HER MOTHER'S SECRET
By MRS. E. D. E. N. SOUTHWORTH
Author Of "A Leap in the Dark," "A Beautiful Fiend," "Fair Play," "Em," "Em's Husband," "David Lindsay," Etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers—New York
By MRS. E. D. E. N. SOUTHWORTH In Handsome Cloth Binding Price——60 Cents per Volume
Beautiful Fiend, A. Ishmael. Brandon Coyle's Wife. Leap in the Dark, A. Bride's Fate, The. Lilith. Bride's Ordeal, The. Love's Bitterest Cup. Capitola's Peril. Lost Lady of Lone, The. Changed Brides, The. Mysterious Marriage, The. Cruel As the Grave. Nearest and Dearest. David Lindsay. Self-raised. "Em." Skeleton in the Closet, A. Em's Husband. Struggle of a Soul, The. Fair Play. Test of Love, The. For Whose Sake. Tortured Heart, A. For Woman's Love. Trail of the Serpent, The. Gloria. Tried for Her Life. Her Love Or Her Life. Unloved Wife, The. Hidden Hand, The. Unrequitted Love, An. Her Mother's Secret. Victor's Triumph. How He Won Her. When Shadows Die.
For Sale by all Booksellers or will be sent postpaid on receipt of price
A. L. BURT COMPANY, PUBLISHERS 52 Duane Street——New York
Copyright, 1882 and 1889 By ROBERT BONNER
Renewal granted to Mrs. Charlotte Southworth Lawrence 1910
Her Mother's Secret
HER MOTHER'S SECRET
THE MISTRESS OF MONDREER
"Mother! Oh, mother! it will break my heart!" wailed Odalite, sinking at the lady's feet, and dropping her head into her hands, face downward to the carpet.
The lady gently raised her child, took her in her arms and tenderly caressed her, murmuring, softly:
"No, my own! hearts never break, or one heart, I know, must have broken long ago. Besides," she added, in a firmer tone, "honor must be saved, though hearts be sacrificed."
"'Honor,' mother dear? I do not understand. I do not see what honor has to do with it. Or if it has, I should think that honor would be better saved by my keeping faith with Le than by breaking with him! Oh, mother! mother! it will kill me!" moaned Odalite.
"My child, my dear girl, hear me! Listen to reason! Leonidas Force has no claim to be remembered by you. You have never been engaged to him. You were but a little girl of thirteen when he went to sea on his first voyage, three years ago, and you have not seen him since. What possible claim can he have upon you, since no betrothal exists between you?" gently questioned the lady, tenderly running her fair fingers through the dark tresses of the young head that leaned upon her bosom.
"Oh, mother," replied the girl, with a heavy sigh, "I know that there was no formal betrothal between Le and myself—but—but—we all knew, you and father and Le and I—all knew—and always knew that we two belonged to each other and would always belong to each other all our lives. Le and I never thought of any other fate."
"Idle, childish fancies, my poor little girl! too trivial to cause you these tears. Wipe them away, and look clearly at the higher destiny, more worthy of your birth and beauty," murmured the lady, pressing her ripe, red lips upon the pale brow of her darling.
"Oh, mother, I do not want a higher destiny! I do not want any destiny apart from Le. And these are not childish fancies, and not trivial to me! Oh, think, mother, Le and I were playmates as far back in my life as I can remember. We loved each other better than we loved any one else in the whole world. You and father used to laugh at us and pretend to be jealous; but we saw that you were pleased all the time; for you both intended us for each other, and we knew it, too, for father used to say when he saw how inseparable we two were: 'So much the better; I hope their hearts will not be estranged when they grow up!' And our hearts have never become estranged from each other!"
"Oh, yes, dearest, I know that there was some speculative talk when you were children of uniting you and Leonidas, so that the name of Force might not die out from Mondreer. But I never really approved of marrying cousins, Odalite, merely to keep the family name on the family estate."
"But, mother, darling, Le and I never thought of the family name and estate; we only thought of one another. And, besides, we are such very, very distant cousins—only fourth or fifth, I think—that that objection could never be raised. Oh, mother! dear mother! do not compel me to break with Le! I cannot! I cannot! Oh, indeed, I cannot!" she cried, burying her face in the lady's bosom.
Elfrida Force caressed her daughter in silence.
Presently Odalite lifted her head and pleaded:
"He is coming home so soon now, and so full of hope! He expects to be here by Christmas; and he expects—oh, yes, I know by his last letter that he expects to—to—to——" The girl's eyes fell under the compassionate yet scrutinizing gaze of her mother, and her voice faltered into silence.
"To marry you early in the new year, I suppose you mean, dear."
"He did not say so."
"No, mother, dear, he did not say so, in so many words, but from the whole tone of his letter he evidently meant so. Father thought he did, and even tried to tease me about the New Year's wedding—asking me how many hundreds I should need to buy my wedding clothes."
"What was it he said in his letter that leads you to suppose he has any such expectations? I confess that I saw nothing of such an intention when I read the letter."
"Only this, mother, but it was very significant. He wrote that now he had inherited Greenbushes and all his Aunt Laura's money, he was rich enough to resign from the navy, and he need not go to sea any more, nor ever part with me again; but that he could stay home, repair and refurnish the house, improve the land, and farm it on all the new principles, and make the place a paradise for us to live in. He wrote, mother, dear, as of certain fixed facts."
"He was very presumptuous, my dear little girl, for there is nothing certain in this world of changes," gravely commented the lady.
"But Le's heart has not changed, nor has mine."
"My poor darling," said Elfrida Force, smoothing her daughter's dark hair with a gentle hand, "my precious child! It grieves me to do so, but I must prepare you for what seems inevitable. You must forget all this youthful folly, and think of Leonidas Force only as a cousin. You do not really love him as a betrothed maiden should love her affianced husband. You only fancy that you do. In reality you know nothing of such a love as that. Le was brought up in the house with you. You have no brother. Le has no sister. You therefore love each other as brother and sister. By and by you both may discover—but not for each other—the higher, deeper, stronger love which unites the husband and the wife in a true marriage—such a love as I could wish might crown my darling's life with lasting joy—such a love as you might find in a union with Angus Anglesea, if you would but give him the opportunity of winning your heart."
"Madam!" exclaimed the girl, starting to her feet, and gathering her black brows over black eyes that blazed with indignation, "I hate Col. Anglesea! I hate him and I fear him! And I would rather die this day and never behold the face of Le again, than listen to Col. Anglesea!"
"Odalite! Odalite, my child! You are talking to your mother. Come to my heart again, and calm your excitement," said the lady, holding out her arms.
And the young girl fell weeping upon the bosom of her mother.
The lady allowed some time to pass in which the girl's paroxysm of tears exhausted itself, and then caressing her gently, she began, in a soothing tone:
"My precious child, do you doubt your mother's love or truth?"
"Oh, no, no, no! How could you ask such a question of your own child, mother?" earnestly protested Odalite.
"Do you doubt that duty is to be held above all other considerations?"
"No! Oh, no!"
"Well, then, I have something to tell you, my darling, which will make you forget all selfish aims, and even also the wishes of your old playmate. Come with me to your own bedchamber, where we shall be most secure from interruption. I will tell you of a fatal episode in my own youth, when I was younger even than you are now. Oh, that I should have to tell such a tale to my daughter! But, Odalite, when you have heard it you will learn just what you have to do in order to save us all, and especially to save your noble, generous, honorable father from ruin and disgrace. And then, Odalite, when you have learned all, you shall do exactly as you please. Not one word of coercion, not another word of persuasion, will I utter. I will leave our fate in your hands, and you shall be absolutely free to act. Come with me now."
She took her daughter's arm, and they arose from the sofa.
For a moment they stood, quite accidentally, facing a tall mirror, between two windows on the opposite side of the room, and that mirror for the moment reflected two beautiful forms, of which it would be difficult to decide the one to bear off the palm for beauty.
The elder lady, Elfrida Force, was a tall, stately blonde, with a superbly rounded form, a rich complexion, and an affluence of golden brown hair, rippling all over her fine head, and gathered into a mass at the nape of her graceful neck. She wore an inexpensive, closely fitting dress of dark blue serge, whose very plainness set off the perfection of her figure and enhanced the brilliancy of her complexion, showing to the best advantage that splendid beauty, which at the age of thirty-five had reached its zenith. Just now, however, the vivid brightness of her bloom had faded to a pale rose tint, and her lovely blue eyes seemed heavy with unshed tears.
Her young daughter, Odalite, equally beautiful in her way, was yet of an entirely opposite type. She was of medium height, and her form, though well rounded, was slender almost to fragility. Her head was small, and covered with rippling, jet black hair. Her eyes and eyebrows were black as jet; her features were delicate and regular; and her complexion was of a clear, ivory-white. She wore a crimson, merino dress, plainly made, closely fitting, and relieved only by narrow, white ruffles at throat and wrists.
Only for a moment they paused, and then they walked out of the room, and the pretty picture disappeared.
Mondreer was one of the finest old places on the western shore of Maryland. The estate covered fifteen hundred acres of richly cultivated, heavily wooded and well-watered land, running back from the Chesapeake.
The manor house stood upon rising ground, facing the east, and commanding a fine sea view in front, while it was sheltered on the north and west by a heavy growth of trees.
Mondreer had been in the possession of the Forces from the year 1634, when Aaron Force came over with the flower of the British Catholic gentry who, with Leonard Calvert, founded the province of Maryland.
They had prospered in every generation, and now owned more land and money than they had possessed when they first settled on the soil.
Although there was no entail of the manor, yet the estate had, as a matter of custom, always come down through the eldest son of the family, though all the younger sons and daughters were almost equally well provided for.
Usually the Forces had married among their own people, according to the time-honored custom of the country. Indeed, they had invariably done so up to the present generation, when young Abel Force was master of Mondreer.
Great, therefore, was the consternation of the whole community when the heir of Mondreer, the handsomest, the wealthiest and the most accomplished among the young men of the county, if not of the whole State, instead of marrying some cousin or companion whom everybody knew all about, had, while on his travels abroad, forgotten all the venerable traditions of his native place, and "gone and wedded a stranger and foreigner" whom no one knew, or could find out anything about, except that she was as handsome as Juno, as haughty as Lucifer, and as poor as Lazarus.
However, as soon as it was ascertained that the newly married couple were quite established at Mondreer, the county people began to call on them—some from curiosity, some from etiquette, some from neighborly kindness, others because Mondreer was one of the pleasantest houses in the world to visit, and many from a mixture of several or of all these motives.
And every one who went to see the bride came back with such accounts of her grace, her beauty and her elegance that she became the standing theme of conversation at all the tea tables and bar rooms of the county.
They were certainly a very handsome couple. He was a tall, finely formed, stately man, with a Roman profile, brown complexion, dark eyes and jet-black hair and beard. She was a tall, elegant and graceful blonde, with Grecian features, a blooming complexion, dark blue eyes, and rich, sunny, golden-brown hair.
Theirs had evidently been a love match—a real, poetic, romantic, sentimental love match of the oldest-fashioned pattern.
He thought that he had found in her the very pearl, or rose, or star of womanhood—and so even thought many other men, when basking in her smiles, to be sure.
She thought that she had discovered in him the man of men.
In a word, they really adored one another. Each lived only for the other. Each would have suffered or died to save the other a single pang.
Even when, in time, children came to them, though they loved the little ones with more than usual parental affection, yet they loved them less than they loved each other.
Yet, with everything to make them blessed, it was cautiously whispered in the neighborhood that the household of Mondreer was not a happy one; that the beautiful mistress was subject to occasional periods of such profound depression—such intense gloom—as filled her husband's heart with alarm, and shadowed even her physician's mind with forebodings that these symptoms indicated the approach of that worst and most hopeless form of mental disease, melancholia.
Her devoted husband often proposed to take her, during the summer, to Saratoga or Newport; or, during the winter, to Washington or to Baltimore; he even urged her at all times to let him take her to Europe. But she firmly objected to leaving Mondreer, insisting that she was happier there than she could be anywhere else.
And, in truth, as years passed on, and children came, her melancholy seemed gradually to wear off, until in time it wholly disappeared.
Three children were born to them—all girls.
Odalite, the eldest, was thought to resemble both parents, having the Grecian profile and the fair complexion of her mother, and the black eyes and black hair of her father.
Wynnette, the second girl, was a perfect brunette, with a saucy snub nose, brown complexion, and black eyes and black hair.
Elfrida, or Elva, was all her mother—a faultless blonde—with fair complexion, blue eyes, and golden-brown hair.
Failing male heirs, Odalite, the eldest daughter of the house, would, not from any law of primogeniture, but merely by the custom of the country, be the heiress of the manor, though Wynnette and Elva would be very well endowed.
Very early in his married life, while his eldest daughter was still a babe in arms, and his younger ones were not yet in existence, Abel Force had been intrusted with the guardianship of a five-year-old boy—young Leonidas Force, the orphan son of his second cousin of the same name.
When several years had passed, and all hope of a male heir to send on the name with his old ancestral manor had faded away, it became the dearest wish of Abel Force's heart to unite his eldest daughter and his orphan cousin in marriage, so that Mondreer should not pass into another family.
With this object in view, he encouraged the affection that soon began to show itself between the boy and girl who were being brought up and educated in his home together.
He even sought to lead them to believe that they were destined for each other.
It is true that such a plan very seldom succeeds, perhaps not more than once in a hundred times, since the boy and girl so trained will, through the very perversity of human nature, if from no other cause, fall in love with any other boy or girl whom he or she may happen to meet, rather than with each other.
But in the case of these two young ones, Leonidas and Odalite, the plan succeeded to perfection.
The two children were attracted to each other, grew very fond of each other, became inseparable companions—seemed to have but one life between them.
Even total strangers, who knew nothing whatever of the family arrangements in regard to these children, observing their devotion to each other, would say:
"This boy and girl were made for one another. It would be a sin ever to part them. They are a perfect pair."
And Abel Force would smile and say nothing.
No one objected to his plan. But the faithful guardian, in justice to his ward, would not allow him to grow up with the demoralizing anticipation of marrying an heiress to live on her fortune.
After the boy had passed out of the hands of the family governess, and had taken a course in Charlotte Hall College, his guardian called on him to make choice of some profession.
Le unhesitatingly chose the navy.
So, after some considerable trouble and expense, Mr. Force succeeded in getting the youth sent to the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
It happened about the same time that Abel Force was elected as a State senator, and went with his family to spend the winter in the State capital. So the young people were not separated. The end of the legislative session was, also, so near the commencement of the long summer's vacation of the Naval Academy, that Mr. Force, with his family, always remained over in the city for the exercises, at the close of which he took his ward with him to Mondreer.
This habit continued year after year, until Leonidas Force had completed his course at the academy, and had graduated with honors.
Then he accompanied his guardian and the family home for the last time, to spend a brief leave of absence before starting on his first long sea voyage.
Leonidas was now about eighteen years of age, and Odalite about thirteen.
During that short visit home the two young people became more inseparable companions than ever.
That they were destined for each other was well known to everybody, and so well understood by themselves that no formal word on the subject was spoken between them, or thought necessary to be spoken.
They seemed to know and feel that they belonged to each other forever and ever.
Only when the day of parting came—of parting "for three eternal years," as they put it in their despair—Odalite cried as if her heart would break, and refused to be comforted; and Midshipman Leonidas Force, U. S. N., disgraced his uniform by crying a little for company. But then, "the bravest are the tenderest."
This was just three years before the opening of our story.
After their separation the young pair corresponded as frequently as possible under the circumstances.
Their letters were not love letters, in the usual acceptation of that term. They were frank, outspoken, affectionate letters, such as might have passed between a brother and sister who loved one another faithfully, and knew no fonder ties; letters which Odalite read with delight to father and mother, governess and sisters.
All went on in this way for the first two years.
The third year was an eventful one in the destiny of the young pair.
Early in the spring of that year occurred the death of Miss Laura Notley, a very aged lady, great-aunt of young Leonidas Force, to whom by will she left her large plantation, known as Greenbushes, appointing Mr. Abel Force trustee of the estate during the minority of the heir.
This rich inheritance constituted the young midshipman a much more eligible parti for the youthful heiress of Mondreer than he had previously been considered.
Even Mrs. Force acknowledged that she was satisfied as she had never quite been before this.
The two plantations of Mondreer and Greenbushes joined, both fronting on the bay, and together would form perhaps the richest estate in the commonwealth.
And now, when Leonidas should return from his voyage, he might resign from the navy, and, as he would by that time have reached his majority, he might marry Odalite, after which the young couple might take up their residence at Greenbushes and live there during the lifetime of their parents.
This would certainly be a most delightful arrangement for all parties.
Letters were promptly written to Leonidas, both by his guardian and by his sweetheart, informing him of his good fortune and congratulating him on his happy prospects.
Odalite, in her crazy letter, wrote:
"I am so wild with delight that I am dancing when I am not writing, and the reason why is this—that now you need never go to sea again, and we shall never, never, never part more this side of heaven!
"You will give up your profession, but you need not be idle. You must not be, father says. You must look after the plantation, which has been neglected during the dear old lady's life; you must reclaim the worn-out soil; farm the land on scientific principles, with the aid of chemistry and machinery and things, and improve the stock by importing new what's-er-names. Oh, you will have plenty to do to keep you from moldering away alive, if you look after your estate as father does after his.
"And neither shall I be idle. I shall look after the house, the servants, the kitchen, the dairy, the poultry yard and the garden, as mother—no—as mother does not look after hers—but, then, I am a plain, country girl, and mamma is a grand duchess, or she ought to be. I must now stop to dance. I can't keep still any longer. When I have done dancing I will finish this letter."
The remainder of Odalite's epistle need not be quoted. It may be guessed.
Every one was perfectly satisfied. No one dreamed of suggesting or even desiring the slightest change in these perfect arrangements.
The spring passed in delightful anticipations.
But, unhappily, in the height of midsummer, Abel Force, believing that he acted from the purest motives of affection, but—no doubt—as the event proved, deceived and misled by the enemy of mankind, proposed to take all his family for a tour which should include the White Mountains, the Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, the Thousand Islands and Niagara Falls.
Mrs. Force, who had long lost her morbid dread of public resorts, willingly agreed to the proposed journey.
About the middle of July the party set out. They traveled very leisurely, enjoying every foot of land and every ripple of water they passed over.
It was late in August when at length they reached Niagara. They took rooms at the Cataract House, and spent a week in making excursions through the magnificent scenery around the Falls.
It was in the first days of September that something of very grave import to the future of the happy family occurred at their hotel.
The whole party, together with many of the guests of the house, were out on one of the grand piazzas overlooking the rapids. They remained out enjoying the sublime and almost terrific scene until the sun set and the moon arose.
Then Mrs. Force, dreading the dampness of the September evening over the water for her children, led the way into the house, followed by all her party.
They went into the brilliantly lighted public parlor.
As she was crossing the room, leaning on her husband's arm and followed by her children and their governess, she suddenly started and turned pale.
Mr. Force, who felt her start, but did not see the sudden blanching of her cheek, looked up and saw a stranger approaching them from the opposite side of the parlor.
He was a short, stout, fair-haired, rosy-faced, blue-eyed man of middle age and pleasant aspect, in a fashionable evening dress.
He came up with a frank smile, holding out his hand, and exclaiming:
"Lady Elfrida Glennon! This is really a delightful surprise!"
The haughty beauty shuddered, but almost immediately commanded herself and received her accoster's effusive address with cold politeness, and then said:
"Let me present you to my husband and daughters. Mr. Force—Col. Anglesea, of the Honorable East India Company's Service. Col. Anglesea—my husband, Mr. Abel Force, of Mondreer, Maryland. Our daughters, Miss Force, Miss Wynnette, Miss Elva, Miss Meeke."
While bows were being exchanged the lady quite recovered her self-possession. The party took seats near together, the colonel dropping into a lounging-chair immediately opposite the sofa on which Mrs. Force sat with her daughters—and saying something poetic and complimentary about a perfect rose surrounded by fresh buds, as he gazed upon the beautiful mother and children.
Mr. Force, who occupied another armchair near them, seemed the best pleased of all the group.
"I am really very happy to make your acquaintance, colonel. This is the first time in our rather long married life—look at those great girls!—that I have had the pleasure of meeting any of my wife's English friends. I hope we shall see a great deal of you. I hope to persuade you to visit us at Mondreer for a few weeks before you return to your native land," he said, with all his honest, friendly soul in every look and tone.
"Thanks, very much. I shall be but too well pleased. Yes! it is nearly twenty years since we saw each other last, yet the moment I entered this room I recognized Lady Elfrida," he said.
"Pardon me," coldly objected the lady. "When I married a citizen of this republic, to live in it, I took my husband's style with his name, and am called Mrs. Force."
"Ah! true! precisely! perfectly so! A thousand apologies! I will try to remember."
And the colonel sank back in his chair.
He remained for about half an hour conversing with the family party, or rather, to report exactly, with Mr. Force, for neither Mrs. Force nor any other one of them contributed much to the conversation.
At length he arose, bowed and left them.
"A very agreeable man, indeed! A very entertaining companion! Well read and well traveled! Knows the world! Understands human nature! An old friend of yours, my dear?" said Abel Force, turning to his beautiful wife.
"An old acquaintance of my brother, rather. They were in the same regiment in India," coldly replied the lady.
"Ah! but that is a strong bond of union between men. Your brother's comrade in the Indian campaign! He is traveling now on a long furlough, he says. We must see more of him, good fellow! We must have him down for a few weeks at Mondreer."
"No!" impulsively sprang from the lady's heart; but the word did not pass her whitening lips. She suppressed the exclamation, sent back the strong objection to hide in her bosom among other heavy secrets there, and—kept silence.
The honest and honorable man, who had no mysteries of his own and never suspected them in another, did not observe his wife's agitation. He was not looking toward her, in fact, he was looking down on his own clasped fingers and idly twirling thumbs, and thinking of the good time he was going to have with his wife's old friend and his own new acquaintance.
"Yes," he went dreaming on and murmuring half to himself, "we must certainly have him down to Mondreer for the autumn, and show him what Maryland country life is like! I reckon he will find it more like old England than anything he has seen in America. He is the first countryman of yours, my dear, who has ever fallen in our way since we left England, and we must make the most of him! Especially as he is not only a countryman, but an old friend."
So saying, Abel Force arose and sauntered off to see if the evening mail had come in.
Mrs. Force had sent off her children to bed, in charge of their eldest sister and the governess, while she herself remained in the empty parlor, walking up and down its whole length, and trying to think what would be her best course in the present crisis.
She had, for the time being, the room all to herself. The other guests of the house were either in their own apartments, or on the piazzas, overlooking the rapids, or at tea, or abroad. At any rate, the lady was alone, until she was joined by the colonel, who came confidently, not to say impudently, up to her side.
"Angus Anglesea! how did you dare to recognize and accost me?" she demanded, her blue eyes blazing with indignation.
"Because I was so surprised and delighted to see you, Friday!" he replied, with gay defiance.
"I should think the sight of me would blast your eyes!"
"Don't swear, Friday! At least, don't swear in that way. 'Blast your eyes' is a low, seafaring phrase. I know it is provoking to have me come, when you had got away so far and felt so secure! Well, it was as great a shock to me! By Jove! we looked at each other for a moment like a pair of ghosts! Didn't we? But talking of 'blasts,' I don't mind confessing that the sight of you did nearly strike me blind, but it was through your dazzling beauty! By Jove, Friday, you are ten thousand times handsomer now than you were when you turned the head of His Royal——"
"Be silent! If you dare to name that devil to me again——"
"Quite so! I am dumb! I am mute. But don't use strong language, Friday! It is bad form. You must have picked up the habit in America."
"Look you here, Angus Anglesea! Mr. Force intends to invite you to visit us at our country house, down in Maryland."
"He has invited me. Deuced kind of him! And I have accepted the invitation," put in the colonel, twirling his light mustache.
"You will not go. You will have the decency to avoid the roof of an honorable man."
The colonel's face flushed crimson. His brow darkened with anger. For a moment he lost even the superficial semblance of a gentleman, and showed himself a ruffian in tone and manner.
"Look you, my Lady Elfrida! You take a dangerous tone toward me who holds your fate in the grip of his hand!" he exclaimed, stretching out his arm, and working his fingers. "Yes, and who would not hesitate, under provocation, to tighten that grip to your destruction. But there! We should serve, not ruin, each other. Now listen to me, Friday. If you will behave yourself, I will hold my tongue. Otherwise——But I need say no more. You understand me."
"I understand you to be an unmitigated villain!" muttered the lady, fiercely, between her clenched teeth—"an incarnate fiend!"
"You flatter me; you do, really. You elevate my self-respect. How I shall enjoy your conversation at—at——What is the name of your principality or grand duchy down in Maryland? I am told that your great plantations down in the South are quite equal in wealth, population and extent of territory to our lesser European sovereignties. What is the name of the place to which I am invited, and where I intend to go?"
"Why do you wish to know the name of our happy home? Why do you wish to enter our Eden, like another serpent, to destroy it?" exclaimed the lady, beside herself with fear and wrath.
"There you go again, Friday! You will not drop that bad habit of flattering a modest man to his face. I declare you will make me vain."
"Why do you wish to trouble me? Why do you wish to come to Mondreer?" she inquired, wringing her hands.
"Oh, ho! You have come down from your tragics. Mondreer, is it? And why do I go? Well, to be frank with you, I go to browse upon
"'Fresh fields and pastures green.'"
"I understand. You think the simple, honest, country gentlemen will be easier prey for your gamester's snares than are the men you meet at public resorts. And you mean to swindle and fleece them," scornfully replied the lady.
Again the man's face flushed with anger, but he controlled his temper, and laughed, saying:
"What a genius you have for compliment, Friday! You should have been a courtier, where your talents might have been turned to the best advantage; or a king's favorite. Ah! but there we tread on delicate ground, do we not?"
"I warn you, Col. Anglesea, not to drive me too far! For sooner than submit to your insults, I will throw myself upon my husband's mercy, and claim his protection against you."
"Oh! You will go to him, and tell him that 'tale of old times' of which you were the heroine? And in his love he will forgive you. And so far so well. But, then, suppose I also should tell that little story to all and sundry? How would it be then?" sneered the man.
"Oh! fiend! fiend!" breathed the woman through her white lips and closed teeth.
"Quite so. You only do me justice. I shall enjoy your conversation at Mondreer."
"And you go there to rob my husband and our unsuspicious neighbors at the card table. But you will be disappointed. Mr. Force does not know one card from another, and his friends seldom or never play."
"What barbarians must be the people of your principality, Friday! I must really go there as a missionary to teach them the arts of civilized life. Ah! in good time. Here comes his serene highness. Let us smooth our ruffled plumage, else he may be asking inconvenient questions," whispered the colonel, as Abel Force smilingly approached them.
"Ah! You here, colonel? That is right. We'll all go down to tea together. I feel really so delighted to have met with an old friend of my wife that I cannot bear to lose sight of him. We must leave here on Monday. Now, my dear colonel, could you not arrange your affairs so as to accompany us? If your plan of travel would admit of your giving us the pleasure of your company on our return journey, we should be really delighted, you know. The hunting season will soon be on, and I could show you some fine sport," said Mr. Force.
And then seeing his eldest daughter enter the room, he drew her arm within his own and smilingly waved his hand to the colonel to take Mrs. Force and lead the way to the tea room.
But the lady refused to see the signal, took the arm of her governess, Miss Meeke, and went on, the colonel walking persistently beside her.
"What do you hunt in your grand duchy, sir? Buffalo? Bears? Wolves?" inquired the colonel, when they were all seated at the table.
"No," laughed Mr. Force, good-humoredly. "You would have to go a thousand miles to the west for that game, colonel. We hunt just what you do in England—with a difference—we hunt foxes and hares, and sometimes deer. Oh, we will show you! You will think yourself back in old England. Come. Shall we consider the matter settled?" cordially demanded Mr. Force.
"Thanks very much. I shall be too happy to make one of your traveling party. I will go."
A DANGEROUS GUEST
"Remember," said the munificent Marylander to his new acquaintance, when they were about to start, "my wife's old friend is my guest from the moment we leave this hotel."
Which words being translated into practice, meant that Mr. Force, from the time the party left the Cataract House, paid all the colonel's traveling expenses from Niagara to Mondreer—even though they lingered at several pleasant stopping places and took the Adirondacks on their way.
The frank and obliging colonel not being afflicted with any delicate sensibilities, made not the slightest objection to having all his bills paid by his host, nor felt the least hesitation in borrowing all the money he wanted, using various pretexts of delayed remittances, and so forth, all of which excuses the straightforward and unsuspicious Marylander believed, feeling well pleased to be his guest's banker.
It was the first of October when the travelers finally reached Mondreer.
Arrived there, Col. Anglesea took possession of the mansion with the most engaging condescension and continued to borrow money of his host with the most charming affability.
He had, besides, a frank, bluff, soldierly manner, which pleased the country neighbors and won their confidence. He easily ran into debt at the country stores and pleasantly won money at cards from the simple, young men who thought it an honor to lose their cash to such a very great nabob and very fine gentleman.
Meanwhile he kept a sharp lookout for rich young men to fleece and some rich heiress to marry.
Abel Force, in his frank, cordial, unsuspicious hospitality, gave hunting breakfasts, dinner parties and oyster suppers in honor of his English guest, and invited all the best people in the county to meet him.
Col. Anglesea, from his pleasing person and agreeable manners, entertaining conversation, and fund of information and anecdote, became very popular in the neighborhood, and the county gentry feasted and lionized him to his heart's content.
But the longed-for heiress did not seem to be forthcoming.
All the young ladies to whom he was introduced had fathers and mothers in the prime of life who bade fair to outlive the handsome colonel himself by many years, and ever so many brothers and sisters.
Indeed, large families seemed to be the rule in that neighborhood, and only daughters who were heiresses the exception that could nowhere be found.
It was strange that in all his search for a girl with expectations the colonel had never thought of Odalite.
But, then, she was only sixteen years of age, and she looked much younger. She seemed to be merely the eldest child among children.
One day early in December an event occurred that opened his eyes. A letter arrived from foreign parts that gave the whole family, and especially Odalite, the greatest pleasure. She ran about with it open in her hands, and read it to her parents, to her sisters, and even to her governess.
Col. Anglesea, in his self-absorption, took not the slightest interest in this family jubilee and felt not the least curiosity concerning the letter which had caused it.
But Mr. Force, in the generous exuberance of his nature, wished to share his pleasure with all others, and so, joining his guest in a walk over the frozen fields that winter morning, he smiled and said:
"We have just received a letter from my ward and cousin, Midshipman Leonidas Force, who has been at sea for the last three years, but is now homeward bound and is expected to arrive in time for Christmas; and then I should not wonder if we should have to celebrate a New Year's wedding," he added.
"Ah! So the young gentleman is engaged. And who is the young lady?" inquired the colonel, making an effort to appear interested.
"Why! is it possible you don't know? I thought everybody knew!" exclaimed the father, looking surprised.
"But I, you must remember, am a comparative stranger, and I am ignorant."
"Well, then, of course, the lady in question is my eldest daughter, a very little lady as yet."
"Miss Force! Why, she is a mere schoolgirl! She must have been a little child when he went away, if he has been gone three years," said Col. Anglesea, in surprise; and then he fell into musing.
"She is sixteen now, and she was thirteen when he sailed. Of course there was no formal engagement between them then—there could not have been, you know; but it was understood! You see, sir, it is a family matter! The children have been brought up together with a view to their future union. They are certainly very fond of each other. Their marriage is a very desirable one on every account. As I have no son, my eldest daughter will inherit this manor—one of the oldest and largest in Maryland, and one which has been in the family since the first settlement of the province, more than two hundred years ago, when Aaron Force, who came over with Leonard Calvert, received a grant of the land—a thousand acres, then. We have not lost an acre in all these generations, but rather gained a third more. There are fifteen hundred acres now. All this must 'fall to the distaff' and go out of the family unless my daughter should marry her cousin, Leonidas Force. He also has recently inherited a considerable estate, joining this, and, like this, with a long sea front. It is not always that young people submit to be guided by their elders in the matter of marriage, but I am happy to say that my boy and girl have very readily taken our views of the case and will follow them. So they will probably be married very early in the new year, and the old ancestral estate will not pass out of the old family name."
"I see," said the colonel, "and I heartily congratulate you on the prospect."
Then he fell into deep thought. Presently he said:
"She has not seen her lover for three years, since she was a child?"
"No, not since she was thirteen."
"When is he expected to return?"
"Ah, yes! You told me! She is very young to be married."
"Yes; but we do marry our girls very young when everything else is suitable—as in this case," smiled Mr. Force.
"But after three years of separation from the youth whom she parted with in her childhood, may not your daughter have changed her mind?"
"Oh, no!" earnestly replied the father.
"But you cannot know this until the young pair meet again. Suppose now, for instance, that when Miss Force sees the youth she may not like the idea of marrying him? What, in such a case, would be your line of policy?"
"I should have no policy. My dear daughter's happiness should be my first consideration, and the marriage could not go on."
"Exactly. That is just what I should expect of you," said the colonel, approvingly.
"Good fellow!" thought, honest Abel Force, admiringly.
"But such is not likely to be the case, colonel. She is quite fond of him as he is of her."
"Quite so," assented the colonel, as they turned and walked toward the house.
On reaching it, Mr. Force went in; but Col. Anglesea excused himself, and remained on the outside. He wanted to walk up and down.
Here was the very heiress he had been in search of right under his eyes all the time, and he had never seen her. He had thought her a child of about fourteen years of age, and here she was sixteen, and considered marriageable.
How precocious these young American girls were, to be sure! How very early they were married!
At this point the colonel lighted a fresh cigar, strolled out upon the frozen lawn, and sat down on a rustic seat, under the branches of an old yew tree, from which he had a view of the bay, that here spread out from the foot of the hill to the distant horizon.
It was not, however, to look at the prospect of nature before his eyes, but to contemplate the prospect of the future in his imagination, that he sat there, and smoked and reflected.
"The game is in my own hands," he said to himself. "The daughter is governed entirely by the mother, whom she adores. And she must appear to act from her own free will and for her own pleasure, in order to obtain the consent of her father, who, forsooth, will sacrifice his own family ambition to his child's happiness.
"This is the third of December," he mused, "and the young fellow is expected to be home at Christmas. There is no time to be lost. I must turn the screws on my lady. There shall be a New Year's wedding at Mondreer, but Mr. Leonidas Force shall not be the happy bridegroom."
Glad voices broke in upon Anglesea's brooding.
He looked up, and saw coming toward him the three young daughters of the house—Odalite, Wynnette and Elva, attended by their governess, Miss Meeke.
They were all equipped in their warm, brown cloth coats, buttoned up before, and their brown, beaver poke bonnets tied under their chins. They carried little baskets in their hands and dragged along sticks after them.
"Will you take a walk with us through the woods this morning, Col. Anglesea? Father has gone into town to attend court, you know; and mother has a little headache, and has locked herself up in her room to lie down and sleep. And we are going for a walk. Will you go?" inquired Odalite, as graciously as she could force herself to do; for the girl secretly detested the interloper, though her native good breeding prevented her from ever betraying her feelings to their object. She had not failed to perceive, through her own fine sympathies rather than through any expression from Mrs. Force, that the lady was very much annoyed and distressed by the presence of this intruder into the privacy of her domestic circle; and so Odalite often quietly relieved her mother by taking charge of the visitor's entertainment, as she did on this occasion by inviting him to join their walking party.
Col. Anglesea looked at her with an amused smile, yet with more attention than he had ever regarded her before.
"Will you come with us?" she inquired again, seeing that he hesitated to reply.
"Thanks, very much! It is a temptation. Miss Force. In what direction do you propose to walk?"
"Down the hill to the shore—then along the shore for three miles to Greenbushes," replied the young lady.
"And then through the house, which is to be Le's and Odalite's home after New Year, when they are married," volunteered Wynnette, a pretty, saucy little brunette of fourteen years.
"Wynnette! Wynnette! Hush!" exclaimed Odalite, blushing vividly.
"Why must I hush? Everybody knows Le is coming home to marry you at Christmas!" retorted the second sister.
"And what do you think, Col. Anglesea?" whispered Elva, a gentle, little blonde of twelve.
"What, my elf?" playfully inquired the colonel.
"Why, when Le and Odalite get married and go to live at Greenbushes, Wynnette and I will live there just as much as we shall at home here."
"Indeed! and what will Mr. Brother-in-law say to that?"
"Who, Le? Why, Le will say he is very glad. Le loves us all dearly. Le would give us anything we want, or do anything in the world for us. Especially now I should think he would, when we are going to let him have our sister and take her away."
"Elva, my dear, you are talking too much," whispered Miss Meeke, a small, demure young woman, with a pale face, gray eyes and smooth brown hair.
"Why? When he wants to pretend that our Le will not be glad to have us all three to live with him? I must take Le's part, you know, Miss Meeke, especially in his absence," pleaded Elva.
"Shall we walk on, Col. Anglesea?" suggested Odalite, to put an end to an embarrassing conversation.
"Certainly, if you please. What are these sticks for?" inquired the colonel, referring to the wands the girls dragged behind them.
"Oh! these are to thresh the chincapin bushes, when we get there! And we expect to fill our baskets!" answered Wynnette.
"Can I not carry them for you?" he inquired; and without waiting for an answer, collected the sticks from the children, who not unwillingly gave them up.
"And now I think of it," suggested the colonel, "you will require but one stick, and that I will use and thresh the bushes while you gather the nuts. See, I will leave these three here, and take this thickest one. Now give me the four baskets; I will hang them on my stick and sling them over my shoulder, thus," he said, suiting the action to the word.
The two children laughed at the figure he cut.
"Now! Right face! Forward! March!" he cried, stepping out in front.
They left the lawn by the east gate and passed through an orchard where a few late winter apples still clung to the nearly leafless branches of the trees; opened another gate and entered a narrow path leading down through the thick woods to the shore.
Then they turned southward and walked by the side of the bay, the children chattering as they went.
"What do you think, Col. Anglesea?" inquired Elva.
"I don't know. What ought I to think?" laughingly inquired their escort.
"Well, I'll tell you. Although Greenbushes is only three miles off, we have never seen it in our lives."
"No, never! Miss Notley, Le's great-aunt, who owned the place and who left it to Le in her will, never lived here at all. She left the place in the care of old Mr. Beever, her overseer, and he and the negroes worked the land and raised the crops, and Mr. Copp, her lawyer, attended to the sale and shipping of the tobacco and—and all that, you know."
"And Miss Notley lived on her other place down in Florida. At least, she lived there all the year round except the summer months, when she always went to Europe. She died in Florida, and left Felicia—her estate there—to her Florida relations."
"Ah!" said the colonel, trying to seem interested, while really brooding over his own schemes.
"And she left Greenbushes to Le, who is the only relative by her mother's side."
"And it is a great thing for Le and Odalite, for now they can marry and settle at once."
"And as Wynnette and I shall spend half our time at Greenbushes, we mean to pick out our room and choose the paper and furniture for it."
"Oh, yes! Mr. Copp sent to New York and got illustrated catalogues from the furniture dealers and books of patterns from the paper hangers, and samples from the—the—the—oh! what do you call them, Wynnette?—the people who color the walls that are not papered, you know?"
"Yes, that is what I mean! And all sorts of things! And we are going to choose our room and have it fixed!"
"Without consulting Mr. Brother-in-law?"
"Of course! Why, it is all to be done at once—at once! It is to be completed and quite ready by the time Le gets home! Won't that be jolly? Le wrote to Odalite to do just as she pleased with the house, and wrote to Mr. Copp to advance all the money that was necessary and give her all the advice and assistance that he could. So father wrote to Mr. Copp to meet us here to-day, and he is to do it. Father would have been here, too, but he was subpoenaed this very morning to attend court. Oh! do look at that flock of wild geese, colonel! I'm glad you haven't got your gun and dogs this time!"
So chattering and letting their tongues run before their wit, the children, with their companions, reached Greenbushes, and turning from the shore, began to ascend the hill going toward the house, which stood on the summit a few hundred yards back from the bay, and in the midst of a grove of pines, cedars, yews, firs and every description of evergreens that would grow on the soil; so that winter, as well as summer, the mansion was sheltered, and the lawn was heavily shaded by a canopy of green trees; hence its name of Greenbushes, given when these same trees were but saplings.
The house, in the midst of this evergreen grove, was a building of hard, dark red bricks, and so irregular in construction as to defy all description; it had so many gable ends, tall chimneys, little dormer windows and latticed windows, as to confuse the spectator; and so many great doors, each with its own portico, as to make a strange visitor utterly uncertain concerning the whereabouts of the main entrance.
Two old men, standing on a three-cornered portico in an angle of the wall, drew the steps of the visitors thither, where they were met by Mr. Copp, a tall, thin, fair-faced, gray-haired lawyer, and Mr. Beever, a short, round, red-faced and bald-headed farmer.
Both were plainly dressed in business suits of heavy, black cloth.
"Do you know those persons?" inquired the colonel of Odalite.
"No, but I know who they are, and I have come to see them."
"Then let me speak to them first," he suggested, going up to the two men.
He addressed them in a low tone, and then brought them to the spot where Odalite and her companions waited.
"Miss Force," he said, "this is Mr. Copp, legal steward of the late Miss Laura Notley. This is Mr. Beever, manager of the plantation. They wish to speak to you on business, and will show you into the house," he said.
The two men bowed very deferentially.
Odalite received them politely, and at Mr. Copp's invitation, followed them into the building, accompanied by her sisters, their governess and Col. Anglesea, who regarded all these proceedings with a sarcastic smile.
The lawyer led the whole party into a small, old-fashioned, oak-paneled parlor, with a chimney in the angle of the wall, in which a large, wood fire had been kindled, and near which a table and a few chairs had been placed.
On this table lay various books of samples, and patterns, and catalogues of prices.
"Will you sit down and look over these, or will you go through the house first? I have had fires built in all the rooms, but still I think the place is not thoroughly aired and dried yet," said Mr. Copp.
"We will look over these first, and then take them through the house for reference," replied Odalite.
And the whole party sat down around the table, and began to examine patterns, samples and prices.
A great chattering as of many magpies ensued.
There was a difference of opinion. For kalsomine, and for the ground work of wall paper, as well as for window curtains, and chair and sofa colors, Odalite and Miss Meeke preferred olive, sage, lavender and other delicate, neutral tints, while Wynnette and Elva loudly advocated, pink, blue and yellow, or crimson, purple and orange.
At length, without arriving at any mutual understanding, but being rested from their long walk, they all arose to go through the house. Such a rambling house! with stairs going up and stairs going down in such out-of-the-way places; doors opening into rooms in such unexpected quarters; when they thought they were going to look into a small closet they found a large chamber; and when they walked through a side passage, which they thought led outdoors on a porch, behold! it led into some wing containing more rooms.
Wynnette and Elva chose at least half a dozen different rooms in succession—this, because it had such a lovely little fireplace and mantelpiece; that, because it had such funny little cupboards; the other, because it had such quaint little windows.
Finally they gave up in despair, saying that they must think it over at home before they could choose among so many.
Odalite, who thought that there was no time to lose if the house was to be ready for Leonidas on his return, selected the wall paper and the suits of furniture for all the rooms from the patterns before her, and having carefully marked them and written her directions, she requested Mr. Copp to set the mechanics to work at once, and to hurry on the repairs as fast as justice to the business would permit.
And Col. Anglesea, watching these proceedings, smiled sarcastically.
Having done their errand at Greenbushes, the little party left the house.
"Mr. Beever! Oh! please, where are the big chincapin thickets we have heard so much about?" inquired Elva, in whose ideas these nuts were, after all, the most immediately important item in their errand to the farm.
"Yes, honey, you'll find 'em all along both sides of the footpath through the woods betwixt here and your place, but 'specially where you cross Chincapin Creek."
"The woods! There! We'll have to go back that way. Ah, Col. Anglesea, how lovely it will be when Odalite and Leonidas live here! There are so many lovely ways of going between the two places. Just listen now while I tell you. We may walk by the shore, as we did this morning, or we may walk through the woods, as we shall this afternoon. We may ride horseback along the shore or through the woods, or we may drive in a carriage along the shore or along the turnpike road through the woods; or, best of all, we may row in a boat from the landing at the foot of our hill to the landing at the foot of this hill. Oh, it will be perfectly delightful!"
Col. Anglesea looked at the child with his sinister smile, but she was too happy to notice anything evil in it.
They took leave of the lawyer and the farmer, and started to walk home through the woods, chattering all the way of the beauty of Greenbushes even now, and the delight of the prospect ahead.
"It is too late this season; but mind, Odalite, next spring you are to have a mansard roof, and bay windows, and—balconies, and—and—towers and things," said Elva.
"Perhaps," quietly replied Odalite.
"Why, there is no 'perhaps' about it! Le said you were to do just as you please with the house," suggested Wynnette.
"But that did not mean I should burn it down," said Odalite.
"Of course it did not. What do——"
"And he did not mean I should tear it down either, as I should have to do to make all the improvements our ambitious little Elva suggests. Why, darling, we might as well talk of putting a mansard on the top of that clump of Scotch firs as on that irregularly built farmhouse."
"The top is about as uneven in height as a set of dinner casters, so we will give up the mansard roof. But do have a bay window and some balconies," said Elva.
"Perhaps," repeated Odalite.
So talking they reached the bridge crossing Chincapin Creek, with its fringe of richly laden bushes, and stopped to gather the nuts.
It took but a little while to fill all their baskets, after which they continued their homeward walk.
They reached Mondreer late in the afternoon.
Their father had returned from the courthouse. Their mother had recovered from her headache. And the delayed dinner was served.
During the meal, which at Mondreer was always a merry one, the talk still ran upon Greenbushes and its present and prospective attractions.
Col. Anglesea took little part in the conversation, but he listened and smiled.
After dinner, and during the long winter evening that followed, he vainly sought an opportunity of speaking alone with Mrs. Force.
He did not fail because she shunned him, but because the little party kept together in the most persistent way, and he certainly could not ask Mrs. Force in the presence of all her family, to give him a private interview. He must wait his opportunity.
"IN MY LADY'S CHAMBER"
The next morning Col. Anglesea resolved to have a decisive conversation with Mrs. Force before the day should be over.
After breakfast he seated himself in the family parlor to await events.
Soon Mr. Force came in to him. He was booted and spurred for a ride.
"I am sorry to have to leave you again to-day, but you know a subpoena is a thing not to be defied," he said.
"Oh, don't mind me. Sorry to lose your company, but shall find something to do, no doubt," replied the colonel.
"I fear it would be quite useless to ask you to ride with me?"
"To court? To spend the day there? Yes, quite. I never permit myself to be bored if I can help it."
"Good-day. I wish you a pleasant ride."
"Thank you," said Mr. Force. And he left the room.
Anglesea kept his seat, and waited for the entrance of Mrs. Force.
There was her workstand, her workbox, her easy-chair and her footstool, in their cozy corner between the open fire and the side window, but she did not come to occupy them.
He knew at length that she was voluntarily absenting herself, in order to avoid a tete-a-tete with him, to which, if she should come into the sitting room at this time of day, she would be obliged to subject herself, for at this hour all the children were in the schoolroom with their governess, and Odalite with them, helping their German lesson.
As soon as Col. Anglesea divined the reason of Mrs. Force's absence he resolved to lay a trap for her and catch her.
So he went out into the hall, loudly called on one of the men servants to saddle a horse for him, saying he was going to ride to the post office, made a great fuss putting on his overcoat, cap and gloves, and finally, when the horse was brought around to the door, threw himself into the saddle, and galloped away with so much clatter and bang that the lady, wherever she might be lurking, could not fail to hear and know that he had left the house.
And she did not fail to hear and know it; but she was so astonished at the unusual noise and confusion he made that she asked herself a question which she would not have asked another:
"Is the man intoxicated at this early hour of the morning, that he behaves in this very disorderly manner? Well, I am glad he is gone. I hope it is for all day."
So saying, she went downstairs to the sitting room, feeling secure against his intrusion.
She took up her work, a piece of silk embroidery, and began to trace the outline of the pattern, humming a little air to herself.
Less than half an hour had the lady sat at her needlework, when the door opened softly.
She heard the slight sound through the silence of the house, looked up, and saw Col. Anglesea enter the room and walk toward her.
She started as if she had seen an apparition, and impulsively exclaimed:
"I thought you were miles away! I thought you had gone out for the day!"
"You heard me gallop off? Doubtless. I took a brisk ride along the turnpike as far as Chincapin Creek, turned down its banks to the shore, cantered along until I reached the bridle path leading up to your stables, and then dismounted, leaving my horse with the groom, and walked to the house. It was a brisk run, but it has done me good," Col. Anglesea explained, as, uninvited, he drew a chair toward the fire and seated himself at Mrs. Force's worktable, facing her.
The lady gave her attention to the pattern of her embroidery, and made no reply.
"If you had foreseen my quick return—certainly, if you had foreseen my errand—I should not have found you here; you would have kept out of my way; and even if I had sent a message requesting to speak with you, you would have made some excuse to decline or to defer the interview."
"Perhaps I should. Why do you intrude upon my privacy, Col. Anglesea? What is it that you want now?" she inquired, with that blending of fear and defiance in her tone and manner which fatally betrayed the weakness of her defenses.
"Friday, I wonder that you should dare to assume such airs toward me—a man who with one word could destroy you!" he answered.
"Knave and coward that you are! Brute and demon as you are! you will not speak that word here!" she muttered, intensely, under her breath, as she fixed her blazing blue eyes upon him.
"There you go with your extravagant compliments again. You always were such a fascinating flatterer, Friday," said the man, coolly taking up one of her spools of silk and unwinding and rewinding it. "But as to that 'one word,' I certainly shall whisper it into Abel Force's ear, and also into the ears of that many-headed, mighty magician known to us all as 'Our Reporter,' when he shall come to me, notebook and lead pencil in hand, to interview me, and hear all the particulars, after the explosion shall be over."
"And do you presume to suppose that you will be suffered to live after that?" demanded the lady.
"Possibly not. In which case somebody else would have to be interviewed; but that would not help your cause. Come, Friday; the only possible salvation for you will be your full agreement to my terms of silence."
"Oh! you unmitigated villain!"
"Quite so. I am no halfway weakling, as you know perfectly well—for there are no secrets between us, Friday. You know, and therefore I need not remind you, that I never stop at any means to gain an end. I have an end in view just now. It is the price of my silence."
"I wonder what new felonies you can possibly be meditating now?" bitterly demanded the lady, in spite of her fears.
"'What new'—what was the word?"
"Felonies! you ruthless fiend!"
"Ah! Certainly! Thanks! You are too good to say so! Ah—the—enterprise I have in hand just now is one in which you will promptly and zealously give me all the help you possibly can—such effectual assistance, in point of fact, as shall insure its success."
"And if I do not?"
"'If you do not?' I have already told you the consequences. But you are slow to believe them. You do not really believe me to be so thorough-going as you have been good enough to say that I am. You think that at the last there will be some relenting on my part. Disabuse yourself of that illusion. Friday, listen to me: No condemned criminal standing on the trapdoor of a scaffold ever occupied a more dangerous position than you do now. Refuse to co-operate with me in my purpose, and I give the signal that seals your fate—I spring the trap that lets you drop at once into perdition. That is all, my lady."
"And yet," groaned Elfrida Force, clasping her hands convulsively together—"and yet neither I nor any one related to me have ever broken any law of the land, or have ever been accused or even suspected of breaking one."
"That should be a most precious and comforting reflection, Friday, especially if I should be obliged to spring that trap. Many unhappy victims have met their doom with fortitude and resignation under such circumstances."
"Cease! you dastard, cease!" cried the lady, wringing her hands. "Be silent! or tell me what it is you want, so I may know the worst at once!"
"Quite so. I will not only be silent now, but I will be mute henceforth. Yea, I will be dumb forever!—that is, on certain conditions."
"What conditions? Why can't you name them? Are they so infamous that even you shrink from telling me? In a word, what do you want?"
"'In a word,' then: I want—Odalite," coolly replied the colonel.
The lady gazed at the man with eyes slowly dilating with horror.
"Odalite!" she gasped, under her breath.
"Yes, if you please. I hear that the girl is considered marriageable. I hear also a rumor to the effect that she may possibly be married to that young midshipman who is expected home at Christmas—unless I supplant him, which I hope to do, for she cannot care for him really, you know, since they parted when they were boy and child."
"But she does care for him. She loves him as he loves her. They have always been devoted to each other," indignantly retorted Elfrida Force.
The colonel laughed insolently.
"Boy and girl love! Puppy love! Pigeon love! We will soon change all that."
"If she did not care at all for Leonidas Force, still I know it is utterly impossible she should ever care for you."
"I would make her love me—or pretend to do so."
"Even if she were to become so deranged in mind, so demoralized in heart as to love you, I should never consent to such a monstrous marriage!" passionately declared Elfrida Force.
"Oh, yes you would! You will, when you realize that unless you do, your family peace and honor, your social position and prosperity—all you prize and pride yourself upon—must suddenly fall and bury you and yours under their ruins. Are you prepared to meet such a catastrophe? Indeed, to pull down destruction upon yourself, your husband, your daughters—all whom you love and cherish? Are you prepared to see your name blazoned all over the world as the subject of an unexampled scandal in high life? Are you prepared to see your husband and daughters—die of——Who can foresee their fate? Are you willing that this discovery should wreck and destroy your home and your family, root and branch, and leave nothing of you but the memory of one dishonored name behind? Are you ready to incur all this irremediable woe and ruin? For be sure that in refusing me your daughter's hand, you do incur it."
"Do you think, reckless knave as you are! do you think, even if I were so lost to every sense of honor and decency as to wish to sacrifice my dear daughter, that she would ever be persuaded to become your wife?" said the lady, and her voice sounded hollow from the depths of her distress.
"Oh, yes! certainly! when she hears, as she must hear, if necessary, all that depends upon her consent."
"She would die rather than be faithless to her betrothed."
"Possibly, supposing that she cares for him—which is doubtful under the circumstances—she might die rather than discard him; but do you not see that she would discard him rather than bring upon her family unutterable misery and degradation?"
"Do you not see—ruthless fiend that you are! do you not know, even if I and my daughter were mad enough to favor your pretensions, that her father, who alone has the disposal of her hand, would never, never consent to forego his cherished plan of uniting his heiress with one of her own name, so that the family name may go down with the family estate to posterity—to give her to you, a stranger, an adventurer for aught he knows?"
"Most certainly he would—and he will, when he should believe, as he must be made to believe, that his dear daughter has ceased to care for that sailor whose very face she has almost forgotten, and that she has learned to love a certain gay and gallant soldier—has left the navy for the army, so to speak! And when he hears that her happiness, if you please—her happiness, depends upon her marriage with him! And so on and so on! You know how to manage both father and daughter! I leave the matter entirely in your hands! But understand this—Odalite must be my wife before that young midshipman returns home to make trouble. And the marriage must be made to appear to everybody to be her own choice. You may give the girl as much or as little of your confidence as you see fit, only make her clearly comprehend the consequences of her refusal. When she accepts, as she must accept, my proposal, let her know and feel the absolute necessity of her seeming to wish the marriage, especially when in the presence of her father. You understand. It is useless to prolong a painful interview. I leave you to carry out my instructions," said the colonel; and rising, with a low bow, he left the room.
As soon as he was gone the miserable woman started up from her seat, clasped her hands above her head, and walked wildly up and down the room, muttering to herself like any maniac:
"Oh, wretch! wretch! wretch! to stretch me upon such a rack! to put me to such straits! If it were not for Abel! If it were not for my dear, noble, generous husband, I could brave the worst for myself—and, yes, even for my children! I could take them and go away into exile, poverty, obscurity. I could meet any fate for myself, or for them, rather than sacrifice my child to such a beast as Angus Anglesea! But—but—I cannot see Abel's noble head bowed in grief and shame! I cannot! I cannot! So if the Minotaur persists in demanding the maiden, she must be thrown to him. There is no deliverance—no deliverance!"
The "Minotaur" did persist, you may be sure! A beautiful girl and a rich inheritance were not to be given up by him for any scruples of conscience or movements of pity.
He wooed Odalite in the face of her evident aversion, which soon grew to detestation.
He followed her about, joined her in her walks, surprised her in her solitude; he would take no hint from her avoidance, no offense at her coldness, no rebuff from her rudeness; but would take her hand with such a pressure, look at her with such a gaze, speak to her in such a tone as would make the girl's blood run cold with a horrible abhorrence which she could not comprehend.
This went on for a week before the affair came to a crisis.
She had stolen out of the house to avoid him. It was a splendid winter day, and very mild for the season.
She resolved to take a long walk through the woods, even so far as Chincapin Creek, a mile and a half away.
Calling the bulldog, Joshua, after her, she set out with a brisk step over the frozen ground, dry with stubble and shining with frost, and through the bare wood, still glittering with icicles, that were, however, fast melting under the sun's rays.
When she reached Chincapin Creek she sat down on a large stone, over which she had thrown an extra shawl, and she rested in the thought that there at least she might remain for a little time without being disturbed either by the intrusion of her "black beast" or by a summons to attend him.
But she was mistaken.
He, who had watched her every movement, and even by some devilish inspiration seemed to know her every intention beforehand—he, lurking in the shade of the curtain, and looking from his chamber window, had seen her come out of the house, warmly dressed in her quaint walking suit of a brown cloth winter cloak "all buttoned up before," and brown beaver poke bonnet tied down under her chin, cross the lawn and pass out of the south gate toward the woods beyond—followed by the faithful house dog.
He knew instinctively why she had left the house and where she was going.
He waited until she had entered the wood, and then he left his hiding place, drew on his overcoat, took his hat and gloves, went downstairs and left the house in pursuit of her.
He walked fast until he came into the woods, where he heard her voice a few rods ahead of him talking to her dog.
Then he slackened his pace and walked softly behind her. The closeness of the undergrowth prevented him from catching even a glimpse of her little poke bonnet; but he still heard her talking to her dog.
Presently these sounds ceased, and he crept cautiously on and found her sitting on a stone at the further end of the rustic bridge that crossed Chincapin Creek, with the dog lying at her feet.
Joshua never could abide Anglesea, and his threatening growl was the first warning that Odalite had of the approach of her natural enemy.
"You should not walk alone in these woods, my dear Miss Force," he said, coming up to her side and leaning on the railing of the bridge as he bent over her.
"I am not alone. The dog is with me, and he would not let any one injure or even annoy me. See! if I had not now his head on my lap and my hands around his neck, he would fly at you even. Easy—easy, Joshua, good fellow!" she added, softly caressing the guardian who was showing his teeth and muttering low thunder.
"I hope I do not annoy you. Miss Force," he pleaded, in a persuasive tone, as he bent nearer to her.
"If I speak the truth, Col. Anglesea, I must say that you certainly do," replied the girl, drawing the short ears of her dog through her fingers and watching the process as if it required care.
"In what way am I so unfortunate?"
"You know very well; you follow me wherever I go, and intrude on me when I wish to be alone. I am sorry to speak so to my dear father's guest; but you should remember that you are his guest and not his daughter's, and should give him a little of your society, instead of pressing it all upon me!"
"The steel must follow the magnet! The moth must fly to the flame! And I, beautiful Odalite, must follow you! I have no choice."
"You are talking absurdities, quite unworthy of a man of your age, Col. Anglesea," replied Odalite, without looking up, and unconsciously pulling her dog's ears so hard that even Joshua's great patience gave way, first in a deprecating whine that produced no effect; and then in a despairing howl that quickly brought his mistress to a sense of her cruelty. She apologized to the victim so earnestly and caressed him so tenderly that Joshua grew ashamed of his want of doghood, and began to assure his mistress, in eloquent dumb show, that it was all a misapprehension on her part; that he wasn't hurt at all; that she never did hurt him and never could; that, in face, he was howling at—well, at the squirrel over yonder on the tree; or, yes, at the turkey buzzard flying overhead.
Meanwhile Col Anglesea looked on in disgust.
"And do you think, my dear young lady, that this childish play is quite worthy of your years?" he inquired.
"Yes! quite!" she answered, gravely.
"Will you listen to me for a moment?"
"I would rather not, Col. Anglesea; but perhaps, after all, I had better hear what you have to say and get it over. Then, probably, I shall have some peace."
He seated himself on the railing of the bridge, above and a little behind her. And then he made an ardent declaration of his love and an offer of his hand.
Odalite grew pale and cold as she listened to him, not in fear, but in wrath, disgust and abhorrence.
"Has my father authorized you to speak to me on this subject, Col. Anglesea?" she inquired, in a freezing tone, without looking at him.
"No, my dearest one; but your mother has."
Odalite shook her head with derisive incredulity. Col. Anglesea continued as if he had not seen her gesture:
"And I want your authority to speak to your father of these my most cherished hopes."
"Then, sir, you need not trouble him on the subject. I suppose, sir, that I ought to thank you for the honor you have done me by this offer, but I have to assure you that it is utterly impossible for me to accept it," she said, in the same icy tone, and without glancing toward him.
"Oh, why, my dear Miss Force?" he inquired, with an insinuating smile, as he bent down to look in her face.
But she kept her eyes averted, as she answered, coldly:
"Because I have long been engaged to my cousin, Mr. Leonidas Force, who is coming home at Christmas, when we shall be married and go to live at Greenbushes, as you know very well, Col. Anglesea, for you have heard the whole matter freely discussed. You know this so well that I am surprised at the inconsistency of your action in offering me your hand."
"That childish engagement, made so long ago—if it was ever formally made at all, which is doubtful—really amounts to nothing whatever! It could form no obstacle to your union with me."
"You mistake, sir. Although the engagement was not formal, it was so well understood that all the preparations have been ordered and begun by both parties. But that you may clearly understand me, Col. Anglesea, and that you may drop this matter at once and forever, I must assure you that if I were entirely free I could never accept your offer, because I could never like you well enough."
Notwithstanding her decided refusal and frank explanation, Anglesea would take no denial, but continued to press his odious suit, until at length Joshua, seeing his mistress' distress, and knowing who caused it, started up and made a spring at the man's throat. Quick as lightning Odalite seized the dog by the collar and drew him down.
"You see," she said, "if you continue to persecute me, I shall not be able to keep the dog off you. I think you had better go home."
"And I think you had better quiet that brute! For if he should attack me again, I shall shoot him dead," exclaimed Anglesea, savagely, drawing a small revolver from his pocket and holding it in his hand.
The girl looked up at the man for the first time since they had met in the wood, but it was with a gaze so fearless, so full of scorn, that the ruffian's eyes fell beneath it.
"Come, Joshua, good dog, let us go home. We have 'fallen among thieves' this morning. Our woods are no longer safe for you and me. They are infested with brigands! Do you know what a brigand is, Joshua? A brigand is a fine, brave, terrible soldier, who is not afraid of anything! Not even afraid of insulting young ladies and shooting their faithful dogs. When armed to the teeth, he is the terror of little boys and baby girls. Come, Joshua!"
She arose, and keeping her hand on the dog's collar, recrossed the bridge, and walked leisurely along the woodland path.
Col. Anglesea left his perch on the railing, and, with a mocking smile, sauntered after her.
She turned upon him with flashing eyes.
"Keep your distance, sir! If you presume to come near me, as I live, I will go to my father as soon as I get home, and appeal to him for protection from you!" she said, still holding a firm grip upon the collar of Joshua, who was grimly showing his teeth and growling
"Full defiance, hate and scorn"
of the intruder on his mistress' company.
Now that Mr. Force should hear of Angus Anglesea's suit to his daughter from herself, and at this stage of the proceedings, was a misfortune that Col. Anglesea would most earnestly have deprecated. So he bowed with mock submission and replied:
"Pardon me, I will say no more. Your mother must be my advocate with you. I must send her to you to plead my cause."
And with another and a deeper bow he stepped to the side of the path and let the girl and her dog pass on before him.
IN THE CRUCIBLE
He promptly kept his word. He struck into the woods, made a short detour, and came out again upon the path some yards in front of Odalite and her guardian. Walking rapidly, he arrived at home before her.
He went immediately in search of Mrs. Force, whom he found at her piano in the drawing room.
"I must have a few moments uninterrupted conversation with you. Where can I best secure it?"
"Here," she answered, wearily. "No one is likely to enter and disturb you."
"Very well, then. Here be it," he assented, walking down the room to a group of chairs near the open fire.
She arose and followed him.
As soon as they were seated he said:
"I have just left your daughter. I have made her an offer of my hand."
"She refused it."
"Just what you might have expected."
"I am not a man to be repulsed. I pressed my suit with some earnest persistency."
"She threatened to appeal to her father for protection against me."
"Poor Odalite! Poor child!" murmured the unhappy mother.
"Poor idiot!" brutally exclaimed the man. "See here, madam, I shall insist upon this marriage. If she is permitted to appeal to her father at this point I shall be disappointed, but you will be lost. You must see the girl at once, before the return of her father this evening. You must induce her to accept me for her husband. She must be made to do so, or pretend to do so, willingly, joyfully. You know best what arguments to use with her. You must also persuade your husband to consent to the marriage, for the sake of his dear daughter's happiness, you understand."
"For the sake of his dear daughter's 'happiness'!" moaned Elfrida Force, in mournful irony.
"Yes. I repeat it. For the sake of her happiness. How, under existing circumstances, should her happiness be best preserved, do you think? By marrying that young naval officer, and seeing, as a consequence, the ruin and dishonor of her whole family, and, bitterest of all, being made to feel the shame and regret of her own young husband for having married her, the daughter of——"
"Wretch! hold your tongue!" exclaimed Elfrida Force, clasping her head with both hands.
"Or," relentlessly continued the man, "would her happiness be best secured by marrying me, who, knowing the skeleton in the closet, accepts it with other family incumbrances, and keeps it closely locked up from the knowledge of all, since his honor is then also concerned in its concealment, and in the social rank and domestic peace of his new relations? Now, then, answer me. Which fate is to be preferred for your daughter?"
"Oh, demon! I think a marriage with you the worst possible fate that could befall my child. If she only were in question I would—oh, my Lord, how gladly!—lay her in her coffin rather than give her to you. But it is not of her that I am thinking most," moaned the lady, almost unconsciously, as she bowed her weary head upon her hand.
No, nor was it over the child, but over the husband she was mourning—the adored husband—the proud, sensitive, honorable man, whose head would be bowed to the dust with shame at any reproach, however undeserved, that might fall upon his wife.
Who cannot foresee the result of such a contest? Before the end of the interview the mother had consented to offer up her child, that the wife might save her husband.
Angus Anglesea left the room triumphant.
Elfrida Force crept up to her bedchamber, opened a little medicine chest, took from it a small vial containing a colorless liquid, poured out a few drops in a wineglass half full of water, and drank off the sedative.
This was not the first occasion on which the unhappy lady had felt herself obliged to resort to deadening drugs to enable her to bear the presence of Angus Anglesea in the house.
Then she locked her medicine chest, and went down to the sitting room, and, calling a servant, said:
"Watch for Miss Odalite. She is out walking. As soon as she returns ask her to come immediately to me."
"Miss Odalite is comin', ma'am. I seen her just now a-comin' froo de souf gate," replied the negro boy.
"Then go and meet her, and ask her to come to me."
"Yes, ma'am," replied the boy, darting out to do his errand.
In a few moments Odalite came in, looking anxiously at her mother.
"You sent for me, mamma. You are not well. Have you a headache?" she inquired, tenderly.
"No, darling, a heartache, rather. Lay off your bonnet and coat, Odalite, and come here and sit beside me on this sofa."
Odalite obeyed, still full of vague forebodings.
"I hear, my love," said the lady, putting her arm around the girl's slight waist, as they sat together, "that a great honor has been offered you this morning."
Odalite looked up, uneasily.
"Do you understand me, darling?" the lady inquired, gently pressing the form of her child, and gazing fondly in her face.
"I—I—think I know what you allude to, mamma; but—I did not consider it an honor," faltered the girl, dropping her eyes.
"Col. Anglesea has offered you his hand. Is it not so?"
"Col. Anglesea is a gentleman of the highest social position. I congratulate you, my darling."
"But, mother! mother!" Odalite exclaimed in alarm. "I have declined Col. Anglesea's offer!"
"Have you, my dear? Then you acted very hastily and inconsiderately. You will think better of it and accept it," said the lady, very gravely.
"Oh, no, no, mamma! Never! never! How could I think of doing such a thing, when I am on the very eve of marriage with Le?"
"My daughter, you were too hasty in that matter also. That childish engagement—which was no binding one, after all—need not and must not prevent your forming a more desirable union with Col. Anglesea," urged the lady, almost in the very words used by the colonel himself when pressing his suit with Odalite.
"Oh, mother! mother! surely you do not advocate——Oh, mother! mother! Spare me! Do not urge me into such a dreadful act!" exclaimed the girl, starting up in a wild excitement.
"Sit down and calm yourself, my dear child, and listen to me."
Odalite threw herself on the sofa, and buried her face in its cushions.
"Col. Anglesea belongs to one of the noblest families in the north of England," continued the lady. "He is a neighbor and friend of my father. He can give you a high position among the landed gentry of England."
"But, oh, mother! dear mother! dear mother! I do not want a high position anywhere! and especially in a foreign country, where I should be separated from you and father and my little sisters!" sobbed the girl, with her face down in the cushions.
"But, my dear, you are very young, and you do not know what is good for you. I, your mother, so much older, so much more experienced, surely do know what is best for your happiness. And, Odalite, I have set my heart on your marriage with this gentleman. If you should persist in your rejection of his suit I should be more than disappointed; I should be deeply grieved; yes, grieved beyond measure, Odalite."
This, and much more to the same purpose, was strongly and persistently urged by the mother, until Odalite, frightened, distressed and overwhelmed by her vehemence, earnestness and persistence, fell half conquered at the lady's feet, with the cry that opened this story:
"Mother! oh, mother! it will break my heart!"
Yet not for that would the lady yield. And not for that did she pause. But after more caressings, more persuasion, and more arguments—seeing that nothing less than the knowledge of the dread secret which had blighted her own bright youth could ever win Odalite to consent to the only sacrifice through which that secret would be kept—the mother, as has been already told, drew her daughter off to the seclusion of her own bedchamber, where they remained shut up for two hours.
At the end of that time Odalite came out alone, looking, oh! so changed, as if the bright and blooming girl of sixteen had suddenly become a sad and weary woman.
With her face pale and drawn, her forehead puckered into painful furrows, her eyes red and sunken, her lips shrunken down at the corners, her head bent, her form bowed, her steps feeble, she went like a woman walking in her sleep, straight down the stairs, down the hall and through the front door to the piazza, where she found Col. Anglesea walking slowly up and down the floor and smoking.
At her approach he threw away his cigar and turned to meet her, eager expectation on his face.
She went and stood before him, and said, with a strange, cold steadiness:
"Col. Anglesea, I have come to tell you that you may go to my father and ask his permission for you to marry me. You may also say to him, from me, that I hope he will give his consent, because—it will be a fiendish falsehood; but never mind that; you can tell it—because the marriage will secure my happiness."
SUITOR AND FATHER
When Odalite had signified her acceptance of the suit of Anglesea, although she had expressed herself in not too flattering language, the gallant colonel would have assumed the role of a favored lover and advanced to embrace her; but she lifted both hands and turned away her head with a look of repulsion calculated to cool the ardor of the warmest suitor, as she cried, sternly:
"Stand back! Do not dare to lay a finger on me! I do not belong to you! I am not yet your property! You are not my owner! You have not received my father's permission to take possession of me! Go to him and tell him the falsehood you first suggested! Oh! how I hate you!"
And pale and cold and hard as she always was in his presence, with a loathing that was too deep for flush of cheek or flash of eye, she turned and re-entered the house.
He looked after her with a perfectly demoniacal expression of mingled longing and malignity, muttering:
"Oh, very well, my lady! It is your day now! But it will be mine soon! And then I shall know how to reduce you to submission."
He took another cigar from his pocket case, lighted it and recommenced his slow walk up and down the porch, smoking as before.
So far his plan had succeeded. The mother's consent to his marriage with the heiress had been wrung from her through her fears for her husband. The daughter's consent had been wheedled from her through her love for her mother. These certainly seemed the most important steps toward ultimate triumph. But yet there remained the father's consent to be obtained. And this, which at first seemed of little moment, now grew into something of grave consideration.
To be sure, he could easily go to Mr. Force and tell him that he loved his daughter, and that he wished to marry her; also that he had been so fortunate as to win such an interest in her heart as to make this marriage a matter in which her life's happiness was concerned.
He could say all this and more, without troubling himself about its truthfulness; and so far, well.
But how should he justify himself to his host for having taken advantage of opportunity and abused hospitality by seeking the affections of the young daughter of his host, when he knew that her father cherished other matrimonial intentions for her, in which she also had perfectly coincided, until allured from her fidelity by the trusted guest of the house?
Ay! how should he explain all this to Mr. Force?
Not so very easily; but, then, Col. Anglesea was a very plausible person, and Mr. Force was one of the least suspicious among men.
Anglesea, walking up and down the porch, and puffing away at his cigar, resolved to put on an air of blunt, soldierly frankness; tell Mr. Force—what he chose to call—the state of the case, and leave the affair in her father's hands, to be dealt with as he should see fit—knowing full well what the event would be.
Now that the girl's consent to the marriage was secured, and her lips were sealed as to her own feelings on the subject, Col. Anglesea had no fears of the final result; nor was he in such special haste as to think it necessary to trouble Mr. Force with his suit on this same night, when the good gentleman should return, weary from his day's attendance at court.
Therefore he resolved to defer the important interview until the next morning, when his own method of procedure might also be more matured.
Mr. Force, in fact, came home rather late that evening. Tea had been kept waiting for him so long that it was nearly nine o'clock when the family assembled around the table.