By James De Mille,
Author of "The Dodge Club," "Cord and Creese," "The American Baron," etc.
New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square. 1872
TWO OLD FRIENDS.
Chetwynde Castle was a large baronial mansion, belonging to the Plantagenet period, and situated in Monmouthshire. It was a grand old place, with dark towers, and turrets, and gloomy walls surmounted with battlements, half of which had long since tumbled down, while the other half seemed tottering to ruin. That menacing ruin was on one side of the structure concealed beneath a growth of ivy, which contrasted the dark green of its leaves with the sombre hue of the ancient stones. Time with its defacing fingers had only lent additional grandeur to this venerable pile. As it rose there—"standing with half its battlements alone, and with five hundred years of ivy grown"—its picturesque magnificence and its air of hoar antiquity made it one of the noblest monuments of the past which England could show.
All its surroundings were in keeping with the central object. Here were no neat paths, no well-kept avenues, no trim lawns. On the contrary, every thing bore the unmistakable marks of neglect and decay; the walks were overgrown, the terraces dilapidated, and the rose pleasaunce had degenerated into a tangled mass of bushes and briers. It seemed as though the whole domain were about to revert into its original state of nature; and every thing spoke either of the absence of a master, or else of something more important still—the absence of money.
The castle stood on slightly elevated ground; and from its gray stone ivy-covered portal so magnificent was the view that the most careless observer would be attracted by it, and stand wonder-struck at the beauty of the scene, till he forgot in the glories of nature the deficiencies of art. Below, and not far away, flowed the silvery Wye, most charming of English streams, winding tortuously through fertile meadows and wooded copses; farther off lay fruitful vales and rolling hills; while in the distance the prospect was bounded by the giant forms of the Welsh mountains.
At the moment when this story opens these beauties were but faintly visible through the fast-fading twilight of a summer evening; the shadows were rapidly deepening; and the only signs of life about the place appeared where from some of the windows at the eastern end faint rays of light stole out into the gloom.
The interior of the castle corresponded with the exterior in magnificence and in ruin—in its picturesque commingling of splendor and decay. The hall was hung with arms and armor of past generations, and ornamented with stags' heads, antlers, and other trophies of the chase; but rust, and mould, and dust covered them all. Throughout the house a large number of rooms were empty, and the whole western end was unfurnished. In the furnished rooms at the eastern end every thing belonged to a past generation, and all the massive and antiquated furniture bore painful marks of poverty and neglect. Time was every where asserting his power, and nowhere was any resistance made to his ravages. Some comfort, however, was still to be found in the old place. There were rooms which were as yet free from the general touch of desolation. Among these was the dining-room, where at this time the heavy curtains were drawn, the lamps shone out cheerily, and, early June though it was, a bright wood-fire blazed on the ample hearth, lighting up with a ruddy glow the heavy panelings and the time-worn tapestries. Dinner was just over, the dessert was on the table, and two gentlemen were sitting over their wine—though this is to be taken rather in a figurative sense, for their conversation was so engrossing as to make them oblivious of even the charms of the old ancestral port of rare vintage which Lord Chetwynde had produced to do honor to his guest. Nor is this to be wondered at. Friends of boyhood and early manhood, sharers long ago in each other's hopes and aspirations, they had parted last when youth and ambition were both at their height. Now, after the lapse of years, wayworn and weary from the strife, they had met again to recount how those hopes had been fulfilled.
The two men were of distinguished appearance. Lord Chetwynde was of about the medium size, with slight figure, and pale, aristocratic face. His hair was silver-white, his features were delicately chiseled, but wore habitually a sad and anxious expression. His whole physique betokened a nature of extreme refinement and sensibility, rather than force or strength of character. His companion, General Pomeroy, was a man of different stamp. He was tall, with a high receding brow, hair longer than is common with soldiers; thin lips, which spoke of resolution, around which, however, there always dwelt as he spoke a smile of inexpressible sweetness. He had a long nose, and large eyes that lighted up with every varying feeling. There was in his face both resolution and kindliness, each in extreme, as though he could remorselessly take vengeance on an enemy or lay down his life for a friend.
As long as the servants were present the conversation, animated though it was, referred to topics of a general character; but as soon as they had left the room the two friends began to refer more confidentially to the past.
"You have lived so very secluded a life," said General Pomeroy, "that it is only at rare intervals that I have heard any thing of you, and that was hardly more than the fact that you were alive. You were always rather reserved and secluded, you know; you hated, like Horace, the profanum vulgus, and held yourself aloof from them, and so I suppose you would not go into political life. Well, I don't know but that, after all, you were right."
"My dear Pomeroy," said Lord Chetwynde, leaning back in his chair, "my circumstances have been such that entrance into political life has scarcely ever depended on my own choice. My position has been so peculiar that it has hardly ever been possible for me to obtain advancement in the common ways, even if I had desired it. I dare say, If I had been inordinately ambitious, I might have done something; but, as it was, I have done nothing. You see me just about where I was when we parted, I don't know how many years ago."
"Well, at any rate," said the General, "you have been spared the trouble of a career of ambition. You have lived here quietly on your own place, and I dare say you have had far more real happiness than you would otherwise have had."
"Happiness!" repeated Lord Chetwynde, in a mournful tone. He leaned his head on his hand for a few moments, and said nothing. At last he looked up and said, with a bitter smile:
"The story of my life is soon told. Two words will embody it all—disappointment and failure."
General Pomeroy regarded his friend earnestly for a few moments, and then looked away without speaking.
"My troubles began from the very first," continued Lord Chetwynde, in a musing tone, which seemed more like a soliloquy than any thing else. "There was the estate, saddled with debt handed down from my grandfather to my father. It would have required years of economy and good management to free it from encumbrance. But my father's motto was always Dum vivimus vivamus and his only idea was to get what money he could for himself, and let his heirs look out for themselves. In consequence, heavier mortgages were added. He lived in Paris, enjoying himself, and left Chetwynde in charge of a factor, whose chief idea was to feather his own nest. So he let every thing go to decay, and oppressed the tenants in order to collect money for my father, and prevent his coming home to see the ruin that was going on. You may not have known this before. I did not until after our separation, when it all came upon me at once. My father wanted me to join him in breaking the entail. Overwhelmed by such a calamity, and indignant with him, I refused to comply with his wishes. We quarreled. He went back to Paris, and I never saw him again.
"After his death my only idea was to clear away the debt, improve the condition of the tenants, and restore Chetwynde to its former condition. How that hope has been realized you have only to look around you and see. But at that time my hope was strong. I went up to London, where my name and the influence of my friends enabled me to enter into public life. You were somewhere in England then, and I often used to wonder why I never saw you. You must have been in London. I once saw your name in an army list among the officers of a regiment stationed there. At any rate I worked hard, and at first all my prospects were bright, and I felt confident in my future.
"Well, about that time I got married, trusting to my prospects. She was of as good a family as mine, but had no money."
Lord Chetwynde's tone as he spoke about his marriage had suddenly changed. It seemed as though he spoke with an effort. He stopped for a time, and slowly drank a glass of wine. "She married me," he continued, in an icy tone, "for my prospects. Sometimes you know it is very safe to marry on prospects. A rising young statesman is often a far better match than a dissipated man of fortune. Some mothers know this; my wife's mother thought me a good match, and my wife thought so too. I loved her very dearly, or I would not have married—though I don't know, either: people often marry in a whim."
General Pomeroy had thus far been gazing fixedly at the opposite wall, but now he looked earnestly at his friend, whose eyes were downcast while he spoke, and showed a deeper attention.
"My office," said Lord Chetwynde, "was a lucrative one, so that I was able to surround my bride with every comfort; and the bright prospects which lay before me made me certain about my future. After a time, however, difficulties arose. You are aware that the chief point in my religion is Honor. It is my nature, and was taught me by my mother. Our family motto is, Noblesse oblige, and the full meaning of this great maxim my mother had instilled into every fibre of my being. But on going into the world I found it ridiculed among my own class as obsolete and exploded. Every where it seemed to have given way to the mean doctrine of expediency. My sentiments were gayly ridiculed, and I soon began to fear that I was not suited for political life.
"At length a crisis arrived. I had either to sacrifice my conscience or resign my position. I chose the latter alternative, and in doing so I gave up my political life forever. I need not tell the bitterness of my disappointment. But the loss of worldly prospects and of hope was as nothing compared with other things. The worst of all was the reception which I met at home. My young, and as I supposed loving wife, to whom I went at once with my story, and from whom I expected the warmest sympathy, greeted me with nothing but tears and reproaches. She could only look upon my act with the world's eyes. She called it ridiculous Quixotism. She charged me with want of affection; denounced me for beguiling her to marry a pauper; and after a painful interview we parted in coldness."
Lord Chetwynde, whose agitation was now evident, here paused and drank another glass of wine. After some time he went on:
"After all, it was not so bad. I soon found employment. I had made many powerful friends, who, though they laughed at my scruples, still seemed to respect my consistency, and had confidence in my ability. Through them I obtained a new appointment where I could be more independent, though the prospects were poor. Here I might have been happy, had it not been for the continued alienation between my wife and me. She had been ambitions. She had relied on my future. She was now angry because I had thrown that future away. It was a death-blow to her hopes, and she could not forgive me. We lived in the same house, but I knew nothing of her occupations and amusements. She went much into society, where she was greatly admired, and seemed to be neglectful of her home and of her child. I bore my misery as best I could in silence, and never so much as dreamed of the tremendous catastrophe in which it was about to terminate."
Lord Chetwynde paused, and seemed overcome by his recollections.
"You have heard of it, I suppose?" he asked at length, in a scarce audible voice.
The General looked at him, and for a moment their eyes met; then he looked away. Then he shaded his eyes with his hand and sat as though awaiting further revelations.
Lord Chetwynde did not seem to notice him at all. Intent upon his own thoughts, he went on in that strange soliloquizing tone with which he had begun.
"She fled—" he said, in a voice which was little more than a whisper.
"Heavens!" said General Pomeroy.
There was a long silence.
"It was about three years after our marriage," continued Lord Chetwynde, with an effort. "She fled. She left no word of farewell. She fled. She forsook me. She forsook her child. My God! Why?"
He was silent again.
"Who was the man?" asked the General, in a strange voice, and with an effort.
"He was known as Redfield Lyttoun. He had been devoted for a long time to my wretched wife. Their flight was so secret and so skillfully managed that I could gain no clew whatever to it—and, indeed, it was better so—perhaps—yes—better so." Lord Chetwynde drew a long breath. "Yes, better so," he continued—"for if I had been able to track the scoundrel and take his life, my vengeance would have been gained, but my dishonor would have been proclaimed. To me that dishonor would have brought no additional pang. I had suffered all that I could. More were impossible; but as it was my shame was not made public—and so, above all—above all—my boy was saved. The frightful scandal did not arise to crush my darling boy."
The agitation of Lord Chetwynde overpowered him. His face grew more pallid, his eyes were fixed, and his clenched hands testified to the struggle that raged within him. A long silence followed, during which neither spoke a word.
At length Lord Chetwynde went on. "I left London forever," said he, with a deep sigh.
"After that my one desire was to hide myself from the world. I wished that if it were possible my very name might be forgotten. And so I came back to Chetwynde, where I have lived ever since, in the utmost seclusion, devoting myself entirely to the education and training of my boy.
"Ah, my old friend, that boy has proved the one solace of my life. Well has he repaid me for my care. Never was there a nobler or a more devoted nature than his. Forgive a father's emotion, my friend. If you but knew my noble, my brave, my chivalrous boy, you would excuse me. That boy would lay down his life for me. In all his life his one thought has been to spare me all trouble and to brighten my dark life. Poor Guy! He knows nothing of the horror of shame that hangs over him—he has found out nothing as yet. To him his mother is a holy thought—the thought of one who died long ago, whose memory he thinks so sacred to me that I dare not speak of her. Poor Guy! Poor Guy!"
Lord Chetwynde again paused, overcome by deep emotion. "God only knows," he resumed, "how I feel for him and for his future. It's a dark future for him, my friend. For in addition to this grief which I have told you of there is another which weighs me down. Chetwynde is not yet redeemed. I lost my life and my chance to save the estate. Chetwynde is overwhelmed with debt. The time is daily drawing near when I will have to give up the inheritance which has come down through so long a line of ancestors. All is lost. Hope itself has departed. How can I bear to see the place pass into alien hands?"
"Pass into alien hands?" interrupted the General, in surprise. "Give up Chetwynde? Impossible! It can not be thought of."
"Sad as it is," replied Lord Chetwynde, mournfully, "it must be so. Sixty thousand pounds are due within two years. Unless I can raise that amount all must go. When Guy comes of age he must break the entail and sell the estate. It is just beginning to pay again, too," he added, regretfully. "When I came into it it was utterly impoverished, and every available stick of timber had been cut down; but my expenses have been very small, and if I have fulfilled no other hope of my life, I have at least done something for my ground-down tenantry; for every which I have saved, after paying the interest, I have spent on improving their homes and farms, so that the place is now in very good condition, though I have been obliged to leave the pleasure-grounds utterly neglected."
"What are you going to do with your son?" asked the General.
"I have just got him a commission in the army," said Lord Chetwynde. "Some old friends, who had actually remembered me all these years, offered to do something for me in the diplomacy line; but if he entered that life I should feel that all the world was pointing the finger of scorn at him for his mother's sake; besides, my boy is too honest for a diplomat. No—he must go and make his own fortune. A viscount with neither money, land, nor position—the only place for him is the army."
A long silence followed. Lord Chetwynde seemed to lose himself among those painful recollections which he had raised, while the General, falling into a profound abstraction, sat with his head on one hand, while the other drummed mechanically on the table. As much as half an hour passed away in this manner. The General was first to rouse himself.
"I arrived in England only a few months ago," he began, in a quiet, thoughtful tone. "My life has been one of strange vicissitudes. My own country is almost like a foreign land to me. As soon as I could get Pomeroy Court in order I determined to visit you. This visit was partly for the sake of seeing you, and partly for the sake of asking a great favor. What you have just been saying has suggested a new idea, which I think may be carried out for the benefit of both of us. You must know, in the first place, I have brought my little daughter home with me. In fact, it was for her sake that I came home—"
"You were married, then?"
"Yes, in India. You lost sight of me early in life, and so perhaps you do not know that I exchanged from the Queen's service to that of the East India Company. This step I never regretted. My promotion was rapid, and after a year or two I obtained a civil appointment. From this I rose to a higher office; and after ten or twelve years the Company recommended me as Governor in one of the provinces of the Bengal Presidency. It was here that I found my sweet wife.
"It is a strange story," said the General, with a long sigh. "She came suddenly upon me, and changed all my life. Thus far I had so devoted myself to business that no idea of love or sentiment ever entered my head, except when I was a boy. I had reached the age of forty-five without having hardly ever met with any woman who had touched my heart, or even my head, for that matter.
"My first sight of her was most sudden and most strange," continued the General, in the tone of one who loved to linger upon even the smallest details of the story which he was telling—"strange and sudden. I had been busy all day in the audience chamber, and when at length the cases were all disposed of, I retired thoroughly exhausted, and gave orders that no one should be admitted on any pretext whatever. On passing through the halls to my private apartment I heard an altercation at the door. My orderly was speaking in a very decided tone to some one.
"'It is impossible,' I heard him say. 'His Excellency has given positive orders to admit no one to-day.'
"I walked on, paying but little heed to this. Applications were common after hours, and my rules on this point were stringent. But suddenly my attention was arrested by the sound of a woman's voice. It affected me strangely, Chetwynde. The tones were sweet and low, and there was an agony of supplication in them which lent additional earnestness to her words.
"'Oh, do not refuse me!' the voice said. 'They say the Resident is just and merciful. Let me see him, I entreat, if only for one moment.'
"At these words I turned, and at once hastened to the door. A young girl stood there, with her hands clasped, and in an attitude of earnest entreaty. She had evidently come closely veiled, but in her excitement her veil had been thrown back, and her upturned face lent an unspeakable earnestness to her pleading. At the sight of her I was filled with the deepest sympathy.
"'I am the Resident,' said I. 'What can I do for you?'
"She looked at me earnestly, and for a time said nothing. A change came over her face. Her troubles seemed to have overwhelmed her. She tottered, and would have fallen, had I not supported her. I led her into the house, and sent for some wine. This restored her.
"She was the most beautiful creature that I ever beheld," continued the General, in a pensive tone, after some silence. "She was tall and slight, with all that litheness and grace of movement which is peculiar to Indian women, and yet she seemed more European than Indian. Her face was small and oval, her hair hung round it in rich masses, and her eyes were large, deep, and liquid, and, in addition to their natural beauty, they bore that sad expression which, it is said, is the sure precursor of an early death. Thank God!" continued the General, in a musing tone, "I at least did something to brighten that short life of hers.
"As soon as she was sufficiently recovered she told her story. It was a strange one. She was the daughter of an English officer, who having fallen in love with an Indian Begum gave up home, country, and friends, and married her. Their daughter Arauna had been brought up in the European manner, and to the warm, passionate, Indian nature she added the refined intelligence of the English lady. When she was fourteen her father died. Her mother followed in a few years. Of her father's friends she knew nothing, and her mother's brother, who was the Rajah of a distant province, was the only one on whom she could rely. Her mother while dying charged her always to remember that she was the daughter of a British officer, and that if she were ever in need of protection she should demand it of the English authorities. After her mother's death the Rajah took her away, and assumed the control of all her inheritance. At the age of eighteen she was to come into possession, and as the time drew near the Rajah informed her that he wished her to marry his son. But this son was detestable to her, and to her English ideas the proposal was abhorrent. She refused to marry him. The Rajah swore that she should. At this she threatened that she would claim the protection of the British government. Fearful of this, and enraged at her firmness, he confined her in her rooms for several months, and at length threatened that if she did not consent he would use force. This threat reduced her to despair. She determined to escape and appeal to the British authorities. She bribed her attendants, escaped, and by good fortune reached my Residency.
"On hearing her story I promised that full justice should be done her, and succeeded in quieting her fears. I obtained a suitable home for her, and found the widow of an English officer who consented to live with her.
"Ah, Chetwynde, how I loved her! A year passed away, and she became my wife. Never before had I known such happiness as I enjoyed with her. Never since have I known any happiness whatever. She loved me with such devotion that she would have laid down her life for me. She looked on me as her savior as well as her husband. My happiness was too great to last.
"I felt it—I knew it," he continued, in a broken voice. "Two years my darling lived with me, and then—she was taken away.
"I was ill for a long time," continued the General, in a gentle voice. "I prayed for death, but God spared me for my child's sake. I recovered sufficiently to attend to the duties of my office, but it was with difficulty that I did so. I never regained my former strength. My child grew older, and at length I determined to return to England. I have come here to find all my relatives dead, and you, the old friend of my boyhood, are the only survivor. One thing there is, however, that imbitters my situation now. My health is still very precarious, and I may at any moment leave my child unprotected. She is the one concern of my life. I said that I had come here to ask a favor of you. It was this, that you would allow me to nominate you as her guardian in case of my death, and assist me also in finding any other guardian to succeed you in case you should pass away before she reached maturity. This was my purpose. But after what you have told me other things have occurred to my mind. I have been thinking of a plan which seems to me to be the best thing for both of us.
"Listen now to my proposal," he said, with greater earnestness. "That you should give up Chetwynde is not to be thought of for one moment. In addition to my own patrimony and my wife's inheritance I have amassed a fortune during my residence in India, and I can think of no better use for it than in helping my old friend in his time of need."
Lord Chetwynde raised his hand deprecatingly.
"Wait—no remonstrance. Hear me out," said the General. "I do not ask you to take this as a loan, or any thing of the kind. I only ask you to be a protector to my child. I could not rest in my grave if I thought that I had left her unprotected."
"What!" cried Lord Chetwynde, hastily interrupting him, "can you imagine that it is necessary to buy my good offices?"
"You don't understand me yet, Chetwynde; I want more than that. I want to secure a protector for her all her life. Since you have told me about your affairs I have formed a strong desire to see her betrothed to your son. True, I have never seen him, but I know very well the stock he comes from. I know his father," he went on, laying his hand on his friend's arm; "and I trust the son is like the father. In this way you see there will be no gift, no loan, no obligation. The Chetwynde debts will be all paid off, but it is for my daughter; and where could I get a better dowry?"
"But she must be very young," said Lord Chetwynde, "if you were not married until forty-five."
"She is only a child yet," said the General. "She is ten years old. That need not signify, however. The engagement can be made just as well. I free the estate from all its encumbrances; and as she will eventually be a Chetwynde, it will be for her sake as well as your son's. There is no obligation."
Lord Chetwynde wrung his friend's hand.
"I do not know what to say," said he. "It would add years to my life to know that my son is not to lose the inheritance of his ancestors. But of course I can make no definite arrangements until I have seen him. He is the one chiefly interested; and besides," he added, smilingly, "I can not expect you to take a father's estimate of an only son. You must judge him for yourself, and see whether my account has been too partial."
"Of course, of course. I must see him at once," broke in the General. "Where is he?"
"In Ireland. I will telegraph to him tonight, and he will be here in a couple of days."
"He could not come sooner, I suppose?" said the General, anxiously.
Lord Chetwynde laughed. "I hardly think so—from Ulster. But why such haste? It positively alarms me, for I'm an idle man, and have had my time on my hands for half a lifetime."
"The old story, Chetwynde," said the General, with a smile; "petticoat government. I promised my little girl that I would be back tomorrow. She will be sadly disappointed at a day's delay. I shall be almost afraid to meet her. I fear she has been a little spoiled, poor child; but you can scarcely wonder, under the circumstances. After all, she is a good child though; she has the strongest possible affection for me, and I can guide her as I please through her affections."
After some further conversation Lord Chetwynde sent off a telegram to his son to come home without delay.
THE WEIRD WOMAN.
The morning-room at Chetwynde Castle was about the pleasantest one there, and the air of poverty which prevailed elsewhere was here lost in the general appearance of comfort. It was a large apartment, commensurate with the size of the castle, and the deep bay-windows commanded an extensive view.
On the morning following the conversation already mentioned General Pomeroy arose early, and it was toward this room that he turned his steps. Throughout the castle there was that air of neglect already alluded to, so that the morning-room afforded a pleasant contrast. Here all the comfort that remained at Chetwynde seemed to have centred. It was with a feeling of intense satisfaction that the General seated himself in an arm-chair which stood within the deep recess of the bay-window, and surveyed the apartment.
The room was about forty feet long and thirty feet wide. The ceiling was covered with quaint figures in fresco, the walls were paneled with oak, and high-backed, stolid-looking chairs stood around. On one side was the fire-place, so vast and so high that it seemed itself another room. It was the fine old fire-place of the Tudor or Plantagenet period—the unequaled, the unsurpassed—whose day has long since been done, and which in departing from the world has left nothing to compensate for it. Still, the fireplace lingers in a few old mansions; and here at Chetwynde Castle was one without a peer. It was lofty, it was broad, it was deep, it was well-paved, it was ornamented not carelessly, but lovingly, as though the hearth was the holy place, the altar of the castle and of the family. There was room in its wide expanse for the gathering of a household about the fire; its embrace was the embrace of love; and it was the type and model of those venerable and hallowed places which have given to the English language a word holier even than "Home," since that word is "Hearth."
It was with some such thoughts as these that General Pomeroy sat looking at the fire-place, where a few fagots sent up a ruddy blaze, when suddenly his attention was arrested by a figure which entered the room. So quiet and noiseless was the entrance that he did not notice it until the figure stood between him and the fire. It was a woman; and certainly, of all the women whom he had ever seen, no one had possessed so weird and mystical an aspect. She was a little over the middle height, but exceedingly thin and emaciated. She wore a cap and a gown of black serge, and looked more like a Sister of Charity than any thing else. Her features were thin and shrunken, her cheeks hollow, her chin peaked, and her hair was as white as snow. Yet the hair was very thick, and the cap could not conceal its heavy white masses. Her side-face was turned toward him, and he could not see her fully at first, until at length she turned toward a picture which hung over the fire-place, and stood regarding it fixedly.
It was the portrait of a young man in the dress of a British officer. The General knew that it was the only son of Lord Chetwynde, for whom he had written, and whom he was expecting; and now, as he sat there with his eyes riveted on this singular figure, he was amazed at the expression of her face.
Her eyes were large and dark and mysterious. Her face bore unmistakable traces of sorrow. Deep lines were graven on her pale forehead, and on her wan, thin cheeks. Her hair was white as snow, and her complexion was of an unearthly grayish hue. It was a memorable face—a face which, once seen, might haunt one long afterward. In the eyes there was tenderness and softness, yet the fashion of the mouth and chin seemed to speak of resolution and force, in spite of the ravages which age or sorrow had made. She stood quite unconscious of the General's presence, looking at the portrait with a fixed and rapt expression. As she gazed her face changed in its aspect. In the eyes there arose unutterable longing and tenderness; love so deep that the sight of it thus unconsciously expressed might have softened the hardest and sternest nature; while over all her features the same yearning expression was spread. Gradually, as she stood, she raised her thin white hands and clasped them together, and so stood, intent upon the portrait, as though she found some spell there whose power was overmastering.
At the sight of so weird and ghostly a figure the General was strangely moved. There was something startling in such an apparition. At first there came involuntarily half-superstitious thoughts. He recalled all those mysterious beings of whom he had ever heard whose occupation was to haunt the seats of old families. He thought of the White Lady of Avenel, the Black Lady of Scarborough, the Goblin Woman of Hurst, and the Bleeding Nun. A second glance served to show him, however, that she could by no possibility fill the important post of Family Ghost, but was real flesh and blood. Yet even thus she was scarcely less impressive. Most of all was he moved by the sorrow of her face. She might serve for Niobe with her children dead; she might serve for Hecuba over the bodies of Polyxena and Polydore. The sorrows of woman have ever been greater than those of man. The widow suffers more than the widower; the bereaved mother than the bereaved father. The ideals of grief are found in the faces of women, and reach their intensity in the woe that meets our eyes in the Mater Dolorosa. This woman was one of the great community of sufferers, and anguish both past and present still left its traces on her face.
Besides all this there was something more; and while the General was awed by the majesty of sorrow, he was at the same time perplexed by an inexplicable familiarity which he felt with that face of woe. Where, in the years, had he seen it before? Or had he seen it before at all; or had he only known it in dreams? In vain he tried to recollect. Nothing from out his past life recurred to his mind which bore any resemblance to this face before him. The endeavor to recall this past grew painful, and at length he returned to himself. Then he dismissed the idea as fanciful, and began to feel uncomfortable, as though he were witnessing something which he had no business to see. She was evidently unconscious of his presence, and to be a witness of her emotion under such circumstances seemed to him as bad as eaves-dropping. The moment, therefore, that he had overcome his surprise he turned his head away, looked out of the window, and coughed several times. Then he rose from his chair, and after standing for a moment he turned once more.
As he turned he found himself face to face with the woman. She had heard him, and turned with a start, and turning thus their eyes met.
If the General had been surprised before, he was now still more so at the emotion which she evinced at the sight of himself. She started back as though recoiling from him; her eyes were fixed and staring, her lips moved, her hands clutched one another convulsively. Then, by a sudden effort, she seemed to recover herself, and the wild stare of astonishment gave place to a swift glance of keen, sharp, and eager scrutiny. All this was the work of an instant. Then her eyes dropped, and with a low courtesy she turned away, and after arranging some chairs she left the room.
The General drew a long breath, and stood looking at the doorway in utter bewilderment. The whole incident had been most perplexing. There was first her stealthy entry, and the suddenness with which she had appeared before him; then those mystic surroundings of her strange, weird figure which had excited his superstitious fancies; then the idea which had arisen, that somehow he had known her before; and, finally, the woman's own strong and unconcealed emotion at the sight of himself. What did it all mean? Had he ever seen her? Not that he knew. Had she ever known him? If so, when and where? If so, why such emotion? Who could this be that thus recoiled from him at encountering his glance? And he found all these questions utterly unanswerable.
In the General's eventful life there were many things which he could recall. He had wandered over many lands in all parts of the world, and had known his share of sorrow and of joy. Seating himself once more in his chair he tried to summon up before his memory the figures of the past, one by one, and compare them with this woman whom he had seen. Out of the gloom of that past the ghostly figures came, and passed on, and vanished, till at last from among them all two or three stood forth distinctly and vividly; the forms of those who had been associated with him in one event of his life; that life's first great tragedy; forms well remembered—never to be forgotten. He saw the form of one who had been betrayed and forsaken, bowed and crushed by grief, and staring with white face and haggard eyes; he saw the form of the false friend and foul traitor slinking away with averted face; he saw the form of the true friend, true as steel, standing up solidly in his loyalty between those whom he loved and the Ruin that was before them; and, lastly, he saw the central figure of all—a fair young woman with a face of dazzling beauty; high-born, haughty, with an air of high-bred grace and inborn delicacy; but the beauty was fading, and the charm of all that grace and delicacy was veiled under a cloud of shame and sin. The face bore all that agony of woe which looks at us now from the eyes of Guido's Beatrice Cenci—eyes which disclose a grief deeper than tears; eyes whose glance is never forgotten.
Suddenly there came to the General a Thought like lightning, which seemed to pierce to the inmost depths of his being. He started back as he sat, and for a moment looked like one transformed to stone. At the horror of that Thought his face changed to a deathly pallor, his features grew rigid, his hands clenched, his eyes fixed and staring with an awful look. For a few moments he sat thus, and then with a deep groan he sprang to his feet and paced the apartment.
The exercise seemed to bring relief.
"I'm a cursed fool!" he muttered. "The thing's impossible—yes, absolutely impossible."
Again and again he paced the apartment, and gradually he recovered himself.
"Pooh!" he said at length, as he resumed his seat, "she's insane, or, more probably, I am insane for having had such wild thoughts as I have had this morning."
Then with a heavy sigh he looked out of the window abstractedly.
An hour passed and Lord Chetwynde came down, and the two took their seats at the breakfast-table.
"By-the-way," said the General at length, after some conversation, and with an effort at indifference, "who is that very singular-looking woman whom you have here? She seems to be about sixty, dresses in black, has very white hair, and looks like a Sister of Charity."
"That?" said Lord Chetwynde, carelessly. "Oh, that must be the housekeeper, Mrs. Hart."
"Mrs. Hart—the housekeeper?" repeated the General, thoughtfully.
"Yes; she is an invaluable woman to one in my position."
"I suppose she is some old family servant."
"No. She came here about ten years ago. I wanted a housekeeper, she heard of it, and applied. She brought excellent recommendations, and I took her. She has done very well."
"Have you ever noticed how very singular her appearance is?"
"Well, no. Is it? I suppose it strikes you so as a stranger. I never noticed her particularly."
"She seems to have had some great sorrow," said the General, slowly.
"Yes, I think she must have had some troubles. She has a melancholy way, I think. I feel sorry for the poor creature, and do what I can for her. As I said, she is invaluable to me, and I owe her positive gratitude."
"Is she fond of Guy?" asked the General, thinking of her face as he saw it upturned toward the portrait.
"Exceedingly," said Lord Chetwynde. "Guy was about eight years old when she came. From the very first she showed the greatest fondness for him, and attached herself to him with a devotion which surprised me. I accounted for it on the ground that she had lost a son of her own, and perhaps Guy reminded her in some way of him. At any rate she has always been exceedingly fond of him. Yes," pursued Lord Chetwynde, in a musing tone, "I owe every thing to her, for she once saved Guy's life."
"Saved his life? How?"
"Once, when I was away, the place caught fire in the wing where Guy was sleeping. Mrs. Hart rushed through the flames and saved him. She nearly killed herself too—poor old thing! In addition to this she has nursed him through three different attacks of disease that seemed fatal. Why, she seems to love Guy as fondly as I do."
"And does Guy love her?"
"Exceedingly. The boy is most affectionate by nature, and of course she is prominent in his affections. Next to me he loves her."
The General now turned away the conversation to other subjects; but from his abstracted manner it was evident that Mrs. Hart was still foremost in his thoughts.
THE BARTER OF A LIFE.
Two evenings afterward a carriage drove up to the door of Chetwynde Castle, and a young man alighted. The door was opened by the old butler, who, with a cry of delight, exclaimed:
"Master Guy! Master Guy! It's welcome ye are. They've been lookin' for you these two hours back."
"Any thing wrong?" was Guy's first exclamation, uttered with some haste and anxiety.
"Lord love ye, there's naught amiss; but ye're welcome home, right welcome, Master Guy," said the butler, who still looked upon his young master as the little boy who used to ride upon his back, and whose tricks were at once the torment and delight of his life.
The old butler himself was one of the heirlooms of the family, and partook to the full of the air of antiquity which pervaded the place. He looked like the relic of a by-gone generation. His queue, carefully powdered and plaited, stood out stiff from the back of his head, as if in perpetual protest against any new-fangled notions of hair-dressing; his livery, scrupulously neat and well brushed, was threadbare and of an antediluvian cut, and his whole appearance was that of highly respectable antediluvianism. As he stood there with his antique and venerable figure his whole face fairly beamed with delight at seeing his young master.
"I was afraid my father might be ill," said Guy, "from his sending for me in such a hurry."
"Ill?" said the other, radiant. "My lord be better and cheerfuler like than ever I have seen him since he came back from Lunnon—the time as you was a small chap, Master Guy. There be a gentleman stopping here. He and my lord have been sittin' up half the night a-talkin'. I think there be summut up, Master Guy, and that he be connected with it; for when my lord told me to send you the telegram he said as it were on business he wanted you, but," he added, looking perplexed, "it's the first time as ever I heard of business makin' a man look cheerful."
Guy made a jocular observation and hurried past him into the hall. As he entered he saw a figure standing at the foot of the great staircase. It was Mrs. Hart. She was trembling from head to foot and clinging to the railing for support. Her face was pale as usual; on each cheek there was a hectic flush, and her eyes were fastened on him.
"My darling nurse!" cried Guy with the warm enthusiastic tone of a boy, and hurrying toward her he embraced her and kissed her.
The poor old creature trembled and did not say a single word.
"Now you didn't know I was coming, did you, you dear old thing?" said Guy. "But what is the matter? Why do you tremble so? Of course you're glad to see your boy. Are you not?"
Mrs. Hart looked up to him with an expression of mute affection, deep, fervent, unspeakable; and then seizing his warm young hand in her own wan and tremulous ones, she pressed it to her thin white lips and covered it with kisses.
"Oh, come now," said Guy, "you always break down this way when I come home; but you must not—you really must not. If you do I won't come home at all any more. I really won't. Come, cheer up. I don't want to make you cry when I come home."
"But I'm crying for joy," said Mrs. Hart, in a faint voice. "Don't be angry."
"You dear old thing! Angry?" exclaimed Guy, affectionately. "Angry with my darling old nurse? Have you lost your senses, old woman? But where is my father? Why has he sent for me? There's no bad news, I hear, so that I suppose all is right."
"Yes, all is well," said Mrs. Hart, in a low voice. "I don't know why you were sent for, but there is nothing bad. I think your father sent for you to see an old friend of his."
"An old friend?"
"Yes. General Pomeroy," replied Mrs. Hart, in a constrained voice. "He has been here two or three days."
"General Pomeroy! Is it possible?" said Guy. "Has he come to England? I didn't know that he had left India. I must hurry up. Good-by, old woman," he added, affectionately, and kissing her again he hurried up stairs to his father's room.
Lord Chetwynde was there, and General Pomeroy also. The greeting between father and son was affectionate and tender, and after a few loving words Guy was introduced to the General. He shook him heartily by the hand.
"I'm sure," said he, "the sight of you has done my father a world of good. He looks ten years younger than he did when I last saw him. You really ought to take up your abode here, or live somewhere near him. He mopes dreadfully, and needs nothing so much as the society of an old friend. You could rouse him from his blue fits and ennui, and give him new life."
Guy then went on in a rattling way to narrate some events which had befallen him on the road. As he spoke in his animated and enthusiastic way General Pomeroy scanned him earnestly and narrowly. To the most casual observer Guy Molyneux must have been singularly prepossessing. Tall and slight, with a remarkably well-shaped head covered with dark curling hair, hazel eyes, and regular features, his whole appearance was eminently patrician, and bore the marks of high-breeding and refinement; but there was something more than this. Those eyes looked forth frankly and fearlessly; there was a joyous light in them which awakened sympathy; while the open expression of his face, and the clear and ringing accent of his fresh young voice, all tended to inspire confidence and trust. General Pomeroy noted all this with delight, for in his anxiety for his daughter's future he saw that Guy was one to whom he might safely intrust the dearest idol of his heart.
"Come, Guy," said Lord Chetwynde at last, after his son had rattled on for half an hour or more, "if you are above all considerations of dinner, we are not. I have already had it put off two hours for you, and we should like to see some signs of preparation on your part."
"All right, Sir. I shall be on hand by the time it is announced," said Guy, cheerily; "you don't generally have to complain of me in that particular, I think."
So saying, Guy nodded gayly to them and left the room, and they presently heard him whistling through the passages gems from the last new opera.
"A splendid fellow," said the General, as the door closed, in a tone of hearty admiration. "I see his father over again in him. I only hope he will come into our views."
"I can answer for his being only too ready to do so," said Lord Chetwynde, confidently.
"He exceeds the utmost hopes that I had formed of him," said the General. "I did not expect to see so frank and open a face, and such freshness of innocence and purity."
Lord Chetwynde's face showed all the delight which a fond father feels at hearing the praises of an only son.
Dinner came and passed. The General retired, and Lord Chetwynde then explained to his son the whole plan which had been made about him. It was a plan which was to affect his whole life most profoundly in its most tender part; but Guy was a thoughtless boy, and received the proposal like such. He showed nothing but delight. He never dreamed of objecting to any thing. He declared that it seemed to him too good to be true. His thoughts did not appear to dwell at all upon his own share in this transaction, though surely to him that share was of infinite importance, but only on the fact that Chetwynde was saved.
"And is Chetwynde really to be ours, after all?" he cried, at the end of a burst of delight, repeating the words, boy-like, over and over again, as though he could never tire of hearing the words repeated. After all, one can not wonder at his thoughtlessness and enthusiasm. Around Chetwynde all the associations of his life were twined. Until he had joined the regiment he had known no other home; and beyond this, to this high-spirited youth, in whom pride of birth and name rose very high, there had been from his earliest childhood a bitter humiliation in the thought that the inheritance of his ancestors, which had never known any other than a Chetwynde for its master, must pass from him forever into alien hands. Hitherto his love for his father had compelled him to refrain from all expression of his feelings about this, for he well knew that, bitter as it would be for him to give up Chetwynde, to his father it would be still worse—it would be like rending his very heartstrings. Often had he feared that this sacrifice to honor on his father's part would be more than could be endured. He had, for his father's sake, put a restraint upon himself; but this concealment of his feelings had only increased the intensity of those feelings; the shadow had been gradually deepening over his whole life, throwing gloom over the sunlight of his joyous youth; and now, for the first time in many years, that shadow seemed to be dispelled. Surely there is no wonder that a mere boy should be reckless of the future in the sunshine of such a golden present.
When General Pomeroy appeared again, Guy seized his hand in a burst of generous emotion, with his eyes glistening with tears of joy.
"How can I ever thank you," he cried, impetuously, "for what you have done for us! As you have done by us, so will I do by your daughter—to my life's end—so help me God!"
And all this time did it never suggest itself to the young man that there might be a reverse to the brilliant picture which his fancy was so busily sketching—that there was required from him something more than money or estate; something, indeed, in comparison with which even Chetwynde itself was as nothing? No. In his inexperience and thoughtlessness he would have looked with amazement upon any one who would have suggested that there might be a drawback to the happiness which he was portraying before his mind. Yet surely this thing came most severely upon him. He gave up the most, for he gave himself. To save Chetwynde, he was unconsciously selling his own soul. He was bartering his life. All his future depended upon this hasty act of a moment. The happiness of the mature man was risked by the thoughtless act of a boy. If in after-life this truth came home to him, it was only that he might see that the act was irrevocable, and that he must bear the consequences. But so it is in life.
That evening, after the General had retired, Guy and his father sat up far into the night, discussing the future which lay before them. To each of them the future marriage seemed but a secondary event, an accident, an episode. The first thing, and almost the only thing, was the salvation of Chetwynde. Those day-dreams which they had cherished for so many years seemed now about to be realized, and Chetwynde would be restored to all its former glory. Now, for the first time, each let the other see, to the full, how grievous the loss would have been to him.
It was not until after all the future of Chetwynde had been discussed, that the thoughts of Guy's engagement occurred to his father.
"But, Guy," said he, "you are forgetting one thing. You must not in your joy lose sight of the important pledge which has been demanded of you. You have entered upon a very solemn obligation, which we both are inclined to treat rather lightly."
"Of course I remember it, Sir; and I only wish it were something twenty times as hard that I could do for the dear old General," answered Guy, enthusiastically.
"But, my boy, this may prove a severe sacrifice in the future," said Lord Chetwynde, thoughtfully.
"What? To marry, father? Of course I shall marry some time; and as to the question of whom, why, so long as she is a lady (and General Pomeroy's daughter must be this), and is not a fright (I own I hate ugly women), I don't care who she is. But the daughter of such a man as that ought to be a little angel, and as beautiful as I could desire. I am all impatience to see her. By-the-way, how old is she?"
"Ten years old."
"Ten years!" echoed Guy, laughing boisterously. "I need not distress myself, then, about her personnel for a good many years at any rate. But, I say, father, isn't the General a little premature in getting his daughter settled? Talk of match-making mothers after this!"
The young man's flippant tone jarred upon his father. "He had good reasons for the haste to which you object, Guy," said Lord Chetwynde. "One was the friendlessness of his daughter in the event of any thing happening to him; and the other, and a stronger motive (for under any circumstances I should have been her guardian), was to assist your father upon the only terms upon which he could have accepted assistance with honor. By this arrangement his daughter reaps the full benefit of his money, and he has his own mind at ease. And, remember, Guy," continued Lord Chetwynde, solemnly, "from this time you must consider yourself as a married man; for, although no altar vow or priestly benediction binds you, yet by every law of that Honor by which you profess to be guided, you are bound irrevocably."
"I know that," answered Guy, lightly. "I think you will never find me unmindful of that tie."
"I trust you, my boy," said Lord Chetwynde, "as I would trust myself."
A STARTLING VISITOR.
After dinner the General had retired to his room, supposing that Guy and the Earl would wish to be together. He had much to think of. First of all there was his daughter Zillah, in whom all his being was bound up. Her miniature was on the mantle-piece of the room, and to this he went first, and taking it up in his hands he sat down in an arm-chair by the window, and feasted his eyes upon it. His face bore an expression of the same delight which a lover shows when looking at the likeness of his mistress. At times a smile lighted it up, and so wrapt up was he in this that more than an hour passed before he put the picture away. Then he resumed his seat by the window and looked out. It was dusk; but the moon was shining brightly, and threw a silvery gleam over the dark trees of Chetwynde, over the grassy slopes, and over the distant hills. That scene turned his attention in a new direction. The shadows of the trees seemed to suggest the shadows of the past. Back over that past his mind went wandering, encountering the scenes, the forms, and the faces of long ago—the lost, the never-to-be-forgotten. It was not that more recent past of which he had spoken to the Earl, but one more distant—one which intermingled with the Earl's past, and which the Earl's story had suggested.
It brought back old loves and old hates; it suggested memories which had lain dormant for years, but now rose before him clothed in fresh power, as vivid as the events from which they flowed. There was trouble in these memories, and the General's mind was agitated, and in his agitation he left the chair and paced the room. He rang for lights, and after they came he seated himself at the table, took paper and pens, and began to lose himself in calculations.
Some time passed, when at length ten o'clock came, and the General heard a faint tap at the door. It was so faint that he could barely hear it, and at first supposed it to be either his fancy or else one of the death-watches making a somewhat louder noise than usual. He took no further notice of it, but went on with his occupation, when he was again interrupted by a louder knock. This time there was no mistake. He rose and opened the door, thinking that it was the Earl who had brought him some information as to his son's views.
Opening the door, he saw a slight, frail figure, dressed in a nun-like garb, and recognized the housekeeper. If possible she seemed paler than usual, and her eyes were fixed upon him with a strange wistful earnestness. Her appearance was so unexpected, and her expression so peculiar, that the General involuntarily started back. For a moment he stood looking at her, and then, recovering with an effort his self-possession, he asked:
"Did you wish to see me about any thing, Mrs. Hart?"
"If I could speak a few words to you I should be grateful," was the answer, in a low, supplicating tone.
"Won't you walk in, then?" said the General, in a kindly voice, feeling a strange commiseration for the poor creature, whose face, manner, and voice exhibited so much wretchedness.
The General held the door open, and waited for her to enter. Then closing the door he offered her a chair, and resumed his former seat. But the housekeeper declined sitting. She stood looking strangely confused and troubled, and for some time did not speak a word. The General waited patiently, and regarded her earnestly. In spite of himself he found that feeling arising within him which had occurred in the morning-room—a feeling as if he had somewhere known this woman before. Who was she? What did it mean? Was he a precious old fool, or was there really some important mystery connected with Mrs. Hart? Such were his thoughts.
Perhaps if he had seen nothing more of Mrs. Hart the Earl's account of her would have been accepted by him, and no thoughts of her would have perplexed his brain. But her arrival now, her entrance into his room, and her whole manner, brought back the thoughts which he had before with tenfold force, in such a way that it was useless to struggle against them. He felt that there was a mystery, and that the Earl himself not only knew nothing about it, but could not even suspect it. But what was the mystery? That he could not, or perhaps dared not, conjecture. The vague thought which darted across his mind was one which was madness to entertain. He dismissed it and waited.
At last Mrs. Hart spoke.
"Pardon me, Sir," she said, in a faint, low voice, "for troubling you. I wished to apologize for intruding upon you in the morning-room. I did not know you were there."
She spoke abstractedly and wearily. The General felt that it was not for this that she had thus visited him, but that something more lay behind. Still he answered her remark as if he took it in good faith. He hastened to reassure her. It was no intrusion. Was she not the housekeeper, and was it not her duty to go there? What could she mean?
At this she looked at him, with a kind of solemn yet eager scrutiny. "I was afraid," she said, after some hesitation, speaking still in a dull monotone, whose strangely sorrowful accents were marked and impressive, and in a voice whose tone was constrained and stiff, but yet had something in it which deepened the General's perplexity—"I was afraid that perhaps you might have witnessed some marks of agitation in me. Pardon me for supposing that you could have troubled yourself so far as to notice one like me; but—but—I—that is, I am a little—eccentric; and when I suppose that I am alone that eccentricity is marked. I did not know that you were in the room, and so I was thrown off my guard."
Every word of this singular being thrilled through the General. He looked at her steadily without speaking for some time. He tried to force his memory to reveal what it was that this woman suggested to him, or who it was that she had been associated with in that dim and shadowy past which but lately he had been calling up. Her voice, too—what was it that it suggested? That voice, in spite of its constraint, was woeful and sad beyond all description. It was the voice of suffering and sorrow too deep for tears—that changeless monotone which makes one think that the words which are spoken are uttered by some machine.
Her manner also by this time evinced a greater and a deeper agitation. Her hands mechanically clasped each other in a tight, convulsive grasp, and her slight frame trembled with irrepressible emotion. There was something in her appearance, her attitude, her manner, and her voice, which enchained the General's attention, and was nothing less than fascination. There was something yet to come, to tell which had led her there, and these were only preliminaries. This the General felt. Every word that she spoke seemed to be a mere formality, the precursor of the real words which she wished to utter. What was it? Was it her affection for Guy? Had she come to ask about the betrothal? Had she come to look at Zillah's portrait? Had she come to remonstrate with him for arranging a marriage between those who were as yet little more than children? But what reason had she for interfering in such an affair? It was utterly out of place in one like her. No; there was something else, he could not conjecture what.
All these thoughts swept with lightning speed through his mind, and still the poor stricken creature stood before him with her eyes lowered and her hands clasped, waiting for his answer. He roused himself, and sought once more to reassure her. He told her that he had noticed nothing, that he had been looking out of the window, and that in any case, if he had, he should have thought nothing about it. This he said in as careless a tone as possible, willfully misstating facts, from a generous desire to spare her uneasiness and set her mind at rest.
"Will you pardon me, Sir, if I intrude upon your kindness so far as to ask one more question?" said the housekeeper, after listening dreamily to the General's words. "You are going away, and I shall not have another opportunity."
"Certainly," said the General, looking at her with unfeigned sympathy. "If there is any thing that I can tell you I shall be happy to do so. Ask me, by all means, any thing you wish."
"You had a private interview with the Earl," said she, with more animation than she had yet shown.
"Pardon me, but will you consider it impertinence if I ask you whether it was about your past life? I know it is impertinent; but oh, Sir, I have my reasons." Her voice changed suddenly to the humblest and most apologetic accent.
The General's interest was, if possible, increased; and, if there were impertinence in such a question from a housekeeper, he was too excited to be conscious of it. To him this woman seemed more than this.
"We were talking about the past," said he, kindly. "We are very old friends. We were telling each other the events of our lives. We parted early in life, and have not seen one another for many years. We also were arranging some business matters."
Mrs. Hart listened eagerly, and then remained silent for a long time.
"His old friend," she murmured at last; "his old friend! Did you find him much altered?"
"Not more than I expected," replied the General, wonderingly. "His secluded life here has kept him from the wear and tear of the world. It has not made him at all misanthropical or even cynical. His heart is as warm as ever. He spoke very kindly of you."
Mrs. Hart started, and her hands involuntarily clutched each other more convulsively. Her head fell forward and her eyes dropped.
"What did he say of me?" she asked, in a scarce audible voice, and trembling visibly as she spoke.
The General noticed her agitation, but it caused no surprise, for already his whole power of wondering was exhausted. He had a vague idea that the poor old thing was troubled for fear she might from some cause lose her place, and wished to know whether the Earl had made any remarks which might affect her position. So with this feeling he answered in as cheering a tone as possible:
"Oh, I assure you, he spoke of you in the highest terms. He told me that you were exceedingly kind to Guy, and that you were quite indispensable to himself."
"'Kind to Guy'—'indispensable to him,'" she repeated in low tones, while tears started to her eyes. She kept murmuring the words abstractedly to herself, and for a few moments seemed quite unconscious of the General's presence. He still watched her, on his part, and gradually the thought arose within him that the easiest solution for all this was possible insanity. Insanity, he saw, would account for every thing, and would also give some reason for his own strange feelings at the sight of her. It was, he thought, because he had seen this dread sign of insanity in her face—that sign only less terrible than that dread mark which is made by the hand of the King of Terrors. And was she not herself conscious to some extent of this? he thought. She had herself alluded to her eccentricity. Was she not disturbed by a fear that he had noticed this, and, dreading a disclosure, had come to him to explain? To her a stranger would be an object of suspicion, against whom she would feel it necessary to be on her guard. The people of the house were doubtless accustomed to her ways, and would think nothing of any freak, however whimsical; but a stranger would look with different eyes. Few, indeed, were the strangers or visitors who ever came to Chetwynde Castle; but when one did come he would naturally be an object of suspicion to this poor soul, conscious of her infirmity, and struggling desperately against it. Such thoughts as these succeeded to the others which had been passing through the General's mind, and he was just beginning to think of some plan by which he could soothe this poor creature, when he was aware of a movement on her part which made him look up hastily. Her eyes were fastened on his. They were large, luminous, and earnest in their gaze, though dimmed by the grief of years. Tears were in them, and the look which they threw toward him was full of agony and earnest supplication. That emaciated face, that snow-white hair, that brow marked by the lines of suffering, that slight figure with its sombre vestments, all formed a sight which would have impressed any man. The General was so astonished that he sat motionless, wondering what it was now that the diseased fancy of one whom he still believed to be insane would suggest. It was to him that she was looking; it was to him that her shriveled hands were outstretched. What could she want with him?
She drew nearer to him while he sat thus wondering. She stooped forward and downward, with her eyes still fixed on his. He did not move, but watched her in amazement. Again that thought which the sight of her had at first suggested came to him. Again he thrust it away. But the woman, with a low moan, suddenly flung herself on the floor before him, and reaching out her hands clasped his feet, and he felt her feeble frame all shaken by sobs and shudders. He sat spell-bound. He looked at her for a moment aghast. Then he reached forth his hands, and without speaking a word took hers, and tried to lift her up. She let herself be raised till she was on her knees, and then raised her head once more. She gave him an indescribable look, and in a low voice, which was little above a whisper, but which penetrated to the very depths of his soul, pronounced one single solitary word,—-.
The General heard it. His face grew as pale and as rigid as the face of a corpse; the blood seemed to leave his heart; his lips grew white; he dropped her hands, and sat regarding her with eyes in which there was nothing less than horror. The woman saw it, and once more fell with a low moan to the floor.
"My God!" groaned the General at last, and said not another word, but sat rigid and mute while the woman lay on the floor at his feet. The horror which that word had caused for some time overmastered him, and he sat staring vacantly. But the horror was not against the woman who had called it up, and who lay prostrate before him. She could not have been personally abhorrent, for in a few minutes, with a start, he noticed her once more, and his face was overspread by an anguish of pity and sympathy. He raised her up, he led her to a couch, and made her sit down, and then sat in silence before her with his face buried in his hands. She reclined on the couch with her countenance turned toward him, trembling still, and panting for breath, with her right hand under her face, and her left pressed tightly against her heart. At times she looked at the General with mournful inquiry, and seemed to be patiently waiting for him to speak. An hour passed in silence. The General seemed to be struggling with recollections that overwhelmed him. At last he raised his head, and regarded her in solemn silence, and still his face and his eyes bore that expression of unutterable pity and sympathy which dwelt there when he raised her from the floor.
After a time he addressed her in a low voice, the tones of which were tender and full of sadness. She replied, and a conversation followed which lasted for hours. It involved things of fearful moment—crime, sin, shame, the perfidy of traitors, the devotion of faithful ones, the sharp pang of injured love, the long anguish of despair, the deathless fidelity of devoted affection. But the report of this conversation and the recital of these things do not belong to this place. It is enough to say that when at last Mrs. Hart arose it was with a serener face and a steadier step than had been seen in her for years.
That night the General did not close his eyes. His friend, his business, even his daughter, all were forgotten, as though his soul were overwhelmed and crushed by the weight of some tremendous revelation.
THE FUTURE BRIDE.
It had been arranged that Guy should accompany General Pomeroy up to London, partly for the sake of arranging about the matters relating to the Chetwynde estates, and partly for the purpose of seeing the one who was some day to be his wife. Lord Chetwynde was unable to undergo the fatigue of traveling, and had to leave every thing to his lawyers and Guy.
At the close of a wearisome day in the train they reached London, and drove at once to the General's lodgings in Great James Street. The door was opened by a tall, swarthy woman, whose Indian nationality was made manifest by the gay-colored turban which surmounted her head, as well as by her face and figure. At the sight of the General she burst out into exclamations of joy.
"Welcome home, sahib; welcome home!" she cried. "Little missy, her fret much after you."
"I am sorry for that, nurse," said the General, kindly. As he was speaking they were startled by a piercing scream from an adjoining apartment, followed by a shrill voice uttering some words which ended in a shriek. The General entered the house, and hastened to the room from which the sounds proceeded, and Guy followed him. The uproar was speedily accounted for by the tableau which presented itself on opening the door. It was a tableau extremely vivant, and represented a small girl, with violent gesticulations, in the act of rejecting a dainty little meal which a maid, who stood by her with a tray, was vainly endeavoring to induce her to accept. The young lady's arguments were too forcible to admit of gainsaying, for the servant did not dare to venture within reach of either the hands or feet of her small but vigorous opponent. The presence of the tray prevented her from defending herself in any way, and she was about retiring, worsted, from the encounter, when the entrance of the gentlemen gave a new turn to the position of affairs. The child saw them at once; her screams of rage changed into a cry of joy, and the face which had been distorted with passion suddenly became radiant with delight.
"Papa! papa!" she cried, and, springing forward, she darted to his embrace, and twined her arms about his neck with a sob which her joy had wrung from her.
"Darling papa!" she cried; "I thought you were never coming back. How could you leave me so long alone?" and, saying this, she burst into a passion of tears, while her father in vain tried to soothe her.
At this strange revelation of the General's daughter Guy stood perplexed and wondering. Certainly he had not been prepared for this. His fiancee was undoubtedly of a somewhat stormy nature, and in the midst of his bewilderment he was conscious of feeling deeply reconciled to her ten years.
At length her father succeeded in quieting her, and, taking her arms from his neck, he placed her on his knee, and said:
"My darling, here is a gentleman waiting all this time to speak to you. Come, go over to him and shake hands with him."
At this the child turned her large black eyes on Guy, and scanned him superciliously from head to foot. The result seemed to satisfy her, for she advanced a few steps to take the hand which he had smilingly held out; but a thought seemed suddenly to strike her which arrested her progress half-way.
"Did he keep you, papa?" she said, abruptly, while a jerk of her head in Guy's direction signified the proper noun to which the pronoun referred.
"He had something to do with it," answered her father, with a smile.
"Then I sha'n't shake hands with him," she said, resolutely; and, putting the aforesaid appendages behind her back to prevent any forcible appropriation of them, she hurried away, and clambered up on her father's knee. The General, knowing probably by painful experience the futility of trying to combat any determination of this very decided young lady, did not attempt to make any remonstrance, but allowed her to establish herself in her accustomed position. During this process Guy had leisure to inspect her. This he did without any feeling of the immense importance of this child's character to his own future life, without thinking that this little creature might be destined to raise him up to heaven or thrust him down to hell, but only with the idle, critical view of an uninterested spectator. Guy was, in fact, too young to estimate the future, and things which were connected with that future, at their right value. He was little more than a boy, and so he looked with a boy's eyes upon this singular child.
She struck him as the oddest little mortal that he had ever come across. She was very tiny, not taller than many children of eight, and so slight and fragile that she looked as if a breath might blow her away. But if in figure she looked eight, in face she looked fifty. In that face there was no childishness whatever. It was a thin, peaked, sallow face, with a discontented expression; her features were small and pinched, her hair, which was of inky blackness, fell on her shoulders in long, straight locks, without a ripple or a wave in them. She looked like an elf, but still this elfish little creature was redeemed from the hideousness which else might have been her doom by eyes of the most wonderful brilliancy. Large, luminous, potent eyes—intensely black, and deep as the depths of ocean, they seemed to fill her whole face; and in moments of excitement they could light up with volcanic fires, revealing the intensity of that nature which lay beneath. In repose they were unfathomable, and defied all conjecture as to what their possessor might develop into.
All this Guy noticed, as far as was possible to one so young and inexperienced; and the general result of this survey was a state of bewilderment and perplexity. He could not make her out. She was a puzzle to him, and certainly not a very attractive one. When she had finally adjusted herself on her father's knee, the General, after the fashion of parents from time immemorial, asked:
"Has my darling been a good child since papa has been away?"
The question may have been a stereotyped one. Not so the answer, which came out full and decided, in a tone free alike from penitence or bravado, but giving only a simple statement of facts.
"No," she said, "I have not been a good girl. I've been very naughty indeed. I haven't minded any thing that was said to me. I scratched the ayah, and kicked Sarah. I bit Sarah too. Besides, I spilt my rice and milk, and broke the plates, and I was just going to starve myself to death."
At this recital of childish enormities, with its tragical ending, Guy burst into a loud laugh. The child raised herself from her father's shoulder, and, fixing her large eyes upon him, said slowly, and with set teeth:
"I hate you!"
She looked so uncanny as she said this, and the expression of her eyes was so intense in its malignity, that Guy absolutely started.
"Hush," exclaimed her father, more peremptorily than usual; "you must not be so rude."
As he spoke she again looked at Guy, with a vindictive expression, but did not deign to speak. The face seemed to him to be utterly diabolical and detestable. She looked at him for a moment, and then her head sank down upon her father's shoulder.
The General now made an effort to turn the conversation to where it had left off, and reverting to Zillah's confession he said:
"I thought my little girl never broke her word, and that when she promised to be good while I was away, I could depend upon her being so."
This reproach seemed to touch her. She sprang up instantly and exclaimed, in vehement tones:
"It was you who broke your promise to me. You said you would come back in two days, and you staid four. I did keep my word. I was good the first two days. Ask the ayah. When I found that you had deceived me, then I did not care."
"But you should have trusted me, my child," said the General, in a tone of mild rebuke. "You should have known that I must have had some good reason for disappointing you. I had very important business to attend to—business, darling, which very nearly affects your happiness. Some day you shall hear about it."
"But I don't want to hear about any thing that will keep you away from me," said Zillah, peevishly. "Promise never to leave me again."
"Not if I can help it, my child," said the General, kissing her fondly.
"No; but promise that you won't at all," persisted Zillah. "Promise never to leave me at all. Promise, promise, papa; promise—promise."
"Well," said the General, "I'll promise to take you with me the next time. That will do, won't it?"
"But I don't want to go away," said this sweet child; "and I won't go away."
The General gave a despairing glance at Guy, who he knew was a spectator of this scene. He felt a vague desire to get Guy alone so as to explain to him that this was only occasional and accidental, and that Zillah was really one of the sweetest and most angelic children that ever were born. Nor would this good General have consciously violated the truth in saying so; for in his heart of hearts he believed all this of his loved but sadly spoiled child. The opportunity for such explanations did not occur, however, and the General had the painful consciousness that Guy was seeing his future bride under somewhat disadvantageous circumstances. Still he trusted that the affectionate nature of Zillah would reveal itself to Guy, and make a deep impression upon him.
While such thoughts as these were passing through his mind, and others of a very varied nature were occurring to Guy, the maid Sarah arrived to take her young charge to bed. The attempt to do so roused Zillah to the most active resistance. She had made up her mind not to yield. "I won't," she cried—"I won't go to bed. I will never go away from papa a single instant until that horrid man is gone. I know he will take you away again, and I hate him. Why don't you make him go, papa?"
At this remark, which was so flattering to Guy, the General made a fresh effort to appease his daughter, but with no better success than before. Children and fools, says the proverb, speak the truth; and the truth which was spoken in this instance was not very agreeable to the visitor at whom it was flung. But Guy looked on with a smile, and nothing in his face gave any sign of the feelings that he might have. He certainly had not been prepared for any approach to any thing of this sort. On the journey the General had alluded so often to that daughter, who was always uppermost in his mind, that Guy had expected an outburst of rapturous affection from her. Had he been passed by unnoticed, he would have thought nothing of it; but the malignancy of her look, and the venom of her words, startled him, yet he was too good-hearted and considerate to exhibit any feeling whatever.
Sarah's effort to take Zillah away had resulted in such a complete failure that she retired discomfited, and there was rather an awkward period, in which the General made a faint effort to induce his daughter to say something civil to Guy. This, however, was another failure, and in a sort of mild despair he resigned himself to her wayward humor.
At last dinner was announced. Zillah still refused to leave her father, so that he was obliged, greatly to his own discomfort, to keep her on his knee during the meal. When the soup and fish were going on she was comparatively quiet; but at the first symptoms of entrees she became restive, and popping up her quaint little head to a level with the table, she eyed the edibles with the air of an habitue at the Lord Mayor's banquet. Kaviole was handed round. This brought matters to a crisis.
"A plate and a fork for me, Thomas," she ordered, imperiously.
"But, my darling," remonstrated her father, "this is much too rich for you so late at night."
"I like kaviole," was her simple reply, given with the air of one who is presenting an unanswerable argument, and so indeed it proved to be.
This latter scene was re-enacted, with but small variations, whenever any thing appeared which met with her ladyship's approval; and Guy found that in spite of her youth she was a decided connoisseur in the delicacies of the table. Now, to tell the truth, he was not at all fond of children; but this one excited in him a positive horror. There seemed to be something in her weird and uncanny; and he found himself constantly speculating as to how he could ever become reconciled to her; or what changes future years could make in her; and whether the lapse of time could by any possibility develop this impish being into any sort of a presentable woman. From the moment that he saw her he felt that the question of beauty must be abandoned forever; it would be enough if she could prove to be one with whom a man might live with any degree of domestic comfort. But the prospect of taking her at some period in the future to preside over Chetwynde Castle filled him with complete dismay. He now began to realize what his father had faintly suggested—namely, that his part of the agreement might hereafter prove a sacrifice. The prospect certainly looked dark, and for a short time he felt somewhat downcast; but he was young and hopeful, and in the end he put all these thoughts from him as in some sort treacherous to his kind old friend, and made a resolute determination, in spite of fate, to keep his vow with him.
After anticipating the dessert, and preventing her father from taking cheese, on the ground that she did not like it, nature at last took pity on that much enduring and long suffering man, and threw over the daughter the mantle of sweet unconsciousness. Miss Pomeroy fell asleep. In that helpless condition she was quietly conveyed from her father's arms to bed, to the unspeakable relief of Guy, who felt, as the door closed, as if a fearful incubus had been removed.
On the following morning he started by an early train for Dublin, so that on this occasion he had no further opportunity of improving his acquaintance with his lovely bride. Need it be said that the loss was not regretted by the future husband?