RECTOR OF ST. MARKS
THE RECTOR OF ST. MARK'S
MRS. MARY J. HOLMES
AUTHOR OF "DORA DEANE," "MAGGIE MILLER," "LENA RIVERS," "THE ENGLISH ORPHAN," ETC.
M. A. DONOHUE & CO., CHICAGO.
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THE RECTOR OF ST. MARK'S
The Sunday sermon was finished, and the young rector of St. Mark's turned gladly from his study-table to the pleasant south window where the June roses were peeping in, and abandoned himself for a few moments to the feeling of relief he always experienced when his week's work was done. To say that no secular thoughts had intruded themselves upon the rector's mind, as he planned and wrote that sermon, would not be true; for, though morbidly conscientious on many points and earnestly striving to be a faithful shepherd of the souls committed to his care, Arthur Leighton possessed the natural desire that those who listened to him should not only think well of what he taught but also of the form in which the teaching was presented. When he became a clergyman he did not cease to be a man, with all a man's capacity to love and to be loved, and so, though he fought and prayed against it, he had seldom brought a sermon to the people of St. Mark's in which there was not a thought of Anna Ruthven's soft, brown eyes, and the way they would look at him across the heads of the congregation. Anna led the village choir, and the rector was painfully conscious that far too much of earth was mingled with his devotional feelings during the moments when, the singing over, he walked from his armchair to the pulpit and heard the rustle of the crimson curtain in the organ loft as it was drawn back, disclosing to view the five heads of which Anna's was the center. It was very wrong, he knew, and to-day he had prayed earnestly for pardon, when, after choosing his text, "Simon, Simon, lovest thou me?" instead of plunging at once into his subject, he had, without a thought of what he was doing, idly written upon a scrap of paper lying near, "Anna, Anna, lovest thou me, more than these?" the these, referring to the wealthy Thornton Hastings, his old classmate in college, who was going to Saratoga this very summer, for the purpose of meeting Anna Ruthven and deciding if she would do to become Mrs. Thornton Hastings, and mistress of the house on Madison Square. With a bitter groan at the enormity of his sin, and a fervent prayer for forgiveness, the rector had torn the slips of paper in shreds and given himself so completely to his work that his sermon was done a full hour earlier than usual, and he was free to indulge in reveries of Anna for as long a time as he pleased.
"I wonder if Mrs. Meredith has come," he thought, as, with his feet upon the window-sill, he sat looking across the meadow-land to where the chimneys and gable roof of Captain Humphreys' house was visible, for Captain Humphreys was Anna Ruthven's grandfather, and it was there she had lived since she was three years old.
As if thoughts of Mrs. Meredith reminded him of something else, the rector took from the drawer of his writing table a letter received the previous day, and, opening to the second page, read again as follows:
"Are you going anywhere this summer? Of course not, for so long as there is an unbaptized child, or a bed-ridden old woman in the parish, you must stay at home, even if you do grow as rusty as did Professor Cobden's coat before we boys made him a present of a new one. I say, Arthur, there was a capital fellow spoiled when you took to the ministry, with your splendid talents, and rare gift for making people like and believe in you.
"Now, I suppose you will reply that for this denial of self you look for your reward in heaven, and I suppose you are right; but as I have no reason to think I have any stock in that region, I go in for a good time here, and this summer I take it at Saratoga, where I expect to meet one of your lambs. I hear you have in your flock forty in all, their ages varying from fifteen to fifty. But this particular lamb, Miss Anna Ruthven, is, I fancy, the fairest of them all, and as I used to make you my father confessor in the days when I was rusticated out in Winsted, and fell so desperately in love with the six Miss Larkins, each old enough to be my mother, so now I confide to you the programme as marked out by Mrs. Julia Meredith, the general who brings the lovely Anna into the field.
"We, that is, Mrs. Meredith and myself, are on the best of terms. I lunch with her, dine with her, lounge in her parlors, drive her to the park, take her to the operas, concerts and plays, and compliment her good looks, which are wonderfully well preserved for a woman of forty-five. I am twenty-six, you know, and so no one ever associates us together in any kind of gossip. She is the very quintessence of fashion, and I am one of the danglers whose own light is made brighter by the reflection of her rays. Do you see the point? Well, then, in return for my attentions, she takes a very sisterly interest in my future wife, and has adroitly managed to let me know of her niece, a certain Anna Ruthven, who, inasmuch as I am tired of city belles, will undoubtedly suit my fancy, said Anna being very fresh, very artless, and very beautiful withal. She is also niece to Mrs. Meredith, whose only brother married very far beneath him, when he took to wife the daughter of a certain old-fashioned Captain Humphreys, a pillar, no doubt, in your church. This young Ruthven was drowned, or hung, or something, and the sister considers it as another proof of his wife's lack of refinement and discretion that at her death, which happened when Anna was three years old, she left her child to the charge of her own parents, Captain Humphreys and spouse, rather than to Mrs. Meredith's care, and that, too, in the very face of the lady's having stood as sponsor for the infant, an act which you will acknowledge was very unnatural and ungrateful in Mrs. Ruthven, to say the least of it.
"You see I am telling you all this, just as if you did not know Miss Anna's antecedents even better than myself, but possibly you do not know that, having arrived at a suitable age, she is this summer to be introduced into society at Saratoga, while I am expected to fall in love with her at once and make her Mrs. Hastings before another winter. Now, in your straightforward way of putting things, don't imagine that Mrs. Meredith has deliberately told me all this, for she has not, but I understand her perfectly, and know exactly what she expects me to do. Whether I do or not depends partly upon how I like Miss Anna, partly upon how she likes me, and partly upon yourself.
"Now, Arthur, you know, I was always famous for presentiments or fancies, as you termed them, and the latest of these is that you like Anna Ruthven. Do you? Tell me, honor bright, and by the memory of the many scrapes you got me out of, and the many more you kept me from getting into, I will treat Miss Anna as gingerly and brotherly as if she was already your wife. I like her picture, which I have seen, and believe I shall like the girl, but if you say that by looking at her with longing eyes I shall be guilty of breaking some one of the ten commandments—I don't know which—why, then, hands off at once. That's fair, and will prove to you that, although not a parson like yourself, there is still a spark of honor, if not of goodness, in the breast of
"Yours truly, "THORNTON HASTINGS.
"If you were here this afternoon, I'd take you to drive after a pair of bays which are to sweep the stakes at Saratoga this summer, and I'd treat you to a finer cigar than often finds its way to Hanover. Shall I send you out a box, or would your people pull down the church about the ears of a minister wicked enough to smoke? Again adieu.
There was a half-amused smile on the face of the rector as he finished the letter, so like its thoughtless, lighthearted writer, and wondered what the Widow Rider, across the way, would say of a clergyman who smoked cigars and rode after a race-horse with such a gay scapegrace as Thornton Hastings. Then the amused look passed away, and was succeeded by a shadow of pain as the rector remembered the real import of Thornton's letter, and felt that he had no right to say, "I have a claim on Anna Ruthven; you must not interfere." For he had no claim on her, though half his parishioners, and many outside his parish, had long ago given her to him, and said that she was worthy; while he had loved her, as only natures like his can love, since that week before Christmas, when their hands had met with a strange, tremulous flutter, as together they fastened the wreaths of evergreen upon the wall, he holding them up and she driving the refractory tacks, which would keep falling in spite of her, so that his hand went often from the carpet or basin to hers, and once accidentally closed almost entirely over the little, soft, white thing, which felt so warm to his touch.
How prettily Anna had looked to him during those memorable days, so much prettier than the other young girls of his flock, whose hair was tumbled ere the day's work was done, and whose dresses were soiled and disordered; while here was always so tidy and neat and the braids of her chestnut hair were always so smooth and bright. How well, too, he remembered that brief ten minutes, when, in the dusky twilight which had crept so early into the church, he stood alone with her, and talked, he did not know of what, only that he heard her voice replying to him, and saw the changeful color on her cheek as she looked modestly in his face. That was a week of delicious happiness, and the rector had lived it over many times, wondering if, when the next Christmas came, it would find him any nearer to Anna Ruthven than the last had left him.
"It must," he suddenly exclaimed. "The matter shall be settled before she leaves Hanover with this Mrs. Meredith. My claim is superior to Thornton's, and he shall not take her from me. I'll write what I lack the courage to tell her, and to-morrow I will call and deliver it myself."
An hour later, and there was lying in the rector's desk a letter in which he had told Anna Ruthven how much he loved her, and had asked her to be his wife. Something whispered that she would not refuse him, and with this hope to buoy him up, his two miles walk that warm afternoon was neither long nor tiresome, and the old lady, by whose bedside he had read and prayed, was surprised to hear him as he left her door whistling an old love-tune which she, too, had known and sung fifty years before.
Mrs. Julia Meredith had arrived, and the brown farmhouse was in a state of unusual excitement; not that Captain Humphreys or his good wife, Aunt Ruth, respected very highly the great lady who had so seldom honored them with her presence, and who always tried so hard to impress them with a sense of her superiority and the mighty favor she conferred upon them by occasionally condescending to bring her aristocratic presence into their quiet, plain household, and turn it topsy-turvy. Still, she was Anna's aunt, and then, too, it was a distinction which Aunt Ruth rather enjoyed, that of having a fashionable city woman for her guest, and so she submitted with a good grace to the breaking in upon all her customs, and uttered no word of complaint when the breakfast table waited till eight, and sometimes nine o'clock, and the freshest eggs were taken from the nest, and the cream all skimmed from the pans to gratify the lady who came down very charming and pretty in her handsome cambric wrapper, with rosebuds in her hair. She had arrived the previous night, and while the rector was penning his letter she was holding Anna's hand in hers, and, running her eye rapidly over her face and form, was making an inventory of her charms and calculating their value.
A very graceful figure, neither too short nor too tall. This she gets from the Ruthvens. Splendid eyes and magnificent hair, when Valencia has once taken it in hand. Complexion a little too brilliant, but a few weeks of dissipation will cure that. Fine teeth, and features tolerably regular, except that the mouth is too wide, and the forehead too low, which defects she takes from the Humphreys. Small feet and rather pretty hands, except that they seem to have grown wide since I saw her before. Can it be these horrid people have set her to milking the cows?
This was what Mrs. Meredith thought that first evening after her arrival at the farmhouse, and she had not materially changed her mind when the next afternoon she went with Anna down to the Glen, for which she affected a great fondness, because she thought it was romantic and girlish to do so, and she was far being past the period when women cease caring for youth and its appurtenances. She had criticised Anna's taste in dress—had said that the belt she selected did not harmonize with the color of the muslin she wore, and suggested that a frill of lace about the neck would be softer and more becoming than the stiff white linen collar.
"But in the country it does not matter," she said. "Wait till I get you to New York, under Madam Blank's supervision, and then we shall see a transformation such as will astonish the humble Hanoverians."
This was up in Anna's room, and when the Glen was reached Mrs. Meredith continued the conversation, telling Anna of her plans for taking her first to New York, where she was to pass through a reformatory process with regard to dress. Then they were going to Saratoga, where she expected her niece to reign supreme; both as a beauty and a belle.
"Whatever I have left at my death I shall leave to you," she said; "consequently you will pass as an heiress expectant, and with all these aids I confidently expect you to make a brilliant match before the winter season closes, if, indeed, you do not before you leave Saratoga."
"Oh, aunt," Anna exclaimed, her brown eyes flashing with unwonted brilliancy, and the rich color mantling her cheek. "You surely are not taking me to Saratoga on such a shameful errand as that?"
"Shameful errand as what?" Mrs. Meredith asked, looking quickly up, while Anna replied:
"Trying to find a husband. I cannot go if you are, much as I have anticipated it. I should despise and hate myself forever. No, aunt, I cannot go."
"Nonsense, child. You don't know what you are saying," Mrs. Meredith retorted, feeling intuitively that she must change her tactics and keep her real intentions concealed if she would lead her niece into the snare laid for her.
Cunningly and carefully for the next half hour she talked, telling Anna that she was not to be thrust upon the notice of any one—that she herself had no patience with those intriguing mammas who push their bold daughters forward, but that as a good marriage was the ultima thule of a woman's hopes, it was but natural that she, as Anna's aunt, should wish to see her well settled in life, and settled, too, near herself, where they could see each other every day.
"Of course, there is no one in Hanover whom you, as a Ruthven, would stoop to marry," she said, fixing her eyes inquiringly upon Anna, who was pulling to pieces the wild flowers she had gathered, and thinking of that twilight hour when she had talked with their young clergyman as she never talked before. Of the many times, too, when they had met in the cottages of the poor, and he had walked slowly home with her, lingering by the gate, as if loth to say good-by, she thought, and the life she had lived since he first came to Hanover, and she learned to blush when she met the glance of his eye, looked fairer far than the life her aunt, had marked out as the proper one for a Ruthven.
"You have not told me yet. Is there any one in Hanover whom you think worthy of you?" Mrs. Meredith asked, just as a footstep was heard, and the rector of St. Mark's came round the rock where they were sitting.
He had called at the farmhouse, bringing the letter, and with it a book of poetry, of which Anna had asked the loan.
Taking advantage of her guest's absence, Grandma Humphreys had gone to a neighbor's after a recipe for making a certain kind of cake of which Mrs. Meredith was very fond, and only Esther, the servant, and Valencia, the smart waiting maid, without whom Mrs. Meredith never traveled, were left in charge.
"Down in the Glen with Mrs. Meredith. Will you be pleased to wait while I call them?" Esther said, in reply to the rector's inquiries for Miss Ruthven.
"No, I will find them myself," Mr. Leighton rejoined. Then, as he thought how impossible it would be to give the letter to Anna in the presence of her aunt, he slipped it into the book which he bade Esther take to Miss Ruthven's room.
Knowing how honest and faithful Esther was, the rector felt that he could trust her without fear for the safety of his letter, sought the Glen, where the tell-tale blushes which burned on Anna's cheek at sight of him more than compensated for the coolness with which Mrs. Meredith greeted him. She, too, had detected Anna's embarrassment, and when the stranger was presented to her as "Mr. Leighton, our clergyman," the secret was out.
"Why is it that since the beginning of time girls have run wild after young ministers?" was her mental comment, as she bowed to Mr. Leighton, and then quietly inspected his personnel.
There was nothing about Arthur Leighton's appearance with which she could find fault. He was even finer looking than Thornton Hastings, her beau ideal of a man, and as he stood a moment by Anna's side, looking down upon her, the woman of the world acknowledged to herself that they were a well-assorted pair, and as across the chasm of twenty years there came back to her an episode in her life, when, on just such a day as this, she had answered "no" to one as young and worthy as Arthur Leighton, while all the time the heart was clinging to him, she softened for a moment, and by the memory of the weary years passed with the rich old man whose name she bore, she was tempted to leave alone the couple standing there before her, and looking into each other's eyes with a look which she could not mistake. But when she remembered that Arthur was only a poor clergyman, and thought of that house on Madison Square which Thornton Hastings owned, the softened mood was changed, and Arthur Leighton's chance with her was gone.
Awhile they talked together in the Glen, and then walked back to the farmhouse, where the rector bade them good evening, after casually saying to Anna:
"I have brought the book you spoke of when I was here last. You will find it in your room, where I asked Esther to take it."
That Mr. Leighton should bring her niece a book did not seem strange at all, but that he should be so very thoughtful as to tell Esther to take it to her room struck her as rather odd, and as the practiced war-horse scents the battle from afar, so Mrs. Meredith at once suspected something wrong, and felt a curiosity to know what the book could be.
It was lying on Anna's table as she reached the door on her way to her own room, and, pausing for a moment, she entered the chamber, took it in her hands, read the title page, and then opened it to where the letter lay.
"Miss Anna Ruthven," she said. "He writes a fair hand;" and then, as the thought, which at first was scarce a thought, kept growing in her mind, she turned it over, and found that, owing to some defect, it had become unsealed and the lid of the envelope lay temptingly open before her. "I would never break a seal," she said, "but surely, as her protector and almost mother, I may read what this minister has written to my niece."
She read what he had written, while a scowl of disapprobation marred the smoothness of her brow.
"It is as I feared. Once let her see this, and Thornton Hastings may woo in vain. But it shall not be. It is my duty as the sister of her dead father, to interfere and not let her throw herself away."
Perhaps Mrs. Meredith really felt that she was doing her duty. At all events, she did not give herself much time to reason upon the matter, for, startled by a slight movement in the room directly opposite, the door of which was ajar, she thrust the letter into her pocket and turned to see—Valencia, standing with her back to her, and arranging her hair in a mirror which hung upon the wall.
"She could not have seen me; and, even if she did, she would not suspect the truth," was the guilty woman's thought, as, with the stolen missive in her pocket, she went down to the parlor and tried, by petting Anna more than her wont, to still the voice of conscience which clamored loudly of the wrong, and urged a restoration of the letter to the place whence it was taken.
But the golden moment fled, and when, later in the evening, Anna went up to her chamber and opened the book which the rector had brought, she never suspected how near she had been to the great happiness she had sometimes dared to hope for, or dreamed how fervently Arthur Leighton prayed that night that, if it were possible, God would grant the boon he craved above all others—the priceless gift of Anna Ruthven's love.
There was an unnatural flush on the rector's face, and his lips were very white when he came before his people that Sunday morning, for he felt that he was approaching the crisis of his fate; that he had only to look across the row of heads up to where Anna sat, and he should know the truth. Such thoughts savored far too much of the world which he had renounced, he knew, and he had striven to banish them from his mind; but they were there still, and would be there until he had glanced once at Anna, occupying her accustomed seat, and quietly turning to the chant she was so soon to sing: "Oh, come, let us sing unto the Lord; let us heartily rejoice in the strength of His salvation." The words echoed through the house, filling it with rare melody, for Anna was in perfect tone that morning, and the rector, listening to her with hands folded upon his prayer-book, felt that she could not thus "heartily rejoice," meaning all the while to darken his whole life, as she surely would if she told him "no." He was looking at her now, and she met his eyes at last, but quickly dropped her own, while he was sure that the roses burned a little brighter on her cheek, and that her voice trembled just enough to give him hope, and help him in his fierce struggle to cast her from his mind and think only of the solemn services in which he was engaging. He could not guess that the proud woman who had sailed so majestically into church, and followed so reverently every prescribed form, bowing in the creed far lower than ever bow was made before in Hanover, had played him false and was the dark shadow in his path.
That day was a trying one for Arthur, for, just as the chant was ended and the psalter was beginning, a handsome carriage dashed up to the door, and, had he been wholly blind, he would have known, by the sudden sound of turning heads and the suppressed hush which ensued, that a perfect hailstorm of dignity was entering St. Mark's.
It was the Hethertons, from Prospect Hill, whose arrival in town had been so long expected. Mrs. Hetherton, who, more years ago than she cared to remember, was born in Hanover, but who had lived most of her life either in Paris, New York or New Orleans and who this year had decided to fit up her father's old place, and honor it with her presence for a few weeks at least; also, Fanny Hetherton, a brilliant brunette, into whose intensely black eyes no one could long look, they were so bright, so piercing, and seemed so thoroughly to read one's inmost thoughts; also, Colonel Hetherton, who had served in the Mexican war, and, retiring on the glory of having once led a forlorn hope, now obtained his living by acting as attendant on his fashionable wife and daughter; also, young Dr. Simon Bellamy who, while obedient to the flashing of Miss Fanny's black eyes, still found stolen opportunities for glancing at the fifth and last remaining member of the party, filing up the aisle to the large, square pew, where old Judge Howard used to sit, and which was still owned by his daughter. Mrs. Hetherton liked being late at church, and so, notwithstanding that the Colonel had worked himself into a tempest of excitement, had tied and untied her bonnet-strings half a dozen times, changed her rich basquine for a thread lace mantilla, and then, just as the bell from St. Mark's gave forth its last note, and her husband's impatience was oozing out in sundry little oaths, sworn under his breath, she produced and fitted on her fat, white hands a new pair of Alexander's, keeping herself as cool, and quiet, and ladylike as if outside upon the graveled walk there was no wrathful husband threatening to drive off and leave her, if she did not "quit her cussed vanity, and come along."
Such was the Hetherton party, and they created quite as great a sensation as Mrs. Hetherton could desire, first upon the commoners, the people nearest the door, who rented the cheaper pews; then upon those farther up the aisle, and then upon Mrs. Meredith, who, attracted by the rustling of heavy silk and aristocratic perfume emanating from Mrs. Hetherton's handkerchief, slightly turned her head at first, and, as the party swept by, stopped her reading entirely and involuntarily started forward, while a smile of pleasure flitted across her face as Fanny's black, saucy eyes took her, with others, within their range of vision, and Fanny's black head nodded a quick nod of recognition. The Hethertons and Mrs. Meredith were evidently friends, and in her wonder at seeing them there, in stupid Hanover, the great lady forgot for a while to read, but kept her eyes upon them all, especially upon the fifth and last mentioned member of the party, the graceful little blonde, whose eyes might have caught their hue from the deep blue of the summer sky, and whose long, silken curls fell in a golden shower beneath the fanciful French hat. She was a beautiful young creature, and even Anna Ruthven leaned forward to look at her as she shook out her airy muslin and dropped into her seat. For a moment the little coquettish head bowed reverently, but at the first sound of the rector's voice it lifted itself up quickly, and Anna saw the bright color which rushed into her cheeks and the eager joy which danced in the blue eyes, fixed so earnestly upon the rector, who, at sight of her, started suddenly and paused an instant in his reading. Who was she, and what was she to Arthur Leighton? Anna asked herself, while, by the fierce pang which shot through her heart, as she watched the stranger and the clergyman, she knew that she loved the rector of St. Mark's, even if she doubted it before.
Anna was not an ill-tempered girl, but the sight of those gay city people annoyed her, and when, at she sang the Jubilate Deo, she saw the soft blue orbs of the blonde and the coal-black eyes of the brunette, turning wonderingly toward her, she was conscious of returning their glance with as much of scorn as it was possible for her to show. Anna tried to ask forgiveness for that feeling in the prayers which followed; but, when the services were over, and she saw a little figure in blue and white flitting up the aisle to where Arthur, still in his robes, stood waiting for her, an expression upon his face which she could not define, she felt that she had prayed in vain; and, with a bitterness she had never before experienced, she watched the meeting between them, growing more and more bitter as she saw the upturned face, the wreathing of the rosebud lips into the sweetest of smiles, and the tiny white hand, which Arthur took and held while he spoke words she would have given much to hear.
"Why do I care? It's nothing to me," she thought, and, with a proud step, she was leaving the church, when her aunt, who was shaking hands with the Hethertons, signed for her to join her.
The blonde was now coming down the aisle with Mr. Leighton, and joined the group just as Anna was introduced as "My niece, Miss Anna Ruthven."
"Oh, you are the Anna of whom I have heard so much from Ada Fuller. You were at school together in Troy," Miss Fanny said, her searching eyes taking in every point as if she were deciding how far her new acquaintance was entitled to the praise she had heard bestowed upon her.
"I know Miss Fuller—yes;" and Anna bowed haughtily, turning next to the blonde, Miss Lucy Harcourt, who was telling Colonel Hetherton how she had met Mr. Leighton first among the Alps, and afterwards traveled with him until the party returned to Paris, where he left them for America.
"I was never so surprised in my life as I was to find him here. Why, it actually took my breath for a moment," she went on, "and I greatly fear that, instead of listening to his sermon, I have been roaming amid that Alpine scenery and basking again in the soft moonlight of Venice. I heard you singing, though," she said, when Anna was presented to her, "and it helped to keep up the illusion—it was so like the music heard from a gondola that night, when Mr. Leighton and myself made a voyage through the streets of Venice. Oh, it was so beautiful," and the blue eyes turned to Mr. Leighton for confirmation of what the lips had uttered.
"Which was beautiful?—Miss Ruthven's singing or that moonlight night in Venice?" young Bellamy asked, smiling down upon the little lady who still held Anna's hand, and who laughingly replied:
"Both, of course, though the singing is just now freshest in my memory. I like it so much. You must have had splendid teachers," and she turned again to Anna, whose face was suffused with blushes as she met the rector's eyes, for to his suggestions and criticisms and teachings she owed much of that cultivation which had so pleased and surprised the stranger.
"Oh, yes, I see it was Arthur. He tried to train me once, and told me I had a squeak in my voice. Don't you remember?—those frightfully rainy days in Rome?" Miss Harcourt said, the Arthur dropping from her lips as readily as if they had always been accustomed to speak it.
She was a talkative, coquettish little lady, but there was something about her so genuine and cordial, that Anna felt the ice thawing around her heart, and even returned the pressure of the snowy fingers which had twined themselves around her, as Lucy rattled on until the whole party left the church. It had been decided that Mrs. Meredith should call at Prospect Hill as early as Tuesday, at least; and, still holding Anna's hand Miss Harcourt whispered to her the pleasure it would be to see her again.
"I know I am going to like you. I can tell directly I can see a person—can't I Arthur?" and, kissing her hand to Mrs. Meredith, Anna, and the rector, too, she sprang into the carriage, and was whirled rapidly away.
"Who is she?" Anna asked, and Mr. Leighton replied:
"She is an orphan niece of Colonel Hetherton's, and a great heiress, I believe, though I never paid much attention to the absurd stories told concerning her wealth."
"You met in Europe?" Mrs. Meredith said, and he replied:
"Yes, she has been quite an invalid, and has spent four years abroad, where I accidentally met her. It was a very pleasant party, and I was induced to join it, though I was with them in all not more than four months."
He told this very rapidly, and an acute observer would have seen that he did not care particularly to talk of Lucy Harcourt, with Anna for an auditor. She was walking very demurely at his side, pondering in her mind the circumstances which could have brought the rector and Lucy Harcourt into such familiar relations as to warrant her calling him Arthur and appear so delighted to see him.
"Can it be there was anything between them?" she thought, and her heart began to harden against the innocent Lucy, at that very moment chatting so pleasantly of her and of Arthur, too, replying to Mrs. Hetherton, who suggested that Mr. Leighton would be more appropriate for a clergyman.
"I shall say Arthur, for he told me I might that time we were in Rome. I could not like him as well if I called him Mr. Leighton. Isn't he splendid, though, in his gown, and wasn't his sermon grand?"
"What was the text?" asked Dr. Bellamy, mischievously, and, with a toss of her golden curls and a merry twinkle of her eyes, Lucy replied, "Simon, Simon, lovest thou me?"
Quick as a flash of lightning the hot blood mounted to the doctor's face, while Fanny cast upon him a searching glance as if she would read him through. Fanny Hetherton would have given much to know the answer which Dr. Simon Bellamy mentally gave to that question, put by one whom he had known but little more than three months. It was not fair for Lucy to steal away all Fanny's beaux, as she surely had been doing ever since her feet touched the soil of the New World, and truth to tell, Fanny had borne it very well, until young Dr. Bellamy showed signs of desertion. Then the spirit of resistance was roused, and she watched her lover narrowly, gnashing her teeth sometimes when she saw his ill-concealed admiration for her sprightly little cousin, who could say and do with perfect impunity so many things which in another would have been improper to the last degree. She was a tolerably correct reader of human nature, and, from the moment she witnessed the meeting between Lucy and the rector of St. Marks, she took courage, for she readily guessed the channel in which her cousin's preference ran. The rector, however, she could not read so well; but few men she knew could withstand the fascinations of her cousin, backed as they were, by the glamour of half a million; and, though her mother, and, possibly, her father, too, would be shocked at the mesalliance and throw obstacles in the way, she was capable of removing them all, and she would do it, too, sooner than lose the only man she had ever cared for. These were Fanny's thoughts as she rode home from church that Sunday afternoon, and, by the time Prospect Hill was reached, Lucy Harcourt could not have desired a more powerful ally than she possessed in the person of her resolute, strong-willed cousin.
It was to all intents and purposes "blue Monday" with the rector of St. Mark's, for, aside from the weariness and exhaustion which always followed his two services on Sunday, and his care of the Sunday school, there was a feeling of disquiet and depression, occasioned partly by that rencontre with pretty Lucy Harcourt, and partly by the uncertainty as to what Anna's answer might be. He had seen the look of displeasure on her face as she stood watching him and Lucy, and though to many this would have given hope, it only added to his nervous fears lest his suit should be denied. He was sorry that Lucy Harcourt was in the neighborhood, and sorrier still for her tenacious memory, which had evidently treasured up every incident which he could wish forgotten. With Anna Ruthven absorbing every thought and feeling of his heart, it was not pleasant to remember what had been a genuine flirtation between himself and the sparkling belle he had met among the Alps.
It was nothing but a flirtation, he knew, for in his inmost soul he absolved himself from ever having had a thought of matrimony connected with Lucy Harcourt. He had admired her greatly and loved to wander with her amid the Alpine scenery, listening to her wild bursts of enthusiasm, and watching the kindling light in her blue eyes, and the color coming to her thin, pale cheeks, as she gazed upon some scene of grandeur, nestling close to him as for protection, when the path was fraught with peril.
Afterwards, in Venice, beneath the influence of those glorious moonlight nights, he had been conscious of a deeper feeling which, had he tarried longer at the siren's side, might have ripened into love. But he left her in time to escape what he felt would have been a most unfortunate affair for him, for, sweet and beautiful as she was, Lucy was not the wife for a clergyman to choose. She was not like Anna Ruthven, whom both young and old had said was so suitable for him.
"And just because she is suitable, I may not win her, perhaps," he thought, as he paced up and down his library, wondering when she would answer his letter, and wondering next how he could persuade Lucy Harcourt that between the young theological student, sailing in a gondola through the streets of Venice, and the rector of St. Mark's, there was a vast difference; that while the former might be Arthur with perfect propriety, the latter should be Mr. Leighton, in Anna's presence, at least.
And yet the rector of St. Mark's was conscious of a pleasurable emotion, even now, as he recalled the time when she had, at his own request, first called him Arthur, her bird-like voice hesitating just a little, and her soft eyes looking coyly up to him, as she said:
"I am afraid that Arthur is hardly the name by which to call a clergyman."
"I am not in orders yet, so let me be Arthur to you. I love to hear you call me so, and you to me shall be Lucy," was his reply.
A mutual clasp of hands had sealed the compact, and that was the nearest to love-making of anything which had passed between them, if we except the time when he had said good-by, and wiped away a tear which came unbidden to her eye as she told him how lonely she would be without him.
Hers was a nature as transparent as glass, and the young man, who for days had paced the ship's deck so moodily, was fighting back the thoughts which had whispered that in his intercourse with her he had not been all guiltless, and that if in her girlish heart there was a feeling for him stronger than that of friendship he had helped to give it life.
Time and absence and Anna Ruthven had obliterated all such thoughts till now, when Lucy herself had brought them back again with her winsome ways, and her evident intention to begin just where they had left off.
"Let Anna tell me yes, and I will at once proclaim our engagement, which will relieve me from all embarrassments in that quarter," the clergyman was thinking, just as his housekeeper came up, bringing him two notes—one in a strange handwriting, and the other in the graceful, running hand which he recognized as Lucy Harcourt's.
This he opened first, reading as follows:
Prospect Hill, June—.
"MR. LEIGHTON: Dear Sir—Cousin Fanny is to have a picnic down in the west woods to-morrow afternoon, and she requests the pleasure of your presence. Mrs. Meredith and Miss Ruthven are to be invited. Do come. "Yours truly, "LUCY."
Yes, he would go, and if Anna's answer had not come before, he would ask her for it. There would be plenty of opportunities down in those deep woods. On the whole, it would be pleasanter to hear the answer from her own lips, and see the blushes on her cheeks when he tried to look into her eyes.
The imaginative rector could almost see those eyes, and feel the touch of her hand as he took the other note—the one which Mrs. Meredith had shut herself in her bedroom to write, and sent slyly by Valencia, who was to tell no one where she had been.
A gleam of intelligence shot from Valencia's eyes as she took the note and carried it safely to the parsonage, never yielding to the temptation to read it, just as she had read the one abstracted from the book, returning it when read to her mistress's pocket, where she had found it while the family were at church.
Mrs. Meredith's note was as follows:
"MY DEAR MR. LEIGHTON: It is my niece's wish that I answer the letter you were so kind as to inclose in the book left for her last Saturday. She desires me to say that, though she has a very great regard for you as her clergyman and friend, she cannot be your wife, and she regrets exceedingly if she has in any way led you to construe the interest she has always manifested in you into a deeper feeling.
"She begs me to say that it gives her great pain to refuse one so noble and good as she knows you to be, and she only does it because she cannot find in her heart the love without which no marriage can be happy.
"She is really very wretched about it, because she fears she may lose your friendship, and, as a proof that she has not, she asks that the subject may never in any way, be alluded to again; that when you meet it may be exactly as heretofore, without a word or sign on your part that ever you offered her the highest honor a man can offer a woman.
"And sure I am, my dear Mr. Leighton, that you will accede to her wishes. I am very sorry it has occurred, sorry for you both, and especially sorry for you; but, believe me, you will get over it in time and come to see that my niece is not a proper person to be a clergyman's wife.
"Come and see us as usual. You will find Anna appearing very natural.
"Yours cordially and sincerely, "JULIE MEREDITH."
This was the letter which the cruel woman had written, and it dropped from the rector's nerveless fingers as, with a groan, he bent his head upon the back of a chair, and tried to realize the magnitude of the blow which had fallen so suddenly upon him. Not till now did he realize how, amid all his doubts, he had still been sure of winning her, and the shock was terrible.
He had staked his all on Anna, and lost all; the world, which before had been so bright, looked very dreary now, while he felt that he could never again come before his people weighed down with so great a load of pain and humiliation: for it touched the young man's pride that, not content to refuse him, Anna had chosen another than herself as the medium through which her refusal must be conveyed to him. He did not fancy Mrs. Meredith. He would rather she did not possess his secret, and it hurt him cruelly to know that she did.
It was a bitter hour for the clergyman, for, strong and clear as was his faith in God, who doeth all things well, he lost sight of it for a time, and poor weak human nature cried:
"It's more than I can bear."
But as the mother does not forget her child, even though she passes from her sight, so God had not forgotten, and the darkness broke at last—the lips could pray again for strength to bear and faith to do all that God might require.
"Though He slay me I will trust Him," came like a ray of sunlight into the rector's mind, and ere the day was over he could say with a full heart, "Thy will be done."
He was very pale, and his lip quivered occasionally as he thought of all he had lost, while a blinding headache, induced by strong excitement, drove him nearly wild with pain. He had been subject to headaches all his life, but he had never suffered as he was suffering now but once, and that was on a rainy day in Rome, when, boasting of her mesmeric power, Lucy had stood by him, and passed her dimpled hands soothingly across his throbbing temples.
Those little hands, how soft and cool they were—but they had not thrilled him as the touch of Anna's did when they hung the Christmas wreaths and she wore that bunch of scarlet berries in her hair.
That time seemed very far away, farther even than Rome and the moonlight nights of Venice. He did not like to think of it, for the bright hopes which were budding then were blighted now and dead; and, with a moan, he laid his aching head upon his pillow and tried to forget all he had ever hoped or longed for in the future.
"She will marry Thornton Hastings. He is a more eligible match than a poor clergyman," he said, and then, as he remembered Thornton's letter, and that his man Thomas would be coming soon to ask if there were letters to be taken to the office, he arose, and, going to the study table, wrote hastily:
"DEAR THORNE: I am suffering from one of those horrid headaches which used to make me as weak as a helpless woman, but I will write just enough to say that I have no claim on Anna Ruthven, and you are free to press your suit as urgently as you please. She is a noble girl, worthy even to be Mrs. Thornton Hastings, and if I cannot have her, I would rather give her to you than any one I know. Only don't ask me to perform the ceremony.
"There, I've let the secret out; but no matter, I have always confided in you, and so I may as well confess that I have offered myself and been refused. Yours truly,
The rector felt better after that letter was written. He had told his grievance to some one, and it seemed to have lightened half.
"Thorne is a good fellow," he said, as he directed the letter. "A little fast, it's true, but a splendid fellow, after all. He will sympathize with me in his way, and I would rather give Anna to him than any other living man."
Arthur was serious in what he said, for, wholly unlike as they were, there was between him and Thornton Hastings one of those strong, peculiar friendships which sometimes exist between two men, but rarely between two women, of so widely different temperaments. They had roomed together four years in college, and countless were the difficulties from which the sober Arthur had extricated the luckless Thorne, while many a time the rather slender means of Arthur had been increased in a way so delicate that expostulation was next to impossible.
Arthur was better off now in worldly goods, for, by the death of an uncle, he had come in possession of a few thousand dollars, which enabled him to travel in Europe for a year, and left a surplus, from which he had fed the poor and needy with not sparing hand.
St. Mark's was his first parish, and, though he could have chosen one nearer to New York, where the society was more congenial to his taste, he had accepted what God offered to him, and been very happy there, especially since Anna Ruthven came home from Troy and made such havoc with his heart. He did not believe he should ever be quite so happy again, but he would try to do his work, and take thankfully whatever of good might come to him.
This was his final decision, and when at last he laid him down to rest, the wound, though deep and sore, and bleeding yet, was not quite as hard to bear as it had been earlier in the day, when it was fresh and raw, and faith and hope seemed swept away.
That open grassy spot in the dense shadow of the west woods was just the place for a picnic, and it looked very bright and pleasant that warm June afternoon, with the rustic table so fancifully arranged, the camp stools scattered over the lawn, and the bouquets of flowers depending from the trees.
Fanny Hetherton had given it her whole care, aided and abetted by Dr. Bellamy, what time he could spare from Lucy, who, imbued with a mortal fear of insects, seemed this day to gather scores of bugs and worms upon her dress and hair, screaming with every worm and bringing the doctor obediently to her aid.
"I'd stay at home, I think, if I was silly enough to be afraid of a harmless caterpillar like that," Fanny had said, as with her own hands she took from Lucy's curls and threw away a thousand-legged thing, the very sight of which made poor Lucy shiver but did not send her to the house.
She was too much interested and too eagerly expectant of what the afternoon would bring, and so she perched herself upon the fence where nothing but ants could molest her, and finished the bouquets which Fanny hung upon the trees until the lower limbs seemed one mass of blossoms and the air was filled with the sweet perfume.
Lucy was bewitchingly beautiful that afternoon in her dress of white, her curls tied up with a blue ribbon, and her fair arms bare nearly to the shoulders. Fanny, whose arms were neither plump nor white, had expostulated with her cousin upon this style of dress, suggesting that one as delicate as she could not fail to take a heavy cold when the dews began to fall, but Lucy would not listen. Arthur Leighton had told her once that he liked her with bare arms, and bare they should be. She was bending every energy to please and captivate him, and a cold was of no consequence provided she succeeded. So, like some little fairy, she danced and flitted about, making fearful havoc with Dr. Bellamy's wits and greatly vexing Fanny, who hailed with delight the arrival of Mrs. Meredith and Anna. The latter was very pretty and very becomingly attired in a light airy dress of blue, finished at the throat and wrists with an edge of soft, fine lace. She, too, had thought of Arthur in the making of her toilet, and it was for him that the white rosebuds were placed in her heavy braids of hair and fastened on her belt. She was very sorry that she had allowed herself to be vexed with Lucy Harcourt for her familiarity with Mr. Leighton, very hopeful that he had not observed it, and very certain now of his preference for herself. She would be very gracious that afternoon, she thought, and not one bit jealous of Lucy, though she called him Arthur a hundred times.
Thus it was in the most amiable of moods that Anna appeared upon the lawn, where she was warmly welcomed by Lucy, who, seizing both her hands, led her away to see the arrangements, chatting gayly all the time, and casting rapid glances up the lane, as if in quest of some one.
"I'm so glad you've come. I've thought of you so much. Do you know it seems to me there must be some bond of sympathy between us, or I should not like you so well at once? I drove by the rectory early this morning—the dearest little place, with such a lovely garden. Arthur was working in it, and I made him give me some roses. See, I have one in my curls. Then, when he brought them to the carriage, I kept him there while I asked numberless questions about you, and heard from him just how good you are, and how you help him in the Sunday-school and everywhere, visiting the poor, picking up ragged children and doing things I never thought of doing; but I am not going to be so useless any longer, and the next time you visit some of the very miserablest I want you to take me with you. Do you ever meet Arthur there? Oh, here he comes," and with a bound, Lucy darted away from Anna toward the spot where the rector stood receiving Mrs. and Miss Hetherton's greeting.
As Lucy had said, she had driven by the rectory, with no earthly object but the hope of seeing the rector, and had hurt him cruelly with her questionings of Anna, and annoyed him a little with her anxious inquiries as to the cause of his pallid face and sunken eyes; but she was so bewitchingly pretty, and so thoroughly kind withal, that he could not be annoyed long, and he felt better for having seen her bright, coquettish face, and listened to her childish prattle. It was a great trial for him to attend the picnic that afternoon, but he met it bravely, and schooled himself to appear as if there were no such things in the world as aching hearts and cruel disappointments. His face was very pale, but his recent headache would account for that, and he acted his part successfully, shivering a little, it is true, when Anna expressed her sorrow that he should suffer so often from these attacks, and suggested that he take a short vacation and go with them to Saratoga.
"I should so much like to have you," she said, and her clear, honest eyes looked him straight in the face, as she asked why he could not.
"What does she mean?" the rector thought. "Is she trying to tantalize me? I expected her to be natural, as her aunt laid great stress on that, but she need not overdo the matter by showing me how little she cares for having hurt me so."
Then, as a flash of pride came to his aid, he thought, "I will at least be even with her. She shall not have the satisfaction of guessing how much I suffer," and as Lucy then called to him from the opposite side of the lawn, he asked Anna to accompany him thither, just as he would have done a week before. Once that afternoon he found himself alone with her in a quiet part of the woods, where the long branches of a great oak came nearly to the ground, and formed a little bower which looked so inviting that Anna sat down upon the gnarled roots of the tree, and, tossing her hat upon the grass, exclaimed, "How nice and pleasant it is here. Come, sit down, too, while I tell you about my class in Sunday-school, and that poor Mrs. Hobbs across the mill stream. You won't forget her, will you? I told her you would visit her the oftener when I was gone. Do you know she cried because I was going? It made me feel so badly that I doubted if it was right for me to go," and, pulling down a handful of the oak leaves above her head, Anna began weaving together a chaplet, while the rector stood watching her with a puzzled expression upon his face. She did not act as if she ever could have dictated that letter, but he had no suspicion of the truth and answered rather coldly, "I did not suppose you cared how much we might miss you at home."
Something in his tone made Anna look up into his face, and her eyes immediately filled with tears, for she knew that in some way she had displeased him.
"Then you mistake me," she replied, the tears still glittering on her long eyelashes, and her fingers trembling among the oaken leaves. "I do care whether I am missed or not."
"Missed by whom?" the rector asked, and Anna impetuously replied, "Missed by the parish poor, and by you, too, Mr. Leighton. You don't know how often I shall think of you, or how sorry I am that——"
She did not finish the sentence, for the rector had leaped madly at the conclusion, and was down in the grass at her side with both her hands in his.
"Anna, oh Anna," he began so pleadingly, "have you repented of your decision? Tell me that you have and it will make me so happy. I have been so wretched ever since."
She thought he meant her decision about going to Saratoga, and she replied: "I have not repented, Mr. Leighton. Aunt Meredith thinks it best, and so do I, though I am sorry for you, if you really do care so much."
Anna was talking blindly, her thoughts upon one subject, while the rector's were upon another, and matters were getting somewhat mixed when, "Arthur, Arthur, where are you?" came ringing through the woods and Lucy Harcourt appeared, telling them that the refreshments were ready.
"We are only waiting for you two, wondering where you had gone, but never dreaming that you had stolen away to make love," she said, playfully, adding more earnestly as she saw the traces of agitation visible in Anna's face, "and I do believe you were. If so, I beg pardon for my intrusion."
She spoke a little sharply and glanced inquiringly at Mr. Leighton; who, feeling that he had virtually been repulsed a second time by Anna, answered her, "On the contrary, I am very glad you came, and so, I am sure, is Miss Anna. I am ready to join you at the table. Come, Anna, they are waiting," and he offered his arm to the bewildered girl, who replied, "Not just now, please. Leave me for a moment. I won't be long."
Very curiously Lucy looked at Anna and then at Mr. Leighton, who, fully appreciating the feelings of the latter, said, by way of explanation: "You see, she has not quite finished that chaplet, which, I suspect, is intended for you. I think we had better leave her," and, drawing Lucy's hand under his own, he walked away, leaving Anna more stunned and pained than she had ever been before. Surely if love had ever spoken in tone and voice and manner, it had spoken when Mr. Leighton was kneeling on the grass, holding her hands in his. "Anna, oh, Anna!" How she had thrilled at the sound of those words and waited for what might follow next. Why had his manner changed so suddenly, and why had he been so glad to be interrupted? Had he really no intention of making love to her, and if he had, why did he rouse her hopes so suddenly and then cruelly dash them to the ground? Was it that he loved Lucy best, and that the sight of her froze the words upon his lips?
"Let him take her, then. He is welcome, for all of me," she thought; and then, as a keen pang of shame and disappointment swept over her, she laid her head for a moment upon the grass and wept bitterly. "He must have seen what I expected and I care most for that," she sobbed, resolving henceforth to guard herself at every point and do all that lay in her power to further Lucy's interests, "He will thus see how little I really care," she thought, and, lifting up her head, she tore in fragments the wreath she had been making, but which she could not now place on the head of her rival.
Mr. Leighton was flirting terribly with her when she joined the party assembled around the table, and he never once looked at Anna, though he saw that her plate was well supplied with the best of everything, and when at one draught she drained her glass of ice-water, he quietly placed another within her reach, standing a little before her and trying evidently to shield her from too critical observation. There were two at least who were glad when the picnic was over, and various were the private opinions of the company with regard to the entertainment. Dr. Bellamy, who had been repeatedly foiled in his attempts to be especially attentive to Lucy Harcourt, pronounced the whole thing "a bore." Fanny, who had been highly displeased with the doctor's deportment, came to the conclusion that the enjoyment did not compensate for all the trouble, and while the rector thought he had never spent a more thoroughly wretched day, and Anna would have given worlds if she had stayed at home, Lucy declared that never in her life had she had so perfectly delightful a time, always excepting, of course, "that moonlight sail in Venice."
There was a heavy shower the night succeeding the picnic and the morning following was as balmy and bright as June mornings are wont to be after a fall of rain. They were always early risers at the farmhouse, but this morning Anna, who had slept but little, arose earlier than usual and, leaning from the window to inhale the bracing air and gather a bunch of roses fresh with the glittering raindrops, she felt her spirits grow lighter and wondered at her discomposure of the previous day. Particularly was she grieved that she should have harbored a feeling of bitterness toward Lucy Harcourt, who was not to blame for having won the love she had been foolish enough to covet.
"He knew her first," she said, "and if he has since been pleased with me, the sight of her has won him back to his allegiance, and it is right. She is a pretty creature, but strangely unsuited, I fear, to be his wife," and then, as she remembered Lucy's wish to go with her when next she visited the poor, she said:
"I will take her to see the Widow Hobbs. That will give her some idea of the duties which will devolve upon her as a rector's wife. I can go directly there from Prospect Hill, where, I suppose, I must call with Aunt Meredith."
Anna made herself believe that in doing this she was acting only from a magnanimous desire to fit Lucy for her work, if, indeed, she was to be Arthur's wife—that in taking the mantle from her own shoulders, and wrapping it around her rival, she was doing a most amiable deed, when down in her inmost heart, where the tempter had put it, there was an unrecognized wish to see how the little dainty girl would shrink from the miserable abode, and recoil from the touch of the little, dirty hands which were sure to be laid upon her dress if the children were at home, and she waited a little impatiently to start on her errand of mercy.
It was four o'clock when, with her aunt, she arrived at Colonel Hetherton's and found the family assembled upon the broad piazza, the doctor dutifully holding the skein of worsted from which Miss Fanny was crocheting, and Lucy playing with a kitten, whose movements were scarcely more graceful than her own, as she sprang up and ran to welcome Anna.
"Oh, yes, I am delighted to go with you. Pray let us start at once," she exclaimed, when, after a few moments of conversation, Anna told where she was going.
Lucy was very gayly dressed, enough so for a party, Anna thought, smiling to herself as she imagined the startling effect the white muslin and bright plaid ribbons would have upon the inmates of the shanty where they were going. There was a remonstrance from Mrs. Hetherton against her niece's walking so far, and Mrs. Meredith suggested that they should ride, but to this Lucy objected. She meant to take Anna's place among the poor when she was gone, she said, and how was she ever to do it if she could not walk such a little way as that? Anna, too, was averse to riding and she felt a kind of grim satisfaction when, after a time, the little figure, which at first had skipped along ahead with all the airiness of a bird, began to lag, and even pant for breath, as the way grew steeper and the path more stony and rough. Anna's evil spirit was in the ascendant that afternoon, steeling her heart against Lucy's doleful exclamations, as one after another her delicate slippers were torn, and the sharp thistles, of which the path was full, penetrated to her soft flesh. Straight and unbending as a young Indian, Anna walked on, shutting her ears against the sighs of weariness which reached them from time to time. But when there came a half sobbing cry of actual pain, she stopped suddenly and turned towards Lucy, whose breath came gaspingly, and whose cheeks were almost purple with the exertion she had made.
"I cannot go any farther until I rest," she said, sinking down, exhausted, upon a large flat rock beneath a walnut tree.
Touched with pity at the sight of the heated face, from which the sweat was dripping, Anna too sat down beside her, and, laying her curly head in her lap, smoothed the golden hair, hating herself cordially, as Lucy said:
"You've walked so fast I could not keep up. You do not know, perhaps, how weak I am, and how little it takes to tire me. They say my heart is diseased, and an unusual excitement might kill me."
"No, oh, no!" Anna answered with a shudder, as she thought of what might have been the result of her rashness, and then she smoothed the wet hair, which, dried by the warm sunbeams, coiled itself up in golden masses, which her fingers softly threaded.
"I did not know until that time in Venice, when Arthur talked to me so good, trying to make me feel that it was not hard to die, even if I was so young and the world so full of beauty," Lucy went on, her voice sounding very low and her bright shoulder-knots of ribbon trembling with the rapid beating of her heart. "When he was talking to me I could almost be willing to die, but the moment he was gone the doubts and fears came back, and death was terrible again. I was always better with Arthur. Everybody is, and I think your seeing so much of him is one reason why you are so good."
"No, no, I am not good," and Anna's hands pressed hard upon the girlish head lying in her lap. "I am wicked beyond what you can guess. I led you this rough way when I might have chosen a smooth, though longer, road, and walked so fast on purpose to worry you."
"To worry me. Why should you wish to do that?" and, lifting up her head, Lucy looked wonderingly at the conscience-stricken Anna, who could not confess to the jealousy, but who, in all other respects, answered truthfully, "I think an evil spirit possessed me for a time, and I wanted to show you that it was not so nice to visit the poor as you seemed to think; but I am sorry, oh, so sorry, and you'll forgive me, won't you?"
A loving kiss was pressed upon her lips and a warm cheek was laid against her own, as Lucy said, "Of course, I'll forgive you, though I do not quite understand why you should wish to discourage me or tease me either, when I liked you so much from the first moment I heard your voice and saw you in the choir. You don't dislike me, do you?"
"No, oh, no. I love you very dearly," Anna replied, her tears falling like rain upon the slight form she hugged so passionately to her, and which she would willingly have borne in her arms the remainder of their way, as a kind of penance for her past misdeeds; but Lucy was much better, she said, and so the two, between whom there was now a bond of love which nothing could sever, went on together to the low, dismal house where the Widow Hobbs lived.
The gate was off the hinges, and Lucy's muslin was torn upon a nail as she passed through, while the long fringe of her fleecy shawl was caught in the tall tufts of thistle growing by the path. In a muddy pool of water a few rods from the house a flock of ducks were swimming, pelted occasionally by the group of dirty, ragged children playing on the grass, and who at sight of the strangers and the basket Anna carried, sprang up like a flock of pigeons and came trooping towards her. It was not the sweet, pastoral scene which Lucy had pictured to herself, with Arthur for the background, and her ardor was greatly dampened even before the threshold was crossed, and she stood in the low, close room where the sick woman lay, her large eyes unnaturally bright, and turned wistfully upon them as she entered. There were ashes upon the hearth and ashes upon the floor, a hair-brush upon the table and an empty plate upon the chair, with swarms of flies sipping the few drops of molasses and feeding upon the crumbs of bread left there by the elfish-looking child now in the bed beside its mother. There was nothing but poverty—squalid, disgusting poverty—visible everywhere, and Lucy grew sick and faint at the, to her, unusual sight.
"They have not lived here long. We only found them three weeks ago; they will look better by and by," Anna whispered, feeling that some apology was necessary for the destitution and filth visible everywhere.
Daintily removing the plate to the table, and carefully tucking up her skirts, Lucy sat down upon the wooden chair and looked dubiously on while Anna made the sick woman more tidy in appearance, and then fed her from the basket of provisions which Grandma Humphreys had sent.
"I never could do that," Lucy thought, as, shoving off the little dirty hand fingering her shoulder-knots she watched Anna washing the poor woman's face, bending over her pillow as unhesitatingly as if it had been covered with ruffled linen like those at Prospect Hill, instead of the coarse, soiled rag which hardly deserved the name of pillow-case. "No, I never could do that," and the possible life with Arthur which the maiden had more than once imagined began to look very dreary, when, suddenly, a shadow darkened the door, and Lucy knew before she turned her head that the rector was standing at her back, the blood tingling through her veins with a delicious feeling; as, laying both hands upon her shoulders, and bending over her so that she felt his breath upon her brow he said:
"What, my Lady Lucy here? I hardly expected to find two ministering angels, though I was almost sure of one," and his fine eyes rested on Anna with a strange, wistful look of tenderness, which neither she nor Lucy saw.
"Then you knew she was coming," Lucy said, an uneasy thought flashing across her mind as she remembered the picnic, and the scene she had stumbled upon.
But Arthur's reply, "I did not know she was coming, I only knew it was like her," reassured her for a time, making her resolve to emulate the virtues which Arthur seemed to prize so highly. What a difference his presence made in that wretched room! She did not mind the poverty now, or care if her dress was stained with the molasses left in the chair, and the inquisitive child with tattered gown and bare brown legs was welcome to examine and admire the bright plaid ribbons as much as she chose.
Lucy had no thought for anything but Arthur, and the subdued expression of his face as, kneeling by the sick woman's bedside, he said the prayers she had hungered for more than for the contents of Anna's basket, now being purloined by the children crouched upon the hearth and fighting over the last bit of gingerbread.
"Hush-sh, little one," and Lucy's white, jeweled hand rested on the head of the principal belligerent, who, awed by the beauty of her face and the authoritative tone of her voice, kept quiet till the prayer was over and Arthur had risen from his knees.
"Thank you, Lucy; I think I must constitute you my deaconess when Miss Ruthven is gone. Your very presence has a subduing effect upon the little savages. I never knew them so quiet before for a long time," Arthur said to Lucy in a low tone, which, low as it was, reached Anna's ear, but brought no pang of jealousy, or a sharp regret for what she felt was lost forever.
She was giving Lucy to Arthur Leighton, resolving that by every means in her power she would further her rival's cause, and the hot tears which dropped so fast upon Mrs. Hobbs' pillow while Arthur said the prayer was but the baptism of that vow, and not, as Lucy thought, because she felt so sorry for the suffering woman to whom she had brought so much comfort.
"God bless you wherever you go," she said, "and if there is any great good which you desire, may He bring it to pass."
"He never will—no, never," was the sad response in Anna's heart, as she joined the clergyman and Lucy outside the door, the former pointing to the ruined slippers and asking how she ever expected to walk home in such dilapidated things.
"I shall certainly have to carry you," he said, "or your blistered feet will ever more be thrust forward as a reason why you cannot be my deaconess."
He seemed to be in unusual spirits that afternoon, and the party went gaily on, Anna keeping a watchful care over Lucy, picking out the smoothest places and passing her arm around her slender waist as they were going up a hill.
"I think it would be better if you both leaned on me," the rector said, offering each an arm, and apologizing for not having thought to do so before.
"I do not need it, thank you, but Miss Harcourt does. I fear she is very tired," said Anna, pointing to Lucy's face, which was so white and ghastly; so like the face seen once before in Venice, that, without another word, Arthur took the tired girl in his strong arms and carried her safely to the summit of the hill.
"Please put me down; I can walk now," Lucy pleaded; but Arthur felt the rapid beatings of her heart, and kept her in his arms until they reached Prospect Hill, where Mrs. Meredith was anxiously awaiting their return, her brow clouding with distrust when she saw Mr. Leighton, for she was constantly fearing lest her guilty secret should be exposed.
"I'll leave Hanover this very week, and so remove her from danger," she thought as she arose to say good-night.
"Just wait a minute, please. There's something I want to say to Miss Ruthven," Lucy cried, and, leading Anna to her own room, she knelt down by her side, and, looking up in her face, began—"There's one question I wish to ask, and you must answer me truly. It is rude and inquisitive, perhaps, but tell me—has Arthur—ever—ever—"
Anna guessed at what was coming, and, with a gasping sob which Lucy thought a long-drawn breath, she kissed the pretty parted lips, and answered:
"No, darling, Arthur never did, and never will, but some time he will ask you to be his wife. I can see it coming so plain."
Poor Anna! Her heart gave one great throb as she said this, and then lay like a dead weight in her bosom, while with sparkling eyes and blushing cheeks, Lucy exclaimed:
"I am so glad—so glad. I have only known you since Sunday, but you seem like an old friend; and so, you won't mind me telling you that ever since I first met Arthur among the Alps I have lived in a kind of ideal world of which he was the center. I am an orphan, you know, and an heiress, too. There is half a million, they say; and Uncle Hetherton has charge of it. Now, will you believe me when I say that I would give every dollar of this for Arthur's love if I could not have it without."
"I do believe you," Anna replied, inexpressibly glad that the gathering darkness hid her white face from view as the child-like, unsuspecting girl went on. "The world, I know, would say that a poor clergyman was not a good match for me, but I do not care for that. Cousin Fanny favors it, I am sure, and Uncle Hetherton would not oppose me when he saw I was in earnest. Once the world, which is a very meddlesome thing, picked out Thornton Hastings, of New York, for me; but my! he was too proud and lofty even to talk to me much, and I would not speak to him after I heard of his saying that 'I was a pretty little plaything, but far too frivolous for a sensible man to make his wife.' Oh, wasn't I angry, though, and don't I hope that when he gets a wife she will be exactly such a frivolous thing as I am."
Even through the darkness Anna could see the blue eyes flash and the delicate nostrils dilate as Lucy gave vent to her wrath against the luckless Thornton Hastings.
"You will meet him at Saratoga. He is always there in the summer, but don't you speak to him, the hateful. He'll be calling you frivolous next."
An amused smile flitted across Anna's face as she asked: "But won't you, too, be at Saratoga? I supposed you were all going there."
"Cela depend," Lucy replied. "I would so much rather stay here. The dressing and dancing and flirting tire me so, and then, you know what Arthur said about taking me for his deaconess in your place."
There was a call just then from the hall below. Mrs. Meredith was getting impatient of the delay, and, with a good-by kiss, Anna went down the stairs and out upon the piazza, where her aunt was waiting. Mr. Leighton had accepted Fanny's invitation to stay to tea, and he handed the ladies to their carriage, lingering a moment while he said his parting words, for he was going out of town to-morrow, and when he returned Anna would be gone.
"You will think of us sometimes," he said, still holding Anna's hand. "St. Mark's will be lonely without you. God bless you and bring you safely back."
There was a warm pressure of the hand, a lifting of Arthur's hat, and then the carriage moved away; but Anna, looking back, saw Arthur standing by Lucy's side, fastening a rosebud in her hair, and at that sight the gleam of hope, which for an instant had crept into her heart, passed away with a sigh.
Moved by a strange impulse, Thornton Hastings took himself and his fast bays to Newport, instead of Saratoga, and thither, the first week in August, came Mrs. Meredith, with eight large trunks, her niece and her niece's wardrobe, which had cost the pretty sum of eighteen hundred dollars.
Mrs. Meredith was not naturally lavish of her money except where her own interests were concerned, as they were in Anna's case. Conscious of having come between her niece and the man she loved, she determined that in the procuring of a substitute for this man, no advantages which dress could afford should be lacking. Besides, Thornton Hastings was a perfect connoisseur in everything pertaining to a lady's toilet, and it was with him and his preference before her mind that Mrs. Meredith opened her purse so widely and bought so extensively. There were sun hats and round hats, and hats a la cavalier—there were bonnets and veils, and dresses and shawls of every color and kind, with the lesser matters of sashes and gloves and slippers and fans, the whole making an array such as Anna had never seen before, and from which she at first shrank back appalled and dismayed. But she was not now quite so much of a novice as when she first reached New York the Saturday following the picnic at Prospect Hill. She had passed successfully and safely through the hands of mantua-makers, milliners and hairdressers since then. She had laid aside every article brought from home. She wore her hair in puffs and waterfalls, and her dresses in the latest mode. She had seen the fashionable world as represented at Saratoga, and, sickening at the sight, had gladly acquiesced in her aunt's proposal to go on to Newport, where the air was purer and the hotels not so densely packed. She had been called a beauty and a belle, but her heart was longing for the leafy woods and fresh green fields of Hanover; and Newport, she fancied, would be more like the country than sultry, crowded Saratoga, and never since leaving home had she looked so bright and pretty as the evening after her arrival at the Ocean House, when invigorated by the bath she had taken in the morning, and gladdened by sight of the glorious sea and the soothing tones it murmured in her ear, she came down to the parlor clad in simple white, with only a bunch of violets in her hair, and no other ornament than the handsome pearls her aunt had given to her. Standing at the open window, with the drapery of the lace curtain sweeping gracefully behind her, she did not look much like the Anna who led the choir in Hanover and visited the Widow Hobbs, nor yet much like the picture which Thornton Hastings had formed of the girl who he knew was there for his inspection. He had been absent the entire day, and had not seen Mrs. Meredith, when she arrived early in the morning, but he found her card in his room, and a strange smile curled his lip as he said:
"And so I have not escaped her."
Thornton Hastings had proved a most treacherous knight and overthrown his general's plans entirely. Arthur's letter had affected him strangely, for he readily guessed how deeply wounded his sensitive friend had been by Anna Ruthven's refusal, while added to this was a fear lest Anna had been influenced by a thought of him and what might possibly result from an acquaintance. Thornton Hastings had been flattered and angled for until he had grown somewhat vain, and it did not strike him as at all improbable that the unsophisticated Anna should have designs upon him.
"But I won't give her a chance," he said, when he finished Arthur's letter. "I thought once I might like her, but I shan't, and I'll be revenged on her for refusing the best man that ever breathed. I'll go to Newport instead of Saratoga, and so be clear of the entire Meredith clique, the Hethertons, the little Harcourt, and all."
This, then, was the secret of his being there at the Ocean House. He was keeping away from Anna Ruthven, who never had heard of him but once, and that from Lucy Harcourt. After that scene in the Glen, where Anna had exclaimed against intriguing mothers and their bold, shameless daughters, Mrs. Meredith had been too wise a maneuverer to mention Thornton Hastings, so that Anna was wholly ignorant of his presence at Newport, and looked up in unfeigned surprise at the tall, elegant man whom her aunt presented as Mr. Hastings. With all Thornton's affected indifference, there was still a curiosity to see the girl who could say "no" to Arthur Leighton, and he had not waited long after receiving Mrs. Meredith's card before going down to find her.
"That's the girl, I'll lay a wager," he thought of a high-colored, showily-dressed hoyden, who was whirling around the room with Ned Peters, from Boston, and whose corn-colored dress swept against his boots as he entered the parlor.
How, then, was he disappointed in the apparition Mrs. Meredith presented as "my niece," the modest, self-possessed young girl, whose cheeks grew not a whit redder, and whose pulse did not quicken at the sight of him, though a gleam of something like curiosity shone in the brown eyes which scanned him so quietly. She was thinking of Lucy, and her injunction "not to speak to the hateful if she saw him;" but she did speak to him, and Mrs. Meredith fanned herself complacently as she saw how fast they became acquainted.
"You do not dance," Mr. Hastings said, as she declined an invitation from Ned Peters, whom she had met at Saratoga. "I am glad, for now you will, perhaps, walk with me outside upon the piazza. You won't take cold, I think," and he glanced thoughtfully at the white neck and shoulders gleaming beneath the gauzy muslin.
Mrs. Meredith was in rhapsodies and sat a full hour with the tiresome dowagers around her, while up and down the broad piazza Thornton Hastings walked with Anna, talking to her as he seldom talked to women, and feeling greatly surprised to find that what he said was fully appreciated and understood. That he was pleased with her he could not deny himself, as he sat alone in his room that night, feeling more and more how keenly Arthur Leighton must have felt at her refusal.
"But why did she refuse him?" he wished he knew, and ere he slept he had resolved to study Anna Ruthven closely, and ascertain, if possible, the motive which prompted her to discard a man like Arthur Leighton.
The next day brought the Hetherton party, all but Lucy Harcourt, who, Fanny laughingly said, was just now suffering from clergyman on the brain, and, as a certain cure for the disease, had turned my Lady Bountiful, and was playing the pretty patroness to all Mr. Leighton's parishioners, especially a Widow Hobbs, whom she had actually taken to ride in the carriage, and to whose ragged children she had sent a bundle of cast-off party dresses; and the tears ran down Fanny's cheeks as she described the appearance of the elder Hobbs, who came to church with a soiled pink silk skirt, her black, tattered petticoat hanging down below and one of Lucy's opera hoods upon her head.
"And the clergyman on the brain? Does he appreciate the situation? I have an interest there. He is an old friend of mine," Thornton Hastings asked.
He had been an amused listener to Fanny's gay badinage, laughing merrily at the idea of Lucy's taking old women out to air and clothing her children in party dresses. His opinion of Lucy, as she had said, was that she was a pretty, but frivolous, plaything, and it showed upon his face as he asked the question he did, watching Anna furtively as Fanny replied:
"Oh, yes, he is certainly smitten, and I must say I never saw Lucy so thoroughly in earnest. Why, she really seems to enjoy traveling all over Christendom to find the hovels and huts, though she is mortally afraid of the smallpox, and always carries with her a bit of chloride of lime as a disinfecting agent. I am sure she ought to win the parson. And so you know him, do you?"
"Yes; we were in college together, and I esteem him so highly that, had I a sister, there is no man living to whom I would so readily give her as to him."
He was looking now at Anna, whose face was very pale, and who pressed a rose she held so tightly that the sharp thorns pierced her flesh, and a drop of blood stained the whiteness of her hand.
"See, you have hurt yourself," Mr. Hastings said. "Come to the water pitcher and wash the stain away."
She went with him mechanically, and let him hold her hand in his while he wiped off the blood with his own handkerchief, treating her with a tenderness for which he could hardly account himself. He pitied her, he said, suspecting that she had repented of her rashness, and because he pitied her he asked her to ride with him that day after the fast bays, of which he had written to Arthur. Many admiring eyes were cast after them as they drove away, and Mrs. Hetherton whispered softly to Mrs. Meredith:
"A match in progress, I see. You have done well for your charming niece."
And yet matrimony, as concerned himself, was very far from Thornton Hastings' thoughts that afternoon, when, because he saw that it pleased Anna to have him do so, he talked to her of Arthur, hoping in his unselfish heart that what he said in his praise might influence her to reconsider her decision and give him a different answer. This was the second day of Thornton Hastings' acquaintance with Anna Ruthven, but as the days went on, bringing the usual routine of life at Newport, the drives, the rides, the pleasant piazza talks, and the quiet moonlight rambles, when Anna was always his companion, Thornton Hastings came to feel an unwillingness to surrender, even to Arthur Leighton, the beautiful girl who pleased him better than any one he had known.
Mrs. Meredith's plans were working well, and so, though the autumn days had come, and one after another the devotees of fashion were dropping off, she lingered on, and Thornton Hastings still rode and walked with Anna Ruthven, until there came a night when they wandered farther than usual from the hotel, and sat down together on a height of land which overlooked the placid waters, where the moonlight lay softly sleeping. It was a most lovely night, and for a while they listened in silence to the music of the sea, then talked of the breaking up which came in a few days when the hotel was to be closed, and wondered if next year they would come again to the old haunts and find them unchanged.
There was witchery in the hour, and Thornton felt its spell, speaking out at last, and asking Anna if she would be his wife. He would shield her so tenderly, he said, protecting her from every care, and making her as happy as love and money could make her. Then he told her of his home in the far-off city, which needed only her presence to make it a paradise, and then he waited for her answer, watching anxiously the limp white hands, which, when he first began to talk, had fallen so helplessly upon her lap, and then had crept up to her face, which was turned away from him, so that he could not see its expression, or guess at the struggle going on in Anna's mind. She was not wholly surprised, for she could not mistake the nature of the interest which, for the last two weeks, Thornton Hastings had manifested in her. But, now that the moment had come, it seemed to her that she never had expected it, and she sat silent for a time, dreading so much to speak the words which she knew would inflict pain on one whom she respected so highly but whom she could not marry.
"Don't you like me, Anna?" Thornton asked at last, his voice very low and tender, as he bent over her and tried to take her hand.
"Yes, very much," she answered, and, emboldened by her reply, Thornton lifted up her head, and was about to kiss her forehead, when she started away from him, exclaiming:
"No, Mr. Hastings. You must not do that. I cannot be your wife. It hurts me to tell you so, for I believe you are sincere in your proposal; but it can never be. Forgive me, and let us both forget this wretched summer."
"It has not been wretched to me. It has been a very happy summer, since I knew you, at least," Mr. Hastings said, and then he asked again that she should reconsider her decision. He could not take it as her final one. He had loved her too much, had thought too much of making her his own to give her up so easily, he said, urging so many reasons why she should think again, that Anna said to him, at last:
"If you would rather have it so, I will wait a month, but you must not hope that my answer will be different from what it is to-night. I want your friendship, though, the same as if this had never happened. I like you, Mr. Hastings, because you have been kind to me, and made my stay in Newport so much pleasanter than I thought it could be. You have not talked to me like other men. You have treated me as if I, at least, had common sense. I thank you for that; and I like you because——"
She did not finish the sentence, for she could not say "because you are Arthur's friend." That would have betrayed the miserable secret tugging at her heart, and prompting her to refuse Thornton Hastings, who had also thought of Arthur Leighton, wondering if it were thus that she rejected him, and if in the background there was another love standing between her and the two men to win whom many a woman would almost have given her right hand. To say that Thornton was not a little piqued at her refusal would be false. He had not expected it, accustomed, as he was, to adulation; but he tried to put that feeling down, and his manner was even more kind and considerate than ever as he walked slowly back to the hotel, where Mrs. Meredith was waiting for them, her practised eye detecting at once that something was amiss. Thornton Hastings knew Mrs. Meredith thoroughly, and, wishing to shield Anna from her displeasure, he preferred stating the facts himself to having them wrung from the pale, agitated girl who, bidding him good night, went quickly to her room; so, when she was gone, and he stood for a moment alone with Mrs. Meredith, he said:
"I have proposed to your niece, but she cannot answer me now. She wishes for a month's probation, which I have granted, and I ask that she shall not be persecuted about the matter. I wish for an unbiassed answer."