THE YOUTHFUL ERROR
A Tale of Riverside
AND OTHER STORIES
MRS. MARY J. HOLMES Author of "Tempest And Sunshine," "Lena Rivers," "Meadowbrook," Etc., Etc.
The Owner of Riverside
Brother and Sister
The Guest at Riverside
THE ANSWERED PRAYER
THE YOUTHFUL ERROR. A TALE OF RIVERSIDE.
THE OWNER OF RIVERSIDE.
All the day long the September rain had fallen, and when the night closed in it showed no sign of weariness, but with the same monotonous patter dropped upon the roof, or beat against the windows of the pleasantly lighted room where a young man sat gazing at the glowing grate, and listening apparently to the noise of the storm without. But neither the winds, nor yet the rain, had a part of that young man's thoughts, for they were with the past, and the chain which linked them to that past was the open letter which lay on the table beside him. For that letter he had waited long and anxiously, wondering what it would contain, and if his overtures for reconciliation with one who had erred far more than himself, would be accepted. It had come at last, and with a gathering coldness at his heart he had read the decision,—"she would not be reconciled," and she bade him "go his way alone and leave her to herself."
"It is well," he said; "I shall never trouble her again,"—and with a feeling of relief, as if a heavy load, a dread of coming evil, had been taken from his mind, he threw the letter upon the table, and leaning back in his cushioned chair, tried to fancy that the last few years of his life were blotted out.
"Could it be so, Ralph Browning would be a different man." he said aloud; then, as he glanced round the richly furnished room, he continued—"People call me happy, and so perhaps I might be, but for this haunting memory. Why was it suffered to be, and must I make a life-long atonement for that early sin?"
In his excitement he arose, and crushing the letter for a moment in his hand, hurled it into the fire; then, going to his private drawer, he took out and opened a neatly folded package, containing a long tress of jet black hair. Shudderingly he wound it around his fingers, laid it over the back of his hand, held it up to the light, and then with a hard, dark look upon his face, threw it, too upon the grate, saying aloud, "Thus perisheth every memento of the past, and I am free again—free as air!"
He walked to the window, and pressing his burning forehead against the cool, damp pane, looked out upon the night. He could not see through the darkness, but had it been day, his eye would have rested on broad acres all his own; for Ralph Browning was a wealthy man, and the house in which he lived was his by right of inheritance from a bachelor uncle for whom he had been named, and who, two years before our story opens, had died, leaving to his nephew the grand old place, called Riverside, from its nearness to the river. It was a most beautiful spot; and when its new master first took possession of it, the maids and matrons of Granby, who had mourned for the elder Browning as people mourn for a good man, felt themselves somewhat consoled from the fact that his successor was young and handsome, and would doubtless prove an invaluable acquisition to their fireside circles, and furnish a theme for gossip, without which no village can well exist. But in the first of their expectations they were mistaken, for Mr. Browning shunned rather than sought society, and spent the most of his leisure hours in the seclusion of his library, where, as Mrs. Peters, his housekeeper, said, he did nothing but mope over books and walk the floor. "He was melancholy," she said; "there was something workin' on his mind, and what it was she didn't know more'n the dead— though she knew as well as she wanted to, that he had been crossed in love, for what else would make so many of his hairs gray, and he not yet twenty-five!"
That there was a mystery connected with him, was conceded by most of the villagers, and many a curious gaze they bent upon the grave, dignified young man, who seldom joined in their pastime or intruded himself upon their company. Much sympathy was expressed for him in his loneliness, by the people of Granby, and more than one young girl would gladly have imposed upon herself the task of cheering that loneliness; but he seemed perfectly invulnerable to maiden charms; and when Mrs. Peters, as she often did, urged him "to take a wife and be somebody," he answered quietly, "I am content to follow the example of my uncle. I shall probably never marry."
Still he was lonely in his great house—so lonely that, though it hurt his pride to do it, he wrote the letter, the answer to which excited him so terribly, and awoke within his mind a train of thought so absorbing and intense, that he did not hear the summons to supper until Mrs. Peters put her head into the room, asking "if he were deaf or what."
Mrs. Peters had been in the elder Browning's household for years, and when the new owner came, she still continued at her post, and exercised over her young master a kind of motherly care, which he permitted because he knew her real worth, and that without her his home would be uncomfortable indeed. On the occasion of which we write, Mrs. Peters was unusually attentive, and to a person at all skilled in female tactics, it was evident that she was about to ask a favor, and had made preparations accordingly. His favorite waffles had been buttered exactly right—the peaches and cream were delicious—the fragrant black tea was neither too strong nor too weak—the fire blazed brightly in the grate—the light from the chandelier fell softly upon the massive silver service and damask cloth;—and with all these creature comforts around him, it is not strange that he forgot the letter and the tress of hair which so lately had blackened on the coals. The moment was propitious, and by the time he had finished his second cup, Mrs. Peters said, "I have something to propose."
Leaning back in his chair, he looked inquiringly at her, and she continued: "You remember Mrs. Leyton, the poor woman who had seen better days, and lived in East Granby?"
"You know she has been sick, and you gave me leave to carry her any thing I chose?"
"Well, she's dead, poor thing, and what is worse, she hain't no connection, nor never had, and her little daughter Rosamond hain't a place to lay her head."
"Let her come and sleep with you, then," said Mr. Browning, rattling his spoon upon the edge of his cup.
"Yes, and what'll she do days?" continued Mrs. Peters. "She can't run the streets, that's so; now, I don't believe no great in children, and you certainly don't b'lieve in 'em at all, nor your poor uncle before you; but Rosamond ain't a child; she's thirteen—most a woman—and if you don't mind the expense, I shan't mind the trouble, and she can live here till she finds a place. Her mother, you know, took up millinering to get a living."
"Certainly, let her come," answered Mr. Browning, who was noted for his benevolence.
This matter being thus satisfactorily settled, Mrs. Peters arose from the table, while Mr. Browning went back to the olden memories which had haunted him so much that day, and with which there was not mingled a single thought of the little Rosamond, who was to exert so strong an influence upon his future life.
Rosamond had been some weeks at Riverside, and during all that time Mr. Browning had scarcely noticed her at all. On the first day of her arrival he had spoken kindly to her, asking her how old she was, and how long her mother had been dead, and this was all the attention he had paid to her. He did not even yet know the color of her eyes, or texture of her hair,—whether it were curly or straight, black or brown; but he knew in various ways that she was there—knew it by the sound of dancing feet upon the stairs, which were wont to echo only to Mrs. Peters' heavy tread—knew it by the tasteful air his room suddenly assumed—by the ringing laugh and musical songs which came often from the kitchen, and by the thousand changes which the presence of a merry-hearted girl of thirteen brings to a hitherto silent house. Of him Rosamond stood considerably in awe, and though she could willingly have worshipped him for giving her so pleasant a home, she felt afraid of him and kept out of his way, watching him with childish curiosity at a distance, admiring his noble figure, and wondering if she would ever dare speak to him as fearlessly as Mrs. Peters did.
From this woman Rosamond received all a mother's care, and though the name of her lost parent was often on her lips, she was beginning to be very happy in her new home, when one day toward the middle of October Mrs. Peters told her that Mr. Browning's only sister, a Mrs. Van Vechten, who lived South, was coming to Riverside, together with her son Ben. The lady Mrs. Peters had never seen, but Ben, who was at school in Albany, had spent a vacation there, and she described him as a "great, good-natured fool," who cared for nothing but dogs, cigars, fast horses and pretty girls.
Rosamond pushed back the stray curls which had fallen over her face, glanced at the cracked mirror which gave her two noses instead of one, and thinking to herself, "I wonder if he'll care for me," listened attentively while Mrs. Peters continued,—"This Miss Van Vechten is a mighty fine lady, they say, and has heaps of niggers to wait on her at home,—but she can't bring 'em here, for I should set 'em free—that's, so. I don't b'lieve in't. What was I sayin'? Oh, I know, she can't wait on herself, and wrote to have her brother get some one. He asked me if you'd be willin' to put on her clothes, wash her face, and chaw her victuals like enough."
"Mr. Browning never said that," interrupted Rosamond, and Mrs. Peters replied—"Well, not that exactly, but he wants you to wait on her generally."
"I'll do anything reasonable," answered Rosamond. "When will she be here?" "I'll do anything reasonable," answered Rosamond, "I must hurry, or I shan't have them north chambers ready for her. Ben ain't coming quite so soon."
The two or three days passed rapidly, and at the close of the third a carriage laden with trunks stopped before the gate at Riverside, and Mrs. Van Vechten had come. She was a thin, sallow-faced, proud-looking woman, wholly unlike her brother, whose senior she was by many years. She had seen much of the world, and that she was conscious of her own fancied superiority was perceptible in every movement. She was Mrs. Richard Van Vechten, of Alabama—one of the oldest families in the state. Her deceased husband had been United States Senator—she had been to Europe—had seen the Queen on horseback—had passed the residence of the Duchess of Sutherland, and when Rosamond Leyton appeared before her in her neatly-fitting dress of black and asked what she could do for her, she elevated her eyebrows, and coolly surveying the little girl, answered haughtily, "Comb out my hair."
"Yes, I will," thought Rosamond, who had taken a dislike to the grand lady, and suiting the action to the thought, she did comb out her hair, pulling it so unmercifully that Mrs. Van Vechten angrily bade her stop.
"Look at me, girl," said she; "did you ever assist at any one's toilet before?"
"I've hooked Mrs. Peters' dress and pinned on Bridget's collar," answered Rosamond, her great brown eyes brimming with mischief.
"Disgusting!" returned Mrs. Van Vechten—"I should suppose Ralph would know better than to get me such an ignoramus. Were you hired on purpose to wait on me?"
"Why, no, ma'am—I live here," answered Rosamond.
"Live here!" repeated Mrs. Van Vechten, "and pray, what do you do?"
"Nothing much, unless I choose," said Rosamond, who, being a great pet with Mrs. Peters and the other servants, really led a very easy life at Riverside.
Looking curiously into the frank, open face of the young girl, Mrs. Van Vechten concluded she was never intended to take a negro's place, and with a wave of her hand she said, "You may go; I can dress myself alone."
That evening, as the brother and sister sat together in the parlor, the latter suddenly asked, "Who is that Rosamond Leyton, and what is she doing here?"
Mr. Browning told her all he knew of the girl, and she continued, "Do you intend to educate her?"
"Educate her!" said he—"what made you think of that?"
"Because," she answered, with a sarcastic smile, "as you expect to do penance the rest of your lifetime, I did not know but you would deem it your duty to educate every beggar who came along."
The idea of educating Rosamond Leyton was new to Mr. Browning, but he did not tell his sister so—he merely said, "And suppose I do educate her?"
"In that case," answered the lady, "Ben will not pass his college vacations here, as I had intended that he should do."
"And why not?" asked Mr. Browning.
"Why not?" repeated Mrs. Van Vechten. "Just as though you did not know how susceptible he is to female beauty, and if you treat this Rosamond as an equal, it will be like him to fall in love with her at once. She is very pretty, you know."
Mr. Browning did not know any such thing. In fact, he scarcely knew how the young girl looked, but his sister's remark had awakened in him an interest, and after she had retired, which she did early, he rang the bell for Mrs. Peters, who soon appeared in answer to his call.
"Is Rosamond Leyton up," he asked.
"Yes, sir," answered Mrs. Peters, wondering at the question.
"Send her to me," he said, and with redoubled amazement Mrs. Peters carried the message to Rosamond, who was sitting before the fire, trying in vain to undo an obstinate knot in her boot-string.
"Mr. Browning sent for me!" she exclaimed, her cheeks flushing up. "Wants to scold me, I suppose, for pulling his sister's hair. I only did what she told me to," and with a beating heart she started for the parlor.
Rosamond was afraid of Mr. Browning, and feeling sure that he intended to reprove her, she took the chair nearest to the door, and covering her face with her hands, began to cry, saying—"It was ugly in me, I know', to pull Mrs. Van Vechten's hair, and I did it on purpose, too; but I won't do so again, I certainly won't."
Mr. Browning was confounded. This was the first intimation he had received of the barbaric performance, and for a moment he remained silent, gazing at the little girl. Her figure was very slight, her feet and hands were very small, and her hair, though disordered now and rough, was of a beautiful brown, and fell in heavy curls around her neck. He saw all this at a glance, but her face, the point to which his attention was chiefly directed, he could not see until those little hands were removed, and as a means of accomplishing this he at last said, kindly—"I do not understand you, Rosamond. My sister has entered no complaint, and I did not send for you to censure you. I wish to talk with you—to get acquainted. Will you come and sit by me upon the sofa?"
Rosamond's hands came down from her face, but she did not leave her seat; neither did Mr. Browning now wish to have her, for the light of the chandelier fell full upon her, giving him a much better view of her features than if she had been nearer to him. If, as Mrs. Peters had said, Ben Van Vechten was fond of pretty girls, he in a measure inherited the feeling from his uncle, who was an ardent admirer of the beautiful, and who now felt a glow of satisfaction in knowing that Rosamond Leyton was pretty. It was a merry, sparkling, little face which he looked upon, and though the nose did turn up a trifle, and the mouth was rather wide, the soft, brown eyes, and exquisitely fair complexion made ample amends for all. She was never intended for a menial—she would make a beautiful woman—and with thoughts similar to these, Mr. Browning, after completing his survey of her person, said— "Have you been to school much?"
"Always, until I came here," was her answer; and he continued—"And since then you have not looked in a book, I suppose?"
The brown eyes opened wide as Rosamond replied,—"Why, yes I have. I've read over so much in your library when you were gone. Mrs. Peters told me I might," she added, hastily, as she saw his look of surprise, and mistook it for displeasure.
"I am perfectly willing," he said; "but what have you read? Tell me."
Rosamond was interested at once, and while her cheeks glowed and her eyes sparkled, she replied—"Oh, I've read Shakespeare's Historical Plays, every one of them—and Childe Harold, and Watts on the Mind, and Kenilworth, and now I'm right in the middle of the Lady of the Lake. Wasn't Fitz-James the King? I believe he was. When I am older I mean to write a book just like that."
Mr. Browning could not forbear a smile at her enthusiasm, but without answering her question, he said,—"What do you intend to do until you are old enough?"
Rosamond's countenance fell, and after tapping her foot upon the carpet awhile, she said, "Mrs. Peters will get me a place by-and-by, and I s'pose I'll have to be a milliner."
"Do you wish to be one?"
"Why, no; nor mother didn't either, but after father died she had to do something. Father was a kind of a lawyer, and left her poor."
"Do you wish to go away from here, Rosamond?"
There were tears on the long-fringed eye-lashes as the young girl replied, "No, sir; I'd like to live here always, but there's nothing for me to do."
"Unless you go to school. How would you like that?"
"I have no one to pay the bills," and the curly head shook mournfully.
"But I have money, Rosamond, and suppose I say that you shall stay here and go to school?"
"Oh, sir, will you say so? May I live with you always?" and forgetting her fear of him in her great joy, Rosamond Leyton crossed over to where he sat, and laying both her hands upon his shoulder, continued—"Are you in earnest, Mr. Browning? May I stay? Oh, I'll be so good to you when you are old and sick!"
It seemed to her that he was old enough to be her father, then, and it almost seemed so to him. Giving her a very paternal look, he answered, "Yes, child, you shall stay as long as you like and now go, or Mrs. Peters will be wondering what keeps you."
Rosamond started to leave the room, but ere she reached the door she paused, and turning to Mr. Browning, said, "You have made me so happy, and I like you so much, I wish you'd let me kiss your hand—may I?"
It was a strange question, and it sent the blood tingling to the very tips of Mr. Browning's fingers.
"Why, ye-es,—I don't know. What made you think of that?" he said, and Rosamond replied,—"I always kissed father when he made me very happy. It was all I could do."
"But I am not your father," stammered Mr. Browning; "I shall not be twenty-five until November. Still you can do as you please."
"Not twenty-five yet," repeated Rosamond;—"why, I thought you were nearer forty. I don't believe I'd better, though I like you just as well. Good night."
He heard her go through the hall, up the stairs, through the upper hall, and then all was still again.
"What a strange little creature she is," he thought; "so childlike and frank, but how queer that she should ask to kiss me! Wouldn't Susan be shocked if she knew it, and won't she be horrified when I tell her I am going to educate the girl. I shouldn't have thought of it but for her. And suppose Ben does fall in love with her. If he knew a little more, it would not be a bad match. Somebody must keep up our family, or it will become extinct. Susan and I are the only ones left, and I"—here he paused, and starting to his feet, he paced the floor hurriedly, nervously, as if seeking to escape from some pursuing evil. "It is terrible," he whispered, "but I can bear it and will," and going to his room he sought his pillow to dream strange dreams of tresses black, and ringlets brown,—of fierce, dark eyes, and shining orbs, whose owner had asked to kiss his hand, and mistaken him for her sire.
The next morning, as Mrs. Van Vechten was slowly making her toilet alone, there came a gentle rap at her door, and Rosamond Leyton appeared, her face fresh and blooming as a rose-bud, her curls brushed back from her forehead, and her voice very respectful, as she said—"I have come to ask your pardon for my roughness yesterday. I can do better, and if you will let me wait on you while you stay, I am sure I shall please you."
Mrs. Van Vechten could not resist that appeal, and she graciously accepted the girl's offer, asking her the while what had made the change in her behavior. Always frank and truthful, Rosamond explained to the lady that Mr. Browning's kindness had filled her with gratitude and determined her to do as she had done. To her Mrs. Van Vechten said nothing, but when she met her brother at the breakfast table, there was an ominous frown upon her face, and the moment they were alone, she gave him her opinion without reserve. But Mr. Browning was firm. "He should have something to live for," he said, "and Heaven only knew the lonely hours he passed with no object in which to be interested. Her family, though unfortunate, are highly respectable," he added, "and if I can make her a useful ornament in society, it is my duty to do so."
Mrs. Van Vechten knew how useless it would be to remonstrate with him, and she gave up the contest, mentally resolving that "Ben should not pass his college vacations there."
When the villagers learned that Mr. Browning intended to educate Rosamond and treat her as his equal, they ascribed it wholly to the influence of his sister, who, of course, had suggested to him an act which seemed every way right and proper. They did not know how the lady opposed it, nor how, for many days, she maintained a cold reserve toward the young girl, who strove in various ways to conciliate her, and at last succeeded so far that she not only accepted her services at her toilet, but even asked of her sometimes to read her to sleep in the afternoon, a process neither long nor tedious, for Mrs. Van Vechten was not literary, and by the time the second page was reached she usually nodded her full acquiescence to the author's opinions, and Rosamond was free to do as she pleased.
One afternoon when Mrs. Van Vechten was fast asleep, and Rosamond deep in the "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," (the former having selected that poem as an opiate because of its musical jingle,) there was the sound of a bounding step upon the stairs, accompanied by the stirring notes of Yankee Doodle, which some one whistled at the top of his voice. Rosamond was about going to see who it was, when the door opened and disclosed to view a long, lank, light-haired, good-natured looking youth, dressed in the extreme of fashion, with a huge gold chain dangling across his vest, and an immense diamond ring upon his little finger. This last he managed to show frequently by caressing his chin, where, by the aid of a microscope, a very little down might possibly have been found! This was Ben! He had just arrived, and learning that his mother was in her room, had entered it unceremoniously. The unexpected apparition of a beautiful young girl startled him, and he introduced himself to her good graces by the very expressive exclamation, "Thunder! I beg your pardon, Miss," he continued, as he met her surprised and reproving glance. "You scared me so I didn't know what else to say. It's a favorite expression of mine, but I'll quit it, if you say so. Do you live here?"
"I wait upon your mother," was the quiet answer, which came near wringing from the young man a repetition of the offensive word.
But he remembered himself in time, and then continued, "How do you know she's my mother? You are right, though. I'm Ben Van Vechten—the veriest dolt in school, they say. But, as an offset, I've got a heart as big as an ox; and now, who are you? I know you are not a waiting- maid!"
Rosamond explained who she was, and then, rather pleased with his off- hand manner, began to question him concerning his journey, and so forth. Ben was delighted. It was not every girl who would of her own accord talk to him, and sitting down beside her, he told her twice that she was handsome, was cautiously winding his arm around her waist, when from the rosewood bedstead there came the sharp, quick word, "Benjamin!" and, unmindful of Rosamond's presence, Ben leaped into the middle of the room, ejaculating, "Thunder! mother, what do you want?"
"I want her to leave the room," said Mrs. Van Vechten, pointing toward Rosamond, who, wholly ignorant of the nature of her offence, retreated hastily, wondering how she had displeased the capricious lady.
Although Ben Van Vechten would not have dared to do a thing in direct opposition to his mother's commands, he was not ordinarily afraid of her, and he now listened impatiently, while she told him that Rosamond Leyton was not a fit associate for a young man like himself, "She was a sort of nobody, whom her brother had undertaken to educate," she said, "and though she might be rather pretty, she was low-born and vulgar, as any one could see."
Ben confessed to a deficiency of eye-sight on that point, and then, as his mother showed no signs of changing the conversation, he left her abruptly, and sauntered off into the garden, where he came suddenly upon Rosamond, who was finishing the Ancient Mariner in the summer- house, her favorite resort.
"So we've met again," said he, "and a pretty lecture I've had on your account."
"Why on my account?" asked Rosamond; and Ben, who never kept a thing to himself, told her in substance all his mother had said.
"She always wakes in the wrong time," said he, "and she saw me just as I was about to give you a little bit of a hug—so"—and he proceeded to demonstrate.
Rosamond's temper was up, and equally indignant at mother and son, she started to her feet, exclaiming, "I'd thank you, sir, to let me alone."
"Whew-ew," whistled Ben. "Spunky, ain't you. Now I rather like that. But pray don't burst a blood vessel. I've no notion of making love to you, if mother does think so. You are too small a girl."
"Too small a girl," repeated Rosamond, scornfully. "I'm fourteen to- morrow—quite too old to be insulted," and she darted away, followed by the merry laugh of the good-humored Ben.
Two hours before, Rosamond would not have been so excited, for though nearly fourteen, she was in thought and feeling a very child, as was proved by her asking to kiss her benefactor's hand; but Mrs. Van Vechten's remarks, repeated to her by Ben, had wrought in her a change, and, in some respects, transformed her into a woman at once. She did not care so much for the liberties Ben had attempted to take, but his mother's words rankled in her bosom, awakening within her a feeling of bitter resentment; and when, next day, the lady's bell rang out its summons for her to come, she sat still upon the doorsteps and gave no heed.
"Rosamond," said Mrs. Peters, "Mrs. Van Vechten is ringing for you."
"Let her ring, I'm not going to wait on her any more," and Rosamond returned to the book she was reading.
Meantime, flurried and impatient, the lady above stairs pulled at the bell-rope, growing more nervous and angry with every pull, until at last, as she heard her brother's step in the hall, she went out to him and said, "I wish you'd send that girl to me. I've rung at least fifty times; and dare say she's enticing Ben again. I knew it would be so."
Going hurriedly down the stairs, Mr. Browning sought out Rosamond and said to her, "My sister is ringing for you."
"I know it, sir;" and the brown eyes, which heretofore had seemed so soft and gentle, flashed upon him an expression which puzzled him.
"Then why do you not go?" he asked; and the young girl replied, "I shall not wait upon, her any more."
"Rosamond!" said Mr. Browning. There was severity in the tone of his voice, and Rosamond roused at once.
"She says I am vulgar, and low-born, and have designs upon Ben," said she, "and it's a falsehood. My mother was as much a lady as she. I am not vulgar, and I hate Ben, and I won't stay here if I must wait on her. Shall I go away?"
If Rosamond left, the life of the house went with her. This Mr. Browning knew; but man-like, he did not wish to be conquered by a woman, and after questioning her as to the nature of Mrs. Van Vechten's offence, he answered, "My sister says some foolish things, I know, but it is my request that you attend to her while she stays, and I expect to be obeyed."
That last word was unfortunate, for Rosamond had a strong will of her own, and tapping her little foot upon the ground, she said saucily, "And suppose you are not obeyed?"
He did not tell her she must leave Riverside, but he said, "You must answer for your disobedience to me, who have certainly some right to control you;" then, fearing that his own high temper might be tried more than he chose to have it, he walked away just in time to avoid hearing her say, "she cared less for him than for his sister!"
Rosamond was too impulsive not to repent bitterly of her conduct; and though she persisted in leaving Mrs. Van Vechten to herself, and refused to speak to Ben, whose face, in consequence, wore a most melancholy expression, she almost cried herself sick, and at last, startled Mrs. Peters, just as that lady was stepping into bed, by declaring that she must see Mr. Browning before she slept.
Mr. Browning sat in his library, alone. He did not usually retire early, but this night he had cause for wakefulness. The burst of passion he had witnessed in his protegee, had carried him back to a time when another than little Rosamond Leyton had laughed his wishes to scorn.
"And is it ever thus with them?" he said. "Are all women furies in disguise?—and Rosamond seemed so gentle, so good."
He did not hear the low knock on his door, for his thoughts were far away in the south-land, where he had learned his first lesson of womankind. Neither did he hear the light footfall upon the floor, but when a sweet, tearful voice said to him, "Mr. Browning, are you feeling so badly for me?" he started, and on a hassock at his feet saw Rosamond Leyton. The sight of her was unexpected, and it startled him for a moment, but soon recovering his composure, he said gently: "Why are you here? I supposed you were in bed."
Rosamond began to cry, and with her usual impetuosity replied, "I came to tell you how sorry I am for behaving so rudely to you. I do try to govern my temper so hard, but it sometimes gets the mastery. Won't you forgive me, sir? It wasn't Rosamond that acted so—it was a vile, wicked somebody else. Will you forgive me?" and in her dread that the coveted forgiveness might be withheld, she forgot that he was only twenty-four, and laid her head upon his knee, sobbing like a little child.
"Had she done like this, how different would my life have been," thought Mr. Browning, and involuntarily caressing the curly head, he was about to speak, when Rosamond interrupted him, saying,
"I won't deceive you, Mr. Browning, and make you think I'm better than I am. I am sorry I acted so to you, but I don't believe I'm sorry about Mrs. Van Vechten. I don't like her, for she always treats me as though I were not near as good as she, and I can't wait on her any more. Must I? Oh, don't make me," and she looked beseechingly into his face.
He could not help respecting her for that inborn feeling, which would not permit herself to be trampled down, and though he felt intuitively that she was having her own way after all, he assured her of his forgiveness, and then added: "Mrs. Van Vechten will not require your services, for she received a letter to-night, saying her presence was needed at home, and she leaves us to-morrow."
"And Ben?" she asked—"does he go, too?"
"He accompanies his mother to New York," Mr. Browning said, "and I believe she intends leaving him there with a friend, until his school commences again."
In spite of herself, Rosamond rather liked Ben, and feeling that she was the cause of his banishment from Riverside, her sympathy was enlisted for him, and she said, "If I were not here, Ben would stay. Hadn't you rather send me away?"
"No, Rosamond, no;—I need you here," was Mr. Browning's reply, and then as the clock struck eleven, he bade her leave him, saying it was time children like her were in bed.
As he had said, Mis. Van Vechten was going away, and she came down to breakfast next morning in her traveling dress, appearing very unamiable, and looking very cross at Rosamond, with whom she finally parted without a word of reconciliation. Ben, on the contrary, was all affability, and managed slyly to kiss her, telling her he should come there again in spite of his mother.
After their departure the household settled back into its usual monotonous way of living, with the exception that Rosamond, being promoted to the position of an equal, became, in many respects, the real mistress of Riverside, though Mrs. Peters nominally held the reins, and aside from superintending her work, built many castles of the future when her protegee would be a full grown woman and her master still young and handsome!
One year has passed away since Mrs. Van Vechten departed for the South, and up the locust lined avenue which leads to Riverside, the owner of the place is slowly riding. It is not pleasant going home tonight, and so he lingers by the way, wondering why it is that the absence of a child should make so much difference in one's feelings! During the year Rosamond had recited her lessons to him, but with many others he fancied no girl's education could be finished unless she were sent away—and two weeks before the night of which we write he had taken her himself to Atwater Seminary, a distance of more than two hundred miles, and then, with a sense of desolation for which he could not account, he had returned to his home, which was never so lonely before. There was no merry voice within the walls,—no tripping feet upon the stairs,—no soft, white hand to bathe his forehead when suffering from real or fancied headaches,—no slippers waiting by his chair,—no flowers on the mantel,—no bright face at the window,—no Rosamond at the door.
Of all this was he thinking that November afternoon, and when at last he reached his house, he went straight to his library, hoping to find a letter there, telling him of her welfare. But letter there was none, and with a feeling of disappointment he started to the parlor. The door was ajar and he caught glimpses of a cheerfully blazing fire within the grate. The shutters, too, were open and the curtains were put back just as they used to be when she was there. It seemed like the olden time, and with spirits somewhat enlivened he advanced into the room. His favorite chair stood before the fire, and so near to it that her head was leaning on its arm, sat a young girl. Her back was turned toward him, but he knew that form full well, and joyfully he cried: "Rosamond, how came you here?"
Amid her smiles and tears, Rosamond tempted to tell him the story of her grievances. She was homesick, and she could not learn half so much at the Atwater Seminary as at home—then, too, she hated the strait- jacket rules, and hated the lady-boarder, who pretended to be sick, and wouldn't let the school-girls breathe, especially Rosamond Leyton, for whom she seemed to have conceived a particular aversion.
Pleased as Mr. Browning was to have Rosamond with him again, he did not quite like her reasons for coming back, and he questioned her closely as to the cause of her sudden return.
"I shouldn't have come, perhaps," said Rosamond, "if that sick woman hadn't been so nervous and disagreeable. She paid enormous sums for her board, and so Mrs. Lindsey would hardly let us breathe for fear of disturbing her. My room was over hers, and I had to take off my shoes and walk on tiptoe, and even then she complained of me, saying I was rude and noisy, when I tried so hard to be still. I made some hateful remark about her in the hall, which she overheard, and when Mrs. Lindsey scolded me for it, saying she was a very wealthy lady from Florida, and accustomed to every attention at home, I said back some pert things, I suppose, for she threatened to write and tell you, and so I thought I'd come and tell you myself."
There was a dizzy whirl in Mr. Browning's brain—a pallor about his lips—for a terrible suspicion had flashed upon him, and leaning forward, he said in a voice almost a whisper, "What was the Florida lady's name?"
"Potter, or Porter—yes, Miss Porter, that was it. But what is the matter? Are you sick?" Rosamond asked, as she saw how white he was.
"Only a sudden faintness. It will soon pass off," he said. "Tell me more of her. Did she see you? Were you near her?"
"No," answered Rosamond. "She was sick all the time I was there, and did not leave her room. The girls said, though, that she was rather pretty, but had big, black, evil-looking eyes. I don't know why it was, but I felt afraid of her—felt just as though she was my evil genius. I couldn't help it—but you are sick, Mr. Browning—you are pale as a ghost. Lie down upon the sofa, and let me bring the pillows, as I used to do."
She darted off in the direction of his sleeping-room, unconscious of the voice which called after her, asking if it were not dark in the hall, and bidding her take a light.
"But what does it matter?" he said, as he tottered to the sofa. "She is not here. Atwater Seminary is two hundred miles away. She can't harm Rosamond now."
By this time Rosamond came with the pillows, which she arranged upon the sofa, making him lie down while she sat by, and laid her hand soothingly upon his burning forehead.
"We will have tea in here to-night," she said, "I told Mrs. Peters so, and I will make it myself. Do you feel any better?" and she brought her rosy face so near to his that he felt her warm breath upon his cheek.
"Yes, I am better," he replied, "but keep your hand upon my forehead. It assures me of your presence, when my eyes are shut."
So Rosamond sat beside him, and when Mrs. Peters came in to lay the cloth, she found them thus together. Smiling knowingly, she whispered to herself, "'Nater is the same everywhere," and the good lady bustled in and out, bringing her choicest bits and richest cake in honor of her pet's return. That night, freed from boarding-school restraint, Rosamond slept soundly in her own pleasant chamber, but to Ralph Browning, pacing up and down his room, there came not a moment of unconsciousness. He could not forget how near he had been to one who had embittered his whole life—nor yet how near to her young Rosamond had been, and he shuddered as if the latter had escaped an unseen danger. Occasionally, too, the dread thought stole over him, "suppose she should come here, and with her eagle eye discover what, if it exist at all, is hidden in the inmost recesses of my heart."
But of this he had little fear, and when the morning came he was himself again, and, save that it was haggard and pale, his face gave no token of the terrible night he had passed. But what should he do with Rosamond? This was the question which now perplexed him. He had no desire to send her from him again, neither would she have gone if he had—and he at last came to the very sensible conclusion that the school in his own village was quite as good as any, and she accordingly became an attendant at the Granby Female Seminary. Here she remained for two years and a half, over which time we will pass silently and introduce her again to our readers, when she is nearly eighteen—a graduate—-a belle—and the sunshine of Riverside.
BROTHER AND SISTER.
During the time which had elapsed since Ben Van Vechten first made the acquaintance of Rosamond, he had not once been to Riverside, for, failing to enter college, and overwhelmed with mortification at his failure, he had returned to Alabama, from which place he wrote to her occasionally, always addressing her as a little girl, and speaking of himself as a very ancient personage in comparison with herself. But that Rosamond was now no longer a little girl was proved by her finely rounded figure, her intelligent face, her polished manners and self- reliant air. And Rosamond was beautiful, too—so beautiful that strangers invariably asked who she was, turning always for a second look, when told she was the adopted sister or daughter—the villagers hardly knew which—of the wealthy Mr. Browning. But whether she were the daughter or the sister of the man with whom she lived, she was in reality the mistress of his household, and those who at first slighted her as the child of a milliner, now gladly paid her homage as one who was to be the heir of Mr. Browning's wealth. He would never marry her, the wise ones thought—would never marry anybody—and so, with this understanding, he was free to talk, walk, and ride with her as often as he chose. He liked her, the people said, but did not love her, while Rosamond herself believed he almost hated her, so strangely cold and harsh was his manner toward her at times.
This coldness had increased of late, and when the Lawries, who, next to Mr. Browning, were the most aristocratic people in the place, suggested that she should accompany them for a few weeks to the Springs, she was delighted with the plan, and nothing doubting that Mr. Browning would be glad to have her out of the way, she went to him for his consent. She found him in his library, apparently so absorbed in reading that he did not observe her approach until she stood between him and the light. Then he looked up quickly, and, as she fancied, an expression of displeasure passed over his face.
"Excuse me for disturbing you," she said, rather petulantly; "I have to break in upon your privacy if I would see you at all."
He gave her a searching glance, and then, laying aside his book and folding his arms, said pleasantly, "I am at your service now, Miss Leyton. What is it you wish?"
Very briefly she stated her request, and then sitting down in the window, awaited his answer. It was not given immediately, and when he did speak, he said—"Rosamond, do you wish to go?"
"Of course I do," she replied, "I want to go where it is not as lonesome as I find it here."
"Lonesome, Rosamond, lonesome," he repeated. "Riverside has never been lonesome since—" he paused a moment and then added, "since you came here."
The shadow disappeared from Rosamond's face, as she replied—"I did not suppose you cared to have me here. I thought you did not like me."
"Not like you, Rosamond?" and over his fine features there came a look of pain, which increased as Rosamond continued:—"You are so cold at times, and shun me as it were; inventing excuses to drive me from you when you know I would rather stay."
"Oh, Rosamond," he groaned, "how mistaken you are. The world would be to me a blank were it not for you; and if my manner is sometimes cold and cruel, it is because stern duty demands it should be so. I cannot lay bare my secret heart to you of all others, but could you know me as I am, you would censure much, but pity more." He paused a moment, then, scarcely knowing what he said, he continued—"Rosamond, we will understand each other. I shall never marry—never can marry. In your intercourse with me, will you always remember that?"
"Why, yes," answered Rosamond, puzzled to comprehend him. "I'll remember that you say so, but it is not likely you'll keep your word."
"I am not trifling with you," he said." Marriage is not for me. There is a dreadful reason why I cannot marry, and if at times I am cold toward you, it is because—because—"
Rosamond's eyes were riveted upon his face—darker and darker they grew, becoming at last almost black in their intensity. She was beginning to understand him, and coloring crimson, she answered, bitterly: "I know what you would say, but you need have no fears, for I never aspired to that honor. Rosamond Leyton has yet to see the man she could love."
"Rosamond," and Mr. Browning's voice was so low, so mournful in its tone that it quelled the angry feelings in the young girl's bosom, and she offered no resistance when he came to her side and took her hand in his, saying as he did so—"Listen to me. You came here a little girl, and at first I did not heed you, but you made your presence felt in various ways, until at last I thought I could not live without you. You are a young lady now—the world calls you beautiful. To me you are beautiful. Oh, so beautiful," and he laid one hand upon her shining hair, softly, tenderly nay, proudly, as if she had been his child. "I am not old yet, and it would be natural that we should love each other, but we must not—we cannot."
"And lest I should love you too well, you have tried to make me hate you," interrupted Rosamond, trying in vain to release herself from his powerful grasp, and adding, "but you can spare yourself the trouble. I like you too well to hate you; but as I live, I would not marry you if I could. I mean what I say!"
He released her hand, and returning to his chair, laid his head upon the table, while she continued—"I know just about how well you like me—how necessary I am to your comfort, and since fate has decreed that we should be thrown together, let us contribute to each other's happiness as far as in us lies. I will think of you as a brother, if you like, and you shall treat me as a sister, until somebody takes me off your hands. Now, I can't say I shall never marry, for I verily believe I shall. Meantime, you must think of me just as you would if you had a wife. Is it a bargain, Mr. Browning?"
She spoke playfully, but he knew she was in earnest, and from his inmost soul he blessed her for having thus brought the conversation to a close. He would not tell her why he had said to her what he had—it was not what he intended to say, and he knew she was in a measure deceived, but he could not explain to her now; he could not tell her that he trembled for himself far more than for her, and it was not for her then to know how much he loved her, nor how that love was wearing his life away because of its great sin. He was growing old now very fast. The shadows of years were on his brow, and Rosamond almost fancied she saw his brown locks turning white. She was a warm-hearted, impulsive girl, and going toward him, she parted from his forehead the hair streaked with gray, saying softly to him: "Shall it not be so? May I be your sister?"
"Yes, Rosamond, yes," was his answer; and then, wishing to bring him back to the point from which they started, Rosamond said abruptly— "And what of the Springs? Can I go?"
The descent was a rapid one, but it was what he needed, and lifting up his head, he replied, just as he had done before, "Do you want to go?" "Not as much as I did when I thought you were angry, and if you would rather, I had quite as lief stay with you."
"Then stay," he said, "and we will have no more misunderstandings."
The next evening, as he sat alone in the parlor, a servant brought to him a letter, the superscription of which made him reel, as if he would have fallen to the floor. It was nearly four years since he had seen that handwriting—he had hoped never to look upon it again—but it was there before his eyes, and she who wrote that letter was coming to Riverside—"would be there in a few days, Providence permitting. Do not commit suicide on my account," she wrote, "for I care as little as yourself to have our secret divulged, and unless I find that you are after other prey, I shall keep my own counsel."
The letter dropped from his nerveless fingers—the objects in the room swam before his eyes, and like one on whom a crushing weight has fallen, he sat bewildered, until the voice of Rosamond aroused him, and fleeing to his chamber he locked the door, and then sat down to think. She was coming to Riverside, and wherefore? He did not wish for a reconciliation now—he would rather live there just as he was, with Rosamond.
"Nothing will escape her," he said; "those basilisk eyes will see everything—will ferret out my love for that fair young girl. Oh, Heaven, is there no escape!"
He heard the voice of Anna Lawrie in the yard. She was coming for Rosamond's decision, and quick as thought he rang the bell, bidding the servant who appeared to send Miss Leyton to him.
"Rosamond," he said, when she came to the door, "I have changed my mind. You must go to the Springs."
"But I'd rather stay at home—I do not wish to go," she said.
"I say you must. So tell Miss Lawrie you will," he answered, and his eyes flashed almost savagely upon her.
Rosamond waited for no more. She had discovered the impediment to his marrying. It was hereditary insanity, and she had seen the first signs of it in him herself! Magnanimously resolving never to tell a human being, nor let him be chained if she could help it, however furious he might become, she went down to Miss Lawrie, telling her she would go.
One week from that day was fixed upon for their departure, and during that time Rosamond was too much absorbed in dresses and finery to pay much heed to Mr. Browning. Of one thing she was sure, though—he was crazy; for what else made him stalk up and down the gravel-walk, his head bent forward, and his hands behind him, as if intently thinking. Once, when she saw him thus, she longed to go out to him, to tell him she knew his secret, and that she would never leave him, however unmanageable he should become! But his manner toward her now was so strange that she dared not, and she was almost as glad as himself when at last the morning came for her to go.
"Promise me one thing," he said, as they stood together a moment alone. "Don't write until you hear from me, and don't come home until I send for you."
"And suppose the Lawries come, what then?" she asked, and he replied, "No matter; stay until I write. Here are five hundred dollars in case of an emergency," and he thrust a check into her hand.
"Stop," he continued, as the carriage came round—"did you put your clothes away where no one can see them, or are you taking them all with you?"
"Why, no, why should I?" she answered. "Ain't I coming back?"
"Yes, yes—Heaven only knows," he said. "Oh, Rosamond, it may be I am parting with you forever, and at such a moment, is it a sin for you to kiss me? You asked to do so once. Will you do it now?"
"I will," she replied, and she kissed, unhesitatingly, his quivering lips.
The Lawries were at the door—Mrs. Peters also—and forcing down his emotion, he bade her a calm good-by. The carriage rolled away, but ere its occupants were six miles from Riverside, every article of dress which had belonged to Rosamond had disappeared from her room, which presented the appearance of any ordinary bed-chamber, and when Mrs. Peters, in great alarm, came to Mr. Browning, asking what he supposed had become of them, he answered quietly—"I have put them in my private closet and locked them up!"
The models were crowded with visitors. Every apartment at —— Hall, from basement to attic, was full, save two small rooms, eight by ten, so dingy and uncomfortable, that only in cases of emergency were they offered to guests. These, from necessity, were taken by the Lawries, but for Rosamond there was scarcely found a standing point, unless she were willing to share the apartment of a sick lady, who had graciously consented to receive any genteel, well-bred person, who looked as though they would be quiet and not rummage her things more than once a day!
"She was a very high-bred woman," the obsequious attendant said, "and her room the best in the house; she would not remain much longer, and when she was gone the young lady could have it alone, or share it with her companions. It contained two beds, of course, besides a few nails for dresses."
"Oh, do take it," whispered the younger Miss Lawrie, who was not yet thoroughly versed in the pleasures of a watering place, and who cast rueful glances at her cheerless pen, so different from her airy chamber at home.
So Rosamond's trunks were taken to No. 20, whither she herself followed them. The first occupant, it would seem, was quite an invalid, for though it was four in the afternoon, she was still in bed. Great pains, however had evidently been taken with her toilet, and nothing could have been more perfect than the arrangement of her pillows—her hair—her wrapper, and the crimson shawl she wore about her shoulders. Rosamond bowed to her politely, and then, without noticing her particularly, went over to the side of the room she supposed was to be hers. She had just laid aside her hat, when the lady said: "That open blind lets in too much light. Will you please shut it Miss —— I don't know what to call you."
"Miss Leyton," answered Rosamond, "and you are—"
"Miss Porter," returned the speaker.
"Rosamond started quickly, for she remembered the name, and looking for the first time directly at the lady, she met a pair of large black eyes fixed inquiringly upon her.
"Leyton—Leyton," repeated the lady, "where have I heard of you before?"
"At Atwater Seminary, perhaps," suggested Rosamond, a little doubtful is to the manner in which her intelligence would be received.
A shadow flitted over the lady's face, but it was soon succeeded by a smile, and she said graciously, "Oh, yes, I know. You annoyed me and I annoyed you. It was an even thing, and since we are thrown together again, we will not quarrel about the past. Ain't you going to close that blind? The light shines full in my face, and, as I did not sleep one wink last night, I am looking horridly to-day."
"Excuse me, madam," said Rosamond, "I was so taken by surprise that I forgot your request," and she proceeded to shut the blind.
This being done, she divested herself of her soiled garments, washed her face, brushed her curls, and was about going in quest of her companions, when the lady asked if she had friends there. Rosamond replied that she had, at the same time explaining how uncomfortable they were.
"The hotel is full," said the lady, "and they all envy me my room; but if I pay for the best, I am surely entitled to the best. I shall not remain here long, however. Indeed, I did not expect to be here now, but sickness overtook me. I dare say I am the subject of many anxious thoughts to the person I am going to visit."
There was a half-exultant expression upon the lady's face as she uttered these last words, but in the darkened room, Rosamond did not observe it. She was sorry for one thus detained against her will, and leaning against the foot-board, she said: "You suffer a great deal from ill-health, do you not? Have you always been an invalid?"
"Not always. I was very healthy once, but a great trouble came upon me, shocking my nervous system terribly, and since then I have never seen a well day. I was young when it occurred—about your age, I think. How old are you, Miss Leyton?"
"I am eighteen next October," was Rosamond's reply, and the lady continued, "I was older than that. Most nineteen. I am twenty-eight now."
Rosamond did not know why she said it, but she rejoined quickly: "Twenty-eight. So is Mr. Browning!"
"Who?" exclaimed the lady, the tone of her voice so sharp—so loud and earnest, that Rosamond was startled, and did not answer for an instant.
When she did, she said, "I beg your pardon; it is Mr. Browning who is twenty-eight."
"Ah, yes, I did not quite understand you. I'm a little hard of hearing. Who is Mr. Browning?"
The voice had assumed its usually soft, smooth tone, and Rosamond could not see the rapid beatings of the heart, nor the eager curiosity lurking in the glittering black eyes. The lady seemed indifferent, and smoothed carelessly the rich Valenciennes lace, which edged the sleeve of her cambric wrapper.
"Did you tell me who Mr. Browning was, dear?" and the black eyes wandered over the counterpane looking everywhere but at Rosamond, so fearful was their owner lest they should betray the interest she felt in the answer.
"Mr. Browning," said Rosamond, "is—is—I hardly know what he is to me. I went to his house to live when I was a little, friendless orphan, and he very kindly educated me, and made me what I am. I live with him still at Riverside." "Ye-es—Riverside—beau-ti-ful name—his country—seat—I—sup-pose," the words dropped syllable by syllable from the white lips, but there was no quiver in the voice—no ruffle upon her face.
Raising herself upon her elbow, the lady continued, "Pray, don't think me fidgety, but won't you please open that shutter. I did not think it would be so dark. There, that's a good girl. Now, come and sit by me on the bed, and tell me of Riverside. Put your feet in the chair, or take this pillow. There, turn a little more to the light. I like to see people when they talk to me."
Rosamond complied with each request, and then, never dreaming of the close examination to which her face was subjected, she began to speak of her beautiful home—describing it minutely, and dwelling somewhat at length upon the virtues of its owner.
"You like him very much," the lady said, nodding a little affirmative nod to her own question.
"Yes—very—very much," was Rosamond's answer; and the lady continued, "And Mrs. Browning? Do you like her, too?"
"There is no Mrs. Browning," returned Rosamond, adding, quickly, as she saw in her auditor's face an expression she did not understand, "but it is perfectly proper I should live there, for Mrs. Peters, the housekeeper, has charge of me."
"Perhaps, then, he will marry you," and the jeweled hands worked nervously under the crimson shawl.
"Oh, no, he won't," said Rosamond, decidedly, "he's too old for me. Why, his hair is turning gray!"
"That's nothing," answered the lady, a little sharply. "Everybody's hair turns early now-a-days. Sarah found three or four silver threads in mine, this morning. Miss Leyton, don't you love Mr. Browning?"
"Why, yes," Rosamond began, and the face upon the pillow assumed a dark and almost fiendish expression. "Why, yes, I love him as a brother, but nothing else. I respect him for his goodness, but it would be impossible to love him with a marrying love."
The fierce expression passed away, and Miss Porter was about to speak when Anna Lawrie sent for Rosamond, who excused herself and left the room, thinking that, after all, she should like her old enemy of Atwater Seminary very much.
Meantime "the enemy" had buried her face in her pillows, and clenching her blue veined fists, struck at the empty air, just as she would have struck at the owner of Riverside had he been standing there.
"Fine time he has of it," she muttered, "living there with her, and she so young and beautiful. I could have strangled her—the jade!— when she sat there talking so enthusiastically to me, of him! And she loves him, too. I know she does, though she don't know it herself. But I must be wary. I must seem to like this girl—must win her confidence—so I can probe her heart to its core, and if I find they love each other!"—she paused a moment, then grinding her teeth together, added slowly, as if the sound of her voice were musical and sweet, "Marie Porter will be avenged!"
That strange woman could be a demon or an angel, and as the latter character suited her just now, Rosamond, on her return to her room, found her all gentleness and love.
That night, when all around the house was still, the full moon shone down upon a scene which would have chilled the blood of Ralph Browning and made his heart stand still. Upon a single bedstead near the window Rosamond Leyton lay calmly sleeping—her brown curls floating o'er the pillow—her cheeks flushed with health and beauty—her lips slightly apart and her slender hands folded gracefully upon her bosom. Over her a fierce woman bent—her long, black hair streaming down her back—her eyes blazing with passion—her face the impersonation of malignity and hate; and there she stood, a vulture watching a harmless dove. Rosamond was dreaming of her home, and the ogress, standing near, heard her murmur, "dear Mr. Browning."
For a moment Marie Porter stood immovable—then gliding back to her own couch, she whispered, "It is as I believed, and now if he loves her, the time I've waited for so long has come."
All that night she lay awake, burning with excitement and thirsting for revenge, and when the morning came, the illness was not feigned which kept her in her bed and wrung from her cries of pain. She was really suffering now, and during the next few days, Rosamond stayed almost constantly at her side, administering to her wants, and caring for her so tenderly that hatred died out of the woman's heart, and she pitied the fair young girl, for in those few days she had learned what Rosamond did not know herself, though she was gradually waking up to it now. It was a long time since she had been separated from Mr. Browning, and she missed him so much, following him in fancy through the day, and at night wondering if he were thinking of her, and wishing he could hear the sound of her voice singing to him as she was wont to do when the twilight was over the earth. Anon there crept into her heart a feeling she could not define—a feverish longing to be where he was—a sense of desolation and terrible pain when she thought of his insanity, and the long, dreary years which might ensue when he would lose all knowledge of her. She did not care to talk so much of him now, but Miss Porter cared to have her, and caressingly winning the girl's confidence, learned almost everything—learned that there was an impediment to his marrying, and that Rosamond believed that impediment to be hereditary insanity—learned that he was often fitful and gloomy, treating his ward sometimes with coldness, and again with the utmost tenderness. Of the interview in the library Rosamond did not tell, but she told of everything else—of his refusing to let her come to the Springs and then compelling her, against her will, to go; and Marie Porter, holding the little hands in hers, and listening to the story, read it all, and read it aright, gloating over the anguish she knew it cost Ralph Browning to see that beautiful girl each day and know he must not win her.
"But I pity her" she said, "for there is coming to her a terrible awakening."
Then, for no other reason than a thirst for excitement, she longed to see that awakening, and one day when they sat together alone, she took Rosamond's hand in hers, and examining its scarcely legible lines, said, half playfully, half seriously, "Rosamond, people have called me a fortune-teller. I inherited the gift from my grandmother, and though I do not pretend to much skill, I can surely read your destiny. You love Mr. Browning. I have known that all along. You think of him by day—you dream of him by night, and no thought is half so sweet as the thought of going home to him. But, Rosamond, you will not marry him. There is an impediment, as you say, but not insanity. I cannot tell you what it is, but I can see," and she bent nearer to the hand which trembled in her own. "I can see that for you to marry him, or—mark me, Rosamond—for you even to love him, is a most wicked thing—a dreadful sin in the sight of Heaven, and you must forget him—will you?"
Rosamond had laid her face upon the bed and was sobbing hysterically, for Miss Porter's manner frightened her even more than her words. In reply to the question, "Will you?" she at last answered passionately, "No, I won't! It is not wicked to love him as I do. I am his sister, nothing more."
Miss Porter's lip curled scornfully a moment, and then she said, "Let me tell you the story of my life, shall I?"
No answer from Rosamond, and the lady continued: "When I was about your age I fancied I loved a man who, I think, must have been much like Mr. Browning—"
"No, no," interrupted Rosamond. "Nobody was ever like Mr. Browning. I don't want to hear the Miss Porter, but if I mistake not she will go home story. I don't want anything but to go home."
I will not tell her until it's more necessary, thought much sooner than she anticipates. And she was right, for on that very night Mr. Browning sat reading a letter which ran as follows:
"I find myself so happy with your little Rosamond, who chances to be my room-mate, that I have postponed my visit to Riverside, until some future time, which, if you continue neutral, may never come—but the moment you trespass on forbidden ground, or breathe a word of love into her ear—beware! She loves you. I have found that out, and I tell it because I know it will not make your life more happy, or your punishment easier to bear!"
He did not shriek—he did not faint—he did not move—but from between his teeth two words came like a burning hiss, "Curse her!" Then, seizing his pen, he dashed off a few lines, bidding Rosamond "not to delay a single moment, but to come home at once."
"She knows it all," he said, "and now, if she comes here, it will not be much worse. I can but die, let what will happen."
This letter took Rosamond and the Lawries by surprise, but not so Miss Porter. She expected it, and when she saw how eager Rosamond was to go, she smiled a hard, bitter smile, and said, "I've half a mind to go with you."
"What! where? To Riverside?" asked Rosamond, suspending her preparations for a moment, and hardly knowing whether she were pleased or not.
"Yes, to Riverside," returned Miss Porter, "though on the whole, I think I'd better not. Mr. Browning may not care to see me. If he does, you can write and let me know. Give him my love, and say that if you had not described him as so incorrigible an old bach, I might be coming there to try my powers upon him. I am irresistible in my diamonds. Be sure and tell him that; and stay, Rosamond, I must give you some little token of my affection. What shall it be?" and she feigned to be thinking.
Most cruel must her thoughts have been, and even she hesitated a moment ere she could bring herself to such an act. Then with a contemptuous—"Pshaw!" she arose and opening her jewel box took from a private drawer a plain gold ring, bearing date nine years back, and having inscribed upon it simply her name "Marie." This she brought to Rosamond, saying, "I can't wear it now;—my hands are too thin and bony, but it just fits you,—see—" and she placed it upon the third finger of Rosamond's left hand!
Rosamond thanked her,—admired the chaste beauty of the ring and then went on with her packing, while the wicked woman seated herself by the window and leaning her head upon her hands tried to quiet the voice of conscience which cried out against the deed she had done.
"It does not matter," she thought. "That tie was severed years ago,— by his own act, too. The ring shall go. But will he see it! Men do not always observe such things," and then lest he should not quaff the cup of bitterness prepared for him, she wrote on a tiny sheet of gilt- edged paper, "Look on Rosamond's third finger!"
This she carefully sealed and gave to Rosamond, bidding her hand it to Mr. Browning, and saying in answer to her look of inquiry, "It is about a little matter concerning yourself. He can show it to you, if he thinks proper!"
"The omnibus, Miss, for the cars," cried a servant at the door, and with a hurried good-bye to her friends, Rosamond departed and was soon on her way to Riverside.
An accident had occurred to the downward train, and Rosamond was detained upon the road for a long time, so that it was already dark when she reached the Granby depot. Wishing to surprise Mr. Browning, she started for home on foot, leaving her trunks in charge of the baggage master. All around the house was still, and stepping into the hall she was about passing up the stairs, when the parlor door suddenly opened, throwing a glare of light upon her face. The same instant some one caught her round the neck, and kissing her twice, only released her when she exclaimed, "Mr. Browning, I am surprised at you!"
"Mr. Browning! Thunder! Just as though I was my uncle!" cried a familiar voice, and looking at the speaker, Rosamond recognized Ben Van Vechten! He had come to Riverside the day previous, he said, and hearing she was expected, had waited at the depot four mortal hours, and then returned in disgust.
"But how did you know me?" she asked, and he replied, "By your daguerreotype, of course. There is but one such beautiful face in the whole world."
He was disposed to be complimentary, and Rosamond was not sorry when his mother appeared, for in her presence he was tolerably reserved. Mrs. Van Vechten greeted Rosamond politely, but the old hauteur was there, and her manner seemed to say, "If you are educated and refined, I can't forget that you were once my waiting-maid."
"Where is Mr. Browning?" asked Rosamond, and Ben replied, "Oh, up in his den having the shakes. He mopes there all the time. Can't you break him of the blues?"
"I'll go and try," answered Rosamond, and she started up the stairs, followed by Ben, whose mother called him back, bidding him, in a low voice, "stay where he was, and not make a fool of himself."
She could trust her brother, but not her son, and she thus did the former the greatest favor she could have done—she let him meet young Rosamond Leyton alone. The evening was quite chilly for July, and, as, since the receipt of Miss Porter's note, Mr. Browning had seemed rather agueish, there was a fire burning in the grate, and it cast its shadows upon him as he sat in his accustomed chair. His back was toward the door, and he knew nothing of Rosamond's return until two, soft, white hands were placed before his eyes, and a voice which tried to be unnatural, said "Guess who I am."
"Rosamond—darling—have you come back to me again?" he exclaimed, and starting up, he wound his arm about her, and looked into her face, expecting, momentarily, to hear her say, "Yes, I know it all."
But Rosamond did not say so. She merely told him how glad she was to be at home once more, in her delight forgetting that Marie Porter had said she loved the man who held her closely to his side and smoothed her wavy hair even while his heart throbbed painfully with memories of the past and trembled for the future. He longed to speak of her room- mate, but he dared not betray his knowledge of her existence, and he sat there waiting, yet dreading to hear the hated name.
"Did you room alone?" he asked at last, and now remembering the words, "You do love him," Rosamond moved quickly from his side. "She does know," he thought, and a silent moan of anguish died upon his lips. But Rosamond did not know—the movement was actuated by mere maidenly reserve, and sitting down directly opposite him, she told him of Miss Porter, whom she said she liked so well.
"How much of an invalid is she?" asked Mr. Browning, when he could trust his voice to speak.
"Her health is miserable," returned Rosamond. "She has the heart disease, and her waiting-maid told me she was liable to die at any time if unusually excited."
It might have been because Rosamond was there that Mr. Browning thought the room was brighter than it had been before, and quite calmly he listened while she told him more of her new friend.
"She seemed so interested in you, and in Riverside," said Rosamond, "and even proposed coming home with me—"
Mr. Browning started suddenly, and as suddenly a coal snapped out upon the carpet. This was an excuse for his movement, and Rosamond continued, "She thought, though, you might not care to see her, being a stranger, but she sent you her love, and—. You are cold, ain't you, Mr. Browning? You shiver like a leaf. Ben said you'd had the ague."
Rosamond closed the door and commenced again. "Where was I? Oh, I know. She said if you were not a confirmed bachelor she would try her powers on you. 'She was irresistible in her diamonds,' she bade me tell you. But have you an ague chill, really? or what makes your teeth chatter so? Shall I ring for more coal?"
"No, Rosamond, no. Fire does not warm me; I shall be better soon."
Rosamond pitied him, he looked so white and seemed to be suffering so much, and she remained silent for a time. Then remembering the note, she handed it to him, and turning toward the fire, stooped down to fix a bit of coal which was in danger of dropping from the grate. While in this attitude a cry between a howl of rage and a moan of anguish fell upon her ear—her shoulders were grasped by powerful hands, and looking up she saw Mr. Browning, his face distorted with passion and his flashing eyes riveted upon the ring glittering in the firelight. Seizing her hand, he wrenched it from her finger, and glanced at the name—then, swift as thought, placed it upon the marble hearth, and crushed it with his heel.
"It's mine—you've broken it," cried Rosamond, but he did not heed her, and gathering up the pieces, he hurled them into the grate—then, pale as ashes, sank panting into the nearest chair.
Rosamond was thunder-struck. She did not suppose he had had time to read the note, and never dreaming there was any connection between that and his strange conduct, she believed him to be raving mad, and her first impulse was to fly. Her second thought, however, was, "I will not leave him. He has these fits often, now, I know, and that is why he sent for me. He knew I could quiet him, and I will."
So Rosamond stayed, succeeding so far in soothing him that his eyes lost their savage gleam, and were suffused with a look of unnatural tenderness when they rested on her face. He did not ask her how she came by the ring, for he knew it had been sent as an insult to him, and he felt a glow of satisfaction in knowing that it was blackening on the grate. Ben's voice was now heard in the hall, asking if they intended staying there all night, and in a whisper Mr. Browning bade Rosamond go down and apologize for him. She accordingly descended to the parlor, telling Mrs. Van Vechten that her brother was too much indisposed to come down, and wished to be excused. Mrs. Van Vechten bowed coolly, and taking a book of prints, busied herself for awhile in examining them; then the book dropped from her hand—her head fell back—her mouth fell open, and Ben, who was anxiously watching her, knew by unmistakable sounds that she was fast asleep. It was now his time, and faithfully did he improve it, devoting himself so assiduously to Rosamond, that she was glad when a snore, louder and more prolonged than any which had preceded it started the lady herself, and produced symptoms of returning consciousness.
The next day, and the next, it was the same, and at the expiration of a week, Ben had determined either to marry Rosamond Leyton, or go to the Crimean War, this last being the bugbear, with which he intended frightening his mother into a consent. He hardly dared disobey her openly for fear of disinheritance, and he would rather she should express her willingness to receive Miss Leyton as her daughter. He accordingly startled her one day by asking her to sanction his intended proposal to the young girl. Nothing could exceed Mrs. Van Vechten's amazement and contempt. She would never consent, and if Ben persisted in making so disgraceful an alliance, she would disinherit him at once. Ben knew she was in earnest, and so fell back upon the Crimean war as a last resort. "He would go immediately—would start that very day for New York—he had money enough to carry him there," and he painted so vividly "death on a distant battle-field, with a ferocious Russian rifling his trousers' pocket," that his mother began to cry, though she still refused to relent.
"Choose, mother, choose," said he. "It's almost car time—Rosamond or the war," and he drew on his heavy boots.
"Oh Benjamin, you, will kill me dead."
"I know it. I mean to. Rosamond or the war!" and he buttoned up his coat preparatory to a start.
"Do, Ben, listen to reason."
"I won't—I won't;—Rosamond or the war! I shall rush into the thickest of the fight, and be killed the first fire, of course, and black is so unbecoming to you."
"Stop, I entreat. You know you are afraid of cannons;" this was said beseechingly.
"Thunder, mother! No, I ain't! Rosamond or the war—choose quick. I hear the whistle at East Granby."
He left the room—went down the stairs, out at the door, through the yard, and out into the avenue, while his distracted mother looked after him through blinding tears. She knew how determined he was when once his mind was made up, and she feared his present excitement would last until he was fairly shipped, and it was too late to return. He would never fight, she was sure, and at the first battle-sound he would fly, and be hung as a deserter, no doubt! This touched her pride. She would rather people should say of her boy that he married a milliner's daughter than that he was hung, and hurrying to the window just as Ben looked back, hoping for a signal, she waved her hand for him to return, calling out at the top of her voice, "I relent—I relent." "I knew the Crimea would fetch her," said Ben; "lucky I thought of that," and without going to his mother at all, he sought out Rosamond. Half an hour later he astonished the former by rushing into her presence, and exclaiming, "She's refused me, mother; and she meant it, too. Oh, I shall die—I know I shall. Oh, oh, oh!" and Ben rolled on the floor in his frantic grief. As nearly as she could, Mrs. Van Vechten learned the particulars of his interview with Rosamond, and, though at first secretly pleased that he had been refused, she felt a very little piqued that her son should thus be dishonored, and when she saw how wretched it had made him, her feelings were enlisted in his behalf, and she tried to soothe him by saying that her brother had a great deal of influence with Rosamond, and they would refer the matter to him.
"Go now, mother. Don't wait a minute," pleaded Ben, and Mrs. Van Vechten started for her brother's library.
She found him alone, and disclosed the object of her visit at once. Rosamond had refused her son, who, in consequence, was nearly distracted, and threatened going to the Crimean war—a threat she knew he would execute unless her brother persuaded Rosamond to revoke her decision and think again.
Mr. Browning turned as white as marble, but his sister was too much absorbed in her own matters to heed his emotions, and she continued—
"Of course it will be mortifying to us all to have her in the family, and maybe Ben will get over it; but they must be engaged somehow, or he'll go away. I'll send her up to you immediately," and she hurriedly left the room in quest of Rosamond. For a moment Mr. Browning sat like one stupefied; then, covering his face with his hands, he moaned, "Must this come upon me, too? Must I, who love her so madly, bid her marry another? And yet what does it matter? She can never be mine—and if she marries Ben I can keep them with me always, and that vile woman will have no cause for annoying me. She said Rosamond loved me, but I pray Heaven that may not be so."
A light tread echoed in the hall, and with each fall of those little feet, Ralph Browning's heart throbbed painfully. Another moment and Rosamond was there with him—her cheeks flushed—her eyelashes wet with tears, and her whole manner betrayed an unusual degree of excitement.
"I understand from your sister," said she, "that you wish me to marry Ben, or leave your house. I will do the latter, but the former— never! Shall I consider our interview at an end?"
She turned to leave the room, but Mr. Browning caught her dress, exclaiming: "Stay, Rosamond, and hear me. I never uttered such words to Mrs. Van Vechten. I do not wish you to marry Ben unless you love him. Do you love him, Rosamond? Do you love anybody?"
This was not what he intended to say—but he had said it, and now he waited for her answer. To the first question it came in a decided "No, I do not love him," and to the last it came in burning blushes, stealing over her cheek—her forehead—her neck, and speaking in her downcast eye. She had never believed that she did love her guardian, until told that he wished her to marry another, when it burst upon her in all its force, and she could no more conceal it now than she could stop the rapid beatings of her heart. He saw it all in her tell-tale face, and forgetting everything, he wound his arms around her, and drawing her to his side, whispered in her ear, "Darling, Rosamond, say that you love me. Let me hear that assurance once, and I shall be almost willing to die."
"Ladies do not often confess an attachment until sure it is returned," was Rosamond's answer, and doubly forgetful now of all the dreary past, Ralph Browning poured into her ear hot, burning words of love— hugging her closer and closer to him until through the open window came the sound of Mrs. Peters' voice calling to the stranger girl who had that morning entered service at Riverside as a waiting-maid in general. Maria was the name, and as the ominous word fell upon Mr. Browning's ear, he started, and pushing Rosamond from him, turned his face away so she could not see the expression of mute despair settling down upon it. Sinking upon the lounge he buried his face in its cushions while Rosamond looked curiously upon him, feeling sure that she knew what it was that so affected him. He had told her of his love—had said that she was dearer to him than his life, and in confessing this he had forgotten the dark shadow upon his life, and it was the dread of telling it to her—the pain of saying "I love you, but you cannot be my wife," which affected him so strangely. But she knew it all, and she longed to assure him of her sympathy. At last when he seemed to be more calm, she stole up to him, and kneeling at his side bent over him so that her bright hair mingled with his own.
"Mr. Browning," she whispered softly, "I know your secret, and I do not love you less."
"You, Rosamond, you know it!" he exclaimed, gazing fixedly at her. "It cannot be. You would never do as you have done."
"But I do know it," she continued, taking both his hands in hers, and looking him steadily in the eye, by way of controlling him, should he be seized with a sudden attack, "I know exactly what it is, and though it will prevent me from being your wife, it will not prevent me from loving you just the same, or from living with you either. I shall stay here always—and—and—pardon me, Mr. Browning, but when you get furious, as you sometimes do, I can quiet you better than any one else, and it may be, the world will never need to know you're a madman!"
Mr. Browning looked searchingly into her innocent eyes, and then, in spite of himself, he laughed aloud. He understood why she should think him a madman, and though he repented of it afterward, he hastened to undeceive her now. "As I hope to see another day, it is not that," he said. "It is far worse than insanity; and, Rosamond, though it breaks my heart to say it, it is wicked for me to talk of love to you, and you must not remember what I said. You must crush every tender thought of me. You must forget me—nay, more—you must hate me. Will you, Rosamond?"
"No—no—no! she cried, and laying her face in his lap, she burst into a passionate flood of tears.
"Leave me," he whispered, "or I shall go mad, for I know I am the cause of this distress."
There was decision in the tones of his voice, and it stilled the tumult in Rosamond's bosom. Rising to her feet, she said calmly: "I will go, but I cannot forget that you deceived me. You have wrung from me a confession of my love, only to throw it back upon me as a priceless thing."
Not thus would he part with her, and grasping her arm, he began: "Heaven knows how much more than my very life I love you—"
He did not finish the sentence, for through the air a small, dark object came, and, missing its aim, dropped upon the hearth, where it was broken in a hundred pieces. It was a vase which stood upon the table in the hall, and Ben Van Vechten's was the hand that threw it! Impatient at the delay, he had come up in time to hear his uncle's last words, which aroused his Southern blood at once, and seizing the vase, he hurled it at the offender's head—then, rushing down the stairs, he burst upon his mother with "Great thunder! mother; Uncle Ralph is making love to Rosamond himself, and she likes it too. I saw it with my own eyes! I'll hang myself in the barn, or go to the Crimean war!" and Ben bounded up and down like an India-rubber ball. Suddenly remembering that another train was due ere long, he darted out of the house, followed by his distracted mother, who, divining his intention, ran swiftly after him, imploring him to return. Pausing for a moment as he struck into the highway, he called out, "Good-by, mother. I've only one choice left—WAR! Give my love to Rosamond, and tell her I shall die like a hero. You needn't wear black, if you don't want to. Good-by."
He turned the corner—he had started for the war—and mentally resolving to follow him in the next train, Mrs. Van Vechten returned to the house, and sought her brother.
"Ralph," she began, sternly, "have you talked of love to Rosamond?"
Mr. Browning had borne so much that nothing startled him now, and returning her glance unflinchingly, he replied, "I have."
"How, then—is Marie dead?" the lady asked.
"Not to my knowledge—but hist," was the reply, as Mr. Browning nodded toward the hall, where a rustling movement was heard.
It was the new girl, coming with a dust-pan and brush to remove the fragments of the vase, though how she knew they were there, was a question she alone could answer. For a single instant her dull, gray eye shot a gleam of intelligence at the occupants of the room, and then assuming her usual appearance, she did what she came to do, and departed. When they were again alone, Mrs. Van Vechten demanded an explanation of her brother, who gave it unhesitatingly. Cold-hearted as she always seemed, Mrs. Van Vechten had some kind feelings left, and, touched by her brother's tale of suffering, she gave him no word of reproach, and even unbent herself to say that a brighter day might come to him yet. Then she spoke of Ben, announcing her determination of following him that night. To this plan Mr. Browning offered no remonstrance, and when the night express left the Granby station, it carried with it Mrs. Van Vechten, in pursuit of the runaway Ben.
Nearly two weeks had passed away since the exciting scene in Mr. Browning's library, and during that time Rosamond had kept herself aloof from her guardian, meeting him only at the table, where she maintained toward him a perfectly respectful but rather freezing manner. She was deeply mortified to think he had won from her a confession of her love, and then told her how useless—nay, worse—how wicked it was for her to think of him. She knew that he suffered intensely, but she resolutely left him to suffer alone, and he would rather it should be so.
Life was growing more and more a wearisome burden, and when, just one week after the library interview, he received a note in the well- remembered handwriting, he asked that he might die and forget his grief. The letter was dated at the Springs, where Miss Porter was still staying, though she said she intended starting the next day for Cuyler, a little out-of-the-way place on the lake, where there was but little company, and she could be quiet and recruit her nervous system. The latter had been terribly shocked, she said, by hearing of his recent attempt at making love to Rosamond Leyton! "Indeed," she wrote, "it is to this very love-making that you owe this letter from me, as I deem it my duty to keep continually before your mind the fact that I am still alive."
With a blanched cheek Mr. Browning read this letter through—then tore it into fragments, wondering much who gave her the information. There were no spies about his premises. Rosamond would not do it, and it must have been his sister, though why she should thus wish to annoy him he did not know, when she, more than any one else, had been instrumental in placing him where he was. Once he thought of telling Rosamond all, but he shrank from this, for she would leave his house, he knew, and, though she might never again speak kindly to him, he would rather feel that she was there.
And so another dreary week went by, and then one morning there came to him tidings which stopped for an instant the pulsations of his heart, and sent through his frame a thrill so benumbing and intense that at first pity and horror were the only emotions of which he seemed capable. It came to him in a newspaper paragraph, which in substance was as follows:
"A sad catastrophe occurred on Thursday afternoon at Cuyler, a little place upon the lake, which of late has been somewhat frequented during the summer months. Three ladies and one gentleman went out in a small pleasure-boat which is kept for the accommodation of the guests. They had not been gone very long when a sudden thunder-gust came on, accompanied by a violent wind, and the owner of the skiff, feeling some alarm for the safety of the party, went down to the landing just in time to see the boat make a few mad plunges with the waves, and then capsize at the distance of nearly half a mile from the shore.
"Every possible effort was made to save the unfortunate pleasure- seekers, but in vain; they disappeared from view long before a boat could reach them. One of the bodies has not yet been recovered. It is that of a Miss Porter, from Florida. She had reached Cuyler only the day previous, and was unaccompanied by a single friend, save a waiting-maid, who seems overwhelmed with grief at the loss of her mistress."
This, then, was the announcement which so affected Ralph Browning, blotting out for a moment the wretched past, and taking him back to the long ago when he first knew Marie Porter and fancied that he loved her. She was dead now—dead. Many a time he whispered that word to himself, and with each repetition the wish grew strong within him—not that she were living, but that while living he had not hated her so bitterly, and with the softened feeling which death will always bring, he blamed himself far more than he did her. There had been wrong on both sides, but he would rather now, that she had been reconciled to him ere she found that watery grave. Hand in hand with these reflections came another thought; a bewildering, intoxicating thought. He was free at last—free to love—to worship—to marry Rosamond.
"And I will go to her at once," he said, after the first hour had been given to the dead; "I will tell her all the truth."
He rose to leave the room, but something stayed him there, and whispered in his ear, "There may be some mistake. Cuyler is not far away. Go there first and investigate."
For him to will was to do, and telling Mrs. Peters he should be absent from home for a time, he started immediately for Cuyler, which he reached near the close of the day. Calm and beautiful looked the waters of the lake on that summer afternoon, and if within their caverns the ill-fated Marie slept, they kept over her an unruffled watch and told no tales of her last dying wail to the careworn, haggard man who stood upon the sandy beach, where they said that she embarked, and listened attentively while they told him how gay she seemed that day, and how jestingly she spoke of the dark thunderhead which even then was mounting the western horizon. They had tried in vain to find her, and it was probable she had sunk into one of the unfathomable holes with which the lake was said by some to abound. Sarah, the waiting-maid, wept passionately, showing that the deceased must have had some good qualities, or she could not thus have attached a servant to her.
Looking upon Mr. Browning as a friend of her late mistress, she relied on him for counsel, and when he advised her immediate return to Florida, she readily consented, and started on the same day that he turned his face toward Riverside. They had said to him: "If we find her, shall we send her to your place?" and with an involuntary shudder he had answered, "No—oh, no. You must apprise me of it by letter, as also her Florida friends—but bury her quietly here."
They promised compliance with his wishes, and feeling that a load was off his mind, he started at once for home. Certainty now was doubly sure. Marie was dead, and as this conviction became more and more fixed upon his mind, he began to experience a dread of telling Rosamond all. Why need she know of it, when the telling it would throw much censure on himself. She was not a great newspaper reader—she had not seen the paragraph, and would not see it. He could tell her that the obstacle to his happiness had been removed—that 'twas no longer a sin for him to think of her or seek to make her his wife. All this he would say to her, but nothing more.
And all this he did say to her in the summer-house at the foot of the garden, where he found her just as the sun was setting. And Rosamond listened eagerly—never questioning him of the past, or caring to hear of it. She was satisfied to know that she might love him now, and with his arm around her, she sat there alone with him until the August moon was high up in the heavens. He called her his "sunshine"—his "light" —his "life," and pushing the silken curls from off her childish brow, kissed her again and again, telling her she should be his wife when the twentieth day of November came. That was his twenty-ninth birthday, and looking into her girlish face, he asked her if he were not too old. He knew she would tell him no, and she did, lovingly caressing his grayish hair.
"He had grown young since he sat there," she said, and so, indeed, he had, and the rejuvenating process continued day after day, until the villagers laughingly said that his approaching marriage had put him back ten years. It was known to all the town's folks now, and unlike most other matches, was pronounced a suitable one. Even Mrs. Van Vechten, who had found Ben at Lovejoy's Hotel, and still remained with him in New York, wrote to her brother a kind of congratulatory letter, mingled with sickly sentimental regrets for the "heart-broken, deserted and now departed Marie." It was doubtful whether she came up to the wedding or not, she said, as Ben had positively refused to come, or to leave the city either, and kept her constantly on the watch lest he should elope with a second-rate actress at Laura Keene's theatre.
Rosamond laughed heartily when Mr. Browning told her of this sudden change in Ben, and then with a sigh as she thought how many times his soft, good-natured heart would probably be wrung, she went back to the preparations for her bridal, which were on a magnificent scale. They were going to Europe—they would spend the winter in Paris, and as Mr. Browning had several influential acquaintances there, they would of course see some society, and he resolved that his bride should be inferior to none in point of dress, as she was to none in point of beauty. Everything which love could devise or money procure was purchased for her, and the elegance of her outfit was for a long time the only theme of village gossip.
Among the members of the household none seemed more interested in the preparations than the girl Maria, who has before been incidentally mentioned. Her dull eyes lighted up with each new article of dress, and she suddenly displayed so much taste in everything pertaining to a lady's toilet, that Rosamond was delighted and kept her constantly with her, devising this new thing and that, all of which were invariably tried on and submitted to the inspection of Mr. Browning, who was sure to approve whatever his Rosamond wore. And thus gayly sped the halcyon hours, bringing at last the fading leaf and the wailing October winds; but to Rosamond, basking in the sunlight of love, there came no warning note to tell her of the dark November days which were hurrying swiftly on.