bedroom yet. No change in the sitting-room, except that the nurse had taken a seat at the corner of the table with the child on her lap, and was feeding him from a bowl of milk and bread.
"'Your master and mistress not up yet?' I ventured to say.
"'No, sir, and no sign of them; I am giving little Crowy his supper, and am going to put him to bed. And if the bell don't ring by that time, I shall make bold to knock at the door and wake them up. Because, sir, I'm getting uneasy. Something might be the matter, though I don't know what,' said the girl, anxiously.
"'So am I, I wish you would. And when your master has breakfasted, tell him I wish to be permitted to wait on him,' I said to the girl, and I left the room for the tenth time, I do suppose, that day."
"Well!" eagerly exclaimed Sybil.
"Well, madam, in less than an hour from that time, one of the waiters came to me with looks of alarm, and said that something must have happened in number 90, for that the lady's maid had been knocking and calling loudly at the door for the last ten minutes without being able to make herself heard within."
"Oh!" breathed Sybil, clasping her hands.
"Madam, I hurried to the spot. I joined my efforts to those of the terrified maid to arouse the sleepers within the chamber, but with no effect. The maid was almost crazy by this time, ma'am."
"'Oh, sir, are they murdered in their bed?' she cried to me.
"'Murdered? No, but something has happened, and we must force open the door, my good girl,' I said by way of calming her. You may well judge, sir, that I did not send for a locksmith; but with a crowbar, hastily procured from below, I hoisted the door from its hangings and effected an entrance."
"And then? And then?" breathlessly inquired Sybil, perceiving that the landlord paused for a moment.
"We found the room in the utmost confusion. Chests of drawers, clothes-presses, boxes, and so forth, stood wide open, with their contents scattered over the floor. We glanced at the bed, and the maid uttered a wild scream, and even I felt my blood run cold; for there lay the form of the lady, still, cold, pallid, livid, like that of a corpse many hours dead. No sign of Blondelle was to be seen about the chamber."
"Oh! had he murdered her and fled?" gasped Sybil, with a half-suppressed hysterical sob.
Mr. Berners passed his arm around her shoulders and drew her head down upon his breast, and signed for the landlord to proceed with his story.
"Sir," continued Mr. Judson, "I went up to that bedside in the worst panic I ever felt in all my life. My heart was hammering at my ribs like a trip-hammer. First I took up the white hand that was hanging helplessly down by the side of the bed; and I was glad to find that it was limber, though cold as ice. Life might not be extinct. I ran down and dispatched several servants in different directions for physicians, being determined to insure the attendance of one, even at the risk of bringing a dozen, and having all their fees to pay."
"You never thought of fees, I'll guarantee," said Mr. Berners.
"Indeed I did not. I thought only of the lady. I sent my old mother to her bedside, with a request that she would keep everybody else out of the room until the arrival of a physician, and to let nothing be touched; for you see, sir, I did not know but what the attendance of a coroner would be called for as well."
"Oh, how terrible!" murmured Sybil, from her shelter on her husband's breast.
"Yes, madam, but not so terrible as we feared. Not to tire you with too long an account of this bad business, I will tell you at once the result of the physician's examination. It was, that this death-like sleep or coma of the lady was produced by some powerful narcotic, but by what or for what purpose administered, he could not discover. The maid was questioned as to whether her mistress was in the habit of using any form of opium, and answered that she certainly was not. Well, madam, the doctor left the lady under the care of my mother, with directions to watch her pulse, and on any indication of its failure, to summon him immediately."
"She was in danger, then?"
"Apparently. My mother watched beside her bed all that night; the lady did not awake until the next morning—that was the Tuesday; and the poor soul thought it was Monday! You see twenty-four hours had been lost to her consciousness."
"And her infamous husband?" inquired Mr. Berners.
"Neither he nor his valet were to be found. I had the police upon his track, you may be sure; though I did not, at the time of the lady's awakening, know the full extent of his atrocious villainy. I knew he had swindled me, but I did not know that he had robbed and forsaken his lovely young wife."
"Robbed and forsaken his wife?" echoed Sybil, piteously.
"Yes, madam, incredible as it seems. But I did not know this until the lady came to her senses. When she first awoke and found my mother seated by her bed, she expressed much surprise, at her presence and at her own husband's absence. My mother, a plain spoken old lady, blurted out the truth—how Mr. Horace Blondelle, after imposing a worthless check upon me, in payment of my bill, had absconded with his valet, and been missing ever since the night of the dinner-party, and that she, Mrs. Blondelle, had slept profoundly through all these events.
"Oh, what a dreadful tale for the poor young wife to hear!" sighed Sybil.
"It was worse than anything I ever saw in my life, madam—her grief and shame and despair! She arose from her bed and began to examine her effects, to see what she might have left, and how far they would go towards settling my bill. She possessed some invaluable jewelry in diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. I know she did, for I had seen her wear them. She alluded to these, and said that they were worth many thousand dollars, and that she would sell some of them to satisfy my claims. She began to look for them, and then it was only by her broken exclamations of dismay that I came to know that he had robbed her."
"The unnatural monster!" indignantly exclaimed Mr. Berners, while Sybil gazed in almost incredulous consternation.
"Yes, sir, and madam, the truth was now apparent, even to the poor lady; and it was this—that on the night of the dinner-party he had heavily drugged her wine, so that when she retired to bed she fell into that deep, death-like sleep. Then he took advantage of her state to get possession of her keys, and to rifle her boxes and caskets, and make off with her money and jewels."
"Poor, poor woman!" sighed Sybil.
"This, madam," continued the landlord, turning to Mrs. Burners, "occurred four days ago. Since that time her base husband has been traced to New York, and there lost sight of."
"And she?" inquired Sybil.
"She, madam, has given herself up to the wildest grief and despair. She is as simple and as helpless as her own child. She has not the faintest notion of self-reliance. And here is where the trouble is with me. I have already lost several hundred dollars through this swindling villain. The wife and child he has left behind him are still occupying my best suite of apartments, for which, during their stay here, I shall not receive one penny of remuneration: therefore you see I cannot afford to keep this lady and her suite here, and neither can I find it in my heart to tell her to leave the house. For where, indeed, can she go? She has no friends or acquaintances in this country, no money, and no property that she can effectually turn into money."
"Has she no one to pity her among the ladies in the house?" inquired Sybil.
"There are no ladies staying in the house at present, madam. Our patrons are usually travellers, who seldom remain over one night."
"But—the women of your family?" suggested Sybil.
"There are no women in this family, except my old mother, who keeps house for me, and the female servants under her. I am a widower, madam, with half a dozen sons, but no daughters," returned the landlord.
Sybil lifted her head from her husband's shoulder, where it had rested so long, and looked wistfully in her husband's eyes. He smiled, and nodded assent to what seemed to have been a silent interrogation. Then she took from her pocket a little gold-enamelled card-case, drew from it a card and a pencil, and wrote a few lines and handed it to the landlord, saying:
"Mr. Judson, will you do me the favor to take this in to the unhappy lady at once, and see if she will receive me this evening? I feel as if I would like to try to comfort and serve her,"
"I will with pleasure, madam; and I have no doubt that the mere expression of sympathy from another lady will be to her like a drop of water to a feverish palate," said the landlord, as he left the room.
"Dear Lyon, I have a favor to ask of you," said Sybil, as soon as she was alone with her husband.
"A favor! a right, my beloved! There is nothing that you can ask of me that is not your right to receive!"
"No, no; a favor. I like to ask and receive favors from you, dear Lyon."
"Call my service what you will, dear love! a right or a favor, it is always yours! What, then, is this favor, sweet Sybil?"
"That you will give me a perfect carte blanche in my manner of dealing with this poor little lady, even though my manner should seem foolish or extravagant."
At these words from his ardent, generous, romantic wife, Lyon Berners looked very grave. What, indeed might Sybil, with her magnanimity and munificence not think proper to do for this utter stranger—this possible adventuress? Lyon looked very solemn over this proposal from his wife. He hesitated for a moment; but her large, clear, honest eyes were fixed full upon him, waiting for his reply. Could he refuse her request? Did he not owe everything to her, and to that very high-flown spirit of generosity which was not only a fault (if it were a fault) of Sybil, but a trait common to all her race.
"As you will, my darling wife! I should be a cur, and worse than a cur—a thankless wretch—to wish to restrain you in anything!" he answered, sealing his agreement on her velvet lips.
In another minute the landlord re-entered the room.
"Mrs. Blondelle's thanks and compliments, and she will be very grateful for Mrs. Berners' visit, as soon as Mrs. Berners pleases to come," was the message that Mr. Judson brought.
Sybil arose with a smile, kissed her hand playfully to her husband, and passed out of the room.
The landlord went before her, rapped at the opposite door, then opened it, announced the visitor, and closed it behind her.
Sybil advanced a step into the stranger's apartment, and then paused in involuntary admiration.
She had heard and read of celebrated beauties, whose charms had conquered the wisest statesmen and the bravest warriors, who had governed monarchs and ministers, and raised or ruined kingdoms and empires. And often in poetic fancy she had tried to figure to herself one of these fairy forms and faces. But never, in her most romantic moods, had she imagined a creature so perfectly beautiful as this one that she saw before her.
The stranger had a form of the just medium size, and of the most perfect proportions; a head of stately grace; features small, delicate, and clearly cut; a complexion at once fair and rosy, like the inside of an apple blossom; lips like opening rose-buds; eyes of dark azure blue, fringed with long dark eye-lashes, and over-arched by slender, dark eyebrows; and hair of a pale, glistening, golden hue that fell in soft, bright ringlets, like a halo around her angelic face. She wore a robe of soft, pale, blue silk, that opened over a white silk skirt.
She arose with an exquisite grace to welcome her visitor.
"It is very good of you, madam, to come to see me in my misery," she murmured, in a sweet, pathetic tone that went to her visitor's heart, as she sat a chair, and, by a graceful gesture invited her to be seated.
Sybil was herself impulsive and confiding, as well as romantic and generous. She immediately drew her chair up to the side of the strange lady, took her hand affectionately, and tried to look up in her eyes, as she said:
"We are personal strangers to each other; but we are the children of one Father, and sisters who should care for each other."
"Ah! who would care to claim sisterhood with such a wretch as I am?" sighed the unhappy young creature.
"I would; but you must not call yourself ill-names. Misfortunes are not sins. I came here to comfort and help you—to comfort and help you not in words merely, but in deeds; and I have both the power and the will to do it, if you will please to let me try," said Sybil, gently.
The young creature looked up, her lovely, tearful, blue eyes expanded with astonishment.
"You offer to comfort and help me! Me—a perfect stranger, with a cloud of dishonor hanging over me! Oh, madam, if you knew all, you would certainly withdraw your kind offer," she said.
"I will not withdraw it in any event. I do know all that your landlord could tell me, and that awakens my deepest sympathy for you. But I do not know all that you could tell me. Now, dear, I want you to confide in me as you could not confide either in your landlord, or even in his mother."
"Oh, no, no! I could not tell either of them. They were kind; but—oh, so hard!"
"Now, dear, then, look in my face, look well, and tell me whether you can confide in me," said Sybil, gently.
"If I had never seen your heavenly countenance—if I had only heard your heavenly voice, I could confide in you, as in the holy mother of Christ," said the stranger fervently.
"Tell me then, dear; tell me all you wish to tell; relieve your heart; lay all your burdens on my bosom; and then you shall feel how well I can comfort and help you," said Sybil, putting her hand around the fair neck and drawing the little golden-haired head upon her breast.
Then and there the friendless young stranger—friendless now, no more—told her piteous story.
Her form had all the softness of her sex, Her face had all the sweetness of the devil When he put on the cherub to perplex Eve, and to pave, Heaven knows how, the road to evil.—BYRON.
She had been the penniless orphan daughter of a noble, but impoverished Scotch family. She had been left, by the death of her parents, dependent upon harsh and cruel relatives. She had been given in marriage, at the age of fifteen, to a wealthy old gentleman, whose years quadrupled hers. But he had used her very kindly, and she had performed her simple duty of love and obedience as well as she knew how to do it. After two years of tranquil domestic happiness, the old man died, leaving her a young widow seventeen years of age, sole guardian to their infant son, between whom and herself he had divided his whole estate.
After the death of her old husband, the youthful widow lived in strict seclusion for nearly two years, devoting herself exclusively to the care of her child.
But in the third year the health of the little Cromartie required a change, and his mother, by her physician's advice, took the boy to Scarborough. That fashionable watering place was then at the height of its season, and filled with visitors.
Thus it was impossible but that the wealthy young widow should attract much attention. She was inevitably drawn into the maelstrom of society, into which she rushed with all the impetuosity of a novice or an inexperienced recluse, to which all the scenes of the gay world were as delightful as they were novel.
She had many suitors for her hand; but none found favor in her eyes but Mr. Horace Blondelle, a very handsome and attractive young gentleman, whose principal passport into good society seemed to be his distant relationship to the Duke of Marchmonte. How he lived no one knew. Where he lived everyone might see, for he always occupied the best suits of apartments in the best hotel of any town or city in which he might be for the time sojourning.
We, every one of us know, or know of, Mr. Horace Blondelle. There are scores of him scattered about the great hotels of all the large cities in Europe and America. But the simplest maiden or the silliest widow in society, is seldom taken in by him.
There, however, at Scarborough, was an inexperienced poor little creature from the Highlands, who had never in her life seen any one more attractive than the red-headed heroes of her native hills, and who, having aurific tresses of her own, was particularly prejudiced against that splendid hue, and fatally ensnared by the raven ringlets and dark eyes of this professional lady-killer.
And thus it followed of course, that this beast of prey devoured the pretty little widow and all her substance with less hesitation or remorse than a cobra might have felt in swallowing a canary bird.
So complete was her hallucination, so perfect her trust in him, that she took no precaution of having any part of her property settled upon herself; and, in marrying this man she gave him an absolute control over her own fortune, and a dangerous, if limited, influence over that of her infant son.
This very imprudent marriage was followed by a few months of delusive happiness on the part of the bride; for the little fair beauty adored her dark-haired Apollo, who graciously accepted her adoration.
But then came satiety and weariness and inconstancy on the part of the husband, who soon commenced the pleasing pastime of breaking the wife's heart.
Yet still, for some little time longer, she, with a deplorable fatuity, believed in and loved him. After he had squandered her own fortune on gaming-tables and race-courses, he wished to get possession of the fortune of her son. To do this he persuaded her to sell out certain stock and entrust him with the proceeds, to be invested, as he convinced her, in railway shares in America, that would pay at least two hundred per cent. dividends, and in a few months double that money.
Acting as her son's guardian and trustee, acting also, as she thought, in his best interests, the deluded mother did as her husband directed. She sold out the stocks, and confided the proceeds to him.
Then it was that they made the voyage to America, ostensibly to purchase the railway shares in question. His real motive in bringing her to this country was, doubtless, to take her as far as possible from her native place and her old acquaintances, so as to prosecute the more safely and effectually his fraudulent designs.
How they had arrived at Norfolk and taken rooms at the Anchor, and how he had robbed and deserted her there, has already been told.
Sybil Berners listened to this sad and revolting story of woman's weakness and man's criminality with mingled emotions of pity and indignation.
"Believe me," she said, tenderly taking the hand of the injured wife, "I feel the deepest sympathy with your misfortunes. I will do everything in my power to comfort and help you—not in words only, but in deeds; and I only grieve, dear, that I cannot give you back your husband in his honor and integrity as you once regarded him," added this loving and confiding wife, to whom no misery seemed so great as that caused by the default and desertion of a husband.
"Oh, do not name him to me!" burst forth in pain from the lips of Rosa Blondelle; "oh, I hope, as long as I may live in this world, never to be wounded by the sound of his base name, or blasted with the sight of his false face again."
Sybil Berners shrank in dismay from the excited woman, who continued, vehemently:
"Do you wonder at this? I tell you, madam, it is possible for love to die a sudden and violent death, for mine has done so within the last three days."
"I am deeply grieved to hear you say so, for it proves how much you must have suffered—how much more than even I had imagined. But try to take a little comfort. I and my own dear husband will be your friends, will be a sister and a brother to you," said Sybil earnestly, with all the impulsive, unlimited generosity of her youth and her race, awakened by her sympathy with the sorrows of this young stranger.
"Oh, madam, you—" began Rosa, but her voice broke down in sobs.
"Take comfort," continued Sybil, laying her little brown hand on that fair golden head, "take comfort. Think, you have not lost all. You have your child left."
"Ah, my child!" cried Rosa, in a tone like a shriek of anguish, "my child, my wronged and ruined babe! The sight of him is a sword through my bosom! my child that he robbed and made me an accomplice in robbing—it is maddening to think of it."
"Then do not think of it," said Sybil, gently, and still caressing the bowed head; "think of anything else—think of what I am going to say to you. Listen. While you remain in this crowded and noisy hotel, you can never recover calmness enough to act with any good effect. So I wish you to come home with me and my dear husband to our quiet country house, and be our cherished guest until you can communicate with your friends, or come to some satisfactory decision concerning your future course."
While Sybil spoke these words, the young stranger raised her head and looked up with gradually dilating eyes.
"Come, now; what say you? Will you be our dear and welcome guest this autumn?" smiled Sybil.
"Oh, do you mean this? can you mean it?" exclaimed Rosa, in something like an ecstasy of surprise and gratitude.
"In our secluded country house, with sympathizing friends around you," continued Sybil, still caressing Rosa's little golden-haired head, and speaking all the more calmly because of Rosa's excitement, "you will have repose and leisure to collect your thoughts and to write to your friends in the old country, and to wait without hurry or anxiety to hear from them."
"Oh, angels in Heaven, do you hear what this angel on earth is saying to me! Oh, was ever such divine goodness seen under the sun before! Oh, dear lady, you amaze, you confound me with your heavenly goodness!" exclaimed the young stranger, in strong emotion.
Sybil took her hand, and still all the more gently for the increasing agitation of Rosa, she continued:
"We are daughters of the Divine Father, sisters in one suffering humanity, and so we should care for each other. At present you are suffering, and I have some power to comfort you. In the future our positions may be reversed, and I may be the sufferer and you the comforter. Who can tell?"
"O, dear lady, Heaven forbid that great heart of yours should ever be called to suffer, or that you should ever need such poor help as mine. But this I know: so penetrated am I by your goodness, that, if ever you should lose your present happiness and my death would restore it, I would die to give it back to you," fervently exclaimed the stranger.
And for the moment she felt as she had spoken, for she was most profoundly moved by a magnanimity she had never seen equalled.
Sybil blushed like a child, and found nothing to say in reply to this excessive praise. She only left her hand in the clasp of the stranger, who covered it with kisses, and then continued:
"When I first saw your little white card and the delicate tracery of your name and your kind words, I seemed to know it was a friend's writing. And when I first saw your sweet face and heard your tender tones, both so full of heavenly pity, I felt that the good Lord had not forsaken me, for He had sent one of his holy angels to visit me. Ah, lady, if you had only come and looked at me so and spoken to me so, and then passed out and away forever, still, still, that look and that tone would have remained with me, a comfort and a blessing for all time. But now—but now to hold out your hands to lead me to a place in your own home, by your own side—oh, it is too much! too much!"
And tears of many mingled emotions flowed down the speaker's cheeks.
"There, there!" said Sybil, utterly confused by this excessive, but most sincere adulation, yet still caressing the stranger's fair head, "there, dear, dry your eyes, and tell me if you can be ready to leave this place with us to-morrow morning."
Again the foreign lady seized and kissed the hands of her new friend, exclaiming fervently:
"Yes dear lady, yes! I am too deeply touched by your heavenly goodness not to be anxious to profit by it as soon as possible."
"Then I will leave you to your preparations for the journey," said Sybil, rising.
Rosa also stood up.
"There will be much to be done in a short time. Will you let me send my maid to help yours?" inquired Sybil, with a hesitating smile.
"Thanks, dear madam. I shall be much obliged," replied Rosa, with a bow.
"And there is yet another request I have to make," added Mrs. Berners, pausing with her hand upon the latch of the door—"Will you kindly meet us at breakfast at eight o'clock to-morrow morning in our private sitting-room, so that I may make you acquainted with my husband before we all start on our journey together?"
"With pleasure, dear lady! It is your will to load me with benefits, and you must be gratified," replied Rosa, with a faint smile.
"Then I will come myself and fetch you, a little before the hour," added Sybil, playfully throwing a kiss as she darted through the door.
When she re-entered her own apartment, she found her husband impatiently pacing up and down the floor.
"How very long you have been, my darling Sybil," he said, with all the fondness of a newly-wedded lover, as he went to meet her.
"Oh, I am so glad you thought it long!" she answered mischievously, as she took his hand and pulled him to the big easy-chair and pushed him down into it.
"Sit down there, and listen to me," she said, with a pretty little air of authority. Then she drew an ottoman to his side and sunk down upon it, and leaned her arms upon his knees, and lifted her beautiful dark face, now all aglow with the delight of benevolence, and told him all that had passed in the interview between herself and Mrs. Blondelle.
And Lyon Berners, with his arm over her graceful shoulders, his fingers stringing her silken black ringlets, and his eyes gazing with infinite tenderness and admiration down on her eloquent face, listened with attentive interest to the story. But at its close, great was his astonishment.
"My dear, impulsive Sybil, what have you done!" he exclaimed.
"What!" echoed Sybil, her crimson lips breathlessly apart—her dark eyes dilated.
"Love, you have invited a perfect stranger, casually met at a hotel—a gambler's wife, even by her own showing, an adventuress by all other appearances, to come and take up her abode with us for an indefinite length of time!"
Sybil's mouth opened, and her eyes dilated with an almost comical expression of dismay. She had not a word to say in self-defence!
"Do not think I blame you, dear, warm, imprudent heart! I only wonder at you, and—adore you!" he said, earnestly pressing her to his bosom.
"Oh, but you would have done as I did, if you had seen her distress!" pleaded Sybil, recovering her powers of speech.
"But could you not have helped her without inviting her home with us?"
"But how?" inquired Sybil.
"Could you not have paid her board? or lent her money?"
"Oh, Lyon! Lyon!" said Sybil, slowly shaking her head and looking up in his face with a heavenly benevolence beaming through her own. "Oh, Lyon! it was not a boarding-house she wanted, it was a refuge, a home with friends! But I am very sorry if this displeases you."
"Dear, impetuous, self-forgetting child! I am not so impious as to find fault with you."
"But you do not like the lady's coming."
"I should not like any visitor coming to stay with us and prevent our tete-a-tete," said Lyon, gravely.
"I thought of that too, dear, and with a pang of selfish regret; for of course I would much rather that you and I should have our dear old home to ourselves, than that any stranger should share it with us. But then, oh, dearest Lyon, I reflected that we are so rich and happy in our home and our love, and she is so poor and sorrowful in her exile and desertion, that we might afford to comfort her from the abundance of our blessings," said Sybil, earnestly.
"My angel wife! you are worthier than I, and your will shall be done," he gravely replied.
"Not so, dear Lyon! But when you see this lady in her beauty and her sorrow, you also will admire and pity her, and you will be glad that she is coming to the refuge of our home."
"I may be so," replied Mr. Berners with an arch smile, "but how will your proud neighbors receive this questionable stranger?"
The stately little head was lifted in an instant, and—
"My 'proud neighbors' well know that whom Sybil Berners protects with her friendship is peer with the proudest among them!" she said, with a hauteur not to be surpassed by the haughtiest in the Old Dominion.
"Well said, my little wife! And now, as this matter is decided, I must see about taking additional places in the stage-coach. How many will be wanted? What retinue has this foreign princess in distress," inquired Lyon, rather sarcastically.
"There will be three places required, for the lady, child and nurse."
"Whe-ew! My dear Sybil, we are collecting a ready made family! Does the child squall? or the nurse drink?" inquired Lyon, with a laugh, as without waiting for a reply he rang the bell, and gave the order for three more places to be taken inside the Staunton coach for the morning.
And soon after this the young pair retired to rest.
Very early the next morning Sybil Berners came out of her chamber, looking fresh and bright as the new day itself. She wore a close-fitting travelling dress of crimson merino, that well became her elegant little figure and rich, dark complexion.
She glanced around the room to see that everything was in order. Yes; the fire was bright, the hearth clean, the breakfast-table neatly set, and the morning sun shining through the red-curtained windows and glancing upon the silver tea-service.
With a smile of satisfaction, she tossed back her raven-black ringlets, and passed from the room and through the hall, and rapped at the door of her new acquaintance.
Mrs. Blondelle herself opened it, and stood there quite ready to accompany her friend to breakfast.
Radiantly beautiful looked the fair young stranger this morning, in the dark, bright-blue cloth habit that so highly enhanced the dazzling splendor of her blooming complexion and the golden glory of her hair.
An instant Sybil paused in involuntary admiration, and then recovered herself and greeted the lady with affectionate warmth.
"It is nearly eight o'clock, dear, and breakfast is quite ready. Will you come now?" inquired Sybil, when these salutations were passed.
Rosa assented with a sweet smile, and Sybil led the way into her own sitting-room.
Mr. Berners had come in during his wife's short absence, and he now stood before the fire with the morning paper in his hand. He put it down on the table, and came forward to meet his wife, and to welcome her guest.
"Mrs. Blondelle, Mr. Berners," said Sybil, introducing the parties to each other by the simplest formula.