MRS. ANN S. STEPHENS.
AUTHOR OF "FASHION AND FAMINE," "THE SOLDIER'S ORPHANS," "DOUBLY FALSE," "SILENT STRUGGLES," "THE OLD HOMESTEAD," "THE REJECTED WIFE," "THE HEIRESS," "THE GOLD BRICK," "MARY DERWENT," "THE WIFE'S SECRET," ETC., ETC.
"Imagine something purer far, More free from stain of clay, There friendship, love, or passion are, Yet human still as they: And if thy lips for love like this No mortal word can frame, Go ask of angels what it is, And call it by that name."
PHILADELPHIA: T. B. PETERSON & BROTHERS; 306 CHESTNUT STREET.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1868, by
T. B. PETERSON & BROTHERS,
In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States, in and for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
* * * * *
ANN S. STEPHENS' WORKS.
Each work complete in one vol., 12mo.
THE CURSE OF GOLD. WIVES AND WIDOWS. THE REJECTED WIFE. FASHION AND FAMINE. THE GOLD BRICK. SILENT STRUGGLES. THE OLD HOMESTEAD. MARY DERWENT. THE SOLDIER'S ORPHANS. THE WIFE'S SECRET. MABEL'S MISTAKE. DOUBLY FALSE. THE HEIRESS.
Price of each, $1.75 in Cloth; or $1.50 in Paper Cover.
* * * * *
Above books are for sale by all Booksellers. Copies of any or all of the above books will be sent to any one, to any place, postage pre-paid, on receipt of their price by the Publishers,
T. B. PETERSON & BROTHERS, 306 CHESTNUT STREET, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
MY DEAR, YOUNG FRIEND, MISS EUDORA J. HART,
OF NEW YORK,
THIS VOLUME IS MOST AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED.
ANN S. STEPHENS.
WASHINGTON, D. C., OCTOBER 17, 1868.
I.—THE STEP-MOTHER AND STEP-SON 23
II.—OLD MR. HARRINGTON 29
III.—THE HILL SIDE ADVENTURE 32
IV.—LINA COMES OUT OF HER FAINTING FIT 38
V.—ON THE BANKS AND ON THE RIVER 45
VI.—THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE HILL 51
VII.—THE UNEXPECTED PASSENGER 57
VIII.—OUT OF THE STORM 63
IX.—THE BURNING CEDAR 70
X.—HOME IN SAFETY 75
XI.—GENERAL HARRINGTON IS SHOCKED 82
XII.—LOVE DREAMS 85
XIII.—THE BROKEN CONFESSION 93
XIV.—RALPH'S LOVE DREAM 101
XV.—THE STOLEN JOURNAL 107
XVI.—JAMES HARRINGTON'S RIDE 111
XVII.—THAT WOMAN 117
XVIII.—OLD HEADS AND YOUNG HEARTS 125
XIX.—THE LOVER'S CONFESSION 131
XX.—THE BOUQUET OF ROSES 136
XXI.—BEN BENSON GIVES AN OPINION 139
XXII.—A RENEWAL OF CONFIDENCE 147
XXIII.—THE LOVE SONG 152
XXIV.—A MEETING IN THE HILLS 155
XXV.—CONTINUED PLOTTING 160
XXVI.—THE NOTE WITH A GREEN SEAL 165
XXVII.—GENERAL HARRINGTON'S CONFESSION 168
XXVIII.—THE NOTE ON THE BREAKFAST TABLE 172
XXIX.—FATHER AND DAUGHTER 179
XXX.—BROTHER AND SISTER 186
XXXI.—THE SLAVE AND HER MASTER 190
XXXII.—THE BOAT-HOUSE 198
XXXIII.—GENERAL HARRINGTON READS THE VELLUM BOOK 202
XXXIV.—AMONG THE WATER LILIES 211
XXXV.—AFTER THE STORM 216
XXXVI.—MISTRESS AND MAID 218
XXXVII.—THE SLAVE WE LEFT BEHIND US 223
XXXVIII.—THE EATON FAMILY 226
XXXIX.—THAT SPANISH NOBLEMAN 230
XL.—THE MANOEUVRING MOTHER 236
XLI.—THE CATHEDRAL AT SEVILLE 239
XLII.—A DUKE IN THE HOUSE 245
XLIII.—HOPES AND PERSUASIONS 248
XLIV.—THE INFANTA AND HER GUESTS 252
XLV.—THE PROCESSION OF THE MADONNAS 256
XLVI.—WHERE WE SAW THE DUKE 259
XLVII.—MRS. EATON'S TRIBULATION 265
XLVIII.—ZILLAH'S LETTER 270
XLIX.—THE GENERAL PROPOSES A TRIP TO CADIZ 273
L.—MISS EATON MAKES MISS CRAWFORD A VISIT 279
LI.—CONTINUED MISUNDERSTANDING 286
LII.—GENERAL HARRINGTON RETURNS WITH ZILLAH 290
LIII.—ZILLAH IS ANXIOUS ABOUT THE HEALTH OF HER MISTRESS 296
LIV.—BEHIND THE GIPSIES' TENT 301
LV.—BURDENED WITH A SECRET 304
LVI.—TOO LATE, TOO LATE 313
LVIII.—GENERAL HARRINGTON'S TEMPTATION 323
LIX.—A STORM IN THE WOODS 328
LX.—THE DARK-HOUSE 332
LXI.—STRANGE PLANS 337
LXII.—THE TEMPTATION 339
LXIII.—JAMES HARRINGTON'S GREAT STRUGGLE 347
LXIV.—THE LIFE DEED 352
LXV.—WHO WAS LINA FRENCH? 355
LXVI.—THREATS AND PERSUASIONS 360
LXVII.—THE EVENING RIDE 367
LXVIII.—RALPH FINDS LINA 372
LXIX.—AGNES BECOMES PATHETIC 376
LXX.—MABEL HARRINGTON AND HER SON 382
LXXI.—THE MISSING BOOK 387
LXXII.—FRAGMENTS OF MABEL'S JOURNAL 391
LXXIII.—THE TWO BROTHERS 393
LXXIV.—GENERAL HARRINGTON'S SECRET 399
LXXV.—THE DESERTED CHAMBER 404
LXXVI.—THE UNEXPECTED RETURN 407
LXXVII.—MOTHER AND DAUGHTER 411
LXXVIII.—A STORMY PARTING 414
LXXIX.—UNDER THE ICE 419
LXXX.—WHO WAS LINA 423
LXXXI.—THE MANIAC 426
THE STEP-MOTHER AND STEP-SON.
It was autumn, one of those balmy Indian summer days which, if the eyes were closed, would remind you of Andalusia when the orange trees put forth their blossoms with the matured fruit still clinging to their boughs, burying its golden ripeness among cool, green leaves, and buds of fragrant snow. Still, save in the delicious atmosphere that autumnal sunset would not have reminded you of any land but our own. For what other climate ever gave the white wings of the frost the power to scatter that rich combination of red, green, gold and dusky purple upon a thousand forests in a single night? What other land ever saw the sun go down upon a world of green foliage, and rise to find the same foliage bathed in a sea of brilliant tints, till the east was paled by its gorgeousness?
Indeed, there was nothing in this calm, Indian-summer twilight to remind you of any other land, save its stillness and the balm of dying flowers giving up their lives to the frost. But the links of association are rapid and mysterious, and the scenes that awaken a reminiscence are sometimes entirely opposite to the memory awakened.
Be this as it may, there was something in the landscape suddenly clad in its gorgeous fall tints—in the river so coldly transparent twelve hours before, now rolling on through the glowing shadows as if the sands and pebbles in its bed had been turned to jewels, which reminded at least one person in that old mansion house, of scenes long ago witnessed in the south of Spain.
The old mansion house which we speak of, stood some miles above that gorge in the Harlem River which is now spanned by the High Bridge. This region of Manhattan Island is even yet more than half buried in its primeval forest trees. Hills as abrupt, and moss as greenly fleecy as if found on the crags of the Rocky Mountains, still exist among the wild nooks and wilder peaks which strike the eye more picturesquely from their vicinity to the great metropolis.
At the particular spot I wish to describe, the hills fall back from the Hudson, north and south, far enough to leave a charming little valley of some two or three hundred acres cradled in their wildness and opening greenly to the river, which is sure to catch a sheaf of sunbeams in its bosom when the day fires its last golden salute from behind the Palisades. Sheltered by hills, some broken into cliffs, some rolling smoothly back, clothed in variously tinted undergrowth and fine old trees, the valley itself received a double charm from the contrast of cultivation. It was entirely cleared of trees and undergrowth, save where a clump of cool hemlocks, a grove of sugar maples, or a drooping elm gave it those features we so much admire in the country homes of old England.
In the centre of the valley was a swell of land sloping down to the river in full, grassy waves, which ended at the brink in a tiny cove overhung by a clump of golden willows.
Crowning the swell of this elevation stood the old mansion commanding a fine view of the river, with a glimpse of the opposite shore, where the Weehawken hills begin to consolidate into the Palisades. A score of picturesque and pleasant little nooks were visible from the numerous windows, for it was an irregular old place, varying as much as an American house can vary in its style of architecture. The original idea had undoubtedly sprung from our Knickerbocker ancestors, for the gables were not only pointed, but notched down the steep edges after a semi-battlemented fashion, while stacks of quaint chimneys and heavy oaken doors bespoke a foundation far antecedent to the revolution.
But in addition to these proofs of antiquity, were balconies of carved stone, curving over modern bay windows, which broke up the stiff uniformity of the original design; and along one tall gable that fronted on the river, French windows, glittering with plate glass, opened to a verandah of stone-work, surrounded by a low railing also of stone; and if these windows were not one blaze of gold at sunset, you might be certain that a storm was lowering over the Palisades, and that the next day would be a cloudy one.
Another gable facing the south was lighted by a broad arched window crowded full of diamond-shaped glass, tinted through and through by the bloom and glow of a conservatory within. In short the mansion was a picturesque incongruity utterly indescribable, and yet one of the most interesting old houses in the world.
Whatever might be said of its architecture, it certainly had a most aristocratic appearance, and bore proofs in every line and curve of its stone traceries, both of fine taste and great wealth, inherited from generation to generation. Time itself would have failed to sweep these traces of family pride from the old house, for each century had carved it deeper and deeper into the massive stone, and it was as much a portion of the scenery, as the stately old forest trees that sheltered it.
But we have alluded to one who sat in a room of this old mansion, looking thoughtfully out upon the change that a single night had left upon the landscape. Her seat, a crimson easy-chair, stood near one of the broad bay windows we have mentioned. The sashes were folded back, and she looked dreamily out upon the river and the opposite shore. The whole view was bathed in a subdued glow of crimson and golden purple; for the sun was sinking behind the Palisades, and shot sheaf after sheaf of flashing arrows across the river, that melted into a soft glowing haze before they reached the apartment which she occupied.
The room behind was full of shadows, and nothing but the light of a hickory-wood fire revealed the objects it contained. She was looking forth upon the sunset, and yet thinking of other countries and scenes long gone by. Her mind had seized upon the salient points of a history full of experience, and she was swept away into the past.
No, she was not young, nor beautiful even. The flush of youth was gone for ever. Her features were thoughtful, almost severe, her form stately and mature.
No, she was not beautiful. At her age that were impossible, and yet she was a woman to fix the attention at a glance, and keep herself in the memory for ever—a grand, noble woman, with honor and strength, and beautiful depths of character, apparent even in her thoughtful repose.
But this woman shakes off the reverie that has held her so long in thrall, and looks up at the sound of a voice within the room, blushing guiltily like a young girl aroused from her first love thoughts. She casts aside the remembrance of black fruited olive groves and orange trees sheeted with snowy fragrance, and knows of a truth that she is at home surrounded by the gorgeous woods of America, in the clear chill air inhaled with the first breath of her life.
"Did you speak, James?"
She turned quietly and looked within the room. Near her, sitting with his elbows on a small table and his broad forehead buried in the palms of his hands, sat a man of an age and presence that might have befitted the husband of a woman, at once so gentle and so proud as the one who spoke to him; for even in the light produced by the gleams of a dull fire and the dusky sunset, as they floated together around his easy-chair, you could see that he was a man of thought and power.
The man looked up and, dropping his hands to the table with a sort of weariness, answered, as if to some person away off—
"No, I did not speak—I never did speak!"
It was a strange answer, and the lady's face grew anxious as she looked upon him. Certainly he had uttered some sound, or she would not have asked the question. She arose and moving across the room, leaned her elbow upon his chair, looking thoughtfully down in his face.
He started, as if but that moment conscious of her presence, and arose probably to avoid the grave questioning of her look.
"Of what were you thinking, James?" she said almost abruptly, for a superstitious thought forced the question to her lips almost against her will.
"I was thinking," said the man, resting his head against the oak carvings of his chair, "I was thinking of a time when we were all in the south of Spain."
"Of your mother's death?" inquired the lady in a low voice. "It was a mournful event to remember. What is there in this soft twilight to remind us both of the same thing, for I was thinking of that time also!"
"Of my mother's death?" inquired the gentleman, lifting his eyes to her face suddenly, almost sternly. "I was not thinking of that, but of my father's marriage."
The lady did not speak, but her face grew pale, and over it swept a smile so vivid with surprise, so eloquent of mournfulness, that she seemed transfigured. Her hand dropped away from the chair, and walking back to the window she sat down, uttering a faint sigh, as if some slumbering pain had been sharpened into anguish by the few words that had been spoken. Twenty years had she lived in the house with James Harrington, and never before had the subject of her marriage with his father been mentioned between them, save as it arose in the discussion of household events.
Her marriage with his father, that was the subject of his gloomy thoughts. Had she then failed to render him content in his home? Had she in anything fallen short of those gentle duties he had received so gratefully from the mother that was gone? Why was it that thoughts of Spain and of events that had transpired there, should have seized upon them both at the same time?
She arose again, pale and with a tremor of the limbs. The balmy air grew sickening to her—his presence an oppression. For the first time she began to doubt if she were not an object of dislike to her husband's guest. He saw her pass from the room without turning a glance that way, and followed her with a look of self-reproach. He felt pained and humiliated. After a silence of so many years, why had he dared to utter words to that woman—his best friend—which could never be explained? Had all manhood forsaken him? Had he sunk to be a common-place carper in the household which she had invested with so much beautiful happiness? Stung with these thoughts he arose and sought the open air also.
OLD MR. HARRINGTON.
An old man sat in a room above the one just deserted by its inmates. He was watching the sunset also, with unusual interest, not because it brought back loving or sad memories, but with an admiration of the sense alone. With tastes cultivated to their extremest capacity, and a philosophy of happiness essentially material, this old man permitted no hour to pass by without gleaning some sensual enjoyment from it, that a less egotistical person might never have discovered. An epicure in all things, he had attained to a sort of self-worship, which would have been sublime if applied to the First Cause of all that is beautiful. His splendid person was held in reverence, not because it was made in the image of his God, but for the powers of enjoyment it possessed—for the symmetry it displayed, and the defiance which it had so long given to the inroads of time.
As a whole and in detail, this old man was a self-worshipper. Like all idolaters he was blind to the defects of his earthly god, and if a gleam of unpleasant self knowledge would occasionally force itself upon his notice, the conviction only rendered him more urgent to extort homage from others.
The room in which this old man sat, was a library fitted up expressly for himself. It was one of his peculiarities that his sources of enjoyment must be exclusive, in order to be valuable. He would not willingly have shared a single tint of that beautiful sunset with another, unless satisfied that the admiration thus excited would give zest to his own pleasurable sensations.
Thus, with the selfishness of an epicure and the tastes of a savant, he surrounded himself with the most luxurious elegance. The book-cases of carved ebony that run along two sides of the apartment, were filled with rare books, accumulated during his travels, some of them worth their weight in gold. Doors of plate glass protected their antique and often gorgeous bindings, and medallions of rare bronzes were inlaid in the rich carvings of the cornices.
Over the mantle-piece of Egyptian marble, carved to a miracle of art, hung an original by Guido, one of those ethereal pictures in which the figures seem to float through the glowing atmosphere, borne onward only by a gushing sense of their own happiness.
The French windows opposite were filled, like the book-cases, with plate-glass pure and limpid as water, and two bronze Bacchantes, thrown into attitudes of riotous enjoyment, held back voluminous folds of crimson brocade that enriched the light which fell through them. A variety of chairs stood about, carved like the book-cases, cushioned with crimson leather and embossed with gold. The ebony desk upon which the old man's elbow rested, as he looked forth upon the river, was scattered over with books and surmounted by a writing apparatus of malachite, whose mate could hardly have been found out of the imperial salons of Russia.
Everything was in keeping, the luxurious room and the old man whose presence completed it. If the two persons we have just described seemed imposing in their moral grandeur, while they sat thoughtfully watching the sunset, this man with his keen, black eyes, his beard flowing downward in white waves from the chin and upper lip, which was curved exactly in the form of a bow, took from the material alone an interest almost as impressive.
The old man saw his wife pass down in front of the house and descend toward the river. The black dress and scarlet shawl which she wore, rendered her a picturesque object in the landscape, and as such the old man was admiring her. Directly after, his son followed, and another stately figure was added to the view; but his walk verged toward the hills, and he was soon lost among the trees.
The old man was vexed at this derangement in his picture; but directly there came in sight a little boat, ploughing through the golden ripples cast downward by the sun, and half veiled in the glowing mists of the river. He watched the boat while it came dancing toward the shore, and smiled when his wife paused a moment on the bank, as if awaiting its approach.
"She is right. A figure upon the shore completes the whole thing. One seldom sees a picture so perfect! Claude Lorraine!—why, his sunsets are leaden compared to this! Oh, she turns off and spoils the effect by throwing the willows between us! Why will women be so restless! Now a female caprice—nothing more—has destroyed the most lovely effect I ever saw; just as I was drinking it in, too. But the boat is pretty—yes, yes, that enlivens the foreground—bravo! Capital, Ben, capital!—that stoop is just the thing; and the youngsters, how beautifully they group themselves! Hallo! upon my honor, if that young scamp is not making love to Lina! I don't pretend to know what the attitude of love-making is!"
The old man fell back in his chair, and drew a hand over his eyes with a restless motion, muttering uneasily,
"Ralph and Lina? upon my word, I have been blind as a bat. How far has the thing gone? Has Mabel encouraged it? Does she know? What hand can James have had in bringing this state of things about? These two children—why, the thing is preposterous!"
The old man left his easy-chair, as these unpleasant conjectures forced themselves upon him, and, as if sickened by the landscape he had just been admiring, shut it out by a jerk of the hand, which brought the crimson drapery flowing in loose folds from its gilded rods, and gave the whole room a tent-like seclusion. In the rich twilight thus produced, the old man walked to and fro, angry and thoughtful. At last he took his hat and left the house.
THE HILL SIDE ADVENTURE.
Ralph Harrington and Lina French had been out upon the river, since the shadow began to fall eastward upon its waters. The day had been so calm, and everything their eyes fell upon was so luxuriantly lovely, that they could not force themselves to come in doors, till the twilight overtook them.
Old Ben—or rather our Ben, for he was not so very old, after all—who considered himself master of the little craft which he was mooring in the cove, had aided and abetted this truant disposition in the young people, after a fashion that Mr. Harrington might not have approved; and all that day there was a queer sort of smile upon his features, that meant more than a host of words would have conveyed in another person. Never, in his whole life, had Ben been so obliging in his management of the boat. If Lina took a fancy to a branch of golden rod, or a cluster of fringed gentian upon the shore, Ben would put in at the nearest convenient point, and sit half an hour together in the boat, with his arms folded over his oars, and his head bowed, as if fast asleep. Yet Ben Benson, according to my best knowledge and belief, was never more thoroughly awake than on that particular day.
They were gliding dreamily along at the foot of the Weehawken hills, with their boat half full of fall flowers and branches, when Lina saw a tree so brilliantly red, that she insisted on climbing to the rock where it was rooted, in search of the leaves that were dropped sleepily from its boughs.
Ben shot into a little inlet formed by two jutting rocks, and Ralph sprang ashore, holding out his hand for Lina, who scarcely touched it as she took her place by his side.
"Now for a scramble!" exclaimed the youth, grasping Lina's hand tightly in his own; and away, like a pair of wild birds, the two young creatures darted up the hill.
The rock, behind which the tree stood, was scattered over with leaves of a deep crimson, brightening to scarlet on the edges, and veined with a green so deep, that it seemed like black. Among the endless variety of leaves they had discovered, these were the most singular, and Lina gathered them up in handfuls only to scatter them abroad again when a more tempting waif caught her eye.
"Wait a moment—wait, Ralph; oh, here is a whole drift of them; see how bright they look, quivering over the fleeces of moss that slope down the rocks. If I could but take the whole home, just as it is, for mamma!"
Lina was stooping eagerly as she spoke. A quick, rattling sound in the leaves struck her, and she called out, laughing—
"If it were not so late in the fall, Ralph, I should think there was a locust singing in the leaves."
That moment Ben, who had tied his boat, came scrambling up the hill. He took his place by Ralph upon a shelf of the rock, and began to sniff the air with his flat, pug nose, like a watch-dog scenting an enemy. The noise which interested Lina was over now, and he only heard her observation about the locust.
"Ain't there a strong smell of honey about here, Mister Ralph?" he said, looking anxiously around; "something between the scent of an old bee-hive and a wasp's nest?"
"There is a singular scent I fancy, Ben," answered the young man, following Lina with his eyes. "Not disagreeable, though!"
"Do you begin to guess what it means?" inquired Ben, anxiously.
"Not at all," answered Ralph, waving his hand and smiling upon Lina, who held up a branch of richly shaded leaves she had just taken from a maple bough, laughing gaily as the main branch swept rustling back to its place. "Not at all, Ben; it may be the frost-bitten fern-leaves—they sometimes give out a delicious odor. Everything in the woods takes a pleasant scent at this season of the year, I believe."
Lina, who was restless as a bird, changed her position again, and the movement was followed by another quick, hissing sound from a neighboring rock.
"So that is Miss Lina's idea of a locust, is it," muttered Ben, looking sharply around. "If that's a locust, Mister Ralph, the animal has got a tremenjus cold, for he's hoarse—yes, hoarse as a rattlesnake—do you hear, Mister Ralph? Hoarse as a rattlesnake!"
Ben was intensely excited, and looked eagerly around, searching for danger.
"Look!" he whispered, after a moment; "the sunshine on the red leaves dazzles the eyesight—but look stiddy on the rock there, where the green moss is fluttered over with them red leaves—don't you see the moss kinder a stirrin'?"
Ralph looked, and there, about six feet from Lina, he saw what seemed at first a mass of gorgeous foliage, quivering upon the green moss, for a glow of warm sunshine fell athwart it and dazzled his eyes for the moment. But anxiety cleared his vision, and he saw that the glowing mass was a serpent drawn from a cleft of the rock by the warm sun. Disturbed by Lina's approach, he was that instant coiling itself up for a spring. His head was erect, his tongue quivered like a thread of flame, and two horrible fangs, crooked and venomous, shot out on each side his open jaws. In the centre of the coil, and just behind the head which vibrated to and fro with horrible eagerness, the rattles kept in languid play, as if tired of warning her.
Ralph, pale as death and trembling all over, stooped down and seized a fragment of rock; but Lina was too near, he dared not hurl it. The young girl enticed by the floating leaves which the sun struck so brightly around the serpent, had her foot poised to spring forward.
"Lina!" cried Ralph, in a low voice, "Lina!"
"In one moment," cried the girl, laughing wilfully; "wait till I get those leaves drifting across the rock there."
The gipsy hat had fallen on one side; her hands were full of red leaves, and she was smiling saucily. This unconsciousness of danger was horrible. The young man shrunk and quivered through all his frame.
"Lina, step aside—to the right—dear Lina, I entreat, I insist!"
His voice was deep and husky, scarcely more than a whisper, and yet full of command.
Lina looked back, and her smiling lips grew white with astonishment. Ralph stood above her pale as marble; his hand grasping the rock was uplifted, his fierce, distended eyes looked beyond her. Wild with nameless dread the young girl stepped backward, following his glance with her eyes. Her breath was checked—she could not scream. The glittering eyes of the rattlesnake, though turned upon another, held her motionless. A prickly sensation pierced her lips through and through, as the snake loosened his coils and changed his position so abruptly, that his back glittered in the sunshine, like a mass of jewels rapidly disturbed, making her blind and dizzy with the poisonous glow. Still she moved backward like a statue recoiling from its base.
"Now," whispered Ben, "now give it to him."
A crash—a spring—and like a fiery lance the rattlesnake shot by her, striking her garments as he went, and, falling short of his enemy, coiled himself for a new spring.
Ralph's hand was uplifted as the fragment of rock had left it; and there, within a few feet, lay the rattlesnake making ready for a second spring, and quivering through all its folds.
She uttered a wild cry, stooped quick as lightning, seized a fragment of rock,—dashed it with both hands upon the rattlesnake, and, rushing by, threw herself before Ralph. Her eyes turned with horror upon the work she had done.
"Oh, have mercy! have mercy! he is alive yet!" she shrieked, as writhing and convulsed, the rattlesnake drew his glittering folds out from beneath the stone, and wound himself up, coil after coil, more venomous than ever.
"Step behind me—behind me, Lina," cried the young man attempting to force her away.
But she threw her arms around him, and with her eyes turned back upon the glittering horror, strove with all her frail strength to push him backward out of danger.
The brave generosity of this attempt might have destroyed them both; but, just as the rattlesnake was prepared to lance out again, Ben, who had torn a branch from an ash tree overhead, rushed fearlessly down and struck at him with the host of light twigs that were yet covered with delicate maize-colored leaves.
This act increased Lina's terror, for the blows which Ben gave were so light that a baby would have laughed at them.
"Don't be skeer'd, nor nothing," shouted Ben, gently belaboring his enemy with the ash bough, "I've got the pizen sarpent under, just look this way and you'll find him tame as a rabbit. Lord! how the critter does hate the smell of ash leaves! Now do look, Miss Lina!"
Lina clung trembling to Ralph, but turned her eyes with breathless dread toward the rattlesnake.
"Come close by—just get a look at him—the stiffening is out of his back-bone now, I tell you!" cried Ben, triumphantly. "See him a trying to poke his head under the moss just at the sight of a yaller ash leaf—ain't he a coward, now ain't he?"
"What is it—what does it mean?" inquired Ralph, reassured now that Lina was out of danger—"did the stone wound him?"
"The stone!" repeated Ben scornfully,—"a round stone covered over with moss like a pin cushion! Why, if this ere rattlesnake could laugh as well as bite, he'd have a good haw-haw over Miss Lina's way of fighting snakes. It takes something to kill them, I tell you. But I've got him—he knows me. Look at him now!"
Ralph moved a step forward and looked down upon the rattlesnake, towards which Ben was pointing with his ash branch, as unconcerned as if it had been an earth-worm.
The rattlesnake had loosened all his folds, and lay prone upon his back striving to burrow his head beneath the leaves and moss, evidently without power to escape or show fight.
"Wonderful, isn't it!" said Ben, eyeing the snake with grim complacency; "now I should just like to know what there is in the natur of this ere ash limb that wilts his pizen down so? Why, he's harmless as a catterpillar. Come down and see for yourself, Mister Ralph."
"No, no!" pleaded Lina, faint and trembling, for the reaction of the recent terror was upon her, and she grew sick now that the danger was over. "I am ill—blind—Ralph—Ralph!"
She spoke his name in faint murmurs, her head fell forward and her eyes closed. Ralph thought she was dying. He remembered that the rattlesnake had touched her in his first spring, and took the faintness as the working of his venom in her veins. He called out in the agony of this thought,—
"Ben! Ben! she is dying—she is dead—he struck her!"
Ben gave the rattlesnake a vigorous lash, which turned him on his back again, and sprang up the rocks.
"Have you killed him? Is he dead? Oh, Ben, he has struck her on her arm or hand, perhaps! Look, look—see if you can find the wound!"
Ben gave a hasty glance at the white face lying upon Ralph's shoulder, uttered a smothered humph, and with this emphatic expression turned to watch the common enemy. The snake had turned slowly over upon the moss and was slinking away through a crevice in the rocks. Ben uttered a mellow chuckling laugh as his rattles disappeared.
"Did you see him, the sneak? Did you see him steal off?" he said, looking at Ralph.
LINA COMES OUT OF HER FAINTING FIT.
Ralph lifted his white face to old Ben and broke forth fiercely:
"You should have crushed him—ground him to powder. He has poisoned all the sweet life in her veins. She is dying, Ben, she is dying!"
Ben threw down the ash branch and plunged one hand into a pocket in search of his tobacco box. With great deliberation he rolled up a quantity of the weed and deposited it under one cheek, before he attempted to answer either the pleading looks or passionate language of the youth.
"Mister Ralph, it's plain as a marlin-spike, you ain't used to snakes and wimmen. In that partiklar your education's been shamefully neglected. Never kill a rattlesnake arter he's shut in his fangs and turns on his back for mercy—its sneakin' business. Never think a woman is dead till the sexton sends in his bill. Snakes and feminine wimmen is hard to kill. Now any landshark, as has his eyes out of his heart, could see that Miss Lina's only took a faintin' turn, that comes after a skeer like hers, axactly as sleep stills a tired baby. Just give her here now, I'll take her down the river, throw a cap full of water in her face, and she'll be bright as a new dollar long before we get across."
The look of relief that came to the face of Ralph Harrington was like a flash of sunshine. A grateful smile lighted his eyes, but instead of resigning Lina to the stout arms held out by Ben Benson, he gathered her close to his bosom, saying in a proud voice,
"Why, Ben, I want no help to carry Lina."
Then he bore her down the hill, looking now and then upon her face so tenderly, that Ben, who was eyeing him all the way with sidelong glances, made a hideous face to himself, as if to capitulate with his dignity for wanting to smile at anything so childish.
"Sit down there," said Ben, pointing to the stern of his boat, "sit down there, Mister Ralph, and kinder ease her down to the seat; your face is hot as fire a carrying her. Now I'll fill my hat with water and give her a souse that'll bring the red to her mouth in a jiffy."
"No, no," said Ralph, arresting Ben as he stooped to fill his little glazed hat, "don't throw it, hold your cap here, Ben, and I'll sprinkle her face. How pale it is! How like a dear lifeless angel she looks?"
Ben stooped to the water, and Ralph trembling and flushed, bent over the pale beautiful face on his bosom, closer, closer, till his lips drew the blood back to hers, and her eyelids began to quiver like shadows on a white rose.
Ben had slowly risen from the water with the glazed hat dripping between his two great hands; but when he saw Ralph's position, the good fellow ducked downward again, and made a terrible splashing in the river, as he dipped the brimming hat a second time, while that grotesque suppression of a smile convulsed his hard features.
It was wonderful how long it took Ben to fill his hat this time. One would have thought him fishing for pearls in the depths of the river, he was so fastidious in finding the exact current best calculated to restore a young lady from faintness. When he did arise, everything about the young people was, to use his nautical expression, ship-shape and above-board. The color was stealing back to Lina's face, like blushes from the first flowering of apple blossoms, and a brightness stole from beneath her half-closed eyelids, that had something softer and deeper than mere life in it.
"It is not necessary, Ben; she is better, I think," said the young man, looking half-timidly into the boatman's face. "Don't you think she looks beauti——I mean, don't you think she looks better, a great deal better, Ben?"
Again, that grotesque expression seized upon Ben's features; and, setting down his hat, as if it had been a washbowl, he took Lina's straw hat from the bottom of the boat, where it had fallen, and began to shake out the ribbons with great energy.
"She grows pale—I'm afraid she is losing ground again, Ben," said Ralph, as the color wavered to and fro on the fair cheek beneath his gaze.
"Shall I fill the hat again?" answered Ben, demurely.
"It kinder seems to be the filling on it that brings her round easiest?"
"No, you're very kind, but I'll sprinkle her forehead—she has been so frightened, you know, I dare say she thought the snake had bitten—had bitten one of us, Ben! That is right, hold the hat this way."
Ben dropped on his knees in the bottom of the boat, crushing down a whole forest of Lina's wild flowers, and held up the hat reverently between his hands.
Ralph put back the masses of brown hair from Lina's face, and began to bathe it gently, almost holding his breath, as if she were a babe he was afraid of waking.
"Isn't she a dear, generous creature?" he said, at last, with a burst of admiration. "It took a fright like this, to prove how precious she was to us all!"
Instantly, a cloud of crimson swept over Lina's face and bosom, and with it came an illumination of the features, that made the young man tremble beneath her light weight.
"Lina, dear Lina!" he whispered.
She arose from his arms, crimson again to the temples, and sat down in silence, her eyes downcast, her lips trembling, as if a great effort kept her from bursting into tears.
Ralph saw this, and his face clouded.
"What have I done? Are you angry with me, Lina?" he whispered, as Ben pushed the boat off and gathered up his oars.
"Angry! No, I cannot tell. What has happened to us, Ralph?"
"Don't you remember, Lina?"
"Remember?—yes—now. Oh, it was horrible!"
"I, Lina, I shall always remember it with more pleasure than pain."
She lifted her eyes with a timid, questioning glance. The young man drew close to her, and as Ben dashed his oars in the water, thus drowning his voice to all but her, whispered—
"Because it has told me in my heart of hearts how entirely I love you, Lina."
Her maidenly shame was aroused now. She shrunk from his glance, blushing and in silence.
"Will you not speak to me, Lina?"
"What can I say, Ralph?"
"That you love me."
A little coquettish smile stole over her mouth.
"We have said that to each other from the cradle up."
"No, never before, never with this depth of meaning—my heart is broken up, Lina; there is nothing left of it but a flood of tender love—you are no longer my sister, but my idol; I worship you, Lina!"
Again Lina lifted her eyes, so blue, so flooded with gentle gratitude; but she did not speak, for Ben was resting on his oars, while the boat crept silently down the current.
"Why don't you steer for home?" asked Ralph, impatient of Ben's eyes.
"I see that ere old respectable gentleman on the bank, a looking this way, so I thought we'd lie to and refit more particularly about the upper story. If Miss Lina there'll just shake them ere curls back a trifle, and tie on her bonnet; and if you, Mister Ralph, could just manage to look t'other way and take an observation of the scenery, perhaps we should make out to pass with a clear bill and without over-haulin'."
"You are right," said Ralph after a moment, looking anxiously, toward the shore, where the stately figure of old Mr. Harrington was distinctly visible; "my father is a great stickler for proprieties. Here is your hat, Lina—let me fold this scarf about you."
As Ralph spoke, the flush left his face, and a look of fatigue crept over Lina. Ben still rested on his oars. He was determined to give the old gentleman ample opportunity to continue his walk inland, before the young people were submitted to his scrutiny. As they lingered floating upon the waters, a tiny boat shot from beneath a cliff below them, and was propelled swiftly down the river. In it was a female rendered conspicuous by a scarlet shawl, and in the still life around them, this boat became an object of interest. It was only for a moment, the young people were too deeply occupied with their own feelings to dwell upon even this picturesque adjunct to a scene which was now flooded gorgeously with the sunset. Ben, however, became restless and anxious. Without a word he seized his oars, and pushed directly for the cove in which his boat was usually moored.
Ralph and Lina went homewards with a reluctance never experienced before. A sense of concealment oppressed them. An indefinite terror of meeting their friends, rendered their steps slow upon the green sward. As they drew towards the house, Ralph paused.
"Speak to me, Lina, my heart is heavy without the sound of your voice: say you love me, or shall I be miserable with suspense?"
The young girl listened with a saddened and downcast look. A heaviness had fallen upon her with the first sight of old Mr. Harrington on the bank. True he had gone now, but his shadow seemed to oppress her still.
"Will you not speak to me, Lina? Will you not relieve this suspense by one little word?"
She lifted her head gently, but with modest pride.
"You know that I love you, Ralph."
"But not as you have done. I am not content with simple household affection. Say that you love me, body and soul, faults and virtues, as I love you."
Lina drew herself up, and a smile, sad but full of sweetness—half presentiment, half faith—beamed on her face.
"Your soul may search mine to its depths and find only itself there. I do love you, Ralph, even as you love me!"
Her answer was almost solemn in its dignity; for the moment that fair young girl looked and spoke like a priestess.
Ralph Harrington reached out his hand, taking hers in its grasp.
"Why are you so pale? Why tremble so?" he said, moving towards the house.
"I do not know," answered Lina, "but it seems as if the breath of that rattlesnake were around us yet."
"You are sad—your nerves have been dreadfully shaken—but to-morrow, Lina, all will be bright again."
Lina smiled faintly.
"Oh, yes, all must be bright to-morrow."
As they passed the iron gate that separated the lawn from the shore, Ben, who had seated himself in the boat, arose suddenly, and pushed his little craft into the river again. His weather-beaten face was turned anxiously down the stream. He seized the oars, and urging his boat into the current, pulled stoutly, as if some important object had suddenly seized upon him.
"Where can she be a going to? What on earth is she after? Has the old rascal broke out at last? Has she give way? But I'll overhaul her! Pull away, Ben Benson, pull away, you old rascal! What bisness had you with them ere youngsters, and she in trouble! Pull away, or I'll break every bone in your body, Ben Benson!"
Thus muttering and reviling himself, Ben was soon out of sight, burying himself, as it seemed, in the dull purple of the night as it crept over the Hudson.
ON THE BANKS AND ON THE RIVER.
There are moments in every human life when we would gladly flee from ourselves and plunge into action of any kind, to escape from the recognition of our own memories. This recoil from the past seldom comes to early youth, for to that, memories are like the light breezes of April, with nothing but tender green foliage, and opening buds to disturb. With youth the past is so close to the present, that thought always leaps forward into the future, and in the first flush of existence that is invariably beautiful. But it is a different thing when life approaches its maturity. Then the spirit, laden down with events that have culminated, and feelings that have been shaken by many a heart storm, bends reluctantly to the tempest like the stately old forest trees laden with foliage, which bow to nothing but the inevitable tornado.
Mabel Harrington left the old Mansion House with a quicker movement and more rapid step than was natural to her, unless some strong feeling was aroused, or some important aim to be accomplished. At such times her action was quick, almost imperious, and all the evidences of an ardent nature, fresh as youth and strong as maturity, broke forth in each movement of her person and in every thought of her mind.
She walked more and more rapidly as the distance between her and the house increased, for the open air and wider country gave freedom to her spirit. As she walked her earnest grey eyes turned from the river to the sky and abroad upon the hills, as if seeking for something in nature to which her soul might appeal for sympathy in the swell and storm of feeling that a few simple words had let loose upon her, after a sleep of many years.
"Does he know what I have felt and how I have suffered, that he stings me with such words? His father's marriage! And was I not the spirit—nay, the victim of that marriage? Why should he speak to me thus? The air was enough—the calm sleep of the winds—the fragrance. I was a girl again, till his quiet taunt awoke me. Does he think that I have lost a thought or a feeling because of this dull heavy routine of cares? Why did he speak to me in that cold tone? I have not deserved it. Heaven knows I have not deserved it from him, or from any of them!"
Mabel uttered these words aloud, as she approached the banks of the river, and her voice clear and rich with feeling, was swept out upon the wind which bore it away, mingled with fragrance from the dying leaves.
"Does he think with common men, that the impulses of youth die out and are gone? As if the passions of youth did not become the power of maturity, and mellow at last into the calm grandeur of old age. If love were not immortal, how dreary even this beautiful world would seem, yet being so, I can but look forward to another, when the shackles of this life will fall away."
It was a relief to speak aloud. The sound of her own voice came back like the sympathy she dared to claim only of the wind and the waters, that flowed on with their eternal rush of sound, like the years of life that Mabel was mourning over. She stood upon the shore, stately and motionless, her eyes full of trouble, her lips tremulous with impulsive words that betrayed a soul at once ardent and pure. The wind rose around her, and seizing upon her shawl swept it in picturesque folds about her person, half drowning her voice, or she would not have dared to give her thoughts this bold utterance.
It was this picturesque attitude which had attracted the attention of her husband in the library, and that moment he resolved to join her on the shore.
As if this resolve had been expressed to her in words, a feeling of unrest seized upon Mabel, and long before the old man was ready to come forth, she was walking rapidly across the brow of a hill that bounded the valley southward, keeping along the bank, but concealed by the undergrowth.
She paused upon a rocky cliff that broke the hill side, breathing more freely as if conscious that she had escaped some unwelcome intrusion. A boat upon the river drew her attention, and she saw within it her son and Lina floating pleasantly down the stream together.
"How happy and how young they are!" she said with a gush of gentle affection. "No cares—no broken hopes—no wishes unexpressed—no secrets; oh! in this lies the great happiness of existence. Until he has a secret to keep, man is, indeed, next to the angels."
Mabel sat down upon a fallen tree, covered with a drapery of pale green moss. She watched the boat in a sort of dream, as it drifted toward her. How much of the suffering she endured might yet be saved to the young persons it contained! Was not that an object worth living and enduring for? Might she not renew her youth in them?
Renew her youth? What need was there of that? In all her existence had she ever been so full of life—so vigorous of mind—so capable of the highest enjoyment? In the very prime and glory of all her faculties—wise in experience—strong from many a silent heart-struggle, what could she gain by a return of youth? Nothing! surely nothing! Yet she watched those two young persons with a vague feeling of sadness. They had life before them, a thousand dreamy delusions—a thousand alluring hopes evanescent as the apple blossoms of May, but as sweet also.
Mabel was too noble for envy, but these thoughts subdued her excitement into silent mournfulness. At first, she thought to walk slowly back and meet the young people when they landed, but something withheld her and she sat still, dreamily watching them.
She saw the boat drifting idly upon the current. The gorgeous forest leaves with which it was literally carpeted struck her eyes in rich masses of colors, as if the young people had imprisoned a portion of the sunset around their feet. She could distinguish Ben stooping forward seemingly half asleep upon his oars. All in the boat seemed tranquil and happy, like creatures of another life afloat upon the rivers of paradise; she could almost see their faces—those happy faces that made the fancy still more natural.
As she watched them a strange pain stole to her heart. She rose suddenly to her feet, and sweeping a hand across her eyes as if to clear their vision, cast long searching glances toward the boat, striving to read those young faces afar off, and thus relieve her mind of a powerful suspicion.
"Why has this thought never presented itself before?" she said with a pang of self reproach. "Has this eternal dream blinded me, or am I now mistaken? Poor children—poor Lina—is this cruel destiny to fall on you also?"
The boat came drifting toward her now in the crimson light, again enveloped in purple shadows like those fairy skiffs that glide through our dreams. Mabel watched it till her eyes filled with tears, a strange thing—for she was not a woman given to weeping, save as tears are sometimes the expression of a tender or poetic thought. Pain or wrong were things for her to endure or redress; she never wept over them.
That night the interest which she felt in these young persons blended painfully with memories that had risen, like a sudden storm, in her nature. She felt as if they were destined to carry forth and work out the drama of her own life, and that this agency was just commencing. As she stood thus wrapped in turbulent thoughts, there came through the brushwood a crash of branches and a stir of the foliage louder than the wind could have produced.
Mabel Harrington was in no mood for companionship. She had fled from the house to be alone, and this approach startled her.
A little footpath led down the brow of the hill to a tiny promontory on which a few hickory trees were now dropping their nuts. She struck hastily into this path and descended to the river. Close to the bank, half hidden among the dying fern leaves that drooped over it, lay a miniature boat scarcely larger than an Indian canoe. It was a highly ornamented and symmetrical little craft, that any child might have propelled and which a queen fairy would have been proud to own.
Mabel sprang into the boat, and seating herself on a pile of cushions heaped in the centre, pushed out into the stream. There was no hardihood in this, she had been accustomed to action and exercise all her life, and could propel her little skiff with the skill and grace of any Indian girl.
Her boat ran out from the promontory and shot like an arrow across the water, for she trembled lest some voice should call her back, and urged her light oars with all the impetuosity of her nature.
At last, beyond hail from the shore, she looked back and saw a man standing upon the brow of the hill, leaning against the oak that had sheltered her a few moments before. Mabel paused and rested on her oars. The distance would not permit her to distinguish his features, but the size and air might have been that of her husband had his usual habits permitted the idea. She put it aside at once, nothing could have induced the General to climb the steeps of that hill. It must be James. These two persons were alike in stature and partook of the same imposing air. Yes, it must be James Harrington, and was it from him she had fled? Had he repented of the harsh words that had driven her forth and followed her with hopes of atonement? Her heart rose kindly at the thought. She half turned her little boat, tempted back by that longing wish for reconciliation, which was always uppermost in her warm nature.
But then came the wholesome after-thought which had so often checked these genial impulses. She turned the boat slowly back upon its course and let it float with the current, watching the rise of land on which he stood, with sad, wistful glances, that no one saw, save the God who knows how pure they were, and how much the resolution to go on had cost her.
As the boat drifted downward, she saw the person turn as if speaking to some one, and directly a female form stood by his side. They drew close together, and seemed to be conversing eagerly. His look was no longer towards the boat; he had doubtless forgotten its existence.
Mabel held her breath, the color left her lips and she grasped the oars with each hand, till the blood was strained back from her fingers, leaving them white as marble.
"Oh, not that! not that! I can endure anything but that! God help me! O my God, help me! if this is added to the rest, I cannot live."
Drops of perspiration sprang to her temples as she spoke. Unconsciously she expended the first strength of her anguish on the oars, and the boat shot like a mad thing into the rapids which swept round a projection of rocks, and like some tormented spirit, she was borne away from the sight that had wounded her.
There was danger now. The rush of the current, tortured by hidden rocks, sent the little craft onward, as if it had been a dead leaf cast into the eddy. Mabel liked the danger and the tumult. The rising wind blew in her face. The waters sparkled and dashed around her. The frail oars bent and quivered in her hands. It was something to brave and fight against; but for this scope of action the new anguish that had swept through the soul of that woman must have smothered her.
On the little boat went, dancing and leaping down the current, recoiling with a quiver from the hidden rocks which it touched more than once, but springing vigorously back to its flight, like a bird upon the wing.
"Oh, if this be so, let me die now. Why will it not strike? How came they to make the boat so light and yet so strong? It is true! It is true! I feel it in every throb of my pulse. After this, the life that I thought so dreary, will be a lost paradise, to which, plead as I may, there is no going back. I will know, God help me, but I must know if this is a wild suspicion, or a miserable, miserable reality!"
These words bespoke the concentration of some resolves. She grasped her oars more firmly, and with a sharp glance around, put her boat upon its course. It shot through hidden rocks; it cut across the eddies recklessly as before, but all the time a single course was pursued. At last the little craft entered the mouth of a mountain stream that came sparkling down a pretty hemlock hollow in the hills. The hollow was dusky with coming night, but the tree-tops were still brightened by a red tinge from the sunset, and there was light enough to find a footpath which wound upward along the margin of the brook.
THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE HILL.
Mabel left her boat and followed the path till she reached a natural terrace in the hills, narrow and green, upon which a small, one-story house was snugly bestowed. The terrace was uncultivated, save a small garden patch close to the house, where the soil was torn and uneven from the uprooting of vegetables from the rudely-shaped beds. Sweetbrier and wild honey-suckles gave a picturesque grace to the building, at variance with the untidy state of the grounds, and there was something in the whole place more suggestive of refinement than is usual to dwellings where the inmates work hard for their daily bread.
Mabel Harrington had never been in this place before. As she approached it, the cry of a whippowil came up from the hollow, as if warning her away. Everything was still within the house. There was no light; the rustle of leaves with the flow of waters from the ravine, joined their mournful whispers with the wail of the night bird.
Mabel was imaginative as a girl, and this solitude depressed her; still she moved steadily towards the house, and knocked at the door.
A woman opened it, whose person was seen but indistinctly, as she stood within the small entry, holding the door with one hand; but Mabel saw that she was dark and dressed as she had seen that class of persons in the south.
"I wish to see Miss Agnes Barker for a moment: is she in?" said Mrs. Harrington with her usual dignified repose of manner, for however much interested, Mabel was not one to invite curiosity by any display of excitement, and it must have been a close observer who could have detected the faint quiver of her voice as she expressed this common-place wish.
"She don't liv hear in dis shantee."
"I know. She lives at General Harrington's, up the river," replied Mabel, "but it is some weeks since she has been there, and I expected to find her with you."
"Missus, pears like you don't know as Miss Agnes is young lady, from top to toe, ebery inch ob her. Is you the Missus?"
"I am Mrs. Harrington," said Mabel, quietly.
"Oh!" exclaimed the woman, prolonging the monosyllable almost into a sneer, "jes come in. I'se mighty sorry de candle all burnt out an done gone."
Mabel entered the house, and sat down in the dim light.
"Is Missus 'lone mong dese hills?" said the woman, retreating to the darkest corner of the room.
"Yes, I am alone!" answered Mabel.
"All 'lone in de dark wid nothin but that whippoorwill to keep company; skeery, ain't it, Missus?"
If the woman had hoped to terrify Mabel Harrington by these words, she was mistaken. A vague feeling of loneliness was upon her, but she had no cowardly timidity to contend with.
"Don't pear skeery no how," said the woman.
"I am seldom afraid of anything," answered Mabel with a wan smile. "I came to inquire for Miss Barker, if she is not here, tell me where she can be found?"
"Done gone out to de hills, pears like she could not stay away from em."
"Was she your mistress in the south?" inquired Mabel, troubled by the woman's voice.
"Pears so, Missus."
"Some one has managed to give her a fine education—I have seldom known a young person so thoroughly accomplished," continued Mabel with apparent calm, but keenly attentive to every word that fell from the woman's lips. "General Harrington informed me that she came highly recommended, but her attainments surprised us all."
"Oh yes, young missus knows heap 'bout dem books an pianers. Done born lady, no poor white trash, gorry mighty knows dat."
"Her duties are more particularly with Miss Lina, Gen. Harrington's adopted daughter, who makes no complaint against her—for myself, our intercourse is very limited, but she pleases the General. We have expected her at the house for several days, and thought it strange that she did not return."
"Ben gone ebery day dis week, sartin sure, long walk, but her's ready for it. Nebber gets home fore dark—walk, walk, walk, in de woods wid Marsa James."
Mabel arose. A sickening sensation crept over her, and she went to the open door for air.
It was true then—that suspicion was all true! Agnes Barker had been in the neighborhood of her old home for a week, without the knowledge of its mistress. That very day the girl had met James Harrington in the hills. Her own eyes had seen them standing side by side in the sunset.
"'Pears like de Missus am sick," said the woman, coming toward her as she stood cold and shuddering under this conviction.
"No," answered Mabel, gathering up her strength, but pressing both hands upon her heart beneath the crimson folds of her shawl. "If Miss Barker comes to the house again she will have the goodness to see that I am informed. Miss Lina is anxious to renew her studies."
"Give my message faithfully," answered Mabel. "I must speak with her before the duties of her situation are resumed. Good night."
"Good night to you," muttered the woman, as Mabel walked away. "I understand you, never doubt that. Agnes is beautiful, and keen enough for a dozen such as you. I thought it would work!"
Mrs. Harrington made the best of her way down the footpath which she had threaded, though the hollow was filled with gloom, and the whippowil called mournfully after her as she went.
Her boat lay where she had left it in the mouth of the creek. As she stepped into it a cry broke from her lips, and turning, she looked wildly up the hollow. A woman sprang over the boat as she stooped for the oars, and with a single leap cleared the bank, landing with a bound in the footpath above her.
One sharp glance she cast behind, then darted away as if eager to bury herself in the hemlock gloom.
The leap had been so sudden and the whole progress so rapid, that Mabel scarcely saw the woman, but she remembered after, that her dress was dusky red, and that a velvet cloak swept from her shoulders downward to the ground, half torn from her person in its abrupt movements. As she stood lost in amazement at this singular apparition, Mabel fancied that she heard the dip of oars, and could detect the dim outline of a boat making up the river.
She sat down mute, and troubled, looking after what seemed at best a floating shadow; the night had darkened rapidly, and instead of the new moon which should have silvered the sky, came billows of black, angry clouds, in which the thunder began to roll and mutter hoarse threats of a storm. Frightened by the brooding tempest, Mabel pushed her boat out from the shore, and began to row vigorously homeward; but she had scarcely got into deep water when the clouds became black as midnight; the winds rose furiously, lashing the waters and raging fiercely through the tree tops, while burst after burst of thunder broke over the hills. She could only see her course clearly when flashes of lightning shot at intervals through the trees, and broke in gleams of scattered fire among the waves, now dashing and leaping angrily around her.
Mabel was excited out of her anxieties by this turmoil. There was something in the force and suddenness of the storm that aroused all her courage. The vexed trees were bent and torn by the winds. The river was lashed into a sea of foam, over which her frail boat leaped and quivered like a living thing; but she sat steady in the midst, pale and firm, taking advantage of each gleam of lightning to fix her course, and facing the storm with a steady bravery which had no fear of death.
Still the tempest rose and lashed itself into fury from the rocky coast to the depths of the stream, and the little boat went plunging through it, keeping the brave woman safe. The oars were useless as rushes in her hands. The waves leaped upward as the wind lashed them, and at times rushed entirely over her. It was a fearful sight, that noble woman, all alone with the storm! so close to death and yet so resolute! Blacker and nearer grew the clouds torn by whirlwinds, and shooting out lurid gleams of lightning, that flashed and curled along the water like fiery serpents chasing each other into their boiling depths. So great was the tumult that another sound, which came like a smothered howl through the storm, seemed but a part of it. Thus Mabel was unconscious of this new danger, till a glare of lightning swept everything else aside, and bearing directly toward her, she saw a huge steamer ploughing through the tempest, on her downward course.
Scarce had she time to recoil with horror from the danger, when it was wrapped in darkness again, and she could only guess of its approach by the cabin windows that glared upon her nearer and nearer, like great fiery eyes half blinded by the storm. Mabel nerved herself, and with a desperate effort bent her strength upon the oars. But the heave of the waters tore one from her grasp, and the other remained useless. Human strength was of no avail now. She was given up to the tempest, and could only cling to the reeling boat mute with horror, still with a thought of those she loved vital at her heart. Another sheet of lightning, blue and livid, rolled down the hills, and in it, standing upon a spur of rocks, she saw James Harrington, either in life or in spirit, looking forth upon the river. His figure took the deadly hue of the light. His garments shook to the storm. The pale flame quivered around him a moment, and he was engulphed in darkness again.
Mabel flung up her hands with a cry that cut through the storm like an arrow.
"Save me! save me! oh, my God! my God!"
Her pale hands quivered in the lightning. The shrieks that rang from her white lips were smothered in the fierce wind. The tortured boat seemed flinging her out to utter despair.
A roar that was not of the elements, now broke through all the tumult. There came a rush—an upheaving of the waters, which flung her high into the darkness—a blow that made her little bark quake in all its timbers—a plunge—a black rush of waters. She was hurled beneath the wheels of the steamer—engulphed in utter darkness. It was her last struggle with the storm.
THE UNEXPECTED PASSENGER.
While Ben Benson was landing Ralph Harrington and Lina, he lost sight of the boat which had so effectually aroused his interest, and when he was ready to put out again, it was lost in the inequalities of the shore.
Ben put out into the river, bearing towards the opposite bank at first, but meeting with no signs of his object, he returned again, consuming time, and thus giving considerable start to Mrs. Harrington's little craft.
As Ben neared the land again, he saw a gleam of crimson garments through the evergreens that fringed the rocky shore, and remembering the shawl which Mabel had on, was overjoyed to know that she had landed, and was comparatively safe from the storm, which grew more and more assured in its signs.
With his anxieties thus appeased, Ben rowed his boat more securely to the nearest point that promised a safe landing, resolved to court the recognition of his mistress, and when she was weary of her ramble, convey her safely home again.
When he reached the desired point, Ben could see that the crimson garments were moving through the undergrowth with a pace more rapid than any mere rambler would have chosen; but what surprised him was the course pursued down the river. His mistress, if frightened by the clouds, would doubtless have turned homeward.
Ben stood up in his boat and waved his tarpaulin with energy.
"Hallo—Madam—Mrs. Harrington, I say, there's thunder and war ahead, I tell you. Don't go too far. Don't go out of sight. The water's a-getting roughish now, and the woods won't be safe after the clouds burst!"
Ben sent these words through an impromptu speaking trumpet made with one hand curved around his mouth. He was well pleased with the effect, for the red garments began to flutter, and he saw that the wearer was moving rapidly down the hill towards the point where he lay.
"That's what I call obeying signals at once!" said the honest fellow, seating himself in the stern of his boat. "But she knows as Ben Benson wouldn't take the liberty of hurrying her if he hadn't a good reason for what he's a-doin'—not he!"
And with this complacent reflection, Ben withdrew the tobacco from his mouth, and sent it far into the water, remembering Mrs. Harrington's objections to the weed, and ready to send his life after that, if it could afford her a moment's gratification.
"Ben," said he, looking after the tobacco as it was tossed from one wave to another, and shaking his fist after it in virtuous indignation, "that's a habit as you ought to be ashamed on, Ben Benson, a habit as no dog wouldn't take from you on any account, yet you've just kept it up chawing and chawing from morning till night, till she'll catch you at it some day, and then you'll have done for yourself, and no mistake. I should like to see her a-settin' in your boat arter that. Tobackee 'll be the ruin of you yit, Ben. Grog's nothing to it."
A light step upon the moss silenced the boatman, but he kept his position, resolved to be very severe with himself for his manifold sins, this of tobacco being uppermost.
"Mr. Benson, you are kind, I am so much obliged!"
Ben started. The voice was a pleasant one, but his rough heart sunk low with disappointment—the tones were not those of Mrs. Harrington.
"I could not possibly have reached home on foot," said the same sweet voice, and a young lady sprang lightly into the boat. "I hope the river will prove safe!"
"I was waiting for Mrs. Harrington, marm, and mistook you for her—that's all," said Ben, without lifting his eyes to the singular girl that stood close to him.
"Mrs. Harrington has gone down the river long ago—she passed that point of land with the last sunbeam," said the young girl, seating herself comfortably among the cushions.
"Are you sartin of that ere?" questioned Ben, taking up his oars hurriedly. "Just give me her bearing, and I'll show you what rowing is."
"You can't possibly have a better pilot than I am," answered the lady, laughing till a row of closely set but uneven teeth were visible in the waning light. "In searching for Mrs. Harrington, you will naturally take me homeward; when she is found, I will allow myself to be set ashore."
"The shore's no fit place for a young gal arter dark," said Ben gruffly, but pushing his boat out into the stream. "For my part, I can't make out what brings you up into the hills so often. Why don't you come home for good and all? Miss Lina don't want any more vacation, I reckon."
"Oh, my health isn't quite established yet, Mr. Benson," said the girl, looking at the boatman with a sidelong glance of her black, almond-shaped eyes, a glance that Ben was internally comparing to that of the rattlesnake, when he shrank off into a hollow of the rocks.
"I shouldn't think it very wholesome to be out so much at night!" said Ben.
"Oh, I live on fresh air, and love it best when moist with dew!" answered the girl.
"If it ain't moist with something stronger than dew afore long, I lose my guess!" muttered Ben, looking upward. "If this night don't see a reg'lar tornado, I'll give up—beat."
For a short time Ben plied his oars, casting anxious glances down the shore, hoping to find Mrs. Harrington and her boat safe in some inlet or cove, waiting for them.
"In course," said Ben, muttering as usual to himself. "In course, she'd know, as I was sure to come. What on the Lord's arth is Ben Benson good for, but to follow arter and tend on her? The king of all the Sandwich Islands couldn't have a higher business than that, let alone a poor feller of a boatman, as has circumwented his sea voyages down to a pair of oars and a passenger that's not over agreeable."
"Whom are you talking to, Mr. Benson?" inquired the young lady, wasting a smile on the moody boatman, though the threatening sky made her somewhat anxious about her own safety.
"To an individual as calls hisself Ben Benson. He's a feller as bears with my faults better than anybody else, as I knows on, and one as is rather particular about being intruded on, when he's holding a private conversation with hisself. That's the individual, Miss Agnes, as I was a holding a council with."
"And you would a little rather have no interruption—is that it?" said the lady. "Well, well, I can be silent, you shall see that!"
"Doubtful!" muttered Ben, using his oars with fresh vigor.
The girl he called Agnes, folded her cloak about her and settled down among the cushions, casting wistful glances at the sky. "Look," she said at last, pointing upward, "those small lead-colored clouds, how darkly they drift together! Did you ever see a flock of pigeons flying over the western woods, Mr. Benson?"
"Knew she wouldn't do it," muttered Ben, with his eyes bent on the clouds.
"See, see!" cried the girl. "The sky is black—I have seen the same thing!"
"But them was nothing but innocent birds a flying after something to eat," said Ben. "These ere clouds, Miss Agnes, has got a good many unroofed housen', and shipwrecks, and trees broken in two, and torn up by the roots, in 'em, to say nothing of this ere boat as may be upsot any minute."
The girl turned pale; her black eyes shone with sudden fear.
"Do you think there is really any danger, Mr. Benson?"
"Danger? Of course there's danger! What did I follow arter that little boat for, if there wasn't no danger?"
"Perhaps—perhaps," said Agnes tremulously, "it would be safer on shore. The walk will not be much now. What do you say to running ashore?"
"There'll be a howling among the rocks afore you get round the first point, that 'ud take your breath; besides, when the winds begin to rush there'll be a crashing down of trees, and broken limbs will be flying thick enough. No, no—unsartain as the river is, you'd better keep still. I don't want your death on my conscience, any how."
"But can you swim if we should capsize?" questioned Agnes, growing pale and cold.
"Swim, can Ben Benson swim?" cried the boatman with a hoarse laugh. "Well, I should think that he can swim a trifle."
The girl fixed her black eyes upon him. They were large and bright with terror.
"Fast, pull fast," she said, "let me help you—is there anything in which I can help you? How slow the boat goes—pull, pull!"
"We are agin the wind, and it's getting strongish," answered Ben.
"What can we do?" cried out the girl clasping her hands. "Hear how it howls—how the trees begin to moan! Is not the storm at its height now?"
"You'll see by and by," said Ben, bowing his moist forehead down to the sleeve of his jacket, and wiping away the perspiration that was now falling from it like rain.
"Oh, what will become of us?" shrieked the girl.
"What has become of her?" echoed Ben, casting sharp despairing glances toward the shore, which was now darkened, and in a turmoil.
"There is my home—there, there, on the side hill. A light is just struck in the window. Set me on shore—oh, Mr. Benson, do set me on shore!"
"Not till I find her," answered Ben, resolutely, "you would get in, so make the best of it."
The girl grew white as death.
"Let me ashore, or it will be my death—I am sick with terror," she pleaded.
Ben did not appear to listen. He was looking wildly down the stream, right and left, with despair in his glances.
"Where is she? What can have become of her?" he cried out at last, sinking forward on his oars, and allowing the boat to struggle for herself against the wind.
"At home, no doubt," answered the girl, struck with a selfish thought, in which there was hope of safety.
"How! What?" exclaimed Ben fiercely, "at home!"
"No doubt she left her boat in some cove and went home along the shore," persisted the girl. "She would be sure to put in somewhere!"
Ben's face lighted up, and his eyes glowed with hope.
"It may be—of course it is. She went back long ago, no doubt on it," he exclaimed, joyfully. "Why Ben Benson, what a precious old fool you was not to think of that. Miss Agnes, I'll set you ashore now anywhere you'll pint out, if the boat lives through it."
"Now, now!" cried the girl, breathless with terror, "strike for land anywhere—I know the shore. Only put me on dry land again—it's all I ask."
OUT OF THE STORM.
Ben altered his course with a great effort, and forced a passage to the broken shore. He was too busy in preserving his boat from being dashed upon the rocks, to remark with what eager selfishness the girl left him, only uttering a quick ejaculation, and darting away without thanks. By the time he could look around she had plunged into a neighboring ravine, and he saw no more of her.
Though the current was running high, Ben had the whole force of the wind to urge him on, and his steady seamanship made the progress up stream less dangerous than the descent had been. But the toil was great and every muscle of his brawny arms rose to its full strain as he bent all his strength upon the oars. But with his greatest anxieties at rest, Ben cared little for this. With no life but his own at stake, the tempest was nothing to the brave man.
But it grew terrible. The boat was more than once hurled out of water. The waves dashed over him; the wind carried off his hat and beat fiercely against his head, sweeping the long hair over his face. Again and again the current wheeled his boat around, drifting it back with a force he could not resist, sometimes close to the shore, sometimes out in the torrent of waters. It was impossible now to see his course, except by the lightning. The entire darkness baffled him more than the storm.
Once when the boat was seized upon and hurled backward, Ben saw innumerable lights sweeping by in the fog between him and the shore, and he uttered a shout of wild thanksgiving that the steamer had not run him down. As the water heaved him to and fro, a glare of lightning revealed this monster boat, moving downward, and—oh, horror of horrors! Mabel Harrington, just as the vortex engulphed her. Two white arms were flung upward. Her hair streamed in the lightning. The deathly white face was turned shoreward.
The might of twenty men was in his arms then. He flung back the rushing waves with his oars, and from a will fiercer than his strength, forced his boat toward her. In a minute the darkness of death was around him. Blasts of wind and great gushes of rain swept over him. He shouted aloud. He beat the waters madly with his oars. He called upon God for one more flash of lightning.
It came. He saw a distant steamer, an up-turned boat and something darker than the foam heaving upon the waters.
"Hold on! Hold on!—I'm coming—I'm coming—it's Ben—it's Ben. Oh God, give me light!"
He was answered. A crash of thunder—a trail of fire—and an old cedar tree on the shore flamed up with the light he had prayed for.
It flamed up and Ben saw a man plunge from the rocks into the boiling waters. He bent to the oar, his boat rushed through the waves, and as he came one way, that white face moved steadily from the shore. The waters were buffeted fiercely around it. Some mighty power seemed to sweep back the storm from where it moved.
It disappeared, rose and sunk again. Ben pushed his boat to the spot where he had seen Mabel disappear. His bow dashed against the little boat already broken in twain, and its fragments broke upon the water. He looked wildly about. The face was gone. The dark heap which he had taken for Mabel, had disappeared. Ben's strong arms began to tremble; tears of anguish met the beating rain, as it broke over his face. Despair seized upon him. He dashed his oars into the bottom of the boat and stood up, ready for a plunge. He would never go back and say that his mistress had been suffered to drown before his face. His clasped hands were uplifted—the boat reeled under him—he was poised for the mad plunge!
No, his hands fell. A hoarse shout broke from him.
"Here, here I am! here—away!"
He seized the oars again, looking wildly around, for the voice that had hailed him by name, up from the deep, as it seemed. It came again, and close by the boat that grand head appeared struggling for life.
Ben struck out his oars.
"Do not move—do not strike, or you may kill her yet!"
"Is she there? Can you hold on?" cried Ben, trembling in every limb of his stout frame.
A hand seized one side of the boat. Close to the manly head he had seen, was the marble face of Mabel Harrington, half veiled by tresses of wet hair. Ben fell upon his knees, and plunging his arms into the waves, drew her into the boat.
"For the shore—for your life!" shouted James Harrington, refusing to be helped, but clinging to the boat. "No, no—strike out; I will hold on—pull—pull!"
Ben took off his coat, and rolling it in a bundle, placed it under Mabel Harrington's head. It was all he could do. The boat was a third full of water, and he had nothing else.
"Get in—get in—or she will be drowned over again!" he pleaded, seizing James Harrington by the shoulders, and dragging him over the side. "Get down, keep her head out of water, and it'll take a worse storm than this to drive me back."
Harrington fell rather than sat down, and took Mabel in his arms, close to a heart so chilled that it had almost ceased beating. But as her cold face fell upon his bosom, a glow of life came back to it, with a pang of unsupportable feeling. It was not joy—it was not sorrow—but the warmth in his veins seemed like a sweet poison, which would end in death.
He put the numb and senseless form aside with a great effort, resting the head upon Ben's coat. Twice he attempted to speak, but his trembling lips uttered nothing but broken moans.
"Take her," he said to Ben, "take her and I will pull the oars."
"You haven't life enough in you, sir," pleaded Ben, shrinking from the proposal.
"I am strong again," said Harrington, placing himself on the seat and taking the oars. "See!"
The boat plunged heavily shoreward. Ben held his mistress with a sort of terror at the sacrilege. His brawny arms trembled around her. He turned his face to the storm, rather than allow his eyes to rest upon her. But James Harrington had no compassion; he still kept to the oars.
At last they shot into a point of the shore, formed by two or three jutting rocks. Harrington dropped the oars, and the two men lifted Mabel Harrington from the boat, and bore her to a slope of the hill. No shelter was in sight. The sudden storm was abating, but rain still dropped in showers from the trees.
"Where can we convey her? What shall we do?" said Harrington, looking around in dismay. "She will perish before we can obtain warmth, if she is not already gone."
Ben had flung down his coat. They laid her upon it. James Harrington knelt upon the turf, and lifted her head to his knee. The face was pale as death; purple shadows lay about the mouth, and under the eyes; her flesh was cold as marble.
Again the deathly cold came creeping to Harrington's heart. He shuddered from head to foot, "She is dead—she is dead!" broke from his chilled lips.
"Oh, Mr. Harrington, Mr. Harrington, what can we do? What can we do?" groaned Ben, clasping his huge hands, and crying like a child over the poor lady. "She isn't dead—don't! That word is enough to kill a poor miserable feller, as wanted to die for her and couldn't."
His only answer was a low moan from James Harrington.
"Is there no house, no living soul near to give us help?" said James Harrington, lifting his white face to that of Ben Benson, while his voice shook, and his arms trembled around the cold form they half supported, half embraced. "If there is a spark of life left it will go out in this cold—if she is dead—"
"Don't! oh, Mister James, don't!" cried Ben wringing his hands with fresh violence, "them's cruel words to stun a poor fellow's heart with—she ain't dead, God don't take his angels up to glory in that 'ere way!"
James laid Mabel reverently from his arms, and stood up casting anxious glances through the storm.
"There is a light, yonder upon the hill-side,—you can just see it through the drifting clouds—go, Ben, climb for your life and bring us help!"
Ben stooped down, clapped a hand on each knee and took an observation.
"There is a light, that's sartin," he said joyfully, settling himself in his wet clothes and making a start for the hill; but directly he turned back again.
"If she's so near gone as you speak on, Mister James, it wouldn't be of no use for me to go up there for help—she'd be chilled through and through, till there was no bringing her back, long afore I could half-way climb the hill!"
"I fear it, I fear it!" said Harrington, looking mournfully down on the white face at his feet, "God help her!"
"See," said Ben stretching forth his hand towards the burning cedar, "God Almighty has gin us light and fire close by—the grass is crisped and dried up all around that tree. What if we carry the madam there? I'll go up the hill with a heart in it arter that!"
Ben stooped as if about to take the cold form of his mistress in his arms, but as his hands touched her garments some inward restraint fell upon him, and he drew back, looking wistfully from Harrington to the prostrate woman he dared not raise from the earth even in her extremity.
As he stooped a strange light had flashed into James Harrington's eyes, and he made a motion as if to push the poor boatman aside.
Ben did not see this, as we have said, his retreat was a voluntary impulse. He saw James Harrington take up the form he dared not touch, with a feeling of deep humiliation, submitting to the abrupt and stern manner which accompanied the action, as a well deserved rebuke for his boldness.
A small ravine separated the point of land occupied by the little party from the burning cedar, and towards this Harrington bore his silent burden. His cheeks grew deadly pale from a feeling deeper than fear or cold, and his eyes flashed back the gleams of light that reached him from the burning tree with a wild splendor that no mortal man had ever seen in them before.
He held Mabel closer and closer to his heart, which rose and heaved beneath its burden; his breath came in broken volumes from his chest, and an insane belief seized upon him, that though dead he could arouse her from that icy sleep, by forcing the breath of his own abundant existence through her lips.
Fired by this wild thought he bowed his head nearer and nearer to the pallid face upon his shoulder. But the voice of Ben Benson brought him back to sanity again.
"Be careful, sir! The hollow is full of ruts and broken stones! She is too heavy—You stagger and reel like a craft that has lost her helm! Steady, sir—steady, or she'll be hurt!"
James Harrington stopped suddenly, as if a war trumpet had checked his progress. His face changed in the burning light. His arms relaxed around the form they had clasped so firmly a moment before.