[Transcriber's note: Part III contains two chapters labeled Chapter VI.]
BY THE AUTHOR OF
"THE HOUSEHOLD OF BOUVERIE."
"Fancy, with fact, is just one fact the more."
"Let this old woe step on the stage again, Act itself o'er anew for men to judge; Not by the very sense and sight indeed, Which take at best imperfect cognizance. Since, how heart moves brain, and how both move hand, What mortal ever in entirety saw? Yet helping us to all we seem to hear, For, how else know we save by worth of word?"
BROWNING, "The Ring and the Book"
NEW YORK: D. APPLETON AND COMPANY, 549 & 551 BROADWAY. 1873.
This book is dedicated to the memory of one most dear, who saw it grow to completion with pleasure and approbation, during the last happy summer of a life since darkened by misfortune. Peace be his!
"Not one friend have we here, not one true heart; We've nothing but ourselves."
"There's a dark spirit walking in our house, And swiftly will the destiny close on us. It drove me hither from my calm asylum; It lures me forward—in a seraph's shape I see it near, I see it nearer floating— It draws, it pulls me with a godlike power, And, lo, the abyss! and thither am I moving; I have no power within me—but to move."
"He is the only one we have to fear, he and his father."
COLERIDGE'S Translation of Schiller's "Wallenstein"
* * * * *
My father, Reginald Monfort, was an English gentleman of good family, who, on his marriage with a Jewish lady of wealth and refinement, emigrated to America, rather than subject her and himself to the commentaries of his own fastidious relatives, and the incivilities of a clique to which by allegiance of birth and breeding he unfortunately belonged.
Her own family had not been less averse to this union than the aristocratic house of Monfort, and, had she not been the mistress of her own acts and fortune, would, no doubt, have absolutely prevented it. As it was, a wild wail went up from the synagogue at the loss of one of its brightest ornaments, and the name of "Miriam Harz" was consigned to silence forever.
Orphaned and independent, this obloquy and oblivion made little difference to its object, especially when the broad Atlantic was placed, as it soon was, between her and her people, and new ties and duties arose in a strange land to bind and interest her feelings.
During her six years of married life, I have every reason to believe that she was, as it is termed, "perfectly happy," although a mysterious disease of the nervous centres, that baffled medical skill either to cure or to name, early laid its grasp upon her, and brought her by slow degrees to the grave, when her only child had just completed her fifth year.
My father, the younger son of a nobleman who traced his lineage from Simon de Montfort, had been married in his own estate and among his peers before he met my mother. Poor himself (his commission in the army constituting his sole livelihood), he had espoused the young and beautiful widow of a brother officer, who, in dying, had committed his wife and her orphan child to his care and good offices, on a battle-field in Spain, and with her hand he had received but little of this world's lucre. The very pension, to which she would have been entitled living singly, was cut off by her second marriage, and with habits of luxury and indolence, such as too often appertain to the high-born, and cling fatally to the physically delicate, the burden of her expenses was more than her husband could well sustain.
Her parents and his own were dead, and there were no relatives on either side who could be called upon for aid, without a sacrifice of pride, which my father would have died rather than have made. He was nearly reduced to desperation by the circumstances of the case, when, fortunately perhaps for both, she suddenly sickened, drooped, and died, in his absence, during her brief sojourn at a watering-place, and all considerations were lost sight of at the time, in view of this unexpected and stunning blow—for Reginald Monfort was devoted, in his chivalric way, to his beautiful and fragile wife, as it was, indeed, his nature to be to every thing that was his own. Her very dependence had endeared her to him, nor had she known probably to what straits her exactions had driven him, nor what were his exigencies. Perhaps (let me strive to do her this justice, at least), had he been more open on these subjects, matters might have gone better. Yet he found consolation in the reflection that she had been happy in her ignorance of his affairs, and had experienced no strict privation during their short union, inevitably as this must later have been her portion, and certainly as, in her case, misery must have accompanied it.
Her child, in the absence of all near relatives, became his charge, and the little three-year-old girl, her mother's image, grew into his closest affections by reason of this likeness and her very helplessness. Two years after the death of his wife, he espoused my mother, a bright and beautiful woman of his own age, with whom he met casually at a banker's dinner in London, and who, fascinated by his Christian graces, reached her fair Judaic hand over all lines of Purim prejudice, and placed it confidingly in his own for life, thereby, as I have said, relinquishing home and kindred forever.
A hundred thousand pounds was a great fortune in those days and in our then modest republic, and this was the sum my parents brought with them from England—a heritage sufficiently large to have enriched a numerous family in America, but which was chiefly centred on one alone, as will be shown.
My father, a proud, shy, fastidious man, had always been galled by the consciousness of my mother's Israelitish descent, which she never attempted to conceal or deny, although, to please his sensitive requisitions, she dispensed with most of its open observances. That she clung to it with unfailing tenacity to the last I cannot doubt, however, from memorials written in her own hand—a very characteristic one—and from the testimony of Mrs. Austin, her faithful friend and attendant—the nurse, let me mention here, of my father's little step-daughter during her mother's lifetime, and her brief orphanage, as well as of his succeeding children.
Stanch in his love of church and country, we, his daughters, were all three christened, and "brought up," as it is termed, in the Episcopal Church, and early taught devotion to its rites and ceremonies. Yet, had we chosen for ourselves, perhaps our different temperaments might, even in this thing, have asserted themselves, and we might have embraced sects as diverse as our tastes were several. I shall come to this third sister presently, of whom I make but passing mention here. She was our flower, our pearl, our little ewe-lamb—the loveliest and the last—and I must not trust myself to linger with her memory now, or I shall lose the thread of my story, and tangle it with digression.
With my Oriental blood there came strange, passionate affection for all things sharing it, unknown to colder organizations—an affection in whose very vitality were the seeds of suffering, in whose very strength was weakness, perhaps in whose very enjoyment, sorrow. I have said my mother died of an insidious and inscrutable malady, which baffled friend and physician, when I was five years old. She had been so long ill, so often alienated from her household for days together, that her death was a less terrible evil, less suddenly so, at least, than if each morning had found her at her board, each evening at the family hearth, and every hour, as would have been the case in health, occupied with her children.
My father's grief was stern, quiet, solitary; ours, unreasonable and noisy, but soon over as to manifestation. Yet I must have suffered more than I knew of, I think, for then occurred the first of those strange lethargies or seizures that afterward returned at very unequal intervals during my childhood and early youth, and which roused my father's fears about my life and intellect itself, and gave me into the hands of a physician for many years thereof, vigorous, and healthy, and intelligent otherwise as I felt, and seemed, and was.
It was soon after the first settling down of tribulation in our household to that flat and almost unendurable calm or level that succeeds affliction, when a void is felt rather than expressed, and when all outward observances return to their olden habit, as a car backs slowly from a switch to its accustomed grooves, that a new face appeared among us, destined to influence, in no slight degree, the happiness of all who composed the family of Reginald Monfort.
It was summer. The house in which we lived was partly finished in the rear by wide and extensive galleries above and below, shaded by movable jalousies; and, on the upper one of these, that on which our apartments opened, my father had caused a hammock to be swung, for the comfort and pleasure of his children. With one foot listlessly dragging on the floor of the portico so as to propel the hammock, and lying partly on my face while I soothed my wide-eyed doll to sleep, I lay swaying in childish fashion when I heard Evelyn's soft step beside me, accompanied by another, firmer, slower, but as gentle if not as light. I looked up: a sweet face was bending over me, framed in a simple cottage bonnet of white straw, and braids of shining brown hair.
The eyes, large, lustrous, tender, of deepest blue, with their black dilated pupils, I shall never forget as they first met my own, nor the slow, sad smile that seemed to entreat my affectionate acquaintance. The effect was immediate and electric. I sat up in the hammock, I stretched out my hands to receive the proffered greeting, and then remained silently, child-fashion, surveying the new-comer.
"Kiss me," she said, "little Miriam. Have they not told you of me? I am Constance Glen—soon to be your teacher."
"Then I think I shall learn," I made grave reply, putting away the thick curls from my eyes and fixing them once more steadily on the face of the new-comer. "Yes, I will kiss you, for you look good and pretty. Did my mother send you here?"
"She is a strange child, Miss Glen," I heard Evelyn whisper. "Don't mind her—she often asks such questions."
"Very natural and affecting ones," Miss Glen observed, quietly, and the tears sprang to her violet eyes, at which I wondered. Yet, understanding not her words, I remembered them for later comprehension; a habit of childhood too little appreciated or considered, I think, by older people.
She had not replied to my question, so I repeated it eagerly. "Did my dear mother send you to me?" I said. "And where is she now?"
"No, tender child! I have not seen your mother. She is in heaven, I trust; where I hope we shall all be some day—with God. He sent me to you, probably—I fancy so, at least."
"Then God has got good again. He was very bad last week—very wicked; he killed our mother," whispering mysteriously.
"He is never bad, Miriam, never wicked; you must not say such things—no Christian would."
"But I am not a Christian, Mrs. Austin says; only a Jew. Did you ever hear of the Jews?"
Evelyn laughed, Mrs. Austin frowned, but Miss Glen was intensely grave, as she rejoined:
"A Jew may be very good and love God. That is all a little child can know of religion. Yet we must all believe God and His Son were one." The last words were murmured rather than spoken—almost self-directed.
"Is His Son a little boy, and will he be fond of my mother?" I asked. "Will she love him too? Oh, she loved me so much, so much!" and, in an agony of grief, I caught Miss Glen around the neck, and sobbed convulsively on her sympathetic breast. Again Evelyn smiled, I suppose, for I heard Miss Glen say, rebukingly:
"My dear Miss Erle, you must not make light of your little sister's sufferings. They are very severe, I doubt not, young as she is. All the more so that she does not know how to express them."
Revolving these words, I came later to know their import. They seemed unmeaning to me at the time, but the kind and deprecating tone of voice in which they were conveyed was unmistakable, and that sufficed to reassure me.
"And now, Miriam, let me go to my room and take off my bonnet and shawl, for I am going to stay with you. Perhaps you will show me the way yourself," she said, pausing. "Bring Dolly, too;" and we walked off hand-in-hand together to the large, commodious chamber Mrs. Austin pointed out as that prepared for our governess. I recognized my affinity from that hour.
There, sitting on her knee, with her gentle hand on my hair, and her sweet eyes fixed on mine, I learned at once to love Miss Glen, or "Constance," as she made us call her, because her surname seemed over-formal. She wished us to regard her as an elder sister, she said, rather than mere instructress, deeming rightly that the law of love would prove the stronger and better guidance in our case, and understanding well, and by some line magnetic sympathy as it appeared, my own peculiar nature, to which affection was a necessity.
Ours was a peaceful and happy childhood under her gentle and fostering rule; and, when it ceased, all the wires of life seemed jangled and discordant again.
She lived with us three years as friend and teacher. At the end of that time her vocation and sphere of action were enlarged, not changed, for she married my father, and thus our future welfare seemed secured.
Alas for human foresight! Alas for affection powerless to save! Alas for the vanity of mortal effort to contend with Fate!
Our home was in one of the chief Northern cities of that great republic which has for so many years commanded the admiration, respect, and wonder, of the whole world. The house we occupied was situated in the old and fashion-forsaken portion of the city. From its upper windows a view of the majestic Delaware and its opposite shores was afforded to the spectator; and the grounds surrounding the mansion were spacious for those of a city-house, and deeply shaded by elms that had been lofty trees in the time of General Washington.
Four squares farther on, the roar of commerce swelled and surged, in storehouse and counting-room, on mart and shipboard and quay; but here all was quiet, calm, secluded, as in the country, miles beyond.
Two houses besides our own shared the whole square between them, though ours, the central one, possessed the largest inclosure, and was the finest residence of the three, architecturally speaking; and the inmates of these dwellings, with very few exceptions, constituted for years our whole circle of friends and visitors.
So it will be seen how secluded was the life we led, how narrow the sphere we moved in, despite our acknowledged wealth, which, with some other attributes we possessed, had not failed, if desired, to confer on us both power and position in the society we shunned rather than shared.
To my father's nature, however, retirement was as essential as routine. He was one of those outwardly calm and inwardly excitable and nervous people we sometimes encounter without detecting the fire beneath the marble, the ever-burning lamp in the sarcophagus, unless we lift the lid of rock to find it—an effort scarcely worth the making in any case, for at best it lights only a tomb.
Extremely mild and self-contained in manner, and chary of opinion and expression, he was at the same time a man of strong and implacable prejudices and even bitter animosities when once engendered. I do not think his affections kept pace with these. He loved what belonged to him, it is true, in a quiet, consistent way, and his good breeding and practised equanimity were alone sufficient to secure the peace, and even happiness, of a household; but of much effort or self-sacrifice I judge him to have been incapable.
He was a handsome man in his stiff and military way—well made, tall, commanding in figure and in demeanor, stately in movement. His features were regular, his teeth and hair well preserved, especially the first, his hands and feet aristocratically small and shapely, his manner vaguely courteous. He was a shy rather than reserved person, for, when once the ice was broken, his nature bubbled over very boyishly at times, and his confidence, once bestowed, was irrevocable. Like most men of his temperament, he was keenly susceptible to deferential flattery, and impatient of the slightest infraction of his dignity, which he guarded punctiliously at all points. It was more this disposition always to wait for overtures from others, and to slightly repel their first manifestations, from his inveterate shyness, than any settled determination on his part, that made him such an alien from general association. Nervous, fastidious, exacting—what had he in common with the texture of the new society in which he found himself, and what right had he to fancy himself neglected where the "go-ahead" principle alone was recognized, and time was esteemed too precious to waste in ceremony?
Yet this injured feeling pursued him through life and made one of his peculiarities, so that he drew more and more closely, as years passed on, into his own shell, which may be said to have comprised his household, his comforts, his hobbies, and his narrow neighborhood, in which he was idolized, and the sympathy of which was very soothing to his fastidious pride.
Nothing so fosters haughtiness and egotism as a sphere like this, and it may be doubted whether the crowned heads of the world receive more adulation from their households than men so situated.
From the moment he set his foot on the threshold of his own house, nay, on the broad, quiet pavement of his own street, with its stately row of ancient Lombardy poplars on one side, and blank, high-walled lumber-yard on the other, he felt himself a sovereign—king of a principality! king of a neighborhood;—what great difference is there, after all?
It was only the hypochondriacal character of his mind that shielded him from that chief human absurdity, pomposity. He needed all the praise and consolation his friends could bestow simply to sustain him—no danger of inflation in his case! He was shut away from self-complacency (the only vice to which virtue is subjected) by the melancholy that permeated his being, and which was probably in his case an inheritance—constitutional, as it is said to be with things.
Perhaps it will be well to give, in this place, some more vivid idea of our home, which, after all, like the shell of the sea-fish, most frequently shapes itself to fit the necessities and habits of its occupants.
Our house had been built in early times, and was essentially old-fashioned, like the part of the city in which it was situated.. My father, soon after his arrival in America, had fancied and purchased this gloomy-looking gray stone edifice, with its massive granite steps (imported at great cost, before the beautiful white-marble quarries had been developed which abound in the vicinity of, and characterize the dwellings of, that rare and perfect city), and remodelled its interior, leaving the outside front of the building, with its screens of ancient ivy, untouched and venerable, and changing only the exterior aspect of the back of the mansion. Very striking was the contrast between the rear and front and exterior and interior of "Monfort Hall," as it was universally called.
The dark panel-work within had all been rent away, to give place to plaster glossy as marble, or fine French papers, gilded and painted, or fresco-paintings done with great cost and labor, and indifferent success. The lofty ceilings and massive walls formed outlines of strength and beauty to the large and well-ventilated apartments, which made it easy to render them almost palatial by the means of such accessories and appliances as wealth commands, and which were lavished in this instance.
The back of the house was, however, truly picturesque. Here a bay window was judiciously thrown out; there a portico appended or hanging balcony added to break the gray expanse of wall or sullen glare of windows; and a small gray tower or belfry, containing a clock that chimed the hours, and a fine telescope, rose from the octagon library which my father had built for his own peculiar sanctum after my mother's death, and which formed an ell to the building. The green, grassy, deeply-shadowed lawn lay behind the mansion, sloping down into a dark, deep dell, across which brawled a tiny brook long since absorbed by the thirsty earth thrown out from many foundations of stores and tenements and great warehouses hard by; a dell where once roses, lilacs, guelder-globes, and calacanthus-bushes, grew with a vigor that I have nowhere seen surpassed.
It was not much the fashion then to have rare garden-flowers. Our conservatory contained a fair array of these, but we had beds of tulips, hyacinths, and crocuses, basking in the sunshine, and violets and lilies lying in the shadow such as I see rarely now, and which cost us as little thought or trouble in their perennial permanence, whereas the conservatory was an endless grief and care, although superintended by a thoroughly-taught English gardener, and kept up at unlimited expense.
My sister—for so I was taught to call Evelyn Erle—revelled in this floral exclusiveness, but to me the dear old garden was far more delightful and life-giving. I loved our sweet home-flowers better than those foreign blossoms which lived in an artificial climate, and answered no thrilling voice of Nature, no internal impulse in their hot-house growth and development. What stirred me so deeply in April, stirred also the hyacinth-bulb and the lily of the valley deep in the earth—warmth, moisture, sunshine and shadow, and sweet spring rain—and the same fullness of life that throbbed in my veins in June called forth the rose. There was vivid sympathy here, and I gave my heart to the garden-flowers as I never could do to the frailer children of the hot-house, beautiful as they undeniably are.
"Miriam has really a vulgar taste for Nature, as Miss Glen calls it," Evelyn said one day, with a curl of her slight, exquisite lip as she shook away from her painted muslin robe, the butter-cups, heavy with moisture and radiant with sunshine, which I had laid upon her knee. "She ought to have been an Irish child and born, in a hovel, don't you think so, papa?" and she put me aside superciliously. Dirt and Nature were synonymous terms with her.
My father smiled and laid down his newspaper, then looked at me a little gravely as I stood downcast by Evelyn.
"You are getting very much sunburnt, Miriam, there is no doubt of that. A complexion like yours needs greater care for its preservation than if ten shades fairer. Little daughter, you must wear your bonnet, or give up running in the garden in the heat of the day."
"I try to impress this on Miriam all the time," said Mrs. Austin, coming as usual to aid in the assault, "but she is so hard-headed, it is next to impossible to make her mindful of what I tell her. Miss Glen is the only one that seems to have any influence over her nowadays." She said this with a slight, impatient toss of the head, as she paused in her progress through the room with a huge jar of currant-jelly, she had been sunning in the dining-room window, poised on the palm of either hand, jelly that looked like melted rubies, now to be consigned to the store-room.
"Well, well, we must have patience," was the rejoinder. "She is young—impulsive (I wish she were more like you, Evelyn, my dear!), her mother over again in temperament, without the saving clauses of beauty and refinement; these she will never attain, I fear, and with much of the characteristic persistence of that singular race, which in my wife, however, I never detected, though so much nearer the fountain-head!" This was said half in soliloquy, but Evelyn replied to it as if it had been addressed to her—replied, as she often did, by an interrogatory.
"What tribe did her mother belong to, papa?"
"The tribe of Judah, I believe, my love, was that her family traced their lineage from; but you question as if it were Pocahontas there was reference to instead of a high-bred Jewish lady!" speaking with asperity.
"I meant no offence, papa, I assure you," said Evelyn, quietly; "I only asked for information. Certainly there is something very grand in being related to King David."
"There is, indeed," said a gentle voice close at hand. Miss Glen had entered silently as they were speaking. "There was genius in that strain of blood, Evelyn, nay, more, divinity. Christ claimed such descent. Let us never forget that! He, the universal brother." She spoke with feeling and dignity, and led me away, lecturing me greatly as she did so for not obeying Mrs. Austin as to the sun-bonnet bondage, which she promised; to make as light as possible by purchasing for me a new French contrivance called a caleche, light and airy and sheltering all at once.
I was seven years old then, and the understanding was complete between us that endured to the end, but as yet there was no foreshadowing of her marriage with my father.
She had been engaged, when she came to us, to a gentleman, who must have perished at sea soon afterward—a young naval officer who had gone out on board of the United States sloop-of-war Hornet, the fate of which vessel is still wrapped in mystery, though that it foundered suddenly seemed then, as now, the universal opinion. Miss Glen some time before had made up her mind to this, and was stemming a tide of grief with great fortitude and resolution, while she was laying the foundations of character and education in her two very opposite pupils, both of whom she guided with equal ability.
My father was not unaware of her sufferings, I think, indeed, this community of sorrow first attracted him toward her, and later he was confirmed in his admiration of her womanly self-control and beauty of character, by the development he saw in his children, the work of her hand. That he was ever profoundly in love with her I do not believe, nor did she pretend to any passionate regard for him. Respect, friendship, confidence, mutual esteem, were the foundations of their union, which certainly promised enduring happiness to all concerned, and which was looked on with favor by the whole household, not excepting Mrs. Austin herself.
"If any successor of your dear mother must come, Evelyn," I heard her say one day to my sister, "we had better have her we know, to be sure, than a mere stranger, but I must say I can't see why your papa does not content himself as he is. I am sure he seems very happy in his library and his greenhouse, and driving out in his Tilbury, or with you two young ladies in the coach of afternoons, and chatting and smoking of evenings with Mr. Bainrothe or old Mr. Stanbury. I should think he might have had enough of marrying by this time, and funerals and all that. Your own precious mamma first, an earl's own daughter (Evelyn Erle, never forget that, if your father was a poor soldier! you have grand relations in England, child, if you are not as rich as some others I could name), and then your mother and Miriam's, Miss Harz that was, such an excellent woman for all her persuasion, to be sure; better than some Christians, I must say; and she just three years and a half laid in her grave!" A doleful sigh gave emphasis to this remark. "I was never more surprised, I must confess, than when he sent for me last night to tell me he was to marry Miss Glen next week! Who is she, I wonder, Evelyn; did you ever hear her speak of her kinfolks? Not a soul except two or three of her church-people has been near her since she has been here, and Franklin says she very seldom gets letters." A pinch of snuff emphasized this remark.
"I heard her say she had only one brother, Mrs. Austin, and that he was in some distant part of the world, in India, or New Orleans, or some such place, she does not know herself exactly where. He is a young lad, and she grieves about him; his picture is most beautiful, I think. He ran off and went to sea, and it almost killed her. That was some years ago, and since then she has been teaching in a great school until she came to us, and was never so peaceful before, she says, as she is now. I think she will make papa happy too, and keep him in his own family, since she has none of her own. I was so afraid it was Mrs. Stanbury at one time."
"I never thought of that," said Mrs. Austin, starting. "What put it into your head, Evelyn, and what made you so close-mouthed about it? Child, you have an old head on young shoulders—I always said so; as like your own precious mother as two peas. Yes, that would have been a nice connection truly! The two young Stanburys forsooth, to divide every thing with you and Miriam, and her rigid economy the rule in the house, and Norman riding over every one on a high horse, and that lame brat to be nursed and waited on! Any thing better than that, Evelyn. You are right, my dear." And she tapped her suggestive snuffbox.
My elder sister was about thirteen years old when she uttered those oracular sentences which elicited Mrs. Austin's commendations, and her own clear-sighted prevoyance; and I, at eight, whose mind was turned to any subject save that of marrying and giving in marriage, stood confounded by her superior wisdom and discretion. I gazed upon her open-mouthed and wide-eyed as she spoke, drinking in every word, yet very little enlightened, after all, by her remarks. She turned suddenly upon me, and tapped my cheek slightly with her fan. It was a way she had of manifesting contempt.
"Now run and tell Mrs. Stanbury every word I have spoken, just as soon as you can, Miriam, do you hear? Don't forget one syllable, that's a darling. Come, rehearse!"
"Won't it do after dinner, sister Evelyn?" I asked, gravely and literally. "I want to go and see about my mole, now—my poor mole that Hodges wounded with his spade this morning. It suffers so dreadfully!"—clasping my hands in a tragic manner, not unusual with me when excited.
"There! what did I tell you, Mrs. Austin? You will believe my report of Miriam another time—little blab! There is nothing safe where she is, and as to keeping a secret, she could not do it if her own life were at stake, I verily believe."
"I can keep a secret," I said, fiercely, "you know I can! You burnt my finger in the candle to make me tell you where the squirrel was, and I would not do it; Now, miss, remember that, and tell the truth next time!"
"What a little spit-fire," said Evelyn, derisively. "You see for yourself, Mrs. Austin."
"O Evelyn, Evelyn, did you, do that?" moaned the good woman. "Your little sister's hand! To burn it so cruelly, and in cold blood. I would not have believed it of you, my Evelyn—that was not like your mamma at all," and she shook her head dolefully. "Miriam is a brave child, after all." A wonderful admission for her to make.
"If you believe every thing that limb of the synagogue tells you, Mrs. Austin, you will have a great deal to swallow, that is all I shall say on the subject," and she turned away derisively.
"Do you mean to deny it, then, Evelyn Erle?" asked Mrs. Austin, earnestly, laying her hand on her arm, and shaking her slightly as she was about to leave the room. "Come back and answer me. I hope Miriam is only angry—I hope you did not do this thing."
"I will not be forcibly detained by any old woman in America," said Evelyn, struggling stoutly, "nor questioned either about a pack of fibs. Miriam knows better than to tell such stories—or ought to be taught better."
"It was no story," I said, solemnly. "It was true. You did burn my finger, and begged me not to tell Constance or papa afterward, and I never told them, because I never break my word if I can help it, and I wouldn't have told Mrs. Austin (but I didn't promise about her, you know), only you twitted me so meanly, and made me so mad—and it all came out. For I can keep a secret! I know where that squirrel is now, Evelyn Erle, but I will never tell any one—never—not even Constance Glen. I promised myself that, and crossed my heart about it when you tried to cut off its tail—its pretty, bushy tail that God gave it to keep the flies off with."
Mrs. Austin was shedding tears by this time; Evelyn's insolence and duplicity had stung her to the quick, and she saw, with real concern, that I had justice on my side. She had relinquished her hold on Evelyn, who stood now sullenly glaring at me, pale as a sheet, her eyes white with rage, looking like heated steel, her lips trembling with passion.
"You shall tell me where that squirrel is, or I will appeal to papa," she said, sharply. "It was mine. Norman Stanbury said so when he brought it here and gave it to me. You heard him, little cheat!"
"He told me to feed it, and take care of it, and not let it get hurt, if he did give it to you," I replied, doggedly, "and I did what he told me. You are a born tyrant, Evelyn. Constance told you so a month ago, when you twisted Laura Stanbury's arm for not teaching you that puzzle; and there is a wicked word I know that suits you to-day, only I am afraid to say it—Constance would be angry—but it begins with an L and ends with an R, and has only four letters in it. There, now!"
I well deserved the slap, no doubt, that rang down with such lightning speed and force on my cheek, and, fortunately, Mrs. Austin arrested my panther-like spring toward Evelyn, or the nails I held in rest might have brought blood from her waxen face, and marred its symmetry for a season. As it was, I screamed wildly, until Miss Glen came in, attracted by my cries, and, receiving no satisfactory explanation as to their cause, led me to her own apartment to compose, question, and rebuke me in that firm but gentle manner that ever calmed my spirit like oil poured upon troubled waters. The end of the matter was that, when I met Evelyn again, I went up to her in a spirit of conciliation, and mutely kissed her as a sign of peace and penitence.
It was a matter of indifference to me that this advance was carelessly received, since it satisfied my conscience and her who stirred its depths—nor did my cheek flush at the derisive taunt that followed me from the room after this obligation to self was discharged—"Now tattle again, little prophetess," for thus she often alluded to my Hebrew name and its signification, "and produce my squirrel, or look well to your wounded mole!"
This threat was not without its effect. In a deep, leafy covert I concealed my poor dying patient, "earthy, and of the earth"—literally, in every sense—but the squirrel still enjoyed its sequestered home on the topmost branch of an English walnut-tree, from which it cheerfully, but cautiously, descended at my call when I went out to carry it almonds or filberts from the dessert (invariably served with wine to my father, who, in observance of his English custom, sat alone some moments after the ladies of his household had withdrawn from table), nor did Evelyn have the despotic pleasure of abbreviating his right of tail.
My father's marriage was solemnized very quietly in that old gray church with its fairy chime of bells, all alive on that occasion, which stood in the busy street not far from our quiet house. An aged and reverend bishop, who had administered the sacred communion to Washington and his wife when the city we dwelt in had been the temporary residence of that chief, performed the ceremony, which, with the exception of my father's immediate household and neighbors, none were invited to witness. When the solemn rite was ended, I made my way to Constance, so fair that day in her pearl-gray robes and simple white bonnet, and clasped her hand. She stooped down and kissed me many times, to conceal her tears, probably.
"Call me mamma now, dearest," she said, at last; "and let the name be as a new compact between us. Now let Evelyn come to me, my love, she, too, is my daughter; and go with Mrs. Austin."
I did as she directed, grasping Mrs. Austin's hand tightly as we walked home, and proceeding at so brisk a pace that she was often obliged to check me.
"Poor child, why should you rejoice so?" she said, mournfully. "Don't you know you have lost your father from this hour? Do you suppose he will ever love you as well again—you or Evelyn? Poor, ignorant, sacrificed babes in the woods!"
"I don't care," I said. "I have got my new mamma to love me, even if he does not. 'Mamma—mamma Constance!' how pretty that sounds. Oh, that is what I shall always call her from this time—'Constance,' as usual, you know, with 'mamma' before it." And I kept repeating "mamma Constance," childishly.
"Foolish thing," she rejoined. "I wish you had your sister Evelyn's consideration; but at any rate," she murmured, "the money will be all yours. He cannot alienate that; yours by marriage contract, not even to divide with Evelyn, and" (elevating her voice) "that you will surely do hereafter, will you not, Miriam?"
"I don't know," I replied; "not unless she is good to me and stops calling me 'little Jew,' and other mean, disagreeable names. But I always thought Evelyn was the rich one until now. She has so many fine clothes, and such great relations, you say, in England."
"True, true, gentle blood is a fine heritage; but your mother had great store of gold, and, when your papa dies, all this will belong to you (it is time you should know this, Miriam), and you will have us all to take care of and support; so you must be very good, indeed."
"I am so sorry," I said, with a deep sigh and a feeling that a heavy burden had been thrown suddenly on my shoulders; "but I tell you what I will do" (brightening up), "I will give it every bit to mamma, and she will support us all. She will live much longer than papa, because she is so much younger—twenty years, I believe. Isn't that a great difference?"
"Your father will outlive me, child, I trust, should such a state of things ever come to pass; but I am old, and shall not cumber the earth long," and a groan burst from her lips.
"How old are you, Mrs. Austin?" I asked, with a feeling of awe creeping over me, as though I had been talking to the widow of Methuselah, and I looked up into her face, pityingly.
"Fifty-five years old, child, come next Michaelmas, and a miserable sinner still, in the eyes of my Lord! I was a widow when I went to hire with Mrs. Erle, Evelyn's lady mother—that was soon after she married the captain, who had only his sword—and I have lived with her and hers ever since, and served them faithfully, I trust, and I hope I do not deserve to be cast on strangers and upstarts in my old age, even if one of them happens to marry your father. Constance Glen, forsooth!" and she drew up her stiff figure.
"To be wicked and old must be so dreadful," I said, thoughtfully shaking my head and casting my eyes to heaven.
"What are you thinking about, child?" she asked, jerking my hand sharply. "Who is it that you call such hard names—'wicked and old' forsooth? Answer me directly!"
"It was what you said a while ago about yourself I was thinking of, Mrs. Austin," I replied. "To be more than half a hundred years old! It is so many years to live; and then to be such a sinner, too—how hard it must be! I always thought you were very good before; and I am sure you are not gray and wrinkled and blear-eyed, like Granny Simpson!"
"Granny Simpson, indeed! You must be crazy, Miriam Monfort! Why, she is eighty if she is an hour, and hobbles on a cane! I flatter myself I am not infirm yet; and, if you call a well-preserved, middle-aged, English woman, like me, old, your brains must be addled. Look at my hair, my teeth, my complexion"—pausing suddenly before me and confronting me fiercely. "See my step, my figure, and have more sense, if you are a little foreign Jewish child. As to sinfulness, we are all sinful beings, more or less. To be wicked is a very different thing from sinful. I never told you I was wicked, child. What put that into your head?"
"Oh, I thought they were the same thing. Which is the worst, Mrs. Austin?" I asked, with unfeigned simplicity.
"There, Miriam, step on before! you walk too fast anyhow for me to-day. Besides, your tongue wags too limberly by half. You always did ask queer questions, and will to your dying day. No help for it, I suppose, but patience; but it is all of that Gipsy blood! Now, Evelyn's line of people was altogether different. She has what they used to call in England 'blue blood in her veins;' do you understand, Miriam? Blue blood! Catch her asking indiscreet questions! Take pattern by your elder sister, Miss Miriam Monfort, and you will do well."
Not knowing what evil I had done, or how I had offended, or how blood could be blue, yet sorry for having erred, I made my way as I was told to do, speedily and silently homeward, and was glad to find shelter from all misunderstanding and persecution in the arms and shadow of my "mamma Constance," as I called her from that hour.
But, to Evelyn she was "Mistress Monfort," from the time she espoused my father; and the coldness between them (they were never very congenial) was apparent from that time, in spite of every effort on the part of my sweet mamma to surmount and throw it aside.
It is time I should speak of those few neighbors who composed our society at this period, and to whom some allusion has already been made—the occupants of those two houses which, as I have said, divided with ours the square we lived in, with their grounds. These green-shaded yards were divided one from the other by slender iron railings, which formed a line of boundary, no more, and presented no obstacle to the exploring eye. Graceful gates of the same material opened from the pavement, common to all, and presented a symmetrical and uniform appearance to the passer-by. Stone lions guarded ours, but Etruscan vases crowned the portals of Mrs. Stanbury and Mr. Bainrothe, filled with blooming plants in the summer season, but bare and desolate and gray enough in winter.
Mrs. Stanbury, our right-hand neighbor (ay, in every way right-handed), was a widow lady of about thirty-five years of age. Her husband had been a sea-captain, and, being cut off suddenly, had, with the exception of the house she lived in, left her no estate. She owed her maintenance chiefly to the liberality of his uncle, a gruff old bachelor of sixty or more, who lived with and took care of her and her children in a way that was both kindly and disagreeable. He was a bald-headed man (who flourished a stout, gold-headed cane, I remember), with a florid, healthy, and honest face and burly figure, engaged in some lucrative city business, and entirely devoted to his nephew and niece, Mrs. Stanbury's only children, the one fifteen and the other about twelve years old at the time of my father's marriage.
Strangely enough, her own deepest interest, if not affection, seemed centred at this period in her little orphan ward and nephew, George Gaston, a child of nine years old, who had recently come into her hands; singularly gifted and beautiful, but lamed for life, it was feared, and a great sufferer physically from the effects of the fatal hip-disease that had destroyed the strength and usefulness of one limb, and impaired his constitution.
Mrs. Stanbury herself was a lady-like and pretty woman, fair and graceful, and her daughter Laura closely resembled her; both sweet specimens of unpretending womanhood; both devoted to the discharge of their simple duties and to one another; both entirely estimable.
Norman Stanbury was of a different type. He had probably inherited from his father his manly and robust person, his open, dauntless, dark, and handsome face, in which there was so much character that you hardly looked for intellect, or perhaps at a brief glance confounded one with the other. He was the avowed and devoted swain of my sister Evelyn, from the time when they first chased fireflies together, up to their dancing-school adolescence, and for me maintained a disinterested, brotherly regard that was never slow to manifest itself in any time of need, or even in the furtherance of my childish whims. Our relations with this family were most friendly and agreeable. There never was any undue familiarity; my father's reserve, and their own dignity, would of themselves have precluded that certain precursor to the decline of superficial friendship; but a consistent and somewhat ceremonious intercourse was preserved from first to last, that could scarcely be called intimacy.
Between George Gaston and myself alone existed that perfect freedom of speech and intuitive understanding that lie at the root of all true and deep affection. His delicacy of appearance, his stunted stature, his invalid requisitions, nay, his very deformity, for his twisted limb amounted to this, put aside all thought of infantile flirtation (for we know that, strange as it may seem, such a thing does exist) from the first hour of our acquaintance. He always seemed to me much younger than he was, or than I was—as boys, even under ordinary circumstances, are apt to appear to girls of their own age, from their slower development of mind and manner, if not of body.
But this lovely waxen boy, so frail and spiritual as to look almost angelic, and certainly very far my superior intellectually, seemed from his helplessness peculiarly infantile in comparison with my robust energy, and became consequently, in my eyes, an object of tenderest commiseration. From the first he clung to me with strange tenacity, for our tastes were congenial. He brought with him from his Southern home stores of books and shells and curious playthings and mechanical toys, such as I had never seen before, and to spread these out and explain them for my amusement was his chief delight.
My memory in turn was richly stored with poetry, some of it far above my own comprehension, but clinging irresistibly to my mind through the music of the metre. I had revelled in old ballads until I could recite nearly all of these precious relics of heroic times, or rather chant them forth monotonously enough in all probability, yet in a way that riveted his attention forcibly, and roused his high-strung poetic temperament to enthusiasm.
When ill or suffering, if asked what he needed for relief, he would say "Miriam," as naturally as a thirsty man would call for a glass of clear cold water. For his amusement I converted myself into a mime, a mountebank. When I went to the theatre, the performance must be repeated for his benefit, and many characters centred in one.
For him I danced the "Gavotte," the "shawl-dance," as taught to do by Monsieur Mallet, at the great dancing-school on Chestnut Street, or jumped Jim Crow to his infinite amusement and the unmitigated disgust of Evelyn, to whom his physical infirmity made him any thing but attractive. Such personal perfection as she possessed is, I am afraid, apt to make us cold-hearted and exacting as to externals in others. Evelyn could endure commonplace, but could not forgive a blemish. Once Norman Stanbury came very near, losing her favor for having a wart on his finger; another time, she banished him from her presence for weeks, for having stained his hands, beyond the power of soap-and-water or vinegar to efface, in gathering walnuts. Certainly no despot ever governed more entirely through the medium of fear than did she through the tyranny of a fastidious caprice united to a form and face of surpassing beauty and high-bred grace.
Even my father fell under this requisitive influence of hers. Propriety, the quality he worshipped, stood forth enshrined in her, and, from the lifting of her fan to the laying down of her knife and fork, all was faultless. The prestige, too, of birth, his special weakness, lingered about her, and elevated her to a pedestal above any other inmate of his household.
Her mother, who married him for convenience, and whose selfish requisitions had almost driven him mad, was the honorable Mrs. Erle, and an earl's daughter. He had loved my mother twice as well, found her ten times more attractive and interesting, devoted and congenial; admired her grace, recognized all her worth, not only in deed but in word, and with a fidelity of heart that never wavered even when he married again. Yet the prestige of descent was wanting in her and hers, or rather, such as it was, brought with it ignoble and repulsive associations only. He was not the man to reach a hand across Shylock and the old-clothes man, to grasp that of the poet-king of Israel; or Esther, the avenging queen of a downtrodden nation; or Joab, strong in valor and fidelity; or Deborah, inspired to rule a people from beneath the shelter of her palm-tree in the wilderness.
The grandeur of the past, in his estimation, was eclipsed by the ignominy of the present; but with me it was otherwise, and, as I grew old enough to recognize the peculiar traits of that ancient people from which I sprung, it pleased me to imagine that whatever there was about me of fiery persistency, of fearless faith, of unshrinking devotion, nay, of bitter remembrance of injuries, and power to avenge or forgive them, as the case might be, sprang from that remarkable race who called themselves at one time, with His permission, the chosen children of God.
I think these very characteristics of mine repelled my father and jarred on his nervous temperament, endangering that outward calm which it was his pride and care to preserve as necessary to high-bred demeanor, and thus intrenching on his ideas of personal dignity. Yet, with strange inconsistency, it was her very indulgence of these peculiarities that inclined him most strongly to Constance Glen, and finally, I am well convinced, determined him on making her his wife, as one well suited to secure the welfare of his turbulent and incomprehensible child, his "rebellious Miriam," as he sometimes called me when milder words availed not.
He had, as I have said, an "English" horror of scenes and excitement of any kind. He was conservative in every way. He believed in the British classics, and would not admit that any thing could ever equal, far less surpass them (dreary bores that many of them are to me!). Walter Scott's novels were the only ones of later days he ever allowed himself to read approvingly; for, once being beguiled, against his will almost, into sitting up late at night to finish a new work called "Pelham," he frowned down all allusion to the book or its author ever afterward, as derogatory to his dignity.
"Bulwer and Disraeli are literary coxcombs," he said, "who ought not to be encouraged, and who are trying to undermine wholesome English literature."
"O father," I ventured to observe on one occasion, "'Vivian Grey' is splendid. It is a delightful dream, more vivid than life itself; it is like drinking champagne, smelling tuberoses, inhaling laughing-gas, going to the opera, all at one time, and, if you once take it in your hand, nothing short of a stroke of lightning could rend it away, I am convinced. Do read it, sir, to please me, and retract your denunciation."
"Never," he said firmly, solemnly even, "and I counsel you, Miriam, in turn, to seek your draughts of soul from our pure 'wells of English undefiled,' rather than such high-flown fancies and maudlin streams as flow from the pen of this accomplished Hebrew. There is a little too much of the Jeremiah and Isaiah style about such extracts as I have seen, to suit my taste."
"The idea of a Jew writing novels!" said Evelyn, derisively as she sipped her wine.
"Or the grandest poem in the world!" added Mr. Bainrothe, who was dining with us that day, coming to the rescue quite magnanimously as it seemed, and for once receiving as his recompense a grateful look from the stray lamb of the tribe of Judah, reposing quietly in a Christian fold.
"What poem do you allude to?" said Evelyn, superciliously. "'Paradise Lost?'—Oh, I thought Milton was a Unitarian, not quite a Jew; almost as bad though!"
"No, the book of Job," replied Mr. Bainrothe. "It was that I alluded to."
"And the Psalms," I added, breathlessly.
"Dear me," said Evelyn, "what an array of learning we have all at once! Why, every Sunday-school child knows about the Psalms. David and Solomon did nothing else but sing and dance, I believe."
"Irreverent, very, Evelyn," said my father, looking at her a little severely, in spite of his own "Jeremiah" and "Isaiah" allusions. I had never heard him check her so openly before, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My smile of approbation provoked her, I suppose, for she pursued:
"I am so tired of having the Bible thrown at my head; you must excuse me, papa. For my part, I find the New Testament all-sufficient. I weary of the horrors of those Jews; worse than our Choctaw Indians, I verily believe."
"So they were, so they were, my dear," said my father, complacently, "but for some reasons we must always treat their memory with a certain respect. They were God's people, remember, in the absence of a better, and their history is written in this book, which we must all revere."
"A very great people, surely," said Mr. Bainrothe, "and destined to be so again. Don't you think so, Miriam?"
"I don't know," I said; "I have never thought of such a possibility before, I acknowledge, yet it is natural I should incline to my mother's people, and I can say heartily, I hope so, Mr. Bainrothe."
"Then you want to see the Christian religion trampled under foot," said Evelyn, spitefully, fixing her eyes on mine.
The blood rose hotly to my temples. "No, no, indeed! You know I do not, Evelyn, for it is mine; but Christ died for all, Jew as well as Gentile. Through him let us hope for change and mercy and peace on earth. When infinite harmony prevails, the Hebrew race will find its appointed place and level again, through one great principle."
"My idea is, that it has found its appointed place and level, and will abide there.—But to digress, when do you expect your son, Mr. Bainrothe?"
I have anticipated by many years in giving this snatch of conversation here. Let us go back to the time of my father's marriage, and to affairs as they stood then, for precious are the unities.
I need not drop Mr. Bainrothe, however, and it was of him, our left-hand neighbor, so intimately connected with our destiny, one and all, that I was about to speak when the digression occurred which led me from the high-road of my story.
Our "sinister neighbor," as my father laughingly called him sometimes with unconscious truth, in reference to his left-hand adjacency, was a handsome and gentlemanly-looking man of no very particular age, or rather in his appearance there was no criterion for decision on this subject. His form was as slender and elastic, his step as light, his teeth, hair, and complexion, as unexceptionable as though he had been twenty-five; nor were there any of those signs and symptoms about him by which the weather-wise usually measure experience and length of days.
If care had come nigh him at all, it had swept as lightly past him as time itself. His address was invariably urbane, self-possessed, well-bred; his voice was pleasant, his smile rather brilliant, though it never reached his eyes, except when he sneered, which was rarely and terribly.
They glittered then with a strange cold light, those variegated orbs, but their ordinary expression was earnest and investigatory. They were well-cut eyes, moreover, of a yellowish-brown color, and I used to remark as a little child—for children observe the minutiae of personal peculiarities much more closely than their elders—that the iris of both orbs was speckled with green and golden spots, which seemed to mix and dilate occasionally, and gave them a decidedly kaleidoscopic effect.
His skin was clear and even florid, and his lips had the peculiarity of turning suddenly white, or rather livid, without any evident cause. This my father thought betokened disease of the heart, but I learned later to know it was the only manifestation of suppressed feeling which the habit of his life could not overcome, and that proved him still mortal and fallible.
He had bought and moved into the house he occupied, in his single estate, with a few efficient servants, soon after my father had taken possession of his own larger mansion, and it was not long before the best understanding existed between these two. My father's hauteur was no safeguard against the steady and self-poised approaches—his shyness found relief in the calm self-reliance of his "left-hand" neighbor; and, as they were both lovers of books, rather than students thereof, a congeniality of tastes on literary subjects drew them together in those hours of leisure which Mr. Bainrothe usually passed in his own or my father's library, in the cultivation of the dolce far niente—I beg pardon—his mind.
What his occupation was, if indeed he had any worthy of a definite name, I never knew. That he was a kind of intermediate agent or broker I have since suspected. His leisure seemed infinite. He came and went to and from the business part of the city several times a day, and often in the elegant barouche he kept, with its span of highly-groomed horses and respectable-looking negro driver in simple livery—an old retainer of his house, as he informed my father, faithful still, though freed in the time of universal emancipation.
His association was undoubtedly, to some extent, with the best men of the town—bankers and merchants chiefly; and once, when my father had called in a considerable sum of money which he had loaned out at interest on good mortgages, for a term of years, he was so obliging as to interest the most notable bankers of the city in its safe and prompt reinvestment.
This gentleman dined with us on one occasion at this period, when his conference with my father intrenched on our late dinner-hour, and I shall never forget the singular beauty of his face and expression, nor the charm of his manner, as he sat at our board discoursing, with an abandon and witchery I have observed in no one else, on subjects of art and letters, on men and manners, of nations past and present, until hours fled like moments, and time seemed utterly forgotten in the presence of geniality and genius. Then, starting gayly and suddenly to his feet, he remembered an engagement, and sped away so abruptly that his visit seemed to me but a vision breaking in on the monotony of our lives, too bright to have been lasting.
Afterward, invitations came repeatedly to my father, for his grand dinners and levees, from this potentate, for he was a prince and a leader in those days of a society that, more than any other I have known, requires such leadership to make its conventionalities available; but these were not accepted, though appreciated and gratefully acknowledged. Nor could Mr. Bainrothe, with all his influence over him (that rare influence that a worldly and efficient man wields over a shy and retiring one unacquainted with the detail of affairs, and dependent upon active assistance in their management), prevail upon him to break through the monotonous routine of his life so far as to accept any one of them. His church, the theatre, when a British star appeared, his hearth and home—these were my father's hobbies and resources. Travel and society abroad he equally shrank from and abjured, or the presence of strange guests in his household circle.
"I will change all this, when I grow up, Mrs. Austin," I heard Evelyn say, one day. "We shall have parties and pleasures then, like other people, and, instead of masters and tedious old church humdrums, Mr. Lodore and the like, you shall see beaux and belles dashing up to this out-of-the-way place; and I will make papa build a ballroom, and we shall have a band and supper once a month. You know he can afford any thing he likes of that sort, and as for me—"
"Child, it will never be," she interrupted, shaking her head gravely. "Mr. and Mrs. Monfort" (my father was again married then) "are too much wedded to their own ways for that, and, besides, you and Miriam will not be ready to go out together, and the money is all hers—don't forget that, my dear Evelyn, and you must go back to England to your own, and I—"
"That I will never do," she in turn interrupted haughtily. "Play second fiddle, indeed, to mamma's grand relations, mean, and proud, and presumptuous, I dare say, and full of scorn for me (a poor army-captain's daughter), as they were for my father? No, I shall stay here and shine to the best of my ability. The money is all papa's while he lives, and he is still a young man, you know, and Miriam's turn will come when mine is over. One at a time, you see. Good gracious! it would seem like throwing away money, though, to dress up that little dingy thing in pearls and laces. Ten to one but what she will marry that lame imp next door as soon as she is grown, and endow him with the whole of it—that 'little devil on two sticks,' and I must have my run before then, of course." She laughed merrily at the conceit.
"I hear you, Evelyn Erie," I exclaimed tragically from the balcony on which I sat, engaged, on this occasion, in illuminating, with the most brilliant colors my paint-box afforded, a book of engravings for the especial benefit of George Gaston. It was his private opinion that Titian himself never painted with more skill, or gorgeous effect, than the youthful artist in his particular employ. "I hear you, miss, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself to talk so behind his back, of a poor, afflicted boy like George, too good, a thousand times too good, to marry any one, even Cinderella herself. 'The devil on two sticks,' indeed!"
"Don't preach, I pray, Miriam. You have quite a dispensation in that way lately, I perceive. If you must eavesdrop, keep quiet about it now and hereafter, I beg."
"I was not eavesdropping," I screamed. "I have been painting out here all the afternoon, and Mrs. Austin knows it, and so might you. You are always accusing me of doing wrong and mean things that I would cut off my"—hesitating for a comparison—"my curls rather than do. Let me alone!"
"Your curls, indeed!" and she came out of the window and stood on the balcony beside me. "Do you call those tufts your curls?" taking one of them disdainfully with the tips of her dainty fingers, then pulling it sharply. "They make you look like a little water-dog, that's what they do, and I am going to cut them off at once.—Bring me the scissors, Mrs. Austin, and let me begin."
In the struggle that ensued my paints were upset, my pallet broken, and my book drenched with the water from the glass in which I dipped my brushes, but, as usual, Evelyn gained the victory which her superior strength insured from the beginning, and fled from my wrath, after holding my hands awhile, laughingly entreating mercy.
"I will kill her some day, Mrs. Austin, if she persecutes me so," I cried, as I lay sobbing on the bed after the conflict was over. "I am afraid of myself sometimes when she tantalizes me so dreadfully. I am glad you held me when I got hold of the scissors; I am glad she held me afterward. I might—I might"—I hesitated—"have stabbed her to the heart," was in my mind, but the tragic threat faltered upon my lips.
"Pray to God, Miriam Monfort, to subdue your temper," said the well-meaning but injudicious nurse, solemnly. "Your sister is old enough to make sport with you whenever she likes, without such returns."
"I wish mamma was at home," I said, still sobbing. "She would not allow me to be so treated; but it is always the way—as soon as she turns her back, Evelyn besets me, and you look on and encourage her."
"I do no such thing," said Mrs. Austin, sharply. "You have no business to take up cudgels for every outsider that your sister mentions, as you do. She is afraid to speak her mind before you, for fear of a fuss."
"I hate deceit," I said, wiping my eyes; "and deceitful people, too. I love my friends behind their backs the same as to their faces—just the same."
"What makes you mock Mr. Bainrothe then, and show how he minces at table, and uses his rattan?" she asked.
"Mr. Bainrothe is not my friend; besides, I said no harm of him. I don't love him, and never will, and he knows it."
"Were you rude enough to tell him so, Miriam?"
"No, but he understands very well. I never mimic any one I love."
"Yet you love that rough, old Mr. Gerald Stanbury, as cross as a cur. What taste!"
"Yes, from my heart I love him. He is good, he is true, he is noble; that is what he is. He has no specks in his eyes. He does not say, 'Just so,' whenever papa opens his lips."
"O Miriam! not to like him for that!"
"No; that is just why I don't like him. He has no mind of his own—or maybe he has two minds. Mamma thinks so, I know."
"She has told you so, I suppose?"
"If she had, I would not talk about it. No, she never told me so. I found it out myself. I know what she thinks, though, of every one, just by looking at her."
"Then what does she think of me?" asked Mrs. Austin, sharply.
"That you are a good, dear old nurse," I said, with a sudden revulsion of feeling, jumping up and throwing my arms about her; "only a little, very little, bit fonder of Evelyn than me. But that is natural. She is so much prettier and older than I am, and takes better care of her clothes. Besides, I am cross about dressing, I know I am; and afterward I am always so sorry."
"My Miriam always had a good heart," said Mrs. Austin, quite subdued, and returning my embraces. "And now let me call Charity to wash and comb and dress you before your mamma comes home. You know she always likes to see you looking nicely. But soon you must learn to do this for yourself; Charity will be wanted for other uses."
"I know, I know," I cried, jumping up and down; "Evelyn told me all about it yesterday," and the flush of joy mounted to my brow. "Won't we be too happy, Mrs. Austin, when our own dear little brother or sister comes?" And I clasped my hands across my bare neck, hugging myself in ecstasy.
"I don't know, child; there's no telling. What fingers" (holding them up wofully to the light); "every color of the rainbow! That green stain will be very hard to get out of your nails. How careless you are, Miriam! But, as I was saying, there's no telling what to expect from an unborn infant. It's wrong to speculate on such uncertainties; it's tempting Providence, Miriam. In the first place, it may be deformed, I shouldn't wonder—that lame boy about so much—short of one leg, at least."
"Deformed! O Mrs. Austin! how dreadful! I never thought of that." And I began to shiver before her mysterious suggestions.
"Or it may be a poor, senseless idiot like Johnny Gibson. He comes here for broken victuals constantly, you know, and your mamma sees him."
"Mrs. Austin, don't talk so, for pity's sake," catching at her gown wildly; "don't! you frighten me to death."
"Or it may be (stand still directly, Miriam, and let met get this paint off your ear)—or it may be, for aught we know or can help, born with a hard, proud, wicked heart, that may show itself in bad actions—cruelty, deceit, or even—" she hesitated, drearily.
"Mrs. Austin, sha'n't say such things about that poor, innocent little thing," I cried out, stamping my foot impatiently, "that isn't even born."
"Well, well; there's no use rejoicing too soon, that's all I mean to say. And why you should be glad, child, to have your own nose broken, is more than I can see," with a deep and awful groan.
"For pity's sake, stop! I am glad, I will be glad, there now! as glad as I please, just because I know mamma will be glad, and papa will be glad, and George Gaston will be glad, and because I do so adore babies, sin or no sin; I can't help what you think; I say it again, I do adore them. No, I ain't afraid of 'God's eternal anger' at all for saying so; not a bit afraid. What does He make them so sweet for if He does not expect us to love them dearly—His little angels on earth? Whenever a baby passes here with its nurse, I run after it and stop it and play with it as long as I can; and oh, I wish so often we had one of our own here at home!" embracing myself again with enthusiasm.
"Evelyn is right; you are a very absurd child, Miriam," she said, smiling, in spite of her efforts to keep grave; "very silly, even."
"And you are a very foolish, dear old nurse, and you will love our baby, too, won't you now?" clasping her also, zealously.
"Be still, child—here comes Charity. She will think you crazy to be rumpling my cap in that way, and talking about such matters. You are getting to be a perfect tomboy, Miriam! What would your papa say if he could see you now, so dirty and disorderly—your papa, as neat as a pink always?—Charity, what kept you so long to-day? Be quick and get Miss Miriam's new cambric dress, and her blue sash, and her new, long, gray kid gloves, and her leghorn hat, and white zephyr scarf. She is going to drive out presently with her mamma and papa, and must look decent for once in a while." After a pause she continued: "Miss Evelyn was dressed an hour ago, and is ready at the gate now, with her leghorn flat on and her parasol in her hand, I'll be bound," looking from the window. "There comes Norman Stanbury home from school. That's the idea, is it?" and the good nurse looked grave. "It will never do, it will never do in the world," she said, as she glanced at them, then turned away, shaking her head dolefully. "My child, my pretty piece of wax-work, must do better than that comes to. Her blood must never mix with such as runs in the veins of the Stanbury clan."
About a month later the feeble wail of my little sister greeted my ear as I entered my mamma's room one morning, in obedience to her summons, and my heart was filled with a rapture almost as great as hers who owned this priceless treasure.
Three weeks later, very suddenly and most unexpectedly, my dear mamma was stricken mortally as she sat, apparently quite convalescent, in her deep chair by the cradle, smiling at and caressing her infant. Mrs. Austin and I were alone in the room with her; papa and Evelyn had gone out for a walk. I had just been thinking how very pretty she looked that day in her white wrapper, with a pink ribbon at the throat, and her little, closely-fitting lace cap, through which her rich brown hair was distinctly visible. She had a fine oval face, clear, pallid skin, and regular though not perfect features, and never appeared so interesting or beautiful as now, in the joy and pride of her new maternity. Suddenly she grew strikingly pale, gasped, stretched out her hands, fixed her imploring eyes on me, and fell back, half fainting, in her chair.
By the time we had placed her on her bed she was insensible, breathing hard, though with a low fluttering pulse, that kept hope alive until the doctor came. The moment he beheld her he knew that all was over; remedies were tried in vain. She never spoke again, and, when my father returned an hour later, a senseless mass of snow replaced the young wife he had left, happy and hopeful.
I was spared the first manifestations of his agony, in which disappointment and the idea of being pursued by a relentless fate bore so great a part, by my own condition, which rendered me insensible for nearly thirty hours, to all that passed around me. It was afternoon when I awoke, as if from a deep sleep, to find myself alone with Mrs. Austin in my chamber.
Except from a sense of lassitude I experienced no unpleasant sensations, and I found myself marveling at the causes that could have consigned me in health to my bed and bed-gown, to my shadowed chamber and the supervision of my faithful nurse, when the sound of suppressed yet numerous footsteps in the hall below met my ear, and the consciousness that something unusual was going on took possession of and quickened my still lethargic faculties.
"What does all this mean, Mrs. Austin?" I asked at last, in a voice feeble as an infant's, "and what are those steps below? Why am I so weak, and what are you doing here? Answer me, I beseech you," and I clasped my hands piteously.
"Eat your panada, Miriam, and ask no questions," she said, lifting a bowl from above a spirit-lamp on the chimney-piece, and bearing it toward me. "Here it is, nice and hot. The doctor said you were to take it as soon as you awoke."
I received eagerly the nourishment of which I stood so greatly in need, spiced and seasoned as it was with nutmegs and Madeira wine, and, as I felt new strength return to me with the warmth that coursed through my veins, the memory of all that had passed surged rapidly back, as a suspended wave breaks on the strand, and with the shock I was restored to perfect consciousness.
"I know what it all means now," I cried. "Mamma! mamma! Let me go to my poor mamma!" and before she could arrest my steps I flew to the head of the stairway, dressed as I was in my white bed-gown, and was about to descend, when Dr. Pemberton stopped my progress.
"Go back, Miriam; I must see you a moment before you can go down-stairs," he said, calmly, and with authority in his voice. "Nay, believe me, I will not restrain you a moment longer than necessary, if you are obedient now."
"Do you promise this?" I cried, sobbing bitterly.
"I do," and he led me gently back to Mrs. Austin, then examined my pulse, my countenance carefully, inquired if I had taken nourishment, gave me a few drops from a vial he afterward left on the table for use, and, signifying his will to Mrs. Austin, went calmly but sorrowfully from the room.
My simple toilet was speedily made. My dress consisted of a white-cambric gown, I remember, over which Mrs. Austin bound, with some fantastic notion of impromptu mourning, a little scarf of black crepe, passing over one shoulder and below the other, like those worn by the pall-bearers; and, so attired, she took me by the hand and led me, dumb with amazement and grief, through the crowd that surged up the stairs and in the hall and parlors below, into the drawing-room, where, on its tressels, the velvet-covered coffin stood alone and still open, its occupant waiting in marble peace and dumb patience for the last rites of religion and affection to sanctify her repose, ere darkness and solitude should close around her forever.
The spell that had controlled me was rent away, when I saw that sweet and well-beloved aspect once again fixed in a stillness and composure that I knew must be eternal, the tender eyes sealed away from mine forever, the fine sensitive ear dull, expression obliterated! I flung myself in a passion of grief across the coffin. I kissed the waxen face and hands a thousand times and bathed them with scalding tears, then stooping down to the dulled ear I whispered:
"Mamma! mamma! hear me, if your soul is still in your breast, as I believe it is; I want to say something that will comfort you: I want to promise you to take care of your little baby all my days and hers, to divide all I have with her—to live for her, to die for her if such need comes—never to leave her if I can help it, or to let any one oppress her. Do you hear me, Mamma Constance?"
"What are you whispering about, Miriam?" said Mrs. Austin, drawing me away grimly.
"There, did you see her smile?" I asked, as in my childish imagination that sweet expression, that comes with the relaxation of the muscles to some dead faces toward the last of earth, seemed to transfigure hers as with an angel grace. "Her soul has not gone away yet," I murmured, "she heard me, she believed me," and I clasped my hands tightly and sank on my knees beside the coffin, devoutly thanking God for this great consolation.
"Child, child, you are mad," she said, drawing me suddenly to my feet. "Come away, Miriam, this is no place for you; I wonder at Dr. Pemberton! That coffin ought to be closed at once, for decay has set in; and there is no sense in supposing the spirit in the poor, crumbling body, when such signs as these exist," and she pointed to two blue spots on the throat and chin.
I did not understand her then—I thought they were bruises received in life—and wondered what she meant as well as I could conjecture at such a time of bewilderment; but still I resolutely refused to leave my dear one's side, sobbing passionately when Mr. Lodore came in to take me away at last, in obedience to Dr. Pemberton's orders.
"Come, Miriam, this will never do," he said. "Grief must have its way, but reason must be listened to as well. You have been ill yourself, and your friends are anxious about you; if your mamma could speak to you, she would ask you to go to your chamber and seek repose. Nay, more, she would tell you that, for all the thrones of the earth, she would not come back if she could, and forsake her angel estate."
"Not even to see her baby?" I asked, through my blinding tears. "O Mr. Lodore, you must be mistaken about that; you are wrong, if you are a preacher, for she told me lately she valued her life chiefly for its sake; and I heard her praying one night to be spared to raise it up to womanhood.—Mamma! mamma! you would come back to us I know, if God would let you, but you cannot, you cannot; He is so strong, so cruel! and He holds you fast." And I sobbed afresh, covering up my face.
"Miriam, what words are these?—Mr. Monfort, I am pleased that you have come. It is best for your little daughter to retire; she is greatly moved and excited;" and, yielding to my father's guidance and persuasion, I went passively from the presence of the dead, into which came, a moment later, the hushed crowd of her church-people and our few private friends, assembled to witness her obsequies.
Evelyn Erie accompanied my father to the grave as one of the chief mourners, and at my entreaty Mrs. Austin laid my little sister on the bed by my side, and I was soothed and strengthened by the sight of her baby loveliness as nothing else could have soothed and strengthened me.
Then, solemnly and in my own heart, I renewed the promise I had made the dead, and as far as in me lay have I kept it, Mabel, through thy life and mine!
I roused from an uneasy sleep an hour later, to find George Gaston at my side.
"I have brought you this, Miriam," he said, "because I thought it might help you to bear up. It is a little book my mother loved; perhaps you can read it and understand it when you are older even if you cannot now. See, there is a cross on the back, and such a pretty picture of Jesus in the front. It is for you to keep forever, Miriam. It is called Keble's 'Christian Year.'"
"Thank you, George," and I kissed him, murmuring, "But I do not think I shall ever read any more," tearfully.
He, too, begged to see the baby for all recompense—his darling as well as mine thenceforth; and I recall to this hour the lovely face of the boy, with all his clustering, nut-brown curls damp with the clammy perspiration incident to his debility, bending above the tiny infant as it lay in sweet repose, with words of pity and tenderness, and tearful, steadfast eyes that seemed filled with almost angelic solicitude and solemn blessing.
Two guardians of ten years old then clasped hands above its downy head, and in childish earnestness vowed to one another to protect, to cherish, to defend it as long as life was spared to either. Hannibal was not older than we were when he swore his famous oath at Carthage, kneeling at the feet of Hamilcar before the altar, to hate the Romans. How was our oath of love less solemn or impressive than his of hatred?—pledged as it was, too, in the presence of an angel too lately freed from earth's bondage not to hover still around her prison-house and above the sleeping cherub she left so lately!
Such resolutions, however carried out, react on the character that conceives them. I felt from that time strengthened, uplifted, calmed, as I had never felt before. I learned the precious secret of patience in watching over that baby head, and for its sake grew forbearing to all around; toward Evelyn, even, whose taunts were so hard to bear, so unendurable on occasions.
"There is a great change in Miriam," she said one day to Norman Stanbury. "I believe she is getting religion, or perhaps she and George Gaston are training themselves to go forth as married missionaries, after a while, to the heathen. They are studying parental responsibility already, one at the head and the other at the foot of the baby's cradle-carriage, but I am afraid it will be but a lame concern, after all."
We both heard this cruel speech and the laugh that succeeded it, in passing by, as it was intended we should do, probably—heard it in silence, and perhaps it may be said in dignity, not even a remark being interchanged between us concerning it; but I saw George Gaston flush to the roots of his hair.
A few minutes later we were ourselves laughing merrily over the baby's ineffectual efforts to catch a bunch of scarlet roses which George dangled above her head, and, altogether forgetful of Evelyn's sneer, bumped our heads together in trying to kiss her.
In truth, my superb sense of womanhood lifted me quite above all frivolous suggestions; thenceforth George seemed to me physically almost as much of a baby as Mabel, and was nearly as dependent on my aid. In his sudden fits of exhaustion and agony of such uncertain recurrence as to render it dangerous for him to venture forth alone, he always turned with confidence to my supporting and guiding hand.
I taught him his lessons in the intervals of my own studies, which he recited when he could to a private teacher, the same who gave me lessons.
Evelyn preferred a public school, and was sent, at her own request, to a fashionable establishment in the city attended by the elite alone, as the enormous prices charged for tuition indicated, as a day-boarder. There she became proficient in mere mechanical music—her ear being a poor one naturally—and learned to speak two languages, dance to perfection, and conduct herself like a high-bred woman of fashion on all occasions and in all emergencies—each and all necessities for a belle, which, it may be remembered, she had aspired to be, and announced her intention of becoming.
The fame of my father's wealth, her own beauty, tact, and grace, and elegant attire, rendered her conspicuous among her school-mates, and from among these she selected as friends such as appeared to her most desirable as bearing on her future plans of life. So that already Evelyn had made for herself a sphere outside and beyond any thing known in "Monfort Hall" or its vicinity.
My father, who, like all shy persons, admired cool self-possession and the leading hand in others, looked on with quiet approbation and some diversion at these proceedings. He gave her the use of his equipage, his house, his grounds, reserving to himself only intact the refuge of his library, from which ark of safety he surveyed at leisure, with quiet, curious, and amused scrutiny, the gay young forms that on holiday occasions glided through his garden and conservatory, and filled his drawing-room and halls with laughter and revelry.
On such occasions I was permitted, on certain conditions, to appear as a spectator. One of the most imperative of these was, that I was never to reveal to any one that Evelyn was not my own half-sister.
"You are not called upon to tell a story, Miriam, only to give them no satisfaction. You see they might as well think part of all this wealth, which came from your mother, is mine. It will in no way affect the reality—only their demeanor—for they every one worship money."
"I would not care for such girls, sister Evelyn, nor what they thought," I rejoined. "Besides, are you not an earl's granddaughter; why not boast of that instead, which would be the truth?"
"An earl's fiddlestick! What do you suppose American girls would care for that? Nor would they believe it, even, unless I had diamonds and coronet and every thing to match. Your mother had diamonds, I know, but mine had not. By-the-by, where are they, Miriam? I have never seen them."
"I do not know, Evelyn," I replied, gravely. "I have never thought about them until now, I am so sorry your heart is set upon such things. You know what Mamma Constance used to tell us."
"Oh, yes, I remember she croaked continually, as all delicate, doomed people do, I believe. It was well enough in her case, as she had to die; but, as for me—look at me, Miriam Monfort! Do I look like death? No; victory, rather!" and she straightened her elastic form exultingly. "And you, too, little one, are growing up strong and tall and better-looking than you used to be," she continued, patting my cheek carelessly. "The Jewish gaberdine is gradually dropping off; I mean the dinginess of your early complexion. By the time I have had my successful career, and am settled in life, yours will begin. Help me now, and I will help you then."
"You are only a school-girl," I said, sententiously. "You had better be thinking of your lessons, and let beaux and diamonds alone. I would be ashamed to keep a key to my exercises and sums, as you do. I would blush in the dark to do such a thing."
"I am not preparing myself for a governess, that I should make a point of honor of such things, little pragmatical prig that you are; nor are you, that I know of. You will always have plenty of money. 'Rich as a Jew' is a proverb, you know, all the world over."
The taunt had long since lost its sting; so I replied, meekly:
"We none of us know what may happen. I should like to be able to support myself and Mabel, if the worst came. Old Mr. Stanbury says all property is uncertain nowadays, especially in this country."