THE STORY OF OLD HAGAR'S SECRET.
By MARY J. HOLMES,
Author of "Lena Rivers," "Tempest and Sunshine," "English Orphans," "Dora Deane," etc., etc.
"Lead us not into temptation."
I. THE OLD HOUSE BY THE MILL
II. HAGAR'S SECRET
III. HESTER AND MAGGIE
VI. THE JUNIOR PARTNER
VII. THE SENIOR PARTNER
VIII. STARS AND STRIPES
IX. ROSE WARNER
X. EXPECTED GUESTS
XI. UNEXPECTED GUESTS
XII. THE WATERS ARE TROUBLED
XIV. MADAM CONWAY'S DISASTERS
XV. ARTHUR CARROLLTON AND MAGGIE
XVII. BROTHER AND SISTER
XVIII. THE PEDDLER
XIX. THE TELLING OF THE SECRET
XX. THE RESULT
XXI. THE SISTERS
XXII. THE HOUSE OF MOURNING
XXVI. AUGUST EIGHTEENTH, 1858
THE OLD HOUSE BY THE MILL.
'Mid the New England hills, and beneath the shadow of their dim old woods, is a running brook whose deep waters were not always as merry and frolicsome as now; for years before our story opens, pent up and impeded in their course, they dashed angrily against their prison walls, and turned the creaking wheel of an old sawmill with a sullen, rebellious roar. The mill has gone to decay, and the sturdy men who fed it with the giant oaks of the forest are sleeping quietly in the village graveyard. The waters of the mill-pond, too, relieved from their confinement, leap gayly over the ruined dam, tossing for a moment in wanton glee their locks of snow-white foam, and then flowing on, half fearfully as it were, through the deep gorge overhung with the hemlock and the pine, where the shadows of twilight ever lie, and where the rocks frown gloomily down upon the stream below, which, emerging from the darkness, loses itself at last in the waters of the gracefully winding Chicopee, and leaves far behind the moss-covered walls of what is familiarly known as the "Old House by the Mill."
'Tis a huge, old-fashioned building, distant nearly a mile from the public highway, and surrounded so thickly by forest trees that the bright sunlight, dancing merrily midst the rustling leaves above, falls but seldom on the time-stained walls of dark gray stone, where the damp and dews of more than a century have fallen, and where now the green moss clings with a loving grasp, as if 'twere its rightful resting-place. When the thunders of the Revolution shook the hills of the Bay State, and the royal banner floated in the evening breeze, the house was owned by an old Englishman who, loyal to his king and country, denounced as rebels the followers of Washington. Against these, however, he would not raise his hand, for among them were many long-tried friends who had gathered with him around the festal board; so he chose the only remaining alternative, and went back to his native country, cherishing the hope that he should one day return to the home he loved so well, and listen again to the musical flow of the brook, which could be distinctly heard from the door of the mansion. But his wish was vain, for when at last America was free and the British troops recalled, he slept beneath the sod of England, and the old house was for many years deserted. The Englishman had been greatly beloved, and his property was unmolested, while the weeds and grass grew tall and rank in the garden beds, and the birds of heaven built their nests beneath the projecting roof or held a holiday in the gloomy, silent rooms.
As time passed on, however, and no one appeared to dispute their right, different families occupied the house at intervals, until at last, when nearly fifty years had elapsed, news was one day received that Madam Conway, a granddaughter of the old Englishman, having met with reverses at home, had determined to emigrate to the New World, and remembering the "House by the Mill," of which she had heard so much, she wished to know if peaceable possession of it would be allowed her, in case she decided upon removing thither and making it her future home. To this plan no objection was made, for the aged people of Hillsdale still cherished the memory of the hospitable old man whose locks were gray while they were yet but children, and the younger portion of the community hoped for a renewal of the gayeties which they had heard were once so common at the old stone house.
But in this they were disappointed, for Madam Conway was a proud, unsociable woman, desiring no acquaintance whatever with her neighbors, who, after many ineffectual attempts at something like friendly intercourse, concluded to leave her entirely alone, and contented themselves with watching the progress of matters at "Mill Farm," as she designated the place, which soon began to show visible marks of improvement. The Englishman was a man of taste, and Madam Conway's first work was an attempt to restore the grounds to something of their former beauty. The yard and garden were cleared of weeds, the walks and flower-beds laid out with care, and then the neighbors looked to see her cut away a few of the multitude of trees which had sprung up around her home. But this she had no intention of doing. "They shut me out," she said, "from the prying eyes of the vulgar, and I would rather it should be so." So the trees remained, throwing their long shadows upon the high, narrow windows, and into the large square rooms, where the morning light and the noonday heat seldom found entrance, and which seemed like so many cold, silent caverns, with their old-fashioned massive furniture, their dark, heavy curtains, and the noiseless footfall of the stately lady, who moved ever with the same measured tread, speaking always softly and low to the household servants, who, having been trained in her service, had followed her across the sea.
From these the neighbors learned that Madam Conway had in London a married daughter, Mrs. Miller; that old Hagar Warren, the strange-looking woman who more than anyone else shared her mistress' confidence, had grown up in the family, receiving a very good education, and had nursed their young mistress, Miss Margaret, which of course entitled her to more respect than was usually bestowed upon menials like her; that Madam Conway was very aristocratic, very proud of her high English blood; that though she lived alone she attended strictly to all the formalities of high life, dressing each day with the utmost precision for her solitary dinner—dining off a service of solid silver, and presiding with great dignity in her straight, high-backed chair. She was fond, too, of the ruby wine, and her cellar was stored with the choicest liquors, some of which she had brought with her from home, while others, it was said, had belonged to her grandfather, and for half a century had remained unseen and unmolested, while the cobwebs of time had woven around them a misty covering, making them still more valuable to the lady, who knew full well how age improved such things.
Regularly each day she rode in her ponderous carriage, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by Hester, the daughter of old Hagar, a handsome, intelligent-looking girl, who, after two or three years of comparative idleness at Mill Farm, went to Meriden, Conn., as seamstress in a family which had advertised for such a person. With her departed the only life of the house, and during the following year there ensued a monotonous quiet, which was broken at last for Hagar by the startling announcement that her daughter's young mistress had died four months before, and the husband, a gray-haired, elderly man, had proved conclusively that he was in his dotage by talking of marriage to Hester, who, ere the letter reached her mother, would probably be the third bride of one whose reputed wealth was the only possible inducement to a girl like Hester Warren.
With an immense degree of satisfaction Hagar read the letter through, exulting that fortune had favored her at last. Possessed of many sterling qualities, Hagar Warren had one glaring fault, which had imbittered her whole life. Why others were rich while she was poor she could not understand, and her heart rebelled at the fate which had made her what she was.
But Hester would be wealthy—nay, would perhaps one day rival the haughty Mrs. Miller across the water, who had been her playmate; there was comfort in that, and she wrote to her daughter expressing her entire approbation, and hinting vaguely of the possibility that she herself might some time cease to be a servant, and help do the honors of Mr. Hamilton's house! To this there came no reply, and Hagar was thinking seriously of making a visit to Meriden, when one rainy autumnal night, nearly a year after Hester's marriage, there came another letter sealed with black. With a sad foreboding Hagar opened it, and read that Mr. Hamilton had failed; that his house and farm were sold, and that he, overwhelmed with mortification both at his failure and the opposition of his friends to his last marriage, had died suddenly, leaving Hester with no home in the wide world unless Madam Conway received her again into her family.
"Just my luck!" was Hagar's mental comment, as she finished reading the letter and carried it to her mistress, who had always liked Hester, and who readily consented to give her a home, provided she put on no airs from having been for a time the wife of a reputed wealthy man. "Mustn't put on airs!" muttered Hagar, as she left the room. "Just as if airs wasn't for anybody but high bloods!" And with the canker-worm of envy at her heart she wrote to Hester, who came immediately; and Hagar—when she heard her tell the story of her wrongs, how her husband's sister, indignant at his marriage with a sewing-girl, had removed from him the children, one a stepchild and one his own, and how of all his vast fortune there was not left for her a penny—experienced again the old bitterness of feeling, and murmured that fate should thus deal with her and hers.
With the next day's mail there came to Madam Conway a letter bearing a foreign postmark, and bringing the sad news that her son-in-law had been lost in a storm while crossing the English Channel, and that her daughter Margaret, utterly crushed and heartbroken, would sail immediately for America, where she wished only to lay her weary head upon her mother's bosom and die.
"So there is one person that has no respect for blood, and that is Death," said old Hagar to her mistress, when she heard the news. "He has served us both alike, he has taken my son-in-law first and yours next."
Frowning haughtily, Madam Conway bade her be silent, telling her at the same time to see that the rooms in the north part of the building were put in perfect order for Mrs. Miller, who would probably come in the next vessel. In sullen silence Hagar withdrew, and for several days worked half reluctantly in the "north rooms," as Madam Conway termed a comparatively pleasant, airy suite of apartments, with a balcony above, which looked out upon the old mill-dam and the brook pouring over it.
"There'll be big doings when my lady comes," said Hagar one day to her daughter. "It'll be Hagar here, and Hagar there, and Hagar everywhere, but I shan't hurry myself. I'm getting too old to wait on a chit like her."
"Don't talk so, mother," said Hester. "Margaret was always kind to me. She is not to blame for being rich, while I am poor."
"But somebody's to blame," interrupted old Hagar. "You was always accounted the handsomest and cleverest of the two, and yet for all you'll be nothing but a drudge to wait on her and the little girl."
Hester only sighed in reply, while her thoughts went forward to the future and what it would probably bring her. Hester Warren and Margaret Conway had been children together, and in spite of the difference of their stations they had loved each other dearly; and when at last the weary traveler came, with her pale sad face and mourning garb, none gave her so heartfelt a welcome as Hester; and during the week when, from exhaustion and excitement, she was confined to her bed, it was Hester who nursed her with the utmost care, soothing her to sleep, and then amusing the little Theo, a child of two years. Hagar, too, softened by her young mistress' sorrow, repented of her harsh words, and watched each night with the invalid, who once, when her mind seemed wandering far back in the past, whispered softly, "Tell me the Lord's prayer, dear Hagar, just as you told it to me years ago when I was a little child."
It was a long time since Hagar had breathed that prayer, but at Mrs. Miller's request she commenced it, repeating it correctly until she came to the words, "Give us this day our daily bread"; then she hesitated, and bending forward said, "What comes next, Miss Margaret? Is it 'Lead us not into temptation?"
"Yes, yes," whispered the half-unconscious lady. "'Lead us not into temptation,' that's it." Then, as if there were around her a dim foreboding of the great wrong Hagar was to do, she took her old nurse's hand between her own, and continued, "Say it often, Hagar, 'Lead us not into temptation'; you have much need for that prayer."
A moment more, and Margaret Miller slept, while beside her sat Hagar Warren, half shuddering, she knew not why, as she thought of her mistress' words, which seemed to her so much like the spirit of prophecy.
"Why do I need that prayer more than anyone else?" she said at last. "I have never been tempted more than I could bear—never shall be tempted—and if I am, old Hagar Warren, bad as she is, can resist temptation without that prayer."
Still, reason as she would, Hagar could not shake off the strange feeling, and as she sat half dozing in her chair, with the dim lamplight flickering over her dark face, she fancied that the October wind, sighing so mournfully through the locust trees beneath the window, and then dying away in the distance, bore upon its wing, "'Lead us not into temptation.' Hagar, you have much need to say that prayer."
Aye, Hagar Warren—much need, much need!
The wintry winds were blowing cold and chill around the old stone house, and the deep untrodden snow lay highly piled upon the ground. For many days the gray, leaden clouds had frowned gloomily down upon the earth below, covering it with a thick veil of white. But the storm was over now; with the setting sun it had gone to rest, and the pale moonlight stole softly into the silent chamber, where Madam Conway bent anxiously down to see if but the faintest breath came from the parted lips of her only daughter. There had been born to her that night another grandchild—a little, helpless girl, which now in an adjoining room was Hagar's special care; and Hagar, sitting there with the wee creature upon her lap, and the dread fear at her heart that her young mistress might die, forgot for once to repine at her lot, and did cheerfully whatever was required of her to do.
There was silence in the rooms below—silence in the chambers above,—silence everywhere,—for the sick woman seemed fast nearing the deep, dark river whose waters move onward, but never return.
Almost a week went by, and then, in a room far more humble than where Margaret Miller lay, another immortal being was given to the world; and, with a softened light in her keen black eyes, old Hagar told to her stately mistress, when she met her on the stair, that she too was a grandmother.
"You must not on that account neglect Margaret's child," was Madam Conway's answer, as with a wave of her hand she passed on; and this was all she said—not a word of sympathy or congratulation for the peculiar old woman whose heart, so long benumbed, had been roused to a better state of feeling, and who in the first joy of her newborn happiness had hurried to her mistress, fancying for the moment that she was almost her equal.
"Don't neglect Margaret's child for that!" How the words rang in her ears as she fled up the narrow stairs and through the dark hall, till the low room was reached where lay the babe for whom Margaret's child was not to be neglected. All the old bitterness had returned, and as hour after hour went by, and Madam Conway came not near, while the physician and the servants looked in for a moment only and then hurried away to the other sickroom, where all their services were kept in requisition, she muttered: "Little would they care if Hester died upon my hands. And she will die too," she continued, as by the fading daylight she saw the pallor deepen on her daughter's face.
And Hagar was right, for Hester's sands were nearer run than those of Mrs. Miller. The utmost care might not, perhaps, have saved her; but the matter was not tested; and when the long clock at the head of the stairs struck the hour of midnight she murmured: "It is getting dark here, mother—so dark—and I am growing cold. Can it be death?"
"Yes, Hester, 'tis death," answered Hagar, and her voice was unnaturally calm as she laid her hand on the clammy brow of her daughter.
An hour later, and Madam Conway, who sat dozing in the parlor below, ready for any summons which might come from Margaret's room, was roused by the touch of a cold, hard hand, and Hagar Warren stood before her.
"Come," she said, "come with me;" and, thinking only of Margaret, Madam Conway arose to follow her. "Not there—but this way," said Hagar, as her mistress turned towards Mrs. Miller's door, and grasping firmly the lady's arm she led to the room where Hester lay dead, with her young baby clasped lovingly to her bosom. "Look at her—and pity me now, if you never did before. She was all I had in the world to love," said Hagar passionately.
Madam Conway was not naturally a hard-hearted woman, and she answered gently: "I do pity you, Hagar, and I did not think Hester was so ill. Why haven't you let me know?" To this Hagar made no direct reply, and after a few more inquiries Madam Conway left the room, saying she would send up the servants to do whatever was necessary. When it was known throughout the house that Hester was dead much surprise was expressed and a good deal of sympathy manifested for old Hagar, who, with a gloomy brow, hugged to her heart the demon of jealousy, which kept whispering to her of the difference there would be were Margaret to die. It was deemed advisable to keep Hester's death a secret from Mrs. Miller; so, with as little ceremony as possible, the body was buried at the close of the day, in an inclosure which had been set apart as a family burying-ground; and when again the night shadows fell Hagar Warren sat in her silent room, brooding over her grief, and looking oft at the plain pine cradle where lay the little motherless child, her granddaughter. Occasionally, too, her eye wandered towards the mahogany crib, where another infant slept. Perfect quiet seemed necessary for Mrs. Miller, and Madam Conway had ordered her baby to be removed from the antechamber where first it had been kept, so that Hagar had the two children in her own room.
In the pine cradle there was a rustling sound; the baby was awaking, and taking it upon her lap Hagar soothed it again to sleep, gazing earnestly upon it to see if it were like its mother. It was a bright, healthy-looking infant, and though five days younger than that of Mrs. Miller was quite as large and looked as old.
"And you will be a drudge, while she will be a lady," muttered Hagar, as her tears fell on the face of the sleeping child. "Why need this difference be?"
Old Hagar had forgotten the words "Lead us not into temptation"; and when the Tempter answered, "It need not be," she only started suddenly as if smitten by a heavy blow; but she did not drive him from her, and she sat there reasoning with herself that "it need not be." Neither the physician nor Madam Conway had paid any attention to Margaret's child; it had been her special care, while no one had noticed hers, and newly born babies were so much alike that deception was an easy matter. But could she do it? Could she bear that secret on her soul? Madam Conway, though proud, had been kind to her, and could she thus deceive her! Would her daughter, sleeping in her early grave, approve the deed. "No, no," she answered aloud, "she would not!" and the great drops of perspiration stood thick upon her dark, haggard face as she arose and laid back in her cradle the child whom she had thought to make an heiress.
For a time the Tempter left her, but returned ere long, and creeping into her heart sung to her beautiful songs of the future which might be were Hester's baby a lady. And Hagar, listening to that song, fell asleep, dreaming that the deed was done by other agency than hers—that the little face resting on the downy pillow, and shaded by the costly lace, was lowly born; while the child wrapped in the coarser blanket came of nobler blood, even that of the Conways, who boasted more than one lordly title. With a nervous start she awoke at last, and creeping to the cradle of mahogany looked to see if her dream were true; but it was not. She knew it by the pinched, blue look about the nose, and the thin covering of hair. This was all the difference which even her eye could see, and probably no other person had noticed that, for the child had never been seen save in a darkened room.
The sin was growing gradually less heinous, and she could now calmly calculate the chances for detection. Still, the conflict was long and severe, and it was not until morning that the Tempter gained a point by compromising the matter, and suggesting that while dressing the infants she should change their clothes for once, just to see how fine cambrics and soft flannels would look upon a grandchild of Hagar Warren! "I can easily change them again—it is only an experiment," she said, as with trembling hands she proceeded to divest the children of their wrappings. But her fingers seemed all thumbs, and more than one sharp pin pierced the tender flesh of her little grandchild as she fastened together the embroidered slip, teaching her thus early, had she been able to learn the lesson, that the pathway of the rich is not free from thorns.
Their toilet was completed at last—their cradle beds exchanged; and then, with a strange, undefined feeling, old Hagar stood back and looked to see how the little usurper became her new position. She became it well, and to Hagar's partial eyes it seemed more meet that she should lie there beneath the silken covering than the other one, whose nose looked still more pinched and blue in the plain white dress and cradle of pine. Still, there was a gnawing pain at Hagar's heart, and she would perhaps have undone the wrong had not Madam Conway appeared with inquiries for the baby's health. Hagar could not face her mistress, so she turned away and pretended to busy herself with the arrangement of the room, while the lady, bending over the cradle, said, "I think she is improving, Hagar; I never saw her look so well"; and she pushed back the window curtain to obtain a better view.
With a wild, startled look in her eye, Hagar held her breath to hear what might come next, but her fears were groundless; for, in her anxiety for her daughter, Madam Conway had heretofore scarcely seen her grandchild, and had no suspicion now that the sleeper before her was of plebeian birth, nor yet that the other little one, at whom she did not deign to look, was bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. She started to leave the room, but, impelled by some sudden impulse, turned back and stooped to kiss the child. Involuntarily old Hagar sprang forward to stay the act, and grasped the lady's arm, but she was too late; the aristocratic lips had touched the cheek of Hagar Warren's grandchild, and the secret, if now confessed, would never be forgiven.
"It can't be helped," muttered Hagar, and then, when Mrs. Conway asked an explanation of her conduct, she answered, "I was afraid you'd wake her up, and mercy knows I've had worry enough with both the brats."
Not till then had Madam Conway observed how haggard and worn was Hagar's face, and instead of reproving her for her boldness she said gently: "You have indeed been sorely tried! Shall I send up Bertha to relieve you!"
"No, no," answered Hagar hurriedly, "I am better alone."
The next moment Madam Conway was moving silently down the narrow hall, while Hagar on her knees was weeping passionately. One word of kindness had effected more than a thousand reproaches would have done; and wringing her hands she cried, "I will not do it; I cannot."
Approaching the cradle, she was about to lift the child, when again Madam Conway was at the door. She had come, she said, to take the babe to Margaret, who seemed better this morning, and had asked to see it.
"Not now, not now. Wait till I put on her a handsomer dress, and I'll bring her myself," pleaded Hagar.
But Madam Conway saw no fault in the fine cambric wrapper, and taking the infant in her arms she walked away, while Hagar followed stealthily. Very lovingly the mother folded to her bosom the babe, calling it her fatherless one, and wetting its face with her tears, while through the half-closed door peered Hagar's wild dark eyes—one moment lighting up with exultation as she muttered, "It's my flesh, my blood, proud lady!" and the next growing dim with tears, as she thought of the evil she had done.
"I did not know she had so much hair," said Mrs. Miller, parting the silken locks. "I think it will be like mine," and she gave the child to her mother, while Hagar glided swiftly back to her room.
That afternoon the clergyman whose church Mrs. Conway usually attended, called to see Mrs. Miller, who suggested that both the children should receive the rite of baptism. Hagar was accordingly bidden to prepare them for the ceremony, and resolving to make one more effort to undo what she had done she dressed the child whom she had thought to wrong in its own clothes, and then anxiously awaited her mistress' coming.
"Hagar Warren! What does this mean? Are you crazy!" sternly demanded Madam Conway, when the old nurse held up before her the child with the blue nose.
"No, not crazy yet; but I shall be, if you don't take this one first," answered Hagar.
More than once that day Madam Conway had heard the servants hint that Hagar's grief had driven her insane; and now when she observed the unnatural brightness in her eyes, and saw what she had done, she too thought it possible that her mind was partially unsettled; so she said gently, but firmly: "This is no time for foolishness, Hagar. They are waiting for us in the sickroom; so make haste and change the baby's dress."
There was something authoritative in her manner, and Hagar obeyed, whispering incoherently to herself, and thus further confirming her mistress' suspicions that she was partially insane. During the ceremony she stood tall and erect like some dark, grim statue, her hands firmly locked together, and her eyes fixed upon the face of the little one who was baptized Margaret Miller. As the clergyman pronounced that name she uttered a low, gasping moan, but her face betrayed no emotion, and very calmly she stepped forward with the other child upon her arm.
"What name?" asked the minister; and she answered, "Her mother's; call her for her mother!"
"Hester," said Madam Conway, turning to the clergyman, who understood nothing from Hagar's reply.
So Hester was the name given to the child in whose veins the blood of English noblemen was flowing; and when the ceremony was ended Hagar bore back to her room Hester Hamilton, the child defrauded of her birthright, and Maggie Miller, the heroine of our story.
HESTER AND MAGGIE.
"It is over now," old Hagar thought, as she laid the children upon their pillows. "The deed is done, and by their own hands too. There is nothing left for me now but a confession, and that I cannot make;" so with a heavy weight upon her soul she sat down, resolving to keep her own counsel and abide the consequence, whatever it might be.
But it wore upon her terribly,—that secret,—and though it helped in a measure to divert her mind from dwelling too much upon her daughter's death it haunted her continually, making her a strange, eccentric woman whom the servants persisted in calling crazy, while even Madam Conway failed to comprehend her. Her face, always dark, seemed to have acquired a darker, harder look, while her eyes wore a wild, startled expression, as if she were constantly followed by some tormenting fear. At first Mrs. Miller objected to trusting her with the babe; but when Madam Conway suggested that the woman who had charge of little Theo should also take care of Maggie she fell upon her knees and begged most piteously that the child might not be taken from her. "Everything I have ever loved has left me," said she, "and I cannot give her up."
"But they say you are crazy," answered Madam Conway, somewhat surprised that Hagar should manifest so much affection for a child not at all connected to her. "They say you are crazy, and no one trusts a crazy woman."
"Crazy!" repeated Hagar half-scornfully; "crazy—'tis not craziness—'tis the trouble—the trouble—that's killing me! But I'll hide it closer than it's hidden now," she continued, "if you'll let her stay; and 'fore Heaven I swear that sooner than harm one hair of Maggie's head I'd part with my own life;" and taking the sleeping child in her arms she stood like a wild beast at bay.
Madam Conway did not herself really believe in Hagar's insanity. She had heretofore been perfectly faithful to whatever was committed to her care, so she bade her be quiet, saying they would trust her for a time.
"It's the talking to myself," said Hagar, when left alone. "It's the talking to myself which makes them call me crazy; and though I might talk to many a worse woman than old Hagar Warren, I'll stop it; I'll be still as the grave, and when next they gossip about me it shall be of something besides craziness."
So Hagar became suddenly silent and uncommunicative, mingling but little with the servants, but staying all day long in her room, where she watched the children with untiring care. Especially was she kind to Hester, who as time passed on proved to be a puny, sickly thing, never noticing anyone, but moaning frequently as if in pain. Very tenderly old Hagar nursed her, carrying her often in her arms until they ached from very weariness, while Madam Conway, who watched her with a vigilant eye, complained that she neglected little Maggie.
"And what if I do?" returned Hagar somewhat bitterly. "Aint there a vast difference between the two? S'pose Hester was your own flesh and blood, would you think I could do too much for the poor thing?" And she glanced compassionately at the poor wasted form which lay upon her lap, gasping for breath, and presenting a striking contrast to little Maggie, who in her cradle was crowing and laughing in childish glee at the bright firelight which blazed upon the hearth.
Maggie was indeed a beautiful child. From her mother she had inherited the boon of perfect health, and she throve well in spite of the bumped heads and pinched fingers which frequently fell to her lot, when Hagar was too busy with the feeble child to notice her. The plaything of the whole house, she was greatly petted by the servants, who vied with each other in tracing points of resemblance between her and the Conways; while the grandmother prided herself particularly on the arched eyebrows and finely cut upper lip, which she said were sure marks of high blood, and never found in the lower ranks! With a scornful expression on her face, old Hagar would listen to these remarks, and then, when sure that no one heard her, she would mutter: "Marks of blood! What nonsense! I'm almost glad I've solved the riddle, and know 'taint blood that makes the difference. Just tell her the truth once, and she'd quickly change her mind. Hester's blue, pinched nose, which makes one think of fits, would be the very essence of aristocracy, while Maggie's lip would come of the little Paddy blood there is running in her veins!"
And still Madam Conway herself was not one-half so proud of the bright, playful Maggie as was old Hagar, who, when they were alone, would hug her to her bosom, and gaze fondly on her fair, round face and locks of silken hair, so like those now resting in the grave. In the meantime Mrs. Miller, who since her daughter's birth, had never left her room, was growing daily weaker, and when Maggie was nearly nine months old she died, with the little one folded to her bosom, just as Hester Hamilton had held it when she too passed from earth.
"Doubly blessed," whispered old Hagar, who was present, and then when she remembered that to poor little Hester a mother's blessing would never be given she felt that her load of guilt was greater than she could bear. "She will perhaps forgive me if I confess it to her over Miss Margaret's coffin," she thought; and once when they stood together by the sleeping dead, and Madam Conway, with Maggie in her arms, was bidding the child kiss the clay-cold lips of its mother, old Hagar attempted to tell her. "Could you bear Miss Margaret's death as well," she said, "if Maggie, instead of being bright and playful as she is, were weak and sick like Hester?" and her eyes fastened themselves upon Madam Conway with an agonizing intensity which that lady could not fathom. "Say, would you bear it as well—could you love her as much—would you change with me, take Hester for your own, and give me little Maggie?" she persisted, and Madam Conway, surprised at her excited manner, which she attributed in a measure to envy, answered coldly: "Of course not. Still, if God had seen fit to give me a child like Hester, I should try to be reconciled, but I am thankful he has not thus dealt with me."
"'Tis enough. I am satisfied," thought Hagar. "She would not thank me for telling her. The secret shall be kept;" and half exultingly she anticipated the pride she should feel in seeing her granddaughter grown up a lady and an heiress.
Anon, however, there came stealing over her a feeling of remorse, as she reflected that the child defrauded of its birthright would, if it lived, be compelled to serve in the capacity of a servant; and many a night, when all else was silent in the old stone house, she paced up and down the room, her long hair, now fast turning gray, falling over her shoulders, and her large eyes dimmed with tears, as she thought what the future would bring to the infant she carried in her arms.
But the evil she so much dreaded never came, for when the winter snows were again falling they made a little grave beneath the same pine tree where Hester Hamilton lay sleeping, and, while they dug that grave, old Hagar sat, with folded arms and tearless eyes, gazing fixedly upon the still white face and thin blue lips which would never again be distorted with pain. Her habit of talking to herself had returned, and as she sat there she would at intervals whisper: "Poor little babe! I would willingly have cared for you all my life, but I am glad you are gone to Miss Margaret, who, it may be, will wonder what little thin-faced angel is calling her mother! But somebody'll introduce you, somebody'll tell her who you are, and when she knows how proud her mother is of Maggie she'll forgive old Hagar Warren!"
"Gone stark mad!" was the report carried by the servants to their mistress, who believed the story when Hagar herself came to her with the request that Hester might be buried in some of Maggie's clothes.
Touched with pity by her worn, haggard face, Madam Conway answered, "Yes, take some of her common ones," and, choosing the cambric robe which Hester had worn on the morning when the exchange was made, Hagar dressed the body for the grave. When at last everything was ready, and the tiny coffin stood upon the table, Madam Conway drew near and looked for a moment on the emaciated form which rested quietly from all its pain. Hovering at her side was Hagar, and feeling it her duty to say a word of comfort the stately lady remarked that it was best the babe should die; that were it her grandchild she should feel relieved; for had it lived, it would undoubtedly have been physically and intellectually feeble.
"Thank you! I am considerably comforted," was the cool reply of Hagar, who felt how cruel were the words, and who for a moment was strongly tempted to claim the beautiful Maggie as her own, and give back to the cold, proud woman the senseless clay on which she looked so calmly.
But love for her grandchild conquered. There was nothing in the way of her advancement now, and when at the grave she knelt her down to weep, as the bystanders thought, over her dead, she was breathing there a vow that never so long as she lived should the secret of Maggie's birth be given to the world unless some circumstance then unforeseen should make it absolutely and unavoidably necessary. To see Maggie grow up into a beautiful, refined, and cultivated woman was now the great object of Hagar's life; and, fearing lest by some inadvertent word or action the secret should be disclosed, she wished to live by herself, where naught but the winds of heaven could listen to the incoherent whisperings which made her fellow-servants accuse her of insanity.
Down in the deepest shadow of the woods, and distant from the old stone house nearly a mile, was a half-ruined cottage which, years before, had been occupied by miners, who had dug in the hillside for particles of yellow ore which they fancied to be gold. Long and frequent were the night revels said to have been held in the old hut, which had at last fallen into bad repute and been for years deserted. To one like Hagar, however, there was nothing intimidating in its creaking old floors, its rattling windows and noisome chimney, where the bats and the swallows built their nests; and when one day Madam Conway proposed giving little Maggie into the charge of a younger and less nervous person than herself she made no objection, but surprised her mistress by asking permission to live by herself in the "cottage by the mine," as it was called.
"It is better for me to be alone," said she, "for I may do something terrible if I stay here, something I would sooner die than do," and her eyes fell upon Maggie sleeping in her cradle.
This satisfied Madam Conway that the half-crazed woman meditated harm to her favorite grandchild, and she consented readily to her removal to the cottage, which by her orders was made comparatively comfortable. For several weeks, when she came, as she did each day, to the house, Madam Conway kept Maggie carefully from her sight, until at last she begged so hard to see her that her wish was gratified; and as she manifested no disposition whatever to molest the child, Madam Conway's fears gradually subsided, and Hagar was permitted to fondle and caress her as often as she chose.
Here now, for a time, we leave them; Hagar in her cottage by the mine; Madam Conway in her gloomy home; Maggie in her nurse's arms; and Theo, of whom as yet but little has been said, playing on the nursery floor; while with our readers we pass silently over a period of time which shall bring us to Maggie's girlhood.
Fifteen years have passed away, and around the old stone house there is outwardly no change. The moss still clings to the damp, dark wall, just as it clung there long ago, while the swaying branches of the forest trees still cast their shadows across the floor, or scream to the autumn blast, just as they did in years gone by, when Hagar Warren breathed that prayer, "Lead us not into temptation." Madam Conway, stiff and straight and cold as ever, moves with the same measured tread through her gloomy rooms, which are not as noiseless now as they were wont to be, for girlhood—joyous, merry girlhood—has a home in those dark rooms, and their silence is broken by the sound of other feet, not moving stealthily and slow, as if following in a funeral train, but dancing down the stairs, tripping through the halls, skipping across the floor, and bounding over the grass, they go, never tiring, never ceasing, till the birds and the sun have gone to rest.
And do what she may, the good lady cannot check the gleeful mirth, or hush the clear ringing laughter of one at least of the fair maidens, who, since last we looked upon them, have grown up to womanhood. Wondrously beautiful is Maggie Miller now, with her bright sunny face, her soft dark eyes and raven hair, so glossy and smooth that her sister, the pale-faced, blue-eyed Theo, likens it to a piece of shining satin. Now, as ever, the pet and darling of the household, she moves among them like a ray of sunshine; and the servants, when they hear her bird-like voice waking the echoes of the weird old place, pause in their work to listen, blessing Miss Margaret for the joy and gladness her presence has brought them.
Old Hagar, in her cottage by the mine, has kept her secret well, whispering it only to the rushing wind and the running brook, which have told no tales to the gay, light-hearted girl, save to murmur in her ear that a life untrammeled by etiquette and form would be a blissful life indeed. And Maggie, listening to the voices which speak to her so oft in the autumn wind, the running brook, the opening flower, and the falling leaf, has learned a lesson different far from those taught her daily by the prim, stiff governess, who, imported from England six years ago, has drilled both Theo and Maggie in all the prescribed rules of high life as practiced in the Old World. She has taught them how to sit and how to stand, how to eat and how to drink, as becomes young ladies of Conway blood and birth. And Madam Conway, through her golden spectacles, looks each day to see some good from all this teaching come to the bold, dashing, untamable Maggie, who, spurning birth and blood alike, laughs at form and etiquette as taught by Mrs. Jeffrey, and, winding her arms around her grandmother's neck, crumples her rich lace ruffle with a most unladylike hug, and then bounds away to the stables, pretending not to hear the distressed Mrs. Jeffrey calling after her not to run, "it is so Yankeefied and vulgar"; or if she did hear, answering back, "I am a Yankee, native born, and shall run for all Johnny Bull!"
Greatly horrified at this evidence of total depravity, Mrs. Jeffrey brushes down her black silk apron and goes back to Theo, her more tractable pupil; while Maggie, emerging ere long from the stable, clears the fence with one leap of her high-mettled pony, which John, the coachman, had bought at an enormous price, of a traveling circus, on purpose for his young mistress, who complained that grandma's horses were all too lazy and aristocratic in their movements for her.
In perfect amazement Madam Conway looked out when first Gritty, as the pony was called, was led up to the door, prancing, pawing, chafing at the bit, and impatient to be off. "Margaret shall never mount that animal," she said; but Margaret had ruled for sixteen years, and now, at a sign from John, she sprang gayly upon the back of the fiery steed, who, feeling instinctively that the rider he carried was a stranger to fear, became under her training perfectly gentle, obeying her slightest command, and following her ere long like a sagacious dog. Not thus easily could Madam Conway manage Maggie, and with a groan she saw her each day fly over the garden gate and out into the woods, which she scoured in all directions.
"She'll break her neck, I know," the disturbed old lady would say, as Maggie's flowing skirt and waving plumes disappeared in the shadow of the trees. "She'll break her neck some day;" and thinking someone must be in fault, her eyes would turn reprovingly upon Mrs. Jeffrey for having failed in subduing Maggie, whom the old governess pronounced the "veriest madcap" in the world. "There is nothing like her in all England," she said; "and her low-bred ways must be the result of her having been born on American soil."
If Maggie was to be censured, Madam Conway chose to do it herself; and on such occasions she would answer: "'Low-bred,' Mrs. Jeffrey, is not a proper term to apply to Margaret. She's a little wild, I admit, but no one with my blood in their veins can be low-bred;" and, in her indignation at the governess, Madam would usually forget to reprove her granddaughter when she came back from her ride, her cheeks flushed and her eyes shining like stars with the healthful exercise. Throwing herself upon a stool at her grandmother's feet, Maggie would lay her head upon the lap of the proud lady, who very lovingly would smooth the soft, shining hair, "so much like her own," she said.
"Before you had to color it, you mean, don't you, grandma?" the mischievous Maggie would rejoin, looking up archly to her grandmother, who would call her a saucy child, and stroke still more fondly the silken locks.
Wholly unlike Maggie was Theo, a pale-faced, fair-haired girl, who was called pretty, when not overshadowed by the queenly presence of her more gifted sister. And Theo was very proud of this sister, too; proud of the beautiful Maggie, to whom, though two years her junior, she looked for counsel, willing always to abide by her judgment; for what Maggie did must of course be right, and grandma would not scold. So if at any time Theo was led into error, Maggie stood ready to bear the blame, which was never very severe, for Mrs. Jeffrey had learned not to censure her too much, lest by so doing she should incur the displeasure of her employer, who in turn loved Maggie, if it were possible, better than the daughter whose name she bore, and whom Maggie called her mother. Well kept and beautiful was the spot where that mother lay, and the grave was marked by a costly marble which gleamed clear and white through the surrounding evergreens. This was Maggie's favorite resort, and here she often sat in the moonlight, musing of one who slept there, and who, they said, had held her on her bosom when she died.
At no great distance from this spot was another grave, where the grass grew tall and green, and where the headstone, half sunken in the earth, betokened that she who rested there was of humble origin. Here Maggie seldom tarried long. The place had no attraction for her, for rarely now was the name of Hester Hamilton heard at the old stone house, and all save one seemed to have forgotten that such as she had ever lived. This was Hagar Warren, who in her cottage by the mine has grown older and more crazy-like since last we saw her. Her hair, once so much like that which Madam Conway likens to her own, has bleached as white as snow, and her tall form is shriveled now, and bent. The secret is wearing her life away, and yet she does not regret what she has done. She cannot, when she looks upon the beautiful girl who comes each day to her lonely hut, and whom she worships with a species of wild idolatry. Maggie knows not why it is, and yet to her there is a peculiar fascination about that strange old woman, with her snow-white hair, her wrinkled face, her bony hand, and wild, dark eyes, which, when they rest on her, have in them a look of unutterable tenderness.
Regularly each day, when the sun nears the western horizon, Maggie steals away to the cottage, and the lonely woman, waiting for her on the rude bench by the door, can tell her bounding footstep from all others which pass that way. She does not say much now herself; but the sound of Maggie's voice, talking to her in the gathering twilight, is the sweetest she has ever heard; and so she sits and listens, while her hands work nervously together, and her whole body trembles with a longing, intense desire to clasp the young girl to her bosom and claim her as her own. But this she dare not do, for Madam Conway's training has had its effect, and in Maggie's bearing there is ever a degree of pride which forbids anything like undue familiarity. And it was this very pride which Hagar liked to see, whispering often to herself, "Warren blood and Conway airs—the two go well together."
Sometimes a word or a look would make her start, they reminded her so forcibly of the dead; and once she said involuntarily: "You are like your mother, Maggie. Exactly what she was at your age."
"My mother!" answered Maggie. "You never talked to me of her; tell me of her now. I did not suppose I was like her in anything."
"Yes, in everything," said old Hagar; "the same dark eyes and hair, the same bright red cheeks, the same—"
"Why, Hagar, what can you mean?" interrupted Maggie. "My mother had light blue eyes and fair brown hair, like Theo. Grandma says I am not like her at all, while old Hannah, the cook, when she feels ill-natured and wishes to tease me, says I am the very image of Hester Hamilton."
"And what if you are? What if you are?" eagerly rejoined old Hagar. "Would you feel badly to know you looked like Hester?" and the old woman bent anxiously forward to hear the answer: "Not for myself, perhaps, provided Hester was handsome, for I think a good deal of beauty, that's a fact; but it would annoy grandma terribly to have me look like a servant. She might fancy I was Hester's daughter, for she wonders every day where I get my low-bred ways, as she calls my liking to sing and laugh and be natural."
"And s'posin' Hester was your mother, would you care?" persisted Hagar.
"Of course I should," answered Maggie, her large eyes opening wide at the strange question. "I wouldn't for the whole world be anybody but Maggie Miller, just who I am. To be sure, I get awfully out of patience with grandma and Mrs. Jeffrey for talking so much about birth and blood and family, and all that sort of nonsense, but after all I wouldn't for anything be poor and work as poor folks do."
"I'll never tell her, never," muttered Hagar; and Maggie continued: "What a queer habit you have of talking to yourself. Did you always do so?"
"Not always. It came upon me with the secret," Hagar answered inadvertently; and eagerly catching at the last word, which to her implied a world of romance and mystery, Maggie exclaimed: "The secret, Hagar, the secret! If there's anything I delight in it's a secret!" and, sliding down from the rude bench to the grass-plat at Hagar's feet, she continued: "Tell it to me, Hagar, that's a dear old woman. I'll never tell anybody as long as I live. I won't, upon my word," she continued, as she saw the look of horror resting on Hagar's face; "I'll help you keep it, and we'll have such grand times talking it over. Did it concern yourself?" and Maggie folded her arms upon the lap of the old woman, who answered in a voice so hoarse and unnatural that Maggie involuntarily shuddered, "Old Hagar would die inch by inch sooner than tell you, Maggie Miller, her secret."
"Was it, then, so dreadful?" asked Maggie half fearfully, and casting a stealthy glance at the dim woods, where the night shadows were falling, and whose winding path she must traverse alone on her homeward route. "Was it, then, so dreadful?"
"Yes, dreadful, dreadful; and yet, Maggie, I have sometimes wished you knew it. You would forgive me, perhaps. If you knew how I was tempted," said Hagar, and her voice was full of yearning tenderness, while her bony fingers parted lovingly the shining hair from off the white brow of the young girl, who pleaded again, "Tell it to me, Hagar."
There was a fierce struggle in Hagar's bosom, but the night wind, moving through the hemlock boughs, seemed to say, "Not yet—not yet"; and, remembering her vow, she answered: "Leave me, Maggie Miller, I cannot tell you the secret. You of all others. You would hate me for it, and that I could not bear. Leave me alone, or the sight of you, so beautiful, pleading for my secret, will kill me dead."
There was command in the tones of her voice, and rising to her feet Maggie walked away, with a dread feeling at her heart, a feeling which whispered vaguely to her of a deed of blood—for what save this could thus affect old Hagar? Her road home led near the little burying-ground, and impelled by something she could not resist she paused at her mother's grave. The moonlight was falling softly upon it; and, seating herself within the shadow of the monument, she sat a long time thinking, not of the dead, but of Hagar and the strange words she had uttered. Suddenly, from the opposite side of the graveyard, there came a sound as of someone walking; and, looking up, Maggie saw approaching her the bent figure of the old woman, who seemed unusually excited. Her first impulse was to fly, but knowing how improbable it was that Hagar should seek to do her harm, and thinking she might discover some clew to the mystery if she remained, she sat still, while, kneeling on Hester's grave, old Hagar wept bitterly, talking the while, but so incoherently that Maggie could distinguish nothing save the words, "You, Hester, have forgiven me."
"Can it be that she has killed her own child!" thought Maggie, and starting to her feet she stood face to face with Hagar, who screamed: "You here, Maggie Miller!—here with the others who know my secret! But you shan't wring it from me. You shall never know it, unless the dead rise up to tell you."
"Hagar Warren," said Margaret sternly, "is murder your secret? Did Hester Hamilton die at her mother's hands?"
With a short gasping moan, Hagar staggered backward a pace or two, and then, standing far more erect than Margaret had ever seen her before, she answered: "No, Maggie Miller, no; murder is not my secret. These hands," and she tossed in the air her shriveled arms, "these hands are as free from blood as yours. And now go. Leave me alone with my dead, and see that you tell no tales. You like secrets, you say. Let what you have heard to-night be your secret. Go."
Maggie obeyed, and walked slowly homeward, feeling greatly relieved that her suspicion was false, and experiencing a degree of satisfaction in thinking that she too had a secret, which she would guard most carefully from her grandmother and Theo. "She would never tell them what she had seen and heard—never!"
Seated upon the piazza were Madam Conway and Theo, the former of whom chided her for staying so late at the cottage, while Theo asked what queer things the old witch-woman had said to-night.
With a very expressive look, which seemed to say, "I know, but I shan't tell," Maggie seated herself at her grandmother's feet, and asked how long Hagar had been crazy. "Did it come upon her when her daughter died?" she inquired; and Madam Conway answered: "Yes, about that time, or more particularly when the baby died. Then she began to act so strangely that I removed you from her care, for, from something she said, I fancied she meditated harm to you."
For a moment Maggie sat wrapped in thought—then clapping her hands together she exclaimed: "I have it; I know now what ails her! She felt so badly to see you happy with me that she tried to poison me. She said she was sorely tempted—and that's the secret which is killing her."
"Secret! What secret?" cried Theo; and, womanlike, forgetting her resolution not to tell, Maggie told what she had seen and heard, adding it as her firm belief that Hagar had made an attempt upon her life.
"I would advise you for the future to keep away from her, then," said Madam Conway, to whom the suggestion seemed a very probable one.
But Maggie knew full well that whatever Hagar might once have thought to do, there was no danger to be apprehended from her now, and the next day found her as usual on her way to the cottage. Bounding into the room where the old woman sat at her knitting, she exclaimed: "I know what it is! I know your secret!"
There was a gathering mist before Hagar's eyes, and her face was deathly white, as she gasped: "You know the secret! How? Where? Have the dead come back to tell? Did anybody see me do it?"
"Why, no," answered Maggie, beginning to grow a little mystified. "The dead have nothing to do with it. You tried to poison me when I was a baby, and that's what makes you crazy. Isn't it so? Grandma thought it was, when I told her how you talked last night."
There was a heavy load lifted from Hagar's heart, and she answered calmly, but somewhat indignantly, "So you told—I thought I could trust you, Maggie."
Instantly the tears came to Maggie's eyes, and, coloring crimson, she said: "I didn't mean to tell—indeed I didn't, but I forgot all about your charge. Forgive me, Hagar, do," and, sinking on the floor, she looked up in Hagar's face so pleadingly that the old woman was softened, and answered gently: "You are like the rest of your sex, Margaret. No woman but Hagar Warren ever kept a secret; and it's killing her, you see!"
"Don't keep it, then," said Maggie. "Tell it to me. Confess that you tried to poison me because you envied grandma," and the soft eyes looked with an anxious, expectant expression into the dark, wild orbs of Hagar, who replied: "Envy was at the bottom of it all, but I never tried to harm you, Margaret, in any way. I only thought to do you good. You have not guessed it. You cannot, and you must not try."
"Tell it to me, then. I want to know it so badly," persisted Maggie, her curiosity each moment increasing.
"Maggie Miller," said old Hagar, and the knitting dropped from her fingers, which moved slowly on till they reached and touched the little snowflake of a hand resting on her knee—"Maggie Miller, if you knew that the telling of that secret would make you perfectly wretched, would you wish to hear it?"
For a moment Maggie was silent, and then, half laughingly, she replied: "I'd risk it, Hagar, for I never wanted to know anything half so bad in all my life. Tell it to me, won't you?"
Very beautiful looked Maggie Miller then—her straw flat set jauntily on one side of her head, her glossy hair combed smoothly back, her soft lustrous eyes shining with eager curiosity, and her cheeks flushed with excitement. Very, very beautiful she seemed to the old woman, who, in her intense longing to take the bright creature to her bosom, was, for an instant, sorely tempted.
"Margaret!" she began, and at the sound of her voice the young girl shuddered involuntarily. "Margaret!" she said again; but ere another word was uttered the autumn wind, which for the last half-hour had been rising rapidly, came roaring down the wide-mouthed chimney, and the heavy fireboard fell upon the floor with a tremendous crash, nearly crushing old Hagar's foot, and driving for a time all thoughts of the secret from Maggie's mind. "Served me right," muttered Hagar, as Maggie left the room for water with which to bathe the swollen foot. "Served me right; and if ever I'm tempted to tell her again may every bone in my body be smashed!"
The foot was carefully cared for, Maggie's own hands tenderly bandaging it up; and then with redoubled zeal she returned to the attack, pressing old Hagar so hard that the large drops of perspiration gathered thickly about her forehead and lips, which were white as ashes. Wearied at last, Maggie gave it up for the time being, but her curiosity was thoroughly aroused, and for many days she persisted in her importunity, until at last, in self-defense, old Hagar, when she saw her coming, would steal away to the low-roofed chamber, and, hiding behind a pile of rubbish, would listen breathlessly while Margaret hunted for her in vain. Then when she was gone she would crawl out from her hiding-place, covered with cobwebs and dust, and mutter to herself: "I never expected this, and it's more than I can bear. Why will she torment me so, when a knowledge of the secret would drive her mad!"
This, however, Maggie Miller did not know. Blessed with an uncommon degree of curiosity, which increased each time she saw old Hagar, she resolved to solve the mystery, which she felt sure was connected with herself, though in what manner she could not guess. "But I will know," she would say to herself when returning from a fruitless quizzing of old Hagar, whose hiding-place she had at last discovered; "I will know what 'tis about me. I shall never be quite happy till I do."
Ah, Maggie, Maggie, be happy while you can, and leave the secret alone! It will come to you soon enough—aye, soon enough!
Very rapidly the winter passed away, and one morning early in March Maggie went down to the cottage with the news that Madam Conway was intending to start immediately for England, where she had business which would probably detain her until fall.
"Oh, won't I have fun in her absence!" she cried. "I'll visit every family in the neighborhood. Here she's kept Theo and me caged up like two wild animals, and now I am going to see a little of the world. I don't mean to study a bit, and instead of visiting you once a day I shall come at least three times."
"Lord help me!" ejaculated old Hagar, who, much as she loved Maggie, was beginning to dread her daily visits.
"Why do you want help?" asked Maggie laughingly. "Are you tired of me, Hagar? Don't you like me any more?"
"Like you, Maggie Miller!—like you!" repeated old Hagar, and in the tones of her voice there was a world of tenderness and love. "There is nothing on earth I love as I do you. But you worry me to death sometimes."
"Oh, yes, I know," answered Maggie; "but I'm not going to tease you for a while. I shall have so much else to do when grandma is gone that I shall forget it. I wish she wasn't so proud," she continued, after a moment. "I wish she'd let Theo and me see a little more of the world than she does. I wonder how she ever expects us to get married, or be anybody, if she keeps us here in the woods like young savages. Why, as true as you live, Hagar, I have never been anywhere in my life, except to church Sundays, once to Douglas' store in Worcester, once to Patty Thompson's funeral, and once to a Methodist camp-meeting; and I never spoke to more than a dozen men besides the minister and the school boys! It's too bad!" and Maggie pouted quite becomingly at the injustice done her by her grandmother in keeping her thus secluded. "Theo don't care," she said. "She is prouder than I am, and does not wish to know the Yankees, as grandma calls the folks in this country; but I'm glad I am a Yankee. I wouldn't live in England for anything."
"Why don't your grandmother take you with her?" asked Hagar, who in a measure sympathized with Maggie for being thus isolated.
"She says we are too young to go into society," answered Maggie. "It will be time enough two years hence, when I am eighteen and Theo twenty. Then I believe she intends taking us to London, where we can show off our accomplishments, and practice that wonderful courtesy which Mrs. Jeffrey has taught us. I dare say the queen will be astonished at our qualifications;" and with a merry laugh, as she thought of the appearance she should make at the Court of St. James, Maggie leaped on Gritty's back and bounded away, while Hagar looked wistfully after her, saying as she wiped the tears from her eyes: "Heaven bless the girl! She might sit on the throne of England any day, and Victoria wouldn't disgrace herself at all by doing her reverence, even if she be a child of Hagar Warren."
As Maggie had said, Madam Conway was going to England. At first she thought of taking the young ladies with her, but, thinking they were hardly old enough yet to be emancipated from the schoolroom, she decided to leave them under the supervision of Mrs. Jeffrey, whose niece she promised to bring with her on her return to America. Upon her departure she bade Theo and Maggie a most affectionate adieu, adding:
"Be good girls while I am away, keep in the house, mind Mrs. Jeffrey, and don't fall in love."
This last injunction came involuntarily from the old lady, to whom the idea of their falling in love was quite as preposterous as to themselves.
"Fall in love!" repeated Maggie, when her tears were dried, and she with Theo was driving slowly home. "What could grandma mean! I wonder who there is for us to love, unless it be John the coachman, or Bill the gardener. I almost wish we could get in love though, just to see how 'twould seem, don't you?" she continued.
"Not with anybody here," answered Theo, her nose slightly elevated at the thought of people whom she had been educated to despise.
"Why not here as well as elsewhere?" asked Maggie. "I don't see any difference. But grandma needn't be troubled, for such things as men's boots never come near our house. It's a shame, though," she continued, "that we don't know anybody, either male or female. Let's go down to Worcester some day, and get acquainted. Don't you remember the two handsome young men whom we saw five years ago in Douglas' store, and how they winked at each other when grandma ran down their goods and said there were not any darning needles fit to use this side of the water?"
On most subjects Theo's memory was treacherous, but she remembered perfectly well the two young men, particularly the taller one, who had given her a remnant of blue ribbon which he said was just the color of her eyes. Still, the idea of going to Worcester did not strike her favorably. "She wished Worcester would come to them," she said, "but she should not dare to go there. They would surely get lost. Grandma would not like it, and Mrs. Jeffrey would not let them go, even if they wished."
"A fig for Mrs. Jeffrey," said Maggie. "I shan't mind her much. I'm going to have a real good time, doing as I please, and if you are wise you'll have one too."
"I suppose I shall do what you tell me to—I always do," answered Theo submissively, and there the conversation ceased.
Arrived at home they found dinner awaiting them, and Maggie, when seated, suggested to Mrs. Jeffrey that she should give them a vacation of a few weeks, just long enough for them to get rested and visit the neighbors. But this Mrs. Jeffrey refused to do.
She had her orders to keep them at their books, she said, and "study was healthful"; at the same time she bade them be in the schoolroom on the morrow. There was a wicked look in Maggie's eyes, but her tongue told no tales, and when next morning she went with Theo demurely to the schoolroom she seemed surprised at hearing from Mrs. Jeffrey that every book had disappeared from the desk where they were usually kept; and though the greatly disturbed and astonished lady had sought for them nearly an hour, they were not to be found.
"Maggie has hidden them, I know," said Theo, as she saw the mischievous look on her sister's face.
"Margaret wouldn't do such a thing, I'm sure," answered Mrs. Jeffrey, her voice and manner indicating a little doubt, however, as to the truth of her assertion.
But Maggie had hidden them, and no amount of coaxing could persuade her to bring them back. "You refused me a vacation when I asked for it," she said, "so I'm going to have it perforce;" and, playfully catching up the little dumpy figure of her governess, she carried her out upon the piazza, and, seating her in a large easy-chair, bade her take snuff, and comfort too, as long as she liked.
Mrs. Jeffrey knew perfectly well that Maggie in reality was mistress of the house, that whatever she did Madam Conway would ultimately sanction; and as a rest was by no means disagreeable, she yielded with a good grace, dividing her time between sleeping, snuffing, and dressing, while Theo lounged upon the sofa and devoured some musty old novels which Maggie, in her rummaging, had discovered.
Meanwhile Maggie kept her promise of visiting the neighbors, and almost every family had something to say in praise of the merry, light-hearted girl of whom they had heretofore known but little. Her favorite recreation, however, was riding on horseback, and almost every day she galloped through the woods and over the fields, usually terminating her ride with a call upon old Hagar, whom she still continued to tease unmercifully for the secret, and who was glad when at last an incident occurred which for a time drove all thoughts of the secret from Maggie's mind.
THE JUNIOR PARTNER.
One afternoon towards the middle of April, when Maggie as usual was flying through the woods, she paused for a moment beneath the shadow of a sycamore while Gritty drank from a small running brook. The pony having quenched his thirst, she gathered up her reins for a fresh gallop, when her ear caught the sound of another horse's hoofs; and, looking back, she saw approaching her at a rapid rate a gentleman whom she knew to be a stranger. Not caring to be overtaken, she chirruped to the spirited Gritty, who, bounding over the velvety turf, left the unknown rider far in the rear.
"Who can she be?" thought the young man, admiring the utter fearlessness with which she rode; then, feeling a little piqued, as he saw how the distance between them was increasing, he exclaimed, "Be she woman, or be she witch, I'll overtake her"; and, whistling to his own fleet animal, he too dashed on at a furious rate.
"Trying to catch me, are you?" thought Maggie. "I'd laugh to see you do it." And entering at once into the spirit of the race, she rode on for a time with headlong speed—then, by way of tantalizing her pursuer, she paused for a moment until he had almost reached her, when at a peculiar whistle Gritty sprang forward, while Maggie's mocking laugh was borne back to the discomfited young man, whose interest in the daring girl increased each moment. It was a long, long chase she led him, over hills, across plains, and through the grassy valley, until she stopped at last within a hundred yards of the deep, narrow gorge through which the mill-stream ran.
"I have you now," thought the stranger, who knew by the dull, roaring sound of the water that a chasm lay between him and the opposite bank.
But Maggie had not yet half displayed her daring feats of horsemanship, and when he came so near that his waving brown locks and handsome dark eyes were plainly discernible, she said to herself: "He rides tolerably well. I'll see how good he is at a leap," and, setting herself more firmly in the saddle, she patted Gritty upon the neck. The well-trained animal understood the signal, and, rearing high in the air, was fast nearing the bank, when the young man, suspecting her design, shrieked out: "Stop, lady, stop! It's madness to attempt it."
"Follow me if you can," was Maggie's defiant answer, and the next moment she hung in mid-air over the dark abyss.
Involuntarily the young man closed his eyes, while his ear listened anxiously for the cry which would come next. But Maggie knew full well what she was doing. She had leaped that narrow gorge often, and now when the stranger's eyes unclosed she stood upon the opposite bank, caressing the noble animal which had borne her safely there.
"It shall never be said that Henry Warner was beaten by a schoolgirl," muttered the stranger. "If she can clear that, I can, bad rider as I am!" and burying his spurs deep in the sides of his horse, he pressed on while Maggie held her breath in fear, for she knew that without practice no one could do what she had done.
There was a partially downward plunge—a fierce struggle on the shelving bank, where the animal had struck a few feet from the top—then the steed stood panting on terra firma, while a piercing shriek broke the deep silence of the wood, and Maggie's cheeks blanched to a marble hue. The rider, either from dizziness or fear, had fallen at the moment the horse first struck the bank, and from the ravine below there came no sound to tell if yet he lived.
"He's dead; he's dead!" cried Maggie. "'Twas my own foolishness which killed him," and springing from Gritty's back she gathered up her long riding skirt and glided swiftly down the bank, until she came to a wide, projecting rock, where the stranger lay, motionless and still, his white face upturned to the sunlight, which came stealing down through the overhanging boughs. In an instant she was at his side, and his head was resting on her lap, while her trembling fingers parted back from his pale brow the damp mass of curling hair.
"The fall alone would not kill him," she said, as her eye measured the distance, and then she looked anxiously round for water with which to bathe his face.
But water there was none, save in the stream below, whose murmuring flow fell mockingly on her ears, for it seemed to say she could not reach it. But Maggie Miller was equal to any emergency, and venturing out to the very edge of the rock she poised herself on one foot, and looked down the dizzy height to see if it were possible to descend.
"I can try at least," she said, and glancing at the pale face of the stranger unhesitatingly resolved to attempt it.
The descent was less difficult than she had anticipated, and in an incredibly short space of time she was dipping her pretty velvet cap in the brook, whose sparkling foam had never before been disturbed by the touch of a hand as soft and fair as hers. To ascend was not so easy a matter; but, chamois-like, Maggie's feet trod safely the dangerous path, and she soon knelt by the unconscious man, bathing his forehead in the clear cold water, until he showed signs of returning life. His lips moved slowly at last, as if he would speak; and Maggie, bending low to catch the faintest sound, heard him utter the name of "Rose." In Maggie's bosom there was no feeling for the stranger save that of pity, and yet that one word "Rose" thrilled her with a strange undefinable emotion, awaking at once a yearning desire to know something of her who bore that beautiful name, and who to the young man was undoubtedly the one in all the world most dear.
"Rose," he said again, "is it you?" and his eyes, which opened slowly, scanned with an eager, questioning look the face of Maggie, who, open-hearted and impulsive as usual, answered somewhat sadly: "I am nobody but Maggie Miller. I am not Rose, though I wish I was, if you would like to see her."
The tones of her voice recalled the stranger's wandering mind, and he answered: "Your voice is like Rose, but I would rather see you, Maggie Miller. I like your fearlessness, so unlike most of your sex. Rose is far more gentle, more feminine than you, and if her very life depended upon it she would never dare leap that gorge."
The young man intended no reproof; but Maggie took his words as such, and for the first time in her life began to think that possibly her manner was not always as womanly as might be. At all events, she was not like the gentle Rose, whom she instantly invested with every possible grace and beauty, wishing that she herself was like her instead of the wild madcap she was. Then, thinking that her conduct required some apology, she answered, as none save one as fresh and ingenuous as Maggie Miller would have answered: "I don't know any better than to behave as I do. I've always lived in the woods—have never been to school a day in my life—never been anywhere except to camp-meeting, and once to Douglas' store in Worcester!"
This was entirely a new phase of character to the man of the world, who laughed aloud, and at the mention of Douglas' store started so quickly that a spasm of pain distorted his features, causing Maggie to ask if he were badly hurt.
"Nothing but a broken leg," he answered; and Maggie, to whose mind broken bones conveyed a world of pain and suffering, replied: "Oh, I am so sorry for you! and it's my fault, too. Will you forgive me?" and her hands clasped his so pleadingly that, raising himself upon his elbow so as to obtain a better view of her bright face, he answered, "I'd willingly break a hundred bones for the sake of meeting a girl like you, Maggie Miller."
Maggie was unused to flattery, save as it came from her grandmother, Theo, or old Hagar, and now paying no heed to his remark she said: "Can you stay here alone while I go for help? Our house is not far away."
"I'd rather you would remain with me," he replied; "but as you cannot do both, I suppose you must go."
"I shan't be gone long, and I'll send old Hagar to keep you company." So saying, Maggie climbed the bank, and, mounting Gritty, who stood quietly awaiting her, seized the other horse by the bridle and rode swiftly away, leaving the young man to meditate upon the novel situation in which he had so suddenly been placed.
"Aint I in a pretty predicament!" said he, as he tried in vain to move his swollen limb, which was broken in two places, but which being partially benumbed did not now pain him much. "But it serves me right for chasing a harum-scarum thing when I ought to have been minding my own business and collecting bills for Douglas & Co. And she says she's been there, too. I wonder who she is, the handsome sprite. I believe I made her more than half jealous talking of my golden-haired Rose; but she is far more beautiful than Rose, more beautiful than anyone I ever saw. I wish she'd come back again," and, shutting his eyes, he tried to recall the bright, animated face which had so lately bent anxiously above him. "She tarries long," he said at last, beginning to grow uneasy. "I wonder how far it is; and where the deuce can this old Hagar be, of whom she spoke?"
"She's here," answered a shrill voice, and looking up he saw before him the bent form of Hagar Warren, at whose door Maggie had paused for a moment while she told of the accident and begged of Hagar to hasten.
Accordingly, equipped with a blanket and pillow, a brandy bottle and camphor, old Hagar had come, but when she offered the latter for the young man's acceptance he pushed it from him, saying that camphor was his detestation, but he shouldn't object particularly to smelling of the other bottle!
"No, you don't," said Hagar, who thought him in not quite so deplorable a condition as she had expected to find him. "My creed is never to give young folks brandy except in cases of emergency." So saying, she made him more comfortable by placing a pillow beneath his head; and then, thinking possibly that this to herself was a "case of emergency," she withdrew to a little distance, and sitting down upon the gnarled roots of an upturned tree drank a swallow of the old Cognac, while the young man, maimed and disabled, looked wistfully at her.
Not that he cared for the brandy, of which he seldom tasted; but he needed something to relieve the deathlike faintness which occasionally came over him, and which old Hagar, looking only at his mischievous eyes, failed to observe. Only those who knew Henry Warner intimately gave him credit for many admirable qualities he really possessed—so full was he of fun. It was in his merry eyes and about his quizzically shaped mouth that the principal difficulty lay; and most persons, seeing him for the first time, fancied that in some way he was making sport of them. This was old Hagar's impression, as she sat there in dignified silence, rather enjoying, than otherwise, the occasional groans which came from his white lips. There were intervals, however, when he was comparatively free from pain, and these he improved by questioning her with regard to Maggie, asking who she was and where she lived.
"She is Maggie Miller, and she lives in a house," answered the old woman rather pettishly.
"Ah, indeed—snappish, are you?" said the young man, attempting to turn himself a little, the better to see his companion. "Confound that leg!" he continued, as a fierce twinge gave him warning not to try many experiments. "I know her name is Maggie Miller, and I supposed she lived in a house; but who is she, anyway, and what is she?"
"If you mean is she anybody, I can answer that question quick," returned Hagar. "She calls Madam Conway her grandmother, and Madam Conway came from one of the best families in England—that's who she is; and as to what she is, she's the finest, handsomest, smartest girl in America; and as long as old Hagar Warren lives no city chap with strapped-down pantaloons and sneering mouth is going to fool with her either!"
"Confound my mouth—it's always getting me into trouble!" thought the stranger, trying in vain to smooth down the corners of the offending organ, which in spite of him would curve with what Hagar called a sneer, and from which there finally broke a merry laugh, sadly at variance with the suffering expression of his face.
"Your leg must hurt you mightily, the way you go on," muttered Hagar; and the young man answered: "It does almost murder me, but when a laugh is in a fellow he can't help letting it out, can he? But where the plague can that witch of a—I beg your pardon, Mrs. Hagar," he added hastily, as he saw the frown settling on the old woman's face, "I mean to say where can Miss Miller be? I shall faint away unless she comes soon, or you give me a taste of the brandy!"
This time there was something in the tone of his voice which prompted Hagar to draw near, and she was about to offer him the brandy when Maggie appeared, together with three men bearing a litter. The sight of her produced a much better effect upon him than Hagar's brandy would have done, and motioning the old woman aside he declared himself ready to be removed.
"Now, John, do pray be careful and not hurt him much!" cried Maggie, as she saw how pale and faint he was, while even Hagar forgot the curled lip, which the young man bit until the blood started through, so intense was his agony when they lifted him upon the litter. "The camphor, Hagar, the camphor!" said Maggie; and the stranger did not push it aside when her hand poured it on his head, but the laughing eyes, now dim with pain, smiled gratefully upon her, and the quivering lips once murmured as she walked beside him, "Heaven bless you, Maggie Miller!"
Arrived at Hagar's cottage, the old woman suggested that he be carried in there, saying as she met Maggie's questioning glance, "I can take care of him better than anyone else."
The pain by this time was intolerable, and scarcely knowing what he said the stranger whispered, "Yes, yes, leave me here."
For a moment the bearers paused, while Maggie, bending over the wounded man, said softly: "Can't you bear it a little longer, until our house is reached? You'll be more comfortable there. Grandma has gone to England, and I'll take care of you myself!"
This last was perfectly in accordance with Maggie's frank, impulsive character, and it had the desired effect. Henry Warner would have borne almost death itself for the sake of being nursed by the young girl beside him, and he signified his willingness to proceed, while at the same time his hand involuntarily grasped that of Maggie, as if in the touch of her snowy fingers there were a mesmeric power to soothe his pain. In the meantime a hurried consultation had been held between Mrs. Jeffrey and Theo as to the room suitable for the stranger to be placed in.
"It's not likely he is much," said Theo; "and if grandma were here I presume she would assign him the chamber over the kitchen. The wall is low on one side, I know, but I dare say he is not accustomed to anything better."
Accordingly several articles of stray lumber were removed from the chamber, which the ladies arranged with care, and which when completed presented quite a respectable appearance. But Maggie had no idea of putting her guest, as she considered him, in the kitchen chamber; and when, as the party entered the house, Mrs. Jeffrey, from the head of the stairs, called out, "This way, Maggie; tell them to come this way," she waved her aside, and led the way to a large airy room over the parlor, where, in a high, old-fashioned bed, surrounded on all sides by heavy damask curtains, they laid the weary stranger. The village surgeon arriving soon after, the fractured bones were set, and then, as perfect quiet seemed necessary, the room was vacated by all save Maggie, who glided noiselessly around the apartment, while the eyes of the sick man followed her with eager, admiring glances, so beautiful she looked to him in her new capacity of nurse.
Henry Warner, as the stranger was called, was the junior partner of the firm of Douglas & Co., Worcester, and his object in visiting the Hillsdale neighborhood was to collect several bills which for a long time had been due. He had left the cars at the depot, and, hiring a livery horse, was taking the shortest route from the east side of town to the west, when he came accidentally upon Maggie Miller, and, as we have seen, brought his ride to a sudden close. All this he told to her on the morning following the accident, retaining until the last the name of the firm of which he was a member.
"And you were once at our store?" he said. "How long ago?"
"Five years," answered Maggie; "when I was eleven, and Theo thirteen;" then, looking earnestly at him, she exclaimed. "And you are the very one, the clerk with the saucy eyes whom grandma disliked so much because she thought he made fun of her; but we didn't think so—Theo and I," she added hastily, as she saw the curious expression on Henry's mouth, and fancied he might be displeased. "We liked them both very much, and knew they must of course be annoyed with grandma's English whims."
For a moment the saucy eyes studied intently the fair girlish face of Maggie Miller, then slowly closed, while a train of thought something like the following passed through the young man's mind: "A woman, and yet a perfect child—innocent and unsuspecting as little Rose herself. In one respect they are alike, knowing no evil and expecting none; and if I, Henry Warner, do aught by thought or deed to injure this young girl may I never again look on the light of day or breathe the air of heaven."
The vow had passed his lips. Henry Warner never broke his word, and henceforth Maggie Miller was as safe with him as if she had been an only and well-beloved sister. Thinking him to be asleep, Maggie started to leave the room, but he called her back, saying, "Don't go; stay with me, won't you?"
"Certainly," she answered, drawing a chair to the bedside. "I supposed you were sleeping."
"I was not," he replied. "I was thinking of you and of Rose. Your voices are much alike. I thought of it yesterday when I lay upon the rock."
"Who is Rose?" trembled on Maggie's lips, while at the sound of that name she was conscious of the same undefinable emotion she had once before experienced. But the question was not asked. "If she were his sister he would tell me," she thought; "and if she is not his sister—"
She did not finish the sentence, neither did she understand that if Rose to him was something dearer than a sister, she, Maggie Miller, did not care to know it.
"Is she beautiful as her name, this Rose?" she asked at last.
"She is beautiful, but not so beautiful as you. There are few who are," answered Henry; and his eyes fixed themselves upon Maggie to see how she would bear the compliment.
But she scarcely heeded it, so intent was she upon knowing something more of the mysterious Rose. "She is beautiful, you say. Will you tell me how she looks?" she continued; and Henry Warner answered, "She is a frail, delicate little creature, almost dwarfish in size, but perfect in form and feature."
Involuntarily Maggie shrunk back in her chair, wishing her own queenly form had been a very trifle shorter, while Mr. Warner continued, "She has a sweet, angel face, Maggie, with eyes of lustrous blue and curls of golden hair."
"You must love her very dearly," said Maggie, the tone of her voice indicating a partial dread of what the answer might be.
"I do indeed love her," was Mr. Warner's reply—"love her better than all the world beside. And she has made me what I am; but for her I should have been a worthless, dissipated fellow. It's my natural disposition; but Rose has saved me, and I almost worship her for it. She is my good angel—my darling—my—"
Here he paused abruptly, and leaning back upon his pillows rather enjoyed than otherwise the look of disappointment plainly visible on Maggie's face. She had fully expected to learn who Rose was; but this knowledge he purposely kept from her. It did not need a very close observer of human nature to read at a glance the ingenuous Maggie, whose speaking face betrayed all she felt. She was unused to the world. He was the first young gentleman whose acquaintance she had ever made, and he knew that she already felt for him a deeper interest than she supposed. To increase this interest was his object, and this he thought to do by withholding from her, for a time, a knowledge of the relation existing between him and the Rose of whom he had talked so much. The ruse was successful, for during the remainder of the day thoughts of the golden-haired Rose were running through Maggie's mind, and it was late that night ere she could compose herself to sleep, so absorbed was she in wondering what Rose was to Henry Warner. Not that she cared particularly, she tried to persuade herself; but she would very much like to be at ease upon the subject.
To Theo she had communicated the fact that their guest was a partner of Douglas & Co., and this tended greatly to raise the young man in the estimation of a young lady like Theo Miller. Next to rank and station, money was with her the one thing necessary to make a person "somebody." Douglas, she had heard, was an immensely wealthy man; possibly the junior partner was wealthy, too; and if so, the parlor chamber to which she had at first objected was none too good for his aristocratic bones. She would go herself and see him in the morning.
Accordingly, on the morning of the second day she went with Maggie to the sickroom, speaking to the stranger for the first time; but keeping still at a respectable distance, until she should know something definite concerning him.
"We have met before, it seems," he said, after the first interchange of civilities was over; "but I did not think our acquaintance would be renewed in this manner."
No answer from Theo, who, like many others, had taken a dislike to his mouth, and felt puzzled to know whether he intended ridiculing her or not.
"I have a distinct recollection of your grandmother," he continued, "and now I think of it I believe Douglas has once or twice mentioned the elder of the two girls. That must be you?" and he looked at Theo, whose face brightened perceptibly.
"Douglas," she repeated. "He is the owner of the store; and the one I saw, with black eyes and black hair, was only a clerk."
"The veritable man himself!" cried Mr. Warner. "George Douglas, the senior partner of the firm, said by some to be worth two hundred thousand dollars, and only twenty-eight years old, and the best fellow in the world, except that he pretends to dislike women."
By this time Theo's proud blue eyes shone with delight, and when, after a little further conversation, Mr. Warner expressed a wish to write to his partner, she brought her own rosewood writing desk for him to use, and then, seating herself by the window, waited until the letter was written.
"What shall I say for you, Miss Theo?" he asked, near the close; and, coloring slightly, she answered, "Invite him to come out and see you."
"Oh, that will be grand!" cried Maggie, who was far more enthusiastic, though not more anxious, than her sister.
Of her Henry Warner did not ask any message. He would not have written it had she sent one; and folding the letter, after adding Theo's invitation, he laid it aside.
"I must write to Rose next," he said; "'tis a whole week since I have written, and she has never been so long without hearing from me."
Instantly there came a shadow over Maggie's face, while Theo, less scrupulous, asked who Rose was.
"A very dear friend of mine," said Henry; and, as Mrs. Jeffrey just then sent for Theo, Maggie was left with him alone.
"Wait one moment," she said, as she saw him about to commence the letter. "Wait till I bring you a sheet of gilt-edged paper. It is more worthy of Rose, I fancy, than the plainer kind."
"Thank you," he said. "I will tell her of your suggestion."
The paper was brought, and then seating herself by the window Maggie looked out abstractedly, seeing nothing, and hearing nothing save the sound of the pen, as it wrote down words of love for the gentle Rose. It was not a long epistle; and, as at the close of the Douglas letter he had asked a message from Theo, so now at the close of this he claimed one from Maggie.
"What shall I say for you?" he asked; and, coming toward him, Margaret answered, "Tell her I love her, though I don't know who she is!"
"Why have you never asked me?" queried Henry; and, coloring crimson, Maggie answered hesitatingly, "I thought you would tell me if you wished me to know."
"Read this letter, and that will explain who she is," the young man continued, offering the letter to Maggie, who, grasping it eagerly, sat down opposite, so that every motion of her face was clearly visible to him.
The letter was as follows:
"MY DARLING LITTLE ROSE: Do you fancy some direful calamity has befallen me, because I have not written to you for more than a week? Away with your fears, then, for nothing worse has come upon me than a badly broken limb, which will probably keep me a prisoner here for two months or more. Now don't be frightened, Rosa. I am not crippled for life, and even if I were I could love you just the same, while you, I'm sure, would love me more.
"As you probably know, I left Worcester on Tuesday morning for the purpose of collecting some bills in this neighborhood. Arrived at Hillsdale I procured a horse, and was sauntering leisurely through the woods, when I came suddenly upon a flying witch in the shape of a beautiful young girl. She was the finest rider I ever saw; and such a chase as she led me, until at last, to my dismay, she leaped across a chasm down which a nervous little creature like you would be afraid to look. Not wishing to be outdone, I followed her, and as a matter of course broke my bones.
"Were it not that the accident will somewhat incommode Douglas, and greatly fidget you, I should not much regret it, for to me there is a peculiar charm about this old stone house and its quaint surroundings. But the greatest charm of all, perhaps, lies in my fair nurse, Maggie Miller, for whom I risked my neck. You two would be fast friends in a moment, and yet you are totally dissimilar, save that your voices are much alike.
"Write to me soon, dear Rose, and believe me ever
"Your affectionate brother,
"Oh!" said Maggie, catching her breath, which for a time had been partially suspended, "Oh!" and in that single monosyllable there was to the young man watching her a world of meaning. "She's your sister, this little Rose," and the soft dark eyes flashed brightly upon him.
"What did you suppose her to be?" he asked, and Maggie answered, "I thought she might be your wife, though I should rather have her for a sister if I were you."
The young man smiled involuntarily, thinking to himself how his fashionable city friends would be shocked at such perfect frankness, which meant no more than their own studied airs.
"You are a good girl, Maggie," he said at last, "and I wouldn't for the world deceive you; Rose is my step-sister. We are in no way connected save by marriage, still I love her all the same. We were brought up together by a lady who is aunt to both, and Rose seems to me like an own dear sister. She has saved me from almost everything. I once loved the wine cup; but her kindly words and gentle influence won me back, so that now I seldom taste it. And once I thought to run away to sea, but Rose found it out, and, meeting me at the gate, persuaded me to return. It is wonderful, the influence she has over me, keeping my wild spirits in check; and if I am ever anything I shall owe it all to her."
"Does she live in Worcester?" asked Maggie; and Henry answered: "No; in Leominster, which is not far distant. I go home once a month; and I fancy I can see Rose now, just as she looks when she comes tripping down the walk to meet me, her blue eyes shining like stars and her golden curls blowing over her pale forehead. She is very, very frail; and sometimes when I look upon her the dread fear steals over me that there will come a time, ere long, when I shall have no sister."
There were tears in Maggie's eyes, tears for the fair young girl whom she had never seen, and she felt a yearning desire to look on the beautiful face of her whom Henry called his sister. "I wish she would come here; I want to see her," she said at last; and Henry replied: "She does not go often from home. But I have her daguerreotype in Worcester. I'll write to Douglas to bring it," and opening the letter, which was not yet sealed, he added a few lines. "Come, Maggie," he said, when this was finished, "you need exercise. Suppose you ride over to the office with these letters?"
Maggie would rather have remained with him; but she expressed her willingness to go, and in a few moments was seated on Gritty's back with the two letters clasped firmly in her hand. At one of these, the one bearing the name of Rose Warner, she looked often and wistfully; it was a most beautiful name, she thought, and she who bore it was beautiful too. And then there arose within her a wish—shadowy and undefined to herself, it is true; but still a wish—that she, Maggie Miller, might one day call that gentle Rose her sister. "I shall see her sometimes, anyway," she thought, "and this George Douglas, too. I wish they'd visit us together;" and having by this time reached the post-office she deposited the letters and galloped rapidly toward home.